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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 1 - Changes

“GOOD -- MORNING -- MAINFRAME!”

“Yes, it’s your eye in the sky, Mike the T.V. --,”

“And his lovely assistant Lucida Sans --”

“Bringing you up to the nano news coverage of the comings and goings of the citizens of the mighty metropolis known as Mainframe!” Mike chattered, “But wait! Whom do I spy with my eye in the sky zipping his way along Baudway to the Bookmark Tower? The one and only; home for summer break from the prestigious Science Academy at the Super Computer; Enzo Matrix!”

* * *

“Mike,” seventeen-hour-old Enzo Matrix shook his head and smiled as he expertly piloted his zip board down the busy thoroughfare. Even after all this time the T.V. hadn’t changed. At least he was out of Bob’s hair now, reporting for Mainframe’s news station. In fact, Mike had actually found someone who could tolerate him, a pretty binome reporter by the name of Lucida. The two were inseparable (and equally inquisitive) often sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted or didn't belong.

But today, nothing would bother Enzo. He now had three whole minutes to spend with friends and family. It would be the first summer in three, having spent his last few vacations abroad, but now with his wanderlust temporarily appeased, Enzo Matrix had come home.

He hadn’t been quite sure what he was going to do, but recently, the problem had been solved and Enzo found himself on his way to the first day of his dream job.

He had Melissa to thank for that. He sighed as he thought of her. He missed her so much, but as he was pursuing his dream, so was she and would be back for his birthday celebration anyway.

Mainframe’s newest and most famous structure, the Bookmark Tower, rose majestically against the backdrop of the blue sky, a testament to everything that Mainframe had accomplished since the Daemon Conflict. It was as tall as Megabyte’s Tor had been; a circular structure made of shimmering blue metal complete with a landing pad on the roof. Even as Enzo approached, he could see the various shuttles and transports maneuvering to make safe landings.

The tower housed an eclectic array of offices, shops, and businesses. The penthouse was his destination, where the offices of Matrix Enterprises were housed. Again, he shook his head with a smile admiring his sister more for not only bringing Mainframe out of financial ruin but also being solely responsible for its rise to prominence. Matrix Enterprises held businesses all over the net. He had often teased Dot about her “dabbling”.

Enzo landed at the main entrance to the tower and paused to bend down to examine the gold plaque embedded into the wall. Engraved on the metal were two symbols, a mouse and a star. Enzo chuckled. They couldn’t just write their names, they just had to be different. The Bookmark Tower was Mouse and AndrAIa’s brainchild and they were proud of it. Well, they had reason to be.

Enzo tapped a button twice on his belt and accessed his organizer. His pride and joy (and the invention that had won him the highest award at school) the organizer was a hands-free device, literally floating in an invisible stasis field of Enzo’s own design. It was notebook type, like Mr. Christopher’s, and he could literally run Mainframe through it. Even more so than Dot, his organizer never left his side.

With his organizer open, Enzo walked past the binome desk guard (who was used to seeing him walking and computing at the same time) and entered the lift that would take him to the penthouse. It was full as usual and someone had coffee, which reminded Enzo to stop at the Café on Level 16 and pick up some. Well, cappuccino for them. Dot had teased him about getting her hooked on the stuff in the first place.

After making his stop Enzo entered the lift again which was almost empty now, the closer he came to the penthouse suites at the top floor. Munching on a chocolate frosted donut, Enzo stepped from the lift onto the thick burgundy carpeting (Hex had decorated and nobody was random enough to argue) and slowly progressed towards the offices he would be sharing with Dot.

Someone was just coming out of the main reception area and Enzo froze at the sight of him.

Matrix.

His brawny double hadn’t seen him yet, stopping to talk to one of the security guards. Enzo searched frantically left and right, finally opting for one of the empty offices a few steps back down the hall. Enzo retreated and slipped through the door.

He felt it happening and he swore in frustration. A chill pervaded his body. He pulled one of the cups of hot cappuccino from the bag and closed his icy hands around it and swore again.

After all this time, after everything, it still happened. These ‘cold flashes’ whenever he saw his counterpart. No one knew he was still having them. He supposed Melissa suspected but she never said anything. He couldn’t stand what he thought was his one weakness. An old fear that refused to go away and in his youth had caused him no end of trouble.

* * *

Seven hours into the past.

It was like old times, and then again, so different, Dot Matrix had to pause for a moment in the midst of her work. Something she seldom if ever did.

Here she sat at her customary booth in her Diner, several vid-windows open in front of her, computations and calculations working themselves out on the screens and she felt as out of place as she had in the Super Computer.

As always, thoughts of the system brought on thoughts of Bob.

Dot checked her watch for the nth time. It was still early. Bob wouldn’t be back until the wee milliseconds of the morning, and then it was doubtful Dot would see him before he left again.

And she could really use his guidance or at least his company.

