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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 1 - Preparations

GAME OVER!

Dot Matrix tried to maintain her usual air of calm as she approached her friends, but since the first game cube had dropped since the system re-start, she had been processing overtime with worry.

She had been in the Principal Office when the cube had dropped and had to watch as the lavender and silver field enveloped Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, and Ray. She hadn’t been able to leave, for more pressing concerns had her attention these minutes. Not that games weren’t pressing enough.

“Bob,” she breathed with relief as the silver-haired Guardian moved towards her.

Bob didn’t waste time with words; instead he took Dot in his arms and kissed her soundly.

“Now ain’t that the sweetest thing ya ever saw, sugah?”

Bob turned and gave his friend a mock glare, “Jealous?”

Mouse, cocked an eyebrow and winked, “You wish, sugah.” She then turned to Ray and mimed a kiss at him, causing the surfer to blush hotly. Ray draped an arm around Mouse’s shoulders and steered her towards the diner.

Dot was more concerned about Bob’s state of health, “Are you all right?”

“Dot, how many games have I been in?” He gave her that cocky smile that had endeared him to her immediately.

“I know, it’s just that --”

“I’m fine,” he kissed her again. “I’m surprised you managed to get away from the P.O.”

“I can’t stay away long. Phong --”

As though the old keeper of the core had somehow sensed Dot’s words, a vid-window popped open before them and the sagely sprite’s face appeared. “Dot, you must return to the Principal Office immediately. Three more ships with refugees are waiting outside of the system.”

“On my way, Phong,” Dot smiled up her love. “A Command.com’s work is never done.”

“I’ll see you tonight?”

Dot expelled a breath. “Probably not. We still have to process the ships that arrived, set up temporary shelters, register all the PID’s in the temporary database --”

“Okay,” Bob smiled a little sadly. He had fought all those minutes in the Web to get back to her and now they barely had more than two nanos together. And soon, Bob thought, I’ll have to break my promise to her and leave her. I’ll have to go after Daemon.”

“Matrix, AndrAIa,” Dot turned to where her brother and his love stood, “Would you zip down to the docks and greet the ships? You’ll need to escort their captains to the Principal Office.”

“You got it, sis,” Matrix nodded curtly.

“Have the passengers wait on the ships until we can confer with their captains,” Dot turned back to Bob, as Matrix and AndrAIa zipped away. “What are you going to do?”

“Not go near the docks, that for sure,” Bob managed a wan smile, but Dot could see the hurt in his eyes. When the first ships had arrived bearing refugees from systems infected by Daemon, Bob had been the one to greet them. The resulting fear and chaos that had spread across the sector had been difficult to remedy. To be a Guardian, and to also be the subject of mistrust, was a nightmare for her love. It hadn’t mattered to the refugees that Bob wasn’t infected, only that he was a Guardian and therefore, someone to be feared.

“I’ll assist Gavin in the salvaging of the Mare,” Bob replied, “Then I want to go over the intelligence reports again. I think we should have Ray and Mouse do some more scouting --, ”

“BOB!”

A streak of blue shot towards the Guardian and barreled into him with all the energy the 1.0 old had.

“Bob how was the game? It bytes that Dot won’t let me go with you all because of that thing with Matrix and AndrAIa being lost but Mouse is going to make us all special icons she said so, so can I go into the games then?”

“Enzo,” Dot scolded mildly.

“Aw come Dot! Don’t you think it’s cool the way they got big and game hopped and then got to do all that neat stuff and --”

“Enzo!” Dot instantly regretted snapping at the younger version of her brother, but she definitely did not think what happened to Matrix and AndrAIa was cool. But the look of distress on her brother’s face made her heart shatter.

“Dot,” Bob said, still sprawled on the ground.

“Sweetie,” Dot smiled at Enzo, “We’ll talk about the game hopping thing later. Okay?”

“Okay,” Enzo said quietly.

“Dot,” Bob said, again. She pointedly ignored him.

Another vid-window popped open, and Phong said, “Dot, where are you? I need you here, my child.”

“Coming, Phong,” Dot decompressed her zip board. “I’ll see you at the Diner Enzo, we’ll have some chips and shakes and we’ll talk then.”

“Um hm,” Enzo said. Dot hopped on her board and flew away.

***

“She didn’t mean to snap, Enzo,” Bob placed his hands on Enzo’s waist and lifted him up.

