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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 14 - Serpent in the Garden

The present

Matrix leaned back in the worn chair and it creaked under his massive weight. His drink lay untouched on the scarred surface of the table. His eyes were on the rough patrons of the tavern at all times and also on the back of his friend and mentor as he sat at a table, speaking in soft tones to his contact.

Matrix took in all the patrons at the surrounding tables. Most were soldiers or freelance mercenaries. Anyone of them could know this Raven and with the help of Bob’s contact they may be pointed in the right direction.

Bob finally rose from his place and without looking at Matrix, left the tavern through the front entrance. Matrix waited a reasonable amount of time before tossing back his drink and a few units onto the table and leaving as well.

Bob was leaning against the wall of a building just inside the entrance to an alley. Matrix slipped into the dark space. “Well?”

“He actually gave me two possible leads,” Bob said. “I think we should split up and explore each one. The first is another mercenary named Flame the other is the Command.com of a small system not far from here. You want to take the mercenary while I talk to the Command.com?”

“You got it. How will you get there?”

“My contact is arranging transportation. The mercenary Flame is competing in this illegal pit-fighting tournament in this warehouse outside the city. Matrix I want you to be extra careful, understand?”

“I will Bob.”

“I’ll meet you at System 14 in one second. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’ll come back here, agreed?”

“Agreed.”

“Good luck Matrix.”

“You too Bob.”

* * *

Seven hours into the past.

Dot Matrix frowned at the report Matrix had given her, “You’re sure about this?”

“Yes,” Matrix said, “I’ve watched Syn all this time and no one’s approached him. If he is up to something, he’s either laying low or waiting to be contacted.”

“And you saw nothing of this dwarfish man Hack and Slash described?”

“Nothing yet,” Matrix said. “I’ll go back out if you like.”

Dot tapped a slim finger on the edge of her organizer. Outside the Principal Office, a light rain was falling, and aftershock of the weather currently plaguing the Super Computer. She wished she hadn’t thought of that because now, with the portal generator down, she worried tenfold about Bob.

As thought reading her thoughts Matrix said, “I wish Phong would get the portal generator working. I’m worried.”

“Me too, but there’s little we can do,” Dot looked down as an incoming message beeped on her organizer, “Yes?”

“Hack reporting, Boss!”

“And Slash!”

“Yes, Hack and Slash reporting.”

“I am Slash and he is Hack--”

“Guys,” Dot interrupted somewhat exasperated, “You called for a reason?”

“Oh yes!”

“Yes, we did, the man is back!”

“What?” Matrix leaned towards Dot.

“The short man is back and he’s talking to Syn.”

“Yes he’s--”

“Don’t move, I’m on my way,” Matrix said.

* * *

The wind gusted violently as AndrAIa installed the last of the relays. The game sprite shivered. She really needed a warmer outfit. She had to get off this roof now. Standing next to a metal tower in a rainstorm was definitely detrimental to your health.

Down below her on the factory grounds, people scurried about like so many frantic ants. Now that she was finished she could ride out the storm with her friends, well not all of her friends.

Before descending, she looked out at the approaching tempest, “Be safe, SiRCe.”

When she entered the control room, she found Dom sitting at the console a vid-window open before him, showing nothing but static.

Someone had made a fresh pot of java and AndrAIa poured herself a cup, “Mouse and Ray not in yet?”

“No and it’s impossible to reach them.”

Mouse and Ray were making certain all the citizenry were set up for the storm. If they didn’t finish soon –

“I’ll go out and look for them,” AndrAIa sighed and carried her cup with her.

“Take some rain gear,” Dom smiled at her, “A storage closet is down the hall.”

AndrAIa thanked him and left. After finding a serviceable rain poncho and boots, AndrAIa set off. The wind buffeted her as she walked and the air was heavy with moisture. She chose to walk, knowing her zip board would be next to useless in this weather.

When she reached the buildings they offered some shelter. AndrAIa eventually ran into a half drunk Harmean. She had to shout over the wind but the former security chief told her that Mouse and Ray were at the outskirts of the settlement helping some of the people tie down the last of the building supplies. AndrAIa thanked him and warned him to take cover.

Thunder rolled across the sky in the distance. AndrAIa came upon her friends and a group of a dozen or so people. She was approaching when something at the edge of the clearing caught her eye.

AndrAIa frowned and squinted at the tree line, the wind whipped her hair into her face and she absently brushed it back. Something – no someone was standing there.

AndrAIa moved forward, her superior eyesight didn’t fail her as she finally managed to identify the mysterious watcher.

SiRCe.

AndrAIa inhaled sharply. “SiRCe?” She whispered. Was it really her? AndrAIa was so intent on the woman she didn’t hear Mouse calling to her. With the wind hampering her movements, AndrAIa broke into a run. “SiRCe!”

SiRCe moved swiftly away, disappearing into the cover of the trees. AndrAIa plunged in after her.

* * *

“Where in the net is she going?” Mouse called to Ray as she pulled with all her might on the rope.

Ray was locking down the last of a supply of tools, “Who?”

“AndrAIa, she just ran into the woods!” Mouse said.

“Is she random?” Ray called. “You got that love? I’ll go on ahead and you follow. Which way did she go?”

