A .Hack fanfiction by Karlinn


Disclaimer: Project .Hack and attached concepts and characters belong to Bandai and Cyber Connect.

Notes: Takes place after the start of Outbreak. Parentheses indicate thoughts, brackets are for writing or text. This is a direct sequel to Heist, using characters established in that story alongside characters from the games and the show. I tried to make it unnecessary to go through Heist to understand this story (although I do recommend it :) - any important events from Heist will be summarized herein to expedite this.

As before, this is a story told from two points of view; chapters 1-14 cover Dean's perspective, and 15-28 cover Kite's. I did my best to get the proper real names of characters from the series, however where necessary I just made them up. See if you can tell which are which!

With that in mind, read on, critique to your heart's content, keep your eyes open for the Splinter Cell reference (among others) and above all, enjoy!

Chapter 1 - Footnotes

"Okay. Let's go over it once more, from the top."

His brown eyes drifted away from his voice - the black tape recorder, merrily whirring away on his desk as it replayed the conversation - and to his thoughts, hastily scrawled out on a white notepad.

"I'd prefer not to use my real name," said a different voice, deep and gruff.

He trailed the notes as his voice spoke once more. "That's fine. I'll refer to your character name in my notes."

At the cue, he read the top of the current page, where two words sat underlined: [Silver Knight].

"He had been trapped in The World apparently to cultivate this... 'Aura' to her liking. 'Her' being... well, I'm still not sure."

["Her" --> needs Aura cultivated (trained?) Aura = Key (of Twilight?)]

"And you can confirm that the monsters you fought, that she sent after you, were clearly out of the system's programming - capable of causing real harm to players?"

"Yes. One of them..." he paused, swallowed hard. "One of them hit me... I was out for a short while. I later learned that she produced these things as a means to protect him."

[Guardians - defense mechanism. Designed for use in The World. Related to Project Delphi?]

"Lady Subaru and the Heavy Blade pursued Tsukasa into a location of her design. I'm still not sure what happened afterwards, though the server was knocked out shortly after that. The Hacker, Helba, mentioned something called 'Skeith'..."

"Right. Supposedly one of the Phases, I've heard of it as well. Combined, they precede some sort of 'Wave'."

[Eight phases. Wave = danger unknown. Expansion beyond confines of The World (conjecture). Dictated in Epitaph of Twilight.]

"Yeah, I've heard much the same. Anyway, it wasn't long after that I stopped playing... most of the other knights did as well. It was just too much to handle. However, some of the others who investigated this stuck behind, you may want to ask them as well. Bear, Mimiru... I thought BT was around as well, but I can't say for sure."

[Possible contacts: Bear, Mimiru, BT. Find names, addresses, info; low-level surveillance only.]

There was a short pause before the player spoke again. "Can I ask you something?"

"Go right ahead," said his recorded voice.

"What's your involvement with this, anyway? I mean, this... this is huge. I filed a formal report to CC and the police, but nobody's called me back. So why are you doing this?"

He heard himself sigh. "It's a long story. Suffice it to say, I'm not so sure myself."

The man chuckled. "Well, you got you work cut out for you. Did you have any other questions?"

"No, that's it," said Dean. "Thanks for your time."

He reached out and stopped the tape, his eyes coming up from the notepad to survey his surroundings. A cheap, yet serviceable white-walled one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown Tokyo, Dean had taken the liberty of giving it a personal touch - posters from old Bogart movies, a neon 'Coors' light, a calendar of artwork from some cartoon whose name escaped him, and a worn-out La-Z-Boy serving as a computer chair. On top of the desk sat a dusty black desktop computer and flat-screen monitor, and next to it a rack of DVDs and video games.

Off in the corner, a couple game systems sat before a television/stereo combo, on which the news was displayed, white text on the bottom translating the anchorwoman's words to English. Like the desktop, a mild layer of dust covered the TV set and attached electronic miscellany.

(Can never keep this junk clean,) he thought as he gingerly elbowed the monitor with the sleeve of his shirt, brushing away the dust before the bright blue Altimit background. Nudging aside his notepad, he scrolled the mouse to the internet browser icon, but was interrupted by a soft beeping from his watch.

(8 o'clock). He reached for the cordless phone with one hand, his other sifting through the pile of papers next to the keyboard. "Ah-ha," he muttered, producing a small index card with a phone number and a name neatly printed on it, the former he punched into the phone.

Two rings, and a click as the receiver on the other end was lifted. An unremarkable voice answered: "Masamoto."

"It's me, lieutenant. Just checking in like the judge said."

"Good. Any problems?"

"Nope," said Dean, kicking his feet back up on the desk. "All quiet over here."

"Glad to hear it. Keeping out of trouble, are you?"

"Heh," grunted the P.I. "You could say that."

Dean heard a snort. "I could. But would it be true?"

(This guy's good.) "Well, it is right now," Dean replied. "The night is young."

"Right. Well, I could give a damn what you do after my shift ends, but at least try not to do anything stupid until then, okay?"

That got a smile out of Dean. "Sure thing, lieutenant. Scout's honor."

"Works for me. Oh, by the way, your gun will be cleared to go tomorrow, you can pick it up then."

"I just might do that. Take it easy, man."

"Sayonara, Dean." Another click, and the line was dead.

(I always did like that gun,) he thought as he sat up straight and hung up the phone. Slowly he stood, trudging away from his desk. He passed the doorway to the bedroom, entering the small kitchenette and prying open the refrigerator. He snatched a half-empty 1-liter Coke bottle from its icy clutches and opened it as he turned back, kicking the door shut with his foot.

Before he reached the desk again, his eyes crossed a familiar framed photo - a police station office room, crowded with over twenty officers in two loose rows, some garbed in LAPD uniforms, some not. A familiar young man in the center of the back row grinned happily and waved to the camera, the cap in his hand having left his black hair mildly askew. To his left stood a stout, jovial man wearing a "We survived Y2K" t-shirt. Below the picture in the frame sat the words [Los Angeles Police Department, precinct #4 - January 7, 2000]

Dean chuckled. (And here we thought it'd all blow up at the drop of a hat...)

This thought called others to his attention, fast-forwarding five years into the future - thoughts of the Internet going black the day before Christmas, and the world going mad; thoughts of chaos and panic unheard of in the history of man, much less in that of Los Angeles.

It was years ago, yet the feelings were still crystal clear: the safety of a comfy bed and warm household left behind, bulky riot gear offering little protection from the cold, plastic shield and heavy baton like dead weight in his hands; shouts and cries of panic tore at his ears, aided by wailing sirens and helicopter rotors; his body shook as fists of protest and rage beat against his shield, fists belonging to the frightened, the scared, the hopeless - people just like him, only without arms and armor. It was all he could do to stand with the rest of his unit until backup arrived - to serve and protect, yet he could do neither.

Then the gunshots started.

The screaming became cacophanous as those who struggled to get past now sought only to get away. Bullets went flying to and from the crowd; some in his unit drew theirs, fired upon by unseen assailants. As the crowd cleared, bodies were visible in the street: almost a dozen, including two cops. He got a clear look at the nearest one's face, his eyes wide with surprise and shock.

His mind fast-forwarded once more to more recent events.

Hired by a rival software company to steal data from Cyber Connect, he and his team - the hacker Shinji, and their employer Max - were attacked by the same data they were charged to steal, though they were told it that it was accounting information. The anti-hacker program called 'Delphi', yet another digital entity capable of causing very real harm, was disguised as said accounting information, and demonstrated its power by mortally wounding Max's character in 'The World' and putting his player in a coma. Not content to simply protect their data, Cyber Connect had dispatched two agents to finish what Delphi started; they killed Shinji, and Dean retaliated, killing one and fatally wounding the other.

("Prove it to me," he says...)

A shotgun shell exploded in his mind's ear, clouds of buckshot slicing and tearing into clothed flesh. The look on the agent's face matched that of the cop's - brief, but intense pain and surprise, even fear.

Using the agent's identification badge, Dean infiltrated Cyber Connect's Tokyo office and deleted the files necessary for Delphi's existence. He knew now that no one should have it, that too much harm could come from giving men a weapon that could kill others over the Internet.

(Just wish we'd all figured that out sooner.)

Tearing away from the wall he'd been staring at - his eyes long since drifted away from the picture - he turned back to the computer. (Whatcha doin', Hiroshi?) he thought, remembering his meeting at the hospital with the player who had helped him, the boy behind the outlaw character Kite who had saved both his and Max's lives. With the Heavy Blade BlackRose, he stood against Delphi as he had so many other abberations in the system, risking life and limb for their own sakes as well.

(All in a goddamn video game.) Dean shook his head as he sauntered back to his chair. (Jesus... "Tron" had it right all the time. Who knew?) he thought with a bitter chuckle, sitting down before the computer, now darkened to show a field of stars soaring past the screen.

(Guess I'd better get cracking. Let's see if I can't find these players as well. Who to start with?) He set the Coke bottle down and gave the mouse a vigorous shake, dispelling the screen saver; opening 'The World', he wandered over to the forum and dragged out his keyboard.



Topic: To Bear

Author: Stolls

Interested in obtaining information regarding Key, Epitaph of Twilight, your experiences involving both. Would like to meet w/ you to discuss; respond to DStollis@mailserv.net if interested."


From: Bear@theworld.com

To: DSTollis@mailserv.net

Subj: Discussion

Will be at Theta root town for the next hour. Meet me there.


His now-green eyes watched the warrior before him with calculated interest. A powerfully-built middle-aged man, the Blademaster Bear wore his heart on the sleeves he didn't have - eyes kind but studious, square jaw set but not in stone, arms folded casually across his broad chest but one hand within inches of the hilt of his massive blade. Blue body-paint covered half of his body and face, the latter of which was framed with a head of shortish brown hair, and his posture was decidedly neutral, if only because the contrasting signals cancelled each other out.

In a nutshell, Bear looked every bit the steadfast, reliable old man of the group - assuming there was a group, though he spotted no one else nearby; the two men stood in the shadow of a towering windmill, out of the direct line of traffic between the skyborne, grassy islands which comprised Dun Loireag.

"So, what's your interest in the Epitaph of the Twilight?"

"I'm looking into the bizarre events happening in 'The World'," said Stolls. "I understand you've had some experience with this, correct?"

Bear nodded, his lips flat and unreadable. "That's right. I encountered some of the strange creatures, the ones that have infinite hit points. I also met the Wavemaster Tsukasa."

"Tsukasa... right, that player that was supposedly trapped in 'The World'." An alarm went off in his head as the sentence tumbled out, and he froze. (Damn it! Rookie mistake... can't let him know how much I know.)

If the Blademaster noticed, he made no comment. "Yes. I still don't know how, exactly, he came to be trapped in 'The World'... but I do know that she was responsible."

(She... that has to be the thing that Silver Knight mentioned.) "She?"

Bear uncrossed his arms, gestured vaguely with his weapon hand. "Some kind of artificial intelligence, I think. She needed Tsukasa to remain in 'The World'."

"I see." Stolls glanced left and right, making sure that no one was listening. "Do you think she's behind this as well?" For emphasis, he gestured to the sky, fractured and splintering away into the nothingness above, the reality of 'The World' being torn away into visible code and data - which had been blamed on recent hacker attacks by Cyber Connect.

"I do, but if you asked me to support the theory, I couldn't." Bear shook his head.

Stolls nodded. "So, she's an AI? How did she come to be? I mean... in here?"

"Part of the original programming, I think; they said something like 'She is The World', but I'm skeptical. Her power doesn't seem to be absolute, at least not anymore. Even before, she usually acted through monsters - like the Guardians."

"Hmm." The Wavemaster rubbed his chin, scratching at the jawline with his middle finger.

A short silence passed between them before Bear spoke again. "Something happened to you, too... didn't it?"

(I thought he was watching me a bit too closely.) Stolls hid his brief surprise. "Is it that obvious?"

Bear chuckled, shook his head. "This isn't something anybody just up and starts investigating. Especially since these things have hurt people in the real world." He gestured to the black-robed Wavemaster. "

Shifting his weight, Stolls idly tapped the tip of his spear to his foot, toying with it for a moment before resuming his earlier posture. "Got it in one. I lost a friend of mine to this... and that ain't even the half of it." He lifted his head and met the Blademaster's gaze evenly. "Tell you what; I'll tell you my story if you tell me yours. Not here, though. Somewhere safe."

Bear creased his brow, clearly pondering the offer. After a fistful of seconds, a smile crossed his lips. "I know a place," he said. "I'll mail you instructions."

"All right then."

Chapter 2 - Follower

"Registration please."

Aged leather creaked as Dean flipped his wallet open, showing the appropriate identification to the officer before him - the nasal-voiced desk clerk who occupied the evidence locker, secure behind bulletproof glass, his voice muffled by the speaker. To his right stood another man, an older thin-faced officer in a light brown suit, receding gray hair and tired blue eyes, a slight bulge in the left breast of the suit concealing a handgun.

Another weapon caught his eye; the clerk presented a Glock 40, bolt back, chamber and magazine empty. "Do you have the case?"

Dean hefted the metal box, opening the drawer with his free hand and depositing the box within; he gave the drawer a nudge, shutting it, and nodded to the clerk. "Code's 4558."

"You understand we can't return the bullets to you, right?"

Dean glanced at his escort. "I know, lieutenant, I know. No big deal, I wasn't planning on using it anyway."

Masamoto smirked. "Nobody ever does."

A clunk was Dean's cue to open the drawer again. He reached in and snatched the box, now heavier with the pistol inside. After double-checking the lock, he took it by the handle and turned to the lieutenant. "Thanks, Lieutenant. Anything else?"

"No, that should be everything. Still waiting on the records from your precinct, but nothing you need to stick around for."


Masamoto led Dean back through the cold, pristine corridors of the police station, passing through an electronically-locked door leading to the main hallway.

"Never thought I'd be back here so soon," thought Dean aloud.

"Least you're not in handcuffs this time," Masamoto pointed out.

"True." Dean fell behind the lieutenant as he pushed through a set of double doors. "Although I have to say that this is one of the cleanest I've ever been in."

"Just had an inspection," he explained. "Losing those two kids put everyone on edge, and the chief's fixing to blame someone."

Dean nodded, remembering how the CC agents killed two cops who had accosted Shinji, and attempted to frame him for their deaths. His face fell, and he stepped up alongside Masamoto. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about your men."

"Yeah," muttered the lieutenant. "Well, it wasn't your fault... if anything, we owe you for stopping the guys who did it." His voice dropped a notch or two deeper. "Just wish we could've gotten some solid evidence. Nothing we had on them tied them to Cyber Connect except their employment and Shinji's murder... neither of which helps in proving they were taking orders, at least not enough."

"They're not invincible," said Dean. "There's gotta be something you can nail 'em on."

As they reached the lobby, Masamoto stopped and turned to Dean. "Dean, I'll say this once; I understand what you're doing, and I respect that. If I had my way, we wouldn't even waste the paperwork on you. But you know as well as I do that faceless multinationals don't go to jail, and for very obvious reasons." He sighed. "Cyber Connect effectively owns the Internet; nobody anywhere is going to touch them without a bulletproof case."

"Yeah, I know, I know that." Dean lightly kicked at the floor, shoving his free hand into his coat pocket.

Masamoto gave a long, hard look at the younger detective, appraising him silently. He then said, "Listen, you know I can't let you break the law, but... if you find anything, or something happens, call me first, okay?"

Dean blinked. "Mas?"

Masamoto inched closer, turning away from the reception desk and facing the glass doors leading out. "You know and I know and everyone in this building knows that the whole thing stinks. It stinks and we can't do a damn thing about it, but maybe you can. Maybe you can find out something we can't, get someone to talk who won't talk to a badge."

"Planning on doing that anyway. I was hoping for a chance at some legit work for a change." After a beat, he added, "Well... work, at least. Guy's gotta eat and all." He grinned.

The lieutenant smiled. "Works for me either way. Good luck, Dean."

"Workin' on it," replied Dean with a wink as he turned to leave.


Grass crunched and shifted beneath his shoes, still damp from the previous day's rainfall. A strong breeze pulled through the expansive garden, rustling the trees and offering slight relief from the humidity - which was only made worse through the sun's intervention, hanging high in the sky with not a single cloud to interrupt its light.

Dean regretted bringing his brown leather jacket as he tromped through the outlying gardens surrounding the Meiji shrine, the garment doing much to trap the rising heat of his body against his skin; sweat started to soak into his blue shirt, and even his khaki cargo pants felt uncomfortable in the heat.

Needless to say, he also regretted forfeiting the choice of locale for meeting Bear offline.

Fortune gave him a break, however, when he came upon the target: a lone wooden bench, sitting at a T-junction for the walkway, about a hundred or so yards away from the shrine itself. Sitting on the bench was a man of moderate build in his forties, decked out in a simple jeans and t-shirt combo. His short, thick hair was of the same shade as the Blademaster, and he shared a similar facial structure as well - square jaw, sharp features, visible amiability in the eyes.

Slowly, Dean approached the bench. He removed a small post-it note from his coat pocket and squinted as he tried to read his own chicken scratches.

"There's no getting off this train we're on."

The man turned his head; spotting Dean, he smiled slightly and stood up, turning to face him. "No, there isn't," he replied. "Dean Stollis, I presume?"

Dean smiled back and nodded. "Ryo Sakuma. The man himself." His smile quickly vanished. "Why the cloak-and-dagger stuff?"

'Bear' threw a glance behind him. "Sorry. I've been having this funny feeling lately, like I'm being watched. I think something's going on."

Dean crooked an eyebrow. "Well, not that I didn't wanna try the code phrase thing myself, but what do you mean?"

"It started a few days ago, when 'The World' became corrupted," said Ryo. "Started seeing the same cars driving by my house - black, with tinted windows - and kept feeling like I was being followed in the game. When you contacted me, I thought you might've been one of them."

"What changed your mind?" asked Dean.

"Well, I thought about it; why contact me publicly for the information if you were trying to keep an eye on me? Thought you might be working for Cyber Connect at first, but then I figured if you were really corporate, you'd be a little less obvious about what you wanted."

Dean smirked. "Unless I was trying to fool you into thinking that."

"No, I wondered about that too, but it seemed like an outside chance at best. More likely you were government or something." Ryo hinted at a grin, which Dean returned.

"Eh, close enough. Used to be a cop. You watch a lot of spy movies, don't you?"

"Lot of movies, period," he replied. "Goes hand-in-hand with being a gamer."

"Heh heh... it does indeed." Dean shifted his weight. "So, what say we go for a stroll?"


"Uh... how much is a Coke?" he asked, his gaze shifting from the menu on the noodle vendor stand to the vendor himself - a gangly, thin-faced teen in a bright red-and-white uniform. While his weak grasp of spoken Japanese was slowly improving, the written language might as well have been invisible, a fact that the elder of the two quickly gathered.

"Relax, I"m buying," Ryo assured the detective.

"Yeah," Dean said. "You do your thing... where you talk to people and they understand you."

Sakuma bartered with the vendor as Dean slowly stepped away, hands in his coat pockets, eyes toward the heavens. "Mildly envious of that," he muttered, wishing he'd spent the extra few thousand yen on the rest of the "Japanese for Dummies" audio tapes.

(This just keeps getting better and better,) he thought, going over the details the veteran gamer had shared with him. (Morganna... so she's behind all this. And I still have no idea what exactly she is, or what she's doing in 'The World.' well, aside from tearing the hell out of it.)

He gazed out across the pond before him, almost still enough to be mistaken for a mirror, the sun reflecting brilliantly off of it. On the opposite side, two men conversed, their reflections joining the sun, their movements perfectly mimed by the water. (Like he says,) he thought, (she had to be part of the original programming. This all seems to come down to that Epitaph of Twilight, but that still leaves the question of what it has to do with 'The World'. Was the game based on it or something? And why include an AI with that kind of power in a video game?)

A whistle from behind brought Dean's attention back to Ryo, who now stood nearby holding two bottled drinks, one of which he offered to Dean. "Here you go."

Dean smiled. "Thanks, man."

"You're welcome."

Ryo took a sip and started along the path again, and Dean followed. "Hey, you said something about a guy named Harald earlier," said Dean. "Tell me about him."

"Harald Hoerwick," said Ryo, "is the creator of Fragment, which he later sold to CC and it became 'The World.' He also claimed to be Aura's father when we spoke to him."

"Claimed to be?" Dean blinked. "You met him?"

"In the game," Ryo answered with an affirmative nod. "It was more like a recording of some sort, kept repeating himself." His brow furrowed. "Strange things... saying he was a bad father, asking us - or someone - to take care of Aura. He'd been sending messages out that we all assumed were about the Key of the Twilight, that's how we all came to find him."

Dean nodded. "I see... so he created Fragment, and that became the test version of 'The World'. And this Morganna tried to use Aura to..." he trailed off as he glanced to his side, seeing another pair of men standing several yards away, engrossed in conversation. He swore they looked familiar, but quickly shrugged it off.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing, just thought I saw someone," said Dean with a shake of his head.

Ryo sighed. "Well, I'll be honest, there's still a lot about this that I don't understand. I don't know what Aura was intended for, either by Harald or Morganna; all I know is what Helba told us, that if Aura was corrupted then 'The World' would ultimately be destroyed. Or something to that end."

"Mmm." Dean frowned. "There's so little to go on. Every question you answer just brings up two more."

"Yeah. I can say this, though: Harald created Aura and 'The World', or at least the basis for it; either he's behind Morganna - and could tell us all about her - or he knows who is. No matter who's doing what, he'd be the guy to see."

"There's the rub, isn't it," Dean said, pausing to take a long swig from his drink. "Guy hasn't been seen for who knows how long."

Ryo stopped, a thoughtful look on his face. "Wait... there is one other thing."

"What's that?"

"When we met with Harald in 'The World', there was someone else who saw him first - the Wavemaster BT." He turne his free hand, gesturing to his side in emphasis. "She was in kind of a daze, said that we should escape as soon as possible."


"I wouldn't quote me on this," he started, "but it's possible she learned something else from Harald. Something he didn't tell us."

Dean cocked his head, peering quizzically at Ryo. "Wasn't it a recording?"

"Maybe the wrong word," said Ryo with a shrug. "Maybe a memory would be better... an echo. Needless to say it was... alive enough to respond, in a limited way. She may yet know more than she told us."

"I see... well, I'd heard about her from another one of your friends, so she was next on the list anyway. I don't suppose you could put me in touch with her?"

"I could try." Ryo took another sip from his Coke. "She's gotten a little reclusive lately, but I think I could get ahold of her for you."

Dean smiled. "I'd appreciate that. It might make finding her a little easier," he jokingly said.

Ryo spoke again, but his voice fell on deaf ears as Dean's gaze flew past Ryo and onto the two men behind them on the path, still several yards away. He finally recognized them as the pair that had he had spotted earlier by the pond, and again just seconds ago - two Asian men, dressed in unassuming clothes and neither with any remarkable features, save for the cellular phone that the left-hand man was currently speaking into.

"Dean?" asked Ryo, somewhat unnerved by the detective's descent to silence.

"I don't want to alarm you," said Dean in a near-whisper, "but we're being followed."

Chapter 3 - They

"How many?" Ryo started to turn.

"Don't look, don't look!" hissed Dean, facing Ryo but eyeing the two men tailing them. "Two of 'em, plainclothes. Might be CC, might be cops."

"Cops? Why would they be following us?"

Dean sighed. "It's a long story, I'll tell you all about it soon as we get out of here. Where'd you park?"

"I didn't, I took the train here." Ryo twitched, struggling to remain still.

"Relax," urged Dean. "If you act all nervous, they'll know we're on to them."

Ryo took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, trying to stay calm, fighting his furiously pounding heart. "So, now what?"

Dean carefully scanned the surrounding area, eyes roaming up and down the footpath through the garden. "We have to get to my car, but we gotta lose them first."

"Should we run for it?"

"No, not yet. If they figure out we've spotted them they'll back off, and we won't find out anything." His mind raced, generating numerous possible escape plans and discarding them one after another. Finally he fell on an outlandish idea that nonetheless appealed to him. His eyes lit up as the proverbial light in his head clicked on. "Take out your wallet."

Ryo blinked, confused. "What? My wallet, why?"

"I'm gonna snatch it and bolt, and you chase after me." Dean moved in closer, placing his right hand on Ryo's shoulder. "We're gonna play a little game of 'tag'. Chase after me down the path yelling 'stop thief', or something; once you hit the archway, head through, bank right along the wall and follow it to the parking lot, make like I lost you. I'll cut through the commons to get there faster and have the car waiting."

He wasted no time in deliberation; Ryo nodded. "Got it... wait, what kind of car?"

"Blue Honda Civic; look for dice in the window."

"All right," said Ryo, angling his body away from the two followers and digging his wallet out of his pocket.

Dean eyed the wallet, then the tail, then the wallet again. "You ready for this?" he asked.

"Ready as I'll ever be," muttered Ryo. "Just go. Now!"

Steeling his nerves, Dean lashed a hand out and ripped the leather wallet from Ryo's waiting hand; in the same motion he turned and broke into a dash down the path, his eyes trained on the distant archway leading out of the inner garden.

He heard Ryo shouting behind him in his native language, his voice muffled slightly by the pounding of shoes against gravel. A handful of onlookers, in various tongues, also offered their shouts of surprise and alarm as Dean raced by, quickly tucking the wallet into his jacket pocket and doubling his efforts to exit the garden.

What took no more than half a minute felt like six whole ones. Dean scrambled beneath the arch winded, flustered and sweating bullets; the humidity helped nothing, adding the appearance of weight to his overdressed body. Slowing to a jog, he made his way through the lush commons, avoiding eye contact with any of its human occupants.

All the way, his mind fired off questions, a condition he was more than used to by now. (Masamoto said nothing about a tail. Who the hell were those guys?)

He dropped to a casual saunter as he entered the parking lot, one hand fishing through his pants pocket for his keys, chest still heaving as he caught his breath. (CC, maybe... that guy Lios? Nah, they got bigger fish to fry than me, but who else is there? Another company? Government? The mob?)

None of the answers fit the picture in his mind, so he shrugged them aside and stepped up to his car, pressing the unlock button and giving the door handle a gentle yank. The detective climbed into the driver's seat of the Civic, immediately regretting having opted for a leather interior as a wall of compacted heat pushed into him, impeding no progress into the car but making the journey quite uncomfortable, to say nothing of cooling down from his dash.

No sooner had he closed the door behind him than he shoved the key into the ignition and started the engine; his second act was to turn on the air conditioning, an act that was not necessary considering he had left it on. He scanned the sidewalk before the gardens through the windshield, eyes carefully watching for his companion. (C'mon, Ryo, hurry up.)

*knock knock knock*

Dean froze, his heart skipping a beat as someone's hand rapped the passenger-side window; he cocked his head right, and breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted Ryo, waiting patiently outside the still-locked door. Dean flipped the lock switch and opened the door, which was promptly opened by Ryo. "I think I lost them," he said as he climbed in and closed the door behind him, "but we'd better get moving, they weren't far behind."

Dean nodded and hastily slid on his seatbelt before shifting to reverse. He glanced out the rear window as the car idled out of the spot; a quick turn of the wheel and shifting to drive later, and the car was off and away from the parking lot.

With his free hand, he pulled Ryo's wallet out of his jacket and tossed it onto his lap. "Here," he said, turning the car left from the lot and into light traffic. "You got here fast, I'm impressed."

"Track team in high school," explained Ryo with a small smile, a slight redness to his face hinting at his own exhaustion. "Been a while, though," he said amidst a heavy sigh, falling back against the seat with his eyes shut.

"So can you put me in touch with BT?" asked Dean as he glanced right over his shoulder; spotting no one close behind, he changed lanes.

Ryo's eyes blinked open. "That depends," he replied. "Why would the cops be after you?"

Dean clenched his teeth. (Damn... was hoping I wouldn't have to go into this.) "You remember those shootings at the hospital and at CC's headquarters about a week ago?"

"Yeah, they were all over the... news..." Ryo trailed off. He recoiled slightly, his eyes wide. "You don't mean..."

"That was me," said Dean. He noticed Ryo's reaction, and lifted a hand off the wheel to wave it dismissingly. "Relax, it's not what you think. I'll explain."

"Please do." Ryo eyed him cautiously, appraisingly.

Dean could feel the impending judgment in the man's eyes, but continued. "Before I started this case, I came here on a contract from Asara corporation to steal data from Cyber Connect. I was working with two men, one of whom died at the Takashi complex shooting that same night. CC sent goons out to silence us; they're the ones that killed those cops at the hospital, and they killed our partner Shinji, who used to work for them."

Ryo nodded slowly, his expression blank. "Uh-huh..."

Dean sighed. "See, Asara told us they wanted accounting information from Cyber Connect; what they didn't tell us was that the 'accounting information' was actually a program called Delphi in disguise, a prototype AI and some sort of a super virus-protection program. Asara wanted it because the same thing it used to block hackers and viruses was capable of harming people through 'The World', just like those Guardian creatures you told me about."

"I see." Ryo furrowed his brow for a moment. "So they hired you to steal this... Delphi?"

"Yeah. And CC wanted to protect it, so they had it attack us. At the same time, they dispatched two agents to kill us and keep this thing under wraps. They didn't want anybody finding out. They killed Shinji and tried to kill me, but I stopped them and destroyed the rest of the data, with the help of my friend Kite - a hacker in 'The World'." He slowed the car to a stop as the light before him turned red. "That's when I decided to stick around and investigate CC, see if I couldn't find out what was going on with all the disturbances online."

"That's... that's quite a story," said Ryo quietly.

Dean nodded. "I already did time for the mess, so it's not like you think with the cops; but I am on bail, that's why I thought it might've been them. Still, I don't think it was."

"Me neither. I'm not sure what to make of it, myself."

"That's why we have to get in touch with BT and get to the bottom of this mystery. CC may not be responsible for all that's happening online, but somebody made this Morganna thing. Finding this guy Harold may be the only way we can get some answers."

Ryo swallowed dryly, lack of moisture causing his throat to burn. "All right," he said. "Take the #4 and drop me off at my place, I'll get ahold of her and give her your number."

The light turned green, and Dean pulled into a right turn onto the next street. "Why don't you just give me her address and I'll mail her?"

"I told you she's kind of a recluse lately." Ryo shook his head. "She's worried about something same as me; she might not buy it if you contact her out of the blue.

"All right," said Dean. "The #4?"

He nodded. "I'll tell you when."


The door clicked as Ryo popped it open, climbing out of the comfortably-cooled Civic, he glanced back at Dean, a smile on his lips. "Hey, good luck Dean."

"Thanks, Ryo. Be careful."

Ryo grinned. "You too."

"I'm workin' on that," replied Dean with a chuckle.

The door slammed shut, prompting Dean to release the break and drive off, away from the Sakuma household. With nothing new to add to his thoughts - outside of questions regarding what to expect from the woman behind BT - he twisted the dial on the radio to the nearest rock station and turned the volume up.

Guitars and drums, loud as they were, did nothing to quiet his inner discourse. (This brings back way too many memories. Hell, do they even count as memories? It happened a goddamn week ago! Now they're after me again, Jesus Christ. Of course, I don't even know if it's them this time...) He lightly pounded the steering wheel with the flat of his palm. "Goddamnit," he whispered under his breath.

(Who's really behind all this? Is it Cyber Connect, or is it Morganna? Who do I blame?) His eyes narrowed. (And what if this BT doesn't know anything else? What then?)

These thoughts led him to the next question of who, exactly, BT was; a question he had no immediate answer for. His guesses ran the gamut of stereotypes, from demure bookworm to icy femme fatale - none of which seemed to fit what little Ryo had told him about her.

(Let's hope the mystery woman can tell me something I don't already know,) he thought.

A muffled warbling erupted from the glove box; he turned down the radio with a flick of the wrist, and popped open the box to reveal a ringing cellular phone, which he promptly snatched up and opened. "Hello?"

"Hi, Dean! It's Hiroshi."

Dean grinned. "Hey, Hiro man! How's it going?"

"Pretty good. How about you?"

A left turn brought him face-to-face with the sun, forcing him to drop the visor over the window. "Not too shabby. Haven't heard from you in a while, man; what's up on your end?"

"Well, I ran into Balmung - one of Yasu's friends in the game - and straightened things out with him; then I found out the name of someone involved with 'The World'." Hiroshi paused. "Someone named 'Seijiro Tanaka,' but I'd never heard of him before. Have you?"

"Nah, doesn't ring a bell. Who is he?"

"I don't know. The player we talked to said it had something to do with 'Fragment,' how they were having problems similar to what's going on now. I was wondering if maybe you could find out more?"

"Hmm." Dean chewed his lip. "Well, it certainly couldn't hurt to check it out. How do you spell Seijiro?"


Doing his best to mentally store the name, Dean replied, "Thanks, I'll see what I can dig up. If I find anything, I'll let you know. And you do the same."

"Sure thing. Thanks!"

"No problem." Dean smiled. "Hey, tell BlackRose I said 'hi'."

"Will do. See you later!"

"Later man." Dean pressed the 'off' button and folded the phone back up, tossing it into the glove box from whence it came. (Seijiro Tanaka, huh? Well, not like I had any other leads aside from BT. Maybe the lieutenant will know something.)


"Please, for the love of all that is holy, tell me it wasn't you."

Dean drew back from the receiver, puzzled. "Huh?"

He heard the lieutenant sigh. "Dean, we got a report about a mugger near the Meiji shrine that looked an awful lot like you. Now I know you wouldn't think about lifting some poor guy's wallet so soon after getting out of jail, would you?"

He rolled his eyes. "No, sir, I wouldn't. I can explain."

"I think you'd better."

"Listen, I met with a guy trying to find out more about what's going on, he was involved in that fiasco about a year ago involving some girl, one of the first that fell comatose while playing 'The World.'"

"Oh yeah, I remember that. So what happened?"

"These two guys were following us; we had to pull a fast one to lose 'em, so I made like I robbed him and had him chase me so we could get out of there."

Masamoto sighed again, this time in obvious relief. "Okay, so it wasn't a mugging. Good. I was wondering why no report was filed. Who were they?"

Dean blinked. ('Who were they?') "I thought they might've been your guys."

"No, we didn't have any plainclothes officers around the garden at noon. Why, what did they look like?"

"Just regular guys. Wasn't sure who they were, guess they could've been CC goons as well, but I don't know what they'd be after this time."

"Damn. Did you find out anything?"

Dean spun in his chair, reclining and kicking out the footstool. "Ahh... nothing much, really. I got two more leads, one I'm meeting with later, and another I was hoping to ask you about. Does the name 'Seijiro Tanaka' sound familiar?"

"No. Should it?"

"Found out from another one of my sources. Supposed to have something to do with that test version of 'The World'; y'know, Fragment? Haven't been able to find out anything on him, though. I was hoping maybe you could tell me something about him. An address, for starters."

"Well, I'll try, but no promises."

"Thanks, lieutenant."

"No problem. And Dean?"


"Next time, pretend the guy following you stole something from you. Gives you a reason to turn the tables."

Dean laughed aloud. "Ha ha! I'll keep that in mind. Later, Mas."

"Have a good one."

He shut off the phone and leaned back, letting the receiver drop into his lap. His eyes drooped shut, the ceiling of his apartment the last thing they saw before darkness filled his vision. He threw his arms up over his head, stretching in the chair and letting out a deep groan of satisfaction as his stagnant joints and muscles were pulled and twisted.

Folding his hands beneath his head, he let his body relax and mold to the chair. (Hope they don't call for a while. I'm beat...)

Hope springs eternal, but not fortune; the phone rang, jarring him from his moment of peace. Slightly irritated, he picked up the phone and answered the call. "Y'ello."

A woman's voice answered him. "Is this Dean Stollis?"

Ears perking up, Dean erred on the side of caution. "Depends who's asking."

"Someone who doesn't plan on getting off this train we're on."

That got his full attention. He sat up. "Another gamer, huh?"

She let out a soft, throaty noise that might have been a very brief chuckle. "It was Ryo's idea."

Dean smiled, moving off the chair and to his feet. "Then I presume this is the BT I've been hearing so much about?"

"You presume correctly. What is it you wanted to speak with me about, detective?"

Chapter 4 - Just the Facts

Dean clicked the button on the pen, causing the ball-point to slide out of its plastic sheath. He twirled the pen in his fingers briefly before pressing the point to the pad of paper before him. In his other hand, the cordless receiver for the phone, on and to his ear.

"There's a few things I've taken a more than passing interest in regarding 'The World'," said Dean, "and I'm pretty sure you can guess what they are."

"Go on."

"I need to know what you know about Morganna, Harald, and Cyber Connect. Specifically, how they're all related."

"Hmm. Well, one indirectly created the other and it intends to destroy the third, if that's what you mean."

Dean smirked. (Cute.) "Not exactly. Ryo told me that Morganna's behind everything that's going on with 'The World'. I'm trying to find out who's responsible for her creation, and what role Cyber Connect has been playing in this."

"That's quite a mystery," said BT. "Unfortunately, I doubt I could tell you anything that Ryo couldn't. If anything, he would know more than I; he was in contact with Tsukasa and the others far more often than me."

"All right." Dean idly scratched the pen on the paper, drawing invisible lines back and forth before the ink started to flow. "Then how about this; Morganna needed to corrupt Aura in order to take over or destroy 'The World', right?"


[Aura = key] "And Tsukasa, who was trapped in 'The World' to cultivate Aura to her liking, escaped - preventing Morganna from using Aura towards that end, is this also correct?" He waited for an affirmative "Mm-hmm" before adding [Tsukasa = tied to, keeper of Aura] "Then would it be fair to assume that Aura could have been intended, by Harald, to stop Morganna?"

"I believe so; at least, that's how I understand it." [Aura = stop Morganna. Harald knew about Morganna, how did it get there?]

"Okay," he started, "let's talk about Harald. Do you remember..."

"Didn't you already ask Ryo about this?" she cut in.

"I did, but I want to hear your side of the story." Hearing no protest, he continued. "Ryo told me that you went to see Harald before he and his team could get there. What did he tell you?"