“I know,” Enzo sighed, his natural exuberance fading. “I guess I shouldn’t have said it was cool. I guess it wasn’t to her, when she thought I - I mean Matrix, had been nullified.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Bob said carefully. He didn’t want Little Enzo to feel worse than he already did. They had been worried about him ever since the concert that had basically explained how he had come into being. Although Enzo seemed to understand what had happened, they had wondered how the little sprite really felt not being the “original”, although he was the “original” in a sense.

“Remember, your sister has a lot written on her disk right now.”

“And you’ll be leaving soon too?” They were at the entrance of the diner now. Enzo looked up at him with his large violet eyes and Bob saw the little sprite’s silent plea of, “don’t go!” within them.

“I have to,” Bob pushed the door open and motioned Enzo inside first. “I want to make things safe for you Enzo, and when I return (if he returned) we’ll do whatever you want. How you’d like a grand tour of the Super Computer?”

Enzo’s eyes lit again with his familiar excitement, “Can we Bob? Really?”

“You got it,” Bob lifted the little sprite up and set him on one of the stools. “Hey Cecil, how about the lunch special for my little partner here?”

Cecil approached on his track and looked down his screen at them both, “And just who will be paying for this?”

“You know I’m good for it, Cecil.”

“That’s Cescil, and I know no such a thing, monsieur!” With an indignant sniff, Cecil rode away to greet two binomes who were just entering with his usual, “Wait at zee bar.”

“Dot really needs to get some new help,” Bob muttered.

“That’s okay Bob, I’ll just help myself,” Enzo jumped over the counter and proceeded to mix up an energy shake. Bob approached the booth where Mouse and Ray sat, sharing a basket of cheese fries and energy shakes.

“Got a nano, you two?”

“Always time for you, mate,” Ray smiled. “Pull up a chair.”

When Bob was comfortably seated he said, “I need you two to go on another scouting mission.”

“We’re your sprites, sugah!” Mouse popped a fry into her mouth.

“My contacts in the Super Computer have informed me that Daemon’s Web armada is ready for launch.”

“Oh no,” Mouse sighed, “That’s all we need.”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from any of my sources since then,” Bob lowered his head. “I think they may have been captured.”

“Or infected,” Mouse muttered.

“Yes.” Bob thought of Turbo. Matrix had said his mentor was fighting Daemon’s influence. His contacts had told him Turbo was seldom seen, as Daemon had gotten closer to completing the preparations on her armada.

“I need you two to try and find some word of Turbo and on the armada,” Bob said. “But don’t take any chances, understand?”

“You know us, mate!” Ray gave his lopsided grin.

“Yeah, I do,” Bob returned the smile. He motioned with his thumb at Mouse, “Just keep her out of trouble.”

Mouse made a face at him, “I’ll keep myself out of trouble, thank you very much, sugah.”

“We’ll leave in the morning,” Ray said, all seriousness now. “We won’t let you down Bob.”

“I know,” Bob rose. He wanted to give them some privacy. “Stay Frosty, you two.”

Enzo was sitting on the stool quietly sipping his shake. “Hey little man, want to go down to the salvaging operation with me?”

“You bet Bob!” Enzo was off the stool and out in the door in one motion. Bob smiled sadly. He was going to miss that little sprite, but he thought he would miss his sister more.

***

“Dot, the ship captains are here,” AndrAIa announced when she entered Dot’s office.

“Thank you Dre,” Dot stood, and made one last check of her organizer. “Tell me a little about them.”

“Well,” AndrAIa stepped inside the office and the door slid shut behind her. “There are three; a female and male sprite, and a male binome. The female sprite is Captain Irina, from system 876; the male is Captain Syn, system 334. The binome is Captain Lynx, system 608. They have approximately one to three thousand refugees on their ships.”

Dot expelled a frustrated breath, “There’s no place to put all those people.”

“The area in Silicon Valley is full?” Silicon Valley was the name they had given to the place where Megabyte’s Tor used to stand.

“No,” Dot looked to her organizer. “The temporary shelters are already back to back. We already have people doubling, even tripling up in residents' homes. We’re going to have to start giving up our places soon. We can’t have people thinking the Senior Staff is receiving special privileges.”

AndrAIa smiled, “Maybe we shouldn’t call ourselves the Senior Staff.”

Dot returned the smile and collapsed her organizer, “It was Phong’s idea, and you don’t want to hurt his feelings do you?” Dot walked around the desk and she and AndrAIa left the office.

“No,” AndrAIa replied, “But it sounds so -- pretentious.”

