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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 16 - A Glitch in the Plan

It was an opportunity that could not be missed.

When SiRCe came to her about the supposed trouble at the West Keytool Tower, AndrAIa jumped at the chance to go with her. Since it was daylight, the two donned hooded cloaks and made their way through the back alleys of the city. SiRCe led AndrAIa to the back of a dilapidated building and they made their way up to the roof. From their vantage point, they could see four armored transports before the tower. Cooper Black sat atop a rocket cycle apparently shouting orders at the twenty or so soldiers gathered.

A barrage of cannon fire began, slamming against the smooth wall. AndrAIa asked, "Why aren't they trying to knock down the door?"

"There is none."

"No door?"

"Wall all away around," SiRCe said, "Only Katiyana knows how to get in. There's some sort of secret way."

"How long have they been at it?"

"Since early this morning," SiRCe said, "Something happened, I don't know what. Zif is down there. He's going to try and find out for us."

"He's very brave," AndrAIa whispered.

"Yes," SiRCe looked at her for a moment, "He's in love with you."

AndrAIa gaped at her, "What?"

"Surely you knew that."

"Well yes, but - well what am I supposed to do? He knows I love Matrix and I certainly can't confront Zif about it without embarrassing him."

"I know. I thought it was important you realize it."

"Well I do."

Both went back to their observation.

It was late in the evening when they returned to the underground. The Guardians were no closer to getting into the keytool tower than they were when they had started. The whole place was abuzz with excitement, which increased when Zif arrived bursting with news.

"Apparently," Zif began without preamble, "it's suspected that Mistress Katiyana is within the West Tower."

AndrAIa sat on a crate next to SiRCe and continued to listen intently.

"We have been given an immense opportunity," Zif said, "And I say we use it. Apparently, two important incidents have occurred that caused them to take such drastic action. First, all Guardian keytools are no longer functioning."

A wave of surprised exclamations flowed through the crowd.

"Zif, you're certain? None of the Guardian's keytools are working?"

"Ask Cooper the next time you see him, but that's what I was told. The keytools no longer obey their Guardians. It's as though they are all dormant - asleep."

"It had to be Mistress Katiyana," AndrAIa said, "Zif you said two incidents. What was the second?"

"You'll be especially interested in this, AndrAIa," Zif smiled. "Apparently, a very special keytool disappeared. One they had under lock and key. It belonged to your Guardian friend."

"Glitch? Bob's keytool? Well - it's not a keytool anymore at least not in the normal sense."

"I can understand why Daemon is livid." Zif said. "This is monumental. AndrAIa, I'd like to try and contact the resistance again. See if they got in touch with Mainframe yet."

"Do you think you could get me out this time?"

"Maybe I can," SiRCe said. "But I think Zif should go ahead and scout things out, then we can follow."

"You should stay here, SiRCe," AndrAIa said, "The Underlings will need you. Let Zif and I go, and we'll contact you."

"All right," SiRCe reluctantly agreed. "Be careful you two. We can only hope help is on the way."

* * *

"Dot, they're ready."

Clad in her newly designed battle armor, Dot stood on the grounds of the Principal Office and surveyed their gathered troops.

"Mouse," Dot turned to her friend, "This armor is upgrade level."

"I think the sleeves are a nice touch," Mouse graced her with her cocky grin.

"You just had to add sleeves didn't you?"

"Couldn't stand it for another nano."

For a time the two friends stood in companionable silence.

"Dot?"

"Yes?"

"There's something I been meaning to ask you - about - well what happened to you - with Ashar I mean --,"

"No Mouse."

"All right then," Mouse said. "You okay, honey?"

"That remains to be seen."

"You know you can talk to me if you want to."

"I know Mouse, " Dot hastened to change the subject, "Let's go inside."

Phong, Ray and Enzo had a 3-D map up when the two women entered the War Room.

"Ah, Dot, Mouse," Phong said, "Our illustrious Web Surfer has plotted the speediest course to the Super Computer."

"We go at top speed with no breaks and we'll get there in a few seconds." Ray smiled. "I wish we could just portal there."

"We've been through that, Ray honey."

"I know, I know," Ray smiled, "And speaking of that where are our two Chaos Virals?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Dot still wasn't sure how she felt about the two virals being inside the P.O.

"They're at Hex's Lair," Enzo's eyes never left the map. "Want me to call them?"

"Yes," Dot said. "We'll leave as soon as all ships are ready."

"And Hex will teleport us afterward," Mouse examined the map now. "I'm gonna have a few surprises for ya."

"Did you say a surprise?"

"Hex!" Dot cried as the sudden appearance of the virus, "Don't do that!"

"Sorry," Hex didn't seem the least bit penitent.

"Hex that was --," Melissa began, "Um - Enzo, what's that word you use?"

