Press the Green Button
"Lower the power, Bit."
"It's at half-power," Cossack called in reply. "It's stabilized."
"Good." Hikari Yuuichirou stood up at the console, nodding his head in satisfaction. The machine ticked quietly to itself, the power levels displayed in chart form on an LCD screen. The power indicator hovered at 50%, just as Cossack had said.
"All status bars are green," Emdee, Yuuichirou's Navi, noted. His solemn face was visible on a pop-up window above the console.
"Thank you, Emdee. Have a complete write-up done, if you can." Yuuichirou minimized the window and drew away from the keyboard, looking over his shoulder at the white lab-coated intern a few feet away. “Bit?”
"Hm?" The younger man turned his attention away from his Navi, Gamma, and approached Yuuichirou‘s console.
The elder scientist hovered over his computer for a long moment. "You think it's ready for a real test?"
A wide grin spread over the sandy-haired man's face. "Definitely! It's ready!"
The look Yuuichirou shot him, however, was hesitant. "I'd prefer to be the one who goes in, though, Bit. If something goes wrong Emdee will know how to assist."
"But you know how long I've been waiting," Cossack said disappointedly. “Gamma’s perfectly capable of doing everything Emdee could.”
"I do, but I'd prefer to put myself in danger rather than you, for such an uncertain experiment." Yuuichirou turned away, missing the scowl on his colleague's face. "You can certainly re-test it if this goes successfully. Go ahead and restart the machine, will you?"
Yuuichirou left the room in a flurry of white. Continuing to sulk, Cossack powered down the main computer, unable to quell the jealousy brewing inside him. This was his pet project, and his brainchild. Why should Hikari get to taste the fruits of his labour first?
As if he had heard his Operator's thoughts, Gamma attempted to intervene. "Mahito-kun, isn't it better for him to do the first test anyway? It might be dangerous."
"There is no danger," Cossack spat. "I put those components together myself--nothing will go wrong! I can't believe I'm actually submitting to that guy‘s orders."
"Hikari Labs is the only group that can possibly fund this project," Gamma chided. "And anyway, Hikari-san learned from your father. The best! I'm sure he can teach you a lot, even if you don't like it."
"Shut up, Gamma," Cossack growled. "He treats me like a child. He can't even call me by my real name."
"Your father called you Bit as well."
"Hikari is not my father."
"And he has no right to! He thinks just because he and my father were friends, he can kick me around. I don't have to take this! That old bat's just paranoid!"
Yuuichirou re-entered at that moment, preventing Gamma's reply. "Okay, done. Are we ready?"
"Yeah," Cossack said, his tone surly.
The device was mostly part of the master computer, and trailed off to a table with a glass seal over it. The resemblance of the compartment to a transparent coffin was all too evident to Yuuichirou, who laid a hand on its cover. "All right. If anything goes wrong, shut down the computer. Clear?"
Yuuichirou raised the seal and lithely hopped onto the table, donning the helmet that lay inside. He left his PET plugged into the main computer as Cossack brought it back to life. "I'm ready. Emdee?"
"Go." The young intern threw the switch. Yuuichirou's body stiffened and went limp--unconsciousness was necessary for the process.
The glass case glowed as if electrified, and as Cossack watched in horrified fascination the human body within it began to convert into data before his eyes. It poured off him in streams and remained locked in place inside the glass, like a resurrected Navi's Frame.
We've done it, the young scientist thought, his face a mixture of jealousy and awe. We've converted a human body...into Navi data.
Emdee's voice materialized from the mother computer's speakers. "Cossack-hakase, could you please manually lower the power input? I'd rather not change the internal settings."
At least someone around here respects me by using my name and title...even if it is Hikari's Navi... Cossack moved to the computer and turned the dial to half-power. "Can you talk to him, Emdee?"
"Not yet," the silver Navi answered. "He's not actually here yet. The data is still being converted and diverted. I have to guide the input to the area where I am."
"Of course." Cossack watched Emdee with some degree of envy. Gamma is just as well-equipped as he. I should have known better than to get involved with Hikari...success has made him overconfident.
The scientist eyed the cord connecting Yuuichirou's PET to the master computer, thinking about Emdee's last statement. "I have to guide the input..."
"If something goes wrong Emdee will be able to assist..."
Without even thinking, Cossack reached out and snapped free the cord that linked Emdee to the machine. Gamma looked up in alarm. "Mahito-kun!?"
"I've lost the connection--!" Emdee cried.
"Shut down the computer," Cossack ordered. "Hikari-san said to stop if anything went wrong."
Emdee complied, forcing the computer into sleep mode. "Right! What could have happened? I was receiving the transfer until just a moment ago.”
Just as he‘d suspected, Emdee had been too occupied with the transfer to notice movement outside the cyberworld. "I don't know," Cossack lied. "All the data is gone from the compartment -- it‘s already gone into standby mode."
The glass box containing Yuuichirou’s Frame had indeed sunk into the huge contraption and another, empty box had surfaced. The machine was already ready for the next transfer. "It was probably already complete, but I wasn't able to direct it here," Emdee replied. "We have to get him out!"
"Gamma and I will handle it," Cossack said quickly. "You should make an accident report, and get any other data specialists in the lab to lend a hand. After all...Hikari-san was so insistent on testing this this himself that I don't really know as much about it as I should."
Taking his temporary Operator at face value, Emdee linked out of the PET and into one of the databases downstairs. "Leave it to me!"
As soon as the Navi was gone Cossack opened a panel under the console and chose one of the wires connecting the memory access of the main console to the converter case. He loosened it just enough to damage the connection, closed the panel, and faced his Navi's worried yellow eyes. "You'd leave him there?"
