Chapter 1: Ruin, Matchmaker I, and Overwrite 1
"Ruin": Major character deaths.
"Matchmaker 1": Chemical coercion.
A color sketch of Megabyte from the "Overwrite" miniverse:
He closes his eyes against the sight of the dead System and tries to turn away, his core-code rising into his throat — but the view from the top of the Principle Office yields the same result in all directions: smashed buildings, bleak desertion, the oppressive sky an apocalyptic shade of necrotic purple. He especially doesn't want to look at the capacitowers that controlled each Sector… or at what's left of them, anyway. Megabyte's shattered Tor is still wracked by occasional explosions as whatever major weapons he held in reserve destabilize and end file spectacularly.
Or in the direction of Dot's Diner, which in many ways functioned as the heart of Mainframe — and of Bob himself. It's still standing, mostly, but he can't bear to approach it again, not after searching its blasted interior so thoroughly after the degauss wave and finding only a single charred fragment of orange-brown cloth that had, he suspected, once belonged to cladding of the woman he'd loved and yet somehow never told what mattered.
He clutches that pathetic token in his right hand now, and it burns his skin the way her lips might have, if only…
He's failed them all.
A distant rumble from the Tor makes him look round, his eyes widening in a momentary flare of hope. But Megabyte is gone too, and only the lingering echo of the virus's dying dreams remains to keep Bob company.
As she gazed into a pair of liquid violet eyes deep enough to drown in, Mouse reflected that things actually could have turned out a delluva lot worse.
She'd come to Mainframe on the trail of another hacker, a mysterious and notorious figure known variously as Eros, Cupid, and the Matchmaker — and she'd be lying to herself if she didn't admit that she'd been passingly pleased to see this System's ID number come up on her tracker, because she'd always had a certain fondness for a particular Guardian with azure skin and unruly silver hair and warm brown eyes full of high-test energy. Not that she'd ever seriously pursue Bob, you understand: although he played a lot more fast and loose than any other program of his function she'd ever run across, he was still a Guardian, and fraternizing with a known criminal was definitely not in his job description.
Nor was harbouring a malicious hacker (as opposed to a "strictly business, sugah" one) in the System he was dedicated to protecting. As soon as Mouse had given him the low-down he'd not only agreed to help her, he'd taken her to meet Dot Matrix, the woman Mouse had caught a glimpse of on her last visit here — and who clearly considered Bob her property, even though Mouse could tell within thirty nanoseconds of standing in the same diner with them both that neither of them had done anything about it.
Watching Bob fill Dot (who was obviously a mover and shaker in this small system) in on how he felt a "friendly" hacker could help them against the much more overtly dangerous quantity lurking somewhere in their city, Mouse kept her amusement hidden behind a pleasant expression, because he was clearly just as crazy about her as she was about him. She idly considered slipping something into the conversation that would make one or the other of them tip their hand, but quickly decided against it: there'd be time for fun and games later, maybe even including a drink or two with Bob so she could enjoy the sparkle in his eyes at leisure — because he was tabbed cute and had a very nice ASCII, even though Mouse wouldn't actually go so far as to lure him to her bed. Right now Eros was still on the loose, and if he decided to unleash one of his trademark —
The thought had barely cleared Mouse's processor when a wave of shimmering red energy-particles, taller than the tallest buildings around them, raced across the cityscape from the outer horizon — towards them, over them, on toward the System's core and all the sectors beyond. She'd seen it from above before, safely aboard Ship and out of the infection zone; but now, as the notorious Matchmaker code flashed through her format and took root, she had time for only one surge of panicked thought: Who? Who will it network me with?
There weren't a lot of choices in a System like Mainframe, with it's relatively small collection of high-level sprites and viruses. Maybe, if she was lucky, her network selection was currently located in some deep level of the city: if that was the case, all she had to do was avoid that individual long enough to find a way, with the help of Bob and Dot, to counteract the code and free herself from the threat of the sexual/romantic compulsion that would manifest itself if she ever encountered her Match.
It was just a matter of…
"Mouse..?" A soft feminine whisper, questioning, full of dawning awe. The tone of it penetrated her body armour as if it weren't even there, gliding like a blade into a part of her core that nobody had ever touched before. Sweet. Agonizing. Devastating. She tore her eyes away from the skyline outside the diner's windows and turned toward Dot Matrix, everything seeming to happen in slow motion.
Their gazes met.
Oceanic feeling washed over and through Mouse, filling her with exquisite heat that settled between her legs and wrapped tightly around her heart. Looking into the gorgeous face of a woman she'd only really met a few microseconds ago, a woman she now adored, a woman she would kill for and a woman she would die for, Mouse moved towards her prize and thought: It could've been worse. I could've ended up networked with one of this System's viruses.
She was only peripherally aware of Bob's open-mouthed stare as she drew that trim slender body into her arms and tasted, for the first breathtaking time, the willing lips of her new lover.
Ghetty Prime's power levels had been fluctuating wildly ever since the User's code had descended from the sky in swift spectral tendrils of relentless silver, sinking into everything it touched, flowing like mist into the deepest hidden corners of the sector. It had infiltrated Silicon Tor almost instantly, seemingly drawn to Megabyte in particular; he'd fled, knowing that his talons and teeth would avail him nothing against such an enemy, but even with his feral speed and animal cunning he hadn't gotten far before it had overtaken him…
…and done immeasurably worse to him than merely delete him.
And now the Guardian was at his gate, asking — no, demanding — to know what was going on. Doubtless he'd picked up the fluctuations and was worried that they were going to spread to the rest of the System. Frankly Megabyte couldn't have cared less, at this particular moment, if Mainframe crashed and burned around him: for once his attention was turned entirely inward…
But he found the prospect of the look on Bob's face amusing. At least that was what he told himself. So he commanded that Bob be admitted to the Tor and brought to his inner sanctum, where he'd been pacing and brooding and gazing into mirrors with appalled fascination ever since the User had visited this curse upon him.
When the double doors to the outside world opened and Bob strode in, already yelling, Megabyte paused only a moment before turning from the reflective surface he'd been contemplating and stepping out of the shadows. And it really was most gratifying, the way the rude words instantly died in Bob's throat, replaced by a silent stare of absolute disbelief. Megabyte met his gaze without blinking, a thin smile curving his new mouth: he knew how he looked now, straight and stern and darkly handsome, his formerly steel dimensions reduced to a spritely scale but still tall, still broad —
— and still impressive. Oh, yes, in ways that were profoundly dangerous even now. He could see it in the sudden intensity in Bob's widened eyes, and hear it in the husky undertone to the boy's whispered query: "…Megabyte?"
A wider smile, slow and savouring, touched Megabyte's emerald lips. Perhaps there was something to be gained from this situation after all.
Chapter 2: Overwrite 2 and Overwrite 3
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply.
A color sketch of Megabyte from the "Overwrite" miniverse:
He was… magnificent. There was simply no other word for it…
Actually, that was a lie: Bob could think of a number of different words that applied equally well. Imposing, for one, as tall and as elegant as a tower. Or regal, walking as if he owned every pixel of ground he trod upon. Or even gorgeous, in a way that was not quite mortal: his face was an indigo mask that looked as if its sharp contours might still be carved of living metal, gloriously aloof until an expression of annoyance or pleasure brought it into the realm of flesh and blood rather than cold steel.
A realm within Bob's reach — much, much too close for anything like safety.
Or compelling. That one definitely fit: the former virus's charisma was practically a physical force, drawing every eye to him the nanosecond he entered a room, infusing his beautifully articulated words with weight and meaning. His voice hadn't changed at all, and Bob found that it was now setting up thrills in his core that he was careful to hide from everyone around him, although maintaining an attitude of casual nonchalance in Megabyte's presence was becoming increasingly difficult: he wanted to move into close range, to gaze into those piercing emerald eyes with their hearts of fire without being distracted, to brush his hand against that of his enemy… you know, just to see what would happen.
He suspected that the reaction he'd get now would be considerably different than the one he would have gotten even three seconds ago.
He kept finding his gaze tracing the line of that powerful jaw, as exquisite as cut glass, and the sweep of that flash of crimson hair — and wondering how it would feel to touch them. And if Megabyte was even peripherally aware of what was going on…
Bob played it cool, although the graceful curve of that cruel venomous mouth tormented him endlessly. He might be in lust, but he certainly wasn't stupid.
"Again, Bob?" He didn't bother to keep the lilt of amusement out of his voice as he wrapped his fingers around the smaller sprite's wrists and locked them into a grip that might as well be steel. "My my! Such a greedy boy…"
"Ah…" He was panting already, his slim azure body executing an impatient little squirm as Megabyte, on his knees on the mattress of his very well-appointed bed, drew his recently acquired lover back to rest against his chest. He settled into a comfortable position before turning his attention fully to the young man straddling his lap, who seemed content — for the moment — to let himself be restrained. They were both completely unclad and Megabyte's erection was pressed into the cleft between Bob's buttocks, which was probably helping Bob set aside any misgivings he might be entertaining. Certainly his slender and rather lovely cock seemed to be fully behind what was happening to him, so to speak.
"Not that I'm complaining, mind you." He applied a series of lingering kisses and little bites to the side of Bob's neck, letting him feel the sharp edge of his teeth and causing the Guardian's breathing to deepen even more. Teasing him before letting go of his right wrist just long enough to push him upward enough to position the tip of his own erection precisely where it needed to be, the intimate contact making Bob utter a whispered curse that no Guardian should know — a curse that became a wordless gasp when Megabyte renewed his grip and pulled the sprite down, slowly impaling him. "There."
"Ohhhhh User…" The tight sheath of his ass clenched and trembled reflexively, but his moan suggested far more pleasure than pain: after all, Megabyte had already taken him twice tonight. He should certainly be used to it by now.
"That's what you want, isn't it?" He managed to keep his own voice steady, although the sensations were most distracting, especially when Bob hit bottom and tried to pull himself upward again. Megabyte, however, wasn't ready to have him take a more active role in the proceedings — yet. He applied an admonishing bite to Bob's shoulder and tightened his grip on those slender but strong wrists, uttering a soft growl that wouldn't have been out of keeping with his formerly viral format. For a miracle, Bob took the hint and froze, clenching his fists and tipping his head forward, perceptibly shivering with the effort of restraint.
For a long moment Megabyte just held him there, savouring both the physical pleasure and the less tangible satisfaction of controlling the situation. When he was good and ready he began to move his hips in a slow shallow glide, which only made Bob groan in frustration.
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that."
"H…harder…" He could barely speak. "Deeper…"
Megabyte took pity and obliged him. Bob let his head fall back against the taller program's shoulder, uttering the most delicious little gasps at the deepest point of each thrust that made Megabyte want to fully unsheathe his fangs and take big bites out of the sprite's living substance. Instead he contented himself with a sharp nip on the outer curve of Bob's ear, followed by a hissing whisper: "Look at me, Bob." And when the Guardian turned his head as best he could to gaze up at him with half-lidded lust-darkened eyes in a way that made the fire in his core burn even hotter: "Good boy. You learn quickly, I'll grant you that much."
Bob licked his parted lips and managed to put together a sentence: "And you're — oh — you're…"
Those eyes. He could drown in them so easily now. "Incredible… amazing…"
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Megabyte smirked, and picked up the pace just to hear the Guardian cry out. "A little wider, if you please…" And when Bob tried to mute his next vocalization, Megabyte dropped his voice to a hot murmur: "No, don't hold back. Nobody can hear you. You're safe… "
He spread his thighs even more, as ordered, and twisted against the grip that held him imprisoned, almost keening: "Please, Megabyte…"
"Safe. With me." He knew what Bob wanted — the boy's shaft was being sorely neglected in spite of the pounding his ass was taking — and he released the sprite's right hand to let him tend to it. To his surprise Bob didn't immediately take hold of himself: instead he grasped Megabyte's hand in turn, guided it to his erection, then reached back to catch hold of the former virus's hip and hold fast. Something about the gesture, so… companionable… made Megabyte's new heart clench in his chest, and when Bob turned a little further, enough to capture his mouth, he returned the kiss as passionately as it was being given and stroked the hot flesh that had been so trustingly gifted to him, savouring the racing pulse that beat deep within it.
Within nanoseconds Bob's cries, muffled against Megabyte's lips, became an exultant scream, and his whole body went taut as he peaked for the fourth time since they'd stumbled into Megabyte's quarters a little over a millisecond and a half ago, devouring each other's mouths and tearing at each other's cladding. The spurts of code had barely petered out when he reached up to cup the side of Megabyte's face with his right hand, his gaze softly commanding and his voice a throaty murmur much lower than its normal pitch: "C'mon, M.B.… fill me up… I wanna feel you…"
A new permutation, that coaxing tactic — and a profoundly compelling one. Megabyte briefly considered resisting it, but his merely mortal body seemed to have its own ideas on that score: he came almost silently, muting his open-mouthed growl against Bob's lips and closing his eyes against the surging force of sensation and emotion combined, barely restraining himself from unsheathing his nails and piercing Bob's skin, which already bore several marks that would still be prominent come morning. And when, in the warm aftermath, they lay together on the rumpled bed with Bob's hips still socketed tightly against his own and the weight of the half-asleep sprite's head lolling back against his shoulder, he wrapped the Guardian's body in a possessive embrace and, as he contemplated the half-closed eyes and self-satisfied smile of his former enemy, decided that perhaps being mortal was not entirely without its compensations.
Chapter 3: Time, Cocoa and Irony
"Time": Major character death.
Dot Matrix never had a shortage of things that needed doing: she was, after all, practically Mainframe's EXE and every problem, from the smallest tear to the biggest catastrophe, seemed to wind up at her gateway. From the nanosecond she opened her eyes in the morning until she shut down late at night she was planning, directing, advising, and often taking an active hand in whatever had to get processed — and then there was Enzo, who was such a ball of uncontrolled energy that keeping tabs on him was practically a full-time job in itself. She barely had time to recharge, much less pursue any extracurricular activities.
Bob had tried to get her away from her relentless schedule of business, business, business. He'd invited her to MPEGS, cajoled her with the prospect of a second at the data slides, teased her (sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes with a distinctly pointed edge) about "all work and no play". But she'd never had time for anything else.
