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Gotcha!


By: Meghan


Author’s Note: Roeboot once said that accents are very hard to write.  She ain’t kidding. The time scale isn’t exactly a picnic to figure out, either.  I have a cycle set as a day, but the characters also say day or night instead of cycle; but since they do that on the show anyway, I figured it was okay.  :) I would rate this somewhere between G and PG for some mild swearing and brief innuendo.  Enjoy!

Time Scale
Nanosecond: one second
Microsecond: one minute
Millisecond: one hour
Cycle: one day
Week: um, one week (Sorry, I couldn’t think of a better word)
Minute: one month
Hour: one year

Part One: Motivation

“I’m sitting here as fast as I can!”  - David Letterman

 “I am so bored.”  Matrix, sitting sideways on the bench, leaned his head back against the diner window.  “Where’s a game cube when you need one?”

 “Oh, quit complaining.”  Bob had his head resting on the back of the opposite bench, staring up at the ceiling.  “At least things are back to normal.”

 “If you can call it that.”  Matrix looked over to where Enzo was lying on the bar, much to Cecil’s dismay.  In the minutes since Mainframe had restarted, Matrix had grown to accept his young counterpart.  One might even say that he had gotten fond of him, though not many would say that within the cadet’s range of hearing.  While it was true that at first the little Sprite had served only to remind Matrix of how weak he had thought himself to be, he had lately been thinking of him as a little brother, and as a result had become pretty protective of him.  The younger Enzo, for his part, just liked having someone else around to roughhouse with.  Right now, though, the normally hyper Sprite looked about as enthused as the other two men felt.  All three let out a simultaneous sigh.

 “What do you want to do?”  Bob asked.

 “I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”

 Enzo waved away an increasingly agitated Cecil.  “Please get down,”  the server pleaded.  “Zis looks terrible to zee customers!”

 “What’s the matter, Cecil?  He’s ‘waiting at the bar’, isn’t he?”  Bob had always enjoyed teasing Cecil.  Unfortunately, even that wasn’t enough to kill the current air of boredom.  Cecil, instead of responding, fixed the Guardian with an icy stare.  Just you wait, he thought.  Some cycle his opportunity would come, and then he’d shut that know-it-all Guardian up but good.  Comforted by this thought, he resumed his pestering of the young Sprite.

 Enzo simply ignored him.  “Man, this is basic.  There’s gotta be some way to have fun around here.”

 “Jetbowling?”  Bob suggested half-heartedly.

 “Nah,”  the two Enzos replied in unison.

 “Vectorball?”

 “Uh-uh.”

 Bob gazed absentmindedly toward the back of the diner.  “Didn’t Dot say she needed someone to clean out the basement of this place?”

 Matrix raised his eyebrows.  “You’re kidding, right?”  The younger Enzo just stared in amazement.

 “Hey, at least I’m trying.  I don’t hear you two coming up with any ideas.  Where are the girls, anyway?”

 Matrix shrugged.  “AndrAIa said something about getting Dot away from her work for a while.  They’re probably having a lot more fun than we are.”  Just then the sound of female laughter floated in from outside.  Matrix looked out the window; Dot, AndrAIa, and Mouse were headed for the diner.  “Right on cue,”  he murmured.  Nanoseconds later, the doors banged open as Dot strode in, followed closely by Mouse and AndrAIa, the sources of the laughter.

 “That is the last time I play vectorball with you two,”  Dot said in mock anger, leaning back against the bar.

 “Oh, come off it, Dot.  You were havin’ fun and you know it,”  retorted Mouse.

 “Yeah, I was having fun -- until you two ganged up on me!”

 “Dot, you were kicking our bitmaps.  We had to beat you somehow!”  AndrAIa said, trying in vain to plead their case.

 “It was supposed to be every man for himself!”

 Mouse leaned against the bar next to her friend.  “Sugah, Ah’m gonna let you in on a little secret.”  After a brief dramatic pause, she said: “we ain’t men,”  causing the other women to burst out laughing.

 “Thank the User for that, huh?”  said AndrAIa between giggles.  “Hi, guys!”  she called out cheerfully, finally taking notice of them.

 “Hi,”  the trio said rather monotonously, not even bothering to look up.

 The women exchanged glances.  “My, my, aren’t we energetic,”  Dot observed.  “Enzo, get off the bar.”  Enzo heaved an overly dramatic sigh and slid to the floor.  Cecil, seeing his precious bar was now free of obstruction, moved in with the Windex.  AndrAIa and Dot slid into the booth next to their respective significant others, while Mouse elected to sit on the table itself, resting her feet on the bench next to AndrAIa.

 “So what’s with you guys?”  AndrAIa asked.

 “Nothing ever happens around here,”  whined Enzo from the floor.  “Anymore, I mean,”  he added as the group cast incredulous looks at him.

 “The kid’s got a point,”  said Matrix.  “I hate to say it, but ever since we got rid of Daemon, it’s like nothing is exciting anymore.  Even games have gotten boring.”

 “I wouldn’t go that far,”  said Bob with a smile.  “But I know what you mean.  After all we went through, we can’t just pick up where we left off.  Normal life is bound to be a bit dull.”

 “So y’all want to shake things up, do ya?”  Mouse said.  “Ah think Ah know a way.”

 The others looked at each other, then back at Mouse.  “You want to explain that?”  Dot asked.

 Mouse smiled down at her friends.  “Y’all want to restore some excitement to this system, right?  Sounds like what we need is a good old-fashioned Gotcha game.”

 “A what game?”  Enzo had risen from the floor and joined the others in the booth.

 “Gotcha.  Bob, Ah know you’ve heard of it.  They used to set up a game for all incoming cadets at the Academy.”

 Bob struggled to remember.  “You mean Assassins?”

 “That’s another name for it, yeah.”

 “This doesn’t sound like a very good game,”  Dot said.

 “It’s harmless, sugah.  Just causes a little widespread paranoia.”

 “How do you play?”  Matrix looked intrigued.

 “It’s simple.  Everyone draws a name.  Whoever ya draw is who ya have to kill -- using a water pistol.  It’s completely anonymous -- your victim doesn’t know who’s after them until it’s too late.”  She looked around.  Her friends were hanging on her every word.  Mouse smirked, clearly loving the attention, and continued.  “There are a few safety zones set up, but otherwise you’re vulnerable wherever ya go.  The game goes on day cycle and night cycle.  Last man standin’ wins.”

There was silence in the diner as she finished her explanation.  Half a microsecond went by -- then Enzo broke the silence. “Dude,”  he exclaimed.  “We have to do that.”
 “Don’t we need more people?”  asked Bob.

 “Ah’m sure we can scare up some more.  Ray’ll be back any cycle now, and Ah know he’ll want in on it.”  The surfer had been in a neighboring system for the past week, keeping its Net trade going by stabilizing tears while the Command.com replaced portal generators destroyed during the war with Daemon.

 “Hack and Slash will probably want to play,”  said Dot.

 “Oh, not those two,”  grumbled Matrix.

 “It’ll make them feel good to be included,”  Dot said diplomatically.  “Besides, whoever they draw is pretty much guaranteed to win.  They couldn’t hunt someone down if their lives depended on it.”

 A few other names were mentioned -- Phong, Mr. Pearson (“Yeah, right!”  Enzo had scoffed) -- then AndrAIa said, “Hey, what about Hexadecimal?”

 “I don’t think she’d be into this kind of thing,”  Dot said.

 “Are you kidding?  It’s completely random.  She’ll love it!”  Bob exclaimed.  “Plus, it’ll make everyone really nervous,”  he added with a mischievous laugh.

 “Yeah, being hunted by an anonymous assailant isn’t nerve-wracking enough,”  Dot returned with a grin.

 “So we’re all in agreement, then?  We’re gonna do this?”  Mouse asked.

Everyone nodded.  Mouse smirked.  “Perfect.  Get the word out, and tell everyone interested to meet here in two cycles at 1200 to draw names.”

 “Hey, Cecil,”  Bob called out to the server, looking to get a rise out of him.  “Wanna play?”

 Cecil froze with his back to the group momentarily.  Then he glided swiftly over to the booth, looked the Guardian right in the face, and said, “Waste my time playing a zilly children’s game zimply because I cannot find an intelligent way to entertain myself? I don’t zink zo!”  With that, he abruptly turned and sped away, leaving a very shocked Bob gaping after him and the rest of the booth’s occupants nearly dying of laughter.

