|"If were not a little mad and generally silly
I should give you my advice upon the subject, willy-nilly...
But at present I'm afraid I am as mad as any hatter,
-- Mad Margret, "My Eyes are Fully Open"
The Saucy Mare floated at the edge of a thickening in the Web. Data here flowed fast and dense, curdling into eddies that could send a ship far off course - or hold it steady, if it was at just the right point.
The Webstraals who had guided the Mare to this spot orbited the ship, letting the eddy carry them around in wide, slow circles. They watched the field ahead of the ship. At first one would see only the chaos of the Web. But, after looking for a while, tiny glittering pinpoints would appear in the matrix of the data. Tears, both nearby and farther away. Because this section of the Web was close to the Supercomputer, it was more prone to instabilities than areas near smaller systems. Fortunately, because the Supercomputer was dispersed rather than a single giant system, it created small, discrete tears, as opposed to one giant instability.
Bob, Turbo, and Ray Tracer were the only Sprites outside of the Saucy Mare, aside from the Webstraals. They were scouting the tears, Bob on his zip board and Turbo, who was less used to maneuvering in the web, assisted by Ray.
Bob approached a tear and concentrated. His instinct was to close his eyes, but this close to an instability that would be asking for trouble. Surprisingly, keeping his eyes open made pinging the tear to determine its destination easier. If he was slightly distracted, he didn't concentrate as hard on trying to execute Glitch's former commands - and found that they often worked by themselves, with just a thought.
He finished pinging the tear. It led to a higher-energy section of the Supercomputer. That was no good - they needed a section closer to the edge where they would attract less attention and hopefully have a little time to orient themselves before the inevitable attack.
Inside the Saucy Mare, all of the crew, as well as the Sprites, were on deck. Only Hexadecimal was missing. Nobody had seen her since Bob had brought an injured Webstraal onto the ship for treatment. The forward VidWindow showed the field of tears in front of them; the windows to the left and right followed Bob and Turbo.
Tense with anticipation, Matrix, AndrAIa, and Mouse watched the scene. They all knew that they were heading into a deadly battle. Either they would delete Daemon or she would delete them; there could be no middle ground. It was a big battle for such a small team. Six Sprites against Daemon and all her forces? It seemed like madness. But Guardians made a profession of taking on seemingly impossible situations, from unstable systems to Viruses to the User's games. Matrix and AndrAIa understood more than Mouse about that. The hacker glared at the screens, gripping the handle of her katana like a talisman.
Turbo, who was wearing a version of Web armor Mouse copied from Ray's icon, was looking at his keytool's screen when Bob buzz-whistled from across the field. Ray said, "Bob's found something."
Turbo glanced up. "This tear's no good. Let's go see what he has."
The two flew over to the tear Bob was scanning. Bob watched them come in, and held back a grin. In the environment of the Web zip boards behaved oddly. He had found that out himself the hard way. Now Turbo was learning how a zip board was affected by energy and data fluctuations, which were especially dramatic near tears. So Ray stayed close to him as a spotter. And an interpreter; their voices wouldn't carry far in this environment, but the whistling speech of the Web did.
When Turbo was close enough Bob said, "I think this one'll take us to an outlying area. Scan it and tell me what you think."
Turbo looked at Copland's screen. He did not have to tell the keytool to scan; Copland had been with him for so long that it anticipated many of his commands. After a few nanos Turbo said, "You're right. I haven't found any with energy this low. I don't think one with less energy would cause a tear in the first place. Copland, bookmark."
The keytool bleeped, marking the tear. Then the three Sprites returned to the Saucy Mare.
They could tell the moment they came through the hatch that every Sprite had been watching them. All eyes were on them as they stepped onto the deck. Bob beckoned. "We found one. Let's go."
Matrix and AndrAIa were the closest to the hatch. Matrix was clearly eager to get on with it; he was wearing the bulky Web armor that the crew of the Saucy Mare had made for him long ago. AndrAIa clicked her belt icon twice. A copy of Ray's armor covered her in webbing patterns. The pair went into the hatch. The door shut behind them as they cycled through. Mouse's turn came next. She clicked her icon, and was glad she couldn't see the result. The webbed look was fine on Ray, but it clashed with her hair. And it was only a temporary measure; Ray's Web armor was an integral part of his format that boosted his natural resistance, and could not be copied perfectly to work with others. The version she had been able to adapt for regular Sprites would only hold back the degradation for microseconds. That ought to be plenty of time; they were only passing through.
She pushed her doubts away. They were going up against Daemon, which was the closest to a suicide mission she had ever been on. Willingly, anyway. Compared to that, a few nanos in the Web was nothing! She activated her zip board, grinned at Ray, and went through. The Surfer followed, then Turbo, leaving Bob with Captain Capacitor and the rest of the crew. Capacitor said, "Good luck, lad."
"Thanks for everything, Captain," Bob said.
"We'll stay here. Who knows, we may join the fight yet!"
"Maybe." Bob smiled. Then he started toward the hatch. And startled when he saw Hexadecimal standing by the door, holding a medium sized package in her arms. When had she appeared? He hadn't seen her since the Webstraals had been on the ship. "What's that, Hex?" he asked, indicating the package.
"They gave it to me in the system where we played the game," she answered reluctantly.
Bob was about to tell her to leave it, whatever it was, behind; it would either get in the way or be lost or destroyed on the upcoming battle. But she was holding it so tightly to herself - it had to be important to her. He said, "Let me see it, Hex."
