Bob stepped out into the room that the portal had brought them to, a kind of cargo hold. But he didn't really care or even notice where they were. All he knew was that the one woman who was to be his entire future lay still in his arms, she wasn't moving, didn't appear to be breathing, and a part of him was dying. Never in the Web or in his worst battles had he ever known such torture. He couldn't help himself, he shook violently at the excruciating pain screaming in his heart as he held her.
He went down to his knees again to carefully lay her on the floor, and placed his hands on either side of her head to try to get a sense of what had happened, but he hesitated. Part of him didn't want to know, afraid of what he would find, but he forced himself to concentrate through his greatest fear: of losing Dot.
Bob took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and tried to forget who it was in front of him, he had to know, it was the only way. A flash of knowledge entered his mind, his eyes flew open at what he had 'seen', and he calmed himself so that he could scan again, and again, to be certain that he wasn't imagining it....
She was alive.
His heart was racing now, and he burst into tears of tremendous relief. The bullet had only grazed her skin, the wound wasn't serious. And as he buried his face in her neck and shoulder, he found that she was breathing, but her chest was being constrained by that damn corset! He quickly loosened the dress and removed her corset (he had been serious when he said she didn't need it anyway), then he held her against him and did his best to make her as comfortable as possible, gently caressing her temple where the gash was. He sent warm, healing energy through his hand directly to the wound, accelerating the healing process. And he started kissing the other side of her face, whispering to her how much he loved her and needed her as he cried.
The chaos had come to an abrupt halt as the saboteur roared with barely contained rage. Then he spontaneously created what looked to be a giant sphere of light, picked up his hostage, and escaped through it, then it disappeared. No one in the room could believe their eyes at what they had just witnessed. But it was the master-at-arms that had struggled with the stranger who took a step toward where he and the fallen hostage once stood. With skepticism on his face, he stated the obvious, "I don't think we're dealing with an ordinary criminal here."
He almost didn't get to complete the sentence as he was grabbed by the shoulder from behind, and thrown against the wall by the User. "And we're not dealing with an ordinary hostage either, you fool!" the User's character thundered at the surprised officer.
"I did what needed to be done!" the officer defended himself. "We can take him now, he has no leverage or protection!"
"He - has - my - future - wife!" the User said in a slow, deliberate manner.
"A lot of good a dead woman will do him." the officer said coldly. The User then leapt at him, only to be held back by two of his own men. After a small struggle he seemed to calm down, then glared at the officer with the same degree of animosity.
"Get him out of my sight! Lock him up in the lower decks!" he ordered. Then to the rest of them, "I want every man searching this ship for them both! Every room, every deck! ...And just so everyone's clear, we will be assuming that the hostage is alive, and when we do find them, I want the saboteur taken alive as well. Go!"
As the seamen did as they were told, the User began walking toward the nearby exit. But he was pulled aside by the other master-at-arms in charge of the others, whose last name was King. "Was it necessary to lock him up, sir?" the game sprite asked, "This is a large ship, we'll need every man we can find to do a thorough search."
"I will not give that officer another chance to gun down an innocent, let alone the woman I intend to marry!"
"Understood, sir." and the game sprite left it at that. "But I would like to mention something on his behalf."
The User sighed, as though exasperated. "And what would that be?" he asked.
"He had a very clear point; this has become a rather....unusual situation. Now I've seen some odd things in my time, but I have never seen the likes of this before."
Now the User appeared to be considering this, "No. Neither have I," he said, as though thinking aloud. "But I will not let that be an obstacle, I will get her back!" and with that, the User began walking away again.
"And one more thing, sir." the officer called.
This time the User simply stopped, and stood with his back turned. "Yes?" he replied evenly.
"This saboteur seems to have developed.... personal feelings for her."
The User showed no reaction to this. "Yes. I've noticed this too."
"Hostage-takers have been known to become attached to their captives." King paused a moment to carefully choose his words. "Just as hostages have, in the past, been known to sympathize with their captors."
The User then turned back to the officer, as if he were caught off guard by the implication. "I don't think I like the turn this conversation is taking." he warned, "You will keep your theories, and your statistics, to yourself. Is that understood?"
Keeping his eyes steady on the User's, the officer nodded, "Yes, sir."
"Good." said the User as he turned and left uninterrupted.
Bob had been sitting, his back propped against the tire of an old automobile, with Dot leaning against his shoulder for what seemed like seconds. The wound was healed but she hadn't woken up yet, he would feel a lot better once she did, though. For now, he would have to be happy just holding her, kissing her, and nuzzling her like he had that morning.
But he also had time to contemplate what had gone wrong because of his careless mistake. Had he misjudged her position, or did she move during the scuffle? Either way, he should've been able to anticipate the immediate threat to her very life. What kind of husband and Guardian would he be for her, or a father to their children, if he couldn't protect them from the simplest of dangers? That question stuck with him for the longest time. It kept coming back to him every time he closed his eyes, even only to blink, and the image of Dot being thrown from the force of the bullet would flash in his mind.
But something else he had realized was bothering him as well, namely the fact that she was still alive because of the User's actions in the game. If 'he' hadn't thrown off the officers aim at just that moment, she would've been killed. He wasn't accustomed to owing the User this kind of favor, but now he did. And he had no idea how he was ever going to repay it, or even if he should.
As he kept thinking, Dot began to stir in his arms. He abandoned all other thoughts and concentrated on her as she softly groaned, and he could swear that he'd never heard a more beautiful sound.
"Bob?" she called weakly, even before she could open her eyes.
"I'm here, Dot."
"What happened?" she asked.
He gently started kissing her again. "You were shot, but it wasn't serious. I've already healed you, you'll be just fine."
"Shot?!" now she did open her eyes, and she stared up at him, then she laid back again with another groan. "So that's why I still feel like I have a riot in my head."
Bob laughed softly and held her firmly against him, but he still couldn't shake the fear of almost losing her. And he didn't think he ever would.
The men had searched through most of the decks on the ship in teams, but had yet to find their quarry. Soon they began moving through the cargo deck, looking past every crate and commodity for any sign of them. A group of three were quietly searching a hold with an automobile in it, when one of them noticed what looked like a piece of clothing on the floor. He silently motioned for the two others to join him as he snuck to the edge, then swiftly darted out around the corner to catch them surprised.
All they saw was a corset, and a small puddle of blood.
"Are you sure you want to be walking around?" Bob asked Dot with concern as they made what progress they could toward where the explosive was. It wasn't much, considering the place was crawling with the User's men.
Dot smiled and rolled her eyes, "For the seventeenth time, Bob, I'm fine." she replied, even though she still felt a bit dizzy.
"I should've left you there for them to find you, instead of putting you in more danger." Bob said, disgusted with himself.
"It wasn't your fault, Bob." Dot told him sternly.
"Maybe not, but it's my responsibility. I thought I was protecting you, and instead I gave him a clear shot!" He was starting to get angry now.
Dot went to him and held him, "Bob, I'm here. I'm all right." she tried to calm him. "Don't let this cloud your judgement. You're still the best Guardian this Net has ever seen. And I'll always have faith in you."
Bob looked down into her eyes, and saw her sincerity. 'I'll always have faith in you.' In the end, that was all that mattered to him. He put his arms around her too, and felt tears well up in his eyes once again, "I'm so sorry, Dot!" he whispered to her desperately; he just needed to say it. But he knew that, as always, she was right. She would need him to be clear-headed if they were to survive. He gave a deep sigh, and used his past experiences and training to put the incident behind him and focus on the present, at least for now. There would be enough time for guilt and blame when they were safe at home.
No sooner had he formed that thought, that a seaman rounded a corner ahead and spotted them. "Halt!" Bob heard, and he immediately made a break for it down another corridor making certain that he kept Dot near him. Not far down that corridor, however, was an armed officer who was suddenly in the path of the two running fugitives, he quickly drew his weapon and took aim. They turned to see the seaman blocking their escape, and found themselves cornered from both sides.
King suddenly found the saboteur and his hostage running straight towards him. Instantly he drew his pistol, and noticed with some pride that a seaman came following right behind them, trapping them. He visually examined the hostage and was surprised at the fact that there wasn't even a trace of a wound. The runaways both looked around like caged animals, each facing a game sprite with their backs turned to each other.
Something's not right, here. the officer thought, and his fears were confirmed as he saw the 'hostage' reach behind blindly, taking the criminal's hand in hers. She's not his hostage, he realized, she's a co-conspirator! The User would not be happy about that. "If you would be so kind as to come with us, please," he politely ordered.
"I'm sorry, but I can't." Bob replied to the officer speaking, "I have a job to do."
"I know, but we cannot allow you to complete it." the officer said with a hint of pity on his face and in his voice.
Bob scrutinized the officer, was he capable of understanding their situation? "You don't understand, both our lives are depending on it."
The officer seemed confused at this, "How, exactly?"
These game sprites have no idea that this is even a game! Bob figured, As far as they're concerned, they're just passengers on an actual ship. Probably so they'll act and respond more realistically. It made him wonder what the User had in mind when he programmed this game. "It's a little hard to explain," Bob said, "but if this ship doesn't sink, hundreds of lives will be lost."
"But if you do, hundreds more will be lost as well." the officer stated.
"Maybe so," Bob said as he turned towards Dot, and held her hand a little tighter. "but I have to protect what I'm here to fight for."
King saw the woman turn as well, and she gave her partner a small, but confident smile, and her eyes glowed with a devotion not only to his cause, but to the saboteur himself.
The User would definitely not be happy about that! "Your plans and your motives are not for me to judge." he said, not without a degree of understanding. "You will have to come with me to the proper authorities."
"I told you, we're not going."
"You don't have a choice." the game sprite told them, keeping his weapon steadily trained on them. "Don't make this difficult."
"Who says it'll be difficult?" the saboteur grinned as a large sphere of golden light appeared around both himself and the woman. At seeing this, the seaman, though brave as he was, backed away in fear and ran off. The young couple turned from King and slowly started walking away, still holding each other's hand.
"Halt, I say!" King insisted, but they ignored him and kept walking. To get their attention once more, he fired his pistol, making certain that it was clear over their heads. He was overcome with shock, and a bit of fear himself, when the bullet glanced off the sphere and shot somewhere into the ceiling.
This is impossible! the game sprite's mind shouted to the unwavering sense of reason he had learned to depend on.
The woman had flinched when she heard the gunshot, but the saboteur turned to her, and gently lifted her face up by the chin to meet his gaze, and she smiled at him again as she found the courage to continue. They rounded the corner, and by the time King had found his legs and ran around the corner to follow them, he found them both gone without a trace.
After they had turned the corner, Bob had dropped the shields just long enough for him to create a portal, he led Dot through it and she found herself in a large, barely-lit room with a lot of noise, and dozens of game sprites working heavy machinery.
"What is this place?" she wondered aloud.
"This is the boiler room," Bob answered her, "well, one of them, anyway. The explosive should be around here somewhere. We're running out of time, fast! This way." he said urgently as he started running through the passageways, with her hand still in his.
"The User hasn't found it yet, has he?" Dot asked
She could see Bob shaking his head, "Not yet." he told her. "But he's getting closer. We have to get to it before he does!"
They tore through the smoke and steam as they ran together, and some of the game sprites looked up momentarily from their work as they noticed the two. But the workers were too busy to try and stop them, not that they were inclined to. Bob and Dot made their way around the boiler room quickly and undaunted until Bob sensed the User ahead of them, he stopped short with Dot right behind him.
"What's wrong?" she asked him.
"The User is just ahead of us." he replied. "He's right smack in our way! There's no getting around him. If he comes this way, he'll run into us; and if he goes the other way, he'll find the explosive first and win the game!"
Dot considered their options, then said to Bob, "I'll go first and distract him away, you get to that bomb!"
Bob turned and hesitated as he looked at her with concern, "Are you sure you're up to it?"
"Don't worry." she said, "I got a lot of practice on Megabyte's troops during the war, this should be no problem."
Bob sighed, "All right, but be extra careful anyway. I'll be waiting here with the bomb when you get back."
"Got it." Dot told him as she kissed him on the cheek and ran off. Not far ahead, she found the User.
"Looking for something?" she called him, and as soon as he saw her she took off up the corridor he had just came from. She ran as fast as she could up a stairway, looking back only once to make certain that the User was following her. When she saw that he was she turned down another corridor, making sure that he saw her. She didn't want to lose him just yet, she wanted to give Bob plenty of time.
Bob watched from around a corner as Dot ran with the User in pursuit and he prayed that she would be okay. As soon as they were gone, he went forward, scanning for the explosive. He was very aware that the clock was ticking, and he had no idea why they were on a timer in the first place. But he was also aware of the fact that he was running low on energy, creating stable portals and shields within a game wasn't easy. He finally got close enough that he could pinpoint its location, he sprinted the rest of the way and came to what looked like a supplies locker.... and, naturally, it was locked.
Dot had been going up-deck after deck to lure the User as far away from Bob as she could. But she also had to avoid the game sprites that were looking for her. If she got caught, she wouldn't be able to meet Bob again in time. After a few close calls, she felt it would be safe to lose them now and get back to him as soon as she could. She just hoped that she had bought him enough time.
Bob studied the locking mechanism, it seemed simple enough. He put his hand near it and sent waves of powerful energy into it, carefully moving the tiny parts within. After concentrating through the lock, the door sprung open in his hands. Finally, he carefully lifted a bucket on the floor to reveal the bomb. He examined the explosive carefully before picking it up, just a small bundle of dynamite sticks with a wiring system and some kind of battery. As Enzo would say, "How basic can you get?" he marveled. After looking it over, he decided it was relatively safe to move it around, it wasn't set to go off until every fuse was attached to the wiring, then the wiring was attached to the battery. He headed back to where he would meet Dot and hoped she was there.
Dot reached the spot where Bob was supposed to be, but he wasn't there. For a moment she considered looking for him, but she knew better than that, she stayed there and waited.
She didn't have to wait long before Bob came running up. At first she wanted to hug him, but upon seeing the explosive in his hands, decided better of it.
"Is that it?" she asked, a little incredulous at the bomb's small size.
He nodded, "Yup. And I know just where to set it too. Come on." and with that, he led her back down the corridor.
"Did you have any trouble with the User?" Bob asked her.
"Not a chance." she chuckled, "He probably thinks I'm at the grand staircase by now."
"Good." he said, "No telling what would happen to the game if the User got blown up. Here it is." he stated as he came to a clearing against the wall next to a loud-running machine that he couldn't quite identify. As he set it down carefully between the machine and the wall, he noticed something.
"Uh, oh. We got a problem."
"What is it?" Dot asked.
Bob looked the bomb over one more time before answering, "No timer! You just connect the wires and 'Boom'.
Dot's eyes widened, "You mean we're not going to be able to leave before it goes off?"