|"You're not fooling me
Cause I can see
The way you shake and shiver."
It was a bright and sunny cycle. Mainframe had been running smoothly for milliseconds now. Few tears appeared, and were mended before they could do any damage. The occasional game cube dropped, then rose again when the User was defeated.
G Prime was still in the process of being reworked. Megabyte, during his occupation, had built up quite an empire. But most of the sector was being torn down to make way for new construction. After Megabyte's reign of terror, the Mainframers needed to cleanse their city completely of him, to exorcize him from their memory banks.
There had been no shortage of willing volunteers for those tasks. At the head of the line were Megabyte's former virals. After having been controlled by the evil Virus for interminable cycles, they were eager to take their revenge in whatever way they could - even if it was only in the form of helping to dismantle his now-useless defenses.
Hexadecimal had claimed the choice task: destroying the remains of the Silicon Tor, Megabyte's former lair. She had been blasting the base to bits with her energy, melting it into raw materials which the work crews would use elsewhere. She considered it her right to destroy the building in which her brother had imprisoned her. Nobody wanted to argue the point. It would be as futile as trying to explain to her that pregnant women of all formats were supposed to tire easily.
However, they were not dismantling the entire sector just yet. Some of it could be salvaged. His power containment devices, once used for fueling viral ABC vehicles, would be turned to more constructive purposes. And, much as they wanted to, they could not yet destroy Megabyte's weapons factories. He had used up massive amounts of resources making ABCs and their weapons and munitions, and they could not reclaim them just yet. Mainframe still had Daemon and the Web to worry about. Mouse's cloaking and defenses had held up so far, but they could not hide here forever. When they were inevitably forced to face their enemy they would not be completely helpless.
Dot, looking at the sector from the Principle Office, said, "It's even uglier now that it's half torn down."
Bob, who was standing by her side with his arm around her shoulders, commented, "I don't know. It's harmless now, and we'll be able to rebuild on the upper levels soon."
A hot red spark flared close to the rim; Hexadecimal was doing her thing. The tower was long gone, having been erased after the restart. Hexadecimal was going to keep attacking the base until she burned through to the platter unless somebody stopped her.
Bob knew what Dot was looking at. "It keeps her occupied," he commented with a smile.
She nodded. "I'll be glad when it's just gone."
Bob gave her a little squeeze. Then he said, "Come on, let's get out of here. It's too nice a cycle."
"All right." Dot didn't have to save much of her work; she hadn't been doing a lot to begin with, just going over the recovery plans again. "I ought to take a look at the sector myself, see how the work is going," she said as she closed the last VidWindow.
Bob rolled his eyes. She couldn't be deterred from her work that easily. But once she put in an appearance and looked around for a few nanos he'd be able to convince her to have a little fun. Since they had been married he had learned that he couldn't force Dot to take time off, or do anything else for that matter if she didn't want to - but she was open to gentle persuasion.
She opened a VidWindow. "Phong, I'm going to go check the work on G Prime."
"Go, and enjoy yourselves," the golden sprite replied with a friendly "shoo" gesture.
The window closed. Dot glanced at Bob, and as expected he was smirking. It was one thing that Bob had her pegged, but it was a little embarrassing that Phong did too.
Bob quickly suppressed his grin and nodded toward the exit. "C'mon."
As they sailed overhead, another pair of Sprites rose to meet them. Matrix and AndrAIa. "What're you guys doing here?" Bob asked. "Joining in on the destruction?"
"Nah," Matrix answered. "Just looking around."
They heard barking from below. Looking down, they saw Frisket, tail wagging, mouth hanging open. He barked up at them again.
Matrix continued, "You know the User group?"
Bob and Dot nodded together. Lately a strange cult had developed among the binomes of Mainframe. The members called it "The Church of The User." As far as they knew, it had first surfaced in Lost Angles. Hexadecimal, though she did not know or care what they did among themselves, seemed amused by them, and let them stay on her island. Some of them had even volunteered to serve her, to help her prepare for her baby. At first the Sprites of Mainframe had paid the cult little attention, but lately it had become quite large - Dot estimated that about one-sixth of the binomes in Mainframe had joined. Its members worshiped the User, and believed that anything that happened was the will of the User. Every dataform had its place, even Viruses, because The User programmed them all. If people were deleted or nullified in games, it was because The User wanted to take them on to a better life, and therefore they should not fear games or mourn the lost. Odd as the philosophy was, it seemed harmless. But how had it started? And why was it spreading so rapidly in a system that didn't lose games?
"There was a meeting down there," AndrAIa told them. "We sat in on it. Just listened to what they had to say."
"What did you hear?" Dot asked.
"Oh, the usual. How all dataforms are interlinked, the cycle of life, and how we can't ever know the User's will or understand his reasoning. Our job is to carry out our programmed functions. If you think about it without the mysticism, it makes sense."
"I don't know about all dataforms," Matrix grumbled. "Viruses like Megabyte and Daemon?"
"Doesn't anyone ever bring that up?" Dot asked.
AndrAIa nodded. "Yep. Nearly every time they have new people there, someone asks. They say that it's the will of the User - after all, he programmed them too. And then back to how we can't know the will of the User. Maybe you should go meet them sometime, Bob. They don't mind people asking questions - They like it, in fact. They have an answer for everything."
"Maybe I will, later. It seems a little random, but to each his own." He shrugged. "I guess they've always seemed a little random to me because they're in Lost Angles. I still haven't figured that out."
"They're looking at setting up in G Prime," Matrix said. "They mentioned that too."
"There'll soon be room, if things keep on schedule." Dot said.
"I don't like it," Matrix said. "I don't care what they believe in - there's just something weird about them."
Bob agreed, but he didn't say anything. He had a gut feeling about them as well, but he wouldn't do anything unless he knew something much more concrete.
Dot shrugged. "They sound harmless to me. As long as they're not dragging people in and making them join, I don't see a problem."
