The minute she stepped through her apartment door, it took every ounce of willpower Hoshiko had to not collapse into a ball on the floor. It had taken around three hours after the occurrence in the Undernet before she had finally been sent home. Various higher officials had instructed her to not let any mention of the incident get out, and to report back first thing tomorrow to investigate the new occupant of her PeT, which had been in standby the entire meeting. In truth, the only reason they hadn't confiscated the thing from the foreigner right then and there was Hoshiko's begging and pleading them to let her keep the small machine, and its mysterious occupant. Initially unsure, the superiors had relented and sent the now emotionless woman home.
Now Hoshiko was leaning against the door, body shaking with stress as the lavender-haired girl forced herself to not cry. It wasn't the time for an emotional breakdown. Retrieving the handheld terminal from the strap of her bag, the Japanese woman started pressing every button she should think of, trying to get some sort of reaction. The only response was a flickering light, as the terminal screen lit up for a brief second, before dying once more.
"Chikusho..." Tears began to well up in her eyes, knuckles turned white from how tight her grip was on the small machine. This couldn't be happening. "There has to be a way to connect to her..." She paused for a moment, as brown eyes widened at the idea.
"Wait a minute..." Connect. Of course. She could connect the PeT to her normal computer, and try to at least get at the navi's coding. It could probably run from the PC, if nothing else. Calming down at the thought, Hoshiko rushed towards her room.
Rows upon rows of text interrupted the otherwise black screen on the monitor, as Hoshiko typed furiously. Suddenly, the young woman was thankful for her knowledge in coding, even if it was a bit outdated. Typing in a few more commands, she took a deep breath, before pressing the 'compile' button. In theory, this would allow her access to the navi's coding, and then run it on the PC emulator. Then she'd be able to at least find out from IceChan, or whoever was in the ice-based navi's place, what the hell at happened. The compiling seemed to be working fine at first, with the occasional error that apparently corrected itself before the Japanese girl had to.
Suddenly, however, a mass of errors appeared on the screen all at once, followed by a horrific grinding noise coming from within the PC's tower. Swearing again in her native tongue, Hoshiko yanked the PeT's connector out, watching a large mess of jumbled letters and numbers appear on the monitor, before the system finally gave up. Sighing, she glanced at the small device in her hand, wondering what to do next, before the realization that its own screen was glowing fell upon her. Whatever had happened, the PeT was working again, apparently. The lavender-haired woman began going through the motions, pressing buttons when asked, and occasionally filling in new information. Odd. Eventually, she came to the first screen that featured the new navi.
"Ice...?" It was almost a whisper, but the mask-wearing navi seemed to have heard her.
"Good evening, Miss." her voice was almost robotic with how monotonous it was, "How may I be of service to you?" Hoshiko had to pause at this, studying the PeT curiously. Something seemed so wrong about this whole thing.
"Er...you can start by telling me who you are." The navi adjusted her mask idly, and for the first time, Hoshiko noticed Flameman's Navi Mark on her forehead.
"I...apologize, Miss. I cannot give you my name, it seems..." It took a moment to process that the navi seemed more curious than secretive, according to her body language. The voice never seemed to change.
"Well, fine. Can you tell me how you got into this PeT, then?" A head shake, along with a soft cough, from the navi, and an annoyed sigh from the operator.
"I apologize again, Miss...but I am not capable of telling you that, either. In fact, I am not capable of telling you a lot of things you may have questions over." Though there was still no emotion in the navi's voice, Hoshiko could have sworn it was giving her an attitude. She glared at the terminal, and wondered if shaking it would draw a reaction from the program.
"First of all, it's Hoshiko, not Miss. Secondly, why the hell can't you tell me anything?" She did not just nearly destroy her PC, and potentially lose her best friend, just to put up with this navi's apparent dislike of revealing information. The program seemed to consider this for a moment, before giving a barely noticeable shrug.
"I can tell you nothing, because I know nothing. My only memories are of a terrible burning sensation, and waking up here." There was a long pause from both parties, as Hoshiko fidgeted uncomfortably.
"Oh...wait," her eyes widened again, "Terrible burning sensation? Like...being burned alive?" If so, then there was a sudden possibility that this odd navi was IceChan after all. She shook her head to clear the thought away, as the navi coughed again, a little louder this time.
"I suppose so..." The navi's voice seemed a bit weaker, causing a concerned look to form on the programmer's face. The only time she ever remembered IceChan having a cough, was when she'd been infected with a minor virus.
