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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 11 - Strange Seconds

The present

“Wake up, Mr. Matrix.”

Enzo came awake with painful slowness. His head ached and his mouth had a bitter taste. It was still a struggle to regain consciousness and when he finally did, he looked with all his loathing at his captor.

“My apologies for drugging you, Mr. Matrix,” Raven said, “But it was necessary to keep you subdued. I couldn’t have you making any escape attempt.”

Enzo tried to make a scathing retort, but his voice had abandoned him.

“Take a nano,” Raven said, “The drug will keep you groggy for awhile.” Then Raven walked away.

Enzo shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He lowered his hand to his belt to activate an organizer. A diagnostic would help, when he realized that his belt wasn’t there. Raven had taken it. Enzo swore inwardly. There was a homing beacon on his organizer. He’d have to try and convince Raven to let him have it back.

After a few nanos, Enzo attempted to stand and had to sit immediately down again. He lay back down and frustration built in his chest. He had to move. Finally he forced himself to stand and walked forward, forgetting about the containment field, but to his surprise, it had been deactivated. Well of course, Raven had just walked through it.

Raven. Obviously another alias. Enzo walked down the narrow corridor and the space opened up to reveal a small cargo area. Enzo went about checking some of the boxes in hopes of finding a weapon but they were all securely locked. He swore again, knowing he could open them if he had his organizer. Some of the locks were old-fashioned key locks while others were password protected. He spent a few futile micros’ trying to hack his way in without success. He sighed. He really needed Mouse to continue his training. Thoughts of her led to thoughts of the rest of his family and an ache began in his core-com. He rose and went in search of his captor.

To his right was a door and when Enzo walked towards it, it opened. As he expected, it was the ship cockpit. Raven sat in the pilot’s seat. His kidnapper didn’t turn as Enzo approached. The young sprite looked frantically around for anything he could use as a weapon.

“I suggest you not attempt to accost me in any way,” Raven said without turning. “Even if you were to escape me there’s no place you can go.”

Raven motioned out to cockpit window and Enzo saw they were flying over the unfamiliar terrain of a new system. As far as the eye could see there was a vast expanse of trees and in the distance, mist enshrouded mountains. By the level of the cyber-sun in the sky it was early morning, the light setting the low-handing mist ablaze with ruby fire. Under normal circumstances, Enzo would have been impressed by the majesty.

“My family will come for me,” Enzo said. “Keeping me will only piss them off more. Why not let me go and you can fly off on your merry way? As long as I’m with you --,”

“As long as you’re with me, they will not attempt to injure me or you will suffer,” Raven stood and turned to look at him. Enzo felt a fleeting moment of panic, when he realized the ship must be on autopilot. “Besides, there is much I have to do. Once I complete my task you will be released.”

“I don’t believe you,” Enzo said. “You’re going to delete me, aren’t you?”

“No,” Raven said. “I’m no murderer.”

“Just a liar and kidnapper.”

Raven approached quickly, his eyes blazed with fury, and for one terrifying moment, Enzo thought he had pushed him too far. The young sprite steeled himself for an attack, but none came. Raven instead turned and walked back to his chair. “We’ll be landing in a few nanos. I’d suggest you sit down.”

“Landing where? Are you totally random?”

“Sit down, Mr. Matrix.” The demand was voiced low and menacing.

Surely he couldn’t be serious? Enzo couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him, let alone sit next to him, but Enzo realized he had little choice. He took the passenger seat and took a nano to examine the man. Could he take Raven by any chance? Enzo had a green belt in Tae Kwon Dos but hadn’t had a chance to utilize his training. Besides, he wasn’t studying the martial arts to fight but for the discipline and physical fitness. Enzo tried his best to stand by his convictions when it came to fighting. That didn’t mean, however that he wouldn’t defend himself or use it to escape.

Raven seemed intent on piloting his ship. Enzo knew with his organizer, he could probably figure out how to do it himself or at least how to send a distress call. That would mean subduing Raven, getting his organizer and –

“I will say it again,” Raven suddenly spoke without looking at him, “do not attempt to accost me. I am a much better fighter than you are. A green belt isn’t much compared to the type of fight training I’ve had.”

Enzo drew in a sharp breath. What was this guy a mind reader?

“All of your emotions show in your face and your eyes,” Raven said. “And don’t you think I did my own checking? Cease your plans to subdue me. They will do you little good.”

“You arrogant son of a horse’s ASCII,” Enzo muttered turning away.

“Your insults are becoming tiresome.”

“Get used to them.”

Raven gave a sharp negative shake of his head, “Our destination.”

