“I still don’t understand why your body-armor doesn’t have any sleeves, Dot,” Bob commented from his keypad across the office, grinning impishly. Dot glanced up from the papers strewn about her desk and grinned back, shaking her head in amusement. It was Mouse’s slow drawl that answered, though.
“Not all of us get that tin-can getup you have, Sugah,” the mercenary replied with her trademark wink. “And anyway, don’t even tell me you don’t know Dot here well enough by now to know that ain’t nobody gonna get close enough to so much as scratch her arms.”
Dot laughed outright at that. “Don’t brag on me too much, Mouse.” The merc shrugged, looking over Dot’s shoulder at the files on the desk.
“Just tellin’ it like it is, honey.”
“Don’t talk to me about tin-can armor, Mouse, not while you’ve got that gold-plated thing on,” Bob shot back. Mouse started to open her mouth to reply, but was silenced by a friendly elbow digging into her side.
“Don’t even, Mouse,” Dot said lightly, but her tone was amused. Mouse grinned, unapologetic. Dot laughed softly, pushing her papers to one corner of the desk. “I could use a break.”
Bob jumped up from his seat immediately. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Mouse bent down to look Dot in the eye, concerned. Dot looked confused. “What’s wrong, Mouse?”
“Why I do declare...did I just hear you...decide to take a break by yourself? Dot, honey, are you feelin’ all right?” Another wink, and Mouse sidestepped to avoid another elbow to her ribs.
“Well, if I don’t get something to eat, my stomach growling is going to distract all of us,” Dot replied, standing up from her chair. Bob was at her side in a nanosecond. “Know where Ray is, Mouse? Maybe he’d like to come along...”
Mouse made a face and shrugged. “He’s out web-surfin’ again.”
Bob was unable to hide a shudder at the mention of the Web, and Dot laid a comforting hand on his arm. “Web-surfing...I don’t know if that guy’s very brave, or just totally random.”
Mouse smiled and shrugged expressively. “That makes two of us.”
“You know you like it,” Dot replied, smiling at the hacker who had become her friend. Mouse grinned back cheerfully.
“Yeah, you got that right, honey.”
The three were nearly out the door when the vid window in Dot’s desktop lit up. It was Phong on-line. Dot stepped back to the desk, taking a seat again. “What is it, Phong?”
“I am sorry to disturb you, child, but I have just recieved a message from Turbo.”
Tension was suddenly palpable in the room. Turbo wouldn't have had to send a message unless the situation was serious.
“What?” Bob exclaimed, moving to the desk as well. “What’d he allow?”
Phong looked grave. “He was unable to speak with me directly. It seems that things have become bad for the infected Guardians in the Supercomputer. Turbo is under suspicion, and he said he does not know when he can speak to us again. He has sent us a warning.”
“What’s the warning, Phong?” Dot prompted the old sprite after his dramatic pause began to drag on a bit.
“Daemon has discovered Bob and Matrix. She knows where we are. Turbo thinks she will soon try again to get to the uninfected Guardians.”
Bob looked bitter, an ill-fitting expression. “And both uninfected Guardians are maverick.” He sighed, turning away from the screen. Phong watched him with concern, as did Dot. After a moment, Phong spoke again.
“I suggest we all meet together...Matrix and AndrAIa as well. We must discuss what we will do. Mainframe is again in danger as long as Daemon knows where Bob and Matrix are.”
Dot sighed wearily and nodded. “Will do, Phong.” The old sprite nodded gravely, then the vid window blipped out. She stood up, walking towards Bob, who still had his back to her. She brushed her fingers across the back of his neck, hoping he mght take comfort from the contact. He turned to her, brown eyes clouded with sorrow. It practically broke her heart to see him that way.
“It’s my fault, Dot. If I wasn’t here, Daemon wouldn’t-”
“No,” she cut him off sharply, her vivid purple eyes staring into his earnestly. “Bob, it’s not your fault. These are things we have no control over. We’ll just take it as it comes.”
Bob smiled slightly, but sadly. “That’s my line.”
Dot’s only reply was to wrap her arms around his neck, pulling him into a comforting embrace. He slipped his arms around her waist in return, burying his face in the hollow between her neck and collarbone. She just held him, letting him derive strength from her presence. After a few moments she glanced over Bob’s shoulder and saw Mouse, standing next to the door. They shared a worried glance, then Mouse drawled softly, “I’ll go get Matrix and AndrAIa, and some food for the meeting.” Dot nodded slightly, and Mouse slipped out of the room.
A few seconds later, they were all assembled in Phong’s small office, seated around a conference table laden with energy shakes and other foodstuffs from the Diner. The company was solemn as Phong replayed the message he had recieved from Turbo. The Prime Guardian’s rough military voice echoed in the room.
I’m under suspicion now. Daemon seems to suspect I’m not totally infected. After this, I’m gonna have to keep a low profile. I don’t know if I’ll be able to contact you again. Daemon knows where Bob and Matrix are now. She wants complete control of the Guardians. She needs Bob and Matrix’s codes to do that. Once she has all the Guardians, she has the Net. Seems to me her next move will be to attack Mainframe again. I can’t advise you any further, I’m afraid. Best of luck, my friends. Turbo out.
Silence fell over the conference room for a long moment, then AndrAIa spoke. “We need to know more about Daemon before we can decide what to do. Rule number one.” She aimed a wise aquamarine gaze at Dot, and a smile. Dot nodded solemnly, a slight smile of her own touching her lips.
“Know your enemies better than they know themselves.”
Phong nodded as well. “We must hurry, though. We haven’t much time to research Daemon.”
Dot leaned forward, reaching for a notepad. “What do we know about her, then? Matrix, when you met Turbo, did he tell you anything specific?”
Matrix shook his head, frustrated. “No...he told me she was infecting the Guardians, and that me and Bob were clean. So the other Guardians were after us.”
AndrAIa piped up thoughtfully, “But none of our attackers were Daemon...just those infected by her. Mostly Guardians.”
Dot nodded, scribbling away. “Right...could you see the infection?”
Matrix nodded. “It looked a lot like code degradation, only it had a lime-green glow to it...it pulsed. And it was around Turbo’s temples.”
“This is reaching...” Dot paused, biting her lip with a pained expression that had grown familiar to those around her while she fought against Megabyte. “Since we have so little information. But it seems like Daemon is giving orders...it’s up to those she’s ordering to carry them out how they see fit. She’s single-minded. She has one goal in mind, and that’s to infect the Guardians. If that’s the case, then she only wants Mainframe...” Dot stopped, shaking her head. But Matrix finished it for her.
“She wants it because Bob and I are here. If we leave, she’ll probably leave this system alone. If she gets all the Guardians, all the systems will follow. She has no reason to want Mainframe beyond getting to Bob and me.”
There was silence again, this time, broken by Bob. “I have to leave.” There was no note of query. It was a statement of fact, and they all knew it.
“We have to leave.” Matrix corrected. “I have to leave too.”
Phong interjected quietly, “Where will you go?”
“To find Daemon, I suppose,” Matrix replied darkly. “May as well try to stop this thing, if we can’t stay here.”
AndrAIa spoke hard on the heels of her counterpart. “I’m coming with you.” Matrix turned to her, but his expression was more of surprise that she would think he might not let her. AndrAIa nearly lived on adventure.
Dot shoved the notepad away from her. “I’m coming too.” She spoke nearly in unison with AndrAIa.
Bob turned to her, hope and fear warring in his expression. “Dot, you can’t...you’re the Command.com...”
“Yes I can. I’m a military commander. If you’re not here, Mainframe will be fine. If Mainframe will be fine, I’ll be with you.” She paused, then in a softer voice added, “Bob, I’m on a mission.”
Bob smiled sadly, recalling the phrase from minutes ago. And in her burning violet eyes there was another message.
‘Don’t ever leave me again.’
Phong interrupted gently. “Go, my child. You must go.”
Dot turned to Phong and nodded gravely. “If anything should happen to me, I suggest Mouse take over as military commander on Mainframe.”
