It was a dark and stormy night outside Ralph the User's house. However, inside his computer things were bright and well-lit as usual.
The city of Mainframe had just been restored after its destruction by game cubes. Bob's gamble had paid off; the User had restored the city and its inhabitants from the backup, in the process scanning and removing all viral elements.
Almost all, that was. Though Megabyte's Tor had been erased from G Prime, and all of the Sprites he had infected were free once again, one Virus still remained in Mainframe. Phong had reluctantly registered Hexadecimal in the city's database just before the system had collapsed, and because of that the force that had destroyed all traces of her brother had spared her.
Mainframe had been online for several cycles now, and aside from the occasional game life had been settling down for most of its inhabitants. In the Principle Office in the center of Mainframe, however, things were not so relaxed. Although Mainframe was saved, many more systems out there were dominated by Guardians who had been infected by Daemon, a Supervirus. Although the inhabitants of Mainframe were safe for the moment, they would not always be so - the cycle would come sooner or later when Daemon would find them. Those who had seen the infected Guardians themselves could not forget the threat that they posed.
Mainframe had several unusual assets in its team. They included a hacker, a next generation web surfer, a game Sprite who could function outside of games, and - strangest of all - a tame Virus. "Tame" in the sense that she was no longer an enemy of the system. However, Hexadecimal was still a Virus, and would always be chaotic; it was an unalterable part of her code.
She could at least be taught how to function as a Sprite. In theory, anyway. And since the one person she would listen to was Bob, orientation duty fell on his shoulders. He didn't object; he felt a sense of pride at having been able to reformat an enemy into an ally, even a friend. But she was still... well, difficult to handle.
Now that she no longer had enemies to fight or nulls to command, Hexadecimal was restless. He would have to find a way to keep her and her transfinite energy occupied, or things could get messy. But first she needed to learn the basics of life in Mainframe.
Hexadecimal was floating above the floor of her throne dais, in the cavernous tower of her Lair in Lost Angles. It was the one place left completely untouched by the system restoration - since it was not part of Mainframe, but the remains of the Twin City, the crash and restoration had not reached it.
"I'd have thought something would have happened here," she said with a sweeping gesture. "Everything's just the same." She sounded bitterly disappointed.
"You could always redecorate," Bob suggested with a shrug.
She whirled to face him. "What a perfect idea!" she enthused. She tapped a clawed finger against her lips, considering, then said "I'll need the system paint program, of course."
"I'll ask Phong to give you access to it."
"Oh, no need to bother him about it." She waved dismissively. "I can do that myself."
He sighed. "No. No breaking into the system. Ever. I'll get things straightened out without that."
Hexadecimal pouted. "What fun is that?"
As happened so often, Bob did not know what to say. How do you explain right and wrong to someone with near-unlimited power and lacking the moral sense that the User programmed in a null? The best he could do was take things in manageable chunks, one at a time, and hope for the best.
He noticed something. "Hex, where's your icon?"
She opened a hand. With a small flash of energy the disc appeared in her palm. "Here."
"You need to keep that on you at all times. It contains everything about you. If anyone else got it, they could control you!"
She smiled a predatory smile. "I'd like to see someone TRY." But she pinned it on her bustier.
"The icon does more than store your personal codes. You also use it to reboot if you're caught in a game, and change your clothing protocol."
She looked down at her icon. "Clothing protocol?" she said curiously, and tapped it once.
Bob looked away, his face blushing a warm purple. "You don't have any alternate protocols specified yet, Hex. Just tap it again to put your clothes back on."
She smiled mischievously. He was so cute when he was embarrassed! She leaned forward and flicked his icon.
"Hex!" he yelped and tapped his icon quickly, restoring his clothing. "Your OWN icon!"
She grinned approvingly at him. "Not bad, Guardian." She tapped her icon, then pouted, "You're no fun."
"I'll see what I can do about the paint program," he said hastily. He activated his zip board and flew toward one of the exits.
Hexadecimal watched him go with a faint smirk.
As he flew toward the center of Mainframe, Bob called up Phong on a VidWindow.
The image of the old Sprite said worriedly, "Bob! What happened?"
Phong just can't give up his conviction that Hex is going to eat me alive some cycle, Bob thought. "Nothing much. Can you give Hexadecimal a link to the system paint program, with editing access limited to Lost Angles?"
"Of course..." Phong said, an edge of unwillingness in his voice.
"We've got to keep her occupied. Let her redecorate Lost Angles; at least that's harmless."
"All right, my son." Phong called up a small Vidwindow and began tapping with rodlike fingers at the controls.
"Thanks. Tell the others I'll be there in a few nanos."
"Will you look at that."
Mouse, flying on a zip board beside Ray Tracer on his Surf-Baud, followed his glance. The city of Lost Angles, usually a grim, greyish wasteland, glowed with color. The colors shifted and flowed as they watched.
"I heard Phong muttering 'bout lettin' Hex use the paint program a while ago," Mouse commented as they coasted in for a closer look.
Ray commented, "I don't fancy landin' on that."
As they watched, a wave of color swept across the ground, covering the formerly dark surface with bright yellow. A moment later green obliterated the yellow.
Inside the Lair, Hexadecimal hummed to herself as she pointed to another color on the VidWindow palette and then the paint bucket. The ground, bordered with a dotted outline, changed to royal blue. Yes, she liked that better. Now... hmm, a filter or two. She glanced at her options, and chose one.
With an abrupt whump the ground under Mouse and Ray rose abruptly, taking on a glassy hue. The new plane sloped down to meet the edges of the various structures scattered around the landscape, as if the land had risen but the buildings were immobile. Then - whamwham - the bevel reversed, first flattening itself out and then inverting, making the streets look like shallow canals.
Hexadecimal caught sight on another VidWindow of two specks rising into the air above Lost Angles. Hmm, who were they? She pointed, outlining them and then cutting and pasting them into the room.
Mouse and Surfer managed to stop their ascent before crashing into the dome. Mouse lowered herself to the floor, stepped off the zip board, and minimized it. "You might give us a little warnin' when you're going to do that."
"I'm sorry." Hexadecimal said with exaggerated contrition. Then she smiled and gestured toward the VidWindow on which she had been painting. "Well, what do you think?"
Mouse, said, "It's, uh..."
"Colorful." Ray finished.
"Isn't it?" Hexadecimal said, pleased with herself. "I'm just experimenting
now." She pointed, and in the middle of the Vidwindow a box marked
REVERT? CANCEL/ACCEPT" appeared. She pointed at it. The word
ACCEPT" flashed twice. The colors and landscape alterations
disappeared from Lost Angles, leaving it once again drab and dark.
She whirled back to Mouse and Surfer. "What brings you to Lost Angles?" she asked.
"Oh, just flying around, seeing the sights," Surfer answered.
"A flying tour of a whole new world. Isn't that romantic." Hexadecimal hummed a few notes. "Have you seen Bob?"
Surfer answered, "Just at the Principle Office."
"He's been keepin' busy," Mouse added quickly.
"Oh." She turned back to the painting window. The scene shifted from the exterior of Lost Angles to the throne room. Hexadecimal approached the window; her image, within the window, copied her moves in reverse. "I haven't seen him in ages."
"We're going out to the Web again-" Ray began.
A tremor ran through Hexadecimal. Still facing the VidWindow, she said, "The Web?"
"You've heard of the Web before, haven't you, sugah?"
The Virus clasped her arms around herself. "I've seen gates... and Web creatures..." she whispered.
"You haven't seen anything, if that's all you've seen," Surfer said. "It's a wild new frontier out there."
She looked over at them, her eyes glowing blue. "Why would anyone want to go out there?"
"Two words: viral Guardians. There's a mega-Virus out there who's infecting all the Guardians in the Net and taking over the systems. Sooner or later she's going to come gunning for us down here."
Hexadecimal raised one eyebrow. "She?"
"Daemon," Surfer interjected. "Anyone you know?" Mouse elbowed him in the side.
"Daemon." Hexadecimal looked upward, searching her memory. "No, I haven't heard of her. And she's infecting Guardians? Megabyte never managed that."
"Anyhow, either they find us here or we take the battle out there. It's a long shot, but it may be the only shot we have. All we're waiting for is a tear to stabilize into a portal."
Mouse muttered, "Thank you, Mr. Readme File."
"Really." Hexadecimal smiled and paused, thinking. Then she downloaded herself into her mask, which hung in the air a nanosecond before disappearing.
"I've seen a Virus without a grin, but never a grin without a Virus," Ray remarked.
Dot and Phong were monitoring the energy levels of the various sectors around Mainframe, alert for any signs of tears. They had been scanning for some microseconds now. It figured, just when they wanted one it wouldn't appear.
Bob and Matrix did what they could, which for now was just standing by and staying out of the way. Matrix had taken his gun apart and was cleaning it piece by piece. Bob stood by Dot, his arm on her shoulder, as he watched her and Phong, who were thoroughly absorbed in their task.
"And I thought she was all work and no play before," Bob turned to Matrix and murmured wryly.
Matrix looked up, followed the other Guardian's glance at Dot, then grinned and nodded. He started reassembling the pieces of his gun.
"Phong," Dot called, "I'm getting an energy buildup."
"Where is it?" the old Sprite asked, extending his neck to look at her screen.
"Right here!" she said, alarmed.
"Here?" Bob exclaimed. He stepped back, gathering energy to himself, preparing to act the moment the tear appeared.
He lowered his hands when he recognized the white object that appeared in the air. A moment later Hexadecimal was standing in their midst.
Phong glanced down at the monitor. The energy buildup was gone. "False alarm," he said. He thought to himself that they would have to find a way to block Hexadecimal. If a Virus could appear inside the principle Office at whim, their security was all but useless.
Ignoring the reactions of those around herself, Hexadecimal enthused, "It looks like I got here just in time!" Turning to Bob, she said, "I hear you're planning a trip out to the Web."
"I thought the paint program would have kept her busy longer," Dot muttered. The Virus had a way of closing in on Bob that got on Dot's nerves. Bob didn't look as if he enjoyed it much either.
"Now, why would you want to go out there?" Hexadecimal put a hand on his shoulder. "It's full of all sorts of nasty things. A Sprite could get himself deleted. Then where would we be, Guardian?" she wheedled.
Bob backed away a step, and covered his icon with a gesture that failed to look casual. Matrix clicked his gun loudly and meaningfully. She looked over. "We're Guardians. We have to," he said flatly.
