Annihilation

Reasons

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The imposing scene was being displayed in full detail on the large monitor on the far wall of the room where the Official operators gathered. Many of the same agents that just came away from their defeat in the archives were rushing into the room after hearing the latest alert. They could scarcely believe what they were seeing. Moe and Tricia were already loading chips to defend against the approaching army as more officers found a spot to jack in and send their own navis to join the fray. Hoshiko remained hooked in alongside Moe and Tricia, but with her navi not responding to commands, she could only sit, watch helplessly, and reflect on how things came to this.

"I shouldn't have used that darkchip. That's how they got her..." She muttered dishearteningly.

"Would it make you feel better if this happened even if you didn't?" Tricia asked without removing her focus from her PET.

"...No."

"That's because it's not your fault. Reserve your hatred for Blackbelt, not yourself!"

Moe was racked with frustration. "How did Blackbelt even pull this off? How did the Darkloids go from a sinister hidden force of their own to overt puppets so suddenly?"

"The Gamma incident..." Darklight blurted out. It was at that point the others noticed he was right behind them.

"How long have you been standing there?" asked Tricia.

"Just got in. I've been following the situation though and thinking about how it lines up with what we've already seen, and I think I've figured it out."

"What did you say about the Gamma incident?" Moe asked with piqued interest.

As he spoke, Darklight was also monitoring his PET, and making sure his audio feed was being sent to Alia, since he knew she would want to be up to speed. "There was a point when you guys were fighting Gamma when Blackbelt did something crazy...one of the crazier things that should have clued you into what he was really like. He sent an army of blank slate navis loaded with darkchips onto the battlefield to get consumed by Gamma. It was a trojan horse tactic to get Gamma to corrupt itself by absorbing all the negative after-effects of darkchips without the risky benefits. I've been looking into that event because I believe that's how our targets came to be. Flameman, Desertman, Bowlman, Bubbleman, and Metalman were absorbed by Gamma too, and when they came out at the end, they took some of that darkchip sickness with them, mutating into a new type of Darkloid."

Moe started to catch up to the train of thought. "So...if the Darkloids originated from all those navis that Blackbelt was controlling, then more of those navis' programming could have been passed on by the same process?"

Darklight nodded. "It fits together. Blackbelt would have had to have a system in place to direct mass amounts of navis simultaneously. It's a system similar to what Kingman -- and this Queen too, from the looks of it -- use to control objects and chess pieces."

"Blackbelt also stole the designs and drivers for the Officials' prototype PET suit...I thought he just did it to control Vengeance, but those drivers could have had other applications for controlling navi movements." Moe added.

Darklight continued. "So Blackbelt's trojan horse pawns pass on a back door for exterior navi control to the Darkloids. The Darkloids make darkchips and distribute them across the net for their own purposes, unwittingly spreading the back door to everything they touch. Blackbelt realizes the potential for a widespread takeover and prepares to exploit the back door while covertly helping the Darkloids reach their ends. The final thing he needed was my own research on the Darkloids, and he tried to get it in a way that stopped us from turning that information around on him."

"He failed though, right?" Hoshiko looked up. She had a feeling seeing Darklight again would lift her spirits. "We know everything. We can use that knowledge to beat him!"

Tricia shook her head. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Knowing how he did it doesn't give us a clear path how to stop it."

"Flashman mentioned a server would take over." Moe recalled. "Could he have meant the Vengeance server?"

"That's the storage Vengeance uses instead of a PET, hm?" Darklight pondered. "That navi isn't present along with Blackbelt's other forces right now, it was probably drained when it destroyed the archive. Blackbelt could have switched the same server over to handling control over the Darkloids. If those same systems he used on Vengeance are what he's using to coordinate his new army, it makes sense."

"Then if we can find the server, we can shut it down and get things back to normal...even if normal means the Darkloids are back to causing their own brand of trouble again." Tricia assessed.

"Get some of the other guys on that. Those of us with navis on the ground should concentrate on beating up the dark zombies." A young man with spiked hair chimed in from the console next to theirs. He was operating a brown and orange PET.

"And why is that...uh...do we know you?" Tricia turned to the new guy, confused.

He returned a cocky grin. "Name's Cheng Ming Sho! I'm Beastman's operator. When I found out we were teaming up with the Officials, I rushed down to get in on the ground floor. We need to be as coordinated as possible, right?"

"Since when did we 'team up'?" Moe retorted. "If anything, you need to get Beastman out of our way!"

"Well...he and Plant are doing pretty well against the enemy..." Tricia wavered. "Can we trust the Acid Hackers though?"

Shou shrugged. "You're asking the wrong guy. I'm not affiliated with them. I'm just a man that fights for justice!"

Moe maintained his suspicion. "So I guess Plantman's operator fights for justice now too?"

"Sure, why not?" Shou smiled.

Moe gave up. "Whatever. Just don't touch anything while you're here. So why do you think we should keep fighting in this scenario when the odds are clearly stacked against us?"

"Because there might be a way to free Bubbleman and the others right here and now." The presumptuous proposed. "They might have relapsed, but they were freed before, right?"

"The situation is different, but he may be right." Darklight admitted. "However much it mutated since then, Blackbelt's program was originally intended for mindless shells of navis. Our navis' individual minds may still be able to break it."

Hoshiko stood up, her spirit returned. "What are we waiting for, then? Let's knock some sense into them!"

* * *

Despite their operators' enthusiasm, the navis were unsure of their chances of success as well as their chances of survival. Drill clashed rock-breaking blows with a berserk Metalman in the air. overdrive's sword parried Darklady's axe between dodging her shifting elemental attacks. Plantman was stuck doing everything he could do avoid Flamechick's burning touch. Beastman tackled the screeching Shademan, who was definitely back in full fighting form. Burstgirl tearily defended against Bubbleman's relentless Bubble Parade with her own bubbles, but her non-offensive variety were losing ground to her fallen counterpart. All the while, Dark Bowlman lashed out everywhere with his Pin Cannon, exhibiting all of his power with none of the intelligence. All around them, less-customized navis swarmed in like dangling marionettes, but were engaged by incoming Official navis rushing in to join the counter-offensive, as well as the more arrogant Heel navis of the Undernet eager for a fight. The Queen's challenge had drawn a sizable crowd, and the perimeter of the castle had turned into a chaotic melee much to her entertainment. As Flashman promised, there was at least no interference from him, Mistman, or the Children of Vengeance. They merely spread out along the sidelines and watched the spectacle with bemused looks, completely confident that the ghost army would do its job.

Two unusual navis blew past the line to tackle Bowlman. One was a shadowy figure in a green cloak, the other was an unusually burly Heel navi with multiple spikes adorning his armor. "Yeah, I thought that was you, traitor!" The spiky navi growled at the unresponsive Bowlman. "Used to be Rank 2, now you're working for someone who thinks they can disrespect the Ranking altogether?"

"My friend and I just became Ranks 10 and 9, respectively." The cloaked navi rasped. "We're not letting go of our power any time soon, so anyone that wants a piece of the Undernet has to contend with us!" He threw a virus bomb directly at Bowl's face to make his point. An assortment of Elebees, Spidies, and Champles emerged to attack Bowlman and any other darkened navis in the vicinity. The spiky navi joined in by repeatedly and fiercely punching the large Darkloid.

Bowlman said nothing and showed no signs of pain at the assault. He effortlessly brished the spider viruses away and grabbed the Rank 10 navi's head, holding him at arm's length while he cursed and sputtered. The Rank 9 navi floated around shooting Mega Cannons at Bowl until he found himself surrounded by bubbles and yelling indignantly until Bubbleman's relentless urchin bombs uncerimoniously finished him off. Bowlman finished the other navi by tearing his limbs off and crushing his head in his grip. As their bodies disintegrated and turned to sparkling data fragments, the pixels could be seen to veer towards the castle in a pattern as if picked up by the wind. The Ranked navis' remains joined data streams of other navis falling at the hands of the Queen's army, as well as dimmer pixels belonging to the mindless soldiers of the same that the opposition managed to destroy. Light and dark pixels flowed together towards the bottom of the castle, where the black tendrils seemed to grab them all up and absorb them into the obsidian base. As the battle continued, more navis would emerge from the base to fight for Blackbelt's forces, and some of them resembled the navis that had fallen against them.

"This is looking more and more like a bad idea!" Drillman confessed to Overdrive as he drew fire from Darklady, trading Metalman to Plant's vines as Over grappled with a mad Flamechick. "How are we supposed to rescue these guys? I'm not even sure it's really them."

"There's definitely something...weirdly artificial about them." said Plantman while he tried to keep Metalman in place with his PlantWeed. "This guy feels...softer than he should be."

Overdrive slashed swiftly at Flamechick with her new sword, cutting her to pieces that disappeared and returned to the castle for immediate regeneration. "They might just be holograms of some kind. This is a waste of time! They keep adding to their number as they take from ours!"

Burstgirl wasn't ready to give up. She couldn't stand to see those that helped her being used so callously. Fortunately for her, she noticed the ghost navis began to pay less attention to her once the backup from the Officials and Underdwellers showed up. Part of the ghosts' simplified enforcer programming must have included an algorithm for prioritizing threats, and since she was the only one on the battlefield that wasn't fighting back, she was momentarily invisible to them. She took advantage of the relative safety to take flight and seek out Bubbleman. She found him hovering near the back line, merely directing his limitless Bubble Parade against the resistance with the blank expression shared by all the other navis that had been rendered shadows of their former selves that day. She stopped in front of him and looked into his empty eyes with calm determination. He still didn't seem to notice her or change the course of his bubbles.

"I know you're still in there. They're trying to hide it, but you're there." She spoke softly. She was looking past his eyes now, searching for the soul hidden within. "They can't control you like this. You won your freedom already, remember?"

There was still no reaction. Burst leaned in closer and took Bubble's hands in hers. "You guys said it was me that saved you last time. I still don't know how that happened, but if I can do it again, I will." She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head, closing her eyes in concentration. "No...there's no 'if'. I'll make it happen. It's all I can do, so I'm willing it to happen. You're corrupted, but I'm incorruptible." She squeezed his hands harder. "I will take your illness and give you my health. We can do it!"

There was a twitch. Somewhere beyond the hollow shell she grasped, the real Bubbleman was struggling against the foreign programming that manipulated him. Burstgirl's presence was enough to weaken the influence of dark power, her words were enough to remind what was left of Bubble's mind of his need for independence, her spirit was enough to force a spark of defiance through the oppressive hive mind that governed Blackbelt's new slaves, and her touch was enough to awaken Bubbleman's desire to be there by her side.

The Bubble Parade began to die off. With the chaos of everything else going on, it wasn't noticed right away by the other participants of the battle. Queen Majesty however, from her vantage point and her attentive viewing of the tide of battle, picked up on the drop in bubbles first; she was unsatisfied. "Where is that Bubbleman Darkloid? It appears to be slacking off on its duty." She hissed disapprovingly.

"Probably hiding, knowing who he was before." Kingman commented with detachment. "I could have told you some of these navis weren't the most reliable templates for a royal guard."

"Hmph. That will not do, especially from a weapon with such effective crowd control. Let us instill some proper discipline, shall we?"

Blackbelt received the message and checked the server from his side. With a series of mouse clicks, he accessed the program for Bubbleman.exe and initiated a reboot. Any remnant of individuality would be wiped and replaced with his own programming. Satisfied with the troubleshoot, he returned to monitoring the battle. He now had a lot more navis to keep track of, after all. The process wasn't instantaneous though. For a brief moment, the conflict between Bubbleman's imprisoned mind and Blackbelt's dark override hit a fierce crescendo. Whatever else he was, Bubbleman was an autonavi first, and that part of his program refused to be controlled by any outside force.

The command caused the ghostly avatar of Bubbleman to seize, twitch, and cease floating. The attentive Burstgirl was still holding onto his hands and wouldn't let him fall, but made a cushion of bubbles to help keep him aloft all the same. She wasn't sure what was wrong with him, but she knew it was a crucial moment. She concentrated harder on reaching his soul and repelling the darkness. "You are going to beat them! I am with you, and we are stronger than this! We don't need operators, or monarchs, or whatever kind of...of demonic possession it is you're dealing with now. We are our own navis, and if I can reject the darkness, then I believe you can too! Come back!"

"....Bluh....bluh...." The ghost sputtered. It was the first vocal sound any of them had made since they emerged from the castle. Deep down, Bubbleman was fighting harder than he ever had before, and he was only dimly aware of it. His mind was locked away but his soul struggled with a hero's instinct. The forced reboot was weakening the body but his original programming kept it from completing its operation. Meanwhile, the inner balance of light and dark was in a state of violent upheaval. Burstgirl's influence was repellent to dark power by virtue of her pure hearted nature and possibly something in her that was even more exotic than the mutant array of negative emotions that formed the Dark Soul. At the same time, Bubbleman's own karma fluctuated between the hateful sins of his past and the newfound love that threatened to alter his entire outlook on life. The essence of darkness that was already under siege within Bubbleman had to decide whether such a soul was even worth keeping in its grasp. Even still, another force pulled at the darkness from beyond, close to tipping the scales.

