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"I've always wanted one of these." Shou admired the taser he had found in the under-monitored Officials' equipment locker that he had opened with a keycard he surreptitiously borrowed from one of the otherwise occupied officers. He casually pocketed it and continued to browse. "Oh, a portable police scanner? That'll be handy in the fight for justice! Now, where do they keep their smoke bombs? Officials have that sort of thing, right?"
He might have been asking Beastman if not just talking to himself. He occasionally forgot that he had left Beastman with the Officials so they could do the more important job of saving the world. It just so happened that Beast's position also made for a good distraction so Shou could collect some souveniers of his Netopian visit. It wasn't like the Officials would miss a few weapons and gadgets anyway, probably.
Shou abruptly put down the grenade launcher and spun around. A young woman with unkempt brown hair, a grey hoodie, and an unamused expression got the drop on him. He frowned. He was usually pretty alert when he was someplace he wasn't supposed to be. "What are you doing here? This is a restricted area!"
"I was going to ask you that..." The girl raised her eyebrow.
"Can't you see I'm here on Official business? There's a crisis afoot and we need all the firepower we can muster!" Shou lied as nimbly as he could.
"Well, if you're really working with the Officials here, you can direct me to the room where they're operating from currently. I'm looking for Hoshiko."
"Oh, certainly. She's keeping an eye on my PET. Because I really am working with the Officials here and that proves it." Shou glanced side-to-side. It seemed like the girl was more involved with the Officials than her casual appearance suggested. "So...since I'm pretty much done here anyway, I can take you there."
"Good." She beckoned for him to lead the way. "You can leave the things you took from here."
"Didn't you hear me? There's a crisis!"
"I know. On the net. You won't need a taser for that. I can verify that with the other Officials when we get there, if you want."
Cornered, Shou froze for a moment to try to think his way out of it. Coming up dry, he grumbled in defeat and emptied his pockets of almost everything. When she continued to stare daggers at him, he capitulated and left everything else. "Great. Let's go." She led him out and closed the door behind them.
After a minute of walking down the hallway, Shou brought the girl into the dispatch room with the rest of the group. They had been getting reacquainted with the recovered Flamechick and Shademan, and they were wondering where Shou had slipped off to once it was time to return his PET. Hoshiko forgot about that once she recognized whom Shou had reappeared with. "Lyric? What are you doing here?"
"I...uh...need your help." Lyric said nervously, avoiding eye contact.
Hoshiko was dumbfounded. "I'm sorry...this isn't a good time, you don't understand what's happening right now."
"Yeah...I do, actually. Believe me, I'd much rather be at home right now, but if you help me, I can help you."
"What?" Moe shook his head. "Look, we have enough uninvited guests here already." He tossed Beastman's PET back to the shifty-eyed Shou. "Where did you go, anyway? Gathering more people off the street?"
"Just trying to keep useful while my PET was occupied." Shou shrugged. "I was looking for tools to help in the battle when this one got in the way."
"This is my friend, Lyric. One of my new neighbors." Hoshiko explained, holding her palm out at the other Officials while getting between them and the new visitor. She then turned to her. "Were you looking for me here? I don't remember mentioning where I worked..."
"I...already knew." Lyric cringed. It was an awkward moment, but she was determined to power through it. "I knew because I'm an Official too, and we've worked together before. I'm Spider's-...Metalman's operator."
This got everyone's attention. Moe, Tricia, Hoshiko, and Darklight didn't know what to expect from the mystery of Metalman, but such an inconspicuous girl revealing herself at such a place and time was even more bizarre than they dreamed. "What do you mean? Why didn't you mention that before?" Hoshiko asked, not sure how to interpret their earlier interactions.
"Where have you been all this time? I've never seen you in this building before." Tricia added in.