The mercenary’s eyes widened as she absorbed Dot’s words, but when she opened her mouth to protest, she saw the complete trust and confidence in the other woman’s eyes. Instead of questioning Dot, Mouse changed her reply to, “Nothin’s gonna happen to you, honey.” She fixed her gaze on the tabletop. ‘I am gettin’ soft.’ she thought to herself, then smiled slightly. For once in her life, there was nothing wrong with that.
Explaining it to her old clients, however, might be a sticky situation.
Phong stood up and whirred his way to the door. “For now, I recommend you rest, my children. Tomorrow there will be much to do. You must leave as soon as possible, to keep Daemon from sending her forces to Mainframe.”
They took his advice. But it was a very long time for all of them before sleep overtook their fears and mercifully logged them off for the night.
The grey energy dawn came early to Mainframe, but she wasn't the first one up that morning. Seven sprites trickled through the corridors of the Principle Office, preparing for the journey to save the city.
Dot paced around the armoury, checking over the contents and checking them again for lack of anything better to do. Her back-and-forth movements were closely followed by two sets of worried eyes: burgundy and brown, like spectators at a PONG tournament.
Mouse finally spoke. "Dot, honey, you're gonna wear a hole through the floor if you keep that up much longer." Dot stopped in her tracks, pausing for a moment. She turned a wry smile towards Mouse. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I just feel so useless."
"Maybe you could find yourself some sleeves," Bob said lightly as he adjusted the matte-black cheekguards of his own set of armor, familiar from the days of Nullzilla. He grinned as Dot's fist connected with his upper arm. She grinned back, and punched him again experimentally.
"Hey! What was that one for?" Bob rubbed his arm and tried to look hurt.
"Because I can. Because you're not wearing the tin can suit." Dot replied, then frowned slightly, puzzled. "Though why not?"
"Mm." Dot was off again, distracted by the arrival of Matrix and AndrAIa. Bob shook his head to himself, then turned to catch Mouse smirking at him. He shrugged. "And I thought you had a short attention span."
Mouse laughed. "You heard the gal. She's on a mission. And you're not one to be talkin' about short attention spans anyway, Sugah."
Finally all the travelers were armed and armoured to Phong's (and Dot's) satisfaction, waiting with Mouse and Ray in Phong's office. The elderly sprite wheeled in, climbing into his chair.
"Ah, my children. Are you ready?"
"Ready as we'll ever be," Bob replied, tapping a cheekguard for emphasis.
"Let us go over the plan one more time then. It is very important that we remember the details." Phong adjusted his glasses on his nose, squinting at the organizer on his desk. "Bob, you will open a portal to the Supercomputer. You will all go through, and seek out Daemon and destroy her. Then you will return here. Ah...there are not many details after all, are there?"
Despite the tenseness in the room, Phong's maunderings brought smiles to the travellers' faces.
"Sounds simple enough." Matrix was unholstering and reholstering his gun nervously.
"Let's do it," Dot said suddenly, shaking them all from the silence they had fallen into. At that, Mouse and Ray stepped forward to give there farewells and well-wishes. Mouse offered a warm handshake to AndrAIa, Matrix and Bob, and to everyone's surprise, gave Dot a quick hug.
"Don't you go makin' an honest commander out of this ol' mercenary, honey. If you don't come back I'll delete ya."
Dot shook her head and smiled, though a trifle sadly. "I wouldn't dream of it, Mouse."
Ray also shook hands with Bob and Matrix, kissed Dot on the forehead, and bestowed a wink and kiss on the cheek to AndrAIa. Matrix bristled visibly until Mouse laughed, pulling Ray out of danger. "Hey Sparks! You don't have a thing to worry about unless he'd done this!" Mouse proceeded to dip her hapless surfer and smooch him soundly. Everyone in the room burst out laughing, especially after they heard the familar *whirrr-click* of Phong's digital camera. The sprite smiled serenly, folding his long metallic fingers before him. For a moment he looked impossibly old, and impossibly wise. "Go with laughter, my children, and may no harm befall you."
The final good-byes were exchanged, and Matrix used his gun to open a tear. Bob approached it solemnly, golden light flooding from the palms of his hands and surrounding the blue-white tear until is gelled into a wobbling mercury sphere. Matrix paused, sucked in a deep breath, and dove through first, then AndrAIa jumped in after, and Dot. Finally Bob turned to the sprites left in the room, smiled his old sunny don't-you-worry-about-a-thing smile, and dove through himself. The portal snapped shut in a burst of white light, dazzling the eyes of Mouse, Ray and Phong. When the mist had cleared from their vision, there was no trace of their friends.
Phong blinked several times from the glare, then nodded slowly, once. "May all the powers in the Net be with them." he said.
"Pleasant," said AndrAIa with a sweeping gesture as soon as everyone had arrived and situated themselves. They were in a dark, but relentlessly unsullied alleyway. It was hard to tell what she meant, at first. The city was spotless, sharp-lined and stark against the greyish energy-sky. No rubble or trash dotted the streets, nothing was out of place...nothing was moving. That was the eerie part.
Bob pushed past the others, trying to get a better glimpse at the city that had been his home. While the others were vaguely uncomfortable in that perfect gleaming city, Bob was deeply disturbed by it. He knew how things should have been. This was not it. He stepped out onto the street for a better look.
He was pulled right back into the alley. "Bob, what're you doing?" Matrix gestured at the alley opening with his gun. "It's dangerous out there."
Bob shook his head. "Matrix, there's nothing out there. Look for yourself." He stepped out into the street again, a little bit out of defiance...how dare they keep him back in his city, his home...well...what was once his home. Still, he knew Matrix was right. They had to watch their step. The others followed him into the street. He felt Dot's hand on his shoulder, and he slumped a bit as the unfocused anger within him drained away. What would he do without her?
'The same thing you did before, without her,' a coldly logical piece of his processor replied.
Bob shook off the thought, turning a weary smile to his companion, hoping to ease her mind a bit. Dot squeezed his shoulder again lightly, then turned to locate Matrix and AndrAIa. "So, what's the plan?"
Matrix eyed his sister warily. "You're the one who's supposed to have the plans..."
Dot grinned slightly. "Well, let's see what we're up against, first. Bob, you know the way to the Principle Office here?"
Bob nodded mutely, and they headed off into the city and whatever lay within.
As they neared the center of the city, signs of life increased but the eerieness refused to be shaken. Sprites hurried to and from wherever they were going, eyes on the ground. No one spoke to another, or looked up from his feet, or stopped for a rest. It was all mechanical, and very disconcerting. Veins of lime-green marked the temples of many passer-bys. One young male sprite with lavendar skin and hazel eyes did glance up in passing, staring at a stock-still Bob for a long moment before shaking his head and trotting off towards his original destination. "Epson." Bob murmured to the others as he began walking again. Several times Bob seemed to recognize the city-dwellers. As many times, they either behaved as if they were caught doing something wrong, or ignored the foursome completely. By the time they were well within the city, Bob had fallen into a deep, depressed silence.
The journey was unpleasant at best, but they were not bothered by anyone. Finally, Bob stopped so short that the others nearly bumped into him. His gaze was focused skywards, where a long slim crystal spire rose from what seemed to be the very heart of the city. It was six-sided and pointed at the tip, uniformly colored a milky-white with a greenish pearlescence that shifted queasily with the light from the energy sky.
"Well, that's new," said Bob dryly.
"Daemon's hideout," was Matrix's short reply.
"Guys..." AndrAIa said warningly. When they turned to her, she pointed to the top of the spire. A rectangular pane in the crystal had gone transparent on the side facing them. And while they could see nothing, they could feel it. Something, some languid menace, was watching them. After a long moment, the pane grew opaque again, as is frosted over from the inside.
Dot shuddered involuntarily. "We'd better...do something." was all she said.
She watched in dull satisfaction as the milky panel grew opaque again. Delicate fingers clutched the railing attached to the back of windows for a moment. How pleasant...they would save her the fuss of retrieving them. She could hear the guards stirring behind her, restless.
When she showed no sign of turning around, one spoke. "What shall we do 'bout the intruders, Mistress?"
*Bring them to me.* she replied shortly, stepping down from the windows and pacing lightly to her chair, breath coming in its usual short wheezes. The Guardians each offered an arm to assist her. She settled in her large high-backed chair, then swivelled to face the windows again. Spidery fingers steepled before her, she sat back to watch...and wait.