Mouse pointed. Ray whistled for Baud and they were off.

* * *

AndrAIa moved through the trees with her natural agility. She still had sight of SiRCe but her frantic calling went unheeded. Then unexpectedly, she lost sight of her friend. AndrAIa halted. Her instincts were screaming how wrong this situation was. Why was SiRCe running away from her? In the next nano, the beautiful game sprite had removed the cumbersome poncho and had drawn her trident.

Slowly she crept forward. Above her, the wind whipping through the trees effectively drowned out any sound. Lightening lit the sky with eerie luminescence and thunder shook the systems foundations. AndrAIa continued forward.

An almost imperceptible sound was behind her was the only warning she had.

An animal that was once her dear friend, who had once fought beside her against Daemon, leapt upon her.

AndrAIa went down and SiRCe – or the thing that had once been SiRCe, attempted to close her clawed hands around AndrAIa’s throat, but the game sprite had managed to keep her trident between herself and SiRCe and now AndrAIa rammed the pole against SiRCe’s chin. Her head snapped back and AndrAIa rolled from under her and leapt to her feet.

“SiRCe, stop!” AndrAIa brandished her trident before her.

SiRCe gave a bestial cry that sent a shiver through AndrAIa and she charged again. AndrAIa dodged her move and slammed the pole of her trident against SiRCe’s shoulder blades. “SiRCe I don’t want to --,”

To her surprise, SiRCe recovered and slashed at AndrAIa with her claws, tearing gashes in her tank top but AndrAIa didn’t have time to worry about modesty.

“SiRCe, what’s happened? It’s me, AndrAIa!”

SiRCe made no indication of recognizing her. She hissed, baring fangs, her cat–like were now like argent discs. Her face was marred single silver slash mark down her left cheek.

SiRCe maintained her defensive crouch, “I do not want you, game sprite.”

It was the first time SiRCe had spoken and the low hissing sound of her voice was frightening. “Let me go my way and I will spare you.”

“What do you mean I’m not the one you want?”

SiRCe’s reply was to raise her hands and cup them. A small silvery globe of light appeared in her hand, she raised it, as though offering it to AndrAIa, then it flew from her grasp and before AndrAIa could dodge it, it hit her square in the chest, passing effortlessly through her skin into her body and a scant nano later, AndrAIa was in pain. She felt her body convulsing. A scream wrenched from her lips as her limbs deadened and she slammed down on her back, the force driving the air from her lungs.

For a moment the world went dark. Then when she regained consciousness she looked up and found SiRCe standing over her, her face impassive, another ball of light in her palm.

“I’m sorry AndrAIa,” SiRCe said. “I must delete the one who murdered Nemesis.”

“SiRCe wait!” AndrAIa called as SiRCe disappeared. Desperately, AndrAIa tried to force herself up, but her body refused to obey her. She had to get up before SiRCe found Mouse.

* * *

Ray wove his way with utmost care through the trees as the first raindrops began to fall. He really hated flying in situations like this. There was very little room for maneuverability. Worse, he had completely lost AndrAIa. He didn’t relish having to answer to the Jolly Green Giant.

Ray halted as his instincts began screaming that something was wrong. He leapt lightly off of Baud, then stood scanning the trees.

Something moved to his left and as he turned a ball of light came hurtling towards him. It bounced harmlessly off his bodysuit but the force of it caused him to stumble backwards.

She was on him before he could right himself. Ray threw his arm up to shield his face and she sank her fangs into his arm, yet was unable to puncture his bodysuit. Ray threw her off.

“Ruddy net!” Ray screamed as he clambered to his feet. “SiRCe!”

* * *

Mouse turned at the sound of what she thought was a scream but it was hard to tell with the sound of the wind. Someone was coming through the trees at her. The sight of her was familiar yet so alien, that Mouse drew her katana in a fluid motion. The running figure halted at a safe distance.

“SiRCe?”

SiRCe drew her palms together and a ball of light blossomed to life. The sight of it filled Mouse with foreboding.

“No!” Ray tackled SiRCe from behind and the ball went awry, slamming into a nearby tree trunk, passing through and the bark and the tree burst into flames.

“Mouse, run!” Ray cried as SiRCe threw him off, then grabbed him by the wrist, she hauled him to his feet. Mouse dashed towards them, but not before SiRCe tossed Ray against another tree. The search engine slid down the trunk into a crumpled heap at its base.

Mouse, slashed with her katana and SiRCe leapt back, “Stop! I don’t want to hurt you!”

SiRCe hissed, baring her fangs, “You will die for your affront, mercenary wench!”

SiRCe made to lunge and Mouse guarded with her katana again, “Looks like we’re at a stalemate.”

“Are we?” SiRCe grinned maliciously and turned her attention to Ray who was climbing unsteadily to his feet.

“Don’t!” Mouse screamed as SiRCe prepared another ball. Mouse threw down her katana. “You got me sugah, what do you want?”

SiRCe turned back to her, “My master commands that I delete you for the murder of Nemesis.”

“Your master?” Mouse said, “Who is your master?”

SiRCe didn’t reply as she cupped her hands again. A split nano before the ball hit, Mouse donned her armor. Still the power of the blast hurled her several feet back to crash painfully to the forest floor. For a moment the sky above her spun crazily. She reached up and felt the cool rain on her face and it seemed to revive her somewhat.

