|Hen to hen o atsumete,
Motto hen ni shimashou.
Hen na hen na uchuu wa,
Taihen da da da!
- Theme song to "Urusei Yatsura"
It was a dark and stormy net.
Currents in the once orderly ether had grown wild and dangerous since it had been all but abandoned by the Guardian Collective. Without the Guardians' management, data flowed chaotically, threatening anyone foolish enough to try to navigate it without adequate protection.
It also made tracking anyone close to impossible. Once lost in the net, a trail faded immediately. He chose a long, circuitous route through several systems in the belief that that would throw off any pursuers. They could not know where he was going; the address was in no records. He had made sure than that. Only he knew his destination. If it was still there.
In her lair in the remains of Lost Angles, Hexadecimal was floating above her throne dais, idly playing with a painting window. She had been throwing splashes of color around randomly on the canvas, not particularly interested in the result.
She was bored. Life in Mainframe had settled down again after she had destroyed the cultist headquarters along with half of her island, and she just didn't feel like causing mischief. Her baby would be released soon; she could feel that it was nearly time. And it knew too, from the way that it was constantly jostling around within her as if eager to be free. Any cycle now. Until then, she passed the time by painting, and floated herself rather than walking to take the burden off her feet.
Abruptly she glanced away from the window. She looked in the direction of Mainframe, and tilted her head as if listening intently. She sensed a disturbance in the energy currents. She rarely noticed the little ripples that would become tears, the waves and fades created when large amounts of energy was drained or released by vehicles or her own activities. Those were routine, uninteresting. This was new. What was it?
She uploaded into her mask, which flew out of her Lair and toward Mainframe.
"DOT!" two voices chorused.
She heard them through her office door. She sighed. Normally Hack and Slash kept busy doing heavy work at the construction and repair sites. However, lately they had run low on tasks like that, and to keep the two bots occupied they had put them to work monitoring things in the Principle Office. They had a long attention span, and would follow explicit instructions determinedly. Unfortunately, they were short on judgement. Which meant that someone else had to provide it for them continually.
She took off her reading glasses, got up, and went to her office door. Just as she was reaching for it she heard a light tap. When she opened it, Slash said politely, "There is something that we think you should see."
"Okay, what is it?"
She walked to the map table. Hack was peering anxiously at one sector near the rim. When Dot approached he said, "There! There's something there like I've never seen before."
"What is it?" Dot asked, looking down. All she saw was a dim glow, much fainter than a tear would have been.
"I don't know," Slash answered.
Hack said, "It just showed up."
"A few nanos ago."
"It makes my antenna hurt."
"It's probably just-" Then Dot's mind caught up with their jabber. "Your what?"
"My antenna," Hack answered. "It's all staticky!'
"And it's getting louder." Slash winced.
The two bots were powered directly by energy in the ether, Phong had explained to her when he was rebuilding them. That's what their antennas were for. Without them, they would shut down for lack of power. Some disturbance in the system's energy?
She startled as a siren cut on. "What was that?" Hack asked.
"An alarm," Slash replied reasonably.
Recognizing Bob's voice, Dot looked up. "It's a breach alarm. Sector 10000000, level one," she said, determinedly keeping her voice steady.
She put her finger on the map, pinpointing the disturbance that Hack and Slash had noticed. Bob glanced down. "On my way," he said, and was gone.
As Bob activated his zip board and sped away from the Principle Office he thought, it's finally happened. We knew that the Guardians under Daemon's control were after me, and that they knew of Mainframe. Mouse erased the system's location from the domain records, making it all but impossible to find. But there were other ways into a system, including game hopping and random portal generation. We had had a scare a while ago when someone tried to get in and failed. Well, this time it's for real.
He skimmed just above the surface of Kits Sector. Up above the city he would be a bright, shiny target for hostiles on the surface. At least near the ground he might have the advantage of surprise.
As he approached he heard a familiar angry screech, and then saw the red glow of viral energy. So Hexadecimal had heard it too? Good, she'd be the first line of defense. But in her condition - she'd still probably be all right, she was tough. He was almost sure.
When he flew into the street he saw Hexadecimal facing off against a red-suited Guardian. "Oh, spam," he breathed. Then he sped forward, yelling "STOP!"
Hexadecimal glanced at Bob. "You're late!" she accused.
She was gathering her energy for another blast. The guardian had raised his arm, about to give a command to his keytool. Bob interposed himself between the two and shouted "STOP IT!"
Both combatants paused, startled. Bob drew a breath, relieved that he had not just been fried in a crossfire. Then Hexadecimal tried to shove him out of the way. He looked her in the eyes and said firmly, "No, Hex. It's okay."
"He's one of THEM!" she hissed, and made a slashing gesture with her claws at her temples.
Bob glanced over at the other Guardian with a quick apologetic look. The other Guardian was ready with his keytool, but waiting to see if it would be needed. Bob said, "He's a special case. He's infected, but he can resist Daemon's control." The thought flashed through Bob's mind that that had better still be true. Bob turned to the Prime Guardian. "Sorry about that. Turbo, this is Hexadecimal, a Chaos Virus. She's also a registered citizen of Mainframe." He stepped out from between the two.
Each sized the other up. A viral resisting its master? She'd never heard of that! But then, this one looked like he just might be able to. If not... after all, he was only a Sprite, no threat to her, and she could take him down before he could do any harm to Mainframe. Her eyes flicked from red to green and she extended a hand, palm down, toward him. "Charmed," she said sweetly.
Bob rolled his eyes. Oh yeah. This was getting off to a great start.
When Bob walked back into the command room, Dot and Phong looked up. "Bob, what was..." Then she caught sight of the infected Guardian. "What-"
Bob jumped in. "Dot, Phong, this is Turbo, the Prime Guardian. Matrix told us about him - he's infected by Daemon, but he's been able to hold out against her." Bob turned to Turbo. "I've mentioned Dot in my reports. She practically ran the system before, but now it's official. She's Mainframe's Command.com. And Phong was the Command.com before her. They work together."
"Glad to finally meet you," Turbo said, inclining his head to both.
"Good to meet you too," Dot said, a bit stiffly. Turbo had once ordered the destruction of Mainframe, back when a Webcreature had invaded. Yes, that was part of the Guardian protocols, and for the protection of the net - but it was her system, and she could not just forget it.
Bob caught the guarded expression on her face, and he had a pretty good idea of what she was thinking. He also knew that she would do her best not to let it affect her judgement. He said, "That disturbance was Turbo using a portal to get in. Hexadecimal beat me there, and assumed Turbo was one of Daemon's troops. I straightened things out before there were any casualties. She went back home afterwards." Which had surprised him - normally if things looked interesting there was nothing they could do to keep her from tagging along.
Dot said, "A portal? I thought Mainframe was protected against those."
"It was tough to get through," Turbo acknowledged. "I wouldn't have been able if I hadn't already known Mainframe's net address."
Dot did not look satisfied, but she said nothing. Bob said to her, "He's brought some news that we all ought to hear."
"I'll call our people in," Dot said, and busied herself at a workstation.
While Dot did that Bob said to Turbo, "Quite a reception, wasn't it. Sorry about that, Hex is kind of excitable."
"Of course she is, she's a Chaos Virus," Turbo answered. "When I saw her, I thought that Mainframe was lost for sure."
"Why?" Bob asked. "I've mentioned her in my reports too. She's not really that bad. She's always had enough power to destroy Mainframe eight times over - but she's never done it."
"No, I meant because she's-"
Mouse stalked into the room and glared at the Prime Guardian. When she spoke again, her voice was exaggeratedly sweet. "Why, it really is you. You're one brave Sprite, showin' your face in Mainframe after you tried to blow us off the Net." She folded her arms and shifted her balance to one hip.
Bob knew that manner. She only acts this sweet when she's preparing to get nasty. "Mouse, not now."
She looked at Bob. "Maybe your protocols say you have to trust him, but mine don't."
Dot looked up. "Enzo trusts you," she said pointedly to the hacker.
Mouse looked down, and did not reply. Bob shot Dot a grateful look. Dot winked back.