"They're not doing that," AndrAIa said firmly. "We've seen people join just because they want to, and they don't get upset if people leave either. I think they've just found something to believe in, that's all."
Bob forced a laugh. "You're probably right. Thanks for keeping an eye on them."
"No problem. Not much else to do, since we haven't had many-"
WARNING: INCOMING GAME. WARNING: INCOMING GAME.
They exchanged glances. Matrix said, "Looks like the User heard you."
She thwacked his shoulder. "Very funny, Sparky."
They looked up at the darkened sky, from which a cube began descending. It was going to hit G Prime close to the rim. All four Sprites flew toward it.
AndrAIa looked down, then pointed. The others followed her glance. Frisket was running to meet them in the game. And three binomes had left the main group and were flying on two zip boards in the same direction.
"They want to meet the User," Matrix said. "One game oughtta cure 'em of that."
The cube, they could see now, was going to land right on the remains of the Silicon Tor. "Too bad there are people in there - it'd almost be worth it to let that be nullified," Dot commented.
They sailed under the flashing purple cube, grounded, and waited for it to come down on them.
Game energy sheeted through them as the cube landed. When the purple static cleared, they found themselves standing in the middle of a dirt road running through a forest. The air was misty, making the trees seem to fade into greyness with distance. Frisket, looking around, let out a low growl.
"This looks familiar," Dot said unhappily.
"This isn't 'Cursored,'" Bob said. "It's 'Mysteries, Inc.'" He concentrated, then closed his eyes.
"What is it?" Matrix asked.
Bob opened his eyes, puzzled. "I'm not getting anything more."
"What about Glitch?" AndrAIa asked.
"It's not that easy," Bob explained. "When he was my keytool, I just asked him for information. Now that we've merged, I have to work those functions myself. It isn't as simple as you'd think to handle that big an upgrade." He tried again.
After a few nanos Matrix said, "Let's just reboot." He knelt down. Frisket raised his head so Matrix could reach the icon on his collar.
The others raised their hands to their icons as well, and they said "Reboot!" in unison. Green light flared as code from the game downloaded into them.
Bob looked at himself. He had gained no special weapons or abilities. Just a white shirt, an ascot, and bell-bottomed pants. The others didn't seem to have done much better either. AndrAIa had a short-skirted purple dress and scarf. Dot now wore a baggy turtleneck sweater, pleated knee-length skirt, sensible shoes, and thick glasses. Matrix, who now looked scruffier than usual, had a oversized, shapeless green shirt. Frisket had only turned brown.
The others were looking just beyond Bob. He turned around. There, behind him, was a gaudily painted yellow and blue minivan. "Ugh," he observed. "The Enigma Apparatus?"
"Looks like this is going to be another of those goofy games," Dot said. She took off her glasses. The world dissolved in a blur. She put them back on quickly.
"At least it's not golf," Matrix murmured.
Bob tried again. "No use. I'm not getting any information about the game," he said, disturbed.
Wobbling slightly on her high heels, AndrAIa walked over to the back doors of the van. "Maybe there's some information in here."
Bob searched his pockets, found a set of keys, and opened the doors. "You were right about that."
The interior of the van was filled with books, notebooks, and camping gear. Bob climbed in and handed the most obvious props to the others. He continued looking through the van while the others leafed through the books and journals.
"Ghosts and Legends of Maryland." AndrAIa said, reading the title of her book.
"We're looking for something in this forest," Dot said after skimming a few pages in a spiralbound notebook. "This is full of notes and clippings about local legends."
"Good," Bob said, emerging from the back of the van. Flourishing a large, heavy sheet of paper, he said, "I've got a topographical map of the forest. And there's the camping gear. We have our mission. Solve the mystery before the User does."
"What've we got to fight with?" Matrix asked.
"...I don't know. Whatever's in the backpacks." Bob studied the map.
Dot glanced around at the others. They looked as disquieted as she did on hearing Bob admit that he still couldn't get information from the game. Then she looked at the map. It was a mess of lines showing the changes in the elevation of the forest floor, plus a very few streams and notable rock formations. Bob pointed at a line on the bottom. "That's the road, and a trail leading away from it." He glanced over; there was a path leading into the forest. "The trail leads north, towards that stream."
Dot added, "And almost up to 'Coughing Stone.'" The name was penciled in. "Well, shall we?"
Matrix, who had been going through a backpack, looked displeased. "There aren't any weapons in here."
"Either we'll find them along the way, or we won't need them," Bob answered confidently.
Matrix nodded and swung his backpack up. He knew how games worked; he'd lived in them for years. But games usually gave you a little more information before you started out.
They hiked through the woods, keeping to the trail. The tree canopy overhead only let in a dim light that was further attenuated by the clammy fog. Trees seemed to appear out of the grey in the distance as they walked along. Frisket ran back and forth across the trail, investigating everything nearby, occasionally growling at nothing they could see.
By the time they reached their destination, after microseconds of walking along the leaf-littered trail, the sun had begin to burn through the fog. Coughing Stone was a large, flat rock projecting into a stream. Dot, who had been reading the book of notes and clippings during the hike, said "Supposedly this was once used for sacrifices by a local witch. And, more recently, some pretty grisly murders. Three of them."
"How grisly?" Matrix asked.
Dot handed the book out to him and pointed to the middle of one clipping. He read it, then quietly handed the book back to her.
"What?" Bob asked.
Dot handed the book to him.
After reading a few paragraphs, he said, "Oh," and swallowed.
Dot took the book and started to hand it to AndrAIa. The other woman held up a hand. "I'll pass. Anything that can make Matrix queasy, I can live without knowing."
Dot said, "Good idea. I don't think all the details are important. If there are any clues, we'll know. Is there anything out of the ordinary around here?"
All four Sprites looked about themselves. Trees, stream, dead leaves, dirt, rocks. Rocks... AndrAIa pointed down at the ground. "What about that?"
