By Kim McFarland

There is no cause so noble that it will not attract fuggheads.

-- from Larry Niven's Laws

First Mate Christopher's log.  We have just returned from a detour into a nearby system to avoid hostile Web inhabitants.  In the process the Saucy Mare was damaged, but the damages were not severe, and repairs were effected quickly and completely.  The Mare is once again fully operational, and the delay was not expensive in terms of time or supplies.

Mr. Christopher saved the entry and closed his organizer. He kept the Saucy Mare's log as well as its accounts. In his opinion, the ledgers were by far the more important set of documents; they tracked all of the ship's important activities. However, he also kept a narrative log for those interested in the day-to-day trivia.

He went up on deck. Mr. Andrew was at the wheel. Other Sprites and crew members stood or sat on the boxes and barrels around the deck and watched the large VidWindows that showed what they could not see through the ship's Web shield. The starboard and port VidWindows were almost black. This far in the depths of the Web there was little to see. Centered in the fore VidWindow was the light-enhanced image of the Web Surfer, leading the ship through the darkness.

Mr. Christopher looked around. Bob was leaning on the mast, watching the scene attentively. Beside him was Turbo, who by some odd arrangement outranked him yet was not the captain of their party. He was watching just as intently, arms folded. Mouse was sitting on a barrel of ROM, a secretive smile on her face. Her mind clearly was elsewhere. Matrix and AndrAIa stood to one side, speaking quietly to each other. Where was Hexadecimal? If Christopher had looked up he would have seen her mask floating among the sails.

Bob was watching Ray on the window, but his mind was focused on other matters. He still couldn't quite believe that they had come into a system while a game was running and hadn't known it. He couldn't believe they had survived it. He couldn't believe he had left Dot behind and was finally going to face Daemon. He couldn't believe he was leading his friends into a potentially deadly battle.

Turbo ought to be the one leading this group, Bob thought. The Prime Guardian had plenty more experience than Bob did. He was used to leading other Guardians. He knew more about all formats of Viruses. He had been briefing Bob on what to expect in the Supercomputer. The more Bob learned about what they would be facing, the more he realized how unprepared he was. Yet Turbo wouldn't take over. The Prime firmly maintained that Bob had to be the one to lead these Sprites - but Bob knew for sure that he wasn't ready for this.

However, Bob wouldn't give up. Though the more he learned about the situation in the Supercomputer and the Net, the more hopeless it looked, they had to have some chance. Turbo wouldn't have come to Mainframe and gotten them if there weren't. Bob was not going to give up if there was any hope at all.

Bob shook his head and smiled despite his dark mood. He was being defeatist. He was still annoyed by the game they had just gone through, that's why he was thinking like this. If he didn't stop it he'd psyche himself out before Daemon ever laid eyes on him. He had to use the power of positive processing, or whatever the buzzword was. The others had faith that they had a chance, and he did too, even if at times it was hard to maintain. Right now all was well, they were on their way. Relax while you can, he told himself.

He became aware of the screen when he realized Ray was gesturing with wide sweeps of one arm. Looking back toward the ship, the surfer waved again, making sure he had their attention, then put one hand to the side of his head and pointed into the Web with the other. "What's he saying?" Christopher asked.

"Looks like he's telling us he hears something out there," Bob guessed.

The middle screen zoomed in on Ray. The Surfer was not speaking; he was still tapping the side of his head and gesturing. His hand swung in an arc in front of himself. A binome moved the slider controlling the input volume. As the sound of the Web, a low thrum almost below audible level, became loud enough to hear they also heard a soft whistling noise in the distance. Bob leaned forward. It was too faint for him to understand over the sound of the Mare's engines. Mr. Christopher quickly went down below deck.

"Oh, spam!" Mouse said.

"Hang on, it might not be that bad," Bob said. "They might not be hostile."

Hexadecimal drifted down to the deck. Matrix said, "You think these are the same Webriders you knew?"

"I can't tell. Let's find out first," Bob said.

The hatch opened. Ray glided in on his Surf-Baud. "Did you hear that?" he asked.

"Just barely," Bob answered.

"I couldn't make out what they were saying. Too many of them talking at once, too far away. Coming from there to there," Ray said, pointing from 10:00 to 2:00.

"They were waiting for us," Bob said.

"Looks like it." Matrix's hand automatically went to Gun.

They heard Capacitor's uneven footsteps. The binome climbed out the hatch. "What do we have now?" he asked.

"Not sure," Bob answered. "Webriders, but we don't know if they're friend or foe yet."

Capacitor said to the crew that were assembled on the deck, "Battle stations! But don't fire until I give the order!"

The gunners scurried off to their weapons. That left very few on deck; the new Saucy Mare had a lot of firepower. Enough to create an energy blaze that would be seen all the way to the Supercomputer for sure. The thought occurred to Matrix that, as before, every crew member had his or her part to play, but there were no weapons stations a Sprite could use. Even with Web armor he would not want to go into battle on a zip board.

The middle screen switched to a schematic, with the Saucy Mare as a solid shape in the middle of a set of concentric circles. As they watched, a few smaller spots approached from the edge. Then more. They came from all around the front half of the ship. Not like an army - rather, like a swarm approaching a threat.

The buzz-whistle was louder now. Ray could pick out threads among the chatter. Bob could not make out the words; these Webriders were speaking in a dialect he did not recognize. They exchanged glances. Capacitor looked up at them and demanded, "Well? What're they saying?"

"They aren't happy to see us," Ray answered. "They want us out of their territory. Now."

"And they're going to stop us?" Matrix said sarcastically. On the schematic the ship was in the center of a densening cluster of spots, but they knew that each spot was only one Webrider, tiny against the heavily armored ship.

"Last time, we fought a battle we didn't need because we started by shooting instead of talking," Ray said. "We haven't poached any of their creatures this time. Let's have a few words with them."

"Gotta try," Bob agreed. He turned to Capacitor and said, "We'll go out and try talking to them. Just us, no weapons. We want to make sure they know we're peaceful." Without thinking he glanced at Turbo. The Prime Guardian nodded once without speaking.

The ship was in the center of a hollow sphere of Webriders. They hung in place, watching and waiting. Bob thought that they matched the gunners in the Saucy Mare - ready to open fire the nanosecond the order came.

Two Webriders coasted forward, just enough to signal Ray and Bob to meet them. As they approached, Ray was glad that the web shield patterning made his face nearly impossible to read. He had seen Web-degraded Sprites before, but these startled even him.

One of the two, the lopsided one riding a many-eyed, sharp-toothed Webcreature, was recognizable as a former Sprite, though what the Sprite had looked like was up to debate. He was powerfully built, heavily muscled along his body and left arm. That hand ended in three thick fingers, each opposing the other two. On the right side he had two arms, one below the other. Both were thin and delicate looking, with long-fingered hands. His feet were also long and delicate, and looked better adapted for grasping than standing. The creature's face was a meaningless leer, his mouth distorted by blunt tusks and curved up at the edges like a dolphin's smile.

