"What in the UnderKing's name happened here?"
"Pff, it's the Undernet. What more explanation do you need."
Three Heel navis had just entered a devastated sector of the deep Undernet. The numerous smoking craters dotting the landscape suggested they had come upon the site of a recent highly-destructive battle. One with a lighter purple shade of armor began kicking at the looser rubble, unenthusiastically looking for remnants of value; Chip and Zenny data that may have been left behind by the combatants. "I dunno man. Under's been gettin' more dangerous by the day ever since we lost the old order. Haven't ya noticed?"
The grey Heel that answered the first question shook his head. "Quit talkin' like you have that kinda perspective. I've been around since the early days and everyone else is always whinin' about how much worse it's gettin'. The way I see it, all our previous troubles just seem softer in retrospect, 'cause we survived them and don't have to worry about them no more. Every new, unexplained thing that comes our way scares us on account of that 'unknown' factor."
"Yeah, yeah, you got it all figured out." The third, blue Heel commented, sarcastic, but aware of his comrade's seniority. "So you've seen battlegrounds this damaged before?"
"Well...not as such...no. Still! It's been known to happen."
The purple one dug up a small, disc-shaped object from the dust and picked it up to inspect it while continuing the conversation. "The boss is worried, isn't he? He sent us here to find out what's going on because everything's goin' to hell!"
"Shaddup, willya?" Grey grumbled. "We're here fer salvage, that's all. The boss already knows what's goin' on in his Undernet. He's got to now."
"What if he doesn't?"
The grey navi threw up his arms and barked at the blue one. "Will you just appreciate a good deal already!? We survived this long thanks to the boss. If you wanna question him and get thrown to the Spikeys, that's your funeral!"
The blue Heel was taken aback. "Whatcha barkin' at me fer? I didn't say anything!"
"I didn't..." The purple navi said, suddenly much more nervous. His core nearly jumped out of his chest when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. "YAAGH!"
A custom navi with silver dreds wearing a suit and shades stood behind him, calmly holding out his hand. "Hey, I'm gonna need that." He said, nodding toward the unidentified object the Heel had dug up.
The purple navi looked back and forth between the stranger and his find, then backed up while converting his hand to a buster. "Hey, finders keepers, buddy! You want it, you gotta take it! Them's Undernet rules!"
The man smirked. "Yeah, I'm familiar with the rules..."
"Just give 'im the thing, you moron!" The grey navi whispered loudly to his underling.
Purple turned to his cohorts, expecting to see them backing him up with their own gun-arms, but was unnerved to instead see them backing away and waving their arms to signal him to stop.
"Don't you recognize him? That's Spider!" The blue Heel warned with utmost seriousness.
"Sp-Spider?" The purple navi turned back to the man, who was still holding out his hand expectantly. "Um...which number were you again?"
"Does it matter?" Spider responded, impatience rising in his voice.
"...Nope, guess not." He fumbled a bit as he handed over the disc. "Here's your...whateveritis."
"Thanks, now get out of here, all of you."
Spider watched as the three mooks scurried and ran off, leaving him alone to survey the battlefield and pick up the rest of his discarded anchors. This was the same spot that just a couple days prior he had been drawn into a fight with Dark Metalman along with those three female navis. Things had gotten hectic since then, and only now did he find time to come back and clean up after himself, and apparently not a moment too soon.
Every anchor still functioning was easy enough to recover. The small objects were invisible upon initial placement, but the disruption of the terrain during the battle made it so even schmucks like those Heel navis could find them, and potentially uncover their secrets. Broken, they would evaporate like any temporary digital construct, but as long as a thread remained, he would always be connected to them. Having anchors discreetly placed all over the Undernet gave Spider a decisive advantage in information gathering.
Yet there were still corners of that world closed off to him. The mystery of the Darkloids was currently his primary concern. From the sound of those three navis' conversation, it was also becoming a concern with the rest of the Undernet community, but it was clear they didn't know any more about it than he did.
One thing was certain: this had escalated beyond a covert fact-gathering mission and into all-out conflict. Those women, the Officials, and now the Under-Dwellers...curiosity was drawing everyone towards a slaughter. He couldn't help thinking this was the Darkloids' aim all along. They certainly weren't trying very hard to keep a low profile. In any case, he had no choice now but to take the fight to them, before it got any more out of hand.
