a1enzo: (punch)
"There! That's the toy store!"

"How're we supposed to get back there?"

"Through here. G-gimme a hand..."

*scrape* "It's... kind of a tight squeeze..."

"Turn it a-a little to the left."

"Where in the 'Net did you get a zipboard this big?"

"Birthday present. From... a hacker we know..."

"You mean the Mouse. You can lay off the secrecy, everybody's heard the rumours."

"Um. Okay?"

"Now where do we put it?"

"How 'bout the dumpster?"

"Will it fit?"

"If it's empty..."

"Give me a boost, please." *creak* *skrunch* "Hey, cool! A lot of this stuff is barely broken at all! There're hula hoops and goto sticks... Alvey, want a pair of skates?"

"M-maybe. Are they s-size A3?"

"Not these... oh, here's a pair! *rattle* They've got a loose bit, but I can ask Hugh to weld it."

"Really? You d-don't have to go to any trouble f-for me..."

"It's no trouble, he does a lot of welding anyway. That's why we usually have to knock before entering our room, so we don't go blind."

"Caret! Is there room?"

"Oh! Almost, yeah. Here, I'll toss some stuff out. Alvey, catch!" *clank* *whump* *clatter* "I wonder why the bottom is full of rocks?"

"Maybe they were trying to clone Enzo's head."

"Don't be mean. And he's already a clone. *thud* *clatter* "All right, that should be enough... and it's most of the good stuff... hold on..." *scrabblescrabblescrabble* *thump*

"Okay, now... how do we get it in?"

"Um... well, if we kinda... lower it partway and tip it... can you shrink the zipboard and pull it out from under?"

"Yeah, I think so! If I hold onto the struts..."

*SKREEEEEEE*

"Nnnnygh! Keep it down!"

"I'm tryin'! Okay..."

*SKRUNCH*

"Ha! Okay, we just need to pin this in the lid, and we're set!"

Perfect timing, too; as feet are planted on the ground and zipboards minimized, there comes a crescendoing roar, and five motorbikes of the smaller sort enter the alley from all directions - two through side passages, three over the rooftops. Johnny and Roxie are riding the two in best repair; their binome cohorts are doubled up as necessary on the others.

"You're early," Johnny declares as the bikes pull to a halt on either side of the dumpster, where they'll be less in the way of the proceedings. "Eager for your pounding, bitheads?"

"Why, look, Johnny," Roxie exclaims in simulated delight. "They do have some friends after all! Ain't that nice?"

"As if," snaps Esim. "We're not here for him."

Condela nods and glares at Roxie. "We're here for my aircart."

(It's true enough, though Enzo doesn't appreciate being ranked below a mere conveyance, especially one with that much glitter. They needed someone else on their side, or they'd get creamed for sure, even with their secret weapon. And Enzo was still too ashamed to tell anyone else who wasn't in the same boat, which left only one known option. Besides, they are really good in Unarmed Combat.

Surprisingly, after the gales of laughter, the sarcastic refusal, and the scowling threat of telling the faculty, it was Alvey who persuaded them. "They're s-scared," she informed Enzo, and told the older two, "It's okay. W-we're scared, too. But it's s-something we have to do." Esim promptly declared that there was no way the "glory hound" would be "acting sooooo brave" without him there too, and Condela concurred. Alvey later admitted that she'd gotten the technique from "a l-lot of books, actually.")

"Oh, I remember them!" one binome is saying, as they all dismount and saunter in the direction of the cadets. "They were at the movies. You looked swell on her aircart, Roxie."

"Gee, thanks, Cookie!" She grins at Condela. "I hope we didn't hurt it or nothin'..."

Condela just glowers. Enzo wonders what they did after he left.

"This is gonna be easy," says another binome; Enzo can't tell if he's complaining or not. "They ain't even wearing their armour!"

"And what's he wearing?" demands another, pointing at Caret.

Enzo can't blame the Worms there. Having determined that it would be wisest not to sneak out in uniform, Caret had proceeded to speculate on what would be practical clothing for a fight. Enzo had to persuade him that a suit of fantasy Game-style armour would probably be more trouble than it was worth. He's not sure where Caret got the gi, but figures it's an improvement.

Enzo himself has on his old blue pants and the Applet t-shirt Tom gave him for his birthday (which Alvey liked a great deal). He's left off his cap but kept the shoulder, knee and elbow pads on the grounds that they can only help, and he's added another birthday present as well. The others are similarly casually attired, though he's not sure how inconspicuous a shirt can be with as many rhinestones on it as Condela's has.

"It's a ぎ," Caret is explaining matter-of-factly. "It's for fighting." He's barefoot, too.

"Right, so let's get started," Enzo says. Glancing significantly at his compatriots, he adds, "now!"

Condela smiles sweetly and presses a button on the remote control she's been palming.

Nothing happens. Not so much as a beep. "Fine by me," Johnny says, and lunges, swinging a dull brown fist at Enzo's face.

