Note: I want to thank my beta readers, Sparcck, Toracats, and Meghan for putting up with this fic. And remember, I don't own ReBoot, I'm just writing about it. With that said, let's get to the fic.
Don’t let it go away
This feeling has got to stay
Don’t let it go away
This feeling has got to stay
And I can’t believe I’ve had this chance now
Don’t let it go away - “New” By: No Doubt
Bob watched his friends’ attempts to stop Megabyte. But they were merely attempts, efforts made in vain to keep Megabyte from robbing Mainframe of their protector.
He himself had yelled, “You won’t get away with this!” Unfortunately, the guardian was wrong. He had failed. Megabyte shot Bob a sneer as he launched the pod Bob was imprisoned in. He let out a strangled cry as the Web portal rushed towards him.
“NO!” He felt a tingling sensation as the pod passed through the portal. The Sprite caught his last look at Mainframe. From that height the hardware he had just been on was very small. He couldn’t make out Dot, or see what Megabyte was doing. He barely had time to think about it, because it all slipped from his line of sight. Now, Bob had other things to concentrate on.
Up and up. He made it through the portal and got his very first glance at the Web. First impressions are everything, and it was apparent the Web did not have any good impression to offer.
The force exerted on the pod was tremendous. It had not only propelled Bob into the Web portal, successfully bringing the guardian to the Web, it had allowed the pod to continue flying upward for several hundred meters.
All the while, Bob had been pounding on the walls of the pod that would pay no heed to his yells and tears. When the pod reached its maximum height, Bob thought it would plummet to the ground. It didn’t. There was no ground. In the Web, there isn’t an up or down. The pod just drifted lazily along.
“Dammit!” The guardian spat.
Bob considered his options. He could try to get out of the pod, leaving him floating around. Maybe he could figure out a way to move around and find some sort of shelter. Or, he could stay in the pod. However, that would get him nowhere. If he stayed in there a webcreature could see him as easy prey.
That settled it. Bob didn’t want to think about being watched by some hungry webcreature while he remained a sitting duck. And, although it was a far-fetched idea, perhaps there were actually people here. Who knew? The Collective never sent anyone out into the Web - Bob was sure of that. So, the collective wouldn’t know. There could be a whole civilization here.
Okay, maybe that was taking it too far. But surely there could be some benign, sentient species here to help him.
Bob knelt to get a closer look at the pod door. It was locked, but from the outside. “Glitch, cu-,” He stopped. Glitch wasn’t here. Letting out a low sigh out, Bob rammed the door with his shoulder. The door didn’t budge, and Bob was pretty sure his shoulder would now be sore for a very long time.
The pod was cramped, but Bob managed to raise his leg enough to deliver a kick to the door. No success there.
The guardian spotted something on the ground. Somehow, during the pod’s short flight, a metal strip had managed to work itself loose from the actual wall of the pod. Bob snatched it up and tried to fit it in the crack of the door.
Pushing his weight, he managed to budge the door slightly. Sweat trickled down Bob’s nose as he pushed as hard as he could manage.
With a loud POP the door jerked and opened partially. It was still caught by the now twisted lock on the outside. With a kick, the weakened metal gave way and the door swung open. Bob stuck his head out.
“Ah!” Bob gasped in the thick, humid air. His skin felt like it was on fire! Breathing the air made his lungs burn, and come to think, Bob didn’t think the air had enough oxygen. The guardian reached madly for the door and slammed it back shut. From all the abuse it had taken, it didn’t close all the way.
Still choking on the impossibly thick air, Bob slumped down to the floor of the pod. It was incredibly hot here. In fact, it seemed the Web did everything to the extreme. Very heavy air, very hot, making you very tired...
Bob shook his head. He was sweating - no surprise there. However, Bob was finding it increasingly hard to think. His eyes closed and he welcomed the blackness enveloping him.
Bob jerked out of his sleep - and his dream. He didn’t even notice his new surroundings as he rolled over and vomited. He groaned, wiped his mouth and sighed, his face inches from the mess he had just made. He rolled over again before another wave of nausea could hit him.
“Ugh,” was all Bob could muster for the moment. After a few deep breaths, he muttered, “I feel like I was hit by a bus.”
“You look like it too,” A slurred voice replied. Bob’s eyes snapped open and darted towards the voice’s general direction.. His vision cleared and he was able to see the Sprite who had spoken.
It was definitely a Sprite but, oh, how different a Sprite. The person before him was average height. Bob guessed that he was maybe taller than this stranger, but he could not be sure, given that he was laying down. The Sprite has light green skin that looked a bit too pale for anyone healthy.
What made Bob jerk was that this Sprite’s face was not entirely complete. No, that wasn’t the way to say it. This person’s entire left side of his face was almost...melted. Bob tried not to stare, barely succeeding.
“Although I’m not one to talk, right?” The stranger laughed hoarsely. Bob wasn’t sure if the person wanted an answer or not, so he kept his mouth shut.
“Still, if you’d been in that pod any longer, you might be a lot worse off.” The Sprite cocked his head. “Do you talk? I thought maybe you’d have more to say after all that chattering you did while you were asleep.”
“I talk,” Bob said, not sure how to reply to the person’s last comment. He took a moment to survey his surroundings. The guardian guessed he was in a cave of some sorts. The walls and ceiling were made of a rock. Pieces of rock jutted haphazardly out of the surface. One thing he noticed was that the walls were actually giving off light. Not bright light, but an unnatural glow that kept the room lit up.
