By Kim McFarland
|Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream,
Highlows pass as patent leathers,
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.
– from Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore"
It was not a dark and stormy cycle. The ether above Mainframe was bright and free from static. No game cubes had fallen recently. After the recent traumas of Daemon's attack and Megabyte's infection, the system and its inhabitants seemed to be recovering remarkably well.
Some people were particularly resilient, Dot thought. She was relieved, but not too surprised that Enzo had bounced back so quickly. Well, she thought, technically speaking this Enzo hadn't been here during the worst of it. Which was good - no child should have to witness what Megabyte had done to Mainframe.
She had been more concerned about Bob. After being shot into the Web, lost for milliseconds, kludged together with Glitch, infected and nearly killed by Daemon, impersonated by Megabyte... he had still married Dot, and now they were happy. She had known that Bob was open hearted from his dealings with Megabyte and Hexadecimal, but to forgive her after all she had done to him... she was thankful. More than that, she was grateful.
She had a lot to be grateful for. She thought that often these days. She had her father back, and she had a family again. Maybe it hadn't happened the way she had expected - her father was a null in a robot exosuit and this Enzo was a copy - but, she thought, she was happier now than she could ever remember being. And maybe soon she and Bob would initialize a new file...
Enzo was enjoying the arrangement, she thought with a grin as she watched him. For so long he had been without a father. Now he had two! Well, sort of. One was his brother-in-law and the other was a talking null, but Enzo didn't worry about minor details.
Enzo was telling Welman about the birthday party Dot had thrown for him. Bob listened with an amused grin as Enzo described Dot's song. Enzo left out Bob's reaction, but then that wasn't something that someone his age would notice. She smiled at Bob. He'd been so shy then. How things had changed!
"-Then Megabyte's ABCs knocked the backdrop down and set up these two huge speakers, and Hack and Slash played the drums while Megabyte and Bob played this radical guitar duel! It was so awesome!"
Enzo paused to catch his breath. The null in the exosuit looked at Dot. She said, "It's true, Dad. Megabyte crashed the party, played guitar, and then just left. I still have a hard time believing it."
Bob said, "I guess he just wanted to show off. He could raid any old time, but how many chances would he have to commandeer an audience?"
"This is Megabyte we're talking about," Dot said.
Bob shrugged, still grinning. "I had fun playing the guitar too. And don't tell me you didn't enjoy singing that song."
"Okay, that's true," she admitted. "But it's still hard to believe."
"I wish I'd been there," Welman said.
"Me too," Enzo agreed.
Welman looked at his son. "What?"
Enzo explained, "I musta been backed up before that, because I don't remember it. I mean, I was there, but then it wasn't really me."
Dot was surprised that that had slipped her mind. Enzo had described it in such detail, how-? Oh. Mike the TV had been there, and of course his crew would have video captured it all. And Enzo had been spending massive amounts of time catching up on the life he had missed.
"Hey," Enzo continued, suddenly remembering something. "I have Megabyte's guitar. Wanna see?"
That startled all three adults. "You do?" Bob asked.
"Sure! Lemme get it." Enzo dashed out of the room.
Bob looked at Dot. "I wouldn't have thought you'd let him keep that."
Embarrassed, she explained, "I know... but we did scan it in the Principle Office right afterward, and found that there was nothing viral or dangerous about it. It was just a guitar. And Megabyte did give it to him. At the time, well, Megabyte hadn't gotten so bad, so, I figured, no harm... I haven't thought about it in milliseconds. I didn't remember that was still in Enzo's room."
Bob laid his hand on Dot's. "It's all right, as long as you're sure it's safe," he told her. "Like you said, it's just a guitar."
Her hand turned palm upward and clasped his. He squeezed back. Then Enzo came back into the room, carrying a black and green electric guitar longer than he was tall. "Look at this!" he said, showing it to Welman.
Welman took it from his son and examined it. Being a null, he had no face to show an expression, but the others could tell that he was skeptical. Welman inspected the instrument closely; it seemed to be the kind of flashy instrument that teenagers liked to play when they were going through their "let's form a band" phase. "That's really something," he said as he handed it back.
As Enzo took it he said thoughtfully, "It's hard to believe that someone as evil as Megabyte could play something this cool, huh?"
Bob was looking at the guitar with an odd expression. Enzo noticed it, and said, "Hey, you can play guitar too. Wanna try it?"
Bob hesitated a nano, then said, "Okay." He took the guitar by the neck and cradled it in his hands. It was larger and heavier than he remembered. He knew that that was because of the change in him, not in the guitar. He strummed the strings lightly, and hardly any sound came from it. Soft sprite fingers. He used to play with his fingertip claws. It had taken him forever, it seemed, to learn to touch the strings lightly, not to break them, even though he didn't keep those claws sharp. As he felt the strings he thought that Bob's nails were a poor substitute, but they would have to do.
The others watched as Bob stroked the strings lightly, a look of concentration on his face, as if trying to get the hang of playing an unfamiliar instrument. Megabyte searched his memory as he strummed random chords, getting used to the feel of the strings against Bob's fingertips. What could he play...? It had been so long since he had even thought about this instrument, much less played it. What did he remember that was simple enough to play decently, even with these weak hands?
After a few nanos a song came to mind, one that he had been fond of once. As he tried a few chords from it, he decided that it was easy enough; what he didn't remember he could fake. He closed his eyes and, positioning his fingers by touch, began playing. He sang in a low voice,
"Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has MacHeath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight."
Dot recognized that song; it was in the Diner's jukebox. As Bob played he relaxed, his fingers finding the chords more easily now.
"When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears MacHeath, dear,
So there's not a trace of red."
Smiling, Dot watched. She had only seen Bob play the guitar once before, and she remembered how much it looked like he had enjoyed himself. She had not known that he could sing decently, especially at such a low pitch.
"On the sidewalk, sunny morning,
Lies a body oozin' life.
Someone's sneaking 'round the corner,
Could that one be Mack the Knife?"
He played a few more chords, then opened his eyes. He looked at the others with an expression somewhere between surprise and embarrassment, then said, "I don't remember the rest of the song. It's been a long time."
"Cool!" Enzo exclaimed. "I didn't know you could sing too!"
Bob shrugged, handing the guitar back to Enzo gingerly. "Just that one song. I used to like it a lot."
"Who's Mack the Knife?" Enzo asked. "A Virus?"
Bob smiled oddly. "Maybe he was."
Welman said, "He was a gangster. I've heard the song before."
Bob agreed, "Yeah, that sounds right." Enzo went off to put the guitar away. Bob asked Welman, "You and Enzo are going to go to the Energy Park today, aren't you?"
"Yes," Welman said.
"Cool. Have some fun for me. I'll be patrolling for tears."
Dot said, "Maybe you ought to take Glitch in and see if they can repair him."
Bob shook his head, then answered, "I don't know... I think it's starting to respond again. Maybe just giving it time will let it repair itself. You'd be surprised what keytools can do. If it is... I think it'd be better if it does it itself rather than have someone open it up and toy with its insides. Dealing with tears is a little bit harder because the mender Turbo sent over can't detect them, it only mends them once they're already found, but like I have that much to do these days?" He winked at her.
She smiled back. "Well, okay, you know best."
Enzo came back in. Bob stood and said cheerfully to Enzo and Welman, "Have fun, guys. See you later."
Before he left he and Dot touched hands and smiled at each other. Then he went out, activated and stepped onto his zip board, and lifted into the ether above Mainframe. Bob's instincts told him to look in G prime first, as that was the least stable area, and the place where tears were most likely to form.
Bob's instincts... they were Megabyte's now. He had assimilated nearly all of Bob's memories in the milliseconds since he had assumed the Guardian's form. He could now don Bob's personality as easily as a Sprite activated a clothing protocol. More easily, as he did not have to think to do it. It came automatically. And no one suspected a thing.
The incident with the guitar disturbed him, however. Because of the difficulty in playing the instrument with these hands, he had chosen an easy song without considering what it was about. He had never thought twice about it before, but looking at it through Bob's eyes he could see that the subject matter was... inappropriate. Not something a Guardian would sing about. But, on the other hand, it was a well-known song, and he could claim to have learned it when he was much younger, before he had gained the protocols.
Not that it would come to that, really, he thought. They believed unquestioningly that he was Bob. Megabyte had slipped into the roles of Guardian, husband, and ersatz father easily and completely, thanks to the code he had copied from Bob. The Mainframers did not dream that they had welcomed the predator into their home. Still, it was prudent not to give them any hints.
He flew down below the surface of G Prime. He had learned the technique from Bob of stopping every so often and paying close attention to his surroundings. If there was an instability nearby, he could feel it. He couldn't put a finger on just how, but he could sense a subtle disturbance in the ambient energy level. On the first few stops he noticed nothing out of the ordinary, but during the third he felt an unmistakable fizzling in the ether. After a few more stops to triangulate, he located the tear - a small but intense one, glowing like a white hot pinpoint in the dark between two industrial buildings - and raised his left arm. The mender, when the tear appeared in front of its sights, generated a compression field. In nanos it squeezed the tear out of existence.
He finished searching G Prime. There were no more tears. He would not have to spend as much time searching the populated areas; a quick sweep through would suffice. If any tears appeared where they could endanger anyone they would be reported and he would be summoned. He didn't really need to bother with the rest of the system, he supposed, but it was good to put in an appearance anyway. So, he flew what had come to be his usual route above the sectors' borders.
When he finished, he headed to Baudway. Some time ago he had thought it was a cliché that whenever anyone had nothing to do they went to Dot's Diner to pass the time. Now he didn't think about it at all; he automatically went there like everybody else.
He was not disappointed. When he walked in and looked around he saw AndrAIa in one of the booths. She looked up at him, then said something to the person sitting on the other side facing away from the door. The person turned around and looked over the back of the booth - it was Dot - then smiled and beckoned him over.
He slid into the booth beside Dot and kissed her cheek. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Nothing much," Dot answered. "Anything happen on patrol?"
"Just fixed one minor tear in G Prime, that's all," he told her. "Where's Matrix?"
AndrAIa answered, "He's sparring with Mouse."
"Huh!" Bob said. "I wouldn't mind seeing that. I don't know who I'd bet on."
"Mouse," AndrAIa said with a smile.
"You sure about that?" Dot asked.
AndrAIa nodded. "They're going hand to hand. Matrix doesn't want to hurt her, so he'll hold back. Mouse won't." Dot laughed and nodded; she knew that her "big brother" did have his soft spots.
"I don't know. That sounds like it'll last for maybe a round or two," Bob said skeptically.
"Trust me," AndrAIa answered confidently.
"I'll wait until I see-"
"WARNING: INCOMING GAME."
Bob closed his mouth and looked out the window. The sky was darkening to purple and crackling with static. He didn't see the tunnel through which the game would come. Without looking away from the window he got out of the booth and went outside. Dot and AndrAIa followed him. The tunnel appeared and the cube began to download over the edge of the sector, just inside the rim. Bob took off - he didn't remember having activated his zip board; he had done that without thinking about it - and flew toward the game. He glanced back, smiled when he saw that Dot and AndrAIa were following him, and noted that nobody else was heading for the cube. It would be just the three of them, without Matrix. Mouse didn't play the games unless nobody else was available. Hopefully Welman was holding Enzo back.