Dot went over the figures again but they all said the same thing. Mainframe needed units and it needed them now. Now that they were back on the net money was coming in from old and new customers but it was barely enough and Dot wanted to do some things like rebuild their military. Some of her counterparts in other systems had suggested raising taxes, but that was the last thing Dot wanted to do. She’d figure out a way though, first things first.

Dot activated another vid-window to the Principal Office. When the venerable sprite’s face appeared she greeted him, “Good morning Phong, any word yet?”

“None, my child. Mouse and Surfer have yet to report and when I contacted the Super Computer concerning Bob, he was still in conference.”

“They’ve been talking for over a cycle. It’s about time they started doing things, but Bob has a lot of opposition he didn’t expect.”

“I do have a communication for you, my dear,” Phong was decidedly uncomfortable.

Uh oh. “Who from?”

Phong pulled at his beard in consternation, “Captain Lynx.”

Now that’s just perfect. “He still wants me to arrange a meeting with the New Collective and Web Alliance?”

“He is demanding it.”

“Phong you know how I feel about that. Besides, I already told Bob about his last two messages and Bob doesn’t believe, and neither do I, that Lynx and his precious Alliance should be high on his to-do list.”

“I must, for once, disagree with you both.”

“Phong?”

The aging sprite shook his head, “The scorpion is a tiny creature but his venom can delete a full grown sprite.”

Dot sighed. For once, she knew exactly what her elder friend was saying. “Tell Lynx I’ll speak with Bob again as soon as I see him. Thank you Phong.”

“You’re welcome, my child.”

When the vid-window closed, Dot rested her head on her hand and stared wistfully out the window. Phong was probably right about the scorpion. Just one more thing to hassle the Collective’s new Prime Guardian.

* * *

Robert Lan, Bob to his friends, former Guardian 452, now Prime Guardian of the New Collective shoved his chair back in frustration and came violently to his feet. Displays of anger weren’t his style, but he had had enough. “I thought I made myself clear that the subject of Hexadecimal and Melissa is closed?”

“It’s not closed Bo --- Prime Guardian, sir,” Cooper Black pushed back from the conference table. The small room was where they held all meetings now, since the former Council Hall was still in disrepair. “The two of them, especially Melissa, are still a threat to us all. It won’t be any use to continue rebuilding as long as the threat of another assault looms before us.”

“Ladies and gentleman,” Bob addressed the six sprites at the table. “If we can’t keep something like this from happening again then none of us deserve to be here. End of file.”

Cooper sat down, “You’re making a big mistake, Prime Guardian, sir.”

Maybe I made a mistake in asking you to be on the Council, Bob thought bitterly. It had been, Bob later realized, more of a token gesture on his part. Bob was certain Cooper would want to search for his former fiancée Desdemona, but when Cooper was told about her expulsion from the Resistance he seemed unconcerned, stating that it was another form of the casualties caused by war. Then he had accepted Bob’s offer and the azure-skinned sprite realized his mistake.

One of many I’ll probably make. “Well Cooper, I must disagree with you.” Bob sat down again.

“The Prime Guardian has assured us that both Hexadecimal and Melissa are no threat to us,” Katiyana, Keytool Mistress of the Guardian Academy spoke up, “Surely you do not doubt his word?”

“Of course not Mistress,” Cooper muttered.

“Next order of business,” Bob turned to the young woman who sat at his left. “How goes the restructuring of the Academy?”

The orange-haired, tanned-skinned woman cleared her throat nervously, “We are still understaffed as of this date. We have begun an aggressive program to recruit more volunteer instructors but they will not be of Guardian status -- ”

“My dear Mina,” Cooper interrupted, “Non-Guardians training cadets?”

“Cooper--” Bob said.

“We don’t have a choice,” Mina’s voice wavered slightly and Bob felt a twinge of sympathy for the girl.

Top in her class at the Academy, Mina Value had just been given her certification when the attack had begun and had led a group of her fellow students to safety. They had been captured eventually but not after causing the enemy no end of trouble. Mina had kept her fellow student prisoners from despairing. Bob had been very impressed with her and was eager to have her on the Council. Of course the others had protested (except for Katiyana) because of her youth and inexperience but Bob was confident about his decision. She just needed a chance to prove herself. Just like me, Bob thought.

“The majority of instructors either resigned their commissions or--” Mina left the unpleasant sentence unfinished. It was all too well known what had happened to many of the Guardians after being released from Daemon’s control. No one, least of all Bob, liked to even contemplate it.

The Prime Guardian then turned to the fourth member of the Council, “Colonel Tempus, how goes our military restructuring?”

The aging sprite with a dark green face and silver hair similar to Bob’s, but cut close-cropped nodded once grimly, “We’ve suffered heavy losses within the military. Many soldiers deserted once the Conflict ended, but we’ve begun our own aggressive recruitment.”