The guardian noted the he was sitting on a flat shelf that was also rock. You couldn’t sit up straight, the ceiling was quite low at that particular spot.
Turning his gaze back to the Sprite standing there he asked, “Where am I?”
“The safest place you can be. This is one of the smaller caves spread about the Web. We often keep our limited equipment in the series of caves around here. In here, you’re pretty much protected from the Web. I’m sure you noticed it’s not exactly wise to just hang out there without protection.”
Bob managed a laugh. It hurt his throat to talk, let alone laugh. He was pretty sure what had caused that: The disgustingly thick air outside. Which brought up another question: “How do you breathe and get around the Web? You said yourself it’s just plain random to go out there.”
“I said it’s just plain random to go out there without protection.” The Sprite tapped his chest. Bob’s attention was drawn to the clothing protocol. It was bulky, dull, and presumably heavy.
“This.” The Sprite paused. “We’ll dig up something for you to wear, erm...”
“Bob. Just Bob.”
“Bob, yeah. I’m Glenn.”
Bob outstretched his hand as if to shake Glenn’s. Glenn made no move to return the action, and after a moment, Bob withdrew his own hand. Glenn made his way towards the opening, or door of the cave.
“I’ll be back in a while. I have to go find a websuit for you, and figure out what we’re going to do with you.” Just as he made it to the opening, he stopped and looked at Bob sharply.
“You’re a guardian.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Bob glanced down at his icon. Amazingly enough, while his clothing protocol was stained, ripped up, and filthy, his icon still was in perfect condition.
Glenn just nodded and put a thick helmet over his head, before he ducked out of the cave. Bob wanted to peer out the doorway and see what he was doing out there, but didn’t dare after his previous experience outside.
Instead, he slid off the shelf-like bed he had been sitting on. The world tilted for a moment, and Bob had to hold his hand against the wall to steady himself. After a moment, he felt ready enough to walk to the other side of the small cave.
Silly, Bob thought. There was nothing to see in there.
Something did catch his eye, however. Bob leaned down to examine the wall and to get a better view of what he saw. For a moment, he just wanted to laugh, this was the last the he’d have expected to see in a hellhole like this.
Simply, scratched out into the coarse, rocky, wall were initials. L. P. + A. V. For a moment that was much longer than any fleeting moment, Bob considered adding B. C. + D. M. He shook it off, with the knowledge that Dot wasn’t here, and they were not even an item. They hadn’t dated, kissed, held hands...
Well, actually, they HAD held hands. It wasn’t a holding hands in the way that people hold hands on dates, but...It was enough for Bob to get that nervous feeling, like he was some grade school kid with a crush.
Walking back to the diner, after a game, being dragged by Dot who wanted to get back to her spreadsheets, THAT was a million miles away. Dot was a million miles away. That grade school crush sure didn’t feel like a grade school crush anymore.
Damn. What an idiot he was turning out to be, Bob thought.
Before he could bash and berate himself more, someone moved aside the makeshift door to the cave and stepped in. Over his shoulder, he carried another websuit. The person dropped it to the ground and gestured at Bob to put it on. The guardian suddenly recognized the armor clad figure as Glenn.
He picked up and examined the suit for a moment, trying to figure out how he was going to work his way into it. By the time he figured it out, Glenn had taken off his helmet.
“You’ll want to keep your clothing protocol on when you put the suit on. Rough insides,” Glenn advised.
Following the suggestion, Bob managed to pull the suit over his torn-up guardian uniform. The suit was bulky enough to even accommodate his boots. Bob then pulled the helmet over his head. He noted that it didn’t cover his hair, which could probably have stood a washing by now.
“Ready?” Glenn asked before putting on his own helmet.
“Yeah,” Bob said, but the sound was lost in the helmet. His companion couldn’t hear him. It didn’t matter, because Glenn was already opening the cave entrance. Bob followed suit.
“We’re riding THAT?” Bob asked incredulously, before remembering that no one could hear him. “That” was a beast that looked awfully similar to the drones that had invaded Mainframe. And, apparently, they WERE riding that, because Glenn pulled himself onto the creature’s back and helped Bob over, too.
The creature took off.
If anything should happen to me, I’m charging you with defense of this system...
Did he really say that? Bob’s sense of reality was contorted. Did he actually have the nerve to put a eleven-year-old boy in charge of a system with two viruses?
No. Of course not. Nothing was supposed to have happened to him. Enzo was supposed to go to the Academy. That wasn’t happening
Still, Enzo couldn’t be defending the system. Wouldn’t Dot stop him? Wouldn’t Dot take over, play the games, deal with Megabyte?
What if they hadn’t even gotten a chance to worry about if Enzo would be the guardian? What if they were already virals? Or worse?
“Hey, Guardian, I asked you a question,” The rough voice jerked him back to his new surroundings. Another cave, more spacious, more people. A motley array of Sprites, slowly degrading.
“I asked you if you were hungry.” The Sprite raised his voice over the continual modem-speak chatter that went on. Glenn had explained that once you degraded enough, you lost control of your vocal cords. You couldn’t talk, at least not in any language spoken on the ‘Net. Bob would have to learn modem-speak, before he lost his own voice, another Sprite had told him.