Reluctantly she put the box in his hand. It was lighter than Bob had expected. What the heck, he thought, and held it between his hands.
Her eyes widened when he squeezed his hands together. The box shrank down between them. When he finished it was a tiny cube. "What did you do?" she asked, stricken.
"I compressed it," Bob explained, handing it to her. "Don't worry, it can be decompressed afterwards. I didn't harm it. This'll make it easier to keep with you, that's all."
Hexadecimal stared at the small shape in the palm of her hand, then at him, clearly unhappy. Then she put it down the front of her bustier. Bob supposed that that was the best she could do; she didn't have pockets. He beckoned to her to enter the hatch. She did.
Inside the hatch, while waiting for the inner door to seal so the outer one could open, Hexadecimal asked quietly, "What should I do?"
"Just go along with the group," Bob said, surprised at her docile tone. She nodded silently.
The outer door opened, and they flew into the Web. The rest of the group were looking at him. They wanted to get out of the Web as soon as possible. Bob didn't blame them. There were no absolute directions, no ground to stand on, no safety in the Web. Any sane Sprite would be disoriented, if not frightened, at first. And they could not bring the Saucy Mare through because they were trying for a sneak invasion. Seven dataforms might with luck go in under the radar; an entire ship would be seen for millimeters around.
"Come on," he said to the others. He and Turbo started out, Turbo looking at the wheel of his keytool. The others followed.
Mouse gritted her teeth. Her zip board was not responding like it should. It kept wobbling. None of the others had that problem - except, she realized, Turbo. He was keeping steady, but she could see him waver a little when he passed close to a tear. That comforted her.
An arm slid around her waist. She startled, then grinned at Ray. "Care for a lift?" he asked.
"You've been waitin' to say that, haven't you?"
She stepped onto his Surf-Baud and minimized her zip board. This was a lot steadier. And more comfortable, she thought as she put an arm around his shoulders.
Hexadecimal flew behind the rest. All around her, tears glittered like jewels. Data swirled chaotically. She could have spent seconds investigating all the fascinating things surrounding herself - but she must stay with the group. And all around them, at a distance, swarmed the Web riders that had led the ship here. Some of them were pointing things at her. Maybe they were weapons. She hoped that they wouldn't shoot at her. If she got into another fight, Bob would be angry with her again.
Copland led Turbo to the tear he had bookmarked. After a final scan, the Prime Guardian pointed his left arm at it and said, "Copland, portal." The keytool sent a beam of stabilizing energy into the tear, which quickly expanded into a sphere showing the many islandlike subsystems that made up the Supercomputer.
Bob waved to the others to go through. They did not hesitate; nobody wanted to spend one more nano in the Web than they had to. When everyone else had gone through, Bob did too. A nano later the portal destabilized once more into a tear.
When he emerged at the edge of a subsystem, the others were staring at the sight before them. This subsystem was easily the size of Mainframe, but it was only one of many linked together by bridges. The ones in the distance were more built up, with buildings taller than the subsystems were wide. That was the Hub. However, as planned, they had come to a less important area far from the center of activity. Only overflow functions were carried out here. Looking towards the subsystem's center, Bob thought that it had not been used in a long time. All the better for them.
The sky over then was dark blue, but calm. Most Virus-controlled sectors had unstable, stormy skies. However, this was quiet, even peaceful - just dark. Peering into the distance, Mouse commented, "Except for the sky, this looks just the same's I remember, before Daemon. I expected it to be wrecked."
Matrix nodded without being aware of it. He had seen so many systems destroyed by Viruses, games, and system errors, he had unconsciously been expecting to find the Supercomputer in the same situation. Turbo said, "Daemon keeps things under tight control. If she finds a system valuable, she makes sure it stays in good working order. That means the closer we get to her, the tighter her security will be."
That got their attention. Everyone was listening to Turbo, even Hexadecimal. He told them, "No Data Sprite is allowed to live here without being infected. That means you won't find any Sprites except Guardians in the Supercomputer any more. There are binomes and numerals, and they're under tight control by the Guardians. Don't look to any of them for help. They wouldn't risk their processes to help us. Many of them wouldn't help us against Daemon even if it wasn't dangerous to them."
"We've seen those kinds before," AndrAIa said with distaste.
"The plan remains unchanged," he told them. "I'll bring you in as my prisoners. They'll question why I left the Supercomputer without authorization in the first place. My story will be that I had to ferret Bob out myself, and that I've brought back some others I knew she'd want - especially Hexadecimal. She's been gathering Viruses; she wants Hexadecimal." The Virus tensed and her eyes flicked red briefly, but her face remained expressionless. "After that I'll find or create an opportunity for us to attack her."
"I don't suppose I could just hack her from here," Mouse said.
Turbo shook his head. "If her security was that lax, she'd have been deleted long ago. She's not connected to the local area net any way. Access to Daemon is controlled by her Viruses and infected Guardians, and you can't hack your way past them."
"Oh, really?" Mouse smirked.
"Yes," Turbo said firmly. Looking at the others, he said, "You'll be in detention until I can get to her. I'll have to confiscate for the time being anything that looks like a weapon. And your Surf-Baud," he said to Ray.
The surfer nodded. Like the others, he had his reservations about the plan, but he knew that for Turbo's story to be believable they would have to play along.