They all saw a small stack of flat stones, like a tiny cairn. At first it was hardly noticeable... "Somebody has to have made that," Dot said. "Call it our first clue."
"There's another," Bob said, pointing a little further away from the stream.
Dot knelt to examine the rocks. Frisket sniffed at them, then looked up at her as if asking what was so interesting about them. Matrix climbed up onto Coughing Stone and looked around. He didn't see any more little piles of rocks. However- he climbed back down on the other side. The others heard him say, "Someone else's been here."
Bob walked around the stone. Matrix was looking at some footprints, and ground that had recently been scuffed. The earth was still damp; it couldn't have been long ago. And there was another pile of stones.
"The footprints lead that way," Dot looked to where they vanished in the leaf litter of the forest.
"The west," AndrAIa commented, looking at a compass.
"What're these for, anyway?" Matrix asked. When nobody spoke, he nudged one pile apart with his shoe. There was nothing underneath the stones but plain earth.
Bob was looking at the map again. "To the west... well, there's nothing marked on here. But game maps are often incomplete when you start out."
"No trails," AndrAIa observed.
"Not marked on the map, anyway." Bob folded it and stuck it in a pocket of his backpack. "C'mon."
They walked away from the stream, back into the gloom of the woods.
At first they chattered as they walked, but after a while their talk petered out, and they watched and listened closely to the woods. They all thought they heard the sounds of something moving nearby, but they could never actually see anything. Frisket often stared into the forest and growled, but he stayed close to the group.
The light began to fade. Soon the already dim forest was too dark for them to see in, even with the powerful flashlights in their packs. Knowing they would make no more progress that day, they found a reasonably open, flat area, pitched their tent, and built a campfire.
Each had some kind of food in his or her backpack. Hot dogs, trail mix, other dried foods, and marshmallows. "I'd rather be at the Diner," Dot commented.
"Oh, I don't know - ow!" Bob grinned when Dot slapped him on the chest. "I mean, it's different, right?"
Frisket sniffed at the cooking hot dogs, considering whether they were worth his interest. Then he began pawing at Matrix's backpack. Matrix opened it up and dug through it. Frisket wagged his tail eagerly when Matrix pulled out a box. Matrix opened it, finding inside some square biscuitlike things. AndrAIa watched as Frisket yapped eagerly, then caught the treat Matrix tossed to him. He devoured it, then looked at the box, then back at Matrix.
"Guess we know what his dinner is," Matrix chuckled as he tossed another snack to the dog. "Frisket biscuits." He took out a third one and sniffed it. "Hey, these smell good." He took a bite.
"Matrix!' Dot exclaimed.
"They're good," he said.
She took the box. "Jinkies? What are jinkies?"
"Those are," Bob pointed out.
She swatted him a second time. "Ha ha. Where are we, anyway?"
Bob took the map out of his backpack and tilted it so he could read it by the firelight. "We are... uhhh..." he scanned it, trying to identify landforms by the flickering firelight.
Dot let him look for a few nanos. Then she took the map out of his hands, turned it upside down, and handed it back to him. "North is up, Bob."
"I knew that. It's just hard to see now."
A bright light appeared over his shoulder. Matrix was shining a flashlight down on the map. "Thanks," Bob said. He put his finger on the words 'Coughing Stone.' "We went straight west from here." He drew his finger to the left. He tried to find a flat area on the map. It didn't show that much detail; without a dramatic landmark it was hard to tell just where they were. "We're in here," he said, indicating a vague area. "Tomorrow we'll keep going west."
"Not much of a plan," Matrix observed.
"We don't have a lot to go on, either," Bob answered.
"I know. Sorry." Matrix took his stick out of the fire. He took one of the hot dogs off the stick and fitted it into a somewhat squashed bun that had been in the bottom of a backpack. Then, in the spirit of fairness, he gave the other hot dog to Frisket.
After they ate, they got out their sleeping bags. Frisket would awaken them if anything approached. The dog curled up in front of the tent, eyes peering watchfully into the gloom.
One whispered, "The dog's dangerous."
Another answered, "I know. But he can't see us. We're safe."
They froze when the dog looked in their direction and growled. He tensed - but did not get up. After a few nanoseconds he relaxed again, but continued staring.
"He'll have to go to sleep. We'll wait."
Several times that night they were awakened by Frisket growling and barking. The first few times Matrix had gone out to see what the matter was - but, each time, he had seen nothing. They had only heard little rustling sounds, like the wind in the leaves or small animals moving about in the undergrowth. Normal sounds to give the game atmosphere. After a while, he stopped going out. And eventually Frisket slept.
"Look at this!"
Matrix, AndrAIa, and Bob emerged blearily from the tent. Dot, already alert, was crouching and looking at a pile of stones at the edge of the clearing.
"Was that there last night?" AndrAIa said, suppressing a yawn.
"No." Dot shook her head emphatically. "One of us would have noticed. I was watching for anything unusual. And there's another!" She pointed.
"It was dark," Bob began.
"Bob, I know what I didn't see!"
"Then how'd they get here?" Matrix asked. "Frisket didn't see anyone. Did you, boy?"
The dog, tail and ears low, shook his head.
AndrAIa said, "Here are some more. Three of them."
"Look around. Are there any more?" Dot said.
All of them glanced around the clearing. There were no more. "Five little cairns. Five of us." Dot said. "And three murders at Coughing Stone..."
They all looked at each other. Bob broke the silence with a low whistle. "I'd call that a clue."
"I'd call that creepy. Let's get out of here," Matrix said.
After breaking camp and packing the tent and their other equipment, they started out again. Bob periodically consulted the map. The problem was that this forest had hardly any identifiable features! If there were many streams, or even some tall hills, he'd be able to find them. But all they could see through the mist was trees and leaf litter.
When the sun was high in the sky and the mist had begun to burn off, they called a halt. As the others got food out of their packs Bob studied the map. He looked around, trying to see into the distance.
Dot handed him a peanut butter sandwich. "Are we lost yet?" she asked him jokingly.