"N-nothing," she stammered. Her voice dropped in pitch by a note or two. "I... I told Ryo everything he told me."

"What did Harald say?" Dean asked again.

"I said nothing!" she suddenly exclaimed. "It's not important, it shouldn't..." she sighed. "It doesn't matter. It's all over now."

"It's not over, BT, and you know it," countered Dean, his voice neutral but firm. "People are dying. 'The World' is coming to pieces, and I got a hunch it's not gonna stop there."

There was a long pause; he could hear her breath over the phone, tight and strained, clearly uncomfortable. "Look," he said, choosing his words carefully, a deliberate softness to his tone. "I'll level with you; I know why you'd want to leave this all behind. God knows I wanted to, too; but I owe a friend of mine a favor. He's the one that's trying to get to the bottom of this mystery; I'm just trying to help him because he helped me, and he didn't have to."

His eyes closed, his throat tightening. "He risked a lot to help us out, even though we weren't exactly doing good things. It's because of him that we found out that there was more to this than meets the eye, that Cyber Connect knew about the problems in 'The World' and had done some very bad things on their own." He swallowed hard. "I told him I'd help him out, and I will, but you're my last lead. Nobody else has turned up anything for me, nothing that gets me any closer to finding out what the hell's going on, and who's responsible."

Dean sighed, opening his eyes once again, staring down at the pad of paper; his hand had since drifted off to one side, the pen slipping from his grasp and coming to rest on the paper, a light trail of ink drilled on its surface from where the pen had been standing. "Please," he said, "if there's anything... anything at all that you didn't tell Bear or the others... just tell me and I'll say "thank you" and hang up, and you won't hear from me again."

A voice in the back of his mind remembered that BT had called *him*, and that he didn't have her number or address, more or less making the statement less a truth than a mathematical certainty; a voice he ignored when hers spoke into his ear.

"He said... something about a lock."

Dean sat up straight, resisting the urge to ask the obvious follow-up question, instead waiting for her to continue.

"There was another name," she said slowly. "Something like... 'Seijiro'. It was hard to tell, his voice was... very unusual. A long echo, lots of reverb."

"Mmm," Dean murmured, his mind doing cartwheels at her mention of Seijiro. [Harald Hewick, Seijiro (Tanaka?) = connected via 'Fragment'. Harold knew Tanaka.]

"'Seijiro... your lock is broken.' Those were his exact words." [Aura = key, made by Harald. ??? = lock, made by Seijiro. Could be Morganna.]

He waited ten seconds for her to continue, then another ten, and then another. Realizing she had nothing further to add, he fought down the urge to ask any further questions, honoring his unofficial promise. "Thank you," he said, drawing the receiver away from his ear and reaching for the 'off' button.


Her voice was faint from distance, but he heard it. "Yeah?"

"Your name." She waited a moment before clarifying her statement. "In 'The World', what is your name?"

Caught off-guard, Dean cleared his throat and said, "Stolls," adding "I'm a Wavemaster," after a beat.

That quiet, short chuckle again; "Interesting," she half-whispered. A click, and the line died.

Dean reached over and set the phone down on the recharder, a little red light flashing on as it slid into place. (Interesting indeed,) he thought, smiling slightly. (Guess I should inform the troops) He dragged out the keyboard and opened his mail client, shattering the field of stars covering his desktop.


From: DStollis@mailserv.net

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Seijiro Tanaka

Hey man. Found out some bits and pieces about that Seijiro guy you mentioned; it seems he was working with Harald Hewick, creator of 'The World' - or, at least, Harald knew him. My sources have hinted that Seijiro is somehow responsible for the A.I. entity that is behind the incidents in 'The World'; his program was referred to as a 'lock', whereas Aura is a 'key' of some sort.

Most of this is speculation, but it would explain why Aura is being pursued by those phases you mentioned. Regardless, I'm going to try and track down Seijiro and see if we can't get some answers. I'll have more for you soon. In the meantime, follow up anything on your end and let me know if you need anything else, or if you find out anything.

- Dean


(Officer Stollis... we meet at last.)

Masamoto opened the blank manilla folder in his hands, revealing several pages of information, still warm from the branding of letters upon them by the printer. He set the folder on his desk and pulled the chain hanging from the lamp, throwing a spotlight on the text before him.

The aging lieutenant skimmed over the introduction page, which highlighted the important parts of Sergeant Dean Robert Stollis' service record. The next few pages cited the events in detail, along with the testimony of other members of the Los Angeles Police Department.

(Good standing, was never late to work, always finished paperwork on time... no prior misdemeanors or felonies, no civil complaints... not exactly the most exciting record but it looks like he was a good cop.) He read further. (Awful lot of work; everything from undercover work to riot control. High marks in negotiation, marksmanship, surveillance... commendation from FBI and DEA.)

Masamoto smirked. (Where's the punchline?) He turned to the next page and found one.

[Excerpt from Incident D7-424

August 17, 2007

Summary: A large drug shipment on the eve of December 22, 2005, was successfully intercepted by LAPD officers; in the wake of Pluto Kiss, however, all records of inventory were lost, including the recently acquired shipment. It is believed this is what permitted several key LAPD and California State officials to participate in trafficking the drugs and laundering the money virtually unnoticed for almost two years (Incident D5-109). A combined Internal Affairs and FBI investigation revealed that fourteen officers and intermediaries were paid large sums of money for ther silence in the operation.

Conclusion: In regards to incident D5-109, Sgt. Stollis was one of the complicit officers. He was discharged from the LAPD August 18, 2007, charged with obstruction of justice and withholding evidence, and was sentenced to two years of incarceration at San Quentin State Prison. He served one year, and earned an early release on parole for good behavior.]

(So, that's how it happened... damn.) He frowned, shook his head. (Well, I guess he's paid his due. And then some, these past few weeks.)

*knock knock* "Lieutenant?"

Masamoto looked up to his door. "Come in."

The knob turned and the door swung open, allowing the young, uniformed officer behind it to enter. "Here's the info request, sir," he said, handing a clipboard to Masamoto.

Taking the board, Masamoto dismissed the officer with a wave of his hand. "That will be all. Thank you."

The door clicked shut as he eyed the single sheet of paper which decorated the clipboard. (Tanaka, Seijiro... let's see... employed at CC corporation from 2004 onward, head of research and development in artificial intelligence... doesn't look too out of... wait a minute...)

[1997-2004: U.S. Department of Defense

1999-2000: 'ARPANET' project leader

2001-2002: Envoy to United Nations; WNC administrator

2002-2003: 'Echelon' project leader (conjecture)

2004: Termination of employment]

Masamoto blinked. (He worked for the American government? What is all this about?)

With one eye on the line that read "last known address", he reached for the phone. (Something's not right here... if he worked for the government, then how did Cyber Connect pick him up? And for what?)

He brought the phone to his ears without remembering having dialed a number, though the ringing told a different story. "Hello?"

"Dean, it's Masamoto. I found something on Mr. Tanaka."

"Great! What'd you find?"

The lieutenant took in a deep breath. "I'd prefer to share it with you in person. I go off duty in an hour, meet me in front of the station."


"He worked for the Defense Department?!"

Seated in the passenger side of a tan Buick, Dean could only stare at the officer next to him, jaw slack and eyes wide.

Masamoto nodded. "That's right. He was a fed before Cyber Connect made him a better offer. He worked on ARPANET, Echelon... internet and surveillance, and the centralization of both."

"Hmm. How does that fit into 'The World', though? What would Cyber Connect want with him?"

He shrugged. "I'm not sure why him, specifically, but he's got credentials and experience; I'm sure he was on a lot of short lists."

Dean idly scratched the back of his neck. "Hmm... 'your lock is broken'... your lock..."

"What was that?"

(If he worked for CC when Harold sold them 'Fragment'... he made the lock and Harold the key. Worked in internet technology and surveillance... administration... yeah.) "Yeah... yeah, I think he did it."

"Did what?"

Dean turned back to Masamoto. "Does it say anything about artificial intelligence on there?"

"Actually," he gave the paper another look, skipping over a few highlighted sections, "something like was on here somewhere. Where is it... ah, here. It says he was, or is, head of research and development for A.I."

"Son of a bitch. He did do it." Seeing Masamoto's confused look, he explained. "He created an A.I. called Morganna, and she's behind all that's going on in 'The World'."

It was Masamoto's turn to look surprised. "You've got to be kidding me. An A.I. is putting people into comas?"

"Where does he live?" asked Dean. "I'll explain on the way, but I think we need to ask him some questions."

Facing forward, Masamoto gave the ignition key a sharp turn. "I concur," he said flatly.

Chapter 5 - To Remain Silent

A low whistle preceded his comment. "Not too shabby."

Grass crunching beneath their shoes, Dean and Masamoto trudged up the lawn towards the two-story house, largely barren save for a hanging trail of paper lanterns around the front porch and a bird feeder hanging from a nearby tree. The lawn, though bare, was well cared for, and the house itself looked clean, if sparsely decorated.

Excepting the Buick from which they had emerged and a white van across the street, no other cars were nearby; no lights filled the windows, appearing as empty eyes staring away from the darkened household. Clouds had secretly rolled in overhead, dark gray and eager to burst forth in a shower of rain.

As they reached the porch, Dean gestured to the doorbell. "It's your show, Mas."

Masamoto stepped up to the door and gave the bell a push. "Mr. Tanaka!" he called over the ringing. "This is the police; we'd like to have a word with you."

No response.

The two exchanged confused glances; Dean shrugged, Masamoto rang again. "Anybody home?" he hollered.

"Think we've been pre-empted," said Dean.


A voice from within caught them both by surprise. "Just a minute!" Footsteps, a click of a latch being undone, and the knob turned. The door opened inward, revealing a short, stout man in his forties: eyes blue, hair short and stringy, face somewhat chubby, skin darker than the norm, and damp to boot; covering most of his body was a dark blue terrycloth robe.

"Sorry, I was in the shower," explained the man. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"

"Sorry to bother you," said Masamoto. "We're looking for a Mr. Seijiro Tanaka."

"I'm him," said Tanaka with a curt nod. "You are police?"

"Yes. We'd just like to ask you a few questions."

Seijiro's narrow gaze moved from Masamoto to Dean, and back again. His eyes went wide for a moment as Dean reached in his jacket, but relaxed as the younger man appeared to scratch an itch. "Hmm," he grunted. "Come on in."

The robe-clad man padded away from the door and into the house, leading Dean and Masamoto to the front room; the two politely removed their shoes at the entrance before following beyond the foyer.

"Before you start, who's the... American?" asked Seijiro, eyeing Dean suspiciously.

Dean's eyes met those of the Cyber Connect employee, trying in vain to read his expression and body language. He guessed that the was being spoken about, and not understanding the words didn't help to put him at ease.

(I don't like this,) he thought. (We found this guy too easy...)

"He's my... charge, I suppose you could say," replied Masamoto, mock disdain in his voice as he threw a glance in Dean's direction. "Ignore him."

"Very well." Seijiro sat down on a nearby chair. "What can I do for you, officer?"

"I'd like to ask you some questions about your work with Cyber Connect," said Masamoto. "Specifically, Morganna."

Seijiro tensed upon hearing her name; Dean detected a trace of fear on the man's face. "What about it?"

"We have reason to believe it's behind a number of related disturbances in 'The World', and that it's connected to the shootings a week ago."

The programmer nodded. "Yes, terrible business, that; I knew the programmer who died at the Takashi complex." He shook his head solemly, his eyes lowering to the floor. "I'm afraid I can't be of much help to you, Mr. Masamoto; if Morganna is still alive then it's doubtful it would be within my capabilities to stop her."

Masamoto blinked, confusion written on his face. "What do you mean 'alive'? What exactly is she?"

Seijiro inhaled deeply, his already ample chest expanding as air filled his lungs. He sighed, the robe sinking with his skin. "Morganna... was born in the original version of 'Fragment'. A primitive artificial intelligence designed, by Harald and his programming staff, for administration purposes."

"She was meant to run 'The World'?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Seijiro. "It was I who modified the program with the rest of 'Fragment' when it became 'The World'. She was to administrate, protect, and watch over 'The World' - an autonomous program that would be capable of responding to the unique challenges of its player base, evolving the game itself to suit their needs as they grew in number." He frowned. "Unfortunately, she... was not as advanced as we had hoped, not enough for our plans, or so we believed. When it was revealed that true artificial intelligence was somewhat out of our grasp, the system was scrapped and Morganna was... deleted, if you will."

Masamoto leaned forward. "Deleted?"

Seijiro nodded. "Yes, but by then she had somehow become self-aware... still not true artificial intelligence, but 'alive' enough to view its own demise as undesireable. She copied core elements of her A.I. patterns into the fabric of 'The World', meaning that even if she were deleted, she could eventually restore herself, given proper time."

"I don't understand; if you knew about this, why was 'The World' still released?"

"We didn't know about it at the time," he admitted. "Harald may have known, but I can't be certain."

Facing accusative stares from Dean and the lieutenant, Seijiro gave an exasperated sigh. "You don't understand; it's not like the company has been waiting for this to happen and trying to cover it up. We're doing what we can, but she's simply grown far more intelligent and powerful than we had anticipated; most of our staff didn't even know of her existence, and some still don't. And Harald was the one who based Fragment on the Epitaph of the Twilight; this all does seem to be following it word for word, but we're still not sure what it means."

"That puts us in the same boat," said Masamoto. "What will happen if this... Morganna... succeeds in destroying 'The World', or whatever her ambition may be?"

Tanaka turned his head away from both men; he swallowed, his face contorting in a brief grimace. "She may spread beyond it."

Masamoto glanced back at Dean and gave a small nod, and turned back as he reached into his jacket. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Tanaka," said the lieutenant, "we have no further questions for you."

Both turned to leave, but stopped in their tracks when Seijiro spoke again. "Are... you going to arrest me?" he asked, his voice sounding small and timid, accenting his vulnerable posture.

Masamoto drew a hand up and scratched at the edge of his hairline. "I wouldn't worry about that, sir... but I wouldn't leave town either, if I were you. We may yet need your cooperation again."

Seijiro nodded slowly. "Very well. Good day, Mr. Masamoto."

He froze, his face tensed, just briefly but long enough for Dean to catch notice. "Good day," he said quietly before turning away, a slight edge to his voice.

Stopping only to put on their shoes, Dean and Masamoto left together, the latter closing the door behind him, the chill of air conditioning being replaced by the uncomfortably sticky warmth of the air outside.

As they walked across the yard towards the parked Buick, Dean threw his companion a look. "You all right? What happened?"

"Did you get everything?" asked Masamoto abruptly.

Dean reached into his jacket, and removed a tape recorder from the inside pocket. "Soon as we stepped in. What'd he say?"

Pulling a ring of keys from his pocket, Masamoto circled around the front of the car. "He said my name."

"...and?" asked Dean after a beat.

The lieutenant stopped, turned towards Dean; his skin looked a shade paler than the American remembered it.

"I didn't."


(No messages... I'm in demand.)

Dean's sarcastic thoughts ceased as he leisurely strolled into the adjoining bedroom, his body going limp as he unceremoniously flopped down upon the cushioned surface.

From what Masamoto had translated, most of Dean's hunches had been correct; Morganna, a self-replicating artificial intelligence meant to govern 'The World', intended to grow beyond its meager constraints for purposes that couldn't possibly be benign. The men who created her were now in no position to stop her, and all their hopes apparently lay in a 14-year-old boy and a 'key' whose true function he didn't yet understand.

Dean wasn't ready to accept everything Seijiro had said as gospel; the tone of his voice left the detective a little distrustful of the programmer's remarks, but his information fit too well to be completely made up. Nevertheless, he found himself fixated on the last words the lieutenant had spoken before they left Tanaka's place.

("He said my name"... are they watching us? Which one of us?)

He thought further. (It has to be Cyber Connect; if they remember me, then they've probably been following me. And all of us. Son of a bitch...)

Dean let out a satisfied groan as he stretched out on the bed, the mattress adhering to his back; he closed his eyes and folded his hands beneath his head, his thoughts fading to silence as his muscles relaxed.


From: Bear@theworld.com

To: DStollis@mailserv.net

Subj: Urgent

I need to speak with you. In person, not over the internet. Meet me in front of my house.

- Ryo


(Well, this keeps getting better and better. Wonder what he wants this time.)

The Civic rolled gently down the street, shadows rolling off the dashboard as it passed streetlight after streetlight. Dean drummed his fingers against the wheel, the hard leather delightfully cool to the touch; the humidity of the night air was forgotten in the wake of the car's air conditioning.

More questions drifted through Dean's mind as he neared the Sakuma residence. (There's gotta be more to it than what Seijiro told us; maybe they knew what Morganna was capable of, maybe not, but I still don't see how it got entered into the system in the first place. Why consider using A.I. to administer 'The World' if it was still just a pipedream? And how could it evolve so fast if it wasn't 'true' A.I. in the first place?)

These questions and more fell by the wayside as he rounded the corner leading to Ryo's house, and a man in black stepped in the path of the vehicle, waving his arms wildly.

Dean was caught off his guard but had more than enough time to brake. The man shielded his eyes as the headlights stared him in the face, but a moment of thought was all Dean needed to recognize the man. With a puzzled frown, Dean beckoned to the man with his hand; a push of the lock button allowed him to open the door.

"Thanks," said Ryo as he climbed into the car. "Kill the lights and park. They're at my house."

"What? Who??"

"Just do it!" he urged. Dean followed the instructions, then turned in his seat and faced Ryo, covered almost head-to-toe in some sort of black cloth, from dark sneakers and trousers to a navy blue overshirt, buttoned shut. "Think it's the same guys who followed us at the shrine. Two of them in a white van."

"White van," muttered Dean. He flashed back to the Tanaka house; a similar vehicle had been parked opposite the lieutenant's car. (So they ARE following us...) "Who are they? Are they the same guys who you've seen before?"

"I don't know. All the guys I saw were in expensive cars, like company cars, usually black with tinted windows. Like they were more worried about being seen than being noticed." Ryo shook his head. "These guys just look like your average mooks."

"Where's your kid? Is she okay?"

Ryo nodded. "She's over at a friend's for the night."

Dean grit his teeth and sucked in a sharp breath of air. "All right," he said, taking the car out of park and letting it idle towards the curb, far enough away from the corner to appear inconspicuous. Parking it once more, he killed the engine and turned back to Ryo. "Cell phone's in the glove box. Call the cops, I'll go check it out."

"What are you going to do?" asked Ryo as Dean reached under the steering column and pushed the trunk release button.

"Beat some answers out of them with a tire iron," he answered flippantly, accenting the statement with a raising of both eyebrows.

Ryo's eyes almost popped out of his head. "WHAT?!"

Opening the door, Dean threw a look at Ryo. "Just call 'em. We can't let them get away, this corporate "1984" shit has gone too far."

"But I... ah..." Ryo spluttered; he ended in a groan of tenuous approval as he reached for the glove box.

Dean wasted no time in exiting the vehicle and snatching a long, heavy tool from his trunk; normally suited for changing tires, he deemed it a suitable interrogation tool for the task at hand and found himself with a growing desire to use it.

He smirked, gripping the iron with both hands and wielding it like a baseball bat. (Wonder if Big Brother'll see THIS coming...)

Chapter 6 - Cop Karma

Counting houses, Dean quietly strolled along the sidewalk, tire iron clutched possessively in his hands. From what little he had seen of Ryo's house, he tried valiantly to form a plan of attack, which were all dismissed in time for him to gather first-hand intelligence; approaching the Sakuma residence, he ducked off the sidewalk and crept up through the lawn, eyes on the white van parked before the house.

Though his jacket blended in fairly well with the darkness, he regretted that the same couldn't be said for his khakis, which were quite far from invisible against the grass and greenery of the lawn. A small hill separated Sakuma's place from the house next to it, and Dean crouched down low against it as he spied on the van.

(Hmm... engine's off; doesn't look like anybody's there. Guess they're both inside,) he thought, turning his attention to the house. His thought was partially proven as a man-shaped shadow crossed the window facing the lawn, illuminated from within against the drawn blinds.

Tensing his muscles, Dean rose from his hiding spot and carefully snuck up the lawn, along the side of the house; each footstep was calculated with care, blades of grass offering minimal cries of pain as they were crushed under his shoes. He carefully rounded the house, passing a metal drain pipe which marked the corner, and found himself in the backyard, standing before a large wooden patio.

Spotting no one, he relaxed momentarily, still gripping the iron tight but letting his muscles loosen and his nerves calm; he took a few deep breaths, fighting the rebellious pounding of his nervous heart. (Easy,) he silently told himself. (Easy does it. Let's see what's going on here first.)

Rising up onto the porch, Dean flattened his back against the wall of the house and crept towards the back entrance, a sliding glass door that looked easy to breach, albiet noisily so. Throwing a glance into the kitchen beyond the door, he spotted no one and reached for the handle.

"Hey, Mark! Check this out!"

Silently frantic, Dean ducked back behind cover, moving far enough from the door to remain unseen; he heard footsteps as they descended a flight of stairs, past the darkened kitchen and into what he assumed was a family room. After a lifetime of five seconds, he moved back towards the door, repeating his earlier stolen glimpse of the kitchen and reach for the handle.

Thankfully, Ryo had left the door unlocked. Dean gave the door a mild tug, pushing it open slowly, steadily. He cringed as the door made a slight sucking noise, insulation material dragging against metal, but it appeared to attract no attention. Prying the door open wider, Dean crept inside, careful to keep low. He drew the door as close to shut as possible, keeping it slightly ajar to avoid making any additional noise.

"So? What's the problem?"

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, an instinctive response to his proximity with the intruder. The voice floated up from a short set of stairs, beyond which lay a well-lit family room. Though Dean could not see either man, a light in the corner cast shadows far enough to achieve similar ends.

A light clicked on in the back of Dean's mind when he realized he could understand their words. "What do you mean, 'What's the problem?' That's the guy who was with him earlier!" exclaimed one of the men in English.

"He must've seen us coming." A sigh. "Wonder why he didn't call the cops," he mused.

"Hell if I know. Did you find the address?"

Dean crept behind a nearby island, staying low to keep out of sight. Gingerly, he pried his shoes off one by one and set them on the floor, performing a minor feat of juggling genius as he cradled the iron and kept it from even touching the ground.

"Got it here," replied one of the men. "Radio it in, I'm going to dig through here a little more."

"All right, but hurry; if Dean got that email then we may have company coming."

(My reputation precedes me,) thought Dean's sarcastic side, a futile attempt to ease the tension. He heard footsteps again as the speaker climbed the stairs, trudging past the island and through the doorway to the front of the house.

Taking the chance of a lifetime, Dean crept from hiding, iron in hand; his shoeless feet made almost no noise, allowing him to move quickly towards the stairs.

"Boss, this is Alpha team, over," came the voice from the front hall.

Tentatively, Dean tiptoed down the first step. Keys clacked merrily from the family room at the bottom, mingling with the burst of unintelligible radio static as whoever the mook was speaking to answered him.

"We have the address of the Kurasawa residence, but Sakuma is a negative. Repeat, Sakuma is a negative. Both of them. Over."

Another step. And another.

"Unknown. Just discovered an email from Sakuma to Stollis. We may have incoming. Tell Bravo team to proceed with extraction ASAP. Over."

(Extraction? What the hell's going on here?) One more... Dean deftly came to a halt on the carpeted floor of the family room, decorated with an eye towards the warm colors of the spectrum. Past a small coffee table, one of the goons sat at Ryo's desk, tapping away at the keyboard and browsing the information on the monitor.

"Off the Meijiro-Dori. 673..."

The voice became muffled as Dean tiptoed into the living room, closer to the seated man. He bore the look of a military covert ops unit, dressed all in black, with a kevlar vest and a pair of thin gloves completing the outfit. A Beretta 9mm pistol lay on the desk next to the keyboard, drawing Dean's eyes to it like a magnet.

"Copy that, boss. Over and out."

The words cut through Dean's stealth act instantly; Dean faltered, nearly losing his balance. (Gotta hurry... god, I hope this works.)

He raised the iron and lurched forward; before the man could turn around, Dean brought the tool down hard on the back of his head. The weapon connected with a loud thump, violently throwing his head forward and onto the desk; he collapsed in the chair, his hands dropping over the armrests, a weak groan escaping from his lips.

Dean blinked, one eyebrow crooked in surprise, the iron still ringing in his hands. (Hmm. That was easy.)

It got harder; footsteps came from beyond the stairs, urging Dean to take more drastic measures. He reached for the man's gun and discarded the iron; checking the safety, he whirled around to face the newcomer, who looked more than a little shocked to see Dean standing over the unconscious body of his partner.

"What the hell... it's you!" he cried. "What are you..."

"Stop!" yelled Dean as the man reached for his pistol, trapped in a side holster. "Don't even think about it! Get your hands up!"

The black-clad man twitched, his eyes narrowed in frustration. "Rrgh," he grunted in defeat, reluctantly raising his hands over his head.

"All right, start talking." Dean hardened his gaze, adjusting his grip on the pistol. "Who sent you here and why?"

"I'm not telling you shit," spat the man.

"Wrong answer." Dean nudged the barrel down and to the left, and pulled the trigger.

A sharp cry of pain pierced his lips as a 9mm bullet blasted through his right leg, forcing him to his knees. Spots of blood splattered over the brown carpeting as he desperately clutched the wound, groaning loudly, his brow furrowed and jaw clenched. He was caught off-guard when Dean marched up and placed the barrel of the gun against the man's forehead, the detective's other hand clenching his neck.

"Listen good, G.I. Joe," hissed Dean, his eyes ablaze. "I am not a patient man. You play it straight with me and I'll let the cops take you away. Otherwise, I still have your friend over there," he glanced over his shoulder, double-checking to ensure that the chairborne goon was still unconscious.

His brown eyes were wide and brimming with tears from the pain; his face had become soaked in sweat. Dean met the man's eyes and spoke slowly, carefully pronouncing every word. "What... are you... doing here?"

He briefly figdeted, shivered before answering. "W-we were sent to find the address of the Kurasawa woman... she wasn't listed. Sakuma knows where she is."

"Why? Who is she?"

"She's..." he broke off, gulping loudly. "She is one of the few that knows the true nature of the incidents in 'The World'. She also knows about the boss's connection to it all."

Dean's intuitive side kicked in. (That's gotta be BT.) "Who's your boss?"

"I... I can't..." he raised a hand weakly to protest. "He'll kill me..."

Dean's anger returned, but only briefly; seeing the look of fear and pain in his eyes, Dean called off his bluff and removed the pistol from the man's head. "Here," he said, taking both of the man's hands and forcing them onto his wounded thigh.

Stunned, he could only watch as Dean molded his hands to the injured flesh, squeezing firmly. "Keep pressure on it," Dean said, his voice unusually calm. "The cops are on the way." At this, Dean reached down and took his pistol from the holster; with both guns, Dean brought himself face-to-face with his adversary. "How many of you guys are after her?"

He looked away, giving a wheezing sigh. "Two more."

"Good. Don't go anywhere."

Dean stood up and jogged towards the stairs; a loud BANG echoed through the house as a door was violently opened. As Dean reached the top of the stairs, Ryo dashed through the front hall into the kitchen to join him.

"Dean," he panted, his shoulders sagging. "Problem..."

Momentarily startled, Dean relaxed his guard as he recognized Ryo. "It's all right man, I got 'em," he said, gesturing to the wounded and unconscious men downstairs.

"No!" Ryo shook his head. "Another problem... your phone." He held his hand up, revealing Dean's cellular phone in its clutches.

Dean squinted at the bright blue LED, puzzled over Ryo's behavior; confusion turned to concern when he saw the words [low battery] on the screen.

"No way," he muttered. "Tell me you..."

A look at Ryo's ragged countenance and worried expression told him all he needed to know. Ryo himself told him the rest. "I couldn't get a signal."

"DAMN IT!" Dean suddenly shouted. "You've got to be shitting me!"

Ryo winced, recoiling slightly; he glanced down into the family room, scratching the back of his head in bemusement. "What's going on??"

"They're after BT," said Dean. "They got her address from your computer."

"No..." Ryo's face fell. "What do we do?"

Dean spun one of the pistols in his hand, offering the butt to Ryo. "Take this, keep an eye on them and call the police," urged Dean. "For real this time. Send 'em to her place, too."

Ryo hesitantly took the weapon with his right hand, experimentally turning it before his eyes in a mixture of curiosity and fear. "What about you?"

Hefting the other pistol, Dean gulped hard. "I'm going after her. Where does she live?"


(Piece of crap phones, can't keep a charge worth a damn.)

The road sped by Dean's eyes as he drove down the Meijiro-Dori, streetlights vanishing through the windshield and reappearing in his rearview mirror, casting shadows which played a slow, repetetive waltz against the dashboard. The pistol, saftied and harmless, rattled nervously in his coat pocket, eager and willing to start a dance of its own.

(It's gotta be Seijiro,) he thought. (He's after all of us because we know he made Morganna; but what difference does that make? Why tail us, and why go after them? There's gotta be more to her than what he said... there has to be.)

A left turn brought him to the street Ryo had specified. (What's he trying to hide? And who the hell are these guys? They were speaking in English... were they Cyber Connect, or somebody else?)

As they had less than an hour ago, Dean's idle thoughts drifted away as he came up to the house numbered 673 - BT's address, complete with a white van parked by the curb and the front door wide open. A man in a black getup similar to the Sakuma thugs stood behind the van, slamming the rear door shut and giving it a firm slap with his hand.

Dean's blood ran cold. (Dammit! I'm too late!)

"Let's get going!" shouted the thug to an unseen companion. "Boss said to forget... huh??"

The Civic's headlights gave a golden makeover to the black-clad goon; he shielded his eyes with one hand and squinted. "Who the hell?!"

Dean slammed on the brakes, coming to a harsh, sliding stop. In one fluid motion he had his seatbelt off, the door open, and the Beretta live and in his hand. He stepped out of the car and pointed it square at the man's head. "Police!" he shouted, his old habit dying hard. "Freeze!"

Through the light, Dean saw the man go for his gun. The detective took aim and fired, sending a bullet straight at the man's chest. The report rolled up and down the quiet streets as the 9mm round hit home, slamming hard into the kevlar vest and knocking him backwards. Two more shots followed suit, failing to penetrate the vest but knocking him off his feet and to the ground with a pained cry.

"Jason!" came the shout from his right, preceding more gunshots; Dean instinctively ducked and heard several bullets pelt the hood of his car, some punching through while others glanced off. Through the passenger-side window, Dean spotted the shooter, standing in the doorway of Kurasawa's house, lit up like a jack-o-lantern against the room beyond.

Throwing vehicular insurance to the wind, Dean fired twice through the window, blasting holes in the glass which quickly spiderwebbed outwards. Neither shot hit the man, but they succeeded in forcing him behind cover, allowing Dean to get up and circle around his car. Gun trained on the door, Dean advanced through the lawn.

The mook popped out from hiding again, but Dean was ready; a short burst of three shots put one round through the man's shoulder, drawing blood and sending him careening backwards. He collapsed in the tiled floor beyond, gun slipping from his hands and bouncing once before coming to a loud, rattling halt.

Dean advanced on the man, kicking his gun further out of arm's reach, a stern look on his face. "Surprise, asshole."

He struggled briefly to sit up, but Dean planted a foot on the wounded shoulder, forcing him back onto the tile. "Where is she?" he half-shouted. "Where is Kurasawa?"

"She's..." he stopped, groaning in obvious discomfort. "We were told to bring her in..."

"Where is she?!" growled Dean, tightening his grip on the pistol.

A startled cry drew Dean's attention behind him; he spun around, pointing his pistol towards the doorway and into the shocked face of a slender, long-haired Japanese woman.

She said something in Japanese, her brown eyes wide and accusative, if somewhat frightened. Without understanding entirely, Dean guessed that it had something to do with one stranger who was holding another at gunpoint in someone else's house, which had been broken into.

"Who are you?" he asked, lowering his gun.

Taking some measure of control over the situation, she spoke again in English. "I live here," she replied. "Who are YOU?"

Her first three words had cut through Dean's haze - a mix of adrenaline and testosterone, with a hint of bloodlust - and brought out a part of him that suddenly realized how the scene must have appeared to her.

He stuttered, fidgeted, took his foot off the wounded man and shifted his stance uneasily. "B... but... didn't they... I thought you were..." he muttered, eyes shifting from the woman to the man. "Uh... uhhhh..."

"I was at the store," she explained tersely. "Now for the third time, who are you and what is going on here??"

A rush of color flew to Dean's cheeks. (She wasn't even here... oh, man... oh, this is great. This is just fantastic.) "Uhm, I... I can explain..." he began weakly. "I-I... I'm Dean." After a beat, he added, "the private eye you spoke with?"

Taking a few steps into her home, 'BT' gave the detective an analytical gaze. "You're Stollis?" she asked in disbelief. "How did you find..." she stopped herself. "No, wait, first tell me who these... no, wait. FIRST, tell me what the HELL is going on here!"

"I, uh... these guys were gonna try to kidnap you, I... was trying to stop 'em, and I thought they had..."

Sirens wailed from outside, a chorus of approaching police cars; within seconds, several tires screeched, halting the cars to which they were attached. Footsteps crunched through grass, heralding the arrival of two police officers, guns in hand and pointed at the occupants of the Kurasawa residence.

Dean followed the shouted orders of the police, which he imagined involved the laying down of his pistol and putting his hands on his head. He dropped to his knees as one of the cops approached, the other keeping a close eye on the wounded man next to him. As the officer forced Dean's hands behind his back and produced a set of handcuffs, the detective glanced over his shoulder and offered a wry grin.

"Would it help if I said I can explain?" he said innocently.

Chapter 7 - Reconcile

His blue eyes opened, staring into the flat of his palm, massaging his forehead with the thumb and forefinger. The throbbing in his skull eased a little, and he slid his hand back up his head, smoothing the remnants of his hair.

"So, let me get this straight."

Across from him sat two men and one woman, their faces lit in a sickly pale glow from the sole hanging lamp of the interrogation room; between them and he, a solid wooden table, and behind them a one-way mirror concealing two observers and a mess of recording equipment.

Masamoto's weathered face bore an expression of exhaustion more than anger, which was given further credence with a deep sigh and a shake of his head. He turned to the first man - Ryo Sakuma; a tall, square-jawed man in his forties, head topped with short, thick hair and eyes which looked somewhere between nervous and excited. "These men broke into your house," he said, pointing a finger at Ryo.

He moved the finger to the woman next to him - Miku Kurasawa; average height, slender with soft features and long hair, yet a guarded look to her eyes that suggested she was secretive by nature. "To get your address," he continued.

And then to the second man - Dean Stollis; an American of moderate build, short black hair and vacant brown eyes, boyishly rounded features contrasting with a hint of stubble along his chin and lips. "And you showed up just in time to intervene."

Dean lowered his head. On the table, he idly pressed the index fingers of his hands together. "Well, I wouldn't say it was that nice and neat, but... that's basically it."

Masamoto gave Dean a hard stare. "So what were you trying to do, going in like that? Why didn't you or Ryo call us earlier?"

"I wanted to get..." Dean started, but held himself back, remembering that not everyone in the station - particularly those listening to the conversation - had unofficially given him carte blanche to investigate Cyber Connect. "Ryo emailed me and asked to speak in person, I didn't know anything about those guys until I showed up. Cell phone was dead, so I thought I'd go in and have a look around."

"One of 'em spotted me, and things got outta hand," he added with a shrug. "When I found out that they were going after her, I was worried the cops wouldn't get there fast enough." He suspected that Masamoto knew there was more to the story, but his version was true enough to tell it with a straight face.

The lieutenant frowned, but nodded slightly before turning to Ryo. "And why didn't YOU call, if you knew you were being watched?"

"I didn't, then." Ryo shook his head. "The van didn't show up until after I sent the email; all I saw was two guys in black coming up to the house. That's when I snuck out the back and tried to catch Dean."

"Hmm. And you, you said you were at the store. Did you know anything about this before you arrived?"

Miku sighed, a hint of annoyance in her voice. "No, nothing. I'd spoken with Mr. Stollis over the phone, and Be..." she caught herself, "Ryo I knew from 'The World'. I can't imagine why those men would've come to my place, though."

"Well, whatever it was, they wanted it bad enough to raid Sakuma's first to get your address." Saying this aloud caused a light to click in the back of Masamoto's mind. "Are you unlisted for any particular reason, Ms. Kurasawa?"

She shook her head. "A personal preference." She cleared her throat. "So, who were those men?"

Throwing a quick glance to the mirror, Masamoto shook his head. "We're... still not sure," he said, his voice notably weaker, hastier. "Three of them are in the hospital, but we do have a fourth in custody. We'll know soon enough; I'm going to see him as soon as we're done here."

"Does that mean we're free to go?" asked Dean.

A long, deep sigh preceded Masamoto's response. "Yes. Though your actions were somewhat reckless, we've deemed that the injuries you inflicted upon the men were in self-defense, and no innocents were harmed as a result. You're all free to go."

"Thank you."

Chairs scraped against tile as the three opposite Masamoto stood up, each politely pushing their chairs back in before heading for the door. As it clicked shut behind them, he buried his face back in his hands, fingers kneading his temples vigorously.

(You poor bastard... you have no idea what we've all been brought into.)


"Yeah, I'll call you. You sure you'll be all right?"

Ryo nodded. "I just need to clean up a little. Thanks for the help. How about you?"

"Car's fine; just some dents in the hood, busted side window. Nothing I can't drive to a shop myself."

"All right. Take care, Miku; Dean, you too."

With a wave, Ryo climbed into his idling car and sped off, tail lights boring holes into the darkness of the street. His exit left Dean alone with Miku, standing next to his own wounded vehicle before her house.

Eyeing the scars on the hood and passenger-side window, Dean groaned loudly. "I hate this city."

Arms folded across her chest, Miku leisurely strolled around the front of the vehicle. "I'd say it's not too fond of you either."

Dean looked up at his companion. His own troubles were forgotten as he recalled why he had come here in the first place. "Listen, I'm..." he began, his unease forcing him to pause for a moment. "Sorry, about what happened tonight."

