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The Daemon Conflict
By: LadyBard

Chapter 4 - Wardens in the Storm

The dream came to her with stark clarity, as it always did. The cold wind stinging her face coupled with the searing heat of the lasers exploding close to her ear.

"Hang on, love!" Ray cried as Surf Baud went into a steep dive and Mouse's voice was snatched away by the rushing wind.

Then came the shot that struck Baud.

Followed by Ray's cry of agony.

Then they were plunging to the ground.

Mouse came awake with a cry.

"Shut up in there!" the black and red clad binome guard leveled a laser rifle at the violet-skinned mercenary. The energy field, which held them captive in the small cell, crackled with blue-green fire.

"Wanna come in here and make me, sugah?" Mouse's fangs showed in her smile.

The binome sneered, "You're lucky I'm not allowed to hurt you, or I would. You think I can't beat you?"

"Honey, I know you can't," Mouse leaned against the wall and crossed her arms behind her head. There was no bed in the cell, only a small table with a single light stick and a bowl of water. They had been given one blanket which Mouse had taken, simply because Ray was stretched out unconscious on Surf Baud. Mouse was surprised they had believed her when she explained where her companion had disappeared to after they had been captured.

Mouse barely believed herself.

She remembered falling, unable to even scream because of the rushing wind tearing at her lungs. Then Baud had come streaking out of nowhere and had positioned itself underneath her so she dropped gently on its surface. She had lost sight of Ray and her first thought was that she had lost the only person she had ever truly cared about. Well, there had been Bob, but he was just a harmless fling, since it was so obvious he loved Dot.

Baud landed in a stand of trees and Mouse was on her feet immediately as the sounds of pursuit reached her hearing. She took a nano to switch to her armor and drew her katana.

That's when she noticed the blinking red light on Baud.

The intervals between the blinks were slow at first, and then they rapidly began to increase. As several binomes crashed through the underbrush, the green light blinked then Ray materialized on Baud's surface. The group of binome's halted uncertain. Mouse took the opportunity to brandish her katana menacingly, "All right ya bit-brains, keep yer distance!"

One larger binome, obviously the leader, stepped forward, "You will surrender, mercenary."

"You wish, sugah."

"Take her."

With a feral hiss, Mouse lunged; deflecting the first few shots off the blade of her katana, but unfortunately was caught by the next. She had awoken inside the cell with only Baud and it wasn't until a millisecond or so later that Ray made his second re-appearing act.

"I guess it's too much to ask where we are and what you're plannin' on doin' to us," Mouse feigned nonchalance. She was pretty sure they weren't on a ship, so that meant they were being held somewhere on System 998 unless she was out longer than she thought.

"Why are you in such a hurry?" The binome smiled. "When Lady Nemesis arrives, you'll wish the clock speed had been slower."

"And who in the net is Lady Nemesis?"

"Chosen One of our goddess Mistress Daemon."

"Goddess?" Mouse laughed, "Sugah, are you basic? She's a super virus."

"You will pay our Lady and Mistress the proper respect!" The binome raised the rifle again.

"Let me get this straight," Mouse cocked an eyebrow, "you worship, Daemon?"

"We are her loyal followers," the binome said. "We are Daemon's Chosen. Long may her domain name thrive!"

Mouse burst out laughing. "Why would you want to worship her? You're not infected. You mean you're following her freely?"

"Every being of power draws people who want a taste of that power and are willing to worship them for it."

Mouse turned sharply at the sound of Ray's voice. The surfer was smiling at her as he struggled to sit up.

"Don't, honey," Mouse moved over to him. "Lay still. I'll take care of you."

"I'm all right, lovely lady," Ray sat up. "Where are we?"

"That's what I'm tryin' to find out," Mouse turned back to the binome, "Hey pixel-breath, are you gonna tell us where we are?"

"No," the guard turned his back on them.

Ray stood and stepped towards the energy field. For a moment he seemed to examine it. Curious, Mouse stood to watch him.

An aura of silver sparks surrounded the web surfer and he transformed into his armor.

The binome turned, "What in the net --,"

Ray passed through the energy shield, much to both the guard's and Mouse's astonishment. Before the binome had a chance to react, Ray lunged forward, snatched the rifle from his grasp and knocked the binome senseless with it.

