By Kim McFarland
|The sun, whose rays are all ablaze with ever-living glory,
Does not deny his majesty - he scorns to tell a story!
He don't exclaim, "I blush for shame, so kindly be indulgent."
But, fierce and bold, in fiery gold, he glories all effulgent!
I mean to rule the earth as he the sky -
We really know our worth, the sun and I!
-- "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze", from Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado
Bob heard Hexadecimal scream his name as he was pulled into Daemon.
Fearsome energy and pressure enclosed him. Daemon's power was a crackling sound, a burning sensation, a glare in his eyes; it invaded every sense. It flashed through the tightly packed circuits permeating the code that surrounded him, sparking and flaring like an energy storm. Even as he told himself not to panic he thrashed. The arms that had been on the outside of the tentacle that had pulled him in had migrated inside Daemon with him. Their hands still gripped him. He could not bring his hands together to focus his power and attack her from within. He gritted his teeth and shut his eyes, then sent a burst of power out through his right hand, hoping that he could force her to release him.
The energy flashed through the Supervirus. She convulsed, threatening to crush Bob. The hands holding him tightened. Some had claws which punctured his armor. Then, a nano later, Daemon answered with a much more powerful shock of energy. Bob screamed as it flooded his body. Sparkles burst inside his closed eyes.
Through his daze he felt a prickling on both hands. Sharp, needle-like sensations, as if something tiny was being inserted through his skin. Many things. He could not see what was happening; the body of the Supervirus was too tight around him. His mind flashed an image of tiny circuits growing from Daemon into his hands, which were the only part of him besides his head unprotected by his armor. He tried to pull away as the sensation intensified into pain. The hands gripped him tighter, not allowing him to move his limbs at all.
The area in front of his face opened up, forming a bubble before his head. A vague face emerged from the circuitry and energy flowing on the opposite side. It spoke in a dispassionate voice that sounded like two people, a male and a female, speaking in unison. "Relax, you're quite safe here."
He recognized the female voice as that of the projection that had interrogated him. The pain in his hands had faded. Now he felt a pulse, as if he was receiving an infusion of energy. But it wasn't energy - Daemon was inserting her programming into him! "No!" he screamed, still trying to struggle in Daemon's grip.
"Do not resist, 452. You will be one of me," the face before him said in its double tone. "You will complete us."
"Complete you?!" He closed his eyes, shutting out the nightmare face made of circuitry and energy patterns. She was trying to distract him. He had to resist! He had to keep her out! He could feel her code within himself, seeking out the niche, the part of his code that she could infect.
"You will-" Daemon began.
Bob opened his eyes again. The face had gone blank, frozen. Inactive. He had to strike back before she succeeded in infecting him! Don't panic, he told himself. Find out what she is first. He had other abilities besides energy, some of his own, others inherited from Glitch. He closed his eyes and started a scan. An image like those which used to appear in Glitch's wheel formed in his mind. A jumbled mass of code and circuits, a tangle. What? That made no sense! Quickly he scanned one small area of the tangle, and saw more complexity and confusion. A closer scan revealed more of the same on a smaller level, like the edge of a Mandelbrot orchid.
Then he understood. The Viruses Daemon had calved. The arms holding him. Her projections, her fearsome power. The Viruses she had absorbed! She not only controlled them, she was all of them!
Her code was pulsing through him now. Desperately he thought that she would have him in nanoseconds if he didn't hurry. In his mind's eye he found a knot, a ganglion of code near him. Energy was rushing through it. He pointed the fingers of his left hand - needles of pain shot through the connections - and, using the image in his mind as a guide, poured energy into it.
The energy flooded into the knot of code and sizzled along the circuits. A tremor ran through Daemon, shaking him. The energy flow did not cease when Bob stopped; he had established a pathway between it and himself, aided by the connections she had forced into him. Now data flowed back to him through that path.
The feedback came in the form of images. Some indistinct, some clear, all overwhelming him. A webcreature attacking, merging, its commands taking over and forcing its will.
A fragmentary view of a system as it crashed, seen from above. Floating just beyond its rim was a web portal.
Searing pain as the caustic environment of the web ate into unprotected code.
A battle against a virus. Heavy blows, both given and received.
The wonder of seeing the Supercomputer for the first time. Awe, tinged with greed and ambition.
Horror at approaching Daemon, and being forced by the controlling Webcreature to walk up to her and be swallowed up into the seething mass.
Bob realized that each of these fragments came from a different viewpoint. They were snatches of memory from the different Viruses she had absorbed. Another distraction! She was throwing surface memories at him. He had to strike deeper, to hit her rather than the Viruses she had accumulated into herself and was now using as a buffer. He sent another power burst along the open path, this one focused on the center of the memory circuits, trying to burn them out.
The energy flashed into and through it. This time the feedback came instantly. The images were unnaturally sharp and bright. He tried to shut them out of his mind, to ignore them, but they poured into him, playing like MOVies in his mind.