Gruffly Mouse asked Turbo, "How'd you get in, anyway? I have Mainframe sealed tight. I erased its location from the Net and the Web, and put traps and a buffer around the system!"
"I thought that was your work," he answered. "I recognized your style, redirecting incoming packets without warning. It'd throw anyone off course who didn't know the exact location - and who didn't know that you always build the same back door into your code," he said, and hid a smile at her consternation.
Matrix and AndrAIa walked in from behind Bob and Turbo. "Turbo! It is you. I thought you were going to stay in the Supercomputer, be our link to the inside," Matrix said
Turbo answered, "That's what I planned. I couldn't keep it up indefinitely, though. I'll tell you all about it," Looking at AndrAIa, he said, "I see you got past Daemon's troops."
AndrAIa looked at him quizzically for a nano, then realized what he was talking about. She laughed. "No problem. When you grow up in the games, you get used to people ganging up on you. They expected me to be an easy mark."
"They always underestimate AndrAIa," Matrix said with a touch of pride.
"Only once, I'll bet," Turbo said.
She fluttered her eyelashes demurely. "Why, what do you mean?"
Turbo chuckled. It was more convincing from her than from Mouse, but it was still an act. "You grew up in game sprite mode too?" he asked.
"More than that. I was initialized in a game. I copied myself onto Enzo's icon to get out when I was just 1.0. They got the code that lets Enzo go into game sprite mode to travel with the games from me."
"That's how they did that. Mouse?" He looked over at her.
"My work, sugah," she affirmed.
"Have you ever thought of giving up hacking and going into programming?" he asked in an innocent tone. "You're getting good enough."
Her smile widened to show her fang teeth.
Another Sprite had walked in quietly. Bob said to Turbo, "This's Ray Tracer. He's a web surfer; his format is search engine. Ray, this is Turbo, the Prime Guardian. He's on our side."
"G'day," he said in a blandly friendly tone.
"A hacker and a web surfer. You two could make quite a team," Turbo commented.
"Oh, we do," Mouse said with a smirk as she put an arm around Ray's shoulders.
"That's all I called," Dot said as she looked up at Bob and Turbo. "Do we need anyone else?"
"No, not for now," Bob answered. Then he looked at Turbo.
The Prime Guardian began, "First of all, I'm relieved that Mainframe is still online. I was afraid it'd fallen with all the rest."
"Fallen? I thought the Guardians were trying to control the known net, not destroy it," AndrAIa said.
"Not the Guardians. Daemon. And she is - for the important systems. The ones with ports to the net, especially hub systems. But many of them fight back, and are destroyed. Fought - there's not much resistance any more. The Command.coms who kept the resistance alive were deleted, and their systems failed soon after."
"Which systems?" Bob asked in a tone of shock.
Turbo lowered his head mournfully. "Too many to count. If they weren't important to Daemon's strategy, then no effort was made to keep them functional. That's what I thought had happened here."
"It almost did happen," Dot said quietly. "But not by Daemon. Megabyte."
"Consider yourself lucky," Turbo said gravely. "Megabyte may have done a lot of harm to this system-"
"He crashed us!" Matrix broke in.
"That would have been the best you could have hoped for," Turbo continued. "Systems have deliberately offlined themselves to end her control. Unfortunately, those that were restarted and restored just got reinfected." He leaned forward, his hands on the map table. "Controlling systems with the Guardians isn't the only part of her strategy. She's been gathering Viruses to herself."
Bob looked surprised. "Why? I thought Viruses didn't like to be around each other. Territory."
"I I'm not sure. All I know is that she's using them somehow," Turbo said.
Phong said softly, "The web creature that infected Hexadecimal, then Megabyte."
Turbo looked sharply at Phong. "What happened?"
The golden Sprite steepled his fingers. "A web creature entered the system and infected Hexadecimal. The system's nulls surrounded her and drained her energy. Then the creature left her and infected Megabyte, who merged with Hexadecimal, forming a new Virus. A Destroyer. Bob was able to separate them again."
"I reported the web creature. You know the rest," Mouse added accusingly.
Turbo's eyes were closed. He looked up and spoke. "That fits the pattern - except that the new Virus didn't drain the system's energy and then escape into the Net. That's how Daemon's been gathering them. She went for the powerful ones first, ones like Hexadecimal."
Ray spoke. "Web creatures pulled Megabyte through a portal."
"Into the web?" Ray nodded. "Then we have to assume she has him. And that she knows everything he knew."
The implication sank in. Bob said in a numb voice, "That means who's living in Mainframe. But Megabyte didn't know Mainframe's net address. Megabyte wanted to break into the Net and infect the Supercomputer, but he didn't have any idea what it actually was."
"The break-in attempts six milliseconds ago," Dot said. "Mouse's shield kept them out, no portal was actually made. But if they got that far, they know where Mainframe is, don't they?"
"It sounds like it," Turbo answered.
"But that stopped after a few cycles," Matrix protested. "They gave up."
"I wouldn't want to bet the system on that," AndrAIa commented.
"She won't have given up," Turbo said firmly. "She wants the two Guardians she knows are still not under her control. Three, now. Probably won't give up on Hexadecimal either, since she's so powerful."
Bob said, "It's been quiet here. Because Mouse's defenses have kept Mainframe safe, we've gotten secure. Too secure. We've made preparations, but..." he spread his hands helplessly. "We didn't know what to do. We tried going to the Supercomputer once, and instead we ended up in a dead system, were found by her Guardians as soon as we got there, and brought a bug back to Mainframe. After that we didn't know what to do that wouldn't be self-deletion, so we've stayed here."
Turbo nodded. "I'm sure you did the best you could. At least Mainframe's still processing, and they never managed to get in."
Mouse said, "We haven't spent all our time twiddling our thumbs. We've got a ship with web shields and a portal generator."
Turbo's eyebrows rose. "Are you sure it'll function in the Web?"
Matrix answered, "Sure it will, it did before. It was based on a software pirate ship, with a lot of improvements for the web. The original got us from the system where we met to Mainframe, with a few battles, a web creature hunt, a data storm, and Mouse's traps in between!"
"And her crew's still in Mainframe," AndrAIa added. "They sacrificed their first ship to help defeat Megabyte. I know they'll want to get back out on the net."
Turbo looked thoughtful. "Does this ship have hidden file mode?"
"This ain't the Supercomputer, sugah. But I did put in a cloaking device. Energy scans'll have a hard time finding her. And she can fight, believe me - what won battles last time, we put in plenty more of."
"And you've got a guide," Ray said. "It's the least I can do since those blokes tried to have me deleted."
Bob looked around. A plan was crystallizing right here. He asked Turbo, "Do you think that we'd have a chance if we took the battle to Daemon?"
"Well, you wouldn't have one if she brought it to you here," Turbo replied flatly. "It'll all come down to what we bring to the battle, starting with who's on the team."
"I'm in," Matrix declared.
"Me too," AndrAIa said.
Ray nodded at Turbo; he'd already said his piece. Mouse said, "Y'all'll need me."
"I'm sure we will," Turbo agreed. He looked over at Bob.
Bob was looking at Dot. He didn't want to leave her. From her expression, he could tell that she knew what he was thinking. But... he turned to Turbo and said "I'm in too."
"We'll need at least some of the Saucy Mare's crew," Dot said in a tightly controlled voice.
"Oh, we'll get 'em," AndrAIa said.
"Any others?" Turbo asked.
Bob paused, then shook his head. "There aren't many Sprites at all in this system. You're looking at most of them right now. Capacitor's crew knows how to fight, especially in the ship, but the binomes native to this system - most of them aren't even at home in games, let alone a battle against a Supervirus. Hexadecimal... she's powerful, she's great in a fight provided she remembers whose side she's on - but she can't go in her current state."
Turbo saw in the faces of the other Sprites that not all shared Bob's opinion of Hexadecimal's value, and were relieved that he had ruled her out as a member of the team. That didn't surprise him - Chaos Viruses were notoriously difficult to work with even when they weren't hostile. "Loose cannon" was a common description. "Will that leave anybody back here to defend the system?"
