Disclaimer: Project .Hack and attached characters and concepts are property of Bandai and Cyber Connect.

Notes: Takes place between Infection and Mutation. Parentheses indicate thoughts. What follows is a story told through two separate viewpoints. Chapters 1-13 cover the perspective of the three thieves - Dean, Shinji and Max. Chapters 14-25 depict the same events through Kite and BlackRose's point of view.

Chapter I - Symphony
From: TamonAdillo@theworld.com
To: Stolls@theworld.com, Deisart@theworld.com
Subj: Recon

Title sketchy, tempo sketchier. Performed on strings. Maintaining intermission; if Mozart becomes suspicious, performing on wind and reducing intermission is advisable.

We are running out of time. Considering changing the title of the symphony. Will meet with you and Deisart at mezzanine to discuss, 7pm. Bach will arrive at 8.

- Tamon

Dark brown eyes blinked once, twice at the message displayed before them. (Damn this code,) thought their owner. (Could Max be more cryptic?)

He began sifting through the mass of paper covering his desk, the slender fingers of a pianist picking their way to and fro between handwritten notes, printed documents, and newspaper clippings; highlighted sections caught his eyes for fractions of seconds, calling attention to various events related to The World, and to the global economy. The words 'CC Corp', 'found comatose', and 'Key of the Twilight' appeared frequently. Player names appeared less so, excepting three in particular: 'Kite', 'Helba' and 'Tsukasa'.

(Ah, here it is.) He smiled, pulling a week-old post-it note free from the pile, the adhesive strip covered with far too much dust and dirt to be of use. He quickly scanned the contents, comparing each word with the e-mail before him.

'Target sketchy, information sketchier. Left via Sprite Ocarina. Maintaining surveillance; if Admin becomes suspicious, leaving via logout and reducing surveillance is advisable.

We are running out of time. Considering changing the target of the mission. Will meet with you and Deisart at Mac Anu to discuss, 7pm. Kite will arrive at 8.'

"Excellent." He covered his mouth and gave a wide yawn, collapsing into the leather swivel chair and propping his feet up on the desk. He drew his hand through his short, unkempt black hair and propped it behind his head as he leaned backwards, the chair creaking slightly under his weight. His eyelids slowly drooped shut, blocking the dull glare of the monitor from his sight.

The piercing whine of a ringing telephone broke his reverie, forcing him to sit up to reach the receiver. Passing it easily in his hand, he pressed the call button and brought the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

The voice of a quiet young man answered him. "Hey, Dean."

"Shin, hey man." Dean smiled again. "What's up?"

"Just got Max's letter. What do you make of it?"

Dean let out a heavy sigh, failing to stifle his yawn. "Ahh, I don't know... I think it was a long shot when we were looking for Helba. Now we gotta ask some kid for help."

Shin chuckled. "I know, I know... but Altimit isn't number one for no reason, and finding an 'in' at CC Corp. is a hell of a lot easier than trying to make one."

"I thought you said it was beatable."

Another chuckle, dryer than the last. "Well, nothing's unbeatable... but trust me, this gets pretty damn close. We need a hacker, and we need to go in through The World. More to the point, we need one to do the other."

He nodded, letting out a murmur of cautious agreement. "I still don't understand why you can't do it, though."

"It's not that simple; The World is a game, the interface isn't designed for hacking. Fact is, these two are ready-made to hack from the inside, and that's why we need them. C'mon, you saw what that bird thing did to us; you think fiddling around in binary is going to get through that, much less through the backdoor?"

Dean leaned back, the chair creaking under his weight. "Whatever, it's all Greek to me. I'm just wondering what they want with year-old data. Time was, anything older than three months was practically irrelevant."

"No kidding. Well, we'll see what this 'Kite' can do for us."

"All right then. See you in an hour, Shin."

"You too."

Dean pressed the off button and set the receiver back on the base. He threw a glance at the monitor, still brightly displaying the encoded e-mail.

(This guy better be the real deal,) he thought. (This World shit is starting to get to me.)

He stood up, stretched, took a few paces around the dimly lit bedroom. A long glance in the mirror revealed a disheveled, middle-aged man staring back at him; a worn pair of khaki trousers and a buttoned-shut blue shirt hung loosely around his moderate build, adding a casual touch to his otherwise dark appearance.

Dean walked to the window and brushed open the curtains, casting an inquisitive gaze onto the streets before him. Despite the highly visible Tokyo cityscape - a veritable forest of metal, concrete and glass - a lone object caught his attention: a black sedan, windows tinted. Perhaps the same that had tailed him from the airport, perhaps not.

Mocking levity, he smiled and waved at the sedan before releasing the curtains, retreating to the confines of his hotel room; he slowly returned to the desk and began tugging at the mess of wires about it, eventually producing a headset and goggles, designed specifically for interfacing with The World.

He remembered the scant media coverage of its release; fresher in his mind - and aided by the articles on the desk - were rumors of incidents where its users were harmed by the product. Another name appeared in the mass of clippings and notes, a recent instance in which a student had been found comatose while playing The World.

Setting the goggles to one side, Dean sat down before his terminal and closed the e-mail. With obvious reluctance, he scrolled through the desktop and highlighted "The World," clicking it twice.

(Time for the next move.)


A sprawling network of stone bridges, canals and buildings, a massive waterfront bazaar. The picture became more definite as he stared at it; slowly it grew, expanding beyond his field of vision and wrapping around him, encompassing him, until it was less a picture and more a place.

Golden rings swirled about him, covering him from head to toe, signaling the transition from one world to the next. The rings soon vanished, bringing to view the multitude of characters who inhabited the bazaar, running to and fro between the shops of the aqua capital.

He looked down to where his body should be; gone was his comfortable, loose-fitting attire, and with it his body. In its place, a simple black robe adorned the slender, pale form he now occupied. He lifted a hand - covered by a brown leather glove - and gave the robe a slight tug, only slightly unnerved by his inability to feel the garment. A glance at his other hand revealed that it now clutched a long, blue wand.


He turned away from the broadway of Mac Anu to face the spinning Chaos Gate, just in time to witness two others enter The World - a Heavy Axeman and a Long Arm, the former covered entirely in rust-red armor and carrying a huge, tacky golden axe, the latter tall and athletic, decked out in loose blue pants and an open, matching vest.

The Long Arm cocked his head at Dean, causing a few locks of his shoulder-length blonde hair to spill forward over his eyes, the bright yellow mingling with his olive-colored stare. Resting the length of his ornately decorated spear over his shoulder, he grinned. "Stolls!"

The Wave Master smiled back, nodding to both as they approached. "Heya, Tamon."

"Hope we didn't keep you waiting," said the Long Arm.

Stolls shook his head. "Nah, just got here myself. So, this guy's showing up in an hour?"

The Axeman's armor clanked slightly as he glanced around, shifting his stance. Satisfied that no one was nearby, he nodded. "That's right. All my research indicates he's a hacker, too... I think he's worth a shot."

Tamon grunted in agreement. "It's not like we have much choice. Helba doesn't seem to play by the rules. Hell, she doesn't seem to play at all, as far as I've been able to determine. Hey... you sure we've been secured?"

"For now," replied Stolls. "Shinji, you..."

"Deisart," corrected the Axeman.

"Right, sorry. But you encrypted the voice uplink, didn't you?"

Deisart nodded. "Yeah."

"So, what do we do once he shows up?" asked Stolls. "Ask him to hack through an oversized firewall for us?"

"I think a test is in order," answered Tamon. "There is that Data Bug we found the other day... the bird creature."

The Wave Master let out a soft sigh, glancing away from the gate and down the broadway again, towards the bridge. "I don't know... I mean, I know this's the only way we can get it, short of going in shooting, but this guy, Kite... he's just a kid, I don't wanna involve some kid in this."

"I agree," said Tamon, a dark look crossing his tanned face. "But we're out of time. Rosenberg wants the data by Sunday, that's two days from now. He agreed to meet with us in an hour. You have a better idea, I'm willing to listen."

Stolls shifted his stance from one leg to the other, leaning slightly to his left, his eyes closed. "All right," he muttered. "One hour."



Two turned as the Long Arm called out. On the left stood a tall, lithe female Heavy Blade with short, pink hair and wine-colored eyes. She bore spiked red armor and bracers, purple vine-patterned tights and silver boots; covering her body in short, narrow streaks were a series of jagged, thorny tattoos, and slung over her shoulder was her class's trademark weapon.

To her left stood the character Kite; short, spiky blue hair poked out from beneath his red cap, mingling with his blue eyes, while the rest of his body was covered by an orange-red vest, matching pants and a thick white undershirt. Clenched in both of his gloved hands was a pair of sharp-looking short swords, marking him as a Twin Blade.

He smiled and raised a hand, waving to Tamon. "Tamon, hi! Are these your friends?"

Tamon jogged up to Kite, answering him with a nod. "Sorry we're late." He glanced at the Heavy Blade, and then again at Kite. "I suppose introductions are in order." With a smile, he turned back to the woman. "I'm TamonAdillo. Just Tamon will do in a pinch."

He threw a glance over his shoulder towards the bridge, where Stolls and Deisart stood. "That's Stolls," he indicated the Wave Master with his thumb, "and the Axeman's Deisart."

Kite bowed slightly. "Nice to meet you both. I'm Kite, and this is BlackRose," he said, gesturing to his companion, who politely nodded but threw a curious glance at each member of the trio.

"So, you wanted to ask about something?" BlackRose spoke up, addressing Tamon.

Tamon cleared his throat. "Yes, well... this may sound a little strange, but..."

Deisart took a step forward, his armor making an audible clank as he moved. "We need your help," he finished for Tamon. "There's a monster at Delta, Buried Geothermal Spiral, and we believe it's been... altered."

"Altered?" said Kite, peering curiously at the armored Deisart.

"Hacked," replied Stolls, joining the conversation. "It had infinite hit points, as far as I could tell." He sighed. "It got all of us."

Tamon nodded. "We were going to try again, but I'm afraid that without a hacker, we can't do anything. That's why we need your help." After a beat, he added, "So, what do you say?"

Kite and BlackRose exchanged looks. A moment's pause, and they nodded to each other. "What's the name of the field again?"

Chapter II - Broken Ice
Eyes opened to a changed field. Gone were the streets, bridges and canals of Mac Anu; further gone was an even passing semblance of a real world.

Gaps dotted this conceptual reality - an expansive, desolate landscape; barren earth and rock as far as could be generated in an endless loop, a slight drizzle of digital rain creating the area's only soundtrack. All of it perforated by spots of code, patches of ground and sky gone to reveal a solid mass of computer-generated text beneath them. Numbers and letters trailed through the air, nonsensical yet predictable, mocking the idea that The World could be perceived as real.

"This is new," remarked Stolls, dryly concealing his surprise.

"It wasn't like this before?" asked Kite, notably unfazed by the unreality of their surroundings.

Stolls shook his head. "No. The creature was in the dungeon, but this..." the Wave Master trailed off for a moment as he walked up to a missing patch of ground, experimentally tapping his foot against the lines of code in its place. "I... don't know what to make of it."

BlackRose carefully scanned the area, watching for monsters. "Did you know about the creature before you came here?"

"Well," began Tamon, lightly rapping the end of his spear against his leg, "not exactly. We thought there would be some kind of boss monster here, but we didn't know about these Data Bug things... least we'd never seen any."

Kite removed a small orb from his pocket, and held it up over his head. In a flash, it vanished; Kite's eyes widened in surprise, and he let out a quiet "huh?"

"What is it?" asked BlackRose.

He stared off into space for a moment before turning to face her. "All the portals in this field are open."

Stolls blinked. "What? Someone beat us here?"

"When did you guys come here?" asked Kite, glancing over at Tamon.

"Was about three days ago. We cleared the place out, except for the bug, but they should've respawned by now."

(The bug,) thought Stolls. "Hey, maybe we should get moving, find the monster before somebody else does."

Kite's glance shifted from Tamon to Deisart, then to Stolls. "All right, let's go."

"Should be on the bottom floor," said Tamon. "Right where we left it," he added, a shadow crossing his eyes.

The five moved into a loose, circular formation and advanced towards the dungeon in the distance, halting momentarily as a bright flash and sharp crackling of static lashed at their eyes and ears; Kite and BlackRose seemed not to notice, but Tamon, Stolls and Deisart were caught off guard, each reacting with varying surprise.

Tamon noticed that Kite and BlackRose's reaction - or the lack thereof - regarding the strange, out-of-character phenomena hinted towards experience. The Long Arm's puppeteer made a mental note, reminding him to reevaluate the youthful hacker.

(Maybe we can use him after all.)


From: TamonAdillo@theworld.com

To: Stolls@theworld.com, Deisart@theworld.com

Subj: Title

Consider title of symphony re-named. Maintain intermission and watch for Mozart; corrupted tempo not likely to escape scrutiny.


The party kept formation as it moved through the decaying dungeon, solid walls of data and code replacing texture here and there. A single thought was shared between each member of the party, one which succeeded at keeping them all on edge.

Tamon was the first to voice the thought. "You know what I don't like about this?" he asked to no one in particular. "Where are the monsters? I haven't seen a single goddamn creature since we got here; someone cleared the way before us."

BlackRose cautiously scanned their surroundings as they came to a four-way junction. "None above ground, and none here," she added. "Someone's definitely here with us."

Deisart suddenly stepped forward, towards the northernmost exit. "The monster is this way," he said, his gentle voice nonetheless conveying a sense of urgency. "Let's go."

Stolls eyed the exit. (There was smoke last time,) he thought. (What's going on here?)

Exchanging confused glances and shrugs, the rest fell into step behind the Axeman, following him through the stone archway and into a large, empty antechamber. Walls of solid, evenly cut stone surrounded them, providing no form of cover or hiding place, and despite the lack of visible light source the room was highlighted with an eerie purple hue.

"I don't like this," said Tamon in repeat, his voice echoing in the vaulted room. "I do not like this, this is too easy."

"Someone beat us to the punch." Stolls glanced around, icy claws of uneasiness taking firm hold of him. "Someone else brought down a Data Bug. Somebody tell me why this worries me."

Kite slowly stepped into the center of the room, the implications made by his companions all too clear. "Does someone else have access to Data Drain?" he wondered aloud.

Tamon cocked his head at Deisart, who had once again opted to remain utterly motionless. (Shin's a machine... how the hell does he do that?) Closer examination revealed that the polished, dark red helmet was tilted upward slightly, the visor facing the ceiling on an angle.

"Deisart?" called Tamon, a tinge of fear tainting his voice, his heart skipping a beat.
The Axeman made no movement, which did nothing to alleviate the sudden feeling of dread which enveloped the party. The feeling was amplified as Kite noticed he was standing in the shadow of something very large.

"Look out!" came the cry from BlackRose.

Tamon and Stolls followed Deisart's gaze and gasped aloud. BlackRose reacted instantly, charging towards Kite and spear-tackling him, knocking him out of the shadow; a second later, the avian carcass came crashing to the ground, pulverizing the corrupted earth where the Twin Blade had been standing

The impact rocked the ground beneath them; slowly, the three men approached the giant, lifeless creature - a nightmarish cross between a bird and a dragon - their weapons cautiously brandished.

"Mmnn... aw, damn it," groaned BlackRose as she moved off of Kite to a sitting position. She threw a concerned glance down at him. "Are you okay?"

Kite nodded weakly, gathering his weapons as he stood up. "I'm fine... I think," he said, drawing an unnecessary breath of air and releasing it. "Thanks," he added with a smile, sheathing a blade and offering a hand to help her up.

The Heavy Blade winked at him and hauled herself up to her feet. "Don't forget, you owe me now... partner."

Smiles disappeared as the two turned to the monster. Kite glanced over at Tamon, who gingerly poked the creature with his spear. "Is that what you were fighting?"

Tamon nodded. "That's it, all right. Somebody worked it over but good."

"But there's no one else here," said Stolls, brown eyes darting from one corner to the next, desperately seeking any sign of movement, of life.

"Potential hostiles detected."

The voices came from all corners of the room, echoing deeply; a chorus of cold monotone, piercing falsetto and powerful baritone, all speaking at once and as one.

"Who's there?!" called Tamon, whirling about to face the newcomer.

"That question cannot be answered," spoke the voices. "The language necessary to define Delphi as 'who' does not exist."

"Delphi?" said Kite, nonplussed.

A sharp current of electricity tore from the creature's body, arcing several feet into the air and striking at nothing. The bolt danced and writhed, causing everyone to step back in surprise and bewilderment.

The electrical bolt continued to swirl above the body, which slowly began to dissolve. In the midst of the dancing current gathered a darkened void; the void grew rapidly, slowly expanding to form humanoid features - arms, legs and a head. Lines of white code, ones and zeroes, cryptic letters and symbols, all flashed through the void where the thing's body should have been. It stood perfectly still, hovering above the spot formerly occupied by the avian beast.

"Guys?" muttered Tamon, his spear trembling slightly in his hand, simultaneously eager for and anxious of the battle he subconsciously knew was coming.

"Did you kill that thing?!" accused BlackRose.

"Negative. The host was attached to this location; it was discarded."

A shouted command came from Deisart's helmet, the voice no longer calm or collected.


Before any could move to strike or retreat, the shadowy apparition raised an arm skyward; a shockwave burst in a circle from the center of the room, rolling across the ground and shaking the entire room.

Nearest the point of origin, Tamon was blown off his feet and to the ground. The unforgiving rock floor struck back of his head before the rest of his body had finished falling, drawing a cry of pain and alarm past his lips.

"Tamon!" shouted Stolls, flailing his arms wildly in an attempt to keep steady.

The phantom slowly descended to the ground, approaching the fallen Long Arm; Its feet touched the ground, yet its legs kept still as it moved.

"Viral scan completed." The voices came again; in a more intellectual moment, the Wave Master might have noticed that they did not come from the apparition. "Entities... unknown," they continued, an analytical edge to their tone.


A loud battle cry preceded a large blade slicing diagonally through Its body, splitting the creature in two; BlackRose ducked right, quickly recovering from the swing and attacked again, slashing sideways through Its waist and dividing the halves into quarters.

A bright bolt of electricity rocketed from Its severed right hand, lashing out at BlackRose, who barely brought her weapon up in time to block. The bolt struck the blade in a brilliant explosion, knocking her back several paces.

Startled but unharmed, she prepared to charge again, and found herself preempted as Kite and Deisart sprung into action; attacking from both sides, the two quickly dismembered what was left of the floating apparition. Blade and axe sliced again and again through otherwise empty air, meeting no resistance but nonetheless shredding the human-shaped void in seconds.

A blast of fire soared through the air, expertly weaving between the warriors to strike the shards of the creature, 1incinerating them almost instantly. Nearby, Stolls held his wand high, eyes wide, lips parted to reveal gritted teeth.

The remains quickly dissipated, taking the sounds of battle with them. Nothing was heard, save for hard panting, sighs of relief, and the groaning of a weary Tamon as he got to his feet.

"What... what just happened?" asked the Long Arm, blinking as he glanced at each of his companions. "What was that thing?"

Kite slowly relaxed, eyes fixed on the spot where the phantom stood. "Did... did we get it?" he wondered aloud.

BlackRose stepped forward. "I think so. I've... never seen anything like that monster. What was that... that 'Delphi'?"

A single voice - cold, mechanical, monotone - caused all to start, weapons raised, muscles tensed, eyes searching. "Analysis: the purging has failed."

A second voice answered it, high in pitch yet equally lifeless. "Status: the primary defense system has been compromised by hostile entities."

Everyone stood rooted to his or her spot, sharing the uncertainty of what to say or do as the third and final voice spoke, the ground seeming to tremble from its deep baritone. "Conclusion: the primary defense system is obsolete."

(Primary defense system?) thought Stolls. (What on Earth are they talking about?)

The first spoke again. "Suggestion: a vessel for the primary defense system is desirable."

Then the second. "Warning: all previous vessels were confined to one location."

And then the third. "Action: a different vessel is required."

"It is so," said the three, the voices again merging to speak as one.

All eyes returned to the center of the room, where the darkness began to gather once more, slowly reforming the body of the apparition.

Kite lunged forward and struck at the shadow's neck, narrowly missing as It suddenly sprung into action, ducking down to dodge the attack. It responded by dashing behind Kite, one arm raised high, energy crackling and condensing in Its open palm.

The Twin Blade was quick to react, but not quick enough; the shadow struck Kite on the back, the ball of energy exploding and blasting him several feet forward onto his stomach, where he slid to a stop just before a statuesque Deisart.

"Kite!" shouted BlackRose as she leapt at the humanoid blackness, sword held high. With a mighty growl, she brought the blade down towards the apparition, which quickly retreated backward. It took to the air as Deisart rushed forward, swinging in a wide arc at Its back; the large axe barely grazed the soles of Its feet, and BlackRose was forced to take a step back to dodge the swing.

Both recovered from their respective attacks just in time to see a second bolt of fire race towards the apparition from Stolls; without turning to face him, It thrust an arm out and summoned an even larger fireball, which quickly and unerringly flew straight towards his own.

Stolls watched in shock as his fireball deflected harmlessly off the phantom's; he went into a diving roll away from the massive fiery projectile, only to be blown against the wall as it collided with the ground and exploded, tossing the Wave Master aside like a rag doll.

The apparition descended towards BlackRose and Deisart, but was interrupted halfway as a spear hurled through the air and struck a glancing blow to Its side, knocking it away.

"Go!" shouted Tamon, racing forward to retrieve his spear as it clattered to the ground.
"Everybody go, now! Get out of here!"

BlackRose glanced at Deisart, who obediently vanished from sight. She muttered a curse under her breath as It turned to face Tamon.

"Let's go!" came the shout from her right; a hand took hers, and she glanced right to see Kite standing next to her, a Sprite Ocarina in his free hand.

Stolls wearily moved to his feet, an unfelt pain coursing through his body. He rubbed his back, stumbling for a moment before righting himself.

His eyes widened as he hastily scanned the area. Deisart, Kite and BlackRose were nowhere to be seen; Tamon charged the apparition alone, spear whistling as it sailed through the air, mere inches away from It, which dodged with automatic finesse.

"Tamon!" shouted Stolls, dropping his wand and cupping both hands over his mouth, forgetting that his companion could hear him from anywhere in the room, or on Earth. "We gotta go!"

Tamon slid backwards as he leapt from the shadow's arm, which slashed at him like a knife. He threw a desperate glance at Stolls, releasing one hand from his spear to gesture vaguely at the Wave Master. "Dean, get outta here! Log out, now!"

Stolls caught his breath. (Dean? Why did...) "Max, what is it?!"

"I said go!" screamed Tamon, his voice cracking. "I... I can't! I can't log out!"

The silver-haired avatar felt his controller's blood turn to ice. "What?! What do you mean?"

Tamon adjusted his hold on his spear and leapt forward. "You want a piece of me, bitch!" he shouted, aiming his weapon at the creature's chest.

It deftly spun and kicked at his spear as it neared, knocking it from his hands and sending him towards the ground. The apparition dove down and caught him in mid-air by the neck, holding him aloft.

Stolls' vision faltered, flashes of light and static racing across his eyes. He barely saw Tamon frantically struggling to get free; translucent, crystalline shapes surrounded him, and lines of code and data raced through the void that was the apparition, faster and more frequently than before. The shapes gathered to form a crude sphere around Tamon and slowly began to rotate.

"Maaaaaax!" cried Dean as his vision finally gave; his hearing went next, but not before an agonized scream could reach him, lasting for a full five seconds before subsiding.


Dean gasped in surprise and tore the goggle and headset off, throwing it violently to the ground. He stumbled backward and fell on his rear, panting heavily as he briefly scrambled away from the terminal; a chill swept through him as his sweaty blue shirt clung possessively to his body, a physical byproduct of his mental exertions.

The interior of the visor flickered; the words "SYSTEM ERROR" flashed over and over in big red letters, a slight buzzing from the headset the only sound in the room aside from his breathing.

Chapter III - Consequence

"Son of a bitch," muttered Dean between breaths. "It can't be."

He jumped, startled, as the phone rang; slowly he moved to his feet, grabbed the receiver and punched the call button.

Shin's voice greeted him. "Dean?"

"I'm here... I'm okay. You all right?"

"I'm fine," replied Shin, his voice quiet, yet lacking his earlier composure. "But Max, he... he didn't answer his phone."

The uneasiness that had taken hold of Dean in The World tightened its grip. He glanced again at the visor, still flashing the error message. "I, uh... I think he might have been data drained."

"What? Are you sure??"

"I don't know... he told me he couldn't log out." He paused, swallowing loudly. "That thing, it... it caught him. It was... ah, I don't know, something happened. Goddamnit..." his voice cracked, and he paused to calm himself, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly.

"All right, all right, relax. I'll be there in five minutes to pick you up, we'll check on him. Bring your piece."

"Got it," Dean answered. He then hit the 'off' button and set the phone down on the base. With a sigh, he turned towards the bed. (Son of a bitch,) he said in his mind.

Slowly he strode towards the bed, where he knelt down and pulled a small metal box from beneath it. He carefully set the box on the bed and punched a combination into the keypad mounted on the lid. A soft click of a lock, and Dean flipped the lid open.

Inside sat a clean, civilian model Glock 40 handgun, bolt locked back, barrel visibly empty. Buried beside it in the cushioned container was a full 9mm magazine, a single round protruding from the top.

(Haven't used this in a while,) he thought as he pulled both out. He tilted the gun and double-checked the safety before he slid the magazine into the waiting chamber; a satisfying click escaped as it locked into place, pushing the bolt forward.

He sighed, shaking his head vigorously to dispel the image of Tamon being Data Drained; his comrade's scream echoed through his mind as he recalled the event. He shivered, the familiar chill of uneasiness sinking deep into him.

(Hang in there, Max.)


"Excuse me, miss."

The receptionist glanced up from her paperwork at the men who now stood before the desk. She blinked in surprise; were the two not of obviously different race, they could have been twins. Both sported short black hair, brown eyes and similarly rounded facial features - though the American, or who she assumed was an American, appeared slightly older. They even stood at similar posture.

An inch of height, a pair of glasses and choice of outfit were all that separated them; the Asian half of the duo was clad in a tan trenchcoat, a brown shirt, matching slacks and expensive leather shoes, while the American bore a dark green windbreaker, khaki trousers and a pair of worn gym shoes.

She smiled at the men, making a mental note of the conspicuous bulges in their coats. "Can I help you?" she asked in fluent English.

Windbreaker nodded and glanced over at Trenchcoat, who answered in Japanese. "Yes, we're here to see Mr. Max Kerrek. Could we have his room number, please?"

"Certainly," she answered, turning her attention to her computer. A few seconds of keystrokes brought up the desired information. "Suite 317."

"Doumo arigatou," said Trenchcoat with a slight bow before nodding to Windbreaker. "Let's go."


"Go ahead, I'll keep an eye out."

Dean turned around and leaned against the wall, glancing up and down the long, white, well-lit hallway of the hotel. He folded his arms across his chest - his left hand lightly nudging the concealed Glock in his windbreaker - and idly toed the teal blue carpeting which ran the length of the hall.

He looked right and watched for a moment as his trenchcoat-clad companion removed a small card-shaped device from inside his coat, which he slid into the card reader on the door to room 317. Dean noticed a small cable running from the tip of the card to a small black box, partially hidden in one of the coat's interior pockets.

"Starting now," muttered Shin as he reached in and pressed a button on the box. The card reader reacted instantly, blinking off the red light and shifting to yellow, indicating that the 'card' was being read. He furrowed his brow, and with his free hand pressed his narrow, wire-rimmed spectacles back to their perch on the bridge of his nose, from which they had slipped. "Almost there..."

Dean cocked his head down the hallway, and felt his heart stop as a man in a black suit stepped out of the elevator. A two-way radio dangled from his belt loop; pinned to the lapel was a shiny metal object, which, despite the distance, bore a remarkable resemblance to the hotel's logo.

"Aw, Christ," whispered Dean. "Shinji, hurry up, we've got company."

Shinji prayed silently as he waited for the reader to unlock, throwing a sidelong glance at the security guard. (Don't look over here, don't look... oh, damn, he sees us! Come on, come on, hurry up and work!)

Dean's blood ran cold as the guard approached, his expression unreadable, one hand already reaching for his radio. Mind racing, he pounded on the door. "Max, c'mon! Quit jokin' around, open the door man!"

Soft footsteps against the carpet grew louder, barely heard over the beating of the men's hearts. Feigning a broad grin, Dean chuckled and rapped on the door again. "You better not have gotten into the minibar again, you know this is all on my dime!"

(YES!) Shinji wanted to shout as the reader blinked green. He leaned forward against the door, covering the reader with his coat and deftly pocketing the electronic lockpick. Out of view of the guard, he gave the handle a quick twist and pushed it inward, almost stumbling as the door opened.

Dean smiled at the security guard as Shinji stepped through. "Tourists," he said with a wink before following his companion and nudging the door closed behind him.

"Max?" called Shinji, eyes carefully scanning the room. Despite signs of recent use - lights on, microwave dinner set before the microwave, beer bottles empty and lining a coffee table before the TV, which was also on - the room was empty.

Dean noticed a light from beneath the door leading to the adjoining bedroom, and indicated it with a nod. "There," he muttered, eyes narrowed. "Come on."

Shinji's eyes narrowed as the two approached the door and opened it. Stepping through into the bedroom, he gasped aloud at the sight.

"Jesus... Max!"

Clad only in a hotel robe, a white t-shirt and a pair of striped boxer shorts, the tall, blond-haired young man lay motionless on the floor, still connected to his glowing terminal via his headset and goggles.

Dean and Shinji raced up to aid their friend; Dean pulled the visor from his face and recoiled in fright as he saw Max's face, his expression contorted to a mix of pain and terror, his mouth agape. Shinji took Max's wrist in his hand and felt for a pulse.

"Son of a bitch... just like those goddamn kids," Dean hissed. "Son of a bitch!"

"He's still alive," said Shinji. "Call an ambulance, now!"


"Status: superior vessel acquired."

"Condition: outside interference terminated."

"Conclusion: vessel shall serve to allow greater mobility for Delphi."

"Recommendation: data concerning additional assets of vessel is desirable."

"Experimentation in combat versus other intruders is necessary."

"It is so."

Chapter IV - Third Party

Flashing emergency lights swirled about at a dizzying pace, bathing the streets, sidewalks
and onlookers in their primary colors.

"Let's go!"

On a three count, the two paramedics lifted the gurney holding Max's prone body up and pushed it forward into the maw of the waiting ambulance.

Standing nearby, Dean threw a look at Shinji. "Shin, maybe, uh..."

Shinji nodded, his face set in a no-nonsense expression. "Go ahead, I'll catch up."

"All right." Dean hopped up into the back and immediately turned towards Max, making room for the medics as they went to work.

Shinji slammed the doors shut and pounded on the back of the ambulance, which quickly sped off. He watched as the white metal beast rounded a corner and disappeared, the piercing wail of its siren lingering for several moments before becoming inaudible.

(This can't be happening,) thought Shinji with a frown. (This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out.) He turned and laboriously strode towards the hotel, a stray gust of wind tugging gingerly at his trenchcoat. (Find the data, grab it, deliver it. That was the plan.)

Slowly he made his way back to Max's room, dark thoughts clouding his mind. He sighed as he walked up to room 317, praising himself for the foresight to pocket Max's keycard before the ambulance arrived. A beep from the reader and a twist of a knob opened the door; he stepped through and quietly closed the door behind him.

He worked his way to the terminal, briefly shuddering as he recalled discovering Max lying on the floor, utterly motionless, horrific expression locked on his face.

Shinji shook his head as he sat down before the monitor, which had since reset to the default Altimit desktop. (That wasn't normal... Asara Corp. said nothing about internal security.)

A cursory search around the desk produced a blank disc, which he slid into the drive. A few seconds of keystrokes and commands saved what he assumed to be relevant information: member addresses, e-mail, logs from the past few days, and personal memos. One in particular caught his attention.

From: ARosenberg@acor.net

To: TamonAdillo@theworld.com

Subj: Re: Orders

>We should obtain the desired information by this Sunday. We will acquire
>the necessary expertise to penetrate the mainframe through The World as
>per your specifications.

>However, I must again question the nature of the data. I know you aren't
>telling me everything for a reason, but if the data is more sensitive in nature
>than I am led to believe, then there may be extra security present that we
>cannot anticipate. Given the incidents that have occurred to players of The
>World, I'm sure you would agree that the safety of my team is a valid concern.

Mr. Kerrek, I assure you the data is utterly benign. We require their accounting information for the last fiscal year, and that is all you need to know. You have the desired filenames and their location. Acquire them by any means necessary. We will have a courier at the previously agreed upon meeting place, midnight.

- Aldous

(Rosenberg.) Shinji's eyes narrowed. (If the data is so benign, what the hell was that thing doing running around on the same server as the backdoor? That Delphi... it acted like it was trying to protect something.) A frown twisted his lips. (But that area wasn't it, though... so why was it there? Was it waiting for us?)

He closed the e-mail and opened the next file, a text document dated two days ago.

"Target file - 7,214,483 (.zip, 36 files)

FY XX file - 3 mb (variable, .zip, 4 files)

Extra 32 files/4mb. What is it?"

