By Kim McFarland
|"Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer."
- Sun Tzu, The Art Of War
Megabyte's voice echoed through the corridors of the Principle Office. Matrix, fists clenched, was glaring up at the grill of the overhead speaker. Bob's hands also had tightened into fists. He remembered when they had returned to Mainframe from the Web and found that Megabyte had taken the city over. In his rage Matrix had shot out a searchlight, setting off alarms and calling the viral troops down on them. Bob held a hand up, palm out, toward Matrix. "We can't let Megabyte know where we are."
"Well, what're we gonna do?!" Matrix snarled.
"We've gotta find the others. We saw Dot, Hack, Slash, Mouse, and AndrAIa get away."
"Yeah. How we gonna do that?"
"We gotta figure out where they are," Bob said.
Mouse looked back at the colored buttons of the keypad. If she could only access a terminal, she could ferret the password out in a nano and get to the Core. What a stupid thing to block a master hacker, she thought, a spammed password!
"Any luck?" AndrAIa said from behind her.
"It's gotta be a random-character combination," Mouse answered, her voice tense with frustration. "It could take the rest of my runtime to try everything! Since when did Phong start changing the passwords? I'd'a thought he'd been usin' the same ones for hours now!"
AndrAIa heard the keypad begin bleeping. Despite what she had just said, Mouse was trying it again. AndrAIa said, "Even if we do get through, what'll we do once we're in there? We can't fight Megabyte off by ourselves!"
"I know, honey," Mouse muttered grimly.
Hack and Slash were trembling fearfully. They had gibbered and thrashed about in terror until Dot had ordered them to shut up. They were rock stupid, she thought, but once they had orders they followed them. "Boys, we need to find the others. Bob and Matrix were in the detention section. They'll still have to be there or nearby. One of you, go get them. We need to get to the Core before Megabyte does!"
The two bots glanced at each other. "I'll stay with Dot," Slash whispered.
"What if Megabyte comes?" Hack answered in a hiss.
Dot rolled her eyes while they two argued in whispers over who would go. "We don't have time for this!" she exclaimed. "Hack, go find Bob and Matrix! Tell them to come to us in the Core. Slash, you're with me."
The two bots chorused, "Yes, ma'am!" Hack whirled about, dinging Slash's shoulder, and sped away down the corridor.
When it came to each other, the two bots didn't understand the concept of the word "around." Again Dot rolled her eyes. "Keep watch," she said to the blue robot. He saluted, then turned to face outward while Dot tapped at the keypad.
Mouse's fingers continued clicking on the keypad. AndrAIa knew the rhythm by now - five high-pitched beeps as Mouse pressed keys, then a lower, disapproving tone that indicated that the password had not been accepted. It was a five-character password. Five characters that could each be any of twenty-six letters and ten digits, not counting other characters, she hoped - that's thirty-six to the fifth power... hopeless! But Mouse kept trying. She must not have any better ideas than AndrAIa did-
"Wait!" AndrAIa said in an urgent whisper.
"What?" Mouse, turning around, asked in a low voice.
"I don't hear anything."
Mouse had heard about AndrAIa's hearing. They said it was much sharper than that of regular Sprites. Drawing her katana, she peered down the hallway. She saw nobody. "What d'ya hear?"
"I'm not sure. Sounds like a machine."
Mouse took a position beside the opening of the passageway into the chamber. If anyone came through it at AndrAIa, Mouse would be able to attack them from behind. AndrAIa nodded to her, acknowledging her strategy.
After several tense nanos, AndrAIa relaxed and lowered her trident. "It's okay. It's Hack," she told Mouse.
"Ya sure?" Mouse said.
"Hack, Slash, and Dot got out before we did. Megabyte wouldn't have gotten them - and even if he did, he wouldn't have turned into Hack, he would have become Dot."
Disgusted, Mouse said,"I hope he doesn't have that much imagination!"
"I wouldn't put anything past him any more," AndrAIa answered.
Hack appeared far down the corner. He wheeled up to them at top speed, and barely skidded to a stop before colliding with AndrAIa. "Have you seen Bob and Matrix?" he asked, agitated.
"No, we just-"
"I gotta find 'em!" he exclaimed, and zoomed out the opposite side of the intersection.
Mouse and AndrAIa stared after him. Then they looked at each other. AndrAIa guessed, "Dot must've given them orders to find Bob and Matrix."
"Yeah, so where's Dot?"
"You're looking at the same readme I am," AndrAIa replied.
Hack sped down the hallways. Usually this place was full of people. Now there was nobody. It was spooky! What if Megabyte had gotten them already? And the spinning lights in these corridors were making him nervous!
He passed another intersection, and as he did his head spun around, a single quick revolution, so he could glance down the hallways on either side. Nobody. Then he heard footsteps, and put on an extra burst of speed.
When he turned a corner he found himself eyes-to-muzzle with a very familiar Gun. He jerked to a stop and yelped.
The robot looked half out of his wits, Bob thought. Which was not far from his usual state. "Matrix..."
"Yeah." Grudgingly Matrix lowered Gun.
"Um," Hack began politely. "We have to go to Dot."
"You know where she is?" Matrix exclaimed.
"She said she will meet you in the Core," Hack answered.
"Of course!" Bob said. "Where else would she be now? C'mon!"
AndrAIa tensed again when she heard footsteps. "Mouse!"
Mouse stopped tapping keys. A nano later she heard it too. Several sets of footsteps, plus the softer whir of a trackball. AndrAIa dodged out of the way of the robot. He zipped through the room, Bob and Matrix following behind. Bob and Matrix both looked at them, surprised. "We're going to Dot. C'mon!' Matrix said, beckoning.
"Gotcha," AndrAIa answered. She and Mouse ran after the others.
Unseen, Dot snarled at the door in front of her. She had opened the main security door with her passcode, only to be stopped by another locked door! Megabyte had gotten access to the Core once before, when he had tricked them into letting him in by hiding in a fake upgrade. He had been able to command some of the defenses; he was using what he had learned then, obviously!
She turned when she heard footsteps and voices. Slash was centered in the entrance to the passageway, guarding her. A nano later Hack returned, with Bob and Matrix - And Mouse and AndrAIa! Dot ran toward them.
As she approached, she heard Slash ask, "But what if one of 'em is Megabyte?"
Both robots turned and stared at the four Sprites. Dot said, "Have any of you been out of the sight of the others?"
"I've been with AndrAIa the whole time," Mouse answered. AndrAIa nodded.
"They left together," Bob confirmed. "I saw it from the VidWindow. After Hack and Slash pulled you out, Mouse and AndrAIa got out."
"And I've been with Bob since we were in the cells," Matrix added.
"What about Dad, Enzo, and Phong?" Dot asked. When Bob hesitated, his expression grim, Dot exclaimed, "What happened to them?!"
"Phong... saved Mouse and AndrAIa by taking a hit Megabyte meant for them," Bob said in a low voice. "Megabyte infected Welman's suit. I didn't see him do anything to Enzo."
"We've got to get them out of there!"