She'd never made time for him.
And now, as she watched a Game Cube ascend back into the realms above and heard the System's Voice intone: "Game Over. The User wins…"
…she realized that the time that mattered had finally run out.
Phong gazed into the mug of cocoa cradled between his spindly hands and sighed contentedly. Everything was absolutely perfect.
Not that Mainframe didn't have it's problems, mind you. Ghetty Prime was still under Megabyte's control and Lost Angles was still the domain of a virus so powerful she could wipe out Mainframe with a single thought — if she ever composed herself long enough to come up with the idea in the first place. Enzo Matrix was a constant random factor, jetting around the System and getting into everything that could be gotten into — and making up new forms of mischief when things got too dull. Five Game Cubes had descended in the last cycle, in a pattern that indicated the User was about to unleash a positive storm of them. Frisket was biting anyone who came too close, and Mike the TV filled the airwaves with inane chatter to stir up the masses, and Al's Diner was abysmally slow to serve, and Bob and Dot were having a TIFF — again — and… well, it was widely known that Hexadecimal had her eye-holes on the resident Guardian, but there were also rumours that Megabyte had recently taken a similar interest in Dot Matrix — and possibly, as Mike had enthusiastically gushed on his afternoon talk show only four seconds ago, that something had actually come of it. Hence the TIFF, Phong suspected, which was stretching into its third second and showed no signs of being resolved anytime soon.
Yes, truly it could be said that Mainframe was a System with its share of intriguing events, and Phong knew well the wisdom of the old Read-Me file about interesting times.
But… well, he found that a cup of excellent cocoa was capable of making up for any number of minor inconveniences.
"Ve have no idea vat has happened," Herr Doktor babbled from around the vicinity of Bob's knee, leading him deeper into Silicon Tor than Bob had ever delved before. "Ze artifact vas schtable! Zer vas no reason for it to —"
"Describe it again," Bob said curtly, his mind evenly divided between how he was going to get out of here if things turned sour and what, exactly, he was heading towards.
The viral binome launched into a cut-and-paste repeat of his initial frantic Vidwindow call to Bob: a sphere that fit neatly into Megabyte's large hand, white shot through with red streaks, glowing with power that had (everybody concerned thought) been fully contained within its suspension field skin. But something had gone drastically wrong — or at least, that was what Bob could deduce from the Doktor's panic and the fact that the binome insisted that Megabyte himself had ordered him to call in Mainframe's Guardian to deal with the aftermath. The artifact, which Megabyte had snuck into Mainframe using a Conyari mercenary, was supposed to contain the suspended seed of a fourth-level portal, but Bob, based on what the Doktor had described, was beginning to suspect that it was something else entirely, something that had done its dirty work silently before vanishing from the confinement field Megabyte's scientists had secured it in.
The Doktor insisted that Megabyte had only handled it briefly, for a few nanoseconds at most. But if Bob was right, that would have been more than enough.
"The Conyari aren't known for their love of viruses," he told the worried viral as they approached huge double doors, embossed with Megabyte's symbol, that opened to admit them into a vast and darkened inner chamber. "I'm surprised Megabyte didn't have you scan —"
"But ve did!" the little scientist wailed, wringing his unnaturally articulated hands. As they entered the chamber his voice fell to a reverent murmur: "Intensely! It vas clear of anyzing zat could have possibly —"
But Bob's wasn't listening to him anymore. He'd caught sight of Megabyte, and what he saw made his core sink, then begin to pulse faster.
The virus was suspended in a containment field himself now, upright in its intangible embrace with his arms slightly outstretched at his sides although he was clearly unconscious. His usually gleaming eyes were dull slits of greyed green, and the usually virulent green markings on his hide were similarly muted under the pattern of black fractal ridges that had spread over his armour like lethal vines. Bob could clearly tell with hand he'd taken the sphere into, since his left arm was lost under the slowly writhing mass of code; even through the hum of the field, he could hear the greedy hissing of the infection that was doing its best to destroy him.
Only a cursory scan with Glitch was necessary to confirm Bob's suspicion: "It's Conyari deathcode, all right. If this hit him yesterday, I'm amazed he's still compiling."
Herr Doktor was still hand-wringing, and when Bob looked down into his single eye he saw a gleam of tears there. "But… you can save him, can you not?"
Bob took a moment to appreciate the irony of the situation: a virus taken down by an infection, permitted entry to his format as a direct result of his own scheming greed. Looking up at Megabyte's profile, still sharply sculpted where the deathcode hadn't managed to overrun it, Bob knew that he should just walk away and let things take their natural course. Within another second at most Megabyte's format would decay beyond recovery and…
…and what? What if the Conyari code spread through his subliminal contact with his thousands of virals? It was a faint possibility, but it definitely existed.
Lives would be lost, but Ghetty Prime would be clear of viral infection for the first time in minutes.
Three distinct moments from the past flashed across the Vidwindow of Bob's memory: playing guitar on a stage in front of half of Mainframe with this virus as his partner, the nanosecond when Megabyte had let Dot Matrix go for no other reason than that he'd owed Bob his life, and Enzo's account of Megabyte being prepared to send him away to spare him the sight of Frisket being taken apart. None of them things that Bob would ever have associated with viral conduct, until he'd met this particular virus.
He raised Glitch again and took another look at the readings, then glanced down at the anguished binome at his side. "I can do it, but it won't be easy — and I'll need more equipment than just my keytool."
Herr Doktor's face lit up like a Clockshift tree. "Anyzing!" he exclaimed, and summoned an empty Vidwindow with a wave of his long thin hand. "Ask, Herr Guardian, und it shall be yours!"
Seeing the love and exultation shining in that viral gaze, Bob followed its track to Megabyte and wondered just how big a favour this could all be translated into at some future date.
Chapter 4: When the World Ends
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply.
They were alone now in the heart of Megabyte's Tor: the compression shell that enclosed the capacitower had already emitted three pulses of increasing amplitude, the latest of which had erased every binome and knocked out all communications. Nevertheless Guardian and virus stood together in front of a rank of blankly hissing Vidwindows, as if some miracle would take down the shell… but Bob knew better than to hope for an eleventh-millisecond save. Dot and Phong would be doing everything in their power to save him, but it wasn't going to be enough.
"Well?" Megabyte demanded, turning a cold gaze in Bob's direction.
The readings from Glitch were crystal clear: "The next decompression wave will erase everything — including us."
"I see." There was no trace of fear in Megabyte's expression or voice now, although he'd been visibly panicking only microseconds ago, when his viral binomes had dissolved in bursts of shattered code. "And how long do we have, precisely?"
Bob checked Glitch again. "Thirty nanoseconds. Maybe forty-five."
Megabyte returned his attention to the Vidwindows, which remained full of static, and his voice dropped to a bitter rumble: "Intolerable! To end file here, like this… with only you for company…"
"It could be worse."
The virus turned incredulous eyes toward him. "I find that very hard to believe."
Bob met his gaze squarely, deploying his zipboard and stepping onto it without looking down. "Oh, yeah. For example, I could decide that I've got nothing left to lose anymore… and that there's no point in holding back."
Megabyte shifted to face the Guardian as the smaller sprite glided swiftly toward him, wary but certainly not alarmed — and, admittedly, intrigued. He didn't even bother to deploy his claws: perhaps the sprite intended to strike him somehow, but such an exercise seemed a rather pointless waste of what little time remained to them.
He didn't expect Bob to slide right up to him and wrap slender but strong arms tightly around his neck. He was positively astounded when the Guardian leaned in even further and kissed him long and hard, in a way that could only be called "passionate", with a soupcon of "desperate" that added extra spice.
When Bob pulled back again Megabyte stared at him in disbelief, rendered temporarily speechless. Bob couldn't help but smile, a wry cocky quirk of lips that were still tingling. "So," he quipped, "crazy, huh?"
He started to let go and move back, only to have thick metal arms wrap around him and lock him in place.
"Oh, no, Guardian." Megabyte's answering smile was thin and venomous — and gloating, as he drew Bob to him again. "In fact, I'd say you've finally come to your senses — albeit a little too late."
Bob closed his eyes and met that devouring kiss with equal force, leaving the remaining nanoseconds of his runtime to take care of themselves.
Chapter 5: Nightmares and Unexpected Keys
"Nightmares": Reference to major character deaths.
Megabyte growled in his sleep, shifting onto his right side and curling into himself defensively, his claws unsheathing a full pixel with a tiny metallic hiss.
And Bob, who'd been silently watching him for the past thirty microseconds from the other side of the bed, closed his eyes and bit back a sigh of pure weariness.
They'd been running for so long that he'd lost track of all the Systems they'd passed through, heading further and further into the wild reaches of the Net in the small stealthy ship they'd been able to procure two Systems out from Mainframe. Mainframe… Bob tried not to think about it too much, because those memories usually threatened to paralyze him with grief. Mainframe was gone, wiped clean, erased — or as good as, with only a few scattered necrotized binomes remaining to lurch through the dark and shattered streets of what had once been Bob's home, and the home of all he'd loved.
Knowing that it was all gone didn't stop the love, no matter how much the playbacks tore at Bob's heart and mind: Phong's quiet wisdom, Enzo's brilliant irrepressible grin, and Dot… oh Dot, beautiful and smart and brave, but not lovely or intelligent or courageous enough to defeat deletion when it had come for her. He wished that he could forget her face in those last nanoseconds of her runtime, just as he wished that the marks on his forehead and Megabyte's, the sigils that bound them together, could somehow be smashed or excised or rewritten to allow them to go their separate ways. Both desires were equally hopeless, but they still kept him up at night.
Around them the ship hummed quietly to itself, infused with Megabyte's code (he'd retained the ability to infect hardware, if nothing else) and streaking through inter-System space on its way to…. where? It didn't really matter, but Bob knew that Megabyte would tell him if he asked.
He didn't feel like being in indebted to the virus yet again. He was already in too deep.
Megabyte growled again, an animal shiver wracking his powerful frame, and through the network link they shared Bob could feel the vast dark shape of nightmares moving over the landscape of his intricate mechanical mind, setting cold steel trembling with the bittersweetness of memories no less full of desperate longing than Bob's own, past and present and future equally blighted by a woman with a high crystalline laugh and hair as black as jet. Dreams of corruption and conquest, forever lost.
Opening his eyes again, he reached out his left hand and coaxed those razored talons back into their sheaths with a tender caress. After all, what else did they have left?
People like to think that they control who has access to them — who can open them, who can close them, who can reach inside and run curious fingers through the treasures they’ve hoarded up over the course of a runtime.
If they’re lucky, the rare person who holds an unexpected key will respect the barrier implied by the existence of a lock. If they’re singularly unfortunate, the rare person won’t even realize that the lock exists.
All you can do in that case is watch helplessly while that rare person, so perfect and so uncaring, tears open your heart and compels your will with the simple force of the line of their throat, the timbre of their laughter, and the flash of their smile.
I can live with the existence of unexpected keys. I have no choice.
But by all the Users and their Games, why did the hand that stirs the fire within me have to be yours?
Chapter 6: Mystery Play 1 and Mystery Play 2
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply.
Inspired by the ST:TNG episode "Masks", which is the closest thing to a Pagan mystery play that has ever been seen on network TV.
MYSTERY PLAY 1
Bob awoke to a internal prompt, a disturbing thrill of his Guardian instincts that told him, instantly and unequivocally, that something was terribly wrong with the System he was dedicated to protecting. More specifically, something was missing. The light leaking through the circular window of his apartment was unnaturally dimmed, and when he strode to the glass to look out he saw a chilling sight: Mainframe, darkened and dulled, its usually bright buildings overlaid with a pall of charcoal coloration — and apparently deserted, because it was also perfectly still.
"Glitch: System integrity scan!" But the keytool did not give him the expected series of graphs: instead it displayed a single point of light in the centre of its screen, a tiny pulse of pure white… which began to move, creating a thread that superimposed itself onto a map of the streets around Bob's apartment building.
Heading toward the centre of the System. Silently inviting him to follow.
An attempt to call up a Vidwindow accomplished nothing, and a shake of his arm and a few sharp taps on the keytool produced no different result. So Bob headed for the exit, already reaching for his zipboard, every line of his code singing at a pitch that only Frisket would be able to hear. Whatever was going on, it had the potential to be very bad indeed.
MYSTERY PLAY 2
The eerie silence of a deserted Mainframe followed Bob into the darkened Principle Office, where he had to pull a few tricks out of his hat to convince the locked gateways to let him in; at least his zipboard still worked, so he was able to follow the thread of light on Glitch's tiny screen through the maze of hallways, up and down and sideways, hacking doors along the way, until he found himself led to a massive steel portal he had no intention of opening if he didn't have to: the door to Mainframe's Core, the warning lights that usually whirled at an unauthorized approach as dead as everything else about the System.
Well, now that he was here he could answer at least one question. He raised his keytool and tapped its side yet again. "C'mon, Glitch: Diagnostic. Is there a Core flow failure?"
The white dot blinked three times and vanished, replaced by the readouts Bob was asking for… which revealed that the Core was utterly inert. Bob's own core sank and a chill ran up the back of his neck: if the Core was completely offline, Mainframe shouldn't even be —
"Ah, Bob," a familiar voice gently intoned from behind him. He spun to see Phong standing only ten bits away, his thin fingers delicately steepled in front of him. "I see you have passed the first set of tests."
"Phong?" He approached the elder sprite, his mouth spilling questions: "What's going on? Why is the Core offline? Where are Dot and the —"
"Ah yes. Dot." Phong was regarding him with the usual calm demeanour… but something else about him stopped Bob in his tracks, the chill along his spine becoming a frisson of icy fear. Power, quiet but potentially devastating, seemed to lurk in every familiar line of the SysAdmin's metallic cladding. "You seek her. Of course you do. You could do nothing else. Tell me, do you believe yourself worthy of my wisdom?"
Bob frowned and tilted his head. "If you know where she is…" A pang of hotter feeling stirred deep within his breast, a yearning so keen that almost made him cry out loud, but he shoved both it and the surprise it generated to the back of his mind. "We've got to get the Core back online, and we don't have much time!"
