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Chapter 04-The child

  

      The dark purple game cube towered over Kits Sector, casting its shadow across the Principal Office. Inside the office, one Sprite, the last remaining member of the P.O.'s senior staff was at her wits end.

  

      "How long has it been?" Mouse asked.

  

      "Two milliseconds, ma'am." Specky said.

  

      "Bob's never taken this long in a game before." Mouse said. "There's somethin' wrong."

  

      "But the game's energy levels are normal."

  

      "Maybe it's just a long game." Ray said. "An RPG or something."

  

      Mouse punched the table in frustration. "We should never have let him go in alone!"

  

*   *   *   *   *

  

      Bob hovered in the air, scanning the horizon for his enemy. The User was somewhere nearby; Bob could feel his energy. Maybe he was hiding behind a mountain. Bob reached out and blew up the nearest one, just to be sure.

  

      The game was HydrasphereX, a fairly standard fighting game with one substantial twist: all the combatants were possessed of almost unlimited power. The User had picked his character, a short man with spiky blonde hair and a huge broadsword. At first, ReBooting didn't seem to change Bob at all. His Guardian uniform was replaced by a pair of faded blue jeans, a black t-shirt with a long sleeved white shirt underneath, and a bright red bandanna around the neck. But it didn't seem to give him any weapons. But two nanos into the battle, it became obvious that his 'weapons' just weren't visible on the surface.

  

      At times, the fight actually seemed like normal hand-to-hand combat, until Bob realized that the shockwaves from their punches were causing the buildings around them to explode. Soon, the entire city had been leveled, leaving them to fight in the air over a massive crater.

 

      "Where are you?" Bob yelled. "Come out here and fight!"

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "We are now goin' for millisecond three." Mouse said. "What is he doin' in there?"

  

      "Bob's still in the game?"

  

      Enzo was standing in the doorway, looking very small and very scared. And why not? In two seconds his sister had been kidnapped, his 'brother' shot, and his old friend put in a coma. If things didn't get better soon, they were going to have another Matrix on their hands.

 

      "You shouldn't be in here, mate." Ray said gently.

 

      "Well I can't just sit in the read only room and wait for something else horrible to happen!" Enzo snapped. "I'd go crazy!"

 

      "Where's your dad?" Mouse asked.

 

      "They're still rebuilding his robot. They told me not to bug them until it was done." Enzo said. "I promise I'll be quiet, just please let me stay in here. I won't get in the way."

 

      Mouse smiled and shook her head exasperatedly. "Oh, all right sugah. Just don't..."

 

      "Energy levels in the game are dropping!" Specky yelled. "It's about to end!"

 

*   *   *   *   *

  

      Bob had the User right where he wanted him, pinned against a sheer cliff face. He brought his fists down over and over, cracking the rock behind them and driving the User further and further into the hard granite. The User's hair had already gone flat and faded from gold to purple; the end of the game couldn't be far off. But Bob barely noticed. He was focused entirely on his enemy, on punching the User as hard as he could, as fast as he could, until it felt like the bones in his hand would break. Because as long as he could keep his mind on winning the game, he could pretend he hadn't failed as a Guardian.

 

      But of course, he couldn't keep winning the game forever. Even before the system voice spoke, he could feel the game world beginning to dissolve.

 

      "BASTARD!" With one final punch, the entire cliff collapsed around them.

 

      --GAME OVER--

 

      Bob stood near his apartment in Kits sector, watching the game recede into the sky. He was out of breath, with aching arms and bleeding knuckles.

 

      He knew he should go back to the Principal Office and check in with them, but he couldn't work up the energy. All he wanted to do was go back to his apartment and sleep for about an hour.

 

      He was about to turn toward his apartment when something in the distance caught his eye.

 

      "Glitch: Long-range Scanner." Glitch clicked softly, turning into a small telescope. Bob put the scope to his eye and focused it on G-Prime. A huge scaffold towered above the sector. Viral Binomes moved all over the scaffold, carrying construction materials and blueprints. They were rebuilding the Tor.

