By: David Smith
Rodents scurried through the layers of debris lining the cracked and stained concrete pavement of the narrow alley, and a dank stench hung in the saturated air as a light rain fell. Dot strained to study her keypad in the dim light of a single, bug-filled street light, the only one working for at least three blocks.
"Think it'll work?"
Dot started, then raised her wet face up to see Bob peering around the corner. He was winded, his face and uniform smudged with dirt, a light mist formed with every puff of breath. She sighed tensely with some relief. "I'm not sure. I've never done this before." She paused, lowering her keypad. "Any luck on your end?"
Bob glanced nervously up and down the sidewalk, then crept in beside Dot and crouched down next to her. She could tell he had nothing good to report by the knot in his forehead. "Nope." He pressed his shoulders against the grimy brick wall, and closed his eyes. "I've never seen anything like it. No sign of the user. No trace of him anywhere. Glitch can't even give me a summary of the game. Just a lot of very dangerous, heavily-armed sprites out there. Bunches of them around every corner, practically." Bob raised his head wearily and looked at her. He could see the look of worry in her stubbornly hopeful eyes. He saw her shiver in the cold, and he leaned over and rubbed her upper arms. She thanked him with a smile before returning to work on her keypad.
"I'm almost ready," she said as she typed hurriedly. "I've put everything into this message we know about the game--what little we know. Is there anything you can add?"
Bob thought for a moment. A fleeting look of genuine fear swept across his face. Finally he shook his head. "Just... someone get us out of here," he allowed himself to murmur.
A chill swept through Dot as she realized that she'd never seen Bob truly frightened. She nodded in agreement as she hit the EOF key. "There," she whispered, and watched the keypad retract. With a short beep of acknowledgment, her organizer presented a single, large key marked DEPLOY. "We've got to move out into the open."
"I understand," Bob answered. He knew this was coming, and wasn't looking forward to it. He took a deep breath and stood. "Ready?"
Dot nodded, her jaw clenching with firm resolve as she stood beside him. Bob raised his wrist to his mouth. "Glitch," he ordered in a near whisper, "defense shield, on my command." A tiny bleep answered him. He proceeded slowly to the end of the alley, and leaned out ever so slowly to check the street. A series of explosive reports echoed from the distance, but the coast appeared clear. He glanced back to Dot, then crept out of the alley, his arm raised to keep Glitch at the ready.
Dot followed him out, and looked around for a clear shot at the wall of the game cube. The swirl of purple at the end of the city street loomed ominously, and she raised her organizer. "Here goes," she announced as she tapped the DEPLOY key. "...our only hope." A short, black message capsule shot out of the top of her organizer and streaked across the sky toward the game cube wall, just as a hail of photon bullets descended on them. They glanced around in a panic, but could not find the source--it could have been anywhere, or everywhere--the bright specks pinged all around them.
"Glitch! Now!" A translucent bubble popped into place around the two of them, but to their alarm, some of the photon bullets pierced it easily. "Run!" Bob shouted needlessly as the two turned and ran for cover. They dove headlong into a stairwell at the base of an abandoned tenement building, landing at the bottom with a painful thud, their arms and legs entangled. With assorted grunts and groans, they struggled to right themselves, slipping and sliding in the soggy debris on the ground. The pinging continued, the photon bullets picking away bits of brick over their heads. Their backs pressed firmly against the cinder blocks, breathing hard, they locked eyes in a gaze of terror. The barrage subsided, and when Dot caught her breath, she looked around the stairwell. A weather-beaten door beckoned. "Why don't we see where it goes?
Bob returned a look of reluctance.
Dot frowned. "Do you want to go back out there?" she snapped, inclining her head up the stairs toward the street. Finally Bob nodded, and stepped across to the door. He tried the handle--it promptly broke off in his hand. He held the broken handle up to Dot and, wearing a sheepish grin of helplessness, he shrugged. Dot--hands on hips--was clearly not amused, so Bob tossed the handle aside and gave the door a shove. It didn't budge. He stepped back and thrust his shoulder into it. It creaked, but still didn't open. He glanced at Dot, who understood to help him, and they both hurled their bodies into the door. With a loud crack and a small avalanche of crumbled stone and dust, the door swung wide. They stood side-by-side at the threshold and stared into an impenetrable black abyss.
Hack and Slash were drifting along a Mainframe street toward the Tor, apparently quite pleased with themselves.
Hack: "It's sure quiet around here without Bob."
Slash: "Yeah. It's great. Quiet."
Hack: "The boss'll love what we have for him."
Slash: "Yeah, he'll love it." Pause. "What do we have for him?"
They stop in the street, bits of data flying past them in either direction.
Hack: "You don't know? You were the one who found it!"
Slash: "Yeah, I found it." Pause. "What did I find?"
Hack raised his arms in frustration and turned away to devise an answer when suddenly he was struck in the back of the head. "Ow!" He spun around to face Slash. "What'd you do that for?" He extended his arm and smacked Slash on the side of the head.
Slash: "What'd you do that for?
He drifted backwards and rolled over a black capsule lying on the ground--which sent him flipping head over tail. As he righted himself, he snarled at Hack. "What's the big idea--" at which point he spotted the capsule. He reached out to pick it up when Hack extended his arm and snatched it away.
Hack: "Hey, what's this?"
Slash: "I dunno--but I found it."
Hack: "You tripped over it. I found it. And the boss will love it."
Slash: "Love what?"
Dot's expression of carefully suppressed terror filled the Vid Window. Her wide eyes, shining in the gloomy darkness, darted around as she spoke in a low tone. "Whoever finds this data capsule, please take it to Phong at the Central Office immediately. Bob and I are trapped in a game, but it's nothing like any game we've ever seen. There's no record of it on file. It's similar to the Ray Tracy Crime Boss Game, but it doesn't have any of the usual characters."
Megabyte slowly leaned forward toward the window, his eyes glued to Dot's with rapt attention, a vague sneer of intrigue creeping across his jaw.
"We've tried to ReBoot, but nothing happened. We are still ourselves, we don't know the rules of the game, and we haven't been able to find the user. The game has been going on for well over five hundred cycles, and it hasn't ended yet. Worst of all..." Dot hesitated, her eyes welling up a little before continuing in a much lower voice. "All of the other sprites with us... have been deleted. As far as we know, we're the only survivors. All of the game sprites are heavily armed. If there's any way to end the game, please--" She stopped suddenly looking away as if responding to a noise, and Bob's voice could be heard in the background asking, "Think it'll work?" The message then ended with a brief splash of snow.
