Several weeks ago, in the PETcetera store in Crescent City, Amerope, all was quiet and dark as it should have been hours before opening time. Then the alarm system and security cameras mysteriously shut down and the electronic lock on the side door made a solitary beep, allowing the door to open for a single visitor. The young man cut the signal on his wireless PET but kept his agent in the store's system in case the security tried to start up again. He then walked inside carrying a hefty bag of old PETs and PET casings.
It was time to trade in for some newer models. With any luck, the incompetent employees there wouldn't notice the difference in their merchandise until the unlucky customers took them back to complain. He planned to be out of town by the morning though, so he wasn't very concerned either way. He moved quickly and quietly to the back room where he proceeded to swap out his old, used-up hardware for the newer state-of-the-art PETs. He didn't need the casings, just the interiors, so he could leave the new casings behind with old parts stuffed in them.
After filling his small bag with the switched merchandise, he began to make his way out. On his way through, he passed the area where used PETs with existing navis were on display. One of the navis was active and noticed the unexpected visitor. "Hmph. The store hours are 9 to 8 today. You wouldn't happen to be attempting a robbery, would you?"
The man would have ignored the attempt at sarcasm and kept going, but instead stopped and turned to the slightly familiar voice. The navi and the burglar recognized each other's faces through the darkness.
"You?" They spoke in unison.
The man thought for a moment, and then smirked with a sinister idea.
* * *
Hoshiko's legs were numb, carrying her up the stairs automatically. She never liked coming here. It was always so intimidating. After all she'd been through, this was just a cruel reminder of who she once was. Outside her mind was the usual bustle of the Official Netbattler HQ in Rom. Nobody cared, they just did what they always lived for.
It had been two days since the "snowball" fiasco, and her relatively standard report of the strange events to her superiors afterwards. She was surprised when they responded the next day, asking her to report to the nearest HQ for a mission briefing. It sounded like something larger than herself was at happening, and she would have to become part of it. Half-excited at the time, she agreed, only to be burdened with afterthoughts.
A vibration rang out from her pocket. She retrieved her PET, smiling at the cheerful face displayed on its screen. "So, are you excited to be here as well?" IceChan inquired. Grinning, she was straining herself to put her operator at ease.
"Yeah, I'll be okay." Hoshiko lied through her teeth. "This is kind of what I wanted, anyhow. It's kind of as if we're finally raising through the ranks." She smirked halfheartedly. "Before we know it, we'll be at Enzan-san's level!"
IceChan shot a look that played her lack of conviction to these claims, but she relented and allowed the PET to be sheathed. Hoshiko was left to wipe sweat from her forehead, having lied so profusely and so very well in the moment.
She haphazardly approached the desk to the far left, and was directed to the conference room, and was greeted by a couple of older faces that she had never seen before. She took a seat somewhere in the middle, yet actively isolated from strangers. Down at the end of the desk, a monitor flickered on, and a blurred shadow was gathering as it adjusted to the proper resolution.
"Gentlemen." It began in a vague, distorting static. "Thank you so very much for gathering here today. My name is Smith. I am one of the investigators in the Officials' world campaign to uncover and cease the Dark Chip trade. I am also involved in the search for the criminal Acid Hackers. I am meeting with you as recent information has uncovered a possible link between these areas." Although confused, Hoshiko watched the man's silhouette with a strange intrigue.
"It has been brought to our attention that a certain sector of the Undernet has been host to an unusual string of crimes. My own investigation has revealed evidence that the Acid Hackers are connected, but the Acid Hackers' primary opposition, the Net Guardians now seem to be involved in some capacity as well. Metalman, one of the former Net Guardians thought lost in the Gamma incident has apparently resurfaced as a Darkloid. His actions were described as extremely hostile, nearly crushing our witnesses into scrap data. Our main witness is the navi belonging to a special guest of ours today. Hoshiko Yahari, please stand." With a jerk, Hoshiko erected herself in nervous fashion, trying not to notice the fascinated eyes following her every detail.
"Take a gander at her... alright, you can sit back down." She nodded, and bashfully replaced her buttocks in the seat behind her. "This girl was going through a license exam at the time. She wandered into the Undernet to find a data fragment. God knows what that had to do with anything. We're all well aware that those exams are fairly ridiculous by nature." Everybody laughed nostalgically, leaving Hoshiko feeling embarrassed, but the joy was quickly broken up.