"A few," Dot answered. "Our CPU forces, and Hack and Slash. We do have binomes who can play the games. I'll organize them so we'll always have some on duty. I can play games if need be - I certainly have enough experience." Looking at Bob, she said "Mainframe will be fine."
After a nano Bob looked back over to Turbo. "Then that's it. The Saucy Mare 2.0 is online now, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Matrix said to Turbo. "Listen, I could show the ship to you now."
They all looked around. There seemed to be nothing more to say. Saying "C'mon," Matrix led Turbo out. AndrAIa followed. As Mouse was turning to leave Dot said, "Mouse."
The hacker turned back. "What?"
"Whatever Turbo did before, he did it in the line of duty, and he's on our side now. We've all gotten over a lot of old grudges-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Mouse muttered as she stalked out. Ray shrugged sympathetically at Dot.
Sensing that Bob and Dot would want to be alone, Phong wheeled away quietly. Dot glanced back. When the door closed behind Phong Dot commented, "I started out helping Phong convert the city to emergency format when we were fighting Megabyte. Now it's like he's my assistant. When did that happen?"
Bob put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "Mainframe needed someone who could lead them in an emergency. That was you."
"He's forgotten more than I'll ever know about running Mainframe. I'll always need him..."
"You two make a great team." He looked into her eyes. "Dot... I promised I'd never leave you."
She was shaking her head. She put her arms around his waist and said in a steady voice, "I know. But if you stayed here just to keep a promise to me, you wouldn't be doing me - or Mainframe - any favors. Go. Just..." she looked down, then stroked his hair with the fingers of one hand. "Just come back to me," she said in a small voice.
"I will. With my shield or on it," he replied with a forced-sounding laugh.
"With it," Dot said seriously, and kissed him.
"This is your war correspondent, Mike the TV. Only cycles have passed since news of the desperate state of the Net broke in Mainframe, and the Sprites who are the only hope for the Net are preparing to leave Mainframe. Who knows when they will return to us... or if they will!" His tone changed, became lighter. "But now, they are taking a well earned break as Mainframe prepares to send them off in style!"
The television clanked his microphone on the back of Bob's silver-armored leg. When Bob, no longer able to ignore Mike, looked back, the television held the microphone up. "What do you plan to do?"
Bob shrugged. "My best."
When it became clear that Bob wasn't going to say anything else Mike spoke into his camera. "You heard it first here, folks!" He paused a nano. When his camera nome gave a signal, Mike said, "Okay, that's a wrap," and trotted off.
Turbo grinned. Bob asked, "Any chance they still make remote controls for him?"
Turbo answered, "They don't make that model any more. They realized it was a mistake to put personality chips in televisions."
"Tell me about it. I was just trying to get out of having to program the thing. Hah!" He chuckled ruefully. "Whattaya gonna do?"
"I still don't believe you all were nearly ready when I came here," Turbo commented, changing the subject. "I hadn't expected that. I hadn't even hoped."
"Like I said, we haven't had anything else to do since the restart," Bob replied. "We tried going out exactly once, and got chased right back." He looked around. "It's hard to believe we'll be leaving in a few cycles."
Turbo just nodded. This would be hard on them all, he thought. This wasn't a mission he'd want to lead an army of seasoned Guardians on, let alone the mostly civilian team they had now. As emphatically as Bob had vouched for them all, Turbo could not be as sure. Only he, Matrix, and Bob were compelled by their code to mend and defend. The others might bail out. They wouldn't doublecross them, at least, even Mouse - if they were going to sell out, they would have done so long ago. If he was going to think of them as a team, he would just have to count on their loyalty. After all, they too had something to protect. Their lives.
Dot poked her head into the room. "What're you two doing in here?"
"Hiding from Mike," Bob answered.
"You ought to know how futile that is," she teased.
"Yeah." Bob shrugged. "I guess just taking a taking a breather. Everybody and their backups are out there."
"Can you blame them? They want to send their heroes off in style. Better to have a party than act as if we'll never see you again..." Her voice faltered.
Bob took her hand and squeezed it. Then he looked at Turbo. "When I was in the Academy, I trained in security. Gateway keeping, file access control. If I'd known it's come to this I'd've studied more."
Turbo folded his arms, amused. "No, you wouldn't have. I remember you."
Bob tried not to look flustered. "What was he like?" Dot wanted to know.
"He was a typical cadet," Turbo said, enjoying Bob's embarrassment. "Knew everything better than the instructors, showed off every chance he got, thought he could get away with everything." There were a few other interesting details he could repeat, but he didn't want to embarrass Bob too much. "But he showed a lot of potential back then, and he's used it."
Dot could feel the tension in Bob's hand ease. She smiled. She would have guessed he was like that. "I'm going to go back into the fray. It's bound to calm down sooner or later, provided Hexadecimal doesn't show up with a pack of nulls."
"Yeah... haven't seen a lot of her lately," Bob commented.
"And that's a problem because?" Dot asked. She winked and went back out.
Turbo commented in a low voice, "I'd think that I'd hear more about a Chaos Virus living in a system. They usually keep things stirred up."
"Hex usually does, believe me," Bob said. "We've been keeping her busy. For example, there's an island in Floating Point Park that we've let her use as a canvas. She paints it up, and people go to see what she does. She likes the attention, and it's harmless as long as we monitor the content. Plus, some people really do like her work. Back when we were reformatting G Prime, she was a major part of the demolition squad. I think that she's slowing down now because she's in beta."
"Not for much longer, it looks like," Turbo commented.
"Yeah..." Bob lowered his voice. "I ought to warn you. One reason you won't hear people talking about that is because..." He paused uncomfortably. Turbo waited. "The only other Virus in the system was Megabyte. Her brother. He held her prisoner and tortured her to force her to obey him. He needed her power, and he used her like a tool. And now..." Pause. "You can see why we don't bring the matter up around her."
"I showed you the Virus created when they fused. 'Gigabyte, destroyer of systems'. I can only hope that we won't soon have a miniature one in the system." Another pause. "She doesn't act like that has ever occurred to her. She's been happy since the restart. And she hasn't been lonely." Oh boy, has she not been lonely. "Coping with Hexadecimal can be a serious job. I hope she can stay stable until we get back. She listens to me, but other people... most of the time she ignores them. You have to know how to talk to her, I guess."
"I know. I've dealt with them before. But usually while trying to keep them from offlining their systems."
Bob nodded. Any Guardian who had seen more than sixteen milliseconds of active duty knew what a threat they were. "C'mon, let's get back before people start wondering about us."
Back in the main hall of the Principle Office, binomes were eating, drinking, and making merry. Here and there Sprites towered over the others. And the place was festooned with gushily supportive banners. Bob appreciated the sentiment, but... well, it got embarrassing.
He caught sight of a One striding toward him. The binome had an odd, limping gait; one leg ended in a peg. "There ye be! I've been looking for you!" Captain Capacitor declared. "You've been hard to find lately."
"I know, I've been busy making preparations." Bob answered.
Before Bob could go on Capacitor said, "Never mind that. I suppose you've given thought as to how you're going to get to the Supercomputer. As I understand it, lad, net travel be dangerous these cycles." He folded his arms, latching his hook over one sleeve.
"Ah..." Hadn't anyone spoken to Capacitor about the plan to use the rebuilt Saucy Mare? "I just took for granted that we'd sail there, the same way we got to Mainframe through the web," he admitted. "However, if you or any of your crew don't-"
"Now hold it right there!" The binome pointed an accusing hook at him. "Be ye about to suggest that any of the crew of the Saucy Mare would stay here?!" He waved his hook expressively as he spoke. "If you think you can hold us back, think again! Daemon and her dogs sealed off our trade routes and nearly executed us, after we switched to honest business!" His outrage was plain in his voice. "We all want to have at those blaggards." He leaned close and spoke with a predatory grin. "This time, it be personal."
Bob grinned as Capacitor laughed. To both Guardians the pirate declared, "Ye can count on us!" Then he turned and clomped off.