Dot's monitor chimed. She stopped glaring at Hexadecimal to look down at it.
"We may be the only two Guardians left who Daemon hasn't infected," Bob added.
"Daemon, there's that name again. Infecting Guardians? What an interesting idea." With a smile she tilted her head and looked at Bob, then Matrix.
Fortunately, Dot was not watching Hexadecimal. Eyes fixed on the screen in front of herself, she said "Got one developing, guys."
"Where?" Bob asked, stepping around Hexadecimal to look.
"Above Cit_E. It's high enough that it can be stabilized into a portal without harming anything nearby."
"We're on, guys!" Bob said. "Matrix, get Surfer."
As Matrix called up a VidWindow Dot looked up and said, "Good luck, guys."
"Don't worry about US, sis," Matrix replied.
Bob looked back. He knew that worried expression. "Stay frosty," he grinned.
Dot smiled as she looked back at the VidWindow. That's her Bob, all right. No matter what the situation, he was never at a loss for a cliche. Hexadecimal's bewildered expression at being ignored so suddenly was an added bonus.
Bob rose toward a shifting burst of energy. He had to think about what he was going to do. Before he and Glitch had merged he had only to command the keytool to mend or stabilize tears, or give him game statistics, or anything else. Now that the keytool was a part of himself he had to learn to use its abilities directly. He didn't ask for game statistics, he summoned them from the game itself, the same way Glitch used to. He had to handle tears with his own two hands now. All of Glitch's abilities were there for the summoning, and he had had some practice, but it would take some time before he could call himself proficient.
Up close, the tear sent off waves and bursts of random energy. If he got too close, he knew, it would begin to pull him in. He had to balance carefully, close enough but not too close.
Nulls, he thought, it's just a little tear. Just do it. He felt the whisper of Glitch's memories in his mind as he concentrated, calling forth the energy to control the unstable tear.
Matrix and the surfer rose from the Principle Office to join Bob. Ray, as ever, was on his Surf-Baud, and Matrix rode a flycycle. Matrix wore a grey, heavy suit of armor made from the shells of dead web creatures to protect himself from degradation in the Web. The flycycle was similarly covered.
Bob fought with the chaotic energies of the tear. Stabilizing a tear into a portal wasn't so much a matter of force as of balance. Compress it, give just the right "twist" so it didn't explode in your face...
The tear suddenly expanded into a sphere. All three instinctively backed away from the whirling, chaotic patterns.
Bob took his place on the flycycle seat behind Matrix. Surfer, poised on his Surf-Baud, was already covered with a web protection protocol. Bob tapped his icon, and his silver suit was replaced by dark web armor similar to Matrix's. He pulled on his old helmet. Its burnt, expressionless countenance hid his face. Taking his cue from Bob, Matrix pulled on a helmet with a transparent faceplate.
"Come on, mates," Ray said, seeing that the others were ready. He plunged into the portal. The cycle roared in after it.
None of the three had noticed the white object which had attached itself to the back of the cycle while Bob was stabilizing the tear.
As soon as they were through, the surfer sped ahead of the cycle. They all knew the plan: minimize their time traveling through the Web to the Supercomputer, both to evade the Web's native dangers and to keep from being noticed by hostile forces. That was why they were not taking a larger, more heavily armed and armored vehicle - something like that would be sure to attract attention, and make it easy for enemies to locate Mainframe by tracking their path backwards. A small, low-energy vehicle, however, could easily be mistaken for a web creature; long enough for them to get to their destination, anyway.
Bob scanned the scenery in every direction, alert for signs of danger. He had lived in the Web for close to a second. The experience had changed him, more than just the superficial degradation that he had suffered before the Webriders had found him. You couldn't play around here; it was too dangerous. Hot-dogging as if it were a Game could get you very deleted. There were too many things living in the web which fed on energy and code, and you learned to take them seriously if you did not want to end file abruptly and painfully. Matrix, continually scanning from side to side, web creature-hide-covered weapon in hand, clearly understood the danger. Perhaps a little too well; he was as taut as a whip cord. Ray, swooping about from side to side on his Surf-Baud, seemed casual about traveling through the Web, but then this was his habitat.
Matrix half-turned and asked Bob, "Is it usually this quiet? I haven't seen a single web creature yet."
Bob shrugged with one arm. He did not try to speak; his helmet was not built for that. He peered into the dark distances, searching for movement. Several nanos later, he thought he saw something. Matrix spied it too, and raised his gun. Bob pushed his arm down, shaking his head no. Matrix said, "I wasn't going to fire. Yet."
"Hang on, we've got company," Ray said as the distant specks approached them, like a swarm of web creatures. However, these were moving too purposefully to be web creatures, or even spores.
In the Web, Sprites armored against degradation looked the same - rough, gray, beastlike. They had no nations or cities, since there was no solid land. There were only swarms. Swarms of web-living Sprites, just as there were swarms of web creatures. Bob heard a distant whistling sound from the leader-
Light flared behind the cycle. Bob turned to see a ball of glowing energy forming directly behind himself. It quickly brightened to a painful blue-white, then shot off toward the swarm. With the glow gone, he could see the white masklike face and the dark red metallic body floating behind the cycle, barely visible against the darkness.
Hexadecimal began gathering her energy for another volley. Bob held out a hand, palm outward, and screamed a shrill, buzzing whistle.
Ray had seen the light speed toward the swarm, which parted to let it pass. He turned back to look at Matrix, but the big Sprite's gun had not been fired. Behind Matrix, Bob was screaming at Hexadecimal to stop, but he could not speak normally through his Web helmet. The Virus showed no sign of having heard him. She launched another blast at the approaching Webriders.
Ray flew over to Bob and gestured with one hand. Bob stepped onto the Surf-Baud in front of him. They zipped in front of Hexadecimal to block her next shot. Eyes glowing red with fury, the berserker Virus aimed her next blast at Ray's Surf-Baud. Fighting to keep his balance as the surfer dodged, Bob buzzed at her loudly, his hands held out. Steadying Bob from behind, Ray shouted a translation: "Hexadecimal! Stop!"
"Web creatures!" Hexadecimal hissed, her gaze fixed on the swarm just beyond Bob.
Bob leaned forward. Ray brought them closer. Before she could throw another blast, Bob grabbed her wrists and whistled into her face at point-blank range. "They aren't web creatures!" Ray said.
Startled out of her rage, her eyes flicked back to their normal green glow. She did not recognize Bob in his web armor, but who else would have the nerve?
Bob, still holding her wrists, looked over his shoulder toward the swarm. He broadcasted his identification in the language of the Webriders: <I am Interface. We are not hostile.>
The rider at the head of the swarm brought his mount - a creature like a giant grey Null with teeth and eyes set in at random - up closer. <You are recognized.>
Relieved, Bob glanced at Matrix. As expected, the green Sprite had his gun out, and had sighted on a target - but it was Hexadecimal, not the Webriders. Bob whistled. "It's all right. They're his friends," Ray said to Hexadecimal.
The lead Webrider looked pointedly at her. <She is not degrading. She is not a Sprite. What is she?>
Bob looked quickly at Hexadecimal. In the heat of the battle he had not even thought about what the Web could do to an unprotected Sprite. She showed no sign of suffering from Web exposure, however. Were Viruses immune? Or was her power keeping the effect at bay?
"You haven't introduced me to your friends, Bob," she said sweetly, and held out one hand, palm downward.
The Webrider looked at her clawed, four-fingered hand, then drew his mount back. <She is a Virus!> The other Webriders suddenly came alert, hands poised over their weapons.
"Hmph." Hexadecimal scowled and folded her arms. "Not much on manners out here, are they."
<She is...> How could Bob put this? He couldn't say she was a benign Virus, not after her tantrum. <She's an ally. She's just nervous because a Web creature bit her once.>
<Something sent by Daemon. I didn't see it.>
The other Webriders murmured among each other in a burst of buzzes and whistles. Bob asked, <You've heard of Daemon?>
<We know of her. She cannot succeed in dominating the Web, but her creatures have infiltrated it, seeking out portals to systems.>
"As if the Web needed to be any more interesting than it already is," Ray commented to himself.
<This is bad. Very bad.>
<We have reduced and consolidated our range. It is smaller, but what we have we keep free of her beasts.>
Bob doubted that Daemon was that interested in the Web itself - yet - but even so the Webriders were territorial, and would resist her intrusions. <And since the portal to Mainframe is in that territory->
<Yes. We have kept her creatures out.>
Ray tapped Bob on the shoulder. Bob looked over. "If someone's keeping an eye out for energy, we'd better get a move on, after that fireworks show. There's a system right nearby." Ray pointed in the direction of a flashing glow that marked a tear.
Matrix watched while the two Sprites whistled and buzzed with the Webriders. Hexadecimal floated quietly. She didn't seem about to go out of control again, but you could never be sure with her. If they went back now, they'd have come out here for nothing, and lead anyone watching them back to Mainframe. Thanks for nothing, Hex, he thought sourly.
Ray guided his Surf-Baud back to the flycycle. Bob returned to his seat behind Matrix. "Come on, then, follow me," Ray beckoned, then started forward on his Surf-Baud. The flycycle followed, with Hexadecimal gliding alongside, her ribboned cape spread out behind herself like a fan. The Webriders escorted them, camouflaging them by surrounding them with their swarm.
They arrived at the tear in nanoseconds. The surfer spread his arms and directed his energies into the tear, stabilizing it into a portal long enough for their party to pass through.
As the portal collapsed back into a tear, one of the Webriders buzzed to its leader, <Interface has the strangest allies. First the pirates, and now a Virus.>
They reined their web creatures around and swam back into the chaotic depths of the Web.
The first thing they noticed when they emerged from the brightness of the portal was the solid, desertlike plane below them.
"What is this?" Matrix asked, distaste clear in his voice.
"The low rent district," Ray answered, gliding lower.
As they approached, they saw that most of the city below them was destroyed. Rubble covered the landscape. A few areas sported buildings that hadn't had the sense to fall over yet. They were sprawled out every which way, some of them squashed together and others spaced widely apart.
"This place could use a defrag," Matrix commented.
"It's too far gone," Bob replied, shaking his head sadly. "The entire city's been destroyed by games, it looks like. Head for the Principle Office."
They skimmed low over the ground, alert for any signs of life, as they headed for the center of the city. They found none, save for multicolored, blobby nulls.