"Although Miss Yahari lost contact, she trusts her navi's testimony, which we can only assume to be true under these circumstances. Her navi IceChan reported being attacked by a large Darkloid at the point of signal loss and two more apparently Darkness-tainted navis soon appeared on the battlefield but showed no hostility towards her. One was an uncustomized Normal Navi that claimed they were beset by the same loss of transmission, and the other was a custom female Darkloid that fought against the larger aggressor. The large one seemed primarily interested in her and she was heard to call it 'Metalman' in response to the key word 'Net Guardian'. Yet another unidentified party rescued them from the large Darkloid, but IceChan lost track of them all during her escape. There was also a DarkChip-possessing navi in a trench coat with odd defensive properties that Hoshiko and her navi encountered earlier, triggering the search that led to these events."
Smith's voice fell silent for a few seconds, but buzzed back to life.
"We believe that the Darkloid Metalman may be a red herring, a completely useless distraction. However, the appearance of this many Darkloids in close proximity is a troubling affair. We are not ruling out the possibility of inaccurate testimony from IceChan, but neither she nor her operator has had any previous experience with Metalman or the Net Guardians, so the presence of both terms suggests they or the Acid Hackers were actually involved. This is not meant to be a high profile case, but handle it with care. You will be investigating the alleged dead zone with guidance from Hoshiko and IceChan. Although they are not your superiors, they are pivotal to your mission, so do treat them with the same respect."
Organic voices had arisen from underneath Smith's dictation, muttering between one another in pairs. Hoshiko sank in her chair further, decidedly embarrassed and anxious.
"You can Jack in using the computers in the desk you are sitting at. You have an hour to adhere to a given recess and properly prepare yourselves before jacking in. Once you have done so, orientate yourselves and begin the mission. This is where we part ways until you report back with final results. Good luck."
As the screen faded off, the static hiss along with it, Hoshiko was low enough in her seat to see gum under the desk. IceChan chimed in as the voices left the room in marching formation.
"Hoshiko, are you alright?"
She nodded, lying to both herself and IceChan.
"This might be harder than I thought..."
* * *
Tricia unplugged her PET from the old machine in the basement archives of the Official HQ in Chipago, where her and Moe's investiagtion over the last two days had led them. She walked over to Moe who was sorting the data they found in a laptop sitting on a dusty desk. She handed him a datachip with a sigh. "Got one more location. Amazonian bunker, southern Colonbia. It's under the control of druglords at the moment though, so we can probably keep it off our list of spots to visit."
Moe winced. The idea of trudging through the jungle didn't appeal to him, even without the threat of facing down an army of South Netopian guerillas. He slotted in the datachip containing the coordinates she gathered and added another point to the grid on his laptop. "I'm still not seeing any pattern here. Maybe we should just work with what we've got. Navis are still disappearing while we're doing this...research." The word tasted bitter as he said it. He was always more of a man of action. He wanted to change into someone better, more responsible as an Official, but somehow this boring and pointless data sorting was not what he had in mind.
Tricia gave the screen a look over. "Well, we have enough now to know there are Undernet servers all over the world, at least one on every continent. Most locations are government protected and 'Off the Record' due to the controversial nature of SciLab's support of the main haven of world net-crime, and most of the locations that are declassified are already overrun with real-world criminals."
Moe shook his head with some disillusionment. "Why do I get the feeling there's an even bigger case in solving the mystery of why our own bosses and sworn protectors don't pull the plug on this madness?"
"That's not our concern!" Tricia responded with a serious tone. "The purpose is classified as 'containment', and other Officials greater than you have already looked into it many times over. If they want to keep the Undernet going like this, they obviously have a good reason."
"Right, okay, geez." Moe rubbed his neck awkwardly. He had to remember how to deal with this job professionally, and that meant no rhetorical morality questions to his superiors. "Well, we got the Electopian Officials looking into the base server in Yoka Valley. Where do we go from here?"
"I guess we have nothing left to do but go to the nearest possible jack-in point and start searching the Undernet ourselves." Tricia concluded.
There was nothing more to be said. Moe closed the laptop and the two officers made their way upstairs. Moe was anticipating this move with dread ever since he heard what happened to Darklady. It wasn't that he was afraid to lose Drillman the same way. He did want to go in, but he lacked confidence that he could succeed. He started to realize his life was a long line of challenges like that and his record of successes versus failures happened to support his feelings.
At least it always helped to have teammates to count on when he couldn't always count on himself. It was too bad he cast his last team aside so easily. The Officials for some reason preferred to employ smaller units, and having Tricia didn't alleviate his doubt as much when he considered she had to count on him just as much as he counted on her. It was moments like this he started to miss David, Carlos, Jon, Jon, Adrienne, and for some strange reason even Sam.
