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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 20 - Joining and Separation

As Bob and Matrix entered the command center all conversation ceased. Dot and AndrAIa were in the room. AndrAIa was at one of the workstations. Dot turned from the console and smiled at them, "I was just about to have someone come looking for you."

"Really?" Bob approached her, "Didn't Desdemona tell you about that little group she sent after us?"

"What?" Dot turned to glare at the rebel leader.

"You may feel content enough to let these two roam around the compound but I don't. I have my people to think of."

"Desdemona --,"

"Ladies," a new voice halted the beginning of the argument. Dom walked into the room. "I think we have more important matters to consider."

He walked right up to Bob and Matrix, "It's good to have you two back."

"Thank you, Dom," Bob said.

"Ms. Matrix, I've made the necessary adjustments to the communications equipment. You may make your attempt to contact Mainframe now."

Dot nodded, "I'm going to try and get the rest of our troops here. And see if Cascade and Harddrive can spare additional forces."

"They have to," Bob said, "No matter what happens it ends here. If we don't defeat Daemon now --,"

Dot nodded her understanding and turned back to her workstation.

"Everything okay Sparky?" Bob heard AndrAIa whisper behind him.

"More or less." Matrix muttered.

"Dot," Dom suddenly said, "I'm getting a message from our outer perimeter guard."

Bob saw Desdemona's head snap up to glare at him.

"What is it?"

"They're reporting an influx of people heading our way. Refugees from the look of it. Guess the Capitol is getting too hot."

"I guess it would be futile to protest," Desdemona muttered.

"We can't turn them away," Dom said, "Besides it like Bob said. It's all going to end here."

"If Daemon attacks we wouldn't be able to --,"

"She's not going to attack," Bob cut her off.

"And just how would you know that?"

"Well for one, these refugees. It's obvious that Daemon is taking measures to prepare for the coming battle. She knows we're going to come to her. Why should she take the trouble to send troops to us? As far as she's concerned, we're delivering ourselves right into her hands." Bob didn't add that he knew Daemon was waiting for him to return. Even though Hex had driven her away, a part of the super-viral's presence still seeped into his consciousness. Daemon knew, as he did, that they would end it here and now but not with the army behind him but face to face. The Guardian decided it was better that he kept those thoughts to himself.

But as always, he couldn't keep them from Dot.

She was looking at him now and of course he realized, she knew what he was planning, to face Daemon alone. She had known all along, although he had never said it out right, but it had to be this way. He knew, as he looked into her beautiful violet eyes that she would protest if she could but she wouldn't. They both had their roles to play and they both had to do things on their own terms and Dot respected him too much to interfere.

He was relieved when she turned her attention to Dom, "Contact Mouse and Ray and have them take a detachment to scout the perimeter. Those refugees will need their assistance finding their way."

"Ray is with Enzo, Dot."

"Oh," Dot frowned, "Would you --? I mean, it's probably not a good idea to --,"

"Yes, I know," Bob sighed. "Matrix and I will both go. I want to be here when you contact Phong."

"All right," Dot smiled a little sadly and he moved closer to her.

"Hey, it's okay, I understand." And she smiled gratefully at him.

AndrAIa had moved back to her workstation and Matrix stood nearby looking decidedly uncomfortable. Bob motioned him over but he gave a quick negative shake of his head. At first Bob couldn't see why, then he realized, he's wondering what Dot thinks of him. Bob sighed, another encrypted file to access.

"All right, making contact with Mainframe," Dom suddenly said.

The vid-window came open and though the interference, Phong's face appeared, "Dot! I can barely read you."

"Yes, Phong."

"By the User, we've been frantic with worry here! What has been going on?"

"Wait, we'll try to boost power levels," Dot nodded to Dom and the diminutive sprite went to work. "Try on your end."

The picture cleared somewhat and Bob felt an uncomfortable sensation in his core-com. What would Phong think?

