By Kim McFarland
It was the beginning of another cycle in the Supercomputer. Turbo, Bob, Mouse, Hexadecimal, Matrix, and AndrAIa had been there for less than a millisecond, but they were tired. They could not rest now, however. Not when they were finally making progress.
Their fatigue was more mental than physical. Turbo knew that too well. Their tasks were not too arduous, but they were daunting. So few Sprites were left to restore the Supercomputer to full functionality and get the Guardian Collective back online. Defeating Daemon had only been the first part of the task. Defeating, not deleting. If she had been deleted as opposed to split into her component Viruses, it would have been so much cleaner and simpler.
The other Sprites wandered in in a group, having had breakfast together. Little things like that helped keep up their team spirit, which is what they needed now. Turbo thought that he ought to join them, but there was always something else that needed to be done. The only one who wasn't with them was Hexadecimal. Come to think of it, he never saw her with the other Sprites unless they were on a task. There was some tension there. However, it didn't keep Hexadecimal from doing her part.
Speak of the Virus and she's here, he thought when Hexadecimal appeared, mask first. The Virus glanced around at the others, then looked at him, arms crossed in front of herself, silent and expressionless.
There was a meeting table in the room, but they didn't sit down. Turbo folded his arms and leaned back against a wall as he spoke. "I don't have anything new to tell you all. Mouse, how's getting the suppressed functions back online going?"
"Slowly but surely," Mouse replied. "It's all there. When they shut the subsystems down they didn't delete anything, they just routed around it. The trick is figuring how they bypassed the functions and then putting 'em back online without knockin' anything else out."
"I saw that several other subsystems started up last cycle, and nothing's gone down. Your work?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"You got it. It's not easy, tryin' to do all this without opening communications outside the system."
"Good job," he told her. To the rest of the group he said, "There's less viral activity now, which means that there are either fewer Viruses still alive in the system or they've learned to lay low. We need to keep sweeping for the remaining ones." He looked at the members of that team - Bob, Matrix, and Hexadecimal - in turn. Bob and Matrix nodded acknowledgment. Hexadecimal returned his gaze steadily and expressionlessly. That left AndrAIa and Ray Tracer unassigned. AndrAIa had been helping Mouse; the game sprite had acquired some skill with system repair while game hopping, and it complimented the hacker's efforts. Right now they had no need for a Web surfer per se, so Ray had been making himself useful wherever they needed an extra pair of hands. They were all doing their best, Turbo knew. For civilians they were remarkably disciplined. He was thankful for that.
He continued, "The techs we brought back think they can remove Daemon's infection, or at least suppress it. That's what they tell me, and they've been running sims for cycles. If they're right, I'm going to start calling Guardians in from outside. That could get hairy, so I may call on Bob or Matrix for backup." And he didn't expect that to happen, but if he called for them he wanted them back immediately, which is why he was telling them ahead of time. He looked around at the group again. "Anyone have anything?" The Sprites looked at each other and shook their heads. In recent cycles they had gotten used to their roles; no questions need be asked. "Then go on," he said, dismissing them.
Turbo walked to a supply room. He was met at the door by a Sprite and several binomes, all wearing white lab coats. The Technology Acceleration staff didn't have to wear them but, Turbo thought, they seemed to take as much pride in their "uniform" as the Guardians did in their gold badges.
A pale pink-skinned Sprite with luminous orange eyes said, "We've been waiting for you. We're ready to try the disinfection out on a Sprite."
"Yes, I know." She had a habit of reiterating herself on important points.
"Did I already tell you? Sorry. Are you going to pick out a subject?"
"You know," she said, suddenly speaking carefully, "We could run it on you. We've tested it repeatedly on a sim based on your last updated scan - taken just cycles ago - and it worked every time."
"No," Turbo said firmly. "We've got to free the people in here." He pressed his hand to the plate beside the door, and it opened.
The room had been depleted during Daemon's rule by Guardians who thought their private tool collections more important than resource management for the entire collective. It had been easy to take the empty bins off the shelves, consolidate what was left - and still worth keeping - onto one shelf, and use the rest for storage.
Now the room was full of filelock blocks. Guardians embedded in transparent green stasis fields rested on shelves like crates of goods. The effect was eerie. Most of them had been caught by surprise, filelocked before they realized what was happening. A few had been battling Viruses, or had put up a fight before being locked. They would need medical attention as soon as they came out of filelock.
He walked straight to a shelf to one side of the door. "Her," he said, indicating one block in which a slender, cream-colored woman was suspended.
The Sprites manhandled the block onto a floater, a large device like a single disc of a zip board that was used for moving heavy objects. Then the techs pushed it out of the room. They would prep her for the disinfection, but would not start the process until he was present. He had been very specific on that point.
He had not had to consider the matter long to decide that Tchia would be the first to be disinfected. He wanted her back on active duty. She had been one of his immediate subordinates, and while not a friendly woman she was an excellent Guardian. To rebuild the Collective, he first needed a strong core. And good warriors; there would be more battles in the near future.
He was not worried about the risk to her of being the first for an experimental technique. As the techies had explained to him - in unorganized, redundant gabble - Daemon's infection was not fundamentally different from other Viral takeovers. What was unusual was that instead of latching onto the more basic areas of a sprite's code, the less protected ones, her infection attacked code specific to Guardians. She could not infect any other format. And once they had sequenced her infection from scans of Turbo and the other Guardians taken before and after infection, they had applied familiar principles to come up with an algorithm that would remove it. It was such a simple concept, it was almost anticlimactic.
However, they could not apply the disinfection algorithm system-wide. Only the User could do that, and, Turbo thought, the User didn't seem to be around any more except to play games. They were on their own. So they had to apply it to individual Sprites, who in many cases would be armed and unwilling to undergo the process. Unless tricked into it...
By the time he came to the disinfection chamber in the medical section, they had already transferred Tchia to one of the stations. She was lying on the table, bound by several straps across her body, held in an induced sleep state by a wire attached by a gray disc to her head. Above the table was a bank of lifesign telltales. Ray was also in the room, holding a filelocker in his hand. That surprised Turbo; but it did make sense. Turbo had mentioned the previous cycle that he didn't trust these techs with weapons; in a crisis they were more likely to get scared and shoot each other. After the battle with Daemon, Turbo knew that the surfer could keep his head and handle a weapon.
While the techs fussed about, readying their equipment for the disinfection process, Ray asked Turbo, "You expect problems?"
The Prime Guardian answered, "No. These guys know their job. I expect they can clean her of Daemon's infection. If it doesn't succeed, Copland and I'll be able to handle her. But anyone who doesn't think he needs backup when dealing with the enemy is a fool." And, the thought occurred to him, the Sprite can serve another purpose while he's here. "Have the filelocker ready, but don't point it unless you're going to shoot."