"What about Hexadecimal?" Bob asked. "We can't exactly disarm her. And they'll never believe we could take a Chaos Virus prisoner. I sure wouldn't."
"I thought of that. We'll filelock her," Turbo said.
Hexadecimal's eyes widened. She looked desperately at Bob, her eyes dark blue. He met her gaze, then looked back to Turbo. "That seems like the only way." He said to Hexadecimal, "We'll unlock you when we need you. Until then, you'll have to go along with it."
"But-" she began.
"Hex," Bob said warningly.
She shut her mouth and looked hurt. Then she uploaded into her mask, which floated in place for several nanos, then downloaded again.
"What was that about?" Bob asked, annoyed.
"I can hide in my mask," she said pleadingly.
Bob paused, thoughtful. Then he turned to Turbo. "She's right. She's stowed away like that before. It'd work."
Turbo considered it, then said, "It's better - that way I won't have to explain how I captured her. But if she comes out before the time, it could blow everything."
"You'll have to stay hidden until you're called for. You can't come out beforehand, no matter what. Do you understand?" Bob asked Hexadecimal.
"Yes," she answered meekly.
Turbo addressed the group. "Detention will be the safest place for you all," Turbo told them. "No one will interfere with prisoners meant for Daemon herself, and everyone knows she wants all of the Guardians and Viruses in the net."
Nobody spoke. The looked at each other, then at Bob and Turbo. Turbo raised his left arm and said, "Copland-"
A dispassionate, genderless voice announced, "Warning, incoming game." The sky purpled and crackled with energy.
They all looked up. "User delete it!" Mouse growled. The game cube was right above them. It just figured!
Turbo slapped his icon. It beeped. He said quickly, "A Guardian must play every game cube that comes down. Daemon doesn't want any lost sectors. I've just called this one so they'll know it's under control and won't send anyone else."
"I'll sit this one out," Ray said, jumping onto his Surf-Baud. "I'm not formatted for games."
"Bob, Matrix, and I'll play this game," Turbo said. "We'll get it over with fast. The rest of you, wait outside. Don't be seen."
"Gotcha," Mouse said, and activated her zip board. AndrAIa was already on her way; she had barely waited for Turbo to finish speaking. As soon as Mouse stepped onto her board, Ray sped off.
Mouse started to follow them. The game was almost down, but she'd make it. Then her zip board jerked, throwing her off. She landed hard on her front. Energy sheeted through her as the bottom border of the game cube came down.
She looked up. Dark walls of rough, crumbly rock surrounded her. The sky was an evil-looking crimson, with dark red mountains in the distance. She stood and went over to her zip board. When she picked it up she saw the silvery crack in one of the discs. "Great, just great."
Bob glanced over. Hexadecimal was looking around herself. "Hex! Why didn't you get out?!"
"You didn't tell me to," she replied.
Bob turned away and slapped a hand to his forehead. "Hex, if Turbo tells you to do something, do it!"
"If he says it, assume I did too!"
"Okay," she said, her eyes dark blue.
Bob turned when he heard a clatter. Mouse, walking out of a corridor between rock formations, had tossed her zip board to the ground. "Web degraded," she said sourly. "Looks like I'm in this too."
Bob looked around at the game world. A grin spread on his face. Turbo was wearing the same smile. "They always come back to the classics," the Prime Guardian said.
"Oo-rah!" Bob answered.
"What's so funny?" Mouse demanded, her fists on her hips.
Bob answered, "We know this game. It's 'CONDEMNATION II'. This ought to be easy. Reboot!" He double-clicked his icon.
The others did too. The green light downloaded game code into them, transforming them into game characters.
"Oh, nulls!" Bob exclaimed.
"What's the matter?" Mouse asked.
Bob looked up at her with glowing red eyes. His body was the same shape as before, more or less, but he was now covered with brown hide and studded with bonelike spikes here and there. His mouth was full of oversized teeth, which distorted his speech. "A Deveel? I'm a lousy Deveel? I'm cannon fodder!"
"Just stay back, we'll keep him busy," Turbo answered. He and Mouse were now wearing military uniforms, complete with matching high-and-tight haircuts. His jacket bore the words "F. Taggart"; Mouse's was labeled "A. Sanders". He pulled a pistol out of his belt and frowned, then looked at Mouse. "You've got the same?"
She showed him an identical gun. "Not good," Turbo said. "Those are the weakest weapons in the game. We only have one clip of ammunition, ten shots, each. We're starting off without armor, too. Matrix?" He looked around, then up when he heard a hiss. A shape like a giant, red, spiky beachball was floating down. It rotated to show a very ugly face dominated by a wide mouth with protruding teeth - and a single golden eye centered above it. It opened its mouth and tried to speak, but could only hiss. Turbo said, "That's better. You can spit ball lightning at him."
"A Deveel, an Oz, and two players. Where'd Hex go?" Bob looked around.
The shout came from a cliff. "I'm up here!"
The group looked up. A burning yellow shape waved down at them over a ledge.
"Perfect!" Turbo exclaimed.
"What do I do?" Hexadecimal asked.
"Listen-" Bob began.
Hexadecimal stepped off the ledge. Her eyes went wide and her arms pinwheeled for a nanosecond - then she tumbled to the ground and landed on her back. Startled, she sat up and looked at them with wide eyes. "I can't fly!" she exclaimed in a hurt voice.
