By Kim McFarland
Hexadecimal had attached one of her masks to Dot's face and somehow partially taken control of her. Dot had thought that the Virus had lost her mind and tried to merge with her to get close to Bob. After the masked Dot had been put in containment Hexadecimal had explained that she had acted to repel Megabyte, her brother. She, Hexadecimal, still loved Bob, but she now understood that he loved Dot. The best she could hope for is to be friends to both. She was not used to settling for second best... but, somehow, after her brief time as a Sprite, it didn't seem so bad. As a Sprite she could live among them, and that was more fun that being an all-powerful, lonely, easily bored Virus.
This was all definitely food for thought for Dot. She would never have given Hexadecimal credit for that kind of planning, especially to help her rival for Bob's affection. Dot hadn't believed that Hexadecimal would give Bob up as long as she existed in any form. She still wasn't convinced.
A firewall appeared in front of the masks, quarantining them. Dot turned away and said to Turbo, "Earlier I said that I'd be your cat's paw, if it would help trap Megabyte. I know I wasn't calm when I said that, but I am now, and I mean it."
Turbo nodded once. "I thought you'd say that. And more than likely that we will need you."
"Before we start, though, I'd like to talk to Bob."
"All right." He opened a VidWindow that displayed scrambler codes. Quickly he entered a sequence. As he did he told Dot, "I don't have anything to tell Bob, so you can bring him up to date." When the message "ENCRYPTION SUSPENDED" appeared he closed that window and opened a second one, then turned it by its edge to face Dot. Then he left the room.
Mouse was with Bob, sitting sidesaddle at the foot of the bed. Both looked startled by the appearance of the VidWindow. Bob asked, "Dot! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Bob. Megabyte got a portal back into Mainframe somehow, so I went back with him to the Supercomputer. I couldn't let him stay in Mainframe; if he went back to G prime he'd find out we'd rescued you, and then we'd lose control of the situation. So I'm helping keep him busy in the Supercomputer, letting him show me around the big system in between Hex's attacks."
"Dot, do you want to do this?" Bob asked, pained.
Firmly she answered, "It's not my idea of fun. But if it'll lead to Megabyte's capture, I'll do it."
Bob was not happy with that. Mouse set a hand on his shoulder and said, "Better let her."
Dot continued, "The techs here are hard at work researching Megabyte's code from that sample we sent up, Mouse. They're looking for a way to incorporate it into a weapon to turn against him. I hope they hurry."
Mouse grinned and drawled, "Funny thing about that. I've had some free time to play with the code myself, and sent them a little extra something."
"You were messing with Megabyte's code in a system he's infected, that doesn't have any way to contain it? Doesn't that seem dangerous?" Dot asked, taken aback.
Mouse grinned. "Honey, when have I ever been afraid to take a little risk?" More seriously she continued, "Trust me, I can tease code apart without triggering it. Mainframe's safe."
It is now, Dot thought. Whatever the hacker had done, it was already finished and any danger past. "Sorry, Mouse. I guess I'm on edge."
Bob said, "No wonder. Dot, are you sure about this?"
Dot paused, looking at him. Then in she answered, "Bob, you've protected Mainframe from all sorts of threats. You've saved me from viral attacks, games, and even crises of confidence. You never gave up on me, even when I gave up on you. So now, for once, let me be the one who fights for you."
Mouse glanced at Bob. He looked stunned. She said softly, "She can do it, Bob."
"I believe you," he said, not looking away from Dot.
Dot continued, "Between Hexadecimal and me, we can keep Megabyte busy until the techs come up with their miracle. All we have to do is stall for time, passing him back and forth between the two of us. I'm not in any danger. Don't worry about me."
Bob wasn't fooled. This was not the easy task that she made it out to be, not after what he had done to her. But she had chosen to do this, and, he thought, maybe it was something she needed to do. He also noticed that Dot's attitude toward Hex had softened. Something had happened between those two. He smiled and said, "Yes sir, ma'am."
Startled, she laughed. "Just get well, Bob. I'll be back soon, and it'll be for good."
"I know you will," he told her.
They said their farewells, and the VidWindow closed. She walked out the way Turbo had gone. He was reading a complex VidWindow. For a nano, from the side, he looked tired. Then he noticed her and looked over. "Are you done?"
"Yes. Where's Megabyte?"
He tapped a few commands in and the words "ENCRYPTION RESUMED" appeared. He told her, "We don't know. We can't keep surveillance on him without being obvious. He'd recognize it from Bob's memories. But I do know that he's still in the system." With a gesture at the VidWindow he indicated a glowing icon labeled 452.
"Okay. Well, I guess I'll just wait until he comes back."
Turbo nodded acknowledgment. Dot left him. He had enough to do right now. She wanted to find out where the techs were, to do anything, but told herself that they did not need any distractions. Hanging around being nervous and bored was better than having to smile at Megabyte!
She found her way to the outer shell of the tower. The processors, almost identical at this distance, floated above the Energy Sea in a lacelike pattern that reached further than she could see. It was beautiful, she thought. So many systems all linked up... when it was all over she wanted to show this to her father. He had dreamed of other systems working in harmony; this would validate his hopes.
The systems seemed to glow brighter as the sky above them suddenly darkened. An alarm rang, and an unfamiliar masculine voice announced, "WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME."
Dot looked around. She could not see a cube anywhere. It must be on the other side of the tower, then. Specks rose from subsystems and appeared to hover above them. After a nano Dot realized that the specks were growing larger; they were Guardians flying toward the central tower. And that meant that the game cube was right overhead. Oh, great, she thought. But what else did she have to do? A game would take Megabyte off of her mind for a little while.
She looked up at the ceiling. Soon the sheet of flickering purple energy descended through it, consuming her.