He paused a little too long before answering. Her smile faded. When Bob looked up again he saw that Matrix, AndrAIa, and even Frisket were staring at him. He said, "I know roughly where we are. I just can't pinpoint us on this."
"Let me see it," Matrix said. Bob handed the map to him. He looked blankly at the curved lines that indicated the elevation of the terrain.
"See what I mean?" Bob said.
"What's this up here?"
Bob looked where Matrix was pointing. "I don't know. Looks like a flat area."
"Why don't we go there? It's closer."
"All it is is a flat space, probably covered with trees. Right now we're headed west, toward this big hill. It's the only other major feature on the map."
"Besides the flat place. People build on flat ground."
"Who's going to build anything in this forest?" Bob said, an edge in his voice.
Dot broke in. "Guys. Some of the clippings mentioned someone living in a house on a hill in the forest. It didn't say where."
"Any photos of it?" Bob asked hopefully.
"It's just up here. Look, there are hills all over-"
Firmly Bob said, "If we go off course, we'll really be likely to get lost. It's hard enough to tell where we are now. But the biggest hill's straight to the west of Coughing Stone, so if we keep going straight we'll reach it."
Looking at Matrix, AndrAIa said, "Come on, let's go."
Matrix muttered, "I hope the Users are having the same problem."
"We should have come to a stream by now."
Bob muttered something under his breath. AndrAIa said to Matrix, "Don't start."
"No," Matrix said. "If we're lost, then we'll just keep getting more lost the farther we go!"
Bob turned around and looked at Matrix. "We can't be sure how far we've walked. The stream's got to be up ahead."
"We've been walking for a whole day!" Matrix insisted.
"Through a forest. It's a lot slower now than it was when we were walking on a trail," Dot answered.
"Guys," AndrAIa said waving a hand for attention. "This is all spooky, but it's just a game. We keep cool and work together, we'll beat it."
"If the Users don't win while we're wandering around," Matrix answered.
When they pitched camp that evening, they did so silently. They had hiked the entire day without coming to a stream or any other recognizable landmark. They were all becoming frustrated.
While reading through the journal that she had brought, Dot said as if to herself, "Not even a single clue."
"Yeah, we were kind of short on clues today, weren't we?" Matrix replied.
"If you have any better ideas, speak up," Bob said tiredly.
"I told you before. We shouldn't've kept going straight. We're crossing the whole forest for nothing!"
"How do you know that? Who gave you the cheat codes?"
"Guys-" AndrAIa began.
Ignoring her, Matrix said, "Look, Bob, face it. We're going nowhere. We've wandered off course, and we don't know where we are. We're lost."
"We're not lost."
"We're lost. That map's no good. We'd do better if you just threw it away!"
"Enzo!" Dot said.
"Matrix," he replied through gritted teeth.
"Enzo, stop making trouble!"
Matrix looked at his sister, surprised. She stared back at him.
"Any better ideas?" Bob repeated in a warning tone.
Matrix turned to Bob. "Yeah. Maybe we ought to split up. You can keep walking until you reach the edge of the game cube. I'll go finish the game!"
"Split up?" Dot said incredulously. "When we have no idea what we're looking for or what we're going to find, and when we don't even have any weapons? Where'd you learn that?"
"Not at the Academy," Bob muttered.
"GUYS!" AndrAIa shouted. They all looked at her, surprised to see that the normally calm woman was angry too. "Stop arguing! Let's just eat and get some sleep, all right?!"
They came back when the campfire was out and the tent quiet. They waited until the dog's breathing became slow and regular, then whispered to each other.
"They're supposed to be."
They froze when they heard a faint sound in the distance.
"Should we stop?"
"Not until the game ends."
The sprites inside the tent all came alert when they heard the distant scream.
After a long silence, during which they strained their ears, Dot whispered, "Another clue."
"Phreak this!" Matrix snarled when they began to hear soft scuffling around the tent. He got out of his sleeping bag, took a flashlight, and reached for the tent zipper.
"Matrix!" Bob said.
Matrix turned back. "You can hide in here all night if you want. I'm not taking any more of this spam!" He jerked the zipper down and went out.
One of the Sprites emerged from the tent. The dog, already awake, sprang to his feet. Matrix shone his flashlight around. His beam found the half-finished pile of rocks at the edge of the clearing - and passed through the two that were standing behind it, staying perfectly still to avoid making any sound in the dry leaves.
Frisket growled, straining forward, then began barking at the pile of rocks. Matrix heard a sudden scuffling, and Frisket sprang forward. Matrix ran after him, changing his grip on the heavy flashlight so he could use it as a bludgeon.
Inside the tent, Bob gripped another flashlight. Dot could see how tightly his hands were clenched on the thick metal handle. He wanted to go out, do something, but running around at night was the best way to get themselves deleted.
The sounds of pursuit, and then Frisket's barking, died away in the distance. AndrAIa whispered into the silence, "They'll be all right. Frisket'll lead him back."
"Yeah," Bob said.
They tried to relax, telling themselves that the soft sounds surrounding them were just wind in the leaves. Anything dangerous would make more noise. Heavy footsteps. Breathing. Rattling chains?
Bob awakened to the sound of AndrAIa and Dot screaming!
Something big, like an animal, was pushing the side of the tent in. Claws scrabbled against the tough fabric, trying the dig their way through. As AndrAIa fumbled for the zipper on the other side, Bob kicked frantically.
The canvas wall collapsed. AndrAIa was already out of the tent. Bob scrambled out after Dot. He saw her flashlight beam receding jerkily into the woods, and heard her and AndrAIa's voices. He fled after them, glancing back only long enough to see a pale shape rise over their tent.
Chanting, "Oh my code, oh my code," under her breath, AndrAIa sprinted away. Her only thought was to put distance between herself and the monster at the tent. The flashlight beam did not pierce far into the night fog; more than once she had to use her free hand to cushion herself from collisions with trees.