"We can't just charge in-"
"Since when?" Matrix asked, holding Gun up, its muzzle pointed at the ceiling.
Staring into Dot's eyes, Bob said firmly, "What we need is a plan."
She looked back into his eyes, momentarily caught. Then she glanced around. The others were watching her. "Yes. You're right. Thanks, Bob." She paused for a few nanos, gathering her thoughts. She glanced back down the hallway at the locked door. "He's sealed us out of the Core, at least by this route."
"I couldn't get in at the next spinward door either. Couldn't get the password," Mouse told her.
"Each of the six doors has a different password," Dot answered. "Maybe you could've guessed 'em, but they're all nonsense ASCII strings. Without a terminal at the door, anyone would need a lotta luck to get through without being authorized."
"I know," Mouse said sourly.
The best defense against a hacker is not to let her access the computer at all, Phong had said. When he had last upgraded the Principle Office's security, he had asked himself what would keep Mouse out. If it would confound her, then no other hacker would stand a chance. Dot wasn't going to tell Mouse about that, though. She said, "First. Is he going to go after the Gateway? It sounded like he was more interested in hunting us down."
Bob answered firmly, "He wants the Gateway. Bad. Remember, he's out to gain power and control, it's in his format. If he has a working Gateway he can get to other systems. He isn't going to give that up even to get back at us."
"We should've deleted him when we had the chance instead of taking him prisoner," Matrix interjected.
The others looked at Bob, expecting him to argue. However, Bob only looked away, frowning. Dot was surprised. Bob had compassion for everybody, and was brave enough to walk up to a new Virus to give it a chance rather than blindly following Guardian protocols and deleting it on sight. His empathy was one of the things she loved about him. She never wanted him to lose it. But this was a different case. Megabyte had proven himself to be a vicious, murderous creature. He had no compassion and, Dot thought, deserved none. But... after all that had happened, she did not want to be the one to argue against Bob.
AndrAIa broke the uncomfortable silence. "Megabyte has control of the War Room and everyone inside it."
Bob nodded. "He'll use them against us. Bargaining chips. If he had intended to delete them, they wouldn't have survived his initial attack. He'll keep them around."
"You sound awful sure of that," Matrix said.
"I am," Bob answered.
"Is there a terminal anywhere around here?" Mouse asked Dot.
Dot pointed down the corridor. "There's one beside the locked door."
"I'll have us in in no time, then!" Mouse said, suddenly cheerful.
Dot doubted that, considering that she hadn't been able to get the access codes - but then again, give Mouse access to the system and who knew how far she could go? They certainly hadn't found her limits yet.
"Can we move the Gateway again?" AndrAIa asked. "If we put it somewhere Megabyte couldn't get to it..."
"The only place like that is the inner Core," Dot said. She looked at Bob.
"He couldn't survive in there. The energy's too hot for him. It's not comfortable for me either," he affirmed. "But it's not like I can just zip the Gateway and carry it in my pocket."
"Guys, you better come look at this," Mouse said from down the hall.
The group walked over to her. Above the terminal was a VidWindow showing a wireframe diagram of the Principle Office. The War Room was filled in with green. Green threads reached outward. One extended into a loop around the center. "Looks like the first thing he did was block us from the Core," she told them.
Bob looked carefully at the diagram. A thread was extending itself slowly toward one of the system's control centers.
Dot saw it too. "He knows what he's doing. He can't infect whole sectors that quickly; it took him a long time to infect all of G Prime. So, he's going after the vital functions first, ones we can't shut him out of by powering them down. We have to stop him now!"
"I'm not gonna just stand here and watch while he takes over!" Matrix said.
Mouse was already working on the terminal. Without looking away she said, "I'm settin' up blocks to buy us some time."
Dot asked, "Can you stop him?"
"If Hackers could stop Viruses, honey, I'd be wearin' a gold icon," Mouse said. "I can only make it tough for him. With any luck he'll keep fighting my blocks while we're movin' the Gateway. Or whatever you all plan," she added pointedly.
Again Megabyte looked around the War Room. He took in the sight of viral CPU binomes, machinery that was blue with his infection, and the wreckage left from the recent battle. The short fight that had ended in his victory and control of the Principle Office! It was finally his!
The first time he had taken over, when he had turned Mainframe into Megaframe, he hadn't infected the Principle Office. He had already been in complete control, and the rebels had been reduced to a handful of powerless fanatics who, by themselves, had posed no threat to him. Infecting the control center of a system took a massive amount of power. He hadn't wanted to drain himself by spreading himself too thin; he had wanted to save his strength for when he invaded the Supercomputer.
This time it was different. He wanted to own this system, every angstrom of it! He wanted those Sprites to feel the hopelessness of their situation, to suffer for every nanosecond that Megabyte had suffered in the Web. He would take their system from them, bit by bit, letting them think that they could fight him, frantic until the bitter end. How sweet that would be!
At another time he would have described his plan in loving detail to all in his presence. What was an evil plan without an audience, he thought, and smiled. But these virals were not worth a filibuster. He had taken their minds from them, leaving them zombielike slaves. Automatons. It would be like talking to windup toys.
But he had three Sprites in his grasp. He looked down at Phong, who was still lying where he had fallen, pierced by two of Megabyte's tentacles. Megabyte walked over to him and looked down at the floor. "You'll be happy to know, old Sprite, that I don't plan to extract any passwords from you this time. I have no need of them, now that I have infected the Principle Office. That makes you obsolete, doesn't it? But I suppose that's hardly news."
Phong stirred slightly, lifting his head just enough to look Megabyte in the eyes. But the Sprite did not speak. With a soft groan he lay his head back down again and closed his eyes.
"Rest in peace, old Sprite," Megabyte said disdainfully. When he turned he saw Enzo, frightened and angry, struggling in the hold of Welman's exosuit. Three Sprites? Phong was dying, and he could hardly call Welman a Sprite. One Sprite, then, but one very significant, useful Sprite. He walked over and crouched to put himself at Enzo's eye level. "You, on the other hand, will serve me well, boy."
"No I won't!" Enzo shouted, and swung a fist at Megabyte's face.
Megabyte did not flinch. There was a clang and a yelp from the boy. Megabyte had hardly felt the impact of the small fist on the metal of his jaw, but, he saw as he looked back at Enzo, those bruised knuckles would hurt for some time to come. "Yes, you will, boy," he said with a sharp-toothed grin. "I can think of so many ways. Perhaps I should go back to them disguised as you, hmm? Or perhaps I could infect you. I haven't had much success in infecting Sprites - in fact, my previous efforts were all dismal failures - but the last time I tried was long ago. Things have changed since then."
Enzo shrank back, frightened. Megabyte grinned wider. Then he stood and looked at the null within the exosuit's bubble dome. "And you, Nibbles. I haven't forgotten about you. Once I have that suit upgraded, you'll become part of my assault team. Isn't that poetic? Father and son, fighting side by side to bring down the rebels." He laughed.
"I'll never fight for you, Megabyte!" Welman said.
"Ah yes, right on script," Megabyte observed.