"My post is Undernet Surveillance." Lyric admitted bitterly. "It's a cover op, so my navi and I are not supposed to be publicly known. For Spider, that became moot once he merged with Metalman. For me, well...I'm kind of stuck now that Metal's been captured. My supervisor informed me that you guys had found a way to fix that, and authorized that I break my cover to come here."
The explanation didn't sit too well with Hoshiko. "So...what did you mean by approaching me if you knew who I was? Was that part of your surveillance? You were just pretending to be a friendly neighbor to keep tabs on me or something?"
"N-no..." Lyric closed her eyes tightly in embarrassment. "I'm sorry I haven't been up front with you. I wasn't supposed to talk to you at all before. But...I couldn't just stand by after Spider and I were already involved. I'm partly responsible for everything you and your navi have been through this week. I wanted to help you...not just from the shadows."
"I see...I guess it was a weird situation." Hoshiko smiled and laughed softly. "Thank you for your help, even if it was awkwardly delivered."
"Uh, yeah. Anytime." Lyric relaxed slightly. Her countenance then quickly became serious once more. "Of course, it won't matter until you help me free Metalman from this thing."
The others nodded. Tricia stepped in. "Well, what we did for Flamechick and Shademan was get our navis to hold them down while their operators talked them out of it."
"That's it?" Lyric was incredulous. "How does that work?"
"I agree it shouldn't have been so easy..." Darklight mused while analyzing Shademan's data on his PET. "There seems to be a weak point in Blackbelt's control model that we managed to stumble upon. Our spiritual connections...or whatever you'd call it...helped get our navis back, but something else was separating them from the Darkloids' influence. We merely exploited the opportunity that created."
Moe looked up. "What's the weak point? It would sure help if we could exploit it directly."
"I don't know yet. All I know is that I expected Shademan to simply take control of the darkness that infected him, but he's right back to the same levels I lost him with. That darkness went somewhere else. If Blackbelt didn't know what was happening before, I suspect he has a better clue than us at the moment."
"Perhaps Blackbelt actually engineered those escapes as some kind of trap." Lyric suggested, proving she was already up to speed on their enemy.
"Why would he willingly let some of the strongest navis in his arsenal get away?" Moe shook his head. "He already had the advantage, I don't see how such a trap was supposed to work."
"Well, it wouldn't hurt to exploit it one more time." Hoshiko placed her hand on Lyric's shoulder. "We'll get Metalman to hold still, will you be able to talk him into breaking free?"
Lyric thought about the proposed plan, but she harbored some doubts. "Maybe..." After a moment she nodded. "Actually, I may be able to do one better..."
* * *
Electric light filled the dark Undernet sky for a moment, followed by several Official navis falling to the ground in paralysis. Flashman had failed to keep Flamechick from reverting, and Smith wasn't letting him have a break since then. The time for sitting on the sidelines was past. Now it was all hands on deck to win the battle. As little of a personal stake Flash had in the outcome of the conflict, he secretly welcomed the opportunity to do what he was best at -- zapping do-gooders.
One brave Official, a Normal Type-W that was resistant to the Electric Light's effects, charged in with a Bamboo Sword to put an end to the bright blue killer. But Flash teleported at the last second, avoiding the swing of the blade and appearing behind the startled navi, deleting him with the Totem3 Smith kept on hand for just such a counter. Flashman didn't revel much in the victory. As he continued to assassinate unprepared navis at blinding speed, he only felt that it was too easy. "Is this what I'm reduced to? Dealing with the fodder crowd?" He implored no one in particular, knowing his operator would ignore him.
"Good news!" An unseen other announced as a Dark Hole emerged above him and a swarm of bats emerged to attack him no matter where he teleported. "Your boredom is at an end!"
Flash stopped warping around to avoid the fluttering nuisances and released a small burst of light to vaporize them, simultaneously revealing the shadow of Darklady, who was already casting aside stealth in favor of direct combat. "Why do I always end up squaring off against you?" He grumbled. "You're not even supposed to be free to act on your own right now."