"You are correct, my son. The Wheel turns relentlessly, pulling everything with it, dictating the path of all that compiles — and all that does not, but one day shall." He traced the form of a circle in the air before him with one hand, slowly, and slowly fire followed his gesture, white and red and impossible, radiant black in three successive segments. When he was done it hung between him and Bob, silently burning, as inscrutable as his whispered words: "Do you know the mystery, Guardian? Can you follow the signs? Do you truly seek, even not knowing what awaits you?"
Bob stared at the Wheel, finding himself fascinated. It writhed and twisted, composed of a million interwoven threads of energy. If he looked just a little closer, he was sure he could see binomes and sprites and viruses, artifacts and objects, Systems and cities… and darting through the flames with a teasing smile, leading him on, the face and form of the woman he —
With a little shake of his head he came back to himself. "I need to find Dot," he repeated, feeling that inexplicable pang of longing rise again, as sharp as a blade slipping into his breast.
"And what would you do to accomplish that task?"
"Anything," Bob asserted, and it was nothing less than the truth.
Phong's even tone became infused with a subtle note of what might have been approval. "Your enthusiasm does you credit, although it may not be enough. But," and he banished the Wheel with a wave of his hand before turning away, gliding towards the shadows at the edge of the chamber, "perhaps… perhaps…"
"Phong?" He took a step forward and narrowed his eyes, because he could have sworn that the older sprite's format was literally melting into the darkness. Alarmed, he extended an entreating hand. "Phong, wait!"
"The King and the Queen…" It was a rapidly fading whisper. "The eternal conflict… the eternal balance… reconciled, if you are… resolute…"
And then he was gone, leaving Bob alone once more, perplexed almost beyond measure — and with a seed of emptiness in his chest, newly realized, that flared and ached with every pulse of his heart.
Chapter 7: Fireworks and Overwrite 4
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply.
A picture of sprite!Megabyte from the "Overwrite" universe: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v189/crowdog66/sprite-meggy_color.jpg
As he all but dragged himself into and across the living room of his apartment, Bob couldn't stop the words of Guardian Instructor Entek from replaying in his mind: "Fraternization with viruses is dangerous under all circumstances. All of them. All the time. Never let one of them get close to you in a personal sense, and above all, never permit one of them to engage in physical contact with you."
The course had been "Viral Theory 101". First hour stuff, drilled into Bob's head long and hard and repeatedly.
"Any physical contact. Whatsoever."
He winced. Kind of ironic, then, that "long and hard and repeatedly" was what had seduced him into casting that fundamental principle into the Trash. Lately he'd had extra reasons to be glad that his uniform cladding covered just about every pixel of his body except his head and his hands, because Megabyte seemed to take great and gloating pleasure in leaving claw marks in the most intimate places.
Still moving somewhat painfully, Bob reached his bathroom mirror and deactivated the top half of his cladding, grimacing when he saw the thinner and fresher scores that now marred his chest, twisting at the waist to catch a glimpse of similar lines running down his shoulders and back that disappeared into the waistband of his uniform pants.
Viruses are addictive, Entek had sternly intoned, and Bob now had plenty of evidence to prove both that hypothesis and the additional fact that sampling one strain of viral code just wasn't enough once you got started.
Remembering Hex's seductive cooing and feminine caresses that had been followed by a strangely familiar animal rapaciousness, he groaned softly deep in his throat. When Megabyte saw his worst enemy's marks of possession on the body of "his" Guardian he was going to hit the very high roof of Silicon Tor — Bob would have bet the System Core on it.
Hex, laughing delightedly, had promised that when that happened she'd put in an appearance to back Bob up. Thinking ahead to that almost inevitable confrontation between an enraged Class Three with bunkers full of heavy ordnance and a mentally unstable Class Two with nigh-infinite power reserves, Bob was already wondering just how the Dell he was going to explain the explosions, which would doubtless be visible —and audible — all the way to the gold-plated circuit boards of Beverly Hills.
If Bob was very lucky, there might even be enough of his own hide left afterwards to matter.
OVERWRITE 4 (which takes place several "weeks" further along in the chronology than Overwrite 3)
Before their laboured breathing had even begun to return to its normal depth and pace Megabyte was propping himself up on his elbows to look back over his shoulder, his green eyes wide and incredulous. "What did you just say?"
Bob met the former virus's gaze squarely, although his own cheeks were flushed with more than just amorous exertion. Fifteen nanoseconds ago he hadn't been able to keep his mouth shut; now he found he couldn't have opened it again for all the credits in Mainframe's treasury.
After a long moment's shared regard, Megabyte's eyes narrowed. "That's what I thought you said."
"Megabyte —" Bob had found his tongue again, but his mergemate was already turning away and shifting out from under him, to rise from their rumpled bed and stride, with arrogant and stiff-shouldered grace, toward the bathroom. The door closed with a muted click that nonetheless had an aura of ominous finality.
Bob rolled over onto his back and flung one arm over his eyes, biting back a groan and a curse. Of all the times he could have chosen to finally confess his love in so many words, evidently the near-climax of Megabyte's first time bottoming was one of the worst.
Chapter 8: DNA and Lighting the Fuse
"Lighting the Fuse": Rape and non-con, from a certain angle.
With thanks to Northlight (from the Binary Input Forums of long ago!) for the Keylord concept, which I've blatantly stolen and slightly tweaked for "DNA". :)
Mainframe, like any good-sized System, suffered its share of tears — but this one was unlike any Dot had ever seen before. It had been reported two milliseconds ago on Level 28 of Ghetty Prime, in the "grey zone" where Megabyte's control was not absolute and even non-infected sprites and binomes could enter without (much) danger of being apprehended by the virus's troops. Consequently Dot had met Bob there shortly after the report was received, bringing a police squad with her: she trusted Bob's expertise, but she was also a huge believer in the Read-Me of "better safe than sorry".
And therefore they'd all been standing around watching the anomaly for the past one hundred and fourteen microseconds, because Bob's attempts to close it had gone nowhere: the seething ball of energy seemed to be emitting its own suppression field, which, along with the rhythmic frequencies it was releasing at set intervals, strongly suggested that it was far from a simple tear.
"It could be a portal marker," Bob had announced after taking a second set of readings, "but I've never seen a marker with this kind of signature. It's not quite in phase with the frequency the rest of the System is running on, almost as if…" He'd stared at Glitch's small screen, then shaken his head sharply. "Almost as if it's not running on the same timeframe. But that's impossible!"
Which had been enough for Dot to call in five more squads, complete with CPUs and heavy weaponry, in case the phenomenon did stabilize and open up to release something intent on causing harm to Mainframe and its inhabitants. As the tense microseconds dragged on she found her gaze returning again and again to her Guardian friend, whose warm brown gaze was intently focussed on his keytool. In the flickering glow of the tear his silicon hair and azure skin displayed a spectrum of cool colors, all of which Dot found highly attractive even under the present circumstances when she had a lot of other thoughts that should be occupying her processor. Gazing at him for a long moment while his attention was fully occupied with Glitch's readings, she found herself remembering that he'd invited her — again — to catch an MPEG with him sometime, and that she'd turned him down, again. There was just so much to do that her schedule was always full, but maybe, if she shifted the Beverly Hills home-owners meeting two milliseconds up and rescheduled her minutely inventory reconciliation…
She was just opening her mouth to say as much when Bob's black eyebrows rose sharply. Simultaneously the erratic light of the tear became steady and clear yellow, a perfect circle suspended just above the filthy cracked pavement of the alley it had materialized in. The police binomes snapped to attention and raised their weapons as a shadow appeared on the other side of the disc and passed through its surface into Mainframe, stepping neatly down to stand looking around at the programs staring in its direction with an expression of arch amusement.
It was tall and broad, with skin of a surprising color — Bob's precise shade of azure, but patterned with thin tigerish stripes of indigo that ran back jagged from the corners of its eyes and marked the sides of its powerful neck above the collar of the black body armour it wore. The skin of its exposed fingers was the same hue, and its hair displayed an equally familiar silver sheen. He — for the newcomer was clearly male — could have been Bob's bigger and stronger brother, although Dot knew for a fact that Bob had been an orphan, the single child of a pair of sprites who had ended file in the Kittimer Massacre.
But it was the details that sent a chill up her spine — confused, then horrified — and caused her eyes to widen in shock, because the neatly trimmed nails on those elegant hands gleamed yellow-gold, the hair swooped back in a truncated but eerily familiar triple point, and the eyes that those stripes adorned and highlighted…
…those eyes were the eyes of a sprite, yes, but a shade of venomous green, with hearts of red fire, that Dot also knew far too well. And they immediately sought her out, settling on her face in a way that sent another frisson of icy fear down her spine.
"Dot Matrix," the creature intoned smoothly — a voice midway between too, deep but light, and beautifully accented with the sharp inflections of the Systems of the Novafar Expanse. He bowed with precise courtesy. "I take it that my search has proven successful, and that this is Mainframe on the date 182104.7?"
Dot's voice had fled, even though her body seemed to be rooted in place. It took her a couple of nanoseconds to find it and drag it back into service, and even then it nearly choked her with all the questions it brought with it, but what came out was a single utilitarian word: "Yes."
"Ah! Excellent." He smiled at her, revealing a thin gleam of very white teeth between lips that were ever-so-faintly tinged with green, before turning his impossible eyes on Bob. "Then I'm not too late to save you, Bob. How gratifying."
Bob's mouth and eyes had been wide open the entire time Dot and the stranger had been speaking, but being directly addressed seemed to break his paralysis. He blinked, gave himself a visible shake, and managed a strangled whisper: "Who… who are you?"
The figure opened his arms in a gesture of friendly openness against the golden glow of the portal, and smiled more widely in a way that Dot found far from reassuring. "My name is Mage ar Nevarra, Keylord and Phase Walker, and I should think that who — or rather, what — I am would be painfully obvious."
"Oh User," Bob cursed, staring as if unable to tear his eyes away, then voiced an imprecation much lower and more bitter: "Megabyte!"
As Mage ar Nevarra turned to banish the portal with a gesture, Dot briefly considered ordering the police to open fire and keep shooting until this obscenity dropped to the ground and ended file. If it contained both Guardian and viral code that might take a lot of ammunition, but it could probably be done…
The look on Bob's face as he stared at the hybrid stopped her, and filled her with a dread that she didn't understand and could not question — at the moment. There'd be time to get answers later, even if she suspected that they might prove far more painful than confusion ever could.
LIGHTING THE FUSE (prequel to FIREWORKS)
Bob should have been having a hard time keeping his eyes open at the moment, because he'd dealt with two Games in the past second and had only just collapsed into bed and buried his face in the pillow when he'd heard a soft hissing sound… but he hadn't turned over fast enough. Not that Glitch would have done him much good against a Class Two virus even if he'd managed to get the drop on Hexadecimal. Which he hadn't.
So, no sleep for Bob this night — but he was very much awake nonetheless, because being tightly bound to a chair right in front of Hex's throne and unable to escape the relentless gaze of an insane "woman" with limitless power and a hair-trigger temper was a great incentive for keeping one's eyes wide open. Looking into the oval portals in Hex's white mask that revealed barely contained viral energy that could annihilate him in a nanosecond if it were unleashed, Bob told himself not to blink. Blinking might set her off. Anything might set her off.
She'd been studying him for almost two microseconds straight now, long legs crossed in front of her, silently leaning on one elbow and resting her chin on two gracefully curved fingers as she stared… and stared.. and stared. And Bob, who had no idea what this was about — with Hex, it could be literally anything, or nothing at all — managed not to blink and tried not to sweat. He would have risked asking her what the Dell was going on here if she hadn't gagged him as well as tying him up.
When she finally straightened a bit and tilted her head the other way he tensed in his bonds. Here it came. The virus sounded surprisingly congenial for someone who'd kidnapped him in the middle of the night and transported him to her Lair without so much as a by-your-leave: "So tell me, Bob, why him —" A flash of her sharply clawed hand transformed her benign mask into a visage with tens of needle-sharp teeth. "— and not me?"
"Mph!" Bob said emphatically. It was the best he could manage. Hex seemed to remember that she'd deliberately silenced him and, with a wave of her hand, banished the gag — and grinned that grin of a thousand blades at him, still waiting.
"Well, ah…" Bob's mind was racing at the highest clockspeed he'd ever hit. He knew exactly what Hex was referring to and really didn't want to think about exactly how she knew. "He's…" Sane, for one thing, but he couldn't very well say that out loud — not if he wanted to keep his guts where they were. "…ah. It's… complicated… really, really complicated."
To his surprise — and cautious relief — Hex donned a mask of merriment and emitted peals of laughter. "Of course it is! He's Megabyte — everything is a plot within a plan within a scheme!" A sweetly smiling face came into view, and she leaned forward to caress Bob's cheek. "Oh, don't worry, Bob — I'm not really angry with either of you. After all," and her aspect became sardonic, "heaven knows he could use the relief, and you… well, you've been flirting with him for ages. It's not as if I didn't see this coming."
"I — what — me?" Bob couldn't help the outraged sputter. "That's —"
The female virus repeated the caress, this time with an edge of claws that almost broke the skin. "You're not trying to lie to me, are you, Bob?"
"When have I flirted with him?" Bob demanded.
Another dismissive wave of her slender hand. "The first time you met him, for one thing. I can provide a playback if you like."
"Uh, no thanks." She was still smiling, so Bob hazarded a declaration: "Look, why don't you untie me and we can talk about this like civilized —"
"Untie you?" Hex seemed genuinely surprised. "Oohhh, but you just got here! And besides," her smile turning positively wicked, the energy in her gaze glowing red, "you're so adorable when you're tied up. Hasn't Megabyte said so himself?"
"Uh…" His core-code cringed (how much had she seen?) and simultaneously blazed with a flare of anger. He leaned forward as best he could, fixing the smirking female virus with an intimidating glare. "What's this all about, Hexadecimal?"