"Alphanumeric?"

"Yes, that's it," Melissa smiled.

"Can't you teleport, Melissa?"

"No," Melissa said. "At least not yet. It may happen when I'm older. I don't mind."

"I'll have plenty of time to teach you my love," Hex smiled, "Your brother and I had such marvelous battles. We're going to wreak such havoc you and I!"

"Hex."

"Oh I'm only playing, Dot," Hex smiled at Melissa, "Wasn't I, my love?"

"Oh yes," Melissa's smile equaled Hex's own. "Playing."

There was an uncomfortable silence until Hex spoke, "Enzo darling I haven't yet thanked you for looking after Melissa."

"It's okay, Hex," Enzo smiled. "I'm glad you two are together - um - everything's all right, isn't it?"

"You mean about the trying to delete me thing?" Hex grinned, "Oh yes. She'll do better next time. With the proper training, she and I will have battles that will rival the ones with Megabyte."

All the while, Melissa smiled proudly. Dot groaned. Would things ever return to normal? "Hex, you're certain you'll be strong enough to teleport our remaining people?"

"It should be, with no trouble." Hex smiled, then to everyone's surprise, she sobered, "It's important that we both be there."

Melissa nodded, "It's been too long."

A vid-window broke the silence the silence that time, "Dot?"

"Dr. Chancery, everything all right?"

"Oh yes, well - a young woman was just brought in, she's asking for you. Ronnie Lore?"

"Ronnie? Dr. Chancery she's not --?"

"She's going to have her baby, she specifically asked for you, could you come?"

"I'm on my way."

* * *

Ronnie was well into the final stages of labor when Dot arrived. Her friend managed a weak smile when Dot was escorted into the room. Ronnie grasped Dot's hand painfully and wouldn't let go, which was fine with Dot. The Command.com's whole attention was focused on the wondrous event.

When the time finally arrived, Dr. Chancery announced as proud of if he were the father, that Ronnie had a girl. Dot found herself as dazed and pleased as Ronnie. As the delicate infant was laid in Ronnie's arms tears welled in Dot's eyes. For a moment, she imagined the smooth face was blue, the dark hair silver curls and her eyes deep violet.

"Dot," Ronnie said quietly.

"Yes?"

Ronnie giggled slightly, "No, that's going to be her name. Dot."

"Ronnie, are you sure?" The tears began to stream down Dot's cheeks.

Ronnie took Dot's hand again, "I'm sorry I had you dragged down here. You're the only friend I have now and I wanted you to be here. I wanted you to see this baby."

"It was no trouble at all. You didn't have to drag me. I wanted to be here. And I'm honored that you'd give your baby my name. Thank you."

"Thank you," Ronnie said. "Because of you, my child has a safe place to live. I know you'll succeed Dot."

Dot tried her best to give Ronnie a reassuring smile, despite the apprehension that ate away at her. Mainframe's newest citizen had given Dot even more reason to defeat Daemon. There was no way in the web she'd fail.

* * *

It was Dom who met Zif this time outside of the factory. The two friends embraced warmly.

"I was worried about you," Dom said as the two entered the factory. The four resistance fighters that had accompanied Dom went their separate ways. "When we didn't hear --,"

"It's pretty hot within the city right now. Where can we talk?"

"Has to be the control room. If we don't, well you know Desdemona."

Zif did not relish seeing the resistance leader again. She quite frankly scared the chips out of him.

Desdemona awaited them when they entered. "Welcome back," she seemed almost amiable, which made Zif even more nervous.

"We've been in contact with Mainframe," Dom announced. "Their forces are on the move and should arrive here in four seconds."

"They must be really moving." Zif said. He was anxious now as well as nervous. "Did they defeat the armada?"

"Listen for yourself." Dom smiled. "Play the message please."

After a few nanos of static the garbled message came through:

".... Mainframe.... Dot Matrix.... armada defeated.... have coordinates.... confirm.... on our way.... remaining forces.... inform AndrAIa.... good luck...."

"Pixelacious," Zif smiled. "We have a chance. We finally have a chance!"

"Do we?" Desdemona smiled. "You sound awfully confident."

That smile nearly undid Zif completely; "I have news from the city." Zif told them of the Guardian keytools no longer functioning.

"Incredible!" Dom whispered. "It had to be Mistress Katiyana! Only she has that power. She's still processing. You say they haven't broken into the tower yet?"

"Not since I left." Zif said. "When I come back, I'll bring AndrAIa with me. She can remain, and I'll be the go-between."

"Zif, you need a weapon. You shouldn't go out alone without one."

"No," Zif said, "If I'm caught with a weapon it will definitely go very badly for me. As long as the Guardian who sends me out needs me, I'll be fine."

"I wish you could get a message to Mistress Katiyana."