The pink Sprite turned away from a set of VidWindows that served as control panel and display. With a decisive air she said, "We're ready. We just ran it on another sim based on her current scan - at accelerated speed, of course - and it gave us an all clear."
"Go on, then," Turbo instructed her.
The other techies stop talking. All eyes were on the display VidWindow as the pink Sprite tapped a green square. Only Turbo and Ray were looking at Tchia.
The woman's body tensed as the algorithm was initiated and started its work within her. The telltales above the table began jiggling erratically. A glance up at the display screen the techs were all looking at showed a slowly rotating female wireframe in blue. Red tendrils crowded inside of it, threading through her limbs, clustering tightly around her central functions. It was no superficial invasion, Turbo thought. And the same infection lived within him.
But in her extremities the red lines were turning gold, then slowly fading. The disinfection algorithm was eating the foreign code away from the outside in, so it wouldn't damage her native code. He looked back at Tchia. She was twitching and shaking because of the bursts of energy given off as Daemon's code was destroyed. If she were awake she would be in intense pain. Thank the Programmer they could keep her in a sleep cycle during the ordeal.
Ray looked around at the others in the room. Whatever Turbo was thinking, he showed none of it. It wasn't coldness; Ray could tell that from the time he had known the Prime. Turbo wasn't unfeeling, he simply played his cards close to his chest. The techs, on the other hand, showed more interest in the model in the VidWindow than in the real dataform on the table. As for Tchia... if she were awake, he might need his filelocker for more than just show, by the looks of things.
The gold ate into the red too slowly. When it approached her central functions after cleaning her peripheral areas, leaving her limbs a clean blue, one of the techs went over to the table and took a place at the control panel on the side of the bed. Hands hovered over switches and an eyeblock followed the displays above the table that showed the state of Tchia's functions. The lifesign graphs were still jiggling about as if she were experiencing a violent seizure. Both Ray and Turbo recognized that the techs were nervous now, ready to act in case something went wrong.
It seemed to go on for microseconds. The gold slowly converted the red back to blue as the techs watched. Tchia shook violently; if it weren't for the straps she would have come off the table by now. Then suddenly she slumped back. The techs watching the wireframe, which was now solid blue, looked toward the telltales above the table. The indicators were now floating serenely in place. And her temples and the area around her icon were now clear of the lacelike stigmata of Daemon's infection.
The binome techs looked as if they wanted to cheer. However, they had the presence of mind to keep some sense of decorum in the presence of the Prime Guardian. The pink Sprite told Turbo, "It's done. I can awaken her now."
"Do that," he answered, glancing up at her for only a nanosecond.
The techs by the table disconnected the wire from Tchia. After several nanoseconds she sighed and turned her head, then opened her eyes and looked around groggily. When she saw Turbo she stared. She tried to sit up, but her body, aching from the seizure she had slept through, was clumsy and stiff. Her shocked expression was clear as she looked at the glowing pattern around his icon.
Her response - horror at seeing his infection - was what he had been hoping for. He stepped forward and told her, "Welcome back."
She glanced at her left forearm. There was no keytool on her bracer. Turbo said, "Hopefully it'll come back when it realizes you're no longer under Daemon's control. Copland did."
Now she was thoroughly confused. He might have anticipated that. The infection that had controlled her mind and altered her very format was gone, and it had left some blanks. He told her, "Daemon's been defeated, she's no longer in control of the Supercomputer. We've just started reclaiming those she's infected. You're the first."
"Daemon's gone?" Tchia echoed faintly.
"Right. She's dead, and we're working on containing her Viruses and restoring the Supercomputer." He gestured at his temples, where the glow shone faintly. "I managed to fight free of her control, though I couldn't throw off the infection completely. I've been working from within for milliseconds."
Her first impulse was to believe that Turbo was lying. After all, he was viral! But then, they had freed her from Daemon. It was starting to make sense... If Daemon still controlled Turbo, he would not have taken her from the Virus. She had been too good a servant to waste in that kind of doublecross.
Too good... she had been too good. Tchia pressed her hands to her eyes as she remembered the things she had done, the pride she had taken in serving the Virus and bringing other systems into Daemon's empire. Through the flood of shame she heard Turbo's voice. "What do you want to do now?"
She looked up, surprised. His eyes bored steadily into hers as he repeated, "What do you want to do now?"
She lowered her hands to her sides. In a low voice she said, "I want to reclaim the rest of the Guardians."
He nodded. "That's what I need you for," he answered. "You'll go back on duty as soon as you've passed a full scan and are able."
"Thank you, sir," she responded formally.
One of the techs spoke up. "We've already scanned her. That's part of the process," he said, waving toward the blue diagram. "All of her code has been returned to it's pre-infected state."
She got off the table. When she put her weight on her feet she winced. The aftereffects of the ordeal, Turbo thought. "You can't function in this state. Rest until you can," he told her.
"Yes, sir," she answered. Then she added, "Thank you for disinfecting me first."
For the first time that cycle, he smiled faintly. "You're one of our best," he told her. "I need you. We've got a lot of work to do to undo the damage Daemon did. So rest now - you won't get much once I put you to work."
Smiling back, she saluted and answered, "Yes, sir!"
Turbo turned to the techs. "You got it right on the first try. Get ready to do a lot more."
It was a dark and quiet subsystem. Its function as a communication relay with other systems had been shut down by Daemon. At Turbo's orders, Mouse had not yet activated it. It now received just enough power to keep it online. With its energy level low, it was easy for them to scan for viral activity.
There had been reports of viral activity here. Bob and Matrix flew low over the surface on their zip boards, scanning opposite sides of their path. Hexadecimal flew overhead. Ostensibly it was so she could cover them from above. Bob suspected another motive; she had been avoiding speaking to anyone since Daemon's defeat, him especially.
"I'm getting something," Matrix said in a low voice, looking at the screen of a handheld device.
"On our two."
Bob looked just to the right of the direction in which they were both traveling. He concentrated for a few nanoseconds, then said, "I'm getting it too. Doesn't look too powerful, but it's not a benign."
"That's for sure."
Bob looked up to Hexadecimal's silhouette, dark against the light blue sky. He pointed in the direction of the viral signal, and saw her crest move as she nodded.
Matrix had already drawn Gun. Bob, seeing movement in an open window, floated forward. "Come out," he said in a calm, firm voice. "We don't want to fight you."
No reaction. Matrix shook his head. Bob continued forward. "You'll be safe if you come out. Otherwise we'll have to come in after you."
This time the response was a faint hiss. Bob glanced back at Matrix and nodded. Bob reached for the tool attached to the side of his belt.
