"Prepare yourselves...for The Hunt!" Megabyte's evil laugh echoed through the Principal Office.
"I can't believe how much I'm gonna delete him." Matrix growled.
"First things first." Bob said. "We have to find the others and make sure they're all right."
"But we know where Megabyte is now! We can..."
"The two of us against him wouldn't stand a chance." Bob said. "We don't know enough about his new powers. We need to get all our people together, then we'll come up with something."
"But if he gets to the Gateway..."
"He won't. I'm not sure I believe he's *just* out to delete us, but he's not leaving Mainframe. Not yet."
"How can you be so sure?"
"If all Megabyte wanted was to get into the Supercomputer, he could have had Ray bring him there instead of here. There's something he wants, something he can only get in Mainframe."
"Okay, and now for Final Jeopardy; what is this miraculous 'something'?"
Bob shook his head. "I really wish I knew."
* * * * *
"You'll never get away with this Megabreath!" Enzo yelled, struggling against his father's iron grip. Although it wasn't really his father any more. Welman Matrix slithered helplessly in a glass prison. With his robot body infected by Megabyte, he wasn't much more than a caged Null, unable to help his son.
"As I believe I've told you before, Boy: Never is a very long time." Megabyte said. "But you wouldn't remember that, would you? Quite remarkable really, but not entirely surprising. If I had to peg one sprite stupid enough to leave his Icon in Game Sprite mode during a restart, it would be Enzo Matrix."
"Oh yeah...well...If I had to pick one Virus basic enough to come back here after all the times Bob kicked his ASCII...it'd be you!" Enzo said.
"Such language." Megabyte laughed. "Whatever would Phong say?" He cast a glance to where Phong lay, rapidly fading as his energy drained away. "Apparently nothing."
Seeing Phong so close to deletion took the fight out of Enzo. He stopped struggling and hung his head.
"That's better." Megabyte said. "Now just be a good little Sprite and you *may* live to see another second."
* * * * *
Mouse had been typing in codes for what felt like milliseconds. AndrAIa sat with her back propped against the wall, growing more and more anxious. Every combination Mouse typed rewarded her with a very negative *BEEP*.
"Crash it all!" She finally yelled. "Ah'm completely locked out!"
"There's got to be something you can do, Mouse." AndrAIa said. "We have to help Phong."
"Ah know sugah, but Ah'm out of options. Megabyte must have gotten some kind of new encryption powers in the Web. Ah can't crack his codes."
"What if we just bust up the console?"
"Ah don't think the Matrix Approach is gonna work here, honey." Mouse said.
"Sorry." Mouse said. "Didn't mean to cut on your boyfriend."
"You didn't hit your head, did ya?" Mouse asked. "Matrix. Ya know, big green guy, fake eye, rage issues..."
"That's it!" AndrAIa exclaimed. "Matrix!"
"Are you okay?"
"I think I've found our way in, Mouse!"
"Destroying the control panel won't work. But what if we just destroyed the door?" AndrAIa asked.
"Well yeah. That'd definitely get us in" Mouse said. "But Ah can't bust down a blast door and Ah don't think you can either."
AndrAIa smiled. "Nope. So we just bring someone who can."
"Ah don't follow."
"I'll explain it in a nano." AndrAIa said. "For now, just cover your ears."
When Mouse had covered her ears as tightly as possible, she nodded for AndrAIa to go ahead. AndrAIa took a deep breath and screamed. It wasn't like any scream Mouse had ever heard though. If the pitch had been slightly higher, Mouse wouldn't have heard it at all. As things were, the strange, almost subsonic scream reverberated through the hallway and bounced around inside her skull. Mouse fought the urge to let out a scream of her own; it felt like her eardrums were about to collapse.
It was all over in a few nanos. Mouse tentatively let go of her ears, hoping that the ringing in them wasn't evidence of permanent damage.
"What in the Net was that?"
AndrAIa smiled. "It's how you talk under water." She said. "It's a lot louder on land though. Matrix heard it."
"Of course Matrix heard it." Mouse said. "Ah think people in *other systems* heard it!"
AndrAIa smiled again. "But Matrix is the only one who knows what it means. He'll be along any nano."
* * * * *
Dot was trying to come up with a strategy when a horrible, piercing scream echoed through the Principal Office. She cried out and slapped her hands to her ears. She was dimly aware of Hack and Slash doing the same. The sound dispersed soon after and silence settled over the corridor once again.
"What in the Net...?" She wondered aloud.
"Oh that sounded bad!"
"Yeah really bad!"
"Like someone was getting deleted!"
"Yeah or worse!"
"What's worse than being deleted?"
"I dunno. But whatever it is, I'm sure He knows how to do it."
"Of course I'm right."
"Boys, shut up for a nano." Dot said. "I need to think."
"I still don't know what's worse than being deleted." Hack muttered.
"Hey, she said shut up." Slash punctuated his reprimand with a quick slap to the back of Hack's head.
"I was shutting up, I'm just saying."
"You're not shutting up, you're still talking!"
"Hey, you're talking too!"
"I'm only talking to make you shut up!"
"BOYS!" Dot yelled.