That was the other reason he came back to this spot. There was something particular about the areas the Darkloids stalked, something that set them aside from the rest of the Undernet. It was nothing that could be measured or identified, just a feeling of deeper isolation, of looming, sinister pressure from all directions. Spider had used his anchors to study the pattern as far as he could, but if he really wanted to hunt a Darkloid, he would need to do it in person.
With the remainder of his old anchors recovered, Spider simply stood there in the vast, shadowy ruin. He attuned his keen senses to his surroundings, taking in the sound and the sensation of the air. The Darkness was out there, it wasn't far. He knew it was looking for him as well.
Following his gut, Spider turned to the south. Equipping his Dropdown chip, Spider set off, not sure what he would find, or if there was anything to find at all. If trusting this feeling didn't work, he didn't know what else to try. He climbed the steps to the next level, followed the bridge, dipped back down into the pit, weaved through narrow corridors, back out into the craggy, open terrain. The sense of dread was growing, the darkness was intensifying. He stopped when he came to an open field and received a much more credible signal to his senses: a sound. A booming, echoing sound. A thud, followed shortly by another, getting closer. A sound he was already familiar with from following it days earlier.
Footsteps of a giant.
* * *
Feet moved quickly through the Rom Official Center. Nobody took much notice when Darklight, Moe, and Tricia arrived, until Darklight put out the word for an impromptu meeting in the nearest computer lab on the hot subject of the day, Darkloids. There was a subtle gravity in the young man's proposal. While he retained his usual stoic demeanor, everyone could tell there was a new purpose there that went beyond his obligatory paycheck. He had information to share, and he was prepared to share it with every Official that was interested. This was going to be big.
As the curious agents trickled into the room, Darklight stood pensively at the front, staring at the wall, carefully planning how to deliver the news. Moe paced near the entrance until Tricia rushed in, worried she might have missed something. Moe immediately met up with her. "Hey, how's Overdrive?"
"Not sure yet." She shook her head solemnly while catching her breath. "I left her PET in the repair lab charger. The diagnostic already revealed some weird faults I'll probably have to spend a while fixing. I think she's going to be out of commission for a few days at least."
Moe's face fell in defeat. "Damn. Just when we need her most. I doubt the Darkloids are going to wait a few days to make their move. It sounded like Bowlman said they intend to consume the whole net like they did Shade and that other navi. With the progress they've been making over the last couple of days, they could be very close to pulling that off."
His partner looked around the room, taking note of how popular Darklight's venue turned out to be. "Well it looks like you won't have any trouble getting new help. The other Officials are taking the mission seriously now."
Darklight turned around. The room was about full enough. Some in attendance weren't even Officials, they just looked like the people that were standing around in the lobby. Whatever. It was time to get it over with. "So...how much do you people know about Darkloids?"
Darklight stood at the front of the small room, fishing various papers from his briefcase. The other gathered Officials, mercenaries, and odds and ends sat in chairs, on the floor, or stood. A passerby could easily mistake the scene as some manner of lecture, or class. Which, in a way, it was. At least one random Official seemed particularly interested in the subject.
"It's a navi who uses Dark Chips too much and gets taken over by darkness, right?" One said.
Darklight sighed. "What are they teaching you people these days." He fished out a bottle of what appeared to be whiskey and took swig. "Anyway, what you're describing is only a Type 1 Darkloid. Hardly worth the effort, honestly."
"There're different types?"
"Yes, there are, but I'm not done explaining the first. (Ahem) A Type 1 Darkloid, as said, is just a normal navi who comes into contact with Dark Chips too often and gets subsequently 'tainted', for lack of a better word, and begins acting irrationally. Eventually a dependency for Dark Chips begins, much in the same way a human builds a dependency for drugs and other subjects of addiction."
"Like alcohol?" Tricia remarked. Darklight ignored her and took another swig from his bottle.
"Why this occurs, though, is not yet known. The best theory is that Dark Chips have an effect on the personality data of a navi. Though there are some who believe that it affects a navi's "Soul" or something."
A silence filled the room, leading Darklight to note that everyone looked bored and contemptuous, with a look of 'we know this already' on all their faces.