The other was nothing like the Webriders Ray had seen before. It - she, he could now see - had long, thin limbs with symmetrical finlike protrusions along the outside edges. Winglike projections extended from her head where her ears would have been. Her limbs, and the fins and struts on them, were webbed. Instead of riding a Webcreature like her companion, she flew, gliding on the data currents themselves. While all of the other Webriders Ray had seen had clearly been degraded by the web, this one looked whole and healthy. And her eyes were solid black.

Bob began by buzz-whistling to them, <We don't want to bother anyone. We only want to pass through. We won't harm you or any of the creatures here.>

"Speak to me," the asymmetrical one said in a harsh voice. "She does not speak your language. Only I do. I am Mediator."

"Sorry," Bob said, and addressed him. "We're sorry if we've alarmed you. We're not here to fight anyone in the Web."

Mediator whistled to the female. She snapped a harsh glare at the Sprites, then gave an abrupt answer. He turned back to the Sprites. "Leave our territory," he ordered. "You are out of place here."

Patiently Bob said, "That's just what we want to do. We're going to the Supercomputer."

"Then use your portals and your Net links, Netizens," Mediator answered. "The web is not yours. Leave us!"

All of the crew and Sprites in the Saucy Mare who were not at battle stations watched as Bob and Ray left the two Webriders and returned. When they stepped from the hatch onto the deck Bob said, "Well, that was a bust. They told us to beat it."

"What's their problem?" Mouse asked.

Ray said, "I recognized their dialect. I've heard about these blokes, but I've never met 'em before. My luck had to run out sooner or later. They call themselves Webstraals. They aren't fond of people from the Net."

"So what? Like they can stop us? Do they think they own the Web?" Matrix said.

Matrix's hand was poised by Gun, Bob saw. "No. We're not going to start a battle. And they have more claim to the Web than we do."

"What we're doing here is disturbing the peace," Ray added. "Look at it that way. I don't think they want a fight either. They didn't threaten us, they only told us to go away."

Turbo asked the Surfer, "How warlike are they?"

Ray considered for several nanoseconds before he answered. "They're unfriendly... But I've never heard of them actually attacking anyone without being provoked. The stories I've heard end up with them chasing their enemies off."

"Show of strength?" Bob asked. Ray nodded. Bob looked at the others, then shrugged. "If they only want us to leave their territory, then why don't we do just that. Go around them. It'll take longer, but who needs a battle?"

"Or a blockade," Capacitor said, looking at the VidWindow. More Webstraals had arrived, and still others were approaching from the distance. "Whatever we do, Bob, we need to do it now."

"Right." Bob nodded. "I'll find out where their borders are so we can skim them." He started toward the hatch.

"Let me come," Hexadecimal chirped.

Bob turned back. "No."

"I want to see them," she persisted.

"No," he repeated. "We need to go alone."

"But what if they try to hurt you? I can-"

"NO, Hexadecimal," Bob said firmly, staring into her green eyes. "This is going to be touchy. There isn't going to be any fighting, because we aren't going to provoke them. Stay here."

He turned and went through the hatch. Hexadecimal looked surprised and hurt.

As they started out the hatch toward the Webriders Ray nodded toward the two Webriders and said in a low voice, "Were you listening to her?"

"Not really. I can barely make out their dialect, and I was trying to think of what to do next. Why?"

"She didn't call the other chap 'Mediator.' She called him 'Speaker to Invaders'."

Bob digested this. Then he said, "That's not good."

"Right," Ray agreed.

Speaker reined his Webcreature mount to a halt and the female spread her 'wings' broadside to brake. When Bob and Ray were close enough Speaker said, "You will leave," in the tone of someone stating a fact.

"We'll get out of your territory," Bob agreed. "Tell us where its boundaries are and we'll go around it."

Bob's answer startled Speaker. He buzz-whistled at the female, who looked just as surprised. She snapped a contemptuous glare at the Sprites, then replied to Speaker. He nodded as if he had anticipated her answer. "The Web is our territory."

Ray heard Bob pause, and could imagine the surprised look on the Guardian's face. He glanced around. There were more Webstraals all the time, whistling to each other in the distance. Now he understood why they, though feared, weren't known to get into many battles. Who'd be fool enough to challenge them?

Carefully keeping a his tone calm, Bob said "We are going to get to the Supercomputer through the Web. That's our only option. We don't want to fight anyone en route, but we will get there."

Speaker leaned forward and faced Bob with a narrow-eyed glare. "You Netizens have been invading the Web, causing havoc with your ships, your infected creatures, your Guardians. We have let you live because at least you have kept your guns silent. But you have them!" He gestured toward the flank of the Saucy Mare. Even at this distance they could see the cannon barrels that extended through the Web armor. "We have weapons too!"

"And you have people. If we get into a battle, how many will be injured or deleted?" Bob asked.

Speaker paused again, looking at Bob. Then he spoke to the female. As they conversed Ray murmured to Bob, "He thought that was funny."

Bob looked, startled, at Ray. The Surfer shrugged. Then Speaker said, "You are weak. You do not understand the Web, you think it is like the Net. You will find that your shields and your armor will not protect you. The Web itself will teach you. Go, if you do not want a harsh lesson."

"We're not going," Bob said quietly and firmly.

Speaker whistled to the female. She looked the Sprites up and down once, then turned and began gliding away. Speaker said, "You have chosen not to save yourselves," as he reined his mount around and followed her. She was buzz-whistling to the other Webstraals.

"I guess they told us," Ray commented as he and Bob headed back toward the ship.

"Well, what be the answer?" Capacitor asked. Mr. Andrew, at the wheel, was alert and awaiting instructions.

Bob answered, "According to them, the whole Web's their territory. They don't want us in it at all."

"The whole Web? Who do those Yahoos think they are?!" Mouse exclaimed.

"We're not going to let them stop us, are we?" Matrix demanded.

"I could sort them out," Hexadecimal said with a predatory grin, and flexed her long, golden-clawed fingers.

"No," Bob said to her. He told Capacitor, "They know the Mare is armed and can do them serious damage. They know we don't want to. Their threat was that the Web itself would 'show us.' I think we should go ahead - slowly to start with. And keep ready at battle stations, just in case."

Ray said, "We'd better be ready to fight. Bluffing with a weak hand isn't a good idea out here."

"But nobody fires a shot until I give the order. We," Bob corrected himself, looking at Capacitor.

The pirate nodded and began calling out orders to the rest of the crew. Bob glanced at Turbo, who was still leaning against the mast, arms folded. The Prime Guardian's expression was neutral. Bob had the feeling that he had somehow missed something.

The ship started forward, slowly at first. The Webstraals in front of it moved aside to let it pass. Matrix, watching on the forward VidWindow, chuckled. "That was easy."