Shinji raised an eyebrow. "What the hell?" he muttered. (That's awfully big for accounting data...) With a mental shrug, he removed the disk and shut off the terminal. (I better catch up with Dean,) he reminded himself.


("Is there anything that can be done, doctor?")

Dean buried his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes vigorously, slouching forward in the chair. Before him lay Max, utterly motionless on the bed, hooked up to an electrocardiograph and artificial respiration machinery. A slight hissing indicated the movement of air in and out of his body, though the lack of movement made it very obvious that it was not through any will of his own; the only other noise was from the EKG, gently beeping every second or so to a predictable, mechanical rhythm.

("Mr. Kerrek is comatose; it's not something that has a proven treatment. I'm sorry, Mr. Stollis. There's nothing we can do but wait.")

Dean lifted his head and stared at Max through half-closed eyes. His face had lost its frightened expression, falling into a relaxed state, eyes closed, rings beneath them indicative of sleep long since lost. His short, spiky blonde hair lay in mild disarray, and his pale, slender arms sat peacefully at his sides, the right connected to an IV drip solution.

"Max... goddamn it, it wasn't supposed to be like this."

Reluctantly, Dean stood up and walked over to the window, gazing out at downtown Tokyo which stretched before him endlessly, lights shining from every visible corner like an overdecorated Christmas tree. (I know he needed the money... hell, we all do.)

A glance over his shoulder reminded him how much more Max was in need than he; in the dim light of the room shone a diamond, painstakingly perched upon a golden band which sat on his right ring finger.

(I'm sorry, man.)

His thoughts were interrupted as the door opened, spilling light from the hallway into the room. He turned and squinted into the brightness. "Shin?" he called as he saw a tall, shadowy man in a trenchcoat step into the room.

The man's features grew more defined as he neared, but Dean's attention was called to the object he held in his hand: a 9mm pistol, barrel sporting a silencer and aimed straight as his head. A second man entered behind him, similarly armed.

"Dean Stollis?" asked the lead man.

Dean's eyes narrowed, still zeroing in on the tip of the silencer. His hand slowly reached for his own weapon.

"Don't," said the man with a shake of his head, raising his pistol for emphasis. "Come with us, Mr. Stollis. We're going for a ride."

Chapter V - Modus Operandi

Dean's eyes shifted from the driver to the passenger, who faced him with a pistol drawn. The former was a well-built American in a tan overcoat, with a look that just stepped out of an Army recruitment ad: square-jawed, clean-shaven, sharply cut brown hair, piercing blue eyes. The latter could have been an extra from any number of John Woo flicks: a trenchcoat-clad Japanese man with shoulder-length dark hair and unflinching hazel eyes.

Both men bore the appearance that there were a lot more where they came from.

Dean folded his arms over his chest, leaning back against the leather backseat of the black sedan he now sat in. "All right, who the hell are you guys?" he asked, eyes narrowing. You're a bit too well-dressed to be mercs. Who do work for, CC?"

"We're asking the questions," said the driver. "Now shut up and tell us who you're working for."

"Which one do you want me to do?" asked Dean with a smirk.

The passenger replied by pulling the trigger, sending a silenced bullet into the backseat, just inches from Dean's head. "Shit!" he cried as he lurched right, clumsily attempting to dodge the shot that had already passed him. "All right, I'll talk! Damn!" he shouted, panting quietly, trying to calm the suddenly frantic beating of his heart.

"Let's hear it," said the Japanese thug.

Dean sighed. "We were hired by Asara Corp. to hack into CC's mainframe." He paused as the sedan jolted slightly from a bump in the road; the car's pace went uninterrupted as it rumbled along the streets, darkened through tinted windows. "The deal is $50,000 a head, U.S. currency, for accounting data from last year."

"Asara Corp?" asked the American.

"Software manufacturer, one of CC's lesser competitors," explained his companion. "They're trying to develop an operating system to rival Altimit." He turned to face Dean again. "You were planning to go through the old backdoor in The World, weren't you?"

(They know an awful lot about this. They're Cyber Connect goons all right,) thought Dean, eyes moving to the pistol, waiting for the barrel to move from him. His pokerface failed him, and he let out a defeated sigh. "Got it in one."

A burst of static and voices interrupted him, calling attention to a previously unnoticed device sitting on the dashboard. Knobs, switches and lights covered the front, and a speaker was mounted on top. Another burst poured through the speaker; his cursory knowledge of Japanese allowed him to understand a few numbers and words, enough to identify them as police radio chatter.

Dean managed a smirk. "Nice toy. I fancy antiques myself."

"Shut up," answered the driver as he turned off the scanner.

"So, what do they want with accounting data? Especially old data?" asked the passenger, threw a glance at the road before turning back to Dean.

Dean shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm a P.I., not a tech."

"Yeah, we know," said the passenger. "Sergeant Dean Stollis, LAPD, 12 years. Fired after Internal Affairs revealed you'd been on the take for the past two years."

Dean glared at him. "Now, wait a goddamn minute, how do you know that? Who the hell are you guys?"

The gunman sighed. "Not that it matters much, but yes, we do work for CC Corp. You may be aware that your friend Shinji used to work for us as well. We discovered that he'd been contacted by a corporate entity, but we weren't sure who. So the higher-ups had us tail him; yours and Mr. Kerrek's names came up simply by association."

"So, if you're after him, what do you want with me?"

A sneer snaked onto the gunman's face. "In a nutshell... you're sloppier and easier to tail, and you're a bent cop to boot - much more disposable than Mr. Kayora." He chuckled. "Oh, I'm sorry; ex-bent cop."

Dean frowned, his brow creasing sharply, his eyes darkening. "Yeah, and I'm sure you're just a pair of saints, Chino."

"Ken, actually," he replied. "And the big guy's Carl. Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Well, that just makes this all the more enjoyable, Ken." Dean faked a smile. "So, are you gonna shoot me now, or what?"

"Oh, we're not finished," said Ken. "We still want to know why Asara wants year-old accounting data."

"That makes two of us."

"And that's why we need to find Shinji," said Carl. "And you're going to lead us to him."

Dean cocked his head. "Now, why would I do a thing like that?" He flinched as Ken waved the pistol lightly in his face. "Oh, right. The gun."

Ken grinned darkly. "Among other things... as your friend Mr. Kerrek can attest to."

The sentence hit Dean with the subtlety of a point-blank gunshot. He growled. "You son of a bitch... *you* sent that thing after us?!"

"Where is Shinji?" asked Ken firmly, his cold stare locked on Dean.

Dean paused for several seconds, glaring hard at Ken. "He was going to catch up, he's probably at the hospital now." A wry smirk worked its way onto his lips. "Of course, since I'm not there, who knows how long he'll stick around? And after that, you're on your own."

Ken scoffed. "You expect us to believe that?"

"Look, asshole, I'm beyond expectations at this point. You have a better idea where he might be, I'm all ears."

Ken grit his teeth, his eyes not moving from Dean. "Carl, turn around. We're going back."

"You sure?" asked Carl.

Ken threw a look at the driver. "Just do it."

Carl paused for a moment, waiting for a break in traffic. Spotting a fair-sized gap, he gingerly tapped the brake, slowing the sedan; he turned the wheel in his hands and brought the car around in a sharp turn, causing everyone to sway to the side.

Dean held his breath as the pistol barrel moved slightly off-target, pointing wide to the left; Ken still had his eyes on Carl, chiding him for his carelessness. Spotting the opening, Dean lurched forward, one hand unbuckling and shrugging aside his seatbelt, the other reaching for Ken's pistol.

Ken noticed Dean's surprise move, but was too slow to react; his wrist was pinned in Dean's powerful grip and forced against the driver's seat, pointing the barrel well away from either man. Ken instinctively shouted a curse and pulled the trigger, firing into the rear driver-side door; a hollow *ping* shot through the tight confines of the sedan as metal collided with metal.

Free from the seatbelt, Dean brought his right hand around and punched Ken in the face, stunning the gunman; he cocked his fist back and punched again, this time knocking Ken's head back violently, drawing some blood from his nose and a pained groan from his lips.

"Ow, shit! Carl!"

The driver began flailing backwards with his arm, vainly attempting to strike Dean, who ducked down and began prying the silenced pistol free from Ken's hand. Distracted, Carl lost sight of the road, his hand blindly snapping the wheel back and forth like a whip. The car shook and rolled accordingly, tires squealing as it slid all over the road.

"Look out!" screamed Ken, pointing with his free hand out the window. Carl slammed on the accelerator frantically pulling the wheel away from the oncoming car, sending the vehicle careening off the street and onto a dirt path leading through an empty park. Seconds later, Ken let out a scream of a different kind as a set of teeth latched onto his trapped hand.
Dean bit down hard, cringing at the metallic taste of blood that flooded his mouth as his teeth broke skin. Ken reluctantly dropped the pistol and tried to jerk his hand free. He brought his free hand around and pounded hard on Dean's head with his fist; the blows jarred his brain but otherwise did little, failing to prevent Dean from grabbing the silenced handgun.

Dean looked up just in time to see Carl come around with a black handgun - the Glock he'd confiscated from Dean. "Ahh!" he cried in surprise as he ducked to his left, scurrying for the door.

Carl fired, the gunshot deafening compared to the silenced weapon that had preceded it; the bullet slammed into the leather seat, effortlessly blasting through the material and continuing through the back, drilling a hole into the trunk.

Fumbling with the lock, Dean hastily popped the door open, which instantly and recklessly flapped back and forth in the wind as the sedan swerved. Mustering up every ounce of courage he could summon, Dean torpedoed through the open door, tucking up and covering his face with both arms as he flew out to the ground.

He heard the vehicle speeding away as he came in contact with the earth; the dirt road reached up and struck him several times as he rolled, battering him unmercifully but quickly slowing him down. His body slid to a stop, a burning ache coursing through his arms, legs and back as his sense of touch caught up with him.

He cautiously tried to move; thankfully, nothing appeared broken. He struggled to catch his breath as he moved to his feet, limbs bruised, jacket and pants ripped and torn, but otherwise unhurt. He groaned and wearily dusted himself off, throwing a glance in the direction of the sedan, its tail lights already a distant memory.

(Shin... I gotta warn him.) Dean let out a long sigh, glancing down at the silenced pistol he held. With a flick of the safety, he reached up and unscrewed the silencer, deftly pocketing both. (This just got a hell of a lot messier.)


"Right this way."

The nurse quietly opened the door and half-stepped through, glancing into the room and at the comatose man on the bed. "He's unconscious, but stable."

Shinji nodded. "Has anyone else been in to see him?"

"Yes, there were three of them. They left not long ago."

(They?) "Thank you," he replied as he stepped through the door, closing it behind him. Slowly he walked up to the bed, taking a seat in the chair nearest the prone Max.

Shinji sighed, reaching a hand up to adjust his glasses. Through the window, the sky flashed, flickering briefly into the darkened room. The light was followed seconds later by a low, powerful rumbling, the unmistakable rolling of thunder.

(Damn it, Max... what happened in there?) He folded his arms over his chest as he leaned back, trenchcoat pulling on his shoulders as it bunched up behind his back. (And where the hell is Dean?)

A faint trembling in his coat pocket interrupted his thoughts. Digging through it, he pulled out the vibrating cell phone and flipped it open, the bright blue LED identifying the caller as anonymous. With a shrug, he pressed the call button and brought the device to his ear. "Hello?"

"Shin, it's me."

Shinji felt slight prickles of uneasiness along his skin. "Dean? What's going on, where are you?"

"Internet café. Listen, man, they're coming for you." His voice was subdued, but desperate; a subtle urgency highlighted his words.

"Who's coming? What happened to you?"

Shinji's eyes widened, growing more uncomfortable with each word spoken. "These guys from CC Corp. grabbed me at the hospital. They tried to kill me."

"What?!" hissed Shinji. "Shit, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine," answered Dean. "But they were looking for you. Somehow they got tipped off about the contract from Asara; they sent Delphi to stop us, and they're after you to find out why Rosenberg wants those files so badly. They're headed for the hospital... where are you?"

He somehow fought the urge to bolt, calmly standing up and making his way to the door despite the sudden speed at which his heart now raced. "Leaving."

"Be careful, they're not kidding around. I'm going to meet with Kite in The World; we need to find out why they're trying to protect this data so much, and get it ASAP. It's our only chance."

"Why him?" he asked as he exited the room, quietly closing the door behind him, eyes scanning up and down the well-lit hallway.

"I think he can help us. Those guys know where I'm staying, so I'm going to head to your place after I get some of my things."

"Okay." Shinji strode towards the elevator, watching the digital red floor indicator for any change. "You still have your key?"

Dean chuckled. "Yeah. Least one of us thought ahead about that. See you there, Shin."

Shin tried to smile. "I hope so," he said before shutting off and closing his phone, punching the elevator call button with his free hand.


From: Stolls@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Let's talk

I don't know what Tamon has or hasn't told you, but we're out of options. I'll tell you whatever you want to know, but we need your help. For real this time.

Delta, Bursting Passed Over Aqua Field. One hour.

Chapter VI - Setup

Shinji fidgeted nervously as he watched the counter rise with the elevator; hearing the motor growing closer, he stepped to one side, out of immediate view of any occupants. He held his breath as the doors opened, and cautiously tilted his head out, peering into the elevator.

Spotting nobody inside, he let out a sigh of relief and boarded the elevator, pressing the button for the ground floor. He watched the doors slide shut, and leaned against the wall as the elevator began to descend; he slid a hand through his short, spiky black hair and scratched an itch along the back of his neck.

(First Max gets data drained, now Cyber Connect is after us.) His thoughts darkened, and he lightly pounded a fist against the wall, the blow almost lost in the swaying of the elevator. (After me... what the hell. How did they know?)

His mind quieted as the elevator slowed to a stop; the doors slid open smoothly, and Shinji stepped through, his trenchcoat adhering closely to his body.

Rounding a corner, he passed through the reception area, carefully picking his way past patients and clerical staff. As he approached the sliding glass doors covering the entry, he stopped short; his blood ran cold and his eyes zeroed in on the pair of dark, expensively dressed men who were walking through the doors.

His stare did not go unnoticed. The two men - one American, one Japanese - halted their conversation and stared back at him. Both froze where they stood; seconds passed as hours before either spoke.

"Carl, that's him! Get him!"

Shinji's nerves held, barely, as he turned and bolted away from the entrance; behind him, he heard the confused, startled cries of patients and staff as the men gave chase.

"Shinji! Stop!"

Disregarding the order, Shinji blindly raced down the halls, mere steps ahead of the pair. Panting heavily, he ducked around a corner, running into and knocking over a pushcart as he scrambled. Fluorescent lights, medical equipment, doctors and nurses sped by him in a blur as he followed ceiling-mounted exit signs, quickly reaching a pair of double-doors leading out of the building. He charged, shoulder-first, into the door, slamming the push bar and knocking it open, allowing him to rush through without breaking stride.

Flashing blue and red lights slammed into him like a brick wall, forcing him to a sliding stop. Still panting, he reached up to adjust his glasses; the blurry lights sharpened, forming the emergency lights of the police car which sat in the hospital's rear parking lot, occupied by two uniformed officers.

(Oh, SHIT!) he mentally shouted.

The passenger-side door opened, and one of the officers stepped out, glancing curiously at Shinji's ragged countenance. "Is everything all right, sir?" he called.

Shinji's mind began racing. (What do I do, what do I do... okay, stay calm, stay calm... c'mon, think! Gotta be something... maybe they won't recognize me...)

The answer came as the exit doors were shoved open; Shinji whirled around to face his pursuers. To his surprise, only one man came through, and Shinji's eyes widened as he got a good look at the man's face.


The trenchcoat-clad, long-haired Japanese man smirked. "Hello, Shinji," he said, his dark blue eyes narrowing, his sharp, angular features adding to his menacing stare. Shinji noticed a large bruise around his right eye; his nose seemed battered, and his right hand was stained with blood.

He heard a car door slam; a glance over his shoulder revealed that the second cop had left the squad car, and now both were approaching them cautiously, faces marred with confusion.

"At ease, officers!" said Kenichi as he raised his pistol, pointing it at Shinji. His other hand dug through his trenchcoat, digging a badge from the pocket. A quick flick of the wrist opened the badge, revealing his ID. "Inspector Fukada. I was tailing this man. Black Chrysler Sebring, license plate LV-426. Reported reckless driving about five minutes ago."

Shinji went pale as the lead cop nodded. "We just got the call. Is that him?"

"Car's out front," Kenichi affirmed.

"Bullshit!" cried Shinji. "This guys' not a cop, he's -" he was cut off as Kenichi struck him across the face with the butt of the gun, knocking him down and aside.

"Quiet!" Kenichi growled, lowering his pistol.

One cop looked at the other, and then back to Kenichi. "Hey, dispatch said they reported another occupant of the car, an American. Brown-haired... was he inside?"

Hearing the officer, a light clicked on in the back of Shinji's mind. (Wait a minute... where'd the other one go?) He groaned as he slowly tried to move to his feet, his own trenchcoat scuffing on the pavement of the lot.

He froze, startled, as two soft, yet distinct buzzing noises pierced the air, followed immediately by two thuds as bodies crumpled to the ground.

"What took you so long?!" shouted Kenichi in English.

Glancing back, he spotted the second man standing behind the police car, a smoking, silenced handgun in his hands. Before him lay the two cops, dark pools of blood slowly gathering beneath their bodies.

"Had to make sure nobody was around," said the American. He nodded to Shinij as he stepped closer; with his free hand, he popped the magazine loose from his weapon and pulled the bolt back, discharging the loaded shell. "Good shot, Mr. Kayora."

Shinji's mind filled in the blanks as he noticed the brown-haired man was wearing gloves. "At least one of them got a shot off," he continued, bending down to draw one of the fallen officer's pistols, which he then pointed at Shinji.

"Carl, there's no time." said Kenichi. "More cops will be here soon; just give him the gun and let's get out of here."

Carl sighed, but relented, turning the empty gun and clasping it by the barrel before offering it to Shinji. Kenichi prodded Shinji in the back of the head with his own weapon. "Take it," he urged.

Shinji reluctantly reached up and took the gun from Carl's hand, grasping it firmly. Quickly, he pondered his options, slim to none were his chances that either would leave him alive in the end, he reasoned. This in mind, he leapt at the first idea his mind could generate.

"That's a good boy," said Kenichi. "C'mon now, Shinji, let's... oh, shit."

Headlights flooded the back entrance as a beige car pulled into the lot, occupied by one man. As he spotted the squad car, he immediately stopped his car and got out, distracting the three men. Shinji felt the barrel leave the back of his head, and watched as Carl half-turned to face the newcomer.

"What's going on here?" called the man.

"Police business!" shouted Kenichi. "Stay back!"

In a flash of dexterity, Shinji spun around and brushed Kenichi's weapon arm aside with his left, and brought the empty pistol up with his right. He aimed for Shinji's nose, but connected with his forehead, nonetheless rapping him hard with the weapon and stunning him.

Kenichi grunted in surprise and pain, and felt Shinji reach for his gun. He struggled against Shinji's grip and instinctively pulled the trigger, sending a very loud explosion forth from his non-silenced weapon.

The gunshot rang loudly in Shinji's ear, deafening and startling him but doing little else; a second strike across the forehead threw Kenichi violently to the ground, forcing Shinji to release his hold on the gun. Hearing a cry of pain from behind him, he turned around, still holding the unloaded pistol, and reeled back in surprise.

Carl lay on the ground, a fresh gunshot wound drilled into his left shoulder. Alive but injured, Carl groaned and struggled to stand; he came around with his healthy arm, the policeman's gun locked in his death grip, and pointed vaguely in Shinji's direction, prompting him to run.

Shinji dashed back through the rear entrance, hearing more gunshots ring out from behind him. Madly he scrambled down the hallway, shoving his way past the confused, alarmed hospital staff that had gathered near the door.

Realizing that he didn't remember the way back, he came to a stop before a frightened nurse. "Which way to reception?" he asked breathlessly, his heart pounding. When she didn't answer, he prepared to shout at her, and then remembered what he was still holding.

Pocketing the silenced pistol, he raised his hands and tried to reassure her. "It's okay, relax, I'm not gonna hurt you. Just tell me where the reception area is, and I'll go, okay?"

He barely waited long enough for her to gingerly point the direction before he took off; he quickly made his way through the hospital and emerged into reception, where he half-walked, half-ran up to the automatic doors and stepped through, fishing through his pockets for his keys.

(Damn it,) he thought, unlocking and climbing into his car. (This is not good... I have to find Dean. That data might be our only insurance now.)

Chapter VII - Intermezzo One

Cautiously, Dean turned the brass knob and pushed the door open, poking the silencer barrel through the widening crack.

"Shin? You home?" he called, mentally kicking himself; no one had answered the buzzer, nor his knocks. He stepped through the door and into the darkened apartment, leading with his pistol. He closed the door behind him, then passed the weapon from his right hand to his left, allowing his now-free hand to grope blindly along the wall for the light switch. His fingers came upon a large, rectangular button, which he pushed.

Dean squinted as the ceiling lights came on, revealing the interior of the one-bedroom apartment. Dull blue carpeting meshed with the off-white of the walls and ceiling to frame the room; a chest-high counter partially separated a small kitchen from the rest of the room, and doors to the north and east led to a bedroom and bathroom, respectively. A large TV and entertainment system dominated the west wall, and a well-worn pair of black leather recliners sat before it.

(Guess he's not here yet.) With a sigh, Dean flicked the safety for his weapon, unscrewing the silencer with his other hand, allowing him to fit both in his pocket. He then turned and locked the door behind him.

A glance at a nearby clock reminded him of his goal. (Almost midnight) he thought, kicking off his shoes. (I'd better get in there.) He unzipped and removed the weatherbeaten, brown leather jacket which replaced his windbreaker, and tossed it over one of the chairs as he strode towards the bedroom.

Passing through the open door, he started briefly when he saw a man in the room, staring back at him. In a flash he reached out and pounded the light switch, illuminating the room, revealing the 'man' to be his own reflection in a wall-mounted mirror.

He chuckled dryly, taking a moment to study his reflection. The events of the evening were visibly catching up with him. His posture was notably crooked, still nursing bruises from his escape, now hidden by the simple black shirt and jeans he had changed into. His short black hair was tangled and mussed, and not from the humid night air. His dark brown eyes carried a definite weariness, born from one long night and tempered by a history of long nights.

Dean sighed again, gazing through his reflected eyes. (You poor, dumb bastard.)

A shake of the head, and Dean entered the bedroom proper, which matched the color and carpet of the previous room. A glance beyond the comfy-looking futon brought his attention to the desired object: Shinji's computer, complete with state-of-the-art VR gear; a parting gift from CC Corporation, or so he'd been told. To its right sat a window, the Tokyo skyline staring at him in silent accusation.

(This stuff's probably bugged through the roof.) He frowned. (Hard to buy that they didn't know where to find him.)

He reached over and hit the power button, collapsing into the chair before the desk. (Accounting data my ass. They're protecting this for a reason, and I'll bet that's why Asara wants it.)

The computer slowly crawled to life, whirring and beeping. In seconds, the screen lit up, displaying the Altimit desktop. One by one the icons appeared, "The World" being the last. Dean reached over and grabbed the visor with one hand, double-clicking the icon with the other.


The rings passed, solidifying the image: a vast open field of green beneath a cloudless sky of blue, bizarre rock formations in three cardinal directions, a passage leading underground in the fourth.

His eyes, now a light green, carefully took in his surroundings. A gust of digital wind pulled against his black robe and lightly tousled the silver mass of hair atop his head. Gently he tapped the staff he now carried against the ground, fidgeting slightly, offering those and other visible cues to his anxiety to any who watched.

Stolls narrowed his eyes. (Where are they?)

The answer came from behind him. "Stolls!"

He quickly turned to face his addresser, and spotted two people - a Heavy Blade and a Twin Blade. With a slight smile, he waved. "Kite!" he called as he approached.

The instant he stepped within range, however, he found himself staring down the length of a very long, very sharp-looking sword. Behind it stood an angry BlackRose, her eyes locked on Stolls.

"Jesus, lady!" cried Stolls. "What's the matter with you?!"

"Why'd your friend come after us?" challenged BlackRose, placing the point of the weapon beneath Stolls' chin.

Stolls blinked, nonplussed. "What? Wait... what are you talking about?"

She glared. "Don't play dumb! Your friend attacked me earlier tonight, the Long Arm."

The Wave Master did a double take, glancing at Kite, then at BlackRose. Neither one looked particularly forgiving at the moment, and yet he couldn't believe what he'd heard. "Tamon?" he asked. "He... attacked you?"

Kite nodded, a stern look marring his otherwise soft features. "I found out about it before you e-mailed me. Why did he attack her?"

"Look, man, I don't know who or what you two saw," said Stolls, "but Max... Tamon's player, he's in the hospital right now, comatose."

BlackRose and Kite exchanged glances, the former shaking her head slightly. "But..." she started, lowering her blade. "I saw him... he attacked me. It was him, I recognized him!"

Stolls glared back at her. "Hey," he said, firmly. "I just got back from the hospital an hour ago, he's been a goddamn vegetable since that thing got to him."

BlackRose fell silent, averting her gaze. Kite took a step forward in her stead, a questioning look on his face. "Was he... data drained?"

Stolls peered quizzically at Kite. "Data drained?" He thought for a moment, recalling what Delphi had done to Tamon before the connection had been broken. "Well... before I got disconnected, the... it did something to him. I wasn't sure what..."

Kite nodded. "My friend... Yasuhiko, the same thing happened to him. Skeith data drained him." He turned and glanced over at the stairs leading underground, his words weighted with sorrow. "Right down there," he added, pointing towards the passage. "And the next day, I found out... he'd been put into a coma."

Stolls froze. The name 'Yasuhiko' triggered a memory, a brief image of a newspaper clipping, a player of The World found comatose at his terminal. (Orca... that's right, Kite knew Orca. Son of a bitch...) "Yeah," he muttered. "Yeah, that's... that's what happened. He went into a coma after that Delphi thing attacked him."

BlackRose looked back up, facing Stolls. "But I know it was him. More than that, he recognized me."

Rubbing his chin with his free hand, Stolls paused, thinking carefully before replying. "There was another player," he said slowly. "Supposedly he couldn't log out, and played outside the boundaries of System Administration. At the same time he was in The World, his player was in a coma."

"I remember hearing something about that," said BlackRose. "The character was alive in The World, independent of the player. I think his name was... Tsu... Tsukasa, maybe?"

"Right," replied Stolls. "That might be the case here... but the question is, why hasn't he contacted us? And for that matter, why'd he attack you?"

Kite tilted his head, idly scratching the back of his neck. "Stolls... who are you guys?"

The question instantly derailed Stolls' train of thought. "Huh?"

"I did some asking around," answered BlackRose. "Nobody I've spoken to has seen you around more than a week ago, and you told Kite you know about Skeith and the Data Bugs." After a beat, she added, "Why did you want Kite to help stop that creature? And why are you interested in these things?"

Furrowing his brow, Stolls pondered his words carefully. "Well, I said I'd tell you everything, and I will." He took a deep breath, and released it in a long sigh before continuing. "Tamon, Deisart and I were hired by a rival company to hack into CC Corporation's mainframe and steal data."

Kite blinked. "You guys are hackers?"

"Sort of." Stolls idly toed the ground with his show. "My name's Dean... I'm a private investigator. Deisart is Shinji, he used to work for Cyber Connect. And Max, or Tamon as you know him, he works with the company that hired us. The deal is we get the data for them, and they pay us $50,000 each."

"What kind of data is it?" asked Kite.

"I don't know for sure. They said it's accounting data, but just tonight CC sent some guys after us. Turns out, they were following us, and they sent Delphi in to attack us in The World."

BlackRose gawked. "They SENT that thing?!"

Stolls nodded. "Yeah. They're trying real hard to protect the data, whatever it is... that's why I don't think it's accounting data at all."

"So," Kite began, "what did you want with me?"

"Do either of you know about the test version of The World? The one that came out before the retail version?" Both nodded, and Stolls continued. "Well, they kept a backdoor directly through their mainframe onto what would become the Delta server, y'know for maintenance access and stuff. When they updated everything for retail, they never removed the backdoor. So, we need a hacker to break through the firewall around it; of course, this is accessible only through The World, so twiddling bits wouldn't cut it."

Stolls leveled his gaze at Kite. "That's why we needed you, Kite. We needed your help to hack through the firewall so we could access their mainframe. That's it."

"I..." Kite trailed off, lowering his head slightly. A gentle breeze rustled the grass, accenting the sudden silence. BlackRose fidgeted, but said nothing.

"I'm sorry," said Stolls quietly. "I didn't want to drag you guys into this. We didn't have any choice, though... we need to get the data by Sunday. Max is in the hospital, big guys with guns are after Shinji and me..."


Stolls turned, staring at empty air in the direction of the noise. "What was that?" he said to himself.

BlackRose raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"Dean?" called a voice from outside The World.

Stolls recognized the voice. "It's Shinji. Shin, in here!"

No one arrive in the green plains, but he distinctly heard footsteps approaching. Unseen through the visor, Shinji spoke up. "Damn, it's good to see you again." v
Dean grinned. "My thoughts exactly. You all right?"

"Barely," answered Shinji. "Those guys showed up a few minutes after you called. Got out quick as I could, but it got messy, fast. They shot two cops and tried to frame me for it."

"Shit," hissed Dean. "Like we don't have enough to worry about."

More footsteps, keyboard buttons clacking. "Are you in there with anybody?"

"Kite and BlackRose. Listen, Shin, I... I told 'em everything."

Silence. A slow, carefully drawn breath, and controlled exhalation. "All right," Shinji replied quietly. "We need the files, we need help. I guess we have no choice now."

"Right," said Dean. "If we don't get that data, we're all dead. Hang on, I'll log out. Get in here and tell them all you know about it, maybe..."

"We'll do it."

Dean jumped in surprise, turned around and faced Kite and BlackRose, having almost forgotten that they were there, the voice bringing him back to The World in an instant. He peered curiously through Stolls at them. "Uh... what?" he asked.

Kite tilted his head towards BlackRose, just long enough to see her nod in agreement. With a smile, he turned back to Stolls. "We'll help," he said.

"Are you sure?" asked Stolls. "Once you're in this..."

"We're already in this," said BlackRose. "If Kite's in," she continued, glancing at the Twin Blade, an unnoticed glint in her eye, "I'm in."

Stolls nodded. "All right." He looked over his shoulder. "Shin... it's on."

Chapter VIII - Extraction

Keys clacked to his right as the picture formed again; Mac Anu grew and stretched around him until he became a part of the picture once more, the streets and canals replacing the grasslands of the field before.

Shinji's voice came to him, seemingly from thin air. "I'll have this ready in a second. Go with Kite and BlackRose, make sure you have everything you need before we get started."

Dean nodded to Shinji, his character mimicking the action in The World. "Got it," he answered, and turned to face his new companions. "He'll be ready soon; let's hit the shops and resupply."

Both nodded, and the three went down the broadway towards the bridge. Upon reaching it, Stolls and Kite started down the stairs towards the item shop, but halted when BlackRose spoke up.

"I'm going to go save," she called. "I'll be right back!"

Stolls nodded as the Heavy Blade scampered off, rounding the corner and disappearing from view. "Good thinking... Kite, let's save, too, after we pick up some items."

"Do you really think this is going to be dangerous?" asked Kite, approaching the shop counter and hailing the NPC salesman.

"I honestly don't know." Stolls lifted his wand and lightly rapped it against his shoulder, shifting his stance. "Better to be on the safe side, just in case," he added, doubting his own advice as he recalled the earlier attack.

He heard Kite mumble in agreement as he turned and leaned against the wall, staring out across the canal. He watched in detached fascination as a team of adventurers boarded a gondola on the opposite side of the river, and pushed away from its mooring. All around him echoed voices, voices of merchants hawking their wares, of players looking to trade, of parties seeking additional members. Armor clanked, footsteps fell, water splashed; above him, a gust of wind drifted along the avenue, calling attention to the clear blue sky, complete with blazing sun and - much to Dean's amusement - lens flare.

The keystrokes stopped. "Done and done," said Shinji, dispelling the illusion of reality. "Be right back, I'm going to grab something to eat. You hungry?"

Dean shook his head. "No thanks."

Unseen footsteps retreated out of the bedroom he knew himself to be standing in. Smiling through his avatar, Dean took the in scenic view of the aqua capital at once. "Interesting," he said to himself.

His words did not escape the notice of the Twin Blade. "What is it?"

"Hmm? Oh," he mumbled, glancing over at Kite, who now stood next to him. "Sorry... just admiring the view," he explained, still smiling. "You got everything?"

Kite smiled back. "I think so. I know how you feel, I was a little overwhelmed myself when I started playing."

Stolls chuckled. "My first online RPG," he admitted, stepping away from the wall. "Was always more a shooter fan, myself."

Kite nodded, falling into step next to Stolls as he headed for the stairs. "So..." began the red-clad Twin Blade, trying to start conversation once more, despite the bustle around them. "Why can't you go to the police? I mean, if these guys are after you..."

Dean sighed, his character again mimicking the action to a tee. "That's... kind of a long story." He lowered his head as he trudged up the stairs; his steps became laborious, deliberately slow and heavy. "But in a nutshell, each of us has priors... that's kind of why they hired us."

