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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 19 - Reparations

Bob closed his eyes for a moment. He let himself search near that part of his mind that had been shielded by Hexadecimal. "No," he whispered into the semi-darkness. "Dariem is still there, just subdued."

That thought sent a lance of fear through him. He had been afraid only once before, after he had been banished to the web. The fear of never seeing his friends or his home. The fear of dying alone in that cold alien place.

Yet he was alone now. It was what he had requested, or more accurately, demanded.

Bob jammed the heels of his hands into his eyes until they ached, despite that, a bitter tear escaped from beneath his lid. "I'm sorry Dot."

How many times had he muttered those words into the silence? Still he repeated it like a mantra.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

Unexpectedly, the door came open and light spilled into the room from outside. Bob sat up abruptly and glared at the figure that stood in the doorway, "Go away! I don't want to see anyone!"

"I don't give a rat's ASCII what you want, sugah," Mouse strode angrily into the room, "Have you lost what little is left of your mind? After all we've been through to save your sorry blue hide, you push Dot away like that?"

"Shut up. You wouldn't understand."

"I'll let that slide, sugah, because you're sick, but you ever tell me ta 'shut up' again I'll break every link in your basic body, ya got that?"

"Don't you understand, Mouse? Look at me!" Bob struggled to stand, to face her. Fury like he hadn't experienced in some time rushed through him. "The things I said -- the things I did!"

"I know what you did - Dot knows - do you think she cares?"

"I care!" The rage suddenly left him as quickly as it had surged through him. Bob leaned wearily against the side of the bed. "I had to send her away. I can't face her. Not after what I did."

To Bob's complete surprise, a chuckle floated through the darkness.

"What in the mother board is so funny?"

"Um - what ya just said - I mean, talk about deja vu."

"Mouse --,"

"Look sugah, Dot's waiting for ya." Mouse smiled. "There's a shower in the other room. If ya don't mind my sayin' ya need to use it."

"Thanks a bunch Mouse."

"And sugah, don't push Dot away. You both need each other right now."

"I know -- I just --,"

"Go take a shower," Mouse said. "I'll be back a little later. Can ya make it on your own?"

"Yes," surprisingly, Bob felt his strength returning. He was still glad when Mouse left him alone again. He was surprised he was alone considering all the damage he and Vala -- Matrix had caused. He hadn't expected to remember everything but he did, in rather stark detail.

True to her word, the next room sported a small shower stall. Bob guessed it was probably for people who suffered from burns. Someone had removed his clothing format and replaced it with one of those annoyingly flimsy hospital gowns. A great position for a Guardian-turned-viral general. Bob shuddered at the thought. He located a light switch and squinted at the stark fluorescence.

Scratchy, yet serviceable towels were stacked in a bin. Shelves sported bars of soap and bottles of shampoo. They had an antiseptic smell, but Bob chose some soap and shampoo set the shower at a reasonable temperature and let it run for a few nanos.

He climbed inside when steam began to rise and spent the next few nanos lathering up and washing away the grime, but no matter how hard he scrubbed, the stench of Daemon remained. After a time, Bob leaned his head against the shower stall and let his eyes close while the spray stung his back and let his mind drift.

* * *

Dot lay across Bob's chest her body shaking with sobs.

"Dot?" Bob struggled against his bonds. "Dot what happened? Oh my User, what have I done?"

"Bob," Dot smiled at him with tear-stained cheeks. "Oh sweetheart, I'm so --,"

"Let me up! Let me up now!"

"Bob?"

"Guardian Lan you must calm yourself," A woman Bob didn't recognize approached the bed.

"What is it Bob? Are you in pain?" Dot went to deactivate the field.

"Dot, I wouldn't."

"Trust me, Rose," Dot said.

When Bob was free of the field he raised himself up on his elbows but nothing was even remotely familiar. Dot and the woman - what was her name, Rose? -- were staring at him with a mixture of relief and sympathy that Bob wasn't sure he could tolerate.

"Bob --," Dot reached for him again.

"No!" Bob held out both hands to ward her off, "Don't touch me Dot, please go away."

"What?"

"Go away! Get out now!" Bob couldn't stand to see her beautiful face so full of understanding. He didn't deserve it or her. Not any more.

"Bob --," Dot seemed to take more caution in her approach.

"I said go," Bob laid back down again as exhaustion took hold but it was nothing compared to the shame. "Please go."

"Bob it's all right, I understand."

He knew she did, and that made it all the worse. Memories assaulted him, taunting him with the knowledge that he had hurt her. Violated her. The love of his life and he hadn't been able to stop himself. Turbo had fought, why hadn't he been able to?

"I don't want your pity," Bob made the words harsh and cold. "What part of go away, don't you understand?"

"Why you lousy --," Rose began.

"No Rose, it's all right," Dot said.

Despite what Dot had said, Bob knew his words had the desired effect. He saw the fleeting look of hurt in her eyes. "All right Bob," she smiled sadly. "I'll come back when you're more yourself."

"Dot," Rose said.

"It's all right, Rose," Dot smiled sadly, "Believe me, I know Bob."

"Fine, but we're putting a guard on the door," Rose said, "I'll have someone come in and remove Matrix. Perhaps it would be best if they're separated." Then she turned and strode from the room. Dot went to reach for him, seemed to think better of it, then left the room as well. Bob ignored the guards who entered a few nanos later and wheeled the renegade's bed outside. He could see their looks of fear and pity. When he was alone again, Bob climbed from the bed and turned out the light and was only relieved when the darkness descended.

* * *

Bob turned off the shower and climbed from the stall. He grabbed one of the towels and began to dry himself, and as he was wrapping it around his waist, he caught a glimpse of something alien in the room that had him turning quickly.

He came face to face with a full-length mirror.