Part Two: Select Your Targets

“If you can’t get killed, it’s not a sport; it’s a hobby.”  - Beth Moreau

 The mood in the diner was one of excitement -- very nervous excitement.  Twelve brave souls had agreed to enter into this madness, and practically all of Mainframe had shown up to see the hunt officially begin.  Dot was on one end of the room, proclaiming to anyone who would listen that she was really bad at this sort of thing, and could whoever drew her name please go easy on her?  Matrix was sitting in a nearby booth with an expression that could only be described as arrogant.  He was going to kick some serious ASCII, and anyone who doubted it would soon learn otherwise.  He was reveling in these thoughts when he noticed AndrAIa staring at him.  “What?”  he asked.

 The girl rolled her eyes.  “I know what you’re thinking.”

 “And?”

 AndrAIa leaned her forehead against his.  “You’re going down,”  she said with a self-confident grin.

 Bob was pacing the length of the diner, trying to work out some sort of strategy.  The key to this game was to stay on your toes; you had to suspect everyone.  He’d learned that the hard way during the Academy game, and he’d be damned if he was going to be the first one out again.  Enzo was trying his best to explain to Hack and Slash the finer points of operating a Super Soaker.  The pair had a few issues about pulling the trigger; after all, a trigger is a lot like a button, and every time they push a button, something bad happens.  Mike the TV was bounding around the room, doing what he did best: annoying everyone within earshot.

 Once she was sure no one else was coming, Mouse climbed up on a table.  “All right, everybody, listen up!”  she shouted.  When that didn’t work, she put two fingers in her mouth and let out a loud, shrill whistle -- something Matrix and AndrAIa, sitting right next to her, didn’t exactly appreciate.  “Here’s how this is gonna work,”  the hacker said to her now-attentive audience.  “Everyone’s gonna draw a name.  After that, you’ll have one millisecond to scatter.  The Principle Office, the diner, and your own homes are safety zones.  No one can get ya in there, but ya can’t stay in them all the time, either.  If your assassin shoots ya, you’re out of the game.  If you shoot your assassin in self-defense, they’re out for one millisecond.  Cecil will keep track of who’s in and who’s out.  Everyone clear on the rules?”  They all nodded.  “Good.  OK, everyone who’s playing write your name down and put it in here.”  She held up an empty cup.  After she had everyone’s name, she went up to the players one by one, holding the cup above eye level so they couldn’t see who they were choosing.  “Everybody got one?”  Mouse then pulled the last name out of the cup.  She unfolded the scrap of napkin it had been written on and read the name with an almost irrepressible joy.  Perfect.  This couldn’t have worked out better if she had planned it.

 Bob unfolded the paper slowly, almost afraid to look at what was written there.  When he saw what was, he almost fainted.  This was either going to be incredibly easy. . .or incredibly hard.

 Dot groaned when she read the name she had drawn.  How was she supposed to get him?  she wondered.  This was going to be even harder than she thought.

 “Oh, NO!”  Everyone looked over at AndrAIa’s sudden outburst.  She blushed slightly, then turned back to the paper in her hand, staring at it in disbelief.  There’s just no way. . .she thought.  How in the Net was she going to do this?

 Enzo read the name -- and his jaw practically hit the floor. That’s just creepy, he thought.  This is gonna be hard.

 Hack and Slash looked at the papers they had drawn, looked at each other, looked back at the names, looked back at each other. . .

 Matrix looked at the name he’d selected and laughed to himself.  Oh, yeah, he thought.  I’m gonna enjoy this.

 Phong silently contemplated the name he had drawn.  The old Sprite still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d agreed to play this game, but at least, he thought, I should be able to outwit this person.  He has a tendency to be impulsive, after all; that could be used against him.

 Hexadecimal unfolded the paper and read the name, a devilish smile slowly spreading over her face.  She had been delighted when Bob had told her of the game, and this particular Sprite was an excellent target.

 Ray read the name he had drawn and almost burst out laughing. Well, he said to himself, this should be interesting.

 “All right, people,”  Mouse was speaking again.  “Tell Cecil who ya have, and then get going.  The hunt begins at 1330.  Good luck.”  With that, she turned and walked purposefully out of the diner.  The others soon followed, giving each other uncomfortable farewells.  Who among these twelve could they still trust -- and who must they avoid at all costs?
 

 

Part Three: Cat and Mouse

“This is worse than the time I got jumped by those field mice.” - Mystery Science Theater 3000

Cycles passed.  Nothing.  No one had been taken out; no one had even been attacked yet; but everyone was getting very, very nervous.  Bob was feeling especially vulnerable: everybody else, it seemed, had an excuse to hole up in one of the safety zones, but he, as the system’s Guardian, was always having to zip all over Mainframe to make it into the games.  True, Matrix and AndrAIa offered, sometimes even insisted on joining him, but Bob was too apprehensive to accept.  How did he know they weren’t just going to wait until his back was turned, and then. . .Bob shook his head.  This must be that widespread paranoia Mouse had been talking about.  At least this game cube, he thought as he jogged across the street, had the decency to come late in the evening -- and land near the 8-ball complex.  Not only were there fewer people around, but he wouldn’t have to go far to get to safety once the game left -- just in case anyone might be waiting for him.

 The game was a home run derby -- easy enough, but time consuming.  It was dark when the game finally left Mainframe.  Bob glanced around, a little uneasily, and started to head back to his apartment building.  As he walked, he thought about his own target.  He hadn’t had as many chances as he’d first anticipated.  Plus, something about this particular individual made it a little, well, difficult to just hunt her down like a wild animal.  He’d have to get over this hesitation, he knew, if he wanted to stay alive in the game.  Instinctively Bob looked over his shoulder.  Nothing.  Of course there’s nobody there.  What did you expect?  Every decent person is at home asleep.  Somehow he hadn’t expected the streets to be this deserted.  Almost without realizing it, he began to walk faster, mentally kicking himself for leaving his water gun at home.  “Of all the basic. . .”  he said to himself.  “ ‘I don’t need it, it’ll only get in my way during the game.’  Good thinking, Bob.  Now you’re a sitting duck.”  He turned onto his street and let out a small sigh of relief.  Almost there.  Then he stopped dead.  Something was following him.  He whirled around, every muscle tensed for action -- and found himself peering into the empty darkness.  Bewildered, he looked around.  He could have sworn he heard something.  Get a hold of yourself, he thought.  Letting a stupid game get you all bent out of shape.  No one’s back there, you’re imagining things.  He started walking again, fast, with purpose -- and stopped again.  This time, the footsteps continued for a few steps before lapsing into silence.  Bob’s eyes widened in fear.  There was no way he had imagined that.  Someone was following him; or, more correctly, stalking him.  Bob stood frozen to the spot, in full view of his apartment building, afraid to move, afraid to turn around.  Suddenly, the owner of the footsteps grew tired of waiting and began to move again.  Bob stood paralyzed in fear for a few nanoseconds before making a mad dash for the 8-ball complex.  The footsteps also picked up speed, getting louder with each stride.  His assassin was gaining on him.  If I can just make it to the door, just get inside. . .  The Guardian stopped short as an idea occurred to him.  Why hadn’t he thought of this before?  It was so obvious.  He raised his right arm and, in a brilliant flash of light, created a portal to the inside of his apartment, then disappeared into it.

 Bob stumbled out of the portal and collapsed on his couch.  I really am basic, he thought.  Forgetting all about using a portal.  How low-density can you get?  He took in a deep breath, then exhaled, grateful to have gotten away.  That was a close one.  Whoever was tracking him was good -- very good.  This was going to be tough.  Bob picked himself up off the couch and plodded off to bed, exhausted from his little stint as someone’s prey.

 Out on the street, a lone figure looked up at the top-floor apartment’s window.  “Almost had you, didn’t I?”  the hunter said into the darkness before shouldering a Super Soaker and walking off into the night.

***

 “So nothing’s happened to you yet?”  AndrAIa asked.

 “No.  How about you?”

 Matrix and AndrAIa looked at each other, then AndrAIa said, “Yeah, someone was camped out outside our building last night.”

 Dot stared at them.  “Really?  All night?”  As the pair nodded, Dot shook her head in wonderment.  “Geez.  Do you know who it was?”

 “No.  All we could see from the window was a shadow.  They were just waiting by the door for us -- well, one of us,”  Matrix answered.

 “Then how’d you get out of the place this morning?  Had they left?”  Ray asked.  AndrAIa started to reply, but Matrix put a hand on her arm.  “Nice try, Surfer. We aren’t giving away any of our secrets, if you don’t mind.”