Outside the window, Enzo was astonished to see what could only be described as a fortress sitting at the edge of a sheer rock face. The place was immense, as large as the ancient castles he had seen and toured while on one of his summer trips. It was complete with its own landing pad. Raven touched down his ship with expert skill.

“This will be your new home for a time,” Raven stood and drew his laser. “Get up. Move.”

Enzo hesitated for just a nano before standing and walking forward in the direction Raven indicated. They went back to the cargo area and Raven said for him to stop.

“Egress,” Raven said and the door opened and the ramp lowered.

Walking before his captor Enzo stepped on solid ground for what seemed like the first time in cycles. It was then that he got a better look at his surroundings.

The mist was just burning away as the cyber sun continued to rise and the forest of majestic pines gleamed almost newly, like the User had just created them. The air was fresh and crisp and from far away, came the mournful keening of a forest bird.

But the scene was suddenly rendered frightening by the feel of the laser being pressed between his shoulder blades, “Get moving.”

Enzo turned rapidly, one hand shot out knocking the laser away and the other lashed out connecting with Raven’s midsection. The man went down and Enzo took off at a run. If he could make it back to the ship –

The laser shot ricocheting off the ground at his feet stopped him cold.

Enzo didn’t move his eyes on the ship, his first real look at the vessel which he realized, with some astonishment, was in the form of a great black bird.

“A raven,” Enzo whispered, almost entranced by the sight. He had never seen anything like it.

“Nevermore,” Raven’s voice came close to his ear. “A beauty, isn’t she?”

Enzo flinched and a stab of icy fear went through his chest at the feel of the laser barrel against his face.

“Do not attempt something like that again. I will hurt you understand?”

“Y-yes,” Enzo’s voice broke. It was hopeless there was no escape. He was trapped.

“Move,” Raven ordered again and Enzo turned and started towards the fortress.

* * *

Seven hours into the past.

The first thunderstorm hit the next second. Bob was forced to temporarily suspend the search as strong icy winds and rain battered the towers and the citizens of the Super Computer. The Prime Guardian stood grimly over the console in the former command center of the rebellion and swore softly once again.

At least the mother and daughter were safe at Council Hall under Katiyana’s watchful eye. The Keytool Mistress had come out of the melee with a broken wrist and some cuts and bruises but other wise, she was fine.

It gave Bob little solace. The defenseless toddler was still out there and he was powerless to do anything about it. When the storm let up, he and the others would start searching again, although he doubted they’d find any trace now since the rain had probably obliterated it.

“Never thought I’d be back down here again,” Dom’s voice drew him away from his musings.

Bob made a noncommittal noise.

“Don’t worry Bob,” Dom said, “We’ll find the boy.”

“I hope so,” Bob pound a fist against the console and swore again.

The lights went out.

“Oh for User’s sake,” Bob muttered.

Dom pressed a button on the console, “Looks like trouble in the power station. I’ll send someone out.”

Bob conjured a ball of light.

“Wow,” Dom said, “That’s amazing.”

“It comes in handy,” Bob smiled.

“Can I ask you something personal?”

They were relatively alone in the room. Two technicians were working on the machines. Everyone else was either preparing to go back out or was resting.

“Sure.”

“When did you realize you loved Dot?”

Bob’s face warmed. “From the moment I first met her, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was on the floor in pain.”

“What?”

“When I first arrived in Mainframe, I portalled into her apartment in the middle of the night, accidentally. She thought I was a burglar and she hit me with one those plastic baseball bats.”

Dom tried unsuccessfully to smother his laugh.

“But I didn’t really admit how I felt to myself until after I spent some time stranded in the web. I swore to myself if I got out of it alive, I’d tell her first thing. And I still took way too long.”

A faraway look came into Dom’s eyes, which rapidly became sadness.

“We’ll find SiRCe, Dom,” Bob said. “And when we do, I suggest you tell her how you feel then and there. We’re seldom given seconds chances.”

“Yes,” Dom said decisively, “I will. Thanks Bob.”

“Looks like the storm is letting up,” Bob once again leaned over the console. “Let’s get back out there.”

* * *

Although the storm had let up somewhat there was still a cold drizzle that made the searching tedious but no one complained. Matrix and his group, which included AndrAIa was investigating a water-filled gully, slogging through the knee deep mud and hoping that the little boy had not made his way down there.

They met up with the group being led by Ray and Mouse who had a message from Bob.

“Sugah, he needs you to come back to the factory,” Mouse explained. “They found a doctor for you.”

For a moment, Matrix looked at her in stunned silence. “I – I can’t leave now.”

“Look sugah, you’ll be of more use to us if we have that eye of yours.”

“I’ll have to go back to Mainframe to pick up a few things,” Matrix said.