Something dark leaped out of the window at him. Bob flew straight up, so the Virus passed below him. It landed on all fours, then leapt at Matrix. Matrix also lifted sharply into the air. "Gun, command line: targeting!" A red crosshairs icon fastened itself onto the creature's forehead.
The creature stopped and stared, crosseyed, trying to see what had touched its head. Now that it was momentarily still they could see that it looked almost like an animal. It was built to move fast on all fours. But it had hands, not paws, and it had too large a head for it to be just an animal. Blue energy rippled across its dark, iridescent body. Then it blurred into motion again, leaping up at Bob. This time Bob was ready.
From inside a nearby building, another watched the scene. She had been staying well out of the way of the energy-devouring Virus that had made this place its home. For cycles she had been hiding, and the Guardians had finally come.
The creature leapt upward from a standing start. She expected a shot from the gun of the green one. She had seen the targeting icon, and knew what that meant. But instead, the silver one pointed a filelocker downward, and the Virus was suddenly encased in a green block. It thumped to the ground. Her eyes narrowed and she hunkered further into the shadows to watch.
The two Guardians stepped off their zip boards and looked at the Virus. "I've seen these before," Bob said. "They live on raw energy. Usually they just find someplace to hide and siphon energy. I've never seen one come out to attack like that."
"Yes, me neither." Matrix had cleaned out nests of these creatures before. Normally they were little danger; they didn't take up that much power, and they were shy. Their speed and agility were rarely used for anything but escape. If one touched a dataform it would deliver a powerful shock, however, and once the people in a system had seen that happen they usually stayed far away. However, with Gun that wasn't a problem.
Bob commented, "It was desperate, like all the others."
"I know," Matrix answered. "Why do you even try to talk to these Viruses? None of 'em have given up without a fight yet."
"I know," Bob said, shrugging. "Anything else in this sector?"
The green Sprite took a small box off his belt and looked at it. The silver one stood still. Then both of them looked straight in her direction. Then, a nano later, so did the flying Virus.
"Got another one," Bob said. "Hardly any power at all."
"Signal's blurry," Matrix said doubtfully.
"It is for me too," Bob answered. "Better see what's causing that."
Of course Bob was gonna try to talk it out, Matrix thought. He stayed by the filelock block, Gun in his hand, while Bob drifted forward on his zip board. Overhead, Hexadecimal followed Bob.
The door opened, and a purple-skinned, rotund woman stepped out into the open. She wore a brightly colored, shapeless dress and a matching scarf around her hair. An icon was pinned to the scarf. And her eyes were blue, with yellow pupils. She held up four-fingered hands in a gesture of surrender.
Matrix stared, surprised. A Virus was actually giving up? According to the readings, she had very little viral power, so little that she barely registered on the detector. But the signal was still blurry.
She said in a rich alto, "Don't shoot, G-men. I surrender."
As Bob approached her he saw that this was a nearly Spritelike dataform. Only her hands and the color of her eyes gave away her format. Now that he finally found a Virus willing to talk, he wasn't sure what to say.
"Don't worry. I'm Benign, almost," she volunteered.
"Almost Benign?" Bob asked.
She smiled nervously, revealing a pair of short fangs. "I can disrupt a dataform's executable - but I have to put the bite on 'em to do it. It's more dangerous for me to do than it's worth."
She glanced up. Bob looked too, and saw that Hexadecimal was floating low, staring with wide eyes at the other Virus. "Don't worry, Hex," Bob told her, then turned back to the purple woman, whose eyes were almost as wide as Hex's. She was nervous, Bob realized. "Um, I'm Bob. Guardian 452. We're rounding up all the Viruses now so we can get the Supercomputer back online. You'll have to come with us."
"Of course. I was tired of hiding out anyway. Benigns are good at it, but that don't mean we all like it. Do you have to filelock me?"
"As long as you cooperate with us, no," Bob answered. He looked back at Matrix, held out one hand, palm downward, then lowered it. Matrix reluctantly returned Gun to its place on his leg. Turning back to her, he asked, "What's your name?"
She lowered her hands. "Executrix. Everybody just calls me Exie. Auntie Exie. I might be in your records."
"All right - Exie. We'll take you back, check to see if you have a file. You'll be safer with us than you are out here."
"I believe you. Wait just a nano, hon," she said to Bob. She turned back toward the building in which she had been hiding and said "It's all right, come on out."
A blue, furry creature half as tall as a Sprite came out of the shadows and shambled up to her on his hind legs. She patted his head. He looked up at her with comically googly eyes, then slipped a paw into her hand. She looked back at Bob. "He's Benign too. I suppose you'd say he's my pet."
Hexadecimal asked, "What is he?"
She rumpled the fur on his head. "I just call him Monster. Oh, if he gets hungry and you don't feed him he'll get upset and lock a few things up, but he can't do any real harm. Just feed him a C-O-O-K-I-E and he'll stop it."
"I'd better filelock him. Just in case," Bob said, looking at the weird, squat creature. Monster stared back at him. Well, Bob guessed that was what the Virus was doing. His face was pointed at him, but its eyes were still spinning around restlessly.
"All right," Exie said, with just a touch of reluctance. She took his paw out of her hand, then stepped away from him. He stared to follow her. She held up a hand. "No, baby," she said softly. Monster was still looking questioningly at her when Bob filelocked him.
"I'll have to peace bind you, too," Bob said reluctantly.
"Okay," she answered, and put her hands together behind her back, then turned so he could lock her wrists together. She knew the procedure. He bound her wrists, then said "Sorry we gotta do this."
She turned back to him and smiled sympathetically. "It's all right, honey. I saw you with the one before me." She nodded toward the green block containing the Virus they had just fought. "You could've deleted him, but you didn't. I figure you'll be fair to me. Just let me take Monster with me. He'll be scared if you take him out and I'm not around."
"First we'll have to get you back to headquarters," Bob answered. And they didn't have any spare zip boards, and those were hard to fly with bound wrists anyway. She looked like she'd fall. He turned back to Matrix. "Matrix, would you take her to-"
"I can!" Hex interrupted. "I can fly her and the block with me."
Bob's first impulse was to say no. But then he realized that it would be the easiest way, and they hadn't needed her backup this cycle. "Okay, go ahead. Report to Turbo and tell him what happened." And User only knows what Turbo will think of me sending three unescorted Viruses to him.
Hexadecimal floated into the air again, and this time Exie and the block with Monster did as well. Exie looked down, startled, then quickly pushed her long skirt down before it could float too far up.
"You sure you wanna let Hexadecimal take her alone?" Matrix asked Bob.
"She's been helping out the whole time and she's done everything we've told her, to the letter," Bob answered. "It'll be fine."