Not happening, Bob told himself. He was convinced he was getting out of there. Still, the harsh reality was that many of the people here had been here for a very long time, and weren’t ever going home. Almost all of the Sprites could only speak in modem now, and more than half of them had degraded beyond recognition.
“Er, yeah. Food would be good.”
Another Sprite replied in a series of high pitched clicks.
“He said, ‘You got that right,’” A Sprite to the left replied.
The Sprite who had spoken in modem gave another remark after the translation.
“But you won’t find any food here.” Glenn translated, nodding. “Still, we’ve got something to eat, so fear not,” he said with a sardonic laugh.
Bob stared, stared, and stared some more.
Slimy, gross web slugs.
Not to mention live.
“Eat up!” Glenn laughed, slapping Bob’s back.
For a moment, the guardian wasn’t even sure if everyone was serious. Until, that is, they started eating the slugs themselves.
“Don’t chew them,” a laughing voice whispered in Bob’s ear.
“Don’t chew them. They’ll wiggle on the way down, but it’s better than having slug insides on your tongue.”
Bob looked at the speaker. A smirking girl, who looked way to young to be in the Web, but already, she was degraded.
Somewhere, in Mainframe, there was a diner were he could have been enjoying an energy shake and chips. This wasn’t that somewhere.
“Got it,” Bob said with a sinking sensation. “Bottoms up.
“Stop!” Bob jerked against the mount, attempting to get control. The creature, got even more spooked, bucked, and threw Bob. He tumbled for a moment, and yelled “Stop!” again.
The first words he had learned were the commands used to control the mounts these webriders used. Then, he had managed to master the three key phrases that Glenn had said every Sprite should know:
“You want to make something of it?”
“Your mother was an obese null.”
“When I’m done with you, you won’t be able to output for a week.”
That last phrase brought up an interesting point. The Web did not have indoor plumbing. In fact, it barely had outdoor plumbing. The actual act of relieving yourself was way beyond being an embarrassing nuisance.
Bob went off to take part in an embarrassing nuisance.
Once completed, the blue Sprite realized that the webcreature had taken off and was by a cave, a few hundred meters away.
Now, the Web may seem weightless, and you do in fact drift through it, but its air is sludgy thick. It’s an awesome bother to have to travel through it without some form of transportation.
Bob said another word in modem-speak he had just recently learned.
Gorgeous, Bob thought.
Bob closed his eyes as he drew a picture of Dot in his mind. He started doing that, because he was afraid that if he didn’t, he’d forget what she looked like. He couldn’t ever forget her voice, but her appearance was hard to picture, like when you try to remember a dream once you’re awake. And just like a dream, the more you struggle to remember it, the harder it is to grasp.
“Guardian! Those slugs aren’t going to catch themselves!” Another webrider shook a deformed fist at him.
“I know it, I know it,” Bob replied. The one thing about modem-speak is that no one could hear the choke in his voice as he spoke. His expressionless helmet gave no clues as to how he was feeling, either.
“He’s just dreaming about some girlfriend,” Alec retorted, smacking the rump of a passing mount.
“Just as I recall you screaming about some girl. Kept the entire camp up one night,” Uschi said laughing, in a way completely foreign to those who’ve never heard modem-speak. It was a low pitched clacking sound, and it was about as unnatural as the language itself.
Bob noted that Alec didn’t have much else to say.
Uschi was the girl with the sage advice regarding Web slugs. Bob had discovered that she was from a small system, and she was (or had been) a dynamic scientist who wanted to examine the Web firsthand. She had gotten hopelessly lost, and was found by the webriders just in time.
“How long have you been here?” Bob had asked.
“Does it matter? Forever. I’ve been here forever. That’s the same as saying ‘I’ve been here for a week, or a month, or a year.’”
To the guardian, that statement was becoming more and more so true. It was impossible to keep track of the days. You slept when you were tired, ate when you were hungry, worked when there was work to be done, et cetera.
So easy to forget how long you’d been there, so hard to forget why you were there.
Picking up the last slug, he headed back for the nearest cave. He took off his helmet and rubbed his sweaty face. No beard, mustache, or otherwise.
This had at first confused Bob. He was used to getting up every day and tackling his stubble with a razor. Now, he didn’t even need to consider shaving. He grew no facial hair.
Glenn had explained. Degradation. It had easily stopped hair growth on the face. The hair on Bob’s head had continued to grow, (it was constantly in his face now) but his face never showed sign of stubble.
Degradation was puzzling. Feeling his face and neck, Bob could feel slick scarring, just beginning to form. His hair was discolored, had lost it’s luster. His nose felt wider, his voice was deeper, and he itched where the scarring had begun. C’est la vie. The only phrase he had picked up from Cecil that actually meant anything to him. Such is life. Deal with it.
Bob yawned. He was tired and not exactly in one of his best moods. He sat down for a minute, hoping for a moment of quiet. He didn’t have quiet for long.
A webrider came in. Bob couldn’t see the agitation on the Sprite’s face, because of his helmet. “Guardian, get on a mount, we have intruders.”
“Intruders?” But Bob already knew what he meant. Intruders. Other people who had stumbled into the Web. Some, were harmless and could join with the webriders like Bob had done. Others were there because the Web was an easy shortcut for smugglers and so on. The last kind were made easy work of.
Bob hoped they were just harmless fools who had gotten lost here.
Pulling his helmet on, Bob went back out the door and climbed onto his mount. The half-blind beast fired clicks of echolocation and followed Bob’s commands to go towards the other riders.