"Maybe we can," Zif said with a smile.

* * *

The stench of garbage almost made AndrAIa gag. For the nth time she wished there had been another way to get her beyond the frontier. She could tell just by looking at Zif that he was having a rough time of it. He and AndrAIa pushed the immense metal carts and loaded them into a specialized transport.

"The recycling plant is under guard but it isn't as heavy, I mean, who would want to steal trash?" Zif said. "Once we're there, I can create a diversion and you can sneak away according to the plan."

"Are you sure you'll be all right?"

He grinned confidently at her, "I'll be fine."

"Be careful, Zif," AndrAIa smiled.

"You too."

Zif had special clearance to pilot the transport beyond the frontier. Once past the checkpoint, AndrAIa began to breath easier. The plant wasn't as large as AndrAIa thought it would be. Zif piloted the transport to the rear of the facility.

The garbage was poured directly into immense square chambers to be recycled and reused. When the right time came it was into one of those chambers that Zif discreetly dropped a flare. The resulting fire and black smoke gave AndrAIa the cover she needed to slip into the shadows.

AndrAIa made her way into the city streets using the instructions Zif had given her. She found herself an alley and once hidden there, she removed a small square box from her belt and squeezed it to activate it per Zif's instructions. The refresh command removed her disguise. Armed with only her trident, the game sprite began her journey.

* * *

"You take care of yourself, sugah," Mouse hugged Dot. "We'll be there as soon as we can."

"We'll be waiting," Dot moved away to let Mouse make her goodbyes to Ray. "Enzo, you behave and do what Phong says all right?"

"I will Dot," Enzo said. "Mouse says I can help her with salvaging the Ravage."

"Good," she had wanted Enzo to keep busy, "Take care Sector Warden Matrix."

"You too, Commander Matrix."

Dot turned and started to walk into the interior of Covar's ship the Mercurius. Then she turned back and waved. Thinking of her brother and Little Dot made her more than determined to succeed.

When she arrived on the bridge, Captain Covar and his crew stood and began to applaud.

"Welcome, Ms. Matrix," Max smiled at her. "You honor my ship with your presence."

"Captain Covar," Dot shook his hand. "Please accept my condolences on the loss of your commander."

Max's eyes downcast for a moment. "I don't know what I'm going to do without him."

Dot placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, "He'd want you to go on. He seemed like that kind of man."

"He was," Max managed a smile, "Until I appoint a new commander Ms. Matrix, I will take any advice you have to offer."

"I'll do my best to help," Dot said. "Shall we?"

Max took his seat in the captain's chair and Dot opened her organizer to contact Phong. "We're ready to take off," she told him.

"Good luck to you my child," Phong said, "User protect you."

"We'll return old friend," Dot smiled at him.

All around her, there was a flurry of activity. Orders were given and obeyed as the ship was prepared for launch. Captain Covar offered her the commander's chair, and the Command.com of Mainframe sat proudly beside the young Fleet Captain.

"Onward," Captain Covar gave the command.

With their companion lead ship beside them and the remainder of their forces behind them, the net portal opened in a brilliant flash of gold light and the ships plunged ahead.

* * *

AndrAIa moved surreptitiously through the wooded area. She sensed the many eyes on her and her fingers tingled in anticipation of drawing her trident. She resisted the urge.

When the lights came on, blinding her she raised her arm to shield her eyes and waited.

"Identify yourself!" A voice called.

"You first," AndrAIa replied.

There was silence, then a diminutive figure moved forward, "AndrAIa?"

"Dom?"

The sprite moved quickly towards her, "It's good to see you again."

They shook hands, "Likewise."

AndrAIa found herself being led to the factory that Zif had told her of. She felt the eyes watching her from the windows. Once they were inside, Dom turned to her.

"We thought you were lost," Dom said. "After what happened --,"

"I know about the sabotage," AndrAIa said, darkly.

"Yes," Dom said, "I won't make excuses for what she did. It was wrong, pure and simple."

"What about the --,"

"No," Dom said. "We'll talk later. Desdemona is waiting for us."

Steeling herself for the unavoidable confrontation, AndrAIa followed him into the control room.

Desdemona straightened from her workstation when they entered. Her face contorted immediately.

"Desdemona," AndrAIa hissed out the name.

The tension was data storm thick. Everyone found other things to do. The two women faced each other.

"So the traitor returns," Desdemona spoke first.

"Des --," Dom warned.

"Me?" AndrAIa felt her newly grown claws extend, "You betrayed us! Because of you, Bob, Matrix, and possibly Katiyana are in Daemon's hands."

"You should of thought of earning her displeasure before you agreed to be a spy for her."

A tenuous thread held AndrAIa's temper, "If it weren't for the fact that we have more important things to consider, I would hammer you into the floor."