"We've got company." AndrAIa pulled out her trident and struck a battle-crouch; Matrix unholstered his gun and did the same. Bob gazed around the semi-circle of once-Guardiams before them, one arm flung protectively in front of Dot in a by-now accustomed gesture. She, for her part, had her own gun aimed at the intruders...though they did not seem the least bit phased by the groups resistance.
"Stand down. You cannot escape," the tallest of the Guardians intoned, gaze travelling over the four coldly.
Matrix spared a glance at his companions. "They're...shielded, somehow."
Bob nodded, gravely. "Daemon must have done this. She must have the power..." He sighed, shaking his head. "We can't win this one. Not like this."
Matrix protested. "What about not believeing in the no-win scenario? We can take these guys out! We can-"
He was interrupted by AndrAIa's hand on his arm. "Matrix...they can't be hurt. They're shielded. There's no way to fight them, not out here." She stressed the last two words, her aquamarine eyes boring into Matrix's. He frowned harshly for a moment, then blinked rapidly as he took in the meaning of her words. He turned to look at Bob, who nodded back, mouthing the words, 'not out here.'
As the de-facto leader, Dot stepped forward, fingers outspread in a gesture of surrender. The head Guardian gazed at her frostily, commenting in a harsh voice, "You make the intelligent decision. Give over your weapons."
Dot handed over her gun, AndrAIa her trident. Matrix eventually gave his gun into the Guardians' possession, prodded all the way by the others, even though he knew he could...and likely would...summon it back to him before the fiasco was ended. The four were marched off to the central building and its crystal tower at gunpoint. AndrAIa held fast to Matrix's arm. Dot led her group, head high and slender form drawn up to its full height. Bob did not interfere, yet one hand hovered at her side protectively. Together they reached the base of the crystal tower, and watched in silence as the panels slid apart with a soft but ominous hiss. Their Guardian entourage prodded them inside, and the doors closed soundlessly behind them, leaving no sign of their passing.
Within the tower the same eerie silence that ruled outside was almost thick enough to be cut with a knife. The light was diffuse, green and sickly as it filtered through the milky walls. The Guardians brought the group to a halt at a heavy stone desk that blocked the hall leading back to the rest of the tower. As one of the Guardian escorts cleared his throat, a delicate sprite, middle-aged with a thin mint-green face raised her head as if it weighed too much for her slender neck, fixing the group with weary navy eyes.
"CaMi..." Bob said softly, leaning forward slightly to see the sprite better. A spark flickered in the navy depths, though her expression did not change in any other capacity.
"You came back, you silly boy." Her voice was alto, like brushed aluminum; even her obvious exhaustion could not hide its beauty. She was about to say more when lime-green pulsed fiercely at her temples and she backed off, the legs of her chair screeching against the floor. She winced, then gestured towards the hall beyond her desk. "You know what to do. You're cleared," she told the Guardians. As the four prisoners were marched past, she seemed to gather some of her strength. "I'm so sorry, boy..." she whispered. Bob caught her gaze and nodded, then her infection pulsed again and she turned away.
The hall stretched on and on, winding its way through the base of Daemon's crystal tower. Finally they reached what appeared to be an elevator. Silent short nods passed among the four prisoners...this was the chance they needed. The Guardian entourage hustled the four into the lift, and the doors slid shut...and perhaps if anyone else had been in the hall, they might have heard a muffled shout, a few menacing clangs of metal on metal, seen a golden glow between the crack in the lift doors...but no one passed, and these happenings went unnoticed by all in the tower except four.
Moments later that same four emerged from the lift in the upper section of the crystal tower. AndrAIa paused to investigate her fingernails, and Matrix smiled toothily as he spun his gun around one fingertip. There was no sign left of the once-escort...Dot looked troubled, and Bob's expression was closed and vacant.
"We did what we had to," Matrix said quietly, the pain on his hero's face making him suddenly solemn.
"I know," Bob replied darkly, then shrugged his black-clad shoulders slightly, taking stock of the surroundings. "Where to?"
They were in yet another hallway, one that stretched out on either side, then seemed to curve inward. The light was brighter than it had been at the base of the tower, but it still held a noxious tinge of green. AndrAIa stepped into the middle of the hall, glancing from one side to the other. She shrugged fluidly and turned back to the others. "Well...pick your poison."
Dot smiled gingerly at her choice of words, then gestured to the right. "Let's not get any more sinister than we have to." AndrAIa nodded, starting down the right-hand corridor. Dot let her lead, dropping back to walk next to Bob.
They walked in silence for a few moments only, before AndrAIa and Matrix suddenly stopped, then backspaced a few paces. "Guards up ahead," AndrAIa whispered. "Daemon's chamber, it has to be." It was a time for good-byes, and prayers that they were only temporary. Matrix wrapped his arms around his lady in a silent embrace.
Bob turned to Dot, grasping her gently by the shoulders. He had to bend down slightly to rest his forehead against hers, proximity making her eyes a sea of violet. And the violet sea shimmered, as she tried to hold back tears.
"I won't leave you again." He whispered the words that had become their benediction. "I promise."
"I know." Dot smiled slightly, though it was more an expression that comes from fighting back a sob. Haltingly she brushed a strand of blackened silicon hair from his forehead, then leaned forward to kiss him, only the second time since Mainframe's restoration.
'I've got to get her to do this at times other than major crises...' Bob thought to himself, then didn't think again for a good while.
Matrix eventually cleared his throat politely. Dot started guiltily, turning to look at her big-little brother, who despite the gravity of the situation couldn't keep a slightly sly grin off his face. "You guys ready for this?"
Bob laughed, a bit sheepishly, turning back to Dot and sliding his hands from her shoulders to grip her elbows. He shook her, gently. "You be careful."
She nodded solemnly. "You too." He leaned forward to drop a kiss on her forehead, then they turned to the others. Dot paused to compose herself, then nodded once, decisively. "Let's do it."
There was no use in secrecy, so they merely fanned out across the hall and simply walked straight for the guarded gateway. Two burly Guardians, both showing the telltale signs of the infection, reached for their weapons as one. One barked sharply, "Who are you? You have unauthorized access."
AndrAIa, always the best talker in stressful situations, fluttered her aquamarine eyelashes. "Oh...is it? We're terribly sorry."
It had little effect on the guards, but it did buy enough time for Matrix and Bob to power up their weapons...
The scuffle was brief but intense, yet at the end, the nauseating green light shone down on four unscathed warriors. AndrAIa smiled piquantly over their victim's prone forms. "Terribly sorry about that, too."
The last barrier that lay between Matrix, AndrAIa, Bob and Dot was the translucent stone gateway the guards had been protecting. Dot stepped forward, testing it. It seemed unyielding to her touch. She glanced over her shoulder at the others. "A little brute force?"
Matrix grinned broadly, the adrenaline from the previous battle still flowing through him. He pushed his shoulder against the door and heaved. The gate rumbled slightly, but did not give way. "All of us together should do it."
They all pushed on the gate, which shuddered under the assault and spiderwebbed into an intricate design of cracks, showering small chips of the strange translucent crystal down on the four. A couple of the delicate shards cut Matrix's arms, and one sliced along Dot's cheekbone, opening a thin line that oozed reddish-purple energy. Bob turned to her, worried, but she shook her head and kept pushing against the door. Finally the gate seemed ready to give way, and Matrix forced the others back.
"Be ready," was all he said, before he drove his foot against the buckling gateway. With a defeated clatter the stone panel burst inward. Blindly Matrix rushed into the room beyond, trailed by AndrAIa, Dot and Bob. They scrambled in and fanned out, weapons trained on the back of a massive high-backed chair set on a dias in the middle of the room. Slowly the milky crystal dust began to fade, revealing a round room surrounded by panes of the strange crystal that seemed to serve as windows. Cold stark machinery, arrays of computer consoles, tangles of pipes and wires filled the room, making it seem a veritable jungle of technology. The room was strange, cold, and silent except for the ticking and blipping of the somehow alien equpiment. For a long still moment, the four wondered if there was anyone in this chilling room after all.
Then, slowly, the chair began to turn towards the intruders.
Slowly, the figure nestled within it became visible.