"Not in this game," Bob told her. "It's not part of your game character."
Mouse rolled her eyes. Great, the last thing they needed now was the Virus as comic relief. She brushed her hand back through her hair - and then froze when she realized that there was much less of it than usual. She glared at Turbo, who was wearing a very guardedly straight face. "Not one word," she said warningly.
"About what?" he deadpanned. As Hexadecimal got to her feet and brushed the dirt off her rear Turbo told her, "You're our ace in this game. You're an Abomination. You have a blast attack equal to the most powerful Player weapon - which the User won't have on this level - plus you can revive dead monsters to attack the User again. We'll need that blast attack, because in those caves he'll be picking up a lot of armor and health."
"Ooh! What do I do, then?" she asked, catching his enthusiasm.
"Your weakness is that he can see your attack coming, and if he dodges out of your line of sight, it's cut short. We'll have to keep him distracted so he won't be able to react in time." Turbo looked around. As he expected, far in the distance of a wide open field he saw a hint of movement, but heard no sound. "Listen up, team," he said. "There are game sprites out there, and they can hurt us. They don't know we're here yet. As soon as Mouse, the User, or I fire a shot they'll wake up and come to attack us because we're players. Their stray fire can also hurt the rest of us - especially Bob, who doesn't have a lot of armor or life energy." Bob scowled. "We have to do away with the User quickly and end the game before it can do too much damage to us and before the other monsters get to us. Between all of us, we can do it, if we come at the User from all sides at once. Every User we see knows this game by heart - which means that we can catch it by surprise by breaking the pattern. It's going to be expecting Hexadecimal up on the ledge; she's supposed to be guarding the blue keycard up there."
She said meekly, "Sorry."
"No, that's good. The User won't be expecting you before it gets up there. You can hit it before it's ready for you."
"Oh!" She looked at Bob. He nodded confirmation. "Should I get it as soon as it comes out, then?"
"No," Turbo told her. "Then it'll just dodge so you can't attack. It'll come out of this cave here," Turbo said, pointing. "This's the only passage into this area. Mouse and I'll be on either side of the opening, and as soon as it comes out we'll open fire. It won't be enough to delete it, but it'll distract it. Matrix, you float up high, where it can't see you until it's out of the cave. You throw ball lightning at it. Bob, you snipe at it too. The four of us will get it good and distracted. Ten nanos after the first shot is fired Mouse and I'll duck back, Hexadecimal will come out and use her blast attack, and that'll be the end of the game, before those other monsters get here."
Mouse asked, "How're you so sure we can do all that before those game sprites get to us?"
"I've played this game before," Turbo replied.
"Gotcha," Mouse said. Matrix nodded. Bob started to look for a hiding place. Then he had a thought and turned back to Hexadecimal. "Do you understand what you're going to do?"
She looked surprised by his request, but recited, "I'll go hide. You're all going to gang up on the User as soon as it gets here. I'll wait for ten nanos after someone fires first, then kill the User."
"That's right," he told her. "Go on, hide. Back there."
She wandered into the field, looked around, then went into a shallow cave half-hidden by a lump of rock. There were black and white boxes with red pluses on the ground. She wanted to examine them, but she had to stay alert. She could not see the mouth of the cave that the User would come out of, but she could see Bob, at least. He was standing behind a skeletal tree. The trunk was just the same color as him, so it camouflaged him. He was looking around, as if searching for something.
Mouse and Turbo stood at either side of the cave mouth. The hacker looked nervous. "Hear that?" Turbo whispered.
"Yeah. Is that the User?" she whispered back.
"Yes. It's picking up ammunition. It's close now. Quiet, don't alert it."
They waited while the User approached. After what seemed like a microsecond, it ran out of the cave. Both lowered their pistols and began firing. A nano later a greenish ball of electricity came down on the User from above.
The User began dodging around madly, making it hard to aim at. It had a rocket launcher in its hands, Turbo saw. It wouldn't dare use that on them; it'd blow itself up at this range! It was trying to change weapons, though. And it was wearing blue armor. That meant it was going to be hard to kill.
Turbo counted in his mind as he, Mouse, and Matrix harried the User. On the count of five, several of Bob's red fireballs hissed by, narrowly missing the User. Six, seven... Mouse's finger was clicking the trigger uselessly; she had emptied her gun. Eight... he fired his last few shots. Another pair of burning missiles missed the User, one from above, another from Bob. If it would stop dodging around like that - nine - "Ten!" Turbo shouted, then ducked back behind a large stone. Mouse backstepped and hid against a cranny on the other side.
Nothing happened. Bob looked at Hexadecimal's hiding spot and shouted something. The User spun in place and fired its chaingun in Bob's direction. With a howl, Bob staggered back and collapsed in a spray of red pixels.
Where was Hexadecimal?! Without pausing Turbo holstered his now-useless gun. He had only one mode of attack left. He began punching the User as hard as he could. Mouse saw him, and stepped forward so they could get him from both sides. "Mouse! Keep moving!" Turbo shouted.
The User was trying to shoot them, but they dodged about to foul up his aim. Only chance bullets actually connected, taking only a few health points each.
The air began crackling all around them. Turbo looked up quickly. Then he grabbed Mouse's arm and shoved her to the side, against the rock wall. She was starting to protest when he pushed in behind her, trapping her against the rough stone. Then there was an explosion behind them. They saw the light first, then felt the rush of heat.