Dot, who had been listening from across the room, was trying unsuccessfully to stifle a smirk as she came over to Bob and Turbo. "I briefed him cycles ago. He was one of the first after we decided on the team."
"Oh, you heard that?" Bob asked.
"The way he talks, I think everyone did." She glanced down at Bob's legs. After a moment, Bob did too out of curiosity. "He should have pulled the other one, it's got bells on."
"Oh." Bob grinned. "He had me worried for a nano there."
"Nah." She shook her head. Then she looked over. Capacitor had gone over to Mouse and Ray Tracer, and amazingly enough he had lowered his voice. "Uh oh. Looks like a battle of the accents is brewing over there."
"Should I get Cecil and Old Man Pearson?" Bob asked.
"Ah think they're doin' just fine," Turbo drawled exaggeratedly.
Mouse looked up at the sound of somewhat artificial laughter. Then she said, "They can't have had enough of this pixale for it to be that funny."
Ray doubted that they had had enough to affect them at all; neither of the Guardians nor the Command.com seemed to be the type. "Sometimes you've got to laugh to keep yourself cheerful," he observed. "Those two just got married, and now... it'll be rough on them."
"Yeah..." Mouse said.
The surfer continued, "Now me, I'm lookin' forward to this. I like Mainframe - it's one of the best little systems I've visited - but I'm formatted to roam."
"Aye," Capacitor agreed, keeping his voice low. "My crew and I have had cabin fever for some time as well. If we hadn't had the rebuilding of the Saucy Mare to keep us busy and give us hope..." He gestured vaguely. "But we did, and the wait's over!"
Ray raised his cup. "Here's to getting back on the net!"
Capacitor raised his as well. "A willing foe and C drive space!" he declared.
Mouse grinned at the scene. A toast loses its impact when the cups are styrofoam.
Across the room, Matrix and AndrAIa were standing together, his arm around her waist, looking out at the scene. Matrix had been quiet for some time. But he was not afraid, not tense. He felt the same way she did: relieved that they were no longer helpless, that they could finally strike back against the forces that had manipulated their lives.
Matrix murmured, "I never thought I'd be so happy to leave Mainframe again. After all we went through to get back here."
"If they get this excited over our leaving, can you imagine what the next homecoming will be like?"
Neither said it, but the thought was there: If there is one. It was an unspoken agreement not to talk as if they might not be back. If they lost, then Mainframe would in time fall. They had to win.
AndrAIa knew what it was like to be deleted. In the game in which she had been initialized, she had been deleted regularly. She had always come back the next time the game started. And while trying to get back to Mainframe both she and Enzo had died many times in games. But because they had been in Game Sprite mode, they had always been restored. Deletion was not a mystery to them.
In response to his own thoughts, Matrix said, "We can do it, AndrAIa."
"I'll be happier when we know what we're up against," she said. "How can you plan if you have no idea what you're going to face?"
Matrix looked down at her. He said, "Same as always-"
"Fly by the seat of your pants," they said together, grinning.
"We can do it. The Saucy Mare's got web armor and firepower, not to mention a crew that's fought both in the web and in systems before. We've got a surfer to guide us and a hacker to get us into the Supercomputer. And we've got Bob."
Every so often when he said Bob's name he sounded like an awed little boy, AndrAIa thought. This was one of those times. And speaking of little boys... "I'll miss Frisket."
"Yeah," Matrix said gruffly.
After the restart, when Enzo had been restored at age 01 from a backup, Frisket had been confused. There were now two copies of one person, and he couldn't tell which was the original and which was the backup. He had finally made his choice, it seemed, by sticking close to little Enzo. Matrix didn't like losing his dog... but if Frisket wanted to stay with the kid, well, it wouldn't be any use trying to make the dog do anything he didn't want to do. And, Matrix told himself, Enzo didn't have any friends he could play with. He thought back to how lonely he himself had felt before he had met AndrAIa, and imagine how much worse it would have been without Frisket or Bob. Let the kid keep the dog, if that's what they both wanted.
As if on cue, a green streak began threading its way through the party. The binomes made its path an obstacle course, so it couldn't build up much speed. AndrAIa grinned; she knew Matrix was stifling an embarassed groan.
"BOB!" Enzo shouted a split nanosecond before the tackle, barely giving the Guardian a chance to turn around. This time he didn't fall, though he did get knocked into the wall behind himself. Thank the User he was wearing his armor, he thought. If it protected against the energy of small Sprites, then Daemon didn't stand a chance.
The boy ricocheted off him and landed on his feet. "Whoa, what's up, Enzo?" Bob said, grinning.
Enzo grinned up at him. "Just, uh, checking."
"Practicing for the next hockey game?"
"Yeah, that's it!" Enzo's face turned serious. "Uh, Bob?" he said in a low voice.
Bob glanced at Turbo, who nodded back. Bob put his hand on Enzo's shoulder and walked toward the room in which he and Turbo had been speaking. Enzo skipped on ahead after the first few steps.
"What's on your mind, Enzo?" Bob said as he closed the door.
Enzo looked embarrassed. Bob sat down and patted his leg. Enzo jumped onto his lap, once again giving Bob reason to be thankful for his armor. Bob said, "What's up?"
The boy swung his feet and said, "Well..."
Bob waited. After a few nanos the boy said, "You're gonna come back, aren't you?"
"You bet," Bob replied. "Just like in the games, I play to win!"
Bob's enthusiastic tone did not fool Enzo. "This is a lot worse than a dumb old game," he said.
Bob let out a breath silently. "Yeah, kiddo, I know," he said, putting his arm around Enzo's shoulders. "But I'm not planning on losing. If anyone can beat Daemon, we will." Enzo didn't look satisfied. "Every time I go into a game, or fight a Virus, or mend a tear, it's a risk. But that's what I'm good at. It's my format."
"My Dad thought he'd be okay when Hexadecimal infected the Twin City. He thought he could win."
"Yeah, I know..." Bob sighed to himself as he patted the boy's back. He couldn't blame Enzo. It would be hard on anybody to face the possibility of losing a father figure, and it was worse for Enzo because he'd lost his family once before. Bob looked Enzo in the eyes and said, "I wouldn't go, and take a bunch of other people with me, if I didn't know we have a good chance. I need you to help your sister in manage Mainframe. She's strong - but she needs all the help you can give her."
"Good. The best you can do is not worry. Believe in us. I don't know how long it'll take, but I plan on coming back."
"I know." Enzo looked up. "Y'know, Dot used to worry when you went into the games too."
"Yep. But, like I said, that's what I'm good at." Bob grinned at him. "C'mon, let's get some chips."
"Okay." Enzo hopped off Bob's lap.
Whew, Bob thought. That could've been worse. But Enzo was resilient. It was a Matrix thing, Bob thought.
Dot saw them come out of the room. Enzo dashed for the table, miraculously avoiding the unwary binomes in his path. She glanced over at Bob. He winked back: crisis averted.
The party wound down uneventfully. Hexadecimal never did make an appearance; the worst they came to disaster was when Captain Capacitor and Ray Tracer started teaching each other ditties they'd learned in the various systems they'd visited. Dot thought that both of them together still couldn't beat Bob for purely awful singing. They could conceivably carry a tune, provided it had handles. Bob, however, couldn't carry one in a bucket. But that song about the knob at the end of a Codemaster's staff... who writes those things?
As the custodial staff was cleaning up she left to do a final system check before turning in for the downcycle. Bob had already taken Enzo home to put him to bed. All she had to do was make sure the stats were normal...
Phong, having heard her footsteps, came in and saw her staring down the corridor leading to the medical area. He wheeled over. "Is something the matter, Dot?"
She startled. "Phong! I didn't hear you. No, I'm all right. Just checking the system."
"All is fine. Right now you are needed more at home than you are here," he chided gently.
"Yes... I know," she answered. "I just-"
"I will handle things here. If I need you, I will call you," he said firmly. "You have a meeting early next cycle."
She smiled. Who was in charge here? But he was right. "Okay. I'm going. I'll see you then."
He watched as she left. She was dedicated, he thought, but sometimes took that dedication to an extreme. Her time remaining with Bob was limited and precious now. She would have more time than she wanted to run system scans soon enough.