When they arrived at the Principle Office, they saw a horrible sight. The pinnacle, a cylindrical column that should have been suspended above the Principle Office's dome, had fallen, crashing through the roof and shattering it like an eggshell.
"This system's dead," Bob stated in a voice of disbelief. "I've heard about things like this, but I've never seen one."
"How can it get this bad without going completely offline?" Matrix asked, scanning the horizon.
"It's low energy. No more game cubes are dropping here, so nothing's pushed it over the edge."
Hexadecimal swooped down to the base of the dome. When she rejoined the others a nanosecond later she held a multicolored blob in one hand. It writhed about, desperate to escape, as she petted it. "It's so nice to see familiar faces," she crooned.
"Let's land. The cycle's got to be getting low on energy by now," Bob said.
Matrix checked the diagnostics panel in the front. "Yeah. About halfway depleted. Enough to limp home, if nothing else happens along the way. Where'll we land? There's nulls everywhere."
Looking down, Bob saw that the ground below them shimmered with shifting, oily colors. They were flowing in from all sectors, hungrily seeking out the energy they sensed above themselves.
Bob pointed. "Up there."
The cycle and Surf-Baud touched down on the plateau atop the pinnacle. It felt like sacrilege, but it was the only safe spot there. The nulls surrounded the dome of the Principle Office like a multicolored carpet, but could not ooze up the sheer sides. Hexadecimal played with her reluctant pet for a short while longer, then dropped it over the side to splat among its brethren.
"We'd better lay low for a while, in case we were followed," Ray said as he kicked his Surf-Baud upright. "How long's it take that thing to recharge?"
"Back in Mainframe, a microsecond or two, " Matrix answered. "Here, I don't know. This place is so low energy I can't tell. It could be cycles."
"Great." Bob shook his head. "This is gonna look great on my resume. Marooned on a dead system. Can't send a message back to Mainframe, because even that might be traced." He closed his eyes, accessing Glitch's functions. After a moment he opened his eyes, surprise written on his face. "The system is dead, but there's someone else here! I detected four signals. Sprites!"
Matrix asked, "Where?"
"Below us. In the Principle Office."
Ray set his Surf-Baud down and stepped onto it. The two Guardians boarded the flycycle. Just as they were taking off, Bob said, "Wait!" He turned to Hexadecimal, who was floating alongside the cycle. "You stay here, Hex. Keep an, ah, eye on the nulls for us."
"All right," she replied, and touched back down on the surface of the column.
Inside the Principle Office, the shards of dingy light sleeting down through the dome's cracks painted the interior with a stark jumble of light and blackness. Equipment and pieces of smashed dome lay everywhere around the pinnacle. They saw no lights in the blackness - the Principle office was utterly offline. How could any Sprite survive here?
Bob closed his eyes briefly, scanning, then looked into the darkness. "We've come to help," he said in a clear, gentle voice.
Matrix watched as Bob went off into the dark to search through the rubble. He knew that this city was doomed, and those few Sprites were hardly anything compared to the thousands, even millions that had been deleted or reduced to squirming, energy-draining nulls. He knew that they could not ferry four extra Sprites back through the Web to Mainframe on the cycle - but he also had a copy of Bob's Guardian programming, and knew that they had to try to rescue them.
A Sprite approached Bob from the darkness. He glided just above the ground on a zip board, holding one metal-banded forearm in front of himself as if to bar their approach. His skin was an icy whitish blue.
They must be terrified after all they've been through, Bob thought. "Don't worry. We're here to rescue you."
A humming sound, very different from the soft buzz of Ray's Surf-Baud, came from behind Ray and Matrix. They turned to see an ebony-colored female Sprite drift toward them on a zip board.
As she floated into the light, they saw her magnetic gun. "You have it backwards," she said.
A third Sprite, this one orange, stepped into the light. He aimed his weapon at the flycycle. "Get off."
Hexadecimal heard a CRASH from below. She lifted into the air to glide down to take a look, but someone came over the edge of the column to meet her. It was a purple-skilled Guardian on a zip board. Not bad looking, she thought. But the glowing markings on the temples had to go.
He pointed a gun at her. "Hands up, Virus," he snarled.
"Or what?" she asked curiously.
"Or I'll drain your energy." He jabbed the muzzle of the gun forward.
A gentle smile on her face, she raised both hands, palms outward, to shoulder height, and stepped forward.
The orange Guardian held his gun on the flycycle, draining it of energy. Bob recognized the tool. It drew energy out of its target, and could incapacitate any but the most powerful Sprite or Virus. It was designed as a humane way to capture an enemy - especially if the enemy could destroy a system as it fought.
The cycle had crashed into the ground hard, cracking the floor. He kept the gun on it, not satisfied merely to render it useless; he wanted every erg of energy it had. The dark guardian held her magnetic gun at the ready.
In the dark, Bob, Ray, and Matrix could see the glowing network of lines on the Guardians' temples. "They're viral!" Matrix growled.
The three had closed into a tight circle, facing outwards in three directions. Bob had Glitch's energy abilities, and Matrix had his gun at command, but Ray had no means of attack or defense.
Out of the recycle bin and into the magnetic erasure chamber, the surfer thought.
Hexadecimal strode forward as the Guardian's gun drained her energy. It may have debilitated a feeble being like a Sprite, but she, having transfinite energy, barely noticed its effect.
She wrenched the gun out of his hands easily and threw it over the side of the column. It bounced off the side of the dome and hit the ground, its casing cracked. The nulls quickly surrounded and covered it, feeding frantically on the energy leaking from within.
She put her hands on the Guardian's shoulders. "Now, what will I do with you?" she wondered aloud as she tilted her head. A wicked grin spread across her face. She leaned forward.
The blue Guardian called, "Bletch, lamprey." The keytool mounted on his forearm band altered configuration. A small disk shot out of it, connected to its base by a line. It flew toward Bob at chest height, and struck below his collar.
Matrix lunged forward and jerked the line downward, pulling the disk away from Bob's uniform, tearing a small hole where it had been attached. The line pulled the disk back to the Guardian's keytool.
"Gun! Command line: target!" Matrix bellowed. His artificial eye shifted and glowed dull red.
Bob's right hand reached for the spot at which the lamprey had attached. A sudden surge of alarm washed over him. The blue viral Guardian started to rise up through the cracked dome. A red target icon fastened itself to his back.
The other two Guardians were flying away now. Matrix, Bob, and Ray rose on their zip and surf boards to follow them. Matrix said to Ray, "Stay back. This is going to get ugly."
"Going to?" Ray commented to himself.
High above the null-covered landscape the viral Guardians sped away from their pursuers. The orange one said to the blue one, "Got it?"
He held up his arm. Through the cover of his keytool Bob's gold-and-black Guardian's icon was visible. "Soon as we bring this one in, that'll be the last of 'em."
"No!" The ebony one said. "The green one had a Guardian's icon too, and he wasn't one of us."
The other turned back to her. "We already have all the guardians listed in the registry except this one!"
"He must be a renegade."
They had to turn back. Daemon's directive on that one point was clear and uncompromising: all Guardians must either be assimilated or deleted. None would be allowed to run free.
Bob and Matrix saw the three viral guardians stop and pivot their zip boards. The female and orange ones leveled their weapons at them. Bob spread his arms as their weapons flared, creating a bubble-like shield around himself and Matrix. Their shots spattered against the sides of the sphere. Then the female Guardian stopped and smiled. She touched the end of her weapon to the ice-blue guardian's keytool, threatening to erase it.
Unnoticed by the others, a speck in the distance curved around the Guardians.
Bob and Matrix raised their hands in defeat. The ebony Guardian looked at Matrix and extended one hand. "Your icon," she ordered.
"I'll trade. My icon for his." Matrix answered.
She looked at him as if wondering if he was demented. "Give it to me!"
The speck behind the Guardians was rapidly growing.
Matrix touched his icon. It spun a half-turn clockwise and released itself into his hand.
"Matrix, don't," Bob cautioned. "Then they'll have the only two free Guardians in the 'net!"
Matrix ignored him. "Come on, I'm not going to throw it to you," he said to the female, holding the icon in the palm of his hand.
She approached. Just before her hand grasped the icon, Matrix and Bob both rose sharply into the air. Ray sped below them on his Surf-Baud, his arms held high, each hand grasping a zip board by its connecting rod.
Two viral Guardians plummeted down into a sea of energy-starved nulls.
"Oldest trick in the book!" Surfer crowed, and dropped the boards.
The third Guardian, the blue one, fled. Matrix raised his gun and sighted, his artificial eye glowing.
The viral Guardian jerked spastically and fell off his zip board.
"Oh, spam!" Bob exclaimed. "The nulls!" He turned and darted back toward the column atop the Principle Office.
Hexadecimal was waiting uncharacteristically calmly on the pinnacle. She held a small object in her hand, and was examining the lights glittering on one side. An abandoned zip board lay close to the plateau's edge.
Bob scarcely slowed as he flew in a tight arc around her. "Hex! come with me! Quickly!" He sped back the way he had come without waiting for an answer. She flew after him.
Matrix and Ray hovered just above a writhing pile of nulls and watched Bob and Hexadecimal approach. Frantically Bob told Hex, "Scatter those nulls!"
Hexadecimal flew down over the pile. "Shoo! Scat!" she waved her arms at the creatures. They reared up and squealed indignantly at her.
Red-eyed, she screamed down, "I SAID GO AWAY!" The nulls fled, revealing a flickering wireframe.
She picked the former Guardian up and rose to where the others waited. "Another one?" she asked.
"I need its keytool." Gingerly Bob reached for its arm. His icon was visible through the top. "Come on, come on..." he muttered as he tried to pry it apart with shaking hands. He was able to get it open and retrieve his icon, as the keytool was in as bad a shape as the Guardian.
Bob returned his icon to its rightful place. It turned a half rotation and locked on. He closed his eyes as he did a diagnostic on it. It came out clear. They hadn't had time to erase or decompile its programming. He opened his eyes and sighed with relief.
"You all right?" Ray asked.
"Yeah, everything checks out," Bob replied.
Hexadecimal dropped the wireframe back onto the ground. The nulls flowed in again. "All that trouble over an icon," she commented with a strange smile.
"I've told you, icons are important!" he began. Then he saw what Hex had in her hand, tossing it up with a flick of her thumb and catching it in her palm. "Where did you get that?"
"I had a visitor," she said airily. "He was a terrible dancer."
"I'll bet he sleeps with the nulls now," Ray murmured.