"Hey, are you alright in there?" The navi started to nod, before pausing. A few seconds passed before the action was completed, and Hoshiko knew something was up.
"Right...humor me for a minute, and bring up your coding, will you? I just wanna check it out...maybe it'll help me figure out who you are." Another slow nod, before the navi's hand jerked to the side, poking at seemingly thin air. A box appeared beside her, and slowly began to fill with lines of coding. One quick glance told Hoshiko all she needed to know.
"Okay, you are bugged like all hell," the Japanese woman noted. Scrolling through a few more lines, she frowned. Some of the coding looked familiar, but for the most part, it was far more advanced than anything she could do.
"Am I?" The navi didn't seem at all concerned by this, and Hoshiko wondered if that wasn't because she was reacting too slowly.
"Severely. Right, c'mon...back to work with us. Maybe they have someone who can take care of all this..." Standing, the lavender-haired woman ignored the Navi's weakening protests, and made her way into the living room. Grabbing her bag and starting to head out the door, she looked down at the PeT once more.
"...You need a name." The navi nodded once.
"Your programming...er, what little I could read of it, anyway, indicated you have a basis in fire attacks...so I guess FlameChick will do for now. Sound good?" The question was more of a courtesy than anything.
"That...sounds fine with me," FlameChick replied slowly, as Hoshiko marched on, out of the apartment building, and into the city streets.
* * *
Within the deserted wastelands of the Undernet, the mission to track down twenty-three missing navis continued after a night's rest. Drillman, Overdrive, and Shademan composed the search team, following rumors and testimony selected from the barely trustworthy locals at the Rom Square where they jacked in. They decided not to call in the Magister they met the previous day, though she seemed helpful and innocent, her concern for her missing friend was getting in the way of their progress and Tricia was trying to move the operation back within the manageable realm of regulations. It was a difficult task considering their forced tagalong, the mercenary Shademan. At least he was proving to have interesting insights.
"Your encounter with your former teammate may have been a false lead, but she gave me an idea about what is really behind this case." The vampiric navi explained to the Officials as he led them down a winding path, stopping at each intersection and focusing to sense a trail his comrades could not detect.
Overdrive folded her arms and trudged along bitterly. "It sounds like you're going on a hunch, and I would normally frown on that, but it's not like we have anything else to go on today. Besides, navigating this place is a nightmare. We might as well follow the guy that's familiar with the area."
"Assuming we can trust him..." Drillman muttered.
Shademan turned his bat-like head. "Did you think these ears couldn't hear that?" Drillman glared back unapologetically. Shade scoffed. "Be that way, but I am only doing the job your superiors hired me for, and I pride myself on a job well-done. Wheeee-ee!"
"Could you at least explain what you're tracking?" Drillman pressed. "What is it, the scent of the victims' innocent blood?"
Shademan grinned. "Close. Minus the 'innocent' part. Darklady made me think of it. Your earlier reports and our recent questioning support the theory. Navis seen wandering trancelike, as if hypnotized. New aggressive DarkChip dealers popping up. It all makes perfect sense to me."
"Are you saying DarkChips have something to do with this?" Tricia asked through the comm link. She and the other operators were monitoring the system activity from the library basement server and Darklight was being just as cryptic as his navi on the details of their plan.
"I believe so. Does it bother you that I am exercising my affinity with Dark Power to aid you in this situation, my dear?"
Shademan had addressed the elephant in the room. He was a Darkloid, one of the most inherently evil navis on the net, yet he and his former-Nebula operator were free and sanctioned by the Officials. Darklady's status was much the same, only the other Net Guardians tended to ignore the moral implications of her DarkChip use as long as she wasn't hurting anyone. Now as an Official, Drillman and Moe felt more conflicted about the connection, just as Moe had felt about the government support of Undernet servers. Either way, it seemed they had to put up with it.
"What's the implication if that's true?" Overdrive pondered. "The victims were all clean as far as we could determine, and if you're saying they were attacked by DarkChip users...well, how does an ambush by a bugged-out junkie explain why they didn't return to their PETs upon deletion?"
Shademan shook his head. "There is much you do not yet understand about Dark Power and Darkloids such as myself...My operator and I will explain later. For the moment, it appears I have found what we were looking for."
Shademan stopped the group and pointed to a platform below. A Heel Navi was alone down there, looking around for something.