"Look to the sides," AndrAIa said.

The port and starboard views showed the flanking Webstraals pacing the Mare. "They're not giving up just yet," Bob murmured. "Zoom in on one."

A green rectangle enclosed one of the Webstraals. The selection expanded to fill the screen. The Webstraal - a creature that looked like a cousin of Lens the Codemaster - was riding another of the ubiquitous toothy multi-eyed mounts, holding no weapon but keeping an arm free. It was facing the Saucy Mare. "Let's look at some others." One after the other, Webstraals were displayed. All were on mounts, all were watching the Mare, and all were unarmed but kept the hand closest to the ship free. What did that mean?

Then they found one who broke the pattern. Instead of watching the Mare, it was looking away, into the depths of the Web, and holding some sort of device at arm's length. "What's he doing?" AndrAIa asked.

"Zoom in on his hand," Bob said. It filled the screen. The device was small, and mostly hidden by the Webstraal's hand. At the end was a light which flashed in a regular pattern of long and short pulses.

"A light signal," Bob said. "Calling for backup."

"Wait," Ray said. He leaned forward, staring at the image in the VidWindow. He said urgently, "Let me through the hatch, I can't see it in the VidWindow."

"What d'you mean?" Capacitor asked, baffled. "Are you going to go out and ask?"

"No. There are some things a VidWindow doesn't show," he answered, tapping his goggles. "Be right back."

He went into the hatch. The door closed behind him. When it opened again, less than thirty-two nanos later, he said, "That's not just a light signal. It's sending out energy pulses. You can't see them through a VidWindow - they only show visible light."

"Well, what's it for?" Hexadecimal asked, frustrated.

"The only other time I've seen pulses like that was when Webcreatures had found prey. Large prey, and crippled."

"Aw, spam!" Matrix exclaimed.

"What kind of Webcreature?" Bob asked.

"Any kind. They all know what that signal means: dinner's served," Ray answered. "Some energy frequencies carry a long ways. If you know that, you can hear them coming or stay away from where they are. The Webstraals were sending out a call all right."

Bob was getting out of his depth, and he knew it. When he lived in the Web he had only had the time to learn the speech and territory of one group of Webriders. The environment was different here, and might come with its own set of threats. What you didn't know in the Web could kill you - a lesson that Matrix and AndrAIa had learned the hard way. "I know about pixels, probes, spores, spirals, and Web sharks. Do you know of any others?"

Ray shook his head. "Not that we'll have to worry about, not here. Probes aren't dangerous by themselves. And spirals are usually shy. Don't think we'll have to fight them unless they're really starved for energy."

"Or unless they've been sent by Daemon," Bob answered. "The ship's armor is built to resist not only the web. It's strong. It can take some pounding."

"That's good, 'cause here they come."

Speaker and the female Webstraal watched as a small pod of Spores - the nearest creatures, therefore the first to respond to the energy signal - swooped around the ship. They flew about it, confused because they could find no opening, no weak point they could converge on.

<They do not fire,> Speaker commented.

<They may be afraid to provoke the drones.> she replied.

Speaker doubted that either was the case. He sat quietly to watch.

The crew members at the gunnery stations were looking back and forth between their weapons' screens and Capacitor. Capacitor was watching the three VidWindows. "They're just circling," he observed as a flock of six of the spiky creatures flew past.

"They don't see anything weak enough to attack," Ray answered. "It's be different if any of us went outside."

A faint tremor vibrated through the ship and a crash was heard. A familiar winged, double-jawed creature flashed past the screens. "Web shark. Hang on," Bob said without looking away from the screen.

The ship trembled again and the hull boomed. The view on a side VidWindow shifted to display a shoal of Web sharks diving against the Mare's armor. Capacitor laughed. "They can't even scratch us! Keep her steady, Mr. Andrew!"

Mouse noticed that both Bob and Ray still looked worried. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Aren't we safe in here?"

"We're safe as long as the ship's armor keeps its integrity," Bob answered, not taking his eyes off the VidWindow. The Web Sharks were circling around for another go.

"I've seen the specs. It'll take a lot more than that to break through," she persisted. "Is there something bigger out there?"

"Not bigger," Ray said, and pointed at the screen.

Bob looked at the glimmer the Surfer was pointing to. "Crash it!" he exclaimed.

"What would you crash out here?" Hexadecimal asked, intrigued.

Capacitor looked around. "What is it?"


Capacitor exclaimed, "They can eat through our Web armor!"

"Right," Bob answered. He looked over at Ray.

"Better hurry before they reach us. If you cover for me, I'll cover for the Mare."

"Right." As Ray went to the hatch, Bob said to Capacitor, "Keep one of those VidWindows on us. We'll need backup."

On his Surf-Baud, Ray skimmed to the back of the ship. The Webstraals were thickest behind the ship, and he'd have his back to them. But the gun turrets had swivelled to point backwards. That ought to give the Webstraals the message, even if the covering fire wasn't needed. And Bob was back-to-back with him, to ward off the Webcreatures that weren't smart enough to recognize guns.

Most Webcreatures were not that smart. A shoal of spores dove for them. Bob shot bursts of red-gold energy, aiming to discourage them, not to cause serious harm. The one he hit shrieked and darted away. The pod scattered, then regrouped at a distance.

"Go on," Bob shouted over his shoulder.

Ray closed his eyes and concentrated, gathering and focusing his energy. He drew back, then held his hands forward.

The female Webstraal's eyes widened. The two Sprites were foolish enough to exit their ship while it was under attack. Now one was driving their creatures off with bursts of energy - but he wasn't killing them. He would have been better off hiding; hungry Webcreatures did not relinquish a meal that easily. And his energy was attracting the pixels. The Webstraals would not even need to lead them in close!

But what was the other one doing? He, too, was a powerful source of energy. But instead of using it against the attacking Webcreatures, he was using his power on their vessel.

She glanced over at Speaker. He was baffled too. She looked back and realized that the second Sprite was creating a field around the ship. A thin, transparent blue field, only angstroms thick. What was the purpose of that?

"I've got it covered," Ray called to Bob.

"Great! How long can you hold it?" Bob drew back to shoot a quick burst at a Web shark. It turned aside as soon as it saw his hand glow. These creatures learned about threats fast.

"Normally it'd hold itself for microseconds. With these beasties pounding on it, I have to keep filling in the blanks. I'm all right as long as you keep 'em away."

"Right," Bob answered. He hoped that he had guessed the point the Webstraals were trying to make, and was responding appropriately. They thought that the Sprites could not defend themselves against the web. He wanted to show them that they could.

A glimmer on the edge of his vision announced that the first of the pixels had arrived. They ignored the ship; the field Ray had enclosed it with blocked its energy. The mindless creatures only sought energy to feed upon, and if they could not sense it directly, it did not exist for them. However, the bursts from Bob's hands attracted them like nulls to an energy leak.