“Perhaps we should consider a civilian militia,” Bob said.“I’m certain many citizens would --”

The door came open in a violent motion, effectively quelling Bob’s next words. A group of people pushed their way into the room, their anger evident in their faces and their body language. But what had Bob groaning inwardly with exasperation was the sight of the sprite and binome at the forefront of the group.

“Captain Lynx, Desdemona,” Bob said.

Desdemona spoke first, “Didn’t expect to see us again, did you, Prime Guardian?”

“What is the meaning of this intrusion, Desdemona?” Cooper demanded.

Desdemona didn’t even glance at her former fiancée, “Care to enlighten our Prime Guardian, Captain Lynx?”

The bearded binome stepped forward, “Prime Guardian, we are here to inform you that as duly recognized representatives of Web Alliance --”

“What in the net --” Bob began.

“You and the Guardians of the Super Computer are hereby commanded to appear before the Citizens' Council to answer for your crimes. It is also demanded, that the renegade Enzo Matrix be present as well to be made to answer for his crimes of treachery.”

“Are you completely --” Bob began.

“Bob,” Katiyana stood. “Desdemona, what is the purpose of this? After all that is happened why would you want to incite further disharmony?”

“Come now Katiyana.” Desdemona didn’t even attempt to show the Keytool Mistress any of her former respect. “Did you honestly believe the Guardians could do what they did and not answer for it? Be grateful we convinced the citizens to let us seek justice. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors of an uprising against you?”

“We have,” Katiyana said.

“Then I highly suggest you,” Desdemona smirked at Bob, “and our illustrious Prime Guardian, appear before the newly formed Citizens' Council. And we also highly suggest you bring Enzo Matrix with you.”

“Leave Matrix out of this,” Bob hissed.

“Enzo Matrix will be made to answer for his crimes, beginning with the murder of Neuron Cyber!” Lynx yelled.

“Matrix didn’t--”

“Well it appears the Guardian Collective is also willing to harbor a murderer and a traitor. This won’t go well for you,” Desdemona said.

“You won’t get away with this,” Bob hissed.

“Get away with this?” Lynx said, “Get away with seeking justice? Lives were lost and families torn apart. Do you think people will soon forget?”

“You have a choice, Prime Guardian,” Desdemona said. “Make it now. You wouldn’t want the populace to think you have something to hide do you?”

Katiyana turned to Bob; “I believe it is best that we deal with this now.”

All eyes were on Bob now. The Prime Guardian suppressed a sigh. It seemed he’d have to appear before this Citizens' Council. If he refused, it would look bad for him and the New Collective. “Very well, when would you like for us to meet with you?”

Desdemona smiled triumphantly, “In two seconds at oh-eight-hundred. Do you know where the Outlook Center is?”

“Yes,” Bob said grimly. “We’ll be there.”

“Intelligent choice,” Desdemona smiled. Without another word she walked out and Lynx gave Bob an indiscernible look before he and the group followed.

Cooper was the first to speak, “That woman is absolutely random.”

“You’re not seriously going to give into their demands, Prime Guardian?” Tempus said.

“What choice do I have?” Suddenly Bob was very tired. He wanted nothing more than to go home and be with Dot, but there was so much else to do.

“You know what will happen,” Cooper said. “They just want a scapegoat that’s all. Someone to blame for everything since Daemon is gone. I say we give them someone to appease them.”

Over the protests that followed Cooper’s words, Bob hissed, “And just what in the net is that supposed to mean?”

“You know very well what it means, Bob,” Cooper said, forgetting all protocols. “Give them the virals. We have more important matters to consider than the whining of the populace.”

“Your inhumanity is exceeded only by your arrogance, Cooper,” Katiyana said.

Bob stood. “We’ll get nothing else done today, this meeting is adjourned.” And without another word and before anyone could protest Bob left the room.

* * *

“May I see you home, Desdemona?” Lynx said when the two stepped outside.

“Thank you, no, Captain, actually, I’m going to visit a sick friend.”

“Be careful walking alone,” Lynx said. “The Capitol isn’t as safe as it used to be. After all, we can no longer count on the Guardians to protect the citizenry.”

“You are correct.”

“It was fortuitous that we discovered each other. It will prove to be rewarding, don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Desdemona smiled at him. “Thank you for allowing me to join you.”

“You were Neuron’s friend,” Lynx said. “I know he would be pleased that we are working together to see justice is served.”

“Yes,” Desdemona looked down the street. “I must go. See you in two seconds, Captain.”

Fortuitous indeed, Desdemona thought as she made her way down the busy street. The Capitol was now at the height of rebuilding and regaining some semblance of normalcy, but Desdemona knew, as every citizen of the Super Computer knew, it would be a long time, hours perhaps, before that was achieved. And only she and a select few knew that true peace would never be obtained as long as the guilty remained unpunished. And with her newest affiliations, she would see the guilty suffer.