SiRCe was standing over her, again her face split in that malicious smile, “My master will be well pleased.” SiRCe grabbed her by the throat and hauled her to her feet. Automatically, Mouse’s hands grasped SiRCe’s wrist trying to make her release her death grip.

SiRCe dangled her like a helpless rag doll and slammed her against a tree, causing the breath to leave her lungs.

Over SiRCe’s shoulder, she saw Ray stumbling towards them. Mouse struggled wildly, trying to call out to warn him away. She kicked out at SiRCe but it was a feeble attempt as SiRCe applied greater pressure to Mouse’s throat.

Silver claws extended on SiRCe’s hand. “Don’t worry Mouse, I will make your deletion painful and long.” Suddenly SiRCe twisted her body and formed another ball that she hurled at Ray, which hit him in the face. Ray screamed and dropped to his knees, his hands pressed to his temples, in evidence to his pain. SiRCe turned her attention back to Mouse. The mercenary tried to cry out, to speak her loathing for the woman who had once been her friend, but SiRCe’s hand on her throat stole her words and her breath. The world was going dark around Mouse.

“A pity,” SiRCe was saying. “Once you are deleted your beloved search engine will be my next victim and there’s not a thing you can do about it.”

It was those words that lent the mercenary strength. Mouse extended her own claws and slashed SiRCe across both sides of her face. SiRCe screamed and released her and Mouse rammed a fist into SiRCe’s stomach, then a jab to her face.

“Come on you sorry daughter of a horse’s ASCII!” Mouse went into a fighting stance.

Random with fury, SiRCe came for her, slashed at Mouse’s midsection, but her armor repelled her efforts. SiRCe made to form another ball but Mouse rammed into her as her weapon took form. It exploded, striking both Mouse and SiRCe. Both women went down.

Before Mouse could move SiRCe was upon her claws out, she grabbed Mouse under her chin and wrenched it upward to expose Mouse’s throat for the killing strike.

It never came.

A white-hot blast of energy engulfed SiRCe, she screamed, a high shrill sound as her back arched in pain, then the blast faded and SiRCe fell limp beside Mouse. Mouse rolled away and struggled into a sitting position.

“Your timing is impeccable, sugah.”

AndrAIa collapsed her trident. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I owe you big time,” the Mouse gave a gasp, “Oh my User, Ray!”

When Mouse knelt beside the search engine, he was just coming to. She cradled his head in her arms, “Sugah, speak to me. Are you all right?”

Ray smiled at her, “Depends on your definition of all right, love.” His attention was averted to where AndrAIa knelt beside SiRCe.

“I didn’t think my trident would work,” AndrAIa said.

“Is she?” Mouse asked.

“No she’s alive,” AndrAIa said, her fists clenched and the game sprite shook with rage, “I’ll get whoever did this to her.”

Thunder and lightening split the air as the storm picked up in force.

“We have to get to cover!” Ray made a motion with his hand and Baud was there almost immediately. “Come on, you have to help me! Get SiRCe on Baud!”

The three sprites lifted the unconscious woman onto Baud’s surface.

“All right,” Ray said. “Hang on to Baud’s edge. We’re going to try and make it back to the factory. Whatever you do don’t let go!”

It was an arduous journey back. Even within the cover of the trees, the wind and rain buffeted them mercilessly. Mouse gave up trying to see through the torrent and relied on her instincts to guide her and the reassuring feel of Baud’s surface. Amazingly, they didn’t loose SiRCe at any point and Mouse was relieved for a moment when they hit the tree line, that was until they got out into the heart of the storm which made walking in a straight line impossible. Finally they managed to make it back to the factory grounds and were admitted immediately by an efficient yet puzzled guard.

AndrAIa went ahead to inform Dom of what had happened. Mouse and Ray took SiRCe to the infirmary and treated her wounds. The containment field generator used to hold Bob was still active and it worked just as well on SiRCe.

“Hope that holds her,” Mouse said.

“What in the ruddy net did you think you were doing?” Ray suddenly said.

“What?”

“Throwing down your katana like that,” Ray said. “She could have deleted you! Then where would I be?”

"Why Ray, honey,” Mouse smiled, “I didn’t know you cared.”

“You’d think our christening the condo the way we did would have been proof enough,” Ray muttered. He crossed the room and pulled Mouse to him, “Don’t ever do anything like that again.”

The sound of footsteps had the two drawing away. Dom and AndrAIa entered the room.

“SiRCe,” Dom was at the bedside in an instant. He reached out, then drew his hand back as it came in contact with the containment field, “What happened to her?”

“She’s infected as near as we can tell,” Mouse said. “Damn we could use Rose Norton right now.”

“Well no one’s coming or going,” Dom said. He pulled up a chair next to the bedside and sat down and didn’t speak again, but the look of despair on his face said enough.

Mouse, Ray and AndrAIa moved from the room and went to find a place to ride out the storm.

* * *

Matrix stared grimly at the pile of cogs and wheels, metal and silicon, that had once been Hack and Slash.

The two droids had annoyed him and everyone to no end but even they didn’t deserve this.