Bob turned toward the ship and called out, "Little help here!"

"You heard him!" Capacitor shouted. "Gunners! Give those creatures what for!"

Turbo spoke. "Don't fire on the Webriders unless they attack first."

"Aye, defensive action only!"

The ship began firing at the creatures around them. Not long sprays that would do maximum damage, Bob saw, but rather single, well-aimed shots at specific Webcreatures. The pirates must have spent a lot of time perfecting their aim in Mainframe's game training area to have gotten that good! And, he noticed with relief, they were using low-energy bursts which would singe the closer creatures but not travel far enough to harm the Webstraals.

Reflexively he swatted at a stinging point of white light. A pixel had touched his hand while he was looking back. And more were clustering around him. They were pulled in by his energy, Bob realized. Wonderful! The ship was safe, but these things would nibble him to deletion!

The female Webstraal was nodding to herself and smiling. The little Netizens were giving it a good try, but they would not win. The pixels would destroy them in the end. But they had put up a good fight, and yet had not resorted to any more violence than they had had to. She said to Speaker, <We will give them one more chance,> and began gliding toward the Sprites.

The Sprites on the Saucy Mare's bridge watched the battle helplessly. It had gone so well until the pixels started clustering around Bob! They were dangerous in much fewer numbers; could even Bob survive this?

Hexadecimal glared around at all the Sprites who were standing there and doing nothing. They'd let those things kill Bob rather than join the fight! Well, she was not a coward!

Nobody noticed when she uploaded into her mask and disappeared.

"Ray! Can you throw a shield over me?" Bob called. He had put some distance between himself and the Surfer so the pixels wouldn't attack them both.

"Sorry, not without losin' the ship's. I can't multitask on this," he answered apologetically.

"Nulls," Bob muttered. He could hold out against the pixels a little while longer, but they were annoying! They crowded close and stung him in their efforts to drain his energy. Now he understood how Hexadecimal must have felt when she was surrounded by nulls.

Distracted as he was by the flares swarming around himself, Bob did not notice Hexadecimal's appearance outside the ship. He did notice when the swarm began to thin - just in time for him to see a Web shark bearing down on him, its outer jaws gaping wide to seize him. He dodged to one side. It tried to turn and snap at him - and was sent, tumbling, away into the web by a powerful burst of red energy.

"What was that?!" Ray shouted, not looking away from the Mare.

Bob had turned to look. Hexadecimal was floating near them, looking rapidly in all directions, blasting viral energy at any Webcreature that approached. The pixels were now leaving Bob and gathering around her, drawn by her greater power. She swatted uselessly at them. "Oh, spam!"

"What?" Ray shouted again.

The blizzard of pixels thickened around Hexadecimal. The Virus snarled as some touched her skin and stung her. Hearing her voice, Ray said "Oh."

Speaker and the female both stared at the new creature that had appeared outside of their ship. The had not had enough time to see what it was before it was surrounded by pixels. It separated from the others, a ball of whirling lights.

Speaker looked over at her. He was surprised to see her grin. <Clever,> she said. He knew that she had to be truly impressed to say anything complimentary about Netizens. These Sprites might get their wish after all.

In the middle of a cloud of stinging, glittering, blinding lights, Hexadecimal thrashed violently. What were these horrible things?! They were trying to suck her dry, like nulls, and she couldn't command them or make them leave her! Clawing and shooting energy at them had no effect! She screamed in fury and flew away, trying to lose the swarm.

"Hex, get back inside!" Bob shouted at her. She was not paying attention; she kept trying to fight the pixels. By now the other Webcreatures had backed off, at least - this thick a swarm of pixels could take on even a Web shark.

A flicker of motion on the edge of her field of vision caught her attention. She whirled to face it, then snarled and threw a one-handed energy blast at the approaching monsters.

Bob whirled when he heard a scream. The shape tumbling into the distance was not that of a Webcreature. And Speaker was flying after it.

Bob stared for a nanosecond. Then he shouted at Hexadecimal, "Get inside the ship!"


"NOW!" he yelled.

She stared, at him in wide-eyed surprise. Then she uploaded into her mask.

"User delete it," Bob growled to himself. He looked around. The Webstraals had backed away, enlarging the hollow sphere around the ship. Backing away in case Hexadecimal comes out again, he thought. Spam her. Speaker had caught the injured Webstraal, and was taking her away.

"If they've got serious weapons, we're going to see 'em soon," Bob told Ray. "We'd better get inside."

The surfer nodded. The Webcreatures had scattered during Hexadecimal's tantrum, and as soon as they left the pixels would drift off as well. Best to be behind the ship's armor than outside it when the Webriders gathered their forces.

Bob stalked onto the Saucy Mare's deck. Grimly he said to Capacitor, "Looks like we're going to have a battle after all."

"It's about time!" said an angry-masked Hexadecimal. She brushed at her arms, which still stung from the pixels.

He turned and glared at her. "Do you have any idea what you just did?" he asked her. "You may have killed one of them. If we get into a war, it'll be because of you. And you might as well have sent a VidWindow to Daemon saying 'Here we are,' with that energy blast of yours!"

"They started it!" she said, surprised and defensive.

Bob stepped closer. "I told you to stay in the ship. I told you twice! We're trying to avoid a battle here, and then you come charging out! It's going to take more than power to beat Daemon, and if you can't follow simple directions we should have left you back in Mainframe!"

Eyes wide, she backed away from him. "But-"

"But nothing. You've done enough. Just stay inside the ship and out of our way before you get us all deleted!" He turned his back on her before she could answer. A nanosecond later he heard the sound of her uploading into her mask.

Nobody else spoke. He looked around, and saw that everyone else was staring at him. Their expressions ranged from shock to approval. Grimly he said, "You saw it on the VidWindows, right?" People nodded. "The one she hit seemed to be one of their leaders. So much for 'we come in peace'."

AndrAIa spoke into the following silence. "They're still all around us, but they haven't attacked us yet."

Bob glanced at the VidWindow. The Webstraals were still pacing the Saucy Mare. And Speaker was still among them. Bob said, "Maybe there's still a chance. I'm going out."

"Really?" Matrix asked in disbelief.

Bob looked at the faces of the others. "I have to try," he said.

He walked to the hatch. Ray started to follow. Bob looked back and held a hand up. "No - no point in risking both of us. Stay here."

Ray nodded silently. Bob closed the hatch behind himself and activated his zip board.

As Bob flew out he noticed that the Webstraals nearest to Speaker were holding weapons. They looked ready to use them at a nano's notice.

Bob halted in front of speaker. Speaker said, "More of our warriors are coming. If you do not wish to be deleted, leave the Web!"

Bob held his arms out, palms forward. "I'm sorry. The one that attacked her - she acted against my orders."

"That does not help. The damage is done!" Speaker said harshly. "She may or may not survive. If she does not, beware!"

