"What the hell was that all about!?" Tricia echoed the confusion felt by most of the Officials scrambling through the compound in the wake of Blackbelt's attack. She paced impatiently around the charging stations along with Hoshiko and Moe and several other agents, all waiting for their PETs and navis to be back in fighting condition.
"Hopefully, the files Drillman saved have some clues." Moe was doing his best to piece together the corrupted data on his PET even as it charged on the station cord. He grit his teeth in frustration. "Or maybe we'll just never know, with the way things are going today..."
With Vengeance's last explosion, the entire archive system was offline. It was a powerful play for what seemed to be little payoff. The Scilab technicians would probably have the outage fixed within hours, and there were hard backups for most of the files. Only a handful of units with recent cases that didn't get backed up yet were stuck having to re-write some reports. Overall, it represented a minor inconvenience to the Officials. However it was a major setback for Moe's team in particular, and that was apparently the deliberate intent all along.
"So...did they want to steal our data for themselves?" Hoshiko mused, piecing together what Moe had relayed to them. "Or did they just want to keep it out of our own hands?"
"Both, I guess. Mist tried to get away with the copies while Flash tried to make sure the originals were wiped." Moe smacked his forehead in realization "Damn, did anyone even see if Mistman got away? Or what happened to Darklady?"
Hoshiko shook her head. "It might help if we could figure out which end mattered to them more."
Tricia paced pensively. "At the end, it really seemed like Vengeance could have destroyed the whole system any time he wanted, but he waited until that moment. If just deleting the folder mattered, he could have skipped to that from the beginning."
"Oh man." Moe's face sank. "That means there's a pretty good chance Mistman got away with the data."
"Well, what if they failed and Vengeance was just cutting their losses?" Hoshiko offered the slightly more optimistic interpretation.
"I dunno." Moe sighed. Either way, it was hard to see it as anything but a failure on his part for unwittingly letting Blackbelt use him for so long. With grim determination he lifted his eyes back to the PET screen and resumed his attempts to restore the data. "Let's focus on what info he apparently wanted to steal so badly. If we can figure out what it would tell him, maybe we can stop his next move."
"Whatever it is, it's about the Darkloids." Tricia reasoned. She yanked her nearly charged PET from the station and opened up her contacts list. "We gotta get Darklight down here already."
Hoshiko and Moe disconnected their PETs as well and the three began to head back to the dispatch room they were working in before the crisis started. The archives may have been down, but the other systems at ONBHQ were functioning just fine. They had a long wait at the recharging stations because they were so crowded, but at least they had no problem getting their navis back up to full strength despite the pounding they took just over an hour earlier. They would still be able to access the net too, for all the good it would do them until they knew where to go.
Hoshiko was hesitant to offer her insight, gained as it was through her experience with the WWW. For the first time since their investigation began, she recognized the coordinated aggression of a full-blown evil organization. She wondered if she could still think like a netcriminal enough to solve Blackbelt's riddles, and if she would be willing to risk blowing her cover to do so. In times like this, she would ask Ice Chan for advice, but every time she glanced down at her PET with that thought she was reminded that was no longer an option. With no memories of their past, Flamechick could be just another stranger for whom she had to maintain the lie. It only made her feel more alone. Could she even trust her own navi?
"Hey...Flame?" Hoshiko started to speak quietly into her PET.
"What." Flame answered tersely.
The unexpected tone immediately shut Hoshiko down. She wasn't even sure what she was going to say to begin with. "Uh...are you okay?"
"My...energy levels are full. I should be fine." Flamechick explained with uncharacteristic irritation in her voice. "I feel...off though. I'm probably just experiencing residual effects from-"
"Oh god! The darkchip! I'm so sorry!" The rookie operator turned red as she remembered what happened in the haze of battle. "I didn't think about the consequences...well I did but then I did it anyway but I forgot to see if you were okay I was just so desparate!"
"You did what was necessary...I had no objections." Flame was trying to calm both her operator and herself, but an uncertain compulsion continued to eat at her mind. "Just...jack in as soon as you can, please."
"Huh? Why is that?"
"I'm feeling somehow cramped at the moment..."
"Oh, of course." Hoshiko began jogging down the hall ahead of Moe and Tricia. She spoke up to let them know why. "I guess Flame could use some air. Or whatever navis get. I'm going ahead to the dispatch room."
"Fine. See you down there." Tricia acknowledged as Hoshiko ran off. The senior agent then turned back to her PET, waiting for her call to pick up. Sam Darklight's concerned face finally appeared onscreen. "There you are. We need you down at HQ right away. Your Darkloid research notes may have been compromised."
Darklight was concerned, but not surprised. "Yeah, I'm on my way. I should be able to fill in whatever you lost, but it may take time."
Tricia rolled her eyes. "Seems you're already up to speed. I figured you had something to do with Darklady showing up. Are you going to tell us what that's all about?"
There were a few seconds of silence as Darklight's eyes darted back and forth. "...Nnnn...no. Oh very well, since she pretty much blew her own cover...I did conscript her services because you needed some benign Darkloid support in Shademan's absence. I can't tell you anything else as per our agreement, but please give her...and me...the benefit of the doubt for now."
"Hmph. Well, she actually turned out to be more helpful than you usually are in that battle, so you have it. Moe and his friend, the one that was looking after Darklady? They're going to want an explanation though." Tricia warned the mercenary.
"Understood. I'd like to deal with the current crisis before negotiating that though." With that stressfully delivered dismissal, Darklight disconnected.
"Ass." Tricia murmured.
"Maybe he has a good reason for..." Moe started, unsure how to finish the thought.
"Being shifty?" Tricia scoffed. "This is exactly what we had to look forward to when HQ made us work with him without any real accountability on his part."
"Well, his pay depends on his results, right?"
"Sure. Just gotta cough up enough to make him sell out Darklady, apparently. Aren't you concerned about her?"
Moe sighed. He was actually more conflicted about it since seeing her appear again. "She seems to be in one piece and doing what she wants. Her freedom was important to her so maybe it's better to back off. We kept her bound to her PET because she was dangerous left unattended, but...you said it yourself, she did good in that battle, so maybe we were wrong."
"Maybe that's just how they want you to look at it. I'd feel safer knowing what kind of arrangement they made. Did you even see where Darklady went at the end of the battle?"
"She must have made it out to fill in Darklight. If Vengeance got her, he definitely would have said something."
Tricia shook her head. "He should have said something before she even showed up to help. That's why I'm not so confident in his level of cooperation any more."
The two Officials casually strolled into the dispatch room where Hoshiko was already jacked in, but they could immediately tell something was wrong. The excitable Hoshiko was especially frazzled as she paced around, frantically entering commands in her PET. Her eyes darted up to the others as they entered but she couldn't find the words to explain so she returned to the PET and to pacing in quiet panic.
"What happened?" Tricia asked, running up.
Hoshiko was afraid to answer. "Flamechick...she-she...ran off." She stammered. "Samuel. He's coming, right? He needs to fix her again!"
"What do you mean she ran off!?" Moe exclaimed. "Are you saying she went dark again?"
"I don't know! She seemed fine, b-but as soon as she was online, she wouldn't answer me and...and just left! My PET is still tracking her but I can't force her to log out and if I disconnect I might lose contact. This is because I used that darkchip, isn't it?" The remorseful girl was on the verge of tears.
"Just one darkchip shouldn't have caused this. We don't need Darklight around to tell us that." Tricia surmised. She quickly plugged her own PET into the console and sent her revitalized navi onto the net, pointing at Moe to do the same. "Overdrive and Drillman will catch her. Just tell us where she's headed."
Hoshiko tried to calm down and put her trust in her teammates. "She's...she's headed the same way we were earlier...towards the area that used to have all the snow and fog."
* * *
"What did you tell them?" Alia inquired accusinlgy to Sam Darklight over the phone from her gloomy apartment. Darklady was in her PC recovering from the battle while the irate researcher-operator paced the room demanding answers from the ONBA-affiliated mercenary that brought her into the whole mess.
"Nothing they didn't already know thanks to your navi announcing herself as an ally. If you're more worried about getting caught now, take it up with her." Darklight responded with exasperation. "Besides, things pretty much went as planned, right? It wasn't Darkloids as we envisioned, but Darklady still proved herself an ally in a battle."
"Meeting Darkloids was the entire point! In that scenario I would be done with the Officials all in one encounter and they would have less questions about what my own Darkloid was doing there. Going off-script made things too risky. We'll just have to work out a better arrangement."
Darklight was a bit surprised at that reaction. "Oh? Didn't you get what you wanted with this method though? You know about the data the enemy was stealing, right?"
"Why, is it the notes you promised me?" Alia rejoined. She then leaned in to the PET's mic and lowered her tone. "Or is it actually the notes you planned to hold out on me?"
"I wasn't planning to hold out anything. How about you?" Darklight's demeanor grew equally suspicious. "I'm just wondering why Tricia mentioned my Darkloid notes were compromised but you didn't mention that part in the last call. Were you not around for that part, or did you get the data for yourself and want to keep it that way?"
"It was a data archive. Lots of data all over the place. Why don't you tell me what was in those notes and I can confirm if I've seen them or not?" Alia's words were mocking, but she delivered them in cold earnest. She had had enough playing around and playing by Darlight's rules. She was ready to find out what he knew by any means she could find.
Darklight wasn't having any of it. "Well I'm on my way to meet with the Officials now and confirm with them what happened. Maybe by then your own memory will be clearer."
"Maybe by then I'll just be long gone. I don't have time to wait for you to pick sides." She lied. Alia wasn't exactly prepared to completely disappear if the Officials ever got wind of her legally questionable experiments, but she was seriously considering looking into ways to fake her death after recent experiences. She just hoped she could keep Darklight guessing for now.
Before any more passive-aggressive sniping could be exchanged, Alia noticed something amiss on Darklady's status monitor. Even though she was all recharged and healed up, her AI scripts were cutting in and out and the error log was ballooning like mad. "Sam, hold on a second." She sat back down at the desk. "Darklady, what's wrong with you? Reboot already!"
Darklady was shivering and clutching her head, heavily distressed. "I-I-I tr-tried. Someth-Something is-..."
"Yeah, something's wrong. I get it. Just go offline for a bit, I'll figure it out."
Darklady could not comply. "S-something is-is-is taking overrr aaaggghh!" With a sudden flare of dark energy, the glitching navi disappeared. Alia's monitor tracked her signal entering and moving rapidly through the internet.
"What the f-...Darklight!" Alia immediately turned her panicked anger to the man on the phone. "I need that navi! What did you do with her?"
"I didn't do anything. What happend?" Sam replied, confused.
"She started screaming about being taken over and was whisked away!"
"You're giving me too much credit if you think I could do something like that. It would make my job a hell of a lot easier..."
Unsure of where to direct her feeling of betrayal, Alia frantically pored over the data Darklady left behind. Then she noticed where the signal was going. "She's headed back to the Undernet. Right back to where her body came from...Wait...there are other navis moving through the system with her, all in the same direction."
"I'm seeing it too..." Darklight informed her from over the phone.
Alia's suspicion of her uneasy ally returned. "How is that now? I can only see it through my PC's monitor on my navi."
"Well my PC has its own special monitor, a sort of long-range Darkloid detector I've been putting together these last couple days to try and find my own navi. It hasn't been much use so far because their powers need to be active and these new guys have managed to keep themselves well-hidden. Incidentally, the real reason I sent everyone to search that area yesterday was that the first and only signal this program successfully returned was from there, late on Friday."
Apart from the surprise that she had been in operator mode all night and it was already 'yesterday' that Dark started shadowing the Official team, she wondered about the potential of this Darkloid tracker he was talking about. "So because Darklady's using her Darkloid powers, you can track her as well?"
"Not exactly...If she was alone, that might be accurate. Instead, I can't really tell her signal apart from all these hundreds of other ones that suddenly showed up..."
"Well, that's not really a useful program if it can't distingui--did you say HUNDREDS? And they're all Darkloids!?" Alia's disdain and frustration all of a sudden gave way to excited curiosity.
Darklight was considerably more unnerved by the implications. "There's a much stronger force of dark energy in the deep Undernet that all the smaller ones are converging on. Why is this happening now?"
* * *