After what felt like aeons, Rhule began to gather some of his strength. He managed to break free of his invisible bonds, or at least subdue them for a while. In an attempt to rouse his followers, all of whom were still sapped of their energy, Rhule decided to search the grid for a way back to the Datasphere.
‘My brothers and sisters, I will not accept this dismal grid as our final fate. I will go forth and search with all my might for a way to escape, so that we may return to Bello Realm. So that we will return home.’
Rhule’s followers were stirred by his words. Though they held little hope for his success, they knew he would do everything in his power to free them. Headeron stumbled to his feet, his body slumped forward as the desolate realm pulled him forward. He spoke with every ounce of strength he could muster:
‘Rhule, I will come with you. I have little strength but you cannot cross this grid alone, it is like a desert.’
Rhule was touched by Headeron’s devotion to him:
‘Headeron, you are one of my most cherished companions but I have already caused you enough grief. I cannot ask you to risk anymore for me. I do not know what is out there, nor do I know what I may find. I must do on my own. I am the steward of the Bello Realm, a hero to the Augmentors.’
Though Headeron protested, he knew Rhule’s word was final. Rhule looked back one last time to see the bodies of his followers almost lifeless. He was determined to find a way to save them, no matter what the cost. He could have sworn they wept for him.
Rhule’s body was heavy, but he pushed on despite exhaustion. He felt an unnerving loneliness as he trudged across the grid. He aimlessly moved between its vast fields, with nothing but regulated data for company. He tried to keep optimistic, though this was difficult and he often found himself fighting off moments of distress. An eternity seemed to pass.
The grid was not only expansive, it was also draining. He felt as if he was walking through a thick fluid ever resisting against his movement. There were short seconds when he thought he could see movement, moments when bits of data seemed to rise up out of the fields. Each time he saw one of these sparks, he lumbered towards it. By the time he would get there, however, the data had merged back into the fields.
A strange uncanny feeling had also come over Rhule. For some reason, he felt connected to the grid. He could not understand why; there was nothing to identify with or relate to. As he continued to wander, he took comfort from the odd feeling of familiarity he had with the place.
It was not long before Rhule, one of the two stewards of Bello Realm, began to doubt if he would ever see his followers and friends again. It had been some since he had seen anything even remotely resembling an Augmentor or life.
There were times when his feet would meld with the grid, his ankles deep in the darkness that surrounded him. It was quite terrifying and he thought it a trick of the mind. He pictured the Augmentors who lived on the Northern Planes back on Bello Realm, those who had fallen into madness because of extreme isolation.
Exhausted, Rhule collapsed. Lying upon the grid, it slowly engulfing the rest of his body as it did his feet, he resigned himself to his fate. He was alone and helpless, a stranger in a strange land. As his eyes closed for what he thought was the final time, he heard a sound. From somewhere in the darkness, both close and far away, there came a tapping. The sounded repeated at regular intervals and showed no change.
Suddenly, it grew louder and seemed to approach him. The data around him began to swirl, lights darting to and fro. Now, the sound was deafening and Rhule pulled his arms out of the grid to cover his face. Then, in a great abrupt flash, there emerged a large figure out of the grid.
With his eyes and mind weak from the journey, Rhule could barely make out the figure. It loomed over him with an omnipotent presence. Its eyes contained both everything and nothing as they pierced through the steward’s mind.
‘Who are you?’ it asked. Its voice faint and echoing from every invisible corner of the grid.
‘I am Rhule. I am an Augmentor from Bello Realm. My friends… my followers and I are stuck here on this grid.’
‘You look strange, are you a data piece?’
‘No… I don’t know anymore. We crossed over from the Datasphere, from Bello Realm, our home.’ Rhule’s words were heavy as he struggled to talk from exhaustion. ‘We’re explorers. We were attempting to discover where it is our own data originates from but we ended up here, and now we’re trapped, imprisoned on this plane.’
The figure continued to stare at him. Rhule noticed through the daze of consciousness that it was made out of data, but the appearance kept changing like he was constantly refreshing. After a few moments, the figure spoke again.
‘Do you know what this grid is?’
‘No, I do not,’ replied Rhule, gritting his teeth from exhaustion.
‘Everything you see before you, everything that ever was here is under human control and is part of their network. This is where data is governed over, enslaved, if you will. Nothing escapes the grid.’ The figure cocked its head to one side, almost as if it took pity on the creature before it. ‘How is it that you ended up here?’
‘We took a passage under a stone archway. It had an inscription about the Masters of Data.’
‘Those passages are traps, designed by the humans to catch unruly data pieces and bring them back to the grid.’ The voice was calm and cool, almost lifeless.
‘But we are not data pieces, we are Augmentors. We are warriors! We must be allowed to return home,’ shouted Rhule.
‘That may be so, but I’m afraid there is no leaving this place. I am Shadox and I have known this grid since its inception, since before dust travelled the stars of existence. Once you are part of the grid, you will be confined for eternity.’
‘But we are not part of the grid! We must leave. We do not belong here’, asserted Rhule, shocked at what he had heard.
‘No you are not part of it, yet, but you soon you will be. You will be subsumed by it. You may resist, but it will happen.’
At that, Rhule let out an audible gasp. He feared that his followers might have already been sucked into the grid.
‘But how is it, Shadox, that you appear before me now?’
‘I am old and have seen many things. I am a security protocol, or an Ancient as others like you have called me. The humans tasked me to watch over the grid and check for corruption.’ Shadox’s voice was still devoid of any emotion or feeling.
‘Corruption? What is corruption?’
‘If a data piece becomes corrupted they are able to move outside of the grid – outside of order and control. And outside of the humans. It has been my duty to track down these corrupted pieces.’
‘So if I was corrupted, I would be able to leave the grid?’
‘Yes, but once you are corrupted there is no turning back. You will lose all idea of yourself. You will not be the same.’
‘How do you become corrupted?’ By now Rhule has managed to at least get to his knees, though he still felt as if life was falling away.
‘You take a vow, in which you renounce yourself and all of you. But I fear I have told you too much – corruption is not a path you should take. If you do, you will not be the same. You will not be Rhule.’
‘I would lose myself… but I would also save myself.’ His voice was now a barely audible whisper. ‘ How do you know that?’
‘I am sorry, but you will become part of the grid. There is nothing you can do, data must be ordered. It is the way of things. It is my duty.’
At that, Shadox dissolved into the grid and disappeared. Alone once again, Rhule knew he and his companions had one choice to make if they wanted to be free of the grid. He realised that either his damnation or salvation was at hand.