By Kim McFarland
The map of the Net glowed calm blue against a flat black background. It remained steady for a few nanoseconds, then a flicker of green drew the eye to one corner. That section expanded to fill the VidWindow. One system was glowing bright green, and the few linked systems surrounding it glittered, flashing between blue and green.
Turbo crossed his arms and looked at Bob. "That's Hexadecimal. She's infected the whole Net, but she doesn't set off alarms until she turns active."
Bob glanced away from the map. "She's only active in a small area."
"That's right. Despite being scattered throughout the Net, she can only affect a few systems at a time, and only cause noticeable instability in one."
Bob looked back at the glittering green. "How does she move around?"
"She's everywhere, so we think she's focusing her attention in one place rather than actually moving around. But that's only a guess - she's a wild card." Turbo shook his head.
"Indeed," Bob agreed uncomfortably.
"And this is where you come in," The Prime Guardian told him. "Hexadecimal is too scattered to handle as if she was a regular Virus. She's also too powerful. But she'll listen to you. We need you to go out there where she's most active and talk her down. Our best hope for the safety of all the systems is to convince her to withdraw from them voluntarily."
"You think that'll work?"
Turbo smiled grimly. "Here's your chance to put your radical theories about Viruses to the test."
Bob didn't smile back. "I'm not so sure. She nearly destroyed Mainframe several times, and now she's even more powerful than she was then. Can we really risk it? Think of the havoc she could cause if someone got her angry."
Shaking his head, Turbo answered, "How can we delete her when she's everywhere? We would have to attack her at every point at once, and we didn't have the manpower for an operation on that scale even before Daemon. If we attacked her and failed - that's the risk we can't take." He paused and looked Bob in the eye. "Bob, this is a threat we've never had to deal with before, and you're the one among us who stands a chance of success."
The scene froze and receded into a VidWindow beside Turbo. "That was four microseconds ago. I've got him at the Armory now getting briefed and equipped."
Bob and Dot were speaking to Turbo's VidWindowed image from the infirmary in Mainframe's Principle Office. One of Hexadecimal's masks hovered behind them. "That was perfect," Dot said. "He has no idea we know that he's really Megabyte, and we can keep him busy chasing after Hexadecimal until we can trap him."
"We'll have to work fast. Megabyte isn't going to put up with the run-around for too long, not when he's so close getting to what he wants," Bob told her.
Turbo answered, "It's tough to nail down any Virus who can create aliases. You're never sure if you've really got it until you scan it."
"And that's why we've got to keep him so busy being Bob that he won't have time to try, or to use his Trojan powers to change into anyone else. Above all else, we can't let him find out we know who he really is. Do you understand, Hexadecimal?"
The mask flew down to hover, facing Dot, between her and the VidWindow. "Of course! I'll play with my dear brother the way I used to play with Bob. It'll be almost like old times," Hexadecimal answered with a giggle.
That startled everyone. Bob asked, "Old times?"
"Oh, yes. You remember the Medusa bug, don't you? I let Megabyte steal it, and I knew he wouldn't be able to activate it without infecting himself first of all. And I knew it wouldn't infect you, Bob, because Guardians are immune. And the infection couldn't reach Lost Angles either. So it was just a matter of time before you put 8 and 8 together and came to me." She cackled. "You nearly got me with the infected doll! I admire a man with brains."
Dot said through gritted teeth, "You turned Mainframe to stone for fun?!"
The mask pivoted to speak to Dot. "I was shy back then. I didn't know how to tell Bob about how I felt. And I did fix it up afterward."
Dot gaped in outrage. Bob said quickly, "Hex, you know that that's the kind of thing you can't do, right?"
"Now I do. You've taught me so much."
She probably thinks that'll reassure us, Bob thought. "Hex, you understand you can't let him find out we know he's not me. You can't get him angry enough to fight you. You have to pretend he's me, and keep him busy to give us a chance to trap him."
Patiently Hex said, "Bob, they've already said all that. I promise I'll follow the plan. After all, he is my brother. I owe him for all he's done for me!"
Changing the subject, Dot told Turbo, "I don't want Matrix and AndrAIa to find out about Bob and Megabyte. Not just yet, at least. I'll assign them the task of protecting the system while 'Bob' is chasing Hexadecimal through the Net."
Turbo nodded. He didn't believe that Matrix would be able to keep up the charade. If he knew where Megabyte was he would charge in after him, Gun blazing. "Has there been much game activity?"
"The usual," Dot answered. "It ought to keep them busy."
"I'll have a mender sent over. Give it to Matrix so he can mend tears without a keytool."
"Good idea. He'll like that."
"Until he finds out we left him out of the action," Bob remarked.
Dot answered firmly, "We'll face that afterward."
A small VidWindow pinged open in front of Turbo. He took a few nanos to read it, then tapped the corner to close it. "As we thought. We scanned him, and his code now is identical to Bob's. But, as we expected, the Glitch he's been carrying around, claiming it only works intermittently, has no real code. That proves it's a fake."
She had not doubted that, so why was it still a relief to hear him say it? "Getting Glitch back will prove that Bob is real once and for all."
"Again," Bob remarked.
Dot glanced at him, and was relieved to see that he was smiling wryly. "That'll be the top priority here. What else can we do?"
"Get us a sample of Megabyte's infection code," Turbo answered.