She found herself in the middle of a hilly landscape. It was dotted with trees and rocks and the occasional thread of rising smoke to indicate where settlements were. A narrow stream wound its way through the land, twisting between the hills. Generic countryside, a common enough setting, nothing to tell her which specific game it was. She double-tapped her icon and said, "Reboot!"
Light came down and clothed her in - not enough, she thought as she looked down at herself. A skirt hung from her hips to the ground, she was wearing bracers and useless shoulderpads, and only a small, unnameable thing went around her back and covered very little of her front. Her hair was tied up in a topknot. She was a healer, with limited fighting abilities. That wasn't going to get her very far in a game like this; she would have to find allies.
She saw a pair of figures - one large and one small - approaching from over a hill. The big, powerfully-built one looked like a minotaur and carried a huge metal hammer over one shoulder, and the other was a slight, white-haired elf of indeterminate gender. Both were wearing gold icons. The elf asked in a soft tenor, "Do I know you?"
"No, I'm a visitor here," Dot answered.
The minotaur looked amused. "I thought that was you, but I wasn't sure until you spoke," he said in a Texan drawl.
"Turbo! I'd never have recognized you," Dot exclaimed.
"I usually end up something like this in the games. We've almost got a party here - a swordsman, a brick, and a priestess. Do you have revival spells?"
"Good. In this game you'll use them."
"We could use someone with ranged attacks," the elf said, looking around.
Turbo asked Dot, "Have you played this game before?"
"I don't think so."
"We've seen a lot of it in the past milliseconds. It's played on multiple systems with many Users. We've played it so often lately we have a set of strategies for it."
They were walking along the stream toward a rising line of smoke. She could just see a small town in the distance. She asked, "If you have many Users, how do you win? Do you have to defeat them all?"
"No. This game doesn't have an ending like regular games do-" He stopped and beckoned when he saw another Sprite, one wearing a dark, cowled robe and riding a pony, up ahead. The Sprite reined the horse about and rode over to them.
Up close, Dot could see that this was clearly a wizard of some sort. What other class would a scrawny, sickly-pale creature wearing a face-hiding hood and veil be? And from the smell of him, he was undead. He looked curiously at her, then said, "Dot?"
Bob's voice! Her heart skipped a beat. This was Megabyte! Of all the crummy luck, she couldn't get away from him even in a Game. "Hi. I see you got caught too."
"Yep. Need a zombie mage?" He gestured an invitation to Dot to ride with him; she carefully failed to notice the offer.
"Of course," Turbo answered, and gestured toward the distant town. "We're headed for Villadale. There should be a lot of us there." As they continued walking Turbo said for Dot and Megabyte's benefit, "We meet up in the closest town and ally with other Sprite teams. Other teams will be gathering in other cities. One's not far from here, so we coordinate between the two to form hordes as quickly as we can to beat the Users back. When the User from this system is defeated, the cube leaves."
Dot asked, "How can we tell which User that is?"
"We can't. And there may be more than one."
A flash of red light matched a sudden explosion nearby. Megabyte lowered the hand which had been pointing to a tree now engulfed in flames. He explained to Dot, "Just practicing my spells."
"Oh. Right," she answered.
"Save your power. We'll need it," Turbo said, not looking at him.
The town was small and quaint, a dozen wooden buildings surrounded by a solid-looking fence of sharpened logs with a large gate at each end. Inside, game sprites were walking around, manning shops, or just standing there. None were AIs, Dot saw with some relief; they showed no awareness of anything other than their programming loops. Multiple Users were bad enough without intelligent game sprites to further complicate matters.
Megabyte commented, "We could buy some equipment if we had any gold."
"Don't bother," Turbo answered. "The priority is to beat the Users quickly. Earning money on side quests would waste time."
Other sprites with gold icons were drifting into town. They were of various races and many job classes; this was definitely far more complex than "A Dungeon Deep." Turbo and the elf spoke briefly to them, sending some to the gates to watch for Users, grouping others into fighting units, and generally organizing the town. Then Turbo returned to Dot and Megabyte. "Both of you, stay out of the battle itself. Bob, you shoot spells from a distance. A rooftop would be best. Dot, used ranged healing spells when you can - use your own judgement on who needs it - and revive the ones who fall when it's safe enough. We'll cover you while you do. I'm going to-"
"Users!" shouted one of the sentries.
Turbo glanced over, then turned toward Megabyte and Dot. He glanced around at the building behind them, then nodded toward the roof and said "Allez-oop."
"Yeah," Megabyte agreed.
Before Dot could ask what that meant Turbo picked Megabyte up around the waist and tossed him up onto the roof. Dot said, "All right," and a moment later she landed lightly beside Megabyte.
She looked around the village. A nano ago Guardians had been everywhere. Now she only saw a few, and those were standing around in small, idle-looking groups, or pretending to be villagers by loading wagons or engaging in other such camouflage activity. A single barbarian User entered the village and headed for a weapons seller. A nano later a half-dozen Guardians appeared from between buildings and behind carts and other props, surrounded the User, and deleted him efficiently.
"Not very sporting, is that?" Megabyte commented, amused.
"It keeps casualties down," Turbo replied.
That was true, Dot thought. They had struck so quickly that the User hadn't had time to fight back, so there were no injuries among the Guardians. It still seemed like dirty pool - but then, if the game allowed it it was a valid strategy. No doubt the Users would be doing the same thing if they could all pull together. Could multiple Users band together, or would they compete against each other instead?
"I'm going to go to the next town to coordinate. You stay here," Turbo told them. He left the village, and once out the gate broke into a ground-eating gallop.
"He doesn't change much when he reboots, does he," Megabyte remarked.
