The noise of growling engines and skidding tires were the only sounds to break the silence in the sparsely decorated apartment with more dust coating the walls than furniture on the floor. Alia hadn't spared much time for cleaning lately. Every minute she had, she worked on her latest project. Her navi had lost track of how long they'd been working since Alia last slept and had long since given up on telling her to get some rest and start over in the morning. Ever since Darklady had run into the drill-armed Official, Alia had been working for as long as she could without sleep. It was unlikely that the location of the body her Navi had come to inhabit was high on the Official's priorities right now, but it didn't mean she wanted to be caught with evidence of breaking into government servers to investigate and replicate effects that appear to have been caused by one of the largest calamities the country had faced in a long time. Her poor treatment of previous navis would undoubtedly reflect poorly on her as well.
Though it hadn't all been for nothing. After days of work Alia had managed to turn a server isolated from the network she was using into a replica of the one she'd already lost a navi to. Almost. "It's decayed again, Alia." A tired voice called out from her PET. "It won't reboot either. Just like the last four times." Darklady had been studying the area from the inside while Alia continued her work, though she'd grown convinced they'd learned as much as they could from it.
Nonetheless, Alia replied as she had the last time this happened. "Reformat, re-upload the program, continue the investigation. I haven't worked this hard just to see all of this come to nothing." Darklady sighed as Alia Went back to her own task. "The environment has to be playing a part in this, Darklady." The operator said while she worked. Darklady wasn't sure exactly what Alia was doing. But she knew enough to be happy she didn't know more. "Let's call it the Corruption Program for now. It's what infected the last navi I sent into the government server, and very nearly could have killed you if you'd stayed in there, but the only thing I can work out is that it wasn't caused by Gamma. It was something else entirely, with Gamma's attack weakening the server enough to let it in."
She was interrupted when an ear-piercing scream came from the speakers of her computer. It shocked Darklady, but Alia merely turned the sound down and continued on. "I've been leaving my own version of the program around. Compatible only with Normal Navis, for testing purposes. But I don't have it right yet. What you just heard was a fatal error caused in a Navi that decided to activate the program. Serves him right for messing with something he found laying around on the net." Darklady nodded while she mentally added it to the list of crimes Alia had committed over this project.
"This all raises one question." Darklady said to her sleep-deprived operator. "Why? Shouldn't we just leave something like this alone?"
Alia shrugged her shoulders while she typed. "Probably. But nobody has researched this before. At least, not publicly. And there may be practical applications. If it's changing the Navi so fundamentally, then maybe we can add a control system and a battlechip to the code. Remotely controlled navis with powerful basic weapons. Even the Officials would pay well for a piece of that action."
Darklady rolled her eyes at her operator's explanation. "Right, and all you have to do is cause immense, possibly continuing suffering to a navi, wipe out its mind, and break pretty much every law regarding the use of DarkChips and mods every time you want to make one."
"You didn't say 'spend a lot of money' there, did you? That's why everyone would want something like this. Though I'm not entirely sure I intend to sell the plans to it. That'd be begging for the Officials to bust down the door. Have you got the server stable yet?" Alia asked Darklady, switching back to their original topic.
Darklady went about her initial inspection before replying. "The list of error messages is shorter than last time. That's probably a good sign." Before Alia could respond a blue light appeared before Darklady. It was no smaller than a fingernail, but there was no reason for it being there at all. "This is new..." Darklady said to herself. Green smoke slowly wafted from it as it pulsed lightly, like something was trying to push through.
Alia had already diverted her attention to the PET screen to try and figure out what Darklady had found. "Darklady. Jack out." Alia commanded. Her Navi was more than happy to oblige.
Without another word Alia began to run a backup program on the server. Whatever happened to it, she'd be able to restore it to this point and work on the strange blue light.
"What was that?" Darklady asked Alia, hoping she had some idea.
"Not a clue. But we'll find out before long. I'm going to get some sleep, you put out a Help Wanted ad on a BBS a few towns' networks over for a Normal Navi to assist in...server maintenance. I get the feeling we'll need someone to test this on, and you're slightly less expendable than my old navis."
"Such warm sentiments." Darklady responded before jacking into Alia's computer.
* * *
Darklady waved her hand, making her large battleaxe fade away. She wondered why there were so many viruses in such well-traveled areas, even if they were only the overly common trash. Darklady had grown to dislike these cyber-cafés. Whenever Alia sent her to one she felt like everyone was watching her. It didn't take a skilled navi or operator to tell that she was different. Even with the comical display of navis that could be found, the Cyberworld shared in the real world's disdain for difference. Alia had often commented in passing that it was just part of being human, and any world the humans made in their image would inherit it.