"It's not your fault," she replied, though her eyes seemed to hold a different opinion.

Stepping past the front fender, Dean joined her. "Do you have any idea why they would come after you?"

She shook her head. "No... maybe because I told you about Seijiro, but that doesn't explain how they found out or why it would matter."

"Yeah, I don't get it either," Dean said with a frown. "These guys... they didn't seem to be from Cyber Connect, if you ask me. Almost military, I'd say, but that makes even less sense."


A soft breeze floated along the street, tugging gently on their clothes and hair, carrying with it a few stray leaves and offering momentary respite from the humid, heavy night air. The noise from its passing served only to amplify the awkward silence to which they had fallen.

(So, now what?) he thought. (No more leads, no more ideas... just more damage done. What am I doing here, anyway?)

He turned and glanced up at the well-lit porch, standing in contrast to the darkened windows of the house. A stray bullet had lodged itself in the frame of the door, since pried away by crime scene personnel, with only a small black hole to mark its presence.

(All for nothing... she wasn't even here.) He sighed. (Well, no sense just standing here.) "I... should probably get going."

No response. He stepped around her and dug through his pockets; a ring of keys jingled merrily as he searched for the proper one. He slid it into the lock and gave it a turn, doing a double take as he realized the door wasn't locked, hadn't been since the police had arrived.

(Miracle it wasn't stolen,) he thought. (Least Tokyo has that over L.A.)


Dean stopped, glanced over at Miku, still standing before the car. Her eyes held a distant look as they gazed up at her house, her posture had become unsteady, almost timid - or at least, as close to timid as he believed her capable of being.


She turned back to him; a gust of wind caught locks of her hair, pushing them back over her shoulders, providing no barrier between her face and his. "They'll be back, won't they?"

A tiny dagger twisted itself into Dean's gut. "Probably," he said quietly. "This all has to do with 'The World'. Morganna, Harold, Seijiro, Aura... I don't know how, and I don't know why, but it's all about them."

"But what does that have to do with me?" she insisted, approaching the driver-side door. Her voice had a touch of acid to it, subtle annoyance entering her words.

"If you don't know, how the hell am I supposed to?" he shot back. "Christ, I don't even know what I'm doing here. Ever since I came to this city I've been chased, kidnapped, attacked and shot at - offline AND online." He turned away, leaned against his car, folded his arms on the roof and rested his chin on them. "Company goons following me everywhere, now these military spooks, all sorts of crazy shit happening in 'The WOrld', people dying."

Miku stood back, watching him carefully, deducing his honesty through his haggard and weary body language.

"All I know is that whatever-it-is in 'The World' - you saw it yourself, it wants to destroy 'The World'. And nobody can give me a straight answer as to why, or how it even came to be."

"Can you blame them?" she said. "Everyone you bring into this seems to end up in more trouble."

He turned, glared hard at her; she stood her ground, though her expression was trying hard to hide its frustration.

"This isn't about me," he said in a low voice. "Not this time. Those men followed me and Ryo earlier today at the Meiji shrine. They were after Ryo, not me. They went to his house, and then they came here looking for you." He pointed to her, accenting the statement. "You weren't brought into this, you're already neck deep in it."

Sensing cracks in her facade, and anger starting to choose words for him, Dean cooled his approach. "Look... I believe that you don't know why they're after you, but that doesn't change the fact that they are. The cops said they'd patrol this area, we'll know as soon as they do who those guys were, and that'll be something. All we can do now is wait."

Miku turned away in a huff, sighed loudly. "I've never liked waiting..."

Leaning against his car again, Dean replied, "Yeah... me neither." Before silence could again come between them he added, "Like I said, I'm sorry about all this - the mess and everything. I... well, maybe it was kinda my fault, I mean you weren't even here and I think they were leaving..."

He stopped when she raised a hand dismissively. "No... no, you were right, it's... not that simple. They came here regardless, I was lucky."

He half-smiled. "Not a bad thing to be. Just wish I didn't dirty up the place in the process."

She visibly relaxed, throwing a look over her shoulder, a slight smirk on her lips. "The feeling is mutual."

"Look, if you think of anything or find out something, give me a call, okay? I want to solve this just as much as you."

A slow, controlled nod. She faced him once more and asked the eternally rhetorical question. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Fire away."

She cleared her throat. "Why are you doing this, anyway?"

He took a long pull of air through his nose, held it in his lungs; his eyes closed, his face relaxed to an almost meditative trance. After several seconds, he released his breath, opened his eyes, alight with a degree of honesty that Miku found mildly unsettling.

"That's a good question," he answered softly. Hearing her snort, he continued, "Look, I don't want you to think I'm one of these banzai action nutjobs that do this kind of thing for fun, like in the movies or something. I've got a few things to answer for in my life, sure; if Ryo told you anything, then you know what I'm talking about." His head tilted slightly, and he reached up to rub the back of his neck. "But it's more than that; I've tried, but I just can't walk away from this, knowing something bad's coming down the pike and not doing anything about that."

"Somebody - somebody human - is responsible for this, and people are getting hurt. Killed even. Maybe it's Seijiro, I... I don't know for sure, but I gotta find out. I know I'm new at this, but it's just how I feel."

She raised an eyebrow. "New at this?"

Dean fidgeted. "Yeah. How much did Ryo tell you?"

"About why you're here, the contract to steal from Cyber Connect and all that. And that you used to be a cop."

"Right," said Dean. "Well, that's all true... I just started this detective stuff a year ago. Can count the number of jobs I've had on one hand," he admitted with a hint of shyness, looking away from Miku.

She chuckled, faintly. "A newbie, huh?" she asked, the tension eased somewhat from the change of subject.

"Yeah, pretty much." He shrugged. "Not too many people hire a crooked cop." Turning away, he added, "Heh, Bogart made this crap look so much easier..."

"Bogart?" Another raised eyebrow.

"Oh, dad loved Bogart; kinda rubbed off on me. The guy had class, y'know? Made it seem a whole lot more glamorous. I tell you, if I knew being a PI meant all this work, I'd have dropped it before I could even print up business cards," said Dean with obvious aggrandizement. His movements became looser, less mechanical and more casual.

The statement forced another chuckle past Miku's lips - less the content than how Dean had said it - and she found herself wanting to smile, despite the circumstances surrounding them.

"Which reminds me," he continued, digging into his pants pocket and producing a wallet. The leather creaked as he flipped it open and produced a small card, his name printed on it in big bold letters alongside his number and email address. He held the card out for her inspection, and she took it from his fingers with an amused expression on her face.

"You do this yourself?" she asked with a smirk.

"Oh, god no. I'm all thumbs with that; there was a sale at Kinko's last week."

"Just a geek with a gun, hmm?" With a flick of her wrist, she brought the card flush against her palm, looking up to stare at Dean expectantly.

"All right, all right, I should probably get out of your hair. See ya, Miku."

She nodded and waved to him, stepping out of the way as Dean climbed into his car and brought the engine to life. Lights flickered on and tires began to roll as he changed gears, pulling away from the curb and speeding off into the darkness, quickly vanishing from view.

Miku's eyes followed the tail lights, her smile coming out of hiding.

Chapter 8 - Business as Usual

Boots clunking against wood followed a quiet, off-key whistling as the black-robed, gray-haired Wavemaster strolled casually from one island to the next, crossing one of the bridges that connected Dun Loireag. Staff in hand and resting over one shoulder, Stolls absentmindedly scrolled through his inventory with his free hand, scanning a list of foodstuffs that had been almost as animate as the creature he now sought to feed.

Coming to a stop in the grunty pen, he smiled down at the semi-mature cow beast he'd taken upon himself to raise. "Hey, big guy. Got somethin' for ya."

The animal's prior preference of piney apples in mind, Stolls produced one and knelt down, hand out and offering the food. The grunty wagged its tail happily as it snatched the apple from his hand and greedily gobbled it down.

(There, that should do it... that's what the FAQ said. I think that's what it said. Didn't it?)

A bright light and white mist gathered around the growing animal, obscuring its form to all eyes as it took a more defined, unique shape. It reared up on its hind legs and twisted its body left and right in a bizarre celebratory dance, or possibly some sort of seizure - Stolls could never decide which.

The mist dissipated, the light subsided. Stolls rubbed an eye with his free hand, and blinked twice to clear his vision. Upon identifying the shape the grunty had taken, he broke into a deep frown.

(God. DAMN it. ANOTHER one of these things, you've got to be kidding me!)

"Mon ami!"

The dust finally settled to reveal a Noble grunty standing where the immature one once was - hair blonde with curls, body garbed in some misshapen finery of clothing, twisted to odd contortions to fit the beast's ample girth.

The overemphasized French accent didn't help things either. "Although I am now a gentleman... there is no need for two Noble Grunties in this town."

"I didn't see a need for the first one either," muttered Stolls.

The grunty stuck to the script, paying him no heed as it scampered away, climbing up into the sky. "Adieu! Thank you, mon ami!" it belted out before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

The Wavemaster gently caressed his forehead with his gloved hand for a moment before running it through his hair, giving the gray strands a good ruffling. (Another freakin' waste of food. Last of my apples... those were a bitch to find.) With a frustrated sigh, he turned away from the ranch and stepped back onto the bridge, crossing to the next island.

Coming up to the chain of shopping islands, Stolls came to a stop as he recognized a familiar figure before the item vendor. "Hey, Kite!"

Hearing his name, the Twin Blade spun around and faced his addressor, a smile on his tattooed face. "Stolls!"

"Hey man," said Stolls as he smiled back. "How you doin'?"

"Pretty good," replied Kite. "And you?"

The Wavemaster strolled up to the counter. "Oh-ho-hooo, man... busy day. I'm actually glad I ran into you, I've been finding out more about this Tanaka guy you mentioned."


"Crazy stuff," he continued. "A guy I know helped me to meet Tanaka face-to-face. Turns out there was this AI - or, something close to it, at least - called Morganna. It was intended to administrate Fragment; you know, the game that 'The World' is based on?" He folded his arms across his chest, tucking the staff against his shoulder. "They never actually used it, though; it was Seijiro that modified it to work with 'The World' when they incorporated Fragment, and they wanted to use it for basically the same thing, but they never did."

Kite looked at him strangely. "Did you say Morganna?"

Stolls threw the look right back at him. "Yeah... you know what it is?"

"Kind of... a while back I found a note in the game with her name on it, and Helba spoke about it, too. She said... that Morganna was 'The World'."

He sighed. "That sounds about right, least that's what I've been finding out. Tanaka said... well, it was technical, but the end result is a part of her code is almost everywhere in 'The World'."

"But... why use something like that to control a game?"

Stolls' lips twisted into a bizarre amalgam of a smirk and a frown. "I'm not so sure about... Seijiro said they wanted something that would evolve with the game itself, handle quality control and be self-updating, or something like that. They put the kibosh on her when they figured out they were in over their heads; couldn't get it to work right, or it wasn't advanced enough or something, so they tried to delete it. Somehow, it survived, grew back."

"It sounds awfully advanced to me," Kite mused.

"I agree. Seijiro said the AI wasn't complete, but that doesn't add up when you consider all it's done here. And even he admitted he wasn't sure about Morganna's original purpose, or why this all is so closely following the Epitaph of the Twilight." He paused, cocking his head at the Twin Blade. "I still don't buy that this is the work of an incomplete AI that was never even put to use. At the very least, I'm positive Seijiro wasn't telling me everything about her."

"Me too." He frowned. "If she's following the Epitaph, then it's almost like someone meant for this to happen. But what for?"

"I have no idea." Stolls relaxed his arms, gesturing vaguely with his free hand. "But this whole thing stinks. Just tonight there was a pack of thugs trying to kidnap a few of the people I interviewed. Commando-types. No idea why, but it seems like they're working for Seijiro."


"Yeah, I know. Like I said... busy night," said Stolls with a weak chuckle.

It was then that he took actual stock of Kite's countenance; though his face was the picture of youth, Dean could swear he saw what looked like exhaustion in the eyes of the Twin Blade. His posture was also slouched somewhat, evidence of long hours of play. "How 'bout you?" he asked. "You okay? You find out anything on your end?"



Masamoto looked up from his desk, blinking twice to compensate for the bags beneath his eyes, dragging his eyelids down with them. "Yes?"

The young officer stood before him, clipboard trembling in his nervous hands. "You may want to take a look at this, sir." As the lieutenant took the clipboard, he explained. "It's the IDs for those men from the Kurasawa and Sakuma incidents."

"I was waiting for these," Masamoto said, dismissing the officer with a tired wave of his hand. "Thank you, Koji, I... huh?" He stopped short as his eyes fell upon a few key phrases.

A long wait followed as Masamoto skimmed the information again, and then again. "Is this information accurate?"

"It's what we had in our database," he replied, "combined with personal identification from each of their effects. We also obtained information from their vehicles; it's definitely American."

(This can't be true,) thought Masamoto. (What on Earth are they doing going after a bunch of computer geeks?)

Realizing the officer hadn't left, he looked up and cleared his throat. "Koji, get me Seijiro Tanaka's file again. I want to cross-reference this with his and see if there's a match."

Koji blinked, confused. "Sir?"

"Call it a hunch," said Masamoto with an invisible smirk. "Get to it."


Stolls found his player gawking along with him as he listened to the Twin Blade finish his story. "So... that's why she's playing."

Kite nodded. "Yeah... because of her brother Kazu. I had thought it was something big, but I didn't know..."

"Me neither," said Stolls. "That explains it, though; it seemed to me like she took this whole thing kinda personally."

"I guess we all have our reasons for playing." Kite hung his head.

"Guess so." A sigh escaped the Wavemaster's lips, mirroring the actions of his puppeteer. "Some game, huh?"

The teal-haired Twin Blade made no reply, save for shaking his head slightly. Stolls heard a noise from his throat that could have been him swallowing hard.

(Poor guy... hell, poor both of 'em; both have people they care about whose lives are on the line here. She's in the same boat as him.) At this thought, an idea sprung to the tip of Stolls' tongue. "Although... if you think about it..."

Kite lifted his head, his eyes questioning, curious.

"If you think about it," Stolls repeated, "it means she trusts you."

Kite's eyes lightened somewhat at the idea, and the Wavemaster continued. "Well, she's stuck by you through all this, right? I told you before, she'd have to like you to stick by you for so long. Now we know she's got as much stock in figuring this out as anybody." He pointed to Kite. "And you have somebody who knows what you're up against, someone else for whom this isn't just a game."

"It's not like that," said Kite dismissively. "I don't feel like I'm alone in here anymore, I know that my friends are willing to help me, especially her; in a way, I knew that back when we fought Delphi together." He stared off into the distance, an almost wistful sigh escaping his lips. "She risked her life to help me out."

In the background, Dean heard his phone ringing. (Not now, dammit,) he thought. (Let the machine get it.)

"You both risked your lives," corrected Stolls. "For me, for us. For your friend, for her brother." He smiled. "All this means is that now you know you're both after the same thing, instead of just thinking you are; she trusts you enough to want you to know why she's helping you, you obviously trust her with the same."

Hearing thoughts that he shared spoken aloud, Kite found himself smiling along with the Wavemaster. "Yeah... I do."

"Well, there you go!" Stolls stepped forward and clapped the Twin Blade on the shoulder. "Now you got a partner you like, you trust, and now you know she's feeling likewise for you, and you've even got the same goal. You couldn't ask for a better setup, if you ask me."

Stolls' semi-sudden exuberance swept Kite up along with it, and he couldn't help but grin in response, shyness tossed to the side as he replied with a smiling emote.

Seeing the floating smiley face attached to Kite's text box, Stolls laughed aloud. "And wouldn't you know it, boy meets girl while trying to save the world, even if it is a fake one. Hey, do both you guys a favor, you gotta make your move before the final climactic battle between good and evil."

"What do you mean by that?" he asked, turning away slightly as if to hide a blush.

"C'mon, man, you play RPGs, you know how it is," Stolls said, still grinning, a sense of grandeur and exaggeration to his words. "In all the best stories, either just before or just after the final battle, the guy and the girl have a private moment to themselves to confess their feelings for each other. That's the way these things work!"

Kite's imaginary blush turned quite real. "Um... well, uh, I guess so... I mean, I do like her and all..." he muttered, eyes widening in disbelief at his own confession.

"Just like the games, it's scary, I tell you," continued Stolls, a silliness seeping into his grin. "Everybody likes to see a little romance now and then. At least here you don't have to worry about some hack writer awkwardly pairing you guys off in fanfiction because he has too much time on his hands and is overly obsessed with the minutiae of videogames and their characters."

That got a chuckle out of Kite. "Well, THAT makes me feel better," he replied jokingly.

"Nah, y'know what?" Stolls began with a nonchalant wave of his hand. "You gotta do what you gotta do. Yours is a relationship I would highly encourage for you to continue, and that constitutes the extent of my meddling, my friend."

"Just forget about the 'what ifs', huh?" asked Kite, an unusually sly grin on his face.

"Hah!" belted out Stolls, hearing his own advice come from Kite's mouth. "It seems my work here is done," he added with an extravagant bow. "But that's how you gotta do it, Kite, that's how you gotta do it." His smile vanished, but not the softness of his eyes. "This isn't a game, no one's doubting that, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way. Doesn't mean you have to be 100% serious all the time."

He turned away from Kite, arms raised to his sides. "Gotta have these things, my friend. This is my release, right here; and you, you and BlackRose," he said, glancing over his shoulder, "this is yours, too. Just 'cause you're here on business doesn't mean you can't have a little fun too."

Hiroshi met Dean's eyes through their avatars, sharing a moment of silent, yet jubilant honesty. He smiled once more. "You're right. Thanks, Dean."

"Anytime Hiro," shot back the detective. "And thank you earlier for your tip; you take care of things in here, I'll get to the bottom of this in the real world."

"You can count on me," Kite answered confidently, raising and clenching his fist.

"All right," said Stolls, "enough pep talk. I should probably get go- oh, wait, wait, there was one other thing I wanted to ask you."


The Wavemaster's face fell into a flat, no-nonsense expression, and his voice followed suit. "I don't suppose you have any Piney Apples I could borrow, do you?"


"Hi, you've reached Dean Stollis. I'm not in, Leave a message."


"Dean, it's Masamoto. We've found out the identities of those men." A long pause. "This problem just went international. They're members of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency."

"Call the office tomorrow. I've got a job for you."

Chapter 9 - Auspicious Hunting Ground

"Got your message. Are you absolutely sure?"

Dean anxiously drummed his fingers on the desk, his other hand holding the phone to his ear. He allowed his eyes to droop shut for a moment, a consequence of a fitful night's sleep, the evidence of which was all too visible: hair unkempt and yet to be brushed; shirt and boxer shorts instead of an actual outfit; the humming of a microwave as a frozen lunch was attacked by heat and light; the whirring of a computer fan as his machine came to life, monitor aglow with meaningless words, numbers and progress bars.

Masamoto's plain voice challenged him through the phone. "Their equipment and weapons were made in America; expensive, definitely not civilian. They're all registered U.S. citizens. One of the injured ones demanded to speak with the American consulate, and we found several fake IDs along with the equipment." He took a deep breath. "In addition, the one we have locked up confessed."

"This has international incident written all over it," remarked the detective.

"You're not kidding. The captain's on the phone right now with the U.S. embassy. He looked even more uptight than usual."

Dean sighed. "So where does this leave us?"

"Well, I doubt he'll be able to get any answers out of them, so I have another idea in mind." He hesitated. "I... don't think you're going to like it, though."

"Try me." Finished booting, the computer blinked the desktop into existence, icons appearing one by one.

"I cross-referenced the information on the spooks with that of one Seijiro Tanaka. As you know, Tanaka used to work for the Defense Department; the ARPANET project leader. He was also an envoy to the U.N., and was connected to big shots from several agencies, including the CIA."

The mail client flashed a notification. Eyebrow crooked in curiousity, Dean opened it with his free hand as he replied, "go on."

Masamoto lowered his voice, as if to hide it from other listeners. "I've just taken the liberty of sending you a few documents in regards to this connection."

Dean put one and two together as his inbox was laid bare before him.


FWD: Tanaka bio

FWD: Incident 272-09 summary

FWD: Suspect profiles

FWD: Testimony of Han Katsuro (suspect, Inc. 272-09)]

"Not the real deal, but verbatim; suffice it to say that Tokyo's finest is sitting on some very interesting pieces of information regarding this whole affair." The lieutenant's smirk was all but audible. "Information that may make a few key people very cooperative."

"Define 'key people'."

Masamoto continued as if he hadn't heard Dean's request. "I was recently informed by one of my subordinates that a Mr. Seijiro Tanaka did not show up for work today. In fact, it appeared he has not left his house."

Dean's fatigue slowly vanished, giving way to an almost mischievous curiousity. "Is that a fact?"

A ding shot out from the microwave as the boxed lunch finished cooking. Dean ignored it, concentrating on Masamoto's reply. "I never liked mysteries, and this one isn't changing things for me. Find out what you can."

"I'm all over it," said Dean. "How do you want it done?"

"Do what it takes. Be creative. Good luck, Dean."

The line clicked dead, prompting Dean to hang up his end. (Creative, huh?) he thought with a devilish smile, one hand reaching for the printer power button. (I can do creative.)


The car eased its way down the street, the drive with one hand on the wheel and the other resting on the door, as if he hadn't a care in the world - a sharp contrast to the whirlwind of thought in his head. He rolled through an intersection, the engines of other cars painfully audible through the two bullet holes in the passenger-side window, almost drowning out the unintelligible chatter of talk radio.

(So, Seijiro and the CIA... well, he was a Fed, but how does that fit in? Was he doing something that's related to his work with Cyber Connect?)

A backward glance over his shoulder told him that no one was close behind; instinctively flipping the turn signal, he eased the wheel right and guided his car into the next lane. Through the window, buildings and storefronts leisurely coasted by, gradually becoming less frequent as he left the downtown area and entered the suburbs.

(He had to be bullshitting me about Morganna. With all that's going on, no way that thing was some 'primitive' A.I. wannabe that got out of hand. It's following the Epitaph way too closely to be an accident.)

Dean glanced over at the passenger seat, upon which rested a large envelope; metal folds locked it shut and trapped the police documents inside, the detective's ticket to the next stage of the game, or so he hoped.

(We're getting closer, I can feel it... god, this better work. Like he said, we're all out of options.) He smirked. (Hell, if all else fails, I still have the iron...)

A familiar rumbling erupted from the glove box, a high pitch muffled by the enclosure surrounding it. Dean wrinkled his nose in annoyance. (Aw, not again... goddamnit, why do people keep calling when I'm in the middle of something??)

With a free hand, he popped the box and pulled the phone loose from the mini-library of vehicle and insurance information. A press of a button brought the caller's voice to his ears. "Y'ello!"


The speaker was female, familiar, her voice soft and cautious. "Miku," he replied, careful not to sound surprised. Had he more time, he might have wondered why he would worry about how he sounded to her.

"I think I've found what they were looking for."

Dean's internal alarms went to DefCon 1 in a fraction of a second. "I'm listening."

"I can go over this better in person; are you busy?"

"Maybe." Dean gave the brake a solid push, coming to a stop at a red light. "What've you got?"

"Have you heard of something called 'Echelon'?" He recognized a minute amount of confusion in her voice, as if the word were foreign to her.

It wasn't to him. He threw a knowing glance at the enveloped documents, his pulse rising in anticipation. "I know of it. And I know someone who was in on it, too."

"I see." Almost no hesitation, as if she was less interested in listening than being heard. "Do you remember the incident I told you about? When I saw the Broken Man? That recording of Harold?"

"Yeah..." The light turned green. (C'mon, Miku, where are you going with this?)

"I found it buried in a log, very subtle. There were bursts of static, and patterns to them in binary. You might want to have a look at this."

(Now we're talking.) "All right, stay put," he said calmly, hiding his excitement. "I'm on my way."

"Okay," she said simply.

"And find out what you can on the 'net about Echelon. Our old pal Seijiro had a hand in that too, long before he hooked up with Cyber Connect."

"I'm on it." Her voice was firmer, more confident.

Dean relaxed his vigilance, flipping the turn signal as he rolled up to the next street. "You sure pick the best times," he said in mock sarcasm. "I was just on my way to have a little chat with Mr. Tanaka. 'Chat' being the operative word, if you get my drift."

A brief chuckle, throaty and subdued; a character trait he found oddly endearing, if in a smug I-know-something-you-don't kind of way. "I'd hate to pull you away from your leisure time, detective."

"Yeah, well you're not such a bad sleuth yourself," admitted Dean.

"Some people do more in 'The World' than just play." There was a faint lilt to her voice that hinted at a smile.

An ironic grin worked its way onto Dean's face. "Yeah, I've noticed."


"All right, play it back one more time."

Dean stood back and watched as Miku brushed a series of keystrokes into the computer, breaking his observation only to take a brief glance at his new environs. Situated partially below ground, the den in which he stood bore physical similarities to that of Ryo's - he suspected it was the same model house - though the decoration was on the sophisticated side, with a few carefully-placed pictures and a potted plant to add color to the blue carpeting and stucco walls. A love seat and futon partially circled a glass coffee table, all of which sat before what he surmised to be the entertainment center of the house - flat-screen plasma TV, almost state-of-the-art desktop computer with the requisite VR gear.

"I don't know how, exactly, they knew, but they must have found out that I tried to log as much as I could back then. It was the only way I could make sense of it."

Not super-extravagant acquisitions by any means, but his curiosity was undeniably aroused. His trained eye also noticed that one section of the futon appeared more worn than the rest, as if it hadn't seen more than one repeat user in a very long time.

"Here we go. Watch closely."

His attention was called back to the screen, watching as Miku played the log. On screen, he saw an old, white-haired man that he assumed was Harold; bound to a chair by a strange red mass.

"Seijiro..." he said, his soft voice just barely above a whisper, a long, drawn-out echo making it louder than it was. "Your lock is broken."

A flash of static crossed her screen, a bizarre chime ringing as her vision was marred by transparent rectangles. Another flash, and Miku pressed a key, stopping it. "There," she said, pointing to the screen.

Dean stepped up next to her, squinting at the screen. The static had been frozen in midair as it occupied her entire field of view, strings of ones and zeroes criscrossing through the black-and-white space.

"Do you see?" she asked, still pointing. She gently touched a nail to one line of code, and then another. "They're all the same pattern, repeating themselves." She glanced over at him. "I ran it through a translation program; most of it I didn't understand, but that first sequence here, it says 'Echelon'."

Dean frowned. "Well, I'll be a son of a bitch..."

"You said you knew something about this?"

He nodded. "Seijiro used to work for the U.S. Defense Department. After ARPANET, he headed a project under that name. Not exactly sure what it is, but it's American, no doubt about it. Did you find out anything else?"

She sighed, her features falling in moderate disappointment. "Not much beyond speculation and conspiracy theories. Talk about centralizing information, datamining and surveillance, things like that. It doesn't look like it ever got off the ground."

Dean struggled to put the pieces together, knowing they were all in front of him, or at least most of them. His intuition failed, but not before he could jump to the nearest logical conclusion. "Harold actually programmed Morganna, for who knows what," he thought aloud, "but Seijiro modified it. There's code from Echelon in it, which is the codename for a government project he was working on. You know what this means, don't you?"

Miku watched him expectantly, her rich brown orbs curious, nervous, several other words that end with 's'. She kept silent, waiting for him to finish his thought.

"Big Brother didn't make Morganna what she is. Uncle Sam did."

He knew the truth wasn't quite that simple, but it was close enough to send a chill down his spine. It apparently had a similar effect on his companion; she turned away, seeming to stare through the wall.

"We've gotta call Masamoto, he's gonna want to..."


A new mail notification popped up, flashing in the corner over the log window. Coming back to herself, Miku closed the log and opened the window purely by reflex.

[From: Anonymous

To: NoLettuce@mailserv.net

Subj: theyre after you get away

<no text>]

"Huh?" she muttered. "What's this about?"

A loud crack rang out as glass was broken in. Trailing the noise, Dean spotted a metal canister as it sailed through the air, clanking loudly against the far wall of the den. His eyes bugged out as he saw thick gray smoke start to spray from the object, the subject title of the email suddenly taking a definite meaning in his mind.

"Gas!" he shouted. "Run for it!"

Chapter 10 - Return to Sender

Red and watery eyes, irritation of the skin, a violent coughing fit. The symptoms came to him as if they were read from the side of the gas grenade, telling him that it contained a riot-control agent, a more powerful version of conventional pepper spray.

"Dean, what's happening?!" shouted Miku, scrambling away from the growing cloud of smoke, her gaze shifting from Dean to the grenade.

Shielding his eyes, Dean gave a sideways wave to Miku. "Out the back, go!" he shouted, the smoke forcing him to cough as he spoke.

Her eyes wide with fear, Miku broke into a stride for the rear door, separated from the den in an adjoining room; she heard footsteps as someone - or multiple someones - rushed down the steps behind her.

The smoke thick and irritating enough to blind him, Dean barely saw the first shadowy figure rush forward. Instinct kicked in and drove him to dive at the figure; he stumbled around the glass table and charged, a part of him already realizing that he was doomed, nonetheless determined to buy Miku some time.

"Aaaaaaaaaahhh!" he screamed, air like sandpaper scratching the back of his throat. He got close enough to get a good look at his target; all in black military gear, as before, plus a gas mask and a pump-action shotgun, which was pointed at him.

"Take him down!"

He heard it before he felt it, and he felt it before he saw it. A loud explosion burst forth through the haze as the masked soldier fired upon him; the bullet cut through the air and sailed straight for Dean, causing tiny ripples in the gas. He doubled over as the shot hit home, a powerful thrust to his abdomen that threw him backwards and almost off his feet. A second shot rang out, and another round struck his left shoulder, knocking him onto his back and causing him to twist in the air as he fell.

"Tango is down! Move in!"

The detective cried loudly in pain, forcing more of the tainted air into his lungs; he collided harshly with the floor, throbbing, searing pain radiating from his gut and shoulder as the men advanced upon him. Eyes clouded with tears, he arched his head back and squinted through the haze, and felt the remainder of his sanity leave him as he saw two more soldiers standing over a prone woman, several feet away from the back door.

"Mi...ku..." he weakly gasped as his vision faded, eyelids drooping shut over the teary, bloodshot brown orbs.


"Right this way, sir. The agent's been dispersed, it's safe enough to enter, but let me know if it starts to get to you."

Masamoto followed the masked crime scene officer through the front door, which lay open and unmolested, save for conspicuous scratch marks around the keyhole. A faint, yet pungent scent lingered in the air, causing the lieutenant to wrinkle his nose in disgust.

"From what we can tell," said the officer, "the front and patio doors were all forced open by lockpicks. No evidence of force on the rear door, but it was open when we arrived, presumably in an attempt to escape."

"Any idea on how many there were?" asked Masamoto, trailing close behind his escort as they rounded a corner and descended a set of stairs.

"At least two, and as many as six. Watch your step here, sir, there's a lot of glass around."

Masamoto peered at the gaping hole in the window, blown inwards by an object the relative size of a baseball. "That's where it came in?"

"Yes sir. We also identified traces of gunpowder on some of the furniture," he indicated the love seat with a pass of his hand, currently under close scrutiny by two other officers, "but we found no shells or cartridges; not sure what kind of gun. They were pretty methodical about it, but it doesn't look like it took very long."

His eyes fell upon a kneeling investigator, carefully extracting a few strands of carpet and placing them into a clear plastic bag. Several tiny spots of blood dotted the ground near his feet, already starting to turn brown from exposure to the air.

The balding lieutenant shook his head. (What a mess...) "And no sign of Kurasawa or Stollis?"

"Not a one, sir."

(Damn it, Dean,) he thought, remembering that he had seen the detective's car parked outside. (What were you doing here? And where the hell are you?) "Any witnesses?"

"Just the woman nextdoor who reported the shots. She says she saw a white van speeding away shortly afterwards, but could provide no other details."

"Hmm." Masamoto carefully made his way around the furniture, working his way towards the desk. "What happened with the computer?" he asked, surveying the shattered monitor and desktop, which was missing a side panel; its inner circuitry and hardware lay in a state of disarray, some of the larger chips broken in half or into several smaller pieces.

"The power's off, and all the cords have been cut; smashed up the motherboard, gouged out most of the circuitry." He nodded to the officer before the desk, a pair of pliers in hand as he surveyed the wreckage. "We're trying to get what's left of the hard drive out to salvage something, but it doesn't look promising. Whatever's in there, somebody didn't want us finding it."

"Could it have been those who were here the night before? More from that outfit?"

The masked CSI nodded. "Yes, sir, it looks to be the same group responsible for both."

Masamoto worked a grim half-smile onto his face. "Good. Carry on."


Slits of light cut through the darkness as her eyes opened. Groggy and weary, she lifted her head, stray locks of hair hanging down over her eyes. Her body was immobile, restrained; it took her but a moment to realize she had been bound with rope, her wrists securely tied together behind the biting, uncomfortable wooden frame of a chair.

Shaking off what felt like a bad hangover, Miku gradually regained full consciousness, taking stock of her person: clad in the same outfit - a longsleeve brown shirt and a pair of jeans - but with a few key objects missing, specifically her necklace and earrings; no bruises or serious injuries, save for a minor stinging in her right arm, as if from a mosquito bite. She expanded her appraisal to include her surroundings: a small storeroom, dimly lit by a single hanging lightbulb, rows of metal shelves empty and rusted, a solid steel door on the wall before her closed and locked.

She went through the last memories she had, scanning the logs of her own brain, the pictures coming to her in short, sporadic bursts. A gas grenade fired through a window; a mad dash for the rear door; soldiers bursting in and holding her at gunpoint, forcing her to the ground; a hypodermic needle thrust into her arm.


She heard his voice in her mind's ear, saw him being struck twice by gunfire and falling to the ground; reminding herself of Dean, she gave the area another glance, and spotted her quarry a few feet away.

Garbed with the same black t-shirt, white overshirt and navy blue slacks as before, the detective sat similarly disposed as her, if a little worse for wear - bound at the wrists to a chair, head hung low and eyes shut, chest rising and falling to a regular beat.

"Dean," she whispered, surprised at how hoarse her voice had become. She swallowed, easing some of the strain on her throat before speaking again, louder this time. "Hey, Dean."

He didn't budge.

She cleared her throat and tried once more. "Dean!" she called.

A low groan gave her the first sign of life. "Uhnnn... oh-uhh? Wha..." he mumbled, his head stirring and slowly rising.

Miku flinched as she met Dean's eyes, tear-streaked and still red from their encounter with the gas, having caught most of the irritating mist head-on; small trails of dried blood ran down his chin, originating from his lower lip, as if he'd bit down hard upon being struck.

He blinked, his eyes clearing, squinting at her. "M-Miku? That you?"

She let out a sigh of relief as Dean awoke. "Yeah... are you okay?"

Dean's head drooped forward once more, facing the floor. "I think so. Mmm... how long was I out?"

"I don't know; they drugged me, I just came to myself."

The words seemed to bring Dean back to coherency. "Damn," he muttered, glancing around the room for a moment before turning back to Miku. "Hey, a-are you all right?"

"I'll live," she affirmed with a slight nod. "For now at least," she added.

"Damn it... they got us." He exhaled slowly; she noticed his hands wriggling slightly, testing the ropes that bound them.

"Do you think these are the same men?" she asked, doubting that the answer could be anything but 'yes'.

Her doubts weren't proven false. Dean nodded the affirmative. "They're CIA agents. Seijiro's using his old contacts from the States; my guess is they don't want anyone finding out about the U.S.'s involvement with Morganna." He gave a rueful chuckle. "I know I wouldn't."

"So, what do we do now?" she asked.

"Ideally?" Dean grunted as he again struggled with the ropes. "Escape, find out where we are, and get to the cops." He twisted one of his wrists, grimacing as the rope burned into his soft skin. "Then, find Seijiro and kick the living shit out of him." With a grimace, he added, "and a cup of coffee would be nice, too."

Miku felt a small twinge in her chest that could have been a laugh trying to get loose. She began pulling against her bindings, and performed a mental victory dance as she felt the rope begin to slide up the thick of her palm.

"Mmm," she muttered, wincing from the tightness of the ropes. "I think mine's starting to give."

Dean's grimace grew into a tiny smile. "Good, keep trying. Sooner we get loose, sooner we can think of a way out of here."

She tucked her thumb against her palm, pulling hard and squeezing her eyes shut to fight the pain; a quiet grunt passed her lips as the rope slid up over the knuckle of her thumb, leaving red marks against her skin. "Come on... come on..."

After another minute of twisting and turning, the rope crossed the rest of her knuckles, allowing her fingers to easily slip from the hole. She let out a satisfied sigh as she brought both her hands before her, using her free hand to undo the knot and release her other one.

"All right," urged Dean. "Good job. Now see if you can't get mine, feels like the guy who did it knew what he was doing."

Needing no incentive, Miku knelt down behind Dean's chair and set to work on the knot binding his hands. "Hey... what was with those guns?" she asked out of the blue. "I saw them shoot you; how come you're not hurt?"

As if reminded of his injuries, Dean doubled over slightly and grit his teeth. "'Hurt' is a relative term," he said in a low voice. "Those were rubber bullets; they wanted us alive."

"Rubber bullets?" She worked the edge of the rope through one part of the loop.

"Yeah, supposed to go splat against skin, put someone down rather than kill 'em." He groaned. "Hurts like hell, though; worse than a real one, if you ask me," he continued, his voice shaking slightly.

"Mmm," she mumbled in assent. The two fell silent as she continued on the ropes. Her fingers nimbly worked the grudging knot into submission, loosening the detective's bonds.

Incidentally, the back of her palm brushed against his. His hands stiffened, but he said nothing, his fingers consciously attempting to hold perfectly still. She reflexively moved her hand away, but not before noticing that his hands were smoother and softer than she had thought, fingers slender enough to befit a musician but without the wear and tear that such a profession would entail, to say nothing of his actual line of work. She couldn't help but smirk as she caught the scent of lavender, marred slightly by the rank, dirty ropes which bound him.