"H-hey, I got the message!" The nervous UnderDweller called out. "You'd better be here with the chips! I'm not sticking around to end up like those other guys!"
Moe, Tricia, and Darklight got their chips ready, preparing for the worst. Their navis ducked down, expecting a possible impromptu stakeout, but it seemed like for once they arrived just in time to see the action. A series of spires materialized around the Heel, forming a cage. The ops noticed that an unusual jamming signal sprouted up at the same moment, not cutting off contact with their navi entirely, but it would make jacking out impossible until they either escaped from the area or removed the source of the block.
A deep voice spoke to the Heel as a figure rose from the shadows behind him. "Like you had a choice."
The newly arrived navi was tall and heavily armored. A dark green helmet obscured his face and a plated crimson coat wrapped his bulky frame. A large cylindrical object was strapped to his back. There was something eerily familiar about him to Drill and Overdrive, but Shademan recognized something more important. "I was right, that's a Darkloid, and an unusually powerful one at that."
"You can tell that just by looking at him?" Overdrive asked incredulously.
"More from his scent, the energy he exudes. I know power like that all too well. I have possessed the same level of Darkness...after exceptionally satisfying feedings. I suspect the victims on your list were devoured by this Darkloid to increase his own strength. That would make capturing him a challenge."
As if confirming what Shademan surmised, the Darkloid approached the screaming Heel Navi, reached between the spires caging him, and tore it out by the neck. The comparatively small victim's struggles were quickly stopped as a black fog enveloped them and the Heel's energy was rapidly drained, leaving him a limp grey husk.
A Drill Missile suddenly erupted from the ground beneath the Darkloid's arm, separating him from his meal. Overdrive zoomed in to catch the Heel and carried him to safety as quickly as she appeared. Shademan sent a flock of bats to swarm the Darkloid while he was stunned, but he was more on-guard than they gave him credit for. He turned toward the fluttering creatures and with a wave of his hand, more black spires shot up from the ground beneath them, impaling the bats and removing the threat.
"You're too late, Drillman. That waste of filespace belongs to us now." The Darkloid spoke, his voice booming through his helmet.
Drillman popped up from the ground and converted back to normal mode. "So you know me and you're not surprised to see me. This was a trap after all?"
The Darkloid turned to Drillman and held up his hand again, creating several tall spikes between the two navis. "Not quite. We knew you were looking for us these last couple days, so I decided to give you the reunion you craved. Who knows when we'll get another chance with these interlopers showing up everywhere?"
"Reunion? Interlopers? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Soon, old friend. Bösergeist!" A spherical projectile launched from the Darkloid's hand and burst within the field of spires, causing them to rise from the ground and fly towards Drillman like missiles. Drill transformed to flight mode to avoid the spikes, but they tracked his movements and shot him down from the sky. His returning partner caught him and set him down to recover.
"I don't think he's kidding. That navi he drained is completely out of it. No consciousness, no PET signal." Overdrive explained.
"Crap. Well from the sound of things the lowlife was trying to score DarkChips, maybe he got what was coming to him." Drillman rationalized. "Not sure what to do here. If this guy is as tough as Shademan thinks, we might not be able to take him."
Overdrive couldn't think of running away when they were so close. "We need to find out if the same thing happened to the navis we're looking for, and then how to find and restore them, if possible. Next time don't try to dodge those spikes, just drill through them!"
"Uh, right. Easy for you to say." Drillman groaned and converted to flight-mode again.
Meanwhile, Shademan de-cloaked behind the Darkloid and attempted to give him a taste of his own medicine, but found his fangs to be useless against his target's armor. As the alerted Darkloid reached back to grab the vampire, Shade transformed into a bat in an attempt to escape. More spires began to sprout beneath him.
"Shademan of the Darklight Mercenaries...We've been waiting for you." The Darkloid spoke ominously. "Darklady may have slipped through Metal's oversized fingers, but I will not fail to bring you back into our fold."
"So you do have something to do with Darklady, fascinating. Pulsar3! WHEEE!" Reverting back to his normal form With a quick screech, Shademan launched a beam of sound that collided with one of the spikes and resonated between the rest of them, hitting the Darkloid from multiple angles.
"Your effort is as weak as your Dark Soul." The warrior scoffed at the attack while removing the object from his back and affixing it to his arm. "Surrender to us and reclaim your birthright!"