"Can you help her?" Bob asked, a faint spark of hope igniting in his mind.

"Maybe. If she can survive that long."

"She's wounded. The Web could degrade her because of that. I know - I saw it happen enough."

"What do you know of the Web, Netizen?"

Bob buzz-whistled, <I rode with another tribe of Webriders for a while. Without them, I'd have gotten more than this.> He flew closer to Speaker and gestured at the metallic scars on his forehead. "We have facilities in our ship. We'll do whatever we can for her, and she'll be safe from Web degradation in there. We can take her to your base, or wherever you can help her."

Speaker leaned closer and stared at Bob's web scars. Though his face did not show any recognizable expression, his surprise still was unmistakable. "You expect us to trust you?"

"We didn't come here to hurt anybody. I want to help," Bob said simply.

Speaker stared the Guardian down for another few nanos. Then he turned and shrilled a call. Several Webstraals turned their mounts and darted into the distance. Speaker turned back to Bob and said, "Have your ship follow."

They'd have VidWindows on them, Bob knew. He turned toward the Mare and made exaggerated beckoning movements, then pointed. Speaker started forward. Bob flew after him. He looked back to see the Saucy Mare turning to follow - and the armed Webstraals pacing it on all sides.

Speaker whistled piercingly to the Webstraals ahead of him. Bob heard the call repeated by one up ahead, and then a fainter echo. Passing the message up the line. That way the message would travel faster than the messengers.

The center VidWindow on the Saucy Mare focused on the scene ahead of them. The window on the right showed Bob. They had seen him beckon, and Capacitor had without hesitation given the order to follow. The Webstraals had not fired on Bob or the ship yet, though clearly they were prepared to. If that happened, the Mare's gunners were ready.

Before long Bob and the Webstraals stopped. Bob looked back and held up a hand to signal the ship to halt. Another Webstraal was approaching from the distance. In front of him on his Webcreature was a bundle of some kind. Bob and Speaker conferred urgently over it for several nanos. Then the two, carrying the bundle, headed for the Saucy Mare.

The hatch opened. Bob walked in, carefully holding in his arms a dark grey shape longer than he was tall. Nodding back toward the hatch, he said "Someone help Speaker." The Webstraal, glaring distrustfully around the interior of the ship's Web shield, hobbled out. Though his body was powerful, his feet were built for grasping, not walking. Ray went over and offered him a shoulder to lean on. After a few nanos, Matrix took the other side.

The Saucy Mare had no infirmary. It had equipment for treating people, but no dedicated room - people were usually treated in their own quarters. Bob had a feeling that people used to being in wide open Webspace wouldn't enjoy being enclosed in the small rooms below decks, either. He said, "Someone bring a mattress or something up here. And whatever we have to treat injured Sprites."

Hearing him speak, the one he was holding stirred and opened her eyes blearily. Then she shut them again with a pained hiss. Ray commented, "Wish I had a spare set of goggles."

Several crew binomes quickly assembled a bed on the deck, though plainly they were puzzled as to why. Bob would explain to them later. For now, he had to do what he could for her.

He laid the female Webstraal down on the bed. She was long, thin, stretched looking. Her feet hung over the edge. They, like Speaker's, were made for grasping. A dark grey wrap of tanned Webcreature hide covered her from shoulders to hips, binding her arms to her sides. Of course, the hide was to prevent the Web from aggravating her wounds. An effective field job, Bob thought.

Speaker limped forward, guiding Matrix and Ray rather than the other way around. He said, "Let me sit," gesturing with his lower right hand at some of the boxes around the deck. A pair of binomes brought an empty one over to him. With his two right hands Speaker placed it at one end of the bed so he could sit by the female's head and watch. She looked up at him, squinting against the light, then buzz-whistled. He answered her in the same way.

<What is her name?> Bob whistled to Speaker.

Speaker looked at Bob for a long moment. Then he looked down at her. She whistled, <Woveran.>

<Woveran, I'm going to open this,> Bob said as he took the edge of the wrap. Both watched intently, tensely, but did not protest. Very aware that he was within easy striking distance of Speaker's powerful left arm, Bob carefully undid the fastening holding the wrap and peeled it back.

She tensed, eyes closed, her breath hissing between clenched teeth. Underneath the wrap, she was burned. Her skin was blackened, and in places the black had cracked and blue energy was trickling out. The inside of the wrap was stained heavily with her energy. She looked at it, then down at herself, then shut her eyes hard. Bob swallowed. Then he looked up at Speaker. "Can you treat this?"

"At our base, we can."

"Good." Bob looked down again. The membranes attached between Woveran's arms and body, and the finlike appendages on her sides, were not harmed. She would be able to fly normally when she healed. She had taken a straight hit to her front. But the burn had not gone too deep, Bob saw; the density of the Web may have diffused the blast. "There may be some wireframe damage." Then he saw a silver thread that had begun to form on her upper chest.

Speaker followed his glance, and saw it too. "This is too severe for your first aid. Wrap her. We will treat her."

Bob nodded agreement. Degradation had already begun. She would have scars. No need to tell her about that now. He said to the binome holding a medical kit, "We got something for pain? She's in a lot of it."

"Here." The binome held up a needle. A Sprite-sized dose was already measured out.


When she saw the needle she stiffened and whistled in protest. Speaker told Bob, "She does not want that."

"I got the idea." Bob told her, <It's for pain. It will probably make you sleep for a few microseconds, that's all.>

<I do not want it,> she replied firmly.

He had not missed that had spoken directly to him in a dialect that he could understand. So, he thought, she could do that when she wanted. He put the syringe back in the kit, where he could quickly get at it again. He said, <You've lost a lot of energy. I can replace it.>

She watched him but did not answer. Bob fastened a metal band around his upper arm. A tube ran from it to a larger piece of machinery sitting by the bed. Speaker said, "What is that?"

"A sprite-to-sprite energy transferrance device. When one loses a lot of energy, others can replace it." He had the other arm clamp in his hand, but did not attach it just yet.

"For one to gain, another has to lose," Speaker said suspiciously.

"I have energy to spare," Bob replied. "That's part of my format."

Speaker looked at Bob's gold icon for several nanos. Then he whistled to Woveran. Bob waited while the two conversed. Though he could only make out bits and pieces, he could tell that Speaker was trying to convince her, and that she was frightened.

Speaker looked up at Bob. "Do it."

Bob nodded and attached the lead to her arm, low enough to avoid pinching the winglike membrane. <This will be uncomfortable, but quick,> he told her. Then he pressed the button.

She stiffened when she felt his energy flow into her. The machine modulated it so their different formats and energy levels would not cause damage, but it was still unpleasant, Bob knew. He had been on the receiving end himself more than once. However, he hardly felt the drain.