A sentry's call claimed their attention. A small band of three Users was approaching. The Guardians went back to their hiding places and villager impersonations.
As before, the Users walked into the village, unaware of the ambush. This time more Guardians sprang to the attack. Despite the flurry of activity, Dot could see that they knew their roles well. Some waded in with swords and other melee weapons, others waited behind the first line of attack in case any User managed to break through. An archer fired arrows down from the rooftops. Megabyte directed thin spurts of shimmering blue into the middle of the Users, disabling them by freezing their limbs.
As before, it was over with quickly. Several Guardians picked up the Users' weapons and armor, replacing their own with better models. Dot saw a few Guardians with minor injuries, and cast healing spells on them. They glanced up at her, one waving acknowledgment. She waved back.
The Guardians went back into hiding again. Dot commented to Megabyte, "This isn't anything like the games in Mainframe."
"This is gonna be a cakewalk," he said, leaning back against the roof.
"Maybe, but it still doesn't feel right. Like camping."
"Camping? Oh, yeah." It had taken Megabyte a moment to recall that camping, in a shooter game, was waiting in a hidden, protected spot until an enemy came into range, then shooting him. Among Users it was considered cheap, only one step above cheating. "We're playing to survive. The User - who knows why he plays. They play, that is. But I'll bet that their processes aren't on the line the way ours are."
"Yeah." And that didn't feel like a satisfactory answer. It also didn't seem like an answer that Megabyte would give. She'd have thought he'd be itching to go after the Users himself. If he'd rebooted as a warrior, she guessed, that's what he would have done. And, if they were lucky, closed file as a result. Not that they would ever be that lucky.
And then nothing happened. No more Users came into the town. Guardians had long ago stopped drifting in. This is one of the disadvantages of camping, Dot thought. If nobody walked into your trap, you might as well not even be playing.
Finally one of the sentries called out "User." Dot saw the figure outside the gate. She - a tall, thin creature with long hair and ears that stood straight out sideways, making her head look like a wing nut - did not enter, but peered through the gate into the village. After a while she left. Not long after, another User appeared, and likewise only looked in from outside.
Dot commented uneasily, "That doesn't look good. I think they've gotten wise to us."
"I think you're right," Megabyte agreed.
"I'm not sure where that leaves us. I guess we'll have to wait and find out."
They were not the only ones to be worried. The elven swordsman spoke to his keytool. "Fisk, put me through to Turbo."
After a moment a voice answered. "What is it?"
"We had another small skirmish, and now a few Users - one at a time - have been scouting us out. Not coming in, but looking in from outside."
"What do you think?"
"It's ominous. I have a feeling we're about to see some heavy action."
"That sounds right. Hold tight."
More figures began to appear in the landscape around the village. The elf spoke urgently into his keytool. After a brief conversation he said in a low but clear voice, "Everyone, prepare yourselves. We're about to be invaded. Close the gates. It won't stop them but it'll slow them down."
Heavy wooden gates creaked noisily shut and were barred. Guardians, no longer hiding, held whatever weapons and shields they had at the ready. They could hear the sound of a crowd outside the gates. Users must have been gathering just outside the walls, where the Guardians could not see them, for microseconds. Dot and Megabyte waited tensely for someone to make the first move.
Suddenly, with a whooshing sound, fire leapt up outside of one of the gates. After a second whoosh, char appeared in the center of the gate. Moments later a hole burned through, and Users began pouring in. The Guardians engaged them as soon as they passed through the hole in the gate.
The battle raged. Users of all species battled with weapons, spells, and bare fists against the Guardians. Dot saw that sometimes several Guardians would converge on one particularly dangerous User to defeat him before fighting lesser threats. Dot cast healing spells on the most badly wounded Guardians to keep them from dying. Her revival spell required hands-on contact, and she didn't think she would last long on that battlefield. Megabyte threw gouts of fire at the hole in the gate, burning those who came through. An archer stationed on a rooftop picked off Users who climbed over the log walls. The Guardians were good, Dot saw, but they could not last forever, and there seemed to be no end to the supply of Users.
Then a complex, polysyllabic shout came from outside the ruined gate, and the Users stopped fighting and ran to the walls, away from the central road. The Guardians followed them. Dot did not have time to wonder why before eye-searing energy roared through the gate. It instantly reduced the bodies of the fallen Users on the road to ash without going through the intermediate stage of burning, and the fronts of all of the buildings caught fire. Dot and Megabyte scrambled to the back side of the roof. Sheltered for the moment from the energy blast and subsequent fire, Users and Guardians were fighting between the buildings and the wall. They had a little bit of time before the fire reached that half of the roof, Dot judged. She cast some more healing spells. Megabyte found a knot of four users back-to-back, facing outward for defense, and cast a freeze spell in the middle of their formation.
That created some space. The Guardians dispatched the last few Users in the area, then several beckoned to Megabyte and Dot to come down and caught them when they jumped. Dot said "Thanks," quickly, then looked around for people to heal. A squat, burly Guardian who had been rifling a corpse's bag was handing small red bottles around. Restoration potions, Dot guessed as the various Guardians sipped them. He handed blue bottles to her and Megabyte. To restore her magic, she guessed, and when she drank hers her guess was confirmed.
The sound of battle was again coming from the middle of the village. Those Guardians not currently healing ran around and between the buildings to join in. Dot followed, but stayed partially hidden between two buildings so she could cast her spells from relative safety. The road was covered with smoking ash, yet thanks to a quirk of game physics was safe to stand on. A group of Guardians had surrounded a redheaded User warrior who was whirling about with a pair of blades that moved too fast to track. A User in a red cape and hat was fighting with a small sword - well, had been fighting; as she watched an axe-wielding Guardian disarmed him up to the elbows. A black-clad elven User was sneaking about, hardly noticed by the combatants. As she watched he snatched the archer's quiver of arrows. He disappeared into the fray, leaving Dot unable to do anything about it; she would be hacked to bits if she stepped out into that battle.
Flashes of light drew her attention to the gate. Megabyte was casting spells against a blue-clad, dumpy-looking User sorcerer. They threw fire and ice at each other, and Dot could not imagine how they both survived their own magic. The most dangerous part of this battlefield would be between those two.
This was not looking good. Although this group of Users was outnumbered, they were not weakening. It was as if they healed immediately from every blow. How was that possible? Did they have healers casting spells from outside the village? That had to be it. And now more Users were joining the battle by climbing over the walls.
Then a crash and the sound of cracking wood came from the unburned gate. Dot saw it bow inward and splinter. On the next blow it broke in half. A hoof kicked sharp pieces away, and a minotaur wielding a huge metal hammer strode in. Fresh Guardians streamed into the village behind him and laid into the Users.
This was like no battle Dot had ever seen. Multiple Users, dozens of Sprites, all hacking viciously at each other - now she understood why the Guardians used any strategies they could to win! This was insanity!
Suddenly the sky darkened. Clouds thickened and swirled overhead, flickering threateningly. Some of the Guardians looked up in dread. The minotaur - Turbo - glanced up at the sky, then looked at Dot, shouted "Get ready!" and raised his hammer. The other Guardians abandoned the battle and dove away. With a deafening thunderclap, a thick pillar of lightning stabbed down from the clouds and into the metal hammer.
The bolt seemed to play over Turbo for nanoseconds. When it disappeared only a charred corpse remained. Why had he - oh! Dot ran forward, placed her hands on the hot charcoal, and cast a revival spell.
The other Guardians surrounded them, giving her time to work the slow-acting spell without being attacked by the remaining Users. Megabyte raised his hands to resume the battle; Kale shouted, "No! Stop!"
The elf pointed toward Dot and Turbo. "She isn't done yet!"
Megabyte paused. Then his eyes narrowed. If the game ended before Turbo was restored, that would be one less obstacle to his plan. But he could not do that in front of Dot; that would be worse in the long run. "Sorry." He faced outward, watching the blue-clad mage who had also paused, his power spent on that lightning attack. Glancing around, he could see several Users close to Turbo had also closed file due to the power surge.
From inside the circle Turbo said in a faint voice, "Go!"
Half of the Guardians broke from the circle and attacked the closest Users. Not many were left in the village, and some Guardians stationed themselves at the gates to prevent those who had fled from returning. Megabyte threw his spells at the now-weakened mage, making him spend his remaining magic on defending himself. Soon Turbo stood, fully healed, then strode over, swung his hammer over his head, and brought it down, closing that User's file.
The village seemed free of live Users, but, to the Sprites' dismay, the game was still running. "Who has a 'reveal enemies' item or spell?" Turbo asked.
"I saw a thief in black stealing weapons. Did anyone get him?" Dot asked.
Nobody spoke up. And suddenly a sword tip poked through Megabyte's front. He looked down, startled.
Several Guardians rushed in the directions of the thrown sword's origin. Turbo stepped around Megabyte and pulled the sword out of his back. Its blade was free of blood. "I don't think he realized you're undead," he commented, amused.
Megabyte whirled around, infuriated. Stab him in the back?! He gathered all his power. The Guardians were barely able to get out of the way before the fireburst hit. The final User's scream faded into the calm announcement, "GAME OVER."
When the game cube lifted, Dot and Megabyte were together in a corridor. Megabyte grinned widely. "That was kind of fun, wasn't it?"
Dot thought, fun? All that bloody fighting and killing was fun? Of course a Virus like Megabyte would say that. No Sprite in his right mind would.
"You were great. We couldn't have won without you," he told her. Impulsively he hugged her and gave her a quick kiss.
She stiffened with revulsion. She was prepared to look at Megabyte masquerading as Bob, talk with him, even touch him when necessary, but she had not expected him to kiss her. She had to suppress her urge to fight him, to free herself from her arms.
He pulled back, a questioning expression on his face. She forced herself to smile and say, "Sorry. You caught me by surprise." She closed her eyes. Anything, if it would keep Bob safe. It would soon be over... But her body remained tense.
He released her. "Dot." She opened her eyes and tried to hide her relief. "I'd like to show you something, Dot."
"It's upstairs. Come with me."
He led her through the passages of the tower, then into a lift chute, which shot them skyward. When they stepped out they were in a circular room close to the very top. Windows in all the walls showed the system in every direction.
Megabyte walked over to one of the windows. "We're in is the biggest system there is. 1024s of processors as far as the eye can see. Links to every system on the Net."
"Romantic," she said from behind him.
"So much power, all linked into one system unimaginably more powerful than any other in existence. After seeing this, how could you possibly return to Mainframe?"
Now worried, she answered, "I'm the Command.COM."
"Ahh, but Mainframe was fine before you took that position over from Phong, and now that the system is at peace again he will once more be adequate. Your talents were wasted there anyway."
"What are you saying?"
He turned around. "Oh, come now, Ms. Matrix. It's clear that you know who I really am. That was bound to happen, I suppose. I have a modest proposal for you. I was planning on it being a surprise, but..." He smiled unnervingly.
Coldly Dot asked, "What is it?"
Megabyte said, "With my viral powers and the knowledge of the Supercomputer I copied from Bob, I am unstoppable. I will take over the Supercomputer before the end of this cycle. However, I remember Megaframe all too well. I'm sure you do too."
Appalled, she burst out, "Is that what you're planning to do to the Supercomputer? Crash it?"
He smiled condescendingly. "Of course not. As a Virus, I desire power. This -" he swept a hand to indicate the system beyond the windows - "is true power. I will admit, however, that Viruses are poor administrators. That is the role I have envisioned for you. I will infect the Supercomputer and command its power and forces. You will manage it as Command.COM, as you once did for Mainframe."
Shocked, she could not reply. Megabyte stepped closer to her. "Say yes, and you will have more power than you could ever imagine. All this will be yours when you ally with me."
Silently she turned away from Megabyte and walked to one of the windows. She could see her own reflection in it, superimposed over the Supercomputer. And behind her, Megabyte, wearing Bob's face. When she could speak she asked, "Do you really think I'll agree to that?"
"Yes, I really think you will." He stepped closer. "I know you, Ms. Matrix. You always have been one to take charge, haven't you? You cannot claim that all this doesn't tempt you."
"No, it doesn't."
"I don't believe that. But consider it another way. Think of how many lives you will save. All those who will be deleted if people insist on fighting useless battles. If you opposed me, you would be responsible for countless lives lost as a result of your refusal... beginning with the extermination of Mainframe."
She turned to face him. "I thought you were done with Mainframe!"
"I could be," he answered with a cruel smile. "With the Supercomputer in my power, and you to ensure that it runs smoothly, I would of course have more important things on my mind than the revenge I swore on Mainframe."
She looked down. Was he really admitting that he needed her? Or was this another phase in his plan to torment her? She wanted to scream her refusal into her face, but she had no doubt that he would carry out his threats without hesitating, deleting whole systems until she gave in to him.
"Surely, Ms. Matrix, you cannot turn your back on all those people."
"What about Bob?"
He frowned. "No, Dot. You cannot have him back. He was deleted milliseconds ago."
Liar! "You deleted him?!"
Megabyte shrugged. "In war, people close file. He is hardly the first."
She looked down. "I see," she whispered. He was afraid of Bob, she realized. He is willing to keep me under his fist, and let everyone in Mainframe live, but not Bob. He must be the one Sprite he considers a real threat. "I would never do this for power, Megabyte. I'm not like you," she said bitterly.
He smiled triumphantly. "But you would make a compromise to save lives."
She drew in a breath to speak, then closed her eyes and let it out again. "I knew you would act sensibly," Megabyte said quietly. "And now, come with me."
He gestured toward the lift door. "I believe you can guess."
Knowing that if she resisted he would force her, she stepped into the lift. He went in after her and punched a destination. It scanned his icon for confirmation, and then the lift began to sink.
Megabyte led Dot in a direct, unerring path through the lower levels of the Supercomputer's central tower. The few Sprites they passed paid them little attention. Dot wanted to call for help, even though she knew that would only put her in worse jeopardy.
They finally arrived at a door that was flanked by four stunner-bearing Guardians. When Megabyte approached they raised their weapons, not yet aiming but ready to snap them into firing position. One said, "State your business here."
"Turbo sent me," Megabyte replied confidently.
"No, he didn't," the guard said, and aimed his stunner.
Megabyte looked at it as if surprised. "You sure he didn't grant me access?"
"No, he did not," was the flat reply. "Please leave."
Megabyte paused, as if thinking. Then his shape expanded and changed, shedding his Bob disguise in favor of his true, viral form. He spat venom, turning his head in a quick arc to attack all four Guardians. Two yelped and covered their burning eyes; the other two had managed to close their eyes in time. Both of those fired their stunners. Megabyte crouched quickly, then leapt straight up. He came down hard on top of them, smashing one to the ground beneath each foot, then swung his fists and knocked the two he had blinded into opposite walls. Then he pointed a hand at the doors they had been guarding. A cable shot out of his wrist. The doors began to turn blue, but then faded back to their original color, and a klaxon began to wail.
Megabyte snarled and stabbed his claws into the keypad beside the doorway. It sputtered and died. Then he jammed his claws into the seam between the doors. He pulled backward, leaning hard, and tore the doors out of their sockets. He threw them back across the room. They hit the walls and then the floor in a series of painfully loud crashes, narrowly missing the Guardians he had knocked unconscious. Then he turned back and extended a hand. "Come, Ms. Matrix," he said politely.
Looking utterly defeated, she followed him without speaking. They entered a cavernous room alive with small VidWindows, icons, maps, and less identifiable pictures. The images formed a giant sphere around a central pillar. Dot thought at first was a podium or control station. Pale glowing lines radiated from its top to the images, but only linked small percentage of them at a time, and the links appeared and disappeared rapidly. Mainframe had nothing like this. Dot guessed that this was a relay of some sort.
Raising his voice to speak above the klaxon, Megabyte said, "This is the Supercomputer's control center, Ms. Matrix. All information and commands between this capacitower and the Supercomputer's subsystems pass through here, hence the security." He glanced toward the doorless doorway. "It is from here that the Supercomputer is commanded." Eyes narrowed, he smiled sharkishly and advanced to the pillar in the center of the room. He walked through the threads, shadowing the images behind himself. After glancing back at Dot to make sure she was watching, he grasped the top of the pillar with his clawed hands.
Dot watched in horror as the pillar turned metallic blue. The glowing lines darkened, and the icons they touched began to turn blue as well.
Megabyte closed his eyes to concentrate on infection. His code found paths to flow through and data caches to fill, inserting his own commands so he could take control of them. From there pathways opened to him, giving him access to more of the system's resources. He noticed the gentle impact of Dot's fists against the cables behind his head. Silly Sprite, did she think he would inform them of a real weakness? He turned his attention back toward infection. He felt his reach and power base expanding, surging through the central processors, infecting minor subprocesses that would spread his infection further, all without opposition.
Then something reached back.
At first he discounted it as one of the usual bits of resistance one encountered during infection. But this wasn't passive; it was burning its way back up toward Megabyte, spreading through his infection, feeding on it, leaving behind harmless fragments and cutting him off! Infuriated, he clutched the pillar tighter, gouging it with his claws. He used a different approach, forcing a fast, concentrated, needle-like rush of viral code into a path that had proved receptive before. But whatever it was kept pace, as if drawing energy from Megabyte's code itself. Just like a bug, he thought, and then realized that that was what it had to be - a bug, a simple process tailored specifically to attack and destroy his infection! He opened his eyes - the blue of his infection was rippling within the pillar, as if it was fighting him off by itself - and forced himself to yank his hands away from his prize before the bug could touch him.
A hard blow to his back pitched him forward, at the pillar. When he fell onto it, the bug flowed up into his body, attacking his code. He bellowed and tried to jerk away, but something kept hammering at his back. He heard shouting - someone had come in, unheard, while he had been infecting the system. They had trapped him in here! Enraged, he turned, ready to eviscerate his attackers. He found himself facing a team of Guardians who stood at the broken doors, several of whom were operating what looked like a small cannon. With a loud thump it fired another round at him, the impact on his armor throwing him backward onto the pillar.
Dot watched as the Guardians fanned out around half the room, energy pistols trained on Megabyte. Dot did not understand what exactly was happening. They seemed to be intent on keeping Megabyte at the pillar. That was the gateway to the Supercomputer's deepest functions; shouldn't they be keeping him away from it? But when he touched it he thrashed and howled. Good, she thought viciously. He's caused enough suffering in others. Let him feel some of his own.
After what seemed like a cycle Megabyte finally fell to the ground, eyes closed, his color faded and grayish. One Guardian, a slender, pale yellow man, stepped forward to examine him, then said to the keytool on his bracer, "Fisk, check his stats."
The keytool played a beam over Megabyte. The Guardian read the results in its window, then nodded to the other Guardians. They all relaxed visibly. He opened a VidWindow and said, "Turbo, Megabyte is down and unconscious. The real one, not an alias. Dot is unharmed." He glanced over at her, she nodded confirmation.
"Four Guardians down, already sent to the meds. No fatalaities. Megabyte pulled the doors off, and there's minor battle damage to the room. Megabyte is alive but dented. We didn't give him a chance to attack us."
"Good. Take him to the maximum security sector and put him behind a firewall. The council will deal with him."
The yellow Guardian nodded and closed the VidWindow. One of the Guardians had already taken out a filelocker several times the size of the ones they had in Mainframe. Viruses were resistant to filelocking; if they weren't capturing them would be ridiculously easy. They were taking no chances now. As weak as Megabyte was, they still encased him in a filelock field so strong it was nearly opaque.
Dot watched, feeling strangely numb, as they hooked the green cube in which Megabyte's silhouette was barely visible to a set of floaters and took him out of the room. The yellow Guardian asked Dot, "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes. I - I just can't believe it's over. We've thought that before, and Megabyte has always come back worse than before," she answered softly. In the back of her mind she noticed that his voice sounded familiar.
He answered her, "There's only one Megabyte, and we know that's him. And once we take a Virus into custody, he does not escape."
"I won't believe that until he's deleted." And even then she wouldn't be sure, not after he had come back from apparent deletion twice.
"That won't happen immediately. The Guardian Council is involved with this one."
"Oh. Well... can I go back to Mainframe?"
He began walking with her out the door. "Of course. But Turbo wants to see you first."
"All right." As they passed through the wrecked entrance, Dot looked at the doors that Megabyte had torn off their hinges and shuddered.
The Guardian said, "I'm Kale. We've met, but I don't think you recognize me. I was in the game."
She looked over at him, surprised. He smiled. "I was the elven swordsman. You did very well in that game. I can tell you've had a lot of experience."
Now she recognized the voice! "Oh! Thanks, yes - Mainframe gets a lot of games too."
They turned into another corridor, and Dot recognized where they were. Kale told her, "One thing. Just before we went to capture Megabyte Turbo told us who he was, and what he'd done, so we'd know what we were up against. And he made a point of telling us not to delete him. Otherwise, knowing what he'd done to Bob, they wouldn't have stopped while there was enough left to fill a bit bucket."
"I wouldn't blame them," she answered in a low voice.
He nodded silent agreement. They had arrived at the door to what looked like a meeting room. Kale said, "Say hi to Bob for me."
"Thanks, I will."
He stayed outside as she entered. Turbo, seated at the head of the table, looked up from a small VidWindow. "Dot. You came through for us."
Suddenly feeling tired, she took one of the seats, glanced at the odd trackball-like control, then told Turbo, "He realized I knew he wasn't Bob. I guess I'm not the actress I thought I was."
He looked into her eyes and said, "You married 'Bob,' and milliseconds later found out that Bob was a disguised Megabyte. Knowing that, I'm impressed that you were willing to be in the same system with him, let alone volunteer to be bait. You succeeded, and it's almost over with."
"Will Megabyte be deleted?" she asked.
Turbo paused, then told her, "I plan to have him face the Guardian Council and relevant sprites - you and Bob, assuming you want to be there - to let him say his piece."
"A trial?" she asked, surprised.
"Of a sort."
Dot said thoughtfully, "That sounds like something Bob would ask for."
"After all Megabyte did to Bob and Mainframe, I think we can accede to his 'radical theories' this once. What do you think?"
She thought she wanted to see Megabyte deleted now, and then go back to Mainframe and erase all memories of his existence. But this was for Bob, and, she thought, it is what he would want. "Yes. You're right. When will it be?"
"No point in waiting. As soon as Bob has recovered, come back and I'll convene the Council."
Turbo glanced out the open door, then told her, "Kale will take you to the portal room, if you're ready to go back now. Give Mouse my thanks, too. She designed the algorithm that we packaged as a bug and used to weaken Megabyte."
"Mouse did?" Dot said, surprised. "I never thought you'd hire a hacker." Which was a silly thing to say, she thought immediately afterward. Mouse had worked for Turbo before.
"I'd rather have her hacking for us than on the outside hacking in," he answered.
Turbo entered a short command string on the VidWindow in front of himself, then told her, "Communications with Mainframe are no longer blocked. They can make a portal for you now."
"Thanks." She ought to say something else, she thought, but she felt overloaded now and only wanted to go home.
It was a calm, bright day in Mainframe. A portal sphere opened in the War Room. Dot stepped through, and the sphere disappeared again.
Phong wheeled over quickly. "Dot! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Just a little rattled. I need to see Bob right now."
Relieved, he said, "Of course, my child."
She walked past some puzzled binomes who had not known that the real Bob was still in Mainframe. The door shooshed open for her. Just before she stepped through she said over her shoulder, "Oh - they got Megabyte."
The door to Bob's room dilated. He was asleep, Dot saw. She was about to speak, to awaken him, when she saw Hexadecimal's mask on the pillow beside him. Its eyes were empty.
Her face flushed with sudden anger. Then, just as quickly, she laughed at herself. How could Bob two-time her with a disembodied mask? What could Hex possibly do with him now? "Bob," she said.
Hie eyes opened, and he blinked at her. "Dot! You all right?" he asked, coming alert in nanos.
Smiling, she answered, "I'm fine, Bob. But here I come home and find you in bed with another woman."
Bob glanced over. "Yeah. Hex wanted to sing me to sleep."
Dot picked up the mask and put it on the table beside the bed. "Bob, they got Megabyte."
He sat up quickly. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." She described his attempt to infect the Supercomputer and the subsequent battle. When she finished he let out a low whistle. "They took a big risk, letting him infect that. They must have isolated it from the real CPU, but who knows if he could have found a way past their blocks? But then again, letting Megabyte continue to run free would be an even bigger risk."
"Maybe. Anyway, Bob, they filelocked him. They're going to put him on trial in front of the Guardian Council, and they want us there as witnesses."
"What?" he asked, shocked. "They've never put a Virus on trial. Are you sure?"
She tilted her head and looked up, as if trying to remember something. "What was it Turbo said? Something about a 'radical theory'?"
That surprised Bob even more. They could have deleted Megabyte as soon as they had him in custody; that was the fate of most Viruses, certainly all warlike ones. They could simply have deleted him in battle instead of capturing him. Yet they were giving him, him of all Viruses, a trial? This had to be a favor for Bob, a concession to his theory that Viruses weren't all evil. Hexadecimal had proved him right... and maybe this was more than a gesture. He had to find out for sure. "I can come now."
"Bob, you're still in recovery!"
Bob pulled the leads carefully from his body, one by one, and laid them on top of the energy bank as he said, "I'm not at my best, but I'm not about to go offline either. I'm well enough for this." Glitch, which had also detached itself from the machine, snapped onto his forearm bracer. "Besides, I was getting bored enough to ask Mike to visit me."
"Oh, Bob! Aren't I good enough company?" said the green-eyed mask on the table.
When Bob, Dot, and Hexadecimal's mask entered the Guardian Council's chamber, three other Guardians - Turbo; a magenta-skinned, hard-eyed woman; and a man with indigo skin and a recently-scarred face - were sitting at one end of the table. The woman looked ready to object, so Bob spoke quickly and formally. "You already know of Hexadecimal. She's Megabyte's sister, and she's been a valuable help in capturing him. I believed she ought to be here as well. Can she attend this?"
Turbo answered without glancing at the other two. "Yes. This is hardly a routine meeting, so usual protocols need not apply."
"Thank you," Hexadecimal said cheerfully. Bob and Dot took the seats that had been pulled out. Hexadecimal's mask floated at face level in front of the next one over.
Turbo addressed the group. "This is not a formal trial. However, we are here to decide the fate of Megabyte, the Virus originally based in Mainframe who recently attempted to infect the Supercomputer. He is a blended threat, possessing infection, Trojan horse, and alias capabilities." He tapped the control set into the table. "Bring him in."
Kale and two other Guardians brought in a large filelock block encasing Megabyte. Dot noted that he was now in a different position. When she had seen him captured he had been lying on the ground; now he was standing. They positioned the block at the far end of the table from the others, detached it from the floaters, then placed red-tipped poles in a square around it. Kale said to his keytool, "Fisk, firewall."
Sheets of transparent flame appeared between the poles, rising to form a roof above the top of the block. He continued, "Release filelock."
The green block vanished. Megabyte looked around quickly, orienting himself. Then he saw the other people in the room and appeared to relax. "Ah, Bob. I see they rescued you. This explains how Dot found out about me." Looking around the table, he continued, "I never expected to command so much of your attention. Who do I have to thank this time? Was it you again, Ms. Matrix?"
"No. You did it all yourself," Dot said quietly and clearly.
"Still, I'm flattered."
Turbo spoke. "Megabyte, we're here to decide your fate, and give you a chance to speak for yourself."
Surprised, Megabyte asked, "You would hear what a Virus has to say?" He said to Bob, "This must be your doing. You always had that missionary urge. What do you wish me to say? I've never seen a fair trial, myself. I doubt that any Virus has."
Bob said, "Things change, Megabyte. You're getting a chance that maybe no other Virus ever has."
Megabyte folded his arms. "Shall I plead for mercy, then? When have Sprites ever shown mercy to Viruses?"
Dot answered heatedly, "Plenty of times in Mainframe. Bob could have deleted you many times over. Any other Guardian would have!"
"He has been derelict in his duties, hasn't he?" He said to Bob, "Was that mercy, Bob? Or was it mere cowardice? I know you very, very well by now. You cannot stand to see any dataform be deleted. If you deleted me, you would have to live with that knowledge for the rest of your runtime. The knowledge that you had become a killer."
The three members of the Guardian Council watched without interfering. They would let this play out, then judge based on what they saw here. They had little expectation that anything Megabyte said would sway them, but there was always that possibility. This was more to let Bob confront the Virus who had tortured him. Bob was one of the Collective's best and brightest, and if Turbo saw fit to bend protocols for his benefit, then the others would respect that decision.
Bob spoke in a low voice. "You're right, Megabyte. I find deletion abhorrent. Maybe you think that's a weakness, but I don't."
"Not a weakness. A fatal flaw, for a Guardian. Or a Command.COM, but thankfully Dot is made of stronger stuff." Dot stiffened; Megabyte had scored a hit. "After all, your commands led to so many deaths in Megaframe."
"That was war!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Yes, it was. You were at war with me. If you are blameless, then so am I." He leaned forward, clawed hands splayed on the end of table that projected within the firewall. "Or is it format that makes the difference? What is fair for a Sprite to do is a crime when committed by a Virus? Perhaps I should allow Bob try to change me into a Sprite so I could enjoy the carte blanche that you Sprites do. It almost makes me wish it were possible."
Hexadecimal's mask flew over to the firewall. "It is possible! I was a Sprite! And they treated me like one, and I liked it!"
"You are as insane as ever," he replied evenly.
"I was a Sprite! A scan changed me rather than deleting me, because I had an icon! I was like them, without any powers. And I'd become a Sprite again in a nanosecond after they put me back together."
Megabyte drew in a breath to reply, then caught it when he saw the VidWindow that Bob had opened up. It showed Hexadecimal, gold-skinned and wearing a white corset. Bob said, "She's not kidding, Megabyte. This is your sister as a Sprite."
The mask glanced at the image, then turned back to Megabyte. "Wasn't I pretty? And when I became a Sprite I found out that their lives are much more intriguing than ours are. It's so much more fun to be in the middle of things!"
"Fun?" Megabyte roared in outrage, slamming his hands onto the table. His claws scored its surface. "You would give up your format, your power, for FUN?!"
She laughed in his face. "Silly little brother! Thinking that mere power is all that's worth processing for. From the moment I was initialized I had more power than you ever would. Even now I infect the whole Net. I could offline whole systems if I wanted. And so what? Where's the fun in that? I want to be a person, not a monster!"
Megabyte's claws gouged the table. Barely under control, he snarled, "You are an abomination."
She cackled again. "You're the second Virus to call me that!" Her mask returned to its chair and pivoted toward the Council members. Calmly she said, "I'm sorry about that. I just had to get a few things off my chest."
Megabyte stood and folded his arms. "What is the purpose of this? You have your programming and I have mine. You control the Net, I control what I can wrest from you with my infection. I'm no fool, to give up my dignity and my very format the way my sister has. I will not plead for your mercy. Make your decision, Guardians. Delete me if you dare."
Turbo spoke into the silence that followed. "Does anyone have anything else to say?"
Megabyte glared silently. Dot shook her head slightly, and Bob said, "No."
"Then let's take a break." He spoke into his keytool. "Kale, come filelock Megabyte."
The door opened and Kale stepped in, holding a filelocker. "Are we taking him back now?"
"Not yet. This is just a recess."
As Kale locked Megabyte again Dot said to Bob, "Let's get out of here. Please."
There were no other Sprites in the hall. Bob and Dot held hands. She looked at him; he was half turned away from her. She said, "You hardly said anything. Why?"
He closed his eyes. "I was listening. Listening to Megabyte, maybe for the first time. All this time I've wanted to turn Megabyte around. I thought that I could make him realize that he didn't have to be the bad guy. But... he really doesn't want to be turned. He's proud of what he is and what he's done. If we made him a Sprite, he'd be just as evil and almost as dangerous. That's something I never understood before."
"Bob..." she said, feeling his grief.
He looked at her. "I was angry, listening to him. But he was right about one thing - they'll decide to delete him. It can't go any other way. And what's worst is that..." he paused, then forced himself to continue. "I want them to. Right now, I could push the button myself."
She paused, searching his face. "They wouldn't make you do that, would they?"
"No. They wouldn't. I mean, I want to push the button. For everything that he's done, the way he's made everyone he touches suffer and enjoyed it, I feel like I could delete him myself. I've never felt hatred like this before. And I hate him for doing this to me."
Dot didn't know what to say. Bob had always been kind, always shown mercy to his enemies. That he could even consider deleting Megabyte as revenge... She saw a mixture of grief and shame in Bob's expression, and put her arms around him and held him.
Soon Kale opened the door. "Bob, Dot - they're going to pass sentence now."
Without breaking the embrace Dot looked over. "Do they need us?"
Surprised, he answered, "Well - no, I guess not."
Bob told him, "There's only one decision they can make. And... now I understand that it's the right one. I don't think we'll go back in. There's something Dot and I need to do right away."
"Tell the Council that I said thanks." Kale nodded and went back into the room, closing the door behind himself.
Bob and Dot, arms around each other, walked slowly in the direction of the portal room. Dot asked, "What is it we have to do?"
"Get on with our lives," he answered.
What of the hunting, hunter bold?
Tiger! Tiger! by Rudyard Kipling