 

      Bob silenty returned Glitch to his arm. A thought occurred to him. He could cut through Baudway and be in G-Prime in microseconds, especially if he took his zip-board. It was probably a bad idea, but he had always been able to just zip into Megabyte's lair and get out without so much as a scratch. Why should things be any different now?

 

      "Let Megabyte waltz back into town, kidnap Dot, put Phong and Matrix in the hospital, rebuild the Tor, and get away with it?" His eyes narrowed dangerously. "I don't think so!"

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "I wanna go outside!"

 

      "Ach, sit still child!"

 

      "NO! I wanna go play outside!"

 

      "Having problems, Herr Doktor?" Dot strode into the room.

 

      "Mommy!"

 

      "Frau Matrix!" The doctor cried. "Zis child, she is beyond my control!"

 

      "Why doesn't that surprise me?" She knelt down next to her daughter. It had been almost a cycle since Terabyte was initialized. Thanks to regular transfusions of her father's Viral Energy, she appeared almost five hours old. "What's wrong, baby?"

 

      "He wanted to give me a shot again!" Terabyte pointed an accusing finger at the doctor. "I don't want a shot, Mommy!"

 

      "I know, but if you don't get your shots every second you'll never be big and strong like your Daddy."

 

      "I don't care!" The little girl said defiantly. "I don't want to be big. I just wanna go out and play!"

 

      "Shh. Come here." Dot picked up Terabyte, rocking her gently. "I know you don't like the shots, baby, but you need them. Now just be a good girl and let the doctor give you this shot, then we'll go outside and play, all right?"


      "Promise?"

 

      Dot smiled. "Cross my heart."

 

      Terabyte sniffed quietly. "Okay."

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      As always, Bob flew into G-Prime without incident. After fighting Daemon's infected Guardians, he had almost forgotten how easy it could be to sneak past Megabyte's guards. He was about to enter the tunnels and confront Megabyte when a movement in to courtyard in front of the Tor caught his eye. Dot was sitting on the steps before the massive front door.

 

      Bob felt his heart leap into his throat. He dove for the courtyard.

 

      "Dot!"

 

      She looked up.

 

      "Oh it's you. What do you want, Guardian?"

 

      "Dot...it's me...Bob." He said. "I know you're still in there, Dot. The infection can't rewrite your personality. Please fight it, Dot."

 

      "Mommy, who is that?"

 

      Bob looked on, speechless, as a little girl of about 0.5 toddled over to where Dot sat. Except for a few...extra features, she looked exactly how Bob imagined Dot must have looked as a child. She had bright green skin and unruly, dark green hair, just like Dot's. But she also had neon green eyes with glowing red pupils and a large, red metal crest rising up out of her hair. There was even the slightest hint of blue beneath her green skin. She almost looked like...no...it couldn't be!

 

      "Who is that, Mommy?" The little girl asked again.

 

      "He's...he's a very bad man." Dot said, turning to the girl. "Would you go back inside now?"

 

      "But Mommy..."

 

      "Do what I say, Terabyte." Dot said firmly.

 

      "...Yes Mommy."

 

      "Dot...who...what...how...?"

 

      Dot stood up, glaring down at Bob. "Go away, Guardian..." A strange look came over her. "Bob...please...please leave."

 

      "Dot..."

 

      "Leave now, and don't come back. Because the next time I see you, I will delete you myself."

 

      "Dot..." She turned and followed her daughter into the Tor. "DOT!" He wanted, needed to follow her, to take her back and cure her. But he couldn't move. The doors slammed shut, leaving him alone. Unable to do anything else, he turned his Zip Board and headed back out of G-Prime.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "We have been down here a very long time."

 

      "Too long."

 

      "Yes much too long."

 

      "Definitely much too long."