Robert Lan felt sick.

The image that presented itself was not Robert Lan. Not even Bob, not Guardian 452. It was a horrible thing with scarred limbs and a network of thin yellow veins all over its body, not as pronounced as before, but they were still present. Bob reached a hand up to his face and touched his cheek below his sickly yellow eyes. He turned his hands around and shuddered at the sight of his black claws. He wasn't a sprite and he wasn't a virus. He was some freakish 'in-between' being that defied classification.

He heard a door open and close in the other room. "Bob, where are ya?"

Before Bob could protest, Mouse stepped into the room.

"Sugah, I --,"

"Get out!" Bob screamed. How could she just walk in like that? The way he looked! My User, what must she think?

"What in the net is your problem?" Mouse screamed back, "I told you the next time you did that --,"

"Spamit, Mouse, I don't want anyone to see me like this!"

Mouse crossed the room quickly and pressed her face close to his, "Like what? You're still Bob, ain't ya? You just went through the web a second time, sugah. You think I'm so shallow that I'd treat ya bad because of this?"

Bob sighed, again, the anger drained away. There was a small bench outside of the stall and Bob sat, "I'm sorry Mouse. User this is so --," he couldn't find a word to describe it. A gamut of emotions had him turned inside out and he was hard pressed to deal with everything he was feeling right then.

Mouse sat down beside him. Bob didn't speak at first. He sat there; staring at his callused hands, "Look at these hands, Mouse."

"What about them?"

"These are the hands that hurt Dot. Me! I hurt her!"

"Not by your own, volition."

"Come on Mouse, Turbo fought! Why couldn't I?"

"Cause according to Melissa, what happened to you was a lot harsher than what happened to Turbo."

Yellow worms boring into his skull...

"Yes," A cold shudder raced across the Guardian's flesh. "What was done to me? How is it that I'm back to normal? I mean, I remember Hex fighting off Daemon." That thought brought new anxiety to Bob. Hex had been in his mind. How much had she discovered? All of his secrets, his fears had been open to her.

"That's something you'll want Rose - Dr. Norton to explain," Mouse said.

"Wait - that was Dr. Rose Norton?"

"Um hmm - you know her?"

"I know of her. Her father's works are required reading at the Academy."

Mouse shook her head, "She said her father was killed in the first assault."

Bob muttered an oath, "Her father was one of the foremost experts on viral antidotes." Then something else Mouse had said struck him like a laser shot, "Wait a nano - did you say, Melissa?"

"Sure, sugah, don't you remember?"

"So it's true," Bob mused, "She really is fighting on our side now?"

"Yes."

"But how?"

"Well, it was Enzo's doing really. The little guy really impressed her."

"Enzo!" Mention of the little sprite's name brought on new fears. "My User, Mouse, is he all right? Valadare --- I mean Matrix --,"

"I --," for the first time Mouse looked away.

"Oh no," Bob said, "Oh User, please no! He's not --?"

"No, not that!" Mouse said. "He's in bad shape though. I've been gathering volunteers to donate energy. Rose is gonna try a transfusion."

"And I can't donate anything because my code is corrupted," Bob spat bitterly.

"That's the gist of it."

"Matrix," Bob said. "Where is he?"

"In another room down the hall," Mouse said, "He reacted much like you did. I don't know what's going on with him now."

"My fault," Bob said. "All of this is my fault. I was supposed to stop Daemon --,"

"And we will," Mouse said. "Now don't go blaming yourself."

"I - I don't think I can do it, Mouse. Not after what happened." Bob looked at his hands again. How he despised them. "I hurt Dot."

"And you'll hurt her even more if you don't go to her."

"I can't Mouse. I just can't."

Mouse rose without another word and strode from the room. Confused, Bob walked back to his bed and lay down. After a few nanos, he dozed, until he heard the door come open again.

Seeing Dot's beautiful face, so full of love for him, caused all his resolve to push her away to deteriorate. Her stunning violet eyes pulled him into their depths and tossed him on a raging sea of emotions.

"Dot." Her name was a whisper on his lips.

She turned away from him and he heard the audible click of the door lock. "I'm not going to go away Bob. I said I'd give you some time and I did. I know you need me. Please don't shut me out anymore. You know you don't have to be the big brave Guardian with me."

"Dot," the emotional turmoil suddenly erupted within him and Bob felt the tears sting his eyes. He didn't want to cry in front of her but he realized he had little choice. All the fear, shame, and anger spilled forth with a groan, and before he could protest, Dot had crossed the room and had crawled onto the bed beside him.

The urge to send her away was nothing more than an afterthought. She was right, he did need her now, in more ways than she could imagine but he wouldn't take advantage of her. For now, he contented himself with lying in her arms; his face buried against her and surrendered himself to the tears.

* * *

Basic! Weak! Useless!

Over and over, Matrix hissed the words between clenched teeth. His hands fisted, itching to destroy more of the space he had confined himself in. Everything in the room that had not been secured was a victim of his wrath. Now as he sat in the shadows, relishing his solitude, he wished he could just fragment and be done with it.

He was relieved that they had left him alone. He had hurt enough people and he has succinctly told those who had come near him, including AndrAIa, that if they didn't leave him alone, he'd very well hurt someone again.

He regretted the words, even as he had uttered them. The looks of pity only enraged him further. Although AndrAIa had looked more - what, understanding? He had been in such a fury he couldn't remember.

And the absolute worse thing that haunted him and tore at him bit by bit was not being Daemon's servant, or the torture, or even the destruction he had caused, but it was the look of all consuming terror and agony that had been on the face of a little sprite.

Matrix cringed against the memory. It was one of many that threatened to drive him random. With his anger there was shame. After so boldly telling Daemon he wouldn't give into the pain, he had proceeded to scream, cry, and even beg for it to end. It was his pleading with Daemon that seemed to amuse her the most. She had asked him what would he give her in order for the torture to end and he had said anything.