"Maybe I keep coming back for you out of spite." Darklady teased. "Well, some version of me anyway. I have no memory of meeting you before yesterday, but I'll take any excuse for a good challenge." She activated a SummonBlack chip, pulling a Nightmare virus servant from a Dark Hole to help her and her axe in hacking away at their agile opponent.
"Big deal, do you even realize you're fighting a distraction?" Flash cut the Nightmare away with an ElecSword and paid her back for the bats by shooting her with a few BeeArrows. "I'm fighing you because I have to, and the outcome doesn't matter. Don't you have something better to do with your time right now?"
"Not at all! My orders were to target you anyway, so here I am. Not my problem if it doesn't matter." Darklady dodged the electric stings and backed up to throw a BugBomb in Flashman's path.
Flash teleported out of the way of the smoke-filled explosion and surrounded Darklady with KillerSensors. "Ha ha ha. I guess it's neither of our problem then. Let's have a fun, pointless fight then."
"That's apparently my specialty." A timely BlackBarrier absorbed the unavoidable laser attacks, giving Darklady a chance to bring out a DarkSword. To her surprise, Flashman parried the massive blade with a blast of purple-hued electricity. The DarkThunder chip. "A darkchip from a navi that's all about light? Really?" She remarked with some amusement.
"That's just the company I keep these days." Flashman sighed and used the surge from the DarkThunder to repel Darklady's attack. "It's not as if I would lower myself to your level by choice."
Darklady actually felt insulted, though she didn't let it slow down her assault. "Looking down on darkchips? Oh, I'm sure you'll get used to them soon enough. I'm just starting to notice how satisfying they can be, myself." She smirked as she readied a DarkLance chip. She only had to get Flashman into the right position, and it would all be over.
Just then, Alia cut in. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Darklady. Don't delete him unless you absolutely have to."
"Huh!?" Darklady sputtered. "You told me to get this guy, and now you don't want him deleted?"
"Pay better attention next time. I never said to delete him, just to find him. I have some questions for him. Just get close enough so he can hear me through the PET channel."
Darklady's eyes darted around in a mix of frustration and uncertainty. "You can't be serious! What am I supposed to do? I can't grab him with that teleport ability he has!"
"Figure it out! One BugBomb should suffice in making him an easy target. Just throw one with better timing." Alia advised as if it couldn't be easier.
"Oh, I'll figure something out..." Darklady murmured ominously before activating a DropDown chip and fading from sight.
Flashman chuckled. "Invisibility? Thought you would have learned by now..." He summoned a pair of lamp posts for his biggest flash attack. "You can't escape my light!"
"Wasn't trying to get away." She reappeared just behind Flash with her hands on his shoulders while her axe and another Nightmare summon kept the lamps from activating automatically. "Just wanted to get closer..."
Flash was caught off guard, but he knew better than to let Darklady get cozy with him. "You really are crazy if you think I'd ever let you lay a hand -- hey!" He tried to teleport a few panels away, but found he lacked the light energy. In the moment since dropping down behind him, Darklady had yanked the light orbs from his shoulders.
"Oh, so you do need these things to use your powers. Just checking." Darklady smugly tossed the bulbs behind her and they fell over the edge of the platform and into the abyss. She then leaned back into her signficantly dimmer fluorescent foe as her axe returned to her hands.
Flash raised another ElecSword defensively. "Bring it on then. I can regenerate those in seconds anyway." His blade clashed with Dark's axe. Both fighters pushed into each other's weapon, refusing to relent, at least until Flashman could teleport again. He wasn't accustomed to evading attacks by any other method.
Alia took the opportunity to make her play. "Before you do, I don't suppose I could have a word with your op?"
"Sorry lady, he's not the talkative type." Flash responded, still locked in the weapons' clash.
"But it's not Blackbelt, right? Aside from that he seems pretty eager to gloat when given the chance, I overheard you mention a second guy in the last encounter. The takeaway is that he's not working alone."
