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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 18 - Mind Games

"What do you mean if she survives?" A shrill voice broke through Dot's slumber, "I don't want to hear if, do you understand me? Save her any way you can!"

Dot wondered whom Mouse was screaming at. Why couldn't they just let her sleep?

"Unless I can figure out how to stop the corruption she won't," another voice said. "But I'll promise you this, I'll try my best."

"I know," Mouse said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you - it's just that --,"

"I know," Dot realized it was Rose Norton.

Then Rose's words slammed into her consciousness like a missile.

If she survived?

* * *

When Mouse looked up and saw the portals opening she knew it was time to retreat. Her instincts were right on the units when enemy reinforcements burst forth from the shining globes.

"All fighters retreat to fall back positions!" Mouse yelled over the comm. She frowned as a message came through.

"Mouse," AndrAIa's face appeared on the screen, "Mission accomplished, I have the data, but I need your help!"

"Where are you sugah?"

Mouse fed in the coordinates as AndrAIa gave them to her. "I'm on my way."

"I need a med transport here! I have Matrix."

"What?" Mouse dodged some enemy fire nanos before she blasted the ships out of the sky. She flew low, over the rooftops of the city and was relieved to see their ships following her orders.

Another message came in as Mouse caused Ship to hover over the area. Mouse called for a transport, then worked to keep the area clear of the enemy.

"Mouse! We've got big problems!" Now it was Ray.

"You've got to be --,"

"Dot's hurt!" Ray had never looked so distressed, "And Bob -,"

"Bob? User, you have Bob?"

"No --," Ray's voice was heavy with remorse, "I couldn't catch the both of them - Bob, he's --,"

"No," Mouse said, "I'm on my way!"

Mouse signaled AndrAIa, who reported the transport had arrived. Mouse piloted Ship to Ray's coordinates. The surfer approached her, with Dot stretched out on the board.

"I'm going back after Bob," Ray said, "Get her out of here, now!"

"I'm not --,"

"Go, before they cut you off!" Ray said, "I'll be fine, I promise."

Even as he said it, enemy transports were approaching. Mouse blew him a kiss, a Ship streaked into the night.

* * *

The sounds of battle diminished as Ray Tracer went into a steep dive back into the bowels of the city.

Be processing, he silently pleaded, please be processing. Ray didn't know what was worse about war, the battle at its hottest, or the eerie silence afterwards. The streets were deserted as he searched.

He had to hide from some passing enemy soldiers, and it was a good thing he had for he heard a moan coming from deep within the alley where he had taken refuge. Cautiously Ray made his way forward.

A dumpster had been overturned and spilling half in, half out, was a body.

"Bob!" Ray slid Baud up beside him and nimbly hopped to the ground. Ray knelt beside him and turned him over. "No."

This was not Bob, at least not the Bob he knew. The thing that lay unconscious at his feet was some grotesque monster. Ray shook off his foreboding and wrestled Bob's body onto the surface of Baud. For a brief moment, Bob's eyes fluttered open. The sight of those yellow orbs further unnerved Ray. He found himself relieved when Bob slipped back into unconsciousness. As fast as his trusty board could carry him, Ray escaped the city.

* * *

It was all wrong.

Mouse stared into the night sky. A chill, not from the cold, raced across her skin as she stood watching and waiting for her love's return. She ignored the cold and the silence as her mind raced.

The flame haired mercenary had always trusted her instincts and they were screaming one thing. The battle, taking Matrix and hopefully Bob, and their escape had been too blasted easy.

Because of her feeling upon their return, she had insisted to Dom that they remain on alert. She could see where their troops patrolled.

"Ray," Mouse whispered. If that surfer got himself deleted she swore by the User she'd find some way to follow him into the Ethernet and break every link in his body.

Then Mouse spied the blue and silver comet streaking towards their base. An alert was raised but it wasn't necessary as Ray guided Baud to the ground. People came from all around to welcome the surfer back. Mouse was surprised at the number that had kept silent vigil with her. Then again, it could have been out of just plain boredom or curiosity. Not caring either way, Mouse wasted no time in welcoming Ray back. When they parted she said, "I was about to come lookin' for ya."

"I told you I was right behind you, love."

Then Mouse looked down at the figure that lay unconscious across Baud. "User, is that, Bob?

The group pressed forward, each trying for a glimpse of the famous Guardian. But what they saw was a monster and they recoiled as one in horror

Mouse knelt beside Baud, "Oh User, Bob what did those animals do to ya?

Ray hopped on Baud and balanced expertly despite the weight of Bob's body, "Where to, love?

Mouse decompressed her zip board. "Follow me, sugah. Matrix is on the Libertas in the brig. We thought it would be safer that way. Bob will have ta go there to."

"How's Dot?" Ray asked as Mouse flew beside him.

"Not good, sugah. Dr. Norton's with her now. Bob infected her," Mouse replied, "Dr. Norton was counting on you bringing Bob back. She says she might be able ta make an antidote from a sampling of Bob's code."

"Thank the User," Ray said.