"Including the lives of your friends and family?"

"Yes."

And guilt. He had almost forgotten the guilt.

So now what was to become of him? He knew he wasn't completely well. Hexadecimal had driven Daemon out of his mind, but that other presence was still there. Matrix laid a hand over his cyber-eye and felt the hunger. It was another reason why he had demanded that they leave him alone.

Any brave man would face his fears and leave the room, not hide like some frightened animal. But he was a coward and he knew what he had to do.

* * *

WARNING: INCOMING GAME.

Bob didn't move. The computer voice sounded very far away. He doubted he would make the game in time anyway. His Guardian protocol was warring with the viral infection so the need to make the game wasn't as great. Still, when he sensed the cube slam down with an ominous finality, Bob shuddered.

"Hmm - Bob?" Dot said softly into the darkness. "Was that a game cube?"

"Yes," Bob said quietly as he pulled her closer. How many times had he dreamed of being with her like this and now that he was, there wasn't a blasted thing he could do. He had promised he wouldn't take advantage. She had held him the entire time he cried, caressing his hair and offering no platitudes. He was grateful to her for it all. He didn't know how he was ever going to repay her.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes," Bob sighed, "the protocols aren't as strong as usual. I'm not as uncomfortable as I normally would be."

"Believe it or not, that's the first game that's fallen since we've gotten here."

"That is random," Bob smiled into the darkness.

Dot pulled away from him and he immediately felt the loss, "Do you feel up to going outside? I need to go to Enzo. Mouse should have gotten all the volunteers she needed by now."

"Yes," Bob said. "I need to see him too. My User Dot, what must Matrix be thinking?"

"Matrix asked to be alone, like you," Dot said. "AndrAIa asked me to let her see to him and I'm going to honor that request."

"It must be hard for you."

"It is, he's still my brother after all, even if he is six feet tall."

Bob chuckled slightly.

"Here, lean on me, that's it."

"I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"We've been through this, Bob. I understood then and I do now."

Bob managed to stand on his own. Dot reached into her belt. "Here's a new clothing format for you." She handed him an icon. "We got rid of the viral one. Does Daemon have Glitch?"

"Yes," Bob said bitterly, "And without my Glitch-icon, there's no way I can stop her."

"Don't say that Bob, there must be a way!"

"No," Bob said, "You don't understand. It was all dependant on having Glitch."

"You sound like you're giving up."

Bob felt his cheeks burn, "Maybe I am."

The look Dot gave him eventually made him squirm.

"There's nothing I can do, Dot."

"Let's go see Enzo," Dot said as though he had never spoken. Bob wondered what she was thinking.

The clothing format was some sort of uniform that Bob soon discovered was from the factory. He hesitated as he stepped outside of the room. Two guards, a sprite and a binome, turned and leveled rifles at him.

"It's all right, he's with me." Dot said.

"Miss," the male sprite said, "We were given orders that the prisoner --,"

"He is not a prisoner," Dot said.

"-was not to be allowed outside without a guard accompanying him."

"I'm accompanying him."

"Mistress Desdemona won't like this."

"Desdemona?" Bob turned to Dot, "Katiyana isn't here?"

"No Bob, I'm sorry."

Bob muttered an oath, "It was Desdemona wasn't it?"

Dot nodded. Then to the guards she said, "Tell Desdemona I'll take full responsibility for Bob."

Bob had to fight not to flinch at that. Although he loved Dot, having her 'take responsibility' for him was a bit embarrassing. But since it was necessary the Guardian offered no protest.

There was a lot of activity throughout the building and Bob noticed that most of it ceased as he walked by. He felt his face warm, "Guess I'll have to get used to that." He muttered more to himself.

"People are frightened because they don't understand," Dot replied.

Bob knew he could take the accusing and fearful stares and the whispered comments. There was only one sprite's opinion he cared about now, and if that person feared him, he knew a part of him would delete then and there.

Further on, Bob noticed a mass exodus in generally the same direction and it only took the young Guardian a moment to realize what it was. The corridor ahead of them was filled with people, mostly lounging and talking, which ceased abruptly when they caught sight of Bob.

The Guardian sighed and moved forward.

"By the code!" The familiar voice filled Bob with relief and broke the tense silence. "Tis good ta see ya up and about, Bob lad."

"Gavin," Bob shook the Crimson Binome's hand vigorously. "It's so good to see you again."

"We was worried about ye, weren't we mates?"

The crew, which was gathered around him, gave exclamations of agreement.

Two massive arms suddenly wrapped around Bob and hauled him off his feet. Bob realized a nano of panic until he realized what who it was.

"Bob all right?" Princess Bulla set him down after the link-crushing hug.

"After that hug, pretty lady? I'm not sure."

Bulla flushed slightly, "Good to see Bob."

"Yer' here ta see the boy, I'll wager?" Gavin said. "Poor lad. But look at all of these people just willin' ta help."

"I wish I could," Bob said.

"You'll help by bein' with him when he wakes," Gavin said. "Yer his hero, ye know."

"I was," Bob sighed, "But will I be now? After everything?"

"I think ye will," Gavin nodded, "He's a good lad. Smart too. He'll know it wasn't ye. Now get along lad."

"Thanks Gavin, I mean for everything. You're a good friend."

"Aye lad, yer a good friend ta me. Ye could have run me in all those minutes ago, and ye didn't."

They continued, weaving their way through the crowd. Bob halted when he caught sight of Desdemona leaning against the wall, while she spoke quietly to another binome.

There must have been something in his face for Dot whispered, "Bob."

Desdemona noticed them and her eyes narrowed to slits. "Is this a good idea Ms. Matrix?"