They grounded and stepped off their zip boards under the flashing purple cube. It came down on them. Bob felt the static ripple through his body, but by now he was used to that. He looked around at his surroundings. The three Sprites were inside a dark, industrial looking area. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all metal, untarnished but heavily scuffed. The walls were lined with pipes and cables and riddled with perfectly circular holes.
"Another shooter?" Dot sighed.
"Looks like it," Bob said. "The User must really like these. Reboot!"
He double clicked his icon. Everything vanished.
What happened? He tried to look around, to say something, but he could not move. He felt as if he had no body to move, no voice with which to speak. Panic began rising. Had there been a fatal conflict with his viral code when he rebooted this time? What happened?!
Wait - he felt a sensation of movement, and thought he heard a click, like that of machinery locking into place. It seemed to come from all around him. Then sensation returned. He could feel that he had a body after all. An image appeared suddenly in front of his eyes. A brightly lit room full of... he was not sure what all the boxy machinery was supposed to be. He turned and looked around. Partially assembled robot bodies lined the walls awaiting completion. The machines were assembling them, he decided. This was confirmed when he looked down at himself. He had become a robot. His legs and feet were all metal. One arm ended in an oversized gun, the other in eight long, spidery fingers. Bob's memory offered the information that he was a Technician, a human/machine hybrid that serviced and defended the ship they were in. As more details filtered into his mind he looked around. There - one of the machines was working. It inserted into a three-legged metal body a large capsule containing a convoluted grey hemisphere that was divided in two and ended in a long, pink tail. Wires from the body pierced the capsule shell and attached themselves to the branchlike extensions that ran up and down the length of the tail.
The newly completed robot activated. It stood unsteadily at first. Its body was horizontal like Frisket's, and its front legs were similar in structure, but it only had one centered hind leg. Instead of a head, it had two extensions like one-eyed mechanical snakes attached to its shoulders. These weaved about as they looked at their surroundings. Then they caught sight of Bob, and stared at him from two different angles. One opened its mouth, revealing a speaker in the back of its throat, and asked in AndrAIa's voice, "Bob? Where's Dot?"
"I don't see her," he answered. He looked around again; none of the other machines was active. She must have been taken to another part of the game when she rebooted. "We'll have to find her. I think I know of this game, but I haven't played it before. Have you?"
"Yes," AndrAIa said. Her speaking head faced Bob and the other continued looking around as she spoke. "This is the final hub of Starship Saberhagen. The User is a man trying to destroy the spaceship we're in before the ship can drop an asteroid onto his home planet and kill everything on it. The ship has already gotten the asteroid. It's towing it back now. It's a timed game; if the User doesn't stop the ship fast enough, it drops the asteroid and he loses."
"Gotcha. I remember it now. The ship wants to kill all life. It made human-machine hybrids because life is so tricky the machine can't outwit it on its own. It needs machines that can think like humans." He looked at his gun arm. "I can shoot plasma bolts." And, he knew, his weapon would take a long time to warm up, giving an alert User ample time to dodge it.
"I can shoot with one head and repair destroyed robots with the other." AndrAIa said.
"Which head is which?"
The other head looked at Bob and opened its mouth. In place of the speaker that was in the back of the other head's mouth, this one extended a laser gun barrel. "Gotcha," Bob said.
AndrAIa trotted, her metal hooves clinking lightly on the metal floor, to the room's only exit. Bob followed. AndrAIa turned one head backward toward Bob and said, "All the machines in this game are controlled by the ship, so they won't start crossfires like in other shooters. We don't have to worry about winging one and having it turn on us."
She stepped out into the passage, looking in all directions with both heads. Around them, tiny insectlike robots scuttled about along the walls, occasionally darting into or out of the holes on the walls. Those holes must be passages to other parts of the ship, Bob thought. He heard nothing besides the soft metallic scrabblings. The User must not be nearby. He searched his memory for any known strategies for this game, and came up with none beyond standard shooter techniques.
They emerged into another large, brightly lit room. This one was full of large tanks. Inside them, various forms of life floated within clear fluid. Some were similar to the capsule on AndrAIa's back - wrinkled gray domes with long, branching tails. Others looked like variations on Sprites, many only partly compiled. One was a full-grown adult female, pink skinned and minimally covered in shreds of cloth around the chest and waist. Her short, curly hair was yellow. AndrAIa trotted up beside Bob to look into the pod. Without comment Bob tapped a button on the pod's control panel.
A humming started. The fluid in the pod began to glow. The female within opened her eyes and stared for a few nanos before she appeared to wake up. Then she looked at Bob, and pressed her hands against the clear surface of the pod.
Bob pressed another button. The top of the pod lifted up, though no seam had been visible before. The female climbed out gingerly, staring at Bob and AndrAIa. Bob offered her his hand. "I thought that was you."
"Bob?" she asked, staring at the spiderlike hand.
"Yep," he affirmed.
"Hi there," AndrAIa said with one of her heads.
Dot looked at them, then around the room at the other tanks. "This has got to be the ugliest game I've ever seen."
"It has its bright spots," Bob said, looking at her.
She glanced down at herself, then rolled her eyes in disgust. "Great. I'm a damsel in distress!"
"Not much of a dress," Bob commented, still appreciating the view. "You're Goodlife. A human that the machines grew. The User can try to rescue you for points."
"And I don't get any weapons, do I? Spam."
"Actually," AndrAIa said, "You can use weapons. But only the weakest ones, and they're hardly worth it. You'll be better off if you stay out of danger completely."
"Spam," Dot repeated. Still, if she saw a gun, she was going to grab it. She didn't like being completely defenseless.
