Chapter 9: Am Broke; Need Money for N1 Grand Prix
“Better?” Rockman asked as Enzan walked out of the hair salon.
Enzan ran a hand through his hair, which was now its normal contrast of white over black. “Yes,” he admitted.
“Can I see?” Rockman asked. Enzan pulled the PET out of its carrying case so Rockman could get a good look. “You look a lot better with it dyed,” Rockman said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.
“A pity I wasn’t born with my hair like this,” Enzan said wryly. He turned right and began walking down the sidewalk, feeling more confident already.
“Enzan-sama, where are we going?” Rockman asked. “Home is the other way.”
“We still need to practice netbattling,” Enzan reminded him.
“But we used all of your money getting your hair dyed,” Rockman protested.
Enzan stopped in his tracks for a moment. “It wasn’t that expensive,” he argued.
“We don’t have much money,” Rockman said softly. “The money you used was money you’ve been saving up. I’m sorry; I should have told you earlier.”
Enzan started walking again. “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” he said calmly.
“But—” Rockman cut himself off.
Enzan raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to netbattle, do you? Are you afraid I’ll punish you for failure?”
“No, it’s not that. I just don’t want to disappoint you, Enzan-sama,” Rockman replied quietly. “I’m not very good at it.”
“Rockman, if you failed before, it was a failure on your operator’s part,” Enzan said. “Netbattling requires the operator and navi working together. Only then can you achieve victory.”
“You sound like you know what you’re talking about,” Rockman said. There was a slight teasing tone in his voice.
“I always know what I’m talking about, especially when it comes to netbattling,” Enzan replied. “It’s just you who needs to learn that.”
The words were not flatly obedient. Instead, Rockman had said them truthfully, without fear or bitterness. It was a nice change and a hopeful sign.
“I know what I’m doing,” Enzan assured him. “You just have to believe me, and I’ll prove it to you.”
“Of course, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said.
Enzan stopped in front of a building, reading the sign above the door. “Here we are.”
Rockman read the sign. His eyes widened with shock, and if he had a heart, it would have stopped. “Enzan-sama, this is Higureya!” he cried.
“Do you know of a better place to practice?” Enzan asked, amused at Rockman’s reaction.
“No, but Enzan-sama!” Rockman protested. “The owner… last time…”
“I remember what happened, Rockman,” Enzan said. “I’ve learned by now that I cannot escape the reputation of my father, be it Hikari-hakase or my… my father.” He shook his head sharply, trying to get back on the subject. “In order to escape that, I have to make them judge me for who I am, not my family.” He looked down at the navi in the PET. “Do you understand?”
Rockman sighed. “I guess so. Still…”
“Rockman, in netbattling the operator must trust in the abilities and the power of the navi,” Enzan said quietly. “The navi, in turn, must trust the operator’s choice in battle chips and strategy. In order to win, they have to trust each other. The same goes for situations outside of netbattling. In this world, I need you and you need me. To get anywhere, you have to trust my decisions, just like I trust your knowledge.”
“I still don’t like it,” Rockman mumbled.
So much for the great speech, Enzan thought. He sighed and entered the store.
“Welcome to Higureya!” Higure Yamitaro cried from behind the counter. His business smile faded when he saw who it was who had entered his shop. “Oh, it-it’s you. Didn’t you have black hair before?”
Enzan walked up to the counter and looked straight at Higure’s face. “I want to make a deal with you.”
“A deal?” Higure asked, blinking. This was not what he had been expecting.
“I—We need practice for the N1 Grand Prix,” Enzan explained. “Is there a practice holo here?”
Higure regarded him for a moment. “You’re in luck,” he said grudgingly. “I just got one on loan from the N1 Grand Prix officials.”
Enzan took a breath. Here came the hard part. He had made many deals before with men much more powerful and smarter than Higure. He could do this. “I want to use that practice holo,” Enzan said. “However, I don’t have the money to pay for using it.”
“You don’t have the money?” Higure repeated.
“No. Therefore, I want to make a deal with you,” Enzan replied, his voice still the same calm, flat tone he normally spoke in. “For use of the practice holo, I’m willing to clean the shop after it’s been closed. I’ll only need to use it for the next week until the N1 starts.”
Higure snorted. “Me? Let you use my practice holo for barely anything in return? Why?” he asked, leaning forward. “Why should I let a Hikari do that?”
“Maybe because Enzan-sama isn’t judging you for something you’re not responsible for,” Rockman cut in.
Enzan glanced down at the PET with annoyance. He knew what he was doing, and all Rockman’s comments would do was make things complicated. He would have to have a conversation with Rockman later on about it.