"Don't threaten me, game sprite," Desdemona spat.

AndrAIa moved forward but Dom stepped in her path, "Stop it you two! AndrAIa's right, we have more important considerations."

"Very well," Desdemona smiled, "The Mainframers are on their way."

"Thank the User," AndrAIa said, "Once they arrive we can combine our forces. The people I allied with have at least two thousand in their ranks."

"So we've been informed," Desdemona said. "I understand that the Guardian keytools no longer function?"

"Yes," AndrAIa said, "We need to figure out how to use that to our advantage."

"Of course," Desdemona said. "You have an idea, I assume?"

AndrAIa smiled secretively, "I do, but it will take our combined forces." And Dot's powers of diplomacy, AndrAIa thought to herself.

* * *

Dot watched amazed as Ray skimmed ahead of them, expertly weaving around the net portals to other systems. Often Ray would report back to them on the systems they passed. Dot took notes of everything she saw and heard.

When they finally came upon the net address of the Super Computer, Dot could only stare in wonder. Seeing the spires and super highways for the first time, Dot somehow felt less than important and somewhat lost, but she shook those feelings off immediately. She was here to not only do a job but to rescue her beloved and her brother. She would not leave this place without them.

Ray was silhouetted against the portal as he used his power to open the way.

"Silent running," Covar said. "All hands remain at battle stations."

The portal lit up the sky for an uncomfortable moment. Then they were cruising over a wooded expanse of land.

"How peaceful it looks," Dot whispered.

"Hopefully, we're out of their sensor range. If not, we'll know within a few microseconds." Covar remarked.

"Captain," the navigator spoke, "We're approaching the landing coordinates."

"Take her down slow, ensign."

Dot closed her eyes as the Mercurius touched down.

"Open a channel to Mr. Tracer."

When Ray's face appeared in the vid-window he said, "I'm going to scout around a bit, make certain we have no unexpected guests."

"We'll begin preparations here. Take care, Mr. Tracer."

Ray saluted and flew away. Dot could only watch him with apprehension and pray.

* * *

Ray flew low over the trees, his night sight serving him well as always. The only thing he encountered was a sleeping flock of birds that he disturbed. Ray smiled at them, as they were shadowed against the moonlight for a nano, then disappeared.

If the coordinates they had given were correct he should come upon the factory in a few micros.

The shot barely missed him and had him almost halting in mid-air. Ray took a precious moment to scan for a break in the trees. He steered Baud for it and leapt from the board just as the second shot cut through the air where he had been standing. He felt Baud weaving through the trees and moments before Ray hit the ground, Baud slid neatly underneath him.

"Still got it," Ray said. He surveyed the trees surrounding him and picked out several figures moving on the ground and in the branches.

"Okay, hope they're friendly." He couldn't do much flying where he was and he was a moving target if he took to the air again. As carefully as possible he navigated around the trees at a pitifully slow speed. The trees were beginning to mercifully thin. Just as he believed he might escape his pursuers blazing light transformed night into day.

Ray cried out as the light sent agony through his sensitive eyes. When he regained his composure, he shrugged in resignation and hopped to the ground. He kicked Baud with his foot into an upright position.

"Stand and be recognized!" A voice called.

"Ray Tracer," Ray figured if this were the enemy, lying about who he was would be futile. "Who in the ruddy net are you?"

A figure moved in front of the light. A woman by her supple form, Ray could tell. He was just thinking there was something familiar about her when she spoke.

"Now Ray," AndrAIa's voice was the sweetest thing he heard since leaving Mainframe, "Is that any way to talk to an old friend?"

* * *

The transports were almost loaded. Despite the fact that only the barest of light was utilized, the troops worked quickly and efficiently. Dot wondered if any of them would be willing to remain in Mainframe once this was over and felt a pang of guilt. They were loyal to their own systems, but Dot was determined to rebuild their forces again. Never would she allow Mainframe to be inadequately prepared for confrontation.

The Command.com of Mainframe found herself in charge of the supply transports. Not that she minded the task. It gave her a chance to put her skills to work while not stepping on anyone's toes.

It was the commotion at the outer perimeter of the landing field that drew her attention away from her work. Several people were running in towards the lead ship and Dot hastened to follow.

A group had gathered before the Mercurius. Covar was speaking to someone that Dot couldn't see. Someone lit a light stick as Dot pushed her way rather unceremoniously through the crowd.

It was Ray that Covar was speaking to and beside him was --,

"AndrAIa!"

Dot caught herself too late. She hadn't meant to cry out like that but she couldn't help it and she wasn't quite as embarrassed when AndrAIa cried, "Dot!" Just as loudly.

The two female sprites rushed for each other and embraced warmly. They laughed one minute and began to cry the next, then embraced again. More people came from the woods. The resistance had arrived.