"There." Darklady said to herself as she looked over the post she'd made.
"Topic: HELP WANTED. Basic Navi needed to help with simple server maintenance. 1500Z pay for easy work. Enquire with Donna (Donna@ChipCollecters.com)"
Darklady wondered if lying about her identity to make it harder for the Officials to find her when they probably weren't looking yet was a crime too, but it hardly mattered at this point.
Darklady went to jack out, only to find that someone had put up a jamming signal. She kept facing the board as if she hadn't noticed yet. If the Officials were actually looking for her she was screwed already. How human she looked was uncommon even counting custom navis and Darkloids. In a cafe full of Normals, she might as well be standing under a spotlight.
"Cough up your Zenny and nobody gets deleted!" She heard from behind her.
"Just bandits." she laughed to herself, spinning around. Predictably, she found herself facing three generic Heel Navis standing in the center of the room. Two were purple, and the other a dull blue. They were the simple design with the slightly-pointed face and the scar over one of their eyes. She always found that scar funny. Rather than a mark of actual battle, it was a standard design feature to look intimidating. Now that she had the power to stand up to them, most things about them struck her as comical.
"More of you lot, eh?" She laughed, drawing their attention. "I never really got the point of you. Why do so many criminals use your model? I mean, seriously now. I've never seen one of you NOT breaking the law. Looking like that is the same as wearing an 'arrest me' sign on your back."
The blue navi turned to face her, his yellow eyes narrowing within his visor. "Think you're funny now do you!?" he said to her while his left hand reshaped into a blaster.
"I try, but you've got me outclassed on that front hands down. You've actually drawn a weapon in front of me! Either you're this place's hired entertainment or you're hoping there's a talent scout around." Darklady mocked.
"How dare you speak like that to me!?" The blue navi cried out. Darklady couldn't help but wonder if they were programmed to spurt generic lines or if it was just an effect of spending so much time around each other. "Boys! Show this bitch that we're serious. Call 'em out!"
Upon his orders, the two purple navis behind him finally began to move. They each held blue mystery data, which anyone could tell by now contained at least one virus. Right before they opened them, bats flew down and picked the crystals up. "Hey!" They called out in unison while the bats flapped about just outside their reach.
"Now, we've reached a predicament here." Darklady said to the enraged criminals, her voice growing more serious. "My operator isn't here right now. Which means no battlechips. That means, unfortunately for you, I've no way of fighting that won't completely destroy you. So I'm going to give you a chance to leave now before you spend your last short seconds damning the fact that you made it impossible to jack out."
The three looked at each other, and without speaking they ran at Darklady. She was almost happy they did. She'd been in a few small fights since she'd gotten her new body. It was more powerful than she ever could have hoped. Before they could reach her the two purple navis were crying out in pain. They were surrounded by bats, biting and clawing at them. The blue navi fired into the swarm of them, but there were just too many. When the screaming stopped, and the bats flew off into the sky to return to the dark place they were summoned from, there was nothing left of their victims.
"Damn you!" The blue criminal screamed raising his blaster to shoot at Darklady. What happened was too fast for him to understand. He never fired. He just felt pain and the cold metal of her axe where his arm was meant to be. He cried out as he fell to his knees, grasping the stump on his shoulder.
Darklady waved her axe away and picked up the severed blaster. "I warned you." She said to the blue navi. "I warned you to back off. And now your friends are dead. And over what? Pocket change?" Darklady raised the severed blaster arm to her fallen opponent's face. "But don't feel too bad. There was nothing you could have done to save them after the fight had started. And now, if only for a second before you die, that scar on your eye will actually mean something."
Without hesitating or showing any remorse for what she was about to do, Darklady sent the command to fire into the blaster. The energy from it scorched the armor from the scarred side of the navi's face, and was blasted backwards, smacking into the edge of the cafe and landing face first on the ground.
"Uuuuagh..." He moaned as Darklady tossed his arm back to him. His survival was nothing short of amazing to her. In a flash of purple light, he was gone.
"Guess he decided to cut his losses and take down the jamming after all." Darklady laughed. But as soon as she was finished talking, she could feel all the eyes in the cafe on her again. She was standing in the middle, with the patrons just watching her silently. No applause for the brave stranger that saved them, no congratulations. Just fear so present she could almost feel it radiating from every navi around her. She didn't bother reasoning with them. She just jacked out back to her PET. Darklady almost felt closer to Alia now. For all her shortcomings and questionable ethics, she was accepting. It was something Darklady was yet to find in anyone else.
* * *
The cloistered cyber-garden of Plantman.exe teemed with green life, beauty, and serenity. Its master smiled contentedly from within his makeshift inclined hammock of vines combining his own appendages and those of his surroundings. It had been a particularly quiet day, the perfect escape from the reality of Stuart's situation, a small-time drug dealer in hiding from a dangerous international cartel. It wasn't quite as planned, but the flower navi wasn't about to complain.
His operator, with nothing but a darkened basement lab to provide comfort, was not sitting so quietly. "Wasn't a client's navi supposed to be there today?"
Plantman answered without opening his eyes or getting up from his reclined position. "Yes, but no sign of him. You would think drug addicts would be better at keeping their appointments if their fix was on the line."
"Exactly. This is the fifth missing client this week. I do not like this pattern. It could mean Black Storm is getting closer." Stuart surmised, sounding understandably nervous.
"It could mean anything." His navi sighed, not wanting to work up as much concern just yet. "These dregs aren't the most stable customer base with the stuff they get into. Besides, even if they were captured or something, we made sure to set up our system so they couldn't track us without plenty of advanced warning. You're safe."
"Yeah, probably..." The young man tried to relax, but his attitude was betrayed as he drummed his fingers, removed his glasses to rub his eyes, and rolled from station to station in his chair for meaningless checks over the course of the next few minutes.
Plantman's eyes were still closed, but ignoring his operator's fidgeting was impossible. He sighed again. "Perhaps you want to use their e-mail addresses to track them down? Their messages may indicate whether something really happened to them or not."
Stuart snapped his fingers. "Now there's an idea." Within seconds he was at his computer peeking at the inboxes of his missing clients. Hacking into them was one of the first things he did when they became customers, just to make sure they weren't hiding anything that could threaten him. He rarely saw reason to check them a second time, but kept the cracked passwords on hand just in case.
"Recent activity...Looks like the op on this one is still active, but the navi is missing." Stuart moved onto the next inbox. "...Same thing with this guy. Hold on, that sender looks familiar..." After a couple minutes skimming the other inboxes and comparing them, Stuart slammed his fist down on the desk, finally jolting Plantman enough to open his eyes.
"Find something?" Plantman asked.
"Yeah, all five of these guys recently got a message from the same shady-looking source directing their navis to a certain spot on the net to conduct an illicit transaction..."
"You mean...besides from us?"
"Yes!" Stuart exclaimed, increasingly irritated. "But after that, no navi activity. These idiots are sending their navis into some kind of trap."
Plantman shrugged. "Well like I said, even if it's Black Storm, they can't trace us through our clients. They can learn the garden's location, but the garden will shut itself down if a substantial threat gets anywhere close. We don't have to do anything."
"I suppose..." Stuart stood up and adjusted his baseball cap with a smirk. "But what if we nipped this in the bud before anyone gets close? It would save us the trouble of having to relocate again."
"Oh no, what are you suggesting?"
The young criminal mastermind paced back and forth with anticipation. "We can use these messages to track down whoever has been trapping our clients' navis. Find out how much they know, possibly eliminate the witnesses, cover our tracks, prevent the loss of any more customers...seems like the only sensible course of action. Don't you think?" A sinister glint reflected off his glasses as he leaned into his PET with a smile.
"You're just bored, aren't you?" Plantman guessed, despondently.
"I'm sending you the coordinates. Use stealth tactics."
"Well, it was a nice, quiet day while it lasted." Plantman groaned as the vines lifted him back to his feet.
* * *
Hoshiko walked briskly into the Official HQ offices with Flamechick's PET tucked into her carrying bag, swinging back and forth with every step. For the first time in days, going in to work didn't fill her with dread or intimidation. She now had a purpose, direction, and someone she could trust on the inside. She finally felt like she was in the right place, for the first time in ages.
It was unreal running into Samuel Darklight again after all that time, the man that came to her rescue back when her relationship with the WWW first went south. He instantly knew to help her maintain her cover story, lifting a huge weight off her shoulders. Putting the past behind her allowed her focus on her new problems, such as the new navi that supposedly had the memories of her beloved original navi sealed inside it, and the powerful Darkloids responsible for that carrying a grudge against her new friends and potentially posing some kind of large-scale threat to the entire Cyberworld. If anything, she could congratulate herself for getting out of one frying pan and into another fire.
Speaking of fire, she pulled out her PET to check in with the navi she'd found herself saddled with. With IceChan, they would have been chatting the entire way to work, but Flamechick was not quite as engaging. She was standing at attention toward the screen when Hoshiko looked at it. It seemed like the masked navi had been standing like that since they left the house. It was somewhat unnerving. Hoshiko couldn't understand how the merging of IceChan's lighthearted and outspoken personality with Flameman's violent perversion had resulted in such an emotionless shell. It just made her feel that the sooner she could restore IceChan to normal, the better.