The system was just entering a new cycle, the sky brightening. It was calm and quiet; most people were still asleep.
A lone figure flew high over the city, heading for the center. The dawning light gleamed off her red skin. She descended, then landed with a soft click of her shoes on the pinnacle, the sphere atop the Principle Office and the highest point in Mainframe.
She was holding a small blanket to her chest. Eyes glowing a happy blue, she looked out over Mainframe. The strips of her cape fanned out like a peacock's tail as she turned to gaze from her perch over her domain.
When she was ready she floated into the air again, then descended to the walkway around the Principle Office and entered.
Phong looked over when he caught a flicker of movement at the periphery of his vision. His eyes widened. Hexadecimal said cheerfully, "Hello, Phong."
"You've had your child? Why did you not come here?" he asked, surprised.
"Why should I?" she replied innocently. "I knew when to push."
Phong decided not to argue the point. Besides, as Mouse would say, he didn't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no Viruses. "Come, let me scan you," he said, beckoning as he wheeled into a corridor.
She shrugged. If that amused him, all right. But she didn't need it. Viruses were stronger than Sprites, their systems didn't fail at the least little thing. She was a little sore, but that wasn't important. She just floated instead of walking.
They entered an examination room. Phong gestured toward a chair. "Please sit down."
Hexadecimal gave him an odd look. "No, thank you."
Belatedly he realized that sitting on a hard chair would not appeal to her right now. "Make yourself comfortable," he amended.
"I'm comfortable now. Would you register her?" she asked.
"Of course," he answered. "May I see her?"
"Here." She lowered herself so Phong could see without extending his neck too far, and moved the blanket aside.
Phong's eyes widened. The child, asleep in her blanket, had metallic red skin like her mother, and short, pale golden hair. He saw no developing armor, no trace of a crest or mask... no indication at all of her parentage besides her skin color and the number of her fingers. She could pass for a Sprite easily. Unable to resist, Phong tickled her with one finger. "Kootchie kootchie koo."
The baby awakened and opened her eyes. Phong froze and thought, "Oh, dear."
A VidWindow pwinged open, shining a faint light into a darkened room. With a cross groan, Dot looked up, then came alert. "Phong! What is it?"
"I am sorry to disturb you. Bob, I need you to come to the medical area as soon as possible."
The VidWindow turned. Hexadecimal, red-eyed and angry, hissed "Yes, please do come here!"
"I'm on my way." He closed the window and got out of bed. One click of his icon restored his clothing protocol.
"Better wear your armor instead," Dot said.
"Ha ha. Wish me luck."
He made his way to the Principle Office without delay. Hexadecimal had been quiet for cycles. What was happening now? He had only seen her face and shoulders; he didn't even recall if she had been lying down or not. Whatever the case was, he wasn't going to leave her alone with Phong.
When he arrived at the medical area, Hexadecimal was holding Phong off the ground with one hand by the pipe of his neck and cradling a blanket-wrapped bundle with the other. Phong was staying very still, trying not to let the situation get any worse. He said, "Bob!"
"Hex! Let him go! What's going on?!"
She dropped Phong, who landed on the ground with a crash, and turned to Bob. "He won't register my baby!" she accused.
"No, that is not the case-" Phong objected as he struggled to right himself.
"He wouldn't register her! He said he was only going to scan her!"
"I said I need to scan her first."
"Okay. Calm down," Bob said to her. "C'mon, sit down, relax-"
"No! Register her!" Hex insisted.
In a soothing voice Bob said, "Scanning is part of the registration process."
"He didn't scan me when he registered me!"
"That's because there wasn't time, and the med stations weren't working anyway, with the system crashing and all. He scanned you later, remember? Hex, it's okay." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Can I see her?"
She stared at him. He looked back calmly. Her eyes faded from red to green, and her tension eased. She glanced down at the bundle that she had been holding protectively to her chest, then nodded and held her out to Bob.
He took the blanket and moved part of it aside. "That's her foot," Hexadecimal said.
"Yeah, I know." Bob shifted his hold, then moved the other part of the blanket. He had steeled himself for the worst, ready for any format, even a newly-released Destroyer, so he thought. The one thing he had not been prepared for was a normal-looking, Spritelike baby. One hand was curled into a little fist at her face as she sucked industriously at her thumb. Her eyes were barely open, just slits, so all he could tell was that they did not glow like her mother's.
"Well?" Hexadecimal asked anxiously.
He said softly, "She's beautiful, Hex."
"Will you register her?"
Oh. Bob looked at Phong. "Yes. Scanning's part of that."
"Especially for newly released, ah, dataforms," Phong agreed, still uneasy.
"All right," she said, but she still sounded unhappy.
"Thanks," Bob said, mentally thanking the User that he had been able to smooth this over in time. He seemed to be playing diplomat a lot lately. He glanced down at the baby again. She was gazing up at him with soft brown eyes.
Phong saw the look of shock on Bob's face. Metallic hair, brown eyes - he could not fail to understand now. When Bob spoke again, he said to Phong in an unsteady voice, "Uh, what do you need to do to scan her?"
"Lay her down on one of the med stations," Phong said, gesturing to a bed.
"Can't I hold her?"
"No, Hexadecimal. Then it will pick you up as well."
"Scan us both, then."
"I cannot. The station will misinterpret your data as that of one person."
Bob told Hexadecimal, "It'll be all right."
"You'll stay?" she entreated, her eyes dark blue.
"Yes." When she raised no further objections, he laid the baby on the table and unfolded the blanket. Phong went to the control station and started the scan. Hexadecimal watched anxiously as the telltales on the monitor at the head of the bed moved around, and the child began squirming restlessly.
When the machine's humming stopped Hexadecimal asked, "Is that it?"
"Yes," Phong answered, looking in surprise at the telltales.
"What do those mean?" she demanded, alarmed, as she gathered the baby into her arms.
Phong answered hesitantly, "Her code is a mixture of Virus and Sprite, yet it seems to be quite stable. Your child is normal and healthy." Phong knew he might regret this, but... "I would like to scan you as well, Hexadecimal."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why?"
"To make sure that you are recovering well."
"Go ahead," Bob said calmly. "I'll hold her."
After an initial hesitation, she reluctantly gave the baby to Bob and got onto the table. Phong started the machine. Once again he was surprised by the result. Bob asked, "How is she?"
Phong answered, "Let me compare this to her baseline scans, just to be sure..." He matched the data sets, looking for differences. There were surprisingly few. To Hexadecimal he said, "You are healing very rapidly. When did you have your child?"
"Last night," she answered. "I rested before I came here."
"Viruses are stronger than Sprites," Hexadecimal said smugly.
"There's news," Bob said wryly.
"So will you register her now?" Hexadecimal asked as she floated herself off the table and took her baby back from Bob.
"Yes," Phong answered simply. "Come with me to the main office and I will enter her data." He wheeled to the door. She smiled, her eyes sky blue, as she followed him down the hall. Bob walked with them.
Some of the staff had come into the main room. And... oof. "Hi, Dot," Bob said.
She gave him an odd look. She had never heard such an artificially cheerful tone from him. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes. Phong just scanned us. Now he's going to register my baby," the Virus said proudly.
"Oh." She couldn't read Phong's face. Bob looked nervous. Was the baby a dangerous format? She came over to look while Phong opened a terminal and began pattering at a keyboard.
Phong pulled the data from the scans into a new file. As he did he heard a sharp intake of air from Dot. And then nothing else. Willing the situation to remain stable at least long enough for him to finish this process, he entered the information, then fished around in his drawer for a new icon. When he looked up, Dot was wearing an expression of shock. Hexadecimal did not appear to have noticed. Bob had. "What will her filename be?" Phong asked.
"Haiku," Hexadecimal answered. "Pretty sounding, isn't it?"
"Yes." He typed the name in, then gave the icon to Hexadecimal. The Virus took it and held it by the rim between two fingers, carefully avoiding touching the sparkling lights on the underside. "Where do I pin it?"
"Most people put it on the front of the diaper," Dot said.