Slowly, Daemon raised her head.
"Oh, User above..." breathed Dot.
Deep, huge, fathomless, beautiful blue eyes.
A dark-fringed liquid gaze that slid from one intruder to the next, and held them as effectively as a stasis field.
That was their first glimpse of Daemon.
AndrAIa gasped softly, stepping back against Matrix, who had haltingly lowered his gun. Blue gaze paused on the two, then swept on the others. A soft frown creased the pale forehead as the gaze paused on, then passed over Dot, delicate dark brows knitting slightly. Then those unbelievable eyes slid to Guardian 452, and pinned him.
A soft voice, pitched high and frail and almost sweet but for the reverberation throughout the room, assaulted the four from all sides.
*You have come to destroy me.*
The voice came from everywhere and nowhere. The pale lips did not move. And the voice was the voice of a child. And for all the cold impersonality of the words, for all the still pale expressionless visage, pain flickered undeniably in those amazing blue eyes.
"User above..." Dot whispered again, unable to look away from the tiny pale form before her. Daemon...was a child. The all-powerful destroyer, the menace of Mainframe, the conqueror of the entire Guardian Collective as the Net knew it... a child. Dot's processor had ground to a halt, unable to comprehend this unbelievable twist in events.
She was utterly petite, no more than five feet tall with the delicate figure of beginning adolescence, though there was a frailty to her that went beyond simply a slight build. Her skin was pure white with a slight bluish cast like skim milk. Silky dark hair was wound into two braided buns, tucked behind an elaborate silvery headpiece...and of course there were those incredible huge blue eyes.
A child. It was just unfathomable.
Daemon had found the intrusion interesting, but now was growing impatient. She had had her share of astounded staring sessions and was becoming thoroughly bored by this one, and the renegade Guardians had not yet made any reply to her. She frowned petulantly, tapping pearly fingernails on the arm of her chair. She leaned forward slowly, brushing a fingertip against the metallic devices nestled at the base of her throat automatically before speaking once more...or rather, transmitting her words to the processor which did her speaking for her, now that her vocal cords were no longer functioning.
*I am Daemon. I am the one you seek.*
From the corner of her eye, she saw the large green one shake his head, bemusement set in his expression. She turned her head to look at him again, speculatively.
The figure spoke again, again without moving her lips or seemingly making any other effort, though a fragile frown had settled over the pale features. Daemon leaned forward in her chair, the gesture accompanied by a faint mechanical sound. Dot looked on in somewhat horrified fascination as Daemon moved. When she turned her head to look at Matrix, the strange noises could be heard again, a louder whirring and grinding of machinery this time. Dot bit her lip as she finally had a clear view of what was causing the noises. Blindly she reached for Bob's arm, shaking him from his own stupor and pointing shakily at Daemon's half-turned back. Bob's eyes widened as he saw, fingers tightening on Dot's shoulder to a point that nearly caused her pain.
"I never...it's...but it's only in stories...it's impossible..."
Dot shook Bob's arm slightly, trying to follow his stuttering whisper. "What in the Net is it?"
Bob shook his head. "It's...I think...it's a viral device."
The green man had not said anything useful, nor had the woman at his side. Daemon sighed softly, settling back in her chair again. She couldn't contain a wriggle of discomfort as the spines of Vice dug into her sides and back...it didn't hurt anymore, much...most of the time...but it still didn't feel good. She was tired, and bored, and uncomfortable. For a moment the glowing green fog of Vice lifted a bit from her mind, as it did at times when her feelings grew strong, and the faintest whisper of a thought and the tiniest pale picture threaded their way before her mind's eye.
'I want to go home.'
'I don't want to do this anymore'
'Mama, I want to go home.'
Vice caught her. It did that too. The thoughts and images were lost in a searing knife-edge of pain behind her eyes, and she couldn't help it...she curled into a desperate fetal position, nails digging into the arm of her chair as she waited for Vice to let her go again.
The four stared in shock as the tiny powerful being before them suddenly doubled over, agony written on her alabaster face as she curled around herself. A soft high-pitched keening echoed through the room as the spidery fingers of Daemon clutched at her chair arm, obviously overtaken by something they could not detect. AndrAIa hid her face against Matrix's arm, and he in turn had to look away as well.
Bob kept his eyes trained on Daemon's back, the viral appliance easily visible now. Pale metal dominated the slender back; a twisted cord of the stuff ran from the back of her head down to the small of her back. Spines protruded from the twisted cord at regular intervals, curving forward to cradle Daemon's sides...at least, they appeared to cradle her until it became clear that the points were in fact embedded in her flesh, digging into her sides through the material of her white jumpsuit. Rings of the same pale metal marched down her left arm and leg, connected by metal strips which supposedly allowed for freedom of movement. An assortment of wires and sensors arrayed the rest of her limbs, and all the workings appeared to meet at the base of Daemon's skull. The whitish-grey metal bands then seemed to split, continuing forward to meet in what was presumably the headband they had seen when Daemon faced forward. The entire device was like an exoskeleton...Daemon's spine and ribs on the outside of her body instead of within it. And it was easy to see that the fragile form of the child within could hardly fight off the power of metal and virus encasing her.
So meticulous was his horrified observation of what had always been considered an urban legend at the Academy, so confused were his thoughts by the impossibility of the situation before him, that Bob didn't notice when Dot left his side.
Not until she reappeared in his field of vision at the base of Daemon's dias.
Daemon panted softly as the pain subsided, the sensations merging back into Vice in cold trickles down her back. She swallowed hard, tasting coppery energy in her mouth. She needed to be more careful. Vice was getting stronger, and she wasn't. She had little concept of deletion by now, but she knew 'sick' when she felt it. Daemon remained curled while she tried to remember what had been going on before the pain had come. The Guardians, she recalled. The ones from Mainframe. And the others. Weakly she tried to sit up again, but Vice closed on her again, isolated at her shoulder. She balled up again in defense, unable to keep back dry sobs of fear that the pain should come again so closely on the heels of the first wave.
But it never came. Something was different this time. No pain at all, but instead, a frail warmth at her shoulder and a faint tugging. Not...Vice.
Daemon raised her head slowly, and felt a muted jolt of astonishment as she found herself staring into a pair of warm violet eyes.
Bob couldn't get his voice to work for many critical moments. By the time he managed a strangled "No!", Dot had already gone to the ailing...child? Virus?...and was trying to help her sit up. And Daemon had already turned to her. It was like time was standing still, Supervirus and System Commander, a compassionate purple gaze locked to a deep blue one of pain and puzzlement. Dot moved first, moving her hand from Daemon's shoulder. If the room hadn't been so completely silent, her words would not have been audible: "Are you all right?" In any other situation it would be a laughable question, the answer painfully obvious...but Daemon nodded slowly, wide blue eyes never leaving Dot's face.
Bob managed to move towards Matrix and AndrAIa, who were watching Dot and Daemon in shocked wonder. Matrix snagged Bob's elbow and pulled him the rest of the way over, whispering, "So what do we do now?"
Bob tilted his shoulders slightly, sighing heavily. "I have no idea. Maybe Dot has a plan..."
AndrAIa added softly, "Well I wish we knew what it was..."
"Let's just hope," Bob replied, "That Daemon doesn't remember what her plans are."
Daemon stared in wondering amazement as the woman before her actually...seemed concerned for her. She could remember vaguely that this was what sometimes happened between sprites, though Vice had erased most memories as it pertained to her. Yet there was something comforting about it, this stranger, helping her...talking to her...and somehow Vice hadn't noticed yet, or thought to ignore it. But then, it was always hard to figure out what mattered to Vice and what didn't. You just never knew.
The others watched carefully as Daemon studied Dot's face. Bob began to fidget, growing anxious. "We need to get her out of there, we need to get her away, something could go wrong..."
Matrix shook her head. "Dot knows what she's doing..."
"But Daemon's unpredictable, it's not safe..."
AndrAIa just listened for a moment, then said, "I think Bob's right...Dot may think she knows what she's doing, but-"
She stopped mid-sentence as Dot began to stand up, and Daemon's thin pale fingers locked around her wrist.
