By Kim McFarland

Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words...

-- Killing Me Softly

"He didn't attempt to escape. He must have thought I was bluffing. He hardly reacted until the deletion started. After that... it was a routine execution."

Bob's speech had become stiff and formal as soon as he had begun his report to Turbo on Megabyte's deletion. By the end his voice had gone flat, his expression tight and restrained.

From his VidWindow Turbo regarded Bob in silence for a few nanoseconds. His expression, too, was guarded. Then he asked, "Were there any other witnesses?"

Bob glanced to his side, where Dot stood. "Yes. Dot was there too."

"It was exactly as he reported," she confirmed.

"I see," Turbo said to Dot. Then he looked at Bob again. "I'm surprised, Bob. I didn't think you'd take this into your own hands."

Firmly Bob said, "I had to. After everything Megabyte did to this system, to Dot..." He looked at her, then turned back to the Prime Guardian. "I was wrong about him, Turbo. I still believe that Viruses can be turned... but not Megabyte. Some people can't be cured."

Turbo nodded silently. He could see that this admission cost Bob. This discussion would be continued - but not now. "We'll need an incident report within the millisecond."

"Send me the forms, I'll do it."

Turbo paused, then said in a low voice, "Bob... I know it wasn't easy, but you took the correct action."

Bob shook his head, looking down. "I know. I tell myself that... but I still hated doing it. It felt like murder."

"If you'd enjoyed it, son, I would've taken you off duty."

Bob looked up again. Then, after a pause, he nodded. "If I had, I'd deserve to turn in my icon. It's the Bad Guys who're supposed to enjoy deleting, not us." Then, changing the subject, he said "There were some injuries - Megabyte stabbed Phong, and Slash was blown apart in a battle - but we're handling that. They'll both be all right." He paused. "Turbo, Glitch isn't functioning normally. Sometimes it works, and sometimes... nothing."

"He was damaged in the fight?"

"No. It started soon after we separated. I thought it was me at first, that I was making mistakes. It'd been so long since I'd used Glitch normally. But lately Glitch's all but stopped functioning. It doesn't seem to be a system error; a scan revealed no damage." Bob hesitated, then continued, "Glitch has been through a lot. It functioned broken and missing part of its code, with a cadet it was not bonded to, for a third of a second. It merged with me, then separated. The more I think about it, the more it seems like all of that was too much for Glitch... like it's been overloaded. Does that make any sense?"

Turbo looked thoughtful. "Keytools are sentient. They they can disobey their Guardians' commands; they chose to leave us when Daemon took us over. I've heard of keytools going nonfunctional the way Glitch has. You'd better bring him in, see what the techs can do for him."

Quickly Bob answered, "I don't want to force Glitch. It will respond sometimes. Except for mending tears, there's not much else I really need it to do now. Maybe, after everything that's happened, it just needs to rest a while and get its programming together. If that doesn't work, I can bring it in."

Turbo looked dissatisfied, but he said, "As long as it doesn't harm Glitch, okay, try it your way."

"Thanks, Turbo. If it gets worse, I'll bring it in. Well, I'll have to ask someone to make a portal, that is. In the meantime, could I get one of the tear mending tools from the Armory for use around Mainframe?"

"I'll have one sent over."

"Thanks again. Oh, Turbo, I have one more thing to report." He grinned brightly as he took Dot's hand. "My records'll need to be updated. Dot and I are married."

Dot grinned at Turbo's dumbfounded expression. That startled him! She'd bet that Bob had planned this.

"Congratulations, Bob," Turbo said. "I wish I'd known."

"We did it quickly. We wanted to get on with our lives without any more waiting around. So we did." He smiled warmly at Dot and squeezed her hand. She smiled back, her eyes bright. Looking back at Turbo, he said, "We may have a public ceremony a little later when things are settled down in Mainframe. If we do, you'll be at the top of the guest list."

"Thanks, Bob. You know, after all that's happened recently, you've earned some free time."

Bob held up a hand. "Thanks, but there's still work we need to do here. Part of the Principle Office is still infected," he nodded back at the blue metal and bent cables of the War Room bridge behind himself, "and there are virals left over. Not many, but some, including a few that Megabyte may have mindwiped completely. I wouldn't feel right taking a vacation until all that is resolved." He lowered his hand and said with a cocky grin, "It shouldn't take too long. Without Megabyte, the infection is passive and the virals are little more than troublemakers. We've got Mouse working on cracking the infection, and we both know how good she is. We'll probably have them cured before I finish the report forms you're going to send me."

"All right," Turbo said. "Do you have any other surprises for me?"

"No, that's it," Bob said, clearly pleased with himself.

"All right. I'll have a mender sent over with the report packet."

"Thanks, Turbo."

The VidWindow closed. Dot took Bob's hand again. It was a small gesture, just the clasp of two hands - but even that simple show of affection would have been impossible for them not long ago. Mouse grinned as she watched them. After all they had gone through, she was glad that they had finally gotten together. They deserved a little happiness with each other.

AndrAIa was looking at one of the VidWindows, but watching Bob and Dot out of the corner of her eye. She, too, was pleased. She didn't want to think about either Bob or Dot having to go through life alone. She and Matrix drew strength from each other and balanced each other out; it could be the same for Bob and Dot someday. She didn't think that all the walls could be knocked down in one cycle - both of them were too strong-willed for that - but, looking at them now, she believed that in time it would happen.

Matrix's hand went around her waist. She leaned close to him and smiled to herself. He had been watching them too.

Phong turned around when he heard a bleep behind himself. A message with a file attachment was coming in. He tapped a control, acknowledging and accepting the download, then looked over at Bob and said, "Here it is."

"Thanks." Bob walked over. A small VidWindow opened. The message was short and terse, one sentence stating what the file attachments were. Bob took the device - a small, metallic cylinder - and, after searching his memories, touched it to his right bracer. The mender attached itself firmly. Bob raised his forearm and sighted along it, then lowered it again and commented to nobody in particular, "That was quick."

Matrix asked, "Does it do anything besides mend tears?"

Bob heard a strange note in Matrix's voice, one he could not place. The former renegade seemed almost shy about asking the question. Why? He answered, "No, that's all it does."