 Ray looked surprised.  “You say that  like you suspect me.”

 Matrix nodded.  “Yeah, but don’t take it personally.  I suspect everybody.”

 Ray nodded approvingly.  Just then, the doors flew open, and a rather agitated Bob skidded inside.  The other Sprites stared at him questioningly.  Bob, not noticing their expressions, sat down in the booth with them, breathing heavily.  A few microseconds passed before he realized that no one was speaking; they were all just watching him.  “What?”

 The others exchanged amused glances.  Dot spoke up:  “Um, Bob -- are you okay?”

 “Me?  Oh, yeah, I’m great.  As good as can be expected when you’re being tailed nonstop by some lunatic with a Super Soaker!”

 “Don’t tell me you’re out of the game already?!”  Matrix said.

 “No, I’m still in.  But the way my assassin is operating, he’s either going to get me out or delete me trying.  I would have used a portal to get here, but I didn’t want to waste the energy.  I want to save it for when I really need it.”  This comment was met with more silence from the group.  Again, Dot stepped in:  “Uh, Bob. . .honey. . .I think you might be taking this a little too seriously.”

 “Oh, am I?”  With that, he proceeded to tell them all what had happened the night before.  When he finished, the Sprites were once again silent.

 “Wow,”  said AndrAIa.  “Whoever that is really knows what they’re doing.”

 “Tell me about it.  And they’re driving me crazy in the process.  I know I’m acting really paranoid, but wouldn’t you if you were chased into your apartment in the dead of night?”

 “Well, at any rate, you’re safe in here,”  said Dot, putting an arm around him.  As she finished speaking, the doors to the diner banged opened as Captain Capacitor entered, causing an already fidgety Bob to nearly jump out of his skin.  Dot rolled her eyes at him, then rose to greet her friend and business partner.  “Captain!  I thought you were shipping out today.”

 “That was and still is the plan, lass.  But I’ve been asked to deliver a message to the Guardian.”

 All eyes turned to Bob.  “What is it?”  he asked.  Instead of answering, Capacitor hobbled to the table and gestured to AndrAIa’s half-finished energy shake.  “May I, Miss?”

 “Of course.”  AndrAIa slid the cup toward him.  The captain moved the straw up and down a few times; then he sucked up a strawful of liquid, pulled the straw out of the cup, and spit its contents directly into Bob’s face.  He then returned the shake to its rightful owner, took out a small piece of paper, and handed it to the speechless Guardian.  Capacitor turned to Dot, who was still trying to decide what to make of all this.  “I shall see you when we return with next minute’s shipment, my lady.  Until then.”  And with that, he bowed to the still-stunned company and departed.

 The Sprites turned their confused gazes to Bob.  He wiped his face and looked at the note he had been handed.

There’s more where that came from.
Signed, Your Assassin.

He tossed the note onto the table.  “See what I mean?  This guy’s out for blood!”  At that moment a disturbing thought hit him.  “All right.  Which one of you is behind this?”  he asked menacingly.  The others didn’t answer; they just avoided eye contact.  AndrAIa studied the note.  “Wait - whose handwriting is this?”

 Bob snatched the slip of paper from her, scrutinizing it.  Dot, looking over his shoulder, had the answer.  “It’s Gavin’s.”

 Bob turned to her, the expression of a doomed man on his face.  “Are you sure?”

 “Positive.  Your assassin had the captain write this note for them.”

 For the fifth time that morning, there was silence in the booth as the meaning of this sank in.  After several microseconds, Ray spoke.  “Bob, if I could be blunt,”  he began.

 “By all means.”

 “You’re screwed.”

***

 Dot hurried onto the porch, called out one last reminder to Enzo to behave himself, shut the door, and hopped into the waiting car -- which, by some unexplainable miracle, had decided to actually run.  She turned to the driver.  “I’m surprised you agreed to this.  You’ve been so jittery lately.”

 Bob shrugged.  “Yeah, well, you were right.  I need to do something to get my mind off it.  Besides,”  he added, jerking his thumb toward the backseat,  “I brought along some insurance.”

 Dot stared in disbelief, first at the Super Soaker sitting comfortably in back, then at Bob.  “You didn’t.”

 “Didn’t you?”

 Dot gestured to her form-fitting outfit of khakis and a black top.  “And where would you propose I keep it?”

  Bob raised an eyebrow at her.  “Well. . .”

 “Eyes on the road.”

 “Sorry.”  Bob reluctantly turned his attention back to driving.  “Aren’t you the least bit worried that your assassin might try something?”

 Dot rested her elbow on the edge of the door.  “Nope.”

 “Not at all?”  As she shook her head in reply, he asked, “Why not?”

 “A, it’s just a game,” she said, poking him in the side.  “And B, I’ve pretty much given up on my assassin.  I haven’t seen a trace of them since this whole thing began.  I’m starting to wonder if I even have one,”  she said with a smile.

 “Well, everybody’s got one,”  Bob said.

 “Well, then mine is really lousy at this.  I mean, the game’s been going on for over a week now -- nothing.  You’d think they’d have at least made an attempt by now.  Even I’ve tried to go after my target, and I am by no means good at this sort of thing.”

 Bob’s only response was a muted “Mm-hm.”  He was staring intently at the road ahead.  Dot looked at him with concern.  “Hey,”  she said, tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention.  “You all right?”

 “Uh, yeah.  Fine.  Just a little distracted, I guess.”  He let out a small cough.  “What movie are we seeing again?”

 “The new James Bond.”

 Bob glanced over at her with a smile.  “I can’t believe you like Bond films so much.  They don’t seem like your type of movies.”

 Dot shrugged.  “They’re fun.”

 Bob gave her a knowing smile.  “You want to be a Bond girl, don’t you?”

 Dot’s response was indignant.  “Of course not.”  She studied her nails for a moment before adding, with a self-confident air, “I want to be Bond.”

 Bob had to laugh at that.  Dot turned to him, feigning offense.  “And just what is so funny?”

 “It’s. . . just that I can easily picture you doing that.”

 She raised an eyebrow at him.  “Nice save.”

 “Thanks.”

 They rode in silence for a few microseconds; then Dot said, “No, wait; I changed my mind.  I don’t want to be Bond, I want to be the Bond girl he doesn’t get.”
 Bob nodded.  “Interesting.  I’m afraid those don’t exist, though.”

 “So I’ll be the first.  He can just want me really badly,” she remarked with a smirk.

 “Well, that’s a given,”  Bob said without thinking.  As Dot turned to him with a look of amusement and mild shock, he reddened slightly.  “Did I say that out loud?”

 “Mm-hmm.”  There was a brief awkward silence as Dot let his slightly embarrassing compliment sink in.  She laughed to herself; for all Bob’s show of self-assurance, he had an insecurity that was positively endearing.  She decided to bring the subject back from the tangent it had taken.  “We’re also seeing this movie because I think watching someone else get shot at for a while will take your mind off your own. . . predicament.”

 “Or remind me of it even more.”

 Dot rolled her eyes.  “You’re something else, you know that?”

 Bob nodded proudly.  “But that’s why you love me.”

 Dot laughed.  “Just keep telling yourself that,”  she replied with a grin.

 Bob narrowed his eyes at her, than reached over and lightly jabbed her in the side, just above her waist.  Dot jumped slightly and let out a squeal.  As the car glided smoothly up to a red light, Bob turned to her with raised eyebrows.  “Why, Dot; you wouldn’t be ticklish, would you?”

 Dot pressed herself against the passenger door and held up a hand in warning.  “Don’t you dare,”  she said, emphasizing each syllable.

 Bob’s expression was absolutely angelic.  “Don’t I dare what?”  he asked innocently.  “This?”  He poked her again, resulting in another yelp.  He moved in a third time, but this time Dot slapped his hand away.  Bob turned to her with an “Oh-no-you-didn’t” look on his face.  “Oh, now you’re in for it.”  Dot curled herself into a defensive ball in the passenger seat; she was prepared to fend off the attack when she noticed her saving grace:  “The light’s green,” she said.

 “Huh?”  Bob looked up at the traffic light.  He slapped his hand against the steering wheel in frustration, then started to drive.  Dot leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes, relieved.  Bob, however, wasn’t ready to let this fight go just yet.  He silently walked his fingers along the back edge of the seat.  His hand had just touched her shoulder when Dot, without opening her eyes, said, “Take it off or I break it off.”  Bob quickly returned his hand to the steering wheel.  Dot smirked at him.  “You just behave yourself.”  Bob lowered his head.  “Yes, ma’am,”  he said meekly.  He ventured a glance at her and found her grinning at him.  He carefully reached over and wrapped an arm around her shoulders -- and this time, she let him keep it there.