When he judged she had had enough he tapped the button to stop the transferrance and removed the lead from her arm. "Wrap her before she bleeds it out again," Speaker said. Bob nodded, and drew the hide around her. She winced when he laid it on top of raw skin. Speaker said, "Tighter. I will show you." He leaned forward and, using his two right arms, stretched the hide across her front. Bob tied it back the way it had been. Both tried to ignore her gasps of pain.

Speaker looked up, then stiffened and glared. Following the Webstraal's glance, Bob saw that Hexadecimal had appeared on deck and was watching silently. Bob beckoned to her. "Come here," he said in a low voice. She approached. "Did you see her burns?"

Hexadecimal nodded. Her expression was blank, neutral.

"You could have deleted her."

"That was the idea," Hex replied. "They're the enemy, aren't they?"

Bob asked softly, "Do you ever miss your masks, Hex?" Then he turned back to the Webstraals, dismissing her. Hexadecimal stared, her hands raised to her face. Then she uploaded herself into her mask and disappeared again.

Both Webstraals had watched the short conversation closely. Now Speaker was whistling an interpretation to Woveran. She looked back at Bob, appraising him, then said <I will take the needle now.>

"Good choice." Bob picked the syringe up.

Speaker watched over her as she relaxed and fell asleep. Bob stayed attentive and ready to administer a second dose if she needed it. He glanced up at Speaker. The Webstraal looked back. Bob asked, "Is she your leader?"

Speaker answered, "It does not work the same way among us as it does in the Net. We do not create commanders. They create themselves. She is, you would say, respected." He looked down at her. "She was initialized and compiled in the Web. That is rare among us."

"I didn't know that anyone could... have a family in the Web," Bob said, surprised. "That never happened in the tribe I rode with."

"It is rare, but some can," Speaker answered. "And some adapt to the Web. They do not need to be shielded - they belong to the Web. The Web is truly theirs."

Bob thought about this. "I understand," he said.

"The Web is a merciless place. Yet Sprites and Viruses will not stay out. They do not know what is dangerous and what is not, so they destroy anything that moves."

"We've got a common enemy to fight," Bob replied. "We're going to the Supercomputer because of the Supervirus there. She's taken control of almost the entire Guardian collective, and is trying for the entire known Net. If she succeeds there, she won't be satisfied knowing she doesn't have control of the Web too."

Speaker spat, "Daemon! She is the one who has been altering Webcreatures. Somehow she has infected them, making them attack systems and destroy themselves. Many of our swarms have disappeared because of her!"

"I can see why you have to protect what you have." Without Webcreatures, Web-living dataforms would soon starve. Except for pixels, which could feed on raw energy. The energy chain was short in the Web.

Speaker looked around at the Sprites on the deck who were watching silently. "I was once a Sprite like you. I know the size and strength of the Guardian Collective. You think that the few people in this small ship will be able to defeat the one who has beaten them?"

"I think we have a chance. Where there's life, there's hope," Bob said honestly.

Speaker looked down at Woveran and murmured, "Yes."

They were quiet for a while, deep in thought. Speaker looked up at the VidWindow. All around them, Webstraals guided the ship, weapons at the ready should the Saucy Mare veer off course. Then Speaker turned to Bob. "If you bring her to our home site alive, we will guide you to a portal to the Supercomputer."

"Agreed," Bob said without hesitation.

"However - you must not log the location of our home, or tell anyone else where it is!"

"Understood." Bob looked over at Capacitor. "You can delete that data from the logs, can't you?"

"Aye," the pirate said reluctantly. "We can turn off the navigation log so it never gets there."

"How far is it from here?" Bob asked.

"At this speed, it will take twenty microseconds to get there."

"We can go faster."

"And they would not know you are friendly, and attack you. We are very protective of our home. We must escort you. I will tell the others. Stay inside." Speaker stood with difficulty. Matrix and Ray helped him walk to the hatch.

Bob let out a breath when the hatch closed. That had been close. He couldn't believe that he had managed to turn the situation around. He wasn't sure how he did it. He wasn't following a plan, he had just been winging it. As usual, flying by the seat of his pants. Once again his luck had come through for all of them.

Almost all, he thought, looking at the unconscious Webstraal. She'd live. They had to have good medics to survive out here. They'd be able to treat something as common as an energy burn. After that... he hoped that the scar wouldn't compromise her resistance to the Web.

Turbo stepped forward while Bob was looking at the Webstraal. "How is she? I couldn't see from back there."

Bob looked up. "She's bad. I don't think she could have held on if they had taken her all the way back through the web. She was already starting to get degradation burns." He pointed to the hint of silver above her wrap.

"Mmm." Turbo looked at her again. She was not a devolved Sprite like Speaker and most of the others he could see. She truly was a Web adapted Sprite. Her skin would withstand the dense dataflow that would harm normal Sprites. He had seen on the VidWindow that she was able to glide through the Web without the mounts that the others used. The Webstraals were right to be protective of her.

He looked at Bob. "Can we trust them?"

Bob nodded. "Yes. I think so. It wouldn't make any sense for them to act the way they have, and then turn on us. If they were vicious enough to do something like that, word would have gotten around. Out here there's not a lot you can count on, not even a solid map, since things change all the time. One thing people have to be able to count on is each other's word." Bob paused and thought some more. "They could have attacked us all-out at first, but they didn't. They just let us know they could, and then tried to scare us off with Webcreatures. Nasty but fair, by their rules at least. And they know what we could have done to them, but we didn't, and then we offered our help. If either of us attacked the other now, to them it'd be an act of insanity."

Turbo nodded agreement, then looked back at the VidWindows. Speaker was flying before the ship, leading it into the Web.

Microseconds later Speaker flew to the hatch. They opened it and helped him in, He sat by the bed and asked, "How is she?"

"Stable and sleeping peacefully," Bob answered.

"Good. Turn off your ship's logs now. And send the spectators off the deck. They must not see our home."

Bob looked over at the Sprites. "Go on," he said. Without answering, they obeyed.

Capacitor said, "Mr. Andrew, stay at your station. The rest of ye, below decks!"

Speaker watched while all of the binomes but the one at the wheel and the one who had barked the orders left. The gunners' stations were empty - but he knew that there would be many more around the ship, and they would be manned. He did not worry about that. Only a fool would cruise the Web without ready weapons, especially when surrounded by such recent enemies. Then he turned and looked hard at Capacitor. He said to Bob, "What about him?" Capacitor scowled.

Bob replied, "He's the captain of this ship. He stays."

Speaker looked at the binome again. Then he said, "Very well. Is all logging disabled?"

"Aye," Capacitor answered.

"Then turn the ship." Speaker pointed with his upper right hand.

Capacitor looked at the angle of his hand, then said "Mr. Andrew, forty-two degrees to port."

"Aye aye." The binome turned the wheel. The ship veered slowly. The Webstraals around the ship turned to follow.

Speaker watched the screen carefully. When he saw what he was looking for he said, "There."

Capacitor peered at the screen. "That's a tear," he said.