"Oh," Matrix said in a low voice, and nodded.

AndrAIa recognized the subtext. Matrix wished he had one. He wasn't used to being second to anyone, and now he didn't even have a half-functioning keytool. All he had to prove that he had any Guardian protocol at all was a gold icon - and he had to wear his icon in Game Sprite mode to avoid file conflicts with his younger copy, so even that wasn't visible.

Bob walked back over to Dot and took her hand again. "I'd better go out on patrol. See if I can find any tears or virals."

"All right." She didn't ask if he needed any backup. He wouldn't, not for tears or the few masterless virals that were still roaming the system. "See you soon."

"You bet." He smiled warmly at her. They kissed lightly.

After Bob left, Mouse watched Dot walk up the balcony steps and go into her office. Then, after a few nanos, she followed her.

Dot looked over as her office door opened. Mouse was grinning at her. Dot blushed, though she didn't know why.

Mouse leaned against the wall and folded her arms. "Usually you're sittin' at that desk with your face in your organizer. If I didn't know better I'd swear I caught you just standin' there daydreamin'."

Now Dot knew what it was. Mouse had a way of making you think she knew just what you were thinking, especially on certain subjects. And on those subjects she was often right. "I was," Dot said. It was easier to admit it than to fight it.

"I don't blame you, sugah," the hacker said.

Dot looked away, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. She heard Mouse approach. "So how d'you like married life so far?"

Dot didn't look back. "I like it just fine."

"Just fine?" Mouse said teasingly. "That's all?"

"Mouse! I don't kiss and tell!"

"Okay, okay," Mouse said. She knew when it was safe to tease Dot, and when to back off.

After a few nanos of silence Dot said softly, "He's a little... shy."


Dot nodded, then looked back at Mouse. The blush had not left, but her expression was more serious. Surprised, Mouse said, "Oh!" Dot closed her eyes and turned away again. Mouse laid a hand on Dot's shoulder and said gently, "Honey, don't worry about that. That happens to everyone once'n a while. It'll work itself out, just wait and see."

Dot nodded, looking down at the floor. "I'm sure you're right. It's not that big a deal. It's not like we wasted all our time..." Her grin returned.

"That's the spirit," Mouse told Dot encouragingly. Then she leaned forward and said with a smirk, "I do have one bit of advice..."

"What?" Dot said uneasily.

"Whatever you do on your honeymoon-"


"Leave your organizer out of it."

Dot stared at Mouse. The hacker winked. Then Dot started laughing. "Okay, I get the message," she said.

Bob walked onto the platform outside of the Principle Office, then threw his zip board. It spun open automatically. He stepped onto the discs and sailed into the air.

Flying was easy now. It had not been at first. Most Mainframers learned how to use zip boards soon after they learned to walk. He, however, had only recently started using them. He doubted that they would have worked for him before, when he was a Virus, had he ever been inclined to make the experiment.

The top level of Baudway passed by, far below his feet. Thankfully, Sprites did not ever seem to fall off these boards. How that was he wasn't sure. But it did work; he had not fallen yet. If he fell in this soft, weak form, he would do more than just dent himself.

He looked around and saw no sign of tears. Without a keytool or any other such device he would not be able to sense them unless they were visible above ground level anyway. Then he looked at the mender. It was a featureless tube half as long as Bob's forearm. If it had a way of detecting tears, it hid it well. He searched Bob's memory and did not find any further information. The Guardian had not used one of these since acquiring Glitch, so the information was not stored in his recent memories.

Fortunately, Megabyte was intelligent enough to have foreseen this kind of problem. He had a solution ready at hand.

He completed one circuit above Mainframe, then flew down into the lower levels of Wall Street. He traveled about slowly, looking wary, as if hunting for a tear he had sensed. Eventually his path led him into the lowest level of the adjacent sector: G Prime.

He was amused to see how little of it had been restored. The Silicon Tor was gone, of course. The antivirus program had erased all purely Viral data, with the unfortunate exception of Hexadecimal. But the rest of G Prime had merely been cleansed of his infection. Mainframe had barely begun to reclaim the sector. He had even heard rumors that his own ghost still prowled the file paths. That was foolish of them and fortunate for him. Because of the Sprites' superstitions, he was free to move about in the lower levels without being observed.

He flew easily through the dark maze of horizontal plateaus, factorylike buildings, and groupings of pipes, to the edge of the sector. There, opening out over the Energy Sea, was one of many hangars that once housed small squadrons of ABC vehicles. No lights shone from inside. Nobody passing by would give it a second glance.

He stepped off the zip board before he walked through the door. It was not locked. The inside was disused and musty smelling. He went to a maintenance room full of machinery. One large power unit was not hooked up. He closed his eyes and concentrated, suppressing Bob's code, activating his own. He gritted his teeth as his shape changed. It was more painful the longer he had remained in Bob's form. It was as if his body had become used to the Sprite's shape and protested the reconfiguration. But once the change was complete and he was himself again the pain vanished. He opened his eyes, which were higher above the ground than they had been nanos ago. Then he hooked his strong claws behind the edge of the power unit and pulled. It scraped across the floor, revealing a doorway into a brightly lit room.

It was occupied by only three dataforms. Two viral binomes turned to face him. Herr Doktor exclaimed, "Ah, Mein Grossenbyte! It is good to see you!" The other - a misshapen binome that Megabyte supposed Herr Doktor had assembled out of spare parts - stared but said nothing, as usual.

"How is the patient?" Megabyte asked.

"He is just perfect. He is the perfect guest," Herr Doktor answered, laughing a little too hard at his own joke.

Megabyte walked over to the intensive care capsule. Inside the casketlike enclosure, visible through the clear panel on the upper half, was a battered, bruised Guardian. He had been cleaned up and his wounds bandaged, but he still looked terrible. A clear, flexible plastic pipe led into his mouth.

Herr Doktor chattered happily, "I have succeeded in suppressing his motor circuits. He cannot move a digit, so it is no problem at all to keep him from escaping. He also cannot breathe by himself, but I have a machine doing that for him. His keytool is still locked away so it will not interfere."