Megabyte leaned back again. Hack and Slash hovered expectantly to either side of his chair, tapping their fingers together anxiously. "Hmmm..." Megabyte pondered, tapping the arm of his chair rhythmically in deep thought. "Most curious."
"Did we do good, boss?" Slash blurted.
Megabyte eyes them both through narrowed slits. "Well, if you consider that you've been unable to penetrate the Central Office defenses even with Bob out of commission, then this might prove a barely acceptable alternative."
Hack and Slash turn to one another and wave their arms enthusiastically. "We did good!" Slash cheered. Hack chimed in with agreement.
"You had a very fortuitous accident," Megabyte added. "I was contemplating having the both of you deleted."
"We aim to please!" Hack announced as as spun around deliriously.
"It would appear," Megabyte mused, ignoring Hack and Slash's continued patronage, "that this game has some unique and potentially powerful coding. I simply must find a way to break it." Megabyte spun around and opened up another Vid Window. A list of available software tools scrolled past, and Megabyte jabbed at his panel to halt the screen. "There. That one." He punched a few more buttons, and a software spanner tool materialized next to his hand. He lifted the tool slowly and extended it toward Hack and Slash. "Here. I want you two to penetrate the game cube and make a backup copy of all the code you find there."
Hack: "Certainly, boss."
Slash: "Anything you say!"
Slash: "You what? You want us to penetrate the game cube?"
"I did make myself clear, didn't I?" Megabyte growled quietly.
Hack and Slash looked at one another nervously. Hack stammered, "B--b--but we could be... deleted." Slash: "Right! We could be deleted. And then we wouldn't be able to do anything else for you."
Megabyte's eyes narrowed and turned black. Hack and Slash knew there was nothing else to do or say.
"Glitch! Parachute!" Bob extended his hand in a snap and caught Dot's arm as she tumbled past him, and their hands slid along each other's arms until their fingers locked tightly. She arced through the void until she slammed into his body, her face connecting just above his knees, and she flung her arms tightly around his legs. As the chute deployed, she could glimpse the door through which they had just fallen, a receding grayish rectangle that soon disappeared. They strained to peer down into the blackness to see where they might land, and with a nerve-wracking slowness, a vague streak of pale blue-gray seemed to materialize at some unknown depth. Nanoseconds passed. The pale strip very gradually grew slightly wider and much longer, until it filled the width of their periphery. Bob seemed to sense that to either side of this narrow strip there was yet more nothingness, perhaps infinity, and he struggled to work the chute and maneuver them closer to the strip.
Suddenly Dot cried out--it was impossible to determine the proximity of the strip, and her legs had just sustained the crushing blow of their combined weight landing on them without preparation. She released her grasp on Bob's legs and he rolled back toward the edge of the strip. His arms flailing, he tipped over the edge with a yelp, and Dot hurled herself forward to grab onto him. Bob was dangling on the edge of the strip, suspended only by Dot's straining grasp on his wrist. He then realized that the strip was not a solid form projecting out from the unknown depths, but a purely two-dimensional surface, a perfect plane, with no sides, no thickness, and he could see the pain in Dot's eyes as she endured the hard, supremely sharp edge of the geometric form cutting into her rib cage.
"Dot--swing--" he called up, and Dot obliged as best she could, straining for force Bob's arm side to side.
Twisting his legs about, he helped establish a rhythm and, swung further and further, was then able to grab onto the strip beside her and pull himself up just enough to allow her to back off of the knife-blade edge. Dot heaved a brief sigh of relief as she quickly wriggled backward and stretched her legs out to latch her feet onto the opposite site of the strip--her boots withstood the sharp edge much better than her body suit--and then pulled firmly on Bob's arm. With just a bit more struggling, Bob finally dragged himself up onto the strip, at which point he rolled onto his back beside Dot, who remained on her stomach, and they laid still until they caught their breath.
Dot moaned. Bob rolled over onto his side to face her. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she grunted as she pushed herself up with her hands.
Bob's eyes flung wide. "No, you're not!" Dot instantly realized she wasn't, either, as she noticed an odd deposit on the deep blue-gray strip: a faintly glowing pale green line about the width of her body. She sat up on her knees and looked down with a gasp at the gash across her torso, at the brilliantly scintillating green pinpoints of bits escaping her body and staining her suit.
"Glitch! File patch!" A patch roll promptly emerged from Glitch's faceplate. Bob yanked it off with a jerk, ripped away the file tab, secured the free end to one side of her torso and stretched it across the wound to the other side of her torso. He broke off the roll and rubbed the end into place under her arm, then tossed the empty roll over the edge of the strip. They were both too shaken to talk. True, they had seen Sprites hurt and deleted, and they had been injured before, but this was a much more insidious form of danger than they had ever experienced. The fact that there were no game sprites, no weapons, no manifest dangers of any kind made it unnerving to the extreme--and it was a single simple geometric plane, and it could have deleted them more easily than a volley of photon bullets. There had never been an environment such as this in any game before.
Finally Bob murmured, "You gonna be able to walk?"
Dot decided to try standing first, and once on her feet she felt confident that she could move. "Well, at least it's dry in here. Wherever here is." She looked down at Bob, his face distorted with concern and fear, and tried to smile through her pain. "Let's go."
Bob slowly rose to his feet and looked down the strip. Nothing but blackness in either direction--just the strip disappearing into a pair of vanishing points. "Which way?" he shrugged.
"I don't think it matters," Dot quipped.
Bob looked down at her. She tried to get him to stop fretting by flashing him a cute grin.
"OK," he sighed, "let's try this way." He started off down the strip, his arm firmly wrapped around Dot's side. "You can let go, " she said as they walked. "I'll be fine." Bob let his arm relax a little, but he did not let go.
Through a tiny opening in the defense field surrounding the Central Office, Phong observed a game cube in the distance, an angry-looking obelisk jutting out of Mainframe's landscape. He held his fingertips together contemplatively, but they dithered ever so slightly with worry. "Hmmm... This is most unusual." Number One leaned over Phong's shoulder for a better view, and as Phong spun around, they ended up nose-to-nose. Phong jerked his head back. "The game has been running for nearly seventy million cycles."
Number One straightened. "Games have been known to run longer."