"Yes," Speaker confirmed. "Go there. And fly slowly. We are entering inhabited Web space."

As the Mare coasted towards its destination some of the Webstraals left the swarm, and others joined. This tear, they saw, was not a simple instability floating in the Web. It was ringed with spokes, line segments that began well outside of the dangerous range and continued outward for varying distances. As the ship came closer their huge scale became apparent. The shortest of the lines was many times longer and wider than the Saucy Mare. They slowly orbited the tear, held in place by its energy.

"Glory be," Capacitor murmured.

"This is all your base?" Bob asked Speaker.

"One of them," Speaker answered, still watching the screen. A light blinked in the hand of a Webstraal directly in front of the Mare. Speaker pointed to it and said, "Follow that." Mr. Andrew looked at Captain Capacitor for confirmation. The pirate nodded. His eye on the VidWindow, Mr. Andrew turned the wheel to keep the light in the center of the screen.

It led them to one of the longest lines. They could now see that it was a long, flat plane, with structures built on its surface. It was coated with colorful, rough textured material. Speaker said "Stop here. We have no docks. We must carry her over ourselves."

The ship coasted to a stop at a safe distance from the plane. Speaker stood, with some difficulty. Bob started to offer help, but Speaker waved him away and pointed at Woveran. "Carry her." As Bob slipped his arms under her back and knees Speaker dropped to the deck and made his way on all fours - fives, Bob corrected himself - to the hatch. He had to suppress his smile; he didn't think Speaker would see the humor in this situation.

Speaker's mount was waiting right outside of the hatch. It must have paced the ship the entire time Speaker was inside. It had not been leashed. Speaker mounted the beast and, one right hand gripping its harness, held out his left and other right hand. "Give her to me." Bob did, handling her carefully to avoid aggravating her injuries.

Speaker settled her in front of himself on the mount while Bob activated his zip board. Then they coasted slowly toward one of the lines, homing in on the blinker they had followed earlier, gathering an escort of Webstraals as they did.

As they approached the line Bob saw that it was covered by a furry, multicolored surface that reminded him of fractal foliage. There were other Webstraals there, moving in an odd, shuffling way to meet them. Speaker, when they were close enough, leapt lightly from his mount and landed softly on the surface. His clawed feet closed in the colored substance. Now Bob understood - in the drifting, gravityless environment here, their feet held them down, not up.

The Webstraals that approached them were clearly degenerated Sprites. They stared at Bob in undisguised shock. Speaker said, <We have an injured woman.> Without waiting for a reply he started toward the hut, his feet grasping and releasing the foliage as he walked. The Sprites walked less easily, and Bob saw the reason why. They did not have feet like Speaker's; they wore boots with clusters of small hooks on the bottoms.

Inside the building there was no carpet to simulate the foliage outside, but that did not hamper Speaker. He jumped forward, gliding in a slow, gentle trajectory toward the ceiling far down the hall. When he reached it he pushed off with his free hand and continued on his way, now toward the floor. Bob was glad for his zip board. If Enzo were here, he thought, he would be having the time of his life zooming up and down the hall.

They emerged into a large, open room in the center of the building. Doors lined every wall. Seeing the figure in Speaker's arms, several Sprites - and even a Web-degraded One binome, Bob realized with surprise - glided forward. They buzz-whistled with Speaker at length. Then they took Woveran into one of the rooms on the peripheral. Speaker gestured to Bob to come with them.

As they moored her to a bed, using loose, soft fabric loops around her ankles, Speaker took hold of one of the rings mounted on the wall and told Bob, "We will watch and see what they have to say."

Bob nodded. Speaker wanted to be sure of her status. Well, so did Bob. He was stable on his zip board, but he also took one of the wall rings.

The medical team opened her wrap and buzzed in shock. They whistled queries to Speaker, to which he gave brief replies.

They sprayed a protective covering on her burned skin and examined her with their hands and eyes, and a few small instruments. Her pulse was taken, her energy levels recorded, and other facts noted. Then they whistled again to Speaker. He nodded, satisfied, and beckoned to Bob. Bob followed him out of the room.

The left the infirmary, Speaker using the same push-and-glide method as before. As they traveled he looked back and said to Bob, <She will recover. They said she is stable, a remarkable thing considering the severity of her injuries. They were about to treat her, and did not need squeamish spectators.>

<I understand,> Bob answered. <I'm just glad we got her back in time.>

Speaker faced him. "For her sake, or for yours?"

Bob was surprised by the question. "Both."

"You're honest, at least." Speaker made a chuffing noise which could have been a laugh.

They emerged from the building. Word had gotten around; there must have been 256 Webstraals either holding onto the surface foliage or floating nearby. A few, like Woveran, had wings or gliding membranes. Many wore artificial wings strapped to their feet, enabling them to swim through their environment. And there were a few binomes in this flock too. All had suffered some form of web degradation - but all had been stabilized, their systems able to resist further damage. Code derived from Webcreatures? Bob was curious, but this was not the time to ask invasive questions.

Speaker stated calmly, <This is Bob. He and his people have helped us. We will repay them by escorting them out of the Web.>

The Webstrals whistled among themselves in surprise. Speaker told Bob, "They are not used to outsiders inside our home site." He paused, then whistled a brief query. One Webstraal answered, swam closer, and offered Speaker her pack. Speaker took it and turned back to Bob. "Are you hungry?" he asked, and took a wriggling black shape half a finger long out of the pack.

"Uh... not really, but thanks," Bob said, unable to hide his dismay.

"It's considered polite to accept an offer of food," Speaker said, amusement plain in his voice.

Resignedly Bob said "In that case... just one."

Speaker dropped the shape in Bob's hand. Bob clapped his other hand over it before it could escape. He got a grip on one end, held it up, closed his eyes, and swallowed it.

There was another buzz among the spectators, and Speaker was chuffing again. "Laugh it up," Bob muttered, waiting for the queasiness caused by the wriggling to pass. "Why is it everyone who's ever had to eat pixel larvae gets such a kick out of seeing others suffer?"

"To see if they know how," Speaker answered, still amused. He gave the pack back to its owner.

"You didn't take one."

"I was not in question."

Oh. It was a test. And it looked like he passed. He'd better have - he had no urge to try a second time. Well, if they were laughing at him they weren't attacking, Bob supposed.

Speaker changed the subject, and his language. <The medics wanted to know how you kept her energy level as high as it was though she had bled so much. I described the device you used to transfer your energy to her. They wish to know its principles so they can make one.>

Bob had to listen closely; Speaker was halfway between the Webstraal dialect and the one Bob spoke. From their expressions, the other Webstraals were having to make an effort to understand as well. <I don't know how it works other than the basic principles,> he admitted. <I can't give you the one on our ship - we need it. But when we come back I can bring you one.>

Speaker nodded, satisfied. <If we get one, we can duplicate it. We are handy that way.> He emphasized this point by rubbing his right hands together. Bob grinned. Then Speaker looked up and shrilled for his mount. The beast swam over to him and slowed so he could get on its back. He grabbed its harness with his strong left hand and swung himself up. "Come. We will escort you now."

