By Kim McFarland
Prime Guardian Turbo sat alone at the head of the Guardian council table, watching a silvery sphere through which Mainframe could be seen. He had created the portal half a micro ago, and had been waiting since then. Finally, Bob walked through it and the portal closed behind him.
Bob paused, looking around as if surprised to find himself here. He probably expected Turbo to bring him to his office, Turbo thought. However, that place was too small for a portal, unless you didn't mind walking into a wall as soon as you came out. "Thanks for coming so quickly, Bob."
"No problem. What's going on?"
"You've probably already guessed. There are minor Net-wide disturbances. They've been increasing in frequency and intensity." Turbo paused, expecting Bob to speak. When he did not, Turbo continued, "It's Hexadecimal. We didn't think that, spread so thin, she'd be able to do anything. Well, she can, and she seems to be getting better at it. We know it's her; people all over the Net have sighted her masks. And when her masks appear, they ask for you."
"Oh boy," Bob said uneasily.
In a very serious voice Turbo said, "Bob, you're the only Sprite on the Net she's ever listened to. If anyone can bring her under control, talk her down, you can."
Bob paused thoughtfully before answering. "She was sane, relatively speaking, after I defragmented her masks. Now... when she powered up again and got her masks back, she went as crazy as ever." He looked back at Turbo. "I don't know if I can do it, but I'll try."
"Good." He tapped a control on the table in front of himself. The screen on the opposite side of the table lit up, showing a diagram of the Supercomputer. The central processor was a large circle, with subsystems arranged in a lacelike pattern around it. One subsystem was blinking white. "There, that router's where we've seen her. We think she holds herself together using the pathways between systems." He looked at Bob. "We're still rebuilding after what Daemon did to us. I don't know when the collective'll be back up to full strength. Maybe we could delete her - but if we failed, she's in a position to wreak Net-wide havoc. I can't take that risk now."
Bob nodded. "I understand, Turbo. I'll get on it." He stood.
Turbo stood. "Thanks, Bob."
As Bob left, Turbo refrained from telling Bob to call for backup if he needed it. You don't tell full Guardians how to do their jobs. Even if they still cling to radical theories that have been proven wrong already. He just had to trust that Bob would show more sense here than he had in Mainframe.
Megabyte let Bob's memories lead him through the corridors leading out of the central processor. He had to force himself to walk away from the center of the Supercomputer; all of his Viral instincts were screaming at him to find the seat of power, infect the system, claim it! But he also knew from Bob's memories that besides being the most powerful system on the net, the Supercomputer was also the best defended. If they found a Virus in their midst, they would delete it quickly and efficiently. No, to take the Supercomputer over he must find the true seat of its power and insinuate himself into it.
His first impulse had been to take Turbo's place. He was glad now that he had restrained himself. Turbo wasn't the Command.com of this system. He had power, but he was not at the top. It had taken long enough for Megabyte to build a complete copy of Bob's personality; he could not expect to be able to do the same to Turbo before the Prime's disappearance was noticed.
Megabyte did not want to assume another Sprite's identity. He had already come dangerously close to losing himself in Bob's personality. He wanted to live as himself, not hide behind a the face of a feeble Sprite. But it was necessary. Soon enough, he told himself. He would be able to reveal himself after he seized power. It would be all the sweeter then for the trickery he had used to accomplish his goals.
When he reached the outside he stopped and stared. 256es of interlinked subsystems, each easily the size of Mainframe, stretched into the distance in every direction. They were interlinked by bridges, but none were physically connected to the central processor. He had always known that the Supercomputer was big and powerful, but he had never imagined anything like this!
It all would be his! For this, he would plot carefully and take his time rather than trying to seize control by brute force. Bob's memory offered the information that, if the Supercomputer were threatened by a Virus as powerful and malignant as he was, they would not hesitate to offline one of their own subsystems to neutralize the threat. He could not expect the same mercy from them that Bob had shown him. Bob was an anomaly among Guardians; most would delete a Virus as soon as look at it.
The feeling was mutual, Megabyte sneered. He activated Bob's zip board and stepped onto it.
As Megabyte flew to the router he gathered his thoughts. As much as he despised the prospect, he had to continue the charade as Bob. With Bob's personality active, he might be able to tame Hexadecimal. She had obeyed Megabyte once, when he had harnessed her powers by shackling her and putting a shock collar around her neck. For Bob, however... She had been willing to sacrifice her own process to save his. Such dedication would prove useful.
Megabyte came to the router, and grounded. He could use this to travel to other systems - but why would he want to? What could he desire more than the Supercomputer? But, after he had infected it... yes, it would come in very handy indeed.
He wandered about, looking at the nearby subsystems. They practically glowed with power. Each subsystem must have access to more energy than Mainframe's Core had ever stored at one time. Idly he considered the idea of starting by infecting one of these systems first. He had once claimed all of Mainframe; taking one of these subsystems would be easily within his ability. But after he had this subsystem he would have to fight the Guardians in their home territory. That would be poor strategy. But when he controlled the Central Processor, he would also have access to the Armory, and then he could exterminate them like parasites...