“Then you can check things out there and bring Dot up to speed. You know how the storm has messed up communications,” AndrAIa said. “Take care of things and we’ll continue with the search. I’ll join you at the hospital when the time comes.”

“All right,” he gave her a quick kiss. “Be careful out here you guys. While I’m at the Hall, I’ll talk to Zif about that project of yours AndrAIa.”

“See you in a few Sparky,” AndrAIa said.

* * *

Matrix entered the command center but found himself hesitating. He still hadn’t cleared the air with Bob and now he was going in for this operation. To be honest, Matrix was a little worried about it. Sure, he’d had it before but the man who had performed the surgery was someone who he had come to trust. Matrix sighed inwardly. Because of him, a fine cyber-surgeon and friend was deleted and he hadn’t been able to prevent it. But he had avenged his friend’s murder and he knew he would have to be satisfied with that.

“Zif says we should have somewhat of a lull until late evening,” Bob was telling Dom, “Then it’ll hit in full force again. Communications will be out.”

“Bob,” Matrix walked forward, “Mouse tells me they found a surgeon?”

“Zif says he’s waiting. Whenever you’re ready,” Bob said mildly. “Did you need to go back home for awhile a pick up a few things?”

“Yes.”

“Then while you’re there tell Dot what’s been going on,” Bob said. “We’ve been having serious difficulties reaching Mainframe and I know she’s worried.”

“All right.”

Bob, for the first time since their fight, walked over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. His touch felt good. “Nervous?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t worry. Zif tells me this doctor is the best and I’ll only have the best for my friends.”

Are we still friends, Bob? Matrix wanted to ask but kept silent. “AndrAIa’s going to meet me at the hospital,” he said.

“We’ll all be there, including Dot, I’ll bet,” Bob smiled. “I’ve already arranged a transport for you.”

“Okay,” Matrix muttered.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I promise.”

* * *

AndrAIa literally dragged herself into the factory later that evening. She was cold, soaked and covered in mud and just on the hide side of disgusted. Mouse, Ray and several others were in the kitchen area, the same one that she and Melissa had their conversation not too long ago. A large older binome woman was serving cups of broth and AndrAIa accepted one, before plopping herself down in a chair that Ray and Mouse had saved.

“I’m going to talk to Bob in a few nanos,” she began without preamble. “Did you guys notice anything wrong with that situation between Tempus and Cooper during the game?”

“I noticed you hit the nail right on the head sugah,” Mouse replied. “Why would Cooper wanna sabotage his own position on the Council getting back at Bob?”

“Jealousy?” Ray suggested.

“Maybe, sugah but, if he were jealous why accept the position? Why not publicly campaign against Bob for Prime Guardian?”

“No one would accept him for one. Bob’s not a total wanker like Cooper is,” Ray said. “And incidentally, where is the ruddy bloke?”

“I haven’t seen him since the game,” AndrAIa sipped the broth. “He is up to something, whether or not he’s the informant well I’m still not sure, but Tempus seems to think so.”

“Unless it’s Tempus,” Ray said.

“Tempus, the informant?” AndrAIa frowned. “I don’t know Ray. He doesn’t really have any reason either. It would have to be someone in the shadows with a grudge against Bob and that could be anyone.” AndrAIa rose. “I’ll be right back, you guys.” The game sprite didn’t want to delay any longer.

* * *

Bob agreed with her wholeheartedly.

They had gone to talk to one of the empty offices and AndrAIa told him of what had happened during the game.

“I always thought it was a mistake offering Cooper a position,” Bob said. “I guess I shouldn’t say this but it was a token gesture.”

AndrAIa gave him a sympathetic smile and laid her hand over his, “That’s the kind of man you are, Bob.”

He looked up at her, his large brown eyes distressed, “But look at all the trouble its caused.”

“Bob did you think being Prime Guardian was going to be easy?” AndrAIa said.

He smiled slightly, “Well actually--” and almost immediately, the smile faded. “If Cooper is the informant, we’ll need proof.”

“Well if you can locate him, I can tail him. At least until Matrix gets back.”

“He’s going to be okay you know.”

“I know.”

“I’ll contact Rule and have her try and locate Cooper. If she can’t find him, Mistress Katiyana should be able to trace him through Meta.”

“All right,” AndrAIa stood.

“I know I can trust you to do the job, AndrAIa.”

She smiled at him, “Thank you for that trust, Bob. Not just with this, but with everything.”

* * *

Dot and Phong waited by the portal generator as Phong made the necessary adjustments.

“It appears to be in working order now,” Phong said. “Shall we try again?”

