TO THINE OWN SELF
(Part two of three)
(Historian's note: This story takes place shortly after "Game Over")
"I have to log this. If I do not do something other than wait, I will go crazy. It has been many nanoseconds since the attack, and I still have not heard anyone who knows any more than I do about the infection. The only thing I seem to be told over and over is "There, there." I do not even know what these healer people are supposed to be doing, but should they not do Something? We helped them destroy the virus, yet all they do is look at us as if we were the enemy. Do they not see we are the same as them? Just because we are from a different place they act suspicious when we do anything at all. Why do they not make it stop? They can not just let this happen! He was just beginning to again be like himse"
AndrAIa dropped the small notepad to the ground in mid-word with a "clang" of metal striking metal and buried her head in her hands to cry. She tried to bring herself under control, so as not to draw the attention of anyone else in the hospital building. Her failure to do so proved once and for all that her bedside vigil had gone on for too long.
Enzo was lying still on the bed. One eye was covered by a makeshift eye patch that served as a constant reminder of "The Game", the other was closed tight. No equipment was in sight, as there was simply no way to tell what would help him. An arm on his guardian uniform was torn off completely, and one of his pant legs was shredded in several places, though the damage to his green skin was minimal. In fact, besides his clothes, he seemed like a perfectly healthy small sprite. A perfectly healthy small sprite who had not moved for some time. AndrAIa had held her hand over his mouth several times, just to make sure he was still breathing.
Frisket was asleep beside the bed, whimpering to himself. She could only guess what his dreams were. She tip-toed over to the dog, stroked his head softly, and collapsed in the closest chair. Sleep claimed her instantly.
Failure, despair, anger, guilt, hopelessness. All these feeling had taken their blows at Enzo after the game had been lost. But none lingered the way total humiliation had. Their home had been lost, their freedom had been taken, their lives were ruined and it was all his fault.
But it wasn't just him, was it? Someone else was responsible. Someone else had gotten the ball rolling too, right? Someone who ended up on top for it... Megabyte
Frisket for his part left him well enough alone, mostly. Frisket... he should be free. Enzo had never done anything to deserve his eternal protection, nor had Frisket offered it to him. The dog deserved better than to have his fate decided by an erasable screw-up like him! AndrAIa on the other hand, craved his companionship. She continued to look to him for reassurance and to tell her everything would be alright. But how could he look her in the eye and lie? Everything was very NOT ok, they would NOT see Mainframe again, and every nanosecond brought them one step closer to whatever gruesome deletion fate had in store for them.
AndrAIa didn't understand. For a long time after The Game, he refused to even meet her gaze. He was too ashamed. It seemed the only time he even spoke was to Glitch, and even then, he kept the commands short, and quiet. They never spoke of the game. They just went on, as if it never happened. Not once yet had it even been mentioned by either... except once.
A few cycles after Enzo began talking again, AndrAIa noticed that he was introducing himself as "Matrix". At first, she was scared to inquire about it. It seemed whenever Enzo spoke to her, it was in anger, or exasperation. The first time he said anything after the game was when she had asked him a direct question. She wanted to understand the custom of shaking hands. He had turned to her, annoyed, and said, spitting out every word like a curse "Here's one. Why don't YOU stop asking stupid questions? I don't have time to be your baby-sitter, so try thinking for yourself for once!" He turned away so fast he didn't see the horrified shock on her face. She tried to say "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry...". Her mouth moved but she could manage no sound. She had never felt so terrible in her life.
That's why it was systems later before she asked why he now called himself Matrix.
"Why not?" he stated, like a challenge "Who else would I be?"
"Enzo..." she replied meekly.
'Matrix' bristled at the name. "Enzo's gone, and it's a good thing too. He was nullified, remember? He lost. He's a failure, and the net's better off without him!"
AndrAIa fled in fright. Even Frisket backed away from him.
Eventually, and thankfully, Matrix began to settle down a bit. Although he was still a very changed person, at least he was a person. Not some heartless 11-year-old from hell that had taken control of the lives of his friends. Just as he was starting to act more like "Enzo", they entered a system that contained a new threat.