"Yes, much better," Phong squinted through his glasses. "Dot - who is --?"

The elderly sprite's eyes went wide and he didn't speak for a nano then, "Bob? Is that you?"

"Yes, old friend," Bob smiled with much uncertainty.

"Thank the User! When we heard you had been captured -- you gave me quite a bit of worry, my son."

Relieved, Bob said, "Sorry about that old friend. It's good to see you again."

"It is good to see you too, my son," Phong said soberly. "And Matrix? Where is he? Is he well?

Matrix stepped forward, "I'm here Phong. But I'm not well."

Phong bowed his head, "But for now you are safe and with us my son and again I am glad to see you."

"And I you, Phong."

"Phong, we need our available troops and messages need to be relayed to Cascade and Harddrive," Dot said.

Phone nodded and his eyes went back to Bob, "Then it is time?"

"Yes," Bob said gravely. All eyes in the command center were on him.

"Tell me what you need, Dot."

As Dot made her requests to Phong, Bob felt the venerable sprite's attention was still on him, despite his conversing with Dot. Even through the distance between the vid-windows Bob knew that Phong, like Dot, was aware of his intentions.

Bob realized many people were depending on him. He had failed once. To do so again would mean disaster.

* * *

The refugees literally poured in like flood waters for the next few milliseconds. Mouse and Ray watched them from above, the flame-haired mercenary on a zip board and of course the cocky search-engine on Baud. Mouse and Ray greeted the incoming families and groups and using Dot's carefully laid plans, guided them to various sections of the factory and helped them get settled in. AndrAIa soon joined them in the preparations.

The mass exodus had been a result of Daemon's troops forcibly pressing all healthy men, women, and children into her service. The elderly, ill, and very young were being taken away, never to be heard from again.

Unfortunately, word spread quickly that the infamous General Dariem and Colonel Valadare were within the compound. That information alone was enough to make some of the refugees leave hurriedly, despite assurances that they were safe. Others, tired and disconsolate, chose to stay, not caring what happened.

While Dot began recruiting volunteers for the battle to come AndrAIa and Zif began to create schematics for new and better weapons. They were fortunate enough to find that one of the refugees was an engineer, which helped immensely.

Water wasn't too much of a problem. There was a pond in the wooded area nearby, fed by a small stream, but food was another matter. Dot came up with the idea of sending Matrix and Gavin and his crew to infiltrate outlaying towns. Matrix guessed that it was a ploy to keep him busy, but he didn't protest, since people ran screaming in fear at the sight of him. Although stealing wasn't something he enjoyed doing either but was familiar with since it was sometimes necessary during his game hopping.

They heard from Phong. Cascade and Harddrive agreed without argument to send the remainder of their troops, as they realized the situation as well. Phong was gathering their remaining troops and as soon as Hexadecimal regained her full strength (driving Daemon away from Bob and Matrix had depleted her power and she had been resting) she would create a portal for them. The forces from their other systems would travel the hard way.

Bob spent most of his time with Enzo and Melissa. The purpose being two fold; Enzo seemed calmer with him around and it gave Rose the opportunity to monitor her patients. Bob and Matrix had to continually take the antidote to keep the viral infection from reoccurring.

The second reason was Bob attempted to obtain as much information as he could from the young she-virus. Unfortunately Melissa still didn't quite trust him and he supposed he couldn't blame her.

While Rose was nearby monitoring her patient, Bob sat at the foot of Enzo's bed and watched his young sprite friend playing computer blackjack, with Bob being the dealer. One of the refugee children had brought it and had leant it to him. Melissa sat on her stool as usual, keeping a watchful eye on the Guardian.

"Melissa, I wanted to ask you something," Bob said, his eyes never leaving the game.

"About my mother?" Melissa leaned over towards Enzo and said, "Hold."

"You sure?"

"Trust me."

"Okay, hold," Enzo turned the vidwindow to Bob.