"Oh? Very good," Megabyte said, staring at Bob. The Guardian appeared to be asleep. Megabyte rapped on the covering with one sharp claw. Bob's eyes snapped open. When they focused on Megabyte his pupils contracted, though the rest of his face remained slack. Megabyte smiled sharkishly. "Hello, Bob," he said in a pleasant tone.

The Guardian only stared at him. Megabyte lifted the top of the capsule. It tilted up on a hinge behind Bob's head. With that out of the way, Megabyte could see that Bob was hooked up to a bird's nest of wires. Monitoring him, or keeping him under control? It didn't matter as long as they did the job. Megabyte said, "Are you enjoying your rest?"

No reaction. Megabyte sighed. "I do miss bantering with you, Bob. You were never at a loss for an answer. I myself cannot supply both halves of the conversation. Not at the same time, that is." He smiled nastily at Bob, letting that sink in.

"I've been doing some thinking," Megabyte continued in a casual, conversational tone. "I believe I've figured out where my new abilities came from. You were puzzled about how the Web could give me new powers too - I read it in your mind when I copied your code." He looked at his claws, then at the melted-looking arm. "The Web degrades dataforms that are not adapted to it or shielded from it. Your code kept it from destroying me entirely. Thank you," he said, touching his chest with one hand and inclining his head graciously.

Bob's eyes followed Megabyte as the Virus began to pace, his hands behind his back, as if he were speaking before a small, informal audience. "It allowed my own survival systems to operate without being overwhelmed. We Viruses are very good at surviving and adapting. Now, you remember my ancestor, do you? I believe you met at least once. He was rather weak by comparison. His viral powers were hardly worth mentioning, his intelligence low. Yet from his code both Hexadecimal and I were compiled, both of us possessing formats different from his and powers he did not have. He must have been quite the mongrel, to carry so many different types of code. He was especially unfortunate in that they canceled each other out, leaving him with so little. But when his code was split cleanly, the different formats no longer interfered with each other, creating two descendants more powerful than their ancestor."

"Ja, ja!" Herr Doktor exclaimed, his eye wide with fascination. "That must have been it!"

Megabyte glanced over at the interruption. He had forgotten that the two virals were there. Herr Doktor stepped back nervously and said, "Sorry, your immensity."

Megabyte stepped up to Bob again. "So, it is not difficult to suppose that there was yet more code in the mixture, code which up until recently had remained dormant. But when the Web began to damage me, this code became functional, in the process activating powers that I had not been able to use before." He smiled down at Bob. "Not a bad exchange, when you think about it."

The pupils were still resentfully contracted. Oh, Bob was listening closely. Raising a clenched fist, Megabyte declared, "I will have my revenge on Mainframe. But those plans do not immediately include deleting you, or anyone else, at the moment. I've devised a much better scheme, one which will lead me into the Supercomputer and all the power therein. And you will help me. I don't suppose I need to insult your intelligence by explaining how, do I?"

The pupils dilated slightly. There was no sound in the room for several nanos but the rush of air from the machine that breathed for Bob. Megabyte sighed. "One-sided conversations are so tedious." He glanced back at Herr Doktor. "Monitor him."


Megabyte peeled the bandage off of Bob's forehead. The gash underneath was surrounded by puffy skin that shaded through purple to black. Bob's eyes widened and his pupils dilated fearfully as Megabyte placed his fingers on Bob's forehead and temples.

The link was made easily. Sprite minds put up more resistance than those of binomes, but after he had broken through for the first time, subsequent invasions were much easier. He searched around within Bob's mind for what he needed. He was not trying to steal more of the Guardian's code. Oh, no, he had copied enough of that the first time. When he activated it, he became a perfect physical duplicate of Bob. However, the impersonation took more than an identical appearance. He had to replicate Bob's personality.

Bob screamed mentally at Megabyte as the Virus rummaged through his memory files. Megabyte ignored it as he would distant background noise. When he found the areas he wanted, he began copying the data to his own random-access memory.

Herr Doktor glanced back and forth between the scene before him and the monitor showing Bob's vital statistics. As soon as Megabyte had touched him the mental activity monitor had gone haywire. The normally steady horizontal line jerked around jaggedly, as if he were having a seizure, in sharp contrast with the still, quiet scene before him. All of his other statistics remained relatively steady, well within the safety range. The only thing in danger was Bob's sanity.

At length Megabyte lifted his hand from Bob's forehead and smoothed the bandage back into place. A distracted expression on his face, he looked around, then wiped the energy staining his palm off on the side of the capsule. Bob's eyes were half open and unfocused, dazed. Megabyte started to walk toward the door, then paused. He returned to Bob's capsule and looked down on the helpless Guardian. "Oh, Bob?" he said in an exaggeratedly casual tone.

Bob looked up at his captor.

"If it is any comfort to you, I will be taking very good care of Mrs. Matrix." He smiled cruelly at Bob as he resumed the Guardian's shape.

Bob's eyes widened with shock. The display on the mental activity monitor jerked upward frantically. Laughing softly, Megabyte lowered the lid back over Bob, then turned and walked away.

As Megabyte stepped onto the zip board he replayed Bob's widening eyes in his mind, and smiled to himself again. He had planned how he would inform Bob of his marriage as soon as he had decided to visit him today. Bob's reaction was as gratifying as Megabyte had hoped.

It was fortunate he had kept Bob around. No, not fortune - good planning. He had known that he would need more data from Bob for this impersonation. This time his prey were aware of his Trojan Horse abilities, and would notice any misstep he made. Putting on the appearance of another dataform was easy, and took only a nanosecond. Duplicating a personality was much more involved.

Megabyte was still learning the uses and limitations of his new powers. He could not copy and absorb too much of a sprite's memories and personality programming at one time, or it would threaten to overwhelm him. Rather, he had to take it one segment at a time, copying the most important parts first, then what he thought of as backup data. Older memories, less frequently used personality subroutines. If he could predict what he would need, he could aim for those parts only, but that was often not the case. He had found that out very recently. His current plan could have fallen apart because of one critical failure: Megabyte was not attracted to Dot Matrix. How could he be? She was a completely different format, and no more physically interesting to him than a null. Thus far he had been able to pretend otherwise... but some things could not be feigned. Fortunately Dot was still desperate enough to ignore small inconsistencies in favor of what she desired to believe.