CPU’s moved in and out of the alley, supposedly gathering clues but Matrix paid them little mind. When his attention wasn’t focused on the remains, of his friends, they were drawn to the image of a bloated spider crudely etched on the wall above the dumpster where Hack and Slash had been abandoned.

“Damn,” Matrix muttered. A few nanos later, a vid-window came open.

“Matrix how goes it down there?” Dot asked.

“No clues yet,” Matrix motioned to the spider, “Except that.”

“Daemon’s symbol. Here in Mainframe?”

“Daemon’s Chosen,” Matrix said. “There was no way to find them all after the war but I’m going to track down as many as I can.”

“Phong’s sending a crew for – Hack and Slash now,” Dot sighed, “Poor guys. I should have never sent them down to Level 31.”

“None of us could have anticipated this,” Matrix said. “I’m going to look around some more.”

“I’m issuing a city-wide alert,” Dot said, “Be careful little brother.”

“Hey,” Matrix smiled slightly, “Aren’t I always?”

* * *

Phong shook his head and sighed. He removed his glasses and cleaned them with a cloth.

“Well?” Matrix almost demanded.

“I am afraid that this is beyond my capabilities,” Phong said. “How terrible for these two. No one deserves such mutilation.”

“Then – there’s no repairing them?” Dot whispered.

“Now I did not say that my child,” Phong said. “I could possibly succeed, with some assistance.”

“AndrAIa,” Matrix whispered.

“Until the storm abates in the Super Computer there is little we can do,” Phong said.

The lights flickered.

“And it appears we are having our own problems,” Phong’s words were punctuated by the distant rumble of thunder.

“Well Zif said this would happen,” Dot said, “Phong, let’s get to work and see what we can do. Matrix, would you contact Hexadecimal? Maybe she can break through the interference and get us a portal to the factory. But be careful out there, all right?”

“You got it, sis.”

* * *

It was raining in Mainframe and Little Enzo Matrix was bored.

Bad enough he was grounded for two whole cycles. That meant no vid-TV or games, no jet bowling, or circuit racing and just when he was getting back into things. Well Dot didn’t say he couldn’t read. He had just downloaded a new Mystical Heroes net comic book so he figured now was as good a time as any to read it.

The lights flickered and Enzo grumbled. The last thing he would need was for them to go out. Well he could read by light stick. He wondered when Dot would be coming home? He could call her and see. She was taking awfully long at the P.O.

He was distracted by a soft knocking, “Enzo?”

“Come in, Ronnie,” Enzo said.

“Sorry to disturb you, but a city-wide alert has been called. Dot wanted me to let you know she won’t be home for awhile.”

“City-wide alert? What for?”

“Well apparently, there’s been some trouble tonight with some stragglers from the war. She didn’t go into detail.”

“Yeah,” he wondered why Dot didn’t call him herself?

“I have some chocolate cream pie left over,” Ronnie said, “How about some and a glass of milk?”

“Thanks, but no, Ronnie,” Enzo said.

“Okay.”

“Ronnie?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks, really I mean it.”

“I know, good night Enzo.”

Enzo tossed the comic aside once the door closed and lay back staring at the ceiling. A citywide alert and why hadn’t Dot wanted to elaborate? The little sprite yawned hugely. He had a feeling something else was up.

*

“One all, this is the decider, come on Enzo, keep it together, you can do this. You’re a Guardian, a machine, let’s do it!”

Wait a nano he wasn’t a Guardian. What was he doing here?

The User towered over him, eyes glowing yellow. Its leathery crimson flesh surrounded by a ghostly luminescence. Its razor-sharp weapons glowed with wicked brilliance.

Enzo stared up at the thing in abject horror. Against his will he moved close to it and crouched in a fighting stance.

No! He was not going to fight that thing! Where was Bob? The thing was horrifying! Was he really expected to fight it?

With a fury he never realized he could muster, he struck once again, driving the monster back. One monstrous clawed foot stomped down and shook the foundations of the arena.

Enzo struck hard, dodged, leapt for it again. The monster screamed with rage and began to pummel him

No! No! Stop! Enzo wanted to scream. It hurts!

A strike and he was down, but up again, returning the beating with a series of martial arts kicks.

One more hit, one more and I’ve won!

The beast struck him four times and –

For a nano the beast stood, glaring at him as though he were little more than a bug to be stepped on then brought the red-hot claw in an upward motion and searing white-hot torture ripped through every fiber of Enzo’s being as it mercilessly gouged out his right eye.

*

The scream that tore from Enzo’s throat was high and shrill and did not stop, even after he was fully awake. His right eye burned as he clamped his hands over it and hot tears began as the phantom pain from the dream continued to assail him.

Dot came rushing into his room. She was beside him in nanos and tried drawing him into her arms.

“Don’t!” He pushed back from her. Dot’s look of worry and pity only made him feel ten times worse. He couldn’t stand to have her see him like this again. He climbed quickly from the bed and snatched up his icon. He had to get out of there for a little while. He knew it was late but he didn’t care.

“Enzo, where do you think you’re going?” Dot rose from the bed.

“Out.”

“Enzo you’re not going anywhere this late,” Dot said, “Talk to me.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Enzo called over his shoulder, not waiting to see what else she might say, “Leave me alone!”

“Enzo!”