Matrix didn't answer, but it was clear that he was not satisfied. And Bob couldn't blame him; following orders so meekly was strange for Hexadecimal or any other Chaos Virus. Asking to take Exie back was the most initiative she had shown since Daemon's defeat.
She was helping the cleanup every way they asked her to. They needed something large moved, they got her to float it. They needed backup in potentially dangerous situations, she was there. Her help enabled them to do tasks that would normally have required many Sprites. But when she wasn't at work, she was nowhere to be seen. She did not even appear at meals. Not that she needed to eat; she lived on raw energy, not food. But, still, she was hiding from them, especially Bob. Everybody noticed.
It had started immediately after Daemon's defeat. Bob had not had enough power to take on the Supervirus by himself. Hexadecimal had merged with him to give him access to her energy. For a short time they had been one body with two minds. He had heard her thoughts as clearly as if she had been speaking to him, and she had heard his thoughts the same way. And it had not stopped there. Soon afterwards he had realized that there were images and memories in his mind that did not belong to him.
The images that had slipped over from her were mostly of him, and they disturbed him. She saw him as big, not in the sense of size, but in terms of importance. Her image of him included only him. Image was a good analogy, actually. It was as if he filled the picture because the vidcapper was so close that there was room for nothing else. The Bob in the image was infallible, and kind, and as powerful as the Programmer. With the image came her emotions: admiration, gratitude, fascination... and powerful desire. She desperately wanted to please him, like a young child wants to win the approval of a parent, and his anger or disapproval hurt her just as much. He had known she had a crush on him, but he had no idea it went this far. How was he supposed to deal with that?
That was the surface image. He could see a second image below the first. It was a mosaic, himself as seen from over a dozen other viewpoints. Past impressions of him, a composite made of the different viewpoints before he integrated her masks. It seemed that each mask had perceived him a different way, and each had its own vivid set of emotions attached to the images. This mosaic had been superseded by the larger image, but it was still there, present in her mind.
If he was seeing her image of him, the way she truly thought about him, then what had she seen in his mind? If the memory overflow had gone both ways, if she had seen herself through his eyes... then he knew why she was hiding from him.
At first Exie had been worried about flying, like everyone else was at first. But she had gotten used to it once they were underway. She stopped being scared quickly. Was it just Sprites that were so easily frightened then?
"How'd you get your icon?" Hexadecimal asked Exie.
"The system I came from, there were a lot of Benign or nearly Benign Viruses. If we weren't likely to do any harm they registered us. They figured it'd be easier to keep track of us that way. If you can't beat us, let us join." She chuckled.
"They knew you're a virus?"
"Yeah. No Sprite has eyes like mine," Exie answered, looking at Hexadecimal.
"I thought Sprites weren't supposed to register Viruses. They didn't want to register me back in Mainframe." She looked down at the black-and-white disc that marked the difference between a citizen and an invader. Her voice faltered when she continued, "Bob made them register me."
"It's not every system that'll register a Virus of any kind," Exie said. "We've both been lucky."
Hexadecimal, looking down, said nothing.
They landed at the entrance to the Academy. Hexadecimal set Exie and herself down. Monster's filelock block hovered at waist height. Hexadecimal gestured, and the door opened.
When they stepped inside, Exie's purple skin paled slightly. The bodies of several Viruses lay against the walls of the hallway. Hexadecimal saw her pause, then a nano later recognized the reason. "They haven't had time to clean up yet," Hexadecimal told her. "They're working first on controlling the Viruses that're still alive and trying to get the old Guardians back to normal, then they'll clean up the ones who're deleted. There's so many of them, all over, and they don't even have enough people to clean up inside," she said, parroting what had been said - uncomfortably - many times before.
"Uh huh," Exie murmured, still pale. The two made their way down the silent hall.
They soon came to a better area. There were no dead Viruses here, and some of the rooms were in use. Hexadecimal looked around, then leaned into a room in which several binomes were working on a mechanical thing of some sort. "Where's Turbo?"
The binomes looked up, startled, at the sound of her voice. Then they saw Exie, and stared. A Zero said, "He's probably in his office. I guess."
"Down the hall." He pointed. "A right, another right, a U-turn, and a left."
Hexadecimal looked blank. Exie, smiling, said "I can find that."
Turbo was gathering the data files that they would need in the near future. The list of active and inactive Guardians, the systems to which they had been assigned, their recent communications. All but two of the Guardians in the logs were infected, even the inactive ones. Daemon had been thorough. It would take seconds to disinfect them all, unless they could deploy others to the systems without alerting them. Would they be able to do that while maintaining the necessary security? How big a risk could they take?
He had called the files up for another reason. He was sorting the filenames of the Guardians into three divisions. It would be an ongoing process, but at least he had been able to move one name. Maybe there would be others this cycle. If not, then the next, now that they knew it could be done. Now his task was to pick out who would come next. Need to get all of them in a system at a time...
He looked up, surprised, when he heard Hexadecimal's voice. With her was another Virus, an older woman with an icon. Hexadecimal said "This is Auntie Exie. Bob told me to bring her to you."
"Hello, Turbo said. "You're the first one who's been brought in outside of a filelock block."
"Bob peace bonded her hands," Hexadecimal said. "Can you take that off?"
"Just a moment," Turbo said, rising from his chair. He held up his left forearm and said "Copland, scan format." He watched the keytool's wheel as it beeped, then displayed its results. She was technically not Benign, but her power was so close to useless that she was no more dangerous than a Sprite, he judged. "Yes, I can. Copland, release restraints."
The green field disappeared. Exie rubbed her wrists. "Thanks."
"What system were you registered in?" Turbo asked.
"Hal," Exie answered. "I was compiled there. A small system, but it had ports to the Net. There were a good number of us, Viruses, there. As long as we didn't cause trouble, they treated us pretty much like the rest of the people there."
Hexadecimal watched for Turbo's reaction. He betrayed no disapproval, no surprise. He simply nodded acknowledgment. "And your friend there?" he asked, glancing at the green block her hand was resting protectively on.
"He's harmless. He needs looking after, so I suppose it's best to keep him like that for now." She looked apologetically at her pet. Then she looked back up at Turbo. "I'm surprised you and the others let me speak my piece. I wouldn't have thought Guardians would take chances on Viruses, not now."
Turbo leaned against his desk and folded his arms. "You've seen what it's like out there. It's chaos. Because of Daemon, who knows how many have been deleted - Viruses and sprites both." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "It's enough. Right now we need to mend and defend, not delete any more dataforms of any format if we don't have to."
Exie nodded sympathetically. She believed him. They would not make up such an elaborate charade to sucker in one Benign Virus such as her, not when they could simply have filelocked her. She considered for a few nanos, then decided to trust her instincts. "I'd like to help. It looks like you all could use all the hands you can get."