"You may have-"
"Be quiet," Megabyte snapped, commanding the infected exosuit. Obediently the vocal circuits shut down, leaving the null speaking angrily to itself in its bubble. "Take him away," Megabyte said. The suit picked the struggling young Sprite up and carried him into Dot's former office. The door shut behind them, cutting off Enzo's noise.
Megabyte strode back up the steps to the main control panel. Above it, a VidWindow showed him a realtime image of the Gateway command. It was, as they said, in the Core, in the very spot where he had stood when he had entered inside a fake upgrade. He could get to it easily! As soon as he infected a path to it. He grasped the workstation and concentrated. Infecting the Principle Office was a difficult task - it put up more resistance and took more power than a normal sector would - and the part he was concentrating on now was proving especially troublesome.
"I'm holdin' him back. I don't know for how long," Mouse said as she glared at her workstation. The end of one of the green threads was pulsing against a blue block.
"We've got to get our people away from Megabyte," Dot said. "Mouse, can you hide us from him? Keep him from tracking us?"
Bob answered, "In the Principle Office? Once it's all infected, there won't be anywhere to hide." Mouse nodded agreement.
"He won't be expecting us to attack him so soon. I say we get him while we have the advantage," Matrix said.
Dot shook her head. "We don't have an advantage," she told her brother. "Nobody's running off to get themselves deleted." She looked around at Bob, Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, Hack and Slash. They were all waiting for her to come up with one of her plans. And...
She turned to Mouse. "Can you make a tear from here? Take control of the generator in the Pinnacle?"
As the keyboard rattled busily Dot turned to the others. Before she could speak Matrix asked in a tone of disbelief, "We're just going to run?" From the expression on Bob's face, he was thinking the same thing.
"No. But that's what it'll look like to Megabyte," she said with a smug smile. "He'll go up there to catch us before we get away. In the meantime, we get Dad, Enzo, and Phong from the War Room."
Bob nodded approvingly. Dot said to Hack and Slash, "You two, I'll need you to slow Megabyte down once he gets up there. I don't expect you to win, just keep him busy long enough. Go!"
The two bots saluted, then turned and somehow managed to zip down the hall without crashing into each other. Dot felt a twinge of guilt; she was sending them out to get beaten up. But then they had been smashed to pieces so many times, they seemed to be used to it. A few microseconds of grief for them would buy three Sprites the rest of their lives.
She looked at Bob. "Go to the War Room. Matrix and AndrAIa, back him up-"
Bob cut in, "If we start a battle in there, it might call Megabyte right back down on us."
"What're you saying?" Dot said, then instantly regretted her sharp tone.
Bob explained, "I'm faster, and I've been trained in this kind of thing. That whole section is infected. One person wouldn't be likely to alert Megabyte, but three would." Looking at Matrix, he said before the other could speak, "I'll need backup, but I should go into the War Room alone. Those virals didn't look like they had enough processor power left to draw their weapons without direct orders. If I need help, I can call for you. And if he's had time to set a trap - it'll only get one of us."
Matrix scowled. He hated not being able to take action; everybody knew that. He looked at Dot. She was staring at Bob. After several nanoseconds she said, "Yes. Yes, you're right. Go on, do it." She looked around at Matrix and AndrAIa to include them in the statement. Then she said to Mouse, "Are you ready to release a tear?"
"Ready. And I'll make sure he knows what's going on." The hacker grinned.
"Then do it." Looking at the screen above Mouse's terminal, Dot held up a hand toward Bob, Matrix, and AndrAIa. "Wait..."
They watched as the machinery powered up. It gathered energy from the Core and forced it into an unstable state, creating a tear. The words "TEAR RELEASED" appeared in an inset in the screen. "Wait for it..." Dot said, watching the diagram of the infection.
Megabyte looked up sharply from the console he had been using to infect the system. His claws had scored deep gouges in the metal as he had become frustrated with a particularly resistant subroutine. Now something else was happening, a huge energy buildup. The big VidWindow on the opposite wall from this station was flashing the words, "TEAR RELEASED."
He growled in his throat. They were trying to escape! He let go of the terminal and ran out the door, his footsteps pounding down the hall.
The end of the green thread that had been pulsing against the block, showing Megabyte's attempt to break through Mouse's obstacle, stopped flashing. "He's taken the bait!" Mouse exclaimed.
Dot turned to Bob, Matrix, and AndrAIa. "Go!"
As their footsteps receded Dot said, "Mouse, see what blocks you can set up between the main energy source and the shields. I don't want Megabyte to get too secure here."
"Gotcha," Mouse said, and went to work at her keyboard.
Fleetingly Dot thought that this must be heaven for Mouse. Being given free rein to hack the Principle Office's controls! Thank the User she's on our side.
When the clanging of Megabyte's footsteps receded in the distance Bob looked out from a bend in the corridor at the War Room door. "Okay. Wait here. If I need you, I'll signal."
Matrix nodded, and AndrAIa said, "Right."
Bob walked quietly to the door. He raised Glitch, ready to use the keytool as a weapon, then opened the door. It shooshed upward.
The scene inside the War room was eerily still and silent. None of the virals bothered to look at him, not even the ones facing in his direction. Their minds must have been suppressed or destroyed. He shuddered at the thought. They would be useless to Megabyte; why had he done this to them, instead of leaving them enough mental capacity to serve him? Was it as a warning to others, or pure sadism?
Hack and Slash, already jittery, startled when a hatch banged open in the Pinnacle. Megabyte leapt up through it. The Virus stared at them, surprised. Then he said, "Ah, Hack and Slash. Are you ready to rejoin my forces? You don't want to be on the losing side again."
Hack pulled back a few angstroms and dithered. However, Slash shouted back, "No way! We're Good Guys now!"
Megabyte let the following silence stretch for a few nanos. Then he shook his head and sighed. "A pity. I could have used you." He snapped one arm up. A pair of thick metal tentacles lashed out from the back of his wrist. The bots darted up, out of the way, on their jets.
At the top of the balcony stairs Bob saw a gold and red shape. He ran up the steps and said, "Phong!"
The old Sprite weakly raised his head. "Bob... why are you here?"
"I'm here to get you, Enzo, and Welman out of here," he answered quickly.
"They are in there." Without looking around Phong raised one hand and gestured vaguely in the direction of Dot's office. "Save them. Save Mainframe." He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "The password to the Core is 124C4. That will override all other security measures. Use it to seal Megabyte out."
"I'm not leaving you here, Phong!"
"You can save Enzo and Welman. I do not have as much hope for myself. Come back for me if you can. And, Bob," he looked up at the Guardian, "Protect Dot."
"I will. And I'll be back for you," Bob promised soberly.
Dot looked over Mouse's shoulder at the displays, then the keyboard. Neither gave any indication what was happening either in the War Room or the Pinnacle, and they couldn't watch without opening a VidWindow on the other end. She had no way of knowing whether Hack and Slash were still holding out against Megabyte; all she could see was system reports.
Hack and Slash buzzed around like insects, flying in different paths so Megabyte could not attack at both at the same time. Their mission was to keep him busy as long as possible, which meant not even trying to beat him. If they got close enough, he would smash them!