Working the final loop, she dug two fingers down past his wrist and felt for the end of the rope; this time his hand responded, lightly molding to the cuff of her shirt sleeve. Taking the end between her two fingers, she pried the rope through the loop, her warm palm flat against his as she pulled. She instinctively let her thumb graze his, and twitched it slightly, as if to silently acknowledge that the incident was no longer incidental.

"There," she said after a long pause, pulling the now-untied ropes loose. "Got it."

Dean hesitantly stood, rubbing his wrists as he turned to face her. "Thanks," he said, no flush to his cheeks but evidence of shyness in his unusually soft tone.

Miku nodded, herself speaking in a smaller voice than normal. "Don't mention it."

Dean inhaled deliberately, filling his lungs with air and letting them out in a long, low sigh. "All right... so now what do we do?"

That decision was made for them in the form of commotion from beyond the door. Miku heard it first, and touched a finger to her lips, cocking her head towards the door.

"...doing here?"

"Heard it from the Boss. Have you all lost your minds?"

"Didn't have a choice. We now know for a fact she found out about Echelon, and that guy Stollis seemed dead-set on getting in the way."

"And that's your answer? Just go barging into her home, guns blazing?! For god's sake, you're all over the news! You call this 'covert operations'?!"

"Tanaka, shut the hell up. Now I'll ask again, what are you doing here?"

Dean froze; the words were muffled, but he heard them well enough to recognize the name. The voice became more familiar, and although he couldn't be sure, the pitch and tone matched that of his memory.


"I'm here to have a chat with Mr. Stollis. May I?"

"We're coming in with you. There was some commotion earlier. Can't be too careful."

Miku flinched at the second sentence, realizing they had been heard. Dean, on the other hand, felt a chill as the guard said 'we'.

"All right then. Open it up."

Dean and Miku exchanged glances as the knob began to rattle. "What do we do??" she hissed, her eyes frantically scanning the shadows for a weapon, a hiding place, anything that could possibly offer them a chance against whoever was entering the room.

The door creaked open, swinging outward. Dean instinctively whirled around, grabbed the back of his chair and hoisted it aloft, charging for the open door.


Chapter 11 - Team Player

"What the...?!"

Growling deep in his throat, Dean barged through the open door, leading with the chair; he rammed it straight into the first goon - covered head to toe in gray camo cloth and a kevlar vest - and trapped him between the legs, pinning his right arm to his chest, shoulder-slung submachine gun and holstered pistol just out of reach.

"Shit!" someone shouted from his left; metal clinked and cloth rustled from behind him, and he could only guess that another guard was preparing to fire. He threw a glance in the direction of the noise, and followed up a split-second later with a weak kick to the stomach of the second guard. The attack missed its mark but connected with the guard's weapon, throwing it off-target for a single precious second - just long enough for Dean to come around with the chair and smash it across the guard's masked head.

The chair, surprisingly sturdy, stayed intact through the swing and knocked the guard's head and body a few inches to the side, stunning him; before even hearing the first guard move again, Dean spun around and whacked him in the head, harder this time. Confidence and adrenaline aiding his strength, he pulled the chair back and thrust one of the legs into the guard's face, smashing the nose hard enough to draw blood.

"Dean, look out!"

Several masculine grunts and groans came from behind, clearly from two individuals and neither of them Miku. Keeping focused on his current adversary, Dean rammed the chair into the man's head and chest two more times, the second blow throwing his head against the hard brick wall; his skull connected with a sickening CRACK and he fell to the floor, no longer moving.

Still hearing the struggle with the second guard, Dean hastily discarded the chair and scrambled for the fallen man's pistol; leather slid smoothly against a steel and nickel-plated barrel as he drew the weapon, and he frantically whirled around to face the survivor, taking a step back to keep out of close quarters.

He cocked a surprised eyebrow when he saw a familiar Asian man - black shirt, tan trousers, hair short and stringy - wrestling with the guard. To further surprise, the stocky newcomer had the upper hand, pinning the masked man's right hand to the wall with his left, and firmly squeezing the neck with his right.

It took him but a moment to remember the voice he heard from within the storeroom.

Seijiro released the guard's neck long enough to elbow his face, and received a knee to the groin in retaliation. His legs buckled but he kept the gun out of the man's hand, and left an opening wide enough for Dean to march up and put the barrel squarely on the guard's left temple.

The effect was instant; his struggling ceased, and his nearest eye swiveled to stare at Dean. The detective noticed that his skin tone was white.

"Ease down," ordered Dean. "And don't move a muscle."

Soft footsteps came from inside the room; he guessed them to be Miku's. Seijiro released his hold on the guard and backed off. "Arigato, Mr. Tanaka," said Dean in a low voice, eyes locked on his captive as he too took a few steps back. "I believe you have some explaining to do."

"So it would seem."

Dean motioned with the gun for the guard to step away from the wall. "Turn that way," he said, nodding down the hall. Just as the order was followed, Dean stepped up and brutally, yet carefully whacked the guard on the back of his head, sending him to the floor unconscious, but with no lasting damage. He then saftied and pocketed the pistol, turning to Seijiro. "I don't know why you're helping us, but let's search and tie these guys up before we get to talking, okay?"

Silently, he agreed; with Miku's help, the two men brought the unconscious CIA agents into the room they have previously been guarding, and bound them with the rope and to the chairs that had been used on Dean and Miku. A moment's search stripped them of everything that could obviously be useful, to either party - weapons, knives, flashbang grenades and a single headset radio.

Having secured the agents, Seijiro turned to his newfound companions. "Did the lieutenant discuss with you what I told him before?" Hearing an affirmative mumble from Dean, he continued. "Well... it was half-true. I was the one who modified Morganna for use in 'The World,' and she was intended solely for administrative and maintenance purposes - certainly not what she's been doing lately, if the incidents this past week have been any indication."

"And the part that was half-false?" asked Dean flatly.

Seijiro sighed. "What I didn't tell you is that the so-called upgrade to Morganna... was in fact the AI algorithms from a U.S. government project. I patented the code when I worked for the Defense Department on their Echelon project, but it failed with their software. Harold didn't seem to have a complete AI either; it was functional, but it lacked - or seemed to lack - the true cognitive and adaptive abilities of an Artificial Intelligence. That is, it seemed incapable of learning or self-modification, at least as we understand the concept."

"I must stress that it seemed that way at the time; you should know that even we still aren't sure what to make of Morganna, and that includes me. All I'm sure of is that when I modified it with the Echelon code, I didn't know how well it had worked until it was far too late."

"So we've gathered," replied Dean. "And now the CIA is in town and they want it back, don't they?"

"You have to believe that I didn't want this," said Seijiro, his brow twitching briefly, a hint of remorse sneaking into his voice. "I didn't have a choice. They put me under surveillance, and everyone associated with the crisis a while ago, regarding that girl who was comatose. Told me to keep my mouth shut, not say a word about Echelon to anybody - not the police, not my boss... not anybody. I just now found out that they'd captured you, and I was hoping to talk with them before they did anything rash... obviously, it's a tad late for that."

"Did you just now decide to help us?" asked Miku, arms folded across her chest. She shivered briefly, as if cold, despite that the room itself was comfortably warm, if a bit dusty.

"Not just now, but..." he hesitated, eyes twitching as they bounced between Dean and Miku. "Recently." After swallowing, he added, "Let's just say that this is all partly my fault, in more ways than one. To say more would take far too long."

"Fair enough." Glancing around the room, Dean asked, "Where are we, anyway?"

"A warehouse on the south side of Tokyo. They've been using it as a base of operations."

"Why did they single me out?" Miku persisted.

"Of all the players from that same incident, you were the only one who did not have publicly accessible information. From what I can tell, they systematically tracked down each individual and somehow determined whether or not they knew about Echelon. Some, apparently, divulged that you had a habit of logging information; combine this with your hidden address and telephone number, and they got nervous." He nodded to Dean. "Mr. Stollis' intervention wasn't helping the matter either. It's possible your actions forced them to hasten their timetable."

"Oh, goody," Dean remarked flatly. "And here I thought I'd screwed up."

"So, what was Project Echelon, anyway?" Miku wondered aloud.

"Datamining, basically. Information retrieval, processing and monitoring terabytes of data in seconds, centralizing communications... that kind of thing." He sighed again, heavier this time, as if in frustration. "I don't know exactly how Harold had intended Morganna to function - or Aura, for that matter - but my AI code worked better with it than it did with the DoD's own software. Damned if I know why."

After a pause, Seijiro continued. "Harold was a sentimental fool, as far as I could tell. He based the whole of 'Fragment' on a poem written by Emma Wielant - the Epitaph. Think she was his wife, or fiance or something, but she died before I met him. I didn't pay much attention to the meaning behind Morganna, and the other things he had programmed into it; kept babbling about Emma, none of it made sense. I assumed it was all a metaphor for their function, that Aura was a software lock designed to keep Morganna in check, and nothing more."

"And now it's like that Epitaph is coming true," said Dean quietly. "And your friends know that means that real AI is not only possible, but that it already exists."

"Indeed. The CIA determined that Morganna was far more sophisticated than any of us knew, and both feared that we were connected somehow via Echelon, and wanted to see what else my program could do." He shook his head, a few strands of his hair coming loose from the rest and twisting into loose bangs over his eyes. "If only we knew what Harold was trying to accomplish, what it was all intended for. But it's becoming clear that he knew something went wrong with the upgrade, that my code... may have been responsible for what Morganna became. She grew to understand what she was, configured herself to survive when we tried to delete her, and is continuing to evolve within 'The World.'"

"And now that she's become self-aware," Miku chimed in, "she knows Aura can stop her... which is why she had Tsukasa to cultivate her, and then tried to corrupt her forcibly... to prevent Aura from fulfilling her purpose, that which Harold had intended."

"Precisely. Whether Echelon is the sole reason for her awareness or merely a catalyst I'm not sure, and it may be a moot point now. Be that as it may, I can no longer let them cover up my involvement in this mess."

"So that's why you're helping us?" asked Dean.

The question lingered in the air, the room silent save for the humming of some distant generator. "Because I think I let the genie out of the bottle," he said softly. "Because I'm tired of lying to my boss and co-workers when they ask me if I can think of any reason why she's doing these things, attacking people and trying to destroy 'The World'. Maybe because I just plain feel guilty." He met Dean's eyes. "Take your pick, detective, but I could just as easily ask you the same. Right now, motive doesn't matter a whole lot, does it?"

Dean frowned and started to reply, but stopped himself. (Motive always matters,) he wanted to say, but Seijiro had a point; there were more immediate problems. "So how do we stop this? I don't think we can shoot our way out of this one."

"If the CIA gets out of Japan, then maybe I can do something," said Seijiro. "To do that, we need to prove what they've been up to."

"How do we do that?" Miku asked.

"The commander has a laptop which contains all of the information they've gathered regarding 'The World', Morganna, and everyone who was involved in the event six months ago." He nodded to Miku. "Including their more aggressive moves. If we get that to the police, you can bet the CIA is going to have a lot of explaining to do."

"The State department would have a heart attack, and probably the whole administration with it." Dean smirked ruefully. "It's just asking for trouble, but it's better than anything I can think of right now."

"Trust me," Seijiro insisted, "the agency wouldn't dare do anything while under so much public scrutiny. Even their cloak-and-dagger stuff follows a set of rules, and believe me when I say this violates almost every one of them."

Dean shared a look with Miku, then turned back to Seijiro. "All right, where can I find this thing?"

"Second floor, this wing. They've set up a command post out of the manager's office. There's a map at the end of the hall." He dug through his pants pocket and removed a cellular phone, flipping it open with his free hand. "I'm parked outside; I'll call the cops and wait for you to grab the computer, then we can get out of here."

"Right then. Miku, you go with him. I'll be right behind you."

Though she didn't verbally object, she shot him a look of thinly veiled concern. "You sure you'll be okay?"

"Not in the least," he said, a half-grin creeping onto his face. "But that's never stopped me before and damned if it's..."

A burst of static cut him off through the radio. "Eagle 3, this is Nest," called a voice through the earpiece. "Come in, over."

Instantly, all three froze, sharing varying looks of panic. Heretofore dangling limply from Dean's hand, the headset radio was quickly adjusted to its proper position; he ceased blocking the mouthpiece and cleared his throat, speaking in a deliberately low voice. "Ahem. This is Eagle 3, go ahead Nest," he said, praying the operator wouldn't notice the difference in voice.

"A patrol car just passed by the premises; no response has been heard, but as a precaution the boss is advancing the schedule by an hour. You will be relieved in five minutes. Over."

Fighting the urge to gasp, sigh, or emit any other aurally conspicuous noise, Dean answered, "Copy that, Nest. Over."

"One more thing," began the operator. "Has Tanaka left the area yet?"

Dean glanced at Tanaka, both men with blank expressions on their faces. "Negative."

"Good. As soon as you're relieved, both of you bring him up to the office. Boss wants to have another word with him. Nest out."

A momentary silence followed the cessation of radio contact. Covering the mouthpiece again with his hand, he smiled wryly at Miku. "Looks like I'm gonna need your help after all."

Chapter 12 - Tiebreaker


Turning towards the greeting, Dean did his best to steady his nerves, putting on his best pokerface. "Hey," he said simply, using the same low voice as before.

To his left stood Miku, who, like him, had stolen the uniform, vest and mask of her former captor. The Kevlar was sufficient to hide her curves, and a pair of gloves in the agent's back pocket served to hide the rest of her skin and nails. Though she carried her submachine gun with a somewhat unsteady hand, the loose camo cloth concealed her nervous posture, and despite her attempts to avoid looking at either of the new guards her eyes did not, in the slightest, betray her.

Stealing a glance at her, Dean wanted to smile. Instead he focused his attention on the newcomers and nodded slowly. Behind him, he heard Seijiro pacing back and forth, mocking impatience.

"They've been pretty quiet," said Dean, lifting a hand off his own weapon and removing the keyring from his pocket. "Here's the keys."

The nearest guard - similarly dressed and armed - stepped forward and took the keys. "Thanks. See you later, Spence."

"Yeah, you too." He turned away and started down the hallway. "Let's go, Tanaka," he ordered, gesturing with his free hand.

Together they strode away from the storeroom/prison, each expecting the new guards to see through their ruse at any moment. The hallway, though well lit by fluorescent lights, was nonetheless dark enough to be foreboding and oppressive; rusted floor vents bringing in a chilling draft, an unexpected coldness compared to the warmth of their former environs.

Seijiro quickly took point, leading the two around the corner of a T-juncture into an identical branch of hallway. They stopped briefly before a map, mounted on the wall behind a scratched and dusty plastic casing.

As the programmer scanned the diagram, Dean noticed Miku shudder involuntarily, her grip on the gun looking more awkward by the second; clearly unaccustomed to holding a firearm, her eyes twiched slightly, jumping back and forth along with her head from one end of the hallway to the other, as if they'd turn in opposite directions and watch both ends of the hallway at once, if only they could.

Dean noticed her discomfort, sharing it invisibly through his beating heart and shortened breath; unseen goosebumps crept up his arms, and he could only imagine that his companion was similarly disposed. A flick of his wrist turned the knob that controlled the radio's power, killing it. "It's not gonna come to that," he tried to assure, both her and him. "Just keep the safety on and try not to think about it." Without thinking, he reached out and gently patted her shoulder, the material tough and surprisingly abrasive to the touch.

Nonetheless, she appeared grateful; her eyes met his, and she nodded gingerly. "Yeah," she mumbled. "I'll try."

"This way."

Seijiro started again, followed closely by Dean and Miku. They followed up through a thick iron door, and then another; the latter led to a staircase, which carried them two floors higher. Just before the door, he stopped, cracking it open gently and peering through.

Satisfied that no one lay in wait on the other side, he turned back to Dean. "Is that..." he began, nodding to the radio.

Blindly double-checking the button with his hand, Dean nodded when he felt it in the 'off' position. "Go ahead."

The portly programmer pulled out his cell phone and punched in 119, waiting just long enough for the emergency operator to identify himself. "I need the police, I've been kidnapped," he said in hushed Japanese, glancing up at Dean for instruction.

"Ask for detective Aniki Masamoto," said Dean. "Tell him you're with me and Miku."

He listened carefully as Seijiro explained what was happening, knowing just enough to recognize their names as they were spoken. After a minute or so of conversation, Seijiro disconnected the call and powered off the phone before stuffing it back in his pocket.

"Let's go," he urged. "They'll be suspicious if we take too long."

Stepping through the door, they entered the second floor hallway, another door at the opposite end marked with an aged metal plate that marked it as the manager's office.

"I'm not counting on this 'boss' to fall for our disguises," Dean stated plainly, "so how do you propose we do this?"

Seijiro hesitated for a moment, if a highly visible one. "I'm working on that," he answered uneasily. "But if we can get it and get to my car, we'll be okay. The operator said Masamoto was out, but that units were on the way. All we have to do is keep them from destroying the evidence."

"So, in other words, we play it by ear," said Miku.


She shot Dean a look that bordered between stern and worried. He could only offer an apologetic frown in response.

They neared the office door; their footsteps were loud amidst the silent hallway, but not loud enough to obstruct the sound of voices from another room - though it could just as easily have been from one of the adjoining rooms, and not the manager's office.

"Stop," Dean said out of the blue; as they turned for an explanation, he added, "Seijiro, you're sure that this guy has the laptop with him?"

"It was on the desk. I saw it myself before I came down to see you."

"All right." He glanced at Miku. "Stand outside the door; when the shooting starts, point your gun at it like you're not sure what's going on. Anybody comes out, say you heard some commotion and you called for backup... or, something like that."

She shot him a look that easily conveyed her confusion, but she said nothing as he continued. "Seijiro, you walk in first, count to three silently, then drop to the floor and close your eyes."

"You have a plan," he accused, watching him carefully and with a curious eye.

"Whoa, hey, whoa," Dean replied in a less serious tone. "Nobody said anything about a plan. Just go with me on this, okay?"

Seijiro sighed in obvious disapproval, but grunted in compliance.

"Wait, what if they figure out I'm not one of them?" asked Miku.

"Shoot him," was his flippant response. With Seijiro in the lead, he made his way towards the office door; the programmer hesitantly turned the knob and pushed the door inward. At that moment, Dean snapped open a pocket on the side of his slacks and stuck his thumb into the plastic pin of a waiting flashbang.

As the two men stepped in, he pulled the pin, keeping his hand solidly wrapped around the base of the device; he lifted it out and did his best to conceal it behind his back.


Past the shoulders of his pointman, Dean saw a drab, uncomfortable-looking office with barely functional furniture and shaggy brown carpeting. A disused blackboard sat on one wall, an empty bookshelf on the other. Behind the desk, mounted near the ceiling, was an almost antique PA speaker, the only evidence of technology - aside from the lights - that also looked native to the room.

A brand-new desktop computer sat on the desk, partially obscuring a plain-looking white man in the same military camo cloth, solidly in his middle ages; Dean guessed somewhere from 40 to 50. His face was cast with weariness, but still held a spark of retained vigor, eyes appraising him carefully, as if ready for the unexpected.


Next to the stationary computer sat the laptop, closed and disconnected. Dean's eyes fell on it like a magnet, and his heart beat faster, preparing for battle.

He counted a total of three men in addition to the commander, four in all; two flanking the desk, one to his immediate right, watching the door.


Seijiro dove forward onto his stomach, covering his head and burying his face in the floor. Dean heard the confused shouts of the CIA agents as they witnessed the maneuver, and they grew to a crescendo as he brought his arm around and threw the grenade to one corner of the room.


Hearing the clicking of weapons being raised, Dean spun to the nearest guard and raised his submachine gun with his left hand; he squeezed the trigger, and just as the first bullet erupted from the barrel, the grenade exploded in a flash of brilliant light and high-pitched white noise.

Against the roaring of his SMG, Dean heard the pained cry of the door guard as the first bullet hit home. As he hadn't been looking in the direction of the grenade, he didn't see it explode and was spared from the full force of its effects; nevertheless, he found himself momentarily blinded when he ceased fire and turned his attention to the three by the desk. The light left trails of color in his eyes, and though it had quickly receded just enough for him to again make out the details of the room, the exact position of his enemies was lost to him.

Fortunately, this was doubly true for the commander and his men. Within seconds Dean's vision cleared, and without pause he took the SMG in both hands and triggered a burst of bullets at the trio of agents - two still helplessly clawing at and rubbing their eyes, one with a pistol drawn but firing random shots at seemingly nothing.

The 'battle' was over in less time than it took for the grenade's fuse to burn. The presence of Kevlar brought some doubt to Dean's mind whether any of his targets were actually dead or merely injured, but in either case he was unimpeded as he raced forward and snatched the laptop from the desk.

He turned around to Seijiro, who quickly scrambled to his feet once he heard Dean moving. "You got it?!"

"Yeah, let's go!"

Together they raced into the hall and rejoined Miku, who was watching the office door as instructed; were he less rushed, Dean might have noticed the barrel trembling.

"What the hell is going on out here?!" came the muffled shout from beyond one of the side doors. The left-hand door opened, revealing an unmasked agent - can of soda in hand, shotgun loosely slung around his shoulder. His eyes went wide when they spotted the computer tucked under Dean's arm. "Holy shit!"

He dropped the can and gripped his weapon, prying it off his shoulder, but Dean was quicker; he squeezed the trigger, gun shaking violently in his one hand. The agent lurched back and crumpled to the floor, the 9mm bullets stopped by his vest but striking him with enough force to stall him.

"Take the computer!" shouted Dean. "Go!"

Seijiro pried the laptop from under his arm, freeing up Dean's hand. He bent down and relieved the gun from the agent's hands, thrusting an arm under the strap and slinging it over his back. "All right, let's get to my car, it's right outside!"

"Lead the way!"

Dean and Miku fell into step behind Seijiro as he dashed for the stairwell door; he practically tore it open, and the three madly scrambled down the stairs. Before they could set foot on the ground floor, a distant alarm began to wail; were it not for the loud clanging of shoes and boots on metal, they might have heard the confused shouts and cries of panic as the 'base' was brought to full alert.

"Out here, there's a fire exit leading straight into the parking lot."

Tanaka reached for the door, but it burst open before he could touch the knob; two agents charged through, and raised their weapons to fire before any of them could react.

"Ah, shit. Scared the hell out of us," said the lead agent. "What are you doing here?"

Dean found himself tongue-tied, and quickly began to panic as he grasped for the first lie his mind could conjure up.

A lie that was wholly unnecessary. "There was shooting on the second floor," said Miku, her voice deep and gruff - obviously as best a mask of her true voice as she could manage. "Boss wanted us to take Tanaka to a safe place."

Seijiro quickly played off her ruse, showing the laptop and giving it a good shake for emphasis. "They're after this. We're getting it out of here."

After a moment's consideration, the second agent waved them on with the tip of his gun. "All right, get to the rendezvous point. We'll check it out. Let's move!"

Not waiting for the spooks to think again, Seijiro squeezed past them with Dean and Miku in tow. Two doors and two short hallways later, they found themselves in front of a dull red fire door, the gray metal push-bar surrounded by bright yellow lettering that Dean was certain meant an alarm would sound.

"Just past this door!"

Tanaka shoved the door open, and another alarm started ringing, more familiar than the last - a traditional hammer-and-bell that sounded with the speed of a machine gun.

As they spilled into the parking lot, Dean heard what sounded like a man shouting "Hey, what are you doing?!" from behind. Without thinking, he half-turned and pointed the SMG at the still-ajar doors, firing as they slowly swung shut. He got a vague glimpse of a man in black taking cover, but opted against any facade of accuracy and simply emptied the magazine in the direction of the door. Muzzle flare caused shadows to dance at his feet as bullets punched tiny dents into the thick metal door, with their shells clinking harmlessly to the pavement, wisps of smoke trailing from them as they fell.

"Dean! Over here!"

He heard an engine being gunned, and tossed the empty weapon aside as he resumed his prior course and caught up with his companions. Quickly coming upon a black Lincoln Continental, he yanked the rear passenger door open and dove into the backseat.

"All right, go!" he hollered, somewhat muffled against the leather seats.

Gunshots rang out as tires squealed; the Lincoln roared to life and sped away from the parking lot, past an open chainlink fence and into the empty streets.

Chapter 13 - Vicious Virtue

"Got it, Dean. I'm on my way to intercept right now; just keep moving and stay in one piece."

"Will do. And Mas... thanks, man."

The rumbling of the car soothed him through the seat, his focus shifting to what he felt as his eyes closed. The man's stomach answered with a shivering of its own, attesting to its emptiness. His mask had been discarded, along with the bulletproof vest.

"Heh. Don't thank me yet." A click signaled the death of the line. Dean shut off and folded the phone, and passed it up to Seijiro.

"Ohhh... god, what a day," murmured the detective.

"There's the understatement of the year," Miku's voice remarked to him; up front, she had similarly disrobed, her mask and vest lying in a heap beneath her outstretched legs.

Dean grunted. "First Cyber Connect, now the CIA... the whole goddamn world's against us, I swear to god."

Seijiro made a noise, a halted chuckle. He turned the wheel right and the car responded accordingly, rounding a corner.

"Just out of curiosity, was that you who emailed me?" asked Miku. "Before they came for us last night?"

He confirmed her suspicions with a nonchalant, "Yeah." After a beat, he followed up with, "They monitor my email traffic from my terminal; had to put it in through my PDA and upload it to the 'net. Barely had enough time to mask the address as well."

"Hey, you tried," said Dean with a half-hearted smile that quickly vanished. "What I don't get is this: why would the CIA even let you know they were in town?"

"Like I said, the patent for the core Echelon code is mine," explained Seijiro. "Legally, I can do whatever I want with it, but since it was developed under U.S. government protocols I can't say how it was made, or for what it was originally intended." He paused long enough to sigh. "Until now, there hasn't been a need to."

He glanced back at Dean for a moment. "I'm sure you've heard millions of conspiracy theories regarding the CIA. Even I don't know half the things they were up to, but I can say this. You leave them like you leave the mob, which is to say, you don't. Not really, anyway. Those men wanted to make sure I cooperated because unless you're drawing a paycheck from them, they can't trust you."

"Business as usual," replied Dean. "Well, guess that means all we gotta do is wait this out."

"In theory," said Seijiro. "I'll be safe so long as I'm with Cyber Connect, but this does beg the question of what you're going to do, detective."

"Think this one's out of my hands. Now that we know what's going on, not much left to do but make sure it doesn't happen and fork over the laptop to the police." Dean gave a small grin, adding "And I know a guy who's all over that first one."

"You're referring to the character Kite, aren't you?"

Dean nodded. "That's him. You know him?"

"Indirectly." He swallowed; the car rolled to a stop behind a crowded stoplight, brake lights glaring angrily through the windshield. "One of our security techs has been working with him - Francis Moritsu. You know him as Lios. Not exactly a 'people' person, but he knows his stuff."

The name 'Lios' triggered a black memory in Dean's head. He scowled. "How sweet. And here I thought you guys didn't care."

A faint growling erupted from Seijiro's throat. "Don't mistake silence for inaction, detective. As I said before, we've been working on this as well."

"Does that way include offing your former employees, or trying to kill me?" Dean shot as the car sped up again, a touch of ice to his statement despite its slow and labored delivery.

"Hey, that was not my call," Seijiro answered defensively. "I didn't have anything to do with Delphi, or those two agents. That was Lios's doing, and I sure as hell don't recall him giving the OK to kill you."

"Yeah, yeah," muttered Dean. Mere seconds later, he backpedaled, fatigue of the day's exertions forcing him to drop his barriers. "Look, I'm... christ. I know it wasn't your fault; I mean, if anything, I owe you. We didn't know what we were doing... the mistakes, the bad shit, they go both ways. But... like I said, now I'm here, now I know. Just hope that's enough."

"I know what you mean," the Cyber Connect employee replied. "Nobody wanted any of this, but sometimes things just happen that way."

"I hear that." Dean chuckled ruefully. "Know what really gets me, though?"

"What's that?"

"That damn kid, man, Hiroshi." Dean slid to his left, leaning against the door. "Guy's got a heart of solid gold. He's in this trying to get his friend back, and..." his voice dropped a notch or two in tone, "even had time to help out a guy like me. I mean... I saw his eyes, he wasn't lookin' at me like I was a bad guy, y'know?"

The detective's eyes drifted shut, blocking the car from view; now and then a light streaked by the window, almost visible through his eyelids. "We both had bad things happen to us. He empathized, it was the damnedest thing." His eyes opened, staring out the window. "And I told him, y'know... how I got kicked off the force." He shook his head. "Didn't matter... he and that girl, they could've just walked away, but they still helped us out. Didn't see us as thieves... just people trying to make the best of a bad situation."

A brief pause, his voice now a hushed mutter. "Been a long time since someone saw it that way."

If he was looking for consolation, he found none; Seijiro had fallen silent, concentrating on the road ahead, while a gentle snoring was heard from Miku's seat. He cocked his head and found the woman curled up against the door, her head resting against the window; the laptop earned its name, resting comfortably beneath her folded arms. Her weapons lay in the backseat next to Dean, still saftied and cold.

As he watched, her eyes twitched; the left one cracked open, just a touch. He stared, fascinated, as the brown orb rolled to meet his gaze, and he swore he saw the hint of a smile in the corner of her lips. She made a noise, interrupted by the car's engine but sounding a lot like that familiar throaty chuckle of hers.

(That could start to grow on a person,) he thought with a small smile of his own. (You did good, Miku.)

Light poured through the back window, bright and powerful; Dean sat up and squinted out at the approaching vehicle. "What the hell?"

"Some idiot's got his brights on," said Seijiro. He nudged the turn signal lever and gently guided the car out of the lane, sparing them from the direct focus of the headlights.

Out of the light, Dean got a good look at the vehicle; a white van, unmarked save for the license plate. To his surprise the van accelerated, quickly outpacing the sedan and pulling closer. The driver-side window rolled down, offering an unobstructed glimpse into its blackened interior.

(Geez this guy's in a hurry,) thought Dean. Somewhere inside, the closest analogue to a Spidey Sense that Dean possessed was going haywire. It was then that he caught a glimpse of the driver - or, more accurately, the driver's arm, which was covered by a sleeve of gray camouflage.

The point was driven home when the arm disappeared from view, only to reappear toting a submachine gun.

"Seijiro!" shouted Dean as he drew a pistol from one of his pockets. "Floor it, we got company!"

No sooner than Seijiro had glanced back at the nearby van than a burst of automatic gunfire tore sharply at the sedan, the SMG spitting out a dozen or so bullets, some of which punched through the nearest window and others clanging loudly against the frame of the car.

Miku 'awoke' with a start. "What's going on?!"

"It's them!" shouted Dean, taking aim through the wounded window. "Keep your head down!"

Dean fired at the van, 9mm bullets streaking forth and slamming into the hood and driver-side door, to little obvious effect. The driver returned fire, squeezing off another burst which tore at the trunk; Dean dropped down below the seat back, praying that it would offer the desired protection.

"Do something!" cried Seijiro, madly stomping on the gas pedal. "Stop them!"

The detective popped out of hiding, pistol raised to shoot; he started to aim for the wheel, but the driver guessed his intentions and swerved directly behind the sedan, protecting both wheels. Dean grunted, and fired upon the driver, hidden behind the veil of a tinted windshield. Six pulls emptied the magazine, forcing Dean to discard the weapon and duck back below the seat as the driver fired once more. He heard another weapon erupt, guessing that the passenger had now joined the fray.

He reached for the shotgun, and did a double take as he saw the slender frame of Miku snake around the passenger seat and snatch the submachine gun.

She threw a look at him, her lips pursed into a flat line. "It came to that," she said abruptly.

Dean groaned loudly and took the shotgun, taking aim as Miku rolled down her window and leaned out, leading with the SMG.

The two vehicles exchanged volleys of gunfire, the van chasing the smaller car with all the grace and finesse of Tom and Jerry. They tore through a crowded shopping district, ducking and weaving in and out of traffic, barely able to find room to keep going. Frightened pedestrians and other drivers scrambled madly away from the chase, some racing to the nearest pay or cellular phone, others rushing to the relative safety of nearby businesses and storefronts.

"Damn it, it's empty!" howled Miku against the rushing wind, leaning back in and dropping the SMG.

Faced with a similar problem, Dean exchanged his shotgun for one of the remaining pistols and offered the other to Miku. "Make 'em count!"

Before either could fire, the wail of sirens made itself evident, and a glance at the rearview mirror (which had been redecorated thanks to a stray bullet) revealed a single police car trailing close behind the van, its two occupants both wielding pistols and firing at the CIA agents on board.

"We've gotta stop that van! Seijiro, get alongside 'em, I'll take out the tires!"

Seijiro let out a frustrated growl. "We're penned in, it's all I can do to keep going!" he shouted back, pounding madly on the horn. "God damn it, MOVE!"

The van's passenger had apparently overheard and borrowed Dean's idea, for a sweep of gunfire sent a lucky shot straight at the rear tire, ripping the air out of it and dropping the rim onto the harsh concrete below; the sudden shift of balance, spun the car clockwise, spinning out into the other lane and flattening into a line perpendicular to the van, which almost instantly caught up and slammed into the rear passenger door.

"Aahhh!" cried Dean amidst a chorus of confused and pained shouts as the car shook violently, the force of impact firmly planting the car against the van's front fender. Desperate, Dean scrambled to the passenger side and took aim through the now-shattered window, getting a clear look at the driver for the first time.

He squeezed off a single round at the driver, and felt a small amount of satisfaction when he saw the man's camo-clothed figure rock back sharply, the bullet striking him in his right shoulder and forcing his hand off the wheel. Dean followed up with four more bullets, two of which hit their mark high on the man's chest, mortally wounding him.

The lack of a driver caused the van to decelerate; coupled with its collision, it quickly ground to a halt, and the wounded sedan shuddered as inertia tore it a few feet away from the offending vehicle.

Slightly dazed but unhurt, Dean hastily checked on his companions. "Y-you guys okay?" he shakily called. The driver-side airbag had deployed from the impact, and Seijiro had crumpled against it; he groaned quietly, still conscious but unmoving. Miku's airbag, however, had not opened, and a faint trail of blood oozed from a cut on her forehead; she lay back against her seat, out cold.

(Shit,) he thought, leaning forward into the front seat. With his free hand, he took her wrist and felt for a pulse, and was relieved when he felt her blood pumping through the tiny vein, slowed but clearly active.

Through her window, he noticed an agent climbing out of the passenger side of the van, still carrying his submachine gun; he took a few steps forward and trained the barrel on Miku.

Dean reacted instantly, his left arm curling around Miku and training the pistol straight at their attacker. His eyes zoomed down the barrel, past the sight and straight to the agent's eyes. His index finger curled around the trigger and pulled it quickly, yet smoothly, the small twitch of his finger transformed to a powerful explosion from the gun's barrel.

The bullet struck the agent square between his eyes, snapping his neck back sharply and dropping him to the ground. As the report from the gunshot faded, Dean heard several confused shouts and cries of panic, other motorists and civilians bearing witness as they scurried away from the action.

A second gunshot ripped through the air, and Dean felt something hot and hard stab into his right flank, drilling through his rib cage and exiting on an angle out the back. A blinding flash of pain tore at his nerve endings, and he cried out, dropping the gun as he was thrown back into his seat; through the window, he saw a third agent, who had climbed out from the front and was now training a pistol on him.

Dean wanted to scream, but found he couldn't; the air had been torn from his lungs, forcing him to cough loudly from the intended action. Weakly he clutched his wound; thoughts, wishes filled in the void left by his fading consciousness. (Leave us alone... leave her alone, god damn you...)

More gunshots; the agent lurched and staggered, and crumpled to the ground, drops of blood falling to the ground like a fine mist. Behind him stood a man in a tan blazer, pistol drawn and aimed at his corpse.

Dean was too weak to move, but his eyes held to the very last moment, watching as the police officer raced up to the broken sedan.

"My god... Dean!" he heard a familiar voice shout. The next words out of his mouth were in Japanese, and Dean was no longer in a condition to care what they were, lack of oxygen causing his vision to fade, but not before he could identify the speaker.

"Mas," he managed to whisper; he wanted to reach to him, but could barely twitch his hand before his eyes closed. His mind registered only the force that shoved against him when his tired, wounded body fell to the floor of the back seat, no longer moving.

Chapter 14 - Acclimation

"...at last report, the number of dead stands at nineteen, with dozens more injured. Police have cordoned off the area surrounding the warehouse, and continue the search for others they believe escaped in the shooting."

A feeble groan snaked past parched lips, escaping into the air unheard beneath the woman's voice.

"The details behind the incident have not been released, however it is known that the assailants were U.S. citizens, several of whom have been identified as members of the Central Intelligence Agency."

He heard a faint beeping to his right, matching the pace of his heart as he breathed slowly, weakly. His entire body felt stiff as a board, unused and tired at the same time.

"President Coleman, under pressure from the State Department, as well as the United Nations Security Council, has promised to lead a bipartisan investigation into the agency's activities. Director James MacDowell, who was appointed by the previous administration, could not be reached for comment."

He forced his eyes open, as if the lids were made of lead; obscure white blurs replaced the pitch darkness, and slowly the room began to take shape.

"This comes at the end of an already turbulent week, as the recent rise in cyber-terrorism - culminating with the blackout at the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Tuesday - has local police and federal investigators on high alert."

As his vision cleared, so too did his memory. His mind sought out his most recent recollection, and gasped aloud at the image. Escaping from an abandoned warehouse; being chased by men in a white van; a car crash, several gunshots. An uncomfortable numbness tore a hole in his senses, extending from his right flank to his upper back.

"Aww," groaned the detective, slowly taking stock of his surroundings. "What... where am I?"

"Stollis-san?" asked a quiet, female voice, and Dean became dimly aware of the woman who approached the bed, clad in a nurse's uniform and carrying a clipboard.

He caught on quickly, if tiredly. "Is this a hospital?" he murmured, trying to sit up.

The nurse raced up to him, placing an arm across his chest, admonishing him with a shake of her head. He squinted up at her in mild confusion, her auburn eyes staring down at him with equally mild concern.