Mindful of where she was going, Desdemona made her way to a neighborhood of run-down once fashionable homes and chose the last one on at the end of a narrow street. She had a passkey, so she didn’t need to knock. Everything in the house was second-hand and worn, but the place was neatly kept and Desdemona seriously thought about taking up the offer of moving in.

She smiled as she ascended the stairs to the second floor and thought of her benefactor and savior, the handsome sprite that had found her wandering the war-ravage streets of the Capitol, cold, hungry, and with no purpose in life. Well he had given her one.

Desdemona walked to the end of the hall and knocked on the only door.

“Enter,” the voice came from within.

“Ram?” Desdemona entered the room, “I’m back.”

“In here.”

Desdemona entered the living area and smiled at the handsome sprite that sat on the couch.

“I was beginning to worry. I take it all went well?”

“Oh yes,” Desdemona sat next to him. A tea service had been set and Desdemona poured herself a cup. “The Prime Guardian had no choice but to agree to meet with us.”

“Excellent,” Ram said. “So far it is going just as we’d hoped.”

“I still feel rather guilty about not telling Lynx about our faction.”

Ram shook his head, “We’ve been through this, my dear. Although Web Alliance and our faction have basically the same goals, we believe Web Alliance will be too lenient with the guilty parties.”

Ram took the cup from her hands and placed his own over hers, “Have I told you how grateful I am to you for agreeing to help us?”

Desdemona blushed, “Yes you have, so don’t do it again. Besides, I owe you much. You didn’t have to trust me with your secrets and you did. For that I am grateful.”

“Then you will continue to work with Web Alliance in our name,” Ram said. “Make certain that not only are the guilty punished but that Web Alliance is convinced that we will never be truly safe until the virals are destroyed. Mere incarceration will not ensure this.”

“I agree,” Desdemona said. “I’m glad I found you.”

“Once we are certain Web Alliance shares our goals we will reveal ourselves to them and then the proper people will be placed in power, not the Guardians.”

“Yes,” Desdemona said. “I had better go home. It will be dark soon.”

“Then I will see you in two seconds.”

Desdemona kissed him lightly on the lips and as she walked out thought how she would have her justice and her revenge.

* * *

The man sitting on the couch made a noise of disgust, “Fanatical little twit.” Ignoring the tea service, he stood and walked over to a nearby cabinet. Unlocking it, he withdrew a bottle of ROM and took a healthy drink. “I trust you heard everything?”

The only other door on the far side of the room opened and a diminutive figure stepped out. “Oh yes! Our plan is working perfectly don’t you think?”

“Indeed,” the man took another drink.

“But,” his companion continued, “you shouldn’t be so mean to her. She’s just so in love with you.”

“That is no concern of mine.”

“My dear Quicksilver, you mean you wouldn’t want to format her disk?”

“Chaos,” Quicksilver snarled, “You will close your mouth now!”

The little virus snorted, “You’re no fun. I miss Nemesis.”

Quicksilver slammed the bottle down in the cabinet, “That red-haired wench will pay for slaying our comrade, but for now she’s inconsequential. It’s the Prime Guardian I want.”

Quicksilver moved to the other side of the room to where a mirror hung on the wall. The man tapped his icon, activating the refresh command. The façade of a handsome sprite dissolved to reveal a badly scarred virus. The whole right side of his face was mutilated beyond repair. Injuries he had received while escaping from the Mainframe army. Quicksilver was quite ugly and because of said injuries, quite insane. The viral assassin was aware of this and was, all things considered, quite pleased.

“Once the Prime Guardian is dead we can began viral reoccupation of the Capitol,” Quicksilver said “Then we only need to make Daemon’s daughters our prisoners to ensure our domination.”

“It will be so good to see Melissa again,” Chaos smirked, “I haven’t had any fun in such a long time!”

“I’ll be downstairs,” Quicksilver said by way of reply and walked out of the room.

He hated this tiny dilapidated structure, but it had been necessary to keep a low profile. He and Chaos had barely escaped the Mainframe onslaught with their lives. Who would have thought that Dot Matrix, a sprite and a woman to boot, would defeat General Ashar? Then as the armada had been waiting for orders, the Mainframers had come exploding from the portal and had opened fire on their remaining viral forces. Quicksilver and Chaos had managed to escape in the confusion and as far as they knew, were presumed deleted, which suited their needs.

Quicksilver continued downstairs, and walked another long corridor to the cellar door. He unlocked it with an ancient key and descended into the darkness. The room illuminated as he reached the bottom of the steps to reveal his makeshift lab. The instruments and machinery were crude and out of date, but they were sufficient for what Quicksilver wanted to do.

Many seconds had he spent in this room creating the perfect death for the Prime Guardian.  As much as he wanted to be the instrument of Robert Lan’s destruction, he knew the moment he revealed himself he would be in mortal danger. Quicksilver approached his worktable on which sat a black box. And within that box, floating in a protective stasis field was a tiny vial filled with a deep purple liquid. Quicksilver lifted it from within the field.