Hack and Slash shut up with a last, "Sorry Dot", in unison.
* * * * *
"Well...that was different." Megabyte said. Enzo barely heard it, however. With his arms pinned, he had been unable to give his ears even the marginal protection of covering them with his hands. Above him, the glass dome on top of the robot had shattered, releasing his father.
"Dad!" He yelled. "Get away! Go get Bob!"
Welman slithered to the floor and made for the air ducts. One of Megabyte's viral Binomes caught him halfway there, but dropped him immediately when Welman's Null body began to drain his energy. Welman wasted no time getting away. In a nano, he had disappeared into the Principal Office's massive ventilation system.
* * * * *
Bob and Matrix uncovered their ears. Bob looked confused, but Matrix grinned.
"What is it?" Bob asked.
Bob frowned and placed a comforting hand on Matrix's shoulder. "I'm so sorry Matrix."
"Sorry?" Matrix asked. "What do you mean?"
"Well...that scream." Bob said. "I mean...User, it sounded like they were torturing her."
"No." Matrix said with a laugh. "She's fine."
"Didn't sound fine to me."
"Trust me." Matrix said. "It would take too long to explain. Long story short: She loves me."
"Okay..." Bob said.
"And she's somewhere in this direction." He pointed down a side corridor. "Come on!"
* * * * *
"You're kiddin' right?" Mouse asked.
"No." AndrAIa shook her head. "It really does mean 'I love you'."
"Interestin' way to show that ya care."
"Back when we were in the Games, he asked me how to say that in my language." AndrAIa said, smiling. "It was so sweet, I couldn't say no. The poor guy's head nearly exploded. And of course he could never actually say it back like he wanted to, but I can guarantee that he'll *never* forget what that sound means."
Mouse had trouble imagining Matrix as 'sweet'. She had to remind herself that the renegade *had* been Enzo once. "Great. Now we just need a plan for when we get in there."
"We need to get Phong to a doctor." AndrAIa said. "Beyond that...I don't know."
"AndrAIa!" She turned to see Matrix and Bob running toward them.
"Matrix!" She ran to meet her lover and embraced him tightly. "Thank the User!"
Matrix smiled. "Well when I got your message I just had to come."
"Megabyte's in there." Mouse said, interrupting the reunion. "He's got Enzo. And...Phong's hurt."
"What?" Bob said. "How bad."
Mouse looked away. "Ah...Ah think he may be deletin'."
"What are we waiting for then?" Matrix went for his gun.
"Hold on." Bob put a hand on his arm, angling the gun away from the door.
"What?" Matrix asked. "There's four of us and only one of him. We can end this right now! Don't tell me you *still* think he can change."
"That's not it." Bob said. "But he has Enzo in there. And if we go barging in, there's no telling what he might do."
"And while we wait out here, Phong is deleting in there!"
"I know, Matrix. But we..."
"No!" Matrix yelled. "No more! I'm through planning! Megabyte's gonna get what he deserves, RIGHT NOW!" Without another word he pushed Bob away, lifted Gun, and turned the blast door into scrap metal. He stepped through the door before the smoke cleared. While Bob, AndrAIa, and Mouse rushed to where Phong lay, Matrix turned his attention on the grinning Virus in the center of the room.
"Gun: Target. High-Ex." A red target appeared on Megabyte. "Let Enzo and Phong go!" He ordered. "We have some unfinished business."
"Unfortunately, I've no interest in arm wrestling you again, boy." Megabyte said. Matrix was aware that viral Binomes had them surrounded on all sides. Of course, once he deleted Megabyte they would all return to normal.
"Don't worry." Matrix growled. "You won't get close enough for that."
"Before you pull that trigger, I think there's something you'll want to see." Megabyte gestured behind him, where the headless body of his father's robotic suit held a struggling Enzo. "Make any move against me and that robot will squeeze your 'little brother' until his head pops off." Even after this news, Matrix kept Gun trained on Megabyte for several nanoseconds. "What will it be?" Megabyte taunted him. "You'll never have a cleaner shot."
The gun wavered, then dropped.
"And that's why I'll always win." Megabyte said. "You'll never be ruthless enough to defeat me."
"At least I'll never become you." Matrix said as the Binome guards took him into custody.
* * * * *
"What are we gonna do, Dot?" Hack asked.
"I don't know."
"How are we gonna get out of here?" Slash added.
"I don't know!"
"I DON'T KNOW!" Dot screamed. "I'm sorry." She said quietly. "I don't know what to do." It was true. She had no idea what to do. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Dot Matrix didn't have a plan. Everything had gone wrong so suddenly; she was still just trying to keep up. For Dot, not being in control of a situation was an unnatural and uncomfortable state of affairs.
--Attention!-- Megabyte's voice rang through the halls. --This message is intended for the Command.com. Dot Matrix, I have your friends at gunpoint. If you ever want to see them again, you will report back to the war room immediately. For every five microseconds that you continue to hide, one of your friends will be deleted; starting with your dear brothers.-- There was a pause before Megabyte came back on to clarify himself. --They count as one.--
* * * * *
* * * * *