"Please do not move," she said slowly, her English somewhat broken and clearly forced.

It was then that Dean noticed the state of his person: his clothes were gone, replaced with a light blue, wafer-thin hospital gown; the noise on his right came from an EKG machine, several wires trailing from it to his chest, monitoring his heartbeat and pulse; a plastic respirator wound its way beneath his nose, providing him with air as he slept; an IV drip solution hung from a rack next to the bed, its needle firmly planted in his forearm. Across from the bed, a TV set hung from the ceiling, displaying a news broadcast, translated via voice-over to English.

"Sumimasen," said the nurse, bowing her head slightly before exiting the room, shoes clacking lightly against the tiled floor.

Dean let out a soft groan, pressing his head to the pillow beneath it and allowing his eyes to droop shut again.


"Mmph... fo what'th the wor'?"

Masamoto chuckled. "Remember to breathe, ace. You're trying to get better, remember?"

Dean gulped down the mouthful of cheeseburger, and wiped his lips with the back of his free hand. "Sorry. Been a while since I had real food. Doc said I was out for a couple days, but I should be out of here by tomorrow," he said, shuffling slightly against his bed, which had been raised to allow him to sit up. The EKG and IV drip had been disconnected, though he remained in his hospital gown, and white bandages still covered the wounds to his back and side.

The lieutenant nodded, leaning forward in his chair. "Well, all of the agents on the roster have been accounted for, one way or another. There was a lot of evidence on that laptop you gave us, and it's pretty damning. There's a big investigation going on in D.C., everyone's calling for the CIA head to resign. Our government's demanding an explanation... suffice it to say it's one hell of a mess."

"What about, uh, Cyber Connect? Morganna? What's the story on them?"

"Doesn't look like they're talking much about that... the big issue is that the CIA was here in the first place, not on what they were after. CC hasn't come forward with anything; nothing we've publicly released ties them into this anyway. Looks like the big secret about "The World" isn't going anywhere for the time being."

"Just as well," said Dean before taking a small bite from his burger. "I doubt anybody would buy it. I know I wouldn't."

"Me neither. Speaking of which, how are you feeling?"

Dean shook his head. "Ehh, I don't know... still kinda tired, and it itches a little now." He lifted the cheeseburger again, but stopped short, staring as though it wasn't even there. "Been a while since I've been shot... with a real bullet, anyway. Almost ten years..."

"You sure you'll be okay to leave?"

"Yeah, I'll live. Said I was lucky; an inch more, and it would've popped my lung like a balloon." The sandwich trembled in his hand, his arm shivering briefly. His head twitched as he snapped out of his momentary trance, and he turned to Masamoto. "Hey... I never got to say thanks, for back there. Y-you saved my life, Mas, I... I owe you one."

Masamoto nodded. "Well, you might have saved this city with what you dug up. We cracked this nut with your help, Dean." He smiled, warmly. "Don't forget that."

"Heh heh. We'll buy each other beers and call it even, what do you say?"

The elder man raised a hand and waved it dismissively. "I don't drink. Make mine a coffee."

"And you call yourself a cop?" queried Dean with a slight grin.

"Not in English," answered Masamoto.

The two shared a chuckle, Dean pausing to take another bite. After swallowing, he asked, "Hey, what happened to Miku and Seijiro?"

"Bump on the head, minor cuts and bruises," explained Masamoto. "They left a day after the accident. Seijiro worked with us to track down the other CIA agents, and he said he was going to help Cyber Connect with Morganna. As for Kurasawa... probably getting her place fixed up and her stuff replaced, but I personally haven't seen or heard from her since."

"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me," Dean remarked flatly.

"What about you? What will you do now?"

"Well," began the detective, "the kid's got it covered as far as I can tell, but you never know. I think I'll stick around and see what happens. Maybe see if I can't do something for him. And besides," he continued, "I think after this I'm officially persona non grata back in the States. Better sit tight 'till things die down. Can't say I've got anything better to do."

"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me," Masamoto said, parroting Dean's earlier tone. "But I guess I'd better get going," he added, rising from his chair. "I've got a ton of paperwork to fill out. Take it easy, detective."

"Hey, Mas, there's something I've been meaning to ask."


Dean took another bite and swallowed, then cleared his throat as he turned to face the lieutenant. "Whereabouts are you from? You're a little more no-nonsense than most people I've met here."

Masamoto cocked his head at Dean, brow furrowing for a moment. The clock ticked thrice before his expression cleared, a slight smile on his face. "New Jersey."

"New Jersey," repeated Dean. He smiled back. "This explains everything. Well met, lieutenant. Well met."

Aniki nodded, offering an informal salute as he turned and left. "See you, sergeant."


"Anyway, that’s pretty much it."

A simulated breeze whistled as it drifted past the island, ruffling cloth and hair alike. Silent once more, they stared in opposite directions, Stolls towards the horizon, Kite into the back of the shop.

Stolls cocked his head back, gazing up at the sky. Reminded of the graphical glitch over his head, he frowned. "Guess things are only getting worse here, too…"

Kite turned away from the shop window, peering at the Wavemaster through a few loose strands of azure hair. "Yeah... but at least now we know what we're up against. That thing... Morganna... it really is behind all this."

"Looks that way," affirmed Stolls with a nod. "Guess it's just a matter of finding the boss and beating it then, huh?"

"Yeah," said Kite. "I think that's it. We just have to do what we think is right."

Stolls let out a deep, rumbling chuckle. "Only you, my friend, could make it sound so simple." He smiled. "You’re right, too. I don’t get much of this techno-junk myself, and politics is just as Greek to me… but this," he gestured vaguely with one arm, "adventuring, sleuthing, I can do that. And, I trust, so can you."

Kite smiled back. "I can, and I will."

The Wavemaster stood up, facing Kite. "Glad to hear it. You’re a good man, Hiro."

He didn’t have long to dwell on the praise; a glance at the clock in his display forced him away from the item shop. "Oh, I’d better get going. I promised I’d meet with BlackRose and Gardenia right about now."

Stolls’ reaction was not unlike that of a cartoon character, eyes widening considerably and jaw agape. "THE Gardenia? You know her??"

Kite tilted his head, giving Stolls a puzzled look. "Yeah, we met back when I started playing. Do you know her?"

"By reputation," said the Wavemaster. "There's a ton of webrings to this game, one of 'em is this huge fansite her little groupies put up. Crazy stuff." A grin crossed his lips. "Guy gets into the game by chance, he’s here a few months, and he starts rubbing elbows with legends and meeting girls left and right. I get into this, what do I get? I get shot, that's what I get. You suck, man."

Driving home the point was a smiling emote, which spurred Kite to reciprocate with one of his own.

"Speaking of which, how are things with you and that Heavy Blade, man?"

"Heyyyy! Kite!"

The shout was attached to a slender thorn-tattooed, pink-haired girl, two islands away. An obscenely large sword was slung over her shoulder, which she held with one hand. Her other gauntlet-covered arm shot out over her head, waving to get Kite's attention, and a closer examination would have revealed a smile on her tanned face.

"Oh, she's here!" exclaimed Kite as he began to sprint away. "I'll see you later!"

"What?! Wait a minute, what happened??" he heard Stolls shout after him. "C'mon, man, you're killin' me here!"

Kite stopped long enough to turn around and glance back at Stolls; he swore he saw the boy wink at him before resuming his exit from the shopping island.

Stolls couldn't help but sigh as he leaned against the shop once more. He watched as Kite joined BlackRose across the way; his silver eyebrows jumped a full inch when he saw the two join hands and leisurely stroll away, as if they didn't have a care in The World.

(Bravo, Kite-san, bravo,) he mentally congratulated.

The clock on his heads-up display brought another thought to his mind. (Ah, good, that field should have respawned by now. Time to harvest more Piney Apples.) With that, he snatched up his staff and started towards the bridge. (Stupid misprinted Grunty FAQ...)

Resting the staff against his shoulder, Stolls stepped onto the bridge, whistling an improvised tune off-key. His eyes wandered away from his intended path when another Wavemaster started on the opposite side of the bridge; a tall woman, with long blonde hair and dark eyes. Her robe was a dark green and short-sleeved, with a mint-colored section running the length of the garment on the front; emeralds decorated her earrings, and the amulet around her neck bore a hue of the same color.

They both stopped; her eyes caught his, a distinct quality to them that Stolls swore he had seen before, and not just in other, similar avatars. Set evenly over her thin nose, they appraised him silently. "Something wrong?"

Stolls shook his head, averting his eyes. "Nah. Sorry."

She raised a curious eyebrow, but continued on her way, and he on his. They passed each other without further conversation. He reached the end of the bridge, and half-turned to look back at the Wavemaster, a small smile on his face. "Excuse me, are you BT?"

The smile vanished when he saw that the Wavemaster had not done likewise; she stopped long enough to answer with a curt "No," before stepping off the bridge.

"Hmm," he muttered, furrowing his brow. (All right then... that was productive.)

With a shrug, he resumed his path towards the Chaos Gate, his boots crunching grass, scraping dirt and clunking against wood as he walked. Within seconds he was in arm's reach of the spinning blue gate; he summoned the field menu and began scrolling through the history, searching for an earlier field.

A momentary stinging in his back pulled his senses from the game, and he took a hand off the controller to rub the injured area, wincing slightly as the week-old wound throbbed.

(Bogart, you made this all look so much easier... how do you do it, man?)

The sound of someone gating in to his right caught his attention; the color green entered his vision first, which took shape into the robed figure of a female Wavemaster, her body very similar to the one he had seen earlier. The only differences were the sleeves, which were separated from the robe itself and covered only her forearms, and the jewel set in her staff, which was as dark green as the outer sections of her robe. Also decorating her was a golden circlet that sat on her forehead, partially hidden by a few long strands of her blonde hair.

The Wavemaster looked around for a second or two before noticing Stolls. "Yes?" she asked, her voice soft, yet with a hint of firmness.

Stolls closed the window, and turned to face the newcomer. "Pardon me, miss... are you BT?"

She took a few steps forward, closing the gap between them. "That would depend on who is asking," she said. After a beat, she added, "detective," a sudden touch of playfulness in her tone.

Dean smiled. "Nobody important. Just a geek with a gun."

She smiled back, chuckled softly. "Is that a fact?"

With a push of a button, he sent a party invitation her way. "Care to go for a stroll?" he asked, extending his free hand to her.

The invitation was almost immediately accepted; her stats appeared on his HUD, though she made no move to take his hand, instead taking a step closer. "Lead the way, Mr. Stollis."

===End of first half===

Chapter 15 - Vicarious Living

Digital lips parted to release a heavy sigh as Kite slumped against the railing, head hanging low and eyes in an empty gaze at the horizon. Above and around him, the Sigma root town - an aerial fortress consisting of several cannon-equipped battlements, all linked by a series of stone bridges - was visibly coming apart at the seams, with spots of code and data replacing textures here and there; the sky shattered upwards like broken glass, fragments splintering away into nothingness.

The Twin Blade kept his eyes on the pristine horizon, fearful of looking up or down, or even at the very bricks which supported him; only the horizon lay completely untouched by the corrupting force gnawing away at the fabric of The World, and only it offered the respite that he desired.

His shoulders sagged, his body leaning heavily onto his folded arms. In stark contrast to his beleaguered posture, his mind was abuzz with activity, his thoughts a replay of everything that had happened in the past 24 hours - more than enough to saddle the boy with a lifetime of guilt.

(Here I am again,) he thought, his teal eyes falling. (Every time I think we're a little closer, it just gets worse...)

The encounter with the phase Magus had ended in victory, but a hollow victory at best; returning to the root town of the Lambda server, he and BlackRose were horrified to discover that the corruption of that server's fields had spread to the cultural city itself. No longer a sanctuary from the entity that seemed all too willing to destroy 'The World', Carmina Gadelica - and the root towns of every other server - had started to decay.

He sniffed back what felt like a tear gathering in the corner of his eye, as more immediate concerns came to the forefront of his mind.

On top of this, his encounters with the few players who were up at this hour - specifically, his allies Mia, Mistral and BlackRose - had gotten progressively worse. The bizarre cat-woman had staggered about in a punch-drunk haze, babbling nonsense about a celebration before logging out; Mistral had confessed to Kite that she would be out of action for awhile, on account of being pregnant and understandably concerned about the safety of her child.

He closed his eyes, his throat tightening at the implication of her revelation. (I put them both in danger... what would have happened if I had brought her with to fight Magus? That thing was even worse than Skeith...) He gulped loudly, balling his hands into fists, bunching up the white sleeves of his tunic. (What could have happened...)

Perhaps most damaging to the boy's troubled conscience were the words that his closest friend and partner had shot at him mere hours ago, a painful reminder of fears he thought he had left behind, that the two of them had grown past.

The pictures came to him with brutal accuracy: a melancholic moment of reflection, standing alone in the deserted broadway of the cultural city; the Heavy Blade dropped in behind him, casual as ever, yet with a hint of shyness about an email he had yet to receive; a confession of his belief, fleeting though it was, that they were doing more harm than good, causing the rose to bare her thorns.

("Whining over the situation isn't going to help!")

BlackRose had been right, he knew that, but it helped neither of them to say so aloud, instead serving only to deepen his concerns.

(That's why I was afraid of saying the wrong thing,) he thought. (It hurts...)

Following this event, he learned of a location on the newly-opened Sigma server that Orca had visited, and found none other than Balmung deep within that field's dungeon, locked in a pitched battle with a Data Bug. Channeling his malaise into anger, Kite fought with an uncommon ferocity that surprised even him; he barely maintained enough composure to Data Drain the gargantuan beast when its defenses finally fell.

The exertion had taken all the anger and fight out of him, but even at his worst he held no malice for the winged Blademaster who fought by his side, knowing that Balmung's distrust of Kite stemmed from a deep misunderstanding, one which the two warriors quickly set about rectifying. With a respectful crossing of swords, an alliance was forged, and Kite found himself with one more ally to count on in 'The World'.

Nonetheless, the moment Balmung had left, Kite found himself still unwilling to log out; his depression would not be so easily denied, which was not helped by the fact that the boy had little else to do, and even less in the way of leads to follow.

Kite released another sigh, only to draw the air right back in with a gasp when he heard loud, clanking footsteps to his right. Initially shocked, he relaxed when he saw a Heavy Axeman approaching, covered head-to-toe in silver armor, which was decorated with intelligible orange runes along the edges of each plate. One hand gripped the shaft of a large gray axe, which, if stood on end, was taller than the warrior that wielded it.

"Sorry to startle you," called a surprisingly feminine voice from within the walking pile of man-shaped metal. "I was just surprised to see someone else on, what with all this. Delta server's nearly deserted, it's kinda freaky."

"Yeah," began Kite in reply, turning to face the newcomer, whom his HUD now identified as 'Faranis-48'. "I haven't seen too many others on, either."

The Axewoman strode up to him, obviously bent on further questioning. "Do you know what's going on?"

Still feeling responsible for the broken server around him, Kite played dumb, shaking his head firmly. "No, not really... something about hackers, I heard, but nobody's saying much else."

The helmet nodded, somewhat awkwardly considering it was practically flush with the breastplate. "That's what I heard, too," she said, a mild squeak entering her voice. "I think it has to do with Fragment."

Kite blinked. "Fragment? What about it?" he asked, his curiosity aroused.

"Well," said Faranis, shifting her stance, "I haven't exactly followed up on this - it was for a report in my computer class - but there was an article in Wired a few years ago, about Fragment, that claimed they were having problems with the virtual interface, the servers, that kind of thing."

"Like this?" Kite indicated the broken hub around him with a glance.

"Sort of. It didn't go into too much detail about what was causing it, though," she answered. "Actually, hang on, I might still have the paper."

Her body froze, the metal coming to a dead stop, devoid of a natural sway or any other idle movement. Seconds later it began again, and she hefted her axe to rest over her shoulder. "Here it is. The quote's from someone named Seijiro Tanaka, I think he was a programmer or something. He said 'For a while, the problem was just too hard; VR has come a long way in the past decade, but even now it's extremely difficult to code. Back then, fields and servers had to be periodically locked and repaired; some of them appeared to be in various states of decay, textures and objects would be missing, monsters had their stats altered to be invincible, things like that. It was a playtester's nightmare, to say nothing for administration.'"

"That's the end of it," she added after a brief pause.

"I see," said Kite. "So Fragment had these problems too?"

Faranis nodded. "I think so." Tacked to the end of her sentence was a confused emote, a colon followed by a backslash.

"Hmm." Kite's eyes wandered back to the pristine horizon, and slowly drooped shut as he covered his mouth to stifle a yawn. "Well, I can't reach any of my friends, so I think I'm going to log off for the night."

"Me too. See you later!"

Both logged off in tandem, Faranis before Kite. 'The World' disappeared from view as golden rings slid vertically over his body, causing the picture to fade to black. Gradually he became aware of his real self, seated in front of a flatscreen monitor and equipped with the requisite controller and headset, which he set down and pulled off in that order.

Ambient noise rushed into his ears, the familiar humming of the computer fan dwarfed by the churning of the one mounted on the ceiling. He blinked thrice, his pupils dilating from the change in light as they focused on the login screen, now proudly displayed on his monitor.

(Not much to do now,) he thought as he logged out, watching as the screen reset to his desktop. Drained but not tired, he tapped the arrow keys until the audio player was highlighted, and punched 'Enter'. With a single click of the mouse, the player began cycling through his list of songs, the first being a simple acoustic tune, notes uncomplicated and lyrics uninspired, but catchy nonetheless.

Perfect for thinking, and he had no shortage of that to do. He closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head, fingers sliding between the short, semi-spiky strands of jet black hair.

Time wasted little of itself getting the boy's thoughts to the important issues of the evening. The bubbly, emote-happy Wavemaster's revelation had punched a very large, very painful hole in the tentative truce Hiroshi had forged with the state of 'The World'. The game's interface succeeded in distancing, at least psychologically, him from the danger he was in, but more than a moment's thought reminded him of what they were fighting for, and what it could cost them.

He felt his chest tighten, and he sucked in a deep breath, forcing his lungs to expand against the mental pressure of his conscience. (No... it's not my fault,) he struggled, (they choose to help me. She chose to help me... she knows what I'm up against.)

'She' morphed from a lifeless pronoun to the avatar that had occupied much of his recent thoughts, the Heavy Blade BlackRose. He held no malice, not a trace of even momentary anger, at her for what she had said, admitting silently to himself that her words were not wrong.

Not that this kept them from stinging; her thorns were sharp indeed, and had caught him at precisely the wrong moment.

He sighed. (This isn't helping,) the rational part of his mind objected. (I've got to talk with her; something was obviously wrong, she wouldn't just lash out like that over nothing.) A light clicked on in his head, adding (she still hasn't told me why she's playing, why she's helping me. Maybe that was it.)

(I'm sure she has problems of her own... maybe just like me, with Yasu. I know there have been others...)

Their comraderie hadn't made the situation any less complicated. More than any single player he had met in his tenure as a Twin Blade, and almost more than any offline as well, he had no reservations calling her 'friend', and thought of her as something even closer; as a partner, as someone he knew he could rely on, and as someone he would not hesitate to help if needed. She had proven her loyalty and reliability to him many times over, and he doubted that his faith in her could ever be shaken.

More than that, he found himself *wanting* to spend more time with her, outside of their struggles in the game, and - perhaps one day soon - outside of the game itself. He couldn't help but find endearing the contrast between her in-character personality, and the evidence of her softer, kinder inner self, whom she had shown more than once to Kite (and Hiroshi). Not just because they apparently shared an interest in solving the mystery behind 'The World', and not just because how well they complimented each other in battle, Hiroshi liked both BlackRose and her puppeteer; were a surplus of confidence encoded in the boy's data, he might have dared to believe that she liked him, too.

(I just wish she'd tell me what's wrong,) thought the side of him still clinging to depression.

The song changed, a faster-paced rock song, a cover of another, older song that he cared not to recall at the moment. Sleep was fast claiming the prize of his consciousness, unnecessary but certainly not unwelcome. One by one his senses faded to black, leaving him with his thoughts as he dozed off in his chair.

(BlackRose...) There was a hint of longing in his mental voice. (Please... let me know you.)

Chapter 16 - From Another Time

For all intents and purposes, it was another day like all the others. For Hiroshi, however, the day seemed far too short.

The number of steps to his room was precisely the same as it was yesterday, and every day prior, yet today it felt unusually short, moreso than he would have liked. The obligatory conversation with his mom was likewise; the exchanges of 'how was your day' were over in a matter of minutes that barely felt like more than a few seconds, and any information gained from the dialogue was just as quickly forgotten.

Even the lectures from his teachers, in hindsight, had gone by quickly, and Hiro knew why. He'd known since he had taken his first step out of the house today, and it had hovered over his head like his own personal storm cloud.

He had absolutely nothing to do.

Hiroshi clumsily dropped his bookbag on the floor and collapsed on his bed, staring up at the ceiling as the facts stared him in the face.

With over a day since his last e-mail to or from anyone, and nearly two days since his encounter with Balmung in 'The World', there simply wasn't much happening, online or offline. And not for lack of trying, either; even his most recent hint - if one could call it that, being only a man's name - had turned up nothing.

Slowly he rose back to his feet, and pressed the power button on his computer, causing the slumbering machine to crawl to life. The exhaust fan began whirring lazily as the computer ran through its typical startup routine, diagnostics and programs popping up one by one on the screen, and disappearing just as quickly.

The desktop was next to appear, and program icons followed soon afterward. As the mail client blinked into visibility, Hiroshi allowed himself a disappointed frown at the lack of a new mail notification. The boy unceremoniously plopped into his chair and pulled himself closer to the desk. For no obvious reason, his hand guided the mouse to the client icon and opened it, regardless of its lack of content.

His eyes watched the predictably empty mailbox open itself up before him. (Nothing... where is everybody?) he thought. (Is my account down or something? Or is it theirs... or something with the network?)

One by one he scrolled over the many people on his address list, lingering for just a moment longer over BlackRose's than the others. For a moment, he toyed e-mailing her, but he dispelled that notion as quickly as it came, as the online hero was not feeling particularly brave at the moment.

He resumed scrolling down the list, but stopped cold when he came across one name in particular.

[Stolls - Stolls@theworld.com, DStollis@mailserv.net]

(Dean...) the name tumbled in his mind, as though generating the electricity that caused the lightbulmb in Hiroshi's brain to ignite. (Yeah, that's right, he's a detective. Maybe he can find something out about that guy!)

A small smile on his lips, Hiroshi reached for the phone with one hand, his other producing a small white card, which bore a phone number that he immediately began to punch in.

The receiver warbled in his hand, vibrating slightly from the repeated noise. After a few seconds of waiting, there was a click, and a man's voice answered. "Hello?"

Hiroshi's smile grew. "Hi, Dean!" he greeted in English. "It's Hiroshi."

Dean's voice upped a notch or two, as if in pleasant surprise. "Hey, Hiro man! How's it going?"

"Pretty good," he answered, not yet up to spilling the details of his troubles. "How about you?"

A slight crackle of static told Hiroshi that Dean was moving, and what sounded like a car engine verified this hypothesis. "Not too shabby. Haven't heard from you in a while, man; what's up on your end?"

"Well, I ran into Balmung - one of Yasu's friends in the game - and straightened things out with him; then I found out the name of someone involved with 'The World'." He paused. "Someone named 'Seijiro Tanaka,' but I'd never heard of him before. Have you?"

"Nah, doesn't ring a bell. Who is he?"

Hiroshi leaned to one side, onto the armrest of his chair. "I don't know. The player we talked to said it had something to do with 'Fragment,' how they were having problems similar to what's going on now. I was wondering if maybe you could find out more?"

He heard the detective 'hmm', and then a second later he added, "Well, it certainly couldn't hurt to check it out. How do you spell Seijiro?"

"S-E-I-J-I-R-O," Hiroshi spelled.

"Thanks, I'll see what I can dig up. If i find anything, I'll let you know. And you do the same."

"Sure thing," replied Hiroshi. "Thanks!"

"No problem. Hey, tell BlackRose I said 'hi'."

His face fell slightly at the mention of the Heavy Blade, but he maintained a cheerful facade. "Will do. See you later!"

He heard Dean answer with a "Later man," as he tapped the 'off' button. Setting the receiver down, Hiroshi turned back to the monitor, which still showed the open mail program.


He allowed himself to stare at her name for a minute, and then half of another; slowly his eyes drifted away, and fell across one more name, one that would have caused even a happy facade to slip away.

(Maybe I should go see him,) he thought as he eyed Orca's member address. (Not like I've got anything else to do...)


It was a scene he'd seen several times in the past few months: a young boy around his age, lying prone on a bed, unconscious and attached to pieces of expensive medical equipment, chest rising and falling to a mechanical rhythm as the respirator breathed for him, body supplied with nutrients through the arm by the cold sharp tooth of an IV drip solution.

Hiroshi leaned forward in his chair, elbow on his knee and chin in his palm, watching Yasuhiko with only passive interest, trying hard to avoid the disturbingly calm look on his face.

Even with all he had seen, all he had done, the hero still didn't know how this was even possible, how a game could cause so much harm, and yet the proof lay before him, unmoving and unnerving.

(Yasu... what were you doing? Were you trying to fight this too?)

Yasuhiko's only reply came from the machine next to him, a steady beeping from an EKG that mirrored his pulse.

(I wonder how long you'll be like this... will you wake up if we solve this mystery? What if it doesn't help?)

Hiroshi's eyes trailed away from Yasuhiko, staring out the window at the city skyline, bathing merrily in the warm glow of the sun. (But I've got to try... BlackRose was right, it's too late to just back out now. It's all I can do.) He inhaled deeply and held it for a moment. (It's what we have to do.)

Rising from his chair, Hiroshi strode over to the side of the bed. Hesitantly, he touched a finger to Yasuhiko's left arm, surprised at how warm the skin was to the touch.

He shook his head, stepped away from the bed, made a small, frustrated noise. His friend was alive in every biological sense of the word, and yet he did nothing, said nothing. His heart beat, his lungs filled and emptied, his blood pumped and ran, his mind worked and lived, yet he was little more than a corpse. A calm, healthy, living corpse.

Shuddering, Hiroshi turned from the bed and moved to leave. "Get well soon, Yasu," he muttered under his breath as he turned the knob.

Slowly, he trudged away from the room, closing the door behind him as he stepped into the hall. A light chatter occupied his ears as doctors and nurses made their way between rooms, some toting trays, clipboards or pushcarts. Above, fluorescent lights shone unnecessarily, complementing the sunlight that flitted through the large glass window at the end of the hall, near the elevators.

Hiroshi made his way towards the nearest elevator, weaving through the minor foot traffic that barred his way. A few dozen steps later, he threw one last glance back at Yasuhiko's room, stepping out of the way as a doctor wheeled an empty gurney through.

His narrow black eyebrow arched in curiosity as he saw a man enter the room in question. It was little more than a second, but Hiroshi didn't doubt his eyes; he stuck out like a sore thumb, dressed in a navy business suit with a straight black tie. Although he lacked a clear look at the man's face, he didn't resemble any family that Hiroshi was familiar with, and the suit was wildly out of place in the pristine whiteness which colored the uniforms of the hospital staff.

Giving a mental 'huh?' he turned back to the room and cautiously appraoched, taking care not to make his change in direction, step or posture too conspicuous.

As quickly as careful feet could carry him, he reached the room once more, just in time to step into the man's field of view as he exited. The suit's eyes fell upon Hiroshi almost immediately, and Hiroshi's on him.

The eyes were blue; not cold or without humanity, but clearly no-nonsense and formal. Set somewhat uneven above a pinched nose, they appraised him hastily, narrowing just a touch. His hair was sharply cut and partly gray, attesting to at least five decades of life; the suit covered a fairly slender form, with no obvious excess to the body besides his hands, which showed no signs of hard labor.

"Excuse me," he said in a voice Hiroshi wanted to recognize. He stepped around the boy and continued towards Hiroshi's prior destination.

Puzzled, Hiro stepped back into Yasuhiko's room, prickles of uneasiness renewed against his skin, this time pondering who the man was and what he would be doing with his friend. Many a late night ill-spent watching movies of all variety fed him with numerous half-baked theories, but had also trained him to look for anything out of the ordinary, particularly with the patient's equipment.

Fears of sabotage were abated when he saw no visible change to the EKG and IV solution, the former still beeping steadily and the latter apparently untouched, as far as Hiro was able to determine.

(What the hell?)

Ducking out of the room, he turned to give chase, and watched as the man boarded the elevator and disappeared from sight. Thinking quickly, his eyes fell on a door leading to the starewell, and he broke into a determined stride, which quickly became a dash. He hastily pried the door open and began stomping down cold stone steps, as quick as he dared move.

The second floor passed by all too slowly; Hiro grabbed the railing and swung his body around like a pendulum to the next flight of steps, briefly entertaining doubts as to whether the man actually was headed to the ground floor or not. Panting and sweating, he stumbled to the bottom of the stairwell and raced through the door.

A cursory scan of the lobby told him his doubts were unfounded; he spotted the man in the suit, calmly strolling through the sliding glass door.

Hiroshi could barely get ten steps in the same direction before the man climbed into the passenger seat of a waiting black car; he closed the door behind him, and the car's tires sprung into action, turning against the pavement.

The car was away from the entrance before Hiro could even approach the glass doors, which impeded Hiro's vision and kept him from getting a good look at the vehicle as it casually fled the scene.

He took several deep breaths, fighting his since-risen pulse and feeling the sweat cool on his body. As he calmed down, he almost stopped himself from asking (Who was that,) in his mind, knowing he didn't have an answer, but suspecting that he knew who did.

(Yasu... what did you get yourself into?)


From: BlackRose@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: No Subject

If you are still in, we need to talk. I'll be waiting by the chained statue of the girl.

Chapter 17 - Smaller Every Day

He spotted her, standing before the large, chained statue of Aura, hands resting on the small fence between her and the statue. Her head was hung forward, in reflection, reverence or sorrow - he couldn't tell which from where he stood.

Leather shoes padded softly against the marble floor, carrying Kite away from the massive arched door and further into the vaulted interior of the cathedral, past the empty wooden pews and around the ancient stone tablet in the center aisle. His approach, though quiet, was magnified in the silence that engulfed the chapel. Still, BlackRose made neither movement nor sound as he came to a stop behind her, just outside of arm's reach.

He knew she was at her terminal: her chest and shoulders rose and fell in a simulation of breathing; the one eye he could see was half-shut, and she lacked the typical, casual smile he had come to associate with her.

Her head lifted, gradually turning to glance at him, the right half of her face as downtrodden as the left. She met his eyes for a moment, but said nothing; he noticed the wine-colored orbs twitch, just slightly, as she turned back to the statue.

"Do you want to know something?" she asked, breaking the silence. When Kite didn't object, she continued. "My brother fell unconscious here."

The last piece of the puzzle fell into place, and like that he knew, even before his mind could catch up. His suspicions confirmed, Kite was nonetheless surprised; his eyes widened, and he gasped.

BlackRose hung her head again, and looked away to her right. "I didn't tell you because... I couldn't find the right time," she expained. Her voice, normally confident and lively, now sounded uncertain and soft, vulnerable even. "Sorry," she added, exposing the rose beyond her thorns.

Kite gulped, tongue-tied and unsure whether she had more to say. He felt an odd lightness in the pit of his stomach, wondering if that was all she had called him for, to hear her confession.

She turned away from the railing, facing Kite. "When I first met you, I forced you to come here, right?" she asked, looking back to the statue.

His tongue loosened, just enough for him to reply with a quiet "Yeah."

"I wanted to see what had happened here with my own eyes. Yet I was too frightened to come here by myself," she admitted, again resting her hands on the railing. "And I still feel that way." Her voice grew weaker, tighter, almost cracking. "I'm very, very scared."

Kite regarded her with no small amount of concern. This was not the strong, determined fighter he had partnered with; this was her player, a concerned and confused girl who just wanted to know what had happened to someone she cared about, and why. This was the softer side of BlackRose, the side he had only seen hints of before.

His heart sank, and with it his head. He now knew it was a pain they shared, had always shared.

BlackRose looked down at the foot of the statue, her eyes drooping shut for a moment. "But... I wouldn't have gotten this far without you." He barely had time to feel flattered as she continued. "So... what am I going to do," she suddenly whirled around, her voice rising, " if you start doubting yourself?"

Not waiting for a response, the Heavy Blade clasped her hands to her chest, a desperate look in her eyes. "How am I supposed to cope? Does a big sister always have to be happy?!" she half-shouted, half-cried.

Hiroshi stared intensely at her, his breath shortened and strained, afraid to make a sound as BlackRose's puppeteer bared her soul.

She faced the statue again, quiet sobs causing her shoulders to heave and body to tremble. "I want... I want to..."

Feeling nothing but pity and compassion for her, Hiro felt tears begin to well at the corner of his eyes; he tentatively reached for her, momentarily forgetting that the two were separated by a world of ones and zeroes, by fake names and computer-generated pictures. His only concern, his only thought, lay in easing the pain of the girl before him.

(All this time I had thought, but I didn't... I knew I couldn't be the only one in this situation, and yet I... never stopped to think about it.)

"BlackRose," he said, softly, wishing he could have addressed the person on the other end, "please don't cry."

Her head jerked sharply down and left. "Wh-what do you mean?" she challenged. "I'm not crying! You can't even see me, so don't make any assumptions!"

The sudden outburst caught Kite off his guard, and he withdrew his hand, unsure how to react.

A few seconds of silence, and then she turned back to face him. "There you go, how typical." She managed a sad smile; he swore he saw something shining in the corner of her eyes, where tears would normally pool. "You always clam up when you should be talking."

Knowing that was his cue, Kite lowered his gaze and replied, "Yeah... I'm sorry." After a beat, he looked back up, meeting her eyes. "I was wrong, in thinking I'm the only one who's trying to do something about Orca and the disaster."

It felt different once spoken aloud; he'd remembered his own internal quarrels along similar lines not too long ago, how he'd reached several conclusions in his mind and swore to act accordingly, but hadn't yet. For someone who fought so hard to help him resolve this mystery, far too much went unsaid between them.

Feeling his chest loosen and the weight disappear, he swallowed down the lump in his throat and spoke up. "Everybody wants to do something. Now I know. I'm not the only one." He sighed. "We all want to bring this whole horrible mess to an end."

He noticed his companion's posture and demeanor improve somewhat; her head tilted slightly to the right, watching him expectantly while she clasped her hands behind her back. "Yeah..." she muttered, the sadness in her eyes starting to vanish.

"What can we do about the situation now?" he asked rhetorically, raising his hand and balling it into a fist. "It's simple, we've got to do what we think is right." Letting his hand fall back to his side, he added, "That's the only way we'll move forward."

Her smile lightened, her face quickly reverting to the casual, amiable expression he knew and loved, yet with a defined softness to the eyes and demureness to her stance that suggested it was still more than BlackRose he was talking to. "Yup. Let's do it together," she said, turning fully to Kite. "Things'll work out."

She giggled softly - it made him feel better just hearing it - and arched to her right in front of the Twin Blade. "My intuition is pretty good," she said, hints of cheer returning to her voice.

Hiroshi couldn't help but chuckle, offering a smiling emote for a visual response to complement the actual smile on his avatar.

Standing up straight, she stepped around to his side, still facing him. "Well, I'm off to go see my brother."

"At the hospital?"

"Mm-hmm," she affirmed and started to walk away, offering a light wave and a quiet, "Thanks."

He watched her leave, cherishing each footstep despite that they all sounded the same; he continued to stare even after she left his sight, the Heavy Blade stripped early from view by his computer, a cruel separation necessary to maintain a smooth framerate.

"Thank you," he whispered, "to you too."


From: DStollis@mailserv.net

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Seijiro Tanaka

Hey man. Found out some bits and pieces about that Seijiro guy you mentioned; it seems he was working with Harold Hoerwick, creator of 'The World' - or, at least, Harold knew him. My sources have hinted that Seijiro is somehow responsible for the A.I. entity that is behind the incidents in 'The World'; his program was referred to as a 'lock', whereas Aura is a 'key' of some sort.

Most of this is speculation, but it would explain why Aura is being pursued by those phases you mentioned. Regardless, I'm going to try and track down Seijiro and see if we can't get some answers. I'll have more for you soon. In the meantime, follow up anything on your end and let me know if you need anything else, or if you find out anything.

- Dean


His reflection stared back at him from the monitor, dark from the lack of power. His suit was visible in the dull mirror, as was the burning cigarette in his hand. On his desk, from left to right: a single photo of a young girl in a school uniform; a small, green-shaded lamp; the base which formerly held the phone receiver in his other hand; a raised panel of wood, upon which [Francis Moritsu] was printed in slim white letters; the monitor for his personal computer, with the computer itself mounted on the floor.

"So you saw him?" a man asked through the receiver.

He took a deep breath, causing the lit end of his cigarette to flare up. "Yes," he said, releasing a puff of smoke. "It was him, there's no question."

"How did he look?"

"How do you think he looked?" Francis shot back. "He's been in a coma for months; he looked like a ghost."

"But he's alive, right?" There was a hint of concern in his voice.

"In a manner of speaking," was his reply. "And it was definitely a phase that put him there."

"You don't know that." Another hint, this one defensive.

Francis growled, his frown accenting the wrinkles on his face. "Do not presume to tell me what I do and do not know, my friend. Either Harold put it there, or someone in this company did, and I'm starting to wonder if it wasn't you."

"Don't you dare, don't you DARE try to pin this on me!" he shouted. "I've told you everything I know; besides, aren't you working with someone to put a stop to this?"

"He's just a kid." Francis took another drag from his cigarette, savoring the scent as he exhaled. "I hesitate to put all our hopes on him, without even understanding what it is we're up against."

"You said it destroyed Net Slum?"

"So it would seem," he answered. "It was... like nothing I've ever seen before. Harold couldn't possibly have meant for that thing to be."

"Frank, I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, I don't know any more than you do."