"Ah..." Bob glanced queasily down at the pile of feeding nulls. "Can I have that?" he asked.
She handed him the icon. He took it and placed it in his belt. Matrix said, "Come on," and beckoned to the others as he started back toward the Principle Office.
Inside, Matrix examined the cycle's diagnostics board as Bob looked at its machinery. "Not good," he said. "I don't know how long it'll take to recharge, or even if it'll recharge in this low-energy system."
"May have to put seats on my Surf-Baud," Ray said, looking at the vehicle.
Hexadecimal asked, "It needs recharging?"
Bob looked up. "Yes. But the battery's nearly gone." He indicated the section of machinery he had been peering at.
"Is that all," she commented casually, and touched her fingers to the contacts. Energy flowed from her hand to the battery.
"So, with the cycle working we went back through the portal and came back here. The web riders found us part of the way back and escorted us the rest of the way," Bob finished.
"A fascinating account," Phong commented. "You say that Hexadecimal was not affected by the environment of the Web at all?"
"It looks that way. You can block its effects with an energy field, and I suppose that's what she did. She did seem tired when we came back."
Dot said, "It sounds like you were followed by those Guardians. Why else would they be in a wrecked system like that?"
Bob nodded. "We thought about that too. They must have picked up our trail during the fight in the Web. We beat it as soon as we got my icon back, so we don't think they tracked us."
He didn't believe he had been followed. Meaning, of course, that it wasn't impossible, Dot thought. She knew that there was always a risk whenever anyone entered the Web from Mainframe. It was necessary. However, taking a Virus, even one which was an ally, into the Web was not necessary, and though Hex had proved useful this time she was too big a liability on any mission that depended on stealth as opposed to firepower. If Bob didn't learn how to keep her under control, she could be Mainframe's downfall!
Bob took an icon out of his belt. "Hexadecimal got this from a viral Guardian she, uh, met." Phong took it gingerly, as if afraid that it could infect him by touch. "This is a copy of the code of a Daemon infected Guardian. Can we decompile it?"
Phong shook his head and sighed. "This is not the Supercomputer. Without a copy of the Guardian's original, uninfected code, I would have no idea where to start."
"And the Supercomputer's not exactly the friendliest place right now," Matrix stated.
"Tell me about it," Bob said sadly.
Dot squeezed his hand in hers, then took the icon. "Even though we can't decompile it, we might be able to find something out. Let me do some work with this."
"Be careful with that, Dot," Bob said in a low voice.
She looked at him, surprised at the concern in his voice. She couldn't resist - she gave his hand another squeeze, smiled, and replied, "Stay frosty."
Over the next few cycles, life in Mainframe was fairly quiet. They were not about to rush into the Web just yet. Daemon's Guardians could not know exactly where the portal to Mainframe was, or they would already be here - but they would be watching this area, so going out now would be foolish. So, for now, they enjoyed the reprieve.
Most of the Sprites were taking the opportunity for a little R&R. Game cubes dropped, and lifted again from intact sectors. Lost Angles flowed with color, and became a regular subject of sightseers in Floating Point Park.
Mouse, however, did not have such leisure time. The hacker was busy in the Principle Office, trying to tease some meaning out of the code contained in the infected Guardian's icon. If they could sequence the infection, they might be able to compile a cure for it, or at least a subroutine to prevent it from taking hold on new victims.
Realizing that she had not heard any keyclicks from Mouse's station for some time, Dot looked over. Mouse was staring at the screen with an uncharacteristically blank expression on her face. "Mouse."
Mouse startled. "Oh - what?"
The hacker shook her head. "Nothin'. That's the problem. Hackin' through an energy shield's one thing, tryin' to read compiled code's another. I don't know what I'm looking for."
"Even with Bob's code to compare it to?"
"Even with that. Look, I'd need this Guardian's clean code, before he was infected, to compare it to. Then I could see what was different, and I'd know that was Daemon's. Trying to check it against someone else's code, well, it don't work."
"I wish I could help."
"There is one thing you could do." Mouse looked at Dot with the beginning of a smile.
The hacker drawled, "Y'all could get me an energy shake," and winked.
Dot laughed. "Get one yourself." She nodded toward the exit.
"Don't mind if I do."
Mouse skimmed away from the Principle Office on a zip board. Her head ached from fighting with that code. Trying to figure it out had been, so far, like sorting nulls - useless and frustrating. She had been able to rule out maybe half the code by finding identical sections, but that still left a huge haystack to search through for that tiny needle.
She glided down to Dot's Diner. She wasn't really hungry, at the moment she needed people to hang around with. If she stared at a screen or VidWindow a moment longer she'd go random.
She stepped off her zip board and minimized it. She pushed open the door of the Diner. Cecil glided over on his his track. "Table for one, madame?"
"I've got a table, thanks," she replied when she saw Ray Tracer wave at her.
"Very good." Cecil folded his hands and zipped away.
As Mouse approached his table Ray said, "I was wonderin' if you were ever comin' out again."
"I shoulda come out earlier." She sat down. "I've been diddlin' with that blessed code for cycles, and got nothin' for it but a headache."
"Sounds like what you need is some R and R, little lady."
She smiled. "That's the brightest thing I've heard in a long time. So, what've you been up to?"
"Oh, a little this and that. I gave Enzo some surfin' lessons the other cycle."
"The one that'd fit on my Surf-Baud with me."
They both laughed. Then Mouse called, "Cecil, two energy shakes to go, sugah."
"Right away, madame," came the reply from elsewhere in the diner.
"I already have one." Ray held up the cup in his hand.
"Trust me," Mouse said, and winked.
Outside, they rose into the air on their respective conveyances. Mouse headed towards Floating Point Park, with the surfer following. When they were above its grounds she said, "What the heck is that?"
He followed her glance. In the center of Lost Angles a large glowing ball floated. It was too still and regular to be a tear; a tear would have been flickering and giving off energy discharges. "She's been redecorating again, seems like. C'mon, let's take a closer look."
They sailed over the energy sea, bypassing the Gilded Gate Bridge which snaked and twisted its way to the island. Each structure on the island now featured a different color and style, some subtle, some gaudy. Well, most gaudy.
In the center of the square, floating above the arc, floated... whatever it was. Though it was so bright Mouse could hardly look at it, it gave off no heat or energy. The surfer, his eyes protected by his goggles, circled it once, then flew through it. "Nothing to it."
Mouse stared at him. "Sugah, have you gone random?!"
"No worries." Drifting closer to Mouse, he said "She's been playin' with the paints for cycles now. C'mon, let's drop in."
"You sure you want to?" she said, surprised.
"Sure, it's all right," he assured her. I've been here a few times the last few cycles. She said to come over anytime."
"I really shoulda got out sooner," she muttered to herself as she followed Ray closer to the tower.
They approached safely, without being cut and pasted inside. Hexadecimal must not be watching at the moment. Ray looked around at the landscape below. "Let's see..."
"What'cha lookin' for?"
"The front door. It's - ah, here we go." He dove down a hole in the ground. Mouse, startled, followed him down a long, curving tunnel.
After a disorienting flight through a serpentine tunnel, they emerged into Hexadecimal's lair. Several VidWindows were open and hanging above the stage, each showing a different view of Lost Angles. On the largest window, the glow they had seen outside hung in midair. Hexadecimal was nowhere to be seen.
"Maybe we should leave," Mouse said in a low voice.
"I wouldn't hear of it."
Hexadecimal's voice had come from one of her VidWindows. The Virus stepped through and the window disappeared behind her. She flew up to Mouse and Ray and put an arm around each. "Well, well, well! Have you found a cure for the common virus yet?" she asked teasingly.
Mouse was already uncomfortable, and Hexadecimal's smirk did nothing to put her at ease. "Still workin' on it. No breakthroughs yet."
"What's that?" Ray pointed to the flare in the main VidWindow.
"Do you like it?" Hex released them and floated down to her dais. "I think it adds a certain..." she gestured dramatically with one clawed hand, "flare."
"It looks kinda like a tear," Mouse started.
Hex looked at the VidWindow. "Does it? Maybe it'll attract a certain Guardian," she said with a leer.
"How d'you work this again?" Ray asked, stepping off his Surf-Baud.
"Oh, it's simple! You just pick your tool and palette and choose a layer and mask and go to work!" She demonstrated by pointing at the paintbrush and white paint, then guiding them with a sweep of her arm over to the upper part of the screen. She quickly scribbled several bulgy, rounded shapes in white in the sky around the glowing ball. Then she selected a bucket and used it to fill the shapes with white paint. The paint leaked through a broken section of outline and dripped onto the street, leaving a spreading blob of white. "Oops. Oh well," she commented, then put the tools down without attending to the spill.
Ray asked, "Can I have a go?"
"Of course!" Hexadecimal said.
Mouse watched in disbelief as he stepped up to the window. He pointed to a paintbrush and some red paint, and began drawing on the side of one of the buildings. Hexadecimal laughed, amused, and placed one arm around his shoulders as a rough copy of his M-within-an-oval icon took shape.
He turned back to Mouse, who was still floating on her zip board. "Come on, give it a try."
"Uh, sorry, I'll pass this time." There was something strange about this. She couldn't put her finger on just what was so unnerving. Maybe she was still too wound up.
"Is something the matter, luv?" he asked.
"It's just this headache. I've been starin' at VidWindows too long. I just need to lie down." It was an excuse, but then again it was almost true.
"We'd best be off," he said to Hexadecimal. "See you 'round."
"Bye-bye." She waved, then turned back to the VidWindow.
Mouse and Ray headed for the tunnel leading to the outside. As they passed out of the harsh spotlight Mouse turned to him to speak. Whatever she was going to say was left unsaid, however, as she stared at him.
Ray noticed her expression. "Problem, luv?"
Noticeable only in the darkness, faint lacelike lines glowed on Ray's temples.
She forced herself to look away. "No. No, I just need to catch up on my rest. Tell you what, honey. I'm gonna go back and take some serious downtime, and catch up with you later."
"All right, see you then," he answered.
They emerged from the tunnel into Lost Angles. Mouse headed back toward the Principle Office. She saw Ray's Surf-Baud recede in the direction of Baudway. When he was out of sight Mouse called up a VidWindow. "Dot, we got an emergency."
"What? what's wrong?" Dot asked, worried by the deadly serious look on Mouse's face.
Mouse said in a flat voice, "It's Ray. He's viral."
"I don't know. I'm headed over to you. Get Bob over there."