"What do you mean?" asked Kite, peering curiously at the Wave Master.

Stolls climbed the last stair, and walked over to the bridge, leaning against the railing slightly; Kite followed closely as he continued. "Max... the guy you know as Tamon, he brokered the deal between us and the company because each of us had been convicted of something. In my case..." his voice grew weak, almost trailing off into silence. He paused long enough to swallow, feeling a lump grow in the back of his throat. "I was a cop. They hired me for security... and I got put away for taking bribes."

"That's the whole point, though. The job isn't exactly on the up-and-up, y'know? Company policy can't officially sponsor one of their business agents hiring people to steal from another company." Stolls shook his head. "Hence... we have no credibility. Going to the cops would make all our lives worse in the long run."

Kite fidgeted nervously, not knowing what to say. "I don't blame 'em, though," said Stolls. "It's what they had to do, I would've done the same. It's business, it's politics; that's all." He chuckled again, dryly. "Y'know, heh... Max found me in an LA Times want ad. I never met either of these two before coming to Japan."

"It was all so simple," he finished, gazing up into the sky. The silence between them returned, deafening even amidst the clamor and commotion of the aqua capital.

"Can I ask you a question?" Kite finally spoke.

"Shoot," came the reply.

Kite hesitated, visibly tensing up before speaking again. "Did you really do it?"

A long, deep sigh, head lowered, eyes closed, shoulders sagged. He then straightened his posture as he turned to face Kite, a haunted look in his emerald eyes.

His lips parted, allowing for one word of confession. "Yes."

Stolls turned away, feeling Kite's eyes on him, sensing the judgment he knew was imminent. The banging of a gavel echoed through his memory, his mind's eye recalling faces of men and women he once knew. He had long since given up trying to justify his actions; it had always been about the money. Money he didn't need, money he didn't even want, not really.

(I got greedy, simple as that.)

He leaned over the railing and gazed into the eyes of his reflection on the water, watching as it shimmered and twisted in the wake of a passing gondola; he almost didn't hear Kite as he stepped closer, his voice jarring the Wave Master out of his reverie.

"Dean," called Kite, causing Stolls to turn and face him. The look on Kite's face bore no hostility, no malice, no disdain.

His blue eyes showed that he understood, his expression soft and compassionate.

Dean smiled to Kite's player, offering a quick nod. "Let's go," he said simply.

Together, they turned towards the broadway once more, and headed for the Save Point, where BlackRose stood, apparently trading with another adventurer.

Stolls eyed the Heavy Blade curiously. "So, what's her story?"

"BlackRose?" asked Kite. "To be honest, I'm not so sure. She said she was new to The World, too, when I came in, but... she got mad when we encountered a Data Bug. Said something like, "It's you, I'll kill you!" and started attacking." Kite scratched the top of his head, pushing his cap further down against the mass of sky blue hair. "She helped me a lot while I was trying to find out about Aura and Skeith... she even came with me to stop him."

Stolls nodded. "Sounds like a good friend if I ever heard one."

"Yeah," said Kite with a smile. "She is."

Stolls glanced over at the Twin Blade, noticing a distant look in his eye; he followed his gaze straight to BlackRose, and a grin slowly crept across the Wave Master's face. "You like her?" he asked, keeping his voice quieter than usual.

He swore he saw Kite blush before he turned away, both players coming to a stop. "Well..." he mumbled, his stance becoming more guarded, more cautious; he slid his left foot behind his right, leaned back, and brought both hands before him, wringing them nervously.

Stolls got the message. "You should ask her out sometime, man."

Kite's eyes widened. "Uh??" he half-grunted before following with a stammered, "I-I don't know, what if..."

A shake of the head silenced him. "She likes you, Kite, I can tell. She'd have to to stick by you through all this, if even half of what you told me is true."

When Kite said nothing, Stolls continued again. "Sometimes, you just have to forget about the 'what ifs'." He smiled. "Let's leave it at that. C'mon."


The field changed once more. Mac Anu faded into distant memory as the rings fell before his eyes, drawing him into a wide, barren field.

Closer examination surprised all three as they discovered how empty the field was; devoid of all but dusty, gritty earth beneath them, the field stretched off into the horizon and beyond, without a single tree, rock, or other distinguishing feature to break the monotony. The air lay eerily still, highlighting the complete lack of any ambient noise; above them hovered a clear night sky, though neither moon nor star served to light it.

BlackRose cocked her head at Stolls. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

Stolls carefully scrutinized his surroundings, eyes searching for something, anything out of place. "Delta, Zero Optional Spire. This is it, all right..."

"Those keywords aren't normally visible to the players," came Shinji's voice, heard only by Dean. "Took a little trial-and-error to allow access."

Stolls nodded. "Right... this isn't a regular field. Supposed to be Admin only; guess they forgot to decorate."

"It wasn't locked, either," said Kite. "Do they even know about this?"

"No idea." Stolls shook his head. "Clearly, they didn't remove it... or couldn't. Somebody left it open." He narrowed his eyes. "And those guys seemed to know... damn, maybe they're expecting us?"

"Well, there's no turning back now," said Shinji. "Let's get this done and get out of here. The firewall should be due north of where you're standing right now."

Stolls idly chewed his lip. "Okay," he muttered, gazing up at the starless sky. "And which way might north be?"

A slight shuffle of movement caught his attention; he watched as Kite produced a Fairy's Orb and held it up. The orb vanished in a flash of light, and Kite blinked twice. "Well, there's no portals," he said, relaying the information.

"But... wait."

"What is it?" asked BlackRose.

"There!" he exclaimed, pointing in a direction Stolls could only assume was north. "There's something this way."

Stolls squinted towards the horizon. "I don't see anything. Let's get a closer look."

Together, the three moved in the direction Kite had pointed. Stolls swallowed hard, the featureless environs putting him ill at ease; if not for Kite and BlackRose, and the sound of boots colliding with dry earth, he wouldn't have known whether he was moving or not.

Kite slid to a stop, eyeing the air curiously. "It's around here somewhere... almost like a portal, but different." His brow furrowed, obviously puzzled. "Faint."

BlackRose frowned. "I can't see a thing."

"Me neither," said Stolls in assent.

"It's right in front of you," said Shinji to Stolls' player. "It's like a gate, have Kite hack it."

The Wave Master nodded. "He says the firewall's right here, that must be what you're sensing. Can you open it?"

"I'll try."

Kite stepped forward, hands raised, experimentally probing the air, as if searching for something. He came to a stop after two steps and flattened one of his hands, palm out, bringing the other around to brace it.

A flash of light split the sky, startling Stolls; BlackRose watched Kite intently as translucent crystalline shards formed in a large ring around his wrist. The shards began to spin, waves of force causing Kite's body to tremble and twitch. More bursts of light ripped through the field, briefly causing every color present, in both field and character, to switch to its polar opposite; Stolls watched, shocked, as his vision doubled, giving the impression of a hall of mirrors.

Kite grunted, loudly, as another flash of light restored both color and vision. Stolls tried to step forward to help him, but BlackRose held an arm out, stopping him from approaching.

"What's going on?!" shouted Stolls as he pointed to the air before Kite. "Is he okay?"

"He'll be fine!" BlackRose yelled back. "Trust me!"

Kite grit his teeth. "Almost... got it..."

One last burst of light rocked the area, causing the entire field to vanish instantly. Ground and sky disappeared from around them, leaving all three standing in an empty field of white. The sole noise to be heard was of Kite panting, his beating heart almost audible to his companions.

"What the..." muttered Stolls as he whirled about, eyes scanning the brilliant void.

"Kite?" asked BlackRose after a quarter-minute's pause, tentatively stepping up to him and touching a hand to his shoulder.

He jumped for a moment, startled, before turning back to face her.

He nodded. "I'm fine," he answered, letting out a short sigh. "I... think that did it."

Stolls gave a sidelong glance at Kite. "Were you able to open it?"

"I think so... it was a lot like a gate, but..."


Stolls turned to face his companions. "One sec," he said before turning his attention elsewhere. "What's up?"

He heard the grin in Shinji's voice. "I'm in!"

"Yes!" shouted Dean. BlackRose and Kite peered curiously at his avatar, bringing him back to The World. "We're in," he explained, a smile forming on both of his faces. "Nice job, Kite. Shin, let's get the data and get outta here."

"I'm on it." Keys clattered, a chair creaked. "Starting download... okay. It'll take about five minutes; don't leave, the field might reset if you do."

"Got it." Stolls raised both arms over his head, leaning onto his toes as he stretched. "Mmm... says it'll be five minutes. Might as well get comfy."

Murmurs of agreement came from the other two; one by one the party sat on the undefined, invisible ground.

"So, what do we do next?" asked Kite.

Stolls leaned backwards, propping himself up on his arms. "Well, for starters we find out just what this stuff is. Like I said, I don't think it's accounting data, it just doesn't add up." He tilted his head back, gazing up into nothingness. "Of course, we also need to get the goons off our back. With the data, maybe we can force them to cut a deal."

"They tried to kill you," said BlackRose. "What makes you think they'd try to deal?" After a second's pause, she added, "And aren't you supposed to give that to the company that hired you?"

Stolls nodded. "First, despite all appearances, they're corporate; I know these guys, they'll bargain if they think we've something to bargain with. Second... we're mercenary." He lightly tensed his hands, pressing them against the intangible ground. "If our employer lied to us, then I won't feel too guilty about selling Cyber Connect's own data back to it."

Dean closed his eyes, feeling their combined stare upon him. "Look, it's not as simple as good guys and bad guys. This isn't about honor, or morals, or justice, or any of that." He sighed, deeply and slowly. "I'm sorry... me, Max, Shin, we're all in this for the money. That's what it's all about." His head lowered, his shoulders sagged again, his already deep voice growing darker, heavier. "That's all it's ever been about," he finished, his voice nearly a whisper.

"We're thieves," said Dean softly.

A long silence followed; Dean could hear the faint movement of skin, hair and cloth as Kite and BlackRose exchanged questioning glances. Beyond The World, he heard Shinji's slow, constant breathing, cool and collected as ever.

The breathing stopped, plunging Dean into total silence. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. The Heavy and Twin Blades peered at him, somewhat surprised at his sudden movement.

"Shin?" he called. "Everything all right?"

The voice that answered bore only superficial resemblance to the hacker he knew. "You've got company," came the high-pitched, almost squeaky voice that Dean knew meant trouble.

Additional noise reached his ears: the rushing of air; clinking of armor and a weapon; two startled gasps, followed by two sets of feet scrambling away from his position.

"Dean, look out!" shouted Kite.

All of his instincts and reflexes instantly switched from 'off' to 'high' as Stolls leapt back and away from the circle they had formed; he moved quickly to his feet and glanced at the shadowy form which descended on the spot he had been sitting in less than a second before.

His eyes went wide. His jaw dropped. He stammered, loudly, in disbelief as he took in the face of his attacker.

"Max," he muttered; the long-haired, olive-eyed Long Arm immediately turned to face him, spear at the ready, loose blue garments flowing dramatically about his muscular form.

The eyes the Long Arm stared at Stolls with weren't his own. Neither was the voice he spoke with. "Protected sector compromised," said Tamon, his voice sounding as three of varying pitch and depth. "Tagged entities Zero, One, and Three identified."

The voices brought a memory from the depths of Dean's mind and showed it to him in triplicate. "Delphi," muttered Stolls in recognition, speaking with obvious hesitation, as if attempting to escape the Long Arm's penetrating gaze, "Shinji, how much more time?"

"One minute, thirty seconds," came the quiet reply.

Stolls narrowed his eyes, staring hard at the hawkish warrior. "All right then."

"Warning: theft in progress," said Tamon as he stepped forward, his voice a cold, deep baritone.

"Suggestion," he began, his voice now a high falsetto, "tagged entities Zero, One, and Three are responsible."

"Action: termination of tagged entities is desirable," he finished in his final voice, a lifelessly insidious monotone.

Stolls brought his wand around before him as Tamon readied his spear; a slight twitch tugged at the Long Arm's lips, one that looked remarkably like the beginnings of a smirk to the Wave Master.

"It is so," said the voices as Tamon leapt at Stolls, spear held high.

Chapter IX - Defragment


Stolls grunted as he launched into a diving roll away from Tamon, narrowly dodging the ornate, deadly-looking spear which he wielded. The Wave Master quickly stood up and brought up his wand, ready to block, when a swing from behind interrupted Tamon; he spun on his heels and blocked an overhead swing from BlackRose with the shaft of the spear.

The Heavy Blade smirked. "Remember me?!" she yelled, lifting her weapon away from the parry as Kite joined the fray, blades flying.

Stolls watched as Tamon simultaneously dueled Kite and BlackRose, deflecting both of their attacks, his spear wildly bouncing back and forth between the fighters. Six consecutive swings were blocked before Tamon could get the upper hand, dashing outside of the two-pronged attack and drawing his spear in a wide arc to his right, striking BlackRose's back and throwing her off-balance; what little armor she wore served her nonetheless, as the edge of the spear failed to more than scratch the metal plate.

Kite quickly lunged forward to continue the assault, drawing both blades before him in simultaneous wide hooking motions, lunging out at Tamon and quickly drawing them back; a loud *CLANG* echoed through the empty white confines as metal met metal, Tamon visibly rattled by the attack.

Strafing wide to his right, Stolls found an opening and raised his wand, pointing towards Tamon; one shouted chant and less than a second later, several dozen small flames appeared in a sphere around Tamon, and instantly converged, combining their energies into a massive explosion. Tamon was blown off his feet and backwards, and he landed on the 'ground' with a weighty thud.

He recovered just in time to roll away from a leaping slash by BlackRose, her head cleaving the air where his neck had been just milliseconds earlier. Pressing the attack, she dove forward, leading Tamon's dodge and scoring a powerful crossing slash to his chest as he struggled to stand.

Stolls threw his arm to his right, chanting even louder as he kept his wand trained on Tamon; a stream of fire lurched forth from its tip and spilled onto the floor, forming a fast-moving wall of fire which raced for the prone Long Arm.

Tamon almost dodged the attack, the flames colliding with his leg as he stood and dashed to one side. Shrugging off the damage, he brought his spear around to BlackRose, only to find it pinned between a pair of crossed short swords.

Half-shouting, half-exhaling, Kite pulled his wrists apart, using the blades as leverage to rip the spear out of Tamon's hands. The Twin Blade followed through by thrusting both weapons straight at the now-defenseless Tamon, impaling him through the stomach and embedding both blades deep inside him.

Caught slightly off guard by the sensation of stabbing through digital flesh, Kite released his blades and stepped back; mild shock changed to growing confusion when he noticed the complete lack of expression on Tamon's face.

"Critical damage detected," said the voices, Tamon's lips remaining perfectly still. "Engaging primary defen-" the voices were cut off as a large sword cleaved the tanned, blue-clad Long Arm in two at the waist, splitting the torso and legs, which crumpled to the floor and lay completely still.

Stolls let out a long, fatigue-induced sigh. He felt at least an hour older, though he knew it couldn't have been more than a couple minutes. A slight shiver came over him as he stared at the mutilated corpse of the Long Arm; slowly it lost all color, fading to shades of gray before stretching into the air and vanishing completely from sight, a slight hiss the only accompaniment to its' destruction.

He hung his head, a few silver locks drifting down over his eyes, still gazing at the spot formerly occupied by Tamon. For a moment, he was reminded of the incident they had researched prior to entering The World - one involving the player Tsukasa. As he understood it, the player's recovery from her coma coincided with an event in the game, one in which Tsukasa was directly involved. His instincts alone drew him to the logical conclusion.

"In pace requiescat," he muttered softly.

"Is he... dead?" asked Kite, no small amount of hesitation in his voice.

"I don't know," answered Stolls, unsure of whom Kite was referring to.

Sheathing her blade, BlackRose glanced over at Stolls. "If Delphi could possess the character... I don't think it's gone just yet."

Briefly coming back to himself, the Wave Master shook his head, derailing his train of thought. "You're right. We should get out of here," he said, turning to his companions. "God only knows whether the Admins have figured out we're here or not. Shin, what's the word?"

Shinji's voice spoke directly to Stolls' player, appearing to come from the empty white void. "Yeah, I got everything. Have them both log out; I'll set up a chatroom so we can go over these out of The World. Tell them to look for Alias; I'm locking it with the word Origin."

Stolls nodded. "Let's get out of here. You guys got chat plug-ins?" He waited for the expected nods before continuing. "Good. Log out and meet us at #Alias. We'll dig through this stuff together. Password's Origin."

The white nothingness fell from around him, replaced with a black nothingness as he issued the log-off command. Slowly his senses came around from psychological neglect, reminding him that he was playing a game, that he was attached to a computer via headset and goggles, which he quickly set about removing.

The first thing to greet him was a distant skyscraper, lights shining brightly from the visible portion of downtown through the window; no sooner had he caught sight of his real surroundings than a whispering Shin cursed in Japanese. Dean blinked and threw the hacker a look. "What is it?" he asked, taking note of the wide eyes and slack jaw that now decorated his otherwise nondescript facial features.

A large text file reflected off Shinji's glasses; turning his attention to the screen, Dean scanned the title, his expression quickly mirroring Shinji's.

"Project Delphi"


*Kite has joined #Alias*

>Kite: Hello?

>BlackRose: Hey, Kite!

>Deisart: Good, everyone's here. All right, there's no real way to sugarcoat this; we've got bad news, and we've got really bad news.

Shinji glanced over at Dean from his chair. "You sure we should tell them all this?"

Dean nodded, sitting down on the bed as Shinji typed. "We brought them into this; they deserve to know. And I think they're the only ones who can help us now."

>Kite: What's the bad news?

>Deisart: The bad news is, the files we got... weren't what they told us they were.

>Kite: What do you mean?

>BlackRose: What were they?

>Deisart: We were told this was accounting data. Long story short, the title of the first file was "Project Delphi."

>Kite: Delphi??? That thing?

>BlackRose: No way!

>Kite: What did it say?

>Deisart: Hang on, I'll C&P

The bed creaked slightly as Dean shifted his weight, watching the words as they appeared on the screen, visibly ill at ease as he read the sentences they formed again.

>Deisart: "Summary: An amalgam of digital entities, an ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) unit is an automatic response system which acts independent of the user to defend a file, drive or server from hostile intruders. ICE recognizes over 22,000,000 known virus types, and - using advanced pattern-matching algorithms - is fully capable of identifying hacker penetration, adjusting its response to uniquely combat the attack, and even preemptively strike known hostile entities."

>Deisart: "Date of Inception: 7/31/2008. Postmortem: Prototype units deemed unreliable following incident 24b-09. Funding withdrawn, project discontinued 9/16/2008."

>Kite: Discontinued?

>Deisart: Some sort of accident; apparently, a trial run caused Delphi to identify and aggressively attack the programmer who tested it, even outside of the experiment. Delphi managed to break into The World through the backdoor on Delta server, and the programmer, who also served as one of The World's Admins, was attacked in the game by Delphi. He fell into a coma and died six weeks later.

>BlackRose: It killed him??

>Deisart: Yes. It wasn't designed to function in a virtual environment such as The World, though; its means of defense was through the rewriting of data - usually crippling the targeted software, and occasionally to the point where Delphi could take control of viruses, or the software of invading hackers.

>Kite: That sounds a lot like Data Drain...

>Deisart: Indeed. One other thing I found was that the company has a record of this programmer being contacted by another company, one of their chief rivals at the time.

A *snap* came from behind; Shinji turned around to face Dean, his eyes wide in revelation. "That's it," he said. "It's all about security."

"What do you mean?"

Dean frowned. "You said earlier tonight that Altimit was nearly unbeatable, as far as operating systems go; that's why straightforward hacking into CC's mainframe wouldn't work. Asara, Rosenberg... they want Delphi, that's what this is about. Same thing with the other company; they wanted a security system that would ensure their OS could compete."

Shinji visibly flinched, his eyes hardening behind his glasses. "Right... or maybe they wanted a weapon. I mean, if Delphi can attack people - real people - through The World..."

"Cyber Connect would be finished," said Dean. "And maybe Altimit with them. Hell, it'd be like the Pluto Kiss all over again."

Suddenly, Dean rose from the bed, throwing a stern look at the hacker. "Shin, keep talking to Kite and BlackRose. Tell 'em everything... especially the really bad news." He paused to take a deep breath, and released it slowly in a vain attempt to keep his calm. "I'm going to make a phone call."

Spinning on his heels, Dean purposefully strode through the bedroom door and into the living room/kitchenette, where a cordless phone rested calmly on a wall-mounted recharger.

He didn't get far; three steps into the room, the phone rang, a shrill, electronic pulse set to a machine gun beat. Dean started for a moment, the detective in him already starting to fidget and shiver nervously. Steadying himself, he picked up the phone and pressed the call button. "Hello?" he greeted the caller weakly, his basic grasp of Japanese slipping from his mind.

A second's pause. With more control over his voice, he repeated the greeting. "Who is this?" he added, listening hard for any sign of life on the other line.

A single voice: noticeable Japanese accent, smug and confident, yet subdued and controlled. "You're a bad man, Mr. Stollis."

Dean's eyebrows fused themselves together, a growing rage and fear battling in his gut. "Chino," he said, his soft voice belying his thoughts.

He swore he heard the thug grin. "Ken, actually," said the caller with a chuckle. "But I'm glad you still remember me."

Dean sighed amidst his answer. "Let's cut the crap, Ken. We've got the details about your little pet A.I. Records of your so-called security system killing one of your own employees. Proof that it's running amok in The World."

"You don't have shit," said Ken. "You were a cop; you really think stolen evidence would hold up in court?"

Dean faltered for a moment, but held his ground. "Have you thought for a moment about what this could do to you if we sold it to Asara? Think what just one copy of Delphi could do to your little game, to their players. Now I ask you: you really think nobody's going to notice the connection between the six or so coma cases related to The World?" He paused, lowering his voice a notch to a more threatening tone, fighting down the tremble from his pounding heart. "How about six hundred? Six thousand? Sixty thousand, maybe?"

Ken audibly faltered for a moment, but recovered just as quickly. "Let's be realistic, Stollis; you're bent, not evil. You wouldn't dare hand it over to another company if you really thought that was going to happen."

Thinking quickly, Dean waited for a pair of seconds before replying. "You're right... although in truth, we were thinking of dropping this off at the nearest news station."

Ken fell silent; Dean took that as a cue to continue, calming down as he felt more in control. "Things like sources and facts rarely get in the way of a good story. I think a lot of people would be very interested to hear that the geniuses behind The World were sitting on a digital weapon of mass destruction."

"So what do you say, Ken?" asked Dean. "Feel like saving your job tonight?"

Several seconds of pause followed. Dean crooked an eyebrow, the chill of doubt and anxiety gripping his inner self once more. "Ken?"

"As a matter of fact," came the reply, a raspy near-whisper, "I do."

Before Dean could speak again, the line clicked and went dead, eliciting a puzzled stare from Dean as he pulled the receiver away from his ear. "Huh?" he muttered, gazing at the phone as if it were to spring to life at any moment. He was about to call for Shinji when a faint, repeated thumping caught his ears.

Slowly setting the receiver down, he strained to listen, each sound he made seemingly magnified by the sudden silence which snaked around him. The noise came again, drawing closer with each thump, seeming to come from beyond the door.

Something pounded against the door, startling Dean. Shinji's voice came immediately from the bedroom. "What was that?"

More thumping, faster and retreating from the door; it triggered in Dean's mind that the noises were footsteps, and with this revelation came several more. Fear made him dash for his leather jacket, still slung over the lounge chair; alarm and instinct picked through the pocket and produced the 9mm pistol he'd taken from Ken, sans silencer.

"Shinji!" he screamed. "Take cover!"

Chapter X - Hostile Takeover

"What is it?!" shouted Shinji.

Dean ignored him, ducking behind a chair and pointing his gun at the door, waiting for something, anything to happen. More footsteps came through the door, moving up and down the hallway erratically; he guessed there were at least three pairs of feet attached to the noise.

"Dean, what's going on?" asked Shinji, poking his head cautiously around the corner.

Cautiously, Dean rose to his feet, keeping his weapon trained on the door. "That was Ken on the phone... one of the guys."

Shinji gasped. "Kenichi? Shit, how'd they find me?!"

"Oh, I don't know," replied Dean. "Employee records, maybe?" he added, sarcastically.

A muffled *wham* shot through the door, this one sounding further than the last.

Shinji glanced at the door briefly before turning back to Dean. "I moved a year after I left the company," he hissed, slowly stepping up to Dean. "And this is an unlisted number."

Turning his attention back to the door, Dean passed the weapon from his right hand to his left. "What the hell is going on?" he muttered aloud, hesitantly taking a step forward, sweat building on his forehead.

"What exactly did he say?"

Dean glanced back at Shinji. "Not much, just keep back and get ready to duck."

Shinji started to inquire further, but stopped as Dean moved forward, walking heel-to-toe, as silently as possible. His plain white socks left brief footprints in the blue carpeting, not a sound escaping either foot as it landed; from the bedroom, Shinji's monitor whirred quietly, almost deafening in the silence. Dean's right hand was raised defensively, as if to shield him, and the pistol trembled slightly in his left hand, half in fear and half in anticipation.

Reaching the door, Dean turned the lock and unceremoniously yanked the door open, leading with his gun.

Empty air greeted the barrel. Dean scanned the hall through the door, and took another step forward, the cool air of the hallway greeting him eagerly, contrasting sharply with the humidity of the apartment. He leaned forward, peering up and down the hallway, expecting a silenced bullet to come sailing in his direction at any moment.

Another pounding noise caught his ears; glancing right, he saw a young Asian teenager two doors down, one hand wrapped around a large stack of colorful paper, the other pressing against the door. He removed his hand and proceeded to the next door, revealing a flyer stuck to the previous one. Further down was one of his accomplices, equally equipped and occupied.

Dean cocked his head back to his own door, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief as he saw one of the flyers, decorated with all the colors of the rainbow, and then some. Obscure kanji wrapped itself around the edges, and highlighted amongst the colors was a silhouette of a young woman.

Dean snorted. "False alarm."

"What is it?"

Snatching the flyer from the door, Dean brought it to Shinji and showed it to him. "You tell me."

Shinji's eyes moved back and forth behind the glasses, his expression changing from confusion to amusement. He let out a chuckle. "What'd you think it was?"

Dean lowered his head slightly. "Well... with that guy on the phone, I thought they were gonna storm the place. Thought it might've been a breaching charge or something."

"Heh." Shinji stepped past him, closing the door. "This is an ad for a rave," he said with a smirk.

Dean groaned loudly, wiping his forehead with his arm. "Son of a bitch. I nearly had a heart attack over a goddamn rave flyer."

Shinji chuckled again. "No harm, no foul... but if Ken found the number then it's only a matter of time before they trace it. They might even be on their way here, but I doubt it."

"Right... so, now what do we do?"

At this, all trace of humor left Shinji's demeanor, quickly reminded of their prior conversation. "We can't stay here. We've got what we came here for, but we can't just hand it over to Asara."

Dean frowned. "I know, I know... hell, so much for the money. But you're right, this... this shouldn't be. This thing killed a man. It might have killed Max, and now it's after all of us, too. Last thing we need is more of them." He turned away from Shinji, avoiding his penetrating, emotionless stare. "We've gotta do something."

Shinji nodded. "Thinking the same thing. Question is, what?"

Dean stopped to think, idly chewing on his lip. "Hell if I know... on the phone, I threatened to take this public, get the data on the news or something. I don't know if that'd work, though... hell, I don't even know if we can." He let out a frustrated sigh. "We sit on it, Cyber Connect's gonna kill us. We turn it over to Asara, God only knows what'll happen."

Saying it aloud brought another question to mind. "Shinji, who are these guys, anyway? Even Microsoft didn't have corporate hit squads."

The hacker shook his head. "Microsoft didn't have the market share that CC does. They practically own the internet, and when you have that much capital you tend to want to hang onto it, no matter what." He gingerly scratched the back of his neck, cocking his head forward. "The guy you talked to is Kenichi Fukada. Been at CC's security corps for about five years. Arrogant little brown-noser who takes himself way too seriously." The rolling of eyes accented the statement as he continued. "Nobody's really sure what he did exactly, except that my section leader called on him for a lot of quote-unquote special projects. Don't know much about him past that... I left two years later. As for the American... he's new, that's all I can tell you."

Dean answered with a nod. "Perfect. He sure as hell won't deal, so what else can we do?"

Shinji paused, furrowing his brow in concentration. Suddenly, his eyes lit up, and he stared at Dean. "We have to destroy it all," he said simply.

Dean blinked, confused. "Huh? Destroy it?"

"The data," said Shinji. "They won't bargain because they've got the data and the prototype. With all that's happened tonight - on top of our priors - they have deniability if we go public. So, we make sure we're the only ones with a copy."

"You mean we go back in? With Delphi still waiting in there?"

"We don't know what's happened with Delphi, and we won't unless we go back in and make sure that it, too, is destroyed." Shinji's face flattened into a stern, no-nonsense look. "It's our only chance. We take it all with us, and then at least we'll be in a position to negotiate."

A moment's hesitation, and then Dean nodded in affirmation. "All right. You talk with Kite and BlackRose, see if they'll help us again. And get a copy of that data. I'll get the number for the nearest news station, that'll be our backup plan."

"Good idea." Shinji turned and headed for the bedroom. "And keep an eye on the hallway. We don't have much time."

As his partner disappeared from view, Dean started for the phone, but slowed to a stop before the bathroom. Fatigue suddenly caught up to him, a leaden weight that tugged at his eyelids. He clicked the safety of his weapon and stuffed it in the waist of his jeans, half-stumbling through the bathroom. Light from the living room shone in far enough to partially illuminate the room, reflecting off the mirrored medicine cabinet which hung above the sink.

With a sigh, he twisted the dial towards cold and pulled the handle, sending water gushing forth from the faucet. He bent over the sink and dove his hands into the icy stream, drawing small handfuls of water up to his face. Instinctively, he squeezed his eyes shut as the first splash struck his face, freezing him back to full consciousness and granting him blissful relief from the thick, moist air; the second and third soaked into his shirt collar and hair, removing all hint of exhaustion from his body.

Dean looked up into the mirror and stared at his reflection, his face outlined in shades of darkness against the bright doorway. (Son of a bitch,) he thought. (How in the hell did this get so complicated?)

A flick of the wrist shut off the faucet; the sound of keys clacking filled the void, coming from Shinji's bedroom, an aural texture to his thoughts. He gazed into the mirror once more, and for once saw a different man staring back at him.

(So much for 'all about the money,') he thought with a snort. (Once a cop, always a cop, I guess.)

A sudden crack greeted his ears, and the keystrokes ceased. Puzzled, he stepped out of the bathroom and into Shinji's room, eyes trailing the direction of the sound.

The first thing he noticed was a message displayed on the monitor, bold red letters on a black background: DELPHI HAS FOUND YOU. The second thing he noticed was Shinji sitting before the monitor, his body slumped to the left, his neck bent at an unnatural angle.

Dean felt all the color leave his face. "Shin?" he called, quietly. It was then that he saw the hole in the window, broken from the outside. The chair creaked from Shinji's weight, and it toppled over, spilling him onto the ground next to his bed.

A gasp came from Dean's lips, but not from spotting the hole in Shinji's right temple, still oozing blood. Instead, his eyes fell on the white wall opposite the window, which contrasted brilliantly with the flickering red dot that was slowly creeping towards him.

All rational thought and feeling left his mind as he bolted out the door, away from Shinji's corpse. He had barely enough sense to grab the phone and punch in the emergency number.

He didn't even wait for the operator to identify herself before he shouted, "I need the cops, they're shooting at me!"

"Sir??" asked the operator, startled by Dean's outburst.

"They just shot my friend through the window," said Dean between staggered breaths. "Uh... Takashi Arms, 5th floor... think there's two of 'em..."

The operator's reply was drowned out by a violent explosion from beyond the hallway door; a large hole was blasted through the door, taking the deadbolt with it and blasting bits of wood and metal across the blue carpet. Seconds later the door was kicked in, and Dean instinctively drew his gun and took cover behind the counter as a man marched through it toting a pump-action shotgun.

The man instantly spotted Dean and turned his weapon to fire, but Dean was ready first. A single pull of the trigger threw a 9mm shell forth from the barrel, the report echoing in the narrow confines of the apartment. The bullet missed its mark, but punched through the intruder's right flank with enough force to spin him to one side, throwing his aim off. Dean followed up with another shot, taking a quarter-second to aim before firing. A bloody hole was torn through the man's overcoat at the shoulder level, drawing a howl of pain from the assailant as he stumbled back against the wall.

A third pull of the trigger resulted in a disgusting, grinding *clack*. Panicked, Dean examined the ejection port and grimaced; the gun had become jammed.

Still stunned from the gunshot, the man was helpless as Dean raced around the counter and rapidly closed the distance between them; the detective shoved the shotgun aside and struck the intruder hard across the face, knocking his head painfully against the wall and causing him to slump the ground, groaning loudly.

Quickly pocketing the jammed pistol and grabbing the shotgun from the dazed man's hands, Dean held the man at bay as he analyzed his bruised, bloody face.

