by Trisana McGraw
As if defeating Daemon (sort of), Hexadecimal sacrificing herself, and rapidly approaching total fragmentation weren’t enough, Bob received the greatest shock of his life when the portal from the Web appeared in Mainframe: another Bob stepped out of the portal.
At first Bob thought he was hallucinating; he wouldn’t have put it past himself, as he was flickering in and out of consciousness, and he knew that he would delete soon if he didn’t get some energy. Yet, everyone else seemed to notice and acknowledge the other Bob as he entered Mainframe behind Ray Tracer. Bob – now "Glitch Bob" compared to the newcomer – saw the range of emotions on the faces of those around him: Mouse’s flirty wink, Enzo and Matrix’s identical expressions of awe, and most of all, Dot’s horror. Then he knew nothing more, as the inky blackness pressed around him, and he slipped away.
It was some time before he awoke again, and it was to find himself in a hospital bed. A needle was attached to his hand; his skin was so pale with energy loss it seemed almost white. Glitch Bob found that he was so weak he could barely turn his head, and he could only pick up one out of every few words from the various conversations going on over his head.
His friends were speaking about all different things, and all at once: What’s going on? -- I never knew this could happen -- He needs help -- I knew it would happen -- What’s going to happen? -- He needs energy, now!
"Bob." Matrix’s face, slowly swimming into focus in Glitch Bob’s eyes, filled his vision. The renegade’s expression was tight as he said, "I’ll do it, Bob; I can give you the energy you need."
Bob tried to move his hand, to clasp it over Matrix’s and thank his young friend. Yet, when he tried to do so, the movement was hardly noticeable. The other sprites’ faces remained in his sight, their expressions full of concern and fear – well, except for one. Then, the doctor entered the room, and everyone stepped aside. A flash of blue told Glitch Bob that his copy – that’s what the other Bob was, some sort of copy – had moved also, and stood beside Dot.
"Hello, Guardian Bob," the doctor said, in a gentle, quiet tone. Glitch Bob immediately decided he liked this doctor. The urge to slide back into peaceful unconsciousness gnawed away at him, but he forced himself to keep awake long enough to watch Matrix take a seat beside him and strap the energy-transfer device to his arm.
The device began to pinch Matrix’s upper-arm muscle hard, and the large sprite bent over and gritted his teeth against the pain as it squeezed his life force out of his body and forced it to pass through the transfer system to Glitch Bob.
New energy was being pumped into his veins, and Glitch Bob knew that soon his system wouldn’t be able to handle all of it. He felt as if he were floating on the clouds, buoyed up by this new strength Matrix had given him. Then, he plummeted to the ground, his stomach dropping with the rest of his astral body. His eyelids sagged shut, and he was finally able to get some rest.
Glitch Bob could vaguely hear the doctor speaking as he headed for that empty darkness. A few words fell into his ear, and he was able to comprehend "With all the energy he was losing over the last cycle, he’ll need a lot of rest before he’s ready to . . ." He needed so badly to sleep, but he wasn’t afraid anymore, because he was going to be all right. Everything was going to be okay.
He didn’t know how long he remained in that realm between dreams and reality. Glitch Bob felt an ever-present sense of drifting, as if caught between one emotion and the other. As though he were sinking in the data sea, one moment he would flounder up towards the surface, then the next he would relax his limbs and let his body fall toward the bottom.
A cool fog obscured his senses and sent shivers through his being. It caressed his aching body and low-energy system; but at the same time, it hindered him from fully healing.
Sometimes, when the fog would blanket his mind, he would return to reality. It was during those times that he would glimpse his friends, passing by to check on him. He was too weak to formulate responses to their words, but he could understand and value everything they said.
A strong squeeze of his right hand let him know Mouse was sitting next to him. Her steady, self-assured voice soothed his worries, for the time being.
Light, musical-sounding assurances from AndrAIa came from time to time, as she accompanied the other sprites to see Glitch Bob. She also touched his hand to let him know she was there, though Glitch Bob didn’t feel the same closeness to the game sprite as he did Mouse.
"Return to us, my son," Phong whispered hoarsely, come to check on the young Guardian. Glitch Bob wished he could smile; he appreciated the old sprite, the one who had shown such worry when he found out what Glitch’s faulty powers were doing to Bob.
"Come on, Bob." Matrix’s voice, sounding broken, cut through the fog as it descended again on him. Bob cracked open his eyes to see that Matrix, wearing a bandage over his upper arm, sat beside the bed, with Little Enzo next to him. Enzo leaned against Matrix, his eyes dark with fear. But Matrix swallowed past his own fright and patted Enzo’s shoulder reassuringly. If Glitch Bob could have, he would’ve again smiled to see the two coexisting together.
"Come on, Bob," Enzo echoed, his voice trembling; he was the little sprite whom Bob loved like a son. Enzo placed his small hand next to Glitch Bob’s still-flickering one, and Matrix did the same, with a rare smile at his backup.
When Glitch Bob next returned to slumber, it was deeper and thicker. The next time he felt someone’s presence, it became harder to reach that sprite.
Strangely enough, it was he. For the second time, Glitch Bob wondered if the sprite standing before him was just a figment of his imagination. But the other Bob felt too real to be imaginary, and the touch of his hand on Glitch Bob’s arm was definitely tangible.
"Hmm, fighting for your life, aren’t you, Bob?" the other Guardian questioned in a mockery of Glitch Bob’s own voice. "So helpless and alone – I could delete you right here, you know. Cut off the energy supply, break the machine keeping you stable – so many chances to take your life from you, yet none of them would be gruesome enough for everyone’s favorite Guardian," he sneered.
"I hope you’re confused, Bob. I hope that the sight of . . . you . . . has startled you out of your wits, has left you surprised, and shocked – and afraid. That’s what I want to do; ruin your life, and hurt everyone you hold dear. This is the beginning of the end, Bob," the other sprite told him, his voice low and menacing, like someone – someone he knew – "Will you be ready?"
Another sprite or binome – was it the doctor from before? – entered the room then, and the other Bob looked away from Glitch Bob. But by then Glitch Bob had already fallen back into deep, healing sleep.
The darkness couldn’t hold him as long, though. Bob pushed with his arms and legs against the blackness that threatened to envelop him, and it slid away from him like slippery data.
He was floating, drifting through the quiet darkness, and then . . .
She stood there next to him, seemingly as bright as a goddess. But her eyes were red from crying, and tearstains traced their way down her soft green cheeks. To see her suffering hurt Glitch Bob more than his loss of energy – he loved Dot, with all his core, and it cut him deeper to know that he was the cause for her grief.
Almost all of the color had returned to his hand, and with it, his strength. He lifted his hand and gingerly brushed her cheek. Dot’s chin trembled, but now she smiled through her tears and cupped his hand against her cheek before carefully letting it drop back to his side. Her words followed him as he retreated once more into the dense murkiness: "You’ll be okay." Glitch Bob knew that he would fight against the enclosing blackness only one more time before he would be triumphant and return to the sprites he cared about.
When he awoke again, Mouse, Ray, AndrAIa, Matrix, Enzo, and Phong were all there. They all greeted him with smiles accompanied by tears, and they gave him gentle hugs, conscientious of his present feebleness. Glitch Bob was even able to sit up in the hospital bed. Looking eagerly over Mouse’s shoulder, he saw Dot, leaning heavily against the other Bob’s chest. A surge of irritation and possessiveness raced through Glitch Bob’s code at the sight of a stranger – yet not quite a stranger to them – comforting the sprite that he, the real Bob, loved.
Mouse touched Dot’s shoulder and murmured something. Dot lifted her head and stared in shock at Glitch Bob. Her mouth hung open, unable to formulate any real words, just giving small gasps of astonishment. In a moment, she left Bob and ran to Glitch Bob, kneeling by his bed and wrapping her arms around him.
"You’re okay!" she cried, burying her head against his shoulder. "I had thought – Thank the Net you’re all right!" Glitch Bob wrapped an arm around her, all he could do at the moment, and he reveled anew in the feeling of Dot leaning against him.
Strangely enough, it was "Bob" who broke the silence. "Well, if it isn’t everyone’s favorite Guardian; feeling pixelacious again, huh?" he commented, striding over to where Glitch Bob and Dot were embracing. The others watched the two Bobs interestedly, but Glitch Bob had frozen. He stared up at the copy intently, trying to remember something. Those exact words the copy Bob had just spoken – they reminded Glitch Bob of something – hadn’t "Bob" said them? – now he couldn’t recall when the words had been said.
Maybe he had just imagined it during his recovery. It was something that he, Bob, would say, anyway.
The doctor told Glitch Bob that it would take another second of rest in the hospital before he would be ready to venture out into Mainframe again. Glitch Bob listened and nodded in agreement; he had faced the worst when the darkness had almost caught him, and he wanted nothing more than to be fully healthy again.
The others came to see him as he slowly recovered. A second and a half preceding his collapse after the sacrifice of Hexadecimal, Glitch Bob was allowed to leave the hospital, both his energy and his code restored.
Enzo took his left hand as they led Glitch Bob out of the hospital; Dot was at his right. However, the other Bob had his arm resting possessively over Dot’s shoulder. When Glitch Bob turned his head to look at the copy, the other Bob met his gaze calmly.
A sinister look crossed the other Bob’s face, and for just a nanosecond, he looked nothing like Bob.
Then it was gone, and Bob stood there again; younger, neater-looking, and still holding an arm around Dot. Glitch Bob dismissed the nanosecond he had seen something else on that Bob’s face. He had more important things to deal with; most especially, winning Dot Matrix’s heart all over again before Bob – a different, unreal Bob – did it first.
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