"We'll enter the tunnels here." Bob pointed to a spot on the map where Megabyte's Tor had once been. "That's where we have the best chance of finding Megabyte. And wherever he is, he'll have Dot nearby. Once we're inside we'll travel in pairs. Matrix and AndrAIa go together, take the upper levels. Mouse, you're with me, we'll head for the lower tunnels."
"What about us?"
"Yeah, where do we go?"
They turned to see Hack and Slash looking at Bob expectantly.
"You don't go." Matrix said. "Six is a crowd."
"We were talking to the Guardian!"
"Just stay out of it!"
"It is Bob's decision!"
"He's right guys." Bob said. "We need someone to stay here in case Megabyte comes back."
"Oh he won't do that." Hack said quickly.
"Yeah." Slash said. "He knows we'll come to get Dot."
"He'll just wait for us."
"And let us come to him."
"It's still better that we have someone here." AndrAIa said. "The fewer people we send into the tunnels the less likely we are to get caught."
"Do you know the layout of those tunnels?" Hack asked.
"Or how to get in past the guards?"
"Do you?" Matrix replied.
"I most certainly..."
"Of course we..."
"Sir, I am insulted!"
"We lived there for..."
"Yeah at least four..."
"At least four hours..."
"Right, could be more..."
"Guys." Bob stopped them. "If you have a point, make it. We're running out of time."
"The point is..."
"We know everything..."
"Everything that is down there."
* * * * *
Matrix found Enzo sitting in the waiting room of the hospital wing. Any other second, he might have just walked past. But something compelled him to sit down next to the little Sprite.
"Hey." He said quietly. "You okay kid?"
"No." Enzo shook his head, on the verge of tears. "Megabyte's got Dot."
"I know." Matrix said. "But we're gonna get her back. I promise."
"It's my fault."
"What?" Matrix asked. "Enzo; this is *not* your fault."
"But she just...walked off with him." Enzo said. "To save me."
Matrix sighed. "Well if that's true than it's as much my fault as it is yours." He said. "And I *know* you're not trying to pin this on me!" He managed to bring a bit of a smile to Enzo's face with that comment. "The only person to blame here is Megabyte, understand? And he's gonna pay for it, I swear."
Enzo nodded. "What about Phong?" He asked.
"The doctors are doing everything they can for him."
"But what if it's not enough?" Enzo asked.
"Well you know what Phong would say about that."
Enzo nodded sadly. "That deletion is a normal part of processing. And in the end, what matters is how you spent your runtime, not how long it was."
"Exactly." Matrix said. It never ceased to amaze him how alike he and Enzo still were in some ways. To the point where they could have almost the exact same thought. "But don't give up on Phong just yet. He's one tough old sprite."
"I'm just so scared." Enzo said. "I...remember fighting Megabyte before, with Bob. But that wasn't really me; it was you. I can't even look at him without getting scared."
"You think I wasn't scared of Megabyte?" Matrix asked. "You must not remember too well. I was terrified of him."
"Then...how did you do it?"
"I had Bob. And...Dot. Just like you do. Even when I was afraid, I knew they were there for me. It's all right to be afraid of him, Enzo. Heck, it's a good idea!"
"But you're not. You're not scared of anything!"
"There's a difference between not giving in to fear and actually not being afraid, Enzo." Matrix said. "Let me put it another way; when AndrAIa and I were trying to take you to Daemon, were you afraid?"
Matrix smiled. "But that didn't stop you from saving us, did it?"
"You're right." Enzo smiled. "It...it didn't."
"So you're still afraid of Megabyte then?"
Matrix frowned at that. "Not anymore." He said quietly. "Now I just hate him. But if you want my advice; it's safer to be afraid."
* * * * *
They slipped into G-Prime quietly, or as quietly as anything could be done with Hack and Slash tagging along.
"How far to the manhole?" Bob whispered.
"Twenty-seven paces." Hack replied.
"It's twenty-*eight*." Slash corrected him.
"No, I remember quite clearly. It's twenty-seven."