“Go ahead,” Dot had been worried since she had been unable to communicate with the Super Computer because of the storm. She had no idea what was going on there, so she was relieved that Matrix was returning.

Not that she had been sitting idle. The meetings with the representatives of the other systems had gone well. All had agreed to a joint business venture and Dot had a feeling it would be very profitable for Mainframe. Not only that but the Saucy Mare’s reconstruction was going remarkably well and one of the other systems had given them additional construction supplies.

But the most amazing thing that had happened was the discovery of the small fighter, deep underneath the Data Sea. Dot guessed it was Nemesis’ ship and it was found just by accident. One of system representatives had been doing a long-range scan from their ship and had discovered it and sent a message back to Dot. They were amazed that the ship had been intact albeit waterlogged and it was being salvaged even then.

All this good news was a little overwhelming and Dot was glad for all of it.

As the portal came to life, Dot stepped back and smiled as Matrix stepped through.

“Hi Dot, Phong, what’s processing?” He actually smiled at them.

“Welcome home, my son,” Phong said.

“Hey there, I have a lot of good news,” Dot said, “Now what’s this about them finding a surgeon?”

Matrix went on to tell her about the operation he was soon to have. Dot could tell he was nervous about it. She linked his arm with hers. “You shouldn’t be nervous. Bob was right when he said you deserved the best.”

“And Bob will make certain you will have the best,” Phong said. “How long will you be with us my son?”

“I just need to get a few things together, just a second I guess,” Matrix said. “That is if the storm doesn’t disrupt things again. Then maybe I’ll be here a little longer.”

“Well I can’t say that would be bad,” Dot said. “Everything’s been quiet here, thank the User.”

“Um – where’s Little Enzo?” Matrix asked.

Both Dot and Phong halted and looked at him.

“I believe he is at Floating Point with Melissa,” Phong said.

“Maybe I’ll talk to him,” Matrix said.

“Maybe?” Dot said.

“Okay, okay,” Matrix said. He was not looking forward to this.

* * *

“What are you thinking?” Melissa asked him.

Enzo leaned a little farther over the edge of the tier. His eyes watered at the breeze buffeting his face. “I was kind of thinking about what’s been going on.”

Melissa swung her legs back and forth over the edge. “You mean all the stuff in the Super Computer?”

“Yeah,” Enzo sighed. He was glad his family was safe. When the riot had started he had been terrified. He had only been that scared one other time. “But not just that, everything else that’s happened involving the Guardians. I mean your mother really did a number on them.” He looked at her apologetically, “Sorry.”

“No, it’s the truth,” Melissa said. “They all fell to her whims.”

“Even Bob,” Enzo still couldn’t believe Bob had been turned into a virus. Not that he had lost faith in Bob, but it was just scary to know Daemon had gotten to him too. Still Bob had beaten Daemon, which was what Enzo had expected.

“Bob defeated her,” Melissa said, “That makes him above the others. Well I guess that’s why he’s the Prime Guardian now.”

“All that other stuff though. The things that the Guardians did,” Enzo said, “I know it wasn’t their fault but some of them well they were doing stuff they shouldn’t have been doing, stuff that didn’t have anything to do with your mother controlling them.”

“No one can claim perfection Enzo,” she said. The looked at him puzzled, “Did you think the Guardians were perfect?”

“Well – maybe not perfect but – I guess knowing Bob, I thought they’d all be like him,” Enzo sighed. “But even Bob knew about that Protocol 999. Even before the web creature invaded.”

Melissa gave him a concerned look, “So your opinion on Bob has changed?”

“Well not really,” Enzo said. “He’s still my hero and all. I guess I’m just starting to see certain things differently. You know what I mean?”

“Actually I do,” Melissa said. “So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know yet,” Enzo said. “This is a lot to take in, you know? Sometimes I wonder if I should do something different. Sometimes I think I don’t want to be a Guardian after all.”

A shadow fell over them and both little sprites turned in unison to see Matrix’s massive form blocking the light. Melissa was on her feet instantly, baring claws and fangs and hissing at him.

“Calm down,” Matrix said. “I’m not going to do anything.”

“You bet you’re not,” Melissa said.

Enzo stood next to her, “So what do you want?”

“To talk to you.”

“So talk,” Melissa said.

“Alone,” Matrix said.

“No.”

“Get lost, Melissa,” Matrix’s voice had a hint of annoyance.

“Hey, don’t talk to her that way!” Enzo stepped in front of his friend.

Matrix expelled a breath. “Look, I really need to talk to the kid alone, okay Melissa? I’ll tell you what --,” Matrix pointed to the tier just above and in front of them. “ – You fly up to that tier while I talk to Enzo. If you see me making so much as a threatening gesture, you have a clear shot at me, okay?”