"He's already here-"
Despite herself, Mouse smiled and winked. Dot smiled back sheepishly. See you in a nano."
Mouse jumped off her zip board as it glided in, barely losing any momentum. She strode into the Principle Office. Dot, Bob, and Phong were just inside. "What's this about Ray being viral?" Bob asked.
"It's no joke, sugah. I saw it in Hexadecimal's lair just now. I thought he was acting a little, well, random, but then I saw..." She gestured at her temples.
"Daemon?" Phong asked.
"Sure looks like it," Mouse answered unhappily. "Little glowing lines, just like the screenshots you showed me. I couldn't see 'em until we were in the dark."
"But Daemon only infects Guardians!" Dot said, and looked at Bob for confirmation.
"We've only seen her infect Guardians. I don't know how she managed to infect Ray, but then we used to think that Guardians were immune to infection. She's proven us wrong before. And if Ray's infected, the rest of us could be too." He asked Phong, "Did Matrix get a system scan when we came back?"
Phong shook his head. "No, only you did."
"And I came out clean. We need to call Matrix in. Let's keep this quiet for now, people. No need to cause a panic."
"I'll get him," Dot said. She called up a VidWindow.
"Thanks. And I'll need a few CPUs for backup."
Mouse asked worriedly, "What're you going to do about Ray? He was only acting a little random."
"I have to arrest him, Mouse. We can't be sure that's all there is to it."
Bob started to leave. Mouse spoke up. "Wait. Bob - I'll be your backup."
Bob shook his head. "No, Mouse. I'll do this."
Mouse watched as Bob walked away. Dot, who had just minimized her VidWidow, recognized the look on Mouse's face. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Yeah, me too." Mouse walked to the terminal she had been using and sat down.
"Good day, Guardian. Table for..." Cecil counted the CPU binomes behind Bob. "sixteen?"
"No table, Cecil. I'm here on business." He strode into the diner, over to the table where Ray was sitting.
Ray made a friendly gesture. "G'day, mate."
Bob looked carefully at the surfer. At first glance he looked normal, but now that he was alert he could see a faint pattern on his temples. Ray glanced at the CPUs who were watching him with their hands poised near their weapons. "Is there a problem?"
"Ray, come outside with me, please." Bob gestured towards the door.
"Okay..." Ray got up and waded past the nervous binomes.
Outside, Ray asked "What's got those fellas worried?"
Bob hated saying this. "Ray, I have to place you under arrest."
The surfer, surprised, replied "What for?"
"Viral infection. I don't know how, but it looks like Daemon got to you."
Ray smiled. "You're joking, right? Good one."
Bob shook his head. "It's no joke, Ray. I have to take you in."
"All right, all right." He set his Surf-Baud down.
As he stepped on, a few of the binomes drew their boxguns, ready to zap a file lock on the surfer at Bob's signal. Bob held his hands low. "Just escort us," he said.
When they arrived at the Principle Office, Bob said to the CPUs, "Thanks, I'll take it from here."
As the relieved binomes left, Bob turned to Ray nodded toward the entrance. "First, we need to do a system scan."
"All right," Ray said, having given up the hope that this was a joke. The scan would reveal that he was clean, he was sure of that.
They walked down several long, orderly corridors to the med room. Inside, Matrix was already lying on one of the diagnostics beds. Phong was watching the readouts carefully.
"Matrix! They get you too?" Ray asked in a failed attempt at a light tone.
"Just a checkup," the green Sprite answered.
"Please lay down here." Phong gestured at a free diagnostics bed.
Ray leaned his Surf-Baud against the wall, reclined on the bed, and waited while the old Sprite initialized its functions. It hummed quietly, scanning its subject's code.
A soft blip sounded from Matrix's readouts. Phong looked over. "All is within normal parameters, Matrix. Thank you."
"No problem." He got off the bed. "See you later."
Bob watched Matrix leave, then closed the door behind him. Both Bob and Phong studied the readouts above Ray, looking for any sign of abnormality as the scan progressed. Their serious attitudes were starting to unnerve Ray.
The monitor blipped, indicating that the scan was finished. Bob and Phong did not look relieved. Ray said, "Well? What's it say?"
Bob said, "Ray, I don't know how, but somehow Daemon did get to you." As Ray sat up the Guardian looked around the room, then picked up a mirror from the table between the beds. He handed it to Ray. The surfer looked at his temples.
After a few long nanos Ray lowered the mirror. "I guess you're right." He turned back to look at the readouts. He did not know how to interpret them, but he did see that Matrix's indicator lights were all green while some of his own were red. "Now what do we do?"
"I have to lock you up for now. I'm sorry." Bob answered. "Phong, we can use one of the med rooms as a quarantine, can't we?"
"Yes, my son."
"Then let's do that." To Ray he continued, "It doesn't look like you're fully infected, or maybe Daemon's control doesn't extend this far. Hopefully we can find a cure."
"I hope so."
"Come on." Bob nodded toward the door. Ray got up off the bed and picked up his Surf-Baud. "Better put this in, too," he said.
Bob nodded agreement.
Bob and Phong escorted Ray further down the same hall. Phong clicked a sequence of keys on the keypad, and the door dilated.
Ray entered ahead of the others and set his Surf-Baud against the wall. Looking around the sparse, small room, he said "Clean."
Bob stepped into the room. Phong hung back in the doorway. Bob said, "Ray - I need your icon."
"My icon?" The surfer turned around.
Bob knew he was asking a lot of him, especially considering the rough treatment he had endured at the hands of Daemon's Guardians before he had come to Mainframe, but it was necessary. If Daemon did take him over, they could keep him under control with his icon. He was certain that Ray knew that. But he only said, "Mouse needs the codes to compare with the icon that Hex brought back, to try to isolate the infection."
"Fair enough." He tapped the logo on the front of his belt. It came off in his hand. He handed it over to Bob.
The surfer hadn't hesitated, but Bob could see how tense he was. He was still his own Sprite, still in control of himself. A viral Sprite would never give up his icon. "Listen, Ray," Bob said, "I'm sorry."
The surfer turned around and forced a smile. "Don't be. You do what you have to do, mate."
"Yeah. And at least Daemon isn't controlling you. Maybe she can only control Guardians." He sighed. "I hope we find out, and quick."
"Mouse's the finest hacker I've seen. With her on the job, you'll figure it out."
"Yeah." Bob nodded. "If you need anything, just call up a VidWindow."
When Bob and Phong left, Ray heard the door seal shut with more than just a click. He was locked in as tightly as if he was in a jail cell, but the scenery here was nicer. The walls were painted, for one thing. He had a real bed... and little else.
Ah well. He lay back in the bed, his hands behind his head. After a nano, he rubbed his fingers over his temples.
Bob came into the control room. Mouse looked up. From the pained expression on her face he could tell that Phong had already apprised her of the situation. She said, "Phong gave me Ray's codes. I'm matchin' 'em to the Guardian's icon now," in a tightly controlled voice.
Bob strode over to her station. Two simplified diagrams rotated on the screens. A flashing light crawled slowly through each from head to foot, leaving behind blue and green markings. When the diagrams were filled in and the blue areas disappeared, Mouse snarled "User delete it!"
"What?" Bob asked?
Phong, who had been watching from the other side, said "The diagram shows common code between the two, Ray Tracer and the viral Guardian. There is too much similar code between the two to be of help in searching for the viral code."
Mouse spat, "But none of the code is EXACTLY the same, or it would have shown up in yellow!" She brushed her hair back in a gesture of frustration.
Phong glanced at Mouse, about to speak, then stopped with his mouth open. She said, "What?"
Bob had seen it too. He said, "Mouse, let me see your temples."
Mouse stood up and glared at him. "Not funny, Guardian."
"I'm not joking around, Mouse." He lifted a hand.
She stepped away from him and drew a katana. Phong shied back. "I can't have it, I didn't go out to the Web, remember?"
"Whoa, don't go random, Mouse!" Bob held his hands out in front of himself.
"Where's a mirror?" Mouse looked around. There were a number of polished metallic surfaces in the room. She leaned close to one and swept her bangs up. There, in her blurred reflection, was a faint glow on her temples. "You're right," she said in disbelief. Turning back, she said, "How'd I get it? I wasn't even there!"
"I don't know." Bob sounded worried.
"Well. When you said Daemon was a supervirus, you weren't kidding." She sheathed her katana. "Guess that's it for me. You gotta lock me up. Again."
'I'm afraid so, Mouse," Bob answered.
"I don't suppose you could rig me up a link to work from jail, could you, sugah?" she asked sweetly.
Bob shook his head. "If Daemon controlled you, you could hack through the security and walk right out."
"You're right. Well, it was worth a shot." She detached her icon and placed it on the workstation. Phong took it. She instructed him, "Compare my code with Ray's. It'll narrow things down."
"Good luck," she said to Dot and Phong.
Bob led her out of the control room. Mouse said in a low voice, "Sugah, I'm in control of myself. You can set up an alias so I can keep workin'."
Bob shook his head. "Sorry, Mouse, I can't."
Mouse scowled. "Good luck crackin' this thing, then."
Phong ran the comparison that Mouse had outlined. The results were a little more illuminating - when the blue was stripped away, there was still too much green, but beyond that there were areas of yellow.
"That's good!' Bob said. "Now just decompile that code and..." He recognized that look on Phong's face: This is not the Supercomputer. Bob was already beginning to reconsider giving Mouse a terminal to work from.
"Hexadecimal went into the Web with you," Phong began.
"She's a Virus," Dot pointed out. "One Virus can't infect another, can it?"
"A second ago I'd have agreed with you," Bob said. "Now, I'm not sure what limitations Daemon has."
"She is the only one who has not undergone a system check since your return from the Web," Phong continued.
"All right, I'll bring her in." Bob did not sound thrilled at the prospect.
As he left Dot thought to herself that he had a blind spot when it came to Hexadecimal. It seemed as though he had forgotten that she had nearly destroyed the city more than once, and could again if she ever felt the whim. She continually made Bob uncomfortable by pawing at him. If it were anyone else Dot would have tried to pound some sense into her head, but Hex was immune to that tactic. Maybe she ought to try it out on Bob instead.
Bob called up a VidWindow to Hexadecimal's lair. The Virus looked up from the paint program. "Well, hello, Bob!" she said in delight.
"Hi, Hex. Could you come down to the Principle Office? We-" she disappeared from the window. A nano later she appeared, mask first, beside him. "-need to run a system check on you."