Daemon watched the woman before her, fascinated. She had seen other sprites before, of course...infected them, had them do her bidding, that sort of thing...but none of them had acted like this one. They had been afraid, or entertaining for awhile with their tiresome toys...but in the end, it was always easier to just be rid of them. And now, she didn't even have to deal with them anymore. The Guardians could do all of that, and leave her alone to sleep or try to remember things.
And no sprites had ever actually talked to her. Nothing like this.
This one was different. And pretty. Daemon remembered what being pretty was.
Perfect. Just perfect. Exactly the one she needed.
But she was standing up. She was leaving! She couldn't leave, they had so much to discuss now!
Daemon grabbed the woman by the wrist, her long thin fingers tightening as much as they could. And inexplicably, Vice helped.
No...she would not leave.
Dot's eyes widened in fear as Daemon caught her by the wrist and forced her back down next to the chair. Composing herself, she tugged at her wrist experimentally a few times, but Daemon's grip was unyielding. And it should not have been, which sounded alarms in Dot's mind. This was wrong, all wrong...
Daemon spoke again. *You will not leave.* Blue eyes, wide and childlike a moment ago, were suddenly petulant and sulky.
"I can't stay here," Dot tried to explain. "I need to go with my friends."
*You will stay here,* Daemon replied. It was not a request.
Dot tried again, feeling the first signs of panic. Daemon's fingers were threatening to cut off the energy flow in her hand. "People need me somewhere else."
Daemon was unswayed. *No. You will stay with me.* She paused, frowning slightly as if trying to recall something important. *You are the perfect one. You will stay with me always. You can be my m...m....mama.* It was odd to hear her stutter when she wasn't even speaking aloud.
For some reason it made her angry. Dot yanked her arm back, trying to free herself. "No! I'm not your mama! Let go of me!"
Daemon looked faintly and childishly pleased. *You are strong. Yes, you will be my mama.*
Dot could only stare as the feeling slowly left her hand. Slowly Daemon reached up with her free hand, setting the tip of her index finger on the middle of Dot's forehead. Dot finally tried to call for help, her plan fallen to ruins.
But that was all she managed, before she felt a sharp pain in her forehead and blacked out.
Bob was already running towards Daemon's dias, golden energy gathering in his hands. Without breaking stride he unleashed a bolt of energy directly at Daemon. It dissapated uselessly around her in a shimmer of gold, and she turned a deadpan gaze on her attacker. As he saw Dot fall unconscious he threw himself heedlessly at the dais. Only a few feet away from his goal he slammed into an invisible barrier, the impact making black sparkles appear before his eyes. He staggered back a pace and blasted the invisible shield with all the powers he could muster. Daemon merely watched, until he had nearly drained himself.
Matrix was at his elbow, firing his gun at various intervals around the room. All of the area around Daemon and Dot was blocked. AndrAIa's paralyzing spikes were just as useless, shredding as they hit Daemon's forcefield. Dot didn't stir. Daemon just watched.
Finally she spoke again. *You may go. She is mine now.*
Matrix fired again, trying to find a flaw in the forcefield. Frustrated, he yelled, "No, you'll kill her!"
Daemon snorted delicately, a sound that seemed to actually come from her rather than her arrangement for speaking. *Of course I will not kill her. She means much to me.*
Bob stood back, panting from exertion. "She means more to us! You can't keep her!"
Daemon's bored expression hardened into anger, and the look in her eyes was all of a virus and nothing of a child.
*Guardian, you annoy me.* Without any physical effort at all on Daemon's part, Bob, Matrix and AndrAIa suddenly found themselves at the shattered crystal gateway. Bob yelled roughly, trying to run back into the room. He was stopped short, as before, by a forcefield in the doorway. Matrix grabbed his elbow. Bob shook him off angrily, but Matrix grabbed him again and hauled him back. Bob started to turn on him and AndrAIa when suddenly another green-white crystal slab slammed down into the space he had just occupied. Daemon had sealed her chamber, with Dot inside.
Faintly, through the crystal, they could hear her voice.
*I'm sorry, Mama. But I made them go away. They won't bother us now. Mama? Are you awake?*
Stunned silence reigned for a few moments. Then Bob threw himself against the gateway, pounding his fists against it, but it would not give way. Tears ran down his cheeks as he beat helplessly at the crystal door. Finally Matrix and AndrAIa had to haul him back once more. In the following quiet, they could hear Daemon again.
*Mama? Wake up, Mama! Why won't you wake up?*
Bob sobbed raggedly. "Dot! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
There was no leaving. Matrix and AndrAIa had tried their best, but Bob could not be convinced to leave the crystal tower. Many angles had been tried, but when Bob had finally answered with, "I promised her I'd never leave her", the others knew that was that. The next order of business was to find a place to hide. It was a grueling time they spent in Daemon's pale hallway, piecing Bob back together and watching for the arrival of new guards or another attack from Daemon herself. However no one stirred, either in the sealed-off room which no one wanted to think about, or in the rest of the hallway. Apparently, Daemon was distracted. But no one wanted to think about that, either.
Finally Bob was sufficiently calmed to discuss strategy, though his completely detached demeanor showed that he was suffering no less from the recent turn of events.
Matrix dared to suggest a plan first. "Look, if we're not leaving, we need to find somewhere here to camp out. Somewhere secure. Daemon's not doing anything now, but we can't depend on her distracti..." He trailed off painfully. AndrAIa rested a hand on his shoulder, then reached out to get Bob's attention.
"Bob, who was that girl you spoke to downstairs?"
Bob looked up from the floor suddenly, the smallest spark of hope flaring in his eyes. "CaMi? She was one of my professors, from the Academy...she sometimes looked after me, too...she remembered me, she talked to me..." He trailed off, then looked up at AndrAIa, almost beseechingly. "Maybe..."
"Maybe she could help us. She seemed to be fighting Dae...the infection." AndrAIa finished the sentence, straightening up and gazing down the hall. "Now all we need to do is get to her."
Bob stood up as well, but he started back towards Daemon's chamber. Immediately AndrAIa and Matrix were at his side, but he brushed them off. "I just want to see one last time..."
The other two accompanied him, but stayed back to give him his space. Bob stepped up to the gateway, pressing his hands to the strange crystal. Then as if weary to the soul, he closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the door as well.
In the perfect silence before the gateway, a thready lilting sound could be heard within the chamber, with the now-familiar eerie echo of voice processors. Somewhere deep within her crystal haven, Daemon was singing.
Bob listened for a moment, almost as if entranced. Then he pushed roughly away from the door and headed for the lift they had arrived in. "Let's find CaMi," he said as he passed Matrix and AndrAIa. He did not look back.
The three remaining members of the original team descended to the bottom of the crystal tower in the silent elevator. They expected resistance, but much to their surprise no one attempted to stop them. As they walked down the final hallway, the lights dimmed. It had become dark outside, though they could not remember so much time having passed.
Finally the three arrived at the stone desk they had passed before. The delicate sprite they had seen before was still seated there, narrow shoulders slumped in exhaustion. Tentatively, Bob reached out and touched her slender arm. She started, whirling around and fixing her large navy eyes on the group. She seemed frozen for a moment, then she reached out and grabbed Bob's hand. "What are you doing here, boy?! They sent you to..." She frowned for a moment, freeing one hand to touch her temple delicately. "What..."
AndrAIa stepped forward. "Daemon's...distracted, shall we say. Please...you're fighting her, I know you are...you can help us!"
CaMi gazed at AndrAIa for a long moment, then turned back to Bob. "Where's the other young lady who was..." She stopped suddenly, seeing the pain in Bob's eyes, and patted his hand gently. "I'm sorry, boy. You don't have to talk about it." She glanced around the entrance area of the tower, then stood up carefully. "Come. We need a place to talk."
The tiny sprite led her new charges to a tiny chamber far back in the entry hall. She gestured them through the doorway hastily, then slipped in behind them, turning to lock the door and rest her back against it. Much more alert now than she had appeared before, she eyed Bob, Matrix and AndrAIa carefully. A rueful smile pulled at the corner of her lips as she said, "You three sure know how to make a girl feel vertically challenged." Her gentle alto voice was light in tone.