Again the noise level lowered. "I've already told your guards I'd take responsibility."

"Fat load of good that'll be if he decides to go random on us."

"I can't promise anything," Bob said through clenched teeth, "But believe me, you'll be the first to know if I do decide to go random."

"Was that a threat, Guardian?"

"No --," Bob hissed, "Just an - observation. I am curious though. Did you give any consideration to Mistress Katiyana's safety?"

"Did you?" Desdemona shot back.

"You have absolutely no idea what it's like in Daemon's inner sanctum," Bob's voice was low. "I only hope Mistress Katiyana isn't a prisoner."

With that, Bob strode away. When he was far enough away he halted until Dot was next to him, "I'm sorry."

She kissed him on the cheek, "Believe me, I understand. I've been dealing with her all this time."

Bob learned from Dot that Enzo had been moved to one of the conference rooms that had been converted into a sick room. It was large enough to accommodate the machinery that kept Enzo alive. Dr. Norton as well as four technicians were running about and making adjustments to various machines that had been set up. Some Bob actually recognized, such as the energy extraction machine. Mouse at that very moment was sitting in a chair; the sleeve from the extractor was around her arm. Ray was next to her holding her hand. The only sign of the mercenary's discomfort was the sheen of sweat on her forehead.

"Love you can yell if you want." Ray said.

"I'm fine," Mouse looked up. "Hey there."

"Mouse, Ray," Bob looked around and noticed how the room had been divided into two sections by a collapsible wall. "Enzo?"

"They're about ready," Ray nodded towards Dr. Norton who, although she continued to work, was watching them furtively.

"Dr. Norton," Bob approached the woman, "I know we got off to a bad start and I'd like to make amends."

Dr. Norton smiled, "I should apologize to you. I wasn't very doctor-like back there, I was just angry for Dot. Actually, it's quite common for infectees to experience anger or humiliation."

Bob said, "Would it be all right --? I mean to see Enzo?"

"Well," Dr. Norton began, "I'm not sure --,"

"It'll be all right, Rose," Dot said.

"No, it's not that. It's just that Enzo will still be very weak for a while and the shock of seeing Bob --," she halted.

"The way I look now?" Bob finished the sentence for her. "I promise to leave at the first sign of upset on Enzo's part. Please Dr. Norton."

"Rose," Rose said after a moment. "I can see you love him almost as much as Dot does. All right."

Bob found himself gathering his courage as he followed Rose around the partition and found that despite doing so, it failed him.

He briefly noticed the little girl sitting on a stool at Enzo's beside and knew without a doubt that she was Melissa. Bob could also see the lines of exhaustion on the little she-viral's face but he guessed she had been told to go get some rest and had refused.

But when he saw Enzo, his core-com shattered into an infinitesimal number of sharp fragments.

The wraith-like form lay still on the sick bed. A mere shadow of the energetic youth he had come to think of as a surrogate son. His skin was translucent and pallid gray-green. Dark bruises under his eyes were a violent contrast to his coloring.

He was only half aware of Dot moving away from him to approach her brother and of Rose saying something about having to run a few more test on the gathered energy to make certain it was pure.

"Enzo," the name came from Bob's lips in a pained whisper. Then the anger returned in force and Bob cried out an expletive. He cringed away; his hands clenched and without thought slammed his fist into the partition.

The wall fell with a crash and some of those gathered scattered like frightened mice. Then Dot was beside him and Ray was standing in front of him.

"Bob --," Dot began.

"Easy mate," Ray whispered, as he planted both hands on Bob's chest.

Bob fought for control. In the instant he had let his anger surge, he had felt Dariem's presence strengthen. I can't give in, the Guardian thought bitterly.

Ray was speaking to him again.

"What?" Bob focused on his face. Those that had not run were staring at him fearfully.

"Okay?" Ray said. "You need some fresh air?"

"N-no," the thought that they wouldn't allow him to see Enzo strengthened his resolve to remain calm. "I want to see him."

Bob moved towards the bed and halted as he met the hostile stare of Daemon's daughter.

"Hello Melissa."

She didn't speak at first, and Bob could tell she was fighting her exhaustion. Now that he had a better look at her, he could see the pieces of her heritage in her appearance. He not only saw Daemon and Hexadecimal, but a bit of Megabyte as well.

"Dariem," she said at last.

That time, Bob did flinch. "Please call me Bob."

"Why?" She shot at him, "You're not Bob anymore. Bob doesn't exist. You are Dariem."

Bob pushed the anger away, "I was Dariem. Your sister helped me."

"My sister only subdued him. The Deep Infection can't be pushed aside. You are Dariem and will be even after my mother is destroyed."

"I think you're wrong," Bob hoped he didn't sound as unsure as he thought. He moved closer to Enzo.

"Don't touch him," Melissa hissed.

"I'm not going to hurt him."

"No, you're not."

Bob reached out a tentative hand towards the little sprite, then drew away, afraid that his touch may cause him to fragment. It was then that Bob became aware of Enzo's struggle for each breath. The sound of his battle tore at Bob's core-com. Various wires and tubes were connected to Enzo's body, making him appear as vulnerable as a newborn sprite.

"Enzo," Bob whispered again. The Guardian leaned over the little sprite and gently pressed his lips to Enzo's forehead.

"We're ready," Rose suddenly said, "Stand aside, please."

"I could help him," Bob's voice was laced with bitterness, "If it wasn't for this infection I could transfer my own energy into him and heal him immediately."

"This will work," Rose said. "But you must let me do this. Please."

"Bob," Dot gently took his arm and took him aside. They watched as the technicians rolled in the machine and Rose made the final adjustments.

