Matrix was rapidly becoming bored, and as he got
bored his temper grew blacker. They had been in the game for micros. But still
no one had found the elusive User from Mainframe. He and AndrAIa had taken out
a User apiece and Frisket took care of the incredibly basic rats that seemed to
infect dark places such as caves but were found nowhere else. Bob had called
them twice to tell them that the User had found jewels. The green and white
ones, and so far the score was user two and Mainframers zero. They were losing
and Matrix hated to lose. To a User a lost game was simply that, nothing
important; but to a sprite or binome a lost game meant nullification, a
punishment only one short step above deletion and arguably worse. Even though
their icons were configured so that they could escape by going into game sprite
mode they would still be lost and have to try to find a system with ports to
the Net so that they could get home again.
Another User -- this one a wizard with a long gray beard and light blue robes -- appeared from around a bush and Matrix’s temper snapped. With a bone-chilling battle cry he charged the User, his sword raised. For a moment the User looked surprised, but then he raised his hand, a red light forming in his upraised palm.
‘Matrix! Look out!” AndrAIa, too far away to help, tried to warn him but she knew he wasn't listening. She watched helplessly as the fireball formed on the User's hand and was flung towards the berserk sprite...
...Only to be stopped by a glowing orange shield. Matrix’s charge was stopped as well, since he had collided with the shield and bounced off to lay on the ground, stunned.
“Sugah, that had to be the most stupid thing I've ever seen you do, an’ I watched you fight Megabyte! Now, calm down and think before you charge any User that has far reaching magical powers or next time I won't be around to save your bitmap and you'll be deleted!” Mouse chastised the still stunned Matrix as Ray crept around behind the User and deleted him with one hard downswing of his club.
AndrAIa had reached them in time to catch the ending of Mouse's angry speech. She glared at her partner, her fright having been channeled into rage. “I agree with Mouse, Enzo Matrix. You never did anything that basic when we were game hopping in our search for Mainframe, and you were way more upset during most of that trip. What wrong with you lately? If you don't control that temper of yours I'll be out a partner as well as the sprite I love. Compile up and act your age!” She stormed off, Frisket following her after a worried glance at Matrix. Mouse followed her, leaving Ray and Matrix alone near the bushes. Matrix scowled at the web Surfr, who was looking far too amused.
“Well? Go ahead and put in your own jabs. I know you look for any opportunity to make me look basic.”
Ray grinned, an odd expression on the severe face of an ogre. “Not me, mate. I'm just here to watch the show, not participate in it.” He stuck out a massive hand and helped Matrix to his feet, lifting the huge warrior sprite as though he weighed no more than a feather. “Let's catch up to the gals before they get away and I'm stuck with you as a partner.” They started off in the direction Mouse, AndrAIa and Frisket had gone, following their receding forms through the forest.
Dot and Bob were having more luck than the others. They had found upgrades that would allow them to breathe underwater and once they had reached the edge of the Lake Bob had been able to scan it. The scan came up positive: there was a jewel at the bottom of the lake. They donned their upgrades, which gave them gills and webbed hands and feet that would last until they came out of the water. With a nod to each other they dived into the lake and pointed themselves downward, swimming toward the darkened bottom where a faint blue glow announced that the jewel was lying in the sand on the bottom awaiting capture.
Dot was the first to notice the other swimmer. She stopped, treading water to stay upright and squinted her eyes. The figure drew closer and Dot gasped then turned and swam towards Bob as fast as she could. The sprite that was swimming toward them was an elf with short black hair and light green skin, wearing a dark blue shirt, white vest and dark green pants -- it was the User, and he was swimming toward them fast.
Dot caught hold of Bob's hand and pointed at the User, unable to speak underwater but wishing for the telepathy that had come with the reboot in the underwater game where they had found AndrAIa. Bob turned and looked back, then his eyes grew wide. Gesturing for Dot to follow he turned and sped downwards, hoping to beat the User to the jewel. They needed at least one jewel, since it would keep the User from winning until they could steal the pair of jewels he had already found.
Despite the fact that Bob and Dot were swimming as fast as they could the User was still rapidly gaining on the. It was as if his swimming was magically assisted. Bob's face grew increasingly grim the closer the User got. Dot concentrated on the glow of the jewel, which was coming closer rapidly. The User might be swimming fast, but Bob and Dot weren't dogpaddling and they had a head start.
They could see the facets of the gem when the User caught up to them. Bob let out a watery yell: he wouldn't let that jewel go without a fight when they were so close. Gesturing for Dot to retrieve the jewel he flung himself at the User, fouling his arms and legs, stopping his forward motion. The User struggled hard and managed to extend one arm toward Dot. Bob recognized the move too late.
A brilliant beam of white light, as thin as an arrow shaft and as long as Bob's hand shot out of the User's palm. It streaked toward Dot as Bob watched helplessly, a soundless cry on his lips, unable to warn her and unable to stop it. Dot, sensing something wrong, turned and looked back towards them, only to see the beam heading for her. She screamed and jerked away, a move that saved her life. The beam, which had been heading for the middle of her head to cut her in half, skimmed along her cheek, leaving a trail of blue energy streaming out of the deep cut. The energy filtered into the water around her face, gleaming faintly and Dot's eyes grew wide as her hand flew to her cheek.
Bob saw the User, who had gotten loose when Bob froze in horror, through a red film over his vision. Roaring his rage he plunged toward the User, whose hand was closing around the jewel. He streaked by Dot and caught the User by the ankle, but it was too late. The User already had the jewel and the protector of the blue jewel was awakened. An eel, glowing brightly with a deadly electric charge rose from the sand on the floor of the lake, its huge jaw full of sharp teeth ready to tear anyone foolish enough to get into it's way into small pieces. Bob took one look at the enormous sea creature and decided it would be wise to simply go after the next jewel, instead of trying to battle the User and a giant eel at the same time. Looping one arm around Dot's waist he swam for the surface, towing her beside him. Dot lay limp, in shock from her brush with death and Bob could feel her trembling as he swam. Tightening his hold on her waist he kicked his feet harder, his imagination showing him pictures of their mangled bodies, not completely deleted but wishing they were, floating in the still water after the eel had captured them.
Dot stirred weakly in his grip and he held her tighter. ~Don’t fight me now, Dot! Yell at me when we surface but don't try to swim! You'd never be able to make it!~ As though she could hear his thoughts Dot stopped moving and moments later they broke through to the surface of the water. Bob gasped for breath, treading water to keep them afloat before swimming for the shore with Dot still clutched to his side. Once the water grew shallow enough Bob staggered to his feet, still dragging Dot along with him. He managed to wade the last few feet to the beach and gently set Dot down before he collapsed in exhaustion.
Dot lay where Bob had set her for a moment before sitting up, every muscle quivering from fright. Had she not turned when she did she would have been deleted, her still body floating for a moment before fading away to nothing. She opened a vidwindow to Matrix’s group and discovered that the remainder of their small team was with him. Good: she wouldn't have to waste precious millis and energy calling Mouse and Ray and explaining what had happened all over again.
“Dot? What happened? You're bleeding.” Matrix was concerned and the others clustered around the vidwindow, echoing his question.
‘We encountered the User and came out second,” she replied, her eyes tracking the User, who had just climbed out of the lake. Moments later the body of the giant eel floated to the surface -- minus it's head. She shuddered and turned back to the vidwindow. “He has three jewels now, and I've figured out the pattern. His first one, the green jewel, was in a cave set into the hillside -- it was the jewel of earth. The second one, the white one, was floating among the leaves of a tree but not touching anything -- the jewel of air. This last one was blue and it was underwater -- it was the jewel of water. There's two more left, the red one and the multihued one, so they must be from the remaining elements...”
“Wind and fire,” AndrAIa interrupted her. “Wind should be spirit, but I don't think there would be any way to hide a gem inside a spirit. So one had to be somewhere windy, like a mountaintop maybe, and the other...”
“Somewhere hot and fiery but accessible,” Matrix concluded as AndrAIa trailed off thoughtfully. “Like a volcano.” He pointed at a distant mountain, where a curling plume of smoke issued from the squared-off top.
“Exactly.” Dot nodded in satisfaction, then turned and looked at Bob in concern, since he hadn't moved since he collapsed. “Split back up into your groups and head for the other two jewels, they shouldn't be hard to find. If you're unsuccessful,” her throat clogged on that possibility: losing a game had always meant nullification before and it was hard to comprehend that she could escape unscathed, “vidwindow the rest of us and we'll head for the remaining gem. If all of us can't get to it in time and the User gets it, vidwindow everyone so that we can go to game sprite mode. Good luck.” She closed the vidwindow and turned to the still Bob.
“I'm glad you warned them about the possibility of losing.” His voice was so quiet and hoarse with exhaustion that if she hadn't been so close she wouldn't have heard him. “I don't think we can win, Dot. He's a mage elf, a type so strong that it requires a powerful and nearly impossible to find upgrade to reach it. He's almost invincible ... and we're not. Now we're down three to nothing, and with those odds...” he trailed off, his thought unspoken. His eyes opened, and the expression in them chilled her heart more than any worry he had revealed had -- he was uncertain. She had never seen him uncertain before. Worried yes, even frightened, but not uncertain; Bob never doubted himself or his gaming abilities. If he was uncertain now in his more powerful state and with Matrix and AndrAIa -- two sprites who had grown up playing games and were nearly unbeatable -- beside him they were in serious trouble.
“Have you ever seen this game before?” she asked, her voice hopeful; but he shook his head.
“Even in the supercomputer multiplayer games were just legends. I can't think of any stories about sprites who went into multiplayer games. They just never came, so no one bothered to teach cadets about something that was only a legend. I don't know of any way to beat this game besides deleting the User or capturing all the jewels.” He closed his eyes, trying to avoid looking at the fright on Dot's face. He loved her, but he couldn't spare her this pain -- she had to know so she could be prepared for the worst. Dot was always prepared for the worst, always had a plan and a backup plan. He counted on her to be the opposite side of the coin to him -- prepared with a plan for every possible scenario to balance his spur-of-the-moment decision making. As usual, she didn't let him down.
“All right,” she began brusquely, taking a deep breath and turning her fear into energy she could use in the battle ahead, “If you're rested enough we should go help the others. They're going to need our help to battle that User.” She pushed herself to her feet and extended a hand toward him.
Bob gratefully accepted her assistance and clambered slowly to his feet to stand on legs that were still shaky. “I'm ready, let's go.” Dot smiled at him, then blanched, her hand flying to her injured cheek. When she pulled her hand away at his urging her fingertips were stained with blue energy and a small rivulet ran down her cheek to drip off her delicate chin from the reopened cut.
‘Wait Dot, you're still hurt.” He reached up and laid a gentle hand on her cut, but she flinched from even his soft touch. The skin around the cut was puffy and hot -- the water, so close to the giant eel, hadn't been very clean and her cut was infected. Bob made soothing noises as he touched her cheek again, his fingers glowing with soft yellow light.
Dot cried out as the light touched her skin, but the pain was over in nanoseconds. She gingerly touched her cheek as he pulled away, then gave him a questioning look. “What did you do? It feels like there's something on my cheek holding the cut together.”
“I used a patch command,” he replied, bending down to was his fingers clean in an incoming wave. “It's not permanent, but it'll hold until we can get you to a diagnostic program, and prevent scarring as well. Just don't stress it too much -- save those beautiful smiles for later.” He gave her a quick grin and stood up. “Shall we go?”
She bent down and swished her own hands around in the water. “Let's do it.” They headed for the smoking mountain, knowing that they wouldn't get to the closer of the two mountains in time to help defeat the User, who had a head start and was probably halfway there already, but they could help at the volcano if the others were defeated in the search for the jewel of wind.