“Virogen,” Quicksilver smiled evilly. “A slow and painful death to you, Prime Guardian, and our lady will be avenged.”

* * *

Phong adjusted his glasses and waited with the infinite patience of his hours as the computer made the final calculations for the portal generator. The venerable sprite was relieved that Bob would be arriving home sooner than scheduled, (and he was certain Dot would be pleased as well) but it worried Phong a little as well. Bob had sounded agitated when they had spoken. Phong wondered what could have happened.

The shimmering globe of the portal came to life and the dark-red clad Prime Guardian steeped through. The Keeper of the Core could see the lines of fatigue etched into his friend’s youthful face.

“Welcome home, my son.” Phong greeted him with his soft-spoken voice.

“Hello, old friend,” Bob smiled tiredly.

“I take it things did not go well in the Super Computer today?” Phong spoke as the two exited the portal room.

“No,” Bob reached back with one hand and began to massage the muscles in the back of his neck. “Lynx and Desdemona showed up today. They just barged into the room.”

“Lynx I expected, but Desdemona? That is most disturbing news.”

“Apparently, she’s teamed up with Web Alliance,” Bob said. “Why do they call it the Web Alliance anyway? They've never been to the Web, they don't know what they're talking about!”

Phong could only shake his head in sympathy.

“Would you believe I actually told them ‘you won’t get away with this’?” Bob continued his voice laced with resentment. “Yeah right, remember what happened the last time I said that.”

As the two sprites entered the War Room, Bob said, “I’m so tired, Phong.”

The aging sprite wrapped his spindly fingers around Bob’s wrist; “Dot is waiting for you at the Diner.”

It was all Bob needed to hear, “Good night, old friend.”

“Rest well, my son.”

* * *

Enzo Matrix, Little Enzo as he was called, watched with trepidation as the two sprites approached the Diner.

“Don’t come in,” he muttered aloud, but even as he did so, he knew they would anyway.

Matrix and AndrAIa entered the Diner, neither one looking very happy. For AndrAIa, it was unusual; for Matrix, it was normal. Before either sprite had a chance to reach him, Enzo slipped from the booth.

“Where are you off to sweetie?” Dot asked the moment he made for the back exit.

“Upstairs,” Enzo glanced nervously back as Matrix and AndrAIa approached.

“Why don’t you go out and play with Frisket?”

Enzo edged further away. “I’m really kinda tired, Dot, is it okay if I take a nap or something?”

“Well, all right.  Why don’t you check and see how Ronnie is doing?”

Grateful for the excuse, Enzo said, “Okay,” and bolted for the back.

Dot had been on his case about spending so much time indoors but the little sprite didn’t seem to have the energy to do much else. Everything he liked, jet bowling, circuit racing, seemed to bore him now. Besides, he hadn’t slept well since--

Enzo shook off the memory. Usually he only got the chills when he saw Matrix, but sometimes if he just thought about the time he had almost been deleted, well he was never any good for the rest of the second.

When Enzo looked in on their houseguest, he found mother and child both asleep. He was glad Ronnie and baby Dot were still there. They were both good company for him when Dot was working late and Bob was at the Super Computer.

He thought about dropping by the Lair to see what Melissa was up to, but since they had returned, Melissa had wanted to spend time with Hex to not only get to know her sister, but in training as well. It wasn’t that Melissa was ignoring him. Since it was summer vacation, he saw her a lot and in fact, she was coming over later on to watch the Three Binomes marathon with him. There was still a lot about the everyday lives of sprites that Melissa didn’t understand and the Three Binomes were one of the things about being a little kid that Enzo still enjoyed.

Enzo sat in his room and looked out the window and watched Mainframe go about its usual business. He wondered if all these new people worried about the things he did, like the future. Sure, Daemon was gone, but he’d overheard Dot and Bob talking about what Bob was going through in the Super Computer as well as all the trouble Dot was having keeping Mainframe afloat.

And that’s when Enzo saw his hero and hopefully, soon to be brother-in-law.

Enzo’s first thought was to run down and greet him. He hadn’t seen Bob in seconds since the Guardian – whoops -- Prime Guardian had been appointed to his new position. Now he missed Bob. Well he missed a lot of things, especially the way he and Bob hung out together. But Enzo knew Matrix was still down there and he wasn’t about to be anywhere near his older glowering counterpart.

He wasn’t going to make it easy for Matrix this time.

* * *

Dot looked up at the sound of the bell jangling and was surprised to see Bob enter.

Dot stood as Bob greeted Matrix and AndrAIa where they sat at the bar. Then the Prime Guardian crossed the room quickly and kissed her.  A chorus of giggles erupted from the gathered patrons. Dot blushed slightly. “I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Bob what’s wrong? You look exhausted.” Dot placed both hands on his shoulders and guided him to the booth, “Here, have a seat. Cecil, two energy shakes.”