“Well,” Melissa said, “Is that okay with you, Enzo?”

“Yeah, it’s okay Melissa,” Enzo said. “I’m not afraid of him.”

Melissa turned and leapt away from the tier and floated smoothly to the one above. Enzo stared at Matrix with what he hoped was a defiant look, “Well?”

“Why don’t we have a seat?”

Matrix settled himself at the edge of the tier, like Enzo had been doing, his legs dangling over the side. “So what’s processing?”

“You came all the way back to Mainframe to ask me that?”

“No,” Matrix grunted, “I came back to pick up a few things. I’m going in for surgery.”

Despite himself, Enzo was concerned, “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Matrix leaned over the tier in a perfect imitation of Enzo’s action. The wind ruffled his spiky hair.

Enzo took that moment to really get a good look at his older self’s profile. So that’s how I’ll look when I grow up, he thought. Well not exactly that way. He’d change a few things just to be sure he didn’t look too much like Matrix.

“I’m getting my cybernetic eye replaced,” Matrix continued.

“Oh,” Enzo said, “So you’ll be able to shoot things again.”

“I use my gun to defend myself.” For a nano he was silent. “Um – I could teach you how to use Gun --,”

“No!” Enzo said vehemently, earning a completely astonished look from Matrix, “I don’t want to ever touch a gun again.”

“What? What do you mean again?”

“Nothing,” Enzo said. “You may like shooting people but I think it’s wrong.”

“I don’t like--” Matrix modified his voice, “I don’t like shooting people.”

“Bet Ray wouldn’t agree with you,” Enzo muttered.

“What’s that’s supposed to--” Matrix said. “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘oh’, I know about that too,” Enzo said, “I know about everything. That stuff Lynx said at the meeting was just a little bit of the stuff you’ve done.”

“Enzo--”

“And I know how you feel about virals,” Enzo went on, an uncharacteristic surge of anger in the pit of his stomach.

“Okay, so you know everything about me,” Matrix snapped, “Why can’t you understand that I did those things to survive? I wasn’t that basic when I was your age.”

“Are you calling me basic?”

Matrix sighed, “No.”

“Look what did you want?”

“I wanted to clear the air with you,” Matrix said. “I wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t going to delete you.”

Enzo just stared at him, waiting. Would he say it? When Matrix remained silent Enzo said, “And?”

“What do you mean ‘and’?”

“Don’t you have anything else you wanted to say?”

“What else is there to say? I’m not going to delete you okay?”

Enzo shook his head, “You’re not going to say it are you?”

“Say what?”

Enzo made a noise of disgust and climbed to his feet. “Are you basic or something?”

“What’s with you, anyway?” Matrix said. “I told you I wasn’t going to delete you. Don’t you believe me?”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Enzo said. “You just don’t get it do you?”

“No, I don’t,” Matrix snapped, “Why don’t you explain it to me like I’m a ten hour old?”

Enzo snorted, “I am so outta here.”

Enzo decompressed his zip board and was on it and flew away before Matrix could say anymore. He reached the tier from which Melissa had watched.

“What did he say?” Melissa asked when he landed.

“Nothing important,” Enzo said, “Nothing at all.” Matrix hadn’t said the one thing Enzo wanted to hear. Then again, Enzo wouldn’t of believed him if he had said it. Two simple words, I’m sorry.

* * *

Of all the basic, low density –

Matrix threw more articles of clothing in his duffle bag. What did that kid want from him? Why couldn’t he understand that Matrix had no intention of deleting him? Well, now at least he could say he had talked to him when Bob asked. It wasn’t his fault that the kid wasn’t cooperating. He wasn’t going to kiss Enzo’s ASCII.

Besides he had more important things to think about right now. He needed to get back to the Super Computer before the storm flared up again. He had waited to long for this. He wouldn’t feel complete until the connection to his weapon had been reestablished.

Yet no matter how hard he tried, the incident was foremost in his mind. Matrix sat heavily on the bed and ran his hands over his face. What did the kid want from him? Why couldn’t he figure it out? They were the same code after all. Matrix allowed himself a bitter smile. They were alike in one aspect. Never willing to give an inch.

* * *

“Sure you don’t want me to scrub your back, love?” Ray tried once again to peek over the top of the shower stall.

“Sugah, if you do that one more time I’m gonna take those goggles of yours and make you eat them.”

Ray sighed, and leaned against the wall, glad that they had gotten a chance to use the shower in the infirmary. The storm had kicked up again and Bob had called another halt.

“I’m just looking forward to a few milliseconds downtime,” Mouse said. “Although that cot is just deleting my back.”