Megabyte had been swatting at Hack with the tentacles of one arm. He only used one arm, Slash noticed. His hands retracted, and were replaced by small rocket launchers. He aimed - And Megabyte whipped around and pointed at him. A thick metal cable pierced him just below his voicelight.
Bob entered Dot's office. Enzo was there, held by the shoulders by Welman's exosuit. "Bob!" Enzo exclaimed.
Bob pointed Glitch at the exosuit. Though colored viral blue, it didn't attack. Megabyte must not have reprogrammed it for that. Enzo said, "Don't shoot! Dad's in there! It's just the suit that's infected, not him!"
"I know," Bob said, lowering his arm. He looked at the suit. It stood still, gripping Enzo tightly. He had no doubt that if he tried to free Enzo the suit would activate. That put Enzo in danger! Bob hesitated for a nano, then raised Glitch again and fired.
Glass splattered. Enzo screamed. The metal hands holding his shoulder tightened painfully, then jerked away. He looked back and saw that Bob had shot the power source in the chest of the exosuit. It had fallen back against the wall, and was sparking and shuddering.
A door on the other side of the War Room opened. Phong could not see the entrance, but the heavy footsteps told him that Megabyte was back. The Virus grumbled to himself as he walked past Phong and to the terminal. He stared at the control panel. Then he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye.
Bob had pushed Enzo back against the wall with one hand and laid a finger on his lips. Then he whispered into Glitch, "Matrix, AndrAIa, he's back. I'm gonna need you."
"We'll be right there!" Matrix answered.
When Bob looked up he saw Megabyte glaring at him from the doorway. The Virus placed a hand on the wall; Bob heard the doors leading out of the War Room slam shut. "No, this is a private party," Megabyte told him. "Children aren't invited," he added, looking at Enzo. He grabbed Bob by one arm and dragged him back into the War Room. The door - which was now colored viral blue - snapped shut behind him.
Mouse looked up as part of the display began flashing red.
Dot saw it too. "That's the tear generator, isn't it?"
"Yep. It's been trashed. We're not gonna be able to make any tears for a while."
"Great," Dot said under her breath.
AndrAIa and Matrix ran to the War Room door, and nearly smacked into it when it failed to open for them. It had gone blue. Infected! Matrix's hand tightened on Gun's grip. He could shoot through the door - and if Bob was on the other side of it, Matrix would end up doing Megabyte's dirty work for him. He began pounding on the door, putting all of his strength behind each blow.
Enzo huddled back from the door. He could hear the sounds of the fight in the War Room. It sounded like they were destroying the place - or each other - in there! He had seen what Megabyte could do when Megabyte had first been revealed; he had practically wrecked the great hall while trying to delete Bob! What was happening now?!
"Uh oh," Mouse said as another flashing red circle appeared. "Something's happening in the War Room."
"What?" Dot said anxiously.
"I don't know. All I can see is that there's damage. Some systems are down."
"Yeah," Mouse agreed.
Matrix continued pounding on the door even after the sounds of the fight within ended. He nearly fell into the room when the door shooshed open. Bob, looking rather battered, was standing there. "Hurry, I need you to get Phong out of here!"
Matrix and AndrAIa stepped in and looked around the room. The walls were dented, VidWindows and monitors smashed. And Megabyte was sprawled face-down on the floor. From the way he had fallen below a deep dent in the wall, it looked like he had hit the wall first. "What happened?"
Bob spoke quickly. "He gained a lot of powers in the Web. Well, he gained a weakness too. See those exposed wires behind his neck? They must carry his energy. I hit them, and he just collapsed."
"Huh!" Matrix said.
"Come on, we have to get the others out of here! Phong's up at the top of the stairs, behind the control panel." He pointed, then went over to Dot's office.
AndrAIa ran up the stairs to where Phong was still lying. Thankfully, the battle hadn't come up there. She said, "Are you okay, Phong?"
"I am processing, child," he said in a whispery voice.
"We'll get you outta here!" Matrix lifted Phong. The old Sprite gasped. AndrAIa could see the two holes made by Megabyte's tentacles. They had punched right through his front! But they weren't bleeding energy, and if he had survived this long, there had to be a chance. "Matrix, carry him down to the med area!"
Matrix nodded and left, going a little too fast down the stairs for Phong's comfort.
AndrAIa went into Dot's office. Enzo was all right, she saw. The exosuit was wrecked, or at least it would need a new power source. Since it was viral blue, that was a good thing! Bob was trying to twist the dome off. When he heard AndrAIa come in he said "I can't get Welman out of there! If I smash the dome I'll crush him."
The null inside was pointing frantically at the door. He was saying something, but without the suit's audio circuits it was all but inaudible outside of the dome. Enzo put his ear to the dome and listened. Then, distressed, he looked up at Bob. "He says to go while we still can! Bob, we can't leave Dad here!"
Bob paused, looking at Welman and thinking. Then he said, "Hold on, this may hurt."
AndrAIa and Enzo stared as Bob lifted the Exo-suit. He bent it forward at the waist, then swung it sharply at the wall. The dome cracked. Another swing and it shattered, spilling glass shards and a null onto the ground. Enzo picked Welman up. "Are you okay, Dad?!"
"I think so..." came the unsteady reply.
"Then come on!" Bob said. He ran for the door, with Enzo and AndrAIa following.
She put out her arms and caught Enzo in a hug. Mouse said to Bob and AndrAIa, who had been left behind by Enzo's last-nano sprint, "Ya did it!"
AndrAIa said, "He had us worried for a nano, though. Megabyte came back early and locked him in."
"What?!" Dot exclaimed, and looked sharply up at Bob.
"It's okay," Bob told her. "I found his weak spot and knocked him out. Welman's exosuit was infected. I had to break it to get him out."
"That doesn't matter," Dot said, looking around. "Where is he?"
"I'm back here."
Dot looked behind herself. Enzo said, "Sorry, Dad," as he took his arms from around Dot. He had hugged his sister while still holding the null.
"That's all right," he said.
Dot stared. Enzo was holding a null in his bare hand! But now this null was sentient; of course he wouldn't drain Enzo's energy.
"Matrix got Phong out," Bob began.
Dot answered, "I know. Matrix VidWindowed from the med area. I don't suppose either of you know how to work those stations?" Bob and AndrAIa shook their heads. "Too bad. Phong does, so he's trying to walk Matrix through it. I suppose at another time I'd be laughing."
Bob nodded. "Phong isn't as badly off as we thought. Did you see where he was holed? The drawer. Megabyte didn't hit any vital systems. Phong'll be okay."
"Thank the Programmer," AndrAIa said.
Bob said, "In the meantime, We need to get Hack and Slash back. Pieces of them must scattered all over the pinnacle. I'll go."
Dot nodded and said, "Go on, before Megabyte recovers. AndrAIa, go with him - there'll be a lot of bits to pick up."
AndrAIa said, "Why don't I swap places with Matrix. I have a feeling I'll be better at a med station than he is."
"You're probably right. Send Matrix with Bob," Dot said.
Bob and AndrAIa nodded, then left at a run.