"Anyway, moving on, we have a Type 2 Darkloid. They are very different from Type 1s. They are quite literally born from Dark Chips, and are able to tap into the Dark energies at will"
Darklight immediately noticed the fact that everyone was paying attention now.
"The first type of such a Darkloid was our very own Darkman. Many criminal syndicates attempted to duplicate this success, until a certain thing became apparent: 99% of all Darkloids created out of Dark Chips would die within the first 24 hours."
Gasps around the room.
"Well, perhaps 'die' is too kind a word. More like the collapse upon themselves. See, due to this type of creation, they are inherently unstable. I can understand Darkman remaining alive, due to his constant merging with navi data, though the other known Darkloid of this type is nothing short of a miracle."
"Umm...you mean Shademan?" Tricia said with a hint of sympathy.
"Yes." Darklight confirmed, a mixture of regret, sadness, booze, and hope in his voice. "Anyway, I at first believed that these new Darkloids we're investigating were Type 2, though based on the fact that they are older navis, yet showing no other Type 1 characteristics, I must conclude that we may be looking at a new type. A Type 4 Darkloid, if you will."
"Wait a minute, what happened to Type 3?" Some random Official asked.
"The Type 3 Darkloid is irrelevant to our current problems, and any data on that particular navi is a national secret, upon punishment of death."
An older agent that had been listening intently the whole time scoffed. "A secret from the Officials? Oh I'm so sure. Can you at least tell us what makes this navi a third type?"
"Hmmm...." Darklight thought for a moment, aware of the fact that withholding information could cause trouble down the line. Hell, he had enough trouble getting people to not be afraid of him, much less nice to him.
"This navi, due to the uniqueness of its coding, somehow has the Darkness existing within it as a separate entity, rather than as a fundamental transmutation. The navi is able to, under specific conditions, call upon Dark power with no ill effects."
"Okay, and you're sure that's got nothing to do with this case?" Moe questioned.
"The classification is pretty specific. It's really not applicable any more. Could we just move on, please?"
The audience mumbled and groaned in reluctant approval. The Officials were making a mental note to look up the story with the Netopian archives. Not everyone in the room was a government agent with clearance, so if it really was classified then they acknowledged that this wasn't the place to be discussing it.
Darklight nodded and resumed talking. "So back to the matter at hand, my associates and I have just run across these new types of Darkloids in the Undernet, Pacific area. They were recognized as the former Net Guardian Bowlman...and the former Acid Hacker Desertman."
Moe chimed in. "Both were among the navis that fought Gamma last year. They were also two of the ones that were directly absorbed by Gamma during the battle."
"So Gamma made these Darkloids?" Another Official asked.
Moe shook his head. "I don't think that's how it happened. There were other factors they had in common anyway. The Dark Bowlman said that after Gamma's destruction, they 'found a new home in the Darkness'. If that includes the others Gamma absorbed during the battle, then besides Bowl and Desert, we may also be facing...Metalman...Bubbleman...Flameman...maybe even Serenade." The list made everyone else in the room uneasy, especially the last possibility.
"Did you say Flameman could be one of these Type 4 Darkloids?" The older Official asked while standing up.
"Huh? Well yeah, but I'm just guessing about the pattern. Two examples isn't really much to go on."
The same Official followed up. "Does this Flameman by chance look like a burning ball with long, wiry limbs?
"Pretty much..." Tricia confirmed, as both she and Moe drew in closer to the man, becoming intrigued. "Are you saying you've seen him?"
The man took a deep breath, coming to a significant realization himself. "My unit was on a mission in the Undernet earlier today to investigate what was rumored to be a Darkloid sighting. The navi we encountered fit that description."
Darklight perked up. "You've encountered one of the Darkloids? Why didn't you say anything sooner?"
The grey-haired agent crossed his arms. He didn't look happy having to answer to a bunch of young upstarts. "Look, we didn't make the connection before. We didn't want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to hear what supposed information you had on this matter before grasping at straws. I suggest you meet us here tomorrow morning after our debriefing. One of our agents has something that will probably be of interest to you."
"Well, if that's the case..." The young lecturer began to pack away his items into his briefcase. "I think we should postpone this little talk until tomorrow after all. It seems we have more information to piece together than I thought."
There were frustrated groans throughout the room as the audience picked themselves up and piled out, continuing on with their day. Some would proceed to try and look up the accounts Darklight gave to them, others would contact other interested comrades that were not present for the impromptu gathering, a few would go back to their other duties and hope the Dark Chip epidemic really wasn't as bad as it was made to sound. Darklight, Moe, and Tricia caught up with the old man that claimed to have seen Flameman.
"Well, I'll tell ya that you probably don't have to worry about Dark Flameman any more. It looked pretty dead when we were finished with it."
"Unbelievable. How did you defeat it?" The incredulous Darklight asked.
The Official coughed and glanced around, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Well...my navi was already deleted by that point...but it was a group effort...erm...at any rate, the girl with what we think are the remains was sent home. As soon as she gets back though..."
At that point, as if contrived, a lavender-haired young woman rushed into the lab, clutching a PET. "Oh, um, is this the right place? I think something is wrong with my...with this navi."
Darklight's eyes went wide when he noticed this girl, as did hers when she spotted him. The older Official was just grappling with the unbelievably perfect timing. "Well, alright then. This is Hoshiko Yahari, you can examine her navi and let her tell you everything that happened. I have other work to get back to, so if you'll excuse me..." He then took his exit, leaving the four younger Netbattlers alone in the lab.
Darklight was now eyeing the nervous-looking girl with confusion and contemplation. "So...Hoshiko Yahari, is it?"
Hoshiko trembled, noting the suspicious glances of the two unrecognized Officials standing alongside this familiar face. "...Yes. That is my name...and you are...?"
"Oh, pardon my manners. I am Samuel Darklight. Please, call me Sam." He then gave her a quick wink to let her know that he'd go along with whatever ruse she was trying to pull. 'Hoshiko' became visibly more at ease by this.
Moe and Tricia failed to notice the subtle exchange and focused on the matter at hand. The other female Official stepped in. "I'm Tricia Oscar and this is Moe Fortis. We're from a different Center out of town, but we're out here investigating navi disappearances in the Undernet. We've just recently come to learn a new type of Darkloid is involved, and your unit apparently encountered one earlier today...Flameman. Can you tell us what happened?"
"Actually..." Hoshiko held out her PET. "I was hoping I could get someone to look at Flamechick as soon as possible. I think she's sick."
Moe's jaw dropped. "FlameCHICK!?"
* * *
Spider de-cloaked. There was no more point in hiding. He came to this area of the Undernet to confront the Darkloids, and that's what he got. With slow and thunderous footsteps, Dark Metalman emerged from the shadows. The giant's hunched form plodded straight towards the smaller navi, his deep-set eyes peering contemptuously at the one that attacked him so brazenly two days ago. Spider, for his part, stood calm and purposeful, staring right back from behind his shades. The Darkloid felt confident about this encounter since Spider did not have the element of surprise this time, nor the help of any other navis. Spider felt confident because he did have a substantial amount of time to prep the battlefield to his purposes before deactivating his Dropdown. One had strength, the other had speed, and neither had any doubts about coming out the victor.
The Darkloid finally stopped approaching a few panels from Spider's position. After a moment of awkward silence, Spider decided to open a dialogue. "Well, hello again. Since you've come to meet me, I guess you volunteer to be deactivated, sealed, and studied." He brought out his sword. "I'll make it quick and painless. Just stay still...shouldn't be too hard for you."
"Giive thhemmm baaack, puuuny mannn." Metalman commanded in a low, rumbling tone.
Spider backed up to a point and raised his sword defensively. "I don't have anything of yours. What are you talking about?"
"Daaarrk annd Flaaame. Thhe wommmennnn belllonng tooo ussss." The Darkloid's threatening words were accented by plodding, ground-shaking footsteps advancing on the much smaller navi.
"Huh, so you know about Flamechick already. Well if you know so much, what makes you think they're mine to 'give'?"
"AASSSK YOOURRSELLLFF." The slow-talking giant finally roared and lashed out with a surprisingly quick fist brought down on Spider's head, leaving a deep crater where the panel used to be.
Spider stood several panels away unscathed, still watching closely in a defensive stance. He took a moment to think about Metalman's strange statement. Was it just a dim-witted attempt at a comeback? Or was there somehow more to his involvement with those surface-navi girls than even he realized? He impulsively opened his journal.txt file to make note of the idea.
Metalman was busy inspecting his knuckles and the crater for signs of Spider's remains when he spotted the open Notepad program out the corner of his eye. He suddenly turned and lumbered towards his target's new location. "WHAAT AARRE YOUU D-"
"Doing?" Spider finished the sentence, sighing impatiently. "I'm 'asking myself' as you suggested. If you don't give me time to contemplate it further, I may have to set the question aside until after I capture you."
"YOUUU DAAARRE TOOO-"
"Right, by all means keep talking. I could use the time to work on this." He scoffed and continued to type out his thoughts in the floating text window.
With an enraged growl, the Darkloid swung his fist in a wide arc with the force of a runaway locomotive, but once again there was no feeling of connect, and Spider re-appeared several panels away looking completely casual.
Burning with a black aura, Metalman pounded his fists on the ground, simultaneously opening every artillery bay throughout his body. Missiles launched from his back, blades detached from his arms, machine guns fired from his knuckles, lasers from his ears, bombs from his mouth. It was the very expression of offensive overkill, and it was directed primarily at Spider, with plenty left over for everywhere else on the battlefield.
For once the stoic warrior's calm attitude was shaken. He kept his eyes intently on the projectiles, trying to predict the trajectories in several areas at once, and rapidly warping between points all around Metalman, never being able to stay in one panel very long before it exploded. After just a couple seconds, he stopped warping entirely, and resorted to dodging the barrage on foot. That didn't last long before the shockwave from a bomb threw him into the air where a saw blade sliced through his left arm and vulcan-fire riddled his suit before his body fell back to the ground where a missile dropped directly on him with seemingly definitive blast.
His DarkTech complete, Metalman rose up and surveyed the wreckage. The entire platform had been churned up and leveled into a field of smoldering rubble with the occasional charred black crater. One particular pit of smoke ought to have been Spider's final resting place, but Metalman knew by now to not underestimate his opponent's evasive capabilities. He leaned forward and peered into the hole, looking for signs of Spider's remains. Unsurprisingly, the crafty warrior was alive, protected from the final blast by a high-level barrier, which had already begun to collapse from the damage. Behind the barrier, Spider stood up shakily, one arm missing, and obviously heavily damaged in spite of the last-moment save.
Metalman glared angrily for a moment, but cracked an unsettling smile when he put the pieces together. "Knnowww yoouuur seeecrrret."
Spider grit his teeth and tried to hide his mounting panic. The giant brute was apparently smarter than he appeared. Slowly raising his fist to deliver the finishing blow, it was clear he had figured out Spider could no longer warp away to dodge. He may have figured it out even before the barrage, as destroying everything in sight was the perfect strategy to remove the anchors from the equation. The timely intervention of the barrier even as the user was reeling from multiple attacks may have also tipped him off to his other major secret, and the creeping static interference confirmed it.
There was still at least one trump card Spider could pull at this point, and with the massive fist bearing down on him and no means of escape, there wasn't a lot of choice. With his good arm he yanked on an invisible wire leading up out of the hole and to the ground underneath Metalman's feet. There was a brief beeping noise that caught the Darkloid's attention, but it was too late to do anything about it. A bright cyan flash erupted from beneath the towering destroyer, throwing him off balance and sending him crashing on his side like a toppling redwood, landing with a thundering crash.
Having bought himself a moment, Spider hurried out of the pit as fast as his injuries could allow him and readied another strategy. He didn't have time to set down any more anchors. The only one that Metalman's attack didn't destroy was the one he was standing on and now that Spider detonated it as a landmine he was stuck moving on his own feet again. Since the cat was out of the bag about his chip usage, he figured it was time to let loose with his backup arsenal.
Metalman lifted up his heavy body with the help of his seldom-used rocket thrusters. At one time he could fly freely with his jets, but his Darkloid form was too massive to get off the ground. The weight also made him quite slow and Spider was not going to pass up the opportunity to exploit that lack of speed. The first thing Metal noticed as he regained his footing was that his energy was decreasing rapidly. He had to look around, but he finally found the PoisonFace behind him spewing toxic fumes from its mouth. He tried to destroy it and the navi behind it with one crushing fist, but the mask disappeared just before the fist landed and Spider quickly moved out of the way.
The Darkloid seethed. He could tell the smaller navi was on his last legs, just one hit was all it would take to just finish him off already. Every second the battle continued frustrated Metalman further. He began to lunge out at Spider as fast as he could to land that final blow, but even with his injuries Spider managed to stay just out of range of every swipe and keep taking potshots with battlechips.
Spider lacked an arm and his own combat abilities were hampered by the accumulated damage, but he had access to an arsenal that was capable of doing his work for him, particularly useful against a slow opponent. He summoned a GaiaHammer statue to create small quakes that caused rubble to rain down on the distant Darkloid. No sooner had that worn off than Spider laid down a Meteor wand to distract the giant with fire raining from the sky. Metalman ignored the minor annoyances and continued to chase down the source. That was until Spider set down a GigaTimeBomb. Metal roared with rage, knowing he couldn't afford to ignore a weapon that powerful. He deviated from his pursuit path to crush the explosive Program Advance beneath his fist just as the timer reached '0'. He then turned around as quickly as he could to get another bead on the little bastard. With any luck that cancelled PA marked his last-ditch attempt at fighting back.
No such luck. A perfectly-timed CustomSword attack sliced through Metalman's right leg before he got a chance to turn completely around, causing the great beast to topple over once more. Propping up on one of his fists, Metalman glared down at Spider, now closer to eye-level. The skilled battler showed no less resolve, and as the sword disappeared from his one good arm, a DashCondor materialized in its place. Breathing heavily, Spider reared back the jet-powered, razor-sharp arm weapon, aiming it straight for the Darkloid's chest. Metalman knew dodging was impossible now, and even his tank-like arms could not block a Condor strike at that range.
So he didn't even try to dodge or block. Metalman just frowned, raised his chest, and beckoned for the finishing blow. "Commmme onnnnnn thhhennnn...Dooooo iiiiiiit..."
Spider clenched his teeth, took a deep breath, and launched the Condor, shooting himself like a golden bullet through the Darkloid's cog-shaped navi mark, resulting in an explosive howl of pain and a cascade of crackling sparks and pixels as energy began to release from the dying monster. The area shook with sound and force to accompany Metalman's death rattle.
Spider was unable to secure his victory however, as his final attack did not end with the expected result. Rather than exiting out Metalman's other side with the Condor, some impossibly strong force was holding him inside the Darkloid's chest cavity. Spider struggled to dig himself free but could feel the force tightening around him, making it impossible to move. His vision began to fade to blackness. He could hear Metalman's voice in his head, unencumbered by his usual speech impediment.
"Congratulations, fool. If I cannot destroy you, then I will devour you. The injuries you inflicted will cease to be as the Dark Power integrates your being into my own. Then, this fate awaits any navi you care about. I will personally hunt them down to spite you."
Metalman's triumphant laughter echoed from every angle. Spider was being consumed and he couldn't do anything to stop it. His brief yet colorful life was flashing before his eyes. He could feel life energy squeezing out of him at an exponential rate.
An instant of panic was all his mind would allow before he stamped it out and focused. After everything he had survived in the Undernet, he refused to go out like this.
That girl. She had the answer. Spider wondered if he had what it took to tip the scales in his favor as well.
If not alone, then perhaps with help...
Metalman lifted himself back to his feet. His leg was once again in one piece and the hole in his chest had begun to seal up. It was more of an ordeal than he expected, but that was one less threat to the Darkloids' goals to worry about. He would also need to hunt down Darklady and Flamechick as soon as possible.
Just as the dark giant started to lumber off, he staggered and doubled over in pain once again. Something was wrong. The navi he consumed was not going down without a fight. Spider's body was already dissolved, but his consciousness struggled for dominance of Metalman's massive frame. This shouldn't be. Dark Power was made specifically to conquer the minds of lesser navis...but there was something else happening. Metal could feel his Dark Power slipping away. Bit by bit, his karma value was incrementing, with no action on either part by himself or Spider. It had to be hacking. But how? There had to be a connection of some sort.
Then he noticed it. The link he had not experienced since his conversion to a Darkloid. A link that even now was overriding his DNS data and latching firmly onto his connection control system. The voices of the Dark faded from his mind as he cried out to them for help, only to replaced by another, singular voice of authority.
Without a chance to protest, the Darkloid automatically teleported out of the Undernet, out of the Cyberworld, and out of existence. The next time Metalman would appear, everything would be different.
* * *