He ignored her, knowing he’d hurt her feelings. He bolted from the house and didn’t stop until he was far enough away that she wouldn’t be able to easily follow him. The rain soaked and chilled him almost immediately, which was good for it cooled the burning in his eye. The little sprite was unaware of where he was going.

After a time, exhaustion made him stop. He collapsed underneath a data tree and drew his knees to his chest. He still held his hand over his right eye and a shudder passed through him at the memory. He sat there and cried for a little while. Then he realized what had happened. Or what he had seen. This was how Matrix had lost his eye.

The fear was replaced by a bitterness he wasn’t accustomed to. Here he was, cold, wet and scared all because of Matrix again!

He figured he should move; go back because he knew Dot was worried. Dot – he knew he had hurt her. She must have come home before he had the dream.

Enzo stood, the burning in his eye diminishing. For the first time he took a good look at his surroundings. He was in Kits. Had he really walked that far? Being there made him think of Bob. He wished his hero were here right now.

The sound of thunder brought him out of his thoughts. He looked around at the darkened buildings and was about to turn back the way he had come when something caught his eye.

Someone was standing just at the mouth of an alley between two buildings, watching him.

It was like a nightmare come to life. The shadowy figure started out of the alley and moved purposefully towards him.

“No,” Enzo muttered. He turned and broke into a run and was sick to realize that the shadowy figure followed.

* * *

“I don’t like the look of that,” Matrix muttered at the badly flickering portal.

“Give me a nano, young renegade,” Hex said. “It is rather late and I do need my beauty sleep.”

“Sorry,” Matrix muttered.

“You have a call,” Hex suddenly said. She waved a hand and a vid-window opened, to show Dot’s distressed face.

“Matrix!”

“Dot? What’s wrong?”

“You have to come to the Diner now. Enzo’s run off!”

“I’m on my way,” Matrix said. “Keep at it Hex.”

“You want a lift?” Hex waved her hand again and in a split nano, Matrix was standing in the midst of the Diner. Dot was in her booth with several vid-windows open, talking to the CPU captain and Phong. Ronnie was behind the counter brewing coffee.

“Matrix!” Dot slid from the booth, “I really have to learn to get used to Hex doing that.”

“What happened?” Matrix asked.

“I had just gotten home and was in the living room talking to Ronnie when I heard Enzo scream.” To Matrix’s surprise, she shuddered and Matrix took her by the shoulders. “I’ve never heard him scream like that. It was awful. I thought someone was trying to – he sounded like he was in agony.”

“I ran into the room and he was sitting up in bed,” Dot continued, “He was holding both hands over his eye. He was having a nightmare. I tried to help him but he just ran off. I think he was ashamed.”

Now it was Matrix who shuddered. He hoped Dot hadn’t noticed. She was too upset about Enzo luckily for him. It didn’t take a genius to deduce what Enzo’s nightmare had been about. He remembered the indescribable pain, and the sound of his own screaming voice.

“Find him Matrix,” Dot was saying, her words drawing from his disturbing memories, “Please find him. You’re the only one who truly knows him.”

“I will, I promise,” Matrix said.

* * *

Matrix tried each of his old haunts first. Floating Point, underneath the Data Slide, the beach, and Mr. Pearson’s Data Dump. Those were the places he had gone as a child when he had wanted to be alone, or at least relatively so. He didn’t find Enzo at the first three places.

“I should have known,” Matrix muttered as he headed for the Dump. Wasn’t it always the last place you looked?

The place was silent as Matrix descended. Mr. Pearson’s shack was dark and Matrix saw no reason to disturb the old man. He made his way through the piles of refuse and old data with a familiarity that gave him a measure of comfort. He supposed he should have called out, but something stopped him. He had a feeling that if Enzo knew it was him searching for him, he might not be too receptive to revealing himself.

Something moved to his left and Matrix turned swiftly, brandishing Gun, “Who’s there?”

A plaintive whine came from the shadows and Frisket trotted over to him.

“Hey boy,” Matrix knelt and scratched him between the ears, “Long time no see. Where ya been keeping yourself?”

Frisket nipped at his fingers, then turned, motioning with his large head and Matrix followed. Frisket lead him to a spot where the junk was piled particularly high and close, forming a sort of alcove. Matrix thought he saw something moving in the far right corner. As he moved closer, he noticed a large wood box and lying inside of it, was another dog.

It was about as big as Frisket, a Black Lab if Matrix remembered his breeds. Then his ears caught a faint whining. Matrix knelt before the box.

“Frisket,” Matrix smiled at his friend, “You old dog you, you’re a father!”

Frisket almost seemed to be smiling proudly at Matrix’s declaration. Five puppies, four black and one red, suckled contentedly. Matrix watched them for a time before turning seriously to the junkyard dog, “I’m looking for Little Enzo boy, have you seen him?”

Frisket barked in response. He stepped forward and nuzzled the female’s face. Carefully, Matrix reached out and the Lab allowed him to pet her. “She beautiful Frisket. I guess we should give her a name. How about Onyx?”

This seemed to please both dogs, Frisket then motioned for Matrix to follow him.

From somewhere ahead came a faint light. Frisket whined and looked back at Matrix.

“I know, you want to get back to Onyx. Thanks Frisket.”

