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By HungryTiger11

She stares at the bottles on the counter. There had been a sea witch once, in Atlantis, that place she once came from, that place she no longer called home. These potions looked like those that had lined the cave walls undersea. The sea witch had been mostly indifferent to the User and game sprites alike, but AndrAIa cannot help a shudder. Turning, there isare (number agreement with "circuitry and wires") circuitingcircuitry ("Circuiting" is the present participle of the verb "to circuit", circuitry is the noun you're looking for.) and wires lying loose on the table, and she gives a grin. 

"What are these for, Doctor?"

"Ah," the older man smiles, and, turning, light catches on his glasses. He looks different from when they first met in the Game, but then so does shetoo (Redundant. Alternatively: "but then she does too," whichever.). She and Enzo both look more different than hehim Although, really, I'd encourage rephrasing this sentence. There's nothing grammatically wrong with it, but the sound of "look more different than" bugs the heck out of me., if it comes to that. Dr. Norton looks a little like a mad scientist, even out of the Game Cube.  She giggles, just a bit, thinking of Enzo rebooted into some undead monster, electricity spurting out his head. The User had called him "Frankenstein," but AndrAIa had a better name for him like that. Five minutes later and he was still blushing any time she said "Sparky." And there is just something about him blushing that is so appealing it is hard to stop... 

"AndrAIa," Dr. Norton sighs, seeing her attention has wandered. "Are you with me?"

Giggles come to an abrupt stop. 

"You were the one asking questions," he reminds her. He reaches out, fingers entangling in wires, and gestures to the map on the wall. (Wait, how is he both getting his fingers entangled with wires and gesturing to the map? Is he using two hands? Are his fingers already entangled when he does the gesturing?) "We've been having system break-downs here and-"

"That is what Enzo is looking at, is it not?" 

He cocks an eyebrow at her. "So its Enzo, not Sparky, when he's not around, huh?" 

AndrAIa feels herself blushing, but laughs. He continues on in a mock-play of astonishment, "Or Matrix either!"

 "You were saying," she prompts, unable to repress her grin. 

"Oh, yes," Dr. Norton turns back to the wall, studying it over the rim of his glasses. "Well, several cycles ago, there was a bad virus. We managed to eradicate it eventually, but had no way to repair the damage done."

"A Key Tool could repair it. Glitch could, if it were not broken."

Dr. Norton shrugs eloquently. It was an isolated system, and he had never heard of those whose function was exclusively, specifically, to mend and defend. In fact, it had occurred to AndrAIa that the doctor and the few other sprites they had met since coming to this system seemed more than a little skeptical about their tales of Guardians and the Supercomputer. This bothers Enzo, though she is not entirely sure why. Enzo himself has told her Mainframe had not heard of anything that lay beyond the Net until several cycles ago, following the destruction of Lost Angles. She suspects it is the lack of access to the Net that is really tearing him up. That and no Game in over five minutes. Enzo is getting antsy and taking it out on the locals, a tactic that never does him any favors, though he never seems to learn. It makes her a little impatient really. AndrAIa herself did not care much what the local sprites and bytes thought. They had accepted their(You're using the same pronoun to refer to two different groups of people here. It's pretty confusing.) own back story easily enough and offered no hostility, which was rarer than she once might have thought when living back in Mainframe. That first system they had seen after- After. They had saved them, yes. They had stabilized Enzo too, but they had also pushed them into the first Game Cube that descended and had told them whether they won or lost, they were not to come back. No others went with them into that Game and they could have been nullified for all those people had cared. It had been a hard system with hard peoples stalking the street. Some later systems had been even worse, and though she understood it was their lack of understanding that made them so hard, it still rankled. 