Enzo just has time to see Condela's smile change to a horrified expression, and his own probably matches, but then the rest of the Worms are charging forward. Enzo barely recovers himself in time to dodge; as it is, Johnny's fist grazes the side of his forehead.

Enzo's got strong legs for his age, and good reaction time; he kicks out at Johnny's knee, and follows it with a right to the torso. Why didn't it work? That was their secret weapon! It was supposed to keep the fight from getting too bad, if it didn't stop it before it started. Stupid remote!

Both of Enzo's blows connect, but Johnny is already staggering back a bit from the kick, and the motion reduces Enzo's punch to a tap. Johnny looks surprised, then angry, and kicks back with his other leg. His boot slams into Enzo's side, sending the smaller boy reeling sideways to slam into the binome called Cookie, who was just gearing up to hit Esim. Enzo and Cookie both go sprawling, while Esim punches at the tall binome with some ferocity, trying to reach his eye-block.

Johnny follows Enzo, grinning viciously, and aims another kick. Enzo rolls aside, and the kick glances off Cookie, who yelps indignantly. Caret comes up behind Johnny and tries to knock him down with one of those low, side-sweeping kicks; he's half-successful, as their legs become entangled and they both topple.

Enzo smacks Cookie aside with a left backhand; she screeches as his bracer clangs off her, and as his hand clenches, one finger accidentally triggers the grappling hook, which shoots past Cookie's face entirely too close for her comfort. It grabs onto the eaves of one of the surrounding buildings. Enzo, not one to waste an opportunity, taps the Retract button and is yanked free of the mêlée to dangle by his left arm a good five pixels off the ground.

This is not a comfortable position to be in, especially not for his shoulder, but it gives him a breather and a good view of the proceedings. Caret is dodging a series of blows from the infuriated Johnny, but Cookie's coming up behind him. Esim is clinging tenaciously to the tall 1's back and may very soon overbalance him. Condela is still focused entirely on Roxie, the light of vengeance in her eyes. Alvey...

Alvey isn't fighting. The three remaining Worms are closing in on her, backing her up against the dumpster. None of them are close enough to start throwing punches yet, but when they do, it's gonna be ugly.

Enzo fumbles at his belt, hoping he can properly maximize his boogie baud one-handed. Below, Caret seems to have spotted Alvey, too. He dodges Johnny again, who ends up hitting Cookie for the second time, and runs in Alvey's direction.

Alvey's back bumps against the dumpster. She takes one frantic look around, then taps her icon and shoots forward on the skates Caret retrieved from the dumpster. She wobbles on the broken wheels, but keeps her balance enough to dart between the two closest Worms. All three binomes lunge for her, but succeed in doing nothing but colliding heavily. Caret, coming up on them, grabs a hula hoop from the litter of half-broken toys around the dumpster and slams it down around them, pinning their arms.

Alvey wheels around and, tapping her icon to remove the skates again, climbs up onto the trapped binomes' heads to access the dumpster. A quick lift and a slide and she's inside.

Enzo waits tensely a few picoseconds, and then gives a shout of triumph as white foam begins to spew from the output nozzle balanced on the lip of the dumpster. The force of the foam immediately upsets that balance, but Alvey rises into view again, standing atop the foam generator, grabs the hose, and directs it back toward the fight, aiming to hit the Worms while keeping the other cadets relatively unscathed. She is only moderately successful in this regard; her aim is good, but Hugh didn't build the foam machine as a precision device, and the new delivery system is intended for efficiency more than anything. Esim and Condela are hard pressed to keep their footing. Their opponents, on the other hand, are knocked right down and buried. Enzo's put in mind of Userspace clouds, the big fluffy kind.

From nearer the dumpster, there's a fresh cry of pain. Alvey's three assailants have broken out of their makeshift restraint and turned on their captor. Two have him by the arms and legs, leaving the largest binome free to retaliate at will. There's a yelp of alarm from the dumpster, and the nozzle is directed toward the big 0, knocking him back away from Caret. With the stream off them, Roxie and Condela lunge for each other again, wrestling amid the mounds of foam, and Johnny is struggling to his feet.

Enzo does not wait to see what Johnny intends to do. He presses the Release button on his grappler. The claw relaxes its hold on the eaves, dropping Enzo onto his now-maximized boogie baud. He retracts the line and zooms for Johnny from behind. The fore edge of the baud slams into the backs of Johnny's knees, forcing him to sit down heavily on the baud, which is now climbing back up to roof level and above.

The snarling youth twists around to see Enzo aiming his left arm straight at his face, like the barrel of a gun.

"Tell them to stop," Enzo tells him.

Johnny stares over the back of Enzo's hand at his bracer, at the humped protrusion just behind his hand with the hole in the front for pointy metal to emerge from at speed.

"Worms!" he screams. "Cool it!" Below, the sounds of fighting fade into murmurs first of confusion, then of dismay, barely audible over the fooossssssh of foam.

"You can turn it off, Alvey," Enzo calls. The foam-noise dies.

"Johnny!" cries one of the female binomes from below. Enzo ignores her.