"Without Glitch, that's easier said than done," Bob said.
"I know. But without Megabyte to control his infection, it's passive. Isolate something that's infected - or copy the infection onto something you can isolate - and notify me so we can transfer it securely. If we can get a sample of Megabyte's code we can use it against him."
"We'll get it," Dot told him.
"Good. Besides that, get Bob and Glitch together and fully online, and protect yourselves from the infection Megabyte's left behind. Since we've blacked out communications between Mainframe and the rest of the Net, and Megabyte can't make portals, he can't make any contact with Mainframe. Let us deal with him."
"Right," Dot said, sounding less happy about that than she intended.
"We'll keep you apprised of anything that happens."
Turbo's VidWindow closed. Dot said quietly, "This all feels like a bad dream."
"I wish," Bob said, rubbing her back with his hand.
She turned to him. "As soon as we catch Megabyte, we can wake up."
He grinned. She did too. That had sounded lame, and they both knew it. "I know what you mean," he told her.
"Yeah. Well... I need to get things set up here. And we'll get Glitch back for you." She started to lean forward, then hesitated. Glancing away, she forced a smile and told him, "I'll be back soon. Promise."
Dot retreated quickly. Hexadecimal asked, "What was that about?"
Bob sighed. He wasn't about to explain everything that Megabyte had done to Dot. If Dot wouldn't even talk to him about it, he certainly had no right to tell other people. "She's got a lot on her mind now, Hex. Let her be."
"She shouldn't worry. Her plan will work, and we'll delete Megabyte once and for all," she said cheerfully.
"If everything goes right."
"Why shouldn't it? It's a good plan. It made sense to me."
Bob gave a small smile. What could he say to that?
"And when it's done... Bob, please put me back together again," she said softly.
"I will if it's possible. But, Hex... I don't know if it is."
She pleaded, "You fused my masks once. If all of me was in Mainframe, couldn't you do it then?"
"I'd try. This isn't the kind of thing we Guardians are trained to do-"
"Mend and defend?"
"There's a difference. But before I can try we'd have to retrieve you from everywhere you've gone."
She sighed. "Yes. I couldn't find my way back, not every little bit of me. I don't have as much self-control as I used to."
Trying to hide his amusement, Bob said, "As soon as we deal with Megabyte, you're next." More seriously he continued, "Hex, when you're keeping Megabyte busy, remember not to delete anyone. Don't hurt anyone at all if you can avoid it."
"I promise. Now you rest," she said.
"Yeah," he answered, and lay back on the bed. The mask floated over to the table across the room and settled against the wall, facing Bob. The eyes darkened; Hexadecimal was focusing herself elsewhere.
Bob looked at the ceiling. Rest. That was something he'd gotten way too much of lately. He was still weak from his time as Megabyte's captive. He wouldn't stand a chance in a Game now, much less a rematch with Megabyte. He didn't even have Glitch, and he could only hope that Megabyte hadn't destroyed the keytool. He couldn't even show his face outside this room without wrecking Dot's plan. All he could do was hide while everybody else fought the battle.
Dot strode into the war room. At a glance she saw all the expected faces there - Mouse, Hack, Slash, Phong, Specky, and some CPUs. Enzo was also there, which was only a slight surprise.
Enzo saw the tension in his sister's expression. What was the matter? Since she'd married Bob for real she'd been so happy. Now he could tell from the tense way she marched into her office, not stopping to talk to anyone, that something was up. She was acting the way she did when she had A Plan, and not one for a party, either. He ran up the steps to Dot's office to intercept her before she went in. "Hey, sis, what's up?"
"I'll tell you later," she answered. Then she looked over Enzo's head. "Phong, Mouse, I need to see you."
She tried to smile. "Don't worry, Enzo, it's all right. Just some things I have to take care of in a hurry." She started to go into her office, then turned back and said, "Specky, VidWindow to Matrix and AndrAIa that I want them to meet me here."
"Yes sir, ma'am!"
As the door closed behind Dot, Mouse, and Phong, Enzo crossed his arms and frowned. Don't worry? It's all right? He had only been curious until she said that.
Once the doors shut Dot sat at her desk and asked, "Status update?"
Mouse answered, "I've found some more areas of infection. They aren't in critical areas, so it wasn't hard to route around 'em. They're isolated, so they're not doing any harm. Without Megabyte, the infection's just sittin' there doin' nothing." She sounded dissatisfied.
Phong added, "Erasing the infection without deleting the infected files would take a Guardian, and we cannot afford to lose them."
"We won't have to. Once Bob's recovered and we get Glitch back, we'll be able to clean all that up. Mouse, are there any infected files that we can isolate and send out of the system?"
"What?" Mouse asked, startled.
Phong asked, "Wouldn't sending live viral code risk spreading the infection?"
"Turbo needs a sample of Megabyte's infection. He can use it against Megabyte. The faster we get him that code, the faster we can trap him."
"I'll get on it," Mouse told Dot.
"No. Wait," Dot answered. "Phong, I need you to work on that. Don't take any risks, just isolate some code and then we'll figure out a way to extract it. And if anything funny happens, call Mouse back." He nodded. She looked over to Mouse. "Your priority is to find Glitch. With Glitch, Bob could probably get the code we need himself. Megabyte must have had it. Maybe Herr Doktor can tell you where it is. If he can't - do whatever you can to retrieve it. Whatever it takes."