"I couldn't help myself," Cossack answered bitterly. "I'm never going to get anywhere with him running things!"
"But he could die. He could already be dead."
Cossack turned away.
"Take the computer out of sleep mode and wait for Emdee. Organize a repair effort in the conversion area."
"But the wire you pulled out--"
Cossack's malevolent gaze finally fell upon his partner's. "I don't want him found, Gamma."
In that place close to the starry sky
I think there's something
On the opposite side of a locked door
If you want to see for sure
Even if it seems you have no propeller or feathers
All it takes is a small idea
and certainly you can soar Fly high
"Netto-kun! Wake up, you're late!"
"Nnn...five more minutes..."
"No! Get up now!"
"No way, Rock..." Netto sat up, rubbing his eyes. "It's only--AAAAGH! IT'S 8 O'CLOCK!! WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE ME UP!?"
"I did," his Navi chided. "You were sleeping like a log."
Hikari Netto threw himself out of bed and yanked on black shorts and a white long-sleeved t-shirt, pulling his orange vest over his head. "Late again! Mariko-sensei's going to kill me!"
"It's your own fault," Rockman said imperiously as he watched Netto run a comb through his unruly brown hair.
"You don't even sound worried," Netto accused, tucking the mop into his blue headband.
Rockman busied himself with organizing the homework he had forced his partner to do the previous night. "It's not like it's out of the ordinary! Maybe you'll get lucky and Yaito-chan will call your name in attendance."
"Maybe," Netto said doubtfully. “Can you e-mail her and ask?”
Rockman’s halted the PET's word processing and opened the e-mail inbox. "Do I have a choice? Ah--Netto-kun, you just received an e-mail. It's from Enzan."
"What's he want this early in the morning? Can you read it out?"
Rockman was silent for a moment. "It says, ‘Hikari, something important's come up. Come to the Science Labs immediately‘."
Netto blinked. "Something important-enough-to-miss-school, important?"
The Navi‘s voice was apologetic. "It doesn't say."
Netto jammed his rollerblades onto the bottoms of his shoes and took his PET out of its PC adaptor. "I'm already late...guess I'll go see what Enzan wants first." He vaulted down the stairs and coasted through the living room. "I'm off!"
"See you later!" Hikari Haruka called after him. "No breakfast?"
The smell of fresh rice enticed the sixth-grader, but he shook his head and flew out the front door. "No time, Mama. Bye!"
"Have a good day!"
Netto turned right to head for the Metroline station instead of left towards Akihara Elementary. "That Enzan...it must be serious if he's calling me."
"I doubt it's a social call," Rockman replied, a disembodied voice at his waist. "I'll send Blues a reply that we're on our way."
Netto veered left and then right at Dekao's house, easing down the steps into the train station with the assistance of the railing. Slowing, he jammed a few coins into the machine to buy a train pass to Densan City and boarded the car.
Once inside the two partners fell silent for the short ride. Netto had a bad feeling, though, that something was wrong. Only rarely did Ijuuin Enzan ever admit that he might need Netto's help...usually Netto had to go out and find the trouble himself, and get himself buried so deep in it that Enzan had no choice but to allow him to assist.
"It's important," he said aloud, and Rockman nodded. Sure enough, when they disembarked Enzan was hovering at the doors that opened into the WaterWorks building.
"Hikari," Enzan greeted, his face troubled. "I'm glad you're here."
"Yeah. What's wrong?"
"Well…there's been an accident."
"This is the machine," Enzan said gravely, gesturing at the metal-and-glass contraption. It was clunky-looking and unfinished.
Netto regarded it with interest. "And you say that this thing can convert a human body into Navi data?"
Enzan nodded. "It's meant to be only temporary, of course. The other side of the department is attempting to design solid holograms to do the opposite; draw Navis into the real world. This device..." he nodded at the machine, "does not create Navis in the same manner that Rockman was created years ago. It is very real--but still untested and therefore dangerous, and isn't meant to be used for long amounts of time.
"How it works," he continued, "is a complicated process--which no doubt you would need years of university physics studies to even begin to comprehend. Sorry, Hikari. To put it in layman's terms, the body is converted by the field inside that glass case, and the data is sent to that computer terminal. It's inside the terminal where the actual creation of the Navi is--the data of the human, because it is so vast, remains in the terminal while an avatar that functions like a Navi is created at a certain point within the Net. Your father's avatar--rather, his 'Navi form'--was supposed to meet with Emdee. However--" he took a deep breath "--there was a transfer problem, and Emdee was unable to track the data. It's uncertain whether or not he is in the Net or whether the transfer was even successful."
"But Papa--I mean, the data is in there, right?" Netto pointed at the computer, somehow unwilling to admit that his father actually was now mere data. "You said it was too big to carry all at once."
"That's right. Your Rockman Navi was a state-of-the-art design, actual AI--but this machine must deal with many years of memories that the person may need to access. The Hikari-hakase Navi stays connected to the main data through links, yes, but without the Navi form there is no way to communicate with his consciousness. He feels nothing within the PC--only what the Navi feels; what the Navi touches."
"Netto-kun, plug me in," Rockman interrupted loudly. "I'm going to look for him."
"The Net is a big place," Enzan warned. "Because of the interrupted transfer, if he's even in there, he may be difficult to find--he might not be able to remember who you are, or even who he himself is."
"Then it's up to me to look for him," Rockman declared, even as Netto was plugging him into the terminal.
Once Rockman had landed on his feet and was running at top speed through the city, Netto looked up and caught Enzan square in the eye. "What can I do?"