Memory finally kicked in. "Carl," he said with a low growl, remembering the details of the American agent.

The brown-haired man coughed loudly, leaning to his right. Dean noticed an additional bullet hole in the left shoulder of Carl's coat, stained dark with old blood. Through the hole, he spotted a trace of reddish-white bandages.

With a morbid smirk, Dean balanced the shotgun in his left hand, tightening his hold on the pistol-like grip of the weapon, and firmly squeezed the twice-wounded shoulder. "I'll say this once," he said, staring at the agent's deep, penetrating blue eyes. "I can make it hurt, or I can make it *really* hurt. Where's Kenichi?"

Carl turned his head to glare at Dean. "Go to hell.... graaaaaaaaahhhh!!" he suddenly cried as Dean harshly clamped his hand over the wound, agitating the still-bleeding flesh wound. This was followed up by a hammer blow to the shoulder, which instantly ignited the agent's nerve endings in a blinding flash of pain. "Ohhh, god..." he groaned weakly, tears of pain twisting free from his eyes.

"Where's Kenichi?!" shouted Dean.

"Augh... parking lot. Silver Lexus... nnng... section 4. KNZ-4224." Carl broke off as he coughed loudly, weakly clutching the wound in his side.

Dean released Carl's shoulder and moved to his feet, taking the shotgun in both hands. "Cops are on their way. If you wanna save your own ass, you're gonna stay right here."

At that, Dean moved to his feet and dashed out into the hall. He heard several gasps and cries of alarm as curious residents spotted him. "Stay in your rooms!" he ordered, being careful to keep the shotgun pointed before him, away from any of the bystanders as he raced by, heading for the elevator.

Mercifully, the door responded instantly to the call button. Dean scrambled inside and hit the button for the lobby, his mind stringing together a truly majestic volley of curse words in a vain effort to grasp what had just happened. The shotgun trembled in his hand as the elevator swayed and sank; his sweat-slickened palms readjusted their hold on the weapon, the acrid stench of spent gunpowder still detectable from the barrel.

He watched the floor counter decrease from five to one, and then to the ground floor. Barely waiting for the doors to open, Dean sprinted through, hearing a chorus of confused murmurs and frightened shouts as employees and guests spotted him. Seconds later, he found himself staring through the blackened, sliding glass doors leading out of the apartment.

As he approached, they slid open, a gaping maw threatening to consume him. Briefly, his mind flashed back to a dungeon, a doorway from mere hours ago, and yet it seemed like an entire lifetime. It beckoning to him with its darkness, purple, ethereal wisps of smoke heralding the danger that lay beyond.

(All right, Mr. Fukada,) thought Dean as he stepped forward to meet this field's boss, his shoeless feet gingerly falling onto the concrete of the parking lot. (It's just you and me now.)

Chapter XI - Justify the Means

Slowly he crept past row after row of lifeless vehicles, their headlights silently watching his every move. Crossing over into lot four, he hunched over to duck behind a dark red SUV, attempting to stay in its shadow against the lightpost which loomed overhead. The shotgun rattled slightly as the handle shook in its relaxed position, slick with sweat from the palm of his hand.

(Come on, Chino) thought Dean. (Show me what you got.)

He took another step forward, and gasped sharply as his foot fell on something hard and pointy, with little more than the sock to protect it. With a grimace, he lifted his foot and brushed the rock aside before continuing his advance. (God damn it.)

Cautiously, he peered around the back of the SUV, carefully scanning the next row of cars. Spotting a silver car roughly fifteen feet away, he cast a glance at the license plate; inwardly, he cursed again as he realized he'd forgotten the number given to him.

Taking a cursory appraisal of his surroundings, he spotted no one nearby, and promptly made a hushed, hurried dash for the next row. His lack of footwear aided greatly in his ability to remain quiet, his feet barely making a sound as he scurried along the blissfully smooth pavement. Quickly reaching the next row, he repeated the procedure, ducking down beneath the trunk of a sports car and cautiously poking his head around to search for his assailant.

Without warning, a tiny, yet intense flash of red light swept over his eye; he reacted instantly, ducking back behind the car and out of the laser's view.

(Damn, he saw me!) His heart, which had almost settled to a normal rhythm, began pounding once more; he sunk down low, half-sitting, half-laying on the ground, making sure no part of him was exposed.

An uneasy silence settled over the parking lot, as pervasive as the warm, damp night air; Dean cringed, realizing he had no real idea where Kenichi was.

The suicidal part of him took over, reasoning that anything was better than waiting for the sniper to advance. "Kenichi!" he shouted, wincing slightly from the uncomfortable position he occupied. "Come out and face me, you chickenshit bastard!"

To his surprise, Kenichi answered. "It's over for you, Stollis! You know there's no way you're coming out of this alive!"

Dean listened carefully, trying to deduce Kenichi's location from his voice. "The cops are on their way. Your man's down; all I gotta do is wait."

"You needed the money that badly, did you?"

Dean glared, sparks of rage flickering in his eyes at his opponent's mocking tone. "You just killed a man, Ken; you're in no position to get self-righteous with me."

Kenichi's reply was all he needed; a rough guess of his location permitted Dean to move, rounding the front of the car, careful to stay low and out of sight.

"Do you have any idea what you three almost did tonight?!" hollered Kenichi. "You're right, Delphi is a weapon. And you were all trying to release it!"

Keeping silent, Dean continued along the row of cars, cautiously peering around the front fender to scan the next row over. "You had no idea what it was Asara really wanted," Kenichi continued, "what they were going to do with it. Don't you dare try to play hero, Stollis; you just wanted your goddamn money!"

Seven cars down, Dean tilted his head around a pickup truck and stifled a gasp as he spotted Kenichi kneeling behind a silver Lexus, training a scoped, laser-equipped rifle on the sports car Dean had been hiding behind. Dean crept past one more car before sneaking around it and creeping towards the next row. Leading with his shotgun, he leaned around the back and glanced quickly at Kenichi; a dry smirk crossed his lips as he realized the gunman hadn't left his position.

He heard Kenichi sigh. "I know this will mean nothing to you, Stollis, but Shinji's death was necessary. We were just doing our jobs, what we were trained and paid to do. It was you who wanted to take it, to use it... even if you didn't know it."

Dean took a deep breath, holding it and, with painful caution, crept out of hiding and towards Kenichi. He kept an eye on the rifle, waiting for any sign of movement, slowly closing the distance between the two men. Six steps later, Dean felt close enough to confidently fire his weapon with any degree of accuracy.

Throwing caution to the wind, he stood up, his joints groaning in satisfaction as they straightened out; keeping the barrel trained on center of mass, he called out to Kenichi. "Put down the rifle, Ken." He took another step forward, a slight chill running through him as his finger brushed against the trigger. "I'm only asking once."

Kenichi instantly tensed up, and Dean heard him mutter a curse. Reluctantly, the agent took his finger off the rifle trigger and set it down on the hood of the car.

"Take two steps back and put your hands on your head. Slowly."

Kenichi scoffed loudly, and disregarded the order, instead rising to his feet and turning to face Dean. "You going to shoot me, sarge?"

The rage returned, and Dean took a step forward. "Get on your knees," he ordered.

A menacing smirk crossed the Japanese agent's narrow lips and hawkish face. His hazel eyes stared coldly at Dean, hinting at the malice beneath them. "You're a sad man, Stollis. A thief who still thinks he's playing cops and robbers."

Dean growled. "Cut the high-and-mighty crap. Your techs were supposed to get rid of Delphi after the experiments were cancelled. Now you're using him as a digital hitman. You sent him after Max, Shinji and me." His eyes blazed. "You sent him after a couple of kids, for Christ's sake!"

Kenichi spat on the ground, throwing a disdainful look at Dean. "That 'Kite' is no kid. He and that other bitch, they helped you steal from us. They've been waltzing around The World like they own the damn thing, blatantly defying Administration."

"It was your program that put his friend in a coma!" shouted Dean, his voice rising to a guttural octave. "Your game, your programs are killing people!"

Visibly faltering, Kenichi stammered out a reply. "But, you... he... you were going to put that thing in Asara's hands..."

Dean felt an invisible hand clench his throat, his head lowering slightly in shame, one eye still carefully watching Kenichi. "You're absolutely right," he muttered. "We were going to just hand it over... until we found out what it was." He lifted his head once more, staring Kenichi in the eye. "It ever cross YOUR mind to get rid of it?" he shot, waving the barrel of the gun accusingly.

Kenichi inhaled sharply, but said nothing. "Two people are in comas right now, fighting for their lives, and by the end of the night two kids might be joining them. Three people have died tonight." Dean paused, letting the agent absorb the words. "How many more have to go before you'll put a stop to this?"

Kenichi blinked. "Me?!"

Dean nodded. "That's right. You haven't done shit but sit on this thing and wait for somebody like me to come along and try to steal it, or someone like Kite to fight it." He sighed. "Yeah, it was all for the money. I'm not proud of it, and I'm not happy about it; I never said I was doing the right thing, but even I know this's something nobody should have. You just shot a man who was going to put a stop to this, and right now that thing is in The World, and it's after two good kids who just wanted to know why the hell your game was hurting their friends."

"I don't understand," said Kenichi, his voice shifting to a neutral tone. "What are you doing this for?"

Slowly, Dean lowered the shotgun, keeping it pointed in Kenichi's direction. His eyelids fell, his eyes gazing at the concrete where Kenichi stood. The question tumbled over and over in his mind, and yet his heart came through loud and clear with a simple, yet brutal answer.

Kenichi couldn't help but smirk. "Redemption? Are you kidding me?" He flinched as Dean lifted his head and stared straight through him.

"You're right, Ken," said Dean, the lump in his throat growing larger and more obtrusive. "We did a bad thing tonight, all of us. We nearly set it loose; god only knows what would've happened if we didn't bother to find out what it was." He let out a dry half-chuckle. "I suppose we have you to thank for it... if we didn't know it was protected, we never would've bothered to ask in the first place."

"Shinji's dead because of you, and Max might be joining him. Those kids are in trouble because of us, because we got them involved." He sighed. "I'm going to do what we *both* should've been trying to do."

Kenichi heard the weight in the words Dean spoke. "Maybe I can break even," said Dean softly.

"And that's enough for you?" asked Ken.

Dean nodded. "It's enough for me to try."

The agent averted his gaze, stuffing a hand in the pocket of his tan trenchcoat and pulling out a ring of keys. Dean watched, confused, as Ken set the keyring on the hood of the car, next to the sniper rifle. "Cyber Connect only wanted Shinji," he said. "They don't know anything about you; Carl and I didn't know either until we started trying to find him."

"What are you doing?"

Kenichi continued without pause, seemingly ignoring Dean. "My computer's on the fifteenth floor. We used it to activate Delphi; you should be able to delete the entirety of the program from there." He pulled his wallet out of his pocket, setting it next to the car keys. "Use my ID to get in. And keep your head down."

Dean blinked, nonplussed. "What are you talking about?"

"You're going to delete the files, aren't you?" asked Kenichi, not waiting for a reply. "You can do it from CC's headquarters." He hesitated. "That... was your plan, right?"

"I guess so," muttered Dean. "Not much other choice, is there?"

Ken chuckled, a hint of the former malice crossing his eyes. "You're still trying to play the hero, Stollis," he remarked. "Do you really think you can win this one?"

Dean chewed on his lip for a second before answering. "Maybe."

Kenichi's lips parted into a slow grin, pearly white teeth shining in the light of the parking lot.

"Prove it to me," hissed the agent as his hand suddenly brushed aside part of his coat and went for a holster, concealed beneath the shoulder.

Caught off-guard, Dean barely got the shotgun up in time to fire as Kenichi came around with the pistol. The 12-gauge shell exploded in the barrel, spraying forth a tight cloud of buckshot which sailed unerringly towards its target. Kick from the blast pulled the gun up two inches, forcing Dean to fight for control.

Before Dean could pump the handle and load another shell, the buckshot struck Kenichi hard in the chest, the whole of the cloud slamming into his torso and upper body and blasting him off his feet. A fine mist of blood sailed from the numerous tiny wounds, coating the ground beneath him in a thin red paste. His body flew backwards and slammed roughly against the hood of the Lexus; he snapped like a whip, bouncing off the hood and falling forward onto his stomach, colliding hard on the unforgiving concrete lot. A desperate, gurgling groan escaped his lips as his body convulsed once before going limp, a pistol clenched in his right hand.

Dean frowned at the sight and looked away, the sudden metallic scent of blood almost strong enough to taste. Mere seconds later, the cacophonous wailing of police sirens stole any hope of reprieve from Dean. Hastily, he forced the handgun from Kenichi's lifeless hand, clicking the safety on and pocketing it; he then grabbed the keyring and wallet before dashing away into the night, leaving the parking lot behind him.

Chapter XII - To Protect and Serve

The face of the clock met his gaze, its narrow neon hands forming a perfect right angle, the name "Budweiser" shining in the dim light; it chimed once, twice, and then a third time before falling silent. Behind him, yellow police tape stretched across the gaping maw of the apartment door, less a command than a polite suggestion not to enter.

Dean let out a long sigh as his eyes swept the room, falling first onto a chalk outline in the shape of a man, slumped up against the wall. Droplets of blood stained the blue carpet where Carl had fallen, and more was sprayed across the wall.

(This is my scene,) he thought, picturing the police as they went through the usual motions; cordoning off the area, questioning the neighbors and staff, ballistics teams analyzing spent shells and gunpowder, coroners wheeling out the bodies, photographers taking pictures and notes.

He had tried to return earlier, but the police, diligent as ever, swept the crime scene thoroughly; a chalk outline was all that remained of Kenichi, his body and weapon taken away. Even now, he questioned the wisdom of his actions, knowing that someone had to have seen him as he fled the building, be it a neighbor, a clerk, or the security camera near the elevators.

That thought reminded him of another; he gripped the strings of his tattered green windbreaker and gave it a yank, pulling the hood tight and further concealing his face. Small miracle no one had taken it from his apartment, which had been thoroughly trashed by the now-dead Cyber Connect goons.

Stopping only to slip into his shoes - dutifully waiting at the door where he left them - Dean took further steps into the apartment, approaching Shinji's bedroom. The darkness of the apartment complicated even basic movement, but he dared not risk turning on the lights. Slowly but surely, he made his way through the open doorway and entered the bedroom.

A faint, yet pungent scent of blood struck his nose, and he cringed in disgust, suddenly thankful that the lights were off. The only illumination came from Shinji's computer, glowing eerily in the darkness. At some point, it had reset to the Altimit desktop; aside from the removal of the body, the computer appeared untouched.

He smirked ruefully and stepped up to the desk, instinctively punching the eject button on the drive. The tray slid out, revealing the clean, compact disc it carried. He gently picked it up and flipped it over, giving the underside a once-over; a faint blue circle formed the inner half of the disc, with the blank portion surrounding it in a ring.

(Good work, Shinji.) Setting the disc in its case, Dean took the mouse with his free hand and moved it to the mail icon on the screen. He gave it a double-click and dragged out the keyboard.

(I'll make it worth it.)


From: Stolls@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: It's Over

Kite... thank you for your help. Without you and BlackRose, I don't think we would have made it this far. That said, I owe you both an apology. In asking for your help, I've put you both in terrible danger. I understand you're in at least that much in regards to your friend, but the last thing I wanted to do was add to your troubles.

Be that as it may, it's all over now. Shinji and the Cyber Connect agents are dead, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the police find me - and that's if I'm lucky. I intend to destroy the Delphi data. All of it. I don't know if this will stop the current copy roaming The World, but I'm out of time and options. If it works, you'll probably hear about it on the news.

I advise staying off the 'net entirely, but should you encounter it... kill it. I think your Data Drain is the key; I don't know if Shinji told you, but this thing seems to have been modified specifically to combat creatures like Skeith, so it should work on similar principles.

No matter what happens, though... just be careful. And don't forget what I told you.

- Dean


The Lexus purred softly as it rolled along the avenue, its headlights gazing brilliantly into the night. Above, streetlights offered periodic illumination, causing shadows to roll and spill off the dashboard. A faint drizzle twisted free from murky storm clouds, falling to gently spray the windshield, giving the wipers all the work they needed. Through the radio wafted a formulaic, yet catchy drum-and-bass beat, repetitious vocals and tunes blending with every other song he'd heard of the genre. The streets before him did likewise, calling to mind many a memory of a late night's work.

"What a night," said Dean, immediately chiding himself for making the understatement of the decade.

The crime scene - which included Kenichi's car - had provided Dean with everything he hoped he would need. A tan trenchcoat and brown fedora gave him a countenance straight from a Humphrey Bogart movie, though he visibly lacked Sam Spade's trademark stoicism, his innards tightening into knots as he passed street after boulevard; hidden from view in the trunk, the shotgun and several handguns, including the Glock Carl had taken from him.

A part of him was screaming to work out some sort of plan, even a vague outline of how he intended to breach CC's corporate office. He had no idea what to expect; automated security checkpoints, a few bored and tired guards, an army of SWAT wanna-bes, bipedal robots with lasers, the possibilities flashed through his mind like a slide show feature of every movie or TV show he'd ever seen.

(How in the hell am I going to do this?) he asked silently, realizing just how little he knew. He didn't know if whatever skeleton crew manning the building had heard about Carl and Kenichi's deaths, or if they were even in the know about their mission.

The sight of the thirty-story headquarters dispelled his thoughts; amidst the similar buildings in the industrial park it stood, cold and lifeless, windows black and parking lot empty. The front entrance was obviously closed, forcing Dean to rule out the direct approach until he spotted a well-lit service entrance leading to a lot beneath the building. Summoning up every ounce of machismo and moxie he ever had, he guided the Lexus down the ramp, eyes adjusting to the sudden pale glow of fluorescent light. The rain vanished as he rolled into the concrete bunker; ahead, a booth and gate barred entry to the sub-level parking lot, a lone, uniformed guard occupying the former of the combo.

Dean sighed. (Here goes nothing.) He tugged the brim of the fedora down over his eyes, then pulled Kenichi's ID badge from his coat pocket as the car idled towards the security booth. (What in the Christ am I doing?)

Beneath the brim, he noticed a flickering light in the booth, and tilted his head up slightly; the light came from a small, portable television, which previously held the guard's attention. Dean rolled down the window and planted his foot on the brake as the car came before the booth. He showed the badge to the guard and nodded slightly.

He felt the ID being lifted from his hand, and heard the bemusement in the guard's voice as he answered, in English. "You're not him. What happened to Fukada?"

Dean tensed, not the least bit surprised that the guard hadn't mistaken him for a Japanese man. "He didn't make it," answered Dean in a low voice, keeping his eyes concealed but carefully watching the guard's hands, waiting - almost eager - for him to reach for the alarm.

To his surprise, the guard handed back the ID and clucked his tongue. "A shame. Well, I suppose that means your job's done here, isn't it?"

Quickly, Dean played off the question and pocketed the card. "Yeah, it's over," he answered. "I just got one more thing I need to take care of."

"Right. Well, go on up. I'll let Lios know you're coming." Footsteps, then a buzzing noise; the striped gate before him lifted.

Silently cheering, Dean waved to the guard and gingerly toed the accelerator, pressing forward into the deserted lot.


Fifteen floors higher, Dean found himself on the appropriate level. The stainless steel doors slid open, and he stepped through into a world of cubicles and computers, white panel ceilings and dull blue carpeting - the same shade as Shinji's apartment. Lit only by strategically-placed emergency lights, the darkened complex both depressed and beckoned to him.

The clanking of the elevator doors served as the only noise on the floor, offering brief respite from the all-encompassing silence. The soft padding of shoes against carpet accompanied Dean as he strode through the forest of cubicles, heading for the more important-looking offices on the far side of the room. The three-walled prisons passed by him in a blur of dead monitors, tacky posters, and empty chairs. Above, wide black lenses formed a half-circle around security cameras, the building's all-seeing eyes; Dean thanked the fedora for concealing his eyes, but his pessimistic side prevailed, reminding him that someone was going to realize he was somewhere he wasn't supposed to be.

(Whoever 'Lios' is, he's not on this floor,) he thought, almost feeling the weapons hidden in his coat pockets tremble in anticipation of a live-action fansub of a John Woo movie. He half-expected to round a corner and stumble upon a swirling magic portal, hiding a squad of guards ready to attack.

Eventually and without incident, Dean found himself before an office door bearing Kenichi's name. A matter of trial-and-error discovered the proper key to the lock, and Dean stepped through. He wasted no time booting up the computer, closing and locking the door as the machine came to life.

The chair let out a familiar groan as he sat down before the computer, pulling the narrow drawer beneath the desk out and revealing the keyboard. The more familiar Altimit desktop appeared before his eyes, and he set to work, eyes squinting at the bright blue background, the only source of illumination in the sparsely-decorated office.

Despite his thoroughly non-technical profession, Dean was familiar enough with computers to make finding the files a simple matter; he briefly flashed back to their previous penetration of the mainframe, doing battle with a digital facsimile of their own partner while Shinji hacked the server through the ruptured firewall. What had only been a few hours ago felt closer to a few days, and the exertions of the night - physical and psychological - were growing harder to deny.

A deceptively simple click-and-drag highlighted the relevant data, and Dean wasted not a second in pounding the 'delete' key, followed by 'enter' when the confirmation message appeared. A slight smile crossed his lips as he watched .exe, .txt and .zip disappear from the folder, leaving a conspicuous gap between the numerous bits of organized data.

He issued the shutdown command to the terminal, and watched as the monitor died; in the darkness, he barely bade out the reflection of his face, a near-invisible silhouette of the disheveled gumshoe. (Redemption, huh?) He stood up and dug through his pockets, producing the case containing Shinji's disc. Gently, he removed it from the case and turned it in his hands, marveling at the rainbowed reflection of light against its surface.

(Maybe this is enough.) He smiled.

Discarding the case, he turned to the door, unlocked and opened it; he stepped through, not bothering to close it behind him. His eyes searched for the nearest camera, and he casually strode up to it, one hand carefully clutching the disc, the other snaking into his other pocket and removing the Glock. He nonchalantly removed his fedora and tossed it aside, revealing his face and eyes for all to see.

His mind's eye flashed back once more: a mentally burdened Wave Master leaning against the railing of a bridge; a confession of a crime; a Twin Blade who offered only one word of encouragement, who nonetheless understood; a boy, a man, who knew what it was like to have the world and its brother against them.

"Dean." The voice was a memory, yet powerful enough to register in his ears, or so he thought. A word, one word; a name shared between players, a hacker and a thief, yet it was enough. The reality of The World crumbled and faded, leaving behind not a Twin Blade and a Wave Master, but two men trying to do their part to stop it, whatever 'it' may be.

"Thanks, Kite," he said to himself.

Standing before a camera, he raised the disc high and waved it back and forth. "Hey!" he shouted to no one in particular. "I hope you're watching!" He hefted the pistol, deftly swapping items to place the weapon in his more secure left hand. He turned around and took a step back, coiling the disc back in his hand. "Like the man says, it's a great trick..."

With a grunt, he flicked his wrist and tossed the disc out and away, sending it sailing across the room down a row of cubicles. A heartbeat later, Dean brought the handgun up and braced the grip with his right hand, tracking the airborne disc and leading it for a fraction of a second before pulling the trigger.

The explosion rocked effortlessly through the silent complex, the cubicles preventing any sort of echo but doing little to block the noise. Light from muzzle flare lit up the room as the bullet spat forth from the barrel, flying without delay or detour towards the spinning data disc.

The invisible projectile struck its mark perfectly, sheer force of impact snapping it in two and sending it violently to the floor. The two halves shone briefly in the sickly glow of the emergency light as they rattled to a halt,

"But I can only do it once," he finished.

A heavy *CLANG* heralded a door being kicked in, followed by several pairs of rapidly-approaching footsteps. Anticipating the arrival of what could only be a team of guards, he drew a second pistol with his free hand and turned to the direction of the sound.

Dean grit his teeth as the first guard rounded the corner, white button-down shirt bearing the CC logo glowing like a candle in the darkness, heavy oak baton hanging from a belt loop, handgun at the ready. Three more followed, identically dressed and armed.

(What took you guys so long?)

In a sudden burst of movement, Dean broke into a strafing dash for the elevator, firing both pistols at the security team; unaccustomed to firing akimbo, Dean attacked near-blindly, frantically spraying the area with bullets as the guards took cover and returned fire.

Gunshots and ricochets rang loudly through the office complex as they exchanged shots. Dean never broke stride as he moved for the elevator, facing the guards as he sidestepped and fired simultaneously; his weapons succeeded in keeping the guards at bay, but did little more than pepper their surroundings.

Six steps further, Dean pulled the triggers yet again, only to draw a sharp *click* from both weapons. Impulse driving his actions, he ducked down behind the nearest cubicle, just inches ahead of incoming fire as the guards, no longer occupied, took aim. Holes exploded through the walls of the cubicle, blasting bits of wood and paper down over Dean like snowflakes.

(Son of a bitch,) he thought, crouching down beneath the desk, discarding the empty guns.

"Surrender!" shouted one of the guards. "We have you surrounded!"

Feeling a hard lump poke at his side, Dean dug through the inner pocket of his trenchcoat; his hands wrapped around the handle of a .38 revolver, the last weapon he'd procured from Kenichi's car.

Dean grumbled, raising the revolver to the entrance of the cubicle. "I've got six more, my friend, and there's four of you. Do the math."

Another voice, this time from his right - and surprisingly close by. "Actually, there's eight of us now."

Fighting the urge to think - and consequently feel, namely fear - Dean scoffed. "That might be a problem if I was trying to escape."

Though he couldn't see any of the guards, Dean felt that the speaker had been taken aback. Hesitantly, he moved to a kneeling position and brought his eye up to one of the holes in the wall. "The way I see it," he added, stacking more to his bluff, "just more targets." He scanned the tops of the nearest cubicles, searching in vain for any approaching guards.

Optimism and bravado came crashing down simultaneously when he heard a pair of footsteps behind him, and the clicking of what could only be hammers being drawn back.

"Put it down."

Dean let out a loud, disappointed groan, as if he were no more than a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. "Goddamn," he replied, gently setting the revolver onto the desk before him and raising his hands high.

He heard more footsteps, and one of the guards became visible out of the corner of his eye. He felt hands grip his wrists tight, which were forced behind his back and bound with a plastic cord. Another pair of hands took his arm and hoisted him to his feet.

Finally he was turned around, and got a good look at his opponents: eight men, sharing only uniforms and weapons pointed in his direction. A few wisps of smoke escaped the nearest pistol, a Sig Sauer, and Dean could smell the burnt powder from it.

He smirked, resigning himself to fate. "So? Now what?"


Once again, Dean found himself staring at his reflection, this time in a one-way mirror concealing an observation booth in the adjoining room. Seated in a cold metal folding chair at a table, hands no longer bound behind his back, Dean could do nothing but sit and wait.

(I guess this is game over,) he thought with a sigh. (Ironic, I suppose... breaking and entering, data theft and destruction of property, and a gunfight, all in a company that makes games.) He chuckled softly. (Guess it could be worse. After all... I won.)

"We won," he corrected audibly.

Suddenly, the door swung open, revealing an older man in a suit, flanked by a phalanx of guards. His face was hidden partly by shadow, but Dean could make out the man's penetrating, dark blue eyes, which seemed to bore holes through Dean.

Taking the wildest of shots into darkness, Dean went with the only name he had in his arsenal. "Lios?"

The suit smiled coldly at him. "Stollis."

"The police are here," said one of the guards.

'Lios' nodded. "Take him away."

Two entered and escorted Dean to his feet, leading him out of the room. Through the glass entrance doors flashed all-too-familiar red and blue emergency lights, spinning recklessly atop the squad cars to which they were attached. Before the doors stood a pair of police officers, one with a shiny pair of handcuffs dangling from his fingers.

(Well, this brings back memories.) The guards released him as the cops approached, and he obediently turned around, presenting his hands to the cuff-wielding officer.

The suit walked up to Dean as the handcuffs slid around his wrists, locking themselves shut; their eyes met in mutually muted hostility, each carefully studying the other's face.

"I'll be seeing you," said Dean. "Friend" he added, spitting the word as if it were a curse.

For the faintest of seconds, Dean swore he saw the suit flinch, turning away sharply as the police took custody of Dean.

Chapter XIII - Pro Bono

From: MKerrek@undernet.lm/asaraeast.net

To: ARosenberg@acor.net

Subj: Mission Report
Attached is the operation report provided by Dean Stollis (HR-Temp #381) concerning attempted procurement of the desired data. I do so without further comment.



Employer: Asara Corporation

Orders: Steal files described by Asara Corp. representative (A. Rosenberg) from Cyber Connect

Assets: Shinji Kayora (39, former programmer, CC) - Status: KIA

Max Kerrek (32, contact, Asara) - Status: Active

"Kite" (14, data retrieval specialist, unaffiliated) - Status: Unknown

"BlackRose" (16, data retrieval specialist, unaffiliated) - Status: Unknown

Case status: Closed


I was contacted exactly three weeks ago by Asara's representative, Max Kerrek, and contracted for security purposes in an attempt at data theft from Cyber Connect, through the rogue programmer Shinji Kayora. We arrived at Tokyo two weeks later. Asara's technicians had discovered a means to infiltrate CC's mainframe via a backdoor in The World, however we required the aid of someone properly equipped to do so.

We gathered all relevant information regarding Cyber Connect and The World, and discovered incidents where System Administration was defied; protected areas were hacked, enemy creatures were altered to be indestructible, and - most importantly - several players became incapacitated as a direct result of attacks within The World. One such incident surrounded the character Kite, whom we later contacted for assistance in hacking the mainframe.

During a test of Kite's abilities, our team was attacked by the entity Delphi, whom we later learned was a security countermeasure developed by Cyber Connect, designed specifically to combat viruses, hackers, and the so-called 'phases' - including the creature Skeith, whom Kite claimed to have fought and beaten. Delphi struck TamonAdillo, Max's Character, with an attack called a Data Drain (a hacking ability seemingly exclusive to The World; Kite shares this ability) and Max himself fell into a coma as he covered our escape.

Hours later, agents from Cyber Connect accosted me at the hospital, and then Shinji in a separate encounter. It was then revealed that the men sent Delphi to stop us, having discovered that Shinji was contacted by another corporation (they did not know it was Asara at the time). We both escaped relatively unharmed, but the agents successfully, if temporarily, implicated Shinji in the murder of two police officers on the scene.

Pressed for time, we were forced to acquire Kite's help in retrieving the data. Upon meeting him and his partner BlackRose in The World, it was revealed that, somehow, Max's character had attacked BlackRose of its own volition. At first, it was believed that Max and TamonAdillo had suffered an event similar to one that occurred roughly six months ago, involving the character Tsukasa, who continued to exist in The World despite that his player was comatose and his terminal inactive. During our hack attempt, however, this assumption was proven false.

Kite successfully destroyed the firewall protecting the backdoor, allowing Shinji to connect with CC's mainframe and locate the data, which he copied onto a disc. During the download, Tamon attacked us - Kite, BlackRose and myself. We then discovered that Delphi was controlling Tamon; as the files on Delphi later explained, it could take command of avatars and other entities on the Internet, essentially stripping the player or hacker of any control. The unique user interface for The World added another side effect to the attack: incapacitation.

We destroyed Tamon, though I currently have no confirmation as to whether this destroyed Delphi as well. We lost contact with Kite and BlackRose after the agents accosted us at Shinji's apartment; in the ensuing battle, Shinji and both of the agents were killed. I escaped before the police arrived, taking with me the copy of the data and the personal identification badge of one of the agents. With this, I successfully infiltrated CC's Tokyo headquarters and accessed their mainframe from within the building, where I permanently deleted all data pertaining to the Delphi experiment, including my own copy.

It was then that I encountered 'Lios', who appeared to be behind the agents' attempts on our lives. His name was not present on the documentation for Delphi, which means he was either not involved (he appeared to be a security official of some sort) or the name is a pseudonym. I was incarcerated for one day only, when Max, who had since recovered from his coma, paid my bail and released me. With no proof linking Shinji to the deaths of the two policemen, or Shinji's death to myself - and because of CC's desire to avoid publicity relating to Delphi - the only charges made against me were breaking and entering, illegal possession of a firearm, and assault - all of which were covered by bail.


With Shinji and the agents dead, there is no longer threat of attack or exposure from Cyber Connect. However, although the theft of the data was successful, the nature of the data necessitated its destruction; currently there is no information about the condition of the remaining copy of Delphi inhabiting The World, or of Kite or BlackRose. Consequently, the mission is thus deemed unsuccessful.


"So, how does it feel?"

Dean blinked, throwing a glance at his blond, suit-clad companion. "Hmm?"

Max turned to face the detective, peering up at him through curious blue eyes, his boyish, rounded features contrasting sharply with those of his avatar. "To not have bad guys with guns coming after you?" he asked.

Dean snorted, turning back to the counter, which was staffed by a single uniformed attendant. Several feet to her left sat the gate connecting the airport terminal to the plane, which loomed large and imposing through the wall of glass facing it.

"I don't know," said Dean. "How's it feel to walk again?"

Max chuckled, setting down his suit bag to free up a hand, which he promptly pulled through his short, spiky hair. "Different," he answered, his even-toned voice subtly restrained. "Everything feels different."

"But nothing's changed." Dean sighed. "Not really... those things, those 'phases'... they're still in there, aren't they?"


Dean met Max's gaze once again. "Men died over all this. Shinji died 'cause of us."

The blond-haired business agent nodded, his shoulders sagging. "Yeah... yeah, he did. And this is just the tip of the iceberg."

"So, what do we do?"

"Nothing. We can't do anything, Dean, not right now." Max frowned. "Cyber Connect had Delphi, but they aren't the good guys or the bad guys; I'll bet even they don't know what the hell's going on." With a sigh, he gestured towards the plane. "All you can do is what's right for you. What YOU have to do. Everything else is just luck."

"And that's why you're going?"

Max nodded. "Rosenberg tricked us all. Somebody has to make sure he doesn't get away with it." He faked a smile. "Besides, if I don't get home ASAP, my wife is gonna kill me."

Dean couldn't help but smirk at that. "She thinks you're on a business trip?"

A soft chuckle perforated Max's reply. "No, I'm pretty sure she knows I'm up to no good. God help me if she finds out I was in a coma for all of a day."

Both men shared a chuckle, and Dean's smirk fell into a smile. "Hey, listen... thanks for bailing me out, Max," he said, as if it were as common an activity as holding a door for someone.

Max smiled and nodded back. "You saved my ass and you got halfway there; figured it's the least I owe you."

An announcer's voice came over a loudspeaker; a quick glance indicated the attendant had begun speaking into a microphone, and was gesturing towards the gate door, which was now open. A small line quickly grew before it, next to which stood another uniformed attendant, this one taking tickets.

Max knelt down and picked his suit bag back up. "Well, guess that's that. Sure you don't wanna come back?"

Dean nodded. "Little late for that. Besides," he added, "there's just one more thing I gotta do."

The agent grinned. "Still gonna play hero?"

Dean reflexively flinched, almost hearing the voice of another kind of agent in Max's place. Max instantly realized his mistake. "Sorry, man, I... er, sorry," he said sheepishly.

"Don't sweat it," answered Dean. "And... well, that and I gotta pay someone a visit." He nodded to the gate. "G'won, you're gonna miss your flight."

With a parting, "Take it easy," Max joined the back of the line, ticket in hand. He turned back around to face Dean, however, when the detective called his name once more.

"Hey, Max."


Dean swallowed a breath of air, deliberately pausing before speaking again. "Did we do the right thing?"

Max smiled, an unusual air of honesty in his reply. "You did." He nodded to Dean, and added, "it was right enough." v
The answer didn't completely satisfy Dean, but the words fell on eager ears nonetheless. Dean nodded back, and offered a small wave to Max before turning away. "Thanks," he said under his breath as he strode away from the gate and into the main concourse.

(Something's going to happen,) he thought as he made his way towards the exit. (And it's going to happen here.)

Somehow, the idea invigorated him; he approached the glass doors with a smile on his face, one hand firmly set in the other as he cracked his knuckles. (No gun, no money, no boss; just one big goddamn mystery.)

Stepping out into Tokyo, almost blinded by the daylit city skyline that was all but alien to him, he raised a hand to flag down a taxi. "Sounds like fun," he said to himself, his smile persisting.



Employer: Self

Orders: Investigate disturbances in the online game "The World", and its creator, Cyber Connect corporation.

Assets: "Kite" (14, data retrieval specialist, unaffiliated) - Status: Unknown

"BlackRose" (16, data retrieval specialist, unaffiliated) - Status: Unknown

Case Status: Open

Chapter XIV - WASD

"Do you see 'em?"

Squinting through the scope, he carefully panned the rifle over the small enclosure; three men stood guard around an armed plastic explosive, easily enough to bring the whole structure to the ground.

"Yeah. 3; one Elite, 2 UMP."

He almost heard the sneer in his teammate's reply. "Elites? Whatever, it's his funeral. Cover me, I'll make a run for the bomb."

"Got it."

Footsteps retreated from his position, cautiously approaching the trio of terrorists; he noted that the steps were perfectly spaced apart, each making exactly the same noise as the last as they faded to silence. Shrugging it off, he trained the rifle on the leftmost enemy, raised the scope to the man's head, and fired.

The gun echoed with a mighty crack, sending a bullet straight through the man's skull, killing him instantly. His body unceremoniously dropped to the ground as the other two instantly went ballistic, firing blindly at the perceived location of the sniper.

He smirked, taking aim and firing again, killing the second SMG user, leaving only the man sporting two pistols. At this the sniper's partner leapt from hiding, brandishing a Desert Eagle; the deafening gunshots barely registered to the sniper as the heavy slugs easily perforated the terrorist's vest, blasting him off his feet and to the ground, where he lay very still.

"Woo-hoo!" came the shout as the counter-terrorist raced for the bomb; he holstered his pistol and effortlessly disarmed the brick of C4, rendering it harmless.

"Good job!" cheered the sniper, rising to his feet and moving to join his companion. (SoW)Ph4tm4n: WTF!! idiot c4mper w/ GAYWP!!!!!

The sniper blinked. "Huh?" he muttered, peering quizzically at the letters that appeared before his eyes.

GrIm_ReApEr1819: AWP whore U sUXX0rz

The second counter-terrorist rolled his eyes and groaned loudly. "I can't take this anymore."

(SoW)D35TR0Y4R: deagle = n00b cannon

"So this is why you're always on that other game," replied the sniper.

Without warning, gunfire erupted from behind the sniper as a MAC-10 sprang to life, spraying both men with the entirety of the magazine in a matter of seconds; their bodies crumpled lifelessly to the ground, and from the shadows stepped the weapon's owner, a fourth terrorist.

"pwned, CT bitches!" he cackled, jumping up and down in place for no apparent reason.

(NLK)Orca: among other reasons

(NLK)Kite: I was wondering why the match hadn't ended yet...

(SoW)Ph4tm4n: hahahha n00b

GrIm_ReApEr1819: kekekekekeke

(NLK)Orca: let's go

--(NLK)Orca has disconnected--


Heavy-lidded eyes slowly cracked open, gazing up into a blurry white ceiling; a hazy brown X spun before his eyes, slowly sharpening to reveal itself as a ceiling fan, whirring gently in the small room. Another noise became evident, the persistent humming of a computer from out of his view.

"What happened?"

He gradually lifted his body to a sitting position, feeling a dull ache in his joints from unknown exercise. A brief glance reminded him of his immediate circumstance; to his left lay the headset and controlling unit for The World, the former of which was flashing the message "DISCONNECT" in the visor.

His rich brown eyes darkened, less recent memories coming to mind as he trailed the headset back to the computer to which it connected, the bright blue Altimit desktop serving as a contrast to the plain white ceiling and walls of his bedroom. "Skeith... right," he muttered. "But what was that other thing?"

The boy moved to his feet, and tensed suddenly when he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye; he turned and found himself staring into a mirror, a weary 14-year-old meeting his gaze. His head and boyishly-rounded features were topped with a patch of short, spiky black hair, slightly unkempt from his unscheduled nap on the floor.

He met his own eyes, almost seeing the ocean-blue of his avatar's staring back at him; the eyes belied the boy's age, hinting at experience and hardship wholly uncommon to someone of his youth.

Breaking contact with the mirror, he collapsed into the chair before the desk, letting out a soft sigh. Though the battle had taken place in another world, the stress and fatigue of his digital self were felt as readily as any physical pain. He recalled mindlessly hacking and slashing at the skeletal monstrosity, narrowly surviving its counterattacks and consuming health drinks and healing potions by the gallon; he heard the shouts of his companions as they valiantly joined him in combat, striking the beast known as Skeith again and again in the near-vain hope of bringing it down; he remembered how the very ground beneath him shook as Skeith was shattered into a billion bits of data, stripped of its hacked protection and finally hammered into submission by the Twin Blade and his comrades.

Most of all, he remembered the violent explosion which immediately followed, and not solely because of the hideous creature that preceded it; he remembered feeling the heat and force of the explosion, thankfully cut short through his sudden loss of connection.

Again his muscles ached, and a gentle throbbing came from the left side of his chest, where he remembered being struck by the blast before all went dark. He winced and shivered almost at the same time. The World had physically hurt him.

His mind went over the battle again, and as though a switch were suddenly turned on he remembered his party: the Heavy Blade BlackRose, and the Wave Master Mistral. He gulped, the dryness of his throat making the activity all but painful; the event had left him more shaken than hurt, but what happened to them?

Instantly he turned to face the monitor and took hold of the mouse, pointing it to the email icon on his desktop. He blinked in surprise as a cornucopia of new mail was presented to him, one for almost every player whose address he had - including the player he sought to contact.


From: BlackRose@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Is this for real?

I thought once we got the thing with the red wand, everything would be solved. It was baseless, but... I thought everything would be back to normal... what did we do? Was what we did right?

I'm not wrong, right?


From: Kite@theworld.com

To: BlackRose@theworld.com

Subj: I hope so

There's no point in being negative about it. Let's just believe in ourselves.


(I'd really like to, at least...)

He sighed as he thumbed the latest forum postings with his mouse, reflecting on the question posed to him by BlackRose's player. (What DID we do?) he thought, eyes glazing as he read the responses to the sudden server outage.

(What about Yasuhiko?)

One topic at the bottom of the list caught his attention. Again his eyes roamed absently over the text, hurriedly reading through to join BlackRose in the game. A narrow eyebrow crooked at the mention of an invulnerable monster, and lacking the field's keywords, he scribbled down the poster's name on a nearby note card: TamonAdillo.

(I'll have time for that later,) he thought, reaching down to grab his discarded headset as his free hand clicked the login button.

Chapter XV - Accompaniment

(So, now what?)

The classroom faded from sight as he nonchalantly plopped his head beneath his folded arms, coming to rest on the polished wooden surface of the desk. Before him, his teacher - a thin, bookish man in his late 40's - droned on in a thoroughly monotone voice, dryly instructing students in things the boy could care less about at the moment.

Returning to the field in which they encountered Skeith had ultimately proven fruitless, doing little more than giving him and BlackRose more to worry about; the corrupted dungeon lay deserted, neither hair nor hide of anything even remotely interesting, apart from its mere existence as a field in decay. When he woke the next morning, he still held a small spark of hope that things had changed for the better, one which was quickly dashed after a brief phone call to the hospital.

He sighed; deep down, he'd suspected that killing the creature would somehow help Yasuhiko recover, despite a marked lack of evidence in either direction. This only further confused and stressed the 14-year-old, rapidly coming to terms with just how little he knew of what was going on. And now that Skeith was gone, it seemed that neither he nor any of his newfound comrades had a lead to follow up on.

Silently, a part of him prayed, if only momentarily, that they would find none.

Wearily, he lifted his head back up and blinked twice, clearing his eyes; he managed a smile when he read the blackboard - no assignments for the weekend. (That takes care of one problem, at least.)


The flow of foot traffic quickly carried him through the glass doors which formed the school's entrance, a sea of uniformed students swirling about him, their voices mingling in a thick miasma of miscellaneous chatter.

A low rumble from above brought his attention skyward as he stepped out onto the sidewalk; he frowned, staring up into the murky gray storm clouds, already churning and brewing in anticipation of the storm to come. He doubled his pace, taking long strides away from the enclosed, crowded schoolyard, his backpack bouncing slightly as it jostled with every step.

He passed beneath a tree, its leaves offering shade from the hidden sun, and came to a halt; throwing a glance left, then right, he jogged across the empty street; seconds after he stepped onto the sidewalk, a black sedan crawled by, traveling well under the speed limit. He stopped and threw a glance in its direction, catching a glimpse of the license plate: LV-426.

The boy couldn't help but grin at the reference. Sheer luck his father was big into science fiction, one of the many traits he had inherited, along with a love for all manner of electronic entertainment. Offline, at least. To date, his experiences in online gaming had been somewhat less than palatable.

And he was quickly beginning to doubt that this was going to change anytime soon. His smile disappeared, a hesitant chill snaking through him despite the humidity. Further unnerving him was the uneasy sensation of eyes upon him, watching him.

(What if they know who I am?) he thought, quickly casting a hurried glance around the empty streets, searching blindly for anyone who looked out of place, or even anyone at all. With no one nearby, the feeling of isolation became all too palpable, melding with the dense, damp air to become a suffocating miasma of solitude; strangely, the boy felt almost relieved at the lack of nearby pedestrians, finding himself in a less than trusting mood at the moment.

As if on cue, another dull wave of thunder rolled through the sky, providing an unneeded incentive for the student to resume his journey. Shaking off the bout of paranoia, the student turned to leave; for a second, only a second, he swore he saw a man in a green windbreaker almost a full block behind him, a deliberate slowness and caution to his whisper-soft step.


"Mom, I'm home!"

The door clunked heavily behind him as it shut, masking the thud of his backpack as it slid to the floor. He kicked off his shoes and slowly padded along the tiled floor, following it through the foyer and into the dining room.

"Mom?" he called, eyes making a broad sweep of the room; aside from a large potted plant in the corner and the hum of fluorescent lights from the adjoining kitchen, there were no signs of life. His eyes fell to the oak table before him, where a white piece of paper lay, visually crying out for attention. Eyebrow raised, he walked up to the table and quickly skimmed the hastily-written characters which adorned the note.


I'm working the night shift tonight. I switched hours with Shiro; dinner's in the fridge.


"Guess it's another TV dinner for tonight," he mused aloud. Retreating to the foyer, he snatched up his backpack and turned to the stairs, slowly trudging up to his bedroom, his footsteps muted but nonetheless loud amongst the comparative silence of the house.

He entered his bedroom, sighing as he set the pack down on his bed. Instinctively, he grabbed the remote to his TV set and turned it on, quickly flipping to the nearest news station. The channel was mostly irrelevant; the boy needed noise, something to break the unsettling silence. It reminded him that he was alone, a fact he could almost forget once online.

For him, that had been both the saving grace of The World and a cruel reminder of reality. On the 'net, a life-and-death struggle took place almost daily, a battle as real as any offline, with him at the center; his best friend lay in a coma because of it. Though he could count on his friends in The World to fight by his side, at the end of the day, when he shut off his terminal, he knew they couldn't come with him.

He was alone. And nobody knew that Hiroshi, a shy 14-year-old boy and slightly above average student, was fighting for his friend's life.

The revelation closed around him like a vise, as it had in so many instances before. He closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, his chest tight and constricted from the sudden bout of stress. (Easy... easy... it's okay,) he thought, silently reassuring himself, or at least attempting to. (You're not alone. Not where it matters.)

With a groan, he collapsed into his chair and booted up the computer; from the TV, a female reporter's voice filled his ears, apparently discussing today's events in the stock exchange with the co-anchor. Through his closed eyes, he saw the glow of the monitor, perceived as a sudden burst of color against his eyelids. A brief examination of the desktop led to a slight frown. (No mail... so now what do I do?)

He idly itched the back of his left hand, considering his options, which were few. As he hung his head, his eye caught a glimpse of a white index card, the name 'TamonAdillo' printed neatly on it.

(TamonAdillo? Oh, right... that's right, he supposedly found an invincible monster. Sounds like a Data Bug... yeah, maybe I'll check it out.)

Clattering keys filled the room as he opened the email client and began typing.


From: Kite@theworld.com

To: TamonAdillo@theworld.com

Subj: Monster

I read your post on the boards. My name is Kite, and I think I can help you. What did this monster look like?


From: TamonAdillo@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Re: Monster

Hello, Kite. It was a large, bird-like creature; the strange thing was the whole of its body was covered in what looked like computer code... numbers, letters, strange crystalline shapes. As far as my party and I could tell, it had infinite hit points; between the three of us we inflicted several thousand points of damage on the creature - way more than what the average level of the monsters in the field would indicate.

Incidentally, I have heard rumors that you are a hacker. If so, then I would gladly appreciate any help you could offer us. My companions and I have been investigating the strange incidences in The World for some time, of which I am sure you are aware of as well.

If you have the time, I would like for you to meet with us in The World tonight, on Delta server at 8pm. We can discuss this further there.



A pair of eyes opened, staring vacantly down the broadway of Mac Anu as it formed before the player. All around him, stone and marble buildings rose from the watery canals and winding streets, sunlight bathing everything in its warm, comforting light. A faint breeze twisted through the canal, its presence detected without being felt. Adventurers of every size, shape and outfit combination raced to and fro, chatting, trading, flirting and recruiting as only net gamers can.

The boy stepped away from the spinning Chaos Gate, his transition from the world to The World complete; he gradually became conscious of the change in his outfit, his loose-fitting school uniform replaced by a garish red vest and matching slacks, the former covering a thick, long-sleeved white shirt, a series of crooked orange lines crisscrossing along the latter. A similarly-colored hat topped his short, cartoonishly spiky teal hair, calling attention to the blue eyes and facial tattoos, also features alien to the player. Leather gloves and boots adorned his hands and feet, and a pair of sharp, flawlessly-crafted short swords dangled from his belt.

He smiled as he drew both weapons with an overhand grip, and took a few practice swings with them. (Least that's one thing I can count on,) he thought.

"Hey Kite!"

(And here comes another.)

The Twin Blade did an about-face, smiling and waving to the Heavy Blade BlackRose, decked out in her traditional garb of purplish-red, thorn-patterned tights, breastplate, gauntlets and waist greaves, and little else in the way of protection or cover. Though her outfit was not modest by any stretch of imagination, the most eye-catching part was the trademark of her class strapped to her back, a gigantic two-handed sword that looked at least as heavy as she. Her figure, though tanned and marked with a series of thorny tattoos, was lithe and slender, bearing not a trace of the muscle which would be required to wield such a weapon.

Despite the obvious farcical extremes of her character - which were fairly commonplace in The World - he had to admit that her avatar was easy on the eyes, insofar as a collection of pixels could be. Her lively wine-colored eyes and slight, casual smile served to reinforce the 'rose' motif, standing in sharp contrast to the thorns which decorated her body, in skin and in armor.

"Thanks for coming," said Kite with a smile.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, throwing a momentary glance back at the Chaos Gate from which she had emerged. "I was curious about that post too; I thought we'd never find a lead. So these guys are investigating, too?"

Kite nodded. "That's what Tamon said. They found a data bug, and they asked for help."

BlackRose sighed, turning to face Kite directly. "I just don't get it, where are all these things coming from? What's causing this?"

"I wish I knew," replied the Twin Blade. "I thought it was all that thing with the red wand. But I guess it's not over..."

"Yeah..." Her head drooped slightly, staring through the brick walkway beneath her feet. "I guess not," she said, a slight tinge of sadness in her voice.

"Well, maybe they know more about what's going on; he said they'd be here by 8."

She glanced again at the Chaos Gate. "Did he say where the field was?"

Kite shook his head. "Just that it was on this server."

She nodded, her attention turning to the broadway leading into the heart of the city. "You sure meet the weirdest people, you know," she remarked far too loudly to be meant for her ears only.

Kite couldn't help but smile. "You can say that again," he replied quickly; his intentional haste and subtle emphasis did not escape notice, and to drive the point home he added a smiling emote to the end of the sentence.

"What was that?" challenged BlackRose as she threw a look at Kite, burying the urge to grin back upon realizing her inclusion in her own statement.

"Nothing," answered Kite with feigned innocence, as he turned to avoid her eyes, chuckling softly.

The Heavy Blade's eye twitched, though Kite couldn't tell if her player had intended to or not. Either way, it brought a grin to his face. "Come on," he said. "Let's go save and stock up before they get here."

Chapter XVI - Broken Ice Redux


The voice rose over the din of the aqua capital, singling out the Twin Blade and causing both him and his partner to turn in its direction. Approaching them was a party of three men - a Long Arm, an Axeman, and a Wave Master, all appropriately armed and armored.

Unsure which was which, Kite smiled into the midst of the group and waved. "Tamon, hi! Are these your friends?"

The Long Arm was a tall, athletic man clad in an open blue vest and matching slacks, shoulder-length blonde hair highlighting his olive-colored eyes; standing at the front of the party, he strode up to Kite and nodded. "Sorry we're late." A glance at BlackRose prompted him to continue. "I suppose introductions are in order."

With a smile, TamonAdillo introduced his companions; the Axeman Deisart, hidden within a reddish-brown, frighteningly top-heavy suit of armor - again, all too common in The World - and the Wave Master Stolls, a slight, pale-skinned young man, garbed in a black robe, gloved hands loosely clasping a long blue wand. Though none of the trio looked more dangerous or out of place than the hundreds upon hundreds of other players Kite had seen, he detected a distinct hardness in the eyes of Tamon and Stolls.

Kite recognized the look immediately; he recalled bearing a similar expression after his inaugural battle against a Data Bug. A quiet part of him took solace in the fact that these men, at the very least, knew what he was up against.

Introductions on Tamon's part finished, Kite bowed slightly. "Nice to meet you both," he said. "I'm Kite, and this is BlackRose." He indicated the Heavy Blade with a pass of his hand, and she nodded in response. Kite caught a suspicious glint in her eye as she scanned the party opposite them, though her posture remained neutral, one hand hooked behind her back to rest on the handle of her massive weapon.

"So, you wanted to ask about something?" she asked, facing Tamon.

Tamon cleared his throat. "Yes, well... this may sound a little strange, but..."

Deisart cut him short as he took a step forward, his armor making an audible clank as he moved. "We need your help. There's a monster at Delta, Buried Geothermal Spiral, and we believe it's been... altered."

Kite peered at the visor in Deisart's helmet, quickly guessing what the men were about to say. "Altered?"

"Hacked," came the answer from Stolls. "It had infinite hit points, as far as I could tell." The Wave Master sighed, shoulders sagging slightly. "It got all of us."

The Long Arm nodded, his jaw set firmly, all traces of humor gone from his sharp, pointed features. "We were going to try again, but I'm afraid that without a hacker, we can't do anything. That's why we need your help." He paused. "So, what do you say?"

Kite cocked his head left and threw a glance at BlackRose, his eyes seeking hers, as if in search of permission. Her normally soft features were hard-set - another look he'd grown accustomed to as a sign of impending trouble - and she nodded to him; for emphasis, she gave the hilt a firm squeeze, wringing it slightly.

The Twin Blade hid a smile. (A newbie, huh?) he thought, briefly reminded of his first encounter and subsequent adventure with the warrior next to him. (Well, you had me fooled.)

His mind quickly returned to the task at hand; he nodded back to BlackRose, and faced Tamon. "What's the name of that field again?"


The picture cleared and sharpened, the aqua capital giving way to the image of a barren, dusty landscape. Pockets of solid text and computer code scarred the ground, the naked framework upon which The World rested. Nonsensical strings of characters drifted through the air, unhindered by the rain which twisted away from the cracked, cloudy sky.

Kite found little surprise in the bizarre vista before him, but something inside tightened in anxiety as he realized the men were telling the truth - with the obvious problem that would entail.

(There really is a Data Bug here,) Kite thought. (They just keep coming...)

Unbeknownst to him, the thoughts of his slightly more feminine partner fell along similar lines. (What keeps causing these things?) she wanted to ask.

"This is new," said the Wave Master, his tone dry, yet with a hint of genuine bemusement.

Kite blinked, keeping his own surprise in check. (This is new?) "It wasn't like this before?"

Stolls shook his head. "No. The creature was in the dungeon, but this..." the Wave Master trailed off for a moment as he walked up to a missing patch of ground, experimentally tapping his foot against the lines of code in its place. "I... don't know what to make of it."

"Did you know about the creature before you came here?" asked BlackRose, craning her neck left, then right, keeping a wary eye out for monsters.

Tamon idly rapped the end of his spear against his leg, searching for words. "Well, not exactly. We thought there would be some kind of boss monster here, but we didn't know about these Data Bug things... least we'd never seen any."

Kite nodded, sheathing a blade and removing a fairy's orb from his pocket. He held the tiny jewel aloft; seconds later, it disappeared in a flash of light, and Kite's eyes briefly fidgeted, mimicking his controller as Hiroshi scanned the heads-up display, which now revealed every point of interest on the map - or lack thereof, in this case. "Huh?" he mumbled, failing to detect any unopened portals in the field. (No portals... is somebody here already? Then...)

"What is it?"

Giving the map one final glance, he turned to face BlackRose. "All the portals in this field are open," he explained, drawing his right-hand weapon once more. v
"What?" Stolls blinked at Kite, clearly puzzled. "Someone beat us here?"

The Twin Blade cocked his head left at Tamon. "When did you guys come here?"

"Was about three days ago." Tamon frowned. "We cleared the place out, except for the bug, but they should've respawned by now."

"Hey, maybe we should get moving," said Stolls. "Find the monster before somebody else does."

(Yeah...) Kite exchanged glances with each of his new comrades before replying. "All right, let's go."

He heard the darkness in Tamon's voice as he spoke. "Should be on the bottom floor. Right where we left it."


The party quickly made its way into the depths of the field's dungeon, with nothing barring their path except empty air and silence. Not even a single jar, skeleton or treasure box could be found, further implying that someone else had gone before them, and recently.

For the most part, Kite ignored the chatter between his companions, increasingly nonplussed despite his prior experience with the out-of-character phenomena that surrounded him. Adding to his confusion was that the field had been unlocked, a sign that either the decay of the field had been overlooked, or it was very recent.

The five paused at a four-way junction, where Deisart suddenly moved to the lead. "The monster is this way," he said softly, yet with a carefully subdued urgency. "Let's go."

Kite's confusion doubled as he scanned the open doorway, which lacked the tell-tale purple smoke indicative of a Data Bug. (What's going on here?) he thought.

Together, they passed through the door into a massive stone antechamber, highlighted in a dim purple hue and devoid of life. Their footsteps echoed loudly through the room, the only noise audible to him aside from the whirring of his computer, a world away from where he now stood.

"I don't like this," said Tamon. "I do not like this, this is too easy."

"Someone beat us to the punch," added Stolls. "Someone else brought down a Data Bug. Somebody tell me why this worries me."

Kite knew why. He slowly moved to the center of the room, his interest in searching it now secondary to his concern over the Wave Master's implied statement. "Does someone else have access to Data Drain?" he audibly wondered, his thoughts alternating between hope that it was another player who possessed the ability, and fear that it was another monster. Briefly, his mind returned to the battle with Skeith, and he was instantly reminded of the pain that accompanied his being Drained in the midst of combat. That he had felt pain in the first place was the more disturbing aspect of the attack, but the experience itself was far from pleasant, white noise clogging his brain and whip-like shockwaves pummeling his body as his character's data was rewritten to include every status malady in the book.

He shivered, though equipment attached to him did not register the movement.

Kite returned to his senses just in time to notice that his companions were silent. Second to gain his recognition was that he now stood in a very large shadow, which was rapidly growing longer and wider.

"Look out!"

Kite barely had time to recognize the speaker before a set of pink hair and tanned shoulders torpedoed into him, bowling him over and knocking him out from beneath the shadow. He felt himself and his attacker slide to a halt, barely a second ahead of a loud *WHAM* as the body of an enormous, bird-like creature crushed the ground where he was, the room shaking from the impact.

"Mmnn... aw, damn it."

He suddenly became aware of the figure that had tackled him, hearing her groan slightly as she crawled off of him and sat up. "Are you okay?"

Kite looked up at BlackRose, momentarily flustered and disoriented as he nodded to her. "I'm fine... I think." Slowly he moved to his feet, gathering his blades in the process; he took a deep breath of air and released it, physically and psychologically rattled by his brush with digital death. Quickly recovering, he smiled at BlackRose, who had yet to stand herself; sheathing a blade, he offered a hand to help her up.

"Thanks," he said, his voice soft and sincere.

With a wink, she took his hand and pulled herself up to her feet. "Don't forget," she started, "you owe me now... partner."

Kite grinned, and began to reply before movement from his right caught his attention; he and BlackRose turned back towards the body of the monster, where Tamon stood, poking it with his spear.

"Is this what you were fighting?" asked the Twin Blade.

Tamon nodded. "That's it, all right. Somebody worked it over but good."

"But there's no one else here," said Stolls, brown eyes darting from one corner to the next, desperately seeking any sign of movement, of life.

"Potential hostiles detected."

The voices came from all corners of the room, echoing deeply; a chorus of cold monotone, piercing falsetto and powerful baritone, all speaking at once and as one.

"Who's there?!" shouted Tamon, spear raised before his face, ready to strike.

"That question cannot be answered. The language necessary to define Delphi as 'who' does not exist."

Kite blinked. "Delphi?"

A bolt of lightning suddenly burst from the creature's body, ending several feet in the air; everyone slowly circled around the body, weapons ready, eyes wide in surprise and curiosity. The bolt swirled and twisted madly above the corpse, which quickly began to dissolve into thin air. A shadowy void began to gather in the thick of the current, slowly spreading and expanding outward to take on a vaguely humanoid form, growing arms, legs, and a head.

As the figure became whole, the bolt vanished, taking with it the remains of the monster; the human-shaped blackness hovered perfectly still for a moment, lines of white computer code occasionally flashing through its 'body'.

"Guys?" called Tamon, visibly unnerved.

"Did you kill that thing?" challenged BlackRose, spreading her feet out to a more balanced, combative stance.

"Negative. The host was attached to this location; it was discarded."

Deisart spoke up, his voice neither calm nor confident. "Run!"

Without warning, the apparition raised an arm skyward, causing a shockwave to erupt in a circle from the center of the room, radiating outward and shaking the entire room. Cries of alarm and panic came from the group as each struggled to stay standing, Tamon failing at this and falling flat on his back, his head bouncing painfully on the floor.

Delphi slowly descended to the ground, approaching Tamon. "Viral scan complete," said the voices; Kite briefly made note of the fact that they did not seem to come from the apparition itself. "Entities... unknown."


With an earth-shaking battle cry, BlackRose charged forward, blade at the ready; a powerful overhead slash was quickly followed up with a horizontal swing, splitting the creature into four parts, lines of visibility drawn through the void by her weapon.

Its right hand, attached to one of the fourths of the creature, sprang to life and gestured to the Heavy Blade, causing a bolt of electricity to arc out towards her. She brought the blade up in a block, deflecting the brunt of the bolt into an explosion which pushed her backwards somewhat, but did no real damage.

Emboldened by her successful attack and subsequent defense, Kite rushed the remains of Delphi, swords at the ready; he met with Deisart, who approached from the other side, and immediately went to work, hacking and slashing expertly at the pitch-black quarters of shadow. Kite found that the creature bore no apparent substance, his blades slicing through the shadowy figure as if he were fighting fog; nevertheless, between his short swords and the Axeman's oversized trademark weapon, the figure was stripped of its humanoid shape, chopped into countless shards by sword and axe alike.

As the Twin Blade and the Axeman disengaged from combat to steady themselves and regenerate spent ability points, a brightly glowing ball of fire snaked deftly between both fighters, igniting the shards of darkness and vaporizing them. With them left the sounds of combat, leaving only heavy breathing, relieved sighs, and Tamon's pained groans as he stood back up.

"What... what just happened?" he asked. "What was that thing?"

Slowly, Kite relaxed, suddenly noticing how tense he was, the muscles of his player clenched and ready for action, despite their obvious lack of necessity. "Did... did we get it?" he asked, his eyes fixed on the spot where Delphi had stood.

"I think so," said BlackRose, stepping forward. "I've... never seen anything like that monster. What was that... that 'Delphi'?"

A single voice spoke, chillingly mechanical and monotone. "Analysis: the purging has failed."

Another voice, high-pitched and lifeless, continued in its stead as everyone frantically scanned the area, searching for a target. "Status: the primary defense system has been compromised by hostile entities."

A third followed, baritone and heavy with bass. "Conclusion: the primary defense system is obsolete."

(What is this?) Kite whipped his head around, his heart pounding. (It's not dead?)

"Suggestion: a vessel for the primary defense system is desirable," said the first.

The second continued. "Warning: all previous vessels were confined to one location."

"Action," began the third, "a different vessel is required."

The voices merged once more to form a singular harmony. "It is so."

Darkness gathered at the center of the room, the humanoid figure of Delphi emerging from the shadows and coalescing into solidity once more. A stream of white code flashed through its 'head', briefly giving the impression of eyes staring out into the group.

(Maybe if I Data Drain it,) thought Kite. (But... what is this thing? 'Primary defense system?') The creature raised its arm once more, and Kite knew another attack was pending; hoping to preempt the strike, he rushed forward, blades at the ready.

As Kite entered within reach of the monster, it sprung into action, ducking down low to avoid a slash to the neck. The apparition quickly dashed behind Kite, arm held high, a tight sphere of energy condensing in its open palm.

(Damn!) he thought, whirling to block the attack; he felt the creature strike him in the back, the energy ball exploding and blasting him off the ground. He flew several feet forward and collided roughly with the floor, half-sliding, half-rolling to a stop before Deisart, standing completely still, as if paralyzed.

He heard BlackRose cry his name, and then the sound of steel whistling through air as the Heavy Blade lunged at Delphi; he cocked his head and watched as Deisart suddenly launched over his prone form and into battle, joining with BlackRose in attacking the shadowy figure, which deftly evaded both of their strikes.

Groaning from an imagined pain, Kite slowly sat up; a flash of fire caught his attention, and he looked up just in time to see a fireball erupt from Stolls' outstretched wand. The Twin Blade gasped loudly as the apparition conjured up its own fireball, which easily deflected the Wave Master's and rocketed unerringly towards him. The ball hit the ground with the force of a wrecking ball, brilliantly exploding and blasting Stolls aside.

Joining the action, Tamon whirled back and, with a mighty grunt, heaved his spear forward; Its attention back on BlackRose and Deisart, the spear flew unnoticed towards the shadow until it hit home, striking a glancing blow to Its side, slicing effortlessly through the blackness and knocking it away. The spear dropped to the floor, ethereal wisps of darkness trailing from its sharpened head.

"Go!" ordered Tamon, who quickly retrieved his spear and faced down the apparition. "Everybody go, now! Get out of here!"

Kite noticed Deisart obediently vanish from sight as his player logged out; half from instinct and half from fear, Kite sprang to his feet and raced to join BlackRose. "Let's go!" he shouted, lashing a hand out to grab hers as his other hand produced a sprite ocarina. Seconds later, shimmering rings of gold encircled them both, dispelling the corrupted dungeon and its occupants from their sights.

A faint sensation of movement encumbered the Twin Blade as darkness filled his vision; he got the vague impression of flying up through a long, dark tunnel, the ground beneath him all but a memory as he drifted in silence. The sharp juxtaposition of being pulled from heavy combat and thrust into pure isolation physically unbalanced Kite, and he instinctively squeezed the hand that held BlackRose's, her body gone from sight but her hand still tangible, perceptible.

Briefly, he felt a faint pressure along his palm and fingers that could have been her squeezing back.

The isolation was just as quickly broken when another image appeared before his eyes - above ground at the field, dungeon mouth at his back and endless rocky terrain at his front. The image stretched and pulled into the third dimension, enveloping him; the golden rings reappeared, finalizing his escape from the dungeon.

A glance right reminded him that BlackRose was there; reluctantly, he released her hand, his eyes meeting hers in a mutual expression of what-the-hell-just-happened. Both her friendly and aggressive demeanors were all but lost, her eyes wide, her lips pursed into a flat line, hinting at the clenched jaw and teeth beneath them.


He turned towards the voice, and saw Deisart standing before him; though his armor hid much of his movement, Kite got the distinct impression that the man inside was shaking.

It was all Kite could do to keep from joining him. "Deisart... what happened? What was that thing?" he asked, anxiety pulling his vocal chords tight and strained, raising his pitch to just beneath an octave. "Where's Stolls and Tamon?"

"I-I... I have to go!" stammered Deisart, the armored figure once again disappearing in a swirl of golden rings. Just before he faded completely from sight, he raised his arms to his head and began violently tugging at his helmet. Kite could almost picture the player performing a similar movement outside of The World.

Struck dumb, the Twin Blade found himself at a loss what to do; he turned to BlackRose, who could only stare back silently, her expression changing from confusion to worry.

(Now what?)
Chapter XVII - Reprieve

A pair of feet beat listlessly against the cobblestone street, leather boots making slight scuffling noises as they were almost dragged along the ground; slowly they drifted into an alley, their owner unconcerned with posture or poise. Around him was the gentle splashing and swirling of water, one of the smaller tributaries from the main river branching off to run parallel to the walkway; the noise amplified as he stepped further into the alley, digital sounds matching their real-life counterparts as they echoed off the dense urban sprawl which now surrounded him.

The noise went unnoticed by the Twin Blade, his eyes fixed straight ahead in a distant expression; he came to a stop as he entered a small cul-de-sac in the alley, surrounded by buildings on all sides save his right - where the river lay - and his back - from where he came. The stream carried with it a gentle breeze, which tugged at his bright red and white outfit, stray fingers of air lightly teasing the spiky teal locks which poked out from beneath his cap.

His thousand yard stare held, a telltale sign that his puppeteer had his eyes elsewhere at the moment, a fact that may have saved the Heavy Blade which approached him a moment of confusion.

"Kite?" called BlackRose, slowly approaching the stalled Twin Blade.

She waited a handful of seconds before addressing him again. "Hey, you there?" She moved to stand in front of him, her voice rising into a shout. "Hello!!"

"Uh?" grunted Kite, his eyes breaking from their absent gaze and finding a more focused pair staring back at him, purplish-red orbs filled with confusion and frustration. "Ah, sorry..." Kite muttered as he came back to himself, his body assuming a more natural pose, "I was checking my mail."

"Still nothing?" asked BlackRose.

Kite shook his head. "Nothing yet. I can't tell if he's online or not... he didn't respond to flash mail, so I tried e-mailing him." He sighed. "I think... something happened to him."

"Something?" She blinked. "Do you mean that... that, whatever it was... uh, Delphi?"

With a shrug, Kite said, "I don't know... I just think they'd tell us if something was going on."

"Urrrgh!" growled BlackRose, stepping to her right and throwing a hard, backhanded punch out at empty air. "Damn it! Now what are we supposed to do?"

"If only we'd gotten some kind of lead... I guess we're back to square one."

She frowned. "That's just great. All that work for nothing, and now who knows what is lurking in that field."

Kite's head lowered a notch; without thinking, his gaze shifted to his right arm. He flinched, briefly. (It's like it doesn't matter what I do,) he thought, failing to notice BlackRose performing a similar motion, head drooped forward slightly, eyes to the ground.

Squeezing his eyes shut, he gave his head another shake, scattering his thoughts long enough to remember a more immediate problem, one evidenced by the sudden rumbling of his stomach.

"Hey," he said, lifting his head to face BlackRose. He made brief note of her posture and sudden bout of silence, but opted against comment. "I'm going to log off for a bit, I need to get something to eat."

"Yeah... okay," she muttered, not looking back.

He paused. Something was definitely off with her, and he had a hunch it wasn't just the events of the past hour. "Are you all right?" he asked, taking a tentative step towards her.

"I'm fine!" she snapped, spinning on her heels and giving Kite a piercing stare; he shivered as her features contorted to one of barely subdued hostility, eyes narrowed, teeth clenched, brow furrowed. A part of him sensed it wasn't her character making the face.

"All right..." he mumbled, raising a hand defensively, backing away. "I'll... see you later, then." He didn't want to leave, but the choice between filling an empty stomach and dealing with the angry Heavy Blade was rapidly tilting in favor of the former. Kite turned away, miming Hiroshi as he reached up to remove the visor, his other hand issuing the logoff command to The World.

Just before the alley faded to black, he heard her voice once more. "Why are you always like that?" she hissed, more to herself but loud enough for him to hear. As he drifted from one World to the next, he pondered whether this was intentional or not.


"Jesus, Max!"

"Son of a bitch... just like those goddamn kids. Son of a bitch!"

"He's still alive. Call an ambulance, now!"



Hiroshi buried his face in his hands and vigorously massaged his eyes with his fingers, forcing them to obey his half-hearted desire to remain conscious. The ambiance of the aqua capital was still fresh in his ears, though it had long since been replaced by the whirr of a microwave to his right, and the chatter of a TV news anchorman to his left.

In many ways, his mind had yet to leave the alley. No small amount of consternation had erupted from their ultimately fruitless encounter with Tamon and his group; Hiroshi suspected that, if anything, things had only gotten worse.

What, exactly, had gotten worse was open to more speculation than the boy was willing to delve into at the moment. More to the point, he had something else on his mind.

(She seemed really angry... it has to be about that thing. Those Bugs... I don't know...)

His head lowered again, sinking beneath his folded arms. He saw the alley once again, the harsh features of BlackRose etched in his memory before he vanished. He had seen her angry before, but mostly it was all a farce, a character trait meant to cover for her otherwise obvious newbie status in The World. For all her cheerful bravado and cutely self-centered behavior, he knew that beneath the thorny exterior was someone not unlike himself. Uncertain, scared, yet striving to find out more, not content with just sitting back and waiting for things to work themselves out.

That's why he trusted her. And that's why her parting comments had stuck with him so. ("Why are you always like that?" Because I'm afraid... I'm afraid of doing the wrong thing.)

(Is that it?) a rebel faction of his thoughts asked.

(Of course it is,) he answered himself. (Isn't it?)

(Perhaps. Or perhaps you're afraid of saying the wrong thing?)

He blinked at his own thoughts. (What?)

The timer on the microwave ticked off its last second, spending the last of its heated radiance against the box of noodles it contained. A loud beep added fanfare to the event, freeing Hiroshi from his dueling thoughts, if momentarily so.

With a groan, he stood up, approaching the microwave. The words of the anchorman caught his ears long enough to sound like complete sentences, though he paid them no heed as he produced his meal from the still-warm innards of the appliance. As he set the box down on the table, questions poured into his mind; he sat down and tumbled them across his thoughts as his silverware-equipped hands went to work on the noodles.

(So, something happened to her about a Data Bug... and those guys are looking into this as well. I wonder how many others are, too?) He winced slightly as he bit into a still-cold noodle, the ineptitude of the aging machine quickly coming to his attention. "Euch," he muttered, dropping the rest of the noodle back in the box and fishing around for another.

(I don't think they knew about that Delphi, though. But then why was it there? Was it waiting for us?)

Once again, the boy found himself with far too few answers for the multitude of questions facing him. Before he could begin to crack just one, the last of his noodles disappeared into the depths of his stomach - including the half-eaten, partially thawed one.

A shake of his head dispelled the sense of futility which naturally accompanied his thoughts, and he nonchalantly tossed the empty box in the garbage. Slight scent and taste of garlic and soy on his lips - or something awfully close - he strode back upstairs, the light from his bedroom shining like a lighthouse into the darkened hallway.

Again, his thoughts wandered, returning to the spat with themselves prior to his meal, playing out a microscopic game of Pong in his mind. (A kind word here and there wouldn't hurt. She has her own problems too.)

(Not that she's bothered to share either with me,) he thought with a sigh. Rebound.

His thoughts immediately bounced back. (Have to give to receive sometimes; maybe she has her reasons.)

He rounded the corner into his room, closing the door behind him. (But what if I say the wrong thing?) he began, paddle scrambling madly into place.

The ball slipped past the paddle. Game, set and match. His thoughts fell silent, paralyzed; he frowned, realizing his earlier self-critique had been right. He WAS afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Feeling a tightness in his arms and legs, he stood up on his toes and raised his arms towards the ceiling, letting out a long, satisfied groan as his muscles stretched and pulled, grateful for the movement after World-induced inactivity. He chuckled. (Well, she's right about one thing, at least,) he thought, recalling one of their first e-mail exchanges. Relaxing, he collapsed back into his desk chair and set his hands at the keyboard.

To his surprise, the e-mail client popped up immediately with a notification, informing him of a new message. His response was as natural as scratching an itch; he opened the client and the message it contained.


From: BlackRose@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Those guys

Something's not right... I just spoke with a Blademaster who said that a Long Arm tried to PK him - he described somebody that sounds like TamonAdillo. So I did some asking around; nobody seems to know who these guys are. Didn't they say they were investigating The World?

I'm meeting with another player soon, at Delta: Expansive Pagan Nothingness. Come by ASAP, I'll fill you in on what I found out.


He smiled. (No rest for the l33t,) he thought with a chuckle, scrolling up to the icon for "The World" and clicking it twice.

Chapter XVIII - Q&A WTF

"So then what happened?"

The Wave Master was typical in appearance; slight of figure and dressed in blue robes, blonde hair mashed down by a brown leather cap, gold facial tattoos framing solid green eyes, wide with worry and animate to say the least. She noticed him constantly glancing left and right, trusting only his eyes to detect the enemy.

"Well," he said, "by the time I caught up with them it was basically over. Got there just in time to see Wallyk's body disappear." He shuddered. "He'd been cut in half."

BlackRose cringed. "Cut in half? What did you do?"

"I tried throwing a spell at him, but he was too quick. A couple seconds and he was practically on top of me." With a frustrated grunt, he added, "Damn tough, too... resistances jacked through the roof. Had to have been, like, level 60 or something. Barely got out alive myself."

She nodded. "Well, he fits the description, but I don't understand why he'd try to PK someone. Did he say anything?"

"No, that's the weird thing. He didn't ask us for anything, just launched into attacking." He paused. "Who is this guy, anyway?"

The Heavy Blade shook her head, tossing a few strands of pink hair about. "I don't know exactly. He said he was investigating all the weird things that have been happening, but..."

He frowned. "Well, I don't know about that... but we sure have never seen him before. I mean, he was at least as powerful as Orca or Balmung... you'd think somebody would know about a PKer that high level running around. Like, uh, what's-his-name... Sora, that's it."

BlackRose closed her eyes, letting out a loud, heavy sigh. "Neither has anybody else I've talked to. It's like he just sprung up out of nowhere." (This doesn't make any sense at all. If he was just a player-killer, then why lead us on like that?)

His eyes twitched. "I better get going. Listen, take my advice: if you see this guy, make a run for it."

The Wave Master vanished in a flash of sliding gold rings, leaving BlackRose alone in the middle of the vast, earthen field, surrounded only by periodic rock formations and the occasional root vegetable, each and every portal since opened by the Heavy Blade to ensure no interruptions.

(If only it were that easy,) she thought, slowly walking up to the nearest boulder and sitting down, leaning back against it. Blade lying on the dirt next to her, she allowed her eyes to drift upward, staring into the murky storm clouds, churning as if trapped in a colossal blender set to liquefy. (Kite better hurry up and get here. I'm not waiting all day for him.)

(Of course,) she continued, (it's not like I have a choice...) She sighed, her purple-red eyes gazing out at the World around her. (Not like any of this is by choice.)

Her thoughts again drifted to her absent compatriot. (At least he knows what I'm going through. I thought I was going crazy at first... a game doing that to Kazu...) She shook her head. (So much is happening, and I don't know what to make of any of it.)

Try as she did, she couldn't deny that what little she had learned, she owed to Kite. The whole of the mystery seemed to center on the bracelet he bore, or at least a large part of it, and somehow she sensed that it, which bore the same power that had harmed her brother, held the key to his recovery.

She remembered feeling a sense of relief when she discovered Kite's motivation for playing. With no one to believe her in reality, it was comforting to know someone in The World did.

A single footstep from beyond the boulder jarred her thoughts. (Finally!) she thought as she retrieved her sword, moving back to her feet. "What took you so long??" she called, circling around to face the new arrival.

She was instantly taken aback as she came face-to-face with Tamon. "Ahh?!" she cried, leaping back into a defensive posture.

The Long Arm paid her no attention, a strangely distant look to his eye. His body made no movements common to players of The World - no breathing, no breathing or change in stance, no evidence at all that the avatar was controlled by a human being. His spear hung loosely from his right hand, threatening to drop at any moment. A gust of wind passed without interruption around his body, his long blonde hair and loose, blue outfit not in the least bit disturbed by its passing.

She blinked. "Tamon? What's going on?"

Upon hearing his name, he blinked, seeming to come back to The World in that instant. His eyes shifted to hers, lifeless, emotionless.

BlackRose narrowed her eyes, pointing a finger at Tamon in accusation. "People have been saying that you're killing players. Is this true?!" she half-shouted. "And what happened with that thing earlier?"

He flinched briefly, almost imperceptively; he gazed up and down her body, memorizing every detail. He blinked again, his eyes suddenly alight in recognition.

"Tagged entity One identified," he said. In a more objective moment, BlackRose might have noticed that the voice he spoke with was not his own. As it were, her eyes zeroed in on the spear in his hand, which he had since tightened his grip on and raised to strike. "String definition: BlackRose," he added, a slight twist to his lips that could have been a smirk or a frown, she wasn't sure which.

"Proceeding with intrusion countermeasures." At this, battle was joined; he lunged at BlackRose, spear at the ready.

The Heavy Blade's reaction was instinctual; she brought her own massive weapon up and clashed blades with the Long Arm, catching the tip of the spear in a firm parry. The harsh grinding of steel against steel filled her ears, and she grunted loudly as she pushed into the block, trying to force Tamon off his balance.

The Long Arm suddenly twisted away to the left, breaking the parry and spinning in a full circle, spear trailing behind him in a wide arc. BlackRose ducked back to avoid the attack, the tip narrowly missing the spiked tip of her arm guard. Spotting an opening, she instantly rushed back in close, bringing her blade high over her head and chopping down hard at Tamon with a mighty growl.

The blonde spearman mimed her evasion, stepping back and avoiding being struck as the blade sailed within inches of his skull. His eyes dropped to the ground, where he drew his spear in a wide sweeping motion, deliberately drawing the weapon down past BlackRose's attempted block and striking at her legs.

The spear connected along the shaft, the blunt edge slamming into the back of her knee and forcing her to buckle but doing far less damage than the attached blade would have. Startled, she leaned back and flailed with her free hand, madly struggling to maintain her balanced, giving Tamon the time he needed to reinforce his swing and follow through, sweeping the Heavy Blade's legs out from under her.

BlackRose fell onto her back with an unceremonious thud, coughing loudly from the sudden impact she couldn't feel, her forced exhalation largely psychological. Her gaze, now facing the murky gray above, was interrupted by a flash of steel as Tamon hefted the spear and brought it down towards her head.

"Damn!" she cried, rolling to her right to escape the attack. She quickly scurried back to her feet, adopting a guarded posture, panting heavily. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a large gash in the ground where her head used to be.

Her illusions collapsed like a house of cards on a waterbed. For her, this battle was all too real.

The glint of steel again caught her eye, but this time she was quicker; with an almost painful "Kiai!" she swung her blade out and connected with the spear, hooking her blade in the junction between the spear tip and the shaft. Using her temporary advantage in leverage, she forced the weapon to the ground, burying the saw-like spearhead into the dirt.

Changing her grip, she prepared to slide the blade free and up the shaft, into a fluid upward slash across his chest. The plan went awry almost immediately, however, when a powerful right hook connected with her jaw, knocking her backwards. Stunned by the blow, she barely saw Tamon follow up with a haymaker, a rock-solid punch that carried through perfectly, throwing her head to the side and with it her body; she spun like a top and coiled away from their entangled weapons, dropping harshly to the ground.

She heard steel slide against steel as her weapon, now separated from her possession, fell away. Her eyes blurred with tears of pain, drowning out the heads-up display, further stripping her of The World as only a virtual reality. Pain turned to anger when she heard footsteps approaching, the shadowy figure of Tamon entering her field of view. She struggled to stand, and watched the Long Arm effortlessly twirl the spear in his hand before raising the weapon to deliver the killing blow.

Instinct taking over, she dove away at an angle, rolling forward and to the left side of Tamon; she heard the whoosh of air as the spear sailed past her head, almost swearing that the razor-sharp edge had taken a lock of hair with it. The blade glanced off her upper arm, breaking skin but deflecting instead of cleaving through, doing damage that could be measured in double digits.

Her gambit paid off; too close to use the spear, too awkward to risk hand-to-hand, Tamon could only turn and face BlackRose as she landed, tucking and rolling away towards her discarded Heavy Blade.

Heart beating frantically, she nonetheless managed a confident smirk as she retrieved her weapon and brought it up to face Tamon. "Is that the best you can do?!" she hollered, bolstering her temporarily weakened morale.

Genuine confidence gave way to obvious facade as the Long Arm charged, moving with almost inhuman speed; the spear swung again and again, wood and steel clashing against the massive length of BlackRose's weapon, barely keeping up with the Tamon's attacks. Finally, his superior speed prevailed, snaking a blow past the Heavy Blade's guard and scoring a hit to her side, a long jagged slash that carried enough force to knock her back several paces.

"Ow!" she cried, stumbling backwards, blade raised warily to parry the next attack. For some reason, the wound was far more debilitating than any other she could recall; she found herself hunched slightly to her left, favoring her injured flank. "Damn it all..." she muttered, warily watching her opponent, who steadily advanced upon her, spear again held high, poised like a cobra ready to sink its fangs into anything that got even close.

A faint whistling suddenly tore through the air, and Tamon lurched violently to his right, doubling over from the force of an unseen blow. As he recovered, BlackRose got a better look; a short sword had embedded itself in the side of his chest, buried almost to the hilt. Tracing from its point of entry, BlackRose followed it back to its owner: a confused, angered, and very familiar-looking Twin Blade, both hands holding his remaining weapon menacingly.

"BlackRose!" shouted Kite; with his remaining blade, he gestured to her, directing an impeccably-timed Ol Repth her way.

The wounds disappeared, and with them their burden; making a mental note to thank Kite later, she immediately returned to her combative instincts and renewed her assault on the stalled Long Arm. An almost animalistic cry shot forth from her lungs as she drew her blade across in a powerful horizontal chop; Tamon attempted a block, but was easily bested as the blade knocked the spear aside, cleaving a huge gash across his abdomen.

Stricken, Tamon reeled backwards; before either player could advance, a set of golden rings appeared from the air and spilled over his body, causing him to vanish from sight. The imbedded short sword, now free from its fleshy roots, clattered to the ground with a dull thump.

Gasping for breath, exhausted and spent, she flipped her blade over and buried the tip in the ground, giving it a proper base to stand as she leaned heavily against it. A deep sigh escaped her lips, followed with a hacking cough as her pulse slowly relaxed.

She had almost forgotten about the Twin Blade when he spoke again, now quite near her. "BlackRose, are you all right? What happened?"

She wanted to say 'Yeah, I'm okay. Thanks.' She would've settled for, 'I'm fine.' What actually came out surprised her more than him. "What does it look like?! That guy Tamon tried to kill me!" (Oh, crap!) she thought as soon as the words left her mouth. (I didn't mean to come off like that...)

Before she could properly express herself, Kite had spoken again. "I'm sorry I took so long. Are you okay?" he asked again, now visibly concerned.

Thanking the nearest god for a second chance, she nodded, straightening up and pulling her blade loose from the ground. "I'm fine... he got a few lucky hits, but it's not too bad." Again, there was more she wanted to say, but a trace of her character's trademark pride got the best of her.

He smiled. "Well, I'm glad you're okay." The smile instantly vanished when he remembered why he had come in the first place. "So, what happened? And what did you find out?"

BlackRose closed her eyes, drawing a long breath of air through her nose. She held it for a moment, and then released it, finally feeling her heartbeat drop to some semblance of normality. "Maybe we should take this conversation somewhere safer." Her eyes opened again. "I'll open up a chatroom. Look for my name; I'll put yours as the password."

Kite nodded. He sheathed his blades and offered a quick, "See you there," before logging off, the red-clad Twin Blade vanishing in the traditional fashion.

Left by herself once more, she threw a glance at the spot where she and Tamon had dueled; her eyes fell to the gash in the dirt where Tamon's spear had nearly killed her. Another sigh, this one shaky and strained; she turned away and issued the command to log off.

"Thanks, Kite," she whispered as The World vanished from her eyes.
Chapter XIX - Silent Truth

*Kite has joined #RoseRoom*

>Kite: Hello?

>BlackRose: One sec.

Hiroshi nodded to no one in particular, waiting for BlackRose to start. His mind fired off question after question - a disposition he felt disturbingly accustomed to - and they all were variants of "what just happened" and "what the hell is going on". Reclining back in his desk chair, he folded his arms across his chest and kicked his feet up on the desk, replaying their encounter with the homicidal Long Arm.

(That was Tamon, all right... I guess the rumors were true. So what does this mean?)

>BlackRose: Ready?

>Kite: Go ahead.

>BlackRose: I spoke with a couple of people who claimed that Tamon was PKing. One of them left just before Tamon showed up in that field.

>Kite: I see... well, it seems they were telling the truth, but how does that fit in with earlier?

>BlackRose: I don't know. But that's not the half of it. It looks like these guys are pretty high-level; the Wave Master I talked to said they were at least 60.

>Kite: Really?

>BlackRose: Which makes me ask two questions: first, what were level 60 characters doing on Delta server? I know they said they were investigating, but it still seems awfully low-level.

>Kite: And second?

>BlackRose: How did they get so high so fast?

>Kite: So fast? What do you mean?

>BlackRose: Well... this is kind of a guess, but everyone I've talked to has said that they don't remember seeing Tamon around, at least not until recently.

Hiroshi blinked. He read the glowing text again. "So what's she saying?"

>BlackRose: I'm not sure, but I think either they powerleveled for a while - which would be quite a trick seeing as Lambda server didn't open until a couple days ago - or they're hacked characters.


>Kite: Hacked? You mean like Helba?

>BlackRose: Honestly, I don't know.

>Kite: Well, let's stick to what we do know for now. And right now, that's Tamon's gone nuts, and I haven't seen or heard from his party either.

>BlackRose: Right. But something's definitely fishy about this. I mean, that creature was there and all, but...

>Kite: Yeah... I wish I could get ahold of Stolls or Deisart. Maybe they could tell us more. Did you find out anything else?

>BlackRose: No, that's pretty much it.

The screen vanished as Hiroshi hung his head, massaging his temples. The constant staring at a screen was finally starting to get to him, adding a subtle, yet constant pressure to his head and eyes that grew into a full-fledged headache. His eyes still shut, his hands fell back to the keyboard seemingly of their own volition, index fingers grazing the small divots on the F and J keys.

>Kite: Hey, listen, I'm gonna lie down for a while. Got a bit of a headache, I'll be back in a little bit.

His eyes opened again, revealing to him the one word he hadn't expected to see.

>BlackRose: Wait.

His interest piqued, he sat up straight and resumed typing.

>Kite: What is it?

He couldn't help but idly bounce one leg on the ball of his foot, curious and perplexed as to her imminent response. Seconds passed with a graceful subtlety, the ticking of his room clock masked by the continuous whirring of the fan. The seconds became a full minute, and then another; he got the impression that his companion was repeatedly typing and hitting Backspace.

After the longest three minutes of the evening, Hiroshi got his response.

>BlackRose: Thank you... for helping me earlier.

Hiroshi read the statement six times in one glance. (It's a start,) he thought as a small smile crossed his lips, hands instantly at work responding to her.

>Kite: Anytime... partner :-)

>BlackRose: :-)

With that, he took his cue and left, signing off and powering down his machine. Rubbing his eyes thoroughly, he stumbled out of his chair and over to his nearby bed, where he collapsed with a deep, satisfied groan. Sleep followed him shortly, a dreamless blanket of comfort and relief that ceased the throbbing in his skull and stole away every one of his troubles, if only for a while. Through it all, a single image remained burned into his mind, a smiley that spoke words he knew the speaker was too shy for.


From: Stolls@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Let's talk

I don't know what Tamon has or hasn't told you, but we're out of options. I'll tell you whatever you want to know, but we need your help. For real this time.

Delta, Bursting Passed Over Aqua Field. One hour.


"So, that's all he said?"

Kite nodded. "Yeah. He didn't say anything about Tamon PKing, or that Delphi thing. I don't know..."

BlackRose sighed and shook her head. "I'm getting a little tired of saying that. Or hearing it."

That got a chuckle out of Kite, albeit a weak one. "Me too."

"Still," she said, "I guess that does sum up what we've done so far. I mean," she made a vague gesture with her arm, "we really don't know anything about what's going on, do we?"

"No, not really," he admitted. "I guess all we can do is just keep trying, huh?"


A soft breeze drew a steady rustling through the air, long blades of grass twisting and shivering in the wind. Above, the sun shone merrily as it hung in the blue sky, adding light, but not warmth, to the expansive, rolling hills and grasslands of the field. As the breeze subsided, the Heavy and Twin Blades were left to the increasingly common sounds of silence.

Kite sank back into his earlier bout with his own thoughts, mulling over whether to break the silence or not.

(Should I say something?) he wondered. (What should I say? I owe her for finding out about Tamon and the others... to say the least, but...)

(But nothing. You're just scared.)

(Of course I'm scared! You only have to say the wrong thing once!) He frowned.

(And what makes you think she wouldn't appreciate a genuine compliment or two? Do you remember the last time you paid her one?)

His thoughts stopped cold. Not from his own persuasiveness, but from the rather deep sigh that came from his companion.

"What's wrong?" he asked, turning to face her.

BlackRose shook her head. "It's nothing."

"C'mon," he urged. "We'll be here for a little while longer anyway. What's on your mind?" he asked again, offering her a reassuring smile.

"Well, it's just..." she began, turning her head away slightly. Her stance shifted, one foot sliding behind the other, hands clasped behind her back.

Kite leaned forward a little, trying to maintain eye contact. There was a certain defensiveness to her new posture that was mimicked in her expression, her eyes back to their typical friendly liveliness, yet with a hint of a hidden smile just beneath them. She appeared to be about an inch away from a blush.

The expression didn't last; her face flattened, turning back to face Kite. It became obvious that a silent decision had been made, and it was in neither of their favors. "I'm just a little tired of all the mystery," she said. "I want to find some real answers, find out what's going on here."

He had a strong hunch that wasn't what she wanted to say, a condition he related to quite well. "Yeah," he replied, quietly, not sure which statement to which he was replying; what she had said, or what she had not. "Me too."

(So much for saying the wrong thing,) he thought. (Not like either of us can get a word out about it...)

(About *what*? What is it you want to say to her that's so important?)

(I don't know.) He sighed. (I don't think I ever asked myself that...)

(But what if she's thinking the same thing?) his thoughts insisted. (What if she's not just sticking around because you two have the same agenda?)

(Look, just stop!) His eyes darkened, unbeknownst to him. (I have enough to worry about... Yasuhiko, that Skeith thing, and now Delphi and Tamon, and who knows what else... and I still don't have any idea what's going on! And... and on top of that... the only player who knows... who I think knows... and I...)

No answer. His sense of sound overruled his dueling thoughts, approaching footsteps causing his ears to perk up.

"Who is it?" he asked, looking up and around.

"There," said BlackRose. "It's him."

Following BlackRose's gaze, he spotted the gray-clad Wave Master, standing alone in the center of the field. He looked around carefully for a moment, eyes searching the horizon as he nervously tapped his staff against the ground.

"Stolls!" called Kite, raising a hand and waving to get his attention.

(Now we'll see what's really going on here,) he thought as Stolls neared, a slight, out-of-place smile on his lips.

Chapter XX - Intermezzo Two

"Jesus, lady! What's the matter with you?!"

No sooner had the gray-clad, silver-haired Wave Master stepped into range of BlackRose's massive weapon than he found himself face to face with the pointy end of it. Her expression was stern and suspicious, her eyes narrowed and brow furrowed.

While possessed with no particular hatred for Stolls, Kite found himself in a similarly less than amiable mood, reflected in the uncharacteristic coldness behind his eyes. Something very wrong was going on, and he made a silent vow to himself that he'd get to the bottom of it.

"Why'd your friend come after us?" challenged BlackRose, grazing the Wave Master's jaw with the tip of her blade.

Stolls blinked, clearly puzzled by the question. "What? Wait... what are you talking about?"

The Heavy Blade's questioning stare grew hostile. "Don't play dumb!" she shouted. "Your friend attacked me earlier tonight, the Long Arm."

His light green eyes widened as glanced back and forth between Kite and BlackRose. "Tamon?" he asked, a subtle disbelief in his tone. "He... attacked you?"

Kite nodded. "I found out about it before you e-mailed me," answered the Twin Blade. "Why did he attack her?"

"Look, man," said Stolls, visibly disturbed or frustrated, Kite couldn't tell which. "I don't know who or what you two saw, but Max... Tamon's player, he's in the hospital right now, comatose."


Kite instantly glanced over at BlackRose; her harsh glare had vanished into a bemusedly blank expression, and she gave a slight shake of her head, her blade lowering. "But... I saw him... he attacked me." She turned back to Stolls. "It was him, I recognized him!"

To her surprise, Stolls glared back; his character's youthful eyes grew aged and steely in an instant, his voice conveying a strict no-nonsense attitude. "Hey, I just got back from the hospital an hour ago," he said, "he's been a goddamn vegetable since that thing got to him."

(That thing... Delphi? It got to him, and... oh no, maybe it was...) Kite's half-thoughts spurred him to speak one of them. "Was he... data drained?" he asked, taking a step forward as BlackRose fell silent, eyes averted.

Stolls wrinkled his eyebrows, peering quizzically at Kite. "Data drained? Well..." he trailed off for a moment, rubbing his chin with his free hand. "Before I got disconnected, the... it did something to him. I wasn't sure what..."

Kite nodded. (Him, too...) "My friend... Yasuhiko, the same thing happened to him. Skeith data drained him." His throat clenched for a moment as he gestured east, pointing to the stairs leading into the dungeon. "Right down there. And the next day, I found out... he'd been put in a coma."

He only half-heard Stolls' reply, his eyes still staring at the passage, into the inky blackness beyond the archway. "Yeah. Yeah, that's... that's what happened. He went into a coma right after that Delphi thing attacked him."

Kite's head drooped slightly, recalling the incident which had occurred beneath his very feet; the shocked expression on Orca's face as he uselessly struck at the monster, his terrified scream as the skeletal 'phase' literally rewrote the code which formed him, to the extent that the player himself was somehow struck down.

"But I know it was him," said BlackRose. "More than that, he recognized me."

The Twin Blade snapped back to attention at BlackRose's voice, facing the other two. "There was another player," said Stolls slowly, again rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Supposedly he couldn't log out, and played outside the boundaries of System Administration. At the same time he was in The World, his player was in a coma."

"I remember hearing something about that," said BlackRose. "The character was alive in The World, independent of the player. I think his name was... Tsu... Tsukasa, maybe?"

(A player trapped in The World... how could that be? How could any of this be possible??)

"Right," said Stolls. "That might be the case here... but the question is, why hasn't he contacted us? And for that matter, why'd he attack you?"