"I'm not accusing you of anything, Tanaka, but the fact is I don't have a single idea how to handle something like this, or if it's even possible to stop it now. It was enormous, and it's getting bigger."

"You're security, this is what you do. There's got to be something. What about Delphi?"

"Don't even get me started," spat Francis. "That thing was more trouble than it was worth from day one, and we don't even know if it would work against those phases. If it were up to me, I would've ordered its deletion a year ago. Even if we wanted to, with the original programmer dead and all the data destroyed, it's impossible." He sighed. "Never thought I'd say this, but that punk from Los Angeles did us a favor."

"So what ARE you going to do?"

Another sigh, this one laced with frustration. "*Maybe*, if the player of Orca was conscious, he would know more about what we're dealing with. Since he and Balmung were at the center of the One Sin event, it's possible he somehow learned something that Harold never told us about. Something within the programming itself, a clue, maybe. If this thing really did come from Fragment, from Morganna... then perhaps the answer lies within Fragment itself."

"That sounds like a long shot."

"At best, but it's all I can think of. And there's nothing we can do now."

"I suppose not. Well, I should be going, I'm expecting company."

"Very well," said Francis. "See you later, Tanaka."

"You too, 'Lios'. Good luck."

Chapter 18 - Just Business

"Hey, Kite!"

Hearing his name, the Twin Blade spun around, away from the counter of the item shop; his eyes swept across the bridges connecting the Theta root town, and he smiled as he spotted a familiar black-robed Wavemaster. "Stolls!"

"Hey man," said the disguised detective, coming to a stop before Kite and smiling back. "How you doin'?"

Having all day to ruminate on the confessions of his pink-haired online compatriot, Kite had no shortage of ways to answer Stolls' question. Initially relieved and even somewhat glad that he now knew why BlackRose had stuck by him for so long, he was hard pressed to feel much better about himself; quite the contrary, it wound up leaving him with an even greater feeling of responsibility, a reminder that there were lives, plural, at stake in this so-called game. And not having to bear that burden alone didn't make it any more comfortable when it got bigger.

Disregarding that line of thought, Kite's response was instinctual. "Pretty good, and you?" he asked, not yet up to sharing the details of his day.

Fortunately, the Wavemaster had things of his own to talk about. "Oh-ho-hoooo, man... busy day. I'm actually glad I ran into you, I've been finding out more about this Tanaka guy you mentioned."

Barely remembering the name, Kite cocked his head to one side, curious. "Oh?"

"Crazy stuff," he continued. "A guy I know helped me to meet Tanaka face-to-face. Turns out there was this AI - or, something close to it, at least - called Morganna. It was intended to administrate Fragment; you know, the game that 'The World' is based on?" He folded his arms across his chest, tucking the staff against his shoulder. "They never actually used it, though; it was Seijiro that modified it to work with 'The World' when they incorporated Fragment, and they wanted to use it for basically the same thing, but they never did."

Kite looked at him strangely. "Did you say Morganna?"

Stolls threw the look right back at him. "Yeah... you know what it is?"

"Kind of... a while back I found a note in the game with her name on it, and Helba spoke about it, too. She said... that Morganna was 'The World'."

He sighed. "That sounds about right, least that's what I've been finding out. Tanaka said... well, it was technical, but the end result is a part of her code is almost everywhere in 'The World'."

"But... why use something like that to control a game?"

Stolls' lips twisted into a bizarre amalgam of a smirk and a frown. "I'm not so sure about... Seijiro said they wanted something that would evolve with the game itself, handle quality control and be self-updating, or something like that. They put the kibosh on her when they figured out they were in over their heads; couldn't get it to work right, or it wasn't advanced enough or something, so they tried to delete it. Somehow, it survived, grew back."

"It sounds awfully advanced to me," Kite mused.

"I agree. Seijiro said the AI wasn't complete, but that doesn't add up when you consider all it's done here. And even he admitted he wasn't sure about Morganna's original purpose, or why this all is so closely following the Epitaph of the Twilight." He paused, cocking his head at the Twin Blade. "I still don't buy that this is the work of an incomplete AI that was never even put to use. At the very least, I'm positive Seijiro wasn't telling me everything about her."

"Me too." He frowned. "If she's following the Epitaph, then it's almost like someone meant for this to happen. But what for?"

"I have no idea." Stolls relaxed his arms, gesturing vaguely with his free hand. "But this whole thing stinks. Just tonight there was a pack of thugs trying to kidnap a few of the people I interviewed. Commando-types. No idea why, but it seems like they're working for Seijiro."

"Wow..." Kite muttered; he had brief images of men in black military gear storming his house, laser-equipped assault weapons swinging left and right as they closed in on his room.

"Yeah, I know. Like I said... busy night," said Stolls with a weak chuckle.

A series of twelve chimes echoed in the distance, hollow and light; Kite's ears were drawn offline, to an old wall clock several rooms away as it rang out the midnight hour.

"How about you? You okay? You find out anything on your end?"

Coming back to 'The World', Kite found Stolls staring at him, an inquisitive look on the silver-haired Wavemaster's face. It was then that the Twin Blade made an appraisal of himself, and realized just how much the night's events - to say nothing of duration - had effected him. BlackRose's confession inevitably led to another sleepless night, the weight of time tugging at his eyelids and clouding his mind as he pondered just how high the stakes had risen.

Stolls' information hadn't helped matters, stories of anonymous military units and a rogue, defective AI roaming the network having set the boy firmly on edge.

"Well, yeah," he muttered, feeling compelled to tell somebody, anybody. "Actually, I... I-I saw BlackRose earlier today, and she... told me about why she's here, in 'The World'."

"Really?" said Stolls, audibly intrigued. "What'd she say?"

"It's..." Kite began, obviously hesitating. "It's the same reason that I'm... playing." The word 'playing' tumbled from his lips, as if he were searching for a more suitable verb. "Her brother is in a coma because of this game."

He heard the Wavemaster mutter "oh, no" under his breath. Kite dared to meet his eyes again, and saw that all trace of weariness and exhaustion had left him, replaced instead with a slight frown and a serious gaze.

"Yeah... she said that he was attacked at the church, the one at Delta, Hidden Forbidden Holy Ground. I think it was the Data Bug we ran into when we went there together, but... I'm not sure." He made a slight gesture with his hand, turning it palm up and motioning briefly to his left. "He's in the hospital right now, and she started playing to find out what happened to him. She might not show it, but... she's really worried, and scared."

(And me too,) he added silently.

Stolls regarded him silently, his frown fading as his jaw slackened into a gape. After a moment, he spoke up. "So... that's why she's playing."

Kite nodded. "Yeah... because of her brother Kazu. I had thought it was something big, but I didn't know..."

"Me neither," said Stolls. "That explains it, though; it seemed to me like she took this whole thing kinda personally."

Hiroshi let Kite's head droop forward, along with his own. "I guess we all have our reasons for playing," he mumbled, feeling responsibility close in around him again, suffocating and all-encompassing. A chill swept across his skin, causing both his real and digital bodies to shiver.

"Guess so." The detective behind Stolls sighed. "Some game, huh?" he remarked flatly.

Hiroshi gulped hard, shaking his head slightly, making no effort to reply.

"Although... if you think about it..."

The boy lifted his head, facing Stolls; his face didn't budge, but past experience with the detective and his erratic, yet kind behavior helped form a tiny sliver of hope.

"If you think about it," Stolls repeated, "it means she trusts you."

Hiroshi could feel his eyes light up at the idea; despite having momentarily realized this concept hours earlier, it still felt different to have someone else acknowledge it.

The Wavemaster continued. "Well, she's stuck by you through all this, right? I told you before, she'd have to like you to stick by you for so long. Now we know she's got as much stock in figuring this out as anybody." He pointed to Kite. "And you have somebody who knows what you're up against, someone else for whom this isn't just a game."

"It's not like that," Kite dismissed. "I don't feel like I'm alone in here anymore, I know that my friends are willing to help me, especially her." He paused, his eyes falling into a thousand-yard stare, releasing a wistful sigh. "In a way, I knew that back when we fought Delphi together. She risked her life to help me out."

"You both risked your lives," corrected Stolls, a smile on his deceptively youthful face. "For me, for us. For your friend, for her brother. All this means is that now you know you're both after the same thing, instead of just thinking you are; she trusts you enough to want you to know why she's helping you, you obviously trust her with the same."

Kite couldn't help but smile now, hearing his own toughts and feelings parroted for him in an audible medium. "Yeah," he said softly. "I do."

"Well, there you go!" Stolls suddenly exclaimed, stepping forward and clapping the Twin Blade firmly on the shoulder. "Now you got a partner you like, you trust, and now you know she's feeling likewise for you. Instead of feeling down about it, I say bust out the party favors."

Whether the Wavemaster's enthusiasm was intentional or incidental, it succeeded in upgrading Kite's smile to a grin, and the boy replied with a smiling emote.

Stolls laughed upon seeing Kite's reply. "And wouldn't you know it," he said, silliness creeping into his voice, "boy meets girl while trying to save the world." He almost cut himself off with his next vocal thought. "Hey, do both you guys a favor, you gotta make your move before the final climactic battle between good and evil."

Hiroshi felt his ears begin to burn, and he turned away slightly, hiding an invisible blush. "What do you mean by that?" he asked needlessly, more than sufficiently familiar with the mechanics of typical game plots - or fiction plots, for that matter - to guess what the detective was driving at.

Stolls called him on it. "C'mon, man, you play RPGs, you know how it is." Grandeur and exaggeration began to inflate his words, and he made wide, sweeping gestures with his hands. "In all the best stories, either just before or just after the final battle, the guy and the girl have a private moment to themselves to confess their feelings for each other. That's the way these things work!"

Hiroshi's blush grew harder to ignore, embarassed - but only slightly uncomfortable - with what the Wavemaster was insinuating. "Um... well, uh, I guess so... I mean, I do like her and all," he muttered bashfully, not even noticing his admission to that fact until after he had done so.

"Just like the games, it's scary, I tell you," Stolls continued, grinning like an idiot. "Everybody likes to see a little romance now and then. At least here you don't have to worry about some hack writer awkwardly pairing you guys off in fanfiction because he has too much time on his hands and is overly obsessed with the minutiae of videogames and their characters."

Kite couldn't decide whether the concept amused him to no end, or frightened the living hell out of him. He settled on the former, and chuckled. "Well, THAT makes me feel better," he replied jokingly.

The silliness vanished from Stolls' voice, but not the mirth; he waved nonchalantly with his hand, still smiling. "Nah, y'know what? You gotta do what you gotta do," he said, pointing a gloved finger at Kite. "Yours is a relationship I would highly encourage for you to continue, and that constitutes the end of my meddling, my friend."

Recalling an earlier bit of advice from his companion, Kite managed an uncharacteristically sly grin. "Just forget about the 'what ifs', huh?"

"Hah! It seems my work here is done." Placing an arm across his chest, Stolls bowed deeply to the Twin Blade. "But that's how you gotta do it, Kite, that's how you gotta do it." His smile vanished, but not the softness of his eyes. "This isn't a game, no one's doubting that, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way. Doesn't mean you have to be 100% serious all the time."

He raised his arms to his sides and turned away from Kite, facing the sky surrounding Dun Loireag. "Gotta have these things, my friend. This is my release, right here; and you, you and BlackRose," he said, glancing over his shoulder, "this is yours, too. Just 'cause you're here on business doesn't mean you can't have a little fun too."

Kite met Stolls' eyes once more. Like with BlackRose, he knew it wasn't just the Wavemaster he was looking at, speaking with; a priceless moment of honesty in a World built on mystery and run by deceit.

He smiled. "You're right. Thanks, Dean."

"Anytime Hiro," replied Stollis. "And thank you earlier for your tip; you take care of things in here, I'll get to the bottom of this in the real world."

A surge of confidence spurred Kite's quick and firm reply. "You can count on me."

"All right, enough pep talk. I should probably get go- oh, wait, wait, there was one other thing I wanted to ask you."


The Wavemaster's face fell into a flat, no-nonsense expression, and his voice followed suit. "I don't suppose you have any Piney Apples I could borrow, do you?"

Thrown somewhat off-guard by the juxtaposition between his expression and his question, Kite nonetheless shook his head. "No, sorry... fed the last of mine to my Grunty earlier."

Stolls groaned. "Man... me too. Got the same one as last time; that damn l33tleb0i got the formula wrong in that FAQ, I just know it. Ah well... thanks anyway, man." He waved, spun on his heels, and scurried off.

With another chuckle-laden smiley, Kite bade the Wavemaster farewell, and turned around to resume his trading with the Item Shop NPC.

"Let's see..."

"Do you have a minute to talk?" the NPC said abruptly. The voice was a familiar one, and Kite had no trouble picking it out.

"Lios?" he asked, peering curiously at the possessed shopkeeper. "What is it?"

"I overheard your conversation," he explained. "There is a matter that requires your immediate attention."

"What's that?"

"It has to do with Orca," said Lios in a low voice. "I... need your help."

Chapter 19 - Side Project

Kite analyzed the NPC shopkeeper with a practiced gaze: physically, he was no different from the others occupying the sales booths of Dun Loireag - heavyset, thick mustache, green vest and matching cap, olive pants, burlap sack hanging loosely from a belt; despite his common appearance he bore a commanding air, as if he were used to giving orders and having others follow them.

"I understand you were discussing Seijiro Tanaka with that Wavemaster," said Lios, his firm voice replacing that of the usual jovial tone of the shopkeeper he now controlled. "Can I correctly assume that Stolls is investigating him?"

"Yeah," said Kite, curiously watching Lios' improvised avatar for any sign of what to expect.


Taking a guess, Kite asked, "Do you know him?"

He nodded. "Like he said, Seijiro works for us; he's one of the people who updated Fragment to work in The World." A pause, long enough for a small sigh. "And he... tried to configure the AI from Fragment to work with this game as well."

"So it's true," the Twin Blade muttered. "That's what's causing all these problems."

"So it would seem," answered Lios, crossing his muscular arms over his chest. "And... as you may have guessed, we've yet to develop an effective counter to this... 'Morganna'. We're not even entirely sure it's Morganna who has done all this, although that is what we believe."

Kite closed his eyes for a moment, feeling a dull throbbing in his skull; the stress of a mind given more information than it could compute at once, already wearied by the long night.

"We know it has to do with Fragment," he continued, "but we're hard pressed to come up with explanations. This is where you come in."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you know of the One Sin event?" Not waiting for a reply, he explained. "The invincible monster, defeated by Balmung and your friend Orca, the reason why they are called the Descendents of Fianna."

"A little," Kite hesitantly answered. "Yasu... I mean, Orca never told me much about it. Just that he was in some rare event in The World."

"We called it an event." Lios scoffed, looking away. "A disaster is more like it. We never intended for that creature to wreak such havoc; it *was* originally designed as a quest monster, but some sort of virus corrupted it, made it virtually unstoppable. We now believe that whatever is behind the current situation caused this as well, sort of a... test of its power, perhaps."

"So you're saying that the virus came from Fragment?"

"It's possible, and if we can find the origin, we may be able to learn more about it. There's too many fields for even us to scan through; as you know, we did not program Fragment, only built upon it with our own software, and without Harold we wouldn't know what to look for, even if we could search every field." His eyes shifted back to Kite. "That is where you come in."

"What can I do?" he asked. "Are you saying I should try to find this source?"

"I don't think you'll have to. I think Orca may have found the source when he and Balmung discovered that monster. Balmung claims to have cleared out his archives, and player activity isn't usually recorded unless it's related to a quest, or they've been reported."

Kite noted the subtle switch from 'we' to 'I'. "So... you want me to..."

Lios interrupted him. "It's important that neither of us suggests this aloud."

The boy blinked, peering up at the large shopkeeper-turned-administrator. "Lios?"

His head turned, scanning the surrounding area, watching as several players ran back and forth, attending to their various tasks. "My eyes aren't the only ones watching this game," he said in a low voice.

It took mere seconds for Kite to catch on. He nodded slowly. "I understand."

"Good," he said, sounding almost pleased. "If you find anything, return to this vendor. And bring friends." At this, the life was drained from the NPC body, its eyes and body returning to their usual position and posture, staring blankly at the nearest player, which became a female Long Arm as she dashed up to the counter and opened her trading menu.

(I'm sure I'll need them,) thought the Twin Blade, turning away from the merchant and planning his next move.


Lines of sidewalk rolled beneath his feet, white sneakers clapping quietly against the concrete carrying him to Yasuhiko's house. His school uniform was sprinkled with sweat, thanks to the persistent humidity, and the bookbag slung over his back wasn't any less of an encumberance; still he pressed on, knowing that there was no better time than now, when his friend's parents were both at work, and his own mother not expecting him home for another fifteen minutes.

Before long, Hiroshi found himself at the Kugara residence; red-bricked and plain, windows closed and blinds up, fronted by a small lawn and a flowerbed, no cars in the driveway or even nearby, garage closed. Stone slabs formed a small footpath to the backyard, which he followed.

The backyard was more of the same, plus an old, yet sturdy white trellis that led up to a second-story window. Hiroshi recalled more than one occasion where Yasuhiko and he had climbed the wooden fixture, successfully infiltrating the house through the bedroom window. At any other time, he might have laughed at the memory.

Now, he felt closer to tears than smiles.

Taking a deep breath, he approached the trellis and cautiously gripped it with both hands, giving it a good shake; despite its age, the wood felt firm and tough under his hands, and it remained deeply rooted in the soil, to stubborn to move. Confident, he pulled one shoulder out of the straps of his backpack, then the other, and then set it down next to his feet.

"Hey, what are you doing there?!"

A chill shot through Hiro, and he sucked in a small gasp through his teeth; slowly his head turned in the direction of the speaker, a short, middle-aged woman wearing a loose white t-shirt and a pair of jeans, both covered by a soft blue robe.

Feeling simultaneously relieved and embarassed, he blushed and stepped away from the trellis. "Sorry, Mrs. Kugara, it's just me, Hiroshi."

She blinked, squinted through the pair of glasses perched precariously on her nose. "Hiro? Oh, I'm sorry! I thought you were someone trying to break in! Didn't I warn you about coming in through the window?"

Recovering his pack, Hiro approached his friend's mother, who stood before the now-open sliding glass door that separated the patio from the inside of the house. "Yes, I'm sorry," he urged, "but I didn't think anybody was home." Thinking quickly, he added, "I wanted to get something I left in Yasu's room."

"Ohh. Well, there's no need to break your neck trying to climb that old thing! Please, come in."

Hiroshi obediently followed as she entered the house, stepping into the kitchen. "How come you're home so early?"

"I wasn't feeling too well, I called in sick today." As if to accent this, she picked up a glass from the kitchen table, next to which sat two small, red pills. She picked one up and popped it into her mouth, following up with a mouthful of water, and gulped the mixture down loudly.

"Are you okay?" he asked, concerned.

"I'll be fine, it was just a fever," she assured him. "It was worse earlier."

He nodded, and turned to the archway leading to the stairs. "Well, I'll only take a minute; Yasu borrowed this thing of mine and I kind of wanted to get it back." He hoped that would suffice for an explanation.

It did. "All right. Go on ahead, then, I'll be downstairs if you need anything."

Hiroshi took a step forward, but stopped when Mrs. Kugara spoke again. "Hiroshi?"

He glanced over at her, and caught a good look at her face for the first time; she bore a motherly look, one of concern and sadness, and he noticed her short hair was slightly mussed, as if she had not taken the time to care for it in the morning, instead letting gravity and time do the work for her. There was a tired quality to her eyes, highlighted by the frame of her glasses, and her lips were curled into a weak smile.

"Thank you for... spending time with Yasuhiko. He needs friends like you... now more than ever." Her words were labored, slowed by her sickness and put further in peril by her already weakened constitution. "I'm sure he would be grateful to know you're there."

He forced a smile, remembering how Yasu looked to his eyes; he could only imagine how she and her husband were handling it, and from the looks of her, it wasn't very well.

"I just know he'd be there for me," he replied truthfully. "I want to do what I can to help."

"I know you do," she said in a soft voice. "Well... again, thank you. Don't let me keep you, I'm sure your mother will be wondering where you are soon."

"Thanks. I won't be long." He turned away, strolling up the stairs into the second floor hallway, and up to the closed door leading to Yasuhiko's room. He gave the knob a turn and stepped through.

The first thing that struck him was a light musky scent, lingering evidence that its sole inhabitant was long gone; the bed lay undisturbed, sheets neatly tucked beneath the mattress and pillow near the headboard, fluffed and pristine; the drawers and closet were closed; books lined a tall shelf along one of the walls, covered in a fine layer of dust.

His target sat on a desk in the corner: Yasuhiko's PC, also dusty from inactivity. He pushed the power button for the computer, followed by the monitor; gently, he wheeled out the swivel chair and sat down before the machine as it powered up.

(There's got to be something here. Come on, Yasu... give me a clue, a field, a name, anything. I need to know what happened.)

Feeling the burden of his limited time, he opened the computer files and scanned the segment of his hard drive containing the software for 'The World'. A folder marked 'logs' helpfully pointed him in the right direction, but he hit a dead stop when he found over two dozen text documents in that folder, all marked with numbers that could have been dates.

(No way I can go through all of these in time... I'll have to copy them.) Hiroshi opened the computer's mail client and signed on as a guest, then collapsed the copied documents into one large .zip file and mailed it to himself.

Before he could close either the client or the folder, he noticed one document that wasn't titled with numbers, dated several months ago. He opened it and began reading its contents.


(Send ASAP!)


Found something weird on Lambda server. Went to this dungeon where the graphics were all screwed up, but I didn't get to explore it. I don't think it was just my computer, either. I think it might be related to that monster everyone's talking about. Wanna check it out? Drop me a line if you're interested.

Lambda: Capricious Astigmatic Pilgrimage

- Orca]


"So what was it?"

His back to the railing, Balmung shook his head, loose feathers on his wings shivering from a stray gust of wind. "I don't know, we never actually went. I guess it was a false lead, because we found the monster in another field."

"I see. But did you find out how it got there?" asked Kite.

The Blademaster frowned. "No, that's the confusing part. It kept moving around fields, almost at will; like with these phases, actually, although I don't think anyone was actually hurt by it."

"Hmm. Lios said that the game was built over Fragment, and that the virus had to have come from there." He gestured with his left hand, adding emphasis to the word 'there'. "So whatever's infecting The World came from Fragment."

"I agree," said Balmung, "but I don't know what Orca stumbled onto with that field. Did you find anything else from his computer?"

Kite sighed, hanging his head. "Not really... the files showed a lot of fields and login times, but nothing about what actually happened in them."

"So what you're saying is, it's this or nothing."

The Twin Blade nodded. "Mm-hmm."

"Well, then maybe we should check it out. Are we going now?"

"Not yet; I just messaged BlackRose, she'll be here soon."

Balmung smirked, but Kite noticed his eyes twitch. "BlackRose, huh?"

"I'd never hear the end of it if I didn't invite her," he said with a chuckle and a smiling emote.

The winged Blademaster snorted a laugh, and turned away, facing down the main avenue of the cultural city. "I'm sure you wouldn't," he remarked under his breath.

Kite felt no need to mention that he wanted to invite her anyway.

Chapter 20 - Relic

A soft humming accompanied golden teleport rings as they slid over a trio of adventurers, bringing them into contact with their surroundings: a barren wasteland of snow and ice, dotted by towering boulders and clumps of rock. Boots of steel and leather crunched into the snow, the only audio to compliment an otherwise deathly silent field. As with the rest of 'The World', splashes of computer code and graphical glitches marred all visible surfaces; the sky above their heads was broken to reveal a multicolored nothingness, shattering the tentative illusion of reality.

Mere months ago, this would have tipped Kite off that something was wrong with the field; now, it was all too expected.

"Are you sure there's something here?" piped up BlackRose, scanning the area with one hand on the hilt of her blade.

"This is the field he wrote down," replied the Twin Blade. "I don't know what it was he found out, though."

Balmung pulled a Fairy's Orb from his inventory and held it up; with a twinkle it vanished, and the Blademaster's eyes twitched as his player checked the updated minimap. "There aren't too many fields here, and the monsters are rather weak," he said. "In fact, it looks like we have a clear path to the dungeon."

BlackRose relaxed her vigilant gaze. "Maybe someone's already here."

"Maybe," said Kite. "Well, let's check out the dungeon anyway."

The red-clad boy took point, his party close behind as they jogged across the bitter white plains. A strong gust of wind brushed over nearby hills, sending clouds of snow into their faces; though they were immune to the physical chill, a stray fleck of ice occasionally found its way to an exposed eye, causing the player in question to instinctively flinch.

"What are we looking for?" called BlackRose as they tromped through the snow.

"I don't know," was Kite's answer. "He just said the graphics looked weird."

"But that was back before you started playing," said Balmung. "Before all this started happening."

"Yeah... that's right. So there has to be something here..."

Before long, the trio arrived at the dungeon entrance; a massive stone tower, tinted blue and encased in ice, the gaping maw of an archway providing a means into the structure, where a set of steps descended into the darkness.

Following the steps, Kite and his companions found themselves in a long hall; white pillars lining the walls and a length of red carpeting stretched out over the tiled floor, leading to a doorway in the distance. A faint yellowish hue hung in the air, accenting the cavernous room.

The first thing to catch their eyes was the total lack of graphical hiccups; the walls were free of decay, not a trace of binary code to replace even an inch of digital brick and marble.

Balmung 'Hmm'ed loudly, serving as the sole vocal comment, although surprise could be found on each of their faces.

(It looks fine to me,) thought Kite. (Did they fix it already, or was he talking about something else? I know this is the right field...)

Nonplussed, the Twin Blade pressed forward, followed shortly by Balmung and BlackRose. The carpet muffled their footsteps as they passed through the hall, and then another like it.

Leather and steel clacked against marble as the carpet ended, depositing the team in a large, circular room with a spike pit in the center and exits in all cardinal directions. As above ground, their footsteps were the only human noise to be heard, the dungeon quiet and calm.

And empty.

"Still no portals," said BlackRose. "No treasure chests, either. Someone was definitely here not too long ago."

A thorough search of the level provided a momentary distraction; the team stumbled on an unopened portal, which housed a pair of Harpy Queens. Being a good ten levels over the field's toughest monster, and armed with a surplus of Earth scrolls, Kite dispatched the avian beasts almost single-handedly, earning a slight look of faux contempt from BlackRose. Excluding the encounter, they found nothing; level two was more of the same, with two unopened portals in isolated corners but otherwise completely ransacked.

They came to a stop in a small junction room with a pool of water, the surface of the pool flat and undisturbed; before they could pass through, BlackRose spoke up. "Hey, could we wait here a minute?" she asked. "My mom's calling, I'll BRB!" Without waiting for approval, her operator relinquised command of the pink-haired avatar, who froze in place between her two partners.

Balmung shared a look with Kite, who offered a slight shrug in return. "Well, why don't I look around a little more; you wait here with her, and PM me when she gets back."


With that, the white-haired Blademaster spun on his heels and dashed into the next room, footsteps gradually fading from earshot.

Left with an inanimate BlackRose, Kite nonchalantly strolled up to the pool and sat down along the edge, dangling his feet just above the water's motionless surface. He glanced back at his statuesque companion, smiling slightly in appreciation; he had yet to tire from simply watching her, partly from their adventures online, and partly from just how well she was suited to her name.

Accepting that both of their characters were merely a collection of ones and zeroes on a computer somewhere, and that they were not necessarily representations of their real-life selves, he found himself nonetheless drawn to her, becoming more and more interested in finding out who the real her was.

Fear also played its part, but not fear that he had been misled; she had given him no reason to distrust her, nor had he looked for one. They had shared far too much to lie to each other over something so trivial as age, or school, or hobbies, or whatever. It was fear of what lay beyond a meeting offline; what to do, what to say.

Nevertheless, he had decided it long ago, and still he decided it anew with each glimpse of her. He wanted to meet the real her. Maybe not now, but someday... someday soon.

BlackRose suddenly sprung back to life, leaving her fixed posture and approaching Kite. "Back! Had to take out the garbage," she explained, her nose wrinkled slightly. "Hey, where's Balmung?"

"He went to go look around a little more," said Kite, standing up. "I'll send him a message."

"Hey, guys! Wait up!"

Both turned at the sound of loud footfalls through the northern archway. Seconds after the first of them, a female Wavemaster scurried into the room; a short, blonde-haired girl with thick glasses and a sea-green outfit, which consisted of an expensive shirt, shorts, cap and shoes. Thin white stockings covered most of her legs, and she carried a long, golden wand in her right hand.

Most curious was the stuttering in her running animation, as if every other frame of movement had been erased.

"Gu...ys!" she squeaked in a halting voice. "Wa...ait up!"

"Uh?" grunted Kite in mild bemusement, watching the Wavemaster dash through the room, right past the two of them as if she hadn't noticed their presence.

A second's delay punctuated her reaction; she cocked her head at the Twin Blade, and then scampered up to him, light blue eyes wide and lively. "Hey, did... you see anyone... come through here? A L...ong Arm and a Blademaster?"

Kite shook his head. "No... we thought there was another party here, but they must've gotten here before us."

BlackRose backed his statement. "Yeah, they're probably a floor or so below us. We're waiting on one of ours to get back."

"Oh, man!" With a light groan, she stamped her foot on the tile with a loud *CLOMP*. "This is... supposed to be broad...band! I've gotten disconnected three times tonight!"

A quiet chime was heard only to Kite; he tilted his head back, looking up at nothing in particular as a private message appeared before his eyes.

[From: Balmung

Heard voices on B3; think that other party's down here, but nobody's touched the Gott statue. Meet me by the stairs.]

"Kite? What is it?"

"It's Balmung," he answered, turning to the Wavemaster. "I think your party's on the floor below us."

"Oh... thanks!" she exclaimed. "But... my connection is... acting up again, could I... follow you down? I need to check the op...tions again."

Without needing to see BlackRose's nod of approval, Kite smiled amiably at the girl. "Sure, come on! We'll lead the way."

"Thank you!" She reached up with her free hand to adjust her glasses, the action somewhat jerky and uneven thanks to her faulty connection. "Oh, by the way, I'm Heavy! Nice to meet you."

"And you, too," Kite replied, starting for the doorway. "I'm Kite, and this is BlackRose."

Donning her typical casual smile, BlackRose offered a quiet "Hiya," in greeting.

With a short bow, Heavy took up step behind Kite and BlackRose as they continued through the dungeon, once again coming upon fancy red carpeting that led them through the towering halls. Though populated by the occasional breakable, the rooms were totally devoid of anything noteworthy; no treasure chests, portals or symbols.

"What did Balmung say?" asked BlackRose.

"Just that he heard voices, but the Gott statue treasure hadn't been opened." Without breaking stride, he added, "They're probably somewhere else on the floor. He said he'd wait for us by the stairs."

"That's... odd," said Heavy, "we usually go... for the Gott statue first."


Within minutes they arrived at the top of the level two stairs, as deserted and cavernous as the rest of the level. Before any could comment on the notable absence of Balmung, Kite's head cocked upward to glance at another unseen and unheard PM.

[From: Balmung

Get down here now! Go straight from the stairs, there's something here!]

"What the...?"

"Another message?" BlackRose peered quizzically at the young Twin Blade. "What's going on?"

"I think Balmung's in trouble," said Kite, anxiety creeping into his voice. "Let's go!"

The three broke formation as they dashed down the stairs, each moving as fast as their feet - or, in Heavy's case, their latency - would allow. They quickly descended to the third basement level, entering a large room filled with a series of clockwork gears, all churning loudly beneath the thick, sturdy catwalk upon which the party stood.

Ignoring the noise, Kite pointed to the door straight across from the one they came in through. "That way!"

Charging through the doorway, the trio entered yet another long hall, and came upon Balmung, standing next to a Long Arm and another Blademaster. All stared, dumbstruck, at the closed gate which covered the only other exit from the hall, and only Balmung turned as Kite's group approached.

"Balmung?" asked Kite, clearly puzzled. "What is it? What did you find?"

"Shhh!" hissed the Long Arm, a tall man in a gaudy blue-and-purple outfit, with long green hair and a silver spear. "Can't you hear them?"

The two parties joined, and Kite quieted himself, straining his ears. He nearly fell over when a man's voice hollered from beyond the gate.

"I said, THAT'S ENOUGH! I don't want to hear any more of your inane babbling about some girl! Just tell me what the hell is going on!"

A second voice, softer, lilting; almost musical. "I told you everything... she is proof of my love for her."

The first man again. "But what does it mean?? What in god's name were you trying to do?!"

"She is our only hope... if only..." A long, deep sigh. "If only... she could have seen. Seen what I have dedicated to her."

Kite glanced first at BlackRose, and then at Balmung, the former returning his look of confusion.

"Who are they?" whispered the Heavy Blade. "And what are they talking about?"

Staring intently at the blackness behind the gate, Kite could only reply with a strained "I don't know."

"Look, just come out and tell us what we're dealing with. Nothing's gonna happen to you, I promise." The voice grew weaker, less hostile and more compromising. More desperate.

"If only she could have seen... she would know. I could have stopped her, but the choice is no longer mine to make."

A burst of static split the screens of everyone present, colors reversing to their negatives and back again; the room shivered, rumbled, causing brief cries of alarm. Just as suddenly, all was normal, and a loud, rusty grinding was heard as the gate covering the passage slowly opened.

"Look," muttered the Blademaster, a shapely blonde woman in a steel-colored knight's outfit with an ornate, enruned longsword. "It's open."

"Let's check it out," said Balmung.

The six were through the gate in a matter of seconds. The gateway behind them disappeared, depositing them all in a room of pure white, with no visible walls or doors. Kite recognized the style of the room as one he had seen before - something clearly not intended by the game, but left there by the game's makers; strange still-frames of rooms, with broken chairs and long-untouched beds, piles of teddy bears or a mostly hidden photograph of a woman.

A desk sat in the 'corner' of the room, an unpowered computer and table lamp resting on its oaken surface. Before it, a high-backed leather chair lay tipped over, and next to that a wastebasket teetering on its edge, frozen in place in the process of falling.

"But I still have one choice," whispered the second man, the origin of the voice impossible to determine, seeming to come from everyone at once.

"Wh-what... what is this?!" BlackRose half-yelled, whirling around nervously.

"A computer," said Balmung. "Is that... that logo on it..."

"Cyber Connect?" Heavy read from the side of the desktop. "Is this... someone's office?"

Kite took a step forward, his eyes on the computer, but he stopped when he felt something hard beneath his foot. Arching his heel in surprise, he backed off and knelt down, squinting to get a better look at the offending object. His eyes widened in recognition, and his gasp of shock quickly brought the attention of his companions.

A single bullet shell lay silently on the invisible floor, the head gone and powder spent.

Chapter 21 - Pretense

"What the hell?" whispered Kite, eyes fixed on the empty shell. "Did someone..."

BlackRose knelt down, and hesitantly touched a finger to it. The shell refused to budge, stubbornly resisting any effort to move, as if it were rooted to the ground. She immediately withdrew her hand, standing up with a worried look on her face.

"The chair," said Balmung, "the wastebasket, and... that... it's like someone was..." Even he was reluctant to finish the thought.

One of their new companions - the Long Arm - showed less reluctance. "Killed."

"What did that voice say earlier?" asked BlackRose. "Something like... 'I still have a choice'? It sounds so familiar..." She turned to Kite. "Didn't it sound like the one we kept hearing? The one we found with those fragments?"

"Yeah... now that you mention it, it did sound like him."

"Hey, check it out," called the female Blademaster, who had since moved over to the desk. "There's a note here."

Balmung threw a puzzled glance in her direction. "What? I didn't see a note before... what does it say?"

She cleared her throat, and turned around to address the two parties. "They are coming for me. By the time you get this, I will be..." she trailed off, fidgeting uncomfortably. "...dead, but not by their hands. I know now what happened to her, what you did to her. I can try, but I do not know if I can stop her. They want her because they know what she can do... because they made her what she is. Through you."

The Blademaster stopped to swallow, armor rustling as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. "Guilt... is meaningless. Responsibility is all that matters now. I ask only this of you: do not let them take her." She looked up. "There's a date on it, it's... about six months ago."

Kite's eyes widened. "Six months ago? Can I see it?"

She nodded, and handed over the sheet of paper to the Twin Blade, who promptly gave it a thorough once-over. "Six months ago... that's about when I started playing."

"And also when... Orca..." Balmung started, trailing off quickly, his eyes downcast.

"You said the voice was familiar," said the Long Arm. "Do you know what this is all about?"

"Not exactly." Kite shook his head. "There's some kind of... thing in 'The World' that's behind all the problems lately, something called Morganna, I think that's who... well, whoever wrote this was talking about. And the 'she' that the voice was talking about," he looked away for a moment, "I think it's referring to Aura, that girl in white that's been reported on the boards."

"Weird," said the Blademaster, idly chewing her lip. "Well, I guess there's not much else here. We should get going."

"Just as well." The Long Arm rapped his spear against his shoulder impatiently. "I gotta get going anyway, it's almost time for dinner." He threw a glance at Heavy, who hadn't moved since spotting the bullet. "C'mon, let's get going."

No response. Though the bespectacled Wave Master was moving - simulated breathing, idle shifting of stance programmed into the character - she made no indication that she had heard her leader's instruction.

"Heavy? You okay?"

Without warning, she blinked out of sight, vanishing with no fanfare or hesitation. A second later, the Blademaster's head twitched, eyes shifting back and forth as if reading unseen text.

"What is it?" asked Kite, raising an eyebrow.

She smirked. "Disconnected."

Shaking his head, the Long Arm moved next to his remaining party member, and, with the aid of a Sprite Ocarina, the two of them teleported out of the dungeon.

Stepping into the center of the room, BlackRose spoke up. "So... what now?"

"I don't know." Kite tilted the paper back and forth, watching it twist and bend against his hand. "It's like every time we find something like this, all we find is half a clue." He looked up at BlackRose, who was obviously grinding teeth behind her pursed lips. "I guess we should go, too..."

"Yeah," she mumbled half-heartedly, keeping her gaze level but not looking directly at Kite.