Her comment somehow managed to pull an answering smile from Matrix and AndrAIa, though Bob was understandably not as demonstrative. CaMi pursed her lips thoughtfully, an expression the three found somehow familiar and certainly comforting. She finally perched on the edge of the small desk occupying the room, indicating the others should sit as well. They did so.
After another speculative gaze at her guests, CaMi spoke again, directly to Bob. "So, my boy, you return to the Supercomputer in the midst of a viral takeover, are taken to see this virus, and somehow return to ask me for help." She shook her head slowly, eyes affectionately amused. "Oh, silly boy. If that isn't just you all over."
Bob managed a slow smile at the woman's statement. "I could say the same for you, little mother. Daemon obviously doesn't have you the way she thinks she does-"
CaMi cut him off with a gesture. "And the less said about that, the better. Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?"
AndrAIa blinked, then said haltingly, "Bob...CaMi's your mother?"
CaMi laughed, a sound like silvered chimes. "Me, co-produce a firebrand like him? No, no...Bob's sweet mother asked me to look after him, long ago. When she caught a bug and couldn't do the job herself anymore, the poor dear. So it's my function now." She smiled and leaned over to pat Bob's shoulder comfortingly. "Anyway, I'm CaMi. You are..."
"AndrAIa." The name's owner replied promptly. "And this is Enzo." Surprisingly, Matrix didn't correct her.
CaMi nodded. "Well met. Ah, Enzo...I do believe I heard Turbo mention your name. Spoke very highly of you."
Bob leaned forward. "Turbo?! You've talked to him? Where is he, maybe..."
"Hsst. Don't speak of it, boy. We can't help him right now," CaMi replied, frowning slightly. "Ah...you still haven't told me what has happened to your little valkyrie."
All three were confused by the term. AndrAIa sounded the word out in query. "Valkyrie?"
CaMi flipped a lock of pale hair back from her eyes. "Ah. It's a User term from legends, a word for a female warrior. And while you, my dear, are certainly among their number, there was another with you when the Guardians brought you in."
Bob had been bearing the discussion of Daemon fairly well, but at the mention of Dot he finally broke down again, stifling angry sobs as he hid his face in his hands. CaMi looked surprised, then understanding dawned as she hopped off the desk and wrapped her arms around her sobbing charge.
"Ah, my poor boy. I warned you about this. You fell hard, didn't you?"
Bob managed a miserable nod against CaMi's shoulder, and she soothed his hair. "Don't you worry. She's a valkyrie. We'll get her back for you. All we need...is a plan."
Daemon sat against the base of her bed, rocking back and forth and singing softly to herself. Her new mama hadn't woken up yet, but that was all right. She was sleeping now. Daemon had given her her very own bed. She hoped her mama thought it was comfortable. Whenever she woke up.
Daemon was tired too. Vice had helped her keep her mama from leaving, but it hadn't helped since then. Maybe it was because she wouldn't infect her mama. Vice had wanted her to, but everyone she infected became so very dull. It was all right for people she didn't have to be around, but she didn't want her new mama to be boring too. She had expected pain from Vice at the resistance, but it hadn't happened. Maybe Vice had other ideas, but at any rate it had left her to drag her mama over to her bed and pull her into it all by herself. That had been hard, and she had dropped her mama a bit, once or twice. But she had done it at last, and now mama could sleep there, comfortably.
She paused, listening. The others were outside again, but they didn't try to come in. That was fine. As long as they didn't bother her, they could do whatever they liked. But she would let no one intterupt her time with her mama. Daemon clambered to her knees to peek into the platformed box that served as her bed. Her mama was so pretty and peaceful, just lying there, fast asleep. Daemon brushed her spidery fingers along the side of Dot's face, then lowered herself back to the floor, content. Softly, she began to sing again.
CaMi was back at her perch on her desk, with a now slightly less distraught Bob leaning heavily against her shoulder and drowsing. CaMi made an impishly pained face at Matrix and AndrAIa. "If he really were my own child, he'd not be such a big fellow, I imagine." She directed the next remark to Matrix. "Though I suppose I should be grateful it's not you needing to lean on me."
Matrix smiled sadly. "It's hard for me, too, but..."
CaMi nodded, understanding. "We all grieve differently." She went silent for a moment, thoughtful. After a moment, she spoke carefully. "You all are right, I have been able to fight the infection...though let me tell you, sometimes it fights back like you wouldn't believe. It gives me some contact with Daemon, however, and I can tell you that she's not paying attention right now. I can't imagine that you three...four would have come here for anything other than an attempt to get rid of Daemon...well, this is probably your chance. I thought there was nothing to be done, but with you here, and her distracted..."
AndrAIa chewed her lower lip for a moment. "CaMi...have you ever seen her?"
CaMi nodded, deep sadness in her navy-blue eyes. "I am one of the priveleged few, yes. Many of the others...they don't know. Or they don't care, if they're fully infected. It puts a spin on the seek-and-destroy thing, doesn't it?"
Matrix drummed his fingers on his leg nervously. "I don't think I could kill a...a..."
"She was a data sprite, you know. A hacker entered her system and threw that monstrosity in. She was in the way." CaMi's shoulders lifted and fell. Bob stirred slightly as the movement started to awaken him and CaMi froze, silent until he settled again. "Poor boy. He needs to sleep whenever it comes to him, I imagine."
AndrAIa nodded, then asked, "How do you know so much about Daemon?"
CaMi looked as if she might shrug again but thought better of it. "Research is my function. I teach literature at the Academy, mostly that dealing with mythological creatures from the User world...so when the Supercomputer first found out about Daemon, naturally they put me to work on her. But I'm afraid that by the time I had the information they needed, it was too late."
Footsteps suddenly echoed down the corridor outside, heavy booted footsteps. Everyone in the room froze as the steps grew nearer, nearly just outside the door. No one dared even breathe as the steps stopped in front of the door. The pause was excruciating, then finally the sound faded off back down the hall. CaMi let out a relieved sigh, then frowned. "This is not good. We're not safe here for long. We need to make a plan now." She hopped off the desk to check the door, waking Bob by the very fact that she was no longer there to hold him up. "Time to wake up now, my boy."
Bob sat up again, propping his face in his hands. "Ugh, I feel like...what's that place from your stories, little mother?"
"Greenville? Antarctica? Troy? Hell?"
"Hell. That's the one. I feel like that."
CaMi finished checking the door's security and stood in the middle of the small room, arms folded across her chest. "All right. Plan time."
Daemon paced her room a little bit, then stopped to catch her breath. She didn't want to sit. Something was wrong. Her mama was still sleeping...that wasn't right at all. She sighed softly and drifted back towards the bed. Scratching at her arm absently where Vice was itching her today, she gazed at her mama as she had done many times in the last few cycles. How lucky she was, to have such a pretty mama. Daemon leaned in for a closer look, but slipped a bit and had to brace herself by one hand against the bottom of the bed. She regained her balance and pulled back her fingers. A flash of unfamilar color caught her eye. She brought her hand up to her face, blinking. Something purple-red shone brightly against her white skin.
She knew what it was, it just took her a moment to remember. And when she did, a wash of fear followed the memory and she almost fell down...this had been her fault! It must have happened when she was pulling her mama to the bed...come to think of it, she had lost her grip a few times. But she also remembered that this sort of thing could not be allowed to continue, and frowning fiercely in concentration, she reached back into the bed and felt lightly along the side of Dot's head. She flinched as she found the slowly energy-bleeding wound, drawing her hand back in distaste. It took another moment of processing to figure out what to do, but she finally tore a segment of her sleeve off, careful not to pull out any of Vice's wires. As gently as she knew how, she tried to make the cloth stick to the hurt and stop the energy loss.
*Oh mama, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to...*
The cloth wasn't really staying very well, but Daemon pressed on it again. Suddenly she heard a sharp gasp. She was so startled she jerked her hand back, then she hastily grabbed at the bandage again. She wasn't going to let all her mama's energy fall out, not now. Daemon watched closely, blue eyes wide as Dot's eyelids flickered slightly, thin violet half-moons showing from under them. A small shudder went through Dot's body as she regained consciousness. Daemon was elated.
Suddenly Dot's eyes opened fully, and she tried to sit up. Daemon skittered away, startled, then darted back to make her mama lie down again.
