By Kim McFarland
|Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
-- Clarke's Third Law
Capacitor could hardly believe the time had come. After the original Saucy Mare had gone down in flames so many cycles ago, he and his crew had been unable to leave this system. Even if their ship had not been destroyed they would still have been trapped here. Daemon, a Supervirus, had taken over much of the Net with her Guardians, and there was a price on his and his crew's heads. If they set sail from Mainframe they'd be hunted down for the bounty. But with Turbo's arrival in the system they now had a new hope.
The Saucy Mare's crew were no strangers to battle. Back when they had been software pirates they had often fought for their booty. However, this was war, an entirely different matter indeed. Capacitor was proud that none of his crew had attempted to back out. If anyone had, he would have let them, and been glad to see the last of them. He didn't need lily-livered binomes on his ship!
He glanced over the railing of the ship at one member of his crew with a small smile. Princess Bula, a giant One bigger than most Sprites, was spending her last moments on the dock with a regular-sized binome she had met here and taken a fancy to. They, like many others, were preparing for leavetaking.
The journey wouldn't be difficult for Matrix and AndrAIa. They wouldn't be separated from each other, and they were used to traveling the web. And Turbo had no ties here at all; he had been in Mainframe for only a few cycles. Those three were already on board, helping the crew prepare for castoff.
Only a few Sprites had gathered on the dock. They had agreed that they didn't want to make a big production out of leaving. They had had enough of ceremony with the farewell party and Mike the TV's other antics up to now. Dot had casually told Mike that if he showed up with so much as a vidcapper she would assign him to a multi-part series with infinite renewal options on the care and feeding of nulls. He had taken the hint.
Mouse and Ray were waiting with Bob, Dot, and Enzo. The surfer was already standing on his Surf-Baud, ready for action. Mouse kept glancing over at Hexadecimal, who was sitting alone on a bench facing away from the rest of the group, feeding her daughter for the last time before she had to leave her behind. This time she did not cover the child discreetly with a blanket; she watched her nurse and stroked her soft golden hair.
The Virus didn't notice Mouse, or any of the others. All of her attention was, for once, focused on one thing: her daughter. After the previous night Bob and Dot could understand how she felt, and let her have the last few moments with her baby in peace. They had waited for many milliseconds; a few more nanos wouldn't matter.
Eventually Hexadecimal put her clothing back in place. When she approached the Sprites Ray said, "Ready?"
She nodded without looking at him. She stroked the baby's hair and skin with the tips of her fingers. Her eyes glowed dark blue as she looked at Dot and said in a soft, earnest voice, "Please. Take good care of her."
Dot, surprised that for once Hexadecimal was speaking directly to her, said, "I will."
"Thank you." She held Dot's gaze for a nano longer, then reluctantly handed the child over.
"Come on, Hexadecimal," Mouse said, and turned to go up the ramp. Hexadecimal followed, glancing back several times at Dot and Haiku. Ray glided up to the ship on his Surf-Baud, leaving Bob, Dot, and Enzo alone.
"Well, this is it," Bob said, trying to sound casual.
"Yep," Dot replied. She was trying to hold the tears back, but it wasn't working. When they started to streak down her cheeks Bob wiped them away with his fingers. "I'll be back. I promise."
"I know," she whispered.
He wanted to embrace her, but he couldn't because of the baby in her arms. Instead he said "I love you," leaned forward, and kissed her.
When they drew back, they had nothing more to say. It had all been said in the last few cycles. It hurt to be separated again. They both felt the same pain. And they both had to be strong and live with it - there was nothing else they could do.
Bob looked down at Enzo, who had been casually looking away to give them privacy of sorts. Either that, or he was grossed out by their public mushiness. Bob said, "Remember what I told you, Enzo - believe in us."
"I know, you can do it," Enzo answered. "When you come back, can we go jet-balling?"
Bob laughed. "Sure thing, Enzo. I promise. I'll be back before you know it." He patted the boy's shoulder.
Dot said, "I think you're holding up progress, Bob."
He looked at her, then at the ship. A number of the crew were trying not to look like they were watching them. "Uh, yeah. Well..." He fidgeted, searching for words. "Goodbye."
"See you soon," Dot replied.
Reluctantly Bob went up the ramp to the ship. When he reached it the walkway retracted. He stood at the railing, looking back at his family.
The ship's engines powered up. The crew cheered as the Saucy Mare lifted free from the dock. Ray, on his Surf-Baud, took his place in front of the bow, ready to lead them into the web. That was the cue to lower the shield Mouse had created to protect Mainframe from invasion from the Web. Dot glanced back at the Principle Office. The change was very subtle, a shift in the system's energy level. Knowing what it was, she felt vulnerable.
The ship turned away from Mainframe in a long, swooping arc. It would have to sail out over the Energy Sea to get to the nearest tear big enough to use as a portal. Dot had mapped it out for them at the beginning of the cycle. She hadn't wanted to leave anything to chance. As the ship receded into the distance toward a pinpoint of flickering light she thought, it's out of my hands now. I can't be any part of the battle. I can't help in any way. All I can do is wait, and take care of Hexadecimal and Bob's baby. That's irony.
Ever since they had made the plan to leave, only cycles before, Dot had been thinking about having her replication subroutine reenabled. Every cycle she had debated it with herself and every cycle she had decided against it She knew that it was a foolish idea. If they failed to defeat Daemon, there would be no safe place to bring up a child even if Mainframe survived. And it would be irresponsible and selfish of her to force another child on Bob without giving him any voice in the decision - provided he returned. But if the mission succeeded, and Bob didn't come back, that would be all she'd ever have of him. She knew that she had made the right decision in not having it enabled. And she regretted it.
The light twinkled, and the ship disappeared. The system's energy level shifted again. They were gone.
Ray emerged from the portal and into the Web first. The web armor protocol built into his code, a black and purple webbed design overlaying his suit and skin, was light and comfortable. He thought as he looked around at the chaotic dataflow of the Web, it had been too long. Systems were nice places to visit, but this was his real home.
The ship sailed, needlelike prow first, through the portal. As soon as it was entirely through the portal collapsed back into a tear. Ray arced around on his Surf-Baud to the side of the ship. The outer hatch opened to admit him.
Inside the ship, all of the Sprites were standing on the deck, watching the VidWindows. One showed the tear they had just used. Others displayed views of the Web before them and to the sides. Mouse was staring wide-eyed. Ray walked over to her. "Quite a sight, eh?"
"You said that, honey," Mouse murmured. She had heard descriptions of the Web from Ray and others. However, it was another thing entirely to see it stretching out all around them, with no defined directions, no up or down, no ground, no borders, no safety. "How d'you keep from getting lost?"
"I can see in there," he answered, tapping his goggles.
She gave him a skeptical look. He grinned back.
In the first VidWindow, the image of the tear began to change. A field enclosed it, sealing it off from the rest of the Web. The Sprites knew what that meant - Mainframe was once again protected by Mouse's buffer as it had been when they had first returned to Mainframe. Capacitor shouted, "All hands, you have your orders!" The crew enthusiastically chorused back "Aye aye" and other affirmations and went to their assigned tasks with gusto.
Capacitor turned to Ray Tracer. "All right, Navigator, what course do you recommend?"
The surfer leaned back against a barrel of ROM. "The same as we discussed before. It doesn't look like anyone's been in the vicinity in a while. We're safe if we stay low." For the benefit of the others he elaborated, "We won't be taking a straight route to the Supercomputer. That'd be a dead giveaway for anyone who's watching for us - and I'm betting they are. They know where Mainframe is."
"They do?" Hexadecimal interjected, surprised.
