Chapter 28: No Side


Enzan slowly opened his eyes. He found himself staring at the ceiling of an ordinary building, and for a moment wondered why he wasn’t looking at a grid-pattern. He slowly tilted his head, studying the room he was in. Enzan quickly made a face as his surroundings registered with his brain. He was in a hospital room. Again. Maybe he had dreamed the last part of his experience, and he was still Hikari Enzan. Maybe Miyuki did shoot him, and he was somehow alive. After being shot. And falling off a building.

Enzan closed his eyes and groaned. Every time he had figured something out, something else came along to make it more complicated. Maybe Rockman would—

No, Rockman was gone. That much he remembered. Suddenly he wished very much that it had all been a dream, and he was still Hikari Enzan. Rockman wasn’t dead, Blues hadn’t been stabbed right before his eyes, and they both weren’t mere copies of real navis. Everything would be all right. Everything was okay…


His own relentless logic quickly shattered his illusions. It had all been real.

Enzan opened his eyes again and looked around some more. There was a table beside his bed. For some odd reason, it was covered with flowers and cards… and there was something red on the edge of the table. His heart jumping in his chest, Enzan reached out to grab it—or tried to do so. His arm ached with shooting pains when he tried to move it, and once he finally did pull it out from under the covers, he found to his horror it was extremely pale and sickly-looking. He could see his blue veins underneath the skin and almost felt sick.

The red object caught his eye again, taunting him, and he forced himself to reach out and grab it. Once he did, he almost dropped it. His arm had no strength in it at all. He managed to prop it on his stomach, one of his pale fingers shakily pressing a button to activate the PET. On the small screen, blue-colored windows sailed back and forth, and in the corner of the screen, a swirl of data formed into the figure of Blues.

“Enzan-sama,” he said. His flat, almost emotionless voice sounded like angels singing to his operator.

“Blues,” Enzan whispered, his voice hoarse. “I’m so glad to see you.”

Blues didn’t answer for a moment. “Why did you do that to me?” he asked finally.

Enzan knew he was referring to what he had done in the NetWorld, forcing Blues to go first through the gate. “I had to try and convince him, even if it was hopeless,” he said softly. “That and… I didn’t want to risk losing you. As long as I saw you go first, I knew you’d be safe.”

“That’s foolish,” Blues scolded. Then his expression melted into his usual mask. “I didn’t mean…”

“No, you’re right, it was,” Enzan admitted. He smiled. “I don’t ever want to lose you again.”

Blues thought that over silently.

The door swung open, and a nurse walked in, a tray in her hands. She stopped dead when she saw Enzan. “You… you were in a coma!” she exclaimed.

“Was I?” Enzan asked, confused.

“For two full weeks,” Blues informed him.

“I gotta… you…” The nurse let out a small shriek and whirled, running out of the room. “Ijuuin-san! Ijuuin-san! Your son is awake! He’s awake!”

--                         --                         --

The room was very large and spacious, but for once, there were plenty of people to fill that space up. Some of them, Saloma felt, probably shouldn’t be there. They had played a small part, if not any part at all, in the past events. Yet they had a right to know, Commander Beef had insisted. They were involved, even if it was indirectly. She doubted they would understand everything, but maybe Beef had a point. Miyuki, in any event, hadn’t complained about it, and Saloma felt it would be wrong of her to do so.

Three weeks had past since the fall of Immersion. They had been designated by the press and authorities as a “net mafia,” although they their most damaging endeavor had little effect on the Internet. All of the major figures in the group had been arrested and awaited trail, and it wasn’t long before everyone involved, even the ignorant workers, had been rounded up. The workers had been released, but the government had still fined them for their involvement, something Miyuki had been oddly outspoken about, complaining of the unfairness of it. Saloma learned from Commander Beef that she had helped pay some of the fines herself, because most of the workers were poor immigrants from Korea or China, and had little or no money to pay it themselves. Some of them didn’t even speak Japanese, and Saloma couldn’t help agree about the unfairness of holding them responsible.