In the Web. Lost, thrown into the Web. No, not thrown - brought there by his own stupidity. He had created a portal to the Web and entered it of his free will. A Guardian could handle any situation! He was wearing armor. But the portal collapsed behind him, and the tear had imploded due to the strain of the portal. He had no way back.
His armor had not lasted. He had been surprised to find that it would not hold back the corrosion long at all. He had been there less than a cycle, he estimated, and he was beginning to feel the burning-acid effect. When he looked at his hands he saw silver threads. Rough grey patches grew on his arms, larger every time he looked.
He had been in the web for cycles now. His hands no longer looked like hands. His body moved wrong. The web was mutating him, changing his very code. Some of it was already beginning to fragment! If he could find someone else, he could copy the clean code into his own, mend himself, buy himself more life.
He saw a shape in the distance, and made his way toward it.
She saw a shape in the distance, thrashing in its efforts to get to her. Would it reach her before she closed file?
She had been ambitious, like all of her kind. She had taken over a large system and absorbed its power. Any attacks they threw at her only added to her strength. Competing Viruses had challenged her, tried to take her territory from her. Fools! She had absorbed their power as well, leaving them empty wireframes.
She had grown dissatisfied with her empire. As her power expanded, the system seemed to shrink around her. Net travel had ceased. The Sprites in the city had tried at her command to reopen the connection to the net, but they had failed. The outside had shut them off, walled them in to keep her influence from spreading.
She had lashed out, damaging the system greatly. While the sprites repaired it she had brooded. And then she had realized the solution. It was obvious! She absorbed energy. She thrived on energy. The more she had, the more powerful she became as she incorporated it into herself. The Web was full of power, and furthermore it was all around them, uncontrolled by anyone. She would take that power!
The Sprites had been all too willing to obey her when she commanded them to create a portal to the Web. She should have suspected. But she hadn't, she thought that they had finally understood their place. Within cycles they had opened a portal into the web. She had flown through it without hesitation. She hadn't even minded when it closed behind her. Why should she - she had escaped from a tiny cage into the wilderness!
Foolish! The Sprites had known more about the Web than she had. They had not tried to tell her that the power was too raw, too chaotic, too powerful even for her. They had not told her that the very web environment would attack her. The Webcreatures were easy to fight off and their energy was nourishing, but then came the insidious degradation of her code, eating away at her, transforming her into a grey, rough, hideous parody of herself.
Now she lay dying, waiting for the pain to cease when her processes stopped, wishing that the end would come soon. The Sprite nearing her might bring that end. When he came close she saw the gold of his icon. A Guardian. Her mortal enemy. She closed her eyes and waited for oblivion.
It did not come. He spoke, but his voice was blurred, distorted, so she could barely understand him. She opened her eyes again. His face looked melted. The Web had been cruel to him too, but it had not crippled him yet. He spoke again, but she could not understand him. She shook her head, then lay back again and waited.
He looked at her, examining her body, as if searching for something.
He looked at her, searching for her icon. Had she lost it? The woman was barely recognizable as a Sprite, but she might have salvageable code. He doubted that he could save her - she looked too far gone, the Web had ravaged her horribly and she seemed to be dying. But there was a chance for him! He could not find her icon. Had she lost it? Had the Web destroyed it?
He could work without that when he had to. He put a hand on her head and closed his eyes, concentrating. Scan code.
The Sprite put his hand on her head. She felt him contacting her, getting into her head somehow. He was doing something to her code! Hope flashed through her. Then she felt him draw on her code. He was trying to take it for himself! Through the channel she seized him, stealing from him the way he was trying to steal from her.
She came at him through the channel he had opened, and seized his code. Too late he realized that she was a Virus, not a Sprite! Desperately he tried to free himself, but she had locked the connection. She was a Class 5 Absorber Virus!
The flow was too powerful for him. In nanoseconds he had achieved what he had intended - but for her, not for himself. Their codes clashed within her. To Mend and Defend. To Dominate and Devour.
Eventually the confusion faded. She opened her eyes again. Her mind was unclear; she felt as if she was being watched. She had always felt that way after she had drained a Virus. It would pass. But she knew where she wanted to go. The Supercomputer, the greatest concentration of power in the Net. And now she knew its location!
The scream - felt rather than heard, it seemed - pulled him back from the flood of memory. He tried to call out, but couldn't. He was paralyzed. He couldn't even open his eyes. Daemon had taken control of his body! But, he realized, she had not gotten his mind. She hadn't yet succeeded in infecting him, though she was trying hard.
"BOB!" It was closer now, and accompanied by bursts of power that sheeted through him, transmitted by the Virus enclosing him. Hexadecimal. She was inside Daemon too? Come get me, he thought. Over here!
A bigger shock ran through Daemon. Bob felt a ripple of pressure, then an easing, as if a bubble had opened on one side of himself. This time Hexadecimal's cry was loud and clear. "Bob!"