Bob told her, "They were trying to get into Mainframe using portals a while back. They didn't get through, but I don't believe they'd completely give up so easily. They don't know exactly where Mainframe is, thank the Programmer, otherwise they'd have kept trying."
Hexadecimal frowned and put a claw to her lips thoughtfully. Ray continued, "Our best chance at getting there at full strength is to take the scenic route. We'll keep off the information superhighways where we'd be noticed, not to mention entering territory that's dangerous for other reasons, and take bang paths around smaller systems instead. If we're lucky, we can avoid trouble before we get to the Supercomputer."
"If anyone attacks us, I can fight out there," Hexadecimal declared. "I did before."
Ray replied calmly, "We know you can. But this is a stealth mission. They'll be looking for energy. That's why we won't be traveling at full speed; we want to hide in the background noise. If you go outside, they'll pick up on your energy like a beacon in the darkness."
"I have to stay inside?" she asked.
Ray nodded. "Yeah."
Bob added, "There'll be plenty of action for you when we get to the Supercomputer."
"Oh." Hexadecimal still looked disappointed.
Like Matrix and AndrAIa, Turbo was standing quietly by. Unlike them, he was watching the group dynamics carefully. He had no need to play Fearless Leader for now - it was more important for him to see how the members of the group functioned together. So far he could tell that Hexadecimal would listen to Ray and Bob. Would she obey them? Bob, probably; he wasn't sure about the surfer. Certainly not Matrix - in fact, those two looked like the most dangerous combination of the whole group. It was unlikely she would follow Turbo - she was still suspicious of him because he was infected by Daemon. He could see that some of the others also felt that way, though they tried to hide it. Well they might be wary, he thought, and hoped that they wouldn't be proven right in the end.
Ray said, "You won't need me for a while. There shouldn't be any trouble in this neck of the woods. I'm going to take a break." Nobody objected. He walked down the steps leading to the cabins. Mouse went with him.
Hex, her fingers over her mouth, looked uncharacteristically thoughtful. Bob asked, "Something on your mind?"
"I miss Haiku," the Virus answered softly.
And it had only been a few microseconds. "She'll be fine. Dot'll take good care of her."
Hexadecimal sighed and nodded. She knew that, but it did not comfort her. Bob said, "Come with me, I'll show you the ship."
Hexadecimal nodded again. They left. Bob made a mental note to stay in places where the crew would see them, just in case.
"Not very spacious, is it," Mouse commented as she glanced about their cabin.
Ray shrugged. "This isn't a cruise ship."
"I know." She wondered how much Ray knew about the design of the ship. She had seen enough of the plans to realize that the weapons and other add-ons that made the Saucy Mare a warship could be removed when they were no longer needed, leaving large hidden areas that would be just perfect for smuggling. As a hacker, she approved of the versatile design wholeheartedly.
The cabin had three bunks. This was going to be interesting, she thought. The bunks were narrow, enough space for one - though Matrix might have to sleep on his side - but not for two, not for sleeping anyway. They were bolted to the floor; they couldn't be pushed together without the aid of a blowtorch. And with a third wheel in the room... she knew that it was the best solution for everyone, having Hexadecimal bunk with them to keep her from wandering and bothering Bob or anyone else, but it was also spammed inconvenient!
She sat on a bunk - they had not yet decided which was whose - beside Ray. "We're not gonna have a lotta privacy on this trip, honey."
"I know. I never thought you were shy," he teased.
"Me?" she snorted. "Hexadecimal's just not my choice of an audience, that's all. She wouldn't watch, she'd try to join in!"
"What's wrong with that?"
She swatted his shoulder. "Don't even joke about that!"
"Never mind." She was grinning at him. "Y'know, I've never even seen your eyes."
"Hardly anybody has."
"Why not?" She reached for his goggles.
He caught her wrist. "I need those to see," he told her.
"Honey, for what I'm thinking you won't need to see." Playfully she snatched his goggles with her other hand before he could stop her.
He yelped in pain. Before he brought his arm up over his face she glimpsed black where his eyes should have been. Her eyes widened as he gasped, "Turn off the lights!"
She jumped up and punched the switch on the wall. "Is that better?"
"Your hair," was the strained reply. "Give me my goggles. Please!"
She went back to the berth - banging a knee against it in her haste - and found his hand by touch. She put the goggles in it. "What happened? I'm sorry, I didn't know-"
"My eyes are adapted to the Web." He was calmer now, but she could still hear the pain in his voice. "I can see where the energy is so low most people would think there's nothing out there. My goggles filter out the extra light. That's why the lenses are black out here - without them, it'd blind me. Even the glow of your hair's too bright."
"Sugar, I'm sorry!"
"I'll be all right. I've been dazzled before. I just have to wait for my vision to come back." His hand found hers and patted it reassuringly.
"Sixteen, maybe twenty microseconds before I can navigate in the Web. We're in safe territory now, nothing'll happen for a while. I'll just wait it out."
Hexadecimal followed Bob around the ship like an obedient pet. At another time she would have found the tour interesting. She had never been on a ship like this before. It was so big, and there were so many strange things that made it work. However, her mind was elsewhere, Bob noticed. She wasn't enjoying it any more than he was. He wasn't giving her a tour for pleasure - he was showing her what she couldn't mess with, no matter how fascinating it was.
A VidWindow sprang open in front of him. Captain Capacitor said, "We're picking up something out there." He gestured at a VidWindow behind himself that showed a view of the Web. "It seems to be coherent."
"Be there in a nano," Bob said quickly. The window closed. He said, "Sorry, Hex," and dashed off. She watched him go.
When Bob arrived on deck the VidWindow was already zoomed in on the source of the signal. A flock of creatures, some of which were bearing Sprites. Some of which were Sprites! He listened to the thin whistle that the Mare's instruments were picking up. "Those aren't the Webriders who took me in," Bob said. "They probably don't see us yet. I wouldn't want them to - you've seen how unfriendly things can get in the Web."
"Aye," Capacitor said. "That we have."
Bob said, "We'd better get Ray. If we have to take evasive maneuvers, we'll need him. I'll get him."
Bob went below deck to knock on the door. He didn't think using a VidWindow right now would be a good idea, not if he knew Mouse.
Bob rapped on the door. "Ray, we've got a problem."
After a pause Mouse opened the door slightly. Her staticky orange hair glowed brightly in the darkness. "Now's not a good time, Bob."
"Mouse, that can wait! We've got company out there. Unidentified Webriders."
"That could be a problem," Ray said behind Mouse. "I can't see very well right now. Lost my goggles for a nano and hurt my eyes."
Mouse glanced back, surprised. Bob said, "What? You can't see?"
"Not well enough for the Web. I'll be all right in a little while. Lemme see what's going on."
Mouse moved aside so he could pass. She lowered her voice as she explained to Bob, "His eyes are real sensitive. He has to wear those goggles so regular light doesn't blind him."
Ray was walking up the steps to the deck, the fingertips of one hand brushing the wall. "No worries," he called over his shoulder.
Capacitor frowned when he saw the surfer walking rather unsteadily toward him. Hexadecimal was already there; she had guessed when Bob ran away that something worth watching was going to happen on deck. Mouse caught up with Ray and put a hand on his back, discreetly guiding him. Bob said to the pirate, "Ray can't lead us - his eyes've been hurt."
"Let me hear their signal," Ray said. For a nano all were quiet while he listened to the high buzz-whistle. "Those aren't friendly blokes. Best to keep away from them if we want to avoid a fight. Are there any tears nearby we can use as portals to the local systems?"
"Aye, but what good will that do us?" Capacitor asked.
"In this part of the Web you'll find very few systems with ports to the Net. That's why I've routed us through the boondocks. If a system isn't on the Net, it's not likely Daemon will have bothered with it. We can dodge into one of them and wait a few micros for our friends to pass by."
Bob said thoughtfully, "Matrix and AndrAIa went through hundreds of systems using the games. It took them forever, to find one with ports to the Net - and they didn't hit any Daemon-infected systems until they reached one that was on the Net." To Capacitor he said, "Let's do it."
When the ship turned, Matrix, AndrAIa, and Turbo came on deck, wondering what the cause of the course change was. Ray explained his temporary blindness yet again, still leaving out specifics of how the accident happened. Matrix was not happy with the delay. However, he was overruled - they were going to have to play it very safe if they wanted to keep the element of surprise on their side.
The ship approached the tear, used its portal generator to stabilize the passage, and sailed through.
The ship shook violently, buffeted by powerful bursts of energy. Caught by surprise, people stumbled on the deck and grabbed whatever they could for support. Mr. Andrew, the binome at the wheel, struggled to keep control of the ship. Turbo ran forward, braced his feet against the deck, and gripped the wheel to keep it from spinning out of control.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the storm disappeared. Everyone on deck looked at the VidWindows for any sign of its cause. What they saw was the disk of a system, calm and swirled brown and blue, a white central peak reaching high through insubstantial-looking white wisps.
"By the Code, I've never seen anything like it," Capacitor murmured, staring. Then he came to himself and shouted, "Damage report!"
Mr. Christopher popped out of the hatch, carrying his organizer. "We've lost sixteen percent of our shielding, Captain. And the steering circuits were overloaded by the storm. They'll need to be repaired and recalibrated if we're to regain maneuverability. That'll take time," he said in a worried voice.
Matrix asked, "What the Web was that?"
"I guess the system was protected like Mainframe was. Only not as well," Mouse answered.
Bob was looking at the system below them. "That's a small disc," he said. "And no ports to the Net. I'll bet my process that Daemon hasn't reached it. Let's do our repairs here and get back on track. Maybe we can get help."
"I'll stay with the Mare and help get the steering online," AndrAIa said as the warship shimmied.
Bob, who had grabbed the railing again, said "Good idea."
The ship coasted lower, circling the central peak in a downward spiral. That was the best they could do with the steering circuits barely online. Capacitor scanned the disc with his spyglass. The Saucy Mare's appearance had not alarmed any of the system's inhabitants as far as he could see. The was further proof that Daemon's influence had not extended this far - if this system were under her control or fighting her, their arrival would have stirred them up for sure.
Suddenly he closed the spyglass and turned back. "Brace yourselves!" he bellowed.
Everyone on deck seized whatever was closest. Nanoseconds later, the ship ground to a stop, then rocked back. Capacitor looked over the bow, then said, "Good job, Mr. Andrew," without irony.
The ship had run aground on the side of the central mountain, close to the base. Mr. Andrew had set it nose-in between two convergent ridges, giving it a stable resting place that they would be able to back out of easily, and that they could defend if the situation turned hostile.
Bob asked Mr. Christopher, "What'll we need to repair the ship?"
As expected, Christopher was prepared to rattle off a list. After he finished Mouse commented, "Wait a nano. We have most of that stuff on board already."
"Yes, we do," Christopher agreed. "But the necessary repairs will deplete our supplies, and if we run into anything else afterwards we'll be sunk. Plus, the repairs will take much less time if we have help."
Ray said, "He's got a point. It'll take time no matter what, might as well resupply while we're at it."
"All right. I'll go out. Mouse, want to come with me?" Bob asked.
She hesitated, glancing back at Ray. He heard her pause, and guessing that she was still feeling guilty over her mistake, smiled and made a shooing gesture with one hand. She turned back to Bob. "Okay."
"Thanks. How about you, Turbo?" Bob asked.
Turbo noticed an uncomfortable note in Bob's voice. He had a pretty good idea what the cause of it was. Bob was uncomfortable with their role reversal. Well, he'd have to get used to it. Turbo nodded agreement.
"I want to come too," Hexadecimal chirped eagerly.
"Haven't you caused enough trouble?" Matrix said.
She turned a puzzled look at him. "I didn't do anything! It was a storm, not me." Matrix scowled back at her. Hex flew over the side of the ship and looked down. "I've never seen anything like this!" she exclaimed, delighted.
Bob started to speak, then paused and reconsidered. When he did speak, he chose his words carefully. "Hex, we want to get help here. We won't succeed if you upset people."
"I won't upset anybody."
"That means that if you come with us you will act like a Sprite, not a Virus. No using your powers. And you will do what I say."
She nodded acquiescence. "I promise," she told Bob.
Turbo, carefully keeping a neutral expression, noticed the others' reactions. Clearly none of them believed her, not even Bob. He was fairly sure he could follow Bob's reasoning for letting her come along: one, at least they would be able to keep an eye on her; and two, could they stop her?
Bob took out his zip board. It clattered to the deck. "Huh?" he said, startled.
Mouse took hers out too. It failed to open as well. "Great," she grumbled. "Spammed storm musta shorted them out."
"What a shame." Hexadecimal gestured, and she, Bob, Turbo, and Mouse rose into the air. "I can float us," she offered.
"Ah - okay, Hex," Bob said. The Virus beamed. "Let's just find some flat ground to set down on for a start."
At the base of a talus slope, three female binomes dressed in black stood around a bubbling cauldron. An old, wizened One demanded, "When shall we three meet again?"
Another, a Zero, answered, "Why don't we play it by ear, with the weather and all."
A third, the youngest by far of the group, looked up. "Are they supposed to be here?" she asked, surprised.
"Must be," said the Zero. "They're here, aren't they?"
Before the others could challenge the logic of this statement the party of four landed. Hexadecimal set them down very carefully to keep the fragile Sprites from hurting their legs.
"Hullo," The Zero said cheerfully. "Did you come from the flying ship?"
"Yes, we did," Bob replied.
"Lawks," the Zero observed.
The younger binome said, "Would you like some tea and biscuits?" She held up a tray. The Zero ladled dark liquid out of the cauldron. The older One folded her arms and glared.
"Oh, how darling!" Hexadecimal exclaimed, taking one of the biscuits. It was baked in the shape of a bat, with raisins for eyes and chocolate icing marking the wing bones.
"I baked them myself," the young One said proudly.
"Thanks, but we have to get some supplies and repair our ship. Is there anyone in this system who can help us with that?" Mouse said.
"Now we get to the heart of the matter," The old One said. She pointed. "Go down that road through the hills. When it forks past the pine trees, take the left bend, and keep straight on until you smell the city. You can't miss it. Lawks."
"Thanks," Bob said.
"Delicious," Hexadecimal added, popping the last of the biscuit into her mouth.
The four flew away, three moved by the fourth. "I bet they're going to have an exciting time," the younger One said.
"In the city? I should think so," the Zero said. "Especially with two handsome men like that." She winked slyly.
"You're incorrigible," the older One said, exasperated.
"The world keeps incorriging me." The Zero smiled amiably back.
Hexadecimal flew the party low over the ground, following the path that the binome had described. She wanted to explore this strange new world, or at least fly higher to get a better view, but Bob had told her firmly not to - that would fall under the category of alarming the natives. She pouted briefly, then obeyed.
"Whew!" Mouse exclaimed.
The others sensed it the same time Mouse did. "Oh, brother. I hope we can get used to that." Bob commented.
The binomes had not been kidding when they had said that they would smell the city. It was pungent with the aroma of too many sprites living in close proximity without proper output dataflow facilities. "If that was any stronger, we could chew it." Mouse said.
"Chew that?! I don't think so!" Hexadecimal said with a disgusted scowl.
When they passed the last hill they came upon a rough stone wall. The road led to a gate, through which binomes were passing in and out with strange wheeled vehicles. A body of water - body being more accurate a description than water in this case, as from the smell it consisted more of the former than the latter - oozed sluggishly along the wall. Hexadecimal landed them, assuming that they should stop flying if they were near people, because that might upset them. People were so easy to upset.
Some binomes glanced over at them, then went about their business. There were other kinds of sprites among them, and they did not seem to notice their presence at all. Bob looked at the others, then shrugged and started toward the gate.
The gatekeeper - a Zero binome in an odd uniform made from beaten metal - opened the way for them without speaking. Once inside, they looked around in surprise. The buildings were all made of stone and wood. Some were painted, others were whitewashed. All looked well past their expiration date. Bob said, "I haven't seen anything like this outside of the games."
"Fanatic or Cursored," Turbo replied. "It reminds me most of Cursored's Gibbet. Stonework and weathered wood."
"Don't remind me about Cursored. I got killed in it. Good thing I had spare lives."
As the Guardians talked they scanned the area as if looking for the nearest airship repair hangar. Mouse thought, of course, they were The Law, they were used to doing things through Proper Channels. Well, she knew how to get things done where there were no proper channels! She said "C'mon," and started ahead of them.
She led them to the nearest pub, The Dented Cymbal. Betraying no sign of being new to the place, she walked up to the bar and said "Whaddaya got?" to the surly-looking binome.
The binome jerked his headblock toward the barrels behind himself. All were alike, all unlabeled. Mouse got the message: we only serve one drink, take it or leave it. She said "Fine, four of those."
While she was doing that Turbo found them a table. Mouse had the right idea, he recognized: blend in and set people at ease. She had chosen a fairly seedy place - to understate the matter - but that was often how you got things done quickly in systems like this. It wasn't proper procedures, but then she didn't have those built into her protocols.
Hexadecimal was looking in all directions, a delighted smile lighting her face. She was fascinated by this place's novelty. It figured, Bob thought - only Hex could be fascinated by a dirty barroom in which people drank so quickly they splashed those behind themselves.
Mouse brought four lumpy, unglazed earthenware mugs over. "I'm gonna go circulate. Sit tight and don't spill any of this stuff on your boots. If it's as strong as it smells it'll burn holes right through." She left, taking one of the mugs.
"Will it really?" Hexadecimal asked, taking one of the mugs and looking into the swirling, iridescent greys within.
Bob sniffed his. "Whew! I'm not gonna find out."
Turbo raised his mug. "Pour this into the river, I don't know if it'd make it cleaner or fouller." He tipped the mug up, only far enough to pretend to be drinking.
Bob copied Turbo. The subtleties of pantomime, however, were lost on Hexadecimal, who attempted to mimic the Cymbal's other patrons. When she finished she looked behind herself. The ground was splattered with spilled unnameable beverage. Brightly she asked, "Did I do that right?"
Turbo covered his mouth and suppressed a laugh. Bob said, "Yeah, it's better than drinking it."
Mouse wandered about the room, catching various people's eyes along the way. Most of the crowd was binomes. A few Sprites were scattered among them. All were the same pinkish color, and all wore odd, raggedy-looking costumes in dull colors.
Almost all, that is. Two stood out at a glance. One was a nervous-looking bearded Sprite wearing a red robe and hat. He was sitting in a corner with the other one that had caught her attention. It was also red, but there its resemblance to other Sprites ended. It had a face that was both convex and concave at the same time. Its head was stuck without benefit of a neck to a red-furred weather balloon of a body. Its legs were short and stumpy, but what it lacked in those limbs it made up for in arms. It looked as if it could get a mug from the bar across the room without standing up.
The other people here weren't paying the strange-looking Sprite much attention, so she did not look at it for more than a nano. She couldn't help wondering, though - what was it? A Sprite that had mutated in the Web?
Neither looked at her at all, even when she approached their table. Huh! She was used to a lot of things, but being ignored was not one of them. Scratch them as information sources, for now at least. She moved on.
She had the same luck with the other Sprites in this place. What was it with them? Did they have something against purple skin? This was getting annoying.
She startled when she heard a crash. Turning, she saw that the mutant had brought one long arm down on its table, smashing it in two. The red-robed Sprite had scooted back, and was now trapped between the wreckage and the wall. The mutant was glaring at one of the Sprites who had ignored her. Its lips were drawn back, revealing a grimace full of teeth like yellow sugar cubes.
"What the-" Bob said, turning to look. Mouse was discreetly putting distance between the tableau and herself.
"That one said something about monkeying around, and the other one broke the table," Hexadecimal explained. "I think he took exception to that."
They could not hear what the Sprite said, but whatever it was, it did not calm the mutant down. It reached over with a long, long arm, acquired a mug to replace the one that had been on the former table, lifted the mug over the Sprite's head, then brought it down with a musical CLONG.
All at once the entire bar burst into activity. Drinks splashed every which way, pottery shards flew, and people ricocheted off the walls. Mouse called from the door, "C'mon!" The others were halfway there already.
They darted out into the street. Mouse leaned against a pole, the top of which curled over to form a hook on which a lantern hung, and said "Well, that was a bust."
"What was that all about?" Turbo asked.
"No idea," Mouse replied. "I don't know what that fuzzy thing was, but it's got a temper."
"We'd - HEX!" Bob exclaimed, and went back over to the bar.
Hex was inside, joyously swinging the broken remains of her mug around. As Bob watched, she knocked a binome against the wall. It ricocheted off, shook its eyeblock, and then jumped back into the fray. There was no apparent order as to who was fighting who; they all seemed to be clobbering one another on general principles. The single exception was the red-robed Sprite, who was crawling under tables in a bid to get to the door without loss of life or limb. Bob yelled, "Hexadecimal!"
She stopped swinging the mug and looked over. "Yes?"
She waded through the fray, pausing only to bonk a Zero binome who splashed her legs with his drink. When she reached Bob he said, "We're supposed to blend in, remember?!"
"I was blending in," she pointed out reasonably.
Bob stopped. Mouse and Turbo both laughed. "She has you there," Mouse said.
"I didn't use my powers. I only did what they were doing." Then she looked down at her thigh-high boots. "Oh dear. They got me wet with that nasty-smelling stuff. I need to wash up."
"Good luck finding clean water in this place," Bob told her.
"You're looking for water? I have nice clean water, flavored too! Onna stick!"
They looked at the greasy binome who had sidled up to them unnoticed. He was holding out a stick, half of which was encased in something cold and colored vaguely pinkish orange with an unsubtle hint of gray. It was melting, leaving a trail of small damp craters in the dirt of the road.
"No thanks," Bob said, holding up one hand to halt the approach of the thing the binome was offering.
"I have many flavors. You like blue?"
"I'll pass," Bob told him firmly. "What we need is to find someone to help us repair a ship-"
"Oh, the one that flew through the sky and hit the Heaven Mountain? Why didn't you say so? You want my old friend Armstrong. He can put anything back together."
"Where is this guy?" Mouse asked.
"His shop's in Clever Craftsmen's Road." He pointed with his dripping flavored-water-on-a-stick. "Just tell him Dribbler sent you."
"He could have been more specific."
Hexadecimal's observation put voice to what they were all thinking. Clever Craftman's Road was full of shops that began with "Armstrong's." The only shops that outnumbered those were seamstresses.