Something clicked in Kite's mind; recalling BlackRose's earlier queries, he tilted his head to the Wave Master. "Stolls," he said, scratching the back of his neck, "who are you guys?"

Stolls was apparently thrown off by the question, replying with a confused "Huh?"

BlackRose leveled her gaze at Stolls, her eyes again held traces of suspicion. "I did some asking around. Nobody I've spoken to has seen you around more than a week ago, and you told Kite you know about Skeith and the Data Bugs." She paused for emphasis, then added, "Why did you want Kite to help stop that creature? And why are you interested in these things?"

Stolls waited for a few seconds before replying, an obvious hesitation to his words. "Well, I said I'd tell you everything, and I will." He inhaled long and slow, and exhaled likewise. "Tamon, Deisart and I were hired by a rival company to hack into CC Corporation's mainframe and steal data."

Kite blinked. "You guys are hackers?"

He nodded, and idly toed the ground with his shoe. "Sort of. My name's Dean... I'm a private investigator. Deisart is Shinji, he used to work for Cyber Connect. And Max, or Tamon as you know him, he works with the company that hired us. The deal is we get the data for them, and they pay us $50,000 each."

Somewhere between curious and nervous, Kite spoke again. "What kind of data is it?"

"I don't know for sure," admitted Stolls with a shake of his head. "They said it's accounting data, but just tonight CC sent some guys after us. Turns out, they were following us, and sent Delphi in to attack us in The World."

BlackRose's jaw dropped, her eyes widening in an incredulous stare. "They SENT that thing?!"

Stolls nodded. "Yeah. They're trying real hard to protect the data, whatever it is... that's why I don't think it's accounting data at all."

(So that's it,) thought Kite. (But what does that have to do with me?) He voiced the thought, silently pondering whether he wanted to hear the answer.

"Do either of you know about the test version of The World? The one that came out before the retail version?" A nod from both Kite and BlackRose prompted Stolls to continue. "Well, they kept a backdoor directly through their mainframe onto what would become the Delta server, y'know for maintenance access and stuff. When they updated everything for retail, they never removed the backdoor. So, we need a hacker to break through the firewall around it; of course, this is accessible only through The World, so twiddling bits wouldn't cut it."

Hiroshi felt Stolls' eyes on him, through his avatar. "That's why we needed you, Kite. We needed your help to hack through the firewall so we could access their mainframe. That's it."

A breeze stole through the air, rustling the grass; Kite began to speak but said nothing, struck speechless. (They wanted me to help them steal,) he thought. (To use my gate hacking ability to... they were going to use me.) He glanced up at BlackRose, who merely gazed back, a sorrowful yet unfamiliar look in her eye. She fidgeted, but said nothing.

"I'm sorry," said Stolls, his voice quiet and subdued. "I didn't want to drag you guys into this. We didn't have any choice, though... we need to get the data by Sunday." A hint of exasperation poured into his speech, raising the pitch somewhat. "Max is in the hospital, big guys with guns are after Shinji and me..."

He stopped on a dime, turning away and staring at nothing. "What was that?" he asked.

"What is it?" asked BlackRose, one eyebrow crooked.

Stolls blinked, then breathed a sigh of relief. "It's Shinji," he said. "Shin, in here!" Ten seconds later, he broke into a grin and said, to empty air, "My thoughts exactly. You all right?"

Realizing the Wave Master was conversing with someone out of The World, Kite turned to BlackRose. "Well, what do we do?" he asked.

Her eyes twitched, frustration briefly visible in the wine-colored orbs. "You're asking me? I don't know! These guys are thieves and they tried to use us, but..."

"...they're still in the same situation that we are, now," Kite finished for her. "And with that thing around, well..."

She sighed. "I guess we don't have much choice. If that thing found me here, it'll eventually track us down again."

"You're right." Kite glanced at Stolls, still chatting with an invisible person, before turning back to the Heavy Blade. "At least we'll do better against it together. And maybe we'll find out more about what's going on if we help them."

"I'm still not sure, though," said BlackRose. "I mean, they are thieves after all... but I guess Cyber Connect isn't so innocent either, huh?"

Kite nodded. "That's what I think, too."

"Hang on, I'll log out. Get in here and tell them all you know about it, maybe..."

"We'll do it."

Stolls jumped, surprised, and faced the two Blades. "Uh... what?" he asked.

Kite cocked his head at BlackRose briefly, and smiled as he saw her head bob up and down in an affirmative nod, pinkish-white locks swaying slightly over her eyes. "We'll help."

"Are you sure?" asked Stolls. "Once you're in this..."

"We're already in this," BlackRose interrupted. "If Kite's in," she said, stealing a glance at the Twin Blade, "I'm in."

Kite swore he saw a suspicious glint in the Heavy Blade's eye before she turned her head away; regardless, he smiled again, silently appreciative of her help.

"All right," said Stolls. He glanced over his shoulder, addressing his unseen companion. "Shin... it's on."


"I'm going to save," said BlackRose from the top of the stairs. "I'll be right back!"

Stolls nodded to the Heavy Blade as she hastily departed, leaving Kite with the Wave Master as they descended the stairs towards the item shop. "Good thinking," he said. "Kite, let's save, too, after we pick up some items."

Kite stepped up to the shop counter and hailed the salesman, an NPC bearing remarkable resemblance to the others on Delta server. "Do you really think this is going to be dangerous?" he asked, picking out as many healing and recovery potions as he could carry. (Somehow, I don't think this is the kind of stuff that will help against him... but I guess it's better than nothing.)

"I honestly don't know. Better to be on the safe side, just in case." Kite could hear the doubt in his voice, but guessed that the Wave Master/thief's thoughts fell along the same lines as his.

"Mmm." He purchased a few more of the obligatories - sprite ocarinas, fairy orbs, and fortune wires - before he turned back to his new companion.

"Interesting," said Stolls, his eyes loosely casing the main canal, a small smile on his lips.

"What is it?" asked Kite, stepping away from the counter and rejoining Stolls.

"Hmm?" The gray-robed Wave Master glanced at Kite. "Oh, sorry... just admiring the view," he said, still smiling. "You got everything?"

"I think so." Kite found himself smiling, remembering his own first impressions of The World, however short-lived they were. "I know how you feel, I was a little overwhelmed myself when I started playing."

A gentle laugh escaped Stolls as he stood up, away from the wall on which he was leaning. "My first online RPG. Was always more a shooter fan, myself."

The blue-haired Twin Blade fell into step beside Stolls as they headed for the stairs, offering a nod as they walked.

For Kite's part, the din of the aqua capital wasn't enough to break the feeling of isolation; keeping pace alongside the Wave Master, he spoke up. "So," he started, quickly scrambling for a question. "Why can't you guys go to the police? I mean, if these guys are after you..."

Stolls sighed. "That's... kind of a long story," he said, head tilting downward as he climbed the stairs; Kite noticed his steps were more laborious than before, slowed by an unseen weight which Kite suspected had something to do with the current subject. "But in a nutshell, each of us has priors... that's kind of why they hired us," Stolls continued.

"What do you mean?" He peered curiously at Stolls, trying to make eye contact; he followed close behind as the older man reached the top of the stairs and headed for the bridge, where he leaned against the railing, peering out over the canal once again.

"Max... the guy you know as Tamon, he brokered the deal between us and the company because each of us had been convicted of something. In my case..." his voice grew weak, and he paused to steady himself, swallowing loud enough for Kite to hear. "I was a cop. They hired me for security... and I got put away for taking bribes."

(He took bribes?) thought Kite. (That means...)

"That's the whole point though," said Stolls. "This job isn't exactly on the up-and-up, y'know? Company policy can't officially sponsor one of their business agents hiring people to steal from another company." He shook his head, giving stray locks of silver hair a light jostling. "Hence... we have no credibility. Going to the cops would make all our lives worse in the long run."

(So... that's what this is all about. These guys really are criminals.) Kite fidgeted, his voice paralyzed with the realization that neither Stolls nor his companions were on the right side of the law.

"I don't blame 'em, though," Stolls continued, seemingly speaking into air now, almost oblivious to the Twin Blade's presence. "It's what they had to do, I would've done the same." His tone grew rueful, bitter. "It's business, it's politics; that's all." He chuckled, this one dry and a little forced. "Y'know, heh... Max found me in an LA Times want ad. I never met either of those two before coming to Japan."

His head angled up into the sky, a distant look in his eyes. "It was all so simple."

The silence returned, throwing Kite headfirst into his clashing thoughts. (I knew they were thieves, but this... what does this mean?)

Kite sighed; he instantly recalled every moment of his past that had even remotely tested his resolve to be the good little boy his parents wanted, all standing in sharp contrast to every action he'd taken since first logging on to The World.

(It means there's something bigger going on here, and both of you know it.)

All thrown away since the loss of his best friend. None of it mattered now; he was Kite, the outlaw player with the bizarre bracelet that broke all the rules, and now he was about to break a few in the world he'd come from.

(But can I really trust him?) Hiroshi wanted to know.

"Can I ask you a question?"


Kite hesitated. He steeled his nerves and balled his fists. Set his eyes in the most neutral expression he could manage, eyes curious but not accusative, jaw set but not clenched. "Did you really do it?"

A long, deep sigh, head lowered, eyes closed, shoulders sagged. He then stood up straight, turned and faced Kite, a look in his eyes that instantly shattered Kite's stoic resolve, a trace of old ghosts that had yet to release their hold on him.


One word, and it was enough; Stolls turned away, back to the canal, to the railing. His hands gripped it tightly, his eyes no longer visible. The look remained with Kite, however, and it shook him for a moment before he realized what it meant.

(He trusts you.)

It was enough. Kite slowly stepped up to Stolls, fright and neutrality now alien to his face, nothing left except for what he hoped was understanding, compassion, sympathy for this man who had done the crime, done the time, and, in many ways, had yet to leave his cell.

"Dean," said Hiroshi, addressing the player.

The word instantly got the Wave Master's attention; he turned to Kite once again, subtle surprise on his face as he noticed Kite's expression. Understanding crept across his features, and his eyes lightened, just a little. He smiled.

"Let's go," he said with a nod.

Together, they turned towards the broadway once more, and headed for the Save Point, where BlackRose stood, apparently trading with another adventurer.

Stolls eyed the Heavy Blade curiously. "So, what's her story?"

"BlackRose?" Kite cocked his lips in a puzzled smirk. "To be honest, I'm not so sure. She said she was new to The World, too, when I came in, but... she got mad when we encountered a Data Bug." He furrowed his brow as his mind called up their first trip to the bizarre cathedral at Hidden Forbidden Holy Ground; at any other time, he would've chuckled at the dichotomy of her reaction to the first monster they encountered, and the Data Bug itself. "Said something like, "It's you, I'll kill you!" and started attacking."

The Twin Blade scratched the top of his head through his cap, the avatar copying the action of Hiroshi as his fingers clawed at persistant itch. "She helped me a lot when I was trying to find out about Aura and Skeith... she even came with me to stop him."

"Sounds like a good friend if I ever heard one."

Hiroshi couldn't stop himself from smiling. (I guess she has done an awful lot for me... I really should try to be nicer to her. I wouldn't have made it this far without her help, either. Yeah, she can be kind of annoying sometimes, but still...)

"Yeah," he said quietly, his tone more than a little wistful, his eyes trained on the shapely, animate Heavy Blade. "She is."

"You like her?"

The second he heard the question, he knew he should've seen it coming; the subtle emphasis on 'like' caught his ear exactly as it was intended, and he found his face turning a lighter shade of red as he turned away, both players now stopped just off the bridge. "Well..." he mumbled, trailing the L for a second, idly wringing his hands as he leaned back, assuming a cautious, vaguely shy posture.

He heard the grin in Stolls' voice, and he wasn't sure whether it was Stolls himself, or the man controlling him. "You should ask her out sometime, man."

"Uh??" His eyes went wide, staring at the ground; he fidgeted and stammered back, "I-I don't know, what if..." he began, his mind already at work generating the Grand List of Pointless Excuses to Never, Ever Approach a Girl, Especially You-Know-Who (patent pending).

He saw the shadow of Stolls shake his head, silencing him. When he spoke, his voice was neither playful nor serious, merely kind and soft. "She likes you, Kite, I can tell. She'd have to to stick by you through all this, if even half of what you told me is true."

Kite slowly lifted his head, glancing up at Stolls. For all his inconsistent behavior - from haunted ex-cop to Wave Master-cum-matchmaker - Kite couldn't deny any of the detective's statements, nor could he fault his perception. Still, he could say nothing.

His face fell into a friendly smile. "Sometimes, you just have to forget about the 'what ifs'. Let's leave it at that. C'mon."

With that, the two made their way up the broadway towards the chaos gate, where a haughty-looking BlackRose stood, impatiently tapping her foot.

Kite smiled once more. (Why not?)

Chapter XXI - Unauthorized Access

The field changed once more. Mac Anu faded into distant memory as the rings fell before his eyes, drawing him into a wide, barren field. His party materialized on both sides of him, joining him in observing the empty field around them.

Devoid of all but the earth beneath their feet, the field stretched off well beyond the horizon; the lack of any rock, tree or distinguishing feature in the terrain only enhanced the fact that the sky was equally empty, a clear navy blue with not a visible star, despite the lack of any cloud cover whatsoever. No ambient noise greeted their ears, which was accented by the fact that air was almost perfectly still, stale and stagnant, as if undisturbed for years.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" asked BlackRose, throwing a look at Stolls.

The Wave Master gave the field careful scrutiny, searching for anything even remotely out of place. "Delta, Zero Optional Spire. This is it, all right..." He craned his neck slightly, listening to the voice only he could hear - that of his real-world partner, Shinji. After a few seconds, he nodded. "Right... this isn't a regular field. Supposed to be Admin only; guess they forgot to decorate."

"It wasn't locked, either," said Kite, recalling mild surprise that such a field had been left open, if hidden from normal view, its keywords exposed only by Shinji's hacking. "Do they even know about this?" he asked, wondering how the company could have forgotten about such a 'feature' of their own product - a question he quickly dropped in light of his own set of circumstances.

"No idea," replied Stolls with a shake of his head. "Clearly, they didn't remove it... or couldn't. Somebody left it open." He squinted. "And those guys seemed to know... damn, maybe they're expecting us?"

Kite absently dug through his pocket and produced the fairy's orb he'd bought. (Maybe there's something else here,) he thought as he held it aloft. A flash of light briefly obscured his vision, consuming the orb and transmitting the information directly to his player's visor.

"Hmm," he muttered, blinking twice. "Well, there's no portals. But... wait."

Though no obvious portals or dungeon entrances appeared on the map, a gentle pulsing sensation appeared in his mind, as if drawing him in a seemingly random direction - not unlike a portal, but far too weak. Not visible on the map, but despite the lack of a guide he somehow knew where it was... whatever 'it' was. As the location grew more definite, he briefly wondered if it was Delphi.

"What is it?" asked BlackRose.

The location grew into a specific point, and it pulled Kite's eyes to it like a magnet. He pointed in the direction of the disturbance. "There! There's something this way."

"I don't see anything," said Stolls. "Let's get a closer look."

Kite took the lead, breaking into a jog towards the point in his head, Stolls and BlackRose following close behind. He tried hard to focus on the sensation tugging on his mind, but the bleak and blank field offered little to ease his growing concerns. He was all too grateful when the disturbance grew near, and he slid to a stop and began tracing the empty air carefully with his eyes.

"It's around here somewhere," he said. "Almost like a portal, but different." His eyebrows creased in confusion. "Faint."

"I can't see a thing."

"Me neither," concurred Stolls. After a nod, he added, "He says the firewall's right here, that must be what you're sensing. Can you open it?"

The Twin Blade took in a deep breath, steadying himself. "I'll try," he said as he stepped forward, raising both hands. He gingerly caressed the air, searching for the precise direction to aim his data drain. Centering on where the pulsing felt strongest, he took two steps forward and flattened one hand, bracing it with the other.

The dead sky was split by a burst of light; calling up the hacking ability, Kite kept his eyes trained on the invisible target before him, ignoring the crystalline shards which began to form around his outstretched wrist. The shards began to spin, causing ripples of force to shake his body and sending more bursts of light and static through the field.

(Come on,) he thought, feeling whatever it was that blocked the object from his sight begin to melt away. (Just a little more...) He grit his teeth, planting his feet firmly in the ground as another shockwave rattled his body, causing the field to explode in a photo negative of itself.

"Almost... got it..." Kite grunted, the spinning shards a blur as they angled outward, directed at the point he willed them towards.

One last burst of light rocked the area, causing the entire field to vanish instantly. Ground and sky disappeared from around them, leaving all three standing in an empty field of white. The sole noise to be heard was of Kite panting, his beating heart almost audible to his companions.

He heard Stolls murmur in amazement, heard his cloak rustle as he spun around rapidly, taking in this new development with no small measure of shock.

The shock became mutual when Kite sensed someone behind him, detected a hand on his shoulder without feeling it. He heard his name, and jumped slightly, startled; remembering the voice's owner, he turned to her and nodded.

"I'm fine," he said quietly, a soft sigh following quickly afterwards. "I... think that did it."

"Were you able to open it?" asked Stolls.

Kite scratched the back of his neck. "I think so... it was a lot like a gate, but..."

"One sec," Stolls interjected, turning away from Kite and BlackRose, who exchanged blank looks. "What's up?" he asked. He then broke into a grin and shouted, "Yes!"

Kite peered quizzically at Stolls, who turned back around and said, "We're in." His grin changed to a smile, and he nodded to the young Twin Blade. "Nice job, Kite. Shin, let's get the data and get outta here."

BlackRose let out a relieved sigh. "That was easier than I thought it'd be."

"Same here," said Kite. (Almost too easy,) he thought. With a hidden smile, he added, (Of course, it always looks too easy in the movies...)

The Wave Master rose up on his toes as he stretched, letting out a loud groan in the process. "Mmm... says it'll be about five minutes. Might as well get comfy."

(Comfy.) He glanced again around the white nothingness that now formed the field, at the empty space where even a ground should have been. (Right...) Slowly he descended into a seated position, legs folded under his knees, forming a small circle with the other two in his party.

"So, what do we do next?"

Stolls leaned backwards, propping himself up on his arms. "Well, for starters we find out just what this stuff is. Like I said, I don't think it's accounting data, it just doesn't add up." He tilted his head back, gazing up into nothingness. "Of course, we also need to get the goons off our back. With the data, maybe we can force them to cut a deal."

"They tried to kill you," said BlackRose. "What makes you think they'd try to deal?" After a second's pause, she added, "And aren't you supposed to give that to the company that hired you?"

Kite flinched briefly, attempting to tighten his hands into fists, his fingers instead digging into the solid whiteness beneath him. He remembered what Stolls had told him, about armed corporate thugs trying to kill both him and his partner.

(This is too big... too much.) He sighed. (What if they come after me?)

"First, despite all appearances, they're corporate; I know these guys, they'll bargain if they think we've something to bargain with. Second... we're mercenary." He mimed Kite's action, scratching his fingers against the intangible ground. "If our employer lied to us, then I won't feel too guilty about selling Cyber Connect's own data back to it."

Kite looked up at Stolls, joining BlackRose in watching as he continued, his voice growing heavier. "Look, it's not as simple as good guys and bad guys. This isn't about honor, or morals, or justice, or any of that." He sighed, deeply and slowly, his head lowering and shoulders sagging. "I'm sorry... me, Max, Shin, we're all in this for the money. That's what it's all about. That's all it's ever been about," he finished, his voice nearly a whisper.

"We're thieves," he added, an afterthought and an admission of guilt rolled into one.

Kite's eyes left Stolls and wandered over to BlackRose, only to find her staring back at him questioningly.

A private message sifted down over his eyes, its sender obviously unwilling to voice the message aloud: what are we doing?

Hiroshi looked away from her eyes, the window containing her question drifting away towards the corner of his HUD. He swallowed hard, once again faced with the fact that he was helping men break the law.

(It's all too big.) Not for the first time, he wanted someone to tell about this, and the only person he could was in no position to be spoken to aloud, not while Stolls was near.

Movement drew his attention back to Stolls, whose head was now lifted, with eyes open and alert. "Shin?" he called. "Everything all right?"

A familiar noise crackled through the empty field, air swirling, metal clinking; someone was approaching, and fast. Kite's eyes went skyward as a shadow of a man suddenly appeared in the brilliant white void. "Dean!" he cried, scrambling away from the descending silhouette. "Look out!"

Stolls narrowly dodged as the figure descended, a steel-tipped, razor-edged spear striking where he had been sitting.

Kite's eyes went wide as the tall, athletic figure of Tamon became visible, spear raised menacingly at Stolls, who stared back at him, jaw slack and eyes wide.

"Max," he whispered.

"Protected sector compromised," said Tamon, speaking with the trio of voices that all too readily identified him as someone else. SomeTHING else. "Tagged entities Zero, One, and Three identified."

A second passed, and then another, before Kite could draw the appropriate conclusion; the voices registered with his memory, their lifeless harmony sounding far too similar to another he remembered to be anything but.

Stolls voiced the thought first. "Delphi," he muttered, meeting the steely gaze of the Long Arm with one of his own. "Shinji, how much more time?" His eyes narrowed, taking a firm grip on his wand. "All right then."

One voice spoke, the baritone; "Warning: theft in progress."

The second continued in its place as Tamon stepped forward, a piercing falsetto. "Suggestion: tagged entities Zero, One, and Three are responsible."

"Action," began the third, chillingly monotone. "Termination of tagged entities is desirable."

The voices came together to speak once more. "It is so," they said as their puppet leaped towards Stolls, spear at the ready.

"Haaaaaah!" yelled Stolls as he dove and rolled away from Tamon, spear again just missing the Wave Master. He quickly got to his feet and raised his wand high.

Before Kite could join the fray, a wide length of steel cut in a long arc towards Tamon, clipping his upper back and pulling him away from Stolls. BlackRose immediately followed up with a powerful overhead swing, but the Long Arm was ready this time, and brought his spear up horizontally to block it.

"Remember me?!" shouted BlackRose, a confident, contemptuous smirk on her face.

Spotting an opening, Kite leapt into action, blades flying. He swung high at the tip of Tamon's spear, shattering the parry between him and BlackRose and opening him up for a backhanded slash with the second blade.

Tamon narrowly dodged, ducking back and deflecting another strike from BlackRose; quickly learning from his earlier mistake, he stepped out of the block just in time to repel Kite's attack as he closed in once more.

Several clashes and clangs echoed through the emptiness as the spear bounced back and forth between the heavy and twin blades, the possessed Long Arm deftly escaping further harm but unable to offer his own counter until a powerful upward swing from Kite left him critically exposed. Tamon took the opportunity and charged out of the pincer attack, swinging his spear in a steady, yet weak arc to his right. The blade reflected harmlessly off the back of BlackRose's armor, a one-in-a-million strike against a surface dominated by exposed skin and flesh.

The Heavy Blade was nonetheless put off-balance; Kite stepped forward in her stead and continued the attack, hooking both blades at Tamon as he lunged forward, and just as quickly he drew them back, his swords reflecting off the spear as the Long Arm braced himself.

A shout from Stolls preceded the appearance of several small flames in a sphere around Tamon, which instantly converged and exploded. More concussed than singed, Tamon was blown back and off his feet, crumpling to the ground loudly and without a hint of grace.

He recovered just in time to roll away from a leaping slash by BlackRose, her head cleaving the air where his neck had been just milliseconds earlier. Pressing the attack, she dove forward, leading Tamon's dodge and scoring a powerful crossing slash to his chest as he struggled to stand.

Stolls chanted again, louder this time; a wall of flame streaked along the ground towards Tamon, who almost succeeded in dodging before the flame collided with his leg, sinking beneath the blue slacks he wore and causing direct damage to his body. He started to bring his spear against BlackRose - the nearest target - but Kite reacted first, lurching forward and crossing his arms, forming a vise with his swords and trapping the shaft of the spear in it.

Kite stared into Tamon's lifeless olive eyes, at once unnerved and emboldened; with a grimace and a loud "Hah!" he pulled his swords in opposite directions, turning the spear like a screw and prying it from the Long Arm's hands. Disarmed, Tamon was helpless to defend himself as Kite pressed the attack, thrusting both blades forward and burying them deep in his chest.

He released the blades and stumbled back, flinching at the macabre sight of the Twin Blade standing with two swords buried almost to the hilt in his own body. His surprise grew as he took in the expression on Tamon's face - or rather, the lack thereof.

"Critical damage detected," said the voices, coming from outside Tamon's lips. "Engaging primary defen-"

The voices fell away when a large blade cut through Tamon's waist like a knife through butter; BlackRose skillfully drove the blade through without stopping once, splitting upper and lower body and sending both away to the floor, the space where flesh and blood would normally be replaced by darkness and lines of code.

Slowly, the body lost all color, descending to cold shades of gray; it quickly stretched vertically into the white sky and vanished without a trace, offering only a faint hiss as it departed. The blades formerly imbedded in its chest hovered for a moment at their former place of rest before dropping to the ground in a sound that could have been steel against dirt.

Kite cautiously stepped forward and retrieved his blades, eyeing the spot where the upper half of Tamon had landed. (Is that it?) he wondered silently. (No, that can't be... what about that shadow thing? Wasn't that the real Delphi?)

"In pace requiescat," said Stolls, his voice soft, tinted with a hint of remorse.

Kite blinked. (What does that mean? Wait...) he trailed off in his thoughts. (If he... his character was data drained by Delphi, and that put him into a coma... what happens to him if his character dies?) Immediately, he chided himself for the thought; (no way, it can't be that simple... but still, if there's no relation between the character and the player, then how...?)

The questions went unanswered. "Is he... dead?" asked Kite, unsure of whom he was inquiring.

"I don't know."

Metal slid against metal as BlackRose sheathed her blade. "If Delphi could possess the character... I don't think it's gone just yet."

Stolls shook his head. "You're right. We should get out of here. God only knows whether the Admins have figured out we're here or not. Shin, what's the word?"

After a long pause, Stolls nodded. "Let's get out of here. You guys got chat plug-ins?" When Kite and BlackRose nodded, he continued. "Good. Log out and meet us at #Alias. We'll dig through this stuff together. Password's Origin."

"All right, I'll be right there," said Kite as he issued the logout command, the white nothingness falling away to a black nothingness.

His senses seemed to come back to life as the visor and headset went dead, signaling his escape from The World. Hesitantly, he pulled the gear free from his head, short tresses of spiky black hair mussed by its presence. With a sigh, he set it down next to the monitor and pulled out the keyboard.

A previously unnoticed ache in his lower back forced him to stretch slightly, deliberately arching his back until a satisfying *crack* rattled his spine. Satisfied, he fell back into his chair and kicked his feet up on his desk, dragging the keyboard into his lap like a kitten, his fingers lovingly petting the keys that would lead him to The World's chatrooms.

Silently, he prayed against all evidence that he'd done the right thing.

Chapter XXII - Current Events

*Kite has joined #Alias*

Topic is NOT set

Active users: BlackRose, Deisart

Welcome to #Alias!

>Kite: Hello?

>BlackRose: Hey, Kite!

>Deisart: Good, everyone's here. All right, there's no real way to sugarcoat this; we've got bad news, and we've got really bad news.

Hiroshi cringed. Of all the things that could possibly have made this worse, just *seeing* that was near the top of the list.

>Kite: What's the bad news?

>Deisart: The bad news is, the files we got... weren't what they told us they were.

He blinked. "Huh?" (What does that mean?) he thought, translating his thoughts to the chatroom.

>BlackRose: What were they?

>Deisart: We were told this was accounting data. Long story short, the title of the first file was "Project Delphi."

Hiroshi froze, his eyes staring at the word 'Delphi'. He sucked in a sharp breath of air, his throat tightening.

>Kite: Delphi??? That thing?

>BlackRose: No way!

>Kite: What did it say?

>Deisart: Hang on, I'll C&P

("Project Delphi". What is going ON? Is that... that thing is some kind of project of Cyber Connect?)

"...disturbance earlier this evening."

A woman's voice jarred Hiroshi from his ponderings. He spent several seconds remembering that he'd left the TV on, and cast one more glance at the unchanged chat window before turning to face it. A petite, middle-aged woman greeted him from the glowing screen, neatly dressed in a blue blazer and standing before a well-lit building.

His memory kicked into high gear when he recognized the building. (The hospital?) he thought, raising an eyebrow. (That's where Yasuhiko is.)

Another glance at the chat window brought the rest of his body back around to face the new text that had appeared.

>Deisart: "Summary: An amalgam of digital entities, an ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) unit is an automatic response system which acts independent of the user to defend a file, drive or server from hostile intruders. ICE recognizes over 22,000,000 known virus types, and - using advanced pattern-matching algorithms - is fully capable of identifying hacker penetration, adjusting its response to uniquely combat the attack, and even preemptively strike known hostile entities."

(An ICE unit... so this thing is some kind of hacker protection?)

>Deisart: "Date of Inception: 7/31/2008. Postmortem: Prototype units deemed unreliable following incident 24b-09. Funding withdrawn, project discontinued 9/16/2008."

>Kite: Discontinued?

>Deisart: Some sort of accident; apparently, a trial run caused Delphi to identify and aggressively attack the programmer who tested it, even outside of the experiment. Delphi managed to break into The World through the backdoor on Delta server, and the programmer, who also served as one of The World's Admins, was attacked in the game by Delphi. He fell into a coma and died six weeks later.

The boy's blood ran cold. (He DIED?? This thing actually killed somebody?!) His partner soon voiced a similar sentiment.

>Deisart: Yes. It wasn't designed to function in a virtual environment such as The World, though; its means of defense was through the rewriting of data - usually crippling the targeted software, and occasionally to the point where Delphi could take control of viruses, or the software of invading hackers.

>Kite: That sounds a lot like Data Drain...

It was out before he had a chance to think twice about it, and yet he couldn't deny the similarities. His heart sank, just a little, but enough to bring his head down with it. (It really is the same, isn't it... this isn't supposed to be mine. This can't be...)

>Deisart: Indeed. One other thing I found was that the company has a record of this programmer being contacted by another company, one of their chief rivals at the time.

>BlackRose: So this programmer talked to someone outside the company about this?

>Kite: Then that means they sent it after him, too.

Again, the thought failed to register with Hiroshi until it appeared before his eyes. This one sent a chill down his spine, an icy touch of fear that cut through the swirling, humid air of his bedroom.

>BlackRose: I don't know what to say... this is unreal.

>Kite: Yeah...

>BlackRose: Wait. What was the other news?

(Other news?) He looked up the message log. (Oh, right... the really bad news. I'd almost forgotten,) he thought with a trace of bitterness.

There was a thirty-second pause in the chat before Deisart spoke again, and in that instant a part of him would have been much more comfortable to never have known the really bad news.

>Deisart: I think it wants to kill us all.

>BlackRose: That I could've guessed.

>Deisart: No, I mean, I looked in some of its command directives; they were altered tonight. Not only did CC send it, they knew who to send it after. They've been watching us.

Hiroshi felt the blood drain from his face. Images of men in suits, black cars and helicopters, strangers in trenchcoats and sunglasses paying a little too much attention to him, all playing tricks with his mind, amplifying the feeling of paranoia a hundred fold. It wasn't just some random piece of berserk software that he stumbled into this time; 'they' were after him.

He gulped, loudly. That same paranoia began wondering if the room had suddenly gotten smaller.

>Kite: But... why send that after us? Why not just come get us or something?

>Deisart: I don't know... maybe they thought it'd be easier to get us in The World. Maybe just to stall us, have Delphi keep us busy so those guys could find us.

>BlackRose: So what do we do now?

>Deisart: Dean's on the phone now. Think he knows someone who can help. We can't just hand this over to Asara; last thing we want is MORE of these damn things running around.

He felt a sliver of relief upon reading the hacker's reply. It changed not that he had still helped them steal, but the knowledge that they, too, had been duped, and that Cyber Connect was by no means an innocent party eased the burden on his mind.

>Kite: What about Delphi?

>BlackRose: Maybe it died with Tamon?

>Kite: I'd like to hope so...

Seconds passed, then a minute, and then another.

>Kite: Deisart?

>BlackRose: Maybe it's lag?

>Kite: Maybe.

The keys fell silent as Kite stopped typing, plunging both rooms into silence. For a second, at least.

"...shot and killed. Their names have not been released as of this time." The reporter's voice greeted his ears again, and he turned in his chair to glance at the TV.

To his surprise, the hospital was still on the screen. A young, slender woman in a nurse's outfit stood before a microphone.

"I heard the gunshots, and then he came through here," she said, shakily. "He asked me where reception was, and ran off."

Back to the reporter. "There was one eyewitness, who said he saw two detectives apprehending a third man, who escaped their custody. It is not yet known who this man was. The eyewitness claimed that one of the detectives was shot; however, the police have not reported any injuries or losses aside from the two officers."

He shook his head, sighing deeply. "Hope Yasuhiko is okay," he said beneath his breath. (Yasuhiko... it feels like so long ago. I'd just gotten to The World and I didn't have a clue. And now...)

(...I still don't,) he finished as he turned back to the monitor.

A private message box flashed on the screen, cold black text invisible to the other denizen of the room.

>BlackRose: What do you think?
>BlackRose: Kite?
>BlackRose: You there?
>BlackRose: Oh, man... not you, too! What's going on? Don't just leave me sitting here!

Half-smiling, he hurriedly typed out a response.

>Kite: Sorry. Was AFK for a second.

>BlackRose: So, what ARE we going to do?

>Kite: I don't think there's anything we can do. They just needed us to get the data.

>BlackRose: I guess you're right... all we can do now is wait and see.

Hiroshi nodded, forgetting that he couldn't be seen. He leaned forward, propping his chin up on his palm and resting his elbow on the desk. He closed his eyes, growing uncomfortably accustomed to the feeling of helplessness, of being unable to do anything but wait.

A strange thought entered his mind; a mental post-it note that he'd shelved, only now remembering that he made it in first place. A to-do list consisting of only two items, both of which were sitting right in front of him.

He opened his eyes, smiled fully, watched the unchanged message box as his fingers fell into a natural rhythm, banging out a message he'd been sitting on for a while now. Emboldened by their success in the game - or merely to break the silence, he wasn't sure which - his hands danced across the keyboard, keys drowning out the reporter's voice, at least in his ears.

>Kite: Thanks for helping me.

Instantly, he feared he'd been too forward, not understanding how 'thank you' could be considered such but he feared it just the same. Unsure of how much of BlackRose's personality was drawn from her puppeteer, he fidgeted nervously, eyes never leaving the message box.

>BlackRose: Yeah... you too.

Hiroshi blinked at the message; lacking enough context to decide whether she meant it or not, he continued to sit and wait.

He didn't have to wait very long. A smiling emote popped up in her next message, the messenger changing it to a picture of a yellow smiley face.

He smiled. He grinned. He chuckled, and let out a long, deep sigh of relief.

>Kite: Anytime partner :-)

Another emote answered him, this one a winking smiley face. He chuckled again, his grin broadening. (What would I do without her?) he pondered, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on the desk.

His brief moment of relaxation ended when the screen suddenly went dark. Puzzled, he sat up and gave the monitor a once-over; still receiving power, the monitor simply stared back at him with its empty black screen, his face reflected in the darkness.

Without warning, a message appeared on screen in bright, bold crimson letters, burning a hole in the blackness. At that moment, Hiroshi wanted nothing more than to turn and run, as far and as fast as he could.


Chapter XXIII - Save Me

Too much. It was just too much. He didn't even know what had happened, and it was still too much.

He remembered his own cries of alarm; panicked, terrified, he scrambled away, mercilessly plowing through his bedroom door and tearing down the stairs, down to the farthest corner of the house.

He had waited there, almost regained his nerve; slowly he came back to his room, but it hadn't been long enough. He ran back to the corner, but it hadn't been far enough. This time he had kept going, out the door, into the yard. He didn't know how far he would have gone if he hadn't tripped over a rock and fallen, face-first, on the ground. The earth kissed him with all the tenderness and grace of a knock-out punch from a prizefighter, sharp blades of grass scratching his eyelids and staining his shirt.

No words and no thoughts, he was well beyond either. The red letters had burned into the back of his mind, and with every passing second they reminded him yet again why he was out in the yard, face-down on the lawn, trembling like a dead leaf on a tree branch in autumn.

Delphi had found him. He didn't know how, nor did he care; the digital beast had tracked him down, and it was still in there, waiting for him. Waiting for them.

Them. BlackRose, Deisart and Stolls; all of them were in danger. But this didn't register with him, not at first; too much had clouded his mind. Being used by the thieves, then agreeing to be used; knowing that lives had hung in the balance, had literally been placed in his hands and vice versa; that each and every one of them could very well have died tonight, and might still; that somewhere on the Internet, a vengeful entity was waiting for him; that the company who made The World was watching him, wanted him dead.

It was just too much.

He sniffed, hiccupped, hands clawing into the dirt; the gritty, slightly damp soil registered to his sense of touch, a gentle reminder that he was not Kite, that there would be no magic bracelet that could blast away his problems, no party to back him up, no message board to offer advice, no one.

Faint droplets of rain twisted free from the sky, falling over his prone form, joining their brothers in his already-soaked clothes. For the first time he realized how cold it was, giving him a slightly more immediate excuse to shiver.

Slowly he pushed off the ground, drawing his knees up and glancing around. Darkness inked the streets, perforated by house lights. Above, storm clouds churned as they shed their tears, pulling with them a strong breeze that turned the raindrops into tiny arrows, splashing mercilessly against his exposed skin.

Somehow, Hiroshi stood up and shambled back to the house; small miracle he'd remembered to close the door behind him, or done so on instinct. Either way, the house was exactly as he left it; he trudged into its humid warmth, the contrast drawing sweat from his body but otherwise a welcome change from the cold of the rain. He closed the door once again and locked it, trapping himself inside.

He sniffed again, the humidity reminding him of his burdened clothes. He glanced at the clock and grimaced; 3AM, and still no sign of his mother.

(She must be working overtime tonight,) he thought.

With his toes, he pried off his wet socks and picked them up, depositing them in the bathroom hamper as he proceeded towards his bedroom. Stopping only to wash his hands, he wearily entered the bedroom; his eyes were drawn like a magnet to his monitor, which was still on, having since reset to the desktop.

"...three men found dead on the scene. Police are investigating whether this is related to the hospital shooting earlier tonight, though no official statement has been made."

He punched the on/off switch as he passed, killing the TV set. The springs on his closet door groaned as they were compressed, and he dug out the first shirt and pants his hands fell upon. He wasted no time in changing, his fatigue vanishing as he slipped into the dry, infinitely more comfortable clothing.

He threw another glance at the monitor, and blinked; the e-mail client was flashing with a new mail notification. Curiosity overruled caution, and he opened the mail.


From: Stolls@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: It's Over

Kite... thank you for your help. Without you and BlackRose, I don't think we would have made it this far. That said, I owe you both an apology. In asking for your help, I've put you both in terrible danger. I understand you're in at least that much in regards to your friend, but the last thing I wanted to do was add to your troubles.

Be that as it may, it's all over now. Shinji and the Cyber Connect agents are dead, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the police find me - and that's if I'm lucky. I intend to destroy the Delphi data. All of it. I don't know if this will stop the current copy roaming The World, but I'm out of time and options. If it works, you'll probably hear about it on the news.

I advise staying off the 'net entirely, but should you encounter it... kill it. I think your Data Drain is the key; I don't know if Shinji told you, but this thing seems to have been modified specifically to combat creatures like Skeith, so it should work on similar principles.

No matter what happens, though... just be careful. And don't forget what I told you.

- Dean



Mixed thoughts filled his head, attaching themselves to emotions in short order. Concern, for the man he had known for such a short time, and yet knew so much about. Fear, for his own life. Frustration, for having to face this alone.

(Face this?) The thought came to him before he realized he'd thought it, and yet he knew it was what he had to do. Like Skeith, he knew this thing would not just go away; more may find it, and more may get hurt, or worse.

The burden fell upon the boy like a ton of bricks. If not him, who? If not now, when? The questions tormented him with the ugly truth: he had to stop it. His emotions shifted gears instantly, fear fueling anger, anger feeding courage. His eyebrows narrowed, his fists clenched, his face tightened into a hard-set expression.

'And don't forget what I told you.'

The last line of Dean's letter puzzled him. The detective had told him many things, which he sifted through one by one. None appeared applicable to this situation, then again he was in no condition to remember much.

Shrugging off the comment, he closed the mail client and reached for his visor. One hand guided the mouse to the 'The World' icon, the other plopping the visor down over his spiky black hair, mercifully free of tangles thanks to its shortness.

(Come and get me.)


A faint breeze pulled across the white plains, drawing mists of snow from the hills they clung to. Towering rocks stood caked in snow and ice, jutting out from the ground like the teeth of some long-dead, gargantuan beast. Smaller clumps of rock dotted the land here and there, weaving between the snowy hills like footprints.

The only evidence of habitation sat in the shadow of one of the taller rocks, casually leaning against it, eyes open and alert, palms resting against the twin blades which hung low in their sheaths.

Briefly, Kite wondered why he hadn't sought to contact any of his friends, one in particular.

(It's different this time,) he reasoned. (It knows I'm here, and it's coming for me. If I can get to it first, maybe I can stop it.)

(And what makes you think you can stop it alone?)

He sighed. (It's not that... I just don't want anyone else to get hurt.)

(And what about you? Aren't you always afraid of being alone? Having no one to rely on?)

(Who CAN I rely on?)

(What about her?)

He frowned, dropping his hands into the snow and digging up small handfuls, balling them up in his clenched fists. (What ABOUT her?)

(You heard her; she's in this as much as you are.)

The snow crushed into tighter clumps in his hands. (But what if she got hurt? Or worse, killed?? This isn't a game anymore!)

(And you think she doesn't know that? She wants to help, you know she does. Let her... you need her help. And she needs yours.)

He thought about that for a moment. (You're the one who's always saying you need to believe in yourselves. Acting tough doesn't mean acting stupid.)

Hiroshi let out a long sigh, Kite miming his exhalation as usual. His dueling thoughts had once again exposed a key design flaw, one only enhanced by the events which had plagued his existence in The World: an inability to trust his own judgment.

He thought long and hard about BlackRose, the beautifully-rendered Heavy Blade who was every bit as thorny as her namesake, which nonetheless hinted at an inner softness and warmth. For all her posturing and pseudo-egocentric behavior - most of which he suspected was roleplay - she had proven time and again to be a reliable companion, and one of the few he could share his troubles with.

He almost smiled, remembering how he had thought these very thoughts before, earlier this evening. He'd made a silent promise to himself to warm up to her more, less a partner and more a friend. He owed her that much, and more to the point he found that he wanted to. A touch of color stained his cheeks at the thought, but a cooler head prevailed.

He forced himself to think the thought he was still afraid to say. (I like her.) This time, he didn't bother to hide the smile. (I do like her. I like BlackRose... she's a good friend.) He leaned back, gazing up into the falling snow. (The best I could've hoped to make here.)

Remembering his earlier list, the Twin Blade froze as his controller opened the e-mail client and began composing a letter.



Footsteps crunched through the snow, approaching the sitting Twin Blade. He glanced up at the newcomer and smiled. "Hey. Thanks for coming."

BlackRose smile back, sitting down next to him, leaning back against the rock. "Do you think it'll show?"

"It said it 'found' me... I think it's waiting for us somewhere on this server."

She nodded. "Me too. I wasn't sure what to make of it, then I lost connection. When I got back, you and Deisart were gone."

"I guess things got really bad where they are." Kite sighed. "I don't know what happened, Dean said if it worked, we'd hear about it on the news."

The Heavy Blade snorted. "That's comforting," she said flatly.

"So I guess that just leaves us and... it."

A gust of wind swooped down to caress their faces, tousling azure and pinkish-white hair alike. "Yeah," she muttered, glancing down at the ground. Resting her blade next to her, she idly drew her index finger in a circle in the snow, lost in thought.

(I guess it's now or never,) he thought. He'd had the guts to storm off and wait for certain doom alone, and yet the act seemed to pale in comparison to what he was about to do. He swallowed hard, looked at her again, and smiled. With her traditional bare minimum of armor and leggings that couldn't possibly afford any real protection, she looked wholly out of place in the snowy environment, and yet she sat there, remarkably serene despite their circumstances, her player safe from the biting cold that he also didn't feel.

His face felt a tad warm, though, and he knew why. Bracing himself, he snuck his hand across the gap between them and gently clasped hers. Lightly at first, but quickly he tightened his hold, wrapping his gloved fingers securely around the armored back of her hand.

She started, and glanced down at the offending digits in surprise; she followed them up to their owner, her eyes meeting his questioningly. A faint smile tugged at her lips, yet it was all Kite could do not to immediately draw his hand back and stammer out an apology.

He nearly did a double-take when she turned her hand responsively, pressing their palms together and lacing her fingers securely between his. For good measure, she gave his a light squeeze, which he instinctively responded to with one of his own.

Their eyes met again, and they both smiled. At any other moment, he might have noticed that she, too, was blushing. He felt obligated to say something, but stopped himself, not trusting his brain to send anything suitable past his lips. Instead, he opted to scoot in a little closer to his partner, and she reciprocated in kind, still smiling, still holding hands.

And they waited.

Chapter XXIV - Battle Mode On

It was on before either could get up or ready their weapons. It was on the second their adversary arrived, a fact evidenced by the sudden burst of static which scratched the sky.

Reluctantly releasing hands, Kite and BlackRose stood up and drew their respective blades, scanning the area. Carefully, they circled around the rock where they had sat, and spotted the empty silhouette of Delphi, standing perfectly still atop the snow many yards away.

Kite grit his teeth, tightening his hold on his blades; BlackRose did likewise, steeling herself for the inevitable.

"Tagged entities Zero and One detected," said its highest voice, its echo dampened by the falling snow.

"String definition: Kite, Blackrose," said the monotone.

"Action: Termination of tagged entities is desirable," finished the baritone.

"It is -"

"GiGan Zot!"

Its speech was cut off as a sharp fang of rock punched through the ground, stabbing into the black emptiness where it stood.

"Vak Kruz!"

Before the remaining chunk of shadow could regenerate, a spherical shower of flame rocketed into it and exploded, blasting it into a fine mist.

Kite raised an eyebrow. (That was... easy...) "Just like last time. It'll probably come back mad again."

"It had to be done," said BlackRose with a smirk. "We don't have all night here."

Kite grinned, then frowned as the shadowy figure reformed. "Then let's do it right this time."

Together they charged towards Delphi, who quickly sprang into action.


"You're not him. What happened to Fukada?"

"He didn't make it."

"A shame. Well, I suppose that means your job's done here, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it's over. I just got one more thing I need to take care of."



Her ear-piercing cry preceded an acrobatic flip in the air, the heavy blade whirling with uncommon expertise as she tumbled and brought it down in a powerful overhead smash; Delphi was quick to dodge, but not quick enough, and the sharp, heavy edge tore a long, jagged path through its mist-like substance, ethereal tendrils of shadow drifting away and evaporating.

Delphi reacted as if it were not struck at all, and came around with a strong roundhouse kick that knocked BlackRose back several paces. It gathered energy in its palm and prepared for a charged strike, but was interrupted as its hand was severed by a short sword, its wielder laying into Delphi from behind.

For Kite, the experience was at once disturbing and frustrating. For one, their attacks met with no physical resistance whatsoever - no solidity to the pitch-black shadow, forcing them to constantly adjust their stance to prevent from being thrown off-balance by their own attacks. For two, it seemed to regenerate effortlessly, with no indication that they were doing any permanent damage.

The only point of relief came from that the target registered on his heads-up display, its name garbled behind meaningless keyboard symbols and numbers.

The two slashed and slashed, scoring hits despite the monster's best efforts to evade, yet it returned the favor just as enthusiastically, hands and feet transformed to lethal weapons that struck with all the force of flesh-and-blood, charged attacks and short electrical bursts cutting through armor with little trouble; its ability to hover and fly aided its dodges, yet Kite and BlackRose's combined magical prowess forced it to try its luck in close quarters.

Scores of ice shards swirled up and around both Blades, slicing across skin and cloth alike, tearing large portions of health away with them. Recovering quickly, Kite launched at Delphi and thrust a blade forward, through the 'chest' of Delphi; he came around with the other through the thing's neck, decapitating it for a second or two. He circle-strafed right to allow BlackRose room to strike, which she gladly did, swinging her blade back and forth like a pendulum.

The tattered shards of Delphi retreated, moving as if still attached to their human form, to which it reformed in an instant.

"Damn!" shouted BlackRose. "How are we supposed to kill this thing?!"

"Dean said I can Data Drain it! We've gotta do more damage!"

Delphi lifted off into the air, a dozen feet off the ground and away from the two fighters. It raised an arm high, a ball of fire gathering in its outstretched hand.

"It's charging again!" Kite pointed one of his daggers up at it. "Now! Rue Kruz!"

The two cast, but not quickly enough; the ball streaked away from its hand before either of their spells could land, and sailed without error towards them.


Both jumped away as the ball smashed into the icy ground, violently exploding outward and blasting them into the air, tossing them aside.

Kite grunted loudly as he fell to the ground, phantom air wrenched from his lungs as his body reacted to the blow. Drawing ragged breaths, he stood up and quickly scanned the skies, watching for Delphi.

His eyes went wide as he spotted the shadow, still hovering but much closer now, one arm pointed to him; surrounding it were several jagged, two-dimensional crystalline shards, colored like a rainbow and spinning like a blender. They tilted outwards, towards him, and multiple flashes of static and code tore across the snowy plains.

He froze. "No!" he cried, but his body would not move, struck numb by the impending attack. The shadow turned its hand sideways, appearing to extend its fingers and pointing them all at Kite. (No!) he cried again, silently this time; ripples of force roared through his body, and he felt himself being lifted from the ground as he was struck, repeatedly, by the shockwaves which shook the ground beneath them.

"Ah...aaaaaahhhhh!" came the strangled yell of pain, his throat nearly crushed as his vision faded, lines of code stretching out from the shards and ensnaring themselves around him, squeezing tighter and tighter, as if to shatter every bone in his body.

In the midst of it all, he realized that he could feel. He actually *felt* the pain, and that knowledge only made it more painful.


A different sort of pain stabbed into him as BlackRose tackled him, knocking him to the ground, ice-cold snow cutting into the back of his neck; it became a blessing, however, as the strangling text vanished and the shards of the creature's bracelet faded away, the field of battle coming back to his eyes. Before the feeling of feeling went completely away, he felt a few strands of hair tickling his cheek, and as he scrambled to his feet he noticed BlackRose doing likewise, a concerned look in her eye.

"Are... are you okay?" she asked; her voice was slow and labored, and she unsteadily wobbled on her feet; apparently, the data drain had affected her too in the process of breaking its hold on him.

Still shaking off vertigo and residual pain, Kite could only nod. Glancing back at Delphi, he assumed a weak fighting stance, hindered by his fatigued muscles and aching bones. Again he noticed that he could feel, though the lack of cold suggested he wasn't feeling anything from the game anymore.

"God..." muttered BlackRose as Delphi neared. "It's still coming!" She hefted her blade high and tensed up, preparing to leap in and strike as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Both players shared a "huh?" when it suddenly stopped moving.

"Secured server compromised," said the voices. "Files missing; attempting to locate."

Regaining his balance, Kite cocked a curious eyebrow, throwing a look at BlackRose. "What's it doing?"

She shook her head slowly, eyes still trained on the shadowy figure, wide but less panicked than confused. "I don't know."

"Search complete," the voices suddenly blared, a hastiness to them that could have been anxiety. "Data erased... sector is secure. Outside access probable."

(Outside access?)

Both watched in surprise as the static returned, warping the colors of The World to their direct negatives and back again; the shadow twitched and convulsed, as if in some sort of seizure.

"ERROR! ERROR!" screeched the voices. "Critical data compromised!" Ones and zeroes began tearing through the void of Delphi's 'body' at a machine gun pace, almost blurring the darkness to light as it continued to tremble.

(Maybe now...) Without thinking twice, Kite sheathed a blade and raised his right arm towards the shadow; he felt the unseen bracelet tremble slightly, silently approving of his choice in target. (Let's see how YOU like it.)

Bracing his arm with his free hand, he widened his stance and flattened his palm outward, causing the shards of the bracelet to appear. Once again The World fell away, replaced by a dizzying field of static that only grew more intense with each passing second; the shards spun and solidified, and angled outward as Kite pointed towards Delphi, returning the favor it had so readily extended to him.

Lines of code lashed out at Delphi, some securing around its incorporeal form, some punching straight through; the static flashed once and again as pulses of raw energy shot through the lines, smashing into Delphi and shattering the shadow into countless pieces, all of which vanished mere seconds afterward.

The bracelet vanished, taking with it the sky of static and orchestra of white noise. All that stood opposite the two Blades was snow, rocks, and more snow.

Kite let out a long-held breath, shaking his head; unsteadily, he inched backwards, not yet convinced that the thing had been beaten.


He looked over at BlackRose; sword at her side, her eyes were on his with a question in them, which she quickly voiced. "Is it dead?"

Kite took another glance at the spot where he guessed Delphi had been standing. He replayed the data drain in his mind, watching once again as the darkness was broken and splintered like glass, spraying out into the air and dissolving as if all that had kept it together was the data he had stripped from it.

He smiled, the doubt draining from his mind. "Yeah," he said, his voice soft, almost muted amidst the howling winds. "Yeah, I think that did it."

"Hmm." She smirked, casually arcing her blade over her shoulder and sheathing it. "Hmm hmm," he muttered, a muffled laugh hidden behind her tightly pursed lips. Eventually they parted, just wide enough to form a grin. "Heh heh heh..."

Kite felt compelled to join, which he did; his smile broadened, and soon he found himself chuckling with her. "Hehe... hah hah..."

Their chuckling grew louder, in seconds becoming full-fledged laughter, Kite nearly doubled over, BlackRose arching her back and shouting hers to the heavens. It died just gradually, leaving both grinning like idiots, slightly flustered and breathless.

"Ahhh," she exhaled musically, assuming a more casual stance. "So that's it?"

Kite nodded. "Yep."

"Good! Let's get out of here." She spun on her heels, throwing a look back at him. "You coming?"

Still holding his smile, Kite strode up to her side. "Let's."

Just before the rings surrounded him, he swore he felt a firm, but gentle hand take his. With a smile, he squeezed back before The World fell away to nothingness.


"Huuuuaaaahhh... huh?"

His yawn trailed off as he heard someone clear her throat from behind. Hastily, he discarded the VR gear and glanced back at the intruder.

Hiroshi's face lost most of its color. "Uh... mom!"

Expecting harsh reprimand, he was surprised to find her leaning against the doorframe, a small smile on her face. "Good morning, Hiroshi," she said, almost teasingly.

He blushed. "Er... sorry, mom. I kinda lost track of time."

She nodded. "I know, I know how you are... a whole other world to wreck, hmm?"

The boy couldn't help but grin. "Well..."

His mother offered a faint chuckle before turning away. "Good night, Hiroshi," she said as she drew the door shut. After a beat, he heard her add, "And get to bed" through the door.

"Good night, mom," he replied as he logged off and shut down. He punched the monitor's power button and wearily shambled over to his bed, fatigue finally taking its toll. As he reached for the light switch, he threw one last look at the lifeless monitor, and then at the visor which rested on the desk beneath it.

"Good night, BlackRose."

Chapter XXV - Denouement


With a chime and a clunk, the elevator doors slid open, revealing the far wall of the pristine hospital hallway. The taupe tunnel stretched for several hundred feet in either direction, white-clad hospital staff busily milling about. There was not a shred of evidence that the building had been the scene of a crime, though he had heard two of the doctors on the previous floor discussing it.

"So what did he say?" he asked as they stepped off the elevator and turned left down the hallway.

She shook her head. "No raise this time," she grumbled. "And after all the overtime I've been putting in..."

Hiroshi rolled his eyes. "Geez... those guys would be lost without you."

His mother chuckled ruefully. "That's what I keep thinking, but apparently they can't take one less golfing trip a month." She sighed. "I swear, I don't know sometimes..." she muttered as they walked, sliding to one side of the hallway as a nurse pushed an empty gurney past them.

Three doors down turned into two, then one; he found himself staring through the expected door, one he recalled passing through more than once in the past few weeks.

Hiroshi exhaled slowly, looking up at his mother. "Mom, do you... mind if I..."

She smiled, her eyes alight with understanding. "I'll wait here. Go ahead, Hiro."

"Thanks," he said, and reached for the doorknob. The brass felt cold to the touch as he twisted the knob and pulled, spilling sunlight from the room out into the hallway as he stepped through.

He made his way to the side of the bed, his eyes falling upon the prone form of Yasuhiko, mask around his mouth, covers up to his neck, arms at his side. His chest rose and fell calmly, almost mechanically, a faint beeping from the attached machinery measuring his pulse, slow but steady.

"I thought I'd find you here."

Hiroshi nearly leapt out of his skin at the man's voice. He glanced wildly about the room, and quickly spotted a man in a leather jacket, sitting in a chair in the corner.

"Who are you?"

Slowly, the man stood up and approached the bed, his face coming into full view of the sun's rays. He was middle aged, or looked it, though Hiroshi guessed he could just as easily have been in his mid-30's. Short, straight hair topped his head, his eyes a dark brown, his face rounded and smooth. Though his expression was blank, his eyes bore a retained spark of humor, and his posture was relaxed and non-threatening, his hands shoved nonchalantly into the pockets of his jacket.

He smiled and nodded. "Hajimemashite, Kite-san."

Hiroshi should have been surprised, shocked, any number of harsh-sounding S-words would have fit the bill. Instead, his mind worked with uncommon speed, logically deducing not only who the man was, but how he had found him.

The boy smiled back. "Hajimemashite, Stolls-san."

The detective's smile grew wider. "Just Dean is fine."

Hiroshi chuckled, for once more interested in a complete stranger than the friend who occupied the bed to his right. "So..." he began, breaking eye contact. The proverbial ice broken, he found himself at a loss as to what to do or say, how to properly converse with a man he had helped to commit a crime.

"So..." repeated Dean, lightly shifting his left foot side to side on his toes, a hint of shyness in his stance.

And yet, the older man didn't bear the countenance of a thief in the least. Despite a gravity to his voice and presence, his passive, almost friendly demeanor dispelled whatever preconceptions Hiroshi had previously held. (He looks... normal,) he thought. (Just like anybody else. Not like a bad guy.)

So many questions poured through Hiroshi's mind - the who, the where, the why, the when and the what - but the first that translated itself to words came up as the how.

"How'd it go?"

Dean glanced at the window, at the brilliant Tokyo skyline, a city of gold in the eyes of the sun. "Well... we won," he said softly. "How about you?"

Hiroshi nodded. "Yeah... we did win."

"Hmm," half-grunted Dean. "What a day, huh?"

"Hard to believe it was only one," replied Hiroshi. "Guess a lot can happen in a day."

"You can say that again." Dean drew a long pull of air through his nose, and exhaled through his mouth. "I never thought I'd see the light of day again."

"They just let you go?"

Dean shook his head. "Max bailed me out," he said. "He headed back to the States."

"What about you?"

His eyes drifted shut, and he leaned back, favoring his left leg. There was a guardedness to his posture that suggested he was injured. To accent the point, he removed his left hand and gingerly rubbed his side through the jacket, a slight grimace coming to his lips.

"Let's just say," said Dean, "That I'm curious."

(That's how I got started, too...) Hiroshi turned to face Yasuhiko, his ears picking up on the beeping of the monitor once more. "I know the feeling."

Noticing the movement, Dean glanced down at the comatose boy. "You two are friends?"

Hiroshi nodded again. "Yasu introduced me to The World. I just wanted to play the game..." His words grew heavier. "I think that bracelet was meant for him."

Dean fell silent, leaving room for Hiro to continue. "It's just... I want to know what's going on. What Aura is... what those things are... why I was given this power." He paused to swallow. "Why Cyber Connect was after us. And what I'm supposed to do."

"It's a mystery, no doubt about it," muttered Dean.

"So where does that leave us?" asked Hiroshi. "What do we do now?"

Dean glanced down at the young man. "I think it'd be obvious, don't you?"

Hiroshi blinked, peering up at Dean. "Uh?"

"It's simple," said Dean. "We solve it."

"Solve it?"

"Just do what we can," he said with a nod. "Start with nothing but a lead, one lead. Follow the trail, follow the evidence. It's all a matter of finding that lead. And I know you can, you've gotten this far."

"You sound like you know what you're talking about..."

To his surprise, Dean's face took on a slightly sheepish quality. "Well... kinda."

"Kinda?" Hiro raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, 'kinda'?"

"Wellll..." Dean fidgeted. "I've... really only been doing this for about a year."

Hiroshi blinked. Twitched. He fought to keep from bursting into laughter, struck speechless at the sudden contrast in the detective's demeanor. (Only a year?? Geez... he really is different from how I thought he'd be.)

"Yeah..." murmured Dean. "This is really my first big case..."

"Heh heh heh... your first case, huh?"

Dean got the impression that if he could have, Hiroshi would've emoted a smiley face. "Well it's not like it's easy to advertise being a P.I... it's not quite as glamorous as TV makes it look. Even when they try to make it look gritty, it's... off, at best."

"Is it as cool?" asked Hiroshi, calling to mind many images of tough-as-nails, hard-boiled fugitive cops doing battle with dozens of criminals, doing impossible stunts while using two handguns at once.

"No..." Dean admitted, shyly looking down at his shoes. "No, not that either... it's really not like the cop movies make it out to be. There's a lot of paperwork, I was kinda let down, myself."

Hiroshi chuckled again, shaking his head. (So much for Mr. Tough Guy... guess he's not such a bad guy after all.)

"Ah well," said Dean with a sigh. "In any case, I'm planning on sticking around for the long haul, seeing what happens." He smiled at Hiroshi. "How 'bout you?"

"Me?" Hiroshi hesitated only a moment before answering. "Me too," he said, again turning to Yasuhiko. "I want to help him... and I want to know the why."

"Couldn't think of a better reason if I tried," said Dean in agreement. "You're a good man, Hiro. Doesn't matter who that bracelet was meant for; I couldn't imagine anybody putting it to better use."

Hiroshi smiled, not bothering to ask how the detective knew his name. "You too, Dean."

Dean drew his right hand out of his pocket, a small white card dangling from between his fingers. "Here. Do us both a favor, hang onto this."

He took the card and turned it in his hand, eyeing the neatly-printed letters which adorned its surface.

"Cell: (272) 555-3926
Member add: Stolls@theworld.com
Email: DStollis@mailserv.net"

"This could be the start of a beautiful relationship," quoted Dean.

Hiro grinned. "Are you making me an offer I can't refuse?"

Dean laughed out loud. "Hah! Maybe, man, maybe. After all, you're an outlaw player and a hacker, and I'm an ex-con ex-cop. I think the answer is obvious."

"Well, keep at it," said Dean. "And drop me a line if you need anything."

"All right. Thanks, Dean."

"You too, Hiroshi, you too." Dean stepped around Hiro and headed for the door; he stopped about an inch short of the knob and turned back to the young man. "Oh hey, hey, almost forgot. What happened with that Heavy Blade friend of yours? The cute one, with the short fuse?"

Hiroshi flushed slightly, turning away slightly to hide the sudden color in his cheeks. "Well... we got to talking today, and, uh..."

"Yeah?" asked Dean, arms folded across his chest.

"Well, let's just say you were right," finished Hiro, grinning bashfully.

"All I needed to know," said Dean, smiling with a hint of pride. "Take it easy, Hiro."

"Yeah, you too." Hiroshi offered a small wave to Dean as he opened the door and stepped through, and turned back to Yasuhiko as the door was closed.

He turned the card in his hands for a moment, then pocketed it. He smiled, emboldened by events that were only slightly related to his friend's condition, yet nonetheless gave his self-esteem a much-needed shot in the arm, reinforcing his determination to get to the bottom of this mystery.

"Don't worry, Yasu," the young detective said reassuringly. "We're working on it."


"So what'd he say?"

"Not much." Kite tilted his hand in a so-so gesture. "Enough to know that this particular problem is over."

BlackRose nodded. "What was he like?"

"He was a nice guy, I was surprised."

She leaned an elbow against the bridge railing, angling her body to face Kite. "I kinda figured him to be a... well, you know, like in the movies."

He grinned. "So did I. This whole thing..." his grin faded, "it's just hard to believe."

"Yeah, I know." She glanced out over the canal, eyes trailing a riverborne party of adventurers as they coasted beneath the bridge. "Nothing changed, either... it didn't help us much, did it?"

Kite shrugged. "I guess not..."

BlackRose sighed and turned back to the canal, but glanced at Kite when he spoke again.

"But you know... we still did pretty good, didn't we?"

She smiled slowly. "Yeah, we did."

"That's good enough for me." He smiled back, turning slightly to meet her gaze. "We gotta try, right?"

"Right," she said with a nod. Her eyes took on a distant look, and her voice grew softer. "We have to try..."

(We all have our reasons,) thought Kite. (Maybe you'll tell me yours someday...)

Coming back to herself, BlackRose stood up straight, away from the railing. "Well, let's get going! Where should we go today?"

"Anywhere's fine with me," said Kite. "For once, I wouldn't mind fighting something I didn't have to data drain first."

She emoted a smile. "C'mon, I found a field on Theta server we can use."

Together they strolled off the bridge, leather and metal colliding with stone in an even, repetitive beat. They neatly filed into the crowd of adventurers cluttering the broadway, deftly picking their way to the Chaos Gate. Eventually they stood before the spinning blue portal, and Kite hatched the plan his controller had been waiting the whole day to try.

"Hey, BlackRose?"


Nervous and uncertain, Kite nearly faltered; gulping loudly, he turned to BlackRose, meeting her face-to-face. "Can I ask you something?"

"What is it?" she asked, head tilted slightly to peer curiously at him.

"Well..." he started, nearly trailing off to silence before he composed himself. "What are you doing this weekend?"

Her brow arched, curiosity giving way to surprise. She quickly shrugged off her initial bout of shyness, and stared at Kite thoughtfully, as if silently debating something. For a second, Kite wondered if he'd crossed a line.

She dispelled his worries with a smile. "Nothing yet."

- Fin