"Yes, you are right, Number One." Phong circled around him and approached his work station. "But rarely when Bob and Dot have been inside." He tapped at the controls, but as his head was swimming with concern, he could make no sense whatsoever of the data that was then displayed. He studied it for a moment, adjusting his spectacles and feigning comprehension, until he could no longer continue the pretense. He sighed, "I regret I am unable to decipher this code. Perhaps, Number One, if you could tell me who else was in that sector when the game cube dropped."
Number One cleared his throat. "It happens to be a very busy sector. Lots of traffic and fragmentation. We do not have a firm count yet, but there are at least forty-seven sprites reported to be missing." He made some effort to appear confident. "Of course, this could explain the unusual length of the game. It could be very complex."
"Hmmm... You may be right." Phong raised an index finger. "It may also be that Megabyte is somehow involved. You will notice that his attempts to break into the Central Office have ceased." He rolled up to face Number One. "I want you to deploy all available personnel around the game cube. Have emergency units standing by as well--there may be wounded to attend to when the game is finally over."
Number One saluted sharply. "Sir!"
"I am a single being, Number One. Not a soldier."
"Sorry..." Number One turned to leave, then paused and looked back. "I am sure they are all right, " he said, clipping off another automatic "Sir." Phong nodded and yanked on his beard distractedly.
It was a good thing, Bob thought, that he was slightly ahead of Dot. It would have hurt her much more than him as he collided with an invisible barrier. Dot could not avoid bumping into Bob as he reeled back, and she stifled a cry of pain. Bob spun around and managed to catch her before she fell back.
"What is it?" she said, her voice slightly strained. Bob found it very difficult to tear his eyes from her and turned to find out. She stepped past him and approached the barrier, arms outstretched. There it was. She could feel the surface, slick and smooth and hard as a disk drive platter. Yet totally invisible.
Bob simply stared at the strip, which appeared to continue on ahead into the distance. It was odd that such a smooth surface bore no reflection of them. Then he finally thought to raise his arm.
"Glitch. Analysis." Glitch could provide no useful information, and so the display simply remained blank. Better that than embarrass itself with a bright yellow smiley-face, which it sometimes did when it was stymied.
Bob shrugged. "Nothing. It's as if it doesn't exist."
"Oh, it exists, all right," dot remarked as she turned around, pressed her back against the cool surface, and allowed herself to slide down slowly until she was seated on the strip. Arms on her knees, her head drooped.
Bob crouched down beside her. "You gonna be all right?"
Dot nodded with a grimace. "Well, where do we go from here?"
"I'm not sure. I don't know if you could make it much further anyway."
"So, do we just sit here? Wait for something to happen? We could be stuck in a logic loop, and might be here forever."
In a fit of frustration, Bob knelt along the edge of the strip and peered down into the emptiness below. "Glitch. Searchlight." A white beam cut a shaft through the blackness, only to be swallowed whole. Bob straightened and snorted, and stared blankly down the strip away from the barrier. Then he noticed a faint, wavering light on the strip that cast a jittery shadow of his body. Spinning around, he detected a flickering pattern of random blobs of colored light on the surface of the barrier, each blob of color larger than his body, the array of blobs continuing on in all directions of the barrier plane as far as the eye could see.
Dot looked up at Bob's slack jaw, and with a grunt promptly rose to her feet and turned. Their eyes lit up as they watched the flickering color patterns dance across the surface, and they found themselves grinning.
It was a little while before they noticed that their necks were getting sore from looking up and around so much.
"It seems to be just a random pattern," Bob commented.
"I don't know," Dot frowned. "It could be we're just too close. Maybe if we backed up..."
Exchanging a shrug of "why not?", they started back down the strip away from the glowing barrier. They stopped every so often to look back at the light show. Nothing. They continued on. Unable to make any sense of the flickering pattern, they stopped less and less frequently, until they simply resigned themselves to the fact that there was nothing to make of it, and just continued on, for lack of anything better to do.
Eventually they reached their starting point--Bob silently pointed down at the faintly glowing bit stain from Dot's wound. She flinched at seeing it and instinctively held her torso with her hands. They looked at the strip stretching into infinity before them. Too drained to move another step, they simultaneously glanced back over their shoulders. Then they saw it. Eyes widening with awe, they exchanged a glance at one another as they turned slowly to face it.
It was just a red-blue streak in the corner of his eye, but that was enough, and Number One was off, rising up the side of the game cube at a breathless pace. Slipping up over the lip, he spotted Hack and Slash near the center of the cube top, and they looked mighty suspicious. One of them--he could never tell which was which, but it was the blue one--was messing about with something on the game cube surface, while the other was looking over his shoulder.
"And just what are you two doing?" Number One bellowed.
Hack and Slash both jumped. Then, while Slash quickly returned to what he was doing, Hack placed himself between Slash and Number One.
"Nothing," Slash blurted. "Nothing whatsoever. Just looking around. Nice cube, isn't it? Glorious colors..."
Number One eyed them suspiciously. "Just looking around? Then what is your idiot partner up to back there?"
Hack spread his arms so as to block Number One's approach. What could be possibly be doing to a game cube, anyway?"
"You may be trying to drain its power, for one. You've been known to do that."
"Come now, officer, does it look like we could do that, really? Where is our energy vessel?"
Number One stopped. He could not permit himself to admit the creep was right--but, whatever they were doing, they could not be stealing energy with so little hardware.
"Nevertheless," he finally grumbled, "I must ask you two to leave the vicinity at once." Hack whipped around to Slash. "How is it going?" he asked urgently in a strained whisper.
"How is what going?" came Number One's voice, slightly falsetto.
Slash responded as if he were answering Hack. "The break-in, of course!"
Hack threw up his arms and began to spin around. "No, no, now he knows!"
"Break-in?" Number One hollered. He wrapped his communicator. "Bring up reinforcements! Immediately!"
Hack spun back to Slash." Now look what you've--" He was cut off as Slash grabbed his arm and pulled him down through the game cube surface. Number One could scarcely believe his eye. And he blinked as the two forms quickly disappeared out of sight. Heaving a sigh, he tapped his communicator again. "Belay that request for reinforcements. Get me Phong instead!"
At the sound of buzzing static from the secured com channel, Megabyte immediately whirled around and opened the Vid Window. While they jabbered incessantly about their success at breaking into the game cube, Hack and Slash fought over monopolizing the screen.