"I feel fine," she replied.
"I know, but we have to check everyone who went out to the Web."
"Oh. All right."
He led her to the med room. She skimmed just above the floor. Phong was already there. Uncomfortably the old Sprite said, "Lie down here," indicating a diagnostics bed.
She did, and watched with interest as the readouts above the head of the bed began glowing green and red. Mostly red.
"Oh, dear," Phong murmured.
Bob could not quite believe what he was seeing. "Are you sure it's not picking her own code up? After all, she's a Virus herself."
Hexadecimal sat up and looked back at the diagram. It was a simplified image of herself, turning on its axis. Shot though the figure were thick red lines of non-native code, like the roots of a plant growing in too small a container.
"No, my son-"
"What are you two talking about?" Hex asked.
"It looks like Daemon got you too. I don't know how. Mouse and Ray are also infected."
"Another Virus? Infect ME?" She lay her hand on her chest, looking haughtily offended. Then she continued sweetly, "I must find out how she did it."
"Her energy levels are much lower than they were when she was registered." Phong had extended his neck so he could see her temples, such as they were. No telltale markings had appeared on her mask, or between her mask and her crown. She did not display the symptoms herself, yet she carried a viral payload that would have killed a normal Sprite. The physical sign was not there, and who could tell if Hexadecimal were going random?
This was going to be a tough one, Bob knew. "We're going to have to put you in quarantine, Hexadecimal."
"Oh, really." She raised an eyebrow.
Oh boy. "Yes. Just until we find a way to free you from Daemon's infection. We need to keep you away from people who haven't been infected so it doesn't spread any further."
"No, no, that's not now it works," Hexadecimal explained patiently. "Only Viruses can infect Sprites. Sprites can't infect each other like Viruses. Well, I am a Virus, but you know what I mean." She waved a hand. Phong ducked his head to avoid her claws. Her hand grazed him. She looked down. "Oops." She patted the startled Sprite on the head.
As Phong wheeled backwards indignantly Bob continued, "And Viruses can't infect Guardians, except Daemon already has. We can't take any more chances."
It was a thin lie, but she accepted it grudgingly. "And you want to lock me up?"
"I'm afraid I have to."
She smirked. "Do I get to choose where?"
"In the infirmary, where we can keep watch on you," he said firmly.
She smiled. "Can't blame a girl for trying."
Phong watched Bob lead Hexadecimal out of the room. He didn't envy the Guardian at this moment.
In another room of the med area, Bob called up a VidWindow while Hexadecimal looked around disdainfully. "Dot?"
"Yes. What did you find out?"
"You were right, Hex has it too. Could you do me a favor and run an alias over here so she can use the paint program? Still limiting access to Lost Angles."
Dot paused, then said, "Yes. Doing that now."
"Thanks, Dot." He minimized the window.
"All of the comforts of home," Hexadecimal said in a tone halfway between irony and sarcasm.
"Sorry, but Mouse and Ray have to put up with it too. Hopefully it won't be for long. I need your icon." He held his hand out.
She put her hand to her chin and studied him. Then she shook her head. "No."
She waved a forefinger in the air. "Shame on you, Guardian. Trying to catch me like that."
"This is different! We need to use your codes to try to fight the virus."
She considered for a nano. Then she said, "Come and get it."
"Hex! I don't-"
"You want my icon? Take it from me," she said in a low, threatening voice.
He stood back, looking into her eyes as if staring her down. The he stepped forward and reached for it-
She darted forward and wrapped one arm around him. She touched his cheek with her free hand, said "No hard feelings, Bob," and kissed him.
Sputtering, Bob pushed her away. Smiling, she detached her icon and held it out between thumb and forefinger.
He took the icon from her and left quickly, sealing the door behind himself.
Shakily Bob walked back to the Principle Office. He wished he could apply an undo command to the last few nanoseconds. When he entered the control room he went straight over to the station where Phong was working. "Here's her icon."
"Bob!" Dot exclaimed, wide eyed.
"What?" He turned, alarmed. Had she seen-?!
Instead of anger, her face held bewilderment, then panic. "No, not you too!"
"Not me what?!"
"You were normal only nanos ago!" Phong said, looking just above Bob's eyes.
"Oh... User." Bob's fingers touched his temple. He felt no different. Well, maybe a little shaky, but he was pretty sure that Daemon was not the Virus responsible for that. His chest tightened, as if a fist was gripping his heart. He knew that Turbo had been able to resist a full-fledge Daemon infection, but then Bob was no Prime Guardian. Who knows if he might go random. He looked at Phong. "Well... you know what you have to do."
"Yes, my son," the old Sprite replied sadly. Dot watched, stricken, as they left the room.
The scan, as expected, revealed results similar to Ray's and Mouse's. Phong tried to mutter comforting words, but Bob did not hear them. They walked down the corridor, and Bob handed his icon to Phong and let him lock him in.
Inside the room, Bob sat on the bed and lowered his face into his hands. Oh, User. He had not thought that he would be infected. Why hadn't he, though? He was a Guardian, like all the others who had been infected. He was nothing special; it was pure luck that he had not been caught before. Now only Matrix was clean.
Some Guardian I am, he thought bitterly. Brought down by a distant Virus after letting half my friends get infected. If Daemon could reach through the Web to infect people, what chance did Mainframe have? If only he could hope for clemency if they surrendered, but then he knew that that was impossible. As long as they had one Guardian, Matrix, to rally around they would drag the futile battle out, getting themselves deleted for nothing.
Don't let them down too, Enzo, he thought fervently.
Phong wheeled into the command room. Dot looked up. Her hopeful expression faded when she saw his face. Sorrowfully she looked back down at the screens in front of herself, her eyes unfocused.
Phong took Bob's icon out of the drawer built into his front and placed it on a surface next to the keypad. Its data downloaded, building an image on the screen. Phong accessed the records from Bob's last clean system scan, and ran a comparison between the two. Once again a blue, green, and yellow image developed on the screen.
Dot heard Phong's hands pattering on the keys. A brief burst, then a microsecond while he waited, then more clicks. Another pause. "Dot!"
"What is it?" she asked without looking up.
"Look here." She turned. Phong pointed at the diagram on the screen. He had removed the yellow layer, showing the sections that were identical between scans. There was no green layer of almost-identical code. What remained was a section of blue, showing the infection. It looked as if the Sprite had been invaded by a small null.
"Ugh," Dot exclaimed, repelled.
"It should not look like this," Phong explained. "I have seen scans of viral infections- " he called up a VidWindow and, after some searching through old files and muttering to himself, put a diagram up on the screen. The blue threads of Viral infection spread through the three blocks of a binome, permeating every subroutine. "A viral infection spreads throughout a Sprite. That is how the Virus achieves control. This-" he tapped Bob's diagram "-is a viral bug, a parasitic worm program."
"That means we can fight it, doesn't it?" she asked, hardly daring to hope.
Phong adjusted his glasses. "Yes, my child, I think so. But first-" He called up Mouse's scan and compared it with Bob's, then Ray's. Both revealed the same parasitic block. Hexadecimal's scan, however, looked entirely different. He could make no sense of it. "Yes. We cannot break the quarantine or they will spread the bug to others, but we can give them access to the Principle Office's resources again."
"Wonderful," Dot said heartfeltedly. "I'll tell the others, and get Mouse back online."
"Yes." Phong placed all the data they had gathered in a central folder.
A VidWindow popped open in front of Bob, who was laying on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. 'Hi, Dot," he said tonelessly.
"Good news, Bob. You're all not viral after all! It's a bug instead."
"A bug?" he said skeptically. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! Look." She repeated Phong's findings and showed him the diagrams. By the time she finished he looked hopeful again. "Yeah... yeah. That makes sense - and we can fight a bug. Let's get Mouse on it!"
"I cannot release her - or any of you - from quarantine," Phong said from the background of the window. "The bug would spread. I can, however, give her access to the system files from her room."
Phong popped another VidWindow open. The hacker glared back sourly. "What is it?"
"I have good news, Mouse." He explained their findings.
By the time he finished Mouse looked enthusiastic again. "Gimme system access, sugah!"
He pattered a few system commands to activate a link into her room. She went to its controls. He started, "The files are in... never mind." She had already accessed them.
Mouse crowed, "All right! Honey, you cracked it!" She began rattling at her keyboard, attempting to crack the parasitic code. "Lookit you, ya little charmer..."
Phong turned away from the VidWindow, leaving the hacker to her work. To Bob and Dot he said, "I think that, in light of the circumstances, we can block off most of the med area for the quarantine, to give the others more room to move around."
Dot said, "Good idea. Mouse?"
"Workin'." Mouse did not look up.
"It must be spread by touch," Bob said.
"You're right," Mouse said from her VidWindow. "It's a worm. I found the copy section of the code. It's the gift that keeps on givin'. Long's it's got enough energy, it'll keep replicatin' itself."
Mouse looked out at Dot and said with a smile, "Seems I remember someone sayin' something about knowing your enemy better than he knows himself?"
Dot smiled back. "I know." To Bob she said, "I'll seal off everything in your section, behind... area KM-02. That'll give you guys some room. I've unsealed the doors."
"I'll go get the others. Thanks!"
The VidWindow disappeared. Mouse let out a low whistle. "This thing sucks up energy. The more energy it's got to feed off, the stronger it is."
"Hexadecimal," Dot and Phong said together.
"Bingo. Y'all need to keep her away from everybody else, or she'll spread it all over Mainframe." Mouse looked offscreen, at a sound behind herself, waved, and went back to her screen.
Bob was fine up until he brought her in to be scanned, Dot thought. And right afterwards, he had it. She could infect someone that quickly. "Mouse, can you come up with a cure?"
"I'll see. Teasin' a code apart's one thing, fightin' it's another. This's a tricky one." But she was smiling. She enjoyed her work.
A VidWindow popped up. "I let Ray and Mouse out, but Hex wasn't in her room," Bob said.
"Oh, GREAT!" Dot exclaimed.
"Why didn't you filelock her?!" Mouse growled.
"You know what'd happen when she got out," Dot answered.
If she got out, Mouse thought. Who said she had to?
"Mouse-" she looked up. The Guardian was in her doorway. "Do you know how long it'll be until you can find a cure for this?"
"Crash it, Bob, I'm a hacker, not a physician!" she flared.
"I know, I know. But you're-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm workin' on it. If I can get this whole thing figgered out I'll code up something to beat it. Go away and lemme work." In contrast to her brusque tone, she looked up, smiled at him, and winked.