Even though there was much confusion, Dot took a moment to ask her game sprite friend, "Bob? Matrix? Any word?"

Even in the darkness, Dot saw the look of distress on AndrAIa's face, "Nothing yet. I'm hoping our go between contacts us soon. But now that you're here, well would you believe I have a plan?"

"Yes," Dot said, "Nice to know I'm not the only one who has plans."

"Well actually," AndrAIa said, "I need you for the plan to work."

Dot embraced her again, "I knew there was a catch."

When she stepped back, Dot said, "I'm so glad to see you."

"And I you," AndrAIa said, "Dot we have to succeed. Bob and Matrix don't have much time."

"Then lets get started."

* * *

Dot had always prided herself on keeping her temper. But with everything that had happened her temper was always one click from erupting. And after twenty straight micros of arguing with Desdemona she was losing her battle to keep calm.

"I'm not questioning your leadership abilities," Dot said for the nth time. "I'm saying that AndrAIa's plan had merit. What harm could it do making a second attempt to unite all the resistance factions?"

"Fine!" Desdemona snarled, "Do what you want to do. I obviously have no more power here."

Desdemona stormed out like a five hour old child. Dot sighed into the ensuing silence that blanketed the command center.

"Dot," Dom said at last, "It will take some time to arrange the meetings. Some of the leaders of the other factions have been captured or killed. Since we're so much out of the way geographically now, we haven't been able to get any updated information."

"Then it will mean going back into the city," AndrAIa said. "SiRCe's people may have the information you need. I can get a message to them as well as letting them know of our current situation."

"You can't go alone," Dom said.

"She won't, mate," Ray smiled, "I can get us there a lot faster."

"All right," Dom said. "I hope this works."

"And if it doesn't, we'll be no worse off," Dot sighed.

* * *

As always her nerves were almost shot whenever she was faced with such a monumental task. Dot hoped for enough energy to get through this. Although there was a flurry of activity around her in the command center, she let the sounds and movement fade into the background as she worked.

With her trusty organizer open and several vid-windows floating before her, Dot Matrix once again assessed the situation.

AndrAIa and Ray had returned from their successful mission after two worry-filled seconds. Apparently, security within the city had been increased and they had had to hide out for a time. Messages had been successfully passed through a shopkeeper to SiRCe and the resistance leader (Dot disliked the term Underlings and started calling them the Underground) was preparing her people for whatever assaults their resistance forces planned.

Which at that point was nothing.

Four more seconds passed where the resistance investigated any information, however out of date, of any additional forces. They had been in contact with a few minor factions that Desdemona was willing to dismiss as 'useless' until Dot had pressed and Desdemona had grudgingly relented. After milliseconds of talking, pleading, and cajoling, Dot had convinced their leaders of the benefits of joining them. It increased their number by almost one hundred troops.

They were still waiting to hear from others and whatever information they obtained Dot saved in her organizer.

Members of the Underground risked much to supply the resistance with detailed 3D maps of the Hall and the surrounding area. Zif and Dom were hard at work, along with a team of their own, using AndrAIa's schematics to create more efficient weapons. What was troubling Dot at that point was there seemed to be no way to get through the frontier without some upgrade level weaponry, which they simply didn't have.

At that moment Dot was comparing power levels between the weaponry of the Mercurius and Captain Irina's ship Libertas, and the frontier, in hopes that the guns of their ships could penetrate the barrier. Right then it wasn't looking too hopeful.

Dot removed her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. One of the windows showed the schematics of the device Mistress Katiyana had supposedly used to create the small hole in the barrier that had been their mode of entrance. Zif and Dom had assured her they could recreate the device but on a scale grand enough to take down a larger area of the frontier? Doubtful they had told her. Still they had agreed to try.

It all came down to getting through the barrier. Their people inside were at the ready and had promised to give them ample backup for when they 'stormed the fortress'.

Dot was so deep into her researching and musing that she didn't notice Dom had entered the control center until he patted her on the shoulder.

"Oh, hi," Dot smiled at him.

"Hi yourself," he returned the grin, "You were really into that, weren't you?"

Dot felt her cheeks flush, "Guess so."

"I have some news, come on."

Dot saved all of her info, closed her organizer and followed Dom to stand beside him at the hub on the control center. Desdemona glanced up at him.

"This better be important."

Dom's smile faded, "Ray and AndrAIa have brought in some refugees."

"They did what?" Now Dom had her full attention.

"The last time they were out, one of the Underground pointed them to some families living in the sewers. The Underground thought they would be better off with us. I told AndrAIa and Ray to get them situated and report back here."

Desdemona rubbed the bridge of her nose, "How many?"

"Maybe about twenty or so. We have the room for them. Besides, one of them is a doctor."

"Really? That is good news," Dot commented which earned her a glare from Desdemona.