***

 Dot’s right, Bob mused to himself as he watched the onscreen action.  This is a fun movie.  Of course, after twenty microseconds of previews, it ought to be.  At the moment, though, the Guardian had more important matters to attend to.  He rose from his seat and began to make his way to the aisle.  Dot gave him a passing glance as he squeezed past her.  “Where are you going?” she whispered.

 “Bathroom,”  he whispered back.  “Let me know what I miss.”

 “Okay.  Wait -- do you have to take that with you?”  she said, gesturing to the water gun dangling from his belt.  As he nodded, she said, “What, do you think someone’s waiting for you in the men’s room?”  Bob shrugged in reply, then proceeded out of the theater.  Dot turned her attention back to the movie, but not before laughing a bit to herself.  “Unbelievable,”  she muttered.

 Bob pushed open the bathroom door and entered, turning his nose up a bit at the smell.  He looked around, then peeked under each of the stall doors, looking for feet.  No one.  Perfect; he was alone.  He walked over to a mirror and laid his hands on the edge of the sink.  “Okay, “  he said to his reflection,  “enough stalling.  You’re going to do this tonight; you’ve wussed out of it for long enough.  After the movie, just hold the door open for her, and then bam --”  he shot a sidelong glance at the Super Soaker laying on the counter --”one quick shot in the back and it’s over.  She’s out of the game, and you can concentrate on staying in it.”

 Bob was so engrossed in his little pep talk that he didn’t notice a pair of bronze-colored combat boots appear below the stall door behind him.  “She’s not going to be mad; like she said, it’s just a game.”  He looked down at his hands.  “But can I really shoot her when she’s unarmed?”

 “In a few nanoseconds, sugah, you won’t have to worry about it.”

 Bob jerked his head up to see Mouse’s reflection behind his own.  “Mouse?!  What in the Net are you --”  he broke off as he noticed a water gun aimed straight at the back of his head.  Mouse’s hand was on the trigger.  “You?!”

 Mouse smiled smugly.  “Me.  Some of my best mercenary work, too.  You proud?”

 Bob let out a small laugh.  “Very.”  He cast a sidelong glance at his own water gun.  Behind him, Mouse pumped the handle and prepared to fire.  Bob had one chance; he drew in a breath and made a lunge for his Super Soaker.  Unfortunately, Mouse was ready for this.  In one swift motion she knocked the gun to the floor, grabbed his hand and spun him around so he was facing her.  She pressed his back up against the edge of the sink and pointed the nozzle of her Super Soaker right between his eyes.  Bob gulped and braced himself for the shot.  Mouse chuckled arrogantly.  “Ah’m afraid Ah don’t share your view on shooting an enemy in cold blood.”  She winked at the helpless Guardian and pulled the trigger.

 Bob spluttered as an icy stream of water hit him directly in the face.  Mouse released her grip and stepped back.  “Gotcha,”  she said sweetly.

 “No kidding,”  Bob replied.  “Thanks,”  he added as the hacker handed him a towel.  She hopped up on the edge of the sink.  “So how’s your date going?”

 “Well, it was going just fine,”  Bob replied with a half-smile.  “I don’t believe this.  I was so determined not to be the first one out, and. . .well, I’m soaked.”

 “Yeah, Ah gotcha pretty good, didn’t Ah?”

 “How long have you been in here?”

 “About half a millisecond.”

 Bob’s mouth fell open.  “You’ve been standing on a toilet in a movie theater men’s room for half a millisecond?”

 “Yup.  Ah was startin’ to wonder what was taking you so long.”  Mouse stood up.  “Well, Ah suppose Ah should let you get back to your date.  Now remember the rules -- no tellin’ any other players you’re out.  We don’t want anyone narrowing down the suspects.”

 “I won’t.”  Bob sighed.  “I’m not looking forward to telling Cecil I’m out, though.  He’s going to have a field day with this.”

  Mouse strolled out of the bathroom, ignoring the stares she got from other moviegoers.  Bob picked his Super Soaker up off the floor, stared at it silently for a moment, and emptied its contents into the sink.

 Dot barely looked at him as he returned to his seat.  “They were chasing him on snowmobiles, but he got away,”  she whispered.  “What took you so long?”

 “Um. . .there was a line.”

 “A line in the men’s room?  That’s a new one.”

 “Yeah, tonight’s just full of surprises.”  He settled back into his seat.  Dot leaned her head against his shoulder -- and quickly lifted it back up.  “Why are you all wet?”

Part Four: Just When You Thought It Was Safe

 “Guys.  They’re only young once, but they can act juvenile forever.”  - Black Arachnia, Beast Wars

 Matrix flipped through the TV channels with increasing frustration.  “There’s nothing on,”  he whined.

 AndrAIa looked with amusement at how fast he was changing channels.  “How can you tell?”

 “I can see.”

 “What is it with guys and going through the channels so fast?  Oh, wait, go back. . . no.  Never mind.  I’ve seen this episode.”

 Matrix dropped the remote in defeat.  “That’s it - we’re out of channels.  We’ll have to watch SNL reruns.”  He sighed.  “Dot really needs to get some premium channels.”  He normally didn’t mind housesitting for his sister when she was out late, but Little Enzo was in bed, and Matrix was dying for some decent entertainment.  The fact that Bob and Dot got to see the new James Bond movie while he was stuck with basic cable wasn’t exactly comforting.

 “It’s after 2200; the only thing on premium channels now is either really violent or pornographic.”  AndrAIa flopped down on the couch next to him.  “Face it, Sparky -- TV sucks.”

 “True.”  Matrix glanced over his shoulder at the wall clock.  “They should be back soon, don’t you think?”

 “Probably.  What’s the matter?”  she continued teasingly.  “Getting tired of babysitting?”

 “Nah.  But, I wouldn’t mind having some real privacy,”  he answered, putting his arm around her.

 AndrAIa rested her head on his shoulder.  After a moment of silence, she said,  “You know, Enzo, I’m really proud of you.”

 “What for?”

 “You’ve been getting along with Little Enzo so well.  You two got off to such a rocky start, and now. . .”  She smirked at him.  “It’s almost like he’s family.”

 Matrix nodded.  “Yeah, well -- he’s a pretty good kid.”

 “Yes, he is.”

 Matrix gave her a teasing smile.  “You do know he has a crush on you.”

 AndrAIa looked up at him.  “Well, he’s you, isn’t he?  Frankly, I’d be a little hurt if he didn’t.”

 “Just don’t encourage him,”  he replied with a smile.

 AndrAIa giggled.  “Why?  Afraid he’ll take your place?”

 Matrix was about to reply with a comeback of his own when a pajama-clad Enzo entered the room.  He stood next to the television and regarded the pair silently, his hands behind his back.  Matrix and AndrAIa exchanged a glance.  “Yes?”  Matrix asked.

 Enzo took in a deep breath.  “OK; first promise you won’t get mad.”

 Matrix raised his eyebrows.  “What’d you do?”

 “Well, I haven’t done it yet; I just want to make sure you won’t get mad.”

 “If you think it’ll make me mad, then don’t do it.”

 Enzo huffed in frustration.  “It’s not that simple.  I kind of have to do it.  And I really want to do it, too.  I’m sort of looking forward to it.  I just don’t want you to get mad when I do.”

 Matrix frowned.  “You lost me, kid.”

 AndrAIa stepped in.  “What is it you have to do?”

 “I can’t tell you ‘cause that’ll ruin it.  I just have to do it, but I don’t want you -- “  he turned to Matrix “-- to get mad when I do.”

 AndrAIa turned his words over in her mind.  “OK, now I’m confused.”

 Matrix was getting annoyed.  “Enzo --”  he began.

 The boy cut him off.  “All right!  Just don’t be mad.”  He brought his hands out from behind his back: one hand held a fully loaded Super Soaker.  Before either of the older Sprites could react, Enzo fired a jet of water directly at Matrix, hitting him right in the chest -- and thoroughly splattering AndrAIa in the process.  Enzo looked first at AndrAIa, then at Matrix; he let out a breath.  “Good night,”  he said simply, turned, and walked out of the room.  A few nanoseconds later, he called out an apology to AndrAIa from upstairs.

 “That’s okay,”  the girl responded.  Matrix turned to her, looking absolutely baffled.  “What just happened?”

 AndrAIa swallowed a laugh.  “I think you’re out of the game.”