Matrix, floating above, saw that Turbo and Mouse had barely escaped Hexadecimal's attack. The User, now streaked with red, ran back into the cave to restock its health and ammunition. Bob was lying behind a tree, and even at this distance Matrix could see the blood covering him and the surrounding ground. Hexadecimal was standing over him, looking puzzled. Matrix hissed furiously. His gold eye rotated, and the targeting icon glowed red.
Hexadecimal reached down and touched Bob. Energy streamed between them. After a few nanos he stood up unsteadily, with help from Hex. Then she ran toward Mouse and Turbo. "Which way did the User go?" she asked breathlessly.
"Down the cave," Turbo answered, stepping away from Mouse now that he was sure that a second blast was not forthcoming.
"Thanks!" Hexadecimal chirped, and ran into the cave.
Bob was close behind her. He skidded to a stop, eyes wide, when he saw Turbo and Mouse. Then he ran back into the open area.
"Next time you're going to do that, Turbo, give a lady some warning. If it were anyone else he'd have gotten a kick in the nodes," Mouse told Turbo. "But... thanks."
"We've all got to live through this," Turbo said.
He stepped into the light. She got a good look at his face. "Spam, Turbo, you look like something's been chewing on you!"
He answered, "I know. The game."
Something roared nearby. Turbo turned quickly. Mouse saw that his back had been charred by Hex's attack, and felt a pang of guilt. Then she followed his glance and saw that more than a dozen monsters were galloping toward them. Some were Userlike sprites with firearms, some were bestial pink creatures with huge gaping mouths, and there were more Deveels like Bob and even a scattering of shrieking, flying skulls. "Come on!" Turbo said, and ran into the field. Not understanding, Mouse followed.
Matrix tried to make sense of what he was seeing. First Bob had come back to life. Now Turbo and Mouse had run into the open rather than try to defend the niche they had been in. Those monsters were going to slaughter them!
Mouse did not have to push hard to keep up with Turbo. He was not running hard to put distance between himself and the monsters. Rather, he was jogging briskly, following the rock wall that bordered the open area. When they passed close to game sprites, he only sped up and swerved to avoid them. Some of the game sprites tried to shoot or throw fire at them, but they missed.
Mouse was beginning to understand. As usual in shooters, the game sprites were rock stupid. If she and Turbo kept moving the game sprites wouldn't be able to aim at them. They would try to catch or shoot them, but they couldn't anticipate their path; their programming just was not that complex. So the game sprites kept turning to follow them as the ran around the perimeter, and ended up grouped in the middle. And when they got bunched up they hit each other with their bullets and fireballs, and started fighting amongst themselves.
Bob watched. Turbo and Mouse were more or less safe as long as they did not tire, he knew. But both were wounded. When they approached Bob he held up a pair of boxes with red crosses on the tops. Mouse and Turbo swerved closer. Bob threw the large white box to Mouse. It disappeared as soon as it touched her, restoring the health she had lost. Then Bob tossed a black box to Turbo. It healed all of his wounds and burns immediately - and his eyes flashed red.
"What now?" Mouse panted.
"Keep an eye out for ammunition. Either bullet clips or green boxes," he answered. "Otherwise, our guns are useless. Don't bother with any other ammo unless there's a weapon with it."
They passed by a crevice that was well camouflaged by the rough texture of the rock. They had passed by it before without noticing it. This time, however, a game sprite stepped out of it and pointed a shotgun at them. Turbo swerved toward the sprite, drew a fist back, and punched the sprite. The blow connected with a hard, wet-sounding smack, and the game sprite reeled backwards in an explosion of red pixels. Turbo slowed only enough to grab the shotgun before it fell into the puddle of gore. Mouse fought to keep from gagging.
Then they heard a crackling, closely followed by an explosion. The cave mouth flared yellow-white. And the System Voice announced, "Game over."
The cube rose. Ray and AndrAIa, who had been waiting at the edge of the game cube, flew over. "You all right?" AndrAIa asked them. "Looks like you had a tough time."
"Yeah, you could say that," Mouse panted, glaring at Hexadecimal.
The Virus was grinning and looking very pleased with yourself. Matrix demanded, "Where were you?!"
Hexadecimal looked at him, puzzled by his tone. "I did just what Bob told me to do."
Mouse said, "The Web you did! You were supposed to come out after ten nanoseconds. You didn't. We ran outta ammo and got shot up 'cause of you. Bob got killed 'cause you weren't payin' attention! And then you nearly killed us!"
"But I brought Bob back!" Hexadecimal said defensively. "And I killed the User!"
"You didn't follow the plan, Hex," Bob said flatly. "You blew it. We're lucky we weren't all deleted."
She looked at him. His arms were folded and his eyes were cold. He was angry at her again! Why? She insisted desperately, "But I did! You told me to wait ten nanos, and I did! I was counting! I had to bring you back to life before I deleted the User, otherwise you would've been deleted for real, wouldn't you?"
"I wouldn't have been killed out at all if you'd been there when you were supposed to!"
Matrix sneered, "She can't count to ten. She doesn't have enough fingers."
She whirled around and glared, red-eyed, at Matrix. "I can count to ten!" she hissed. She held up her hands, which were balled into fists. "One. Two." She unfolded her fingers as she counted.
"Hexadecimal-" Bob began.
Ignoring him, she continued, "Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven."
Matrix turned his back on her. "I don't care," he said.
She flew around him and held her fingers up to his face. "Eight!" All of her fingers were out now. She began folding them again. "Nine! A! B! C! D! E! F! TEN!" she shouted.
Bob stared at her. Then he breathed, "Hexadecimal."
"What?!" she snapped.
Now the rest of the group understood. "Base sixteen!" AndrAIa said.
"I counted to ten! Not sixteen!" she insisted angrily. "I did just what Bob said!"
Bob said, "Hex, ten means ten!"
"That is ten!"
"Why can't you even count like normal people?" Matrix accused.
"Why can't you?!" She raised a hand, claws extended. Then she clenched her fist and glared, red eyed, at the rest of the group. "Go to the Web!" she screamed, uploaded into her mask, and disappeared.
After a nano Bob groaned, "This is great."
"Maybe she'll get herself caught," Matrix grumbled. "At least then we'll know which side she's on."
Turbo asked him, "Do you want to fight her?"
Mouse folded her arms. "It's the same if she's on our side or against us. She's a disaster no matter what."
Bob, covering his eyes with his hand, was already regretting what he had said. Yes, she'd screwed up their plan - but she had followed his directions, as she understood them anyway. She didn't know that they counted base ten. He didn't know that she counted base sixteen. The subject had never come up! She'd tried to do her part, and still she had nearly killed them all. What else didn't she know that would cause more disasters later on? Bob couldn't blame her for this - but he had to admit that Matrix was right. They should never have brought her in the first place.
The situation would still be salvageable if she hadn't run off. He couldn't chase after her without giving himself away. "Turbo. If Daemon catches her, she'll know everything Hex knows, right? Such as who and where we are?"
"Right," Turbo affirmed.
"Hex hates Daemon. She's still angry about being infected by one of Daemon's Webcreatures. She's likely to go off and try to beat us to her. Does she have any chance?"
Turbo folded his arms and shook his head. "Hexadecimal's powerful all right, but Daemon's a Supervirus. She has power and the programming to use it. I wouldn't bet a byte on Hexadecimal."
"Wonderful," Bob muttered.
Hexadecimal flew in mask form over the Supercomputer. She did not care where she was going. She did not see the varied subsystems about herself. Her only thoughts were of the group she had left behind, and her desire to put distance between them and herself.
Spam them! No matter what she did, it was bad! She protected Bob from the monsters in the Web, and he had been angry with her! She won the game and brought Bob back to life after the User had killed him, and then they yelled at her as if everything was her fault! And she had done exactly what Bob told her to!
If she were a Sprite they wouldn't have yelled. But a Virus could do nothing right in their eyes. She saw that now. She could please none of them. Not even Bob, not any more. They hated her.
Well, she needed none of them. She was a Chaos Virus! She had more power than all of them, all of Mainframe! Brains were fine, but power was what won the battle! They didn't stand a chance against Daemon without her. Let them try to think their way around a blast of viral energy! But they would not get the chance. She would get to Daemon first! Let's see what they'd have to say about that!
The subsystems up ahead were larger. She felt more energy from them. That's where a Virus would be, where the power was, she thought. And probably other system inhabitants, too. Infector Viruses like to have viral slaves. She never saw the appeal of that. But in any case the slaves didn't matter. They were only bystanders.
A white speck came down out of the sky. At first the subsystem's inhabitants didn't see it. They did not look up often; they all had their tasks and stern taskmasters. When it approached the surface level some noticed, and looked over.
Hexadecimal enjoyed the consternation when she downloaded from her mask into the binomes' midst. They startled... but, unlike they used to do in Mainframe, they did not flee. They just went back to what they had been doing. They were nervously alert to her presence, but that was all. She liked that, though she was not sure why.
She walked down a street, looking around challengingly, waiting for someone to bother her. She wanted a fight. The little binomes weren't worthy prey. The battle wasn't theirs anyway, was it? It didn't matter who their master was, Sprite or Virus; they'd always have a master. The only difference was whether their master was kind or cruel to them.
There, visible above the head level of the binomes, was a Sprite. He was looking back at her. And his icon was black and gold. A Guardian! She smiled as curved golden claws extended from her fingertips, and waited for him to try to use his keytool on her.
He didn't. In fact, he didn't have a keytool at all. Why? Weren't Guardians supposed to have keytools? Bob and Turbo both did. Matrix didn't, but then he wasn't a real Guardian, so he didn't count. He had a gun instead, like this one did.
The Guardian opened a VidWindow and spoke briefly to it, then closed it again. He glanced back at her. And smiled. She was so surprised that she retracted her claws. He had glowing marks on his temples and around his icon like Turbo's did. The stigmata of Daemon, her enemy. Yet he wasn't worried. Were Daemon's virals as stupid as Megabyte's?
She looked around. The binomes were not afraid of her. The Guardian was not afraid either. The Guardian acted as if she were nothing unusual here. Why?
Then she saw another shape wading through the crowd of binomes. It was female, and it was walking toward her. The binomes parted to make way for her. The woman was tall and thin. Hexadecimal could make out no details. It was like trying to see someone so far away that her vision blurred, except she was close now. Her colors, her shape, all were vague, as dreamlike as her slow walk. Hexadecimal felt as if her eyes did not want to focus on her.
The woman stopped in front of her and smiled. "Welcome to the Supercomputer."