Flashman became slightly nervous. Smith had programmed in a mental block against revealing his secrets, but apparently he could still drop clues by accident. "W-what does it matter? I'm not telling you anything useful."
"You have no idea what's useful to me. For instance, the fact that you're on darkchips but you're not one of the zombies over there..." Alia continued casually, making Flashman look more confused and nervous. "...It tells me your op isn't just going along with the one darkness-based scheme in play. I detect an appreciation for the potential in that field. That's why I know you didn't just dispose of the Officials' research after you stole it." Alia was starting to make Darklady nervous as well. Both Dark and Flash gradually eased off on their struggle without even realizing until their weapons were lowered and they were just standing there exchanging troubled looks, wondering exactly where Alia was going with all this.
"Alright, I'm listening." Smith at last spoke up, apparently catching on to what the navis didn't want to. "Who are you supposed to be?"
"Not an Official, despite what you may think. Just a consultant."
Smith didn't respond to that, but he actually believed her. He wasn't about to let the stranger know he had pretty reliable insider information on who was an Official or not since he was an Official himself. He had been curious where Darklady had come from and why she had been helping the Officials at the archive, so he was secretly grateful the mysterious third party was being fairly candid here.
Encountering no skepticism, Alia proceeded with her introduction. "I'm a researcher first and foremost. I'm interested in the phenomenon of darkchips and I offered assistance to the Officials in exhange for access to their data on the matter. You and your associates have that data now."
There was a pause, during which the unseen Smith was shaking his head and smirking. "I see. So you're hoping to strike a deal with us now?" He scoffed. "Nice try. You have nothing we want and I have every reason to suspect this is a cheap ploy, so suck it."
"Charming." Alia said sarcastically. "You know, if not for a whim, I would have that data already, but I decided to hedge my bets."
"Really, now." Smith still couldn't take her seriously, but he figured it was better to keep her talking while he pondered her true nature. "Go on."
"In the archive, Darklady could have caught Mistman before he escaped with the data, but I pulled her out instead."
"What!?" Darklady exclaimed. This came as news to her as well. She didn't even clearly remember that moment since her mind was taken over by Blackbelt's server shortly thereafter. "Why?"
"Because it looked like Drillman was going to get the data back for the Officials anyway, and in letting Mistman go I was able to explore another scenario by seeing exactly what you intended to do with that data."
"Sounds like the kind of half-assed excuse one would come up with to explain why they failed." Smith shrugged.
"Ask Mistman what happened." Alia prodded.
"If you wanted him to vouch for you, you should have tried to talk to him instead of me." Smith said dismissively.
"You're the operator here. The navi is only good for information, not decisions."
Smith noted the response and took another look at Darklady. For the first time he saw the navi's discomfort and frustration, the same demeanor he had instilled in Flashman, and he began to realize this other operator really did have more in common with him and Blackbelt than she did with the Officials. "Well...I might check with him then...Nonetheless, you still haven't explained why I should care in the first place."
Alia smiled coyly and began entering commands into her PET. "Well I'm not going to bother offering you anything now, while all...this...is going on. So how about you just remember me for when your plan fails?"
"What makes you so sure it will?" Smith returned, unimpressed.
"Because I know things you don't. That's why you'll want to deal with me. You may delete him now, Dark."
"Wha-seriously?" Before Darklady knew what was even happening, she was stabbing the DarkLance through the shocked Flashman's chest. He was defeated and the line of communication with his operator was cut. "Huh...I'm confused. Did you want him on your side or not? If that was just a trick to get his navi to let down his guard, I really don't think all that was necessary."
"Don't worry about it. Just do your job. There are more enemies to dispatch." Alia commanded mirthlessly.
"Hmph. No kidding." Darklady threw her arms up in defeat. She would just deal with the emotional roller coaster her operator subjected her to the same way as usual, with healthy bouts of violence.
* * *
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