 

      Hack looked around the darkened tunnel, which looked exactly like every other dark tunnel they had seen in the past cycle.

 

      "I think we are lost." He said.

 

      "No I know where we are." Slash insisted.

 

      "You said that last second, and the second before that and..."

 

      "Well I was wrong those times..."

 

      "And you're wrong now..."

 

      "I am not..."

 

      "You have no idea where we are..."

 

      "I know we are under..."

 

      "We're probably not even in G-Prime any more..."

 

      "Any nano now, we'll find the exit..."

 

      "I cannot believe I followed you down here..."

 

      A sudden noise from further down the corridor silenced both robots.

 

      "There it is again." Slash said, heading toward the noise.

 

      "Hey hey hey!" Hack grabbed Slash with all three of his arms and held him back. "Where do you think you're going?"

 

      "I just want to see what it is."

 

      "Oh...WELL I DON'T!"

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      Mouse could tell something was very wrong the moment Bob opened the door to his apartment. Actually, she had known something was wrong when he didn't report in after the game. Seeing him only confirmed her suspicions. Part of it was the bruises and scrapes on his knuckles, but mostly it was the look in his eyes. They were empty in a way that she had never seen before. He barely even looked like Bob with those eyes.

 

      "Bob?" She asked gently.

 

      Bob didn't seem to hear her. He didn't walk so much as stumble back into the apartment, leaving the door open for Mouse to follow.. The air of quiet around him was clearly the calm before the proverbial broadcast storm. Something boiled just beneath the surface, and she could tell that it was about to erupt.

 

      "Bob." She pressed on, hoping she could calm him down. "What happened in the game?"

 

      "Nothing." He said, barely whispering. "I won."

 

      "That was almost a millisecond ago. After a while we got to wonderin' where you were."

 

      "Oh; I was...around..." He said.

 

      "Bob what's goin'..."

 

      She didn't get to finish her question. At that moment, the bomb dropped.

 

      "DAMN HIM!!!" He slammed his already injured fist into the wall, cracking the plaster. Mouse heard another cracking sound as well; one that definitely didn't come from the wall. Bob didn't seem to notice however. He continued his assault on the defenseless masonry. "THAT BASTARD! HE CAN'T DO THIS! HE CAN'T!" He sank to the floor, dry, tearless sobs tearing through him. "He...can't..."

 

      "What happened? Where did you go?"

 

      "I was...at the Tor..." Bob managed to choke out a few words. "Dot...she...they...She's gone, Mouse. I've lost her."

 

      That felt like a blow to the chest. Bob was giving up? No...that couldn't be right. The Net didn't work that way.

 

      "No." She said, kneeling next to him. "We'll get her back, we just need more time."

 

      "You don't...you don't understand, Mouse...You...can't understand..."

 

      "Then tell me. Make me understand."

 

      "I...I can't." He shook his head. "It's...too awful."

 

      Mouse sighed. "Bob...you shouldn't a' gone there alone."

 

      "I had to...I had to save her...I...couldn't save her..."

 

      "Stop it." Mouse said. "You gotta stop doin' this to yourself. Bob Ah've never seen a problem you couldn't solve. I think the problem here is that you haven't slept more'n a few milliseconds since Megabyte got back. If you don't take care of yourself, you're just doin' his work for him." She sighed. "Here, let me take a look at that hand."

 

      Bob didn't seem to have the energy or the inclination to resist. He winced slightly when she took his hand; chances were something was broken in there. But she had no way of knowing for sure. Unless...

 

      Glitch sat on Bob's forearm as always. She wondered briefly if Glitch would even let her use it. And if she could still remember the correct command. It had been a while since she had learned to use a keytool, longer than she cared to think about. And she had, of course, never had one of her own. But maybe, just maybe, Glitch would understand that she was trying to help Bob and trust her.

 

      There was only one way to find out. She reached down and gently removed Glitch from its resting place on Bob's arm. The keytool didn't resist at all. So far so good.