It was one of the shortest games Matrix had ever played. The User had quit almost instantly, as if they had scared him off. The cube left swiftly, leaving them in a park area. Matrix scanned the system for ports to the Net, but his face fell, and he shook his head. Suddenly, AndrAIa spun to him, and hissed, her claws threatening him.
Matrix threw his hands over his face. "Whoa! AndrAIa, backspace!"
But AndrAIa wasn't looking at him, she was looking behind him, and now her expression changed to confused. She pointed. "Did you not see that?"
"See what?" he asked. But obviously it wasn't just her imagination, as Frisket began barking loudly in the same direction AndrAIa was pointing. "Look, will you two compile up? There's no boogie-sprite, okay? Now what did you see?"
But there was no time to answer, as a scream echoed from another part of the park. For the first time, he saw the cause of his companions' alarm. It was shaped vaguely like the Codemaster who had "visited" Mainframe some time ago, but this creature was definitely viral. It was threatening an old lady binome with its massive teeth. The other park-goers were scrambling as far away as they could get. The virus must've gotten in with the game! The User probably saw a problem in the game, and had quit to check it out. However, it was unlikely he could expect any divine intervention. The User seemed to have a clock-speed that wasn't even on par with Al. It sometimes took him seconds to do anything...
Matrix rushed to the rescue, and when he got within shouting distance, he yelled "Hey viral boy! Why not try picking on someone your... uh... on someone else!"
Well, way to go. his brain applauded. That's where your plan ends, isn't it? Yeah, I thought so. (*clap*, *clap*). And indeed it was, he realized as the virus began to descend on him.
Suddenly though, the virus was blown to the ground by a burst of energy. It was the CPUs! Matrix smiled in approval. Who says there's never a CPU around when you need one? But when it got up, it became very clear that the virus was quite intent on his deletion. It lunged at him, and grabbed his arm. Matrix pulled away, tearing his sleeve off, but the virus instead grabbed his leg. Matrix felt something bury itself deep into his thigh... and then blackness.
It is said that under circumstances of extreme stress, fright, or anger, one can accomplish feats of incredible strength. AndrAIa was in one of those circumstances now, and with a battle yell, she ripped the razor-sharp starfish from her hair, ignoring the pain she had stupidly caused herself, and threw it faster and harder than she ever had before. At first, it seemed as though she had missed. But then the virus yelped in pain as his arm, severed at the elbow, fell to the grassy ground. AndrAIa cringed, feeling her stomach do a somersault as she caught and replaced the weapon/hairpiece. As the virus screamed, the CPU's and other binomes converged on it, and began tearing it to pieces. AndrAIa watched, unable to look away, as she saw, for the first time in her life, something die. Oh, she had seen the User destroyed countless times, but this was the first real thing...
Frisket was the first to reach Matrix, and he howled in dismay. Some binomes offered to help them carry him to a diagnostic program, but others opposed it, claiming that "They brought that virus to this system! They should be erased!"
Finally, one tall, important looking sprite broke it up. "They helped us beat this thing, remember? Now let's get him to the hospital! We can ask questions later." He put his hand on AndrAIa's head. "Don't you worry now, we'll help your friend." The sprite turned out to be the Virus Scanner of the system.
As they entered the hospital, they were greeted by a secretary binome. The Virus Scanner asked to check in a new patient, then he turned to AndrAIa and Frisket. "What did you say his name was again?"
AndrAIa hesitated for a moment. "Matrix." she finally answered evenly.
The Virus Scanner ran a series of tests on Matrix, and concluded that he'd never seen anything like it before. All he could offer them was that he was in a comatose state and that there was no way to bring him out of it. He had to somehow bring himself out of it. "I'm sorry." he finished. "I know you wanted there to be more... so did I."
AndrAIa then realized that these people were not virus experts either. The horrible irony was that the only person who might know something about that viral was Matrix.
She and Frisket remained in Matrix's room, waiting for a miracle. Soon, Frisket had fallen asleep, and AndrAIa's eyesight was beginning to blur. She picked up a notepad, and typed.