As deep in thought as he was, he did not notice the white speck in the distance. He did look up, startled, when it zoomed close. When it halted right before him he saw, hanging in the air before him, a gape-mouthed smiling mask.
"Bob!" Hexadecimal shrilled ecstatically. The mask orbited him rapidly, looking at him from all around. Then she stopped before his face again. "It really is you!" she cried.
Megabyte pulled Bob's personality to the surface. "Hi, Hex," he answered. "They told me you were asking for me."
"Oh, yes! I've missed you so. I've been all over the Net. There's so much to see! But there's only one Bob," she purred.
"Uh, yeah," he said with a nervous smile. "That's me."
"Oh, Bob," she said happily, the mask's green eyes glowing into his. Then she chattered, "I was right. I saved the Net from Daemon! And I wasn't deleted. It fragmented me, but that's nothing new. It's happened before. You know."
That's right, he did. He remembered that Bob had once tried to capture Hexadecimal by cutting and pasting her mask into a locked file. Instead, he had caused her masks to fragment, and she had nearly been deleted. Had she forgotten that?
She continues, "There's so much to see on the Net! I never knew how small Mainframe is."
"Believe me, I know."
"So many systems..." Her eyes seemed to glitter. "So many opportunities for a Virus," she finished wickedly.
"Uh, Hex, I've got to talk to you about that-"
"Tell, me, did you like being a Virus?" she asked in a throaty purr.
That startled him. "What?!"
"Because you merged with your Glitch you can fly. You can make portals. You're full of power! Just like a Virus. Maybe you became one! What's the difference? Tell me, do you like it?"
The mask's smile seemed to be mocking him. He said, "I wasn't a Virus, Hex. There's a big difference!"
"Is there?" she asked, her eyes close to his. She let the silence stretch for a few nanos. Then she said, "You've changed."
"Yeah. Glitch restored me. Repaired the Web damage."
She sighed with disappointment. "Awww. I liked the new look. But it doesn't matter, really. You'll always be my dear Bob."
The purr in her voice was making him distinctly uneasy. Doubly so, in fact. He said, "Ah, Hex, about the Net-"
"Oh, the Net!" she exclaimed. Excitedly she said, "It's mine now! I've infected every part of it. Every system is under my control! And I said I was the Queen of Chaos before!" She cackled gleefully.
Megabyte stared at her. Hexadecimal... his idiot sister had truly infected the entire Net?! She had accomplished what he had only dreamed of! She, who had no ambition except to play with systems and people as if they were toys, who had no notion of how to use power despite how much of it she possessed? His fists clenched. He forced Bob's personality to the front again.
Her laughter trailed off into chuckles. Then she said calmly, "It's been fun, Bob. But I want to come back."
"Ah - come back how? You're everywhere now, aren't you?"
"Oh, that," she said carelessly. "I'm all spread out. I can't feel all of me. I can only think in one place at a time. It's hard for me to find my other masks. I mean, I can find them, but when I do I don't know where I am. I found this place because I already knew where it is. When I tried to find Mainframe, I couldn't!"
"Well, of course you could find your way here. This is the Supercomputer."
"It is?" Though the mask didn't change from its vacuous smile, her voice sounded surprised. The mask pivoted in the air, looking all around. Then it turned back to him. "It's nice. Bob, please bring me back!"
"What do you mean?"
"Pull me back into one person. I want to be like I was. You fixed me before. Fix me now!" she pleaded.
He held up his hands. "Wait, Hex..."
"You could make me a Sprite. I liked being a Sprite. I'd like it again."
She purred, "And I'd be so thankful. You have no idea... yet!"
He stepped back nervously. "Wait. Wait, Hex, I can't just wave my hands and defragment you, not when you're scattered all over the Net. I'll need time to figure out how to fix you. And I need your help."
"Of course!" she exclaimed. "Anything for you, my love!"
The mask flew to his face. Unyielding, plasticlike lips pressed against his. This was too much for Megabyte. He shoved the mask back back, then swung a fist with all of his strength. The mask shattered.
Its fragments dissolved into the ether. He stared, half expecting to hear Hexadecimal's enraged scream. But the sound did not come. He had broken her interface with this system.
She would be angry. He knew he shouldn't have done that... but, he said to himself as he clenched his fist tighter, he'd do it again, and only regret that it didn't delete her completely! Any Virus who, once she held the entire Net in her hand, would give it up deserved to close file!
Hexadecimal felt the shock of her mask shattering. The Supercomputer and Bob vanished from her vision.
Her first thought was an indignant "Well, I never!"
Why had Bob done that? He liked her. He understood her. Bob would not have broken her mask just for kissing him! After all, she had kissed him before!
The last things she had seen was utter hatred and disgust on his face, followed by a quick flash of pain. And then - nothing.
Bob would never have done that to her. That was not Bob! Someone had tried to trick her!
She knew where the Supercomputer was. Her awareness was still focused there. She would bring one of her other masks into from a nearby system through the router...
A VidWindow sprang open. Dot looked up and smiled. "Hi, Bob."
"Hey, Dot. I found out what the problem up here was. Hexadecimal is back. Kind of."
"What do you mean?"
He explained, "Her masks are around. She's gotten bored with doing whatever she has been doing over the net. She wants me to put her back together again."
Dot rolled her eyes. "Only Hexadecimal could get bored with infecting the whole net."
Bob didn't smile. "I may be here a while. We've got to figure out what to do about her. I'll keep you updated, okay?"
Wistfully she said, "Okay. Love you, Bob."
He grinned back at her. The VidWindow closed.
A red-eyed, fanged mask was soon speeding through the halls of the Guardian Collective headquarters. It startled people and caused confusion, but did no harm otherwise. Then, suddenly, it stopped before one Sprite and glared accusingly at him. "I've been looking for you!" it snarled.
"Hexadecimal?" Turbo said, startled. He consciously did not raise his left arm. Even if Copland could do something against her, she might see it as a hostile act. The last thing he wanted was to set Hexadecimal off.
"I wanted Bob! That wasn't him!" she shouted.
People were stopping and staring. Turbo said, "Come with me," and beckoned. She followed him.
He led her to his office and shut the door, placing himself alone with the Virus's mask. She was dangerous, but he did not believe that she was here to harm him. She was demanding answers. He said, "What do you mean, that isn't Bob? He came here from Mainframe to talk to you."
"That isn't Bob!" she insisted. "It looked like him, but it wasn't him! Couldn't you tell?!"
Carefully he answered, "If we weren't sure that was Bob, we wouldn't have brought him into the Supercomputer. Why do you say that's not him?" He had to keep her talking, calm her down. She wasn't warlike; Bob's reports had proven that. How did Bob deal with her? Besides having her develop a crush on him?
"He broke my mask! He hit me and broke my mask!" she screamed.
She didn't know about Megabyte, did she? Quietly he said, "Who do you think that was?"
"I don't care! He wasn't Bob!"
Sensing that mentioning her brother's execution would be a very bad move when she was already this angry, he said, "Let me show you something." He opened a VidWindow and initiated a search. The mask flew around to get a better view. He started a search for Bob's icon.
The results appeared immediately, since the search program didn't have to look beyond this system. He tapped the keys a few more times, and a line diagram of the various subsystems of the Supercomputer drew itself on the screen. A green blip appeared above one. Turbo said, "He's at the router. That's where you talked to him, isn't it?"
"That's not him!" she shouted. Then she said, "Show me Mainframe!"
He opened a VidWindow that showed the system from high above, wondering what that would prove to her. He didn't have a chance to ask, because a nano after the window opened, the mask disappeared in a flare of energy.
Hexadecimal had grepped the coordinates of her home system when Turbo had opened the VidWindow. Now she was groping along the web toward those coordinates. She was spread so thin she could barely feel anything as her center of attention moved from one system to the next. But soon she sensed familiar territory, and knew she was close. She found the part of herself that was nearest, and traveled through the pathways toward her home like an electrical impulse.
The angry mask appeared in the War Room amid cries of shock and fear. At them moment the place was staffed only by a few CPUs. She snarled at one, "Where's Dot?!"
The binome didn't speak - he only trembled, his mouth open - but his involuntary glance toward the door of Dot's office told Hexadecimal all she needed to know. The mask vanished again.
Dot gasped and jerked backward in her chair when one of Hexadecimal's masks appeared just angstroms in front of her face. The Virus said in a low, dangerous tone, "Where's Bob?"
Dot replied with some heat, "He went to the Supercomputer to deal with you! What are you doing here?"
"This is my home too," Hexadecimal answered sarcastically. "And that wasn't Bob! He hit me! He broke my mask!"
And Hexadecimal had it coming, Dot thought. Especially if she had forced herself on him yet again! "That was Bob," she said between gritted teeth.
"No! Bob wouldn't do that!"
What was Hexadecimal trying to tell her? That Bob was an imposter? The .BAT was trying to seize Bob again! "Bob and I are married now, Hexadecimal. Back off from him!" Dot warned.
"I'll prove it to you!" Hexadecimal shrieked. Dot tensed as the mask flared with energy. But Hexadecimal didn't attack. The mask disappeared again.
Hexadecimal was furious. First Turbo had put her off with meaningless talk and diagrams, and now Dot was refusing to cooperate! Why didn't any of these people listen? She knew Bob almost as long as Dot had, and certainly more intimately!
Bob had to be within Mainframe. She would have noticed it if he had gone anywhere else. She was sure he was here somewhere! He had to be!
Hexadecimal soon began making her presence known. The mask flew over and through Mainframe, often visible only as a white streak. It slowed at certain places, causing consternation and occasional panic in Kits Sector, Dot's Diner, and the games sections of the Energy Park. She flew through the lower levels, where she had seen him mending tears in the past. Nowhere did she see Bob or otherwise sense him.