Bob was barely aware of what was going on around him. His mind focused only on Enzo. People moved in and out of his line of vision but he paid no heed. The thought that this wouldn't work - that he would never again see Enzo's exuberant face so full of adoration for him was more than Bob thought he could bear.

One of technicians brought Rose an oblong glass container which she placed into a compartment within the machine, "All right Little One." The A.V. whispered and activated it. The glowing energy traveled from the machine and began to integrate itself into the sprite. After a few moments, Enzo's form solidified. The little sprite took a deep shuddering breath. Slowly, his violet eyes opened.

"Enzo?" Dot rushed to his side.

Enzo blinked, "D-Dot?"

"Oh Enzo!" Dot and Melissa said as one. Dot gathered her brother into her arms. Word spread quickly that Enzo had survived and a cheer went up.

"Dot?" Enzo looked thoroughly puzzled, "Where am I? What happened?"

"Not now sweetie," Dot smiled through her tears. "Just let me hug you."

"I-I'm cold," Enzo said. "Why is it so cold?"

"Rose?"

"It's normal. He needs time to recuperate. His body has to adjust to the energy. He should be fine."

"Here sweetie," Dot climbed onto the bed beside him.

The entire time the scene unfolded, Bob didn't move. How would Enzo react when he saw him? He had no right to be here. He felt like an intruder. Enzo hadn't noticed him yet, maybe if he slipped away?

"What are you waiting for mate?" Ray was right next to him before he realized it.

"You weren't thinking of running out on him were you?" Mouse was on his other side.

Dot looked at him, "There's someone who's been deleting to see you, sweetie."

Before Bob could protest, Dot drew away from Enzo and the small sprite caught sight of him.

"Bob?" Enzo squinted at him, "Bob, is that you?"

"Enzo," Bob started forward, "Please don't be afraid."

"Afraid of you Bob?" Enzo struggled to sit up straight, "I'd never be afraid of you! I told you you're my hero."

Bob crossed the room and sat gently down on the bed, "I missed you Little Man."

"I missed you too," Enzo smiled weakly and Bob was unable to resist pulling him into his arms.

"I'm so glad you're all right."

"Bob what happened to you?"

"Long story small fry. Maybe I'll tell you later."

"You look so - different." A shudder passed across Enzo's body. "I'm tired Dot. Can I go back to sleep?"

"Of course, sweetie."

"You'll all stay won't you?" Enzo was already drifting off.

"Of course we will, sweetie." Dot stretched out beside him and draped an arm around him.

"I'm so cold," the little sprite whispered and fell into sleep.

Bob moved from the bed and motioned Melissa over. Before the little virus could protest, Bob lifted her up and placed her on the bed beside Enzo. Then Bob took her place on the stool. He had promised Enzo he wouldn't leave but as soon as it was feasible he would seek out Matrix.

* * *

AndrAIa stared pensively at the closed door. The two binome guards fidgeted behind her and AndrAIa was rapidly losing patience with them.

Once again, the game sprite pounded on the door with the heel of her hand, "Matrix! Open up this instant!"

It was too quiet within the room. A few milliseconds before there had been the unmistakable sounds of destruction but now there was silence. It made AndrAIa nervous.

"Who has the manual override codes to this door lock?" AndrAIa turned to the guards.

"The command center personnel," one guard replied.

"Go ask Dom for them now," AndrAIa didn't have the patience for niceties. Something wasn't right within that room. "Didn't you hear me? Go!"

"Um --," the two guards fidgeting increased, "We were given orders not to --,"

"To the net with your orders," AndrAIa's claws extended, "Go now!"

The two binomes scurried down the hall like rats. AndrAIa had a sneaking suspicion that they were both a couple of Desdemona's bootlicks and she doubted either one of them would return soon with the codes if at all.

AndrAIa drew and extended her trident and blew the lock apart with a well-placed blast.

It was pitch dark inside the room, but her night-vision enabled her to see clearly, the damage her love had caused. She heard running footsteps behind her and the two guards returned, "What happened?" One asked.

"Go away, I've got everything under control."

"But Mistress Desdemona said --,"

AndrAIa whirled in a violent motion and brandishing her trident, she hissed at them, "Go away!"

The two guards retreated immediately. AndrAIa shut the door, then welded it closed with a low-level blast.

"Matrix?"

"Go away," the muttered command came from the far right corner of the room.

"No," AndrAIa said, "Talk to me, Sparky."

"AndrAIa, if you don't leave now - I - I'll --,"

"What? Delete me?" AndrAIa approached him. He was sitting against the wall surrounded by broken furniture and shards of glass.

"I'm a monster AndrAIa. I could drain the life from you. Is that what you want me to do?"

"You're being an ASCII, you know that?" She knelt before him and reached out a gentle hand to touch his face. "Oh Lover --,"

"No!" Matrix slapped her hand away. He climbed to his feet and moved away from her. His back was to her. "Don't call me that! Don't ever call me that again! How can I - how can we --?"

Again silence filled the room for a time, then, "Leave AndrAIa. It's better that you're not here."

Again, she approached him. "Why, Sparky?"

"Don't talk to me anymore. I don't want you here. I don't deserve you. I don't deserve to --,"

Even in the darkness AndrAIa could see the shudder pass over his massive frame, "Leave me alone AndrAIa, I have to do this."

His words and their meaning infuriated her, "Oh what? Hang yourself with your bootstraps?"

That got to him. He turned to glare at her and she took the opportunity to bring her face close to his, "After what I went through to get you back?" AndrAIa jabbed her index finger into his chest, "No way, buster!"

"AndrAIa --,"

"Plus," AndrAIa cut him off, "it would kill your sister!"

"You don't understand."

"I don't understand? You big green ASCII! You think you're the first person to have something bad happen to you? You think Bob is planning on ending it all? What's the matter? The big bad renegade lost his circuits?"

Matrix looked as if he would speak, his mouth opened and abruptly closed. He turned away again. His next words were a whisper, "I deleted Enzo. I'm a murderer."

"No, you didn't. Enzo is going to be fine."

He turned back to face her, "He's still processing?"

"Yes."

"He'll know," Matrix seemed to be speaking more to himself. "He'll know it was on purpose. Daemon saw to that."

"What?" AndrAIa took his hands. "What are you talking about, Lover?"

"He'll know," Matrix had never looked so distraught, and to AndrAIa's utter astonishment, tears began flow from his good eye. "It wasn't an accident."

AndrAIa wasn't certain of the meaning of his words but she decided not to question them at that point. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into an embrace. "We'll stay here until you're ready."

All the while the two sprites stood there, Matrix muttered the same thing over and over.

"He'll know it wasn't an accident." The words left an uncomfortable feeling in AndrAIa's core-com.

* * *

"Bob?" Dot reached over and laid her hand atop his. She wished there had been another way but how do you tell someone that their mentor is gone?

"How?" The Guardian looked at her, his eyes moist.

"He was saving Dot," Enzo broke in, "from Ashar."

"What happened with Ashar?"

"Well Turbo deleted him for one," Dot skirted the uncomfortable issue. "Ashar would have deleted me and Enzo and Melissa if it wasn't for him. He died a hero."

"That was Turbo," Bob managed a sad smile.

"I'll be all right Bob," Enzo placed his hands over Bob's own. Dot saw the mixture of emotions of Bob's face. There was anger, guilt, shame and relief all in the most infinitesimal moment.

"Thanks Little Man." Bob ruffled Enzo's already unruly hair. "I just wish -- "

He stopped abruptly and Dot could see his struggle to remain calm in front of Enzo. "I guess they wouldn't let me have a moment alone," Bob muttered.

Again, Dot reached for him, laying her own hand atop Enzo's. "Probably not now. You'll will have your time to mourn, I know."

Bob smiled at her and leaned in for a kiss.

"Um...you two aren't going to get all mushy on me are you?"

"Enzo," now it was Dot ruffling his hair.

"Um...Dot," Enzo suddenly said, "Could Bob and I have a moment alone? I mean, it's nothing personal but I need to talk to him. You know, real man to man stuff."

Dot exchanged a knowing look with Bob, "Of course, sweetie. I have to see what's going on at the command center anyway. I'll be back in a few milliseconds."

"Okay," Enzo smiled, "Could you turn up the heat a little more?"

"Sure," Dot gave him a worried glance. It was hot outside, she knew that much, but Enzo had been saying how cold he was. Rose; who was currently treating the enemy forces taken prisoner in an effort to free them from Daemon's infection; had said it was natural for the first few microseconds but Enzo had been complaining of being cold for the past few milliseconds. She was going to try and contact Phong once in the command center and maybe see if they could get Dr. Chancery here as well. Dot left them as she continued her musings.

* * *

Cold. Absolute cold. And Darkness. Never had he seen such empty nothingness.

Then...

Enzo crept through the dank catacombs, holding the sputtering torch before him. Behind him AndrAIa -

Wait a nano -- AndrAIa? That wasn't right. Why was he with AndrAIa?

He paused at an intersection and placed his hand against the wall, then drew it back sharply as a spider scuttled across it. Enzo swore.

What happened to his voice? It was lower. He looked at his hand. It was larger, calloused. Was that his hand?

"What now?" AndrAIa asked him.

"This way," the sound of his own voice was creeping him out.

The corridor opened up into a large domed chamber and in the middle of said chamber was a metallic silver snake coiled in apparent slumber around an immense golden egg.

"There it is," Enzo hissed. "Circle around the other side in case it wakes up. I can distract it."

"All right, Enzo. Be careful."

No, no! I don't want to go near that thing! Where's Bob? Dot? Where am I?

Unexpectedly, the snake raised its head and blinked sleepily. Its eyes focused on Enzo. With a hiss, the snake reared. Enzo drew his sword and slashed upward, just as the snake plunged its head towards him. Acidic bile dripped from its fangs.

"AndrAIa get the egg!"

Enzo rushed the gigantic beast and was very suddenly and violently being slammed to the floor.

The snake's tail had wrapped around his ankles and was dragging him across the floor. The young sprite was lifted off his feet.

"Enzo, Enzo!" AndrAIa was screaming.

The snake began to wrap itself around Enzo's legs, his torso ...

There were flashes of white light and a screaming voice and suddenly the snake began to tighten its murderous hold. Enzo opened his mouth to scream and nothing came out and the coils continued to tighten until ...

Enzo came awake and looked up into the tear-filled eyes of his sister and realized he had almost been deleted. But it hadn't been him, it had been Matrix and Enzo knew then and there that he had Matrix's memories and the nightmare would be the first of many.

* * *

"So Little Man, what did you want to talk about?"

Enzo drew in a breath. He was so happy to see Bob again, even though he looked really weird now. He had heard people whispering about what Bob had done and Enzo refused to believe that his hero had actually tried to injure his sister. Enzo decided he'd deal with anyone who said anything about it in front of him.

He was glad they were relatively alone. Enzo had managed to get Melissa to finally go and get some rest. Somehow, even while he was unconscious he had known she was there the entire time. She was his best friend.

Enzo was even gladder to be alive. The memory of his assault at the hands of Matrix was still vivid in his processor. Bob had assured him Matrix was himself, but Enzo refused to believe it. Not after the hurriedly whispered conversation that he and Melissa had while Bob and Dot dozed, his sister beside him and Bob sitting on the stool.

So Enzo figured that he had better say what he had to say to Bob right now because he doubted he'd get the chance later.

Enzo drew the blanket closer to his chin, "Well - I wanted to say I was sorry."

"For what?"

"I --," Enzo looked into the Guardian's eyes and had to struggle not to look away. That yellow was really freaking him out. "I lied to you."

"You Enzo, about what?"

"What you asked me back in Mainframe about Matrix?"

A peculiar look crossed Bob's face. Enzo wasn't sure he knew what it meant. "You asked me to give him a chance and I said I would."

"Yes, I remember, Enzo," Bob said quietly.

"I know this might not be the best time to tell you this. I mean, I know you're sad about Turbo and all, but I wanted to say I'm sorry before it was too late."

"What do you mean before it's too late?"

At his question, Enzo looked away. A shudder passed over his small frame.

"Enzo look at me. What did you mean by that?"

"I mean Matrix," Enzo had to get Bob to understand. "I wasn't going to give him a chance even when you asked me. Because I thought he hated me. And now I know I won't because --,"

The figure that appeared from behind the partition abruptly tore Enzo's attention away from Bob. Instantly, a chill seized him at the sight of his older counterpart, who looked even more alien than Bob did. It was suddenly and uncomfortably closed in the room. Enzo took deep lungs-full of air but his throat seemed to constrict and he was reminded of being crushed by the giant snake.

"Matrix," Bob started to rise, but Enzo frantically grasped his arm.

"Don't leave me," Enzo muttered.

"Enzo, it's okay --,"

"No! It's not okay!" Enzo's attention was once again diverted as AndrAIa stepped beside Matrix. "You don't understand!"

Enzo turned what he hoped was a hateful glare on Matrix, "But you do, don't you!"

Matrix didn't speak, but continued to stare almost impassively at the little sprite. AndrAIa said, "Sparky?"

"He hates me Bob, it's true!"

"Enzo --,"

But the little sprite ignored his hero, his attention, his extreme dislike, all on Matrix, "He wanted to delete me Bob!"

"Enzo, you know that isn't true!" AndrAIa said.

"Of course it's true!" Enzo still refused to take his eyes off Matrix. Enzo knew Matrix could strike anytime and although Enzo also knew there was little he could do about it he still didn't want to be caught off guard. "You and Dot were asleep and Melissa and I were talking. Melissa told me all about how Daemon works. She told me to watch out for Bob and Matrix." The little sprite turned his head then to look at Bob, "But I know you won't hurt me Bob because you don't have any bad thoughts about me."

His eyes back on Matrix, he said, "But you do!"

"Enzo," AndrAIa said carefully, "You have to understand that Daemon had control of them both --,"

"I know she did!" Enzo's voice was high and shrill and he barely heard Bob's admonishment for yelling at AndrAIa. "But you don't know how she does it! Melissa told me! She takes all the bad thoughts inside of you and uses them against you! She makes people do bad things that way."

When no one spoke, Enzo looked from AndrAIa to Bob, "Don't you two get it?"

When the tense silence lengthened, Enzo muttered, "Doesn't anybody care that he tried to delete me?"

"Of course we care," Bob said, "But Enzo --,"

"No," he had to make them understand before --, "Do you know what he said, while he --? He said he hated me. That he wanted to delete me and that I was weak and pathetic and once I was gone, he wouldn't have any more reminders. I remember everything!"

Still Matrix didn't reply. Enzo went on, "Daemon did something to me. I know things that only he knows. I've had bad dreams about things, places, I've never seen or been to before."

Bob made a noise that drew Enzo's attention, "No. Bob, you knew?"

"I'd forgotten until now," Bob whispered. "Yes, I knew about - what Daemon planned to do - but that was when I wasn't myself. And neither was Matrix. If you're willing to forgive me why not him?"

"You know why, Bob." Enzo said accusingly. He didn't know what to do about Bob's admission. Things were rapidly becoming a waking nightmare. "If he didn't really feel that way, Daemon couldn't of used his bad feelings to make him come after me. He wanted me to delete even before Daemon got to him."

"Matrix, tell him that isn't true," Bob spoke to the renegade for the first time.

"He can't," Enzo spat the words, "because he knows I'm right." Enzo threw back the covers and despite his chill and fatigue, crawled to the edge of the bed, "Look at the proof. The things he said in the Principal Office. Yeah I heard that, and all those other times when things went wrong for him, he blamed me."

Enzo climbed from the bed. His legs barely supported him but he forced himself to stand erect and face his glowering mirror image and for the first time addressed Matrix directly. "You're even ashamed of our name."

His tiny hands fisted, "I am Enzo Matrix. You - you're nothing! That's what you are!"

"I'm nothing!" Words exploded forth from the renegade at last, "Big words coming from a cheap carbon copy!"

"Matrix!" Bob came violently to his feet.

"See!" Enzo said. "You just proved my point. Get out!"

Bob was saying something, trying to calm him but Enzo barely heard.

"Get out!" Enzo's strength fled, but he wouldn't rest until the big ugly green guy was away from him. He started screaming the phrase repeatedly, "Get out, get out, get out!"

He didn't want to see Matrix. He wished he would never see him again. Rose rushed in demanding to know what was happening. Things took on a surreal quality as Enzo was gently forced back to bed by Rose and Bob and AndrAIa all but dragged Matrix from the room.

Rose was handing him something in a glass and he drank it without questioning what it may be, "Bob?" He said afterwards, "Don't leave me okay? I know he'll try to delete me again. Please don't say he won't. You know as well as I do he will."

He heard Bob expel a breath. "All right, Enzo, I won't go anywhere."

"Thanks Bob," Enzo snuggled against the Guardian's chest, feeling safer than he had in a long time. "And Bob?"

"Hmm?"

"I know you didn't mean to hurt Dot," Enzo muttered and as he drifted off to sleep he knew it would not be a peaceful one.

* * *

Bob ignored the fearful looks he received as he made his way through the corridors of the factory. He knew he was being shadowed but quite frankly he didn't care. If he wanted to, if Dariem was still in control, he could take control of the entire complex. The lax security on the ship had proven that to him. He figured someone would eventually alert Desdemona to his roaming about, but he hoped he could get what he had to do finished before - what? Surely Desdemona wouldn't think of imprisoning him again?

He wanted to get back to the infirmary before Enzo woke up although Rose had assured him the little sprite would sleep for the rest of the second. Ray was with Enzo now. It wasn't hard to locate Matrix and AndrAIa. They wouldn't be allowed to leave the complex grounds. Behind the factory a grassy area had been created with benches and data trees for shade for the employees to have lunch. It was there that he finally located the renegade and the game sprite.

AndrAIa did not look happy. Which Bob supposed was understandable. Matrix was sitting on the bench, his head lowered, while AndrAIa paced back and forth, her hands waving in exaggerated motions. As Bob drew near he could hear AndrAIa yelling.

"I don't understand Matrix. I just don't. What's wrong with you?"

"I told you AndrAIa," Matrix muttered.

"Matrix --," AndrAIa took his big hand in hers, "Enzo - I want to understand."

"So do I," Bob said, alerting them to his presence.

AndrAIa stood just as Matrix turned.

"Can we talk Matrix? AndrAIa, a moment?"

"Sure Bob," AndrAIa said. "Maybe you can reason with him."

When the two were alone, Bob sat down on the bench next to Matrix. For a moment there was an uncomfortable silence. Quite different from what the two had shared in the past.

"We really blew it didn't we, Bob?"

Bob sighed, "I'll say it didn't turn out like we expected did it? But no, I don't think we blew it, because what happened was unanticipated."

"Desdemona," Matrix spat, "I can't believe she did it."

"Fanaticism makes people do senseless things," Bob said, "Not that I'm making excuses for her, mind you."

"Can you sense his presence Bob?" Matrix asked after a few nanos. "Is Dariem still there?"

"Yes."

"And Hex knows our thoughts now...our memories. And Little Enzo --,"

Bob realized that was the first time Matrix has spoken his other self's name aloud. "About Enzo --,"

"I already went through this with AndrAIa," Matrix abruptly stood.

Bob fought to control the surge of anger, "Why didn't you say anything? Enzo thinks you wanted to delete him!"

"I know what he thinks," Matrix seemed to be fighting his own inner battle. "I can't help that."

"Of course you can!"

"I can't!" Matrix whirled, "Because - he's right."

"What?" Bob stood to face him. "You can't seriously believe you meant to --?"

"No, not that," Matrix turned away again. "What I said in the Principal Office - did he tell you about that?"

"Yes." Bob said. "I wanted to talk to you about that too."

"Yeah, I figured you would."

"You're not being fair to him. Hating him for who he is isn't right and I think you know that."

"It's not him I hate," Matrix muttered. "It's me."

"But why?" Bob moved to stand behind him. He reached out and after a moment's hesitation, laid his hand on Matrix's shoulder.

"You know --," Matrix expelled a breath. "Don't you want to know what happened to my eye?"

The abrupt change of subject surprised Bob, "Well - I have, but I figured you tell me in your own time."

"It was in the last game before AndrAIa and I started game hopping," Matrix said, "It was - the User took the form of this monster - and I was so basic - I thought I could win. I was stupid and I lost! I let Dot down and you and myself! Because --,"

"Why?"

"I was a weak little boy! I wasn't you Bob! I wanted to be you, I wanted to make you proud of me and --,"

Matrix's massive frame shook and his hands balled into fists. Bob moved to stand in front of him but the brawny sprite wouldn't look at him.

"We've been through this Matrix," Bob said. "I already told you I was proud of you. Didn't you believe me?"

Finally the emerald-skinned warrior looked at him, "Of course I did!"

"Well?" Bob suddenly noticed something over Matrix's shoulder. Several binome guards were hurrying towards them. "You did your best and isn't that all I've ever asked of you?"

"Yes."

"Stop beating yourself up over this. I've made my share of mistakes too. Look at what happened with Megabyte. Maybe none of this would have happened if I hadn't trusted him."

"But Bob, there was no other way! You did what you thought you had to do."

"And so did you," Bob said emphatically. "Maybe I owe you an apology. I should have never made you feel like you had to be like me. The only thing I ever wanted from you was to be Enzo Matrix."

"Yeah but now there are two of me. Who is the real one? He said I was nothing. Maybe he's right."

"No, he wasn't right, and he'll realize that," Bob said. "Maybe - I don't know, this was meant to happen for a reason. Phong always says nothing is merely 'chance'. In any event I think you two are going to end up being good for each other."

"All right Bob," Matrix sighed. "I'll try. I can't promise any miracles."

"Not asking for them," Bob smiled. "You have to make peace with him."

"He won't understand. Especially not with Melissa telling him to watch his back."

"Hmm - that is a problem," he wondered if Dot could talk to Melissa. "You'll have to win her trust to. Because it looks like she's going to be around for awhile."

"And what about that Bob? I mean Hex was causing enough problems and now this? I would never have fallen for a viral!"

"Matrix," Bob stepped away as the guards approached. His big friend still had a lot to learn.

One dark blue binome stepped forward, obviously terrified of the two ravenous virals, "By order of Mistress Desdemona, you are to return to the command center with us, immediately."

Matrix grinned evilly, "Is that so?"

"What do you say Matrix? Blast them into pixels?" Bob smiled, showing his fangs.

"Works for me."

The binomes scattered in panic.

"That wasn't very nice of us, was it?" Bob said.

"Nope," Matrix smirked and the two sprites started back inside.


Read Chapter 20 | Back to The Daemon Conflict