Tricia and Moe reached the lobby of the center and were going to continue outside to Tricia's car when the receptionist recognized them and called them over. "Excuse me, Mister Fortis? There's a man here to see you."
They stopped and glanced toward the desk. There was a man in a long dark coat standing there facing the receptionist. Learning the person he came to see was there, he turned around to meet him face-to-face, and that face instantly brought the blood of the two Officials to a boil.
Moe clenched his fist and charged the raven-haired man in rage, accusingly barking the name of the object of his ire. "Blackbelt!"
* * *
Within the heavy darkness of the Undernet, one navi dared to shine with golden light as he strode across the decaying streets. Flashman.exe was not concerned about the myriad of powerful viruses eyeing him hungrily from the shadows. He knew that those he could not hypnotize into obedience, he could paralyze long enough to make his escape. He knew it would be preferable to conserve his energy on a mission like this, but he wouldn't find his prey by moving stealthily. It was made quite clear that he had to wait for it to find him. All he had to do was be in the right place.
"Matt, how much farther do I have to go?" He inquired his operator.
The indifferent young man's voice responded. "You could already be there. This is as specific as his clue was, you know how it is with him."
Flashman grumbled under his breath. "I wish he'd get on with the pathetically obvious trap, if that's what it is. I would be much more annoyed if I were brought here just to stand around waiting for nothing to come."
"Just keep quiet. He could be watching." Matt had reason to be paranoid. It was bad enough they had been found by one of their greatest threats, now their one chance to strike back at him involved playing right into his hands. They had to play this carefully.
Matt returned to his computer for a moment to check over the values returned by his hacking tool while Flashman continued to wander. Little did the tall blue navi realize, but he was already being followed by another navi close by, very close by. The navi was actually one panel behind Flashman. A short, silent, and quick navi dressed in a colorful jester's outfit and sporting a wide grin as he stared up at the oblivious former Acid Hacker. Every time Flashman turned his head to survey the area, the little clown moved with a twisting slide around the taller navi's body, always remaining in his blind spot.
Flashman sighed. "Well I think you're right about being watched. I can feel some eyes on me, just can't tell from where."
Out of panic and reflex, Flashman wildly teleported around the platform while the colorful navi stood still and smiled. Finally, he stopped just behind the Jester with a Spark Arm charged and ready to strike, but he regained enough composure to hold and find out what he was dealing with. "W-Who are you?"
The Jester pivoted on his foot so he was facing Flashman's white, crackling, twitching hand directly. Oddly enough, he continued to smile even with the loaded weapon pointed at his head. Then suddenly his features became very stern. "What are you, dense? Are you fucking retarded or something?"
Flashman rolled his eyes and waited for the interloper's introduction in the inevitable punchline, but the little clown just kept scowling at him with his chin jutting out. "Well?" Flash pressed.
The Jester's face softened into a more puzzled look. "'Well' what? I'm the one asking you! I guess I'll take that as a 'yes'."
Flashman's eyes went wide and then squinted in anger. Without any more warning, he released his electrical attack, heavily zapping the obnoxious clown and sending him hopping away in pain. "OWOWOW! Geez buddy, you need to lighten up! Oh, look who I'm talking to. Hah!"
The navi of light teleported behind the retreating joker and grabbed him by the neck. "HE sent you, didn't he? This isn't the best way to assure me of his intentions."
The Jester chuckled. "Well I thought it was funny. My boss thought it was funny. You know if you're the only one that doesn't get the joke, that usually means there's something wrong with you."
Flashman leaned in close to the painted, grinning face and squeezed harder on his neck and glaring coldly into his wide-open eyes. "I'm here to see your boss. Now where is he?"
The face didn't flinch, it just kept grinning back vapidly, prompting Flashman to shake him in his stranglehold a bit for emphasis. It was at that point Flash looked down and noticed his captive's body had been replaced by a short wooden rod. A second later, the face fell off as a mask, revealing to Flashman that he had been throttling a plunger.
"What th-How did he-!?" The blue navi sputtered.
Matt's voice returned to spell it out for him. "Looks like Kawarimi to me, but maybe you should concentrate on the fact he's getting away."
Flashman spun around and spotted the real Jester tip-toeing off in the direction he was hopping a moment ago. Then the prankster stopped, slowly turned his head to see he'd been spotted, and broke into a mad dash, whooping like Daffy. With his target already out of range of his flash-teleportation, Flashman had no choice but to pursue his annoying opponent on foot. Even with the occasional warp to catch up, the Jester was faster than he looked and managed to keep his distance. As Matt watched the chase unfold, he wondered with a hint of depression if this was the trap they hoped to avoid.
* * *