A few days later, Moe stepped back into the Officials' Rom headquarters. Things had really quieted down since the attack. The archive had been rebuilt and the most important data recovered. Tricia had been handling all the paperwork on the now-closed missing navis case, and the Officials told them to take a couple days off to rest while they evaluated the work and figured out where to send them next. Moe wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but he had tried to keep it out of his mind and take advantage of the time off after a long week. He finally got the call to come in that morning for briefing. By that point both he and Drillman were eager to get back to work, if only to end the lingering suspense following a mission with a questionable success rating.
He didn't get far into the lobby before catching a glimpse of Samuel Darklight, who seemed to be waiting for someone near the counter. It was an echo of the scene that played out in another ONBA building in another city just over a week earlier, only this time Moe didn't snap and beat the other guy up over mistaken identity. Instead he simply walked up and said "Hi."
Darklight nodded and extended his hand for a shake. "Fortis. It has been an enlightening time working with you. Give my regards to the others when you see them. I wish I could stay a little longer, but I have little more than an hour to make my flight back to Yumland. I just stopped by here to sign my release."
Moe shook his hand, but he was a little surprised. "Really? Your contract is over already? Didn't they hire you to help catch Blackbelt? Last I checked that wasn't finished yet."
"The agreement changed throughout the week, considering all the unexpected developments. In the end, they paid me the original amount based on the Darkloid research I contributed to their SciLab partners, plus the assistance in averting the Undernet disaster." Darklight looked slightly embarrassed. "Admittedly, I was little to no help in progressing the Blackbelt case, and they tried to use that as an excuse to not pay me in full, but I managed to persuade them with the offer of more of my Darkloid notes. They had to be good for something eventually." As they were talking, a clerk came to the counter with the tablet for Darklight to sign.
"Well, I guess we'll see you and Shade around then." Moe awkwardly bid farewell to the somewhat uneasy ally. "Before you go though, is there nothing more you can tell me about what happened to Darklady?"
Darklight laughed. "Well, remember that she does not belong to you. Maybe you should just accept that she is where she wants to be now. I am only respecting my associate's privacy. You should too."
"...Yeah, I guess you're right." Moe sighed. "Never could hope to control her. It was inevitable she'd get away. We'll just have to convince her to talk to us on her own terms."
"Good luck with that." Darklight bowed politely, picked up his bag, and parted company with Moe. Truth was he did know a little more about Darklady's situation, and that she wasn't quite as free as he led Moe to believe, but that wasn't his concern. He would have rather Darklady was less conspicuous during their short-lived partnership so he could have avoided any awkward explanations entirely. Rather than hold it against her or Alia, he had finalized their business by forwarding her all the same files on Darkloids he supplied to the Officials. Alia never responded back since then, so at least he could conclude she was satisfied and wouldn't be hounding him, which was probably the best way that correspondence could have ended after everything that went wrong.
As Darklight stepped out the door of the building, he ran into two more familiar faces. Hoshiko and Lyric were just heading inside, but stopped when they saw who was exiting and carrying a bag. "Oh, Samuel! Where are you headed?" Hoshiko asked.
"Back home. I did not think I would be running into you all on the way out, but I count myself in good fortune to have seen you one more time." He smiled.
Hoshiko blushed, then turned to Lyric, who was standing uncomfortably off to the side looking around at nothing in particular. "I'll meet you inside. I'll just be a minute."
Lyric shrugged and shuffled inside, leaving the two with relative privacy. Hoshiko started speaking in a low voice nonetheless. "Listen, I just wanted to thank you for keeping quiet about the details of my past associations. I mean, I want to thank you for everything else you've done for me lately, but I think I already did that lots of times in front of the others. This is my last chance to thank you for the other thing."
Darklight chuckled and waved it off. "It was my pleasure to help. I wonder though, if you would not rather simply accompany me back to Yumland and join with my group. You would certainly not have to hide your history as a member of WWW from the likes of us. We have far less penitent lowlifes in our circle and we arguably do more good than the Officials on a given day."