As they approached the Libertas, Mouse said, "Look you make sure Bob's secure. Go see AndrAIa she's with Matrix. She'll tell you what to do. I'm going to get Dr. Norton."

When Mouse arrived back at the factory she went straight for the infirmary where she found Enzo and Melissa sitting in chairs in the small waiting room.

"Mouse," Melissa smiled.

Enzo looked up at her, his eyes red from crying, "Mouse, they're still working on her."

Mouse embraced the young sprite. "Don't you worry honey. Dot's been through more in one cycle than most people have in their entire lives and we both know how strong she is."

Enzo looked up at her hopefully and Mouse prayed Dr. Norton could put her plan into action. When Mouse entered the examining room, Dr. Norton and the staff she had been assigned were working feverishly with various machines and making calculations and administering various treatments. The A.V. looked up, and Mouse could see the stark lines of exhaustion on her face.

Mouse's eyes strayed to where her friend lay deathly still on the bed. Tubes and wires were connected to her body. When Mouse stepped closer she could see the yellowish corruption spreading across Dot's skin and got right to the point. "Ray just brought Bob back. He's on the Libertas."

"Lets go," Dr. Norton said. She grabbed up Dot's organizer, which she had been utilizing and turned to her staff, "Have everything ready by the time we return." Then Dr. Norton grabbed some essentials, stuffed them in a case and followed Mouse from the room.

Upon reentering the waiting room Enzo stood, "What's wrong?"

"Dot may have a chance, honey. We have Bob here."

"Bob?" Enzo's face lit up. "Where is he? I want to talk to him! How --?"

"No sugah, you stay here and see to Dot all right?"

"But--,"

"Dot needs ya now. Bob would want you to look after her."

"Okay Mouse."

"Bob is Enzo's hero." Mouse said when they were out of earshot. "I didn't want the little guy to see him that way."

Captain Irina met them as they ascended the ramp to the Libertas. "Your Guardian and the renegade have been secured," she announced as they walked. "Neither has regained consciousness."

The small brig had four cells. The two occupants were on the cots, held down by containment fields.

AndrAIa was inside the cell with Matrix. The game sprite was sitting on a stool apparently dozing but she came awake as they approached.

"You just missed Ray. He went back to the factory. I'm surprised you didn't meet him," AndrAIa waited for one of the two binomes guarding the cells to let her out.

Dr. Norton stepped in when the binome opened Bob's cell. "All right let's begin."

* * *

"Hear me, my children."

"We hear you mistress."

"Are you within the inner sanctum of our enemies?"

"Yes mistress, as planned."

"When the time is right you will destroy them. Then nothing will stand in our way."

"Mistress?"

"Yes, Valadare?"

"I would ask a favor of you."

"Speak."

"Let me have the boy."

A derisive laugh, "That is your wish? To feed on his energy?"

"Yes, mistress."

"You have been a loyal and faithful servant, so your wish is granted. Through you I will corrupt and torment him."

"Thank you, mistress."

"Wait for the time, then strike."

"As you say, mistress."

* * *

Mouse found it impossible for her to sit still for more than a nano. Milliseconds had passed since Dr. Norton had gone into the examination room and their had been no word.

"Love, sit down," Ray said for the nth time.

"I can't help it, sugah," but Mouse obeyed and sat down heavily next to Ray. The surfer draped an arm around her shoulder. The two were alone in the waiting room. They had managed to coax Enzo and Melissa to leave and get some rest. Every so often, someone would stop in and inquire about Dot's condition. It was always the same. Captain Capacitor was only a few micros gone.

The door came open suddenly and Dr. Norton stepped out.

"Doctor?" Mouse was on her feet instantly.

"She's fine," Dr. Norton managed a tired smile. "The anti-viral serum worked like a charm."

"Thank the User." Mouse said, "And thank you. Can we see her?"

"Yes," Dr. Norton said.

"I'd better go get the Little Mate," Ray smiled, "He'd never forgive us if I didn't."

Dr. Norton escorted Mouse into the room. Dot was indeed fine. The Command.com was sitting up and sipping from a glass held by a binome nurse.

"Sugah," Mouse said, "I swear by the User I'm going to tie you down to that bed and not let you outside to see the light of day for a least a year. Didn't I tell ya ta stop scarin' me like that?"

"Sorry Mouse," Dot smiled. The she became serious, "Where's Bob and Matrix?"

"In the brig aboard the Libertas."

"Make sure they place an additional guard on them," Dot ordered. "Mouse maybe I'm being paranoid but - well is it me, or did our attack seem to go off a little too easy?"

"Well," Mouse said, "I'm glad to know I'm not being paranoid. I was thinking the same thing."

"Do you think they were tracking us?"

"Possible. We're still on alert."

"Good," Dot turned her head as the door opened and Enzo came barreling in, followed by Ray. As the brother and sister embraced, Mouse quietly slipped from the room and motioned Ray to follow.

"We haven't had a chance to talk, sugah," Mouse said. "When you made your escape, were you followed?"