*Stay like that.*
Dot was more than willing to comply, not because the virus had asked it of her but because the sharp pain in her head was nearly unbearable when she sat up. Perhaps under other circumstances she would've been on her feet demanding answers, scared, angry...but right now, nothing seemed to matter much.
Well, some things still managed to matter. "Bob...Enzo, AndrAIa..." she muttered through the pain. She needed them.
Daemon switched immediately from frightened and contrite to icy jealousy. *I have sent them away. You will stay with me now.*
Dot felt like this should have mattered more, but darkness was clouding in on her thoughts again. It hurt to stay awake. She felt a muted sadness at losing her loved ones again, but the darkness was so welcoming, would make everything all right...and she allowed herself to slip back into unconsciousness. Dimly she felt Daemon shaking the table on which she lay, and heard her thready angry wails. Dot thought she felt a bit regretful at leaving the poor child like that...but that was the last thought she had for a long time.
Matrix, AndrAIa and Bob could hardly keep track of how long they'd been planning. Cycles came and went as CaMi served her time at the front desk of the tower, the three others spun their plans in the tiny office they were essentially trapped in, and slept what little they could when they could. CaMi managed to bring back reports on what was going on with Daemon and her charges, and the news was not good.
"The Guardians she's infected totally are getting restless." CaMi informed them, perched in her usual spot on the desk. "Daemon's totally distracted by something, probably your friend..." Seeing Bob's stricken expression she patted his arm lightly. "That's a good thing, folks, it means she's still processing. But she's not giving her minions anything to do, and they're wondering what's happened to their 'Mistress'. Some of them seem like they might do something...er...unfortunate, if we don't think of something soon..."
AndrAIa sighed, propping her head in her hands. "We've almost got something worked out, CaMi. Just a few more details to iron out."
The sprite nodded distractedly. "I know you lot are under too much pressure already...but I'm just getting concerned for your valkyrie, being in there so long and with all the Guardians wondering what Daemon's hiding up there."
Daemon fretted and coughed, circling the bed restlessly. Mama had so much trouble staying awake...and it didn't even seem to be her fault. But when she was awake, all she asked about were those...those....others, and that made Daemon angry. This was her mama, and she loved her dearly...she wondered where that phrase had come from, but she liked it...and she didn't want her mama to talk about those pests anymore. Especially not now. Especially now that Daemon knew what Vice wanted.
Daemon was getting sicker. She had never been very strong, but in the recent cycles she could feel herself getting weaker, and coughing more, and hurting more. Absently she ran her fingertips over the patches of code degradation on her face, where Vice's spikes entered her skin. Vice was doing this to her, weakening its own host.
And it wanted her mama to be the new one. She knew that now.
Something deep within Daemon, from her old self and her old life, completely rebelled against the idea. Dimly she knew she couldn't let Vice have her mama even if she didn't really care one way or another. And Vice felt it, and hurt her more often because of it, and made her even sicker. She didn't know how long she could hold out. Her existence had narrowed to a closed circle of protecting her mama and pain. She couldn't even order her Guardians around anymore.
The very act of thinking about why she wouldn't let Vice have her mama made Vice hurt her again. She staggered against the side of the bed, whimpering. Blurrily she saw her mama was awake again, and she tried to call out to her but her voice wouldn't work. But warm fingers closed around her hand and squeezed gently, even as those pretty purple eyes flickered shut again.
Daemon knew who was more important now. But she concentrated on clearing her mind of such thoughts and Vice slowly let her go again. Weakly Daemon got her balance again, then gazed down at her mama's hand in hers. Creakily she climbed into the box-bed where her mama lay and curled up against her side, falling into the light doze that was as close as she ever came to sleep.
It was hard to stay awake, but Dot forced herself to try every few cycles or so, mostly to prove to herself that she wasn't quite deleted yet. Sometimes the pale child supervirus was prowling about her chamber, but most often she was right there at the bedside, gazing in at Dot with wide guileless eyes. At first it was disconcerting, but as waking up every now and then became force of habit, Dot also grew used to tiny Daemon's vigil over her. Somewhere, somehow she knew the child meant well. Sometimes she nearly forgot the brutal pieces of hardware that Daemon wore, and the virus seemed only a small lost sprite with no one to show her the way.
Dot had completely lost track of the time she had spent in the chamber, though she had begun to notice that Daemon was having more trouble breathing and walking as time went by. She had been awakened many times before by the child's pained sobs, but this was the first time Daemon had been right there with her. Somehow Dot had summoned the strength to take her hand, though the very effort sent her back to unconsciousness again. But she knew that somehow Daemon knew the meaning of the gesture, and was soothed by it. Daemon seemed to seek out and crave affection, like any other child.
At the base of the tower the others went over their plans. CaMi pored over the drawings and notations they had made, nodding half in agreement and half in pure weariness, nearly devoid of her usual dry but welcome humor. They had all had precious little sleep lately.
AndrAIa pointed to a few of the calculations she had made. "See, the whole thing hinges on us all doing our job at the exact right time. It's risky, but it'll have to do."
CaMi sighed softly. "The trouble with such plans is that one tiny change can throw everything off. But you're right. There's no other choice. I'm just worried that if we wait too long..."
Matrix rubbed his forearm across his eyes. "Are things that bad out there?"
CaMi nodded. "Daemon's issued no orders in all the time you've been here. The Guardians are a mess, there's no one to give them orders and virals without orders are always a wreck."
"Getting Dot back won't stop that, though..." Bob pointed out reluctantly.
"We'll just have to take it as it comes," CaMi said, raking back her fair hair tiredly. "Look, since you can't do anything until it's time for this plan to go into action, why don't you all try to catch some rest? You'll need to be alive-awake-alert."
The others nodded in agreement. CaMi mustered up a smile. "I'll wake you when it's near the right time. I'm needed out front again or I'll be missed...gotta try to keep those restless Guardians in line." She slid off the desk and slipped silently back out into the hall.
Daemon had awakened again and relocated to her chair, flopped in it exhaustedly. She had barely been able to make it this far, just across the room, but she had felt Vice grow alert and dared not stay close to her mama any longer. Not until Vice ignored her again.
She panted lightly, trying to get her breath back. For the first time in awhile she gazed around her chamber, noting the still-remaining shards from the old gateway and the lack of posted guards. Well, she didn't need any of that now.
She reached up to scratch at her cheek again, where one of Vice's points was itching her. When she drew her hand away she saw bright green ooze on her fingernail. She started, puzzled...that wasn't what her mama's energy looked like. Fear sat in a cold lump in her stomach as she tested each of the spiked she could reach. All were oozing the green stuff. Vice was slowly getting ready to leave its original and now sickened host behind.
Matrix, Bob and AndrAIa had all managed to achieve a light drowse when CaMi burst into the office, navy blue eyes even wider than usual in pure fear.
"Wake up, they're going up there now, think of something!"
Bob blinked blearily. "CaMi, what..."
"Listen! The Guardians are going up to Daemon's chamber, now, and they're quite ready to kill!"
CaMi shook her head desperately. "No! Kill what's distracting her!"
They were out in the hall in a flash. Muffled yelling was audible at the end of that hall, and a group of twenty or so Guardians were making their way to the lift, fully armed. Bob grabbed CaMi's arm. "CaMi, are there stairs?"
She peered at him blankly for a moment, then blinked and nodded once, turning and taking off down the hall at a full run. "Hurry, or you'll never beat them!"
The four clattered up the narrow stairwell, fear lending them stamina. But sheer luck no one fell too badly, they they were all fairly battered by the time they burst out of the stairwell on the top floor. AndrAIa then took the lead, and they pelted around the hallway towards Daemon's chamber. AndrAIa gasped out as she ran, "The others are here, going for the other doorway! We have to beat them in!"
They finally fetched up against the familiar crystal doorway, and Matrix began breaking it down, not even slackening his pace as he ran into it head-on. Sounds echoed down the hallway, the Guardians were working on the other gateway. The others added their strength to Matrix's, yet even as they did so they heard the other gate shatter and the enraged viral Guardians swarm inside.