Off in the distance, Bob could see a ship that was clearly not one of some low class smuggler or harmless sap. It was a sleek, black ship, and it appeared to be shielded from the elements of the Web.
There was something awfully familiar about the ship.
“Fancy ship,” someone commented.
“She’s sweet,” another murmured.
“Think we can handle it?” Bob asked. He turned to Glenn, who was the Sprite in charge of this “mission”.
“Might not need to worry about that. Maybe just some idiot passing here on vacation, thinking this was some great shortcut. Ain’t never going back.”
The group advanced and approached the ship at an almost leisurely pace. It was clear that they knew what they were doing - had done this before, and would do it again.
When the group was only a few meters away from the ship, it seemed as if the people in the transport did not notice them. Uschi commented on this, but was cut short as the ship banked a hard right, narrowly missing a collision with the three at the head of the broken chain.
A line appeared on the side of the ship in the shape of a door. It became a door and then began to iris open. Bob and the others raised their primitive weapons. They had nothing more than a few simple guns and one or two blaster-type weapons. Bob was seriously doubting how capable he and his comrades were - and how they could fare.
The guardian didn’t have time to focus on this, though. At the very moment the door was opened all the way, Bob saw someone - a someone he’d never thought he’d see again.
Pale-green jumpsuit, black shoulder pads and knee-pads, silver bracers. A guardian. This guardian was different. Bob knew the guardians as completely clean-cut and businesslike, yet with an air of an easy going manner, that was hard to match into one personality.
This guardian did not display any of that. This person had the uniform and the signifying icon, but was ragged looking, and mean. He held a single blaster in his hand, ready to fire, and looked like he was ready to kick some serious ascii.
“It’s a guardian,” Bob heard a fellow webrider laugh. He was burning with embarrassment at the way this person was representing a group of defenders who had been respected for so long.
“Master was correct,” the guardian said with a sneer. “There is a sentient species living in the Web.”
Something was wrong. Bob couldn’t yet figure it out, but something was desperately wrong with this guardian. Was he really a guardian? Was he just someone attempting to pass off as a guardian? Was he -
But Bob saw it. This guardian’s temples had glowing spider web marks. A few cases of viral infection has that telltale mark. When Bob looked at the guardian’s icon, it was marked similarly. The person - this guardian - was infected.
Bob felt his stomach churn. It was almost painful to see a fellow guardian brought down to viral infection. Not every virus could infect a guardian. This must be a strong one.
“Wonder why the Web’s not bothering him,” Tristan said in a low voice.
The guardian shot a look at Tristan confusingly - he didn’t understand him. Eyeing the group warily, making sure no one made a move, he fiddled with some sort of device attached to his right ear. It was a translator, Bob guessed. Satisfied, he spoke again, “All right, drop your weapons. You are to act quietly and not give me any trouble.”
“Fat chance!” Uschi snapped.
“Considering the circumstances, you don’t really have a choice, do you? Do you want to be charged with refusal of a guardian’s orders? That’s a criminal defense, you know. Penalty of death.”
Bob finally spoke up, “I thought that the guardians’ job was ‘to mend and defend’. What happened to that?” Bob didn’t want this Sprite to know that he was also a guardian, that would almost certainly be fatal. Still, he wanted answers.
Yet, the situation looked pretty bad any ways. The webriders couldn’t just shoot, there might be reinforcements in the ship waiting patiently for any conflict. They didn’t have the resources to handle more guardians - they were always equipped with the latest weapons. The webriders would wait to see what happened.
“Those are no longer the collective’s objectives,” The guardian drawled. “I suppose you could say we’re under new management.”
“Da -,” the guardian was cut off. Tapping his ear piece, he listened intently to whatever was being said.
Tsew! The guardian jerked, clasping the smoking hole in his stomach, and fell backwards into the ship.
“He was getting on my nerves,” a fellow webrider made excuse.
“Fine. Now, we have to concentrate on whoever else is inside the ship.” Glenn turned back towards the door, raising his gun.”
Tseew! Bob twisted, stumbled, and fired blindly at the door of the ship. He managed to hit one of the guardians - infected guardians - who had started stepping calmly out of the ship. Unfortunately, the shot wasn’t enough to bring him down.
“Ah!” Tristan yelled as he shot back at a guardian who had blasted his shoulder.
Bob’s inner instinct, his code told him not to shoot - don’t do it! But Bob knew that these weren’t really guardians, or at least not the guardians he knew. So he aimed and fired again and again, trying to get closer to the door of the ship.
The guardians’ main problem was that they hadn’t expected anyone out in the Web to be armed or be able to fight. Their numbers were nearly equal, something that was by sheer chance. However, the guardians still had the advantage when it came to weapons. High-tech blasters could beat the webriders’ simple guns any day.
Yet, the webriders were tenacious - they weren’t beat yet.
The inside of the ship was a lot calmer than outside. Bob couldn’t see anyone and he thought the best thing to do was make his way to the bridge. From there he could probably work the ship’s weapons.
But...that would be too easy. Why hadn’t the guardians left the ship guarded? They should have guessed that someone would try to sneak in.
Very suddenly, Bob KNEW someone was there. Slowly, he turned around.
“Boo.” Bob knew who she was. A guardian, yes, but someone else. Caroline Vista. They had never been friends. They had one class together at the Academy, and she had dubbed Bob as “totally immature”. A spoiled brat was what Bob called her.