"Megabyte never wants to share his toys," Hex continued, now pouting with a tiny tear on one cheek. "No matter how nicely I ask. Even when the toy he's playing with was mine in the first place." She rose slowly from her throne, to stand looking down at the file-locked Guardian with eyes burning even hotter and a new expression — a smile, yes, evil and yet strangely sweet — on her white face. It sent a chill down Bob's spine and made his pulse beat even faster in a way that was all too familiar, even though this source might be wearing a considerably different format than the one that usually lit up his nervous system like a Clockshift tree. Her cold hand caressed him again, curving around his left cheek before running down to his throat, perhaps to savour the quickening of his heart in a way that was also familiar: it certainly brought to mind a particular quality of Megabyte's touch. "So you see, I've learned that it's pointless to ask at all — and to take what I want from him instead."
"Hex —" But she'd already banished his uniform, seemingly with a thought, and he had to admit that her squeal of delight when she saw his equipment, already half-hard, was pretty damned good for his ego. And when she descended upon him, crooning and caressing, kissing and biting, his mouth said "No!" — at first — but his body was a delluva lot easier to convince.
Even tied up, for she never unbound him. Even when she scored him with her claws and the thought When Megabyte sees those he's going to lose it crossed Bob's mind. Even when…
After all, it wasn't like he could do anything about it… right?
Chapter 9: Breaking and Busted
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply, since nobody actually dies.
Despite the similarities in the titles, these two stories are set in completely different 'verses.
Mainframe's Viral Overlord lay collapsed on the floor of his own fortress, unable to move a fibre: he'd managed to slash down two of the Web Creature's tentacles when it had caught him by surprise, but the third had slipped through his defences and lashed along the right side of his neck. A glancing blow, briefer than a kiss, but more than deadly enough — and when Bob had shown up two nanoseconds later, firing a burst of golden energy that had sent the monster shrieking into the shadows, it had already been too late.
He was running over now to kneel at Megabyte's side, to reach down and lay too-cool fingers to the wound whose black tendrils were already writhing over and across the virus's metallic format. "No… Glitch, anti-venom injector!"
He heard one, then two soft hisses as the Guardian applied two precious doses of antitoxin to the open place in his armour, but his sense of hearing was fading, his vision already blurred to the point of insensibility. He managed to turn his gaze enough to make out Bob's vague shape leaning over him, the warmth of those brown eyes still clear to be seen. "C'mon, stay with me, Megabyte… it'll work — it's gotta work…!"
The boy took his hand then, and through the black oblivion wrapping itself around him like a shroud Megabyte almost managed a final bark of imperious laughter. How typical of the young fool, to long to mend the irrevocably broken and the relentlessly unbreakable!
Bob, having spent almost five milliseconds bound in a file-lock field in the hold of a slaver ship under deep cloak cover, was already set to write the second off as being one of the less stellar in his career. It would have been a complete crash if he hadn't been sure that the nanosecond the slavers turned off their cloaking field to emerge from Mainframe's lowest levels and make a break for the Net, Dot was going to pounce on them with the wrath of… well, of Dot, which was a terrible force to be reckoned with indeed.
And he wasn't disappointed. The Captain of the renegades, a rakish woman called Black Bess with a patch over one eye and sartorial taste in cladding, had even had him dragged up to the bridge to (she smiled maliciously) "Take one last look at everything ye hold dear, Guardian… I'm not totally heartless, y'ken?"
"So," Bob asked after the two burly guards who had dragged him onto the bridge sat him down on a chair in front of the wide viewscreen that was currently displaying the ship's progress up a shaft that pierced the various levels of Ghetty Prime, "you're planning on making a clean getaway, huh?"
"No 'planning' about it, lad." Black Bess leaned back against a console beside one of her officers and folded her arms, still smirking. "The virus'll give us cover in his airspace — he'd better, counting what we paid him for yer hide — and once we're inter-System this 'Dot' ye keep blatherin' about won't be —"
"Sir!" An officer stationed to the right of the viewscreen turned in her seat, lifting one hand to the device installed in her left ear. "Incoming transmission!"
Bess gave Bob a saucy wink and straightened to her full lean height, giving the bottom of her tunic a quick tidying tug. "Put 'er through, Lieutenant."
The holding pattern on the screen vanished, replaced by a large-format image of the face of the woman Bob loved — and he couldn't remember ever seeing her look more thoroughly pissed. Even though he'd been expecting it, his heart still leaped and soared at the sight.
"Attention, crew of the Black Hart," Dot Matrix commanded: "Stand down your weapons systems and alter course to the coordinates now being transmitted. You've stolen our property, and we want it back!"
The Captain, having crossed to Bob's side, laughed softly low in her throat. "Oh, have we now?" She laid a leather-gloved hand on Bob's shoulder armour. "Sorry, lass, but he's mine now, fair and square."
Dot's eyebrows drew together in an expression of such fury that Bob almost wished he could crawl under the chair he was sitting in, even though it wasn't him that was rousing her ire. "Let him go, or so help me User I'll —"
"Sir!" the Lieutenant piped up again. "Another incoming transmission!"
"Oh?" Bess's own left eyebrow rose fractionally. "Split screen, then."
Dot's face shifted to the right to free up the other half of the screen — for a large format view of Megabyte from the shoulders up. As far as Bob was concerned, this also generated a powerful surge of emotions, although these responses ran more into the hurt/betrayal/Oh, you bastard! end of the spectrum.
"Why, hello Bess!" the virus said pleasantly. "Not quite out of my territory yet, are we?"
"No, but I will be in a hot microsecond if ye hinds wouldn't keep interruptin' me!" She glanced back toward a console at the rear of the bridge. "How long 'til open airspace, Ensign?"
"Four nanos, Sir… three… two…"
"Sir!" This time the cry came from a woman stationed right below the viewscreen, who spun in her seat, her eyes wide. "I'm picking up bogies — lots of 'em!"
"Onscreen!" Bess snapped, and a smaller display opened up between Dot and Megabyte's images to reveal a green-on-black schematic full of bad news that even Bob, not familiar with this ship's display protocols, could easily read: the sky over Ghetty Prime was crawling with ABCs, and a large fleet of CPUs was hovering on the edge of the sector closest to the Black Hart's position, doubtless with Dot aboard the flagship — but unable to get any closer because of Megabyte's troops.
"Ah, Ms. Matrix!" Megabyte was greeting Dot with a slightly wider smile. "Do join the party, won't you?"
"Full stop!" Bess yelled, then turned her attention from the tactical display to Megabyte, her eyes full of fire. "What's this all about, then? We had a deal, Megabyte!"
"And I've changed my mind," the virus replied smoothly, leaning back on his throne and steepling his fingers in front of him. "I'll be taking the Guardian back now, if you please —" His gaze became positively incandescent, his left hand clenching into an iron fist. "— or if you don't."
Dot, clearly even more angered by the sudden appearance of her worst enemy, interjected: "Listen, you two — if either of you think, for one solitary nanosecond, that I'm going to let you get your claws on my boyfriend —"
Megabyte's eyes narrowed. "Your what, now?"
Defiantly, Dot glared at him — or rather, at his image on her screen, which treated Bob to a full-on display of her wrath and her triumph. "You heard me!"
"Indeed I did." The virus lowered his hands and leaned forward, his eyes widening again in the closest thing he could approximate to sincerity. "Ms. Matrix, I think we should take our conversation to a private channel. As for you, Bess," and his voice fell to a deadly rumble, "if you move so much as a single pixel my army will blow you out of the sky. Megabyte out."
His face vanished, replaced by his green-on-black viral symbol.
"What he said," Dot almost growled, and disappeared in her turn, leaving a blank screen behind.
For a few nanoseconds the bridge was silent, everybody seemingly deep in thought, but at last Bess looked down at Bob and queried: "And what do ye suppose they're up to then, Guardian?"
"Probably comparing notes." Bob tried to make it sound light-hearted. Instead it came out as a fairly miserable groan.
"Now what's that…?" Bess processed his statement for a moment more, put it together with Bob's aura of cringing embarrassment and rising panic, then grinned widely. "Why, ye dirty little dog! Maybe I should delete ye now, then, and put ye out of yer misery before they get to ye first?"
Bob let his head fall back and closed his eyes. "Sounds like a plan," he agreed, trying very hard not to think about what was currently transpiring in a channel he didn't have access to — and frankly, didn't want to.
Chapter 10: Overwrite 5
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None apply.
A color sketch of Megabyte from the "Overwrite" miniverse:
OVERWRITE 5 (takes place the same night as Overwrite 3)
A velvet murmur in the darkness, breathed against the nape of his neck, roused him from a sound sleep: "Bob?"
"Mm?" He was so deliciously warm and comfortable, with a soft pillow under his head, a powerfully muscled naked body pressed against his back and thighs, and a strong arm loosely wrapped around his waist. The bed linens had been scrupulously clean when they'd started, but now they were most satisfactorily rumpled and imprinted with mingled scents: his own, of course, but more importantly, Megabyte's. The overwrite smelled far more delicious to Bob than anything had a right to, especially with a not-so-subtle overlay of sexual musk in the mix.
"What, precisely, did you call me earlier?"
"I called you a lot of things," Bob mumbled without opening his eyes. A slow, wry, sweet smile spread across his face. "Including 'Master' at one point… just don't start getting any —"
"Actually, I was referring to your bastardization of my name."
"Mmm…" A moment's thought brought the incident in question to mind. "What, 'M.B.'?"
"Yes." His rich voice conveyed tart distaste. "That."
Bob grimaced and turned his face to the pillow, hoping the issue would just go away if he gave a strong enough sign of aversion. "Would you rather I called you 'Meggy'? Or 'Megs'?"
"I'd prefer you addressed me properly, if you please."
Bob sighed, put aside any hope of getting back to sleep easily, and turned over, shifting until he could look directly into those brilliantly green eyes with glowing red embers at the heart of them. "Megabyte…"
"See? Is that really so difficult?"
Bob kissed him lightly as a warning, having to exert a considerable amount of willpower not to sink into the contact and start devouring that tempting mouth all over again. Suddenly he was feeling much more wide awake. Megabyte had that effect on him lately. "I like having a private nickname for you that nobody else knows — preferably something that nobody else would dare to use in a million hours." He brought his right hand up to caress his bedmate's long indigo cheek, offering his most persuasive smile. "C'mon, don't try to tell me you really don't —"
The former virus's jewelled eyes narrowed. "This is a sprite thing, isn't it?"
"Well… I guess. Don't viruses —"
"No. We most assuredly do not."
The smile became a grin, and he snuggled closer, tracing the line of that stern jaw with a coaxing fingertip. "Hey, don't get so bent out of shape, M.B. — you're a sprite now yourself, in case you'd forgotten, so maybe you'd better get used to —"
"I see." He half-hooded his eyes ominously. "So if I were to come up with a 'nickname' for you, you'd accept it without a qualm?"
That caught Bob by surprise. "Excuse me?"
"Sauce for the DOS, as it were." Megabyte's own lips were curving now, and it was an expression that made Bob instantly wary. "Come now, dear boy, surely you wouldn't deny me the pleasure of gracing you with a suitable 'pet name' in return? Something I could whisper against your neck while I'm making love to you, or murmur in your ear at random unexpected moments… why, we could even use it as a sort of code in correspondence! Wouldn't that be fun?"
"I, uh…" All of Bob's danger sensors were flashing at full volume now, even though — actually, because — Megabyte appeared so jovial. "Such as?"
"Oh, I don't know…" Bob wasn't fooled by that casual tone for a nanosecond. "It would have to be something both clever and charming, something that you'd rather end file than divulge to another living soul." He gave every appearance of studying Bob closely, the full force of his focus so unexpectedly intense — and obliquely threatening — that Bob had to suppress an urge to back away. "It would also have to capture your personality, or at least some key feature of your — ah! I have it!"
"You do?" He was pretty sure that wasn't a good thing.
"Oh, yes." His smile widened, revealing a white gleam of sharp teeth, and he curved his left hand around the nape of Bob's neck before running it slowly down his back. "Your skin is so deliciously smooth, and of a rather creamy hue — and…" He darted forward just enough to apply those teeth to Bob's shoulder in a way that made him stifle a yelp. "— undeniably sweet. Yes… it really does remind me of my favourite dessert, now that I consider the matter."
Even in the midst of an exchange that was probably a trap, Bob found himself wrapping his right arm around that powerful waist and pulling Megabyte closer, his cock beginning to stir between them. "Do I really want to know?" he quipped, uneasily.
Megabyte smiled against his shoulder. "My little spice pudding," he rumbled fondly.
"Megabyte!" That certainly put paid to any hope of an erection.
"Or Pudding, for short."
"That's —" He pulled back to glare into the former virus's gleaming eyes, seething at the pretence of innocence he saw there. "You're totally random!"
Megabyte blinked at him. "I'm sorry, but what, precisely do you find objectionable about your new sobriquet?" His hand had continued its journey and was how cupping Bob's ass, teasing the cleft with well-manicured but sharp nails.
"…perfectly suitable, so far as I can tell. It's descriptive, affectionate and even, I daresay, cute — which is more than I can say about 'M.B.', which is merely —"
Bob interrupted him with a little burst of laughter. "Oh, I get it — ha ha, very funny! You really had me going for a moment there." He moved in again, sliding his right hand down to Megabyte's buttocks to stroke and squeeze them seductively in turn. "Y'know, I never realized what a great sense of humour you actually…"
He stopped mid-motion, in the middle of leaning in to capture a serious kiss. Something about Megabyte's eyes…
After an unblinking moment Megabyte raised one sculpted crimson eyebrow. "Is something the matter, Pudding?"
Bob's incredulous expression shifted to a scowl. "Stop it!"
"Only if you promise never, ever to call me by that unimaginative and insipid nickname again."
He considered that, surprised to find himself a bit… hurt? Yes, by the mocking rejection of what was clearly an unwanted act of tenderness and intimacy. "Fine," he retorted curtly, and turned back over with an audible flounce to stare at the far wall. "Whatever you say, Megabyte."
He was surprised again when he heard a light chuckle, followed by a large left hand settling on the curve of his waist. "Now now, Bob… sulking ill becomes you."
"I'm not sulking." He managed to keep the worst of the resentful growl out of his voice. "I'm making sure I don't offend you again. I should think you'd be grateful."
A sigh that was clearly an appeal to the User for patience, followed by a softer inflection: "Does it really mean that much to you?"
Bob shrugged. "It's just a 'sprite thing' — nothing to get yourself worked up over."