Dot laughed, but her mirth quickly faded when she entered the War Room. Phong was there, pouring cups of hot cocoa for the three grim-faced people who sat in chairs arranged in a half circle.

Irina was a tall, thin woman with a smooth orange face that could be considered pretty were she not wearing such a scowl. Her maroon eyes stared with suspicion at the Command.com.

Syn was almost as big as Matrix; only his bulk was fat instead of muscle; with bright pink skin and an unruly mane of purple hair. He looked in no more a positive disposition than Irina.

Lynx was a silvery-blue binome with snow-white hair and a full beard looking somewhat like a displaced version of the User figure Santa Claus.

Dot approached the three with what she hope was a look of confidence with a touch of sympathy, “Greetings and welcome to Mainframe. I’m Dot Matrix, the Command.com.”

They exchanged greetings, but it was Syn who spoke directly to her. “I understand you have two Guardians here?” Syn removed a serrated knife from a sheath in his boot.

Out of the corner of her eye, Dot saw AndrAIa straighten from her casual stance against the far wall.

“Yes, we do, actually a full Guardian and a Cadet, but I assure you --”

“You can assure me of nothing Ms. Matrix,” Syn began to clean his nails with the end of the knife. “If they so much as come near me --” Syn made a quick swiping motion with the knife.

“One already did. The man who greeted you is the cadet. My brother Matrix.”

“What?” He sat up straighter. “He’s with the ships now!”

“Why is that a problem?”

Syn sat back and smirked, “If the passengers find out who he is, there may be problem.”

“Neither you or the passengers have anything to fear from the Guardians here,” Dot said.

“Surely you understand our concern, Ms. Matrix,” Irina spoke. We’ve brought refugees from systems destroyed by Guardians, infected by Daemon.”

“Believe me, I understand,” Dot pushed away her recent unpleasant memories.

“And won’t Daemon want these Guardians as well? Isn’t Mainframe in danger?” Irina asked.

“We’re all in danger, captain,” Dot said. “All I can say is plans are being made to address the problem.”

“That’s not very reassuring,” Syn muttered.

“Our main problem is,” Dot changed the subject, “to find lodging for you and your crew and passengers. First, they’ll be escorted to the principal office and their PID’s will be registered in our temporary database.”

“Very well,” Syn said. “Where can I get an I/O shot?”

Dot decided she didn’t like this sprite at all, “You may want to wait until your passengers are taken care of, but you can get that at Al’s Wait and Eat on Level 31.”

Syn grunted and lifted his mass from the chair. “Okay, let’s get started then.”

“If you’ll follow AndrAIa, she’ll escort you back. AndrAIa, please assemble the refugees and bring them here.”

“Yes, Dot.”

Lynx, who had not spoken through the entire meeting, stopped before Dot as the others exited the room. “Thank you miss,” he took Dot’s hand and kissed it. Then he followed the others out the door.

Dot sighed, “Phong, there’s no place to put them. Soon, we’ll have to turn people away. We may have to do it now.”

“What of the other systems that we have been in contact with, my child?”

“Of the two, System Hard Drive is full. I haven’t heard from my contact in System Cascade. I’ll need to call her.”

“It would be a pity to turn anyone away,” Phong poured a cup of cocoa and handed it to Dot. The Command.com drank it absently. “So many have suffered from Daemon’s attacks.”

“Yes,” Dot sighed. “She has to be stopped.” And Bob will go to stop her. He’ll break his promise and leave me again.

“There is much work to do before the peace we so yearn for is achieved, my child,” Phong placed his hand on Dot’s. “But we have persevered through much and we will continue to do so.”

“Phong - I never told you how much I appreciated you during the war. I don’t know where I would be without you.”

“You are quite welcome, my child, but I believe we were there for each other.”

Dot, on impulse, kissed Phong on the top of his head. The old sprite blushed. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Phong giggled. “And I you, my child.”

“Now,” Dot said. “Where are we going to place the new refugees?”

“Well,” Phong said. “I have been considering that. There is one place but --”

“Where? There’s no room on the upper or lower levels except --” Dot’s eyes widened in disbelief, “Phong, you don’t mean --”

“What choice do we have?”

“But Phong, those people are scared enough already! If we send them there --”

“Then we must prepare them and we must be prepared.”

Dot sighed for what seemed like the nth time. “I’ll call Bob.”

***

“Name please?”

“Veronica Lore,” the young very pregnant woman said. “Call me Ronnie.”