She sped through Mainframe, searching at random now that she had exhausted the likely places, not caring about the chaos that her activities were causing. All that mattered was that she find Bob.
She flew through the sector of G Prime. This was an empty, low energy area now that nobody lived or worked here. Then something attracted her attention, a warm spot in the sector's cold. Something was happening here after all. She flew to a building, then circled around it. It seemed abandoned like the rest of the sector, but she sensed powerful energy flowing within.
She did not bother to search for an entrance. Her mask appeared inside. There, in a lit room, was the hum of energy, and much equipment of the type she remembered from the time Megabyte had kept her captive. There, watching some program on a VidWindow, were Herr Doktor and his patchwork binome, she saw with disgust. They never were up to any good.
She flew about the lab. The machines were just machines as far as she could tell, with meaningless buttons and controls and things. Then she caught sight of the tank. Inside was a pale blue Sprite with a tube leading into his mouth. He wasn't just pale, she realized, he was transparent. She could see the tube leading down into his chest through his flickering skin.
"BOB!" she screamed. Herr Doktor yelped and jumped, tipping his chair over backward. He saw a familiar furious mask floating above Bob's capsule. The mask turned, then zipped right in front of his eye. "What have you done to him?!" she shrieked.
The binome stammered stupidly. Hexadecimal became angrier, not only at the binome but at her own helplessness. She had the power to disrupt the energy of the system, yet she couldn't do something as simple as opening a capsule! The mask disappeared while Herr Doktor was still gibbering.
Bunnyfoot had edged toward the door. He wanted to flee. Herr Doktor did too. If Hexadecimal and Megabyte fought, woe be unto any binomes caught in the splatter zone. But if Megabyte came back and found that they had abandoned Bob... he was safer being a bystander at a battle than throwing himself on Megabyte's mercy.
"I found Bob!" Hexadecimal exclaimed the nano her mask reappeared in Dot's office.
"Go away," Dot said firmly, without looking up from her organizer.
Hexadecimal's mask buzzed irritatingly around Dot. "I found him! Come with me!"
Again Hexadecimal was furious with her inability to do anything, even to blast Dot across the room to teach her some manners. She popped into the War Room. Aha! Some more Sprites were here now! "I found Bob! Come with me!" she shrilled at them.
Matrix drew his gun and his right eye went red. Hexadecimal hadn't expect help from him anyway. She turned to the two women. "Come save him! I'll show you where he is!"
Mouse raised her hand at Matrix and AndrAIa, then looked back at Hexadecimal and answered, "Look, I'll go with her."
"Good!" Hexadecimal exclaimed, ignoring Mouse's hostile expression. "Come on!"
Hexadecimal's mask led Mouse across G Prime. She knew that Mouse thought she was lying or crazy. She was only going along with it so she could prove Hexadecimal wrong and shut her up. Well, so what? As soon as Mouse saw Bob for herself she'd see who was right! And then, more importantly, they would rescue Bob!
The mask led Mouse to an abandoned-looking hangar. "He's in here!" Hexadecimal said triumphantly.
Mouse hopped off her zip board and walked in through the front door. It looked as deserted inside as out. The mask flew to an electrical room. There, on the other side of the wall, she could sense them. "In there!" she said.
Mouse walked into the electrical room and saw no doors, only heavy, dusty machinery. Fists on her hips, Mouse said "Well?" to Hexadecimal.
Then Hexadecimal realized that Mouse couldn't get into the room beyond. Walls were no obstacle to Hexadecimal, but they were for Sprites! And she couldn't instant-elsewhere other people any more, not without a body to focus her power for fine use. If she could have done that, she would have rescued Bob herself!
Mouse glanced down. And then she stared at the scrape marks on the floor. She knelt for a closer look. Yes, this machine had been dragged away from the wall several times, she could tell from the crisscrossing marks. As she stood again she looked around the room. "What?" Hex asked.
"I need a bar. Something strong. Ah!" Briskly she walked toward a locker. She wedged her sword into the door just above the lock and and wrenched it open. Inside was a collection of weapons, including long, thin shock rods. She took two of those. Hexadecimal watched, baffled, as Mouse wedged the ends of the shock rods, one above the other, into the thin space between the machinery that had been moved and the wall. Then she pulled. He machinery swayed out only a few angstroms, but Mouse could see that there was light behind it. Aha! She shoved the rods in farther, then pulled again. The machinery came out farther. Mouse continued rocking the device until it finally overbalanced and fell with a slam onto the floor beside her. In the room beyond, Herr Doktor and Bunnyfoot were staring at her in dread.
Mouse sauntered in and looked around the room. Her eyes were drawn to the coffinlike capsule at the far end. She went to it and looked through the faceplate for several long nanoseconds. Then she looked back at Herr Doktor. "Oh, sugah?" she said in a musical voice.