"We've beat you once," he declares loud enough for all to hear, "and we can do it again if we have to. So you're gonna stop picking on us, or any other kids. Right?" He gives Johnny his best Matrix glare and hopes to his code's main function that the older boy won't call his bluff.

Johnny glares back, but Enzo can see the fear under it... or maybe he's just flattering himself. But it must be there somewhere, because after a nano, Johnny hisses, "Right."

"So they can hear you."

"I said yes!" shouts Johnny, the dull brown of his face brightening with humiliation.

The gang's other leader screeches furiously from below. "Johnny, you...!"

"Shut up, Roxie!" Johnny yells back desperately.

"Good." The boogie baud lowers gently to about four pixels up, then tips forward so Johnny slides off and falls heavily to the ground.

The 0 girl who shouted before scrambles to his side, slipping in the foam, and clutches at his arm while glaring venemously up at Enzo. Johnny groans a bit but levers himself to a sitting position. "I'm okay, Marie," he says, putting an arm around her.

"Now you're all gonna go home, and we're going back to the Academy," Enzo proclaims. "Is everyone fully functional?"

"Bruised," Caret declares. "Sore. Mostly fine."

"I-I'm okay!" calls Alvey's voice from inside the dumpster.

Condela moans. "I think she gave me a black eye," she says, prodding gingerly at her face. "How'm I supposed to hide that?"

"Oh, you don't need to be worryin' about that, lass."

All twelve children wheel to face the new voice. Several uniformed binomes are standing in the various entrances to the alley.

"If you're wantin' to keep secrets," continues the bushy-moustached 0 who appears to be in charge, "you should think of that before you start shoutin' 'em over the rooftops. Andy, Fred, Cheryl, bring the CPUs around. I think these youngsters'll be wantin' an escort." His expression makes it clear that what they want does not in fact enter into it.

Enzo's stomach sinks. So much for not getting in trouble.
a1enzo: (punch)
Amber's not bad as a floor mod. She really does try to be helpful - perhaps a little too hard - and she's so sweet you want to dunk her in vinegar to take the edge off. It's just that she's got this constant undercurrent of desperation that makes people tread lightly around her, lest they be the one to set off the nervous breakdown.

In her defence, she did get assigned to Hugh's floor.

This does work to her advantage sometimes. When she declared a whole-floor skating trip this spare cycle ("Won't that be fun?!") to help everyone recover from the Foam Incident, no one had the heart to refuse, not even Kyrka, who "doesn't do group bonding."

Not that Enzo objects. Skating's fun. And Balun got a speculative look when it was announced, and pocketed something before they left, so something high-speed should start happening any nanosecond now.

He was a little concerned that he'd have to drag Alvey along - he tries to encourage her to get out more - but to his surprise, she went with a smile and is now zooming around the spherical rink with the skill of long practice. The crackling purple energy-wheels hold her skates firmly to whatever part of the curving floor/wall/ceiling she crosses.

Caret, on the other hand, is near the bottom of the room, scuttling along as best he can in a crouching position with the help of his right hand. His left hand is trailing a forefinger across the floor in an approximately straight line, leaving a faintly shiny trail behind it.

"What're you doing, Caret?" Enzo asks, skating over.

"Connecting the dots," Caret says without looking up.

"What dots?"

Caret points upward with his right hand, wobbling a bit as a result. Enzo looks up to the apex of the rink, and his stomach sinks as he spies a satiny-pink girl, her ponytail dangling past the crown of her head, and a dun-coloured boy whose pompadour glistens like an oil slick. As he watches, the girl draws her head back and lets fly a glob of spittle; a moment later, a man near Enzo and Caret yelps. The next volley splats onto the floor some distance away.

Enzo cringes. What are they doing here?! However, he's not about to admit to his humiliation at their hands, so he says to Caret: "So you're connecting... ew!"

"Uh-huh," says Caret, scuttling along unfazed.

A pause. "D'you really think they're trying to make a picture?"

"No."

"Then why're you doing it?"

"Well, they might be. Or it might make one anyway."

And that, Enzo thinks, is Caret. "Okay," he says with a shrug. He looks around for further 'dots'. "How d'you know which..."

"GANGWAY!" Enzo and Caret dive aside in an almost Pavlovian reaction as Balun tears through, little purple flames shooting from the backs of his skates. As he picks himself up, a blob of spit plops onto the back of Enzo's head.

* * * * * *

The snack bar, through a doorway in the side of the sphere, isn't the best, but it's a sight better than that one at the jetball courts, and they've got decent piezoelectric pizza. Enzo's just finishing his last slice when the DJ announces Couples Skate. Ah, well, it'll give him time to digest. He sits back to listen to the music (it's Oldies Cycle; right now they're playing "Quarantine Rock").

"H-hi, Enzo."

"Hi, Alvey! You having fun?"

"I am," she says, grinning broadly. "So it - um - it's Couples Skate..."

"Yeah," Enzo agrees. "Gotta wait, I guess." (He really wishes he could find his way back to Milliways, so Dani could come visit.)

"Oh." A pause. "W-we don't have to..."

"What d'you mean? We're not here with anyone, well, we are, but a whole floor of the dorm isn't a couple..."

She looks down at the floor, suddenly awkward again. "Well, I... I m-mean... if y-you want... that is... y-you... you and..."

Enzo isn't listening. Now that the singles have cleared out and the couples are grouped together, it's easier to see things out in the rink. Things like a gangly orange figure hanging from the apex of the sphere, with its feet in very much the wrong direction... and a group of black-jacketed figures skating hurriedly away from it. "C'mon!" he exclaims, grabbing Alvey's hand and dragging her out onto the floor. There's a little squeak of surprise and delight from Alvey, but it's lost in the rush to get into the rink.

Enzo leads her in the straightest path he can manage to the rink's zenith, where they find Caret hanging quite awkwardly with his hands hooked into his skates. To them, he looks like he's doing a handstand.

"Hi, Enzo," he says. "Hi, Alvey. I don't think I'm supposed to be here right now. I haven't got a girlfriend."

"Did the Worms get you stuck here?" Enzo demands. "The ones who were spitting?"

"Uh-huh. They said they were gonna help me see the picture better."

"They're here??" Alvey looks stricken. "We sh-should leave..."

"Oh, have you met them?" Caret asks brightly.

"Yes! Th-they're horrible!"

"They tried to steal her ReadMe," Enzo tells him, fellow feeling allaying the humiliation of it. "And they dumped a shake on me. And it was my shake, too."

Caret frowns, his brow furrowed. "They shouldn't act like that."

Enzo nods in agreement. "So, how can we get you down?"

"Did you bring a trampoline?" Anyone else would have asked that question sarcastically.

"Uh, no."

"Oh, well."

Enzo glances at Alvey. "D'you think we could get him turned over?"

Alvey makes a face. "If we got some - some people to help, maybe..."

"No - no," Enzo says hastily. He's willing to discuss the situation with these two, since they're part of it, but he's still too embarrassed to bring anyone else into it. As it is, they're just getting funny looks from the passing skaters, who appear to think it's some sort of juvenile stunt. "Maybe we could push him down the wall? He could slide down when we get halfway."

"Um..." Alvey skates in a tight circle around Caret, looking for a place to start pushing. Then she abruptly stops, looking past Caret and Enzo in horror. "Oh no..."

Enzo follows her gaze. "Crashes." Couples Skate is over, and the Worms are returning to see what's processing with their new special friend.

"C'mon, let's hurry - " She starts pushing Caret sideways, a little too forcefully.

"Maybe dragging me would work better?" Caret suggests, swaying with her push.

Enzo just stares at the approaching bullies. Even if they get away in time, the Worms are still here, and they keep showing up. He imagines never being able to leave campus without harassment, him or his friends, and not being able to do a thing about it. They're not in control of this situation.

Frag that.

"No," he says. "You go ahead."

Alvey stares blankly. "W-what d'you mean?"

"I'm not going. You can get Caret down alone, right?"

"Probably," Caret agrees. "I'm pretty thin."

"Are you random?? You c-can't face them all by yourself!"

"Someone has to," Enzo insists, though he's shaking a bit.

Alvey stares at him for a long moment, then nods, a determined look on her face. "Then s-so am I."

"They shouldn't act like that," Caret says again. "I don't think I can do much to help, except maybe kick one in the head. I'll do that if I have to, but I'd rather not. They'd knock me down after."

Enzo heaves an unsteady breath and beams at them. "Thanks, guys." He squares his shoulders and turns to face the approaching thugs.

"Oh, look, it's the runt and his g-g-girlfriend. How's it goin', bithead?" asks the lead boy with a sneer.

"Worse now, dipswitch," Enzo snaps. Anger is good right now. If he's shaking with rage, he's not shaking with fear. He can feel the part of him that could turn into Matrix booting up. "I want you to stop."

"Stop what?" says the tall binome, innocently.

"Stop doing stuff like that!" Enzo shouts, pointing at Caret, who wiggles one foot in what may be intended as a wave. "Stop picking on us... on everyone!" adds his Guardian code.

"Ooooooh," says the pink girl. "Hear that, Johnny? Little sprite thinks he's sooo tough."

Another binome, not so tall but very large overall, smirks. "You wanna make us?"

"Yes!" declares Enzo, while Caret says, far too reasonably, "I don't think we want to, but that's not the point." Alvey looks from one to the other, then nods, a little nervously, at the assembled toughs.

The dun boy - Johnny - bends down to stare Enzo in the face. "You wanna fight us, bithead?"

"When?" says Little Matrix.

Johnny leans even closer. "One second from now," he hisses. "At 3320. Southbridge, Level 17. The alley behind the toy store."

"We'll be there," Matrix hisses back.

Johnny straightens up. "How 'bout that, Roxie? Looks like we got us a rumble with some Guardians."

"Oooooh, I'm so scared," titters the pink girl.

"How're we ever gonna beat them?" mocks a binome.

"Oh, Jackie, hold me!" cries another.

"Don't worry, Cookie, I won't let the big tough Guardians hurt you."

Roxie glances between the three cadets and sniffs. "See you next second, pipsqueaks. Bring some friends, if you have any others." She jerks her head sideways, her ponytail swaying above her head, and the Worms skate away, laughing.

After a long moment, Alvey speaks. "We're n-not actually gonna d-do this, are we?"

"They'll probably keep picking on us even worse if we don't," Caret points out, cautiously shifting his grip on one skate.

Enzo is panting. Now that they're gone, his brain is starting to clear. "Oh, User," he whispers as he properly realizes the situation he's just gotten them into. Maybe Bob's tendency to 'just wing it' doesn't have as much to recommend it as he claims.

He really wishes Dani were here.

If he weren't standing upside-down on the ceiling, he'd sit down heavily. But: "Yeah. We are." He turns to face the others. "At least I am. You don't have to."

"I can't--I can't let you do it by yourself," Alvey protests.

It's a little hard to tell upside-down, but Caret's expression seems unusually intense. "They shouldn't act like that."

Enzo smiles weakly at them. "Then I guess we're fighting them." His smile sharpens, then. "But we don't gotta fight fair."
a1enzo: (sneaky)
Oof. Enzo staggers out of the lift. Thank code Physical Fitness is his last period.

He stares wearily at the door to his dorm room. Hanging from the knob is a length of brightly-insulated wire.

When you go away to school, you learn some things you never anticipated. Like doorknob-code. The older roomies briefed Enzo fairly early on as to the proper procedure.

He cocks his head and listens. There are some banging and scraping noises inside the room, but no loud FOOOOOSH. Good. He knocks twice, loudly, and opens the door.

Hugh is just pushing his safety goggles up onto his forehead. "Hey, Enzo. Lend a hand?"

Enzo obligingly tromps over and examines the assorted bits of metal held in an array of vises. "What's this one gonna be?"

"A foam generator. Here, help me get this bit into alignment."

Enzo shoves metal as instructed. "What can they use that for?" The only reason Hugh gets away with as much as he does, he's explained before, is because most of the devices he builds can be repurposed into stuff that's actually useful.

"Couple it to a good delivery system, it'll be good for firefighting, or the cops can use it for riot control." Hugh tightens a clamp and directs Enzo to the next bit.

"So what're you gonna do with it?"

Hugh grins. "Got an accomplice up on F. Haul 'er to the top floor, see how far down the foam reaches before they can find it and shut it off. Balun's making book, if you're interested."

Enzo laughs, and pushes something into better alignment, and releases it, rubbing his arms. "Sorry, I'm tired from Fitness. Coach Hardlink's started making stuff harder, and I have to keep up with everyone else in the class, and..."

"Hey, no worries. You're doing well for your age. And the harder you work, the faster you'll upgrade." He bends down and pokes at Enzo's upper arm. "You're probably gonna gain a strength level in your arms soon."

"Sweet!" Enzo automatically flexes an arm and twists it around to peer at it, but of course there's no visual sign yet of the accumulated exp.

"Speaking of upgrades, Balun and I just finished the latest round of improvements to Beatrice. We're gonna try her out tonight; you wanna come?"

"That'd be supercooled! But I've got homework..."

"You oughta be done with it by the time we go. The movie's not 'til late." Hugh pulls his goggles back down and picks up his welding torch. "Eyes!" Enzo obediently squinches his eyes shut and covers them with his hands.

FOOOOOSH

* * * * * *

The movie is not 'til very late indeed. This is unlikely to help with Enzo's exhaustion, but it's worth spending a day tired to go cruising in Beatrice.

Balun doesn't get to have official vehicle training until next term. His parents, however, know that if he has to wait any longer after that to get a good vehicle, he's like to explode. Thus, his father sent him an old junker a while back, with the idea that by the time he's allowed to drive the thing, he ought to have her fixed up enough that she can be driven.

Strictly speaking, she's reached that point already. Since he can't yet himself, Balun lets Hugh drive her pro tem in exchange for his mechanical expertise. Beatrice is now a perfectly functional, enormous beast of a convertible, painted seafoam green to match her owner's hair, with enough fins extending from top and sides that her classification as 'car' or 'ship' is open to debate. While her exterior is classic enough to set Bob to drooling, her guts are being upgraded to modern, high-performance parts as quickly as a cadet's limited funds will permit.

"She really needs a new motherboard," Balun remarks, talking over his shoulder from shotgun. "I mean, she rides smooth enough now that we've replaced all the bad capacitors, but she's still running on Overdrive and that just ain't enough."

Enzo, Caret, Value and Tone, all stuffed into the backseat, are competing to lean out over the doors - Enzo and Caret to see the sights, Tone to be as visible as possible riding in such a cool car, and Val to attempt to spit onto pedestrians. "Tab it, I almost got that one! Quit shoving!"

"She's coming along really nice," Tone tells Balun. She gazes forward past him, speculatively. "You think I could try hood-surfing?"

"While I'm generally in favour of pointless stunts," Hugh informs her before Balun can respond, "maybe a main drag isn't the best place for it?"

"Awww..." grins Tone. "But it'll grab so much attention for the car..."

Balun grins back at her. "You really need to meet my Ma. She'd totally dig you."

Tone stares at him, blinking, then blushes and turns her gaze to one of Beatrice's many fins. "Yeah. I'd like to, someday."

Hugh drives the behemoth through several subsystems - traffic's light, this time of cycle - into a partition with considerably sparser buildings, then pulls into a side lane and away from the buildings entirely. This area reminds Enzo a bit of Floating Point, only bigger. They cruise slowly over an expanse of field, past a data stream and a stand of trees, and arrive at what appears to be a parking lot without the lot. Dozens of cars, bikes, ships, a few kids in aircarts, and even the occasional zipboard-chair, all parked facing an enormous vidwindow. A sign on the outskirts proclaims:

DELL VALLEY DRIVE-IN THEATRE
THIS CYCLE: SOME LIKE IT HOT-SWAPPED


The movie is pseudo-old-fashioned and awfully funny. The girls and Balun sit on the hood, soaking up the residual energy from the engine; Hugh circulates, chatting with locals he knows, and Caret has wandered off to search the other cars' grilles for interesting insects. Enzo hovers on his boogie baud to get an unobstructed view (though he's probably obstructing a few other people's), and, round about the point where Tony Cursor and Jack Lemma accidentally witness a viral 'disciplinary action', decides to hit the small concession stand he saw on the way in.

"Bring me a push-and-popcorn."

"Make that a large, we can share."

"And a Surge."

"And a hotlink."

"And a code cola."

"Two code colas."

"And one duck egg."

"What?"

Enzo weaves between the cars, suspecting that he may have to use his baud as a tray on the way back. Most of his attention is still on the screen, where the two binomes have decided to evade viral vengeance by disguising themselves as women and joining an all-female traveling band, until he's startled back to virtual reality by an unpleasantly familiar voice saying, "Looks like someone's out past their bedtime."

Oh no, not again... Enzo squeezes his eyes shut and is opening his mouth to speak when another, even more familiar voice speaks: "What's it to you?" His eyes fly open and he turns to look.

It appears as though Enzo and his friends will not be the only ones sneaking in after curfew tonight. Sitting in a very pretty (if excessively girly) aircart a short distance away are his classmates and hallmates, Esim and Condela. Not his favourite people in the 'Net, mostly because they've made it abundantly clear that he's not theirs, either.

Standing around the aircart are seven older kids; they're facing away from him, for which he is exceedingly thankful, but he recognizes the matching leather jackets with WORMS spelled out on the backs in studs. They're also hiding him from his classmates' view, at least for now; he takes the opportunity to go crouch behind a car, earning puzzled looks from its occupants.

"Guardians are our protectors," comes a girl's nasal voice a bit too sweetly. "You're all about law and order, ain'tcha? We wouldn't want to think you was breaking the rules."

"That'd just about bring down civilization," agrees another.

"Look, we just want - hey!" exclaims Condela. "Will you get off? I just cleaned this!"

Enzo lifts from his crouch enough to peer over the car. "Can we help you?" inquires the lady in the front passenger seat. Enzo waves her into silence.

The gang's lead girl is sitting on the aircart's hood. She runs one satin-pink hand along the glittery purple surface. "Oh, but I look so nice on it, don't you think?" She shifts to lie on her side like a pin-up model. "Anyone bring a camera?" The binomes all feign dismay at having neglected to do so.

"This is a fine little machine," declares the male sprite. "Paint her yourself?" he adds disparagingly.

"I built it myself!" Condela snaps, tossing her hair. "So digits off - agh!" she cries as the boy hawks and spits onto the fender. "Quit file!"

Enzo watches the scene unfold with mounting glee. The Worms are still utter creeps and he wishes there were some way for him to retaliate for their earlier treatment of Alvey and him... but as long as they're still around and acting like this, there are far worse targets they could have chosen than those two dipswitches.

He'd stop them if he could, of course. But there's nothing he can do without getting in trouble, right? And they're still not technically harming anyone, right? And even if they were, Esim and Condela are older than him and would put up a better fight, right?

(As long as he keeps telling himself that, he can almost get his Guardian code to stop pinging him.)

"Kid, please..." says the man occupying the driver's seat of Enzo's hiding place. "We're trying to watch the movie, and you're... kind of distracting. Could you please change directory?"

"Hm...? Oh!" Enzo says, tearing his eyes from the tableau. Come to think of it, he does want to watch the movie too - fortunately, he hasn't missed much, the heroes are just meeting Marilyn Monochrome's character. And the others will be waiting for their snacks. "Sorry," he tells the car's occupants, and crawls away between the cars until he's probably far enough away not to be spotted. Then he stands up and saunters casually off toward the concession stand.
a1enzo: (jetball)
It always seems far too long between spare cycles, but one has come around. Enzo knocks on the door of room D7. "H'lo?" comes a voice through the door.

"Alvey?" Enzo calls back through it. "You busy?"

There's a pause, and then the sound of footsteps approaching the door. "No..."

"Great!" exclaims Enzo. "Let's go!"

"--wait, now??" says Alvey, opening the door a crack to peer at Enzo in bewilderment. "But I--"

"Sure, why not? D'you need to access some energy first or something? They probably have a snack bar there."

"Uh..." she opens the door a little wider. "I g-guess I could--"

"Alphanumeric! C'mon!" Enzo grabs her by the wrist and drags her toward the lift.

* * * * * *

"Two betas, one gear rental," Enzo informs the binome behind the counter. It's as well they had to take the address bus; there was enough to gawk at just walking here from the stop.

The binome punches it into the register. "Cadet discount, I'd assume... that's ten units."

Alvey speaks up for the first time since leaving campus (though Enzo has been chattering enough for the both of them). "I can p-pay for my share, if you want..."

"You can if you want to," Enzo agrees. Dot would probably scold him for agreeing so readily, but hey, she offered. Still, he is the one who proposed the outing... "But I'll pay half your rental cost, okay? I've got my own gear, so that makes it even."

A half-shrug. "Okay." She pulls a few units out of her belt and hands them to the cashier. Enzo tosses in his half, and the binome completes the transaction and fetches a court access code and Alvey's gear: suit, targeting goggles, jetpack, and scoop-and-shooter array.

"I'll ju--just go change and m-meet you there," says Alvey, blushing a little. Enzo nods and heads for their assigned dome. His outfit is already stored in his icon, and he clicks as he goes - not a big change from the cadet uniform, he's now wearing all-over royal blue with snazzy gold trim and equipment to match.

When Alvey enters the dome--in the much simpler red-and-white uniform provided by the establishment--she gapes at Enzo's outfit. "W-where'd you get that?"

"AndrAIa gave it to me for my birthday." His jetpack's already on, and he does a midair turn. "Cool, huh?"

"Yeah." She seems disinclined to turn on her own jetpack, or do anything at all except just look at Enzo. "It l-looks good on you."

"Thanks! You look good too," he adds, to be polite. (The cadet uniform really suits her much better, but Enzo likes bright colours.)

Alvey blushes bright purple, to make the look even more ridiculous. "Th-thank you."

"You're welcome. Now c'mon! Let's get going!" If he were on the ground, he'd be bouncing on the balls of his feet. He hasn't had a game in way too long.

"Wha--oh! Right, sorry..." She fumbles for the starter switch on her jetpack, and finally locates it.

And shoots straight up to crash into the ceiling of the dome.

Enzo gapes and flies up to her. "Are you okay?"

She drops down a few pixels. "I'm fine, really, just--wak!" Trying to straighten herself out, she leans a little too far and shoots sharply sideways, just barely stopping before crashing into a wall. Enzo winces.

* * * * * *

Both children are laughing as they leave the court, Enzo loudly, Alvey giggling softly. Alvey's a fast learner and picked up the jetpack well enough (after a bit of trial and error), but her shots kept going so wide that she actually scored a few points because of lucky ricochets bouncing into the goal before Enzo could get anywhere near them. "You - hee hee - I think you need more target practice," Enzo tells her.

"I'm usually b-better," manages Alvey through her giggles. "I just..."

Enzo nods and waves a hand. "Everyone has off cycles. Are you drained? I'm drained."

"Yeah. Uh, you said there was a snack bar?"

"Should be... oh, there it is!" They approach and look at the menu. Chips, code cola, all the usuals... Enzo's trying to make a choice when he catches a whiff of the hotlink someone has just purchased. "Um..."

What?" Alvey blinks, then her eyes are drawn to the sauce being put over a dish of chips. "...ew."

"Mmmmaybe we should eat somewhere else." Granted, it still can't be as bad as the Academy food.

"Yyyyeah. Um. You know anywhere we c-could eat?"

"Uh-uh." He stands thinking for a moment, then shrugs and taps a nearby binome on the shoulder-joint. "D'you know anywhere good to access some energy near here?"

The binome gives him a startled look, but says, "Jimmy's Shake Bar is pretty good. Turn right when you leave, two blocks over and down a level."

"Thanks!" Enzo turns back to Alvey and spreads his arms in a 'voila' gesture.

Alvey just stares at him for a moment. "...so, should we go?"

"It's gotta be better than this, right? C'mon!"

* * * * * *

Though no specific details are the same, Jimmy's Shake Bar bears a strong stylistic resemblance to Dot's Diner, and Enzo feels right at home. They order a couple of malts, pick a booth, and spend a nano or two flipping through the jukebox console.

"I don't--I don't even know most of these songs," complains Alvey.

"They're way old," agrees Enzo, for whom anything more than half his age is seriously dated. "Dot's got some of 'em on the Diner jukebox. Here, this one's fun." He punches the buttons to add (She's) Fast + Fun, 11.1 to the queue.

"Your sister sti-still runs the Diner? Even now?"

"Uh-huh. She lets other people run her businesses mostly, but not the Diner. She says it's relaxing, next to running the system."

"She must be... really smart." A long pause. "You must be, too."

"She really is." He flushes a little. "I dunno, I used to think I was totally BASIC, but... well, they made me a Guardian, right?" He smirks. "So I guess I did something right. AndrAIa says I could be really smart but I don't use it. Actually, she says it about Matrix, but it's the same thing. What about you? You read all the time, you must know a lot."

Alvey looks down at the tabletop. "I... I guess so. They're just books, though. It's n-not the same as doing all those things, like you."

"Yeah, but it's gotta be less scary. I almost peed myself during the Daemon stuff." He takes another sip of his malt and looks suddenly uncomfortable. "Uh, speaking of which, didja see where the bathrooms are?" Alvey is giggling behind her hand as she points in the proper direction.

When he returns - oh sweet relief - there is a group of youths addressing Alvey. Two sprites - one boy, one girl - and five binomes, all aged about 11. Most of them are wearing leather jackets, and those with hair have it swept up high in front.

Alvey is clutching a ReadMe file to her chest and looks close to tears. Even though he can't hear her, she appears to be having more difficulty than usual getting her words out.

As Enzo watches, the sprite girl tugs the file out of Alvey's hands, examines it disdainfully, and tosses it over her shoulder to be caught by the tallest binome. He says something to the others, who laugh. Now Enzo can hear Alvey: "G-g-give it back!" she wails, the tears coming out at last. Her assailants laugh again, and one of the binomes makes a show of scrolling through the file, feigning great interest in its contents.

"Hey!" Enzo shouts, marching forward. "Leave her alone!"

The older kids look around in surprise, then grin nastily as they note the age of the sprite confronting them. "Hey, looky this," sneers the male sprite. "Looks like we got us a hero."

"Some Guardian," adds the girl, leaning down into Alvey's face, "needs her little boyfriend to rescue her." Alvey shrinks back against the booth wall, looking pale and sick.

Enzo chooses to ignore the boyfriend comment - what do they know? "She's a fine Guardian! I bet she knows more than alla you put together!"

"Really?" taunts a 0 girl. "Does she know how to t-t-t-talk?" Alvey buries her face in her hands and sinks even lower in her seat.

"Stop it!" Enzo cries. "Just go away or..."

"Or what?" says the tall binome with a laugh. "Or you'll make us?"

"Yeah, I will!" Enzo balls his fists and hopes he's not trembling enough for them to see. No one ever treated him like this in Mainframe...

"Enzo, no!" Alvey cries abruptly. "You can't--you can't instigate, remember?"

Enzo blinks and lowers his fists a fraction. "What's 'instigate'?"

"You can't st-start a fight. It has to be self-defence. They said so in P-Protocols class."

He blinks again. He... must have missed that part. (He's been doing his homework! Really!) "But they started..."

"We ain't - laid - a digit - on 'er, bithead," says the sprite boy, jabbing a finger repeatedly in Enzo's direction but, sure enough, not touching him. "You try to start somethin', the real Guardians ain't gonna be happy with you..."

Slowly, Enzo lowers his fists. They all start laughing at him, except for the sprite girl, who's slurping at... "Hey!" Enzo shouts. "That's my shake!"

"Is it?" she says with feigned surprise. "Oh, sorry. Here..." She removes the straw, carefully sucks the clinging traces of malt from it, saunters over, and dumps the contents of the cup over Enzo's head.

Enzo yelps and clenches his fists again, but... nothing. There's nothing he can do. She wouldn't have done that if it were enough for him to be allowed to respond. These creeps know the rules, and they're playing with them.

"L-let's just go," whispers Alvey.

Every instinct says he should not walk away from this (except his survival instinct, which says he should run away). But... there's nothing he can do. Not without getting in more trouble. "Fine. We're leaving. But give Alvey back her book."

"Oh, but I've never read Anne of Green Gateways before," simpers the tall binome. Enzo grabs for the file, but the 1 really is very tall, like he's been stretched out, and he holds the file over his head where Enzo can't reach it, then tosses it to a friend as Enzo jumps.

"Can't I hit them for stealing?" Enzo shouts as he lunges for the flying file.

"You're supposed to arrest people for stealing! And that's p-police jurisdiction!"

"Aagh, that's... HA!" All his practice pouncing Bob has served him in good stead; he makes a wild leap and catches the file, to the evident surprise of the bullies. "C'mon, let's go!" he yells at Alvey as he recovers his footing and bolts for the door. Alvey complies, sliding under the table to get out of her seat as quickly as possible before breaking into a run.

"Ooh, look, the Guardians are running away!" catcalls one of the bullies. At least they're not chasing them; they're just standing there laughing.

"It's a strategic retreat!" Enzo hollers. The laughter redoubles as they exit.

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Enzo Matrix

September 2016

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