 

      "Glitch..." She sought the right command. "Medical Scanner."

 

      Glitch clicked affirmatively and rearranged into a scanning unit. Focusing on Bob's hand, Mouse cringed. With his wire frame revealed, she could see at least four separate breaks in Bob's hand.

 

      "Let this be a lesson to ya. Walls have their own way of fightin' back." She draped his good arm over her shoulder's trying to lift Bob to his feet. "Come on, let's get you to the hospital. Damn place is gettin' way too much business lately."

 

      "What's the point?" Bob wasn't cooperating with her attempts to get him moving.

 

      "The point is to get these broken bones set so they'll heal right." Mouse said. "Unless of course you *want* that hand all twisted for the rest of your life."

 

      "Just...just leave me alone. Please."

 

      "And if Ah thought that's what you really wanted, you can be sure Ah'd do just that." Mouse said. "But Ah know you better than you think Ah do. Now come on."

 

      With considerable effort, she finally got Bob moving. Together, they hobbled out of the apartment.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      Dot held Terabyte's hand tightly, wincing at the enormous strength the girl possessed. It was almost enough to crush her mother's comforting hand entirely; and Dot knew the little girl would only get stronger. Now, however, she was still just a child, crying out wordlessly and gripping her mother's hand as unbearable pain shot through her.

 

      The transfusions always took about two milliseconds to take effect. When they did, Terabyte's rate of compiling speeded up to an alarming degree. The girl literally grew before her eyes. But the process was painful, as skin, bones, and muscle developed in the blink of an eye. The pain of physical growth, normally far too faint, and spaced out over too long a time, to be noticeable hit her with its full force at once.

 

      Terabyte's agonized screams echoed up and down the underground tunnels, causing guards on the opposite side of the compound to cringe. Dot herself shuddered, watching as her daughter's limbs lengthened, thinning into more adult forms. One by one, her baby teeth fell out, a perfect set of secondaries shooting up instantly to replace them.

 

      Finally, Terabyte fell silent. She slumped over, laying against Dot and sobbing quietly. She was no longer a little girl. She was at least 1.3 now, maybe older.

 

      "Mommy..." She cried. "Why...why do I...have to do this?"

 

      "Shhh." Dot stroked her daughter's hair gently. They would have to cut it again; her 'hours' of growth had left the thick green locks hanging down nearly to the floor. "Shhh. It'll be all right."

 

      "It hurts, Mommy." The girl sobbed. "It hurts."

 

      "Is there perhaps a way this process could be made any quieter?" Megabyte stormed into the room. "Herr Doktor?"

 

      "I apologize, mein fuehrer. But ze process is not a painless one."

 

      "Then can't you keep her quiet?" He turned on Dot, who frowned slightly.

 

      Terabyte buried her face in Dot's robes. She had learned early on to be terrified of her father. The last thing she wanted was to provoke his anger. Dot, on the other hand, had no such inhibitions.

 

      "She's in pain." She said. "The least you can do is let her cry about it!"

 

      "I don't appreciate these spats of impertinence, my dear." Megabyte growled threateningly. "That girl exists for one purpose. You're job is to keep her out of my way until she can fulfill that purpose, which includes keeping her quiet!"

 

      "She's a child! She..."

 

      "She is a Virus! We do not cry over a little discomfort. Now either find a way to keep her quiet, or I will!"

 

      He turned and stormed out of the room, leaving Dot to care for Terabyte. Despite her loyalty to Megabyte, Dot didn't like him. She didn't like the way he treated their daughter. She even suspected at times that she hated him. What was it the Guardian had said? What did he mean by 'Infection'?

