Suddenly, all the light over the city dimmed. Then the alarm rang.
"Warning, incoming Game. Warning, incoming Game," said the clear voice of the city's Emergency Response System. All the sprites in the city knew what this meant: get out of the way. Let the pros handle this.
After a slight panic from the city's population, and a bit of anticipation from the expert sprites that would take care of the problem, a large gaping hole opened up in the skies. It looked like the roof over the city was caving in upwards. But there were no worries from the citizens; they knew what was going to happen. Out of the black hole sprouted a large purple cube. It seemed to extend itself slowly towards the ground. All around the estimated impact site, mixed reactions were occurring.
On one hand, a mass of frightened sprites was running away in a panic, in the fear of being trapped under this incoming doom. On the other, a group of brave young sprites were making sure that the cube would land right on top of their heads. Any inexperienced observer would assume that these sprites were insane, but they knew what they were doing. The smaller round-shaped and stick-shaped sprites seemed slightly agitated, but confidant. In the presence of the taller, golden haired sprite, nothing bad could happen to them. And they would follow him and help him whatever the danger, whatever the cost. This was their city. He was their Guardian. They had to help out.
The cube finally hit the ground, with no impact, as if it embedded itself within the fabric of time and space. This was the time all the sprites of the city hated the most: The Wait. There was no way for them to know what was going on in the Cube. The only thing they could do was to wait it out. Only two things could happen: either the Cube would leave peacefully, or a chunk of this sector would be obliterated, and whoever was in there, nullified.
But the citizens didn't have to wait for long. In fact, the chime announcing the departure of the Cube rang quite quickly. It's as if it had been scared by something. When all eyes came down from following the Cube's ascent, they stared incomprehensibly at what could be found at the now vacant site. All citizens were accounted for, and their Guardian was perfectly fine, but looked confused. He was staring at three new sprites: a large red dog, a slender young pale skinned woman and taller green skinned young man.
The woman didn't look quite like a regular sprite, with strange star-shaped objects in her hair. The man was muscular and seemed to be missing his right eye. It looked like it had been cut out, given the scar across is brow, and replaced with a golden sphere with a stylized 'M' engraved on it. Below his waist, attached to his right leg, was a large gun that looked like it could do serious damage to anything in its path. And the dog, well... had big teeth... but didn't seem aggressive at all. In fact, it seemed to wish to play with the smaller sprites that emerged from the Cube unscathed.
Everyone around looked in awe at these strange visitors, but the more keen-eyed ones noticed that the icon over the man's left breast was golden: a Guardian! It seems that no one had been introduced during their short time inside the Cube.
"Hi! My name is AndrAIa. This is Frisket," she said, pointing to the beast at their heels. "And this is... Matrix," pointing slightly uncomfortably at her companion.
Matrix didn't even blink at the hesitation AndrAia showed when introducing him. He'd gotten used to her discomfort with introducing him by his tough-sounding surname, as opposed to his gentler given name, Enzo.
"My name is Ion, and I am this system's Guardian", said the golden-haired sprite.
"I noticed," said Matrix, coldly, pointing to the other man's icon. He reached to his belt and took his broken down Key Tool out. "Glitch, system scan!" he barked at it. The tool complied and started displaying statistics and properties of this system.
"Not very friendly is he," Ion whispered to no one in particular.
"Oh, he's just grumpy, don't worry about it," said AndrAIa, with a sigh.
Glitch's display screen bleeped and chirped, while Matrix stared at it, eagerly awaiting an answer to his usual query... Is there a portal to the Net here? When Glitch stopped chirping and closed the display, Matrix had an unusual look of disappointment. Frisket, who had a close link to his master, lowered his head and lied on the ground, no longer interested in playing with the group of children that had approached him.
"What's wrong, Enzo?" AndrAIa asked.
The green "giant" looked up and took one somewhat menacing step towards the city's Guardian, and grumbled, "If you're a Guardian, how come there are no portals to the Net here!"
"I..." was the only thing Ion had time to get out of his mouth before Enzo took another step towards him.
"ENZO!" AndrAIa yelled. "Stay frosty!"
The angry sprite backed off. Obviously, AndrAIa was used to this kind of behaviour from her lover. She didn't like it, but she knew that he listened to her. All these cycles, hopping from system to system, using Games to find a city with access to the net, had created between them an unbreakable bond of friendship, love and mutual respect.
"I have a feeling you have a lot to talk about, Ion," finally said AndrAIa to the Guardian, breaking the tension.
"Indeed. You'll find it makes for a quite interesting story," he replied. "But to tell you frankly, I'm more interested by yours. How do a Guardian, a sprite and their dog come in with a Game Cube and stay behind when it leaves?"
"Is there a quiet, private place we could talk," said Enzo, eyeing the gathering of binomes and sprites that was getting bigger and bigger around them as time passed.
"We can go to the Principal Office. It's pretty quiet there."
"A Game Sprite? How is that possible?" asked the dumbfounded Guardian.
"When Enz... Matrix and I were younger, I arrived in Mainframe as an AI Game Character," explained AndrAIa. "We met while trying to defeat the User, but by the time the Game was over, we'd become friends. I didn't want to end our friendship, so I tried saving my Icon within his."
The Guardian was analyzing her every word, trying to comprehend how a Game Sprite could ever exit a game and live in a civilized society. They normally were brutal, savage creatures, bent on only one thing: stop the User. But recent games and especially their Sprites have shown increasing amount of intelligence and powers of adaptation.
"So when the Game left Mainframe," the young woman continued, "Bob, our Guardian noticed my icon attached to his. All it took was a double-click, and I appeared."
"Was it hard to adapt to a complex system?" Asked Ion. "I mean, it's not like a game. The system is supposed to support the User, not defeat it."
"Well, it wasn't easy, that's for sure. But I had the best friend I could ever want to help me." She took the hand of the man with whom she's shared everything for so many cycles.
"And what about you, Guardian Matrix... What's your story?" asked Ion.
"I'm not a Guardian. I'm a Renegade," replied Enzo coldly. "Web Creatures had broken into Mainframe, and attacked us. Bob, our Guardian, feared the worst and promoted my code to Cadet. I was only 10 cycles old. Then he enlisted the help of Megabyte and Hexadecimal, two sibling viruses that have been in Mainframe for as long as Bob has, to help defeat the Web Creatures. We also had a Hacker named Mouse to help close and seal the Web Portal the creatures used to invade Mainframe. We managed to push them back, but in the end, Megabyte betrayed Bob and expelled him into the web, before it was sealed."
"We managed to contain Megabyte and Hexadecimal within a firewall. But then came a game came I couldn't handle....
I remember a flash of light. Probably the User's blade. Then the pain. The sharp, searing pain, as his enflamed blade slashed my face.
I was only 10 cycles old, but I'd been given the responsibility of defending Mainframe. I was a Guardian Cadet, field promoted by Bob, my mentor; my friend. And I was doing a pretty good job at it, too. Though it wasn't easy at first; no one would take this little sprite seriously. But when I started winning games before their eyes, they learned to trust me.
They shouldn't have.
As I fell to the floor, defeated by an adversary 5 times my size, holding my face in my hands, and feeling the energy leaking out of the gash across my brow, I heard the voice of the game. "Game Over, User wins. Game Over, User wins."
I heard AndrAIa, in the background, stuck in the painting symbolizing her game character, comforting Frisket. She knew what to do; we'd talked about it before.
When we transferred code from my icon to hers, part of her code feedbacked into mine, giving me the ability to turn into a Game Sprite at will. Frisket had the same thing done. In exchange, she could enter games with me as a regular Sprite.
So I heard the chirping noise of their icons switching to Game Sprite mode at the same time that I did mine. As a Sprite, losing a game would mean nullification along everything else covered by the Game cube. But theoretically, as Game Sprites, we would leave with the game, and return when the user would put the game back in Mainframe. It was a long shot, but it was the only way we might survive.
Then I felt a strange sensation... It felt like some strange force was pulling me up. On top of the pain I was feeling, this new feeling made me sick to my stomach. My thoughts wandered immediately to AndrAIa and Frisket. I could barely raise my head, and moving my eyes triggered a wave of pain across the whole right side of my face. I would just have to trust my gut feeling that they were all right.
And all of a sudden it stopped. The whole place felt motionless and tranquil. With both my eyes closed tightly, all I could do was listen. I heard some commotion, unknown voices, Frisket barking, and finally AndrAIa shouting, with a tinge of panic in her voice.
"He'll be all right, Miss," said an old-sounding voice. "Just let me help him!"
"Frisket... Sit! He wants to help Enzo!" shouted AndrAIa to their dog. He whined and finally went quiet.