Burstgirl heard him stuggling to make words and was greatly encouraged. "That's it, speak! Prove you're you! Tell me your name!"

"Blu...bluh!" The purple image of the scuba hamster was shaking and flickering harder than ever now. Then for a split second, Burst caught a glimpse of life in the eyes behind his diving visor. There was an unexpected shock through the Vengeance server that caused every other navi in the ghost army to freeze for the same instant before ripping their attention away from their individual battles and towards the anomaly in the back line. He spoke. "Bubbleman...blub."

Burstgirl's grip slipped as the phantom Bubbleman vanished in a spray of pixels. Before she could panic though, a clump of them remained in place and rather than return to the castle like the remains of the other fallen, a stream of pixels emerged from the castle base and joined with that clump while the black tendrils reached out and groped fruitlessly at the trail as if trying to stop them. The spots of light swirled and re-merged as the form of Bubbleman, in his original colors, and sporting his familiar sour demeanor. "How the blub did I get up here?" He voiced in genuine confusion.

"You had a little relapse, that's all." Burstgirl said with a relieved smile. "Welcome back."

"Oh blub...I remember...we were trying to get away from the Darkloid lair...and then something called me and I had to answer even though I really wanted to tell it to blub off. Why the blub did I answer it? Never shoulda touched this-" He began patting around his diving suit with concern. "Hey, where did my DarkWrap chip go!?"

"Weren't you just about to say you shouldn't even touch it?" Burst crossed her arms and gave him a teasing side-eye. "Just be glad it's gone."

Bubble continued looking around for his darkchip, slightly embarrassed. "Y-yeah, but...blub...uh...I wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands!" He looked up to see Burstgirl's raised eyebrow. "...Uh...Well...Yeah, it's probably for the best...blub." Then he saw past her. "Wait, who are they?"

A large contingent of the dark ghosts had begun converging ominously on the pair. There was no longer any ambiguity over the threat level. The bubble navis had to die. With the castle still reaching out behind them and an army bearing down on them, they had nowhere to run. That was until Drillman popped up behind them and pulled them into one of his wormholes. He dropped them off on the other side of the mass, regrouping with Overdrive, Plantman, and Beastman. Their opponents had momentarily abandoned them to chase Bubble and Burst, and that group was already turning around to seek them out again but the Officials and Underdwellers were now ready to attempt to hold the line. The two small teams to already face the Darkloids directly found cover among the rubble left behind from the castle's incursion and took advantage of the brief reprieve to converse.

"Good to have you back to normal again, Bubs." Beastman greeted. "I'm getting tired of seeing you as a demonic puppet thing. It really doesn't suit you."

"Did that seriously happen again!?" Bubbleman was reeling with the influx of new, unsettling information. For that matter, he noticed the Officials. "And what the blub are they doing here!?"

Overdrive glanced back at the monstrous army that was still converging on them. She took a deep breath. "So, Blackbelt. Remember him? He tapped into a hidden control program part of the darkness you and the other Gamma-eaten guys took up and spread around. The Darkloids and everyone they corrupted merged in Blackbelt's server, creating that evil floating castle and phantom versions of themselves to protect it. You broke away from it somehow and it doesn't look like they're happy about that. Also Drill and I are here as Officials to shut this down which is a good thing as far as you're concerned so we're on the same side for now. Got it?"

"Couldn't have summed it up better...or faster." Plantman acknowledged.

"Oh...okay, blub." Bubbleman shrugged.

"It would really help if we could reverse the takeover for everyone else. So could you clarify how it happened?" Drill asked Bubble.

Burstgirl stepped in. "I just talked to him. I knew a part of him was still there...so I drew him out."

Plant felt compelled to explain better. "The other day when Bubbleman was de-darked, it was mainly due to him trying to infect her and having it backfire. It's like she's too pure-hearted for darkness possession or something."

"I don't know if it's that simple..." Burst shuffled nervously. "Bubbleman wanted to be free and he freed himself. I kinda just helped. I wouldn't know what to say to the others. Even Shademan I just met; I don't know what he's really like."

"Well if it's a matter of wanting to be free, I doubt there's a single navi out there that's happy with their situation." Overdrive said, offering some hope. "And if it's a matter of connecting with them, we have at least a couple people here that are qualified to talk them down..."

* * *

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