They went down the street, looking for likely shops and parrying offers from binome seamstresses who apparently found their clothing in dire need of repair. Turbo and Bob heard a rhythmic clanging at the same time. The banging of metal on hot metal, a sound that always came from a blacksmith's. A metalworker would likely be able to help them with their ship's repairs, and know where they could find supplies. When they approached, they saw that the scrawly sign read "Glod Armstrong's Olde Tyme Farrier and Bakery." "Bingo," Bob said.
They had to duck to go through the low doorway. They could not stand up inside; the ceiling was lower than a Sprite was tall. The shop was all one room. Half was full of merchandise. Some of it was ironwork - horseshoes, tools, swords, knives - and some of it was lumps of stone shaped like bread. Hexadecimal's crest clacked against the ceiling as she looked down at a table She picked one loaf up and examined it skeptically, then rapped her knuckles on the crust. "This isn't very fresh," she said disapprovingly.
"That was baked just this year!" said a voice from the other side of the shop, which was a smithy, complete with forge and anvil. A burly, bearded Zero binome wearing a scorched leather apron came over to them.
"Did you use the Medusa on it to keep it fresh?" Hexadecimal asked skeptically.
Bob cut in, "We need help. Our ship's damaged. We're looking for someone to help repair it."
"Eh?" the binome looked puzzled. It went around behind a counter and pulled out a slate. Various items of merchandise, plus several tasks such as cart repair, were listed on it. "This is all I can do."
"Think of a ship as a big cart," Mouse suggested to the binome, and winked.
The Zero looked at them all strangely. "The only water for miles is the river, and that's not even big enough for a raft. Where've you got a ship?"
"It's an airship," Bob said. "It's docked, more or less, against the mountain."
"That was you?!" the binome exclaimed. "What're you doing here? I can't do anything about a flying ship. I can't even leave this shop. You need to go to Transparent Tech."
"Where is that?"
The binome walked to the door and pointed out. "Down Short Street a few miles, then turn left when the cobbles turn yellow, and knock at the black iron gate. Don't go into the flower field beside the road. And," it said confidentially to Bob, "Don't let anything they say bother your witch. Up there they can get a little...you know." It glanced at Hexadecimal.
The Virus looked down at the binome. "What did you call me?" she said haughtily.
The binome suddenly looked nervous. "Um... no offense, I just assumed from your clothes..."
"Witch will do," she said with a sweet smile, and patted the binome on the head.
The Zero watched them go. She was glad she hadn't gone with her first assumption. If she had called the witch a seamstress, she might have stoned her to death with her own bread.
Outside, Bob said to Turbo, "Remember the snipe hunts?"
Turbo chuckled. "I sure do. How many did you go on?"
"Six," Bob admitted. "Only once as the catcher, though."
"What're y'all talkin' about?" Mouse wanted to know.
Turbo explained, "At the academy, the newly uploaded cadets get 'welcomed' by the upperclassmen."
"Hazing," Bob clarified.
"The upperclassmen would say it was just in fun. One of the main traditions is the snipe hunt. Take a fresh cadet down to the lower levels of some dark system and tell him you're hunting snipe. Say you're chasing the snipe toward him and give him a sack or a net to catch it in. Run around making noise and pretending to hunt, while the cadet gets more and more nervous. Then throw a rock into the sack while he's not looking."
"That sounds like fun," Hexadecimal said thoughtfully. "What if you used a null? If you throw one of them into the bag, it'll wriggle and squeal!"
Ignoring Hexadecimal, Mouse said "Sounds like a dirty trick to me."
Bob answered, "It's a wild null chase. Nobody gets hurt. But... yeah, it's not a nice thing to do. That's just the kind of thing cadets do to newbies." He looked at Turbo. "I don't know why, we just got to this system, but I've got the feeling we're on a snipe hunt. Lemme check on how they're doing on the Mare."
He paused. Nothing happened.
"Can you open a VidWindow?" Bob asked Turbo.
Pause. Nothing. "No."
"I can't either," Mouse said. What kinda system is this?!"
"It's an old one, one which doesn't support VidWindows," Turbo told her. "There are still a few around. The good news is there's not likely to be any Viruses here - even if they were configured to live in systems like this, few would want to."
"I don't know, I like it," Hexadecimal commented.
"Present company excepted," Turbo amended. "Still, I've seen systems stranger than this."
Mouse raised an eyebrow. "When?"
"You sure you don't want me to fly us?"
"I'm sure. Just don't."
This was not the short walk they had anticipated. That hadn't known that a "mile" was so long. It must be tens of thousands of angstroms! Looking at Hexadecimal's painfully high-heeled boots, Mouse thought that the Virus had to be feeling it more than anyone else. She'd just had a baby, and even though she healed fast she couldn't be completely back to normal just yet. Hexadecimal normally flew, and to her credit she hadn't tried to do that, or even asked if she could. She was walking like the rest of them. Or so she appeared to be - looking close, Mouse could see that the Virus was floating herself just enough to alleviate the strain without being obvious.
At another time it would have been a pleasant walk. That other time would have been when they were not in a strange system, seeking help in repairing a downed airship, in a city that smelled like a very socially active midden. All noticed that while the binomes in the system were willing to talk to them, the Sprites acted as if they didn't exist. That was annoying.
At least the directions were clear. There was no question when to turn - the cobbles in the left fork of the road were the color of egg yolks. As they traveled that part Mouse asked, "Now why d'ya suppose they colored it like that?"
"Why not?" Hex asked.
Bob asked wryly, "After everything we've seen so far, you're wondering about the color of the road?"
"Ya gotta point," Mouse said.
Soon the path entered a field of red flowers. Hexadecimal, delighted, bent down to pick one. A hand closed on her wrist. She looked back, startled. Turbo told her, "Stay on the road."
"I just want to pick a few," she said, and pulled her hand out of his grasp.
"Just do it, Hex," Bob said.
Hexadecimal deliberately leaned forward, keeping both feet on the path, and picked a handful of flowers. Straightening up, she said defiantly, "There. He said don't go into the flower field. I didn't. Aren't they pretty?"
"Whatever. C'mon," Mouse said, exasperated.
They continued along the yellow cobblestone path. Turbo and Bob exchanged looks. Bob knew what the Prime Guardian was thinking: they'd have to bring her under control, otherwise she would endanger them all when things got rough. Bob had to agree. Hexadecimal sniffed her bouquet, blinked rapidly with a look of surprise, then threaded the flower stems one by one through her crest to make herself a floral tiara.
The thick stone wall, and the elaborate buildings and high towers behind it, seemed to appear suddenly at the end of the road, like pages in a pop-up book. The gate was solid, forbidding black metal. Its job was to be forbidding, and it was good at it, and knew it. It was affronted when a group of Sprites walked right up to it. One even had the nerve to rap on it with bare knuckles, as if it were any ordinary door.
A small window snicked open at eye height and a pair of eyes glowered out. "Go away. Transparent Tech is closed!" The window shut again.
Mouse stepped forward and, with a sly wink, waved the others back. She rapped on the window plate with her knuckles. "Oh, sugar?" she said sweetly.
Snick. "What is it?" the binome growled.
Leaning against the door, she said, "I was walking down the road one day, I was looking for the Truth of Life."
The Zero stared. Then he disappeared from view as the doors opened inward. When they stepped in they found him behind the door, crawling out from under the stepladder he had been standing on. "How'd you do that?" he exclaimed.
She smirked widely. "What kinda hacker would I be if I couldn't crack a password?"
"You were waiting to say that, weren't you?" Bob asked Mouse.
"You know it, honey."
The Zero tried to block their passage. "You can't go in! You don't have the key! And she's a witch!" He pointed at Hexadecimal. "Witches can't come in here. It's against the lore!"