"J-ja?" he said, visibly trembling.
As she sauntered over to him she said sweetly, "Lemme tell you what you're about to do. You're about to bring Bob back online. He's gonna be just fine."
"B-but I can't-"
Mouse's hand darted over her shoulder. Her katana flashed in a downward arc. There was a soft clink as a small bit of metal fell to the ground at Herr Doktor's feet.
The binome stared in horror at his hand. One of his digits was gone! She had chopped off one of his digits! The pain hit him, and he drew in a breath to wail. Then he looked up and saw the expression on Mouse's face, and shut his mouth again.
In a dangerously calm tone Mouse said, "You're gonna revive Bob nice 'n smooth if you wanna keep the rest of 'em."
"And when she's done, I get my turn," the fanged mask added in a hiss.
Herr Doktor, too terrified to whine about his damaged hand, nodded miserably and went to the controls. Sword ready, Mouse watched him. Hexadecimal flew over to Bob's capsule and floated above the faceplate.
Mouse watched Herr Doktor throw open the switches on the sonic oscillator, then step up the reactor power input by three points. Then, still keeping an eye on the binome, she opened a VidWindow.
Hexadecimal heard Mouse speaking to someone, telling them to send some CPUs and an ambulance here. Nothing seemed to be happening with Bob. Wasn't the binome doing anything? She turned back and said, "Hurry up!"
"I can't. I must do it a subsystem at a time," he stammered.
"Just get on with it," Mouse said, and gave a Hexadecimal a meaningful look. Mouse had been watching Bob's stats on the monitor. She was no disk doctor, but she could see that Bob was alive, if not very. And she knew that bringing someone online from such a state was more complicated than flipping a toggle switch.
Herr Doktor worked carefully, reestablishing connections and reenabling subroutines in the reverse order from that which they had been disabled. He did it as carefully as his life depended on it. It did.
Bob's skin became opaque as energy was fed into his system. As it did Hexadecimal saw with horror that he was bruised and wounded. Someone had done this to her poor Bob! Then his eyes opened. He did not seem to see her; he stared blankly upward.
"He's awake!" Hexadecimal told Mouse excitedly.
"You're doin' fine, sugah," Mouse said sternly to Herr Doktor. "Just keep it up."
"Ja," he said. He glanced at her. She was resting her sword against her shoulder. He thought about how quickly she could bring it down again, and turned right back to the controls.
Bob's eyes gradually focused on Hexadecimal. His face remained slack and expressionless for a nano longer. Then he looked confused. And began to choke.
Herr Doktor pressed a button quickly. The tube retracted itself from Bob's throat and back into the wall of the capsule. Bob lay there, gasping. Then he started to cough.
Mouse was looking back and forth between Bob and Bob's stats. The indications seemed to her to be approaching normal. Nothing looked dangerous. She said, "Open the capsule!"
Herr Doktor hesitated, then pressed another button. The lid lifted back on a hinge behind Bob's head. Hexadecimal exclaimed "Oh!" when she saw all the wires sticking into his body.
"Steady," Mouse said to Hexadecimal. She'd seen it too. This was a delicate business, and a panicky Virus would not help.
"Bob? Are you all right? Bob?" Hexadecimal said anxiously. His response was a pained croak.
Mouse heard the ambulance's siren in the distance. Nodding at the doorway, she told Hexadecimal, "Go bring the medics here."
Hexadecimal looked at Bob one last time, then flew out the door. Bob tried to raise his hand, but it fell back limply.
A nano later the wires fell away from his skin. Herr Doktor said, "It's done. He is fully online now."
"It don't look like it to me," she replied skeptically.
Bob coughed again, and tried to struggle into a sitting position. Mouse told him, "Just relax, honey. An ambulance's right outside."
Bob nodded weakly and croaked "Right."
Soon Hexadecimal's mask floated back in, followed by a pair of white-garbed binomes floating on zip boards and carrying a stretcher between them, then a pair of CPUs. Mouse pointed at Herr Doktor with her sword. "Lock 'im," she said. A nano later both of the viral binomes were frozen in transparent green cubes. She sheathed her sword and walked over to the capsule. The binomes were trying to get Bob onto the stretcher, and Bob was trying to cooperate. This looked like it could take a while. "Stand back, gentlemen," she said as she waved them away. She put her arms under Bob's back and knees, lifted him, then settled him onto the stretcher. The med binomes carried him out and into the ambulance, with Hexadecimal floating alongside. Mouse waited until the CPUs had taken the two virals out, then she left too.
The medics rushed Bob from the ambulance into one of the triage rooms. Phong was already there; they had called ahead to him. Mouse did not wait for the binomes to try to move Bob, she picked him up from the stretcher. This time Bob protested, "Don't. I'm all right-"
Hex's mask, hovering just high enough not to obstruct the action, replied "No you aren't! Shush."
"Lie still," Phong told Bob as the Sprite resignedly settled onto the table. Phong started the scan, then waited as the machine read and evaluated Bob's data. Mouse and Hexadecimal watched anxiously.