"Eighteen - pretty good, let's see," Bob hit, ten, then a two; unfortunately, his next card was another ten.

"Dealer busts," the computer voice announced.

"Cursors and crashes," Bob said, "So how much do I owe you?"

"Let's see," Enzo tallied up the total on the window, "Eighty thousand four hundred and ninety-two units."

"Ouch," Bob smiled.

"Units or credits?" Enzo smiled.

"Will you take a personal check?"

"Not even on a bet," Enzo reset the game. "But I know how you can make it up to me."

"Uh oh -how?"

"Teach me how to play the guitar."

Relieved, Bob said, "Easy enough."

"Another game?"

"Set it up." Bob turned back to Melissa, "Melissa like I was saying, there was something I need to ask you. You may find it kind of weird. When I was in your mother's inner sanctum there was - something there --,"

"Tentacles," Melissa said. "It's a viral bug."

Bob expelled a breath, "It's infected the entire Hall hasn't it?"

"Yes," Melissa said. "All that black stuff, its secretions from the bug."

"How can I defeat it?"

"Take a hit," Melissa said to Enzo. "You must strike at its heart. Completely erase it from its core. Destroy any other part and it will merely regenerate."

Bob sighed it was never easy. "What will work?"

Melissa shrugged. "A high level blast of energy. I'm really not certain. No one has defeated Tentacles before."

"Don't worry, Bob, you'll find a way," Enzo said.

Bob caught the look Melissa gave her friend. It was obvious to the little she-viral that Bob would fail and that Enzo's belief was misplaced.

"You needn't worry about defeating my mother," Melissa said after Enzo won his fifth game. "Hex and I will deal with her."

"No."

Melissa looked at him, "What do you mean, no?"

"I have to face her alone."

Melissa laughed derisively, "If you get too close to my mother she'll just take control of you again. It's best to leave this to Hexadecimal and myself."

"Melissa, you and Hex will need to help Dot and the army fight the Guardians."

"It would better serve the interests of everyone involved if we went after our mother."

"Well you're not, and that's final."

Melissa shrugged, "You can't stop me, Guardian, and I won't have Enzo hurt because you insist on throwing your life away on some foolish vendetta."

"Hey!" Enzo broke in, "That's not fair, Melissa! Bob can do it if he says he can." Then Enzo turned his violet eyes to Bob, "Can't you, Bob?"

"I'm going to try my best, Little Man."

Melissa shook her head, "Foolishness," she said.

"Don't talk to him that way. You've been wrong before you know," Enzo shot at Melissa.

"I speak the truth," Melissa shot back.

"Now just a --,"

"Stop it, both of you," Bob halted the argument. "You're best friends, right?"

"Yeah," Enzo muttered.

"Yes," Melissa said.

"Then don't fight amongst yourselves. Enzo, Melissa is entitled to her opinion. Melissa, try having a little more faith."

"I only speak the truth," Melissa said. "I just don't want to see Enzo sad."

Bob smiled at the girl virus; she really does care for him. "Would you believe me if I promised to come back?"

"I would," Enzo said.

"I don't know. You should know better than anyone about unforeseen circumstances."

"Geez Melissa!"

"No Enzo, I told you she's entitled to her opinion." Bob said. "But I'm going to promise to come back."

"I hope you do, for Enzo's sake," Melissa said.

Bob spent the rest of the evening with the two young sprites. The next morning, Phong contacted them telling them their troops were ready for portalling. Hex prepared herself. More refugees came and Matrix and Gavin returned from a successful scavenging. Bob went out with them the second time, since he was beginning to feel like a piggyback file. Some of the towns they entered were ghost towns, the populace having long fled and taking only what they could carry.

With their remaining forces en route the only thing they could do, as Dot had said in the past, was wait.

* * *

SiRCe continued to run, not daring to look back but knowing that the guards still pursued her. It was fortunate that she knew all the secret hiding places of the underground, for she also knew if they caught her she was a deleted sprite.