"Not ever to bring flowers?" Hexadecimal asked in a hurt tone, pulling some blossoms out of her crown. She gathered them into a bunch and pushed them into the binome's face. "See how pretty they smell?" The binome gasped. His eyelids fluttered, then he fell over forward and began snoring softly.
"Now we know why we were supposed to keep out of the flowerbeds," Turbo commented.
"Yeah." Bob gestured for them to follow. Hexadecimal bundled all of the flowers into a bouquet, which she left in front of the binome's face as a gift.
Before long they realized that, now that they had gotten into Transparent Tech, they had no idea who they were looking for. There wasn't anything as simple as a helpfile in sight. All they found were statues of robed, bearded, spherical Sprites; stone corridors; empty classrooms; and portraits whose eyes not only followed them, but sometimes the whole picture would jump off the wall and walk with them a ways. They tried their best to ignore these distractions. Three out of four did, anyway.
After a scenic tour featuring miles of grey stone corridors and Sprites who ignored them very expertly, they came to a large open double doorway. Inside were rows of long dining tables which had been pushed to the walls to make room in the center of the torchlit room for a circle of eight Sprites. They were Sprites in the same way that the furred creature in the bar was a Sprite: they were dataforms, and they weren't binomes or numerals. Several of them could, however, easily be mistaken for giant Zeroes from the back. They all wore colored robes and very large, elaborate hats. They were chanting, their attention focused on something in the center of their circle. And, as usual, none seemed to notice them.
Then a One binome peered around the others and waved. He broke from the circle and came over to them. Bob said, "We'd like to ask for some help."
"Of course, I know," the binome replied. "We've been waiting for you."
"You have?" Bob asked, startled.
"Yes. They're busy right now-" He gestured toward the rotund Sprites, not one of which had looked up. "-but I'll see what I can do." Beckoning for them to follow, he walked down a stone corridor.
The room he led them to was filled with... stuff. Three of the four walls were lined with a complication of wires, pulleys, banks of wheels with animal skulls along the edges, smaller wire wheels with furry creatures running in them, and tangles of glass tubes. Everything was in some kind of motion - the wheels turned, the wires slid on their pulleys, and tiny black spots moved through the tubes. The binome sat down on a chair in front of an empty metal tray. "This is the thinking machine. What do you want to ask her?"
Turbo, noticing that Bob seemed to be in the early stages of a migraine, said "Where can we find some help repairing our ship?"
The binome turned his headblock toward them. "You didn't kill any dolphins, did you?"
"We haven't killed anything at all," Hexadecimal asserted.
"We got caught in a storm coming in," Turbo said.
"Okay...." The binome took out a box of small metal cubes, on the top surface of each of which was a backwards ASCII character. He set them in the tray, right to left, speaking slowly as he did. "Who... can... repair... ships..." He pushed the tray into a boxlike protrusion of the mass, and waited.
Noises came from the confusion around them. Wires twanged, wheels squeaked, and fairly impolite noises issued from sacs in the back which inflated and deflated slowly. Even a faint rushing came from the tubes in which the black specks were moving more rapidly now.
In a low voice Turbo said, "I've been to some old systems in my time, but this beats anything I've seen."
"What is all this?" Mouse asked. Bob listened; Hexadecimal was grinning widely and watching the machine function, if that was what it was doing.
"Some old systems are jerry-rigged, specially configured so they can function with newer ones. I've seen plenty of odd ones, but this is the strangest."
Mouse said in disbelief, "This is a kludge for the operating system?!"
"Operating system, no. Kludge, yes," Turbo answered. "Their system commands are likely to be different from any we're used to. Do any of you know COBOL or FORTRAN?"
Bob said, "Only what I remember from my training. I could buy a cup of Java in those languages, that's about it."
"I know languages I can use. What about you?" Mouse asked Turbo.
"I know some, but not enough. And Copland's not programmed to interface with ancient languages," the Prime Guardian admitted. "It's been too long."
"Too bad Phong isn't here," Bob commented.
Hexadecimal turned as a new sound started. A stick was scratching on a flat plane, leaving behind black curves and pointed marks and occasional splatters. The binome read it out loud. "Anyone with the proper training." He looked up at the sprites and laughed sheepishly. "She's a bit quirky. We think she acquired a sense of humor in the last upgrade. I need to be more specific. I'll narrow it down to this city and ask for names."
While the machine was functioning in its cool room in the basement, the Sprites in the dining hall were concentrating on a small white lopsided oval placed on a small table in the center of the circle. Around it were several small pieces of wood and a glass vial holding a small amount of red fluid.
They were conducting a ritual which would normally have been quite elaborate. Usually they would have prepared themselves mentally for hours, worn only the proper clothes, and heaped the table with the sort of items taxidermists normally discard. However, they knew that was not necessary - if you knew what you were doing, you could rely on your skill.
That could be a problem.
The machine was more entertaining than an armload of nulls, for Hexadecimal at least. She peered like a child at every piece. The binome had to shout at her not to pull pieces out for closer examination. Surprisingly, she only had to be told once.
The animal in the baskety cylinder stopped running. After swinging about a bit, the cylinder spun to a stop. The stick began scratching. The binome read, "+++ INSUFFICIENT SYSTEM RESOURCES INPUT FOOD +++" He sighed, opened a drawer, and pulled out a lump of an orange substance. He was breaking off a piece to feed to the animal when they heard an explosion from the direction of the banquet hall. Glass tubes shattered and wheels jarred out of their settings and wobbled across the floor.
"Oh, spam!" the binome said as he jumped out of his chair. He scampered down the hall back toward the banquet chamber. Bob and Turbo took off after him, with Hexadecimal tagging along. Mouse knew it was their Guardian code making them rush to any danger scene, mend and defend and all that. However, if they helped, they would be owed a favor, and that could cut through all this nonsense.
When they arrived, they saw that the Sprites that had been chanting had been flung backward out of the circle by a great force. They had landed at various distances, depending on the mass that the energy of the explosion had acted upon. On a collapsed table sat a bewildered, red-robed Sprite with egg on his feet and a box by his side.
A distant roar made the Sprite's eyes widen. He looked around frantically. The air surrounding to him began to darken and whirl. He scrambled to his feet, gasped "Oh, bits, I'm gonna be deleted!" and ran past them and out the door. The box lifted up, revealing many tiny feet underneath, and followed him.
"What the...?" Mouse said as she watched him go. Yes, the box with legs was bizarre, but what could it do to him if it caught up? Nudge him to deletion?
"Copland, mend," Turbo said, pointing his right arm at the rent in the air. The keytool shot a beam at it. It did not have any visible effect. Bob raised his hands and added his powers to Copland's. It was an instability, he could tell as he enveloped it in energy, but not a tear. It seemed to be an unstable portal. And something was trying to come through it. He tried to squeeze it closed, but it would not compress properly.
Mouse watched while the two Guardians tried ineffectively to bring the whatever-it-was under control. Instead of closing, it enlarged. Big, indistinct things with odd arrangements of glowing eyes were coming down from what looked like a long tunnel in the ether. And the Sprites who had created the opening were now inching their way casually toward the doorways.
Hexadecimal's eyes glowed brightly. She didn't interfere with Bob and Turbo, she knew that they got first dibs on handling whatever came up. But if they couldn't handle it, it was her turn next! She had been good thus far, surely they wouldn't deny her this!
It suddenly broke free and expanded. The very matter of the walls and floor shredded itself when it intersected the instability. The sprites jumped up and fled. Hexadecimal looked critically at the form that was about to come through the opening. Bob and Turbo wouldn't stop trying to close the not-a-tear. Didn't they see that that wasn't working? And Mouse had her thin little sword out, as if that would help!
Silly Sprites, she thought. She threw a small burst of energy upward, blasting a hole through the already-disintegrating roof. Then she flew upward through it, floating the others with herself.
"What the Web are you doing?!" Mouse yelled.
Below them, a hole was expanding in the roof. A long, black tentacle poked its way out. Fire gushed from the end. Hexadecimal answered, "Keeping you alive."
Bob spied a red figure scurrying away from the University building below them. A rectangle was following him. He said, "That Sprite must know what that thing is, he came through the portal right before it."
"Okey-dokey." Hexadecimal pointed at the Sprite. He stopped moving forward. When she landed the rest of the party, they saw that the Sprite's feet were still pumping madly. They just were no longer touching the ground. He was chanting "Oh bits, oh bits, I'm gonna be deleted," monotonously. The box was crouching ominously, somehow giving the impression that it was staring at them.
Hexadecimal waved a hand in front of his face. "Hello?"
Because Bob, Turbo, Mouse, and Hexadecimal were standing in front of the red-robed Sprite, they had a good view of the college building behind him when the ceiling exploded. A black shape rocketed out of it and into the sky. Red looked back at it, then redoubled his efforts.
"Let him go," Turbo said to Hexadecimal.
"I thought you wanted to talk to him," she said, puzzled, but obeyed. When the Sprite touched ground he zoomed toward the horizon in a spray of dust. The box followed.
The shape, a giant winged reptile, was now gliding over the city, searching. Mouse said, "I suppose you two Guardians have to mend and defend against that thing, don't you?"
"Yep," Bob answered. Turbo nodded.
If she had a working zip board, she could fly back to the Saucy Mare and get Matrix. Spam, if she could just VidWindow him! He and Gun would be really useful right about now.
The monster soared overhead, its wings ticking the highest towers as it skimmed through the air. Here and there a bell clanged to the ground.
It quickly narrowed down the area it was searching. It flew back and forth over one patch of ground, glaring down at the people scurrying about on the streets, flaming the occasional bothersomely tall building that attempted to interfere with its flight.
The area it had chosen was not far from Transparent Tech. In fact, Red had probably known what it was looking for, since he had gone there first. They couldn't find him anywhere now, though.
Bob, Mouse, Turbo, and Hexadecimal were now under a bronze bridge. This put them uncomfortably close to the river. The smell was no longer a problem; their noses had long ago admitted defeat and shut down for the cycle. What worried them was that if the beast flamed too close, the water might catch fire.
After its screech dopplered past them, Hexadecimal asked, "Is that a Virus?"
Bob thought about it. He glanced at Turbo questioningly. Turbo answered, "I don't know. I'm guessing it's a Trojan program, not a Virus. It's one I've never seen before, but it's behaving like some Trojans I know of."
"What's the difference?" Hex wanted to know.
"Couldja move over, do you fink?"
Mouse looked around. "Ugh! What's that smell?!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, thank you. You're a dog's best friend, and no mistake."
Mouse frowned. She looked around again. A small dog had pushed its way among them under the bridge. From the look and smell of it, it had been through worse things than the river. It looked back. "Woof."
"I want to fight it," Hexadecimal declared.
"I didn't do anyfing!"
"Not you," she said to the dog. "That thing out there! It looks like nobody else is going to." Without waiting for an answer she flew out from under the bridge.
The monster was turning in a loose arc, still looking hard for something. It drew in a huge lungful of air and then bathed a building in blue flame. Seamstresses fled the burning building. They must have been sewing their own clothes and not had any spares, Hexadecimal speculated as she glanced down.
The beast suddenly folded its wings and dove into the streets. Buildings smashed outward from its path. Where it landed water spurted up from what had formerly been a fountain and sizzled off the hot, scaly skin. Its forefoot reached into a doorway.
The creature felt around while peering in through a window. Soon it pulled its clawed forefoot out. It held a young Sprite in a white dress. Her blonde hair shone around her head like an angelic halo as she screamed like an air raid siren.
It raised its paw up to its face and examined the screaming Sprite. It smiled, pleased. Then it raised her to its mouth.
Three beams lanced into the beast at once. A red flow of viral energy cut into its back, between its wings, from above. Two lighter beams, one from Copland and the other from Bob, focused on its neck. Mouse snarled, ran forward, and sank her katana into its flank.
The creature screamed in outrage and dropped the Sprite, who landed on her feet and fled back into the building. It looked around murderously for the source of the attack. And it found a target, in the form of a red robed Sprite who was waving a glowing stick about.
"Oh, for the User's sake," Mouse said to herself, then yelled, "Get outta here!"
The Sprite didn't notice. Well, that just figured. Mouse yanked her sword free and looked up. Hexadecimal had flown up close and was now concentrating her power on the neck, on the opposite side of Bob and Turbo. Red was waving his stick like an orchestra conductor and babbling. The box was jumping up and snapping at the monster's underside with its lid. It thrashed and screamed. Its wings and tail knocked chunks off of nearby buildings.
Then the beast exploded.
Bob, Turbo, and Mouse were knocked to the ground. Hexadecimal spun backwards through the air. All were momentarily dazzled by the glow. At first they barely saw the shape within the expanding cloud of flame. When the fire thinned, they saw that the reptile was alive. Charred, weakened, but alive. And furious.
Turbo quickly looked at Bob and Mouse. Bob's armor had protected him. Mouse had fallen behind some wreckage. He himself wasn't badly hurt; just some burns not worth worrying about now. "You two okay?" he called.
"Yeah," Bob said. He was getting back up.
"I think so." Mouse sounded dazed.
"Come on," Turbo said to Bob, and started toward the monster.
It flapped its wings. The wing leather was burned away, so the struts whistled uselessly through the air. It swung its head around, blurting fire in random directions. Its eye sockets were empty. "It's blinded," Turbo said.
"Watch out," Bob agreed. Now that it couldn't see to target, they had no idea where it would flame next. Again they aimed their energy at its neck, hoping to finish what the explosion began.
Hexadecimal's back slapped against the wall of a tower, Above her, a bell rang a single, startled note. She shook herself out of her daze before she slid to the ground. Her eyes turned angry red. That creature had hurt her! It had actually hurt her! And it would hurt the others, including Bob! She flew toward the sound of reptilian screams, energy crackling around her hands.
She found Bob and Turbo on the ground, again trying to cut through the creature's neck. It kept thrashing about, so they could not keep their beams focused on it. She flew up to it, grabbed the backwards-pointing horns, and tried to hold the beast's head still.
From her vantage point she could see the Sprite in red on the ground. Again he was waving the stick around and his mouth was moving. She felt energy surge up around herself and screamed "DUCK!"
Bob and Turbo heard the warning a split second before fire again surrounded the monster. This time they were able to dive before the blast hit them. First the shock wave, then the heat. Then the smell of roast beast.
"Who's cooking chicken?" Mouse murmured, still dazed behind the rubble.
Hexadecimal had shielded herself, and was untouched by the blast. She let go of the head. It thudded to the ground. Glaring at the Sprite in red, she landed. "You fool! You could have gotten them deleted!" she yelled, gesturing at Bob and Turbo.
The Sprite did not seem to notice her. In fact, he seemed to be looking right through her, as if she were invisible! She glanced back, and saw a tall, black-robed figure with a hollow-eyed pale face. It held a strange weapon with a thin, curved blade sticking out of the handle at a right angle. She said to it, "Oh, no, me first!"
She turned back to the red-robed Sprite. He had walked away from her, and was now tugging on the box, which was trying to sample fresh roasted meat. Out of patience, she grabbed him by the back of his robe, yanked the box's lid open, stuffed him inside, and slammed it closed again. There was a muffled scream, which cut off as the box chewed.
