In the central control room of the Principal Office, everything was silent. The vidscreens showed the war torn streets and sky of Mainframe. The central one was focused on a single sector, bare and charred. Smoke rose from its devastation.
The terrible words echoed in each mind: the binome at operations, the hacker Mouse, Phong, and not least of all, Dot Matrix, whose Guardian brother Enzo had been in that sector. "Game Over. The User Wins."
Dot leaned on her console, gripping it for support as the last of the game energy faded from the ravaged sky. A single tear ran down her cheek, leaving a shining trail against her teal-green skin. Her eyes were wide and her voice filled with despair. "Enzo . . . no . . . . Nooooooo!"
Her scream seemed to pierce the entire system. For a while no one stirred. Dot stood staring at the screen as though by looking hard enough, she could make Enzo appear in it.
Slowly, quietly, people began to move again. Two binomes left. Phong tapped distractedly at a scanning console. On the screen, repair crews were surrounding the game-damaged sector.
Mouse stepped up beside Dot, concern in her eyes. "Dot? Y' alright?"
Dot shook her head. Mouse heard her whisper, "The only thing I have left." Suddenly she turned and ran for the door.
Mouse yelped. "Hey! Wait!" The door slammed behind them. All the binomes in Central Control looked at Phong. He shrugged.
It was all Mouse could do to keep up with the command.com of Mainframe as she legged it straight to Mouse's ship. She was in the pilot's seat and entering coordinates before Mouse could catch up.
As the former mercenary strapped into the copilot's seat, Dot closed the cockpit and sped out of the Principal Office. Mouse glanced at her and asked, "Where are we goin', Dot?"
Dot's face was set and determined; whatever she had planned would happen, come power surge or system crash. "We're going to the nullified sector. It was completely evacuated before the game cube hit, right?"
"So. . . ?"
Dot laughed, a short, harsh sound, and then sighed. "Since it was cleared, there should only be two nulls in the entire sector." Her voice faltered.
"Three, countin' Frisket," Mouse added softly.
"Frisket. . . ." Dot whispered, and then, even softer, "Oh, user!" After a moment she regained control. "Phong was working on a way to restore nulls a while ago," she explained. "If we can catch these nulls, we might be able to complete the research and. . . ." Again she fell silent.
Mouse didn't speak either, until they were hovering over the blackened gash that had once been a prosperous sector of Mainframe. She prided herself on her coolness and imperturbability, but the thought of brave young Enzo and precious, sweet AndrAIa changed into mindless blobs of color made her furious. She focused grimly on her scanner. "This is odd. There's absolutely no interference, but I'm not pickin' up any nulls."
Dot was bent over her own screen, the picture of a busy sprite. "Let's move down a level." Mouse scanned there, and once again came up with nothing. Again they moved down, and again, until finally Mouse reached out and touched Dot's arm.
"Face it, sugar. There are no nulls in this sector."
The determination on Dot's face had given way to disappointment and confusion. "They couldn't have left the sector without being spotted, could they?" Mouse shrugged. "It's impossible--they must be here."
Mouse snapped her fingers, capturing a flash of insight. "Not necessarily. Y' remember when we used Enzo's icon to change AndrAIa's from game-sprite mode to reboot mode?" She removed her icon and held it out to Dot. "Watch." She touched both triangles on the icon, one after the other. They flipped into one and then expanded beyond the circle that had contained them, changing the divided diamond within a circle to a circle inside a large triangle. Instantly Dot recognized the game-sprite icon.
"You mean they changed their icons and left with the game?" Dot swallowed hard and pressed a hand to her mouth. "Data sprites can't do that. Even if AndrAIa escaped that way, Enzo . . . ."
Mouse glanced at Dot; she was staring into the nullified sector, and her voice was distant. Expertly Mouse transferred pilot control to her own console. She knew Dot wasn't listening, but she answered the comment anyway. "Maybe most data sprites can't, but Enzo has interfaced his icon with AndrAIa's. I think he coulda switched to game sprite mode." She carefully reset her icon and replaced it on her belt. Then she turned her ship back towards the Principal Office. The thought of Enzo and AndrAIa lost on the Net wasn't pleasant, but AndrAIa was a game sprite and would know how to survive. Mouse cast around for something to say, coming up with, "If they were able to change, then at least they're alive." She winced as soon as she spoke, knowing she had made a mistake.
"That only makes it worse." Dot wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes, shutting out a world suddenly and incredibly bleak. Neither woman spoke again until Mouse docked her ship deep inside the Principal Office.
Mouse opened the cockpit. As she began to climb out, she noticed that Dot didn't move--didn't even seem to know they had arrived.
The former mercenary sighed. "Dot? Y' wanna get out now?"
The command.com didn't seem to hear her.
"C'mon, y' can't stay here." Mouse lifted Dot in her strong arms and jumped from the ship to the docking bay. When she set her friend on her feet, Dot briefly lifted her head.
"I'm sorry. I just. . . ."
"I know, sugar. C'mon." Mouse put an arm about Dot's bowed shoulders and led her away.
As they passed through Central Control, several binomes looked up expectantly at their and then stared in ill-concealed shock. Mouse scowled at them, showing her fangs, and they scurried back to their posts. Only Phong continued to gaze after them as Mouse led Dot into one of the empty inner rooms.
Dot sank to the floor, leaning against a wall with her head in her hands. Mouse moved about, finishing work Dot had left when the game descended, checking and filing reports. Dot's motionless silence unnerved and worried her. Finally, after a last glance at her friend, she went out to Central Control.
Activity was slow. The firewall around G-Prime was holding, and Megabyte had made no further attempt to breach it. Quietly Mouse drew Phong to one side. "Uh-Phong," she said, "is it ever possible for a great loss to set up an unsolvable paradox in a sprite's mind?"
Phong looked at her sharply and carefully removed his pince-nez. "A loss such as that of a best friend and a little brother?" He sighed. "Yes, I have known it to happen, but only to sprites who were already somewhat unbalanced."
Mouse smiled. "Whew. You've taken a load off my mind."
"I appreciate your concern," Phong told her gravely. "Dot has need of a friend now more than ever before."
Mouse shrugged. "Well, that's where I'll be if y' need either of us."
As Mouse stepped through the inner door and let it close behind her, she heard someone speaking. Dot still sat against the wall, her face buried in her hands, but she was softly and brokenly repeating two names. "Enzo. . . Bob. . . ."
The piercing ache in her voice stirred up images in Mouse's mind: Bob as he was in the Super Computer, a young, flashy Guardian; Enzo's bold acceptance of the Guardian protocol--"I am Guardian Matrix, charged with defending this system!"; Bob, the first time they had met after he was assigned to Mainframe--"Same old Mouse." The professional cool and even the anger which the mercenary had used to cover her own pain at losing real friends melted away.
Mouse knelt beside Dot and put a hand on her shoulder. Dot stopped speaking, and then began to weep, hard, tearing sobs. "Dot?" Mouse slid her arms around her friend. Dot leaned her head on Mouse's shoulder and continued to cry. Mouse, to her surprise, felt her own eyes grow moist and hugged Dot hard, wishing she knew some hacker's system to break the code of such pain. Nothing came to mind.
Outside, Mainframe was quiet under a sky the rust-brown color of sorrow. Entire sectors lay deserted, and a brilliant firewall burned around G-Prime. In a quiet room within the Principal Office, a business woman and a mercenary, the command.com of Mainframe and a hacker-for- hire, each of whom had loved Guardian Bob in her own way, grieved the losses they had suffered in this fight and the ones that were still to come.