Still, it pained him to see any guardian like this. No one deserved to be infected.
Her uniform wasn’t up to par, and her pale skin clearly showed the infection at her temples. She had a simple blaster at her side and there was definitely a right and wrong side to it.
“Take off your mask,” She said. “I’m not going to kill you without seeing your face.”
Bob decided that it would be easier to just take off his helmet like he was asked. If he didn’t, Caroline - no, this viral could shoot him on the spot. He needed to be able to reach for his weapon without drawing too much attention. This might give him an opening.
Besides, he wasn’t too concerned with her seeing his face. Bob had already decided that Caroline wouldn’t live to return to whomever she was now serving - as painful as that thought was for his protocol to process.
Off went his helmet. Bob had become so used to the heat of the Web that the environment control on the ship were too chilly for his tastes. He had to blink to adjust to the bright lighting that his helmet had filtered.
Caroline stared with her dark, brown eyes. “Bob Castor?” Caroline laughed. “Robert Castor, Guardian 452, the Sprite with a price on his head that is higher than the ‘Net is large. And I’m the one to find you. What’s a guardian doing in the Web?”
“I could be asking you the same question, Caroline.” Bob moved his hand towards his gun, trying to make it look like he was just putting his hands on his hips.
“That’s Lieutenant Vista, if you don’t mind. And I don’t think you need to be concerning yourself with what I’m doing here, just whether you’re getting out dead or alive.”
Tseew! Bob winced at the sound of blasters firing outside. “Alive? Why don’t you just kill me right now?”
“Well, that’s certainly what we have planned for your friends, but I wouldn’t want to kill you. We have no use for these Web dwellers, but you’re a guardian. Daemon requires live specimens for infection. You’ll be of no use dead.”
The inflection this viral used was so typical of Caroline, he almost expected her to add a bored, “Duh.” to her last statement.
“Daemon? Your master?”
This time she did say, “Duh.” It made Bob wonder how powerful this virus was. It (she? he?) could infect and still keep much of the victim’s personality intact! And still have so much control! Megabyte couldn’t do that.
“Still, I suppose you’re just as fine dead. I mean, either way Daemon would then have control of all the guardians.”
Wait! All the guardians? Did that include Enzo? Bob had made him a guardian, albeit a cadet. Had they gotten to Mainframe? Was Mainframe now under control? What about Megabyte? What about Hexadecimal? What about Dot?
Bob fought to keep his face under control, but failed.
“Ah, I see this is news for you. Maybe we’ll just -,”
Tsew! Bob grabbed his gun, aimed! fired! all in a split second. Caroline dodged it - barely - and used her blaster to return fire. Bob was already rolling out of the way, taking shelter behind a computer console.
Circuits crackled, melted, and sparked as Caroline shot at the console, hoping for a shot to go through. Bob jumped up and shot back, dodging behind another piece of equipment. This time, Caroline just walked around the equipment to shoot at Bob.
Bob’s armor was too bulky. It was difficult to be running and diving around in it, but the Sprite tried his best. He inched carefully to the nearest corner (a stupid move he later realized) his weapon aimed at Caroline. She set off one shot, but it missed him completely. She was messing with him.
Rolling out of the corner, Bob yelled as a shot hit him squarely in the back. Searing pain ripped through him. He retaliated with three consecutive shots, each missing by mere millimeters. He jumped up, fell back to his knees and tried shooting again. His aim was off. The pain in his back was distracting him.
Caroline shot back expertly, and Bob flopped down onto his stomach in order to dodge the shots. Rolling once more, he managed to stand up. There was a small trailed of blood where he had rolled. Bob was really injured.
Tseew! The shot just barely missed Bob’s face. Another narrowly escaped his left arm His own fire almost got her in the leg, and then after another attempt did. (Better to cripple than to kill, Bob reasoned.)
“Argh!” Caroline yelled, blood oozing from her leg and matting the cloth from her jumper. She shot back. Bob was almost sure she had gotten his hand, but realized she hadn’t.
Wham! With her good leg, Caroline kicked Bob once behind the knees, and once where it really counted. Bob had a serious problem with punching a girl, but tried his best to throw that scruple away. One punch connected squarely in her stomach and another under her chin.
“You fool!” Caroline yelled. Her gun still in her hand, she had another opening.
Bob moved behind her, tripping in his bulky armor. Cursing, he moved again, keeping Caroline turning to regain proper aim. Suddenly, with one swift knock, she kicked his legs out from underneath him.
Bob ignored the pain in his back and stood up to face Caroline. All his dodging had taken him directly to the spot where he had started. His right foot was near his helmet and Caroline was focused on his face, her blaster aimed at him. Point blank.
Wham! Bob had kicked his helmet straight at Caroline, hitting her in the face, perhaps knocking a few of her bleached-white teeth out. She dropped her weapon, and it skidded out of her reach.
Caroline gaped at him. Bob raised his gun once more. His protocol was screaming, his mind was screaming, the final shots outside were a buzz, and he could barely hear his own breathing.
An outsider might look down on Bob’s hesitation, but they wouldn’t understand. Bob’s protocol was stronger than any inner conscience, than any outside force telling him what do to, what was right and wrong. Bob physically could not fire that gun. People say that once you break the protocol (an amazing feat in itself) it becomes much easier to ignore.