Barking once more, Frisket disappeared into the darkness. Matrix stepped around a pile of old data compression tanks and there he was.

Matrix had never seen him look so pitiful. He was sitting against the junk with his knees drawn up against his chest, staring at a pile of used and barely functioning light sticks. His face looked ghostly pale by the light. Even from where he stood Matrix could see his trembling.

As Matrix stepped forward, Enzo’s head came up sharply, “Who’s there?” The little sprite leapt up and brandished a thick metal ruler. “Come out! I know you’re there!”

“Relax Kid,” Matrix stepped forward, “It’s only me.”

Enzo’s face contorted, “Oh, I thought you were the guy who’s been following me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you understand plain DOS? Somebody was chasing me. I guess I lost them. They followed me all the way from Kits.”

“You’re being paranoid, Kid.”

Enzo gave him a look of disgust, “Yeah right, paranoid.”

“Dot’s worried sick about you. She’s got every CPU out looking for you.”

He seemed to digest the news for a moment, “Yeah well, you can go back and tell her I’m all right. I’ll be along soon.”

“Are you basic? I’m not going back without you.”

Enzo backed up and sat down again, “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Look Kid, if I have to pick you up and carry you over my shoulder we’re going back to the Diner.”

“Byte me.”

Matrix stepped forward and Enzo was on his feet in a nano, “Don’t you come near me!”

“What’s the matter with you?” Matrix continued forward then halted when he saw the brief flash of fear in Enzo’s eyes. “I told you before I wasn’t going to delete you.”

“Oh yeah? You really think I bought that?”

Matrix fought down a surge of temper, “Look – why don’t we sit down for a nano?”

Warily, Enzo did, but he kept the ruler clutched in his hands.

“Did you know Frisket’s a father?”

“Yeah, he showed me the puppies,” Enzo’s face softened a bit. “I think Mr. Pearson’s been taking care of them.”

Silence fell, until Matrix said, “I know what your nightmare was about.”

“Sure you do,” Enzo was angry again, “It was your experience after all.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“I never meant for that to happen.”

“Sure you didn’t.”

Matrix felt his own ire rise. “Why don’t you believe me? Has Melissa been talking to you again?”

“Melissa has nothing to do with this!” Enzo cried, “Don’t you get it you big basic green ASCII?”

“Hey, watch your language!” Matrix said. “What would Dot think of you’re talking like that?”

Enzo snorted, “Don’t talk to me about doing things that would shock Dot.”

Matrix’s temper hung by a tenuous thread, “Look Kid, I don’t have to answer to you for the things I’ve done, so don’t expect me to.”

Enzo just looked at him for a moment, “I’m not surprised.” He drew his knees up to his chest again, “Why don’t you just go away? I wish I didn’t have to see you.”

“Tough, because I’m not going anywhere. So suck it up and drive on, Kid.”

Enzo rested his head on his folded arms and glared at Matrix, “I hate you.”

Matrix wasn’t certain he had heard him right, “What did you say?”

“You heard me!” Enzo cried, “I hate you! I wish you’d never been processed!”

Matrix stared in disbelief. Certainly he had felt that emotion but never as the child he once was and the renegade was even more shocked to find that hearing it come from Enzo actually wounded him. What had happened to his – his what? What was Enzo to him? Brother? Son? Matrix realized if he didn’t know, neither would Enzo. Also, came the realization that Enzo was suffering through the same problem he now faced. Not knowing who he was or what his purpose was in life.

He wanted to feel sympathy but he couldn’t. All he could feel was the anger, “Yeah right,” Matrix laughed bitterly. “You hate me. Okay, not much we can do about that is there?”

“You think that’s funny?” Enzo demanded.

“What’s funny is my worrying about what you think, Kid,” Matrix said.

He wasn’t prepared for Enzo, suddenly bolting upright and hurling his tiny body at him. Matrix snarled more in surprise than pain. Enzo straddled him and began beating on his face and chest. Matrix was too shocked to react at first, then he grasped both of Enzo’s wrists in his big hands and tossed the little sprite aside, pinning him down.

“Stop it!” Matrix snarled.

Enzo was in a random frenzy, lashing out with his feet and continuing to scream how much he hated Matrix and how he wished Matrix would delete and every word hurt the renegade even more. His anger finally released, Matrix applied more pressure to Enzo’s wrists, “I said stop it! Do you hear me?”

Then as suddenly as he had gone into his rage, Enzo stopped and abruptly and went limp. Tears began to stream down his face. Matrix stared down at his young counterpart, watching him cry in silence. “Enzo.” And he released him. “Enzo.”

The little sprite crawled away back to his place against the wall. He rubbed his wrists and glared in silent defiance at the renegade.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Matrix whispered.

Enzo didn’t reply at first, then he said in a voice devoid of emotion, “No. I don’t believe you.” He stood. “I’ll never trust you, or believe a word you say. But since you won’t go away, I guess I’ll have to live with you.”

Matrix didn’t move. This was not the Enzo he remembered. Something in that moment had irrevocable changed about him. It made Matrix want to shoot something. It had happened and he was to blame, at least partially. Little Enzo Matrix had lost his innocent nature once again.

“Guess we’d better get back to the Diner,” Enzo didn’t wait for him to reply, the little sprite started away, “You coming or what?”