I felt a hand on my hair. I knew right away it was AndrAIa, trying to comfort me. My whole body hurt, and all I could feel was a deep sense of loss. I wanted to shout, to cry, but the pain was too much.
She and another pair of hands rolled me on my back. I tried to look through my eyelids, but I couldn't bear the pain.
"Oh my User!" shouted AndrAIa, which made me panic. What had she seen? I'd probably been disfigured, but how much?
"We need to sedate him and bring him to the Medical Unit," said the man with the unknown hands.
"Let me," said AndrAIa.
All I felt was her hand slide down my hair, to my neck.
"Don't worry Enzo, it'll be OK"
"I..." A prick of her fingernail, and I was unconscious.
When I woke up again, the world around me was all fuzzy. I felt a bandage around my head, covering mostly my right eye. I frowned, and was instantly punished for doing so by pain through the right side of my face. My grunt woke up my vigil, AndrAIa and Frisket.
"Enzo," whispered AndrAIa. "You're finally awake?"
Frisket brought up his head over the edge of my bed and laid it down next to my hand and licked it. I then rested my hand on his head.
"How long have I been out, AndrAIa? Where are we?"
"Only a day or so. And we're still inside the game," replied AndrAIa.
"And since this is a Game of battle, we're required to have a complete medical unit," said a voice from the doorway.
I looked up and saw, with my one un-patched eye, an old Sprite with a white robe. He carried on his chest an AI icon, just like AndrAIa's - and also Frisket's and mine now.
"Don't worry, young Enzo. We've limited the damage and did our best to keep it from leaving a nasty scar. It's not perfect, but it shouldn't be too bad," said the old man.
"Who are you, anyways?" I asked, getting more and more curious as to what was going on.
"My name is RobAIrto. I am this Game's doctor," he replied.
A Game doctor? How could this be possible? So life doesn't stop for Game Sprites between games? AndrAIa never spoke to me about this. I'd always thought that time froze for Game Sprites when they were stuck outside of systems like Mainframe.
"I think you have a visitor, young man..." said RobAIrto, pointing to a silhouette visible by the door frame.
Then, "it" came in. And I panicked! It was the demon that had slashed my face up. Frisket, sensing my panic, growled at the beast before us. But AndrAIa was attempting to calm me down.
"It's okay, Enzo! Enzo! ENZO!!" she yelled.
After the third shout, she pointed a fingernail at me. That was enough to get me to sit down and be quiet. Her stings were quite uncomfortable and always left your mouth all pasty and weird when you woke up.
I stared at the large, foul-looking beast, and finally noticed that it had a pitiful look on its face, and a bouquet of energy buds in its claws. Frisket and I stared at it as it opened its mouth to speak. But no intelligible words came out; only a series of grunts and growls.
"He says he is deeply sorry that he hurt you, but he wants to let you know that the User was controlling him and he couldn't do anything to stop himself," translated the doctor.
I must have stared at it a bit too long, for it fell to its knees at the foot of my bed, and started bawling its eyes out on my sheets, which burst into flames - his tears were made of fire! So the doctor and I quickly tried to comfort it, while AndrAIa tried to put out the flames.
"It's okay, it's okay," I said to it. "I forgive you."
Still sobbing slightly, it snorted and let out a questioning whine, which I took for "Really?"
"Yes, yes. I understand that the User was controlling you to hurt me," I told it, hoping that the tears would stop. Luckily, that seemed to have worked. It tried to hug me, but I stopped it.
"Whoa! Hold it... Do you want to burn me?" I shrieked.
And the bawling started once more...
This was my world now. I'd never really spoken to Enzo about this, but I'm not sure why. I guess it was because I never thought that I would ever come back inside a Game and remain when it left. We knew the possibility was there when we spoke of turning into Game Sprite mode in an emergency, but it never crossed my mind that it would ever truly happen.
So I showed him what was behind the Games. I took him through the corridors of this building. This Game had a limited number of characters, so the building was small, but coded in her was the knowledge that other, bigger games had an entire city as their offline base.
Most Game Sprites were quite nice and docile when offline. Some will get too much in character and keep their Game persona in the offline facilities, which can cause some friction. But when the Game goes online, everyone takes their place and does their job: stop the User. Most of the time we'll lose, but when we do win, a sense of dread come across all of the Game population.
We're programmed to lose. We're programmed to challenge the User, but he is supposed to defeat us. And we know what happens to Systems when we win. We hate winning.
I tried explaining that to Enzo, and I think he understood. He's always listened to me. I wouldn't want to be with anyone else than him on this strange adventure, and I think he feels the same.
But right now, he seems to be moping. He hasn't said a word since we walked out of the medical unit. Once in a while, while I was explaining him the details of life within an offline Game, he would raise his right hand to his face. He kept staring at the floor. Frisket wasn't doing too good either. He walked a few paces behind us, sniffed up everything and growled.
I wanted to ask Enzo what was wrong, but I decided to leave him be. Either way, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on in his head. He was probably realizing that he would perhaps never see Mainframe, Dot or Bob ever again. I felt powerless against this dark power in his heart. I just wished that there had been something I could do.
Then he saw a tower in the small Game city and asked me to bring him up there. I didn't know why but I didn't like it at all. There was something in his voice that was missing. It was as if the life had been sucked out of him. I couldn't stand it!
We climbed up the tower and sweat was running down my face. I don't think it was so much the workout as it was more the worry I was carrying in me. Enzo really seemed, darker, almost as if he'd grown up all of a sudden; grown up darker...
When we got to the top of the small tower, he stood still, watching over the city. He wouldn't say a word; he just stared into space. Frisket and I just looked at him and I was wondering what was going on in his head.
He finally reached up to the bandage covering his face, and started undoing it. I raised my hand to stop it, but he gave me a sideways glance that let me know that I shouldn't. So I watched him unwrap his head, slowly. When he was done, the right side of his face was away from me, so I didn't see the healing damage right away.
He then turned to me... And I saw.
"What does it look like, AndrAIa?" he asked, with tears already running across his left cheek.
"It's... It's..." my hesitation seemed to make him even more distraught.
There was a mending gash across his eyebrow, diagonally, sliding all the way down to his upper-cheekbone. His eyelids were sewn shut, temporarily, to let them heal.
"It's not too bad, actually, Enzo..." Frisket whined a little with a comforting tone. "It should heal quite nicely..."
"But I've lost my eye..." he said, looking down. "Things look weird... Flat..."
"But you can still see, Enzo," I tried comforting him.
"I know... I know, AndrAIa..." he looked just a little less sad.
But he started stepping towards the ledge, which made me panic. I went to hold his hand, expecting him to pull back, but he didn't. He held my hand. He didn't want to jump; he just wanted to sit at the edge. I still didn't like it, but I sat next to him.
"What do we do now, AndrAIa? What happens to us?" he asked, nervously.
"We... " I was unsure what to answer.
I didn't want him to keep moping like this. I wanted to let him know that everything was going to be all right. That I was going to be by his side forever. So I put my hand on his injured cheek, and turned his face toward me.
"We look for a way home, Enzo. And we don't give up... Guardian." I finally replied.
"Thank you AndrAIa..." he said after a moment, and laid his head on my shoulder and cried freely.
The two small sprites and their pet were walking down the main street of the Game city when they saw the Doctor RobAIrto come to them, with a worried look on his face.
"Where were you? I thought I told you it was better to stay in bed," he said, annoyingly.
"I just needed some air, Doctor," replied Enzo, revived from his earlier slump.
"And why have you taken off your bandages, young man?" asked the Doctor, who seemed more irritated than angry.
"They were itchy... And I wanted AndrAIa to see. I'm all right, Doctor."
"Yes, yes, young sprite..." finally said the poor Doctor, feeling he was hitting a wall. "You're a bit rebellious, but I guess it means you've got character."
The Doctor led them back to the medical unit, for some tests and to examine Enzo's slowly healing wound. He had seen many wounds worse than this one, but this sprite was so young. Who knew how this was going to affect him?
"Yes, this should heal up quite nicely. Obviously, this is going to leave a scar. And of course you've unfortunately lost function of your eye," said the Doctor, sadly.
"T... Thanks Doctor RobAIrto," replied the young sprite.
"Here," the Doctor said, handing a green patch to Enzo. "This is an eye patch. I've modeled to fit the curve of your face. By pressing the button on the back," he demonstrated, "you can activate a holographic eye that will match the movements of your left eye. Otherwise you can leave it blank."
The patch was colored exactly as Enzo's skin. He turned it on and put it on.
"Wow, Enzo! It looks as if nothing happened to you!" chirped AndrAIa happily.
Enzo looked in the mirror. The expression on his face was blank. He stared at himself for a few moments, then took off the patch. He raised his arm.
"Glitch, storage," he commanded to the dented key tool on his arm.
Glitch whined and spurted until it finally opened its dial to form a receptacle, into which Enzo placed the patch. The tool sparked a little and reverted to its previous shape.
"Thank you, Doctor," Enzo said to the old man, "but I'd rather stay like this for a bit... To get used to it."
"As you wish, young sprite," replied RobAIrto.
As soon as the good Doctor had finished his sentence, an alarm rang from all around the sprites. It sounded eerily familiar to Enzo and Andraia.
"Warning. Game initialization. Warning. Game initialization." said a familiar voice over the alarm.
"Doctor, is this what I think it is?" asked young Enzo. "Are we going back to Mainframe?"
"Well, we're going down to a system, young sprite," said the doctor, trying not to sound too cautious. "But whether this is your own system or another is anybody's guest. We visit many systems, and once in a while the same one many times in a row. But there is no way for us to know where we are until we see familiar sprites come into the Cube and reboot."
Enzo and AndrAIa stared at each other.
"What do we do, Enzo?" asked AndrAIa.
Enzo looked to the floor, lost in thought. He seemed to ponder the weight of the task at hand. The possiblities seemed endless. This game could be back in Mainframe and they could all revert back to Sprite mode and go home. But the game could be in another system and never come back to Mainframe. So they would have to find another way home. That's when it hit him. If the system they were landing in had access to the Net, he could get Glitch to open a Portal to Mainframe. Of course they'd have to deal with Mouse's firewall, but the best thing to do was to take this step by step.
"How to we get to the game area, Doctor?" he finally queried the old man.
"My, my, young Enzo... I'm not sure it's a good id..."
"We need to get into the game to get back home," interrupted Enzo. "It's the only way. If you don't help us, we'll ask someone else. But hurry!"
The Doctor pondered the young sprite's request. He had never left his home, so he didn't know how the three sprites must have felt to be stranded like this. He knew he had to help them.
"This way," he replied, breaking the tension.
The Doctor led Frisket, AndrAIa and Enzo toward the large dome-like building at the core of the game city. Most of the current activity of the city seemed to be concentrated there. All the Game Sprites were entering the building and getting ready for their roles.
As AndrAIa, Frisket and Enzo entered the building, activity was at its busiest. People were shouting over the announcer's voice, counting down the nanos before the Cube would hit the ground.
"Places, people places!" yelled a sprite dressed in bright colorful colors.
"He's the coordinator," explained the good Doctor to the young sprites.
"What are you kids doing here?" asked the loud-colored sprite to the arriving odd group.
"We're going home..." replied Enzo.
"Long story..." explained RobAIrto to the confused coordinator.
"Aaaaah, you young ones must be the ones that stayed in the game in the last system," finally realized the flamboyant one.
"Yes, and they believe that being part of the next Game will bring them home," explained RobAIrto.
"Hmmmm... Interesting... But I'm afraid I can't let you..."
"We need to be part of the game to get back to our system!" interrupted Enzo. "And we need you guys to win the game against the User!"
"That's PREPOSTEROUS," shouted the coordinator. "This game's so old that every User knows all of its tricks! There's no way we can..."
At that point, sensing his little master's mix of fear and anger, Frisket began growling loudly at the outraged sprite. He shut up instantly and motioned the group to come forward.
"Good boy" said Enzo petting Frisket's head, under the exasperated stare of AndrAIa.
They followed the coordinator to the main arena room, where the fights would take place. Everyone was anxious. All the game sprites had been told to work extra hard to win this game. Enzo, AndrAIa and Frisket didn't want to reappear in Mainframe by leaving another big hole in the ground... And so many sprites turned into Nulls...
After what seemed seconds, an eternity for Enzo and his friends, the Cube finally landed. The game had begun.
Onlookers were, as usual, present for the departure of the Cube. But much confusion arose when two small sprites and a dog emerged from the Cube as it left.
Enzo, AndrAIa and Frisket looked around, at first with big smiles, but they quicly turned to confused frowns. Enzo stared at the host of binomes and few sprites that had gathered around. He couldn't recognize any of them. He looked at the buildings, and they all seemed alien to him.
"Enzo?" queried AndrAIa nervously.
"This... This isn't Mainframe... I.. I don't understand..." replied the increasingly agitated sprite. "OH NO! AndrAIa! The game's been entered on a different system!!"