Mouse answered, "Will do." She paused a moment to give Dot a chance to continue her rapid-fire commands. Then she asked, "How are you, sugah?"
Dot looked at Mouse, puzzled. Then she mentally changed gears and realized what the hacker meant. She admitted, "Not so good. I want to delete Megabyte line by line for what he did to Bob."
"Only to Bob?"
Dot shook her head, eyes closed. "I don't want to talk about it."
"All right. We'll nail him this time. No mercy, no second chances," Mouse promised.
Dot looked up at Mouse. That was what Megabyte deserved. For all he'd done to Mainframe, for how he'd gloried in the suffering of others. But all three of them knew that deletion was against Bob's principles. Yet...
Dot cleared her throat and spoke. "We need a story to keep others from finding out what's happened. The fewer who know, even within Mainframe, the better for taking Megabyte unaware."
Megabyte and Turbo, in a portal room, watched a distant system in a VidWindow. It looked mostly normal, but here and there were incongruous splashes of color. The VidWindow zoomed in on one, revealing it to be a titanic, gaily painted statue of a robed, winged woman. The statue was armless and headless, and a row of drawers opened down its front. It was surrounded by a ring of sprites, curious about the new monument in their midst but afraid to come too close.
"That's Hexadecimal's work, all right. She does things like this when she wants attention," Megabyte said, scowling, his arms folded.
"She's only baffling people now. We need you to stop her before she starts playing rough."
"Okay." He uncrossed his arms. "Turbo, if I bring in one of her masks, can the techs create antiviral tools specific to her code? That would help other Guardians clean her off the Net."
That surprised Turbo. Megabyte was good at impersonating Bob, but he had more than once fallen out of character while discussing Hexadecimal. Bob had fought for her right to process, even to be treated as a citizen, while Megabyte wanted to eliminate her. And she was Megabyte's twin! Turbo answered, "That's feasible in theory, but we can't be sure. Even Hexadecimal's code is unpredictable. What works on other Viruses may backfire with her, and we can't afford that."
"If it works, it'll deal with her once and for all. Otherwise I'll spend the rest of my runtime trying to keep her quiet."
Turbo nodded acknowledgment. He closed the VidWindow and tapped a few controls on a wall panel. It beeped in response, and a few nanos later one of the pods along the wall opened, revealing a tear. Turbo raised his arm and said, "Copland, portal." The keytool shot a beam at the tear, transforming it into a silvery sphere showing the image of the system they had been looking at. Megabyte stepped through, and the sphere disappeared.
Turbo's shoulders sagged. He hated treating Megabyte as if he was Bob. He hated sending him to an unsuspecting system, one he could infect and enslave even more. The charade was to keep Hexadecimal from doing harm until they could eliminate her from the Net. The reality was similar, but with Megabyte.
Turbo admitted to himself that he was afraid of Megabyte. He was unashamed of that. A Trojan's ability to hide and insinuate itself coupled with the ability to infect and create aliases and Megabyte's vicious, ruthless personality - only a fool wouldn't be afraid.
Megabyte stepped into the system right near the statue. It towered overhead, its wings and robe painted in flowing stripes of colors so bright they nearly glowed. Its skin, what little he could see, was white. As was its face-
The mask hovering above the statue's shoulders turned to face Megabyte. Its peaceful smile changed to a sharp-fanged grin. "Oh, you've come to see my latest show? Come in, take your time! There's so much to see!" Its cackle was cut short as it vanished.
Insane and foolish as ever, Megabyte thought. Although he hated to do it, he would have to force Bob's personality to the front so he could deal with Hexadecimal. It would be the only way to keep his patience.
Two quiet binomes watch him activate a zip board and jump on. A moment later they saw the zip board crash to the ground, dumping its passenger.
Stunned, Megabyte stared at the zip board. That had never happened before. And he had only fallen a short distance, yet it had hurt him! He had forgotten how frail Sprite bodies were.
The zip board looked melted. Before his eyes a large red X was drawn over it. A VidWindow sign reading "No running, skating, or zip boards within the gallery" sprang open before him.
Yes, he would definitely need to use Bob's personality to deal with this.
He walked toward the Principle Office. He reasoned that she would likely be there, as it was the most secure area of a system, and she could create the most havoc by interfering with it. Plus, she had painted it with a gigantic bullseye.
But before he got there he would have to walk through a veritable forest of paintings and sculptures. At first there weren't too many, but more and more were appearing, as if she was cutting and pasting them in as he watched. The sculptures were various representations of either Hexadecimal, Bob, and occasionally Dot, and thus were of little interest to Megabyte. But he had to stop and admire one statue, that of Bob being attacked by huge, serpentine nulls. The nulls appeared to be draining his life, and had also somehow removed most of his clothing protocol. Well, that was Hexadecimal for you. On either side were a pair of binomes, also struggling in the ropelike coils of the nulls. Megabyte had to admit as he looked at the expression of agony on the statue Bob's face, this was a work of art that he himself wouldn't mind having.
He walked on. When he passed a set of paintings that screened the statue from view, the Bob figure's face turned a dark, metallic blue.