It wasn’t the first time that Mouse had made that complaint and it had given Ray an idea. He wasn’t certain that Mouse would go for it, but it was worth a shot. He needed to get back to Mainframe and talk to Dot.

“Ray, Mouse, you two in there?”

AndrAIa entered and Ray straightened away from the wall, “What’s up, Dre?”

“I’m going back to the Capitol to talk to Zif and help him with the schematics for – well I don’t know what I’m going to call it yet. I guess I’ll know when it’s done,” AndrAIa smiled.

“Hey, why don’t I fly you there? I need to drop in at Mainframe for a little while,” Ray said.

“What you sayin’, Ray?” Mouse turned off the faucets.

“I’m going back to Mainframe for a bit, love.”

“Why?” Mouse peeked over the shower stall.

“I’ve got some things to take care of,” Ray said. “You get some down time.”

“Wait a nano,” Mouse said, “What kind of ‘things’?”

“Just things, okay? I’ll tell you about them when I get back,” Ray said, “You ready Dre?”

“Um --,” AndrAIa said, “Sorry Mouse. Yeah sure, I’m ready.”

“Now wait you two!”

“See you when I get back love.”

“Ray Tracer, if you don’t get your search engine ASCII back here --!”

“She’s going to be really pissed when you get back,” AndrAIa said. “I guess you don’t want to tell me what’s going on?”

“You’ll find out soon enough, Dre,” Ray said. “Do we need to get Bob’s permission first?”

“No, we’re okay. We’re the Prime Guardian’s close personal friends.”

“Don’t you just love your power?” Ray smiled.

“Almost better than sex,” AndrAIa replied.

Ray was about to come back with his own remark when a voice halted them, “AndrAIa, Ray.”

Both turned and exchanged greetings with Captain Irina.

“How go the ship repairs, Captain?” Ray asked.

“Both vessels will be flight ready in two seconds which I am glad of,” Irina was soaked, but seemed not to notice. The only indication she gave was when she wrung out her dripping hair. “My crew and I have been feeling like a bunch of outdated software not helping with the search and we are eager to lend a hand. I was just going to speak to Bob. Are you on your way to see him?”

“Actually we’re on our way to the Capitol,” AndrAIa said, “I’m going to talk to Zif and Ray’s on his way back to Mainframe.”

“Then would you do me a favor, Mr. Tracer?”

“Be glad to,” Ray said.

Irina drew a disk from her belt, “Would you please deliver this to Dot Matrix? It is a petition that myself and my crew be allowed to join the Mainframe military forces.”

“Really, that’s wonderful! I’m sure Dot will agree,” AndrAIa said.

“I’ll be certain she gets it, captain,” Ray said.

“Thank you,” Irina said, “Then I shall see you upon your return.”

“Mainframe’s going to get quite a soldier in her,” Ray said.

“Absolutely,” AndrAIa agreed. “Dot will be pleased.”

* * *

Bob zipped over the expanse of the trees and searched the terrain. He signaled to his troops and pointed out a path that they could take.

The sky was an angry bedlam of cumulonimbus clouds. Bob knew he couldn’t stay in the air for long. The ominous rumble of thunder confirmed that thought.

His memory of this area served him well. He could see the forest giving way to neatly cultivated farmland. He knew it would be a miracle if the boy had traveled far enough to reach one of them but Bob hoped it was so. The thought that maybe he was safe and snug in some elderly couple’s farmhouse filled him with hope, but then again, anyone finding the toddler would have contacted the authorities by now.

When the first flash of lightening charged the air Bob dropped low quickly. Colonel tempus was leading a party of ten men across a small stream. Bob landed on the other side. As they approached Bob heard someone say, “It’s doubtful a boy that young made it so far away from the factory grounds.”

“Prime Guardian,” Tempus approached, “Still no sign. All our other search parties have reported in.”

“Then have them return and the next groups go out.”

“Prime Guardian--”

“We’ll search every sector of this area if we have to,” Bob said. “We’ll search everywhere and anywhere but don’t say we’re giving up, is that clear Colonel Tempus?”

“Yes, Prime Guardian.” The Colonel made to turn away.

“Colonel?”

“Yes sir?”

Bob averted his eyes for a brief moment, “Have them start to drag the lake.”

“Prime Guardian,” Tempus’ voice was soft with disbelief.

“Yes, I know, colonel,” Bob’s voice was laced with bitterness, “You think I want to give that order? You think I want to even consider --?”

“No, of course not sir,” Tempus said. “Right away.”

Bob truly wished Dot were with him.

* * *

The two sprites stood in the midst of the Operations Center. AndrAIa wondered if she would have an area like this and a team of her own if she accepted Dot’s offer.