 

      Sometimes, late at night, strange memories came to her. Memories of her master's enemies. The mermaid Game Sprite, the big man with his missing eye, even the Guardian. And others, a boy, similar to the one-eyed man, a woman with pink skin and fiery red hair, and more, Sprites and Binomes, even a Virus. She almost remembered a time when they had all been friends, when any of them would have risked their lives for her, and she for them.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "Here. It's down here." Slash said, pointing to a T-junction in the sewer pipes.

 

      "This is not a good idea." Hack muttered. "This is a bad idea."

 

      "Hello!" Slash called "Hell-"

 

      "What are you DOING?" Hack slapped a hand over Slash's mouth, silencing him. "What if that's not a friendly noise?"

 

      "It does not sound mean."

 

      "How would you know?"

 

      "I have a very good ear for these things."

 

      "You don't have ears!"

 

      "Listen I..."

 

      "No. Listening to you is what got us lost in the first..."

 

      Hack fell silent as a shadow emerged on the wall before them. As it crept toward them, the shadow grew larger and larger until it towered above both robots. Hack and Slash huddled together as the monstrous shadow approached. It was upon them; any nanosecond it would round the corner and attack. They screamed, looking up to see their assailant. But there was nothing there. Gradually their gaze fell, stopping just above the floor. A little floating ball with two beady eyes and a short tail stared up at them.

 

      "Scuzzy?"

 

      "Scuzzy, what are you doing here?"

 

      Scuzzy growled. The dome on his head lit up with a view of Hexadecimal stepping into the gateway for the last time.

 

      "You've been down here ever since?" Slash asked. Scuzzy nodded quickly. "Do you know the way out?" Another nod.

 

      "All right then." Hack said. "Lead the way."

 

      Scuzzy shook his head, actually his entire body, violently.

 

      "What's wrong?"

 

      Once again Scuzzy's dome lit up, this time with a picture of Megabyte.

 

      "He is right." Slash said. "We cannot get past Megabyte."

 

      Everyone was silent for a while. Suddenly, Scuzzy growled again, his tail wagging quickly.

 

      "What is it?"

 

      Scuzzy concentrated and lit up his dome again. This time, the video showed Bob. But a younger Bob, sometime just after he arrived in Mainframe. He was flying on his Zip Board in Floating Point Park. Across from Bob was a huge robot with four arms, heavy armor, and weapons bristling all over.

 

      As they watched, Bob lifted his pistol and fired at the robot, blowing it up. When the smoke cleared, Hack and Slash saw themselves standing where the huge robot had been, Scuzzy floating between them.

 

      The screen went dark and Scuzzy grinned at them. A moment later, finally realizing what they had seen, Hack and Slash smiled as well.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "You're lucky." The doctor said, putting a splint on Bob's hand. "Clean breaks like this heal fast."

 

      Bob was silent for a moment. "How are the others?" He finally asked.

 

      "Mr. Matrix is going to be fine." The doctor said. "He just had a flesh wound. He should be back on his feet in a few seconds"

 

      "Or less, knowin' Matrix." Mouse said.

 

      "But I'm afraid we need to get Phong to a better facility. We just don't have the resources we need here."

 

      "Mainframe's a closed system again." Bob whispered. "We can't send him anywhere until we deal with Megabyte."

 

      "Well then I hope you deal with him soon." The Binome said. "Every nano counts." He left to attend to the more urgent patients

 

      "Can't you talk to Turbo?" Mouse asked.

 

      Bob shook his head. "I told him to cut communication until we dealt with Megabyte. ...We're on our own. I failed."

 

      "Would you stop that? You haven't failed." Mouse said. "Ah don't know what you saw at the Tor but it can't be as bad as all that."

 

      "I saw Dot...willingly serving Megabyte. Isn't that enough?"

 

      "And you think that's you're fault?"

 

      "Of course it's my fault!" He yelled. "I was an idiot to think I could change Megabyte. If I had just deleted him right from the start, none of this would have happened!"