Before the scan was complete Dot ran into the room. The medical staff had told her as soon as they had arrived back at the Principle Office and determined that Bob was in stable condition.
Dot stared, horrified. Bob was weak and badly battered. His skin had a greyish cast where it was not darkened with bruises. He looked deathly! What had happened to him?! When she had spoken to him just a microsecond ago he had been just fine!
And he had been in the Supercomputer.
Suspicion entered her mind now that her initial panic was passing. Could this be another trick? Could Megabyte have left another alias behind? Could it have stayed online after his deletion? The binomes he had infected had stayed viral until they were disinfected.
Mouse looked at Dot. Dot suddenly turned and fled. Startled, Mouse turned back at Bob and Phong. They looked as surprised as she was. Then she ran after Dot.
Facing the door, Hexadecimal said, "Hmph!" Then the mask drifted closer to Bob. "Don't worry," she crooned, "I'll watch over you. I'll be your guardian."
He answered, "Uh... thanks, Hex."
Dot stopped and looked back. Mouse was striding down the hallway toward her, her fists clenched. "What's gotten into you?"
"Mouse, who is that?!"
Mouse put her fists on her hips. "Who d'ya think?"
"Bob is in the Supercomputer!" Dot told her. "I talked to him a micro ago! They brought him over there to put a leash on Hexadecimal!"
"But she's here. She's everywhere," Mouse corrected herself. "What're you sayin', Dot?"
Dot pointed back down the hall. "Who is that?! He can't be Megabyte! He's deleted; Bob pushed the button himself. I saw it! So where did that one come from?"
"But this one looked like he'd been there for micros," Mouse said.
"We found him in G Prime. Herr Doktor had him." She was not going to tell Dot about the state in which she had found him; Dot was upset enough already.
"Wait," Dot said suspiciously. "Hexadecimal led you to him?"
Dot looked back down the hall, then at Mouse again. Then she turned and walked briskly and purposefully back toward the med room.
Phong looked at the readouts, then, relieved, said, "You are not fundamentally damaged, Bob. You have been drained and badly hurt, but your processes are functioning within normal parameters. In plain DOS, what you need most to recover is rest and energy infusions."
"Thanks. That's good to know," Bob said, his voice rough. His throat still hurt because of the tube that had been put down it to keep him breathing. Glancing down at the patch on Phong's front, he asked, "What happened to you?"
"Oh, that." Phong looked down, then picked up a device and began fiddling with its settings. "That happened when Megabyte took over the War Room. It is nothing."
"Doesn't look like it. Looks like he punched a hole right through you."
Phong shrugged as he answered, "He did not hit anything vital."
Phong and Bob looked over. Dot was standing in the doorway. She walked in, toward Bob, but stopped well before she reached his bed. Mouse was behind her. "Bob, what happened?" Dot asked in a stiff voice.
Her tone disturbed him. When she spoke like that, something was on her mind that she wasn't talking about. All too often he found out what it was only when it blew up in his face. He began, "I went into the War Room to get Enzo, Phong, and Welman outta there. Hack and Slash were supposed to be keeping Megabyte busy up on the Pinnacle. But Megabyte came back before I expected. He... I didn't win that fight." He closed his eyes. The memory of the beating that Megabyte had given him then was still vivid. "When I woke up, I didn't know where I was, just that Herr Doktor had wired me up to a machine. I couldn't move. I couldn't even speak - they'd shut all of that down. Megabyte copied my personality and memories. I don't know how long it took. I've been in and out. But he had to do it a bit at a time, so I think it took a while. And... Megabyte told me what he's been doing to you," he said, looking at Dot with grief in his eyes.
She looked stricken. But, her voice tight, she said "It looks like you were beaten more recently than that, You should have healed more if it happened micros ago."
"That must be because they kept me drained after Megabyte finished copying my data," Bob answered. "I didn't have the energy to heal."
He sounded unsure, as if he were trying to explain it to himself, not to her. She looked at Phong, who was watching the conversation quietly from the other side of the bed. Phong said, "That is indeed possible."
"I see," Dot said formally. "Excuse me." She turned on her heel and left the room again. Mouse had to dodge out of her way.
"Megabyte? What were you talking about? Megabyte's deleted! Isn't he?" Hexadecimal demanded.
Bob looked up at the mask. "No, he isn't. He was pulled into the web. It degraded him - and he gained some new powers. He came back to Mainframe right after you defeated Daemon's infection. He's now a Trojan Horse virus. Hex, listen - what he did to Dot... it's bad. Leave her alone."
"As bad as when he used me as his weapon?" Hex replied caustically.
"Yes," Bob answered. And he thought, much worse. Megabyte had enslaved Hexadecimal and treated her cruelly - but he had tried to destroy Dot. He had wounded her much more deeply than he had his sister.
Dot stepped back into the doorway. This time she did not even enter the room. "Phong, could I see you for a nano?"