"Just let me see!" Megabyte boomed, and with another burst of chatter, Hack and Slash obliged and moved out of the way. Megabyte seemed disappointed.
"Looks fairly ordinary, if not just a little quiet. Vaguely similar to that childish game Dot mentioned in her distress message." He tapped at his console. "I want a full backup of the entire contents of this game. Do not let a single line of code escape your attention. If you do nothing else right while you're in there, at least get this accomplished, or I'll see to it you won't emerge from the cube again!" Naturally, he was answered with an endless stream of assurances.
Phong continued pacing in a dizzying circle until he had left a permanent damaged track in the floor. Number One's message did not help matters. "Hack and Slash have broken into the game cube?"
"That's correct, sir," Number One answered.
"Hmmm... This is bad," Phong murmured.
"Er, begging your pardon, sir, but... isn't that Bob's line?"
"You are correct, Number One. Forgive me. Can you tell me if there was any energy signature left behind on the cube's surface? Any clue as to how they broke in?"
"Negative. But I suspect it was an old style non objective decompiling tool, the kind they used to use before the advent of GOOP."
"Ah, yes, Graphical Object-Oriented Program. It was so long ago, I had almost forgotten what compiling was like before GOOP. And yet, at the same time, it seems like only seconds ago..." As Phone drifted into reverie, Number One cleared his throat tactfully.
"Uh, sir... Do you have any orders?"
"Oh, yes, right... Hmmm... Let me see." He opened the drawer in his belly. "I used to have one of those old decompilers around here, somewhere..." He rummaged through a pile of odd junk at the bottom of the drawer, but could not find what he sought. "Stand by, Number One. I'm going into the archives." Number One's eyebrow rose. He knew this could be a long wait.
Bob and Dot looked at one another. They could scarcely believe what they saw. It was a face--that much was certain--but such an odd face. Textured. Imperfect. With many fine details--very thin strands of dark material emerging from it in clumps, over the eyes, above the ears, and across the top of the head. It looked up and seemed to stare at them with an expression of surprise and delight, perhaps. Then the mouth opened. There were many things inside, some familiar, some not. And all glistening with a kind of moistness or something. A strange sound accompanied the mouth movements--speech, obviously, but in a totally foreign language. Bob looked at Dot again. Her eyes were growing vague, she looked as though she was getting much weaker. "Conserve your energy," he said softly.
She looked up at him, forcing her eyes open. Her thoughts were still clear--he could see that in her intensely curious gaze. "Could that be..." she began.
Bob placed a finger across her mouth. "I need to use your organizer. Maybe I can translate the speech worth one of the universal file converters."
Dot nodded in understanding and handed him the organizer. He fumbled with the controls, rushing to try and catch some of the strange speech before it stopped. Dot's hand cut in front of him as she reached for the organizer. Her expression suggested that he should not resist, and he understood and allowed her to operate the unit, though reluctantly.
She quickly set up all of the translation utilities with a batch file that sequentially sampled the sounds. Unfortunately, the speech stopped before the batch file could run it's course. They stared at the unmoving face that seemed to stare back, as if expecting a reply. "We'll just have to wait and see if it talks again," Bob grunted as he tapped his foot in frustration and spun around. Then he saw something new--something nearly as unexpected and mystifying as the face, although it was at least more familiar. He quietly reached down and tapped Dot lightly on the shoulder. "Look at this."
Dot glanced back in the opposite direction from the giant face to see another enormous glowing plane, parallel to the one displaying the face, on which was displayed an image of Mainframe in it's entirety.
"What does this mean?" whispered Dot.
"I wish I knew," Bob murmured back.
They stared agape at the image, which seemed to be alive. "Look," Bob said, pointing. "That looks like Number One at the base of the game cube. He must have every ship in Mainframe with him. Plus a lot of emergency equipment, too. Maybe they got our message." he smiled down at Dot. "Don't worry. Knowing Phong, he'll figure a way out of this for us--"
Bob was cut off by the strange voice again. "Dot--quick!"
Dot immediately went to work on the translation utilities again, and within a few nanoseconds, intelligible speech emerged from the organizer.
"Dot--can you reverse the translation?" Dot nodded excitedly and tapped the controls. Bob cleared his throat and eyed the face.
"If you understand me, repeat your last message."
The face suddenly twisted with a contortion roughly resembling a smile, but a horrendous sound accompanied it which the translation utility failed to process. Then, when the noise subsided, the face spoke again. "You understand me! Cool! What are you?"
Bob and Dot exchanged a look--and enough hidden data was transferred in the look to fill a hard drive...
"We are sprites," Bob answered flatly. "My format is Guardian, my filename is Bob."
The horrendous noise burst forth again, and Bob and Dot had to cover their ears. Then, finally... "Sprites? Talking filenames... This is too much!"
Mustering the nerve to be forward with a potentially dangerous entity, Bob sputtered, "Well, what are you?"
"And they ask questions, too! I can't believe this!--I'm having a conversation with data!"
"Bob asked you a question!" Dot snapped, growing weary of the juvenile dialog.
"Whoa, hold your bits, chick--I'm a human being."
Bob crouched down close to Dot. "What's the organizer make of that?"
Dot was already scrolling through the thesaurus suggestion list as fast as she could. When she reached the bottom, she looked over to Bob and shrugged.
Then Bob's eyes widened with an inspiration, and he slowly rose to his feet to face the face. "Are you a user?"
They were completely surrounded--a spray of photon bullets erupted around every turn.
Hack: "Hey, it's dangerous around here!"
Slash: "Yeah, it's sure dangerous."
They winked at one another, then replaced their hands with gatling guns and engaged the rockets. Whipping up and down the streets and alleys, they blasted holes in the sides of buildings and laid waste to entire bytes of the old city. And still the bullets flew. They looked at one another with a hint of concern, reloaded their guns and took for the skies again. Turning down a side street, they approached a large, darkened intersection where there was no activity. They hovered in the center of the intersection, slowly rotating together, back-to-back, weapons raised, their beady eyes searching the shadows for signs of game sprites.
Suddenly they were virtually blinded by a shower of photon bullets, and before they could react, a shot took off one of slash's arms. The two of them watched as it spun high through the air and crashed through a building window nearby. They looked at one another in shock and promptly rocketed off.
"I wish I had better news, Number One," Phong said in a low voice over the com. "But all of my old text-based tools were written in a more... constructive era. They include editors, compilers, version trackers, sidekicks-- all from the days when hacking was considered an honorable profession. There was little call, then, for some of the more... aggressive utilities that I am sure Megabyte has at his disposal."
"I understand, sir," came Number One's professional reply. He made sure no one else around him could hear what Phong was saying. There was a stretch of uneasy silence.
"But do not relinquish all hope," Phong finally stated, even though Number One did not appear avertly worried. He raised a finger: "Where some will arrive at their home page taking the direct data pack, like Megabyte, others may reach the same destination after running seven times around the seven heaps of Rome."
"Ah, forgive me, Number One. It was a very old readme file, and I suspect that some of the bits may have become corrupted over the hours. Remain at the ready unless you hear otherwise from me."
"Certainly, sir." Phone closed the com channel, then began wheeling above the room in a distracted manner, mumbling, "Now, where would I have left those old assemblers...?"
Slash was bawling, and Hack was doing his best to comfort him--which was not very effective. He darted nervously over to the broken window and peered down at the street. "Coast looks clear, now."
Slash tried to control himself. "Wa-wa- <sniff> you go find it! I'm staying right here!" He waved his one arm around, and thus being unbalanced, teetered precariously to one side. "I can't go out like this! Waah!"
Hack turned to him. "Want to have mine while I go look for yours?"
Slash suddenly stopped crying. For all of the hours they had worked together, he's never been offered Hack's arm before. "Gee, that's... that's really nice..."
"Yeah, I thought so."
"Here ya go." Hack removed his arm with a twist and a snap, and presented it to slash, who promptly started bawling again.
"Now what?" Hack demanded.
"Wa-Wa- <sniff> Nobody has ever done something that nice for me before! <sniff> Waah!!"
Hack started getting impatient. "Look, if you don't shut up, I won't give it to you!" He pushed the arm away.
"A user?" the voice chirped. A hand appeared in the image beside the face, startling Bob slightly with the sudden movement. It was a very curious-looking hand, with lines and creases, and blunted, uneven, distorted little ovals on the ends where bits of frayed material clung to the edges. The hand reached up to the side of the head, and the fingers disappeared part way into the messy clumps of strands sprouting there. Then the hand and fingers curled slightly and began moving rhythmically up and down--and a few flakes of fine white powder flitted out from the dark strands that tangled around the fingers. All of this accompanied a sort of frown that scrunched up most of the face's features. "You mean, like a programmer?"
Bob and Dot glanced at one another. "I suppose, maybe." Bob fumbled for words. "Users... come from outside the net, and input games into systems... or, so they say."
An unpleasant chuckle rattled their heads. "Well, I can tell you, I've played plenty of games. Even wrote some myself--some of the best, I might add humbly--until they got swiped by the MCP at some bigshot corporation. Haven't been able to break into their supercomputer and get them back yet, but that's a whole other story."
"Is that your game out there," Bob said, gesturing above their heads, "the one we broke out of to get in here?"
"Could be. It's part of a heuristic emulator that creates an environment for the interface that the system will accept. I really don't know what that looks like, and I really don't care." The face's glinting eyes grew wide with incredulity. "This is too much!--I'm talking with stray data stuck in the interface of a system analysis probe! I was just poking around, you see? And I just can't believe what's happening. I should be looking at the raw system structure of an old, obsolete archive server--BIOS, OS, that kind of stuff. I never expected to find anything that would talk back to me."
Dot instinctively looked back at the image of Mainframe. She tried to imagine her home as an "old, obsolete server." Yes, it was old, and maybe parts of it were obsolete, but the idea of all those sprites as servers... it sounded like some gruesome form of slavery. Were the users really-- The face suddenly blurted, "What's that thing?" It pointed past her, at the image of Mainframe.
"That's where we live," Bob answered. "Mainframe."
"An old mainframe." Its eyes gleamed. "Then that's what I'm after. I wrote this interface to hack into old systems just like that one. There's millions of them out there, and I like to check as many as I can for potential goodies. If there's nothing there I want... then I just might reformat it, and leave a little something of my own behind for their owners to discover."
Bob and Dot weren't exactly sure what it meant--the syntax just wasn't quite right--but they still didn't like the sound of it. Bob's mind processed incessantly, and then, finally, an idea formed. He turned squarely toward the face, hands on hips. "I don't know if you should do that."
"Why not? I've never met a system with security I couldn't get past. This old thing can't have any serious safeguards." Bob gestured at the image of Mainframe with his thumb. "That system is infected by a virus. A deadly one at that. And it's completely independent of any security in the system. Whatever you do here, it will infect you. Guaranteed."
"Actually, there's two viruses," Dot added.
Bob glanced at her with a knowing look. "That's right. If one doesn't get you, the other will."
"Viruses, huh?" It scratched at a dimpled chin. "Had a few of those, too. Caught a nasty one last week--had to take some antibiotics to kill it." He noticed the blank stares. "That was a computer joke--heh, heh."
"There is no joke about these viruses. Mainframe may be old, but it doesn't matter how old a system's hardware is--the data it contains can still be the newest thing anywhere on the net."
The face seemed unperturbed. "I like a challenge." Then it looked down, and they heard a series of clattery tapping noises.
"What are you going to do?" Bob asked.
"You'll see," the face answered, not looking up. A grin--actually closer to a sneer--tugged at the corners of its horrid little mouth, and the bits on the back of Dot's neck stood up. The expression reminded her of Megabyte in a disturbing way.
A low rumble then rose up from the depths of the cavernous space, and Bob instinctively crouched down and put his arms around Dot. At first it wasn't clear what was happening beyond an unsettling noise, but then they noticed--the image of the face was moving towards them. They glanced around nervously and saw that the image of Mainframe was also moving toward them. Slowly... slowly... at a barely noticeable rate... the walls were creeping closer together--with Bob and Dot smack in between them.
The face grinned menacingly.
"What are you doing?" Bob demanded, keeping his fear in check.
"I'm closing the communications gap, my friends. Better get out while you can, 'cause this junction will be closed any second now!"
Bob whipped his head around to Dot, his face lighting up a little with hope. "Seconds? It'll take forever!"
Dot swallowed. "I don't think we're on the same time scale as him. I'd say we have less than a microsecond before we're crushed." A vicious little laugh rang out and echoed through the narrowing space, and Bob and Dot clung to one another.
"This is bad. This is really bad."
"Bob, what are you going to do?" Dot pleaded.
He looked deeply troubled. "I'm not sure. We can't jump, and I don't think Glitch's line is long enough to reach the top--" he searched the blackness overhead, adding, "--if there is a top in this place."
"Why can't you jump? Just open a chute and get away!"
Bob looked down at Dot in mild shock. "Because you'd never survive the landing!"
"Don't worry about me--save yourself! You've got to find a way out of here and break this junction before it closes!"
Bob's gaze bore into Dot's eyes. Her stubborn conviction shone through, and he was as much angry with her for it as he was in--
A great rumbling underscored a guttural chuckle of satisfaction. The image planes seemed to be closing in on them at an accelerating rate. No time to analyze personal feelings. Time to act.
"Glitch! Defense shield!" A large, translucent bubble formed around the two of them as they clung to one another. The instant the image planes touched it, the bubble burst, accompanied by a creepy cackle from the horrid face bearing down on them.
"Glitch! Double polar force packs!" A pair of rectangular permag units formed over their heads, flew in opposite directions and slammed into the image planes. As the powerful magnetic fields forced the units to separate from one another, they began to glow and hum. The noise rose nearly to a shriek as they grew white hot--with no effect. Finally they imploded, sending circular waves of brilliant light rippling outward across the surfaces of the image planes, diminishing to nothingness. Gripped with fear, Bob and Dot drew closer still as the planes threatened to crush the bits out of them.
"This is certainly a historic event... a tale to be retold for as long as Mainframe exists in its current format," Megabyte mused, placing his fingertips together in subtle mockery of Phong's habit, adding, "which will be a strictly limited number of cycles, if I have anything to do with it."
"Megabyte. The cycles may be limited for all of us in Mainframe." Phong cautiously rolled a little closer to the ominous figure looming over him, adjusted his spectacles, and bowed very slightly. "I have humbly come before you to seek your assistance."
"Most interesting." Megabyte sighed, leaning back and studying his fingernails contemptuously. "Well, my wobbly little friend, I fear you have presented the olive branch file a bit too late. Long before you were even aware of the game cube's potential, my intelligence indicated that there was a veritable treasure trove of useful code inside. As we speak, I am in the process of obtaining a complete backup of that code. Once I have that in my possession, I will finally have the means to claim control of Mainframe." He punctuated the statement with a fist on his console.
"May I ask," Phong asked tentatively, "how you became aware of the cube's nature?" After a moment to ponder, Megabyte gestured a little theatrically and mumbled, "Ah, well, I suppose it would change nothing if I showed you." He casually tapped a control at his side.
Phong swallowed, struggling to contain his dismay as he watched the recording of Dot's plea for help. When the message ended, Megabyte handed him the cylinder, then remarked with a chuckle as he slowly turned away, "A little souvenir for an old 'friend.' And now, if you will excuse me, I have some business to which I must attend that I do not care to discuss."
"We are aware that Hack and Slash have broken into the game cube..." Megabyte jolted in his seat imperceptibly, then he smiled faintly. It was a curious smile--one of mild surprise at the confirmation of his idiot minions' apparent success.
"As to the usefulness of code there," Phong continued, finger raised , "we have our doubts. We have detected a unique anomaly within this particular cube. While our data is inconclusive, I have reason to believe that a dangerous junction is forming that could threaten the data of all integrity in this system. This junction would provide the user access to sector zero-zero-one, the very core of our existence. I believe, as incredible as it sounds, that this may be one occasion when only a virus such as yourself can protect us."
"You have at your disposal, I believe, a number of tools that may prove useful in our efforts to halt the game. The best that we could hope to manage with our own resources is to assemble a firewall around it, the efficacy of which is in some doubt. If we do not take immediate action against the game, I fear that we are all at risk." Phong carefully arranged his words, which required some effort to express. He said, very slowly, "I appeal to you not as much for our sake, but for the preservation of that which you desire to infect."
Analyzing Phong with razor-thin eyes, Megabyte processed for a while. Then, placing the analysis of the situation in a wait state, he swung around in his chair and punched a control. "Hack. Slash. Report." A Vid Window popped open, and a close-up image of a one-armed Slash, crying his eyes out filled the frame, his wails echoing eerily throughout the cavernous Tor.
Eyebrows suddenly arching high, Megabyte quickly closed the Vid Window and, with just a hint of embarrassment, swung slowly back to face Phong, who observed quietly with fingertips placed together. Megabyte took a long, deep breath; his voice was quite low, nearly a whisper, a thick layer of sarcasm disguising his unease. "What is it you propose, oh great one?"
Slash could not hear Hack for he was still crying.
"Slash!" Hack finally rapped Slash on the head. "Yo, Slash!"
"Here's your arm back." Slash's face instantly lit up as he grabbed his arm, forced it back into its socket, and began a long string of thank you's. Hack briefly got caught up in a long string of you're welcome's, then shook his head to snap out of it.
Meanwhile, Slash had progressed to a series of kissy-sounds.
Hack called, "Slash! Shlash! Shlash!--o-ooh, just try saying that three times fast--"
"Slash, Slash, Slash," Slash answered proudly, "So, there!"
"Say, you're good." Hack shook his head again to clear his thoughts. "Slash, there's something really weird about this game."
"Well, I think all games are weird. So what?"
"But this one is really, really weird. It's starting to get quiet out there. And you won't believe what I saw while I was out looking for your arm..."
A crowbar took shape before their frightened and startled eyes, and with a sharp inhale, they held their breath. Although it creaked a little, the crowbar held fast between the two image planes, bringing their progress to sa screeching halt. After a nanosecond, they heaved a controlled, tenuous sigh of relief, looked at one another, then as if waking from a nightmare, looked around them. The quiet was unnerving. They could no longer discern the giant face--they stared instead at a small cluster of flickering pixels over Dot's shoulder. Then they heard a huff of frustration and a sudden clattering of clicks.
"Now, what?" Dot was almost afraid to ask.
Bob thought. He looked overhead, then at the straining crowbar, then at Dot.
"Can you stand on your own?" She nodded, and he slowly released his grip on her waist. "I think I have an idea." He wedged his hands against the two image planes and forced himself up. Spreading his knees, he held himself aloft over Dot's head for a moment. Dot watched him with hopeful eyes, then, as he back down, her face clouded over.
"I'll never make it," she murmured.
"I know, but if I can reach the top, I might be able to something up there to lower down and pull you up."
"That's a long way up," she said, reluctantly raising her eyes. The crowbar emitted a faint creak, and she studied it fearfully. "And I don't think Glitch can hold out that long."
"It's our only chance, I'm running out of ideas--"
Dot suddenly grew faint, her eyes rolling into the back of her hear. Bob threw one hand around her waist to hold her up, and cradled the back of her head with his other hand.
"I think... I'm running out of... time..." Her voice was becoming sightly distorted, as if some of the data was dropping out of the stream.
"You're going to be all right," Bob said firmly, his throat tightening as he glanced at the growing stain of her lost bits on his uniform. "I'm not going to leave you!"
She struggled to raise her head and look at him with half-open eyes. "Bob..."
"I've been... meaning to tell you... something..."
A whoosh overhead cut through the mumbling and clattering of the giant face. Bob jerked his head back and exclaimed, "What are you two doing here?"
Hack and Slash swooped down out of the darkness, not through the narrow canyon separating the two enormous image planes, down low over Bob and Dot, uncomfortably close to their heads.
Bob instinctively ducked. "What are you trying to do? he yelped.
Hack and Slash touched down on opposite sides of the strip.
Hack: "Will you look what we found!"
Slash: "Bob and Dot!"
Hack: "And they're not looking very feisty, either!"
Slash: " So, what do you think the boss will say when we tell him we... bumped them off?"
"You don't know what you're doing," Bob blurted.
Hack and Slash winked at one another. "For once, I think we do!" Hack said proudly. "If we don't stop--"
"Hey, look at this," Slash interrupted, pointing up at Glitch, still in the form of a crowbar and straining to keep the image planes separated. He reached for it--
"No, don't!" Bob yelled, trying to resist letting go of Dot to intervene. "Everything will be deleted if you remove it!"
Hack then promptly grabbed Glitch and yanked. Bob clenched his eyes shut as a tremor swept through the space, and with a horrid cackle from the user, the image planes resumed their closure. Bob pulled Dot tightly to his body and braced himself for--
A rumble and a low, grinding crunch echoed around them, followed by silence.
Bob slowly opened his eyes to see Hack and Slash at his sides, their arms outstretched and holding the image planes apart.
Hack: "Hmmm... I think I--"
Slash: "--see what you mean, Bob..."
While Glitch resumed its place on Bob's wrist, he took a tenuous breath and then frowned at them. "Now what are you two going to do? The instant you let go, we'll all be--"
Bob was cut off by a growing, high-pitched screeching from overhead, and all cast their eyes up to see something descending rapidly along the gap, straight toward them. All they could make out was a shape with four appendages extended, two to either side, sliding them along the image planes like friction brakes. With a jarring clang, a great, dark, shining figure landed in the middle of the group, and the strip was now getting quite crowded. Bob was so awe-struck that he could not utter a sound.
"Quite a little mess you've gotten yourself into, here, Bob," Megabyte hummed.
Bob could only shake his head slowly in wonder.
"Phong can be surprisingly persuasive," Megabyte remarked as he casually glanced around, adding, "on occasion."
Bob permitted himself a tiny sense of relief at the mention of Phong's name. "So, what is it, exactly, that is causing so much consternation?" Bob glanced up at the now indecsernible image of the face, its flickering pixels catching on the gleaming finish of the virus' metal skin. With a nod he said, "Megabyte, meet a user."
Megabyte followed Bob's glance and tried in vain to grasp the image. "A user?" he uttered with somewhat uncharacteristic astonishment. "Indeed..."
"Mainframe is on the opposite side of this junction. When these two images join, the junction will close and he will destructively reformat Mainframe." A complex expression washed over Megabyte's visage. He realized that Phong was right, and that not only would he be deleted, but also everything he ever desired. Much as he loathed the concept, his only option was to help Bob, and as Hack and Slash began to groan, under the strain, he realized that he had no time to waste.
Bob caught the look, and seemed strangely comforted by it, if only a little--
"All right," a great, grating voice gripped the air. "Tim to close the junction." Hack and Slash suddenly cried out as the image planes shuddered tightly under their outstretched arms.
"Reformat Mainframe? I don't think so!" Megabyte thundered as he turned to face the user and place his hands against the image plane. There was a brief burst of horrid laughter.
"And what are you?"
"Your... worst... nightmare!" Megabyte growled as he extended his razor claws and shoved them into the image plane. His jaw ground, his eyes pinched, and his arms wrenched against the force of the advancing plane, and as he heaved his body against it, the very tips of his claws began to sink just slightly into the surface. He let out a great howl of effort, and with a painful slowness they sank deeper into the surface, until his fingertips were just beginning to penetrate. A burst of clattering clicks accompanied an astonished,
"No--this isn't possible!--" Megabyte's eyes darkened under the strain as he pressed on, forcing the image plane back, bits of sweat flinging from his eyebrows and skull wing. With a sigh of relief, Hack and Slash were able to lower their arms, when--
"Nnnnnoooooooooo!!!" The most supreme cry of anguish ever heard by any being--sprite or user--rang out and rattled the entire space.
Its impact caused Megabyte to suspend his efforts enough to twist his head around. He opened his eyes and rerouted just enough energy to reactivate them-- Bob stood beside him, holding Dot in his arms, her lifeless body hanging limp, a thin trail of glowing green bits dripping from her side onto the strip at Megabyte's feet.
"If this is an example of how users think and behave," Bob heaved under his breath, working up ti a cry of disgust, his voice cracking, "Then you can ALL GO TO HELL!"
So struck was Megabyte by the emotional outburst that he allowed the image plane to regain some distance, and he scrambled to force it to a stop. The effort to speak made it very difficult to prevent its further progress. Eyes closed, he spoke with an eerily calm, controlled, even tone. "Hack. Slash. Take Bob and Dot to the surface."
Hack and slash could only hesitate for an instant, for they could tell that Megabyte's deadly seriousness was not to be questioned. Without a sound, they deployed their rockets, Grasped Bob and Dot together from either side, and ascended up and out of Megabyte's sight.
the echo of a noise that sent shudders through every sprite still hung in the air.
"That sounded like... like... Megabyte," Number One uttered to Phong as they stood at the base of the swirling game cube.
"Yes..." Phong replied uneasily. "It did."
"It sounds like he was being deleted."
