(Part three of three)
Written by Jerry the Cow
To set the record straight, being everywhere at once isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sure you can get everything done right away, but what is there to look forward to afterwards? Being everywhen at once isn't all that fun either. Sure, you can live forever, never, and always, but it gets rather confusing, and eliminates all dialogue along the lines of "When's dinner?". Put both of these impossibilities together, and you're inviting madness.
It wasn't madness, however, that gripped the shadows who followed the three game-hopping travelers. It wasn't insanity that drove them to speak to a young Guardian in a dream after a viral attack. It was determination. Determination to make things right. The two shadows followed the travelers always at a distance, but they didn't have to be very patient. That's one good thing about being timeless. You don't have to wait for anything to happen, because everything is always happening.
At this time, it was these shadows alone who knew just how important the three travelers were. It was they alone who knew that each time the two young sprites and their dog faced danger, all of the net hung in the balance. They knew how important it was that the male sprite, Matrix, not ever lose hope of finding home. That was why they had tried to communicate with him before. To keep him from ever becoming the humorless, cold-hearted sprite who was so haunted by his own shortcomings that he was destined to jeopardize everything simply by throwing in the towel. They had failed to reach him, and were forced to wait until the time was right.
It wasn't until "later", one of them made the proposal.
"It's time we tried it again."
The second didn't even have to ask what 'it' was. "Why? We know the future. He doesn't have that 'Number 1' dream for a long time. Obviously that's when we make our move, right? I mean, if he doesn't have that dream, he gives up hope, and the whole net falls without a fight, courtesy of Daemon, but we make sure he does. So why would we need to talk to him now?"
"Think about it." answered the first. "It's not like everything was perfect before the dream, right? If we can make him understand now, think how many disasters we can prevent! We can warn them about some of the games! We could save Cursor's bitmap by telling them about the virals!" The first shadow knew the next thing he said would convince the second. "We could keep them from accidentally deleting AndrAIa's double..."
The second was still uncertain. "But... are you sure we should do this? What right do we have to alter history so much?"
"What right does anyone have to do it?" was the reply. "Everything that exists alters history, shapes it by every-day decisions." The shadow scowled. "We DO exist, don't we? So I say we do everything we can to make things better."
The second's head was shaking. "I... don't know. I just don't know..."
"Well I do." The first said adamantly. "Tonight, I'm gonna talk to him. He's old enough. If you know what's good for them, you'll talk to the girl."
The second responded with false conviction. "You're right... Hey, be careful though." a snicker escaped. "He's beefed up since last time. He could probably take you."
(Historian's note: This story takes place between "Game Over" and "Icons". Matrix and AndrAIa are 15 (user) years old)
"DOWN!" shouted Matrix and he shoved AndrAIa out of the way of a ball of blue fire that had been shot from a large turret. It flew harmlessly past, but the turret was recharging. Luckily, Matrix, AndrAIa and Frisket were now behind a solid stone wall.
When they had first entered the system, they were instantly detained by CPUs who searched them. They had never seen a keytool, and confiscated Glitch. Frisket escaped and ran off. The CPUs did not pursue, assuming he was harmless. The "strangers", Matrix and AndrAIa, were to be locked up until they told them what Glitch was. Both refused.
The entire city was, in fact just one large structure surrounded by a huge, flat, grassy area that made up the rest of the system. Most of it was subterranean. When the two sprites were being led to a detention cell, Frisket returned and attacked the CPUs, freeing Matrix and AndrAIa.
Now they were scouting the outside of the city for a way back in, to find Glitch. So far, no luck.
"Another dead end!" muttered Matrix. "We need a plan."
AndrAIa broke in. "Um, yes we do, but could you-"
"There's guards at every entrance," Matrix interrupted "and no way to just sneak past. We'd need to fight our way in."
"But we'd be spotted, and outnumbered in a microsecond. We need the element of surprise-"
"Enzo!" snapped AndrAIa.
"Enzo," she began calmly "I'm losing the feeling in my arms. Get off of me."
Matrix suddenly noticed that he was, in fact, still on top of her and pinning her shoulders to the ground. He scrambled off quickly and murmured an apology.
AndrAIa lifted herself off the unkempt lawn of the city structure. "Now, about a plan. You said something about surprise..."
But as she got up she noticed that Matrix was looking at her in the oddest way. His eyes (one normal, the other an artificial replacement) scanned her from top to bottom, as if appraising her for worth. Almost like he was seeing her, really seeing her for the first time. First her head, her skin tight black shirt, her multi-marine colored pants, all the way down to the toes of her boots. She had absolutely no idea what he was up to, but something about it made her very uncomfortable. Suddenly, his gaze returned to her eyes, and he smiled a mischievous smile. AndrAIa wasn't sure she wanted to know what he was thinking.
"Good boy Frisket, you know what to do." she whispered. I can't believe I'm doing this... was her final thought before stepping around the corner and into the doorway. The guards didn't seem to notice her at first, so she cleared her throat.
The three guard binomes turned and simply gawked at the sight before them. A young, pretty girl sprite... minus her midriff. AndrAIa took a step forward, put on the most innocent puppy-face she could manage, fluttered her eyelashes (Matrix could never figure out how she did that), and trying the best she could not to burst out laughing, spoke.
"Excuse me..." she began. "Can you... help me?"
AndrAIa was shaking her head. "I can't believe you made me do that."
But when Matrix glanced over at her, he saw a glint in her eye. She looked like the cat who ate the canary.
"You enjoyed that!" he stated in disbelief as they rounded a corner. The only response he received was a stifled giggle.
They stopped for the third time. This time, Matrix declared them officially lost, and slammed his fist against the nearest wall. AndrAIa shushed him. It was a miracle that they had not yet been spotted by the patrols. There was one close call where they had been forced to duck into a nearby storage closet to avoid a particularly noisy crowd of binomes who were passing nearby.
Matrix looked completely perplexed. "I can't make heads or tails of this map! It's as if this was written minutes ago, and then they renovated!"
Frisket barked suddenly. "What is it boy?" Matrix heard AndrAIa ask. There was a pause. "Umm, Enzo?"
"Whatever. What room were we looking for again?"
"The binomes said Glitch was being taken to Lab 18. Why?"
Frisket barked again, and this time Matrix looked up. AndrAIa had a look of dry amusement about her as she gestured behind him. He turned to see he had been leaning against a door clearly marked "LAB 18" in large red letters. He looked back at the map, and with a disgusted shake of his head, shattered it against the wall.
"No time for a ruse now." he thought out loud. "In fact, I'll bet you our next energy shake they're waiting for us."
"No bet here. Let's just get in and get out." He heard the familiar sound of her spines extending. "You open the door, I'll go in first. Cover me."
Matrix nodded and moved over to the door controls. He frowned at the blinking panel, and after a moment of thought, gave it a swift elbow. AndrAIa charged in as the door shot open. Spreading her fingers apart, she shot her spines wildly. Surprisingly, two of them met targets. One was a binome in a white lab coat. The other confirmed Matrix's suspicions. It was a guard binome, and he wasn't alone.
AndrAIa quickly took in the surroundings. Lab 18 was dome-shaped and full of terminals which lined the far wall. She counted about 4 lab technicians (one was keeling over, paralyzed) and at least half a dozen conscious guards. All of them carried orange-tipped energy sceptors, much like the green-tipped ones Megabytes forces were often armed with. They charged at her, and she had to jump into the air and grab hold of a pipe that ran across the ceiling. She looked down to see all of the attackers skid to a halt, and turn to retreat. They didn't run fast enough, however, and she smiled in satisfaction as Frisket bowled over the entire row.
Matrix was close behind, and he looked over the area quickly. Frisket had several binomes on the run, and AndrAIa was having no trouble with the others. He saw no sign of Glitch. Dashing over to a terminal, he grabbed a binome by the coat. "Where is it?" he demanded.
"Over here!" shouted AndrAIa who was waving Glitch around. She had taken it from one of the technicians, and now turned to see that several guards had broken free of Frisket and were quickly converging on her.
"Hey Sparky!" she shouted to Matrix from across the room. "Catch!"
She winged the keytool at him, but just before he caught it, the binome he had released hopped into the air and intercepted it. He didn't get very far, however, as Matrix picked him up again, this time even more roughly, and by the head. Matrix saw that AndrAIa had made short work of the last few guards, and he growled at the binome. He pulled back his fist.
"Enzo!" AndrAIa called. Matrix hesitated. "Matrix, put him down. Let's just go." he frowned at her. "Please Enzo." she pleaded. "Don't hurt him."
Matrix's grip loosened, and the binome scurried away. Matrix attached Glitch to his forearm and moved over to one of the terminals. "If I'm right..." he muttered. He kicked the screen repeatedly until it began to give off an ear-splitting alarm. He dove out of the way just as the entire terminal exploded, leaving a gaping hole in a wall. Beyond was the outside of the city structure.
"I really wish you would just use the door." remarked AndrAIa as the three of them slipped through the hole.
The plan beyond that point was simple. They were to wait outside the city, as far away as possible, for a cube to land. After quite a long wait, they were rewarded with the announcement of an incoming game. Once inside, they found themselves in a dark cave-like area, surrounded by decomposing skeletons, presumably of the last inhabitants. AndrAIa made a face.
"Whew. Upbeat, huh?"
Matrix, for his part was checking Glitch. "OK, we're in a game called..." he trailed off. His friends eyed him suspiciously. "I've heard of this one. Bob... he told me about it once. This is 'The Tomb Cave'." He glanced at Glitch again, and his face fell. "Aww, no! And we're on the final level!"
"So, do you know how huge this game is? It'll be forever before the User gets here."
AndrAIa shrugged "Well, the User may not make it at all if the game sprites get him first. Never underestimate them..."
Matrix glanced around again. "One way or another, we're not going to see much action any time soon. I say we get a little rest."
"Shouldn't we ReBoot first?"
Matrix smiled grimly as he looked at the rotting corpses around them. "Uh... I think that can wait. Let's change icons in case the game leaves during the night."
"Let's go." said the first, almost ceremoniously. There was a moment of silence. The shadows shared an awkward, embarrassed glance. "Well?"
The second shrugged. "Well what?"
"Uh... let's go."
Finally, the second spelled out the problem. "I... don't know how."
The first sighed. "Neither do I. How did we do this last time?"
"I don't know... we just did."
"Well, sounds good to me, Let's give it a try."
The old "dream" was suddenly reality, whereas before it had not even been a memory. A figure was approaching, not like last time. This time it walked with authority. Then it spoke.
"We have to talk." Bob began.
"Mouse?" she thought aloud.
The purple-skinned, fiery-haired sprite cocked her head to one side as she drew nearer to AndrAIa. "Mouse? Ah'm not sure Ah know what..." then she paused understandingly.
"What?" demanded AndrAIa. "If you aren't Mouse, who are you?"
The spite waved her hand as if to dismiss her. "Ah forgot where we were. Yeah, since that's what ya want, Ah guess Ah am Mouse."
AndrAIa was absolutely perplexed. "I have no idea what you're talking about! What's going on?"
'Mouse', or whoever she was, sighed. "Ya see, Ah don't really look like anythin'. You gave me a physical form." She gestured around them. "Ya're in a sorta wakin' dream. Part of ya knows that. Because of what Mouse did to yar icon, ya see her as someone who can do anythin'. Maybe even influence dreams? So ya instinctively assume Ah'm her."
AndrAIa decided to accept this all at face value for now. She played along. "Alright. You said you had forgot where we were. So where are we?"
"Your Shelter." Mouse responded simply.
Matrix was beginning to understand, but remained cautious. "So this 'Shelter'. What exactly is it?"
"It's... I guess you can just think of it as a safe haven you create in your mind. A place you'd like to be, maybe stay. Everyone has one."
Matrix was confused. "But it's so dark and... empty... This isn't what I want." He turned questioningly to Bob. "Is it?"
Bob shook his head. "I'm sorry, it's very hard to explain. You're right, of course. If that's all a Shelter was, you'd be back in Mainframe. I guess it's more of a place of comfort than one of joy. In fact, a lot of Shelters are exactly like this. It's the most common kind. It's peaceful, quiet, and there are no pressures to make you miserable... and of course, there are no people to ridicule or hurt you."
Bob let all this sink in for a while. Then he continued. "There's one other common type of Shelter. That kind is filled with people. Crowds of people. That's the Shelter for those who like to just blend in with everyone else. It's for people who are afraid to stand out and do something worthwhile. I'm not sure which is more..." Bob seemed to be searching for the right word. "Sad." he finally finished.
Throughout this, Matrix was growing more and more suspicious. "So, why exactly am I here?"
Bob shook himself. "Oh! Of course, that's enough small talk. I may have all the time in the Net, but you, my friend, only sleep for so long. You do recognize this place, don't you?"
Matrix nodded. "Sort of. It's all like a bad dream, I don't remember much."
"Alright, well suffice it to say a friend and I brought you here before. We tried to help you understand how important you are, and... a few other things that don't matter any more. The problem was, you were too young to accept what we had to say. Also, since we woke you up prematurely, you lost all memory of coming here. We don't intend to make that mistake again." Bob moved over and sat next to Matrix. "I'm here because in your future, some... undesirable things are going to happen. I'm here to warn you about them so that you can prevent them."
"Woah, hold the vid-window!" interrupted Matrix. "How could you know my future?"
Bob smiled grimly. "Like I said, I have all the time in the Net. That's because I've somehow broken free of clock-speed altogether. Now I exist in every time simultaneously. I'd rather not go into detail, in fact I've found it's best not to think about it. That's been my experience, anyway.
"But..." Matrix sputtered "if you exist in every time, how can you have experience?"
Bob shook his head. "You see? That's exactly why I try not to think about it. Now, where was I? Oh yes, now here are some of the things you're going to need to know..."
"Alright." Mouse announced. "Knowledge is power hon. Let's lock n' load."
"First of all," said Bob, getting up from the ground and beginning to pace. "We have to get a few things straight. You really are a total disgrace to that uniform."
Matrix was taken aback by this remark. That was something he had not expected to hear. "What?" he asked weakly.
"You heard me. Look at what you do. You enter systems, use them, then you take off, and leave them behind first chance you get. You're no Guardian, you're just a kid with a chip on his shoulder. You'd better watch your attitude. It's going to be the deletion of you and your friends."
Matrix felt himself on the verge of protest. What in the Net did he do to deserve this? Wasn't this guy supposed to be helping him?
Bob continued. "The Guardian of a system left you- not someone else- you in charge of every surviving citizen of Mainframe. Do you know why? Because he thought you wouldn't screw it all up. And then, cycles later, one game, and you crack. You blew it. What kind of creature are you that you could leave your friends... your sister behind to fend for themselves? On top of it all, you drag others into it. Frisket and AndrAIa? Remember them? They paid for your mistakes. But tell me something 'Matrix'. Have they ever berated you? Have they ever asked you why you didn't save them? Why you couldn't?"
Now at a total loss for words, his head swimming, Matrix just looked helplessly at Bob, and wished the barrage would end. It didn't.
"No. They haven't. Those two would never in their lives do a thing to hurt you. Do you know why? Because to them, you're the User himself. As far as they're concerned, the CPU rises and sets on that sorry head of yours. They love you. Unconditionally. It doesn't matter what you do. They would follow you to the edge of the Net and back again, and you wouldn't even notice, would you? You'd just sit around feeling sorry for yourself, never realizing you're the luckiest sprite in the Net to have friends like that." Bob's voice dropped. "You know, maybe they aren't friends at all. Maybe all they are is blind. Just like Bob."
"If there was, ya would've chickened out." interrupted Mouse. "You'd've just sat there while yo' best friend in th' Net got a haircut from the neck up, courtesy of th' User! Tell me 'dahhhlin', what was th' last thing you did before th' game ended?"
AndrAIa wouldn't meet her gaze. She just sobbed quietly, and then clenched her fists in disgust. Her voice was a harsh whisper, the voice hardly her own. "I... turned... away!"
Mouse nodded. "Good. Ya do remember. You turned yo' back, and bawled like a babe. 'A warrior', Hmmph! THAT'S why ya follow him everywhere. Guilt. You know that, doncha? Yo' there for him now, 'cuz ya weren't there when it counted!"
"You didn't mean any of that, did you Bob? You only said it so-"
"So that you would defend yourself. So that you would finally admit to yourself what your friends have been telling you all along."
'Mouse' smiled to herself. "So," she thought, "Reverse psychology does work". She moved towards AndrAIa, knelt down beside her, and placed a hand on her shoulder. "That's right. It aint yo' fault. And doncha ever forget it. Besides, Enzo isn't your only friend. Not anymore."
It had been some time since Bob had begun his tales of the things that would befall Matrix and his companions. Matrix was always slowing up the process with questions Bob was either unable or unwilling to answer.
"So this 'Cursor' guy, he's going to give his life to save me?"
"Yes," said Bob, rather agitated "unless you're ready to save yourself. But this really isn't the priority right now. I can talk to you about that when the time comes. Let's get down to the here and the now... Hey, I can't believe that just came out of me." Bob chuckled slightly, apparently quite amused that someone who had no clock-speed could make such a statement. "Anyway, there are upcoming systems, and games we should talk about now-"
Matrix looked at his feet. "Uh, Bob... or whoever you are. I just wanted to say thank you."
Bob's scowl disappeared. "Hey, what are friends for, huh?"
Mouse nodded. "'Bout the size of it."
But AndrAIa frowned, apparently troubled. "So... how do I avoid this?"
"Why, by not goin into th' game, of course sugah."
"But didn't you say I won't enter the game before that too?"
"That's right hon, you're gonna start having doubts about findin' Mainframe, and you'll want to leave Matrix to find your own path."
"And what makes me change my mind?"
"Well, sugah, when ya meet yo' young self, and see her delete before yo' eyes, ya decide..."
And Mouse went deathly silent as she realized what she was saying.
"Do you mind?" he inquired of the as-yet unseen AndrAIa, and his shadow companion. "I'm trying to have a code-to-code with my new friend. I assume this is important."
"So, yer Bob now, are ya? Kinda suits ya."
Mouse and AndrAIa emerged from the darkness, much to the surprise of Matrix. Bob laughed.
"'Mouse' I presume. Nice accent, very convincing."
"Convincin' mah foot. It comes with th' character Ah s'pose."
AndrAIa moved over to Matrix, and they slowly put thier arms around each other, already changed by their experience. They watched what appeared to be an argument between the two timeless creatures.
"But she learns from that tragedy." insisted Mouse. "Just like they learn from 'em all."
"But," Bob replied "they know all this now. She won't want to leave him."
"Right, because we told 'em. Because we changed 'em. Because we altered 'em. Moved 'em all round the board like pawns. Played around with 'em til they looked like what we wanted 'em to be. We're just like th' User. We play games with their lives. It ain't right. And Ah think ya know that..."
Mouse saw Bob's shoulders whither, and collapse at his side. He sighed deeply. "I know... I know. It's just that... I wanted to do something, you know? Look at them. They have no idea who they are... who they'll be, or what they'll have to face."
"Hon, they know now. And that ain't fair to 'em. No young'un needs pressure like that. What we've done is made things worse. We've gotta fix it. We've gotta trust that they can do it without us."
Bob shook his head. "But what about the dream we give him? When he gets brained in the golf game? We know that happens. That's one of the things that keeps him from giving up hope."
Mouse frowned, thoughtfully. "Ah've been thinkin' bout that. Ain't it a little arrogant of us to assume that we cause that? Can't we trust that he'll have that li'l wake-up call without us?"
Bob shook his head, but it was no longer with conviction. Mouse continued. "Please, try to trust 'em. They ain't helpless, they ain't gonna delete th' Net without us. Give 'em a chance."
This time, Bob slowly nodded. "Right. Trust them. THAT's what friends are for..."
Bob approached the two sprites first. "I'm sorry. This was all a mistake. We're going to wake you up so that you don't remember this. Everything will happen the way it's supposed to..."
Matrix opened his mouth to protest, but didn't know what to say. AndrAIa just looked away silently, a hint of regret on her face.
Mouse smiled as she walked up to them. "Now, take good care of each other, ya hear? Frisket too, be good to that dog... Aw, listen to me! What difference does it make? Y'ain't gonna remember this anyway. Good luck."
Bob smiled too. "Here we go..."
"Wait!" called Matrix. "Who are you? Really?"
Bob shook his head. "Just sprites. Like you. What does it matter? The point is that you guys are the ones that can make things better. We'll just sit back, and watch you do it. Enjoy the ride!"
"It's the User!" he called to AndrAIa and Frisket who shot up into a state of readiness. "He's gonna come from around that corner! Let's go. REB-"
But he was too late, and the User rounded the corner at top speed. He was dressed in full body armor, and brandishing an ax. The User came out swinging, and Matrix barely had time to move before the User chopped off his... toe?
Matrix blinked, and did a double-take. Apparently the User's game character was not quite up to scale with an average data sprite. In fact, he just barely came up to Matrix's ankle. The User just stood there, dumbly looking up at the gigantic Guardian. Matrix could see, off to his side that AndrAIa and Frisket, who had ReBooted in time, were no larger.
AndrAIa just shook her head. "Go on..." She called to Matrix. "Yuk it up."
Matrix gave one last look at the hapless User, and with a shrug, proceeded to begin the ceremonious task of stomping him flat.
It had all been a freak accident. Even they didn't know what had caused it exactly. Games are funny things, that can cause many unpredictable results if they are tampered with. One game in particular had received quite a shock when it had expected to claim three victims to convert to nulls, but found suddenly that all it had were normal game sprites.
What happened at that point can never be fully explained. Whether it was simply a stubbourn game's attempt to figure out where its prey had gone, or a malfunction of imperfectly altered icons, the final result was that two of the three Mainframers ended up leaving behind "echoes" of themselves. Shadows that were completely free of time and cyberspace.
The two shadows, Enzo and AndrAIa tried for some 'time' to figure out what had happened, and why Frisket had not left a Shadow too. The only theories they could come up with were that his being a dog may have been a factor, or perhaps that the whole thing was simply such a coincidence that two out of three was an absolute miracle.
Eventually, they discovered their ability to be anywhere or anywhen they chose. It was an eternity before they discovered this, which was alright, because an eternity to them was the same as a second, or even last nano. They traveled the Net, but they always kept an eye on the two sprites that created them. It was decided that they owed their existence to Matrix and AndrAIa, and that they should help them in return.
Now however, they sat alone. Realizing that even after an eternity of experiences, everyone makes mistakes. Enzo no longer bore blue skin, but his usual green. AndrAIa's too had returned to the way it had been the day the game was lost. Although they had not changed in appearance at all, they had learned much, even gained wisdom.
AndrAIa looked around at the empty Shelter they now sat in, several feet apart. She decided not to speak further of the disaster they nearly caused. Instead, she turned thoughtfully to her friend, and simply spoke what was on her mind, as they had grown accustomed to doing.
"Enzo... I want to go somewhere different now."
Enzo gazed around, noticing for the first time just how dark and depressing this Shelter really was. "Good idea." he stated gamely. "What do you want to do? I'll let you pick this time. We can go back to the first seconds of cyberspace, or we can go forward, and watch the end of the Net with a front row seat. That's always an alphanumeric show. Or if you want, we can just stay in and access your favorite readme or something. We can go anywhere."
AndrAIa shook her head. "We've been everywhere already. I meant... I meant that I want to go somewhere... different."
Enzo suddenly understood what AndrAIa was saying. "Really? You want to go somewhere else?"
AndrAIa nodded. "Are you coming?"
He slid closer to her. "You know I'd follow you anywhere." he grinned. "That's what friends are for, right?"
"Thank you." she smiled back.
They stood up and held hands. Wherever they went, whatever fate should befall them, it seemed to be written in solid stone that they be companions, and partners. Each was the other's better half.
Neither took their eyes off the other, lest they be too afraid alone. Smiling bravely, they let oblivion embraced them.