"It was the doctor who got them organized," Dom went on, "Her name's Norton."

"Norton?" Dot said. "Dr. Norton?"

"Yes," Dom said, "You know her?"

"I know of him," Dot said. "A doctor in Mainframe mentioned him, but I know he said Dr. Norton was a man, if this is the same, an antivirologist."

"It'd be monumental if she were," Dom said. "We can go meet her if you like."

"Excuse me," Desdemona said, "How did they get them here? Are they sure they weren't followed? What if one of them is a spy?"

Dom sighed, "There are five families and the doctor. Unless the doctor is a spy - and I doubt Daemon would want an A.V. anywhere near her - I'm doubtful the rest of them are."

"You take too many chances with our safety, Dom," Desdemona muttered.

Dot noticed the noise level in the room had decreased.

"What else was I supposed to do?" Dom said equally quiet.

"Are you even going to question them?"

"Yes."

"When I'm done here, we'll go to them."

Dot wanted to be there too.

* * *

The factory sported many conveniences for their employees and one of the best was the employee day care center. It was there that the families had been housed. Miraculously, some toys and games had survived the vandalism and Dot couldn't help but smile at AndrAIa and Ray as they entertained the small group of youngsters varying in ages from four to nine.

They're both going to make good parents some day, Dot thought. If either one of them can get their significant others to cooperate. Dot then saw the pretty young woman who was holding the youngest girl in her lap, slowly rocking back and forth and singing a lullaby. The woman was no older than Dot. She wore her dark brown hair in a ponytail and her face was tan and pleasant. Her smile reached all the way to her amber colored eyes.

"Dr. Norton?" Dom spoke to her first.

She smiled up at him, "Hello again Dom." She looked questioningly at Dot and Desdemona.

"This is my companion, Desdemona, and our associate, Dot Matrix," Dom introduced them in turn.

"Pleased to meet you both."

"Excuse me, doctor," Dot said, "You're not the antivirologist, are you?"

Her face fell, "I am one, but you're probably thinking of my father. He was deleted in the first assault."

"Oh I'm so sorry," Dot sat down beside her.

"There were so many injured and infected people in the hospital that second. When it was discovered there were two antivirologists on the premises, well it didn't go well for anyone. Before he died, he told me to take as many patients as I could and escape. Then he was gone. I made a promise to myself and him that I would do whatever I could to stop Daemon."

She smiled, "But I do go on. I want to do everything I can to help you."

"We can use your help," Dom said. "We plan an assault on --,"

"Dom!" Desdemona interrupted. "I want to know where you've been since the first assault, who you've been with, and what have you been doing." Desdemona shot the question at Dr. Norton.

"What have I been doing? Surviving, that's what I've been doing, and taking care of these families," she motioned towards the group, who were now observing them.

"Whom have you been associating with?"

"Associating? We've been living in the sewers for User's sake!" Dr. Norton's gaze fell on each of them before returning to Desdemona, "Dom did tell you that, didn't he?"

"He mentioned it," Desdemona said. "Realize doctor, that we have to assure our safety. We can't take the chance of you or any of these other people being in Daemon's service."

Dr. Norton's eyes locked on Desdemona. She lowered the child to the floor and gave her a swift gentle pat on her bottom, "Go play with the others, Arial."

Then Dr. Norton stood, "My father is dead because of Daemon. Do you really think she'd want to make friends with someone who can possibly make things uncomfortable for her? It's up to you whether you want to believe me or not, but this is too important to waste time with paranoid delusions."

"Paranoid --!" Desdemona sputtered to a halt. Then without another word she stalked away.

Then Dr. Norton was glaring at Dot and Dom, "And what do you two believe?"

"You're fine with me," Dom said.

"Copy that," Dot smiled.

"Thank you Dom, Ms. Matrix."

"Please, call me Dot."

"If that is the case then you can call me Rose."

Dot smiled at her newest friend, "Your presence here gives me new hope."

"I'm glad," Rose smiled. "My father's deletion won't be in vain. As I said, I'll do whatever I can to help you."

"Could you create an antiviral serum powerful enough to at least weaken Daemon?" Dom asked.

"I'm not certain. I'd need a sampling of her code. And the facilities for testing."

"Dot, do you think one of our ship's labs would have adequate resources?" Dom asked her.

"I can ask," Dot opened her organizer. She had a brief conversation with Captain Covar, who directed her to Captain Irina.

"It looks like the Libertas may have the facilities you need. I'll arrange to have a transport pick you up."

"Thank you." Rose said.

"Dom!" The voice tore them away from the conversation. A binome guard was rushing towards them. "We've got big trouble! Desdemona requests your presence in the control room at once."

"What's the problem?" Dom was already running, with Dot close behind him.