"It is twenty-eight!" Slash insisted.
"Guys!" AndrAIa hissed before they could get too loud. "It's not that big a difference!"
They both turned out to be wrong anyway. The back entrance to the tunnels was at least twice as far as either had predicted. Finally they found it, a wide, rusty manhole that led down to the sewers. From there, Hack and Slash assured them there was a secret entrance into the tunnels under what was left of the Tor. Whenever Bob used to foil them, they would use the tunnels to sneak back into the Tor without Megabyte seeing them. The Virus never found out about the secret passage.
* * * * *
Bob had to give credit where credit was due; Hack and Slash found the secret entrance to the tunnels without error. A secret door opened onto a stairway. One set of stairs led up to the higher levels and eventually the base of the Tor. The other led down into the maze of service tunnels in the lower levels.
"Okay." He whispered. "Matrix, AndrAIa; up. Mouse; with me."
"Oh no." AndrAIa said, looking behind her.
"Bob, we've got a problem." Matrix said.
"What is it?"
"Ah think we lost our guides." Mouse pointed behind her, where Hack and Slash were nowhere to be found.
Bob sighed. "Great." He shook his head. "We can't turn back now. Dot needs us. Scrap splitting up though; if we're going to get lost at least we should all be lost in the same place."
"What about the moron twins?" Matrix asked.
Bob considered that for a moment. Finally he shrugged. "They'll have to take care of themselves. They know the way home."
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Hack and Slash were just beginning to realize that something was wrong. They had led the others to the tunnel entrance with no problem, but then a sound had distracted Slash. When he went to investigate, Hack followed. Neither realized at the time that Bob and the others weren't with them. Now they were thoroughly lost.
"This is all your fault." Hack said.
"This is not my fault."
"It is your fault..."
"I am not the one to blame..."
"You led us down here..."
"I simply investigated..."
"Now we're lost..."
"You should have told them..."
"That we were getting separated..."
"If you had just kept your mind on the job..."
"If you'd told them..."
"NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!" They finished together.
A moment passed.
"I did not mean to yell..."
"I just get very frustrated..."
"I do not like these dark tunnels at all..."
* * * * *
"Hold up a nano." Bob said. They had been wandering the tunnels for milliseconds with nothing to show for it. "We're just getting more lost. We need a plan."
"No argument here." Mouse said. "So what's the plan?"
"I...never said I *had* one." Bob said sheepishly. "Just that we need one."
"Can't you hear anything?" Matrix asked AndrAIa.
"Sure, lots of things." She replied. "But there's troops moving all over these tunnels, and the way the place is built, every sound echoes up and down the corridors. It's pretty much impossible to pick a single one out. And forget about following it even if I could."
"So now what, Bob?" Mouse asked.
Bob sighed heavily. Everyone always seemed so eager to put him in charge, as if he had a clue what he was doing. Dot was the planner, the one who always came up with the brilliant ideas. Bob just made things up on the fly, and that wasn't an M.O. that would help them here. However, everyone expected him to come up with something, so he had to at least try.
"Glitch: System Scan." Glitch reformed into a scanning unit. "Measure and track Viral energy."
Glitch locked onto Megabyte's energy immediately. He was somewhere to the northeast, near what Bob assumed was the center of the compound. Unfortunately, glitch gave no indication as to which of the several hundred levels the energy was emanating from.
"Okay." Bob muttered. "If I was Megabyte, which level would I go to? Lowest or highest?"
Given that the higher levels had probably suffered considerable damage when Hex blew up the Tor above them, Bob decided to try the lowest level first.
* * * * *
"So your plan was basically trial and error?" Matrix asked.
"You got a better idea?" Bob snapped.
"Sorry." Matrix said quietly. "I just..."
"I know." Bob said. "She's in here. And we're not leaving without her, even if it takes us all hour to find her."
Matrix nodded. "So how many levels do you think we've done?"
"Ah've been countin'." Mouse said. "We've done exactly fifteen levels, not countin' the ones we were at before we checked the bottom."
"Fifteen out of what? A hundred?" AndrAIa asked. "This really could take all hour."
"Look." Bob said. "You guys are the ones who asked me for a plan. I'm not going to make you stick with it if you don't want to. But personally I'm not leaving this place without Dot, so you can either help me or you can leave. I know this is pretty close to hopeless...and I won't think any less of you if you want to go."
He stepped aside and gestured to the stairs.
"Your choice. Abort, retry, ...fail?"
Matrix took only a second to answer. Determination on his face, he stepped towards the stairs leading up.
* * * * *
"When we...find Megabyte...I'm...gonna throw him...down every...single...one...of these...stairs!" Matrix panted as they struggled to ascend yet another flight of stairs.
"Not...if Ah...get ta him...first!" Mouse replied.
"Hold up...a nano." Bob said, pausing on the landing. "How many...is that...Mouse?"
Mouse took a moment to catch her breath. "Fifty." She said. "We should be right in the middle now, about three floors below where we came in. Why?"
"I've just got a feeling about this one." Bob said.
"It's louder here." AndrAIa said. "There are more troops on this level."
"Figures." Matrix muttered. "It's the middle of the complex. Trust Megabyte to put himself in the center of everything."
"Okay." Bob said. "Let me think...um...Mouse; think you can make it back to the entrance?"
"No problem, but..."
"Good. Go back up to the surface and get a message to Ray. Tell him to make a portal in the center of level fifty, lock on to Glitch if he can. I don't think we'll be able to get out any other way once we grab Dot."
"Be careful Mouse."
"Ah always am, sugah." She replied with a wink. "Now you just go and get Dot, 'cause Ah'm gonna kick you ASCII if ya show up back at the Principal Office without her." She turned and headed up the stairs toward the secret entrance.
When they could no longer hear Mouse's footsteps on the stairs above them, they turned and moved into the tunnels. It was slow going most of the way; every few steps they had to duck into a side passage to avoid patrols. Eventually, they came to a large, ornate door. Glitch's scanner went wild.
Bob nodded silently at his companions. Megabyte was on the other side of this door, and somewhere nearby...Dot.
* * * * *
They burst through the door. Matrix had Gun drawn. Bob held Glitch out in front of him, ready to fight. AndrAIa brandished her trident, venom dripping from her fingernails. Megabyte took all of this in with an amused laugh.
"I'm impressed." He said. "To have made it this far is no small task."
"Cut the chat, Megabyte!" Bob yelled. "We're here for Dot!"
"Well then by all means, take her...if you can."
"Huh?" Bob hadn't expected it to be that easy.
Megabyte smiled evilly. "Dot." He called softly. "There are some people here to see you."
Dot stepped out of the shadows behind Megabyte's throne. She wore long, flowing, blue and green robes. Her Icon had also adopted the Viral color scheme.
"No." Matrix whispered.
"Go ahead Dot." Megabyte said.
"What are you playing at Megabyte?" Bob demanded.
"Why, nothing." The Virus said. "If you love something, you should let it go." He turned to Dot. "Run along now."
"No." Dot said. "I'm not leaving."
"Please Dot." AndrAIa said. "Let's go home."
Dot turned to her. "But I am home."
Megabyte chuckled. "And if it comes back...It's yours."
"She's not yours Megabyte!" Bob yelled. "You've just infected her."
"Oh let's not quibble over semantics, Guardian." Megabyte said. "Dot is staying here. Just accept it."
"Gun!" Matrix yelled. "Command Line: Uninstall!" His electronic eye rolled over and placed a glowing red target on Megabyte's chest. But before Matrix could fire, Dot stepped in front of Megabyte, right in the path of his shot.
"Dot, move!" His sister stared at him blankly. "DOT!"
"What are you going to do, boy? Shoot her?" Megabyte asked. "I think we already established that you're incapable of sinking that low."
"Let her go!" Bob yelled.
"Why should she go with you, when she clearly wishes to stay here with me?"