He caught a glimpse of her eyes as she turned away, and felt a minor pang of guilt at the disappointment written on them. (It can't be easy for her,) he thought. (At least I was there when it happened to Yasu... I knew something was wrong. I can only imagine what she went through...)

"Let's get out of here," Balmung said in a sotto voice, stealing a brief glance at the empty shell on the floor. "This place gives me the creeps."

"Me too," agreed Kite. Pocketing the note, he stepped away from the center of the 'room', towards the outer edges and what he could only assume were walls. After ten or so feet, the white void was replaced by a black one, furnitures and features vanishing instantly; just as suddenly, he found himself back in the field's dungeon, in the long hallway before the gate leading to the white room, which was now closed. Seconds later, his companions joined him, appearing out of thin air.

"Got an ocarina?" asked BlackRose.

Kite nodded, taking only a moment to rifle through his inventory and retrieve the instrument. Before he could activate it, he took one last look at the closed gate, and nearly jumped.

Standing just beyond the gate, silhouetted quite clearly against the blackness, an older, white-haired man stared back at him; garbed in gray pants and a button-down shirt, a revolver in his hand and pointed at the right side of his head, about an inch above and before his ear.

Before he could cry out, move, or even think, the figure was gone, blinking out of existence in the time it took the Twin Blade to catch sight of him.


"...no information available as to the identity of the suspects. We have two men in custody, and two more have been hospitalized."

He pried off the headset, feeling the straps and plastic sweep over his short, straight hair; the chatter of TV news filled his ears, common background noise he had become accustomed to, and even found disturbingly relevant given the reported rise of cyberterrorism. Somewhere deep inside, he knew it had to do with 'The World', and more specifically with what he was fighting.

Setting aside the controller and goggles, Hiroshi spun around in his chair and eyed the glowing TV set curiously, watching as a picture of an older man in a tan blazer was replaced with the more familiar anchorwoman, navy blue jacket and youthful face.

"Lieutenant Masamoto declined any further comment, but later confirmed that the two break-ins were committed by the same group. The houses were empty at the time, but apparently both Sakuma and Kurasawa returned to their homes during the crime, catching the thefts in progress."

Hiroshi stood up from his chair and shambled over to the bed, sprawling out on it and arching his back as he stretched, releasing a satisfied groan as his distended muscles went to work for the first time in several hours.

"There are unconfirmed reports of a third individual who intervened in both cases, though the nature of his or her involvement remains a mystery."

(That old man... is he really the creator of 'The World'? Why did he appear like that?)

He recalled an earlier fragment of the Epitaph, that same man's voice speaking of the limits of a physical body, needing to speak to Morganna; coupled with the empty shell, the overturned chair, and the figure with the gun, Hiroshi couldn't help but jump to the nearest conclusion.

(He killed himself... so is he in 'The World' then? Like... like a ghost or something? No, that can't be... but what the hell is he, then? I better let Lios know what we found... it's not much, but maybe he'll know what it means.)

His body betrayed him, the thought of jumping back into 'The World', and more specifically the chair, not altogether very appealing. The mattress massaged his muscles and bones, coaxing him to rest. Slowly his eyes closed, seeing the spinning fan blades on the ceiling above just before the darkness closed in around him, soothing and serene. He folded his hands beneath his head, sighed, and gave in.


Above the rolling of thunder and the crunching of grass beneath his boots, he heard his heart pounding.

Above that, the clash of steel on steel. He doubled his pace, praying in his head and aloud.

"Is that the best you can do?!" a girl's voice hollered, obviously nearby yet out of sight. He looked around the grassy plain, spotting no one and nothing; no boulders, hills or structures to block his view.

Blades clashed again, yet he still saw nothing. The grass waved in the wind, clouds rolling in overhead, bringing with them another booming thunderclap that briefly overshadowed the sounds of battle. He heard feet scramble against the earth, strained grunts and gasps in between whooshes of air that might have been weapons being swung.

"Ow!" cried the girl, and Kite noticed portions of grass flatten in two long trails, as if someone had been dragged across the ground. "Damn it all," she muttered.

He recognized the speaker, and cried out in surprise. "BlackRose!"

Though he saw no movement, Kite guessed that the Heavy Blade was facing him. "Stay out of this, Kite!" she growled. "I can handle him myself!"


"Just back off! I don't need your help!"

Shocked, Kite took a step back, mouth agape and eyes wide. He didn't notice when his twin daggers slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, nor did he notice the foot-shaped impressions in the grass as the invisible BlackRose charged towards her equally invisible opponent.

He did, however, hear the distinct sound of something sharp and thick carving into human flesh, followed by a loud sucking noise as the weapon was pulled from the wound it had caused.

A flash of lightning split the sky, and in that instant BlackRose became visible; she lay on the ground, blade at her side and hands desperately clutching her belly.

With a cry of alarm, Kite raced for his fallen comrade, and dropped to his knees next to her, assessing the wound. He instinctively called for for a healing spell - any and every variant of Repth - but none came. His inventory was equally inaccessible, empty bottles and useless scrolls replacing the multitude of potions he knew he should have had.

"K...Kite," said BlackRose in a weak voice, calling his attention to her wounded form. Her pinkish hair lay in a sad state of disarray; drops of sweat covered much of her skin, some mingling with the blood that was gurgling from her gut wound; her hands were covered in the red liquid, purple gauntlets stained to a deep crimson; several large gashes and smaller cuts ran the length of her legs, the vine-patterned tights thoroughly torn and soaked with blood.

"B-BlackRose...!" Kite stared, dumbfounded, into the Heavy Blade's tear-filled eyes, at a loss for words.

The female warrior spoke in his stead, pausing only to release a loose, hacking cough. "Why... wh-why didn't you... didn't you help me?"

Kite gulped hard, feeling his chin quiver. "But... you said you could..."

"I lied," she wheezed, wincing as she squeezed the wound tighter. "...you were supposed to help me... you were my partner."

"I-I-I trusted you... I believed you," he urged, desperately. "I thought you could do it, I... I couldn't see you."

Shakily, she lifted a hand from her abdomen, and touched it to Kite's face, trailing some of the blood across his tattooed cheek. "You... didn't know?" Her voice dropped slightly in pitch, and her eyelids lowered a little.

"I..." He sniffed, taking her hand in his and caressing it softly. "I didn't see..."

Her hand slipped out of his, falling back to its prior resting place. "I need your help, Kite," she whispered. "Can you help me?"

"My magic, it's... and I'm... I just..." he struggled in vain for an explanation.

"Can you help me?" she repeated, her voice softer than the wind. Her eyes shut, and her breathing slowed; the hands fell from their position to her sides, allowing the wound to bleed freely.

"BlackRose, no... no, please, don't! Come back!" He begged, reaching down and clasping her shoulders, shaking her desperately. "Come back to me! Please!!"

"Hiro... can you help me?"



A single blink replaced the field with a bedroom. A humming fan, a chatting TV anchorwoman, a whirring computer, and an easily recognizable voice.

"I'm back from the store, Hiro!" called his mother from downstairs. "Can you help me put away groceries?"

Sitting up, Hiro felt the sweat on his skin, felt the pounding of his heart; the vivid details of his dream were gone in that instant, but the dream itself lingered. Instinctively, he reached up and touched his cheek, recoiling in horror when his fingers touched a liquid; it took him a split second to realize it wasn't blood, and a real second to determine what it was.

With a fitful sigh, Hiroshi stood up, wiped the tears away with his shirt sleeve, and headed for the door.

Chapter 22 - Disparity

From: BlackRose@theworld.com

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: Have you seen this?

Hey, have you checked the boards lately? Someone reported seeing a strange white figure around Mac Anu. Could it be Aura? I'm going to check it out, let me know when you get in.


Had she mentioned anything else, he might have smiled at her presumtuous request.

The Heavy Blade was as good as her word; the post in question mentioned an apparition in the back alleys of the Aqua Capital, one that quickly ran off and vanished. Said post was followed up by several replies; comments from other players who had witnessed the strange phenomena. Curious, Hiroshi logged in and quickly changed servers, from Lambda to Delta.

Night became day, one cityscape traded for another; shadow was all but obliterated as the sun shone overhead, bathing the characters along the broadway in a false warmth. His transition complete, Kite stepped away from the Chaos Gate and started down the steps.

[To: BlackRose

Just got in. Where are you?]

Peak usage hours brought with it the expected surge in players, a fact which complicated the Twin Blade's search for his companion. He picked his way through the crowd, towards the bridge, and quickly assumed the high ground. With one hand on the railing and the other shielding his eyes, he scanned the crowd, looking for pink hair, a large sword, and heavily-tattooed skin with minimal armor; all fairly commonplace in 'The World', but it was the combination of the three he needed to find.

"Kite!" called a voice from behind, far behind. He instinctively whirled around, finding a small crowd with him on the bridge, but not a one who was paying him any attention; they parted briefly, just long enough for him to catch a glimpse of BlackRose, standing on the wharf by the weapons shop.

Kite broke into a dash to join her, scrambling off the bridge and down the stairs leading to the shop. When he arrived, he noticed the warrior standing next to a small wooden boat, bobbing serenely in the water and securely tied tof a mooring near her feet. Sitting at the bow was a short, blonde-haired man, covered in a blue-and-black jerkin, matching trousers and simple cloth shoes; his hands held the boat's oars firmly, and he had a permanent, if casual, smile etched on his lips.

He took brief stock of BlackRose's expression, finding it largely unreadable but without any visible cause for concern. His focus quickly shifted to the boat and its pilot, whom Kite quickly guessed was an NPC. "What's up, BlackRose?"

She nodded to the boatman in acknowledgement. "One of the players said they saw a streak of light go up this canal shortly after seeing that figure; he didn't get a good look at it, but he did point out a few spots we could check up ahead."

Kite tilted his head, his gaze following the waterway as it led away from the shopping district and out of sight. "I've never been that way before. What's up there?"

BlackRose turned slightly and threw a glance in the same direction. "Some kinda planned expansion for 'The World'. I think they were gonna add some stuff to each of the Root Towns before all this started happening." Facing Kite, she added, "I guess there's actual rooms there, just nothing in them. Or... something."

"I see. And he'll take us there?" he asked, indicating the boatman.

"Yeah, as soon as we're ready. Do you need to get anything else?"

He took a second to scroll through his inventory, and replied with a satisfied "No, I'm all set."

"All right, let's go!"

The Twin Blade gingely stepped into the boat, feeling it sink and sway under his weight. Confident that the craft was sturdy, he stepped back and gave BlackRose room to enter. On instinct, he held out a hand to assist her.

Her eyebrow twitched for just a moment, but before he could retract his hand, she clasped it and dropped into the boat, releasing his hand as she sat down with unintentional haste. The faint smile that graced her lips went unnoticed, but not the reluctance with which she parted from his touch; her fingers dragged with deliberate hesitation against his, bare skin against leather as fingertip and fingertip separated.

Feeling his ears redden, Kite sat down beside her as she nodded to the pilot, who released the oars and promptly untied the boat's moorings. The capital moved around them as he began to row, dragging the boat through the crystal-clear water, leaving ripples in its wake that sparkled in the sunlight.

The boatman rowed with a machine-like efficiency, free of any obvious delay or imperfection of movement that would indicate a human player behind the cheerful, if silent, character. Kite quickly grew uninterested with the uncommon NPC or his conveyance, opting instead to focus on the character to his right, whom he knew was human.

As the broadway disappeared behind them, Kite heard a small swishing sound alongside the continuous splashing of oars; he followed the sound and watched as BlackRose idly reached over the side and touched her fingers to the water, skimming the surface. She lifted her hand, watching as tiny droplets sprinkled away from her fingertips, falling back to their rightful place.

He heard her sigh; a contented, relaxed exhalation. She reclined against the side of the boat, resting her gauntleted forearm on the side.

He smiled. (She looks so peaceful,) he thought. (Like there's nothing bothering her at all.)

A synapse in the back of his brain fired, triggering a recent memory, one of an event that never happened. He recalled his dream, the look in her eyes, the desperation in her hushed voice, and shivered as if cold. He caught a fleeting glimpse of her face as she turned her head once more, and noticed a distinct crook to the corner of her lips, the beginnings of an ill-restrained frown.

The facade was only skin deep, her reverie shallow and easily broken by the twin specters of responsibility and concern. He knew all too well that not seeing them didn't mean they weren't still there, hanging overhead like vultures, waiting to destroy whatever relief or pleasure 'The World' could offer. No escape.

He had learned his lesson while asleep, and needed no further incentive to apply it. He closed his eyes and recited a small prayer in his mind, then carefully let his hand wander across the small space between them and pat her reassuringly on the shoulder. After the third pat he lingered, unwilling to let go unless she gave some indication that the contact was not wanted.

She gave no such indication, facing forward again. He couldn't catch her eyes, but he noticed the frown had vanished; not yet a smile, but an improvement nonetheless. His heart beat faster, the redness in his ears returning.

For a while, he said nothing, only the sounds of wooden planks cutting into the water's crystalline surface. Emboldened by her lack of protest, he finally spoke. "I know how you feel."

To his surprise, she answered. "I know."

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked, almost automatically, wondering if there was anything else that could be said, that hadn't been already or wasn't painfully obvious.

She voiced his thoughts. "There's not much to say, really," she murmured. "It... still doesn't make any sense."

He shook his head. "No, it doesn't." After a beat, he amended his statement. "Well... it does, kind of... I mean, we do know what we're up against, and what's happening, but..."

"Yeah. That still leaves 'why'..."

Kite silently agreed. (Not that it changes anything... but I still want to know.)

The boat continued down the canal, passing tall buildings and sailing beneath arching bridges, with not a suitable landing spot in sight. As they passed a large, broken statue - a human figure in armor, missing arms and a head - BlackRose shifted around, scooting a little closer to the Twin Blade.

She slipped out of his grasp as she neared, and before he could adjust to her movement his hand slid along the back of her neck. He drew in a small gasp, holding perfectly still; when she didn't object, he grew bolder and draped his arm around her back, taking hold of her opposite shoulder. She reacted accordingly, sliding in even closer. A bright splotch of pink filled his view as leaned against him, putting her head to his shoulder.

By now, he was sure his cheeks were beet red, and his heart felt like it was pumping with the speed and power of five. Nonetheless, he couldn't help but feel comfortable, albeit nervously so. In time, anxiety faded away, and all he could think of was how right this felt.

His shyness came back with reinforcements when she spoke again. "Thank you, Kite," she mumbled softly, as if tired, though he could see that her eyes were wide open. He detected a hint of a tremble, her body quivering for a fraction of a second.

Hiroshi gulped, clearing his throat long enough to reply. "Thank you too."

The moment was shattered all too soon, the remaining minute of the boat ride feeling a quarter of its actual length. The pilot skillfully steered to the nearest mooring, and anchored the boat securely to the dock, which was deserted. Reluctantly, Kite and BlackRose stood up and climbed onto the stone platform, solid and sturdy in contrast to their waterborne ride.

"I'll wait here until you're ready to return," said the NPC, a canned response to cover for the fact that, right now, a duplicate NPC was occupying his spot back along the broadway, ready to service another party.

The two found themselves on a wide cul-de-sac, surrounded on all sides by water with a single path leading west into a mazelike alley of buildings, barely wide enough for two men to walk side-by-side. The 'room' itself was split in half by the canal, with another semi-circular mooring point on the east side of the sunken enclosure, just barely far enough away to be inaccessible without getting one's feet wet.

Kite peered cautiously down the path, and then at BlackRose. "Do you know the way?" he asked, taking a moment to glimpse at the updated map on his heads-up display, which surprisingly displayed a detailed layout of the unfinished streets and alleys before him.

"I've got the instructions written down," she said. "One sec." With that, her character froze, then started up again mere seconds later. "It's right this way."

The Heavy Blade strode purposefully into the winding corridor, followed closely by Kite. Within three turns he found himself disoriented, each street looking more or less like the one before it; he was sure he would never be able to find his way back without the minimap, and even so he was skeptical. Regardless, he tailed his partner as surely as her own shadow, trusting in her sense of direction, if not the directions she happened to be using.

Building after building loomed high overhead, partly blocking out the sun and sheathing the labrynthine streets in shade; the structures themselves sported numerous windows and at least one door per side, all closed and locked. The occasional storefront broke up the monotany, but they were all unmanned. A low whistle filled the air as a gust of wind brushed past them, ruffling their clothes and hair. Every now and then, footsteps could be heard in the distance, setting both players' nerves on edge.

"Kinda spooky here," mused Kite.

"Uh?!" grunted BlackRose in surprise, looking back at Kite. She let out a small sigh, seemingly in relief. "Oh, uh, yeah... yeah, it is," she replied with no small amount of uncertainty.

The two entered a small bazaar - or what appeared to be one, with multiple shops along the north and south buildings, and colorful banners stretched out over awnings that marked them as weapon, item and magic vendors. As before, the stalls were vacant.

"This place is huge," said BlackRose. "Were they really going to add all this?"

"They probably haven't finished designing the other rooms," Kite pondered aloud. "Maybe that's why all the streets here are so narrow; they just wanted to get the layout, or something."

"Yeah, looks that way."

A terrified scream pierced the air, prompting both to frantically scan the area and reach for their weapons.

"What the hell?" Kite narrowed his eyes, trying to pinpoint the direction of the noise.

"Go, go, go!"

Both turned to the west, and watched in confusion as a Long Arm scampered into view, followed by a Heavy Blade and an Axeman. The leader - a tall, shapely woman with sea-green, shoulder-length hair and garbed in white - tore into the bazaar, panting heavily. "Come on! We've got to get out of here!"

They seemed to take no heed of either Kite or BlackRose as they ran by, in single-file. "What the hell was that?!" shouted the middle man, dressed in the ornate trappings of a samurai warrior that vaguely reminded Kite of Sanjuro.

"Who cares, just GO!" the Axeman screamed at him; his armor was solid blue, with silver runes etched along the edges of each plate.

"Um... w-what's going on?" asked Kite, confused and increasingly worried.

Without breaking pace, the Long Arm yelled back to him. "You two get out of here! There's some kind of... thing! It's like a man with a gun!"

The trio quickly vanished from sight, their footsteps gradually becoming inaudible. Kite turned to face BlackRose, who bore a similarly perplexed look on her face.

"That can't be Aura," she said. "What's going on here?"

"A man with a gun," Kite whispered. "There was a white figure here..."

"Something else." BlackRose threw a fleeting look at the western exit. "Another being like her... or could it be a phase?"


The harsh cry caught both off-guard; with a brief exchange of looks, the two dashed down the alley, following the voice to its source. Rounding a corner, they spotted someone further down; a humanoid figure surrounded by a white haze, dressed in gray clothes and standing with its right arm extended, pointed straight at them.

"Kommen Sie naher nicht!" it shouted, waving its hand in a threatening manner; through the haze, Kite spotted what looked like a pistol in its hand.

His eyes widened in recognition. "It's you..."

"Look out!"

He felt his companion charge into him and push him aside; before he could finish falling away, a gunshot rang out, reverberating throughout the alleyway. As he collapsed to the ground, he heard a gentle plink of metal against stone, a single bullet shell bouncing off the ground and ringing gently as it came to rest.

Chapter 23 - Playback

"What did you tell them?"

The voice on the other end was quiet, but clear. "Nothing they didn't already know."

Francis scrolled through the list of email on the screen with one hand, the other clutching the phone receiver. "I think we're beyond subtleties at this point, Tanaka."

Seijiro paused. The aging security officer heard him swallow before replying. "They knew about Morganna."

He bolted upright, his hand falling off the mouse. "What? How?!"

"I don't know! Somebody found out from inside the game... something Harold left behind, maybe, I'm not sure. They've connected it to several disturbances on and offline; no hard evidence, but it's probably only a matter of time."

"You've got to be kidding me," muttered Francis. "So, what did you tell them?"

"I told them how Morganna was intended to run 'The World', how Harold designed it and I modified it when we bought out Fragment and modified it." He sighed. "I told them how it seemed to be following the Epitaph."

"Shit." Blue eyes stared back at him from a darkened corner of the monitor, the mail client windowed and leaving a portion of the screen black. "You just made my job about ten times harder. If there's even a word about Morganna out there, in the media, we'll all be finished. Already they're starting to get skeptical about whether Helba is responsible, and I'm sure at least one or two aren't buying it."

"Hmm... what about you?" asked Seijiro. "What do you think?"

"What do I think?" He snorted. "I still don't trust her; she knows far too much to be completely benevolent, and we still know very little about her." There was a long pause, and he added, "but this is not her. It can't be anything other than Morganna, it just doesn't make sense otherwise."

The programmer on the other end grunted loudly. "Figures... I'll bet they found out 'cause of him," he said, seemingly to himself.

"What's that?"

"Uh? Oh, the police; it was just one officer, but he came with an American."

Francis blinked, leaning back in his chair. "An American?" he asked, adjusting his shirt collar with his free hand.

"Yes... average height, dark hair; he stared at me through the questioning. The officer did all the talking, but I think that man told him what to say."

"Average height, dark hair," said Francis. "Average height... dark hair..." His eyes shot open, as wide as they could. "Oh no... no no no." He began shaking his head. "Not him. Anybody but him."

"Frank?" Seijiro called, sounding worried.

"Uhnnn..." He let the receiver slip away, lifting a hand to rub his forehead, which seemed to have developed a dull, steady ache all of a sudden. Adjusting the phone, he heard Seijiro call his name again.

"Are you all right? Do you know the guy?"

"Hmm... heh heh." Francis smiled, genuinely amused and fighting the urge to chuckle, if ironically so. "Funny you should ask. Remember the break-in a few weeks ago?"

Through the phone, he heard the distinct sound of breaking glass. "Oh, shit! Um... you... y-you can't be serious. That was *him*?!"

"It sounds like the same man." He rolled his blue eyes. "Dean Stollis, former LAPD officer and, apparently, a freelance detective. He's been annoyingly persistent in this matter, and is even helping the player Kite in 'The World'."

Faint grunting noises came through the receiver, followed by the sound of glass being swept up. "Any particular reason why?"

"None offhand. Although if I were you, I would be very careful. He's shown himself to be surprisingly resourceful."

"That's all we need. Well... I need to clean this up, I'll talk to you later."

The line went dead before Francis could reply. His eyes drifted along his desk, to the silver plate which bore his name; he zeroed in on the small engraving of the Cyber Connect logo, briefly wondering who - or what - his co-worker meant by 'we'.


From his prone position on the alley floor, Kite cocked his head upward at his companion; BlackRose stood deathly still, staring blankly at the apparition which had fired upon her.

"Es ist zu spat," it muttered as it lowered its weapon arm, turned and ran.

Kite quickly got back on his feet, diagnosing the Heavy Blade as best he could. "BlackRose?" he asked, clearly worried. "Are you okay?" He waved a hand in front of her, testing her consciousness.

"Uh??" she spluttered, recoiling and gasping lightly. She met his concerned gaze, and nodded shakily. "Y-yeah, I... I'm okay."

He breathed a sigh of relief, shoulders sagging for a moment as he exhaled. "He missed."

"No, he... it hit me." She gulped. "I felt it... um.. that is, my visor, it detected the hit, but it didn't do any damage."


The two shared a glance down the alley, bewilderment evident in both their expressions. "Something weird is going on here," she said, anxiety long gone from her voice. "That thing is definitely not supposed to be here."

"Yeah... let's go after it. Maybe we can find out why it's here."


Together they dashed down the narrow corridor of buildings and derelict storefronts, their footsteps again the only aural compliment to the whistling wind. The branching pathways were no more, with only a single winding passage leading deeper into the heart of Mac Anu.

"Stay away from me!" came the shout in English without warning. A half-second later, the apparition popped out from around a distant corner, pistol at the ready.


Kite and BlackRose dropped in unison, flat on their stomachs as they were fired upon; shots rang out overhead, wisps of smoke trailing through the air as ethereal bullets sailed past them.

The Twin Blade kept his eyes on the shooter; squinting into the haze, he swore that the pistol hadn't followed them to the floor, instead aiming horizontally at the space where they had been standing.

"Ich brauche mehr Zeit," it muttered in a distinctly masculine voice, lowering the gun long enough to attempt to reload.

Spotting his chance, Kite sprang to his feet and whirled back, flipping one of his swords into an underhand grip and throwing it at their assailant with a mighty heave. The blade sang as it cut through the air, slamming itself into the apparition's chest and bursting through to exit out the back, taking a large chunk of the cloudy substance with it. It came to rest against the far wall, imbedding itself several inches into the stone surface.

Squinting, Kite watched as the thing slowly reformed, the hole in its chest shrinking and eventually closing. In fact, it didn't even seem to notice the attack, still fumbling with the pistol, frantically feeding it live ammunition.

Mere seconds later, it recoiled backwards, lurching to the right as if something had slammed into that shoulder. A strangled cry escaped the lips, and it staggered around the corner, out of view, clutching the shoulder as if wounded.

BlackRose, who had since gotten back up, approached Kite, her eyes still on the alley before them. "Did you see that? It didn't respond, and then it got hit in the shoulder." She furrowed her brow, creases appearing in her tanned skin. "It's like it didn't even notice us..."

"Yeah... and if it shot and hit you, but it didn't actually hurt, then..."

As usual, she was there to finish his thought. "It's not responding to us... is it some kind of ghost?" she asked, a hint of a tremble in her voice at the last word.

"Maybe," he said quietly. "Or maybe... a memory."

Without further comment, he took the lead and she trailed close behind; stopping only to pick up the sword he had thrown, they rounded the corner and found themselves face-to-face with the white figure.

He - for it was obviously a he - appeared to be sitting in an invisible chair, knees bent and back reclined against the empty air behind him. His long, flowing white hair hung around his face in ragged clumps, and he wore a gray button-down shirt and matching slacks. The revolver dangled limply from his hand, just tight enough in his grasp for his thumb to draw back the hammer.

Kite stepped before the phantom, his face somewhere between inquisitive and accusative. "It's you... from the other field."

The man coughed loudly, balling up the fist of his wounded arm and covering his mouth. "Just a little longer," he whispered. "Just a little longer..."

"Who are you?" asked BlackRose, stepping in front of Kite. "Why... what were you shooting at?"

"They're coming... they're closing in." He leaned forward, then backward, looking like a bizarre midair rocking motion. "How did they know? How did they find me?"

A shout from behind made both players spin around. "Herr Hoerwick! Dies ist die Polizei!"

"What's going on?!" yelled BlackRose, a part of her calm enough to recognize the name 'Hoerwick'. "Who's there?"

More shouts, from an unseen point of origin; they sounded hollow, with traces of feedback, as if coming out of a microphone or another means of amplification. "Stellen sie ihre Waffe hin und kommen Sie mit ihren Handen auf heraus!"

Kite frantically glanced back and forth, at the misty man and the point he guessed the voices were coming from, his heart pounding. (What is all this?!) he thought, trying desperately to achieve some measure of control and comprehension.

A bright flash, and the alley fell away; in its place was the same whiteness that accompanied the broken rooms Kite and BlackRose had found before. Again, they found themselves in what looked like an office - the same desk, chair, computer and wastebasket they had seen before, this time populated by flesh-and-blood beings. All around them stood men in dark, intimidating body armor and carrying deadly-looking weapons - Kite recognized one as some kind of pump-action shotgun, and another as a submachine gun.

The ghostly man no longer sat in the chair, as it now lay on the floor; he stood before it, a look of horror in his eyes. The guns were all trained on him, though no one appeared to be moving or breathing.

"He knew," came the whisper.

Just as suddenly, the image disappeared, leaving a bewildered Kite and BlackRose back in the mazelike corridors of Mac Anu. Unseen footsteps retreated from the area, and before the unnatural event ceased completely, Kite made out what sounded a phone ringing.

The phone stopped, and in its place he heard a voice that sounded an awful lot like the one that had been shouting earlier. "We have him," the voice said in Japanese, with a distinctly German accent. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Tanaka. We will deliver him to the proper authorities."

An alarm went off in Kite's head as he recognized the name. (Tanaka... is that the same guy I told Dean about? Did he... is he responsible for this?)


Her voice was soft, but firm. He looked over and saw a strange look in his partner's eyes, a morbid curiousity tempered by confusion. "I know who that was," she said.

Tempted to ask the obvious question, Kite instead answered with a statement of his own. "And I think I know what happened here."

She gave a curt nod. "We should get back to the Gate area." There was a hint of a frown as she added, "We need to report this."

"Yeah, we do," agreed Kite, glancing both ways along the east-west alleyway. "Which way is out of here?"

"Follow me," said BlackRose. "We'll take the boat back."

Despite himself and their circumstances, Kite found himself fighting down a blush as he obediently fell into step behind her.

Chapter 24 - Mutual Isolation

"So that was him?!"

BlackRose nodded as she led Kite back through the maze of alleys and sidestreets, past empty shop stalls and static, unbreakable jars and barrels. "I'm almost positive. The name of that man, 'Hoerwick', he's the one who created Fragment. That was Harald who we saw."

Kite exhaled slowly, absorbing the information as he answered with some of his own. "And at the end, 'Tanaka'. I told Dean about him a while ago, and last night he told me that he was involved in 'The World', as well." He paused, trying to remember more, and quickly succeeded. "He combined some of his own programming with that of Morganna to get her to work in 'The World'."

"I see." She brought a hand up to rub her chin thoughtfully, her eyebrows creased in concentration. "So he helped those men find Harald. I heard he was missing for years, but it seems he knew where to find him."

Thinking back to the foreign dialogue that they had witnessed, Kite moved behind BlackRose, and issued the command to match her pace. "I'm going to follow you for a second, I want to check something."

"Got it."

Freed from movement controls, he opened the log menu and scrolled back up to the incident, watching as lines of color-coded text sped down his display, visible to his eyes only. A page back, and he smirked; the log interface had recorded the words spoken by the apparition, and had even taken the liberty of highlighting those that were in other languages. A blank spot sat where the speakers' names should have been, but the text appeared as normal otherwise.

A push of two buttons activated the game's translation feature, which quickly identified the text as German and altered it to fit his native tongue, albeit with slight differences in diction and prose. He took a breath, then addressed the Heavy Blade leading him. "Those men in black were police," he explained. "They wanted him to put down the gun and come out... they must have been working with Tanaka to find him."

"Wait a minute," she said. "If the police found him, then why has nobody heard about it? Wouldn't it be on the news or something?"

Taking control once more, Kite stepped up next to BlackRose and looked at her strangely. "What do you mean?"

"Don't you know? Everybody on the board keeps saying that he disappeared years ago, and that no one's seen him since." She glanced at him, brow still furrowed. "Don't you think if Cyber Connect, or the police, or anybody knew where he was, they'd be trying to get him to help solve all this?"

His eyes widened, the question unanswerable in his mind. "Yeah, you're right. If they found him, why do they say he's still missing?"

"Something's not right here. I don't think those were cops at all. Maybe we better hurry."

She doubled her pace, not yet running but faster than a leisurely stroll. Kite joined her, letting her silently guide him towards the boat landing.

(It's all adding up... that vision I saw, the note we found, these 'ghosts'... Tanaka is behind Morganna somehow, and also behind Harald's disappearance.) Idly, he scrolled through his inventory, removing the note from his pocket and reading it again to refresh his memory.

[They are coming for me. By the time you get this, I will be dead, but not by their hands. I know now what happened to her, what you did to her. I can try, but I do not know if I can stop her. They want her because they know what she can do... because they made her what she is. Through you. Guilt is meaningless. Responsibility is all that matters now. I ask only this of you: do not let them take her.

- 3/17/2010]

BlackRose looked on. "That's the note from before..."

"We found it in that one room... I think Harald was trying to send it to Seijiro, but he didn't know that Seijiro had turned him in."

"The date could be anything," BlackRose pointed out. "When it was written, when it was sent. Maybe it has some other meaning, too, something that happened on that day."

"I don't know," admitted Kite, "but I think I know a way we can find out." Falling behind BlackRose, he pocketed the note and engaged the auto-follow program once more. "Keep going, I'll mail Dean."


[From: Kite@theworld.com

To: DStollis@mailserv.net

Subj: More on Tanaka


I just found out; Tanaka was involved in Harald's disappearance. I saw some kind of recording earlier; men who appeared to be German police captured him, and one of them thanked Tanaka for his help. I'm still not sure about what happened, but I'm pretty sure Seijiro knows what happened to Harald. Check it out if you get the chance, I think we're onto something here.

- Hiroshi]


"I'm back. I think we should... huh?"

Kite blinked as he looked around, confused by their new surroundings. Although the walls and floor were the same that had decorated the streets of the unfinished section, where he now stood was obviously impossible. Perhaps by the fact that they were now in a large square enclosure, not unlike any number of dungeon rooms he had seen before.

Or perhaps it was because this 'room' had no exit.

Kite cocked his head at BlackRose, worry entering his voice. "What happened?"

"I-I... I don't know!" she stammered. "We were heading the right way, when all of a sudden I entered this place. When I went to turn back," she gestured to a blank wall, "the way out was gone."

He scanned the area cautiously, drawing his blades in anticipation. "It's just like a dungeon... I think there's something in here."

"I can't see the map anymore." Replacing confusion with hostility, BlackRose removed her gigantic sword from its sheath, gripping it firmly with both hands. "Whoever's there, come out and show yourself!" she bellowed, narrowing her eyes.

A light began to gather at the opposite end of the room, obscuring that portion to almost-invisibility; something within took the shape of a man - arms, legs, a body and head - and as the light faded, the outline grew in definition.

Kite inhaled sharply. "It's him again..."

To his surprise, the apparition spoke up, appearing to address him directly. "I remember you," he said in a deep, echoing voice. "Both of you. Lambda: Capricious Astigmatic Pilgrimage."

Lowering her weapon slightly, BlackRose called out. "Are you Harald? Harald Hoerwick?"

He looked at her, his face flat and expressionless. "I suppose so."

She peered at him, all anger lost to newfound curiosity. "Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"There's so much I don't understand," said 'Harald'. He took a step forward, heavy shoes falling to the cobblestone street with a firm clop. "He only told me enough to go after her. Not what to do if I failed, or how it all began. Nothing."

"Her? Do you mean... Morganna?" Kite asked tentatively, putting away his weapons. Slowly he approached, followed by BlackRose.

"Yes." He turned away, facing a point that Kite guessed was the other exit. "Even he wasn't sure why Morganna behaved the way she has; so long ago, he knew that she, herself, had been corrupted, twisted... but he didn't know how. Only that she was. That's when he made the 'key'. Or... so I've been able to gather."

"I don't understand," said Kite. "What are you?"

"Harald tried to 'speak' with Morganna by... copying himself into 'The World', in a sense. Making a virtual representation that would find and stop Morganna, on its own, without risking his own life by interfacing directly with the game."

"So he created you?" asked BlackRose.

"Not exactly. The plan failed; I don't know exactly what happened to him... it, when it encountered her, but I do know that the program was splintered, scattered throughout 'The World'." He paused for a moment, a lag in the latency of their connection. "I am... a portion of that program."

"I've heard there was a broken man, at a field that can't be reached," said BlackRose. "Was that another like you?"

"Yes, and no. Harald tried to create a fully realized self in the world - literally, an artificial intelligence. When it was broken, the fragments all took away some pieces of the whole. Specifically, memories."

"Then those ghosts we've been seeing," began Kite, the pieces coming together in his head, "the voices, these are all memories of a program that Harald created?"

"I believe so."

"Then what about you?" he asked again. "How is it you can respond to us?"

'Harald' sighed, his shoulders sagging. "Like I said, there's much I don't understand. I think I'm some sort of cognitive algorithm - the part of the AI that could 'think', so to speak. I've been trying to find out what happened ever since. I didn't remember anything, not even why or how I was here, but the more I saw, the more I learned." He looked up at Kite, his eyes surprisingly weary and downtrodden. "But I don't 'remember' these things, I just know them."

"Do you know what actually happened to the real Harald?"

"I saw the same image you just did, but I can't be sure." He gulped. "I doubt those were police that found him."

Kite glanced over at his partner. "Looks like you were right, BlackRose."

She briefly smirked, a moment of pride that quickly fell away to her persisting curiosity. "What about what happened to you?" she asked. "Do you know that?"

"I think so... I don't know what happened during the actual confrontation, but following my separation... she began searching for the memories, trying to erase them. I've been looking for them too, to find out what, exactly, Harald intended for me to do here, how he planned to stop Morganna."

He gulped, and suddenly reached behind his back. "But she did something to me... altered my code, my priorities, I don't know. Something keeps happening to me."

Feeling suddenly ill at ease, Kite rested his hands on the hilts of his short swords. "What are you talking about?"

"That party you saw earlier," he said, his voice becoming more hurried, as if nervous, or even frightened. "They weren't running from the memory. They were running from me."

BlackRose gasped, reaching for her blade. "You mean..."

His arm twitched, as if he was fighting some hidden urge to move it. "It's happening again... you have to stop me. This isn't me, but she's still trying. She wants to stop people from finding her, from saving her."

Kite felt his pulse rise, heart beating at a frenzied pace. Sweat beaded on his puppeteer's palms, causing the controller to loosen in his hands. "Saving her?"

"It's Aura!" he suddenly shouted. "Help her, it's all about her now!"

Without warning, his arm curled around, now holding the same revolver that the memory had, only pointed straight between the Twin Blade's eyes; 'Harald's' index finger curled around the trigger and began to squeeze.

"You have to kill me!"

Chapter 25 – Violent Confession

A bright flash and thunderous explosion preceded a sharp buzzing noise as the bullet flew past Kite's ear; he feinted right just before the shot, and nearly stumbled as he tried to stay out of the line of fire. BlackRose took off in the opposite direction, running towards the far wall.

"I think I figured it out," said the apparition, trailing Kite with his gun. "Why I'm here, what he was trying to do. Aura was the real reason he was here... he knew she needed help to grow, to mature and become strong enough to stop Morganna. I don't know how it works on a technical level, but it does."