She would mourn for Tan and Em later. She was glad Zif was away with the other faction and that all her people had found appropriate places to hide. Now she knew she must escape.

If memory served her, she was somewhere underneath the West Keytool Tower. She had hoped this was the way to enter. They needed Mistress Katiyana if she were truly there. SiRCe crouched behind an ancient piece of machinery and listened for the telltale footsteps of her pursuers. When all seemed silent, she moved cautiously from her hiding place.

"There!" A voice yelled and lights flooded the area. SiRCe turned and ran.

"That's her!"

"Don't let her get away!"

"Colonel Valadare will have our heads!"

Valadare! Oh AndrAIa, SiRCe thought, I'm so sorry.

SiRCe ducked around a corner as another light was trained on her.

"She's trapped! That's a dead end!"

With a cry of anguish, SiRCe realized they were right. In her confusion and panic, she had made a wrong turn and was now faced with a smooth stone wall, which she assumed was the base of the tower itself.

She turned as the footsteps drew ever nearer.

For once in her life she wished she were a true viral. She wished she had the power to obliterate her pursuers, or at least to teleport to safety. Now she would be deleted and she would never know if her people were freed or if Daemon would be destroyed, but worse yet, no one would ever know what had happened to her.

Lights filled the narrow passage.

"There she is!"

"We have her cornered!"

"Surrender!"

SiRCe gave an animalistic cry and lunged forward. There was a bright flash of golden light, which blinded her, and then she was tumbling into darkness and landing hard on her knees.

Disoriented, SiRCe struggled to her feet. All around her was impenetrable darkness.

"Tracker, light." The unexpected voice made SiRCe's core-com leap into her throat. A golden globe now floated in the air to illuminate a tall lithe woman with long dark hair and a silver face.

SiRCe went into a defensive crouch, "Friend or foe?"

"Friend, I hope," the woman said. "Or would you rather I put you back out there with your pursuers?"

"Who are you?" SiRCe straightened.

"Katiyana." The woman turned and began walking into the darkness. "Come with me, there's much work to do."

* * *

Bob slipped quietly into the conference room where Enzo slept. He paused at the edge of the partition and a sight smile played on his lips at what he saw.

Enzo was sleeping peacefully, but what had him smiling was seeing Hexadecimal now sitting on the stool with a sleeping Melissa in her lap. The Chaos Virus was slowly rocking back and forth. In all the hours of his processing, Bob never thought he would see something like this.

"Enzo is having nightmares," Hex suddenly said.

Bob suspected she was aware of his presence. He stepped around the partition, "What about?"

"Oh he's very closed mouthed about them, " It was the quietest Bob had ever seen her, "He won't even tell Melissa, but I think I know what they're about."

Bob walked over to her and almost inadvertently, reached out and brushed back an errant braid that had fallen across Melissa's face, "So how does it feel to have someone who depends on you?"

Hex looked at him for a moment, "Good."

"You know what the nightmares are about? Enzo said Daemon did something to him."

Hex's mask became more animated, "Oh yes, my mother is a master when it comes to sprite suffering. I suppose she put a bit of Matrix into Enzo. Being someone you don't want to be could drive you random don't you think, Guardian?"

"He said he had Matrix's memories. How is that possible?"

"Well he is Matrix, isn't he? Hex mused, "I suppose that would be easy for my mother."

Hex rose and gently laid Melissa next to Enzo, "You still have a piece of her inside of you. Melissa tells me you refused to allow us to battle our mother."

Bob was almost used to Hex flying off on different tangents - almost, "Do you really want Melissa to go?"

Hex didn't answer immediately. She instead looked at her peacefully sleeping sister, "No Guardian, I don't want her to go but she has to go just like you have to go. Do you know what I'm saying?"

"I believe so Hex."

"So go and face my mother, Bob. I said it was important we be here and we are, but it's more important that you stop her, understand?"