"Oh? Okay," Hexadecimal fastened the icon on. It locked into place and glowed, absorbing its owner's data. "Now she's a real person!" Hexadecimal said happily.
"Oh, you've had the baby!" said AndrAIa, who had just entered. She went over to look. Smiling proudly, Hexadecimal showed Haiku to the game sprite. AndrAIa watched raptly as Haiku yawned and put her fist partway into her mouth, then blinked sleepily.
Matrix knew that look: baby thrall. It was one of AndrAIa's few weaknesses. Sooner or later, he thought, they'd have to deal with that issue themselves. But how did Hex manage to have a baby that looked like that? Did Viruses start out looking like Sprites, and then change as they grew up? Then Haiku opened her eyes, and he understood.
Bob saw the look of shock and disbelief on both Matrix and AndrAIa's faces. He was going to be seeing that a lot, he told himself. Starting now. It was almost time for their meeting. Perfect. He glanced at Dot. Her expression was unreadable.
That was bad. Very bad.
The rest of the group turned up within the next microsecond. Hexadecimal was pleased to show her daughter off, and did not appear to notice the tension rising in the room. By the time everyone had come in Haiku had decided that the audience was over and turned her head toward her mother's chest to sleep. Hexadecimal had made her exit after thanking Phong sweetly for registering her daughter.
Matrix broke the following tense silence. "Bob?"
Wishing he was as good as remaining poker faced as Dot, he said, "What?"
"That..." Matrix jerked a thumb back toward the door through which Hexadecimal had left. "She didn't look like Megabyte."
"I know," Bob answered.
"She looked like you."
He waited for Bob to tell him how that could happen. Recessive code? Something about being registered - because she was registered would she have a Sprite baby instead of a Virus? But Bob said nothing. He put his hands on the table and leaned forward, looking down.
Matrix took that as an admission of guilt. "Bob? Is that why you got her registered?" His voice had taken on an accusing tone.
AndrAIa laid a hand on his shoulder. "Matrix-"
Ignoring her, he folded his arms. "If there's another explanation, I'd like to hear it," he said nastily.
Eyes closed, Bob began, "You don't know what happened-"
"No, I'd say it's pretty spammed clear what happened!" Matrix growled.
"Matrix! Cut it out!" AndrAIa said sharply.
"No. I can't believe this. If there was one person I thought I could trust, it was you!" Matrix said, pinning Bob with a harsh glare. When Bob looked up, Matrix continued, "Thanks for showing me what's really been going on!" He turned and stomped out.
Dot stared after her brother. Then she looked at Bob. In a low voice she said, "Bob, come with me," and started for her office. He followed. As an afterthought she turned back to the others and said, "This meeting is postponed until thirteen hundred."
The door shut behind them, leaving the people around the map table in silence. They looked at each other uneasily. Mouse murmured, "He's gonna wish he was wearin' his armor."
Bob sat on the chair in front of her desk. He rested his forearms on his knees, and lowered his head wearily. She looked at him for a new nanos. Then she dragged her chair out from behind her desk and placed it beside his. She put one arm around his back, and took one of his hands in hers.
He looked up, and was surprised to see that she did not look angry. Dot held his hand for a little while as she gathered her thoughts. Then she said, "Soon after the restart..."
"You told me that she'd forced herself on you." A look of pain flickered across his face as he nodded again. "That must have been when she got in beta."
"That's the only time it could have happened," he told her.
She nodded. She believed him. If he were going to lie to her, if there actually had been anything going on behind her back, he wouldn't have told her about that one time. He had defended Hexadecimal, saying that she hadn't understood what she had been doing... and Dot believed that too. Hexadecimal was known for being selfish, and thoughtless, and just spammed stupid. They had thought that the matter was over with, that Hex had learned her lesson, so they had kept the story a secret to protect Hexadecimal from its consequences. Now Bob was going to have to bear the brunt of it. They had assumed that the child was the result of an attack by Megabyte on Hexadecimal. Well, she was the result of an attack - but Hexadecimal wasn't the victim.
"I don't know what to do."
She tightened her hand around his. She didn't know what to say. She didn't have a plan. All she could tell him was that she believed him, that she was on his side. And the best way she could do that was to show him.
When the team assembled again, the atmosphere was tense. This time, at least, they knew what was happening. Matrix sat, arms folded, still looking angry. The rest hoped that they would be able to get out of the blast radius before he went off.
"You're leaving at 1100 next cycle," Dot began. "Gavin, is the ship ready? Do you have all the supplies needed?"
"Aye," the pirate replied. "The crew's storing and securing everything now."
"Everyone. Is there anything we've missed. Weapons? Vehicles? Anything?"
They went down a checklist, making sure everything needed had been put on the ship. Mr. Christopher, another of the Saucy Mare's crew, typed the notes into his organizer. Before they finished checking off, a flash of energy informed them that Hexadecimal had appeared. Dot's hands tightened on her organizer. Couldn't they do something to keep the Virus from bypassing the Principle Office shields?!
"I'm sorry I'm late. I lost track of time," she chirped.
"I don't believe you were invited," Dot said.
Hexadecimal shrugged, as if that didn't matter. "I found out from Michael."
"This meeting is for team members."
"I'm going," Hexadecimal stated calmly.
"You've just had a baby!" Mouse exclaimed.
Hex glanced down at the bundle in her arms. "Yes, I noticed. And it doesn't matter! Phong said when he scanned me that I'm fine! Didn't you, Phong?"
"I said that you were healing well," Phong replied, unwilling to be dragged into the impending fight.
Hexadecimal turned. "Bob. Do you remember the last time we went out on the Net? Wasn't it a good thing you had me there? Without me, you wouldn't have gotten your icon back after it fell into that pile of nulls. You wouldn't have had any energy for your little ship. And remember how I got rid of those cultists who were trying to kill you in the games?! Don't you think that if you're going to fight a Supervirus, you want some POWER on your side?"
Bob said, "Hex, you're in no condition to go."
"Nonsense," she said lightly. "There's only one thing I can't do right now, and I don't think it'll matter on this mission." To Turbo she said, "What if you had been one of Daemon's 'blaggards', hmm? You wouldn't have lasted very long! You Guardians may be good at outsmarting us Viruses, but when it comes to power, we WIN! You need me!" Her eyes flicked from red to green and she finished calmly, "And, anyway, she infected me twice and I want to get back at her. So, I'm going."
Ray spoke. "You can't take a baby on something like this. It's too dangerous."
Hexadecimal looked puzzled. "Why not? Who'd want to hurt a baby?"
"All of us will be in danger. If we were attacked as a group, then you'd protect your baby. Any mother would. You wouldn't be able to help us, and she'd be in danger. It's best if you stay here and keep her safe," Ray pointed out gently.
Hex looked stricken. Dot blinked, startled. Had he actually gotten through to her? But then Hexadecimal said, "Filelock her, then."
"Filelock?!" Dot exclaimed, shocked. "Filelock a baby?!"
"Yes," Hexadecimal said. "That way nothing would happen to her until I came back. She wouldn't even know I was gone!"
"You don't filelock childen!"
Dot stared back at Hexadecimal. How could she answer questions like that? You couldn't just treat living beings as if they were objects! That was as foolish as letting petty grudges against teammates impair your function...
Dot looked at Turbo, then Bob. "Guardians. In your opinion, would Hexadecimal be an asset to your team?"
They exchanged looks, avoiding noticing the pleading expression on Hexadecimal's face. Carefully Bob said, "If she were fully functional, she would have more sheer power than the rest of us and our weaponry combined."
"I am!" Hex interjected.
Ignoring her, Turbo nodded. "However, it takes more than just firepower to win a war. You have to be able to follow a strategy."
"I can! Just tell me what to do!"
Dot said to both of them, "In your opinion, if she were able to go, would she increase your chances of success?"
Bob nodded uneasily. He was not sure what she was heading up to. When she went into her all-business mode, she was absolutely unreadable.
"Then," Dot said to the group, her voice firm, "the best plan I can see is for Hexadecimal, if she is willing and provided another scan confirms that she is fit, to join the team and leave Haiku in Mainframe. I'll take care of her until the team returns."