“AndrAIa, you are truly a genius,” Zif smiled at her. “These preliminary schematics are amazing.”

“I just have the idea, you’ll do the actual work,” AndrAIa said. “And with Mistress Katiyana’s assistance, we’ll have what we need in a few seconds.”

“Perhaps sooner,” Zif said. “We already have the technology to locate a portal, now we just need to do a little tweaking.”

The lights took the opportunity to black out.

“Looks like we’re doing this by emergency light,” Zif said.

AndrAIa and Zif began the adjustments on the current scanning equipment. Katiyana joined them later giving her own specifications. AndrAIa was almost surprised at how much she knew and how technically knowledgeable she was.

The Keytool Mistress left them later that night, and Zif and AndrAIa worked into the wee hours.

They were making some final adjustments (they had to call Mouse for advice at one point and like AndrAIa suspected, she was fit to be tied about Ray’s leaving) when the lights came back on and Zif immediately turned most of them out. The two were relatively alone, with only a skeleton crew of three other people.

“Well that’s it,” Zif and AndrAIa stood before the newly refurbished scanning device. “Now all we need is a test run. I guess Bob can help us with that.”

“We’ll ask him at daybreak,” AndrAIa said.

“I have to say it,” Zif smiled at her, “You are as intelligent as you are beautiful.”

AndrAIa blushed, “Thank you,” she said quietly. Zif was looking at her in a way that made her uncomfortable and she suddenly remembered what SiRCe had told her. She had never been in this situation before and for once didn’t know what to do. She liked Zif, but only as a friend. Well one thing she did know, men never liked to be told by a woman that they wanted to be ‘just friends’.

“Zif,” AndrAIa said, “I’m very fond of you too. You’re one of my closest friends.”

“Friend,” Zif said quietly, “Yeah, I thought so.”

“Zif--”

“Look, I understand Dre. You have Matrix. What would you want with a guy like me when you have someone like him?”

AndrAIa turned fiercely on him, “Oh and what’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying I’m shallow?”

Zif inhaled sharply, “No – no! I mean--” Zif lowered his head, “I’m sorry Dre. You’re right that was basic of me. You and Matrix grew to love each other over the hours.”

“Yes, that’s true,” AndrAIa said, “You’ll find someone.”

“Yeah right,” Zif said.

“You’re selling yourself short, you know.”

Zif began working the machine on the pretense of testing it, “Yeah I guess.”

AndrAIa didn’t say anything else. She doubted there was anything she could say to make the situation any better. Zif would have to realize that there was someone out there for him who would love him for who he was. His situation made her even more thankful for Matrix.

* * *

Early that same morning, the storm abated long enough for the cyber sun to peek out from behind the clouds. Everything had the crisp ‘after storm’ scent. When Bob was young he had loved the time after the storm, now it meant little to him.

Dragging the river had thankfully yielded no results. Bob and his troops trudged wearily back to the factory. The Prime Guardian had to fight to lift his leaden arms and legs.

“You’re doing it again, Prime Guardian,” Colonel Tempus moved to walk beside him.

“What’s that?”

“You know very well what,” Tempus grumbled, “Working yourself to exhaustion. Why not return to the Capitol and get some rest? There’s nothing more that can be done for now.”

“There’s always more,” it was then that Bob spied AndrAIa standing by the gate speaking to the guard. Looking at her, Bob realized for the first time what an intelligent and capable young woman she had grown to be and he had missed it all. And he had no one to blame but himself. “Get some rest yourself, colonel.”

“As you wish sir,” Tempus said. “I must return to the Capitol for a time anyway.”

Bob watched him as he walked away. He was a good soldier and a great man. At least he made a good council member.

“What’s processing Dre?” Bob asked when he approached her.

“Zif and I finished the PSI,” AndrAIa said proudly.

“PSI?”

“Portal Signature Identifier,” AndrAIa said. “Zif’s inside installing a relay now. We need your permission to install additional relays. This way, if a portal opens with a sector radius of a relay, we’ll have the information and its signature frequency. Then if a portal with the same frequency opens, well be able to identify it and trace it back to its source. It works with any normal scanning equipment.”

“Dre you’re a genius,” Bob said, “You’d better take that job with Dot before I snap you up for the Collective.”

“Sorry Bob, I’ve already decided. I want to go back to Mainframe and tell Dot in person. Besides, I want to see what’s taking Matrix so long.”

“The communications were still out last night,” Bob said, “Let’s go in and try now.”

“Been meaning to ask you,” Bob said as they walked back into the factory, “Why did Ray go back to Mainframe?”