"I have to log this." she began...
Matrix awoke with a start. All he could see was blackness except... except himself. He could see his own hand perfectly. How was that possible? There was no light source.
"Where am I?" he asked to no one, expecting no answer. His expectations were not met.
"Where are you?" replied a voice. Matrix whirled around to see another perfectly visible figure. Oh... my... User. he thought. It was Dot.
"Sis! How did you get here?" he gasped.
Dot just frowned. "You wanted to see me."
Now it was Matrix's turn to frown. "Is this a dream?"
This time, the question seemed to strike a chord with Dot... or whoever it was. She looked deep in thought for a moment. Then she responded. "What you are experiencing is a temporary distortion of reality."
Ohhhh, goody. That cleared everything up. Then he remembered, the virus.
"Are you a viral infection?"
"Am I a viral infection?" This time it was not Dot who responded. It was AndrAIa. She stepped out from behind Dot, looking no less confused than Dot looked, and he felt.
"Where did you come from?" Matrix demanded, as he saw Firsket also stepping out. This time, impossibly from behind AndrAIa.
The reply came from off to the side. "Where did we come from?" Bob...
This was getting too bizarre. "Why don't you answer me??"
A voice responded from behind Dot. Matrix couldn't make out the figure. "Because we don't know. And you do." It was beginning to step out in front of everyone. Matrix's mouth went dry.
"Dad?" he weekly managed.
His father was crying. He knelt down and held out his arms. "Enzo... son. Oh User! How I've missed you!"
Matrix rushed to him. "I missed you too!"
But as he approached, the others suddenly gasped, and retreated backwards. Matrix stopped and sniffed quietly. "Wh.. what? What's wrong?"
His father was the first to answer. "Oh, Enzo..."
AndrAIa continued the thought. "We WANT to be with you..."
Dot shook her head. "But we can't."
Matrix couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why? Why can't you?" he demanded, feeling more than a little betrayed.
Bob answered. "Because he won't let us."
Then, they all lifted their arms, and pointed directly behind him.
When Matrix turned around, he saw them for the first time. They were two-dimensional, with no discernible shape to them. They were all different colors. There were thousands of them. They looked like multi-colored shadows. Matrix returned his gaze to his friends. "Which one?" he inquired, now entirely confused.
"Me." answered all the shadows in unison.
Matrix was getting REAL tired of this. He raised his fists, and prepared to smash these things. Whatever they were, it didn't take him long to realize he really didn't like them.
"Wait!" called one shadow. "You don't know anything about us! About me! You can't solve anything by destroying everything you don't understand."
"No!" interrupted another. "I keep you from your friends! That's all you need to know! Action is required, now!"
The shadows went into a sort of surrealistic argument. Some were yelling at each other, arguing over moral issues, others were simply sitting and complaining to themselves that they were hungry, bored, scared, and just about anything else imaginable. There were a specific group of shadows that were moving around and consuming other shadows, as if plotting a slow take-over.
Matrix threw up his arms in hopelessness. "What ARE you?!"
The shadows suddenly stopped, and although they were without any eyes, he could feel them looking at him, as if to say "Oh, why didn't you just ask?". The shadows moved closer to him, and to each other, merging and piling up together. The colors swirled, and the shadows took shape. It was himself, eye patch, uniform and all. And on his face was a wicked smile that made Matrix's skin crawl. His double was also partially translucent, and he could still see shadows consuming others beneath its skin, taking over like a parasite. It spoke. The voice was his, but wrong. Indescribably wrong. "I will not allow them near me... Near you. I will keep them away... at a safe distance."
As he continued, Matrix slowly began to see something else. Images flashed before him.
"I will, however," continued the double "allow this."
Matrix watched HIMSELF grow, become larger. The images became more vivid. He saw himself in anger with everyone around him. He watched himself criticize everyone he had ever respected. He saw himself alienated from his friends.
"No!" he protested. "I won't let it happen, you can't make me like that!"
The double looked at him like he had four heads. "You honestly don't get it, do you? I AM you. I allow this to happen. YOU allow this to happen."
The double got the smile back. Whatever he was about to say, he was going to relish, and enjoy in his own morbid way. "You know what?" he began, hardly containing his excitement. "You will also allow THIS!"
And what Matrix saw next gave him the feeling of a knife through his heart. He saw AndrAIa, lying on a table, in a house in some strange system. He didn't notice that she had no icon. All he knew was that she was fading away. Her eyes were pleading, begging for help that never came. It was an eternity later before she finally, mercifully vanished.
Matrix's mouth opened, but he didn't make a sound. How could he? There was no noise a sprite could produce that could even begin to express the anguish the sight had caused him. Instead, he just screamed.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" He wept bitterly. How could he let something like that happen? What monstrosity was he turning into?
The sudden burst seemed to do something. In his double, the smile was gone. All that was left was regretful sympathy. It moved over to the others; Dot, Bob, AndrAIa, Frisket, and his father. This time they all spoke together. "There is more to that story than you will know."
Then they moved closer. All of them merged with the double. Once all of them were one, the double looked solid. Finished. Complete. He put his hand on Matrix. "They are a part of you too." he explained. "You need them."
Matrix simply pushed the double's hand away. "Let me go." he pleaded. "Please, let me go!"
The double sighed "I'm sorry... I really am. You aren't ready yet. I thought I could..."
And then the double simply moved away, honest apology in his remaining eye. Matrix watched him until he vanished.
You don't know what weird is until you open up an eye that you already thought was open. Matrix had that unpleasant honor when he woke up. For a few terrifying moments, he couldn't feel his arms or legs, but he quickly regained control. He twitched his leg to make sure, and heard a stirring noise from next to him. He turned, and when his eye adjusted, he saw that it was Frisket. He leapt up onto the bed, licked Matrix happily and barking louder than Matrix had ever heard.
"Hmmm? Frisket?" came the just-woke-up, don't-know-where-I-am voice of AndrAIa. Then a pause. "Enzo!"
She ran to him, and Matrix just knew he was in for a hug that could easily cause him another serious injury. "Whoa! Time out! What's processing with YOU guys?". Then he looked around. It appeared like the break of morning. "How long was I out?"
"Too long." concluded AndrAIa. Then Matrix gave her the strangest look. "What is it?" she asked.
Matrix thought about it a moment. "Hmm, nothing I guess. I thought I had a dream about you two, but... I can't remember now." Then he went all-business. "What I DO remember is a virus who had better be deleted by now!"
Frisket looked at AndrAIa. She checked her nails casually. "Naturally. Oh, they fixed your leg, so you just need to rest here for a nano or so."
Matrix sniffed in disgust. "Yeah, right." he said, dismissing the idea. With a little help, he got to his feet and made a bee-line for the Exit. His friends stayed right behind him.
Invisible eyes, in the same room watched them go.
These eyes belonged to two figures. There but not there, existing but invisible. The first spoke.
"We failed. He doesn't remember a thing."
"Well," began the other optimistically "it wouldn't do any good to upset him now. Besides, maybe we planted a few ideas into his subconscious. If we can save him from one mistake, it'll be worth it. We'll get another chance, we just have to be patient."
"Don't you worry, that's something I've gotten good at. Only thing is, why him?"
The other didn't even dignify that with a glance. "You KNOW 'why him'."
"Yeah, I suppose I do. We do owe him something. We owe it to ourselves to repay him too."
For a while, neither spoke. Finally, the first broke in again.
"You know, I HAVE been working on another idea. Let me show you."
The other gave a quick look of mild interest. "Ah, do tell. It has to wait until he's ready, but as long as it makes him understand..."
The first smiled. "You know how you always out-do yourself? Well some of it's rubbed off. This is a little hair-brained scheme I call 'Number 1'..."
"And let me guess, you get a starring role?"
"Don't be ridiculous. He wouldn't recognize me anyway... now a cameo..."
As they spoke of their next move, they knew it would not be the last. They also know that they would have to remain idle shadows for a long time. It didn't matter as long as they had a mission to accomplish.