Higure seemed deflated, and he leaned back. “That is a good point,” he said. “I wasn’t being fair. All right; you have a deal.”
“I.. I wha… I do?” Enzan stammered, astonished.
Higure nodded and pointed to a door on his left. “I’ll be closing shop in a few hours. The practice holo is in a small room over there.”
“Thank you. I’ll clean once you close up,” the boy managed to say. He made his way over to the door, still in shock. Who knew the direct approach would work? Enzan mused. Apparently Rockman had.
The room he entered was small, like the shop owner had said, but there was enough room for the practice holo and a few people using it. Enzan wasted no time in setting up, and before Rockman had time to protest, he was plugged in. The blue navi suddenly found he was standing on a typical grid-patterned netbattling field. A standard navi was facing him from across the field, frozen in place.
“Enzan-sama?” he called uncertainly.
“Don’t panic, Rockman,” Enzan replied. “Right now we’re just going to try techniques. When I start, your automated opponent will come at you with a simple sword. He will attack once and go back to his place. We’ll repeat this scenario several times until you get the hang of each chip I use. Got it?”
“I-I think so…” Rockman replied shakily.
“Good,” Enzan said softly. He pressed a button, and the words Battle Start flashed overtop of the navis. The automated navi lurched forward clumsily. The programming used to create him couldn’t create something on equal status to a navi, which made his movements jerky and his reaction time slower. It was a shame, but Enzan had to work with it.
“Enzan-sama!” Rockman cried in panic.
“Relax, I’m right here.” Enzan smoothly grabbed a chip from his chip pack. “Battle Chip, Sword, Slot-in!”
Rockman held out his arm as the chip warped it into a sword. “Now what?” he cried.
“You mean you don’t know how to use it?” Enzan demanded.
The automated navi leaped for Rockman, and with a cry, Rockman held the sword out in front of him, shielding his face with the other hand. He managed to deflect his opponent’s sword by pure chance, and like Enzan had said, the automated opponent went back to its previous spot.
Enzan sighed. This is going to take more work than I thought.
“I-I’m s-sorry, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said. He was on the verge of tears. “I-I told y-you I was no good!”
“That’s not true,” Enzan said sternly. “Just calm down. You haven’t done this in a long time, and I should have remembered that. We’re going to do it again, and I’ll try to help you more. Now, what chips are you better with?”
Rockman sniffed. “I’m better with gun and bomb type chips.”
I’m treating him like Blues, emphasizing on swords. The mistake was just as much on my part as it was on his, Enzan realized. “We’ll work with those, but it’s important that you are confident using sword chips. In netbattling, the types of chips you use depend on your opponent, not what you’re good at. We also need sword chips for a Program Advance.”
“Program Advance?” Rockman repeated. “What’s that?”
“It’s a secret weapon,” Enzan replied. “I’ll tell you about it after we’ve practiced with some more chips.”
They tried again, using a Shotgun chip. Rockman fared slightly better with this, and Enzan thought he caught a glimpse of Rockman’s repressed battling skills. The smooth motion Rockman had used to bring the shotgun on point gave it away. All Enzan had to do was boost the navi’s confidence, and Rockman would be a formidable opponent, that Enzan was sure of. Over the next hour, he kept pushing the navi by varying chips, coaxing Rockman when he got frustrated, and changing the battle sequence, using the undying patience he had learned by being vice president of a major company. By the end of the hour, Rockman was gasping for breath, but his skills had improved greatly.
“I think we should stop for now,” Enzan said. Rockman nodded meekly and gave no protest as Enzan unplugged him from the practice holo. “Now I’ll tell you about the Program Advance.”
Rockman perked up immediately, his curiosity getting the better of him. Enzan reached into the chip pack and pulled out three chips. “For this Program Advance, you need three sword chips used in a certain sequence…”
-- -- --
Hino Ken watched the people pass by the window of the café. They looked real enough; their movements were natural and when they spoke to each other, they would sometimes laugh, or looked concerned at what the other person was saying. It could have been a common scene taken from many busy streets throughout Japan. However, Hino Ken knew what he was seeing was nothing more than a copy of those scenes. The people walking by weren’t real. They were Double Programs generated by the NetWorld. Their faces, clothing, and hairstyles were pieced together by an advanced virtual reality program; in other words, they were ghosts of people who could really exist somewhere in the world.
It was extremely clever, the way Immersion had created this reality within their NetWorld. Clever enough to fool even the smartest people, with thousands of back-up programs to keep those trapped in the NetWorld from suspecting it wasn’t real. Those who had been kidnapped and put inside the NetWorld were given entirely new memories, an easy thing to do with the amount of control Immersion had over their victims. While the NetWorld could not directly change personality, they could supply memories that effected it, changing a cold person into a ruthless, vicious person.
Like Ijuuin Enzan, Hino Ken thought. According to the information I received, he was supposed to be a monster, one that hated net navis, his parents, and humanity in general. Yet when I caught sight of him earlier, he looked like his normal self. Except he was smiling, that was unusual. Hino Ken blinked. He hadn’t even known that the so-called prodigy netbattler was capable of smiling.
He poured some more sugar in his coffee and dipped a stirring stick into it. There was something not right about ‘Hikari’ Enzan, and whatever it was may be the edge he was looking for. After all, Hino Ken, temporary Net Agent, desperately needed an edge in the NetWorld. It definitely had the advantage so far in the reality it generated.
“Fireman, have you found the information yet?” he asked, sipping the coffee.
“It’s just coming in now, Hino Ken-sama,” Fireman replied. He displayed a window on the PET’s screen. “Here is the list of the latest participants signed up in the N1 Grand Prix. It looks like Hikari Enzan has signed up too.”
“Really?” Hino Ken raised an eyebrow. “This could get interesting…”
He stood up and left the café, his coffee forgotten. As he walked down the street, a man in a business suit caught his attention. As he passed the man, he slipped something into the suit’s pocket. The man, another Double Program, flickered as if he was an ancient TV getting bad reception, or a hologram being tampered with. Hino Ken smiled. Maybe it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but as long as he was here, he would fight Immersion and their mysterious plans any way that he could.
-- -- --
Enzan swept the floor of Higureya, his mind far away from the dust he was creating. The store wasn’t closed yet, but Higure had told him to start cleaning anyway. Enzan got the feeling the man wasn’t expecting more costumers. The shop owner was crowing over a collection of rare chips on his desk, oblivious to anyone or anything.
“I think we need more practice, Enzan-sama,” Rockman said.
Enzan smirked slightly. “I was just thinking about that. We do need more practice, but I bet by the end of the week you’ll be able to do the—our secret weapon flawlessly. You have enough skill.”
“It takes more than just skill,” Rockman replied quietly.
He had a good point. Enzan and Blues had years to develop their netbattling teamwork. During a battle, they operated as nearly one, making such a thing as the Program Advance easy. However, Rockman wasn’t Blues. He couldn’t have been any farther from the silent, red-toned navi. Enzan and the blue navi had settled into an uneasy truce, but that would only get them creamed during a netbattle. If Enzan was to win, he needed Rockman to be willing to trust him.
And if I win in the N1 Grand Prix, I might get closer to the truth about this reality, Enzan thought. It will be the biggest gathering of people and netbattlers. Surely someone else there can help me. I have to do anything I can to find out the truth, and participating in the N1 could be my only shot.
“Enzan-sama, look!” Rockman hissed suddenly.
Enzan looked up, confused. His confusion quickly melted into horror when he saw who was approaching the shop through the windows.
“I cannot deal with them right now,” he mumbled, leaning the broom against a shelf. He quickly dodged into the room containing the practice holo. Unless a person was standing behind the counter, the room and door was hidden from view.
Higure had seen Enzan flee out of the corner of his eye and gave him an odd look. The door swung open, ringing the bell on the top of it, and Higure turned his attention to his customers.
“Ah!” he cried. “Welcome back to Higureya!”
“Good evening, Higure-san!” Meiru cheerfully replied.
“Hey, are those new chips?” Tohru asked, pointing to the pile on the counter.
“What’s the latest news about the N1?” Dekao asked.
“Hey! One at a time, you guys,” Yaito complained. “I can’t hear myself think.”
Higure thought for a moment and decided to focus on the national netbattling competition. “How goes your preparations for the N1?” he asked cheerfully. “I have many new chips you all might be interested in.”
“No thanks,” Yaito said, shaking her head. “I can buy all the rare chips I want through my father.”
“Yaito-sama, you’re not even participating in the competition,” Glyde admonished from Yaito’s PET.
“I’ll take a few Hammer chips,” Dekao said, picking some up from a shelf. “Gutsman needs some more support from those.”
“I’ll take an Aqua Tower chip!” Meiru declared. “Roll-chan and I will be ready for anything!”
Higure laughed. “One at a time! The N1 Grand Prix isn’t until a week from now. You still have some time.”
“I wonder who all will participate?” Yaito said out loud. “I bet there will be a lot of strong opponents there.”
Tohru and Dekao winced at her words.
“Don’t remind me,” Dekao complained.
“Not that we can’t take them,” Tohru added quickly. “It’s just that I don’t want to be any more nervous than I already am.”
Higure flipped through his list as he rang up Meiru’s purchase. “Let’s see… there are a few others from your school participating, according to my data.”
“There are also many from Densan Battle Academy, Denryuu Elementary, and Keikaku High School,” Numberman, Higure’s navi, added. “And that is not including the adult participants.”
“Wow,” Tohru commented, thoroughly impressed.
“Who else is participating from our school?” Yaito asked.
Higure had moved from Meiru to Dekao, and was busy ringing up the batch of Hammer battle chips. “One that I know of is Hikari Enzan,” he said absentmindedly. Something caught the corner of his eye and he saw Enzan shaking his head frantically from the practice room. A second later, he found out why.
“Enzan? That jerk?” Meiru exclaimed.
“How could they even let him sign up?” Yaito cried. “He’ll just cheat!”
Higure blinked, surprised. “You don’t like him?”
“He’s a jerk!” Tohru said, crossing his arms. “He’s the biggest bully in our school.”
“How bad is he?” Higure asked. He got the feeling he had made a mistake, making that deal with the white-haired boy.
“He’s horrible,” Dekao grunted. “He’s a rotten student, he picks on anyone he sees, and he hates navis and netbattling.”
“Why did he even sign up for the N1?” Meiru wondered. “He lost all his netbattles in school.”
“He’s worse than his father,” Yaito declared. “At least his father was just an idiot.”
Higure looked at Enzan through the corner of his eye. Enzan was wearing an expression that seemed deflated and depressed. He was holding his PET in both hands and was watching his navi carefully. Judging by Rockman’s harsh response to what Higure had said about the boy’s father earlier, the navi was probably ready to explode.
“Well, I need to close up now,” he said abruptly. “There’re still a lot of things I have to do for the N1.”
The small group in front of him looked surprised, but they said their quick goodbyes and left without comment on Higure’s strange behavior. Enzan sagged against the door frame of the practice holo room. He was used to being disliked, even hated, but he wasn’t used to such intense hatred, especially for something he hadn’t done. Or had he? For a moment, Enzan felt confused, and his head ached. He rubbed a hand against his forehead, trying to lessen the pain.
Enzan looked up, surprised, to see Higure staring at him. “Yes?” he asked, wondering if the chip fanatic would take back the deal.
“You can leave early today, if you want,” Higure replied, looking away. “Tomorrow you’ll have more practice time, so you’ll have more work.”
“I… thank you,” Enzan said. He carefully placed his PET in its carrier—Rockman was unusually silent and he wasn’t visible on the PET’s screen—and made his way toward the door.
Enzan turned and saw something coming at him. He caught
it out of reflex and stared at it in the palm of his hand. The battle chip
gleamed back, its name instantly popping into his head. “Dream Aura?” he
gasped, looking at Higure questioningly.
“It’s a good luck loan,” Higure said. “It’s already been used, so its value is diminished anyway. I’d hate to see you work so hard only to fail early in the competition. It’s only a loan, so you had better bring it back after the tournament.”
Enzan found he was speechless. Finally he managed to mumble a thank you and assured Higure he would return it as he stumbled out of the shop. He stared at the chip in his hand, still unable to believe his luck.
“That was nice of him,” Rockman spoke up.
“No,” Enzan said, frowning. “He wants something from me. No one gives something like this away without wanting something in return.”
“Enzan-sama, I don’t believe he is like that,” Rockman said, surprised. “I think he really meant it as a gift.”
“No,” Enzan said, shaking his head. “No one would be crazy enough to give away something this valuable without wanting something in return. It’s a common business technique.”
“I think he felt bad that you were upset,” Rockman replied softly. “It really is a gift, even if he wants it back.”
A gift? Enzan studied the battle chip. No one had ever given him a gift with no strings attached, not even his father. It made no sense, especially with his reputation here. There was something else nagging him in the back of his mind, but the sunlight gleaming off the chip distracted him. He carefully put it in his chip pack, making a note to incorporate it into his strategy.
He began to walk down the street, heading “home” at last. There were a lot of things he had to think about, but the events of the day had worn him down. Right now, Haruka’s promised dinner sounded really good. The people on the street passed him by, but he ignored them all.
Something bright caught his eye, and unconsciously he turned his head to look at it. He slowed to a stop, staring at the familiar figure. The curve of the face, the way the brown hair settled, and the way the figure walked immediately gave his identity away.
“Hikari Netto!” Enzan gasped.
Author’s notes: Denryuu is Japanese for electric current and Keikaku is another Japanese word meaning blueprint.