“Right away, Madame.”

Dot resumed her customary position in her booth and turned half her attention back to the vid-windows. “So what happened? Why are you back so early?”

Bob sighed and leaned back in the booth as Cecil placed the shake in front of him without comment for once. Bob swirled the straw around then took a long drink before speaking. “You wouldn’t believe who barged into the meeting room. Lynx and Desdemona.”

“What?” Dot pushed one of the vid-windows aside, “Lynx and Desdemona? She just showed up? Out of the blue? I had hoped we were rid of her.”

“No such luck,” Bob said. “She has apparently joined Web Alliance.”

“Oh no,” Dot said, “Looks like Phong was right about the scorpion.”

“What?”

“I’ll explain later. What did they want?”

“Apparently, the dissention is greater than we’d thought. They organized a Citizens' Council and they demand we meet with them in two seconds.”

“They demanded?”  Matrix spoke, “Bob you’re Prime Guardian. You don’t have to listen to them.”

“You’re right Matrix, I don’t,” Bob said, “But I must. Desdemona said herself that if I refused to speak to them, it would look like I was hiding something.”

“That sounds like something she would pull,” Matrix’s voice was harsh. “Watch out for her, Bob.”

“Do you think she’ll cause trouble for Matrix?” AndrAIa asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. They demand that Matrix appears before the Council as well.”

“What in the net for?” AndrAIa asked.

“Neuron Cyber – among other things.”

“Terrific,” Matrix muttered. “Well I’m more than willing to go before this Citizens' Council, but what in the net do they think they’re going to do? They’re not the law in the Super Computer.”

“No,” Bob said, “But they have power. They represent the populace and now isn’t a good time to rile the populace.”

“Just don’t let them turn it into a virus-hunt, Bob,” Dot said. “People may be looking for someone to blame, and right now, you’re in the spotlight.”

Dot reached over and placed her hand atop his, “But remember sweetheart, you’re not alone.”

“I know,” Bob blushed slightly and chose to ignore the giggling.

“Why don’t you come by this evening? Little Enzo and Melissa want to watch that Three Binomes marathon. I’m having enough take-out junk food to feed an army.”

“The Three Binomes marathon? That’s tonight?” Bob’s eyes went wide. “Schway. What time?”

Dot smiled. It was nice to see a little of the old happy-go-lucky Bob back. He seemed so serious lately. “Nineteen hundred. Bring something.”

“What, I’m not sufficient on my own?”

“Oh of course you are,” Dot mimed a kiss at him.

* * *

WARNING: INCOMING GAME

“Cursors!” Bob was just pulling on a t-shirt when the announcement came. He hoped the game was over by nineteen hundred. He glanced at the clock – 16:45 – so maybe he had time. He tapped his icon and went back into his Prime Guardian uniform (he still felt weird wearing it) and rushed out the door. Luckily the cube was falling nearby and he saw Matrix and AndrAIa already heading for it.

When the violet and silver field came down around him, Bob felt the familiar electrical current. It was then that he remembered why he had become a Guardian and why he was pleased and honored to now be the voice of the Collective.

The game was over in plenty of time for him to arrive at Dot’s apartment and she greeted him at the door.

“Hi,” she smiled brightly at him. She was dressed similarly in jeans and a t-shirt. “Game go all right?”

“It was actually nice to be playing again,” Bob said. “I’m a little tired though, and sore. I must need to exercise more.”

“I tell you what,” Dot said, “Al hasn’t delivered the pizzas yet and the show won’t start for a little while. Why don’t you go in and say hello to the kids? I’ll be right back.”

The moment Bob stepped into the living room, he smiled at the sight of Enzo and Melissa sitting on the floor, surrounded by assorted snacks and drinks.

“The key to enjoying a good Three B’s marathon,” Enzo was saying and Bob had to suppress a chuckle at the look of fierce concentration on Melissa’s face, “Is to have as much junk food as sprite-ly possible, so you never have to leave the room.”

“I see,” Melissa said, “And these Three Binomes, they are people of importance?”

“Oh yeah! I mean they’re the kings of comedy!”

“Oh, they’re royalty?”

“Um – no, that’s just a figure of speech.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Hey you two,” Bob finally made his presence known, and realized what a big mistake it was.

“Bob!” Enzo was off the floor and had tackled him before he had time to react. “How was the game? Did you have fun?  What was it about? Did you do it alone? Dot says you’re going to hang out with us and I think that’s cool because we haven’t hung out in a long time and I really miss doing that and hey didn’t Dot tell you to bring something?”

“Oops,” Bob smiled, “Completely forgot, squirt.”

Enzo leapt up and helped Bob to stand, “She’s going to be mad. But that’s okay. I mean that you didn’t bring anything.”

Enzo led him over to where Melissa sat. The girl-child virus hadn’t spoken since Bob entered the room.