As for everyone Immersion’s doings had affected, they were all gathered in the Net Agent’s meeting room. Her gaze drifted over the room, taking account of who was there. Meiru sat between her parents, talking excitedly to Yaito across the table. Dekao was listening to his brother’s happy jabbering, while his mother kept a strong grip on her youngest son’s shoulder. Hikawa Seiji was speaking to Yaito’s father, one arm around Tohru’s shoulders. Higure Yamitaro was talking to the children’s teacher, Mariko-sensei, while Midorikawa Kero looked around the room excitedly, scribbling on a notepad. She was probably, Saloma thought dryly, writing a story on it, being the reporter that she was. The green-haired girl resolved to talk to the woman afterward about keeping certain details private.

Hikari Netto sat between his parents as well, absorbed in a conversation with his father and his navi. Once Netto had regained his memories completely, he was delighted to be reunited with his navi again, although he seemed to have an aura of sadness about him. Commander Beef had talked to him about the last few events in the NetWorld, but Netto was strangely quiet about it. Occasionally, Hikari Haruka would reach over and give her son’s shoulder a squeeze, as if to make sure he wouldn’t disappear.

Sitting in a far corner where the members of World Three. Madoi and Elec were arguing loudly about something, while Mahajarama sat with his eyes closed and his arms crossed serenely in front of him, pretending to ignore his companions. Saloma grinned. When they were teamed up briefly, she had grown used to their antics and bickering and almost missed it when they went back to their curry restaurant. When they weren’t busy being evil or trying to cause havoc, they weren’t bad people.

Saloma blinked and shook her head. Did she actually just have a nice thought about the members of World Three? No, that was impossible. She wasn’t getting enough sleep at nights, that’s all it was.

Hino Ken was standing near Commander Beef. He had a part to play in what they were about to present. To Saloma’s surprise when she glanced his way, he was deeply in conversation with Miyuki. Now that was strange, and interesting too. Saloma made another note to ask Miyuki what had occurred between them when they were locked in that back room together. Probably nothing… but it never hurt to ask.

The last person to catch her eye was Ijuuin Enzan and his father. He was last because, unlike the others, he wasn’t considered fully recovered, and still had to get around in a wheelchair. He looked healthier now than he did when he was in a coma, but his skin was still extremely pale, suffering from lack of sunlight. His gaze was fixed on the PET in his hands, as it had been since he entered the room. The doctors had assured the Net Agents that there wasn’t anything wrong with the boy, physically. Saloma only had to wonder if he was healthy in the mental department. Ijuuin the senior stood behind his wheelchair, scanning the room with his icy gaze.

“Ahem.” Commander Beef finally moved to stand at the head of the table, waiting until all noise had died down. He waited a little longer than necessary, Saloma thought, enjoying having all eyes on him.

“I’m betting you’re wondering why I all called you here.”

That was met with groans from the Netto and his friends, and a rude hooting sound from Count Elec.

“Get on with it, man!” Elec shouted.

“Quiet down!” Hino Ken yelled back. “Let the man speak, even if he is an old blowhard.”

Beef glared at the red-haired man. “Thank you. However, I do not require you standing up for me ever again.”

Hino Ken grinned. “No problem.”

“Hey, why are they here to begin with?” Netto cried, pointing a finger at World Three. “They’re the bad guys!”

Madoi stuck her tongue out at the boy. Elec tried to flip him off, but Mahajarama stopped him.

“They aren’t the bad guys in this case,” Beef said firmly. “And they had a large part in it. They have every right to be here, Netto, just the same as you do.”

Netto frowned and crossed his arms. “Hrmph.”

“All right,” Saloma said, interrupting. “You all know why we’re here. Immersion and their NetWorld had affected us all, and we believe you all deserve to know the full story behind it. It’s a long one, though, so we please ask for your patience and quiet until we are done. Feel free then to ask questions, but please don’t try to interrupt.”

“Thank you, Saloma,” Commander Beef said after a moment, both grateful at her for calming them down and peeved he wasn’t able to do it himself. “And actually, we’d like Ijuuin-san to start this story for us. His actions a year ago inadvertently caused some of this, although he is not to blame.”

Ijuuin walked toward the front of the room without a backwards glance at his son. Saloma frowned at the action. Ijuuin did not act like a father; in fact, it was hard to believe he was one at all. Enzan’s slight resemblance to his father only made it harder to believe their relation.

“A year ago, I had a meeting with my board members and top executives of my company,” he began. “We had been without a vice president for some time, and I finally found someone competent enough to take the job; my son, Enzan.”

Enzan slowly raised his head to look at his father, but reminded silent. Competent? he repeated mentally. More like you were desperate.

“However, several people in my company did not agree with my decision,” Ijuuin continued. “When I made it clear that it was final, the bitter ones who thought they should have gotten the position resigned from the company. One of them was Watanabe Yuuhi, the main protagonist of Immersion.”

“The prota-wha?” Netto whispered.

“The ring leader,” his father replied in a low tone.

“They set themselves up in positions in other companies to try and undermine IPC,” Ijuuin said. “When that didn’t work, one of them happened to stumble upon a small, struggling virtual reality group called Immersion. That’s where my part ends, for now.” He nodded at Beef and walked back to his son.

“And where our part begins,” the Net Agent said, picking up the story. “Immersion’s theories were pure in the beginning; they sought to make the perfect virtual reality program that would change the world. However, they had no way of making that project, and in desperation turned to net crime to help fund what little they had.”

Saloma nodded. “That put them on our watch list, but since they were so small and their crimes too miniscule, we never followed up on them. There’s so much we have to keep track of, and the likes of Immersion weren’t worth our time. Or so we thought,” she added grimly.

“Immersion grew more desperate over time,” Beef continued. “Until they heard of a project, a secret project that the Science Labs were working on. We think by this time Watanabe and her group had joined them, and together, they made plans to steal the project.”

“The project?” Kero interrupted, frowning. “What project was that?”

Dr. Hikari stood up from his chair. “Well, it’s not much of a secret any longer,” he admitted. “So I might as well tell you. You all were subject in something that was the direct result of our project—the NetWorld. We were working on a way to project the human consciousness into the Internet in a form similar to a navi. In theory, if we could do that, we could have also found ways to cure mental diseases and disorders we couldn’t do with current resources because of the delicacy of the brain. If we could separate the mind from the body and work remotely, the possibilities to help an individual without harming them was tremendous.

“To make a long story short, we had tried projecting the mind into a computer system, just like a navi, with no results. So instead of projecting the mind outward, we started working on ways to project the system into the mind.”

“Into the mind?” Hikawa Seiji said with surprise. “You mean like sending a navi into a system?”

“Sort of,” Dr. Hikari answered. “More like bringing the system to the navi. However, that was found to be even more complicated than projecting the mind out. It was dangerous to try without first guaranteeing that the system, once inside the mind, wouldn’t take the mind with it once it left. And we ran into another problem, one that even Immersion never figured out how to fix, if they even bothered to go that far. We couldn’t connect the mind to something like the Internet. It had to be a single system, or else the connection would just refuse to be made. Because each part of the system had to be projected into the mind, something as huge as the Internet was impossible to conquer.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Dekao’s father admitted, frowning.

“Let me see if I can explain.” Dr. Hikari paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “The NetWorld operated by wiring itself to the unused part of the human brain—which is quite large. From there, it transferred enough data to draw the conscious mind into its fabricated world. Then it linked itself to another mind, and another, and another. Soon it had you all connected, like a mainframe and its servers.

“However, the NetWorld couldn’t take one person’s consciousness, and transport it to someone else’s mind to make them interact. Our research showed that to be impossible, but Immersion figured out something we didn’t. They didn’t have to remove someone from their own mind in order to make them connect with others in the NetWorld. By creating a link large enough, they were able to bring contact between those in the NetWorld without crossing them over.”

“Huh?” Netto said after a moment of silence.

“Think of it like animals in cages.”

Everyone at the table wiped their heads around and stared in surprise at the speaker. Enzan stared back at them, unblinking.

“If you have many animals in large, separate cages, they can’t come in contact with one another, even if there was something linking them—say, a path from one to the other,” Enzan continued. “The animals in the cages cannot interact with each other, and you can’t just transfer them to another cage to cause interaction. So what the NetWorld did, in this example, was to bring the cages so close that they were touching each other. The inhabitants were kept separate, but they were now close enough to interact with each other. So if the animals were your mental selves, and the cage was the confines of your brain, all the NetWorld did was make the connection so close that you could feel, see, and hear the other person, even if you were in separate bodies.”

“That’s very close to it,” Dr. Hikari said. “Because of the NetWorld’s illusions, you thought you were all in one world together—but your minds were in completely separate places. You could interact, touch and feel, but that was all part of the influence the NetWorld had. None of the contact was real.”

“I still don’t get it,” Madoi complained.

“At this point, I don’t think you ever will,” Mahajarama said quietly. “It’s a complicated process to think about, no matter how much it is simplified. What matters is that the NetWorld did not take them from their bodies and put them in a system like navis; the NetWorld invaded their bodies and operated the illusion from within. That’s how they were able to be so successful—they manipulated the mind to fool itself.”

“Exactly,” Dr. Hikari nodded.

“This is very fascinating, but what happened with Immersion?” Ayano-Kouji asked.

“They somehow stole our basic research without us ever finding out,” Dr. Hikari said grimly.

“While we had been busy not taking them seriously, they figured out how to hack into systems without being detected,” Miyuki said, speaking up for the first time. “We suspect now that it was done by Watanabe’s navi.”

Dr. Hikari frowned. “Sorry to interrupt again, but something has been bothering me. How did they create a system intelligent enough to control multiple minds at once, and was self-aware? We could never figure that part out.”

“Simply because they used something that would horrify you to even think of,” Beef said grimly. “Apparently, Watanabe’s navi had an ability she programmed herself—the ability to take on the shape and form of any other navi. It could even copy the data, making it identical. That’s how it got in and out of the Science Labs without being detected. This ability of the navi to adapt gave them an idea.”

“No…” Dr. Hikari whispered, looking horrified. “You don’t mean…”

Beef nodded. “They used the poor navi as their central consciousness of the NetWorld. The poor thing, which didn’t have much mental capability to begin with, was twisted into something evil and possibly insane by the process.”

“That’s horrible!” Yaito cried. “Navis aren’t meant to do things like run entire systems! Their data would have to be completely warped to do something like that.”

“And so it was,” Beef replied. “And it worked. The navi became the NetWorld, body and soul. And that was how the NetWorld worked—it was run by a sentient mind.”

“Yes, yes, yes, this is interesting, but back to the story!” Madoi cried.

Beef cleared his throat. “Anyway, now that they had discovered the system, they could make a profit off of it. But some of them weren’t satisfied with that, Watanabe included. They wanted more. They wanted to destroy the thing that nearly destroyed them, the Internet, and more importantly, gain revenge.”

“So they began by attacking places in the Internet, like the Science Labs and the Cossack Lab,” Saloma said. “While we where busy with that, they began collecting their victims for the NetWorld, starting with the one most dangerous to them, Hikari-hakase. Before we had caught on, they had gotten almost everyone they wanted. We tried to protect those we thought would be potential targets, but again, they got more people, people we wouldn’t even dream of being involved. We didn’t even think the families were in danger until they took most of the Oyama family, save Chisao.”

“But why?” Haruka asked. “Why were we made to live out that false life? Why did they go to such ends to do that?”

“They had several reasons,” Beef said. “To power the NetWorld, they programmed it to feed off the emotions of those trapped inside—they made your life miserable, Hikari-san, to do just that, and they made Hikari-hakase a drunk so his sharp mind would never suspect the truth. They got a lot of power from those emotions, making them pick the N1 Grand Prix as an ideal time because of the high tension involved. But still, that wasn’t enough power to satisfy them.”

“Indeed,” Hino Ken said, cutting in. “The attacks on the Internet were a disguise to hide the links they placed there, links that would carry the power the NetWorld generated to overwhelm and destroy everything. But, because they needed something to create massive power surge and for revenge, they decided to kill Ijuuin Enzan.”

“But I thought the NetWorld wasn’t real,” Tohru protested. “How could they kill him?”

“In that aspect, the NetWorld was very real,” Hino Ken replied. “Because it intruded into the mind, whatever happened in it sent shockwaves throughout the brain. A person, thinking he or she had died in the NetWorld, would die in the real would. The brain would think it was dead, and literally shut down on its own, no matter the health of the person. It’s like being hypnotized, only much, much stronger.”

“And in order to accomplish this, they created the prime subject to begin with,” Beef announced. “Hikari Netto, you were the subject they watched so carefully. It was because of your involvement in the NetWorld that everything happened the way it did.”

Enzan jerked, and wondered for a moment if he had gone into shock. It was all about Hikari? he thought with disbelief. Then why do all that to me? Just for fun?

Miyuki looked straight at him. “In order to create the Final Scenario, the death of ‘Hikari Enzan,’ they changed things around,” she said. “To keep Hikari-hakase busy, they made him a drunk, and to manipulate your death, Enzan, they made you an evil, twisted monster. You see, their plan was to have the subject kill Hikari Enzan.”

“No way!” Netto slammed his fist down on the table and stood up. “No way would I kill Enzan, or anyone for that matter!”

“Apparently, Immersion believed they could manipulate you into doing it,” Hino Ken said. “And having faced the power of the NetWorld myself, I believe they were right.”

“But…” Netto trailed off, looking back at Enzan. The boy seemed paler than usual, and looked as if he were going to be sick. He saved my life! Netto’s mind screamed at him. He saved my life, and I was supposed to kill him?

“We tried our best to foil them,” Beef said grimly. “We sent Miyuki in as a spy, and when she was captured, Hino Ken agreed to be a subject in the NetWorld. After I showed him their plans, he knew he had no choice. Of course, I had to make an agreement with him to keep the rest of World Three safe at all costs…”

“Hey!” Hino Ken snapped. “I told you not to mention that, fish man!”

“Hino Ken went into the NetWorld to protect us?” Elec said, unable to believe it.

“Wow,” was all Madoi could say.

“I knew it,” Mahajarama said simply. “He would have never done it for any other reason.”

Hino Ken turned a shade of red that was slightly lighter than his hair and slunk back into the shadows. Now his comrades would never let him hear the end of his “valiant sacrifice” to save their tails. He thought about stabbing Beef now, but decided he was outnumbered, and fumed silently instead.

“But eventually they caught on to Hino Ken, but not before he made a very important discovery,” Beef added quickly, ignoring Hino Ken’s glare of impending death.

“He found out that I was not who I was supposed to be,” Enzan said. His face had returned to its original color, pale that color was, but he was still shaky inside. “He found out that I remembered I was Ijuuin Enzan.”

“And that nearly got you killed too,” Hino Ken snapped, changing focus from Beef to the boy. “I warned you not to tell anyone, and what do you do? You call a meeting and told every creature in existence! You were lucky that didn’t get you killed right there and then!”

“Actually, that probably saved his life,” Miyuki said dully. “By trying to reveal the truth, he forced the NetWorld to do something drastic and change its plans. Once Netto believed him, the NetWorld couldn’t make him kill Enzan anymore. His free will would fight it to the end.”

“But why did Enzan know who he was, but nobody else did?” Meiru asked.

“As far as we can figure it, the NetWorld made a mistake,” Beef said. “It was too busy focusing on the programming to keep Netto on track that it simply couldn’t control the complex programming that was to change Enzan. It certainly tried, but for some reason, the programming never took, and the NetWorld never found out until Enzan got its attention.”

“A mistake?” Enzan repeated, unable to believe his ears.

“The NetWorld was beautifully made, but Immersion expected too much of it,” Dr. Hikari said. “Just like the Net Agents and their comrades found that they couldn’t see what was happening in the Networld when their navis entered it, neither could the NetWorld see everything that happened. It was so busy running the systems, it couldn’t pay attention to what was being said or done.”

“However, Immersion was keeping a careful eye on Hino Ken, and it noticed when Enzan did things he wasn’t supposed to,” Saloma said. “But it never connected the dots. It created two men to beat Enzan up, deciding he was acting too strangely to take part in what was going on for some time, but after that, it left him alone. It was too busy, again, focusing on Hino Ken.”

“So, you’re saying that my son’s knowledge of his true life was just a fluke,” Ijuuin said bluntly.

“Well, in technical terms… yes,” Beef admitted.

A fluke… a mistake… of course, Enzan thought bitterly. Isn’t that what I’ve been all my live?

“However, because of that, we had an edge,” Saloma said. “We managed to get our navis into the NetWorld and everyone out safe before it collapsed.”

“Almost everyone,” Netto muttered under his breath, staring down at his hands sadly. He still had nightmares of seeing Copy Blues impaled on a sword. His father and Commander Beef noticed the sudden change and exchanged looks.

“So that’s it, huh?” Elec asked. “That’s the finale of the great Immersion crisis?”

“Pretty much,” Saloma replied. “With those responsible in jail, the NetWorld destroyed, and everyone safe and sound, we can pretty much say it’s over.’

Not yet, Dr. Hikari thought sadly, looking from his depressed son to Enzan. The white-topped boy was staring down at his PET again, his face expressionless. Not for them. Maybe it never will be.

“I just have one small question,” Dekao asked. “Why did we have to go through that portal thing one at a time?”

“The portal did not represent you leaving the NetWorld,” Miyuki explained. “Rather, it represented the NetWorld leaving your mind. Once the Networld had released its hold on you, which you initiated by going through the portal, we could safely unplug you from the machines that bound you to the NetWorld. Two people leaving at once, even if they were navis, would have overloaded the system and destroyed the minds of those still trapped.”

Dekao shuddered. “Yeah, thanks for telling me that now,” he muttered.

“Man,” Tohru said, shivering a bit. “I hate to think of being strapped to all those machines, with tubes and needles sticking out all over the place.”

“Fortunately, they hired a shifty doctor to ensure you stayed alive,” Saloma said sympathetically.

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure all these scars will heal,” Miyuki said. “They had some nerve, cutting us open and shoving needles into us while we were helpless. At least the feeding tube was thoughtful.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Yaito declared dramatically. “Thinking of their barbaric tactics makes me very ill.”

“Say, we and the Net Agents make quite a team,” Elec observed, rubbing his chin thoughtfully and turning toward his fellow members of World Three.

“Don’t even think about it,” Madoi warned.

“I dunno, him and that creepy psychic—nya!” Elec choked.

“Unless you want to be dead where you stand, I suggest you hold your tongue,” Mahajarama said, releasing Elec’s tongue from between his forefinger and his index finger. “Our friend is not known for his tolerance.”

“T-True…” Elec said, looking unnerved. People who thought he was crazy had obviously never spent five minutes alone with Mahajarama. You came out of the experience a changed man, but not necessarily a better one. It all depended on the Namasutejin’s mood.

“I declare this meeting over,” Beef announced, seeing some people shifting in their seats. “I thank you all for your cooperation and am glad you’re safe. Hopefully, this will never happen again.”

Author’s notes (i.e. mindless ranting): There used to be, and I believe still are, a number of Chinese and Korean immigrants in Japan. Because of their non-Japanese status, regardless of how many years they’ve lived in Japan or how many generations ago their family immigrated, they are not allowed a citizen status, and probably do not get a very high chance at quality jobs.

Namasutejin, which is not a Japanese word, is what I figured would be used for “Namaste-jin”—that is, someone from Japan. So… er, don’t use it if you don’t want people accusing you of bad Japanese. ^^;;