"Not as far as I could tell."

"Somethin' ain't right," Mouse said. "They didn't follow us, there was no sign of a tracking device? What do you suppose --?"

An uncomfortable feeling rose in the pit of Mouse's stomach, "I'm going to check on Bob and Matrix."

* * *

"You won't hurt Dot, do you hear me? I won't let you!"

Dariem came awake abruptly and was immediately aware of his surroundings and the fact that he was contained. It was unimportant. He extended his claws and infected the bonds. They rotted away. The viral general climbed unsteadily to his feet.

The binome that was supposed to be guarding him was napping. Dariem sneered at him. Well with soldiers like that, they wouldn't have any trouble defeating these rebels. Dariem touched the field around the brig and it corrupted and diss

The binome came awake and turned. His mouth opened to scream, and Dariem clamped his hand over the binome's mouth and infected him. The second binome turned a laser rifle on him but screamed in agony as Valadare thrust both hands through the containment field and drained the energy of both the field and the binome.

The viral colonel smiled evilly, "This is what they have for soldiers?"

Dariem laughed, "We'll disable this ship first. I'll go after Dot. You get Hexadecimal and Melissa out of the way."

"I want the boy. Daemon said I could have him."

"Fine," Dariem said, "But take care of business first, understand?"

"Yes."

Dariem gathered his energy and ran down the hall. An alert sounded but Dariem didn't care. Soldiers poured from the rooms and made a barricade in the corridor. Dariem continued to move and they opened fire. He laughed and created an energy shield that deflected the shots. He raised a hand and viral energy poured from his fingertips, corrupting everything it touched. Dariem laughed. He ignored the cries of pain and continued to move.

Dariem destroyed whatever he could lay his hands on. Machines, people, he didn't care. All around him was fire and smoke and screams. For a time he wasn't even aware of his surroundings until the cool night air brushed his face. Behind him, the screams continued. The viral general smiled into the darkness, "I'm coming for you, Dot."

* * *

"Dot are you sure you're all right?"

Dot smiled at Enzo as she strapped the laser to her thigh, "I have to find out what's going on at the landing point. You stay in the nursery with Melissa and the others, understand?"

"Yes Dot."

"Where in the motherboard are you going?" Rose entered the infirmary.

"Trouble at the landing site," Dot said. "Mouse, AndrAIa and Ray are on their way now."

"You're in no condition to handle any trouble."

"I'm fine. You cured me," Dot said. "It has to be Bob and Matrix. Maybe I can stop them."

"Bob and Matrix?" Enzo said, "Dot, what's wrong with Bob?"

"I'll explain it all later, I promise," Dot knew she would have to sometime. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Dot I insist you stay here. You're not nearly strong enough to --,"

"Just have the infirmary ready," Dot had a feeling there would be many injuries before the night was over.

* * *

Dariem watched the chaos from the cover of the trees. For now, he had quieted the screaming voice in his processor. He smiled in anticipation of seeing Dot again and of making her truly his.

Then he saw her.

She was on a zip board flying with Mouse and AndrAIa. He could tell she was taking charge of the situation. Sprites and binomes that had been in a panic now calmly followed her orders and worked to bring stability to the volatile situation.

"You won't hurt her!"

Dariem angrily shoved the presence away.

When some semblance of calm had been obtained he saw Ray and Mouse leave while AndrAIa and Dot remained and spoke for a time with Captain Irina and a man Dariem didn't recognize. When groups of soldiers began to gather, Dariem moved deeper into the forest.

He was growing weak, he knew that much. He needed power, but he knew he was strong enough to do what needed to be done. When he saw Dot fly away on her zip board followed by AndrAIa, Dariem gathered his power.

He fired a single bolt of energy as she passed overhead, barely missing her. The excess of energy damaged her zip board and she went down to make an unceremonious landing in a clump of brush. AndrAIa had followed her down.

Two files with one click, Dariem thought. He used the cover of darkness to stalk them.

* * *

Hexadecimal smiled into the darkness as the viral stalking her moved ever closer.

This is where she came when she needed to be alone in order to contemplate how she would destroy her mother. She would eventually, but in her own sweet time. For now, there was Bob and Matrix to deal with. The forest was quiet, which Hex knew wasn't natural, but she liked it that way. She sat on the ground with her back against a tree and waiting for the viral to reveal himself to her. He was very close now. In the distance Hex could hear the chaos and knew its cause and she was delighted.

A dim red light floated in the air as it moved towards her. Of course he would know she was there.

"Traitor," the voice came from the darkness.

"Yes, I suppose," Hex smiled in reply. "So you are here to destroy me?"

"Yes," he said. "Then I'll get the other traitor."

Hex's amusement fled, "I really don't think it would be healthy for you bother my little sister."

He laughed, "You won't be around much longer to care."

Hex stood and gathered her energy. By its light she saw the face of her assailant.

"You look absolutely awful," Hex smiled, "My mother did quite a number on you, didn't she?"

Claws extended, fangs bared, the two virals faced each other.