Matrix climbed to his feet and brushed the dirt off his pants. He watched for a nano as Little Enzo retreated into the darkness.

Just like me, Matrix thought.

* * *

Matrix was surprised when he entered the Diner and found AndrAIa standing next to Dot’s booth. Both sprites looked up when the large and small version entered.

“Enzo!” Dot was out of the booth and had caught Little Enzo in a tight embrace. “Oh sweetie, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good,” Dot grabbed him by the shoulders, “Don’t you ever do something like that again, do you hear me? Do you know how frantic with worry I was? My User, what if something had happened to you?”

While Dot continued to fuss at Enzo, AndrAIa approached him, “Very nice of you to send Hex after me, Sparky. She scared the chips out of five technicians in the command center.”

“I’m glad she managed to get through.”

“Just barely,” AndrAIa smiled, “I didn’t have time to explain to the people in the command center that I wasn’t in any danger from the mad virus that leapt out a portal and pulled me in.”

Dot was saying something to him, “Where was he?”

“The Data Dump,” Matrix said quietly. He was glad that he had found Little Enzo but knowing how Little Enzo felt and hearing those words had affected him more than he wanted to admit.

“All right Enzo, what have you got to say for yourself?” Dot said.

“I’m sorry I scared you Dot and caused you all that worry,” Enzo said, “Can I go to my room now?”

“Yes, you may,” Dot said, “We’ll talk about it when I come up. I have to finish things down here first, okay?”

“Okay,” Enzo turned away.

“By the way, did you thank Matrix?”

Enzo’s fists clenched but he didn’t turn, “No.”

“Why not?”

“What for? He doesn’t really care. He only went out looking because he knew that’s what you wanted him to do.”

“Enzo!”

“It’s true Dot, he doesn’t really care about me. He’d be happy if I just disappeared.”

“Look Kid, I am really tired of you badmouthing me,” Matrix said.

“No you’re just tired of hearing the truth, aren’t you?” Enzo accused. “How many times can I say it? I have your memories, dipswitch! I know exactly how you feel about me, so don’t even go there!”

“Enzo, Matrix,” Dot said, “I want you both to stop this right now!”

“Come on, Sparky, why don’t we go to our quarters?” AndrAIa said.

Neither man nor boy made any indication that they had heard them.

“It’s different now,” Matrix said, “I don’t feel the same way.”

“What difference does that make?” Enzo said, “You felt that way once, so what am I supposed to do, forgive and forget? Well that ain’t gonna happen!”

“You think I want your forgiveness or even care? Who are you to even expect that? You’re not special, Kid.”

“Well,” Enzo sneered, “I may not be special, but at least I’m not a coward! I didn’t abandon Dot when she needed me.”

A tense silence filled the room. Matrix gaped at his young counterpart, too stunned for words or action.

The silence was finally broken by Dot’s soft, “Oh Enzo.”

The anger that Matrix had been holding at bay suddenly erupted. He jabbed a finger in Enzo’s face, “You miserable little pixel brain! I should delete you!”

Enzo backed away; his eyes went wide with fear. Dot stepped between them, “Stop it, both of you, now! I’ll have no more of this, do you both understand me?”

AndrAIa had Matrix by the arm and was pulling him back, “Stop it!”

Enzo turned and ran for the backstairs. Dot turned to Matrix, “How could you say that to him? I’ll talk to you later.” Then Dot turned and followed in Enzo’s wake.

“I am going to delete him,” Matrix hissed.

“You’re going to do no such a thing,” AndrAIa said, “Let’s go, Sparky, now!”

The anger drained away and Matrix felt the resignation take its place. His shoulders slumped and he breathed a sigh. What had just happened? It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

“AndrAIa?” So many questions left unspoken.

“Come on, Lover,” AndrAIa’s voice was gentle, “I think you need some downtime. I’ll be helping Phong repair Hack and Slash. We’ll talk about this later.”

He no longer had the strength to argue. He allowed AndrAIa to lead him away.

* * *

Ronnie had gone back upstairs to see to Baby Dot. She came out of the kitchen when Dot entered the apartment, “Is everything all right? Enzo just ran in here.”

Dot sighed, “No everything’s not all right.”

“I’ll make some more java,” Ronnie smiled. “Do you need anything?”

“Besides a good way to discipline two big babies? No thanks, Ronnie.”

Dot knocked on Enzo’s door but didn’t wait for a reply. It was dark when she entered the room but she could make out the form of Enzo under the blankets.

“I know you’re awake, Enzo.” Dot moved over and sat down on his bed.

“I’m sleepy,” Enzo said.

“Well you can sleep all day tomorrow,” Dot said. “I want to know why you said what you did. That was the most unfair, hurtful thing you’ve ever said.”

“Just like Matrix calling me a weak pathetic little sprite?”

“That’s not the point,” Dot said.

“Then what is?”

“That you said something designed to deliberately hurt someone for no reason other than spitefulness,” Dot said, “You know what happened and you know that isn’t true. Are you saying AndrAIa abandoned me to? And what about Bob? He was sent away against his wishes. That wasn’t like you at all. I’ve never been disappointed in you before but tonight I was.”

“That’s not fair!” Enzo cried, “Why am I always the bad guy? You mean it’s okay that Matrix said the things he did?”