"Yes Hex, I believe I do." Bob said, "One thing I must know. The nightmares - will they stop once Daemon is destroyed?"

"Such confidence! Who can tell? Enzo had nightmares long before my mother came into the gif."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

His question went unanswered. A commotion suddenly sounded outside in the hall. "Stay with them," Bob told her and hurried out.

People were running in the same general direction - the command center. Fearing for Dot, Bob broke into a run. When he arrived a crowd had gathered outside the door. For once, tossing manners aside in his worry, Bob shoved his way to the forefront of the crowd.

He saw Dot by her workstation as usual, Dom standing opposite her. Matrix was at the far corner of the room and AndrAIa stood whispering to a woman with a shock of static yellow hair. Bob had never seen her before. Mouse and Ray were standing on the other side of a second newcomer, also a woman. The rest of the command center personnel were all standing and staring at them.

Bob's breath caught. The regal woman stood before Desdemona. The rebel leader looked as though she'd seen a ghost image. Bob knew that commanding figure, even though she stood with her back to him, but that waist length royal blue braid was unmistakable.

"Katiyana?"

The tense silence in the room broke as she turned to him, just as Bob remembered what he looked like. Of course she had probably been told about him, but still Bob wasn't certain he could stand a piteous look from her.

But there was none, only a look of relief, she smiled at him. "Guardian."

Bob crossed the room quickly and forgetting all protocols embraced her, "I'm so glad you're safe."

He looked into her eyes, then glanced away and couldn't help the flush warming his cheeks.

"Look at me Bob," she said softly and he did. "Don't worry, we'll make it right."

"Mistress --," Desdemona began.

"No," Katiyana shot at her, "Not one word, do you hear me?"

"But Mistress - look at them! Now do you believe me?"

Bob moved over to Dot and muttered, "I take it Katiyana knows about Desdemona's little - error in judgment?"

"She suspected, although no one had actually said."

"There is much to be told and done," Katiyana said. "All will be made clear in time but there are things that need to be taken care of now. SiRCe?"

The yellow-haired woman stepped forward. So that's SiRCe, Bob thought. He realized suddenly, that Katiyana was speaking again.

"To begin," Katiyana said as SiRCe handed her a knapsack, "I want the truth, Desdemona. Did you or did you not sabotage the machinery?"

"I did it for the safety of our people --,"

"Yes or no! I didn't ask you anything else!"

"Yes, mistress."

"I see. Dom, you know this to be true?"

"Yes, mistress."

"Who else was privy to this?"

A few others raised their hands, whether out of fear for Desdemona or Katiyana, Bob wasn't certain.

"I see," Katiyana said. "Desdemona, you are hereby relieved of your duties as second in command. Dom, you will assume her station."

Dom's jaw dropped. Of all the things that could have happened, Bob actually hadn't expected that. Neither had many others for the room erupted into protests.

"Mistress, you can't!" Desdemona screamed above the rest. "Don't you understand why I did it? I would never intentionally put you in danger but there was no other way!"

"You will control yourself, Desdemona."

"Has Daemon gotten to you too, Mistress?" Desdemona said shrilly, "Are you now under her control as well? Then we have lost! We have allowed the snake in our midst."

"That is quite enough!" Katiyana's voice left no room for further debate. "This is finished, Desdemona!"

The look that twisted Desdemona's face was one of random hatred. "No," she hissed. "This is not finished, Mistress." The last word was said with a bitter edge.

"That certainly wasn't a threat to Mistress Katiyana, was it?" Bob stepped forward and extended his claws. "Because I'll do whatever's necessary to protect her."

"I'm sure you'd protect your cohort, traitor." Desdemona hissed. "What will you do now? Hold us prisoner?"

"No," Katiyana said. "You will leave the Resistance."

Desdemona's smile sent a chill through a good many people, "I see - we leave and you pursue us and hunt us down like dogs? Is this some sick game?"

"There are others who feel as you do?" Katiyana's critical glare swept around the room, "Whomever feels as Desdemona does feel free to leave with her. You may not wish to be here anyway since the final conflict is at hand. We have no room for cowards and sluggards now."

"Just leave? No provisions?"

"Take what you need to survive and be gone by sunrise," Katiyana said. "I am deeply saddened that you ended our friendship this way, Desdemona."

"I ended it?" Desdemona laughed harshly, "Somehow, you'll fail Katiyana. Your evil Mistress will not have control of the net or the web."

Desdemona turned, "Who is with me?"

No one moved or uttered a sound.

Desdemona made a noise of disgust and strode from the room.

There was silence for a time, then, "Now that that unpleasantness is settled," Katiyana said, "and it is settled, now we must attend to business, but first --,"

Katiyana laid the knapsack down on the workstation surface and opened the flap. She drew out two metal boxes, one small square, and one rectangular. "Matrix, come here, please."

The renegade hesitated briefly before moving forward. Still he didn't come as close as he could have.

"I have something for you, Bob, you too, Matrix," Katiyana began to depress certain points on the square box, "It was necessary to lock him in a dampening field to keep the infected Guardians from tracing him, but I'm sure he'll be as glad to see you as you will be him."

Bob stepped forward, desperation and hope warring within him. Could she be saying --? Could it possibly be --?

Katiyana lifted the lid of the box and instantly, Bob felt the jolt of familiarity. A part of him reawakened that he thought long deleted and a sudden need to re-join with the source of his power seized him.

Katiyana turned the box around to reveal Glitch suspended within a glowing stasis field.

"Glitch!" Bob couldn't help but cry out as he held out his hand and the icon came to him. Bob held it for a second, his eyes closed, taking a moment to reacquaint himself with an old friend. Then Glitch resumed his customary place on Bob's chest, settling nicely over the Guardian's core-com.

A collective breath was held. Bob could see it throughout the room as Glitch suddenly exploded with golden light, filling Bob with power. It started within the Guardian's chest and blossomed forth, running like electricity through every nerve of Bob's body. Bob raised both hands and the power leapt forth, forming the familiar golden light and Bob gave a cry of triumph that was echoed by everyone within the room. The plain clothes he wore were replaced once again by the glittering silver armor.

Dot smiled brightly at him then threw her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek. His face flushed but at that point Bob didn't care.

"Yes," the Guardian finally spoke. "We're back in business!" Now they had a chance. Now he was truly ready to face Daemon.

"It's not all on Glitch, you know," Katiyana had moved close to him, so only he and Dot heard her words, "It's all on you. Glitch is your guide, but you and you alone can defeat Daemon."

Bob sobered a bit, "Yes I know, Mistress."

Katiyana stepped away and raised her hands for quiet, "And I haven't forgotten you, young Matrix."

The noise level in the room lowered as Katiyana picked up the rectangular box and repeated the process, before handing it to Matrix. "I thought you might need these."

Matrix looked at her stunned, then down at the box, "No."

Hurriedly, the young renegade opened the lid and gave a sharp intake of breath as he lifted Gun from within, staring at the weapon as though it were his first time seeing it. Another chorus of cheers erupted.

"How?" Matrix asked.

"I have my ways," Katiyana smiled.

Matrix's head bowed for a moment and he clutched the weapon in his big hand. His icon was also inside and Matrix replaced it, changing into his familiar clothing format before returning Gun to its customary place at his side. Then the brawny sprite looked up at Katiyana and whispered, "Thank you."

With the drama over, the people went back to their duties or whatever else they did to occupy their time. The command center personnel went about their affairs and Katiyana went to speak with Dom about his duties and what needed to be done next.

Dot approached Matrix and went to reach for him, but the renegade stepped back. Bob saw the action and the hurt in Dot's eyes and frowned. "Matrix?" Dot asked, uncertain now.