Phong, meanwhile, had been frantically downloading the code from his own icon. He said, "Mouse!"
"I said, I'm tryin' to work, Phong."
"Mouse, compare my codes to that of those who are infected."
She looked up in surprise at his image in the VidWindow. Then she paused her own processes, accessed the data he had just input, and matched it as he had requested. "I can't tell, Phong. Your programming's different from ours. Do you have a recent system scan?"
He accessed the records, selected one, and copied it. She ran another comparison. "Nope. You're clean."
He blinked in surprise. "I am?"
"What, did she touch you?"
"Hmm... well, some bugs are more specific than others. Maybe it doesn't work on Sprites your, ah, version."
The old Sprite had not been upgraded in... well, his last upgrade was only a dim memory. For once he was glad of that.
Mouse was already back to tearing through the parasite's code. Phong called up a VidWindow and began rapidly flicking through views of the Principle Office. Bob, Ray, and Mouse were in the quarantined area, but no Hexadecimal. He widened his search.
Soon he exclaimed in frustration, "She is in the game court!" and wheeled out of the room.
Through the VidWindow, Mouse and Dot exchanged looks. Phong very rarely lost his temper, but Hexadecimal was enough to drive anyone random.
The old sprite tracked down the corridor as briskly as his trackball would carry him. He had had all that he could take from Hexadecimal. That Virus seemed determined to wreak as much havoc as she could, no matter whose side she was on! Why had he given in to Bob and registered her?!
He entered the game field to find that she had somehow activated the game court. Force walls shimmered around her, and smaller fields encased her hands and feet. Bewildered, she was trying to fight against the fields. He called out, "Pause!" The walls became transparent. He wheeled through and shouted, "What are you doing?!"
She turned a red-eyed glare on him. "What IS this place?!" she snarled down at him.
"It is the puck oriented non-linear game court!" He wrapped thin digits around her wrist. "You must go back into quarantine!"
Her eyes flicked green. "Oh, a game room!" she exclaimed with delight as Phong pulled ineffectually at her wrist. "How do you play?"
He looked back up at her in disbelief. "I will show you later. Now, you have to go back into quarantine or you will infect all of Mainframe!"
"It's boring in there. Show me how to play. I've never been in a game before." She smiled, blue-eyed. "Please?"
He started to reply angrily, then caught himself. It would keep her occupied for a time, and keep her from wandering off and spreading the bug any further. And... it had been a long time since he had played against another opponent. He released her wrist and said, "Very well," grudgingly.
"Oh, goody!' She clapped her hands together.
He wheeled to the other end of the court and called out, "Reset, practice mode." The walls and the force shields on Hexadecimal's hands and feet disappeared briefly, then reappeared at full strength. Similar fields appeared on Phong's hands and below his body. He took a pair of small, rectangular objects out of the drawer in his front and put one above his eyes. Lights played across its surface. He held the other out to Hexadecimal. She looked at it, then at him, then put it on her forehead. Phong backed to one side of the room, where an oblate object was hovering before him at chest height. "The object of the game is to get the puck past me." He tapped the puck back and forth between his hands, then sent it skimming across the court toward Hexadecimal.
She gestured, and the puck reversed direction and flew back toward Phong. He caught it with one extended limb and dribbled it between his hands. "No, you must not use anything but your hands."
"It is a game of skill. It may seem simple, but appearances are deceptive. It takes minutes to master." He slapped the puck back to her. She extended a hand, but the puck swept past, striking the force wall to her left. A soft buzz acknowledged Phong's point.
As the puck returned to Phong she said, "That's what I'm trying to do, eh?"
"That is correct," the Sprite said, readying himself for another serve.
A predatory smile spread across her face. "Let's try that again." She poised, ready for his serve.
Phong paused, suddenly realizing the situation he had put himself in. What was he doing, playing a game with a Virus who could destroy the Principle Office on a whim? Oh, dear. But he recalled an old readme file which said, "When you have a tiger by the tail, don't let go."
He gathered his nerve and hit the puck.
"What is it?" Dot asked Mouse's VidWindow image.
"I broke this thing's code. It works its way into a Sprite 'n feeds off his energy. It makes us act a little random and puts those markings up on our heads," Mouse explained enthusiastically. "I can beat this thing!"
"Great! How?" Bob asked.
"It needs a lotta energy to live. I can whip up something to hook onto it and starve it out. Lemme work now." She was already pattering at her keyboard.
"I told you she had it covered," Surfer said.
"Acting random?" Dot murmured. That would explain why Bob gave up as soon as he thought he had the Daemon virus. The Bob she knew would have fought as long as he was able, using every plan, weapon, and cliche he had. It would also explain Mouse's sudden nasty turn.
Bob asked, "Where's Phong?"
He had rushed out in a temper over Hexadecimal getting out of quarantine. If he had met Hexadecimal in that temper- "Hold on, Bob." She called up a VidWindow to the game court.
Bob watched as she stared at the VidWindow. He could not see what she was looking at; the window was edge-on to his. All he could see was her look of disbelief. "Dot? What is it?"
"I don't believe this," she said in a low voice. She turned the VidWindow to face Bob's.
Phong and Hexadecimal did not notice the VidWindow that had popped in above them. Hexadecimal had just returned Phong's serve with a vicious slap, sending the puck bouncing wildly between the left and right walls. He blocked it with his arm as it sailed past, slowing it to a manageable speed, then when it bounced back sent it back towards Hexadecimal.
She swooped to the side she had left unguarded, missing the puck by angstroms. It struck the wall behind her.
She returned to her ready pose, feet planted far apart, slightly crouching, hands ready. She was grinning and staring intently at Phong.
Phong, readying himself to serve, was wearing a similar smile.
"I don't believe this," Bob said.
"Mouse did say it makes people act random," Dot answered.
"She also said Phong doesn't have it."
"Are either of you betting men?" Ray asked.
Mouse worked hard, writing code to interface with the viral bug and destroy it. The bug wasn't complicated, just tricky. It was programmed to mimic a Viral infection; spread like wildfire throughout a system's Sprites; and slowly randomize, bit by bit, anyone who had caught it. The longer a Sprite had it, the worse he'd get, until Hexadecimal made him look sane. How long had she and Ray had it? No, she'd better not wonder about that; it'd drive her crazy faster than the bug itself.
She checked the code she had written, then compiled it. "Heads up, guys, I think I've got your bug killer."
In the VidWindow, Dot was watching something out of screen range very intently. She broke away. "What?"
"I said, I've got it. You remember, that bug that's eatin' some of us from inside? I've come up with another worm to kill it. It'll delete the bug, then die off by itself. I'm gonna run a simulation."
Bob, Dot, and Ray watched their respective screens as Mouse uploaded Bob's most recent medical scan, then added her test cure. On the diagram, the new worm zeroed in on the parasite and wrapped itself around it, attacking it. The parasite turned red as its energy was drained. "It's working," Bob said.
The red spread out from the parasite to the host. Soon the red faded to black. The words RESULT: FATAL appeared at the top of the screen. Dot drew herself up, staring at the screen.
"Ah... needs a bit of fine tuning. Lemme work on that," Mouse said, taken aback. She cleared the screen and called her code back up. It hadn't choked the parasite tightly enough; in its effort to stay alive it had drained B- the simulated host completely. She'd have to tighten that part of the code...
Bob looked up to see Dot staring at him. "It's only a sim," he said in a low voice.
"I know." But seeing even a simulation of Bob dying was painful.
"Don't worry," he said, wishing he could reach through the VidWindow to comfort her.
A buzz sounded. Bob looked over and said in disbelief, "Hey! Hex scored a point."
The puck returned, this time going to Hexadecimal instead of Phong. The Virus grinned at the golden Sprite's look of bewilderment. Without warning, she whacked the puck over to his side.
He was just barely able to block her serve, sending it skittering over to ricochet off a side wall and over to her. She slapped it back to him. He wheeled over to the far end of the court, leaving one side unguarded. As the puck skimmed over to her he was readying for a lunge in that direction. But instead of aiming the puck for his weak side, she bounced it back to the same area as her previous strike. It hit the wall, and a buzzer sounded.
Phong was stunned. Any experienced player would have known to send the puck to the farther part of the court, to make it harder to hit. Yet she had practically bunted it back to him - and, unprepared for that, he had missed it.
He steadied himself and awaited her serve.
While the others watched the game, Mouse ran another simulation. She had altered a few constants on her program that controlled how it attacked the parasite. It was delicate work, making it attack the parasite without touching the host. Well, try it out on another sim...
On the screen, the worm attached itself to the parasite, which glowed red. And stayed red.
After a few nanos, Mouse accelerated the sim time rate. Still no change. It would stop the parasite's progress, but it wouldn't defeat it. It just reached a standstill. Not good enough.
She stopped and reset the sim again and returned to the code. She tweaked the constants again, just a little, so hopefully it would kill the bug without clobbering the host. She could see now that no matter what, it was not gonna be easy to go through this for real.
She set the third sim running. Once again the worm found its prey, which turned red. Red slowly began to spread throughout the host - but before it finished, the parasite turned black and faded. A nano later the worm did as well, and the host began to return to his normal energy state.
"Heads up, guys!" the others heard Mouse call. "I think I've got it this time. If y'all'll watch the monitor-"
This time the sim's subject was Mouse, Dot noticed. It progressed the same way Bob's had, but more slowly. Of course; Bob had a higher clockspeed. The worm killed the bug, in the process draining the host of energy, then deleted itself, leaving the host to recover. When it finished Mouse said, "It has to bring a Sprite's energy level down so it can choke it off, but not too far down. This ain't gonna be fun, but it'll do the trick."
"Good work, Mouse. Let's meet in the med room," Bob said.
"Good work, luv," Ray said from the doorway of Mouse's room. She looked over, surprised, and saw that he was giving her a thumbs-up. She smiled, then turned back to her console to send the worm program to the med section.
Mouse's VidWindow closed. Dot turned back to the view of the game court. Phong and Hexadecimal were still at it. To Bob she commented, "They're playing for blood."
"Almost hate to break it up," Bob answered.
From above and to the right they heard Dot's voice. "Phong! Hexadecimal!"
Startled, Phong looked up. The puck struck him at chest level with a resounding CLANG, knocking him back into the force wall. Dazed, he answered, "Yes, my child?"
"Are you all right?!"
"Never... better." He struggled to right himself. The puck was spinning in midair before him.