“Hello, Melissa.” Bob still wasn’t certain how she felt about him.

“Hi Bob,” she said.  At least she hadn’t called him Dariem. A few times in the past she almost had, but always caught herself in time.

“You’re in for a treat.” Bob sat on the couch and noticed how Melissa watched his every move. “No one knows the Three Binomes like Enzo.”

“Well that’s what Enzo says,” Melissa said quietly.

Enzo gave her a look that Bob couldn’t quite read. An uncomfortable silence filled the room until Dot entered, “I see you didn’t bring anything, Mr. Lan.

“Sorry, can I make it up to you?”

“Well, I’ll think of something,” Dot smiled. “How about a soak in the tub? That’s what I was doing. I ran a bath for you and put some bath salts in for those aching muscles.”

Bob was touched by her gesture, “Thank you. But you didn’t have to go through all that trouble.” He walked over to her and kissed her.

“It wasn’t any trouble.”

He smiled, went to kiss her again and was interrupted by Enzo clearing his throat loudly.

“Go on,” Dot gave him a playful shove towards the bathroom, “I’ll bring you some towels.”

The bath had a slight medicinal scent. Bob removed his shirt and jeans and sank gratefully into the steaming water. He was going to definitely do something especially nice for Dot once the situation with Web Alliance was over. He could get used to this pampering.

So why don’t you marry her?

“I will,” Bob said aloud.

“Will what?” Dot came in and Bob gave a gasp, sinking lower into the tub.

“Oh don’t play so modest,” Dot laid the towels on the side of the tub and handed him the beer that she held in her other hand. “So go ahead and enjoy and I’ll call you when it’s almost time.”

He smiled suggestively at her and raised his eyebrows, “Would you care to join me?”

Dot smiled wryly at him and closed the door behind her.

“Oh well, it was worth a shot.” The Prime Guardian sank deeper into the tub and closed his eyes.

* * *

After a few nanos of soaking he lifted his hand from under the water to reach for the beer and froze in the midst of his movement.

A yellow worm was crawling up his arm.

“No!”Bob cried and swatted at the thing but it held fast to his skin. Then there were two, five and a dozen, crawling up his arms, across his chest and over

his face . . .

* * *

Bob cried out again as he came awake, his core-com slamming against his chest.

“Bob?” The door came open and Dot stood there, an expression of worry on her face. “Are you all right?”

“I--” Bob fought to control his nerves. “I’m sorry – I must have fallen asleep.”

Dot closed the door and knelt beside the tub as she took his hand in hers, “You had a nightmare didn’t you?”

“It was nothing,” Bob said.

Dot reached out and brushed back a wet tendril of his silver hair. “I worry about you, you know. You haven’t talked about what happened when you went to face Daemon.”

Dot expelled a breath; “Enzo won’t talk to me about his nightmares either. I don’t think he’s even told Melissa.”

“Dot, I want to tell you but,” Bob said, “I don’t want to frighten you.”

“Frighten me? Remember who you’re talking to Bob. No matter what you tell me, I’ll listen and try my best to help you get through it.”

“I know,” he smiled at her. “One of the many reasons why I love you.”

“Why don’t you come outside now?” she gave him a quick peck on the lips before departing.

* * *

Now this is what I’ve been waiting for. Bob pulled Dot closer.  The Command.com was stretched out on the couch, her head cradled against his shoulder. Bob had a bowl of popcorn on his lap that he and Dot shared. How many hours had he dreamed of a scene like this? Where he for once was just relaxing with the ones he loved? It was almost as if they were a family. Well hopefully they would be soon.

Melissa had been watching the first half-millisecond of the show with the same look of fierce concentration. When a commercial came on she turned to Enzo and said, “I don’t understand. Why is this funny?”

Enzo gave her an incredulous look. He turned to Bob, who shrugged, “Explain it, Enzo.”

“Melissa – it just -- is! I mean look at the satire, the parody!”

“It just looks like three binomes accosting each other.”

“Melissa,” Dot said, “I’ve always had the same opinion.”

“What?” Bob said with mock horror.“I thought you liked the Three Binomes!”

“Sorry Bob, I just don’t get it.” She smiled mischievously.

Bob snorted in mock indignation, “I don’t think I can date a girl who doesn’t like the Three Binomes.”

“Get over it,” Dot said. “At least I don’t complain that you burned the popcorn.”

“I didn’t burn the popcorn!”

“You did.”

“Didn’t.”

“Did.”

“Adults are quite – unusual, aren’t they?” Melissa said.

“Yeah.” Enzo said through a mouthful of chips.

* * *

“I’ll make sure Melissa gets home all right,” Bob said quietly as he and Dot said their goodnights at her door.

“I guess I won’t see you for a little while.”

“No,” he said, “But hey, you’ll be too busy to notice.”

“That I doubt,” Dot said. She kissed him, “Good night. Sweet dreams.”