"Nothing," Enzan replied, breaking away his gaze. "I've already sent Blues to search--and I knew you would send your Rockman in as well. Better that you have the facts if you're going to rush headlong into this."
You'd almost think he trusted me, Netto thought sardonically. Even so, he was glad that Enzan had brought him here and explained. The machine his father had been working on--what an invention! As Navis became more and more customized, such devices seemed even more full of potential.
For Rock... As his twin has once been human himself, Netto knew that he occasionally regretted not being able to physically touch the people he cared for. Something like this would be a dream come true. And who knows, if AI really takes off, other Navis like Rock will appear...who think and act for themselves. This could mean a lot for their Operators.
Netto blinked away his reverie and stared at Enzan. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Good. Show me how much by staying out of trouble--this is a job for the Net Agents, not for kids, no matter what you did against the World Three. I only brought you here because I knew you‘d find out soon enough anyway."
"Yeah, I got it." The young Netbattler clutched his PET tighter in his right hand and gripped the console with his left.
"In that case, I'm going to keep trying to clean up this mess." Enzan strode from the room without another word, leaving Netto alone.
"I'll stay here and wait," the brunette finally said to himself, leaning in to peer at the monitor. "I could get a visual here, right, Rock?"
"Yeah," his twin replied, and momentarily a video window appeared on the screen. Brown eyes followed the lithe figure across the screen, where he was inspecting Net message boards. "I wonder where Blues is...but maybe there'll be something on the boards."
Netto had moved to place his PET in the nearest charger, noting another with a black design occupying the single slot. Papa's... "Hey, where do you think Emdee went?"
"I can send an email if you'd like," Rock answered tightly. He was running again, this time through an Internet area Netto wasn't familiar with.
"Okay. Just ask where he is and if he's found any clues that could help us." Netto was eyeing another charger, this one empty. "And...wait, Rock...did Papa have a partner on this project?"
"Papa usually works alone," Rockman replied, confused. "But...this isn't his usual office, either. There's two of everything in here. Maybe there was someone else?"
Netto gazed slowly around the room, his eyes noting a definite pattern in the objects around him. "You might be right...two lockers, two chairs, and two PCs. We'd better ask Emdee."
"I'm on it."
Internet Area 7
"Ugh." Hikari Yuuichirou was expecting to wake up to feel--what? Pain? Dizziness? Anything but the sudden emptiness he was currently experiencing in every limb. He knew that he lay flat on his back, but his body's usual mass did not weigh heavily against the floor.
Experiment. And...data conversion... Grudgingly he sat up, trying not to pitch forward with his change in weight. "We...did it? This is amazing!"
But although he glanced around him, there was no one around for as far as he could see. Just the twisted pathways of the Net, and not even a familiar area. "Emdee?"
Instinctively he reached for the pocket of his lab coat, where he usually kept the PET--but, of course, he had left it in the PC connector. Shit. Where am I...? Where's Emdee?
Yuuichirou tried to quash the sinking feeling in his virtual stomach. He was alone, and there was no way to contact anyone from here. I have to get away from here. He had to find someone he knew, or at least someplace familiar.
Before anyone else found him.
The scientist gathered his wits, choosing a direction in which to run. I
wish I could access the directional system! But I don't know how to interface
with the Net...this could be bad. He proceeded forward cautiously, testing
the unfamiliar "gravity" that weighed his lightened body down; until he was sure
he could move untroubled. He then began to run along the blue path on which he
stood. This will lead me somewhere...hopefully to a familiar Area! If only I
could find Emdee...
Deep inside the avatar program, the 'recall' feature lay unheeded. Yuuichirou ran on.
Lab Area 2
"...and he says Cossack-hakase instructed an immediate shutdown so as not to
damage the data," Rockman finished between gasps.
"Where can we find this Cossack guy?"
"Hang on." Rockman paused for a long moment as Netto sat, jittery, at the computer console. The human boy watched his Navi link into different bookmarks on the pop-up screen. “Emdee doesn't know. Sorry, Netto-kun."
The young Netbattler drummed his fingers impatiently. "I can't stand doing nothing."
"We're not doing nothing," Rockman answered, his voice distracted. "I'm looking for Papa."
"I'm not doing anything."
"Feel free to join me," the Navi said loftily.
The silence which followed this statement was familiar enough to Rockman that he immediately stopped and glared up at the PET screen overhead. "It was a joke. Don't even think about it."
"But Rock," Netto protested, "I want to help! Plus, Enzan told us exactly how this thing worked, and if Papa was designing it..."
"The thing is, it didn't work," he replied firmly. "That’s the reason WHY Papa is lost, if you remember."
"A 'transfer problem' doesn't mean the experiment was unsuccessful," Netto argued.
"You can't stop me."
"I sure as hell can," the Navi shot back, anger filtering into his voice. "I can contact Blues a lot faster than you can turn that thing on."
"Fine," Netto conceded grumpily, sitting back down. "You'd just better find him, you hear?"
"I will," Rockman promised.
"This is strange." Enzan re-read the error report again, tapping his fingers on the desk. "Surely a Navi as advanced as Hikari's Emdee could maintain such a simple connection. All he was doing was transferring data. Even such a big file as the avatar program should still have been easy for him."
"The connection was broken abruptly. There aren't that many probable causes." Blues' expression was stony.
"It almost certainly had something to do with the PET's link to the mother computer. It had to have been severed somehow--it‘s too obvious."
"You suspect sabotage?"
"A human act or a faulty wire. It could only be one of the two, Enzan-sama."
"And only one human was in contact with that PET. Someone I cannot accuse."