When they were gone Mouse said, "So far, so good."
"Yeah. But this is just the beginning," Dot answered.
When Bob and Matrix arrived on the Pinnacle, the scene was just as they had predicted: red and blue fragments lay everywhere. "Same as it ever was," Matrix commented.
"Hi, Bob. Hi, Matrix," came a cheerful voice from one side.
They looked over. The dome of Hack's head was lying on the ground by itself. Bob said, "Thanks, guys. The plan worked. We got the others back."
"Oh, good. I'm all right, but he hurt Slash. He hasn't said a word." The eyes turned, and a red hand lying nearby pointed. They looked over and saw the truncated oval of Slash's body. Right below the voicelight was a deep hole.
"I'm gettin' too familiar with those," Matrix grumbled.
"Don't worry, we'll repair him," Bob said to Hack as he began gathering pieces.
When Matrix and Bob returned, each carrying what looked like an armload of red, blue, and chrome-colored scrap, the door to the inner Core chamber was open. They went inside, and found Dot, Mouse, Enzo, Welman, AndrAIa, and Phong in one of the control rooms. Mouse was at work on one of the stations there. Dot said, "Good job, guys!"
Bob said, "Hack's just fallen apart, but Slash is damaged. He isn't functioning at all."
Dot looked at the pieces that Bob and Matrix put on the floor. When she saw the hole in Slash's torso she said, "Ouch. Just put Hack together then. We better repair Slash before we assemble him." She looked at Enzo. "Want to put Hack together? The pieces snap into place. It's like a jigsaw puzzle."
"Can I? Cool!" Enzo exclaimed, and began picking red pieces out of the pile.
"I'll help," Hack volunteered.
Bob asked Phong, "How are you?"
Phong answered calmly, "It will be a while before I play Pong again, but I will recover." He gestured down at the patches he had directed AndrAIa to apply over the holes. "I was very lucky that Megabyte hit me where he did."
Mouse turned away from her workstation. "We all are," she said in a low, uncomfortable voice. "Phong, I saw what you did."
"You two had to escape," he answered in a matter-of-fact tone.
Mouse and AndrAIa exchanged a look. What else could they say to him, except... "Thank you." Phong nodded calm acknowledgment to them.
Bob said, "The tear generator is wrecked. Megabyte doesn't want us to escape before he gets his hands on us. That's one more reason he's going to try for the Gateway - he won't want us to use that either."
Dot nodded. "It looks like we'll have to fight him for the Gateway, once and for all. We can't move it before he comes for it. Can we?"
Mouse shook her head. "Maybe we can and maybe we can't. You wanna bet the whole system on it?"
"Ambushing Megabyte using the Gateway as bait. You ever get that creepy deja vu feeling?" Bob remarked.
AndrAIa answered, "Cliches are cliches for a reason."
"All right then," Dot said grimly. "We don't know which path he'll take to the Core, so we can't intercept him. We'll have to meet him there. But first we need to go to the armory."
"I don't," Matrix said, patting Gun's grip.
Dot replied sharply, "Matrix, we're going to be inside the Core! A missed shot could damage the system! We have to use weapons that won't endanger it."
He seemed taken aback. Then he said, "I can still use the targeting mode. The icon'll mark him in case he starts shifting."
"Okay. But we'll get you something else so you'll have a weapon to shoot."
"Okay," Matrix grudgingly agreed. AndrAIa hid her grin. Dot had Matrix figured out, all right. If a battle started and he didn't have a gun to fire, he got restless.
Dot spoke to Phong, Enzo, and Welman. "We're going to lock you in here. Megabyte should just pass you by. I don't want you getting caught in the middle of this battle."
"Hey! What about me?" Hack, who was halfway assembled, asked plaintively.
"You want to fight Megabyte again?" Bob asked, surprised.
He blinked, confused by the question. "Well... I'm supposed to protect Dot," he answered after dithering for a few nanos.
"When Enzo gets you back together again, come join us," Dot told him. "The door won't be locked from the inside."
"Okey-dokey!" Hack saluted with his one functional arm.
In a low voice she said to her little brother, "Enzo... be brave, and stay in here. We'll be back ASAP."
"Yeah..." he said softly. Then, to cover up his nervousness, he said "Kick Megabyte's bitmap!"
Bob laughed. Dot said, "We will."
It was a short trip to the Armory, then the Core. The central plateau was linked to the rim edges only by teleporters; there were no physical bridges. Dot gave the code to activate the teleport bridges - "zip, zip, zoom" - and then they made it across.
Mouse said, "If we disabled the tele... no, that wouldn't do any good. Megabyte would just jump across."
Bob nodded. "I know he could. We all saw that." He walked over to the Gateway. "Undamaged. Still working. Unless..." He tapped a control at the base. A panel flipped opened, revealing a chip with a red gemlike crystal at the center. "...we remove this."
"Could he duplicate that?" Dot asked.
"No. Remember, he originally stole the chip from the Archive. He wouldn't have bothered if he could have made one himself," Bob answered. "We need to hide this."
"Here." Dot held out her hand. Bob handed the chip to her. She slipped it under the buckle of her belt. Then she said, "You said Megabyte had some new weaknesses. What are they?"
"You know those wires on the back of his neck? Aim for them. In the War Room all I did was hit them and he fell like I'd cut his power!" Bob grinned.
"You're serious?" Mouse asked in disbelief.
"Yep. It saved my process once today." Bob replied.
"The trick is getting in close enough to hit them," Dot commented, then looked around at the others. "I don't want anyone trying to go hand to hand with him. Not after what we've seen he can do."
"What's it matter? We've got to get in close anyway," Matrix said, scowling at the weapon in his hand.
Dot shook her head and did not answer. She had given them short-range weapons. They would fire a powerful charge, enough to stun a full-grown Sprite, but only over short distances. Unfortunately, their effective range was approximately the same as that of Megabyte's tentacles.
"Dot..." Bob said, and laid his hand on her shoulder.
She turned back to him, and was surprised by his worried expression. "What is it?"
Looking into her eyes, he said, "We've got everyone right here. If we fail, Mainframe is doomed for sure." Choosing his words carefully, he said, "I think you should take the Gateway command chip and leave before Megabyte gets here."
Dot heard what he wasn't saying: that she was the least experienced fighter here, and the one who'd be in the most danger. She didn't want to leave them, to run off to safety while they faced the enemy. But... "You're right," she said. "I just wish there was something I could do."
"There is," he told her. "Hide the chip. Keep Enzo, Welman, Phong, and yourself safe. If we lose here, Megabyte'll still be trapped and you will still be able to fight him."
Dot looked into his eyes. He took her hands in his. They were warm; she had not noticed that her own had become cold. She whispered, "Bob, I..."
She trailed off, knowing what she wanted to say but not how to say it. Gently he said, "I know, Dot. We'll talk later. There'll be a later, I promise. Okay?"
She nodded. Her eyes were beginning to sting. He smiled and kissed her lightly. Her arms wrapped around him suddenly and held him surprisingly tight.