Dot smiled reassuringly, “I’m just going to need to ask you a few questions Ronnie, and then I’ll need your icon to register your PID.”

“All right.”

“Occupation?”

“I’m - I was a restaurateur - a caterer actually - I had my own business until --”

Dot saw the tears well in Ronnie’s eyes and, without considering, placed her hand over the young sprite’s own. “It’s all right, Ronnie.”

“My husband and I owned a place, but when the Guardians came I lost him and my daughter in the system crash and -- and --” The tears came then, seeping from Ronnie’s thick lashes to run down her crimson cheeks.

“It’s all right,” Dot whispered, as she squeezed Ronnie’s hands. “You’re safe here.”

“But for how long?” Ronnie whispered. “Daemon will find this system eventually and then - I heard Mainframe crashed.”

The abrupt change of subject caught Dot off guard. “We did, but, there was a system restart and --”

“You’re very fortunate,” Ronnie whispered. “When our system crashed it was completely erased. Everything gone - oh!” Ronnie pressed her hands on her stomach.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m all right. It’s just close to my time.”

Dot was never one to make snap decisions but she did this time, “Ronnie, how would you like a place to stay and a job?”

Her face practically lit up, “Really?”

“I own a Diner, the best in all of Mainframe. Would you be willing to waitress? I live above the diner and we have an extra room, that is if you don’t mind living with my hyperactive little brother. Then you can have someone to help you with the baby until we can find you a more permanent place.”

“Oh yes, thank you, I’d love to!” Ronnie reached across the table (as far as her stomach would allow) and wrapped her arms around Dot in a quick hug.

Dot motioned to one of her binome helpers and gave him the necessary info. Then she registered Ronnie’s PID and watched with a fond smile as the girl was helped into a waiting car.

As the next passenger sat before her, Dot let her mind wander to Bob. She hoped her worry wouldn’t show. Then again, why should she be worried? Hexadecimal was one of them now, wasn’t she?

***

“I must be out of mind,” Bob muttered aloud as he zipped over the twisted bridge into Lost Angles. The place still gave him the jaggies. The last time he’d been there, it had been as a prisoner. Now hopefully, he’d be welcomed as a friend.

“Bob,” the soft voice spoke to him out of nowhere and Bob halted in midair.

“Hex?” Bob looked below him as nulls gathered in a mass. “Hexadecimal!” Bob called. After all the cycles, he was surprised she had made herself known. Since the restart, he had made several trips to Lost Angles to attempt to contact her, but he had either been ignored, or teleported back to the city. “Hex, can you hear me?”

“I heard you.”

Suddenly Bob was enveloped in a flash of brilliant light and when it cleared and his vision adjusted, he found himself within her Lair. It was brighter than he remembered. Everything was in place but round windows were positioned at regular intervals. To his utter amazement, Hex sat on her throne and before her sat an easel and a stand that held small canisters of paint. Hex was painting. Bob thought he was ready for anything, but this threw him.

“Umm, Hex?”

“Yes, darling?”

“What are you painting?”

“Come and see.”

Bob casually approached and leaned in to see, an overhead view of Mainframe and a rather good representation. This astonished Bob even further as Hex normally only had one subject for her art - herself.

“Hex, that’s excellent.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Absolutely,” Bob had thought he experienced everything, but this!

“I think when this whole messy affair with my mother is over, I’d like to do this full time.”

Hello! “What did you say Hex? Your mother?”

“Of course,” her smile widened. “You are going after her, aren’t you?”

“Hex,” Bob said, taking care with his words, and at the same time, fighting the nausea that had suddenly erupted in his stomach, “Are you saying that Daemon is your mother?”

“Silly sprite, of course she is,” Hex’s smiled faded to be replaced by a look of confusion, “You did know that, didn’t you?”

Of course! Bob’s mind raced. It all fits! The web creature, the joining, Gigabyte - my User, why didn’t I see it before? Because you were fighting for your life in the Web, that’s why. Then you returned to find your home destroyed. You had other things on your mind.

“Bob?” Hex tapped her foot impatiently, “Are you going after my mother or aren’t you?”

“Yes Hex, I am,” Bob said. “Does that upset you?”

Hex let out her trademark laugh, “After what she did to me? No, you’re quite welcome to do whatever you have to.”

“Will you help us?”

Hex dipped her brush into the blue paint. “Do what? Go after my mother?”

“Only if you feel you can.”