Blues scowled. "Mahito Cossack's father's status will not protect him if he has endangered another human's life."
"It's not his status I'm worried about, Blues. What motive could he have possibly had for trying to kill Hikari-hakase? Surely he knew what the results of those actions would be." Enzan's face hardened. "We need a motive...and we need evidence."
Netto innocently toyed with the control panel, wondering how on earth his father had come up with such an invention. The principle of it, of course, was simple enough...get in glass box, hit "on" button, direct avatar to Internet, tadan. The problem being that he, Netto, would need assistance to operate it...assistance Rockman surely would not provide willingly. And since discovering that the Navi was his younger brother, Netto has been hesitant to ask anything of Rockman that he did not want to give.
Unless he was forced.
Netto inspected the machine with renewed interest. The glass case, Enzan had said, was what held the person's body before it became data. Of course, the person in the case could not turn it on...that, of course, had been why Bit Cossack had been at the scene of the accident. He found a large switch below a row of green status bars and grinned. That's it!
Netto's PET was still in the leather casing at his hip, where he had replaced it after transferring Rockman into the Science Lab’s mother computer. He could still speak to Rockman through it, of course, just couldn't send him any battle chips while the Navi was disconnected from the personal terminal. The brown-haired Netbattler pulled out the PET's cord and wound it three times around the large lever, securing it, before backing quietly across the room. The cord barely reached the enormous coffin-like case.
Rockman, thankfully, had not noticed Netto's absence above the PC. The boy opened the casing and climbed in, lowering the lid almost to a close over him, propped open slightly by the cord leading to his PET. He brought his face close to the speaker and whispered, "Catch me, Rock."
The Navi's worried voice came back to him. "What?"
Without a reply, Netto yanked on the cord, pulling the switch with it.
"....aaaargh! Netto-kun!!" Through the window, the young Navi finally
observed what his Operator was up to. Rockman spun on his heel and materialized
control panels in front of him, setting up a link to the mother computer almost
without thought. "I can't turn my back on you for a minute!"
Netto, of course, could not answer--he was already unconscious as the machine did its magic. Angrily Rockman okayed the incoming transfer and stood with his arms crossed, plotting what he was going to do to Netto when he arrived.
If he arrived.
A transparent blue cylinder materialized at the coordinates in the Net that Rockman had specified and he watched, fascinated, as Netto's "data" was compiled within the tube. Rock had wondered how the machine dealt with such things as clothing and objects carried on the person, but it seemed the program replicated them perfectly. Netto's avatar hung a few inches above the ground as though manipulated by puppet strings, his face blissfully relaxed, his clothes settling as the lightened gravity took hold. Gradually he was lowered to the ground and the blue cylindrical field disapperated.
The Navi watched impatiently, arms still crossed and trying to look stern, until finally Netto opened his eyes. "Well. Somehow, you're alive."
"You're surprised?" Netto took a step forward and tripped, unused to his lighter weight. Rockman caught him easily. "Oof. Uh, thanks."
"You're welcome," the Navi replied tightly. "And yes, I suppose I am surprised, considering that machine has possibly killed Papa. Honestly, Netto-kun! You take too many risks!"
"I have you to get me out of them," Netto replied good-naturedly. He hugged Rockman with a grin. "Wow, I'm really in the Internet! How cool!"
Rockman could not prevent a small smile from quirking at the corner of his mouth. "Yeah, you are. I was about to head into the next Area--stick close in case anything happens, got that?"
"Okay, Saito-niisan," Netto replied in a sing-song voice.
Rockman stiffened. Netto gave Rockman a smile that the Navi already knew indicated something was up. He'd have to keep a close eye on Netto.
The blue Navi sighed. "All right, let's go."
"There's no doubt about it. The wire's been almost completely pulled out."
Enzan's white hair was covered with a fine layer of dust and it hung
irritatingly in his eyes, obstructing his view of the control panel. He shook
his head to clear some of the mess away, coughed, and climbed out from behind
"So it was Cossack after all?"
"Had to be. He'd be the only one who'd know exactly which wire would screw Hikari over. But I still don't know why...working with the professor was only going take him higher. Why try and get rid of him now, and have to hide that the experiment was successful? He'll have trouble getting anyone to sponsor the remainder of the project, knowing that it caused something like this."
Blues remained silent. Enzan continued to wonder aloud, shaking the dust from his white hair.
"Unfortunately, we still don't have concrete proof. Somebody must have seen this--one of the Navis maybe, or even Hikari himself. We'll need to talk to whomever we can get to."
"Emdee can be recalled. He is searching for Hikari-sensei in one of the nearby Areas."
"And Cossack's? What does he call it...Gamma?"
"Cossack's Navi hasn't been seen since the incident."
"I see." Enzan moved around to the front of the control panel, studying the levers and buttons with interest. Something white caught his eye on the far side of the console. "This wasn't here before..."
He approached a wire dangling from a large lever. The thick cord was wrapped twice around its handle, and the end, lying on the floor beside the converter, was clean-cut. He knelt and inspected the severed end, careful not to touch it. "This looks almost like the kind of USB cable you'd find in a PET."
He stood, following the cord with his eyes to the lever. A blue plug was tucked into the knot. "It is for a PET. How'd it get here?"
"Someone has clearly been tampering with the room since we left," Blues observed.
"But I left Hikari here to watch it...that couldn't be his PET's cord, could it?"
"It is the same colour."
"But where's the rest of the PET? For that matter, where is Hikari?"
"More mystery." Enzan sighed. "Blast. Find Cossack's Navi, and contact Emdee and Rockman. Make sure he knows where his idiot Operator is."