AndrAIa said, "You'd better stay with us. The machines know you're of the ship, so most of them will protect you. There are some stupid ones that won't know the difference, though. They have ten legs in a ring around a small body, and they're this big." She spread her heads wide, indicating a span of about a person's arm length. They can't shoot, they attack by stabbing with their front legs."
"All right," Dot said. She was dissatisfied with her role. But, she supposed, it could be worse. Given time, she might even be able to think of how.
AndrAIa said. "I know where we are. There's a good spot to ambush him near here. It's near the first keycard. He can't go on without that."
"Lead the way," Bob said.
AndrAIa guided Bob and Dot through mazelike passageways. The corridors branched at odd angles, and widened and constricted at seemingly random intervals. Some of the side branches were too small for them to go through; they saw tiny metal insects lurking in some of those, their bubble-like optic lenses glowing in the dark. Dot walked between Bob and AndrAIa so they could protect her from danger from both directions.
The passage ended in a room full of metal columns. Most of them reached from floor to ceiling, but one stopped just short, and at the top of that they could see a blue sparkle. That had to be the card, Bob thought. It was too obvious a target not to be.
AndrAIa looked back at Dot. "You'd better stay up here. This room's full of spiders. They'll confuse you with a User."
Dot nodded mute agreement. Without a weapon, she'd be useless in a battle anyway. AndrAIa crouched, then leapt out into the room. She landed with a triple clank. Dot flattened herself against the wall so Bob could get by without his metal body scraping her. His spidery-fingered hand touched her shoulder gently as he passed. He looked down - the passage emerged high up above the floor, so high that they wouldn't be able to get back up here without something to climb up on. A one-way shortcut. He jumped down and landed on his feet with a heavy clang.
AndrAIa said, "He'll come through the door just behind the column with the blue keycard. He's got to press a switch to lower the column so he can get the card." She pointed at a switch on the other side of the room. "The switch also opens doors for robots to rush in. He's got to fight his way back through them to get the card. We can hide behind these columns against the wall here and wait for him to release the robots. They won't delete him; they're cannon fodder. But they'll distract him for us."
"It's a plan," Bob agreed. "Sounds like you've been through this before."
"Oh, I have," she assured him. "Ever play against a User who keeps reloading the game because he can't get past one part?"
"We outlasted him," she said smugly.
Dot watched as Bob and AndrAIa planned their strategy, then took their places in the dark behind the columns. They made a good team, Dot thought. They were both veteran game players. AndrAIa had won more games than Dot would ever play in her runtime, and Bob was a Guardian, with the higher clockspeed and better training that came with the position. Even if he didn't have Glitch to help him now he was still a formidable opponent for any User. Both Bob and AndrAIa were cunning strategists. Dot wished she could help, but sometimes the only thing to do find the best person for the job, then stand back and let them do it. She suspected that that was the reason Phong had named her Command.com when Megabyte had infected Mainframe.
Without warning, a door slid upward and a uniformed User ran through it. He hurried right to the switch. Bob could tell that this user had played the game before and knew the levels. Good! Users who had the levels memorized became careless when they didn't expect enemies.
The User touched the switch. The column with the card began lowering slowly into the floor, and two doors on either side of the switch snicked open. A tangle of glinting metal resolved itself into knee-high spiders. They swarmed toward the user, who picked them off with quick blasts from a laser. Bob and AndrAIa simultaneously stepped out from behind the column and began shooting.
Dot watched as the User turned and fired at AndrAIa and Bob, who ducked back behind the cover of the columns, then at the spiders that had taken the opportunity to surround him. The User was heavily armored, but bit by bit they were whittling him down.
Then she felt a sharp pain in her leg. She yelped in shock and looked behind herself. A big spider just like the ones that were attacking the User had come up behind her and driven a cutter into her leg! She kicked at it. The metal carapace was hard under her bare feet, and the legs had sharp edges, but she managed to flatten it with several hard stomps.
More of the creatures were scuttling down the tunnel toward her. She looked out into the room, then back into the tunnel. Then she made her decision, and jumped.
Bob startled when he saw Dot land hard and roll to absorb the shock. He saw a smear of red on her skin. Then he had to turn back to the User. He had stopped fighting back. Most of the spiders were dead, piled around him in metallic tangles, but he had also been badly wounded. He shouted something, and then ran at and through a wall.
AndrAIa stared in shock at the spot where the User had been. Bob gaped for a nano, then looked at Dot. She was stamping on one of the spiders while trying to avoid the claws of another. "Little help here!"
AndrAIa lowered one head and neatly shot the two spiders, one after the other, through their carapaces. Dot jumped back from the smoking metal bodies. Bob exclaimed, "Are you all right?"
Dot looked back at her calf. A thin trickle of red ran down the back of her leg. "Those things came up behind me while I was watching you. One got me in the back of the leg, but it's not too bad." She looked at Bob. "I want a gun," she stated firmly.
"We'll find you one," he promised.
"What happened to the User?!" AndrAIa asked.
Bob went over to the wall the User had run through and touched it. It was solid. No hidden passage. Bob's memory suddenly offered him the answer. "What did he say before he ran?"
"I don't know. Why?" AndrAIa asked.
"Because it was a cheat code," Bob said grimly.
"A what?" Dot asked.
"I've heard of them," AndrAIa said suddenly. "Passwords that let the User break the rules of the game! I've never seen anyone use one before!"
"Now you have." Drawing on the Guardian's memories, Bob told them, "Cheat codes do specific things. They may make the User invulnerable, or give him unlimited ammunition or a special weapon. It looks like that one lets him walk through walls."
"Great! Now what can we do? How can we beat him when all he has to do is step through a wall to get away from us?" Dot said, frustrated.
Bob looked at AndrAIa. She was looking to him for answers too. He said, "We have to find a way." He looked at Dot. "Can you grab that key card? We can't touch it, but you might be able to."
Dot went over to the column, which had lowered to waist height. She took the card. "Got it."
"If the User can walk through walls, he won't need a key card," AndrAIa told Bob.
"Sometimes doors trigger other events. In any case, this room is shot as an ambush spot, and no reason to leave it for him."
Dot asked, "So, what do we do now?"
"We chase him down and delete him," Bob answered. "AndrAIa, what's the next area he has to get to?"
"The blue keycard leads to an area of the ship that he has to fight his way through to get to the Mother Board. This game has to be a higher difficulty level than I've played. Those spiders weren't in the tunnels the other times I've played - sorry, Dot-"
"Never mind. Go on."
"That means he'll have to fight his way through even more that I've seen. All I can say is we should ambush him again and get him before he can run."
Bob nodded agreement. Then he looked at Dot.
"I'm coming with you," she said before he could speak. "I'm not going to wait for spiders to scratch me to deletion!"
Bob paused. Though he had no face, just input sensors and a speaker below his braincase, she knew what his expression would be. Reluctantly he said, "Right." To AndrAIa he said, "Lead the way."
AndrAIa nodded one of her heads and sent for the door that the User had come through. Dot and Bob followed.
It led to another snaky passageway, and then a larger room. The ground was littered with scrap metal that used to be spiders and one larger robot. While Bob scanned the room AndrAIa crouched in front of the largest game sprite. A metal tentacle reached out of one of her mouths and attached to the fallen machine. Dot watched, surprised, as the machine shuddered, then got back onto its feet, fully repaired. AndrAIa said, "That'll give the User a surprise if he comes back here."
"Yeah," Dot said worriedly. The thing was looking at her but not reacting. Thank the Programmer. She wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of that one's rocket launcher.
"There aren't any health kits in here. Let's move on," Bob said.
AndrAIa led them through a series of rooms. Most of them were filled with destroyed robots. AndrAIa revived the few that were powerful enough to give the User some opposition. It only took a few nanoseconds for each one, but Dot wondered if they could spare even that time. She also wondered if they would ever find a health kit. She was beginning to limp.
Finally they emerged into a room with a door surrounded by blue lights. A large, blocky robot with a serrated blade on one arm and a rocket launcher above the other shoulder waited patiently in front of the door. They could tell from the torn, scorched armor that it had already seen battle.
AndrAIa commented, "The User must have fought it until he took too much damage, then run away."
"Right," Bob agreed.
"If I open the door, can we close it again?" Dot asked.
"No," AndrAIa answered. "But we can't count on the User coming back this way, not if he can walk through walls. We have to go on." She looked at Bob.
"Dot, will you do the honors?" he asked.
"Of course. Glad to be able to do something after all." With a flourish she inserted the keycard into the slot beside the door, keeping an eye on the robot guarding the door. It still showed no interest in her. The door slid open. She looked in, then stepped back quickly. "Will those things try to delete me?"
AndrAIa stepped into the room. Most of the floor was a glowing blue grid. Along the walls were rows of small black robots, domes with three thin legs each. AndrAIa said, "No. They won't fire on you. Only the spiders don't know the difference."
"Good." Dot started to walk in.
"The floor's electrified. It'll power those little robots up, but you don't want to step on it!"
Bob had been inspecting the room. There were several white boxes against the wall. He pointed to them with his gun arm and said, "Can you get those?"
"I hope so." Dot went over, stepping carefully to avoid the tripod robots, and touched one box. Her leg instantly stopped hurting. She looked at her calf. It had healed. "Perfect! Thanks."
"Don't thank me, thank the Programmer," he said with a touch of humor.
They heard a sudden explosion just outside the door. Dot yelped and flattened herself against the wall. The sound of several more rockets detonating came from farther away. Then the User rushed through the doorway, weapon raised. Bob stepped in front of Dot. The User aimed his weapon at AndrAIa.
Suddenly the tripod robots activated and scuttled onto the blue power grid. They aligned and, as one, shot beams of crackling electricity. The beams came together just short of the User and merged into a powerful, painfully bright bolt. The User fled. The sound of a single rocket firing - the sentry shooting at the User, Bob thought - came from outside. Then it was quiet again.
The tripods stood quietly in the power grid, still pointing their laser rods toward the door. Bob turned to Dot. "We better get you out of here. That floor is too dangerous." He held out his hand and cannon arm. She looked at him strangely.
The tripods suddenly began firing again. Bob turned and saw that they were focused on the User - who was standing unharmed in the middle of the grid! How had he gotten in? Bob had been facing the door! He scooped Dot up and carried her across the electrified floor while AndrAIa shot at the User. The User returned her fire. Cracks appeared in her brain case. Then the user shouted something again and ran back through the wall. And the tripods became still again, facing the wall like an attentive audience.
Dot, seeing the crack, said, "AndrAIa! You're hurt!"
"So're you," she replied, noticing a burn on Dot's arm where she had been winged. "Come on, we have to go ahead. Open the door."
Dot pressed her hand to the door. It slid upward.
The next room was full of machinery and large, vaguely Spritelike robots. AndrAIa pointed to a wall and said, "Bob, there's a health pack." Bob carried Dot over to it, then set her on her feet. She touched the box; her burn disappeared. "We only find these where the User hasn't already been. Guess that even though he cheats the User has to take them all. AndrAIa?" She turned, then stared.
AndrAIa was attached to a large, elaborate terminal by a line which ran from the machine to her side. As Bob and Dot watched, the crack in the clear case disappeared as if it was healing itself. Bob told Dot, "That's a robot repair station."
"Your turn," AndrAIa said as she stepped away from the machine.