"What?!" several people exclaimed.
Matrix said, "You've got to be kidding me!"
"No, I'm not," she said firmly. "Now is not the time to let personal feelings get in the way of our judgement. What's important is that the team succeed."
"This is just stupid," Matrix said, getting up from the table. "It's bad enough that Bob's been - doing whatever with that Virus! And now you're going to babysit their 'illegal output'?! Forget it! I'm outta here!" He turned to leave.
"Enzo Matrix!" Dot commanded. He turned back. Dot was striding around the table to him. She stood in front of him, blocking him from the door. Hands on her hips, she said, "I am an adult, perfectly capable of deciding what is best for myself. I do not need you butting in on matters that have nothing to do with you. What's important is that Daemon be defeated and the Net made safe. All else is subordinate to that, including personal grievances!" She pointed at his chair. "If you consider yourself to be an adult, you can sit down and speak when you have something useful to say!"
He glared at her, furious but unable to do or say anything against his sister. After several nanos he turned and sat down with a growl.
Dot walked back to her place at the map table. Resuming her businesslike tone, she looked down at Hexadecimal. "You can either stay in Mainframe with Haiku, or go with them and leave her with me. Which are you going to do?"
Hexadecimal's eyes deepened to dark blue. She stroked the blanket, then said in a barely audible voice, "I'll go."
"Very well," Dot said. Looking around the table, she asked, "Is there anything else?"
There was little else to discuss. All of the major decisions and arrangements had been made some time ago and for the most part had been carried out smoothly. Thankfully, Hexadecimal remained quiet for the rest of the meeting. It adjourned, with no plans to meet again before they were to leave. Matrix and AndrAIa left quickly, and Capacitor and Christopher followed. Phong went off to get some cocoa. Ray Tracer hung back, with Mouse wondering why.
"Dot," Bob said. She looked over. He tilted his head toward her office. She nodded, and they went in together.
Bob began as soon as the door was closed, "Dot... I wouldn't have expected that."
"I'm having a hard time believing it myself," she admitted.
Her poker face was beginning to crack. He put his arms around her. She leaned into his embrace and pressed her head against his shoulder. Some moments later she spoke without turning. "I don't like it. I hate Hexadecimal and what she's done. If there was a delete key with her name on it... you wouldn't want me anywhere near it." She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. "But personal isn't the same as important. Besides... Haiku is your daughter too."
She was fighting to keep control, Bob saw, but tears had spilled down her cheeks. Gently he wiped them away with the backs of his fingers. She closed her eyes. Bob said softly, "I love you, Dot."
She nodded, fresh tears streaking her cheeks. He closed his eyes and held her close.
In the map room, Hexadecimal was still sitting in her seat, looking at her daughter. She had not glanced up when people had started leaving. She did not seem to be aware of anybody else in the room, even when someone sat next to her. A soft voice said "What does 'Haiku' mean?"
She looked at the web surfer with sad, dark blue eyes. "I don't know. It sounds pretty."
"Oh." Looking into the blanket, he said, "It fits her."
"Thanks," Hexadecimal said halfheartedly. After a bit she mentioned, "I thought about naming her Melissa."
From across the room came a crash. Hexadecimal and Ray looked over. Phong had dropped his cup. He said, "Melissa?"
"Yes. That's my mother's name," Hexadecimal said softly.
Phong wheeled over, a haunted look on his face. "Your mother - what does she look like?"
"She looked like a Sprite. She had red skin and green eyes. Sprite eyes, not like mine. Her hair was long and silver, the same color as Bob's."
"Ahhh..." Phong dithered for a few nanos, then said "Please come with me."
Curious, she followed him into another room. He opened a VidWindow, entered the archive code, and searched through the inactive files. After he found the one he was looking for he entered a password to decrypt it. The file opened to reveal a text file and an image. A red-skinned young woman looked out at them.
Phong studied Hexadecimal's face. Her eyes widened. She stared, her mouth slightly open, for a few nanos. Then she touched the VidWindow with her fingertips. "Mama..." she breathed.
"Where is she?" Phong asked.
Hexadecimal shook her head sadly. "She closed file when I was little. When Megabyte was born."
"I see..." When had she...? She had had no children during the time she had lived in the Twin City, before her suicide.
"She liked you. She told us that there were good sprites out there who didn't hate all Viruses. But there weren't enough to make it safe to live outside."
"Outside where?" He had a suspicion.
"The West Sector. That's what Lost Angles used to be."
He thought quickly. Melissa had lived there? But people had seen her jump over the side, and he himself had verified her icon's disappearance. Of course, if people saw someone jump over the edge of the system, they would assume she had fallen into the Energy Sea... and she could have deliberately destroyed her icon to complete the illusion. Melissa was an intelligent person, she could easily have planned something like that. "Your mother was a dear friend, and a very bright woman. Many people missed her when she left us."
Hexadecimal smiled thinly. "We missed her too. Poor Daddy... when she died, it was like part of him died too. I don't think he ever got over it." Her giggle sounded forced, pained. "Megabyte destroyed Mainframe. He destroyed us too, starting with Mama."
"I am sorry to hear that."
Hexadecimal closed her eyes and nodded vaguely. Then she said, looking into the eyes of the smiling face in the VidWindow, "Can I have that picture?"
Phong called up the active files, opened one, and then moved the image into it. "I have copied it into your files. You can access it any time you wish."
"Thank you..." She looked down at Haiku, who had awakened and was beginning to squirm. "I'm going home now," she said, and uploaded herself and her daughter into her mask.
Turbo saw the white mask flash away. The inclusion of Hexadecimal seemed good on paper, he thought, but unless something changed it was going to tear the team apart. Chaos Viruses were notoriously tempermental. He was surprised that this one had managed to keep herself under control enough to become a citizen. She had won their trust somehow. Chaos Viruses could put on a good act, but they could not hide their natures for long. She had to be a rare one indeed.
Bob and Dot came back out of Dot's office. Clearly they'd had a talk, not a fight. Ray was still sitting at the map table, with Mouse beside him. He said to them, "I had a thought."
Bob responded, "What is it?"
"It seems to me that it wouldn't be a good idea to leave Hexadecimal alone for long. She gets bored too easily, and now..." he shrugged expressively; no need to pursue that thought. "I think she ought to have someone watch out for her."
"What do you mean?" Dot raised an eyebrow.
"Maybe she ought to room with us on the Saucy Mare," he said. "It would keep her from getting lonely."
"And going teepee-creeping," Mouse added bluntly.
"Oh," Bob said. Chaperones. If Hex got lonely, she'd seek out company, and who was she fixated on? They were offering to keep an eye on her to prevent that. "That sounds like a good idea. Thanks."
"Don't thank me, it was his idea." Mouse jerked a thumb in Ray's direction. He did not seem to notice.
"Still, thanks," Dot said to both.
"Don't mention it, sugar," Mouse said to her. "We'll keep her from comin' home with another baby."
Dot smiled and winced at the same time. "I wouldn't have put it that way."
"That's why I did." Mouse winked. Then she said to Ray, "We got less'n a day, sugah. Let's make it count."
"Can't argue with that," he said. To the rest he said "G'day" as he left.
"I've got a few things to straighten out," Dot said to Bob. "It'll only take a few microseconds. Meet you back home?"
"Yeah," he answered.
They touched hands and gazed into each other's eyes for a few nanos. Then Dot went into her office. Bob glanced at Turbo, then ran a hand back through his hair. "Oh boy. I've had better cycles."
"Got a micro?" Turbo asked.
Bob tensed. "Sure," he said.
"We ought to go outside."
They walked through the halls of the Principle Office silently. When they reached the exit both activated their zip boards. Turbo, catching Bob's expression, said, "Calm down, I'm not going to chew you out."
"Oh, er..." Bob hadn't realized he was that easy to read. "It's not what it seems like."
Turbo raised a hand, palm outward. "You don't owe me an explanation It's between you and Dot."