Turbo barked a short laugh. "That's right. We're trying to put the system back together with a dozen people. We've got enough work for as many people as we can find."
"Good," she said firmly. She was feeling a little better already. She had been sickened by what she had seen in the last few cycles, and she wanted to be a part of the solution, even if it was only a minor role. "I've taken care of sick people - all formats - before. And I can cook - you hungry? - I had a restaurant back in Hal. I've found that no matter where I go, there's always room for a good cook."
His laugh sounded more genuine this time. "Don't worry. I'm sure we'll keep you busy."
Exie continued, "Daemon took a lot of us. Benign and otherwise, she got us all. Some of us are bound to be alive. I wouldn't have come out if I hadn't seen her," she gestured at Hexadecimal, "and her icon. I can help draw out other Benigns."
Turbo nodded. He had already thought of that. He said, "Let me see your icon."
Exie hesitated, then touched the disc on her scarf. It spun, then detached itself into her hand. She gave it to Turbo. He examined it. It was real, not one of the fakes that so many Benigns wore to throw off suspicion. Both Viruses watched as Turbo opened up another pair of VidWindows and tapped at one.
System Hal... still processing. Two Guardians were stationed there as Daemon's representatives because of its strategic location. Their PIDs were active as of the most recent ping. He scanned Exie's icon and glanced at the data. Filename Executrix. The records confirmed what Copland had told him about her format. Then he held it back out to her between two fingers. "I've entered your PID codes with the Supercomputer," he told her. "Your system's still online, but it's not safe to return to."
Exie took her icon back and returned it to its place. Hexadecimal smiled. Things had seemed strange, tense and formal. She was all too familiar with that kind of situation. But it felt better now. They had taken Exie in too! It occurred to her that Daemon had lied to her when she had said that they had made a safe place for Viruses in the Supercomputer - but maybe it might be true after all in another place.
Turbo looked over at something behind Hexadecimal. She turned around. There, in the door to Turbo's office, was a woman wearing a Guardian's uniform and a stunned expression.
Turbo said in a brisk, businesslike manner, "Tchia, these are Hexadecimal and Executrix. Hexadecimal has been part of the Virus sweep team. Executrix will be helping out in other ways. Hexadecimal, Executrix, Tchia is the first Guardian we've recovered from Daemon. She will be my second in command."
The women looked at each other. Exie remained calm; she had not learned to get along by taking offense every time someone was startled by her format. Hexadecimal's eyes went yellow briefly, and she stared back at the mistrustful Guardian. Then she smiled brightly and took Tchia's hand. "Pleased to meet you," she sang. Then she turned to Turbo. "I should get back to work, shouldn't I? They might have found all sorts of dangerous Viruses by now."
"Just a nano." Turbo looked at Exie. "You said you've taken care of sick people. How about wounded?"
"Yeah. I ain't got formal training, but I got know-how."
"That'll do until we get a medical team set up. We've got techs that can operate med stations, but they have enough to do already. They could use a hand over there. Hexadecimal, you can take her over to them and introduce her, then go back to your team."
The Chaos Virus nodded briskly and emphatically and led the older one out. When they were gone Tchia said in disbelief to Turbo, "We're enlisting Viruses now? Chaos Viruses?"
"Without Hexadecimal, we wouldn't have defeated Daemon," Turbo said. "She's a powerful ally, and we're going to keep her that way."
"Yes, sir," she said.
"We're processing in interesting times. You're going to have to believe seven impossible things before midcycle." He could tell that she was not convinced, but knew better than to argue with him. Good enough. He turned one of the VidWindows toward her. It listed all Guardians in numerical order, starting with his own filename. The list scrolled all the way to the bottom. Three names were highlighted in green; one was her own. Some of the names were highlighted in red, and others in yellow.
"These are all the Guardians that Daemon has controlled. Our top priority is to recover the infected ones, now that we're able to," he told her.
"The green names are not infected," she said. Turbo's, at the very top, was not highlighted. "The red...?"
"Deleted," he said flatly.
"I see." There had been more than a few of them. "And the yellow?"
"I've run a net-wide scan for active PIDs. Not all have returned the ping. Those're marked in yellow. They may be deleted, they may be in hiding, they may be processing without an icon. If we're lucky they destroyed their icons so Daemon wouldn't find them."
She nodded agreement. Most Sprites would never considering destroying their own icons, but after having been under Daemon's control she would do it herself without regret rather than be infected again.
"What we're going to do is call Guardians back, system by system, and clean them. Until we finish, there must be a net-wide communications blackout, otherwise the word'll get out and we'll have an intersystem war. Do you understand?"
"Yes. Which systems are we going for first, the ones with fewer Guardians assigned to them?"
"At the beginning, until we recover enough to handle larger groups. Then we go for the more important systems, and they'll all be big."
"Why haven't you been disinfected yourself?" she asked bluntly.
He had been expecting that question. "I'm needed as I am to maintain the impression that Daemon is still in control," he told her. "I can't depend on voice transmissions alone."
"How are we going to maintain a communications blackout without cutting the systems off completely? You'll need communications to call the other Guardians in, unless you're planning on going to each system yourself."
"I don't. We have Mouse."
Tchia was appalled. "Mouse?"
"Yes, Mouse. Like Hexadecimal, she's a powerful ally. She's the one who protected Mainframe from invasion after all the other systems had fallen. She's now working on getting the Supercomputer back up to full function. Minus communications."
"I see." She paused, then forced a laugh. "That's four impossible things. Three more to go."
"If we're lucky," he agreed. Then he stood. "Come. Let's get started."
Hexadecimal flew over the gaps between the subsystems of the Supercomputer. She had showed Exie where the techs were. Like everyone else they had been startled to see a friendly Virus. But after Exie started talking with them she fit right in. They liked her right away. It was as if they forgot that she was a Virus after the first few nanos.
Hexadecimal thought back to Melissa, her mother. Her mother had been harmless. She had had no power at all. But Kilobyte had told Hexadecimal that Melissa had been hunted because of her format. Her only safety had been in hiding away, first by pretending to be a Sprite and then by pretending to die so she could live within the walls of the West Sector. But here was a Virus who couldn't hide, who did have a power - however weak - and yet she said she had lived openly as a Virus, able to do anything a Sprite could. How? Had things changed that much? Or was Auntie Exie's system so different? What was it like there? Were there many Viruses there? What kinds were they? Well, there couldn't be any there now, but some of them had to have survived besides Exie. Could they restore the system? There had to be some place where Viruses had a home.
She found the two Guardians in an adjacent subsystem. They were just standing around. Talking, or thinking. She took her post above them, ready to cover them should they be attacked, alone with her thoughts.