A roar echoed through the Core chamber. It bounced off the walls, sounding as if it came from all around them. Bob and Dot jerked apart. "Heads up!" Mouse yelled. She was pointing with her sword at one of the six chamber entrances. Megabyte was crouching there, arms out, claws extended, ready to spring.
"Go, Dot! Shut the teleporters off so he can't follow you!" Bob told her, pointing at the exit on the opposite side of the chamber. She nodded quickly and squeezed his hand once, then ran.
Megabyte leapt high into the air. AndrAIa and Matrix tracked him with their stun guns. Mouse also had a stun gun, but it was in its holster; the next time he used the other set of tentacles on someone else, she'd slice them up with her katanas! Bob held his left arm out, following Megabyte's arc with Glitch.
The impact of the Virus landing on the Core platform sent a shock through it that they all felt through their feet. He snarled, glaring around at them, claws out. Then he seemed to compose himself, and stood up straighter. "I suppose this is where I should say something to the effect that you cannot win and that I will soon have Mainframe in my clutches, and then clench my fist dramatically for good measure," he said in a conversational tone. "Sorry to disappoint, but my patience is at an end!"
Megabyte darted forward and shot a pair of tentacles from one wrist at Bob. Bob shouted, "Glitch, energy beam!"
As soon as Megabyte had leapt Dot had activated the teleporter bridges and ported across from the platform. Then she had deactivated the teleporters again. But what if they needed to get out of there? She had to stay back in case she needed to activate them again. And - she couldn't leave them now! She and the gateway command were safe enough here.
She saw Bob try to use Glitch, and fail.
Bob dodged the mental tentacles, then, while Megabyte was reeling them back in, stared at the keytool in surprise. "Glitch!"
Megabyte laughed in his throat and stalked forward. "Out of energy, are we?"
Bursts of green light hit Megabyte from one side, then another. He looked around, annoyed. Matrix and AndrAIa had their stunners pointed at him. "Oh, really," he commented disdainfully, then continued toward Bob. The Virus did not react when a targeting icon attached itself to his back.
"Bob!" Mouse shouted. He glanced over. She tossed him her stunner. He caught it and pointed it at Megabyte. The Virus continued forward. Bob shot at him. Megabyte only flinched each time he was hit.
A small explosion threw Megabyte forward. Bob yelped and barely managed to dodge to the side before the Virus landed on him. Mouse looked up. Hack was flying above the platform, holding out one of his rocket-launcher arms. "Hack! No!" Mouse and AndrAIa yelled simultaneously.
"What?" he asked, taken aback.
"Don't shoot those in here! You could wreck the Core!" AndrAIa yelled.
"Oh. Sorry," he said, embarrassed.
Megabyte stood up and brushed himself off, ignoring the stun beams as best he could. Off to one side, Mouse was trying to close in, staring intently at the wires behind his neck.
Megabyte glanced at her, then lunged, claws outstretched. She threw herself to the side and brought her sword down. Megabyte snatched his hand back in time to avoid the blow. He snarled, then grinned a challenge at her.
"AndrAIa!" Bob called in a low, urgent voice. She looked over. He held out one hand. "Your trident. Let me use it!"
Without hesitating she took the minimized trident off her belt and threw it to Bob. It expanded in his hands. He nodded thanks to her, then started making his way around Megabyte's back.
Dot watched, fists clenched. What in the Net was Bob doing? Did he think AndrAIa's trident was a better weapon against Megabyte than the stunners? They weren't slowing Megabyte down yet, but the effect was cumulative. They could wear the Virus down!
Unless he was immune to stunners, she thought suddenly. Megabyte seemed to be able to take anything and everything else she had seen them throw at him. Could they beat him?
Hack flew in close and brought both forearms down on Megabyte's head with a sharp clang. There was a white flash, like that of metal sparking violently on metal. Megabyte swung at the bot as if trying to swat a fly. Hack darted up, out of the way.
AndrAIa slapped her stunner into its holster. When he had reached up, the sight of his unarmored abdomen had given her an idea. She began shooting her fingernails at the vulnerable spot.
Megabyte looked away from Hack and glared at her. Then he began to stalk toward her, claws out, eyes narrowed hatefully. Out of reflex she reached for the trident, her usual weapon - which wasn't there.
Dot watched helplessly as Megabyte backed AndrAIa toward the edge of the platform. Matrix, Mouse, and Hack looked ready to charge Megabyte - but Bob was waving them back. Moving as quietly as he could, he came up behind the Virus, holding the trident up and to the side as if it were a baseball bat. As intent as Megabyte was on AndrAIa, he didn't seem to notice Bob's approach.
Bob swung. The trident hit and smashed the exposed wires against the back of Megabyte's neck. The Virus bellowed, wide-eyed, as white light flashed behind him. Then he collapsed at AndrAIa's feet.
Matrix and Mouse ran up, and Hack landed near Megabyte. All were staring at the prone Virus. Bob, panting, minimized the trident and handed it to AndrAIa. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," she murmured as she took the weapon back.
They heard the sound of a teleporter bridge. Matrix asked, "All it took was one hit to the neck?"
Bob answered, "Like I said, those wires must be vital."
As she walked over, Dot asked, "Bob, what happened with Glitch?"
Bob looked at the keytool. "I don't know. Glitch must be low on power. I used up a lot in the War Room, but I didn't think I'd depleted it completely."
"We'd better get Megabyte out of here," AndrAIa said.
"Don't bother. I'll end this right now!" Matrix said. He drew Gun and pointed it at arm's length at Megabyte. His artificial eye rotated to targeting mode.
"No!" Bob said.
Matrix looked at Bob. "Are you crazy? You don't want to kill him after all he's done?!"
"If you kill him now, it's murder," Bob said in a low voice as he stared Matrix down. "And how will you remove his infection from the War Room and the rest of the Principle Office?"
Matrix looked around at the others. Nobody said anything. He growled and put Gun back in place against his upper leg.
Bob said, "He's too heavy for any of us. We need something to move him."
"I wish Slash was here. We coulda carried him," Hack said wistfully.
"There are some freight carriers near here. I'll get one," Dot said.
As she crossed via a teleporter Bob told Hack, "Keep watch on Megabyte. Those wires behind his head are his weak spot. If you see him move, hit those. Hard."
Megabyte did not recover before they transferred him into a cell and sealed him in with a firewall. Everyone wanted to see him for themselves. Hack had even insisted on activating Slash, and had carried his head in to get a look.
"He doesn't look hurt," Enzo said.
"He's just knocked out," Bob replied.
"What if he makes another alias? Couldn't he start the fight all over again?" Enzo asked.
Bob looked at Enzo, then at the other Sprites. Judging from the worried expressions on a few faces, they had not thought of that. "That wouldn't work, Enzo. He couldn't create an alias on the other side of a firewall. If he did make one, it'd have to be inside the cell with him. It wouldn't do him any good."
"What're we going to do with him?" Mouse asked.
"Scan him first," Bob said, tapping buttons on the panel.
Mouse crossed her arms. That wasn't what she meant, and Bob spammed well knew it. She looked at Dot.