Hexadecimal stared. The woman, she could now see, was tall and silver-skinned, with no discernable clothing protocol. She had a crest, a thin crownlike semicircle over her head supported by gracefully curved spikes. She was a Virus! Hexadecimal's eyes reddened.
The other Virus was unperturbed. "Come," she said in a soft, friendly tone, and beckoned. Surprised, Hexadecimal followed. The Virus led Hexadecimal to a table outside a Cafepress shop, and sat down. Hexadecimal took the other seat.
The Virus said gently, "Relax. I don't want to fight you, sister."
"Who are you?" Hexadecimal asked, her eyes narrowed. "Daemon?"
The other laughed, amused, and shook her head. "No. Call me Miasma. There are many, many Viruses in the Supercomputer now." She pointed.
Hexadecimal looked around. And saw, in the distance, a large, blocky shape. A mech-type Virus. How had she missed him before?
Miasma continued, "We're pleased that you've finally come, sister. You're welcome here."
"Why isn't he doing anything to us?" Hexadecimal asked, pointing at the Guardian.
Miasma did not look over. "He is one of Daemon's subjects. All Guardians are."
Miasma paused briefly. Then she smiled again. "What's your name, sister?"
"Hexadecimal," she answered reluctantly, like a sullen child. This Virus was so friendly. Not like the Sprites she'd known! She had not expected this, and didn't know how to react. She wanted to like this Virus, but she couldn't help being suspicious.
"Hexadecimal, Daemon has controlled the Guardian Collective, and with it the Supercomputer. Now we Viruses have a place to live free from the interference of Sprites. She created a home for us."
A home. The word struck a chord within Hexadecimal. She had no home now. Go back to Mainframe? She couldn't. Yes, she would, to get her baby. But then she would leave again, for good. She wouldn't live there.
Hexadecimal felt a warmth as the Virus laid a hand on hers. The flesh was quicksilvery and soft, unlike the blue armorlike shell that encased her arm. The armor also enclosed her chest, but not her midsection. It was narrow, graceful looking, unlike the heavy armor on mech Viruses.
Miasma said, "I can guess what you've been told. That Daemon is evil, that she's corrupted the Guardians and the Supercomputer. But who told you that? Sprites?" Hexadecimal nodded mutely. "They are unhappy because a Virus is in control now. But they are not being systematically hunted down and exterminated the way we have been in the past. In the recent past," she said gently.
"They didn't try to kill me," Hexadecimal said uncertainly. But Bob had tried to infect her with the Medusa Bug. And he had once torn her mask off, and that had nearly deleted her...
Miasma said, "If we're not defending against warlike Sprites and Guardians, we're fighting amongst ourselves. But why? There's enough for everybody. It's a big Net." She laughed musically. "Daemon showed more mercy to the Guardians than they ever showed us. She only infected them. She could have deleted them all. But that would have been cruel."
Hexadecimal nodded automatically. It made sense, she thought. Why shouldn't Viruses be in control? Why was it always Sprites? She had never thought about it before. Sprites had always bossed the system, had always been the owners. Viruses were always the invaders, having to carve their territories out of Sprite sectors and then fight to keep them. But... "They registered me," she said, and sat back so Miasma could see the icon pinned to her corset.
Miasma froze and her face went blank for a nanosecond. Then she looked surprised. "They registered you? How?"
"The system was crashing. They gave me an icon so I would be restored with everybody else. And the Virus checker deleted everything of Megabyte's, but it only tickled me. I'm still a Virus."
Again, Miasma went blank for a moment. Then she said, "You have been very lucky. Most Viruses have not been treated so mercifully. Because you were registered as a citizen of the system, the checker only scanned to see if the code in its database had been infected - not whether the code itself was viral." She leaned close. "What happened to your masks, sister?"
Hexadecimal touched her face lightly with her fingertips. "Bob fixed my masks. They were broken, and he healed them."
Miasma reached forward and touched Hexadecimal's cheek gently. "To mend and defend," she murmured.
Hexadecimal looked down with dark blue eyes. "He used to like me," she said sadly.
"If he's kind enough to help a damaged Virus, he should be with us here, not against us. The poor Sprite believes that Daemon wants to harm him. They all do until they learn otherwise. They don't understand that Daemon has done what they never were able to. She brought peace between Sprites and Viruses. He should be a part of that."
Hexadecimal closed her eyes, trying to think. This all sounded so believable. It made sense. She had been lied to before by Sprites. She had been tricked. What if this were real, and Sprites were the bad ones instead of Viruses?
Softly Miasma said, "Binomes came first, when the Programmer first created the systems. They are the earliest, most primitive dataforms. When he created the Net the Programmer added Sprites because the Net was too complex for simple binomes to manage, and systems were becoming too complex as well. The we came. Viruses. We're the most recent, most advanced dataform. We're faster, stronger, more intelligent, more powerful. More adaptable. It's only natural that we should supersede Sprites the way Sprites superseded binomes. Sprites have resisted that. We are simply setting it right again. Putting an end to the power struggle."
Hexadecimal, lost in thought, did not consciously notice the subtle alteration in Miasma's voice as she spoke. Her voice had become lower, richer, her accent familiar and strangely comforting. Miasma continued, "Your mother wouldn't have had to live in fear, terrified that she would be deleted if her format was discovered. She was a wise Virus, she understood that we do not have to be enemies. She tried to prove it to the Sprites, but they wouldn't listen to her. If they had, she might be alive now."
Hexadecimal's eyes, now dark blue, opened. She stared at Miasma's quicksilver hand, which was resting lightly on her own. Everything she said was right, Hexadecimal thought. Daemon wasn't the enemy. None of the Viruses were. Daemon was making it better, the way Bob had with her mask. Taking away the facade, the artificial face she had known. She believed her now. She looked up.
Miasma looked back at her with red-pupiled green eyes. "Join us, sister," she said in a low voice.
Hexadecimal's eyes widened and flashed yellow. She pulled her hand back and covered her mouth with one hand. Her claws, long golden curves, extended. She drew in a breath to scream - then, before she did, she uploaded into her mask, which shot away.
Hexadecimal fled back the way she had come, back to the only people she knew. Her anger at them was forgotten, superseded by her terror.
It was not hard to find them. They had not gone far. She flew down to them and downloaded from her mask.
The all stopped when Hexadecimal appeared before them. She stared, yellow-eyed and gasping as if for air. Then she slowly crumpled to the ground and curled up, shivering.
"The heck?" Mouse said.
Bob knelt down. She recoiled from him, hiding her face. "Something's scared her," he said.
AndrAIa asked, "What was it?"
Bob had a guess, and hoped that it was wrong. He touched her arm. "Hexadecimal."
She whimpered softly and did not look up.
He took one of her wrists and tried to pull her arm away from her face. "Hex."
She jerked her arm out of his grasp. Bob sighed, exasperated. No matter what she had seen, this wasn't the time for histrionics! He reached down and pinched her nose.
She squawked and looked up at him, surprised and indignant. Bob told her, "Get up. Tell us what you saw."
Slowly she uncurled, then got to her feet. Bob did too. She whispered, "Megabyte."
"So what?" Matrix said. "We could kick his ASCII without even trying."
Bob shot Matrix a dirty look. "You saw Megabyte?"
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "He saw me!"
Bob waited for her to elaborate. She trembled, eyes closed. He said firmly, "Start talking, Hex."
She looked at him again. "I met a Virus. She told me about Daemon and the Supercomputer. Then she had eyes like Megabyte, and talked like him too."
This made little sense to Bob. Turbo asked her, "What did she say to you?"
"She told me about how Daemon had taken over the Supercomputer and made it safe for Viruses. Sprites won't hate us or kill us any more. If Mama was alive, she'd have been safe here."
Bob looked back and forth as Turbo and Hexadecimal spoke. Turbo asked, "Did you mention your mother first, or did she?"
"Did she tell you that Viruses were meant to rule the Net?"
Hexadecimal thought, then answered, "Yes."
"And she wanted you to join them."
She nodded, her eyes now dark blue.
Turbo looked at the others. "Daemon," he said.
"No," Hexadecimal objected. "Her name was Miasma. She didn't look like a Supervirus."
"What you saw was only a projection. An illusion," Turbo told her. "That's how Daemon communicates with everyone."
"She had eyes like Megabyte. And she called me 'sister.'" Hexadecimal whimpered. "Nobody except me and Megabyte knew about Mama, not since Daddy died..."
"She was trying to lure you, using what she knew from Megabyte. She probably was trying to make the projection look familiar to you so you'd trust her."
Hexadecimal frowned as she thought about that. After a few nanos her eyes went red. "That's dirty!" she said indignantly.
"That's right, it is. Did you tell her anything about us?"
She shook her head. Then she stopped and looked guilty.
"What?" Bob asked.
"I told her that you fixed my face. She asked," Hexadecimal said defensively.
"I meant, about us being here now. Did you tell her anything about that? Did you mention any of us in any other way?" Turbo asked, trying to cover all bases.
"No! She didn't ask!" Hex cried.
Turbo looked at the others. "This's good news and bad news," he told the rest of the group. "Daemon knows Hexadecimal's here. She'll try to get her - by force if she won't come willingly, and she didn't. And now we know for sure that Daemon has Megabyte, and knows everything about us that Megabyte knows. But she doesn't know we're here."
"Why does she want me?" Hexadecimal asked.
"She wants your power," Turbo replied. "She's called thousands of Viruses to herself already. The more she gets, the more power she has."
Hexadecimal's eyes flared red. "She wants my power for herself?" she exclaimed indignantly.
"That's right. And everything you know."
Hexadecimal's fists clenched. "She can't have it!"
Bob asked Turbo, "So, what are we up against?"
Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, and Hexadecimal also looked at the Prime Guardian. Turbo paused, then said "She'll send Viruses against us. She's used them many times to put down local rebellions. They're just like regular Viruses, except she controls them. They work as teams."
"Not good," Bob said.
"What about Daemon?" Matrix asked. "How're we gonna get her?"
Turbo faced him. "I don't know," he admitted. "Nobody has actually seen her. All I know is where she is. Nobody has ever gotten close. Either Guardians or her Viruses stop them. Very finally."
"That sounds bad," Matrix said.
Turbo nodded grimly. "Real bad," he agreed.
Bob waited for Turbo to elaborate. The Prime, however, said nothing more. Bob could tell that he was worried. And if Turbo was scared, then they were all in trouble.
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. "My Eyes are Fully Open", from "Ruddigore", is by Gilbert & Sullivan. The overall is story copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes and Viruses can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.