"I'm fine, Dot," Matrix muttered, the renegade turned away from her.

Bob went to move forward but felt a hand on his arm, "No," Katiyana said, "This is something they must work out for themselves. This is not the time to pursue this. Be with your love and comfort her."

Bob nodded and walked up to Dot, placing his arms on her shoulders. "It's all right Dot. Matrix is just --,"

"No," Dot turned to look at him, "he hasn't come near me since he's returned. Does he think I've stopped loving him? That I'd reject him?"

"I thought you might," Bob whispered.

Dot turned, "You think I'm that shallow? Does he?"

"No, of course not!" Bob said, "It's just that we - we've been through a lot. I know I haven't told you everything that's happened."

"You'll tell me in your own time Bob, I'm not going to force it, nor am I going to force things with Matrix. Now is not the time."

"Yes, Mistress Katiyana said the same thing. He's just afraid and a little ashamed." Bob lowered his head. "We both were."

"Dot," Dom said called, "Message coming in from Mainframe."

"Like you said," Dot smiled, "Back in business."

Bob took the opportunity to approach AndrAIa and SiRCe. When SiRCe noticed Bob approaching she looked decidedly uncomfortable. Bob could hardly blame her.

"What happened with Matrix?" AndrAIa said, "Where's he going?"

"He still has some issues to deal with," Bob said, which caused AndrAIa to sigh with exasperation.

"I'm pleased to finally meet you, SiRCe." Bob smiled at the woman.

SiRCe didn't speak immediately, "I'm sorry AndrAIa. I can't do this."

"SiRCe --,"

"I know you said he was well but - I can't just let go what he did to Tan and Em."

Bob briefly lowered his eyes, then raised them to face her, "I won't make excuses for what I did. It was terribly, horribly wrong and I'll never forgive myself for my actions when I was that - thing. I can't change the past SiRCe. All I can do is tell you how sorry I am and hope that you'll find it in your core-com to forgive me."

"Maybe," SiRCe said quietly. "It will take time."

"Then I'll be satisfied with that," Bob said.

"AndrAIa, you said Zif and many of my people are here?" SiRCe turned to her friend. "I'd like to see them."

"I'll take you to them," AndrAIa said, "and I'll talk to Melissa like I promised."

"Bob?" Dot's voice distracted him before he could ask why AndrAIa needed to talk to Melissa, then it was too late as both women had exited the room.

The vid-window, which drew Bob's attention, showed Phong's grave face. "Our forces are ready here, my child, we merely need Hexadecimal to open the portal."

Hack and Slash appeared behind Phong suddenly.

"We're ready!"

"Yes, we are ready!"

"Definitely, ready!"

Phong shook his head, "Did you want Hack and Slash there?" There was an almost hopeful note in Phong's voice, which Hack and Slash completely missed.

"No, let them stay, you may need help in rounding up any miscreants that escaped after the battle."

"Yes, a fine thing for them to do, I'll send them out right away," Phong said.

"We're ready!"

"Yes, we are ready!"

"Definitely, ready!"

Phong shook his head again and Bob was hard pressed to keep a straight face. "I'll inform Hexadecimal."

"As you wish my son," Phong said, "However, I should inform you Dot that Captain Lynx was one of the volunteers."

"Now that's just perfect," Dot muttered.

Bob gave her a raised eyebrow look.

"Let's just say, he's somewhat of an annoying enigma." Dot said by way of explanation. To Phong she said, "Any idea what his plan might be this time?"

"Unfortunately not."

"We'll just have to wait and see, won't we? Anything else?"

"Yes," Phong stared at them gravely. "Good fortune to you all, may the User protect you. I await your speedy return home."

Silence descended on the room as the vid-window closed.

"Yes," Katiyana broke the silence. "Let us take a moment to offer a prayer to the User. May we all return safely home."

Bob couldn't have agreed more. He slipped an arm around Dot's waist and gave it a reassuring squeeze, but it was more for him.


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