Again Hex chose to work on her painting instead of answering. “So you wish for me to help to bring about the destruction of my mother?” He didn’t know if she were playing a game with him or not. Hex was hard to read now, since her transformation.

“Why didn’t you tell me she was your mother?”

“I told you, I thought you knew!” Hex glared critically at the painting, and then chose a dollop of yellow. Then she turned her smile on Bob, “Are you angry, darling?”

“No, just surprised,” Bob said. “Hex, your mother wasn’t why I came to talk to you.”

“No? But you do want to talk about her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Bob said. “But first, I need to ask your permission to open Lost Angles.”

“Open it?”

“As I’m sure you know, more refugees arrived in Mainframe today. There’s no more room for them. With your permission, we’d like to set up temporary shelters here in Lost Angles, but we - ah -- well you know how things are here --”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you make it, well, safe?”

“Safe?”

Slowly, Hex turned to him. Her eyes glowed red, “What do you mean, safe?”

Bob swallowed nervously, “So the refugees can live here without fear. Hex, they’re scared enough already, the last thing they need is --”

“ -- the insane viral’s equally insane home swallowing them all alive?” Hex’s fangs protruded from between her lips.

There was no way around it. “Well that’s not the way I’d put it but yes.”

For a nano, Bob was certain Hex was going to blast him into pixels. She leaned forward and bared her teeth. Her eyes contracted into slits. Then she threw her head back and laughed maniacally, “All right, Bob darling. I said anything for you. You bring the little refugees to my home and I promise they can stay here without fear.”

“I have your word?”

Instantly, her smile was gone, “You doubt it?”

“No, no, of course not,” Bob said, “I’m sorry Hex, I shouldn’t have said that. I’ve insulted you and I’m sorry.”

Hex put down the brush, “It’s all right, Guardian. You come back later and we’ll talk about Daemon.”

“Thank you Hex,” Bob quickly kissed her on the cheek, and then turned, but not so quickly that he didn’t see the pleased expression on her face.

“You shouldn’t kiss me you know,” she said as the light surrounded Bob again. “Dot would be very cross.”

***

“She’s what?” Dot slammed both hands down on the console.

“I don’t believe it, sugah,” Mouse said.

“This is indeed disturbing news,” Phong chimed in.

“Well it makes sense like Bob said,” AndrAIa said. “But still it’s hard to believe.”

“So, what are we going to do about it?” Matrix stood and flexed the fingers of his gun hand. “We can’t just let her run free! For all we know, she may be passing information to Daemon even as we sit here!”

“No,” Bob whispered. “I don’t think she’s been in contact with Daemon at all.”

“But Bob, how do you know?” Matrix asked.

“Because I think she wants to see Daemon gone as much as we do,” Bob turned away. “She said I could come back and she’d tell me about Daemon. I believe her.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Dot asked.

“We could use the information,” Bob said. “The refugees are doing well in Lost Angles, aren’t they?”

“No complaints so far,” Dot said. “There were reservations of course when they saw the condition it was in, but there wasn’t much of a choice. Fortunately, I’ve been in contact with the Command.com of System Cascade and ships are being diverted there.”

“I’m going back to Lost Angles,” Bob said. “Maybe we could use what she tells me, if anything.”

“Sugah, I have to get my Ship prepared for tomorrow,” Mouse said, “I can probably get you some information on whether or not Daemon has anymore children.”

“Please don’t even consider that!” Dot sighed, “The last thing we need in the World Wide Web is another Hex.”

***

Hex closed the vidwindow and frowned, “The last thing we need is another Hex,” she mimicked bitterly. Who did that little tart think she was? Miss high and mighty Command.com! And just when she was beginning to tolerate her. Well, she was planning on letting her have Bob, but now she thought she’d change her mind. She’d have Bob for herself. No one else would do.

Hex smiled when she sensed Bob’s approach. Even with the other life forms invading her home, she could still separate their processing forces from his. With a simple wave of her hand Bob was teleported to stand before her.

***

“Hello again, love,” Hex smiled and motioned to the java table set up. “I’ve made biscuits and tea. Please sit.”

Bob suppressed a shudder, remembering the last time he had found himself in this same situation. “Thank you.” Bob slid into the seat and waited politely as Hex poured the tea, “Try a biscuit.”

Bob picked up one and noticed that they weren’t quite as weird as Hex’s first attempt at baking. “How’ve you been Hex? I’ve been worried about you. I tried calling.”

“Oh, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I had some things to take care of.”