Phong slowly turned away from the game cube. "You may be right, Number One. It may have been to much even for a virus."
A flash of movement caused Number One to glance up from Phong. "Who's that?"
Phong spotted the pair of figures swiftly approaching on zip pads. "That," Phong said, brightening just a little, "may be our very last hope."
Enzo and Mouse touched down in front of Phong.
"I found her!" Enzo called proudly.
"Enzo here says y'all got a problem on your hands," Mouse remarked with crossed arms, eyeing the unusually active surface of the game cube.
"You could say that," Number One replied with a slightly uneasy edge.
"We must decouple this game cube before a dangerous junction is formed," Phong announced with a raised finger.
"You want me to hack a game cube, honey?" Phong nodded. "Well, that's not a problem, except--"
"Except what?" Number One demanded.
"What's in it for me?"
"You'd save the lives of Bob and Dot and dozens of other sprites trapped in there!" Enzo cried, arms flailing.
Phong looked up at Enzo gravely, and Enzo and Mouse stared back at him with descending jaws and sinking hopes.
"Megabyte intercepted an emergence message that Dot sent from inside the cube several million cycles ago. At that time... she and Bob were the only survivors." Phong took a deep breath and adjusted his specs. "Just before you arrived, we sent Megabyte into the game cube--"
"Aw, what did you go and send old Megabutt in there for?" Enzo spat with disgust.
"We were not certain when you would return with Mouse. I also felt that a virus might have had a good chance of infecting the program from within before it would come out."
"Might have had...?" Mouse drawled.
Phong lowered his head a little. "It would appear that... I may have miscalculated..."
"If Megabyte couldn't stop that thang," she snapped, "what hope do y'all have for me of succeedin'?"
"I would only ask that you attempt to break the junction from outside the game cube. Hopefully this will force the program to terminate and exit."
"Yeah, exit with a bang," she shot back with an upward swing of her arm. "The explosion from a forced game cube break would take out every adjacent sector."
"Can't you do it by remote?" Enzo offered with a hopeful shrug. Secretly chiding herself for not thinking of that, Mouse smiled faintly at Enzo and nodded, and Phong placed his fingertips together with some sense of satisfaction.
"We have already evacuated all of the surrounding sectors," Number One reported crisply, adding after a nervous pause, "But what about the sprites inside when it goes off?"
Everyone went grimly silent.
Bob's head hung heavily as he knelt over Dot's body. Her head was turned to one side, her arm draped over the edge of the crumbling sidewalk where it met the stairwell, her legs bent in a slightly unnatural position.
Hack and Slash hovered nervously nearby, mute with worry. A cluster of transparent bits broke free from Bob's cheek and splashed lightly on Dot's stained torso, creating a tiny rainbow ripple through the fading bits still seeping from the surface of the bandage. A profound loss, the likes of which he had never known, left him stranded in an emotional purgatory somewhere between an inescapable desire for self-deletion, and a raging fury that Megabyte could never hope to match. It was not until the feet were practically under his nose that he finally noticed the form that had approached. Slowly raising his eyes, then his body, he faced Hexadecimal with clenched fists. Her brother failed. What hope was there for her?he did not need to say this to be understood...
Hex's mask was virtually blank, unreadable. "Here," she said softly with such tenderness that Bob was struck dumb, "Let me help." She slowly knelt beside Dot and placed her hands on the lifeless sprite's head and torso. Hex's mask dissolved to one of concentration, eyes and mouth closed with resolve. Suddenly, with a brief flash of light, Hex's mask switched to one of surprise, and she looked down.
Dot's eyes flickered open, she gazed up at Hex and Bob. "Wha--"
Bob immediately dropped down to her, placing his hand under his head, choking on words of utter astonishment. "Dot...!" He glanced up at Hex and exclaimed, "I don't know how to thank--"
Hex was slowly rising to her feet, creeping back away from him, her mask now one of confusion. "I didn't do this..." she murmured strangely. "I don't think I--" Then she looked up, her mask switched to one of shock.
Bob swung around in time to see Megabyte limping toward them. His face was drawn, his color pale, his entire body dithering with a strange hint of translucency. He stumbled, catching himself on the rusty handrail at the bottom of the steps--
"Megabyte!" Hex gasped, extending her arms toward him in an instinctive clutching gesture.
"You don't look so good," Bob said. "What happened?"
"I... I..." Megabyte stammered, halting in his tracks to regain enough energy to speak. "I allowed the user to... make a copy of myself... in exchange for... a permanent patch for Dot."
Mouth agape in speechlessness, Bob looked down at Dot, and together they stared in awe at her torso, at what was once a fatal injury, at what was now just a fading scar. They blinked at one another.
"How is this possible...?" Dot murmured.
"I suspect..." Megabyte nearly whispered between deep breaths, still light-headed, "that a user is capable of... nearly anything."
"But what about the game cube, brother,?" Hex asked quietly with trepidation--just as the walls of purple hurled skyward and disappeared into a collapsing vortex. Nearby they spotted Mouse crouched on the ground, unused remote utility tool at the ready in one hand, scratching her head in bewilderment with the other.
"You mean..." Mouse said in near disbelief, "Megabyte bargained with the user for our lives?"
Bob and Dot shifted uneasily in the Diner seat. They were a little uncomfortable under the incredulous, expectant stares of Enzo, Mouse, Phong, and Cecil, who had all crowded around the table.
"It looks that way," Dot shrugged. "I know it sounds incredible, but..."
"Well, I suppose it was that, or lose everything he ever wanted," Mouse remarked casually. Immediately she could sense that, although it may have been the truth, it was not appreciated. Bob took the nanosecond of silence to think to himself, I always wondered if users input games for pleasure. Now I know that some of them have other things on their minds. And I'll never look at games the same way again...
"I am curious," Phong asked, hoping to change the mood, "what did the user look like?"
Bob and Dot turned to face one another--sharing, for a nanosecond, a shudder of horror, a flash of special feelings, a remarkable closeness, and a sense that they might have liked to learn more about the user's universe--and then they quickly scrunched up their faces and turned back to Phong.
"Let's put it this way--" Dot began.
"We were not impressed," Bob finished for her. There was a brief collective chuckle from the group, although most of them did not understand the sentiment.
Enzo, who had been studying the way Bob and Dot were looking at one another, could contain himself no longer. "So, when are you two finally getting linked?"