“You too.”

Bob waited at the door for Melissa, who was helping Enzo clean up. When the little virus appeared, Bob decompressed his zip board, “Thought you might need some company.”

She looked at him, “Okay.”

Mainframe was quiet, despite the influx of people from other systems, attempting to escape the hardships of the war. Bob and Melissa zipped over Mainframe’s metallic towers towards Lost Angles.

“So how are you and Hex getting on?”

It was the first time he had gotten a smile out of her, “Excellent. She’s teaching me so much. She says I should be able to teleport, so she’s teaching me how.”

“I’m glad you two found each other. You need each other.”

Silence fell again, then, “I hoped we could be friends, Melissa.”

She halted and Bob barely had time to stop beside her. There the two floated in mid-air, facing each other.

“Why?” she asked, which surprised Bob.

“Why not?” Bob replied. “I can see how much you care about Enzo and he cares about you too.”

“Do you care about Enzo?”

Another question which surprised him. “Of course I do.”

“Then why,” Melissa’s voice had a harsh edge, “haven’t you punished Matrix?”

Bob had thought nothing would ever surprise him again after everything he had been through, but that question totally blew him away, “Melissa, you of all people understand the situation with Matrix.”

“I understand that Matrix tried to delete Enzo and I haven’t seen any remorse on his part,” Melissa said, “I understand that no one has done anything about it.”

“Melissa, things are different now. You’re in a different place, with decent people. I know Enzo is teaching you what is right and I know you realize that taking a life is wrong.”

“Yes,” Melissa said. “But shouldn’t those who do wrong be punished?”

“Melissa that is a question that has been debated for many an hour,” Bob said. “Unfortunately, it’s not as cut and paste as all that. Yes the wrongdoers should be punished but it’s not always up to us to do so.  Sometimes they are punished without intervention from anyone. Then when we do intervene, all the aspects of the situation need to be examined. That’s why we have courts of law.”

“Where I come from, justice was dispensed by whomever was strongest,” Melissa said. “Things are so different here. There are so many things I have yet to understand.”

“Yes there are,” Bob said. “Whenever you need to know something ask Enzo or you can come to any of us. I would like to have your trust and your friendship, Melissa.”

When she didn’t reply he continued,  “Is this why you’ve been angry with me? Because you think I don’t care about Enzo?”

“I’m not angry,” Melissa said, “just confused. You surprised me when you defeated my mother. I didn’t expect you to do it. I was -- impressed – but then I thought you would punish Matrix and when nothing was ever said or done well --”

“As to Matrix, I think he’s been punished enough,” Bob said. “We both have. Just knowing what we did eats at us every nano. You’re wrong about Matrix not feeling any remorse. He does. I’ve seen it. In the end it’s up to them to work it out between themselves. Because Matrix’s actions were not of his own free will, we must give him our understanding and not blame him.”

Melissa shook her head, “What a strange way you deal with certain situations. Where I come from, the solution is clear.”

“Melissa,” Bob began, “Follow me, I want to show you something.”

Bob turned his board and headed for the Principal Office. The dome gleamed dimly in the moonlight and Bob ascended to the pinnacle. He turned and waited until Melissa was next to him. From their vantage point they could see the whole of Mainframe.

“This is the heart of Mainframe.” Bob said quietly. “Sometimes at night I come here and listen to her.”

“Her?”

“Mainframe.” Bob said. “If you just – listen – you’ll understand why we don’t believe in the useless destruction of life. This is a special place, and I’ve always been glad it’s my home.”

Bob conjured his power and the golden glow enveloped his body. He closed his eyes and outstretched his arms, drinking in the essence that was Mainframe. Somewhere, deep within the true core-com of his home, Bob could sense, more than hear the gentle breathing.

“Give me your hand, Melissa.”

Almost shyly, the little virus placed her tiny hand in his.

“Just listen for a moment.”

Imitating Bob, Melissa closed her eyes. Bob watched, with a slight smile.

“There is something,” Melissa said after a time, “A presence. Like a – consciousness.” She looked earnestly up at him, “This place is alive. It has known past pain. It has died and was reborn and now it is at peace.”

“Because you sense this, you are a special person, I think, Melissa,” Bob said. “Mainframe is your home. Do you think you understand a little better now?”

“I believe so.”

Bob caused the light to fade.

“Can I ask you something, Bob?”

“Of course.”

“Why are there no viral Guardians?”

Bob had honestly thought he was through being surprised for the night. “Virals tend to avoid Guardians and the Collective.”

“But you’ve never made an attempt to recruit any?”

Bob sighed. “No. Our experiences with virals brought on the decision not to accept them into the Collective.”

“Even benign virals?”

“Yes,” Bob said, “but you know it’s been my experience that it only takes one person to make a change.”

Melissa didn’t speak.

“Come on.” Bob took her hand again. “Let’s get you home.”


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