Dot was no less panicky. She fled after AndrAIa, barely able to see the glow of her flashlight. She screamed when something grabbed her shoulder, and swung her flashlight. The shock of a solid impact ran up her arm. The light went off.
His flashlight came on, shining up to her. She had hit him squarely on the forehead, knocking him to the ground. With the flashlight illuminating her face from below, she said, "I'm so sorry! Bob, get up!" She took his hand and pulled frantically.
"Wait. Wait." The dazed Guardian said when he was on his feet again. "Do you hear anything?"
Dot tried to control her breathing. They shone their lights into the darkness, looking around, listening for anything.
"Nothing," Bob finally said in a low voice. "Nothing at all."
"How far did we run?" Dot whispered.
"Pretty far," he answered. He touched his fingers gingerly to his forehead.
"Where's your flashlight?" Bob searched about with his light, then picked up a metal object. He pushed the switch with his thumb. Nothing happened.
"Broken," Dot said.
He put an arm around her. "Come on. We need to find AndrAIa."
AndrAIa had finally forced herself to stop running. She had come to a clearing, with the starry sky visible above. There was no moon to provide any light.
Standing in the middle of the clearing, where nothing could creep up on her from behind a tree, she shone her flashlight around, turning this way and that. She heard only the sound of her own feet in the leaves.
Then she turned her flashlight up into the trees.
Walking in the direction in which the other woman had fled, Bob called out, "AndrAIa! AndrAIa, where are you!"
They heard a faint reply from up ahead. Both hurried forward.
They found her standing in a clearing, looking dazed and frightened. She was playing her flashlight into the tree branches just above eye level. Bob and Dot came up to her. "Are you all right?" Dot asked, seeing the other woman's wide eyes.
Bob followed AndrAIa's flashlight beam. There, hanging from the nearest tree, was a rough figure made out of twigs tied together with grass. One of its hands was covered with a bit of cloth. The beam shifted, and there was another. And another.
"You wanted clues," AndrAIa said, her voice sounding like it came from far away.
Bob kicked something, and looked down. Another little stack of rocks.
"They're all over," AndrAIa said. "Everywhere."
Bob found another kind of figure. This one was a rectangle intersected by two horizontals to divide it into three squares, and an X of sticks tied behind it so the ends protruded beyond the bottom two squares. A binome stick figure. He grinned. Graveyard humor.
He heard the sound of a stick breaking behind himself. Whirling about, he shone the flashlight about. And saw nothing but dried leaves on the ground.
As Bob looked about, Dot unscrewed her flashlight, then put it back together. It still didn't work.
"They all have cloth tied to one arm," Bob commented.
"Bob. Come here," Dot said in a small, tight voice.
His flashlight beam showed Dot and AndrAIa huddled together as if for warmth. Bob walked over to them. "We're okay for now. Whatever it was isn't here now."
What was it?" AndrAIa breathed.
"I don't know," Bob answered, thinking that he had been saying that too much lately.
"Did you see anything?"
Dot said, "I didn't."
"I saw something, but I don't know what it was," Bob admitted.
"What was it?"
"Something pale came up from behind the tent. Something this size," he said, holding his hands out to indicate an oval about the size of a Sprite's face. "It was glowing, I think. I couldn't see anything else in the dark."
The three looked at each other. Dot, trying to force herself to sound calm, said, "We can't go back to the tent now."
Bob shook his head. They couldn't find their campsite in the dark, even if they weren't scared that whatever-it-was was still there. Scared. He admitted to himself that this game had them terrified, himself included. When they knew what their enemy was, they could organize and defeat it. But what were they up against now, and how were they supposed to fight it?
He said, "We'll go back in the morning. For now, let's stay here. We need to rest. One if us'll stay awake while the other two sleep. I'll take the first watch."
By the time the sky began to lighten, all three sprites were exhausted. None had been able to sleep for more than a few microseconds at a time; the continual soft cracklings and shufflings all around them kept startling them alert.
Once again the forest was filled with morning fog. They could see the length of the clearing easily, at least. Dot, looking at a cluster of four stick figures hanging from the limbs of a tree commented, "The green rag. It's pointing in the same direction on every one."
"I didn't notice that," Bob said. He looked around. All the other stick figures were aligned the same way, sure enough. Then he looked closer. "Uh oh. Another clue."
"What?" Dot and AndrAIa came over.
Bob touched the green cloth on a figure hanging at eye level. A long strip hung down... long enough for them to see that it was the same color and fabric as the shirt Matrix had been wearing.
Sounding queasy, Dot said, "I'm getting sick of clues."
So'm I," AndrAIa replied.
Bob didn't like it any more than they did. He said, "At least we know we're supposed to be going that way." He nodded in the direction that all the stick figures were pointing.
"West," Dot murmured. Bob nodded.
AndrAIa was looking carefully at the ground at one edge of the clearing. "Let's get back to the tent. I think we can find our way back without too much trouble."
Bob saw what she meant. They had left a pretty clear trail of footprints, disturbed leaves and vegetation, and cracked branches last night. That may have been the only thing they had done right this whole game, he told himself.
"Tell me you're kidding."
"I'm not kidding."
Bob was searching the camping area. The tent itself had been scratched, but not too badly damaged. The sharp claws had scored, but not pierced, the tough canvas. Their equipment had been scattered about randomly. They found most of the equipment that had been in their four packs... except the map.
"How can you lose that map? It's big-"
"I didn't lose it!" Bob snapped. "I put it in a pocket in my pack last night. It was zippered shut!"
"What happened to it?" AndrAIa wondered.
"How should I know?" Bob said through gritted teeth. "I don't know anything more about this game than you do!"
"Okay, okay. Sorry," she said.
Bob grumbled mentally as he widened his search area to include the woods immediately surrounding the tent. It was a big piece of paper, and sturdy; it wouldn't have gotten damaged easily.
He knew that he had put it away last night. He remembered sticking it in that pocket and zippering it shut. He'd been frustrated with it then for not providing them with any useful information. If it was gone, what did it matter?! He didn't expect to find the map; he had a good idea what had happened to it.
"Forget it," Bob said. Dot and AndrAIa, who had started searching in other directions, looked up. He was opening a pack. "We don't need the map. It's not like there was a lot on there anyway. I've stared at it so long I've got it memorized. We know where we're supposed to be going. West."
"Are you sure about that?" Dot asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. All those figures pointing west with bits of Matrix's shirt - that's a 'this way, stupid!' sign if I ever saw one." He was emptying Matrix's pack.
"What're you doing?" AndrAIa asked.
"Repacking. What we have left we'll have to carry in three packs. We've got to try to win the game without him now. The faster we get this over with, the more likely we'll all come out of it alive," he said grimly.
"But-" AndrAIa began. Bob looked at her sharply. She thought for a nano. Then she started breaking small branches off of surrounding trees.
Dot watched Bob. The strain was showing now. They were all scared, but it was Bob who had to make all the decisions and look brave. He was doing the best that he could, she knew. He wouldn't ever do any less. It wasn't his fault if he couldn't figure out what the User-deleted game wanted.
By the time Bob finished packing AndrAIa was driving sticks almost as long as a Sprite was tall into the ground. To each was attached a stick figure like the ones they had found hanging from the trees, but much larger. The horizontal twig on each was off-center, so one arm was longer than another. They pointed west. "Just in case Matrix and Frisket come back," she explained.
"I don't know if they can," Dot said softly.
"Maybe not... but just in case." AndrAIa fought to keep her voice under control. "They'll know that we didn't just leave them."
It was a futile gesture, Bob thought. Frisket could find them with or without the pointers. But he didn't believe that they were coming back. He could only hope that they hadn't been deleted yet.
They set off, again hiking westward, dreading what they would find. They left one empty backpack behind.
As they walked AndrAIa began calling for Matrix at the top of her lungs. Dot joined her. Bob didn't. Gritting his teeth and trying to ignore them, he looked around, trying to find landmarks, clues, or anything. What kind of a game was it that didn't tell you what you were supposed to be doing?! He wished Dot and AndrAIa would be quiet. What good did they think yelling their heads off would do? If Matrix could get back with them, and wanted to, he would be calling for them!
They came to a smaller clearing. Dot touched Bob's shoulder. He looked over. She said, "More of them," and pointed.
"Alphanumeric," Bob said, looking at the group of three hanging figures. They had the traditional green scrap of cloth around one arm. And each was pointing in a different direction.
"What now?" AndrAIa asked.
""We keep going," Bob answered and started off again.
"But what about-"
"What about what?" Bob said, looking back.
"They're pointing every which way." Dot said.
Bob folded his arms. "Yes. Three figures, three different directions. Should we all split up, then?"
"You don't need to get sarcastic about it," AndrAIa said.
"It was good enough for Matrix."
"BOB, you've made your point," Dot snapped.
"Come on." He turned his back on them without waiting for a reply.
They walked on, barely speaking to each other, until the sky darkened. They saw more of the hanging figures, some pointing in random directions, some without any strips of green cloth at all. Dot and AndrAIa said nothing to Bob about them. He wouldn't have listened.
Bob, already frustrated, was becoming more and more so with every passing microsecond. Without the map, they were lost. Not that it had been a lot of help before. But what had happened to the map?
They had recovered every bit of their gear. Whatever had trashed the campsite - ghost, animal, or whatever - hadn't taken anything, yet the map, which had been in a zippered-shut compartment of Bob's knapsack, had disappeared. That was not the work of a bogeyman out to scare them. That was the work of a Sprite who knew exactly where the map was, thought he could do better with it than they could, and didn't mind stranding them in the game while he went off with it.
After the game ended, he was going to show Matrix exactly what he thought of that. Any son of a .BAT who would doublecross them like that didn't deserve to wear the Guardian protocols!
Another pile of stones. Bob kicked it apart as he walked past.
The sky darkened. They kept on. AndrAIa finally said, "Bob, let's stop."
He looked back at her and shook his head. Without speaking he pointed ahead.
AndrAIa peered into the gloom. "What? I don't see anything," Dot said.
"There's the hill," Bob said. "The one that was on the map."
Now they could see it, a silhouette barely visible against the dying sunset. And, on one side, the sharp, straight lines of the side of a house. On cue, lightning flashed. In a clear sky.
"Do you want to camp out now, when we're this close? Think our tent could take another attack?" Bob asked.
"I can't take much more attitude," Dot snapped as she walked past him. "Save it for whatever's in there!"
The house looked abandoned. The windows that weren't boarded up were broken in. Their flashlights picked out glass shards like jagged teeth bordering the interior darkness. They could see where a porch had been; the side of the house was scarred where the wood had been removed, or had rotted away. The paint had faded to a pale grey.
Dot looked from the journal to the house. "It matches," she said. "This is the place where the murders took place."
"The murders?" AndrAIa and Bob asked.
"Years ago. Seven... people. You don't want to know the details," Dot said.
"I can take it," Bob said, holding out a hand. Dot gave him the notebook. He read the article. When he handed it back, his face had a greyish cast.
"I told you so."
"Everyone got a flashlight?" Bob asked, holding his own.
AndrAIa waved hers. "Mine doesn't work," Dot reminded him.
"Oh, it works. As a club," Bob told her. She looked hurt. He took his backpack off. "We're not going to need all this in there. It'd only slow us down. The flashlights are the only weapons we have. Can you think of anything else that could be any use in there?" He looked up.
Dot and AndrAIa were looking through their packs. "No," AndrAIa said.
"This is it, I guess," Dot said.
Bob stood. "Okay, guys," he said, trying to project confidence he didn't feel. From the looks on the two women's faces, they weren't any happier about facing the Creeping Unknown armed only with flashlights than he was.
He went up to the front door. It was hanging half open on rusty hinges. When he touched it it fell with a clatter to the ground, propelling a cloud of foul-smelling dust across the floor. "Oh, brother," Bob muttered.
In a tight cluster the three walked in, shining their flashlights around the place. The wooden floors were littered with dirt and leaves. The walls and ceilings were liberally decorated with cobwebs and unidentifiable nastiness. In front of them were two staircases, one leading up and the other down.
"I hear something," AndrAIa said in a low voice.
Bob hissed, "Ssh."
Their flashlight beams stabbed into the darkness, swerving about, finding only empty space. Finally Bob whispered, "I don't hear anything."
He started up the stairs. AndrAIa said, "I know I heard something from downstairs!"
He turned back. "I didn't hear anything."
"Come on, let's go downstairs." AndrAIa insisted.
"We look around, not rush in where angels fear to tread," Bob replied. "Are you with me?" He started up the stairs again.
AndrAIa glared after Bob. Why wouldn't he listen to her?!
Dot said in a low voice, "I heard it too."
Bob heard them take the other staircase. Couldn't they ever agree on anything? Even Dot wouldn't follow him!
The staircase led to a slope-roofed attic. It was filled with old, dusty boxes. Now here is where the clues would be! Not to mention weapons. At least he wasn't BASIC enough to fight this game unarmed! He opened the first one and began taking out its contents.
Dot and AndrAIa walked side by side, AndrAIa's flashlight beam swerving from side to side. The beam glowed in the dusty air.
The walls of the hallway were decorated with strange markings. Dot whispered, "Just like the article said. We're close."
AndrAIa turned her flashlight on the opposite wall. It was covered with brown handprints. Small handprints. At waist height. AndrAIa asked, "Does this fit the article too?"
"Yes," Dot said grimly.
"I'm glad I didn't read it." AndrAIa said wholeheartedly.
"The writing doesn't mean anything, or if it does they could never decipher it," Dot told her. They started down the hall again.
After they turned the corner, AndrAIa stopped, and Dot's hands tightened on her flashlight. They had both heard it - a metallic clicking. As they listened, hardly breathing, they heard another soft clank, and a sound like a dragging footstep.
Wordlessly Dot pointed down the hall, to a doorway on the right side. AndrAIa nodded. Preceded by their light, they tiptoed toward the door. As they approached, their own footsteps scraping softly on the cement floor, they heard more faint sounds from the room.
AndrAIa extended a hand toward the doorknob. Before she touched it she looked at Dot, then lifted her flashlight like a club. Dot, right beside her, nodded and gripped her flashlight handle with both hands.
AndrAIa threw the door open. For a brief second she saw Matrix and Frisket sitting on the other side of the darkened room. Then she screamed as something seized her, and her flashlight flew across the room.
Dot saw something black grasp AndrAIa and pull her back. AndrAIa's foot caught Dot in the side, kicking her across the room. The world disappeared into dark blurs as her glasses flew off.
Bob heard AndrAIa scream, and a nano later Dot cried out as well. And Frisket was barking! Bob jumped up and ran down the stairs, shouting, "AndrAIa! DOT!"
He followed the sounds down to an open door in the basement. His flashlight found Dot on her hands and knees on the left side. On the far end sat Matrix, looking blankly at him. He heard AndrAIa screaming in panic on the right. Bob rushed through the door. AndrAIa fell forward. He started for her - and something black covered his face, blocking his eyes and sticking sharp edges into his cheeks. As it pulled him back he shrieked in terror. He struggled, but he could not break away; the clawed hands were too strong. Something pushed into the small of his back.
"Guess who!" said a voice close by his ear.
Bob stopped struggling. He reached up and peeled the hands away from his face. Then he turned around to see a figure in a long, shabby black dress, pointed witch's hat - and a white face with glowing green eyes.
She raised her hands, waggling clawed fingers menacingly, and cackled "I've got you, my pretty! And your little dog too!"
"She's been waiting days to say that to you," Matrix said tiredly.
Hexadecimal nodded happily. "I thought you'd never get here!"
"I can't see without my glasses," Dot said from the floor, where she was searching. "Could someone give me a hand?"
Two flashlights swung over. Hexadecimal flipped the lightswitch by the door. "It's right by your left hand," Matrix told her.
Dot found her glasses and put them on. Matrix was sitting on a wooden chair, chained by his wrists to the wall. His shirt was torn, more than half of it gone. Frisket was crouched under the chair legs. AndrAIa was trying to recover her composure, Hexadecimal was grinning, her hands clasped over her stomach. And Bob looked as if he were suffering from the beginning stages of a migraine.
Bob said to Hex, keeping himself under tight control, "You... were waiting... for us? All this time? While we were in the woods, for days? You were waiting?"
Hexadecimal nodded. "Did you find my hints? I couldn't just tell you, so I used headology. I hope that wasn't against the rules."
Dot, Bob, and AndrAIa all knew what she was talking about: the stick figures. "We found 'em, Hex. Thanks," Bob said halfheartedly.
Matrix said, "She caught Frisket and me right after we left the tent. Looks like that wasn't such a smart thing to do after all."
"I don't know. Right after that, something attacked us in the tent. We barely got away," Dot told him.
"Oh, that was me," Hexadecimal said. "I was trying to help."
"By scaring the bits out of us?!" AndrAIa asked incredulously.
Hex looked embarrassed. "I tripped. I can't fly in this game." She lifted the tattered hem of her skirt, revealing heavy black boots. "And I can't walk in flats. You ran away before I could say anything."
Bob, who was definitely feeling a migrane coming on, said, "Wait a minute. You said you got the users. Why is the game still running?"
"I didn't delete them all." She opened a closet door, revealing a girl in torn hiking clothes and a knit cap. She looked up with frightened red eyes. "Shall I end the game now?"
"Yes. Please end the game, Hex." Bob answered.
She turned back to the girl cowering in the darkness of the closet. "Say goodbye to all of this," she said, raising her arms, "And hello to oblivion." Her mouth spread in a wicked smile as her claws shot out.
The purple cube lifted from G Prime. Four Sprites, a Virus, a dog, and several binomes all found themselves standing by the foundation of former Silicon Tor. The binomes quickly threw out zip boards and headed back to their group.
"Oh, boy," Bob said. "I hope that game doesn't catch on."
"I'll say. I'd rather face a User with a shotgun and a chainsaw any day. How were we supposed to win?!" Dot exclaimed.
"You weren't. The User was." Hexadecimal told her. "The game interrupted my work. If you don't mind?" She lifted into the air, her cape fanning out behind herself.
"Sure Hex, go ahead," Bob said, waving weakly. She waved back, then returned to the section of the Tor she had been obliterating. Energy flared.
"I never want to taste another cookie again," Matrix said.
"Huh?" AndrAIa looked at him oddly.
"Afer Hex caught us. She chained me and Frisket up, and then we had a tea party. Tea and biscuits and small talk. For a whole cycle. Now I know what you were talking about, back when I was fighting Megabyte. I would kill for a subroutine sandwich." Frisket barked. "Okay, you get some too." He patted the dog's head.
"She didn't try to dance with you, did she?" Bob asked with a wry grin.
"No. She was nice and all, but she wouldn't let us out of the chains. Said it was part of the game. And that song about hedgehogs..." He paused and looked away, then began in a lower voice, "Uh, Bob... I'm sorry about how I acted in the game. I should've known you knew what you were doing. I don't know why..."
"It's all right, Matrix," Bob said. "We were all scared. I think that was part of the game code. I know I acted kinda rotten myself after you got caught." He looked at AndrAIa and Dot. "Sorry." He remembered what he had believed Matrix had done with the map, and was ashamed of thinking that. At least he hadn't said anything out loud.
"You weren't that rotten," Dot said. "I'd just say you were a creep." She smiled and held out a hand to him.
"I'd say creep covers it," AndrAIa agreed in a gentle tone. "But you got us through the game alive."
"Thanks." He took Dot's hand with a relieved smile. "I can live with that."
Dot squeezed his hand. Poor guy, he really did feel bad. She gave him a sincere hug. Then she glanced at AndrAIa. AndrAIa hugged Bob too.
When AndrAIa stepped back Bob looked at Matrix. He held out a hand. Matrix backed away a few steps. Bob looked disappointed for a nano. Then he realized that Matrix was looking at something behind Bob. Bob turned. And was knocked to the ground by a small green missile.
"Bob!" Enzo, sitting on Bob's chest, exclaimed. "That game was down for ages and ages! Almost a whole microsecond! What kind of game was it? You guys look like you've been in a war. I'll bet it was cool! Did you have to fight aliens or dinosaurs or airships? I wish I could've played too! I tried to get in, but I was on Baudway and it was down before I could-"
"Enzo!" Dot exclaimed.
Enzo looked up. "Yeah, Dot?"
Bob said, "It wasn't one of the fun games, believe me," Bob said as Enzo got off of him. "Just long. Very long. Tell you what - I'll tell you all about it later. But right now I need to rest. We all do."
"Sure," he answered with a sly grin that clearly indicated he believed they just wanted some time alone. "I'll meet'cha back home later. I'll just go to the diner and do my homework. See ya!" He threw down a zip board and sailed off. Frisket arfed enthusiastically and chased after him.
Bob laughed as Enzo flew away. Dot put her arm around his waist affectionately. Matrix was trying not to look embarrassed, and AndrAIa was not trying to hide her grin. "How'd you ever put up with me?" Matrix wondered.
"Oh, it's okay," Bob said. "I got used to it." He patted Matrix on the shoulder.
"Come on, lover," AndrAIa said, taking Matrix's hand. "I don't know about you, but I could sleep for a millisecond."
"Me too," Dot said. Come on."
"Just so long as I don't have dreams about tents," Bob commented as he activated his zip board.
Three binomes were admitted into a small office. On one wall was a large image of an icon, in front of which a three-fingered hand was superimposed in gold. The One binome sitting in the desk below the image wore a similar icon. The three binomes clicked their own icons. The regular black and white diamond-and-circle patterns reconfigured themselves to match the other.
"The game was won," the binome at the desk said in a calm voice.
"Yes, sir. We didn't lose our nerve - we did our best at first. And we were succeeding, even though when we rebooted we were only turned into invisible spirits. We couldn't touch them, only the game environment and their equipment. But then we found out that Hexadecimal was in the game. We didn't know what to do, so we stopped." He paused, then asked, "What should we have done?"
"You acted correctly, my son," the One at the desk answered. "We can't let her be nullified." He tapped his hands together thoughtfully. "We must find a way to discourage her from getting into games. In her condition, she or her child might be hurt."
"Nothing happened to her," another binome quickly said. "We kept watch on her after that. She made short work of two of the users when they found her, and held the third prisoner until the Sprites found her. They didn't harm her."
"That's good." He tapped his hands together again. "If she is in a game, the top priority is to win it, overriding anything else. Otherwise, priorities remain unchanged."
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
The three game players left after cycling their icons back to the usual configuration. The One at the desk leaned back and thought. At least those players were dedicated and had good sense. But then, they wouldn't pick game players who didn't.
A registered, game playing chaos Virus, one who was close friends with the system's Guardian! Who had ever heard of anything like that? They would have to move very carefully in this system.
Back to the fanfiction section of Slack & Hash's Domain
Bob, Dot, AndrAIa, Matrix, Frisket, Hexadecimal, Enzo, and the entire ReBoot universe are copyright © Mainframe Entertainment, Inc. and used without permission but with a heck of a lot of love and respect. The Scooby-Doo theme song (quoted at the beginning of this story) is copyright © Hanna-Barbera. The game is, of course, based on "The Blair Witch Project." Story copyright © Kim McFarland (Negaduck9@aol.com). The unnamed binomes can fend for themselves. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only.