However, Bob had embraced his protocol for a long time. He would have never considered destroying another guardian. The fact that Caroline was a viral made no difference.
Half of him wanted to fire, the other half physically couldn’t.
Tears were steaming down Caroline’s face. Was it an act? Was she really scared?
Bob dropped to his knees, mentally exhausted. He had just knocked what he had based his entire life on out from underneath himself.
He shut his eyes tightly, trying to get the image out, not at all succeeding. Shots were still ringing outside, though they were dying down considerably. Bob didn’t care.
“Get up, Interface.” Bob looked up into a expressionless helmet. It was Glenn’s. “Killing one person’s got you all messed up? What kind of guardian are you?”
“Shut up. Just shut up.” Bob put his helmet back on and stood up. He walked past Glenn and Uschi, who had come up from behind Glenn.
“Protocol,” was all she said to Glenn. It was all the explanation that was needed, because Glenn shut up. Moving over to Bob, she put her hand on his shoulder. “Would you know the access codes to this ship? I can maybe see if we can get this thing working, but I’m no hacker.”
“Maybe. But I think they’d change the codes after Daemon...” Bob sighed heavily.
“Daemon?” Glenn asked.
“Later,” Bob said, making his way to the main console. He could tell before he got there - it was fried. Stray fire from Bob or Caroline must have reached it.
“One of the other consoles?” Uschi suggested.
The smaller console worked, and amazingly enough the codes worked. But why not? Bob thought. He was the only free guardian and you only learned the basic access codes at the Academy.
“There.” Bob stepped back to give Uschi access. She was the scientist, after all.
There was nothing really to do while she muttered and messed with controls, so Glenn and Bob went outside the ship. Bob winced as he saw the damage done. To his utmost surprise not a single guardian was alive. Not one. It made him sick to see them laying there, and a wave of nausea rolled over him.
Counting, there were only ten guardians there (there must have been only eleven on the ship) but, that was ten too many. “How many did we lose?” Bob asked.
Five to ten. A clear victory.
“They were just unprepared,” Bob said. “They just didn’t expect anyone here to fight back. I think the infection may have changed their fighting abilities also.”
“Boys?” Uschi appeared in the ships doorway. “We can’t...the ship, it’s...it’s not going to work.”
Glenn swore and Bob felt like cursing, himself. That ship had gotten into the Web, and it could have gotten out. It could have gotten them out.
“Come on,” Bob sighed. “Let’s go back.”
It was silent. They all were on webcreatures or old zip boards, their heads bowed in respect. It was fitting. It was tradition.
The fire burned the corpses of the fallen webriders, the ones that had been killed by the guardians.
When a webrider died, there was a ceremony. They body was burned, and everyone remained silent. Once the fire died down (the fire couldn't be put out, it had to run its course) if you wanted to say a few words about the deceased, you had your time. Once the burning ceremony was over, their respectful silence ended. A small party would be thrown to celebrate life, not death.
Bob sighed, and kept his head bowed. Trying to keep his mind on the deaths of his fallen comrades was hard when he thought about who had killed them.
After awhile, the flames abated. The questions in Bob's head did not.
He lay there, in his makeshift bed. His eyes were closed. Finally, he wasn’t seeing Caroline’s gaping face every time he closed his eyes. Right now, he was seeing Dot’s clear face and bright eyes.
Had they gotten to Mainframe? Maybe not. Mainframe’s port to the ‘Net had been closed; there shouldn’t be any way to get to it. But that didn’t mean Dot wasn’t infected or dead. Megabyte was in Mainframe.
Bob opened his eyes but shut them quickly again as he felt the saline drops on his cheeks.
“Why didn’t I ask you out when I had the chance? I’m in hell, Dot. I’m in a living hell, and I can’t help you - I can’t be there for you.”
All Bob wanted to do was to hug Dot tightly, smell her hair and have them tell each other that everything would be all right. But nothing was all right.
Maybe Bob would have liked to know that far away - but not far away at all - Dot was wishing almost the exact same thing, wiping the streaming tears from her face.
“It’s bad out there. The ‘Net’s not a pretty place.” Sighing, the newcomer rubbed her eyes. “The guardians really did a number on most of the ‘Net.”
Bob stood up. “I don’t want to hear this.”
“Sit back down, Interface.”
Bob didn’t sit back down, but he didn’t leave the cave either. Sarah shot a glance at Bob then continued.
“My own system was under complete control. Not a pretty site at all. ‘Net travel is restricted, you have to go through a million procedures to get authorization codes. Transports are continually being seized and searched. The general public is paralyzed, completely overtaken by fear.
“People are being incarcerated for insane reasons, and being executed for even sillier reasons. Almost half the systems are under complete control, from what I’ve heard. The ones that aren’t are insignificant or have no open ports to the ‘Net.”
Sarah had just recently been found. She was your average sprite, working as an engineer for her smallish system. She hadn’t told them how she got here, and no one bothered asking. She was here now, and wasn’t going home. Not that home was the safest place to be, either.
They had found her in a completely demolished transport, knocked out cold. She had a cut on her forehead and her hair was matted against her face with sweat. Basically, she fit right in.
Bob spoke up, “Every here of a system called Mainframe?”
Sarah glanced up and stared at him. It made him self-conscious, he wondered how bad he looked - how bad he’d degraded. He didn’t have a mirror so there was no way of knowing.
“No. Is that where you’re from?”