"Right." While AndrAIa stood watch, one head fixed on each of the room's exits, Bob walked up to the terminal. A cable snaked out, attached itself just below the speaker in his chest, and pulsed energy into him. A nano later it detached itself and retracted. The scratches and minor battle damage had disappeared as completely as the cracks in AndrAIa's brain case had.
The gunfire started up again. Through the door they could see flashes of electrical energy and laser beams striking the wall. Bob said to AndrAIa, "I'll hold him back." He ran to the door, his weapon arm raised - but only peered through instead of walking into the room. He saw the User once again standing on the grid, picking off the last of the tripods. Then the User ran over to the health boxes that Dot had not used. He reached for one, but his hand passed through it. Bob stared. What? The User said, "IdClipper," then reached down again. This time he took both of the health packs. It began walking carefully along the strip of safe floor against the wall. Bob grinned and raised his arm. After charging up, it fired. A bright bolt of plasma impacted the User, knocking him onto the grid. The electricity sizzled and the User thrashed. Bob grinned wider. He had that cheater now! As his gun powered up for a second shot the User shouted "IdClipper!", got up - the electricity was no longer harming him - and ran through the wall.
Bob snarled, "Not this time! IdClipper!" and ran after the User.
And then there was quiet. AndrAIa and Dot looked into the room. The room was filled with destroyed tripods, their wreckage cluttering the electrical grid, and nothing else.
Bob stepped through the wall and into... nothingness. There was only blackness surrounding him. He held his weapon arm out defensively; it blurred when he moved it. He stared in disbelief. Then he turned back around. He could see the interior of the room from which he had come, and others. He recognized some they had already visited, and others that had not yet been entered. When he turned they blurred confusingly, like a hall of mirrors.
Where was the User? He looked around, but he could not tell where the User had gone. Somewhere it could find health packs, of course. Bob ran back toward Dot and AndrAIa.
Bob appeared suddenly through the wall. Dot exclaimed, "What in the Web did you just do?!"
"I heard the User's cheat code. It's IdClipper." He stopped himself and reached out to touch the wall. It was solid again. "I tried to follow him, but he lost me. You don't wanna go out there."
"I don't believe you did that. That violates the game reality!" Dot said in disbelief.
Bob faced her. "So does his using cheats. I'm not going to play nice so I can be nullified by that poor excuse for a User. If we want to have a chance we'll have to play by his rules. Are you with me?"
AndrAIa nodded silently. "Yes. You're right," Dot said unhappily.
He squeezed Dot's shoulder with his metal hand, sorry that he had spoken so harshly.
AndrAIa said, "He could skip right to the end if he wanted to!"
"I don't know why he'd want to. Why play the game if you're not going to play it right?" Dot asked.
"Who knows what the User thinks?' Bob asked. "We have to beat him to the end. AndrAIa, lead us there."
"We're almost there now. Come on!"
She led Bob and Dot through several rooms, pointing out what the User would have to do to get through each. This near the final boss, of course it'd be hard going, Bob thought. That's simple game logic. One twist was that each room that had large robots also had a repair station, so that if the User ran away before offlining the robot, the robot would be back to full power for the next round. Nasty, Dot thought approvingly. Then she saw the health packs against the wall and got an idea. "Shoot me!"
Bob and AndrAIa simultaneously looked at her. "What?" Bob asked.
"We don't want to leave those health packs for the User, do we? I'll use them up so he can't."
Bob had heard of that strategy. The Guardian had even used it on himself before, his memories informed him. But he never expected to have to wound someone else. Especially his wife!
Seeing Bob hesitate, AndrAIa said, "I'll do it. My gun's smaller."
Dot crouched by the health boxes. "Go ahead."
AndrAIa shot a single time at Dot's leg. Dot gasped as a red splash appeared on her thigh. She slapped her hand down and the health box disappeared. The second one, however, remained when she touched it. "Again." AndrAIa shot, and Dot took the second box. Then Dot stood up again, grinning triumphantly. "That wasn't so bad," she said.
"Dot, you amaze me," Bob said, pleased.
"I try," she replied, simpering and batting her lashes at him.
AndrAIa laughed. "Come on, let's get this game over with."
AndrAIa led them through the last few areas. Most had robots to fight, ammunition and health packs, and repair stations. With AndrAIa's help, Dot eliminated the health packs.
Then the User popped through a wall again and shot AndrAIa in the back. Her brain case cracked again. She yelped, then whirled around and charged him. Before Bob's weapon could power up she had reached him. In one smooth motion she pivoted on her forelegs and, her heads held up and wide apart to triangulate on her target, she kicked the User in the chest with her powerful hind leg. He flew back through the wall. AndrAIa said "IdClipper!" and galloped after him.
After several nanoseconds she came back. She looked unnerved, her legs shaky. "I see what you mean, Bob," she said quietly.
"I don't know how he can tell what he's doing," Bob replied.
AndrAIa stopped in front of a repair station. "IdClipper," she said to deactivate the cheat mode. A line from the station attached itself to her for several nanos, and the damage the User had done to her disappeared. As soon as the cable disconnected she said determinedly, "Come on," and started for the door leading to the next room.
They went through several more rooms before coming into a large open chamber with no robots, switches, or repair station. The floor was littered with health boxes, small blue flasks, and ammunition packs. At the far end was a large door made of clean, white material. It was surrounded by an arch covered with delicate circuit patterns. At the top of the arch were the words, THE DEATH PLACE. Looking up, Bob commented, "Subtle."
"This's the endgame," AndrAIa told them.
Dot put her hand over a health box and said to AndrAIa, "Go ahead."
While they did that, Bob looked around to distract himself from the sight of his wife being shot repeatedly in the leg. If he had rebooted as a player, he thought, he could use up ammunition in a similar way. But Dot had never found a weapon, so they had to leave the ammo here.
"You can look now, Bob," Dot said.
"Oh? Sorry," Bob replied.
She smiled and patted a joint that served as a shoulder. "I'm fine," she assured him. Then she walked toward the white door, gathering flasks along the way. Each added a small amount to her health above the normal limit.
She pressed her hand against the surface of the white ceramic door. It slid open with a soft, smooth whirr. Bob, Dot, and AndrAIa emerged into a large open area. Most of the room was dark, but a brightly lit temple-like construction sat in the center. Energy sparkled between the columns and around the sculpture inside. Above the entire room was a glassy dome through which they could see stars.
"The Mother Board?" Dot asked quietly.
"Yes. That's what controls the ship. If he destroys that, we've lost." AndrAIa affirmed.
The three walked across the polished metal floor. The spaces between the columns were filled with a barely visible glow. When the Sprites came close they could see that the white sculpture in the center was of a woman with four arms. The lower pair were held out by her sides, palms forward, while the upper pair were raised, as if reaching toward the stars above. Her head was tilted back, looking upward, and her hair fanned out around her. Fine circuits that glittered with energy covered her body in a lacy pattern, creating a rippling rainbow effect. It was beautiful.
And it was well defended. The glow between the columns was a protective force field. All around the perimeter of the room were robots of many kinds. Some were blocky and brutal, and others were fast and dangerous looking. Some of them were even the same kind as Bob and AndrAIa, brains in metal bodies. None of them were spiders, Dot noted with relief. There were seams along the walls which Dot was willing to bet indicated that more robots waited to be released.
Bob looked at one of the four columns at the corners of the temple. "There are switches on each of these. The User has to hit all four of them to deactivate the force field so he can to get to the Mother Board."
"Right. If he can keep from being shot or torn apart in the meantime." AndrAIa agreed.
Poised and ready, they waited.
After what seemed like too long they heard the zap and sizzle of lasers coming from the entrance. "Finally," Bob muttered.
The sounds stopped for several nanos. The User was picking up the ammo, Bob thought. Then the User appeared in the doorway. Bob raised his gun arm and started charging it up. The User looked quickly around the room, then took out its gun and shot. A single bolt of ruby light lanced into Dot's side.
She screamed. Bob jumped in front of Dot and held the weapon on the User. Just as he was about to fire, The User ran, and the bolt of plasma sizzled against the wall instead. He ran toward the temple and into the field of vision of the robots along the wall. They activated and started forward, some waving bladed weapons in place of arms, others launching variously colored laser beams. The door to the previous chamber slid closed. The User began running around the temple in a wide circle, not attempting to shoot the robots, but instead dodging them.
Bob looked down. Dot was badly wounded, and she was cowering helplessly from the colored beams crisscrossing above her head. Urgently he said, "AndrAIa, we'll distract the User. Dot, you get out of here! Use the cheat!"
"Okay," Dot said, sounding frightened.
She didn't look like she could run fast enough to avoid being hit. Bob picked her up and carried her through the crowd of robots to the wall. While he did that, AndrAIa planted herself in the User's path. When he swerved around her, she pivoted and kicked. The User crashed into the energy field between the temple columns. He got up quickly and pressed a button on the nearest column before AndrAIa chased him off.
Gently Bob set Dot down by the wall. "Just stay safe until the end of the game," he told her.
She nodded silently. Staring at the wall, she reluctantly whispered "IdClipper." Then she reached out to touch it. Her fingertips sank through the surface as if it were an illusion. She looked back at Bob with a pained expression, then turned and rushed through the wall and into Limbo.
After a few nanoseconds of looking out into a baffling world of blurs and fragmented images she turned back to the room from which she had come. From here the wall was invisible, like a one-sided barrier. She could barely distinguish Bob and AndrAIa from the other robots that were battling the User.
The laser beams suddenly disappeared and the plasma weapons fell silent. The User must have run out again in search of health.
Keeping her eyes on the other areas of the game visible in the blurry distance and trying to ignore the pain from her wound, she began to move slowly and cautiously away from the battle room.
AndrAIa went up to the force shield protecting the temple. White energy leapt from the palm of one of the statue's lower hands and surrounded her. When it faded her damage was healed. AndrAIa looked down at herself, then, satisfied, stepped away, making room for the other robots that were crowding around the temple.
Observing the Mother Board healing her robots, Bob said, "I see what you mean about it being hard for the User to beat this game."
"Even one who cheats. I hope," AndrAIa said uneasily.
By the time the User appeared again, all of the robots were completely restored. The User, once again at full health, suddenly ran in through a wall and began shooting. He held his ground and fired at the robots until they got too close, then he hid again. This time several robots had fallen. AndrAIa and one other robot of the same kind began repairing the wrecked machines. Before they were finished the User darted out of another wall and ran to the temple. He had activated the switch on another column by the time Bob could shoot back. The plasma blast caught the User in the back as he was fleeing, and knocked him through the wall. "And stay out!" Bob said.
The User reappeared again. He stood and fired at the robots. They fired back. This time their shots did not seem to affect him. Lasers did not burn him, and even Bob's plasma blast only made him stagger back a few steps. He was soon surrounded by robots, but he had not been deleted. The robots, one by one, were beginning to collapse around him. "He's using an invulnerability cheat!" AndrAIa yelled. "How can we win?!"
"Keep him busy!" Bob said, and fired a plasma blast at the User. "Hold him back from the temple! Keep reviving the offlined robots!" He pointed up with his spidery hand.
The temple was now glowing with silvery light, illuminating the statue's upturned face. She seemed to be reaching into the light with her upper hands. AndrAIa glanced up. Where before there had been nothing but a scattering of stars, now half of the ceiling was dominated by a mottled grey shape.
Then AndrAIa realized what she was seeing. If she could have smiled, she would have.
The User continued fighting. More robots fell, and AndrAIa revived as many of them as she could. Between AndrAIa's kicks and Bob's plasma cannon they managed to keep the User from getting too close to the temple again. They could not delete him, they both knew that. And with most of the robots deleted, they were taking more damage. The User was shooting them up faster than the Mother Board could heal them. But they had a chance, they knew, if they didn't stop fighting for a nano. The User had to make a mistake sometime!
Dot, holding a small laser gun, stepped through a wall behind the User. She aimed and fired. The beam hit the User's back right below the neck. The User did not seem to notice. He kept firing on Bob and AndrAIa, who were by now the only robots left standing. They looked like they were ready to collapse.
What? Dot shifted her grip on the laser and swung it like a club at the User's head. It knocked him off to the side. A shot he had aimed at Bob missed. He whirled and aimed his laser at Dot. She rolled out of the way of the first shot. And light flared.
The User looked at the clear domed ceiling, then froze in place. In the same nano all of the robots also fell still. They all watched as the statue's arms shot a beam of white at the mottled object overhead. The object dropped away, rotating slowly, toward the planet below. When it entered the atmosphere it suddenly began to glow red, then yellow. Trailing a streak of fire, the asteroid plunged through the planet's surface. They heard distant thunder as the rock struck like a giant hammer. Orange fire spread rapidly over the planet's surface from the point of impact.
The cube rose, leaving the Sprites behind. Dot took one look at AndrAIa, then beckoned urgently at one of the approaching ambulances. Bob looked at the two women. Dot seemed all right, but AndrAIa had been burned and lacerated in the game. Seeing Dot and Bob's expressions, AndrAIa looked down at herself. Then she looked back up, dismayed. "Nulls. This doesn't usually happen."
"You usually don't have to play against a User who cheats," Dot replied. The white-uniformed binomes that came out of the grounded ambulance looked shocked. Dot did not seem to notice. "I'll come to the med area and see how you are as soon I get this straightened out."
"See you," AndrAIa replied reluctantly as the ambulance doors closed.
"How about you?" said a binome in white, who was standing in front of the other ambulance that had landed.
"We're fine," Dot said.
"Dot, why don't you get a scan?"
She looked at him, surprised. "I'm fine, she repeated. "I found some hidden health boxes while you and AndrAIa were defending the Mother Board."
He looked into her eyes and said in a soft voice, "You're probably right. But after all that happened, would you get a scan just to be sure? The ambulance is right here anyway."
After a beat she said, "Okay, Bob. If it'll make you feel better."
"Thanks," he said with a smile. They kissed lightly, then Dot climbed into the waiting vehicle.
Bob stood and watched the ambulance fly back toward the Principle Office. It was not visible at this distance, but Dot's Diner was in front of the Principle Office. He could go there...
No. Megabyte activated his zip board and flew toward the rim instead.
As he did he thought about the game. He had played it well. He had worked with Dot and AndrAIa as a team, so each person's strengths were used - as much as the game permitted, anyway. As a team they had taken a seemingly impossible situation and emerged the victors. Megabyte believed that he had acted exactly as Bob would have in the same situation.
His impersonation of Bob was perfect. He was not boasting to himself; it was a statement of fact. In fact... it was too good. He had let the Guardian's personality guide him these past microseconds. He had not only taken Bob's place in Mainframe and the hearts of his loved ones... he realized that he liked being Bob. He had come to think of himself as Bob.
Megabyte felt suddenly cold with loathing. He had forgotten his goal, the subjugation of Mainframe and his revenge against the Sprites within! Instead, he had quietly sunk into the Sprites' comfortably mediocre life. Bob's personality had overtaken Megabyte's, his will had replaced the Virus's. As if the Sprite had infected him! Bob had once threatened to reformat him as a Sprite, a truly hideous fate - and yet, Megabyte had done the same thing to himself!
That would end now! He had lulled them into believing that he was Bob, but now the predator was once again awake. He would continue the charade for a while longer while he furthered his scheme - that would make it all the sweeter when he finally revealed himself - but soon...
He had originally intended just to take revenge on Mainframe and its inhabitants. That had been in the heat of the moment. But now he had had time to think it over, and he still wanted what he always had: to drain this system, then leave its corpse behind when he infected the Supercomputer and made it his domain. Bob was merely a tool, the key to Megabyte's scheme. Bob had access to the Supercomputer and the Prime Guardian. There was the Gateway, through which he could get to the Supercomputer - but that was a second-string plan. A Guardian with a nonfunctional keytool could just as easily ask for a portal leading to the Supercomputer. More easily, as it would not arouse the suspicion that the use of the Gateway would.
Yes. He smiled nastily, an unfamiliar expression on Bob's face that thankfully nobody was close enough to see. He would admit to Turbo his lack of progress with Glitch, then when they created a portal for him to enter the Supercomputer he would infect that system. But, he thought cruelly, he would keep in contact with his dear wife Dot, just to make sure she did not forget about him. Family first!
A VidWindow opened in front of him, startling him out of his train of thought. He pulled up sharply. It was Turbo, and he looked worried. In a nano Megabyte was in character again. He said, "What's going on?"
"Bob, we've got a situation here. You may be the only one who can deal with it. I need you to come to the Supercomputer right away," the Prime Guardian answered.
Surprised, Bob said, "Sure. Just let me tell Dot. Uh, Glitch still isn't working. I'll need a portal."
"Bring Glitch. I'll create a portal in four micros."
"Thanks, Turbo. I'll be ready."
The VidWindow closed. Megabyte smiled to himself. Coincidence or destiny? It did not matter, he would take advantage of it all the same.
Megabyte flew back toward the Principle Office.
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