"I have always wanted to test my power against you," Hex's voice rose to a maniacal screech, "Now that we are so evenly matched, it will be such fun!"

The first strike was Valadare's and the power set the forest on fire.

* * *

Melissa came awake abruptly her core-com beating rapidly. Something had happened to Hex. She had dreamed that something wanted to delete her sister. In the darkness of the nursery she looked around at all the sleeping forms. One in particular stirred in his sleeping bag.

"Enzo?"

"Mmph?"

"Enzo, wake up, something's wrong!"

"W-what?"

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

The explosion shook the foundations of the building.

"What in the net was that?" Enzo cried.

The other occupants of the room came awake and a cacophony of weeping and screaming filled the room.

"Enzo, something happened to Hex!" Melissa was struggling to throw off the sleeping bag. "I have to find Hex!"

"Hey wait!" Enzo followed after.

Somehow the young viral girl knew what had happened. Hexadecimal was in mortal danger. She had to find her sister before it was too late.

* * *

Enzo was hard pressed to keep up with Melissa as they ran through the halls of the factory. The explosion had roused the entire building and now people ran frantically around. Although Enzo had no idea where they were going or what they might be doing. He was worried about Dot and was wondering where Melissa might be leading him.

Once outside, Melissa halted. Enzo took note of the fact that the sky was becoming lighter and it would be morning soon. He was glad for that. It had been one long night.

"Where to?" He asked above the noise of the activity all around them.

"I don't know," he had never heard her so distressed. "She's in trouble, I know it. We have to find her Enzo!"

"We will, don't worry," Enzo decompressed his zip board. "Where could she be?"

"She has this place in the forest she likes to go to, maybe she was there when --,"

When what? Enzo wondered. What could possibly have happened to Hexadecimal? "Okay, let's go."

They zipped above the chaos below them and Enzo was relieved when they finally cleared the fence. Two thick columns of smoke were coming from the direction of both the forest and the landing site. Flames licked at the data trees a short distance away. Soldiers were being mobilized and searchlights pierced the darkness. Pandemonium ensued below them.

"What in the net is going on?" Enzo cried.

"This way," Melissa suddenly pointed towards the forest and zipped away before Enzo could stop her.

"Wait!" The young sprite followed her wake.

Melissa landed at the edge of the forest. "In there. Stay here."

"No way," Enzo said, "I'm not letting you go in there alone."

"Enzo, there's nothing you can do."

"I can protect you," Enzo said.

Melissa smiled, "I don't know what's in there."

"Don't worry. Come on."

Melissa generated a ball of light, which led their way. They crashed through the underbrush for a time until Melissa halted.

"What is it?" Enzo asked.

There was a flash of light and something like a comet exploded from the darkness and slammed into Melissa knocked her several hundred feet away.

"Melissa!" Enzo cried and was about to rush to her when a sound alerted him to another presence.

Slowly, the young sprite turned.

Something was moving through the darkness towards him. Enzo had never felt such malevolence emanating from a single being. Not even Megabyte had ever made him feel this way, so utterly afraid.

The thing that stepped from the darkness bathed in the eerie red glow emanating from his right eye, smiled maliciously at Enzo. A shudder of revulsion passed over the young sprite. Every nerve and instinct screamed for him to run but his traitorous legs refused to obey him. He stood staring at the beast that glared at him.

"I'm going to enjoy this," the thing spoke. "Thank you for making it so easy for me."

Enzo's fear still held him in a paralysis, even as the thing moved purposefully towards him.

"I'm going to drain every drop of energy from you," the creature continued. "I'm going to suck you dry and enjoy your pain. Do you know how much I hate you?"

"No!" Enzo wretched himself from his trance and ran. The thing laughed.

Something grabbed at him from behind. An invisible hand forced him to his knees. Enzo screamed in disbelief. The monster was coming for him and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Then it was standing over him, gracing him with that malicious smile.

"You're a weak pathetic thing," the beast said. "Once you're gone, there'll be no more reminders. And I'll be the reason you're dead. I'll be rid of you once and for all and I'll never have to see you again."

The thing reached for him and closed a clawed hand around Enzo's throat. "Remember how you couldn't save yourself. Take that thought into the Ethernet little brat."

Enzo struggled against the iron grip to no avail. The thing was crushing the breath out of him. It smiled as it extended its fangs and its eyes glowed with yellow fire. Enzo tried to scream, but he couldn't.

When the thing began to drain his energy pain like he had never experienced set every nerve on fire. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks. He wanted to scream and cry and beg, but he wasn't even allowed that.

Then something else happened. Something that Enzo couldn't comprehend. Memories flooded his mind. Memories that weren't his own. Memories of another evil thing that he had fought and that had gouged out his eye. Memories of things that he would never consider doing but did because he no longer listened to his conscience. He knew where these memories were coming from but there was nothing he could do as they integrated themselves into his processor and after a time, he knew they were a part of him.

But they were unimportant as the pain increased and he felt the thing drain his energy and after a time his struggling ceased and the last thing he heard was the thing with his face laughing at him.

* * *

"AndrAIa!" Dot screamed out her friend's name as the game sprite was covered in corruption. Dot crawled over to her. AndrAIa's body was seized with convulsions. "Hang on."

Dot looked up at the figure that moved with an almost bored air towards her.

"Dot," Dariem smiled at her. "I really don't want to hurt you."

Dot snatched up AndrAIa's trident and brandished it before her, "And I don't want to hurt you either, but I will."

"We've been through this before, look around you Dot. Your rebels lost this time. It won't be so bad in Daemon's service. You'll see."

Dot could feel the heat and see the ominous red glow as the forest fire drew ever closer. "I have nothing to say to you, Dariem. I want to talk to Bob."

"Bob no longer exists," Dariem said. "He can't stop me anyway no matter how hard he tries."

"What?" Dot caught his words. "So Bob is still inside of you somewhere. He's fighting you isn't he? He fought you on the roof when you hesitated to delete me."

"Silence!"

Dot stepped closer, "Please come back to me."

Dot leapt back just as Dariem lunged forward and slashed at her with his claws. Dot swung the trident hard and it cracked across Dariem's chin, sending the virus sprawling.

Dariem recovered quickly. "I'll make you pay for that."

When the corruptive blast came at her, Dot barely managed to dodge out of its way. She took off at a run, hopefully heading away from the fire. Another blast engulfed a tree, sending flaming debris to block her path. Dot turned just as Dariem came upon her. She swung the trident again and Dariem dodged and slammed a fist into Dot's stomach.

Dot feel hard to her knees and tears burned her eyes. Her breath left in a rush and she felt her body go numb. The trident slipped from her fingers. Even in her agony she thought, he hit me! I can't believe Bob hit me!

"Dot," the voice was very far away, "Dot, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it!"

Through the haze of pain and the blur of tears, Dot looked up the figure towering over her. "Bob."

The power gathered at his fingers. Dot concentrated on her pain, on the heat, and the acrid scent of smoke. She forced her fingers to grasp the trident just as Dariem laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. The corruption burned.

Dot swung the trident upward and the blast caught Dariem in the face, but she didn't stop there. Anger and pain fueled her with a mad rush of adrenalin. She swung the deadly weapon again and again and with the sound of each satisfying strike, the monster was being driven back into the flames. When it finally lay unmoving at her feet the inner heat that had driven her to such fury began to fade.

Dot looked around. Flames and black smoke surrounded her. Bob lay unconscious and broken at her feet.

"Oh no" Dot knelt before him. "Bob, oh no, Bob!"

"Dot!"

Dot looked up and through the smoke as several figures were rapidly approached on zip boards and rocket cycles. Mouse was at the lead.

"Come on sugah, this is no place for us to be!"

"But Bob --! And AndrAIa, she's somewhere to!"

"We have AndrAIa," Mouse pulled Dot away. "Come on now!"

Dot realized the other members of the group were Gavin and his crew. Princess Bulla pulled Bob onto the cycle she road. The flames almost had them but they managed to escape the inferno. Once above the tree line, Dot breathed great gulps of the moist dawn air. Down below, Dot was relieved to see a fire break being constructed. Several cycles and transports were in the air dumping what Dot assumed to be fire retardant chemicals on the flames. She was only curious for a moment as to where they had come from.

"You all right, sugah?" Mouse asked.

"No," Dot said. "We've got to get AndrAIa to Rose. I need a status report Mouse. What's the situation?

"We've assessed the damage on the Libertas and she's repairable, thank the User. Looks like we underestimated Bob and Matrix's strength. We've had some injuries but no casualties. Dom was the one who got the fire brigade going."

"Thank the User," Dot was relieved when they approached the factory. "Has anyone seen Matrix?"

"Sugah --," Mouse said, then abruptly halted.

"What is it?" Dot said. "What's happened Mouse?"

"We have Matrix sugah, contained in the infirmary, but --,"

"What?"

"It's Little Enzo," she said.

The remorseful tone in Mouse's voice sent a lance of ice through Dot's core-com. "Where is he? Where is my little brother?"

"I'll take you to him but Dot - I'm sorry sugah, it ain't good."

* * *

The moment Melissa awoke, pain shot through her to her very core-com. She was aware of the noise, the smell of smoke, and of someone screaming. The young viral forced herself to her feet. Her eyes at first refused to focus, but the viral power that coursed through her lent her strength.

A virus stood not too far away from her, his back to her, and she knew who and what he was immediately.

"Valadare!" Melissa screamed.

He turned and it was then that Melissa saw whom he held in his grasp.

Enzo.

Her Enzo.

The weak energy that remained in the little sprite's body flickered dangerously close to dissipating. Enzo's eyes were open, but Melissa knew he saw nothing. Something gathered itself in Melissa chest. An unfamiliar emotion took hold of her as she saw what the virus had done.

"Enzo," Melissa whispered and was further enraged when Valadare smiled triumphantly. "Enzo!"

Then Melissa was running towards them, even as she gathered her power. An animalistic cry burst from her lips. Valadare tossed Enzo's body aside as though it were so much trash and turned to face her. Melissa's first blast would have stopped a transport, but Valadare brushed it off with a laugh of derision.

"You really think you can beat me you little traitor?" His claws extended.

"Your viral powers can't hurt me!"

"Oh no?"

Melissa was barely able to dodge Valadare's second blast but the force of it knocked her down again and before she could recover, he was grabbing her and lifting her up, to let her dangle by one arm in front of him. "Your mother will be so pleased to see you."

Something caught Melissa's eye behind Valadare's back. It was streaking through the pre-dawn sky at a terrific rate and Melissa knew what - or who - it was almost immediately.

Valadare must of see her look because he dropped her and turned quickly.

Surf Baud slammed into Valadare's chest, sending the viral flying. Melissa watched as the board sat upright and with a shower of sparks materialized Ray Tracer.

"He's built like a brick wall," Ray said. "You all right, love?"

"Look out!" Melissa screamed.

Valadare charged for the surfer and barreled into him. Now it was Ray who went flying backwards, only to have Baud catch him. Valadare was on him immediately, grabbing Ray by the arm and flinging him aside, he clutched the edge of Baud.

"I've got a score to settle with you to, Surfer," Valadare hissed.

The instant Valadare began to drain Baud's energy, Ray gave a strangled cry of agony and fell to his knees.

"No!" Melissa rushed for them. In one fluid motion, Valadare released Baud and his hand shot out to grab Melissa by the throat. He lifted her up again and growled, "Wait your turn." Then tossed her aside. He went to reach for Baud and Melissa could only watch when a new voice said, "Stop!"

Melissa looked up through tear filled eyes to see Mouse and several others flying towards them. Valadare smiled arrogantly. "More sprites to feed on."

"Stay back!" Melissa called, then wished she hadn't for it drew Valadare's attention to her. He moved over to her and lifted her up once again. "Surrender yourselves to me now or I'll delete her."

Mouse drew her katana and leapt from her board, to land a few feet away. "Let her go."

"Just as soon as you throw down your weapon and come here Mouse."

"What do take me for?"

The others following Mouse; Melissa realized they were Captain Capacitor and his crew; also landed. "You're out numbered, sugah."

"Matrix, lad," Gavin called. "Ye don't want to do this. Think of Dot and yer lovely lass AndrAIa."

"Dot?" Valadare said, confusion on his face. "AndrAIa." Valadare said the name more to himself.

"Matrix," Ray was struggling to his feet as Baud glided over to him. The Surfer leaned heavily on the board. He was pale, but not in as bad shape as Enzo. "They're right, don't do this."

"No!" Valadare growled, "I am Daemon's servant. I will delete you all!"

His claws extended and he went to thrust them into Melissa's throat. The little viral screamed - and suddenly she was free-all the way on the other side of the clearing in a blink of an eye. Valadare turned her way and his eyes widened in shock and Melissa knew exactly what had happened.

She didn't need to turn to know here sister was beside her. The scream of pure rage split the air a nano before a red-hot blast slammed into Valadare's chest. That time, the virus did not get back up.

"Are you all right?" A rather battered Hexadecimal asked her.

"Hex!" Melissa threw her arms around her sister, then pulled away when Hex flinched. "You're hurt!"

"Oh, I'm fine," Hex said. "My apologies for my tardiness. He put up a better fight than I imagined."

"Enzo," Melissa suddenly remembered her fallen friend. "Oh no, Enzo."

Melissa ran back across the clearing where Mouse and Gavin's crew were standing in a semi-circle. Princess Bulla lifted Enzo gently into her arms.

"No!" Melissa reached for him, but Hex, who teleported to her side held her back. "Help him, please!"

"We will, sugah," Mouse said. "Melissa honey, do you know where Bob is?"

"He --," Melissa looked up at Hex, knowing she would sense him better.

"He's nearby, my dear Mouse, you had better hurry."

"Ray honey, are you all right? Can you fly on your own?"

Ray attempted to stand straight; "I can love, put Enzo on Baud."

Bulla did so and Ray climbed slowly on, "Find Dot and Bob. I'll send a transport back for Matrix."

"We'll go after Bob as soon as it gets here. We'd better not leave Matrix alone."

"I'll see that Matrix behaves himself, you need to go after Bob." Hex said.

"All right then, Gavin and I'll go after them."

"I want to go with Enzo," Melissa said.

"All right love, climb aboard."

Melissa climbed on Baud and knelt beside Enzo, "Please be okay," she whispered as Ray ascended. If she lost him now her life would be meaningless.

* * *

"This is all your doing!" Desdemona said the moment Dot entered the control room. "We're only fortunate that we have the fire under control."

Dot ignored Desdemona entirely and instead turned to Dom, "What's our situation?"