It was a dark and quiet room. The lights were always low in the Council Chamber, with each person backlit, visible as a silhouette. It was a tradition. Some said that it was because this was a place for words to be heard, not for people to be seen.
It served another purpose today. Tchia and Turbo faced an intersystem VidWindow. It scanned briefly, then showed them the face of one surprised Guardian. Daemon's stigmata glowed brightly against her dark blue metallic skin.
Turbo said, "Guardian 215. Report."
The woman answered crisply, "All is functioning normally. The system and its inhabitants are stable. We have caught and disposed of two more rebels for unauthorized Net travel. Is there a problem?"
"Perhaps not. I need you and both other system Guardians to come to the supercomputer immediately," he answered. "Don't come through the Net, we can't waste the time. I'll open a portal."
As the blue Guardian opened and spoke into a VidWindow in a low and urgent voice, Turbo tapped some controls at his station, pinging the VidWindow and then inputting the net address on the screen. The other end of the portal was already set: the Council Chamber.
The other two Guardians, both mid-ranked men, arrived quickly. Turbo tapped a large hemisphere by his hand. It glowed green. A silvery sphere popped into existence in dark chamber. Its twin appeared in the scene in the VidWindow. The three Guardians, who were already on their zip boards, flew through and, a nano later, into the chamber. Tchia shot each one with a filelocker as he or she came through.
Turbo lifted his hand from the green hemisphere, which faded back to neutral. The portal spheres disappeared and the VidWindow closed. "That went well enough," Turbo observed.
The two Guardians loaded the filelock blocks onto floater discs and guided them down the corridors to what they had begun calling the Recovery Room. Tchia muttered something to herself. "What?" Turbo asked.
"Disposed of two rebels for unauthorized Net travel. Disposed of," she said, disgusted.
"We all have a lot to atone for," he answered.
She met his eyes, then looked away and lapsed into silence.
In the Recovery Room they unlocked the viral Guardians they had just captured one by one and put them onto the tables in an induced sleep state. It was a touchy process, but it would have been much more difficult without the longer wires on the discs that delivered the current to induce sleep. Turbo hadn't suggested that, but the job would have been much trickier if they had to force the viral Guardians onto the beds rather than attaching the discs as soon as they unlocked them. As it was, the hardest part was catching them when they collapsed.
Two of the techs, a One and a Zero, came into the room at Tchia and Turbo were placing the third Guardian on a table. "You brought them already? Good! Let me get the others-"
"Wait." Turbo cut the binomes off. "Just get enough to operate the system and the failsafes. We don't want an audience."
They looked at each other. The Zero said, "Yes, sir," and both went back out the door.
While they waited Tchia looked at the sleeping Guardians. Her emotions churned. They had deleted Sprites just for traveling through the Net. And then they had spoken of it as if it was an insignificant part of their routine. How could any Guardian be so pitiless?
Oh, she knew how. Until recently she had been just like them, her mind and format warped by Daemon. She had committed crimes, happily, while under the Supervirus's control. She was no more and no less guilty than they were. She knew that she would have to keep reminding herself of that. Every time she felt disgust at a viral's actions, she would remember her own time as Daemon's servant.
Four binomes files into the room. One went to the main control station, and the other three took their places at the control panel by the head of each table, just below the telltales. They did not speak. Apparently the first two had told the others what Turbo had said.
"When you're ready," Turbo said.
The Zero at the main controls said, "Uh, don't you want the lights dimmer, like before?" He glanced at Tchia.
"No," Turbo answered. "Revised approach. We don't need the shadowing. This is fine."
The Zero turned back to the control panel. He opened up three windows, one for each bed, and started the disinfection process.
Tchia had seen disinfections before. Every Guardian had; it was part of BASIC training. Some of them were simple and painless, and could be done while the Sprite or binome was awake. If the infection was simple, so was its removal. The more drastic the infection, the more difficult it was, and the more potentially traumatic for the dataform being treated. Only the Programmer could do better, and the Programmer wasn't paying attention any more. In light of their crimes, she thought, it wouldn't be inappropriate to let them feel it instead of putting them in a sleep cycle. But then she remembered how she felt once she had recovered enough to realize what she had done, and decided that this was better after all.
The process seemed to take microseconds, though it actually lasted for less a quarter of that. The techs watched attentively, their eyes sometimes flicking from the telltales above the tables to the main control station and back again. But none of the alarms went off. The yellow ate the red of the infection away in the wireframe displays, eventually leaving all three solid, clean blue.
"It's done," the Zero said to Turbo. "Shall I wake them up?"
The binome tapped a cutoff button on the control VidWindow. After a few nanos the Guardians on the tables began to stir.
The first one to recover sat up blearily, disoriented. He looked up and saw Tchia silently glaring at him, one hand on a filelocker at her hip. Then he looked over at Turbo - and saw the viral glow around his icon.
His expression of horror was repeated moments later by the other two. Turbo glanced at Tchia and said, "Right answer."
"Yes," she agreed without looking away. She knew exactly what was going through their heads; her first reaction upon seeing Turbo was shock that the Prime had been infected. Then she saw their expression change to horror and shame as they realized that they, themselves, had violated the Guardian protocols at the core of their being and done the Virus's will. It was a sickening feeling, she knew, and saw the reflection in their faces. "They'll recover," she told Turbo.
He nodded acknowledgment. She did not only mean from the physical effects of the infection; that was not in question. The subversion of their programming, the knowledge of the crimes they had committed under Daemon's command, that burden of guilt would stay with them. He hoped that they would recover enough to resume their function as Guardians. Not all would. Tchia was one of the strongest Sprites he knew; her best strategy for coping was to throw herself into her work and channel her energy toward repairing the damage that she - and the rest of the viral Guardians - had done, leaving little time for self-pity. She was not very different from Turbo himself, actually.
"Turbo, I can take charge of them," Tchia said.
"Yes. Please do," he answered.
He watched as she gave them a short debriefing, telling them what he had told her. And more - she added in a pep talk about how they were the ones chosen to begin the process of rebuilding the Collective. In less than a microsecond they looked hopeful and ambitious again, no longer ashamed and defeated. Yes, he had chosen well when he had recovered her first.
She guided them out for a rest period, leaving him with his thoughts.
It was close to the end of the cycle. Bob, Matrix, and Hexadecimal returned to the Academy. Hexadecimal flew above the Guardians, floating with her a collection of filelock blocks containing a variety of Viruses. She set them down in a courtyard, where she always did, for them to sort out.
The courtyard was interesting from above. It was a wide, open area, all flat, with soothing, muted colors. There were directory trees and clusters of Mandelbrot foliage. And in the center there were curved walls, enclosing a smaller area within. Smaller, but still big enough to walk around in, shadowed by the trees. The walls were just tall enough to block out the rest of the system from view, creating the illusion of a shaded, secluded area.
There was someone in there now. Red and yellow and ice blue and gold. Turbo. He was facing one of the walls. There was something written on the wall. It hadn't been there before; she had visited the little park many times during the downcycle when the others were asleep.
She drifted down. The writing on the wall was regular lettering like a printout, not graffiti. A list of numbers, and by each number one or two words. Now curious, she landed so she could read the list.
Turbo looked over and met her eyes to acknowledge her, then went back to the list. He wasn't friendly or unfriendly. He was moody, but then he always was. She turned away from him and reached down the front of her corset. Then she turned back and asked "Would you fix this?"
He looked at the small box in the palm of her hand. A compressed file. "What's that?"
"It was given to me. A present. Bob did this to it so I wouldn't lose it while we were fighting Daemon. I'd like it back. Can you fix it, please?"
"All right." He pointed his left arm at the small cube and said, "Copland, unzip archive."
The keytool's wheel lifted, then a beam came from it and struck the object in Hexadecimal's hand. It expanded into a medium sized package. Hexadecimal's eyes flicked light blue. "Thank you."
"Welcome," he replied.
He was looking at the list on the wall again. Whatever it was, it was important to him, she guessed. Looking around, she saw that there was another list of numbers and names on his right. There were only six of them in this list. Bob's name leapt out at her. Matrix was there too, at the end. The rest she didn't recognize.
She pointed to the names and said, "Who are these?"
He answered, "Those're the people who we've recovered from Daemon, or who were never infected. We disinfected four people today."
She looked back at the list. Bob plus Matrix plus four others. She knew that this was good news, but she didn't feel the joy she thought she ought to. "What's in the one you're looking at?"
"These are all the Guardians who were infected, and who we haven't recovered or confirmed lost. When we recover one, or find out that he's been deleted, we move the filename to one of the other lists."
One of the other lists? Something beyond him caught her eye. She walked over to his other side, and saw a third set of names and numbers. This one was longer, though nowhere near as long as the middle list, the one Turbo was looking at. "Are these the deleted ones?" she asked.
He nodded wordlessly, his expression neutral.
She knew that expression. She understood that expression. When she wanted to guard herself, when she had to push away emotions that threatened to overwhelm her, she did that too. She used to have a mask just for that, before Bob... Her eyes flickered dark blue, and her face went blank for a nanosecond.
She blinked, and her eyes were green again. She scanned the names. Then she looked back at Turbo. "Where are the Viruses?"
The question surprised him. He said "We haven't put their names up. We only have record of the Guardians."
She nodded, then stared moodily at the list. After a while she crouched down and wrote, at the bottom of the column, an eight-letter name.
It was late. The Sprites would be in a group by now, talking or eating or doing whatever else they did. Hexadecimal didn't need to eat.
She did not feel like amusing herself now. Soon after Daemon's defeat she had found this place, a room in a disused section of the Academy with a large window on two sides that faced out on the courtyard. The window was broken, letting in a breeze that cooled her face. She could look out and see the directory trees and try to forget.
It never worked. She would clear her mind, and the memories would rise to the surface. Memories that were not hers.
She opened the package for the first time since she had gotten it. Those sprites who gave it to her after she had helped save their system from a game had not understood why she had stared at it in the store. They had thought it was a small, unimportant thing to give to her. They were wrong. She held it protectively close to herself. Memories bobbed to the surface, bright and accusing, as she gazed at it.
The memories had come from Bob. She had not known when she merged with him to give him access to her power that their minds would blur over into each other. She had not known it had happened until later, when she had found things that didn't belong inside her mind. His thoughts and impressions, those that centered on her.
The strongest, most vivid memories were those of emotions. They were brightly colored, as much so as her emotions ever were. When she backed away from them they formed a line, a braid of interwoven threads. Many emotions were present at once, blending together into a harmonious greenish color. But in places it swelled into knots. And, far back, she saw it became a frayed mess full of bright colors. When, curious, she had examined that knot she had found a tangle of emotions. Red anger, dark blue grief, black shame, and others. The force of the remembered emotions startled and alarmed her. She didn't know that Sprites felt anything that powerfully! But it was there. And she had found at the center of that knot an image of herself.
The image was surrounded by words as well as emotions. Selfish. Ignorant. Childish. Dangerous. Unwanted. They were flung at her image, and she saw now how true they were. She saw herself through his eyes.
Among the words were disconnected scraps of memory, conversations between herself and Bob. Hexadecimal was confused and frightened. When had these happened? She did not remember any of them herself. She could never have forgotten anything like these dialogues! In them, Bob said things that she had never imagined he would. He told her what she had done, and how angry he was at her. He accused her, he berated her, he had an answer for everything she said. He asked her why she had done what she had done to him. It had taken cycles for Hexadecimal to realize that these dialogues had never really happened, that they had all taken place in Bob's mind when he had been angry with her. He had never actually said anything to her after the event. In fact, she did not remember having seen him at all for cycles - how many? - afterward. It was then that his emotions had raged and tangled themselves. It was because of her, because of a crime she had committed against him without realizing what she had done. She had cut him, made him bleed in a way that none of her schemes, not even Megabyte's schemes had. None of those had ever struck so deeply. She had made him her victim. She had caused his pain.
One scrap of dialogue stuck out in her mind. In it, he had likened her treatment of him to Megabyte's treatment of her. Megabyte had forced her to his will, he had used her, not caring what that did to her. She had done the same to Bob. At first she turned away in horror and denied to herself that that was true. But then she came to realize that he was right. She had been as casually cruel to him as Megabyte had been to her. She had never meant to - but that did not alter the harm that she had done to Bob.
She could not stand it any longer. She pulled back, away from the tangle. Looking ahead, she saw that the rope eventually returned to a calm, orderly braid. She even saw light blue happiness within it. She could not investigate that; it blurred when she came close, and would not give up any secrets. It had nothing to do with her.
At the near end of the thread, the emotions once again became knotted, though not as badly as before. Once again she had caused him grief, this time by giving birth to her daughter. His daughter. He had not been happy to see Haiku. She had opened up old wounds, and made their cause public so he could not escape them as he had before, by denying them. But in all her searches she could find no anger directed toward her daughter. He laid all blame on Hexadecimal. Where, she thought sadly as she looked down at her gift, it belonged.
Bob made his way through the passageways of the cadet educational section of the Academy. It was dark and quiet here. The sprites who had formerly worked in this section had left it neat when they sealed it up, as if they had expected to return someday. The air was stale, but not musty or unpleasant.