Daemon raised her head slowly as unfamiliar noises began to echo down the hall. She didn't quite understand, and really felt rather too tired to worry. They were her Guardians, she could tell that from here. They wouldn't dare harm her. She heard a slight noise from her bed; her mama must have been woken up by the noise. How dare they disturb her and her mama like this?
One of her gateways shattered inward, and a group of Guardians burst through, just as she had expected. She tried to sit up straight in her chair, though her energy seemed to be draining from her with every nanosecond. Imperiously, she asked, *Why do you come here causing such a fuss?*
One of the Guardians stepped forward, a particularly burly red fellow who was waving his gun wildly. "We come to get rid of whatever be bothering you, Mistress."
Daemon summoned the strength for a dismissive gesture. *There is nothing bothering me. You may go.*
The large Guardian who seemed to be the de facto spokesperson looked bemused. "But you've not been giving orders lately, Mistress..."
Daemon scowled. *It is no concern of yours. Leave me.*
Dot had been irritated when noise had awakened her...she hadn't been ready to wake at that particular moment. But surprisingly, she felt a little stronger than she had before, and a sense of urgency forced her to slowly sit up in the bed for the first time in...well, she couldn't remember how long. Gingerly she felt of the wound on the side of her head, but found only dried energy and a crudely-fastened strip of soft white cloth. She heard the unmistakable sound of a mob, and her brain sluggishly ran through the possibilities. Maybe it was Bob and Enzo and AndrAIa, coming for her. She eased herself out of the box, though nausea and pain swept through her at every movement. Her leg buckled under her as she climbed out, and she fell in a heap by the side of the bed-box. Then she heard the doorway burst open.
Daemon frowned fiercely at the Guardians before her, though it hurt her face to do so. *Do you not hear me? Leave me alone!*
The lead Guardian still did not back down, and the others did not seem inclined to move without seeing what he did first. Finally the brute seemed ready to relax and obey his Mistress's orders, when a slender shape moved around the side of Daemon's bed, gripping the side for support.
"That's the one we need to be rid of!" The Guardian shouted to his fellows, raising his gun and taking aim directly at Dot.
The other crystal gateway splintered, and Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa and CaMi burst in on the other side of the room. They stood frozen a moment, trying to figure out the situation.
Daemon turned her head slightly to see what the commotion was on her other side.
Dot lifted her head slowly, still unable to walk without the support of the bed-box under her hands. "What is..."
The burly red Guardian fired.
"NOOOOOOOOO!" The cry of terror and despair seemed to echo on two octaves, and it seemed that perhaps the higher reverberated mechanically. Bob was already running, though he knew, just knew that he could never make it in time. He tripped on the dais and fell to his knees, unable to make the last dash to save Dot's life. He had lost her. Cruelly, time seemed to slow to a crawl.
But an anguished white shape suddenly flew in front of Dot, sprawling desperately in front of her. The energy bullet sliced through the metal that clad Daemon's spine, and seemed to lodge in her shoulder. Her tiny body convulsed in mid-air and was knocked sideways from the bullet's impact; she landed heavily on her side. Lime green liquid oozed from the torn metal, mingling with pale red-purple energy from her shoulder. She gasped soundlessly as the metal protrubances of the viral device jerked out of her body and lay in two halves behind her, twitching like a dying insect.
Nobody moved. Except Dot.
Dot had fallen to the floor again, halfway trying to duck as she saw the Guardian fire at her. It wouldn't have done any good, she realized now, except...she crawled forward swiftly, gathering the limp body of the child who was once Daemon against her. The child had already begun to flicker in her arms.
Daemon-no-longer suddenly opened her eyes, gazing up at Dot with those familiar adoring pools of blue that had become so familiar. The child coughed wrackingly, then brought shaking fingers to her throat, prodding for the device that had nestled there and finding only the wounds it had created, now bleeding the glowing viral substance. Dot cast about for a way to stop the energy loss, but she didn't know where to begin. The child in her lap gripped one of her hands and coughed again, then slowly opened her mouth. Her true voice emerged, faint from disuse but clear and sweet.
"It...doesn't hurt, Mama."
Dot smoothed the child's dark hair, tears running down her face. But she saw that for the first time since she had seen her, there was no pain in the girl's huge blue eyes. The thin white fingers tightened on her own as the child shuddered and flickered again, then slowly her pale lips curled into a smile.
"I love you, Mama."
The child held Dot's gaze for another moment, then with a sigh, dark-lashed alabaster eyelids slid shut over the beautiful blue eyes.
"I love you too," Dot whispered, and the girl smiled again; her lashes trembled slightly but her eyes did not open. Suddenly she grew limp in Dot's arms, and with a final flicker, she disappeared.
Then Bob was next to her, enfolding her gently in his arms. She buried her face against his chest and sobbed.
Around them, the Guardians were blinking and disoriented, as if slowly coming out of a long, deep sleep.
It took a great deal of work, but with CaMi's efficiency and the enlisted authority of Turbo (who had almost immediately been sought out and joyfully welcomed back by Bob and Matrix, among others), the Supercomputer seemed well on its way to recovery. In fact, it was noticed by many that Turbo and CaMi got along remarkably well, and it was a pity that they hadn't really gotten to know eachother sooner.
The remains of the viral device had been thoroughly deleted, and there seemed to be no further threat of viral invasion. The fully infected Guardians did not remember much of what had befallen them, but that was probably all for the better.
The four original travelers had sent back word to Mainframe as soon as communications were back up, and Mouse had been overjoyed to find that she was not, as she put it, "Doomed to become an honest hardworkin' fearless-leader-type." They had stayed in the Supercomputer to help get everything organized, and long enough for Bob to make sure most of his acquaintances were safe. But now they all felt it was high time to get back home.
So they were gathered in CaMi's office...not the old hideout they had used in Daemon's tower, but a much larger affair more suited to the professor-become-file-manager of the Supercomputer.
"Won't you come to Mainframe with us, CaMi? Just for a little while?" Dot persuaded. CaMi and Dot had become quite close since the latter's rescue. "You've got the system well enough under control, you could just come for a little bit..."
Bob snorted, but his tone was affectionate. "Listen to her talk, Ms. Command.com of Mainframe."
CaMi laughed her bubbling laugh and shook her head. "Not just now, lovey, you know I've got a lot of work on my hands."
Dot grinned slyly. "And I suppose you'd rather visit when you could bring Turbo along."
CaMi blushed slightly, then added, "And I suppose I'd have nothing to do there, now that I don't need to look after my little boy anymore, seeing as he's found someone else for the job."
Dot blushed back, then they both burst out laughing. After a few moments CaMi smiled and went to Dot, Bob, Matrix and AndrAIa in turn, giving each a motherly kiss on the forehead. "I will come and visit you. And you must come and visit me, too." To Dot, she added, "Don't let my little boy stay away so long again."
Dot nodded solemnly. "I promise, CaMi." She sighed slightly as a sadness seemed to settle over her again.
As the others meandered towards the portal room, CaMi caught Dot by the wrist again, holding her back. "Don't try to fool me, lovey. No one can shake off losing a child just like that."
Dot shook her head, but a tear slid down her cheek anyway. "CaMi, I feel like it was somehow my fault..."
"Lovey, you were the best thing that happened to that little girl."
"But she's gone, all because of me..."
CaMi patted Dot's arm lightly. "She gave her life for you, because she loved you. She wanted you to live."
Dot nodded slowly, sadness starting to become understanding. CaMi smiled gently. "It will take you awhile to work it all out. But you're strong, and people who love you will help you."
Bob stepped back into the office. "Dot, are you ready to go yet?"
CaMi pushed Dot gently towards the door. "Speak of the devil." She grinned at the sprites' confusion over the expression. "Valkyrie, she gave you a gift. Now go home, go away and leave an old sprite to do her work!"
They laughed at her sally, even Matrix and AndrAIa who could hear her from the portal room. Matrix's voice boomed down the hall. "The day you're old, CaMi, is the day I'm as short as you are!" Laughter bubbled up again, and Dot felt a the grief inside her begin to flow away.
Bob slipped an arm around her waist. "You all right? You've seemed a bit down lately. Er...which is understandable..."
Dot smiled up at him. "I'm fine...she...she gave me a gift." She paused thoughtfully for a moment, then pulled him into the portal room with the others. "Come on. Let's go home."