“Yeah. I was assigned there.”
“Before all the guardians took over, yes. Before...” Bob didn’t need to finish.
“Anyway,” Uschi broke the silence by sitting up and reaching for her helmet. “We need to get Sarah here something to wear.” Uschi smiled at the other woman. “Finally, another girl. Do you have any idea how hard it’s been putting up with these...men?”
Sarah laughed softly and stood up, too. “I know exactly what you mean. I have a husband and two boys,” she added with a sad smile.
Glenn, Bob and all the other men in the room exchanged looks, their precious male egos broken for the moment.
“Come on, we have better things to do than be put down by some girls.” Glenn muttered.
“Just don’t tell Sarah about the bathroom.” Bob added, trying to keep the guardians out of his thoughts.
“What? What about the bathroom?”
Laughing, for the first time in a while, Bob pulled his helmet over his head and left with Glenn.
“So, how long have you been here?” Sarah asked, trying to draw her attention away from the squiggly slugs in front of her.
“Couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. Awhile, I guess.”
Uschi leaned over to whisper to Sarah, “I’ve said it a million times. Just don’t chew them.”
Sarah turned her gaze back to the Web slugs. “Ew.”
“Every time I look at these slugs I think about Dot’s Diner. There was actual food there.”
“Yeah. Dot - the owner - is a friend of mine.”
“Just a friend? You sound like it was more than that.”
“Just a friend.” Bob sighed. “I wish it had been more.”
They were jerked out of their silence by a webrider being shoved back out of his stool, and knocking a the table over.
The voices let Bob’s mind drift away from Dot once more. But as always, it didn’t last for long.
“The key for the beads. That’s all I’m asking, Interface.”
“What am I going to do with beads?” Bob wanted to know.
“String them, throw them at people, slip them in someone’s websuit...” Uschi shrugged.
Sarah raised her hand like a little girl in a classroom. “Question.”
“What?” Glenn turned to Sarah.
“Where do you get all this junk?”
“It’s not junk!” Bob yelled, then remembered to use regular speech. “It’s not junk.”
“When you find an abandoned transport in the Web, you take what you can find,” Uschi explained. She continued, “Too bad this is the highlight of our day.”
Glenn’s attention was already back on the bartering table. “I say go for it, Interface.”
“Throw in the balloon,” Bob said.
“No way!” Uschi complained.
“I’ll add the bottle of nailpolish,” he offered. He then blushed as everyone stared at him.
“What are you doing with nailpolish, pray tell?” Glenn asked, holding back a laugh.
“For times like these, when you bargain with a girl.”
“I don’t need nailpolish. I don’t have fingernails,” Uschi fixed her gaze on Bob. “But if you let me paint your nails, it’s a deal.”
The blue Sprite paused. “I don’t think I’ll look good in Crimson Rage.”
Bob never really believed in psychic powers or sixth senses. But when he woke up, he had a feeling something was going to happen. Rolling out of his makeshift bed, he left the quiet of the small cave. Outside, the camp was alive, exercising the mounts or collecting food. He returned the friendly shove Glenn had given him, but he really wasn’t in the mood for a shoving match.
He had slept well. No nightmares. He hadn’t woken up sweating, with Dot’s or his own screams echoing in his head.
And, although that was a good sign, he still felt guilty. Guilty that he hadn’t worried much as he slept about what was happening in Mainframe.
Brushing the guilt aside, he concentrated on more important things. It was his turn to help exercise the mounts, and his own dull-witted beast was waiting for him. The webcreature turned to face Bob with a stupid look on its face and he had to laugh. The mounts’ intelligence were that of a coffee table but, one got the feeling they knew more than you ever could guess.
Bob made a move for his mount and the creature moved lazily away, so that Bob lost his balance and spun in the groundless space. With practice, you could move around the Web easily, learning how to anchor yourself, but it was easy to get caught off guard.
Righting himself, Bob made a lunge and pulled himself up onto the back of the animal. Bob slapped the mount’s rump in an effort to get it to move. She - Bob could have been certain she was a she just by her stubborn nature - moved only slightly.
“Interface!” Bob turned towards the modem-speak voice. Uschi. “Are you coming?”
“You haven’t heard, then. A ship was spotted. Pirates. There’s a group going to go take care of them. I was asking if you were coming.” After a moment she added, “Although, pirates really aren’t a major concern. They’ll be easy work.”
“I know it. I’ll stay here, if I’m not needed. I’m behind in my work anyway.”
Every webrider had certain duties to carry out. Bob had gotten slack and fell behind a little. Now, he had extra work to do. He’d rather get it done when less people were around.
“Got it. I’ll let Geoff know. He’s leading the group.” Uschi, turned on her mount and went over to where a group of riders were collecting. After a few more joined, they took off.
“Now, girl, let’s not throw Bob like we did last time, okay?” Bob looked down at his mount with a grin. His mask hid the expression, but Bob had a feeling the creature knew.
Time crawled by slowly. Or, rather, it seemed to. He couldn’t exactly measure the time. Just when his mount started to cooperate and he had gotten some exercise out of her, he saw a fellow rider approaching.
“Interface! Come on!”
“What? Is there trouble?”
Uschi shook her head. “Not exactly. We have the ship under our control, but...something bothers me.” Before Bob could ask what bothered her, she continued. “The ship did have pirates but there was also a guardian on it. A male. He didn’t look infected...I’d feel badly if I were to make a mistake. I though perhaps you knew him.”
“Did you tell the others?”
“I tried to, but you know Geoff. He wouldn’t hear of it.”
It took Bob less than a second to make his decision. “Gather up whoever is left here at the camp. They’ll need their mounts, but no weapons. Tell them not to bring anything.”
“Right,” Uschi replied. Bob couldn’t hear the puzzlement in Uschi’s voice, but he knew it was there. “We don’t want to seem unfriendly. I don’t think we’ll need weapons,” Bob explained.
They were off. Bob urged everyone to hurry, even though he wasn’t exactly sure why. An uninfected guardian in the Web? So what? It wasn’t like he was going to get out either.
The ship appeared in their sight. It had been cleverly shielded with the skins and skeletons of dead web creatures. Whoever was on that ship, they knew what they were doing.
Approaching the ship, Bob saw a spot of the ship where the shielding had fallen off. The ship’s name was displayed underneath it.
Bob pushed his mount to go closer. “What?” A rider, Linux, asked.
Once close enough to see into the ship in spot’s where the shielding was gone he saw a scene that made his jaw drop.
It was normal for the people on the ship to be up against a wall while the riders figured out what to do. It was another thing for a guardian to be there. On the Saucy Mare nonetheless!
Bob spotted Capacitor, but he was more focused on the guardian for the moment. Green skin, darker green hair. One eye was replaced by a cybernetic model, but the other one shone a bright violet. Plus, there was the all-too-familiar keytool on this sprite’s belt.
Enzo. An adult, yes, but Enzo.
He hadn’t been in the Web that long, had he? There wasn’t time to think about that. By that time the others had caught up. Calling down to the riders on the ship he said, “Stand down. These are my friends.”
“What?!” Linux turned to Bob.
“Just go tell everyone to let these people go. They’re not a threat.”
“They’re not a threat,” Uschi said, as if it saying it would make all the confusion go away.
Enzo was staring at Bob. Bob knew that Enzo didn’t know who he was.
Glitch was there, the silent, patient companion he had always been. Once he realized who Bob was he flew from Enzo’s belt to Bob’s hand. Enzo’s gruff face lit up. It bothered Bob to see such a rough face belong to Enzo. But it was Enzo.
Only a few minutes later, he found himself reviving a very adult AndrAIa.
Seeing that a way familiar tackle was coming, he held his hands up. “Whoa! I think you’re a little too big for that.”
Laughing, Enzo reached his hand out to meet Bob’s outstretched one and shook it. After a moment’s hesitation, Enzo gave Bob a friendly hug and it became apparent that he may not have been tackled to death by this large sprite, but he just might be crushed by him.
“Matrix! Really, if you hug him like that there’ll won’t be any Bob left for me to see!”
Enzo released his grip. “Sorry Bob.” He offered a sheepish smile.
Grinning, AndrAIa gently shoved Enzo out of the way to offer her own hug. “You won’t believe what we did to find you!”
But it wasn’t the time for any explaining, at least on their part, because at that moment Uschi came down the stairs and pushed through the small crowd. Surveying the group, she turned her eyes on Bob.
“Would it be too much to ask for an explanation?”
“And here we are,” AndrAIa finished.
“And now we have a way back to Mainframe,” Enzo added.
Bob couldn’t get used to calling Enzo “Matrix.” He’d quickly noticed how everyone but AndrAIa called him Matrix. Not too different than the webriders calling him Interface.
They were all sitting at a table aboard the Saucy Mare. “They” including Geoff and a few other webriders. It was Geoff who turned to Matrix.
“I apologize. I didn’t know that you were friends of Interface, or I would not have ordered the attack.” When Bob translated, Matrix offered a begrudging acceptance.
“With that unpleasantness behind us, I suggest we have a celebration,” Gavin spoke up.
“Great idea,” AndrAIa smiled.
“Party,” Bula added, obviously agreeing.
Now energized, everyone began to get up, talk and let everyone else on the ship know what was going on. Uschi, who had been sitting quietly for several minutes, turned to Bob.
“I have to get back to the camp.” With a smile, she placed a sisterly kiss on his cheek. “Knock her dead, you hear?”
“I got it,” Bob said, giving his friend one last hug good-bye.
A few webriders would be staying on board the Saucy Mare until they arrived at Mainframe’s Web address. No webrider would go to Mainframe. It would just be another dead end. A system with two viruses and no open ports to the net? It would clearly be pointless for them to join the Saucy Mare in Mainframe.
Bob didn’t let his mind stay on those thoughts for long. It was time to party!
An impossibly insane energy had engulfed everyone. People were screaming with joy, spinning each other into crazy dances. Couples just reunited were kissing shamelessly. Families were together again at last and were hugging each other madly.
Almost no one saw the two by the Principal Office.
He had imagined a moment like this a million times, but it was nothing like the real thing. The world was laughing and yelling around the two and they ignored it. Everything else was second at this moment.
Bob leaned down slightly as Dot stood on the tip of her toes so that they could reach the other. Bob wrapped his arms around Dot as their lips met for the first time. They’d never held each other so close before, but it was so natural. It was only a few seconds, but for them, it would be safe to say that time had stopped. Parting lips and brought back to reality by the flash of a camera, Dot had only one thing to say.
“Don’t ever leave me again.”
“I promise.” The easiest promise Bob had ever made.
After all, one kiss is just the beginning.