"We managed to contain the fire," Dom said. "We have some injuries and damage, but no causalities. Everything's --,"

"I've had enough!" Desdemona screamed. "You and your people have been nothing but trouble since you arrived here! I have a mind to --,"

It was Dot who had had enough. She grabbed Desdemona by the collar and forcefully slammed her again the control panel. "I've just come from my brother's bedside," Dot hissed. "He may die and I've been told it was Matrix who attacked him. The man I love just tried to delete me and I had to club him senseless to protect myself. I'm on the edge here, so now is not a good time to push me."

Dot shoved her away, "The only reason why I'm here right now is to let you know that both Bob and Matrix have been re-captured. It was all a trick. They allowed themselves to be captured to try and destroy us."

"You said they've been re-captured," Dom said into the ensuing silence. "Where are they now?"

"They're in the infirmary," Dot said. "Zif and Mouse rigged containment fields. We don't know how long we'll be able to keep them there so stay on alert. Now if you don't mind, I'm going back to my brother." And with that, Dot strode angrily from the room.

* * *

Seven guards had been assigned to the infirmary, three outside and four in the room where Bob and Matrix had been placed. The infirmary had three separate rooms with four beds each. Injuries from the trouble were being treated in one. AndrAIa was there, recovering from the infection after Rose's treatment, along with Ray who was safely resting within Baud. AndrAIa had to be convinced that she needed to rest and that Matrix was secure. In the second, a curtain had been rigged up to separate additional injured from the area where Enzo had been placed.

Dot moved the curtain aside and anguish once again tore at her core-com at the sight of her brother. The memory of her seeing him in his condition for the first time came back to her. Mouse had held her while she cried. It was truth when she told Desdemona that she was near the edge. Dot wasn't certain how much longer she could keep it together. She had just gotten Enzo back. Losing him would be too much to bear.

Melissa battered but responsibly well, sat in the same position Dot had left her, on a stool at Enzo's bedside. Rose was monitoring the devices that kept Enzo alive but had told Dot she could do little else, still Dot found herself asking, "How is he?"

"No change," Rose said. "I'm sorry Dot but this isn't an infection. All we can do is hope he's strong enough to survive until his energy levels increase."

Dot moved to stand next to the bed and gently laid her hand atop Enzo's, "Enzo, sweetie, I'm here. Hold on, please."

"If we could get the right equipment and a suitable volunteer, we could do an energy transfer." Rose said.

"I volunteer," Dot said.

"No," Rose said, "you're not strong enough. You'd be in his place."

"Do you think I care?" Dot said.

"He would care," Rose said. "I know how much he loves and respects you. How do you think he would feel when he woke up to find you near deletion's door?"

"We have to do something," Dot said.

"If his older counterpart weren't infected, he would be the logical choice."

"What about them?" Dot said. "Didn't you say you could make an antidote?"

"With a sampling of Daemon's code, yes."

"What about a sample of her daughter's?"

Dot and Rose turned to look at Melissa when she spoke for the first time.

"It may just work," Rose said. "It's worth a try. But perhaps we should take a sample of both yours and Hexadecimal's."

"It won't be enough," Hex teleported into the room, causing both Rose and Dot to jump.

"Hex!"

"Sorry," Hex smiled. She glided over to Melissa and put an arm around her. "You have to chase my mother away first."

"What do you mean?" Dot asked.

"Why from up here," Hex smiled and tapped the side of her mask. "You can make all the antidotes you want but as long as my mother has them, they'll be naughty boys."

"Hex what are you --?" Then it came to Dot. "Are you saying that Daemon has control of their minds?"

"Well of course I am. Why is that so hard to believe?"

"But how?" Rose asked. "Oh my mother has many talents," she said. "That's why we're here aren't we my love?" Hex smiled down at Melissa. "Without us, you don't stand a chance of defeating her."

"Hexadecimal," Dot said evenly, "Can you do anything to help Bob and Matrix?"

"Perhaps, but it may be more difficult than any of us can imagine," Hex turned to Rose, "my dear Doctor Norton, take what you need from my sister and I now. When your antidote is ready call me, then we will see to Bob."

Rose proceeded to take samplings of each of their codes, "Can you teleport me to the lab on the Libertas?" She asked Hex when they were finished. In reply, the two women disappeared.

Mouse entered the room a few nanos later, "Dot, how is he?"

"No change," Dot went on to explain what had been happening, from Dr. Norton's prognosis on Enzo, to Hex agreeing to help Bob.

"Ray came out of Baud a little while ago." Mouse smiled. "I'm not doing any good here, maybe we can round up some volunteers for that transplant for Enzo."

"Thank you Mouse, anything you can do." And the mercenary departed. Dot and Melissa sat in silence for a time, then Dot began to tell Melissa stories about Enzo's childhood and after a time coaxed Melissa into talking about herself. The stories Melissa told were very different. There had been no nurturing or love in the little virus girl's life and Dot felt her core-com fill with sympathy.

A few milliseconds later, Hex and Rose teleported back into the room.

"We're ready," Rose announced. "Dot did you want to come?"

"Yes," Dot said. She kissed Enzo gently on the forehead, "I'll be back little brother, I'm going to help Bob." She turned to Melissa, "Keep talking to him, okay?"