"Ah-" he glanced at Bob, who looked worried. "Yes, my child." To one of the medical binomes Phong said, "Monitor him carefully," then wheeled out to Dot.
Mouse started to follow her. Dot stopped her with an outstretched hand. "Stay with Bob." Mouse stopped, startled. Dot turned on her heel and left.
Dot did not speak in the hallway. Instead, she led Phong to another of the med rooms. Once they were both inside, she closed the door then told Phong, "I need a scan."
"Of course," he answered. He did not ask why. He suspected he knew the reason, and if he was correct then he would wait for Dot to bring the subject up. She lay down on the scanner bed, and he started the process.
Dot had to fight to keep still. The scanner seemed to work painfully slowly. Couldn't he hurry it up? She was so upset, she irrationally wanted to get up, get out of here, get away from what was happening here!
The scan finished. She looked at Phong, who was beside the head of the bed, examining the results of the scan. She raised herself on one elbow to look at the monitor. She could make little sense out of what she saw.
After a thorough evaluation, Phong turned to Dot. "You are fine, Dot-"
"Did the scan find anything? Anything at all?" she interrupted, unable to contain her fear.
"No, child. Your scan matches previous records perfectly. There have been no changes at all within you."
She let out a breath. "Thank the User," she said, her voice shaky.
He laid a hand on her wrist. "Dot... do you need to talk?" he asked softly.
She looked up. He had a solemn, sympathetic expression on his face. "No. No thanks, Phong, I'll be fine. Now that I know. It's... Bob who needs you, really." She started to get up off the scanner bed.
His rodlike fingers tightened slightly. "Dot." She looked back. "Do nothing rash, child."
She tried to laugh. It came out sounding like a sob. "I won't. Really, Phong, I'm all right. After all, my scan came out clean, didn't it? Bob's the one who needs you. I shouldn't have interrupted in the first place. Anyone else could have scanned me. I'll just get out of your way, let you get on with it. I'll be in my office if you need me," she said, speaking quickly as she backed toward the door. As soon as she finished the last sentence she was gone.
Phong wheeled back into Bob's room. Both Mouse and Bob looked up expectantly. Bob asked, "Where's Dot?"
Phong answered, "She is in her office."
Neither Bob nor Mouse were fooled by Phong's bland manner. "What was all that about?" Mouse asked.
Phong hesitated. Mouse said "Never mind. I'll find out for myself!" and started out the door.
Phong said, "Wait-" and raised a hand. She walked past him without slowing.
Bob said to Phong, "The way people are running around in here, I feel like I'm in Baudway during a rush."
"It does seem that way, doesn't it," Phong agreed. "I can have you moved to more private quarters for your recovery."
"I wasn't complaining," Bob said quickly. "After being paralyzed and held in a capsule for I don't know how long, I've had enough of peace and quiet! Uh, how long was it?"
"Almost four milliseconds," Phong answered.
"Four milliseconds," Bob said, shaking his head in disbelief. In a low voice, he said "Megabyte told me that he married Dot. Did he?" Phong nodded solemnly. Lowering his voice, Bob asked, "Is she all right?"
"She requested that I scan her just now. She is unharmed. Megabyte has done nothing to her." Phong said very seriously.
"But still... Oh, Programmer, poor Dot," Bob said.
The door to Dot's office shooshed open. Mouse walked in angrily. Then she stopped, wide eyed, when she saw Dot, her face covered by her hands, her shoulders shaking. Mouse closed the door behind herself. "Dot?"
Dot peered up at Mouse, but did not take her hands down. She made a choking sound, then lowered her head into her hands again.
Mouse knelt by Dot's chair. "Dot, honey, what happened? Are you all right?"
Dot gasped several times as if unable to catch her breath. She took her hands from her face. Her cheeks were wet with tears. "I'm all right. I just had Phong scan me, that's all," she said between gasps.
"Scan you? What for?"
"Any change of state," Dot said stiffly. Then fresh tears came, and she closed her eyes again.
Mouse stared for a nano before she understood. Then she put her arm around Dot and said, "Oh, sugah!"
"It was negative," Dot said as she began to cry again. Mouse held her.
When Dot seemed to be calming down again, Mouse said "Are you sure that's the real Bob we found?"
"Yes!" Dot snapped. "This time I'm sure!"
"This couldn't be one of Hexadecimal's tricks, could it?" Mouse said.
Dot glared at her. "Oh, come on! Hexadecimal isn't that smart. And even if she was, how would she make a fake Bob? That's Megabyte's trick!" She gasped for breath several times, then sobbed, "I've been such an idiot! What'm I gonna do?"
"No," Dot interrupted. "Don't give me any advice, Mouse! Things are screwed up bad enough already!"
Taken aback, Mouse said, "All right."
"I need to be alone now," Dot said firmly.
Mouse looked back at her for several nanos. Dot glared back, unwavering. Finally Mouse stood. "Okay, honey," she said. "If you need me..."
"I'll call for you," Dot answered coldly.
Mouse went to the door, then, after a backward glance, left. When the door closed again Dot activated her BRB code, which locked the door and blocked all but the highest priority VidWindows. She wiped the tears from her face, then looked at herself in a reflective VidWindow to make sure she was presentable. Then she sat back in her chair and breathed deeply, looking at the ceiling, calming herself as best she could.
Mouse stopped just outside the door. She was annoyed by Dot's sudden brush-off, but not very. After all Dot had been through, she was entitled to be angry. She'd rather see Dot angry than crushed.
Mouse walked over to the nearest monitor and hacked into the security subroutine that protected Dot's office. It was good programming, Mouse knew - she had tweaked it herself where she had found weaknesses. And she had also added a few hidden features herself, just in case.
An image of Dot's office, seen from above and at one end of the room, appeared in an inset of the monitor.
When Dot felt in control of herself again she touched her icon. It beeped. Her clothing protocol switched, changing from the comfortable black pants and white shirt to her black, sleeveless suit. She checked her face again, put on her glasses, then closed the reflective VidWindow. She opened up another VidWindow, a larger one, above the desk. Then she waited, watching the icon on the screen, while it pinged its destination before making the connection.
Turbo looked up. "Hello, Dot."
In a businesslike tone she said, "Hello, Turbo. Can aliases remain active after their Virus is deleted?"
He shook his head. "Never. The Virus has to actively control it. If the Virus is deleted, or isn't able to maintain it, the alias fades. Why do you ask?"
She folded her hands together on the desk in front of herself. "Turbo, we have a situation here. I think that Megabyte is still active."
"Megabyte?" he said, surprised. Then he, too, went formal. "What's happened?"
"Another Bob has turned up in Mainframe. He has been held prisoner by Megabyte, so he says. He's in the medical area now, being treated for injuries and energy loss. According to him, Megabyte has been leaching his code. The switch was allegedly made in the War Room, when Bob supposedly defeated Megabyte."
Turbo studied her expression. It was closed, giving no hint as to what she felt. "Do you believe that?" he asked.
"I find it plausible," she answered stiffly. "Turbo, is there any way to prove which one is which?"
"Scans won't show the difference. Physically, they're identical. Dot, I want to see this Bob for myself. If he's been injured, we should have our people look at him."
"I'll arrange that. Turbo - I believe that the one we have here is real." Her facade cracked for a nano as she caught her breath, her eyes stinging. "The Bob that we have been dealing with claimed that Glitch has been malfunctioning. That could have been a coverup for Glitch refusing to work with him at all. And Hexadecimal told me that he smashed her mask. That's just not something Bob would do. He has a soft spot for her," she finished sourly.
"Hexadecimal? She's over there now?"
"Yes. She - one of her masks - turned up micros ago demanding Bob. Then she found... this Bob. She's with him now. She won't leave his side."
And Dot didn't like that, Turbo could see. "Does this Bob have Glitch?"
"No. I didn't think to ask about that. Glitch could tell them apart, couldn't it?"
"Yes," Turbo answered without hesitation.
"I'll find out about it. Turbo," she leaned forward, her eyes narrowed. "I want to find out which one is Megabyte. And I want him destroyed! I'll do it myself if I have to!" In fact, she said to herself, she'd do it for pleasure.
"We'll get to the bottom of this, Dot. We can't let a Virus like Megabyte - if this is him - run loose. But we can't let them know we suspect anything. If Megabyte realizes we're on to him, he'll just pick someone else to impersonate. Trojans are spammed hard to catch."
"We've got to keep this close to the vest. Got it." She thought for a nano, then said, "I don't know how many people in Mainframe already know. The medical staff, probably some CPUs, Hexadecimal, Mouse, Phong, and myself." If Matrix found out he'd go ballistic. He'd take matters into his own hands and probably start an inter-system war by the time he was done. "I'll do what I can to stop the spread here."
"Good. Dot, if you saw Bob - the one who's over here - again, could you act as if nothing was wrong?"
Her fists clenched. "No," she answered, her voice tight.
"I don't blame you. I'm going to arrange a blackout between the Supercomputer and Mainframe. VidWindows won't be able to get through unless they're encrypted with a special code. He won't be able to contact you. I'll keep him busy here while we investigate. We could use Hexadecimal's help."
"You'll get it," Dot confirmed. "I can talk to her, and she'll do anything for Bob. And she hates Megabyte. But she's not smart. You can't count on her."
"If we can even get her to cause more minor disturbances, we can keep him busy until we know for sure. And if he is Megabyte, until we're ready to strike."
She nodded. He was taking this seriously. Finally! No more of Bob's showing mercy for the enemy. Maybe his idealism was one of his most endearing qualities, but there was a time to face up to reality!
She stood. "Whatever it takes to catch Megabyte, I'll do it or find someone who will. I want to catch the son of a .BAT, and I want to be there when he's deleted!" she hissed.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain