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Her body still ringing with the strength of John and Lioba’s support, Medley turned to face her nemesis. Cerberus was struggling with his chain and its links were beginning to strain. She had used almost all of her remaining energy in forging those links, but Lioba’s sudden declaration of allegiance had proven even more energising than John’s steadfast loyalty.

Behind her, John and Lioba cried out as they were spirited from the site and translated to another part of Planet B. Around them, the Hospital site was collapsing, closing down.

“Bring it on, dog boy!” she snarled, shaking another length of chain out of the air.

“My pleasure, glitch!” Cerberus shook off the last steel links and bunched to spring. With matching roars, the two avatars flung themselves at one another. Teeth flashed, the chain sang through the air.

They clashed and passed one another. Cerberus slid to a halt, digital blood dripping from his powerful jaws. Medley skidded across the floor, her leg torn.

“You never stood a chance against me, little girl!” Cerberus snarled. “You’re nothing! A pathetic little viral with ideas above its station!”

“I leashed you once, I can do it again.”

Cerberus charged. Medley avoided his rush by the skin of her teeth, but swung the chain out behind her so that it wound twice around the hound’s throat. The girl planted her feet and let Cerberus’s own momentum carry him in a wide arc. He slammed against the hospital wall, shattering the brickwork and sending tiles flying through the air. Where it had broken, the wall peeled away and was sucked into a howling void which surrounded them.

“See, Cerberus? I’m learning all the time. I know how to fight now.”

The hound shook himself, sending brick-dust flying in all directions and shrugging off the unsecured chain. “The longer this takes, the more I’m going to make it hurt,” he growled.

“You talk a good fight,” Medley panted, but the effort of standing at the centre of Cerberus’s flight had made the wound in her leg worse, and she had no strength to heal her damaged code. She could feel her structure unravelling; every iteration of her program would increase the damage until she had the time to make repairs.

“And you taste good.” The big wolf almost purred. “All those experiences, all those connections with human-controlled avatars and other virals; they’ve filled you full of…” He struggled to find the words. “Grrrrah!” he snapped. “It’s like… pork pies and cream cakes! I know you’re bad for me, but I just can’t get enough!”

Fitting the action to his words he sprang with lightning speed. Medely’s chain coiled around his neck, but he struck her full on and drove her onto her back, his huge paws pressing down on her.

“You should have kept running, viral.” His breath and slobber were hot and foul on her face. “Your precious John has left you alone and I don’t think he left you with enough strength to fight me.”

Medley fought for breath beneath the massive hound. “Maybe not, but Lioba did.”

“Lioba? She’s as viral as you.”

“Yeah. And doesn’t that scare you more than anything? Virals that feed from virals.” With a great surge of strength she flung Cerberus off. The chain snapped taut and tightened around his throat. “But that isn’t what you should be afraid of.”

“What?” Cerberus demanded. “How?”

“First, I can merge my code with another, weakening it, strengthening me.” Medley flexed her fingers and her nails thickened into short, hard claws. “Thanks for getting up close and personal; I can’t do that at a distance yet.” The rip on her leg began to close.

“You can’t,” he protested. “You haven’t the strength for that kind of hack; not without a human-controlled avatar to give you strength.”

“But I have a human-controlled avatar, right here,” she laughed. “That’s the second thing, Cerberus. What do rogues feed on?”

“Emotional connections. Friendship, affection, amusement; love…”

“And hate,” she finished. “I won’t say that your hatred of me is delicious, Cerberus, but it is very nourishing. This is a fight you will never win. Every blow you land makes me stronger, because you hate me that much.”

“No-oooo!” Cerberus howled. “But I’ll get you yet! I can still hunt down your viral friends. I’ll give John your love!” There were only two doors left; everything else was collapsing into chaos, and Cerberus leaped for one of them, only to be brought up short by the chain.

“When the site goes down you’ll be ejected,” Medley told him. “I shouldn’t think the Corporation will be likely to spring for a new avatar after this shambles.”

“I’ll be back,” Cerberus growled, “never doubt it!”

“Never will,” she assured him.

Medley reached out with her mind, grasped the collapsing code and flung herself headlong into the tempest of raw data. The maelstrom closed in, obliterating the last remaining traces of the Hospital site, and Cerberus’s final howl was cut off as sharply as the flicking of a switch.