Melissa nodded.

The next thing Dot knew they had teleported into the room where Bob and Matrix lay, much to the consternation of the guards outside.

"I'm assuming the containment field isn't all that strong." Dot commented testily.

Hex merely grinned at her then turned serious when she faced Bob. "You will act if you see me having trouble."

"I'll watch your back, Hex."

"Copy that," Rose smiled. She held up the hypo with the serum in it.

The Chaos Virus released the containment field, then climbed onto the bed next to Bob (much to Dot's annoyance) and made herself comfortable. She draped one arm across Bob's chest and rose up on her elbow to splay her hand over his face. Hex's mask went blank. For a few micros's nothing happened.

Then Hexadecimal began to scream.

* * *

How long had she waited for the day she could be close to Bob? And now that she was, there wasn't a blasted thing she could do about it. With Rose and Dot watching, Hex lay down next to Bob.

The stench of the infection sickened her. The mark of her mother covered him. Hex concentrated beyond that and let her own mind work its way into Bob's processor.

A flash of yellow light and she was there, or at least her mind-self was as she made her way through Daemon's corruption. Memories of pain and anguish assaulted her as she continued on. Pictures of what had happened to Bob in her mother's inner sanctum made even the Chaos Virus shudder. The worms boring their way into his skull, the ugly nightmares that her mother had used to torture him into submission, the acts that Dariem had committed (now what was this with that girl named Em? Fortunately, Bob had not acted out his desires; Hex could imagine what Dot would say to that) while under her mother's power.

Deep within Bob's mind, Hex came upon the core of darkness where her mother's power flourished. A worm writhed and twisted in the center of the darkness. Hex could only imprison the foul creature within the confines of Bob's mind and even that was no guarantee that Bob would be free. Her mother merely had to break whatever walls Hex set up but maybe if that serum worked it would give Bob a fighting chance. But basically, only her mother's deletion would destroy it.

Voices assailed her from every direction, another means of torture that her mother favored. These voices whispered things what would cause any sprite to sink into despair, but in the midst of the cacophony, Hex distinctly heard a voice, however faint, cry out in protest.

Bob, Hex thought, so you're still here. I'm impressed. So my mother has not completely destroyed you.

Hex wondered if Matrix was that strong, well she wasn't as concerned with him as she was with Bob. For now, Hex was more concerned with pushing her mother out of bob's mind. She probed deeper until she could almost touch the core of darkness.

SO!

The voice startled her at the same moment something seized at her mind and tried to pull her towards the darkness.

Did you think I would not be watching for you daughter? How dare you defy me!

How you I? How dare you? The web creature, mother, I haven't forgotten, I will make you pay for that!

A laugh. Foolish daughter of mine, you'll never have the opportunity!

Then Daemon attacked in earnest attempting to tear Hex's mind asunder. The Chaos Virus fought with all the anger and hatred she possessed for the virus who had given her life. Hex then turned from her mother's onslaught and struck at the core of darkness. Daemon's scream was harsh, then seemed to fade but the attack re-commenced.

Then something unexpected occurred, something, which caught her mother unawares. Another presence forced its way into the psychic battle.

Leave her alone; I won't let you hurt her!

No!

The force struck at her mother and Hex once again joined the battle. Together they forced Daemon back into the dark recesses of Bob's mind. The new presence was exhausted as was Hex but not before he made a whispered thank you.

Hex smiled inwardly. Now we are even, Guardian. Now we are even.

* * *

Dot helped Hex to stand. "Are you all right?"

"Of course, my dear," Hex smiled weakly. "I have chased my mother away for now. You may proceed, Dr. Norton."

Rose injected the serum into Bob.

"I was worried when you started to scream," Dot said, "I wasn't sure what to do but my instincts told me not to interfere."

"Your instincts were correct," Hex said. "Wait did you just say you were worried about me?"

"Well - yes."

Hex regarded Dot for a moment. Dot resisted the urge to squirm uncomfortably. Then without another word, Hex teleported away.

Dot's puzzlement lasted for only a nano as Rose stepped away from Bob's bed. "Well, let's see what happens."

There was nothing at first, then Bob's face contorted. He moaned softly and began to struggle against his bounds. Dot stepped forward but Rose held out a hand to stop her.

The veins under Bob's skin began to pulse erratically and Bob's moans increased to cries of pain. Sweat dampened his forehead. His eyes came open. They were still yellow, but now a pupil was visible. Ignoring Rose, Dot rushed to his bedside, "Bob, can you hear me? It's me, Dot! You'll be all right."

Bob continued to struggle, straining against his bonds but seemingly unable to break them. Dot took his hand and held it tightly, continuing to speak to him, pleading with him to come back to her.

After a time, Bob's cries began to diminish. The Guardian blinked, his eyes focused on her face, "D-Dot? Dot where am I?"

Dot couldn't answer his question. The moment Bob had spoken, the Command.com of Mainframe burst into relieved tears.


Read Chapter 19 | Back to The Daemon Conflict