"We have a cure for the bug! Come to the med room," she said excitedly.
"Ah. We'll be right over." The VidWindows closed. "End game." The force walls retracted, and the shields around their limbs faded. Hexadecimal stepped forward and gestured with one hand at Phong, lifting him and then gently set him down upright. "Thank you," he said as took the marker off his forehead and placed it in his drawer, which stuck slightly open due to the dent in the front.
"Just as the game was getting good," Hexadecimal pouted as she gave Phong her marker. "Is that what the games that come down from the sky are like?"
Phong shook his head as he wheeled toward the exit. "No. Those are dangerous. Sprites can be deleted or nullified in them."
"Really?" Hexadecimal said, interested.
Soon Hexadecimal and Phong entered the med room. Phong was describing to her a game which Megabyte had entered while trying to steal its energy.
Dot, who was present via VidWindow, and Bob exchanged surprised looks. The last thing that they would have expected to see was Phong getting chummy with a Virus. "You're sure you're okay?" she asked Phong.
"I'm fine," he answered, raising one hand. "This is not the first time I have been beaned. Mouse, are we ready?"
"Sure thing," she answered. "System's set up. All I need is a volunteer."
"That's me," Hexadecimal said brightly. "I don't appreciate being infected. It's a Virus thing."
"Okay. I gotta warn ya, this is gonna hurt," Mouse told her.
Hexadecimal narrowed her eyes and hissed, "You don't know what suffering is!" Blue eyed, she laughed, "Oh, I could tell you stories!" Her eyed shifted to green as she reclined on the bed. "I'm ready," she said calmly.
Mouse handed Phong a small disk. One side was blank and grey; the other bore a single blinking light to signal that it carried code. Hexadecimal watched suspiciously as Phong placed the grey disk - very delicately, considering where she normally fastened her icon. It turned one full revolution as it fastened itself onto her.
The screen above the bed showed a rotating outline of the Virus shot through with copies of the viral bug. Mouse's worm sought out the nearest copy and proceeded to attach itself. Nothing happened.
"Uh oh," Mouse muttered to herself.
Bob guessed what she was thinking. "It feeds off her energy, and energy's what Hex has in spades."
"Right. For this thing to work, we've gotta bring her down to the energy level of a Sprite," Mouse said, looking at Phong.
"We can do that..." he started doubtfully.
"Then DO IT!" Hex insisted. "Don't take all cycle about it!"
Phong was not comfortable with this procedure; it was a desperate measure, one he had not had to resort to in minutes. But he removed the grey circle and attached another item, a disk at the end of a wire, to its place. The wire ran to the wall at the head of the bed, just below the readings. She watched him, her head tilted back, as he pressed a button.
Her eyes squeezed shut and her body tensed as the system began draining her energy. The telltales did not move at first; being calibrated for Sprites, they could not reflect the amount of energy Hexadecimal possessed. She was simply off the scale. But eventually they did reach a measurable level and began to crawl downwards. Phong looked at Mouse, who was watching the stats above the bed. When she said "That's enough," he disconnected the lead.
Hexadecimal turned her head toward him as he removed the wire and replaced it with the grey disk. Her half-closed eyes were a dim green. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.
The worm program, which was still in her system, attacked a new copy of the parasite. It choked it off, and when the parasite was deleted, went on to the next copy. One by one, it was destroying the parasites.
But while it was deleting copies, the parasite was replicating itself, drawing off Hexadecimal's energy to do so. Her energy levels sank as the two programs fought within her. With each copy of the bug that was deleted the green of the diagram faded towards red.
The battle slowed, as if the speed constant of a sim had been altered. Her energy was running low, slowing the rate of the battle by starving Mouse's worm as well as the parasite. The bug had stopped reproducing, at least; there was no longer enough energy available.
Phong, his hand poised over the energy cable, looked toward Mouse when the diagram had turned completely red. She answered his unspoken question. "No. Give her a jolt, and the bug'll use it."
Mouse's worm was moving more slowly now as it sought out the last few parasites. It had so little energy now - the diagram had faded to dark red - that it crawled sluggishly in search of its target. Each remaining bug took longer to delete, each battle taking place in slow motion.
Phong glanced up and saw Bob staring at Hexadecimal. Her body had faded to a ghostlike state. Her surfaces were translucent, the bed beneath visible through them. Only her face still had some semblance of solidity. But it was blank, masklike, empty.
As Dot watched she thought, after all Hex has done, after all her attempts to randomize, even destroy Mainframe, after all the times they had fought her to a standstill, never being able to fully defeat her, this was all it took. When she had been their enemy, she had been practically unbeatable. But now, drained of her energy, she was helpless. It would only take one more step to end file once and for all. Because she had entrusted her life to them, they had their chance...
The light faded completely from her eyes as the worm program deleted the last of the parasites. Her wireframe was faintly visible now. Phong glanced at Mouse, who wore a grim expression. Dot looked the same. Bob said, "Bring her back up."
As Phong attached the lead, Bob caught Dot and Mouse's expressions. Softly Bob said, "We can't delete her."
"I know," Dot answered, embarrassed that he had known what she was thinking.
"Phong, sugah, save some of that energy. The rest of us might need it," Mouse directed.
Phong nodded and switched the grey disk for the cable again. He watched the telltales as energy flowed back into the Virus. As they brightened from red to green the glow reappeared in Hexadecimal's eyes, and her body resolidified. She looked about, then tried to bring a hand to her forehead, but it only made it as far as her chest before dropping. "Delete me now," she moaned.
"You're going to be okay, Hex," Bob said. "The bug's gone."
She closed her eyes, searching her memory. Then she looked at Bob and lifted a hand and tried to extend it to him. Bob backed away. "Whoa, I've still got it. I'll re-infect you."
She smiled faintly, said "Guardian..." and closed her eyes. Her hand slipped down to her side.
Mouse said, "Let her sleep, we'll use the other stations. Who's next?"
The cure progressed as it had in the simulation for the other three Sprites. First Bob had been cured, then Ray, and finally Mouse, who had instructed Phong on how to manage it. All three were left weak, but none had been drained as severely as Hexadecimal. They had all received infusions of her energy, enough to restore them to functionality, and then the rest had been returned to her. Even so, she was still tired.
They were now sitting in Dot's office. They had had enough of confinement inside the medical quarters and staring at screens in the command room, and any change of scenery was welcome. Even though Bob had cheerfully reassured Dot that they would be fine in a few cycles, and even though she had seen others recover from more severe energy drains with no lasting effects, she still found it very disquieting to see him so weak. And the quiet, calm Hexadecimal was positively eerie.
There was not a lot that Dot could do to help the matter, but one thing did occur to her. She put Phong in charge of the Principle Office and left on a zip board, promising to be back in a few nanos.
"What I don't quite get," Ray said, "Is why anyone would make up a bug like that. What good is it? When you get right down to it, all it did was scare us."
"Why would anyone program anything Viral?" Mouse started, then realized her gaffe and looked at Hexadecimal.
The Virus had not taken offense. "Oh, I don't know," she said with an odd smile. "Remember my Medusa?" she asked Bob teasingly.
"All too well." He frowned. "I know what that bug was for."
"Well, what?" Mouse asked.
"To scare us, just like Ray said. It's supposed to make people think they've got the Daemon virus, that it's spreading to Sprites, not just Guardians. It'll flush out the last few systems not already controlled by her Guardians; when the bug-infected systems send people out looking for help in the net they'll be caught." Bob said grimly.
Phong nodded agreement. "And she is also watching the web."
Ray asked, "Hang on, we're trapped in here? No offense, but I don't like the idea of being locked into one system for the rest of my runtime."
Bob shook his head. "No. We have to get this information, and Mouse's cure, to Turbo. If there's any resistance out there, he's going to be at the head of it, and if this bug has been used on us it's been used elsewhere, you can bet on it. We can't just hide here until Daemon finds us," he said determinedly, looking around at the others.
Phong thought to himself that Bob had a great deal of faith in Turbo. But then, he had to. Bob looked up to the Prime Guardian the way most mainframers looked up to Bob. Phong only hoped that Bob's faith was justified.
"Yes." Hexadecimal sat up. Her eyes flickered red as she grinned wickedly. "I have a score to settle with this Daemon myself." She started to gather her energy, then sank back, exhausted. "Later."
Silence descended as each thought his or her own thoughts on the matter.
Dot walked back into the room carrying a pair of large, white bags in her hands. "Hi, guys," she said brightly, then stopped and looked around at the grim faces. "This looks like a funeral. Come on, we won this round, remember?"
"Honey, right now I don't have the energy to hack myself out of a paper bag." Mouse put her boots up on the desk. Her glowing orange hair was noticeably dimmer than usual.
Bob leaned back in Dot's chair, which he had commandeered when she had left. "Nothing could get me out of this chair right now. Not Daemon, not a game, not even a system crash." He tilted his head back and shut his eyes.
"Aren't you the least bit interested in what I have here?" Dot asked irritably, nudging the Guardian with her knee.
He opened his eyes and looked at the two mysterious bags. "Unless it's a heavy armored Web tank with antivirus ammo for turrets, it'll have to wait until I come back online."
Hands on her hips, Dot looked down at Bob. "Fine. Then you don't get one." She reached into the bag closest to herself and pulled out an insulated cup. "Here," she said as she handed it and several others out to everyone in the room - except Bob. The last one went to Mouse. "Don't expect this to become a habit, though." Dot winked at the hacker. Mouse smiled and winked back.
"Dot," Bob pleaded as he reached for a bag. Dot lifted it out of his reach. "Come on, let me have one." He caught her wrist. "Please?"
"Oh, give him one, he asked nicely," Mouse said. "Besides, if you don't we're all going to have to listen to him whine."
Dot made a show of reluctantly handing Bob a shake. He took it with an expression of exaggerated gratitude, then kept hold of her hand. Mouse and Ray had to grin as they watched the two smile at each other; Dot and Bob made an almost insufferably cute couple.
Hexadecimal looked skeptically at the tube protruding from the top of the cup. "What is this?"
"Energy shakes," said Dot, sitting in a chair pulled up right next to Bob, her green fingers laced with the blue of Bob's free hand. "Courtesy of Dot's Diner - finest food in all of Mainframe."
Bob teased, "I'm surprised you didn't just get a delivery from Al's."
"What?" Hex said.
A few nanos later, when the laughter subsided, she asked, "What's so funny?"
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All characters are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. Story copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.