“Such as?”

“Now that’s really my business, love. There are things I won’t tell while the cyber-sun is shining.”

Bob cleared his throat, “Um -- Hex, about Daemon?”

Hex chuckled, “I’ve embarrassed you, haven’t I?” Hex reached across the table and traced a pattern across Bob’s chest with one slim finger, “Do I make you nervous, baby?”

“Hex!” Bob felt the flush on his cheeks. He removed her hand as gently as possible. “About Daemon.”

“Oh, you’ve gotten to be such a bore! What did you want to know?”

“Have you been in contact with her?”

“You mean besides the incident with the web creature?” Hex’s mouth spread in a toothy grin, “No love. That was the plan.”

“Plan?”

“Mother sent her children all over the web,” Hex took a sip of her tea, “Oh there are thousands of us! Or were.” For a moment, a sadness crossed Hex’s face. “We weren’t supposed to communicate, so we never did. It was chance that brought both Megabyte and I here, but I won’t go into that. Mother sent us all over the web to take over systems.”

My User! “How many have succeeded?”

“I’ve no idea. If mother is involving herself in the conquest of the web, then that means her children failed. Megabyte and I were the last ones, I suppose. And now with him gone and I - well I never had interest in 'taking over' anything. I suppose she sent the web creature to do the job we couldn’t do. Or maybe just to get you.”

“So each of your brothers and sisters were to take over systems and hand them over to Daemon?”

“My, you are a bright one!” Hex nibbled on a biscuit. “But you know what? I think that’s why she went after the Guardians!”

“Because the Guardians killed her children, not to mention ruining her plans. And what better way to take over the Web then by controlling the very people who are sworn to protect it!” Bob pushed himself up and began to pace. “And you have no idea how many more of your strain are left?”

“I could find out, if you’re extra nice to me, darling.”

“Hex, this is serious,” Bob said.

“I am being serious! Bob, you can’t be that dense!” Hex slammed down her cup, spilling some of the liquid on the table surface. “You want more information, you had better supply something in return.”

“Like what?”

Hex waved both arms in an expansive gesture and her force took hold of Bob, bringing him forward. She pressed her palms in a downward motion and Bob unwillingly slammed to his knees.

“Hex, what are you doing?”

“I love to see a man on his knees,” Hex smiled evilly.

“Hex,” Bob said quietly, “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“Oh Bob,” Hex clasped her hands together and pouted. “I just want you to like me!”

“Let me up, please,” Bob said.

Hex waved a hand and Bob felt the power release him. He made a show of straightening his clothes, “I do like you Hex but--” Bob said quickly when he saw her eyes light up, “not in the way you want me to. I’m sorry. I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair to you. I won’t take advantage of you.”

“It’s Dot, isn’t it? You liked her more than you do me!” Hex stood and made a pushing motion with her hands, sending the java table crashing away. “Maybe I’ll just delete her!”

“Then I wouldn’t like you anymore.”

Hex slowly turned to him, anguish plain on her face, “You wouldn’t?”

“No.”

Hex turned away and again waved a hand in an almost dismissive motion. Bob blinked, and the java table was upright again, as though Hex had never touched it. The tea sat steaming in the cups and the biscuits were fresh and warm on the plate.

“How fortunate you are, Guardian,” Hex whispered, “You have no idea what it’s like - but never mind. You must stop my mother, Bob. I feel it’s important. I don’t know how you can do it. I haven’t seen or heard from her since I was sent here, but she must be unbelievably powerful by now.”

“I’ll do my best,” Bob turned to go. “You know, Hex, if you get -- bored, you can drop by the Diner sometimes, or something.”

Hex looked at him incredulously, then burst out laughing, “Drop by the Diner? And put the fear of the User into some helpless binomes! That’s an idea!”

As the light once again surrounded him, Hex’s laughter followed him into the night air.

***

Dot stretched her aching back muscles and was dismayed to hear her links cracking loudly. Must be getting old, she thought wryly. All was quiet now. The last of the refugees would be processed tomorrow and those that were done today were safely (well as safe as Lost Angles could be) in the temporary shelters.

But they faced more troubles. They had been receiving assistance from the other systems but soon food would become a problem for most. Mainframe couldn’t sustain all of those extra people without the resources and Dot’s attempts to begin trading with other systems had proved futile. If only the Mare hadn’t been destroyed but then again, the Mare was a wanted ship with a wanted crew and they probably wouldn’t have any better luck.