Lab Area 2
"What?" Netto peered over his brother's shoulder, somewhat irked that he no longer had an aerial view. "Did you find something?"
"Yeah, something." Rockman was inspecting a data pathway lined with purple blocks. "This slipstream was left when you transferred into the Net. I was just thinking maybe Papa would have left a similar one. Unfortunately for you," he looked stern, "it seems to be damaged."
Worry was conspicuously absent from the youngest Hikari's face. "How can you tell?"
"The colour," Rockman replied, still peering at the bits of data. "and the pattern as well. This is a very unstable connection--probably the only reason you made it here was because I intercepted it. It seems to be filled with more static as it goes along, and starts breaking up. It might have even broken up your data if I hadn't been in such close proximity."
Netto paled slightly. "Could it have done that to Papa?"
"It's possible." The Navi's expression was grim as he took Netto's hand and linked to the next Area. As he had expected, purple traces of the data stream lingered here too, drawing a perfectly straight line through the sky of the cyberworld. "Come this way."
Netto did not speak, mutely letting his twin lead him through various bookmarks and areas. Rockman wondered if he was finally feeling the full implications of what he had done, not to mention what would happen if the condition wasn't reversible - surely there were great enough minds out there to rival their father's, but would any of them be able to repair the machine to bring Netto and Yuuichirou back to the real world? Rockman wasn't too sure. He considered opening up a connection to Blues or Emdee, but knew they would be able to do no more than he himself could, and Netto was safest right where he was.
Besides, Rockman reflected, no matter how much trouble they were in right now, it was comforting to know Netto was right by his side.
It was far less comforting to know that Netto was a long, long way away from
his PET and his pouch full of battle chips. They discovered at a most
inopportune time that the clothing, belt pouch, and PET case Netto wore were
merely data bits that were part of the avatar program, there to keep up
appearances but far from functional. There was also the misfortune of having
brought Rockman's PET into the converter, rendering it useless to both
them and anyone in the real world who might have been able to assist. At this
grim realization, Netto offered up an apologetic smile and said, "Maybe we can
live in Meiru-chan's PET?"
Rockman had yet to see any sort of humour in the situation, but that might have been because he was busily deleting viruses without any assistance from his Operator. The pair had traced the purple data stream back as far as the Science Labs' main computer area and were following an identical stream that had headed off in a different direction, ostensibly left by Yuuichirou. As they progressed deeper into the Internet more viruses ran wild, and Rockman had been forced to fight without the help of their collection of battle chips.
"And then, I can get somebody to program me a weapon," Netto decided aloud as Rockman took out the last Condor. "Maybe something with fire. I like fire."
Rockman rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "You're not old enough to play with a blowtorch yet."
"Wait." Rockman stopped suddenly as a soft tone rang, raising an arm to halt Netto's step forward. "We just got an e-mail...it's Blues."
"Oh, great. Enzan probably went looking for me."
"Not quite." Rockman's mouth was set in a grim line. "It seems we've got even more trouble brewing in the real world...Bit Cossack is lobbying to have the Navi Converter disassembled."
Town Area 4
A vidwindow blinked to life in the air above Emdee's head, startling the blue
Navi slightly with its 'incoming' sound. He halted, the folds of his synthesized
white lab coat swishing around his knees at the sudden stop. Emdee activated the
email message without a word, read the message without a change in expression,
closed the window and immediately proceeded in the direction from whence he had
He was not a particularly emotional Navi, through no fault of his Operator's. Hikari Yuuichirou was an extremely experienced programmer and, in Emdee’s humble opinion, a certifiable genius. He rarely saw the intelligence and quick wit he observed in his Operator in other humans. As a result, Emdee was fully capable of taking advantage of the vast personality options available to him, yet he chose to remain stoic and calm, as he had once been programmed at the beginning of the Network Era. Yuuichirou's attempts to "liven up" his personality had all resulted in Emdee absorbing the changes and proceeding as his original schema. Some might have seen this as a downfall, perhaps even a mark of failure on the great programmer's part, but it was not so. Emdee was merely advanced enough to behave of his own accord, and if he wished to be calm and collected, calm and collected he would be.
Yet now he was rattled. Yuuichirou missing, Cossack in charge, and young Ijuuin leading the investigation -- not that Emdee disliked the boy, but he really had not the knowledge to reverse the technical side of the problem -- it seemed as though their great achievement was simply crumbling.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a white lab coat disappearing into a bookmark.
"Yuuichirou-kun!?" He ran to the link, following the lab coat into it. When he rematerialized, however, it was a bewildered Gamma who appeared beside him. “Oh…Gamma.”
"Emdee." Gamma's yellow eyes were downcast. "Have you...had any luck in your
"None," Emdee replied with a frown.
"For a moment, I thought you were Yuuichirou-kun." He blinked slowly, his gaze focused off to the side. "I was mistaken. In any case, young Ijuuin-kun has recalled me back to the mother computer to ask me some questions. Will you be continuing to search?"
"No, I...Ijuuin-san asked me to return as well."
"Is something wrong?" Emdee's visored eyes were now focused directly on the other Navi. He had caught a nervous inflection in Gamma's voice, causing him to experience a tiny jolt of satisfaction. Emdee was excellent at concealing his personal thoughts and emotions...clearly Gamma was incapable of keeping to himself that something was bothering him. Most unsuitable for a scientist.
"It's Mahito-kun...I shouldn't even tell you this, but it might not be too late to save Hikari-hakase..."
Internet Area 5
The only change in expression to hint at Netto's shock was a slow, deliberate
twitch of his right eye. "Okay...what?"
"Cossack-hakase," Rockman barely contained the anger in his voice, "has evidently decided that the machine is far too dangerous to go on as it is, and he is attempting to have it dismantled. Also, Enzan-kun wants to know where you are."
"My thoughts exactly."
"But they can't take apart the machine if there's a chance that Papa's alive," Netto argued.
"Don't tell that to me, tell it to them. The order for the search to be ended for now reached Blues just as he was recalling me anyway. So let's head back."
"No." Netto spun on his heel and marched off in the direction in which they'd been walking. "I'm not going anywhere until we find Papa. Anyway, Enzan probably just wants to yell at me."
Rockman followed at a jog, grabbing his twin's arm. "Enzan-kun doesn't even know where you are. And anyway, we're getting deeper into unknown areas here. It's dangerous!"
"Let go!" Netto growled, pulling his arm away. "If it's so dangerous, call us some help! I'm not leaving!"
"Netto-kun, we have to let them know you're in here! They can't take apart the machine and leave you stranded--!"
Netto broke into a run. "You tell them that, then!"
The brunette ran into the next Area warp and vanished, his fuming Navi two steps behind.
Internet Area 6
Netto ran headlong out of the warp, determined to get as far ahead of Rockman as he could, so his twin would have no excuse for not following him. Almost immediately, though, he ran directly into another Navi heading into the warp, and the impact sent them both sprawling.
Stars danced briefly in front of Netto's eyes. He shook his head to clear them, abruptly turning at the warp emitting another sound behind him. Rockman barely stopped in time to avoid tripping over the two avatars on the ground. "Papa!"
Yuuichirou lifted his head, eyes wide. "Rock? ...Netto!?"
"You aren't going to get away with this." Enzan's hands were on his hips, his
blue eyes like chips of ice.
Bit Cossack looked bewildered. "I'm only trying to prevent another tragedy from taking place, Ijuuin. How would you feel if it were your father who'd been killed in there?"
Enzan's mouth hardened into a line, unwilling to gratify the scientist with an answer to that question. "It isn't too late to save Hikari-hakase."
"Young people have so much hope." Cossack's expression was sad but his words sounded fake. "I'm afraid he really is gone. His consciousness was destroyed in the transfer. I can even show you--I can bring his body back, but he won't ever wake up."
"That is what you'd like everyone to believe, isn't it?"
"It's true." Cossack strode over to the darkened capsule and pressed a few buttons on the panel there. "His Frame is still here, still breathing--but no brain activity. Watch."
A body on a platform rose from the storage compartment below, the area where the human Frame was kept while its consciousness was in the Net. To both their surprise, however, it did not belong to Hikari Yuuichirou.
A slow grin spread across Enzan's face. "Well, well, well. Looks like someone's been using your machine. I guess that rules out the possibility of it being dismantled just yet."
Cossack began to sputter. "Who--who the hell is this kid? How did he get into the converter?" The scientist stabbed a green button and the platform slid down and to the side, and another platform bearing Yuuichirou's frame rose into the capsule. "He's gone in there since Hikari did! What kind of idiot--?"
"You'll be responsible for both their deaths if you're not careful," Enzan said icily. "Call off the request you just made to the Council."
Cossack turned on Enzan. "You shut up! It's not my fault if that kid or Hikari dies! They went into the converter voluntarily!"
Enzan's expression did not betray his thoughts. Instead, he simply said, "And if your fingerprints are found on the loose cord in the control panel?"
Cossack froze. "You arrogant little brat...how much do you know?"
“Enough to get Hikari-hakase out of there safely, if he’s alive, and have you locked up for quite a while.”
"That's a shame. I was hoping I could find some use for you, but it seems we must part ways after all." A gleam shone in the scientist's brown eyes.
"You wouldn't dare."
He removed a cylinder-shaped object from his pocket and advanced.
Lab Area 1
The Hikari family, unaware of the urgency of their situation, were busy having a spirited reunion as they walked back to the bookmark, as though they hadn't seen each other that morning at breakfast. The circumstances were extreme, of course, but that certainly wasn't dampening Netto's mood. He bounced between his brother (who was trying to compose a videomail to Blues) and his father (who was inspecting his oldest son with great interest as the natural Navi encoded the file). Neither of the other Hikaris were able to devote much of their attention to Netto, and he eventually grew sulky and calmed down, attempting a pretence of responsibility. "Now it's time for us to determine the cause of the accident."
"Yes, it was definitely rather strange. I know my calculations were correct," Yuuichirou replied.
"Plus, you’d think Cossack-hakase would have aborted the transfer once he knew something was wrong," said Rockman.
The trio reached the bookmark that led back to the Science Labs mother computer, but the link had gone black and dead. "That's weird," Netto observed. "It was working before."
Yuuichirou glanced at the blue-jumpsuited boy. "Can you reach Emdee?"
"No." Rockman frowned, bringing a control screen up in the air in front of him. "My last message went unanswered, my queries came back no-response."
"I hope nothing happened to him. What if he went into the Undernet?" Rockman was the most aware of this area's close proximity to the Net's underworld, as well as its ability to cut off connections with the upper Cyberworld. He looked worriedly at his father.
"I would hope he would have more sense."
Rockman thought it best not to mention Emdee's keen sense of loyalty and duty. If Netto was willing to run headlong into the Undernet (something Rock had talked him out of not ten minutes ago), Emdee would probably be on the fourth level by now. Fortunately, Yuuichirou was too distracted to consider the possibility for long, asserting that Emdee was far too logical to have assumed the worst and gone in unprepared.
Besides, that was nothing compared to the jolt that went through him when his videomail to Blues came back undelivered.
If we can't reach Enzan, we can't get out. Dread filled his stomach; along with a sense that all was not well back in the real world. No Emdee and no Blues? I could try to contact Roll, but if she were to get hurt...I get the feeling we're in a lot of trouble here....
"Rock? Is something wrong?" Netto looked at him worriedly. Rockman splayed his hands in front of him and grinned nonchalantly. "Nothing! Just thinking to myself!"
The brunette didn't look convinced. Rockman sighed--he wouldn't have been either. Netto was exceptionally good at reading his twin's emotions.
Blues...where are you?
"God DAMN it Blues! Where the hell are you!?" Enzan yelled, lunging for his PET, just a split-second too late. Cossack laughed, enjoying watching the young Net Agent fish under the humongous machine for the device. "Blues!"
"Sorry, kid." Cossack sounded more apologetic than his countenance implied. "He's fried. Nothing you can do."
Enzan inspected the terminal, attempting to restart it by hitting it with the flat of his hand. "What did you do?" he hissed.
"Concentrated ion burst," the scientist replied airily. "You'll need to format it to get it going again. Plus, I’ve severed the Internet connection, just in case you brought friends."
"You coward. How many people are you going to kill before you get your way?"
Cossack's smile was manic, condescending. "Who said anything about killing? I'm just volunteering you for our lovely experiment. You'll probably survive as stray data."
"Not interested," Enzan replied grimly, tossing the ruined PET to the floor.
"Too bad." Cossack sprung with the reflexes of a cat, catching Enzan's wiry arms with his strong grip. He wrestled the yelling boy to the floor, holding him down until Enzan's struggles subsided. "Giving up? That's great, less work for me. Gamma, turn on the converter, would you? ...Gamma?"
"Did your plan of cutting off the Net involve locking your Navi out too?" Enzan sneered.
Cossack smiled toothily. "Too bad, he can get back in using a special upload. I don't need him anyway, I can take care of a brat like you by myself."
"You don't seem very appreciative of the guy who's keeping a secret that could get you arrested."
The scientist froze. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean," Enzan's smirk radiated confidence, "that maybe you should treat your Navi a little more nicely, seeing how he's the only witness to your crime. And was so kind as to provide me with a full confession, which is almost certainly in thirteen peoples' inboxes by now, just in case anything should happen to me."
"...I can just kill you here, then, so be it!" Bit growled, wrapping his hands around Enzan's neck. The boy began to struggle again, not anticipating the sudden attack, and choked in the scientist's grip.
"Mahito-kun, stop!" Gamma's voice blared from the mother computer's speaking, halting Cossack's movements for a split second. Enzan managed to draw a single laboured breath.
"You sold me out," Bit cried, his voice rising. "I can't believe you! Weren't you the one who wanted me to be like Father? I finally get somewhere and you sell me out to a bunch of kids!?"
"Mahito-kun, you're killing the boy!" Gamma pleaded. "Please stop--I don't want to have to call the police--"
"Rest assured that I will," another voice said coldly. "Rise, Cossack, and leave him be. Your father wouldn't want this."
Bit glared angrily at the speaker from which Emdee's voice had issued, above which a video screen turned itself on. "And what would you know? You've gained just as much from my losses as Hikari!"
"When Yuuichirou-kun was Cossack-hakase's intern, I found him to be a kind, respectable man," Emdee said quietly. "Yuuichirou-kun studied under him from when I was created up until his death, and never once did I find any of the character flaws in him that I have observed in you. I have continued to evaluate you, but you have never become the kind of person he was."
"Shut up!" Bit screamed, lunging for the console. Enzan sat up and crawled into the corner, looking for something to protect himself with. Gamma looked taken aback at Emdee's cold words. "It's too late now, isn't it!? Hikari's dead and it's my fault! So what!? It's about time he stopped hogging all the glory! My father was the greatest scientist that ever lived, and he...he..."
"Your father was a great man," Emdee agreed. "He died too young. I was very sorry to see him pass."
"Don't talk like you have real feelings!" Bit yelled. "That was my father's...his..."
"His project," Blues supplied, looming over Gamma with his arms crossed. "Cossack-hakase never lived to see the experiments in Navi AI take root."
"He got all the credit," the scientist seethed. "For my father's work, he got all the credit! No one even remembered the Cossack name!"
"That's not true," Gamma protested. "All the important people remembered what your father did for Navi research. Everyone at Science Labs, they remember."
"Would you rather have seen his project die unfinished?" Enzan asked quietly.
"Shut up, you little brat! You don't know anything..." Bit's expression was unreadable, his eyes masked by chestnut bangs.
"You had a lot of potential…Bit…"
Cossack's head shot up and he levelled his gaze at Emdee. "Hikari."
The labcoated Navi sidestepped, allowing Yuuichirou's grim countenance to be seen behind him. "I knew your father as both a partner and a friend. He would have been unhappy to see you attacking a child to gain your ends."
His rage spent, Bit fell to the floor on his knees. "Hakase...I..."
"I should have recognized your ambitions," Yuuichirou continued, his expression solemn. "Instead I was too caught up in the experiment to even notice that the way I treated you had become a problem. I'm afraid I'm still too used to seeing you as the child who visited his father at the Labs. You are a scientist in your own right, and you deserved every measure of my respect. For both your father's sake and your own. I am sorry for that." The Hikari twins had come to stand protectively in front of their father on the screen, shielding him from the deranged intern.
"Choose, Cossack," Enzan said quietly. "Your next words may determine your future in this town."
The last vestiges of Bit's shock dissolved and he supported himself on his hands, staring at the tiled floor. "I...what have I done...?"
"Toasted your career, for one," Netto growled. His twin clapped a gloved hand over the brunette's mouth.
"Repair the converter," Yuuichirou said gently. "You and I will work this out. There's no need to involve the police on my side."
"And Ijuuin-kun...?" Emdee glanced pointedly at Enzan, whose neck was red with strangulation marks.
The young businessman shook his head. "I will trust Hikari-hakase's judgment. However, if you ever come near me again, I will have you arrested."
"I understand," Bit said gratefully. "I'll bring you back, Hakase, and we can talk...and...I'm sorry..."
The bespectacled scientist's eyes were wary, but a genuine smile graced his lips. "Me too."
"Argh! How can I just calmly do arithmetic with everything I just went through!?" Netto scowled at the schoolbooks on his desk, wishing them away with his mind.
"Come on, Netto-kun," Rockman gently admonished. "You skipped school. You still have to do homework."
"Undue stress!" Netto argued. "Mariko-sensei ought to have let me off, just for today. It was for a good cause."
Rockman put on a smile, but inwardly he sighed. Everything was back to normal, or as normal as it got in the Hikari household. The elder twin had concealed his disappointment that Yuuichirou and Netto were in such a hurry to leave the cyber world--to leave him. But he supposed it was only natural
"Netto! Dinnertime!" Haruka's voice floated up from downstairs, startling them both.
As though he had been waiting for just such an excuse, Netto leapt to his feet and snatched the PET out of its charger. "Coming, Mama!"
The table set for two was spread with Mama's special spaghetti dishes, complete with garlic bread and cheese. Netto could not contain his excitement. "Meat spaghetti! All right!"
"Eat up," Haruka invited, removing her apron and sitting down. Netto propped up his PET on a stand and helped himself to a large plate of spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce as his Navi looked on with some degree of envy. Once he had sat down and begun to ravenously attack the food, Haruka asked, "So, how was school today?"
Netto stopped abruptly, one noodle dangling from his mouth. "Ah." Rockman pretended to be very busy browsing their e-mail inbox. Haruka looked at her youngest son, waiting, until he finally answered, "Ah, well, I actually didn't go to school today. I went to see Papa at work."
"Oh! Well, how was he?"
"Just fine," Netto lied. "We spent the day there, but don't worry, Rockman is making me do all the work I missed." The Navi gave them all a wan smile.
The front door emitted a beeping sound indicating that someone was accessing the lock through a card key, and a moment later Yuuichirou himself stepped into the kitchen. "Hi, everyone."
"Papa!" Haruka rose, a smile spreading across her face. "I wasn't expecting you until the weekend! Here, sit down, we're just having supper! It's your favourite--"
"Wonderful! Mama's special meat spaghetti!" Yuuichirou clapped his hands together in delight. "I picked the perfect evening for a surprise visit!" While Haruka set a place at the table for her husband, Yuuichirou turned his attention to the two boys. "Can I talk to you two for just a moment?"
"I guess so." Netto, PET in hand, allowed his father to lead him into the living room.
The scientist sat down on the couch, his expression serious. "I just wanted to thank you for what you did today. I wouldn't have made it back alive without your help."
"Of course." Netto looked almost offended that they would have even considered not helping.
"The two of you just can't seem to resist seeing someone in trouble," he continued softly. "I won't be surprised if mine isn't the last life you save. I just want you to be careful, and don't get hurt."
"Don’t worry! I'll protect him, and you and Mama too," Rockman said proudly.
"I'm counting on you, Rock." Yuuichirou smiled. "But what you boys and Enzan-kun both did today was noble--not the rescue, but forgiving Bit. I never realized you had matured so much."
Netto, who had "forgiven" Bit very reluctantly, frowned at his father. "But you forgave him before I did. I wouldn't have thought you would have let him off without going to the authorities."
"I couldn't stop myself," Yuuichirou confessed. "I still saw him as his father's son, and I remember that every time I look at him. When I remember the great things Dr. Cossack did...that was why I took Bit on as my intern. And now I realize that he's not his father, but the desire to excel is just as great. I want to give him the chance to shine for himself."
"And you think he won't try to sabotage you again?" Netto asked in disbelief.
"It's a two-way street." Yuuichirou looked sad. "If I want him to forgive me for never seeing his potential, I have to make the first move. You'll see--Bit will be grateful for the second chance, and in the end, it'll make him a better man than putting him in prison would."
Netto didn't know what to say to this. He sat mutely on the couch for a moment until his father took his hand and helped him stand. "Anyway...I thought I'd come by and see everyone again...I've spent too many nights at the Labs."
"Well...yeah." Netto couldn't help but agree. His father looked sheepish, accepting the plate of meat spaghetti Haruka handed him.
"Isn't this nice, everyone having dinner together!" Haruka beamed. Netto and Yuuichirou, both often guilty of missing such dinners, smiled back. "So, what brings you home from work so early, Papa?"
Yuuichirou twirled noodles on his fork, looking thoughtful. "We completed our project and it successfully passed the first round of testing, so tomorrow we have a big demonstration planned. My intern offered to spend the evening tweaking it so I could come home and spend time with my family."
Netto and Rockman both looked horrified.
"Emdee is there too," Yuuichirou reassured them.
"Oh, that's Mahito-kun, is it?" Haruka asked. "Such a sweet boy! I remember when he and his father used to come for dinner. You should invite him sometime, I'll make something special."
"Yes, Mahito-kun." Yuuichirou looked thoughtful. "I suppose I should get out of the habit of calling him 'Bit'."
"He always did hate that silly nickname. More parmesan, dear?"
"Please." Yuuichirou wondered why he'd never noticed.