"Sorry mate," Ray murmured.

"Sugah, that was somethin'!" Mouse threw her arms around Ray and kissed him hard. "Why didn't you tell me you could do that?"

"Well - um --," Ray seemed to take a moment to focus after Mouse's show of affection, "I wasn't sure I could, love. I mean to say, if the field had been stronger, I couldn't have."

Mouse turned towards the door, "I guess we'd better see if we can get outta here."

Her katana were lying on the floor against the far wall. Mouse retrieved them and strapped them on. "Wanna do the honors, honey?"

"Babe, why don't we try it this way?" Ray walked towards the door, then motioned with his hand, summoning his board. "Say when, love."

"On three," Mouse drew her sword and crouched at the ready, "One-two-three!"

Ray slammed his hand against the small square panel on the wall and the door slid open with a rush of air. His board shot through the door first and Mouse gave a primal scream and charged after it.

The dozen or so, heavily armed guards had been lounging around, sprawled in chairs, against the walls, or gathered at tables playing cards. They were totally unprepared for a living surfboard, a wild-eyed mercenary, and a ticked-off search engine. The element of surprise was totally there's and Mouse and Ray used it to the fullest extent. Mouse lunged for the nearest binome and knocked him unconscious before he had a chance to raise his rifle, and grabbed up the weapon.

With a second cry of rage, Mouse began firing, sending frantic binome soldiers running for cover. It was only a few microseconds before they regained themselves enough to return fire. By that time, Mouse had blasted open the far door and sprite and search engine had escaped.

They were on the parapet of what seemed to be an ancient fort. The room they had been kept in served as a watchtower and gatehouse. Mouse ran to the edge of the parapet and gazed down into the inner ward. Sitting on a platform, surrounded by several guards, was Ship.

"Yes!" Mouse turned to Ray, "How fast can ya get us down there?"

Ray scooped Mouse up into his arms and set her on Baud.

Guards were poring out of the gatehouse and the first shots crossed their path. Baud shot over the edge of the parapet and Mouse was reminded of a time she had ridden her first roller coaster. The sensation was exhilarating. Funny what you think of at the strangest times.

She was already firing at the line of guards, but had to aim carefully so as not to damage Ship. Blasts rained from both above and below. Ray dodged and weaved between the deadly shots with all his skill, but even he could not last forever and when an errant blast glanced off Baud they dropped. It wasn't a long fall, for Ray had been flying low, but it was enough to send the air rushing from Mouse's lungs when she slammed to the ground. Stars exploded before her sight and for a moment, she was gripped with a strange paralysis. From far away, she heard voices and running feet. Her vision cleared enough to make out blurred shapes surrounding her.

"Get her up!" A low voice growled.

Hands gripped her arms and hauled her up. Mouse squinted at the person who stood before her and when her vision finally came into focus, she was face to face with an exceedingly ugly sprite.

He was of medium build, but it was the puckered scar that ran from his right temple, to the left side of his chin, was the first thing she noticed about him. The powder-blue color of his skin made it more pronounced. Well he can't be too good a fighter to get an injury like that, Mouse thought. He wore his burgundy hair shaved close to his skull and his mean yellow eyes squinted at her. They were set over a bulbous nose that had been broken at least twice.

"So you're the great Mouse," he snarled.

Mouse's attention was pulled away from him as two other binomes shoved Ray forward. Another skinny sprite held Baud upright.

"Ya heard of me, sugah?" Mouse smirked.

"Oh of course," the sprite reached out and unsheathed her katana, handing the weapon to a nearby binome, "So I'm shocked that you were caught so easily."

"One of my bad, seconds, I suppose," Mouse smiled.

"It's going to get a lot worse." He nodded over her shoulder.

The binomes turned her around and she looked skyward to see a ship descending towards them. The metallic-green vessel landed next to Ship. Dozens of soldiers ran towards it. Curious despite herself, Mouse watched with the rest of them.

"Watch her!" The scarred sprite growled and strode towards the ship. He halted before the ship as the door lifted and a ramp came down. He knelt as a figure came from within.