Hoshiko shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm here because I wanted to start a new life, and I'm happy with it. I may have been a wreck when I first ran into you, but somehow I managed to make some friends since then, not to mention contribute to something important. No offense, but I don't need you to rescue me any more."
"None taken. I am happy that you are happy." Darklight conceded in good spirits. Hoshiko gave him one last extended hug before finally letting him get in his cab. She tearfully waved goodbye, then with a deep breath made her way inside the building to find what her new life had in store for her next.
Hoshiko made her way to the small meeting room where she and Lyric were called in for briefing. Lyric was already in there, seated at the table along with Moe. Tricia was leaning against the wall, holding her PET and reading something on the screen. They all looked up and greeted Hoshiko warmly as she slid into a chair next to Lyric. "We're all here, so I'll get started." Tricia announced, looking somewhat amused. "After reviewing the case, Command has decided to form a new specialist response unit to reassign all of us to. Should we accept the assignment, we'll start meeting regularly to work on our own intitiatives and act together as a squad. How does that sound?"
The other three looked at each other, intrigued. "Why us, specifically?" Moe wondered aloud. "Just because we were in the same room in the end?"
"Well, I'm mainly here as the senior officer that's worked with each of you. As for you three, it's because of your navis." Tricia clarified. "It's that Hybrid program factor. It happened to be integral to averting the Gamma incident, and they're not sure how entirely but it seemed to be important during the Darkloid crisis too."
Moe rubbed his neck in embarrassment. "Yyyeahhh. That played a role in turning most of the Darkloids back to normal, but it also played a role in making them Darkloids to begin with, so I'd figure that was a wash."
Tricia shrugged. "So maybe it isn't entirely well-deserved, but the Officials have recognized our worth in fighting against the largest and most disastrous threats to the cyberworld in recent memory. They want to put us to work dealing exclusively with nightmares like that."
Hoshiko suddenly jerked up in horror. "You mean we'll have to go out and fight things like Dark Desertman constantly!?"
Tricia held out her hands, gesturing to calm down. "Heh heh, yeah but things like that aren't exactly common. We'll mostly be figuring out ways to stop the world-threatening disasters before they happen, which might just be the stupidest, cushiest job on the force. More likely we'll just be waiting around for the next big thing to happen and have to be the first responders."
Moe was uncertain. "I wouldn't shy away from it, but...what about Blackbelt? Are they giving that case to someone else?"
"Oh, that one's near the top of our intitial task list." Tricia pointed her PET screen displaying their orders at the others. "Considering the archive attack and the castle, are you really surprised that he qualifies as one of these super threats?"
"Well, that's all I needed to hear." Moe slapped his hand down on the table. "I'm in."
Lyric had listened to the whole thing in silence, but finally raised her hand lazily to confirm her agreement. "Yeah, sure. Teamwork isn't my forte, but I can't go back to my old post now that my cover's been blown anyway. This is probably as good as I could hope for as far as new assignments go."
"Thrilled about the opportunity to work with you too." Moe responded sarcastically.
Hoshiko was more nervous. "This is pretty weird...I went straight from taking my Entrance License Test to fighting Darkloids to being assigned to an elite responders squad? Does advancement normally work this way with the Officials?"
Tricia laughed. "Moe and I were initially recruited directly onto a special ops team. I don't think we even had to take one of those tests! What about you, super spy? How many formalities did you manage to dodge?"
Lyric gave a shifty look. "I'd rather not discuss my history with the organization...but yeah, this sort of thing is disturbingly common. It's why there are so many 12-year-olds with top security clearance."
"Ah." Hoshiko settled back down. "Well, as much as I would like to deal with something a little easier for my second week on the job, I would definitely prefer continuing to work with all of you, so of course I'll join."
Tricia gave a thumbs-up. "All right. Glad to have you all on board. Although I'm not sure what would have happened if anyone refused. I don't think they were going to give us any other assignments, so it was either this or...quit, I guess? I mean, they must have anticipated that we'd have to be crazy to want to take this particular job."