Kite kept his eyes locked on the gun, breaking into a full-fledged sprint; the trigger was pulled again, and the Twin Blade swore he felt the heat of the bullet as it passed by, missing his arm by an inch. The shooter's voice had a desperate quality to it, and Kite heard an occasional straining, as if he was trying to fight the force prompting him to fire.

"He wanted to stop her, so he tried to use Aura, but she discovered his plan, and found him... that's how I got here. How she got me."

(I've got to get closer to stop him,) thought Kite, searching in vain for cover. (Maybe when he stops to reload...)

"Vak Kruz!"

Tiny flames appeared in a tight sphere around Harald, which then contracted without warning and exploded; he jumped away from the center of the blast, but not nearly quick enough to escape. The explosion blew him back several paces, appearing to be physically unharmed but clearly in a daze.

Kite looked over at BlackRose, who was standing calmly with her sword at her waist. Feeling his gaze, she shouted to him. "Use magic! It's like any other monster!"

The sheer amount of sense the idea made nearly bowled him over. (Why didn't I think of that??) he yelled in his head as he started digging through his inventory again, looking for the most powerful scroll in his arsenal.

"That was me who wrote the letter you found!" shouted Harald. "I was trying to warn Seijiro about Aura, about the Phases." Raising his pistol again, he added, "That's when they tracked her down. If she's destroyed... no, killed... then it's all over."

Before Kite could begin casting, Harald fired at BlackRose, who raised her blade just in time to block. The bullet slammed hard into her weapon; her body quivered under the impact but she kept her balance, as though her feet were rooted to the ground.

Raising one of his blades skyward, Kite invoked the scroll he had chosen, and a series of lightning bolts ripped out of the clear, cloudless sky to strike the apparition, each more powerful than the last. He convulsed and cringed, groaning as if in pain, and stumbled about momentarily before righting himself.

"Rrggh... I couldn't send it, though, I don't know how or why not. It was after I got fragmented... I thought Skeith, or one of the other phases, or something was after me. I saw it... it was horrible, I saw it... but it didn't do anything. Just sat there, watching me. Then it hit me... it's because she still had control over me. Still had a use for me."

Harald suddenly lashed out with his weapon arm, firing the remaining three rounds in the vague direction of the Twin Blade; he easily evaded, and watched as Harald righted himself and broke open the revolver to reload.

"BlackRose, now!"

Together they charged him, weapons at the ready. He barely got a single bullet in the chamber before they got close enough to attack. He leapt back, hurriedly closing the gun and thumbing the cylinder until the bullet was primed for firing.

"I was at the field when you found it," said Harald, his voice sounding more exhausted than desperate. "I wanted someone to find it, but I didn't know who you were until I saw you, heard you talking. That's when I knew what she wanted me to do." His eyes met briefly with Kite's. "You saw me... I tried to stop myself, but I couldn't. She wouldn't let me."

Kite tried his best to ignore the man's words, subconsciously thinking he could check the logs later. He lunged forward with his left blade, catching Harald's left flank as the apparition tried to twist away. His target felt surprisingly solid, and despite his ethereal appearance the metal cut in to and slid out of Harald's gray-toned cloth and flesh as if he were alive, or at least no less substantial than any other creature Kite had faced.

The bite of his blade was a pinprick compared to the chop at his back by BlackRose; with a shouted "Hah!" she slammed her massive sword horizontally into his back, cutting well over an inch deep, though no blood was drawn or flesh was exposed.

"Ohhh!" he cried out, struggling to get away as they continued their attacks. "I don't know the real Harald any more than either of you do..." he was cut off as Kite hacked viciously at his neck, cleaving straight through. "I don't even remember anything before a few years back, when it happened."

With a sudden burst of dexterity he pried himself away from their almost synchronous strikes, opening the revolver again. "She set this up just for you... I don't know what she did, but don't let me hit you."

"Are we doing any damage?!" shouted BlackRose, staring in disbelief at Harald, who showed no physical evidence that he had been at all injured, aside from his hobbled posture and pained expression.

As Harald resumed reloading, Kite took his eyes off him for just a second and glanced at the targeting data on his HUD. To his surprise, there was none; although it recognized the apparition as a target, there was no data regarding its name or status, not even a garbled hit point counter to suggest invincibility. Just an empty space where the name should have been, and, if the counter was to be believed, no hit points.

"You have to stop me!" he begged, sliding the sixth and final bullet into its waiting chamber. "Somehow... use data drain! Do something!"

"Split up!" ordered BlackRose, ducking left as before, and Kite in the opposite direction.

Harald fired again and again, alternating between the two. "She did something to this thing... you probably figured out it isn't supposed to be here. Don't let me hit you!"

Kite brought his right arm up, trying to train his hacking ability on the spectral gunman. There was no response, no tremble from his arm nor any other indication that he could use the bracelet. "It's not working! Do we need to do more damage?!"

"I wasn't meant to have statistics, or be a monster or anything... I don't know. There's so much I don't know!" Between the shouts and gunfire, his ragged gasps and pants could be heard. "It's been so long... I'm tired. I shouldn't be, but I am."

A sixth pull of the trigger spent the last bullet at BlackRose, and she nimbly evaded. "I'm so tired," he repeated, again stopping to reload, his pockets a seemingly endless font of spare ammunition. "Tired of waiting, tired of trying to figure this out, tired of everything."

They closed in on him again, reaching him almost simultaneously, and again before he could load more than a single bullet. Harald was quicker this time, and skipped backwards; locking the cylinder in place, he raised the gun high and smashed the butt across Kite's face. The attack did minimal damage but succeeded in stopping his attack, if only for the second Harald needed to rush BlackRose.

She brought her blade up to strike, but this time he was too fast; his free left hand lashed out and gripped her wrist, squeezing it firmly through the purple gauntlet. His hold was awkward, but it was enough to keep her from swinging her sword. He followed up by thrusting his head forward, knocking it harshly against hers and catching her off-guard.

As she jerked back from the head butt, she heard him continue. "I just want to sleep," he hissed, followed by a sharp sucking noise that could have been him taking a breath. The pistol glinted in the sun as he brought it around, and she freed up one hand to push it away.

Kite's shuffling footsteps cued him to an impending attack, and he responded with a firm back-kick, his legs just long enough to out-reach his attempted swing. The thick heel of the shoe caught the Twin Blade square in the jaw, sending him reeling backwards.

The distraction was sufficient for BlackRose to free her captive hand; she awkwardly lifted the heavy blade and jammed the hilt into Harald's face, the tip poking at his eye. The apparition howled in pain, stumbling back and clutching the eye with his left hand.

A might chop from one of Kite's swords cleaved through his right arm, and he cried out again; the weapon left no permanent damage, but the resulting pain – or whatever it was he felt – caused him to drop the pistol, which clattered loudly to the ground.

As Harald resumed struggling with Kite, BlackRose took a better look at the fallen revolver, and noticed for the first time that it looked more solid, and less supernatural, than its former owner.

("She set this up just for you..." there's something more to it,) she thought. (It has to be more than just a weapon. And if he's not taking any damage...)

Sheathing her sword, she marched forward, knelt down, and gingerly picked up the firearm. To her surprise, it registered to the touch; her mind knew that she was still holding her controller in reality, but she could nonetheless feel the ridges in the handgrip, the icy coldness of the trigger despite its recent use. The sensations chilled her to the bone, knowing that this was something that should not be.

Slowly she raised the pistol, pointing it at the apparition, who had his hands around one of Kite's wrists and was being subjected to a series of savage thrusts from the other blade.

(What is this,) she almost said, her trembling hands training the sight on Harald's chest. Instinctively mimicking the countless movies and TV shows she had seen, her thumb pressed into the hammer and drew it back. (What in the world is happening?)

"Kite!" she shouted. "Get back!"

BlackRose waited until the red-clad warrior disentangled himself from Harald's grasp and scrambled away; he got five steps before a sideways glance at her caused him to stop and stare.

Seeing what was about to happen, Harald ran straight towards her, hands balled into fists. "Do it!" he growled. "Do it now!"

She hesitantly squeezed the trigger, as if the weapon was just as likely to shoot her as it was her target. The tiny hammer snapped forward, and her entire body shook from the force of the explosion.

All watched as the bullet sailed unerringly towards Harald, moving faster than the eye could see; it punched through his upper chest and out the back, spinning him around and blasting him off his feet in a cloud of blood. The bullet struck the back wall of the enclosure, bouncing off with a loud PING mere seconds before Harald crumpled to the floor.

The ghostly figure gave no cry of pain, no audible indication that he had been hit; conversely, blood poured freely from the wounds to his chest and back, a dark pool that gathered beneath him and slowly spread outward.

"Thank you," he said in a steady, yet quiet voice.

He twitched once, and his body began to disintegrate, the area around the wound fracturing into tiny shards that drifted into the air and vanished. The hole grew wider, eventually dividing what was left of the body into halves, and within seconds the rest had evaporated, leaving nothing behind, not even the blood.

BlackRose stood stunned, with eyes wide open and lips parted; she let out a sudden cry of alarm as the revolver disappeared in a similar fashion, gradually blown away on the simulated wind as though suddenly made of sand. With its departure went her ability to feel it, and she couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief as the alien sensation faded from memory.

"BlackRose... are you okay?"

She came to her senses and found Kite standing near her, appraising her with concern. Lacking time and inclination to craft a clever or confident response, she simply nodded, if shakily so.

"Y-yeah," she muttered. "Did... did I kill him?"

He watched her for just a moment, and then reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. She finched, and he thought about taking it away, but instead squeezed reassuringly. With a small smile, he said, "I think you set him free."

All of a sudden, the enclosure faded from sight, replaced by the alleyway they had been traversing before the encounter.

There was a soft humming from behind, and both turned to see a familiar NPC shopkeeper, golden teleport rings drifting across his stocky frame and rendering him opaque.

A frown crossed his face as he spoke. "What the hell is going on here? I was getting reports of bizarre activity in the Delta root town, but something was blocking me out. Where have you two been?"

Kite took a few steps closer, and cocked his head upward to meet Lios' penetrating stare. "I think we found out something you should know," he answered matter-of-factly.

Chapter 26 – Technical Support

Kite watched in fascination as the expression on Lios' face changed, subtly, from mild confusion to significantly less mild disdain. His eyes bounced left and right as he read something unseen to Kite or BlackRose, text logs and conversations the Twin Blade had sent him.

His thick eyebrows narrowed, and he was obviously clenching his teeth behind his scowling lips. Without look at the teal-haired warrior, he asked, "Is this everything?" in a surprisingly calm voice that belied his appearance.

"It's everything we saw," said Kite.

For a second, Lios' eyes darkened even further; his face fell, the anger seeming to melt away to a more melancholy emotion. He sighed deeply, eyes closed and head gently shaking back and forth. "What the hell were you thinking," he muttered, far too quiet to be addressing either of them.

BlackRose threw Kite a look, then faced Lios. "Well?" she asked, hints of impatience in her tone.

He opened his eyes, staring at nothing in particular; Kite guessed he was reading a line from the log again. "If this is accurate," he began, "then... then..." He stopped, swallowed, and cleared his throat. "My god... Seijiro, what on Earth have you done?"

"Lios?" Kite asked tentatively, noting that the administrator's voice carried far less authority than he had ever remembered.

"If this is accurate," he tried again, "then it means he knew all along where Harald was, and where he is now. And perhaps even why Morganna is trying to destroy 'The World'."

Kite looked up at him expectantly. "So what are you going to do?"

Lios matched Kite's stare with one of his own. "There's nothing else to be done here. I suggest you leave for the time being."

BlackRose recoiled slightly, blinking twice. "Excuse me??"

"You've found out all you need to know," said Lios curtly. "It would be best if you looked no further into the matter for now."

"So we should just butt out, is that what you're saying?" accused the Heavy Blade, balling her right hand into a fist.

The administrator turned his stare to BlackRose. "You have a job to do," he said, traces of command returning to his voice. "And so do I," he added, almost as an afterthought. "I will handle the matter from here."

With that, Lios began to gate out. Just before the rings completely enveloped his body, he muttered, "My... 'thanks' for your assistance."

Barely a second after he had logged out, the swordswoman let out a long- held groan of annoyance. "Rrrgh... who does he think he is?!"

"It's all right," said Kite, facing his pink-haired companion. "At least we're both okay, and maybe this will help them figure out what went wrong before."

She gave a small sigh, either unwilling or unable to challenge the statement. "I guess so... well... maybe we should get going, anyway. It's getting kind of late."

Kite nodded. "Yeah... do you want to log out here?"

BlackRose looked up at him, a curiously soft look to her eyes. "Actually... can we head back now? I know where the boat is, it'll only take a few minutes." There was a slight tremor to her words that might have been anxiety.

"All right." He smiled, issuing the auto-follow command once more. "Lead the way."

Hiroshi reached blindly forward, setting his controller on his desk as Kite followed BlackRose's every step. He watched her lead them both through the twisty, mazelike passages, a decided confidence to her walk that assured him she knew where she was going.

Idly, he pressed his hands together and wrung each of his fingers, feeling somewhat tense and cold from holding the controller for so long. From his current point of view, his eyes were set straight ahead, right into the back of his partner.

True to her word, she led them to the tiny pier, where the NPC boatman was waiting. Spotting them, he looked over and waved, smiling cheerfully. "Ready to go back?" he asked.

Taking control of himself, Kite smiled back and nodded. "Let's go."

The two hopped gingerly into the boat, taking their seats on the bench as the pilot also sat down and began rowing. The small craft lazily drifted away from the pier and up the canal, wooden oars splashing as they cut into the water and propelled the boat forward.

Sitting next to BlackRose, Kite recalled their prior excursion on the boat, and instantly felt a warm rush of color in his cheeks. The same part of him that wanted to hold her again, as he had before, was also frozen in place, once again afraid that his actions would be unwanted, or that he would create the wrong impression, or any one of a hundred ways he imagined it would go wrong.

He almost didn't notice that she wasn't moving at all. Tilting his head, he called her name.

She twitched, and then glanced at him blankly. "Uh?? What is it?" she asked with noticeable haste.

Concern etched into his face, he turned his body to face her. "Are you okay?" he asked softly.

"I-I'm fine," she stammered, looking away. "I was just AFK for a second."

"Are you sure?" Kite pressed, unconvinced.

"I said I..." she began to repeat herself, but the strength drained from her reply almost instantly. She inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly, as if steadying herself. After a half-minute of silence, she said, "I... could feel it."

"What do you mean?" was Kite's instinctive query.

"Back there, during the fight... the gun," she explained. "I could... feel it. Like it was real." She fidgeted uncomfortably, looking over at him once more. "When it went off, I could feel the heat... but it was so cold."

He watched her closely, his eyes fixated on hers. "Really? You mean you..."

"Yeah," she cut him off, if meekly so. "I-I-I've... never held one in my life. And then when... it just happened so quickly, when I picked it up." She paused long enough to swallow, loudly. "It just felt real."

Kite got her message loud and clear. That was the final wall between the game and real life; that wounds didn't hurt, things had no smell, feel or taste, and they knew they were still connected to a terminal somewhere, and could always log out if things got too dangerous.

The gun had taken her past that wall, if only for just a moment.

"It's not like Data Drain," she continued. "That hurts too, but it doesn't happen in the real world..."

(But that was a lot closer to home,) he thought, finishing the sentence she left hanging.

She let one hand drop over the side, her fingers just skimming the surface of the water, seeming to relish in her inability to sense it without her eyes and ears.

The red figure in the corner of her eye moved, and before she could face Kite again, he had reached out and taken her other hand in his. The leather glove curled around her palm, squeezing it reassuringly; his lips, smiling gently.

"You saved us," he said warmly.

She stared back at him; he grew a little uncomfortable from her lack of response, tempted to pull his hand away. Instead, he kept talking, motivated by some alien impulse to make her feel better. "I... don't know exactly what happened here tonight," he admitted, "or even if it's over just yet. But I know I couldn't have done it by myself. I wouldn't have even thought to try that."

Sensing her mood was lightening, he thought back further. "And I wouldn't have even known about this area if not for you. He... or it, might still be there, wandering." Widening his smile, he added, "Looks like I owe you again."

The corners of her lips were tugged upward, and at last she squeezed his hand back. "I'll put it on your tab," she remarked jokingly, a short giggle serving to punctuate the comment.

Replying with a smiling emote, he scooted a little closer, as before. He unsuccessfully tried to fight down a blush as he released her hand, lifting his and draping the arm over her shoulders.

There was no tension, and almost no awkwardness. Her response was fluid and natural, if somewhat bashful; she slid in even closer and curled an arm around his back, gently clutching a handful of his red vest. Eye contact broke, and instead they gazed in the same direction, watching as the buildings flanking the canal slowly drifted by.

Positive he was still blushing, Kite slowly relaxed, body going limp as he leaned back against the side of the boat, BlackRose using his shoulder for a similar purpose. He let out a sigh, more than content for perhaps the first time in recent memory; maybe even happy, if only a little.

She mimed his action, exhaling gently and letting her eyes droop shut. Though he could no longer see her face, he swore she was smiling, a thought that caused him to smile as well.

In common with their earlier ride, this one ended too soon for their liking. Reaching the main broadway of the aqua capital, the pilot guided the boat towards the nearest mooring and secured it.

Reluctantly, they disentangled and clambered out of the boat, setting food on sturdy ground and immediately stepping to the side as another party approached the boat.

"Well, I guess I'm calling it a night," said BlackRose, clasping her hands behind her back.

"Yeah, me too." Kite threw his arms up, arching his back as he stretched. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

She nodded. "Tomorrow. See you later!" With a wave, she gated out, familiar golden rings encircling and masking her body as she faded away.

"You too," he replied to empty air.

The party now empty, he leisurely climbed the steps near the weapon vendor; arbitrarily, he wandered onto the bridge spanning the canal, and leaned onto the nearest railing, gazing out at the sunlit, lively metropolis before and around him.

His hand clenched the railing, firm and solid under his hands, and felt a tinge of regret that the boat ride wasn't longer, if only by a minute or two. Regret quickly fell away to another emotion, one almost as foreign to him but decidedly more pleasant.

A press of a button conjured up the required menu, and he quickly found the logout command. 'The World' quickly vanished, replaced by an all- encompassing nothingness, which itself went away as he reached up and pried the headset free from its perch.

Sitting alone in his room, before a glowing login screen, Hiroshi smiled happily.


From: FMoritsu@admin.cc.net

To: SeiTan@mailserv.net

Subj: Harald

I know.

Come to my office. Now.

Chapter 27 – Loyalty

He heard the footsteps down the short hall, soft thumps that were nonetheless clearly audible over the quiet humming of his computer and the ticking of a wall clock. His door – a light plywood, reinforced in the middle with a sturdy polymer – lay ajar expectantly.

The door was his primary defense against potential intruders. Aside from that, he had several means at his disposal to deter an unexpected guest: a button for the silent alarm, specifically designed to blend into the desk; the burly security guard in the hall, just strong enough not to need the Browning HP or nightstick hooked onto his belt; Moritsu himself, trained in close-quarters combat and, despite a lack of muscle or practice, could deliver a crippling blow if necessary.

As Seijiro Tanaka entered his field of view, Francis couldn’t help but briefly ponder using one of them.

The programmer calmly strolled into the administrator’s office, stopping only to show his ID badge to the guard outside. "What’s this about, Frank?" he asked in a slow, flat voice that implied he already knew.

Francis watched him carefully; without looking, he reached up and spun his flat-screen monitor around, showing the on-screen contents to Seijiro. "I was hoping you could tell me," he replied. "You want to confess now, or do I have to ask?"

Seijiro’s blue eyes narrowed as he stepped forward, scanning the glowing text. "What is this?"

"Recorded dialogue between two players and an entity within ‘The World’," explained Francis. "A fragment of an A.I. Harald encoded into the game to stop Morganna."


The administrator nodded to him. "Keep reading."

A long moment of silence passed the men as Seijiro read the log on display, slowly absorbing the words and their meaning. His face tensed briefly, then relaxed into a resigned expression of defeat. "Damn it," he whispered.

Frank suddenly gazed upon his co-worker with a look of mixed dismay and pity. "I don’t even know where to begin asking questions, Seijiro... so why don’t you start by telling me what happened to Harald."

Lifting his head up from the computer screen, Seijiro faced his accuser.


"I said, THAT’S ENOUGH! I don’t want to hear any more of your inane babbling about some girl! Just tell me what the hell is going on!"

Taking a deep breath, he steadied his aim, keeping the revolver trained on the stairwell door. "I told you everything," he said into a cell phone, clutched firmly in his free hand. "She is proof of my love for her."

He winced as the speaker’s sharp voice cut into his ear. "But what does it mean?? What in god’s name were you trying to do?!"

The door burst open; rifle-mounted flashlights illuminated the darkened hallway as monstrous black-clad men charged through.

"Kommen sie nahrer nicht!" he shouted, pulling the trigger once and loosing a shot at the nearest figure. The bullet bounced harmlessly off the armor, though it succeeded in knocking him back a pace.

He frowned. "Es ist zu spat..."

His advantage lost, he turned and ran down the hall, ducking around the nearest corner and through an open door. "If only she could have seen," he began, and was cut off in mid-sentence as he doubled over, struggling to catch his breath. "She would know."

"Look, just come out and tell us what we’re dealing with. Nothing’s gonna happen to you, I promise." There was a desperate, almost hopeless quality to the speaker’s voice, and that mattered more to him than the actual words.

Hearing footsteps, he made a conscious effort to speak into the phone. "I could have stopped her, but the choice is no longer mine to make."

The flashlights flickered through the door. Instinctively, he raised his gun and fired, emptying what was left of its ammo at the blank wall facing the office door. "Stay away from me!" he shouted before turning around and running, down yet another hallway – virtually indistinguishable from the one he had left, lit in a faint blue hue from the moon through a side window.

"Harald! What’s going on?!"

"Ich brauche mehr Zeit," he muttered, not caring if the person on the other end could hear or understand him; he jammed the phone between his shoulder and ear, and pointed the revolver in the direction he had come from. Remembering that it was empty, he broke it open and frantically started digging through his pockets, loading spare shells into the now-barren chambers.

Finished reloading, the white-haired man spoke into the phone. "But I still have one choice."

"Herr Hoerwick!"

Frantically, Harald scrambled through the nearest door, and found himself in an office – desk in the corner, computer on the desk, chair and wastebasket before it. The computer was on, a menu on the screen prompting him: [phase 4 initialized; beginning installation of command directives].

Closing and locking the door, Harald strolled over to the computer and set the phone down on the desk. He collapsed into the chair and coughed, loudly. "Just a little longer," he whispered. "Just a little longer..."

Progress bars danced across the screen. Hearing their footsteps, shouted orders in his country’s language, he began rocking back and forth, heart pounding frantically. "They’re coming... they’re closing in. How did they know? How did they find me?"

The voice came through the phone again, smaller thanks to its distance from Harald’s ear. "Listen, I can get you out of this, but you have to trust me. These men aren’t who you think they are."

The lights flashed beneath the doorway. "Herr Hoerwick! Dies ist die Polizei!" The voice was distant, almost as if from outside the building. "Stellen sie ihre Waffe hin und kommen Sie mit ihren Handen auf heraus!"

He threw a panicked glance at the screen, and felt a chill as he saw the bar had only filled halfway. In a heartbeat, he clicked the ‘cancel’ button, and reached for a nearby set of goggles, which he hastily crammed over his head and activated.

"This might be the only way... I hope this works like it’s supposed to."

Pulling out the keyboard, he blindly entered a set of directives into an unseen command prompt; flashes of code and text suddenly whirled past his visor, striking his retinas relentlessly.

He heard the doorknob rattle, and his hand found the revolver once more.

"Harald, for god’s sake, listen to me! Those men are CIA! They want you alive!"

The words came through loud and clear, and it stopped Harald cold. He felt the barrel rest against his right temple, but his finger never touched the trigger. More lines of code, and the door gave a mighty CRACK as it was brutally kicked in.

"He knew."

"Schiessen sie ihn!"

A single, deafening explosion; he felt something hard and small strike him squarely in the chest, blowing him backwards in his chair and throwing him into a violent whiplash. Instinctively he squeezed the trigger, but it was too late; the gun wasn’t even close enough to cause powder burns, instead firing straight into the ceiling and doing no harm to any living thing.

His vision was still blanked by the visor, which he had felt disconnect from the terminal when he was tossed backwards; he felt a brief sensation of falling, and then tumbled out of the chair as it collided roughly with the ground.

The goggles were pulled away, but the throbbing pain in his chest forced Harald to squint and grimace, minimizing what could be seen. He felt hands grab him roughly and hoist him aloft. One of them spoke roughly into his ear, "You don’t get off that easily."

As two of the men dragged him from the room, he heard a third speaking in Japanese; "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Tanaka."


"...I tried to reason with him, but it was too late; my phone was secure, but they intercepted it going to his cell phone."

Francis looked upon his associate with new eyes; dismay and pity were still present, and along for the ride were at least a dozen other comparable emotions, and a touch of speechlessness to boot.

"CIA agents tracked him to an office building in Frankfurt and posed as a German SWAT team. That is where he encoded himself into ‘The World’, and I would wager that’s the last time he’s seen the light of day since."

Moritsu closed his eyes. "So, where is he now?"

"Unless he hung himself with his bedsheets, I would imagine he is still one Dietrich Hermann, small-time arms dealer who’s been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the past twenty-four months."

The administrator felt a pool of bile begin bubbling up in the pit of his stomach, regardless of where the fluid was meant to go. "So you were CIA the whole time..."

"DoD," corrected Seijiro. "I worked with the CIA on ARPANET and Echelon, but the latter, as I said, was a bust. You know I worked for the U.S. government... well, that’s what I was working on."

"Why did they bother to tell you all this, if you don’t work for the government anymore?"

"I’m still an asset. And when they found out that my software worked with Harald’s Morganna program, I became an opportunity." He sighed. "They wanted to pick Harald’s brain over Morganna, find out what made her tick, how she succeeded with the Echelon code where their A.I. failed. And I’d... well, we all tried to track him down."

"Yeah," said Francis, "but you found him."

"As did they."

The two locked eyes, blue on blue, one intense and judgmental, the other pained and haunted. Somewhere between a second and a hour, Francis spoke again. "I don’t even know where to begin with you. You lied to me and everyone at this company, and might even be responsible for what Morganna has become."

"There’s more than that," Tanaka interrupted. "They’re here, in Tokyo, and they’re trying to tie up all the loose ends."

"Why am I not surprised," was Frank’s retort. "You still giving them pointers?"

"I don’t have a choice. Either I tell them what they want to know, or they ‘suicide’ me. I told you, as long as they’re still trying to put together an A.I., they’re going to keep me on a short leash. I couldn’t do a damn thing to help."

"You could’ve gone to the police; for god’s sake, Seijiro, you could’ve come to me. We could’ve worked something out before all this got out of hand!"

"You don’t think I feel guilty about this?" he suddenly asked. "You think I enjoy sitting around doing nothing while that... that thing wreaks havoc in ‘The World’, just waiting for a chance to get into the global network?"

"I don’t know what to think," Francis said calmly. "Except that you should’ve come to me sooner. Now, what you’ve told me might not matter anymore."

"I know... but there’s nothing else I can do. With the CIA keeping an eye on me, my hands were tied."

"So what do you need?"

Seijiro turned away to one side, staring into a wall. "I’ll tell you anything you want to know right now, we’ll sort all this out, but they have to be stopped, and soon. The whole damn thing has to be exposed, what they’ve been doing..."

"And how do we do that?" asked Francis. "Call the police?"

"Not good enough. We need proof aside from my word. The kind we could probably only get from them."

Another pause in conversation, hostilities and tension momentarily forgotten as the two men faced the grim reality of their situation. Again, the computer and the clock were the only things making noise in the room, humming and clicking ceaselessly.

"Wait," said Francis. "Earlier today, you mentioned an American that came with the police..."

"Right, Dean Stollis," answered Seijiro. "It seems you were right; he HAS been persistent. In fact, my liaison with the Agency..." his speech slowed, mentally coming to some unspoken realization, "...said they wanted him out of the way..."

"Heh," grunted Francis, swiveling to his left in his chair. "Well, they have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure." The lack of response prompted him to face Seijiro once again. He crooked an eyebrow curiously. "What are you doing?"

His younger co-worker was now lightly touching a plastic pen to the on- screen keypad of his PDA, punching in a short sentence and hitting the ‘send’ button.

"What are you doing?" asked Francis again, looking oddly at the tiny electronic device.

Without looking up, Seijiro answered, "Taking sides."

Chapter 28 – Reciprocity

[News: Shooting Suspects, Victim Identified

In a press conference Tuesday, police officials released several details regarding the shoot-out at the Tasugo warehouse two days ago, including the names of several suspects, and one of the individuals who was injured upon fleeing the scene.

An emergency call from within the warehouse prompted police response, and a passing patrol car reported shots fired within minutes of the call. Upon arrival, police were greeted with gunfire from members of the American Central Intelligence Agency, who had been using the warehouse as a base of operations. After the battle, some sixteen of the group’s 24 members were dead or injured; five more surrendered, with three unaccounted for. Those three had taken off in pursuit of Los Angeles resident Dean Stollis, who had been kidnapped the previous day. Along with him was one Seijiro Tanaka, a programmer for Cyber Connect Corporation.

In the ensuing chase, two of the agents were killed, the third mortally wounded; although several bystanders were injured in related vehicular accidents, there were no other deaths or gunshot injuries reported. Stollis himself was wounded, and taken to St. Luke’s International Hospital, where he remains in stable condition. Lieutenant Aniki Masamoto revealed that they already had four additional suspects in custody, also agents with the CIA.

Although the Prime Minister has given no official comment on the actions, government officials have angrily demanded to know the nature of the agency’s operation. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one cited the act as "a blatant violation of international law." U.S. President Coleman, under fire from both the State Department and the United Nations Security Council, has agreed to a bipartisan commission to investigate the agency.]


[From: DStollis@mailserv.net

To: Kite@theworld.com

Subj: The News

Hey man. I’m sure you’ve heard the big story by now. You busy? I think we need to commiserate. Lemme know when you get on, okay?

- Dean


As he neared the item shop window, he spotted the silver-haired Wavemaster, conversing with the NPC behind the counter, his staff resting calmly against the wall.

All around him, the Theta root town buzzed with activity, players going about their business as if nothing was wrong, as if the sky wasn’t broken and the ground not dotted with ugly splashes of code. Some chatted about the game, some about the problems in the game, and one or two had even remarked on events in the real world.


The magician stiffened when he heard the name, and disengaged from the shopkeeper to face Kite. A weak smile fell onto his lips. "Heya, Hiro."

The Twin Blade studied his face carefully; as always, Stolls had looked to be barely in his 20’s, in stark contrast to the older, weathered face of Dean. Still, his face and posture hinted at the player’s true nature, and more to the point that the player was tired.

"How are you feeling?" asked Kite, joining Stolls at the shop window.

"All right, I guess," was the reply. "Doesn’t really hurt now... just feel sluggish, like I’ve been out too long, y’know?"

"Yeah... I’m sorry to hear about that."

The Wavemaster shook his head and waved dismissively. "Aww, don’t worry about that. It’s not the first time I’ve been shot. Could’ve been a lot worse."

Hiroshi shivered, briefly imagining what it felt like to be shot; he quickly changed the course of the subject. "I heard on the news," he said, "that it was a bunch of CIA agents."

"Yeah, they were." Stolls sighed deeply. "Seijiro Tanaka coded part of a U.S. AI program called Echelon that never panned out. He tried it with Morganna, and that seemed to set it off. CIA came in town to shut him up and make sure nobody found out about their connection to Echelon and, consequently, Morganna." He swallowed hard, and continued. "They came after me, and a few others who knew, who helped me find out... that’s when it all happened. We got evidence to the cops about what they were doing and, well, the rest you probably heard on the news."

"I can’t believe it," said Kite, his face darkening. "All this time, and someone knew why this was happening... it’s just like we saw earlier..."

Stolls eyed Kite curiously. "You mean the email you sent me?"

Kite nodded. "Lios had me look into some things... BlackRose, Balmung and I went to this one field and found a note, and then just before we left, I saw a man with long, white hair, dressed in gray."

"That sounds like what I saw a while ago," Stolls interjected, turning away from the counter to stare across the nearest bridge, arms folded across his chest. "One of my informants had a recording of a guy that looked like that... a fragment of Harald, or of his memory, or something. He also mentioned Seijiro’s name."

"This guy also seemed to be a fragment, and we found out later that he was a part of a program that the real Harald put into the game, when he tried to stop Morganna."

The Wavemaster nodded slightly. "I’m guessing it didn’t work, then?"

"It doesn’t look that way," was Kite’s reply. "She split him into those fragments everybody keeps finding. BlackRose and I ran into that one later at Mac Anu; it told us about the AI it came from, but then it was like someone started to control it, and it attacked us."

"Jesus. What’d you do?"

"We managed to kill it... and that’s when Lios showed up." Kite closed his eyes, speaking the details of the encounter as they emerged from his memory. "When we told him what we knew about Harald and Seijiro, he... he got really angry, and even kinda nervous. He said he would deal with the problem, and then left."

The gears ground in Stolls’ head, putting two and two together. "I think our friendly administrator had a little chat with Mr. Tanaka," he said after a few seconds of silence. He glanced over at Kite, and half-smiled. "Heh, I thought it was kind of a sudden change of heart... looks like that’s two I owe you, man."

Kiteopened his eyes and peered at the Wavemaster, confused. "Huh?"

Stolls shifted his weight, leaning slightly to his left against the counter. "The day before that shoot-out on the news, the CIA came and captured me, along with the woman who was helping me out. He said he felt guilty about it, which was a big change from the last time I talked with him. He helped us get the evidence we needed and escape." After a beat, he added, "more or less, anyway."

Turning away from Stolls, Kite stared past the shopkeeper NPC into the booth. He scooted to the right to make room as a pair of adventurers scrambled up to the NPC and began buying things. (So, even he felt bad about it...) "So what’s going to happen now?"

Stolls waited for the couple to leave before answering. "Well, Seijiro is working with Cyber Connect again, telling them everything else he knows. Maybe they’ll figure out a way to stop her, I don’t know. As for me, well, with all that’s going on in D.C. right now – and me kinda-sorta responsible for it – I think sticking around would be a good idea." He broke into a grin. "You could say I just outsourced my own job."

The Twin Blade’s controller was familiar enough with the reference to get a chuckle out of it. Stolls grinned wider. "You like that? Took me six hours to think that up."

The two shared a quiet laugh before Kite spoke again. "Anyway, that’s pretty much it."

A simulated breeze whistled as it drifted past the island, ruffling cloth and hair alike. Silent once more, they stared in opposite directions, Stolls towards the horizon, Kite into the back of the shop.

Stolls cocked his head back, gazing up at the sky. Reminded of the graphical glitch over his head, he frowned. "Guess things are only getting worse here, too..."

Kite turned away from the shop window, peering at the Wavemaster through a few loose strands of azure hair. "Yeah... but at least now we know what we're up against. That thing... Morganna... it really is behind all this."

"Looks that way," affirmed Stolls with a nod. "Guess it's just a matter of finding the boss and beating it then, huh?"

"Yeah," said Kite. "I think that's it. We just have to do what we think is right."

Stolls let out a deep, rumbling chuckle. "Only you, my friend, could make it sound so simple." He smiled. "You’re right, too. I don’t get much of this techno-junk myself, and politics is just as Greek to me... but this," he gestured vaguely with one arm, "adventuring, sleuthing, I can do that. And, I trust, so can you."

Kite smiled back. "I can, and I will."

The Wavemaster stood up, facing Kite. "Glad to hear it. You’re a good man, Hiro."

He didn’t have long to dwell on the praise; a glance at the clock in his display forced him away from the item shop. "Oh, I’d better get going. I promised I’d meet with BlackRose and Gardenia right about now."

Stolls’ reaction was not unlike that of a cartoon character, eyes widening considerably and jaw agape. "THE Gardenia? You know her??"

Kite tilted his head, giving Stolls a puzzled look. "Yeah, we met back when I started playing. Do you know her?"

"By reputation," said the Wavemaster. "There's a ton of webrings to this game, one of 'em is this huge fansite her little groupies put up. Crazy stuff." A grin crossed his lips. "Guy gets into the game by chance, he’s here a few months, and he starts rubbing elbows with legends and meeting girls left and right. I get into this, what do I get? I get shot, that's what I get. You suck, man."

Driving home the point was a smiling emote, which spurred Kite to reciprocate with one of his own.

"Speaking of which, how are things with you and that Heavy Blade, man?"

"Heyyyy! Kite!"

The shout was attached to a slender thorn-tattooed, pink-haired girl, two islands away. An obscenely large sword was slung over her shoulder, which she held with one hand. Her other gauntlet-covered arm shot out over her head, waving to get Kite's attention, and a closer examination would have revealed a smile on her tanned face.

"Oh, she's here!" exclaimed Kite as he began to sprint away. "I'll see you later!"

"What?! Wait a minute, what happened??" he heard Stolls shout after him. "C'mon, man, you're killin' me here!"

Kite stopped long enough to throw a wink back at the Wavemaster before resuming his departure. A few dozen steps brought him to the desired island, face-to-face with BlackRose.

"Heya!" he greeted, perhaps a little more enthusiastically than he meant to.

"So that’s where you’ve been hiding," she said, a smirk forming in the place of her smile.

"Sorry." Hiro felt himself turn a slight shade of crimson. "I was just chatting with Dean."

"Ahh. Well, Gardenia’s waiting by the gate. Let’s go!"

Kite stepped up next to her; instead of her usual charging off, however, BlackRose walked at a casual, controlled pace, glancing back at Kite expectantly. The Twin Blade matched her step for step, and together the two leisurely made their way towards the Chaos Gate.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed her arm moving, and instinctively guided his out to meet it. Without turning his head, his gloved hand found hers, giving it a firm squeeze, a gesture she soon returned.

"Thank you, BlackRose," he said, his voice soft and full of warmth.

He heard the smile in the Heavy Blade’s gentle voice, and could imagine her player smiling too.

"You too, Kite."

- End