"So...Flame. Which room was I supposed to report to again?" Hoshiko asked, forcing a smile.
"Network Server Room D, miss Hoshiko. Anything else?" Flamechick answered, with the mask hiding her mouth, the image on screen didn't appear to move at all as she spoke.
"Hm...in a minute, I suppose."
She kept the PET in her hand as she made her way up the stairs, following the directory to a cooled room on the third floor filled with loudly humming computers. There was one other person in the room waiting for her, with his PET hooked up to one of the machines with a monitor displaying an area in the Cyberworld. It was one of the Officials she had met the previous day. Moe, the young man with the brown jacket, black hair, and half a purple face. He gave Hoshiko a nod and a smile as he noticed her come in. "'Morning. Ready to get to work?"
"Good morning! Yeah..." The girl looked around the cluttered server room for a moment then back at Moe. "Are Sam and Tricia here?"
"Darklight is off researching the Darkloid problem on his own. He was pretty annoyed I didn't tell him about the Hybrid aspect sooner, since it's apparently opened up a floodgate of possibilities for him to look into. Tricia is looking after her navi, who's still in a pretty messed up state. Today, it's just you and me."
"Oh. Okay." Hoshiko tried to hide her disappointment. She was actually looking forward to spending more time with Samuel, though of course she couldn't explain why to Moe, who took the look in a different way anyway.
"Relax, I'm not that bad."
Hoshiko got a little embarrassed. "Ah, I didn't mean-"
Moe continued, cutting her off. "I know you're new around here. Truth is so am I, and I know how frustrating it can get having to watch yourself to the superiors. Normally, neither of us would be out and about on a mission like this without a senior officer like Tricia to babysit us, but we've landed in a special situation due to the nature of our navis and our involvement in the case...I say count ourselves lucky."
"Haha, yeah." she agreed shiftily, going along with it. She was suddenly on guard again. Another reason she hoped Darklight would be around was so she could be herself instead of the uneasy façade she had to keep up around the other Officials. "So I guess we're headed back to the Undernet to track down those Darkloids?"
Now it was Moe's turn to look a little uneasy. "Actually no...We're following a different lead today. Sightings of highly-organized navi-sized chess pieces moving about a network in Malwaukee."
"What does that have to do with the Darkloids?"
"This is...a different case. One I've been working on since before the Darkloid thing came along. I'm after a net criminal by the name of Sam Jeffries, a.k.a: Blackbelt, and his navi is a chess-themed fighter."
Hoshiko looked confused. "Oh...I thought..."
Again, Moe decided to cut her off. "Yeah, I know, sorry. We have good reasons for putting the Darkloid case to the side though. For starters, we're short-handed on netbattlers that stand a chance against the Darkloids if we encounter them. Just Drillman and Flamechick against the likes of Dark Bowlman and Desertman would end badly for us. We need a little more time to prepare for that encounter. Hopefully we can get Overdrive back soon enough, as well as some other top-level Officials to back us up."
"I guess you're right. To be honest, I'm not even sure what Flamechick can do in battle yet..."
"That would be reason number two. You need a more manageable field mission with your new navi under your belt to start off, get accustomed to her abilities and response. Reason number three is more of a stretch, so you'll have to take my word for it, but I...have a hunch...that apprehending Blackbelt could lead us closer to solving the Darkloid problem. Blackbelt knows a thing or two about Darkloids himself, and may actually be tied into this whole mess. At any rate, I haven't gotten many leads like this in months about Blackbelt's location. I really think it's worth checking it out while I can."
"Well, okay. We're partners now, so your mission is my mission! Jack in, Flamechick!" Hoshiko plugged her PET into the same console as Moe's, sending Flamechick into the Official relay network where Drillman was waiting for her.
Drillman waved at Flamechick as she materialized, but she ignored him at first and addressed Moe directly through the monitor. "I heard your briefing, Mr. Fortis. Are we to understand that this criminal that has eluded you for several months and is known for using chess-themed resources, may now be using his chess-themed resources in a way that can be easily tracked?"
Moe glanced back and forth at her and the others. "Well, we don't know for sure that it's him, but that's what we're going to investigate. In either case, it sounds like the one commanding the chess pieces is disturbing the peace, so we'll still likely have a battle on our hands."
"Yes, but if this is your Blackbelt, then the circumstances are quite suspicious. It could be the setup for a trap."
"Right. That occurred to me, Flamechick. Let's just say it's the kind of trap I have to walk into though."
Hoshiko laughed nervously. "Sorry about her. She's been kind of like that with me too."
"It's alright. It's a valid concern. Drill has the coordinates, let's move out."
* * *