"I won't argue that. So, if we're a team now, do we have a name?" Moe considered what a team formed based on the Hybrid program's advantage would call itself. "Don't tell me it's 'Net Guardians.'"
"Don't worry, it's even dumber than that!" Tricia had to squint to read the title off her PET screen. "Alpha-Level Threat Assessment and Extermination Experts...somehow they're abbreviating that to 'AXE'"
Lyric winced. "Wouldn't it be...ALTAAEE? Or something?"
Moe thought about it. "Assessment and EXtermination...yeah, I can kinda see how they'd get to AXE. It sounds cool, at least."
"Let's just hope nobody asks us what it actually stands for." Hoshiko nodded.
"Then it's settled." Tricia raised her PET in the air in salute, prompting her teammates to do the same. They gave a lightly self-mocking cheer in unison. "To AXE!"
* * *
Stuart jumped awake from his exterior proximity alarm. He had been passed out in his chair in his basement lab, as usual. He wasn't expecting anyone and had gotten used to the fear that someone from Black Storm had managed to track him down. He grabbed his gun while checking the security camera feed. There was only one casually dressed young man waiting calmly outside his door. It wasn't anyone he recognized. Whoever it was apparently didn't know the meaning of "No Solicitors".
Stuart presse down on his intercom button. "What do you want?"
Strangely, the man struck a pose while looking at the camera before answering. "Shou has arrived! I'm here to see Plantman's operator!"
Stuart's inclination was to respond with a string of unintelligible cursing. He managed keep his calm and simplify it. "...No."
Shou dropped the forced enthusiasm momentarily and spoke to the intercom more relaxed. "Might as well let me in, dude. Beast sniffed out your link online and we traced it back here. I'm guessing you rather wouldn't want me conspicuously loitering outside your house."
Reluctantly, nervously, and with much consternation, Stuart finally went upstairs, locked the basement door behind him, and let Shou inside the atrium. If anything, he might get lucky and be able to murder the guy without drawing any outside attention. "Alright kid, what do you want? Am I supposed to pay you off so you'll leave me alone now?"
Shou was taken aback. "Buddy! Pal! What do you take me for? I'm only here to help. Beast knew you'd be too proud to ask for any."
"I'm not your buddy. I don't even know you. We didn't even interact while our navis-"
"That's really what I'm here about." Shou cut off his host. "Our navis. I realize you don't have as much a handle on me. That's to be expected. Thing is, I'm just a free agent. A wanderer. An adventurer. A guy that can make his way anywhere he goes, but doesn't really have anywhere to go. I've been following Beastman's suggestions of destinations for months and he eventually led me here. It's kinda the reverse of the normal operator-navi relationship when you think about it."
"How positively wacky." Stuart intoned caustically. "If you're looking for direction, I'm happy to oblige. That direction would be 'away from me, as far and as fast as possible, never to cross paths again."
Shou laughed. "What a kidder! Seriously, you can't really be this dedicated to running solo? How do you manage to run a business without any partners?"
"I really don't need any help with my business. Working alone permits me more freedom than I ever had as part of a team. I also can't trust anyone but myself and my navi."
"Sure, you don't need any help? What were you doing when I walked up to your door? Took you a while to respond."
"Gh...None of your concern." Stuart sputtered, not wanting to admit he was asleep.
"Just saying, you could stand to have someone with experience in scams like this to take shifts, share the load, split the cut. Better than having me on the other side, right? I'm not out to rip you off, I'm just hanging out here so our navis don't have to split up the band."
"I could care less that...wait, you said that Beastman sniffed out..." Stuart yanked the PET out of his pocket. "Plant, what's happening in the garden?"
Plantman's voice came through strained and breaking. "It's...unbearable...I...I...can't get rid of them!"
Plant stood in the middle of his online greenhouse, feeling helpless as Beastman bounced and swung from vine to vine as the flora attempted to eject him. Bubbleman and Burstgirl were also there, lightly sprinkling the flowers with their water abilities, earning the living stronghold's affection and allegiance. Plantman was the only one not having the time of his life.
"They...showed up about half an hour ago and I thought I could chase them off, but...they're still here in my sanctuary!"
"Awesome place you got here, Plant!" Beastman complimented. "Thanks for letting us hang!"
"It shall make a splendid headquarters for the Bubble Brigade! Blub!" Bubbleman proclaimed confidently.
Plantman cringed. "Stuart...I'm out of ideas. Please tell me you have an idea."
"I...was kind of hoping you would have one." Stuart let his PET slump to his side. He then grit his teeth and looked back up to Shou. "You guys aren't taking 'no' for an answer, I take it?"
Shou shrugged. "Hey, they miss your old Acid Hackers team. Just admit that you do too and we can get back to combining our talents and taking over the world!"
"No, that's not-" Stuart pinched the bridge of his nose. "All I want is to make my fortune back."
"Oh good, because making fortunes is more my specialty."
"Whatever. If I let you and the navis hang out here, will you submit to taking dangerous missions into the South Netopian underworld to combat the massive drug cartel that's been hounding me?"
Shou's face lit up. He pulled out his own PET. "Hey, Beast! Your old pal says we get to go to South Netopia and fight drug lords!"
"Wooo!" Beast howled.
"We're in." Shou concluded with a salute.
Stuart shook his head in exasperation. "At least one of us is going to regret this decision...and I think it's going to be me either way."
* * *
"Is this location secure?"
"For now. It would be nice to move into a larger base though."
Blackbelt welcomed Smith into the remote abandoned cellar where he had moved his equipment. Much of it was still packed and there wasn't quite enough room to lay everything out anyway. It was a temporary solution.
"Well you might as well pick right up and move back to the basement you had before. Any data the Officials had that might have allowed them to find it was 'conveniently' altered to be useless." Smith informed.
"Thank you. I think I still need to wait a bit until the heat dies down to move though." Blackbelt remarked bitterly.
"What I'd like to know is why I'm even bothering to help you after that fiasco." Smith glared confrontationally at Blackbelt. "You rope me into your scheme, get me to risk my cover, all because of your system to control Darkloids and the most powerful energy source in the cyberworld, then just as you're proving that it works, it stops working. All was for nothing. Can you at least tell me what went wrong?"
Blackbelt retained his calm. He couldn't throw off the taint of failure, but he hoped there was still a chance to salvage the confidence his recently acquired partner had invested. "Desertman proved to be immune to my system. The reason why seems currently beyond our scientific understanding. All I can say is my system provided ironclad control of any navi, but Desertman was more than a navi that day. Should I be faulted for not anticipating that impossible possibility?"
"It doesn't matter how unlikely that outcome was, the point is that you had everything balancing on that system like a house of cards. I should have known it was a mistake when you charged into battle that quickly. It was stupidly reckless."
"There was a shrinking window. If we waited any longer the Darkloids's well would have been empty before I could tap it. It was a risky project from the start. I'm sorry you didn't have enough time to fully appreciate that going in. But you took the risk anyway and I want you to know it wasn't all for naught."
Smith chuckled derisively. "Here we go. Alright, tell me how all this actually went according to plan."
Blackbelt shook his head. "I wouldn't go that far, but it could have been worse. Neither of us were caught for starters. We should also appreciate that the Darkloids' original apocalyptic plan couldn't be carried out. There's a good chance it would have been a success without my involvement."
"You're not seriously trying to sell this as a win because it literally wasn't the end of the world, are you?"
"Well if it's just controlling the Dark Soul that interests you, I've confirmed there's yet another chance to harness that power."
Smith hesitantly dropped the veneer of contempt. "...Go on."
"Desertman's body was destroyed, but not the energy it contained. That was dispersed across the Undernet. It would take quite a while to gather up again, and it's been separated from the last remains of my control program, but for someone that knows how to detect, absorb, and control it, it's ripe for the taking."
Smith was intrgiued now. Blackbelt smiled as he walked around his equipment, envisioning his future. "I've been anything but discouraged after last week, you see. I've been inspired. I have a new project in the works that picks up the pieces of the last one while learning from past mistakes. There are just two elements I need to focus on now to prepare: research and manpower. Research to better understand this energy before utilizing it again, manpower to do the dirty work and to provide some much needed stability to the operation."
"So that's why you wanted me in? Manpower? Hmph. I consider myself to be worth more than just muscle."
"Oh, don't worry. The exact skills I'm looking to recruit are in the realm of leadership. One thing that became clear when Queen gave the Undernet her ultimatum was that Under Dwellers aren't the type of people to cow to bold shows of force like that. Surprisingly enough, the only authority they respect remains that antiquated Ranking of theirs. I would have thought it was on its way out since Serenade withdrew and threw the whole thing into confusion, but by the numbers that showed up to besiege the castle there are still a lot of Heels that lust after the minimal clout they get for following that nonsensical tradition. Fortunately, a few of the new Ranked were deleted during that assault so the whole political power of the Undernet is up in the air again."
Smith was greatly amused by this point. "So your idea to directly usurp the Undernet's throne failed, and now you plan to claim that throne legitimately by playing their game."
Blackbelt nodded. "That will be the fun part. I only need ten navis on my side to have a lock on the entire roster. I already have nine decent candidates from my own menagerie. Flashman would make it a full deck."
"That does sound fun. Would I have to be the Rank you decide?"
"We could have our navis compete with each other for the choice spots if that suits you. In the end, all that matters is that the plebs of the Undernet will be compelled to obey our every whim, making them the workers for my next big project. Having all the hidden resources of the Undernet at our disposal will also make it less likely for the entire plan to be uprooted by one unexpected wildcard."
"And what makes you so sure you can climb the Rankings so easily?"
Blackbelt's dismissive side-eye spoke volumes. "The bottom tier of my navi slaves was Rank 2. I think we have the power threshold covered."
"Fair enough. You've sold me." Smith reached out to shake Blackbelt's hand. "What did you have in mind for the research portion?"
"I think you know. That'd be the other reason I called you. You still have her number?"
Smith sighed and took out his PET. A call was already in progress. "It's a good thing you wanted to bring her in, because it just so happens we've been working out our own deal." He spoke up for the sake of the person on the other end of the line. "Hey there, Alia. Say hello to your new associate, Blackbelt."
There was a moment of considered silence, but Alia ultimately answered. "Greetings, Blackbelt. I've been looking forward to working with you."
Blackbelt frowned. "Is that why you were listening to this conversation in secret?"
"I wasn't sure your partnership with Smith would be salvaged. I decided it was best to observe silently. I'm glad we won't have to split our efforts."
"Whatever." Blackbelt sighed with resignation. "Do you think you're up to the task of analyzing and collecting all the Dark Energy scattered across the Undernet?"
"Absolutely!" Alia replied eagerly. "As I already informed Smith, my brief association with Darklight beared fruit in the form of very detailed notes on Darkloids straight from the labs of the Nebula Syndicate. His data combined with mine and yours has the potential to form the most robust account of the Dark Soul phenomenon in the world!"
"And that will give us the means to control it, right?" Smith added.
"Knowledge is power, my friend." Alia responded. "You'll have more control than the rest of the ignorant masses, at any rate."
"I'm satisfied." Blackbelt made a sinister grin. "Then our alliance is formed. I didn't think I would be part of a team again, but I must admit that with the right preconditions, it has its merits. I suppose we should have a name for ourselves now..."
Smith considered it. "If we're going to secure rule of the Undernet, might as well start calling us 'The Ranked.'"
"That would be confusing until that goal is actually accomplished." Blackbelt countered. "I was thinking that since we aim to manipulate network society by secretly pulling the strings of its shadow government, we could adopt a suitably clandestine title, something that carries weight like 'The Illuminati.'"
"If our binding field is in darkness, a light-based name is hardly appropriate." Alia scoffed. "Might as well go for the opposite -- 'Tenebrosi.'"
Blackbelt locked eyes with Smith and they both nodded. "That sounds about perfect to me." Blackbelt acknowledged. "Well then, Tenebrosi, here's to a new Dark Age."