"Oh, I'm not." Curved fingers stroked his cheek, followed by the lightest trailing of slightly extended claws down the side of his neck. "But you are, quite clearly. Very well…"
Bob counted two full breaths before turning his head just enough to indicate that he was listening. "What?"
"…but you'll have to pick something more creative and more appropriate."
He wasn't about to be won over that easily. "Oh no, I wouldn't want you to —"
"Bob." A kiss on the back of his neck that contained an edge of teeth. "Look at me when I'm talking to you, and stop acting like a petulant child."
He did a slow burn on that for a couple of nanoseconds before deciding that he wasn't going to get any peace tonight unless he followed orders. Grudgingly he did as he was bidden, to look bitterly up into his mergemate's face — an attitude that became a lot harder to maintain when Megabyte smiled at him, ran powerful fingers into his hair, and held him in place to be kissed.
"Wow," Bob had to admit when their lips finally parted.
"It's hard to stay mad at you when you do something like that."
He emitted a throaty chuckle that was a dark distillation of sexual heat. "That's the idea."
"Were you always like this and I just never noticed?"
"That's a discussion for another time." He leaned in again to nudge his nose against Bob's, breath mingling with breath as he smiled a secretive smile, before leaning away enough to imply that merging wasn't foremost in his mind — for the moment. "Now, let's establish the terms of engagement, shall we?"
"Just don't call me 'Pudding' again and we're good to go."
"Oh? Pity. I was rather proud of that."
"So 'M.B.' is right out, huh?"
"It's trite, it's derivative, and it's lamentably obvious. In short: you'll have to do much better than that to earn the privilege of granting me a private name."
"Okay, then…" He propped himself up on his left elbow, to get a better view of the territory as it were, and Megabyte gazed back at him with that hint of a smirk still in place, completely unselfconscious in his nakedness — which Bob had to grant was certainly impressive enough to get him stirring again. "Well, one of the things I like best about you —"
"In terms of my personality, you mean?"
"Kind of, if you count being dramatic." He laid his right hand on Megabyte's chest, running it over the hard plane of flat muscle. "You're so big, in just about every sense of the word: tall, broad… long…"
The smile had widened considerably. "Please, do go on."
Bob returned it. "You like where this is going, huh?"
"I might, if you're clever and if you're careful."
"How does 'Big Guy' strike you?"
His eyebrows drew together skeptically. "It's a tad informal, wouldn't you say?"
"Megabyte, considering I'll probably be stripping you, sucking you, or asking you to fuck me into the mattress when I use it, I'd say 'informal' is just what we're looking for."
"Hmmm. An interesting point." He reached down, never breaking eye contact, and Bob found it hard not to close his own eyes and shiver.
"The one I just made, or the one in your hand?"
"Mmh…" Oh yeah, his erection definitely making a comeback and then some: Megabyte was a fast learner and had evidently already memorized exactly how Bob liked to be touched. A firm grip, tightening on the upstroke and twisting slightly on the head… now he did close his eyes, and shiver, and the next thing he knew he was on his back with Megabyte looming over him, covering him with that marvellous height and breadth, and growling against his neck in a timbre that no sprite throat should have been able to produce. Bob's thighs opened automatically — he was no slouch in the learning department himself — and when Megabyte let go of his shaft and shifted up his body and ground his own hips down, cock against cock, the friction was…
Bob was busily grinding back and thoroughly derailed from his train of thought when Megabyte whispered against his hair: "Very well, Bob. You may call me… that… so long as you don't make an obnoxious habit out of it."
It took a nanosecond, but Bob picked up the thread again, and turned his grin into a lingering kiss to the hollow of Megabyte's throat. "Just enough for spice, huh?" he replied somewhat breathlessly.
"Gotcha." He slid his hands down to clutch Megabyte's buttocks and pull his mergemate even closer, tipping his head back and thrusting his hips upwards at a faster pace. "Ohhh, that's good…"
"How wanton you are," Megabyte purred with a ripple of laughter in his gorgeous voice, "and how thoroughly delicious!" He slid back down again to taste Bob's throat with a devilish tongue tip, then bite him hard enough to send a jolt of even hotter sensation straight to Bob's cock. "Mrrrrm — sweet, tender, well-flavoured… it really does remind me of —"
Bob dug warning fingertips into the small of the overwrite's back. "Watch it, Big Guy!"
"I suppose you're going to beg me to fuck you now."
"Yeah, right," Bob retorted, and he didn't… at least, not in so many words.
Chapter 11: Intoxication
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Past intoxication, reference to past mind control.
Consciousness, when it came creeping back on little pointed feet, was not a welcome visitor as far as Bob was concerned. It brought with it a dry mouth, a miserable pounding headache, and a queasy gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach, not to mention the burning sensation of shallow criss-crossing scores all over his back and chest and thighs. He burrowed as far away from it as he could, burying his face against the pillow beneath his head, but at last he could run no further and the razor claws of full wakefulness sank deep into his temples and jerked him harshly back to reality.
With a bleary groan of protest he opened his eyes — to see a completely unexpected setting around him and under him. His own apartment in Kits Sector was rendered in shades of beige and chrome, not this dark symphony of rich indigo and muted scarlet, touched with accents of burnished gold. His bed linens were not that same blue shot through with fine threads of viral green, and they certainly weren't made of neosilk that probably cost more than he made in a cycle.
For a couple of nanoseconds the input streams swirled together in his processing buffer, producing no end sums — but then they cleared it, and he almost leaped out of his skin as his head shot up for a wild glance around.
Someone else groaned — well, more growled, really — from right behind him. He scrambled onto his back and froze, looking to his right at Megabyte, who was facing away from him and showed no sign of turning over himself.
Bob stared at the virus, stretched out on its right side with the tips of its proud crest nearly touching his own azure shoulder. One of the exquisitely expensive sheets was draped over its hip-sphere, and Bob sure as hell shouldn't have been able to see the muted gold stripes that adorned its visible hide, running outward from its silver spine in a display that was normally hidden beneath its thin layer of protective armour. It appeared completely relaxed. Bob dearly wished that he could have said the same for his own state of mind.
"Uh," he blurted, a low choked sound. He was suddenly aware that he was completely naked himself. "Um… Megabyte?"
Another grating rumble deep in that barrel chest, sounding considerably more annoyed: "Yes, Guardian?"
"I…" Suddenly his throat was full of words, all crowding each other out. "Uh. We… did we…?" The question was rhetorical: he knew very well that they had. Numerous times, in fact. The sight of those golden stripes had proved the password to a flood of images and sensations which, while somewhat dimmed by a veil of intoxication, were nonetheless clear enough in the cold light of… well, Bob assumed it was morning: the tall red-glassed windows that dominated the bedroom gave no hint of the state of Mainframe's environment beyond, and he wasn't ready to reach for Glitch yet himself and brave the keytool's feedback when it sensed —
Megabyte grumbled again. And shifted onto his back to turn brilliant red-in-green eyes on his guest. Which provoked a lingering flush in Bob's cheeks, because the silhouette of that thin sheet hid nothing — and suddenly he couldn't think of Megabyte as "it" anymore.
"What do you think?" the virus asked with gliding sarcasm that made Bob blush more deeply, this time with annoyance. He rolled fully over and propped himself up on his right elbow, the better to express his profound displeasure.
"I think this is completely random!" he snapped back, his voice rising to a high note that made Megabyte's shining eyes narrow dangerously. It suddenly occurred to Bob that yelling at a Class Three virus with a hangover to match his own was a Very Bad Idea, so he reigned his tone back to an urgent whisper. "What did — I mean, how did —?"
They gazed into each other's eyes for a span of silent nanoseconds, both processors working at full speed, or at least as close as they could come with the remnants of last night's code still clogging up their systems. It was perhaps a measure of just how impaired Megabyte was that it took him just as long as Bob to come to the obvious conclusion, spoken in one shared breath and two equally aggrieved tones: "Hexadecimal!"
With a slight but obvious effort, Megabyte pushed himself up onto his elbows — and had to pause, closing his eyes. Bob suspected it was because his steel head was spinning.
"Hey!" Bob reached out and put his left hand on the broad shoulder of his host, aware of how pathetically small his fingers looked against the expanse of embossed hide. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I'm not sure yet," Megabyte said conversationally, never opening his eyes. "However, it will end with Hex as a scorched smear on the pavement of Lost Angles, I can promise you that."
Bob rolled his eyes, as much as it hurt to do so. "Yeah, right. All the ordnance in your bunkers wouldn't even scratch her makeup."
"On the other hand, I could reduce most of Lost Angles to rubble, and the spectacle of the explosions would doubtless prove most therapeutic."
Bob grinned, and leaned close enough to bellow against the side of the virus's vibration-sensitive crest: "BOOM!" The shock of feedback it sent through his own brain was worth it for the sight of Megabyte's flinch and snarl, and the way he flipped over to face Bob fully, his right hand coming up with claws extended for a blow that he restrained himself from delivering at the last fraction of a nanosecond.
"Therapeutic my ASCII," Bob smirked up at him, and shifted his left hand to press his palm against the cool blue metal in the middle of that array of razor-edged golden talons. Part of him was dismayed at the familiarity of gesture, offered to his hereditary enemy — but another part of him, the deep intuition that he relied on so heavily in the Games, accepted it as precisely the right note to strike.
Megabyte didn't seem impressed. "If I weren't so unwilling to ruin these expensive sheets with your life-force —"
Bob's smirk changed tone from smart-assed to wicked, his warm brown eyes seductively hooded. "They're pretty messed up already," he pointed out.
For a nanosecond he thought that the virus was going to take a slash at him anyway, and he braced himself to move fast — just before the larger program tilted his powerful jaw thoughtfully with a subtle chuckle and the faintest trace of an answering smile. "True… I would never have suspected that a Guardian's output could be so… copious."
"Thanks — I think." He glanced down at the sheet beneath them and felt his blush deepen again. "You're, ah, not so bad yourself."
"I suppose that's one consolation in the face of her unconscionable meddling," Megabyte mused.
"Hm?" Bob's mind had drifted for a couple of heartbeats, remembering those claws in a rather different context — and those teeth, and that gorgeous deep voice making every pixel of him tremble, and an embrace that had held him in perversely satisfying bondage. He gave his head a little shake before meeting Megabyte's gaze again.
The mocking amusement he saw there was far from reassuring. "Oh, Bob…" The viral overlord sheathed his claws almost completely, turned his hand slightly to interlace their fingers, closed his grip, and smoothly rolled Bob over again, pinning him to the rumpled bedclothes and purring against his throat: "The opportunity for research, dear boy. Rest assured I've been logging every nuance of your dynametrics — for future reference, of course."
"Why am I not surprised?" It came out a little breathless, but given the white-hot thrill of excitement that was lighting up Bob's nervous system — especially because of the way the definitely-NOT-an-it part of Megabyte's structure was now pressing against his thigh through the silken sheet — he was inclined to forgive himself for it. He wrapped his free arm around the waist of his paramour and tugged, pulling that massive body fully on top of him.
Megabyte voiced a ripple of laughter that was as threatening as it was enticing, then bit Bob's shoulder hard enough to leave a fresh set of marks before whispering against his bruised skin: "And don't try to pretend you haven't been doing exactly the same thing."
Bob's pulse was pounding in his core, making it increasingly hard to think. Whatever code Hexadecimal had hit them with, it had staying power, that much could not be denied. "You know me," he quipped, knowing that he'd be kicking himself seven ways to the Supercomputer for this when whatever-it-was finally wore off. "Always on the — ah! — cutting edge…"
After a few microseconds of silence textured only with heavy breathing and the occasional gasp or growl, he managed a last imprecatory moan into his pillow: "Dot's going to kill me…"
"She'll never know," Megabyte promised the back of Bob's neck, and it was a measure of Bob's intoxication that he eagerly embraced the lie as a truth immune from the slightest trace of doubt or guilt or regret.
Somewhere not so far distant, a Class Five virus gazed into her looking glass and laughed with boundless delight, revelling in the chaos to come.
Chapter 12: Matchmaker 2
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Chemical coercion.
Bob's stride was bold and determined as he entered the small control room where Megabyte was conferring with two binome scientists in front of an array of console-mounted screens, but he stopped dead in his tracks a nanosecond later, his core-code sinking as he realized what a critical misstep he'd committed by coming here. But it wasn't like he'd had a whole lot of choice about it, had he?
The code Eros had unleashed on Mainframe had not only affected the minds and emotions of its inhabitants: it had royally screwed up communications, and Vidwindow links produced only static and the occasional broken word or fragment of data. When one had opened in front of him in Dot's Diner, springing into existence between himself and the ardently kissing female sprites he'd been staring at in utter dismay and disbelief, it had instantly captured his attention but done him very little good: all he'd been able to hear was syllables of what was clearly Megabyte's voice and all he'd been able to see were isolated numbers flickering too quickly to be processed. But he'd been able to gather that the virus was trying to send him sensor readings of some kind, and since they might prove useful in capturing Eros or reversing the effects of the hacker's lust-code — hell, Bob was willing to go for anything at this point that promised a solution — he'd been forced to leave Dot and Mouse to their own devices and head for the Tor. They'd both promised him that they'd "get right on things" at their end, but judging by the heated looks they were exchanging Bob had a sinking suspicion that the "things" they were referring to had nothing to do with the problem at hand and everything to do with their ends.
The prospect of that had burned him all the way to the capacitower of Ghetty Prime, and not in a good way. Based on Mouse's explanation he knew full well that neither the hacker nor Dot could be held responsible for what was going on: they were in the grip of something bigger than both of them, after all. But the thought of those ruby lips being kissed by someone else… anybody else… not for the first time, Bob was beating his head against the brick firewall of why he wasn't able to come right out and just tell Dot how he felt. It's not like the words — Dot, I'm pretty sure I'm in love with you — were that hard to say… none of them cracked three syllables, and Bob wasn't exactly a guy who was ever short on snappy phrases. But for some reason when he looked at Dot those particular words, the most important ones, never seemed to get anywhere near his tongue.
Why not? Because he was scared spitless, that's why. Deep down, in a place she'd never see, he was terrified that she'd laugh at him — or worse yet, cut him dead. He didn't think he could bear it if Dot told him she never wanted to see him again.
But seeing her kissing Mouse…
As he approached Silicon Tor he'd firmly put the painful matter as far from his processor as he possibly could. Being distracted around Megabyte was never a good idea, and if the virus had been networked… well, Bob had heard stories of viral behaviour on the rare occasions when the carnal passions of those alien creatures held sway, and he'd certainly seen the phenomenon in action plenty of times with Hexadecimal. In Megabyte's case a certain animal savagery was never really far from the surface; the addition of sexual desire to the mix would doubtless make it all the more susceptible to being triggered.
What if he's been networked with Hex? Descending into the well of the Tor, Bob had barely suppressed a shudder at the thought. Megabyte and Hexadecimal could barely refrain from trying to destroy each other at the best of times: sexual chemistry between the two of them would probably be explosive in every sense of the word. But he could see no visible sign of disturbance, and as he stepped off his zipboard a viral binome had approached him to inform him that His Immensity was in Control Room Five, and then had proceeded to lead him deeper into the Tor's labyrinthine hallways than Bob had ever been able to penetrate before.
"Glitch," he'd whispered to his keytool, "Thread!" And Glitch had obediently started to plot the path they were taking, making a map that Bob would have been able to follow if he'd suddenly had to get out of there in a hurry…
… but it was too late for that now, much too late. He suspected it the nanosecond he saw Megabyte from behind and the virus's broad silhouette against the glow from the screens flash-burned itself into his brain. He dreaded it when Megabyte's voice, the stern authoritative inflection of its gorgeous baritone depths as he issued orders to his underlings, slipped into his heart like a blade and loosed a tide of hot red feeling. And he knew it when Megabyte turned toward him with an imperious tilt of his chin, and their eyes met across the twenty-five or so bits that separated them.
Oh User! Bob thought, but the prayer was a whisper lost in a firestorm, incinerated before it saw the light of day. Meeting the commanding gaze of his code-ingrained enemy, he was barely aware of Megabyte dismissing every binome in the room with the slightest wave of one large hand; the smaller programs streamed away out a side entrance, several of them casting fearful glances back at their viral overlord, but Megabyte spared them no attention. As far as he seemed to be concerned, nobody else but Bob existed. Bob knew exactly how he felt.
When the steel doors had closed behind the last lackey Megabyte quirked one heavy eyebrow and inclined his head almost courteously. Almost, if it weren't for the feral fire burning behind his mask. "Guardian," he intoned with a gliding edge of menace that made Bob weak in the knees.
"Megabyte." He tried to make it sound like nothing special, nothing at all. He failed miserably.
The virus's smile was the antithesis of kindness, and he took a slow step in Bob's direction. Panic surged through Bob; he stumbled backwards one step, two, and then his thighs hit a control console that would let him go no further. "Keep away from me!" he tried to yelp indignantly, but it came out more as a moan.
To his amazement, the virus actually did stop, regarding him with narrowed eyes that shone in the shadows of his face. "And what, precisely, are you so afraid of?" His voice became a purr that ran over every pixel of Bob's skin — especially the most secret pixels — like an electric caress. "I assure you, I'll take nothing from you that isn't freely offered."
Bob shook his head wildly, wanting to shut his eyes against the sight of his tormentor, or even to be able to glance away. He found himself completely unable to do either. "I — I don't believe you…"
An impatient tilt of that massive head this time, although his voice was still soft. The velvet texture of it excoriated Bob's nerves. "If it were my intention to force you, boy, we wouldn't be having this conversation." He took another step, the space between them contracting agonizingly, and Bob shrank back as far as the console would permit and flung out his left hand, clenched into a fist with Glitch levelled over it.
"Stay back, or I'll — !" Definitely a moan this time.
Another step, and Megabyte lowered his head a little, like an animal about to charge, as if he might be preparing to gore Bob with that proud sharp crest. "Is that really what you want?" he almost murmured, a sound worse than any roar of fury could ever be.
He was too close — too big, too broad, too powerful. Too overwhelmingly dominant, even though he was clearly restraining himself from presenting too overt a threat, because he was inherently dangerous, like poison or nuclear fire. Suddenly Bob wanted nothing more than to be commanded, maybe just for the pleasure of resisting. "I… I'm a Guardian! I don't — I can't —" He turned his face away and closed his eyes hard, his arm wavering, unable to maintain a weapons lock.
"Bob." He heard another step. Hell, he felt it in his own blood and bone. "Look at me."
"No!" His heart was pounding in his throat, making it hard to get a word out edgewise.
"Look at me." A persuasive rumble, caressing, and he did open his eyes, to find the virus regarding him with something like… no, not like pity. Not like mercy. Surely not. Bob knew better than to trust anything from such a snake. "And know this: I won't hold you against your will."
"No…" His arm fell to his side. He stared as the virus advanced, wrapped in compulsion as in indigo and golden coils, accented with the green of that damnable vicious enticing mouth. But when Megabyte came within five bits of him he was suddenly seized by a moment of sanity, and he took it in both hands and ran with it, darting around the console and turning tail and fleeing as fast as he possibly could.
Megabyte's cruel laughter pursued him into the cold shadows, tearing out his heart and holding it fast in the darkness his body had barely escaped. You can't run forever, little fool! that laughter seemed to say, plain as plain — and Bob, as much as he wanted to deny it, knew that for once the inveterate liar was in clear possession of nothing less than the truth.
Chapter 13: Matchmaker 3 and Forty-Five Degrees
"Matchmaker 3": Chemical coercion.
"Forty-Five Degrees": None.
They knew absolutely nothing about each other. They knew each other perfectly. And in that serenely mad certainty they were free to move and to act and to feel whatever they —
No! This was not what I would have wanted! The text slipped across Dot's mind and was gone again in an instant, dissolved into the sweet hue of naked violet skin and the melting strength of wine-dark lips and the warmth of eyes whose color reminded her of someone else, someone whose memory threatened to be completely overwritten by the heat of this illicit encounter. She tried to hold onto that memory, to that friendship, to the shock she'd seen in Bob's eyes just before he'd headed off to the Tor… the Tor… there was some new potential there lurking just beyond her present limited focus, something that sang a fierce and desperate note of danger, but right now she had no ear for anything but the musical voice of the woman in her arms, whispering honeyed words against every pixel of her skin.
Entwined in secret darkness, they writhed together like slow serpents sharing one sublime venom. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered, because while Dot's mind might be capable of fitful protest, her body had been conquered utterly.
And the pleasure… Dot had never sought physical delight for its own sake — unlike Bob, she lived more in her head than in her body — but this joining, her first, was so far beyond anything she had ever bothered to imagine that it stole her breath away in every new nanosecond of discovery. The Matchmaker code saw to that, and each time she peaked under the ministrations of those skillful hands she could feel its poison hissing through her veins, clad in the guise of an emotion this stranger, this hacker, had no right to claim.
"Bob…" She tried to whisper that beloved name, to fill her mouth with something cleaner than lust. But it never materialized.
She did not know who Mouse was, yet she loved Mouse with a devotion that encompassed ecstasy and anguish, joy and grief, and every emotion she had ever felt — and more besides, just waiting to be discovered. With her. With this woman Dot adored, would move the System for — and would die for, if it were asked of her.
She buried her face against that slender powerful throat and breathed the heavenly perfume of silken skin. Still torn, still struggling, she fell — devouring and devoured, driven by instinct so ancient that it felt like truth.
She resisted and she surrendered, again and again.
Dimly, she wondered when Bob would return… and only hoped that it wouldn't be too soon.
They stood around the large circular console, the three of them together, equidistant from each other and trading crisp words strictly suited to the task at hand. An observer unfamiliar with any of them would have seen, perhaps, nothing amiss as their hands flew over the controls: after all, a virus and a Guardian and a System leader being forced to work together would have generated more than enough tension to account for the chill that permeated the air…
Bob, unfortunately, was all too aware of the hidden dynamics. To him, there was a heat underlying the icy professionalism that threatened to sear him to the bone.
The occasional glances Megabyte was sliding in Dot's direction, narrow and venomous as a serpent's fangs, suggested that he was only waiting for an opportune moment to leap across the intervening bytes and lay into her with the full fury of his claws.
And the glances Dot was not giving Megabyte in return told a tale just as eloquent: if she'd had her way, he'd be in a viral deletion chamber this very nanosecond, screaming away the last remnants of his life.
Calling out coordinates and making adjustments on the fly, Bob sent up a silent curse in the User's direction: If the Telex Code had to hit me, why did it have to pick that particular set of data to broadcast?
No answer was forthcoming, of course. But the fact remained that now half of Mainframe knew two of Bob's most closely guarded secrets — and that the subjects of his longings were also aware not only of his predilections, but of each other's.
And that Bob was now aware of theirs.
Bob winced back the first throb of a nasty headache, and kept inputting commands. There'd be time enough to hash this all out later — he hoped. If the System survived. If Dot and Megabyte didn't delete each other first. If they didn't delete him first. And if he didn't end file from sheer embarrassment.
But hey, a voice in the very back of his processor murmured hopefully in midst of his misery, they both feel the same way, right? Stranger things have happened…
Glancing up at the other two corners of the triangle, each a pillar of strength and intelligence and tightly restrained passion, he found himself calculating some thoroughly improbable future configurations.
Chapter 14: Songs of Essonia 1
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: None.
SONGS OF ESSONIA 1
He keeps relentlessly busy: being what he is, he could scarcely do anything else. There are always at least two plans in progress, and several more on the drawing board of his long and intricately wired brain, and he possesses a body that needs sleep so seldom that there are times when he finds himself somewhat at a loss to remember what it feels like to surrender to the surreal embrace of dreams not entirely under his control. He is the apex of a complex web and he keeps the strands beneath him vibrating with constant activity, permitting his underlings the luxury of rest only when they have proven themselves worthy of the gift, or when they collapse where they stand and must be dragged away to make room for a fresher replacement.
It is a large kingdom he holds in thrall — an entire sector of a not inconsiderable System — but compared to what he has known in the past he never speaks of… ah, but who is there worthy to listen to his tale of the Essonian Wastes, of a white city stretching to the horizon under a sky the color of mortal blood, and the singing of the Muses that would coax even cold steel to shed lethal tears? All long since lost, and therefore not worth dwelling upon, so he does not…
… at least not as a matter of course. But there are nights when, unsleeping, he hears in the solitude of his inner sanctum an echo of voices so sweet and so yearning that the memory fills him with a restlessness that must be like the sorrow of lesser creatures, and he must get out — not to stalk and to kill as in those distant wild hours, but at least to taste by proxy the frantic life-force of beings so much shorter lived and so much more impulsive than he. So he commands his driver of the shift to take him to a certain club deep in the System’s lower levels, a dark desperate place he owns in truth if not in name, and there he sits alone in a curtained balcony above the driving music, and drinks the exquisitely expensive neurowine the proprietor stocks at his command, and watches the throbbing crowd below with unblinking eyes while contemplating how easily he could destroy them all.
Those thoughts bring him some measure of peace — or they do until the night when, between sips of distilled energy that would destabilize the matrixes of most sprites, he sees something unexpected: one of his two worst enemies in the System coming in from the street and weaving his way through the press of smaller bodies to the bar, where he takes a seat and gestures to the bartender. In short order Bob has an empty glass and a bottle of high-test ROM in front of him, and is proceeding to work his way through the glowing amber liquid with a grim determination that immediately piques both Megabyte’s curiosity and his instinct for taking advantage of moments of weakness in his adversaries. The slump of the Guardian’s shoulders bespeaks both depression and belligerence, and the way he’s throwing himself at the ROM is typical of a sprite with something to forget. The pertinent question is: What?
He watches Bob kill half the bottle before summoning a binome lackey with a brief gesture and issuing instructions which his thrall hastens to obey. Less than ten nanoseconds after being dismissed the binome appears on the floor below, making its way through the milling throng to the sullen Guardian with some difficulty and gaining the sprite's attention with a tug at his belt; Bob looks down, his black brows drawing into a more severe frown when he sees what's bothering him, then leans over to hear what the viral is saying.
The binome points upward, toward the balcony, and Bob's gaze follows the pointing hand. Megabyte leans forward just enough to let the Guardian see the luminosity of his eyes in the shadows, then offers his enemy a sardonic salute with his own fluted glass of shining crimson liquid.
For a long stretch of nanoseconds Bob just looks at him across the bytes separating them, his broad azure face hard to read in the flashes of light from the teeming dance floor — but not so difficult that Megabyte can't see various emotions chasing across it: surprise, wariness, anger, and finally grim determination. Bob slides off the barstool, stumbling a little on the dismount, and grabs both the bottle of ROM and his glass before following the viral back across the club towards the stairs leading to the second level. His gait is unsteady enough that Megabyte smiles with sleek satisfaction, anticipating at least a few microseconds of excellent sport to come — assuming that the impetuous boy doesn't fall and break his neck on the way up, that is.
Chapter 15: Songs of Essonia 2
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Intoxication, drunken flirting.
SONGS OF ESSONIA 2
By the time the Guardian is pushing his truculent way through the crimson curtains at the back of the booth, two more of Megabyte's thralls have moved another chair into parallel position on the other side of the small table that holds the carafe of fiery neurowine — a smaller chair, true, and less luxuriously upholstered, but nonetheless comfortable, with a high swooping back and broad arms terminating in elegant claw-and-ball carvings. Not that Bob looks like he's in the mood to appreciate such aesthetic niceties: in fact, he appears to be in a downright foul mood.
Megabyte offers him a broader smile. The sight of Bob perturbed always puts him in an excellent humour. "Ah, Bob! What a pleasant —"
"Cut the crap, Megabyte." His speech is ever-so-slightly slurred, but he makes his way across the small booth more or less steadily; the virals hasten to get out of his way, and at a glance and a wave from their Overlord make themselves completely scarce by disappearing through the curtains. Bob comes to a halt with the empty chair between himself and Megabyte (ah, so he's at least sober enough to be aware of the dangers of proximity), scowling darkly through the shadows. "What're you doing here?"
Megabyte blinks at him, pasting on a mask of innocence. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Bob glances down past the balcony railing, indicating the seething crowd and garish flashing lights with a wave of the hand holding the empty glass before turning what passes for his attention to Megabyte again. "This doesn't strike me as your kind of place," he says bluntly.
Megabyte dignifies that observation with a refined little laugh. "You were also surprised when I showed up at Enzo's birthday celebration, as I recall."
The sprite's amber eyes narrow. "Yeah…" he drawls, and a tiny smile tugs at one corner of his mouth even though the scowl remains.
Megabyte gives him a count of three before gesturing at the empty chair with his free hand. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
The smile lingers. It even grows a fraction. "How do I know you won't take a swipe at me as soon as I sit down?"
Megabyte sighs, permitting himself a brief glance in the direction of the ceiling. "Oh please, Bob… if I'd wanted to assault you, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
The smile takes on an element of challenge. "Or maybe you just want to see how close you can make me get before you make your move."
The man's had almost half a bottle of ROM already, so Megabyte decides to forgive him the awkward phrasing. "Well," he says with the deliberate inflection of impatience, "there's only one way to find out, isn't there?" And he indicates the chair again, then leans back in his own seat and rather pointedly lays his free hand on his uppermost crossed knee with claws demurely sheathed.
For two more beats Bob scans him, as if trying to parse him like a Word file. Megabyte remains silent and unreadable, meeting his gaze without blinking. At last Bob nods, as if reaching an impulsive decision, and comes around the front of the empty chair, dropping gracelessly into it and setting the ROM bottle down on the table next to Megabyte's carafe with a dull thunk that carries even over the driving beat of music from the dance floor. "Fine," he mutters in a low voice that even Megabyte's acutely sensitive hearing can barely detect, followed by a slightly louder declaration: "Take your best shot."
Megabyte bares the thinnest gleam of silver teeth: Oh, child, you have no idea… Aloud he says: "I must say that this doesn't seem like the sort of place a Guardian of the System would be seen patronizing, either."
Bob shrugs and picks up the bottle he just put down to pour himself another glassful. "Maybe we're both having a bad night," he grumbles before downing half the glass in one pull, staring over the balcony's rim with a gaze that seems turned resolutely inward. Megabyte studies him with both annoyance and genuine curiosity, a rare descent into deeper feeling: normally he cultivates an attitude of aloof indifference to lesser programs, but tonight… well, tonight the voices of the Muses are weaving sweet disturbing melodies in the back of his intricate mind, haunting him with the persistence of memory, and the sound of another living voice is a useful distraction.
"Dear me," he purrs in a sympathetic tone, "that's most unfortunate…" And then the processing track that he's been devoting to calculating the variables of this situation ever since he caught sight of Bob squaring up to the bar, which has taken into account the various threads provided by his spies and the System's legitimate news services and the rumour mill that is always humming in a city the size of Mainframe, produces a set of results that makes him feel even more pleased because it provides a custom-made blade to slide between Bob's figurative ribs. He takes an unhurried sip from his wine glass before continuing: "I should have thought you'd be pleased — after all, you've recently acquired another high-level sprite to associate with, haven't you?"
The stormy gloom on Bob's face became a thunderhead. He mutters again, something unintelligible this time, and kills the glass before pouring himself another, still glaring out into the club.
A direct hit! Megabyte savours another mouthful of wine, and with it the taste of his enemy's blood. "Now, what was his name… it's on the very tip of my tongue…"
"Norrel." Almost a snarl. "Jockam Norrel."
"Ah, yes. A trader from the Zorva'har Reach — and…" A pause. He can feel the tension gathering in Bob's padded shoulders, even across the two and a half bits that separate them. "…an old and dear associate of Ms. Matrix."
Bob says nothing, but he drains his glass again and pours himself another. Idly, Megabyte wonders how well a Guardian's exception processor can cope with that much intoxicating code in so short a period of time. He decides to test the waters by twisting the knife: "And a rather conspicuously handsome young man, as I recall."
"Don't you start," Bob mutters, and swallows another large mouthful of ROM before blinking and looking at Megabyte for the first time since sitting down. "How the hell would you know what he looks like?"
Megabyte smiles into his own glass, as if recalling a pleasant memory. "Yes," he continues in a low gloating voice, then pauses for a sip of neurowine before resuming the thread: "Classically sculpted features such as one seldom sees nowadays, and the most remarkable eyes…"
Bob looks as if he's just been poked with something sharp, but being Bob he expresses his displeasure as anger rather than dismay. "Yeah," he scoffs, and pours himself another two fingers of glowing amber liquid. "Like you'd know."
It's also remarkable, the openings the Guardian is presenting this evening. Megabyte raises one eyebrow and fixes Bob with a penetrating gaze of half-lidded eyes. "Wouldn't I?" he asks pointedly.
Bob looks him up and down dismissively. "You're a virus," he says, as if that holds all the answers.
This time Megabyte's smile is more than a touch mysterious. "And?" he prompts.
"And you don't —" His scan, which has reached Megabyte's knees, suddenly stalls, hesitating, then darting back to his face with considerably wider eyes. For the first time all evening he actually seems to be seeing his host, and Megabyte finds himself pleased by the undivided attention, which is after all only his due.
He smiles more broadly and leans a little closer, pitching his voice to a level that makes Bob lean closer in turn in order to hear: "Contrary to popular belief, the Guardian Collective is not in possession of comprehensive data concerning viral behaviour."
Bob scowls more intensely. "Meaning?"
"Meaning that Mister Norrel's sapphire eyes are more than capable of drawing my attention — but not to the exclusion of everything else." He holds Bob's gaze for a long moment during which the music pounding up from the club and the music winding eerily through the back of his mind both fade in comparison to the intensity of their sudden connection, before leaning back and gesturing at the carafe between them. "I don't suppose you'd care to try some neurowine? I'm sure your exception processor wouldn't have too much difficulty handling it, and it would certainly help you to —"
Bob doesn't wait for him to finish the invitation. He finishes off his glass of ROM and reaches for the wine, breaking eye contact only long enough to make sure that he doesn't spill any of it in the pouring. When he's got it safely in hand he meets Megabyte's gaze squarely and raises his glass, and in his amber eyes Megabyte can see an unmistakeable and thoroughly reckless challenge. So predictable, he muses — and yet so unpredictable, which is part of the reason that the impetuous boy is a perfect fit for Megabyte's own needs this evening. Of an instant, Megabyte's animal senses grow acutely sharper: he can see every variegation of colour in Bob's irises, every subtle chromatic reflection in his silicon hair, and he can smell every nuance of the hot scent rising from the sprite's smooth azure skin, laced with the tang of alcohol. His hand tightens where it rests on his knee, claws unsheathing a fraction of a pixel with a faint hiss that is surely beyond his companion's ability to hear —
— but Bob's smile is back, impudent and brazen, as he throws himself into the moment with a salute of his glass and a surprisingly silken growl: "Well then, here's to — whatever holds your attention."
"And to a better evening to come," Megabyte rejoins, matching Bob's tone and briefly touching glass to glass, lip to lip. He is pleased to discover that the faint ringing when they meet overpowers, for a fraction of a nanosecond, the songs of a dead world that nothing else has been able to silence.
[TO BE CONTINUED…]
Chapter 16: Matchmaker 4
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Chemical coercion.
The whine of a zipboard descending into the well of the Tor made Megabyte turn, throne and all, to cast a sharp glance upward at the foolish sprite who had dared to enter the heart of his viral domain. His dual-lobed brain, keyed now to one particular silhouette above all others, lit up like a clockshift tree when it recognized the slim teal-and-blue-clad contours of the System's Guardian: the flashes of orange on those slender shoulders, and the graceful gleam of silver in hair and armbands, seemed to burn so intensely that they left after-trails in Megabyte's vision, and every line of code in his body awoke and blazed with utterly reprehensible fire. At the same time a perverse shiver raced through his core, a thread of ice in the heart of volcanic intensity, and he barely restrained himself from unsheathing his claws and shattering the interfaces under his hands.
He was, at heart, a creature of deep-seated instinctive passions thinly masked by a facade of civilization, but in all his long hours of existence he had never felt anything even vaguely like this: a connection not to territory or to property, but to a free-spirited independent being. And he loathed it all the more because try as he might, he could not turn his mind in any other direction. Thoughts of Bob, of his eyes and lips and skin and voice, had obsessed Megabyte every microsecond since they'd last met and parted, and it had taken all his self-control not to leave his domain and seek out the fragile being his own nigh-immortal substance thirsted for nearly beyond endurance. Not for the first time, he made a savage vow that he would personally flay the hide from the wretched creature that called itself the Matchmaker — after wringing the antidote from its miserable lips, of course. That thought, and the satisfying contemplation of how the Matchmaker would shriek as Megabyte's claws stripped away its skin pixel by wet pixel, drove back the worst of the heat engendered by its code — until Bob drew near enough that they could look each other directly in the face.
The Guardian wasn't looking at his hereditary enemy — his attention seemed riveted on the floor he was gliding towards — but Megabyte, who had never been particularly adapt at denying his own desires, found his attention rivetted by the honeyed brown of those large and undeniably expressive eyes. He could tell, of course, that Bob was trying not to show any reaction whatsoever… but, well, like had a way of recognizing like, and the desperate hunger that had blazed in that dark amber gaze on the occasion of their last meeting was burned into Megabyte's eidetic memory beyond the power of anything but death to erase.
And it exerted a power of fascination that all his strength of body and of will was helpless to deny.
Beautiful, impossible, accursed boy! His right fist clenched — he was experiencing a momentary urge to tear something to pieces, but his virals, with prescient instincts toward self-preservation, had made themselves scarce in his immediate area — and as he watched Bob step down off of his conveyance a prudent twenty bits away, nearly stumbling in the process, Megabyte felt a surge of deeper rage that almost turned his vision white: He's been away from me for less than two seconds, and already he looks as if he hasn't eaten or slept properly in cycles! He had, himself, been feeling the cost of resisting the Matchmaker code in ever fibre of his being, but of course he was forged of steel, and Bob was merely flesh and blood — smaller, weaker, and too driven by random impulses to rationally determine his own best interests.
Well, fortunately the child now had someone both older and wiser to take heed — and to act on his behalf.
"Megabyte." Bob's voice was roughened, as if he hadn't spoken in cycles either. He faced the viral overlord proudly now — back straight, shoulders squared, unblinking — save for that pained and yearning quality in his gaze as he drank in every detail of Megabyte's seated form. So: he was determined to be noble to the bitter end, was he? Megabyte had other plans.
"Guardian." He returned the rudimentary greeting cooly, but he made no effort to restrain the power of his own gaze and was pleased to see Bob flinch, as if physically struck — or perhaps caressed, a surprisingly gentle hand laid to his cheek to tip his head back… "I must say, this is a most gratifying intrusion. Dare I hope that you've finally come to your senses?"
"I —" Bob seemed briefly entranced by the subliminal caress of double meaning Megabyte had put into the words, then gave his head a shake and visibly steeled himself. "Yeah, right," he scoffed, directing a curt gesture toward the banks of processors arrayed beyond Megabyte's throne. "I came to get any data you might have been able to pull together about the Matchmaker code and its effects on Mainframe. I'm guessing you haven't just been sitting around while everything goes to Dell in a handbasket."
Megabyte chuckled musically and leaned forward, raising his eyebrow ridges in a conspiratorial fashion. "Of course I haven't. And neither has Miss Matrix, I'll wager…"
The pain in Bob's eyes deepened exponentially, joined by a flash of anger so intense that Megabyte found himself genuinely pleased for the first time in microseconds. "Oh yeah," the sprite quipped with sarcasm that tried to mask his suffering and failed miserably, "it's all she can talk about."
Which didn't fool Megabye for a nanosecond: the System's vidwindow grid might still be down, but his own spies had other ways of getting information back to him. He was fully aware that Dot Matrix's attentions were well and truly divided — and he'd known for minutes that Bob yearned to be much more to her than merely a friend and colleague. Evidently those emotions were still in play, and he filed away an internal memo to have Dot eliminated once the present danger to Mainframe as a whole had been neutralized. Naturally he would tolerate no rivals. "I see. And she sent you to obtain my data sets rather than coming to see me her—?"
Those black eyebrows lowered belligerently, and he took a threatening step toward the throne. "You got a problem with that?"
Megabyte leaned back, offered a sleek smile, and purred: "What do you think?"
The points of Bob's cheekbones blushed a faint but fetching shade of mauve. "I don't have time for this," he muttered, and tore his gaze away from Megabyte's face to focus fixedly on the rank of consoles that were his stated goal. The binomes clustered around them took one look at his expression and began to edge away; through the subliminal link he maintained to all his thralls, Megabyte could feel the sharp spike in their fear. "Are you gonna give me the data sets, or are things going to get messy?"
Resting his elbows on the arms of his throne and steepling his fingers, Megabyte regarded Bob over the points of his claws with… yes, admiration, as grudgingly as it was acknowledged, because the kind of personality that could throw threats at a Class Three virus without hesitation was a rare personality indeed. A hunger both carnal and spiritual ran through him like a fever-wave and settled in his iron substructure: to get such a man in his grip, to persuade that man to yield against all odds of rationality and common sense and pre-existing attachments, to compel that man's surrender in spite of the impossibility of infection…
He smiled again, this time one full of heat and challenge. "Please, Bob… do be my guest."
To Bob's credit he only hesitated a fraction of a sprite's heartbeat before striding forward, passing by Megabyte's throne close enough that they could have reached out and touched each other. Megabyte made no effort to conceal his own interest, fixing the Guardian with an openly appreciative gaze while his throne swivelled to remain facing his quarry. Bob kept his own eyes deliberately averted, and when he reached the nearest console he immediately set himself to the task of using his keytool to access the Tor's database and download the data he'd been sent to retrieve.
Megabyte didn't particularly mind. Every nanosecond of resistance, after all, would only make the inevitable conquest sweeter — and that moment was very near indeed. The air between them now burned with incandescence that had flared red with proximity, a reaction telegraphed by the deepening flush on Bob's cheeks. Megabyte had always prided himself on his ability to sniff out the weaknesses of his opponents, and the scent that was currently rising from that pale blue skin…
No: Megabyte's enemy, most ardently beloved, would not be escaping his fate this night. It was merely a matter of properly managing the variables.
While Bob tried to occupy himself with duty, Megabyte likewise made good use of the time.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]
Chapter 17: Matchmaker 5
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Chemical coercion.
Silence lay between them while they worked, unbroken except for the soft ticks and beeps of fingers tapping at console interfaces around a central holographic display of Mainframe deep in the halls of the Principle Office. No words were necessary: they were comfortable together now in so many ways, the fire between them smouldering in warm dark embers — for the moment. That would change, Mouse knew, in the microseconds to come — last night it had felt like the passion between them was unquenchable, peak after peak consuming them with indelible fire… but the Matchmaker code could be temporarily sated, even if it couldn't be eradicated. They had fallen asleep at last, limbs entwined, sharing deliciously exhausted breath and silken body heat in the darkness, and had awakened today able to concentrate on the task that faced them…
… for a while, anyway. Mouse stole a sidelong glance at Dot Matrix's face, so serious in the work of analyzing the distribution of Eros's code across the System, and the beauty of it stabbed the hacker to her core. Never had desire been such a sweet mixture of pleasure and pain, as addictive as Shatter dust and far more intoxicating. Is it just the code? Mouse mused, unable to tear her gaze away. Or had Ah never really in love before?
She'd certainly known various degrees of desire, all the way up to outright tear-their-clothes-off-in-the-nearest-convenient-alley lust; and Dot, with Matchmaker code in the mix, had proven capable of inspiring just about every emotion along that spectrum in the past two seconds since the red wave had overwhelmed them. But this — this admiration both tender and fierce, this appreciation of personal qualities beyond the physical that filled Mouse with protectiveness, possessiveness and awe…
No, she realized yet again, losing herself in the sweet intensity of those violet eyes fixed upon a series of cascading readouts: Ah had no idea was love was, and Ah couldn't even begin to imagine what love could be. But Ah sure as Dell know now.
Dot must have felt her lover's gaze upon her, for she glanced up in Mouse's direction. Their eyes met, and Mouse, as hard as she'd been working on parsing the Matchmaker's creation for the past three microseconds, felt delirious uncertainty cleave her to her core. Am Ah really trying to erase this? she wondered, and the part of her firmly in the infection's grip shouted a savage denial: No! Ah'd have t'be crazy to give this —
"How're those code analyses coming?" Such a light sweet voice, like music, and such a heart-twisting trace of a smile, so full of significance! They reached inside Mouse and turned her whole being with magnetic force; not only was she helpless against it, she had long since lost the desire to fight it. A tiny part of her, still sane, rang fierce alarms that she was too deep inside the danger zone.
The rest of her shifted toward the woman beside her, and she answered that curve of red lips with a brilliant smile of her own.
"Oh, they're doin' just fine." She stepped forward with a sassy sway of her hips, winding her arms around Dot and easily turning the emerald-skinned sprite to face her. "But Ah'd much rather be doin' you, dahlin'."
Dot's body went willingly enough, but her gaze lingered on the screen she'd been contemplating. Mouse's heart, once so cold and steady, did a feverish little love-flip in her chest at the endearing sight of such dedication and willpower. "Mouse, we've — we don't have time. Not right now. When Bob gets back with those data sets —"
"He'll be a while yet," Mouse murmured in her ear, her smile becoming a wicked smirk. She suspected that Dot had been too occupied with both her new paramour and the crisis facing Mainframe to fully see what was going on with the Guardian, who had come back from Megabyte's sector without the data sets the first time around, and who'd been steadily coming unravelled ever since. Mouse felt a twinge of regret on Bob's behalf, torn as he obviously was between the pain of seeing Dot so wrapped up in Mouse and the agony of resisting what the Matchmaker code was doing to him personally — but well, he had chosen to go to Ghetty Prime, so he had only himself to blame if he'd been networked with a slime-sucking viral bastard. By the time he'd left on the second attempt, less than ten microseconds ago, he'd looked like a long stretch of rough road that was only going to get exponentially worse. Mouse had just been grateful that he'd kept his mouth shut about his internal struggle, because anything that might have distracted Dot from her new connection was definitely not feasible in Mouse's books.
Oh, sugah, Mouse had almost said to him: Don't come back here, not without givin' in, or Megabyte'll lead his whole army here to try an' take you by force. And the last thing this System needed right now was an outright armed conflict on top of everything else; for one thing, such an event might even convince Dot that bed, with Mouse, was not the best place in the Net to be right now.
In her arms Dot remained tense, although those strong but delicate hands had settled warmly at Mouse's waist. "We should never have let him go alone!"
"Shhhh…" Mouse stroked her back soothingly, running her fingers down to skim over the curves of that shapely ASCII and those rounded hips, then back up in a gentling caress. "He's a Guardian. He can take care of himself."
The slightest unbending of Dot's stiffened shoulders was her reward. "I know. You're right." A nanosecond's hesitation, a sigh, and that sweet dark head came to rest on Mouse's shoulder. "But we can't," Dot breathed against her throat. "We… we've got to…"
Oh, it was absolutely adorable, the way this eloquent woman's words came apart when passion started to flow through her veins! Mouse could feel it rising within her as well, as though their circulatory systems were linked — which, in a sense, they were. "We can do anythin' we want to," she whispered against Dot's cheek, then dipped her head to taste those slightly parted lips, so soft and delectable that kissing them made her momentarily forget to breathe. Their embrace, which had been merely companionable, became suddenly passionate, transcendent, irresistible. Between kisses she wove a web of persuasion: "C'mon, sugah… an' tell me… who's gonna stop us…?"
"You —" For a long moment she was lost in a kiss, but when she surfaced her eyes were brilliant with laughter and with sensual fire. "You're a very bad woman, you know that, don't you?"
She brought her hand to Dot's cheek, framing that beloved face with a lingering touch. "And are you really complainin'? After all the trouble Ah've gone to t'show you that when Ah'm bad, Ah'm the —"
A nervous cough from the doorway to the chamber penetrated the glowing haze of desire that warmed the air around them. Reluctantly Dot glanced round. Out of the corner of her vision Mouse noticed a binome in a lab coat standing in the doorway — Specs, Mouse vaguely recalled, his name was Specs — holding something in his hands and looking like he'd rather be anywhere other than where he stood.
"Um, ma'am…?" He addressed Dot respectfully nevertheless, and stepped forward to hold the object out to her. The way her violet eyes widened sharply made Mouse actually tear her gaze away from that exquisite profile and pay attention.
The object he held, silent and dark, was a Guardian's keytool.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]
Chapter 18: Matchmaker 6
ARCHIVE WARNINGS: Chemical coercion.
Bob kept his head down, tapping commands into the console interface in a businesslike manner, but Megabyte, now wearing legs, could nevertheless see the sprite's face reflected in a dark portion of the screen as he prowled closer to his prey. The expression the Guardian wore — grimly determined, but with an undercurrent of profound uneasiness leaking through — filled Megabyte with gloating exhilaration, as did the electric current of tension that radiated from that slender body as he moved smoothly up behind it and leaned in close to Bob's left shoulder, letting the sprite feel a virus's hot murmur against his neck for the first time: "If there's anything I can do to help —"
Bob's shoulders flinched inside his uniform, a gesture of self-aborted retreat, his voice issuing from between clenched teeth: "I'm. Just. Fine."
"Really?" Megabyte drawled softly, affecting a tone of polite disbelief. As if in agreement with his skepticism, the console emitted a sour note when Bob hit a command out of sequence. "Evidently not," Megabyte purred, allowing a ripple of laughter to infuse his voice as he intensified the signal of dominance, placing his left hand on the console's edge close to Bob's hip and extending the other toward the interface under Bob's right hand. "Here, allow me to —"
The tips of his claws brushed lightly over Bob's fingers, and the tension that had been gathering in Bob's body, stiffening his spine and crawling almost visibly up the nape of his neck under that fetching fall of silver hair, finally exploded. He spun in place to fix the much taller program leaning over him with a savage glare and to bark a command: "Back off, Megabyte!"
Megabyte, now nose to nose with his quarry, raised one eyebrow and held his ground. "Well well," he smirked, "aren't we in a touchy mood?"
Bob's outraged eyes narrowed, his fists clenching. "You said you wouldn't do anything to me against my will," he almost growled.
Megabyte studied him for a long moment. "True," he conceded, then took a full step back and straightened. "Is this more to your liking?"
Bob stared up at him for an angry span of nanoseconds… until something within him visibly crumbled, and he closed his eyes and turned his face away. "No," he finally whispered, painfully, as if he didn't want anybody else to hear, even though Megabyte's viral binomes had by now retreated to the very edge of the Tor's central platform. He gave his head a shake, a helpless gesture of failed denial. "I just… it's not…"
Megabyte had seen enough. He reared back and fixed the weary sprite with his most imperious gaze. "Very well. You're coming with me."
Bob's gaze flew to his face again. Panic flared in those brown eyes, and Bob took a hasty step backwards, coming up short against the console and holding up both hands in a gesture of warding. "Listen, if you think I'm —"
Megabyte interrupted him sharply: "When was the last time you ate?"
That seemed to catch him completely by surprise. "I… uh…"
"I thought not. Or slept?"
"I — ten milliseconds ago, but —"
"And not well, I'll wager." How fortunate, then, that Megabyte had just finished issuing a series of orders that would take care of those problems nicely — even if Bob was at this point unaware of his generosity.
Bob's black eyebrows drew together belligerently. His hands fell to his sides again and clenched once more. "What's it to you?"
Megabyte bit back an aggrieved sigh, along with the urge to take a swipe at the deliberately difficult child with his claws; perhaps the sting of a trio of shallow wounds would put him in a more compliant mood. Instead he affected a tone of patience with just enough of a note of threat to make his determination clear: "Everything, as you well know. Now come along, Bob: your friends can wait for that information until you've —"
"No. They can't." For a couple of nanoseconds the conflict was writ large on his face; then he raised his left forearm, checked a readout on his keytool, and addressed it directly: "Glitch: Record…" The device beeped, and Bob spoke to its tiny screen: "Dot, I'm sending Glitch back to you with all the data I was able to pull from Megabyte's systems." A brief hesitation; his glance darted to Megabyte's face, uncertain; then he scowled and focused on the keytool again. "I'm going to stay here, see if I can help them figure out some scan intersectionality issues. I should be back…" Another glance upward. Megabyte granted him a slow smile, superficially innocent but full of enough insinuation to bring another blush to Bob's cheeks. The sprite stifled a cough. "Er — sometime tomorrow. Don't worry: I'm safe here —" A low mutter, disbelieving: "— for the moment, anyway, and if I run into any trouble I won't stick around. Bob out."
The keytool beeped again. Turning away from Megabyte, Bob raised his left arm and pointed it upward, toward the skylight of the Tor. "Glitch: Packet mode, to Dot Matrix. Record any response and return!"
The keytool chirped once and shot off of Bob's forearm, arrowing upward until even Megabyte's keen eyes could barely discern its tiny format against the System's darkened sky. It cleared the Tor's roof and turned toward the Principle Office, and when Megabyte looked down again he found Bob looking back up at him with narrowed eyes — defenceless, save for his body armour and his wits.
For a long moment they simply gazed at each other, the universe narrowing to the span of pixels that lay between them; then Bob's shoulders slumped fractionally under their orange padding and he turned to fully face his host again. "All right," the sprite said with such exhaustion and despair underlying his voice that Megabyte had to suppress another savage instinctive impulse, this time one that bade him sweep Bob up in his arms and shelter the sprite from any danger. "But I've gotta wait here until Glitch comes back."
"Nonsense," Megabyte countered. "You can barely stand on your own two feet." He stepped forward, ignoring the tension that instantly filled the smaller man's body all over again, and placed both hands on Bob's upper arms with due care for his relative fragility. The sprite was palpably vibrating with inner conflict, but Megabyte ignored that as well — for the moment. At least the boy wasn't recoiling from his touch. Instead he pitched his voice to a coaxing inflection: "You have my word that no harm will come to you."
"Yeah," Bob retorted, "and I've seen what your promises are worth." He cocked his head to one side and adopted a sarcastic parody of Megabyte's voice on a previous occasion: "Rule Number Two: I double-cross whomever I please."
"Or," Megabyte continued equally gently, "I could put you over my shoulder and carry you." He tightened his grip sufficiently that those warm brown eyes widened with alarm, and something else, something hotter and deeper, that made his hearts sing to witness. Ah, so your tastes lie in that direction, do they, Bob? He smiled thinly, letting the boy see a bright edge of teeth. Well, I'll see what I can do to accommodate you — when you're in better condition to appreciate my ministrations.
Judging by the way Bob's eyes widened even more, and the slightest shift forward of his slender body into the clasp of Megabyte's hands, the subtext of the silent communication had not been lost on him. But, typically, it didn't curb his cutting tongue: "You would, too, wouldn't you?"
"And there'd be exceedingly little you could do to stop me." Studying the narrow azure face upturned to his own, Megabyte was — no, not relieved, surely not, but something tight and unpleasantly anticipatory within him relaxed when he perceived the infinitesimal yielding of Bob's taut body, signalling compliance, along with an even deeper quality of weariness than Megabyte had initially perceived.
"All right, Megabyte." He closed his eyes and bowed his head, drawing a slow deep breath before continuing bitterly: "Like you said, it's not as if I have a choice…"
You have far more freedom than any other creature in my domain, Megabyte considered informing him, including the right to come and go as you please… but that would be revealing too much indeed. Instead he curved his left hand around the back of Bob's neck and waited until the sprite looked up at him again from beneath his fringe of silver hair, a wry hint of a smile quirking his azure lips in a way that made Megabyte hunger for their taste in a most disconcerting way. Ah, no: Bob wouldn't be going anywhere any time soon. "You're quite right. You don't. Now be a good boy and do exactly as I tell you…"
Bob snorted and rolled his eyes, but when Megabyte shifted to place his left arm around those slim shoulders and guide him towards the walkway that led deeper into the Tor, Bob did not resist. He even, as they passed through the arch into relative darkness, unbent just enough to lean slightly against Megabyte's left side — a tiny gesture, but one that felt, to Megabyte, as momentous as the instant when the gates of an enemy city shivered and cracked at the touch of the conqueror's hand.
[TO BE CONTINUED…]