Matrix said, "He'd kill any of us. He'd kill all of us. I say we delete him while we have the chance!"
Bob said in a tight voice, without looking up, "You want us to sink to his level?"
Dot spoke suddenly to her little brother. "Enzo, you and Hack - and Slash - go see how the rest of Slash is doing."
Hack nodded and sped off. Enzo recognized an excuse to get rid of him, and he had sense enough not to argue about it. He had the feeling this was not something he wanted to hang around for.
When the door shooshed closed behind them Dot said softly to Bob, "Ever since he infected G Prime, he's caused Mainframe nothing but grief. How many people have been deleted because of him?" She closed her eyes as she remembered the battles that had been fought when Megabyte had taken Mainframe, and all the lives that had been lost.
Bob closed his eyes and lowered his head. Then he turned to Dot. "To mend and defend," he told her in a soft, pleading tone. "Killing him would only be revenge. I could reprogram him, remove the threat that way..."
Everyone turned toward the cell. Megabyte had recovered consciousness and was standing up, a bit unsteadily. "So, you found my weak spot," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"It was obvious," Bob answered.
"True... why didn't you notice it earlier?"
Bob ignored the taunt. "Scanning now."
Megabyte stared down as a plane of yellow rose from below his feet and up through his bode. Bob glanced down at the progress bar on the control panel showing the data flowing into the system, building a file on the Virus.
"You still believe you could turn me into a Sprite?" Megabyte asked when the scan was finished. "And how would you do that?" He chuckled. "Are you going to give me an icon and register me on the off chance that the User might scan the system again?"
Bob glared at Megabyte, who grinned nastily back. Mouse said, "Bob, face facts! Megabyte isn't a slave of his programming. Even if you turned him into a Sprite, he'd still be an evil Sprite! Ya don't have to be a Virus to be dangerous."
"Mouse-" Dot said, low and tense.
"She has a good point," Megabyte observed.
Matrix said, "If you don't delete him now and he gets loose, he's just gonna start infecting and killing people again. And it'd be your fault for letting him go!"
"Matrix!" Dot exclaimed.
"And yet, he doesn't dare," Megabyte said softly. "It goes against his code to delete any dataform." His eyes narrowed. "That's mighty Sprite of you."
Bob glared at the Virus, who was leaning against the back wall of the cell, arms folded, his expression smug. Then Bob looked at Dot.
She stared back. She wanted to tell him that the others were right, that they could not risk the system to give another chance to someone who had already cost so many lives, caused so much misery. Megabyte had never hesitated to harm others - in fact, he had even enjoyed it; they had seen that when he had tormented his sister to force her to do his will. But... after all that had happened, she did not want to argue against Bob. Not after what she had done to him. She looked down.
Bob watched emotions chase across Dot's face. He said softly, "They're right, aren't they."
Startled, she looked back up at him. He said, "Megabyte doesn't deserve another chance. Not after everything he's done. Not considering what a risk it would be to Mainframe."
After hesitating, Dot nodded. Bob turned back to Megabyte and gripped the sides of the control panel tightly. "The good of the system outweighs one criminal," he said grimly.
"Criminal?" Megabyte asked. "Not Virus?"
Bob continued, his voice tight, "If it were any other Guardian but me, you've been deleted a long time ago, Megabyte. Megaframe, the crash, that wedding - all that would never have happened. You've had your second chance and more. It ends here." Bob turned back toward the other people in the room. "Deletion isn't a spectator sport. Let him have a little dignity at the end," he told them.
Dot told Bob, "I'll stay. There ought to be a witness, and I'm the Command.com of this system."
"You don't have to," Bob told her, shaking his head. "It's not pretty."
"That doesn't matter," she answered firmly. When he did not say anything else she turned to the others. "Go on."
Matrix, AndrAIa, Mouse, and Phong left without commenting. When the door shooshed closed Dot said to Bob, "I'm not going to hide from something that's necessary for the good of the system, no matter how ugly it is."
He nodded solemnly. Then he looked back at Megabyte, who was examining his claws as if they were fingernails. "Are you ready, Megabyte?"
"You won't do it, you know," the Virus answered calmly.
Bob stared as if trying to formulate a reply. Then he pressed a red button on the panel. A double-sided VidWindow sprang open, showing Megabyte, Bob, and Dot the binary number 1010. After a nano it changed to 1001. After another nano, 0111.
"Very good bluff, Bob. You really did plan this nicely," Megabyte commented.
0110. Dot looked at Bob's face. His expression was tight, restrained, the look of someone carrying out a duty he hated.
0100. "What do you expect to gain from this?" Megabyte asked.
0011. "Are you expecting me to beg for my life?"
0010. "No," Bob answered. One of Bob's hands was hovering above the countdown button, Dot realized.
0001. "Well then?" Megabyte asked, standing erect in center of the cell, his arms folded, staring at Bob.
0000. The number flashed several times. Then white light flooded the cell. Megabyte's eyes widened in sudden panic as the antivirus algorithm tore through his code, shredding it from the surface inward. He thrashed and convulsed, bellowing, in the cell. He hit the walls and the firewall several times before finally falling to the floor. By that time only a wireframe remained. Nanos later, even that was gone.
After a sickly silence Bob looked at Dot. "Are you all right?"
She barked a startled, humorless laugh. She could hear in her voice how shaken she was. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. How about you?"
"I'm all right." He looked at the cell. "That's the first time I've ever had to do that." He swallowed hard.
She put an arm around him. "I'm sorry."
"No," he said softly. The he looked at her again. "No. Don't be. You were right. Megabyte was too far gone to save. It's hard to admit, but... nothing could have turned him. He would never have given up. It was him or us. For the good of the system he had to be deleted."
He recited the words mechanically, a faraway look in his eyes. Dot thought that he sounded like he was trying to convince himself. She touched his cheek. "It's over now."
He nodded. His eyes focused on her once more. "It's over. He'll never harm Mainframe - or you - again, Dot."
She looked down. After a nano she said, "Bob... I don't know what to say... I can't believe I let him... I fell for... that trick." She shuddered involuntarily, remembering the time she had spent with Megabyte, the times she had kissed him, thinking that he was more real than "Glitch Bob." More real how? More real than the Sprite who had fought to save Mainframe? The Sprite to whom she had proposed... and then turned her back on. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice breaking.
"Dot," Bob said, calling her back to herself. She looked up at him again. "He fooled everyone. Even I wasn't sure which one of us was real. For a while there, I thought I was a copy."
"That shouldn't've mattered," she said, fighting to keep control of her voice.
"It doesn't any more," he said firmly. "That's all over with. Forget about him. I don't care what he did. He'll never come between us again. Dot, I know this isn't the best time or place, but - will you marry me?"
Her eyes widened with shock. "Bob? Are you serious?"
His hands caught hers and enfolded them. "Yes."
"But... even after I almost-"
He cut her off. "Dot! I know. And I don't care. I'm not going to let him ruin what's between us; if we do, he's won after all."
"How can you just forgive and forget so easily?"
His hand brushed her cheek. "Because I want to. And I want you to forgive yourself. Can you do that for me?"
She closed her eyes and nodded. "Yes. I'll try, Bob. And... yes, I'll marry you." She opened her eyes and smiled.
He smiled back, then leaned forward and kissed her. By the time the kiss ended, her cheeks were slightly flushed. Bob said, "Would you marry me right now?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, confused. "Right now? Here?"
He nodded. Then he glanced around the room. "Well, not here. But now." He said earnestly, "Dot, we've wasted too much time already. I don't think I can take any more waiting. We can have a public wedding with all the trimmings for everyone to see later on if you want. But this would just be for us. All you really need for a wedding is two Sprites, their icons, a few witnesses, and someone to do the ceremony. We've got all that." He stopped talking and looked pleadingly into her eyes.
"Well... when you put it that way... yes," she answered, sounding surprised at herself, then kissed him.
The other Sprites were waiting right outside. When the door to the detention area opened, all eyes turned to Bob and Dot. Dot told them, "Megabyte's gone."
Mouse was not the only one wondering why they both looked so happy all of a sudden. Of course they'd be relieved that that Virus was deleted, but they both seemed way too cheerful for people who had just witnessed an execution! And, she noticed suddenly, they were holding hands. How long had it been since she had seen that? Had she ever?
Before she could think of something suitable to say Bob said, "Phong, I've got a favor to ask of you."
"What do you need?" Phong responded.
"Would you marry me and Dot?"
Dot looked around at the other Sprites. As she expected, they were startled. It was the timing, she knew. But it somehow seemed fitting - right, even - to her to get on with her life as soon as Megabyte was out of the way!
After a pause, Phong, also surprised, said "Yes, I can, but... now?"
"Now," Bob answered, and Dot nodded confirmation.
"He's gone, and we want to start undoing the damage he did," Dot told the rest of their friends. Bob looked at Dot and smiled approvingly. She smiled back.
"Well... all right, then," Phong said. "But let us at least find a better setting."
"Right," Dot agreed. She mused, "The War Room's out. The main hall is a wreck."
"There's the conference room." Bob shrugged. "Not terribly symbolic, but right now I don't care about that."
"Then it works for me," she said. To the other Sprites, who had not yet recovered from the initial shock, she grinned and said, "Come on. You're all invited."
Hand in hand, Bob and Dot started down the hall, with Phong right behind them. Enzo scampered up to them. "No kidding, Dot? You're really getting married?" he asked excitedly.
"Yes," she said. Squeezing Bob's hand, she said, "This one's the right one. He was all along." She felt Bob's hand squeeze back warmly.
The Sprites entered the conference room. Normally the table would have been just right for eight dataforms, but now it was in the way. Dot glanced around the room, then made a decision and said "We'll do it here," nodding to one end of the room. "Let's move the table out of the way."
Bob went over to the table. Matrix went to the other end, and after exchanging a glance they lifted it and set it back against the wall. In the meantime, Phong had wheeled over to the other side. Bob walked over to Dot and took her hand. Then he glanced back and said, "Places, people," with a grin.
"You can't've forgotten already," Dot added, smiling brightly.
"Oh!" AndrAIa said. She went over to Dot's side. Mouse joined her. Matrix and Enzo took their cue and stood behind Bob. Hack, still holding Slash's head, went over to stand in the aisle of where the audience section would have been.
Dot's heart was pounding as hard as it had been the first time around. She barely heard Phong as he spoke the ritual words. At the proper time she said "I will," and she heard Bob say the same a few nanos later. She came to herself when Phong asked if there were any objections to their joining. She tensed. But nothing happened this time; what objection could there be to her marrying the real Bob? After a short pause, Phong said, "Then may I have your icons?"
Dot and Bob both detached their icons and handed them to Phong. He held them, one in each hand, back to back. A thin thread of white light linked them briefly. Then Phong returned the icons to their owners. That, Dot knew, was the heart of the ceremony. They were now linked, their PIDs referencing each other, the marriage recorded in the system. While she was thinking about that Phong finished up the ritual. "By the power invested in me by the city of Mainframe, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss."
They turned toward each other. Dot gazed into his warm brown eyes, feeling happier than she could ever remember being. Their eyes closed as the couple embraced.
After a long moment they drew back, enough to gaze into each other's eyes. Dot whispered, "I love you, Bob."
He smiled warmly at her, then kissed her forehead playfully. Then they drew back from each other as if just remembering the other people in the room. Dot looked around the room with bright eyes. "Well, isn't anyone going to say congratulations?"
That broke the solemn mood. While Dot hugged her out-of-costume bridesmaids and bemoaned her lack of a proper bouquet to throw, Enzo said to Bob, "I knew you were the right one!"
Matrix flinched. Enzo hadn't realized his gaffe. But Bob didn't appear to mind. "If I'm the right one to Dot, that's all that matters."
"Yeah..." Matrix said. He didn't know what to say. He had emotions, but no words. He put a hand on Bob's shoulder. Bob seemed to understand; he nodded back.
Dot glanced over at Hack, who was sniffling. She held back a laugh; who'd have thought that the one to get emotional during a wedding would be a robot? Then she looked at Enzo. Welman was perched on his shoulder, looking at her. "Dad..." she said softly.
She cast about, looking for the right words to say. "I'm so glad you're here. That you came back to us now..." She laughed. "I wish I could hug you."
"Don't worry about that now, Dot," he said kindly. "Maybe someday you will again."
She nodded. "We'll find a way to restore you, Dad," she promised.
Bob nodded agreement. "If it can be done, we'll find a way."
Dot turned to Bob and took one of his hands. "Normally this'd be where we went off by ourselves, or to a reception..."
Bob completed the thought. "But there's too much to be done right now."
"Yes," she said regretfully. "We've got to get the War Room back in shape, see who's been infected and what we can restore, undo what Megabyte did."
"We've already started that," he said, grinning at her. She grinned back. "I scanned Megabyte. His code's on file. That should help us reclaim the War Room and the other parts of the Principle Office that he infected."
She nodded. "Meet you for dinner?"
He chuckled. "It's a date."
They kissed once more. Then, with lingering glances back, they went their separate ways, Dot to the War Room and Bob to the detention area. Before they were out of earshot Bob heard her laying out tasks for the others, and grinned.
Bob went back to the control panel in front of the prison cell. He deactivated the now-unnecessary firewall. They had all thought he wouldn't do it...
He shut down the countdown subroutine and tapped other controls on the panels. Subwindows opened, showing him various data sets. Mentally he relaxed and let memories lead him through the data. He had access to all he would need; Dot had seen to it that Bob's clearance was below only Phong's and her own. He found the data from the scan, the diagram of the infection and the blocks Mouse had set up to confound it. He studied those carefully. Then he called up another window, one showing the torus shape of the Gateway, still in place in the Core.
He laughed in a low voice, then murmured to himself, "Ah, Ms. Matrix, you too can fall for the same trick twice."
|Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart,
Even death won't part us now.
One Hand, One Heart from "West Side Story"
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ReBoot and all characters are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. "One Hand, One Heart" is by Stephen Sondheim. Mainframe's and Sondheim's properties are used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.