Here was different. What the citizens of Hardrive, and Dr. Norton in particular, had been interested in mostly was neither their journey nor their reasons for undertaking it. It was their icons. Hacking with an eye to manipulate and improve turned out to be a bit of specialty of the good doctor, though even AndrAIa's still inexperienced eye could tell he was far out of Mouse's league. Currently, he was working out how to repair damage left behind by viruses. Knowing Glitch could help, Enzo and Frisket had gone out every minute since coming here to look at the different sites of damage while the Doctor and his byte assistants had given AndrAIa the grand tour of the labs within their Command Center. Yes, these were people she could help, work with, laugh with. They had all the small things that added to bigger things that added to a place that is good to make a life. It is nice to stop here, even if she knew Enzo would not want to stay. 

Grabbing a handful of wires and circuitingcircuitry, AndrAIa listens with half an ear to Dr. Norton's theorizing on the use of coding for remaking walls and buildings, while working on what small repairs could be done from a remote site away from the damage. She knows, even without looking at the clock, that it is getting late. Enzo can take care of himself, and Frisket makes for good backup, but all the same. He is not well tempered these minutes and she rather likes the idea that people in Hardrive are friendly to them. She wants it to remain that way till the next Game comes.

Glancing down, she sees there isare not enough circuit boards to finish her work. She bites her lip to keep from growling in frustration and looks around. Disarrayed piles are everywhere, but it is too hard to tell what is what. When she goes searching, that is when it catches her eye. A face, or something very like it, stares out at her. Without a body, and with a single eye open and a single eye closed, it does not look as though it can possibly be alive, but she is still very careful in picking it up. Loose wires dangle out the bottom of what might be a neck, and screws line where a cheekbone might sit on a sprite's face. 

"Doctor," she calls over her shoulder. "What is this?"

Something important, she is sure, or at least it will be something important to her. She can feel it somehow. 

"Oh," A worried look crosses Dr. Norton's face as he walks over to stand by her. He stares over his shoulder, checking to make sure his many assistants are busy with other things. "It's a robot, or was going to be. Artificial Intelligence and all that."

As that is a term that could equally well be used for her, and her disembodied head could never look like that, even if she were deleted, she suspects there is more to it than that.  It is a trick she has learned, to know when to talk and when to wait. A long enough pause in the conversation and the person you want information from is sure to start talking eventually just to fill up the empty space. And sure enough, only three nanoseconds and Dr. Norton starts talking again. 

"I wanted- well, you know about nulls, of course," he starts and she nods. Yes, she did know about nulls. "I was hoping that giving them a-a body, something like they use to have... before. With a-a mouth, you know, it might... fix... things."

Dr. Norton lets that last thought hang useless in the air for a moment, and AndrAIa wonders if he lost anyone to nullification like Enzo once said he lost his father.  

"So why is it here, on the ground? It did not work?" she asks. He looks sad for a moment, and she almost thinks he will not answer her. No one, after all, likes their failures rubbed in their faces. But instead, he perks up and says, "Well, we don't need it anymore, if I can duplicate your icons. We can keep nulls from happening."

"But if people lose a Game, they would still be like us, Game hopping," she points out. 

"Yes, but you're not nulls, are you?" No. They are not. Flipping up the closed eyelid with her thumb, she finds an empty cavity beneath. The robot is missing an eye. It makes the face familiar, and AndrAIa's fingers begin to feel numb as a thought wiggles up and around her brain. 

"Was it just the nulls that did not work?" she asks. "Or did the robot not function?"

"Its a little hard to tell," Dr. Norton says, walking back to the wiring project sprawled across the work tables. His voice is sounding much more clinical than it was a few picoseconds before, and he has not noticed her staring at the mechanical face. "The body was just supposed to be a shell of sorts with the null, the people that had been nullified, as the brain. I never tried it without the nulls to control it."

"Do you think these... animatronics could work with other things?"

He turns back to stare at her, as if sensing suddenly, that hers is not an idle line of questioning like it usually wasusual (Rephrase for concision. Also maybe for tense agreement between "is not an idle line..." and "like it usually was," though I'm not sure if that's actually grammatically incorrect as is.)

"What kind of other things?"

But she does not get a chance to answer because then Enzo comes in through the door sporting a black eye and a bad temper. 

It'd started out as a bad day. Matrix would've said, back when they'd been stuck living in the last Game, he would've given anything to be able to sleep in a proper bed. But somehow without he's his even realizing it, he must ofhave become useused to sleeping out on the ground, because he'd been having trouble getting to sleep mode these past few minutes. Or, a small part of his brain whispers, it was reassuring to fall into sleep mode with AndrAIa on one side of you and Frisket just beyond her. You miss them.

Or maybe itsit's that Hardrive, by and large, is actually nice. Not many systems they've been in arewere (Tense agreement.) both friendly and in relatively(I don't think "relatively" is doing much here for sentence clarity, and would throw it out for concision.) good repair. For some reason, if the system looked habitable, people were scared of the strangers from the Games. If the place was about ready to crash, they didn't care who you were so long as you wanted to help. Hardrive managed to be both functional and have citizens who didn't carry pitchforks. A double-whammy if he ever saw one. If he wants to be truthful, which he doesn't, he'd even say it might be better than Mainframe. There's a large population of bytes, but also of sprites, something Mainframe hasn't had since Lost Angles went up in volts. There’s no Firewall because there's no need. There's no scummy viruses walking the streets, and no one saying viruses needed a chance only to have said- viruses stab them in the back. 

He wonders if AndrAIa will ask. Why not stay here? Why isn't here enough?

Could things be enough without Dot? Without Phong, Mouse, Cecil, or even without Bob?

Maybe that's why she doesn't ask. 

All these thoughts together though isare more than enough to make the minute complete "fin rot," as AndrAIa might put it. So it’s just as well he has a job to do. 

Glitch's readings come back the same as the last three minutes' readings. Error 404"server not found" (I'm being super-picky here, but if Hardrive doesn't have access to the net, there can't be a 404 error. The three digit HTTP status codes (of which 404 is doubtless the most famous) are sent back from a web-server in reply to requests from a client, like a web-browser. If there's no access to the net in Hardrive, Enzo wouldn't be able connect with a server to receive HTTP status messages. Of course, this is fiction, so you're allowed some author's license, but if you're particular about accuracy and all that you might want to change this.). Same damage by the same virus. Some sort of goo coats most of the buildings, but not the ground, and nulls have the run of the place. He's not sure he'll bother checking any of the other damage sites. Its the same each place and what he can do for repairs, he's already done.

The smell of damage is so pungent that it takes him and Frisket three blocks before they see anybody else at all, and even then, he could tell from Frisket's face that the stink still clings to the area and probably to them too. It might be the smell that draws them, Matrix thinks. Or his patch. Taunts about piracy are among the first from the gang of boys that try to jump them, after all. 

"Look what the catfish dragged in, m'harties!" one of the younger boys jeers, obviously thinking he's managed to be clever or some rot. Their leader, a gangly sprite maybe two cycles older than him and all elbows and knees and bad skin, pats the kid on the head though. Little Lackey, Matrix thinks, his lips curling.

"Hey, Frisket," he says loudly, purposely ignoring the circling gang. "Sounds like a null is trying to make conversation, or something just about as stup-"

And that's all it takes before one of them tries to land a punch to the side of his head. Matrix side steps, comes back swinging, and pretty soon it’s a chaotic tangle of kicking boots, and pushing elbows. There isn't really room to throw a proper punch, but he manages to connect with someone's jaw and ram two skulls together. He's just thinking that he might even have to respect the jerks for being able to almost keep up with him when someone comes up from his blind spot and sucker punches him in his bad eye and then in his good one. He staggers and the crowd backs off for a nano before descending back down. It’s five to one and, Frisket rips into three shoulders, drawing electricity, before they flee. 

"Virus-spawn!" he screams after them, his vision still shaky. "I hope you all nullify, you cowards!"

It makes his throat raw, but helps little with the rage. He should be better than this. He is better. He is. He's fought game sprites, which are nothing to a bunch of wire-assed little wannabes. Even that many shouldn't have been a big deal. He reaches up and claws off his eye patch, pressing the heel of his hand up against the scarred flesh and empty hole left when his eye was gouged. He is better than this, but it doesn't make up for it. One missed movement, one unseen thing, and it could be him, or Frisket, or AndrAIa who paid the price. All his work to be better has paid back little to ensure they are safeguarded. 

It’s a long walk back to the Command Center. Frisket walks with his ears laid flat against his skull, but doesn't make any move to comfort him, knowing better than that. They don't meet any more punks hoping to prove themselves. They don't meet anyone at all, until they push open the doors to the old man's lab. 

"Enzo...” AndrAIa's voice is questioning but not pitying, something he appreciates in a distant sort of way. He wants to tell her it’s Matrix not Enzo, but it’s the first time since their last Game she's called him anything but Sparky so maybe that's an improvement still. Instead, he doesn't say anything at all. 

AndrAIa drops the collection of wiring and metal in her hands, and bids good-bye to old man Norton. He's not a bad guy in and of himself, and is the closest thing Hardrive's got to a COMMAND·COM, but Matrix gives him no more than a curt wave. Like all systems that weren't so desperate as to accept any help to or risk crashing, they weren't truly welcome here. This wasn't truly home. 

Their footsteps echo along the halls, taking the place of any conversation. It’s not till they reach AndrAIa's quarters and she invites them in, that anything's said. 

"Are you going to tell me about it?" she asks, flopping gracelessly onto the bed. Matrix considers flopping down beside her, but he'd gone through a growth spurt recently, and the bed didn't really look big enough. He might, he realizes uncomfortably, make her feel cramped or even uneasy being that close. He collapses to the floor instead, and Frisket takes the opportunity to forget how big he is and climbs up into Matrix's lap. 

AndrAIa sits back up, looking a bit confused. "What are you doing down there?"

"Being sat on, apparently,"

"O-kay, Sparky."  

An easy smile quirks around the edges of her mouth. Matrix feels himself smile back too, but after a moment it slips away as she asks again. 

"Nothing much happened. Just a gang of wannabes."

If he hopes that can be the end of it, he's wrong. 

"I do not think they could have known who you were. There are enough sprites here; they might not recognize everyone on sight. I do not think they would have fought with someone who was helping them, and helping Dr. Norton," she says. 

Matrix shrugs. "Some people don't like being helped."

AndrAIa nods, taking his comment as an honest observation, rather than the mean reference to other systems as he'd intended it. "Yes," she says. "I know some sprites like that."

Matrix resists the urge to roll his eye at her, picking up on the pointed reference even AndrAIa's blank tone couldn't hide. They neither of them needed much help anymore.  "Survival of the fittest"- he'd heard Phong talk about it once. They were both of them that.

"They came at you from your blind spot."

It should've been a question, the way she worded it, but it’s not. AndrAIa slides off the bed, down to the floor in front of him. Frisket is now happily snoozing in his lap; he can feel the rumble of snoring beneath his hand. AndrAIa leans close and then closer, so he can count the number of eyelashes, measure the space between the freckles on her face. 

"Enzo," she breathes. He can feel it across his face and he marvels at that; he may not be breathing himself. And when the next thing happens, he knows he's not breathing at all. She reaches out, pressing against the felt of his eye patch, feeling for the bone of the eye socket beneath, and, when she can't feel it, she tugs the patch just enough out of the way. The pads of her fingers brush so lightly over scars he almost can't feel her at all. 

"There might be something," she says. "To help."

Behind her, Enzo stares at the mechanical face. Picking through the piles of debris, he has also found the remains of a mechanical forearm with wrist still attached, and a long, bent bit of pipe AndrAIa suspects might be what is left of a hip.

He is skeptical, she can tell. He is not the only one. The debate has been long, going on since sleep mode ended, and she can see it might not end any time soon. If Dr. Norton is not careful, he will find she is not above keeping their icons hostage until he considers her plan. 

"AndrAIa, it’s not that I don't want to help! There's just no time, and I've never done bio-mechanics, not like that!"

She has heard this same line of debate at least three times with different words. She feels like screaming, but Dr. Norton is not Enzo and does not, she has discovered, respond to being yelled back at. She smiles instead. 

"There is no sign of a Game Cube, and if one comes, we can wait-"

"No we can't, AndrAIa! First Cube that comes, we're outta here! That might be the Game that gets us home!" Enzo stomps up beside her, large hands waving to emphasize the point. Not for the first time, AndrAIa wishes she had managed to corner Dr. Norton alone to ask this, but it is Enzo's eye. He, more than anyone, has the right to be there to ask this request. Still, he knows as well as she the truth. 

"Yes, we can wait, Enzo! Who knows where the Game Cubes go before they get there? It might be the next Cube is the one home, but it might be the one after that, or after that! All the chances are as equally likely to happen!"

She is pleading, she realizes, for him to understand this, but Enzo is one thing. She is done pleading with Dr. Norton. Turning to him she says, "If you will not take one minute to look at the possibility, to try, we will take our icons back. If you turn us out because of it, so be it. We are only staying till the next Game Cube anyway, but you will not get to work with them, to duplicate them, anymore."

Her back is so straight as she says this it hurts. They stare at each other for a picosecond or two, and then her shoulders collapse. "It is only one minute, that I ask for. If you are worried about falling behind in your repairs, we will go to the damage sites and work for you, only... Please."

Dr. Norton reaches out and wordlessly pries Enzo's hands away from the robotic skull he's holding. The older man turns it in his own hands for a moment, and considers. 

"Alright," he says. "For one minute, that will be my only project." 

He looks up at her. "Anyway, I think you'd probably beat me up if I didn't agree and if you didn't, Matrix here definitely would for you." 

That gets a half-smile from both her and Enzo, and, AndrAIa reaches out to put their icons back on the table, but the doctor's words stop her. "Keep them, for now. Wouldn't want to get distracted."

He motions to Enzo to sit down so he can get a better look at the damage to his eye. Turning away, AndrAIa looks for a keyboard and opens to a new file, so she can type away her own half-formed theories of where they can go from there. 

Matrix couldn't have said which was worse- having spent the last two seconds with his eyelids pried open by Norton's instruments all of which were of the uncomfortable, pointed variety, or ending a session of eye examination only to be faced with the punks who'd jumped him four minutes ago. He stops short at the sight of them lined up, several with what looked to be some of their larger family members in tow. 

If this were a Game, he would’ve said the User had a perverse sense of humor. Since this is Hardrive though, he has to conclude that it’s Norton who’s the perverse one. Crash it! He so did not need this. His whole face is an aching mess, and he may have gone a little blind in his one good eye, due to light constantly being shone in it and still, still there is no solution, no end to this torture in sight. Its not like he wants a slapdash job; its his eye for after all! Its been three minutes after all; he just wants something, some sign he isn't wasting their time.

Things go from bad to worse when AndrAIa walks right into his back, sending both of them stumbling. Not much, just a step or two, but Matrix has learned that you never, never want to appear weak in front an enemy, not at any time. Norton lays a hand on AndrAIa's shoulder to steady her and beams at the group facing them. 

"Ah! I've been expecting you!" he tells the gang and the gangs'...hangers-on, family, whatevers. "Matrix, I believe these boys have something they want to say to you."

This seems to be the cue for something because the tall, gawky one he'd pinned as the group's leader is pushed forward by a woman with a formidable expression. Matrix figures out what the boy's about to spit out about a picosecond before he actually does say it. 

"We've- that is- I'm here to, you know, aplog-"

"Shove it. I don't need any sorrys from the likes of you," Matrix breaks in, giving the kid a once-over. He still can't believe this is a kid who got the better of him. Not much muscle, not much charisma, and he's pretty sure the woman standing behind him is his Mom. AndrAIa presses a hand against his back in warning, but he prevents her from saying anything too guilt-inducing by waving the doctor off with one hand. 

"I've had enough of being your own personal Frankenstein today. I'm heading to my quarters if anybody needs me to experiment with again."

The group stares after him, and he's pretty sure he'll hear more about this from AndrAIa later. Well, it’s not like it’s the first time she's yelled at him.  

By the time he actually makes it to the room Norton's provided him, some of the anger and frustrations have melted away. Enough to make his little place in this system seem kind of pathetic. Rather like him, really. It’s small and lacks an overhead light. Near some pipes too, making it damp. AndrAIa had told him it smelled like her old home and at the time, though he'd known she'd meant Atlantis and not Mainframe or even him, that thought had made him feel good. Now though, the dank scent shrinks the place, everything smaller and more pathetic than before. Small enough, pathetic enough that he realizes what he must've looked like to that group. He'd been someone to pity, someone who needed an "I'm sorry" even when it wasn't true. He'd been just some dumb kid with one eye. User crash it, he hated being weak! These thoughts eat at him in the silence, so he doesn't make more than a half-hearted attempt to relax, before pacing back toward the door. A walk will help. 

It must be these thoughts that have him so wrapped up in his head that he doesn't notice the other person in the hallway, not even the scuffing of their sneakers against the floor or the whoosh of air displacing itself as a hand comes down on his shoulder. Surprised, he whips back, yanking out of its grasp, and the hand allows that. Standing there is that kid- that punk leader kid, looking angry and, Matrix is pleased to see, not a little scared. 

"What do you want?” he asks gruffly. Seeing he isn't going to start throwing punches, the boy relaxes a little bit, limbs becoming looser, a cocky smile creeping up. 

"You're pretty hardcore, you know," he says, and though Matrix isn't quite sure if that's a compliment or not, he smiles as though it is. It sounds pretty good anyway. 


The kid's hand hovers halfway up, almost like he's thinking about offering to shake, but he must decide against it because it drops to his side. 

"Heard you played Games," he says instead. 

"Yeah, so?"

"So, Cube storms are coming in,"

And, as if on cue, the warning alarms start in. 

"Hey, Sparky, where are you going?" AndrAIa looks up from the recalculations Dr. Norton has spread over the table. Enzo rubs his face, massaging his cheeks and jaw, overstretched from the observations the doctor had insisted upon. 

"I think my face's frozen in position."

He widens his eye and elongates his face into a humorous, if accurate, imitation of his looks when subjected to Dr. Norton's instruments. "Next User we encounter would think I was scared or something."

"We shall have the element of surprise, then," AndrAIa quips back to him and he smiles for a moment, before wincing and taking his jaw in hand. 

"Seriously, though, I need a break before my jaw breaks. Thought I'd get a bite to eat, maybe. Wanna come?"

AndrAIa glances back down at the papers spread out before her. They may or may not have multiplied since she last looked down. She sighs and waves him on. "I will catch up in a nano or two."

He rolls his eye at her and shrugs, obviously thinking he knows a hopeless case when he sees one. It is only when the door knocks against the door jam that Dr. Norton even realizes someone has left. His head jerks up at the sound and his hands automatically reach for the glasses perched on his head. 

"Huh! What's happened?"  He hasn't hit sleep mode for over two minutes, and it shows in the pallor of his face and the frizz in his hair. Despite the fact she knows she shouldn't, AndrAIa finds the doctor's look a little comical- and a little satisfactory. Her gamble has paid off. From the null-encasing robotics to the studies on viral damage, to attempts to duplicate their own mutated icons to half a dozen other unfinished projects that lay in abandoned heaps across the lab, AndrAIa had guessed that the doctor was a man who worked furiously at that which interested him. Just as obvious was the fact that Dr. Norton's interest burned out quickly, but it did not worry her too much. They would be gone to the Games by the time it that happened. Enzo had made perfectly clear what the priorities were. The Games would always come first; they would be what saw them back to Mainframe. Enzo's own comfort (or even hers or Frisket's, she sometimes thought) came second to this.  It did not matter though. Enzo's eye was interesting Dr. Norton now. What had started out as a favor to be suffered through and borne for a minute had become an obsession, a challenge to be faced and won. If luck is with them, this will be the project Dr. Norton sees through to a solution; there will be two eyes in her friend's head soon. She hopes.

She is just about to turn and ask him what a particularly involved equation is trying to communicate, when noise alerts them to something outside the door. Indistinct sounds of voices rise and fall. Whatever it is, it is not just Enzo. Dr. Norton smiles, wrinkles creasing around his too-tired eyes. "I was wondering when they'd get here."

Curious, AndrAIa drops tools to the work table and follows Dr. Norton to the door.

"Friends of yours?" she asks. 

Dr. Norton shrugs. "Not quite. I called around about that fight Matrix got in," Some of her dismay must show on her face because he adds in defense, "I am the COMMAND·COM here, you know. I can't have brawls starting in the streets."

He holds open the door, and she steps out and into Enzo's back. The Doctor reaches to catch her, and Enzo shoots them both a dirty look. Crowding the narrow hallway are half a dozen sprites and bytes. Frisket has followed Dr. Norton out and now brushes up beside her, growling lowly. She digs knuckles into his furs, holding him back, which is more than she can do for Enzo. Typical short-fused Enzo, she thinks, watching him blow up. Not that she really blames him. Giving the crowd a once over, she is not impressed. The numbers alone meant they might have been able to take on Enzo and Frisket, but very little else besides that suggests any fighting prowess. All the boys' wear sullen looks and the older people gathered around them are obviously their disapproving families. There is too much similarity in looks for them to be anything else. These boys are not too far from manhood, most of them. They are an aimless bunch, these thuggish boys.

If Dr. Norton were to ask her opinion on the matter, she would tell him to take the boys to the Games. In Atlantis, game sprites had been mostly loners, creating families of sorts only when there were young to care for. When a sprite exhibited signs of discontent and restlessness like these boys did, it was taken as a sign that adulthood approached, that they wished to fight to protect Atlantis against the User. Their warrior blood called out to be tested. Mainframers had never really taken to that idea. She doubted Dot, or Mouse, or any of the rest had ever really given it thought, actually. Children were children for much longer out of the Games. But, though she liked the idea of family and of bonds, the practice of giving people room to test their own strength is still one that appeals to her. It is why she enjoys training those who wish to go into Games. 

"That went well," Dr. Norton mutters to himself. Turning back to the crowd, he apologizes for taking up their time so uselessly and apologizes on behalf of Enzo. It is only at this last part that AndrAIa notices every boy is sporting bruises of his own. So Enzo was expected to apologize in turn then. Just as well he stalked off. Walking back into the lab, the tallest boy breaks off from the rest and trails after them. 

"Doc! Hey, Doc! Is it true these guys came from the Games?"

It is as if she is not here to ask herself! Boys, she thinks. 

"Well," Dr. Norton stops at the door to hold it open for them. She catches only the first part of his explanation, his voice fading in and out as she passes. Dr. Norton's lab is encased by windows all along one wall. Not very defensible, practically speaking, but it offers an unparalleled view of Hardrive's skyline, and when she walks through the doors they offer something else as well- a view of skies alive with electricity. Gaming Storms are on the horizon. 

"No!" The word is more a movement of her mouth than a sound at all, but Dr. Norton and the boy must hear her because they both jerk up and stare at the sight before them.

'Alphanumeric!" The boy pumps his fists in the air. "My turn! Ya promised, Doc! I get to go; I'm going in!"

Dr. Norton ignores the outburst. "Go down the hall," he instructs instead. "Matrix will be in one of the spare rooms; he's using it as his quarters. He needs to be made aware of the situation. Go!"

The boy snaps to attention, and for the first time since arriving, AndrAIa understands why Dr. Norton might be the COMMAND·COM here. 

Looking around the lab, she wonders what, if anything, she could take. The notes would be too much loose paper. She would lose it all, she is sure. All their work for nothing. Dr. Norton must be thinking that too because he starts, “Maybe he'll want to-"

"No," she cuts him off. "Not Enzo. Not with this."

She stills herself for just a moment, letting the all the work they'd put towards this wash over her and away. Then she reaches for her tritontrident (Triton is, inter alia, one of the titans from Greek mythology, the name of a moon orbiting Neptune, and a town in Newfoundland. The weapon is called a trident.) and one last argument stops her. 

"You could stay. Matrix'd stay if you did. Oh, he'd be mad, but I don't think he'd go. Not with out you."

AndrAIa sighs, because she is not so sure. She thinks she would guess right as to which he would choose, but it would not be fair to force him to make that choice. And the eye is his anyway. It is tempting to be angry though, to make him suffer a little for never choosing himself, his own comfort over a chance. It would not be the first Game they would go into being mad at one another and it would not be the last, she is sure. Mainframe is not beyond this Game, no matter what dreams Enzo has about that (That concision thing again). It is not in her nature to be pessimistic, but why would this be the one, when so many others before it were not? She is lucky, in that way, she supposes, that her home is in a person rather than a place. Home is something she can go back to at the end of a day of being mad. If she chooses to be mad at all.

"We're close to getting this done. A break-through! I could use this for all sorts of things- sprites who've lost limbs, or-"

"You can do all that without me."

Dr. Norton echoes her sigh when she says that, and runs a hand through his hair. The warning alarms sound and she finishes her reach for the triton. 

"AndrAIa," he says, holding out his hand, and she looks at what is sitting on his open palm. "Here. I'll make another sometime. Take care of him, all right? You and he- you're special ones."

She takes his gift and smiles. 

"You did not get to look at our icons again. I have taken your time,” she pauses. She should be better at good byesgoodbyes. “You have many wonderful ideas here. I hope you make many of them work. Hardrive has been kind to us, and so have you. Thank you for all you have done."

"Should I send some of my boys in with you?"

She laughs. Yes, he should send them, but-

"No, I think we shall have enough fighting without that!" And she is out the door, flying down to the only true home she has known.

AndrAIa comes in to land smoothly beside him, and  he can almost hear her grit her teeth. 

"We should not be here," she says in lieu of a greeting. That's alright; its not like he really expected her to say anything else.

"Of course we should. There's a Game coming. It's gonna take us home."

She doesn't say anything about his eye, but Matrix knows that's what they’re both thinking about. He reaches up and re-adjusts the strap on his eye patch. She could be mad, if she wants. He's mad too- mad that he'd let himself hope for more.  Still, it was time to blow this joint. There were a lot of systems out there. One of them could lead to Net Access. One of them could lead back home. They didn't have time to waste. 

As the Game descends from above, she slides up to him. She takes his hand in hers and doesn’t say anything. Neither does he. She presses something between their grips and closes each of his fingers around it. The thing whizzes and thrums against his skin and tiny string-things writhe between his fingers. Looking down, he can see it is the robot eye, loose wires and all, spinning madly as if a part of something alive.

"It might work, eventually. I can probably make it better." 

"I'm not sure I'd trust you anywhere near my body- with tools in your hands anyway," he teases, fighting the full-on grin threatening to break out over his face.

"It could be brilliant, Sparky. You just wait and see," she insists, and pulls her own hand back to prepare for the Game. It’s almost upon them now, lower than ever, ready for them to reboot and kick ass. He shoots his hand out to grab her wrist, and only at the very last picosecond does she turn to look at him, her gaze serious and sure. 

"I do trust, you know," he says. "I always do."

"I know," she says. That she trusts him too, this she doesn't say. Doesn't need to. She smiles instead. He is blinded for a moment by the light when the Game consumes all around them, but for once lack of sight doesn't matter at all. He has someone to watch his back whatever comes.