It was a bright and peaceful day in Mainframe. G Prime was being converted. They did not yet have plans for all of it, but the joy of reclaiming Megabyte's old domain hurried the work along. The system had been very stable lately, with hardly any tear occurrences, perhaps owing to the long and welcome respite between games.
Things were going smoothly, all according to plan. There wasn't much for a Command.com to do right now, relatively speaking. Phong could handle routine matters - and, in fact, he had urged her to use the opportunity for some downtime. Grateful for the chance to get out of the Principle Office for a cycle, she had taken his advice.
She wasn't the only one thankful for the calm. Enzo - the little one - had been restored from a previous backup, so he had no memory of anything that had happened since before his first upgrade. To his eyes, Mainframe had suddenly and startlingly changed - no Viruses to fight, new Sprites in town, and his sister was now almost too busy managing the entire city to be with her little brother. Fortunately, Bob was spending time with Enzo, bringing him up to date - no doubt with wild tales of the Web which Dot would have to counteract later.
Right now Enzo was in school, leaving Dot and Bob with some time to themselves. Normally they would have met at the Diner, where they would be sure to see some of their friends, but Bob had said that he'd rather talk to her alone this time. When they'd made the date he'd seemed rather fidgety, saying that he had to speak with her face to face rather than over a VidWindow. She had agreed. She didn't need an excuse to be alone with him, and she was wondering what was on his mind.
Now they were walking hand in hand in Floating Point Park. She had changed back into her orange jumpsuit; it reminded her of an earlier, simpler time. Bob was wearing a nondescript blue-green jumpsuit rather than his metal armor. That was good, Dot thought; though the armor was handsome to look at, it was hard, and had proved itself a hindrance more than once.
Floating Point Park was full of binomes picnicking, playing games, and strolling about. Many of them waved to Bob and Dot as they passed. The Sprites waved back. It wasn't bothersome, but Dot did wonder - if Bob wanted to be alone with her, he had a funny way of going about it.
They claimed a bench in a shaded area. It faced out toward the rim of the city and the Energy Sea beyond. Nearby were a number of other benches and tables being used by various binomes. Several of the park's islands floated overhead.
One island caught their attention. It caught everybody's attention, blazing with ever-changing colors and designs. That island was Hexadecimal's to play with. She could paint it up as she pleased from her lair in Lost Angles. It was an attraction for the braver Mainframers; they could see something new there every cycle. Dot had to admit that that was actually a good idea. She had originally fought it when Bob had proposed it, believing that he was coddling Hexadecimal like a pet. But it was keeping her harmlessly occupied, and providing entertainment for the citizens too.
Dot glanced at Bob, and saw that he was looking at Hex's island as well. He was probably still wary of that place, after what Hex had put up there once. The woman had no notion of restraint or subtlety. They'd had to erase it in a hurry and slap in some content monitors immediately afterwards, but on retrospect it was kind of funny. Dot wouldn't say so to Bob, though.
She tapped him on the shoulder. He looked over. She leaned back on the bench. "Remember me?" she said with a little wave.
"Uh, yeah." He smiled, embarrassed. "Just checking."
"I think she's finally out of her blue period."
They both grinned. Bob looked like he wanted to say something. Dot waited.
After a long pause he said, "Um, how are things going at the Principle Office?"
"Fine. Phong's still showing me the ropes. I don't know where I'd be without his guidance. There's more to that position than I ever thought possible. He won't be out of a job any time soon." And Bob knew that already.
"I haven't seen Hack and Slash for a while. What're they up to?"
"I've got them helping on G Prime. They're strong, they follow orders, and they want to erase all trace of Megabyte even more than anybody else." And he knew that too.
When the small talk became this small, Dot knew something serious was on Bob's mind. He'd beat around the bush until he got it out of his system. Well, she could wait. She had all microsecond, and if she had to she could rearrange the cycle's activities to free up another microsecond, maybe two. She listened and answered him automatically while part of her mind worked out possible schedule changes.
She was startled back to herself when Bob passed his hand in front of her face. "Mainframe to Dot, come in Dot."
"Sorry. I was, ah, just thinking."
"Oh, nothing." She wasn't about to give him the opportunity to tease her about her "preprogrammed" mindset. Instead, she nodded toward a table across the way where an elderly One binome was placing some various shaped black and white pieces on a square board. "Have you seen that guy?"
Bob looked over. "No, who is he?"
"I don't know his filename. I see him here a lot. He's always at that table."
The binome finished placing the pieces in their ranks, white closest to himself, black on the other end of the board. He placed a one-lensed eyeglass in front of his eye and studied the board thoughtfully, then moved a piece toward the middle of the board.
She laid a hand on his arm. "Just watch."
The One took off his eyeglass and put it on the table. He got out of the chair and slowly made his way to the other side of the table, then studied the board. Then he shifted a black piece forward, tottered around the table, and put on his glass to study the pieces again.
"Is that some kind of solitaire?" Bob asked.
"It gets better," she said, amused.
With a triumphant "Hah!" the binome suddenly knocked one of the white pieces off the board with a black piece. He put it to the side, then went around to the other side of the board, put his glass on, and stared down with a look of alarm. After looking the board over, he hesitantly moved another white piece forward.
She looked at him. He wore an expression of concentration so intense it was almost a frown. Good, he was going to get to the point! She turned slightly on the bench to face him, giving him her complete attention.
"Dot, I've been doing some thinking..." he began.
"Yes?" she prompted when he looked down uncomfortably.
"And... well, I've been thinking."
"You've been thinking a lot, then," she teased.
He glanced up and smiled. "I mean - well, you know what I mean." He took her hand in his.
"I think I do," she said softly.
Both Sprites startled and looked up. Skimming down through the air toward them was a metallic red figure. Of course Hexadecimal had to interrupt, Dot thought with a mental scowl. The Virus had an uncanny knack for getting in the way. She could wreck a mood with a simple greeting.
Hex touched down lightly in front of them. It was strange to see her floating as effortlessly as she always did, because recently she had put on a few AMUs. To put it bluntly, she had code in her compiler. They had discovered that she was in beta only recently, when she had started showing. That news had disturbed everybody, because although she had plenty of companionship since the restart, she had had contact with only one other Virus since she had been in Mainframe. Now they could only wait and hope that she produced a benign Virus and not a little Gigabyte.
The only person who did not seem worried was Hexadecimal herself; she actually seemed amused by the situation. Considering how she had hated Megabyte even before he had held her captive in the Tor, it was surprising that she had not had a screaming fit when the system scan had confirmed her condition. Understandably, nobody had since broached the subject with her, not even Bob. They'd have to deal with it soon enough.
Hexadecimal grinned at them. They were in the middle of a tete-a-tete. How cute! "How did you get her to come up for air?" she asked Bob.
"I thought you never left the Principle Office," Hex said teasingly, turning her green gaze on Dot.
"Sometimes I do. Do you mind?" Dot replied irritably.
"Not at all."
Hex might have missed the point, or she might be ignoring it - you could never tell with her. Bob said, "We were in the middle of something. We'll catch up later, okay?"
"Oh, all right." The Virus turned, then said over her shoulder, "I'll be waiting."
When Hex was out of earshot Dot said, "I can't help it, she gives me the jaggies."
"I know." Hex liked to be the center of attention - something she could achieve simply by appearing in a public place. People were not yet used to the sight of a Virus walking among them, and many were skittish. At least it was getting better because she hadn't done anything particularly dangerous lately. People no longer fled from her... but many watched from a safe distance.
Bob was looking at Hexadecimal, who was actually walking, not flying. Dot prompted, "Where were we?"
Bob looked back at Dot, jerking himself back to the current situation. "Um. I was stammering." He smiled apologetically.
"That's OK." Dot rubbed his hand.
He looked down. His blue hand between her green hands. He began, "Dot, I love you. You know that." Almost a whisper.
When he looked up she replied in a soft voice, "I love you too, Bob."
Dot waited while he tried to say the next part. She had never seen him at such a loss for words.
Nulls, he thought. He'd faced near-certain deletion many times, but he couldn't make himself say one short sentence. He'd rehearsed it in his head many times - and most of the times he'd even stalled out then, too.
He looked back up at Dot - he hadn't realized he'd been staring at the ground - and drew in a breath to speak. Just say it!
WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME.
Both Dot and Bob looked up. A hole had opened in the ether directly above them, and a shimmering purple cube was descending from it.
"Spammit." Bob said.
"I'm going to HURT that User," Dot muttered.
Binomes were running about, fleeing from the sector so they would not get caught in the game. Bob and Dot stood; there was nothing to do but wait for it to come down on them. Bob scanned the horizon - no sight of Matrix, AndrAIa, or Enzo. Then he caught sight of a single figure standing in the middle of the park, looking upward at the descending game cube.
"Oh, no!" he groaned, and started running. "Hex, get out of the way!" he shouted.
She looked over at him. "I've never been in a game before. What's it like?"
"No place for women in beta! Or Viruses!" He gestured wildly, still running toward her. "Get OUT!"
She looked back up at the game again. Behind Bob, Dot was also running forward-
Hexadecimal looked around curiously. There had been a flash of purple as the cube had touched down, and now they were in a strange, dark, humid landscape dotted with dead trees. Faint breezes were blowing dried leaves about. Rocky, ragged-looking walls surrounded them, as if they were in a shallow canyon. Insects buzzed. Night birds cried out in the distance. Heat lightning crackled in the clouds, illuminating the landscape with brief flashes.
Having taken all this in, Hexadecimal turned to Bob with a smile. "It is a dark and stormy night. What now?"
"Wait a nano." He closed his eyes, concentrating on summoning the game's statistics.
Hexadecimal looked around. Flat stones stuck out of the ground near small mounds of freshly turned earth. She leaned down to read the inscription on one. It didn't name anybody she knew. Straightening up, she noticed something moving on the other side of a small grouping of burnt trees.
She started to go investigate. Dot said, "Wait! Don't do anything!"
"That creature has two heads," Hexadecimal exclaimed, pointing at a shape wandering in the distance. "What does it need two heads for?"
"This is another shooter game. 'Cursored'," Bob said, opening his eyes.
"Oh, no." Dot had been through that kind of game once before. They were gruesome; the User just stood around and killed whatever it could see.
Hexadecimal exclaimed, "Oh! Can I blow things up?"
Bob ignored the question. "We're on the final hub. There are five levels on this hub, and the User has to defeat three bosses- in any order - before he can get to the end level. He's playing on a tough setting, so there are... hundreds of game sprites-"
"What are we waiting for?" Hexadecimal interrupted and raised one hand to her icon.
Bob caught the gesture. "NO! Hex, DON'T-"
A flash of green light surrounded the Virus. When it cleared a nano later-
"Where'd she go? Did it delete her?" Dot exclaimed.
"She must have been sent somewhere else." At least, that's what Bob thought. He didn't know what would happen to a Virus who tried to reboot. He'd never heard of it happening before.
Dot said, "Well, she'll just have to take care of herself."
"She doesn't know how games work, and who knows what she rebooted into. The sprites in this game will attack other game sprites if they're not the same kind, but only if they're hit first. If we don't attack them, they won't attack us. But this is Hex we're talking about. If she rebooted into something weak, she'll touch off her own massacre!"
"Great. just GREAT," Dot said, rolling her eyes. "Well, let's do it."
They double-clicked their icons and said together, "Reboot!"
The green light came down, transforming them. When it cleared they stared at each other.
"Uh... nice legs," Bob commented.
Dot looked down. She was wearing a helmet and chest armor, and holding a sword and a shield. Her midsection was bare. Below that... her body became that of some sort of quadruped, like a small horse, but with longer legs and claws instead of hooves. She paced forward and back a few steps, testing her new form, trying to get the hang of the extra limbs.
"Ha ha," she said. "Wish I could say the same for you."
Bob was wearing a horned battle helmet and a rusty, half-disintegrated chainmail shirt that hung off large shoulder plates. His skin was grey and rotten-looking, his hands little more than dried skin over bones. His eyes glowed red. He floated in the air, legless, above a fresh grave. "Ugh," he observed.
"Ugh is right," Dot said. "So, what are we?"
Bob closed his eyes again. "You're a slaughtasaur. Besides fighting with your sword, you can shoot power bursts out of your shield. Your shield will also block most anything the User or the game sprites can throw at you."
"Not bad." She turned the shield around, examining the face beaten into the metal.
"I'm an undead. I can throw fireballs and, if I can get my hands on the User, suck his life out. Hey, I have multiple lives! Three of them." He sounded surprised.
"Don't you mean unlives?" Dot asked wryly.
"Yeah." He grinned at her, blackened and missing teeth making him look like a jack-o-lantern, as he adjusted his helmet. "Let's-" He turned at a sudden sound. A sharp crunching, then a chorus of enraged bellows. "That'll be the User."
Other things were moving about, chunky bipedal creatures with two brainless-looking heads and large clubs in their hands. They were all heading toward the sounds of battle.
Dot started toward the battle. Then she looked back. "You coming?"
Bob floated toward her, embarrassed. "Undead can't move quickly," he explained.
"Well - hey!" She looked at the gravestone that he had been floating in front of.
He turned back and read it, then shuddered. Although he knew it was just part of the game, he felt queasy.
Against the might sky, other undead were drifting toward the fight. Bob said, "Give me a hand here?"
"Grab my shoulders," she said. He gripped her. Trying not to flinch at the touch of his cold, dry hands, she galloped forward, trailing him like a flag.
They found the User, a muscular, armored man, behind a crowd of game sprites. He was in an inlet in the rock, hacking away at the monsters as they approached one by one. Some of the undead were floating toward him, and being picked out of the air by jets of fire.
Dot pulled back when she saw that. "Uh, Bob..."
He cautioned, "Don't try shooting at him; if you hit a game sprite by accident it'll turn and attack us. Let's see if they're going to take care of the User for us."
They waited, Dot holding up her shield to ward off stray fireballs, Bob behind her, feeling foolish. The User bashed tirelessly at the game sprites. No sooner did one fall than another stepped forward mindlessly to take its place.
Dot said, "Isn't there anything else to this game? This is worse than 'Malicious Corpses'!"
"I don't know." Bob shook his head. "At least the sprites in this game are automatons. It'd be worse if they were AIs."
"No User could be that sick," Dot said vehemently.
Then the User took out a large, ornate sword and swept it in an arc in front of himself. Misty, wailing shapes flew out of it and began swirling about the nearest game sprites, tearing at them.
Dot scrambled backward, away from the phantoms, keeping her shield between herself and the battle. "What was THAT?"
"Corpsickle. The User's strongest weapon."
"Well, that's a relief," she said sarcastically. "I'd hate to think he had something nastier than that." Then she noticed a cluster of small blue and green shapes floating near a rock wall. "What are these?" She looked closely at one, a green cube.
Bob glanced over. "Magic energy. They power his weapons."
"If we get rid of them, he'll be helpless, then?" She reached for one of the shapes. Her hand passed through it. "Nulls. Never mind."
"It was worth a try."
They both noticed that the sounds of battle had ceased. Bob said, "He must have gone to one of the other levels."
"Let's go," Dot said. Bob took her shoulders, and she galloped forward. At Bob's direction she headed for an area where a few game sprites were milling aimlessly about in front of a wooden door set into the stone. The door was open, and the passageway was choked with the bodies of game sprites - all of them slaughtasaurs like herself. A green haze hung in the air above the corpses.
Bob's grip on her shoulders tightened. "Watch out! That's poison gas, another of the User's weapons. It'll fade in a few nanos."
As they watched, the gas dissipated. She stepped forward, gritting her teeth as she climbed over the pile of game sprites, looking down squeamishly to see if any of them had a familiar white face. The remaining live two-headed sprites, halfhorses, and drifting undead ignored them. "Don't mind us, just passing through," Bob muttered as they entered the passageway in the rock.
They stalked through a long hallway with open rooms branching off either side. They were empty, thank goodness. There were enough of them to have held all the slaughtasaurs that were now piled up around the entrance.
Within a frame a rippling surface like red quicksilver shimmered. Dot didn't even need to ask if it was a portal; what else could it be? She stepped forward into it.
They found themselves in a dark room, with a matching portal right behind themselves. The sounds of battle echoed from a well-lit corridor just outside. The User was beating on the shield of a centaur-like creature with his cudgel. At least a dozen others were in the corridor just beyond the user, held back by a cloud of poison gas. Those closest blundered in while trying to reach the User and stood there, choking, until they fell, when they were replaced by others.
Bob felt Dot's shoulders tense. It was an awful sight - a game played not as a test of skill so much as an exercise in slaughter. Unfortunately, games like this were becoming more and more common.
"What do we do?" Dot said to Bob without taking her eyes from the battle. "If we go out into that he'll just delete us too!"
"There are traps on these levels. We've got to try to trick him into those." Bob sighed. "This is an experienced User, one who's played this game before. This game's a lot easier if the User doesn't know what's coming."
"If Hexadecimal is around here, he'll get to her first."
"Maybe not. It's not always so straightforward..."
The User had finally broken through the herd of slaughtasaurs. The few that were left chased after him and he ran down the hall, through section of the corridor that was bordered by rusty columns, toward a closed wooden door. The columns were starting to move back, widening the corridor. Dot started forward. Bob shouted "No!" and tried to pull her back.
"What?" Dot glanced back over her shoulder at him.
The columns receded completely, and the ceiling in that section of the corridor slammed down with a shattering CRASH. Dot jumped back. "I see what you mean about traps!" she gulped.
The ceiling rose. Underneath they saw the remains of the slaughtasaurs that had been chasing the User. Bob said, "He knows this game, all right."
"Have you played it before?" Dot asked.
"Great!" she exclaimed, relieved. "So what do we do next?"
"-but not this level."
"Great." Her shoulders sagged.
They heard the sound of stone sliding behind themselves. Bob drifted back and looked into a side corridor. "Dot! Over here!"
She trotted over. The User had triggered a door. Beyond it was a curved corridor, with openings leading into small rooms. As Dot stepped in, tiptoeing as best she could in this form, she saw more slaughtasaurs in each room - facing outward so they couldn't see them. The rooms also held other objects, notably the glowing magic shapes.
After peering in each room, Dot said "Hexadecimal's not here."
"Yeah." They heard the snorts of startled slaughtasaurs, immediately followed by weapons clashing and she cries of choking beasts. The game sprites around them were all active and stampeding down the curved hall toward the User.
Dot backed away from the noise; she didn't want to get caught in that. They exited the curved corridor. Bob, noticing another inlet just across the main hallway, said "Bet that one'll open next."
"Can we make it open?"
"I don't think so."
Dot positioned herself on one side of the corridor intersection, sword drawn, ready to ambush the User. They waited, listening to the unpleasant roars and crunches of combat which seemed to go on for seconds.
The sounds eventually lessened. Dot tensed and raised her sword, awaiting the User. And the corridor on the other side opened.
"You were right." Dot said.
"Let's check it out."
They went into a corridor, almost exactly like the one on the other side, except that it curved in the opposite direction. More slaughtasaurs, none of which looked like a rebooted Virus, awaited in the rooms.
They emerged into the main hall on the other side of the rusty columns. Beyond was a dark room. They could see more deleted game sprites littering the ground. At a look from Bob they went in and gingerly examined the casualties. Again, they were all regular game sprites.
"This is starting to get to me," Dot said as she emerged from the dark room. "I don't care if they are mindless. This is just too much!" The sounds of further battle echoed from the second side corridor.
"I don't like it either," Bob replied. "At least now we know he hasn't gotten to Hex. She wasn't on this level - at least, noplace we've seen yet," he added with a glance toward the dark room. "I say we take him down and end this game."
Dot raised her sword. "It'll be my pleasure." She trotted out of the dark room and through the columns, and poised by the hallway intersection. She drew her sword and waited.
The sounds of carnage eventually stopped. Bob tapped her shoulder. Pointing, he said, "There he is!"
Dot looked through the rusty columns. The user had emerged from the other side, and was heading for the room on the far end. She gritted her teeth and started to gallop forward - and then the columns began to move outward. She skidded to a stop just as the ceiling slammed down in front of her.
She turned to Bob and said, "I really don't like this game!"
"Yeah." He floated over to her and took hold of her shoulders. "When the ceiling rises it'll be safe again. For the next thirty-two nanos, anyway."
"Forget it, I'm not going through that!" She turned and started up one of the side corridors... which was littered with deleted game sprites. There were so many she would not have been able to avoid stepping on them. "Then again..." She retreated from the carnage.
As she hurried between the columns she asked Bob, "Do you ever get used to this kind of game?"
"You get numb after a while," he answered.
"I hope it sets in soon. I'm going to be sick for a second after this game."
He squeezed her shoulders. "You're doing fine."
They reached the door to the dark room, which had shut. Dot pushed on it, then reared up and hammered it with her forefeet. "It's locked!" she exclaimed in frustration.
"There'll be a boss in there. The User can't get out until he beats him," Bob said.
"Great. Maybe he'll beat the User. If not-" She backed several angstroms away from the door, against the wall.
"He won't be expecting any more opposition, not after he's beaten the boss." Bob drifted over to the other side of the door.
The sounds of battle were fainter this time, being muffled by the door. Dot glanced away from the door at Bob, who was looking at her with an odd expression. "What?"
"Oh, nothing." He grinned selfconsciously.
She smiled back. She knew that puppy-dog look; she'd seen it often enough recently. He really had it bad if he was thinking about that in a game. Well, with any luck they'd be out of this game in a few nanos and be able to get on with more important matters. She winked at him.
The sounds of battle ended. Both Bob and Dot tensed. The door opened, and the User came out. Before he had emerged from the doorway Dot brought her sword down on his armor with a loud CRUNCH.
The User turned and hammered back at her with his cudgel. She raised her shield, blocking the blows. Unnoticed by either, Bob floated around behind the User and, seizing his throat, began draining his life energy.
The User struggled, caught between two attackers. Then he turned on Bob. Bob saw a flash of red as the globe at the end of the User's weapon discharged-
Dot lowered her shield to attack - and paused, horrified, at what she saw. The User had shoved a short staff of some kind into Bob's chest, and was pumping fire into him. She brought her sword down on the User, but it was too late. With a wail Bob collapsed into a pile of charred bones and armor.
"Bob!" she screamed as the User ran down the hallway, toward the exit portal. She crouched down, unable to believe what had happened, and picked up the empty, scorched helmet. "No!" Her eyes began to fill with tears.
Wiping her eyes, she scrambled to her feet with some effort of coordination. She glanced back at the dark room, then galloped in. Beyond it was a smaller room with a pyramid filling the center and circular, fiery windows on the walls. She did not notice any of the details; she saw only the corpse on the floor. It was a man in some kind of armor - definitely not Hexadecimal.
She galloped back down the main hall to the portal, and went through again.
The sky in the canyon had lightened a bit. Dot picked her way back to the place where they had rebooted. The User was somewhere nearby, probably butchering more of the mechanical-acting game sprites for fun. They'd catch up with him later. In the meantime...
The battle sounds stopped; the User must have gone somewhere else. Dot stared anxiously at the grave. After what seemed like microseconds she saw a hint of motion. She crouched down when half of an armored corpse began dragging itself out of the ground, and dug at the soil with her hands to help it out.
When it had risen fully she let out a relieved breath and stood up again. Bob looked around and said, bewildered, "What happened? How'd I get back here?"
"Think about it," she replied with an air of feigned casualness. She leaned against the gravestone and crossed her front legs.
He brushed some dirt off of himself and looked at the gravestone. It read ROBERT SINCLAIR. "Oh."
"Well, if you're refreshed from your dirt nap, we have a User to catch. Grab on."
"Wait!" He held up one hand.
There are two other levels for him to visit. If we follow him, he'll still have the first crack at all the game sprites in them, and we may not be able to do anything to help her without getting ourselves deleted. In fact, he's already got a big headstart, so we probably couldn't do any good there. But if we go for the one he didn't try, we can get to her first without anyone getting deleted, if she's there. We stand a better chance of getting her out than if we spent the rest of the game following the User around."
"You're a regular fountain of plans today," Dot said as Bob took hold of her shoulders. "Okay. Where to?"
He pointed. "The gate to the next level ought to be over there."
She started forward. As she trotted she said, "Bob-"
"Don't get yourself killed again. I don't think I could stand it."
"I still have a spare life."
"Don't use it."
"I'll try." He gave her shoulders a squeeze.
They searched around for a bit before finding another door set into the rock. Opening it, they found a short hallway with a larger set of wooden doors at the end, more sealed doors on either side of the hall, and a new kind of game sprite. Four blue-robed creatures floated in the air, occasionally muttering incomprehensible phrases which echoed around the walls of the chamber.
Like the other game sprites, these paid no attention to Bob and Dot. After watching for a few nanos to be sure that they were safe, Bob and Dot made their way to the big wooden doors. As Bob kept watch on the floaters, Dot pushed on one of the doors.
The door began to swing inward with a complaining creak - then it slammed shut, as if pushed from behind. Dot whirled around when she heard a rumbling behind herself, tensing to bolt if it was another trap.
Bob stretched an arm across her. "Wait." He pointed at small posts that were rising out of the floor in front of the doors.
When the posts locked into place they examined the closest one. It was topped with a metal sculpture of the head of a horned animal. A large, movable ring hung from its nose. "It's a switch," he said unnecessarily.
Dot looked at the wooden double doors. "There's none for that one," she pointed out.
Bob counted the number of side doors and the number of posts. "One of 'em must be for that door. I have no idea which. I'll try it - if I trigger a trap, at least I have one life left."
I hate it when he's noble, Dot thought, but of course he's right. He drifted to the nearest post and pulled the ring. It came out on a length of chain. As he dodged back one of the sealed doors on the opposite side opened, and two more of the blue floaters came out. They watched as it joined the other four drifting about the room.
Bob said, "I'm betting that all but one lets more of those guys loose. Let's just pull 'em all and give the User a surprise if he tries to follow us."
Dot nodded. They went to the side near the door and, each taking one wall, went down the line pulling rings. There seemed to be no pattern to which switch opened which door. By the time they reached the end the double doors were open, and the room was so filled with floating blue robes Bob and Dot had to dodge and duck to avoid collisions which might precipitate a battle.
Just beyond the doors floated a chalice and two new magic cubes, these ones large red gemlike spheres. Bob's hand passed through them. To one side, hidden from view behind the doors, was another of the rippling red portals. He took his familiar place behind her, and she walked through.
They appeared in a small room with various symbols hewn into the rock of the walls. Looking around, they saw no portal, only some floating bottles that they could not touch. In the center of the room was a large stone cube carved with more symbols - no. Copies of one symbol, something like the head of a downward pointing trident. Two exits, both of which were blocked with slabs of stone, led out of the room.
Bob examined the cube, then looked at the symbols on the wall. Sure enough, one of the wall symbols matched those on the cube. He looked over at Dot, who was pushing with her hands and forefeet at one of the slabs. He caught her eye, pointed at the cube, then pushed on the wall carving matching the cube's markings. It receded with a soft click. Dot backed away hastily as the slab slid out of the way.
The next room was round and icy. The floor was half ice and half water, with large, unpleasant things swimming about. Two of the two-headed creatures were wandering around. Bob said, "Hold on, I'll get this one."
"Okay." She was not looking forward to freezing her feet.
Bob floated in and looked at the floor. The icy rim extended from the walls, just wide enough to walk on, and an ice bridge crossed the middle of the room. Four stone slabs rose from the water, each bearing a circular symbol. One showed a circle divided into quarters, another a circle with a small square in the middle... he pushed on a circle bisected by a line, and another passageway opened in the wall.
Dot trotted quickly through the room, noting with surprise that the cold did not bother her in this form. "I think I see the pattern developing," she commented.
The next room was just like the first, a small stone chamber with a block in the middle and carvings on the walls. The only difference was that in place of the floating bottles were floating golden disks, and the symbol on the cube was a triangle with a cross coming off the bottom. They herded the two double-headers out of the room. As Dot nudged them forward, blocking them with her flank, she brushed against one of the wall carvings.
Red light flared in the room. Dot jumped back, and Bob rose to the ceiling to put himself out of reach. When the light disappeared a moment later there were two more double-headers in the room.
"Well, now we know what happens when we hit the wrong one," Dot said, embarrassed.
Bob answered, "Could be a lot worse."
They pushed the extra monsters out. Then Dot pressed on the image matching the cube. The next door slid open.
She paused and gulped when she saw the next area. It was a round, open space, with no floor and an open ceiling. Well, she could see red glowing at her from the bottom of a long, long shaft, and about a dozen of the blue-robed floaters rising up toward them. Out of the pit rose an impossibly tall, thin pillar... decorated with more of the circles-and-lines switches. There was a walkway around the edge of the shaft, but it was narrow. And there was no way to get to the circle symbols unless someone felt like stepping onto a pathway made of tiny blue lights leading from one part of the walkway. That was a leap of faith she was not prepared to make.
Bob floated out over the pit and studied the circles. Four quarters, empty circle, circle divided in half - circle with a square in the middle, like this chamber and its pillar. He pressed that one. The door at the far end opened. As Bob floated over to it Dot gingerly stepped out onto the ledge. Keeping her right shoulder and flank pressed to the stone wall, she inched forward. This narrow walkway had been designed for someone who could flatten himself against the wall, facing outward, not a four-legger.
One of the two-headers had wandered onto the ledge between Dot and the door. Bob got in front of it and began nudging it back, out of Dot's path. Fortunately, none of this game's monsters objected to being pushed around so long they weren't actually attacked. Dot was watching Bob when her left hind foot landed on the edge of the path and nearly slipped off. She froze. If she had put her weight on that foot she would have fallen. She shifted her weight, placed the foot firmly on the path, and continued inching forward grimly.
Bob was watching her with a worried look on his face. Seeing her look of concentration, he knew that, as much as he wanted to help, the best he could do was not to distract her.
"Are you all right?" Bob asked when she stepped into the doorway leading into the next room.
"Yeah. I'm all right now." Her legs were tense and cold from the strain. "Thanks for getting that thing out of my way."
"No problem." Bob bowed. Dot laughed, one hand over her face. Bob grinned back. He knew that bowing from the waist looked silly when your body didn't go down that far.
They entered the next room. Symbols carved into the walls, stone cube, floating blue vials of liquid. Bob pressed on the carving that matched the cube's markings, opening the door to a dark, dirt-floored chamber full of brown dragons.
The reptiles snorted noisily and looked ferocious - but, like all of the other game sprites, they took no notice of Bob and Dot. With Bob holding onto her shoulders, Dot stepped into the room. Keeping her shield up and her back to the wall, she tried to look at the shape of the room to compare with the stone posts near the walls, but all she could see was brown, scaly hides. She asked tensely, "Which one?"
Bob floated up to the ceiling. Looking down, he said, "Look for a circle with a cross in it."
She scooted along the wall until she found the proper post, then pushed it with a forefoot. The door opened.
Another stone cube room. More floating blue tubes. Two double-headers. A symbol that looked like a partially-unscrewed helix.
"How many more of these rooms are there?" Dot asked, annoyed.
"I don't think this can go on too much longer. These rooms haven't been in a straight line, they've been strung along a curve. We ought to come full circle soon," Bob answered, pressing a symbol.
The door that opened revealed a lava-floored room with only a thin walkway around the perimeter. The four posts were in the lava itself, as were a number of medium sized stones. Dot gulped. "You've got to be kidding!"
Bob flew in. As he searched out the post with a plain circle, the "stones" began stirring. They split open, hatching small, yellow, flaming reptiles. They filled the air with their wings and their shrieking cries. Bob had to restrain himself from swatting them away when they swooped too close, hitting him with their wings. Finally he found the pillar he wanted, and pressed it. He glanced through the door that opened and said, "It's the first room. We've done them all."
Dot had seen the wall behind Bob move. She pointed and said "What's that there?"
He looked back. There was now a switch on the wall; a piece of rock had slid away to expose it. "Here goes nothing," he muttered - knowing that Dot couldn't hear him over the cries of the reptiles - and pressed it.
Across the room, a section of the wall lowered. After a few nanos, it rose again.
"Guess that's where we go next," Bob shouted to Dot, who was inching over to him on the walkway.
"That's where this level's boss is, right?"
"I think so."
"Then hang on." Bob took hold of her shoulders She kicked back with a hind leg and hit the switch, then galloped across the lava to get to the lowering platform before it rose again. She was surprised to notice that the molten rock didn't hurt her feet any more than the ice had.
The platform was barely big enough for both of them, but Dot reared up on her hind legs, pulling in her hindquarters enough to fit, with Bob floating above. It carried them up into a circular room with a deep depression in the center of the floor. A column connected the center of the pit to the ceiling. As the platform began to lower, so did the column, revealing a narrower one within.
They stayed on the platform. It rose again in time for them to see a man robed in blue run out of the spot where the inner column had been, and begin racing madly about the room.
The platform lowered again. Bob backed off it, motioning Dot to do so as well.
"That wasn't Hex," Dot said.
"I didn't see any portals," Bob told her. "And there isn't any other way out of this level. Not like the other one-"
"You mean we have to fight that guy?" she exclaimed. "We avoided all those other monsters so we could fight him? How're we even going to hit him?!"
Bob smiled like a jack-o-lantern. "Believe it or not, Dot, I have a plan."
They spent what seemed like microseconds going back into the large circular rooms and herding the various game sprites within. Dot stood by the switch - there was one in each circular room, they discovered - while Bob guided them over to the platforms, then she would press the switch while he pushed them gently on. It took some time, and they did not try to get any of the flying lizards, blue-robed floaters, or water creatures into the room. To make up for that they pressed random symbols on the walls of the block chambers, summoning more double-headers. When they were finished, the room was full of double-headers, brown dragons, and one seriously outnumbered Boss. They had left plenty of extra doubleheaders prowling the various rooms as well to slow up the User if he got there before they were finished.
Bob and Dot stood on one of the platforms. It had been tedious, but this would make it all worthwhile. When the platform rose, Dot stepped forward and shot a single burst into the room, then hid behind her shield. She heard rather than saw the room explode into battle - dragons roared, double-headers grunted, and the boss started shooting red fireballs that spun like drills. And the platform did not lower to take Bob and Dot to safety.
"Bob!" Dot shouted.
Bob, hiding behind her, looked back. "There's a niche back here! We can hide."
"Where? I can't turn around!" A fireball burst against her shield, making her stagger back.
"Back, and to your left-"
He guided her backward, step by nervewracking step, as she fended off the dragons' and Boss's fireballs and pushed away the monsters that stumbled into them. They ended up wedged into a small nook in the wall, Dot plugging the entrance with her shield and Bob behind her, holding on to her shoulders.
The battle raged. Dot held the shield steady. At least now creatures weren't running into them, except for the occasional beastie that got knocked back by a comrade's attack. Dot said without turning, "What's a nice Command.com like me doing in a place like this?"
"Can I buy you an energy shake?" he responded. She laughed. Bob could feel that she was relaxing; her shoulder muscles were less tense now that they were relatively safe and just had to wait it out. "You're doing great."
For what seemed like seconds on end they waited as the game sprites battled each other. How long could this take? Then Dot noticed that the hands on her shoulders had become tense. What now? Had he seen or remembered something else about the game? When he did not speak up she said, "What is it?" turning her head slightly so she would not have to shout over the din.
A long pause. Then, from behind her right shoulder, in a soft voice, "Dot..."
She recognized that tone of voice; she'd become very familiar with it this cycle. She waited for him to continue.
At length he said, "Uh, I..."
She turned to the right slightly, so she could see him out of the corner of her eye. "Bob, are you trying to ask me something?"
She saw him nod.
"Has it been on your mind all this cycle?"
He nodded again.
"If it's if I'll marry you, the answer is yes. And if that's not it, then I'm asking you."
Silence. Careful to keep her shield up, she looked back a little further. Bob was wearing a stunned expression on his face.
"Well?" Dot asked.
"Uh - yes!" he blurted. She smiled. He grinned and leaned forward.
She flinched away as he touched her cheek. "Ugh."
"Ugh?" he said, surprised. "You've never said that when I've kissed you."
"Bob, I love you, but right now you're a corpse."
"Oh, heh, yeah, that's right."
"Let's get out of this game first, and then we can try that again. OK?"
His answer was cut short by a fireball smacking into Dot's shield. It didn't hit hard, but it did startle them. Bob said, "Consider me paused."
The melee continued. Dot consciously focused her attention on the sounds of battle beyond her shield; if she didn't she would get too distracted. Bob's hands, though still cold and dry like a mummy's, were gentle, and kneaded her muscles, giving her a shoulder rub. Which was welcome; she was getting tired from holding the sword and shield up.
After much too long they heard a cry rise above the bellows of the monsters. Dot risked a peek from behind her shield. The blue robe was collapsing, empty, to the ground. One dragon and a handful of doubleheaders were still fighting, the dragon belching green fireballs and the doubleheaders hacking at it from every side. Finally the dragon fell to the ground, leaving the doubleheaders with nothing to fight.
"All clear," said Bob, who had risen above Dot to see.
Dot paced forward to the robe and nudged it with a forefoot. "Nothing."
"Look." Bob picked a wand up from the ground on the other side of the room. It was tipped with a skull-like metal piece, the top of which was a red gem. "I'll bet the User needs this," he grinned.
She smiled back. "I'll bet you're right."
He nodded at the red portal which had opened at the end of the battle. "After you." He bowed.
She curtseyed, a move which was surprisingly easy with her extra legs. He grinned wider. Drifting forward, he took her shoulders, and they exited the level.
Back in the canyon, Dot asked, "Which way now?"
Bob had no idea. The User could be almost anywhere. "I don't know," he admitted. "Let's just see what we can find."
She nodded, having no better ideas of her own. She trotted to the nearest stone wall and began following it, keeping her sword arm to the wall and her shield out on the other side.
They passed the first level they had investigated. They didn't need to discuss it; they agreed in a quick exchange of glanced not to go in. She continued on.
They came to another door. This one was set in what looked like a small temple front. It was all grey stone except for a panel to the side which held several colored items. Dot pressed on the door. It did not budge.
Bob held up the red tipped wand. The panel beside the door had spaces for three items. Two were already fitted in - a miniature green sword, and something like a tiny, ornate pitchfork with a large red gem in place of the middle tine. The third niche, which was empty, matched the shape and size of the wand in his hand.
"This leads to the final level, then?" Dot said, gesturing at the door.
He nodded. "Yep. Looks like the User completed the other level while we were getting this. No point in going behind him - whatever damage he's done there is done."
She nodded. Though she didn't have Bob's soft spot for Hexadecimal, she was worried too. She wouldn't wish deletion in a game on anybody. She drew in a breath and said, "Well, let's go."
He inserted the wand into its place. The door in front of Dot creaked open. They entered a small, dark chamber illuminated only by a portal, rippling red in the blackness.
They emerged in a dark area, the only light coming from stars above. A strong wind blew from one side. As they looked around, torches flared to life. They illuminated a gorge right in front of Dot's feet. It was spanned by a rickety bridge that swayed precariously in the wind. It had no rails or guard ropes. What it did have was sharpened poles sticking up at intervals, a body impaled on each.
Dot scowled. This was past gruesome and just silly. Refusing to be unnerved, she tested the bridge with one forefoot, then started forward, gingerly picking her way across on the stronger-looking slats.
Bob floated behind her. Two of the bodies, he noticed, were actually binomes tied to the poles. When he caught one's eye, it blinked and gave him a little wave. He waved back and continued on.
Beyond the wooden door at the other end was a stone staircase leading up to a small antechamber. Yet another doorway - a large one - was at the opposite end. On either side, a recess in the wall held an animal head switch. Dot looked at Bob. "Well?"
"I'll pull, you be ready," he answered.
She raised her shield. He pulled the ring on the nearer switch. It came out on its chain. Nothing else happened.
"Oh-kay," Bob said, and drifted over to the other switch. It, too, produced no discernable result.
"I saw another switch on the stairway, on the left side," Dot said.
Bob floated down and pulled that switch as well. This time he heard a soft sound, like a rush of energy. Quickly he floated up to see what had happened.
"Well, that was useful," Dot commented, lowering her shield.
At first Bob didn't see what she meant. Then he caught sight of the two wall switches. One of The User's energy shapes was now floating in front of each of them.
"Guess that leaves Door Number One," Dot said.
"Yep." He nodded. He paused, then said "Stay frosty."
Dot laughed and reached over to pat him on one mummified shoulder. Drawing her sword, she steeled herself, then pushed the door open with her forefeet.
That was the first thing they saw about the huge, firelit room beyond. The floor was covered in the bodies of nearly every kind of Game Sprite they had seen thus far - and one kind they hadn't, green dragons.
As they stared, the air was split by a scream like that of an enraged steam engine. They snapped their attention up. From the opposite end of the hall, a giant six-armed dragonlike beast was shrieking at them. It spread its stick-thin arms wide. Yellow fireballs shot from its hands. Bob and Dot dove for opposite sides of the antechamber. The chamber was slightly wider than the doorway, so there was a small safe space on either side. The fireballs crackled between them, bursting against the opposite wall.
"NOW what?!" Dot exclaimed.
Bob knew that there was no way they were going to get past that monster, not if it could massacre however many sixteens of game sprites littered the floor. He looked through the doors. The monster shrieked again and threw another sextet of fireballs, this time green. At the same time the floor in the large chamber dropped away, revealing lava below, and fireballs rained from above. Bob dodged back.
"Did you see what's behind it?!" Dot exclaimed, then startled as red fire blasted the opposite wall.
Bob looked out again. Then he groaned. "Another door."
"What now? Split up, and hope it can't aim fast enough to catch either of us? I wouldn't want to bet this little shield can block THOSE."
"Wait." Bob needed to think. There HAD to be a way through this. Charging into battle would get them deleted. He sneaked another peek at the monster, trying to imagine what kind of weaknesses it might have.
It was big and skeletal looking, maybe another kind of undead. Its arms didn't look too strong, but then why would they need to be when it could throw fire? Its body was covered with thick, leathery skin - no obvious weak points there. Its head was crowned with a crest of thornlike horns, framing a pale face with glowing eyes and a mouthful of fangs.
Bob ducked back to avoid more fire, then looked again. "Oh, User!" he breathed. Then he flew through the door, yelling "STOP!"
A row of spikes slammed up from the floor right below him. He lifted up to the ceiling; if he'd been a few angstroms lower he would have joined the bodies on the bridge. The beast screamed and threw more fireballs, which hit the spikes instead of Bob.
Bob rose into the creature's line of sight. "Stop it! It's US!" he yelled, frantically waving his arms.
Dot could not sit and watch any longer. Spare life or no, she could not stand back and watch him be burned to death again! Yelling "Bob!" she galloped out, leaping over fallen game sprites, and posed in front of Bob, her shield raised.
The creature drew back to launch another volley. Then it paused. Its green eyes narrowed as it peered at them. Dot held her ground, ready to drop her sword and grab Bob to pull him to safety if the monster attacked.
The monster lowered its arms. "Why didn't you say something?" it exclaimed.
"It's kind of hard to talk when you're dodging fireballs," Bob responded reproachfully.
"Oh, yes. Sorry," it replied. Then it looked at where Bob's legs should have been. "Did I do that?"
"No, this is how I rebooted," Bob said as he drifted lower, sighing with relief.
The huge, fanged, spiked, leathery beast crouched before them, bringing its face down to their level. "I've been wondering where you were. I've been so bored." Hexadecimal gestured about the room with her left arms. "There were all these things in here with me, in little rooms. I let them out and deleted them, but I don't think any of them were Users."
Bob had to stifle a laugh. Dot said, "When you beat the User, the Game ends."
Hex turned to Dot. "Interesting new look," she remarked. Before Dot could reply Hex continued to Bob, "So where is this User?"
"We haven't dealt with him yet. We were trying to find you. What's behind that door?" Dot pointed.
Hex looked back. "Oh, just more of the same," she said dismissively. "And a red rippling thing on the back wall."
"That must be the way out!" Dot exclaimed.
"I couldn't do anything with it."
"You wouldn't fit through one, not in that shape," Bob told her. "But we can, and end the game. Let's get out of here!"
"What about the User?" Hex asked.
Bob lectured, "Hex, the objective of the game is to keep safe and get out in one piece. If we lose, we all become nulls."
"That's a bit much!" Hex drew herself up.
Dot had pushed the doors open. Sure enough, the beyond them was another large, firelit room carpeted with deleted game sprites. Directly in front of them, up several flights of stairs on two plateaus, was a gate, their final objective. "Yes!" Bob exclaimed.
"Wait!" Hex called. Bob looked over. "What are these, then?"
He looked over. She was stalking toward an opening on one side of the chamber. Sighing, Bob followed her. She pointed in, unable to fit through the doorway, and swatted at a floating red sphere. "Those floating things. I can't touch them. What are they?"
"They're for the User. They power his weapons," Bob explained impatiently. He glanced back. Dot had folded her arms and was tapping one forefoot.
"And those others?"
"He throws them, and they make a cloud of poison gas."
"How perfectly nasty!" she said approvingly, drawing her head out of the doorway. She glanced back, then pointed. "Is that a User?"
An armored figure was running up the first flight of stairs toward the portal. "YES!" Bob yelped.
Casually Hexadecimal pointed with three of her arms. Crackling blue-white energy arced from her hands. It caught the User and threw him against the far wall, incinerating him.
GAME OVER, a voice intoned.
The cube lifted, restoring Dot, Bob, and Hexadecimal to their normal forms. Bob fell several angstroms to the ground, barely managing to stay upright.
Hexadecimal watched the cube recede upward. Bob looked down at his feet. "I will never take these for granted again."
Dot replied, "I don't ever want to sort out how to work an extra pair of legs again."
Hex looked curiously at the vehicles that grounded next to them. Several members of the recovery team hopped out. "Is everybody all right?" a binome asked.
"We're all fine," Bob answered. "Easy as falling off an analog."
Dot nudged him sharply with her elbow. He looked over, took in her expression of disbelief, and folded his hands behind his back, grinning.
She smiled and shook her head. "Never mind. Oh, Bob..."
She turned to him and took one hand. "I believe we had something on pause?" She gave him a meaningful, sultry gaze.
"Oh - oh, yeah!" he exclaimed, and put his arms around her waist.
Hexadecimal stared in surprise. Was this a side effect of the Game?
After some nanoseconds she decided that they were not going to come up for air any time soon, and watching them, though initially interesting, quickly became dull. She floated up into the air, then flew back toward Lost Angles.
From beneath a tree in the park two binomes, a One and a Zero, watched her soar overhead. One said to the other, "A feral Virus! In beta!"
The Zero nodded. Both were incredulous. They had not even dared to hope for this! They clicked their icons repeatedly, switching between a number of configurations, finally settling on the one they had seem on the inhabitants of this system. Then, careful not to make themselves conspicuous by looking around too openly, they left the park.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
All characters are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The game, in case you hadn't guessed, is based on "Hexen" by Raven Software. Story copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.