The gaunt black-robed figure paused, startled. It stared at the box. Then it raised its weapon and spoke in a deep, sepulchral voice.
Mouse, Turbo, and Bob wore identical expressions of shock as they watched the game cube rise into the sky. Hexadecimal, however, was laughing at the joke that had been played on them. "It was a game all along!" she exclaimed.
"A game," Mouse murmured to herself. Then she snarled, "A fragged GAME!"
"We must've come in while the cube was down," Bob said to Turbo.
Turbo shook his head. "Had to be."
Hexadecimal was giggling madly. She leaned on Turbo's shoulder. "It was a game! Why didn't you tell me? I bet I would have rebooted as that monster!"
The system now looked perfectly normal. It could have been Mainframe's twin - a small system, backwoods but not outdated. Binomes were approaching them and cheering.
It was a dirty trick, Bob thought. But they couldn't blame it on anyone. They had just happened to come in during a game. It was one of those one in a million things. And they had come out of it all right, despite everything. You have to be good to save the day when you don't even know what the heck you're doing, he thought wryly.
A female Zero binome approached them. "How did you get out of the game?" she asked.
They recognized her voice: the blacksmith. "We aren't from the game. We entered the system through a portal while the game was running," he explained.
"Is that your ship?" She pointed.
He looked over. Oof. The Saucy Mare, which had been grounded against the game's central mountain, was now leaning against the system's Principle Office. The Mare didn't seem to have done any damage, thank the Programmer. "Yeah. Sorry, we'll get that out of here. But we still need help with repairs."
Her eyes widened. That wasn't just part of their game character? She said, "Sure, we'll help. Right?" She looked around at the nearby binomes, who nodded and rhubarbed their agreement.
"...Then they took us to the Principle Office, explained to the Command.com what happened, a few people told 'em about our slayin' the monster, and she gave orders to have the ship patched up," Mouse finished.
Bob added, "Either they want to thank us for winning the game and saving the system, or they want us out of here fast."
"By gar, that's a tale to be told at every port!" Capacitor exclaimed, laughing. He was as amused by it as Hexadecimal had been. Well, now that it was all over, Mouse had to admit that it was funny.
"I'm sorry I missed out," Ray, who was leaning against the railing, commented.
"No, you ain't," Mouse told him. "Sugah, you don't wanna have a giant lizard toastin' your buns."
"It'd be an adventure."
"Ya think so? Then gimme your icon and I'll hack it so you can reboot."
Still smiling, he shook his head. "If the Programmer had meant for me to reboot, he would've given me the code for it."
"Uh huh." She winked at him. This wasn't the first time she'd called his bluff this way. She couldn't blame him for not being eager to go into games. She didn't enjoy them herself. She liked to be the one in control, as she was when hacking, not at the mercy of a spammed silly game. She had only started when Mainframe had lost its game players and they couldn't risk Dot going in alone. When Bob had returned with Matrix and AndrAIa, she had been glad to relinquish that duty.
"It explains everything," Turbo said. "Why our zip boards didn't work. Why we couldn't use VidWindows. Those weren't part of the game reality. The game sprites ignored us because, since we didn't reboot, we were null data to them. Only the rebooted system inhabitants saw us."
"One in a million chance, and it happens," Bob said. "Seems I've been hitting them nine times out of ten."
Capacitor looked over the railing. With both this system's people and their own crew working together the repairs were progressing quickly. The damage had not been too severe to begin with. Resupplying had not been a problem either. They would be able to cast off within the cycle.
Hexadecimal had not insisted on joining the repair efforts, thank the Code. Capacitor didn't exactly dislike her, but he didn't trust someone like her with something as vital as his ship's hull! Instead, she had gone sightseeing in the system. Matrix had growled that that was an invitation to disaster, but then the lad was angry at everything lately. If he didn't start pulling together with the others... Capacitor let that thought rest. He was the captain of his ship, but Bob was the captain of the team they were ferrying. It was a captain's job to keep discipline, otherwise he would never be able to hold his crew together in a crisis.
Before the end of the cycle the Saucy Mare was once again webworthy. The system's Principle Office had located a suitable tear not far from the rim. They had recalled Hexadecimal, who had gone sightseeing in the system, and who to everyone's amazement had kept herself amused without causing any disturbances.
Various Sprites and binomes were on the Mare's deck, making final preparations. Ray, holding his Surf-Baud, was leaning against a mast, awaiting his cue. Mouse was with him.
"You sure you're all right?" she asked softly.
She still looked upset. It had been worse for her than for him, he thought. His eyes were almost back to normal now, but she still felt bad about it. "Sure, luv," he told her. "Don't worry about it. I should've told you about my eyes in the first place."
Mouse started to speak, but was cut off by Capacitor's bellow. "Prepare for castoff!"
The crew binomes sprang into action, taking their assigned places. The hum of the engines began low, just below hearing range, and rose.
"That's my cue," Ray told Mouse. "Listen, why don't you go back to our berth until we're into the Web."
"Just do it. All right?" he asked gently.
"Okay." It was an odd request, but it wasn't unreasonable, she told herself. As the ship lifted and backed away from the Principle Office - slowly, to avoid causing any damage - she made her way down into the ship. The flight was smooth and slow enough that she didn't need to hold onto a wall for support.
Hexadecimal was inside, holding something wrapped in cloth. She startled, dark blue eyes flickering yellow momentarily when the door opened. Hastily she turned her back to Mouse, stuffed the object into a bag, and shoved it under her bunk.
"What's that?" Mouse asked.
"A gift. They gave it to me," the Virus said defensively.
Yeah, right, Mouse thought, but she didn't have the heart to deal with it now. Whatever it was, it wasn't moving, so it probably wasn't alive. Let the .BAT keep her toy. If she'd stolen something, let Bob deal with it; he was the one who wanted her here in the first place.
"Are we leaving? I'm going to go watch," Hexadecimal added, and left quickly.
That was convenient, Mouse thought, lying back on a bunk she had tentatively identified as hers. She could turn her head and watch the view through the porthole. It showed the outside only dimly. It was amazing that she could see out at all, considering that it had to be shielded from web degradation, and that it couldn't let any energy out, even in the form of light. She was glad it was there, though. It made the room a little less claustrophobic.
She could feel the ship rise and turn. The system passed alongside. Then only the energy sea was visible. It picked up speed. She felt a momentary disorientation as the ship passed through the portal that either Bob or Ray had created. Then all was dark outside the porthole. They were in the web. She closed her eyes.
She awakened from a light doze when she heard a tapping sound. "Come in," she said.
The door did not open. The tapping came again, from the wrong direction. She looked at the portal. Ray was right outside, pacing the ship on his Surf-Baud.
She grinned. Of course he couldn't see her; the portal passed light in, not out. He must have figured which one was theirs by counting them from the front. She got off the bunk and tapped back to let him know that she was there.
He raised a hand and lifted off his goggles. In the dim light she saw his eyes. They were solid black, as if all pupil, adapted for the depths of the web. He smiled and winked at her.
She grinned. Though she knew he couldn't see her, she winked back. Then she tapped once more on the porthole.
He replaced his goggles and waved. Then he braced himself on his board and skimmed forward, to lead the ship through the depths of the Web.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All ReBoot characters, and the entire ReBoot universe, are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. Discworld all of the related characters and settings spoofed in this story are copyright © Terry Pratchett. Clarke's Third Law is copyright © Arthur C. Clarke. All copyrighted and trademarked properties are used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. Haiku and the overall story, are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). Unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.