 

      "That's true." Mouse said. "Of course, in that case, you probably would have gone right back to the Supercomputer instead of stayin' in Mainframe and you never would have gotten to know Dot at all. Oh, and you'd have probably killed Hex too. So no one could have stopped Daemon and we'd all be dead now. Ah don't know about you, but Ah'll stick with things the way they are, thanks."

 

      "I know you're trying to make me feel better, but..."

 

      "Bob, you did what you thought was right. Ah've never know you to do anything else."

 

      "But I was wrong!"

 

      "That's life! You can't be right all the time. You're not the User. You're just a Sprite; better than most maybe, but you're not perfect."

 

      "But I should have been able to save her! What's the use of all this Guardian training if I can't even protect the woman I..."

 

      "Go ahead." Mouse said. "Say it. You love her."

 

      "I...I never told her."

  

      "It's not too late, you know." She sat down next to him. "She's still alive. And we can get her back; but not if you give up!" She sighed. "You know, a long time ago, you told me not to give up. Ah didn't listen; and that's one of the few things in my life Ah regret."

 

      "What's your point?"

 

      "My point is that if Ah had listened to you maybe then Ah'd have one of those right now." She pointed to Glitch. "And if you listen to me now, you can get Dot back. But if you give up and let Megabyte win you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

  

*   *   *   *   *

       Terabyte was in the courtyard learning how to walk again when her world began to fall apart. Her legs were suddenly twice as long as they had been this morning, meaning that she had to teach herself how to use them so she wouldn't fall over whenever she walked.

  

      Her mother sat nearby, ready to catch her if she fell. Terabyte took comfort in her presence. With every step, her footing became steadier, more confident.

  

      Suddenly her father came outside.

  

      "Get back into the Tor." He ordered.

  

      "What's wrong?" Her mother asked.

  

      "There was a power surge in the sewers right below us. Something's coming."

  

      Before her mother could respond, the ground a short distance away exploded. A huge shape shot up through the pavement. When the dust settled, a robot stood next to a gaping hole in the courtyard. Its dark purple armor was covered with weapons and it held its four hands in nasty-looking fists. The robot had two Icons, one on each of its huge shoulder guards.

 
      "Oh, it's just you." Her father said, sounding bored. "Good to see you've finally pulled yourself together.

 

      The robot glared silently at them. Finally it spoke in a deep, rumbling voice.

 

      "WE ARE HERE FOR DOT."

 

      Her father frowned.

 

      "I see." He said. "You've decided to go from two traitors to one slightly larger traitor. Don't think that will stop me from deleting you." He extended his claws and charged. The big robot calmly swept him aside with a flick of its two left arms.

 

      Megabyte went flying, landing on the front steps. He staggered to his feet.

 

      "This time I'll make sure *no one* puts you together again!"

 

      "WE DO NOT HAVE TIME TO FIGHT YOU." The robot said. "ANOTHER TIME PERHAPS." The robot moved like lightning, crossing the courtyard to where Terabyte and her mother stood in a nanosecond. It grabbed her mother in all four hands.

 

      "Let her go!" Terabyte yelled. She took hold of one of the robot's arms and wrenched it off with ease, crushing the metal limb in her hand. The big machine seemed surprised, but it didn't waste time trying to fight back. Extending a jet pack from it's back, it shot into the sky and flew toward the Principal Office.

 

      Terabyte was about to take off in pursuit when her father's hand closed around her wrist.

 

      "Get back inside!" He ordered.

 

      "But Mommy..."

 

      "NOW!"

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

      "Let me go!" Dot screamed, pounding ineffectually on the robot's armor.

 

      "NO. WE ARE DAMAGED. WE MUST GO BACK TO PHONG FOR REPAIRS."

 

      "Fine! You go back, just drop me off here."

 

      "BUT THE FALL WOULD KILL YOU."

 

      "Then go down to the ground and drop me off there you idiot."

 

      "NO, BOB WOULD WANT US TO BRING YOU BACK."

 

      "I don't care! I..."

 

      --WARNING! INCOMING GAME! WARNING! INCOMING GAME!-- A large purple game cube began to descend right in front of them.

 

      "See." Dot said. "You don't want to get caught in the game, do you?"

 

      "BOB WILL GO TO THE GAME." The robot said after a moment of thought. "WE WILL MEET HIM THERE."

 

      Quickly, they moved under the falling game.

 

*   *   *   *   *

       "What am I going to do, Mouse?" Bob asked. "I need her."

 

      "Then you're gonna be the hero and rescue the damsel in distress." She said. "We just need a better plan to get to her, that's all."

 

      "And Megabyte?" He looked away, his voice dropping to a barely audible whisper "And...Terabyte?"

 

      "Terabyte?" Mouse looked confused. "Who's that?"

 

      He looked up, struggling to find a way to tell Mouse what he had seen.

 

      "She..."

 

      --WARNING! INCOMING GAME! WARNING! INCOMING GAME!--

  

      "Two games in one second?" Bob asked. He sighed. "Figures."

 

      Mouse smiled. "Come on Guardian. We got a job to do."

  

      "You're going into a game, Mouse?"

  

      "Well in case you hadn't noticed, we're runnin' out of candidates. And Ah'm, not about to let you go in alone again after what happened last time."

  

*   *   *   *   *

 

      AndrAIa met them underneath the game.

 

      "Let's get this over with." She said. "I practically had to restrain Matrix to keep him from coming in.

  

      "Where's Enzo?" Bob asked.

  

      "Don't worry. I left him with Ray." AndrAIa said. "What happened to your hand?"

  

      "Nothing."

  

      "Okay." She said, obviously not buying that for even a nano.

  

      The game hit the ground level, preventing her from inquiring any further. They were standing on a dance floor. Multicolored lights swirled around them as a machine in the corner pumped a cloud of fog around their feet.

  

      "Glitch..."

  

      "Hold on." AndrAIa said. "I've seen this one before. This is "Dance Tournament". Looks like the 80's Mix. We win by dancing against the User. We just need to get more steps right than he does. Best of three rounds."

  

      "All right then, let's do it." Bob said.

  

      AndrAIa nodded and tapped her Icon. "ReBoot!" After a brief green flash, AndrAIa was clothed in faded denim shorts and a matching jacket, with an electric pink t-shirt underneath. A pair of mismatched socks stuck out from high-top sneakers adorned with various designs in puffy paint. Her normal seashell earrings had been replaced by huge hoops and her hair was feathered far more than was decent.

 

       "Oh very nice." She muttered, looking over her clothes.

  

      Mouse smiled. "Ah'm almost scared to try. ReBoot!" She clicked her own Icon and waited to see what the game gave her. She ended up in a miniskirt and a loose t-shirt that always left one of her shoulders exposed no matter how carefully she adjusted it. A multitude of necklaces and bracelets adorned her neck and arms. Pink leg warmers completed the look.

  

      "Well it's not that bad, Ah guess. You're turn, sugah."

  

      Reluctantly, Bob tapped his Icon with his good hand. "ReBoot!"

  

      When the light faded, Mouse and AndrAIa burst out laughing in unison. Bob's clothes weren't that bad, but the accessories made the outfit. Their attention was first drawn to the makeup. Lipstick, blush, mascara, and heavy eye shadow covered Bob's face. In addition to the makeup, his fingernails were brightly painted and he wore more jewelry than AndrAIa and Mouse put together. Even his hat seemed a feminine touch.

 

      "Are you *sure* shooting the User won't work?"

 

      "Just hang out, guys." AndrAIa said, stepping onto the Dance Platform. "I'll take care of this one." A moment later, the User materialized on the platform next to her, a thin man in torn jeans, a striped t-shirt with the sleeves removed, and a loose necktie. He glared angrily at AndrAIa as the music started.

