The cyberworld front of the data archives of the Official Netbattlers' Headquarters in Rom was a towering structure representing all the information coming through western Netopia's various law enforcement divisions. This central server acted as the primary access point for evidence, research, reports, everything that went onto the organization's encrypted network of classified data. Everything was backed up regularly and many of the older files had to be removed and transferred to offline storage facilities, so the area was constantly active with progs and worker navis moving the data around. The main structure of the library was a wide cobalt spiral walkway that wrapped around the massive silo, fading out of view both above and below into the blue glow of the compression cards that formed the walls of the endless cylinder. Orange bridges spanned the circular chasm between the main walkway, connecting to a cluster of teleporters climbing the center of the shaft to quickly connect the workers to the other levels as well to the outside.
One of the exterior links on the 2053rd level activated, confirming the security clearance of the navi seeking entry. A blue-grey normal navi emerged, adorned in the visor of the Officials' signature customization style, carrying a purple data crystal. He walked briskly down the connecting bridge to the main walkway and the slats of glass-like data files hovering on the other side like rows of books in an invisible shelf. He approached the nearest prog, depositing the crystal into the flapper-like hands sticking out the top of its small green body. "New information on the Darkloid Metalman." The carrier navi explained brusquely. "Please send a copy of this to the field team assigned to case file X3-501-003 and arrange the data accordingly."
"OH, IS THIS FROM A DIFFERENT CASE?" The prog asked robotically while converting the data crystal's contents to card form.
"Not that I know of. The Official that sent me only indicated that this would be relevant to that case. I don't know what they were working on otherwise."
"FILE X3-501-003 HAS ALREADY BEEN MERGED WITH FILE X3-501-001. IT SEEMS LIKE DIFFERENT INCIDENTS IN THAT AREA ARE ALIGNING. THIS IS GOOD NEWS FOR THE INVESTIGATION!"
The prog floated over to the wall with the data card, inserting it next to others that glowed in unison to indicate their shared grouping. No sooner had it done this, than an unseen electric blade vertically cleaved the innocent program. The two halves faded away in deletion before they hit the ground.
The carrier navi leapt back in alarm. "What the hell was that!? Urgk!" He then collapsed with purple smoke seeping out of his helmet. Mistman and Flashman decloaked.
"We were supposed to wait for the main attack." The freshly restored Mistman chided his temporary partner.
"It won't matter." Flashman shrugged and started taking the cards the prog was focused on. "It's Smith's clearance that got us through so it's not like it's your boss' problem if they find out. They're not going to anyway because of convenient timing."
As if on cue, a loud alarm blared through the archive, capturing the attention of all the workers. A portion of the teleporter column exploded and four navis flew out of the flames in separate directions, immediately setting their destructive powers on the data files on all sides. The workers scrambled in panic as the invaders cut a wide swath of annihilation throughout their precious databanks.
"There. We're now a part of the big noisy thing." Flashman droned dismissively. "Now just do your smokescreen thing while I handle the data."
Mistman sighed. "I finally get brought out of that dungeon and all so I can be the decoy. I have a feeling this is where it ends for me."
"Yeesh, lighten up!" The voice of the Jester mocked as the hammer-wielding clown bounded across the walkway, smashing several rows of cards along the way.
Flashman grumbled. "I still really hate that guy..."
Security forces poured through the remaining teleporters almost immediately. Executioner, the slowest and most heavily armored of the invaders met them head-on, giving Dragoon and Archer time to cause as much damage as possible behind him. As powerful as Blackbelt's navis were, they knew that the four of them wouldn't be able to lay siege to an Official stronghold alone. Fortunately, they wouldn't have to be alone for long. They only needed to play their roles per their master's plan. "Onward, brothers! For Vengeance!" Executioner roared fervently as he mowed down security navis with his axe, the bullets from their guns bouncing off his plate mail and leaving a growing layer of dents in their wake.
Dragoon swooped overhead, dropping a handfull of bombs on the forces behind Executioner. "Sure you got them all covered down there?" He called out with a slight modicum of genuine concern.
"They are nothing to me! Perform your own task!" Executioner answered indignantly.
"Like I don't have time to spare anyway." The winged demon laughed with boisterous confidence and streaked off towards the datafiles, cutting through them as he flew.
Archer stood perched on a section of bridge with the path back to the teleporters blown away. His bow fired rapidly, each arrow taking out a different card or worker at a rate of about twenty targets per second. "There's not a lot of challenge in aiming with this job. I wish the real competition would hurry up and get here." The diminutive sharpshooter idly complained.
Momentarily unnoticed by any of the attackers, one navi managed to crawl away amongst the confusion of running and screaming workers. Holding on by a thread of his life, with purple mist still clouding his vision, the same navi that inadvertently led the thieves to their target sought to make his escape, or at least contact his superior. "C-come in...come in Spuh...Spi...data...com...compromis...come in..." The poison spreading through his body caused him to crawl slower and slower. Even Archer's keen senses didn't notice it as movement.
Then the Jester appeared next to him. "Oh, hey there, buddy! Trying to get somewhere?" He looked in the direction the courier was dragging himself. "Oh, you're trying to reach the exit. Well, it's pretty far away. You'll never make it at this rate. Here, let me help you out!" Holding his hammer like a croquet mallet, suddenly wound back and hit the dying navi with enough force to send his body flying towards the teleporters and hit one hard enough to break it free from the platform. Pieces of the navi's armor and chunks of debris plummeted into the abyss together. "You're welcome!" Jester shouted across the chasm.
As Jester laughed, another navi that had appeared from the teleporters flew in and landed behind him. "...Hey. That navi you just deleted was an associate of mine." A stern voice said accusingly.
"Oh yeah, and what's yer point?" Jester sneered as he turned around to intimidate the other navi, only to find himself facing a pair of knees. He suddenly stopped laughing and slowly panned his eyes upward. Taking note of the navi's bulky metallic armor, massive steel fists, sawblade shoulders, and finally the hard glare piercing from a humourless dark face. Jester had to crane his neck in order to meet the other's gaze.
Jester took off running, but Metalman caught him between his thumb and forefinger before he got five steps away. "You and your friends are going to pay for the damage you caused today." The revived Net Guardian rasped at his squirming prey before holding out his other hand to block an arrow that came streaking at him from the side.
Archer smiled. "That's what I'm talking about." He pulled an arrow with jagged fletching from his quiver and loaded it into his bow. He shot at the new arrival again, and this time the arrow exploded when Metalman blocked it. Before the smoke cleared, an irate and smouldering Jester could be seen hot-footing it away from the blast zone as fast as he could. When the smoke did clear, an undamaged Metalman could be seen glowering straight at Archer.
"At least that got you attention." Archer leapt to another bridge while firing more explosive arrows at his new target. Metalman launched himself into the air with his rockets and weaved around the shots, aiming for the cloaked sniper. A cluster of missiled launched from Metalman's back as he flew, forcing Archer to execute some evasive maneuvers of his own.
The missiles weren't all wasted though, as a few veered away from Archer towards Dragoon and Executioner, each finding their marks on the unsuspecting invaders. The momentary distraction was enough to let some of the regular security navis gain the upper hand on Executioner and make it past him to start firing on the others. "Gah! What happened!? Did one navi really just turn the tides on us?" An enraged Executioner seethed.
Dragoon shook off the missile hit just in time to dodge gunfire from the growing number of security forces. "Huh. Well that doesn't just go for them..."
Just as Metalman and the security navis started to get things under control, another cluster of teleporters exploded and a new navi emerged. Hovering high above the others, crackling with an electrical aura, bearing an otherwise unremarkable appearance of a lean, muscular humanoid body in a simple white bodysuit. Blackbelt's navis all saluted the new arrival. Flashman and Mistman had a different reaction, the former's being curiosity and the latter's was overbearing awe.
"Uh...should I know who the new guy is?" Flashman asked, suddenly reminded about an unbelievably strong, giant-killing, white-clad navi from Desertman and Bubbleman in the later days of the Acid Hackers.
Mistman nodded, wide eyes fixed on the shining navi. "Vengeance.exe. Blackbelt's counter for Bass...Though I had left the battlefield, I returned to the sidelines in time to observe that navi in action in the battle for the last Gamma Piece. It was drained back then. Blackbelt must have been rebuilding it since. I can't believe I forgot about it."
Vengeance stayed suspended in the air for several seconds, opening and closing his hands and tilting his neck from side to side. He appeared to be limbering up after being on the sidelines for so long. He also appeared to be laughing slightly, already displaying more emotion than the work-in-progress shell Mist remembered from that earlier battle. With one more stretch of his limbs, Vengeance suddenly burst through the air like a comet, crashing through datafiles and security forces at untraceable speed and in an unrecognizable pattern. All at once, Blackbelt's forces were back on the offensive.
Metalman abandoned his grudge with Archer to focus on this new threat. He launched his Metal Blades in a wide arc, hoping to at least capture the attention of the zipping dynamo. Vengeance didn't seem interested in the sawblades, which missed him by a mile, so Metalman tried again with a more accurate weapon. A Magnum cannon from his operator appeared in his arm and with well-honed reflexes, he centered the gun's targeting system on the white navi and sent it reeling for a moment. A split-second later, Metalman was sent hurtling back from a sharp uppercut to his jaw. Vengeance was now hovering in front of him with his fists held high and a crazed bloodlust in his eyes.
"You shouldn't even be here! What are you now?" Vengeance interrogated Metalman while continuing to assault him with a flurry of kicks and punches.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about." Metalman answered calmly while grabbing Vengeance's kicking foot in one of his vice-like hands. "Should I know you?"
"The whole net will know me soon enough." Vengeance cackled and twisted his body, heedless of any pain caused by Metalman's crushing grip, and stabbed a sword chip through the larger navi's wrist, forcing him to let go. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm more than an ordinary navi!"
* * *
"Hey, is anyone else hearing that alarm?" Drillman asked the rest of his team as they fruitlessly searched the area that had once been Dark Bubbleman's territory for any sign of the lost Darklady.
Moe answered his navi with uncertain dread. "It's out here in the command center. I've never heard an alert like that before."
Tricia analyzed the status feeds on a nearby workstation. "It means the home network is under attack! Some hackers are hitting the data archives."
"Ehh? Who's crazy enough to attack the Officials on their own turf?" Hoshiko exclaimed in disbelief.
Overdrive clenched her fist in anticipation. "Time to jack out everybod--urgent." She teleported away as abruptly as her new speech pattern.
Magister took the news badly. "What? I thought we were doing something important already! You can't keep bailing on me like this!" She fidgeted impatiently, drawing a pitying look from Drillman and a critical stare from Flamechick.
"Just go home for now. This search was getting us nowhere anyway. I promise we'll contact you when we're ready to resume." Drillman tried to smooth things over.
"No! Don't just give up! Look, there are Officials all over the place there already, right? They can manage without you." Magister complained. The orb at the end of her staff glowed as she prepared to cast another spell.
"Well...maybe you have a point..." Drillman shrugged. "This could be our only chance to find Darklady..."
"I've seen enough." Flamechick pulled down the mouthpiece of her mask. She spat out a HeatSide shot she had stocked from the last virus battle, hitting Magister's staff dead-on and sending the shocked spellcaster reeling with the accompanying small explosion. "Drillman, we need to jack out now."
"Woah! That was a little uncalled for!" Drillman exclaimed, and bewildered by his teammate's actions as her target.
Flamechick's own operator mirrored the sentiment. "I didn't tell her to do that! Maybe...maybe she's still corrupted somehow?"
"Ignore her. She is deliberately delaying us. We need to attend the alarm with Overdrive." Flamechick explained calmly.
"How DARE YOU!" The recovering Magister screamed with rage. She leveled her staff threateningly at Flamechick, but her target teleported away before an attack spell could be cast. She then turned to the confused Drillman. "You'll stay, won't you? You trust me?"
Drillman was frozen. He felt like he was going to get in trouble one way or the other. "I...I...Duty calls!" With that, he jacked out as well.
"FFFffff-!!" Magister trembled with a mixture of frustration and fear. "I'm going to get blamed for this if something goes wrong!"
Then, the air around her seemed to cool in an instant as her mood shifted to calm amivalence. "Oh well, that was fun while it lasted. Probably doesn't matter any more anyway." She then began to draw a circle of light in the air with her glowing staff. "Woop! Wara wara! Return!" The closed circle flashed for a moment and revealed a portal to another system. The blue witch then stepped through the hole with little care or concern, despite the fact the world she now occupied was a war zone filled with flying artillery and energy bullets and the screams of panicked victims. The portal closed behind her, but not before something else slipped through the narrowing opening unnoticed by its creator.
Magister was now in the Officials' data archive. She looked up to see Vengeance and Metalman grappling in the sky while the diminishing force of security navis were whittled down by Archer, Dragoon, and Executioner. She beheld this scene with quiet interest, as if it were everything she expected to see. The Jester appeared from behind some shattered infrastructure and bounced up to her while waving excitedly.
"Heeyyy! What's a nice girl like you doing in a nasty place like this?"
"Can it, Jester." Magister rasped, flipping him off.
The clown just snickered. "So you being here means you failed in the one thing you were supposed to do, right?"
"NO!" The bipedal girl yelped defensively. "There was nothing I could do, their operators were already in the building! Besides, we're all done hiding in the shadows, aren't we? There's no point in wasting my talents leading them on a wild goose chase any more."
"Well when they jack in, I'm sure you won't mind handling them all yourself then. Toodles!" Jester then zipped away, cackling like a loon.
"As a matter of fact, no, I wouldn't mind that at all." Magister whispered with a sadistic grin, clenching her staff, whose orb began to glow bright red. "This whole ordeal has gone on long enough. I want to put an end to it!"