They flew slowly toward the Beverly Hills sector. Bob said, "I don't know how this happened. I mean... she's a Virus. I'm a Sprite. Our formats ought to be incompatible!"
"You're not just a Sprite. You're a Guardian. There's a difference."
Bob looked at him quizzically. "What's that got to do with it?"
"You're not the first Guardian to be seduced, or whatever, by a Virus. It's happened before. You don't hear about it because not many people want to talk about it."
"I wonder why."
"You're right, normally Sprites and Viruses are too different. Unless one of them already has some code from the other side."
Bob looked at Turbo. "Then Hexadecimal is part Sprite?"
"No, son. You're part Virus."
Bob stared, aghast. Turbo nodded. "We don't talk a lot about that either. It's necessary to our resistance to infection. The final upgrade before a Guardian goes on active duty contains Virus code. It's inactive, put there only to interface with invading Virus code. It's part of the subsystem that recognizes and rejects infection. Without it, we'd be as vulnerable as any other sprite."
"Whoa..." Bob breathed. "I see why they don't publicize that!"
"Right. And it's been known to allow other interfaces as well, if you get my meaning. It's rare - very rare - but it has happened."
"I get it." Bob shook his head. "Brother. A million to one odds, and I hit it. Lucky me."
"It was bound to happen." Turbo mentioned. "She would eventually have gone looking, and found another Virus."
Bob gave him a look. "What?"
Turbo glanced over. Bob honestly didn't understand. "Did you study Viruses much?"
"Not a lot. How to fight them, yeah, but not the care and breeding."
"You were studying for Security." Bob nodded. "We oughtta broaden those courses. When we get the Academy rebuilt I'm gonna make sure we do. Bob, I didn't get to tell you why I thought Mainframe had fallen when I saw Hexadecimal. It was because she was in beta."
"What would that have to do with Mainframe?"
"You know that Viruses have to have territory to live. They have to fight to get and defend their territory. They can't do that if they have children - and they can't protect their children if they aren't secure. It's in their code. You hardly ever see a young Virus because they're hidden in their parent's territory."
"So, since she was in beta-"
"I thought she'd taken over Mainframe. And when a Chaos Virus takes over a system, not many people survive. This is one time I'm glad to be wrong!" He chuckled.
"Yeah. I guess that means she was just happy here, then?"
"Yep. And that set the rest in motion. She was comfortable, so some subroutines clicked on. She started wanting a mate. What usually happens is they search around until they find another Virus. If they can't find someone within the system, then they'll look elsewhere. But Hexadecimal apparently likes Sprites more than Viruses."
"Well, remember, her brother was the only other Virus in the system."
"True. But the point is, she considers Sprites to be her friends, not her enemies." He looked at Bob. "You know her better than I do. Do you think she should come with us to fight Daemon?"
"Yes," Bob said firmly, if a bit unhappily. "She's hard to deal with, but she does listen to me, and she is getting better at dealing with other people. Plus, she really wants to pay Daemon back for infecting her. The hard part is going to be making her understand what we have to do, especially if we want to use her in any kind of strategy. She doesn't think like the rest of us, so we have to spell things out for her. But if you're in a fight, you want her on your side."
"Okay. If, after everything that's happened, you still want her to come with you, I'll trust your judgement."
"Thanks." They had reached Bob and Dot's apartment. Bob stepped off his zip board.
Turbo did not. He said, "See you next cycle, 1100, Guardian 452."
Bob smiled and saluted. Turbo returned the salute, then zipped off. Bob went inside. Enzo, sitting on the living room couch, looked up. "Bob! Couldja help me with my homework?"
Bob sat down beside the young Sprite. "Sure."
It was a dark and quiet night. Dot had come home with a selection of the Diner's finest food, some of which was not on the regular menu. She activated their BRB codes so nothing short of an emergency would disturb them. The three of them had had a good dinner, then spent the evening together as a family. Then, after Enzo had gone to bed, Dot had done her best to give Bob something to look forward to when he came home.
Now all was still. The dining room table had not been cleared; that would wait. The only sound was the soft, slow breathing of two sleeping Sprites.
And, following a rush of energy, a high, thin wail.
Both Bob and Dot snapped awake with the same thought: was that a dream? After a nano, it was clear that it wasn't. A worried voice in another room said "Bob?"
"Spam her!" Dot snarled. She and Bob only have micros left together, and now that .BAT was breaking in on them in their home at night?!
Bob, sounding none too happy himself, said "I'll deal with her." He clicked his icon to restore his clothing protocol before getting out of bed. He went out - Hexadecimal was standing in the living room, holding Haiku and looking tired and distressed - and said, "Hex, it's the middle of the night, for crying out loud!"
"I know! But she won't stop crying." Hexadecimal said, pleading with dark blue eyes.
Bob put a hand to his forehead in exasperation. "Hex! -"
"I didn't know who else to ask! She just started crying and won't stop. She's not hungry, she won't eat. Her diaper's clean. Then I thought she was too hot, so I took the blanket off of her, but she still won't stop crying! Is she sick?" The Virus looked near tears herself.
"Okay..." The baby was too young to have developed any distinctive cries. All she could communicate now was that she was unhappy, not why. And Hex really was frightened. Of course she came to him instead of the medical staff; she trusted him to make everything all better. "Wait a minute," he said, and left the room. When he came back he had the softest towel he could find. He sat down on the couch, put the towel over his lap, and said, "Give her to me."
Hexadecimal obeyed, and watched at Bob set Haiku on the towel. He began wrapping the baby up in the soft towel, gently binding her arms close to her body. Then he held her to his chest and rocked her, humming softly.
Hexadecimal's eyes widened as Haiku's wails died down to whimpers, then faded completely. "How did you do that?"
Bob answered softly, "Newborns are used to being in a small, warm place and hearing their mother's heart beating. They're more comfortable when you swaddle them up snugly and hold them to your chest. That's all."
Hexadecimal knelt down. Haiku's eyes were already closed. She looked up at Bob. "Where did you learn that?" she whispered.
"Same place as any other Sprite. I wasn't initialized at the academy," he answered.
She looked back down at the baby, who was now asleep. Then she said to Bob, "Can I rest here a little? I'm so tired..."
With a grateful smile she claimed a comfortable chair. She held out her arms for Haiku. Bob said, "I'll hold her for a few nanos."
Hex said "Okay," leaned back, and closed her eyes. She really did look wiped out, Bob thought. Well, of course she is. Taking care of any baby is work, especially a newborn, plus it's her first, and she's caring for it alone. That's enough to wear out even a Chaos Virus.
He looked down at the infant. Virus or not, Haiku was beautiful. He stroked her short golden hair; it was so soft he barely felt it against his fingertips. He didn't want anything to ever hurt this tiny, perfect creature.
He realized that Dot had called his name softly. She was standing in the bedroom door, beckoning to him. Feeling guilty, he went to her, still holding the baby.
She pulled the door partway closed, so a little light still came into the room. "I heard," she said softly as she sat on the edge of the bed. She patted the bed beside herself.
He sat down. She looked at Haiku, then said, "Let me hold her."
Bob nodded and handed the child to Dot. She forced a smile. "A towel," she said, trying to laugh.
"That was the best I could think of," he said sheepishly.
Bob's arm went around her waist. She leaned against him, and looked down at Haiku. She knew that this child was a part of Bob's life now. He couldn't have denied that he was her father, but he could have told everyone what Hexadecimal had done to him. That would have put the blame squarely on Hexadecimal, where it belonged. But he hadn't. He just wasn't the type to save himself by letting others take the fall. He was too kind to do that. Especially when a child was involved. If her mother suffered, so would she.
Within the warm layering of the towel Haiku shifted in her sleep. Dot came out of her thoughts and looked at the baby again. She did not see a Virus, not the result of Hexadecimal's selfishness. She saw an infant, one which needed a family to care for it, just like any other. She saw Bob's daughter.
The silence stretched. Then Dot looked up at Bob and said in a sad whisper, "I always thought I'd do this some day... but not with someone else's baby."
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All characters except Haiku and Melissa, 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. Haiku and Melissa, and the overall story, are copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.