 

      Bob used Glitch to scan the game's energy, though it was clear that AndrAIa would win. Halfway through round one, she had yet to miss a step. Bored, Bob turned in a slow circle, scanning the entire game cube for anything interesting. Suddenly, he found something *very* interesting.

 

      "You guys...keep dancing." He said. "There's something I need to check out."

 

      Before they could respond, Bob hurried off the dance floor, following the energy spike that had just appeared on Glitch's scanner.

 

      Glitch led him into a storeroom in the back of the building. Stacks of boxes conspired with dim overhead lights to obstruct his vision; something large lurked just inside the room. He couldn't be sure, but it looked a little bit like Hack...or maybe Slash. Yet it was bigger than both of them put together. There was one possibility that came to Bob's mind.

 

      "Glitch:" He whispered. "Energy Ram." Hack and Slash alone were distractions at best, even when they were Megabyte's minions. But they were only parts of a whole. And that whole, a battle machine called Clash, had nearly deleted him once.

 

      "BOB!" Sure enough, Clash rolled out of the darkness. But the big robot didn't look like it was attacking. More than anything, it looked scared. One of its arms had been torn off and several gunshots adorned its armor. "SHE HAS A GUN BOB! SHE SHOT US!"

 

      "What? Who?"

 

      Before Clash could answer, Bob heard the click of a gun behind him. He turned and saw Dot pointing a small pistol at him.

 

      "Didn't I tell you what would happen the next time I saw you, Guardian?"

 

      "Dot...Put the gun down, Dot."

 

      "You didn't have the balls to come back yourself so you sent your robot, is that it?"

 

      "Dot listen to me..." Bob began.

 

      "No!" She pulled back the hammer on her gun. "Say goodbye, Guardian!"

 

      "Dot..." Bob looked around, trying hard to find a way out of this situation that didn't involve taking a bullet. "Do you really want to hurt me?"

 

      "I..." The gun began to waver.

 

      "Please Dot; try to fight it."

 

      "N-no..." She lifted the gun again. "No...You're my enemy. I have to stop you!"

 

      "Dot, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't there to protect you. I'm sorry he...he did this to you. If you'll just come back to me, I can make it all right. I don't know how but I will. I promise."

 

      Once again, the gun began to drop. "...Bob...?"

 

      "I love you, Dot. Please fight him; come back to me."

 

      "I...I must...NO!" She lifted the gun again. Before she could fire, AndrAIa stepped out of the shadows behind her, stabbing her in the neck with her fingernails.

 

      Dot's eyes widened. She dropped the gun and fell as the paralyzing venom ran into her. Bob rushed forward and caught her.

 

      "What about the game?" He asked.

 

      "Only one round per opponent." AndrAIa explained. "Assuming Mouse wins this round, you won't even have to dance."

 

      "Good." Bob said, laying Dot down. "Glitch: Anti-Virus." A golden beam of energy shot from Glitch's lens into Dot. After a few nanoseconds, he shut off the beam.

 

      "That should let her fight the infection for a while." He said. "But we need to get her back to the P.O. and work on her Icon."

 

      "Don't worry." AndrAIa said. "Mouse will have us out of here in no time."


*   *   *   *   *

       Dot woke up in a hospital bed, her brain a haze of sedatives, anti-viral medicines, and Game Sprite venom. Bob sat beside her hospital bed, holding her hand.

 

      "Welcome back."

 

      "Bob!" She sat up and hugged him tightly, never wanting to let go. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"

 

      "It's all right." He whispered. "It's over. It'll be all right."

 

      "Matrix! Is he...?"

 

      "He's fine."

 

      "Oh no!" She whispered. "Terabyte..."

 

      "I know. I saw her."

 

      "We have to go back for her, Bob."

 

      "What?"

 

      "She's innocent." Dot said. "She's just a little girl. And now...she's all alone with him." She looked into his eyes, pleading. "We have to save her."

 

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

TBC

 

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