"It's your friend Zif. He just returned. He's been injured."

"User, no," Dom rushed ahead and Dot was hard pressed to keep up.

Zif had gone on one of his many scouting missions to the city last a second ago. Normally, he didn't go alone, but the resistance had learned of another out of the way faction and Zif knew the area well enough. Since AndrAIa and Ray had not returned, they had reluctantly agreed to let Zif go alone.

When they entered the control room, they found Zif being attended to by a binome who was serving as a medic. Apparently, they had come in on the tail end of one of Desdemona's tirades.

"Why did you come back here?" Desdemona was saying. "How can you be sure you weren't followed?"

"I'm not sure all right!" Zif cringed against the pain. The medic was wrapping the young sprite's torso in bandages. "There I said it, are you satisfied?"

"Zif, are you all right? What happened?" Dom stepped forward.

"Dom," Zif's head lolled back. His body would have spilled from the chair, had not Dom rushed forward and caught him.

"Take him to one of the lounges," Dom said, "he can lay down there."

"No," Zif struggled to raise his head, "The faction was attacked just after I arrived. It was a horrible coincidence. They thought I led the enemy to them."

"They did that to you?" Dot asked.

"Can't blame them," Zif managed a weak grin. "Many managed to escape, some were captured. I was pursued, but I think I lost them."

"You think?" Desdemona hissed, "I've already alerted the outer perimeter guards. We're going to blackout conditions and radio silence just to be safe. I sent scouts out to make certain we don't have to prepare for battle."

"Then there's nothing more we can do," Dom hissed between clenched teeth, "We can only --,"

"Desdemona! A communication from our perimeter guard!"

"What is it?"

"Five enemy transports are headed in this direction! Looks like there may be some ground troops too. Awaiting visual confirmation."

Desdemona swore. "How far away are they?"

"Two sectors and closing."

"Notify all that we are now in blackout stage. I mean every User-loving light in this complex. And not a peep out of the comm, understand! Have all personnel take battle positions."

"What about our ships?" Dot said.

"Contact them now, but basically, they're on their own."

Dot opened her organizer and contacted Captain Covar, telling him to prepare five fighters to engage the enemy if necessary. Even as she spoke, the lights began to go out until only emergency power was in use. The room was bathed in the eerie red glow and the equally disturbing silence. Dot called AndrAIa and appraised her and Ray of the situation.

"Half sector and closing."

Dot moved next to Dom and watched as sonar tracked the five approaching ships.

"Can we get a visual?" Desdemona whispered, as though the outside would hear her voice.

A vid-window opened. The transports were jet black, making them almost impossible to see with the naked eye. Dot found herself digging her nails into her palms the closer they came. Everyone held a collective breath as the ships hovered near the factory gate.

Clusters of metallic stars were released from the ship's underside. They fell like tiny meteorites and smashed against the ground in shower of sparks.

"Oh no," Dot breathed, "Not that."

"What?" Desdemona shot at her.

The organizer was in her hands before Desdemona could protest further, "Emergency! Max, we need you to dispatch those fighters now!"

"What in the net are you doing?" Desdemona screamed. "Do you realize what you've done?"

Dot ignored her, "Take out those enemy shuttles, STAT!"

"Dot!" Dom's voice was filled with anger and frustration, "Why?"

Five nanos later, all web broke loose.

"That's why," Dot pointed to the vid-window.

Then Dot was running as the screaming began. She was barely aware of Dom behind her until he yelled, "Dot wait! What's happening?"

"Those globes are eggs. They spawn poisonous bugs. They'll force the people into the open and they'll be taken prisoner!"

"Emergency alert!" Dom was screaming, "To your battle stations!"

Dot shoved her way through panic-stricken sprites and binomes. The bugs were thick everywhere. Dot felt then scuttling along her arms and legs and paused to wipe them away. She couldn't tell if she were bitten and right then didn't care.

"Dot!"

AndrAIa and Ray were running towards her.

"We have to get everyone to safety now! Fighters are on the way."

Ray flew ahead through a set of double doors. AndrAIa drew her trident and blasted the doors away. She and Dot took up position against the walls.

Dot drew her laser and assessed the situation.

Outside, total chaos ensued. The transports hovered over the open space that had once served as a parking area in better times. Night was now mock day as they filled the sky with lights. People ran screaming in every direction, while searchlights swept the area. The transports fired on them in an attempt to herd them to the center of the complex, which design was effectively boxing them in on three sides with the gate as the forth.

"AndrAIa, take out those lights!"

Dot drew and fired, but her tiny laser didn't have the range or the power to do much damage. The blast from AndrAIa's trident however succeeded in smashing one of the searchlights. Meanwhile Ray mastered the sky, dodging the cannon fire and returning shots of his own.

Dot saw movement from the corner of her eye and a barrage of fire started from above and around her. The Resistance soldiers, more seasoned fighters had joined the battle.

"Dot," Dom was beside her suddenly. "This may work a little better."

Dom handed her a pulsating wrist cannon. Dot smiled evilly and cocked the weapon. She managed to hit another light, then cringed when she saw some innocents fall. "We have to get those people to safety! We're useless standing here!"

"And we would be sitting ducks out there," AndrAIa said.

Then a shot knocked Ray out of the sky.

"No!" Dot screamed.

Baud swooped down and caught him and there was a flash as board and Search Engine merged. They careened out of the sky and crashed into the side of a dumpster.

The transport aimed its guns at the doorway that sheltered Dot and AndrAIa.

And in the next nano said transport was blown out of the sky.

"What the --," Dot cried as the sky was ablaze with yellow light. Then she realized, "The fighters!"

Undaunted, the transports continued to fire, engaging the newly arrived reinforcements.

Then movement by the gate caught Dot's attention.

"Ground troops!" Dot screamed. She aimed her cannon and picked off anything that moved, then fire was returned. Dot was pinned against the wall.

And over and above the noise and confusion, there came a familiar high-pitched screech.

One by one, a glittering ball of red-hot energy obliterated the transports. Flaming debris rained from the sky and at the same time, dozens of Mainframe soldiers came flying on zip boards from the night sky, led by a flame-haired mercenary.

"Mouse!" Her friend didn't hear her as she shouted orders to her fighters, then went for where Ray had crashed.

"Come on!" AndrAIa caught her attention as the game sprite dashed into the open. The next several micros were a hectic and surreal picture. The Resistance exchanged fire with the enemy troops. Dot found herself prone on the ground, firing with deadly precision. When guns ran out of ammo, the soliders met in hand-to-hand combat. Dot fought with a fierce intensity, surprising much of the enemy who at first underestimated her skill, until they found themselves sorely injured.

Dot knew her strength would give out soon but she continued on, pushing herself until she saw the enemy turn and flee and their soldiers chasing them. It was then that the Command.com of Mainframe collapsed to her knees.

"Dot! Dot honey? Are you okay?"

"I -I'm okay -- Mouse?"

"Didn't expect ta see me so soon, did you, sugah?"

The two women hugged.

"AndrAIa!" Mouse embraced the game sprite. "Sugah, you don't know how good it is ta see ya!"

"Is Ray --?" Dot asked.

"He's fine, inside Baud. I had them take him to a place where he could rest."

Their soliders were returning shoving captured sprites and binomes before them. A ragged cheer went up.

Dom approached, he was bruised and bloodied, but seemed to be processing, "We've got some semblance of calm but dozens of people were bitten."

"We got plenty of antidote for that," Mouse stuck out her hand, "Mouse at your service, and you are?"

"Dom Markup." Dom smiled at her. "So you're Ray's girlfriend."

"Did he tell you that? I'll have to talk to him about that."

"Sir!" One of the soldiers approached Dom; "We have some injuries but no casualties on our side. We gave them a good fight. We've captured several of their soldiers."

"Find a place for them," Dom said, "We've got to care for our wounded. Gather all the soldiers and have them lead the people to the infirmary. Have Dr. Norton meet us there."

He turned to Mouse. "We have the fortune of having an antivirologist here, so we'll need that antidote."

"Um - really, sugah?" Dot was surprised at Mouse's obvious discomfort.

"Those fighters have some upgrade level firepower," Dom went on, "but I've never seen a weapon like that. They obliterated the transports."

It was then that Dot remembered the balls of fire and the familiar screech. "Um Dom, I don't think the fighters did that."

"They didn't."

An ivory mask and Hex appeared. "Ooh! What lovely destruction I've caused!"

"My User!" Dom screamed, and raised his pistol.

"No!" Dot stepped in front of him, "She's one of us."

"What do you mean one of us?" Dom cried.

"I'm one of the good guys now," Hex smiled. "I did just help you."

"Dom, I've told you about Hexadecimal and Melissa," Dot remembered Dom's less than favorable reaction. They had agreed, however, to delay telling Desdemona.

"I know," Dom turned to Dot. "I just never thought she'd actually be here - and now - what about Desdemona?"

"Dom can we sort this out later," Dot said. "We have wounded to attend to."

"What?" Dom seemed to waken from a daze, "Oh yes, of course."

Dom turned to issue the orders and froze. It was then that the gathered group saw Desdemona approaching. The Resistance leader halted, her mouth fell open in horror.

"My User, what have you done?" Desdemona screamed. "A virus! You've allowed a virus into our camp!"

Before anyone could react, Desdemona drew the hand cannon at her hip, aimed at Hexadecimal, and fired.


Read Chapter 17 | Back to The Daemon Conflict