The simplest solution was the best. Attraction was a function of personality. It certainly was one of Bob's. Therefore, Megabyte had copied that function, among others. He would not let so foolish a detail thwart him again!

Megabyte knew that he was walking a thin line by downloading so much of the Guardian's code into his own. If he copied Bob's antiviral programming it could conceivably backfire, with gruesome results. He also knew of one limitation besides the speed at which he could integrate his victim's personality with his own: he could only store code from one dataform at a time. He was locked into Bob. If he copied code from another, he would lose all of Bob's data.

All the more reason to keep Bob safe and hidden away.

Megabyte smiled to himself. Who would have imagined that to revenge himself on Mainframe he would become Bob? Yet that was what he was doing, a byte at a time. He was building up a perfect copy of the Guardian's personality. As it went along, he would become more and more indistinguishable from the original. And it would become easier for Megabyte; he could simply let Bob's personality take over for him when he wanted it to. Method acting in its purest form!

Perhaps soon he would be able to discard the original. That would be a prudent strategy... but then he would lose his code source, which could prove disastrous if he had to change form again. And, Megabyte thought, he did not want to delete the only Sprite who knew the truth. Megabyte was out for revenge, and revenge was what he got when he made Bob suffer by telling him what he had done - and would do - to Mainframe and Dot. No, he would keep Bob online and well informed for the foreseeable future.

For the present, he had to allow several microseconds for his system to assimilate the read-only memory he had copied from Bob. He could search for tears during that time; it was an easy, point-and-shoot task, requiring no specialized knowledge from the Guardian that he did not already possess. Again he smiled to himself. Megabyte, mending tears! A Virus Guardian! He tasted the irony, and liked it.

He heard the crackle of an energy discharge coming from above. He looked up automatically, but, being on a lower level, he could not see the sky. Nanos later his suspicion was confirmed when the system voice announced, "WARNING, INCOMING GAME. WARNING, INCOMING GAME."

He gritted his teeth. The timing could hardly be less fortunate. Quickly he flew to the edge of the sector and out, over the Energy Sea, then rose over the rim of the system. As he flew back over Mainframe he realized that he didn't want to be seen coming from behind G Prime. Bob's programming had made him want to rush straight into the game. All eyes would be on the game, he reasoned as he flew toward the descending cube, and in case anyone noted his location he would simply say that he had been patrolling G Prime for tears.

When he dipped under the edge of the cube he saw a green figure silhouetted against the purple static. Matrix. He must have approached from the opposite side. Megabyte stiffened just before the bottom of the cube came down on him and the energy sheeted queasily through his body.

When he looked up again, he was in a dimly lit area. His first impression was of dark grey. As his eyes adjusted details began to appear within the grimy darkness. Pipes along the ceiling, rivets on the walls. Small control panels with colored buttons that would presumably light up. "Just like home," he thought as he realized how absurdly like the now-abandoned lower levels of G Prime this was.


Megabyte turned. Matrix was jogging toward him. His footsteps echoed in the large, quiet chamber. Megabyte called Bob's personality to the surface. "Hey, Matrix."

"I haven't seen any game sprites. I think this is a deathmatch."


"Have you played this one before? It's Second Tremor. Another first-person shooter. The User's been playing a lot of those lately."

As before, Matrix was so eager to show off for Bob that he would give Megabyte all the information he couldn't get from Glitch. How useful! "No, I haven't played this one before. What do you know about it?"

They both heard the sharp clatter in the distance. It cut off as abruptly as it had started. Matrix looked back and said, "We'd better stay together. There'll be multiple Users in this one, and they're all hunting each other. The winner's the one who gets the most frags. Kills. If that's one of us then we'll be all right and the sector won't be nullified when the game's over. Have you seen any weapons?"

"No. I got here the same time as you."

Matrix looked around, then said "C'mon," and started toward a brightly lit hallway on the opposite end of the room from. Bob followed him. As they walked Matrix said, "Don't reboot until we find some weapons. Otherwise we'll be sitting ducks."

Megabyte hadn't thought about that. "Right."

They emerged into another huge room. This one was fitfully lit by parallel lines of lights that crossing the ceiling. The room was full of Sprite-high crates; a narrow walkway threaded into the mass. "There'll be something in there, count on it," Matrix said as he climbed onto a crate with the help of a smaller box. A second small box let him onto the top level of crates. As if it were meant to be a stairway, Megabyte thought. Well, of course it is. This is a game, after all.

Matrix walked along the crates, looking down along the passage as it branched between the boxes. Megabyte saw something moving against the wall. He tensed for a nano, then saw that it was not moving purposefully, but rotating slowly in place just above the ground, and much too small to be a User. He started toward it. "Armor," Matrix said. "You won't be able to grab it until you've rebooted."

"I'll remember where it is," Bob replied.

"Here we go!" Matrix called. He beckoned toward Bob, then jumped down into the aisle. Bob came over and looked down. Matrix was standing by a double-barreled shotgun. As he tapped his icon he said "Reboot!"

When the green light faded, Bob stared. Matrix was now sitting in a very large chair. He reached one bony arm out, grabbed the shotgun, and held it up. It attached itself to a nasty-looking metal pole on the top of the chair back.

Bob jumped down. Matrix turned and looked at him with eyes that had been sewn shut. Now that Bob was seeing him from eye level as opposed to above, he shuddered. Matrix had become a pale creature with a hugely swollen head. His eyes were sewn shut, and there were bigger stitches across the skull-like dome of his head. His body was thin, and his lap was covered by a cloth. No legs stuck out from underneath it. The chair had forward pointing spikes where the foot rests should have been. The backrest, which went much higher than his head, and the wheels on either side were made of heavy, weathered wood. "What in the Web are you?" Bob asked, appalled.

Matrix looked down at himself. "I'm glad these games don't have mirrors," he commented. He looked back up at Bob. "I'm a player. This is just a skin. It doesn't matter - all the players have the same stats no matter what they look like. It's the firepower that counts!" He grinned nastily and toothlessly, then grasped a control knob on one of the wheelchair arms. The chair turned and sped past Bob and back down the aisle.