“He wouldn’t say,” AndrAIa said, “Mouse still pissed off?”

“Oh yeah,” Bob said.

And speaking of Mouse, the mercenary was in the control center when Bob and AndrAIa entered, helping Zif install the relay hardware. She glanced up at them.

“Been waitin’ for you to come back Dre,” Mouse was clearly pissed, “Did Ray come back with you?”

“Um – no Mouse,” AndrAIa said, “I’m sure whatever it was it was important and he’ll tell you later.”

Mouse snorted and went back to her work.

“Dom, could you try Mainframe again?” Bob asked.

Dom who had been leaning over the console began making the necessary adjustments, said, “I’ll do my best. There’s still a lot of interference despite the clearing weather.”

They managed to barely get through to Phong. They were having trouble with the portal generator but Phong stated Matrix would be arriving shortly. AndrAIa suggested and Zif agreed that they could use that portal to collect a signature to make certain that function of the device was operational. Bob then gave permission for Zif and his team to start placing the additional relays. AndrAIa went back to the Capitol to meet Matrix.

Bob spoke to Dot as long as the communications would allow. She was coming back to the Super Computer at the end of the second, and Bob suspected she would want to be near Matrix during his operation.

* * *

The storm returned in full force as Dot stepped out of the portal. Lightening flashed followed by a horrific crash of thunder. Dot gave a squeak of alarm.

“Need someone to cuddle up with?” Bob entered the portal room.

“You’re late, mister,” Dot slid her arms around his shoulders and they kissed.

“Sorry, a Prime Guardian’s work is never done.” Bob slid his arm around her waist as they walked.

“Neither is a Command.com’s, but Phong has everything in order. He wants an update as soon as possible.”

“I don’t know,” Bob sighed as the lights flickered. “Zif says the big one is very close now, about two seconds away. This has been child’s play so far.”

Another flash, another crash, “If this is child’s play, I don’t want to be here when baby finally throws a tantrum.”

“How is that big brother of mine?” Her voice softened.

“Nervous,” Bob said. “He’s at the hospital getting a preliminary exam done. Hope you don’t mind driving over in the middle of a storm. Portalling might not be a good idea right now.”

“It’s for Matrix, I don’t mind.”

* * *

Matrix couldn’t believe it. This was the doctor who was going to replace his eye?

Dr. Thea Align looked liked someone’s maternal grandmother.

At least the silver-skinned, silver haired woman hadn’t made him put on one of those flimsy gowns.

“I see you’re in excellent shape,” Dr. Align said, “I’ll just need the schematics for your weapon and your friend Zif provided me with the information for your eye.”

“I brought Gun’s schematics with me,” before the man who had given him Gun had been deleted he had given the information to Matrix. “Are you sure you can do this?”

“Excuse me? My credentials are easily accessible--”

“It’s not that it’s just that--”

“You were expecting a man?”

“Well – um --”

“Surely you’re not gender biased in this second and clock speed?”

“No! Of course not,” how could he tell her that he didn’t trust her?

“You’ll have to trust me,” Dr. Align said. “But if you don’t feel comfortable doing this I can get a male surgeon in. It will take time and he won’t be as good as I am.”

“You’re very modest,” Matrix muttered and regretted it the moment he did.

“Modesty has nothing to do with it. I am the foremost expert in my field,” Dr. Align said. “Feel free to check my credentials. Now would you like this done or not?”

Matrix sighed, there was no getting around it if he wanted to be back to peak efficiency again. “Let’s do this.”

* * *

Dot watched with no measure of worry as they wheeled Matrix into the operating room. She rubbed her hands nervously and Bob slipped an arm around her shoulders.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” Bob said.

“I wish I could be in there with him,” Dot said. “I hate it that’s he’s going through this alone.”

“He’s not alone,” AndrAIa walked up and handed Dot a cup of java. The game sprite motioned to the waiting room where Ray, Mouse sat. Rose would be stopping up soon for a progress report on Matrix and also to give hers to Bob.

“I know,” Dot took her hands. “I know you’re concerned about him too.”

“Don’t worry,” AndrAIa smiled.

“I guess all we can do now is wait.” Dot took a sip of the java

* * *

The portal came open and two figures stepped out.

“Cursors!” Chaos muttered, “I hate the rain!”

SiRCe didn’t reply.

“Well it will provide excellent cover for what we must do,” Chaos said. “Our operative has informed us that they’ll begin the search again once the storm abates. So you should have ample opportunity to act, understand?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

SiRCe hesitated, the denial on her face, “Yes, master.”

“Good, very good.” Chaos smiled. “Don’t disappoint us, SiRCe.”

“I won’t – master.”


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