"You won't get away with this Megabyte!"
"Actually, Bob, it is *you* who will not get away. Guards!"
Just as dozens of guards began swarming into the chamber, a portal opened right next to Bob. Ray Tracer leaned his head out and beckoned to them.
"Come on!" He yelled. "This place is getting a little crowded!"
"Where's Mouse?" AndrAIa asked.
"She's already back at the P.O." Ray replied. "Come on, before it's too late."
AndrAIa nodded and stepped through the portal. Bob and Matrix were somewhat more reluctant.
"Dot!" Matrix yelled. "Snap out of it! Come on!"
Dot frowned slightly. Then she turned to the guards. "What are you waiting for?" She said coldly. "Delete them."
Her words seemed to paralyze Matrix, to the point where he could not even dodge the incoming laser fire. A lucky blast caught him in the side before Ray grabbed him by the arm and pulled him forcibly through the portal.
"Come on, mate!" The Surfr yelled. "I can't keep this thing open forever!"
"But...Dot..." Bob said quietly, almost to himself.
Ray stepped out of the portal and grabbed his friend, staring him in the eyes as laser beams exploded around them. "You can't help her if you're dead, Bob!" He said. "There'll be another time."
Reluctantly, Bob nodded and followed him through the portal just before it collapsed.
* * * * *
The portal took them back to the Principal Office. Matrix fell to the floor, bleeding profusely from the gaping wound in his abdomen. AndrAIa ran to him and pressed her hands over the gunshot, trying desperately to stop the flow of energy.
"Someone get a doctor!" She screamed. "HURRY!"
The doctors rushed in and, with AndrAIa's help, carried Matrix to the hospital wing. Bob sank to the floor fighting back the urge to scream in rage and sorrow.
"...no..." He whispered. "...Dot..."
* * * * *
"What kind of idiots are you?" Dot demanded. "You let them get away!"
"Calm down, my dear." Megabyte said. "It's only a minor setback."
"That is not the point. They left a hole in our defenses a micron wide, and then let the Guardian and his friends escape. It's inexcusable."
"You're right of course." Megabyte said. "Commander." A thin '1' Binome stepped forward. "How do you explain this breech of security?"
"We found a secret entrance through the sewers. They must have come in there, Sir." The Commander replied.
"And you had no knowledge of this entrance before now?"
"Very well." In a flash, Megabyte extended his tentacles and stabbed the commander through the CPU, deleting him instantly. Smiling, he turned to the next Binome in line. "Congratulations, Major. You've just been promoted. See to it that the situation is remedied immediately. And I *strongly* suggest that you endeavor to locate any other hidden entrances to this facility while you're at it."
The Binomes saluted and fanned out into the tunnels, leaving Dot and Megabyte alone. They turned and headed deeper into the installation, to the chamber just beyond the throne room.
"You really are quite the strategist, aren't you My Dear?" Megabyte said.
Dot shrugged. "I won't allow a soldier's incompetence to endanger us." She said.
Megabyte sighed. "I wish I could put you in charge of my Legions, Dot." He said. "Nothing could defeat us. But soon, you will have a much more important job."
"Yes." Dot said, gazing at the glass tube in the center of the room. Suspended in the tube, a small form was gradually taking shape. From a single line of code, it had already developed into a tiny, half-formed sprite; a process that would normally have taken minutes, compressed into a single second. Parts of the little bitmap bristled with blue and red Viral hardware, but it was already clear that, physically at least, the Sprite side would be dominant.
"How is she doing, Herr Doktor?" Megabyte asked.
"Oh ist wunderbar mien fuehrer!" The doctor said. "Everyzing is going according to ze plan. Give me anozer 5.03 milliseconds und ze incubation vill be completed!"
"Soon she will be ready for the second phase." Megabyte said, turning to Dot. "And then she'll need a mother's care. Nothing can be allowed to harm her. Nothing. She is the key to the New Viral Dawn. Our beautiful, powerful daughter...Terabyte."
* * * * *
* * * * *
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