Speaker flew off toward the Saucy Mare, with Bob following.

Microseconds later, the Saucy Mare was on her way. The escort Speaker had said would guide them to the Supercomputer were already in place when they returned to the ship. Speaker himself was not among them. He had stayed behind at their home site. Bob explained what had happened, answered their many questions, then went below decks to the cabin he shared with Turbo.

He lay down on his bunk and closed his eyes. Maybe if he wished hard enough, all this would never have happened. They would never have clashed with the Webstraals in the first place, and Woveran would never have been burned.

The door opened. It was Turbo. "Hey," Bob said.

"What're you hiding in here for, Bob?"

Bob sat up. "I'm trying not to think about how I might have blown it. It was too close too many times. Turbo, you should be the one leading us. I don't know what I'm doing."

Turbo's eyebrows rose. "Since when?"

"The whole time I was guessing what I should do. If I'd guessed wrong-"

"But you didn't," Turbo finished for him. He sat on his own bunk, facing Bob. "Why'd you go out and bring the injured Webstraal back here? We could've fought them off."

Defensively Bob said, "It seemed like the right thing to do."

"No excuses, reasons," Turbo said firmly.

"I didn't want to create any enemies. We don't need any more than we already have. So I did whatever I could to avoid that."

"And why'd you go out alone?"

"They couldn't be too threatened by one person, alone, unarmed. Well, they saw me zapping at Webcreatures, but they outnumbered me by so many that they couldn't believe that I was a threat to them. They could have mobbed me. But Ray said that they weren't warlike, so I assumed they wouldn't attack me if I posed no danger to them."

Turbo nodded. "I won't ask about treating her - any Guardian would have done the same. Now - why'd you eat that thing Speaker gave you?"

Bob grimaced queasily. "It's rude to refuse food in the Web. Very rude. There's not a lot of it, which is why they eat those things when they have to, which is nearly always. Nobody likes 'em. I guess they were testing my manners. If I refused, it'd be an insult, or they'd just have thought I'm a silly, squeamish Netizen who knows nothing about life in the Web. If I'd pretended to enjoy it, they would've known I was either a liar or out of my mind. If I'd tried to chew it, that'd've shown 'em I had manners, but still didn't know much. Plus, they got a laugh out of it."

"Now, are you making this up now or were you thinking it at the time?"

After a pause Bob answered slowly, "Most of the time I wasn't thinking it out. Not in so much detail, anyway. I was just doing what seemed best."

"And you were right," Turbo said. "Bob, if I weren't here you wouldn't be sitting down here having a crisis of confidence and wondering what you should've done. You'd just be doing your best, and I'll bet you'd have done exactly the same. You don't have to stop and think everything out - you have the right instincts, but you're not so comfortable with 'em that you get cocky. You've just proven to me that you're the one who has to lead this group."

"Right. I can't even keep Hexadecimal under control! I don't know how to handle her. I wish we hadn't brought her. I know what she was trying to do - but she didn't follow directions, and she screwed us up bad. She doesn't understand. I don't know if she can."

"So you slapped her down," Turbo said bluntly.

Bob looked up, embarassed. "I lost my temper, that's all there is to it. The last time I got that mad, some stupid idiots had gotten into a space game and blew up a planet while we were inside!"

"Bob, do you remember BASIC training, back when you were a cadet?"

Surprised by the change in topic, Bob said, "Yeah?"

"We treat you cadets rough. Bet you hated my guts back them."

Turbo was grinning. Bob said, "Well, yeah. We all hated you and the rest of the instructors."

"Right. But it pounded the nonsense out of you, fast, and showed you who's the boss. And that's just what you needed to do to Hexadecimal. And the others had to see it. Now they know you mean business, even with her."

"Yeah. But I feel crummy about it."

"Son, if you enjoyed it you'd be the wrong Sprite for the job. The point is, the next time she'll think twice about stepping out of line."

Bob made himself laugh. "Think twice? This is Hexadecimal. We're lucky if she thinks once." Turbo laughed too. Bob paused, then said, "Turbo, I appreciate this, but come on. Compared to you, I'm just a cadet. This isn't some silly game cube. This is for the entire Net."

Turbo replied seriously. "I know it, Bob. But I've told you before - you're clean. I'm infected by Daemon. You've got no idea what it's like."

"I can imagine-"

"No, Bob, you can't," Turbo stated flatly. "If you did you wouldn't have trusted me in the first place." He closed his eyes and lowered his head. "She's had me under her control before. She could do it again."

Staring, Bob shook his head. Turbo opened his eyes. "The others trust you. You've proven yourself to them over and over. They'll follow where you lead. I'm the one who tried to blow up their system, and who's been infected by Daemon. Even if it weren't for the bomb I sent in with Mouse, they'd always mistrust me because of this." He touched the glowing threadlike pattern on his temple, the stigmata of Daemon's infection. "And they'd be right."

Bob sat back. "You make it sound hopeless."

"Sometimes it seems that way," Turbo admitted. "But as long as some of us are still holding out, we have a chance. I know what it's like in there. I can get us in, but I couldn't take Daemon down myself. But-" he looked Bob in the eyes, "-with this team, we have a chance. Hold on to that."

Bob nodded solemnly. Turbo stood up. "Come on, let's get outta here. Your friends'll want to see you."

"Yeah, okay," Bob said, and stood. The Guardians went up on deck.

When Matrix saw Bob he grinned. Bob grinned back. Mouse nodded at the VidWindows and said, "Check it out."

The middle VidWindow showed the Webstraals in front of them. Only seven were visible, but then it only showed the front view. Quite a far cry from the swarm they had beforehand. These were maintaining a formation around the ship. And, zipping between them, was a blue speck. Bob chuckled. "Ray made some friends, huh?"

"Looks like it, sugah." Mouse answered.

Bob sat on one of the boxes and looked at the screen. As he watched the action, he relaxed. It had gone well, he admitted. Considering what could have happened. Maybe it wasn't just solitary Guardians working alone like himself who improvised as they went along. He had always thought that the higher-ups had plans and protocols for everything. But from what Turbo said, instinct played no small part in their functions too. Maybe it was something like using Glitch's functions - it worked better if he simply accepted and used it, rather than thinking too much about it at the time and getting himself confused and worried. Maybe Turbo was right.

Bob sure hoped he was.

Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain

All ReBoot characters, and the entire ReBoot universe, are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The Webstraals, and Woveran especially, are based on concept art by Brendan McCarthy for a ReBoot spinoff titled "Webworld" which unfortunately never made it. Larry Niven's Laws are copyright © Larry Niven. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed Webstraals can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.