The Daemon Conflict
Chapter 2 - Into the Fire
Melissa sat stiffly, looking neither left nor right. Her eyes trained on the vid-screen that allowed a panoramic view of the sector of the Web through which they travelled. To be allowed on the bridge of the lead ship, Ravage, was considered an honour by many, but to Melissa it was little more than a pain in the ASCII.
“Why is she here?” The viral assassin Nemesis hissed. She and the two others stood in a corner near the communications centre.
“Really, dear girl, you’ve asked that so often and each time you have, I’ve given you the same answer, ‘I don’t know’.”
“Don’t call me ‘girl’ you wuss,” Nemesis hissed at her companion.
The viral Quicksilver smiled thinly, although he made no indication that he had paid her insult any attention, “It’s a moot point really. She’s the daughter of our queen and she is here. If it bothers you so, speak to Daemon.”
Nemesis snorted, “Oh sure, talk to Daemon.”
“She might just agree with you. There’s no love between them. In fact, I believe our queen rather despises the wretched little thing.”
The more they talked, the more Melissa’s pride suffered, that is, what little pride she had. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the uncomfortable chair and concentrated instead on the sounds that made up the atmosphere of the lead ship.
She knew there were four battle cruisers besides the lead ship and almost one thousand fighters, twenty searchers; small fast ships sent on spy missions; and one hundred death strikes; ships that had only one purpose, to perform suicide strikes against their enemies that would result in the destruction of the ship itself, but the source powering the strikes was damaging enough to disable a cruiser. It had been how they had won the battle against System 101.
Going over these facts in her mind helped Melissa drown out the horrid words. Then came that malicious laugh that Melissa so hated hearing and she tensed, her nails digging into the chair arm.
“She’s not so bad!” A high-pitched voice sang out. “She gives me so much amusement!”
Melissa fought the rising panic. No, she would not listen to him.
“You may have time to play childish little tricks, Chaos,” Nemesis addressed the third viral assassin. “Some of us have better things to do.”
“You never let me have any fun,” Chaos muttered.
Of the three of her mother’s chief assassins, Melissa feared Chaos the most. He was a wild virus, more malevolent and sadistic than any other viral she knew of, he delighted in playing mean tricks on her. Since the last one, Melissa had not been able to get a full nights’ downtime. The memory of waking up, with thousands of viral worms in her bed had seen to that.
“Sir!” the voice made Melissa’s eyes snap open. A Guardian stood before General Ashar and handed him a disk.
“Excellent,” Ashar grinned evilly. “Admiral.”
Admiral Driver, an aging binome, stood, “Sir?”
“New orders from Mistress Daemon,” Ashar said. “We have heard from a spy we sent into the system of Mainframe.”
This news even piqued Melissa’s interest. While trying not to be too conspicuous, she leaned forward.
“They know of the armada?” Driver asked.
“Yes, but it matters little,” Ashar sneered. “Daemon wants to send one of the three ahead to Mainframe with a small group of fighters. It is obvious that the Guardians will come to her in the Super Computer, so Mainframe will have little protection. Her orders are that the Command.com of Mainframe be deleted. Then Mainframe will be easily subjugated.”
Melissa’s attention had been on the General but was suddenly drawn to the Guardian who was being ignored. At the General’s declaration of the impending assassination of Mainframe’s Command.com, the Guardian had reacted. Yes Melissa was certain of it! His eyes had widened and his facial muscles had tensed. But that was impossible - unless -
To Melissa’s utter astonishment, the Guardian’s eyes fell upon her - and he winked.
No, it couldn’t be! Melissa stared hard at the burly Guardian and concentrated on the pulse of yellow at his temple. She saw past the sprite himself and into the infection and where it had control and it struck her like a laser shot.
He wasn’t under her mother’s control!
Melissa turned quickly in her seat and hoped no one had seen his action. Her eyes darted around. Everyone was going about his or her business. The Admiral and the General continued to converse, and the three assassins were arguing over who would be sent to Mainframe. Slowly, Melissa turned again, but now the Guardian had the same glassy-eyed look as the rest.
Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe the wink had been an involuntary movement. But even as the thought occurred, she dismissed it. She was certain of his reaction and of the wink.
So now what should she do? It occurred to her if the Guardian hadn’t trusted her with that secret, he would have never given her the signal. So what did the Guardian want her to do, if anything? She wouldn’t tell, that was a given. They probably wouldn’t believe her anyway. But why had he entrusted her with his secret? He was always on the bridge with the General, having been assigned to him by her mother. What was his name? She couldn’t remember. Melissa wanted to give him some sign that she understood but she didn’t dare.
The voice so surprised her; she jumped out of her chair, “Yes sir?” Her actions elicited several snide remarks and snickers.
“Where is your processor, girl? Your mother commands you to accompany the assassin.”
Oh no. “Yes General Ashar.”
“Turbo, you will also accompany them.”
Turbo! So that was his name.
“Yes, sir,” Turbo spoke. Melissa liked the sound of his voice, even as deadpan as it sounded. Or at least as he pretended to be.
“Mistress Daemon has informed me of her orders to you,” Ashar addressed Melissa again. “If you succeed, you may just win her favor. But I seriously doubt you will.”
Melissa wanted to cry a protest. She had power. She was stronger than any one them knew, although she kept such things to herself. If it were known just how much power she did have, they would exploit it in some way. Beside, there was always someone stronger. Yet, if this was a chance to prove herself she should take it. She had grown weary long ago of the way she was treated.
“The little wimp probably doesn’t have the circuits to delete someone,” Nemesis hissed. “So which one shall it be, general?”
“Since you are so vocal, my dear Nemesis, you may have the honor of deleting the Command.com.”
Nemesis bowed slightly, “I am honored, general. I will not fail you.”
“It’s not me you have to worry about failing,” General Ashar approached Nemesis. He handed her the disk. “Your target is imprinted on this disk.”
“Good,” Nemesis’ smile dripped poison, “Am I expected to protect her?” She motioned to Melissa.
“The orders made no mention of such,” Ashar replied. “However much as Daemon despises her, I feel that if you were merely to allow her daughter to be deleted, she would not be pleased.”
Nemesis shrugged, “Just as long as she stays out of my way.”
“I have my orders,” Melissa had been pushed too far. “I’m no more pleased about this arrangement then you are.”
“What did you say?” Nemesis turned violently to her and her emerald eyes glowed.
Melissa’s first instinct was to shrink back. Where she had gotten the courage to speak up like that was a mystery to her. “Y-you heard me.”
Nemesis bared needle-sharp fangs. “You little --,”
Her tirade was interrupted by an unpleasant laugh from Quicksilver, “Looks like the little whelp has some fight in her after all!”
“Shut up!” Nemesis snarled at him.
“I suggest you both,” General’s Ashar’s tone held no room for argument, “prepare yourselves for your mission. You have your orders and failure will not be tolerated. Dismissed.”
Glad to finally be getting away from them all, Melissa left the bridge and made her way to her room, deliberately taking her time. Her apartments were in the lower levels of the ship, despite her being Daemon’s daughter but she preferred them that way, as she liked the solitude.
So, Nemesis had been ordered to delete the Command.com. Melissa wasn’t concerned with that at all, unless - well something the general had said stayed in Melissa’s mind. If she succeeded in her task, her mother might find favor in her. Melissa didn’t want to delete anyone, but if it would cause her mother to be proud of her . . .
Melissa laughed at that thought. She doubted her mother was capable of feeling pride, but perhaps her life would improve if she carried out her orders, and perhaps, if she deleted the Command.com . . .
She didn’t want to do that either. Was Nemesis right? Did she even have the circuits for deleting?
If she failed, it wouldn’t matter. She had a horrible feeling that if she did; she wouldn’t have to worry about anything else ever again. Ashar had said as much. Failure would not be tolerated.
“What are you doing here?”
The bearded binome turned with a start. His eyes went wide and his mouth gaped with fear.
Matrix took a menacing step forward, “I asked you a question.”
“I appear to be lost,” the binome seemed to regain his composure. “I was only trying to find my room.”
“You’re one of the captains aren’t you?”
“Captain Lynx, Sir Guardian, at your service.”
“I am not,” Matrix growled between his teeth, “a Guardian.”
“Oh --,” Captain Lynx seemed to be losing control once again, “I was told you were a cadet --,”
“You’re not anywhere near the guest quarters,” Matrix motioned down the hall, “Back that way.”
“My apologies, I meant no harm,” Lynx stepped back, “By your leave, sir.”
Matrix watched him go and his strong mouth curled in a sneer. He didn’t trust any one of the captains, although it was especially so of Captain Syn. Now this Captain Lynx was wandering around the Principal Office, with some lame excuse about being lost?
“Better go tell Dot,” Matrix muttered.
“Ms. Matrix I think I have a right to know what you plan on doing about Daemon!”
Dot made a show of straightening her glasses. She had no idea why she had agreed to see Captain Syn in her office. She was grateful that AndrAIa was there to, and Phong was just outside. Dot had left her office door open so Phong could hear everything.
“As I said before, Captain Syn,” Dot activated her organizer, “Preparations have already been made to --,”
“To the net with preparations!” Syn slammed a meaty fist on the surface of Dot’s desk.
“Hey!” AndrAIa walked fiercely forward to stand before Syn, “Mind your manners!”
“This is none of your business, fish girl!”
AndrAIa was about to respond in kind when she looked up and saw Matrix in the doorway. The brawny sprite crossed the room quickly.
Syn turned just a nano before Matrix slammed his fist into the captain’s jaw. Syn went down hard. Dot sat straighter, but made no move to stop her brother.
“Apologize,” Matrix growled as he leaned over the fallen captain.
“What! You can’t make me --,”
Matrix took him by the collar and hauled him up. The renegade pressed his face close to Syn’s, “I can’t make you?”
“No, stop! All right, I’m sorry!”
“Let him go, Matrix,” Dot managed to maintain an outward calm, but inside she was seething. And was equally grateful that Matrix obeyed.
“So this is how you handle your affairs?” Syn rubbed his throat, “With violence?”
“You should talk,” Matrix clenched his fists. “If you ever disrespect my sister or girlfriend again, I’ll break you in half, got that?”
“The refugees are afraid,” Syn ignored Matrix’s threat and turned back to Dot. “There are rumors going all around that Daemon is searching for the Guardian and your brother. They’re afraid Daemon will come here. You can’t cover this up forever Ms. Matrix. People will find out the truth, and you’ll have a full scale upheaval on your hands.”
With that Syn turned to go, then had to sidestep as Bob entered the office.
“Guardian,” Syn’s voice held a sarcastic tone.
Phong rolled in a few nanos later, “He is a very persistent sprite.”
“Door close,” Dot said. She stood. “He’s right, you know.”
“About what?” Matrix threw up his hands in frustration.
“The fact that we won’t be able to hide the truth forever,” Dot said.
“I take it Captain Syn is still demanding a full explanation of our plans?” Bob sat down on the edge of Dot’s desk.
“Unfortunately,” Dot stared at the figures traveling across the screen of her organizer. Mainframe was in dire financial straits and she was running out of ideas to remedy the problem. “I’m afraid he’ll deliberately stir up trouble.”
“That’s all we’ll need,” AndrAIa said.
“Something else, Dot,” Matrix said, “Although I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning. I just caught Captain Lynx sneaking around the back halls.”
“Did he say what he was doing?”
“He said he got lost looking for the guest quarters.”
“That’s a lame excuse if I ever heard one.” AndrAIa muttered.
“We’ll increase the guard within the P.O.,” Dot sighed. She rubbed her sore eyes with one hand. She hadn’t slept much lately. Dot caught Bob’s eyes and saw the concern for her mirrored there. “Mouse and Ray?”
“They’re going to meet us at the Super Computer after they do some scouting. Mouse knows where to go,” Bob said. “Dot --,”
“I know,” Dot said. She stood and sighed in defeat. She looked again at the figures but they blurred before her eyes and she fought to keep the tears from falling. With a deep intake of breath, Dot straightened to her full height.
“As you all know, Daemon’s Armada will arrive here in less than eleven seconds. We’ve already prepared our forces here and Cascade and Hard Drive have assured us that they’ll send at least two hundred ships between the two of them to help guard Mainframe. Whether or not that will be enough, we can only hope.”
“If Mouse and Ray can give us a count on the ships in the armada, they’ll try their best to get it to us, but they couldn’t promise anything.” Bob said.
“We’ll have to make due either way,” Dot went on. “At the first sign of trouble, the refugees will board the ships and be transported temporarily to Cascade and Hard Drive. Their Command.com’s are attempting to contact other systems for assistance, but I’ve received no word as of yet. Everyone is afraid of incurring Daemon’s wrath, and I can’t say I blame them. Our people will be moved to the lower levels. Phong, how are we on power?”
“The restart was a User-send. We are operating at peak efficiency, my child.”
“Good,” Dot looked to each of them. They were her family, her life. “I don’t need to tell you how dangerous your mission will be, or to be careful. If I don’t hear word from you within one cycle, I’ll attempt to send a rescue party.”
“Dot,” Matrix said grimly, “If you don’t hear from us by that time, don’t waste energy on trying to find us.”
“He’s right,” Bob slid from the desktop and moved towards her. “You’ll be expending all your energy on protecting Mainframe from the armada.”
“But --,” the protest died on her lips. She knew they were right, but the thought of their not coming back, of never seeing them again --, “You will come back.” She had to believe that, or she wouldn’t be able to function.
“Dot, we have some last minute preparations to make,” Bob said, “We’ll meet back here in a millisecond.”
She didn’t wonder what else needed to be done, “All right.”
When Dot was with Phong in the office, the sagely sprite rolled up to her, “Do you remember what I said to you before my child? About how we would have to fight for peace?”
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this, Phong,” Dot rubbed at the headache, which was just beginning to throb in the middle of her forehead. “First I lost Bob, then Enzo and AndrAIa, and now I may lose them again? I just got them all back, Phong.”
Phong laid his spindly fingers atop hers, “I told you once before you must be strong. But you are not alone. Use the strength and the love of your friends and family to sustain you, young one.”
“I-I’ll keep trying, Phong.”
“Rest for a little while,” Phong’s voice was gentle. “I’ll wake you when the time comes.”
The venerable sprite touched Dot on the forehead and much to her surprise, sleep came quickly; she laid her head on her arms on top of the desk and drifted off.
Bob didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to Little Enzo. He found the young sprite at Floating Point playing with Frisket. Bob sighed. All those young sprites here and Enzo still had no one else to pal around with?
“Bob!” Enzo didn’t catch him in the flying tackle as usual. Frisket on the other hand stayed true to form and growled at him.
“I need to talk to you, little man.”
Instantly, Enzo’s smile vanished, “You’re leaving aren’t you?”
Bob knelt before him, “Yes.”
“I knew it,” Enzo turned away and wrapped his arms around Frisket’s neck, burying his face in the dog’s soft fur, “Why do you have to go?”
“I told you why, Enzo,” Bob reached for him and Frisket snapped his jaws once. For the first time, the junkyard dog was beginning to annoy Bob. “I want to make it safe for you.”
“I-I know,” Bob heard the sob in his voice, but the young sprite refused to look at him. “I-I guess you won’t let me go to?”
“You have a more important job here.”
This caught Enzo’s interest. The little sprite wiped away his tears with the back of his hand, “I do?”
“Yes,” Bob said, seriously. “Daemon’s Web Armada is on its was here. Dot’s going to need a lot of encouragement and assistance. She can’t handle it alone. She’ll need you.”
“But I’m just a little sprite!”
“That makes no difference,” Bob smiled. “You’re intelligent, strong, and kind.”
“I’m not strong,” the bitterness in Enzo’s voice took Bob by surprise.
“What do you mean you’re not strong?”
“I’m not!” Enzo cried, “I’m a weak little sprite!”
“Enzo, where in the net did you get a ridiculous idea like that?”
“It was right after the restart. I heard them talking. Him and AndrAIa. Matrix said some things.”
“What did they say?”
“They didn’t know I was there. They were in the Principal Office. I was only looking for Frisket.”
“Matrix was saying how he’s tried so hard to be stronger than me, and now I’m back to haunt him. He said that he thought he had left that weak little sprite behind. He said that I would remind him day after day about how pathetic he was.”
Spamit, Matrix. “Enzo --,” for the first time, Bob realized he didn’t have an easy answer for the little sprite. He’d have a serious talk with Matrix once this was all over. “Matrix has some things he needs to work out for himself. He mistakenly believes they’re your fault, when they’re not.”
“They’re not!” Enzo said hotly. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, so if it’s anyone’s fault it’s his!”
Bob wished there was more time to talk to the little sprite, “Enzo, when we asked you how you felt about how you were processed were you completely honest with us?”
The young sprite didn’t answer immediately. Bob could see he was struggling with indecision.
“Enzo,” Bob sighed, “When I get back, and we go on our tour of the Super Computer, I want you to tell me everything, deal?”
“Enzo we could always talk before.”
“I know, Bob, but - I don’t know. This is all so random you know what I mean? I mean I’m not really me. He’s me. ”
“But I don’t want to be anything like him!” Enzo cried. “I don’t want to be some mean old renegade. I think he’s stupid! I won’t grow up that way, I wont!”
“Bob!” Fresh tears welled in the sprite’s eyes, “I won’t be like him will I?”
“Enzo, give Matrix a chance --,”
“Why?” Enzo demanded. “He’s not giving me one!”
“Matrix is going to need you to understand. You know him even better than AndrAIa does. When we come back, would you try?”
“Sure Bob,” Enzo agreed a little too quickly.
“Come on, it’s time to go,” Bob decided it was pointless arguing anymore.
Both sprites decompressed their zip boards.
“See ya later, boy!” Enzo scratched Frisket behind the ears. “I’ll meet you here later okay?”
Frisket barked once as Enzo hopped on his board.
“Like I was saying Enzo, I’m leaving you in charge here,” Bob said as they rose into the air. “Your sister is going to come to depend on you soon, although she doesn’t know it yet. I know you can handle it.”
“I’ll try my best, Bob.”
“You know something else I’ll need for you to do? Try and make friends with some of the other sprites your age.”
“I did try,” Enzo said on a sigh. “They won’t talk to me. They know who I am.”
At first it didn’t process with Bob what he meant, then it came to him. Of course, his sister is the evil Guardian’s girlfriend.
“So they’re scared of you because of me.”
“Yeah. It’s okay Bob. I don’t need anybody.”
“That’s not true and you know it. You don’t need Dot? Or me?”
“Of course I do!” Enzo pouted. “Geeze Bob, you’re my hero!”
Bob grinned at his young companion, “Okay then. Don’t give up, all right, Enzo?”
Enzo returned the smile, “I’ll keep trying.”
They arrived at the Principal Office. As they were walking down the hall towards the War Room, they saw Matrix and AndrAIa coming from the opposite direction. Bob glanced quickly at Enzo and saw his small frame go rigid at the sight of his counterpart.
Matrix carried two backpacks and AndrAIa carried one of her own. Bob didn’t need the supplies really. He had his own plan for defeating Daemon, but he didn’t mention it because in all honesty, he couldn’t guarantee it would work. It involved coming face to face with the super virus. If his plan failed, he wouldn’t get a chance at a second strike.
“Everything in order?” Bob asked as they approached.
“We’re all set,” Matrix handed Bob one of the packs. “Your contact in the Super Computer is expecting us?”
“Yes,” Bob turned and the door to the War Room slid open. Enzo moved in ahead and Bob guessed it was so he wouldn’t come in contact with Matrix. It was Bob however, who saw the unusual sight in Dot’s office.
Dot’s head was down on the desk and immediately; a twinge of concern hit him. But then Phong touched Dot lightly on the temple and she came awake, seeming more alert than he had seen her in a long time.
“They are here, my child,” Phong said.
Dot stood as Bob entered the office.
So this is it, Bob thought. He wished he could have a few moments alone with her.
“We have received an encrypted message from your rebel contact, Bob,” Phong handed Bob a disk. “A Mistress Katiyana?”
Bob smiled at the pleasant memories the name invoked. “Yes, she’s an instructor at the Academy. Actually, she’s the Keytool Master.”
“Keytool Master?” AndrAIa said.
“The Keeper of the Keytools,” Bob smiled. “You didn’t get one unless you went through her and believe me, she made you work for it.”
Bob inserted the disk in the player on Dot’s desk. A vidwindow opened and the coordinates flashed before him. “I know where this is,” Bob said. “Not the best neighborhood to land but we’ll take the chance.”
Dot walked around the desk and stood to face him. “Just get in there and do the job and come back. Don’t take any random chances, understand?”
“And don’t call me ma’am.”
Bob pulled her into a tight embrace. “I’ll be back soon.”
They said their goodbyes and their, ‘be carefuls’. Then Bob opened the portal. The spires of the Super Computer appeared within the shining globe.
“May the User be with you, my children,” Phong called.
“Take care of things here, old friend,” Bob looked back. “Take care of your sister, Enzo.”
“I will Bob, I promise.”
The three sprites leapt inside and the globe collapsed into nothing.
Enzo wanted to cry out to Bob not to go. He had lied again and Enzo hated lying to Bob. No one really knew how he felt. How could they? He was a fake! Well maybe not a fake, but a carbon copy. And now he might never see Bob again and he had told Bob he would give Matrix a chance and Enzo had no intention of giving Matrix anything.
In fact, Enzo decided that he was going to do everything he could not to be like Matrix. And the first thing he would do is take care of Dot. Not abandon her like Matrix had done.
Enzo took his sister’s hand. It was shaking in his grasp. “Don’t worry, sis, they’ll be back safe.”
Dot smiled gratefully at him.
“I’ll take care of you, just like I promised Bob,” Enzo attempted to stand taller. “I’ll help you run things.”
Dot didn’t speak, but knelt and hugged Enzo tightly. Enzo looked over her shoulder and saw Phong smiling at him. The old sprite adjusted his glasses and rolled quietly from the room.
The portal deposited them in a narrow alley between two squat dilapidated structures. The place smelled of refuse and Bob wrinkled his noise against the odor.
“Where are we?” Matrix’s voice was laced with disgust.
“Well it’s called Outlook Sector, mostly warehouses and storage facilities, but this particular place is Hacker’s Alley.” Bob said. “This is not a place you want to be caught alone at night. But this is no where near the Main Cities where Daemon has her seat of power, so we should be relatively safe.”
“This way,” Bob motioned them deeper into the shadows. The three carefully picked there way through piles of trash and recycled data. AndrAIa gasped as a rat scurried across her path, causing Matrix to turn quickly and reach for Gun. AndrAIa gave a quick shake of her head.
The alley dead-ended and at the wall to the building on their left was a heavy iron door. Bob approached it and knocked five times. Right above the door a rectangular panel slid open and a small crystalline globe floated down to hover before Bob. The globe pulsed with a musical note several times and Glitch pulsed in time with it. Then the globe disappeared back into the panel.
The door slid open with a ponderous groan and a voice whispered from the darkness beyond, “Come in, quickly!”
The three sprites squeezed through the small space. The door slid shut, bathing them in darkness save the red glow from Matrix’s eye.
The statuesque woman that stood before them raised her right hand and whispered, “Tracker, light.”
It was only then that they realized she wore a keytool. Another shining crystalline globe appeared.
“Greetings Guardian Bob.” Then woman had an angular face of metallic silver and almond-shaped eyes of the same color. Her royal blue hair was in a thick braid down the length of her back.
“Katiyana,” Bob bowed.
“I think we can dispense with the formalities,” Katiyana said. “Come this way.”
The corridor down which they traveled was cramped and as odorous as the alley outside. The only sound in the confined space was their hurried footfalls.
Katiyana make no further attempt at conversation. Bob knew that was her way and didn’t force anything from her. He knew she would explain all once they arrived at their destination.
They made a few turns and came to another iron door, where a binome was sitting in a chair beneath a weak blue light. He stood up at Katiyana’s approach.
“Is that the Guardian?” He whispered. “Thank the User!”
“Do you have them?” Katiyana asked.
The binome reached under his chair and picked up a small steel box. He opened it with a tiny brass key. “Here.”
Inside were two red metal armbands. Katiyana handed one to Bob and the other to Matrix. “Put these on and keep them on. They’ll prevent the other Guardians from tracing you through your protocol codes.”
The two sprites obeyed.
“Let us in,” Katiyana turned back to the binome.
“Yes ma’am.” The binome turned to the door and tapped in the code on the security keypad situated within the wall.
“You will generate distrust at first,” Katiyana said. “I had to convince the other resistance leaders to accept your help. They believe you may betray us to Daemon to curry her favor.”
They were led into an immense room, which Bob realized was some type of warehouse. There were stacks of crates and barrels and sacks of various supplies. Dozen’s of sprites and binomes all seemingly intent on a variety of duties, passed them by with only a cursory glance. They came to a centralized area of the room were a command center had been haphazardly set up.
Bob could tell the computer system was ancient. He wondered what their capabilities were. Three sprites sat around a circular control panel in the middle. Two vidwindows were open as they conversed with two binomes on the other side.
One sprite, a young woman with purple hair and yellow skin looked up, and then motioned with her hand to the others. Three pairs of suspicious eyes turned to stare at them.
“My friends,” Katiyana said, “this is Guardian 452, Robert Lan and his companions.”
The purple haired woman stood. “I’m Desdemona. Second in Command of the Resistance. And I want to go on record that I don’t trust you in the least and I will be keeping my eye on you.”
“That’s understandable,” Bob said. “But I can assure you that --,”
Desdemona waved a dismissive hand and snorted, “There are no assurances in this war, Guardian.” Desdemona spoke Bob’s rank as though it were a curse. “We thought the Guardian’s were all powerful. That no one could take control of the Collective.” She laughed bitterly. “My home sector was one of the first to be overrun. The Guardian there, perhaps you know him, Guardian 107?”
“He is - was - my fiancé,” Desdemona’s bitter smile contorted her features, “He tried to delete me.”
“I’m sorry,” Bob said.
“I’ll just bet you are,” Desdemona turned to the other two sprites. “This is Dom Markup.” She gestured to the small sprite that was almost boyish in appearance. In fact he reminded Bob a little of Enzo, that is, young Enzo, with a smooth green face and an explosion of curly hair a shocking neon pink. “He’s our tech guy.”
“Hello,” was all Dom said.
“And he,” Desdemona motioned to the third sprite, an elderly tan-skinned man with unkempt dark green hair, “is Neuron Cyber.”
Cyber came half way out of his chair and nodded. “Neuron is our weapons expert. He’s also our fight instructor. The people you see here are just ordinary citizens, but we are teaching them to fight and defend themselves.”
“That’s a good idea,” Bob realized Desdemona reminded him of Dot. “This is the cadet, Matrix.” Bob motioned to Matrix who nodded. “And his companion AndrAIa.”
“Some chairs for our new friends,” Desdemona smirked.
A binome brought three chairs to the console. Katiyana took her own seat.
“The information I am about to divulge was obtained by the loss of much life,” Desdemona said. “So if the three of you are spies I swear I’ll find some way to make you pay if you betray us.”
“Desdemona, that is quite enough,” Katiyana said.
“Is it Mistress?” Desdemona said. “All the lives ruined or lost? All the destruction and mayhem?”
“Des, do you trust my judgment?”
“Then trust me in this. Bob can assist us.”
“I trust you, Mistress. It’s them I don’t trust.”
Desdemona sat down and tapped some keys on the control panel. The cylinder of light flickered uncertainly, but after a time, it solidified enough to present a distorted image. “This is the only picture we have of Daemon.”
Bob squinted at the image of the tall lithe being, that reminded him of Hex in some aspects. Many terms came to his mind as he looked upon his enemy from the first time. Even though it was only an image, it seemed to exude darkness and malevolence. She seemed to have no eyes, only black sockets that stared back at them. Her skin was blood red and six insect-like arms protruded from her back. There was little else they could discern about her physical appearance from it.
“So,” Bob said, “There is our enemy.”
“As you know, she’s made her base of operation within Guardian Hall,” Desdemona said. “There is only one way inside.”
Desdemona continued typing. The image of Daemon disappeared and was replaced by a 3D map. “The reservoir. You’ll have to swim underwater to this pipeline. It leads into the Hall’s water treatment facility - the map turned to give them a better view -- we have a contact within a facility and he’s going to open the pipe for you to gain access.”
“This sounds too risky,” Matrix commented, “Are you sure your man will be there to let us out?”
“No, we’re not sure,” Desdemona glared at him. “I told you there were no assurances. You wanted a plan to get inside the Hall, this is it. We’re not miracle workers. Frankly, I’m curious as to what you plan on doing if you get inside. Walk up to Daemon and say, ‘Hi, I’m Guardian Bob, I’m here to delete you?’”
“Des, I said that was enough!”
“No,” Bob raised his hand. “I have my own plan for defeating Daemon.”
“And that is?”
“I’m afraid I can’t divulge it,” Bob spoke softly. “Besides that I’m not certain it will work.”
“Let me see if I’m understanding this,” Desdemona said. “You have a plan to defeat Daemon and you’re not even certain it will work? I’m sure you realize if it doesn’t work she’ll delete you in the next nano? Or worse she’ll take you prisoner and torture all of our secrets out of you?”
Desdemona stood, “I’m sorry Mistress, I don’t approve of this at all.”
“I agree,” Neuron spoke for the first time. “All our lives depend on this unknown plan. I’m not willing to take the chance.”
“Neither am I,” Dom chimed in. “Mistress, you’re heard the stories of the horrible tortures Daemon inflicts on captives. Sprites and binomes being thrown to the viral bugs or worms.” The small sprite shivered. “I’ve seen her handiwork. I’m sorry. I think these three should leave.”
“So do I.”
“No,” Katiyana turned to Bob and stared evenly at him. “I believe I know what Bob plans to do and no, he cannot divulge it. If Daemon is too powerful it won’t work, but if it does, she and everything she uses to control others will be utterly wiped out.”
“So,” Katiyana continued, “we will accept Bob’s help. What choice do we have? We’ve no other option.”
“So you’re overriding our decision?” Desdemona whispered.
“I’m not ‘overriding’ anything,” Katiyana leaned back and steepled her fingers. “I am saying, if anyone has any other ideas voice it now. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to defeat Daemon. Her armada is already on its way to Bob’s system.”
“At least we don’t have to contend with that,” Dom muttered.
“I suggest we make preparations to move to our emergency facility,” Desdemona said, “In case they fail.”
“Agreed,” Katiyana said.
“May the User protect us all from treachery,” Desdemona said. “Very well. Do our guests have any questions?”
“What about the Academy?” Bob addressed Katiyana.
“All the instructors were infected by Daemon. The students weren’t, however they are in a dismal situation.”
“The Guardians are unbelievably cruel to them,” Dom said. “The students are still permitted to learn. In fact Daemon wants it that way. Just more Guardians for her to infect. But now --,”
“It’s not the same,” Katiyana said. “The instructors confer cruel punishments for any minor infraction. The Read Only Room has been locked up. No one is allowed to access any information or histories. There are no freedoms, no respites, and no communication with the outside world. They are prisoners.”
“And Keytool Hall?”
Katiyana smiled, “That is the one good thing. I managed to seal it off before I made my escape.”
Bob expelled a breath, “Good.”
“Not that they would have been able to use the Keytools had they gotten in.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t have knowing you.”
“Do we have any reports on the interior condition of the Hall?” Matrix asked.
“Very vague ones,” Dom said. “No one goes into Daemon’s inner sanctum and comes out alive. There are reports of viral worms and bugs running rampant and completely under Daemon’s control. They say the entire place has been desecrated, but we’re not sure how. We can’t tell you if there’s been any radical changes.”
Dom turned to Bob, “When was the last time you were within the Hall?”
“It’s been awhile.”
Dom sighed, “Then you’re going to have to rely on your memories.”
“Yes,” Bob downcast his eyes. His memories were of a better time. When a sprite gone bad had been caught in a compromising position by a young High Guardian Turbo, and had been offered a better life at the Academy by said sprite.
“Bob,” AndrAIa spoke for the first time, “I can swim in the pipeline first and check to make certain the contact is there.”
“No AndrAIa, it’s too dangerous,” Matrix said immediately.
“Hey, Sparky, are you forgetting I can breath under water?”
“You can?” Desdemona looked at AndrAIa incredulously. “How is that possible?”
“It’s a skill of mine,” AndrAIa smiled, “What do you say Bob?”
“All right, AndrAIa,” Bob acquiesced.
“It’s as good a plan as any, Matrix,” Bob said, “Katiyana, when can we begin?”
“Tomorrow night, if we hear from our contact. We need to verify the exact time he’ll be waiting for us.”
“I’m going with you.”
“What?” Bob said, “Katiyana, you can’t! The resistance needs you!”
“I’ve already discussed this with my comrade’s in arms. They like it no more than you do, but I must go.” Katiyana suddenly did something very unlike her. She reached across the console and laid her hand atop Bob’s. “Like you, I have my own way of defeating Daemon. I must return to the Keytool Hall. You must follow your own path.”
“Yes,” Bob said. “What can we do in the mean time? We’d like to help.” “Well, Dom, could you use some tech support?”
“Yes,” Dom stood, “Either one of you know about computer systems?”
“That would be her,” Matrix motioned with his thumb at AndrAIa
“I assume you could assist me with weapons and training, Matrix?” Neuron asked the muscular sprite.
“Bob, you come with me, I want to show you something,” Katiyana said.
The Keytool Mistress led Bob through a maze of stacked crates, scaffolding and small areas partitioned off with crude curtains. Bob suspected the undersized spaces were the resistance fighters had their downtime.
When they reached the far wall of the building, Katiyana led him to a flight of stairs that ascended to a catwalk, which, Bob guessed, encompassed the entire building. There were small offices along the catwalk, and Katiyana opened the door to one and led Bob inside. “Tracker, light. Please sit down, Bob.”
There was a mini-consol in the office and Katiyana activated it. Bob looked around noticing the clutter of disks, chips, and various small mechanical devices.
“My office, yes I know, it is quite messy.”
“Not like you at all,” Bob smiled.
“What you see here is all I could save from the Academy.”
Bob looked away, “The Academy. Is it that terrible?”
Katiyana looked up from her programming of the console, “Yes.”
Again a cylinder of light rose from the consol surface, “I didn’t want to say anything about this in front of the others. They don’t know about Hexadecimal.”
“At all, or the fact that she’s Daemon’s daughter?”
“Both,” Katiyana replied, “but here’s something you don’t know.”
An image appeared within the cylinder, one of a ten-hour-old girl. Bob leaned forward as a shudder raced across his skin, “Oh no.”
Had she been a regular sprite, Bob would have thought she just an innocent child, who could perhaps be a playmate for Little Enzo. But the sight of the familiar mask; although gray instead of white; and the cinnamon coloring of her skin gave Bob an all too different opinion of her. She had no back appendages. In fact, she looked more like a sprite than viral. But there was no denying who she was.
“The last of her strain, or so I’m told.”
“Oh no,” Bob repeated.
“Bob, are you certain that Hexadecimal is benign? That she is no threat to us?”
“I’m almost positive, but you know I can’t give you a definite answer,” Bob couldn’t imagine how Hex would react when she discovered she had a baby sister.
“We know next to nothing about her. Just that her name is Melissa. We think she’s on the lead ship of the armada, but we’re not certain. Information about her is sketchy or has been proven untrue.”
“Katiyana,” Bob said carefully, “Why are you showing me this?”
The Keytool Mistress didn’t reply immediately. She stared for a time at the image of the little girl, “You know why Bob. She may be within Guardian Hall. You may have to --,”
“No, I won’t!” Bob said, “She’s an innocent child!”
“An innocent - Bob, for User’s sake, she’s Daemon’s daughter! Do you think she wouldn’t hesitate to delete you at the first possible opportunity? And if she’s allowed to compile to her full potential then we may very well be lost!”
“She’s still a child,” Bob protested.
“I know. I don’t like the idea any more than you do,” Katiyana said, “If you can take her alive, then all well and good. Perhaps we can use her as a bargaining chip.”
“That’s no better than --,”
“Bob, what would you have us do? You were lost in the Web for so long. You don’t know what it’s been like. You’ve only had an inkling of what we’ve been through. Your Web World War was a cakewalk compared to this.”
Bob leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, his hands gripping the armrests. He fought to blot out the image of the little viral girl, “Maybe I can help her like I did Hex.”
“She’s not insane from an injury, Bob. There’s no healing needed. Either we take her prisoner or --,”
“I’m going to try,” Bob smiled. “Maybe I’m the insane one.”
“Don’t let your compassion be the deletion of you, Bob.” Katiyana pressed a button and the image disappeared, “Don’t tell your companions about this until you away from the others. They should know. Come on now, I’ll show you where you and the others will be sleeping.”
As Katiyana closed the door behind them, Bob couldn’t help but wonder about the young viral. He would try his best to help her. But then again, Katiyana might be right. What if she didn’t need or want help? What if . . ?
Why couldn’t things be simple just once? Now even if he did destroy Daemon, she had an heir and if this child was anything like Daemon --
Bob didn’t want to consider what he may be forced to do.