Megabyte found himself facing a long wall of paintings forming a barricade between him and the Principle Office. There was one gap in the wall. He walked into it and found himself facing another row of paintings. On either side the paintings formed a corridor, with a few gaps leading inward. Now he understood. She had made a maze out of these images. Annoying little fool, so desperate for attention she had to trap people to make them look at her silly pictures! But Bob would have played her game, so Megabyte had to. From Bob's memories he retrieved one way to keep from getting lost in mazes: follow one wall, either the left or the right. You wouldn't find everything hidden within the maze - which could be important in a dungeon game - but it would keep you from getting lost, and if there were no stairs you would be sure to find the exit.
The two binomes followed Megabyte's progress using sets of unoculars.
Mouse and Phong left Dot's office. Phong went to a terminal and began accessing diagrams of the infected subroutines. Mouse strode purposefully out of the War Room. Dot looked out and saw Matrix, AndrAIa, and Enzo talking together. She beckoned to them. Matrix and AndrAIa started toward her office. Dot waved to Enzo and said, "You too." He bounded forward.
When the door closed Dot stood behind her desk and said, "I bet you're all wondering why I've called you here this cycle." She laughed selfconsciously.
"What's up, Dot?" Enzo asked.
"Bob's going to be away in the supercomputer for a while. Hexadecimal. You know how she is, won't listen to anyone but Bob. He's got to keep her from doing to the Net what she used to do to Mainframe."
"How?" AndrAIa asked.
"I don't know. They want him to bring Hex under control, so he might be a while."
"Knowing Hex, a long while," Matrix said under his breath.
"Right. So, that leaves us to defend Mainframe. Matrix, you and AndrAIa are our best game players. I'm counting on you two to take charge of them. And I want you to train Enzo in the Games."
"Really?" Enzo exclaimed excitedly.
"What?" Matrix said in disbelief.
"You heard me," Dot said firmly. "Enzo's pretty good in the games, and he's going to get into them anyway, as I'm sure you know. It's best that he be trained by survivors, people who've played Games and won their whole lives. So, will you do it?"
AndrAIa said, "I think we can handle this, don't you, Sparky?"
"Yeah," Matrix said grudgingly, glancing down at Enzo.
"Alphanumeric!" Matrix winced.
Dot said very seriously, "Enzo, this means you'll have to do what they say. This isn't just fun and games. It's training."
"Yes, ma'am!" he said, grinning widely as he saluted.
She smiled back. Then she told them, "Mouse and Phong are working on dealing with Megabyte's infection. Even though he's gone, we can't leave his code where it is. I'm on that too, as much as I can be, anyway. That's why we need you three to protect Mainframe."
Enzo spoke into the pause that followed. "Sis, what're you so worried about?"
Surprised, she answered, "I'm not worried."
"You sound worried. And you're running around like you are. Like you're making plans for something. But we won, right? We just gotta clean up what's left of the infection."
If only it was that simple. Dot said, "Maybe I've been in overdrive too long. It's hard to slow down sometimes."
Enzo touched her hand. "It'll be all right. Bob's coming back soon, and in the meantime there's no game we can't handle!"
AndrAIa grinned behind her hand. She knew Matrix was trying not to cringe from this reminder of his own youthful enthusiasm. He'd already warmed to Enzo, though, and she was sure they'd get along better after a few good games. "That sounds like a plan. Come on, Sparkies, let's go."
"One more thing," Dot said. She opened a VidWindow, skimmed a list of subject lines, then opened one. A zipped package emerged from the screen. She tapped it, and it decompressed into a tubelike tool eight angstroms long. Dot held it out to Matrix. "A mender, in case you find any tears. Turbo sent it over for you."
Matrix took the tool and attached it to his left bracer. He held out his arm, sighting along it, and sent out a small pulse of energy. "Yeah," he said, pleased.
"That's awesome!" Enzo said, looking at the new tool in Matrix's arsenal.
Dot suppressed her grin; AndrAIa didn't bother. Behind his gruff restraint, Matrix was no less excited than Enzo was. She said, "Now, I have some more business I've got to get onto. I've gotten behind, what with... one thing and another." She let the sentence trail off with an embarrassed smile.
"Ah, say no more. C'mon," AndrAIa said to Enzo and Matrix.
The door shut behind them. Dot's smile vanished. She sat down and thought, that's most everybody accounted for. Phong would keep Hack and Slash busy and out of the way. The CPUs who brought the real Bob in had been sworn to secrecy as soon as she realized what had happened. Welman... Dad. She hadn't even thought about him until this moment. What could she tell him? How could she admit that she'd let Megabyte trick her again? He would tell her it wasn't her fault, she knew. But she would still feel like a stupid child, admitting it to her father. But would it be any better to tell him the lies she had told Matrix, AndrAIa, and Enzo? She couldn't ask anyone for advice. Even if he wasn't busy with more important things now, Phong would only gently guide her to make up her own mind. And Mouse - no, she wouldn't ask Mouse. She lowered her face into her hands.
No. She couldn't cry. She was too busy, she had too many things to do to indulge in self-pity. She was Mainframe's Command.COM. She couldn't let Mainframe - or herself - down now.
