Inside the Official Center's data recovery lab system, Drillman stood with his missiles trained on the mysterious figure in the middle of the platform. The masked female navi made no move to attack, and didn't even acknowledge his presence. She just stood there trembling, but it was enough to put the heavily-armed warrior on edge, especially considering she was wearing the mask of his old enemy. He didn't know what to expect, and after the last few days, he wanted to be ready for anything.
Outside in the physical lab, Darklight watched the screen output on Flamechick's diagnostic with great interest. Hoshiko, Tricia, and Moe hovered behind him, trying to make sense of the bugs being spat out one after another. Hoshiko leaned in over his shoulder in a nervous, uncertain attempt to help. "Yeah, I think those are the same messages that popped up when I hooked her up to my computer. Any clue what they mean?"
"Yes..." Darklight droned as he turned to look her in the eye with a deadpan expression. "You'll need to get a new computer."
"These are the signs of a Dark Soul forcefully reformatting everything it touches. As I suspected, the Darkloid Flameman is not yet dead, it's possessed Miss Yahari's navi's body and soon enough she'll be the new Darkloid."
The expert's prognosis caused a variety alarmed reactions among the others. Drillman tensed up further, beginning to see the black aura forming around the eerily silent navi. Hoshiko's only reaction was of sadness, she felt like she was losing IceChan all over again. Flamechick herself made no move, seemingly unaware of what was being said about her.
Moe stepped in. "So you recognize these errors, does that mean it's not a new type of Darkloid after all?"
Darklight shook his head as he proceeded to type something into a separate program. "The errors are consistent with Type 1 subjects who attempted to have their karma values reset through programming. The cleansing would only work momentarily before the infection would return in force. There's just no getting rid of the Darkness. No easy way anyhow. Like I said, it's probably already infected Miss Yahari's personal computer. The Center's mainframe should be equipped to keep itself clean, or at least quarantine the Darkness if it gets loose, so I don't think we have much to worry about besides Drillman's deletion."
"Gee, thanks." Drillman commented sarcastically.
Hoshiko sunk down into her chair. "I don't care about the computer...I just wish there was a way to save her." She prayed softly.
"Well..." Darklight started as he continued to type away. "Here's what has me thinking this is a fourth type of Darkloid...there were no Dark Chips involved. An ordinary navi doesn't become a carrier like this without some means of direct transmission."
"Didn't you just say she could be infecting a system just by being jacked into it?" asked Tricia.
"The effects are different for systems. Darkness infecting a computer generally means virus-spawning, and Darkloids of any type have a way of spreading viruses anywhere they go. For a navi though, direct interface such as the insertion of a Dark Chip is required for their code to be rewritten. At that point it sticks with them indefinitely."
Moe winced. "Geez, the way you describe it makes it sound like an STD. Though considering the old Flameman's personality, that would make a lot of sense."
Darklight rolled his eyes. "In all seriousness, if we could figure out how Dark Flameman forcefully interfaced with this navi, we could probably figure out the key to he Type 4 Darkloids, and possibly how to reverse the effect."
Hoshiko perked up. "Wait, you CAN save her!?"
"I don't know yet but I'll do what I can...I will note that Type 1 initial Darkloid transformation is a gradual process, but this was a very sudden navi generation typically associated with the Type 2, a process known for backfiring and killing the subject. So if I had to guess, if the transformation continues, she'll either explode messily or turn into an unstoppable rampaging monster."
Drillman spoke up. "Uh...I think I know which -"
Before he could finish his thought, the sound of a large explosion blasted through the speakers and the lights and screens in the room flickered. Everyone's eyes were back on Flamechick. She was now surrounded by a dark red aura of fire. Her stance remained still, but her shoulders were tensed and her head was lowered as if she was inwardly fighting the transformation that was taking place, but losing. The kinetic energy emanating from her body whipped her ponytail around as red sparks shot forth from her flame in all directions.
"Okay, I think I'm ready for some backup!" Drillman shouted over the roar of the blaze. "Go outside and get a few dozen Officials, would ya!?" Holding his drills out in front, he began to advance on the burgeoning Darkloid.
"This can't be happening!" Hoshiko screamed. "I did what I could...why is it all going wrong? Ice! You have to be in there! Please stop!"
Tricia moved for the door to get backup while Moe prepared his chips. Darklight slammed his fist on the counter to grab everyone's attention from the chaos erupting in the system. "Hold it! We need to focus on the solution while there's still time! Now what was unique about Flameman's programming? Desertman! Bowlman! Metalman!"
"I'd like to help you, but right now I want to focus on keeping my navi alive!" Moe shouted back. "Geez, first Darklady, now this. The hybrid girls are giving us a lot of grief lately."
"It's the name of the program Cossack made to let us combine our regular navis with higher-level navi ghost data. Darklady was the combination of Darkman with a female navi. I guess we got Flamechick when Flameman did the hybrid thing with another girl navi."
Darklight threw his arms up in the air. "You idiot! Why didn't you mention that sooner! You're saying this program is something all the former Acid Hackers and Net Guardians had in common?"
Moe was taken aback. "Well yeah, but we had lots of weird stuff in common! What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything!" Darklight quickly resumed typing away at the program he was writing earlier. "A navi customization that allows the merging and consumption of separate navi entities...THAT'S how the Darkness was contracted. That's the interface that would have been impossible with a regular navi. That's also the interface that will let us reverse it. The Darkness can't be erased, but we can put it where it belongs."
"WWRRRRAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!" Flamechick screamed with murderous fury as she now reared her head back and spread her arms out. The aura of flame expanded and the sparks became full-sized fireballs, spitting out and ravaging the system with explosions. Drillman popped up from underground beneath her to deliver a critical blow, but found himself immediately pushed back by the burning force field before he could deal any damage. His armor was scorched and he could feel his vitality slipping away, but he was not down yet. He launched his missiles, and they detonated against the aura. The roaring woman of flame didn't even see him or his pitiful attacks, she was completely absorbed by her own intensifying torture.
"I'm accessing her functions!" Darklight pointed to an odd icon on his screen. "Fortis, is that the Hybrid program?"
Moe was trying to concentrate on his PET commands, but took a second to glance at the monitor. "Yes, but if you're thinking of reversing the merge, it won't work! Trust me. Hybrid fuses things together, it's no good at separating them."
"That's fine, I have something else in mind." The young man then pulled out an innocuous blank chip from a pocket on his black coat and quickly slotted it into Hoshiko's PET, hooked up to the computer. "Now just do something to hold her for a second. Don't hold back!"
"Are you suggesting that all Drillman can do if we don't hold back is hold her...for a second?!"
"She's bursting with Dark power, how much damage do you think you can do?"
"...Alright fine. Drillman, that hole you made to try and get under her is still there, right?"
Drillman was doing all he could just to keep from burning up in the inferno. "Y-yeah..."
"Then let's hope this will take out the aura long enough to get in a hit."
Drillman's right arm switched from drill to hand and a blue ball materialized in it. "It'd better..." Braving the incoming fireballs, the orange navi charged forward, leapt up, and chucked the ball into the small hole beneath Flamechick's feet. As with everything else going on, she ignored it, and so took the full brunt of the Geyser attack that erupted forth. The water and fire met and extinguished each other in an explosive cloud of steam. Drillman didn't stop. He dove underground to avoid the mist and once again resurfaced right next to the girl. She was still standing, still screaming and overflowing with power, but for the moment the flames surrounding her body were mere wisps and embers. Without another attack prepared, Drill did the first thing that came to mind and grabbed her in a chokehold. "Uhm...does this count as 'holding her'?"
Moe groaned. "I don't think so. She didn't really need to move before when she spreading fire all over the place. She doesn't seem very concerned now either. If I could find a paralysis-type chip like ZapRing or something..."
"Hm. Here!" Hoshiko tossed Moe a battlechip. He didn't even stop to look before slotting it in.
In a flash, Drillman sprung backwards as Flamechick was encased in a solid cube of ice. Drill sunk to his knees and noticed the sizzling, partially-melted parts of his armor where he had grappled with her. He chuckled nervously. "Yeah...IceCube. That's a much better idea."
"Better get up, she's already melting free!" Moe shouted.
Darklight activated his program with a flourish of the keyboard. "I'm on it!"
From within the ice, Flamechick's body turned inky black, then blindingly bright for a moment before the cube shattered and a wave of heat spread outward across the platform. The girl moaned softly and collapsed to the ground in her normal red, yellow, and orange colors, which seemed brighter than before. Drillman scrambled to his feet and approached her warily.
"...She's fine." Darklight smiled and sighed with relief. He then removed the chip from Hoshiko's PET and looked it over. The standard blue casing had somehow turned purple, and a new image of a black-and-violet-hued flame along with the writing '+???' had adorned the label. He set the chip down on the counter next to the PET.
Drillman tentatively poked the apparently unconscious Flamechick with his drill arm and jumped back when she stirred.
"Uhhn...what happened? Where..." The masked woman slowly picked herself up and looked around. Her demeanor was noticeably more gentle, to say the least. "My last memory...Miss Hoshiko had named me 'Flamechick', I accepted...then the burning sensation again? I'm sorry, have we met?"
Drillman was taken aback. Among other things, she had acknowledged his presence for the first time since they jacked in. He didn't know what to say and just stared back at her for a few awkward seconds, then snapped out of it. "Oh. Right. I'm Drillman.exe. I just helped...uh...cure you, I guess."
"Ah, the bugs. I am recalling my poor condition during my last activation. I feel much better now. Thank you, Mr.Drillman.exe."
"Y-yeah. Don't mention it. 'Drillman' is fine, by the way."
Watching the screen from the real world, the humans smiled. Tricia poked her head back in after noticing the light in the building stopped flickering. Hoshiko turned to the man of the hour, beaming with gratitude. "You did it! I knew you could do it, Darklight-san! Thank you!" She then tackled him with a very enthusiastic hug.
"How did you do it, exactly?" Moe asked, bewildered.
Once Hoshiko loosened her grip enough for him to breathe, Darklight laughed and explained. "I used the Hybrid thing to run a Dark Chip synthesis program through Flamechick's body. The excess Dark Soul energy was sucked into that..." He pointed to the new Dark Chip on the counter. "It's called 'Hellfire', according to the program output. Flamechick can now continue to function as an ordinary navi, not a Darkloid, or a mess of unconstituted data. As long as she doesn't overuse the chip, of course."
"Woah, a Dark Chip? Well that's easy." Tricia commented. "It's going straight to contraband."
"Just smash it!" Hoshiko blurted out. "All this trouble was because of that stuff. I don't want to see it again!"
"Actually, I think you should hold onto it and keep it safe." Darklight suggested.
"WHAT!?" The girl immediately stopped hugging him.
"Don't get your hopes up thinking she's been instantly purified. Like I said, Darkness doesn't just go away. It's still lurking within her, just buried and contained with the help of that chip. You'll need it regularly connected with your PET to keep her stable."
"I don't think the Officials would be okay with an agent carrying around a Dark Chip like that." Tricia warned.
Darklight shook his head. "It's been cleared before. Me. Adrienne of the Net Guardians. The Type 3 Darkloid's operator. This setup would actually make Flamechick similar to the Type 3 in a few ways. These Type 4s really are a mixed bag, aren't they?"
Hoshiko picked up the Dark Chip and looked at it with disdain. "I have to use this cursed thing?"
"You don't have to use it, but it will be there to use in a pinch. It might be tempting in a tough battle. Good news is you should be able to get away with a Dark Chip activation or two without destabilizing Flamechick's karma. Like I said, just don't use it too much or we'll be right back where we started."
"What about my old navi? Can I still get her back to the way she used to be?"
Moe stepped in. "Well, it's not impossible. Some of the Hybrid navis on my old team were devoured by Gamma, and when Gamma was destroyed, some of the originals were recovered, and as we just learned today their other halves went on to become these Darkloids. Gamma must have broken them down while digesting them, allowing them to reconstitute separately."
"There ya go, honey. We just need to find you another world-devouring monster and your navi will be right as rain." Tricia joked.
Her partner shook his head and smirked. "What I was getting at...was that there may be other means of reversing the Hybrid's effect. The same ought to be true for removing the Darkloid part of both halves."
Hoshiko looked around sheepishly. "Well, you guys know more about this Hybrid thing and Darkloid stuff than I do...so I hope you'll let me keep in touch, in case you figure out the answer."
"I think we can do you one better." Tricia offered, putting her hand on the other girl's shoulder. "My navi is going to be out of commission for a while, Moe needs a partner, and Drill and Flame seem to be hitting it off. So, welcome to the team!"
"What, really?" Hoshiko blinked and looked at the screen where Drillman continued to explain the situation to the amnesiac Flamechick. She hadn't even yet considered the possibility of taking her new navi into the field as a replacement for IceChan. "Um...what would I be doing?"
"Our original mission was to investigate disappearances in the Undernet. As of today, that transitioned into a quest to stop the new Darkloids. You in?"
Tricia held out her hand. Hoshiko wondered for a moment what this meant. From that shady dealer, to Metalman, to Flameman, to here. She had only been an Official for a few days and already she found herself being thrust into the big leagues. The pressure was overwhelming, and the reality of her situation was still sinking in, but one connection was sticking out in her mind. Thanks to those Darkloids, she may have lost her best friend forever. Those Darkloids could hold the secret of bringing her back, and if not, they could pay for what they did. Either way, she wanted to be a part of that. She took Tricia's hand and shook it. "I'm in!"
* * *