The teal-skinned woman who exited surveyed the surroundings first, until her eyes fell on Mouse. They lingered for only a moment, but in that time, Mouse was gripped with a chill that ran deep into her very code. The woman was tall and lithe, with a harsh angular face and aquiline features. She ascended the ramp and stood over the scarred sprite, then spoke a few words that Mouse couldn't hear. Then the scarred sprite rose and both he and the woman approached Mouse.

Mouse knew one thing; she didn't want the woman near her. Her black eyes bored into Mouse's core and froze it solid. She wore shining black amour and a sword strapped to her hip, and Mouse wondered what type of fighter she was.

"Congratulations Captain Atan," the woman's voice held no warmth. "I trust that the sprites and binomes responsible for their escape attempt will be severely punished?"

"Yes, Lady Nemesis," Atan bowed.

Then those horrible black eyes turned on Mouse, "So you are the captured Mainframers," she said, "What's your name, woman?"

Mouse didn't reply.

"Answer me!" Nemesis' hand shot out and grabbed Mouse by the throat.

"Kiss my ASCII, viral witch!" Mouse choked.

"No!" Mouse heard Ray cry. "Stop it!"

Nemesis nodded towards Ray. The skinny binome that held Baud stood the board upright. Another binome kicked it. Ray cried out and crumpled to the ground.

Mouse tried to scream a protest but Nemesis's hand cut off her breath. Mouse kicked out, catching the viral off guard. The mercenary wretched herself free from her captors and snatched away her katana, brandishing the blade threateningly.

Atan had rushed to Nemesis' side, but she waved him away and stared evilly at Mouse, "And just what did you hope to accomplish by that?"

"What's the matter, sugah?" Mouse sneered, "You can't take me on by yourself? Great and mighty viral needs all these soldiers to back her up?"

Nemesis bared glittering green fangs, "What do you take me for?" The viral turned and waved at Mouse dismissively, "Prepare them for interrogation."

Mouse screamed and lunged for Nemesis. The viral drew her sword and parried Mouse's strike in one fluid motion. Nemesis turned and brought her weapon around and Mouse manage to leap back before the blade disemboweled her.

"No!" Nemesis held up her hand when Captain Atan made a move towards the combatants. "Very well mercenary, I'll humiliate you first, then rip your secrets from you and smash your will. When I'm through, you'll worship my Lady Daemon like all these other fools do."

"Shut up and fight, sugah."

Nemesis screamed with rage and charged swinging her sword and Mouse parried but had not anticipated the viral's strength. A numbing pain shot up the hacker's arm. It only took her a few nanos for Mouse to realize she was in trouble.

She could normally hold her own in a fight but this viral witch seemed to draw from an infinite supply of power that Mouse was denied access. At first, Mouse tried to gain ground but was continually forced to defend as Nemesis pressed her advantage. The soldiers shouted and jeered, making it difficult for Mouse to concentrate.

Nemesis had steadily driven her towards the platform where Ship sat. Mouse knew that once her back was against it, she wouldn't have a chance. Mouse felt fatigue stealing the last of her strength, and still she continued to defend, until Nemesis brought her sword violently down and knocked the katana from Mouse's grasp.

A cheer went up from the men as Nemesis, still gripped in battle rage, prepared to make the deleting strike.

The whirring of machinery caught the attention of both the combatants. Nemesis looked over Mouse's shoulder and a look of confusion twisted the viral's features. Mouse turned and had took a step back in shock.

Ship's laser cannon had made the sound. The weapon swiveled around on its base and was pointing right at Nemesis. What shocked them all was that there was no one in the cockpit. Mouse recognized the next sound. The laser was powering up.

The barrel of the cannon swerved almost as if it were uncertain where to aim, then it fired into the ground not ten feet from where Mouse stood, exploding a good size hole in the dirt.

Mouse screamed and dove for Nemesis during the moment of confusion and punched the viral in the mouth. The cannon went off in a random number of shots, seeming to aim at no particular target and yet seeming to know exactly where it needed to hit. Smoke covered the area, turning the fleeing soldiers to ghostly images that screamed in agony when an errant shot hit them.

Mouse had lost track of Nemesis in the confusion, but had reclaimed her katana.

"Ray!" Mouse called and turned to dash up to the platform. Arms encircled her suddenly and she almost lashed out before she realized who it was.

"I've got you, love," Ray said. "Let's get the net out of here!"

The cannon had ceased firing by the time they were in the cockpit. At first, Ship refused to start and Mouse began to get nervous. Then the engine came to life and they were climbing. Mouse gave a yell of triumph.

"That was something wasn't it, sugah?"

"Um - Mouse?"

"I thought I was a goner there for sure!" Mouse realized she was babbling but couldn't stop. "She almost got me, but I beat her, did ya see?"

"Um - Mouse - love --?"

"That was some escape --,"

"Mouse! Who fired the ruddy gun?"

"I --," Mouse halted.

"Remote control?"

"Ship doesn't have that capability. And when do you suppose I had time to do that?"

"Then what?"

"I - I don't know. We got more important things ta think about. Check to see if we're being followed. I'll run a diagnostic."

"Hmm," Ray muttered after a few moments. "That's odd."

"Now what?"

"A ship took off from the system, but they're going the other way."

"What do ya mean?"

"What'd I say?" Ray snapped. "It's that viral's ship, but she's not chasing us. She's going the other way."

Mouse suddenly had a death grip on the controls. They weren't being pursued?

"Something ain't right." Mouse's instincts were screaming for her to act. "We must not be that important, if they're just gonna let us get away like this. I guess she realized she was wasting time. She's got a more important objective."

They were silent for a time. They were supposed to be heading for the armada. They needed to find out what they were up against. They had promised Bob they would meet him at the Super Computer.

But Mouse knew Bob would never forgive her and she would never forgive herself, if she ignored her gut feeling. And her gut was telling her there was only way place for the viral to go.

"Sugah," Mouse said, "We're going home."

***

<<GAME OVER: USER WINS>>

Dot sighed as the game cube disappeared through the vortex in the sky. They were lucky that time. The cube had dropped over the Data Sea, but Dot knew she had been fooling herself, hoping that no cubes would drop until Bob returned.

Without a Guardian, and no way to obtain one any time soon, they'd need someone to play the games. She had come up with a plan but she didn't like certain aspects of it, which was seldom. When she had voiced her plan to Phong earlier that second it was he who had made the suggestion.

"What about Enzo, my child?"

"What about him?"

"Will you include him in your plan?"

"Of course not! I never want Enzo to go into another game again! Phong do you have any idea what it did to me, when I thought he was nullified?"

"Yes, my child, I do. I felt your pain. But realize that now Enzo needs our approval and encouragement, considering the unusual circumstances of his rebirth."

"He said he was fine with it."

"Do you believe him?"

Sigh. "No."

"Give him a purpose."

"Phong, are you saying I should let him go into games again? I would delete if I had to go through that a second time."

"He will not be alone. Despite everything my child there are people you can trust."

"I don't know anymore Phong. I thought I could come to trust Captain Lynx."

"Nobody's perfect, my child."

Dot smiled at the memory as she waited on the pier, her organizer in hand. Ten CPU's stood behind her at attention. She had received word today that they would be arriving.

Two lead ships, each accompanied by approximately two hundred fighters, filled the sky of Mainframe. Some had barely missed being trapped in the cube.

They were all the soldiers that her contacts in Systems Cascade and Harddrive could afford to send, and they would have to make due against the armada.

A vid-window opened and Phong smiled at her, "I see our assistance has arrived my child."

"Yes," was all Dot said of the approaching ships. She adjusted her headset. She had decided to wear her military outfit for this occasion. "Have Hack and Slash returned?"

"Yes my child, they are here, shall I send them to you?"

"No, no," Dot said a little too quickly. They had been under foot lately and Dot had sent them to Level 31 (not without a pang of guilt, but then again didn't the trouble always start on Level 31?) to do guard duty but for this, she would need all the help she could get, so she had recalled them. "Tell them to wait for me there. Everyone else there too?"

"Everyone that you summoned is here."

"Thank you, Phong," the leads ships were docking and the fighters remained in a tight formation over the ocean. "Wish me luck."

"Shallow sprites believe in luck. Strong sprites believe in cause and effect."

"Umm hmm -- whatever you say, old friend," Dot lifted an eyebrow, "See you back at the P.O."

Dot once again examined the information about the lead ships and their captains. A small crowd had gathered, but since they didn't seem to be bent on causing trouble, Dot didn't say anything to them.

Four figures, two from each ship, approached her. Two were on zip boards; the others shared a rocket cycle. Dot hoped that at least one of them were friendly towards her. The crowd began to cheer and Dot breathed a sigh of relief.

The cycle landed first. The young man who had been driving had bright orange skin and short metallic gray hair in a bob-cut and secured with a tan and black bandanna. He wore a tan flight suit and black boots. A laser pistol was holstered on his left hip and an energy whip was on his right. His companion was an older man with curly yellow hair and a weathered green face. He wore a similar flight suit, in blue, with a yellow sash across his chest.

The other two were a male and female, with similar features. Dot guessed they were related, perhaps brother and sister. They had the same round pleasant facial structure and deep-set brown eyes with dark-green skin. They were even dressed identical in black pants and long beige tunics with beige boots. The hem of the woman's tunic was flared slightly. Only the man was armed, with a laser rifle.

It was the old man and the boy who reached her first. Dot automatically extended her hand to the old man and said, "Greetings captain. I'm Dot Matrix, Command.com of Mainframe."

"Actually," the man said, "I'm Commander Roman." He nodded to the boy, "That is Fleet Captain Max Covar."

The boy stepped forward and grasped Dot's hand, which was still extended, and shook it vigorously. "Don't tell me," he said with a grin, "You're thinking, 'He's the captain?'"

"Umm - well --,"

"And you're thinking, just how old is he?"

"Well - actually --,"

"I'm twenty-one hours," Max Covar winked at her. "But I act much younger than I really am."

Dot couldn't stop the giggle that escaped her throat, "My apologies."

"No need to apologize, Ms. Matrix," Captain Covar smiled, "I get this all the time. Perhaps I'll tell you how I became a Captain at such a tender young age. For now, this is my right hand, Commander Roman."

"A pleasure, Ms. Matrix."

"The same," Dot turned to the other couple as they approached, "Welcome to Mainframe, "I'm Dot Matrix, the Command.com."

"Ms. Matrix," the man spoke in a heavily accented voice, "I am Fleet Captain Diode and this is my first mate and sister, Commander Diode."

Dot shook hands with them both, "Thank you for your assistance. "If you will all follow me, I've arranged transportation to our Principal Office." Dot signaled to the CPU's and the group preceded them to the waiting transport. It was only then that Dot felt eyes on her and when she looked to the left; saw Kurt Daverage standing in the crowd. He smiled at her before turning away.

"Smug bit-brain, " Dot muttered. Kurt was the last thing on her mind right then, but Dot made a mental note to speak with Daverage and explain to him rather forcefully, what 'confined to your ship' meant.

***

Enzo went over in his mind again what he could have possibly done wrong. He had stayed out of trouble like Dot had asked. He had been spending most of his time either at Mr. Pearson's or playing with Frisket. So why had Dot insisted he be here waiting for her at the Principal Office, while she went to meet the arriving warships?

The door to the War Room slid open with a ponderous groan, and Enzo froze as he crossed the threshold. Phong was sitting there, a cup of tea in his hands. Sitting across from him in chairs arranged in a semi-circle were Hexadecimal, Captain Irina, Hack, Slash, and Captain Capacitor.

What in the net was going on here?

"Ah Enzo," Phong set his cup down on the java cart which sat beside him and waved Enzo inside, "You're just in time. Dot is on her way back."

"What's this all about, Phong?"

"A plan Dot has for you and our other guests," Phong waved him to a chair, "Help yourself my son."

Enzo took one of Hex's biscuits and nibbled on it slightly, "Um - any idea what this is about?" he asked her.

"None, my little one," Hex gave him a toothy grin.

"We were hopin' ye'd know, lad," Gavin said.

"Not a clue, Gavin," Enzo said. "I thought for a moment that I was in trouble."

Gavin winked at him, "Not this time, lad."

The outer door opened and Dot entered followed by four sprites, "Ah, you're all here. We'll get started as soon as have our guests settled." Dot introduced the four newcomers and led them into her office.

Dot re-entered the room and pulled up an extra chair, "Thank you for coming everyone. As you all know, a game cube dropped today and we were fortunate that it was over the ocean. However, we may not be so lucky next time. Someone has to enter the games and play them when they land in populated areas, but also must be able to see that all civilians are safely out of the way."

Enzo held his breath. Dot couldn't possibly mean -

"So," Dot continued, "Phong and I have come up with an idea. Sector Wardens."

"What's that, Dot?" Enzo couldn't help but ask.

Dot smiled at him, "I've chosen you because I know I can trust you all to do the job. A Sector Warden will be assigned a certain sector of Mainframe. Whenever a game falls, they'll be responsible for clearing out that sector. Then the other wardens will join that person in the game protecting their sector."

"Aye, lass, sounds like an excellent plan." Gavin said.

"Most definitely," Hack said.

"I agree," Slash chimed in.

"With me?" Hack asked.

"No I agree with Dot."

"Well so do I."

"I thought you meant Gavin."

"Well Gavin too --,"

Hex cleared her throat loudly and Hack and Slash shut up, "It would be a feasible plan, if all were to agree. We are being given a choice?"

"Of course," Dot said.

"Me included, Dot?" Enzo asked.

Dot didn't reply immediately, "Enzo --, She said, "This is a big responsibility but - I won't give you this if you don't follow the rules, understand?"

Enzo sat straighter in his chair. "Yes, Dot."

"Enzo, I mean it," Dot's voice broke. "I will make you a Sector Warden but you must promise never to go into a game alone. If your fellow wardens can't reach you, get out of the cube's way, understand?"

Yes, he understood, perfectly, but he had to say it anyway, "I'm not Matrix, Dot."

"I know that," Dot frowned, "But you're still my little brother and I still care about you and I'm afraid you'll --," Dot fought for composure.

"I shall watch him for you, Ms. Matrix," Irina spoke up.

"Well all will, Dot, lass," Gavin said.

"Thank you," Dot turned back to him, "Enzo do you have any idea what it did to me when I thought you were nullified?"

But I wasn't nullified! That wasn't me! "Yes, I think so Dot."

"Just suggesting this is the most difficult thing I've ever done. Sending you into games again! I promised I would never allow it but we don't have a choice. Basically, you're the only one here besides me who has game experience. With our reinforcements here now, I'll be busy with them and preparing for the coming battle. We'll really need your help Enzo, but you must learn to follow orders, can you do that?"

All eyes were on him. Guess play time is over, Enzo thought. "Yes, I can, Commander Matrix."

"Good," he saw her relax, but slightly. "As I said to Hex, this is strictly voluntary. If you do not wish to participate, I'll understand."

"Of course we will, Dot," Gavin said.

Again, Hex cleared her throat, "Speak for yourself."

"My apologies m'lady," Gavin nodded to Hex.

"I take it I will rule Lost Angles, as always?"

"As always," Dot said.

"Then I'm in. It might be very entertaining playing these games. I've been so bored lately, and Bob seems to enjoy them so much."

Enzo saw Dot flinch. Now why had Hex mentioned Bob?

"I am curious as to why you chose me," Irina said.

"You seem a very likely candidate," Dot said. "Have you played games before?"

Irina surprised them all by saying, "Yes. The Guardian of our system - that is before she fell to Daemon's power - trained a few of us. Mind you, my experience is limited. Mostly back up."

"Would it bother you to defer to my brother at times?"

"Is he to be the leader?" Irina cocked an eyebrow.

"Well --," Dot looked at him, "He does have the most experience. I'll try to join you when I can. If I can't, he'll speak for me."

Enzo couldn't believe it. It was like a vid-dream come true for him.

"If the boy leads us into danger or does not display any maturity, then I will not follow him. But if he seems to have his wits about him then there will be no problem."

"I won't let you down, Dot," Enzo filled his voice with all the confidence he could muster.

"I know you won't," Dot said seriously, "Thank you, Captain Irina."

"Maiandra."

"Pardon?"

"My name is Maiandra. Just call me Mai."

"Please, call me Dot."

Mai smiled slightly, "Very well."

They were given their assignments. As Enzo expected, he was assigned to Baudway. As everyone got up to leave, Dot called him aside.

"I have something for you, sweetie."

"Dot - t."

"Oh I'm sorry, Sector Warden Matrix," Dot and Phong were both smiling at him. "Your icon, please."

Puzzled, Enzo removed his icon and handed it to Dot, who in turn passed it to Phong. The ancient sprite opened his built-in file drawer and removed another icon, holding it before Enzo's. The transfer of data was brief.

Dot replaced his icon and tapped it twice.

The shower of gold sparks engulfed the small sprite in a clothing format upgrade. When the air around him cleared, his clothing now resembled Dot's business outfit. He wore a white shirt with black shoulder pads and black shorts.

"No way! Cool!" Enzo grinned, "I mean, thank you Commander Matrix, Phong."

"You're welcome, Enzo." Dot smiled.

<<WARNING: INCOMING GAME>>

"You're on little brother."

Enzo gave her a smile and dashed from the room.

Phong opened a vid-window. "It's landing in Lost Angles." The venerable sprite frowned, "Dot?"

"Phong," Dot sighed, "I hope I did the right thing. If anything happens to Enzo --,"

"Do not doubt yourself, my child," Phong squeezed her hand. "Go on, your guests are waiting."

Dot had forgotten all about the Captains. There were plans to be made. But all Dot could think about was her brother in a game and the memory of a screaming voice came to her. The voice that had been her own.

***

"Amazing," Captain Syn smiled. "Kurt, you can do anything."

"Including get us all into trouble," Lynx growled. "What were you thinking letting Dot Matrix see you out?"

Kurt's face twisted in a sneer but Captain Lynx didn't seem to fear his first mate. Besides they knew Syn wouldn't allow a fight.

"That was the plan. To let her know she was helpless to stop us," Kurt continued to tinker with the machine.

"It was a good idea, but I wished you had asked me first," Syn said.

"My apologies, captain," Kurt stood upright. "It's ready. This won't jam all the communications but you can send a piggyback signal to certain recipients and CC several others. You can send your own encrypted messages within the signal."

"Excellent! And there's no way to discover it?"

"Well there is a way, but only if you know what to look for and who's going to know?"

"What type of range does it have?" Lynx asked. "Can you communicate outside of the system?"

"You seem awfully eager to talk to people outside," Kurt's eyes narrowed.

"If we can communicate with people outside we can maybe tap into net communications and find out how near Daemon's Armada is."

"Good idea," Syn stretched. "Make it so, Kurt."

"Yes sir!" Kurt smiled. "That will be quite useful."

***

<<GAME OVER>>

Dot expelled her breath. She had cringed when the voice had announced the game's ending. She had waited with trepidation for the ominous words of <<USER WINS>>, which thank the User, never came.

Once she was assured that Enzo was safe; Dot watched him momentarily while he zipped towards her; Dot turned her attention to the maneuvering fighters.

"Dot!" Enzo landed on the pier beside her, "You wouldn't believe the game! It was the prissiest thing I ever saw! It was called Fashion Avenue and we had to dress up in these dorky clothes and parade around a stage! Then these judges had to vote on whom was the best dressed and would you believe I actually won the men's competition? Hex won for the women. Dot she looked great! They all listened to me. We had a tough time at first trying to figure out the game without a keytool but Irina figured it out and -- hey Dot, are you listening to me?"

"Yes, I am sweetie, but I also have to make certain the fighters adhere to my formation plan."

"Dot?" She heard the fear creep into her brother's voice. "What if --?"

"Enzo," she turned and knelt before him, "We must continue to think positive. We must continue to have faith in Bob and the others and ourselves." Yes, this time she would not lose faith.

"I-I'll try Dot."

A vid-window popped open and Captain Covar's face appeared, "We're ready Ms. Matrix."

"I want you to select ten of your best ships, five each," Dot said, "We're going to send to them outside the system. If we're lucky, they can give us some early warning."

"How long do we have?"

"If our sources are correct, six seconds."

"May the User protect us all," Covar said. "Very well, Ms. Matrix, we'll make our choices and dispatch the fighters within a millisecond."

"Thank you, Captain."

"Dot?" Enzo's voice was so quiet. For a moment he seemed like the little sprite she knew not too many hours ago, that used to crawl into bed with her and ask for read-only files until he fell asleep. "We'll be all right."

He took her hand in his. It was so small. He was depending on her. Dot found herself unable to look at him and instead looked skyward to the ships that were their only means of defense.

Cursors and crashes, Bob! Why did you leave me again to face this alone? If you get yourself deleted, I'll never forgive you for the rest of my processing.


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