“You’re not always the bad guy,” Dot said. “And no, it’s not okay. Matrix was wrong too, and as soon as I’m finished here, he’s going to get a talking too as well.”

“It won’t matter,” Enzo said. “He hates me.”

“No he doesn’t.”

“Yes he does,” Enzo said, “And that’s not fair either. I never did anything to him. Why does he hate me?”

Dot sighed and reached out and began rubbing her hand up and down Enzo’s back, “His approval is really important to you, isn’t it?”

“No,” the pillow muffled Enzo’s voice.

Dot couldn’t help a sad smile. Of course it was. What little boy wouldn’t want to be like Matrix? Enzo saw what he might become, a tall powerful warrior (with a big Gun), but Matrix had disturbed the image with his misplaced anger. Dot had hoped the two of them would settle things soon. Enzo wanted – needed – a big brother.

“I guess you’re going to tell me to forgive Matrix and give him a chance,” Enzo muttered.

“No, sweetie.”

This obviously caught Enzo’s interest for he came out from under the covers and turned on the light, “Really?”

Dot nodded, “I think it's up to the two of you to settle things, so besides breaking up the occasional TIFF I’m going to leave you two to make the decision. I’m going to tell Matrix the same thing. I also believe that you two need each other. Bob is your hero, but Matrix can be too and with Bob away with his duties he may not have as much time to spend with you. Matrix could also use your companionship.”

“I don’t know, Dot,” Enzo said, “Hey, speaking of Bob, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something.”

Dot wasn’t certain she should let him change the subject but she said, “All right.”

“Well,” Enzo sat up and looked at her earnestly, “You know how much things are changing and all. I’m almost eleven, and I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do when I get older.”

“The Guardian Academy?”

Enzo averted his eyes, “Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Now that was a shock. Enzo had always been adamant about becoming a Guardian, now he was changing his mind? Of course Dot had feared his becoming a Guardian, especially after losing Matrix in the games, but she had come to accept his decision.

“Well I’m not sure what I want to do right now,” Enzo said. “A lot’s changed and all that stuff about the Guardian’s that they said at those meetings.”

“Enzo, don’t let that change your mind. You know Bob. Not all Guardian’s are bad.”

“I know,” Enzo said, “would you be mad if I didn’t be a Guardian? Would Bob?”

“Of course not,” Dot smiled, “We both want you to be happy. And we’ll be proud no matter what you decide.”

“Okay,” Enzo said, “Well getting back to what I was saying. I may not be able to look after you as much if I go off to school so you’ll need someone to take care of you.”

He took a breath and said the last thing Dot would have expected, “I think you should marry Bob.”

Dot’s face flushed scarlet, “Um – Enzo--”

“You love him and all, right?”

“Well yes but--”

“And he loves you to, he asked me to put in a good word for him.”

“Did he?” Dot said mildly. Since his return from the web, there had been sort of an unspoken agreement between them. “He hasn’t asked me.”

“Well geez, Dot, why not ask him?”

“Enzo--”

“You want to marry him, don’t you?”

She’d be lying if she said no, “Yes.”

“Well then, buy a ring and ask him. You own every jewelry store in Mainframe,” Enzo yawned and lay back down. “Just ask him, okay? Because it would be alphanumeric to have him for a brother.”

“I--” Dot pulled the blankets up over him, “I’ll give it some thought, sweetie. Now get some downtime.” She kissed him on the cheek but he was already half asleep.

“Dot?” He muttered sleepily.

“Yes?”

“Someone was following me tonight.”

Dot inhaled sharply, “What? Did you see who?”

“No,” Enzo said. “I was in Kits Sector and whoever it was followed me from there. I lost him at the dump.”

A shudder passed along her skin. Had one of Daemon’s Chosen been stalking her brother? “Don’t go out by yourself at night anymore okay?”

“But Dot--”

“And be careful,” Dot made a mental note that when she talked to Matrix she would ask him to keep an eye on Enzo too. “Sweet dreams.”

Enzo muttered something she didn’t quite hear. Dot moved from his room. Ronnie had gone to bed but the pot of hot java was in the kitchen. Dot doubted she’d get to sleep now, so she poured herself a cup and carried it downstairs. Once there she slid into her favorite booth and opened her organizer. She would have Syn brought in for questioning. She was almost ready to expel him from the system but since there wasn’t any proof of that he had been responsible for Hack and Slash’s attack (and Dot actually believed he wasn’t, at least not by himself) it might not look good, but then again, who would care? The only clue to the crime was the picture of the spider. It wasn’t like in the Super Computer where she could just send Mouse, Ray, or Matrix into the underbelly of the system to investigate. They were all too easily recognizable. She may have to hire outside help. Maybe Bob could lend her Colonel Tempus.

Dot was so into her musings that the distant sound didn’t register into her processor until it was almost upon where she sat. She looked up and saw the transport coming at the Diner and for a nano she thought it was just the regular morning deliveries.

The transport careened to a halt, the door opened and something flashed from within the dark space. Dot dove from the booth and hit the floor just as the window exploded into a shower of diamond fragments, and then there was a flash of blinding light and a wave of heat slammed into her as the explosion set the Diner ablaze.


Read Chapter 15 | Back to Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen