By Kim McFarland
It was never a dark and stormy night in the Supercomputer. Linked subsystems stretched out into the distance in every direction, seemingly extending their white glow into infinity.
Dot said quietly, "I've seen images of this in VidWindows, but..."
"It's different when you're here in person, isn't it?" Megabyte said, completing her thought.
Dot nodded silently. She couldn't help being awed by the Supercomputer; she had never been outside Mainframe and the Twin City before. So many interlinked systems, all working together to make one unified whole... or, as Megabyte would see it, power beyond measurement. Megabyte had wanted to take over the supercomputer ever since he was initialized. Now, disguised as Bob, he could travel freely within it. The only obstacle that remained in his way was that he had not yet found a point where he could evade its security and infect it.
Back in Mainframe Megabyte had been able to claim the sector of G Prime by infecting its capacitower, reformatting it into the Silicon Tor. He had not been able to capture Mainframe's Principle Office until he had physically entered and laid hands on it, bypassing all security measures. From there he had been able to extend his infection to the rest of the system, converting it to Megaframe. Thankfully, the second time he had only been able to begin the infection process. The Hunt had only allowed him to superficially infect the War Room. Sprites still maintained control of Mainframe.
If Megabyte were to claim the Supercomputer... Dot had a vision of viral blue spreading like a plague through all these subsystems until Megabyte's infection extended to the horizon and beyond.
"I still can't believe you just came here without a plan," he said, teasing her. "That's downright impulsive. I hope you make a habit of it."
She smiled and looked up at him. "I plan to," she answered.
"Ouch. I can't tell if that's good or not," he said, amused. "Hey, let me show you around."
"I'd like that." He put his arm lightly around her shoulders, and she tried not to tense up. He's Bob, she told herself. Don't act like he's Megabyte. It's crucial that he not find out I know who he is. She could manage it, she told herself. She had to.
Hack and Slash led Mouse through the lower levels of G Prime. It was very dark this far down, but it looked as if up until recently it had been far from abandoned. Large machines linked by power cables and conveyors loomed on all sides. In fact, it was like a factory minus the building itself. "What did all this do?" she asked.
Slash answered, "This is where ABCs were made."
"He must've had 1024s of them. So that's how he never ran low, no matter how many we shot down, and how he had more as soon as he came back. He could stamp them out fast."
"Yeah," both bots agreed.
As they walked Mouse looked all around, alert for any sign that they were being watched. So far she had seen nothing. Then she glanced down.
The bots heard the metallic scrape of a sword being drawn. "Look!"
They turned around and saw her katana pointing at the ground. There, in the dust, was the print of a bare foot. It was much larger than that of a Sprite, and the heel was sharply separated from the rest of the foot. It had only three toes, and they were fused. "He's baaack!" they both shrieked. Their rockets snapped out of their backs and ignited.
"Don't you move!" she barked, her katana pointing now at them. They froze and the rockets went out. "These are old footprints. I want to see where they went."
"Old ones?" Hack scratched his head dome and looked down at the prints.
"Well - I guess they'd hafta be, huh? Since Megabyte's deleted," Slash said.
"Hafta be," Hack agreed.
"So let's find where they lead," Mouse prompted them. She gestured forward with her katana, then returned it to the scabbard on her back.
Matrix and AndrAIa were flying above Mainframe on zip boards, both on the alert for any sign of a tear. Matrix might sight one, but it was much more likely that someone else would spot one and report it, in which case the message would be relayed on to him, or that AndrAIa would hear one at close range as a staticky hiss of energy.
She was hearing one of them now, he could tell. She turned her head, listening carefully, then said, "There's something in G Prime. Sounds muffled. It's a few levels down."
The further down it was, the bigger it would have to be for her to sense it from up here. "I'll be glad when we get the sector reformatted completely. Even after the restoration it's still unstable enough to make more tears than the rest of Mainframe."
She nodded agreement and started down, leading them toward the faint hiss. He followed her below the surface. They had to slow down; the sublevels of G Prime were cramped and irregular, with few straight flyways suitable for Sprites riding zip boards. Matrix said, "Something I've been thinking about, AndrAIa..."
She flew closer to him. "What is it?"
"Remember a little while back when Hexadecimal was yelling about Bob not being Bob?"
"Hex is crazy, but that doesn't seem like her kind of crazy. That just doesn't sound like the kind of thing she'd make up. And Dot's been preoccupied lately."
"I noticed. She was acting like She Had A Plan," AndrAIa answered. "So, what do you think it is?"
"I don't know." His voice softened. "She'd been so happy since she and Bob got married, and now suddenly she's Commander Dot again."
AndrAIa knew from experience what to ask next. "So what are you going to do?"
"She didn't say anything to us about a problem. Maybe there isn't one. If there is, it can't be anything big, or she'd have let us in on it. So I guess, for now, nothing. It's still buggin' me, though,"
'Wait and see' never was Matrix's favorite course of action, AndrAIa knew. He was used to jumping into the fray at the least provocation; just standing back and letting things happen was strange to him. She was pleased that he was finally relaxing enough to let others take charge for a change.
Turbo looked over the summary of the scan of Hexadecimal's first mask. The code was complete in itself, but clearly part of something larger.Long strings of code were highlighted as viral. He thought it ironic that it wasn't all tagged. But she had been a Sprite for a brief period after a virus scan, so Bob's report stated. A shame he hadn't included any data from a scan of that altered form; Turbo would have liked to see what had really happened to her code. He believed that her viral code had been temporarily suppressed, making her only appear Spritelike. The only other option was that it was actually possible to change a dataform's very format without destroying him or her, and Turbo would need to see solid, well-documented evidence of anything like that before he could consider it possible.
Knowing Dot, she would have had Hexadecimal scanned, providing the Virus would sit still for it. He opened a VidWindow.
A VidWindow sprang open in front of Megabyte and Dot, startling them. Turbo, too, was surprised. Megabyte was with her? How had he gotten back into Mainframe? No, he wasn't in Mainframe, Turbo recognized part of the Supercomputer in the background.
Dot spoke quickly. "Hi, Turbo. Sorry I didn't say anything before, but I got the chance to finally see the Supercomputer for myself, and now that Mainframe's safe again and they don't need me at every nanosecond I couldn't help myself." She made herself grin.
The smile didn't touch her eyes, he noticed. "How did you get here?"
Megabyte answered, "I got a portal to Mainframe, and she jumped back through with me. She surprised me, let me tell you!"
How had he gotten a portal? He had had Mainframe's address blocked from every portal room's system! He set that question aside for later examination. "I suppose so. I hope we can meet in person under better circumstances than last time. Bob, we're monitoring the Net for Hexadecimal's activity. She hasn't acted up again yet. We'll let you know when she does."
The VidWindow closed. Megabyte said to himself, "What that was all about?"
"What do you mean?"
"He VidWindowed just to say nothing's happening, and he'll tell me when it does? That doesn't make sense."
This situation just kept getting better and better, Turbo thought. Dot, who they had counted on keeping safe from Megabyte so she would not be a liability to their plan, had put herself in the Virus's hands. She must have done it to keep Megabyte out of Mainframe, risking herself to spare her home system. She was a capable woman, but everyone had their limits. So, this moved the timetable up. They would have to trap Megabyte before Dot gave away the fact that she knew who he really was.
There was one contingency plan. There was always a contingency plan for dealing with invading dataforms like Webcreatures or too-powerful Viruses: the destruction of an entire system to eliminate the threat within. It was very rarely used, and then only by unanimous agreement of the entire Guardian Council. Very few of them were left, only himself and two others. Did he have the right to use it?
Did he have the right not to?
He shook his head. No. It had not reached that point yet. He opened another VidWindow. It showed the inside of a medical ward and a startled Guardian, who had been watching a .MOV file. "How're you doing, Bob?"
"Uh, fine," Bob said. "Bored, but what else is new."
"I need to talk to Hexadecimal."
Bob looked over at the mask on the table opposite his bed. The eyes were empty. "Sorry, she's not here."
"Can you call her back?"
"No. When her eyes aren't glowing, she's not here at all. She can't hear me."
Turbo shook his head. "I was afraid of that, but it was worth a shot. If she does come to you, tell her I need to talk to her."
Puzzled, Bob asked, "Why do you want to talk to Hex?"
He would have to tell Bob. He said in a carefully neutral voice, "Bob, we have a situation here. Dot's in the supercomputer-"
"My guess is she came here to keep Megabyte out of Mainframe. We need to keep Megabyte busy now more than ever."
Bob exclaimed angrily, "I don't believe this! How'd she get over there? I thought all communications between the Supercomputer and Mainframe except yours were blocked!"
"Calm down!" Turbo ordered. Bob gritted his teeth but kept quiet. Turbo continued, "Right now Dot's safe because Megabyte feels safe. We're going to keep it that way."
"By getting Hex to keep Megabyte occupied and away from her. Right. I'll tell Hex."
"Good." Turbo closed the VidWindow. His next thought was that Hexadecimal would also be useful in case he had to resort to the final contingency. She could lure him into an expendable system... He pushed that thought aside.
Bob almost opened a VidWindow. Then he remembered that anyone might be in the War Room, and opened a text window instead. He tapped out a message to Phong, asking him to come to the med section.
Phong turned up soon afterwards. "What is it, Bob?"
Phong hesitated. Without waiting for an answer Bob said, "I need you to get me up and walking!"
"You are in no condition to fight Megabyte," Phong answered.
"I know that, spammit! But - do it, Phong! I know my main problem is that he drained me of energy until I was an angstrom from closing file. You've been feeding energy back to me carefully to avoid system shock. Well, don't worry about that! I'm a Guardian, I can take it!"
Phong looked at Bob. His first impulse was to keep the Guardian here until he was fully healed. Even at full strength Bob had not been able to defeat Megabyte. In this weakened state, without Glitch - but he could not treat Bob as a child. He had to respect Bob's judgement. "I cannot run that risk," he said. "But, I will accelerate the energy transfer rate to bring you online more quickly."
"Thanks." He had been ready for an argument; it was almost disappointing that Phong had agreed so quickly. But he knew that this compromise was the best he could hope for under the circumstances, and he didn't need to lash out at his friends because he felt helpless. "Sorry, Phong."
Phong glanced back and calmly answered, "I understand."
It was a bright and sunny day. A thin thread of energy flowed up from the Energy Sea into the underside of a system, fueling its functions and inhabitants.
Twin sparks of green blinked into existence near the energy flow. A small white mask detached from its hiding spot and flew out past the edge, then up into the light. When it was above the system it pivoted about, surveying its current home.
The system was much like Mainframe. The sectors were developed differently, of course, and the Principle Office was a pyramid shape instead of a sphere, but at a glance they could have been parts of the same set.
Satisfied, the mask flew toward the Principle Office, then down under it. A big, solid-looking door was set in the base of the pillar. The mask disappeared, then reappeared on the other side of the passage, within the cavernous System Archive. The mask turned slowly in the air as it surveyed the orderly rows of data and program icons. It would be so easy to scramble them, and that would cause all sorts of chaos! But that would hardly be creative, and afterwards all they would do would be reorganize the files. That wouldn't be interesting at all, would it? And it wouldn't do the job of attracting Megabyte-disguised-as-Bob. She had to remind herself of that.
As she pulled her thoughts together - she always felt scatterbrained after transferring her awareness to a new system - she looked over the program icons for inspiration. Several piqued her interest. Then her eyes flashed yellow; she had a wicked idea. She moved one icon next to another and created a link between them. Her mask affixed itself to the link and opened both programs.
Soon the pyramid of the Principle Office began to bud a pair of extra tips.
The hacker and the bots continued following Megabyte's path. Megabyte had known just where he was going, and he had only gone there once, otherwise there would be more than one set of prints. And there were none coming back. If he had changed into Bob he could have taken a zip board back, of course.
They turned the corner and found themselves facing a glowing ball of unstable energy big enough to block their passage. "Oh, darn," Hack commented, exaggeratedly faking disappointment. "Guess this means we gotta turn back."
"Don't even think it," Mouse answered without looking at him. There was no way around the tear, either to the side or over. "What's behind that?"
"More of G Prime," Slash answered with a shrug.
It was much too tight in here for her to bring Ship down to contain the tear. "We're gonna have to backtrack and pick up the trail on the other side then." She looked at the bots. They did not bother to answer; they knew better than to talk back when she wore that expression. If they did, she would reach for her katana, and they would immediately give in. Better to save time by skipping that step.
Slash glanced at the tear, then asked, "Hey, what's that?"
Mouse looked back. A spherical, glowing field had surrounded the tear. As they watched, the field shrank and intensified, compressing the unstable energy. Soon it reduced down to a point, then disappeared, revealing a surprised Matrix and AndrAIa on the other side.
"What're you doing here?" Matrix asked, coming closer.
"Hack and Slash are showing me what's down on this level. There may be something worth salvaging down here," Mouse answered.
"And-" Slash began, but cut short when he saw Mouse reach casually over her shoulder. When he stopped she smoothed down her hair.
"What'd he want to keep down here?" Matrix said skeptically.
"That's what we're here to find out, sugah."
"Right." He paused, then asked in a different tone, "Say, Mouse... you're close to Dot. Do you know what's up with her?"
"With Dot? What do you mean?"
"She's been acting funny this past cycle. As if there's something wrong. I don't know."
Mouse shook her head and smiled. "She ain't up to anything but reclaiming G Prime. I'll let you in on a little secret - she's not sure Megabyte doesn't have something nasty down here. It'd be just like him to boobytrap his own sector out of spite. But he couldn't set a trap I can't spring."
"Yeah... but why would that make her so tense?"
She shrugged. "She's been through all sorts of things in the last few milliseconds. The restoration, Daemon, Megabyte - can you blame her? She'll calm down when we erase the last trace of Megabyte." And that, at least, was completely true.
"Well... okay. Let me know if you find any more tears," Matrix said.
"Will do, sugah."
Matrix and AndrAIa flew away. Matrix was satisfied for the moment, Mouse thought. AndrAIa, on the other hand, had been listening carefully and not speaking. If it had been someone else Mouse would have been worried, but AndrAIa had the discretion that Matrix lacked. "Come on," she said to Hack and Slash. They continued following the footprints.
The group made their way to a solid-looking bunker. Megabyte's footprints led to the door. It had no handle, no keyhole - she couldn't even see hinges. "Great. How d'ya open this?"
Slash wheeled up to one side of the door. Hack took position on the other side. Slash told her, "Megabyte didn't want anybody but himself to go in here. So he made it so nobody else could."
Both bots reached down; their arms telescoped to grasp the bottom of the door. "Allez-oop!" Hack shouted, and they both hauled the door upward with a shuddering clang.
The door did not open outward, but slid up in a track - and it was a thick, heavy slab of metal. That would keep intruders out for sure. "I see what you mean. How long can you hold that up?"
"We can hold this all day," Hack boasted.
"Then I'll check it out." Mouse ducked into the bunker.
It was dark inside; the open door did not admit much light from the dimly-lit sector. But there was enough illumination from the widely-spaced LEDs to see the footprints.
The trail grew confused. He had walked around in here. She looked for the areas with the most concentrated footprints. She checked above them - aha, scrapes in the dust on one piece of equipment meant that he had done something there! Grinning in the dark, she examined it, looking for a switch, a button, anything. She found a seam with scrape marks along the edges and imagined Megabyte's claws gouging the surface. She drew a katana, inserted it into the slot, and used it to lever a lid up.
"Jackpot," Mouse said under her breath. Inside was a blue rectangular box with a silver, gearlike window. She paused, then, reasoning that Megabyte would surely trust the door to keep out intruders and thus wouldn't have set up additional security, she reached in and picked Glitch up. It beeped quietly and the gear twitched.
"Glitch, it's Mouse. I'm takin' you back to Bob." She felt silly talking to the keytool, but she knew it was intelligent in its own way.
A smiley face appeared in the circular window. Mouse grinned. Maybe she didn't understand its beeps the way Bob did, but it could still communicate. Then she realized that if anyone saw her with Glitch, they would have questions. "Now, how'm I gonna smuggle you back to him?"
Glitch bleeped a few times, and an hourglass appeared in the window. Then the gear spun, and the keytool changed shape in her hands.
"Okay, that'll work," she said after a startled pause.
A VidWindow sprang up in front of Turbo. It showed the familiar map of the Net, with one small system blinking viral green. Either Bob had talked to Hex or she had decided to act on her own. It was only connected to one other system, so none was dependent on it for a route to the Net. A status window stated that the infection was active and currently progressing, but had not impaired system functionality.
Turbo opened another VidWindow to Megabyte. Dot was still with him. "Hexadecimal has started up again, Bob."
"Yes. She hasn't done any damage yet. We can catch her in time."
Megabyte looked resigned. "I'd better go stop her then. I'll go to the portal room." He turned to Dot. "Want to come along?"
Surprised, she asked, "Do you think I should?"
He grinned. "Why not? Hexadecimal is practically harmless now that she's only scattered masks. Think of it as an opportunity to play tourist."
She glanced at Turbo, who appeared to be paying little attention to her. "All right, I guess it's okay."
Megabyte said, "We'll be at the portal room in a nano."
Turbo nodded and closed the VidWindow. He punched in the destination coordinates for the portal generator.
Mouse, flanked by Hack and Slash, sashayed into the War Room. Only Phong, Specky, and a few other binome staffers were there. "We're back. Did y'all miss us?"
Phong asked, "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"'Course I did. What's the matter?"
"Oh... it is nothing. I am merely having a hard time isolating any of Megabyte's infection so I can send Turbo the code. This is hardly my field of expertise."
"Oh, that." She glanced around the War Room. Because Megabyte's infection was superficial and passive without him to control it, they hadn't tried to clean it from the system. Mouse tapped one of the silver cables behind the map table. "What's this do?"
Phong looked up. "That? Nothing."
Mouse drew the katana from her boot and slashed twice. A segment of cable fell heavily to the floor. "There's your sample."
Phong looked surprised. "Ah - lateral thinking. Thank you, Mouse."
"Anytime, sugah. I got other errands to run, so see you later."
She left without waiting for a reply. Her smile faded as soon as she passed through the door. Something had happened while she was out, that was obvious. And Phong couldn't apprise her in front of the rest of the staff. Fine, then she'd find out what was going on from Bob. And Dot, because if she had any sense she'd be with him.
She wasn't, and Bob looked upset. Mouse asked, "All right, what's the matter?"
"Dot. She's in the Supercomputer with Megabyte."
Mouse's eyes widened. "You're kidding! How'd that happen?!"
He clenched his fists in frustration. "I don't know! It's not like she could tell us what was going on with Megabyte right there!"
"She had to have some reason-"
"Yeah, so what was it?"
"Do I know?" Mouse asked. She reached over her shoulder and drew a katana.
Startled, Bob began, "Mouse! You don't think I'm-"
He stopped speaking when the sword floated out of Mouse's hand. The silver blade shrank, and it and the blue handle reshaped themselves into a compact box and gear formation, which snapped smartly onto his left bracer. "Glitch!"
"With a little help from Hack and Slash I found where Megabyte stashed it. Smuggling it in as a katana was its idea."
Bob looked up and said with genuine gratitude, "Thanks, Mouse."
She winked. "No problem, sugah. Is it all right? It didn't look like Megabyte hurt it."
"How about it, Glitch?" Bob asked. The gear spun as the keytool twittered to him. A graphic of an empty battery appeared in the circular window.
"He's all right, just out of power. Megabyte must not have known what to do with him, so he just locked him away. Maybe he thought that when he'd copied enough of my code he could use Glitch too." Bob smiled. "I wish he'd tried."
Mouse remembered what had happened the last time Glitch had attached itself to Megabyte. It had drawn all of Bob's code away, revealing the Virus's true form. "Me too."
Bob said to the keytool, "Juice yourself up." It extended a line to the machine that Bob was attached to, found a free jack, and plugged itself in. The battery display started blinking slowly.
"So, what's gonna happen now?" Mouse asked him as she sat at the foot of the bed.
Bob shook his head. "They're going to trap Megabyte as fast as they can. I hope Dot can hold on long enough."
He had said the last part softly, looking away from her, Mouse noticed. Mouse's first impulse was to tell him that Dot was a strong woman, she could cope with Megabyte for a little longer. But after all he'd put her through, that was not a sure thing, Mouse told herself. Dot was strong, but she had her limits.
Megabyte and Dot stepped through a portal into the system Hexadecimal had infected. They both looked about themselves without speaking. After a long pause Dot said, "What is she doing?"
"The last system she was in, she posted paintings and statues everywhere. This... looks similar, sort of."
The area around them was choked with spiky black shapes haloed by rainbows of clashing colors. The rainbows seemed to be shifting, growing more complex, and the edges were getting thornier as they watched.
"Fractals," Dot said suddenly.
Dot walked up to what looked like a cross between a directory tree and a wire brush. "Fractals. Self-similar, replicated shapes. See, this was originally a LED pole." She pointed at the original globe, which was almost obscured by bristly lines. "It branches partway up, and those branches branch partway, and so on, until it looks like this."
"Now I see it." Peering close, he could see a little LED globe at the end of each line, no matter how small it was. "Wonder what this looks like lit up?"
Dot was looking around. "That's what she's done to everything. You can see the shapes of the original system architecture underneath if you know what to look for."
"I think I know what you mean. But this doesn't seem like Hexadecimal's usual work. She is a Chaos Virus. This is too organized for her. She'd get bored simply copying and scaling things over and over."
"You're right." You should be, she's your sister! "She must have found a fractal generating program. It uses orderly functions, but the end result fits her style. This is worse than when she painted Mainframe."
"So I'll just find the link she's using and break it," Megabyte said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "Easy as pi."
They spoke a few moments more, then opened up their zip boards. And dropped them when they saw them growing smaller discs around their edges. They headed on foot toward the Principle Office. Hidden within a fernlike stand of mutated park greenery, several binomes watched them. One opened a VidWindow while the other kept watch. He spoke quickly to get his message through before the VidWindow became obscured by replicas of itself budding from all surfaces.
A VidWindow sprang open inside the administrative center of the Principle Office. A committee of binomes - the system's collective Command.COM - looked up. "It's worse than we feared. This is not a system error. The Guardians are back."
"Are you sure?" one of the committee responded.
The VidWindow image was rapidly becoming an indecipherable collage, but the sound remained ungarbled. "Yes. We've seen them ourselves. Two just came in through a portal and are at this moment headed toward the Principle Office!"
"They work fast," one observed.
Another spoke. "Muster whoever you can to slow them down."
"I will." The VidWindow closed.
It was rapidly getting harder and harder to make their way toward the snowflake-like Principle Office. Every plant and object in the park was growing, becoming thicker and more complex. What had once been simple blades of grass now entangled their feet in netlike cages. Some objects had grown thorns or needles based on their peculiar mutations. Dot noted the various types - simple Koch self-replications, spirally Julia sets, and deceptively straightforward-looking Mandelbrot formations predominated. Hexadecimal really had gone all out here. Could she have done this to Mainframe? The thought gave Dot a chill.
"I saw someone," Megabyte said softly.
He glanced off to the side. "I saw someone move. Small. A binome."
Dot called out, "Hello?" No answer. "Is anyone there?"
"Hmm." Megabyte frowned. "What are they hiding from us for?"
"Maybe they aren't. Would you want to hike through this if you didn't have to?"
"You've got a point."
If he was Bob he would use Glitch to cut through all this, Dot thought. They continued on, seeing people moving at a distance through the jungly growth, tracking them. None would answer or come closer. This was strange.
Megabyte stumbled. He looked down, then knelt and muttered angrily. Dot asked, "What happened?"
"A snare. And because the rope's going fractal, I can't untie it. It's growing together!"
Dot stood up straight and called out, "All right, show yourselves. You've trapped us. Why are you doing this? We're trying to help you!"
"Get out of our system, Guardians!" A single voice called. Several others shouted their agreement. From the sound of it, they were surrounded.
"We can't!" Dot called back.
A Zero carrying a weapon much too large for her stepped into view. Keeping well back, she said, "Why won't you leave us alone! What do you want from us?"
The weapon was not a simple filelocker or shock rod. Dot had seen Daemon's Guardian armies carrying those guns. They could delete a Sprite at this range. However, it was made to be used by a Sprite. The zero could barely hold it with her short arms and small, mittenlike hands, much less aim it. But the Zero was clearly frightened, and that made her dangerous. Megabyte, who had been contemplating changing just his hands back so he could tear the rope apart with his claws, said, "We didn't do this to your system! This is Hexadecimal's work. We're here to catch her!"
"This used to be a peaceful system. Then you invaded us for Daemon. Now you're working with - Hexadecimal! What do you want from us?!" she cried out.
There were no comments from the other binomes who had chimed in earlier. They were listening now. Dot placed a hand on Megabyte's shoulder and gave him a look; she would handle this. "We are not allied with Viruses. We're fighting against them! This system has been infected by a Virus, and we came to capture it and restore the system to normal. That's all."
Megabyte suddenly lunged past Dot and grabbed the binome's gun. The binome tried to hold on for a nano, then let go and fled. He said to Dot, "It was a boring conversation anyway."
She bit back her initial reply and instead asked, "How'd you get out of the snare?"
"Worked it loose. Come on, let's get out of this before they try anything else on us."
They worked their way through the jungly growth. "They think the Guardians are in league with Viruses? Where did they get that idea? Wait, Daemon used Guardians to subdue difficult systems, and that gun looks just like the ones they carried. One of them must have dropped it here during an invasion," Dot said, answering herself.
"So they decided we're the enemy because we showed up soon after Hexadecimal started playing around. Well, this'll keep them from getting in our way."
Dot couldn't tell him not to shoot anyone with it. Bob would never shoot someone else, and if she said anything it would be a dead giveaway that she knew he was an imposter. But what if he did shoot someone? She glanced at the gun, then took a longer look.
"What?" he asked.
"Sorry, this is the first time I've seen one close up." And she wasn't sure, but it looked to her as if the display indicated that it was out of ammunition. She hoped that was what it meant. With luck they wouldn't find out. Then another thought occurred to her. "Bob, this is a peaceful system. They have no idea how to fight us."
"They could stand to be a bit more peaceful."
Bob would have known, but, she thought, a warlike Virus like Megabyte would never recognize the signs. "I'm serious. They made a clumsy snare. One had this leftover gun. If the system had real weapons at all, wouldn't their people be armed with those instead of a single gun they can barely operate? It all points toward their not knowing how to defend themselves, which means that they've never had to. They're peaceful."
"Good for them, but how do we convince them that we are too?"
"By not giving them any reason to think otherwise, and fixing Hexadecimal's damage."
Megabyte sighed, annoyed. "I hope we can find a way to remove her from the Net quickly, because chasing after her and cleaning up her messes is going to get quite old."
Without further incident they arrived at the edge of the top platter. Before them was the moatlike gulf separating the Principle Office from the rest of the system. A sudden, loud rustling startled them. They turned and saw a long, fernlike fractal tentacle curling toward them. Megabyte raised the gun; nothing happened. He stared at it briefly, then he and Dot jumped away in opposite directions. The tentacle unwound between them from a spiral at its tip, growing and solidifying, until the end touched the bottom of the gulf below the Principle Office. Its 'leaves' flattened and solidified into a multicolored staircase. Megabyte gingerly stepped into it. "Looks like Hexadecimal is telling us we're on the right track."
"I guess so." She stepped on behind him, and they started down the long path downward. And the leaves suddenly rotated, turning the steps into a smooth ramp. Megabyte and Dot both fell back, then slid the whole way down. The curl at the end set them back up into the air, to land hard on their bitmaps. Megabyte muttered as he helped Dot up, "That Hexadecimal. Always full of fun."
"No kidding," Dot answered. Hexadecimal had pulled a similar prank on her in Mainframe. Dot looked at the pillar that supported the Principle Office. It, at least, was unaltered. And at the very bottom was a heavy security door that had been forced open. Just like when she had broken into Mainframe's Archive to take control of the paint program.
Megabyte peered into the open portal. After a few nanos he told Dot, "She must be running it all from in there. If not, she's at least got a link in there we can break."
"Let's go," Dot answered.
They walked, Megabyte first, down the long passage made jagged by the edges of broken security doors. At the end was not the whirling chaos that Dot had feared, but an orderly display of file icons, extending all around them and into the distance. He stopped at the end of the passage. They both glanced around, then Dot pointed over his shoulder at a break in the visual rhythm of the icons. A modeling program had been moved right next to a fractal generator, disrupting the regular spacing, and between them - a green-eyed mask. "Gotcha," Megabyte said under his breath.
On cue the mask flew off the icons, leaving behind an image of itself to link the programs. "Well, well, well, here you are again! Did you come just to see me? What took you so long? I've been waiting for ages!" she sang out cheerfully.
"Hex, you know why we're here. Why're you doing this?"
She answered, "Because it's fun! Why else? Have you had a good look around the system? There's even more to see here than last time!"
"Not much chance of that, with our zip boards out of commission."
"Oh, yes, I forgot about that. Well, have a look!" VidWindows started springing open. Each showed a different scene of the fractal chaos. The increasingly fuzzy six-sided star of the Principle Office; the jungle they had hiked through as seen from above; a pointed black shape bordered by wild, spiky growths; a pair of zip boards, which had sprouted a confusion of branches and smaller discs all around their edges; and many more. The mask pivoted back to him. "This is my greatest work ever! And you want me just to stop now? How-"
The mask stopped and stared at Dot, as if just noticing her. The immobile face seemed to glare. Then it said to Megabyte, "I don't remember inviting her!"
Megabyte raised the gun as if to shoot. Then he threw the gun at the mask image linking the two programs. The link shattered. Hexadecimal growled, "Bob, you really can be a killjoy. You've been taking lessons from Dot, haven't you!"
He answered, "Hex, you asked me to put you together again. So, do you want to come along or don't you?"
"How about a change of plans!" The mask darted toward Dot, rotating at the last nano to face away from her. It clapped over her face. The green glow of Hexadecimal's eyes filled Dot's field of vision. "I wanted a body again. Maybe this one will do. What do you think?" she asked as Dot tried to pull the mask off.
"Let her go!" Megabyte shouted.
"Oh, don't worry," she said soothingly to Megabyte. To Dot, whose voice was muffled under the mask, she snapped, "Stop it or I'll hurt you, Sprite!"
Dot stiffened. Then she stepped clumsily toward Megabyte. Hexadecimal screamed, "If you keep resisting, I'll get angry! And then we'll find out just what I can do to you now!"
Megabyte saw Dot freeze. "Hexadecimal! Leave her alone! She's got nothing to do with you!"
"Oh, is that so? She has you, doesn't she? She has just what I've always wanted. But now we can share. Everybody'll be happy! Won't that be grand?"
"All right, let's go back and discuss it first, okay?" Megabyte said.
"Don't you want to dance?" She held Dot's arms out to him.
"Sorry, I can't dance backwards." He took her by the wrist and opened a VidWindow. "Mission accomplished, Turbo. Sort of."
"I see," Turbo answered, surprised.
"Hi," Hexadecimal said cheerfully, waggling Dot's fingers at him. Dot's resistance turned the gesture into a clawing motion.
"I'll have a portal for you in a nano," Turbo said, then closed the VidWindow. He punched in some instructions, then closed his eyes and lowered his head slightly. He remembered when being the Prime Guardian was a fairly boring task, much bureaucracy and little action. He also remembered being able to delegate basic tasks rather than doing it all himself to keep secrets from the rest of the Collective.
Megabyte and Dot stepped through the portal. Megabyte was holding her upper arm to keep Hexadecimal under control. Hexadecimal looked around and sang out "Hello again!" to the techs. Then the green glow in the mask's eyeholes faded, revealing Dot's frightened eyes.
Megabyte saw. Still holding her arm, he said, "Dot? Are you okay?"
She tried to remove the mask. Then, still muffled, she said, "She's not controlling me any more. But the mask won't come off." To Turbo she said, "Until we're separated, we should both be put in confinement. For everybody's safety."
Megabyte told Turbo, "She can't have infected her. Hexadecimal isn't able to infect. What is she doing?"
"What she does best. Surprising us," Turbo answered, sounding tired.
Dot forced a laugh. "I couldn't have put it better myself."
Turbo took Dot's arm and told Megabyte, "I'll let you know when Hexadecimal releases her."
"Thanks. Dot - Sorry this happened," Megabyte said.
Dot shrugged unhappily. "She could have done worse, I guess," she said numbly.
Turbo led Dot into a prisonlike ward. The larger cells were furnished with brutal-looking restraints. This had to be where they imprisoned Viruses before deleting them. She had never imagined anything like this in the shining images of the Supercomputer she had seen in portals. She looked away from the cells and told Turbo, who had released her arm, "I came to the Supercomputer because I didn't want Megabyte to find Bob in Mainframe. I told you earlier I didn't think I could stand being around him again, but now that I'm here, if you can use me to trap Megabyte, do it."
"You're sure about that?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes. No matter how bad it gets, I can deal with it, because I know it's going to end."
They stopped, and he presented his icon to an optic to unlock a cell. "I believe you. We got some of his infection code from Mainframe. We have our best people sequencing it so we can find weaknesses, hopefully to use it against him. Whatever we do, you'll be in on it."
"Thank you," she said as she entered the cell.
He closed the door. She sat down and covered her face - no, Hexadecimal's mask - with her hands. At least it was a decent cell without restraints. Pretty much the same as the ones in Mainframe... she wished she had stayed there.
She had been infected once before, by Daemon, and it had felt nothing like this. Daemon had inserted powerful loyalty, love even, for herself into her victims. Dot had wanted to please her more than anything, even more than she had wanted Bob to survive. Hexadecimal had blinded Dot and worked her body like a puppet. How had she done that? Had she somehow infected Dot? Would she let her go willingly? Or did she think that she could actually share Bob this way? What in the Web was happening?!
The green glow blocked Dot's vision again. "Bob has Glitch back," Hexadecimal whispered.