He had not been here before in what seemed like a second, but that didn't matter. The layout was standard, offices and working rooms branching off either side of a main passage in a regular rhythm. He knew the location of the room he was looking for looked like from the outside; Turbo had pointed it out, saying that was where she had gone after she left him. It shouldn't be had to find it from inside.
He opened the door of a corner office. Inside, sitting in a chair facing the opposite window, was Hexadecimal, her back turned toward him. The tilt of her head showed that she was looking down at something she was holding, not out the window. She had not reacted to the door opening. Hadn't she heard it?
He walked over to her side and looked down. There, in her arms, was a baby doll. It had red skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a sweet smile. Hexadecimal held it close to her chest and stroked its hair with two of her fingers.
Now Bob understood. This was the package that she had carried with her from the other system, the one she had kept secret and been so possessive of. A doll. "Hex," he said softly.
She startled and looked up. Her eyes flashed yellow, then dark blue. Then she followed his glance back to the doll she was now clutching protectively. "They didn't have one with brown eyes," she murmured. "I saw her in a store window, and they saw me looking at her, and one went in and got her and gave her to me," she finished defensively.
"I believe you," he replied.
"They thought I just liked dolls..."
She fell silent, looking at the artificial baby face, stroking the synthetic hair. Bob said, "We're finally disinfecting the Guardians. So far we've gotten four back. We may need you to help with some of the tougher systems, instead of catching Viruses."
She nodded without looking up at him. He said softly, "You'll get her back soon. When things're under control here, we'll be able to go home."
Without speaking Hexadecimal reached down with the hand that had been touching the doll's hair. A few nanos later she held it up to him, palm downward, as if to give him something. He held out his hand. She pressed a small disc into it. When she took her hand away he saw the familiar black and white circle-and-diamond logo of an icon. "What's this for?"
She looked up at him with dark blue eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
She forced herself not to look away. "For everything I did to you. I didn't know it would be so bad for you. If I had, I never would have done it. I'll go back and get Haiku, then find another system to go to. I'll leave you alone."
He looked at the icon again, then at Hexadecimal. She was trembling, her expression one of abject misery, though her voice was under tight control. "Where would you go?"
"I don't know. I'll find a place and make a home. Viruses do that all the time."
Unable to bear the sight of his face any longer, she looked down at the doll. After long nanoseconds a blue hand came into view, holding the icon. "No," he told her.
She looked up, eyes wide. Bob said, softly but firmly, "If you sent to another system, you'd have to invade and infect it to make it your 'home'. You'd be bringing Haiku into a battle."
"I can protect her," Hexadecimal asserted. "I've got more power than any system! I'd win!"
"Maybe. But if you attacked a system, we'd have to stop you. They'd probably even send me, since I know you. Do you really want to make yourself the villain all over again?"
"No!" she exclaimed, hurt. "I just want to go away!"
"Do you think that invading another system will make up for anything that happened in Mainframe? You'd just be making yourself somebody else's problem. You wouldn't be doing me any favors."
His voice was threatening to become harsh. She shivered under his gaze. When he spoke, he was calm once more. "If you want to atone, don't run away. Face up to it."
She nodded unhappily. He touched her hand with the edge of the icon. She took it reluctantly, and held it back to her corset. It clicked softly into place.
Bob didn't leave. He was waiting for something. She murmured, "I didn't understand why you were always so coy. I thought you were just shy."
In an exasperated tone he said, "You were wrong!"
"I know," she answered miserably.
She hunched over the doll as if trying to make herself as small as possible. He could have at her now if he wanted, he realized. He could lay into her, say every hateful thing he had imagined saying to her for too many milliseconds. He could give back a fraction of the pain that she had inflicted on him.
No, he couldn't. He couldn't forgive her so easily, but he didn't desire to harm her, not any more. Getting revenge, spreading the pain around, wouldn't make him feel any better. She hadn't acted in malice. Selfishness yes, stupidity yes, but not malice. He walked past her and sat in another chair, turning it so it faced hers. "Hexadecimal. Say my name."
She looked up. "Bob."
"My whole name."
She stared at him, confused. Then she looked away, thinking. When she looked back she said "Robert?"
He shook his head. "Bob Matrix."
Her brows furrowed. He could see that she didn't understand. Par for the course, he thought. "When Dot and I got married, we wanted to have the same last name. Mine's Sinclair. Dot Sinclair?" He made a face as if tasting something unpleasant. "We both liked the name Matrix better. So, I took her last name."
"Oh," is all Hexadecimal said.
He let out a soft breath, and said "What I'm telling you is that Dot and I are married, and there's no room in that for anyone else, period. Sometime after I get home, we're going to co-process a family."
He shrugged. "When we decide to. When things are settled down enough."
She held the doll protectively to herself and whispered, "I wasn't trying to take you away from her-"
"No room," Bob repeated firmly. "You're never going to force yourself on anyone again. Not me or anybody else."
She looked up at him, her eyes dark blue. When she had her masks, that expression had always been accompanied by a painted teardrop below one eye. Now she had no tears; her eyes were not built that way. Sounding like a little girl, she whispered, "I won't."
She forced herself to look into his brown eyes, eyes she had not before this cycle known could be so harsh. "I know. I didn't know it before. You did so much for me..." The backs of curved golden claws touched her cheek. "You saved my life. You healed my masks and gave me back my face and my mind. You made me a part of Mainframe. A real person. I didn't mean to hurt you. I wish I never did. But I did. I was stupid." He voice caught. "I'm sorry."
Looking at her, Bob thought that she said that she wished she hadn't hurt him, not that she wished she had never... attacked him. User, he didn't even like to think the word for what she had done. The way she was holding that doll, he would have known that she was lying if she had said that, because then she would never have had her child. No matter what, she wouldn't wish her baby hadn't been born. He wouldn't want her to.
He rested his forearms on his knees and lowered his head. He felt tired, emotionally drained. He could think of nothing else to say. He couldn't lie to her, tell her he forgave her. He had once thought he had, but he had been fooling himself. Dot had helped him afterwards, when he needed it most and denied anything was wrong. And he had thought he had put it aside when they had discovered Hexadecimal was in beta. It had been easy to assume that that had been the result of her imprisonment by Megabyte, and to put her in the role of victim so he could feel pity, not anger, toward her. And it had worked, for a while. But, when all was said and done, it was only a bandage over the wound.
He didn't know if he wanted to forgive her, at least not yet. He was still angry, and it would take more than just one talk to put that behind himself.
He felt a touch on one hand. He looked up. Hexadecimal drew her hand back, as if afraid. She whispered pleadingly, "Please don't hate me."
He let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. After a few nanos he answered softly, "I don't."
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. Auntie Exie is copyright © Katzedecimal and used with permission. Tchia and the overall story are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed Guardians, techies, and Viruses can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.