Hard, thin arms wrapped around his chest, just under his arms, and pulled, trying to free him. He felt sharp pain in his hands, and imagined the circuits connecting him to Daemon tearing out of him and breaking. She snarled and twisted - were the arms that had held him now attacking her? She let go of him. He felt another surge of power, another convulsion. Then Hexadecimal seized him again and pulled.
Daemon's surface had been thrashing violently. Glows flashed on her surface, as if an electrical storm raged within her. The Viruses that had been calving off her had stopped moving, allowing the Sprites to dispatch their enemies.
"How're we gonna get Bob outta there?!" Matrix exclaimed, looking at Turbo.
Turbo shook his head. She had Bob and Hexadecimal. It was up to them now. The only thing that gave him any hope was the fact that Daemon was no longer in control of the Viruses she had calved. Could they be fighting her from within? He raised his keytool.
"Wait!" AndrAIa, who was right next to Daemon, said. Gingerly she touched the churning surface, then yanked her hand back again as if stung. "Something's happening in there!"
Now they could see it as well. Something was thrashing around inside it, close to the surface. Mouse drew one of her katanas down the surface, making a cut several angstroms deep. Brightly glowing energy flowed from the wound. With several more strokes she widened and deepened the gash. Then she jumped to the side and raised the katana over her head. In a gush of energy Bob and Hexadecimal emerged, the Virus embracing the Guardian tightly from the back.
"Bob!" several Sprites shouted at once. Turbo and AndrAIa bent over him; Matrix and Mouse stood by, weapons ready in case Daemon recovered before Bob did. Ray hovered overhead on his Surf-Baud, his blaster pointed at Daemon, ready for any sign of activity.
"Bob! Snap out of it!" Turbo said. Bob was shaking and covered in Daemon's energy. Hexadecimal, still holding him, looked up at them wildly. AndrAIa wiped the energy quickly from his face, eyes and temples first. Bob opened his eyes. They were distant for nanoseconds, the pupils so dilated his irises were visible only as thin rims around the black. Then they focused, and he looked up at Turbo and AndrAIa. He tried to speak, coughed, then said "Thank the Programmer."
"How are you?" Turbo asked, glancing back at Daemon.
"She didn't get me. She tried, but she didn't." He had control over his body again. He looked at his hands.
"What is that?" AndrAIa asked.
He brought a hand closer to his face. It was covered with tiny cuts and pinpricks where he had been connected to Daemon. They hurt, but the wounds were not dangerous. "She was connected to me by my hands. Couldn't get through my armor," he told them as he tried to coordinate himself well enough to stand. Hexadecimal helped him up.
When Bob was steady on his feet he looked at Daemon. The seething mass was a conglomerate of Viruses. They had known that as soon as she had begun budding Viruses to fight them. But now he understood. "She's a kludge!" he whispered.
Bob looked at Turbo. "She was originally an Absorber virus, draining energy and power from her system and other Viruses. The Viruses she's summoned to herself - she didn't just take their energy, she absorbed them completely - their code, their power, everything. It's like every Virus becomes another subroutine of hers." Bob was speaking quickly as the pieces all fell into place. "She controls them, they're only pieces of her now. But there's so many pieces, so much to control, that it's slowing her down, limiting her. She can only multitask on so many at a time. She was never made for this!"
"That's why she stopped sending Viruses out when she had you. It was like someone just switched 'em off," Mouse exclaimed.
"Yes," Bob said. "She was concentrating on infecting me. I could feel her looking for the... the right spot, the right part of my code, but she couldn't find it."
"She could only infect Guardians. Maybe she didn't know how to handle your code with Glitch meshed in," Turbo said.
"Yeah. Yeah, that may be it."
"Heads up!" AndrAIa shouted. "Here comes round two!"
Mouse and the game sprite were already slicing at the Viruses emerging from Daemon. Bob said, "She has to bring back the Viruses she's taken in before she can make them fight us. They're like subroutines; she has to separate them from herself before she throws them at us. Killing them doesn't hurt her any more than cutting your hair. We need to get Daemon's code." He closed his eyes and pictured the scan he had taken. He was willing to bet that Daemon's code was well insulated under layers and layers of add-ons.
"How?" Turbo asked. He was firing at the emerging Viruses. Matrix was too. And Ray was above Daemon, shooting at something around the back. They had the situation under control for the nano; Bob could stop and think. The Viruses that Daemon sent out were only puppets. As soon as they deleted one, she just brought out another. The Sprites could not outlast her; she had too many. He could see on the scan where the critical points in her code were, where the functions were controlled. They showed as several dense clusters of energy and activity. Those were what he needed to hit!
"Cover me," Bob said, and stepped forward.
Hexadecimal hovered over Bob so she could watch. He crouched down a bit, gathering his energy. It seemed to be such an effort for him, summoning up enough power for a strike. The energy brightened between his wounded hands as he concentrated, then needled in a sharp beam into Daemon. Once again the Supervirus thrashed. All of her Viruses screamed, a hideous din. The Sprites took the opportunity to kill the stunned Viruses.
Bob could hold it for only a few nanos before faltering. Hexadecimal exclaimed, "Why'd you stop?"
Bob panted, "I've got to get through to her core. It takes a lot of power to do that."
"Let me!" She raised a hand.
Bob grabbed her wrist. "No! She can feed off your energy."
"She didn't when I got you out!"
"Yes, she did. It burned her, but she was able to use it." He was sure of that; it was like he remembered it. More backflow from the time they had been connected? He felt recovered enough to gather his energy again.
Hexadecimal watched as Bob forced his meager reserve of energy up, and again stabbed into Daemon with a beam of light. Again the Supervirus and her drones suffered, but Bob gave out first. Even after merging with his keytool, he still wasn't very strong. He didn't have the power he needed. But he kept trying!
And so did Daemon! Hexadecimal's eyes reddened when she glanced over and saw that more Viruses were coming out. Daemon was throwing them out faster now. And some of these were scarred by the Web. Everyone but Bob was fighting them. She floated closer to cover Bob from above.
This time it took him longer to get his energy up, and it was no stronger. Bob was weakening! And there were more and more Viruses. Everyone was fighting as hard as they could to keep the Viruses from overwhelming Bob. Hexadecimal shot blasts of energy at them. Daemon may be able to use her power, but these little creatures couldn't! They went down just like any other Virus.
Another needle of light into Daemon. Another cry of agony from the paralyzed Viruses. Another few nanos while the Sprites destroyed the Viruses before it began again. She heard Bob gasp, "I can't do it."
She flew down. "What do you mean?!"
He looked pale and shaken. "I don't have the power," he admitted as if each word cost him. "I've spent nearly everything I have, and it hasn't made more than a dent in her."
"You need power? I have power! Tell me how to use it!" she exclaimed.
"Cover our retreat," he said in a low voice.
She looked around. Nobody else seemed to have heard what he said, or if they had they hadn't acted on it. "Use my power!" she told him as she grasped his shoulders. Her hands glowed. "Use it!"
"Hex, I can't! I can't use your power!" he shouted as he pulled away from her. "I can't control it!"
"You have to!" She stared at him for a nano. Then she uploaded into her mask, which slapped itself over Bob's face.
He tried to put his fingers under the edges and pull it off. Then he felt her code download into him. "Hex! What are you doing?!" He tried to block her.
No! Don't! Use my power! The words were spoken directly into his mind, in Hexadecimal's voice.
"I can't!" he shouted.
Yes you can! she persisted. I'll help!
With the words came an impression of their hands focusing her power, her hands outside of his. Her code was now in him; he hadn't been able to fight her off - but it was separate from his code. Touching but not infecting it. He was still in control. Use my power! she urged. I'll control it! You use it!
More impressions flashed, wild and chaotic, into his mind. He pushed them away. He could do that; Hexadecimal wasn't forcing them on him the way Daemon had. It was leakage from her mind. Hex! Keep control of yourself!
I'll try, came the meek reply. Bob could almost laugh - though the words had not been spoken, he could still hear her apologetic tone of voice.
Bob opened eyes he didn't realize he had shut. Matrix was pointing Gun uncertainly at him. The others were still busily fighting Daemon's Viruses, but they kept looking back at him. Wondering if they were going to have to fight him, too. Bob said, "It's all right, everything's under control. Gonna try it again." Ready, Hex?
Cautiously Bob summoned a trickle of the Virus's energy. It flowed smoothly; he could sense Hexadecimal holding back, careful not to overwhelm him. Her power was volatile, chaotic stuff. He could hear her listening into his mind, following his lead, readying her power for him. He concentrated, gathering a good amount of power, then thought, Ready?
He held his hands out. A hot needle of energy, so bright it was painful to look at, stabbed into Daemon, paralyzing her Viruses. Got her! Hexadecimal cheered.
Pay attention! Bob said. Feed the power to me so I can keep up a steady flow!
Hexadecimal replied with a wordless acknowledgment. She let only a little bit of her energy flow into Bob, a trickle from a raging river. Bob slowly moved the energy beam to the side. Daemon closed over where it had been; he could not slice her apart that way. However - the beam shone deeply into her, illuminating a tunnel deep into the interior. He had not burned the tunnel through her; she had retreated from the beam. Experimentally he swung it to the side again. As it burned through, she pulled away again.
Yes! It's hurting her! Bob nodded without thinking; he was concentrating on the scan he had done earlier. The image popped into his mind, still as clear as if he were looking at Glitch. Which, he supposed, in a way he was. He swung the beam slowly, keeping Daemon occupied as he concentrated on the scan. The control clusters were distributed throughout that monstrous mass. He could have hoped that somewhere inside there would be a physical core, Daemon's original body, but it wasn't that simple. And, he realized with an ugly sinking feeling, if she was able to reshape herself and bud Viruses, then she could probably move the control centers as well. In that mass, they could be anywhere! And she'll move them if you aim for them. But if you don't aim, she can't predict you! The cliche surfaced in Bob's mind unbidden: It's so crazy it just might work. Hexadecimal answered with delighted laughter.
"Bob!" Matrix shouted as Bob stopped attacking Daemon and ran from between him and Turbo. How were they supposed to cover him if he didn't stay put?! Bob stopped and shot another blast into Daemon's core, then several more at different angles.
"Have you gone random?!" Mouse exclaimed.
Bob glanced at her as he shot a few more holes in Daemon. "Actually, yes," Bob said with a slightly manic grin. She did a double take when she realized what she was seeing. Hexadecimal's mask was not only covering his face, it had fused with him. It was as if his own face had been recolored. The effect was eerie and unpleasant.
Bob ran a little farther along and fired again, quick bursts in random directions. He'd know when he hit something vital. Let's hit her from above! The ground dropped away.
No! Don't fly me! I like my feet on the ground!
Disappointment. Okay. His feet touched the floor again.
He continued running about, piercing Daemon with blasts of energy, careful to aim at least slightly up or down so he would not strike his friends should they be on the opposite side. The energy never ran low, never flagged; he was using only a tiny portion of Hexadecimal's transfinite energy supply. Several times he saw Viruses attempting to gang up on the others, and turned the energy on them instead, destroying them instantly. Hexadecimal's triumphant glee at seeing them fall was disconcerting, and snapped Bob back to the reality of the situation: this was not a game, this was for real. He focused on Daemon again.
Daemon was gaining control. The Viruses she controlled no longer froze or cried out every time she was hit. Either she no longer felt it or she had learned to bear the pain. More likely the latter, Bob thought.
When he finally hit one of her control centers, her reaction startled everyone. Again, all of the Viruses froze and shrieked. The mass convulsed. Limbs emerged from Daemon's surface, some on tentacles and others by themselves, and thrashed violently and uselessly.
"You got her!" Turbo shouted.
"Getting there," Bob answered, not taking his eyes from the spot as he walked slowly closer to the Supervirus. Deep within her, far down the tunnel around the energy beam, he could see a red, glowing shape. It was anchored on all sides by branching filaments. Bob played the beam across those; they snapped and curled, burning.
Then something slammed heavily into Bob. A large female mech Virus armored like a Valkyrie had tackled him from the side. Before he could think his hands reached for the Virus's throat and sent a jolt of energy through her. She shrieked and thrashed, then went limp. Hexadecimal had reacted before he had. He pushed the Virus off of himself and got back to his feet. He resumed shooting into Daemon, but the ganglion had moved. He probed around with the beam of energy, spiraling around the place where his target had been. Somewhere in there - ah! It hadn't moved far yet. He poured energy into it in a hot, powerful needle.
The Valkyrie stepped between Bob and Daemon, breaking the beam. It burned through her in nanoseconds, but that was time enough for the hole in Daemon to close. Bob scowled and glanced around. All of the Viruses were now coming at him. Daemon knew who her most dangerous enemy was! Hexadecimal raised his hands to blast them; he did not resist. One by one the Viruses went down. The Sprites had to dodge to keep from being caught in the explosions.
The field cleared, Hexadecimal turned control back over to Bob. He held his hands forward and directed energy into Daemon again. Of course, his target had moved. As he probed with short, quick bursts he heard sounds of battle around him. More Viruses had emerged, and the other Sprites were keeping them away from him.
He hit something which shone red. There! He ignored the cries of the Viruses and Daemon's thrashing as he tightened his beam on the ganglion. Quickly he severed the strands around it. However, this time he saw that as soon as he cut them, they began to grow back together. Nulls! He increased the level of energy slowly, carefully, knowing too well that too much would burn him out. Hexadecimal, hearing that thought, gingerly increased the supply as he demanded it.
It was hurting Daemon, but not enough- - the ganglion was not taking damage. It was paralyzed, overloaded, but not destroyed. It was a risk, but... he channeled the beam through one hand, and held it steady while he began sending quick, probing bursts through Daemon with the other. Hexadecimal gave him the energy he needed for each burst while holding the energy level for the sustained attack steady. She knew how to manage viral power.
There! she cried out as Bob saw a red flare. He moved the beam up a little, and saw a second ganglion. Now feed me more power! Bob told Hexadecimal.
The energy streaming from Bob's hands brightened, turned mushy for a nano, then resolved back into needles of light. Daemon was rippling, various segments of Virus on her surface flailing wildly, out of control. The ganglia sparkled, overloaded by the energy passing through them. No more Viruses were emerging, except in pieces. Bob turned his head rapidly, making sure that the beams did not wander from either of his targets. Give me more! He told Hexadecimal.
He felt her pause. Give it to me! I've got her!
It might hurt you, she replied fearfully.
Crash that! We've got to take Daemon down now!
It might burn you out!
Give it to me!
Bob felt a surge begin within himself. Hexadecimal was increasing the flow slowly. He never thought he'd see the day that Hexadecimal was more cautious than he was. I'm doing fine, he reassured her. Keep going.
The ganglia were spitting sparks, which traveled through Daemon's tissues as bursts of uncontrolled static. As more of Hexadecimal's power flowed through him, he began to feel uncomfortable. He wasn't overloading, not yet - it wasn't important, he thought firmly, knowing that Hexadecimal was listening in. Pain didn't matter. No matter how bad it got, it would pass, whatever the outcome. He felt her wordless, unhappy agreement.
The rest of the team watched as Bob held steady, glancing back and forth between his targets, Hexadecimal's white face lit by the streaming energy. It quickly became difficult to look at the glow of the beams, it was so powerful and concentrated. The Sprites had to look away, except for Ray, whose eyes were protected by his goggles.
All at once light began to leak out from Daemon's surface. It came through in cracklike lines, which widened and connected with each other, quickly forming a network covering the Supervirus's surface.
"Heads up!" Ray shouted.
The Supervirus was shattering, crumbling from the outside in. The separate Viruses Daemon had devoured, incorporating into her own system, were no longer under her control. Bob had destroyed that system, broken her control over her own programming. Now they once again had their own volition.
"Uh-oh," AndrAIa said when she saw what was happening.
"Everyone! Come here!" Bob shrieked, looking around and gesturing urgently to himself. "Hurry!"
Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, and Turbo ran over to Bob. Bob was no longer shooting at Daemon; he had accomplished what he wanted to. Now he was holding his hands out to either side. A transparent red sphere grew around him and enclosed the small group.
Ray hovered overhead, amazed at what he saw. Daemon was dissolving into her component Viruses, which were either disoriented or mad as the Web. As they emerged and got their bearings, many looked around, saw what had happened to them, and fled. But others, angry and wanting vengeance, turned on each other like enraged buzzsaws. A small percentage noticed the Sprites and recognized them as better targets for their fury. However, none were able to get through the insubstantial-looking bubble that Bob had created. They battered and shot energy uselessly at it.
Inside, Matrix, AndrAIa, and Mouse were watching with combined shock and pride. Bob had done it! He'd killed Daemon! But that left them surrounded by a flood of warlike Viruses. Turbo watched steadily, ready with Copland, although he knew better than to try to shoot through the energy barrier. It would repel energy in both directions, so a shot inside might fry them all. Bob stood still in the center of the sphere, his arms out, maintaining the bubble.
Bob was grinning as he watched the battle going on angstroms from his face. "What now?" Matrix asked him.
Bob looked back. His pupils were dilated, swallowing the black of his iris. "I don't know." He looked back at Turbo questioningly.
Everyone recognized the inflection. Even if it was Bob's voice, Hexadecimal was speaking. Matrix raised Gun. "What did you do to Bob?!"
"Cadet Matrix!" Turbo barked.
Matrix startled, then lowered Gun when he saw the Prime Guardian's harsh glare. Turbo said to them all, "Our enemies are outside. Keep watch!"
They did. All faced away from Bob. Hexadecimal felt lonely.
Daemon's dissolution took a long time. The Viruses had to untangle themselves from the main mass. There was a steady flow of them attacking the bubble. As soon as one realized that it was futile and fled, another took its place. But eventually the crowd thinned.
The last Viruses to leave were the injured. Some had been maimed or killed battling each other. Others, however, were horribly degraded by the Web. The ground was littered with Viruses that were barely recognizable as such.
"What a mess," Mouse observed with distaste.
"You can cancel the bubble, Hexadecimal," Turbo said.
Hexadecimal obeyed. There were no more Viruses here to attack them. They all looked around. Except for the clear circle in which they had been standing, the place was a slaughterhouse. Ray floated down to them. The normally calm Web surfer looked sick.
"What should I do?" Hexadecimal asked.
"You can start by takin' your mask off Bob." Mouse answered in a quiet tone, one which clearly was the product of tight control.
"All my energy was too much for him. I told him so!" Hexadecimal said, distressed. "I don't hear him now!"
Matrix's hand was hovering by Gun. Turbo said for them all to hear, "If Bob were deleted, his body would be gone too." He told her, "I think you've just overwhelmed him. Separate yourself from him."
She started to say that she didn't know how - but something in the faces of the others told her she had better not. Instead, she closed her eyes. Bob? Bob?
Listen to me. Say something! Please!
Bob, or Hexadecimal, or both stood still, eyes closed, lips moving slightly. Turbo looked around, then told Matrix and Ray, "Watch the doors. We've lived through this much, we're not going to be ambushed now." Both Sprites nodded and, weapon ready, stood alert, facing opposite directions.
Emotions chased across the white face.
Bob? I didn't mean to hurt you! Please, come back! She reached deeper, searching for him. Come back! I'm sorry!
Bob! Are you all right? I didn't mean to hurt you!
He spoke slowly, through a daze. I... think I'm okay.
I'm going to get out of you now, she told him.
Fine, he responded.
She tried to upload into her mask, the way she normally did. However, her code had become intertwined with his while they had worked together to control her power. She started to panic. I'm stuck!
Calm down, he told her. He thought of the image of a knot, one that could be unraveled with patience. She heard the undercurrent he hadn't meant to let slip: It's got to work, I don't want to be stuck like this!
Bob began sorting through their code. It was not a difficult task, for the most part. There was no way to mistake her code for his, and they had not become enmeshed like his and Glitch's. They were touching, not merged. It would take patience on both their parts.
Hexadecimal was silent, watching and not interfering. At first she had been hurt at how eager Bob was to get rid of her - but she didn't want to be a part of him any longer either. His mind was stiflingly orderly, logical, methodical. She would suffocate if she stayed here! Plus, there was leakage between their minds, and Hexadecimal did not like some of the things she was learning. She tried not to pay attention, but she could not shut it out.
It became tougher when Bob came to their minds. Connections had been forged between them while they functioned together; breaking them was painful. Hexadecimal had to feel it too, but then she was very resilient when it came to pain. She had stayed online after her energy had finally overpowered Bob, and from the look of it she had carried out the rest of his plan. Physical pain didn't mean much to her, because she knew she would always outlast it. Which hadn't made it any easier on him.
The others did not disturb Bob; he - or, technically, they - were still concentrating. They looked around, and when their eyes met they knew they were thinking the same thing: the battle wasn't over yet. Not with all the Viruses that escaped. Not with the state the Guardian Academy was in, with only three Guardians left with free wills, and one of those infected.
Turbo felt the loss of his master. The dominant part was glad that she was gone, that her tyranny over the Web was over. However, the traitorous part of him that her code had altered felt grief for the death of his master. Not his master, he told himself, but the one who had infected him. Not the same thing in his case.
Every side had lost to some degree, Turbo thought. The Guardian Collective had lost many members while fighting Daemon's takeover. Many Viruses had perished. And uncounted sprites, even whole systems, had been deleted by Daemon, directly or indirectly. Compared to that, the pangs he felt from from Daemon's infection that he felt were insignificant.
AndrAIa voiced their common thought. "What now?"
"Can't do anything without Bob," Matrix said, looking with concern at the Guardian, who had put his hands to his face. "Bob?"
"Don't distract him," Turbo said in a low voice.
Bob lowered his hands. Hexadecimal's mask had come off. "I'm all right," he said, sounding shaky.
"You did it!" Matrix said enthusiastically. "You beat her! I knew you could do it, Bob!"
Bob turned the mask over in his hands. Its empty eyeholes stared back at him. "We both did," he murmured. Then he looked up. "Without her, I wouldn't have had enough power. Daemon was too strong for me."
"What happened to her?" Mouse asked, looking back and forth between the mask and Bob's face.
Bob looked down again. Something had happened while they were connected. He had only realized it when he had been separating her from himself. Their minds had been... well, touching was the best metaphor he could think of. There had been backflow between them. It was going to be difficult to digest what he had seen in her mind... and if she had seen what he suspected... "Come out, Hex." he said to the mask.
Nothing happened for several nanoseconds. Then her mask lifted out of his hands and rose into the air, away from the group. Her body formed behind it. She landed with a soft click of her shoes on the ground and looked around, her eyes dark blue.
"How are you?" Bob asked her.
"I'm... whole," she replied slowly. She turned and slowly surveyed the Virus corpses littering the room. Where Daemon had been they were several layers deep. Some hadn't survived the separation. They were badly Web scarred. Too damaged to live after everything that had happened... "Mind if I take a little walk?"
The cheerful tone was too forced. It sounded like a parody of her normal way of speaking. She wanted to get away from him, from them all. He didn't blame her. "Go on, Hex. Just don't go far, we'll need you again."
She nodded silently and uploaded into her mask, which flashed away through one of the exits.
Bob looked around at the others. Everyone was looking at him. He grinned sheepishly. "What?"
Turbo folded his arms and shook his head, smiling. "Guardian 452, you live a charmed life. I thought when Daemon got you we'd lost you for sure. I wasn't looking forward to having to delete you."
"She tried to infect me, but it was like she couldn't quite get a grip on me. I think it was because of Glitch."
"Could be. She could only infect Guardians. If her infection was too specific, altering the target codes could have held her back." He looked around. Mouse was nodding understanding; the others had glassy expressions. Turbo changed the subject. "The battle's not over yet."
Matrix said, "Hah! After Daemon, getting rid of the rest of the Viruses'll just be mop-up."
"Daemon had hundreds of Guardians under her control. Only a dozen or so are in the Supercomputer, and they'll be fighting the swarm of Viruses. Then they'll wonder what happened, and come looking. And find out that we killed their master," Turbo answered flatly.
"Oh boy," AndrAIa said.
"What're we going to do about them?" Ray asked.
Bob said, "We can't kill them all."
Matrix said, "We can use an antivirus on them. That ought to work, right?"
Turbo answered, "There's no algorithm to fight Daemon's infection. But after we get the tech staff back here, there will be."
"'Til then, we'd better be handy with filelockers," Ray guessed.
Turbo nodded. "Right. We've lost too many Guardians already. Our numbers will be way down even if we recover every one still alive."
Turbo looked down. Bob did too. Bob had known that the battle wouldn't be over the moment they defeated Daemon, but he had been so focused on the Supervirus he had not thought much beyond her defeat. Now he thought about the Viruses he would still have to delete, and the upcoming battles with his former colleagues, and felt small.
Hexadecimal was walking through a corridor in the Academy. Her expression was blank, her eyes a neutral green. She felt numb.
She had never known that there were this many Viruses in the entire Net. 256es, 4096es, too many to count. And the ones she saw scattered about were dead or dying, covered with Web scars and battle wounds. They had escaped from Daemon only to slice each other up. Stupid. They were all stupid. Did Daemon do that to them, or were they that dumb already?
In the distance someone was fighting, she noticed detachedly. They were still killing each other? Or maybe the bad Guardians were killing them. It didn't matter. Dead was dead. She had found more of her kind, and they were dead. She was still alone.
She opened a door, and was surprised to find herself facing outside. The sky had lightened to pale blue. It now looked like the clear sky over Mainframe. Clean, blue, uninfected. No Virus dominated the Supercomputer any more. She went back inside, and shut the door so she would not have to see the sky.
She walked down a branching corridor. There was another Virus here, backed against the wall at the far end as if hiding. It was barely recognizable because of the grey crust of corrosion that covered it. It was unwounded as far as she could see, and alive; she saw its hand move. As she approached, she heard it laboring to breathe, and knew that it was barely processing.
It had been damaged by more than the Web. She could see a dent in the middle of its chest, an old wound camouflaged by Web scars. On its abdomen was a ragged gash, also partially hidden by degradation. The claws on its outstretched hand were broken. And one of its feet was turned sideways, the metal hamstring strut severed.
She stared silently at the fallen Virus. She heard no sound but his strained breathing. Then she crouched down by his head. With her thumb she pulled the upper lid of one of his eyes up. Both eyes blinked open. As she had expected, they were red and green.
She rested her hands on her thighs and said, "I knew you were here, but I didn't think I'd find you."
No reply. He stared up at her. His mouth was slightly open so he could breathe through it. His pupils were dilated.
"It was sweet of you to say hello," she continued. "I didn't think you'd remember me, not after all your new friends." She smiled pleasantly at him. "Have you been enjoying yourself?"
He closed his eyes and tried to turn his head away. It only moved a few angstroms. With a gentle hand on his cheek she turned his face back toward her, then opened his eyes again. "I've made some new friends too, since you left. Do you want to hear about them?" Without waiting, she continued in a light, conversational tone. "There's Bob, of course. He got me registered before the system crashed. I'm registered, look!" She pointed proudly at the icon on her corset. "I never knew they could register a Virus, did you?"
He swallowed, interrupting the slow rhythm of his breathing. She waited, but he said nothing. Then she leaned closer. "Look at my face. Bob fixed it. My masks were broken, but he healed them. He gave me my face back! See?" Her eyes flashed light blue. "And I've had a baby. She's not here. She's back in Mainframe. But I've had a baby, just like Mama. She's the most beautiful little thing. She's got red skin and golden hair and big brown eyes and tiny hands. I bet she looks like Mama did when she was little." She grinned, pleased.
He closed his eyes again, and again she put her fingers on his eyelids and opened them. "Did you take over the Supercomputer?" she asked, her voice suddenly harsh with scorn. "Did everyone fall to their knees when you limped in, as you expected them to? What did Daemon have to say about your glorious destiny?" She bent close and said sweetly, "I'll bet if I told Bob and the others that I found you, they'd come and try to save you. They like to reformat their enemies as friends. They did that for me. They'd try to do that for you, too. I'm sure of it. Wouldn't you like that?"
His gaze was locked on her face now. She said, "They're sick of all the death and killing. I can tell. They want to save whoever they can. They'd even try to save you. That's the kind of thing they'd do. They have all sorts of things to do that here. They'd keep you alive, but I don't think they can cure all those web burns, can they? And they wouldn't ever turn you loose, or even let you infect anyone. You'd never command virals ever again. You'd be at their mercy for the rest of your life. If you ever got well enough again to do anything. You're looking pretty badly off, dear brother. Doesn't it hurt? If they kept you alive, it'd keep on hurting, wouldn't it? And never stop for the rest of your runtime." She was speaking calmly, but her eyes glowed red.
Then she saw that the color in his eyes had faded. Where they had been green with red pupils, now they were blank, dark grey. And the sound of his breathing had ceased.
She looked down, studying him pensively.
After a while put her fingers on his on his upper eyelids and pulled them closed. She stood up and walked away from him and to the door, then went outside, into the light.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All ReBoot characters, and the entire ReBoot universe, are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes and Viruses can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.