But she couldn’t worry about that now, in fact, the only thing she wanted to do was get a good night’s downtime.

As she entered her apartment, she was surprised to hear female laughter, and then she remembered her houseguest.

Ronnie was sitting on the couch. She smiled up at Dot when she entered. “Hi!”

Dot couldn’t help but grin. Enzo had his ear pressed to Ronnie’s stomach, a comical look of concentration on his face. When Dot entered he hopped up and said, “Hey Dot, guess what! I was listening to Ronnie’s baby!”

“Really?” Dot smiled at him. “Enzo, I want to apologize for missing our date today.”

“It’s okay Dot. Ronnie’s been telling me about her home system and about what she wants to name her baby.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, and you know what? She taught me how to make chicken Parmesan.”

“There’s plenty on the stove, Dot, help yourself.”

“You didn’t have to cook, Ronnie,” but Dot had to admit she was grateful. It smelled wonderful. Dot, in fact, helped herself to a large portion, then joined Ronnie and Enzo on the couch. “This is excellent!”

“I said it was alphanumeric,” Enzo smiled. “What do you think of Archie for a boy and Linda for a girl? Archie is her husband’s name.”

“I think they’re both wonderful,” Dot smiled at Ronnie and realized that she had made a new friend. “Thanks for looking after my brother.”

“He’s a very nice, handsome gentleman,” Ronnie ruffled Enzo’s hair, and the little sprite blushed, “and he’s agreed to baby-sit.”

“Very nice, sweetie.”

“Dot, what time should I report to the diner?”

Dot liked her enthusiasm, “O-six-hundred hours.” She smiled sheepishly, “Is that too early?”

“Actually, I was usually up at o-four-hundred.”

“Wow! Well report to Cecil. He’ll tell you what to do,” Dot ate the last bite of the chicken. “And cook this for him. He’ll fall in love with you.”

Ronnie blushed, “Thank you.”

A vid window popped open and Bob’s face appeared, “Hey Dot, what’s processing?”

“What do you mean, what’s processing?” Dot handed the plate to Enzo and stood to face the window, “Are you all right? How did it go with Hex?”

“As strange as usual,” Bob said. “I can tell you about it in the morning.”

“No, tell me now!”

“Dot --,” Bob sighed, “I think we both need some rest.”

“You’re right,” Dot sighed, “Bob --,”

“It’s okay,” Bob smiled. “Good night, Dot.”

“Good night.”

The window closed. “I’m going to get some downtime, Enzo, don’t stay up too late. I know there’s no school but you still need your rest.”

“Okay Dot,” Enzo smiled. “Good night.”

“Good night, sweetie.”

***

“I take it,” Ronnie said, “that your sister and the Guardian are fond of each other?”

“Oh yeah,” Enzo had his ear to Ronnie’s stomach again. “I just wish they’d get married already.”

Ronnie chuckled and ruffled Enzo’s hair some more.

***

AndrAIa smiled at the plump woman who sat across from her, whose smile traveled to her emerald green eyes. “Your occupation?”

“I’m an iconographer,” she smiled.

Ah, new information! As a game sprite and AI, anything new was of great value to her. “What’s that?”

In response, the woman reached down and picked up a briefcase. She opened it and turned it towards AndrAIa. The game sprite gave a gasp of delight. Inside were rows of icons artfully decorated. AndrAIa had never seen anything like them. Each one was an intricate example of artistic beauty.

“How lovely!” AndrAIa beamed. “Did you have your own shop?”

“No, but I wanted one,” she rubbed her plump hands together. “Maybe here I can have my chance.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. Mainframe is a wonderful place, I should know.”

A sound drew their attention skyward. A ship was streaking overhead. AndrAIa recognized it immediately.

“Matrix!” She called to her muscular boyfriend, “Did you see --?”

Matrix, who was manning another table said, “Yeah Mouse’s Ship.”

“Emma, would you take over for me, please?” AndrAIa decompressed her zip board and followed in Matrix’s wake. They arrived at the P.O. just a few nanos after Mouse and Ray.

“Ah, I’m glad you are here my children,” Phong waved them in. “I was just about to call you.”

AndrAIa and Matrix settled themselves next to each other in chairs. Mouse leaned against the console next to Dot, and Ray leaned back against his board. Bob stood rather grim-faced in the middle of the room.

“Sugah, I’ll get right to the point,” Mouse said. “We’ve received word from Turbo.”

“What?” Bob strode fiercely towards her.

“Here you go, Bob,” Mouse pulled a disk from her belt. “Your contact Grep got this to us, but he --”

“No,” Bob whispered.

“I’m sorry, sugah.”

Bob lowered his head for a nano, then just as quickly, drew himself up straight. “Let’s see it then.”

He handed it to Dot, who slid it into the player within the console. A circular shaft of light appeared in the center of the console and Turbo’s form solidified into existence.

“Bob,” Turbo’s voice held a note of urgency. “I managed to get in touch with your contact, Grep. I hope he gets this to you. Bob, if you make a move, you have to do it now. Daemon’s Armada will launch in two seconds and they’re heading straight for Mainframe. It will take them two cycles to get there.

“Bob, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’ll be on the lead ship. Don’t hesitate to take that lead ship out! Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it. Daemon’s chief general and advisor, Ashar will be on that ship. Take it out and you’ll cripple the whole --”

Turbo’s cry surprised them all. He seemed to struggle with some force invading his mind for a time, and then he regained control. “It’s - it’s getting harder to fight, Bob. Soon I may be completely under Daemon’s control. I’ll try to hold out a little longer but - hurry Bob, you and Matrix are the Net’s only hope.”

The image blurred, then disappeared.

“It took you two seconds to get back here?” Bob questioned Mouse.

“Yes.”

“So that means Daemon’s Armada will arrive in twelve.”

“That doesn’t give us much time,” Dot said. “And with all these people here, a war is the last thing we need.”

“Then we’ve got to make certain we end this before the armada reaches Mainframe,” Matrix said.

“And there’s only one way to do that,” Bob said, his face set in a hard mask of determination. “Do what we’ve dreaded doing all these cycles. Go to the Super Computer and take out Daemon.”

Silence met Bob’s declaration. AndrAIa moved to stand behind Matrix. She placed her hands on his shoulders and Matrix laid his hands over hers. Ray moved to where Mouse stood and slipped an arm around her shoulders.

Dot sighed, “I’ll contact Hard Drive and Cascade and see if they can lend us some military assistance. They’re the nearest systems to us and will be hit next. They should be willing to help.”

“Ray and I can see if we can run interference with the armada. They have to stop somewhere and refuel and for supplies, maybe we can slow them down.”

“Just the two of you?” Matrix asked.

“Give us some credit, sugah.”

“Matrix is right, you two against the whole armada? I wouldn’t recommend it,” Dot said.

“Sugah, I didn’t say we were gonna take on the armada ourselves, I just said we would check ‘um out,” Mouse smirked.

“Just be careful you two. Give yourself enough time to get back here, we need you in case--”

“Don’t worry Dot, honey,” Mouse winked, “Ray’ll protect me.”

“You bet, love,” Ray squeezed her around the waist. The two departed.

“Matrix, AndrAIa, I need you to finish the rest of the processing of the refugees, then come immediately to the hanger. Phong, we also need to make certain we have enough core energy. Bob --”

When she looked up and met Bob’s gaze, she saw the love and worry there. The memory of when he had first come home pushed its way into her mind. Bob reaching for her, his arms out, and what did she do? Stick out her hand to him. Yes, they had gotten together later and Dot had promised herself never to suppress her emotions again.

Carefully, Dot came from around the console until she stood facing Bob. She reached for him, almost cautiously, as though she expected him to disappear, drifting away like smoke on the wind.

But he was real, and she knew that for a fact when he took her hand and pulled her into his arms. Neither noticed when Matrix, AndrAIa and Phong left the room. Bob kissed her, and in that kiss he released his love for her, his fury at Daemon for stealing her from him, and his anguish at the prospect at never seeing her again.

“I’ve dreaded this,” Dot’s voice broke, “I want to be angry with you. You’re breaking your promise to me. I’ve wanted to ask you not to go.”

“But you won’t,” Bob said softly.

“No,” the tears began and Dot didn’t even attempted to stop them. “I love you so much.”

“I love you to,” Bob took her mouth again hungrily, then whispered against it, “I will come back to you. I promise.

Somewhere in the Web, death was rushing for them. Bob knew she was depending on him to halt the tide of destruction, to come back safely to her. He would do everything within his power to keep this promise and if he were lost, then at least she would always know how much he loved her.

But I will come back to her. I won’t let Daemon harm her or my friends, my family. I WILL STOP DAEMON! Even if I have to die trying …


Read Chapter 2 | Back to The Daemon Conflict