 “I can’t be out!  I was barely in!”  He stopped.  “Wait a nano -- that means that Enzo was. . . my assassin?!  And he got me out?  Just like that?  He just waltzes in here and shoots me in his own living room -- in his pajamas -- and then goes back to bed like nothing happened?!”  Matrix paused in mid-rant; AndrAIa’s hand was clamped over her mouth, and she had turned an interesting shade of red.  He glared at her.  “Oh, go ahead.”

The girl dissolved into uncontrollable laughter.  “You should have seen the look on your face!  That was priceless!”  she managed to say.

Matrix did his best to resist, but her laughing was contagious.  He shook his head.  “Unbelievable,”  he muttered, drying himself off with a nearby blanket.  “Some warrior I turned out to be.  I survive the games, the Web, Megabyte, a system crash, and Daemon -- and get done in by a 11-hour-old kid with a water pistol.”  He looked at AndrAIa.  She stared back at him for a moment; then they both started laughing again.

Just then, the front door opened; “I’m home!”  Dot’s voice called out.  She entered the living room, Bob following.  “What’s so funny?”  she asked.

Matrix and AndrAIa shared a glance.  “Let’s just say it’s been an interesting night,”  AndrAIa offered as a reply.

Part Five: Partners in Crime

     “You know, evil has many forms; be it a man-eating cow or Joseph Stalin.” - Tick, The Tick

 So Little Enzo had felled the mighty Matrix.  Talk about an ego boost.  And it had been so easy!  The young Sprite had been expecting a difficult time, but it had been like falling off an analog.  Too bad I can’t tell anyone, Enzo thought in disappointment.  The rules of the game said that no one was supposed to tell when they were out, or that they had gotten someone out; otherwise, people who were still in could figure out who was after them.  Cecil had said that two people were now out of the game, though.  Enzo wondered who else had fallen victim.  He mentally ran through the list of players: Phong?  Probably not.  The old Sprite spent most of his time in the Principle Office, one of the safety zones.  Whoever had drawn him had their work cut out for them.  Ray?  Enzo frowned.  Maybe.  The Surfer had been in Mainframe long enough by now to know the territory, but he was pretty impulsive.  Someone could have caught him off guard.  Bob?  Enzo thought for a nano, then shook his head, surprised at himself for even considering it.  No way was Bob out already.  He’s a Guardian; he’s probably gonna win.  After all, winning is what he does.  It’s probably Dot, he told himself.  He hated to think that there was anything his big sister wasn’t good at, but somebody had to lose, and she had said herself she was bad at this sort of thing.  Then again, Matrix was an established warrior, and look how easily he had gone down.  Enzo sighed; he would just have to wait until the game was over.  Then, not only would he know who had who, but he would be able to say that Matrix had been one of the first ones out -- courtesy of little Enzo Matrix.

 “Enzo!”

 The young sprite blinked as a sharp voice snapped him back to reality.  School was not the best place to daydream -- too many interruptions.  “Uh, yes, Miss Brodie?”

 “I said, would you please read the first two paragraphs on page forty-two for us?”

 “Um -- yeah.  No problem.”  Enzo looked around at the other students’ desks, trying to see what book they were using.  His delay was just beginning to look suspicious when the afternoon bell rang.  “Yes!  Saved by the bell!”  he said under his breath.  He and the other students thronged out the doors and into the sunlight.

Enzo maximized his zipboard and was about to hop on when the sound of a gunning motor made the entire crowd stop dead.  As they watched in awe, a sleek purple motorcycle descended toward them:  AndrAIa’s bike.  This bike was the envy of every preadolescent male in Mainframe.  Her earlier prize, Megabyte’s motorcycle, had been deconstructed during Mainframe’s restart, along with Silicon Tor and every other trace of viral presence.  This new one had been a gift from Matrix; he had gotten it dirt cheap from a guy in a neighboring system who had won it in a raffle and wasn’t into motorcycles.  It was game-cube purple with chrome accents, had brand-new everything, and possessed a motor so loud that it could drown out Mike the TV (which is a talent in itself).  It was also AndrAIa’s pride and joy; there was an unwritten law in Mainframe stating that, no matter what, you did not touch the bike.  Ever.  So when AndrAIa glided to a very dramatic stop in front of the entire student body, removed her helmet, shook out her long aqua-colored hair and called out, “Hey, Enzo -- want a ride?”

The Sprite in question damn near wet his pants.  Forget taking out Matrix; this was something to gloat about.  AndrAIa was afraid of that bike getting breathed on wrong -- and she was inviting him to actually sit on it.  While it was moving.  He raised an eyebrow, making every attempt to be smooth, and said, “Sure.”

 AndrAIa smiled and tossed him a spare helmet.  (It came with the bike; needless to say, it had never been used before now.)  Enzo’s classmates watched in extreme jealousy as he strapped it on and got comfortable on the leather seat behind the Game Sprite.  He wrapped his arms around her waist (something else the young men in the crowd would have killed to do), and the pair sped off, leaving a very envious group of students in the dust.

***

 Enzo was in heaven.  No wonder AndrAIa loved this bike so much; the ride was fantastic.  He gazed around him, watching the streets of Mainframe whiz by under his feet.  He had been so thrilled to actually be allowed to go for a ride with AndrAIa that he hadn’t stopped to think about why she was offering.  But now, as the novelty slowly wore off, the idea crept into his brain.  Why would she give him a ride when before today he had been lucky to be allowed in the same sector as the motorcycle?  And why would AndrAIa feel the need to give him a ride?  His school was practically within shouting distance of the diner.  Enzo shook his head to clear the thoughts.  Don’t be ridiculous, he scolded himself.  AndrAIa’s just being nice.  Why are you being so paranoid?  His train of thought might have ended there, but his choice of words triggered a memory: Mouse’s voice saying, “Just causes a little widespread paranoia.”  Enzo’s heart leaped into his throat.  The Gotcha game!  In his excitement, he had forgotten all about it.  Just then, he noticed something else disturbing: they were nowhere near the diner.  In fact, they were practically on the opposite end of Mainframe.  Enzo could feel his face getting hot.  He warily eyed the Super Soaker attached to the girl’s waistband.  AndrAIa must be his assassin!  And now she was taking him off to some back alley in the middle of nowhere, so remote that it would be cycles before they found him, soaking wet and completely helpless. . . Enzo shook his head to stop his imagination from running away with him.  But why else would she be taking him so far away from, well, everything?  She must be trying to get me away from the safety zones, he thought.  It’s the only explanation.  Well, I won’t let her get away with it, he thought in grim determination, fully realizing how pathetic his words sounded.  Still, he had to try.  He licked his lips, took a deep breath, and then called out over the roar of the engine.  “AndrAIa?”

 “Yeah?”  she yelled back.

 “Where are we going?”

 “Um. . . I. . . it’s such a nice day, I thought we’d take the scenic route.”

 “Oh.”  Scenic route my. . . Enzo began to get desperate as he noticed the twisting spires of Lost Angles rising up to greet them.  He had to get out of this fast, or he was quite literally all wet.  “Uh, AndrAIa. . . could you, uh. . . just set me down here?”

 AndrAIa didn’t respond right away.  When she did, she sounded confused.  “How come?”

 Enzo groped his mind furiously for a good excuse.  “Well, uh, like you said, it’s such a nice day out, and I’ve been sitting at a desk all day, um, I guess I’d just rather. . . walk.”

 “Walk?”  If AndrAIa had sounded confused before, it was nothing compared to how bewildered she sounded now.  “From here?  All the way back to the diner?”

 “Well. . . yeah.”  Please let me off, please let me off, he begged silently.

 “Oh.  Okay.”  AndrAIa’s tone sounded hurt.  She obliged, though, and set the bike down on the ground.  Enzo hurriedly jumped off, lest she decide to fire on him then and there before he could get away.  “Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”  she asked.  Enzo nodded quickly.  “Oh, yeah.  Very sure.”  AndrAIa studied him for a moment, then sighed in defeat.  “Okay.  If you’re sure.  See you back at the diner?”  she added hopefully.

 Enzo smiled.  The diner.  A safety zone.  She couldn’t get him in there.  “Yeah.  Absolutely.”

 AndrAIa started the bike up again and it lifted into the air.  She gave him a half-hearted wave and sped off.  Enzo watched her go -- and felt like absolute crap.  The girl had looked completely heartbroken.  Why did he hurt her feelings like that?  She just wanted to give you some fresh air, you idiot, he told himself.  She knows how much you love that bike; of course she’s going to take you on a long ride.  And what do you do?  Ask her to let you off.  You are so basic.  Not only do you have to haul your bitmap back to the diner before Dot deletes you for making her worry, but you made AndrAIa feel bad.  Enzo began to make his way to the diner, absolutely disgusted at himself, when he heard a familiar engine roar.  He looked up; AndrAIa was making another sweep of the area.  Enzo grinned; she knows me too well, he thought.  She must have guessed that I’d change my mind.  Good.  Now I can get a ride home, and I can apologize.  The boy waved his arms over his head to get her attention.  “Hey, AndrAIAAAHH!!”  he yelled as a very cold stream of water hit his back.  Enzo whirled around.  There, proudly brandishing a Super Soaker, was Hexadecimal.  “Gotcha!”  she said, then let out a maniacal laugh.  Enzo just stood agape, too shocked even to move.  Behind him, AndrAIa set her bike down on the ground.  Hexadecimal addressed her next.  “Thank you, dear.  I don’t think I ever would have gotten him if it weren’t for you.”

 AndrAIa smiled.  “My pleasure, Hex.”  The Game Sprite tapped Enzo on the shoulder.  “Ready to go?”

 Enzo looked from one woman to the other.  Then, he dumbly clambered onto the motorcycle, unable to speak.  AndrAIa bade one last farewell to the former virus and mounted her bike, then sped off towards downtown Mainframe.

***

 Enzo sat sullenly on the motorcycle seat, not paying a bit of attention to the ride.  He just hadn’t said a word since they had left Lost Angles; aside from putting on his helmet, he hadn’t even moved.  AndrAIa noticed her passenger’s silence; after a short while she pulled over and shut off the engine.  She took off her helmet and turned to face him.  “Are you mad at me?”

 Enzo responded but didn’t look at her.  “No, I’m not mad.”

 AndrAIa heard the lack of conviction in his voice.  “But?”  she prompted.

 The boy sighed.  “Well, I know it’s just a game and everything, and you didn’t do anything against the rules, and this is all supposed to be for fun so it’s really stupid of me to feel like this, but. . . you suckered me, AndrAIa.”  His voice was full of disappointment -- both at himself and the Game Sprite.

 AndrAIa nodded in understanding.  “I was afraid you might feel this way.”  She put a hand under his chin and raised his eyes to hers.  “Would it help if I said I was sorry?”  Enzo nodded, but he still looked gloomy.  AndrAIa went on: “I think I know a way I can make it up to you.”  She leaned over and whispered in his ear.  As the young Sprite listened, a devilish grin slowly spread over his face.  AndrAIa looked at him, eyebrows raised inquisitively.  “Well?”

 Enzo nodded fiercely.  “Let’s do it!”

***

 Hexadecimal stood in the afternoon sun long after the two Sprites had vanished from view.  She replayed the event in her mind, over and over again.  That had been fun.  What a shame that it had all passed so quickly.  Ah, well, she thought, such is the way of things.  She proceeded back to her lair, still lost in thought -- so lost, in fact, that she didn’t hear the approach.  She only came out of her reverie when she heard two voices call out, in singsong unison, “Oh, Hexadecimal!”  Before she could turn around, she was hit from above by two jets of water.  Hovering in the air just behind her was AndrAIa’s motorcycle;  Enzo and AndrAIa still had their guns pointed at her.  “Gotcha!”  AndrAIa sang out.  She swung her vehicle around and the pair triumphantly raced off.

 Hexadecimal stood frozen to the spot.  Incredible!  That girl had come to her proposing an alliance, and then completely double-crossed her.  Of all the sneaky, underhanded, dishonest things to do. . .  The former virus beamed delightedly.  She had never been so proud.  “I always knew that girl had potential,”  she said to herself as she made her way home.

Part Six: The Gloves Come Off

     “I’m taking off the kid gloves and putting on the very mad gloves!” - Tick, The Tick

 “This is incredible!  For a week and half nothing happens, and now people are dropping like flies!”  Dot turned to Cecil.  “How many did you say were out?”

 “Four, Madame.”

 “Four.  In two cycles.  I can hardly believe it.”  Dot noticed that Bob, Matrix, and Enzo had grown strangely quiet, and AndrAIa was holding back a laugh.  Dot focused her attention on the Game Sprite.  “You know something about all this, don’t you?”

 AndrAIa responded with an overly innocent smirk.  “Not all of it.  Ow!”  she gasped as both Enzos kicked her under the table.  She slapped them both on their heads in retaliation.  Her victims looked at each other, then back at her, sly expressions appearing on their faces.  Sensing the danger she was in, AndrAIa extended her fingernails.  “Don’t make me use these,”  she warned.  The pair shrank back instantly.

“We’ll be good,”  Little Enzo said submissively.

 Dot enviously watched her retract them.  “Oh, to have those nails,”  she remarked.

 Bob fixed her with a half-smile.  “And just what would you do with hardware like that?”  he asked -- a bit suggestively.

 “Wouldn’t you like to know?”  she shot back in the same tone.

 “Easy, you two; there’s a little kid in the room,”  AndrAIa cut in.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Enzo asked indignantly.

 “Never mind,”  the adults chorused back.  The young Sprite opened his mouth to protest this latest example of age-based injustice when Hack and Slash made a very noisy entrance.

 “We have to tell him. . .”

 “Yes, I know we do. . .”

 “But we can’t tell anyone else.”

 “Right.”  Slash paused.  “Why not?”

 “Because then they could figure out that we don’t have them!”

 “Oh.  So we tell Cecil. . .”

 “Uh-huh. . .”

 “And no one else?”

 “That is correct.”

 “What about them?”  Slash pointed at the boothful of Sprites.

 “What about them?”

 “I think they heard us.”

 “So?!”

 “So we weren’t supposed to tell them!”

 “I know.”

 “Well, we just did!”

 “Did not!”

 “Did too!”

 “Did not!”

 “Did too!”

 “Did not did not did not!”

 “Did too did too did too!”

 Dot decided to interrupt before things got ugly.  “Uh, boys?”

 The two robots instantly broke off their argument and turned to her.  “We need to talk to Cecil,”  Hack said.

 “You mean Cescil,”  Slash pointed out.

 “That’s what I said.”

 “No you did not.  You said Ceecil.”

 “Oh, what difference does it make?”

 “Ceecil is not his name.  Cescil is.”

 “Guys!  Guys.  Calm down.  Cecil, you have visitors,”  Dot called out.

 “You see? She said Cescil.”

 “Slash, that’s enough,”  Dot said mildly.

 Cecil came gliding around to the front of the diner.  He regarded his guests with a rather aloof expression.  “Yes?”  he asked.

 The two robots looked at each other, embarrassed.  Hack went first.  “Well, you see...”

 “We were inside the Principle Office,”  Slash offered.

 “Yeah, yeah, we were inside the Principle Office, and we were trying to do it in there...”

 “No, you were the only one.  I was not doing anything because Mouse said it was against the rules.”

 Hack gave him an icy glare before continuing.  “So, Phong sent us outside because he said we were making a mess...”

 “Yeah, he sent us outside.  Only I was not doing anything.  I was the victim, but Phong yelled at me anyway and said that we couldn’t do that inside....”

 “So we went outside and I tried to get him...”

 “But I was ready so he couldn’t.”

 “Yeah, but I did get you.”

 “I got you too!”

 “I was first!”

 “No, you were not.  It was at the exact same time.  That guy on the sidewalk said so.”  The two abruptly turned to Cecil.  “We’re out,”  they said in unison.
 
The crowd in the diner had been watching the previous exchange as if it were a tennis match; they took advantage of the lull to make sense of what they had just heard.  Bob spoke up: “Let me get this straight.  You two had each other?”  Hack and Slash nodded.  “And you both shot each other at the same time?”

 “Yup.”

 “Exactly.”

 “That is correct.”

 There was a brief moment of silence as everyone tried to come up with the right words to say.  The right words turned out to be a snicker from Matrix, which soon had everybody laughing.  Cecil, however, maintained his composure.  “Very well, gentlemen; I shall take your names off zee list.”  He turned to go, and almost made it out of the room before starting to chuckle himself.  Hack and Slash were still trying to figure out just what the heck was so funny when Ray entered the diner.

Matrix called out to him.  “Hey, Surfer.  You missed all the fun.”

 Ray shrugged.  “If all goes as planned, I’ll stir up a little more before the cycle’s out,”  he said.  Bob scooted over in the booth to make room for him, but Ray shook his head.  “I’m not here for long, mates.  Just need to take care of something.  AndrAIa, could I talk to you?”  He suddenly sounded very serious.  “In private?”

 AndrAIa, taken aback by his tone, slowly stood up.  “Uh, sure.”  She followed him out of the diner, wondering what in the Net could have him acting so somber.  Once outside, she turned to him.  “Is everything all right?”

 Ray looked at the ground, avoiding her eyes.  “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, AndrAIa, but --”  he detached his water gun from his belt -- “you’re about to be out of the game.”

 AndrAIa stared at him in shock.  So that was why he had brought her outside!  She shook her head.  “You sneaky little -- WHOA!”  AndrAIa leaped out of the way as Ray fired.  The spray of water just missed hitting her in the stomach.  She made a mad dash for cover, short spurts of water soaking the pavement just behind her as the Surfer continued to shoot.  She dove behind a dumpster and unhooked her own Super Soaker.  “So you wanna go, huh?”  she muttered.  Pumping the handle, she stood and took aim at her assailant.  “Bring it on!”  The girl pulled the trigger and held it, sending a long stream of water toward Ray, who barely ducked in time.  AndrAIa held in the trigger and tailed him across the parking lot with the resulting snake of water.  Ray took refuge behind Bob’s car.

He looked up quickly as a shadow fell across him.  “Oh, good morning, love.”

 Mouse smiled down at him.  “Problem?”

 “No, no.  I got it.”  Ray pumped the handle of his weapon and looked back over the car, firing three shots toward the dumpster -- all misses.  AndrAIa peeked over the top of her fortress and responded in kind, missing Ray but drenching Mouse, who was standing in the line of fire.

 “Hey!  Dre, watch it!”  the hacker shouted at the dumpster.  “Sorry, Mouse!”  AndrAIa’s voice sang out.  “Yeah, Ah’ll bet you are,”  Mouse muttered with a smirk.  She leaned in for a kiss from Ray before heading inside the diner.  “Don’t hurt each other,”  she remarked.

 Mouse sauntered inside the diner and made herself comfortable in the booth.  After exchanging greetings with her friends, she said mildly, “By the way,  Ray and AndrAIa are shooting at each other in the parking lot.”

 “WHAT?!”  They all turned to the front window just as it was splattered by a wayward shot.  Enzo ran to a front booth for a closer look, followed by the others.

Cecil blinked in disbelief.  “My word, “ he said.

 “My goodness...”  Dot was practically speechless.

 “My car!”  shouted Bob as a long arc of water from AndrAIa fell short of its target and rained into his uncovered front seat.

 Ray shook his head at the car’s brief shower.  “Nice try, Annie Oakley, but you’ll hafta do better than that!”

 “What, you mean like this?”  AndrAIa shouted back.  Ray ducked again as the girl unloaded on the car.  When the bombardment ceased, he called back, “No -- like this!”  He aimed high, sending a stream arching over the parking lot and landing behind the dumpster.  AndrAIa let out a squeal of terror and pressed herself against the dumpster as water rained down in front of her, barely missing her feet.

Ray released the trigger and stared in her direction, waiting for a surrender.  What he got was AndrAIa’s voice singsonging out, “You missed me!”

 The Surfer banged his hand against the car door in frustration.  He was preparing to fire again when he heard a noise behind him.  He turned.  “Phong!  What brings you here?”

 The old Sprite shook his head sadly.  “I must apologize, my son; but it is part of the game, after all.”  He opened his built-in drawer and produced a Super Soaker, pointing it right at Ray’s head.

 Ray scrambled to get out of the way of Phong’s shot.  Then he vaulted over the car and started to run for the diner.  AndrAIa saw him, though, and began to fire on him as well.  Knowing it was hopeless to dodge water from two fronts on foot, he whistled for his board.  It shot out of the diner and swept him into the air, out of the line of fire.

 “Hey, that’s cheating!”  AndrAIa yelled out.

 “Deal with it!”  he shouted back.  He swung around at the far end of the parking lot, dodging shots from Phong the whole time (luckily the old Sprite wasn’t a very good shot), and came back in, planning to take an aerial shot at AndrAIa.  The Game Sprite wasn’t about to go out that easily, though.  Ray couldn’t come straight at her because of Phong’s assault;  he was forced to weave all over the lot.  As he swerved to avoid a close shot, she took careful aim and fired.  The water jet connected with the back of the surfboard, sending Ray flying.

AndrAIa emerged triumphantly from behind the dumpster.  “I got you!  You’re out for a millisecond!”

 Ray picked himself up off the pavement.  “You didn’t get me, you got the board.”

 “What’s the difference?”

 “The board doesn’t count.”

 “It does so!  It’s part of you, isn’t it?”

 “Well, yeah, but it still doesn’t count in this game.”

 AndrAIa exhaled in frustration.  “Time out.  I’ll go ask Mouse.”  She headed for the diner, opened the door, and stuck her head inside.  “Hey Mouse, if I hit Ray’s board, it counts as hitting him, right?”

 Mouse thought for a nanosecond, then shook her head.  “ ‘Fraid not, sugah.”

“Told ya!”  Ray shouted from outside.
“Oh, shut up,”  AndrAIa called back.  Reluctantly she turned back to the game -- and came face to face with the nozzle of Ray’s Super Soaker.

“You put up one hell of a fight, love, but I think it’s time to end this.”

 AndrAIa quickly raised her gun and pointed it at him.  The two stood like that for a full microsecond, staring each other down.  Finally, AndrAIa drew in a breath and pulled the trigger.  Ray flinched -- nothing.  AndrAIa looked at her water gun in surprise.  She tried again; still nothing.  Ray grinned.  “What’s the matter?  Out of ammo?”  he asked innocently.

 AndrAIa set her jaw and looked him right in the eyes, ready to meet his shot with dignity.  At least I made him work for it, she thought.

 Ray slowly started to pull the trigger.  His victim was helpless, and he wanted to enjoy this.  But then he noticed AndrAIa’s gaze slide over his shoulder.  “Behind you!”  she said.

 The Surfer just rolled his eyes.  “Gimme a break, AndrAIa,”  he said.

Then a voice behind him spoke up.  “I am afraid the girl is not bluffing, my son.”  Phong had rolled up behind him and was also ready to fire.  Both Sprites stared at him in shock.  No, not at him; at something behind him.  Phong warily looked over his shoulder: a Super Soaker was now aimed at his head -- and Dot’s finger was on the trigger.  She had come out the back door of the diner and was ready to make short work of her target.

 The woman gave her old friend an apologetic smile.  “Sorry about this, Phong,”  she said -- then shot a stream of water right in his face.  Applause rang out from the spectators inside the diner as Dot strutted back inside.  Phong sighed in defeat and followed her.  Ray and AndrAIa watched them go, stunned smiles on their faces.  As they met each other’s eyes, however, the matter at hand returned.  Ray raised his gun just as AndrAIa sidestepped out of the way.

Ray started to go after her, but he lost his footing; AndrAIa nimbly jumped over a low shot and dashed inside the diner, slamming the door in his face.  “Ha!”  she scoffed from behind the safety of the glass.  As a final triumphant gesture, she stuck her tongue out at him and turned her back.  As she faced the interior of the diner, she found Matrix and Enzo standing directly in front of her.  They didn’t say anything -- they just stood there, looking at her.  Something in their expressions was making AndrAIa uneasy;  “What?” she ventured.

 The brothers exchanged a glance that AndrAIa knew she couldn’t trust; but before she could process what was happening, the pair shoved her back outside and held the door shut.

 AndrAIa banged on the door.  “What do think you’re doing?!”  she shouted through the glass.

“It’s payback time!”  Enzo called back with a grin.

AndrAIa’s mouth fell open.  “But...”  she started to protest, but was cut short by a blast of water hitting her in the back.  She groaned and leaned her head against the door, beaten.  Matrix released the door and let her back inside, followed closely by her victorious assassin.  The Game Sprite proceeded toward the booth, but stopped halfway and turned to face the trio of Sprites that had caused her downfall.  She seemed to be searching for just the right words, the ones that would succinctly express her feelings of betrayal, however exaggerated.  But all she could come up with was, “You three suck,”  before sitting down.

Matrix just laughed and sat down next to her.  “Drop the act, AndrAIa.  You thought it was funny, too.”

AndrAIa giggled.  “Yes, it was.  And, I did hold out longer than either of you,” she added with a kidding smile.

 Mouse shook her head.  “Ya know, for not bein’ allowed to know who’s in and who’s out, we’re all pretty well informed.”

 Bob shrugged.  “Yeah, but you have to admit, it’s been a very entertaining morning.”

Part Seven: Sudden Death

     “We’ve got a blind date with destiny -- and it looks like she ordered the lobster.”  --William H. Macy, Mystery Men

 The next person to make a dramatic entrance into the diner that morning was Mike the TV; he had caught the entire melee on tape and was now seeking follow-up interviews with its participants.  Unfortunately, the participants weren’t cooperating.

 “Not now, Mike.  I have work to do.”

 “No comment, sugah.”

 “Get that microphone out of my face before I ram it up your --”

 “Matrix!”

 Cecil reemerged at this point.  “I am glad you are all here,”  he began.  “I have been looking over zee game list, and zree of zee remaining players’ assassins have been taken out.  So, to give zee last player a zporting chance, zee game must go into Zudden Death.  Zee remaining players must figure out who is still in and take zem out until only one is left.”  Naturally, this little bombshell raised quite a few eyebrows.  The occupants of the diner exchanged glances; everyone had a pretty good idea who was still in, so they knew exactly who to go after.  This would be as easy as Pi squared.

***

 Roughly one millisecond later, Ray came back to the diner.  “Well, I’m out.”

 Dot was right behind him.  “Copy that.”

Part Eight: And the Winner Is...

     “Behold the pelvic gyrations of my victory boogie!” - Space Ghost, Space Ghost Coast to Coast

 As a gesture of good sportsmanship, Bob threw a party at his apartment that evening to celebrate Mouse’s decisive victory.  Naturally, the main topic of conversation was who had been going after whom, and how they had succeeded.  AndrAIa didn’t waste any time confronting Ray: “You were the one outside our apartment building that night, weren’t you?”

 Ray raised his hands.  “Guilty as charged.  Which reminds me -- how did you get out of the building the next morning?  I never saw you leave, and I was there for quite some time.”

 AndrAIa laughed.  “Simple.  We went out the back door.”

 “There’s a back door?”

 “Yeah, it leads to the alley.”

 “There’s an alley?”

 Enzo chimed into the discussion from his place on the floor.  “Who was the first one out?”

 “I think it was me,”  Matrix admitted gruffly.

 “Nope.”  Bob entered from the kitchen carrying a Diet Coke.  “It was me.”

 The room fell silent as everybody stared at him.  “No way!”  Enzo cried in disbelief.

 “So the night stalker got the better of you, huh?”  Dot remarked.  “Who was it?”

 Mouse triumphantly raised her hand, prompting a laugh from Ray.  “Figures,”  he said with a smile.

 Dot rolled her eyes.  “How’d you finally get him?”

 Mouse grinned.  “Remember your little date to the Bond movie?”

 “Yeah...”

 Bob, a bit embarrassed, finished off the story.  “Remember when I came back from the bathroom a little damp?”

 Dot stared at him in shock before starting to laugh.  “You shot him in the bathroom?!”  she said, poking Mouse with her foot.  Mouse shrugged in response.

 “Well, then you were the second one out,”  AndrAIa said to Matrix.  “It was that same night.”

 Dot gave him a confused look.  “But you were at my house all night.”

 “It was right before you got home.”  Matrix laughed ruefully.  “That’s the last time I babysit him,”  he added pointing to his young assailant.

 “Enzo?!”  All eyes turned to the small Sprite, who was grinning proudly from ear to ear.

 More stories were shared: AndrAIa’s double-cross, Dot’s repeated attempts to get Phong out of the Principle Office, and a mass retelling of the four-way parking lot war.  Then Dot asked, “Wait -- who had me?”

 “Did they ever come after you?”  Matrix inquired.

“No.  I didn’t see a trace of my assassin for the entire game.  Who was it?”

 Mouse shot Bob a meaningful glance.  After the added prompt of a poke in the ribs, he very quietly said, “Me.”

 Dot sat silently, digesting this information.  At last she spoke:  “Bob, no offense, but that should have been so easy.”

 Bob looked a little too shocked by this accusation.  “How do you figure?  You’re always in either the diner or the Principle Office.”

 “What about the night we went to the movie?  You had the gun with you the whole time.  What were you waiting for?”

 “I was out already!”

 “Not when we were on the way there.  Or when we were waiting in the lobby, or for the first thirty microseconds of the movie...”  Dot would have gone on pointing out his many opportunities, but AndrAIa cut in.

“Permission to speak freely, Bob,”  she began.

 “Go ahead.”

 “I think you wussed out.”

 “I did not!”  Bob asserted over the resulting laughter.

 “Sure you didn’t.”  Enzo had predictably taken AndrAIa’s side.

 “You wussed out, honey, and I can prove it,”  Mouse said.

 “How?”

 “Ah heard that little pep talk you were giving yourself in the bathroom that night.  You said yourself you had wussed out for long enough.”

 This new evidence left Bob speechless.  He tried his best to think up an excuse, but had no luck.  Matrix shook his head.  “You just couldn’t go through with it, could you?”

 Bob hung his head in shame.  “No.”

 Dot decided it was time to come to his defense.  “Well, I think that was very sweet of you,”  she said, putting an arm around him.  “Pathetic, but sweet.”

 “Thank you,”  Bob said dryly.  He excused himself to refresh his soda.

 “Matrix, who’d you have?”  Ray asked.

 “Mike the TV.”

 This produced a snort of jealousy from Mouse.  “Oh, Ah would have enjoyed that.”

 Matrix sighed regretfully.  “I would have, too.”

 “You didn’t get him?”

 “No.  Enzo got me out before I had the chance.”

 “Didn’t you get him during Sudden Death, Mouse?”  Dot asked.  Mouse shook her head.  “Didn’t you?”

 “You got me out in less than a millisecond, Mouse; I didn’t have time.”  Both women turned to Ray, who looked just as confused as they did.  “Don’t look at me, ladies.”

 “Well, if we didn’t get him,” Mouse said, trying to make sense of the situation, “who did?”

 A voice from the hallway made them all jump.  “BZZZZ!!!  Time’s up.  The correct response was: NOBODY!!  But for being such a great contestant, we’d like to leave you with a lovely parting gift.  Johnny, tell her what she’s won!”  With these words, Mike the TV leaped into the living room brandishing a Super Soaker.  Mouse clambered up from her seat on the floor to escape, but her flight was cut short as Mike shot her dead in the back.  “Well, Mouse, your prize is a one-way ticket out of the game!  Brought to you courtesy of Super Soaker brand water pistols: when you’ve got to drench everyone in the room, accept no substitutes.  Which that means that our big winner is. . . MIKE THE TV!!!!”  Mike began a victory lap through the apartment, taking additional shots at Mouse every time he passed her; that is, until she threatened to stuff him down the garbage disposal.

 “But Ah don’t get it,”  she said as she dried herself off.  “Cecil said there were only three people left.”

 “No, he said three people had their assassins taken out; Sudden Death was designed to give the fourth person a fair shot at winning,”  Bob explained, having reentered from the kitchen.

 Something about this didn’t sit right with Mouse.  “Bob,”  she began calmly, “if you knew there were four people left, why did ya have this little party for me when you knew Ah hadn’t won?”

 “Uh -- momentary lapse of concentration?”

 Mouse advanced toward him threateningly.  “You set me up,”  she accused.

 “Maybe.”

 The woman stopped and stared him down silently.  The whole room became hushed as the others waited to see what she would do.  Bob grinned confidently at her.  “Who’s all wet now -- sugah?” he teased, taking a gulp of his soda.

 Mouse, not about to stand for that kind of abuse, grabbed a pillow off the couch and smacked him in the head with it, causing him to spit out a mouthful of soda.  He lunged for the sofa and was soon matching her blow for blow with another pillow.  It would have been a fairly short tussle had Mouse’s pillow not flown out of her hands, knocking Enzo’s hat off.  He grabbed another pillow and joined the fray; before too long, everybody was in on it.

 Several microseconds later, an exhausted group of Sprites lounged around Bob’s now-pillow-strewn apartment.  In strange turn of events, Hack and Slash had been the clear winners; being made of metal, they barely felt their opponents’ hits.  Ray, now draped across an armchair, stretched his arms over his head and yawned.  “Well, that was an entertaining couple of weeks.”

 AndrAIa nodded.  “So what do we do for excitement now?”

 Mouse smiled; she then turned to Dot and asked the question that is practically a requirement for any comedic fanfiction:  “Dot -- truth or dare?”

The End