Bob ran after him. It didn't seem believable that Matrix could move so fast in such a state, but then this was game reality. Common sense did not apply. The wheelchair bounded back up the box stairway and over the tops of the crates, toward the armor. As soon as Matrix touched it, it disappeared, added invisibly to his stats.

Bob heard a sound coming from another passage. He started to say something to Matrix, then saw that Matrix had dodged into the darkness. The Sprite had heard it too, and was staring in the direction from which it had come. He was working a hand control; the barrel of the shotgun moved restlessly.

The sound came again. It was soft, and Bob could not place what it was. It certainly was not a weapon going off. It sounded more like... objects being moved around, perhaps? Being picked up or set down. "I see him," he said in a low voice.

"Good!" Matrix wheeled along the wall, out of the line of sight of the passage entrance. He stopped right beside the door, weapon ready. Megabyte grinned. Matrix missed his calling when he was not compiled a virus! "Here he is," he said when the User ran down the hall.

The User - who they could now see was a thin, scantily clad red female with wings, holding a weapon - stopped before she went through the door. She paused, then peeked out cautiously.

The blast from Matrix's shotgun knocked her against the other side of the doorframe. She sprawled on the ground and lay still, but her weapon hovered in the air, spinning slowly. Matrix said, "A hyper-ray! Bob, get it!"

Megabyte reached out. His hand passed through it. He double clicked his icon quickly. "Reboot!"

Again game energy rushed through his body, and again he didn't like the sensation. When it was completed he was surprised to see that he was the right height. Had the game removed his disguise?! Quickly he looked down at himself. No, he hadn't returned to his real form, he had turned into something else. He was large and powerfully muscled. One leg changed from flesh to metal at the knee, and both legs ended in hooves. One arm blended into a weapon socket. He grabbed the ray with the other hand; it fitted neatly onto his arm.

"And I thought I got ugly," Matrix said, amused. Bob looked at him and shrugged. Matrix said, "My shotgun is only good at close range, but then it packs a punch. Your ray is better for long shots. When we see a User you stay beside and just a little behind me - I've got armor, I can take more damage, plus the shotgun blasts scatter, so if you're even beside me you might take some damage. Your ray won't do that, so you don't have to worry about hitting me by accident."

"Right," Bob answered. Matrix started down the corridor, and Bob followed him. Both were alert for the sounds of battle. Matrix pointed silently at a row of red tile-like objects floating against a wall. Bob went over to get them. Like the armor had, they disappeared as soon as he touched them, and this time he felt something change slightly. A small addition to his stats.

Bob heard a soft whoosh less than a nano before something smashed into his back, throwing him face-forward onto the ground, stunned. When he shook off the daze he saw Matrix wheeling up to the User that had been following them. He fired at the User at point blank range, but not before taking another hit from what looked like a bazooka. The projectile went right through the back of the chair and across the room so fast Bob couldn't see it, but a corkscrew-shaped trail of blue energy hung briefly in the air before dissipating.

Two shotgun blasts finished that User off. Matrix grabbed the floating weapon and stuck it on the top of his chair. "Hah! Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" he said in vicious triumph as he wheeled back to Bob.

Bob stood up slowly and shakily. Matrix was taken aback. "Oh, sorry, Bob. You had hardly any armor, so that hit you a lot harder than it hit me. Looks like one more shot'd put you down now. Wait -" He looked around, then pointed at the darkness underneath a low walkway. "Camp under there until I find some medical kits."

Bob nodded and went to hide under the walkway. It was perfectly black here; he could not see his own hands, and he could see the rest of the room easily, so nobody could sneak up on him. Must be a perfect hiding spot for Users. Why didn't they use this strategy, then? Because if they were all hiding, there would be nothing to shoot at. It would make the game very dull.

He heard the rattling sound again. This time he could identify it: a chaingun. How many different weapons were available in this game? The winner would have to be the person who acquired them all, having taken them off the corpses of the other players.

A strange noise alerted him. It was dangerously close! Quickly he swung his gun around and fired. Beads of yellow energy stabbed across the room and sparked against the opposite wall. But there was nothing there. The only movement was the slow spin of the floating red tiles. Hadn't he gotten those just nanos ago?

Oh. They must reappear after a set time, and that must have been the sound he had heard. Did weapons and armor also reappear? If so... warily he came out of the hiding spot. Watching over the barrel of his gun, he darted into the aisle between the boxes, jumped up the crate stairway, and looked where the suit of body armor had been. It was there again! He ran and got it. This time he sensed more of a change. He still looked no different, but he felt better armored.

"Bob!" Matrix shouted.

The call had come from deeper within the boxes. Bob walked over the tops of the crates, then dropped down to floor level when he saw Matrix. The wheelchair was close to a large white box with a red cross on the lid. Megabyte recognized that symbol without having to consult Bob's memories. He reached out for it. It disappeared at his touch. He felt better instantly.

"Did you get a User?" Matrix asked.

Bob shook his head. "I shot at a powerup," he admitted.

Matrix stifled a laugh. "You can't destroy 'em in this game," he said. He wheeled past Bob and back down the main aisle. Then he stopped and the chaingun mounted on his chair chattered briefly, and a scream followed. Blocked by the chair, Bob could not see what had happened until Matrix wheeled forward unconcernedly over the body of a rotund, yellow-skinned creature with spherical, staring eyes.

The two made their way down corridors, through large open rooms, and up and down elevator lifts. They found armor and health powerups and extra ammunition, but no new weapons. Bob's health was fully restored, and they had not seen any other users. They only heard sounds in the distance.

"I don't like this," Matrix murmured under his breath. "Either the map's too big or there are hardly any Users in here with us. If we can't find them we can't get any frags."

Bob waved a hand at Matrix while looking up into the dark distance. Matrix followed his glance and was about to speak when he heard a soft clinking. It was coming from the catwalk against the wall that Bob was staring at. Bob held out his weapon arm and shot a fan of yellow sparks, then focused in on a burst of red. A nano later a blue spiral trail led to a larger red explosion. Bob lowered his arm and grinned smugly.

"How'd you see him up there?" Matrix asked.

"I didn't. I heard him picking something up." Bob gestured at the catwalk with his gun. "Up there he could see us easily, and he'd be foolish not to stay in the dark and take aim at us. So I shot first."

Matrix looked suitably impressed.

Bob continued, "If we can hear them grabbing powerups, they can hear us. We ought to separate a little if we're going to do anything that makes noise. That way if a User homes in on one of us, the other can delete it."

"And nobody'll be able to take us both out at the same time. It's a plan."

Bob nodded. He glanced back over his shoulder as he heard a simultaneous explosion and scream from not too far away, then back at Matrix. "What other weapons does this game have?"

Matrix looked over in the direction from which the noise had come. There was a lighted passage between them and that area, so the winner of that battle couldn't approach them unseen. Keeping an eye in that direction, Matrix said, "There's the blaster you start out with. It's a peashooter. If you use it, the User'll think you're easy pickings and come in for the kill. If that's all you have, run. There's the shotgun - what I've got - which hits hard close up but is no good at a distance. The chaingun I have uses bullets up, fast. There's a rocket launcher, and you know what those are like - they pack a punch, and if you fire at anything too close, it'll punch you. Then there's the plasma slug gun-" he reached up and patted the weapon mounted above his head "-and that puts a hole instantly through anything in front of you, and whatever's behind it, without backfiring like a rocket will. You've got the hyper-ray, which hits hard and fast both up close and at a distance but it's another ammo eater. Its energy cells also power the BFG."

"BFG. It seems like every shooter has one of those now," Bob mused, looking around warily.

"Yeah, seems like it," Matrix agreed. "In this game the BFG shot travels slowly, and nothing happens until it reaches maximum range or hits something. So if a User shoots it, even if it's not at you, run and get behind something before it goes off or you'll be texture coating the walls."

"Gotcha. Thanks," Bob said.

"Oh, almost forgot," Matrix added, "There are grenades. Throw 'em or use a grenade launcher if you have it." He grabbed the control on an arm of his chair. The weapon twitched as it aimed at the figure running through the brightly lit passage. A nano later a blue spiral hung in the air and a red female player sprawled on the ground.

Megabyte stared, eyes narrowed. He could have sworn that they had already deleted that User! Could she have survived by feigning deletion somehow? Experimentally he drew his blaster and shot at the corpse. Blood splattered a few times, and then the body split into chunks with an unpleasant, wet sound. He lowered his weapon again with a satisfied nod, and walked forward to pick up the weapon floating in the air.

Matrix looked at Bob oddly. Bob knew that you shouldn't make noise and waste ammo in these games, didn't he? But Bob had to know what he was doing. Matrix said nothing.

They traveled through the game until they found a room that looked like the interior of a giant clock. Huge cylindrical gears meshed with each other, turning long rods which ran parallel to the ground at waist level. Matrix leapt over them in his wheelchair.

The noise the machinery made was not deafening, but it was difficult to hear each other speak. They looked around, and found no powerups or Users. Not good, Matrix thought. They needed more ammunition. Either this map was short on ammo or the Users were grabbing it all before they could get to it.

The center of the room was occupied by an assembly of gears and other moving machinery. The floor below it was open, and an orange glow rose from below. Megabyte went over and looked down, and saw sluggishly flowing, orange-hot fluid. Lava in a space station? What kind of game logic was that? he thought disgustedly.

He heard the chattering of a chaingun a split nano before he felt the bullets stab into his back. Too shocked to react, he plunged forward through the gap in the floor into the lava beneath.

While Bob screamed, Matrix looked up and saw the flash of a chaingun muzzle in a small alcove halfway up a wall. A User was camping in there! Matrix snarled and launched several slugs at the alcove. A shriek and a falling corpse rewarded him. It was the red demoness again. She was getting to be a nuisance, Matrix thought as he took her chaingun and attached it to the back of his chair in place of the now-empty slug launcher.

Megabyte found himself gasping, shaken, in an area he had not seen before. A nano ago he had been in agony, immersed in searing hot lava, yet he wasn't deleted! He looked down at himself. He looked the same as before; he was still wearing the skin the game had given him. But instead of the hyper-ray, he had only a small blaster attached to his arm.

Then he understood. The User that he thought had survived hadn't. He had killed her - twice. When you died in this game, it restored you but not your weapons and armor. That was why Matrix had made such a point of telling him about this useless little weapon.

This changes matters, he thought sharkishly. His life was not in danger. He would only lose his weapons and add one frag to a User's score if he were "killed." And they would never run out of Users to fight, since they would be restored too.

This changed things!

He listened, and heard nothing nearby. No gunplay, no sounds of users picking items up. Right beside him were a few small health boxes, but he did not need them now; he had been restored at full health. There was a set of five armor shards floating in a line against the wall. Picking them up would make noise and add very little to his defense. He passed them by.

In the room on the opposite side of the passage was a player, a female Spritelike creature in bulky body armor. It looked almost like a Virus. He ducked back into the passage. But the bullets he expected did not come, and he heard no footsteps. He looked out again, and saw that the User was facing away and had not seen him. He considered the weapon attached to his arm. He would have the advantage of surprise... but that would not be enough. This feeble excuse for a weapon would not do enough damage to stop the player before the tube it had balanced on its shoulder - that had to be a rocket launcher - destroyed him.

The player fired. With a small explosion a rocket flew down a passageway. Megabyte darted across the room, behind the player, to hide behind some machinery. He ground his teeth as he watched it firing down the hall, its back to him. He could hit it right between the shoulderblades... if he wanted to be blasted to bits right afterward. It shot several more rockets, jerking back with the recoil each time. Then he heard another weapon answer, and the armored User staggered backward. Aha! He shot at it from behind. Caught between two enemies, it jerked in the air several times before falling to the ground. Heedless of the other player he knew had to be coming, he ran out and seized the floating rocket launcher. He attached it to his arm, fired several shots down the passage, then fled in the opposite direction, up a flight of metal stairs to a higher platform.

The platform was filled with more of the everpresent crates, jumbled together in a meticulously disorganized fashion. He looked back over the edge. The other User had followed him into the room. It was a yellow sphere diagonally pierced by a pair of knob-ended bones. The entire front of the sphere was an enormous, toothily grinning face. It was looking up at him, but seemed to be weaponless. He shouldered the rocket launcher and aimed - and bullets began spattering into his chest. He dodged back, putting the level's floor between him and the User. How was it firing at him without a visible weapon?! He snarled; it didn't matter how it did that, only that it was able to. He looked down the stairs. The face was coming up to get him, bouncing ridiculously on its crossbones, bullets spraying carelessly into the crates. Megabyte stepped out from behind a box, shot one rocket, and stepped back. The sound of the chaingun had stopped. He looked again, and saw that the yellow face was better at charging than dodging.

He minimized the rocket launcher, took the chaingun, and set off through the crates.

He wandered around for what seemed like microseconds, finding no Users but hearing plenty of screams and gunplay in the distance. He gritted his teeth in frustration. How was he supposed to win this game if he couldn't find anyone to kill?! This map was too big to only have a few players running around!

He gathered the occasional ammunition pack as he explored, making his way toward the sounds of battle whenever he could. At one point he found a dark green sphere, picked it up, and studied it. When he saw the button on the side he understood. Grenades, a familiar concept though in a new guise. He minimized it and went on.

He emerged onto a balcony overlooking a large area full of machines. The crackle and boom of a chaingun and shotgun were loud here. He looked over the railing. Two players were fighting it out, dodging about madly to avoid each other's fire while also trying to hit each other. From above, it looked ridiculous. He took out a grenade, held it out at arm's length over the combatants, tapped the button with his thumb, and released it. It dropped right onto the head of the yellow player and exploded. The other dodged back - not in time to avoid taking damage! - then looked up.

Megabyte vaulted over the rail. As he fell he fired a rocket at the remaining player. The explosion came just as Megabyte landed. Pain shot up his legs, and he could feel that he had taken damage. He growled to himself; he had forgotten that when he was in Sprite form he was as weak as a Sprite!

Pushing that out of his mind - another health pack or two was all he needed - he grabbed the chaingun from the yellow Spritelike creature, then turned to get the other's weapon. And saw that the other player had been a scrawny, stitched-up Sprite in a large wooden wheelchair. The player was now impaled on the spikes that served as footrests, which had turned upward when the chair had toppled back.

Megabyte stared for a few nanoseconds, digesting his mistake. Then he took the shotgun that was floating above the chair and, after scanning the area for powerups, went on.

He skulked in the darkness, walking lightly and listening for any noise that would give his enemies away. He had developed a feel for where the battles took place most often. The best powerups were in the large rooms, and the players frequented those to gather the powerups when they reappeared. Fools! Did they think that a few shards of armor would be enough to protect them from his rockets?

He stalked back into the room with the large staircase. Beneath the staircase was a dark area - in which he saw the flash of a weapon firing. He threw a grenade into the darkness, then grabbed his shotgun. As he had expected, the red winged female leapt out before the grenade exploded and began darting madly about him as she fired. He cornered her between the staircase and a crate and fired the shotgun. She jerked back, then fell at his feet. Looking about to remind himself where the closest powerups were, he touched the chaingun, adding its bullets to his own.

He heard noise coming from a passage he had not tried yet. He went through it warily, alert for any sound or movement that might reveal an enemy lying in wait for him. The area was full of hiding places among the various mechanical items along both walls, but no other players.

At the end of the passage was a doorway into a brightly lit room. No, he noted with surprise when he looked out, this place actually has an exterior! It was a rocky plain crisscrossed with lava flows. He wouldn't have to risk himself jumping over these; there were bridges over them. One of the very few things that made sense in this game.

The only logical goal of this area had to be the entrance to some sort of building at the far end. It was part of the same complex that he had just exited, or more accurately the same large, low building - he couldn't see any separations, or any features of construction, just the squat shape that bordered the open area on one side.

He started toward the other entrance, switching to his chaingun as he ran. If he was attacked from a distance - and that was the only possibility, as in this landscape there was nowhere to hide in ambush except in the lava! - bullets would do more damage than shotgun shells.

As he approached the entrance he saw movement in the darkness. Someone else was already there. The face again. It did not fire, it only stood there, staring at him. Still running forward, Megabyte raised the chaingun and was about to fire when the smiling face made a strange whooping sound. Then a large green ball of plasma flew toward Megabyte.

Megabyte backed away, then stepped to the side and let it float past. The smiling face was now peppering him with bullets. He answered in kind. And saw first a flare of green as the plasma ball he had turned his back on erupted, then red as the explosion threw him off the walkway and into one of the lava flows.

He was restored in the dark silence of the building, in the exact same place he had reappeared before. Again he was armorless and all but weaponless. However, this time he was not shocked, but angry. He had to start over again! That was the last time he would be killed out, he snarled to himself as he looked about with slitted eyes.

He stalked carefully through the gaming area, keeping to the darkened parts, alert for telltale sounds and moving away from them instead of seeking a fight, picking up ammunition, weapons, and other powerups from the locations he remembered. Soon he was ready to battle other players - almost. Not, he thought, if the players were too well armed. He was not going to get himself killed out again. He had had enough of being stripped of his weapons!

He glanced up. There was a catwalk up above him, and a pile of crates placed just so he could jump up on them. What was that for? What else, he thought - game logic dictated that there had to be a reason for something so obvious if it made no other sense. After looking around and listening to reassure himself that he was still alone, he quickly jumped from crate to crate up to the catwalk.

There were no items up here. Just corroded pipes. This would be a poor spot to ambush other players from; he would be easily visible, and if he had to jump to the ground he'd take damage. Then he noticed a crack in one of the pipes. Grinning, he backed away, raised his rocket launcher, and fired at it.

The explosion blew a hole in one of the pipes just big enough for him to crawl inside. Game logic! He entered quickly, before anyone could track the sound of his rocket.

The inside of the pipe was coated with a green, slimy film, and water pooled in the bottom. Disgusting. He switched to a shotgun - a rocket blast in this small enclosure would doom both opponents - and started down the dark passage.

He splashed down long, straight lengths of pipe and ninety-degree bends. Eventually he came to a grate. Looking through it, he could see from above the room with the staircase and the crate-covered platform. The body of the smiling face was still there. He switched to the chaingun - he had plenty of bullets for it - and shot at it. After a few red sprays it splattered into chunks of red meat.

A player ran into the room. It was the armored female Sprite. He grinned and fired at it. It darted around, trying to evade the assailant it could not see. It was no good - Megabyte could see it no matter where it went in this room, thanks to his high vantage point. It soon fell, leaving a shotgun floating over its corpse.

Megabyte pushed against the grate. It opened, and he jumped down. Sharp pain flashed up through his legs; once again he had jumped down too far. He grabbed the weapon - a hyper-ray - and turned to go down the passage through which the player had come. When he entered it he saw another player at the opposite end. He snarled, raised the weapon, and squeezed the trigger. Sprays of red pixels, splatters of pain across his chest as bullets hit him, then the enemy fell. He took its shotgun and went on, toward the health packs that he knew were in the room.

Another player was already there, facing to the side. Megabyte snarled, raised his shotgun, and fired. It took two shots, one from a distance and another at point-blank range, to delete this player. He did not care that it screamed Bob's name as it turned during the nano that it took Megabyte to reload between the shots. Bob was not here. After the player was deleted Megabyte grabbed its weapon and the two large health boxes, restoring himself to full health, and went on.

Megabyte rampaged through the game. It was easy now that he had powerful weapons, maximum armor and health, and a map in his memory. He switched weapons automatically - hyper-ray, slug gun, or chaingun for large areas, whichever he had more ammo for at the time; shotgun for areas in which a face-to-face encounter was more likely. He took damage and then recovered with the nearest health packets. The other players followed patterns - some preferred certain types of hiding spots; others could always be found around health powerups. Cowards! That wouldn't help them once they were deleted! And the faster he killed them, the less time they had to gather weapons and powerups, and the weaker they were. Now when they saw him coming, they fled.

Megabyte was thoroughly enjoying himself. If he had known of games like this - delete or be deleted, with the chaingun and the rocket and the red, red pixels, all the same color as if designed by the same Programmer - he would have been playing them all along instead of sending the soldiers he intended to eliminate into them!

He came out into the open, lava-crossed plain. It was empty. He ran across, paying no attention to the lava flows, to the other entrance. The BFG was back there; he had seen it from another point in the game map, and the second and last time he had been deleted it had been by a BFG blast from this entrance. He ran into the darkness.

There was another player in there. It had already grabbed the BFG. Megabyte raised his slug gun. The player shouted Bob's name. Megabyte, snarling, shot once, then again. The player's wooden wheelchair fell over backwards, and the player flipped upward and impaled itself again on the footrest spikes. Megabyte reached for the prize, the BFG, which was floating above the fallen player.

He never reached it. He heard the words "FRAG LIMIT REACHED. GAME OVER," and purple energy sheeted upward through him.

He looked around himself, surprised and disappointed. He had been enjoying himself, he hadn't wanted the game to end. He could have cleared out whole rooms with that BFG! And he was short now, he noticed. Oh - he was no longer wearing the monsterish skin the Game had supplied, but Bob's form.

Bob's skin.

He heard footsteps stamping toward him, and turned. Matrix was approaching, and he looked furious.

The renegade stopped and glared at Bob, fists clenched, stiffly down by his sides as if he could barely restrain himself from punching Bob. "What in the User-deleted Web were you doing?!" he snarled. "You killed me five times in that game!"

Bob hesitated, looking embarrassed and upset. "Matrix, I'm sorry-"

"Sorry?!" Matrix shouted. "You shot me! I thought Mainframers were supposed to stick together! Remember that?!"

"Matrix!" Bob exclaimed, raising his arms as if to ward off a blow, "One of us had to get the most frags of all the players or we'd both lose. I couldn't see the game stats because Glitch isn't working. What if the game we'd joined had been in progress for a while? Then the other players would already have scored while we had nothing. And if we played as a team, we'd split the frags, and neither of us would win."

Matrix folded his arms, still angry. "You deleted me. Five times!" he accused.

"I didn't delete you," Bob explained patiently and apologetically. "I knew that the game would restore you the same way it restored me. I know how horrible it is to be killed out - it happened to me too, over and over. Matrix, if Glitch were working and I could have kept track of the score, if I could have been sure we'd win without it, I would never have shot at you. I did it to buy our lives. I'm sorry."

Matrix glowered. Bob looked at him earnestly. Finally Matrix relented. "Yeah," he said gruffly. "Like I've never done something I hated to do to survive."

Bob nodded, grateful that Matrix had understood. "No hard feelings?" he asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Matrix said grudgingly. Then he turned and walked away.

Megabyte watched him. He could tell a lot about Matrix by the way he moved. The Sprite was still angry, but not enraged as he had been before. It would take a little more work to smooth this over, but Matrix wanted to look up to Bob. It wouldn't be difficult.

Megabyte activated his zip board and stepped onto it. He flew back out over Mainframe, toward the rim, ostentatiously to patrol for tears. He could not be seen close up now - Bob's body had begun to tremble.

As he flew, hardly seeing the system below, he thought about what had happened. He had become careless. He had lost control! Bob would never have played the game as a berserker; he would have developed a strategy that pulled all of the players on his side into a team. It didn't matter that Megabyte was a Virus and did not think that way, that his method was to either to send in underlings to do the dirty work or to fight for himself at the expense of all others. What good would it do to win the game if in the process he revealed his true identity? If this had been witnessed by anybody but the easily-deluded Matrix, Megabyte would have betrayed his own plan!

The massive influx of data he had received from Bob had not yet been assimilated, of course. That had slowed him down mentally, made him fall back into old patterns of thinking. The solution was to complete the impersonation. Copy all of Bob's programming and make it his own, so he could slip it on and wear it like a Sprite wears a clothing protocol. Once he reached that point, all of the minor difficulties in impersonating Bob that he had encountered recently would disappear. Nobody, not even Dot, would be able to recognize him for what he was.

He would start now. He flew down, below the top level of the sector, then turned and headed back toward the rim of G Prime.

Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain

ReBoot and all characters are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. "Killing Me Softly" is by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Copyrighted properties are used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland ( Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.

The game is based on Quake 2 deathmatch mode. Thanks for Katzedecimal (the demoness) and her husband Robin (the evil smiley) for letting me kill them over and over in effigy!