What about Bob? Dot had done all she could, and now that it was out of her hands she felt like going to pieces. How must Bob feel, hidden in the med section, all alone except for the few staffers who attended to him? She didn't want to face him, but she couldn't just leave him alone, give him the cold shoulder. Not again. Then an image sprang into her mind: Mike the TV would be all too happy to keep Bob company. She smiled in spite of herself. Bob had done nothing to deserve that! She took a few deep breaths to steady herself, then stood and left her office.
Megabyte made his way through the maze of paintings and sculptures. He had kept his temper under control, which had not been easy, especially when he had seen some of the paintings turning to change the maze. It was fortunate that in this shape he had no claws. If he had, he would have torn his way through.
He was also irritated because of the images in the paintings themselves. He had long been aware of his sister's fascination with Bob. The images in the gallery maze, however, evinced a disturbing obsession. After seeing those, Megabyte was not looking forward to meeting her disguised as Bob.
He looked up at the pinnacle. Above it was a floating cube, with windows, doors, and balconies opening at strange angles. He saw what looked like pale Sprites - but they weren't moving. Frozen by another Medusa bug? No, If she had one of those she would have unleashed it on the whole system and watched, giggling like a child, as everything turned to stone. They must be props instead. So how was he going to get up there?
His question was quickly answered. A paintbrush zipped down from below the cube, sketching a path down to him. It was no more solid-looking than a trail of paint. Megabyte would never have taken such a ridiculous invitation... but Bob would. He sighed and started up the path.
The two binomes watched in silence.
Surprisingly, Megabyte reached the top of the path without incident. It led to stairs in the bottom of the cube. He climbed those, and found himself looking up into a hollow space with three major staircases leading up - well, two led up and one led along the ceiling and between the two walls. White manikins, both binome and Sprite, were posed on the stairs at strange angles. Some were walking on the undersides of the staircases, and in one place two were walking at right angles to each other along different faces of the same step, one ascending and the other descending, although both were facing the same direction. It was surreal and disorienting.
"Hello, love. Do you like it?" Hexadecimal cooed.
Megabyte looked around, then spotted Hexadecimal's smiling, red-eyed mask floating in front of the head of the nearest figure. "What is this, Hexadecimal?"
"It's my finest creation! I call it Gravity. I could never build things like this in Mainframe! Why is that?"
Gravity, a title for a piece in which people walked on the walls and upside down. That made as much sense as anything Hexadecimal ever did. "Mainframe doesn't have the programs for it. Hex, you can't turn the whole system into a scribble pad!"
The mask flew over to another manikin, one walking on the underside of a stairway. When it stopped it was a pout, one tear on its cheek. "Why can't I? I'm not hurting anyone."
"But you're scaring people and slowing the system down. You could be damaging it in ways you can't see." Which was not likely, Bob's memories told him, but Hexadecimal wouldn't know that.
"Oh, dear. Well, you could fix that, couldn't you?"
Megabyte reminded himself to keep Bob's personality at the front. "Hex, you wanted me to put you back together again. I can only do that after I bring enough of your masks back to the Supercomputer."
"Oh! I see your point." The mask zipped away, to reappear in front of yet another figure, this one walking down a sideways staircase, perpendicular to Megabyte. "But it wouldn't be any fun if I just gave up, would it? Catch me first!"
As Hexadecimal's cackle echoed through the chamber the mask zipped away. Megabyte looked around, seeking Hexadecimal's red eyes. Then the manikins started to move. They began walking up, down, and across the stairways, stepping in unison.
Under his breath Megabyte growled "Hexadecimal!"
Herr Doktor, sitting in a barred cell, heard footsteps clicking down the hall, coming closer. That didn't alarm him, but the familiar shadow, a katana handle visible over one shoulder, did. He was already quivering with dread when Mouse appeared in front of his cell. Bunnyfoot had not noticed her shadow, but he jumped back when he saw her.
"I have a few questions for you. Where's Glitch?"
"I - I do not know!"
Mouse closed her eyes and shook her head in exaggerated disappointment. She tapped a code into the keypad on the side of the cell. The bars shooshed upward. She stepped into the cell, and they closed again. Herr Doktor cowered back as she drew her katana and rested it casually on her shoulder. "I'm only gonna ask one more time. Why wasn't Glitch with Bob?"
Herr Doktor raised his hands defensively. One digit was missing, a reminder of Mouse's impatience with unhelpful answers. He babbled, "Megabyte took Glitch away from Bob so he couldn't use it! And it might have kept him from stealing Bob's code!"
"That's more like it," Mouse said. Her smile revealed her fangs. "Now, let's try that first one again. Where'd he take Glitch? Now be careful - one wrong word and you'll be counting in base eight."
Quickly Herr Doktor hid his hands behind his back. "I don't know! Herr Grossenbyte took it someplace else so it couldn't get back to Bob! He didn't tell me where! I was only in the lab with Bob!"
Mouse tapped the katana handle with a fingertip. "I don't like that answer."
"It's the truth!" he whimpered.
Mouse swung the katana off her shoulder. Herr Doktor's eye stared at its tip, which hovered right in front of his face. After letting him sweat for a moment Mouse said, "I sure hope it's the truth, 'cause, honey, if I find out you were holding anything back..." The tip flicked downward, as it had when she had cut off one of his digits. He yelped and tried to jump backward through the wall.
Megabyte had started by trying to find the manikin with Hexadecimal's mask, but every time he saw it, it was across the room, oriented differently from him. He had thought he could not reach the sideways and upside-down figures until in exasperation he had tried to follow one's footsteps. To his surprise, he had discovered that he could walk the same way the figures did. Gravity was perpendicular to whatever surface one was standing on. This enabled him to reach all the figures, but he was even more disoriented; now he could not tell up from down!
Scanning the room for Hexadecimal's mask, Megabyte did not see the small binome manikin approaching from behind along the same wall on which he was standing. It walked into him, then tipped and fell sideways. It landed close to the stairway on which he had first entered, and was still. So, knock them over and they fall the right way? That simplified things!
Megabyte began pushing the faceless manikins over as he approached them. Soon there was a pile of deactivated fake sprites and binomes on the floor - the real floor. When he was down to the last few they began walking faster, and these also passed in and out of the doors and other exits. He saw a spark of red; there was the mask! He bounded after it, and immediately crashed sideways to the ground among the motionless manikins.
Holding his temper under control, he made himself pause for a nano and think. He must have fallen because when he had run, both feet had left the floor. Then he couldn't run, he had to walk, so one foot would be on the ground at all times. Fine. One manikin was headed toward him on the underside of a staircase. Walking on a wall, he picked it up by the shoulders and released it, letting it drop sideways to the floor. Hearing footsteps on the other side of the staircase, he walked to the end of the stairs, then knocked the manikin off when it reached him. It fell, and he saw that it had no mask. That left one more, and, sure enough, that one was wearing Hexadecimal's mask. He strode toward it. Her mask rotated around its head to look at him, and the doll swerved into a doorway and disappeared. He followed it - and found himself outside, above the pinnacle, with the system spread out around him. Above him was a giant, ribbonlike figure eight turned on its side. It looked as if someone had taken a sprinter's track, put a half twist in it, and attached the ends together. He jumped up and landed on the upper side of one end. As he moved along the gently curved track he saw that here, too, gravity ran perpendicular to the surface he was standing on. No running here either, then. He walked toward Hexadecimal's manikin - which disappeared over the edge when the track it was on twisted.
Now Megabyte understood. This track, like the stairs, was two-sided too! And if he chased her at a run he would fall, and as they were above the pinnacle it would be a nasty fall indeed. But why chase her? He crouched down and listened for her footsteps. When they had reached the underside of the strip he was on he reached over the edge and grabbed the manikin's ankle. He pulled it around and triumphantly held it upside-down by the ankle. The mask detached and pouted at Megabyte. "You caught me too quickly. How about another round?"
He dropped the manikin and replied firmly, "No, Hexadecimal. Come on, let's go back to the Supercomputer."
"Can't we at least dance first?" The faceless manikin stood and posed, arms out toward him.
"No. Not now."
He opened a VidWindow. It showed the portal room. "Bob here. I have this system's mask. Ready for a portal back."
"One nano," replied a technician. He went to a console and tapped some buttons. A silver sphere appeared beside Bob.
"Can you jump?" Hexadecimal asked.
"Jump!" she cried. The figure eight, and the cube below, vanished. Megabyte barely managed to leap into the portal before he fell. Cackling, she followed him through.
One of the two binomes looked around as all the paintings and sculptures disappeared, leaving the system just as it had been. The other took his unocular down from his eye. After a thoughtful pause he said in a low voice, "It's as I thought. The Viruses and Guardians have allied."
"What makes you come to that conclusion?" the other asked.
"Call it a feeling."
Megabyte landed hard on the floor of the portal room. The mask floating above him asked, "Are you all right?"
"You could warn me, you know," Megabyte said, straightening up.
Hexadecimal teased, "What fun would that be?"
The Sprite who was supposed to take the mask into custody had been afraid of this. The mask wasn't inert, so what was he supposed to do now? Capturing her would be a bad move.
Turbo walked in. He had received a copy of Megabyte's call for a portal. "I saw what happened."
"Fun and games," Megabyte replied good-naturedly.
Hexadecimal's mask turned and regarded Turbo with a green-eyed, skeptical frown. "Oh, it's you. Then this must be the Supercomputer. How dull. I'm going somewhere else." The mask settled on a table and the glow in its eyes faded.
The tech gingerly picked up the now-inert mask. "I... I'll scan this now."
Turbo nodded agreement, and the tech left with the mask. Bob said to Turbo and the remaining staffer, "I had a thought. The problem is that Hexadecimal is scattered all over the Net. What if we engineered a program that would crawl the net, find her infection, and remove it? It'd be simple, one task only, so it would work fast. Send a bunch of them out and we could hit Hex hard and fast, delete her before she could strike back."
Turbo folded his arms and, leaning against a table, paused for a few nanoseconds before answering. "In theory that could work, now that we have Hexadecimal's code on file. In practice, you know how many things can complicate the process. System defenses that repel any unregistered programs. Firewalls."
"Still, it's gotta be more effective than having one Guardian spend the rest of his runtime talking her out of a single system at a time," Bob pointed out.
"That's true." Turbo glanced at the remaining tech, who looked stunned. He obviously didn't know who 'Bob' was, and was appalled to hear the champion of Virus rights plotting out the deletion of the Virus who had just saved the entire Net. "Get on it."
"Get on it," Turbo repeated firmly.
"Yes sir," the Guardian answered stiffly.
While Megabyte spoke with the highly uncomfortable tech, elaborating on his idea, Turbo opened a VidWindow and checked the map of the net. Flat blue for now. Hopefully Hexadecimal would wait a little while before starting the next disturbance, but not too long. He opened another, smaller window in front of the map, and worked on it briefly.
Megabyte said to Turbo, "I'll need to get a new zip board from Supply. Hexadecimal melted mine."
"Go ahead," Turbo answered without glancing up from the messaging program. He closed the VidWindows and left soon after Bob.
256 nanoseconds after Turbo left, a VidWindow sprang open, blocking the tech's view of the crawler schematics he had pulled up. It was a time-delayed message from Turbo, instructing him to work on the crawler as described, but to leave its function, once it had located its target, undefined; the payload would be determined later.
Mouse walked into the War Room. She asked Hack and Slash, who were examining the circular, table-like system map from opposite sides, "What're you doing right now?"
Hack answered, "We are watching for tears."
"Yeah," Slash agreed.
Definitely makework to keep them busy and quiet. She asked Phong, "Can you spare these two?"
"If you need them, yes," the golden bot answered.
"Thanks, sugah." She winked at Phong. It often flustered him, which was why she did it. Then she beckoned to Hack and Slash. "Come with me."
Bob looked over as the door shooshed open. Dot looked in, but did not step forward. "I'm sorry. Am I disturbing you?"
He sat up quickly. "No, I wasn't asleep or anything. I'm slept out for the next millisecond!"
She walked in and closed the door behind herself. "Sorry you've been all alone here. We've been setting things up to catch Megabyte once and for all."
"That can't be easy. If you can't let him know that you're onto him, your hands are practically tied."
"It'll be tricky, but we're all in on it. We can do it," Dot told him confidently. Mentally she amended that. Most of his friends were in on it. No need to go into details now.
"Tricky's got to be the understatement of the second," he remarked.
"Well..." She shrugged, feeling self-conscious. She had no trouble talking to Bob when others were around; she had come that far. But when they were alone, it was like a part of her froze over.
Bob said, "I feel useless. I'm not used to sitting back while everybody else fights."
"You have to recover first. After what Megabyte did to you-" Her voice caught and she paused for a moment before continuing. "You need to recover. And by the time you do we'll have found Glitch. You'll be good as new."
"Still, I wish I could do something."
After another pause, she answered quietly, "I wish I could too."
She looked down at the floor. "I got everything set up in Mainframe. Who knows what, what everyone's doing either to help or to keep them busy and out of the way. So now that that's done, I have nothing else to do. I can only wait for Turbo and the Guardian Collective - and Hexadecimal - to actually handle Megabyte. I feel like I've copped out. They'll be fighting out there while we stay safe. Not that I want more battles here, but - I just hate waiting, not able to do anything!"
"Tell me about it," he answered, and patted the bed beside himself.
She glanced at his hand, but did not come over. Bob looked disappointed. Then he swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. He stiffened, teeth gritted, as his body flickered momentarily transparent.
"Bob, don't!" Dot exclaimed. "You're not well enough!"
He did not sit down. "If I can't come over there, come over here, okay?"
She tried to smile. She had been talking to him across the room, as if he were infected with a contagious bug. "Sorry. I just- okay."
She came over and sat on the bed beside him. He put his hand on hers and asked softly, "How're you doing, Dot?"
Confused, she said, "What do you mean?"
"Megabyte. Dot, I know what happened. He told me all about it." His expression was one of grief.
She turned away. Her hand tensed under his. "Oh. That. I'm all right, Bob. It's not important."
She was lying, both to him and to herself, and neither of them believed it. He told her, "What Megabyte did was rotten. That was the worst part of it, for me. Not the code leaching or anything else, but hearing about what he was doing to you, and not being able to lift a finger to protect you."
"I'm all right," she whispered.
Bob continued, "He thought he could ruin you. That was going to be his revenge on both of us. But, Dot-" His fingers tightened around her hand, "that's something he could never do, as far as I'm concerned. I love you. Not in spite of what he did; it doesn't change how I feel about you at all. I don't care - no, I do care, but I - I just love you, Dot."
She took his hand away from his and slouched forward. Dismayed, he put a hand on her back. She was shaking. "Dot?"
She made a soft gasping sound. He put an arm around her. She turned, and he saw that she was trying not to cry and failing. He touched her cheek and said softly, "It's okay now, Dot."
That did it. She tried to say something, then began to cry. He was only surprised for a nano. After all that had happened to her, she needed to cry. She needed to let herself cry, he amended. He held her close, stroking her gently, as she wept.
The eyes in Hexadecimal's mask glowed green. She almost began to speak, to tell Bob of her adventure, but then saw Dot. That shocked her. Why was the indomitable Dot Matrix crying? Hexadecimal remained still and silent. After a little while her eyes turned dark blue.
Mouse, flying over the city on a zip board, led Hack and Slash to the ABC hangar behind which Megabyte had held Bob captive. The two bots looked distinctly unhappy as they landed and minimized their rockets. "What're we here for?" Hack quavered.
Had those two heard the stories about Megabyte's ghost prowling G Prime? Oh, brother. "We're doing some investigating, that's all. I wanna know what's around here. You used to live in this sector. What can you tell me about this place?"
Slash looked around, then said, "This is one of eight hangars in which ABCs were kept between missions and for maintenance. It could hold 128 working vehicles. The soldiers' quarters were right above and below, so they could be scrambled at a nano's notice." It sounded as if he was reciting from a readme.
"What he said," Hack agreed.
"Hmm." Vehicles and living quarters. "How about research?"
Hack and Slash looked at each other. Hack answered. "We didn't see any labs. Not down here, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess not. Okay, how about containment? Say Megabyte had something small and dangerous he wanted to store. You know where he'd put it?"
"I dunno. He had a lot of things like that."
"Like the Medusa bug."
"That wasn't Megabyte's-"
Mouse interrupted, "Hold it. What if he had another Medusa. Where would he put it?"
Slash answered, "Huh. After it turned him to stone the last time, I bet he'd throw it into the Energy Sea." He pointed with a thumb at the wall-sized hatch of the hangar, which opened over the edge of the system.
"Let's say he wanted to keep it safe somewhere. Maybe use it as a weapon later. Where'd he put it?" Mouse asked.
"In the Tor," Hack answered promptly.
But the Tor was gone, erased by the antivirus program that had scanned Mainframe after the restart. "Besides there. Is there someplace around here?"
The two bots pondered that question gravely, scratching their head domes, murmuring to each other, tapping their fingertips together. Mouse waited patiently. After their consultation Slash answered, "There's a place on the lowest level. We didn't go there much-"
"-It's dark and scary there-"
"-but sometimes we went and got things from down there."
"Or did things."
Pay dirt! "What kind of things?"
Slash said with a shudder, "Bad things."
"Things we do not speak of."
"Things that needed to be contained?"
Slash nodded, shamefaced, as Hack said "Yeah."
"Show me." The bots started to protest. Mouse cut them off by repeating more firmly, "Show me!"
They looked at each other, then reluctantly wheeled toward the troop exit that led into the depths of the sector.
Dot and Bob were lying together on his hospital bed. He was still holding her to himself, though she had stopped crying some time ago. For a little while they were content just to hold each other.
Dot looked up and smiled sadly at Bob. He smiled back. "Any better?"
"Yeah," she answered, a bit hoarsely. "But I've got a headache now, and I must look like a mess."
He smiled gently. "You look fine."
"Yeah, right." She closed her eyed, then pressed her face against his chest. "Bob... I don't ever want to leave..."
"Leave Mainframe?" he asked, a little confused.
"Here. Now. But I can't move my office in here."
He chuckled. "And I'd make lousy furniture."
She laughed softly. Then she looked up again. "Bob... I want to make everything right again. If only there was an undo key..."
Seriously he said, "Dot, what happened is over with. Don't beat yourself up about it any more. That's what Megabyte wants you to do. Don't let him win."
She closed her eyes. "I'll try."
"Anytime you need to, come back to me."
"It's a good thing you don't have Glitch armor any more. I'd cry on you so much you'd rust."
"Cry on me any time you need to."
A tear started down her cheek. Gently he wiped it away with a finger. Dot sniffled. Then she said, "I'd better get back."
He wished she wouldn't, but he knew better than to try to stop her. "Okay."
She sat up and looked upward for a few nanos, breathing deeply, preparing herself. She noticed Hexadecimal's mask - she had forgotten all about her. The eyes were still empty; she wasn't here now. Turning back to Bob, she promised, "I won't leave you alone for so long this time," she promised.
"Thanks. I missed you."
She continued impishly, "Although... if you got bored I could send Mike the TV in to keep you company."
Quickly Bob answered, "No, no, I'm good at keeping myself busy! I'd been planning to take up crossword puzzles. Sudoku. Bittlywinks."
They both grinned at each other. She leaned forward and kissed him, then said, "Be back soon."
"See you." He touched her hand. She clasped it, and they kissed once more. Then she left.
She felt much better now, aside from the headache. Bob was right. She would look forward, make things right, rather that suffer because of Megabyte. They would erase him from their lives and move on. It was so clear now, but she had needed Bob to make her see it.
She walked into the War Room. Only Phong, Specky, and a few other binomes were there now. "Anything?" she asked.
"Nothing to report, sir, ma'am," Specky answered.
"Midcycle and all's well," she said. She drew in a breath to speak to Phong, but her view was suddenly blocked by the sphere, in which she could see the interconnected subsystems of the Supercomputer, that popped into existence before her. Megabyte walked through. "Hi, Dot. You miss me?"
Horrified, she exclaimed, "Bob!"
He hadn't been expecting that reaction. "What's wrong?"
She hesitated for only a nanosecond, then she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the portal after herself.
They emerged in a supply room. A female Guardian, whose arm was still raised - Dot guessed that she had created the portal with her keytool - looked startled. Megabyte said to her, "I, um, didn't expect this. Thanks."
Megabyte led Dot out of the supply station. "What was that about?"
A little too brightly Dot answered, "Oh, I - well, I've never seen this Supercomputer you've told us so much about. And you're always saying I never do anything spontaneously, I have to plan everything out first - well, how's this for acting on impulse?"
He looked at her as if deciding how to react. Then he grinned. "You sure surprised me, all right. So, shall show you around?"
"I'd like that," she answered.
He put an arm around her waist. She fought a wild desire to run, fight, do anything to get away from Megabyte's gentle, familiar touch.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain