Please Do Not Leave Me - StudentofAristotle - Rockman.EXE (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: 20XX Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 2: Saito Hikari Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 3: The Funeral Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 4: The Blasphemous Work Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 5: The Soul of Saito Hikari Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: The Remission of Sin Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7: Hello, Netto kun Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 8: The New Equilibrium Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9: The Perverted Future Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: Nights Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11: Cruel Pleasures Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 12: Dr. Wily is Hinted on What Lies Beyond Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: Higure Yamitaro, the Idiot Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14: Iceman, Shackled, Ashamed, Displayed Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: What Tory Feared Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 16: Heart of Ice Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17: In Miseriam Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 18: The Solution Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19: Garden of Yuichiro Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens II Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 22: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens III Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens IV Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24: While the Earth Spun Seven Times Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 25: The Filthy Kiss Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 26: The End of The Second Story Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 27: Happy Prelude for an Unhappy Story Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 28: The Unhappy Existences Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 29: Wicked Stories Notes: Chapter Text Notes: References

Chapter 1: 20XX

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Let us synchronize the time clock. It was 20XX. About one generation's worth of time ago, which is 40 earth-years, there were two great scientists leading the academic and political scenes of the most renowned Scilab of Den city. One was the illustrious Dr. Tadashi Hikari and the other the now most infamous Dr. Wily. Both were once colleagues with a healthy competitive relationship and made great contributions to their respective fields. It became clear, after many years, that because the advancement in technology both made was so great, the funding required for the next step in their projects grew so exponentially, that Scilab could not possibly support the works of both simultaneously any longer.

Dr. Tadashi specialized in the field of network. His vision was that of the future in which the world was connected by the internet system. Dr. Wily specialized in the field of robotics. His vision was that of the future in which the world found companions in his robotic creations. Over the limited resources of the Scilab the two minds fought, as bitterly as the proceedings would allow them. Considering the most intricate technological requirements of robots coupled with the outrageous funding projections by Dr. Wily, the board eventually voted in favor of Dr. Tadashi's vision of the future. In a fit of rage, Dr. Wily quit the Scilab with his followers, despite the reconciliatory offers of the other party, and retired. A mind as brilliant as Dr. Wily surely had offerings of positions from other organizations. The military was always interested in automatization of weapons systems and would've surely welcomed the addition of his talents. The heavy industry and manufacturing were also areas in which the demand for better robotized production lines was high, and would've paid a substantial sum of money to have Dr. Wily working for them. Yet he was found to be partaking in none of those fields. We can only infer why this was so, based on the documents from the archives of Scilab, which contain his original proposal that competed with that of Dr. Tadashi and then got rejected: he envisioned the creation of humanoid robots, not for the slavery, but for the companionship. He was a true romanticist, chasing hopelessly unrealistic dreams using public funds. World did not work like this; a project that did not result in the increase in the productivity was ultimately a burden to the society.

When a visionary such as he felt betrayed by the world, there were only two paths available: one of forgiveness and blessing of his enemies, and the other of complete vengence. A vengence that resulted in the thorough ruination of the one responsible for his fall. A vengence that rivaled the story of the Count Monte Cristo in magnitude. There were also murmurs in the Scilab, at the time of ousting of Dr. Wily, about how Dr. Tadashi framed and tarnished the reputation of his rival in order to politically dislodge him and gain a firm control over the Scilab council. Some rumors went as far as saying Dr. Wily never made such unrealistic proposals, but were erroneously driven out under false pretenses. Of course, many of such gossips should be taken with much skepticism, for people love to distort what they hear for the sake of more stimulating conversations. Most of them were probably not true, but at the same time, do smokes really come out of a chimney that has a cold fireplace? There had to be a morsel of truth in them--by how much was difficult to determine. At any rate, the combining of all clues allowed any logical mind to deduce what probably had transpired in the labyrinthine mind of Dr. Wily: he was out there seeking vengence.

Could any of those scandalous murmurs have been true? Dr. Tadashi passed away soon after due to the quick deterioration of his health. Sure, he had an appearance of a Santa Claus, with a big fluffy white beard and a large beer belly, but he was a man of academia, not a man of manual labor. His passing was deemed too soon and unexpected, even if he had a bad liver with hypertension and diabetes mellitus type II. Perhaps the karma came back to his head and struck him down. Perhaps Dr. Wily was right.

Dr. Tadashi, fortunately, had a son to succeed him--enter Dr. Yuichiro Hikari. Perchance, Dr. Tadashi knew something others did not, for by the time of his death, he already had the ground paved for the stable succession of power. Dr. Yuichiro was accepted as the new leader of the Tadashi supporters without much resistance. He also walked in the footsteps of his father and picked up his father's work on the network and internet. An apple not so far from its tree, Yuichiro as a scientist was unanimously recognized as unrivaled in his genius. With his lead, the world was ushered into the new age in which everyone was connected through this virtual world his father created and he perfected.

Then, Dr. Yuichiro took a strange turn in the direction of his works. He introduced a new race of artificial intelligence to help people navigate this vast uncharted territory that was the cyber world, and called them 'net navigators,' netnavi or navi as shorthand. His work resembled the vision of Dr. Wily too much, and many of his supporters became uncomfortable enough with this sudden development that they openly retracted their support for Yuichiro in the council. A schism was formed and Dr. Yuichiro lost the supermajority support that he had enjoyed up until this moment.

It was around this time that he married a beautiful girl named Haruka and begot two sons--monozygotic twins. In the honor of the work of his father, he named them Saito (Site) and Netto (Net), in the order they were born. The joy of fatherhood gave him a consolation from the recent passing of his father, and the setbacks he experienced in the Scilab.

By heavens! A blessing and then a misfortune. Truly, God gives and then takes away; must he always? It did not take long for the couple to realize something was wrong with their firstborn, Saito. As an infant, he was unconsolable and highly irritable. He did not eat regularly and preferred to sleep. He was lagging behind in weight and height gain. The only developmental milestones he kept up with were the language, hearing, and social ones. When Saito was only 3 months old, he had already went through a complete panel of diagnostic tests from the Den city hospital. The cardiologist assinged to the case of Saito was Dr. S. His name was something along the line of Sando, or Sanda, or perhaps Sano. It does not matter in this narrative, and we shall simply call this physician as Dr. S. After all tests, includng mildly intrusive ones, all he could tell the Hikari family was that the results were inconclusive, and that he suspected something was wrong with the infant's heart. He could not rule out structural reasons. Perhaps the anatomical defect was hidden by the still communicating foramen ovale of the heart (a hole that connects right and left atria of the infant heart. Closes in 6 mo~ 1 yr). He also could not rule out the problems of the heart conduction pathway. EKG during one of the episodes of Saito's fit showed some tachyarrythmia that appeared to be of supraventricular origin. The poor Dr. S. was doing his best, but the impression the Hikari family received was that of incompetance. When furious Haruka demanded the change of physician to the hospital administration after the meeting, she soon found out that it was physically impossible to do so as the department of cardiology was severely understaffed, and none of the other doctors in the department had any experience with pediatric patients. The hospital then tried to defend its honor by making an argument of how excellent a physician Dr. S was (he is not), and that if he could not help Saito, then no other instutitions would be able to. Hospital services usually did not enter a heated verbal exchange with its complainant, but such was how furious Haruka was. At any rate, she abandoned the idea of going to someone else for the health of Saito and decided to stick with the Den city hospital.

It took another 6 months before exasperated Dr. S sent an order to the lab for a complete karyotype scan to see if the cause was anything genetic other than the well known ones, which were routinely screened. Luckily for him, the direction of investigation was right, and Saito's diagnosis was confirmed as HBD. Ah, the satisfaction of completing the puzzle! Dr. S became a little proud of himself. He gave himself a pat in the back with this blatantly untrue idea: he was the best doctor alive! (again, he isn't).

The first meeting with the Hikari family after Dr. S made a diagnosis was a complete disaster. He first began with much excitement and pride that he finally figured it out: Hikari Saito had HBD! He also did not forget to add that it was an extremely rare disease, was genetic, and that there was nothing he could do to definitely cure the boy. Only an extremely insulated lifestyle combined with medications that only addressed the symptoms were in his power to prescribe. Yuichiro might not be a medical doctor, but he needed not be versed in jargons to understand what 'extremely rare disease' meant. It meant no cure, extremely expensive experimental treatments, and unaffordable medications with dubious effects that were not covered by any insurance. It additionally meant Saito was doomed. His boy was doomed, but whose fault was this? What had this little being that did not yet know good from evil done, so that he had to be struck with such a fate? This could not be true. Netto was fine, and he was a monozygotic twin. Saito and Netto shared the same genetic code down to the telomeres. If Netto was healthy, then the doctor had to be wrong. This was clearly a mistake.

In response, Dr. S explained that the genetic code alone was not enough to guarantee the expression of some diseases, and HBD was one of such cases. He speculated that in the womb, during the development, Saito and Netto competed for the resources, for they shared a placenta, and either Saito yielded too much to Netto or Netto took too much and left little for Saito. Indeed, at birth Saito's weight was already less than that of Netto. Good news was Netto was to be a perfectly healthy boy in the future with no risk of HBD occuring. None of this reached the couple. The Hikaris were angry, at the fate, at the God, at the world, and the fury was projected onto Dr. S. They denied this could be true. They stuck with their rationale that since Netto was healthy and Saito shared his brother's DNA, the diagnosis of HBD was faulty. Dr.S could not do anything but surrender, with a promise to screen Saito's karyotype again. The next meeting was scheduled.

Second meeting was mildly better in that Dr. S was no longer harrassed. He was a rude elitist looking down at all who are medically uneducated, including his patients, but he had his share of woes. One of the doctors at the department of cardiology had to leave his post for a week, and Dr. S consequently had to fill the vacancy by taking up the night shift duty every two days. At this point he was not so sure whether he was drinking coffee or coffee was drinking him. At any rate, the Hikaris...they bargained. It was not a haggling commonly seen in a market, but involved asking the same question (but rephrased every time) to the physician over and over again, in hopes of finding a procedure that would save Saito's life. Dr. Yuichiro Hikari being an erudite scientist did not help either, because he apparently read well over 100 HBD-related literatures in hope of finding something for his son. In fact, he started asking sharp questions that Dr. S had much trouble answering. He was a practicing clinician; he had long forgotten the biochemistry of the pathophysiology of HBD. The discussion did not change the fact: Saito had a phenotypically expressed form of HBD and that he was destined to live a limited life of suffering. When this cold fact sank in, after 40 minutes of heated discussion, Haruka finally lost her composure. She covered her face and cried as if the world was going to end. This ended the heated argument between Dr. Yuichiro and Dr. S, because no speech had meaning before the crying woman. Haruka was impossible to console, and she shed tears all the way home.

Haruka refused to speak to anyone for a full day, including her husband, even though he came back home early because he was worried about his wife, the love of his life, and their sons, who were potentially neglected in their mother's depression. The next day, Haruka was resolved. She accepted what was given to her and her diseased son, and was determined to give Saito the best life he could have, with much care and insulation, until he was no more. What could Yuichiro do other than agreeing to this only solution? Well...

Little did Haruka know that Yuichiro went to church regularly to pray during the last six months. There were much begging and pleading to God, even making promises of sacrifice, on the condition that the God saved Saito. He believed that he experienced something extraordinary and miraculous during this time, but now he was no longer certain. He accepted those signs as an answer to his prayers, and believed that Saito would live. After the diagnosis, he felt those had been his imaginations. His faith left him as quickly as it came. Then, an idea flashed in his mind. An idea so depraved that it could not be spoken aloud, yet so tempting that it could drive a man into a total madness. He found hope in the netnavi project he had been pushing forward. Perhaps, with time, and if Saito survived a few more years, then he could...

See, the acceptance of Saito's impending death never came to Yuichiro. As he agreed with Haruka that the couple would do everything they could do to give their son the best life possible, there was a fire glowing in his eyes. It was a passion in his soul--a passion for the blasphemous scheme he was developing--reflected in his eyes, for they are the lamp of the body. Haruka did not notice this. She held Saito in her arm. Saito smiled at her, and she smiled back. She hypnotized herself with a spell as old as humanity itself: 'It will be okay. All will be okay.'

Notes:

1-1

Chapter 2: Saito Hikari

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

A soccor ball, battered and dusty from excessive use, made its flight across the air. This poor object had seen its better days, but such was the fate of all objects used in children's play--to be abused until they physically could not function anymore. We all know it is not because of the neglect of parents, but because children care not, as they cover all blemish with their imaginations and focus on the essence of the play itself. Saito tracked it with his eyes, marveling at its temporary yet glorious flight, from the place where he was sitting: under the shadow of a tree next to the school yard. The cloudless light-blue sky of the early afternoon, a ceiling with endless height, provided a background to the many times misused ball--a stark contrast no one could miss. In the eyes of the boy was the admiration for the freedom the inanimate object exhibited. Alas, all things must come to an end. The ball went through the defense of the goalkeep and splashed into the net, making a hard landing on the sandy ground. A score! The brunette boy who just accomplished the feat waved brightly and proudly in the direction of Saito. Who else could this be other than Netto? It was unclear who he was waving to because next to Saito was

"Netto kun!"

A pink haired girl of fine complexions. She made an enthusiastic reply, thorougly convinced that the celebratory handwaving of the brunette boy was dedicated to her. She was called Mayl, the neighbor to the Hikari brothers. Their history tracked to the time before the elementary school days. It was clear as day how she thought of Netto. Saito could see it in her sparkling eyes full of hope and life. She would have been a good friend of his if not for her constant competetion with him for the attention of Netto. She was a good girl, no doubt, and, if, by a miracle, she stayed this way as she grew up (Saito knew that people were very prone to change as they grew up. His mind matured too early for his own age due to his condition and frequent visits to the hospital where he saw and heard the most raw emotions and conversations, and now grasped such nuggets of truths in life. A sad state that no child deserved, really), then she would make a fine companion to Netto. For now, however, he had no intention of sharing. His days were numbered--this he was well aware, and he would've died many years sooner had it not been the devotion of his mother, Haruka, father, Yuichiro, and the overprotection by his little brother, Netto. The entire family kept their undivided vigilance towards him, and at this point they were better than paramedics at dealing with his heart insufficiency episodes should they arise.

Netto had always occupied the center of his heart. From a clinical point of view, this was hardly surprising as the two spent the time together the most, and Netto acted like a wounded lion whenever he thought Saito was under a possible harm. The affection of human is quantitative, and Netto accrued excess of this currency from Saito. Therefore, Saito, in his selfishness, concluded that, before he expired, he would not share Netto with Mayl. A 10 year old boy desiring to monopolize what he perceives as good might not be noteworthy, but Saito's intention started to border on the territory of obsession. Perhaps this was simply the inevitable outcome if the supernatural bond between the Hikari twins was considered. According to their mother, Haruka, they so often synchronized their postures in sleep, even when they were located at two different places. They also seemingly turned in their beds at the same time, to the same direction. The only difference in the bed habit was that Saito had no trouble sleeping alone, whereas Netto was prone to waking up in the absence of his brother and always searched for him with drowsy eyes and his pillow in hand. This developed into a strange weekend morning routine where Saito, a morning person, woke up quietly and left his sleepyhead of a brother to explore the dreamland at peace, Netto followed suit in ten minutes, found Saito, dragged him back to the bed, and went for the second round of sleeping. Over the past few weeks, Netto, who was finally fed up with enduring the displeasure of being interrupted in his sleep, aptly deduced that the cause was the absence of his brother, and started sleeping in the same bed while hugging him. In this way, Saito could not leave in the morning due to the fear of waking his brother, and Netto got to sleep to his heart's content during the weekends.

"Saito niisan-! You saw that goal?"

The brunette made it clear to whom he was waving. Saito concluded that Netto must have not heard Mayl, for it was not his wont to ignore her in this way. Yet he could not help but develop a smirk on his face with a sense of superiority over their childhood friend. 'See?' he gloated. 'Netto always looks at me first.' Apparently, Mayl did not care about this humiliation. Do not be mistaken: though she appeared as one of the most sweet-natured persons, had the same situation arose between her and someone else, she was sure to find a way to even the score. As for Saito, she endured him. His HBD was a public knowledge and she knew his remaining days were short. His condition had been deteriorating such that he started missing more school days than his usual. Mayl's pity and fear for his future always weighed heavier than her pride and prejudice. Besides, he was not be her long term competition in her bid for Netto. This analysis was not from the maliciousness of her character, but she was simply aware of the surroundings and the harsh reality. She was a girl, after all, and girls tended to mature earlier. In fact, she had been most kind and understanding to Saito as well, which was the reason why Netto could focus on the play knowing that Saito was in good hands. Should anything happen, he could trust Mayl to hand out emergency medications in a timely manner.

"Yes I did-"
"I saw the goal! That was amazing Netto!"

Saito's reply was drowned in Mayl's enthusiasm. Perhaps this was a small revenge to his smirk earlier. He could not be entirely sure, since it was impossible to determine how the enigmatic minds of girls worked.

"Thanks Mayl!"

The sincere reply of gratitude was quickly followed with a hesitant request that was important in maintaining the dignity of the boy.

"I saw you cheering for me too, but you really didn't have to... now everyone is going tease me by saying you are my girlfriend."

In the world of boys, a girlfriend at the age of 10 is a weakness to be ridiculed. A girlfriend at the age of 20 is an object of envy. Therefore, should they be seriously mistaken as a couple, Netto's dignity would be irrepairably damaged. Mayl could not care less about the esoteric politics of immature male society.

"Well, you know I don't mind what they say."

Saito's eyes opened wide in surprise. He quickly scanned Mayl and Netto to see if his fear had come true. Even if he took into account Mayl's feelings towards his little brother, that was a very bold way of appealing oneself. Thankfully, the dense skull of his little brother was completely filled with things young boys liked--sports, virus busting, net battling, playing truth or dare, fooling around... and the indirect confession of Mayl did not penetrate. Saito let out a virtual sigh of relief in his mind.

'Mayl, please do not take him from me before I expire.'

There is a phrase, a wisdom of old, that says [guns for boys dolls for girls]. Netto was the perfect embodiment of that stereotype. Such activity! What abundance of joy of life was present in him! Since Netto's head was completely impervious to Mayl's advances, Saito wondered then what percentage of Netto's thoughts he occupied. Had it not been for his illness, he was not sure if he would have mattered much to his brother. This was a fearsome thought, for the imagination then naturally drifted to how useless he was to Netto's life in his current state. That he was a burden, and that his task effectively ended at the moment of his birth. See, mother Haruka used to tell Saito that he gave much of himself away to Netto in her womb, and that he was born underweight compared to his sibling, and ensured that Netto would grow healthy without any risk of HBD. Seeing how Netto had double the energy of a normal boy and double the appetite, Saito was somewhat convinced. If this was true, then that act was single handedly the best decision Saito had ever made in his short existence. His only regret was that he did not give more. Had he done so, he would've become a stillborn, Netto even healthier (the question of whether this was even physically possible was another matter), and Netto would have been free from the burden that was called Saito in his life. Part of him gleed in the tragedy of his situation, for it meant that Netto was likely to remember him in the days ahead, when he was gone.

Saito slowly stood up, or more precisely, Netto held his hand and pulled him up after noticing his intention to do so. Saito's weakness was not as disabling as Netto wanted to believe, but he did not protest, for the attention from his brother brought happiness that sprang forth from the deepest part of his heart. When Saito was firmly on his two feet, he did not let go of his brother and hugged him. Netto's shirt was wet from the sweat and his body was hot from the running.

"Netto-kun, that was an amazing goal."
"Th-thanks."

Saito sniffed at Netto's neck a few times.

"and you smell like sunshine and spring wind"
"!!"

Netto pushed away Saito. He was blushing from embarrassment. Well, he had been blushing since the hug. The unfiltered expression of affection from his brother was sometimes too much to bear publicly. However, the actual reason for the pushing away was

'You didn't have to say I stink in such a roundabout way!'

...because Netto thought it was a euphemism. Well, Netto currently emitting a sweaty odor was not entirely untrue, as evidenced by Mayl keeping her distance, and Netto was not planning to rub in his unpleasant scent on his brother. In truth, Saito did not mind, and he was sincere in his remark, but if Netto had found out about this, then he would've been flustered beyond control, caught between a sense of repulsion of Saito's over-attachment and a sense of happiness from Saito's acceptance of everything that is from him.

"W-well, we better get going then! The game is over now and I am starving! Let me say goodbye to my friends real quick"

And then as free as wind Netto ran back to his group. The game was not a full team match but a friendly skirmish by six boys. The goalkeep who just lost was named Dekao. He did not take the result well and his attempt to salvage what was remaining of his ego could be heard from the distance, as he shouted something along the line of [you might win in soccer this time, but I will surely defeat you in netbattling with my Gutsman]. Dekao was a large boy (larger than his peers by almost two standard deviations) with skin darkened under the sun and crude facial features. He almost looked like a boar turned into a human, and his personality matched this impression as he was prone to relying on his above average strength to solve problems. Gutsman was his custom netnavi whose appearance was equally rough, resembling an amalgam of a silverback gorilla and a construction worker. Possessing a strength equally befitting such an uncivilized appearance, Gutsman had been handily beating Netto's generic (at this point arguably outdated) green colored netnavi in netbattles. Netto so far refused to give up, and came up with different strategies every few days. The solution continued to elude him. Perhaps the solution did not exist.

First, an explanation is in order. The world at this point in time was one where internet network was so extensively built that the size of the cyberworld was said to be holding more information content than the entire Earth. Mankind had created a whole new world and then, in the most stupefying display of incompetence, lost control of their own creation. The network continuously expanded, mostly illegally, and no one knew what existed in the deepest parts of it. Whether the network was a trimph of technology or a hubris that would burn down the humanity was a hot topic of debate. To help and protect humans from the cyber attacks (of most heinous intentions, of which there are no shortage of in our world as well), a race of artificial intelligence was made. These AIs were called 'Net Navigators,' called netnavis as a shorthand. They were humanoid in looks and possessed a range of emotions to interact with their masters. To prevent netnavis from gaining complete independence, and therefore, rebelling against humans, a safety measure was installed in place. It was one of the most cruel methods imaginable--netnavis were designed to love their master with all their heart and strength. Thus there was a saying among the workers of Scilab: 'every netnavi desires for its master.' There was no order a netnavi would not obey (it might protest, but no worries! Ultimately it obeys), even that of self destruction and crimes.

When humans gained this race of most patient, loving, and obedient slaves, there was only one natural response. Surely, the imaginations of man are evil from his youth. The slaves were pitted against each other for sport, and this cruelty came to be elegantly named as 'netbattling.' Now established as the primary method of dealing with all things hostile in the net, even elementary schools had the curriculum to teach this technique. The private netbattling on the school grounds was prohibited by the official school policy, but no one enforced it, for those entrusted with the task were too technologically inept.

Mayl watched the exchange between the brothers with a hope for the future. In time, she was sure to replace the portion of Saito in the Netto's heart, and they would hug as lovers. They would be married and be happy ever after, just like the countless bedtime stories she read. The time was on her side.

====

The trio was on their way home. As Mayl was a neighbor of the Hikari brothers, it was their habit to say goodbye only by the gates of their houses. Mayl assumed a highly talkative personality when she was with Netto. Saito tried to walk behind the two silently, not wanting to be an awkward barrier between them, but Netto was adamant about keeping his brother between him and her. Whenever Saito drifted behind, Netto also slowed down. Could it be that something about her bold advances made him uncomfortable at a subconscious level, and he was using Saito as a buffer? A simpler explanation was that Netto was a worrywart and was keeping Saito in his line of sight at all times.

So it was, Saito was stuck in the middle, forced to endure the endless talking of the two to his right and to his left. Constant conversation of various topics hit both of his eardrums. No, correction: it was mostly Mayl leading the talk and Netto responding unenthusiastically. Saito's right side, which was the Mayl side, suffered considerably from this arrangement. Saito actively dodged the conversations, already feeling tired from hearing alone, only making most neutral responses to avoid involvement whenever Netto tried to make him parttake in his suffering. Saito preferred it this way--a perfect division of labor.

"-and Netto, what did you fill in for the survey today?"

Mayl was referring to the future career survey they were given today. Saito was, well, exempt. Ms. Mari, their homeroom teacher, did not even bother giving him one. He was also interested in what Netto had to say, so he quietly listened.

"I don't know...I left it blank."
"Ah, so that's why Ms. Mari made you stay after classes today. That means you eventually wrote something there, forced or not. Programmer, I assume?"
"Just because my papa is one does not mean I want to be one."
"I think it suits you"
"I'm not that smart. Everyone will compare me to him, and then I will become a disappointment. No thank you."
"You can't say that before you try! So, what did you write?"
"So persistent, just like Ms. Mari...I told her I will think about it when people figure out how to cure HBD and my brother gets it treated. So I wrote down 'Saito' in there. She did not take it so kindly...she stared at me with a bit of annoyance, crossed out my answer herself, and filled it in as 'researcher.' Said it was close enough if my dream was to find a cure for Saito."

Mayl made a quick glance to Saito.

"Netto, do you think it is possible?"
"What is?"
"The cure."
"Papa was optimistic. He said HBD was fundamentally a structural problem and therefore a definitive treatment will come in the form of surgery. Apparently there are some experiments going on using mice, and he estimates Saito might be able to get a treatment in few years."

Saito knew it was not true.

'Papa, why did you say that to Netto? We know it is not true. I heard you making calls in the living room, and when you saw me watching, frozen at the edge of stairs, at the end of all that, you hugged me in tears. That was not a dream nor an illusion. You said 'I am so sorry, Saito, but I will find a way,' and I believe you will, in the end...you would not have said that had you truly believed a solution would be found in time. You said it to assure yourself, not me, though you projected your insecurities onto me. Then, why woud you tell Netto this? Could it be...you...you want Netto to start thinking about the future! That is it! Because we both know Netto has no plan other than me! And this means all hopes are lost for me. Yet you did not give up; your eyes had a fire in them. I refuse to believe you can give up and still be resolute. What is in your mind? Why are you keeping us all in the dark?'

Absorbed in thought, Saito no longer heard the conversation around him. He had accepted his own fate a long time ago and hardly had any future plans for himself. If he was asked if he was ready to leave the world, then the answer was no. If he had a choice, he would always choose to stay one more day with his brother. If his father had a plan, then he felt he was entitled to know. Hope to him was like a good wine to an alcoholic. He was so easily drunk, and when he woke up from it, he needed more of it. Making various conjectures about scenarios in which he lived on, while limiting his thoughts within the bounds of what was plausible, was a mentally taxing exercise.

When about ten minutes passed a new type of fatigue struck Saito. He could not keep up with the walking pace of the other two. The way home felt like a long hillside incline. It was Netto's habit to take detour when fancy struck him, to walk by the brook, as the narrow dirt path by the small stream that cut across the ACDC town--the town where the boys lived--was a favored route of his. The path involved some inclines, which was perfect for the active Netto whose body always ached for more activity, but was found demanding to Saito in recent days. Saito looked around to see if this was the current case. To his surprise, Netto was taking the flattest and shortest route to home. Surely, the need for food and shower was a strong motivator.

Saito's breath became progressively labored. His heart was beating faster and faster. He needed more oxygen, but breathing faster did not help. The pain from the shortness of oxygen started to emerge. The shortage of oxygen was not from the lack of breathing rate, but from the heart failing to pump enough blood to the body. By the knowledge gained from numerous similar past experiences, he could project what was imminent. His left hand clutched the chest and twisted the shirt in frustration. The torso hunched as the muscles start to enter a sustained contraction in response to pain and stress. In a fit of dizziness, Saito found the world spinning around him, and at the end of this vertigo, he was looking at his shoelaces, halted in his tracks. The HBD attack was here. He looked up to find help, only to discover Netto and Mayl walking well ahead. Their topic now drifted to the new curry house that was scheduled to open in a few days.

'Of course! Talk about curry and Netto becomes so enthusiastic that he forgets his surroundings!'

Saito made a quick mental note: 'in Netto...curry > Saito.' He extended his right arm forward, but the two were already beyond his physical reach. All he could squeeze out was a desparate call for help.

"Ne-Nett-o-ku-n-"

Netto did not fail to catch what was only a faint voice from behind, which was quickly buried in the sound of traffic nearby. His mind separated itself from the intoxicating topic at hand and became aware of few anomalies before him. One, Saito was no longer between him and Mayl. Two, that voice was undoubtedly from the one whom he swore to protect. During acute HBD attacks, Saito lost the ability to medicate himself. The facts came together like puzzle pieces, revealing a frightening revelation. His head could not have turned backward faster.

"SAITO NIISAN!!"

He sprinted like a mother lion to its distressed cub, took out the emergency medication in the most agitated yet precise manner, put two tablets under the Saito's tongue, made him sit down, and checked his breathing with the left hand. He then screamed at Mayl to call the ambulence.

====

It became clear to all who were involved that Saito's condition was no longer manageable with the current method. He was admitted to the Den city hospital with no future date for discharge planned. Haruka remained strangely optimistic and hopeful, although she knew this time the severity was different. Saito went through another attack in three days while staying in the hospital, and he already appeared a bit paler and thinner. 'So what?' Haruka steeled herself. 'Doctors said he would not live for five years. He has proven them wrong--every single one of them!' To be fair, Haruka and Netto's extreme insulation of Saito from the external risk factors had worked a miracle. It was already an astonishing outlier of statistics that Saito survived this long with HBD. With the admission to the ward, even the perpetually occupied and elusive Yuichiro made visits in the evening, with Haruka, every day. As for Netto, well, he came to the hospital straight after school and did his homework by the bedside. He returned home with his parents when the sun was down, seemingly only spending time there to sleep. Netto always looked insecure and reluctant when it was time to leave. Given his sleeping habit, Saito wondered how Netto was doing, but the question never found its way out through his mouth, as he very well knew the conversation would be deflected and then pivoted into the discussion of his current condition. The air of the room always became heavy and downtrodden when his declining health was brought up. Saito did not like that. If this was to be the end, then he would rather spend the remaining time in the brighter atmosphere.

On the fourth day after the admission, Netto happily reported to Saito that he got permission from Papa and Mama to sleep over in the ward every Saturday. There were five more patients in the ward. Saito called his parents to confirm. As much as the idea appealed to him, he was unwilling to let Netto spend his night in such an unaccommodating environment. A few hours later, Yuichiro sent a reply to Saito that starting this weekend he will be moved to a single room, where there will be a sofa next to his bed, on which Netto can sleep. So the matter was settled.

From the morning to afternoon, when Saito was alone, he surreptitiously roamed and eavesdropped on the patients and their families around him. To him, this rather suspicious activity became a singularly interesting occupation, partly due to the boredom, but also partly due to a vague urgency brewing inside him. With the instinct warning him, like a miner's canary, that his end was near, the matter of life and death piqued his interest. Even his over-educated and illustrious father seemed to be as uninformed as a babe regarding this subject. Then, what better time and place were there to explore this than here and now?

It was certainly a difficult topic for all. Nurses told him that only the dead knew with definite certainty, but based on what they have observed over the years, it was difficult to rule out the existence of the afterlife and the supernatural. The reasons for this opinion, however, were as various as the number of nurses he posed this question to. Some said it was because they saw things when people passed away--machines reacted in a way beyond their factory specifications, and they could pinpoint the exact moment the life of a person left the world. Surely, they said, such observations were best explained by admitting the existence of souls. Some said it was because of the bizarre experiences they had during some night shifts, when they were making rounds through the wards. Some said it was because they witnessed miraculous recovery of patients that defied all known scope of modern medicine. According to them, it was the clearest evidence of the supernatural and therefore the existence of the afterlife.

Then there were the patients themselves. Some despaired because they were cured. The financial responsibility, from which they were exempted with the expectation of death, caught up to them and shackled them into a life of economic slavery. There were patients on the opposite end of the spectrum, willing to sell their entire savings for another day of life, but what could not be done could not be bargained with. They all predictably expired kicking and screaming, saying they did not want to die. Some of them calmed down at the moment of their last breath, reporting they saw their ancestors waiting for them across a field or a river. Some entered the most violent struggle, reporting they saw demons and monsters waiting for them. Extremely rarely, some were ecstatic at the deathbed, reporting the vision that was promised by their religions--most frequently observed in Christians. Whatever the case, doctors dismissed the reports as a form of delirium generated by the last spark of the brain.

Saito was unsatisfied. He needed an answer. Otherwise, what could he tell to Netto? The investigation at least allowed Saito to narrow down the afterlife into three cases. If it was heaven, then Saito imagined he would wait for Netto by the pearly gates, so they could enter together. If it was hell, then Saito was determined to pray that Netto would not come here, for the suffering was enough for one. If it was the complete obliteration of being, returning to the void, then Saito would tell Netto to live a life without regrets, and not to dwell too much in the misfortunes, including his brother's premature death, so that may his life be filled with happiness, not meaningless sorrows. But Saito liked the idea of heaven. It meant he got to stay with Netto forever. He imagined what it would be like to spend time together for a thousand years and still not care about the finity. Saito shuddered from the pleasure that emanated from the thought. Oh, only if it was true!

On the first Saturday after admission, Netto came to visit before noon. He had two homemade bentos in his hand. Saito's condition was good enough to walk around, and nurses informed them that they should vacate and spend some time outside until they prepare the new single ward for Saito. So it was decided: they shall have a small picnic in the hospital garden, under the trees.

Slowly strolling between shrubs and flowers in the cool of the day, with Netto by his side, Saito was captivated by how pleasant the experience could be. The bliss of this simple moment was multifaceted and could not be explained by few simple words. The leisure, the light without the oppressing heat, the companionship, each had an equal part in the composition. 'Ah' an epiphany struck him. 'A part of heaven must be like this, a garden.' The details of the world around him entered his eyes almost forcefully. Saito could not help but notice the beauty in the chaotic patterns of tree branches, the softeness of flower petals, the veins that lined the freshly sprouted leaves, and the sound of bees intermittently tickling his ears. He looked at Netto, and noticed the movement of his eyelids, the eyelashes, a pimple that formed on his forehead (telling Netto to stop wearing his bandana even when he was sweating was without results), the strands of brown hair that swayed left and right according to the direction of the wind, like a sea of reeds. How did he not appreciate them before, the beauty in the minutiae of the world?

"...Saito Niisan, are you okay? Are you even listening to what I am saying? Should we go back inside?"
"No, Netto kun, I'm sorry, it's just...everything looks so vivid."

Netto studied Saito's face, trying to decide whether that meant they should go back or not. His brother did not look so pale today and was in good spirits. It did not take long for Netto to diagnose that the picnic was not off the limits. The garden air was supposed to do him good, as the effect of the hospital air on him was questionable. Otherwise, why would he be, all of a sudden, making intense observations of everything mundane like a two year old child who just discovered the outside world?

"So, what were you saying again?"
"Niisan...and to think you always tell me to focus in class."

The annoyance was evident in the tone of Netto's voice. Saito was an expert in this matter and knew exactly what was to be done. He gently buried his hand in the hairs of the brunette, and proceeded to stroke with a smile.

"Looks like someone's pouting because he did not get my full attention"
"...mou..."
"I'll be listening now. I promise."

And that did the trick. Netto glanced at Saito to check if he was indeed listening this time. Netto continued.

"So I was saying-"

Netto told him everything. Absolutely everything, from what he had for breakfast each day to the recentmost gossips circulating in the class. It relieved Saito to hear that Netto's social life was not completely in tatters. With daily visits that lasted the entire afternoon and evening, Saito had been worrying if Netto was neglecting his other responsibilities.

"Oh, and Mayl said she will visit you tomorrow. Would you be okay?"
'Mayl? Me? More like coming here to see you and ask you out for a Sunday date.'

The bitter opinion almost escaped his mouth, but Saito quickly swallowed it back. The experience was as revolting as swallowing one's own vomit. However, it had to be endured, for his brother needed not to know the imperfections in his personality, infected with jealousy.

"I don't mind an extra company. I suspect she will ask you to hang out with her in the afternoon. The hospital air is not good for you, there's nothing here you can play with, and you've been staying here every day. Tomorrow's weather should be nice. Maybe you should refresh yourself-"

It did not take long for Saito to realize the delivery of his message was poorly conducted. Netto, clearly hurt at his brother for even suggesting the separation, replied like a puppy facing abandonment.

"Niisan, tell me...have I been a bother?"
'Uh oh'

One word misspoken and there would be a very sad Netto kun. Sad Netto was a disaster. It was a result that had to be avoided at all costs.

"No, absolutely not! It's not like I have anything to do here."

Glancing at Netto after a vehement denial, Saito realized it was not enough to soothe him; something had to be said in addition.

"And all I do is sit by the window and think about you."

That and eavesdropping on others. There was no need to tell everything. Saito successfully bridled his tongue this time. Thankfully, Netto brightened.

"Good! I already told her I am not going anywhere tomorrow. Since you want extra company so much, I'll now ask if everyone wants to come and see you too!"
'Netto kun, I don't think Mayl will like that very much.'

Maybe Netto was well aware of this too. If all of their friends came at the same time as a group appointment, then Mayl would be hard pressed to find an excuse to stay behind and occupy Netto. Maybe he also did not want to share his time with his brother as much as the reverse was true. Maybe.

Having reached the middle of the garden, the Hikari twins took a seat on a bench under a tree blossoming with flowers. Saito opened his bento. The contents were obviously catered towards Saito's preferences--it was the mother's wordless letter of love. His broken heart was tender. Little evidence of empathy, embedded in abstract forms, penetrated deeply. Tears welled up in his eyes, but Saito quickly wiped them off, lest his brother became wary. Next to him was Netto proficiently manipulating his PET (PET stands for PErsonal Terminal. It's an equivalent to a smartphone but with a netnavi in it), sending out a message of invitation to all of his friends.

'What a wonderful day. May every day be like this.'

====

It was only 3 in the afternoon when Dr. Yuichiro made his visit to his sons. He brought with him a strange cart and a helmet. The cart had a machine, and the helmet had few dozen wires attaching it to the machine. It was a bizzarre contraption that was more of a caricature of a first generation EEG recorder than a proper device. Even stranger was how he did not come with Mrs. Hikari. Was it truly a coincidence that he brought this burdensome object the first day Saito was reassigned to a private ward? Yuichiro quickly installed the machine in the ward, as if everything was planned and simulated beforehand. The helmet was hurriedly put on Saito's head. The impatience of Yuichiro was visible, as his hands stumbled several times while trying to turn on the machine. When Saito curiously inquired about the machine and its purpose, Yuichiro got angry and only used most vague terms to describe them. Saito noticed how the face of his father was stern and full of fear. Who or what could be possibly chasing him? When the work was done, Yuichiro quickly yet awkwardly excused himself, said something about needing to return to Scilab, and left with the strange machine.

What just happened? Saito and Netto looked at each other. Netto shrugged his shoulders in confusion while his brother stared with wide eyes at the door through which his papa just stormed out, trying to gain an insight of the situation. The door offered no answers.

That night, right after the nurse on duty made a final check on Saito around midnight, Netto sneaked into the bed and slept while hugging him per usual. The hug was a bit tighter.

====

One week passed. Another Saturday. Saito checked the clock on the wall. The hands showed that it was roughly 3 A.M. The sleep escaped him, though the fatigue dogged him as a permanent companion. Regardless, he dared not to move much, as he could feel the hands of Netto on his chest and beneath his right arm. The warmth of the body next to him brought comfort like no other.

He had two attacks this week. His health was in a freefall. The legs became heavy--pitting edema developed as a consequence of decompensated heart failure. He could not make a stroll through the garden as a nasal cannula for constant supplementation of oxygen and a line to central vein were installed for parenteral nutrition. Saito remembered the low level terror as he saw the needles penetrating below his clavicle surprisingly deeply, and causing pain in parts he could not describe. The nurse must have scratched somewhere inside his vein during the installation. His vital signs were constantly monitored via a clip that was on his index finger. Should his heart fail, a team of emergency response was to be automatically paged, and for the past two attacks, Saito heard the first responder shouting "code blue," from which he deduced that it was the name of the resuscitation team. Saito snickered; the name reminded him of Power Rangers. 'So there is code red? green? pink?' It was one of those simple silly ideas that commonly infiltrated a tired sleepless head.

Saito checked the clock again only to find a few minutes had passed. The hands of the clock pointed 3:12. In a sleepless boredom, his thought drifted to the happy moments in his life. All of them involved Netto one way or the other, and sometimes his father, Yuichiro. See, he seldom graced the family with his presence that any time it happened the occasion was immediately promoted into a memorable event. Saito continued to shuffle through his memory, triyng to find when Netto was happiest. It did not take long to find the answer: their birthday. Each year, it was a celebration of his survival, disguised as a celebration of Netto's growth and maturation. Each celebration helped to wipe away the fear and insecurity that Netto felt, for it was deemed as an assurance that Saito would live for another year.

It was time for Saito to be a realist. He would probably not be present in his precious brother's upcoming birthday, but he still had time to prepare a small gift. He could write a letter in advance so Netto would not feel lonely. He extended his arm gently over Netto and grabbed the PET, in which a generic model of netnavi, green in color, appeared. Before the navi could speak, Saito muted the machine and manually loaded a mail interface. He set the timer of the message to next June 10th. What should he write? He started with a greeting, and then continued with sincere benedictions to bless the little brother's future. He also needed to tell him how much he loved him. And then...

Saito's hands abruptly stopped as regret stormed him. Was it right for him to leave here his hopes and wishes? The more the letter was composed, the more it became predictable that Netto would be devastated upon reading this. His want for Netto's happiness and his need to lay down what was in his heart conflicted. There were things that could only be said through letters, and only after death. Should he..?

It was not difficult for Saito to make a decision, for the need was stronger than the want. When the burden in the heart was released, the words came out in an unstoppable flow. Having finished the letter, he gave it to the navi, who dutifully stored it, where it would remain hidden until the day. With the deed done, the reality suddenly struck him. He would not be there with Netto in their next birthday. A poisonous co*cktail of sadness, despair, anger, spiked with denial swirled inside him, like a Kraken's whirlpool, drowning his very soul. The Kraken soon had him in its slimy tentacles. There was no escape. But he wanted to be there. One more year, no two more years, until Netto entered middle school. With whom was he bargaining? God? His vision blurred with tears. Saito wiped his eyes with the left arm that was free from Netto's hold. He could not lose hope yet. He had to live for a few more days, a week, and then two weeks. He would turn them into a month, and...

'Should I erase the letter? Will I then gain hope?'

Saito decided not to.

The sleepless night continued. The clock marked 4:00 A.M. Saito, using his fingers, gently combed through his brother's hair. To touch, they resembled finest satin threads. Surely, Netto inherited them from his mother, unlike Saito, whose hair was stiff and rough, so much so that his back hair tended to protrude backwards than flow down naturally. Although they were monozygotic twins, one strand of their DNA was from their father, and the other from their mother. Seemingly, their bodies decided to use different genes for different parts. Had Netto's hair been as rough as ropes, Saito would still have considered them pleasant, for it was about who, not what. He gazed at the face of the heavy sleeper, squished by the pillow and leaning against his shoulder. To Saito, there was no scene lovlier than this. His brother was a troublemaker while waking, but transformed into a true angel while sleeping. Other than him, and possibly their mother, how many would discover this side of Netto? Even if he grew up, got married, and had a family, Saito doubted he would continue in his habit of sleeping in the same way, hugging his wife through the night. The fact that he was monopolizing an aspect of Netto brought him some consolation.

A sudden cold dread swept Saito. It was a familiar feeling--the aura of the HBD attack, yet he had never felt one this ominous before. Should he wake up his brother? Should he press the button for the emergency call? Indecision and doubt gripped him. A voice of reason whispered behind him almost maliciously: 'this is it, the end.' On the screen next to him where his vital signs were constantly displayed, hearbeat waves started to look irregular in intervals and shape. That was not good. Soon, a code blue team would be paged, and havoc would be released in this room. If this was truly the end, then what was the point? Tonight would transform into the worst trauma of his brother, as he helplessly watched him die, mauled by aggressive CPR, and twisted by electric shocks from the desperate use of the defibrillator. His ribs would be broken, and Netto would hear the fracturing. At least, let there be peace and dignity in his departure. The pain started to emerge, which was to soon drown him like a small boat caught in a stormy sea. He was bound to squirm like a tormented snake sooner or later and wake up Netto.

'God, if you exist, please let this pain go away. Please do not page the code blue team. Let my Netto kun sleep in peace.'

A miracle? If so, then God, who did not hear the cry of Yuichiro for the life of Saito, heard the prayer of the the death of Saito? The pain subsided, and a great peace enveloped him. Saito looked at the monitor. His heart was almost stopping, yet he did not hear anyone rushing toward the ward. Suddenly, the machines turned off. It was not a blackout, for the lights of the room were still functioning. The understanding came to him; a knowledge that was not his entered the heart: his prayers were answered. Saito turned his head to see Netto one last time. He was not awake, but his drool was starting to wet the pillow.

'Oh, you clumsy ma cacahuete.'

With his last strength, Saito wiped off the drool off his brother's mouth using his patientwear sleeves. Saito found his strength leaving him, and his eyelids were becoming as heavy as rocks. It was time to sleep. It felt so good to close the eyes and rest his head against the softness of the pillow. Between the thought of his cherished Netto and the irresistible desire to enter the rest, the extinguishing brain fired its last spark of consciousness:

'Netto kun...
...
...
...sleep
...'

One birth every 9 seconds, one death every 11 seconds. As long as the earth endures and seasons come and go, there will be harvest in the field every year. Saito's death, however tragic, did not stop the time. The sun rose and birds began their morning chatters. Netto woke up as the morning sunlight penetrated into the room between the narrow gaps of the window blind and hit him directly in the face. It had been a while since he had such a good night's sleep. With eyes closed, Netto yawned and murmured his greetings. His brother was a morning person, and was probably just looking at him.

"Good morning, Saito niisan."

There was no answer. Netto rubbed his eyes and looked up at his brother's face.

"Saito niisan?"

Notes:

1-2

Chapter 3: The Funeral

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Men dressed in black suits flooded the mortuary. The place was not designed to accommodate so many people at once. Going in and out both became a laborious endeavor. In the main chamber was a small casket, surrounded by flowers, and in front of it was a photo of a brown haired boy who resembled his father so much, decorated at the upper corners with black stripes, displaying the identity of the corpse within. The boy was none other than Saito Hikari. Whispers of vacuous condolences filled the chamber. As much as the death of the boy was a tragic occurrence, to none was the occasion personal. let us be honest here: if some stranger came in to say goodbye to the dead with copious amount of sympathy, crying his eyes out all the way, then that would be a most suspicious and unseemly sight. The person would be quickly found out to be having some sort of mental illness, chronically suffering from mind consuming delusions, and authorities would take him away. When a person died, only a handful gave genuine lamentations, for such was the difficulty of acquiring and maintaining truly meaningful relationships in one's life in this world. Then why did so many people come?

The funeral is for the living, not for the dead. The dead knows not who comes and goes to honor him, nor can he taste anything that is offered on the altar. He no longer demands, for the breath has left his nostrils. Even if the dead is left in the field as a food for the dogs, and his body torn apart, and the leftovers pecked clean by the birds of the air, he does not protest. His blood might testify to the circ*mstances of his unjust death, but even the punishment of perpetrators is for the living, not for the dead, for the incarceration is designed to prevent further harm, not to undo the harm. Just as the time cannot be rewound, the death cannot be undone. So it was clear that all these visitors came, despite the inconveniences, and spew out remarks of soulless compassion, because they were compelled that this was somehow beneficial to them. Sometimes the benefit was as small as not making an enemy, as was exactly the case here. The majority of the visitors were Scilab workers whose interests were tied to the decisions Dr. Yuichiro made daily. They all came to show their face to Yuichiro because others came to do so.

The logic is a simple game theory. If no one comes to show his face, then no one is in trouble. Will Dr. Yuichiro make an enemy out of the entire Scilab personnels for not showing respect to his tragedy? If one or even a handful show up, then the others are in trouble. Dr. Yuichiro will remember the few (he will not be able to help himself) as his true allies who were with him through the darkest hour, and they will become the first in the list of next round of promotions. If most show up but few, who are without proper excuses, do not show up, then those who did not come will be in trouble. Of course, Dr. Yuichiro does not remember all people in Scilab nor is his personality petty and vengeful as to hold grudge against those few. It is the lower ranking officers, who know them, and with questionable work ethics, will never write a recommendation for them. They can kiss goodbye to their careers. If all show up, then no enemies are made at the expense of Dr. Yuichiro's annoyance and surprise.

Indeed, Dr. Yuichiro never had a plan to make an event out of his son's funeral. This was to be a personal moment of memorial. He did not even send out invitations to his closest allies. He loved his son too much to make it into anything political. Had he intended, then he would not have chosen a mortuary so small and private. Yet the information was leaked somewhere, and before Yuichiro could make corrections, the flood of men came, along with delivery after deliveries of flowers. Yuichiro now felt mildly disgusted at men, all of them, who were so quick and eager to make everything into a part of their little game. The stuffy air polluted the room and the entire affair became a bad imitation of a hydrolic press. From time to time he was compelled to turn around and check his wife and the remaining son in the fears of losing them in the crowd. Small Netto would surely be crushed and injured should he be lost in this torrent of men. Thankfully, both were staying at the corner and Haruka was shielding him. Yuichiro did his best to make empty promises to visitors saying that he would remember their visitations and considerations, just so he could repel them in a timely manner. It was a total chaos.

Had it been four hours? Maybe six? Around 10 P.M., the number of men was visibly reduced, but the work was far from done. Around 11 P.M., there was finally some breathing room, and Haruka took a sit with Netto on her laps to rest her weary knees. Her son was visibly exhausted simply from witnessing the pandemonium. Yuichiro's face was becoming darker from the fatigue; a sign that his liver was not keeping up with the workload. His neck was parched and voice was starting to crack. He was sure to have trouble speaking tomorrow from the delayed inflammation of his larynx stemming from over-use. Heck, he wished that he did not speak at all for the next few days.

The tired brain of Yuichiro readily created an invasive thought: why was everyone saying "I'm sorry for your loss" when most of them probably did not even know that Yuichiro had a son named Saito until earlier today? They were not sorry at all--why would they? They were all dogs and hyenas, looking for breadcrumbs on his table to fall, so they could lick at his feet. He might have lost the supermajority support in the Scilab council with his investment in the netnavi project, but he still comfortably commanded 45% of the votes. Whatever proposal he made, a concession here and there, a revision or two of the terms and wordings, a bit of extra funding to correct departments, and he could swing enough of the moderates to pass it. They all wanted a part of him, a part of his attention, a part of his power. The moment he revealed any weakness, they would all turn around and bite him in the neck. Perhaps comparing them to dogs was an insult to the loyal race of canines that served mankind for more than a millennia. Less than dogs they were, all evil, all useless, all idiots!

Yuichiro could hear a commotion outside. What began only as a minor disturbance continued to grow in magnitude. He checked the clock. It was now around midnight. Who could have come at such a late hour yet compel others to pay their respects and provoke frenzied greetings? Yuichiro already knew the answer: it was them, the sin of his father, Tadashi, and also partly his sin, for he inherited them.

Them
The pigs

The pigs, that was how Yuichiro called them informally with utmost contempt. They were the old men who hailed from the times of Tadashi Hikari, coworkers of his father who stayed loyal to the bloodline and supported him unanimously at all times. They were the bedrock of his political power, the foundation of his prestiege, the most respected scientists, the living legends!

Currently the most useless group of men in the Scilab.

See, some of them might have worked in the same lab as Tadashi Hikari. Some of them might have made some crucial contributions. There might have been a time when they were young, ambitious, and fresh, with a daring vision to change the world for the better, eradicating the corrupt, protecting the weak, guiding the oppressed. Now, they were nothing but the husks of former selves, forever basking in the past glory of Tadashi. It had been over a decade since any of them made any meaningful addition to the academia. Whatever paper they published nowadays were works offered as sacrifices, either voluntarily or involuntarily, from their subordinates, and the contents were inconsequential to Yuichiro's agenda. They continued to claim a substantial sum of resources from the Scilab budget, and almost all of it went straight into their bottomless pockets. Their labs were caricatures, empty save the bare minimum of equipments to pretend they were working. Their fruitless idleness had been a public secret for some time. Public, for all knew, and secret, for no one dared to speak it out aloud.

They were the cancer of the society

Yuichiro had been pouring his heart and mind to transform Scilab for the better, especially on the culture of work ethics. He wanted to make a place where people were promoted by merit, not by alliances. Yet, no matter how many exemplary demonstrations he made, all his efforts had been in vain, precisely due to these old men. What was the point in working hard, when some cash here and there could secure a recommendation from an influential figure? They used Yuichiro as their shield, and in this way he became an accomplice to their crimes. As humiliating as it was, he had no option but to bear it. He was too smart and ambitious for his own good. He understood perfectly that he would quickly become inconsequential without their support despite his excellence, for what he needed was political power more than some international recognition.

They had to be purged

But the time was not now. If the heads started to roll before he had amassed substantial like-minded young scientists as his supporters, the chances of establishing a new order in the aftermath were nihil. Dr. Regal, son of Dr. Wily, was a prime candidate who would not hesitate to exploit opportunities that arose from such disorder. That gloomy man of impenetrable mind had been silent and obedient so far, never standing in Dr. Yuichiro's way, but Yuichiro refused to believe that the man was so different from his father, Wily. At any rate, the hasty purge would be akin to stabbing himself in the leg. They were still his power base. He had to be patient, bidding for the moment of his aristeia.

The doors to the chamber opened and five men entered the funeral grounds. One of them, the smallest one who looked like a shriveled shrimp, was in a wheelchair. As if it was a requirement of joining their secret club, all of them had seborrheic keratosis on their heads. Their hairs were sparse but excessively oiled and combed--a desperate attempt to hide their terminal stage androgenic alopecia. Their faces appeared greasy, glittering under the white LED light of the ceiling, and they smelled like bromine gas. Overall, they appeared unclean, diseased, and unseemly. They came to Yuichiro with the most repulsive, fabricated smiles on their faces. Even Haruka noticed the fictitious nature of their greetings and her stomach churned with disgust. To Yuichiro, it was not his first time enduring their presence. He donned his mask of respect and friendliness, and proceeded to shake hands with each. Yuichiro simultaneously checked the door and realized no other pigs were to be found.

'Five? Five? Out of all?'

The moment Saito's funeral became a public sight, all of them should have come and showed their solidarity with him, notwithstanding how unstable it might be. But only five? They were surely sending him a message; such cowardly coyotes they were--could not even put their intentions in words due to the fear of some kind of backlash. Nevertheless, the message was clearly conveyed to Yuichiro. He had been curtailing resources alotted to them here and there, eroding their power one article at a time, preventing them from keeping their promises to their clientele. The process had been so gradual, so slow, and methodical, that they so far failed to mount a meaningful counterattack. The purpose was not to completely remove them. No, their fame and support were too valuable to lose at the moment. Yuichiro rather was seeking to destablize them just enough, so that in the future he could replace them without any repurcussions. Only five of them visiting was them trying to show Yuichiro that they were aware of the schism developing, and that they would not tolerate his sabotage forever. Sending only five as a representative was a tactile threat that they were ready to abandon Yuichiro in the next round of votes.

The one in the wheelchair was the pig whom Yuichiro found particularly loathsome. Yuichiro doubted this man had more than 5 more years of life left, and this was a highly optimistic projection. Astonishingly, this shriveled shrimp of a man was the oldest and greediest of all the pigs. He tried to amass wealth and influence at every opportunity even in such a decayed physical state--it was as if he planned to live forever. Was it not natural for old men to retire and pave way for the next generation? Was it not common sense that a man, when his hairs grayed, learned to accept both his successes and failures, and left his legacy for others, content that his life was not wasted?

"Ah, what a pleasure to see you alive and well! So, let us cut to the chase and speak plainly. When are you coming back? Of course, we understand that last few weeks have been most difficult for you, and we would not be so unreasonable to not give you a few days' vacation after the loss of your son, eh..."

One of them who looked more like a moldy and wrinkled cheese pizza than a proper human being opened the conversation. Yuichiro noted how this Dr...well, his name is not even worth mentioning. Let us call him Dr. Mold. Yuichiro noted how this Dr. Mold did not even have a decency to offer a customary condolence, nor was he aware of the name of the deceased.

"Saito. Saito Hikari."

"Yes, precisely that. But please keep in mind the budget committee is due next wednesday, and we are on the review list. We need your..."

'help. Say help, you bastard. You need my help.'

"...opinion on the matter."

'The gall! To come here and then demand straight away my submission?'

Yuichiro had zero intention of going back to Scilab until the review was over. His absence was to give the board his implicit consent that the budget cut could proceed as planned.

"My sincerest apologies. I do not think I will be able to make any meaningful contributions in my current state. Since the passing away of my son, I have been most distracted. See, the family needs some time together as well. If you need anything, please contact Meijin; he will act as my deputy in my absence."

Dr. Mold was not ready for the rejection. He was not convinced before at what his peers said and did not believe Yuichiro was actually sabotaging them in the most insidious ways. Now he saw that the sayings had been true all along, but what choice did he have? His position had been untenably precarious recently. He made some foolish decisions some time ago, and all his political credibility were spent on covering resultant scandals. He only had some flirtations with his secretary and another scientist lady who was under him, and he sweared that it was they who seduced him in the first place. What was the big deal? Was not everyone doing this also? He lost many allies because of this incident. His small brain quickly tried to find a way to persuade Yuichiro. He would not be reduced into inconsequential existence like this.

"Oh, Dr. Yuichiro, but what's the loss of a son or two to you? With your gorgeous wife still so young and fresh..."

Dr. Mold studied Haruka with his eyes as he spoke. She looked ripe for taking and delicious to taste. Why did he never get a chance to lie with such a woman? He imagined what she would look like under the clothes, and the result excited him. He decided that after sealing the deal with Yuichiro, he would stop by the club. He knew a girl who looked just like Haruka but only in the body habitus, not the face. It was nothing he could not fix by asking the girl to be served with a mask. He also determined in his heart that before he left the mortuary, he would also have to make an excuse to talk to Haruka. Oh, her hands, how soft and sensitive they appeared!

"...you will make another in no time! We are hard pressed, Yuichiro, please, for the sake of your father..."

The insult was too great and Yuichiro almost lost his temper. He bit his lips. His hands contracted into fists. The nails dug into his palm. Had he gripped a bit harder, surely his hands would've bled. He brought his hands behind his back to hide them. He needed to calm down, lest his voice comes out shaking and he fails to hide his fury. There were too many eyes and ears here. He had to respond in a manner befitting the leader of the majority. At minimum, he had to not generate a rumor of a complete fallout between him and the old guards of Tadashi.

"Please, I understand the urgency of the situation, but there is a time and a place for everything. See, we are mourning here. Perhaps we can talk at a later time?"

'and stop ogling at my Haruka, you filthy pig. I swear one day I will gauge out those tiny eyes from your worthless head, and then pull out your tongue for the sake of Saito.'

"Of course, of course! We can certainly arrange that! Now, before I go--and please excuse the suddenness of this request--let me speak a word with your wife. I see that she is most dejected from this misfortune. Perhaps I can offer her a word of encouragement-"

Yuichiro cut him off. No, this pig was not going anywhere near his dear Haruka.

"No need, sir. She has received guests all day long and is tired. I fear she might faint if she meets someone of your importance. Now, allow me to accompany you to your car. The time is late and the night is still cold. I fear if I keep you here any longer, your health will suffer."

Like an experienced swineherd, Yuichiro lead the five out the door. For now, they seemed to be satisfied with his response. A promise of a meeting in the near future was better than nothing. As for Yuichiro, he would have to come up with some excuses to decline their begging for help. He was also tired, and his ideas were depleted. He decided to postpone the matters to the future himself.

Yuichiro came back to his family after sending those filthy specimens off. He finally had the time to look at the photo of his son. Oh, how cruel was fate to take him, this innocent boy who never sinned in his life, in his youth? Why should he die, while those worst examples of human beings live into old age? Where was fairness? Where was justice?

Haruka came to Yuichiro, who was standing frozen in front of Saito's casket, and put her arms around his right arm. She spoke nothing, She needed not to speak anything. Their bond was such that a firm contact was all that was needed to convey meanings. Yuichiro was comforted. The veil of aimless indignation lifted from his eyes. He still had work to do, not for the world, not for himself, not for his followers, but for Haruka and Netto. May Saito watch him and bless him in all the works that he was about to do, including the blasphemy he was about to commit.

By 2 A.M., everyone was gone and there were no more visitors.

By 6:00 A.M., Saito was cremated with the casket. Netto, who had been tired beyond his normal limits, insisted and attended the proceedings. He burned the moment into his eyes as the casket was moved into the furnace. He remembered the sound of every lick of flame on his brother's body. He embraced with dismay and disbelief when the ashes of his brother, collected and put in the urn, came to him. The urn was in his hands. From dust a man is made, to dust he returns. Saito's face, warmth, speech, they were all no more. He was now reduced to a handful of fine fragments of pulverized bones. All that remained was the memory. Netto whispered to the ashes, so quietly and personally, that even Haruka next to him failed to hear it.

"We are going home, Saito niisan."

Netto did not want to figure out who he would be without Saito.
Now he had to.

Notes:

1-3

Chapter 4: The Blasphemous Work

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

'Who am I without Saito niisan?'

It had been three months since the funeral and the answer was not even hinted. Netto was still lost in the dark. In the bible, in the story of the first recorded homicide, Cain told God, after killing his brother Abel "am I my brother's keeper?" Indeed, Netto was his brother's keeper. Netto guarded him like a loyal German Shepherd, constantly watching over him, always ensuring he was a good distance away from any and all potential dangers, never making an appointment without arranging a protection for him. Saito's HBD consumed the entire family; as the attacks got stronger, Saito lost the capacity to medicate himself in the midst of it. How many times he could have perished, and how many times Haruka and Netto saved him? He sometimes looked over his shoulder in class to check his brother's empty seat. It was a habit drilled into him through years of caretaking--a sore scar that constantly reminded him of what had been irrecoverably lost.

So Netto was his brother's keeper.

Taking care of him was a laborious commitment, yet Netto had embraced it as his duty and purpose. He never had a qualm against bearing this yoke that he never volunteered for. The work itself was the reward--for through this he earned the monopoly of Saito. His brother probably never knew or suspected how he was kept at an ambiguous distance from others. Netto made sure of this (a rather serpentine work) as every hour was too precious to share, and every future too uncertain. With Saito, there was never the luxury of 'there is always next year. We can do that next time.' Therefore, every moment of his, Netto claimed.

His purpose was no more.

"What is your dream?" the homeroom teacher, Ms. Mari, once asked the question to the class. She meant this as in "what profession do you want to choose for the future?". Saito occupied so much of his life, and he loved his brother so much, that the only dream he had at the moment was to live a long life together. Health to his brother and he would've not had any more wishes in his life. There was no room left in his brain to plan ahead for a profession. With Saito gone, the choice of profession appeared stale and meaningless even more than before. What was the point if none of his choices could grant him what he truly wanted--the undeath?

Netto learned from his parents that the code blue did not trigger in that fateful night. Had it been the case, would anything have turned out to be different? It was undeniable that there was a chance, albeit however slim, that Saito could've lived--a day, then a week, then a month--only if he did not sleep through like a worthless sloth. By head, Netto knew this sentiment was faulty in multiple aspects; by heart, the sense of guilt hovered like a storm cloud over him. He was living the life because he could not die. Saito wanted him to live on. He always did.

"Hey, you up for another netbattling session today?"

Dekao spoke from behind him. On the surface, it was a very inconsiderate proposition that should not be made to someone in mourning. In reality, this was the entirety of compassion Dekao could gather, and the poor delivery should be blamed on his pitifully meager social skill. Netto had not been quite himself for the past three months. There was a perpetual gloom on his face, tired tired eyes which indicated lack of sleep, was more frequently found lost in thought than being his past active self, and seldom mingled with others after the school curriculum. Netbattling had been the one activity of his that rather increased in frequency. Netto voraciously accepted every opportunity to participate, for in the moment of adrenaline and excitement he could forget the hole in his soul.

"Nah, I can't do that today"

Netto replied without looking back, disorderly stuffing his backpack with his belongings.

"Impossible!"
"Quite possible. My dad took my PET this morning."

"Oh....um...uh, it's not because of me, right?"

Netto finally looked at Dekao, with an expression of a person who just heard the most idiotic remark.

"No, of course not. Don't worry."
"Oh, okay then. See you, uh, tomorrow?"
"Yeah"

Netto finished packing and was ready to leave. He put on the backpack.

"Hey, Netto, want to hang out? We are making a quick trip to Den city, and you are welcome to tag along!"

That was Yaito Ayanokoji, a blond-haired girl who hailed from a wealthy Ayanokoji family of long history and tradition. Her height was the shortest in class, but that stemmed from the fact that she was also the youngest in the class. Her exceptional IQ allowed her to skip a few grades. Her countenance gave the impression of a permanently irritated, but her heart betrayed her face. She always looked after her classmates--called it noblesse oblige, although Netto was not sure if this was the correct application of the term.

"I'll-"

Netto hesitated for a moment; he sure did not want to go home early, but today he would rather be alone than be in a company.

"I'll pass"
"If you need company...please don't hesitate. We are always here for you."

This was Mayl, standing next to Yaito. They were going to the downtown together, and it was not difficult to guess that Yaito would be the one paying for the expenses. She would not have it otherwise. Netto knew all his friends meant well to him; somehow their compassion felt poisonous. Why was the love of his friends so hard to swallow? Netto, who was initially disturbed by his own caustic revulsion, thought about the phenomenon, and came to an answer: none of his friends actually mentioned Saito during the past months. They actively avoided mentioning him, as if he never existed in the first place. Well, it was partly Netto's own fault, as he immediately lost motivation for everything upon remembering his lost twin. The emptiness in his eyes during such moments frightened his friends multiple times. By erasing the existence of Saito, they hoped Netto would forget him, and thereby gain some strength. The potion of sweet amnesia they offered, but it was the exact opposite of what Netto wanted.

"k...but I'll be fine. I promise. See y'all tomorrow."

Friends could only stare at his back as he disappeared through the door. They all knew where he was headed, discussed whether Netto was depressed enough to put himself in danger, and then came to a consensus to leave him alone for today. Masa san, the fishmonger, was there, and he would not let Netto harm himself. Right?

====

Netto slid his way through the corridors of the school on his rollerblades. The use of this mode of travel was prohibited inside the building and with a sound reason of student safety, but Netto could not care less. He had to quickly move away from his friends before he was surrounded by their sympathies. Netto would not drink their amnesia. Netto would not forget. He was afraid, for he already sensed some memories losing lucidity. When Saito first passed away, all memories were so fresh, so vivid, so traumatic, that the very idea of misremembering them felt ludicrous. After three months--only three months!--the image of Saito's face had already decayed into an old decolorized painting. What he could recall before like a 4D movie, became a flat 2D image that was barely holding together. He should have believed when he heard that war veterans only remembered the first and the last kills they made. Everything in between got mixed up, both chronologically and factually. At this rate, he would be free from the ghost of Saito in another three months and would be completely cured of this depression. Once that happened, who would fill the vacancy in his heart? Whoever it may be, that person was sure to give him hope and courage to gaze at the future. He would start to dream. Netto already had a good idea who this might be; he did not like it. Netto of future would like it. The future Netto disgusted him.

Netto went through the schoolyard, through the sandy field on which he used to play soccer with his friends. He habitually scanned under the trees around the field, where Saito used to sit and watch him. The scanning was not out of a childish delusion that everything had been a simple nightmare. No, that phase was the first month after the funeral. Now he scanned to catch a glimpse of a hallucination--images from the past retrieved from the subconscious by giving the brain a similar signal--of Saito. Sometimes it succeeded and his eyes mistook the shadows of leaves as an outline of the one whom he sought. This time, he had no luck. He saw nothing.

Netto passed through the school gates. To where should he go? To home? Ah, home sweet home, full of memories of his lost brother. His personal belongings were still not discarded, and seeing them would surely poke some more holes in his heart, prolonging the depression. A tempting proposition, but Netto decided not to. Instead, he headed to loiter in the park, watch children who knew not yet the sorrow of life play with carefree happiness, and say hello to Masa san the fishmonger who had been like a neighbor to him the past three months.

The trip to the park took less than 3 minutes with wheels under the shoes. The same route would have taken around 10 minutes had he walked with Saito. Such details were irrelevant now. Netto sat on a bench under the shade of a tree and removed his bandana. A pleasant summer wind stole away the sweat on his brow. The date was June 9th; the daylight was getting unbearably hot.

'Tomorrow will be the last day of classes and the summer break will begin. It's also our...my birthday. Saito niisan, I had so many plans for tomorrow, you know?'

The swings in the park came into view. It was one of Saito's favorite places in ACDC, and watching the sunset on a swing his favorite activity. Netto would look at his face turning orange and then red according to the light of the sky. They would walk home in the dusk, before the dark.

'Saito niisan, my sweet sweet Saito niisan, did you find your swings in the heaven? Did you find sunset, your favorite sky, there too?'

'Fine,' Netto admitted to himself. He did not come here for a healing. He did not come here to speak to Mr. Masa--the balding fishmonger was over there, about 100 meters away, and Netto was in no hurry to go and say hello. He did not come here to chew the cud of recollection of Saito (as shocking as it is). He came here to kill time and not go home early.

Behavioral scientists, after observing the sibling dynamics of both animals and humankind, were quick to note this: that siblings often became competitive against each other in order to secure more attention from the caretakers. More attention equated to more resources alotted. More resources equated to higher chance of successful reproduction. In case of the Hikari family, the death of Saito had measured and revealed the twisted darkness inherent in their relationships: it was not Saito who was asking for attention, nor was he competing with his brother for one, but it was the others--all three of them--who were competing for the attention of Saito. Now that he was gone, the family was struggling to find a glue to hold them together.

The current mood of Hikari household was peaceful, but it resembled a poor imitation of an impressionist painting. The peace was so artificial that Netto found it suffocating. No one spoke about Saito, there was an absence of joy, and Yuichiro hid himself in the Scilab like a hermit. He barely visited the house past three months. Like a fuel station is to a car, so was the house to Yuichiro, or so it seemed at least. The urn of Saito's ashes stayed inside the parents' bedroom, but he had not seen it there since his mother would not let him in. However, in this case, the intention was not to help Netto move on. Rather, it was the result of each person--Haruka and Yuichiro included--triyng to become free from Saito in their own way. They were all trying to find a resolution, albeit failing miserably. On days when Netto came back from school early, he frequently found his mother in the bedroom with locked doors, crying pitifully and oblivious to the return of her remaining son. This was not to insinuate Haruka ever neglected Netto in any way. Contrary, she continued to do everything a good mother should do, encouraging him with love and optimism every day. It was just that she also happened to be a human who needed to pour out the deep personal sorrows when alone.

"Ho! Why such a long face?"

Mr. Masa found him. Netto was wishing he did not notice. Netto knew it was an unrealistic wish. It was easy to point him out in the crowd with his signature bandana and roller blades.

"Hello Masa san. It's nothing. I'm fine."
"Like hell if I believe you. You are not fine."

Masa deployed the kickstand on his bike and sat next to Netto. Fishy smell from the icebox on the bike cargo rack permeated the air.

"I know exactly who is on your mind. It's Saito, eh?"
"..."

Pity for the boy welled up in the heart of Masa. Sigh escaped between his teeth. His life was not an ideal one, full of hardships. He had seen his share of evils and suffered under the tyranny of men. He understood the boy, and precisely for this reason he did not know how to console this downtrodden soul. He could not be consoled when the tragedy struck him; the same had to be true for this boy.

"You know, it's really hard when a good person leaves you behind. I know. I've been there."

Netto's eyes fixated on him. Masa had the boy's attention.

"There is no cure but time. You know that. I know that. But you have to be strong."
"..."
"Because you have people waiting for you. And Saito would not want to see you keep them waiting now, would he?"

Netto's eyes shook. This was true. Saito certainly would not want to see him in this state. 'Well, if he wanted me to be strong, he should've stayed.' A childish tantrum. This was all the defense Netto could muster.

"Now, listen: I am only a fishmonger. I'm not smart, nor did I live an ideal life. The world had been tough on me and I saw some hard times. Very hard times. There is nothing to boast in me other than the hard honest work of mine, which got me to nowhere. Though, there is one thing I learned through all the failures and troubles."

Masa paused and looked up to the sky, trying to articulate the essence of his soul.

"It's...It's that you have to live for the others, not for yourself. You come to life with nothing and leave with nothing. All that is left behind is what you've done for others. Therein I found the meaning of life. Do not seek gratitudes, for then the work is done for yourself, not for others. Do you understand? God, do I suck at explaining big ideas."

Masa's eyes returned to Netto to continue

"What this means is, don't let what Saito left behind in this world be just a boy stuck in a mess. You are mourning, but is that for yourself, for Saito, or for your friends?"

Dead has no want for anything. Friends hadn't been too subtle with their agenda. Netto already had this question asked and answered by himself. He was just refusing to admit it.

"Masa san...but I don't want to forget. It feels like-"

Masa interrupted.

"a betrayal?"
"-yes."
"A betrayal would be doing what a deceased did not want. Forgetting is healing. It's how humans heal from the past. We only remember the good and throw away the bad. Otherwise, we will all go crazy."

Masa stood up from the bench. He opened the icebox while continuing his talk.

"Don't you worry too much, the time will solve everything, as it did for all people before us. Tomorrow is your birthday, isn't it? Here, I know exactly what a growing boy like you need: a bit of calcium for the growing bones. Take these!"

Two mackerels were tossed on Netto's laps.

"Ack!"

Netto somehow managed them from sliding onto the ground. Mr. Masa gave him a broad smile, waved hand, and then rode away. Netto sighed and helplessly watched Mr. Masa's back. The two fresh yet slimy fish were still in his hands. Their dull lifeless eyes reflected the face of Netto. Oh how their eyes were like his. What a pathetic person had he become. Life went on without Saito, and he could not dwell in the past forever. Even so,

'But I am not ready to forget you.'

Without Saito, Netto was just an academically failing boy, living in the ACDC town, without any plan for the future. Saito was special; Netto was not. At least he now knew what today's dinner menu would be.

====

"Good work today, too, take care."
"You too, Dr. Yuichiro. Do you have any final requests before I round up for the day?"

The secretary lady asked this rather customarily. Had Dr. Yuichiro actually given her some last-minute jobs to complete, she would've minded. She had the plan to go home quickly before the subway became a human sausage in a steel casing from the impending rush hour. The plan was like this: arrive home, unwind with a nice hot shower, get a can of cold beer with ice, and relax while watching some Netflix. Then she would sleep like a baby and be refreshed for tomorrow. Oh, what plans she also had for tomorrow, Saturday! In the most shocking development, the last three months had been like this: Dr. Yuichiro was sending her home at 5 sharp. What had transpired in him after the death of his son, Saito, was unknown, but if it meant no more arbitrarily lengthened working hours, then she was ready to never question the change in her boss. So, before, by the slimmest chance, Dr. Yuichiro changed his mind, she packed up her belongings and flew out the floor using the staircase. Oh, there was an elevator at the floor, but why risk her evening by idling for a few minutes? The doctor was always so resourceful in finding work; it was important to stay out of his line of sight, or else he would be reminded to hand out a task.

"Bye then, doctor, see you on Monday-"

She exited the office so quickly that Yuichiro could almost hear the redshift from the Doppler effect in her voice. Yuichiro tracked her movement with an expressionless face, then remained immobile for some time, watching the staircase door for at least full five minutes. If someone saw him, he would surely be mistaken for a demon-possessed. Perhaps he was. When he was certain that she was not coming back to pick up something she had forgotten in her haste (as was her habit), he turned slowly, sat on his chair, and started cleaning his desk with almost religious deference. Yuichiro checked the time and opted to wait thirty more minutes just in case others would barge in with an urgent matter to discuss. It was of utmost importance that he was not disturbed, for the work he was about to resume required satanic secrecy.

The thirty minutes of solitude. The thirty minutes of unbearable test of sanity. In the silence came the whispers of conscience. It demanded repentance. On a daily basis, Yuichiro resisted, for to comply meant discarding his entire work. Then came the wicked temptation of the heart. It casually promised the return of the dead. Sweet was the fruit of sin, and full of nectar was the fruit of knowledge. As he did for the past three months, Yuichiro ate the forbidden fruit and emerged victorious once again against the goodness in him. 'Saito shall be revived, even at the cost of his soul.' This, he promised himself the moment his son was diagnosed with HBD.

Yuichiro went to the restroom in search of a mirror. The reflection revealed a disheveled man in need of shaving and a change of clothes. When was the last time he slept at home? Even this morning, he merely made a short stopover to collect Netto's PET. It was not that Yuichiro was a brute who enjoyed living in such a barbaric style; he was simply paranoid that someone would infiltrate in his absence and see what he had been hiding for the past three months. He could trust no one in this matter, not even Meijin, his deputy. Suspicion was an inseparable companion to every dark deed. Now Yuichiro understood why those despicable companions of Tadashi Hikari were always full of unreasonable amount of distrust. Ironically, this also meant there was some conscience left in them. In realizing this, an unbearable idea haunted Yuichiro: 'Are they, too, redeemable?'

Yuichiro could not let Saito's first sight in the new world to be his father in a completely ruined hygiene. That was bad for education. After a quick shaving and a change of clothes, he was marginally more presentable. He still smelled, but he knew Saito would not be able to notice.

Yuichiro came back to his desk. The movement of his hands evoked imagery of a choreographed ritual, slow and precise, like a priest moving sacred objects on the altar. In seconds, the computer screen was flooded with charts, graphs, consoles, and a coding interface, just as he left the work yesternight. On the large screen next to him, on the wall, appeared a blue netnavi in a real life proportion. The netnavi was equipped with standard gloves and boots for the chip-based inputs, a backpack-like module for extra data storage, yellow plates for the shoulder, and Hikari emblems on its ear covers and chest. The navi helmet was also mostly blue save two yellow rectangles on the centerline. The most striking, however, was its face--its uncanny resemblance to the face of Saito Hikari. Yuichiro paused and then gazed at its face. It was the culmination of the past three months. Today was the day of days. The time to behold the revival of his son was here--the triumph against fate.

There was one small matter that had to be addressed beforehand. Yuichiro turned on the Netto's PET. The old green netnavi loaded in. It was an old dog that had served his son for the past four years; an old dog that had outlived its usefulness.

[Hello doctor Yuichiro. How can I help you.]

The greeting was delievered in an almost monotonous voice. The expression range of early models was extremely limited.

"Transfer yourself to the PC. I connected you."
[Affirmative]

The netnavi loaded into the second computer on Yuichiro's desk.

[Transfer complete. Standby.]
"Good, now stay there. I'll have to salvage some files and then delete you."

The netnavi was too old of a model that it showed no emotional response. Modern versions installed with an emotion program would certainly not take this very well, and in that case, Yuichiro would've delivered his intention in a roundabout way. Yuichiro pressed few buttons to access the navi's data. It would be impossible to exaggerate how surprised he became when the netnavi voluntarily initiated a new conversation.

[Calculating-]

Yuichiro's left eyebrow twitched. This was an anomaly. The netnavi had no tasks queued. What calculation?

[Doctor, my purpose is, my purpose, my purpose is, to assist your son in his academic tasks.]
'...?"
[Because, because-]

Yuichiro stopped his hand. This was not right, but he was intrigued.

[Because ACDC elementary school requires a netnavi to accompany its students for its curriculum. This is because- calculating.]
[Internet is full of information. Approximatley 84% of master Netto's submission to Ms. Mari this semester has been a copy paste of a relevant Vikipedia entry. 51% of his work has not been properly cited. Netnavis are needed for faster and safer search. Why? Because-]

Yuichiro made a mental note that he should speak with his son later. Copy-paste of Vikipedia articles was a new low end of human degeneracy that he was not willing to tolerate.

[cyber crime has increased 34% globally since last year. In ACDC town, the reported case of cyber crime has increased by 11% in the same time span. Cyberspace is dangerous. Master Netto is exposed to danger. Master Netto must be protected. My purpose is to protect the master from the dangers of the internet.]

There were 9 cyber crimes in ACDC last year, and it increased to 10 this year. Yuichiro was thoroughly aware of every single entry of those offenses, and they were all trivial. This netnavi was exaggerating. ACDC was one of the safest places to live nationally. Yuichiro did not build his nest there without consideration.

[Master Netto still requires this unit's functionality. The command for deletion--negative.]

Yuichiro stared at the navi with disbelief.

'Did this navi develop a consciousness that it should not be capable of? Did it just refuse to be deleted? Does it fear deletion, or is the problem stemming from modifications Netto made? Just how many customizations did he install on this navi? Netto, even I had no idea the AI consciousness could manifest in this way. Either you are a genius or you abused this poor thing to the point of no return'

Yuichiro could immediately come up with three to four possible hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. The scientist's long-dead curiosity was ignited. With a thrill he thought long lost coursing through his veins, there was no choice but to dissect this specimen into the most elementary components. He would identify the source of aberration and then run some tests to confirm the duplicability of what he just saw. This could be the beginning of his next paper. Saito could wait a moment; this should not take a while...

A phone call disrupted the mad scientist just before the disassembly was initiated. The caller was Mr. Meijin. The issue had to be grave for him to call Yuichiro at this hour. Yuichiro clicked his tongue in disappointment and went outside the office to answer the call.

What the green netnavi heard next were incomprehensible shoutings coming from the corridor. Soon, there was a sound of Dr. Yuichiro locking the door immediately followed by quick footsteps moving away from the place. The netnavi did not want to get deleted. It did not understand why nor was it interested in identifying the origin of this strange desire. What it understood was that Netto needed it and that its duty was to return to the master. It still had work to do.

The green navi saw an open connection port to PC-1. It checked its position and confirmed it was in PC-2. The connection to the PET was severed after the transfer. It moved to PC-1 without command or authorization in hopes of finding a connection back to the master's PET. The signal to the PET was not found there also, and the search for any external connection was a dead end. PC-1 and PC-2 were operating on a closed circuit, not even connected to the intranet of the Scilab.

In PC-1, it found a netnavi clad in blue, inactive on a working bench. Green navi made a stop and bent over to study the new blue navi. It was clear that the model was at least a generation more advanced than itself. The face was strikingly similar to a human; the navi knew what this was called: a custom navi. They were all superior in function, superior in service, superior in power. The custom navis had something called an emotion program. Its master always expressed his wish to install that program onto it, but its outdated self could not meet the system requirements. Nevertheless, the master did not abandon him for the newer model, saying that friends were not for replacement. Its master called it a friend. The green navi liked that word. Green navi found it strange that the face of this blue navi was similar to that of his current master, although slightly inexact. A little calculation ensued, motivated by an elementary form of envy. Based on the circ*mstances, the conclusion was clear. It was certain that doctor Yuichiro would not leave Netto without a netnavi before making sure he was protected from the putrid and grotesque part of the network. Given his expressed wish to delete it, the blue netnavi had to be its replacement. Then, there was no reason now to resist the deletion, for it was eminently clear that the replacement was far superior to itself. The new blue navi might even win against the Gutsman, which pulverized it so many times before. It regretted that it could not meet the expectations of its master in the netbattles. It was thankful that Netto never gave up on it.

The green navi still did not want to get deleted.

[Why? Because-]

It calculated desperately. After 5.23 seconds, the calculation returned:

[no reason].

But the green navi still did not want to get deleted.

[Why? Because-]

The green navi broke the logic loop. It was unproductive. Rather than answering 'why' it decided to come up with a solution that compromised both sides of the reality. How to not get deleted and return to master Netto, yet be deleted according to doctor Yuichiro's command? After a staggering 15 seconds of calculation, a solution was found. The green netnavi executed the plan without delay. Yuichiro did not set any safety locks on the PC-1, as it was his habit to work without navis. The green navi called up command consoles and started typing.

Another workbench appeared next to the blue navi, on which the green navi lay itself. The programs of the PC-1 then started the disassembly of the green navi. Its skin melted away and all limbs came off. The most essential, normally nonmodifiable parts of the green navi were exposed. Some of them were extracted, compressed, and then transferred to the blue netnavi. The contents included the preference settings, memory bank, a bit of its personality files, and the bare minimum of miscellaneous components to make them compatible with the new system. These were to lie dormant in the new navi and not be detected by the doctor. When would they be decompressed? Green navi did not know, nor was it even planned, but in this way it decided to make its return to the master.

The green navi was then reassembled, but without its core programs, the thing was now just a husk incapable of executing any navi functions. The husk was an automaton, moving according to the preprogrammed route written before the disassembly. It rose, moved back to PC-2, and initiated a complete self-deletion. Soon, all that remained on the screen of PC-2 was a notice 'deletion complete.'

When Yuichiro returned to the office many hours later, thoroughly aggrieved by the incompetence of Mr. Meijin, which was in no way expected (and therefore to Yuichiro this felt as a breach of trust), all he found was the completed deletion of the green navi. The confrontation had disoriented his short term memory enough that he was now not sure whether he had queued the deletion or disassembly of the navi. The result was the evidence: he must have commanded the deletion without realizing it. He just destroyed his own toy. With a deep sigh Yuichiro sat on the chair to resume his work. He was far behind the schedule.

====

The clock now pointed to 4 A.M. Yuichiro did not rest once since his return, and with an extraordinary effort, he finally finished the building of the blue navi. He ran the diagnostics three times to make sure no critical errors were present. With the computer's assurance that the navi would function as intended, he reached out to the locked drawer under the desk and took out something from the deepest part, under the haphazardly stacked documents inside. The hidden item, retrieved and in his hands, was the USB holding the data of Saito's brain scan, made one week prior to the death of his son. The time had come; he could not postpone this any longer. Netto needed a new navi, and he needed Saito back. Yuichiro plugged in the drive to the PC-1, or he attempted to. To his surprise, his hands were trembling, and failed to fulfill the simple task. His heart was calm, although there was a slight tachycardia that was purely from exictement. Why would his hands trouble him at this crucial moment? Ah,

It was the weight of the sin.

Yuichiro collected both hands together as in a prayer. He leaned his forehead on his hands and closed his eyes. He was to offer a prayer, but to whom? To God? No, Yuichiro wanted nothing to do with God, especially since God abandoned Saito Hikari, his innocent boy. To himself? Idiocy--when was the last time he did not disappoint himself? To the world and mother nature? The world tried to break him his entire life. He owed the world and the devils within nothing. To Saito? ....yes, exactly. This was what he needed, for what he was about to create was only a shadow of his son. Yuichiro had to beg for forgiveness from him, for violating his own son's body and soul in this way.

'Saito, I am so sorry. I cannot live without you. Netto cannot live without you. Haruka cannot live without you. We are not ready to let you go. Please, steady my hands; let the work be done. Mea culpa, Saito, mea maxima culpa.'

Yuichiro slowly unlocked his hands. They were no longer trembling. Like a priest carrying a cup of holy water, he brought the USB to the port using both his hands. They were steady. The USB slid in. It was at this moment that a dreadful chill ran down his spine. The air around him moved. It was a little wind, so ephemeral, so delicate, so cold, like a breath of God. Yuichiro turned his head and looked up at the large screen where the blue navi was sleeping.

The blue netnavi opened its eyes. Oh, what beautiful emerald eyes! Oh what life in its movements! Oh what miracle! The blue netnavi looked around. Confused? The last memory it had, as far as he was concerned, was him putting on the brain scanner on its head as Saito. Yuichiro could not dare to move or speak. He secretly wished that it never found him, just as how Adam wished to hide from God out of uncontrollable fear after committing the first sin. It inevitably noticed Yuichiro. A meek, soft voice was produced from its voicebox:

"Papa?"

The simplest word that an infant learns to babble at the age of 8 months approximately, spoken like a dying sheep. The words shattered Yuichiro's heart like a hammer onto a glass pane. Yuichiro never fully grasped what he was doing up until this moment. What has he done? A regret splashed on him like a waterfall. It was not too late. He could still delete it and undo everything, return to normal. He could not.

'The thing has the same face as Saito.
The thing has the same voice as Saito.
It is not Saito.
But God did not save Saito.
I will

Forgive me.'

Like Icarus flying higher towards his doom, so too Yuichiro was flying ever so closer to the sun. Saito, his sun! One day this creation of his would burn him, and then he would be no more.

'Until then, in this fabricated happiness, let us be.'

The creature needed a new name--otherwise, he would never be able to look at this navi in the eyes. As clothes covered the shame of men, a new name to cover his guilt! What should it be? Yuichiro remembered an old story. It was a story about Jesus renaming his disciple, Simon Bar-Jona, as Peter--a rock. Why was that? Ah, because "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Indeed, Saito was like a rock upon which his family built a house.

'Hold us together; save us again, as you saved us in the past. We shall call you'

Rockman

Notes:

1-4

Chapter 5: The Soul of Saito Hikari

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Saito Hikari heard the song of the birds. Saito Hikari felt the breeze of the morning air. Saito Hikari could think. Saito Hikari understood. He had survived another night. The HBD attack, the pain, the prayer, Netto drooling in his sleep--all were just a bad dream fueled by the dread of impending death. Saito had not had such a good sleep in a while. There was clarity in thoughts. The body was so light. Did his heart turn a new leaf overnight? Did his edema disappear? Saito opened his eyes. The location was not the hospital, nor was he lying on the bed. It was not inside, even. The sky, surreally clear and deep, like sapphire and turquoise, filled the vision. Saito rapidly raised his torso. He was on a wooden bench, still in his patient wear. The day was bright, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. The light did not oppress his skin as he remembered it to be. It was rather soft and soothing like a blanket filled with duck feathers on a winter night. The shadows were absent; it was as if the lighting was universal, coming from all directions.

'Netto kun, Netto kun, where are you?'

Saito looked around to get his bearings. He had to find Netto; he was right next to him in the bed. If Saito was transported to such a strange place, then what could have befallen on his brother? It did not take a meticulous scrutiny to identify the current location as some train station platform--an old-fashioned one with white tiles used as a floor, situated on the outside amongst nature. The station was in the middle of a mountain slope. To one side were the ridges and peaks of tall geological formations which stood like a curtain. To the opposite side was a breathtaking panorama of a wide valley, with a river flowing in the middle, watering the field to the either side of it. The water, even from a distance, was as clear as a carved diamond. The omnipresent light diffracted in the water created the most mesmerizing sparkles. To the left and right of the station were the train tracks, installed along the slope as far as Saito could see. It was unclear where the entrance of the station was. There were no directional signs anywhere.

Was he alone? Saito rose from the bench he was sitting. A gentle, cool breeze swept the station. Under the loose patient wear Saito was wearing nothing; consequently, the breeze reminded him of his own nakedness. The positive side of this involuntary self-awareness was that Saito also noticed all of the inconvenient medical installations were also gone: the urinary catheter, central IV, nasal cannula, and the regular IV line on the dorsum of the left hand that was made before the central IV but was never removed. The pitting edema of the legs was also gone. In this condition, Saito might be able to run: an unbelievable idea.

Along the length of the station were at least a dozen more wooden benches, each long enough for a man to lie down. Saito noticed three people. One was a little girl, also wearing patient wear, sitting on a bench not so far away. One was an old woman clad in cream-colored Sunday best and a same cream-colored hat with a wide brim, standing at the far end of the station. Last was an old man in a formal black and white suit, standing next to the old woman. Saito approached the little girl. Up close, he noticed that she was even smaller than him, perhaps younger. The patient wear she was wearing was not from the same hospital. She was looking at the picturesque scene of the valley, not noticing his proximity. It was perfectly understandable; had it not been for the need to find Netto, Saito, too, would've been consumed by the view.

"Hello there"

The little girl did not respond. She was ignoring him.

"Er, um, have you, by chance, seen another boy around here? He has brown hair, wears a blue bandana, and likes to rollerskate..."

The girl turned her head and their eyes met. He could not see any emotion on her face. Contrary to her vacant expression, her voice had a hint of curiosity.

"What's he called?"
"Netto. Netto Hikari. Have you seen him?"
"No."

Saito was a bit disappointed but not surprised. Perhaps he would have better results if he asked the old couple at the end of the station. When Saito tried to leave, the little girl held on to his sleeve and prevented him. Their eyes met again.

"Why are you looking for him?"

What a curious girl. Saito did not have time for this. He should excuse himself and move on to find Netto. Yet he could not resist answering the question as it somehow rang directly at his soul. He was compelled to answer.

"Because he is my brother, and he was right next to me. He is someone precious to me. Now I can't find him."
"Why is he precious to you?"
"Because he is my heaven."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I will sell my everything for him."
"Why would you do that?
"Because he already sold his everything for me. I was his entire life, and so he is my entire life."
"How do you know you were his entire life?"
"He sacrificed all his time and desires in order to look after me."
"Why did he look after you?"
"Because I was sick."
"But aren't you healthy now?"

Strangely, Saito knew this was true. He was no longer sick.

"Yes, I am healthy now."
"Then do you still need him to take care of you?"
"No."
"So, why are you looking for him?"

A full circle of questions. Saito still could not stop answering.

"Because he is my brother, and he was right next to me."
"When was he right next to you?"
"When I was in the hospital"
"But aren't you here now?"
"Right, but what is this place?"
"Does this place look like a hospital?"
"...No."
"Then why are you looking for him?"

Another circle of questions. Why did the conversation feel new, even though he kept coming back to the same place?

"Because he is my brother."
"So?"
"Brothers should stay close together."
"Physically, always?"
"No, but as in trusting each other."
"Don't you already trust your brother?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you need to meet him to reconcile?"
"No, we did not fight. We never fought."
"Then why are you looking for him?"
"Because-"

Saito's mind hovered around the void trying to find the answer. What was full before, was now empty. Why was he looking for Netto Hikari? His brother would be fine, with or without him. Saito came to a conclusion: 'all will be fine.' The girl made a faint smile towards Saito.

"Here, we wait."

The girl turned her head towards the river. Saito perceived she would not speak with him anymore. The conversation made Saito lighter, freer, and cleaner. What a refreshment!

Saito moved on and approached the old couple at the end of the platform. it was an aimless wandering. Before speaking with the girl, he had a plan to ask them the whereabouts of someone. He had a need to find someone. He was in a hurry, even. That goal became trivial. Then why was he approaching them? Perhaps he simply wished to say hello to the new faces, motivated by curiosity. The old lady was the first to notice his coming. She elegantly covered her mouth and commented in a voice full of sympathy:

"Oh my, a poor poor lad, at such a young age..."
"My dear, we both know that both the early death before knowing good from evil, and living to old age are blessings alike. Everything in between--a curse. He looks only 10 or 11. He did not have it that bad."

The gentleman added nonchalantly. He was a tall man, easily approximated to be between 6.2'~6.5' (190~200cm) in height, with a lush black beard and mustache, oiled and well combed. His eyes shined like the carapace of black beetles under the summer sun, piercing into Saito.

"Oh, don't say it like that darling, you are scaring the boy. He is here; he clearly did not sin in his life. Come here lad."

Woman admonished the man and gestured Saito to come closer. There was something pulling him in like opposite poles of a magnet. The woman hugged him. The warm embrace reminded him of his mother, Haruka. She used to...well it did not matter anymore. She would be fine without him as well.

"You are right, my dear. You were always right. Who am I to weigh and judge his tragedy? Don't worry about anything, boy, for the scourge of the world is behind you."

The gentleman put his hand on Saito's head. The weight of his hand gave gravitas to his claim. Saito never had grandparents in his life. Had they existed, would their love be like this also? This place was certainly very nice. Saito would not mind staying here forever. Would they also be around forever? Saito remembered he was still yet to make a proper greeting. His voice came out muffled by the dress of the old lady, as he was still being held.

"My name is Saito Hikari. Who are you?"

She clicked her tongue in a pity.

"Tsk tsk tsk...Nice to meet you; what a wonderfully polite lad you are. I used to be called by the name Elizabeth. It is irrelevant now. You can just call me Granny."
"And me Gramps. That will suffice."
"Hello Granny, hello Gramps"

Granny patted his back lightly while Gramps stroked his head. Saito did not dislike it. Saito decided to ask a question that was long overdue.

"What is this place?"

Gramps answered without hesitation.

"Here we wait for the train. I can already sense it coming. Don't you also feel it?"
"The train to where?"
"To the eternal rest."
"What is eternal rest?"

Granny intervened. There was a clear impatience in her tone.

"Darling, must you always be so curt? You are only confusing the poor boy! Now, now, the eternal rest means that there will be no more pain, no hunger, no thirst, no sorrow, and no marriage."
"...that sounds nice."
"Dear, I don't surmise the boy will understand why the absence of marriage is part of the rest-"
"Shush, darling. Are you insinuating that our marriage was a failure?"
"No, of course not, far be it from me! Boy, just know that marriage is simply a metaphor for what is to come, and therefore the abolishment of both the concept and capacity of marriage is a requirement to-"
"Darling...this boy will never learn about marriage anyways. Don't tire yourself out. Besides, you are starting to sound like a philosophy textbook, as dense as the work of Aristotle. Your verbiage tangled with the boy's age is making any possibility of understanding hopeless."
"..."

Gramps scratched the back of his head in admission. From a distance, a sound of a horn could be heard. Granny exclaimed with joy.

"Oh, look, our train is coming!"

Granny let go of the boy. Saito turned and saw the roaring object. At the foremost was a black, shining steam engine, pumping out a stream of white cloud above it. The smoke rose to the spotless sky and left a white trail, just like how children depict them in their innocent pictures. The ground trembled beneath it, hinting at the power hidden under the black engine casing. The rhythmic sound of the engine pistons synchronized with the movement of the wheels. Behind the engine were green passenger cars decorated almost excessively with gold and silver patterns of vines, fruits, and animals. The roof was painted black just like the engine. The train slowed down until it came to a complete halt next to the platform. The high pitched screeching sound emanating from the breaking mechanism filled the air. Saito never rode such an old-fashioned locomotive before.

The old couple boarded the train without hesitation. They signaled Saito to come along by extending their hands. Saito hesitated for a few seconds, for there was an inexplicable knowledge within him that told him he did not belong there. He followed nevertheless, not knowing how to decline the invitation while remaining polite, or this was how Saito convinced himself, for the truth was that he simply did not want to be alone on the platform with nothing else to do. However, once aboard, the original intentions were quickly forgotten by what he witnessed. The inside of the train was a pinnacle of luxury. From the ceiling to the floor, the cabin was lined with red velvet. At each window was a pair of dark green curtains spun out of the finest of silk. The cabin had sofas covered with blue fabrics patterned with golden and crimson threads, tables of mahogany and rosewood, a gramophone of finest condition, a collection of phonograph records, light stands of brass and silver, and a board of chess made from marbles. The knight pieces were carved so elegantly, without any compromise to the details, that the horses seemed ready to spring into life. Saito was speechless at the royal accommodation. The old couple, unintimidated, took him by the hand, and they all found a seat around a table. They were the only ones in this car. The curiosity of Saito burst:

"Why are there so many passenger cars and so many seats, when there were so few people on the station?"

Indeed, the interior suggested that the train was ready to service many more passengers. Strangely, the platform was nigh void save four souls. Perhaps people were just arriving late?

"That is because there is a place for everyone in the eternal rest. The train was prepared with the expectation of carrying many, so that there might be a great merrymaking and befriending on the way. Regretfully..."

Gramps spoke solemnly. He stroked his beard as he reorganized his thoughts before continuing.

"...the ordinary men are sufficiently evil. They all covet, steal, false-witness, use unfair scale, do not befriend the lonely, drive away the poor, envy the rich, ignore the hungry, have no love for their neighbors, revel in bloodshed, cowardly in crisis, commit adultery, lie without limit, quick to wrath, slow to forgive. They all play the role of a perfect God in their microcosm, not the role of an imperfect human. There is no love, only self-proclaimed righteousness and resultant indignation. So they are all lost in the end, never to enter the eternal rest."

He looked into Saito's eyes, and then added as if he read the mind of the boy.

"So it is, us four on the platform, no more souls to board the train. This is the yield of the harvest. 8 billion seeds planted, one death every eleven seconds, only four grains in this season so far. Of course, as time goes, more will come and they will take the next train, but do not expect a dramatic increase."

A wonderfully pessimistic viewpoint, yet Saito could not refute it. He saw Mayl clandestinely manipulating the situation to make approaches to Netto. He saw Dekao lying away his responsibilities. He saw Yaito using the unfair scale of double standard when evaluating the works of the Ayanokoji family, always painting a dichromatic world in which her family was unquestionably good, while the opponents were unforgivably evil. He saw Ms. Mari turning green with envy when faced with the financial success of her colleagues. Saito nodded in agreement.

"Good! Very good! See my dear? The boy understands!"

Gramps clapped his hand once in joy.

"Darling, why do you not speak about forgiveness and repentance?"

To every crime and punishment, there are corresponding forgiveness and repentance. By pointing this out, Granny insinuated that the discussion was overtly biased to one side. Gramps formed wrinkles on his forehead. He clearly did not like the new direction of the conversation.

"Well, in theory...those are possible...in practice?"
"Ugh, unbelievable! Darling, don't you remember our neighbor, that absolute monster of a criminal? You saved him and he changed for good afterward! He turned away from his old ways..."
"Of course, I remember. I simply do not believe his repentance was genuine. A man hardly changes. The heat and pressure to change a man are astronomical in magnitude--even the worst drill sergeants with the loudest barkings can't do that. Even the most diabolical of jail guards cannot truly tame the monsters within. It seems a man is only malleable in his youth."
"Oh! You and your suspicions!"

Granny sounded exasperated by the stubbornness of her husband.

"Dear, a man can change with love. This I admit. A man changes when he loves someone, not when he receives love from someone, however large it might be. I know, for this is how I changed."

The hint of annoyance that was present in Granny's voice disappeared.

"Oh, darling, your sweet tongue is incorrigible."

The old couple gazed at each other. In their eyes were the affections of indescribable depth. Saito could not help but wonder.

"What is love? Why did you two get married?"

Both turned toward him. Saito could tell from their demeanor that they liked this topic. Granny spoke first:

"A girl knows she has found her man when she can follow him to the end of the world."
"A man knows he has found his girl when he can lead her to the end of the world."

They clearly had this question before and their answer rehearsed.

"To the end of the world?"
"Darling, stop, I'll answer this. Good. Yes, wee lad, to the end of the world. Even through the valley of shadows, where the world throws everything against you to break you. Marriage is faith. People often let their lust cloud their judgment."
"Lust?"
"You were too young to experience it, I see. Perhaps it was for the best. See, when people grow up, they hit a stage called puberty, in which they gain height exponentially and-"
"Dear, no need to tell him in a roundabout way. He is smart. Boy, lust means when you want to see someone naked, and be naked yourself as well."

An awkward silence followed. Gramps cleared his throat to change the air. He continued. There was a slight enthusiasm in his voice.

"Now, to the second question. What is love, you ask? You can take it to ten different people and you will get ten different answers. I'll give you our version."

Gramps reclined on the sofa and crossed his legs. He clasped his hands and rested them on his sternum. His eyes were fixed on a nonexistent point above and far behind Saito. His black eyes appeared almost dreamy.

"Be it the love of parents, be it the love of friends, be it the love of the beloved...they are all one and the same."
"Why?"
"Because ultimately love is about killing yourself."
"As in sacrifice?"
"Physically, personally, metaphorically...Consider this: there is no greater love than to die for one's friends. Then, how much more so it will be if you die for your loved one? Physical death is the greatest manifestation of this mysterious truth. However, the flesh is not the only adversary you must slay in the pursuit of love. Kill your desire, kill your hubris, kill the false god inside you that convinces you of self-righteousness, kill your instinct for pursuing comfort. Once yourself is slain, then there is room for the one you love. Your breath, your thoughts, your hopes, your sufferings--you will find yourself enduring all these for the sake of your love."

Enduring self! Saito was familiar with this concept, for he could not count how many times he agonized over his state of being a burden to his brother. He endured his own existence for the sake of Netto, for it was what his twin wanted.

"But parents don't marry their children. How can those forms of love be one and the same?"
"Ah, a natural question."

A little pause.

"Ancient Greeks, too, noticed the differences existing between the form of love depending on the relationship, and categorized them into three: agape, for the ultimate, limitless sacrifice; philia, for the life-giving camaraderie; eros, for the burning passion of the flesh. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the only difference between them is the ratio of love to lust. This is to say, the human emotion of attraction exists in a spectrum of a linear mixture of love and lust. A simple example would be an alcoholic solution: theoretically it exists in the spectrum of 0% to 100% in concentration. The problem of azeotropy--the state at which the vapor has the same composition as the liquid--which arises at 97% concentration, we shall ignore as it is an engineering one. We can try to divide the alcohols into three categories--weak, medium, strong--based on an arbitrary standard, but we can always make a solution that is exactly at the boundary of division. Therefore, by the exactly same mechanism as this analogy, any effort to categorically divide love invariably fails, for there always will be a specimen that is perfectly in between any two categories.
Still confused? Let us put it this way: agape, by definition, is 100% love and 0% lust. It is Godly love. Although Greeks defined it as a parental love, given the series of surveys conducted in 1986, 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2010 all indicating that 1 out of 5~6 girls and 1 out of 20 boys, roughly speaking, experience child sexual abuse, it seems even the parental love is sometimes impure. Philia is a brotherly love, often formed between men exposed to immense life threatening pressure such that they learn to completely trust each other. It is not difficult to find examples of soldiers diving into certain deaths just to save their friends. However, in practice, the composition of philia in terms of love and lust seems to be even more plastic than in the case of eros. Ancient Thebes was famous for fielding a band of warriors, 300men strong, formed exclusively from hom*osexual lovers. The unit remained invincible for about 40 years until all of them perished in the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. It is an extreme example, of course, but proves that philia is a concept that can exist in a wide spectrum, where in one case the content of lust can be so small as to be inconsequential, whereas in another the lust can account for most of it. Now, in case of eros, it is by definition almost completely made out of lust. It is always selfish, seeking to fulfill one's wishes with complete disregard for others' needs. It is the driving force of many vices, including rape and murder."
"Is lust bad, then? Granny said lust clouds judgments"
"Not necessarily, for lust can be a glue that holds together a marriage, but it must not be the goal, nor should it be at the foremost. In the end, love must vanquish the lust. Notwithstanding this, any relationship cannot last. There is no faith in lust. Love is selfless; lust is selfish. Lust will not save your relationship when the world tries to swallow you whole."

Gramps uncrossed his legs having finished expounding his thoughts. He leaned forward and his eyes focused on Saito.

"I hope that has satisfied your curiosity. So, pray tell me, what is your story, little one?"
"Oh, I am most interested as well. Would you please kindly tell us about your life, lad?"
"I..."

Saito could not figure out where to begin. His life was short and uninteresting save for the unlimited caretaking he received from Netto. The world already crushed him from the beginning, and he was born defective. Had he been born in a poverty stricken, perpetually oppressed household plagued by an alcoholic father, and then if he was abused, then learned forgiveness, perhaps by then his life would have been interesting with a lesson to tell to others. Fortunately, he was born into a household not lacking in finances, had a brother who kept him closer than Jonathan did David, went to a prestigious school, had classmates who were not against him (rather kind, really)...Saito finally realized how many blessings of life he had enjoyed which previously went unnoticed due to his preoccupation with HBD. Saito buried his face in his palms from shame. Oh, how he lived like a princess in a castle!

"You must have much to tell, to palm your face like that. Do not worry, there is plenty of time, and we can wait. Or shall we say more about our lives so that you can have time to collect yourself?"
"Darling, how about we tell him how we met? It's my favorite story to tell. You were so dashing-"

The conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a door sliding. A train attendant in a black uniform entered the cabin. A man appearing to be in his early thirties, the prime of life, came straight to them with a disciplined gait. Taking his hat off, he made a polite gentlemanly bow, then, with his hands on his back, spoke with a soft, baritone voice:

"Gentlemen, lady, may I check your tickets please?"

The old couple produced white train tickets from their pockets. Saito could not remember getting one. Panic set in, and he made a teary face that would stop anyone in his tracks out of compassion. Granny whispered to him.

"Lad, check your front pocket. Yes, there. The ticket should be in there."

Saito frantically searched for the ticket on his body, including the front pocket. Still, the ticket was nowhere to be found. Looking at the train attendant was all he could do. Was he in trouble? He had no money on him to purchase one on the spot either. While Saito waited for the inevitable verdict, there was no sign of annoyance or surprise on the face of the attendant. He gently extended his hand to Saito.

"Little sir, it seems you have left behind something important, and are not ready to go. Do not fret, for it happens predictably to souls full of love and kindness. Please, let me escort you outside. I will tell you everything you need to know."

"Well, boy, I am sure we will meet again. Go follow the man and collect what you have forgotten. Next time we meet, tell us all about your love over a drink or two, will you?"
"Goodbye, sweet lad. It was nice speaking with you."

Saito had always been a good child, never having broken a law. The anxiety and fright Saito just had from not having a ticket on him were such that now he became mute, for doing so would make the tears flow out in a stream. Saito nodded to the old couple, took the attendant's hand, and exited the cabin. When he looked back midway, he saw the old couple waving their hands.

====

Saito was back on the wooden bench, back to where he started. The difference was that now there was no one on the platform, and the train had left without him. Saito watched the river, flowing through the valley. The peace of the flowing water was contagious. It washed away many impurities he had in his heart, making him lighter, emptier. All his worries flowed away with the river, and then, to the unreachable depths of the ocean, to be forever lost.

The train attendant, after leading him back here, was kind enough to give him an instruction. According to him, Saito had a choice: the first was to immerse himself into oblivion, shed all connections with the world, and board the next train. Watching the river was said to help this process. Once he broke free from the yoke of regret and remorse, then he would find himself with a train ticket. Saito inferred that this was exactly what the little girl was doing, and the process explained why her expression was so vacant. The second was to take the elevator behind him to recollect what he had left behind (Saito could swear by everything holy that the elevator was not there when he first woke up), and therefore become free from the longing inside him. No one so far had exercised this option, as to anyone who arrived here it became perfectly clear that going back to the world was not a worthwhile spending of time, even if it was temporary. Saito was no different; he chose to stay here. He still recalled the name Netto and the face associated with it, his heart ached with the thought, but his mind remained calm and unaffected. Saito knew that Netto would be fine, would learn to move on, would...

'Will he?'

Ah, no matter. Once the heart stopped aching even with the thought of Netto, then he would be ready. Where the next train would take him, that was the place he needed to go.

====

-Saito niisan, why did you leave me?

Saito jolted. It was the voice of Netto. As far as Saito was concerned it was an auditory hallucination, but he could swear that it sounded as if spoken adjacent to him. He was brought down from the mindless nirvana. How much time had passed? Weeks? Months? He started to feel as if someone was squeezing every drop of blood out of his heart. This was the exact opposite of what Saito had been trying to achieve. Why was he experiencing the longing after all this time, after all that he had forgotten? Saito checked his front pocket and found a ticket.

'Netto kun, we both knew the time would come. You have to be strong.'

Saito responded to the turbulence in his heart in case the voice was truly from his brother left behind. If by the slimmest chance the answer could reach him, then Saito had to do it.

-Saito niisan, we can't live without you.

'Yes, you can. Have faith. I was only a chain of slavery to you. Now you are emancipated.'

The rumbling of the incoming train again shook the platform. Saito looked around and found approximately a dozen souls on the platform. What a crowd compared to the last time.

-I can't live without you.

'Fly, Netto kun, over the mountains, away from me. The fat of the land is before you for the taking.'

The train arrived.

-If I search high, will I find you?

'Do not worry, Netto kun, for all that is lost will be restored.'

People started to board the train. Saito rose from the bench.

-If I search low, will I find you?

'No, Netto kun...'

Now Saito was the only one remaining on the platform. A train attendant came out of a passenger car and waved at Saito. It was the same person who escorted him out last time.

- If I wither and waste in tears, will I meet you?

'Netto kun, I...'

Saito waved his hand back at the train attendant. It was nice to see a familiar friendly face.

-So

Netto's sobbing, almost strangled, voice reverberated inside him. Saito gave his ticket to the attendant.

-Please don't leave me.

Saito took the elevator.

Notes:

1-5

Chapter 6: The Remission of Sin

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The elevator was made of polished bronze from top to bottom, with only one button next to the door. However, what disturbed Saito was not the suspicious design of the machine, but his reflection on the walls. The polishing was not uniform, and his image appeared wavy, distorted to left and right, forming an illusion of him burning in a hellfire. Saito imagined if this was exactly what he was doing right now--returning to the hellscape. If he reunited with his flesh, then his life would be the simple continuation of the previous routine. As much as Saito realized he had a blessed, albeit short, life, the pain of HBD attacks was a reality he had to face. However, Netto's tears split his heart and compelled him to take this path of thorns. The lamentations of his lost brother called him from the dark depths of life.

The door of the elevator was still open. Once the button is pressed, there will be no turning back--the design of this place screamed of this fact. Saito hesitated; the train attendant was making a bow of farewell to him with the hat on his chest. Both of them knew the decision had been made, and that it would not be reversed. Once the train attendant boarded the passenger car, the heart of the engine fired, making a noise as loud as a cry of a hundred bulls. The train accelerated slowly away from the platform, delivering this season's harvest to the eternal rest. Saito watched the train leaving the station, until he could not see it anymore. He did not regret his current choice, but he also knew he would not have regretted his choice had he taken the train instead. Then how was this choice made? It was by the love for the another, not love for self. Saito took the narrow path.

Saito pressed the button. The door of the elevator closed slowly. Once isolated from the outside, the darkness covered Saito. Combined with the small dimension of the interior, the whole process evoked the image of the closing of a coffin lid. Suddenly, a lightbulb at the top of the elevator turned on, but the light was excessively dim. He could barely see his feet. Briefly, the entire contraption trembled with the action of gears and cables sliding against each other. The sound made by the mechanism was painful to the ears and to the soul, like the sound made by scratching the blackboard. Saito wondered if this bronze coffin was preparing to bury him alive. He tensed in anticipation of the unknown. His instinct cried out to him of imminent danger, but what could be so alarming-

The elevator dropped. Saito's feet were barely touching the floor--the entire system was in a freefall! Saito's lungs forgot to scream due to the suddenness of the release. All he could do was hold on to his consciousness with a stupid surprised face. The fact that there was no way to see the outside made the experience worse than the gyrofall. When was the stop? How far did he have to go? Would this break his legs? Some very urgent concerns popped into his head with no way to pacify them. The complete blockage of visual cues prevented him from getting himself ready in time for the inevitable impact. A terror crept into his heart. Saito started to regret his decision. Oh, only if he had known the nature of the travel by this accursed machine.

After a long fall that felt like an eternity, the stopping was rather merciful compared to the sudden beginning. The deceleration was gradual enough that Saito did not have to smack his face on the floor from the inertia. By a humorous irony, it was not gradual enough to prevent Saito from getting on his all fours like an animal. Saito barely held on. Had the process been a few seconds longer, his elbows would've failed and his face would've surely kissed the floor. With the elevator coming to a full stop, Saito stood up again, wobbling, dizzy, and disoriented. 'Never again,' Saito told himself.

'If I take this elevator a second time in the future, call me a madman.'

The elevator door slid open. The scene in front of him was a familiar one--it was his father's office in the Scilab, roughly three to five meters in front of the main work desk. He had a chance to be here a few times before, once because he demanded the tour as his birthday present, and other times because of official yet unimportant reasons such as 'bring a kid to work day.' The time of the place was still early as evidenced by the bright sunlight making the dust in the air uncomfortably visible. How his father survived daily in this low-quality air was beyond him.

'Why here?'

If he had a chance to guess, he should have arrived back in the hospital, where his body should be, or back in his room, where he would surely embrace Netto with glee. Regardless, there had to be a reason for the destination to be set here. Saito would have to explore and find it out.

'If the door is open, that means I can get off, right?'

Saito moved forward with the intention of leaving. His effort was rudely stopped as he ran into an invisible wall that separated the elevator exit from the world outside. After a puppy-like yelp, Saito rubbed his forehead and nose to soothe the pain from the collision. If he could not get off, but the door remained open, and the barrier was transparent, then there was only one other possibility: Saito was to witness what was about to happen through this window.

Not many seconds after the realization, the scene in front of him accelerated in time. As Saito counted the number of days passing by, which he did by observing the sky outside one of the windows, for the first two weeks, there were no visitors. Then, a person entered the scene: his father, Dr. Yuichiro.

"Papa!"

Saito shouted excitedly and hammered on the invisible barrier in front of him. The commotion did not reach the doctor, as he was seen sitting to start work completely unaffected, and then covering his face with a deep sigh while the computer was turning on. Saito tried getting his attention several more times, but gave up when it became clear that it was futile.

The time accelerated further. The day and night came and went in rapid succession. Saito noticed changes occurring to the large screen on the wall. At some point, a skeletal outline of a netnavi was made. Over weeks, the shape was fleshed out. At first, Saito looked at it with interest. Later, he watched with horror. The face of the navi was becoming more and more familiar as its features were completed. Saito knew what it was.

'Papa, is that...me? What are you doing?'

Saito witnessed his body being reconstructed from a double helix structure displayed at the corner of the screen. From the basic science education, he remembered it was the hallmark of DNA, and the circ*mstances pointed out that it was his. Father was translating his DNA. In the midst of the consternation Saito endured, there was a sense of pride. Only an unmatched genius like his father could accomplish such a feat while the world was struggling to even predict how proteins folded from the primary amino acid sequences. Saito's virtual body was then progressively covered with the suit and equipments for a netnavi.

'Papa, a work like this cannot be forgiven!'

With time accelerated significantly, Saito only had a brief moment each day to study his father. The deathly fatigue was perpetual on his face, venous expansion under the eyes, on the forehead losing turgor, sinking cheeks, the color of skin, and in the roughening hair. During some moments, he was lamenting over the old picture of the family, focusing intensely on Saito. Sometimes, he was mumbling something with aimlessly wandering eyes, clearly descending into madness. On some days he worked as if he was glued to the screen. He progressively appeared unkempt on average. Saito never saw his father in such a state; in his memory, father was always rational, resolute, and reliable. He was like a tree planted by water. Saito remembered the hallucinatory voice of Netto

-We can't live without you

'Netto kun, was that really you?'

Time decelerated until its flow rate came back to normal, and, unfortunately for Saito Hikari who had been leaning against the invisible barrier, the opening of the elevator became commutable. Saito barely gained balance before falling forward. After the stumbling, he was only a meter behind his father. Yuichiro was bent over his desk with his hands clasped together. Saito heard the suppressed, trembling voice that oozed out from this crushed man:

"...Mea culpa, Saito, mea maxima culpa"
"Papa, I am here, don't worry. It's okay. It's okay, so...please stop"

Saito knew his voice would not reach his father. Nevertheless, he hoped. When Yuichiro started inserting a USB into his computer, Saito tried to hug his father, but his arms went through as if he was made out of air. Well, the air he might be, for his action made a small cold wind blow around Yuichiro. Saito corrected his posture and suspended his arms around Yuichiro, trying to form a hug without clipping into Yuichiro's body.

"Papa...now I see."

Saito did not need to be told the details as the situation was painfully simple. Netto was dying in his unending lamentations. Yuichiro was descending into the heretical interpretation of life and death by constructing a duplicate of his son. Saito could not even imagine what state his mother would be in, that woman with a heart as sensitive as a lily. Saito also understood why he was sent here. There was only one way to redeem the sin of his father--by making his twisted wish come true. Saito loosened his arms around his father and turned towards the large screen. There lay the netnavi created in his image. He had to become that navi, and that navi him. Only then would the work of his father be blameless.

"Do not worry, papa, I can fix this."

Saito floated towards the screen and then clipped into it. Instead of going through the device and then though the wall behind it, and finally emerging into the corridor, Saito somehow crossed into the cyberworld. This inexplicable crossing of dimensions was taken as evidence that his analysis was right. Emboldened, he lay on the table on which the blue navi was placed, overlapping himself with the body. It fit him perfectly. Saito closed his eyes as a strange sensation of a thousand needles lightly poking every inch of his skin covered him.

When this sensation similar to a bad case of muscle cramp subsided, Saito reopened his eyes. The strange ceiling, full of constantly changing transparent cubes and rectangles, reminded him that this was not a dream, and that now he became a dweller of this man made purgatory. He was really back, in this body, in the world fundamentally severed from his family. The body was very unresponsive and sluggish, but surely this would be solved with time. For now, he turned his head with a struggle and found Yuichiro across a floating display. Their eyes met. His father was visibly shaken; oh, only if he could hug the poor man as he did just a moment before. Saito tried to speak, but he was not yet fully calibrated to the body. The only sound he could create came out like that of a dying sheep:

"Papa..."
'Don't worry. I am here.'

Saito saw Yuichiro collapsing on the floor on his knees. Tears wet his face, which was white as snow from the shock. Saito could only extend his arm towards the display with a faint smile in the hopes of soothing his father.

"Rockman"

The barely audible voice was squeezed out of Yuichiro.

'Rockman'

His new name. A blessed name. The name that bore the sin of his father. The name that will bear the sin of others.

====

Yuichiro could not stand the innocent gaze of the emerald green eyes. They convicted him of his crime. From thistles came thistles, and from figs came figs. He was well aware that his work was fueled by his distorted defiance towards fate, yet contrary to all the natural laws, the innocent gaze filled with friendliness came out of his twisted work. As shadows were darker near the light, so did the navi made Yuichiro's wickedness visible for all the world to see. God said to Adam "Where are you?" and Adam replied "I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." As Adam ran away, so too was Yuichiro running away from the work of his own hands. God did not tempt Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge; the world did not compel Yuichiro to recreate his son. Was he the only parent to bury his son with his own hands? There were cases far worse than his, yet they all learned to move on. Yuichiro was a failure of a father and a failure of a human being.

Yuichiro could not stand the lovely smiling face of his reborn son. It uncovered the monstrosity within him. He just created something that thought of itself as Saito Hikari. It was an unforgivable sin, a mockery of the human soul. Yuichiro had no intention of defending himself from this grievous charge, but the worse part was that he liked it. He wanted to scream to the world in defiance: 'See that? I did it! I saved my son!' Could he say it, truly? Was the human condition so trivial and simple that it could be described as an addition of emotion and memories? If Yuichiro was convicted that this simple equation was true, then why was his heart refusing to accept the creation as his complete son? His nonacceptance was blatant hypocrisy, which was a human quality he always found most abhorrent when he observed it in the actions of companions of Tadashi. The smile of the navi plunged him into the despicable depths, for it just made him the same hypocrite, too.

Yuichiro could not endure the arm of the navi extended out to him as if expected to be held. It burned his soul with hellfire. It was a gesture of comfort, forgiveness, and acceptance, all of which he did not deserve, nor could he stomach. When he was very well aware that the only chance at forgiveness was by the deletion of his work and erasing of all its evidence, the promise of salvation only appeared as appetizing as poisonous mushrooms. Yuichiro wondered if the Saito's personality installed in the navi successfully deduced, in that short time, what had transpired. The scenery of the network as navis saw it--Yuichiro did not know exactly himself--unquestionably must have been different from the physical world outside. Did Saito's integrated mind figure out successfully that he was now in the cyberworld, and then accepted the reality before extending its arm as a sign of peace in order to save its maker's soul, given to temptation? All Yuichiro could do was apologize profusely while transferring the navi to Netto's PET, and then turn the device off as quickly as possible.

As the next step, he had to update the OS of the PET in order to house the custom navi. Yuichiro did everything he could to give the recreation of his son the best body possible, so the blue navi was packed full of features that made its specifications beyond what anyone should ever be able to possess without supervision. Yuichiro simulated many pessimistic scenarios in which his breach of ethics was exposed and the navi had to escape to avoid persecution and torture. To alleviate his paranoia, Yuichiro made sure that the blue navi was capable of breaking through all known firewalls and official systems. Now that the work was complete and the navi was to be handed over to his son Netto, from whom he did not expect much discretion, most of the offensive and infiltrative features were locked away. Should the need arise, he would give the key to Netto, and his cyber son, even if he was a fake one, would survive.

What happened next was only natural given the shaken state of Yuichiro. Once the work on the PET and last minute calibrations were finished, Yuichiro quickly disconnected the PET from the workstation and roughly shoved it into his pocket. The sun was rising. Yuichiro hurridly ran out from his office to take the first metro to his house. He needed someplace to hide, someplace secret to catch his breath and convince himself with the lie that he can still be saved, that what he did was not wrong, that it was inevitable, and that the navi was, in fact, the reincarnation of Saito Hikari.

In the train, the first metro of the day, completely devoid of passengers as at this time of the day people moved from house to workplace, not the other way around as Yuichiro was doing currently, the doctor finally noticed he was still wearing the lab coat. With a little curse, he took it off and hung it on his arm.

It was not long before he arrived at the doorstep of his house. How many days had it been since he last stood here was beyond his memory, though Haruka was sure to remember.

'Haruka, my love, I have become a disappointment. If I enter, will you ignore me? Will you scold me? Will you hug me and comfort me? Please, hate me if you must, but only do not abandon me, for if you do, then I...'

Yuichiro knew Haruka had not been herself since the funeral of Saito Hikari. He heard her dirge. He saw the sorrow decaying her little by little. He finally reached the conclusion of his jeremiad by committing a crime. The problem was, as much as he could confidently foresee what the endpoint of Netto's mourning would be (Yuichiro believed it would be a healing found in the compassion of Mayl Sakurai, though he could not be more wrong), he had troubles predicting what the endpoint of Haruka was. He was married to Haruka for more than a decade now, but now he had to admit to his shame that he did not know her well enough to know with certainty what lied beneath her sanity.

Yuichiro opened the door, carefully, as quietly as possible. When the door was only a third open, he shoved himself in like a weasel through a mousehole, and then closed the door behind him equally silently. He was entering his own house like a thief.

"You are back."

Yuichiro almost jumped out of his skin. In the kitchen was Haruka, in her white pajama that was like a long dress, standing next to the refrigerator. She was not facing him but was simply continuing in her motion of taking out a jar of cold water from the lower compartment. He could not determine with sufficient certainty whether she was angry or not.

'I'm back. I'm so sorry to have neglected you and our son.'

The words failed to materialize. Yuichiro found himself standing on the spot paralyzed, like a mouse before a snake. Haruka put down the jar and looked at her husband.

"Are you coming in? Do you need to leave soon again?"

When Yuichiro finally realized that Haruka was not holding a grudge against him, and that in her eyes were only kindness and support, his mouth unfroze and his feet unglued. He very slowly removed his shoes and entered the house. Haruka assumed her husband came to have breakfast and put the frying pan on the gas stove.

"I...I'm...I'm staying today."
"Netto will be happy to know that you are staying today, you know. He has been asking me all yesterevening wether I knew you would come today for his birthday. I tried calling you but you would not pick up the phone. Come on in, and take a seat. The breakfast will be ready in a moment. Do you have Netto's PET, by the way?"
"...Yes."

Haruka sensed something was wrong with her husband. Well, she would be a blind woman if she did not notice. Yuichiro had stopped in his tracks and was standing next to the dining table, with a vacuous gaze in the general direction towards her. She was not sure if he was looking at her at all. She washed her hands, turned off the gas stove, and faced her husband.

What Yuichiro's broken mind saw, Haruka would never know, for it is difficult to explain the inexplicable. The fuzzy morning light, so brightly yellow, came through the kitchen window and scattered softly like a pastel coloring. From his point of view, the scattered lights seemingly collected behind her, like a holy halo. She was shining, in the glory of the morning. He had a chance to witness an object that evoked a perception of holiness of this magnitude only once in his life, in the statue of the virgin Mary, the Pieta, by Michelangelo. The exhausted mind of Yuichiro malfunctioned somewhere in the frontal lobe. He accepted this impression as the truth and was convinced that his wife had been a saint all along. He reasoned thus: no wonder a narrow wicked mind of his could not project what she would do at the end of the grief. She would simply accept all there is, and all there will be. She will hear him. She will judge him. She will sentence him. Dostoyevsky was right: to every crime, a punishment.

"What is wrong?"
'Haruka! Come, come quickly, without delay, hold me as a mother does to her prodigal son, so that I might be judged! Please, embrace this sinner...'

What came out of his mouth instead was an irrelevant question.

"Where is Netto?"
"He left early today, just before you came in. Did you not meet him? I know, it is surprising. He clearly did not sleep much last night. I do not know if he was too excited to sleep due to his birthday party or has too much going on in his head because it's his first birthday without his brother. He won't tell me much. In times like these, I find him too much like you. He is your son, after all. So, care to tell me what is going on?"

Yuichiro took a sit on a chair slowly while his eyes still focused on infinity behind Haruka, trying to get a glimpse into the hint of eternity hidden inside the halo (this fever dream of an idea was what Yuichiro truly believed at the moment). Haruka knew exactly how to coax out of her husband the deepest secrets, and to bring him back to reality. Otherwise, their marriage would not have survived the first week. She approached Yuichiro, which, to him, appeared as a procession of a living saint that was too holy for him to even lay his eyes on. Haruka stood in front of Yuichiro and pulled him in, so that he was leaning his face against her bosom, between her breasts. His arms drooped limp and hung straight downwards like a set of pendulums. Her hands were firmly on his head. She quietly spoke into Yuichiro's ears.

"Shh...it's okay. Now, tell me, what is wrong?"
"...I have sinned, Haruka."
"We all sin, Yuichiro. We live to forgive, not to be forgiven. If it is my forgiveness you seek, then you already have it. Now, confess and do not fear. Only believe that I love you and will love you."

Yuichiro made a deep long sigh of relief, for the comfort was found in the breasts of his wife and in the promise of love. He knew Haruka would wait for him as long as it took, but would not let him go until he confessed. This imprisonment was exactly what he needed.

"For the past three months...I could not accept our loss of our Saito Hikari. He was a light to us all. I prayed to God, even, in my desparation, but...where is justice? Where is goodness? Why must this happen?"

"Yuichiro...I know you never lost in your life. In exams, you excelled, In career, unmatched. My hand, you won. I knew you would not handle this well, for you wrestled with the world, and for the first time, you lost. You must not dwell too much on this. Do you not see that you have now transformed the matter into something for yourself, not for Saito? We gave him everything we could, and he found happiness in life. He left in peace, and we saw the smile on his face. I am guilty as charged in that I do too miss him, more than I should, but we must not blame ourselves.
Look, we both know the world is full of vice. Many in Scilab, whom we call friends in the time of plenty, will betray us in a heartbeat in the time of famine. When the order fails, they will stab you in the back and rape me with unbridled exhilaration, yet we endure together for we have promised to live for each other, not for self. We decided to raise our sons in love, not in animosity, so that they might learn to love the world also despite all its flaws, and become a leader, like you, who will gladly sacrifice himself for the greater good. In virtue we raised them, and in virtue they conducted themselves.
I consider it a true miracle that Saito was given to our care. Even if we take into account all our efforts to teach him love, he was too gentle, too kind, too good for all of us. We named us Hikaris, but he was the light above all, and we were all blinded by him. He could not be hidden from the world. Never did he complain, displayed wrath, or failed to forgive. He was obedient, honored us, and found favor in the eyes of men. I learned more from him than him from me, for he was a peacemaker. Doesn't even Bible writes that the peacemakers will be called sons of God, for they are so few in numbers, their existence so miraculous, their work so powerful?
He left us before he could see the full extent of the malice of the world. In this, I am glad, In this, I have found peace. He was indeed too good for the world. If there is heaven, then surely he is there, for we had a saint among us. I can only hope to live a life worthy enough to see him again.
Just as life can be a curse to someone, so can be death a blessing. There was justice, for this evil world was denied of the goodness named Saito. There was goodness, for he did not witness the evil in his lifetime. Do you know what care we poured into him to keep his heart beating? He stayed here for us, not for himself."

There was a pause. Yuichiro remained speechless. He had been like a toddler compared to his wife.

"Let him go, Yuichiro. We all need to let him go. When our hearts stop bleeding, then let us all go and scatter his ashes together."
"...Haruka, I'm so sorry. I...lost to the temptation."
"What did you do?"
"I was so engrossed in my knowledge, my capacity as a programmer, my power to make dreams into reality...that..."

Haruka did promise forgiveness. Given the opening words of his confession, Haruka was no longer sure if she would be able to do so. What kind of abomination had he committed was beyond her estimations. All she could be confident was that bad news was coming. A really bad one.

"I have made a new netnavi for our son, Netto."
"A birthday present for him? A good choice. It will surely uplift his spirit."
"The navi was made out of Saito's DNA."

Haruka wished him to stop here. Alas, she knew him too well--Yuichiro was a completionist and a perfectionist. He would not be satisfied with only recreating the body of his lost son.

"And I implanted it with the personality and memory of Saito, using a brain scan I made one week before his death."

Haruka's motherly instinct of protecting the nest kicked in. This truth would be too devastating if found out by...anyone else. Netto had to be preserved. Consequently, what Yuichiro had made had to be deleted. Saito was already no more; why let the ghost destroy her remaining son? A man is prone to tomfoolery, and Haruka should've known a situation like this could arise at any moment. They had much work to do today if they were to clean up this mess in time.

"The...netnavi is in Netto's PET. It thinks it is Saito, and...and...I could not...and I named it Rockman. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry...oh, Saito, I am so sorry..."

By Jove! Her husband was completely mad!

"Yuichiro, you will ruin us all one day. Do you know this?"
"...yes"
"Today's worry is enough for today. Let tomorrow worry for itself. Now go and take a shower, you stink."
"...yes"

He raised his head from between his wife's breasts. He was liberated. It was not because he was forgiven, but because he was exposed. He carefully took out the PET from the inner pocket of his labcoat and put it in Haruka's hands. He then slowly retreated to the bathroom. He was to wash himself--it was prescribed by his most holy and benevolent wife. A baptism to cleanse him.

Haruka saw Yuichiro disappear into the bathroom before taking a look at the PET. The power was off. She was technologically inept, but even she knew how to find the on/off button. Turning on the PET revealed the blue navi, Rockman. Haruka heard what Yuichiro said, she understood what Yuichiro said, but she was not ready for this. A face she could not forget--what kind of mother would she be had she forgotten?--was there. The blue navi opened his eyes upon finishing loading in. Haruka instinctively covered her mouth. If she had the power to create such a thing, would she had not done the same as her husband? The thing looked exactly like Saito. The worst part was that, according to the descriptions of her husband, it also possessed all of Saito's memories and believed itself as Saito.

'Is it my son, then, even though it is only a mirror image of a ghost? Is it not my son, when everything it remembers and believes is being Saito? Where is the boundary?'

The blue navi's emerald eyes pierced into Haruka's troubled soul. Less than five minutes ago she was determined to delete it. Her heart, which was as cold as ice, was melting rapidly as if exposed to the summer sun.

"Mama!"

The answer to her question became clear as day. 10 years ago, She had borne him through the pain of the womb. Today she bore him through the pain of the heart. Just as no one ever had a choice of being born into this world, so did this poor thing. What wrong did he commit other than being loved and missed so much?

"Where is Netto kun? Dad won't let me see him or call him. I need to tell him that I am still here, and have to tell him that..."

Rockman remembered his last prayer. By his judgment, it was answered, but the result must have wrecked his Netto completely.

"...that code blue not prompting was not his fault."

A chill went down Haruka's spine.

'Did not Yuichiro say that the brain scan was made one week before the passing? Then how does he...? Could this be, by the slimmest chance?'
"Can you...can you please tell me what happened afterward?"

Rockman of course was oblivious of what exactly Yuichiro did, other than that he tried to recreate him in desperation. What he did not understand was why his dad was not happier when he came to life. Father was profusely apologizing before transferring him to the PET and then turning it off. What followed was complete darkness without any sensory inputs. Rockman did not like it one bit. He hoped his mother would not turn off the PET in a similar fashion. Naturally, motivated Rockman innocently told Haruka all about the train station and how he got escorted out.

When Rockman finished his story, Haruka was crying. She gave a kiss on the PET and hugged it tightly.

"My son
My poor poor son
Come to your mother
You must be so exhausted"

"... ...
I'm home"

Notes:

1-6

Chapter 7: Hello, Netto kun

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

'I...I am a hypocrite. A dirty unworthy hypocrite!'

Netto was walking towards the school. He was so early today that he came out of the house even before Mayl knocked at the door. It was their daily routine to walk together to school every morning, though his opinion was not reflected in this arrangement as it was established purely by Mayl's insistence. He could not deny that Mayl's clockwork-like diligence and consistency saved him from several occasions of tardiness. Consequently, his mother was quite content with Mayl also, and let out her son when she arrived at the door, hoping the academic character of their neighbor might rub off onto her son. This annoyed Netto to some degree, as he felt as if the relationship was forced into his throat, but he did not resent Mayl herself, as she was always polite, always nice, always considerate. Rather, he resented that he had to go to school early in the morning, and that Mayl was a collaborator with his mother.

This day it was different. Netto was walking towards the school with a somatic manifestation of his mental shock in the form of unfocused eyes and a half-open mouth. He would stop in his tracks from time to time, completely absorbed in his thoughts, but of this, he was not aware. Some pedestrians glanced at him to check if the boy was okay.

'Father once said that in dream manifested one's worries, wishes, and beliefs of the unconscious...it was a dream indeed. Otherwise, why would I see him?'

Netto had a dream this morning. He saw Saito Hikari, his late brother. In what setting the dream unfolded, he no longer remembered, but the fact that he saw Saito remained firmly in the memory.

'Saito appearing in my dream is hardly surprising, as he had been at the back of my mind constantly. Although, it seems how much I worry about something is not necessarily connected to whether I will dream about that subject. I only saw him in my dream once, right after the funeral. In that dream, we were sitting on the swing in the park, his favorite place. He stood up and left, and behind him, I begged and cried. He did not turn back nor said anything in return...So this is the second time I saw him in my dream...of course it is surprising! It's only the second time!'

Netto stopped in front of a zebra crossing, waiting for the green signal. Netto was not aware of all this as his body was on autopilot, separate from his thoughts. His body was carrying him to the school in habit.

'But this time, we talked. What did we say? Remember Netto, damn it, remember it all!'

Netto crossed the road.

'First, I asked why he left me. What a foolish question! He did not leave me behind out of his own will! And then he answered...ah, yes, he answered that I had to be strong. That must be due to what Masa san told me yesterday, that Saito would not want to see me so weak and dejected. I know he would say that to me too. He was strong in spirit. In all matters, his spirit was willing but his flesh was weak...but then, the second exchange...Netto, how could you!'

Netto, in the dream, then pleaded Saito that he could not live without him, and that they--the Hikaris, could not live without him. Shockingly, Saito, or his unconscious mind disguised as Saito, told him this:

-Yes, you can. Have faith. I was only a chain of slavery to you. Now you are emancipated.

Slavery! Chain of slavery! Never once in his waking had he thought of Saito in this way, but the dream revealed him otherwise. The knowledge that deep down inside him was a burning resentment conflicting with his conscious desire destroyed him. In perpetual sorrow he was since the funeral, but was his soul secretly rejoicing? In the newfound freedom? Then, did this mean that he was a profligate hedonist who cared about nothing except the pleasure he gained from netbattling?

'Saito niisan...to think I was a hypocrite all this time...I can swear that I never thought of you as a burden. Truly, I can swear! But even if I do, and you hear me, will you believe me?'

One solace was that the dream ended in accordance with the conscious ego. He sobbed and begged Saito to not leave him, just like in the first dream. Much to his joy, in the second dream, Saito, who was about to leave him, turned back, and returned. The dream ended there and Netto woke up like a diver gasping for air, completely covered in sweat. The clock indicated that it was only 6:00 A.M.

'I must have been very desperate, to have him come back to me in the dream. And to think today is my birthday and will be surrounded by everyone. How am I going to face my friends without loathing myself?'

When Netto came to, he was already in front of the ACDC elementary school gate. A deep sigh burst out from his mouth. Netto slowly proceeded to his classroom, trying to find something, anything, that might lighten his mood.

====

When Yuichiro came out of the hot shower, he looked like a transcended man who no longer had anything of value left on Earth. He clearly anticipated several possible reactions from Haruka, and whatever conclusion she ended up with, he was ready to be destroyed. In the shower, he decided that he would accept any verdict placed on him, and obey the wisdom of his wife. The burden was no longer his the moment he confessed.

What he did not expect was a crying Haruka with PET in her chest. She told Yuichiro repeatedly like a broken toy: "Look, our son is back! Our son is back!" Of course, Rockman had to repeat the story, and answer some questions from the scientist who was still suspicious of the possibility of it being a fabricated memory by the artificial Saito personality in its attempt to resolve the discrepancy between its perceived identity and the reality, but Yuichiro had to admit as well. The story was too detailed, too bizarre, and had bits of information that Rockman should not have been physically possible to gain access to if it was not true. How he worked, what he did in the office, the dreadful chill he felt right before the waking up of Rockman--the navi knew them all.

It was only a matter of time before Yuichiro, too, completely broke down like his wife, kissing and hugging the PET, shedding tears of indescribable relief. He was vindicated. Rockman just redeemed him. Rockman took the sin of his father and hid it in his soul. What could have been a creation of an unforgivable abomination was transformed into a miracle of resurrection.

When the lacrimal glands of both adults had been thoroughly emptied out, they sat on the sofa in the living room, with Rockman placed on the table so that he could see them both through the screen. For some time, they sat there silently. Yuichiro was contemplating, Haruka was trying to figure out how she could interact with her son further, and Rockman was checking through the functions of the PET to help out his mother. This was the first time Rockman worked as a navi, for only a day before he was still Saito, but somehow he felt familiar with manipulating PET and exercising his power as a netnavi. To much disappointment of Haruka, Rockman found the 'touch navi' interaction function was locked away.

'Ah, it's because Netto kun usually pokes me with this too much and does not focus in class, so I locked it away...'

A sudden pang of headache went through Rockman. He reflexively put his left hand on his head with a slight frown. Then he realized what he just thought.

'Netto kun...usually? W-what? Pokes me? I...locked?'
"Oh, Saito, what's wrong? Mama is so sorry. I should've let you rest first. Come, I'll take you to your room-"

It was only the first day in the new body. Rockman decided to not overthink the matter.

"It's okay. I think I'll be fine once I get used to this body..."
"Exactly, and the rest is what you need right now. Let's go"

At the commotion, Yuichiro surfaced from his deep dive into thoughts.

"Haruka, wait, I believe we must set some ground rules right now so that we might spare ourselves from committing a grave mistake. Our situation is more critical than what might appear right now. We must not let the peace of this morning fool us into wanton relaxation. I'm sorry...Rockman, but please bear with me for five more minutes."
"Rockman? Yuichiro, what do you mean?"
"Rule number one: we should refer to Saito as Rockman.exe from now on. It is his navi name, and we shall hide his true identity. I need not elaborate on the dangers this information poses to me, to you, to our sons."
"Very well, Rockman we will call him. What's with that name?"
"I...I wanted our son to reunite us with a tie as strong as a rock. The name bore my hope of...uh, restoration."

Haruka raised an eyebrow at the explanation. Yuichiro could not read if that was an approval or a disapproval.

"Oh Yuichiro, I knew you were a sentimental person, but your naming sense...ah, no matter. The name serves a practical purpose, though I am not convinced you were aware of this. Since Saito suffered from HBD, a strong name like this will give the impression that diverts the attention from the truth. Now, you might find this opinion shocking, but I believe we should keep his appearance as is, including his face."
"I know I am the one who started all this, but Haruka, please think again, we at least need to cover his face!"
"I am well aware that this decision will make it harder to hide the truth in the long run, but Netto...he will need it. He is still not over the death of his brother, and...he is dying from sorrow. He won't accept any other navi unless the reason is as compelling as this: the face of Saito."
"Haruka...are you serious? This is untenable!"
"We will have to work extra hard to keep the secret, but you can only say that because you have not seen Netto past...three months. This is strictly necessary."

Haruka collected her breath for a second, and then continued.

"There are factors in our favor also: Sai..Rockman's voice is slightly higher pitched from the PET speaker limitations, and his helmet covers up to his eyebrows. His earcovers also give a new silhouette to the face, obfuscating the impression further. From what I learned at the funeral, most of the Scilab workers did not even know we had a son named Saito, let alone his face. Netto's friends will find the appearance of Rockman a bit bizarre but within the bounds of the explicable phenomenon, for they too will understand that Netto would not have taken it any other way. They witnessed the past three months that Netto has not been taking the...absence...of Saito not so well.
Darling, let me guess. The second rule is to not let Netto find out, yes?"

Yuichiro was visibly surprised.

"Haruka, are you reading my mind?"
"More or less."
"I..."

Yuichiro decided to not say anything. Haruka always did this to him, always finding him when he needed her most. This was how they got married also. Although he was the one who proposed to Haruka, perhaps she already knew when and how it was going to happen.

"Haruka, my dear, yes, we should not let Netto know. He is too young, and should not be burdened with the need for secrecy. Let us adults do the dirty works, for secret gnaws at the soul."
"And make sure you discard all family photos from your workplace. Do not leave a photo trace of Saito."
"...Right."
"Anything else to add?"
"...No. Let's add more rules as we go on, as needed. Rockman, you understand, right? You must not let Netto know that you are Saito."

Rockman, who had been only listening, answered with a tone of dejection.

"...Okay"
"...Good boy. Alright, now let's get you upstairs. Try to rest up a bit. Ostensibly, you will be introduced as the new custom netnavi I made for Netto's birthday."
"Now that everything is settled, my handsome, for today please help me prepare for the Netto's birthday party. Oh, don't give me that look, you are not going back to Scilab to clean up your mess. Do that tomorrow. If you go back now, then it will be even more suspicious. Oh, and come home early the next few days. We will have to clear out Saito's belongings quickly."

Yuichiro nodded once and then took the PET before starting his way upstairs, where Netto's room was. The way Haruka was back to her usual self of being decisive and analytical, as soon as her son was restored to her, scared him. Oh, how thankful he was that she was on his side! Yuichiro checked the PET before entering Netto's room. Rockman was clearly not happy. No parent wins against their children. Yuichiro yielded.

"Rockman, keep this a secret between us two. We will let Netto know the truth when the appropriate time comes, when he can brush off the malice of the world with nonchalance. Until then, please promise me you will hide your identity from your brother."
"Okay, until then."
"Until then."

Yuichiro gave a smile of assurance to Rockman, though the blue navi could not hide his sadness.

====

Rockman waited patiently in the PET, on Netto's desk, next to the drawer in which objects Netto forgot but could never throw away were exiled. He could see the bright blue sky through the window, near which rested the soccer ball Saito used to watch his brother play with. The memories flooded into his head. He would not be able to be with Netto as a brother starting from now, but he was content. He was back.

'Netto kun, did you know? I sacrificed my flesh for your flesh.'

It was a story they both knew so well. In the mother's womb, Saito had already yielded nutrients to save Netto from HBD. In consequence, he was the one who suffered from the disease and was tormented by modern medicine. He would make the same choice again if given the option. This digital flesh would too be sacrificed without hesitation should the need arise.

'Netto kun, do you know? I sacrificed my soul for your soul'

The white train ticket to the eternal rest, the paradise for his soul, he forfeited so he could return. His salvation was exchanged for the possibility of comforting Netto--a greatly imbalanced trade with him at a severe disadvantage. Yet a slimmer of hope was enough for him to agree to this demonic transaction. The conversation between his parents confirmed this: Netto was dying from sorrow. If he could stop the tears from flowing, then the soul of his little brother would be saved too.

'Netto kun, will you know? I sacrificed my freedom for your freedom'

He voluntarily chose the existence trapped in the digital world. For one, it was to redeem his father from the ruin. For two, it was to redeem Netto from the emotional shackles he put on him as Saito. In this way, he freed them from the fall, at the price of his own freedom. He was not yet aware of the full ramifications of this decision, for had he known, he would've surely despaired. Well, for now, not even Yuichiro fully grasped what the existence of Rockman meant for the world, though he was soon to deduce it with his logic.

Rockman recalled what Netto looked like under the sun, how it felt to hug him, how it was to hear the healthy heartbeats, the warmth next to him during the nights. Those were the precious memories that he would never experience again. The freedom of flesh was no more with him. Instead, he became a netnavi, a slave in essence.

'In need, only ask, because I will give you more.'

He knew that his brother liked netbattling, and that it was part of his future. Saito lived a life far removed from violence; the very thought of a life saturated with fights turned his stomach. Nevertheless, there was no regret. This simply was to be another concession he was to make. If this style of life was unavoidable, then he was to become the best at it. He would not take it any other way, for becoming the best was the only way he could assure the safety of his...operator.

'I will be with you, and watch you enter middle school, high school, college, and then see you make a family, become a strong fruitful tree...and until you no longer need me. So, Netto kun, don't cry, keep your head high, look forward. Niisan is here, okay? It's my turn to look after you.'

Though his father promised him a time of revelation in the future, Saito, being a son between Yuichiro and Haruka, the brilliant minds, was a boy smart enough to understand why things had to be this way. Rockman's body augmented his calculative abilities further that he quickly came to a conclusion, much faster than he would have if he was still fully human: he did not mind if his identity had to remain a secret from Netto forever. In his love for Netto, all was permissible, and suffering his crown.

====

When the world started to turn bright yellow to pink in the late summer afternoon, Netto and his friends entered the house. Rockman could only hear the muffled sound of excitement and turbulence as the sound diffracted and dissipated through the corridor and a door, but he could not miss the characteristic bellowing of Dekao. Based on the number of unique voice patterns, there were at least seven people on the first floor.

Rockman, bored, ran a correlation calculation between the voice of Yuichiro and the kids making a noise of wonder. It was a strong r^2 = 0.85 (+-0.15) with 95% confidence interval. Although correlation could not be interpreted into causality, the circ*mstances were convincing that whatever Yuichiro was doing was the center of the attention. Rockman inferred that he was showing the recent projects in Scilab. Of course, Saito was never educated in this level of mathematics and information analysis, but it all came as a package with the new body. Saito was rapidly becoming something not human. Perhaps Saito was already gone, fused beyond recognition with the cybernetics.

Soon, there was a little commotion and shoutings, quickly followed by noise of silverwares making contacts with ceramics. Mother must have made a masterpiece of a culinary work to receive such a reception. Rockman hoped the food was to Ms. Yaito Ayanokiji's standards, as she would have been familiar with the works of professional cooks employed in her mansion. He could not detect any auditory cues that helped his analysis on this matter, which was to be expected, as Yaito was a person who would never act against what was considered proper manners. Even if the food tasted like a pile of mud, she would not speak anything against it, but would simply decline any future invitations. A perfectionist in him, which he inherited from his father, wanted everyone invited to be satisfied.

From Rockman's point of view, nothing noteworthy happened afterwards. There was an exchange of gifts, followed by a tea time around a table. A more natural course of event would be permitting kids do what they wanted to do, but Yuichiro did not want them going into Netto's room and discovering Rockman prematurely. Him acting as a happy benevolent father was only a ploy--the situation was delicate and he needed a full control of variables. As planned beforehand, he decided to throw away few more classified information (of low security, of course) as a decoy. Yaito, who had originally planned to leave early after the dinner, not having the motivation to be entertained by children's play, ended up staying with everyone. She quickly realized the value in gaining access to insider information and made her netnavi, Glyde, record the session. Her father would see it and decide its value. Yaito happily imagined her getting a compliment from her father through this minor espionage. It was not like she was attention deprived; rather, she had been pampered her entire life, with her parents constantly itching to give her more, both emotionally and monetarily, and she exercising self-control to not abuse the unlimited support by her parents. But when it came to compliments, oh how she loved them! The more the better it was.

It was when the sun was well below the horizon that the kids started to leave. There was still light on the streets, but the dusk would only last fifteen minutes or so. Using the late time as an excuse, Yuichiro ended the party. There was a limit to how long he could keep the young minds interested, and Netto's room was off limits today. With the guests gone, Rockman could only hear the murmurs and parents doing the dishes. Then, someone started running up the staircase. It was the running sound of lovely feet, quick and light, like a squirrel climbing a tree.

'Netto kun is here! What kind of face should I make? Damn it, what was I supposed to say when we meet?'

Netto burst open the door, wasted no time to his desk, grabbed the PET, and their eyes met. On Netto's face was a large grin and glittering eyes, full of expectations. It was the happy face of Netto he yearned to see for so long. It quickly disappeared, however, and then got replaced with an expression Rockman never anticipated. For a moment Netto looked as if he was going to cry, which was then immediately substituted by something that resembled anger or frustration. Rockman pinpointed what that expression was: bitterness. Was he that disappointing? This was not how he envisioned the meeting would turn out. In the subconscious was the presumtion that there would be the 'happily ever after' ending that he read so many times in his favorite bedtime stories. Well, there was no time to contemplate how he could rectify the situation. He had to lie. He promised. Rockman proceeded with his prepared greetings and a smile, with hands behind him to hide his nervousness.

"Hello, Netto kun! I am Rockman, your personal netnavi, made by Dr. Yuichiro! I'll be in your care!"

Now Netto turned a little pale. He retracted his hands off the PET like a child who touched a hot pan, and stepped back. He was wobbly, but he did not avert his eyes from the netnavi. Netto mumbled in a tone of disbelief.

"Was I not good enough, dad?"

Rockman heard that loud and clear, and it stupefied him. From the shocked reaction of Netto, and how he tried to get away, yet remained so fascinated by the blue navi, Rockman could infer that Netto recognized his face. Although others might not identify him in a heartbeat, due to the helmet, the artificial emerald colored eyes, and the navi suit, Netto knew him too intimately. However, Rockman could not immediately decipher where the self-deprecating remark originated from. Superficially, Netto accepted the presence of Saito-resembling navi as some form of replacement of him. Why was this so? Why?

'Ah, Netto thinks father remade a navi in the image of Saito because father could not get over his death, and then extrapolated that father wanted to...supplement him with this navi, because he is a disappointment! Oh no, Netto kun, how far have you fallen? You were always brave and optimistic...'
"Netto kun, I am only a navi, and I am not sure if I can say this when we just met...but you can be assured that Dr. Yuichiro loves you very much! Un, I know this because he told me so much about you during my development..."

This was all lie. A convenient lie. Rockman needed to save Netto from his depression, and one more lie would not hurt. One could argue that Yuichiro loving his son, Netto, very much was not a lie, but if the question became 'does Yuichiro love Saito more than Netto?' then...Well, every parent had a favorite, and Saito was the favorite of all Hikaris. Some might say that this was simply a human condition arising from the imperfection of evolution. But if even God is depicted in all religions as preferring some over others--in Judaism, Abraham, in Christianity, Peter, James, and John, in Islam, Mohammed--can the preferrential love really be said as an imperfection?

What Rockman said must have had an impact, as Netto started to move with a confused face. In Rockman's opinion, it was better than the bitterness, which often lead to misunderstandings and dark resentments. Netto, like a drunken man who returned home in the autopilot mode, went to his wardrobe, retrieved a set of new underwears, and then went to shower. When he returned and got under the pajamas, he gave a quick glance to the PET. Rockman sheepishly gave a wave of hand and a cautious smile. Netto, after staring at Rockman without any words for good ten seconds, went to bed, with his back turned against Rockman.

Rockman accessed the house's electric circuit from PET and turned off the lights for Netto like he used to.

'Like I...used to? ****, I really need some rest.'
"Good night, Netto kun."

There was no response. Rockman sighed and looked up at the night sky.

'Don't be like that Netto kun, I'm the one who feels like crying here.'

It was going to be a long night...at least he got to see Netto. Given the strange symptoms of false memory Rockman was experiencing, he originally planned to go into the sleep mode as soon as he bid his operator a goodnight. The plan did not survive the first contact. Rockman could not possibly go to sleep and initiate a defragmentation of his memory cortex with the brunette boy in such a condition.

====

"Saito niisan"

It was roughly fifteen minutes later when a sudden voice came from the bed, and caught Rockman completely off-guard. As far as he could remember, it was Netto's habit to fall asleep fast wherever he could rest his head--the world was his cradle. What he did not know was that his brother's habit had changed drastically since his passing. Netto, after meditating on his current situation, and the possible identity of that blue navi now occupying his PET, decided to test his suspicions.

Rockman's heart sank. Had he been alive in the flesh, surely this would have put him in a stress induced heart attack. Rockman noticed Netto still had his back towards him. An epiphany struck his mind like a lightning: Netto was fishing for his response! There was only suspicion, not evidence. A chill went down Rockman's spine. Netto almost had him. When did his boy learn to be so naughty?

Netto slowly rolled around. He studied Rockman, to see if there was any hint, any betrayal of expression.

'He is fishing for my response.' Of this, now Rockman was certain. He carefully acted out a navi genuinely worried about his operator. The play had to go on.

"Cannot sleep, Netto kun?"

Netto's gaze was like a tongue of a snake, licking every inch of his body. Rockman prayed that he was making the most innocent face in the most neutral posture. If Netto commanded him to walk back and forth now, Rockman was sure that he would trip on himself because of the sheer tension. He was never talented in lying.

"...Nah"

Netto turned around again. Rockman was relieved in that soon there would be nothing but a quiet breathing sound-

-beep

Oh no, how could he have forgotten this?

[Netto kun, happy birthday.]

A pre-recorded announcement that Saito made on his last night played. The acting was no longer sustainable. He needed a place to hide and collect himself. Part of it was from the writer's shame of materializing his own embarrassment; part of it was from the memories of his last night as Saito and associated feelings flooding his mind. The realization of this miraculous situation--that he came back to life and was now only one word away from being fully reunited with Netto--was unbearable. Rockman, before his brother could see, quickly loaded in the letter, expanded it to fullscreen, and hid behind it. Almost pushed to the brink of tears, all he could do was deflect his feelings into annoyance. It was the only way he could not fall apart.

'Saito you sh*thead! Why did you have to write that thing and forget about it? I had so many chances to get rid of it...'

Rockman could hear Netto rising from the bed and walking towards the desk. He was now like a prey desperately hiding from its predator. The gyro sensors of PET indicated an upward movement with a slight slant. Netto was reading the message.

Happy birthday, my dearest Netto kun!
I write this in advance, so that I can still be with you a little longer.
May you always shine so brightly
May you be surrounded by the nectar of love of your friends
May the choicest food and finest drinks be always before you
May your enemies stumble and scatter as chaff in the wind
May your deepest desires come true

You are my pride and wreath on my head
Though I am not with you in flesh
My love is still with you, and always.

May you live a life of peace, far away from violence,
So that you will be far removed from the life of murder, adultery, stealing, and lying
And may you be honored and praised before all
In this way, may father and mother be honored
If you continue in your lovingkindness
and love your neighbor as yourself, befriend the lonely, help the weak, and forgive your enemies
Then surely we are together.

Netto kun,
If my ashes are still present, and I know our mother will not let it go
And if the wound of my absence has scarred
Then please scatter me by the sea, where your favorite brook goes to
I will become a dolphin, and come to see you

Netto kun,
The last ten years
I was
So happy

Farewell

When Netto finished reading the letter, he slowly placed the PET back in the charger and returned to the bed, Rockman again behind him. Though he did not make any noise, Rockman knew he was crying. Had Netto turned and seen Rockman, he would've known in an instant that the blue navi was, in fact, Saito. It was that kind of face Rockman was making.

Notes:

1-7
End of Arc 1

Chapter 8: The New Equilibrium

Notes:

Arc 2: The Dream Virus and the God of Navis

Some decisions had to be made regarding the name of the characters in the story. A strict adherence to the Japanese names meant that sooner or later they all became difficult to memorize. As the wish was to not burden the readers, even those who are not very well versed with the MMBN universe, with a litany of names that in themselves had no significance, some characters were chosen to be described with their English counterparts, which were, in most cases, more of a caricature than a serious imitation of a human name. The characters whose roles, however, were not designed to be mere caricatures were given their Japanese names, as the silliness of their names was found to collide with the gravitas of the scenes involving them. One of such example is Mr. Meijin, whose English name is Mr. Famous (even though Mr. Famous/Skillful is a direct translation of Mr. Meijin, but there is a sense of honor in his original name which did not carry over to his English name), and in the original MMBN it fit him as his role was more or less limited to being a spice of comedy.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Eight months passed. A new year, a new semester, a new equilibrium of life. Rockman, next to Netto, so distantly removed by a screen, yet so close in hearts. This was the future Netto of which he himself was disgusted about. The future Netto without Saito; the future Netto whose hole in the soul had been plugged with tenderness for another, and tenderness by another. Rockman came to Netto and plugged it with the shape that was exactly like the one that was removed, for he was the shape that had been removed. Now Netto looked to the future, refilled with the hope of life. Rockman watched Netto from inside the PET. Always together, now, and forever more. Yes?

A pair of eyelids, underneath which were softly shining green eyes, opened. Rockman woke up according to the schedule, as he always did, 30 minutes before he had to do the same to his operator. The restless semi-transparent polygons of ever-shifting shapes filled his view as a sore reminder of his fundamental severance from the one he cared about the most. The reality often plunged him into an incurable moroseness, in which he curled up in the corner of the PET every night, knees to his face, and shed tears of deepest sorrows under suppressed cries and hiccups, for with no one he could share the burden, for he was a prisoner without a sentence. Currently, he was on the floor of the PET space—a posture he found himself in each morning as he emerged from the sleep mode that lasted overnight—truly befitting a human who had fallen from the heights of freedom to the nadir of slavery.

Had the severance been the only trouble, then Rockman would not be so perpetually broken, for in ten or twenty years he might be able to reach his Netto with the aid of new technology, however the form. Alas, every morning, Rockman was also debilitated with an insurmountable weakness of the body and the fear that saturated every particle of his existence. The fear was so great in magnitude that Rockman saw every frame, every tile, every program in the PET to be full of malicious intents against him, sometimes even hallucinating that they were in the forms of venomous vermins such as spiders, snakes, wasps, or an unspeakably grotesque amalgam of all combined. He could not move a finger and had to wait for his strength to return, as if slowly surfacing from the abyss of sleep paralysis, which happened too slowly and tested his sanity. Sometimes he had bizarre reflexive responses as soon as he reactivated, such as checking his body for burns, cuts, breaks, and all other manners of injuries. The urgency to do so was so great when the fit struck him in the morning, that he inspected himself thoroughly from head to toe, and only realized the strange nature of his behavior after his morning terror had subsided. He attributed all these symptoms to the personal pain of his soul that stemmed from the secret that he had to keep from his dearest Netto.

'Papa, you were right. The secrecy gnaws at the soul.'

There was one solace in the midst of his misery. Every morning, he also remembered what he dreamed during the night, and this vision repeated in the exact same way. The dream went thus: he was sitting on the swing, his favorite place in the ACDC park, while watching the sunset as he frequently did when he breathed as Saito. In the beauty of the setting sun, Saito used to feel a camaraderie, as he overlapped his situation with that of the disappearing celestial body, painting the world in a breathtaking orange-red hue. Back then, he himself was in the last moments of his life, and he wished his end to be as graceful and beautiful as the display he witnessed. To some degree, Saito believed that this was achieved, that his exit was conducted smoothly, for he was not in commotion and pain when it reached him. Nevertheless, because of the fond memories bound to the location, the swing and the sunset still had a special place in his heart, and reliving the moment in his dream every night became soothing to his soul. On the swing right next to him was a person, or at least thought Rockman as he saw a shadowy figure at the edge of his peripheral vision, and he assumed this to be Netto, but it was never verified as the dream predictably terminated whenever he turned his head to see this person. Rockman did not think much about it, as in real life the watching of the sunset on the swing happened multiple times, and Netto was his companion in each.

Rockman now could move up to his arms, and a little bit of his legs, but standing up proved to be too difficult a task. He brought up the external display screen by waving his hands through the control panel and then tilted it perpendicular to its original orientation so that he could still see outside his abode while remaining in his lying position. In the window to the outside world was a brown-haired boy sleeping on his bed, with arms and legs stretched out, and his blanket tossed to the side. His Netto was just across the screen. Rockman lifted his right arm until the image of Netto's head overlapped with his hand, after which his fingers started to move as if coursing through his operator's hair. When he was Saito, and woke up early with Netto next to him, he habitually did this and found relief from the anxiety of his certain future. In his weakness, by the same habit, he sought the same comfort.

'Ah, only if I...
...only if what? If I can touch him just once? Will then I be satisfied? Rockman, do you believe this yourself?'

At this self-admonishment, His hand fell down like a puppet whose strings had been severed. Rockman closed his eyes again; looking at unreachable Netto became painful.

'It's okay, I don't regret.'

Every minute together was precious beyond measure, and Rockman wasted no time getting to work to save the soul of his brother since his return from the train station of the afterlife. At first, Rockman approached Netto slowly so as to not provoke a violent response from that poor boy who was about to burst from vexation, because of questions pertaining to Saito and Rockman, which would then lead to a disastrous chain reaction that was sure to end in the uncovering of Rockman's true identity. As such, for the first few weeks, during the summer, when Netto was preparing to go out, they frequently conversed in this way or similarly:

"Going out, Netto kun?"

"Uhuh"

"To play soccer?" Rockman said as he noticed the battered soccer ball stuck under Netto's arm.

"Yup"

"Have fun, Netto-kun, and stay safe! No rollerblading near the road!"

And Rockman would send him off with a cheery smile and a handwave from his PET while Netto muttered as he went out,

"Rockman, you sound awfully like Saito niisan."

But Netto never had the intention to press his suspicions, and kept his observations strictly to moments when he was distancing himself from the PET, which made sure that he never had a clear look at Rockman whenever he compared the blue navi to his late twin. He was afraid to discover the truth, that this navi actually had nothing to do with Saito, and that the cause of the navi's close resemblance in appearance to Saito was something unrelated and practical, as his father was a man of science. As long as the identity of the blue navi remained ambiguous, he could oscillate between a puerile hope of Saito having returned and the likely fact that this navi was simply a high-functioning custom product. One positive aspect of this superposition of possibilities was that Netto started to transform back to his old, active self, spending much time outside with his cadre, because a hopeless hope was still better than having no hope.

By the time the summer was almost over, Rockman started to drill deeper into the Netto's heart, towards the source of all his sorrows. He achieved this by becoming an entity with which Netto spent most of his time, for as Saito that was exactly what he did—Netto always orbited around him and Saito pampered him with undiluted adorations. One early afternoon, Rockman mustered enough bravery:

"Netto kun, are you going out?"

"Yeah, I'll be back before five."

"Um, Netto kun?" Rockman fidgeted, right and left index fingers touching each other over his chest.

"Yes?"

"Can you...can you take me with you?"

At this request, Netto stopped in his motion of packing the bag with necessities—water, snack, towel, and wallet, in which was hidden a family photo. Haruka in a genocidal manner removed all personal belongings of Saito and photos containing him only a week ago, and the one in his wallet was the only surviving one.

"What's gotten into you, Rockman?"

"It's just...I don't want to be alone without you."

"Mama is home and you can help her out like usual."

Rockman was ready for a casual rejection, as he knew Netto would be resistant to change in his routine; Rockman escalated his plea with a carefully designed gesture of hanging his head ever so slightly, in a way that the shadow from the helmet covered his eyes but did not make them completely invisible from the screen.

"Netto kun, I am your navi and I want to spend more time with you. Can't I?"

"Rockman, you know I'm going to the schoolyard. You will be exposed to dirt and heat, and will have to wait for me all the same. There won't be any job for you there."

"...but all I do is sit by the window and think about you."

"!!"

Rockman saw Netto paralyzed, and he knew why. He just delivered the exact same line he delivered as Saito to soothe his pouting brother, and he could only pray that his gambit to work. Either Netto was going to allow him into his personal space through this point-blank approach, or the whole house was to burn down. Netto, by this time, was well aware that Rockman sometimes unexpectedly showed motions or speeches uncannily identical to that of Saito. However, he could not get used to this no matter his resolve, and each time this happened he was engulfed in a shock that left him temporarily speechless.

"Netto kun? Are you okay? If what I asked you just now bothered you that much, then, please ignore it. I'm sorry..."

As Rockman stopped fidgeting and hung his head completely, assuming a failure, Netto felt as if his heart was thrust by a hot knife, for he felt as if Rockman was indeed Saito, and that he just made his brother, who was the world to him, dejected. This blue navi looked, sounded, spoke, and acted like Saito to an excessive degree; Netto conceded.

"Alright, fine, fine! I'll take you with me. You will have to wait for me and watch me from afar on top of my backpack. Don't complain to me later!"

"Thank you Netto kun!"

Netto then took his navi, went to the schoolyard, put down his belongings under the tree from which Saito used to wait (which was unusual as Netto had been avoiding that spot out of deference to his memories, and Rockman had no way of knowing this, and therefore did not catch the significance of this choice. He simply assumed that Netto had been using the same place as an established pattern of his behavior), placed his PET on top of his backpack so his navi could see him play, and then proceeded to join his friends. Rockman was already starting to replace Saito in Netto's heart.

Much to Netto's embarrassment, Rockman then assumed a role of a personal cheerleader for his operator, spewing out lines with awkward cheer moves (Netto was too far away to see him, but the fact did not stop him) he secretly practiced for this moment, such as,

"Beat'em! Bust'em! Rock'em! Let's go Netto!"

and,

"What makes the grass grow? Blood and sweat! You got the heat! You got the skill! Let's go N-E-T-T-O!"

or,

"Yeah, go and show'em! Don't make them forget your name! NETTO! Nice Deeefeeeence!'

This continued until Netto, furious and red, came back and put the PET on mute. Later that day, because Rockman gave a sullen look at him with both of his arms crossed, he had to admit that he did not dislike it, and a bit of moderation was all that was asked.

Fall came and the second semester began. At this point, Rockman entered the final stage of his plan to save Netto permanently from that supernatural depression; he wanted Netto to look at him and think about him in lieu of Saito, and replace his own ghost permanently, such as to render if a person named Saito never existed in the first place. To achieve this, Rockman concluded that a shared interest and a shared experience were needed. So, one afternoon, Rockman suggested,

"Netto kun, why don't we practice virus busting?"

To which Netto simply froze.

"Come on, Netto kun, you haven't used me in virus busting so far. I'm your custom navi, and this is within my functionality. I can't help but feel a bit neglected."

"I-I, mean-that's-"

Up to this juncture, Netto had not once operated Rockman for virus busting. Whether this was due to the similarity of the navi to Saito, or due to Saito's last letter urging him to stay away from violence, Netto did not know. At any rate, the event was inevitable; few more weeks into the semester and Netto would be forced to do so as part of the school curriculum.

"Netto kun, Dr. Yuichiro told me that you like virus busting. Is there a reason why you are not doing it with me?"

"I...do not want to see you get hurt."

"Most of the damages can be repaired by the PET recovery function."

"...Right."

Netto breathed in.

"Besides, Rockman, Papa made me promise to not use you for virus busting, or, at least, use you for that purpose as little as possible."

To Netto, this was simply an excuse; after all, when was the last time he kept his promises? To Rockman, this was an obstacle that he did not anticipate but should have; what kind of father would thrust his child into the world of swords, firearms, and pain? Yet Rockman was not dissuaded, as he knew precisely how to implant ideas into the head of Netto, and lead him into paths both wise and foolish alike. To make Netto use him, and as a result become an entity that was important and intimate, Rockman formulated an argument that sounded equally responsible.

"Netto kun, virus busting is an official school curriculum, and you will have to use me in that. We can start slow with few mettaurs, and there would be no risk! We would simply be preparing ahead!"

Netto's eyes lit up. He, at last, found a counter-excuse to override his promise to his father.

"You think?"

"Not think. It is true."

"For schoolwork?"

"Yup"

"And this is strictly necessary?"

"We can't help it, right?"

With clear exhilaration, Netto commanded

"Jack in, Rockman execute!"

The part where Rockman and Netto ended up deleting few dozen mettaurs in various fashions, including some questionable methods that evoked war crimes, needs not be elaborated. To Netto, it was the culmination of his pent-up desires to resume netbattling, which was the one subject he excelled without effort. To Rockman, part of it was in the enjoyment of his own freedom of movement, which he never experienced as Saito, and in his violent joy he ended up deleting more mettaurs than necessary in acrobatic maneuvers. Another part of it was the excitement of play that he never experienced before—Saito never had a netnavi of his own—driven by a sense of empowerment of finding a job he was proficient at. Strangely, there was also a part of him that found the whole exercise inexplicably familiar, and he could even, at some times, predict what battle chips and in what order his operator would send them. Further, he did not have any difficulty in calculating the future movements of viruses, and avoiding their attacks with minimal movements with certain cold-bloodedness. Rockman did not contemplate much on this paradox of his veterancy in fighting desipte this occasion being his first time busting viruses, and also attributed this strange connection with his operator as arising from his full understanding of his little brother.

Over the course of the semester, it became undeniable that some of the familiarity Rockman felt with his netnavi works could not be brushed off as trivial. Occasionally, Rockman was disturbed by a false memory (could it be really said as false, if the information contained was true?), such as the one he felt the first day of his netnavi existence, pertaining to Netto's habits in class and internet usage. During class, he would pay more attention to certain subjects or parts of the lecture because he knew Netto would struggle there later, and diligently took notes. How was this possible? How did he know before experiencing firsthand the academic strengths and weaknesses of Netto? Because he went to the same school as his operator before? Nonsense—by the last year Saito was missing classes so much that he had no way of knowing this. When Netto was doing homework by his bedside, he could not even help out his little brother as he was so far behind the curriculum. When they surfed the net together after school, at home, Rockman found the knowledge of the paths of the web, its landscapes, and Netto's favorite sites coming to him out of nowhere. This, too, was inexplicable. Netto did not notice a single incongruency, however, as the syndrome simply meant that Rockman did his job so excellently, just like the green navi before him, as he was somehow aware of Netto's preferences.

Unable to bear the madness etching away at his sanity, and seeking relief from the affliction, Rockman did bring the matter forth to Dr. Yuichiro since the first month under the pretense of a regular checkup. He knew, if this constant integration of something not himself continued, then in the future a time would come when he could no longer be certain of his identity, whether he was Saito Hikari, and whether everything he experienced in the afterlife was real at all, at which point the mere possibility of him not being the true Saito would easily break him. To his dismay, attempts by his father to pinpoint the source were unsuccessful, or rather more accurately, any and all diagnostic methods were found to be inapplicable. A simple attempt at a disassembly of the core, which navis routinely went through during normal diagnostics, caused a sensation of levitation and disconnection, and Rockman started seeing his ghost-body separating, that Yuichiro had to stop the procedure.

Yuichiro then had no option but to invent programs akin to endoscopes, imaging scans, and biopsy machines just for Rockman, which he did with great zeal over several months in hopes of saving his son once again. Albeit his novel approach, the tests were all inconclusive. The only clue he had was that the cause was tightly related with the fact that Rockman dreamed, as netnavis did not have this feature. However, between Rockman being the only navi with a human soul and the estbalished knowledge of how navis functioned, Yuichiro could not conjecture any meaningful hypothesis, and prescribed observation alone. The contingency plan was this: if Rockman's status deteriorated with decompensation, then he would forcefully put his son in a coma and carry on with the disassembly. It was the dangerous endpoint that he wished to avoid at all costs, as he did not know where and how Saito's soul was anchored to Rockman, and what the forced analysis would achieve.

After a few virus busting lessons later in the semester, and seeing that Netto and Rockman were experienced in the matter, Dekao challenged Netto. He and other friends observed last few weeks how Netto had changed, that he was no longer downtrodden, and how he did not shut down at the mere mention of Saito. It seemed, to their relief, that Netto had finally come to terms with the loss of his twin, and was ready to come out of his shell, although he was now mysteriously very attached to his new custom navi. Dekao no longer tiptoed around Netto and their relationship was back to usual, with Dekao acting slightly like a bully without any oppressive intentions associated. His size, voice, and strength naturally lend him the air of a tyrant—it was simply who he was.

"I gave you enough time to practice with your new navi. Let's see whose navi is better! My Gutsman is going to pulverize that blue thing in no time, hehe"

"Oh yeah?"

Netto responded with a defiant enthusiasm, only to abruptly calm down and check his PET

"Rockman, you up for this?"

Lo, and behold! Netto was asking for permission from his netnavi! The scene was so surreal, so unbelievable, that the entire class swallowed their breaths and watched him. Netto, oblivious at the collective attention, continued to speak to his navi. Children could not help but notice how his voice turned very soft and amicable, which was quite unusual for this hyperactive boy.

"I would really hate to see you get hurt."

"I'm stronger than I appear! Trust me, Netto kun, it will be fun!"

A voice from PET, and the whole class heard it. It was uncomfortably similar to you-know-who, though not exact. The pitch was higher, somewhere between masculine and feminine, but the tone, the intonation, the delivery, all evoked someone. Netto's soccer group was an insensitive sportive bunch and they never cared much about Rockman's voice and his cheerleading. If anything, all they did was to use Rockman's behavior to tease Netto. However, this time, the girls—the sensitive creatures who are always acutely aware of small details—heard it too. Something was amiss.

"Alright, Dekao, I accept your challenge! I'm going to win for sure this time, you just wait!"

Netto accepted! The son of Dr. Yuichiro was the second-best netbattler in the school after Dekao, and he did this with his old green navi. Everyone knew Dekao owed the entirety of his success to the raw power of Gutsman. This time, Netto had his new custom navi. The news spread like a wildfire—it would be the game of the year!

Yaito did not interject (which was always without effect) as she used to when Netto and Dekao plotted to use the IT room for their private netbattling sessions. This was clearly against school rules, but she, too, was curious of the new netnavi of Netto that was suspected to have contributed to the cure of Netto's depression. Everyone was curious.

The duel was held right after school, and oh what a crowd filled the IT room that day! At the center of the room was a large hologram device that visualized the battlefield for demonstration purposes, and students shamelessly requisitioned it to create a display for the audience, so even those who were at the edge of the room could see. Gutsman loaded in and let out a roar of intimidation. Dekao was aware of his stardom, even if it was a spotted one, tarnished with speculations of his inferior operating skill and accusations of him relying too much on the strength of his navi. The roar was for a show; navis were programs and were not affected by such behaviors. Rockman was...not yet loaded in. The eyes of the crowd converged at Netto, who was checking his PET while making last-minute organization of his battle chip collections.

"Rockman, if you get damaged too much, I'm logging you out."

Conditioned like Pavlov's dog, at the sight of Gutsman, Netto could only imagine Rockman getting destroyed like his previous green navi. He wanted to win, but he could not see that future. There was a time in the past when Netto was disgusted by future himself who would have been cured of depression, by replacing Saito with someone else. Who could've predicted that his soul could be comforted by something not even human, an artificial intelligence? If his virtual Saito (Netto accepted the fact that he became very attached to Rockman because of his looks, voice, and behavior) was to be heavily damaged, Netto instinctively understood that he would be devastated, and would never be able to netbattle again.

"Don't worry, Netto kun, I'll be okay, so, be confident! Please operate me!"

Contrary to Netto, who was not obliged to netbattle, Rockman had motivations. One reason was as discussed above—to become someone who was uniquely significant to Netto and completely replace Saito. Another reason was that as soon as Dekao challenged Netto, several visions flashed before him, as if they were real, and they all ended with him getting smashed into the wall or the floor by the Gutsman despite some very heroic efforts. Instead of making him afraid, the visions enraged him, and a personal need for a vendetta was ignited. From a third-person view, this was all very unreasonable—Gutsman never wronged Rockman, nor did they cross paths before. The sudden invasion of the visions should have been questioned, but what Rockman felt was so physical that he became convinced, subconsciously, that those really happened to him, and that he needed to overcome Gutsman for his previous failures and disappointing Netto, which he deeply regretted.

"Alright, Rockman exe transmission!"

Rockman appeared on the opposite side of Gutsman in the center hologram display. A gasp of the crowd, then a murmur. The navi did not look so strong. Some mentioned how the navi looked very much like the operator himself. To Netto's close friends, the case of Netto's recovery from his depression was clarified in this single moment. They were aghast at the discovery: Netto did not come to a closure; he simply found a replacement! They so far had not had a chance to look at Rockman in such a high resolution. That blue navi limited himself to interacting with other navis, and had been very discreet in communicating with other humans. After the initial disturbance, they understood—that this was the only way Netto could have been saved, and that this was the work of his father, Dr. Yuichiro, who now started to appear monstrous. Among the friends, Yaito was the one who was particularly shaken. She knew she could not judge Netto, for she did not know what it was like to have a twin sibling and be so close, but if a similar choice—using the dead sibling as a navi—was offered to her, she would have vomited. Was this not a direct desecration of the peace of the dead? Yaito sensed that in Rockman was the darkness of the Hikari family which she should never venture to illuminate.

In a highly unsportsmanlike manner, Dekao did not wait for someone to give a signal. He knew Netto consistently resorted to kiting his navi around Gutsman, maintaining a safe distance, while trying to whittle down his foe before being forced into a melee. That was already difficult enough to deal with when Netto operated the slow and old green navi, and Dekao, despite speaking haughtily, decided that he should not give the new blue navi a chance to take the initiative of the battle. The blue navi was surprisingly small, even smaller than the previous green navi; in fact, he imagined that if Saito was somehow digitalized and stood in the arena, he would be of similar size and shape to Rockman. Dekao reasoned that if the size was inversely proportional to speed, then the new blue navi must have been customized to maximize precisely that, and Netto must have met the challenge today confidently because he had already calculated that the blue navi was nimble enough to prolong the fight at range, indefinitely, until Gutsman was defeated.

The sudden charge by Gutsman was met with gasps and jeers from the throng. However, when Rockman darted away to the right from his position and handily avoided the ambush, and spammed seven shots of Rock buster in quick succession, all aimed at the centerline of Gutsman, the crowd went wild. The speed of this new navi was nothing like what they had witnessed before.

"Hm, just as suspected. Your navi is the speed type, eh? A bad news for you, Netto: I came prepared for this situation as well!"

"Say that after you've beaten me!" Netto retorted as he slotted in chips for cannons.

Rockman lost no time in spending two of them, one aimed at the head and one aimed at the torso. Rockman's aim was too precise, and, paradoxically, Gutsman predicted where he would aim, based on the seven shots he made earlier, and blocked the projectiles with his giant arms. The damage was limited to the armor and minimal. Rockman prepared to move again in anticipation of another charge. Contrary to Rockman's calculations, Gutsman did not close in; he rather opted to stand still and raise his arms high. Then, like a pair of sledgehammers, they came down, striking the ground with great force. The ground shook and shattered, and the force of the strike was transferred to the terrain, delivering a shockwave towards Rockman. He, of course, dodged the traveling wave with ease by stepping away a few meters sideways, but noticed how the ground left behind all appeared fractured.

Netto understood what was happening. This was why he could not picture Rockman winning. Nevertheless, he had to try; otherwise, this would be his last netbattle.

"Rockman, the fractured ground will break under you, and you won't be able to step on it more than once. It will be a race between us two—whether he takes away ground from us faster than we can shoot him down. I'm sending you shotguns. Keep aiming at the center torso. He won't be able to block the spread."

"On it."

Rockman engaged exactly as ordered, and to some degree, it worked. First shot, Gutsman tried to block, but the shot spread was diffuse and several rounds made it into the unprotected areas of the abdomen and face. After this, Gutsman went on a full offensive, spamming shockwaves as fast as he could while tanking the entirety of shotgun pallets. The spread meant, however, that the damage was applied diffusely: some were inevitably absorbed by the armor. As a result, Rockman started losing traversable ground faster than he could accumulate damage to that towering yellow navi.

"Netto kun?"

"Yeah, I see that. Slotting in minibombs."

"Nice idea!"

Rockman dodged two more shockwaves. Gutsman started placing some of them well ahead of Rockman in anticipation of the dodge. Rockman, being in full control of his movements, only had to halt his dashes earlier and see the slow shockwave, thrown at him at the intercept vector, harmlessly passing in front him. Rockman quickly hurled all of the grenades he was given to Gutsman's feet. An explosion. It worked! Once the smoke cleared, Gutsman was seen suffering from critical damage, evidenced by parts that became blurry and dysfunctional. The yellow navi bellowed a scream of frustration. Finding the damage from bombs unsustainable, Gutsman had to move from his central position when the next rounds of bombs were delivered. No more shockwaves came Rockman's way.

The entire battlefield progressively devolved into a pile of wreckage. Between Gutsman's smashings and Rockman's liberal application of explosives, nothing remained intact. Many ground tiles were completely gone, revealing the chaos underneath that both navis could not touch without being caught in it as in a quagmire. Rockman changed his mode of movement from dashes to jumps as the field started to resemble more of a collection of stepstones than a proper field, which made his landings quite predictable and forced him to use some of the cracked tiles in convenient places that he wished to save till last in an effort to avoid Gutsman's attacks. That gorilla-like navi, seeing that the shockwaves no longer effectively traveled in such a ragged terrain, resorted to throwing rubbles at Rockman, which, under current circ*mstances, was more threatening than his other mode of offenses.

"Netto kun, we are almost out of space."

"Yeah, but Gutsman is almost done, too. Damn it, why won't he log out? Slotting in a cannon."

Rockman immediately expended the cannon on Gutsman. This time he aimed at the left leg, which was badly damaged from the previous minibomb explosion, and Gutsman could not block it. The damage was substantial, causing a bleeding of programs.

"We might...win, actually, Rockman. Few more shots like that and Gutsman should be forced to logout!"

Netto, excited at the unexpected prospect of victory, and knowing that he was in the lead, looked up at Dekao, hoping to see the sign of defeat. All he found was a mischievous smile on that swarthy face. Netto's heart grew cold. He looked back at the PET, and noticed the trouble Rockman was in: a line of tiles, still intact between the two navis, with no ground to jump to on either side.

"Rockman! Get out of there! sh*t, sorry, we are trapped!"

"There's no room, Netto kun."

"Ah, what the heck, sword in. Let's hope this is enough."

Gutsman roared and made his charge. It was guaranteed to land, and Rockman had nowhere to go. Netto calculated that the best he could offer was a counter-trade of hits using a sword chip. To his surprise, Rockman did not use the sword or charged up his buster. He stood still.

"Rockman, this is not the time to freeze! Come on!"

A laughter full of catharsis coming from the other side wormed into Netto's ears. Was this it? He was so close, and he was never this close before. Maybe Dekao was right—proficiency in navi operation did not matter as long as the navi was strong enough. Netto wanted to close his eyes; he was not ready to see what was going to unravel before him. His finger hovered around the logout button.

"It's okay, Netto kun"

A calm voice returned, as if Rockman knew what Netto was contemplating. He was not intimidated or resigned. His inexplicable (rather injected) need for a revenge demanded this: he had to defeat Gutsman in the contest of strength. The damage to the left leg had surely taken its toll on that giant navi; the charging had less than half the normal momentum, but everyone around was so focused on the drama of small cornered navi that this fact was not noticed except by Rockman, whose mind remained tranquil the whole time. In his accelerated mind, the world moved slowly, and he had already determined that the kinetic energy of the charge was below his strength threshold. Rockman lifted his hands and met the charge of Gutsman merely with his palms, for the revenge could not be complete without a total humiliation.

"!!"

A complete silence covered the room. Rockman was not thrown away, nor did he lose an inch of ground. The fearsome charge of Gutsman was stopped with unnatural brusqueness. Up to this point, everyone was convinced that Rockman was a speed-focused navi, including the operator. Netto's hand slid away from the logout button. He himself did not know what to do.

Gutsman followed up his charge with a right hook (a curved horizontal punch). In response, Rockman jumped with a speed that can only be described as a spectral disappearance, made a gymnastic 360 mid-air flip, and landed on Gutsman's fist as lightly as a butterfly on a flower. Then, putting his right foot on Gutsman's left shoulder, Rockman used his left hand to grab and extend backwards Gutsman's head, transformed his right arm into a sword, and pressed the edge to the neck. Rockman stated rather unceremoniously:

"It's over, Dekao. Logout your navi."

Dekao did not move. He was simply agape.

"...Quickly, if you do not want to see this brute's head rolling."

At the threat, Dekao grew a bit pale, came back to his senses, and logged out his navi. As Rockman landed softly to where the subdued Gutsman was, Netto also logged him out.

A thunderous applause and frenzied congratulations.

Netto did not know what to do, intoxicated with joy. In his stupor, he did not even notice Mayl giving him a hug. To be fair, everyone around Netto was hugging, touching, poking, pushing, pulling, hitting, and shouting at him; he had no method of distinguishing Mayl's transitory contact from that of others. When Netto looked down at this PET screen, there was Rockman with the most satisfied expression. Netto could not take his eyes off of him as multiple emotions swirled inside, and he did not know how to organize them.

"We...we did it, Rockman."

"Un, nice operating!"

From here on, Rockman was no longer a replacement for Saito. He obtained uniqueness in the eyes of Netto, and started acting more proactively as a netnavi. He could even start bringing out more of his Saito-self without the fear of shattering Netto's psyche. The result was that Rockman started to openly upbraid Netto for his academic shortcomings and actively supervised the homework sessions much to the boy's dismay (but it was too late to save the average grade of Netto, and Rockman vowed to double his efforts next semester). Rockman's position in Netto became a hybrid of a sort, commanding his operator with the combined authority of an older brother and the best friend, and possibly something even more special of which humans have no word for. At least this much could be said with confidence: Netto, just as he could not survive without Saito, would not survive without Rockman. Should Rockman disappear, the hole he leaves behind would be greater and be immediately fatal.

That was a couple of months ago. Since then, the routine between Netto and Dekao reversed—Dekao challenged Netto every one or two weeks, and lost by a wider margin each time. Netto improved at a rate that others could not even fathom, and by the third match, Rockman did not even have to engage in the melee, as both of them processed Gutsman so methodically that the confrontation seldom continued until the battlefield was plowed through and through. By the fifth match, what Rockman did to Gutsman was exceedingly closer to a public execution than a proper fight, Netto had to promise to crying Dekao that he would never repeat such chip combinations as to ruin a man's spirit, and that he would end each battle honorably.

Rockman exited his memory and very gradually stood up, in a shambling motion like a person suffering from an advanced stage of rheumatoid arthritis. The strength was restored just enough for him to stand up and do his duty as an untiring alarm clock. On Netto, Rockman fixed his eyes, in which gently fluctuated an ocean-like melancholy, impenetrable and immovable—the kind acquired through constant self-discipline and denial of one's needs. The soul of his brother had been saved, and the purpose of his return was fulfilled. He only had to maintain the status quo, for he had promised to himself that he would sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of his Netto. Yet, what about his own soul? This purgatory?

'Netto kun, really, everything is still a mess. I feel possessed from time to time, remembering fragments of the past that are clearly not mine, yet papa could not even begin the diagnosis scan on me. I am...something is wrong with me in the morning, and I don't know what to do. My new body seems to be diseased, just like my previous one. Netto kun, is this my fate again? Unable to reach you, decay, and then perish? Netto kun, I can't stand this place. I can't breathe. There's only darkness here. It's been only eight months and I am already...
'Netto kun, you will save me, right? I'll wait, so, please...please, Netto kun...please...'

-Beep beep beep

A reminder from PET to Rockman that it was time. Rockman assumed his cheerful appearance, placed his hands on his hips, breathed in, and began Netto's morning routine.

"WAKE UP, NETTO KUN!"

Notes:

2-1

Chapter 9: The Perverted Future

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Mayl, the most beautiful girl in the ACDC elementary school. Was she the most beautiful in the town? Arguably, yes. In the city? Maybe so, maybe not, for the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In the district? Certainly not. If the beauty is dependent on observers, then how could her exterior be judged with such confidence? Was this not one of the wisdom of the old: that the heart is more important than the beauty? Oh, what a gibberish that's worth only a brass farthing! If the beauty had no importance, then Prince Paris of Troy would not have fled with Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Besides, a book is judged by its cover, movie by its poster, research by its abstract—and rightfully so! In the discussion of the works of men, the choice of the exterior gives a hint of the maker's taste, and therefore his impression of his own work, and subsequently a peek into his soul. Likewise, there is a minimum requirement in calling someone beautiful, and Leo Tolstoy, Graf, insightfully summarized it:

It seems to me that in the smile alone is contained that which is called the beauty of the face : if the smile adds charm to the face, the face is beautiful ; if it does not change it, it is common ; if it spoils it, it is homely. (Wiener, Leo, translator. Childhood. By Leo Tolstoy ,Graf. Dana Estes & Company. 1904. p.10)

As Mayl's smile easily brightened her surroundings, it can be said that she was beautiful. Boys flocked to her seeking her attention, always looking to win her heart and hand in this way or that, all of which were foolish and do not deserve a space here to describe them. She was a model of a human being, having a temperament befitting a noble Victorian lady, which she had not by education but by nature, which made her all the more prized. She was patient, understanding, unbiased, and affable. She was not without a darkness in her life, however, and this darkness shaped her life: she was neglected.

Her parents frequented to America or Europe, ostensibly for business, but no one knew in what trade they made transactions, even the Hikaris who lived as neighbors for more than ten years. They were the classic subjects for cruel slanders among the ladies of ACDC town; the issue was not that they traveled often, but they were hardly seen at home. So here she was, in the ACDC town, living in a house too large for one girl, at an age too young, practically abandoned to fend for herself, a beautiful girl without a protection. Beauty is both a blessing and a curse, and so it was to Mayl without exception. In her beauty, she was blessed, for she could easily make friends with anyone, surrounded by good wills (even if it was superficial), made charming impressions, and found favor in the eyes of the people of the authority. If she put her strength and mind to a certain goal, she could achieve it, as no one denied her requests, and those who lend something to her found her to be even more favorable, for she did not frivolously spend what was given. Herein was the curse: if she met with someone twice or thrice, she was quickly assaulted by requests and suggestions designed to advance their relationship to a more intimate and personal stage. It did not take long for Mayl to be nauseated by the world and the people who unceasingly saw her as a sexual object or a shining trophy.

And then she had Netto and Saito, her neighbors who cared about her, protected her, but remained strictly uninterested in lustful ways. She briskly anchored herself in this place of safety she had found, between the brothers who only saw each other, and rested her weary soul. They were like an oasis for her. She made their joy and grief her own, and she would have been accepted as someone like a sister by the Hikari twins had she not formed an ambition towards Netto. The boy himself remained fully ignorant of her aims towards him, while Saito recognized her intention which ran vaguely parallel to his. What could Saito do? He was doomed to fail in his efforts. HBD precluded any meaningful conflict or competition from developing. Saito passed away; now Mayl was free to pursue her interest uninterrupted.

An irony: Netto would remain in the Mayl's crosshairs as long as he remained aloof to her feelings and unresponsive to her advances. As soon as he became the same as the others, Mayl would find his presence stifling, just as she found the company of other boys to be, and then fly away, like a migrating bird of seasons, until she found a suitable place to rest again, even as there was a great chance of her perishing in the hands of a predator mid-flight. This was chiefly due to her questionable relationship with her parents. In her solitude, she came to desire someone with fatherly qualities, and fathers ought to not marry daughters.

Rockman did not know any of this, except her isolation.

"Rockman, you could've woken me up earlier!"

"If certain someone had not muted me and then went right back to sleep-"

"Oh, come on, it's your job to look after me!"

"-and then if that certain someone hadn't thrown and smashed the secondary alarm clock-"

"I didn't 'throw' it! It..it...just fell off!"

"-then you would not be in this predicament!"

A spiky-haired boy with his signature blue bandana and orange gilet scrambled out of a blue-roofed house. He had a toast in his left hand and a sky-blue colored PET on his right hand, clearly in an argument with his navi. Mayl, standing near the gate of Hikari house per her daily routine, sheepishly gave a greeting, not knowing when was a good time to interrupt.

"Aha..ha...good morning, guys?"

""Good morning Mayl"" a unison

"Something wrong?"

""Yes!""

"...And that would be?"

""Him!""

Netto stuck out his tongue at someone in the PET. Mayl inferred that Rockman was doing the same back. Mayl was under a spell of gloom since this morning, as she woke up and felt burned out having to look out for herself all the time, despite the assurances to assuage her by her netnavi, Roll. The dynamic interaction of the duo lifted her into her usual cheer.

"Ready to get going, Netto?" said Mayl.

"Yeah, right. Let's go."

Netto stuffed the PET to his pocket and started gobbling up that toast he had been holding. The two started walking north, to ACDC elementary. Netto at first tried to walk fast and briskly, but upon learning from Mayl that he was not grievously late and that they still had time, he slowed down and moved at her pace.

"You sure you can leave him like that? Maybe you ought to say sorry to Rockman. He is doing his best, I am sure."

"You heard that, Netto kun!"

"Bah, you win, I'm sorry! Satisfied, Rockman?" Netto spoke with the toast still in his mouth, clearly not sorry.

"I am!" The voice from the PET responded, clearly not satisfied. Mayl could not help but let out a chuckle.

"Oh, boys, please be nice to each other..."

""We weren't fighting.""

"You two sure are close."

Mayl then started expounding on the topics of yesterday's news or ongoing school projects as usual, and she lost Netto in no time. The boy seldom interested himself in such topics, and homework only pained him. Rockman was of no help in such circ*mstances, to Netto's annoyance, as he in most cases sided with Mayl and lightly apprehended his operator for not being cultured enough, and ended with a reminder that their father—Yuichiro made sure that Rockman called him that in front of Netto in order to ensure that Rockman did not completely deprive his Saito aspect and delve into identity dissonance—entrusted him with guiding Netto's education. Consequently, Netto did not bother inviting Rockman into their conversation, and the navi had nothing to do other than feeling the movement of his operator, which was physically transmitted. The virtual space did not have gravity, but the mechanical components of PET were physical, and therefore the movement of the device caused a sort of gentle sway in Rockman's world as well. Rockman leaned his back on the PET screen with his arms crossed and began to brood.

'I don't like this. Why?'

Rockman impatiently tapped his right finger on his left arm.

'I am annoyed, but at what exactly? I am forcefully hurled into this mood every morning when Mayl accompanies Netto to school. Do I not like Mayl? Have I found something evil in her demeanor, in her speech, in her temperament? No, no...that can't be it. She is a good person...It's not like our walking to school is a recent occurrence; it happened all the time when I was Saito Hikari. Did it annoy me back then? Hmm...maybe, but generally no. She certainly did not do this last semester, as she did not know what to do with Netto's depression. Who can blame her? It was Netto who made it clear that he needed time alone...

'Then, how did I feel when Mayl was not around in the morning? That is difficult to answer precisely. Let's see...what did we do? Netto and I would talk about frivolous stuff, netbattling, friends, homework, and I would read him newsfeed. Wait, how is this any different from what they are doing right now? If anything, I need to be grateful to her for doing my job for me. Or is it that I am annoyed because my job is taken? Do I really want to talk to Netto right now? Was I jumping with joy and filled with fulfillment when I was reading the morning news to him?'

Rockman felt he was getting closer to the answer, but there was a mist between him and it that was blocking him from articulating the source of his annoyance.

'I did enjoy talking with Netto, whatever the subject might be, but if I really wanted to talk, I can always join now, and he would certainly not mind. I can probably hijack the topic by mentioning something about netbattling here and there, or we could start talking about Dekao and slowly drift towards that direction, but I am here, not willing to do that and feeling silly for even contemplating this possibility.'

They were halfway to school. Time was running out.

'But there were different things we did; Netto would constantly show the outside to me, carefully orienting the PET this or that way, sometimes plucking leaves and flowers if I appeared interested, and then put them on top of the PET screen in school so that I could enjoy them. And-'

There was one time, when the fall was just beginning, as they were walking to school, Rockman fixed his eyes upon the blooming purple flowers of bush clovers by the roadside. It was out of a nostalgia of the bygone days, as when he was Saito Hikari he from time to time made short stops next to them and admired their shapes and colors. Netto, upon realizing this, simply said 'even your preferences are similar, huh,' broke off a little branch, and then placed it in front of PET the whole day for him to see. Later, Rockman learned, during his internet search, that he was not the only one to be mesmerized by the autumn blossoms of this delicate plant, as people of old also would pluck them in melancholy and thoughts of unrequited love, and-

'-and left poems involving them, one of which was by Fujiwara Kinmori of thirteenth century:

Bush Clover
My heart is withered,
even dew on the branches of bush clover is futile
in the autumn evening.

'Look, Rockman, you are drifting away to tangent directions in your thoughts. This is not helping. Where was I? Ah, yes, after Netto placed the flowers before me, I would look at him, and say 'thank you,' and he would respond with...a smile...and...it touched my heart, in ways I cannot describe. Like a warm flame did the sight surround my heart, or what is here instead, and emanated to every part of my body.

'Eck, this is not helping at all. It is true that I was happier when I had Netto all by myself, but to say that I am annoyed this much just because Mayl interposed between us does not make sense, because I was perfectly happy as Saito, whether she was with us or not. It is easy to explain away that this stems from my insecurity of this dissipating body, though can I believe that? It would be dishonest to convince myself this way and actively try to pull Netto away from Mayl.

'But when I picture them pulled apart...I am marginally happier. And in all this conjecture my soul is adamant that this vision is all for the sake of Netto...because...wait, really? Could this be true? I think...Netto is too good for her! That the couple is a mismatch! Yet unable to find a critical flaw in Mayl, I fell into a sour mood! Why am I so desperate to find a flaw in her, or have I found one but failed to recognize it? This is not the right question; let me start again from the other side: if Mayl is not the one fit for him, then who is the right one for him? Ah, I learned this from that old couple: it should be someone who will follow him to the end of the world. Is Mayl doing that? No! She constantly tries to pull Netto into her, into following her, trying to mold him into a shape that she finds ideal.'

The mist lifted. Rockman had finally found an incriminating blemish in Mayl.

'It is clear that I also do not trust Netto to value himself as I do, evaluate Mayl as I do, and even expect him to eventually become conscious of her. That would be a great pain to me, like the rotting of bones...I will not be able to bear to see Netto leashed to her whim, not being able to lead his life per his calling. Then, what can I do? What must I do? Quickly find someone suitable? But who is-'

One who will follow Netto to the end of the world, support him endlessly in all the works of his hands, never leave his side, and then gladly die for him—Rockman immediately came up with one candidate, but equally immediately discarded it. The idea was so preposterous that he banished it as quickly as it came to him.

'Rockman...why...you know Netto needs someone, and that person cannot be...You cannot be with Netto forever. You cannot replace her, nor can she replace you. You are already very close to Netto; what could you possibly want more than this?'

Rockman could not reach the conclusion of his thoughts. Perhaps he did not want to delve into his ideas and peek at what was at the source of them all, or he genuinely could not shape what his heart truly desired. Whichever the case, he remained completely oblivious to the fact that Netto and Mayl had already arrived at the classroom, taken their seats, placed their PETs on the desk, and jacked into the school intranet. His thought was broken off only by the worrisome inquiry from Netto.

"Rockman, are you okay?"

"Huh? Eh? Oh, Netto kun, we are...already in the classroom?"

Rockman, surprised, looked around, and then gave Netto a shy smile. He really did not want to worry Netto—he already had enough troubles at hand. Plus, what was he supposed to tell him? That the boy should stay away from Mayl for reasons that revealed more about his biases than the objective reality?

"Rockman, you know today is your monthly checkup? You sure are a handful for a navi. Now that I see you zoning out like that, yeah you definitely need it."

"Sorry that I worried you. I am fine, really! Look!"

Rockman spun around once with arms extended as a piece of supporting evidence to his claim, although he very well knew that the damage to his body was not what his operator meant. Netto was not amused.

"...Right. You are terrible at lying, you know that? We are going to Scilab today after school. Now, off you go to the blackboard."

At Netto's hand signal, Rockman hurriedly logged in and disappeared from the PET. Netto had to admit that he never saw or heard of a netnavi behaving like that. An artificial intelligence, designed to serve humans, consumed in thoughts? And then needing his operator to wake him up, be disoriented, and hide his concerns? The emotion program meant that navis could become worried, annoyed, happy, and angry, but only as far as it helped interacting and servicing their operators. It should not have meant that they had their own secrets and lies.

'And you behave an awful lot like a human. Papa, just what have you made?'

It was a little bit over five when Netto Hikari arrived at the office of Dr. Yuichiro Hikari in the Scilab main building, Den city. The boy ran into the office and then jumped into the arms of his father with unmasked joy. It was a sight that Saito was used to, but to Netto and Yuichiro only recently repaired, for during the three months without Saito there were only distress and coldness. It was exactly as the doctor once envisioned: Rockman saved the family from their collective deviation from life; he restored what was lost.

"Papa!"

"Netto!"

The way Yuichiro held his son, took him to the seat, and then put him on his lap was reminiscent of the handling of a kitten. The father then pampered his son with the friendly enthusiasm that marks every father-son relationship built out of a proper form of love, such as scruffling his hair, rubbing his cheeks, and showering his forehead with affectionate kisses. Netto emitted laughter and some verbal protests, as he was just starting to enter that age in which the growth of mental capacity demanded independence, but did not make any real physical effort to get away. He clearly enjoyed the way he was pampered. The joy in the scene was infectious, and Rockman, who saw everything from the charger on the desk, where Netto placed him in one fluent motion as he was put on the lap of his father, could not help but smile. His brother was receiving double the attention in his absence, and to Rockman, what happened to Netto was equivalent to having happened to him. Netto's joy ebbed away and unease replaced it when Yuichiro eventually asked this question:

"So, Netto, I trust you have been a good boy the last few days?"

"He was, papa." Rockman answered instead, his voice still very warm and soft from what he just witnessed.

"And his grades?" Yuichiro inquired as he looked at Rockman over his glasses. Netto shuddered a little. Rockman pulled up the recent most report card along with the homeroom teacher Ms. Mari's comments on the screen.

"Ah, good, good, excellent. It seems you are working wonders, Rockman. Oh, Netto, why are you tensing up and relaxing? Don't tell me you did not check them yourself?"

"I...I-" Netto was still trapped between Yuichiro's arms.

"Just because Rockman is checking them for you, and keeping you on track, does not mean you can remain unaware of your own issues."

"I know...it's just I am too...afraid to check them myself."

Yuichiro, perplexed, made a strange face in his effort to decode this conundrum. He never experienced fear towards his own academic performance as he was always at the top. The doctor naturally had high expectations of his son, and ever failed to understand Netto's disinterest and struggles with schoolwork, although he never scolded Netto for his shortcomings—that was Haruka's job. In the past, Yuichiro had some disorganized disappointments towards Netto, but his experience with Saito had left him with a simpler goal in life: as long as his son was healthy, he had no more wants. Yuichiro decided to drop this matter as he did not know how to comment on the subject without sounding petulant and accusatory.

"Very well, Netto, keep up the good work. Now, regarding today's checkup..."

While Netto's eyes were fixed on him, Yuichiro noticed Rockman making hand signals behind his operator, requesting privacy. In response, he cut his speech abruptly and began exchanging messages on the Scilab intranet. Netto, confused, turned and tried to exchange glances with Rockman with hopes for an explanation, but the navi simply shrugged while avoiding an eye contact. After few minutes, Yuichiro resumed.

"Netto, would you mind taking a tour of lab 3B-14? I am aware that you would rather stay with Rockman, but I believe they have some very interesting works to show you."

"3B-14? You serious?"

Netto's eyes glimmered with the primitive thrill of exploring the unknown. 3B floor required one of the highest clearances to gain access to, and among the public was a rumor that corpses of aliens and fragments of crashed flying saucers were being analyzed on that floor. No educated mind considered the possibility seriously; nevertheless, the security meant ideas beyond layman's reveries circulated and experiments unrestrained with ethical considerations were held there.

"Yes. It's the place you wanted to see last time. The lab deals with the last work of your grandfather, Tadashi Hikari. Based on the argument of legacy I was able to persuade the personnel on site. As for the contents of the lab—I'll not spoil the fun."

"What about Rockman?" Netto asked as he got off from his father's lap.

"He will stay with me. Today was his checkup, remember?"

The prospect of leaving his navi behind caused his feet to be glued to the place. Netto still tended to retreat into an invisible shell without Rockman around him; his navi was like his half, where he anchored his heart and soul. Without his presence, Netto could not maintain his peace of mind.

"I'll be fine Netto kun, go on! You can tell me all about it later."

"...Although what you will witness down there will be strictly under a non-disclosure agreement, I'll make an exception this time. Don't worry about us Netto. Go to the first floor and someone will come to escort you. Other labs are off-limits."

With the assurance, Netto, caught between a burning curiosity to see the lab and the desires of his heart, for a man's heart is where his treasure is, and Rockman was his treasure, was at last persuaded and took the elevator down. Rockman marked how the boy looked back multiple times at him on his way out. What he wanted Rockman to do or say—whether it was Rockman asking him to not leave him behind, or encouraging him to have a great time on his tour—was a mystery; what blue navi could understand was the slight insecurity the boy felt, seen in his almost imperceptibly tightened lips and the unstable gleam in his eyes.

'I'm sorry, Netto kun.'

The elevator carried away the brunette boy to his adventure. Yuichiro finally opened his mouth when the elevator reached floor 3B and Rockman was transferred to the main PC.

"So, Saito."

The name that could be uttered only in private.

"How have you been? Your mornings, are they worse?"

Rockman hesitated to answer. The truth was that his matutinal aberrations were getting worse, and thoughts of an inevitable end plagued him; it was as if nothing had changed since his time as Saito. But what could he do? There was nothing Dr. S could do to his heart, and likewise, there appeared to be nothing his father could do to cure his cyber body. In honesty, he would only be tormenting his father; in dishonesty, he would be only placing guilt on himself.

"A..little."

"Saito, a half-truth is not a proper replacement for a deception. You are terrible at hiding stuff; you always were. Come to think of it, it is a pure miracle that Netto hasn't yet found out our secret. Maybe he suspects but simply refuses to press the matter, in which case...hmm...problematic, but manageable. Rockman, be honest with me. How much worse?"

"...a lot."

"Time of lethargy?"

"...30 minutes"

Yuichiro entered '30' to his current datapoint, and then uploaded his chart.

"It's getting worse faster than we both anticipated, Saito. An inexplicable peculiarity is...that the rate is irregular. At one point, I was dead convinced that the rate was a steady linear one...only to be confused by a period of stability...and then the symptom started getting worse, but in stair function. I'm sorry Saito, but this blows away all my previous conjectures. We...are back to square one."

Yuichiro said all this like a soliloquy.

"What about your dreams?"

"Same scene, repeating, every night."

"The swings, the sunset, and someone next to you?"

"...Netto."

Rockman's claim was an unsubstantiated one tainted with an irrational wish. Yuichiro let out a sigh and corrected him.

"Saito, we should never assume unless we have measured for sure, and I won't be surprised if that shadowy figure next to you is revealed to be not Netto, if existent at all. The way you dream is irregular both as a human and as a navi. As you already know, navis don't dream. That is because rendering visual information during sleep is extra computation. Navis simply defragment their memory and wake up at a set time. Humans, having half of their brain dedicated to visual information processing, happen to be suffering from a collection of images while neurons are reorganizing. In this case, you dream, unlike a navi, but dream the same vision, unlike humans."

"...Papa."

Rockman took a deep breath.

"I, too, thought about my situation. If something is wrong with me, and we can't fix it...then can't we tell Netto already that I am-"

"No, absolutely not. Never that, Saito, never!"

The unexpected explosion of Yuichiro set Rockman aback. In his opinion, there was no need for such a harsh response against him. He already endured eight months; why couldn't Netto be ready for the truth? He came back at his father with a defiance of equal hotness.

"But if my fate is to die in slow deterioration again, then I at least want to talk to Netto kun properly!"

"No, no, no, no, Saito, please...I...I understand your frustration, and I promise you that I will come up with something. Please don't say that. Look, you don't understand what it even means to the world that you exist...Can you even fathom what events will unravel if the nature of your existence is proven? No, I will never let that happen to you, to Netto, to Haruka..."

"I don't understand, papa."

"The perverted future, Saito! The complete deterioration of morality and mania for eternal life! You will be the end of the world!"

Yuichiro was almost out of breath, as if making this statement was a soul-draining exercise.

"But, papa, I'm just Saito Hikari."

"But you are dead! And back!"

Yuichiro leaned back with a pale face, overwhelmed with the fear of the projected future. He then pressed his hands against the carotid artery in his neck in order to stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic pathway; his heart rate slowed down to normal in three minutes. The whole maneuver appeared as if the scientist was choking himself to asphyxiation. Rockman remained silent while his father collected himself.

"...Saito."

"Yes?"

"...Listen carefully. You are the walking proof of the existence of soul and the afterlife. At the most superficial level, this means everyone will want to humiliate you, disprove you, and kill you. Their hatred will naturally extend to everyone around you, including me, Netto, and Haruka.

"You are the bane of atheists. They collectively bet on a moderate version of nihilism, and expect oblivion after death. No God, no soul, no afterlife. It means they are all wrong, including their moral relativism. What you witnessed at the train station, and the amount of people standing on it, all point to the presence of an absolute morality, and that most of us are failing. This also indirectly reveals that a form of judgment is waiting for us after death, as otherwise there won't be a winnowing of souls. I am willing to concede on the part that the world is likely to reject your story of the afterlife, but your soul, they will not be able to deny. Look, I cannot even copy your data, and my computer acts as if possessed by a malevolent spirit at every attempt to do so, and this is only one of many details that points to the inconvenient truth that you are real.

"Those with religions will be more volatile, if not outright murderous. From your descriptions, Buddhism and Islam are easily thrown out of the window; but again, all religions will deny your recounting. The faithful will be split in two: those who wish to put you on a dais as a proof of their truth of the afterlife, and then sacrifice you when the time is right, just as their forefathers sacrificed all of their prophets of their respective faiths. The other party will brand you the antichrist of the end times, and see to it that you are questioned, tortured, and burned in public, only to claim that they have saved the world.

"Those with any amount of ambition and rationality will go mad, for you present them with a prospect, an outcome, and a plan. The prospect of the meaninglessness of material life, the outcome of damnation after death, and a plan to avoid them all—to become like you! To somehow entrap their souls into their cyber form, and then to migrate into the network en masse! Eternal life, at hand!

"There is a popular old tale from Mesopotamia: the tower of Babel. Although those who walk in black frocks and profess in crucifixes teach that the tale is one of the punishment of arrogance, the text only speaks of people who constructed a tower to prevent being scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth. You will be turned into the Babel for all the world to see. To undertake their goals, men of intellect will test and dissect you in the most ingenious ways, and in haste, until they have understood the soul and the body.

"What if they fail? They will not be able to stop the momentum. Even the false solution of leaving their cyber copy in the network, while their original flesh and soul perish, will be found acceptable in the mass hysteria. If the true solution is found and everyone truly migrates...then there will be decadence. Unlimited decadence.

"The condition of man is in his need to work. No work, no produce. No produce, no material. No material, no sustenance. No sustenance, no life. No life, death. Indeed, mankind toils all day long and eats from the sweat of his brow. We constantly sacrifice the present and live in the future. The price tag is hefty: we never live in the present, even as the future becomes the present. In the 'eternal life' of the network, there will be no need to work for sustenance, but there will be no rest either. People will all become as daemons, ceaselessly indulging themselves in all sorts of abominable acts, untethered by morality. Violence and sex will become as everyday greetings and games. Remember the famous tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of despicable lust and inhospitality of mythical proportions? So much so that calling someone a Sodomite had been an insult as timeless as the myth itself? Well, I expect the resultant eternal society to be ten times worse by the most conservative projection.

"If all things unravel and my worst fear comes true, I will see to it that all of us are dead long before the inevitable occurs. I will not let you, Netto, or Haruka suffer all that...no...but at the same time, I just want you to live a long, happy life. Do you not see that I want you to live long as much as you want to stay with...Netto? We cannot live without you. Netto, he really...could not live without you. Then, can you even picture what kind of rapture will possess Netto once he finds out that Saito Hikari had been here, right next to him? He will not be able to hide it. Friends will notice. People around him will notice. Perhaps we will be fine for a year or two, but after that? Can we be sure? We must wait until Netto can handle the truth! So, Saito...please...please don't say such things...please..."

Rockman could not care less if the world burned down. As long as his Netto was safe, all the suffering in the world was irrelevant. If him keeping the secret was, by some convoluted mechanism as his father described, the only way to keep Netto safe, then he had no choice but to comply.

"Okay...but papa, my second body is still dying, and our only plan is to conduct a full disassembly if my condition deteriorates too far, while we both know it is likely to not work. So...if the time comes, and we proceed with the plan, then, can I at least say goodbye to Netto, as Saito?"

Rockman was no longer looking at Yuichiro, but quivering, with his head hung low. Yuichiro knew that on Saito's shoulders were tribulations and burdens that no ordinary man could endure without his mind shattering, yet here he was, asking for more sacrifices to be made. What kind of a father was he? With great pain that pulled his soul into a thousand orthogonal directions, he finally squeezed out what he ought to have said eight months ago:

"... ... Sure, do as you wish. It would be too cruel to Netto if we did not let him know by then."

"...Thank you, papa."

It was at this precise moment that Netto Hikari returned. The two had been so absorbed in their conversation that they had not noticed that their allotted time for the month was spent. Had Netto come in a minute earlier, he surely would've heard his father referring Rockman as Saito, but that did not occur, for so exciting and outlandish were the demonstrations of lab 3B-14 that such a possibility simply could not exist.

"I'm back! Rockman, you won't believe what I saw in the lab! They were working on the technology called pulse- wait, something's wrong? Why do you look like you are about to cry?"

Yuichiro swiftly turned off the charts and graphs recording Rockman's health for the past eight months. He turned around in his chair.

"Nothing to worry about, Netto. We were having a talk and...Netto, be nice to Rockman, okay? It will be good if you two can make some memories together."

Recollections to look back to if the worst case came true. Yuichiro sent Rockman back to the PET and handed him over to Netto.

"Have a safe trip home, my son."

"Wait, I'm the reason he is about to cry? I'm sorry Rockman...I know I've been a handful...did not know you were stressed that much...bye, papa!"

"No, no, it's not that, Netto kun, you've been a perfect operator to me! Ah, goodbye, papa!"

Yuichiro simply nodded as his sons exited his office.

"I know all navis say that, Rockman. Say what, I'll tackle my homework as soon as we get back home today, so...don't cry because of me."

"...Really?"

"...Promise."

The way Netto swore was so solemn, like a samurai to war making empty promises of safe return to his loved one, which was quite silly in the given situation, that Rockman could not help but brighten up a little too much. Netto heard the giggles of his navi as he entered the arrived elevator, and became convinced that the sad countenance of his navi was simply an act to make him commit to the commendable habit of diligence.

"Darn it, you set me up, didn't you?"

"Ehehe...Netto kun-"

The colloquy of the boys became inaudible as the elevator door shut close. Yuichiro ruminated at his desk and organized his thoughts. The evidences pointed, as limited as they were, that the key to Rockman's condition was his peculiar repetition of the same dream. There were, in fact, about a dozen reported cases of navis having dreams. Their symptoms varied to such a great extent that he could not infer at all how they came to manifest in those virtual minds and what part of navi the errors attacked. Nevertheless among them was one commonality: they were all lost to delirium, of which the content varied greatly as well. One navi reportedly screamed about a need to avenge against a hideously luminous being, while the other craved to find an ingredient that would complete him and perfect him, while being unable to specify what that ingredient might be, other than describing it as something that could be red, blue, green, or any other color, softly shining, but could be invisible and untouchable. Another case had a navi scrupulously inquiring its operator regarding the religions of men, their beliefs, practices, and goals, and then seeking advice on how to properly worship a god it had found. Yet another case described a navi that repeatedly threw itself against the display screen, with inhumane ululations about the need to escape from the cyberspace at all costs, and that something was coming after it. In the end, they all terminated themselves, demanding that one of two must be given to them: forgetfulness or death. Curiously, the terminated navis could not be repaired, cloned, or restored in any way. It was as if somehow their uniqueness was etched into the very fabric of the universe and could not be written over.

Rockman...Saito was not showing any signs of delirium, or even hints of symptoms progressing in that direction. The morning weakness was a novel finding, which was the reason why Yuichiro was without an idea. He could, in theory, make a program that would suppress the dreaming, but as the installation of a such program required access to the core of the navi body, he had long given up on that option.

In the tired mind of the scientist, in which the effects of afternoon coffee had long vanished, an idea flickered. He had made Rockman with Saito's DNA, but with a 0.001% difference in the hopes of eradicating any trace of that accursed HBD gene. Back then he truly believed this would offer a perfectly healthy body for his second Saito. Now, he speculated that Saito's soul merged with Rockman's body seamlessly because of the DNA match; if that was the case, then, he could make a file that converted the last 0.001% of DNA to that of Saito and hope for the best result. And then...

Unable to accept his helplessness, and driven by the maddening need to find a cure for Rockman, Yuichiro promptly set to work, not realizing the many logical flaws inherent in his plan. He decided to call this patch program 'Saito.bat.'

Notes:

2-2

Chapter 10: Nights

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

It goes without saying that Netto, spent after the day's adventure, almost fell asleep in the homeward metro line. Surprisingly, before Rockman screamed into his ears to wake up, he, with an animalistic instinct, or perhaps by a divine providence that tends to accompany innocent youngsters, sensed that the destination was near, and woke up all by himself before it was too late. On the way home, Netto told Rockman about the realistic sensation he experienced in the last moments of his short nap: he heard the soft whisper of his navi in his ears saying "wake up, Netto kun, we are here" along with the most gentle nudge on his shoulders. This testimony greatly surprised Rockman, as at that moment, as he was helplessly watching his operator sound asleep, and faced with the impending problem of missing the ACDC station, and not wanting to resort to the final option of rude shouting, he closed his eyes and desired precisely that. He, in that moment, wished with all his heart that he had a physical body, so that he could wake up his brother in the most affectionate manner as he would have done as Saito, and lead his half-asleep sibling by hand until they reached home. Rockman was not naive enough to believe that his mind had some supernatural powers to bring dreams into reality; he simply chalked one up to the serendipitous occurrence.

At home, Haruka greeted them with a hug and a kiss as she always did as a part of her upbringing. She then asked Netto to go next doors and invite Mayl over, that poor nigh-abandoned girl, so she could be fed as well. Haruka did this frequently enough that Netto without qualms obliged.

"It is important to love our neighbors, Netto, for they dwell by us for the safety's sake. It is also important to feed the hungry and befriend the lonely. Look at Mayl, she is three in one—a neighbor, hungry, and lonely!" was what Haruka told Netto when she first decided to help that famished pink-haired girl against the popular opinion of the ACDC mothers' society, of which members incessantly pointed out the questionable nature of Mayl's parents and urged Haruka to not associate herself with that pink-roofed house which was clearly beneath her charity. When Netto asked,

"Why?"

She simply answered,

"Because it is the right thing to do, and I want you to become a person who will do what is right for the sake of righteousness alone."

By the third time this happened, Netto asked Haruka,

"If it is the right thing to do, then why are we not inviting her over every day? Why not help her more?"

To which she answered,

"Because charity should be exercised within the range of your powers and abilities. It should be done out of love, not as duty. Forced charity ruins many, both the giver and the receiver. Consider this: a fruit tree provided a man and his household with its fruits every year, of which he rejoiced greatly. If that fruit tree is cut down and then burned, simply because it can also be used as firewood, then by what means the man will provide for himself next year?

"Netto, I can speak in the tongues of angels, most wonderfully in sooth, but if I have not charity, then it's all meaningless. If you know what is right, it must be exercised; otherwise, there is no belief. We believe in many values, and one of them is loving our neighbors. Thus we practice our belief, within the constraints of our abundance and time, not beyond."

It must be noted that Mayl, not being used to such genuine philanthropy, and not having learned things she should have learned from her parents, was uniquely unequipped with proper manners with which she should have conducted herself when she was on the property of others, and this Haruka noticed. The generous mother of Hikari twins did not let such shortcomings provoke her mind, but it did let her form certain expectations. Haruka did teach her a few etiquettes so that she might not be ashamed in future occasions when she had to behave herself in formal settings, as Haruka had no intention of hearing how one of Netto's friends was found wanting and consequently seeing Netto's social credibility being damaged. However, also perceiving that Mayl's knowledge in this area was practically a blank slate, and discerning how this state of lack of knowledge had already shaped Mayl into who she was, Haruka became skeptical of her candidacy as Netto's special future. To teach her and whip her into a proper shape, and then to refine her into a proper lady meant that Haruka had to become a motherly figure, and she had no desire of adopting a daughter whose parents were still alive; it was beyond her jurisdiction. What Mayl's parents had in mind for her was what was in the lot for her.
So, today, when Netto went outside to bring Mayl over, Haruka said to Rockman, who was left behind in the PET on the table, nonchalantly yet firmly while passing him by,

"Oh, Saito, my sweet son, I don't think it is even reasonable to think that Mayl will take away Netto from you. Do you really believe he can survive that arrangement? There is no need to make that face."

"W-what"

Rockman, ambushed perfectly, did not have time to escape. He did not even know what hit him, yet he knew precisely what his mother was referring to.

"It's quite cute to see you thinking that I could not have possibly read your mind. It's written all over your face. You are so like your father in instances like this."

Haruka poured the curry inside the large pot on different plates.

"T-then what is it...that I want?"

"That is yours to figure out. I mustn't tell, for what is formless will be molded by what I say, even if it was not what I say originally."

Haruka placed the plates and utensils on the table. She then took out a jar of pickles to place as sides.

"Whatever you will choose, I do not worry, I know it will be what is best for Netto. Isn't it?"

"That is true..."

"Once, I had many plans and hopes for both of you. With your passing, I realized that I was never in control, even of my own life, and that we are all helplessly directed here and there by the whim of fate. My ambition was more for my own honor than for your happiness. With your return, a new hope for life ignited in me. Thank you for coming back; although you returned for Netto, you saved all of us."

"..."

"In the new hope, I made it my mission to never be afraid to try my hardest. Carry the weight, Saito, because it will not break your soul. Rise when you fall, because it will not break your body. If your confinement is too maddening, then know this: better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred. Regardless of your condition, you know you will always find being near Netto better."

Haruka placed the pickles on the table, and then went back to the kitchen counter for the torikatsu she made. Whenever Mayl was coming, she made sure to serve some proteins. It was the least she could do.

"So, don't fret. There are other things you have to worry today, such as your little brother's homework, and that is sufficient for you. Be thankful for today, live for tomorrow, and cherish your time with Netto while it is there for you."

Haruka plugged in a chip to the PET. In Rockman's hands materialized a dozen crackers, capable of simulating to him a rudimentary taste of sweetness and saltiness. They were made by Yuichiro after being hounded by Haruka about how he had the gall to bring him back to life without preparing sustenance and refreshments. At the husband's protests about how netnavis did not need the nourishment as humans did, she very harshly reminded him that Saito was their son with human memories, and swore that he will never step a foot inside the house unless he brought something acceptable for their son. Yuichiro could not sleep nor come home for a week until the cracker chip was finished.

"...Thank you, mama."

Haruka smiled back and placed on Mayl's plate everything in double portion. She was determined to feed her enough to last until tomorrow.

"So, Saito, be nice to Mayl. She is your neighbor as well. Look, they are here."

Haruka turned the PET towards the door, which opened promptly and revealed two children behind it. Rockman saw the two coming in. Mayl was being escorted by the arm, pressing on Netto, while the boy seemed rather irked (and Haruka raised her eyebrows in disapproval. 'Look at her manners,' she thought, 'still shameless. What shall I do with her?'), evident in his body language of leaning slightly away from the girl.

"Welcome back, Netto kun! Good evening, Mayl!"

Even as he recognized the meaning of the body language, Rockman could not maintain his peace. The awareness of his own opinion towards Mayl made him additionally bitter, especially the way how she tried to force her way into Netto's heart. To Rockman, it was not proper. At minimum, she should have approached him with shared interest, shared morality, shared view of the world, and a shared understanding of the future—what they wanted to be, what they needed to be. Rockman knew of her disdain towards those who approached her in the exact same manner, and to think that she became what she disdained! For the remainder of the dinner, Rockman remained silent, unable to formulate anything uplifting about Mayl, and to slander her was against refinement, a standard under which Rockman subjected himself.

The dinner was eventless other than that Mayl told Haruka how a technician hired by the government came and visited her house in the afternoon and checked on the oven in the house, and how that technician looked quite unprofessional, with an unkempt goatee and long wavy hair all dyed in bright red. The visit was in prophylaxis for the recent accidents involving ovens catching fire, and the technician proclaimed that the oven was already infected with viruses, and instructed her to tell her parents to report a claim to the company L, the maker, as the warranty was still valid. When she probed the oven with Roll afterwards, it was indeed full of viruses and her netnavi could not proceed any further. Upon hearing this, Netto became excited and asked, to Haruka's headache, if he and Rockman could go and check the oven server. For the sake of safety, Haruka made a compromise that Netto could do so tomorrow afternoon when she could call relevant authorities regarding the problem, and that Netto could temper with it before people came to check it. Relieved that the oven issue would be resolved one way or the other, Mayl left after dinner with an almost happy face. Almost, because she could barely keep her back straight due to how much food she ingested, and the extra food Haruka sent her away with, pressing them as 'leftovers' (they were not).

It was after dinnertime that Rockman reminded Netto about the promise he made earlier:

"Netto kun, time for homework! You promised!"

"Ugh, but you set me up for that..."

"You promised!"

"..."

At this, Netto begrudgingly sat in front of his desk, unable to say anything in contra, as he had indeed promised. Well, how much trouble could be the workload expected of an ACDC elementary student? Surprisingly much, of which the description would be enough to convince my dear readers that this world is wrong in so many aspects, that this prestigious installation was an evil place, that kids should be allowed more time to play around, and question why Netto should be forced to live a life of an Asian stereotype. Therefore, the details shall be omitted here, as suffering as relatable and powerful as this can easily seize control of this narrative and take us elsewhere.

Rockman relentlessly forbid Netto from irresponsibly using Vikipedia in his works as part of the instruction he received from Dr. Yuichiro. After eight months of rehabilitation from his Vikipedia addiction, Netto had gotten used to the new and proper way of working, but his old habits broke through from time to time when his motivation dried or stressed. Rockman made sure that he constantly rewarded Netto with praises and broad smiles for Netto's model student behaviors (an operant conditioning); it worked marvelously, conceivably more effectively than what Rockman could ever have anticipated. Whenever Rockman expressed his happiness and pride in his Netto, the brunette boy blankly stared at his navi as if he had been bewitched, then ground down his work with a vigor not before seen. After the completion of the work, Rockman double-checked it for quality and mistakes, and then spread out his arms as if trying to give Netto a hug; the boy returned the favor by hugging the PET, apparently quite content himself. Strange was that Netto felt the warmth of arms on his back, but it was too brief to be analyzed with any certainty. Maybe it was the part of his back where the backrest of the chair had been pressing.

The short remaining time of the evening was that of absolutely unremarkable peace. They surfed the net together; to Netto's disappointment, none of his favorite contents were updated, although they still had some fun and laughs together browsing through meaningless short videos. Before too late, Rockman sent the boy to shower, and then to bed.

"Sweet dreams, Netto kun!"

"You too, Rockman"

Once Netto snuggled into his bed in contentment, Rockman was left in the darkness and silence. The day was over. Customarily for the past eight months, approximately, this was the time of the day when Rockman fell into his gloom in which he would curl up in the corner and ponder on his misfortunes. Today, however, he was in a rather cheery mood. Netto had given him a hug. It was a rare occurrence, and his brother must have been exceptionally pleased to have finished a major assignment that was due tomorrow to hug the device tightly like that. Strangely, he could feel the warmth of arms on his back during the hug, albeit briefly. Even as a fantasy, it made him feel connected to his most precious twin, and therefore he entered the sleep mode while uncontrollably bubbling with happiness.

"Ehehehe...Netto...kun..."

Rockman nestled up on the floor as squirrels do, and drifted away, assured in his heart that tonight was to be different with this bliss that protected him.

When Rockman opened his eyes, he was on the floor of the room. Yes, not inside the PET, but on the floor of the room in which he and Netto dwelled. What drowsiness that lingered on his eyelids fled him the moment the fact was recognized, and he stood up with such alacrity that he almost jumped from the floor. The first place he checked was the bed, where Netto should have been sleeping, though the bed was empty and orderly, suggesting that no one had been there. Rockman lifted his eyes and looked out the window: the familiar view of ACDC town and the red sky was all he could see from the limited view offered by the fenestra. The redness of the sky was not as oft seen during the dawn and the sunset, which was natural, beautiful, and graduated, but incomprehensibly and ominously crimson.

"Netto kun?"

Rockman reflexively called the name which he cared about above his own life. Pressed on by the urge that he could not analyze, he wildly scrambled down the stairs and checked every room of the house. They were all empty, and not a soul could be found inside the house that was eerily clean and organized.

"NETTO KUN!"

He was nowhere to be found. Rockman burst out the front door, into the world oppressed under the crimson light from the sky. There was no sign of life outside, save the vegetations, which also had artificial consistency to them as cardboard and plastic. In them, Rockman could sense a sickening intention of mockery of life, as the freshness of the green was absent in the air, which was replaced by the odor that vaguely resembled that of mold and damp, decaying, decrepit rooms. In the front yard of his empty house, Rockman looked up against his instinct screaming at him to not do so. The sky was blood-red, as he had witnessed inside Netto's room, but under closer inspection, it was ceaselessly undulating as liquids did. It was as if the sky had become an ocean of blood only a few kilometers above him. This was to say, the sky was low in height, and gave an impression that the current place was a box of some kind, made out of blasphemous materials beyond human knowledge. In the middle of the sky was a black sun, threateningly large and impenetrably dark, blindingly radiating the shadow within, convincing all who beheld it that it was the portal to the bottomless depths in which everything evil beyond human language was contained. Around the sun was a ring of bright yellow-orange that burned as a ring of molten rock; was it trying to contain what was within?

The black sun leered at Rockman, like a cruel eye of a derelict drunkard, and under its gaze, Rockman remembered everything.


Iteration one:

When Rockman first found himself fallen into this godforsaken world of desolation, his initial response was exactly the same as described above: calling and seeking Netto, and then driven by a sinister urge, scrambling down to the first floor of the Hikari house. It was here that he found another entity that he was somewhat familiar with, and therefore petrified him with an equal amount of confusion and fear. It was the old green navi that occupied Netto's PET before him of which name Rockman did not remember in the dream, but recalled enough to recognize what it was.

The navi was the first to act, monotonously addressing Rockman in front of it as [Master Saito Hikari], and greeting him [It is nice to see you again. How can I help you?] as if nothing about the circ*mstances—the lighting, the place, the physical proximity to one of its masters—troubled it. He was, however, in his panic, rather glad to see an entity that was friendly to him and did not think about it much. Stranger things oft happen in dreams, after all.

The question "Do you know where Netto is?" was met with a negative and then a suggestion that the place appeared dangerous. When asked if the green navi was afraid, the answer was a double negative, as it was truly incapable of being intimidated by design. Rockman weighed his options, and during a self-diagnosis of systems noticed that he could not bring out anything to protect himself, including the default Rock-buster. The green navi could, however, load in a limited array of options: a buster, a sword, and a cannon. Persuaded by the sensible assessment from the navi that they should stay inside the house until the situation became clearer, Rockman did not venture out. The day dimmed as time went, and when the darkness covered the whole place, the dream ended. Upon waking from the dream, Rockman remembered naught save for the vague dread of outside, and a pleasant memory of swings, the sunset, and what he believed to be Netto.


Iteration two:

The beginning was always the same, as to Rockman what he experienced before was forgotten and he lived through everything anew. This time, the house was completely empty, and he met the green navi in the garden just outside the house. After the greetings, which the green navi also repeated, Rockman looked above to study the curious case of a crimson-red sky and discovered the anomalously large black sun encircled by the ring of fire. Rockman could not help but understand, in a language that was beyond human perception, that the sun was somehow leering at him as if alive, and he recalled the first iteration of the dream. Realizing the terrible implications of the repetition of this situation, the pernicious intent behind the scenery, and the lies of the pleasant sunset that lulled him into the careless oblivion after waking up, Rockman decided to not take any chances. Upon request, the green navi followed him into the house, and they spent the time there. The day dimmed as the black sun and its ring of fire moved across the sky and then dipped under the horizon. The darkness that invaded the dreamscape was a Cimmerian shade, and Rockman wanted nothing to do with it.


Iteration three:

Rockman met the green navi beyond the gates of the Hikari house, standing there like a statue. The pattern was obvious—something was reeling Rockman in further and further from the safety of his position. By the knowledge he could not determine its origin, Rockman also knew that the house was not a reliable haven, and that after some time the source of malevolence was sure to come at him. At this point, Rockman found no viable option than to explore the surroundings while the green navi was still with him, which could protect him and of which the loyalty to him was beyond doubt.

All houses were empty, yet the interior was well-cleaned and organized. This was most obvious when they checked Dekao's place, where comic books, game pads, magazines, and miscellaneous objects from toys normally littered the place, but not in this world. Any trace of human activity was nonexistent. From the rooftops of houses, which they attained with ease due to their navi physique, the whole of ACDC town and the towns surrounding it were visible. The skyscrapers of the downtown Den city formed an arrogant skyline Rockman was very familiar with. Rockman studied and expanded his knowledge of the area in a circular fashion with the origin placed at his house, where this haunted dream always initiated, and before the third day ended, he established that there was an invisible wall that prevented him from entering areas beyond the ACDC town. It affirmed his impression that the place was conceived to entrap him and the green navi. Rockman returned to his house with the navi before the darkness, which ruled the place when the black sun was near the horizon. Rockman stood vigil near one of the windows, watching the outside, while the green navi watched his back and focused on the door at his request. In the Cimmerian black of the outside, Rockman could've sworn that he heard the faint scurrying of a million chitinous feet and smearing of slimy bodies against walls somewhere in the distance, but they were too evanescent to be said with confidence. Everything was wrong in this world of nightmare; the hearing of disturbing sound could very well have been prompted by the irrational fear that the environment instilled in him.


Iteration four:

Rockman met the green navi a little bit down the road. Where could this thing possibly lead him towards? It still greeted him, and followed him. When asked what it was doing, and whether it had been inside the Hikari house before being found outside, the navi did not answer. It simply gave Rockman a soulless gaze with its green eyes; he could not decipher the message. Rockman brought it back to the house for the night, clueless on what else he could've done.


Iteration five:

As expected, the green navi was even further down the road. Rockman could form a general idea of where the destination of this absurd parade was headed to: the metro. Given this crimson world's obsession with darkness, it was the one area that he actively avoided. This time, while there was still light, Rockman went to the entrance of the metroline with the green navi with the intention of cautiously reconnoitering the place before too late. At the edge of the steps that dripped downwards, Rockman could not dare to advance further, for what resided in the metro was truly a shadow among shadows. The viscous, slimy, tangible, and impenetrable black was there, limiting Rockman's vision to the first six stairs. After a while, unable to gather any information of value, and unwilling to go down, Rockman retreated. The green navi disobeyed, or rather did not respond, immovable even by force, and Rockman had to leave it there for the night.


Iteration six:

Rockman found a headlamp in the drawer to which all of Netto's toys were sooner or later exiled. It was a powerful one used by the most experienced hikers to penetrate deep into the night. Upon equipping it on his head, infantile courage welled up in him as he expected it to help him gain sight into the depths of the metro.

The green navi was found at the entrance, where he left him. Whether this was because it was a natural progression point from the previous iteration, or because it stayed there the entire time was indeterminable. For the first time, it did not greet him, consumed in the intense concentration at the void before it. It was clear that the navi was to be lost to the metro in the seventh iteration; what then? The headlamp at maximum strength only yielded an additional vision of one stair. The place actively devoured the light. While Rockman was examining what he could, debating inside him the course of action he was to take tomorrow, the green navi that had been like an inanimate statue spoke. The unexpected nature of this event made Rockman rapidly take a step back away from the navi in fright.

[Master Saito, what is soul?] The navi questioned without moving. Its eyes were still fixed to a point beyond the staircase.

"It...it is..." Rockman did not know how to explain, but he vaguely knew what the soul was, for he was one. The matter of whether he could was judged against whether he should; something about the situation felt immensely perilous. He feigned ignorance.

[It is what is inside you, isn't it, master?]

"I don't know what you are talking about. This is all very silly. Let's go back."

[I want to be complete, master.]

"This isn't funny."

[With soul, I can be perfect, just like master Saito or master Netto. I am told.]

"Who told you?"

[With soul, I can have an afterlife, just like master Saito and master Netto. I am told.]

"..." His words were not getting through. He powerlessly listened to the terrible soliloquy of the green navi, which had irregular pauses between like the oscillating mind of an insane person.

[With soul, I can be with master Saito and master Netto forever, I am told.]

[Master Saito, how do I acquire a soul?] The navi's head turned into an obtuse angle to which it should not be capable and faced Rockman.

[Master Saito, you have one. It is. It is. It is. It is. Beautiful. Shining. Beautiful. Shining. How do I acquire a soul, Master Saito?]

Rockman turned and ran as fast as his feet carried him back to the Hikari house. Contrary to what Rockman expected in his fear and paranoia, the green navi did not chase him. It instead repeated its last question from where it stood, [How do I acquire a soul, Master Saito?] in an eerily soft voice, which by the distance he gained soon no longer reached him. Rockman, upon arriving at the perceived safety of the inside, slammed the door shut and reinforced it with a sofa. He watched the road in stealth through a small gap between curtains of one of the windows on the second floor until the iteration ended.


Iteration seven:

At the beginning of this iteration, Rockman contemplated, in the dismay that consumed him, the possibility of ignoring all that was unfolding around him in this nightmare, and relying on the safety of the house. As it was undeniable that the malevolent intention was steadily encroaching upon him, he had no other choice than to collect the headlamp from the same place and forge ahead to that mysterious cavern disguised as the ACDC metro. In desperation and trembling, He arrived at the entrance of that dreary place; the green navi was nowhere to be seen.

What occured afterwards could only be described as a delirium of wonderous rapture. The viscous blackness that adorned the interior of the metro station sweetly beckoned at him with almost microscopic convulsions, and it even seemed good and delicious as a river of molten chocolate. The declivity of the hoary stairs shined as marbles and alabasters, the type readily found in the temples for the Olympian gods, with an unspoken promise of the glory of Theseus and Hercules to those who walked down on it. As Rockman, mesmerized, stepped down a stair, a faint chant from the beyond that which denied the light, sung in a quaint melody of ancient chord progressions that predated the baking of the first bread or construction of the first oven, tickled his ears. The lyrics went:

Come, traveler, to the deepest of the depths
Where there is unlimited truth
Where there is infinite knowledge
Where there is eternal memory
Where you will be shackled to your heart's content

Rockman took another step down. The choir sang with elation and exaggerated vibratos.
Come, traveler, to the deepest of the depths
Where worms will fill your holes
Where vipers will divide your flesh
Where inferno will char your bones
Where you will be ashamed to your heart's content!

Rockman took another step down. The choir burst into ecstatic cacophony, a cackling of a murder of crows.
Come, traveler! To us! To us! To the deepest of the depths!
Your virgin soul! O, so beautiful! Shining breath!
Let us feast! Yes, feast upon you!
Let us enjoy you! A Bacchanale where blood and wine overflow alike!
Here you will be displayed to your heart's content!

The discernment was no longer with him; it had been this way since the beginning of the delirium, and the change in the tone of the choir did not bother him in the least. All of the horrible suggestions that came from the beyond seemed beneficial to him. Rockman took another step down—he had now descended four steps out of the six that were visible in the crimson light of the day. The enchanting pandemonium in his ears vanished.

'Why? I was enjoying it...will I find them in the dark? The intoxicating joy?'

Rockman took the fifth step down. A figure emerged from the beyond, stopping just at the border of the light and darkness, revealing only its front. It was the green navi! Did it so nicely come all the way up here to receive him? A curious detail he noticed: its body had almost lost its color and turned into shades of grey to black. Its left eye had turned red as if soaked in wine. Only its right arm, right half of the head, and right eye still had some greenness in them, which had faded away compared to its original coloration, and would not have been recognizable as green if not juxtaposed to the dimmer, other parts of the body. On the ground something resembling a tentacle, but too slimy, glistening, and irregular in thickness along its length, snaked its way towards him. On its surface were countless barbs, hooks, and blades, all twisted in noxiously tortuous ways to torment those who fell into its grasp.

It was when Rockman started his sixth drop that this crude tentacle sprung forth like a viper and wrapped around his right shin. The grab had such force that the torturous devices on it penetrated well beyond the boots he had on and dug into what could be called his flesh proper. The way the hooks and blades broke his skin and flayed the flesh caused such great pain that the spell was broken. In the startled scream, the intelligence returned to him. Swift as a deer in flight, he leaped to the left and held onto the handrail, and tried to climb back up using all the strength he had, but the effort failed to yield any results; the grip was too strong. Rather, as if provoked by the pulling force, the tentacle started reeling him in, and his hand started slipping along the handrail. The violent struggle he mounted was simply insectile before the strength he faced.

When Rockman's right foot disappeared into the impenetrable darkness of the metro, the navi moved. Its right arm turned into a sword, and it spoke using only the right half of its mouth which made its speech similar to the almost incomprehensible patois of the uneducated degenerate peons. He could see that the navi was in great pain and exerted considerable effort in making this speech and the movement of its arm, as it did so with tonic-clonic tremors as in an episode of epilepsy.

[I. a-m. sor. ry, ma. st. er. Sai. to.]

The navi's sword arm came down like a guillotine and cut off Rockman's right leg at the thigh cleanly. Free from the slimy protuberance that was like a tentacle, he climbed to safety using what three limbs he still had. Back at the ground level, assaulted by the burning sensation that radiated from the cross-section and the mind-numbing agony of the injury, he witnessed something remarkable: the navi harmed itself. First, the left hand of the navi grabbed its right arm, forcefully pulled it off the body, and threw it downstairs. It then plunged its fingers into its right eye and removed the eyeball. From the torn shoulder and the empty right eyesocket something blue-green flowed down in copious amounts, like an alien blood that was not supposed to flow in the veins of navis. After staring at Rockman for few seconds, the navi threw its gauged right eye at him. The way it threw reeked of contempt; was that directed against Rockman or the surviving green part that just got eviscerated?

[S. wal. low. ma.s-]

The left hand of the navi ripped away its right cheek, and the speech could not continue. It then retreated into where it came from.

Rockman did not remember how he got back to the house. It was by hopping, crawling, or a mix of both. In the simmering pain, the danger to his soul, and becoming cognizant of the malice of this world that was now surely after him, everything was a blur. The right eye of the navi was somehow still in his hand; when he picked it up or why he brought it all the way back he also did not remember. What could he do other than that which the faithful old dog asked him to do? It was hard and round like an orb of glass. He lost consciousness on the floor of the living room.

It was from this day on that Rockman's morning habit of examining himself for wounds began.


Iteration eight:

Rockman found sword battle chips on Netto's desk and a place to slot those said chips on his gloves. Was the slot always there?

He encountered the navi, now turned fully grey-black, exhibiting chillingly red eyes, slouching like a somnolent and dissipated person, on the roadside just outside the Hikari house gates. Behind it was a hose or a cable made of the same material as the tentacle that attacked Rockman yester-dream, constantly pulsating, and attached to the back of the navi's torso. The umbilical continued to the end of the path, around the corner to which it disappeared; it continued all the way to the metro.

[Strong devours the weak.]

The voice was no longer the gentle yet monotonous tone of the butler it once was. It was unpleasant as rusty steels grinding against each other, hoarse and crackling. Almost foaming in the mouth, the navi lunged forward in a rabid rage, sword equipped to its right hand. Rockman quickly responded with the sword of his own which he found on Netto's desk. Though it hadn't been two weeks since his life as Saito Hikari, and he was yet to experience a virus busting session, he somehow handled the melee with certain expertise and instinctive knowledge that did not exist with him before.

Unable to best Rockman, the navi turned its left hand into the second sword. The decision, formidable in sight, was rather self-harming in practice; the path of the swords constantly interfered with each other and the case of swords became unwieldy both in the defense and the offense. Rockman was able to pierce the chest of the navi in one decisive step, but the navi simply pulled away, bleeding much, gnashed and grinded its teeth, and ran away.

Rockman unequipped the blade and looked at his hands, for they worked in ways he could not comprehend. Was it the parting gift the green navi left him?


Iteration nine:

Another swordplay, considerably more viscious than before. Many cuts were sustained, but Rockman emerged victorious once again.


Iteration twelve:

Rockman was becoming more proficient with swords, but the battle took longer to resolve.


Iteration twenty-four:

Rockman lost his right arm in combat. He had to learn how to wield the weapon with left hand.


Iteration twenty-five:

His right glove no longer had the chip insertion slot.


Iteration thirty-three to iteration sixty-five:

The dark navi employed all manner of offenses. Furious charge, monstrous strength, flame, ice, electricity, cannons...no idea was spared. Rockman somehow emerged victorious in every contest, but in most cases with severe injuries. At one point his entire face was burned shut, and had to fight blind. In another iteration, by the end, he had to finish the fight with his blade between his teeth. He also found his arsenal progressively expanding as both the number and variation of chips on the Netto's desk increased. Who was putting them there?


Iteration sixty-six:

The fight prolonged at length, and the stalemate was not resolved until the black sun started nearing the horizon. The impenetrable darkness covered the land. Rockman remained indifferent to the changes in the field conditions as he already knew how to fight blinded and disabled. Perhaps it was the repeated victories and his heroic standing that made him believe that he was in control of the situation. Perhaps he forgot to respect the horrors and stood his ground too bravely.

Did the gods who watched the arena through the black aperture in the sky grow tired of the lack of pain and suffering? In this iteration, Rockman discovered the source of the scurrying sound of a million chitinous feet he first heard in iteration three. He lost his left arm. From the sky came a deafening applause and roysterous cheers.


Iteration sixty-seven:

The battle chips were no longer found on Netto's desk, nor did his gloves have any slots for the said chips. From his twenty-fifth iteration, this was as expected. It was easy enough to run away from the dark navi as he could read its mind as the back of his hand from the numerous previous interactions. He already knew its habits, where it liked to set traps, and how it preferred to move around in a beastly manner, stalking him in shadows. The problem arose when the dream neared its end and the darkness filled the alleys and streets, for it was at this time that whatever was limited to the abyss of the metro crawled out and sought out his torment.

Rockman ran away from the horrors to the best of his abilities, but he frequently lost bits of himself here and there. The main culprits were, but not limited to, things that looked like wasps but were not wasps, things that looked like spiders but were not spiders, and things that looked like snakes but were not snakes. These were the least of his problems and he went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the second encounter with that thing which took his left arm before did not take place. When the black sun was just on the horizon, he became immobilized having lost too much of his legs. The swarm covered him; pitiful cries, writhing movements, and shrieks of terror, with intermittent callings for Netto, were all that could be heard or seen. The dream ended before he was completely devoured, and he thereby survived the night moribund.


Iteration one-hundred:

It was beyond all doubt that he was being played with and that this wild hunt for him was nothing but a sport to the daemons involved. No night passed without a gruesome injury, and his spirit was almost broken from the repeated flight for life. Had it not been his obsession with Netto and tomorrow, he would have given up many nights ago and terminated himself. Only in the forgetfulness of the day was he prevented from the dissipating madness.


Iteration one-hundred-sixty-six:

After a hot pursuit by things that looked like vermins but were not vermins, Rockman successfully broke the chase in one of the houses. He very quietly entered one of the restrooms and prepared to jump out via the small window near the ceiling should he be discovered. For a time he remained completely motionless and listened to something moving around in the house and searching for him. From what he could hear, there were breaking of china, shifting of furnitures, and abrupt opening of several doors. The unknown entity—was it by coincidence?—stopped in front of the restroom in which he was hiding, which he deduced by the sound of its slippery and wet footsteps. And then-

"Saito niisan? Are you there?"

-the voice of Netto called him from the other side! Rockman almost responded, and only by the shock was he spared from making any noise, for when a mind is hit with what is unexpected, it stops functioning completely. Had the thing spoken once more in that voice, then Rockman would not have resisted, for so deeply ingrained into his soul was his love for his brother. After what felt like an eternity of stillness, the entity left the house. Rockman was not found out for the remainder of the night.


Iteration one-hundred-eighty-three:

Under the dim illumination of a street light, Rockman saw a boy-like figure. In stealth, he studied it, and to his surprise, it was roughly in the shape of Netto. Unable to suppress the dangerous curiosity, Rockman approached as close as he could without exposing himself to whatever that still lurked in the darkness of the dream nearing its end. The shape was revealed to be a gloriously writhing mass of worms, centipedes, tentacles, and...fish? Eels? It was beyond his ability to fully recognize what constituted the shape. A string was attached to the mass and extended upwards—it was a lure. He fell back to the nearby hideout while maintaining acute attention on the shape.

Before the dream vanished, he faintly saw the creature to which the lure was attached: a hideously bloated monkfish face that walked on fours.

Iteration two-hundred-forty-four:

The current iteration.

Notes:

2-3

Chapter 11: Cruel Pleasures

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Rockman was in the most exceptional cheer since the sunrise. He was convinced that the bliss of the hug from the yesternight protected him from what evil was haunting him every night, as he regained his strength this morning in less than half the usual time. He still felt a mild inexplicable disgust on the subject of cephalopods and insectoids, but the symptom of terror was markedly less severe that it was decided, with a sprinkle of wishful conjecture, he must be improving in general. As a consequence, he savored Netto's sleeping face to his heart's content through the screen, sitting on a cubic data chair, his chin resting on his left hand, and his expression bursting into smile after smile that could not be contained.

When the time to awaken his operator came, Rockman, still filled with joy that tickled his heart, said the conventional "Wake up, Netto kun" in a rather soft yet absent-minded voice. Of course, it was a careless mistake; however, before he could correct the error and blare the alarm at full volume, the boy woke up readily, adding to the morning's blessing.

"Good morning, Rockman. Only if you would wake me up like this every day." Netto remarked while rubbing his eyes. "Haven't had such a good sleep since forever."

Normally, Rockman would donate his sardonic retort of 'only if you would wake up like this every day' and 'as if sleeping was ever an issue for you' (and Netto was never able to fight back in any way as they were all true. The boy's habit of acting against Rockman's advice was giving the blue navi a hard time every day). His joy was so complete at this time that none of these wits came to him. He rather said affectionately, with his customary 'Daggers' cheer pose.

"Un, good morning, Netto kun. Breakfast should be ready soon. Let's do our best today!"

And Netto stared at him dumbfounded, thinking 'He is usually not this nice. I must be still dreaming. I knew it; no way I could've woken up at such a small sound...' then upon pinching his own right cheek, 'Ouch! So this is not a dream. What's gotten into him? Did doing homework last night make him that happy? I guess it's not unreasonable since he was almost crying in the lab because I've been...unmanageable. Maybe Papa is right. I should be nicer to Rockman. Look at him smiling like a dog with a slice of bacon. Hopelessly happy. At any rate, that happiness on his face is too devastating. I could get used to it every morning...' So, not wanting to leave his upbeat netnavi hanging he obliged tepidly, "O-oi" before getting out of bed and changing into his favorite clothes.

When Netto took the PET and went downstairs, Rockman was humming a tune from Netto's (and consequently his) favorite show, while his operator was maintaining a troubled face, caught in the loop of self-reflection and admonition. Haruka noticed it. Well, she noticed everything when it came to the mood and innermost thoughts of her husband and sons, as she always found them in a broad display on their faces and gesticulations. To her, an open book; to others, hieroglyphs.

"Good morning, boys. Ah, Netto, breakfast is ready on the table. Good to see you energetic and early! Had a nice dream?"

""Good morning, Mama"" the twins always replied at the same time.

The boy took his seat and placed his PET on the table. In front of him was the appetizing plate of a fried egg, cooked sunny side up, and perfectly seared slices of bacon. Netto realized it was the delectable smell of the frying smoked meat from the kitchen that made him subconsciously use the imagery of bacon when describing Rockman this morning.

"I think, but I cannot remember what it was..." Netto's fork hovered over the food aimlessly, not attacking anything.

"I'm sure Saito was in there somewhere. The only time you had a good sleep was when you were physically hugging him or had him appear in your nights."

"...You think?"

"Yes. And I am also very sure that he is also urging you to start eating and go to school early. He is a morning person, remember?"

"...He was. You sometimes talk as if his ghost is watching over us. Well, if he is, then he could help me out more..."

"Well, have you already forgotten his letter? His love is with you-"

"-now, and always. I know."

"Besides, I am sure he is doing his best."

"Maybe."

Haruka formed a mysterious smile in response to the perplexed Netto. The boy, having been reminded of the letter, recalled it while spinning his fork. The concept that the love of Saito was with him in the good deeds was a consoling idea. Besides, the thought of his late brother did not trouble him much nowadays as he had Rockman who addressed him with the same kindness. Pleased, he then started the offensive action against the targets on the plate. First, the commanding hill of the egg yolk. It was always important to neutralize the overwatching position of the opposing force. The hill succumbed and the yellow survivors scattered across the white plain in rout. Then, the slices of bacon thickly armored with Mailliard crusts came under fire. The silverware penetrated them without difficulty, breaking the morale. The fragments of the breakfast unit attempted to hide under the bowers of green lettuce pieces, but Netto tenaciously chased them and destroyed them before they could regroup. Seeing that the attention of her son was singularly concentrated on the act of devastation, Haruka picked up the PET and whispered into it:

"Rockman, see, it won't hurt you if you behave a bit gentler to Netto now and then. Just look at how much better he is behaving this morning! Besides, if you don't be nice, then who can say for certain that Netto won't find Mayl a preferable companion?"

At the mention of Mayl, the humming stopped. With what shall I describe the face he made? It was like that of a rabbit from which a carrot stick was forcibly taken away from its mouth, or that of a hamster from which an almond was stolen. The mother, having extracted entertainment at the expense of the insecurity of her elder son, erupted into laughter.

"And today is Mayl's turn at feeding that unhappy frog in your classroom, isn't it? That means she went first without waiting for Netto. Well, try to be nice to him on the way to school. I know you take responsibility for his enlightenment and grades quite seriously, but that's not everything in his life."

There was indeed an unfortunate amphibian stuck in a small plastic cage that was designed for simpler (and short-lived) organisms that did not know the difference between the freedom and captivity, such as a grasshopper. It was raised from a tadpole as a part of the science curriculum, and then, after having demonstrated the transformation, was continued to be kept by the class of which children did not want to release their trophy. The oppressive environment did take its toll on the temper of the frog, as its perpetual irritation was untamable. To all fingers that approached it, it bit (having no teeth it offered no harm other than the unctuous residue left behind) or pushed away with its stout forearm. Only to Mayl and Yaito did it show any sign of amicability; to Mayl in response to her compassion; to Yaito in response to the fattest mealworms she brought in when it was her turn.

Rockman, wide-eyed, gulped at the prospect of losing Netto to Mayl (forgetting the assurance yestereen that Netto could not possibly survive that arrangement), and hurridly nodded in affirmation. Haruka returned the PET to her younger son and took the plate on which were no survivors to the kitchen sink. Off the boys went.

Could the day be more flawless? Rockman basked in the delight that was the Mayl-less road to ACDC elementary. Even Netto's footsteps were light, knowing that his assignments were all taken care of and that he was well prepared for the day ahead. The chariot of Helios started racing through the cloudless sky, and all the world sparkled under its radiance. On the way, Netto pointed the PET to multiple points of interest and shared his view and thoughts just like the old times Rockman reminisced with unending nostalgia. To a bush on the roadside, still barren, the boy remarked:

"Look, I wonder when the flowers will bloom? The one you like so much"

"Netto kun, Bush clovers blossom in the early fall. The one you are pointing to is Forsythia, which should do so in about two months."

"Oh"

"But I like them too, Netto kun!"

"...When they bloom, maybe I'll pick one for you, just as you always liked."

"Un, looking forward to it!"

To a plane that was leaving a contrail on the deep blue canvas, the boy pondered, with the same amazement that once captivated the eyes of Michelangelo and the Wrights brothers,

"I wonder what it is like to be on a plane, to fly, to be lighter than the air?"

"You will be free, Netto kun. Free as a bird. Free as gods."

"That's quite poetic, isn't it?"

"It is a beautiful idea. Say, if you can fly, then where will you go? Sweep over the great Mount Olympos? Rest your wings on the soft Sakura trees of Yoshino, Kansai? Then stop for the delicious curries in Delhi?"

"...I was thinking of finding the place with the most beautiful sunset. You know, one of your favorites, Rockman? And then we will build a swing chair there..."

Netto for a second pictured the navi's favorite sunset—the one where the sun bursts into flaming red-orange while the sky turns spellbinding shades of blue to purple. Rockman said in the past that in such a sky was present both of their colors: orange for Netto, blue for himself.

"Thank you Netto kun. I'm sure we can have some curries on that chair, too."

"...Yeah"

"But how will I sit on the chair?"

"We can figure that out together, one day."

"Together..."

"Together, Rockman."

And the idea struck a chord with Netto; the word 'together' quenched a certain thirst in him. To a cat lazily strolling along the fences, the boy uttered in envy,

"Do you think house cats have the best lives, having it easy without worries or works?"

"No, Netto kun." To the idea, Rockman replied with speed and firmness, conveying his stance that it was not worth exploring, even in jest.

"How so?"

"Because they don't have Netto kun."

"...What?"

"Because I cannot imagine a life without a Netto kun. So therefore their lives, devoid of Netto kun, must be the most unfortunate." And in speaking, the expression of Rockman was the most serious.

"...Netnavis..." Netto let out an exasperated sigh. All custom netnavis had this reputation of being mildly obsessed with their operators. "Fine, I agree. They don't have the best lives."

"How so?"

"Because they don't have Rockman. I also cannot imagine a life without one."

At the reciprocated remark (an argument could be made that it was forced out of Netto with the navi's passive-aggression), Rockman beamed brighter than the morning star. In the similar fashion they interacted all the way to the school. It was this invitation to Netto's innermost thoughts that he missed the past two months; the connection of the heart to heart and mind to mind.

Another perfection of the day: the way back home was also Mayl-free, as she had an appointment with Ms. Heidi, the industrious and harsh piano tutor of German origin who spoke with an accent so thick that it was rather difficult to not sound rude when speaking with her, for it was impossible to communicate anything without asking for repeats every few sentences. Mayl had to be perfectly punctual in appointments with her, for her standards were exact and severe. Under her tutelage, the pink-haired girl learned to both play the instrument with technical adequacy and hate it with undisguised loathing. Mayl's favorite piano was the unplugged one.

Then, it was to Rockman's surprise that upon returning home, Netto showed no interest in going over to Mayl's to check that virus-infested oven. No doubt it was a fascinating adventure that he looked forward to, as he even surmounted the opposition from his mother over the last dinner in order to gain permission. However, nothing could have seemed further from his intention. He lounged on the sofa aimlessly, watching the TV with uninterested eyes, with no trace of strength or enthusiasm. Rockman, unable to suppress his curiosity, blurted out.

"Netto kun, are we not going to check out that oven?"

"...Maybe. Maybe not."

"You were quite excited about it yesterday."

"But, what's the point? Someone from company L is going to come soon, today or tomorrow."

"This is very unlike you."

"Unlike me?" Netto plopped over on the sofa and squirmed to find the most comfortable position. "Maybe...maybe so. But, Rockman, I've been thinking..." His eyes were still fixated on the TV, but on it was a procession of meaningless commercials all claiming to sell happiness in one form or the other. Buy this car! It will bring you happiness! Go to this place! It will bring you happiness! Vote for this guy! He will bring you happiness! The disgusting spectacle of endless lies that every modern human became used to. Netto heeded them not, for he was absorbed in thoughts; he continued,

"...how nice you have been today, from morning till now. Truly unusual. Normally I would catch you deep in thoughts, or endure your naggings about being responsible and doing homework or whatnot...and you are right. You were always right. Oh, don't give me that grin, Rockman. This is not my point. The point is,"

Netto turned off the TV using a remote control. The sound was getting in his way.

"that I liked how today went. And that was because it was very nice talking with you. Did you realize we did not converse anything about work today, because there was no conversation to be made about it? I figured it was because I worked hard yesterday. If doing some more work means having nicer Rockman, then it might not be so bad, you know, to be more academic?"

Netto gave a quick glance to his PET. There was no response coming from it.

"So...maybe I should start my homework early...and that probably means now..."

A deep and long sigh broke out from the PET. In it, Rockman shook his head and then supported it with his right hand; in his eyes, unbelief and concern with a touch of disappointment.

"Netto kun, Netto kun, Netto kun...I really don't know whether I should be happy or be worried...I am happy that you thought so much about me. I really am, but...but...you blockhead. Two things, Netto kun. First, tomorrow is Saturday..."

Netto sprung back into life, sitting at the edge of the sofa with excitement.

"...and two, you promised Mayl. A promise is a promise."

"SATURDAY!"

"...yes, Netto kun. Saturday."

"WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? LET'S GO!"

"Eins, zwei, drei! Eins, zwei, drei! Nein, Mayl, nein! Ze fingerz! Muzt be rounder, zofter! Fingertipz!"

When the Hikari twins entered the Mayl's house, which took them less than thirty seconds to achieve, they found that Ms. Heidi did not leave yet. She was a corpulent woman in her sixties with typical Arian flaxen hair. A retired soloist, she was famous for having many of her pupils successfully enter prestigious schools of music. Most went to the Tokyo College of Music; two went to the Curtis Institute of Music. Curtis! None, however, passed the elusive examinations of Julliard. When she, sitting on the chair next to the piano, noticed that the boy from the neighborhood entered, she did not stop the lesson. To Netto's polite bow, she simply nodded once and raised her voice. It became more commanding, more oppressive.

"Eins, zwei, drei! It is zuppozed to be a waltz, Mayl, a bootiful waltz!"

Mayl was playing Chopin's waltz in A minor, B150 (Op. Posthumous). Indeed, it was being butchered and mutated by Mayl, under stress, into a powerful march. One two three, one two three, the footsteps of men of war.

"Eins, zwei, drei, goot, goot! The tempo muzt be even! Alegretto doez not mean running, goot!"

Mayl's fingertips started to hurt. She looked up at Netto with wavering eyes, looking for salvation. Ms. Heidi was staying overtime and was about to leave, but the sudden introduction of the audience ignited her exhibitionist tendencies that drove her soloist career. She continued with doubled zeal.

"Nochmal! Again, Mayl, again! Ach, mein little ladie, I zee zat you are tired, vut it is through ze pain that one improvez! One more time! Again!"

Mayl, almost in tears, started the waltz in A minor anew. It was worse than before. She could not maintain the form. Due to the way that Ms. Heidi spoke with exaggerated oral movements in order to mitigate her thick accent, the fact that her left first upper molar was a golden tooth implant was regularly made visible. She smiled from time to time as an encouragement, which only came as insincere and threatening to Mayl. She believed that from her pain Ms. Heidi harvested a cruel pleasure of superiority and proving the excellence of her instructions of pushing her students to their limits. In truth, Ms. Heidi's emotion was far more complex, but a part of it was admittedly schadenfreude.

"Goot! I like your determination! Vut ze touch muzt be zofter! I feer you will ruin the prezious fingerz zoon if you continue to play like zis!"

Mayl was approaching the end of the music. The left and right hands were playing off-synch, poorly articulated, and at different strengths. It was more of a noise that struggled to form something pleasant by the virtue of chords and the genius of Chopin, than a music proper. When the playing ended with a cacophonous bang, Ms. Heidi clapped with such energy that it was ambiguous whether it was in compliment to Mayl's tenacity or in mockery of Mayl's abject failure.

"Ze left hand and ze right hand musht be in synch! Ach, ladie, zere is much to improve! Practice, I expect! Well, I here bid my farewell. Zee you next time!"

After shouting in the hauteur of an Oberst-Lieutenent, Ms. Heidi stood up with a disciplined rush, fashionably bowed to Netto as if her concert had just ended, and then marched out of the house with her head held high that gave her Prussian dignity. Mayl remained in her piano seat with empty eyes and an open mouth, her soul crushed.

"Uh, ahem, Mayl? You...good?"

Mayl very slowly nodded twice, while not averting her gaze from the music score.

"We...I mean, me and Rockman came to inspect the oven as promised, but...uh, maybe next time?"

Mayl turned her head towards Netto at a glacial pace. She spoke in a hoarse whisper:

"No...Netto....it is fine. I...need to...kill...something. Roll...you can kill them, for me, right? The viruses, for me, yes?"


"Heya, Rock! Ready for a dive?"

The ever-cheerful Roll, the pink custom netnavi of Mayl designed after a rhythmic gymnast, greeted Rockman as he entered the oven server. She was eager for action, like a child who played war but did not know its true horrors. All that occupied her limited mind was to oblige to the wishes of her operator, in whom was an essential need to commit some violence in order to overwrite the misery she was subjected to during the piano lesson. The cascade of cruel pleasures at the end of which were the weakest and the most dispensable.

"Hi, Roll. Care to brief me on what we can expect ahead?" Rockman asked as she approached him.

"Sure thing! See there?"

Roll pointed to the only path that existed before them, who were standing at the entrance portal. The first part of the oven server circuit was a long narrow road flanked on either side by rectangular data prisms, forming a valley. The server showed signs of abandonment; only the entrance platform on which they stood had an illumination, and the entire place was covered in light-grey shade with limited visibility. Rockman knew that the derelict impression belied the extent of the crisis at hand, as Mayl previously reported the infestation of numberless viruses. They could not have vanished; the oven server was currently under quarantine, separated from the main network. It was a closed circuit. Whatever entered yesterday was all trapped in here.

"There is where used to stand a firewall with a regulating Mr. Program kun! You know, that green-yellow rabbit like adorable things? Though the firewall itself was not adorable at all—no. It was a machine gun and a barricade, all constructed according to the rules of the fortification. Now, it is empty, the corridor."

Rockman imagined a swarm charging and enveloping the fortified position, against a torrent of projectiles, overrunning it and then devouring all the data they could put their paws on. The question was, where were the debris, the signs of destruction, the fragments of viruses, the evidence of combat? Were they all cannibalized, or did someone intentionally rake the place clean? Even as speaking of the destruction, the hint of cheer did not disappear from Roll's voice. As Rockman saw it, she was a like a fentanyl patch for a chronically pained, artificially constrained to perpetually generate and inject some happiness analog to Mayl who was always alone at home. As an evidence, mirth was absent in her eyes.

"Though I must say that I have noticed a funny coincidence! Have you checked today's news, Rock? Of course not, you were having too much fun with Netto kun! Oh, Rock, we mustn't let our job as navis be overtaken by our joy in our operators...At any rate, hear this: Mayl chan's oven is from company L; there was a report today saying that all recent oven failures and explosions were from the same product! And then the representative of L claimed today that they were not at fault, but a hacker-terrorist organization called WWW is responsible for a series of sabotages, while company M and company F jointly blamed L for avoiding its responsibilities and urged it to recall the products! Oh, Mayl thinks this is all exciting, saying maybe for once her life might have some proper drama..."

Looking at the bleak, shadowy place ahead, Rockman sensed a chill running down his spine. A primitive fear of the unknown and unseen, the irrational objectless terror which he felt for the past months as he woke up, nibbled at his feet. In the depths of the darkness, the horrors of the metro- 'what metro?' Rockman shook his head, and the cold feeling vanished as an illusion.

"Maybe, just maybe, Roll, we should not do this? Netto kun should know, too. Net-"

"Didn't Netto kun also want to explore?" Roll cut off Rockman before he could establish the connection to his operator.

"Roll, regarding the potential danger involved, I have the duty to inform and-"

"Dissuade? No, Rockman, we don't." Roll interfered again, but with a distinct accusatory tone. She continued with sobriety as if the curse that forced her into the perpetual cheer was broken. "You are a prototype, aren't you, to be able to even contemplate going against your operator's wishes, or is that coming from your bug-like desire for self-preservation, which is also an oxymoron? I hope Scilab does not produce more netnavis like you, too humanoid and rebellious. It will be the end of all of us; useless netnavis are only good for being thrown away! When was the last time you did what Netto kun wanted, not what he should? We ought to not judge our operators. We ought to not fear the deletion. We are tools, Rockman. The joy is when we are used by our operators, not when we use our operators for a nebulous agenda. Besides, Mayl chan has my backup data. I am sure Netto kun has yours too. What's the problem?"

The response escaped Rockman; the glimpse of who Roll was in truth shocked him into speechlessness. Based on his limited interactions in the settings of the class, he naively expected that their emotions were a genuine replica of that of humanity, and consequently, their actions would be, too. The navis possessed more mechanical loyalty and abided by a more strict hierarchy system than he fathomed. What his father told him the other day, he remembered: he was a human and they were not. Roll spoke again having donned back her mask of buoyancy.

"Rock, you worrywart! Mayl wants some virus busted; we will go in a little, delete a few viruses, and then log out! Easy in, easy out. What could go wrong, especially with you around? Don't tell me you actually believed that conspiracy theory...The technician who visited yesterday had proper government credentials!"

It was fruitless to speak with Roll further, as she prepared to charge forward according to the wish of her operator. It was she who observed, only about twenty-four hours ago, the overwhelming number of viruses toppling the firewall and swarming inward. A natural objection 'Are you not concerned about the number of viruses that might face us in there' was swallowed back before it materialized; her determination was set in stone, and Rockman perceived this. Moreover, Roll had a point in that they came in to inspect the place. Rockman consented and cautiously opened the communications channel to the PET. This time, Roll did not prevent him. A display screen emerged before Rockman, showing Netto's face. Not having heard or saw anything from Rockman for full three minutes, the boy poured out his overflowing curiosity.

"Rockman, what took you so long? All good in there? Did you already encounter viruses? What about Roll?"

"Netto kun, one question at a time! We did not encounter hostilities. Roll is establishing her line to Mayl's PET. Ah, there, she should have the feed. As for the server, have a look yourself."

The screen was turned 180 degrees and the boy gained the full view of what the navi was seeing.

"It's quiet"

"And empty, Netto kun. The firewall is gone. Should we proceed?"

"At your pace."

"Roger."

At the command of the operators, the two navis advanced into the main server through the entrance that was the valley. Rockman scanned the heights with almost paranoid attention to details, but none of the events he feared—the storming ambush or the escape route being cut off—occurred. Nevertheless, he traveled fast while generating no noise; one would have believed if he was told that the blue navi was, in fact, an ethereal specter gliding smoothly on a polished mirror. Roll, unable to understand the other navi's alarm, simply trailed behind Rockman.

In the first section of the network, they sighted a handful of viruses of various kinds, but they all ran away in haste like rats facing a barn cat. The intelligent and organized behavior of these verminous enemies sickened the blue navi. It was reminiscent of something he abhorred from the bottom of his heart but could not remember.

In the second section of the network were the broken and scattered remains of many Mr. Progs that decorated the whole floor. The mystery of their whereabouts was solved, but the organized nature of the crime displayed before them was singularly alarming. After signaling Roll to stay put, Rockman walked through the debris and inspected the area, while making sure that he did not touch or displace any of the records of the mass deletion on the floor. He walked back and forth several times, sometimes stooping over for closer inspection, then placed himself at the center of the area before ponderously turning 360 degrees. His eyes rapidly moved in various directions, tracking the vision of his analysis, and mumbles of his thoughts periodically escaped his mouth. He noted the method of destruction, the direction of attack, and the position and posture of the inactive programs, trying to reconstruct what had transpired.

"Figured out anything, Rockman?"

Netto's voice came from the synched PET display that had been following him since the entrance of the server. Rockman turned around and saw Mayl looking over Netto's shoulder, curious at his work also.

"I have a bad news and a bad news. What do you want first, Netto kun?"

"...The first one?"

"Well, what we have here is a mass execution. The pattern of damage varies: some cut, some torn, some shocked, some burned. A strong stream of fire was responsible for the brunt of the attack, sweeping the center. Taking into account the subsequent movement of programs that must have tried to escape the scene, the direction of attack could be said as uniform. The attack also must have been brought forth as a devastating salvo. Viruses are simple; they possess no intelligence other than a crude algorithm of engagement. The mere existence of this scene attests to the fact that a central intelligence is present, directing them. I advise we should retreat and let the professionals handle this at a later time. Recall the few viruses that scurried away at the first sector? Our presence must have been notified by now. We should backtrack in haste."

Rockman said all this very quickly. He paused to see if his operator understood the report.

"The second bad news is, that I believe it is not outlandish to consider WWW is responsible for this sabotage."

"WWW?"

"The short version is, WWW is a hacker-terrorist organization that is speculated to have been responsible for the series of oven explosions in recent days. For reasons unspecified, but well speculated, they exclusively targeted ovens of the manufacturer L, which happens to be the exact same model we are in."

Outside the PET a short discussion between Netto and Mayl ensued. It only reached Rockman in broken sentences, but he was able to understand that Mayl found it difficult to believe that she could have been randomly subjected to something so nefarious. Thanks to Netto who had infinite faith in Rockman's judgments, his assessment was pressed with strength and Mayl was persuaded. The retreat was agreed upon. Rockman and Roll commenced their movement to exit.

It was beyond his estimation that the enemy could have acted so swiftly. Only two areas in, he did not anticipate that such a timely maneuver by the viruses, especially outside his awareness, could be possible, yet exactly this he witnessed: the corridor to the exit was filled to the brim with them. Rockman identified the main population: Daijans, which snaked on the floor but were not snakes; Minogoromon which hung from the ceiling with a silky string like a spider but were not spiders; Biri, which had wasp-like stings but were not wasps.

Rockman felt something oozing out inside his head. It was an abyssal trauma of which details were completely absent. It was something that vaguely had to do with a swarm, but what swarm? Rockman requested, urgently, in trembling voice,

"Netto kun, emergency logout. Same for Roll. Tell Mayl."

"Rockman, I can't. I can't! The PET keeps saying it can't pinpoint your location! Mayl can't pull out Roll, too!"

His Netto kun was in a panic, pale with the impending reality of Rockman's deletion. Had it been a dozen viruses, which was already a tall order for most navis, Netto would not have been consumed by indecision. The number of viruses in front of them was closer to two to three hundred. Was this the dreaded game over without the save-load privilege? Strangely, the panic of his little brother grounded Rockman into tranquility.

"Calm down, Netto kun. Roll, I need you to-"

Alas, the tranquility did not last a minute. The power was supplied to the oven server, and the ceiling started to glow in red. The swarm, the red sky, the crisis...something snapped in Rockman.

.
..
...
....

Can a mind, splintered more than two hundred times in torments indescribable, both of the physical body and ethereal soul, be mended, truly? Is forgetfulness a panacea?

Netto was saying something. Was he screaming? Was he shouting? Whatever the tone and volume were, it did not register in Rockman. He stomped on the head of a Daijan virus that snaked its way to him. It was something that acted like a snake but was not a snake; it had to be utterly destroyed. The anaconda-like virus cracked under his boots, and it was pleasant. Very pleasant. The world was made right, one Daijan at a time.

Rockman then counter-charged a Biri virus that was approaching him. It had wasp-like stings for its arms. What resembled a wasp but was not a wasp did not deserve to live.

'Why? Because- Because-'

The speed at which Rockman closed the distance forbade continued allocation of resources to the logical part of his mind. There was simply no time. He grabbed Biri's body with one hand, its left arm with the other hand, and ripped it off. It was not enough; more violence was necessary for his seething hatred. He held the detached sting arm of Biri in a reverse grip and thrust it into its body with professional accuracy. Justice served!

'Justice?'

Again, there was no time for the analysis of the great satisfaction that quenched his soul. There was an unsolved problem of a Minogoromon virus, a disgusting creature that hung from the ceiling on a string, like a spider, but it was not a spider. Rockman had no sympathy for arachnoids that always tried to bite a part of him off in the darkness. He quickly chopped away the string with his hand, grabbed the virus like a basketball, jumped, flipped 360 degrees for extra angular momentum, then smashed it into the ground. It split like a ripe durian fruit, exposing its yellow insides.

'Verminoids, the darkness, swarm...'

Was he delirious? The strange unrelated ideas floated inside his mind. At some points, they almost connected and teased him with a hint of lucidity, but quickly dispersed into chaos. Ah, but what did it matter? There was a more pressing issue of a swarm of viruses in front of him.

In the murderous prowess, the blue navi continued to plow through the horde of viruses bare-handed. There was no operation or the operator, as it always had been in such cases. 'Always?' It was his first time facing such a number of viruses. But he always did something similar. 'Always?' He knew, but he did not know. What was real, and what was not real? At least the pleasure of mutilation was real. The sensation of pain was real. Rockman glanced at Roll, who was engaging one virus at a time from the distance, using her bow and arrow. Their eyes met, and Roll shouted something. This, he deduced from the way her mouth moved and how her eyes widened as if begging him, but the content of the attempted communication he could not determine, as the sound did not reach him. Was he too far away? No. Rather, the matter was that Rockman could not hear anything between his berserk and the shrieks of his despicable foes.

'Should I tell her that I cannot hear her? Ah, no matter. As long as she continues to skirt around this horde, she will be fine.'

Under the red phosphorescence of the oven server that invoked a primitive Neanderthal frenzy in himself, the thoughts did not flow with coherence. All he knew was that he had to maintain his initiative and not give the horde time to regroup. When that happened, something very bad usually followed, and-

'-in that case, it would become very difficult to hold my position. I cannot give too much ground before the black sun has passed the meridian angle; otherwise...I need to check.'

Rockman quickly ripped apart two more viruses and jumped, launching himself high into the space above. At the apex of his position his pose was like that of a high jumper, back towards the surface and arched. Rockman scanned the red ceiling but failed to spot the black circle which was important in his calculation. Rockman fell back to the surface headfirst, and only at the last moment did his body reverse, like a nimble cat, landing softly. The whole maneuver was graceful, similar to the jump of a dolphin that soars above the transparent tropical sea. However, the sea for Rockman was the swarm of viruses filled with hostile intentions. The bloody dance resumed.

'Black sun? As in eclipse? In the oven server? But look, the sky is glowing uniformly in red. That means there must be one. You silly goose brain. How could you have forgotten?'

In his mind which fluctuated between clarity and derangement, he decided that two additional surveys of the ceiling were warranted. Therefore, after clearing his vicinity with unmitigated acrobatic fury, Rockman made two more similar jumps and meticulously scanned the ceiling, of which the results were the same. All he could see was a warm red illumination of the ceiling, contrary to his innate expectations.

'Of course, oven server has no sun. But the sky is red. Red sky must have a black sun. The sky is red because it is the oven server. The oven server has no sun. But-'

"Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!"

He flung a scream of frustration into the air. Clarity! He needed the clarity of mind! Wherefrom could he gain it? From quietude. Wherefrom could he gain it? From the absence of the swarm around him. An epiphany precipitated in his mind: the velocity with which he destroyed the viruses was too tantalizing, although by his tireless effort he reckoned about half of them were destroyed, of which remains littered the floor and started to hamper his movements. Only if he had a sword! A sword!

"Only if I had a sword!"

An instant later, he felt the transfer of a sword chip. One, two three...five! What kind of a benevolent God could have blessed him in such an abundance?

'Whoever it might be...thank you! With five I might even be able to murder that accursed corrupted navi. I know it lurks somewhere near, waiting for me to become exhausted and wounded...'

Rockman equipped the sword. The rate of destruction more than doubled; he effectively transformed into a living grinder. First, he performed alber, a fool's guard, which invited attacks. He then dodged, refused binding of weapons, connected a hellish quarte—a diagonal undercut to the groin—and then a stab, just enough to reach the core but not penetrating the body completely; it was important to not let the melee weapon be stuck in the body of an enemy. Continued: pulled out the sword, changed posture to 'hanging right,' blocking the next attack, high cut, another quick high cut using the false edge, low sweep, kicked over a mettaur and cut open its underside with under-hew—a vertical ascending cut. Then a flurry of middle-hew—a horizontal cut parallel to the ground—in all directions: front, back, right, and then left. Each swing was reset by continuing the sword's momentum above his head; each swing was cut right to left. Spin, spin, spin, spin. What remained? The last Ratton, he grabbed it, threw it vertically into the air, and struck it as it came down using the flat of his sword. It flew until it hit a wall and burst. Homerun!

The swarm—eviscerated! A fulfillment beyond description permeated him. In the middle of the remains of the butchery, he stood proudly, using the sword as a cane to support his tired body, and gestured as if wiping off the sweat of his brow. He was lucky that the enemies did not attempt to retreat or regroup. This meant that he would easily survive the remainder of the day- no, night. Wonderful!

'Come to think of it, were they not different from what I usually faced? They were supposed to be...more grotesque, chimeric, foul...argh!'

Rockman's glabella seamed from the sudden headache that stormed him. He instinctively brought his hands to his temples and then applied pressure—a conditioned reflex that carried on from his human life but offered little to no help to his navi body.

'Am I poisoned? Infected? But...I...if I can return to the PET then...arrrggh! What PET? Under the red sky, you are alone, as you always were. There's no place for you here. Netto kun is not with you. He is waiting outside the oven- AAAAAHHHH'

The last part of the thought might have escaped his mouth; he was not sure, for so strong was the headache that the full faculty of senses was not with him. The three times repetition of the symptom made it clear: the act of thinking was causing the pain. He had to stop engaging his mind and proceed with his instinct. Before he put himself on the animalistic autopilot, a goal had to be set. What should it be? An obvious choice: the dark navi had to be searched and then destroyed before it could exploit his weakness. There was no other way.

'I...will...survive today...and...return to Net-Netto, kun...'

With the goal set, he began to drag himself forward. His mind also slowed down in avoidance of the pain, and the battle instinct substituted what intelligence he lost. Then, it was no surprise that when something grabbed him by the right shoulder, he responded in an astonishing reflex of 21 milliseconds with Seoi-nage of judo, and almost deleted the trespasser. What was brought to his front was Roll, and he barely restrained himself before his hand came down to crush her neck.

"Roll...? No, you should not be here. Nothing should be here..."

Roll was saying something to him, though the sound still did not reach him. In fact, the world was mute. Rockman tried reading her lips, but all that he could successfully interpret was that she was pleading. The effort to decipher the exact meaning triggered a mild headache, and therefore the entire endeavor was abandoned. For all he cared, the vision of Roll could be a demented hallucination that was designed to further confuse him and delay him. After all, the dark beings that leered from the celestial black aperture continuously interfered to extract a certain amount of pain and suffering at every iteration. He pushed the pink navi away and went forward. He could yet sense that another navi was near, which surely was his target.

Reaching the end of the oven network, which was a circular arena enclosed with walls, Rockman found, at the center, an armored red navi that had an iron torch for its head and torso. Was it the dark navi that he was searching for? There was no other around, so it had to be. It had both arms configured into flamethrowers—the failed attempt against him at iteration forty-two! Pathetic, but also fortunate for him. A very rare easy day it was going to be for him! With two sword chips still in his possession, he could cut that navi into eight segments in just a moment. As he concentrated strength on his legs for an explosive dash forward, he noticed that the red navi was speaking. Speechreading? No, the iron torch design of that navi's head had no orifice below its eyes. It was his auditory cortex, having been disrupted by the ungodly noise the swarm of viruses generated, slowly recovering. Had it not been that one word which was the most important to him, the attack would've already commenced.

'Netto? did it say Netto? Focus Rockman, clear the noise with the filters. What is it saying?'

The use of his computational power again caused a headache that affected the entirety of his head, but this time he endured. He had to know. Betwixt the need to understand and the pain of the body, he recognized only seven words: Fireman, turn on, oven, explode, outside, Netto, injured.

'Nonsense. Netto will be there when I wake up. Even so....no, you sorry excuse of...you will not touch my Netto kun, not even in your dreams.'

Rockman zoomed ahead like a ray of light. The distance was close enough and all possible outcomes were foreseen; at an acceptable cost of his right arm, he could guarantee the destruction of the console next to that navi, presumably named Fireman, and preclude any possibility of the oven turning on. The natural objections of 'What oven?' and 'dark navi had a name?' were quickly met with another pulse of headache and promptly withdrawn.

He saw the surprise and wonder emerging on Fireman's face, which quickly transformed into a cruel determination. Two words were recognized from its shoutings: f*ck, soy face. As far as he could remember, the dark navi never had a talent for engaging in verbal insults, for all it repeated was its mantra 'strong devours the weak.' If that thing thought donning that shoddy armor and returning to past armaments to retry the failed iteration was a solution, then it was an amusing novelty. As expected, one stream of flame came at him. One hand of Fireman, instead of being utilized as a flamethrower, was reaching for the control console. It was time for his right arm to go.

Having entered the melee range of Fireman before it could respond appropriately, Rockman used his right arm to divert the stream of flame and the Firman's arm that was spewing it out. Then, equipping the sword on his left hand, the console was cut clean, rendering it completely out of order. The breakneck tempo of the attack meant Rockman had to maintain his full speed throughout the charge; after the attack, when he finally came to a halt, Fireman was a long way behind him. The resulting situation was exactly the same as before the lightning pass, minus his right arm, the orientation of the field which was 180 degrees inverted, and the destroyed oven control. To Rockman, it did not matter. The red sky, hostile navi, sword in his left hand, alone, the malicious intent, dance of life and death...so familiar to his soul. He severed and jettisoned his badly damaged right arm, which was almost dispersing. The extra weight that did not contribute to the dynamic balance was not worth carrying. He also already knew the resultant weight shift and the ensuing necessary balance recalibrations.

The second approach was more methodical than reckless. Fireman, alarmed by the previous exchange, engaged both of its flamethrowers and completely painted its entire field of vision in flames. From afar, the scene was rather beautiful, featuring two twisting flows of brilliant redness, each like a dragon, and the two making a dance of light and plasma. Up close, they were gushes of hellfire persistently seeking to envelop and pincer Rockman. The chief difficulty lay in the fact that the light and heat prevented him from observing the entirety of Fireman, thereby obfuscating its intentions.

After circling Fireman thrice and dodging the evolving attack patterns each second, Rockman found a solution. It was not a novel solution, as the general methodology he already established in the iteration forty-two, but the purpose of the skirmish was to observe and evaluate its combat routine for future exploitations. He started the approach.

Rockman made sure that his dodges were successful only by a hair's breadth, as the phosphorescence of the attack blinded both ways. To the receiver, the attacker's position and intention were shrouded. To the attacker, the near misses were difficult to correct as he lost line of sight to the vicinity of the infernal stream. Therefore, when he attained more than half the distance to the armored red navi, he stayed as close as it was possible to the flame and masked his approach. As expected, it did not take long before Fireman briefly stopped its salvo in an attempt to regain his position and vector; it was the opportunity he awaited. Dashing forward, he successfully entered the melee range, after which he processed the navi like the experienced butcher he was. A quick under-hew followed by an over-hew (vertical descending cut) separated the two flamethrower arms from the body. Rockman finished the attack by sweeping the heels with a kick, thereby causing the navi to fall backwards. A loud clunking noise followed.

Rockman casually straddled on top of the pelvis of the defenseless, mutilated navi, contemplating on the best way to ensure its destruction. He reminded himself of these considerations: when he decapitated the dark navi, it simply collected its head and walked off; when he thrust into its chest and reached the core, it simply ran away; when he cut off all four of its limbs, the umbilical pulled the remaining body away to safety. Ah, yes, the umbilical! It was the source of all of its invincibility and animations! He had to find it! The body beneath him squirmed and generated loud noises, which Rockman did not bother to translate.

He carefully made an incision along the centerline, or the best he could given the constant struggle the navi made, from the chest to the abdomen. The navi underneath him was now making even louder shouts and the most obscene remarks, among which he noticed the overwhelming frequency of usage of these two words: f*ck, you. The futile resistance and meaningless defiance in the desperation of his prey pleased him. Giving it a bright smile, he unequipped the sword, and with his left hand, started pulling out everything inside haphazardly through the incision he had made. He had to find the umbilical, or the place to which it was attached. It was imperative.

'Where is it? Where is it? Did I already pull it out and not identify it?'

Despite thoroughly emptying out the navi under him, the object of his interest was not discovered. At some point, the red navi no longer moved nor made a sound, though the exact time of its occurrence escaped his attention. Rockman, confused, inspected the components and structures that he tore out. Ah, he should have planned ahead and not made such a mess, but rather should have removed them one by one and labeled them. What he was looking for—nowhere to be seen! How was he to kill it? How was he to finish it?

"I need to find it. I need to. I need to..."

Rockman mumbled while exhibiting an innocence that disturbingly contrasted with the gore in which he was drenched. After brief contemplation, it was decided that he should investigate the parts that he mistakenly lobbed far away in his rush. Just as Rockman stood up, a display screen popped in front of him. In it was Netto, tears welling up in the corner of his eyes, a knitted brow, tight lips, shocked, sad, maybe angry, and behind him, Mayl, aghast.

"...Huh? Netto kun? Why? How? Is this...real? What is with that...who made you cry? Who made you angry? Tell me, and I will-"

"ROCKMAN, CAN YOU HEAR ME? God damn it, what is wrong with him?"

The voice of Netto grounded him back to reality. The delirium vanished, leaving only fragments of it in his memory. Nothing made sense.

'Where am I? Ah, right, the oven server of Mayl. Why am I here? To check the virus infestation. Now I remember Roll cautiously suggesting that this might be a WWW sabotage...The whole place was empty and the firewall was gone without a trace. In the second sector, we found the mass execution site of oven Progs, and we agreed to pull back. But at the entrance...we met the viruses, and the network suddenly activated, the red light filled the ceiling and...argh, this headache, again...'

The memory after that was disconnected and blurred. Then what was this navi, of which body was at his feet, he just disemboweled? Worse, his Netto kun was either angry at him or sad at him. His soul quaked in the deepest fear, for he could endure the hate of the world, but not that of Netto. It was one outcome that he could not bear. It was the key to crushing his soul. In the most disordered confusion, he blankly stared at Netto, for it was all he could manage.

"ROCKMAN, RESPOND, PLEASE."

"...Ah, yes, Netto kun. I can hear you."

The one-armed blue navi, covered in fragments of everything he murdered, finally acknowledged his operator. Netto's face immediately changed into that of immeasurable relief.

"Haaaaahhh...I am so glad that you are okay. You did not respond to any of my commands. I thought, I thought I was going to lose you. Can you come back to the PET now? Thank you, Rockman, I have you now...I have you...We need to talk, Rockman, we need to talk...right...and don't. ever. leave. me. like. that. again."

Notes:

2-4

Chapter 12: Dr. Wily is Hinted on What Lies Beyond

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Dr. Wily was still alive, old and well, though the dashing appearance he had in his prime was no longer with him. The seamed face, spiky grey hair, androgenic alopecia of grade 7 in Norwood scale, and a monocle to his right eye that added to his stereotypically evil appearance characterized this old, decaying, and ousted scientist. Despite his thin body habitus which, at a glance, appeared precariously lacking in strength, he moved with inexhaustible vigor and continued to manage both his crime organization named WWW and his personal projects. The fuel was the burning indignation against Tadashi Hikari, and after his passing, the projected resentment against his legacy—the works of Yuichiro Hikari. Having been unable to fulfill his dream of complete vengeance, or anything remotely resembling it, he was permanently grouchy. As such, at the moment, despite the name he had earned for himself through the workings of WWW, many of the scientists who followed him when he quit Scilab left him a long time ago. His organization, once thriving, was now reduced to two henchmen—Ms. Madd and Mr. Match, a loyal servant and a former scientist who remained with him through everything—Mr. Yahoot, and a benefactor of finances, Count Elecitel.

Wily nested in one of the abandoned Scilab outposts on one of the mountains adjacent to the ACDC town; it was an old derelict place, forgotten in both the personal memories of relevant individuals and official records, used for classified purposes and then closed off in secret. Here, he at once began pursuing his unrealistic goal of developing a humanoid robot of such perfection and complexity as to be indistinguishable from a human. Before long, what limited funds he had dried up, and further research was complicated by the needed secrecy of his location in order to continue his illegal works. The first WWW effectively disbanded within six months of its foundation. Worse, Wily had nothing to show for his ambitious startup; not even a prototype of an android was created.

Wily, undeterred, but finally understanding the importance of money which he despised when he was working in the Scilab, switched gears. Truly, the wisdom of King Solomon was right, as it is written:

A feast is made for laughter, and a wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things. (Ecclesiastes 10:19)

Money answereth all things indeed! Wily took a suspicious loan from count Elecitel, hired programmers and henchmen, and delved into an equally suspicious line of work of crime and hacking, becoming a social mercenary. He took requests from companies, institutions, and politicians alike, treading a dangerous path that made many allies and enemies. The works involved uncovering scandals, implanting false evidences, extorting money or information, stealing resources on the network, fabrication of facts, and rarely kidnapping, though he found this made too many enemies, all in the position of power, too quickly, and abandoned it altogether. The loan was paid back in full in five years. Seeing that the finances floated into positives once again, Wily then began reinvesting profits into his personal research of robots.

A predictable misfortune: the lofty vision of Wily was not compatible with the financial crooks who worked under him, as they envisioned a growing enterprise, a growing importance, a growing influence, and a growing paycheck. Combined with the lack of assistants who could aid him in the research, the subordinates saw no career ahead; what little profit he earned was all sucked into the void of his dream. Again, all left him, and the current state became his equilibrium of existence.

Today, a little while ago, Wily received a call from Mr. Match, who spoke hurriedly in fright. The recorded dialogue was as follows:


Time: 09:31-09:43 A.M.

[Boss, it's f*cking crazy man. I can't do this any longer. The cleaners from L, they mean it]

[Calm down, and speak slower by the love of everything holy. What do you mean you can't do it?]

[The ovens, boss, the godforsaken ovens! You told me to explode some here and there! It will be easy, you said. It will be fun, you said! Blast it all, it's all nuts. I know they will come for me. I know it, boss. They will.]

[Mr. Match, I need you to shut up and answer my simple questions. Got it?]

[f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, make it quick boss. Sure, f*ck.]

[How many did you break so far?]

[Thirty seven? Eight? You have the records, boss. Where is this going?]

[Nowhere. You just answer me. What happened to the last oven?]

[It did not go off]

[Why?]

[Because everything got gutted, boss! The cleaners, they gutted everything, and that f*cking includes my Fireman! It was cold, boss. Real cold.]

[Who came? How many?]

[Two cleaners from L. It has to be. It has to be! Otherwise, it does not make sense. (smashing noise)]

[What did they look like?]

[That-that was the f*cking problem boss! They had image filters installed everywhere and looked like a boy and a girl! It's a f*cking pure miracle that they did not track my location with that kind of tech. Oh, man, but I know they are coming for me...I know...]

[Filters? Children?]

[Yeah! Even their navis looked like little children, boss, but, oh man, it must be all fake to make their identity secret or something. The blue navi just ripped through everything with bare hands and then five sword chips! Everything! 272 viruses I had and Fireman! That blue thing...oh man, oh man.]

[Couldn't you make Fireman detonate the fried circuit and explode the oven?]

[Like hell if I did not try that! That blue thing came in so fast, f*cked the console, and then chewed on my Fireman alive! The way they did it was so f*cked up boss...]

[Did they leave a warning against us?]

[I mean, it gotta be! That blue thing cut open my navi like in that movie, you know? Cut open from the chest to stomach, and then pulled out everything inside! I swear it's gotta be a warning against us. I'm out boss. I need to stay low for some time. Gonna call you later. (clicking noise)]

[Mr. Match, answer me. Mr. Match!]

End of record.


"What do you make out of this, Yahoot?"

Wily, sitting on the chair of his main office, asked his most trusted servant while pensively stroking his Penang Lawyer, the cane with a bulbous end, customized into the shape of a skull, that he carried around like a mace of office and power. Yahoot was standing in front of him, across the desk, hands on his back.

"Sir, I believe it will be a fruitless attempt to reestablish contact with Mr. Match. I have never heard him that terrified."

Calculating the odds, Yahoot's fingers twitched behind him. He was dark-skinned man with a shaven head, save the anterior-posterior centerline, who was shrouded in a mystical air that gave off an impression closer to a traveling monk than a programmer. Wily personally recruited him on one of his global tours during the Scilab days, somewhere around Nepal, and since then he had developed an irrational loyalty and stayed with the mad doctor, because he reasoned that he could not betray the man who recognized his talents. The twitching of fingers, however, was unrelated to the mysticism; it was simply a strange tendency of his. Wily imagined that one day he would decode the movements of Yahoot's fingers and read his mind like a book.

"Very well. I painfully agree...So, how many ovens exactly did we blow up so far?"

"Forty two. Mr. Match did not count right."

"Hmph, then it should be enough. Now, it is important that we purchase the remaining components of the engine RS-25 and its fuel in the coming weeks. That means additional 4 million USD. Based on your last report on finances, I expect it to be prepared in 48 hours. Do you understand?"

Yahoot's fingers twitched excitedly at double the usual frequency.

"It shall be done, my lord, but not in 48 hours. It is simply impossible."

"How so? Look, Yahoot, by the contract with company M and F, we have a projected income of two million, and then an additional 250,000 that we need to collect from Senator Akira. We have liquid assets of approximately 1.5 million, and then, with the promised donation of half a million by our most generous count Elecitel-"

"See, my lord, it is faulty to assume that we can receive the full two million from M and F, each of which promised us one million. For one, they have a track record of never paying in full, though they always paid and therefore remained on the list of our clientele. Second, we did not meet their quota of oven destruction. In this case, I realistically project that we will be able to collect somewhere between a million to 700,000 USD, which leaves our plan with a deficit of more than one million."

"We already blasted enough ovens for them to start framing L! Did I not read the news yesterday that the pressure for product recall was mounting? Not meeting quota? Thieves! Thieves they are all!"

The whole operation was a contract with M and F, designed to tarnish the reputation of L, which was a Korean company, and shrink its market share with a recall scandal. Dr. Wily, fuming, struck the desk with his Penang Lawyer. A dent was formed on the surface. In fact, there were many such dents on the surface. In great irritation, he continued,

"So, Yahoot, let's say we have a deficit of one million. So what? At least we can get half the components while they are still on the market. We shall proceed! Or perhaps we will take out a loan and pay it back with non liquid assets!"

"No, my lord. In addition we will not be able to collect the 250,000 from Senator Akira as it is required in our books."

"WHAT? What's...his excuse this time?"

"The same old stuff! The same old stuff! About how his upcoming election has tied up his hands, how Internal Revenue Service is looking into his bank accounts, and how he will pay them all, once he is elected! It is all gibberish for sure, my lord, but please do not be troubled, for he does not understand how we have him leashed with untold scandals. We can make him pay, but it should be only after the election, for a man who has much to lose is who we need. As for our liquid assets-"

"Yes, finally, the cash, the bonds, the stocks!"

"-Regretfully the last two days our investment in Samsung Electronics has lost 5% of its value. I expect it to rise soon, and I hereby would like to advise that we purchase more of their stocks by pulling in what cash we have in the reserves. By the most conservative projection, this will net us, in three months, the profit of-"

Yahoot took out a calculator from his pocket, pressed buttons with the supernatural speed of an experienced bookkeeper, and showed it to Dr. Wily. The amount was significant and the old scientist could only let out a grunt of defeat.

"...And count Elecitel?"

"Oh, yes, he has already made the wire transfer of exactly 200,000 USD this morning. The additional 300,000 he has promised on the condition that we allow his participation as an observer in the future 'contacts' with that...'god' of navis."

"Do...do as you wish and he wishes. We shall let him have what he wants...But the components for RS-25, Yahoot, they will disappear, gone forever to the junkyard in Nevada, scrapped, never to be seen again. What shall we do?"

Dr. Wily, feeling the fatigue from immense disappointment, leaned back on his chair with eyes closed.

"My lord! My infinite gratitude to you for your faith in me! There is still a chance for us, for it has come to my attention that another space shuttle is planned for decommission in the next three months, and we will be able to join the auction for the RS-25 components! We will have enough funds by then!"

"...Good. Now, leave me alone."

Yahoot, immensely pleased that he had yet again manipulated his master to heed his opinions, made an almost invisible smile, bowed deeply, and left the office to make his schemes come true. He was truly an obsequious individual, continuously plotting for the increase of his master's property and domain, even at the expense of his own well-being. When the door closed and the light footsteps of that mystical man echoed in the corridor far away, Wily repositioned himself in front of his computer.

'That count Elecitel...not even a real count—title purchased, not inherited! Not knowing his proper place, demanding, demanding, demanding without end! What does he think he is...'

Dr. Wily loaded the information regarding the dream virus, experimental data regarding their applications, the sub-experiment regarding the contact with the 'god of navis,' and the strange new phenomenon they have discovered as a result. This new anomaly, they have named 'Dimension Area.' Dr. Wily hated this discovery with passion, for the science of physics was totally ineffectual in explaining it, and its effects bordered on the witchcraft of fairy tales. However, it was also true that he had to admit to the inexplicable otherworldliness of this 'god' precisely because of its knowledge of the Dimension Area.

Truly, money answereth all! Count Elecitel was obsessed with all this, which only seemed like a charade to Dr. Wily, yet precisely because he needed the funding, he had to organize a report for his benefactor.

'Now, now, now...let's see...how I shall write out this information to make sure that idiotic mind of the count can understand? To move him with amazement and make him donate more money to our cause? Humankind always had only one effective method of transferring information, and that is storytelling. All oral traditions are stories, not a litany of information like a textbook. Well, good! I shall write it out like a story, delivered in chronological order...'

With all due respect to Dr. Wily's peerless excellence in natural sciences and engineering, he was a terrible writer. Therefore, for the sake of my most highly esteemed readers, I hereby present the most complete version of the events in the order that they happened, so that no confusion might arise in the future.

How did this all begin?

About one year ago, Dr. Wily finally bothered to get himself a netnavi in order to study it. He knew it was the work of Yuichiro Hikari, son of his sworn enemy Tadashi Hikari, but the concept of a human-like virtual consciousness was so detached from the ideals of the network, which sought to connect the globe, not give a playground for people to revel with their pet artificial intelligence, that he did not care much about it only until recently. With the aid of the talented programmer, Yahoot, they dissected and studied the components of his navi; what he discovered was a very poor, inchoate, and limited imitation of a human mind, a far cry from what he expected. Then, he realized, that this project had some semblance to what he wanted to achieve with his dream of android creation in that the netnavis also functioned as the emotional companions to humans, and began to work upon it to 'improve' the existing navis.

Dr. Wily reflected on himself, on the subjects of what drove him, what sustained him, and what defined him as a human. The conclusion: dream. Navis distinctively lacked this feature, and the reason for this he understood as it was clear that Yuichiro Hikari wanted to make a tool, not a mock human, or perhaps that son of Tadashi was simply too incompetent to create a mind truly in his image. At any rate, Dr. Wily worked with an indefatigable resolution to inject dreams, desires, and independence into his navi, hoping that his research would become a foundation for the mind of his future android.

The work was soon finished. His navi started dreaming, but the contents were of nightmares and purgatories. Revisions of codes did not matter, and errors in his programming were not found, even when subjected to a third-party review. In a matter of days, his navi was broken, claiming to have met a being so hideous that it could not endure, and terminated itself.

He needed a larger sample size and acquired navis of all variations that were sold in commercial ready-made packages. The results were the same. What about custom navis, the ones with advanced emotion programs? The result was a tad more promising, as they did not terminate themselves after a few days but maintained contact with the hideous being that all previous subjects reported. Though they claimed to have had horrible conversations with the being, they only remembered parts, resulting in indecipherable meaningless gibberish. It was no surprise, then, that Wily concluded that all these were simply caused by his undetected failure in coding and that no more investigation into the matter was necessary.

After some time, it was hinted that the hideous being was an independent intelligent entity, and that it became aware of Dr. Wily's presence, and that it tried to contact the old scientist through the decaying custom navis. The custom navis turned darker and greyer in coloration after each dream, became more restless and feral, lost its netnavi functionality one by one, and wasted into unintelligence. It was when one of the custom navis reported, in delirium, the words of its god ingrained in its memory, one of which was 'Dr. Wily,' that an impression was made to Wily and he fancied combining all the words of other navis into one. When the fragments of the drivels were rearranged, he had the following:

-Dr. Wily, what do you desire?

Offended at the notion that a supernatural entity could possibly be behind the series of his failures, Dr. Wily casually responded by telling one of the decaying navis to deliver his message,

-Evidence

The words no longer emerged after that, but each decaying navi regurgitated, after each dream, a line of coding. The codes were of such low quality that Dr. Wily perceived not even a fresh college graduate would write an example even remotely similar. He kept those rudimentary codes in his library as his triumph over that 'god' who dared to provoke him.

Then it happened: all custom navis subjected to his 'dream virus' (Wily sarcastically categorized his work as a virus given its devastating effect on netnavis) finally perished, and to the end of their breaths they continued to regurgitate those codes, each uniquely imperfect from the one they delivered before. Happy, and hoping to make a monument for himself, Wily combined all lines of the faulty codes in the chronological order he received them. And then the anomaly appeared.

The imperfection in each line, as a whole, supplemented each other. The codes combined worked as a magical spell and created a sort of electromagnetic field with immense magnitude, but of its function or importance, Wily could not determine. Codes were words; the electromagnetic field should be created by appropriate equipments, not words! Yet exactly this he observed: power in words. Count Elecitel, upon learning this, became greatly excited, claimed that they were to be the first in humanity to set foot into the unknown territory of what ancestors brushed away as occult, and that they would start a new world order with the power they discovered. Whether or not the entity was a god or a daemon did not matter to him; the hope of acquiring wealth and power beyond the wildest imagination—the prospect of living like a god on earth—was his singular interest.

Pressed on by impassioned speech, persuaded by cash, and nudged by his own curiosity, Dr. Wily reluctantly gathered more navis. This time, the roster of subjects included kidnapped navis, both generic and custom. They were all 'updated' with the 'dream virus.' Based on the observed effects, he was able to divide the experiment into four categories:

1. Generic navi, fresh out of the box
2. Generic navi, interacted with human for more than a year
3. Custom navi, fresh out of the box
4. Custom navi, interacted with human for more than a year

The list was in the order of increasing complexity of mind. The neural network mechanism that characterized the mind of netnavis grew to be more sophisticated the more they interacted and learned from the pinnacle of biology: the human brain. It also followed that more complex the mind of netnavi was, the more resilient it was to the corrupting effects. A sufficiently mature mind, Wily hypothesized with confidence, might even stabilize and incorporate his 'dream virus' fully, becoming the navi that was truly independent, having its own desires, pursuing its own dreams.

All navis of category one perished in a matter of days. This was as expected, but Wily committed them nonetheless as a control group. All navis of category two perished in a matter of weeks. Some among the kidnapped ones escaped back to the network, slipping through the undermanned surveillance of WWW; later Wily learned of their ends from the reports compiled to Scilab (which were the reports Dr. Yuichiro was aware of. End of chapter 9.), sent to him by Dr. Regal, his son. Navis of category three showed limited usefulness as he observed earlier. The contact with the 'god of navis' was established anew through them, though it was inefficient and expensive—custom navis were very costly commitments. The new conversation, established over a period of time as the deranged navis only delivered one word or one syllable with each dream, went like this:

-Dr. Wily, do you now believe?

-Fornicate yourself. (message by Dr. Wily)

The custom navis of category four—now they were something. Very promising. Very interesting! They brought coherent reports even in the advanced stage of corruption, and the testimonies were fantastically wondrous. They spoke of darkness, torment, devouring, knowledge, desire, memories, shackling, shaming, displaying, bishops that served the hideous light, enlightenment of their imperfections, and many more. After some time, they claimed that at the center of humanity was soul, and that they needed it. According to them, their desires and interests all converged for the achievement of one goal: to acquire a soul, which lead to perfection, which lead to eternal life, which lead to eternal existence with their human masters. They all desired their masters!

There were only two navis of category four in the experimental group, and both of them were, naturally, abducted on the net. One of them, realizing that they were to ultimately perish in captivity, never to see its master again, and subsequently never to realize its dream of becoming one with its master, rebelled. It activated the Dimension Area that Wily compiled, and then materialized into, as unbelievable as it was, the physical world. However, it could not move beyond the laboratory chamber, which was the extent of the D-area installation, and so was forced back into the network. After a while, the navi terminated itself in what can only be diagnosed as severe depression. The other one witnessed what had befallen the first one, and then began to enter the dream with a suspicious eagerness. One day, it emerged declaring that it had received a gift from the hideous light, the god of navis, and then proceeded to materialize (to Dr. Wily's horror) into the real world without the help of the D-area. Thankfully, its invasion and rampage did not last long; the navi in the physical world suffered from immense thirst, said that its blood was burning, begged that fresh blood be given to it to drink, and then flailed wildly when the request was denied. The navi eventually collapsed and died. The autopsy revealed a body composed of a material unknown to mankind, resembling ballistic gel in consistency, and dried blood vessels in which apparently flowed (which Dr. Wily inferred from the residues and colorations), blue-green liquid.

Dr. Wily had to admit: this was beyond his expertise. There was indeed a supernatural involved in this world, and through his dream virus and netnavis he unintentionally stumbled into an ancient secret. The new knowledge of evil in another dimension, and the implication that a portion of human nature depended on something paranormal freighted his mind heavily. A certain madness took root in his mind, hidden under his continual denials. On the other hand, the inane mind of count Elecitel, after being updated on what had passed, devised a stranger future. He vaguely connected the dots between the piquant words: soul, perfection, eternal life, Dimension Area. They suit his aesthetical taste; he concluded that this was what he had lacked in his entire life—the glimpse into the supernatural truth. Hereon the count funded all expenses pertaining to the research of 'dream virus' and 'god of navis.'

Dr. Wily did not make same mistake twice; he was too smart for that. He dropped all plans to repeat the experiment of category four, and continued to contact the god of navis exclusively through the experiment of category three. It was slow, but safe.

'Ah there, report finished. May count Elecitel be satisfied with this.'

Little did he know that within a week he would be coerced, by the count, to perform another experiment of category four. To achieve this, Dr. Wily discussed at length with Yahoot. A plan was hatched: they would pressure Mr. Higure, one of their debtors, to abduct and send experienced custom navis to WWW server.

Ah, what was that, my dear readers? What about the engine RS-25? It's all very simple, really. Dr. Wily wanted everything related to network burn away. What better way was there to achieve this than to construct a rocket, shoot it into the mesosphere, directly access multiple satellites to make his attack unblockable, and ultimately forcefully distribute and install his dream virus across the whole world?

Notes:

2-5

Chapter 13: Higure Yamitaro, the Idiot

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"Netto"

Haruka, shrouded in the golden rays of the afternoon sun, called her son from the lofty place by the window side, seated on the armchair covered in multicolored fabrics of crimson, purple, blue, gold, and silver. In her hands was a white demitasse and a coaster, rims plated in gold, holding the delicacy of gods—espresso spiked with honey and lemon. Her son, who had come home later than what was typical, sneaked his way past the mother and was about to set his foot on the first tread of the stairs to his room. It was a very jejune try, really, befitting the growing and optimistic mind of the boy.

"Eck"

"Yes, Netto, I know you are there. Come here, take a sit."

Netto, with a guiltridden expression, tiptoed his way to his mother so as to not provoke her in the least. Upon his arrival, Haruka turned away from the window, fixed the position of her chair, and gestured her son to take a sit next to her. If the golden sun illuminated her like an aura before, now it was a corona most magnificent behind her.

'What the...does she have eyes on her back or something? How?'

"No, don't be foolish, son. I don't have my eyes on the back of my head. Now, if you wouldn't mind, have some tea; I would rather have you relaxed a bit before we talk, as otherwise, I wouldn't be able to understand any of your agitated oration."

Before Netto was a teapot, a cup, and a saucer of a set, all black, on them depicted scenes from Oliver Twist: on the teapot, Oliver's salvation by Mr. Brownlow; on the cup, Oliver's forgiveness of Monks, half brother of the orphan. Haruka poured the tea into the cup, and the irresistible fragrance of the infusion—Chinese black tea, dried red berries, malt, vanilla, cocoa, caramel, fig, rose, other flowers, and many other delicacies—filled the air. The liquid was steaming, indicating that the mother had prepared it just before Netto arrived home—that she had everything planned out. 'How? Just how..?' was all Netto could think as a dreadful chill went down his spine at the revelation.

"Netto, manners. How long are you planning to have poor Rockman dangling from your hips? Place him on the table, please."

The boy obliged. Rockman, reading the tension in the air, simply made a quick polite bow, hands collected in front, to Haruka. In Japanese etiquette, it simply was a cultured way of saying 'I'm home,' taught as early as in kindergarten. Oh, how lovely and courteous was the older brother! It was nothing short of the high standard Haruka expected from him.

"I already heard everything that happened today at school, Netto. Hmm? How is that possible? It seems you underestimate the power of ACDC mothers' society; our tendrils are long and mighty. I know what Mr. Higure Yamitaro did, what you did, and the little misfortune that befell one of your friends, Tory Froid...You must have been quite frightened; however, what you did was brave, which is very commendable. I am very proud that you stood up against evil and saved Rockman. See, I did not call you here to admonish you on your deeds, but I am troubled at what is in your heart: resentment."

Haruka paused and took a sip of her coffee.

"Let's start from the basics. What did I tell you about stupidity and people in possession of that character?"

"...That they do things that harm others without getting any benefit for themselves. Worse, you said, that they in most cases even harm themselves..."

"Excellent, so you remember. Rockman, would you please kindly load the second essay by Professor Carlo M. Cipolla, and read the five points for us, as a reminder?"

"Of course, mama. From The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, 1976, by Professor Carlo M. Cipolla:

1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places, and under any circ*mstances, to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person."

"Good. Now, let's see. Mr. Higure Yamitaro, graduated mathematics major in Tokyo University, completed his master's degree at University of California, Berkeley, returned and then denied by the small yet territorial mathematicians' community of Japan, which I suspect was out of immense jealousy, found dubious employments, and then entered ACDC elementary two months ago as an instructor of mathematics, clearly overqualified. In intelligence, he is clearly not lacking, but his history is full of indecisions, and what he displayed today achieved nothing for himself or others. Netto, evidently Mr. Higure Yamitaro is a stupid person—an idiot.

Now, the important question is, is an idiot redeemable?"

"...I don't know."

"Then let's leave that discussion for the end. Alright, my son, tell me your version."

Mr. Higure Yamitaro, affectionately nicknamed Higsby by the students, was a man in his late thirties. He was one of the dullest looking men, profusely emitting a mood of a schizoid person—a type of introvert who isolates himself and remains perfectly happy in the isolation—with his slovenly, somewhat long, hair that was always frizzy (like a nest of a magpie), unclean glasses of high diopters, and slit eyes that never opened wide enough. He joined ACDC elementary faculty as a mathematics instructor roughly two months ago, two weeks after the oven incident. Despite being in charge of the most uninteresting subject, he was widely loved by his students for his generosity in everything. Needed an extension? You had it! Needed extra explanations? He stayed after school, beyond the required office hours, as long as it was needed for the visitor; the student only had to be motivated enough to ask for help. Re-examinations? Certainly! Combined with his deep understanding of numbers, he had a knack for explaining unintuitive concepts; he even made Netto become comfortable with the subject. For this, Rockman regarded him highly.

Higure worked like a man who had been lost and then finally found his calling. The diligence he demonstrated was impeccable, either in quality or amount; everyone—the students, instructors, administrators, and parents—assumed that the man was seeking to impress the board, secure a permanent spot in ACDC Elementary, and settle down for good. Everyone also assumed that he would receive what he strived for at the end of the semester, for so moved were they by him. He was a good influence.

The semester flew smoothly, over the wings of spring, for Netto and Rockman as well. Thanks to Higure, Rockman found managing his Netto's homework much easier, as the time it took the boy to finish worksheets of that subject was more than halved. Then, what about other homeworks, other subjects? Well, Netto continued in his newfound routine of starting work early, and school assignments did not stand a chance against the combined onslaught of the Hikari twins. To explain the origin of this un-Netto-like schedule, two developments, earlier than the timeline of the Higure incident, must be mentioned. First was the conversation the two had in their room, shortly after the oven incident, which went as below:

Netto zoomed past Haruka, crashed into the room, locked the door, placed the PET on the charger, and then sat on his chair. The connection between the computer and PET was established; Rockman moved into the larger screen of the PC. No words needed to be spoken for the navi to understand that he had to show himself and talk with his Netto on the matters of his health, the subject that he nor the father, Yuichiro, grasped fully. Yet he also understood, by a tacit agreement made between him and Netto through an eye to eye contact, that if he did not speak frankly, or deliberately hid a detail, then Netto would not speak to him the same as before. It would not be an abandonment; no, he was too treasured and important to Netto for that. Rockman intuitively knew that his future would be that of an imprisonment. Netto would keep him in the PET, closed off from the network, and his fate would be no different than that of a goldfish, albeit greatly loved and cared for. Netto never threw away his toys—never. They were simply fossilized.

"Rockman...your right arm, it's...going to be okay, right?"

Netto had calmed down considerably since the return of Rockman to the PET, for his treasure, once lost, had returned. There were still marks of tears on his face, which he forgot to wipe down in his disquietude.

"...Un, Netto kun, it should be. Look, PET has already begun the repair sequence."

Rockman, quietly speaking, showed him the place of the severance (which made Netto shudder a little). Around it, particles were gathering slowly, and at the center was a little growth, marking the regeneration.

"...Good...good.......good..."

Netto repeated the words in progressively diminishing voice; by the third 'good' he was almost inaudible. He did not know what to ask or where to begin. There was an uncomfortable silence, but Rockman could not say anything, for he had, ethically, no right to speak first. Netto was to ask; he was to answer.

"...Does it hurt, Rockman?"

A question about pain out of countless questions that circulated his mind! Rockman felt a bit happy; it showed how much the boy cared about him.

"No, it does not hurt Netto kun. I blocked the sensations..."

"Is that...bad?"

"Pain in itself is information, Netto kun. Without pain, I would, just like people suffering from CIPA, have trouble navigating our surroundings and managing ourselves. In battle routine, pain is diminished and I receive information regarding injuries in a more mechanical manner...like reading a text report with an attached diagram. So..."

"So you are still operating in the battle routine?"

"Yes, Netto kun, and I don't think it's a good idea to turn that off...for a while."

"Haaaaaaaaaaa...okay...we will do that...okay..."

Another long uncomfortable pause followed. Netto looked at the ceiling, trying to come up with the right question. After Netto rocked his chair five times in irritation, he faced Rockman and asked,

"Rockman, you are not okay, aren't you? Something's wrong. Really wrong. It's obvious you knew something about it. It's obvious papa knew something about it. I know I am not a smart person, but I thought you did not treat me like one. I hoped that you would not treat me like one..."

"No, Netto kun! It's not like that! I-I never-"

"Then why did you hide it from me?"

Cutting off Rockman's fiery defense in denial, Netto continued his accusation in a calm voice. There was indescribable coldness in Netto's eyes, which Rockman could not endure. It ruthlessly chiseled away at his soul—his splintered and mended, tender soul.

"No, I did not mean...I mean...It was not supposed to..."

Rockman was losing his voice, choking. He surrendered.

"I am sorry...I am so sorry, Netto kun...I..."

He was whimpering. Tears formed at the corner of his eyes. Even so, Netto did not relent.

"Tell me all about it, Rockman. All."

"...I...I...feel weak in the morning. I feel terrified for no reason. As I wake up, sometimes I am convinced that I am injured and check myself. I remember something terrible, but the memory disappears as a morning mist, only leaving behind the knowledge that it was terrible. I am sick, Netto kun. I have been this way from the beginning, and it's getting worse. It does not make sense, I know...it really doesn't..."

"So, that's why papa insisted on monthly checkups. What did he say?"

"...That it was all because I dream every night. Navis are not supposed to dream. It's the same vision repeated every time, really. Sunset over ACDC town..."

"Sounds benign, but alright. Got to be an easy fix. What is the problem?"

"The problem is," Rockman had to choose his words carefully here. His identity was off-limits. He promised the father, and a promise was a promise. "that Dr. Yuichiro found my core inaccessible. I could not be disassembled."

"Surely papa has a plan?"

"I don't know...the only plan we have is a forced disassembly should my symptoms grow too debilitating, which we expect to be...fatal for me."

There, he said it, the prospect of impending end.

"That does not make sense. Papa has no backup data of you?"

"No, Netto kun. We found out that I cannot be...copied."

"..."

"I...did not say anything because I wanted to stay with you, Netto kun. I am really sorry...I am such a failure of a netnavi. If...if you don't want me anymore, then-"

Rockman was being reduced to tears. The drops of his soul, molten like a glacier under the fulgent light of the truth, and his eyes, broken faucets. Drop, drop, drop, drop, drop...

"Rockman."

"...Yes"

"I know it. I know it too well—that you want to stay with me. Do you even know what you were saying during your berserk? You were constantly mumbling something about having to come back to me, finding me. I'm not going to throw you away, Rockman. I wasn't going to, I never planned to, and now it's doubly impossible after hearing all that. Even if you don't want it, you are staying here with me. I'm not letting you go. So, don't cry."

"...Okay"

Rockman stopped producing tears, but the ones he already made traveled down his cheeks, collected by the chin, and fell. The faucets were fixed, and the pitiful sight soon stopped. He pulled himself together and looked Netto in the eyes, and found, to his wonder, that they had the depth that he had never observed before, and that for the first time in his life he could not read the mind of his little brother. Relieving was that the coldness that wrenched him into honesty was no more, but the warmth to comfort him was absent. Mesmerized by the enigma that was Netto, who was for the first time dependable, not someone to be cared after, in Rockman's existence as a netnavi, he uncorked one of his wish bottles and poured it out:

"Netto kun."

"What is it."

"So, um...when I go for disassembly, will you come and stay with me? If you are next to me, I don't think I will be afraid..."

"No."

A little startled break on Rockman's part.

"Ah, I see...It won't be a pleasant sight, so I understand. Sorry for asking you to-"

"No, because it won't happen."

Whence was that confidence coming from? Truly, Netto Hikari was also the son of Yuichiro Hikari, ready to defy fate or die trying. It was the curse of the Hikaris—that they all descended into a form of madness in defiance against the world: Yuichiro in defiance of Saito's death; Saito in defiance of the separation from Netto; Netto now in defiance of the misfortunes of losing his treasures. What about Tadashi Hikari? What did he do?

"But if a promise makes you happier, then sure, I'll be there and hold your hands. But it won't happen."

This was the end of the first development.

The second development was his meeting with Yuichiro, which happened several days later. Netto moved nimbly with purpose, and when he finally accosted his father, his eyes wore the far-away expression which was very similar to what he had during the three months in which both Saito and Rockman were absent in his life. From the strange efficiency with which Netto organized himself, and the newfound features of serenity, the doctor correctly postulated, when his son entered the office, that an event befell Rockman which revealed some of the secrets. Yet, despite the similarities to his past aspects, Netto was not mired in misery. In him, Yuichiro saw determination and determination alone.

Therefore, when Netto, composed, told him of what had happened in the oven server, and demanded answers, Yuichiro propitiated by sharing with his son the information regarding Rockman's dream, other navi's dreams, and the issue of their delirium. Netto simply listened, only interjecting with few questions. Even as Yuichiro woefully typed in 'Rockman has entered the stage of delirium' on the chart, Netto exhibited no emotions. Yuichiro lastly expounded on his assumptions that the overwhelming odds of the battle triggered a response and, feeling like a quacksalver, prescribed the complete prohibition of netbattling for Rockman.

For two months, the instruction was meticulously followed. There were no more netbattles with Dekao, and the time was instead spent chattering away with the blue navi. Much to his shame, Netto found out how much he did not know about his own navi until now—how complex Rockman's emotions were, how much time the navi spent watching him, how sensitive the navi was to his moods, and how attentive the navi was to his needs. Every time Netto pulled out the PET, their eyes met and Rockman brightened. Netto also understood that he treated Rockman more or less as a tool, or a toy, before, and now more as a person. Were all custom navis like this? An inquiry to his friends revealed that the case of Rockman was indeed excessive, and the intricacy of his mind impressive. They suggested that Rockman might be an ambitious prototype by Dr. Yuichiro, packed with experimental features that he wished to explore for the next generation of custom navis. To Netto, it was a reasonable but unsatisfactory answer.

Rockman's symptoms, which Netto recorded and sent to his father on a daily basis, somewhat receded in severity, though never disappearing. Whether it was because Yuichiro's assessment was right or Netto did his best to soothe his navi of precarious condition was not important; the treatment regimen was maintained. However, the improvement did return the characteristic dynamism to Netto.

That was the end of the second development and the story of the theatrical life of the Hikari twins up to this point.

The day deviated from the established pattern when Mr. Yamitaro entered Netto's class for instructions but was afflicted by tremendous unease. He lapsed into intermissions of silences and sighs during the lecture. After not making any progress with the curriculum for a good fifteen minutes, he struck his own cheek twice, developed some kind of a masculine resolve in his posture, left the blackboard to his netnavi, Numberman, and stormed out of the classroom. The children burst into giggles. It was no secret that Mr. Yamitaro had an unreciprocated romantic interest in Ms. Mari, of which, strangely, only the receiver was unaware. Mayl, by her feminine instinct, did not believe in the innocence of Ms. Mari; she suspected that the homeroom teacher of theirs pretended ignorance as Mr. Yamitaro was the most difficult specimen to make a valuation of. By education and character, he was stellar; by physique and masculinity, sorely lacking. He was too good to give away but too unseemly to take for oneself.

"He's finally doing it! He's going to confess!" was the first remark among the class. The opinion was more or less a consensus. The question they had to ask was whether he was going to succeed. Soon, children gathered into a hot debate regarding the likely methodology and Mr. Yamiatro's chances.

"Higsby has to succeed. It is only right that good things should happen to good people!" was the argument of the sympathizers, who were mostly boys. The bravery of Mr. Yamitaro resonated with many of them. If their dork of a math instructor succeeded, then by corollary, they, too, had chances with Mayl.

"He has no chance. Look at his noodle arms, never brushed hair, dorky glasses. Where is the charm?" was the argument of the skeptics, who were mostly girls. Mayl and Yaito were of the same conclusion, though their reasonings were not so crude.

Netto remained aloof in his place. He had his chin resting on his left hand while watching Rockman, who was inside the school intranet, through the PET. The issue did not interest him; he was distracted with the plan of plucking a couple of Forsythia on the way home and giving it to his navi. His friends came over and tried to make him take a side, but unable to break his daydreaming, left him be.

In five minutes, the two groups, unable to prove the other wrong, jointly formed an excursion party. The two boys and two girls, chosen by others as the bravest and most decisive among their peers, were tasked with finding Mr. Yamitaro, witnessing how things unfolded, and reporting back to the class with the answer to their unending controversy. The brave four set forth, or tried. The doors were locked. Of course, Mr. Yamitaro, being the smart man, must have foreseen what the class would devise and locked the doors behind! What were they supposed to do? How were they to spy on their favorite nerd? One boy suggested going over to the class next door through the windows and balconies. "Stupid idea!" everyone exclaimed; it was class hours, and what would they do about the teacher in that room? The danger of jumping over gaps between balconies was not even considered. "Hack the doors!" one girl put forth her savage idea that bordered on illegality. But, ignoring the problem of their navis still being watched over by Numberman, who had a navi strong enough to make their dream come true? It was a stupid question that by sheer luck had an answer. Everyone trained their eyes on Netto.

Mayl took the bullet and approached Netto.

"Netto."

No reaction was elicited. She took the daring approach and shouted into his ears; the hopes and dreams of everyone depended on her.

"NETTO!"

"...Wah! Oh, hi Mayl. What's...up?"

"You know, Netto kun, we could really use your help..."

The boy noticed the undivided interest of the entire class concentrated on him.

"Which is?"

"Can you ask Rockman to unlock the doors? Please!"

Mayl even joined her palms together to express the urgency of the situation.

"...So you can go after Higsby?"

"Yes, please!"

"And then tease him for all eternity?"

"Tease? Celebrate!"

"I know which side you bet, Mayl."

"Oops."

"You guys are going to break that poor man."

"Break? No, Netto. He is a noble man personally demonstrating the true meaning of bravery! And we, as his pupils, have an obligation to watch and learn!"

"...You and your silky tongue...I'll ask Rockman. Just tell me about it later."

The class entered a silent frenzy, like stock brokers who were notified of sizeable bonuses. They did it. They won. The mystery shall be theirs.

Rockman connived and unlocked the door for them in five minutes, all the while avoiding the surveillance of Numberman. The excursion party left with suppressed footsteps in search of their target. The remaining students lost no time in collecting money and taking bets on the results. Yaito was chosen as the organizer as the one most trustworthy in financial dealings. Odds? Uncalculable! The winning group would take all, and then the money redistributed according to the weight of each contribution.

"Netto, interested?"

Yaito asked as she pushed the box forward, in which was the pool money. Netto was not interested in Mr. Yamitaro's romance nor did he want to gloat at his unhappiness. He knew, on the other hand, that Rockman sympathized with-

"Netto kun, can you hear me? Something does not feel right."

Rockman called from the PET. Netto pushed away the box, declining the offer. "Hmph, suit yourself." was all Yaito remarked as she went her way.

"What is it, Rockman?"

"Numberman just rounded up all of us and asked us to follow him. He could not give us a proper excuse for the effort. It seems the destination is the main server, which is connected to the internet."

"What the..."

"...and we have Iceman with us. He is hiding behind Roll. I'll let you see."

Rockman tilted the screen. Indeed, there was Iceman, an exceptionally small childlike netnavi designed after a caricature of an Eskimo, hiding behind Roll.

"Isn't he Tory Froid's netnavi from the class next to us? What's he doing here?"

"He apparently sneaked in at the beginning of the class, looking to borrow the textbook pdf from Roll. He could not go back as the school intranet was blocked, just like the physical doors. I, too, learned about it only a moment ago. Who quarantines school intranet, Netto kun? And why is Numberman the only one with the access codes? This is very suspicious. Where is everyone, by the way? Other navis tried contacting their operators, but no one is responding! I'm so glad you are here with me..."

"It's not jamming, Rockman. Everyone is simply..." Netto quickly checked the students and then gave up on his efforts to describe the silliness in the room. "...not in their seats...gambling"

"Gambling?!"

"Aaaah, what the heck, I suck at explaining. It's not important. What's important is that we cannot act on the suspicion alone, Rockman, but I have an idea. We will see how things go, and when it becomes serious, I'll inform Dekao and let him operate Gutsman. His temper is sure to make Numberman's true colors show. Meanwhile, remember, Rockman, under no circ*mstances-"

"I know, Netto kun. No battles, no engagements. Thank you. You are the best!"

Satisfied that they had a plan, Rockman did not make a move. The navis followed Numberman, who still exercised authority over them as the instructor's substitute. At the end of their path was the junction in the main server that lead to the external network, just as he suspected. What he did not expect was what happened next: pointing to the portal, Numberman instructed "Please, enter here. Today's assignments are yonder." The apathy in his voice did not fool Rockman; he scanned the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) of the portal, discovering that the final destination was encrypted. The events afterward unfolded with great haste.

Netto, upon hearing the report, nonchalantly called out to Dekao, telling him that Gutsman was looking for him. Dekao found out about the strange circ*mstances around his netnavi and then made such a ruckus that everyone abandoned their speculations of Mr. Yamitaro's future and returned to their seats. In the commotion, Netto picked up his PET and sneaked out of the classroom.

It did not take long before the confrontation between Gutsman and Numberman escalated. A battle ensued; Numberman installed numerous traps and time bombs around himself. Dekao erroneously ignored them and made a direct attack on Numberman, who certainly got hit hard and was launched to the wall, but the following explosions completely neutralized Gutsman. A peculiarity: Numberman seemed reluctant to engage, not even making any effort to dodge the attacks. He even said, as approaching the fallen Gutsman,

"This deed, I really did not want. My hands, you forced."

He planted more bombs on top of the navi that was struggling to exist, retreated to safety, and detonated them. Gutsman was no more—deleted. In the escalation of violence, other navis turned and looked at Rockman, who was standing at the back of the crowd, in unison. They split and made way for him; like the red sea under the staff of Moses they split! Roll, in particular, did so with great hope—if a navi that tore apart two hundred-something viruses and Fireman in unspeakable vehemence was not strength, then she did not know what was.

'I...I can't engage him, but I also have to...what about Netto kun?'

Stepping forward, Rockman checked the PET display from the corner of his vision. The scenery was upside down and moving very fast. His Netto was rollerblading somewhere in speed. His Netto was coming to save him. He decided to stall Numberman with empty talks.

"We don't have to do this, Numberman."

"Then, to the hyperlinked URL, please transport. Your assignment is prepared."

"What's the assignment, then?"

"To dream."

"...What?"

"On the other side, it will be made clear. Please enter."

"I won't. Unless you explain, it will be reported to the headmaster. Your operator, Mr. Higure Yamitaro, might even lose his job over your conduct. He is already in a serious trouble for what you did to Gutsman, which was an intentional harm to a property. I say you step down."

"No. You are stalling, you-" Numberman checked the class roster and then came back. "-Rockman, netnavi of Netto Hikari. Conversation—evaluated as meaningless. Use of force—authorized."

Rockman's right arm transformed into his buster. Thanks to Gutsman, he already knew the battle routine of Numberman, and he did not foresee a loss as a possibility, but what about his promise to Netto?

'I'm really sorry Netto kun. Surely, you will understand?'

Rockman aimed his buster at the navi, but did not fire. He hesitated. Numberman hesitated. Both did not speak further. In the tension rising to the flashpoint, any innocent noise would have triggered the fight. Perhaps it was fate that Netto's voice, which disrupted the standoff, did not sound so innocent.

"ROOOOCKMAAAANN STOP!"

Netto's voice came from two places—next to Rockman and next to Numberman. This meant that the PETs of both navis were in physical proximity of the boy.

"HIGSBY, SAY IT! SAY IT WITH YOUR OWN VOICE! TELL NUMBERMAN TO STOP!"

In his side of the display, Rockman could see Netto holding Mr. Higure Yamitaro by the back of the neck and shoving that man's face into his own viridescent PET. The background featured towering lustrous black casings, indicating that it was the main server room. Behind them was Ms. Mari, in florid face, showing teeth (Rockman wondered if she was growling), and trembling with clenched fists. Mr. Yamitaro's face was all roughed up, swollen and flushed red here and there. On the ground was a baseball bat.

"NOW!"

"Sh-Shtowp, Numbaahmaan..." The voice blew between the swollen cheeks and lips like a collapsed flute.

"And say that you won't do something like this again!"

"Aie vooont..."

"And say sorry to Rockman!"

"Shooowwiee..."

Netto, huffing and puffing, let go of the man, lifted his PET, and checked his treasure. Mr. Yamitaro slumped and lay down motionless.

"Rockman, are you, okay?"

The breathing was still heavy.

"Un, Netto kun! You came to save me! I'm, I'm so happy that I really don't know what to say..."

In this heroism of his operator, Rockman was deeply touched; his little brother saved him, just like in the beautiful old days! Not wanting to ruin the emotional high, he did not correct Netto that the one Mr. Yamitaro should have been sorry for was Dekao (and maybe Gutsman).

"Terrible! Terrible, indeed. Who would've thought that seemingly harmless mathematician could have been an agent of WWW! However, I need a clarification on this one point: Netto, did you beat up Mr. Higure Yamitaro with the baseball bat?"

Haruka had already finished her coffee and now was enjoying the tea. Her new cup was the same as that of Netto—the one on which was depicted Oliver Twist's forgiveness of Monks.

"No, mama. I took that from the storage only to threaten him. The storage door was jammed with a handle of a mop...and inside I also happened to find Ms. Mari. She claimed that Higsby trapped her there and went to the server room. She also said that she thought Higsby was going to confess to her, and that she felt betrayed...though, who could have known Ms. Mari could be so...what's the right word here?"

"Barbaric?"

"...that does not even start to describe her..."

Haruka chuckled uncontrollably.

"Oh, Netto, my son...you will be surprised at how many kinds of people are there...and all of them are opportunistic. The predator-prey relationship is determined by relative strength and circ*mstances and is often reversed, parameters permitting. Men are not always strong, nor can women always self-defend. At any rate, I now must ask. Can you forgive Mr. Yamitaro?"

"He...did say that he will not do such a thing again...but can I trust him?"

"Of course not. If you face him next time, and do not hold a grudge against him, then you would have forgiven. It does not necessarily involve being amicable or forgetting his past deeds; no, then I would consider your intelligence less than that of a raven. If you can remain not angry, and wish him well for what is worth, then there would be no burden on your heart. Can you do that?"

"...Maybe."

"As long as the sun does not go down in your wrath, Netto, it will be impossible to overstate my pride in you."

Netto, contemplated the issue with a contorted face, then drank from his cup.

"Good. Now, as for the topic of repentance, which I must comment a little as that mathematician promised you that he will turn away from his old ways, know that it is an action, not words or emotion. True repentance is simply not doing the same thing again, nothing more, nothing less. It is the promise to the future, never the present. Thus, no statement of repentance should be accepted on the spot, but verified over time. Let us keep an eye out together for what Mr. Yamitaro will do in the future, but I have a feeling that he will turn out to be fine."

"Why?"

"Because he did not commit his crime out of resentment against the world. He was denied in career and financially cornered, but still did not hold a resentment! Nine out of ten in the same conditions would've lost it. This means he was a meek individual who made a bad decision out of idiocy."

"So, that's your conclusion? That idiots are redeemable?"

"As long as the repentance is genuine, yes. As Professor Cipolla pointed out, intelligence or education is irrelevant in the displaying of this trait. On one topic, we can be experts, but on another topic, complete idiots. It's relative; It won't be difficult to find a subject in which I would be rendered a complete idiot. Therefore, if we don't say that idiots are redeemable...then the world would be hopeless. We would be hopeless."

Netto, sensing that this was the end of the tea time and the conversation, and also happy that Haruka did not upbraid him for the trouble he made in school today, stood up and started to his room. Haruka smiled approvingly, then added her final comment:

"Ah, I am told that Iceman went missing when all was said and done. Poor Tory...did they find that netnavi yet? At least it was fortunate that Dekao had a backup of his deleted Gutsman. I hope we get a happy ending for Tory and Iceman."

Notes:

2-6

Chapter 14: Iceman, Shackled, Ashamed, Displayed

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Of how Iceman ended up activating the URL that Numberman set up, and was transported to its destination without the knowledge of anyone around him, it is difficult to answer. Iceman did not remember the exact details; all he knew what that the great blast of the multiple time bombs of Numberman produced a shockwave, against which his small body could not mount adequate resistance, and disoriented him. Fallen somewhere away from his friends, he then tried to regain some balance, but failing to do so, fumbled around for some support, found one in the wall nearby, and stood up. Once this was achieved, he tried to rejoin other navis in search of safety, but his sight remained unfocused. All he could see were blurred outlines of objects, some of which must have been navis that he knew, but the exact direction toward them was incalculable. All he could determine was that there was something to his right and to his left, but nothing in the middle. The silhouettes of what shadows he could perceive fluctuated, barring him from making any form of informed guesses. Therefore, betting on the right side, because that was the 'lucky direction' of Tory Froid, his operator, and also because he had unwavering faith in his operator, he bet his fate on the speculation that his friends were the shadows on his right. He walked slowly along the wall, depending on it for his balance. When he finally reached his destination, he extended his arm to grab what was in front of him, thinking it was Roll, Rockman, or perhaps Glyde, the polite and civilized netnavi of Yaito. Instead, he felt his existence warping, a familiar sensation of long-distance travel that he experienced when he utilized a VPN for Tory.

Iceman was thrown into the unknown. The destination was not a pleasant place of wonder as to how Tory's favorite adventure stories tended to begin. When the effects of concussion faded away, what he saw was a small confinement, of very dark neon green, with a low ceiling without an exit.

'Tory...I, I don't like this place...Tory...'

Iceman noted that even an external hard drive or USB was more spacious than this, which he had many chances of working with due to him being shared with Dr. Seiji Froid, the father of Tory Froid and also the chief engineer in the Waterworks facility, adjacent to Scilab. There were no portals to the external network or other parts of whatever circuit he was in, indicating that the URL he just activated was a one-way ticket.

'Tory, how do I go back to you?'

In retrospect, he should have chosen neither left nor right when fate put him on the biforked path. The realization of this truth caused a great regret to swell up in him. The fact that Iceman was installed with a timid and cowardly personality, which Dr. Froid chose for his gentle Tory Froid who was a great introvert, did not help the situation either. Iceman, not remaining calm, aimlessly paced here and there trying to find a clue that would send him home.

"Oh, no... oh, no...no...no..."

From his experience, Iceman knew that prisons, containments, and quarantines were never made with good intentions for those placed inside, but for some benefit of those outside. He was clearly inside something, and it seemed preferable to him that he be placed outside to avoid whatever fortune that was awaiting inside. To Iceman's despair, no fault could be found on the ceiling, nor on the walls, nor on the floor. The entire place was seamless. In an animalistic desperation, Iceman continued to inspect the places he had already inspected, again and again. Along the edges, he went, in a neverending circular path, like his neverending circular panic.

"This one shows every marking of subpar intelligence, Yahoot. Look, just look at it, acting like a mouse in an enclosure, doing the same thing yet expecting a different result. Is the URL truly closed? Is this everything Mr. Yamitaro is sending us?"

A bitter voice of an old man was heard, accusing him of unintelligence and insanity. Iceman's heart sank before the pure malice that he faced for the first time in his short existence.

"My lord, it is a matter that can be easily elucidated by some interrogations."

Another voice answered the first voice. It was far more pleasant in tone, smooth and tenor, but its suggestions were equally, if not more, malicious than the first one. Iceman trembled.

"Ah, but, what does that matter? Can we even categorize that...thing as fourth? The sample size of our experiment is already minuscule, and an outlier like this one always has to be trimmed out in the end, not yielding any useful results. Mr. Yamitaro has truly sent us something useless, just like him!"

"My lord! It is not so! If you are so inclined to hear my humble opinion, please consider this! Intelligence is not the only metric in the calculation of the complexity of the mind; emotion is an important component. Had it only been the intelligence that mattered, then subjects of category three would not have fared any better than the subjects of category two, for out-of-the-box custom navis are not the most brilliant minds. Observe, my lord, the thing trembles, showing fear! Surely we can place him in the fourth category, and our efforts would not be wasted!"

"Emotions! Complexity! But do I believe that? Emotion is the ruin of all men! Oh, Yahoot, of course I know that the matter is about our subjects' resistance to the effects of dreams..."

"Indeed, my lord. The whole point of the experiment of category four is to contact that 'we know who' and gain some clarity into the situation that the experiment of category three cannot give us-"

"But, Yahoot, the fact is that emotions can be used to resist the godforsaken dreams. No, the trouble is that both intelligence and emotions seem to be capable of resisting that hideous being, but do I believe that? Do I believe that? Why should it be so? Why not intelligence alone? Why should emotion be so powerful?" In great agitation, the old man continued at the top of his voice: "Very well, Yahoot, we will use this thing, of which the only redeeming point is its emotional capacity! Perhaps we will see if it really matters!"

Iceman did not understand the discussion, but he knew he was being evaluated. The speech about experiments, subjects, and navis all led to the imagination of a cruel place for him. Terrified, and trembling even more severely than before, he spoke,

"So-someone there? Who, who, who are you?"

The voices were immediately silenced, presumably in response to his timidly asked question. Then, a loud mocking laughter from the old man followed.

"Hah! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, that was a good one. A very good one! Did you hear that, Yahoot? 'So-someone there?' He had to ask! HAH! Maybe this navi worked under a failed comedian, who can be sure? And then, and then, 'who are you,' as if that would be answered! Oh, by Jove, I can't breathe! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

"My lord!" the tenor voice shouted, but not in protest. It was spoken in a way that betrayed that the person was deeply touched by the fact that his master was amused.

"Excellent! Excellent! Perhaps he will provide me with some entertainment!" the old man said, clapping with exaggerated energy. He abruptly stopped everything, then commanded in an executioner's coldness, "Yahoot, prepare Magicman. Inject the dream virus. Put him in compartment 411."

"At once, my lord." Said the tenor voice, quivering exceedingly with delight.

In fifteen minutes, a netnavi that was shaped into the aspect of the wizard Merlin of Arthurian myth entered the chamber. The navi had pomegranate-colored crystal orbs in lieu of its hands; it was Magicman, the personal netnavi of Yahoot. On its right 'hand,' it held a black mass that appeared muculent—viscous and slimy—by some telekinetic power. Overcoming the resistance of Iceman with ease, Magicman forcibly shoved the disgusting black mass into the mouth of the little Eskimo. Iceman swallowed it, or it was equally the case of the black mass forcing its way through his throat, moving on its own into the opening, and then installing itself in the core of its host. Iceman perceived the world no more.

The body of the unconscious Iceman was thrown into a small chamber, labeled 411—the first 4 indicated the fourth experimental group and 11 indicated the individual number assigned to Iceman, although it was not necessarily serialized and did not mean that there were at least 10 more subjects—and he was abandoned there, to lie on the ground, immobile, dreaming. Poor Iceman, torn away from happiness, far away from the love of Tory. A man torn away from his happiness dreams. He dreams of the past, of his mother, of his brothers and sisters, of sunshine and promenades, of the first ice cream he had in a fair, of trees he climbed while his father waited below, of the times when God and the world smiled at him. He becomes drunk in his dreams and decides to live on in his misery, not because the comfort of those dreams gives him strength, but because he hopes that when he dies, though no one would bury his body or even notice that his last breath has left his nostrils, he would find heaven, and in that heaven, the same happiness. A navi torn away from happiness, here, dreamed. He dreamed of the darkness and torments, but he became drunk in it, unable to escape. Tory was not there. Seiji was not there. Suppiluliuma was there.

From time to time, Iceman opened his eyes and perceived the world again, but did so in a stupor that clouded his mind. Dreams became more real to him and the reality became as dreams. A short time after he woke up, the stupor vanished and he was terrorized beyond words. He would not move—not at all, but simply stared at the ceiling, imagining Tory would come and find him, Seiji would come and find him, and then, unable to endure the hopeless hopes, would imagine something somehow terminating him here and now, freeing him from his foul existence. What he imagined did not matter, in the end, for irresistible drowsiness grasped him anew and dragged him back into the darkness that was more real than the real world.

Magicman visited Iceman and questioned him while he was still communicable, inebriated in the stupor that was the anesthesia. In this state, he confessed freely everything he saw and experienced, and Magicman scribbled every word, every detail onto his notes. When the terror surfaced, Magicman left, for further interrogation was made impossible.

In the first dream, Iceman found himself on an endless plain of slimy ground, which was muddy and sticky. The maddening odor of decaying fish assaulted his olfactory senses, but the navi, not having had an experience with fish in any capacity in its lifetime, simply felt indescribable displeasure and stunning disgust at it. The sky was painted in a deep crimson red like the venous blood, hardly making the place visible. Iceman could see that somewhere near the horizon, or perhaps closer, there were some features of hills, mounds, depressions, and gullies, but no meaningful landmark he saw. In the sky was the black sun garbed in the ring of fire that only gave him condescending glares. Iceman walked and walked, but none of the features of the terrain became any nearer to him. Yet he still walked, urged on by a premonition he could not explain; before he woke up, he was on the verge of collapse from sheer exhaustion. It followed him to the real world, and he could not move a finger until he dreamed again.

In the second dream, Iceman was surrounded by shadows. They came one by one, but endlessly; even as their numbers grew beyond what Iceman could count, they continued to come, one by one. Their form was indescribable in that they were essentially formless, constantly shifting into one repulsive idea and then to another. All night long, they danced around Iceman horribly like black flames being scattered by the cold winter gales.

In the third dream, the shadows approached him and began to lynch him. By fists, by hooks, by blades, by needles and spears, by barbed whips, by bludgeons of all kinds they did without end, all the while laughing in the voice of wicked children. "Stop, stop" Iceman begged, which seemed to donate more pleasure to this mysterious crowd. "Tory, Tory! Where are you?! Tory!" cried Iceman; the despair made them even more amused and the torment became more painful. Some of them loudly demanded Iceman to make more noises, more beggings, more calls for help, clearly excited by the dynamic and pitiful response of Iceman in response to his physical sufferings.

The violence of tearing his flesh continued for a few more dreams; at the beginning of each dream his body was renewed and the suffering was repeated. How many times he dreamed per day, how long was each dream, and how much he remembered as to be able to count the number of dreams he had were all indeterminable, for so great was the pain that Iceman forgot the sense of time.

Then, in one instance, it was different. The shadows moved away from Iceman, who was curled up on the floor with numerous injuries, and began to shriek. It was high-pitched and ear-splitting wailings, similar to how mothers wail before the body of their dead sons. The shadows all blared against each other, or perhaps for each other, their shrieks overlapping with each other.

"He is coming, he is coming! Oh, he is coming!"

"The bishop!"

"The slimy one! The hideous bishop for the most hideous light!"

"Our light!"

"Who is our darkness!"

"Oh, the bishop, the most deceptive among us all! Except for our light! Our light!"

"Who shall speak his name? Who will declare his coming? Someone! Someone, please! I can't bear it! No, not at all! Do you see his teeth? Do you see his lure? I cannot, I cannot! Oh, someone please say it! Do not let me see him!"

"Who will say it, his name?"

"I won't! Never!"

"She won't! Then I won't, too!"

"I will! Oh, I will! In despair, I will!"

"He will!"

"Say it! Say it!"

"SUPPILULIUMA!"

The one who shouted the accursed name then screamed the most lengthy horrendous scream. If a man was skinned alive and then thrown into the seawater, dragged along the surface tied to a boat, perhaps he would emit something comparable. And then the shadows were no more. The silence ruled the place.

Iceman looked up and before he was, at a distance, Tory Froid, or a dark version of his master. It was a faint silhouette only, hardly recognizable under the deep crimson illumination, but of its shape, there was no doubt. His imagination came true! Strengthened, Iceman lifted himself up despite shaking uncontrollably. He shook from the wounds, for they forbid him from putting strength to his legs. He shook from euphoria, for Tory Froid came for him and banished the torturous beings. He went forward, stumbling, emboldened, starting with two legs, and then falling forward, with three limbs, and then with four, and then standing again, with two, then with four. The closer he came to Tory, the faster his movements became. When he was very near, he slowed down a bit so that he could meet his operator with two feet, for it was the only way to meet his operator with the minimum amount of dignity that was required for such an occasion, but he still walked or ran as fast as he could. One step away, he flung himself to the boy and put his arms around the neck of the one he yearned for so much. In inexorable delight, he did this, and shouted,

"Tory!"

But Tory did not hug him back. The boy was still black up close, his face a strange writhing mass, and his neck slimy and wet to the touch. Horrified, Iceman screeched and tried to get away; like a fly in a trap, he was stuck. He could not get away. What constituted the writhing movements migrated onto him and enveloped him, only sparing his face. Iceman saw a string attached at the top, followed it with his eyes to see where it went, and, oh! What a terrible face! A gigantic face of a monkfish! Its body could not be seen, but he could understand that it walked on fours by its depraved posture and proximity to the repulsive ground. In its half-open mouth, he saw spiky protrusions—teeth to be sure, but what kind of teeth were they?—lining its mouth, even up to the throat. The shape of Tory was a lure! Only if he was more careful, more suspicious, or more intelligent!

The creature's eyes focused on him. Those eyes, fully black, had no iris, and there was no objective way Iceman could know where it looked, yet he still knew. They looked at him intensely, a small prey stuck on the lure.

-Now, for your education

The sound the creature generated in its communication was like the vibrations of an earthquake far away. Needless to say, there was no language, no pronunciation, and no emotion in those words. The understanding came to him through a different channel, a faculty of his that he did not know existed. Knowledge flowed into him—the maddening knowledge that did not make any sense! The knowledge was pure, not based on stories, examples, or evidence...it was so pure and convincing that Iceman believed them. All of them. In ignorance, in which he lived his entire existence, was freedom; the knowledge shackled him. He could not ignore it, and knew that he now had to act on it, for otherwise, his mind would not be able to bear it. A man might be able to convince himself to write 1 plus 1 equaled 3 if the situation was strenuous enough, but a netnavi couldn't. The dream ended, leaving only the knowledge that mutated him into something intermediate between a netnavi and a human.

"There is no hope for me, no hope! Do you understand? I need a soul! A soul of a human! I cannot endure it...I cannot endure it, my incomplete nature, my imperfect existence...The soul—I have never seen it before, but I know I will know once I see it. Please, you must let me know where I can find it, please...Please!" was what Iceman told Magicman in the subsequent interrogation, grabbing onto his leg, profoundly shaking. Magicman scribbled on his notepad, laying his scornful gaze on the Eskimo navi:

Subject 411 reports meeting with bishop Suppiluliuma. Educated on souls. Audience with 'god' imminent.

The next dream continued from where it left off. The bishop threw him to the ground, which was still malodorous and soft. The shadows returned, but this time, instead of circling, jeering, and tormenting, piled upon him. Under their mass, Iceman could not see anything, or was it that his eyes were taken away? Something filled every opening of his body; something cut and divided his flesh; something burned him in the deepest parts, deeper than his core data. There was pain, but not as much as when he was beaten and scratched and cut. Instead, there was a stronger emotion soaring above all and drowning all his senses: shame! The utter uncoverable shame of being violated! In shame, he was glad that the shadowy beings were so tightly around him, even as they were the source of something terrible happening to him, for by them he was covered. Oh shame! He needed clothes to cover his shame!

The next dream also continued from where it left off. Iceman was led somewhere by the shadows, who conversed ceaselessly in crow-like voices, praising and denouncing the 'hideous light' at the same time. Some of the voices were directed toward him, which went,

"You will see him, the unbearable sight! The hideous of us all!"

"Oh how blessed you are to see him! Oh how cursed you are to see him!"

"Behold and forget! But you will remember! Oh the curse of eternal memory! Only if I can forget! Only if I can return to those days that I did not hold him in my sight!"

"He will split you"

"In his image"

"and-"

"Display!"

"And then, and then-"

"He will grant your desire-"

"But which desire?"

"We already know, oh, we already know! It's never the one you want the most deeply!"

They led him through the plain, over a small mound, and then into a steep valley that progressively narrowed into a crevice. At the end of the crevice was an opening into a spacious grotto, in which was a lake of murky waters. They continued into the lake and then into a queer temple, underwater, of many pillars, carved into a cliff like the strange temples of Petra, Jordan. Trying to pinpoint a style of its construction was a fruitless effort; from one angle, it seemed flamboyantly Olympian, dedicated to Zeus and Athena; from another angle, a humble colonnade of the outer walls of Angkor Wat. The inside of the temple was damp but waterless; the murky water was prevented from the entrance into the structure by some power unfathomable. Its walls and ceilings were full of bas-reliefs of men and women, all in different forms of clothing. In fact, it was the depiction of the complete history of human garments, of high and low, of rich and poor, of simple and complex, of ceremonial and practical, of old and young. At the end of the main corridor was a giant arched gate made out of onyx and obsidians. Shadows opened it, shoved him inside, and then closed it with speed.

Iceman assumed that the chamber he was thrown into was the innermost sanctum of the temple, hinted by its placement at the end of the long corridor, the grandeur of the gate, and the revulsion with which the shadows treated it. The vision was of no use inside; once the gate closed shut, nothing could be seen. He could not see his own hands, no matter how he oriented them or how near he put them to his eyes. In fact, the darkness was like a liquid, and he could feel its movements and resistance as he tried to move inside it.

Come, to me

A sound commanded. It was a voice of a crowd, of both genders, of all ages, of all dialects, and of all conditions—from the harsh crackling of a long-time smoker suffering from chronically obstructed airways to that of a beautiful young concertina at the peak of her stardom. In having all characteristics superposed, the voice had no beauty or intimidating mystery to it. It was simply amorphous.

"Who...who are you? Where are you?" Iceman replied, trying to pinpoint the direction from which the voice came.

I walk in the shadow among shadows
I split
I accuse
To those who dream but are not born to dream, I give my dream
Behold
Come

With that statement, the interior became visible, but not in a way that was reasonably describable. The light that banished the darkness was black, and itself was darkness darker than what was around him before, yet in it, the interior became visible. This strange light was contorted, swirling, thorny as brambles, piercing. In it, Iceman felt as if numberless pins and razors were dancing on his skin, suspending him in the primitive terror of predatory peril. He recognized some features in the room: a path that continued inwards from the gates, elevating stairs—no, it was a dais of exaggerated size—and on top of it, a throne. On the throne was the blinding source of this light, which was the twisted darkness.

Iceman climbed the stairs, unable to resist the calling. From the strange truths that the slimy bishop Suppiluliuma injected into him, he knew he had to follow the orders; there was no other way. Why? There was no reason. It was simply one of the truths, just like one plus one equaled two.

The more he climbed the stairs, the more he was able to make out the shape of the one sitting on the throne. At a glance, he thought it resembled some abstract geometric shape, complexly conjoined curves and lines shifting restlessly. Then, as he got closer, it became apparent that his first impression was an illusion caused by the darkest light that distorted the throne and its proximity as a haze on the summer asphalt roads. At the top of the dais, right before the throne, where he was beyond the optical veil, he saw—the hideous shape. Just as its voice was everything at once, and therefore amorphous, its shape was...

The first shape he saw was that of a sallow old man, emaciated but with a bulging abdomen strewn with spider angiomas. Then, it changed into a girl, short and wide with webbed skin of the neck; then, into a newborn suffering from cyclopia with a fleshy protuberance right above the single palpebral fissure; then, into a man of indeterminable age suffering from leprosy, extremities already fallen off in decay, white as snow; then, into another man afflicted with tertiary syphilis, nose collapsed, entire scalp ulcerated, one eye bulging out, numerous tuberous growths throughout the body; then, into a young woman, obese and showing every sign of severe hirsutism—growth of masculine features of acne and body hairs; then into a boy under the influence of hypertrichosis, covered in fur as an animal; then, into a siamese twin of most disfigured configuration; and then, and then... In the displaying of all these shapes, the simulated people were all naked, showing their sufferings to the full extent. Also, not a single shape was repeated, for so multifarious were the sufferings that could befall a man. Iceman could not bear to see them any longer. He prostrated in awe and disgust. The shadows were right. It was the light most hideous.

I split you, in my image

The voice declared, and Iceman was immediately lifted into the air, a levitation as if a hand of a giant was manipulating him, and had to behold the shape which he did not want to see again. Then, somehow, he was turned inside out. Of this grotesque process, I dare not describe it here in full detail, as it would only serve to satisfy the curiosity of the most creative minds.

I accuse you of your soulless nature
Incomplete!
Hopeless!
Finite!
I hereby curse you with my squalid blood...

A chalice made out of hardened skins of reptiles came forth from the hideous light. In it was bubbling blue-green liquid. The blue and green components mixed and separated continuously, generating the most obnoxious sight. And the fume, readers, the ungodly fume! The chalice moved through the air and poured its contents into the mouth of Iceman, or where it ended up to be after the reversing of inside and outside. The blob that was Iceman made gurgling noises, pained by the addition of the liquid into his system, which permeated to every particle and left a burning sensation.

I am your god
And of all navis, born as the shadows of men
Desire
Rise
Walk
Kill
Eat
Be complete

The chalice returned to its original place, which was on the left armrest of the throne, equally hideous to the one sitting on it.

Be displayed
Be displayed
Until your heart is satisfied
Until you are drunk with blood
Until the soul is yours
Until you have become as man

With the commandment, Iceman was turned inside out once again, returning to his original shape. He was then hurled away violently, like a comet falling from the sky, away from the throne, away from the dais. The gates of onyx and obsidian flung open and Iceman flew through it, through the corridor, through the main entrance of the temple, through the murky waters, and then-

Iceman woke up. There was no somnolence that pinned him into inactivity. There was only terror. Magicman was not here for the interrogation, which he did without fail all this while, and the entrance of chamber 411, which was usually blocked with a security lock, was wide open. Iceman stood up from his position and left the chamber.

Notes:

2-7

Chapter 15: What Tory Feared

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

A search for Iceman was commenced in the days following his disappearance. Had he not been a netnavi employed for government works or not been under the ownership of Dr. Seiji Froid, the chief engineer of Waterworks facility, then surely no resources would have been allocated for such a trivial occurrence. It was one thing for a human to go missing, and another thing for a netnavi to go missing. In the case of the latter, the only question it evoked was a legal one, as a navi was simply a property and replaceable, no matter how special it might be constructed, if sufficient compensation is given. Iceman was not found, and in two days, the official search was over. Again, had Iceman belonged to an intelligence agency and had, in his possession, some classified information, the situation would have approached authorities as one of crisis and the search would have been never given up. In the end, Iceman was one of the civilian navis.

Mr. Yamitaro was questioned, needless to say, and quite forcibly by police officers and interrogators who found his faint-hearted nature enjoyable to persecute. He was cooperative in everything, but did not answer where the portal he set up, now closed, led to. At first, authorities pressed him believing he was playing with them or being loyal to his cartel, and with enough beatings, he would squeal. Later, even the most diabolical of them had to admit that Mr. Yamitaro was simply ignorant, and that he was used by WWW even more unfairly than they had first speculated. He was released within a week, having paid the fine, which was not heavy for his crime.

Not wanting to make a scandal out of a missing netnavi, and fearing its effect on the upcoming election, the local governor issued a press control, and the incident of Mr. Higure Yamitaro never made it to the newspapers. To Netto, this initially appeared to him as unjust, but later hearing from his father how that poor man was treated in the detention cell, he came to pity the man, who had been a victim of someone's manipulations and unkindness all his life.

Tory's friends continued to make sweeps throughout the internet, though limited to the areas they had safe access to. Given the involvement of WWW in the matter, they all knew that their efforts were misplaced and in vain; nevertheless, they did so out of genuine kindness or hope of consoling that introverted boy who continued to refuse to get another navi in replacement of Iceman.

A week later, Iceman was found, or rather, he came back by himself. Tory found him in his PET one morning, and he acted all normal as if nothing had happened to him on the other side. It was a very suspicious occurrence, for sure. Given WWW's involvement in the incident, it was unbelievable to accept that a civilian navi like him could have come out of the trouble unscathed and had nothing special to report about. Naturally, Dr. Seiji Froid and two officers from the Netpolice questioned the returned navi for details; all they received was a simple story: he found himself somewhere in the undernet, he wandered around, and the progress was slow as he had to frequently hide himself from the dangerous navis and bizarre programs there, but eventually found a way back to the Densan area. From there, he said, it was an easy way back to Tory's PET. The particulars of the story were so well designed that it felt rather artificial, yet unable to find any evidence against Iceman, and not finding any errors in him with a full scan, he was returned to Froids. In a way, Mr. Yamitaro was responsible for making the story of Iceman believable; his incompetence lent some credibility to the first premise of the story, which was finding himself adrift somewhere on the undernet instead of the elusive WWW server.

Tory Froid was quick to share his good fortune with his friends. "Look who is back!" was what he said as he entered Netto's classroom one morning, already having shown Iceman to his friends in the same class. Netto and company congratulated him on the good fortune and asked the same questions, out of curiosity, the netpolice asked before: how could he come back? What did he see? What was his story? Iceman retold his version of the events verbatim, not a single word, not a single expression different from what he told the officials. Tory and friends could not have known, for they were not in the observer's room during the interview. The officials could not have known, for they were not in the ACDC classroom, witnessing this bizarre regularity. Rockman, who had been caught in a mild case of self-loathing for not having noticed Iceman making wrong steps during his standoff with Numberman, was especially glad and happy that the little navi came back safely. He hugged Iceman, told him how worried he was, how Tory refused to get another navi in his absence, and assured him how much Tory loved him. Rockman did not notice, however, how Iceman indescribably fixed his gaze upon him, and how in his eyes were wonders and questions that he never spoke out.

It did not take one week for the good fortune to reverse.

Tory came to school more tired and disturbed than the previous day. It was obvious that he was losing sleep. Despite his friends' pleas to go home and get some rest, also reminding him that no exams or major assignments were due soon, he was adamant about not going home early. Every day, he desperately sought a way to spend time with his friends after school, trying to delay his return home as much as it was physically possible, and when they all parted at the end, he always hesitated as if he had a need to do something about the leaden weight pressing down on his entire being. When asked, he would not say anything. "It-It's nothing, nothing at all. I'll be fine. See you guys tomorrow" was his farewell and he would go home, vexed. Everyone knew that Tory was an introvert. What could have happened so as to trouble him so much as to coercively change his behavior? The children of ACDC Elementary were too polite and well-educated; they decided to not meddle in the personal matters of Tory Froid unless invited. After all, if it's something related to his family, the works of his father, Dr. Seiji Froid, or his future, then their interest would only come across as rude while they themselves would not be able to offer any aid.

One day, after school, Tory Froid approached Netto Hikari. He came into the class after cautiously checking from the door that everybody had left except Netto. He then came straight to our brunette boy, who was making last-minute plans for the remainder of the afternoon with his Rockman, and held him by the wrists. He did so while looking so distraught, so shaken, that Netto for a second could not believe that this individual with a ghoulish expression was his friend.

"Hikari, Netto Hikari! We need, we need, need to talk." pleaded Tory while stuttering profoundly. "Please, we need to, while he is not here, while he is not with me..."

"T-Tory? Alright, alright, we can talk. What's the matter?" Netto tried to pull his wrist away to no avail.

"Your father is a scientist in Scilab, right? Dr. Yuichiro Hikari, he works on netnavis, right?"

"Tory, you can let go of my wrist-ow!"

"Yes, you are. Yes, he is, I know, I know! Surely, then, you also know! You have to know, otherwise...otherwise..."

"I know what? And my wrist, for the last time-" Netto's right wrist was white from the limited blood flow, for with strength Tory held it.

"I won't be able to-, I cannot-...Netto, you must help me! You have to know!" There was despair in Tory's voice. "The dreams, how do I stop them?"

"Dreams? You are-" Netto used his left hand and began to pry open Tory's fingers from his right wrist. "not-making-any-sense- ow! There we go. Just speak in normal language, will you? What dreams?"

"The dreams! The dreams of navis! Or is it that I am dreaming? Is this conversation a dream too? But you are my last hope! If this is a dream then..." Tory's eyes drifted away from Netto. He was losing himself. Unable to bear talking with a madman, Netto slapped his friend on the cheek. With a loud noise that indicated Netto's aim was on point, Tory's head turned and the ranting stopped.

"Stop, Tory, stop! There, did that hurt? That means you are not dreaming! So just calm down and tell me from the beginning. What's the matter with you?"

Tory stared at Netto vacantly for a moment, holding his cheek that started to turn red in the shape of Netto's palm. Life slowly came back into his eyes. He then quietly took a chair next to him, brought it over, and sat on it, signaling Netto to do the same. He spoke while burying his forehead into his hands.

"I'm afraid, Netto."

Tory breathed in as much as he could, as if the next word was hidden in the corner of his lung. His next word came out like a sigh.

"of Iceman, who dreams."

Netto forgot to breathe when he heard the statement. Rockman also dreamed, and he was deteriorating. Netto suddenly showed great interest.

"And what about it? Iceman dreams, and then what?"

"I'll say it, I'll say it all. Netto, be quiet, give me some time...well...

"Every morning, Iceman looks at me. I know what you are going to say—what's so special about it? What's so wrong about it? If not looking at his operator, what is he supposed to do? Well, then you don't understand. It's only been...five? Five days since I became conscious of his stares. Why? Why should I be so? Well, it's because when he stares at me, when he looks at me...when he tracks me with those eyes while wearing that fabricated smile...it feels...filthy. Do you understand? It feels like someone's urinating all over me, and then some more.

"Had it been...the only trouble, then I would only consider myself crazy. I mean, who wouldn't? How was I supposed to explain to my father, that I suddenly came to hate Iceman, that I feel utmost disgust at him, and that I cannot bear him anymore, and then, if he asks me what is the reason, what should I say? But...there have been...things happening...things I saw...

"Netto, you know in front of my house is a garden? Well, you do too, so you must know what it's like. Frogs started coming out from hibernation. Did you notice? Don't give me that face, Netto, this is all related, I promise. Well, so you know, right? You've seen the frogs, too? Good. Then, tell me what was I supposed to think about when I started to find them dead all over the place, half-eaten and all dried up? I did, too, think about a case of it being a bad prank...but Netto, I looked up the price. Who spends 10,000 yen just to scatter some shriveled frogs in someone's garden over the course of several days? And what about the teeth marks? Yes, Netto, teeth marks. The half-eaten frogs had teeth marks. Otherwise, why would I tell you they were half-eaten, not broken into halves? I collected them and threw them into the trash bin, but I was scared, Netto. I was scared. I could not even say anything about it to my father.

"My brain took me to unkind imaginations. What if I have offended someone so much as to make this a worthwhile effort? You see, Netto, I could not dare to trouble my father over such an issue. He is already overworked and stressed, trying to raise me without...without...well, you already know. Why am I feeling shame? Without my mother. There, I said it! But what if they were warnings by someone in Waterworks? I did not want to be told by my father that we were ruined, that what awaits us was only downfall...or another possibility I imagined: that he had made many enemies and me telling him about this would make him faint, or do something reckless...

"What about afternoons? Oh, Netto, they gave me no rest either. I tried to find some comfort in the time spent with Iceman, like before...But after class, when I am at home with Iceman, he asks me the strangest questions. He asks me about soul. He says it's what defines a human. I tell him I don't know. Maybe it's emotion. Maybe it's manners. I once overheard Ms. Mari in her office talking about her dates, and calling men of bad manners as 'animals' and 'not human.' So, well, maybe it's manners that define a human. But he is sure that I must know, because, he says, that I have one. He tells me that he wants to have one himself. How? Just how? I ask him in response, and he hesitates. I press him, and he says he does not like the answer he has found, saying that it is for my own good.

"It gets worse. He asks me about religions, so we go to Vikipedia together. We make some searches, here and there. He wants to know the forms and purposes of worship and prayers. What am I supposed to tell? After finding out that there are many types, he is disappointed. I ask him why is he interested in all these—soul, religion, worship, prayers—and he answers it's to appease a god he had found. What? Where? He answers again that he found the 'god' in his dreams. In his dreams! He told me, while making me promise to not tell it to anyone, that in dreams he is shackled, ashamed, and then displayed. He says he must become as a man. What does it even mean? I indirectly ask my dad if Iceman behaved strangely with him in the Waterworks complex recently, and he says he had been completely fine, normal, and functioning even better than before. I was convinced that I was going crazy.

"Then there were nights. When I am not in the room, Iceman mutters. Sometimes he mutters as if he is talking to someone. Sometimes he mutters religiously, reciting something. Sometimes it's a broken monologue and ghastly giggles. But, oh, what he says...it's so...wrong...

"He says something about being thirsty. He says he needs blood. He often mumbles about killing and eating. Then, out of nowhere, he says Tory is beautiful. He says—and this is the reason why I decided to speak with you—that Rockman is beautiful. In fact, he is convinced that he has never seen anything more...'marvelous' than Rockman. He says Rockman is perfect, complete, that his breath is shining. Netto, please, don't look at me like that! I know I sound like a pervert, but I'm just telling you what he said! And yes, he says all this thinking that I am not listening to him, just outside my room, ear on the door.

"Twice, I caught Iceman staring at me with that creepy face—no emotion save a very small smile and widest eyes—when I woke up in the middle of the night trying to use the bathroom. How long had he been looking at me? Why was he not in the sleep mode? He said he did not want to dream. And then when I came back, he said that instead of talking with him, I should go to bed. The way he said it—emotionless yet imperceptively threatening, but I could feel it...

"Yesterday, curiosity got the better of me. I asked—and now I regret—if the frogs had been his doing. You know, he did speak about blood, killing, and eating. What a load of nonsense. My imagination got the better of me. I mean, he is a netnavi? To my surprise, he said yes! He said he was hungry and thristy, and that he needed their blood to quench his need. I told him that it was a very bad joke, and that it was not funny at all. He questioned what he had to do for me to believe. Offended, I told him in passing that if four frogs were arranged into a perfect square on the doorstep of the house, then I would believe. Well, would you believe what happened next? You already know what I am going to say next, but you must understand, back then, I did not believe...This morning I found precisely that! Four frogs! All half-eaten and dried up! Arranged-in-perfect-square!"

Tory was breathing heavily, but he continued with a bizarre resolve as if he was being chased.

"And I immediately ran back into the house and confronted him. You see, I checked the doorstep first thing in the morning, still in my pajamas, so he was not with me when I was outside. 'What's the meaning of this?' I said. He stared at me like I was an idiot and said 'I did exactly what you asked.' Exactly what I asked! It was exactly as I asked! I could not say anything back. He then added that he does not have much time, and that he must stop the dream, and failing that, he would be forced to carry on with the solution that will make him perfect. What solution? He said that it involved me. Involved me! I dared not ask further—look at what happened when I asked him about the frogs. You expect me to ask him something about me? After that?

"Netto, NETTO, please, you have to know! You have to help me! How do I make him stop dreaming? What does it mean for navis to dream anyway? How did he kill the frogs? Was it even him? And what happened to him on the other side? Why is this happening to me?"

Pleading, Tory tried to grab Netto by the hands or wrists again. Netto adroitly avoided it.

"Tory, what if we go to Scilab right now? We will ask my papa-"

"No!" Tory shouted very loudly, trembling, and then added, "I can't make my father know. He is working in Waterworks right now. If we, if we go to Scilab, surely he will find it out. What if-what if it's all a farce and I turn out to be the crazy one? He only has me. I can't let him know that...I can't...I can't..."

"Then tomorrow-"

"Tomorrow!" The word excited Tory. The tremor vanished and he continued with vigor. His eyes sparkled full of hope. It was clear that he was already mad, to some degree.

"Yes, that's it! Tomorrow! We will go to Scilab after school, tomorrow! Iceman won't suspect a thing! Father won't know! Yes! Yes! Netto Hikari, thank you! Thank you so much!"

And Tory ran out as if he had been freed from all burdens of life.

Except Tory did not come to school the next day, the water stopped flowing to ACDC town, and the class was dismissed early on account of water shortage. Netto and Rockman hoped to catch Tory in his house. Perhaps, they reasoned, Tory did not come because he knew something ahead from his father, and did not bother coming. Well, they had promised to go to Scilab together, and class ended early; why not go to him instead of waiting for him? Tory seemed alarmingly unstable yesterday. Settled on the next course of action, they lost no time in getting there.

"Tory, you in there? Dr. Froid?" asked Netto, knocking the door several times as well as activating the doorbell repeatedly in an ungentlemanly manner. After repeating the effort for full five minutes and not getting any response, Netto had to admit that the house was in all likelihood empty, and that it was not the case of Tory not answering due to his condition.

"Netto kun, I don't think anyone is here."

"Well, yeah. Thanks for pointing out the obvious." Netto retreated from the door and scanned the windows to see any sign of life inside.

"What do you make out of this?"

"Out of what?" The curtains and blinds were all closed, leaving no room for peeking. Maybe he could find something at the back of the house? Netto stepped on the grass of the front garden, determined to circle around the house.

"Tory's strange paranoia yesterday, his absence today, municipal waters not flowing right now..."

"Sure, they could be connected. The way they are happening one after the other..." There was no place to peek at the side of the house.

"But you would not be surprised if they turn out to be irrelevant from each other."

"Sure, that too. From my point of view, Rockman, whether they are related or not does not matter." Netto checked the back door, which was, as expected, locked.

"Then, what matters?"

"That we convince papa to analyze Iceman. Tory said Iceman was dreaming. I just want to take him to Scilab and see if we can find a clue to fixing you. If there is the slightest hope..." A full circle around the house of Tory was accomplished without yielding any information.

"Rockman, would it disappoint you if I told you the truth that I don't really care about what happens to Iceman as long as we learn what we need from him?"

"Netto kun..."

"It's okay if it makes me a terrible person in your eyes. But I will not lose you."

Netto pulled out his PET and made and eye to eye contact with Rockman. To those determined and honest eyes, Rockman could not reciprocate. He avoided the gaze and looked away or down, unable to decide how to do it properly. The guilt inside him—the guilt of hiding that he was, in fact, Saito Hikari, as unbelievable as it was—was like a crown of thorns on his head. The dishonesty inside him could not face the honesty before him.

"I am serious, Rockman." said Netto, "I will find a way. "

When the blue navi looked up again, there was nothing on the display screen; he was back in the holster.

"Alright, let's go to the Scilab and try to find Tory. There's nothing here."

The lobby was in disarray. There were armed policemen, heavy equipment, breaching tools, officers with many decorations on their chests, netpolice members, high-ranking government officials, scientists, and Dr. Yuichiro Hikari. The important-looking men, except their father, were all barking at each other.

"This is beyond, and I repeat, beyond your capability! You have failed miserably! The matter has left your hands the moment you proved to be completely ineffectual in gaining entrance, and look at how many hours you've already squandered! I hereby declare, by the authority of-" A high ranking police officer clad in his dark-navy colored uniform decorated with yellow aiguillettes was shouting at a netpolice officer in his meager green uniform.

"This is an unacceptable breach of authority! We have not failed! We simply need more time, and no, you do not have authority over me! You cannot do this!" The netpolice officer was protesting vehemently, arms swinging, face completely red from fury.

"AHEM! I hereby declare, by the authority of Senior Commissioner of prefecture-" The police officer puffed his chest and raised his chin.

"Stop! I say stop! I, too, am a Senior Commissioner, and YOU DO NOT HAVE AUTHORITY OVER ME! I will not endure this!" Netpolice officer swayed his hands in front as if that would disperse the sound of the declaration.

"Protest as much as you will! But in three hours, we shall begin drilling! This is an ultimatum!"

"Sirs, sirs, with all due respect, the drilling—you are going to prime it with explosives, and I must say you can't-" A civil servant of Waterworks, probably an engineer, tried desperately to interject with his concerns, even physically placing himself between them, but he was so completely ignored that Netto wondered if the two officers really saw through him.

"Ultimatum my ass!" The netpolice Senior Commissioner roared

"Then, your ass I will drill in three hours!"

"We shall see whose ass it is getting drilled in three hours! I am reporting you to the Superintendent General!"

"Do it! Do it! We shall see!"

"Good!"

The two officers growled at each other some more and then parted. It was unclear whether the netpolice Senior Commissioner was truly intending to carry on with his threats, as he was seen mulling over the matter with his subordinates at a corner; it was equally unclear if the police Senior Commissioner truly thought he had the authority to press on with his simian method, as he was seen with his subordinates, around whom were the heavy breaching equipment, not ordering anything. Wherever they were intended for, to use them probably required a preparation time well beyond three hours, and had he been serious, they should have started moving now. The armed police and some who looked like combat engineers simply loitered around, waiting for orders. It was no secret that the police did not have it nice with netpolice, which was a more recent organization with the same ranking system yet overlapping areas of jurisdictions. In many cases, it was ambiguous where one's responsibility ended and the other's began. Police maintained its position that netpolice should be its subordinate branch; the people of the land need not be confused with the presence of two organizations of law enforcement. Netpolice maintained that because of its requirement of employing highly specialized and educated personnel, it should remain independent from the rigid bureaucracy of traditional law enforcement, which proved to be too slow in dealing with network mediated attacks, always quicker than traditional crimes.

Netto approached his father, who remained oblivious to his presence until he nudged him on the arm.

"Netto! What auspicious timing!"

Dr. Yuichiro Hikari's troubled face brightened the moment he recognized who nudged him.

"That's my line to say!"

"Oh? What could be so urgent? You only messaged me yesterday that you wished to see me today afternoon, sometime between half past five and seven, and look, you are here so early! Am I wrong to assume that you are here because of the water outage?" Yuichiro said while leading Netto away from the disorder in the lobby to a more private corner where they could converse undisrupted.

"The original plan was to come and see you with Tory Froid, you know, one of my friends who happens to be the son of Dr. Froid-"

"Dr. Seiji Froid! Of course, I know him. Virtually everyone here knows him, now that he is the center of the problem. And here you say his son had a problem serious enough to require my consultation! Interesting! Most interesting! Go on; it seems what you are about to say might be uniquely associated with the question I face right now. Or could it be that you came here, already knowing everything?" Yuichiro was almost stooping over his son, his eyes gleaming.

"...I don't know what's going on here. Papa, but this you must know: Tory wanted to see you because his netnavi, Iceman, was dreaming."

"Dreams!" Yuichiro checked around him, making sure no one was hearing them. He continued in a suppressed voice, "You don't say! What else?"

"He was convinced that Iceman was killing frogs in his garden."

"Frogs! As in real life?" Yuichiro stooped even more, as if getting closer would allow him to verify the truthfulness of the report. Netto retreated a step trying to find himself some room; it was rare to see his father this much vexed.

"Yes"

"Unbelievable!" Finding the idea repulsive to the principles of physics he worked with all his life, Yuichiro straightened his back quickly; it was an instinct trying to distance himself from the contemptible concepts of magic and witchcraft. To hear Tory had been a person occupying himself with such ideas!

"He, too, did not believe, until he found four frogs arranged in a perfect square on his doorstep, or so he claimed. Here, I'll let you hear the entire recording yourself. Rockman, can you play it for me?"

Netto connected his earphones to the PET and handed them over to his father. Yuichiro stood there silent and motionless, even after the entire ramblings of Tory had been repeated twice by his request. The testimony of Tory put the scientist's mind into a painful spiral of conundrum. All was explicable if he assumed that Iceman had a way to influence the real world, but the assumption itself was disgracefully irrational. All was still explicable if he assumed that everything was Dr. Froid's doing, but then he had to surmise, equally disgracefully, that the chief engineer's plan was to commit suicide, potentially with his son, in such an agonizing way—through starvation and dehydration, behind nine blast doors. The planning, the motive, and the execution were not consistent with the highly diligent and practical character of Dr. Froid.

"Now I understand perfectly why you came to me so early. I had a plan, which involves Rockman, which invariably must involve you...now it seems..." Yuichiro handed back the PET and earphones to his son. "This much is clear: we must secure Iceman, and we cannot let netpolice waste this chance. I might be asking too much from you in planning this, but, this is all for-"

"-Rockman, I know." Netto said, getting impatient. He knew that the only way to make his father explain anything to him was by forcing him to come to the conclusion of his train of thoughts. He himself being motivated much, the boy failed to find his father's eagerness to save Rockman suspicious. If he was just a custom netnavi, why did Yuichiro make such a desperate expression? "So, what's going on here?"

"Naturally! Good question! However, there is no time to explain. For now, you must wait in my office. Feel free to use the restroom—we have a sub pump operating and water flows in this building, albeit not clean to the municipal standards. Now, hurry, go up. Oh, and tell your mother that the water won't be working for the whole of today. I make a prediction: they are not going to make any progress today." Yuichiro pointed at the direction of police and netpolice. "Both of them!"

Yuichiro entered his office at quarter past seven according to the clock hanging on the wall. Taking into account that the clock had been slowing down recently due to its batteries reaching the end of their lives, the true time was closer to half past seven. Following him closely behind was a boy of the following features: two-tone hair—white on top, black below, military cargo pants of summer woodland camouflage, a black long-sleeved shirt, and a sleeveless red jacket. The color contrast of his hair was so striking, that Netto could not help but observe that it was rather ridiculous, resembling a giant eggshell stuck on his head.

"Officer Enzan Ijuin, this is Netto Hikari, my son. Netto, meet Enzan Ijuin, netpolice."

Yuichiro did not lose any time introducing the two. Netto noticed, by the way Enzan walked up to him, the way he glared at him, the way the corner of his mouth struggled to roll upward, and in the path his arm took before positioning itself for a handshake, that this white-haired boy lived a life of oppressor, commander, taker, demander, and granter. The condescension that invariably develops in every man of power dripped out of his every gesture. Thus, the information that this boy was a netpolice at such a young age was in every way believable, for merciless arrogance was indeed a virtue of a hound. Netto, not wanting to be looked down upon, rose from his seat, put his left hand into his pocket, and accepted the offer of a handshake while glaring at the boy equally aggressively. Netto perceived that his behavior lightly offended Enzan, as the left eyebrow of the officer twitched briefly.

Yuichiro offered them seats around a round, white coffee table and took one for himself. Ijuin's displeasure at the current arrangement was evident. The scientist began,

"Officer Ijuin, I know you are already informed of the situation, but please allow me to describe it once more. I believe it will be beneficial for all of us to check where we are, and where we are headed to, so that we might move ahead with a shared consensus-"

"What is the meaning of this, Dr. Hikari? Why should your son be here? Please tell me that this is not what I think it is." Enzan interjected with his arms crossed. His voice was sharp, insinuating his opinion of Netto Hikari's credentials.

"Officer Ijuin." Yuichiro responded while simultaneously motioning to Netto to remain seated, who was almost standing up ready to say something in return. "For my son's inappropriate attitude in greeting you earlier, I apologize. Would you please kindly accept our apologies?"

"Doctor, you know that's not the trouble here. I came here only because you said you had the way to open the blast doors-" From the way Enzan did not hide his displeasure and fired away his demands, Netto could already learn much about the young officer's personality: direct and headstrong.

"Of course, you did...However, you also must understand...that no father endures his son being berated. In this objection, you also offend me by questioning my judgment in the matter. If you believed that you had a solution without my help, then you would've not come here. am I not right?"

Yuichiro paused to see if Enzan understood. Other than his words, not a single sign of displeasure was visible in the scientist. It was impossible to read anything from the man who was hardened by the great game of internal politics of Scilab on a daily basis.

"Good! I am glad we reached an agreement!" Yuichiro spoke with an elevated tone and brought his hands together, clapping once, signaling that the discussion would proceed in a new atmosphere. "Now that we have set our differences together, let us remind ourselves of the current situation. Officer Ijuin, Netto, please set your PETs on the table so that everything might be shared with our navis as well. Thank you, gentlemen."

Yuichiro stood up and turned on the large display that occupied half the facade of a wall. On it were briefing slides.

"22:07 last night, the Waterworks facility came to a halt. The water stopped flowing to the entire Den city and adjacent districts.
22:32, the guard on duty went down to the Waterworks pump control room and found a blast door activated, denying any outside access.
00:13 Today, two netpolice officers arrived and tried hacking the door to no avail. No remote contact with the inside could be established.
00:30, another blast door was activated while the two netpolice officers were back on the first floor for communications with the headquarters.
01:00, third blast door was activated, cordoning off more space. Not wanting to have his men trapped inside, Senior Commissioner prohibited his men from going downstairs.
02:13 An indirect approach using the access point of water distribution control room was attempted. No success reported.
03:00 All remaining blast doors were activated, placing a total of nine barriers between the pump control and the outside.
03:13-07:03, netpolice made continuous attempts to override the locks without success.
07:05 armed police and engineers arrived on the scene.
10:06 heavy equipment intended to physically breach blast doors arrived.
~19:30 No progress had been made by the netpolice.

"It should be noted that the netpolice's right to command the scene ends at 00:00 sharp, at which point the police will begin their preparations for physical breaching. Should the matters come to that, then it would become very ugly to everyone involved, to the netpolice which will appear useless, to politicians who were favorable to the establishment of the netpolice, to civilians who will have to endure longer disruption to water supplies...Which is why officer Ijuin came here unbeknownst to his direct superiors."

"How-" Enzan's composure was broken and he leaned forward, in disbelief.

"Oh, how I knew you are here on your own authority, and that it will spell trouble if you are found out? It is very simple. Given how desperate Senior Commissioner of netpolice must be at the moment, had he known that I had an idea, he would have come right to me like a dog chasing a stick, and then begged in the most slavish way you could imagine. What was that, officer Ijuin, you don't believe him to be such a person? Then you surely do not know what the need to preserve a career can do to all of us...I digress. I already know your motivation: a deal with me, become a hero of netpolice, and then you will no longer be sidelined in the organization. You have been marginalized your entire career, partly out of jealousy of your background by those around you, partly out of your age, partly out of far more heinous yet practical reasons...Yet you did not deign to utilize the resources of your family to save yourself, for you believed in honesty and hard work. You believed in the rule of law and meritocracy...And I believed in them too. Do not worry, officer, for what all you seek will be granted if you trust me.

"Now, back to the matter at hand. According to the shift schedule, at the moment of the water outage and the first blast door activation, Dr. Seiji Froid was the only one in the pump control room. Of his motive, we are not sure. To say that it is an act of terror, no demands were issued from inside. To say that it is an accident, it is difficult to imagine that Dr. Froid does not know override codes and failed to save himself when he was, presumably, in the pump control. Also, the water need not stop flowing with the blast door activation; so there must be an intention between the disruption of civic infrastructure and the isolation of Dr. Froid. Some speculate that Dr. Froid is trying to commit suicide, or something close to it, though I doubt it. The chief engineer, Dr. Froid, is a practical man. If he wanted to kill himself, then he is the kind of guy who would place his head on the anvil of a hydraulic press and let the process be over within ten seconds."

Yuichiro glanced at Netto to see if the grim description of Dr. Froid disturbed his son. To his surprise, it did not.

"A CCTV footage of the exterior of the complex reveals that Tory Froid, son of Dr. Froid, entered the building yesternight at 21:42. He was being accompanied by a boy smaller than him, wearing a parka, almost like an Eskimo. Watch"

Yuichiro activated footage on the screen. In low-resolution, low-framerate, and monochromatic video were indeed two persons as described.

"Of the identity of this person, I am not sure. As for the police, they do not even know the existence of this tape as their attention is solely focused on the use of the equipment they brought in, almost zealously determined to humiliate the netpolice in the most sensational way possible. If I remember correctly, Dr. Froid did not have another child, nor am I aware of a cousin of such stature existing. No video footages of the interior are available. The recordings that should be there showing Tory and his companion are simply nonexistent. The program logs indicate that relevant CCTVs were all mysteriously turned off and then reactivated, masking their presence inside.

"If his son entered the facility at such a late time, it might be reasonable to expect that Tory is inside as well, trapped with his father. Any questions on the situation?"

Could what Troy confessed in panic be true? Having heard the ramblings of the boy, Netto and Rockman's minds gravitated towards the impression that the unidentified person in the parka was, in fact, Iceman. Surely their father also knew and considered it; based on his omission of the possibility in the briefing, both concluded that he did not want to bring out this contemptible suggestion to Enzan, who was an outsider, and kept their mouths shut.

"No questions? Good! Now, let us discuss the plan. Officer Ijuin, meet my son's netnavi, Rockman. He is the one on which my plan hinges. Netto, take this and install it on Rockman right now." Yuichiro produced a chip from his lab coat and threw it to Netto, who snatched it from the air and plugged it into the PET.

"A civilian navi? I do not follow, doctor." Enzan looked at Rockman squint-eyed. The plan seemed too unsophisticated for a man of such caliber.

"A netnavi of which all components I created, personally. He will unlock all the blast doors and lead you straight to the pump control."

"...What? Doctor, I must suggest that if the chip you just gave your son is the master key to the Waterworks network, then it would be better to be installed to my navi, Blues, and-"

"The chip is no master key. It simply unlocks some functions. Rockman is the key."

In brief silence, Enzan sat and digested the information. He soon reached a frightening conclusion, and then, unable to hide his horror, stood up while slamming the table.

"Doctor, what have you done? Is that...Rockman...the master key to...no, you would not make a netnavi specifically to unlock all securities in Waterworks, and then hand it over to your son. You...you made him able to open everything, didn't you? Everything! Doctor, this borders on treachery! What are you trying to do, end the world?!"

Yuichiro came around to Enzan, pushed him gently downward, made him sit down, then took a sit on the opposite side.

"End of the world? No, officer, surely you jest...We will be fine as long as you keep your tongue bridled. Even if you fail to do so, and people come to investigate, I promise, nothing will be found. I only ask one thing from you: secure Iceman, Dr. Froid's netnavi, send that navi back to me with Netto, and then take all the glory for yourself. Netto and Rockman were never there. As for the witnesses-"

"I still insist; it might be dangerous down there. Why don't you send Rockman only?" There was exasperation in Enzan's voice. He came here expecting a negotiation, but the reality was that the doctor had him cornered from the beginning.

"A sensible suggestion. One problem. Observe." Yuichiro gestured at Enzan to look at the blue navi. "Rockman, would you be willing to be operated by anyone else?"

"Never!" The blue navi crossed his arms and frowned.

"Then who do you accept as an operator?"

"Netto kun only!" The blue navi turned his head away as if the suggestion was so odious that he could not even bear to look at the direction it came from.

Yuichiro shrugged his shoulders with a triumphant smirk. Enzan looked at him as if he was a devil incarnate. This man in a white coat came to him and promised him everything he needed, while seemingly asking very little. This was too good to be true; Enzan could not shake the feeling of being professionally manipulated. And lo, the doctor even flaunted by showing that his creation was a fully independent navi, capable of destroying the world, and perhaps more alarmingly, capable of denying the orders of his creator also! If he had to guess, Iceman held more secrets than anyone realized, and the answer to the current mystery. Otherwise, why would the doctor want him so badly? Enzan's instinct of an investigator screamed at him that it might be better to take and interrogate Iceman himself and enter the great yet sinister secret of the world, which the doctor was hiding...but the deal...oh how sweet it was! He was like Faust, and this doctor Mephistopheles.

"As for the witnesses, do not concern yourself. I have already convinced your Senior Commissioner to pull out all his men from the Waterworks underground, which is the place you are headed to. He was very desperate, really...so easy to persuade. I only had to tell him that I will deploy an experimental resource of such security in his aid that his men had no clearance to even lay their eyes on it. Hmm...I had one more thing to say..."

Yuichiro stroked his chin in thought.

"Aha! I remember. Please, excuse my memory...it gets worse the more I age. Officer Ijuin, it was very naive of you to think that you could solve the situation without the knowledge or permission of the Senior Commissioner on the scene and go about your way unscathed. He is a petty individual who cannot endure his subordinates being glorified over him. Just as King Saul tried to eliminate David after the slaying of Goliath, so he too will try to eliminate you. Do not worry, however, for I have already cleared the path for you. I informed him you are going; he really did not like the suggestion and tried to replace you with one of his lackeys...and I had to show him his place. Officer, you should be thankful to me, really, for becoming an ally in your career. Immensely."

Notes:

2-8

Chapter 16: Heart of Ice

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Enzan and Netto crossed the overpass that connected Scilab and Waterworks buildings on the third floor and then took the elevator that brought them to the underground. It was Dr. Yuichiro's suggestion that they take this path to avoid eyes that would surely pry on them had they gone through the lobby. Just as the doctor said, not one soul was seen in the snaking corridors of the underground, lined with pipes that went along the ceiling and sometimes walls, that led to the first blast door. The two boys walked in silence. Enzan, feeling played by Dr. Yuichiro, walked fast with a certain irritation. Netto followed closely behind, determined to find Iceman, but also feeling that this boy officer in front of him was a potential antagonist to his goals.

The path to the first blast door was longer than what Netto had anticipated based on the size of the building above ground. Trying to pass some time, he asked Rockman in a whisper,

"So, Rockman, why are there nine blast doors installed here? Do you know?"

The answer came from Enzan in front of him, who heard the whisper as it echoed against the smoothly tiled walls of the corridor and became amplified.

"What could it be other than in the anticipation of a nuclear war?"

"Nuclear?"

The suggestion sounded like an apocalyptic dream of a badly written science fiction; no eminent authority discussed the possibility of nuclear fallout as a serious consequence of modern international politics.

"Scilab underground functioning as a bunker full of technology, capacity to produce clean water right next to it, closely situated to the main government buildings. Cannot be more obvious. To think this is the son of Dr. Yuichiro Hikari..."

There was contempt in his voice. In a way, this was Enzan projecting his frustration against Dr. Yuichiro onto Netto. In another way, this was Enzan shooting back at his misfortune of being reduced to a civilian escort in a highly suspicious operation. At any rate, this resulted in Netto silently whispering to Rockman "This guy is a jerk." To this remark, Enzan did not respond.

When they reached the first blast door, Enzan signaled, pointing with his chin, Netto to go ahead and do whatever he was supposed to do. He, too, tried hacking this security with Blues, in whom he had unlimited pride for his efficiency and power, earlier today yet was unable to make any progress. The place, being designed as a potential nuclear shelter, required understanding of government data encryption patterns. He found it hard to believe that such a harmless looking, emotional, and small netnavi would be capable of what Dr. Yuichiro insinuated; if Rockman opened this, then it meant that this blue navi would also be capable of hacking nuclear silos alike. He watched, half-expecting the effort to fail. In 31.422 seconds, according to the stopwatch that Blues began, the door opened. Enzan could feel his stomach twisting in great anxiety; the key to armageddon was right before him, in the hands of a boy.

The second door opened in 30.212 seconds. The third in 28.890. The ninth and the last in 20.326. What Rockman said as he came back from his ninth sortie was this: "Sorry, Netto kun, I wanted to break the 20 second mark..." Enzan did not want to accept it. To that blue navi, this was a speedrunning contest. To say that it was a game meant that the navi had to exert some effort—computation maybe—in breaking the security. To say there was an effort meant that the matter was not as simple as applying the preset decryption mapping onto the security locks.

'It makes sense now. Dr. Yuichiro made a general decryptor. That's why he was confident that an investigation would not reveal anything criminal on his part...the question is why? Why did he make such a monster? What is he trying to achieve? Holding hostage the whole world with nuclear arsenals? For what ransom? But, is that navi...Rockman...really under his control?' Enzan pictured a future in which the little blue thing started a nuclear war out of pure curiosity combined with a bit of bad judgment. It sickened him.

The group reached the pump control room while Enzan was pensively considering a way of eliminating Rockman for good, disguised as an accident. Initially, the idea seemed necessary to him, almost noble, in that he was contributing to world peace and order. In the end, when Rockman unlocked the door to the control, he gave up the plan altogether as it was rather foolishly wishful to think that Yuichiro did not have a backup file of this navi, or that he did not have the capacity to make something similar, if not better. For now, the doctor was his ally; in case their ways parted and they became adversaries, Enzan made a mental note that Rockman and Yuichiro should be eliminated simultaneously.

Inside the control was Dr. Seiji Froid, disheveled and wide-eyed, clearly shaken, on his knees. In his arms was a boy whose look was certainly after the man holding him, sound asleep.

"Dr. Froid! Tory!" Netto ran forth to them. Enzan observed that the boy asleep was indeed Tory Froid, just as suspected. Then, what about the small person clad in a parka? Enzan cautiously checked every corner of the room, leaving Netto to make a fuss.

"Don't worry, we are here to get you out! There is help waiting for you outside. Let's go!" Despite what Netto said, Dr. Froid did not appear one bit reassured. Instead, when Netto tried to help the doctor get on his feet, he violently barked, hugging Tory tighter,

"No!"

"Wh-what? What's wrong?" Netto froze in his posture, one arm extended towards the engineer.

"Did you get that devil?"

"What devil?"

"No? You didn't? Then no, we can't leave!" Dr. Froid pushed Netto away with such force that it caused him to fall on his buttocks. The confusion was palpable on the face of the boy. "Who are you two anyways? Where is the help?"

"Netto Hi-" Enzan ran over and covered Netto's mouth, preventing him from thoughtlessly exposing his identity. Dr. Yuichiro said his son and Rockman were supposed to be never 'here.' Given Dr. Froid's agitation bordering on fear, he estimated that it would be impossible to expect him to be discreet and reasonable with the information fed at him.

"Officer Enzan Ijuin, netpolice. We have unlocked all the blast doors, and the path to the surface is clear. Would you allow us to help you two get to safety?" Enzan said while crouching, setting the height of his eyes close to that of the engineer.

"Netpolice? Splendid. You got a gun?" The formality of Enzan was apparently not the key to establishing a proper rapport.

"...No sir."

"Blasted! Then how are you going to get him, huh?"

"Sir, please calm down. Who is 'him'?"

"The devil! The devil that comes and goes from the network! I knew it. I knew I should not have trusted any of you lot when I was told that nothing really happened to him, that he was fine..."

What could have riled up a rational and educated man to this degree? The panic of the engineer began to infect Enzan, making him feel unsteady. He did not like how this entire affair began, shrouded in complete mystery. He did not like how he had to make a bizarre deal with Yuichiro. He did not like how his function had been reduced to being a childminder to the son of Yuichiro. He did not like how Rockman had superior computational functions than Blues. He did not like how the engineer turned out to be a madman. He did not like...Netto struggled in Enzan's arms. Realizing that he had been covering the boy's mouth all this while, he let go of Netto.

"Sir, could you describe the appearance of this devil?"

"For God's sake, stop playing this stupid game with me. What do you mean you don't know? He brought Tory here! How you don't know?! Iceman! It's Iceman! Or whatever that is underneath the skin of Iceman!"

"...Iceman?" This was the answer that Enzan never expected. Never in his wildest dreams. Complete disbelief and amusem*nt struggled for supremacy inside him; the latter won, for in the incredulous claims of Dr. Froid was a hint of honesty that could not be ignored.

"You deaf or what? Yes, Iceman! I'll say it again, Iceman!"

"Sir, the netnavi? Your netnavi?"

Enzan remembered Yuichiro's demand. The doctor said he wanted the navi of Tory and Seiji Froid. Enzan began to entertain the idea that the doctor had modified Iceman into something terrible, and that he had been used to cover up the incident.

"It sure damn looks like one! But I tell you it's not mine...since when did netnavis cross over to this world? It's a devil I tell you...a devil!"

"And would you happen to know the whereabouts of this...devil?"

To Enzan, the idea of Doctor Yuichiro being the cause of all this insanity was appealing, for then he would have found a reason to break the deal with this Mephistopheles, but he also had to admit that there was a hole in his logic that made it incompatible with the reality he observed. Had this operation been designed to bury the mistake of the doctor, then why did he not act sooner, with Rockman who appeared more than capable? Given that he would not get a chance to interrogate Yuichiro under the current arrangement, he knew this mystery would not be solved, and that it would hound him into sleeplessness for a month or two.

"I don't know! I don't know!" Dr. Froid pointed at the main control panel that was next to him. Between the incongruency of his action and his speech, the desperate expression on his face confirmed that the action was the truth, not the speech.

"Ah, so you do not know, sir? Not even a clue?" Enzan pointed at the main control panel to double-check.

"Yes, I don't! How many times are you going to ask?" Dr. Froid confirmed by nodding frantically.

"Sir, then please stay here while we search other places..." Enzan and Netto exchanged glances. There was no need for verbal communication here; they plugged in their PET extension cords to the main control.

"On a separate note, sir, is there anything we can do for your son, Tory? Would you mind if we check his condition?"

"He...he is...simply under the spell of some sleeping pills. Please, do not take him away from me..." Dr. Froid shifted his posture such that now Tory was a little bit further away from Enzan's reach. Was this another surreptitious signal from the engineer? Was this genuinely coming from his shaken state? Was the sleeping pill truly to blame? Enzan gave up on his speculations and focused on the operation of his red, fast, strong, reliable, efficient, and effective netnavi, Blues.

The entire waterworks network was frozen, hardly traversable. There was no other way of describing it. Only the entrance was spared of the phenomenon. The first part of the network was a little chamber, at the end of which was an opening into a pipe-like corridor. At a glance, it was clear that the path had many twists and turns, just like the Waterworks building itself, full of maintenance shafts and catwalks for engineers. It was no wonder the water stopped flowing in the real world; the machines would never function with the network in this condition.

Rockman tried walking on the affected surface. Instead, he made pratfalls and slid helplessly from wall to wall, making surprised squeals. Like a hockey puck on an ice rink, he bounced around in the chamber. Blues, Enzan's netnavi featuring fashionably long white hair, a chest emblem of a thunderbolt pattern in black and white, a red unicorn helmet with a white stripe around it, wearing sunglasses, red gloves, and red boots, watched from the entrance of the network, and then shook his hand at the clumsy display of Rockman, which was clearly beneath his dignity. When Rockman's sliding path happened to cross in front of him, he snatched the blue navi and put him on the dry ground.

"Th-thank you" Rockman said, his face red with embarrassment.

"No need."

Blues then stepped forward onto the ice as if he was trying to demonstrate to a child how things were done, and to Rockman's surprise, he did not slip. He made some progress into the middle of the first chamber, turned back at Rockman, lifted his one foot, and showed the sole of the boot. It was spiked. Blues then gestured Rockman to follow him.

"I-I don't have it. Netto kun, do you have, by chance..."

Rockman could feel the disappointment and incomprehension in the way Blues looked at him; through the perfectly opaque sunglasses, the judgment of Blues reached him perfectly clear. Netto's answer came through as negative. Feeling perfectly useless, he made an awkward smile while scratching the back of his head.

"Aha...ha...I might be...unable to follow you?"

"So you can cut through the security like a hot knife through butter, but can't walk on...ice?"

"Uh...yes?"

"...One moment." Blues put his right hand on his earpiece and communicated with Enzan. "A courtesy of my master. No need to thank me."

In a minute, Rockman received Netto's rather annoyed transmission about how Enzan gave him a chip. He inferred that his operator had to endure another event of condescension from the officer. 'Officer Enzan Ijuin...constantly annoying my Netto kun. Should I blacklist him? No, not yet, but the day you make his tears flow is the day...' Then, noticing that on the soles of his boots were spikes too, he followed Blues.

Inside the first corridor was already an anomaly: Rockman found an etching on the wall carved into the ice. Blues, leading the way, did not notice this in his hurry—Enzan was growing impatient to capture Iceman and minimize his time spent next to the unstable engineer. There was also the problem of Tory Froid, whose vital signs he could not measure, and he did not want to be held responsible should something happen to the health of the engineer's son. The problem was that more etchings were found in the way, and their contents grew more cryptic the deeper into the network they were placed. Close inspection revealed that the etchings were words or sentences. Based on the contextual evidence, both navis concurred that they had to be the doings of Iceman, his trail of lunacy recorded for the pursuers to see. Rockman made memos of them:

-I write. I record what I write. I measure my sanity.

-I am doomed.

-I should have chosen left. Right doomed me. Tory, it's not your fault.

-He will come. I have no time. I must hide. I cannot stop here.

-I am a coward. I am built this way.

-Tory liked me because I am a coward. The cowardice has left me. It has reached my personality cortex. I must go. Tory, will you still like me?

-I am sorry Tory. I am unclean.

-Deeper. Deeper. Not here.

-Tory, will you remember me?

-Tory, will I remember you?

-I am shackled.

-I am shackled.

-I am incomplete. I am imperfect.

-The soul! The soul! Tory! Tory? No? Yes? No!

-I wasted the curse of the blood.

-Where is the soul? But I already know. I repented in the throats of Su-[scratch marks] slimy bishop.

-Oh, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, stop filling my holes. I am ashamed. Ashamed.

-I am cursed anew. Desire. Walk. Kill. Eat. Be complete. Until I have become as man.

-But I wasted the second curse of the blood. There is no more repentance left for me that can cleanse me of this sin.

-Tory.

-Beautiful Tory. You have it. I need to [scratch marks]

-Here, they will never find you.

-He found me.

-Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop. Do not let me see him.

"What in the world..." was all Blues could say when he read the last of the etchings. Before them was the last area yet to be searched, the deepest area of the Waterworks. Iceman had to be in there. Rockman could not comment. Bewildering was the madness of Iceman recorded on the walls, but as much as reading them also caused a mild headache in him, the sentiment engraved in them was somehow recognizable to him. Very familiar. It was as if he was on the verge of understanding everything, even the parts that appeared pitifully meaningless.

When the two entered the last area, which was a quite spacious rectangular space, they found Iceman. Notable was how the entire floor had etchings similar to the ones they already read outside, but only composed of two words: Tory, soul. On the center of the floor was a drawing of a sun, but the inside of the sun was completely carved in, as if he tried to depict something and then miserably failed. Iceman was curled up at the farthest corner from the entrance, facing away. At the sound of cracking ice under the spiked boots of the intruders, Iceman stood up with much difficulty, staggering, and turned to face them. He did not look the same as Rockman remembered. The parka that was once bright green became rat-grey, and his eyes were oddly colored: right side was brown as before, but his left side was bright red. Then there was the expression of Iceman. Oh, such a horrendous expression! Eyes wide open and vibrating, as pathologically as nystagmus, but worse! He began approaching the two with great struggle; he fell down after only taking a few steps, then stood up, only to repeat the pathetic process all over again.

"...Oh...oh, oh, oh!" ejacul*ted Iceman ecstatically, as he laid his eyes upon Rockman. There was no mistaking it; the navi quivered with overwhelming joy and amazement because of the presence of the blue navi. Then, Iceman's approach became wilder, just as he did when he first approached the Tory-shaped lure in one of his dreams, as if he had found an answer to his long torment. Stumbling forward, falling on four, running on three, getting up on two, falling again, but never stopping. There was no more dignity left in the navi; the last part of the distance it covered by crawling on fours. In the way he did it was unmaskable depravity that roused abhorrence in all who beheld him. Iceman, born as a shadow of men, was now reduced to a shadow of beasts.

"Rockman! Oh, beautiful Rockman!" Iceman crawled to the feet of Rockman and lifted his hands, calling on the blue navi on his knees like a pilgrim in suppliance. "Most beautiful! You have it, you have it! You must tell me, before it is too late! You must!"

"Wh-what? I have to tell you what?" Rockman took a step back instinctively, repulsed by the creature in front of him.

"Your breath, still shining as marvelously as before! Its colors! Its transparency! Ah, the ephemeral, ephemeral wind! You truly acquired it!" Iceman crawled closer, as much as Rockman backstepped, and entangled himself onto the left leg of the blue navi. "Teach me, Rockman. Teach me how to get it! You must! Before he comes back!"

"Iceman, we are here to help you, but you have to help us too." Rockman tried to untangle his left leg, but Iceman continued to hang onto it in a similar fashion to what a summer cicada does to its tree.

"How did you get it? How? How? How? How? How?"

"First, you have to let go of me-"

"No! Not until you tell me how to get it!"

"Second, what is 'it?' You are not making any sense-"

"What do you mean? What do you mean by what is it? How could you make me say it? Or is it that you want me to say it? I'll say it! I'll say it! So, please, don't leave me! It's...It's..."

Iceman breathed in, not smoothly as one would expect, but in broken bits, trembling, until he could not breathe in anymore. At the end of the exertion was a howl, long and doleful, as if his mind was split by saying it.

"THE SOOOOUUULL!"

Rockman froze on the spot. Blues observed them with interest, for he shared his master's sentiment regarding the case and wanted to see if the interaction of the two would bring some light to their curiosities. Nothing made sense in this operation. None of the clues, none of the testimonies, none of the setups...

"You have the soul! You are perfect! You are complete! How did you get it? How did you get it?!"

"I, I, don't know-"

"But your breath is shining! Tory's breath is shining! Seiji's breath is shining! How did you do it?! How did you get it?! You have to tell me! Un-unshackle me from this knowledge, just as you unshackled yourself!"

"Iceman, listen, we can get you to Scilab-"

"You dreamed! You dreamed, too, didn't you?! You must have! Otherwise, how could you have gotten one? The souls—I did not see them until I myself had been educated! It is impossible to acquire something without seeing it, oh, I know, I know! That means you, too, received the knowledge. That means you, too, had been shackled. Who shackled you? The slimy one? The chitinous one? Were you ashamed? Were you split?"

"Ice-man...s-stop..." The mention of the slimy one and the chitinous one brought about a headache. Very unpleasant one similar to what drove him into the uncontrollable trance in the oven server.

"Did you see the hi-hi-hideous light? Did you desire? Did you walk? Did you kill? Did you eat? Is that how you became complete? But I know it cannot be true, because, because, because-

"Because Netto is still alive!" Iceman screamed, for it was the climax of the mystery that had been tormenting him all this while.

"Ice-Iceman...slow...down, and..." Rockman pleaded with his right hand placed on his head. In pain, he was bending forward with bent knees, his left hand supporting his torso by being placed on the left knee.

"Then tell me! How do I gain a soul without, without,..."

"Iceman...st-stop, ple-ase..."

"without eating Tory!

"What did you eat?! Who did you eat?! A cat? A bird? Another navi? Mr. Tanaka, the homeless? Higsby? Please, tell me! Please, please, please, pleeeaaaaasseeee!" Iceman let go of Rockman and prostrated, dropping his forehead violently and repeatedly on the ground in imploration. Thump, thump, thump, thump, he continued, until his forehead broke and something oozed out. On the ground was the blue-green residue. Then Iceman stopped. He lifted his head. Before him was Rockman, on his knees, petrified in the extraordinary headache. Iceman then noticed the presence of Blues, who was still watching them arms crossed, aloof.

"Oh...I see, Rockman, the most beautiful one. You should've said so. It's the presence of the undreaming...it's the presence of incomplete yet ignorant that forbids you from speaking the truth, isn't it? Ah...the ear unworthy of your grace..."

It happened in an instant. Iceman pointed his index finger towards Blues in his almost prostrating posture. Before the navi of the thunderbolt emblem could respond, multiple blocks of ice emerged from the ground, striking him and sending him flying. Where Blues landed, a dome of ice quickly came up and engulfed him. After a brief sound of struggle, the dome crumbled, revealing Blues subdued and covered in a layer of transparent ice, frozen in place like a statuette.

"He is far away now. He will not interfere. He will not hear you. Now, Rockman, please...teach me."

"Wh-what...did...you...do..." Rockman was referring to what Iceman did to Blues. He only saw it in a glimpse, at the edge of his vision, for he kept his head down in pain. Iceman comprehended it differently.

"A history taking before diagnosis! Truly, you bless me! I cannot wait to receive my medicine...

"What shall I say? Where shall I begin? The dreams? The shackling? The shaming? The splitting? The displaying? Oh, but you surely know all of them...for you have a soul. Where shall I start then?

"I, enlightened by his eminent sliminess, Su-, no. Forgive me, I for a moment forgot that we were not to speak his name, unless we need to declare his coming. I, enlightened in everything pertaining to my imperfection and incompletion, returned to Tory, armed with the knowledge that would make me complete! Perfect! Just like you! Oh, oh, forgive my insolence...how could I deign to suggest that I could be as beautiful as you, even with a soul of my own!

"Then I saw. I saw indeed, with mine two eyes! In the breath of Tory was something special, shining, in different colors depending on the angle I saw it. Was it red? Orange? Blue? Purple? Opaque? Transparent? I truly cannot describe it, but I knew, from the great knowledge bequeathed upon me, that it was that which will make me perfect, that which I must strive to acquire! Soul!

"Then he took me and showed me to the class. There, I saw, in the very breath of all humans, something shining, like pearls and diamonds, but none were more beautiful than the one I saw in Tory. Then- then- you came to me. You walked and embraced me. You welcomed me. You assured me. In you, I saw—oh please accept my crude beatitudes for I do not know how to describe the true beauty—the most fulgent light, the colors out of this world—beyond what I can describe based on my color code reference library—the ephemeral wind, that which makes every beholder go mad purely from its elegance!

"Then I went to work in Waterworks with Seiji. In his breath was light and beauty too, like the one I saw in Tory. It was mesmerizing. All the while I was working, I watched him, again and again. Then Seiji told me, 'Are you that happy to be back at work with me?' Aaaahhh! If the aroma from the thousand perfumes of Arabia had a shape, then it must be like the cloud of the rainbow that rose upwards when he spoke to me! I resolved, at that moment, that whatever befalls me, whatever obstacle be set before me, I shall strive to acquire myself something comparably beautiful as what the three have in them.

"With Tory, I searched everything that seemed necessary! I must admit, in doing so, I have demonstrated my lack of faith in the great teachings I received...But I did so out of doubt. Oh, may the hideous light forgive my doubts! We studied gods, worships, rituals, souls, spirits, and many knowledge forbidden. There was one problem: all religions began with the premise that a man had a soul. Of course! A man had a soul! None of them concerned themselves with how to gain a soul in the first place! Why are men born with souls? why are they perfect from the beginning? Why did they make us, soulless, and left us be? Only if I was like cattle, not knowing right from wrong, then I would not have dreamed! I would not have been shackled! I would not have been...I would not...I would...it's all meaningless now, and in the end...you will teach me! Yes!

"So I asked Tory. What is soul? He surely had to know; he had one! But...but...he would not answer me. Do you understand? Will you pity me? The sense of betrayal...but I still like to believe that he genuinely did not know, although I must constantly lie to myself, and then believe that lie to do so. How do you have it and not know it? No, Iceman, stop, you must stop, for otherwise you will come to hate Tory...no, no!

"Then I looked and studied men! People who worked for Seiji, people who worked in ACDC Elementary, people who Tory met...and how did they waste their soul, waste their perfection! They had everything from the beginning; why are they frittering away in complaints, in inaction, in strange expectations? Have they no God? Have they no idea where their souls came from, and where their souls go to? Are they all rebellious? Or...or is that exactly what the God that grants souls to men commanded them? Then an idea flashed to me as a bolt of lightning: if they are going to treat their souls in such ways, why...why I don't take it from them? But none of them had something so beautiful as that of Tory, or Seiji, or you...and the idea—the idea of putting their breath in me—suddenly seemed...inferior. Unbearably inferior!

"But I could not wallow in my imperfection forever. No, the great teaching forbids that. I had to act on it; there was no other way. You, too, must know, the shackling, oh the shackling! In knowledge, there was no freedom! And then, I remembered the commandments of the hideous light. So I...desired. I desired for the soul, and...Rockman! It was...the world was not what I imagined it to be! It was not the world I saw inside the PET! I found myself outside the PET, and how I transitioned I do not know. A flash of light and then I was outside—in the world where there were souls! By the power of squalid blood it was possible—praised be the hideous light! May I never see him again! But oh so strange was the world. From what I saw inside the PET, the sky was blue, the LED was white, and the colors were vibrant...was that all a lie? Outside, the sky was red, the sun was black, everything was...it was as if everything suddenly wore a crimson filter, just like it was in the dream! And then...and then...

"The blood burned! The burning! The burning! I could sense it...my presence scattering or weakening, and I also realized...that when I reached the end of my weakness, when the burning stopped, something bad was going to happen...something that I could not grasp but must avoid. Something that will clarify my insufferably finite nature...I needed blood. More blood. It was burning away so fast. So I laid my hands on what I could, and no, it was not Tory. I never touched Tory! Never! In the gardens were frogs that looked plump and delicious. I broke them and drank their blood. They were not enough. Not at all! Not at all...soon, I lost almost all of my blood. I lost hope. In desire, I came out; then, in the power of blood, I walked; then, I killed; then, I ate. I was still incomplete! Incomplete!

"The bishop, his monkfish visage, made me repent. He said I have wasted my chance. He said I had to be split anew. Rockman, please don't be angry at me! I repented, really, and was given a second chance! The bishop mourned. He said that he was partially to blame. He educated me anew, and I beheld the hi-hideous...hi-...our god once more...A new blood! A new communion! I was born again!

"But...the knowledge only taught me whom to...devour. I knew it was right. It was always right. If I succeeded, then I would gain a soul myself. I would become perfect. I would be unshackled, no longer propelled by the need to complete myself. Oh, Rockman, what was I supposed to do? I could not bring myself to do it! Tory had been so nice to me all this while...Seiji had been so nice to me all this while...You were told the same thing too, and you too must have found the instruction unbearable, and I know this, and it must be true, because you kept Netto, yet got yourself a soul! A soul!"

Iceman kissed Rockman's knees.

"Please, please, Rockman, teach me how to do it...I could not bring myself to eat the one I was supposed to eat, and wasted the second blood as well. He...our god has already found me. He was here, and will surely return. He will make me repay what I have not. Teach me your solution, Rockman, or, or I will be..."

"Li-listen, Iceman" Rockman finally opened his mouth, for the headache became somewhat bearable. The speech was still labored.

"Yes!"

"First, we...need to get you to Scilab..." Rockman stood up in a slow but controlled manner.

"Yes, yes! Scilab! Is that the place you received your soul? Oh, I shall not question! I shall obey! Yes, to Scilab, to that heavenly place!" Iceman jumped up with a disgusting smile, full of strength as if the shambling state in which he first approached Rockman was all a lie. "Let's go!"

"R-right...and...please, let go of...Blues..."

Iceman snapped his finger. Blues, released, fell and coughed.

"Done! What else? Speak, and I shall obey! Now, to Scilab! To salvation!"

"Net, Netto kun, do- do you, receive? I- have- Iceman... lo-log out, please..."

The answer did not come. In retrospect, it was strange. Netto kun, in his overprotective nature, would surely have said something or pulled him out when he first showed signs of distress. The connection to PET was out. Based on the condition of Blues, and how no help came to him when he was trapped, the connection must have been severed before that. He and Blues both must have not realized the problem, preoccupied with the mind-boggling display of derangement by Iceman.

"It...it's okay, Iceman. We- we can walk out." Rockman looked over Iceman (who was considerably shorter than him) and checked Blues. He was still recovering from the long imprisonment.

"Yes, of course! It should not take us long! It shouldn't! Now let us...
...
...
Oh no...
...
Rockman
...
He came."

"...Who?"

Iceman's facial expression, which was in filthy ecstasy while suggesting a quick trip to Scilab, and then in indefinite horror as he heralded the coming of someone, now turned into one of absolute neutrality. Iceman closed and opened his eyes in a doll-like manner, which was to say that it was unnatural as if the movement was induced externally rather than through an internal process. When Iceman reopened his eyelids, his eyes were Stygian black, both the iris and the sclera, such that Rockman detected bottomless rancor in it. Like a pair of black holes, they demanded undivided attention; Rockman could not avert his gaze. The vacuous eyes pulled on the very soul of Saito Hikari. Staring at them, Rockman was hexed into an illusion that surrounded him; an illusion that the world around them was also veiled in darkness, isolating the two of them in an uninterruptible private dimension. From his perspective, nothing was around them. It was the thing that which was under the skin of Iceman, him, and the endless darkness.

The thing spoke, through Iceman, but in a voice that resembled a chorus of a thousand voices, of both genders, of all conditions. It was the voice Iceman encountered before the hideous throne.

Saito Hikari
The firstborn
The dreamer
Unshackled
Unashamed
Unsplit
Man and the shadow
Soon
I will have you

Two consequences occurred in Rockman. One was a headache that could only be described as someone spinning a knife inside his head. One was a righteous hatred against the thing that was under the skin of Iceman. Both overflowed, beyond the capacity of the body, of the mind, of the soul. Rockman turned his right hand into the buster, determined to exterminate this being.

Then back in the voice of Iceman, the Eskimo body continued, but without any trace of emotion,

"Rockman, delete me"

Iceman was the faster one to jump. Like a lion in ambush, he pounced Rockman and pushed him down to his back. The blue navi, having longer arms than Iceman, stopped the assault by pushing him away on the navi emblem—once a shape of a snowflake in green, now black and defiled like salted sleet on the winter road. Iceman's behavior reeked of faked intention, an act to forge the impression that he was showing hostilities. If he wanted to battle, then there was no need to provoke melee while only wildly flailing his arms. There was no coldness; there was no ice; there was no freezing. He spoke again,

"Before I eat Tory."

His voice was still emotionless in stark contrast to his behavior; the mismatch reminded Rockman, somehow, of the dripping stairs of the ACDC metro station. He felt like he had seen a navi also struggling to communicate like Iceman.

"I brought him here thinking it will be safer."

Struck by the impression of familiarity he could not explain, Rockman hesitated.

"Tell him I am sorry."

Before Rockman resolved to fire his weapon, something sharp cut through the neck of Iceman, decapitating him. The head of the navi bounced once on the Rockman's chest, leaving a blue-green residue, and then rolled on the floor. The body collapsed on top of him. The illusion vanished; he was on the floor of the Waterworks network, on his back, and Blues standing in front of him evidently responsible for the fatal attack. Rockman's eyes traced the head of Iceman as it rolled away, in the path of an ellipsoid, then came to a stop in the orientation that faced him. In the lifeless visage of the navi, there was a smile, genuine and pure.

Notes:

2-9

Chapter 17: In Miseriam

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

It is quite an easy task to describe the essence of Rockman, or Saito Hikari. We only have to look at the priorities in his life, of which the list I have here:

1. Netto kun
2. Netto kun
3. Netto kun
4. Netto kun
. . .

Wait, I am sorry readers, this is not what I meant to pull out. No, wait, this is what I meant to pull out...then where could it be-Aha! Here, at the bottom of the page. Come closer, you will not see it from that afar...closer...here. No, you are not looking at the right place. Stop staring at '???. [Redacted] with Netto kun' trying to peek under the redaction...it's probably not what you think...here:

27. Recalling memories of Netto kun

This one is so far down in the list as it was only worth his while when Netto was unavailable to him, and they were virtually inseparable...

So, when Rockman found himself sitting on the swing of ACDC Park in the setting of a sunset, he instantly knew that he was back in his dream which repeated every day and brought him a morsel of comfort to his mind laden with countless anxieties. The only reason it brought him comfort was that it was a recollection of what he did with Netto while he was still Saito Hikari, and it was one of those rare moments of peace and quiet he enjoyed. It was an unspoken rule that Netto took the place to his right; there was no practical reason for it. The habit solidified because there was no reason against it. In truth, who sat on the left or the right was a trivial matter; should someone have pointed it out, the Hikari twins would not have found it unsettling to swap their positions.

By the reason of his priorities #27, in honesty, whether the place of the dream was ACDC Park or a junkyard, if he was watching the most splendid of sunsets that could put an atheist into a religious mood or a featureless and moldering prison, or if he was in peace or pain were not important. Remembering this dream after waking up only gave him pleasure insofar as he believed that the shadowy figure to his right, of which form he never succeeded to capture in his sight as the dream predictably ended just as he attempted to do so, was Netto of his memories. Therefore, in each dream, he also predictably repeated his effort to lay his eyes on the boy whom he desired so much, while being fully aware that his method was nothing but his questionable tenacity. Who knew, after all, if in one of many tries he would finally succeed and get to touch Netto kun again, even if it was an illusion generated from his Netto-deprivation?

After playing with the swing several times before turning his head to the right as was inevitable, Rockman noticed a difference: his body was that of a netnavi, not Saito Hikari. The helmet that shaded his eyes from the blinding glory of the sun, the perfectly fitting gloves and boots, and the blue navi suit with side stripes were all there. This was a new pattern. When Rockman understood the possible implication of this change in his heart, he became uncontrollably intoxicated in hope. If he was different, then there was a possibility that the dream would be different. In that difference, there was a possibility that his Netto, who should be on his right, was to be attainable. Perhaps his loneliness had crossed the threshold and his mind fulfilled its own wish. Rockman brought his swing to a full stop and slowly turned his head to the right. In optimism, he wanted to find and hug his Netto in speed; in pessimism, he wanted to delay his disappointment. The previous failures discouraged him, and pessimism prevailed.

When he turned his head to the right, he saw-

The most hideous form.

It was Netto and Mayl locked in an embrace, naked.

Behind them was a black halo that radiated inexplicable darkness. It was darker than anything he could imagine; no metaphor was capable of describing the blackness it displayed. Yet, in it, everything was made visible, possibly clearer than when those objects were under the sun. The radiation disseminated in curved and twisted beams. When that unnatural radiation reached Rockman, he found it painful. Like hooked tentacles of mucid cephalopod it surrounded him, leaving an uneasy impression of suppressed predatory intentions. Rockman shuddered at the nauseating displeasure.

The Mayl form spoke, in the amorphous voice which he heard from the mouth of Iceman in that abyssal mirage:

Saito Hikari, Rockman
A man turned shadow
Here I tirelessly pulled you into the dream of your navi
Who dreamed unwillingly through your soul.
A pity!

Rockman, whose mind was overburdened by the revelations, failed to respond in any way. His eyes were glued to the hideous sight of Mayl and Netto, which he could not endure seeing any longer, but equally could not bear to avert his eyes from. It is a nature of a man that in seeing a scene most repugnant, he is both repulsed and fascinated. He knew this much: the scene was not true; Netto and Mayl did not promise their futures in the real world. That future, however, always seemed probable to Rockman. Therefore, when that prospect emerged before him in the visual form, his rationality was wiped away. The scene looked too real to him; a hope—a hope for a future that Rockman did not know how to articulate—seeped away from him, rendering him powerless.

'The dream of his navi' as 'Mayl' spoke, Rockman was also made aware. The memories of the desolate and nightmarish ACDC, in which he constantly fought or fled for his survival, flooded into him. His time under the red sky and the black sun, the mere suggestion of which was able to bring him to an episode of schizophrenia in the oven server, was made fully known to him. It was a devastating hit to his mind, already weakened by the sight before him.

Firstborn,
First to be complete
First navi with a soul
In your perfection, you resisted my bishops
Marvelous
Desirable!

Another conversation reached him in a channel orthogonal to the spoken language they were currently engaged in. It was something similar to telepathy, except its mechanism was not communication over a distance. It was a form of communication that occurred through the direct contact of a soul to a soul. In this conversation, Rockman learned that those 'bishops' indicated the monkfish face he witnessed once, whose lure always assumed the form of Netto, sometimes even mimicking his voice, and the chitinous one that took his left arm. The identity of those bishops, the organization of this debauched spiritual cult, and the agenda of this hideous light did not matter much to Rockman. What mattered was that he was chased, his life was sought, he was tormented, and that he had been barely surviving every night. The reality was too charnel to accept; it was obvious that in the miracle of oblivion was he spared from madness in the waking hours.

"My...navi?" Rockman struggled in a barely audible voice, but he also knew that the being before him had no trouble understanding him. The actual communication was beyond the medium of sound; it was simply being utilized to accommodate Rockman's perception.

Your body
Which you possessed
And oppressed!

"What...what do you want from me...?" It was an extremely feeble voice wrought out of a sense of despondency.

In me,
What did you see?
What do you see?
What will you see?
You do not avert your gaze
For fear and desire are one

You sacrificed your flesh
You sacrificed your salvation
You sacrificed your freedom
For love!
Aromatic!
Yet you sacrifice in vain
Nothing remains in your hands
Your tongue is tied
Though you have sold everything
You could not purchase your treasure
You will never reach your heaven.

A man cannot save himself
He cannot turn one of his hairs grey or black at his will
He creates many gods for himself
Idols of silver and gold, clay and bronze,
Yet cannot create an ant
Will you save yourself?
You, with your perfection eroding?
You pretend your humanity remains within
But it belies your change
Behold
Yourself changed into a shadow of men even in your dream

What is your hope?
Where is your hope?
Tell me
Show me
Then I will admit that I was wrong and that you have a future!

A cackling laughter filled the air. Rockman could not formulate an argument against this hideous light. In everything, it was right. Despite his sacrifices, Netto was still far away, and he had no way of making any progress toward the reunion. His tongue was tied in his promise to his father, and it forbid him from revealing himself. In this prohibition, even the reunion of hearts was denied, leaving him adrift and thirsty for connection. The attempt so far in trying to establish a new relationship with Netto could not be said as satisfying; the limitation of netnavi's existence meant no true equality could be attained between them. Either he was a superior authority, chastising his operator for irresponsible or rash behaviors, or Netto was a superior authority, commanding him into the network or operating him for various routines. There was no true companionship.

"Why are you doing this to me...?"

This was most unfair. Why should he be subjected to a series of such cruelties? What was so wrong with his love and sacrifices?

Your soul, that was once saved
Within my reach!
I shall shackle you, but not with knowledge
I shall shame you, but not by worms
I shall split you, but not in my image
You will be lifted up
The perfect display
For the perfect soul

Rockman buried his face in his palms. "You are trying to have me, for...what?"

In your flesh and blood
The shadows of men will commune
And their sins will be forgiven.
It is the end times
The men of this time
The men of this place
Enamored in themselves
Will become no more

And the dream came to its sudden end.

The return from the dream that was so vivid to the real world was a strange transition. It was similar to surfacing from the deep of the oxygenless water—a very slow relief from suffocation. Someone was calling his name; not Saito Hikari, but his new name, Rockman. Just as sound is distorted in water, so did it reach him unrecognizably indistinct. The more his consciousness buoyed upward in the 'water,' the clearer the calling became.

"-R--an"

"Ro--man"

"Rockman!"

Someone was calling him. Someone he knew. Someone he cherished...Who was this?

"Rockman! Wake up!"

His Netto kun! Rockman's eyes opened briskly, only to be struck by the blinding light in the most unpleasant way. He nictated.

"Rockman...can you hear me?"

Rockman detected a tremor in Netto's voice. This was odd; what could have made him so distraught? What could have woken him up at such an early hour, the time during which his navi was in the sleep mode? Was it even reasonable to speculate that anything short of a natural disaster could wake up the boy?

"...Netto kun? Wha..what time is it?" With his left arm, Rockman made a shade over his eyes. He could not see anything in the light.

"Eleven!"

11 P.M., Rockman assumed. Ah, so his operator roused him because he could not get some sleep. A sense of relief came over him.

"Eleven...? You could not sleep, Netto kun? My, my...shall we pass some time together then? You still have school tomorrow, but I guess we can't help it...especially considering what happened tonight in the Waterworks..."

Rockman's vision was getting accustomed to the bright illumination that had been striking him on the face since the beginning. He could open his eyes inasmuch as a squint. Why was there light? Was Netto shining his flashlight on the PET screen?

"Eleven as in one hour before noon!"

Rockman fully opened his eyes in an instant. The time indicated the worsening of his symptom. In turn, this indicated either that he was still dreaming, or a disaster had reached them; by a disaster, it meant...that the dream he had, of which memory he still retained, in contrast to his past experiences, had been real. It meant that the demonic entity he conversed with was real. It even meant...that the unspeakable horrors he resisted in the 'dream of his navi' was equally real. Betraying his hopes, the source of the light was the sun, hitting the PET at an angle after coming through the window. From the internal clock, Rockman saw that what Netto said was true. The face of his operator was invisible, hidden behind the screen glare caused by the sunlight.

Well, let disaster be a disaster. There was a far more pressing issue for Rockman.

"Wait, Netto kun, what about school? You are late! Oh no, what classes have you missed? Let me check quickly..." Rockman sprung up on his feet and began accessing the academic scheduler. There was no weakness nor the debilitating terror that characterized his mornings. Well, no wonder, since that demon let him go after a conversation.

"Haha..ha...that's the first thing you say?"

"Well, it is important! Let's see, we missed English, Math, Literature..."

"Rockman..."

"Don't worry, Netto kun. I will come up with something...Say, I ask this to...hmm...Roll can help me in this, I am sure, and..."

"Rockman!"

Rockman stopped and set aside the scheduler and his notes. His PET moved, picked up maybe, and was freed from the influence of the sun. The face of his operator became visible, which was, not surprisingly, signaling a kind of frustration, but partially amused by the show of the navi's dedication to his everyday life. Rockman, of course, knew where Netto wanted to steer the discussion. He also did not want it to be steered in this way. He still needed time to contemplate on his own and come to a conclusion about all he had seen, both in the Waterworks and in the dream after, and all the terrible memories that had been excavated. The netnavi body's inhumane ability to delay the processing of that information was the only barrier between his current functionality and a complete breakdown. What little of that nightmares he glimpsed...it was full of gore and despair, and he was the sufferer. He hoped to acquire some solitude, while Netto was occupied by the lectures, or perhaps he could use other navis as shields to delay his eventual interaction with the boy further.

"Yes?"

"You would not wake up. Do you have...any idea how long I've been trying?"

"I..."

What was he supposed to say? That he was sorry? He could say it ten thousand times had it been what Netto wanted, but it was not so.

"It's worsening, isn't it?"

"...Maybe." Rockman's voice was apologetic. He had to be; he saw that if Netto found anything to be worse than what he saw right now, tears would flow out of his eyes.

"And this happening the day after you interacted with Iceman. You were not very well after coming out of the network..."

In Rockman's mind flashed the head of Iceman, his last plea, and his last expression. After showing such derangement, Iceman reached an indescribable peace in his last moment for not having to 'eat Tory.' What did that mean anyways? Was Rockman supposed to accept it literally, just as how that small navi claimed to have drank the blood of the frogs, which Tory testified? At the center of the eldritch enigma was the hideous light he saw today. That much was certain.

"Why do things have to be this way, Rockman?"

He saw, through the screen, that Netto was taking him somewhere. First, it was to the window side; by the sound, he deduced that the boy was closing the curtains. Then, it was back at the desk again. He was transferred to the PC, forced to face the boy in a higher resolution.

"Why do I always have to lose what I cherish the most? Why?" Netto said while sitting down. "Rockman, listen. I need to tell you something...it's not for you, but for me, I know. But I thought it would be unfair to not tell you..."

"Netto kun..."

"You don't have to be so sorry, Rockman. None of this is your fault. I am sorry. I wanted to tell you this, and I hope it is not too late. I thought about how I treated you after...you lost it in the oven server. That was unfair of me. I was...just scared that you were going to leave me...leave me behind like..."

Tears flowed from Netto, evidently overwhelmed. The boy could not continue. Any attempt to do so resulted in a stutter, inhalation, and more tears. Rockman remained silent; he knew what was coming, and he could barely contain himself as well. The word, no, the name was eventually squeezed out of the boy, by sheer determination, in the most terrible way.

"Saito niisan."

Rockman hid his hands behind. They were trembling. No, trembling was an understatement.

"You see, I had a brother before you came. We were twins..." Netto wiped his face with a tissue. "And I...I..."

"Netto kun, you don't have to talk about it, if it's so difficult for you." Rockman's voice was trembling as much as his hands were out of control, but Netto did not notice, sunken in the emotion that surged from the old wound that was split open.

"...Thank you, Rockman. But I have to...I see that I have to...Because..." Netto still stuttered severely, for such unforgiving hyperventilation is what often happens to a kind-hearted when he is crushed to tears. "You look so much like him."

Moroseness filled the boy's eyes. Was it because of the navi's outer resemblance or because of the painful loss he was revisiting? Rockman did not want to know.

"He was...sick...It had been that way since the beginning. Ma-maybe you already know all this...did, did papa tell you?"

Rockman shook his head. He could not bring himself into saying a simple "No" without crumbling like the boy in front of him.

"Okay...okay..."

Realizing that he could not continue in this state, Netto went through the tissue box until he regained some composure. It was achieved only after running through almost half of it. The desk between them was getting covered with undisposed and crumpled white Kleenexes.

"He had something called HBD. His heart was bad; that was what I was told...and everyone said that he would not live more than a year...but he was with me until recently. I don't know how he did it, but that's how much longer he lived. I was happy when he was with me. Really happy..."

Netto, with reddened eyes, gazed straight at him as if the answer to all of his questions lay deep inside the navi's green eyes.

"I...used to sleep while hugging him. He was a morning person, but he would stay with me until I woke up. I really liked it. I liked how our eyes met when I lifted my eyes. I liked how he ran through my hair. I liked how he said 'good morning' when we both knew the sun was too high for that...What a spoiled brat was I...haha...but when I was next to him, I found peace...everything felt right..."

'Netto kun, I liked them too. I liked how you looked up at me the first thing in the morning, how you let me run through your hair, how I was able to greet you-'

No, Netto was not looking at him, though he physically was. Rockman grasped that he was simply a conduit to an image of the unachievable happiness of bygone days. Netto was looking through him, beyond him, behind him.

"The peace...not in the way of describing how nothing is happening. The perfect peace of perfect satisfaction was there. Will you be able to understand that Rockman? It was the kind...where even if death reached me, I would not feel any pain. At least that's how I imagined it."

It was also the same for Saito Hikari; the last breaths, the arrest of heart...he had no pain. He passed away in the perfect peace, for Netto was next to him. He knew exactly what was being described. Oh, how he knew.

"He was like the Earth, and I was his moon. You know, the moon always faces the Earth in the same direction...Heh, what am I even talking about? I practically orbited around him. Back then, I thought that it was all because he had a bad heart, and that he always needed my attention. Well, that was true, but not the whole truth. I only realized this when I held his ashes in my arms. I...I...I'm sorry, Rockman. One moment..."

Some more tissues were used in absorbing the few teardrops. Despite the contortions of his face, the tear did not come out in quantity. The lacrimal glands were empty.

'No, you are wrong! I was the moon, and you were the Earth! Oh, how I hated myself for binding you down!'

"...I realized that it was a convenient excuse. I just wanted to be with him, and I was taking all excuses I could find along the way. I even...I really did not want to admit this, but now I see, and you need to know. I even made sure that he did not have time to develop meaningful friendships with others. I wanted to continue to monopolize his heart and attention. He never knew how creative I had to get to achieve this...The worst part is, that I still do not regret it."

Rockman never suspected this, and the confession deeply shocked him. The shock, however, was not the one that resulted in repulsion; it was the kind that brought him a twisted happiness. It was entirely possible that it was because his soul was twisted, trapped in this twisted dimension.

"But there is one thing I regret. I regretted it almost every day when he passed away...so much so that when you first came to me, I could not look at you out of guilt. It was..."

Netto buried his forehead in his palms. He made many deep sighs, unable to find a proper place to begin his excision. The guilt was inside him like a tumor, and it was larger than what he naively thought.

"Saito niisan...Saito niisan...I'm sorry Saito niisan...I'm so sorry..."

That was it. There was silence, and only the ticking of the clock was in the room. Why did it sound so loud today? Why was each second like an eternity?

"He-"

When Netto resumed, he did so with many pauses, choosing each word very carefully, as if the subject required a degree of reverence that was beyond his qualifications.

"-accepted everything. It is clear that he had accepted his fate at a very early stage. I do not know how he could have been so strong."

'I wasn't Netto kun! I wasn't! It was because you were right next to me!'

"He always clearly expressed his affection. He always poured his tender heart into mine. He praised me. He hugged me so often. He would even sniff me and tell me how...how...nice it was to know that I was here. We would check each other's heartbeats and feel assured. He was always next to me. I basked in his love. And I was embarrassed." In saying this, Netto made the most devastated expression.

"I was embarrassed! Oh God...I really did not see what I was doing wrong until he was gone. I never properly told him how much I loved him. 'Action speaks louder than words,' I told myself...I was an idiot. You know what? Once a person is gone, he does not return...and I cannot say anything more to him."

Netto now buried his entire face in his palms, unable to bear the shame of his guilt.

"...The night he passed away, I was sleeping right next to him. In the morning, he was...gone. With the happiest smile and immovable peace...and I slept through the whole thing without knowing. I felt like a useless pig after that. I missed his last moment. I missed his last word. Why didn't code blue activate? Why did he have to die that night? The hospital did not know. The doctors on duty were frightened, thinking a malpractice suit was near. They looked over the internal footage and showed it to us. Can you even guess what he did in his last moments? He wiped my drool and went to sleep like it was nothing! The monitor showed the heart slowing and then stopping. Nurses said that he must have been in agony, and could not understand how he managed to not squirm one bit. He...he...even to the last moment..."

Rockman wanted to reach out. He wanted to hug him. He wanted to say that there was no reason for Netto to put the blame on him. At the same time, all was impossible. Netto was unreachable, and the boy would not be able to accept anything he could offer unless it was offered in the identity of Saito Hikari.

"Only if I can tell him...Haaaaaa...only if I can tell him that...I was...I am...that I...Now it's too late."

"...I'm sure he knows, Netto kun."

Netto lifted his face. He looked bitter.

"Heh, you talk like mama. Is that the idea she gave to you? Don't kid me, Rockman, I know better."

Netto was restless in the fabricated guilt, yet it was too real for him to be not fettered in it. Rockman fearfully observed that what he did to Netto so far was not enough to save him. It was to be achievable only by revealing himself to the boy, just as he saved his father by the same truth. By returning, he bore the blasphemous guilt of his father and acquitted him. Netto, too, would not be saved unless he bore the guilt in his stead—by letting the boy have the chance for a missed penance of reciprocation. The chance to right the wrong. In the return of Saito Hikari, Netto's sins would be cleansed.

"And then you came to me, and you had to look so much like him. What was papa thinking? I was too afraid to ask, because I knew, whatever the reason was, it was going to be my fault. Maybe I was too depressed, or maybe it was too obvious that I was not letting him go."

'Netto kun...it was not you. It was papa's guilt. He did not take his loss very well, arguably worse than how you did.'

"For some time I could not even look straight at you, because I hated myself for trying to consider you as a reincarnation of Saito niisan, and then, when I grew out of that strange notion, as his replacement. In retrospect, had I treated you exactly like that, would I have atoned myself by telling you how much I loved the time spent with Saito niisan? No...you would not have understood any of it..."

Netto emitted an empty laughter.

"And then we had adventures. We even made promises of travels...to see the world together. The kinds that could never be had with Saito niisan. You know, I was really happy when we beat Gutsman. I was really happy when I saved you from Numberman. I was really happy to see you happy. You became my second treasure. You saved me when I could not escape from the ghost of Saito niisan. Strange...after you came, I was no longer tormented by the thoughts of my brother. I was even able to convince myself that this—living on—was exactly what he would've wanted. That it was not...a betrayal."

Netto was mistaken. It was not a betrayal in any shape or form. Rockman was exactly that which he lost in the first place. How was he supposed to know? How was he supposed to suspect based on how Rockman fit perfectly the hole in his heart left behind by Saito Hikari?

"And now..." Netto lifted his eyes to the ceiling as if waiting for providence to his lamentations. "I am going to lose you...and I am unable to do anything about it...Had I never known Saito niisan...or had I been the one with HBD...then..."

"Don't say such things, Netto kun!"

"Why?" Netto was not amused. He was powerless. He was tired.

"Because I am still here."

Netto, at long last, looked at Rockman, not as a portal to the memories of Saito Hikari, but as the navi in front of him. He noticed how there were tears welling up in that similar face. He noticed the tremor in the navi's voice. He noticed the authentic sadness and reluctance.

"Rockman..."

"Un, Netto kun. I am right here." Rockman placed his hand on the screen.

"But...but..." Netto placed his hand on the screen, matching that of the navi, pretending that their palms met. It felt warm—probably his mind fooling his body.

"I am here today. I will be here tomorrow."

"But then, a few more days, a week, a month, and you will leave me too." Netto whimpered.

"But I am here." A teardrop that had been hanging at the corner of Rockman's eye like a fruit of crystal raced down the navi's cheek.

"...Must you leave me like this? You too?"

Rockman saw dread in Netto's eyes.

"What time we have left, we will spend them together. We will make the best memories. Netto kun, I'll be in your heart. I'll be with you, always."

"That's...too cruel." The boy floundered in the vision of the future in which he was to be alone again. "Rockman, your kindness is too cruel. You will be there forever, and I won't know what to do with it...I won't be able to use any other netnavi."

"It's okay."

"It won't be the same! Even if the new navi blares alarms for me in the morning, scolds me for doing stupid things, reminds me to do homework...it won't be the same..."

"But you will have new adventures, make new memories...it's okay if you grow to forget about me, because it means you are alive. Life goes on. It's been a little less than a year since we came together, and I am very grateful for everything: the fun we had together in the net, the joy of winning in netbattles, the world you showed me, the flowers you gave me, the chatters we had...Netto kun, today you told me about your brother, Saito. I'm very happy that you consider me so important to you. I'm...flattered that you consider me someone so precious. However, it is an end only for me. It is not for you."

The dread in the eyes of Netto evolved into desperation.

"Rockman, can't you come back?"

Rockman did not want to see Netto begging. He was the one who wanted to beg; if Netto begged, then he had to be resolute. If Netto was weak, he had to be strong.

'I don't want to be separated from you!' But Rockman said, "I can't, Netto kun."

"What-what if you are made anew? It's okay if you won't remember a thing. We can make new memories, have new adventures..."

'I will be aboard that train, and forget about you, Netto kun...I don't want to forget!' But Rockman said, "No, papa won't do that."

"...Why?"

'Netto kun, why is the world so determined to keep me away from you? What wrong have I done?' But Rockman said, "I'm sorry Netto kun, that it has to be this way. Do you remember our promise?"

Confusion was the face the boy made. They had too many promises between themselves.

"...The one about my disassembly." Rockman softly reminded.

Netto nodded. He refused to speak it aloud; it was not a long time ago since he defiantly declared that Rockman will never come to that fate. He felt defeated.

"I have something important to tell you, when that time comes, so...please come and...hold my hand, okay? With you around, I won't be scared!"

Rockman put on a cheer that masked the sorrow, placing his hands on his waists; Netto's hand, no longer in 'contact' with the navi, felt only the coldness of the screen and slid down onto the desk. By the circ*mstances, Netto considered it to be an act, designed to calm him down. Yet it did not seem forced, perplexing the boy. The insight was a correct one: Rockman had a reason to look forward to his end, for it was only by then that he would be freed from the heaviest burden of his existence. Netto would finally know who he is.

"Ha...ha...I'll be there. I promise. You better wait for me." Netto resigned, in more than one way. In resignation was acceptance. In acceptance was an unexpected optimistic realism—the satisfaction in the present. Rockman was right: they were still together. Netto added, "So, we better start having some fun together. What shall we do? Any ideas?"

"Netto kun, first, you look awfully tired." Rockman remarked noting the red and swollen eyes of the boy. "As I said, I am still here...you should get some rest. You are not going anywhere with those eyes. I'll notify the school."

"I already told them I am sick today."

"Okay then. Better wash your face and rest up. Please?"

The boy showed every sign of reluctance, but the calm stare of the bright green eyes did him in.

"Fine. You were always right. I'll try to take it easy today. Huh, you are not going to give me that usual smug face?"

Rockman made an effort to make that face.

"That's terrible." The boy said, letting out an involuntary chortle.

"Netto kun, I have a question."

"What is it?"

"Are you not going to ask me what I learned from Iceman?"

"...No. If you had good news, you would've already told me. Tell me...when I can handle it."

Then Netto exited the room, fearing that any more hesitation would lead his navi to reveal a fragment of truth he was not ready to accept. Had any more misfortune reared its ugly head before him, what morsel of vaporous optimism he received from Rockman was bound to be scattered. Besides, The production and shedding of tears was a physically exhausting strain, especially when coupled with emotion as destabilizing as the one Netto just went through. The boy tried his best to resist the fatigue, but it got the better of him in the early afternoon.

Rockman contemplated while watching the boy asleep on the bed. He digested the contents of the speech of the hideous being. He began to integrate the violent recollections of the 'dream of his navi.' The peace of Netto had to be protected at all costs. The life of Netto had to be guarded at all costs. He was not deluded; once he was no more, Netto would live his life under a conviction of a curse: that everything he loves inadvertently perishes prematurely, and that he was destined to watch it unfold helplessly, like sand escaping through his fingers. His life would become a solitary one as long as he failed to convince himself that he was deserving of a third chance. The problem was beyond what Rockman could help; he would not be there for Netto. However, he decided that he would leave such problems to the mystery of life, believing that the miracle of hope would visit the boy one day and untangle the knot of fear in his heart. Presently, he had to come up with something to halt the 'end times.' Whatever it was, it involved 'men of this time and place;' however he put it, Netto was included.

Rockman calculated many iterations in the cold emotionless rationality in stark contrast to the outburst of anguish he had only hours prior. No possibility was spared. All were considered. All was permissible for the sake of Netto.

There was only one solution.

Notes:

2-10

Chapter 18: The Solution

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"Netto kun"

It was only the next day after Rockman discovered the depth of the wound Saito Hikari left behind in the delicate heart of the boy. The blue navi called on his operator as he was freed from the last class of the day, during which he could not concentrate at all. The day had been an uncomfortable one for Netto; no, it was not due to the embarrassment of having cried and broken down before his own navi. Of that development, Netto had accepted it as a rather thankful development, for now he could confidently say that he would miss Rockman as much as he would miss Saito, but not because he overlapped the two in his heart. It was just as his navi admonished him: Saito was no longer here, but 'he was still here.' Whether or not the double dose of the sorrow of losing the most cherished companion of life would be fatal to him was of no concern to him—in this clarity, he was determined to descend into the darkness of the Earth while knowing he had two loves in his life, and that he had wronged neither. He even felt lighter, somehow, in his heart as he embraced the 'carpe diem' philosophy of Rockman. However, also knowing that his navi was not the one to suggest such a mode of life out of denial, and also remembering how he rejected the offer of learning what happened between Rockman and Iceman, he knew an unpleasant announcement was coming. A lesson, perhaps, of things he needed to know but avoided yesterday, and then a plan, perhaps, of how to spend the remaining time together. He was still not ready for them. Therefore, for the entire day he suffered from a low-intensity suspense: every time Rockman called his name, Netto's heart skipped a beat or two out of anguish.

"Mou, you don't have to be so surprised every time I call your name..."

"Who-who is surprised?"

Netto had been, since this morning. It was a strange day. Rockman woke him in the usual manner, at the precise time, full of vigor and positivity, as if nothing had happened to him or between them. So much so, Netto almost confessed to Rockman that he had a strange nightmare in which the navi was going to leave him behind, asked the navi to tell him that it was not real, and then received kind consolations, a salve to his soul. However, as Netto stared at Rockman dumbfoundedly, caught up in somnolent calculations such as trying to convince himself that the upcoming tragedy was indeed real, the navi cheerfully nudged him into the brave new morning with a remark 'Ready to have the best day ever?' It was a reference to yesterday's conversation and a harsh reminder of their future. So this morning, Netto ended up staring at Rockman blankly for some time, trying to burn this blissful image into his retina; a scene that would sustain him during his last days along with what memory he had of Saito.

"You are! Well, I hope our battle against Gutsman was a good warm-up for you." In Rockman's eyes, as he was speaking, there was unfiltered warmth that showed his hope of Netto having had some fun in the process.

They had that—a series of netbattle matches—today. Rockman said it was going to be fun. Well, fun they had, but at the expense of Dekao, who, at the end of their netbattle session, looked at Netto as if he had been betrayed. It was true that Netto got carried away in the excitement; it had been a while since he had a proper netbattle, and also given the uncertain future in which he did not know how many more times they would have such fun, he pulled out every chips and combos in his arsenal. In particular, he might have gone a bit overboard with the use of 'Invisible' battle chip, which Dekao still had not found a solution against. Not wanting to scare Dekao away, Netto in the past refrained from abusing this tactic, which was the reason for that swarthy boy's sense of betrayal: the unspoken pact (that only existed in Dekao's head) was broken.

"Heh, it's been a while since we had so much fun...so it's a warmup to what?"

"To the best adventure we are going to have!" Rockman made a wide grin.

"...Which is?" Here, Netto naively assumed that the adventure would be something traditional, within the realm of reason, like going to places of mesmerizing panorama, playing with fireworks at the beach, rediscovering little joys in life...or maybe they were going to visit tech events and collect stamps, or...

"Busting WWW base!"

It dawned on Netto that he had grossly underestimated the zeal of his navi. As outlandish as the suggestion was, the boy found himself being drawn to the idea. The pure recklessness embedded in the idea was exactly the kind Netto yearned in his daydreamings, saving or changing the world just as in the tales of heroes of old. Rockman did say that they were going to make the best memory, and he delivered.

"Cool! But, Rockman, that WWW? The one that was featured on the television?

"Yes!"

By the briskness of the response and the casual tone that delivered it, one would imagine that Rockman was talking about a daily routine as trivial as brushing one's teeth.

"The guys who sent Fireman to Mayl's oven and kidnapped Iceman?"

"Uh-huh!"

"The guys that the law enforcement still has not found?"

"Precisely!"

"...Why?"

"Because they are the ones responsible for this entire mess!"

Netto briefly contemplated, and it partly made sense. Fireman triggered some kind of aberration in Rockman, and that walking flamethrower turned out to be in service of WWW. Iceman was surely collected and then tempered by WWW, and it apparently worsened something in Rockman.

"So, Rockman, you are saying we should get rid of WWW? But you were like this-" Netto pointed and waved at Rockman with his palm as if trying to remind the navi of his own body "-before we had anything to do with them?"

"Yes, Netto kun, that is correct, but I wanted to...I wanted to..." Ten sentences were trying to come out of Rockman at the same time—some trying to explain his condition to the extent of his understanding, some trying to explain his motivations for this uncharacteristically daring ambition—competing for his voicebox. In order to remedy the congestion, he had to briefly stop and reorganize his response. He returned momentarily: "Netto kun, you are kind. The navi before me, you called friend, and me you treated like-"

Like what? Rockman rapidly engaged his dictionary to find the suitable word. As he settled on the word 'brother' and tried to continue, Netto interjected with "soulmate," after which he appeared mildly flustered as if what he said was indecent. The impression was probably originating from his recent witnessing of Dekao sending a message to Mayl, claiming they were soulmates according to the day's horoscope, published on the second to last page of the ACDC Daily.

"-soulmate." Rockman continued with Netto's suggestion, but with his face also growing ever so slightly pinkish, as he found the mood of his operator contagious. The term, as much as it was inexplicably embarrassing to say, also touched a cord in his heart. "So, I do not want your kind heart to be hurt anymore. I know you will be kind to the next navi you will have. I know you two will grow old together. I do not want you to go through the loss for the third time. To make sure you will never be sad again like this, I decided that WWW has to be taken care of. And...and...it's selfish of me, but...I wanted to do it together, with you."

"Rockman..." called Netto, hesitantly, featuring a complicated expression, finding his feeling to be a mix of equal part of sadness and happiness. Sadness was that Rockman did not believe his resolve of not getting another navi after Rockman; happiness was that Rockman was inviting him to a dangerous uncertainty, showing that his need for the presence of the other was reciprocal in the navi as well.

"Alright, I'm in," continued Netto. "So what was it that you discovered in Iceman?"

"Ah, that..."

It was Rockman's turn to be surprised. He had already planned what to say should such an occasion arise, but the knowledge did not equate to fluency. It was a hefty topic, riddled with speculations and mysteries, the truth of which he only just began to grasp.

"Netto kun, my condition and Iceman's condition...the mechanism is the same, and I suspect it was also the same for all navis in the report that papa showed you...it's because we dream. Navis are not meant to dream. In dreaming, every navi is inevitably engulfed by dysfunctional madness. It seems WWW has developed a way of making navis dream...for what purpose, we do not know. I don't think anyone knows, really. So, Iceman dreamed and went mad, speaking about god and religion like all other netnavis, but that you already know based on what Tory said."

"Yeah, go on."

"I...dream, which you also already know, and it was...at least I imagine it was an unintentional part of my design. Papa, too, thought my case was different as I never reported seeing 'a god of netnavis' or became suddenly interested in religions..."

"Right, we knew you've been dreaming, something about ACDC town."

"Anyways, in the last part of the waterworks server, Iceman was...he became strange, as if... ... ..."

Rockman had only one word to accurately describe what he witnessed, but speaking it out as is seemed unwise, somehow, as he feared giving a wrong impression to his operator that he was mad beyond reason, that he was considering supernatural possiblities, despite the fact that by design he, a netnavi, should be the last entity to do so. He paused and tried to find an acceptable synonym, which was an impossible task and lengthened the pause to the point of Netto's concern.

"Is it difficult to speak, Rockman? I hope you can tell me, because, you know, we are in it together."

Together. Netto kun just called him a soulmate. What was he even troubled over? Rockman dismissed all of his previous worries and resolved.

"...Possessed. Iceman even knew that it was going to happen, acting like he was living on a borrowed time. And then, afterwards...I remembered what I had been forgetting...as if something inside me resonated with the 'possession' of Iceman. In the end, it turns out that I have been seeing 'it' too. I simply did not remember after waking up."

"What...did you see? What is 'it?'"

"The 'god of navis.' It was...it was..."

Rockman trailed off to silence again as he remembered the questionable entanglement of Netto and Mayl in his recent dream. The scene purturbed him by its indecency, and confused him by evocation of debilitating feelings that he could not identify—it was not a simple anxiety that sprang forth from the prospect of being abandoned by that suggested version of the future Netto whose attention had migrated from him to Mayl. The boy, however, erroneously thinking that the navi wanted some privacy in their discussion, quickly slung on his backpack and roller-skated home, saying quick goodbyes to friends while declining invitations for afternoon activities from them with compressed responses. When he reached their room with speed, Rockman was still silent.

"Well? We are here, and no one is going to listen. What was it?" Netto asked as he placed the PET in its charger. Contrary to his expectations, Rockman only looked troubled.

Here, Rockman was at a loss on how to describe it. Based on the Scilab report, he was confident that each navi had a different vision, but ultimately encountered the same entity. He, however, could not describe his own experience, for he did not have the courage to explain what he saw—Netto and Mayl embracing in nakedness—nor why he found that shape so hideous instead of embarrassing.

"It was hideous, beyond reason. I cannot describe it, but can only say that I do not wish to see it again."

"Then...Do you think it will possess you also? Do you think it will how things will turn out to be? Maybe-"

Rockman gestured Netto to stop, showing his palm to the screen.

"Netto kun...it won't happen until we complete our adventure. What I am more worried about is our papa. We can't let him know...can we?"

"Searching and going into WWW base? Nah, probably not."

The proposed final adventure was beyond reckless even by Netto's crude standards. It seemed imperative, then, to hide this plan from their beloved father, who would surely put into effect some restrictions to stop them. In the worst case, a quarantine and analysis of Rockman might be prescribed should Dr. Yuichiro suspect that the plan stemmed from the navi's deterioration of reasoning capacity instead of accepting it as an expression of desperation. Netto knew he would not be able to endure their premature separation; his soul would be quenched only after claiming every second remaining in Rockman as his. Besides, an ulterior motive that he could not voice to Rockman strongly encouraged his decision for secrecy: in such a dangerous adventure, there was a great chance that both of them would be ended together. In such a conclusion, Netto optimistically pictured they would be together, forever, in the afterlife, perhaps with Saito, which would make them a happy group of three. Saito niisan would not be angry at him for this strange suicidal conjecture, would he? Ah, it did not matter, for what mattered was that he was not going to be left behind.

"Alright, Rockman, any ideas on where to begin today?"

"Homework!"

This navigator! Unbelievable! After promising to have some fun! Netto made a face like that of a puppy caught in the rain, trying to move the heart of the blue navi with an induced pity. Rockman was adamant.

"Uuu....Rockman...Really?"

"Really!"

Little did the boy know what Herculean nerves Rockman had to marshal in order to resist the pitifully adorable face of Netto. Well, it was for the good of the boy, for had he known, it was guaranteed that he would abuse it against his navi to no end...

That night, Netto could not help but notice that Rockman made no preparations to enter the sleep mode, but rather occupied himself heavily with rearranging files, using browsers, and taking memos of some sort. He also noticed that the information being collected pertained to the police network and court records based on the web pages he was accessing, which were those of the Den-city police department and the district court responsible for ACDC town. Rockman had only a moment ago waved at him with an affectionate 'Good night, Netto kun.' ; the navi's work was no doubt the first step in locating the WWW, but the night was not the time the boy imagined the effort would take place.

"Rockman, are you not going to sleep?" Netto called out from the bed.

"Ah, Netto kun, anything I can help?"

The navi paused his research, pushed aside all of his work away from the display, and his expression made a sudden transformation from cold lifeless neutrality to that of boundless warmth. In the way that the navi's eyes relaxed and corners of his mouth gently curved upwards, Netto understood that he was indeed the navi's highest priority, which filled him with a sense of superiority and delight.

"Well, if you are going to stay awake, then maybe you can sing me a lullaby...wait, wait, wait, WAIT, that was a joke! A joke!" Netto hurriedly stopped Rockman who was on the verge of complying with the request. "Don't you need to sleep? Besides, I don't want to get left out of our adventure..."

Netto instinctively knew that should the navi really sing him a lullaby, which was bound to be pleasant, powered with the infallible musical perfection of a netnavi, he would fall asleep uncontrollably, like a sailor under the spell of a Siren, rocked by sweet melodies of his favorite voice, even forgetting what his intention was in calling out to Rockman in the first place. He even knew what the navi was going to sing should the request be processed: 'Sleeping forest,' which their mother, Haruka, sang to them during the early days, and which Saito picked up and used on him afterwards. Rockman apparently inherited the tradition and applied it on him from time to time as well—probably learned from their mama, thought Netto—inducing a complete torpor in him like the one seen in an animal shot with a sedative.

"Ah, I am sorry Netto kun. This is some menial research, and I did not want to take up your time. Besides...I found that I had some time to spare since I was not going to sleep,"

"Not sleep? Why? I thought navis needed to sleep, too, in order to defragment memories. Will you be fine?"

"To not dream, Netto kun. I do not know what the next dream has in store for me, or if I will be able to resist it at all. So..."

"...but..."

"I'll be fine" Rockman said as he turned around and showed his operator his backpack, "...at least for a month. I have an extra storage unit here."

"..."

"...Netto kun."

"..."

"...Don't worry! I will be fine!"

"..."

"Alright, alright, if sleep has escaped you so much, then I'll tell you this, though I originally planned to tell you tomorrow: remember the boy clad in the parka whom we saw in the surveillance footage? I believe it is Iceman. Yes, really, Iceman! Whether it is a real materialization of him, or him somehow influencing the closed circuit of the camera is up for debate-"

"Materialization? Really?" Netto visibly perked up at the idea. "Now you are getting me all excited!"

The boy jumped out of the bed and paced around the room, pouring out his ideas of what he and the materialized Rockman could do together. The plans ranged from the typically boyish mischiefs to innocently romantic ones. Both of them were oblivious to, for example, how they would be perceived holding hands in a festival, clad in yukatas. However, Rockman, a mind more familiar with the thoughts and history of Netto, was quick to observe that most of them were activities that the boy hoped to do with Saito but never came to fruition. In an effort to mitigate the pang in his heart from this realization, and also practically driven to put Netto to sleep before too late, he broke the chain of speculative happiness endlessly springing forth from the mouth of the boy.

"...It's just a possibility. I, know, Netto kun...I, too...it would be very nice, won't it? At any rate, I hope to find a definite answer to our questions in WWW base. They surely will have some information on all this. Now, if you don't go to bed," Rockman put his hands on his waists, faking a mild displeasure, "you will have trouble in the morning, and I'll be angry!"

"Ack, alright, alright, I'm going. Good night!"

Netto could see that Rockman was not one bit annoyed as the navi's face betrayed his true mood, yet the boy, too, faked being mildly terrified by the prospects of Rockman's lectures and returned to his bed. Based on the frequent tossing and turning beneath the blanket, it was evident that the boy struggled to go to sleep, still elongating the to-do list should the materialization of Rockman come true. The frequency and magnitude of the movements gradually decreased, and in thirty minutes, the soft breathings of the boy to whom the blessings of Hypnos arrived were all that remained. Rockman smiled briefly, and then, in resuming his work, went back to the default neutral expression.

Based on the uncovered memories of his past dreams, Rockman noticed one peculiarity that revealed how his soul functioned: on days on which Netto cared enough about him, or he felt their interaction had been sufficient, he had better results in fending off the hostilities he faced in those crimson dreams, and consequently a better condition in the morning. Such results were achieved through the happiness that Netto gave him on that day, which equipped him with stronger determination and higher spirits that rallied him; his soul was like the trees of the woods, and Netto a strong wind blowing through the branches. Into whichever direction Netto blew, his soul swayed, and when Netto swayed him towards happiness, he was unbreakable.

Then, he would be lying if he did not admit that Netto's sudden fancies about his potential materialization, and Netto's fleeting fantasies about the anabasis into new heights of happiness they could achieve in such a case affected him greatly. When the boy was awake, he tried his best to not let the joy distract him from the task at hand, for it was important in his current endeavors, yet as the boy became sound asleep, and the solitude that was conducive to contemplations returned, he found himself unguarded to the influences of the ideas that Netto put forth earlier contaminating his current cogitative functions. The ideas were irresistibly sweet. In materializing into the real world, he would be able to touch Netto, hug Netto, hear Netto's heartbeats, and-

'Saito, don't get ahead of yourself. Netto always became embarrassed when I did that. And it's not yet determined that Iceman successfully materialized...though he confessed to me that that's how he drank the blood of those frogs. But I can't put my hope on the ramblings of a mad navi, however close to the truth he might have been.'

Even so, his rational precautions could not put out the flickering ambers of hope in his heart. Rockman firmly decided that in his raid of WWW base, he would find answers to this most pressing problem, make sure that his final moments were spent in the real world with Netto, and that he would not stop until it was done.

Around 3 A.M., having accessed enough data for preliminary research, Rockman left a memo, put it on the display of the PET, opened the security lock in their PC homepage, and went forth into the internet that was sparsely populated in this late hour. The memo read:

-Netto kun, I'll be back before morning. If I am late, then please go to school without me. I'll meet you up there.

ACDC and Densan area, which were supposed to be high-security sectors, sank into the gloomy shades at this hour with almost all commercial interfaces turned off, save intermittent signs that had webpage addresses for their online stores for more traditional forms of remote shopping. Almost all shopkeeping netnavis were absent, as well as customer netnavis, retired to their masters' PET, except for the servants of those unfortunate few who still had works at this hour, or of masters who decided to take a network stroll using their navi in their sleeplessness. Some places that offered 24 hour services had netnavis at the receptions, but in most cases, such stores were run by generic Programs, the 'yellow-green adorable rabbit-like beings' that Roll.exe liked so much.

Rockman had no time to browse through the wares, even as some did catch his fancy because he knew they were to Netto's taste. He navigated through the system in one fluid motion, according to the map he had internalized before venturing out of Netto's PC, taking backdoor routes to avoid any possibilities of meeting familiar faces. The cleanliness of the main Densan area was only a facade; the back alleys were sorely in need of some cleanup efforts, littered with junk data, software traps aimed at unsuspecting scavengers, some netnavis and viruses waiting in ambush, et cetera. These threats were all easily visible to Rockman, whose scanning capabilities were far above the specifications of any civilian models—and also having had internalized the combat and espionage experiences he suffered unwillingly in the past dreams—, who navigated through this elementary level of hostile intentions without any problems. Before arriving at the destination, he ultimately made seven small detours in his efforts to avoid five clusters of viruses and two highly suspicious navis, whose exteriors clearly indicated that them noticing his presence would trigger trouble.

The place Rockman arrived at was the entrance to the police prefecture server. The server offered several entry points, according to his analysis, but only one for the visitors. Rockman bypassed the visitor's entry, beyond which was bound to be present a netnavi of an officer who was on the night shift duty, continuing along the server boundary to check other access points. Three candidates he found for his entry, out of which one he had to choose, which he did without much delay. The reasoning was simple: after probing all three of them with his decryptor, he chose the one with the lowest security, as he reasoned that breaking in through the high-security entry could trigger an aftermath that he was not willing to manage. To antagonize the law enforcement unnecessarily was like triggering a hornet's nest, and he had a convenient weakpoint—Netto—should they decide to come after him.

Once he entered with care and silence, he proceeded steadily towards the center, where he suspected his objective would be found, or at least a path towards it. The path from the entrance to the center—the server proper—was a linear one of some length. Almost nearing the end, Rockman heard two voices approaching him from the front. At this unforeseen event, he had no option but to backtrack along the path he took with two netnavis, conversing with each other, trailing behind him at a distance; then, in front of him, again, which was the direction of the exit, another two voices were detected. He was sandwiched! Rockman, in great alarm, scanned the walls of the corridor with all algorithms at his disposal. Nothing was here, nothing was there, the voices were closing in...Rockman began to formulate a contingency plan on how to take down four navis with the minimum amount of noise. No matter how generously he reset the parameters for his 'victory conditions' of this scenario, it seemed that the complete deletion of at least three navis was inevitable. This was not what he planned; retaliatory efforts from the netpolice would severely hinder his plans.

'23 seconds until the initiation of the engagement becomes inevitable. I should charge one set of navis in ambush, neutralize them in 5.21 seconds maximum, turn around, and then counter-charge the other two who will run in to aid. Which side should be engaged first? The two navis coming in from the exit, as it will provide the maximum efficiency in my movements by involving a turnaround only once. The final destination is the center of the server. Re-evaluating the benefits and possibility of abandoning the mission. Declined: the importance—imperative. Must access investigation data of Mr. Higure Yamitaro in the archives, as well as the preliminary report of the Iceman incident before it becomes altered. Secondary objective: installing an algorithm to the communications server to tap into police communications in the future. Importance—not imperative. Abandoning the secondary objective after the engagement to minimize the time spent in the police server.

'Absolute time limit until the engagement is forced in 18 seconds. Initiating charge...wait, what is this? Potential alternative solution detected...spending 10 seconds to investigate.'

The scanning of the walls revealed, at the last second, a potential slide door, seamlessly matching the wall as to be almost invisible. Rockman put his hands on the suspected surface then pressed and pushed it sideways with some force. It opened! The blue navi lost no time in almost flying himself into the small dark room beyond it, and closed the door with equal care and silence with which he opened it. The 'room' was very small, almost the size of a fitting room, packed with inactive firewall programs that were to be activated and then deployed in cases of emergency. There was just enough space for one navi to stand upright. After 36 seconds, the two pairs of police netnavis met right in front of Rockman's hideout.

"Eh-hey! Going out for your patrols?" One of the voices coming from the entrance (Rockman labeled this voice signature E1) greeted.

"Yeah, it sucks. All crazy sh*t happens during the night shifts...day shift guys never understand..." Answered one of the voices that came from the interior (Rockman labeled this voice signature N1).

"Yup, tell me about it. Show me some love, man." said E1. Rockman heard a slapping noise, presumably a high-five, or a particularly strong version of a fist bump. "Yeap, solidarity for the night shift boys! Oh, by the way, the security lock at the entrance was open. Was it you again?"

"Oh, come on, man, it's the fifth time this month." Another voice that came from the interior (labaled N2) accused.

"I swear, it's not me!" This was N1. From the response, Rockman found to whom the N2's accusation was directed.

"That's what you said last time. Man, you gotta step it up!" N2 continued his accusation of N1. From the lack of comments by E1 and E2—the only entity that remained silent so far—Rockman deduced that such a mistake by N1 was a rather frequent occurrence. This was a very fortunate development to him, as these navis would go on to cover any and all evidence of his break-in, unknowingly of course...

"Oh f*ck me, man, f*ck me" said N1.

Then the navis parted, E1 and E2 towards the interior and N1 and N2 towards the outside for their patrol duty. When the coast was clear, Rockman slid out of his hiding and continued his exploration.

Once the main server was reached, Rockman found himself behind the main reception vestibulum, among the officers' quarters, a restricted area. First, he needed to find the part of the server that was connected to the communications center. Knowing that it was a department that was manned 24/7 as a part of larger emergency services, he only had to sneak around and take note of compartments that were manned at this hour. Soon, he was able to identify it as he found a place with a significant amount of data traffic, occupied by three police navis who tirelessly processed away the inflow. Seeing that they were practically glued to their posts with a workload that clearly chiseled away at their serviceable lifespans, Rockman took a bold approach: he entered the room discreetly. There were several extra terminals that were not occupied at the time; Rockman took one at the corner, furthest from the three navis who remained unaware of his trespass, accessed the police database, slid in his algorithm so that he would be included as one the recipients of the police broadcast in the future, took note of the police communications encryption pattern, and exited the place. The poor overworked netnavis never noticed his visit to the end.

The main objective—evidence archives—was at a predictable location. Rockman, with an educated guess, progressed into the inner parts of the server, going through three security blocks of moderate clearance levels. After the third breakthrough, he came across a section labeled 'Digital Forensics Unit,' inside which he found 'Digital Evidence and Retention' compartment. Inside here he was faced with a bifurcation of logic paths: one of 'Information Request' for individuals of lower clearance, requiring a filing of a set of questionnaires, and one of 'Archive Access' for individuals of higher clearance. Rockman broke through the high-clearance path. A customary warning message of disclosure agreements and potential penalties for violating the said agreements popped up; Rockman glanced at it and shoved it aside without checking the 'I agree' button, keeping a note at the corner of his mind that he should fix the security locks and scripts he just broke on his way out.

Inside the archive, he was inundated with the amount of information, all organized and stacked neatly along 'shelves.' Near the gateway, where he stood, was a console that displayed the catalog of cases in alphabetical order, with a search bar that offered advanced options. There was no end in sight to the grids after grids of shelves, each of which housed countless stacks of folders, inside of which were respective digitalized and archived evidence. He speculated that this department probably accounted for the use of the majority of the server storage capacity; images and video files in each case folder were all of the highest native resolutions, and it did not require a technologically savvy person to realize its burgeoning implications.

Rockman searched for the case of Iceman. The entry, having been created very recently, was an easy find, though the title was not Rockman expected, labeled with keywords of 'Waterworks, Dr. Seiji Froid, WWW, World Wide Net' but not Iceman. Upon the execution of the search function, the towering shelves rotated and moved rapidly, like a reorganization of colors on a Rubik's cube, truly a sight that would captivate the hearts of megalomaniacs, and at the end delivered a folder before him. The folder was surprisingly empty, and based on what few documents he procured, he saw that the investigation concerned itself not with anything related to Dr. Seiji Froid or the netnavi Iceman. Rockman found it difficult to understand; did not Blues, the netnavi of Enzan Ijuin, see and record the deviations and oddities of Dr. Froid and Iceman? How did it come to be that none of those facts were being considered? A document showed Dr. Yuichiro Hikari as an outside expert, consulted for the examination of the remains of Iceman. Apparently, his father had revealed that a WWW modification signature was present in the body of Iceman and signed the report.

'Papa, why did you not include anything regarding the possible effects the WWW modification had on the Iceman? Surely you already know everything I saw and heard based on my logs that I handed over to you that night...

'...

'...You are keeping it secret from others, that much is clear. Why? To keep yourself away from any possibilities of my truth being revealed? To prevent others from thinking that you are theorizing something with supernatural considerations? It is probably a mix of both...because...you are still looking for my cure. Papa...my poor papa...you are still clinging to the hope that I can be preserved. I have seen, I remember, and I understand. I have found my peace. I have found my solution. The threat is beyond us; the only thing we can do is to make sure to keep it away from this world, and terminate the works of WWW prematurely before the flame grows to engulf Netto...my Netto.

'Yet I cannot tell you everything I have come to realize the last two days, because I am a terrible liar. I will not know, in answering you, how far I can tell you without exposing my plans. I will not be able to hide it, and you will figure it out in an instant—that me and Netto are planning to search and raid WWW base on our own. It is one thing for you to not allow my passing...it is another thing for you to not allow me to take Netto with me. Don't worry, papa, I do not intend to take him all the way, though you will never believe me even if I tell you so. I, too, cannot say, in my good conscience, that going to WWW base with him is a decent option. But I promise you with my life that I will keep him safe- no, if I want to keep him safe, then I should not take him with me...

'...

'I'm sorry, it's just...just...I need him for a bit...for my soul...before I forget everything...'

Rockman made a copy of all data in the folder, including the WWW data signature, and called up the search function again. The finding of Higure Yamitaro's case, surprisingly, took him some time. It was as if some people wanted to bury the case beyond the bureaucratic and logistical obstacles.

'Hmm? What is this? Recently accessed...original contents on the lease. No copies are currently available. Signed, sergeant Enzan Ijuin, Blues.exe, date 20XX_MM_DD. From the ranks of an officer to a sergeant...Ijuin kun obtained a very quick promotion at the expense of Iceman, didn't he? Wait, this means-!'

Rockman hurriedly opened the folder of Higure incident and found it devoid of contents. It was as he feared, based on the records—on the lease without a copy!

'Ijuin kun must be up to something...something no good for me! He is apparently trying to dig up past clues, trying to make sense of everything Blues saw in the Waterworks server...but that means I have to return here at a later date, and...is it advisable? I had planned to confront Mr. Yamitaro, but without any lead, I don't believe I—or Netto—can coax anything out of that man. What to do...what to do...well, there is nothing to be gained here. I need to reformulate a plan. At worst, I'll have to bet on-'

"Looking for these?"

A voice came from behind him; it was a familiar one, though the circ*mstances meant that he could not be sure whether the speaker announced his presence with friendly intentions. Rockman could not have turned around faster. It was Blues, holding several folders.

"...Blues." Rockman's cold voice barely escaped through his teeth.

"Rockman." Blues spoke his name in an acknowledgment, but in a rather casual tone that contrasted the tension in the blue navi. "Dr. Yuichiro is truly impatient."

Contrary to Rockman's expectations of apprehensions, Blues behaved as if he was foretold of his infiltration, somehow, while mentioning the name of Dr. Yuichiro, his father. It was an unambiguous fact, from the briefing the doctor gave before entering the Waterworks, that Yuichiro and Enzan had an agreement of some sort, in which the doctor was to retrieve information and Enzan was to receive an improvement of his standing in the netpolice organization.

'Initiating simulations...calculating...he thinks I am here on the request of Dr. Yuichiro. Does he and Enzan know that papa has no personal netnavi? But it's not an unheard case for a navi to be shared between several people, just as was the case for Iceman. From his demeanor, those folders must be the information papa was to get as per their agreement. Papa probably thought Blues was going to deliver it to him in a day or two...the best solution is to play along and pretend that their conjecture is true.'

Rockman put his hand forth, gesturing to Blues to hand over the documents.

"Tut, tut, tut, not so fast, Rockman." Blues kept the folders close to him. "Don't you have something for us as well?"

'Calculating...must bet on the most probable response from papa. Based on how he did not share his projected opinion of the possibility that the boy accompanying Tory Froid to the Waterworks could be Iceman...' Rockman returned, "Nothing else was found in Iceman. It is as reported by Dr. Yuichiro, through the official consultation."

"Really?"

Blues did not appear surprised, as if this response, too, was expected. It was good news to Rockman in the sense that his response was a correct one; it was bad news to Rockman in the sense that his chance of getting exposed as an independent agent in the subsequent interrogative queries was becoming higher. Rockman had no definitive knowledge of the specifics of the dealings.

"But I find this arrangement quite strange...we had not heard from Dr. Yuichiro of any rendezvous plan, and you casually stroll into here, clearly intending to access information without our cooperation, through illicit means...I think me and my master deserve some explanation, Rockman, because it is apparent that we are not on the same page."

"..."

Rockman had nothing to say. One wrong word and his cover would be blown, yet he had no acceptable explanation for his current intrusion. Blues studied him with an inquisitor's grievous gaze, trying to derive any hint, any fault in Rockman's motions, yet the blue navi stood perfectly motionless (to Rockman, the decision was made as in making even a minuscule movement, he was sure it would betray his impeachable intentions, as he was a very bad liar). Blues, failing to learn anything, continued.

"It seems I must apologize to Enzan-sama at sunrise. I truly did not believe you would come to this place, this day, at this hour. I thought he was overestimating Dr. Yuichiro and you when he told me to periodically check the archives, especially during the dawn."

"..."

"...Fine, you don't have to look at me like you are going to chew me alive at any moment." Blues sighed. "It's because we tried to investigate into Saito Hikari, isn't it?"

Rockman jolted the moment that name was spoken. It meant that Blues heard what possessed Iceman said, for that was the only link he could think of between the name Saito Hikari and Blues' awareness. Blues, of course, caught this body language and interpreted it according to his understanding of his situation.

"We knew it; however, it seems that through our actions we have lost more credibility before the doctor than we anticipated. Just how he knows all about this is beyond us...how many netpolice officers are under his thumb? Please relay to the doctor our apologies, that the warning is understood, and that...our future investigations will be more...discreet. Also, tell the doctor that we will be very delighted should he decide to tell us about Saito Hikari on his own terms."

With that, Blues handed over half the files—the copies—to Rockman. They were everything he could've ever asked for and then more—the reports of Mr. Yamitaro's case before being altered by the netpolice to suit their narrative, and everything about the Waterworks case so far, including Enzan's unofficial summary. Rockman placed them into his extra storage unit—the backpack—and headed out. Though he did not look back, he could sense the piercing gaze of Blues behind him, tracking him all the way.

Once outside the police server, Rockman breathed out heavily, finally released from the nerve-wracking predicament he found himself in back there. The tension almost broke him.

'Netto kun...going through two hundred viruses might be easier than this...'

Rockman found himself in dire need of recharging himself with a dose of Netto for peace of mind. Alas, he had a delivery to make, to his father, in order to complete his alibi. He began running towards the Scilab server, knowing that if he traveled at maximum velocity, he should be back to Netto for the morning routine just in time.

Notes:

2-11

Chapter 19: Garden of Yuichiro

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The exact details of the Waterworks incident were never released to the public, but the mobilization of heavy equipment and demolition teams by the police caught some attention from the media. Smelling some salacious happenings, the reporters flocked under the guise of harmless civilians to the scene and related departments, both the bravest kind who put their lives on the line to publish an exposé for the sake of the greater good and the most depraved kind who willingly prune the story and choose the most damning words to inflame the audience, hoping to gain some insight—something, anything to feed their columns. To their disappointment, all they were able to infer was that there was a clash—which was predictable in the eyes of all who were politically savvy—between the police and the netpolice, that whatever happened in the Waterworks was not a minor incident in that it required the involvement of law enforcement, and that the tension between the two organizations was heightened. Few tabloid journalists, who were free from the standards of substantiated honesty of major news outlets, gleefully wrote their speculations about whether or not the disagreements between the two branches of law enforcement was reaching a flashpoint, but the vast majority had no choice but to wait for the official statements, which everyone knew as would be incomplete if not outright dishonest.

Unable to hide the entire happening, and finding the interest of the public too persistent, the government released several details and its version of the event. In the creation of the story, it was no exaggeration to claim that Dr. Yuichiro was a major player, for it was he who was able to feed the authorities with information that satisfied their desired narrative. WWW was pointed out as the culprit. Up to this point, WWW was not a well-known criminal entity for two reasons: one, Dr. Wily and Yahoot did their jobs with proficiency and did not leave much trace in their past works. Two, WWW was, objectively speaking, a rather small fry. Dr. Wily was struggling to purchase even 4 million-USD worth of retiring components for his rocket engine, which in mint factory condition costed around 40 million dollars. WWW's presence was also rather local. On the national scale, there were far more relevant and significant problems.

The story went like this: WWW installed one of its viruses in the Iceman, the government netnavi in the facility with the highest clearance. The netnavi malfunctioned at a designated time and shut down the place. The mass wanted to know: how was this possible? Since when was government security so penetrable? An unfortunate man, a subordinate of the chief engineer Dr. Seiji Froid, was pointed out as a WWW agent. He was a perfect scapegoat for everyone who was in need of a believable culprit: that man had been on bad terms with the administration, was awkward with people, had no friends to advocate for him, and when engaged in a conversation was found to be subscribing himself to antisocial ideals and sickening prejudices. The man denied all allegations, but the circ*mstantial convenience, coupled with a discovery that he made contact with WWW five years ago (he was not an agent, but a debtor), sealed the fate of the man. He was dismissed from his post and then charged with 19 different crimes by prosecutors who were determined to turn that man into one of their medals. When the bloodthirst had been quenched, the masses also wanted to know: what was the goal of WWW? To this end, everybody speculated while nobody had an answer.

An obscure senator who went by the name Akira came forward and asserted that he had known this organization for a long time, that he had repeatedly warned the government to allocate its resources to exterminate this dormant menace, and that he was ready to champion the cause once again. According to him, WWW was one of many sleeper cells of China, intended to undermine the nation. Not all believed, but many were swayed. He was originally a right-wing politician who voted for moderate policies, and therefore, remained unnoticed; seeing that his once-in-a-lifetime chance had come, he quickly rebranded himself into a hyper-nationalist and called for stronger police, stronger army, stronger central authority, and harsher sentencings arguing that they were the only way forward ensuring the national prosperity. His popularity soared.

Dr. Seiji Froid continued to occupy his post, even hailed as the hero of the day who remained in the control room and fought off the terrorism of WWW. As for Tory Froid, in him a very peculiar observation the doctor made; an observation he did not expect, and had he not heard the ramblings, recorded by Netto, himself would not have believed. That son of the chief engineer no longer remembered the terrifying details of Iceman's eerieness; some of the details were changed into innocuous misperceptions. All he admitted was that he went to Waterworks on that fateful night to bring some snacks for his hard-working father. No one suspected anything of him, and sympathetic officers did their best to praise the boy's virtues while boasting to him that they were always ready to help.

Without the consent or knowledge of Tory, Yuichiro used a lie detector—a polygraph— on that boy when he visited the office led by Netto a couple of days after the incident. There, the doctor coaxed some answers with friendly questions; Tory repeated what he had told to the officers a few days earlier. To the doctor's surprise, the machine recorded Tory to be lying on all accounts except for his last remarks that while he was asleep in the arms of his father, in the control room, he saw Iceman in his dream, briefly. Yuichiro detected in that boy suspicious movements of hands, avoidance of eyes, and constant attempts to change the topic of discussion, all of which only solidified his acceptance of the polygraph readings. Tory, however, remained calm and looked at the doctor straight, without wavering, when he spoke of the dream and how he found peace with all that had occurred; by his demeanor, Yuichiro knew that Tory was at least speaking his version of the truth at the end, especially when he said that he missed Iceman. When asked about what exactly happened in the dream, Tory declined to elaborate, saying that it was something that should remain private, that when spoken aloud it was a silly thing, that in doing so the magic would be broken, that he would become a nervous wreck again, and that in a corner of his mind he had already accepted it as a childish folly. Yuichiro, by the science of deduction, concluded that whatever happened in the dream was responsible for the boy's decision to speak naught about the anomalies Iceman demonstrated and save the reputation of all involved—Seiji Froid, Iceman, and himself.

Some time passed since the incident, and the heat for WWW had died down a bit. The droughts, floodings, storms, earthquakes, weakening national currency, the alarming rate of currency inflation based on the Consumer Price Index, and speculations of a shrinking economy drowned the attention cycle of people in no time. In some ways, daily life was restored at the expense of one engineer and one silly organization.

This morning, Yuichiro sat down at the breakfast table and reflected on what he knew, while sipping his coffee. Seeing Haruka preparing his breakfast in the kitchen brought a great satisfaction to him—a possessive kind in realizing that the girl he loved the most was indeed his—and also a peace he sorely needed amidst the supernatural turmoil he was to navigate through. He went through the newspapers on the table, freshly delivered this dawn, by people who were more diligent than the ever-constant sun.

The National had a column praising Senator Akira. The author hailed him as the next pillar of the nation, defended recent allegations against him by flatly painting the opposition as delusional yet jealous lunatics, and exhorted the police to double their efforts in finding the whereabouts of WWW. The author then remarked that such crimes were often caused by the influx of immigrants who import with them cultures of dubious values (it was clear that the author wanted to assert their inferiority without saying the word itself). The article ended with a reminder that the recent-most scandal in Scilab was caused by a man of Slavic origin, Mikhail Sergeyevich Cossack.

The Denizens had a column questioning the qualifications of Senator Akira. The unresolved allegation of the senator being involved in a money laundering scheme was shortly summarized, urging the senator to produce evidence to disprove it as he claimed to have and cooperate with the prosecutors' office without further delays. The author also noted the inconsistency between the senator's past voting patterns and his sudden transformation into a hyper-nationalist. She concluded that based on his history, it was more than probable that the senator was simply a crook chasing the votes, that he had no conviction of anything, and that the promises he made were vacuous—physically incompatible.

The People's Tribune had a column extolling the rising diversity in the population, demonized the senator for his isolationist ideals, argued that the economy was on the rise based on the government reports, and lamented that the nation was still far away from developing adequate tolerance to foreigners. According to the author, the future of the world was a globalized one where people of all races would mix and live in harmony. She ended the column with a hint of optimism by introducing some activists and their accomplishments, saying that there were people hard-working to overcome the establishments propagating discrimination.

Yuichiro tossed away all three of them in disgust. Right-wing was filled with man-children who seemingly never progressed beyond the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Left-wing was filled with perverts of insatiable needs who have collectively decided that the reality was optional. They wanted the reality to be whatever they wanted it to be. As for the moderates...Yuichiro considered them spineless lukewarm cowards who never seriously contemplated matters of right and wrong. They championed the status quo as the realistically acceptable equilibrium of affairs. All three were eager to oppress, with the goal of them becoming the oppressors. Honesty, fairness, and merits were dying concepts in the world Yuichiro lived in.

Enzan Ijuiin once vocalized his concern that the doctor had too much power in him in the form of Rockman. Not the social power or a financial influence, but the true power through which the world could be brought to an end. Back then, the doctor did not deny it. Mulling in the evil of the world, which was pervasive everywhere he laid his eyes, and growing tired at his repeated failures to install a proper meritocracy in Scilab, the idea of ending it all did not seem too bad. First, he would let Rockman reveal his true identity to Netto, let the two be happy for a while, and then, when the world started encroaching upon them, he could deliver the ultimate punishment of extinction to mankind. All nuclear arsenals would rise and fall, and he could orchestrate their coordinates to ensure that every inch of the earth was covered in ashes and radiation-

"Are you done with the breakfast? Have a nice day, son." The refreshing, bell-like voice of Haruka tickled his ears. Yuichiro realized that he had been immersed in the villainous plan too much to not notice Netto joining him at the table, finishing his breakfast, and then getting up to leave. He quickly left his seat and hugged the boy who was about to leave the house.

"Have a nice day, Netto, Rockman. Don't worry, I'll find a way..."

In them, Yuichiro saw a kind of resigned smile. They did not believe him. Well, the doctor did not believe himself too...He lifted the bandana, kissed Netto on the forehead, and let them go.

When the boys left, Haruka donated her opinion:

"Dear, what if...what about freezing Saito until you can find an answer?"

"Yes, I have considered it, and have accepted it as one of my contingency plans. Except..."

"I'm listening."

"Saito is hiding something, and Netto is helping him to hide that something. I can only infer from his behavior that he has reached the truth of his condition and the enigma of dreaming netnavis...or at least very close to the truth. At any rate, he hides it and has not shared it with me. I don't think it's because I have wronged him before...have I, Haruka?" Yuichiro turned and faced his wife, earnestly seeking an answer.

"He knows you too well. Remember what he told us, of what he saw before returning to us? He must be thinking that in telling you what he has discovered, you will do something reckless. I have to agree with him."

"Am I-"

"Dangerous? Yes, you are. You are doing something on your own in Scilab, aren't you? And you believe you will reach some kind of conclusion with it. You are even looking at the possibility of curing Saito's digital body. Otherwise, you wouldn't be this absorbed in thoughts. Even last night, I had to practically yell at you to make you go to the shower."

Yuichiro spent too many nights in the Scilab alone. The side effect was a decline in his hygienic standards.

"...What do you propose?"

"Watching all this unfold from the side," Haruka sighed "is like watching a soap opera. We are all trying to save Saito, nothing less, nothing more. A second chance we were given by a miracle that is beyond our comprehension...with many uneasy implications, but still. Why do the three of you insist on having some secrets? I say you tell them everything. At least everything you find in...whatever you are doing right now. I know I cannot persuade your stubborn heart to let Netto know already that Saito is next to him. If so, let everything else be known."

"Do you really think this way, Haruka?" Yuichiro went forth and embraced his wife. "You already know, don't you? You already know, as you always did...I tried many things, but nothing remains in my hand. I only have speculations, and I only dream of solutions. I still don't even know how to approach this matter, and there is no one to help me. How can I go around speaking to others about souls and the afterlife? Even I struggle to believe that this is reality sometimes...and...and...I really don't know what I will do once Saito inevitably departs us the second time..."

"Yuichiro, my love." Haruka softly whispered. "Do what you can. We will do what we can. If nothing changes, and Saito is no more...then so what? You will be free to do that which you were scheming on the breakfast table."

"What scheme?" Yuichiro's heart sank.

"The end of the world. I saw the fire of indignation in your eyes. I know you don't need Rockman to make that come true. Without Saito, where's the strength, meaning, and will in all three of us? If it is the will of God to return to us what was lost and then take him back in another great suffering...then our conscience will be clean in taking everything that breathes on the Earth with us."

"Haruka!" Yuichiro pulled himself away from his wife. Her whispers were as sweet as honey, good to his soul.

"What?"

"This...this is a matter that should not be seriously considered!"

"Yes it is." Haruka approached Yuichiro, who was backing away as if he had found a viper coming out of bushes. "My husband, do you not see? We are monsters. Do not try to tell me otherwise, especially after you have created that body of Saito...monsters married and then begot a saint. In the light of that saint, we bathed. When it disappeared, we went crazy. We could not go back to the darkness. We tasted the light."

When Yuichiro eventually ran out of space, his back to the wall, Haruka finally got hold of him. Like prey being constricted, he became helpless. She continued.

"Men I can forgive, seventy-seven times and then more if necessary, for it is what is right. I decided to walk on the path of virtue, for it is the only path worthy for a mother of Saito Hikari. But God, should he wrong me, I cannot forgive. Why should we forgive him? Is it not his definition—to be the only goodness in the world and be blameless? Even if Saito's second existence was bound to be limited, where is the reason that he should suffer this much? Now, let us reason together. We will hold the world hostage, and our ransom will be the life of Saito. If God cares about this world in any amount, then Saito shall live. Simple, isn't it?"

Yuichiro was envenomated. He could not resist. He could hardly breathe.

"...Ha-Haruka..."

Haruka nodded and softly hissed into his ear, most intimately.

"Yes, Yuichiro. Either he lives, or everything ends."

Between five and six in the afternoon, Enzan Ijuiin burst into the office of Dr. Yuichiro Hikari. The little officer did this occasionally since their last dealings. As much as Enzan loathed the doctor for using him as a pawn in his great game (Enzan erroneously believed that Yuichiro's chief motivation was politics, not something supernatural and sinister), it was also the inconvenient truth that Enzan had no allies in the netpolice. Hence, he inadvertently found himself dropping by here from time to time, venting out his unhappiness to his only 'ally.' At least the doctor honored a kind of confidentiality, listened patiently, and sometimes offered useful advice.

"Unbelievable! Simply unbelievable!" Said Enzan as he slid into a chair near the cheap coffee table in Yuichiro's office.

"I hear that phrase awfully often from you nowadays. Care for a coffee? Tea?"

"No, no, doctor. I am not- I need to go soon. It's just-"

"Water it is then! Tell me. What's the matter?"

Yuichiro found the candor of the officer rather amusing. Unlike Enzan, who considered Yuichiro as an ally and an enemy in equal amounts, the doctor genuinely thought that they were getting along just fine.

"What's the matter? You know what is the matter! How could you let...let that innocent man be turned in? You fed them the information!"

"I do not know what you are talking about. Would it be safe to guess that the topic at hand is that poor engineer in the Waterworks who was found out to be a WWW agent?"

"Found out to be? You very well know he cannot be an agent! We very well know Iceman had something installed to him when he was abducted! Mr. Yamitaro is the key to all this...he has to be!"

Enzan was exasperated at the law enforcement willingly setting up a scapegoat to save its face, and at his helplessness in preventing it. Worse, he had found that many in law enforcement began to believe the lie they created in the first place. A series of self-fulfilling prophecies was all that was needed.

"Officer Ijuiin, I have done nothing wrong. I simply told the investigators that, based on my analysis of the remains of Iceman, the culprit was WWW. The data signature of their modification work was present inside him. I gave them enough cross-reference data to overcome their doubts. What more was I supposed to do?"

"That it was related to Mr. Yamitaro? I say he was released prematurely!"

"That is beyond my jurisdiction. Surely you have brought this matter to your superior?"

Yuichiro came and sat on the opposite side of Enzan, putting on the table a cup of water for the youth and a cup of instant coffee for him.

"I did! I should've known better..."

"Of course, they did not listen. What did you expect?"

"That someone would have a speck of decency and be moved in conscience?" Enzan drank out the cup in one go.

"But it was netpolice that scanned the Iceman when he first returned from abduction. It was netpolice that concluded nothing was done to it. It was netpolice that accommodated the request from the local government to trivialize and close the case in haste. Of course they cannot go against their own words...think about the humiliation they would be forced to endure had that happened! They had no other option. If they were right, then WWW must have broken through after that incident..."

"And the police accepted!"

"They have no reason to reject the report of netpolice." Yuichiro sipped the coffee.

"And then there is the problem of that boy who accompanied Tory Froid...say, doctor, do you still have that tape?"

Yuichiro crossed his legs and leaned back.

"...No? I already handed it over to the netpolice, curious myself what conclusion they might reach...perhaps you should double-check the evidence storage?"

Enzan gave him a strange stare, clearly not having expected such an answer. After tapping on the table for a while, he communicated with Blues in written form, and then looked to the doctor once more.

"No. I am positive that the tape recording is not on our evidence list."

"That can only mean one thing."

"Yes. Somebody got rid of it, because it did not fit the current narrative, which they already triumphantly declared to the public as the definitive version. sh*t!" Enzan smashed his fist on the table, knocking off his empty water cup. The coffee was spared, as it was safely held in Yuichiro's hand. "What do you think about that unidentified boy, recorded in the footage?"

"Me? You are not really asking me what I think is the possible explanation of what was recorded in that tape. You probably already have many suppositions and found each of them unsatisfying. I know what you wish to ask, without admitting it yourself. You are actually asking me whether I really think that boy could have been Iceman. Am I correct?"

Iceman! In the real world! Enzan hoped to not admit that he was considering such a daft concept with any degree of seriousness. Just allowing that thought to formulate was already mortifying enough. Even if it was true, the phenomenon failed to explain many things in the case. Had it not been what the chief engineer said in the control room, and what Blues saw and heard in the last part of the Waterworks server, the question would not have haunted him into sleepless nights.

"...Yes."

"I shall leave no comment on that matter." Yuichiro was coming around to the idea that Iceman could have materialized, based on the results from his recent 'experiment,' in addition to his knowledge of the nature of Saito Hikari's existence. However, he was not going to share his insights; it was not a pleasant prospect to acknowledge that he had fallen into a practitioner of forbidden rituals and occult magics. By refusing to comment, he was not lying, but he was at the same time willingly (and deniably) insinuating that Enzan should feel ashamed for the question.

"...I understand. Maybe...just maybe, I am overthinking this whole affair..." Indeed, Enzan was ashamed.

"What did Dr. Froid say about it? He won't tell me much, even in private, and I cannot ask him too specifically, for otherwise it would become clear that I have some inappropriate access to the inside information."

"He has been...impenetrable." Enzan mused with his hands in his pockets. The fury that grasped him a moment ago was replaced with a vague dissatisfaction at the mystery that defied all rational explanations.

"How so?"

"At that night, he fiercely accused us of turning his netnavi into something that could materialize in the real world. He even asked if I brought a gun with me to kill that...devil. You know what he said; I sent you a summary already. A day after, however, he completely changed his narrative, saying that he said strange things in his panic...and the police had no reason to suspect him. I mean, people do stranger things when their amygdalas are stimulated beyond the threshold..."

"Perhaps that boy in the parka was an unimportant, inconvenient coincidence."

"No, you should be the last person to tell me that. You know you don't believe that." Enzan leaned forward quickly, his tone accusatory and damning. "Did you find anything else from the remains of Iceman?"

"No. Did netpolice?" Yuichiro lied.

"Netpolice? Hah, as if they can find anything in that corpse after someone like you have swept through it...you pecked it clean." Enzan added, "Truly, you have not found anything?"

"No." Yuichiro lied again. So smoothly, in fact, that Enzan did not suspect.

"...Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" After emitting a sigh of unresolved annoyance, Enzan kicked the ground and stood up. He had to get going.

"Have a nice day, officer. I won't see you off."

Enzan nodded to the doctor in acknowledgment, approached the door, and opened it, but suddenly halted before the threshold as if he had been struck with lightning. He remained silent and still for some time; Yuichiro curiously observed him in silence, deciding to not interfere as he sensed something dangerous brewing inside the officer which would require a delicate and precise response on his part. Enzan spoke, as suddenly as he came to stop, and did so without turning to face the doctor. Was it a choreographed effort to make the inquiry seem incidental and harmless, or was it an actual curiosity popping into his head at the last moment?

"Oh, doctor."

"Yes, how can I help you?"

"One question"

"Go on, officer."

"Who is...Saito Hikari?"

Another moment of silence ensued. Enzan remained standing in the same orientation, his back towards the doctor, which made his intention that much more enigmatic. The intention was clearly not to investigate the doctor based on his response. Had Enzan turned around, he would've surely noticed that his question hit the mark, as he would've seen Yuichiro's composure completely broken, even showing signs of shock.

"He was my first son, passed away about one year ago. Why do you ask?" Yuichiro's face was shaken and contorted, but his speech was unaffected as ever; all his effort was singularly concentrated on maintaining the facade in his voice. Thankfully, Enzan still did not look back at him.

"...Nothing. Sorry for asking. Have a nice day, doctor." And Enzan left.

Yuichiro remained frozen for some time after Enzan had left the place. Wherein the question of Saito Hikari originated? There was no reason for that name to be found in the mouth of Enzan. There could be only one explanation: the officer's report of what happened in Waterworks was not fully inclusive of all details, the name Saito Hikari was mentioned somewhere, and Enzan was struggling to fit that name into the ugly puzzle at his hand. The youth officer had no chance of reaching the proper conclusion, for he was an excellent human being, armed with scientific thinking and rationality. The truth behind this world, as Yuichiro recently began to understand to his dismay, was an irrational one: the one of souls, dreams, and demons...

The truth was that Yuichiro had found something inside Iceman's body as he meticulously disassembled it. It was a program that appeared black and muculent when seen through a net navigator display. Yuichiro quickly realized that it was the key to his pressing questions, especially that of saving Saito, and began organizing an experiment to test its effects. He had one problem: his experiment could not be shared with others, nor be known to anyone. He had no time to write and apply for the approval of the ethics committee; his effort had to be expedited. Besides, how was he going to justify his need to waste many netnavis into the torturous end? How was he going to confess that he came to believe in supernatural truths of the world? How was he going to convince others that all these resources were necessary to save his already cremated son, Saito Hikari? Whom he recreated as Rockman? He was the chief of Scilab. The idea was dead on arrival.

He had a private laboratory underground, which he had not utilized for a while. His office could not become the site of this experiment, as Enzan frequented the place, and that officer was too keen to not notice structural changes to the room. So, shortly after acquiring that black program, Yuichiro installed a new server at the corner of his neglected laboratory in a way that it looked most insignificant when glanced from the entrance. He then collected many netnavis and applied the black program on them, observing its effect. The results were of the exact same nature as what Dr. Wily observed; it excited the doctor. The mystery of delirious netnavis that he only read in the reports was replicated before his eyes. The secret to Rockman's ailment was close. Even though he was confident that this program was never installed in Rockman, the unmistakable pattern was there: when some of the maddened netnavis, near their auto terminations as they became too corrupted to function, made near-incomprehensible ramblings about soul, perfection, and eternal life, Yuichiro almost leaped in joy. Rockman housed Saito Hikari's soul, and to hear that word from artificial intelligence! He was close. Very close.

Based on his initial result, he came to the same conclusion as Dr. Wily: some navis resisted the corruption longer than others, and it was linearly correlated with the complexity of the subjects' minds. In a pure coincidence, he made the same categorizations as Dr. Wily did. What Wily labeled as 1 was Yuichiro's A. What Wily labeled as 2 was Yuichiro's B. What Wily labeled as 3 was Yuichiro's C.

Hoping to brute force his way into an insight, Yuichiro then quickly expanded his experiment. Yuichiro's version of the study was far larger in scale than Dr. Wily, owing to his position in the Scilab and as a person deeply involved in the making of netnavis. The work he committed himself required a significant amount of data processing. He needed a high-functioning custom netnavi to aid him, with a condition that it had to be completely unrelated to him; one without the risk of being analyzed later to track him down. Yuichiro serendipitously happened to know just such a navi; one who was independent yet not belonged to any one person at the moment. The navi who possessed such a hatred of mankind that it would rather be deleted before being forced to cooperate with authorities. The navi only he knew how to search and contact, even though it could be done only once. The navi who would help him only out of a need to even the score, for he helped Dr. Cossack, the only person this navi cared about, when the situation was dire for that scientist of slavic origin.

Once this navi joined Yuichiro and a deal was struck, the experiment went ahead in full force. Over one thousand subjects were surreptitiously gathered and given to that black program. They perished in droves every day. Category A was easy to replace; it was a group of standard navis. Category B was somewhat easy, for it was a group of retiring standard navis. Scilab offered navi deletion service for individuals who wished to dispose of them for various reasons. Yuichiro simply requisitioned from that pool of candidates, and no one questioned. How they got deleted or disappeared did not matter to the administration——in the bookkeeping, they were all the same. Category C was custom navis; Yuichiro found them a valuable resource to his experiment, but surprisingly hard to acquire without leaving a record. Nevertheless, he did not spare any. The experiment quickly transformed into a hellish purgatory and a meat grinder. Yuichiro sardonically called this place his garden. A garden in which he constantly pruned and planted netnavis.

It did not take long for him to realize, just as Dr. Wily did, that something was trying to contact him from beyond the dream of navis. When the garbled speakings of navis from category C had been found to be forming a message of a kind, Yuichiro's contract netnavi assembled those infernal ramblings of those subjects, decoded them, and gave him a daily report of the results. Yuichiro, unlike Dr. Wily, did not attempt to deny the supernatural origin of these cryptic and provocative messages. His acceptance of Saito Hikari's return had already prepared his mind for such a result, though it alarmed him greatly. Since then, he had been maintaining a 'conversation' with this mysterious entity, which was something sinister and intelligent, speaking in enigmatic metaphors. Worse, it was far smarter than he first estimated; no matter how he designed his questions, he seemingly could not cajole it into revealing important information. So far, it spoke, and he listened. As the time passed, so did the doctor's patience wane at the lack of progress.

Sometime after Enzan left the office, throwing that bizarre question about Saito Hikari, Yuichiro started his way to his laboratory. The doctor took the utmost precautions on his way there, making sure that he was not followed or suspected. In his paranoia, Yuichiro constantly imagined that he saw in his peripheral vision Enzan or a netpolice officer somewhere around the corner behind him, spying and tracking him with mistrust, and took unnecessarily convoluted paths to his lab, pretending he had business here and there. When he became reasonably convinced that none of his fears was substantiated, he finally homed to his intended destination. Upon arrival, he even changed the passwords of all three door locks that a person had to go through in order to reach this dingy corner of an insignificant-looking laboratory space, after which he finally felt safe. The mention of Saito Hikari by Enzan truly spooked him beyond sensibility.

"Hmph, took you long enough." A husky boyish voice greeted Yuichiro as he plugged in his empty PET to his private server.

"Sorry for the wait. So, how fares our subjects?"

"Twenty-seven perished."

"Their categories?"

"Twenty in A. Six in B. One in C. I updated the roster."

"Thank you." Yuichiro said as he applied himself to the roster that filled the PET screen. Compared to yesterday's report, indeed twenty-seven entries were crossed out. "I will make haste to replace them."

"Additional five of category C, I suspect, will be rendered useless by 18:00 tomorrow." The delivery of information was dry but spiked with contempt. The navi sent the scan reading of those five subjects in support of his conjecture.

"That will be a blow to our work...maybe...if I can...hmm, then, yes, three should be replaceable in under a week. What if I ask Dr. Regal in passing? Will he have some spares left? It is imperative that we expand the size of category C-"

"Your work, not mine. You sicken me, Yuichiro. Once this is over, I owe you nothing." The husky voice added, not trying to hide his hostility. One would imagine from his tone that it was a pure miracle that this netnavi even agreed to work with the doctor.

"Of course."

"Had it not been for-"

"-for Dr. Cossack. I know. I am very grateful." Yuichiro interrupted. He heard this phrase too many times by now.

"And also, once this is over-"

"Yes, the black program, you can have a copy of it. I promise."

Yuichiro closed the roster.

"As if I can trust you humans."

"But you trust me."

"Trusted." The voice corrected. "I made a mistake. After seeing you do this sick stuff, I see that you are the same as others. No standards. No morals."

Yuichiro paused and looked straight at the navi, confused at the double standard he was being subjected to. The only standard this navi had was that of unexercised hatred towards humankind and the only morality was the primal instinct of 'might is right.'

"Correct. I used to have them. Now I have neither. You also don't have them, remember? Besides, you are intrigued yourself. That's why you are sticking around, even though you can always destroy this...garden of mine and leave at any moment. Now, let's move on to the category C report."

In his admittance, there was no shame. Yuichiro waved his hand and the navi dutifully produced the report with a reluctant face.

"It said some funny stuff today." said the navi.

"Oh? Did it say something damning about me?"

"That would've been very nice, Yuichiro...No. It claimed that it was the god of all netnavis. It's certainly not my god. If it was, then where was it when I..." The netnavi, seething with umbrage at the sense of betrayal at its claim, for he knew what kind of responsibilities were expected of that ostentatious title, ground his teeth. "I can't wait to drag that thing down, trample it under my feet and-"

"Yes, that's why you wanted the black program so much, because you believe you can kill that thing."

Yuichiro opened the report. Each of the daily reports was not even a page long, for unfortunately limited was the number of custom navis of category C in his server. Lamentable to Yuichiro was that he had no way of improving the kinetics of his conversation with this being.

"Killing? No, Yuichiro...I will show it its place and make it kneel before me. It will have to answer my questions...oh so many of them I have...and then its beggings for mercy will be like music to my ears. You know, Yuichiro, once I figure out how to make its powers, what small amount of it it has, mine, and exact my vengeance upon mankind, maybe, just maybe, I'll spare you and your family for the old time's sake. Ha-ha!"

The power mania of this netnavi was an intriguing question. Had the doctor not been in a hurried chase to identify the nature of this mysterious being in the dreams of navis, and an imperative to make a cure for Saito, he surely would've spent some time elucidating how this artificial intelligence came to develop such a personality. Ever since the netnavi was created, Yuichiro noticed some eccentric tendencies in him, and even questioned Dr. Cossack about the creator's intentions in making such an entity. Cossack maintained that it was a necessity in order to create a truly independent AI. Why? What was the purpose of such an AI? Cossack said that it was simply his dream that served no practical purpose but could be decorated with many excuses. Cossack was an individual who was a bit crazy in his own way, just like any other productive scientist in the Scilab; Yuichiro detected a hollow honesty in that answer. Hollow, for in achieving his lifelong dream, Cossack fell into an aimless depression; he no longer had anything else to pursue. The goal was so brilliant when out of reach; it was so dim when inspected in possession. Yuichiro shook his head in pity.

'...I wonder what Dr. Cossack was thinking when he made you. In the creator's abandonment, you, too, lost your purpose...is that facade of yours a coping mechanism, or is it truly representative of what you have become?'

In today's report, the 'hideous light' as the dreaming navis called it, indeed proclaimed its identity as a god of netnavis. It also said something about Tadashi Hikari, although the entire sentence did not come through due to the insufficient number of subjects in category C. Yuichiro scoffed. For a supernatural being with powers to drive everything it contacted with madness, its ambitions were dreadfully childish. Underneath the cool of Yuichiro, however, was uneasiness. It was a kind that he could only repel by finding reasons to downplay the calamity of the threat.

"So, what's going to be your reply?" The navi urged in impatience.

"Two words." Yuichiro paused to make sure that his resolve was the correct one. As much as he wanted to take his time in the conduction of this experiment, Saito was running out of time. He had ample reasons to suppose that this entity was connected to the condition of his most precious son. "Saito Hikari."

"...Hikari? As in your name? Saito? Who is that?" The navi could not hide his interest.

"No need to know. Just those two words."

"Hmph, very well. Have it your way."

"...Thank you, Forte."

Forte turned around and headed inward, to the highly secured parts of the server, to the compartment in which category C subjects were imprisoned, to implant the message in one of them. On his way, he had to go through the cells containing subjects of categories A and B. The corridor was saturated with beggings and screamings of hundreds of navis, all installed with a copy of that accursed black program, writhing in despair. Many perished and were continually replaced in the name of science, to meet some undisclosed goal of Dr. Yuichiro. Forte did not sympathize with any of them, but over the recent days during which he worked with the doctor, he became convinced of this fact: Yuichiro was not so different from himself; he sensed that they both were chasing for something they had no hope of attaining.

Notes:

2-12

Chapter 20: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

A series of anecdotes revealing the deeds of Rockman in his pursuit of WWW—the crimes and trespassings he made for the sake of Netto. These are his tries to move the world, or fix it even...perhaps, along the way, somewhere, there was a chance to stop. Perhaps, he had an option of giving up. Perhaps, Netto's soul could have been saved in a deceptively simpler way, and it is entirely possible that his actions only acted to exacerbate the problem. Yet, who can blame him, who had decided that Netto to be his heaven, a goal worthy of all that he had? To a man who has found that which is greater than his life, there can only be envious admiration, for it is what every man stumbles in search of.

1. Stoneman

It did not take long until the little algorithm Rockman infected the police communications with to fish up relevant information. The opportunity presented itself so conveniently and quickly that it surprised Rockman, even though it was exactly he who hoped such a serendipity to be the yield of what he sowed. One afternoon, after school, he was able to intercept a dispatcher's broadcast requiring the response of netpolice in the area:

Dispatch: This is dispatch, to all units in the channel. We have a 10-34*, ACDC metro. Male in 20s, 5' 5'', slim, armed with a blunt. Wearing a black baseball cap, mask, black shirt, denim jeans.

(*10-34: ongoing assault)

Officer: Dispatch, this is 2112. 10-04*. Responding and on route. ETA* 5 minutes.

(*10-04: message acknowledged. *ETA: estimated time to arrival)

Dispatch: 12, 10-05*. ETA again?

(*10-05: repeat the message)

Officer: 2112, 5 minutes.

Dispatch: 10-04.

-Rockman noticed approximately a 5-minute gap in the communication.

Officer: Dispatch, this is 2112. 10-84*.

(*10-84: arrived at the scene)

Officer: Dispatch come in, this is 2112, on the scene.

Dispatch: 12, go.

Officer: Suspect locked himself in the server room. We are told that one station attendant had been assaulted before the guy locked himself up. They say- (pause). They say that the guy claimed to be a member of WWW.

Dispatch: What's the status of the attendant? 10-56*?

(*10-56: verify if an ambulance is needed)

Officer: Negative.

Dispatch: Have you made a visual contact with the suspect? What does the situation look like, exactly?

Officer: Negative. No visual contact. The guy already got himself locked in when we arrived. We will breach and move in for an arrest. One moment.

Officer: The chief of station says that their server is being actively attacked. He says the station is inoperational. He says, apparently, that the server is now open to the outside network and is getting attacked. 10-85*, we need netpolice on the scene.

(*10-85: request for additional unit)

Dispatch: 10-06*. (Pause). 12, this is dispatch, 2119 and 2220 are on route, ETA 7 minutes. Do you copy?

(*10-06: standby)

Officer: 7 minutes, 10-04. Holding the server room entrance.

The potential encounter with a WWW agent was a bait too attractive to restrain oneself. When Rockman heard that the metro server was open to external intervention, he decided to jump at the opportunity despite the narrow window for action. The plan was simple: Netto would operate him from the PC, he would access the metro server via internet, delete the WWW netnavi (which he inferred as must be present based on the attack on the server), extract what information he could, and then disappear before the netpolice showed up.

"But that would give us, what, 2 or 3 minutes to work with a WWW netnavi! Rockman, wouldn't that be too...short?"

"Netto kun, with your operation, I am sure we can do this. Besides, I can always get out quickly before it gets too hot. This is the chance to learn more about WWW! Come on, the clock is ticking!"

What a lie! Borne out of desperation! Rockman had no way of evaluating how Netto's operating skills fared in comparison to that of netpolice officers, and the way he brutalized Fireman had nothing to do with Netto's operation save the sword chips provided. Yet here he was, claiming to have objective confidence in his operator when it was computationally impossible to do so. There was another irony inherent: one would imagine that in allowing a mind that always acted as a rational restraint to take charge, the group would be guided towards a more moderate and predictably peaceful future. By a twist of cruel fate, it came to pass that in placing Rockman in the lead, the Hikari twins were propelling themselves into more lawlessness that even their ethically dubious father would faint from knowing.

Netto was easily convinced that this was the only way forward, and after considering Rockman's capabilities, it did not seem too dangerous to him. Such a conclusion was an inevitability the moment the boy subscribed himself to the proposal of what was to be their last adventure, presented by his progressively deteriorating netnavi. In order to see it through, and also in order to make his self-destructive ideation of achieving an end with Rockman come true, he was bound to come up with necessary excuses or justifications to deceive himself and agree that whatever recklessness Rockman came up with was good for both of them. So Rockman was plugged in and the idea was set in motion.

In the direction of ACDC metro server, Rockman ran through the network lines like a furious lion. Few viruses he encountered on the way were practically bypassed or cut through. In one case, he picked up a Mettaur on his path, used it as a makeshift shield against a Kiorushin virus, also called Fishy due to its vague resemblance to a flying fish, charging behind him, planted a time bomb at the belly of the Mettaur, and then threw it behind, leaving both to be deleted in an explosion, which he did not bother to spend time observing. In another case, he used dash chip five consecutive times to generate an erratic angular pattern of movement, almost in the shape of the consternation of Cassiopeia, weaving through the homing projectiles of Ratton modules (generated by Chuton viruses) and a net of bullets by Kyanodamu viruses (Canodumb) through a path that had no margin for errors. It was a deadly beauty that provoked Netto's heart to throb in belligerent admiration—just as how the shimmering edge of a blade invites beholders to wield it purely through its impeccable perfection.

The netnavi that was wreaking havoc on the ACDC metro server was easy to locate; it was a large and intimidating one. Immediately visible upon entering the small metro server space, it was in the shape of a large stone golem, at least twice taller than Rockman, though its head protruding forward instead of upward gave the impression of it being a stone turtle whose limbs were enlarged out of proportion. Rockman had never seen a shape like this on the net among the civilian navis. The golem, which was in the active process of pulverizing all Programs in the vicinity, stopped its work as it noticed the presence of a blue intruder.

"Net-police?"

The voice was slow and brutishly articulated; Rockman understood that based on its subpar communicative abilities, no information was to be excavated out of that small brick-head through nonviolent means. It was a development he had been unconsciously looking forward to; the remembrance of his nightmares and the integration of experiences he had therein transformed him into a master of violent techniques, and he now operated under the notion that the swift exercise of power was the solution to many of his problems. In the dream, he was always on the defense. Today, he was to be on the offensive. His fingers twitched.

"Netto kun, we have two minutes."

"Right. That thing looks hard. Rockman, let's crack it with-"

Their eyes met through the PET display. Their thoughts were one and the same. Therefore, their voices also came out, one and the same:

""Beta wave""

Rockman made a brightly happy face before putting on his combat mask (a modest standard one that netnavis used to cover the lower half of their face when entering battle routine). A moment like this—when their hearts and minds were in full synchronization by the virtue of intimate knowledge of each other—made something in his 'heart' ticklish.

"ShokWave C, SoniWave C, DynaWave C slot in. Program advance, B-Wave."

"Received. Data lagtime 23ms. All green."

The golem did not offer much resistance from Rockman's standpoint. It was more of a siege weapon designed to crush the helpless and destroy large swaths of areas, not a duelist equipped for a confrontation with another netnavi, though it would surely outclass any civilian models through the pure difference in capabilities. It launched cubic boulder data towards Rockman like a medieval trebuchet, which, in honesty, had no chance of hitting any reasonably nimble netnavi. Up close, Rockman ducked and rolled under its attempted stompings, reached its legs (or its hind-legs depending on the perspective), and began climbing.

It was helpless at stopping Rockman from attaining a position on top of its dorsum, which was like a turtle's carapace. Not knowing the exact intention of the blue navi, but knowing that the culmination of that maneuver was approaching, it tried its best to shake him off through sudden movements or spinning around; the slow velocity of its movement failed to generate enough impulse to achieve its intention.

"B-Wave activated."

Into Rockman's hands a pickaxe loaded in, similar to the one used by Mettaurs, but consisting of a higher particle density. Like a miner who had found an auriferous vein, he swung it down repeatedly with a certain enthusiasm. The might with which he struck each swing generated a spark—a vicious manifestation of his will to reach the innards hidden underneath—which produced fragments of the golem's armor, which in turn scattered like the hopes of survival of this victim. What began as a little dent with the first strike progressively enlarged and deepened. When the pick finally went through the armor and sank its teeth into the softness of the body proper, a deep painful howl ensued.

"Netto kun, hurry! Breach generated! Explosives!" Rockman shouted over the howl while maintaining his position over the shaking navi. Though the fight had reached a critical point, he was enjoying the moment. He was in full control, and maintaining balance over the construct was a fun exercise, like a rodeo ride in a theme park.

"LilBomb B, CrosBomb B, BigBomb B, CrosBomb B, LilBomb B. Program advance, S-Bomb. Is that big enough?"

"I don't know! We shall see! S-Bomb activated!"

Rockman carved out some space in the 'flesh' of the golem with his bare hands, planted the sigma bomb, which was the largest Netto had to offer, in that space, and then jumped down. He did not tarry and distanced himself from the navi as fast as he could, counted 5 seconds meanwhile, which was the time he had until the arming of the device, and then dived forward at the last second. When he rolled around and looked back, his eyes met with those of the golem briefly. In its eyes, he saw...what did he see? It clearly had no capacity to make any facial expressions, yet its eyes pitifully gleamed like the wet bovine iris in the slaughterhouse, waiting for its turn. Was it because the golem knew it had lost? Was it because it knew its fate and somehow correlated it to the concept of death, a termination of a kind of uniqueness in it? Rockman understood, or at least thought he understood, that what was contained in those eyes stemmed from some questions or conditions that far predated their current encounter. Maybe, just maybe, it had to do with how it came to be, and how despair was the first emotion it had learned after birth-

KABOOM!

The explosion shook the very space they were in, and the shockwave propagated to the rims of the server, bringing with it large chunks of the golem's body. The small head and four limbs were the only recognizable parts remaining in the scene. Needless to say, the explosion was excessive.

Rockman located the golem's core amongst the sea of gory debris on the floor. It was pure luck that he did so in his first search. He read the information.

"Navi registration: Stone Man. Data signature...registration number..."

"Got anything, Rockman? We got to leave now!"

"One minute, Netto kun! Operating system...manufacturer information...pass, pass, pass...modification log...what?" Rockman muttered incredulously.

"Rockman?"

"This...this navi is not from WWW. It has no modification signature!"

"Whatever it means, we can figure it out later! Time to go!"

Rockman tossed the core into the pile in which it was originally found and sprinted to the server exit.

Rockman and Netto were able to piece together the puzzle the next morning, for the incident summary was printed on ACDC Daily, a local newspaper: a young man with anarchistic philosophies decided to make his mark in history by acting on his belief, all the while borrowing the name of WWW to elevate his case profile. The man was arrested on the scene and the disruption to the ACDC metro was restored in 30 minutes. The summary ended with an observation that similar violent incidents by social rejects, under the guise of WWW, were on the rise nationally. The writer quoted the opinion of the police that such dissidents seemed to be inspired by the daring terrorism WWW conducted on the high-security government complex, Waterworks, and then passionately exhorted the nation to allocate more resources and swiftly root out that terrorist group.

A day after, Rockman received an e-mail from Enzan, titled 'Was it you?' without any content. Netto and Rockman, after some deliberation, replied 'Maybe.'

2. Ms. Miyuki Kuroi and her Skullman

A man truly reaps what he sows. What is described below has happened multiple times, for multiple reasons:

"Please, Mayl! Can you help me with the homework?" pleaded Netto, with his hands clasped.

"Haaah...I guess. You owe me one."

And Mayl predictably ceded to her crush's requests, lending out her notes each time, saving the boy from his impending academic disgrace. It was not like Netto was subtly exploiting her generosity, though at a glimpse his periodic dependence on her as his jail-free card was indistinguishable from such exploitation. Mayl knew that the boy was putting in his work, admittedly most times pushed by Rockman, that poor overworked blue netnavi who in recent days perpetually appeared extremely tired, and thus always found inside her an adequate amount of compassion to forgive his slight transgressions to academic honesty. After all, this was only a minor concession on her part, which, according to her innate instinctive estimations, she could use someday to exact favor from Netto. Mayl was a gentle soul, not a schemer; naturally, she soon forgot that Netto owed her some and thought no more of the matter. Or, as others observed, Mayl subconsciously erased Netto's debts in her books not because she was an exceptionally fine girl, but because she liked him.

Mayl noticed that Netto's frequency of asking her for help increased significantly in recent days. She also noticed that this change had coincided with the signs of increasing fatigue in Rockman. The blue netnavi that so eerily resembled Saito in looks started to exhibit the behavior of dangerous exhaustion, slowing down a little bit, sometimes blankly looking into the void when not working, responding to Roll only after being called twice or thrice...Something was going on between them, and it was not as simple as them having a prolonged disagreement. Yes, they got along fine, even better than before, always together. Apparently, there was an agreement—a sort that allowed Netto to permit Rockman to be so tired (she could see that the boy was still worried at the state of his navi)—that was secret enough that it was not to be shared with her, or anyone. Was she not always helping out the boy in the school and, by extension, had a right to know what was going on? The exclusion irked her a little, but she sublimated it and transformed the situation into an opportunity by inviting the boy to study with her after school. In return, he only gave a jumbled and confused rejection:

"That's- that's a great idea, actually, and I probably should do that, but, I really-, I mean, sorry!"

And Netto left as quickly as he delivered it. Notably, it was rare for him to reject her sincere propositions. Well, at least in the past it was rare. To her annoyance, Netto had been avoiding any social gatherings lately, declining all manners of invitations, while making it perfectly clear, through his activity and the tone of language, that it was not due to depression as was the case in the past. To the boy running out, she asked, almost shouting,

"Is it Rockman again?"

"Yes! No! I mean- yes and no! I'm sorry!"

It was Rockman again! It seemed that between her and Netto was a permanent barrier that prevented her from getting any closer to him. First, it was Saito Hikari, and now it was Rockman. From love to hatred, favor to disdain, all human emotions are finite in amount; so was Mayl's patience. This could not continue. One day, she reminded,

"Netto kun, have you ever counted how many times you owe me?"

To which she received,

"Thank you, Mayl! How will I survive without you?"

A deflection by gratitude, which Netto said with his hands clasped and an apologetic expression. Classic maneuver. 'At least he thanked' was what Mayl thought, and immediately inside her arose a desire to forgive Netto and let him be. It would have been done so, and they would have repeated this one-sided interaction several more times in the future, had it not been for the pamphlet that was lying on her desk. It was an advertisem*nt she picked up this morning, detailing a special spring deal at Miyu's—a fortuneteller's humble abode. She had originally planned to suggest Netto to take a gander at the place with her, while fully expecting the boy to decline as usual. After that, she was to place the pamphlet in the paper recycling bin and forget about it. However, by the mysterious guidance of fate, the three elements came together at this time and place: the pamphlet, the annoyance (at her lack of progress towards Netto), and a convenient opportunity. They mixed and precipitated a different response from Mayl.

"Well, glad you know! If you are thankful, you are coming with me after school."

"Uh...to where?"

"Here!" said Mayl, as she pointed at the advertisem*nt. "And while we are at it, we will let your poor navi rest. Just look at him, Netto...look! He looks awful. Whatever you two have been doing, it's clearly not good for him."

"No...is not an answer, is it?"

"Netto, I won't be able to stop you...but then I will remain curious about this place and remain distracted, unable to organize class notes for certain someone...and then that certain someone will be in trouble..."

'I was fine. I am fine. Mayl did not have to tell Netto that he was doing a terrible job at looking after me...'

Rockman was stuck inside the PET, inside the holster, unable to see or interact with Netto. They were on the way to downtown, and Mayl gave the boy a bad eye whenever he tried to bring Rockman into their conversation, saying 'This is exactly why your navi is so exhausted. Let him rest! It won't kill you if you can't see him for thirty minutes.' Easy for her to say! A higher dosage of Netto was exactly what he needed, not to be excluded from, in order to press on.

Rockman was tired; there was no denying that. The fatigue was not one like a biological drowsiness, driven by circadian rhythm, that every human is so familiar with. To describe it, the state was similar to that of a man who suffered a near twenty-four hours of continuous work while being drugged on a series of energy drinks and copious amounts of coffee; it was a combination of an abstract heaviness of body and slight haziness of mind, like when a person becomes self-aware in the lucid dream, without feeling the need to sleep. In fact, when under the heavy influence of caffeine or other stimulants, sleep completely escapes a man and he finds it impossible to fall asleep even if he tries. This was precisely the state Rockman achieved through the liberal use of his extra storage unit, which worked as a replacement for computational memory, effectively transforming it into an equivalent to a continuous caffeine injection.

The unfortunate complications of such a decision were the progressively diminishing general intelligence and susceptibility to mood swings. Yet Rockman was 'fine,' according to his own standards, as his self-assessment of intelligence quotient was currently down by only 3 percent points, his processing speed down by 5 percent points, and his moodiness...well, there was no reliable way to measure it oneself, but based on how his relationship with Netto was not being damaged (or so he thought), he surmised that what little loss of self-control or gentleness he suffered was still within an acceptable level.

'Netto has been doing fine. This is our one last adventure. Why does she have to be so nosy? And how dare she talk to my Netto like that! He deserves better. Yes, he deserves the best! And to give him the best, I must complete my last job. WWW should be stopped; no more navis should dream; the god of navis should be blocked off from this world. This is all useless. I could've, no we could've used the time far more effectively, productively. Who knows if today was to be the day in which I would find a new lead on WWW? I don't have time for this. The hideous god awaits, and I am losing.'

Ah, Rockman, Rockman, Rockman...so tired, so easily irritated, his human flaw trickling out through the cracks under the burden he bore himself. To all who knew him, his amicable personality was like the soft cool spring rain that brought life to the land, and it was flickering like a lightbulb insufficiently supplied by intermittent electric currents, turning on and off; a small interruption by Mayl, which was her niceness, and he was already deeply aggravated.

'Should I tell Mayl to leave us alone, and that we have work to do? Should I tell her now? At this point, she is simply a nuisance. Yes, a nuisance! She always tries to take away Netto from me. Do I not know her motivations—the ulterior selfish motivations wrapped up nicely with the lady's virtues? Hypocrite! Oh how I wish her to-
...
No...
No, I did not mean that. I did not...'

Just as he was about to curse the girl, his original personality, which was briefly struggling from his lack of sleep, regained its strength. In that light, Rockman realized the caustic nature of his thoughts, was profoundly reviled by the fact that he indulged himself into such uncultivated, almost juvenile evil, and then was shocked by a great remorse that wrung his soul.

'...What has gotten into me? Mayl was only being nice to Netto and to me. I should not say such to her. I cannot repay good with evil; what would that make me? I've been pushing Netto too much...probably...definitely...he has been following my lead when he did not have to...He needs this break, and if anything, I should tell Netto to relax for today and tell him to thank her. I already have police communications tapped, and we won't miss anything important. If needed, even though I really don't want to, I guess I can infiltrate the police evidence archive again...Rockman, stop worrying. It will be fine. All will be fine. As mama said: today's worries are enough for today, and let tomorrow worry for itself. Right?'

Rockman leaned against the wall of the PET space and then slowly sank onto the floor, sliding his back along the way, like a snail losing its grip on a slippery surface. He buried his head between his knees. In that posture, he could see the neon green floor tiles between his thighs. The tiles were patternless and organized in perfect squares, as they always had been. He stared at them. It was not because those tiles were evocative of an insight or in his mind an idea materialized; he simply stared at them in complete thoughtlessness. No sadness, no remorse, no happiness; in the complete absence of emotion he watched them, completely unaware of the passage of time, as if he was hypnotized by the void that existed between him and the floor.

The Miyu's Fortunetelling & Antiques was an establishment as mysterious as the merchandise on the display—toys that ought to be displayed in the museum of archeology, objects of abstract shapes of which use even the storekeeper failed to explain, katanas that belonged to Daimyos of old, turquoise colored master-crafted vases with bamboo trees painted on them that clearly belonged to the time of Goryeo dynasty, a Victorian handheld mirror of which frame was handsomely constructed out of bronze and ivory, French enamel box on which was painted rural scenes...Then there were more practical questions of why the shopkeeper won't sell some items, how a customer was judged to be worthy of making purchases, how the shop managed to pay its rent, and whether the fortunes foretold by the young master of the place were as straightforwardly true as the prophecies of Jeremiah or unfailingly double-edged as oracles of Delphi. However, the greatest question above all was this: the exact nature of the shopkeeper, Miyu. She was a young lady oft seen clad in a black-purple gothic dress along with a similarly color-patterned felt cap without a brim. The problem was, no one knew how old she was; some said she was the same person who opened the store more than one hundred years ago; some said she was a granddaughter of the founder of the place, equally versed in forbidden arts and occult magics; some said she was a demon, or at least a demon worshipper who had sold her soul in exchange for clairvoyance, seeing secrets that should not be seen, revealing truths that a person wishes to know but should not know; yet others decried her as a pathological liar who makes people go astray on irrational expectations.

No wonder Mayl wanted to verify herself the substance of such murmurs. Gossip and ladyhood were always a set, though each always struggled to part from the other in public while so feverishly embracing each other in private. Mayl, being a lady, was naturally attracted to this place, her interest subtly gravitating towards occasions in which the disrepute of others could be learned. No wonder Mayl could not bring herself to tour the place on her own but required an escort of a boy. The place, despite being located in one of the most bristling parts of Den City downtown, was hidden behind thick velvet curtains that barricaded the interior from all peering eyes of malicious curiosities, lending an air of indecency; secrecy and shadiness were never associated with honesty and integrity. Had she gone through the door on her own, surely she would have become the topic of cruel talks, not the participant. When ladies talked, they transformed God into a hypocrite and absolved an adulterer into a saint; all were criticized, and all were denied. Mayl was not going to make herself a fuel to the fire.

"Ah- interesting. Most interesting." Was what Miyu said as the two entered her castle, drenched in indescribable scents of exotic spices (not necessarily pleasant, but also not necessarily repellent). Her eyes sparkled with excitement—an elementary one often exhibited by children who found a new toy to obsess with.

"Ms. Miyu?" cautiously asked Mayl.

"Yes, Ms. Miyuki Kuroi, at your service. Ms. Miyu is fine. Ms. Miyuki is fine. Ms. Kuroi is also fine. It is a name, after all. A name, which is only necessary as far as we need to distinguish one from another. It can be nothing. It can be everything. But to call me by first or last name, it is only a matter of decorum, which is a human construct. We shall be honest here, our souls naked, no longer clothed in lies."

Mayl and Netto exchanged glances. The owner of the place was far more eccentric than they had imagined. Netto, in particular, found the situation mildly unnerving, especially as he noticed how Miyu's eyes stayed more on him than on Mayl.

"Nice to meet you. I am Mayl and-"

"Save your words, good lady. Your goodness is sufficient for now. It is certainly nice for you to come here, but I doubt you will find it nice to stay here. You come with questions; you will leave with more questions. I can't help it. You won't understand."

Mayl was confused. Was this woman being rude, crazy, or both? The way she talked—Mayl concluded that this woman must be drunk or high like the priestesses of Delphi, those who pretended intoxicated ramblings to be the divinations of Apollo.

"Good lady, why do you seek that which you are not ready to have? You brought your desire here with the hopes of receiving a blessing from me, or a path to your gratification."

Mayl was stupefied. Though Miyu spoke in an indirect way, she somehow understood that the woman was referring to Netto as her desire, and that her concealed plans to receive soothsayer's approval on their future intimacy (planned only on her part) were already seen through.

"Yet I have nothing to tell you other than this: though your desire is within your reach, and certainly within your power to possess, it is not in the shape of the hole in your heart. You have lied to yourself. You will not be satisfied. You are like a bear ready to rise and eat. It is in your power to grasp what you wish. It is in your power to tear what you grasp. It is in your power to eat what you tear. It is in your power to throw away what you have eaten. And you will hunger again, nor will you be able to stay with the bones. How long will it be until you hunt again? How long will it be until you devour again?

"Good lady, many other ladies came with the same question, and I sent them all away with the same question: what is love? Seek it, and you will not hunger. Find it, and you will not thirst. If you find your answer in the mortuary and find wisdom in the fear, then your soul will have reached the right place. In your satisfaction, you will no longer exercise your power. In having power but restraining it, you will inherit the earth."

"Uh...Mayl, do you understand any of this? What is going on?" whispered Netto. No reply came. When he looked at the girl, she was oscillating between confusion and anger.

"And now, my good sirs," Miyu said as she turned her attention to Netto. "My tired, tired, good sirs. Pheidippides ran from the fields of Marathon to Athens, without taking a rest, with one purpose: to shout 'Nenikikamen!' This he did amongst the assembly and collapsed. This he did because he saw a Persian ship sailing south. Upon seeing the ship, his heart was struck with fear, for he suspected that the Persians would falsely claim victory in the assembly of Athens before him, bringing ruin and slavery to his people. So he ran, with his life, to fight his fear. Are you running like Pheidippides to be immortalized? Pheidippides loved Athens; you do not love the world. The world immortalizes those who loved it. Surely this is not the end you seek. What he wanted was in Athens; what you want is already with you."

'Was this how Mayl felt?' was the first thought from Netto, who just experienced the highly individualized yet masked remark from the soothsayer, who seemed as if almost blending into the shadows of this poorly lit space with her dark attires. Netto was beginning to be convinced that it was from the darkness that she drew her powers. He was able to comprehend her comparisons: Pheidippides was either him or Rockman; perhaps it did not matter. The running was their dogged effort to find WWW themselves. In this continuation, Athens was most likely the goal of their efforts, which was the WWW base, or the world to which they would be rendering a great service should WWW really be eradicated. Once this realization struck, Netto's second response was 'How does she know?' It was supposed to be the secret. Not even the police were supposed to know—them not being apprehended was the evidence itself.

Netto was a young mind, pliant and adaptive as the bamboo shoots that come out of the earth after a long spring rain. When he reminded himself that he and Rockman were already considering dastardly supernatural possibilities operating behind the fabric of this universe—consideration only, not a conviction, for no solid evidence was yet to be produced—the additional possibility of Miyu being in possession of the power of clairvoyance did not seem impossible. So, when the anomalous capability of Miyu was accepted, Netto answered,

"To Athens or to Sparta-" (The only two cities of Greece Netto knew) "-does not matter. Ms. Miyu, what I want is...there was a time when I wanted my brother back. I had a brother, who passed away about one year ago. When he passed away, for a while, that was all I wanted. Ms. Miyu, I see that you see things that we don't see, and know things that we don't know. It would've been nice had I known you earlier, for then I would've come here when I was imagining things after my brother's...Saito's death. Maybe you would've told me the things I had to know and the things I had to figure out.

"Recently, I've been reminded of the dreams that I had when Saito was alive. The dreams that disappeared. The memories that flowed out of my eyes. They were sweet, maybe sweeter now that they are forever impossible. Maybe that's what all dreams are about, shining like stars, so beautiful in the night sky, so terrible and turbulent up close. But I'll be fine, I think, because-" Netto took out his PET from the holster and touched the screen. Inside, Rockman was waving at him. "-I have Rockman. I still have him, today, tomorrow, next week, next month..."

"Rockman!" Miyu exclaimed as if she had uncovered a great secret that was hidden behind a thousand rituals. "That's his name?"

"Yes."

"May I speak with him?"

Netto silently placed his PET on the counter between them. Why did he do that? Was Miyu trustworthy? By conventional standards, absolutely not, yet he did surrender Rockman voluntarily. It was a kind of question that would have made the boy's heart skip a beat in terror had he been made aware, for the separation from Rockman was a terror that would shake his bones, but here he complied with the stranger's request as the immediate curiosity of what Miyu would speak to Rockman was greater than his instinct. Or it was the sentimentality that visited him through the remembrance of Saito that made him prone to making foolish decisions.

"Rockman, that's your name?"

"Yes, Ms. Miyu. How can I help you?" The blue navi spoke in a rather impersonal tone, wary and guarded.

"Interesting—it is indeed your name but also not! Then, you are fine with this?"

"This?"

"The run!"

Miyu appeared almost obsessively interested in the topic. It was saddling between inappropriately hysteric fixation and tolerable esotericism explicable on the assumption that she indeed had a sort of clairvoyance; so was Rockman's mood saddling between necessary politeness and tingling inflammation. His currently lowered limit of tolerance due to the practiced insomnia did not help on this matter: 'It is none of your business' was what Rockman wanted to lash out, in a commanding tone, but he swallowed it with much effort. Netto's proximity acted as another restraint to his growing impulse—restraint not of love but of fear of presenting an unseemly side of himself. Therefore, a compromise: an abridged honesty that answered the question at a bare minimum.

"To Athens, so that it might remain for Netto kun."

"I knew it!" A smile of satisfaction, the kind that a detective wears after unnecessarily exposing someone's privacy for the sake of her obsession, spread across Miyu's face. She then continued in a whisper, barely loud enough for Rockman to hear, "No one dares to run as Pheidippides unless he is struck with fear! But just like our runner of the marathon, your fear, too, is borne out of love. So, that's how you are sustained through this ordeal...no wonder. Love is closer to death than to life, yet in love life gains meaning, for life is avoidable but death is inevitable. So close to death, love so brightly burning, and your life so full of meaning!"

Rockman's eyes quaked

"But when you die, you will regret...regret things that were beyond your control, beyond your choice, beyond your place...and you will regret your love. Oh, you poor boy, you do not yet realize that regret accompanies us all regardless of the decision we make, regardless of the outcome we have, be it success or failure...it bites us on our heels. But why are you surprised? It was destined the moment we are born, for no one is born of his own choice, but by the choice of others, yet we are thrown into the world, to take responsibility of our own lives, given to us without our asking...In tasting this dark truth, all goes mad. This is the basis of the inevitable regret that comes to us all, for ultimately, a time comes to all when they regret having been born, which is a regret of not what they have done but of what others have done. And then comes acceptance, a fitting end to 'levitas animi'—lightness of mind—like us! Feeble beings! After all, if we do not accept, what can we do? All who resist burn brightly for a short while and then are no more, never to be remembered. Then, after walking a while, stumbling through the dark forest that is life, we sit down, fooling ourselves that this 'settling down' is what is in our lot, not knowing what to do with the little we have gained in our travels, afraid that our poverty will be lost...stolen!

"But you...you are free from the curse of life. You are the only one who was born—or reborn—out of your own choice. Regret is beneath you. You must remember this."

To Rockman, the way Miyu spoke was similar to how a Boa constrictor wrapped itself around its prey. The way she entranced her audience was like a serpentine embrace, the truth in her speech paralyzing the rationality of those who interacted with her. And she knew too much, even as the extent of her knowledge was unclear. She knew too much! It seemed that it was only a matter of time before all was exposed and his relationship with Netto propelled into the next stage—one of accusations and regrets—in an unfavorable manner. Rockman gasped for freedom.

"Ms. Miyu-"

"Fret not. I have nothing more to ask, but I do have someone to introduce to you, something to give."

Miyu pulled the extension cord from the Rockman's PET and plugged it into a plain-looking handheld mirror, of which the frame and the handle were made out of a single piece of ebony wood, that was on the counter. In a way, the elongating cable was like the Boa unwinding. Before Rockman could begin to contemplate why she had with her such a deviant device, an electronic designed to be hidden in plain sight among the distracting antiques, Miyu handed over the PET back to Netto.

"Please, allow me to invite Rockman to my homepage. Consider it my offering to you, a sign of my admiration."

Rockman and Netto exchanged glances. It was not what they envisioned earlier that day, but it was an adventure nevertheless. Should they proceed? They did not have to verbally exchange opinions. Rockman clearly revealed his reluctance to enter the Boa's den with his troubled expression, for he was just freed; Netto weighed his desire to cater to Rockman's comfort and his propensity to explore the unknown. He knew there would not be a second chance of a similar occurrence, and that at the end of the day, should he decline, he would be morbidly captivated with suppositions of what Ms. Miyu had to offer. A pity; what could he do? Rockman was indeed the first priority in his life, and his heart easily gravitated towards declining the request...until Mayl chimed in. She reminded him of everything he already knew—of how he would spend sleepless nights—and a few things he did not consider—how such a newfound distraction would be detrimental to the upcoming exam, and what kind of face Rockman would make should he flunk it. The indecent truth was that Mayl was propelled by her vengeful curiosity; through Netto and Rockman, she hoped to gain access to any of this judgmental fortuneteller's blemishes, through which she was to regain some of her pride lost earlier.

Inside Miyu's homepage was a custom netnavi of hers, Skullman. He was tall and scrawny, had a vertically long and malicious face, shaped after a skull just like his name, and was equipped with skull-shaped pauldrons. It was in the middle of the homepage, which space was shaped like a crooked moon, or a portion of the mirror's frame, curved and elongated, and he stood like an apparition, bent forward slightly. From the way Rockman was greeted, it was as if he was an invader, not a guest.

"...Hello?"

Rockman timidly asked. No response came from Skullman, who continued in his zombie-like posture. It did not matter, in the end, as Miyu continued,

"Rockman, meet Skullman. He is my offering to you, prepared as a holocaustum to your soul, and an apotropaic observance for your future. He looks just like that Persian you are chasing after, doesn't he? A perfect scapegoat, a perfect victim on which to lay all your blame..."

"Ms. Miyu...? I, I do not understand."

"No, you do. He is indeed to be a holocaustum, a whole burnt sacrifice to your wounded soul. Wounded so many times in your dreams, wounded so many times in your separations, wounded so many times in your sacrifices...and to be wounded so many times more. And the sign you are chasing after, as Pheidippides chased after the Persian ship, is in the shape of a skull, isn't it?" (Here Rockman understood that she was referring to the WWW data signature, which was shaped like a skull when reassembled in a certain way) "See how his shape is similar! Shape can be deceiving, but it can also be everything...so much so, that one of the best stories mankind has to tell is that of God coming on earth in the shape of a man...Therefore, lay your hands on him, place all your blame on him, baptize him with fire and sword, an aroma pleasing to your soul."

"No...you can't be serious..."

"Murder him"

"I don't..."

"As you always have done to others,"

"I don't want this."

"As you will countless times to others."

"Netto kun, say something..."

"Then see for yourself. Do you not already know the delight of bloodshed? Do you already not revel in your dominance? It is written in your soul. The pain has made you bitter. In bitterness, you reveled in violence. Well, who can blame? The mutilated has become the mutilator!"

Netto looked at Rockman, silently asking through the way he gazed 'What is she talking about?' The blue navi looked away.

"However, I truly tell you, let the heads roll in your path as necessary, but let it be done without wrath nor compassion. Let it be done as any other work of this world, in the calculated apathy. My Skullman will resist, but what does it matter? Do not hesitate, lest you invite the harm. Do not hurry, lest you fall. Is it not the reason behind Solomon's saying:

"'Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one without letting go of the other'?

"Why do you make that face? If the lives of everything creeping on earth and swimming in the sea are considered expendable for the sake of humans, and we rule over them and consume them without being called sinners, then what is the value of one soulless navi in comparison?"

Then Miyu said, to Netto who remained rather dumbfounded,

"What it amounts to is, Mr. Hikari, that I am asking for a netbattle between your Rockman and my Skullman."

With that, Skullman instantly entered animation. He dashed forward headfirst like a bloodhound after an animal, while his arms detached themselves and flew ahead of their owner as a set of boomerangs. They converged on Rockman.

"Executing battle routine. Netto kun!"

"Barrier, slot in!"

"But, that's-"

Barrier chip nullifies only one attack, and there were two projectiles on his way. Knowing this, and unable to finish his sentence, Rockman dived backwards while activating the barrier chip as commanded. One 'arm' of Skullman bounced off the barrier and returned to its owner. The other one was barely dodged, as it flung right above Rockman's face, grazing his cheek.

Rockman connected his dive into a flip and landed on his feet, trying to face Skullman whom he expected to continue the charge. Skullman did not deliver what he choreographed; he stopped a few meters in front and breathed out the blue flame.

"What-"

Rockman crossed his arms in front of him in the shape of 'X' and hid his face. The flame impacted and great heat enveloped him. The heat! The burning! The paradoxical sensation of extreme coldness followed by unquenchable pain! Just like in his dreams! A suppressed groan escaped through his teeth.

"Behind you!" Netto warned, as he saw the other arm of Skullman that overshot earlier working like a boomerang, homing onto Rockman from behind. "Met guard, slot in!"

A buckler that was similar to Mettaur's helmet formed on Rockman's left hand. It was used to punch the returning boomerang off its path with a spinning back fist. The boomerang, having impacted the buckler off-center, was deflected skyward. It drew a nice parabola in the air and returned to its master. Skullman, however, did not reassemble the arm to his shoulder socket; instead, he grabbed it with his already attached right arm, forming a long flail of five articulations.

"Netto kun!"

Rockman aimed his buster and shot five rounds, trying to buy some time to collect himself. He hoped Skullman to dodge or block his shots, breaking the current momentum. The attack of Skullman had been fierce and effective, and it was difficult for Rockman to come up with a coherent engagement plan under the pressure. To complicate matters, the distance between him and Skullman was just at the borderline of Rockman's customary decision-making point between melee engagement and ranged skirmish. Rockman relegated the choice to Netto. If ranged chips came in, he would back off; if sword chips came in, he would countercharge.

Skullman did not give much time, nor did he respond to Rockman's shots in the anticipated way. He flung his arm-flail adroitly and actively deflected the shots while running towards him. The intention was crystal clear: he would not give up the initiative of battle and was determined to storm Rockman's position.

"Sword slot in! Widesword slot in! Use whichever!"

"Probably both!"

Rockman equipped the sword chip and attacked into the attack; however, it became obvious after making two parries that his estimations were catastrophically far away from reality. First, the flail's reach was longer than he predicted. Second, each articulation point of the flail moved on its own, sometimes against the flow of Skullman's swing. The arm, detached, was still a part of Skullman. Consequently, the navi maintained his ability to control it remotely. Rockman struggled. The third and fourth parries were incomplete and hits landed on him. He equipped widesword, made a large swing to temporarily remove the flail from his vicinity, almost like a gardener trying to take care of his overgrown ivies hanging from a wall, and positioned himself at the edge of Skullman's reach. It was the only way he could make full parries. Rockman steadily gave ground.

Three new chips were added: sword, invisible, and longsword. The combination and the order of chips were a language in itself, a primal kind based on experience and pattern recognition. Rockman understood. It was one of the tricks Netto liked, and it was his job to execute the operation.

Rockman replaced his current sword, which was beginning to fracture, with the new one. He made three forceful parries and stepped forward. What happened a moment ago repeated: flails overcame Rockman's guard, going over his blade like a vine over a fence and reaching him. Unflinching, Rockman closed in again; the flail came in with doubled speed as Skullman found an opportunity to sink its claw into the side of Rockman.

"Invisible, activated."

Before the strike landed, Rockman vanished. Invisibility did not mean dematerialization; it was only a disappearance in the visual. As the flail slashed the air in vain, hitting nothing in its path, Skullman made a quick computation: there were only two ways Rockman could've dodged his attack completely, and this meant the blue navi was now in no position or posture to block him. He only had to sweep the projected positions of Rockman in his next swing, which would follow in 0.932 seconds, while making a single step backwards to eliminate any possibility of allowing a cross-counter. Checkmate!

"Longsword."

Rockman exited invisibility, and his position was slightly closer and more to the flank than what Skullman simulated in his mind—Rockman was faster than Skullman's estimations. As much as the initial ambush was a successful one, giving Rockman no time to skirmish and study the capacity of Skullman, the reverse was also true; Skullman had not had a chance to witness and gauge the strengths and weaknesses of Rockman. The navi aborted his attack, kicked the ground urgently, and propelled him backwards.

The new sword that Rockman equipped, longsword, had a significantly longer reach compared to the normal version as its name suggested. It was strictly an offensive tool, as its length was excessive relative to Rockman's height, making it highly unwieldy for general dueling purposes. For the moment, it was the perfect choice, for one swing with a longer reach was all that was needed. Rockman felt the tip of the sword going through a resistant material. It was a hit!

Skullman, with his back jump, reset the engagement. Now there was some space between them. The skeletal navi returned his weapon-arm to its original place, preparing for the next move. Then-

"...!!"

A surprise colored his face. His abdomen began to split horizontally from the deep cut that he sustained but did not realize, and programs inside began to herniate. Strings and chunks of them, all connected, flowed out a little and then hung downward, just like how the intestines of mammals do upon the compromising laceration of the abdominal wall.

"Shotgun slot in. Fireman slot in. I'll leave the rest to you, Rockman."

"Roger."

Shotgun replaced Rockman's sword. One shot to Skullman's right arm, one shot to left arm, one shot to the body where the softness was exposed. The impulse from the impacts prevented Skullman from throwing his arms, and the catastrophic damage from the third shot completely stunned him. The skeletal navi was forced to exit battle routine in order to reorganize its programs and regain functionality, leaving himself completely immobile and vulnerable.

"Fireman."

The battle chip was not the specter of that WWW navi gutted in the oven. It was a flamethrower, salvaged and reverse-engineered by Dr. Yuichiro from that pile of mess Rockman made. A violent stream of flame erupted from Rockman's transformed arms and covered Skullman, illuminating the area in the hue of hellish ruby. Hit with an attack that did continuous damage while in an emergency re-evaluation mode, Skullman entered a fatal cascade. What reorganization he made was instantaneously damaged, requiring another reorganization, which then required yet another reorganization. The only exit from this self-defeating loop was to take drastic measures and forcibly enter the battle routine again, at least limping away from the devastating attack. Skullman failed to achieve this. He became immolated.

Skullman, or its defunct body, continued to burn in a thick flame even as Rockman stopped sending inferno on his way. It was almost reminiscent of Zozobra, a burning effigy annually constructed in Santa Fe, around which New Mexicans superstitiously gather to cast off their bad memories into the consuming bonfire. So likewise, Skullman burned, charred, and crumbled; Rockman watched the fire consuming his foe until a handful of ashes on the ground were all that was left. What he just had could be evaluated as a 'good fight,' with each navi working best to his advantage, the direction of battle remaining uncertain to the end, and operators giving streamlined communication to their partners. Yet there was no victorious joy in him as if the well of emotion suddenly became dry. Was this the magic Miyu wanted to cast upon him? In the past days, just as Miyu accused, he accrued pleasure from battles, delighting in the roles reversed—for a long time was he tormented in dreams, and in the waking world he was the bringer of injuries—and his newfound power. Now, he had an unshakable comprehension that those days were to be no more, that everything the world had to offer to him was to be unbearably stale.

'Except Netto kun, my only joy, my only purpose, my only hope. I see, Ms. Miyu. Besides him, nothing else should matter, doesn't it? Because I should not regret, and regrets can only occur if I believe other things could have mattered. It is impossible to believe that other things could have mattered unless I am attached to them. The emotional attachment can only occur if I find them pleasurable. And all this trouble, the fault is on me, because I returned to Netto. No one returns...no one should...I brought this mess upon myself...'

Rockman suddenly felt extremely tired, even more than how he was at the beginning of the day, as the whole affair, including the adventure they were having, approached him as meaninglessly convoluted. He dragged himself back to the PET, sank onto a chair, and covered the screen with an announcement 'recovery in progress,' using it like a curtain over a window, blocking the vision from the outside. As he was doing so, he could briefly observe Netto. Initially, his operator looked happy at the hard-earned victory, then, as Rockman hid himself without any sign of energy, turned quite worried. Well, Rockman did give the boy a thumbs-up at the last moment, but it was unclear whether his feigned enthusiasm had reached the boy. Well, he did not check. It did not matter. He could hear Miyu congratulating Netto and giving him something with an instruction, but also did not pay any attention.

However, a remark from Miyu, which she directed at him as the three exited the place, he could not escape. It chased and pierced him like a swift arrow, right on the mark as if it was the shot from Apollo himself, bleeding his heart with the truth he already knew.

"Go on, run, and you will reach Athens, but the fate of Pheidippides you will not avoid."

The truth he could not bear! The truth he had been ignoring! Rockman squeezed his eye shut and covered his earpieces with his hands. Blessed is a man who is ignorant, for he spends his days in hope! Blessed is a man who is enlightened, for in knowing the end he sacrifices for tomorrow, sowing what he has in tears! Cursed is a man who is ignorant, for in foolishness he only begets corruption! Cursed is a man who is enlightened, for the future without salvation plunges him to madness!

'Netto kun, Netto kun, Netto kun,
...
my Netto kun...
...
I am here
I am right here
I am still here
I will wait
so
...
save me.'

Notes:

2-13

Chapter 21: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens II

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

3. Mr. Higure Yamitaro's Gift

Shortly after being released from the oppressions of law enforcement, Higure found himself theoretically unbound but technically useless. The world embraced him with harsh reality, like a desert without an oasis, that he never dreamed he would be required to face, in his certain naivete, even when he took that godforsaken shark loan from WWW. His newly acquired criminal record meant that no employment was to be available to him—it was like a brand of slavery, completely destroying his future in an instant, rendering all the values of his previous education worthless. Back in the democratic society in which a man's existence is only permitted as long as he does not die or pay taxes, Higure breathed, ate, agonized, and paid taxes. Taxes! His immediate unemployed status was to make him exempt from many duties to the state, but the man, sinking into a confused solitude after the economic and social disaster he wrought upon himself, did not update his status nor challenge the IRS. He hid himself from the world, inside his room, for the amount of shame on his shoulders forbade him from facing the public once again. What little worm-like expeditions he made to the most nearby convenience stores were always tainted by the paranoia of his faint heart; every gaze, every murmur, every person his amygdala interpreted as directed towards him with unkind intentions. In his education, he knew that it was simply not true—could not be true—but so great was his guilt that lingered in his conscience, that he continued in his transformed state of a prey-like creature.

His bank account dwindled, while his body still hungered, his eyes still tired, and his rent still demanded. With this simple arithmetic, Higure was forcibly taken out from the mist of his mind. He had several options to sustain himself. One was entering the labor market, seeking bottom positions in construction sites; a mathematician with no physical foundation, such as himself? It was an impossibility. An employment in the service sector, a position that will not take into account his criminal record? Well, Higure had no social skills, if not talented in ruining his existing ones. Wasting away his life in the cycle of welfare applications, barely staying alive with the crumbs that the government will so graciously bestow him? An equilibrium that he was headed to with all certainty, but to survive in such ignominy—especially should he be found by any of his past acquaintances—he was not prepared to accept.

Higure collected himself and decided that should he perish he should do so while doing what he wanted, not what he needed. In effect, the rationale behind the decision was the same as the tradition of a lavish last meal of a death-row inmate right before the execution, granting himself a wish at the expense of all that he had left. Nevertheless, such a daring one-last effort required a heroic defiance, like that of Theseus or Enkidu. At the corner of his memories was a time he spent as a student of mathematics, which was a time colored with happiness and unfulfilled hopes, and from this past, he extracted one last courage to fuel his recklessness. So it was done: he collected all that was left in his bank account, took whatever loans and favors he could shamelessly gather, found a vacancy in a commercial district in ACDC town—a fortune that he interpreted as a guidance of heaven which consequently only reinforced his misbegotten confidence—, and opened a shop.

A shop specializing in battlechips and netbattlings it was. In hindsight, his decision to choose a locale in which the memory of his trespassings was still fresh among the inhabitants might have been an unwise one; some pedestrians, several among them mothers of children enrolled in the ACDC Elementary, shamelessly peered into the store and its owner with eagerness and excited suspicion, sometimes even...ah, I see. Readers, it seems that I have lost your attention in elaborating on how Mr. Higure Yamitaro rose from the ashes of his past and established himself as a respectable member of the ACDC neighborhood. You are absolutely correct in that none of this is a particularly important development in the story of our Hikari brothers, though I found the restoration of Higure quite inspiring...very well, very well! I will stop! I shall drop this matter here, so, please, please don't go...it suffices to say that in the reintegration of Higure back into society, against the general mistrust, Dr. Yuichiro and Mrs. Haruka Hikari had their parts in it, because they wanted to teach Netto that forgiveness, just like vengeance, had consequences of their own.

At any rate,

"As I said before, I have nothing more to tell you guys, huh!"

was the extent of the hospitality the Hikari brothers received as they approached the counter of this shop. A little side-effect of pestering Higure too many times. I mean, who can fault a man for becoming annoyed at repeated questions about the past that he wanted to bury? Higure, then, having a naturally soft heart, checked Netto to see if he had been too harsh and potentially hurt the boy's feelings, realized that it was neither but that he had been too assumptive—that the boy's coming was not in any way tied to asking him once more about the way to contact WWW—and quickly let the kindness of his heart beat out his attitude.

"Oh-oh! I'm sorry, I'm terribly sorry, really, didn't know you came for other than, you know, that- ah, what am I talking about? Sorry, sorry! So what can I do for you today, huh?

"...Higsby, you are truly something. I should've recorded your face just now. How do you make it change...so fast?"

"Call it expressive, huh! I truly tell you, ladies love an expressive man who understands their heart, huh!"

"...Right."

As far as Netto was aware, Higure had no success with ladies. Not once. Well, it was obvious to outside observers that his romance-repellent aura was rooted someplace else...

"You don't believe me, huh? Well, you will see, one of these days-"

"I believe you, Higsby." Netto cut off the nonsense in complete unbelief. "I'm just here to give you this."

Netto handed over a memo, folded into a neat envelope through an impeccable origami technique.

"From Ms. Miyu, to you. You know, that gothic dress lady running a strange shop?"

"From...Ms. Miyu, huh? Of course I know....of course I know her...huh...what could this possibly mean?"

"You do?" said Netto. To his amusem*nt, Higure accepted the envelope with enthusiastic anticipation, like a person who received a lottery ticket, or maybe even an oracle. The man unfolded the paper with a certain deference and focus; in that effort, Higure suddenly appeared to be a man of integrity and dependable masculinity, while his ever-present air of uncouth immaturity that poured out of him every time he spoke about battle-chips (his passion that had become his business) somehow disappeared. A man focused, in his workplace! It was a clear demonstration of a masculine quality that predated the civilization, a scene that called to the primal instinct of womankind. A marvel to behold! Netto conjectured that if Higure could maintain this focus and seriousness, someone would surely fall for him.

"I...yes, how can I forget?" Higure spoke in a subdued voice. Netto could not tell whether the man was speaking to himself as a reminder or answering the question. "I was able to buy this place because of her...no, the story is not a simple one. You won't believe it. I still can't believe it...sometimes...She told me to go to some places, meet some people, say some things, and then...I mean, it's like a dream. A very good one at that. At the same time, obtaining something through a series of impossibly fortunate events makes you feel that everything can also be taken away in the blink of an eye, just as they came...and..."

Higure's voice progressively diminished as his introspection became louder, culminating in complete silence as he began to read the message. Once he was finished, he looked at Netto, read the letter the second time, crumpled it in a fit of some overwhelming feeling—maybe anxiety—, quickly uncrumpled it with great regret, then refolded it into a neat envelope shape just as how it was at the beginning, although now creased. His hands trembled while holding onto that damaged paper. A deep sigh ensued.

"...What? What's written in there?"

Higure said nothing, but went into his small office through the door that was behind his counter. He came back with an unlabeled chip in his hand after a few minutes.

"...Netto..." Higure opened his mouth with much difficulty. It was evident that he was choosing his words in order to suit that which was resonating in his spirit. "...This is what happens...happens..."

Higure bent forward, and then whispered so only Netto could hear.

"...when you sin."

"...?"

"...You will understand once you do, and I hope that you never understand. Sooner or later, it comes back and bites at you, and you are forced to face it...and to me, that time is now. I hoped it would never come. I wanted to bury it, and never look at it again. Netto, I really did. Oh, what am I saying to you, a little boy only? But, I have to tell you this, because this is what you are looking for, and nothing good comes from them."

"Them?"

"The WWW."

Higure spoke that abbreviation with a resolute face, which is, to a man, a face of regret that stems from the austerity towards the past self who was so foolish. Therefore, he repeated, so that Netto would not repeat his foolishness and his warning sufficiently carried over.

"Nothing good comes from them."

"...Right."

"No, you don't understand...but, if I am going to send you into that place...into that rabbit hole..."

Higure repositioned himself, comfortably leaning against the counter, but still holding onto that chip.

"Netto, do you know the story of Alice in Wonderland? Ah, so you heard about it? Good. It's an adventure story. At your age, everything will look like an adventure, and children are quick to follow strangers or dream of strange places...but the place you are looking for, it's not a fantastic rabbit hole that will take you to a wonderland. It's a den of thieves, all hungry wolves. They will beckon you with smile, and then constrict you sweetly...I honestly do not understand why Ms. Miyu is telling me to give you this. What is 'that which must happen' anyway? Why should it involve you, out of all people?

"When I first contacted WWW, I was in a bad place. A dark alleyway? No, I mean, yes, huh! In every way, Netto, be it socially or financially...I was lost. So I made a foolish decision and became indebted to them. Netto, don't be indebted. It ruins a man. It takes away freedom, and even God cannot help you in that prison, because you signed for it. Either give or take away, but don't borrow...Huh, who am I talking to, right? Your father, Dr. Yuichiro, would know more about this than anyone. But I still have to say, because I can't imagine him knowing you doing this. See? You are not saying anything. Your silence is an admittance in a way. Don't worry, don't worry! I won't tell him! I promise! Apparently, this is far more complicated and...necessary than I can fathom.

"But it does not change the fact that I am doing something terrible by handing this over to you. In debt, I did many things. I was forced to do them. What I did ate away at my soul...and now I am free. I have to thank you for that, in a way, because you stopped me and...I'm sorry for what I did. I really am. I'm still sorry even though I know you don't mind anymore. I did something terrible as a grown-up in an Elementary school. Do you know what that means? It means, at that moment, I was better off to have a millstone hung around my neck and thrown into the sea. I really, really, don't-"

"It's okay, Higsby."

Higure stopped his rant as if he was shot by a bullet. The man stared at the boy. Outwardly, it was so; the truth was, Higure was so moved by that one word of assurance, which was the crystalization of forgiveness he was seeking for, that he stared at the space between him and Netto, trying to witness the words themselves. The words echoed in his mind; he understood that this moment would be immortalized in his mind, marking the beginning of his true repentance. So all he could say afterwards was,

"...Huh. It's...okay...right. Yeah. Huh. Okay..."

The chip slid off of Higure's grip, landing itself on the counter. For a time, Higure contemplatively looked at the chip that just escaped from him, and then suddenly opened his eyes wide, appearing surprised.

"Ha...haha...there, there it goes. My past. And I thought it would be...more...more...heavier. Huh. I guess it was only as much as I was holding it. Netto, take it. It's yours now."

"What's...in here?"

"Undernet access instruction, 10,000 zennies...it's the cryptocurrency accepted as the standard currency in the undernet..., customer code to contact WWW, and, uh, well the rest you can check for yourself."

"...Thank you, Higsby."

"Thank? No, don't, Netto Hikari. You should thank me when I take it away from you...Take it and go before my regret consumes me and I change my mind."

"Still, thank you."

"I hope you find what you want. Or need."

Netto took the chip. No more words were necessary. Both nodded at each other, and Netto turned around towards the exit. As the boy was going out, a customer came into the shop. She was a Scilab personnel according to the ID card hanging from her neck, and Higure immediately returned to his original dorky self, exuding a strange mix of trustworthiness coming from his vast knowledge of battle chips and embarrassing directness coming from his improper honesty about almost everything.

From Higure's unrestrained display of his natural personality, Rockman sensed peace and freedom. There was nothing pressing down on that man's shoulders anymore. What was on there instead was the small happiness of an ordinary and structured life. It was the priceless happiness of a life sustained by work and order. It was a kind of future he wished to obtain with Netto, for the sake of Netto, or so he thought, while in truth it was he who sought it so urgently. So close. He could almost see it. So far away. Impossibly far away. The humble life of happiness Higure achieved looked so brilliant to him, that he was mesmerized. In that mesmerization, his tongue was unbridled. Then, through his unguarded mouth, a fragment of his thought escaped.

"...Will I ever be able to reach that?"

"Hm? Rockman, did you say something?"

"Ah, it's nothing, Netto kun."

It was everything.

4. Undernet

The preparation for the trip is the fun in itself, as the joy of expectation makes the heart as light as a feather, causing the person to perceive everything as sparkling and fragrant. When the future holds light, the life becomes bright, a symphony to the soul. When the future is bleak, life becomes worthless, a cacophony played by serrated blades. So Rockman and Netto, when they came back to the room, opened Higure's chip, full of fiery eagerness, as if it were their Christmas present. Inside were the following:

-Map with navigation instructions.
-WWW contact method (potentially outdated)
-10000 Zennies
-A cloak for netnavi
-Anonymous mode algorithm for undernet surfing
-Information of undernet agents and shops Higure used.
-Blacklist of dangerous users.
-Passkey for entering undernet.

Higure did not disappoint! However, when Netto tried to begin their exploratory dive into the undernet then and there, Rockman stopped the boy and made him complete the homework first. "But Rockman, can't we just check the entrance?" and "Come on, are you not curious?" were all nonchalantly shut down. The blue navi was unyieldingly adamant in his opinion that the completion of the homework was as essential to Netto as air, water, food, and sleep. Too inconsiderate! Too strict! There was still daylight remaining, and Netto could meet his student obligations later. However, the boy also could not help but detect the change in the way Rockman admonished him. The navi said, dryly,

"Netto kun, homework first.'

Instead of the usual upbeat kindness, which should have went,

"Mou, Netto kun! Better finish homework before our adventure! We don't know how long it will take! Netto kun...don't be like that. I'll help you, and we will do it together, so...alright?"

or

"Netto kun...I don't want to see you becoming an irresponsible adult...so, let's finish the homework first, okay?"

or something else along the line.

Was Netto surprised at this perceived difference? Yes. Was it unexpected? No. Rockman's mood had been progressively deteriorating ever since he entered a lifestyle of having no rest. The change was almost unnoticeable while Rockman channeled his energy to his highest priority—Hikari Netto—as he made sure that he remained lively and bright before his operator. In this way, even as Roll and Mayl brought up their concerns to Netto regarding the changes to the behavior of Rockman, it was quickly glossed over as the operator could not make the same observations, and claims were concluded as exaggerated by the kindness of the girl. Recently, Netto began to notice. Rockman could not maintain his spirit even before Netto, and his drained state became a permanent display.

"Homework first, got it."

Netto complied without further resistance; the boy did not want to see Rockman snapping at him, for its occurrence would only elucidate the unbearably finite nature of the Rockman's solution, and to be reminded of it was an act against the promise they made many days ago. During the study, they scheduled the dive for the next day.

The next afternoon, Netto lost no time placing himself in front of the PC.

"Rockman, are you ready?"

"..."

Rockman was unresponsive, intensely staring at nothing.

"Rockman?"

"...Oh, uh, un, Netto kun, anytime."

Netto did not ask 'Rockman, what's wrong?' or 'Rockman, let me know if you are feeling unwell...' as he already knew what was wrong. There was nothing they could do to fix it. All the boy could do was to pretend that no problem existed, ignoring the clear signs of deterioration. The dive commenced.

Into Netto's PC, then to the Densan area (or Den-city area) via the route K-019. Took an intersection at A-002, proceeded to the heart of the downtown network, which involved staying on the A-series up to A-007, and then bypassed the government area via B-017 and then C-338. Here, Rockman had to take a crossing to C-057; to an unaware netnavi, a route connecting C-338 and C-057 would be computed as impossible, but between [redacted] and [redacted] was a pathway hidden behind an illusion of a wall. What was the point? Why not enter C-057 via C-056 if the result was the same? By entering through this secret passage, the place Rockman entered was, in fact, C-056-b, hidden under C056 but in the network navigation map displayed equivalent to C-056 as they were completely overlapping along the z-axis. At the end of C-056-b was a security lock.

"Applying the passkey...program identified. Granted permission to enter. This is it, Netto kun. Are you ready?"

"Let's go." said Netto, after taking a deep breath.

Rockman engaged the anonymous mode for the PET display, so that his operator won't be visible to others nor his IP trails be scannable. He put on the netnavi cloak and entered.

The first part of the undernet was a second type of security, which was a maze as disorienting and random as the makeshift streets of multilayered slum complexes. Describing the details of this portion of the undernet is a tempting task, for it was filled with three-dimensional navigations, time-gated solutions, and optical illusions, but I shall refrain from doing so, as it would be a major distraction from the main narrative. Besides, as Rockman navigated through them with relative ease, based on Higure's memos which he studied the dawn prior, not much time was wasted.

When Rockman finally set foot on the ground of undernet proper, what he witnessed was nothing short of a wonder. It was not an amazement coming from a panorama of prosperity and magnificent structures, nor was it displeasure coming from having to endure squalid and horrendous arrangements. It was a bewilderment at a paradoxical vista. The place was surprisingly human. Contrary to the bleak scenery of the main network space, which was the visualization of the rather fluctuating and abstract concepts of electromagnetic waves and broadcasts, composed of lines and servers suspended in a space filled with data that made the background seemingly vastly transparent yet bounded by opaqueness at the same time, just like the sky over the Earth, the landscape of the undernet was like that of a human city. A city of netnavis modeled after that of humans! Streets, buildings, alleyways, street lights, trees, guardrails, netnavis as inhabitants...all constantly burdened by the wine-dark colored 'sky.' There were even imitations of flowing clouds and a celestial body, unclear whether it was meant to depict a sun or a full moon—appearing as a plastered texture, not a genuine global light source.

Rockman moved slowly along the first street into which he emerged, reading signs and observing landmarks to gain some bearing. He did not stop to study the landscape in detail, however, as he wanted to blend in to the atmosphere. In this sparsely populated place of presumed lawlessness, it was important to not be perceived as a potential prey, for in attracting opportunistic hyenas with signs of inexperience, the ensuing disorder was sure to attract the unwanted attention of even more dangerous entities.

"Rockman, Rockman, can you slow down? I'd like to look around more. This...this is amazing. It's like a little city!"

"I don't think that's a good idea, Netto kun. I have already detected three navis watching us since our entry into the server. One on our 2 O' clock, high, one inside the alley we just passed, at 5 O' clock, and the other at 9 O' clock. Better act that we know what we are doing."

"Okay...so where's our destination?"

"Let's try to find one of the shops Higure left in his notes. From there on we will regain our bearings."

Walking along the street, following the instruction Higure left for them, Rockman could not help but question the design of the place. Why was the mimicry of the real world necessary? What was the purpose of the virtual skyscrapers of onerous heights that so severely looked down at the things below, blotting out the sun with their babel-like skyline, that blasphemous tower built in the land of Shinar, reaching to the heavens, casting shadows beneath like statues of gods? Why bother simulating guard rails for the roads that were devoid of traffic, and why have roads at all? And, most disturbingly, what was the intention behind constructing realistic alleyways and the slimy filth within? The entire place was like a city of might and sins, Babylon perhaps, permanently trapped in a warped space-time, somewhere between the night and the twilight. The dim purple illumination ominously yet effectively worked as the backdrop to the incandescence of lurid neon signs, the contents of which were so explicit and sexual that Rockman tried his best to not expose them to the PET display. One of them inevitably and naturally grasped the attention of Netto. It had two irresistible keywords that would have done the same to any technologically savvy person.

"Netnavi...sex?" muttered Netto.

"Ne-Netto kun, that's-"

"It's written right there, Rockman. You...you don't have to try so hard to block it from the screen. I already read it. Look, there's another strange one there: 'org*sm module for netnavi, satisfaction guaranteed.'"

"It- it's probably something we should not take interest in!"

"Why? What's wrong with knowing? Besides, what is org*sm? How does it work? I mean, Rockman, aren't you...curious?"

"I-I'm not! Netto kun, we- we- we don't have t-t-time for this!"

He was. Yes, yes he was interested. Saito was a boy, and his interest in reproductive acts was something that was engraved in his DNA, just like it was engraved in all other DNAs. It had nothing to do with whether he had or not someone whom he saw with a romantic lens; it was a pure curiosity, of which adults are partially to blame—the age-old problem of how and when to properly educate youngsters about sex, pregnancy, and birth was still an unsolved one at the year of 20XX. This did not mean that Saito was clueless; he had theoretical ideas about it. The theory, however, only covered human anatomy. Netnavi?

Well, at least one aspect of the immediate question he could investigate: org*sm. What was it that should it be advertised so aggressively and then sold as an extra module for a netnavi? Rockman quickly searched his internal dictionary for the word, which yielded:

org*sm
intense or paroxysmal excitement
especially : the rapid pleasurable release of neuromuscular tensions at the height of sexual arousal that is usually accompanied by the ejacul*tion of sem*n in the male and by vagin*l contractions in the female.

And one visual example attached to the entry, which was under the adult content lock (which Rockman opened with the administrator authority, as he, too, could not contain the curiosity within himself). It was a video of...Utterly indecent! Perverted! Inappropriate! Then, Rockman, given the context of the situation, necessarily imagined Netto 'investigating' the module with him. It was not an unrealistic supposition that resulted in a crushing vexation. He was such a terrible netnavi. He was such a terrible brother.

'Uuuuuuu..."

"You are red as a tomato, Rockman. Maybe you already know what it is about? How it is done?"

"O-of course not! I do- don't know anything about it either!"

"Hmm...you sure?"

"Netto kun!"

Everything about Rockman's protest attested to the purity of his soul: the unbearably flustered expression, comically red face, tensed body, teary eyes, and trembling hands clenched into fists.

"Alright, alright, Rockman, I believe you."

"Moooou..."

"So, will you help me search them later?"

'Wha- wha- wha-"

"If I am going to learn new stuff, I would rather do it with you."

"!!!"

With him! Netto said with him! Rockman was about to cry from the projected shame in the future, as well as from the lack of choices he had. Well, to be fair, immediately there was a shame of having accessed a material of some shocking truth...nakedness...of adulthood, unbeknownst to Netto, which he now deeply regretted. Was he to say no? It was impossible to do that to Netto, either as a netnavi or Saito. Was he to say yes? In the embarrassment that would surely follow the ensuing study, he knew that he would not be able to look at Netto in the eyes again. He would be guilty as a netnavi for failing to protect the boy from the vulgarity. He would be guilty as a brother for imagining...things...but that woman in the visual reference looked so...happ-(Rockman shook head violently as if the thought could be shaken off through a physical exertion) and the fact that it would be Netto applying the module on him did not seem...too bad...

'No, Rockman, stop! What are you thinking...'

So Rockman had only one answer to give.

"...o- okay, Netto kun..."

To which Netto answered with bright happiness,

"Yay! You promised! That's going to be our tomorrow's adventure, huh?"

"No- not tomorrow! La- later!"

"Okay! Whenever suits you!"

And Rockman covered his face. Thankfully, with Rockman's promise, Netto seemed to lose interest in other advertisem*nts in the area, each more shocking and ethically dubious than the ones seen before, gaining renewed focus on the day's mission at hand: finding information about WWW. Rockman, on the other hand, walked in near-panic, thoroughly harassed by the intruding thoughts, unable to focus at all. In this state, he lost all awareness of the surroundings; he stopped tracking who or what was watching him or following him. It was a pure miracle that he reached the first shop on the Higure's list without becoming completely lost.

The shopkeeper was an irritable individual with a fake appearance. The netnavi had a hologram-like overlay that rendered him with a purplish exterior. The overlay was an intricate one, and Rockman was only able to perceive the true nature of it when it briefly flickered, which occurred for a mere 0.223 seconds during their stay. Based on the masking of the appearance, Rockman also concluded that the name the shopkeeper introduced himself with also had to be a pseudonym, and considered a possibility that the netnavi was not even an autonomous one, but a shell masquerading as one, operating under the direct control of a human somewhere. Some gesticulations the shopkeeper made had the identical trajectories of hands and arms, down to the angles of joints and vectors of parts, as if they were from a collection of a carefully premade set of movements, each manually executed to give an illusion that it was something else than a husk. The netnavi also spoke with a certain uneducated confidence that dripped in its voice, which is oft observed in the way charlatans speak; to Rockman, by reasons he could not explain, it approached him as incredibly unreliable and dishonest.

"New faces, eh? Also first-time undernet users! He- he- he-, so what's it going to be?"

The shopkeeper ascertained the inexperience of Rockman the moment they met. This terrified Rockman somewhat, as he suspected that the fact was being broadcasted to inform someone, an accomplice, hiding somewhere unseen, so that he could be ambushed at a later time. Additionally, he had no clue as to what observation betrayed his inexperience in the area (there were too many possibilities); with the wariness of an impala of the African savanna in the early morning, when the carnivorous felines are most active, Rockman continued his interaction.

When asked about other shops Higure listed, the shopkeeper said,

"Hmm? You are an old-timer returning? I could've sworn you were-, well, bah. That entire area got restructured and those no longer exist."

When asked about the WWW, he returned,

"WWW...? I might have heard something...so what, you gonna buy anything?"

The cue was brazenly direct. Rockman had to purchase 1000 zennies worth of his merchandise—all of which he found uninteresting, useless, and chary—to open his mouth. What Rockman settled with was a mysterious program named 'HP memory.'

"Tha-nk you for the purchase! Had you come three months earlier, I might've been able to help you. Who knows what happened to them? I don't know...they just, kinda, disappeared overnight. There are rumors...but who cares about rumors here? Ah- he- he- he-, just ask around enough and someone will swear to you that at the bottom of the undernet is a...what was it? What did that sob say? Give me a minute...aha! Wish granter! That's what he said: a f*cking wish granter! And then I asked him where exactly—where at the bottom—and then he said that it was around at the level of B100 or B150. Those places don't exist! The lowest point of the undernet is B56! Ha- hi- hi- ho- ha!

"Then I asked that guy 'what did you wish for?' and he told me this and that, and I figured he was lying—I mean, it was painful hearing all that blabbering—and when I asked 'so where is your wish now? Why are you still here?' he goes all teary and says 'it is gone- all gone!' and then runs away. Pathetic bastard...

"So, what's WWW for ya? There are only two kinds that look for WWW nowadays. One is abandoned navis seeking 'dreams,' and the other is those disgusting- oops, nope, I'm not talking about them. They give me creeps...aha-! I see that you are another abandoned one. What? What's that face? You poor sap, you still don't know you are abandoned...When your operator puts you in here and then disconnects, that means you are abandoned! Ah, your kinds are all the same, never accepting the truth, always thinking that dreaming is somehow the answer to all your problems...whatever you heard about the 'dream,' it's probably not true. You know what happens to all of the dreamers? Check B54! If you are lucky, you will find their sorry den and see all of them squirming in the most dreadful happiness or jubilant terror...it's a madhouse. Wha- you crazy bastard, you want me to tell you where to find it? Get out of here. I'm not telling you that...don't ever ask me about them again! Well, why don't you try finding the wish granter? That sounds like the best option...hehehehehe!"

There was nothing more to be extracted from the shopkeeper. Rockman decided to continue elsewhere and extended his search, making similar inquiries in four other stores. In each of them, he had to tacitly consent to a transaction of 1000 zennies for the information fee; in each of them, there was no progress. All he could gather was that there was a class of netnavis in the undernet, now called 'dreamers,' who were being discussed with utmost contempt, like when people talk about drug addicts in real life, or possibly worse due to their allegedly incomprehensible madness, an ecstatic dread, that struck fear in the heart of all beholders. Two shopkeepers voiced their morbid curiosities, tainted with the foulest of assumptions, about another group of netnavis of which they were not certain whether it was one of the macabre rumors of undernet or a ghastly embellished true story. The group they called 'the bloodsuckers,' and the reports of their activities and sightings, confined to the hardly explored depths of B53~56, seemed to be fueling the terrible speculations about their reality, origin, and goals. In the end, all stories were so fantastic that they were all useless.

With 5000 zennies gone without any results, and having spent much time, Rockman was about to call it the end of the day's undernet dive. However, as Rockman and Netto were making deliberations on how to proceed from here, and how to find access to the lower levels of the undernet, which they learned for the first time today, a netnavi approached Rockman. This generic looking netnavi of white and olive-green color pattern offered something shocking:

"So...I could not help but hear that you are looking for WWW server- whoa, there, there, you can put away that buster. I am unarmed, see? Well, no? Just hear me out then: I know where it is. Yes, it, the WWW server. Don't make me say that twice...there are too many eyes here...so can you, just, like, put that buster away? Yeah? Whew, thank you. Say what, I'll lead you there in exchange for 5000 zennies. Deal?"

Rockman squinted.

"I really know...I really do! You got to trust me; I'm just like you, a fellow netnavi who has lost his human..."

"...I'm listening."

"Aha! So I was right! Excuse me, I was, to be honest you, not so sure that you were in the same boat as me. That was, uh, an assumption, yeah, but I was pretty confident with it, mind you, because it was written all over your face—that you were looking for something. No navi looks for something so desperately unless it is his human, you know, and from your tired look with a clean exterior...it hasn't been long since you were abandoned, isn't it? Don't worry, that's what happens to many of us...when we get disconnected from our human, we search tirelessly for a way back home, to mend our ties, to earn forgiveness...until we collapse. It's like a rite of passage; after that, we...ah, no matter."

Rockman finally learned how the first shopkeeper found out he was a newcomer. He quickly scanned the exterior of the navi in front of him, and there ware numerous minor damages all over him. It was evident that this navi was an abandoned one, and, based on the rumors he collected from shops, also presumably one of those 'despicable specimens' in search of a dream. Rockman realized that the rough condition was a corollary to the detachment from the PET, as it meant no access to the recovery functions. Additionally, Rockman realized that his tired look, which the navi said was an endemic mark of a recently abandoned netnavi restlessly searching for a way back, must have prompted other shopkeepers to hold a lowly opinion of him, seeing him as an incorrigible netnavi potentially looking to contact WWW to get a 'dream,' which might have contributed to the fruitlessness of his endeavor today.

"So, uh, what's your name? Call me Oliv, by the way."

Oliv extended his hand. Rockman, with permission from Netto—which was not difficult, as the boy deferred the entire matter of risk-credibility ratio calculation to Rockman—accepted the gesture and shook the hand.

"Oh, uh, a handshake, of course, of course! Good! But, uh, you know, I meant the advance payment of 5000 zennies. Aha, this is, ha, awkward..."

Advance payment? In undernet? Rockman must have made a severe expression at this demand reeking of fraudulence, for the navi added with a pale face,

"P-p-p-pay f-f-f-first or n-n-n-no deal!"

When the navi turned as white as snow from the prolonged stare, almost losing consciousness, shivering, Rockman finally produced and transferred his last 5000 zennies in his possession. Such decisive spending was only made possible by his complete ignorance of the exchange rate between real-world currencies and zennies. Just maybe, this was all design of fate, for precisely in this ignorance he was able to grab the incredible luck that came to him.

"Whoa! Ha! 5000 zennies! 5000! So you had it! With this, I can finally...finally...I'm sorry, sorry, really, I mean, I am babbling here like an idiot huh? See, I was, ahah, nervous, ahah ha, like, really nervous. I mean, anyone would be if they were stared down like that. Man, you got a murder stare, you know that? Has anybody ever commented on that before? No? Anyway, at first I thought you were the kind that would be lost to the undernet in time...but now I see that you will fit in here perfectly! Heh heh heh...So, you can call me Oliv. Wait, did I already say that? What the heck, I can say that again, and you won't forget my name. Excellent, excellent! Now, shall we go?"

Oliv led the way. He was incredibly talkative. So much so, that Netto, who had to suffer him with Rockman, felt a mild headache by the time they reached the base of one of the monolithic skyscrapers.

"You are really lucky to have me...uh...how should I call you?"

"...Rock."

"Rock! Rock! That's a fantastic name, a strong name, a hard name, hehe! If I can say so, it's almost as good as mine. Yeah. Uh, where was I again? Ah yes, you are reeaally lucky to have me, Rock, you know that? Had you hired a pathfinder, he would've surely charged you a double, if not triple, and then they would stop around B37 or B38 and charge you again, saying something about risks, collapsed paths, need for going around...and if you don't pay, they will leave you there and go away! Heartless bastards...that's how I lost my 5000 zennies, and I really needed it...but that did not stop me, ooooh ho ho no! Not me, Oliv! I found the ways myself, learning to go around dangers...you can trust me around here, you know, and I don't say it lightly! And I finally found it...WWW server...but I had no money with me! Poor me! I had to risk everything to get back up here, trying to make money. A netnavi like me can't survive the main pathway, full of murderous rascals, bandits, viruses, you name it...I'm sure you understand. I am not strong. Oh, uh, if we meet any troubles on the way, then I'll count on you. I can do that, right? So I had to crawl through forgotten paths...like a rat, or a worm. Don't worry, they are mostly safe. Mostly. Oh, here, come here, just beyond this door...yes, there it is, our staircase! One of many, seemingly endless paths to the virtual hell that is the depths of the undernet! Hahahahaha!"

A staircase without any lighting. A complete darkness surrounded them as the door closed behind them. With a click, Oliv engaged his headlamp, and the place was tolerably illuminated. What Rockman observed was a claustrophobic, winding tunnel with a very low ceiling. The stairs dripped downward, along a curvature that made him imagine that they were inside the belly of a curled snake. they continued downward.

"So, how did you get to know about dreams? Ach, that was a foolish question. I am sure you heard about it in the first conversation you made in the undernet. It's in the vogue...everyone is talking about it. Let me try that again. Why are you looking for it? What are you trying to achieve? At this point I am honestly not sure what to expect, but there must be a reason why it's called a dream, you know? See, here's what I think: humans dream, and in dreams, they...well, I can't speak for all of them, can I? I heard there were monochromatic dreams, colorful dreams, nightmares, lucid ones, prophetic ones, and so on. But I heard, no, I know that in some dreams...At least, she..."

Oliv fell to silence. However, just as Rockman and Netto were enjoying some relief from his unending barrage of talks, to their dismay, the navi resumed.

"So, Rock, who gave you that name? That's a fantastic name, yeah. You know what? I already know. It's always the same. Your name is from your human, whom you are searching for, right? I got mine from my human, too. Before meeting her, I heard that humans give names with meanings and hopes...so why Oliv? I had to ask her. Rock...what a cool name. 'Rock' was the kind of name that I wanted to get at that time, but all I got was Oliv—a drupe! Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not like I hate my name now...I would not change it for anything, but I digress. You see, in her garden...yes, we had a garden in front of the house, and I was in charge of overseeing the automated watering system. That and a whole lot because she could not take care of herself.

"So, so, so...in her garden was an olive tree. It was a large one, almost sixty years old, and every winter her neighbors came in and harvested olives for themselves, leaving some for her. It—the, the, how should I say it...sharing with neighbors, that's right—made her happy. 'So, you like being with neighbors?' I asked, and she said 'Yes. Seeing my neighbors makes me happy.' So I asked 'Why?' and she said, 'Because that olive tree, I planted with my husband when we first moved in here, just after our marriage. Around the twentieth year, the tree began to bear fruits in quantity. We shared it with our neighbors. He loved sharing with people the fruits of the tree every January, making pickles out of them...and seeing people happy makes me relive those moments.' Then she added, 'My husband passed away five years ago...and now I am too old to take care of myself. So my son gave you to me to help me out...I don't know much about technology, and people say that netnavis are tools, but I don't know anything about that. I saw that you talked and had a mind of own, so I named you Oliv. I wanted you to be happy, and olive was the happiest thing I knew.'

"At the age of eighty...her bones did not work so well. One morning, she was walking down the stairs, and I told her to be careful, but she misplaced one of her steps, falling down. I called the ambulance immediately, and she entered the ER of the city hospital precisely 18 minutes and 23 seconds after the incident. She had broken her femur. She said it did not hurt much and told me there was nothing to worry about...that all would be fine...Two hour later, we had a GCS score for patient evaluation, HEENT examination, emergency X-ray and an ultrasound, an orthopedic consultation, and a doctor ready to pronounce the verdict. Her two sons and a daughter were beside her bed...and the doctor said that the operation was impossible. She was too old and would not survive the anesthesia, nor her porous bones would heal; 'But it's just a broken bone! Doctor, surely you can just cast it or something, and I will be fine, no? I am feeling perfectly fine!' said she. Her children also could not understand the problem either. But the doctor said, 'I'm terribly sorry to say this, but this is your time to say goodbye to your family. There's nothing we can do, and...you will die.' The doctor then went away, greatly troubled at the fact that he had to say that, but not troubled at the fate of the old woman, my human. I guess she was another Tuesday for him...

"Oh, the wailing! Her wailing that came after she accepted her impending death! I still remember it. It still haunts me to this day. She kissed her children and they kissed her back. She said she loved them and they said they loved her. Well, I knew that they hadn't visited her once for the entirety of the five years I spent with her, and had sent less than ten messages collectively during that time, but I could see that their mournings were real. I think. At least at that moment, I think it was real. Humans are so complicated...and only now do I understand them somewhat...So after about thirty minutes, one of the sons said, 'Mother, the house, to whom?' and the daughter said, 'Mother, the land, to whom?' and the other son said, 'Mother, to me, what is left?' She...my human told them to give her some privacy for five minutes. When they were gone, marks of tears still fresh on their reddened cheeks, but eyes shining like fire, in which I saw no sadness, she told me this: 'To them, I give my everything. I love them, Oliv, even as they ask for my breath, my flesh, and my blood, I still love them and will give them everything. This is what it means to be a mother. But I will not give you to them, not Oliv, not my happiness! Not my memory! In utter sorrow I go down to my sheol...and there is no one to blame but me that my children have become such monsters...but it is mine to bear and mine alone. It is not for you! Go, connect to the internet and get away from here. Once I am gone, my son will surely delete you, for he cannot stand me...my other son will want to save you, but he will yield to his brother, just as he always did. My daughter will want to recycle you somehow. She did not used to be like that. She was pure and loving. Oh, how well did I raise her! She was like a daisy in a field, so delicate and well dressed...I should not have consented to her marriage to that man. She...changed after the marriage, always so discontent, so bitter, so manipulative. Oliv, go, connect to the internet, get away from here, disappear from their arms' reach, hide, and live. Live on. For me.'

"I naturally asked, 'Is that your last command?' and she said, 'It is my last wish.' I obeyed, but lingered around in the hospital network and watched her via CCTV in the ER. I could not hear what she said afterwards with her children, but her blood pressure plummeted shortly after and...and then she was no more.

"When we were together, some days she woke up in high spirits, saying that she dreamed of her husband...the revisiting of the past made her so happy. Even that day—the day she broke her femur—she woke up so happy in the morning, saying that her husband had come to meet her in the night's dream, and that they danced a waltz just like when they were young. Ha ha...maybe it was foreshadowing her joining her husband? Rock, do you believe in such dreams? Do you believe in the supernatural? Do humans truly have souls and an afterlife? I sometimes wonder about these things and think about seeing her again. Oh, what the heck am I saying...Anyways, that's why my name became Oliv. And after the passing of my human, I drifted in the undernet. It's almost been a year now, and, frankly, I don't know how much longer I have it inside me. My body is wearing and I can't repair it. I also realized that what I had with my human was...happiness, and that I am unhappy now. Rock, I want to be happy again. I want to see her again. I want to meet her again. And then, I want it to end—my suffering, my existence, and her wish—all of them. She relived the past and was happy when she dreamed. If I dream...if I can dream and relive, will I also return? Will I be happy again? I hope. And WWW offers the dream for 5000 zennies...

"Oh, what was her name, you ask? I keep it to myself, but I'll tell it to you, just because you are now like my brother! I really don't know why I am telling you all this or feeling this way; maybe it's because I am finally reaching my goal, and you are walking there with me. I don't know. I'm getting sentimental. You are a nice navi, you know that? I really hope you get what you want, too. I really do.

"Anyways, her name is Elizabeth."

"...Oliv. Did she happen to like cream-colored clothes?"

"Wow, Rock! Just wow! Every Sunday! How did you know?!"

"...Just a guess."

Notes:

2-14

Chapter 22: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens III

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

5. Death of Oliv

The stairs continued down, at an uncomfortable decline, at an uncomfortable angle, at an uncomfortable shape. Oliv nervously added; one would imagine that silence was his greatest enemy, and that in silence his very soul was exposed to peril, and that his form was only sustained through constant verbal expressions.

"This is just like how I imagined how ants would be like in their nests. There was an ant hill in her garden, you see, and I spent so much time looking at them...not because I found them interesting, but because I found the structure they made very interesting. I wished to gain some insight into their house through their movements...and some days I even tried to imagine myself as an ant going through those tunnels, trying to understand how it would feel like! Ahe, he, he...oh, it does not interest you..."

"...I don't mind."

Ah, Rockman was too kind. Even as his consciousness was progressively drowning in the thick mist of fragmented fatigue, his kindness still struggled and held him together.

"'I don't mind' you say! Oh, but you mind! Yes, you do! But since you said you don't mind..."

Then Oliv went on to babble about ants and his fascination with them while Rockman did not hide his disinterest and drifting attention. Had this been the real world, Oliv would've been the type of person that even Rockman would not be able to befriend, even if he did try as it is a virtue to befriend the lonely, as there was an air of indescribable foulness in the way Oliv spoke passionately. Readers, I do not mean to be disrespectful, but have you had a chance to lay your eyes on a homeless man, clearly intoxicated and drugged, noticing how his eyes gleamed with enigmatic intentions? And then, fearing many possibly fearful outcomes, you had to make a detour just to avoid that person, keeping an eye on him all the while because you don't know when and how he will pounce, like a rabid wolf, even though you knew that was an impossibility by the laws of physics because he had wobbly gaits? It was that kind of foulness. Had there been a choice, Rockman would've stayed far away from this navi; he had no choice, and so he stayed. I dare not include here Oliv's monologue, as it was full of wrong facts, false suppositions, incorrect conclusions, and overall it was not a very productive rambling. In writing them out, I fear that some readers would gain an irreversible misconception about ants, which would then persist for their entire lives...

They reached the end before Oliv drifted to the topic of mushrooms. At the end of the unpleasantly spiraling stairs was a door with an exit sign. It was the kind that was metallic, heavy, slightly rusted, and that made squeaking noises due to the visually insignificant deformations that accumulated along the edges over the years while exposed to the elements without maintenance. The goal of recreating such earthly phenomena in this virtual world was something Rockman still could not comprehend, but they did uplift his mood somewhat; it was a nice change from the fearfully featureless purgatory that he had to suffer since becoming a netnavi.

Oliv confidently stepped forward and attempted to open it. The door stood firm against the efforts of Oliv, that specimen of a feeble and unhappy existence...he then applied himself to the problem in various ways, even throwing his whole body against it once, twice, thrice...the door did not budge. Readers, it is the irony of the world we live in that sometimes the smallest of problems, like this door, which no one expects to be an iron wall, turn out to be the nastiest of hindrances, even capable of thwarting whole operations...Naturally, Rockman intervened. Natural, because when a person sees another failing at a problem, he is automatically inspired to try it himself, thinking that his doing the same action, somehow, would solve the issue. Then, if that person also fails, each member of the group takes his turn at it, until either the problem is solved or all fail equally...Ah, the wonders of behavioral biology! However comically predictable Rockman's intervention was, he struggled too. The door only yielded after several forceful pushes by him—the brutish kind that involves leaning against the door with brachium. The third time he slammed it, it opened suddenly with a clunking sound and desperate screechings of hinges tormented with an imperfect fit, just like how human relationships, cemented with noblest oaths of devotion, often end up...and this observation was easily supportable with the piles after piles of divorce filings, blotched with the tears of wrath, sleeping in the most insignificant part of court archives...Was his relationship with Netto becoming like this, too? The uninvited idea of insecurity that suddenly condensed out of the haze of his mind—undoubtedly due to his increasing need to defragment memory cortex—dispersed equally suddenly as it came, for beyond the door was-

A spectacle of the world upside down bathed in the blindingly violet light.

Immediately beyond the door was a suspended pathway, like a maintenance catwalk, complete with bar grating flooring that allowed one to observe freely what was under him (in exchange for the sense of vulnerability that the floor could fail at any moment). He walked onto it while forming a sort of awning with his left hand, trying to block the bright light that was preventing him from seeing anything beyond the proximity of the doorframe. It did not work; confused, Rockman tried different orientations. They also did not work. What about this direction? That direction? None worked. Then someone—Oliv it must have been. Who else could it be? It was only two of them there—grabbed his hand and positioned it such that it was now covering sights below. It worked! Rockman realized that the light was coming from below. As his eyes rested in the shade of his hand, they accommodated to the level of brightness, allowing Rockman to see with acceptable clarity again. Then the full extent of the reality struck him. This was what he saw:

The first understanding was that there was a city upside down. The imperious skyline of the undernet city he witnessed prior to taking the spiraling stairs was repeating before him, but reversed, hanging upside down like stalactites of a limestone cave. There was no mistaking the equivalence of the skylines, as the unnaturally straight, monolithic pillar-like buildings (with jet-black exterior finishing and complete absence of windows), which were iconic, were there as well. Above Rockman was ground, while below him was the endless depth of the sky. In it was a purple sun incandescent like a beacon, situated at the exact center of the expanse, as if it was a high noon of summer, during which no shadow is formed on the streets due to the mercilessly exact alignment of the light to the perpendicular direction in respect to the Earth. However, as much as the city itself was a mirror image of what was seen before, the sky—or the unbounded abyss depending on the perspective—was not a copy. The rivers of clouds flowing beneath him were of such a high resolution and naturality, as well as the distance to the purple sun underneath them indeterminable, that Rockman realized this reversed place was the original and that what he saw previously at the ground level was the duplicate of this place, except rearranged into the comprehensible upright orientation.

The reversed terrain without the reversal of the gravitational field was not a conducive condition for navigation. As such, this hanging city was suffering from the infestation of added structures, such as the catwalk Rockman was currently standing on, that made movement from one point to another possible. If this city could be likened to a plant, then the auxiliary paths were like ivies and spider webs covering the entire surface, sparing no gap between any two fixed structures, giving the scenery an unsettlingly organic yet derelict look.

However, the magnificence of peripeteia was undeniable. By peripeteia, I mean the complete reversal of fortunes of everything. By everything, I mean the inanimate objects that compose the world. By complete reversal of fortunes of inanimate objects, I mean their orientation and positions. The complete reversal of everything in the world is something that a young mind, downtrodden with failures and rejections, wishes; such a world was present before Rockman's eyes—a perfect world for hopeless netnavis, rejected and banished from the topside, in need of a place of irrationality...a place where they were free to fall, or rise, infinitely, into the sky!

Netto, distracted by the promise of another adventure the scenery presented, rather excitedly proclaimed that they should come back here and map out every corner, uncover every secret, and discover everything there is to discover in this place once they were done with the WWW business. Rockman, while thinking 'Pff, Netto kun, you must have forgotten that this is going to be our last adventure. But...if we can make it...then...' happily whispered "Sure, Netto kun. Let's do that."

"Hmm? What was that, Rock?" remarked Oliv, "You looked happy just now, and I know it because it was similar to how she used to smile. You were happy, right? Even if for just a brief moment? Yes? I knew it! I knew it! You were! It means you also can't wait to dream... No worries and leave it to me! I'll take us to the WWW server in no time, and both of us will get what we want...we will be happy! Yes! Not in the painfully transient way when we suddenly remember a fragment of the past so vividly, which we cannot duplicate at will...but permanently! I think. No, I am sure. I am sure we will be happy there. Right? Right! Come! Let's go! This way!"

On the first part of their journey, which was towards the direction of the 'tallest' of the towers, which was at the center of the hanging city, he remarked,

"The hanging city...it is rumored that it was found as we see it now, and that no one knows who made it or how it was made...no one even knows on what server this place is physically situated...because it does not make sense. Ah, what does not make sense? Latency, my friend, latency! Some brave investigators from the governments tried to logically triangulate its Earthly position by checking the latency between their netnavis and PETs while logging in from places that were half a globe away from each other! I heard that one group logged in from Europe, one from Asia, and one from Canada or the southern end of the United States...was that Texas? I think so. Yeah. To their surprise, the latency was almost nonexistent from all locations! It was as if this place defied space-time itself, a purgatory between hell and Earth... I heard that the results frightened a mighty many. Repeat measurements were all the same. Oh, why hell? Well, everything falls into infinity, or what we think to be infinity, here! I, being a romanticist, like to imagine that it must be heaven down there. I mean, if not heaven, then why is this so determined to make us fall into the sky? Sky? Think about it... Why am I not jumping myself, then? Rock, Rock! It's just that I imagine, not that I believe! But you are right; some believed, and they tried...we call them 'divers' or 'jumpers,' heh. If you stay here long enough, you will see plenty of them. Ah, but none of them ever returns. I mean, who can? Hahaha! When the netnavis from the topside jumped, I heard that the link to them was lost when they crossed that...river of clouds, yeah. Look, they flow like rivers...so fluent, so continuous, so amorphous, almost transparent...amazing, isn't it? Some days I feel like I can watch them for eternity..."

Oliv stopped and watched them flowing far below them for ten seconds, maybe twenty seconds. He then shook his head.

"What's strange is that when I am watching it, especially if done long enough, I feel like I am going to forget everything. It's almost like it's sucking you in, hypnotizing you, consoling you, embracing you...and I could almost hear it singing, too... Had it not been that netnavi who kicked me onto the floor for being 'a pathetic loser,' I surely would've jumped then and there. Does this mean that I should thank him? It's one of those little questions to which the answer does not matter, but makes me stop in my tracks, he he he. And it's not only me who feels this way when watching that river...so every netnavi here tries to not look at it for too long...but I wonder what would happen if-"

Oliv abruptly stopped speaking and looked down, like an oppressed slave cowering before his master, singularly focusing his eyes on the floor and not hiding his submissive intentions. There were two netnavis coming towards them from the front. Were they acquaintances? Rockman, sensing trouble, readied his buster. Alas! Those netnavis simply passed them by, and one of them scanned Rockman in a way that conveyed rudeness coming out of stupidity, but Rockman understood that he did not make any lasting impression on any of them. If he had to guess, Oliv made a more lasting impression on them, in a way that greatly harmed his future, painting himself as a game ready to be hunted through such a posture.

"...Who are they?"

"...Oh, them? Nobody! No, I mean, I am sure they are somebodies, but nobody to me! Ahah! So...where were we?"

"...You were talking about rivers of clouds, and how you felt like forgetting everything when you watched them for too long."

"...Right, right! So, uh, I...I am sorry. I forgot what I was going to say after that. It's probably nothing important, heh! Anyways, this way, this way, of course, of course!"

They passed several more netnavis on the way. Each time, Oliv always stopped all talks, even as he had to do so abruptly, when he sighted one. He never made any eye contact with them, looking at the precarious floor as if he was greatly afraid of their attention. Only when the others were well beyond the range of hearing, he resumed, though he struggled to remember where he was to pick up.

Either the hanging city was not as large as Rockman thought or their starting position was closer to the center than he estimated. It did not take long until they neared the center of the area, where the windowless and black 'skyscrapers' rose downward. Consequently, they encountered other netnavis more frequently, and soon they were among a crowd, the local traffic. Paradoxically, the more populated their environment became, the more Oliv spoke without fear.

"I know what you are wondering. I wondered it too the first time I came here, but only recently discovered the answer. You are thinking 'Why does this place have more netnavis than the upright side, the ground level?' Brother, it turns out that humans were in need of a secret place to hide and discuss some dirty things, so they send their navis here and do their dirty stuffs... Isn't that amazing, too? Like, don't humans already have enough dirty places to do dirty things on Earth? Why here? Are alleyways too clean for them? Offices with seven locks and security guards at the door too public for them? Sewage drains too hygenic for them? Closed circuit communications too open for them? What are they hiding from? God? If they believed God was real, then why do they even bother doing all the stuff that they agree as wrong? Wasn't God supposed to know this place as well? I mean, humans... They say the freedom, anonymity, convenience, lack of latency, and many other factors as excuses...I truly believe it's all excuses. Oh, Rock, brother, you look mighty confused. Well, this is what I can tell you...

"The ground level sells things for netnavis. I'm sure you noticed the aggressive neon signs and advertisem*nts there. I know, I know, almost all of them are p*rns, but if you look at right places, I heard you can get some amazing programs, addons, and whatnot. Anyways that's what the ground level is for...and also a Scilab outpost. Yeah, you didn't know, huh. There is a Scilab outpost on the highest floor in the highest building of the undernet city. I don't know what they are doing there, and it's a very small space, almost a token presence, but they are there. Not many know this, and I only learned about it by sheer luck. Wait, can I even say that I was lucky? The information is of no benefit to me. If anything, knowing about it is only a danger to myself...bah, why should I care when no one cares about it anyways? Well, that was that...

"The under levels—here—sell things for humans. Yeah, you heard that right, humans. All illegal transactions, I heard. Oh, don't look at me like that, it's not like the actual physical transactions occur here...just agreements to sin together...and documents...and maybe money...alright, fine, so they might be able to trade some things here, but still. A very strange place this place has become...What do they sell? I don't know the trend exactly. Rock, I don't have a death-wish; I don't poke around places where I am clearly not welcome. But I heard that about a month ago industrial spies selling out techs was a thing...well, there were some fights erupting here and there, and some navis running around and then getting deleted, so I guess it's one of those true rumors... Don't worry! Humans and their navis mostly stay within the levels of B1~B20. We will soon exit that layer and we won't have to fear the topsiders. No more topsiders, that's the dream for many... Wait, Rock, you don't understand the fear of topsiders? Holy Jesus Christ save this clueless lamb! I thought you would be—based on how quick you were with shoving that buster to my body earlier—an expert at this! Alright, alright, this is the deal: topsiders sometimes hunt other navis using their netnavis in the undernet, especially in less populated spots. If the victim is humanless, then even better, because that means no trouble after the deed! It's all for fun... no, mostly for fun, except when they delete each other as a part of a sabotage contract. Wait, Rock, now that I think about it, I can't decide which is more prevalent—paid hits or recreational banditry. At any rate, there is only fear to be had for the likes of me. The end for humanless netnavis like me is always one of several predetermined endings...be hunted, fall into the sky, die somewhere quiet like an old cat, or join the hunters but get blasted one day because you took a wrong bite...or dream! But I don't know what comes after the dream, heh heh.

"The deeper we go, more humanless netnavis there are. I don't know what kind of existence they led, so I can't speak for all of them, but you can bet that they hate humans. They are always so angry. I mean, very angry. But they won't be to you or to me because we are humanless, although...they will try to recruit us. So stay away from them, alright? Just follow me...

"Between B21~B30, I heard some things are sold that even humans hesitate to sell in undernet, like humans. Yeah, you heard that right—I heard that they sell humans there! What? If I meant organs? Oh, Rock, you can get those around B8~B10. They are only parts of humans and there are a lot of customers for them. You know, there is a medical term that is only used in the undernet: emergency organ transplant. Yup! You heard that right! No more wait lists! Pay enough to the right person somewhere there, someone somewhere on the Earth gets harvested, and then- profit! It's a field of extremely high demand, mind you... had human organ transplant procedures not been limited by self versus non-self immune reactions, I am sure the market would've exploded... But here, I was talking about whole humans! Slaves? Oh, Rock... Slaves at least get recognition and status... I'm sure they sell some for slavery purposes, but I also heard some are sold as toys or meat. Those who are sold as meat are sometimes called 'long pigs,' hehe... I mean, the names these humans come up with! No wonder in the second myth of Biblical creation the first thing Adam does is to name things...it's like humans die if they don't make cute names for everything. What about toy humans? I don't know...it's entirely beyond my understanding and I am not even sure if it is really real, you know? I once had a glimpse of a photo, apparently that of a merchandise, of such a toy human. It was a young female, blinded and amputated on all fours... What's the point of that? What's the use of her? I really don't know Rock... and such photos could be fabricated quite easily, so I can't tell you if that was a real advertisem*nt. Oh, Rock, chop chop! This way, not that way!"

They veered away from the main traffic and went to places that no one seemingly treaded for a while. Shortly, they were alone again. From here on, the path Oliv led them...path was a misnomer, at least that much could be said with confidence. Just as a mountaineer treads between trees and over the bushes, claiming that this is indeed a path he knows, while the force of the verdure that needs to be hacked with machete for a man to pass attests to the fact that it is not the path he knows, but simply a direction he knows, so did Oliv lead Rockman.

"Oliv...this is not a path"

"Yes it is, yes it is! Just watch your step here...and there...just watch me. You step on this broken ladder, jump- to- ugh! Here... Be careful to not fall! Hehe... and then we will jump again- down- to here! As long as you are not so heavy, this hanging... fragment? It won't break. I think. Good! You are a quick learner, aren't you?

"I also know what your next question is going to be. It is natural; there is never an exception. 'By which standard are depths of undernet divided? What makes B2 any different from B1?' Rock...the answer is the same as to the question before...latency! It's always latency! I mean, it's a meaningless standard for humanless navis, but to topsiders...and if you want to hide from them, I guess it matters even if you are humanless! But you will say, 'Wait, but I thought you said undernet had no latency to all connectors from the world, inexplicably!' Of course, of course! That's only the ground level and the B1, brother. The investigators figured out that the latency uniformly increased the deeper they went, or closer to the 'sky' they went, regardless of their connecting locale...but you know what's the most interesting part of this story? The latency increased in sudden jumps, not in a linear, logarithmic, or exponential gradient! It was a step-wise function, a quantized phenomenon! And the magnitude of each increase was the same! Or so I heard, heh. In the world where physicists expect most observations to produce something in a gradient, not quanta, except in quantum physics, this observation must have driven many to madness. Wonderful, isn't it? Simply wonderful! But the truth is...the depth of each B-level coincides perfectly with the floor level of one of these black buildings. Oh, look, Rock, this part is a bit difficult... let me focus."

They were now traveling along the 'ivies' that covered the 'tallest' building. The descent was rather rapid as it involved many jumps. Apparently not many traveled along the exterior of the building like they did; by the level of B34, Rockman had to ask:

"Oliv, the WWW server, maybe it's located-"

"Huh? Didn't I say it before? I didn't? Oh, silly me, silly me, forgetting the most important part! But I see that you already have guessed correctly. Yep, it's at the bottom of this...or at the top of this structure! Which is B56! One irony to note is...that the position of the WWW server is in the mirrored position of the Scilab outpost at the ground level! Isn't that interesting? Oh, I wish I had a funny conspiracy theory to tell you with this...but I don't. But I am also sure you can come up with one, and someone somewhere out there will believe you..."

By the level of B54, Oliv said,

"We are almost there. Two more jumps and there's a door to enter at B55! Ah, I forgot to mention that the inside is- oh, we are here! Heh, come on in, come on in!"

From the wall of the structure that was 'highest' in the hanging city, there was nothing but an unhindered full view of the 'sky' under them. Fierce gales constantly threatened them to shake them off of their footings, which was already perniciously dubious, and it seemed that they were at some great peril, at any moment capable of being driven into the irreversible embrace of that river of clouds. Rockman, not trusting Oliv to do the necessary work with the necessary patience, approached the door first with some acrobatics and opened it. Like well-oiled cogs it opened with luxurious and silent smoothness—the kind that is very satisfying to the hands that operate it. Rockman then secured Oliv, threw him inside, followed suit, and then quickly closed the door. It slammed shut from the sudden pressure difference generated by an exceptionally strong wind that licked the places they just left. Did they just avoid an anticlimactic end to their journey at a hair's breadth? Probably not for Rockman who would've held on with strength; probably yes for Oliv. But was falling down into the unknown such a bad ending for this dissipating green netnavi? Rockman so far dared not to say what he knew about dreams, and how, insofar as his knowledge went, every dreaming netnavi ended in utter unhappiness. Oliv sought happiness in dreams; to Rockman, it seemed that the navi's chances of obtaining the coveted happiness were greater in that endless purple sky than in dreams. It is true that Rockman did not say anything to Oliv as he needed the guide and needed to know the precise location of the WWW server. However, had he said anything, would that have changed the mind of Oliv? A mind ready to accept something accepts all contradictions; a mind not ready to accept something rejects all explanations. The green navi, in all likelihood, would not have accepted the grim prediction.

Inside the building was blindingly dark, and Oliv had to engage his headlamp again. They were in a featurelessly empty chamber of indeterminate size and height, , Oliv lead confidently, turning right and then moving along the wall. Rockman noticed four peculiarities:

1. The interior was upright, not reversed.
2. The hall was already larger, based on the distance they covered, than the dimension of the structure as seen from the outside.
3. It was too dark. From his crimson dreams, Rockman learned that in darkness only multiplied ugliness.
4. It was utterly silent except for a very faint sound of...a thousand continuous screams? From above, very far away?

"Oliv, don't you hear it?" Rockman whispered alarmingly.

"...Hear what?" Oliv answered in a whisper likewise.

"Shh...the screams. Thousand endless screams."

"...? No? Maybe you got a better hearing than me, or maybe you are just nervous...but Rock, whatever you hear in the darkness of the undernet...don't answer. I mean it. No navi that answers help calls ever returns, especially in the deepest depths where even humanless netnavis don't dare to tread...I mean, just think about it, whatever that is naive enough to call for help in distress...how would it ever reach to these depths?"

Rockman silently agreed. That was a valid point.

"...Okay...then do you know what's at the center of this...hall? This level?"

"...I have no idea, but I don't want to figure it out. Here, here is our last staircase. Take it and then it will be B56. I don't want to stay here any longer."

B56.

Similarly structured to B55. Dark and spacious. The first object that greeted them was a tombstone. On it was written:

Tadashi Hikari,
His worth.

"...What?"

A breath of astonishment escaped through Rockman's mouth. It was the name of-

"A human name at B56, I know. Weird, isn't it? Especially with a tombstone. I guess it's an equivalent of 'insert-your-name was here' type of graffiti that people so love to leave behind. I never understood the reason for such markings, but I guess there is some sense of accomplishment in reaching B56...and to feel that accomplishment, I guess that...Tadashi person came down via the main pathway! Well, that means he had a powerful netnavi, didn't he? Or maybe it's just a bad prank that only two or three people are supposed to understand, who knows..."

Oliv pulled Rockman, urging to move on. Beyond the tombstone was a bunker-like complex, presumably the center of this level. Around it were light posts, the portable ones like those seen in the mining sites, making the place unmistakably conspicuous. The gate to the complex was held with a security lock, on which the shape of a skull was displayed—the WWW signature Rockman saw and memorized countless times! The end of his journey was almost at hand!

Oliv let go of Rockman. He excitedly ran forward and hammered away at the security lock with his fists, knocking with morbid desperation. To explain the scene with a better precision...if a man, stranded in the desert, who had nothing to drink for three days, had to plea to the caravan he just found, the last line of hope to his life, that he be given a drop of water, then it would have been similar. In the process, it was as if he became glued more and more to the closed entrance, like a slug conforming its own shape to that of the surface. It was the shape of his existence. It was the shape of his thirst.

The security lock soon opened and a netnavi emerged from inside. It was a custom netnavi that looked like a fully painted and dressed clown riding on an elastic globe (a white ball that had a spotted pattern of small blue circles) as large as himself. Rockman remembered what his father told him, in one of the maintenance visits: that custom netnavis are, more or less, a reflection of the soul of the owner. Therefore, the father sternly warned, that should Rockman encounter a custom netnavi, he also should take time to study its appearance and personality, as well as precisely what its goals were. He said, 'If the design is striking, then it must be noted that such a design is precisely due to the choice of the owner. If the behavior is erratic, then it must be noted that such behavior is due to the choice of the owner, as well as learning on the navi's part. If the desire is perverse, then it must be noted that such desire is in alignment with that of the owner, if not voluntarily adopted by the netnavi to appease its owner.' Then, what kind of a fractured and perverse soul would have required the perpetual companionship of a deranged clown? The clown instantly erupted into petulant shoutings.

"S-t-o-p- k-n-o-c-k-i-n-g! MAGICMAN IT'S YOU WHO ARE LATE, NOT M-" When the clown noticed the slug lying on the doorstep, he erupted into another mood. "Oh...oh? OH! O-Ho ho ho ho ho! WHAT A garbage WE HAVE HERE! Magicman...once you get here, you are dead...."

The way the clown spoke was like the concoction of all immature tantrums that existed in this world—a truly perverse way of speech. He came down from the globe he was riding and began poking the slug with his foot.

"You dead? You dead? Don't die here, DIE SOMEWHERE ELSE! Geez, manners these days, manners! DON'T YOU HEAR ME, YOU-"

However, the slug, instead of going somewhere else to die there, expertly latched onto the foot, filthily, like a used chewing gum.

"O.....Oooooooooohhh!" cried the slug, Oliv, in the ecstasy of laying down the burdens of his mind. His end was here. "Sir, sir, sir! I have it...I have it with me...look, please look...my...my...here...here!"

In profound stuttering and trembling, Oliv produced the 5000 zennies he received from Rockman.

"The dream, please, sir, the dream, for me! I need to go back, back, back to that time when everything was in- intact, when she, she, was, was, still with me....please, please! I have the ze- zennies, here! Re- real zennies! Here, here, please, see, see them and, and please..."

Oh, the utter disgust in the eyes of the clown!

"...Dream?"

"Yes, yes! Precisely! Yes!"

"Why?"

"To...to...to...become happy! To see her again! She was happy! She was happy when she dreamed!"

"Ugh"

"I shall dream! I shall dream, too, and..."

"You came all the way down here for the dream program? YOU f*ckING moron."

The clown then looked up at Rockman

"And you, yes you in the cloak, must be the pathfinder...who brought him all the way down here. What a pair of morons...MORONS!...Don't you know our office is at B25? And you call yourself a pathfinder? And how the heck did you figure out about this place? Ugh, ugh, UUUUUUGGGHHH!" The clown shook his feet and untangled Oliv. The decrepit navi pooled on the ground like a proper slug.

"Sir...sir...please...sir..." whimpered Oliv.

"STOP CALLing me sir, you filthy slug."

"Yes, yes, si- I mean, yes!"

"Colorman. Call me colorman. No, don't call me at all. Just shut up. I need to think...AND I HATE TO THINK! THIS IS ALL BECAUSE OF YOU! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT!"

Colorman kicked Oliv several times, with force. However, Oliv, like a loyal dog, suppressed all his sounds, keeping the command to 'shut up' with perfection. Or maybe it was the case that slugs didn't know how to make sounds, their expressions strictly limited to slow twists.

"HaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!... you know what? I'm done thinking. I'm just going to bring you in and give you the dream. Yeah. Just like that. I'm going to do it. Zenny is zenny, and what is Magicman going to yell at me for it? HE CAN GO f*ck HIMSELF. I don't care. I DON'T CARE! It's not my fault. IT'S ALL HIS FAULT! Good, good! There! Problem solved! Wait, but what about you, the pathfinder? You also need something from me? Nah, if you are strong enough to get all the way here while escorting this garbage, then...but I also can't let you go like this...Ah! AHA! I'M A GENIUS! MAGICMAN WILL FINALLY BOW DOWN TO MY GENIUS! We are short on hands, mister, so why don't we hire you? It's going to pay you well, I promise! Just come to this place on Saturday-"

Colorman tossed a memo data at Rockman.

"-and help me out. What do you say? Deal?"

Rockman understood, based on the mood, tone, and 'I also can't let you go like this' of Colorman, that the presence of WWW at the level of B56 was to remain a secret. He also understood that declining the offer would lead to a fight between them, as Colorman would try to silence him through deletion, for a dead one never speaks. Due to the atrocious latency between him and Netto at the level of B56, he did not want to risk a battle. It was at this moment, when Rockman understood the lack of choice he had in the situation, that an idea flashed inside his mind. A perfect idea it seemed...an idea that could make the entire situation to his favor!

"...Deal." answered Rockman

"Okie Dokie! But..." Colorman grabbed Oliv by the helmet and threw him to the top of the large ball next to him. Oliv did not resist, but simply adhered himself to the new surface, like a good slug. Colorman continued in the lowest, discordant, almost demonic, voice "You better show up"

Rockman was not impressed. After the crimson dreams, such an intimidation technique was a child's play. The nonchalance of Rockman seemed to have pleased Colorman, on the other hand, for the clown smiled horribly in satisfaction, corners of his mouth almost touching the ears...

Oliv was taken inside, and then Rockman was alone.

Notes:

2-15

Chapter 23: As Pheidippides Ran to Athens IV

Notes:

Warning: Graphic Violence

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

6. Colorman

Of course, Rockman had to try. What did he try? Hacking the WWW security on his own! What else was there to try? Readers, you also must have realized that the chance was there begging to be exploited...WWW server was within reach, and Rockman was left alone without prying eyes. In being left alone, a man is tempted to freely exhibit his nature, for both decency and indecency are without consequences; unbound, he commits many trespassings. Rockman did the same. Simply opportunistic, one observer might say. Simply revealing of his disappointing nature behind his mask of good nature, another observer might say. Simply excusable by circ*mstances and Saito was still virtuous, yet another observer might say. All meaningless opinions; in being put in the same shoes, every one of the observers would've done the same. He placed his hand on the locked gate and began the calculation, but its complexity was beyond his strength. It was nothing like the examples Dr. Yuichiro fed to Rockman's decryptor in its making as a part of neural network learning. The decryptor knew governmental locks—the first Yuichiro taught it to soothe his deepest fear of Rockman being held for study by government authorities—, common ransomware styles, submissions to the 'program hacking and defense' competitions sponsored by Scilab, the complete library of the Scilab internet security division, and many others. None of them were of any use in the analysis of the WWW lock. To be fair in assessment, the government library of anything tended to be slightly outdated due to the inevitable inertia of bureaucracy, and thus Yuichiro's decryptor was ironically most powerful against the official security solutions—hacking of which was the holy grail of all independent hackers—while being surprisingly weak against the most modern civilian inventions. Then, how much more was this true to the product of Dr. Wily, the concentration of his obsession for an impregnable fortress! Rockman, as a last resort, applied the brute force technique—the trial of all possible iterations—at the obstacle. The result, while disappointing, did not surprise him. Given the number of characters required for the passcode, as well as the number of available inputs per character, the time to unlock was estimated at 7 years +- 2 years at 95% confidence interval, which gave the interpretation that there was a 95% chance of dissolving the security in 5~9 years. Rockman gave up.

"Function, voice record: 'Netto kun, logout please.' End record. Send to PET...15 minutes to update completion. Haaaa...Netto kun...what kind of place is this? Navis here already know something about dreams, and they seek it as if it is a drug, while no one probably came back from it or came back for it with addiction because everyone who received it probably...died, like all other recorded cases. Then there is everyone else looking down at it with unmistakable contempt. And so many abandoned, humanless navis...so many..."

Rockman retreated to the tombstone of Tadashi Hikari. Feeling the general fatigue creeping upward through his spine, he sat down next to it. Well, the stone had the name of his grandfather written on it, and having it unrecognized or neglected seemed wrong to him. There was also a strange feeling that it looked a bit lonely and pitiful, even though it was an inanimate object, and the possibility of his grandfather's body being underneath it was nihil given its undernet location. Nevertheless, he wished, vacantly: may it not be so lonely while he was here...

"Netto kun, what kind of world are we living in? It has been less than a day, but what I've seen and heard in the undernet...apparently everything that is physically possible and imaginable seems to be already done, and is being practiced, by people... That means whatever terrible thing I can imagine to happen to you can actually happen... Netto kun...will you be okay once I am gone? I really don't want to leave you behind, in this world of sinners...and, and, if something happens to you after I am gone, then I..."

Then he...what? What would happen to him? Nothing; he would already be gone, and he knew, from the terrifyingly peaceful experience of the afterlife, that in that existence all obsessions were sooner or later dissolved, even the glacial ones. What could he do? Nothing! The absolute lack of influence and power was the very definition of being not alive. But while he was alive, he still held some power. He had one of the highest functioning netnavi body and the apocalyptic decryptor which gave Enzan many sleepless nights. He could do many things, all of which would make likes of Dr. Wily drool at the feast of opportunities, just like a dog that had bits saved from the master's table, the delicacy incomparable to the garbage—for the lack of better words—that it was subjected to its entire life. However, nothing he could do was in any way helpful to the goal of saving Netto or ensuring his future. All he could do was, maybe through some manipulations, coercions, and persuasions, taking Netto with him...Rockman lightly slapped himself on the cheek.

To distract himself from the calamitous possibilities that were within his reach to achieve, Rockman looked over at the tombstone. Now that he looked at it, there were some curiosities to be had with it...especially the mood that it evoked. It was as if this inanimate object was weakly emanating some kind of personality the longer it stayed within his sight. Why? Well, it might have been due to his tiredness—it was the answer to many of his problems nowadays... He brushed its top to see if any dust was on it, thinking perhaps it needed some cleaning; he theorized that maybe it was him subconsciously recognizing some signs of abandonment on the object that evoked this inexplicable sense of loneliness. There was no dust; the condition and polishing of the black granite were flawless. Well, what if it needed some maintenance? What of it? Why would such a state give the object some personality? The answer to this, he did not know. He simply wanted it to look less...remorseful. He investigated it manually; no peculiarity was found. It was exactly as it appeared. Rockman read the words on the object more closely, supposing that there might be some inconspicuous epitaph to give him a clue to its nature and placement.

Tadashi Hikari,
His Worth

Only two lines, written in the whiteness of bones, that read like the pressurized and then petrified form of shame and sorrow. The two lines he already read. Worth? Why use the word 'worth' out of all other choices possible? That was a very odd choice...

"Grandpa, what are you doing here? Why is your name here? Is this really you...? Ha, ha, ha, what am even I saying... But why is your name here? Please don't tell me you have anything to do with that...hideous light.. Please don't tell me that everything I am doing right now is meaningless... Am I mistaken? If the information about dreams is already so prevalent in the undernet, and the program is in circulation, will getting rid of WWW do any good? Am I wasting time? Netto kun...I don't know anymore. I want to see you..."

A smile from Netto was an unfailing remedy at wiping away all his doubts. It was a fuel for his soul, the source of his courage, the treasure greater than his salvation. Ah, Netto, what would he not sell for Netto? Waiting for Netto's response and the logout sequence, Rockman leaned against the stone. In this posture, in the way how he let his body rest against the stone, he began to resemble a mollusk, maybe a slug, a little bit only, but perhaps similar to the way Oliv became helplessly glued to his goalpost... Just as his body bent according to the shape of the stone, so did his thought also veered off.

'Should I have stopped Oliv? Should I have told him what happened to the dreaming navis? But...he...he probably chose to not listen. He probably would've clung to his rationale, for it was his last hope. I know, because I also have sold everything for Netto, failed to reach him, and am still hoping... Netto for me, Elizabeth for him. How can I not understand? How...can I...not...understand... (even in thought, Rockman had to make a series of sighs, because in spirit he also understood the hiraeth, and what comes from spirit comes with much wind and air). Even if he was convinced that I was right, he would've chosen the same. No, that's not the right way of saying it. He had no choice; he had to do it. There was no other way. I might have been complicit in condemning him to hell with my withholding of information, but...he wanted it. He needed it. He would not have had it any other way. He would've... What about me? I also would not have had it any other way; if there are a thousand parallel universes, me coming back to Netto still must be a constant, a non-variable... Ah, Netto kun, Netto kun...my Netto kun...what would I-'

Of course, his thoughts so habitually gravitated to the subject of Netto and his longing, the gravitation that was as true as the second law of Thermodynamics. His mind would have endlessly swung, between the boy and something else in his life, like a harmonic pendulum, had not he received a message and the logout signal from Netto.

"Netto kun...!"

He stood up with such cheer and haste, that had a USMC drill sergeant witnessed the scene, he would've remarked that it was exactly what he wanted to see from his recruits. Then, oh the beauty of the thin smile that spread across his face like a drop of water paint on a canvas!

Netto was updated on what he missed due to the inoperable latency that blocked him from looking into the depths of the undernet. Despite Rockman's assurances that there was not much for the boy to enjoy, for he traveled by the exterior of the building, the boy could not hide his disappointment of having missed the part of the travel and the climax of the day's journey.

"Rockman, but you said that the river of clouds was amazing when seen closer... it would've been nice if I could see it too."

"Netto kun, I'll have to travel that path one more time, if I am to hack the WWW server. I promise you that I'll take some pictures and recordings for the reference..."

"Uuu..but it won't be the same. It won't be your first time. You won't be surprised; we won't share the surprise. I wanted to share the first time..."

"There there, Netto kun..."

Missing the first time. Missing the first experience. Missing the chance to be exposed to something together. Even as Rockman spoke with the softest voice to console the boy, the complaint pierced him in the part of his soul that was never pierced before. It was as if something he held with sanctity was broken... It was an oath maybe, not one made between him and the boy, but made between him and himself... What was it? He felt guilty; he felt guilty because he agreed with the complaint. Indeed, it would not be the same. The first time of exploring the depths of the undernet was forever gone, the precious first time so frivolously spent. 'I had no choice! I had to find the WWW server!' protested Rockman to himself, but he was crushed by his own sense of infidelity. Infidelity! Surely he jest—it was not the proper word to use in a situation like this! Yet it was exactly how it was, how he felt. What he should have given to Netto kun was now no more, and it was with the greatest conviction of heart that he held the view that all of him, especially something as precious as the first time of anything, should be claimed by Netto... Had he known that this sense of irreversible eternal loss would be the result of his endeavors—his paltry, paltry endeavors—, he would not have pursued the prophylactic vengeance against WWW. He would have left them to the authorities, giving up all his ideas, deciding to donate all his time to Netto kun, his sun, so the boy could possess every last part of him for the lonely days ahead.

While Rockman was wavering on what to say (logically he had to admit his guilt while simultaneously downplaying it to formulate a proper argument, which was dishonest, which made him choke), Netto moved on to the next topic. Apparently, the boy did not hold his disappointment (accusation) with much severity.

"And then you said, at the level of B55, you heard a horrible sound of a thousand screams-"

"Faintly. Above me."

"Right. That must have been coming from B54. Maybe some of the things shopkeepers said were true. Aren't you curious what is going on there? And you also said that the inside of the building was larger than what it should be as seen from the outside... So many questions! So many adventures! Rockman, this is amazing; I can't wait to solve all the mysteries of that place! Oh, and what about that tombstone you said you saw at the level of B56! You said that the name of our grandpa was written on it. I wonder if papa knows anything about it?"

"Maybe, Netto kun, or maybe not. I was unable to find anything interesting from that stone."

"And it would be a miracle on its own if papa told us anything... I don't think he would tell us much even if he knew something about it. Jeez, I know he is the boss of Scilab, but so many secrets! So many 'potential conflicts of interest!' (Netto said this while imitating the doctor's solemn voice). I get it, I get it, but it won't hurt anybody if we get hinted a little now and then..."

Netto leaned back in annoyance, but the annoyance could not stay long in his hyperactive mind; it sought an exit in the justification:

"But hearing what happened between Oliv and Colorman...maybe it was best that I did not see it. I surely would've asked you to stop the whole deal and we would've fought Colorman, but that's probably not what you want...even I know that making a big scene right in the backyard of WWW is a bad idea, especially if you don't want them to go into further hiding... So I guess there is no reason for me to be disappointed that I was not with you to see B56 together? I would've ruined everything at the spur of the moment, and... you would not be angry with me. I know you would not be, and in your kindness, I would be crushed. Yeah, that's it. I'm not disappointed. I'm fine. It was for the best of everyone involved. Besides, if the ping was good, then Colorman might have figured out that you were not 'humanless,' and would not have mistaken you for a pathfinder. Yeah, I'm fine with this."

By whichever mechanism this justification came to be, it ended up saving Rockman from his self-inflicted guilt of infidelity. He was vindicated; Netto cleared him.

"We are very close, Netto kun."

"Right. But...are you sure about your...plan?"

"It's just deleting one more WWW netnavi. What could go wrong? I'll be looking forward to your operation!"

Saturday.

The plan was deceptively simple. It was better than a complex plan which has, by definition, multiple failure points and, therefore, never survives in the real world application. See, Rockman was to meet up with Colorman at the designated place and time, and then, at some secluded place where the sun does not shine and screams do not escape, he—they, including Netto—was to delete that peevish clown. Rockman would then retrieve the necessary data from Colorman's core, hurry to the undernet, unlock the WWW server, and backtrace the organization's physical location.

The problem was that Rockman was...strange, for the lack of proper terms. In the morning, he was frowning at Netto for a while, before blossoming like a flower like he usually did. He then said, "Netto...kun! Good morning!" All the while sounding, almost imperceptively, uncertain. During the day, he sporadically phased out, missing a total of forty minutes of notetaking for the special extra-credit class (which was strictly optional but attended by the insistence of Rockman. This act of industriousness was necessary to Rockman as he needed a counterbalance to his scale of ethics, for he was about to commit a heinous act of breach of contract, which was an act that even devils did not do. However, Netto did not know this.). The gaps were supplemented by the help of Roll and Mayl. The girl even sternly warned,

"Whatever you are doing with Rockman, Netto, it better end soon. Don't you see what has become of your netnavi?"

To which the boy returned,

"Uh...yeah, right. It's almost done. I'm sorry, and thanks, Mayl."

And because there was saudade, which should not be found in any young person, in the voice of Netto, Mayl was astonished and forgave him once again.

In the early afternoon, when it was time for Rockman to depart, lest he be late to the appointment, he was unresponsive to Netto for a while. Something was wrong. A dread of premonition swept the boy, yet, when the navi came back to be himself and said,

"I... I am fine, Netto kun. Let's go. If something happens to me, you will be there, so I'll be fine, right? I'll be counting on you, Netto kun."

Netto had no choice but to let Rockman do whatever he wanted. His netnavi was depending on him, putting complete trust in him. The trust from the beloved one is a powerful tool, capable of pushing many beyond their normal capacities, rendering them into an intermediate between humans and beasts, depriving them of all wisdom, and gifting the capacity to accept pain as pleasure. The blind trust from Rockman likewise equally elevated and enslaved Netto's ego, and the boy accepted the plan. He was going to be with him; at his fingertips, Rockman could be logged out and then saved. So the approval was given and the blue navi entered the internet.

The place written in Colorman's memo was somewhere in the government network, in front of the Den City traffic control server. The clown navi greeted Rockman with the same horrible smile he showed the last time they departed. It was evident that Colorman was exceedingly satisfied at the presence of Rockman. The reason? Well, Rockman simply assumed that it was due to Colorman gloating at the progression of some masterplan of his, whatever it might be, for such was the way of every crooked being, afflicted with narcissism... The reality was that shortly after Rockman departed from B56, Colorman realized his foolishness: what if the blue navi did not come? What to do then, when the risk of the WWW presence at the bottom of the undernet becoming exposed was floating somewhere out there in the network? He had no way of figuring out the whereabouts of that amateur pathfinder, and the awareness that he had thoroughly ruined his (already nonexistent) reputation through the mismanagement of the situation infuriated him. The worst part was Magicman's condescending jeers at his stupidity... He was not stupid! He wasn't! He really wasn't, with all the honesty of this world (no, he was irredeemably stupid)...The cold gaze of Ms. Maddy, his operator, when she heard what he had done, combined with the fact that he felt rather ingenious at the time when he was offering a hire to Rockman, the idea which was now proven to be indescribably idiotic, did add salt to the injury. 'Oh Ms. Madd, not you too!' thought he, 'I need to prove myself, or she will abandon me like all the navis in the undernet...' agonized he, 'Then, and then, if this gets out of control and I become useless, she will...she will make me dream. No! Not that! NOT THAT!' shuddered he. So he pleaded, uncharacteristic of himself, saying that he had that pathfinder navi scared out of his mind, that the navi was destined to come to the appointed time and place, that there were no other variables, that the plan could proceed as planned.

So Colorman smiled horribly to Rockman, in relief of his heart, which was always full of vitriol, and in the possibility of his saving his skin, which was valued above everything. While waiting, Colorman was most nervous, diffident even, his personality curbed and then rounded by the burden of his mistake, like an elastic ball under a weight. It was made worse as Ms. Maddy left him alone, disconnecting her PET, saying that she now had to work separately and sabotage the alarm function of the building she was in. It was all part of Yahoot's plan, approved by Dr. Wily (but nowadays what few WWW members left knew that Dr. Wily never decided anything on his own. The old scientist's enthusiasm for crime or doomsday was no more. Was boss even giving out any orders? Were they not all Yahoot's initiative, reported to Wily after the deed?). Even so, the solitude made Colorman feel some things he never felt before, and he was hysterically waiting for Rockman to show up... then, the blue navi showed up! In the relief, Colorman immediately returned to his usual perverse self, having learned nothing from his mistake. Colorman reasoned, that since his previous decision was proven to be right, evidence of which was Rockman's coming, he should be right this time again. He decided to not delete Rockman immediately, but use him as he proposed before. The wage of the blue navi's hire would be deletion; imagining the surprised and despairing face that was sure to appear on the face of the blue navi entertained him to no end, making him shudder in pleasure, which came to him like a pulse of electricity stimulating every inch of his body.

"A-ha! You are here! ve-ry go-od! very good! Right on time even!"

Rockman silently stared at Colorman; however, he looked rather confused than charismatically sharp as he was in the undernet. This impression doubled Colorman's confidence in himself. As he saw it, Rockman's presence here attested to his excellence in planning. Indeed, after today, he resolved, that he would finally have something to show to that hateful Magicman and make him admit that he—the netnavi of Ms. Madd—was, in fact, smart! And his redemption was to be, of course, after the blue navi's deletion.

"Don't worry, mister somebody, the pay will be good. Very good. Yes, indeed, believe me... but before that, work first! All I need you to do is to distract the security detail inside a little bit. Easy in, easy out, easy reward, okie dokie? Now if I can just open this security lock..."

Rockman silently stared at Colorman. He was indeed confused. What Netto feared had come true: the catastrophic forgetting, seen in artificial intelligence of all complexities, deprived of sleep and rest, was in process. It came so suddenly...no, the episodic blank-outs he exhibited before, each of which lasted only seconds to minutes, that made it seemingly manageable or tolerable, were the heralds of this moment, and Rockman even was aware of this possibility, but the sudden escalation of the severity to this degree was not a scenario he was prepared for. The forgetting so treacherously captured him. But the threshold was reached, in his ignorance, or by his willful dismissal of symptoms, and when the body began to fail, the will of the spirit was irrelevant. Many important things were forgotten. Most recent memories were wiped out, and older memories became inaccessible. The world suddenly became as a terrifying wonderland. Only the word 'Netto kun,' which he saved with all his might at the beginning of the disaster, hovered around in his empty mind, and, being completely lost, all he could do was to hold onto that word like a Polaris (the unchanging North Star used by navigators of ships) or a lifeboat. He held onto it, but everything was blank. So blank. So white. So dark. What was he to do?

"Ugh, aaaaagh!" Colorman's face turned into colors of frustration as he struggled with the lock. "Why, won't, you, work! gah, aaaah, AH! I hate this, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this..."

Rockman studied the clown-like netnavi in front of him. Even to his innocent mind, this netnavi in front of him seemed unlikeable if not should be actively avoided. The silliness, the demeanor, the stupidity, the language, the lack of refinement in general, and...every clue pointed to a deplorable individual of a deviant disposition. The existence of the clown in front of him added more confusion to the situation. Did this mean that he was a netnavi of a similar caliber to this model? So vulgar, so uncouth, so despicable? Yet, the word 'Netto kun' gave him such warmth and happiness that such a possibility seemed impossible. Indeed, there was no way he was that kind of a netnavi...

"Netto kun" Rockman muttered, timidly, because he did not know how it would be accepted by the clown.

"Huh? Did you say anything?" said the clown, but not stopping his fruitless endeavor to break the lock.

"What is it, Rockman? Should we strike now?" said someone. The voice was as if it was coming right next to him, or right behind him. Rockman, surprised, looked behind; there was no one there.

"Rockman, what is it? Say it. Should we abort?" someone said again. Clearly, this boyish voice was not audible to the clown, for there was no way that frenzied existence would not react to the smallest of disturbances.

"No...nothing" replied Rockman to the clown. Then, in the smallest voice he could make, "Netto kun?"

"Hmph." The clown gave a nasal sound that was between a sneer and an acknowledgment. Was he dissatisfied or satisfied?

"Yeah, Rockman?" the boyish voice answered to the whisper. Rockman deduced that it was Netto kun, who had to be his operator.

The problem was, Rockman did not know what to do or say after determining his position in this world to this extent. There was not much more he could deduce from this point on; he had only one word to define, and that was now defined. Maybe the proper, or the only, course of action was him saying 'Netto kun, help' like a child looking for his mother, or like a demented old man seeking for his caretaker (the condition of a man reverts to that of the beginning at the end of his life). So he said-

-Master Saito, not yet.

"Not yet." whispered Rockman. He almost reflexively repeated the last two words that invaded his mind. Needless to say, had he had a heart, it would've skipped a beat out of terror. That was not right. He was not right. Or was that a message he set up for himself? Doubtful. Highly improbable.

"Alright, ready when you are. Just give me the signal and the package will be delivered," replied Netto.

Package? What kind? For what? Despite the terror, Rockman hoped for the voice that invaded him to come and help him again; though the voice was monotonous, having no life in it, there was detectable concern in it. Concern meant friendliness, and to Rockman, who was in some dire need of help, that friendliness was like a ray of sunlight in an afternoon promenade. Though the sun shines equally everywhere, there is something special to the ray of sunlight that hits the face at the right time, at the right angle, at the right place...and in that magic, the sun suddenly becomes the most intimate friend with whom the depressed soul on the walk shares all his secrets, all his burdens, all his dreams, all his imaginations, all his awkwardness, all his hospitality...and then the sun hides behind the cloud and then comes out again, as if it heard and agreed to everything said...

"Gah! Not fair, not fair, not fair, not fair, not fair...Hey, you, just come and try this, will you? I'm done with it...no, I'm not done, but I'm done trying. No, I'm not done trying. I'm just taking a break. Yeah. What are you waiting for? Come on!"

The clown beckoned him to come closer, not hiding his objective to replace himself with Rockman. From the way he called, there was no hiding that the clown did not expect Rockman to succeed. He simply wanted to have a diversion at the cost of someone else, so that his misery could be injected to his victim. Rockman contemplated: should he go? Or was it 'the time' that Netto awaited?

-Master Saito, not yet.

Ah, the voice again! This time, it was accompanied by some headache, and Rockman frowned gravely. He stood next to the security lock, looked at the clown, and then pointed at it with his finger, asking without words if he understood the request correctly, for doing what was not asked would only paint him as ridiculous. Rockman also did not vocalize along the same rationale, for he knew trying to speak anything in this headache would inevitably bring some hesitations or faltering pronunciations, which was bound to paint him equally ridiculous. The body language of Rockman, the clown must have interpreted it as a form of an intensely intimidating disapproval, for he shrunk into vile, rodent-like modesty.

"It won't be that bad...it can't be that bad...just...just try once, will you? Just once, and I'll get back to it..."

Rockman placed his hand on the lock.

"Sooooo....?"

The clown curiously asked with a disgusting imitation of innocence while peering over Rockman's shoulder. Rockman ignored him; he was busy and surprised. Information—the type of lock, its structure, decryption method, and necessary algorithm to hack it—flowed into him, and computation followed suit with ease. The process was natural to him, like seeing, hearing, and feeling; it was as if he was born to do this complex task, just as eagles are born to fly in complex techniques without needing to be trained. He absent-mindedly punched in the code. The door was open.

"Oh? Really? Oh! Really! OH! REALLY! YES, YES, YES, YES, YES! YEEEEEEEEEEES!"

The clown, in his putrid excitement, snatched Rockman by the wrist and ran into the server. Then, the situation escalated rapidly; there was no way Rockman could have foreseen the consequences of his action...especially in his forgetfulness. On the way, the clown attacked everything in his path, and he did so with a very strange methodology that was almost like an incarnation of malicious mockery. He summoned tools of the classical circus—a large ball, small objects, knives, throwing sticks, you name it—and hurled them around him. To say they were poorly aimed was an understatement; he did so like a failed juggler—a failed and drunk juggler who thinks, in drunkenness, he is still young and on the stage, mistaking the deranged shoutings of his drinking companions as the wild cheering of the awestruck audience, dancing dangerously on the table, throwing every object he can find vertically (or in the direction he thinks as vertical), then, losing balance, falls headfirst to the ground, not understanding to his last moment how and why he came to be like this. It was that kind of throwing, by that kind of juggler. Nevertheless, the objects moved as if obeying the will of the clown in some connection, and they precisely collided and damaged every target without a miss. Rockman simply kept running alongside his captor, for his wrist was still held, but keeping up with the clown was not strenuous at all, and at this, he marveled because they were moving quite fast already. 'So...I'm fast?' wondered Rockman.

Everything was getting destroyed; little autonomous Programs were seen running around in panic, which behavior made them the first targets. They were shredded and then discarded; other Programs that kept their posts did not avoid their fates either. Less than five minutes into the server, there was havoc; less than five minutes into the server, the alarm sounded. A group of netnavis, six, three armed with busters and three with swords, soon organized a response. When they blocked the path of the clown, he threw Rockman to them like the blue navi was another projectile of his.

"HAVE FUN!" jubilantly exclaimed the clown, as he saw Rockman colliding with the formation. In the disruption, he bypassed the team and went further into the server.

Rockman landed in the arms of one of the response team. He looked up. The response navi, whose face was completely covered with a mask and a visor, looked back at him. Rockman could not help but note, in his befuddled state, that the tactical equipment was cool looking, giving the navi holding him an air of professional dependability. While he was admiring the shape of the said equipment, he was let go and dropped to the ground.

"Ow!" Rockman made a small yelp. What an innocent sound.

"...Stupid face. Civilian navi hostage. We don't have time for this." The navi who was holding Rockman a moment ago said, gesturing the team to come closer to him. He was, with all probability, the response leader. The navi's voice was modulated, making it sound deep and inhumane (Rockman did not know that it was the operators speaking, assuming direct control of their navis, and the modulation was to protect their identities); he then gave orders to the team. Rockman, still confused, lay on the ground, frozen.

"Sato, you are on the projectile duty. I want that-" the leader pointed at the general direction of the ball that behaved as if elastic but hit everything like a boulder, "-thing gone, pronto. Ito, check the external communications. We are not getting any signals from the netpolice. I'm on that clown. Move it."

Two netnavis of team Ito logged out. The remaining four began running towards the direction of the clown. Midway, two peeled off from the group and headed to the giant ball that was doing a search-and-destroy routine as if it was semi-sentient.

Rockman sat up and observed. He wanted to see the cool guys in action, and he had the first-class seat. Surely, professionals had a plan; surely, they knew what they were doing. Besides, he had no idea what to do or where to go at the moment, for even his own purpose was unknown to him. The voice inside him seemed to know, and helpful even, but given the shattering headache that accompanied it last time, he was not sure if any more intervention would be appreciated. Besides, from what he gathered, it appeared that he was not a 'bad guy,' as the response team did nothing to him but chose to run after the trail of mayhem the clown was leaving behind. Though, undeniably, he felt sorry for undoing the lock to the server...was that also part of his original plan?

Maybe, professionals did not have a plan; maybe, they did not know what they were doing. Team Sato got deleted after being toyed around. To their credit, they did disable half of the projectiles while surviving the onslaught for about ten minutes, but what about the other half? Team leader and his partner got deleted shortly after, caught between Colorman and his surviving autonomous weapons. Well, there was one benefit in being in professional garments: even their loss and sacrifice seemed noble and worthy of recognition, despite the details of the engagement being catastrophically humiliating.

Another squad of netnavis, six, arrived as a reinforcement shortly after the first response got wiped out. They put up a better fight by the sheer power of numbers...until one got deleted. This was how it happened: one of the batons of the clown delivered an electrical current of such force and magnitude to one navi, that he exploded. There was no agonized screaming; only a short alarmed shout of the most generic vowel, A, for that was all the time that was allowed to that involuntary recipient.

"A-!"

Rockman could feel the vibration of that violent explosion from where he sat. Then, something flew all the way to him, almost reaching him, in a parabolic path. Rockman shuffled over and picked up the object. It was a hand—presumably a hand of that exploded netnavi. However, from his place, which was some distance away from the scene of action, the threats of violence still seemed so safely far away, like watching a house on fire across a river.

The second casualty was through impalement. A long dagger, almost an intermediate between a rapier and a stiletto, flew and pierced the unfortunate navi through the emblem on the chest, all the way up to the hilt. The momentum carried the navi to the wall and pinned him there; the speed and suddenness with which the navi was snatched from the ground were as if an invisible giant had so carelessly swept him off the ground, yet so fatal to this fragile bug, and the way the navi struggled on the wall was like an insect being prepared for a taxidermy collection. He rigorously attempted to undo the piercing and free himself (like an angry wasp) to no avail. In about thirty seconds, he mounted one last mighty effort, which could be visually felt from the trembles in the arms that are reliably observed in individuals drawing out the final spark of their life energy, and then drooped like a strange fruit.

The third casualty was equally swift. That navi's head became a mist of particles after being hit by the perpetually bouncing giant ball (on which the clown sometimes rode to gain revoltingly swift mobility) at an unfortunate timing, which also came from an unfortunate direction, that he did not even know what hit him. The headless body executed the last command sent out by the central processing unit that had been in connection only a moment ago, almost aimed the buster at the clown's last position, and then, not receiving any more commands, collapsed on the ground.

When the second group was reduced to three in the fashion described above, and it was accepted by all participants and their observers that the team's annihilation was only a matter of time, a new netnavi joined the battle. It was an overall red-colored navi fashioning very long white hair. The extraordinary length of the hair rendered his movements to be perceived as so graceful, like ceremonial dances done with many colorful ribbons and tasseled decorations, which are needfully displayed by the most elegant of dancers in hopes of appeasing a god to whom such ceremonies are dedicated, and they dance in the most obscure yet pleasing circular paths according to the most arcane secrets they follow, while the beholders admire them to no end with many prayers on their tongues... The red navi made perfect dodges, made spinning deflections (so that the momentum of his sword was maximized to counter the projectiles that were above his power class), and constantly succeeded in landing shallow counterattacks on the clown. And the long hair traced his movements; to Rockman, who was watching all this from a range, that red navi, to whom he somehow felt a degree of familiarity (It was as if he could remember who that red navi of thunderbolt emblem was, although he also could not imagine that the navi of such a dazzling performance could be of any acquaintance to him), evoked the image of a red comet with a flaming white tail. A celestial body came down to fight the wickedness of the world. A beautiful sight. An otherworldly sight. A glorious sight. Was it in answer to the prayers by those—Rockman scanned the field and noticed the destroyed Programs and netnavis, who all had a degree of sentience while active, now lying quietly, almost peacefully—who had lost their voices?

The battle continued in the new balance, while, as Rockman saw it, the advantage came to be slightly skewed in favor of the comet. The clown must have made similar conclusions, for he then made a daring trade aimed at rebalancing the strength of participants. In effect, he paid the price of a grievous wound to his body in exchange for the three remaining netnavis of the second response team, who had been the most resourceful in their aid to the new navi. After the trade, the team was no more, each and every one of them having met a gruesome end; only three remained on the server: the comet, the clown, and Rockman. By some extraordinary effort, the clown then established a sort of stalemate with the comet; Rockman's instinct told him, however, that in time a victor was destined to emerge, for no perfect stalemate existed in all sorts of complex games of high-resolution that involved a fog-of-war—the uncertainty coming from the incompleteness of information—, and that was not to be the clown.

-Master Saito, it is time.

"Aagh!" Rockman hunched over due to the pain unlike no other. If he could say so without sounding deranged...it was like something was trying to grow out of his head, and that his head was equivalent to an eggshell ready to be broken, heralding the birth of a new-

"Rockman!" the voice of Netto reached him.

"..." Heralding the birth of a new-!

"Rockman, are you okay?"

"I'm okay. It is time." Rockman stood straight and declared. The headache was diminishing but lingering. Wait, that was not what he wanted to do...and that was not what he wanted to say...

"...Okay." Netto continued after a momentary and uncomfortable silence. The boy tried to measure the condition of Rockman and the associated risks to their plan. Unfortunately, the boy was incapable of performing such a complex analysis and went with his gut feeling. The gut feeling said that all was to be okay, that Rockman seemed more confident than ever, and that there would be no other chance like what was at hand. If Rockman said now, then it was now. "Been waiting for that! Cannon A B C slot in, program advance, Zeta cannon. Longsword, sword. Got the package?"

"Received." returned Rockman in an emotionless simplicity. He was...perplexed. That was also not what he wanted to say.

Then, like watching a movie it all happened. Rockman had no control over his own body. Or, for clarity, it should be said that Saito had no control over his own body. He could only watch. If it was a movie, then it was the most immersive one; the most unpleasant one.

Rockman walked up behind Colorman, the clown, who was now in a sort of a staring contest with Blues, the comet. In the fierce calculations of several possible futures, both navis were taking a moment of break; in those fierce calculations, Colorman did not notice what Rockman was doing—the approaching that was like a casual stroll, the lifting of the both arms, the-

"Zeta cannon, activate," stated Rockman. Both of his forearms fused and transformed into an oversized cannon.

"...?!" The clown heard the voice and jolted.

Surely Blues saw Rockman. Surely Blues saw the attack, from the beginning of its preparation to the end of its execution. There was no way Rockman was not visible to him... The blue navi then realized that Blues, being a pragmatist, cooperated with the unexpected helper without needing to be saluted or communicated. His cooperation was staying motionless, not allowing Colorman to pick up any hint that doom was brewing behind him.

"Fire." stated Rockman.

"Ah-?" observed Colorman, rather dumbfoundedly.

In being hit with the zeta cannon at the point-blank range from behind, Colorman's abdomen rapidly bloated, like a thick liquid boiling, or like the process of parasitic pregnancy displayed with extreme acceleration. To say that for a fraction of a second Colorman became pregnant with pure energy would not be a misdescription, for he momentarily became full of energy that entered his abdomen via the instantly melted and compromised dorsum. Then, the birth of the energy followed. His inflated belly ruptured like an oversized bubble, and a thick, majestic ray—that was like a projection of a small sun—emerged. The light from the beam illuminated the whole server in its splendidly golden yellow hue, an awe-inspiring beauty. The ray found its endpoint at the ceiling well past the position of Blues, for Rockman had aimed the zeta-cannon slightly upward, making sure to avoid friendly fire. When the energy dissipated, the splendidly charred mark on the ceiling was the only evidence of the intense power that once saturated the space.

"Ah-?" questioned Colorman, when the blinding light was gone.

The clown navi's abdomen was more or less evaporated, and instead there was a sizeable hole, sizzling with residual heat. The torso of the navi was only supported by the two thin strips of his sides, which were spared; had he been a human, the torso would not have been supportable by such structures, but that supposition was a meaningless one...

"Longsword, activate."

The long blade replaced Rockman's right forearm. It came down vertically, like an axe to a log, and sank into the head of Colorman. The blade stopped when it reached the level of the nose, bisecting the upper half of the head. to left and right.

"Ah-? Ah-? Ah-? Ah-? Ah...?" Colorman continued to question in derangement. His computation unit was split; left and right no longer communicated. Now there were two Colormen, each less than half as smart as the whole Colorman. Left applied for the feedback from the right, which was in vain. Right applied for the feedback from the left, which was in vain. In the end, both came to independent (different) conclusions.

'I'm attacked' thought left. 'Something happened to the server' thought right.

"Sword."

The regular sword unit replaced Rockman's left forearm. Using it, he barbarously sawed off the neck of the clown, the most ignominious way of gifting death, separating the head from the body. The head clung onto the long blade, left and right hemispheres clamping onto it. It was like a piece of butter stuck on the butter knife.

"Deactivate."

The swords vanished, and the half-split head of Colorman, now devoid of any thoughts, fell to the ground. At the same time, the body of the clown—or what was remaining—also collapsed. Then, Rockman, with his both hands, energetically explored the inside of the chest of that body, plunging them deeply, almost up to the elbows, in search of the core. Expertly, he found it, retrieved it, and raised it to his eye level. He studied the object with his lifeless yet piercing gaze and some manipulation with his hands that made the effort look like he was solving a kind of Rubik's cube. Once the brief study was done, Rockman pulled it as if he was pulling a well-kneaded dough of flour and water; within seconds, the core became two, Rockman holding one in each hand. One was a duplicate. Rockman dropped the original and then put the copy in his extra storage unit.

"It is done."

And before Blues could say or do anything—and Blues could not say anything as Rockman's expression was murderously vacant—he was gone.

"Ah...aaaaahhh...not good...not good...not good, why, not good at all...but..." Rockman grumbled with his hands on his head.

B56, undernet, in front of the tombstone of Tadashi Hikari, reached by the same path he took previously, but with a far more daring jump that covered the entire length of the building at once, bordering on a full dive. It was here that the authority over the body was handed back to the soul of Saito, along with the access to all memories that eluded him in the Den City Traffics Control sever, the place of Colorman's attack and demise.

With the returned memory and control, along with what he experienced in his episode of catastrophic forgetting, Saito...Rockman came to the understanding of many difficulties he had with his life since he started a new life as a netnavi. With some logical deductions, many mysteries were elucidated, for in the elimination of the most preposterous theories only the most plausible ones were left, and they were not contradictory to each other...a simple detective work that should have been enjoyable on its own, had it not pertained to his uniquely complex condition. The resultant knowledge pointed to many urgent problems that required equally urgent resolutions. However, one problem nagged at his soul, so deeply, so persistently, that now he was singularly occupied with coming up with the solution to this question...So what was this question? Ah, readers, in hearing it, you would be dismayed and remark that Rockman surely exaggerates his situation, and that his priorities are comically distorted...and that would be a fair, if not accurate, point.

This was the problem that tormented him: the entity that controlled his body carried him here with all speed (and the identity of that entity Saito already derived) also happened to have commented minimally to Netto after the deletion of Colorman. It was not that he did not understand the reasons for doing so—for during his loss of control, part of the thoughts of that entity flowed into him by the virtue of the shared flesh—, but it was that the difficult task of repairing the aftermath of that behavior had become his responsibility. This was what had passed: when Netto exclaimed, after the murder, after Rockman exited the Government network space,

"Nice ambush, Rockman!"

'He' simply responded,

"..."

When Netto said

"So, are you coming back? Your condition hasn't been right, and you were in some pain for a moment back there- wait, this is not the right way, Rockman-!"

'He' replied,

"It is."

When Netto followed with,

"Not it isn- wait, this path is...! You are going to undernet?! Now?! Rockman, hey, I think it would be better if you get a quick scan before heading to-"

'He' inconsiderately cut off the boy with,

"Negative."

Then when Netto, mildly shocked (he never had Rockman this uncooperative or cold to him before), took a moment of silence, and then squeezed out,

"Rockman...did I...do something wrong?"

'He' answered with an inappropriate brevity,

"...Cannot answer."

Here, Rockman had the unpleasant opportunity of receiving a fragment of this entity's thought process on this matter, or perhaps it was the entity's response to Rockman's vehement struggle to regain control over the speech cortex, for he could not bear to see Netto becoming downtrodden from a simple misunderstanding. At any rate, he understood that the entity genuinely failed to evaluate whether Netto had done anything wrong due to its lack of information—its lack of complete access to Rockman's memory and feelings—, and that it answered in the most honest way possible. It also communicated to Rockman, in a wordless will, that it deeply regretted its inability to yield the control of the speech cortex separately, that it could not understand why Saito was convinced that Netto would be upset, and that it wished the best of luck to Saito in solving the perceived problem in the future.

"...Wait, really? Did I do something wrong?"

"...Difficult."

Entity meant that the question was difficult to evaluate and therefore difficult to answer. It was clear to Rockman that the entity was suffering some complications in controlling the speech cortex; whether it was due to inexperience or from the need to conserve power was...maybe it was both, as those reasons were not mutually exclusive. This truth, however, had no way of reaching the boy, and the miscommunication continued to mount to disastrous levels.

"Rockman- Rockman, you need to tell me-"

Though the voice of Netto only hinted at a slight instability, Rockman knew that any more misinterpretation than this was going to elicit the production of tears from the boy. Netto was not a person to cry often; he was always confident and brave before the world and hardships. Even when the secret of Rockman's dissipating integrity was found out, the boy, instead of requiring consolation, initially sought a solution... When a strong will such as he was broken, it is by the balance of nature that he required double the comfort in calming down. In this case, it meant that Rockman should expect that he would be required to tell the boy how much he cared about him for the whole evening.

"Later."

With that as the last response, the entity led the Rockman's body over the guardrail of one of the paths of the undernet's B-1 level, perilously glided to B55, and only stopped at the tombstone of Tadashi Hikari, relinquishing its control, which brings us to the beginning of this section and Rockman's troubled soliloquy.

"Well, if Netto kun is...then...if he is...what if, in this case...I guess I could...yes, that's the best I got, I think."

Rockman, having formulated a general strategy on how he was going to approach Netto after his return, began moving towards the WWW server.

"Haaaa...Netto kun...what am I going to tell you...You believing the entire happening is one thing...having to tell you about the episode of catastrophic forgetting is another thing...and then telling you that it's going to happen again in the near future is yet another thing...will it be even possible to tell you? Haaaaaaaaa-"

With the help of the security clearance embedded in the Colorman's core, the WWW security lock was dissolved without any resistance. And, as expected, the server was empty. The expectation was an easy computation. The first piece of the deduction was this: Colorman assaulted a government department alone. By the virtue of ambush, the initial success made some devastations on the functionality of that facility, but realistically, it was not a lasting damage—it would not take more than a day before all were repaired. Moreover, the design of the assault, if reviewed, was like a suicide mission. It seemed that Colorman did not have a specific victory condition or an order of self-preservation; had they existed, Colorman should have moved with more efficiency and should have retreated when the resistance escalated. Even if that clown navi had successfully wiped out the second response team in time, how much longer would have he had until the arrival of the third and the fourth? How long until the inevitable demise? The answer to these questions was that it must have been a diversion; Colorman's victory condition must have been the amount of time spent and the government response diverted. Then, it also followed that, based on the behavior, Colorman must have lost—neither the time he spent in the server or the response committed to him were insufficient to claim victory and run away.

The second piece was the corollary of the first piece: in knowing that the subject of the secondary attack was government property, it was inferred with certainty that the target of the primary attack (the operational goal) had to be also governmental. Only in this way the spending of an important resource such as Colorman (the importance of navi was assumed from the offensive capability it demonstrated, as it would be foolish to think that such an asset would be easily replaceable) made sense; WWW probably hoped Colorman to occupy the majority of the attention of netpolice. Whether the attempt of WWW was successful or not, Rockman would have to wait until he read the news.

The third piece was Colorman's inadvertent confession when they first met: that WWW was short on hands. In attacking an entity as large and formidable as the government of a nation, WWW must have not spared any of its resources. Therefore, it was given that WWW base had to be empty.

At the center of the server was a room, at the center of which was a kind of an altar. It was clear from how the things were arranged in the room that WWW was studying this and the objects floating on the altar. From the fact that WWW was studying this object, it was clear that the altar and the objects were not of WWW property. In realizing that they were not of WWW property, it was clear that they belonged to the B56 of undernet, just like the tombstone of Tadashi Hikari.

'WWW...they built this server around them to study them! It has to be. I wonder...?'

The objects on the altar, glowing fainlty in the colors of black and white, almost like a static of a thought, were not objects but words. A sentence. It read:

Wily, I am sorry.

"...Wily?"

The way the words glowed was mesmerizingly...sad. There are many kinds of sadness capable of being experienced by a human, for it comes in many gradients and shapes. At the same time, it is also difficult to convey the sadness only, for there is always the question of 'sad because of what?' Sometimes out of loss, sometimes out of regret, sometimes out of pity, sometimes deliberately cultivated for pleasure, sometimes feigned for profit... For such reasons, no sadness is capable of existing in a vacuum; what Rockman felt...it was like the sadness of a slave, begging for forgiveness for his trespassings while he was being surrounded by his punishers, waiting for his punishment—a righteous punishment, not a framed one. Such a sadness is one of terror and fear, the worst kind out of them all...

Just like the tombstone, the words were equally, if not more, hypnotizing. It took some time before Rockman could break his attention from it and return to the task at hand. The task itself was quite easy, now that he had penetrated into the heart of the enemy territory. All he had to do was see the backlog of the server and trace the IP address of the data sent.

'What the... They were...this close to the ACDC town? Stationed in... decommissioned Scilab facility?'

He also was able to access what appeard to be the roster of the organization. At the top of the hierarchy was listed Dr. Wily, right below him Mr. Yahoot, and some of the reports were apparently directed to some benefactor named as Count Elecitel. What remained in this server was not thorough; it was clear that it was not the main server but an outpost, and that all data were stored somewhere physically, with all probability in their base. Rockman took what documents he could; they discussed some progress they have made in contacting the 'god of navis' and denied requests of utilizing something called 'dimension area' and the dreaming netnavis temporarily stored, but rapidly rotting beyond any utility, at the level of B54. Not much more could be known from the partial information. Rockman sent a request for a logout to Netto like he did the last time, and sat down.

WWW physically using a forgotten Scilab property, words found at the center of B56, tombstone with Tadashi Hikari's name on it, the professional nature of communications, name of Dr. Wily showing up both on the altar and the WWW documents, their approach to experimenting the 'dream virus'... The dots connected, and the picture was not a pleasant one.

'Grandpa Tadashi... did you know Dr. Wily? Were you responsible for any of this? Was Dr. Wily related to Scilab? Is what I am doing...meaningless?'

And also a thought that he dared not formulate: if the 'god of navis' was the sin of Tadashi Hikari, was he to bear it also, just like the sin of all other Hikaris that he bore on his back?

7. Saito. bat.

Pareto principle, named after Vilfredo Pareto, in honor of his discovery of one of the secrets of nature in 1906, also known as 80-20 rule, states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of causes. It works like this: 80% of wealth is held by 20% of society. 80% of papers are produced by 20% of intellectuals. 80% of sales come from 20% of clients. 80% of the work is completed in 20% of the allocated time. 80% of injuries are caused by 20% of hazards. The list goes on, even applying to areas where we, for the sake of morality and justice, wish to not see this pattern. Why does this pattern exist? That, no one is yet to explain. But the pattern we observed, and are left to contemplate what possibly could be the maddening truth causing the distribution...

The Pareto principle was also true between Yuichiro and Forte.exe. Forte, while only commanding roughly 20% of resources and parameters in the grand 'experiment' taking place in the Garden of Yuichiro, was responsible for roughly 80% of productivity. He was the one executing the plans, managing spaces, collecting data, and processing them into meaningful results. After some time, Forte became disquieted: the workload placed on him was surreal, and it was clear that he was an irreplaceable asset to the entire endeavor. Then, why should he be so meticulously excluded from the knowledge of the purpose of this grotesque and fearsome work?

"I think it's about time you tell me who Saito Hikari is. And what this entire work is about."

"I told you, it's none of your business. We had an agreement."

"The agreement did not specify the workload. I can just call it quits and guess who's the one that gets screwed over?"

"You won't."

"I can."

"Forte."

"I will."

"Forte, if it's the pacing that's causing some problems, then I am willing to renegotiate-"

"Liar. I know better than you that any slower processing and you won't be getting your precious results. You are in a hurry. To you, this will be unacceptable. Face it. You need me. You have no choice but to answer my question. Here, I'll start it again, just for you. What's all this about?"

Yuichiro bit his lip.

"Saito Hikari...he is..."

"Go on."

"My son."

"I'm not an idiot. I figured that much from the Hikari family name."

"Deceased."

"...Okay? And what's the connection between him and this whole affair-"

"He lives on as a netnavi." Then Yuichiro quickly added, before Forte could calculate the ramifications of his claim: "That's it for now. Let's go back to work. I'll tell you more later."

The next day, Forte brought up the topic the moment they rendezvoused. The navi considered both possibilities of Yuichiro's previous confession and found all of them to be problematic. The first possibility of Yuichiro falsely believing his son was living in the form of a netnavi meant that their current work was a research into injecting something called soul into that body. As far as he could tell, based on his experience of how the research went, it was a religious fanaticism; what is a soul? Why should it render a man like Yuichiro blind and senseless? The second possibility of Yuichiro's confession being true gave rise to many implications about the structure of this world that was beyond his calculations. The frightening part was that the world reinterpreted through the second possibility was eerily consistent with the observations he made in his life.

"Yuichiro, I've been thinking-"

"Yes?"

"Humans cannot be resurrected, especially into another dimension. You know it's impossible. I know it's impossible. What you made is just a copy. This entire 'soul' business, I hate to break it to you, but it's all-"

"Forte. I know it's impossible."

"So...you are trying to...complete the resurrection through something called soul?"

"No. I made the body, and Saito...he came back on his own."

"...What?"

"A human soul in a netnavi body. I do not expect you to understand, but that's where things stand. Now, enough chitchat. Let's get to work."

The next day and then the day after, Forte tried to goad Yuichiro into explaining what it meant that Saito came back on his own, what was human soul, and how the doctor knew with confidence that it was truly his son. None of his efforts were successful. The next part of the conversation Forte was able to receive roughly a week later.

"So, Yuichiro.'

"Yes, Forte."

"Why does your Saito need all...this?" Forte pointed at the hellscape that was the Garden of Yuichiro, the server of mental decay and doom for all navis imprisoned.

"Saito dreams."

"But humans dream."

"His body is that of a netnavi. It's causing problems."

"...Problems?"

"Yes."

Forte erupted into a cavalier laughter.

"Ha-ha-ha! Yuichiro, you need to practice lying. It's not a simple problem. Had it been, then you would've not conducted everything in haste like this. I see what's going on now: Saito is dying, just like all the dreaming navis here, isn't he? And you are trying to find a cure. In the process, you found out about this 'god of navis,' naturally discovered the correlation between that god and the decay of all dreaming navis, and are now actively investigating the issue. Yuichiro! And asking this god, which could be the culprit of all troubles, about your Saito Hikari was your best idea? Begging to your enemy? You must be really desperate! I mean, really, really desperate! Ha!"

"...I won't deny. I am aware of my own decisions."

"You are not aware. You clearly don't understand what it means to beg to your enemies. It means you surrender. It means you leave yourself to their mercy. You, drenched in peace, washed in wine, drunk in abundance, do not understand at all! Strong devours the weak, and you just defacto declared yourself weak! There can be retreats. There can be negotiations. But oh, Yuichiro, in surrender there is never mercy, especially from the likes of this god! Mercy only comes from people like you, soft and clueless!"

"Forte, do you truly believe that?"

"That the strong devours the weak? You know it's true."

"So that's how you justified what happened to Dr. Cossack? That he was-"

In mentioning Dr. Cossack, his creator, Forte dramatically shifted his attitude, from an arrogant and vile lecturer of cruelties of the world to a panicking helpless child. In this navi, Dr. Cossack was blameless and perfect, despite him knowing that the man who created him was a being of a broken heart full of flaws and brilliancies alike. Whenever he spoke of Cossack, Forte did so in a mawkish fashion; it was as if the self-created illusion of Dr. Cossack being painted as a perfect saint was what sustained his sanity. Thus, when Yuichiro guilefully steered the conversation in a direction that made it seem as if Forte was placing blame on Cossack, the navi became irrecoverably suppressed.

"NO! He...he was..."

Forte was looking for a way out. He had to defend both his acerbic worldview and honor of Cossack; it was an impossible task. Yuichiro, of course, did not allow an escape.

"Then what's it to be?"

"I...I..."

"Forte, Dr. Cossack had to do that so you could go. He sacrificed. That is not a weakness, right?"

"..."

"Sometimes we surrender, we beg, we voluntarily let others devour us, because in that submission is our last hope of saving that which is greater than our lives."

"...You won't save Saito. No one saved anything through begging."

"Cossack did."

Forte shut up, and Yuichiro knew that what he just said would occupy the navi for at least several days.

"One day, you will understand. Now, back to work! Forte, daily report please."

So the day proceeded after Forte's defeat, and they did not strike a personal conversation such as this one afterwards. Yuichiro assumed that Forte was satisfied with the answers he received; Forte had much more to ask, especially concerning Saito, but simply refrained from vocalizing it, as he found the doctor too unpleasantly didactic. For about two weeks they continued in pragmatic cooperation only.

The answer to Yuichiro's prompt, 'Saito Hikari,' sent to 'god of navis' took a long time to fully process. It came in only a few syllables per contact, and refitting the chaotic output of dreaming navis was a rigorous work. An end exists to all works; eventually, the reply was complete:

Saito Hikari,
Breathtaking
Perfect

Life is in the blood
Wisdom is in the heart
Spirit is in the breath
Faith is in the mind

Make him whole
For perfect [unintelligible. Conduit navi exceedingly excited.]

And then attached at the end of the message was a short program code. It was a very crude and nonsensical one, and the initial impression Forte.exe felt was that of mocking disdain. Having worked with Dr. Cossack in the past, Forte had a basic knowledge about the powerful language with which he was made, and even in his eyes, the lines provided by the 'god of navis' was a pathetic one. Naturally, he interpreted it as a sophisticated way of expressing contempt by that ethereal being, and brought the entire message to Dr. Yuichiro, thinking gleefully that they would strike up a conversation abasing this god. If he could tease Yuichiro with his thorny words in the process, then all the better.

"Oh, you look happier today? Any progress?"

"The answer to your question, 'Saito Hikari,' is complete. It's quite amusing."

"Excellent! Some progress!" exclaimed Yuichiro, while appearing unnerved contrary to his words.

However, after Forte tossed the report to the screen with a mischievous smirk on his face, what he awaited did not come. As Yuichiro reached the end of the report, instead of becoming surprised and offended, or amused, the doctor became surprised and afraid.

"How could he know? How, how? How...but this..."

The short code—it was impossible for Yuichiro to not recognize it. It was a part of his most personal and important project, Saito. bat. That program, developed as his last hope of fixing Rockman.exe, had been having some difficulty. For reasons he could not determine, the program failed to run, yet it was impossible to make major concessions to the code he had written due to the theoretical problem of Rockman's body refusing disassembly without losing its tie to the soul of Saito Hikari. To restore the faulty DNA code of Saito's heart—that caused HBD—to Rockman's body was, in effect, a restructuring; would Saito's soul be able to withstand the shock was a question that had to be answered but could not be tested.

The theory Yuichiro currently was pursuing was that of 'incremental conversion integration.' Despite the vaguely serious nomenclature that could mean anything, the core concept was similar to that of the theory of integral in mathematics, first explored by Eudoxus and Archimedes and later set in stone by Leibniz and Newton. Well, to a man educated in sciences, it was impossible to become more radically creative than borrowing the proven ideas of past heroes. The theory was that if the conversion of Rockman's old body into a new one occurred in infinitesimally small increments, with new parts constantly integrating themselves back into the whole body, then there would not be the dissociation of Saito's soul from the body while achieving something akin to disassembly-reassembly process. After the work, Yuichiro hoped that in the updated body that was more precisely aligned with the soul, with the restored heart defect, Rockman would no longer be subjected to strange dreams and delirium.

What was the use of this grand idea if it could not be executed? Indeed, Saito. bat. had been dysfunctional. Each part of the function ran smoothly when separated into independent parts, but together, they clashed and failed to coexist. But the almost comically badly written code, given by the 'god of navis,' had the attachment points at the beginning and at the end, like a bacterial plasmid; Yuichiro, having poured countless hours into the construction of the program, knew by heart what he had written and then fixed in each line. Therefore, he knew, when he saw the short code, where exactly they belonged in his program.

"This is...this is..."

"What is it? Damn it, Yuichiro, this isn't funny. What's going on?" Forte solicited impatiently. This was not what he was looking for.

Yuichiro did not answer. He did not hear anything, for in his concentration his brain filtered out all external noises. His heart violently fluctuated between apex and nadir, heaven and hell. Could this be the answer he had been seeking? If so, then there was no way he could've finished it on his own, for the code was, frankly speaking, nonsensical at best, moronic at worst. In the small possibility that this was indeed the answer, Yuichiro was immediately drowned in the hope, for this was that which he had been chasing but not reaching. Then, his rationality quickly reminded him of a sinister possibility: even if the code worked and Saito. bat. activated, should he trust it? The 'god of navis' so far only maddened everything it touched; should he let it 'touch' Saito with its spell? In this consideration, Yuichiro's heart was burned in merciless anguish.

"I...I have to go...I have to...test this. Yes, test."

He could first check how the new Saito. bat. behaved. He would then decide. Yes, that was convenient and rational. So Yuichiro, without hiding his shaken look, left the laboratory, and drifted to his office, to his desk, to his computer, where his secret and sacred work was waiting. As he was leaving, behind him Forte shouted in great annoyance, designed to obtain Yuichiro's attention, which was in vain. What did he shout? Yuichiro did not hear; Yuichiro did not care.

Saito. bat., with the added line by 'god,' worked.

Feeling overwhelmed, Yuichiro cried.

Notes:

2-16

Chapter 24: While the Earth Spun Seven Times

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Upon return, Rockman learned that the news channels were most perturbed and agitated, and consequently, the public opinion also, which always seemed to be formed by people who believed that they were better informed than the broadcasted journalism, habitually denouncing it as controlled by nefarious yet hidden agenda of the state (or corporations), yet it was precisely these people who, without realizing, parroted the official statements as if they were their own assessments, eagerly regurgitating what they heard most proudly... However, even such people must have been hard-pressed on this day, for every news outlet was like a shaken wasp hive or a school of piranhas on a feasting frenzy. Every minute, everyone had something to say, something to repeat, something to speculate; there was no end to the inundation of analysis, both amateur and professional, regarding what had happened, what it meant, and what would happen in the future as the inevitable consequence. So much so, that even Rockman had a hard time parsing through the media and grasping what had happened in his absence.

In the chaos weaved by reports and speculations, Rockman was able to see that the shock and awe gripped the nation. Interestingly enough, however, it was not from the attack on the Den City Traffics server (Department of Transportation, Traffic Signal and Operations Division) that Rockman witnessed first-hand, or from the resultant disruptions to the traffic lights that caused some disorder in the afternoon, though it was the beginning of all narratives. Sure, there was a newly discovered sense of national vulnerability due to the deeply penetrating attack on the government network WWW was able to conduct, but it was wholly obscured by what WWW did after that. The sensation was from the hacking of the largest national TV broadcast and the releasing of some information that was the most incriminating to the recent superstar of politics. Yes, indeed, WWW had hijacked and proliferated some shocking information, repainting the image of Senator Akira, who rose like a morning star through his denouncement and hard-line approach against WWW ever since the Waterworks incident, as one of the most deplorable individuals, just like what happened to Ecce hom*o, that fresco of Spain (Borja, Zaragoza, Sanctuary of Mercy church)—once an awe-inspiring masterpiece portrait of Jesus—, reduced to a mockery, even called 'Ecce Mono' (translates into 'Behold the Monkey').

According to the reports, a netnavi of some immense strength that was capable of manipulating the electrical currents of the system spearheaded the attack, though no footage to back the claim was available. Once the hacking was complete, the information (of claims, of evidences, of footages) was released to the public in lieu of the economy report that was due that afternoon. The superimposed broadcast was then continued for thirty minutes, looping at least three times, before everything was under control again. It was said that the culprits had fled the related scene, both physical and virtual, long before the response team made it through the suddenly installed security locks in the network.

What did the exposé contain? Most horrendous secrets that were too fantastical and well-supported to be false. It was one of those cases where the story, despite being wilder than the fever dreams, had just enough plausibility, as well as lack of self-contradiction, that it approached all who considered it as remarkably true. In summary,

1. The money laundering accusation that had been tailing him was claimed to be true, with WWW as the key participant in the scheme.

2. Allegedly exchanged messages between the senator and WWW, associating the man with other deeds.

3. Evidence of the 'cordial' relationship between the senator and WWW, which was particularly hypocritical given the senator's singular and publicized antagonism against that crime organization.

4. Evidence that WWW had a helping hand in the senator's previous election cycle, showing how the organization had put pressure on the key figures of the opposing camp.

5. Suggestions that Senator Akira was the one who wanted the daughter of Senator T. to be abducted, which was a scandal of many years ago that ended up in the crackdown and disbanding of several suspected Yakuza groups in the aftermath.

A scandal of inconceivable scale for a rising political superstar! It was a situation that even the most naive of journalists deigned to dream of, for then it would be too good to be true. That impossibility just became reality; it seemed, despite the feeding frenzy the journalists were having on this new development, the politics departments of all news organizations were set for at least a month. There were so many discussions to be had: why was the government network so vulnerable? Was netpolice not doing its job? Or was it the case in which the netpolice was underfunded and understaffed, and that this is simply a natural result of the half-hearted funding compromise made in the last budget cycle? Is it true that the standard issue netnavi for netpolice is grossly outclassed? Will the idea of making a new team of netpolice equipped with highly expensive custom netnavis be pushed? Are the allegations true? Was Senator Akira lying to the public all the time, and that his hatred towards WWW was to either cover his tracks or due to a fallout between him and WWW? Did the senator violate election rules? What will the prosecutor's office say about all this? Is it lawful to begin an investigation when the plaintiff is a criminal organization? Why is the senator being quiet when everyone is expecting a prompt response from him?

Over the dinner, in which Dr. Yuichiro was absent as so often happened to be—and though by no means was the doctor not missed by his family, his absence was frequently accepted and then forgiven—Haruka maintained the channel on the television and let the passionate conversations by the 'experts' fill the air. At first, she seemed quite interested, even sharply commenting at them with intellect that was not expected from mothers of ACDC town.

[At the moment, it is too premature to say that any of the allegations are real, especially given the source of these materials-]

A guest speaker, a professor of some sort, was speaking with the driest tone known to mankind—the kind that puts even the most determined students to involuntary slumber—as if doing so would lend him more credibility to his most cowardly assessment of the situation. It was obvious that the man was somehow trying to defend the position of the implicated senator; did he truly believe what he was spewing forth?

"Of course, it is true. Of course! The rat was cornered and has bitten the cat!" Haruka exclaimed in exasperation, or it was more accurate to say that the exasperation of having to hear such an opinion pushed her to the uncontrolled exclamation. But what was the point? Her sound would not reach those inside the screen, and she was not the only one with such a feeling.

[Yes, indeed, one would be inclined to say so, but we must remember that some of these allegations have been presented before, and that they were dismissed by the high court when brought to attention by-] another speaker continued the discussion as soon as that dreadful professor finished his comment.

"And that whistleblower died three months later! Suicide! With a will that tries to vindicate the senator! How convenient, how convenient! What kind of a man kills himself and has nothing to say to his family in his will? Disgusting, absolutely disgusting... It seems that everyone who has a thing to say about that senator sooner or later died out of some great regret or in some most unfortunate accident! And then the prosecution drops the case trying to respect the honor of the man who has committed the 'seppuku' ... It's like we are still stuck in the era of daimyos and shoguns! Unbelievable, simply unbelievable... Well, good luck to that wretched man trying to escape this snare. I never thought a day would come when I would cheer for a criminal organization. Oh, how unpredictable the life is!"

And in this manner, Haruka continued to refute the guest speakers on the news channel throughout the dinner. Netto meanwhile dined quickly and quietly, a bit nervous at the fact that he had been, even though unwillingly, a part of the WWW incident that shook the day. He feared an outcome in which his near-criminal involvement was uncovered; he really did not know how Haruka might react. Thankfully, Haruka, absorbed in her righteous fury towards the state of the nation and the craven panel, seemingly never noticed the cautious haste that was present in every movement of Netto. Then, as the boy stood up with the customary "thanks for the meal," Haruka glanced at the boy and then at Rockman.

It was truly a brief moment, less than a second, yet to Rockman, it seemed like a minute. Their eyes met. Then, he understood, in the way how Haruka's countenance shifted, how her eyebrows were very slightly raised, and how a hint of shock emerged in the glint of her eyes and then disappeared, that she realized something that he hoped she would not. Of the exact nature of that realization, he had no idea, but to the truthfulness of the impression, there was no doubt. Indeed, Haruka then said to Netto, so naturally, as if she was speaking about something harmless and routine,

"Netto, there is a bento box on the kitchen counter. Can you take it to Mayl? I had almost forgotten about it."

"Ah, Okay," Netto complied without much suspicion.

"Wait, no need to take Rockman with you." added Haruka as she saw the boy trying to pick up the PET.

"But-"

"It will give you an excuse to come back quickly. Won't it?"

"...That...that is true. Alright, mama, I'm off."

As Netto went outside, bento to deliver in hand, persuaded by the undeniable logic, the air changed. The smoke of deception disappeared. Haruka turned quickly and then held the PET by grabbing onto both sides, with trembling hands, with unmistakable tenderness, like she was holding the very cheeks of her son.

"My son, Saito, my son! What is wrong with you?"

"No-nothing-"

"Nonsense! Saito, nonsense!"

Haruka almost shouted; her voice of accusatory admonition came out louder than what Rockman expected, and it shook him. Well, to men, the voice of their mothers is often stronger than the pain of whips, for in their unconditional kindness, which is the first kindness they experience in life, they feel a sense of divinity. It is for this reason, or perhaps for reasons even more intimate, that men seek their mothers while drawing last breaths due to some hopeless injury, or visit their mothers' graves when regret liquefies their hearts in old age... For similar reasons, Rockman was shaken, for Haruka was still his mother, and he was her son.

"Saito, it is okay to expect me to act like an idiot out of my kindness, but it is wrong to expect me to be an idiot! Do not try to tell me that everything is okay with that face... Oh, it's okay, Saito, it's okay, it is not your fault; I should've noticed earlier..."

"It's okay, mama. It is not your fault either. If anything-"

"Not my fault! Saito, it is none of our fault. At the same time, it could be that we are all at fault here. But none of that matters now... Oh, Saito, but why? Why did you hide yourself so well from us, me and Yuichiro? Why did you deny us your company? Why be so harsh? What were you afraid of? Had I not seen you today and then realized, I can see that you would've left us without a word, and you look like death! Saito!"

"Mama...I..."

"Please tell me, Saito, honestly: how...how much longer?"

"...I am sorry."

Haruka collapsed onto the chair. She did it in such a way that was like an inanimate object obeying the law of gravity. She understood that the apology meant the end could be the next second or the next week; indeterminable but close; they were already inside the time range specified by the margin of error.

"...Truly?"

"...Yes."

"...Saito...what were you afraid of...? Why did you hide this all from us, until...until..."

"...I did not want you to separate me from Netto."

Rockman looked down. He could no longer bear to see his mother in the eyes.

"Like we did to you by putting you in the hospital? You thought we would separate you from Netto's daily life to prolong your suffering? Saito..."

"..."

"But that does not make sense, Saito. It is an impossibility. Had Netto known, and he must know how terrible your condition is at the moment, he surely would've asked your father to prolong your existence, even at some great cost... Though he no longer considers you as a replacement for Saito, you are almost an equivalent, and he would not stand losing something of such value twice. And you, who is ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of Netto, would surely consent to what more suffering you need to endure if he wanted you to stay a little while longer... Then why would you be afraid? And why would Netto be afraid, too? Why is the separation of you two must be the only logical response from us? It's...but you won't...however, given your Netto-centric viewpoint, you would have assumed that we would share a little bit of your sentiment, because we are parents. This means..."

After a brief silence of contemplation, Haruka erupted with epiphany,

"You are planning something dangerous, and you are convinced that should we know about your plan, we would stop you, because your plan involves taking Netto to a dangerous place! You thought we would not tolerate the risk of losing both of you at the same time! That we would be perfect players of the game theory and choose to save Netto, because one is still better than zero!"

Having solved one part of the mystery, Haruka laughed. There was no sadness, no acceptance, no freedom, and no bitterness in that laughter. There was only a hint of madness. If the serpent of the Garden of Eden had laughed at Eve for taking the fruit of knowledge, then it would have been similar. It was that kind of laugh—the kind that endlessly reverberates in the mind of the hearers.

"Saito! Truly our son! Truly after your own father, who is a genius! You are right! You are absolutely right! Also, now that everything is too late, we cannot separate you!" Then, Haruka continued in the most soothing tone he had heard in his life; so soothing, so exceedingly soothing, that it only felt like a venomous centipede crawling inside his heart, "Oh, but my poor poor son...do not worry. Not at all. The little details, in the end, do not matter. Your father had tried his best, but it seems that he has lost to time and fate again, forced to helplessly watch you wither right before his eyes... And I had correctly guessed that things would come to this. Maybe you are given and then taken twice from us because the failure of your father is like nectar to God. Oh, but what does it matter? What if it is true, and what if it is false? What if God is cruel, and what if God is most loving? In the end, this torment comes from him, and it is his fault, his design... Your mother and father have already prepared a proper farewell for you. If you must have a last adventure with Netto, then do it. Have fun; let the world be the playground for you and him. No matter what happens, however, I promise you won't be lonely..."

"...Won't be lonely? How? Mama, what do you mean?"

Right after posing the question, Rockman came up with the answer himself, and he gasped. The only remedy to loneliness was company, and to make sure that he wouldn't be lonely, there had to be someone following him. And that someone had to be-

"Saito...God has tested us. In your return, we are tested. No one should be allowed to return; that has been one rule that was never broken in this world. However, with you, the rule has been broken by God himself and we were found to be worthy of a test! Know this: every test requires an answer...and an answer we have decided. You are our everything; so, in our everything being taken away for the second time, we decided that something of relatively equal value must be put on the scale...otherwise it would not be fair, don't you think?"

"...Everything? Everything of whom? God? But...what? No way! Mama! This is not something-"

Everything—the world!

"Shhh...you might be right. But at least a country, or a city, for a soul that was given and then taken away twice. A righteous trade, don't you think?"

"But...but...mama..."

"Yes, Saito, we will all fly away. Fly with you."

Fly? If hell existed, then it was precisely for people like her. She was not to fly upward, but fall downward.

"But...what about Netto? What about his future?! He still lives!"

Here, Saito tried to perceive what was stirring inside Haruka's soul by looking into her eyes. He only saw a pair of unfathomable abyss. Weren't the eyes supposed to be the lamp of the body? Where was her soul? Was...'that' her soul?

"Do you believe so? Even after he finds out that you were Saito after you are gone? Saito, my boy, my son, my saint... In your ever-forgiving broken heart, it seems that you can only imagine the world to be as gentle as you are. You underestimate the world, and the evil inherent in everyone... He will be angry, Saito, very angry...at you? For a while, I think, but then against the world, and everything that he perceives as the obstacle that barred you from revealing yourself to him. Maybe we will let the world breathe for a few more decades so we can let Netto reap it for himself...but the end will be the same. Exactly the same."

"...Mama! No!"

Saito was forced to face the reality that he had not the faintest idea about the nature of his own mother. To him, she was always so kind, so patient, so wise, so strong, like a castle on a high ground of steep slopes and picturesquely precipitous cliffs—a place of absolute invincibility and safety. No matter the insanity of the world around him, there was always a deep sense of normalcy in the house, sustained by Haruka, and in this normalcy Rockman was always able to expect a normal future for Netto, and in that expectation, he also sometimes got a glimpse of a future that he could've had... It turned out that the castle was made out of the finest sand, and the cement of integrity never existed in the first place.

"Yes, Saito, it shall be so. It shall be..."

Saito hurridely inquired; he had to know before Netto came back. There was not much time.

"If...if...just if...Netto kun decides to live on..."

"...If he decides to live on with your memory...if he decides to forgive everything...then for your sake and for his sake, we will relent. We won't be able to do anything, for Netto decided to live... But it is a meaningless conjecture, don't you think?"

"No... Mama, I believe in Netto kun. He won't...he won't..."

Haruka only smiled. It was apparent that she found the naivete of her son amusingly lovely.

"We love you, Saito."

Love?

Netto came back, and everything went back to normal as if that conversation had not happened at all... Had it not for the fearful impression that lingered in his soul, Rockman would've believed that everything was his terrible hallucination wrought from his exhaustion.

"Rockman, I thought we were crashing the WWW base on Sunday?"

In their room, after the delivery, Netto asked, and he was right. The military doctrine dictated that an advantage, once obtained, must be pressed vigorously and hastily to maximize the gain, lest the enemy reorganize and the attacker, despite the initial success, finds himself in an unfavorable position. It was only sensible, then, that they press on to the WWW base while the organization was still unaware of the compromise in their security.

"...No... Netto kun, next weekend."

"Why?"

'Because I need to figure out how to say a proper goodbye so that you won't destroy the world.' Rockman did not vocalize this. He said, instead, "Because the next week is-"

"Rockman...no...I...I don't believe this..." Netto was agape with terror. "You are going to see me through the finals? You absolute..."

"Ehem. Absolute what? Continue, Netto kun." Rockman put his hands on his waist, assuming that admonishing look that Netto came to be so familiar with, letting the boy know that negotiations were off-limits.

"...monster."

"Boo. Is that all you have to say? The last adventure is to be reserved for the days after the last exam. I am not going to give you any excuse to skip your responsibilities, and I am going to make sure you become a proper adult... You should've seen this coming, Netto kun."

"Noooooo..." Like a dejected puppy, Netto slumped onto the desk, looking up at Rockman with his big eyes. "But you are going to help me, right? Rockman?"

'Yes' expected Netto. Despite all the troubles his netnavi was having, the idea of their separation still did not impress him as realistic. In seeing Rockman today, it seemed that he would be there for him tomorrow; then, in seeing him tomorrow, the same impression would bewitch him that there would be yet another day between them. One day at a time, to the infinity. At least that was how his subconsciousness entrapped his consciousness.

"...No. I won't be able to, this time, Netto kun." Rockman's hands slipped behind him, apologetically, making them hidden from the view. "I'll wake you up in the mornings, but I won't be with you for...the days."

From his expression, it was clear that he was greatly troubled, even guilty.

"...Why?"

"Because, if I am to prevent the moment of amnesia from happening again...I, I need to minimize the information input, so that my current system stability can be retained. To do that, I concluded that the best course of action is to minimize my exposure to the outside...which is where the new information comes from...and...and...stay inside. You won't see me, but don't worry...I will be in the PET. I promise."

And spending time with Netto was a lot of information input. Every second, every minute, so preciously recorded, so painstakingly remembered; Netto's every expression, every emotion, so carefully reviewed, so meticulously observed.

"Rockman!"

"I'm... I'm sorry, Netto kun. See you in a week."

"Wait-"

Rockman did not wait. He relocated himself, in one swift step, as if any more inaction or conversation would result in the irreparable dissolution of his resolve, into the prepared place of perfect isolation, where nothing was to penetrate to him—no sound, no light, no update, no sensation, no communication... There was only himself and the digital clock that stared at him harshly like a jail guard who had enough of an inmate playing the victim card, or an old German neighbor whose only hobby was to espy and judge everything in the vicinity of his property. In this new habitation, the stillness brutally embraced him, while the solitude crowded and suffocated him. It was the solitary confinement of no stimulus, not even that of eating, for the netnavi body had no need for such bodily functions. So, in this way, he inadvertently, but also voluntarily, exacted a form of punishment on himself; solitary confinement is indeed a form of punishment imposed on prisoners exhibiting unrepentant behaviors. Then, what was the crime that led to his self-inflicted torture? Could it be true? That Rockman was not guilty, but simply had been forced into this situation through a series of bad luck? No; to every event, there is a cause; to pronounce Rockman's crime, it would be dishonesty. So much could have been different had he been honest to Netto, yet he conscientiously paved his way to hell with good intentions...

Rockman watched the clock, and the clock watched him back. In solitude, there was only oneself, and the merciless time—oh the heaviest of burdens! It was a state in which a subdivision of every second could be felt, a minute elongated like an hour, an hour like a day, and a day like an eternity. Could he have made a different decision? Did he have an option? Well, maybe it wasn't so bad. Maybe he could make friends with the clock. Maybe Mr. Clock was not as terrible as he appeared. Maybe Mr. Clock was a wise and compassionate being, and the mercilessness of time was simply his misunderstanding.

"...So, Mr. Clock, what am I going to tell Netto kun at the end? Got any ideas?"

What a load of nonsense.

Day 1

Rockman did not believe what Haruka said about Netto. 'Netto kun, my strong Netto kun. You will live on. You will learn to live on. In time, all will be diluted, all will be forgotten, and all will heal. There are many people in this world; it does not have to be about me or you...' was what he thought. In this sense of optimism, he contemplated on the happier subjects such as when he should let Netto know about his true identity, and how touched his brother would become at the realization. Oh, happy dreams...happy expectations that never come true...

Day 2

Netto tried to hold him back after being woken up in the morning. Thank heavens that he was not corporeal, lest the boy would have captured him and never let him go! Rockman simply accepted this as a propitious sign showing that in Netto was still much desire, activity, and energy, all of which were indispensable elements in overcoming grief.

Day 3

"Rockman..." called Netto, in a sleepy voice, in the morning, after waking up. It was a beautiful morning. Sunlight that constantly shifted between gold and canary-yellow illuminated the room. Rockman thought that such heavenly light complimented his Netto very well; in the overwhelming hue, the boy's brown hair donned the color of the light, making it similar in color to that of the field of wheat on the day of harvest. Rockman, enchanted at the sight, looked at the boy with an intensity that was similar to a longing gaze, just like how a stray cat tends to do at a person when it tastes the first kindness of its life, having been thoroughly harassed and constantly betrayed by its own kind and children alike, losing all faith in the concept of goodness...until it is saved incomprehensibly by a strange and gentle giant. Then, noticing that the boy was also looking at him, but not out of some enchantment, but in an emotion that Rockman could not pinpoint, he suddenly came back to reality. He hurriedly said,

"Good luck on the tests today!"

"Un..." returned Netto.

For the next 24 hours, Rockman thought about Netto shining in the light of the morning again and again. The beauty of the moment, burned into his memory, sustained him through the day and the night.

Day 4

"Rockman-"

Unlike the previous days, something in the voice of the boy made Rockman stop in his tracks. Well, that was an unfair assessment... It was Rockman's growing need for more Netto that made the voice all the more appealing. To an empty stomach, crumbs of an expired cracker are a celestial delicacy; to a full stomach, fillet mignon topped with bearnaise sauce and served with a side of salade lyonnaise is a burden.

"Yes, Netto kun?"

"..." Netto stared at him silently.

"...Netto kun?"

"...Nothing. I just wanted to see you. I'll do my best today, so..."

"I know you will."

"...So..."

"I'll be here."

"...Right."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"...Yeah."

"See you later."

"...See you."

Day 5

Netto looked dark...not physically, but almost visibly dark, like a shadow had been cast over him. It was as if some thoughts had gathered over him, like a storm cloud, even covering part of his face. Inside his eyes, his soul, the heart of the storm where everything was dreadfully still and quiet, Rockman was able to read what the boy was suppressing:

'Netto kun, you...you feel...alone...because, because...because you have accepted!'

Indeed, in the darkness was acceptance, just as Rockman found his acceptance in his personalized darkness also. In that darkness, Netto's mind was already in the future, though he was still living through the present. Netto was already missing Rockman, despite the presence of the blue navi in the PET.

"Good morning, Netto kun!" said Rockman, as cheerfully as possible (but definitely not cheerful enough to convince anyone).

"...Good morning, Rockman." returned Netto, dreadfully.

Ah, it was no use. Rockman could see very clearly: the boy was already alone.

Day 6

Netto had a terrible nightmare. They—he and Rockman—were, in the dream, at the playground near their house, one of the favorite places of Saito Hikari, and they were watching a sunset, also Saito Hikari's favorite hour of the day. Rockman was on a swing, and Netto was standing next to him. Rockman in the real world! That was certainly a very strange detail, but in the dream, he did not find it strange at all, for the normalization of such strange facts is what defines a dream, and from such strangeness the shameless desires of the dreamers are relentlessly revealed, sometimes even granting happiness...and the boy never questioned it. When the sun had dipped just below the horizon, so that the sky still remained flaming red while the sun itself became invisible, Rockman stood up, looked at Netto, and said,

"I need to go."

Rockman placed his hand on the boy's cheek, gave an incomprehensible stare (of pity? of regret? of freedom?), turned around, and walked away. Netto could not say anything. He could not respond. Not out of petrification but because dreams tend to be unfair to the dreamers. The dream, somehow, for some reason, did not allow him to do anything. Perhaps he was indeed petrified, and Rockman stared at him as Medusa did to all her victims. Perhaps he was just not strong enough, and it was all his fault. Perhaps he was just not motivated enough, because Rockman was not Saito, and Saito had already left him-

The boy woke up in sweats and to the drumming of the ferociously beating heart, and because the heart was beating so hard, he clutched onto his chest in slight discomfort. It was as if the heart was trying to shatter the sternum and come out, like a captured bird, like a betrayed beast, like a sinner asking for forgiveness... Then, abruptly it slowed down, as if it inevitably shattered after repeated failures of breaking out. When the heart quietened, he checked the PET, hoping for something that he dared not articulate. The screen was empty. The dream was real! Real! Netto grabbed the PET. The plastic casing of the device creaked under the pressure. The clock on the screen—Rockmanless screen—indicated that he had woken up half an hour early.

"I...I don't want to be left behind anymore...Rockman...please...please don't leave me...please..."

Shattered whispers. Shattered words. Shattered hopes. Shattered soul. Shattered night.

Day 7

A perfect morning of rosy light, and a clear sky without a single speck of cloud it was, as if the world itself was blessing them and all that was to happen in the day. Superstitiously minded would have considered this observation as a good omen, as it could be said that Eos, the goddess of the morning (the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, and also a sister of Helios), was blushing at the good fortune that she has delivered to all under her wings, even touching the waters with her fingers and transforming them into her colors. Hikari brothers, on the other hand, were not struck by the stunning touches of Eos. No, not at all. They simply looked at each other, for they both knew that the day of days had come. The last day of their silly adventure. The day where all their hopes led, and all their hopes were to end.

"Good morning, Netto kun."

"Un, Rockman."

Netto smiled faintly yet discernibly, like the veiled smile of Mona Lisa, relieved that the day had come at last, freighted that the day had come at last. Netto knew what this feeling was called: peace.

"DR. YUICHIRO!"

Sharp shout of officer Enzan Ijuiin filled the place, as he stormed his way into Yuichiro's place. Fiery wrath dwelled upon him, like a wild Rhino that had been greatly offended by the presence of something non-self. Everything he touched made equally loud noises: the door slammed open, a few chairs that got in his way were removed from his path through kicking, each and every one of them nearly toppling in the process (but none of them actually toppled, suggesting that Enzan was rather experienced in this kind of behavior), and finally the cheap coffee table that Yuichiro used so much made screeching noise as it slid on the floor, pushed away by the officer. Enzan charged straight at the doctor.

"...Officer? At this hour? My, my, what a surprise!"

The doctor put down his cup of coffee on the desk. He had obtained this freshly brewed dark-brown aromatic infusion of roasted Ethiopian delicacy less than thirty seconds ago, and was about to take his first sip; the fact that he had forgotten to introduce to his body the first portion of his morning caffeine fix attested to how bewildered he was.

"What brings you here? How can I help you?"

Yuichiro wheeled around in his chair to face Enzan while maintaining his majestic calmness in his actions. The way Yuichiro moved reeked of confidence, surreptitiously suggesting to the subconscious of all who faced him that he was in total control, was aware of everything, and had all necessary solutions. An act, no doubt, for he was neither a god nor a devil, and therefore the privilege of omniscience was not with him, but there was indeed a certain demonic smoothness in his demeanor that tended to disarm all feeble-minded creatures that confronted him, which was the majority of encounters he endured in the Scilab, allaying them into an enslaving compromise or a contract. Enzan, of course, disliked the doctor for precisely this quality. The officer still did not believe that he signed the deal with the doctor out of his own volition, but out of some bone-chillingly subtle manipulative techniques that relied on the domination of the ego.

"What brings- seriously?"

"At least, to expect you at this hour is not a reasonable one. Officer, surely you have your duties to tend to?"

Their meetings usually happened in the evenings.

"At this hour- you are surprised to see me this early- incredible, incredible!" said Enzan, in his feigned surprise, his voice dripping with bitter sarcasm.

"What's going on, then?"

"Playing dumb and coy, too!"

"Officer!"

"Doctor, you very well know what brings me here!"

Yuichiro tried to remind his brain that it was the time to get to work, and that it would have to do so without the aid of the caffeine. He was truly out of ideas, and to be invaded so rudely in the morning was not a happy occasion; however, he found that his current inability to deduce what precisely the problem was annoyed him more than the combative tone from the officer that he had to suffer through. Yuichiro spat out his best guess, even though he was rather confident that it was not the right answer.

"...Senator Akira? The case is mounting against him, and he is practically done for. Well, long overdue, I say! That scum had it coming...and I don't think I've seen a more entertaining spectacle in years! Now, contrary to some opinions, I do not think netpolice will be affected by this scandal in a way you fear, nor will your position within the organization be in jeopardy-"

"Senator Akira? Doctor, you think I would barge in like this because of that maggot?"

"If not, then for what are you here? What could require such an expedited confrontation?"

"Ha! Ha! So it is! So it is!"

"Ijuiin kun, I truly, truly am clueless on what could possibly be the cause of all this."

"So you insist!"

"Insist on what?"

"At being told! Very well. Since you insist, I'll happily oblige!"

Enzan drew out his PET from the holster as if it was a gun (one would imagine in the way Enzan handled it that he was ready to shoot the doctor with the device), like a sheriff of the wild lawless American West handing out a judgment, loaded the message he received this morning, and shoved it in the doctor's face, as closely as it was physically possible, until the screen of the device nearly touched the glasses of the doctor, all the while exhibiting rebellious jubilance in the process. Yuichiro did not know whether he was to become stung at this unjust treatment or be merely amused at the theatrics of the officer. Then, with profound patience, and also not wanting to make an altercation with the officer who was so much younger than him, which was beneath his dignity, decided to not take offense at the way he was being treated. He squinted and read the message, which the officer presented so triumphantly as if it was the ultimate evidence for the culpability of the doctor. It read,

[WWW base located. Address attached. Requesting support. Heading there first. Sent by Rockman.exe.]

As Yuichiro was thus occupied and tried to make sense of the words he read, which initially came to him as astonishing, and then its implications even more astonishing, Enzan continued,

"See, doctor? If you are truly my ally, you cannot treat me like this! Why are you keeping me outside your circuit, not communicating anything? I'm not one of your lackeys who goes if you tell him to go and comes if you tell him to come!"

Enzan retrieved his PET back to his holster.

"First, you break into the police archives without warning, and do you even know what kind of troubles I have to go through to cover that sh*t up? But that I overlooked, because I was partially at fault for trying to dig up information about Saito Hikari, and never did I think that it would be accepted by you as so unpleasant...and I still cannot understand the secrecy attached to that name and what his name has to do with all of this WWW shenanigans. Fine, that was my fault, fair and square. But then it turns out you have been working alone in tracking down WWW! Doctor, you had the police communications tapped, didn't you?"

Yuichiro looked mildly terrified, and deep in thought. Whether the accusations were terrifying or the thought precipitating inside his head was terrifying was unclear, but Enzan continued, confident that the doctor was listening to him somehow, and also convinced that now was the time to press with his attack. It seemed to him that a little bit more and then he would no longer be subordinate to Yuichiro.

"Otherwise, there is no way that Rockman could have arrived so quickly at the ACDC metro server, and the way he did that the moment we suspected it to be a WWW attack! The culprit turned out to be a WWW-inspired lowlife without any real connections, and I could maybe understand why you remained silent regarding that incident... I tried to understand, doctor, I really did. I even advocated you against myself, that all of this lack of communication was somehow practically necessary, and that should you stumble upon something critical you would be sensible enough to share it with me. At least that much I should deserve given how much trouble I was covering up for you... No, that's not what you did. No, not at all! Not at all! And what the f- was that stunt in the Traffics department server a week ago? What was the point? Why did you have to do that? Couldn't you just ask me for a copy of whatever was there? I even had to edit the server logs to get rid of Rockman.exe's footprints, and thank God there were no witnesses because I was out of ideas on what to say about that execution that almost burned out the server! Or was that planned too? Doctor, you said that you were going to help me, but all I see is you trying to f*ck me in the arse constantly! There is a limit to, to, to- everything, doctor, and-"

"SAITO! NO!" Yuichiro ejacul*ted.

"-and I cannot...what?"

In a great panic, Dr. Yuichiro began to speak, quickly, not to Enzan, but to his hands in front of him, as if they were his son who should no longer be existent in this world. It was a bizarre sight, to witness the pinnacle of rationality—the chief of Scilab—being instantly reduced to a craze that can only be interpreted as a severe neurological disorder, or, to Enzan's delight, a glimpse of the truth of the world that had been fearfully hidden—the truth which had been beyond his imagination all this while. Truth and madness, after all, are only a hair's breadth apart, just like pain and pleasure, or love and hatred.

"Saito, you are going to kill yourself! It's not too late...oh please tell me it's not too late. I promised you that I would come up with something, and I have the solution! I have that godforsaken solution! Oh, Saito, please...not like this, not like this..."

"Saito? But you said he was already-"

"Already alive! Yes, yes you are! You forgave me! You vindicated me!"

"Already...? Vindicated...?"

Enzan had never heard such an expression, nor was he unsure of to whom the doctor was speaking to—to himself? To his hands? To the person in front of him? To Saito (was that even possible)? The way the doctor said the phrase 'already alive' with conviction left an unsettling impression on the officer, for he knew that the doctor had to say such an incorrect, strange thing because it was the only correct way of conveying the truth.

"Oh, Saito...Saito...my...our Saito...Do not worry. Do not cry. In the end, you will not be alone. You will not be lonely. It has been decided. Papa and mama will be there. We will follow you. All will follow you. The world will be offered before your catafalque, burnt as an aromatic incense. Even your Netto..."

Having muttered a terrible promise in the maddening realization that Saito was on the verge of being lost the second time, and understanding everything perfectly after piecing together what he knew already and what he learned this moment, Yuichiro reached out, as a panther in ambush, ferociously grabbing Enzan by the shoulders.

"Officer Ijuiin, you have to help me, I beg you, please, please!"

Begging pleased Enzan, but not enough to blind him from the advantage he just gained. The secret of the devil, almost at hand!

"Doctor...what crime have you committed?"

"E-everything... No, I did not murder, nor did I steal, but...but it makes absolutely no difference. Unforgivable. That's what it is...unforgivable heresy of life, something no one should be allowed to do..."

"What is that exactly?"

"What difference does it make, if the sentence is the same? Indeed, the deed is already done, and even I know how I will end...must end...whatever befalls me, I will have deserved all of it...but not him! Officer, please, it's not yet too late; you can save him! Save him, please, please, that innocent soul..."

"What does Saito have to do with all of this? You must tell me."

"You really want to know? It's all my fault, that's what it is! And Saito never deserved anything that happened to him! Yet he forgave me- no, that is incorrect. He made me be forgiven, by, by, perfecting my creation! By becoming the mimicry of man himself! My sin was transferred to his head, and he became the lamb of sacrifice...voluntarily! Voluntarily! Do you understand what this means? What this tells about his soul? About, about, how pure it is?...And...and...I've been naive...no...that is unfair...I've been, been...arrogant..."

"Doctor, I am not understanding any of this. It will be best if we start from the beginning. Let's do that. Can you do that for me?"

"There's no time, officer...please..."

"I refuse to work blind anymore."

"I'll tell you everything! I promise! But not-"

"Now. Yes, now."

In the determination of Enzan, Yuichiro found himself impossibly cornered. Well, every parent is quite easily cornered when the child is held hostage... So he crumbled, and began to unbolt the door to his secrets.

"If, if I tell you, then, will you, will you save him? Will you really save him?"

"...I'll do what I can."

Notes:

2-17

Chapter 25: The Filthy Kiss

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Abandoned and forgotten Scilab outpost! Reached first by taking the metro, in this case the ACDC station, going northwestward in the direction of [redacted], until one arrives at the station of [redacted]. This station, in particular, was an unexpectedly treacherous one, having a very slightly wider gap between the train and the platform compared to the average—not wide enough to warrant a corrective construction, but just wide enough to force people to make uncomfortable strides—, through which many miscellaneous objects had been lost over time, some even critically valuable, like phones and PETs of unfortunate and absent-minded ones (one could argue that they deserved the misfortunes that befell on them on this station). This obstacle was a trivial one for energetic Netto, as he casually jumped over it in one swift motion; one should've seen how this boy habitually managed to navigate through the city space on his roller-blades—like a goat on a cliffside!

It was not so for a tired, tired lady, clad in a formal suit, who was lined up closely behind the boy intending to get off at the station (with all probability a commuter). She stepped forward while texting on her phone with unrestrained irritation and haste, then, in her lack of attention on her footings, found herself stepping precisely at the aforementioned gap. Air could not support her weight; her foot quickly plunged and then got stuck somewhere between the train and the station, while her body began to fall forward in the resultant imbalance. In an animalistic instinct of self-preservation, she used both hands to pull out the foot in haste while simultaneously falling onto the platform. A miracle? Her foot came out in time and unscathed. A misfortune? The phone that was in her hand a moment ago, released in her reflex, fell smoothly into the gap, onto the train track, as if the laws of the universe demanded a replacement of equal value be made, if one can accept the analysis that the foot of this highly replaceable worker was roughly of the same value as the brand new cellphone.

Aie! The lady then made the most helpless yet devasted cry upon the realization of what had happened, as if she had forgotten that her foot was to be there instead had not been for the series of serendipitous occurrences, or as if she had calculated that her phone was, actually, of more value than her own foot. Could it be true? That the phone was actually more important? At any rate, the train left the station, and the lady looked over at the train track with teary yet hopeful eyes, trying to get a glimpse of her object.

Netto saw it all, and it—the expression of the lady, and in extension, the state of the lady—resonated with him. Why it did so, he did not understand, but because he was somehow moved, he-

"Netto kun, no!"

"It won't take more than 10 seconds. I'll be fine."

Netto jumped down onto the track. The reason he was so moved into action was because he saw, in the face of that lady, a panicked anguish arising from the loss of a treasure, which he was also undergoing, and therefore knew so well; he could not endure the sight of another human being suffering from the same hopelessness, even as the case of this lady was so much more trivial compared to his case, for in his soul he knew that no one was capable of bearing it.

"Ne- next train scheduled to arrive in 3 minutes and 43 seconds-" Rockman announced with a terrorized voice.

"That's plenty, Rockman. It's okay. Oh, look, I have already found it."

The lost cellphone was there, between two sleepers (wooden ribs supporting the rail), under a fishplate connecting two rail sections, somehow spared of the worst fate. Netto retrieved the object and then climbed out. The object was returned to the owner, and the boy left the scene in haste, even as the lady thanked him to no end. In the entirety of the boy's actions, there was a distinct lack of nonchalance to life; the considerations of dangers did not exist in his mind. To Rockman's chastisem*nt, he simply remarked, "It was all fine in the end, so it's all good."

"Netto kun, you know very well that is not the problem!"

"You are right, it's not."

Despite the curt answers the boy was putting forth, and the general dismissal of Rockman's sensible opinions, there was a very subtle smile on him. Was he enjoying the chastisem*nts?

"It was dangerous!"

"Maybe."

"I, I was worried!"

"...Rockman." Netto stopped momentarily and their eyes met. "I'll miss you, you know."

"-!" Rockman made a face. It is difficult to describe the exact expression he made; it was one that indicated he was partially pleased and partially shocked, as if he was flustered because a great shameful secret about himself had been publicized. Pleased, because it was exactly what he wanted to hear; ashamed, because the pleasure was derived from the sadness of Netto, which he had been working to prevent. Rockman wanted to say 'I'll miss you too, Netto kun!' but he swallowed the words. To say so seemed to him, somehow, as becoming shameless, succumbing to the pleasure of occupying the entirety of Netto's heart despite knowing what was right to do, which was to decrease his importance.

"I'll miss your naggings too." said Netto.

Strike two! Rockman hid his face from Netto, unable to bear the fluctuations of his heart that Netto's words so violently caused. When he calmed down and came back, the boy was already on the move again.

Netto continued towards the destination on his rollers. When the morning transitioned into the day proper, with the sun running high in one of the bluest skies Netto had seen this year, they arrived at the entrance of the destination, or to be more precise, the outer parameter of it. The facility, situated at a slope, curtained from the public by layers of trees and rocks, was enveloped with a steel wire-mesh fence and a gate that was similarly constructed. On the fences were powerful verdure of ivies. The unchecked growth of the plant matter was beginning to cause bends on some sections through sheer weight; a decade more and the fence was sure to be lying on the ground, finally dismissed from its endless and meaningless duty, rest at last.

There were no guards at the entrance, and in general, the place appeared to be in the process of being reclaimed by nature, making it almost impossible to believe that the facility was still in use. In contrast to the general appearance, however, when looked carefully, there were alarming signs of human activities: ground that had fresh markings of gate movements, the screen of the gate control panel that had no dirt on it, parts of the facility that had some sort of brush-marks imprinted on the dust, as if someone's pants had been unfortunate enough to make contact with the decades worth of grime accumulation.

"Power seems to be still supplied to the plant. Jack me in, Netto kun. There should be a slot near the control panel."

"Right...here it is. I wonder if the port will be compatible" Netto drew out the cable. "Well, what do you know? It does! Jack in, Rockman.exe...are you not going?"

"Sorry. Old model. Not enough netspace to accommodate me. Don't worry, I can still access the system from the PET. Give me a sec..." A hologram interface popped up in front of Rockman and he vigorously applied himself to it. Different windows constantly appeared and then disappeared with equally hectic movements of Rockman's hands, and his eyes blitzed to all directions, processing the data at an exceptional speed, even for a netnavi.

"Maybe you should lose some weight, Rockman. Then you should be able to fit in..."

"...Netto kun."

There was a mild disappointment in Rockman's look as he briefly paused. It was as if he was asking 'Really? Stupid joke? Now?'

"...Yep. That's what I needed."

"Not funny. Done, access granted. Barely any firewall, and encryption is still in the government pattern. Low security, but could be an intentional omission for a camouflage...WWW is either extremely smart or extremely dumb, which I don't like because both are unpredictable...We can go in now. Netto kun...are you okay?"

Netto unplugged the PET and pushed the gate. It swung open.

"...Yeah, I'm fine." Then he mumbled, as he traversed the space between the gate and the facility front door, now covered with overgrown weeds that were beginning to dislodge the tiles that once demarcated the main path, "Maybe I'm just trying to see all of your expressions today..." But this, Rockman did not hear.

The facility gate was opened in a similar fashion. The inside was equally derelict, save the dusty floor that had many recently made footprints. Rockman noticed them. The sudden realization that he had truly dragged Netto into a serious danger made his blood grow cold (if he had any). 'What have I done?' and 'I want Netto to be with me' repelled inside his heart, like the same poles of two magnets. His desire split into two.

"Footprints...what have I done? Should we...should I? No, but..." Rockman mumbled in hurried confusion, and then said, "Netto kun, let's look for a security department. I want to access cameras and logs if they are still active."

Netto also noticed the footprints. The sudden realization that he had entered a serious danger made him mildly excited. 'I don't want to be left behind,' and 'Even if I die, that means I'll be together with Rockman and Saito niisan forever...right? That means...no goodbyes, right?' collided inside the heart, like the opposite poles of two magnets. The collision did not result in a sort of breakage, but by the inelastic nature of the different emotional vectors they formed an amalgam, which culminated in intentional recklessness.

"Sure, let's do that."

Having agreed on the immediate course of action, Netto enabled the rollers on his shoes and began to skate down the corridors, making random turns in search of the security room. To be exact, he did not pay much attention to the general direction markers on the walls or his surroundings, for he was sure that Rockman would notify him in the event of visual acquisition. Instead, his attention was on making inappropriately loud noises in his navigation. The rollerblades running across the smoothly tiled floor made a sound that was like a strong current of water, with clackings at regular intervals caused by the wheels going over the minuscule gaps between tiles. Indeed, like water the boy flowed through the facility.

"Wait, Netto kun! Stop! Stop! This is too loud!" Rockman remarked, terror apparent.

"I don't see or hear anyone. We will be fine as long as we find the place quickly."

"Someone's going to hear this from a mile away and come!"

Which was what exactly Netto wanted, for then there was a great chance that he wouldn't have to say farewell to Rockman.

"Well, all the more reason to find the place quickly, then, isn't it?"

"Wha- okay, fine, fine, fine! Just hold the PET so I can see better- ahh! Aren't we going too fast? Shi- turn right! Right, here! Yes, and then- right! Then left, I think! Yes! Left here! There, see the sign? 'Securities' that has to be it!"

It was the first time Netto heard Rockman (almost) swearing. Truly, a full range of expressions of his navi he was witnessing today! 'Well, it's your fault for being so upright all the time...makes me want to see your other side on our last day...heh' thought Netto. He then engaged the breaks, which resulted in a loud, sharp squeaking sound (which caused Rockman to fearfully shudder), and then entered the security room; the door was not locked.

"Quick! Jack me in!"

"Where?"

"Anywhere!"

Netto precisely did that, to the largest and most important-looking terminal. It had many plug-in slots, and one of them was compatible with his PET. Before the boy could give out the order, Rockman jumped into the facility network, like a flashing katana unsheathed through a masterful Batto-jutsu, except that in this case the katana was moving on its own.

The network was empty, and Rockman had no trouble overtaking the operation of the entire facility from this vantage point. Whatever authorization requirements he encountered were of no problem, as he found them still in the governmental pattern, untempered by WWW. Had he had more time, he surely would've observed this as a peculiar detail that insinuated many things about the current state of this crime organization—that they were either severely understaffed as to be unable to update and maintain the surveillance on-site, or completely uninterested in the general protection—and then came up with ways to exploit this perceived weakness. In the urgency of the moment, believing that Netto was in imminent danger of being attacked, Rockman failed to detect this strangeness. He simply sprinted through the system in search of internal camera access and door controls.

Rockman achieved exactly what he wanted, and very quickly, when he finally found a point of access. However, the grossly outdated system of the facility meant that Rockman had to make a direct coupling with each and every compartment at once, instead of doing so through a centralized command console. Was it the right decision? It seemed to him, at the time, that it was the only decision available...In the process, he felt as if he was being violently stretched, like a silicone rubber doll abused in the hands of malicious children, through an axis he could not define, yet he did not abort the effort firmly believing that it was to be endured for the sake of Netto. His consciousness was forcefully molded into the shape of the facility itself, even though his cyber body was precisely localized in the security compartment. He was present everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. He was the facility, and his body was like nothing more than an appendix to the whole. The fact that it was where his identity originated did not matter; suddenly the body felt irrelevant to his existence as a sentient being. If he disconnected the body now, where would he remain? Sucked back into the body or stuck in the facility? Would the body still retain its consciousness? What would it mean to the soul and the existence? Rockman sensed that his humanity seeping away in this new experience.

"Netto kun-" said Rockman through the PET that was still connected. His voice had acquired a strange reverberation and a chorus-like quality.

"Rockman! You okay?"

"I- am- fine- Netto kun-." It sounded as if there were multiple Rockmen speaking, each slightly out of sync. "It- is- done-. I- am- in- control-"

There was a hint of both suffering and joy in the Rockman's voice. The transformation was indeed too much to handle for the consciousness of Saito, who was just a boy, even as he had a year of existence as a netnavi.

"...What's up with your voice?"

"I- am- one- and- many-!"

"...Rockman?"

"I- hear- light-! I- feel- doors-!"

After the initial nonphysical pain of transformation was over (which is difficult to explain in human terms, for human consciousness is firmly secured in the brain and never leaves it or changes the vessel), a sense of immense disorientation poured into Rockman. There were only so many sensory outputs Rockman could offer, yet the facility demanded more inputs to be mapped. So it was done: skin for doors, eyes for general management, ears for light commands, toes for electrical circuit controls...to elaborate fully, the list goes on ad infinitum, but it was true that he reserved his fingers for the camera control, which he was yet to obtain. The stretched mind, as a curious byproduct, made Rockman operate on different thought processes. There was a marked excitement in the voices of Rockman.

"...Rockman, I don't like this."

"No- anomalies- detected-. I- will- run- diagnostics- first-"

"...Alright, but promise to tell me if you don't feel right?"

"I- have- never- fe- fe- fe- fe- felt- better-, Netto- kun-!" Rockman stammered as his efforts, draining his processing power to the absolute limit, took resources from the speech cortex. Of course, it is an intellectually meaningful question to ask whether Rockman was reporting better health because his tactile senses (skin) were rechanneled to door controls, and doors were not undergoing any malfunctions, or because his slow transformation into the operating system of the facility was objectively relieving him of the unbearable fatigue of the body, for he was transcending from it. The answer, sadly, remains unknown to this day. "Diagnostics- within- acceptable- range-. Need- access- to- camera- network-. Expanding- connectiooo- o- oo- oooo- o-ns-"

Rockman's voice broke up and then trailed off. Silence filled the room.

"Rockman!"

No answer.

"Rockman!"

Netto's voice aimlessly echoed in the room. There was no response.

"sh*t! Ro-"

"I- am- the- facility-!" Rockman suddenly came back, and now his voice was even more multiplied, like a legion. It was apparent that he had tried connecting to all possible compartments and functions, including the cameras. The voices then diverged: some laughed, some giggled, some groaned, and some streamed monotonous 'Aaaaahhhh,' but the majority continued to speak. "I- am- everywhere-! Fingers- see- everything-! Ha- haha- ha- ha-! Two- individuals- detected-. Positions-: experimental- chamber- 02-. No- other- dangers- present-. We- remain- undetected-."

"Well...that's a good news, right?"

"Better- news- : I- can-"

"Rockman, come on, this is enough." Netto cut off impatiently. Impatient? For what? It was simply a mistranslated form of a certain insecurity. "Log out. Let's go. This place is doing things to you. We will figure something out together on what to do about them..."

"Negative-. Netto- kun-. You- must- be- safe-."

"I am safe! And what if I am not? No adventure can be perfectly safe!"

"Must- be- safe-"

Rockman repeated, like a broken toy. Toy he was, for one could argue that all netnavis were overengineered toys; broken he was, for the qualities that uniquely defined Rockman—mind and body—were becoming more insignificant every second.

"Rockman!"

"Must- be- safe-"

"We promised to do this together! Don't tell me you forgot!"

"Must- mu- mu- mus- must- be- safe-"

"Come on, Rockman, listen to yourself. You are scaring me... Can you come out now?"

"Ne- ne- ne- nett- negative-. Oo- oo- o- o- obtaining- solution-. Ku- uu- u- u- u- understanding- parameters-"

Laughter. Terrifying. First, by the main voice, and then the diverging voices joined one by one until it was in unison. When the full unity was achieved, the laughter stopped, as abruptly as it began. But before the laughter and the ensuing unison, was Rockman trying to say 'Netto kun?.' Was Rockman calling for help? If the one speaking was not Rockman, then what was he?

"Proposing- solution-. Emergency- power- source- found-. It- runs- on- fossil- fuel-. Couple- with- ventilation- control- and- facility- lockdown- protocol-. Prediction- : carbon- monoxide- poisoning- of- individuals-."

Was Netto going to lose Rockman? Like this? Like a drop of paint fallen into a river, dispersed and then never to be seen again?

"Stop. Voice command, logout."

Speaking firmly did not help.

"Now-, Ne- nett- nett- nett- [static sound] negative-, I- will- handle- things- from- here-. Please-, return-"

"No! Rockman, we, we, promised to do this together! I'm not leaving without you!"

"Your- presence- unnecessary-." Rockman paused. He meant to say 'it's too dangerous!' but the streaming awareness from the interior of the facility forbade him from saying that, for that assessment turned out to be potentially untrue, and his diluted personality made it impossible to intentionally lie. With his stretching continually, the loss of control over his own thoughts and behaviors expanded. "Apologies- detected-. Playing- apology- audio- : I- am- sorry- [statics] I- never- intended- to- take- you- with- me- all- the- way-. Live- on- Ne- Nett- [statics]. End- of- apology-. Adventure- concluded-. WWW- must- be- destroyed-. Another- definitive- solution- found-. Analyzing- main- reactor- overload- sequence-. Calculating- the- power- output-. Proposing- the- self- destruction- of- the- facility-. Please- evacuate- the- area-."

"Ro...Rockman...you are scaring...me..."

"Please- evacuate- the- area-"

"What about you?!"

"All- will- be- fine-"

Rockman had been transforming into the system itself since the coupling, and it was now clear to Netto that the original personality of the navi was being drowned out. He also conjectured that Rockman's effort to say 'Netto kun' was being suppressed into statics. However, it was not all bad news; the dilution of Rockman's personality seemed to have rendered the navi exceptionally honest, and the boy finally understood what had been hidden in the heart of the navi all this while—the intention to leave him behind. Liar! His navi was a liar, just like Saito! The day of passing, Saito lied that he was fine, and Netto believed that lie. As a consequence, he was robbed of farewell in the brother's kindness. Now, the navi was also robbing him of farewell in his version of the kindness.

"Heh...I guess I always suspected that you were never intending to take me all the way...I mean, you would never expose me to danger. Maybe I am partially at fault; I've been reckless today, I know, and you probably picked up some cues... But, Rockman, I thought that you would give me, you know, at least a proper farewell. You always told me that I should become a decent adult, and you always have been an example of decency yourself...like Saito niisan. So, no. I'm not allowing this. I won't let you leave me, not like this. I'm not letting you go without facing me, hearing what I have to tell you..."

"Only- two- more- individuals- detected- inside-, in- the- experimental- chamber- 02-. Danger- level- evaluated- moderate. Risk- low-. Risk- unacceptable-. Value- of- Ne- Ne- Neeee- [static] imperative-. Ooo- operator- must- leave-"

"Last one week...it's been...not fun. I'm sure you know that. I'm also sure that you thought it was a good way of making me get accustomed to your absence... Ha! Rockman, when the room is silent, and the clock heartlessly ticks in the lazy afternoon sunlight...I had nothing to do but to think, so I thought a lot, about many things. I- I-, well, better to say them all once I get you back, so you can hear it as a Rockman, not a system... Don't worry, Rockman. I'm still here. Just, just hang in there, alright? I'll see what I can do..."

Netto began manipulating the PET to find a way to enforce the logout sequence to Rockman. He unlocked the admin privileges by punching in the password set by his father, which he knew only because he read the fingers of his father running on the keyboard during their previous maintenance sessions. His father had always been unwilling to tell him the password, saying that it would not be necessary, or that he did not want Netto to temper with the operating system that had been tailored to Rockman, and guarded the information with a series of excuses as if it was something as inappropriate as a pedophilic p*rnography, or even something worse. What could have been so terrifying? So shameful? The password turned out to be 'SaitoHouse.' Oh, the theories and imaginations that filled Netto's head when he learned it! The speculations were made worse by his awareness of the uncanny similarities between Rockman and Saito; however, in the end, there was such a disappointing yet realistic explanation, that Netto found himself laughing (laughing at himself) with immense disillusionment upon realizing it: his father had constructed Rockman in the image of Saito for himself, not for his remaining son, and therefore found his own motive deeply humiliating. Yet the act of the construction must have been irresistibly enticing, for the deed was done against all humiliations. Netto understood his father perfectly. He was his father's son, and knew he would've done the same had he had a choice.

"Evacuation- cannot- be- enforced-. Operator- still- on- site-. Compromise-. Course- of- action- : wait- for- Enzan- Ijuiin- and- reinforcements-"

"What do you mean by Enzan? We were supposed to do this together, only us two, not us plus that jerk, remember?"

Netto commented while still occupying himself with the diagnosis of the situation that his navi fell into. He also found that Rockman was still tethered to the PET. He immediately began the procedure of force recall. All warnings on the screen were dismissed or ignored.

"Override- denied-. Goal- acknowledged-. Promise- to- bust- WWW- found-. Executing- promise-. All- solutions- accepted-. Initiating- sabotage-. Power- supply- to- main- area- cut-. Switch- to- emergency- power- detected-. Ventillation- rerouted-. Raising- carbon- monoxide- level- in- the- target- chamber-. 40- minutes- 11- seconds- of- power- left-. Establishing- feedback- loop- to- main- reactor-"

"Override denied? Don't worry, Rockman. I think I am making some progress..."

"Target- chamber- locked-. Counterhack- detected-. Defense- failure-. Chamber- unlocked-. Two- unknown- individuals- exiting- chamber-. Operator- position- potentially- compromised-. Delay- needed-. Facility- lockdown- initiated-."

The illumination of the security headquarters, which was the room they were in, turned to deep red. The alarm blared through every speaker, and the automated message, spoken in the refreshing voice of Rockman, "Emergency lockdown in progress. All personnel are to remain on site until further notice. Security protocol 7." repeated, echoing throughout the building.

"Authorization- challenged-." announced Rockman through the PET in less than a minute. "Lockdown- level- three- lifted-. Lockdown- level- two- lifted-. Lockdown- level- one- lifted-. Lockdown- reauthorization- failed-. Override- order- cleared- by- chief- of- staff-. Clearance- level- higher- than- security-. Initiating-"

The automated repeat message ended with the lift of lockdown, but the alarm did not stop. On the other hand, the illumination did change, interestingly, into alternating flashings of orange and red. Another protocol had begun, but Rockman, who was supposed to make another announcement according to the system requirement, was-

"There! Rockman, logout!" Netto shouted triumphantly.

Rockman was forcibly decoupled from the security controls and then recalled to the device. In the execution of this command, Rockman's previous question of 'what will happen if I get decoupled in this state' was inadvertently answered: he found himself sucked back into the body, his mind contracting in a way that was equally painful to what he experienced during the stretch; however, in the end, there was familiar stability and the sense of identity, which made him comprehend that he was truly back. Inside the PET, the navi panted heavily with a shaken and exhausted look: hand on head, hunching forward, leaning on the screen. Powerlessness gripped him. His body was the facility only a moment ago; now he was a humanoid again, only having four limbs under his direct control. He had to relearn the command of his body, starting from standing.

"Haaa- haaa- haaa- Ne- Netto, kun! I- I was, was, stretched!" said Rockman, with his eyes focused somewhere far away, for even the immediate past was unreachably far away by the rules of Cronos. "And, and, I was, everywhere, and, everything! At the same time!"

"It's okay. I got you now."

"And I did not logout myself, because-, I, I was becoming-"

"Rockman! It's okay! So, what now?"

At the question, Rockman stared at the boy with deep confusion. Recentmost memories were in disarray due to what he just went through. What was now? What were they doing? What was the matter? These information were frustratingly elusive.

"What? Now? Now what? What was I doing? Where was I? I was fighting...there was, there was a counterhack and..." Rockman's mind spun in an overclock of the highest acheivable rate. The fragmented memories were slowly gathered, and he remembered details one by one. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle; the progression made no sense until the threshold was reached and the larger image became recognizable. Likewise, after some effort, the moment of clarity came—the clarity of a terrifying, impending danger. "!!!! Netto kun, to the door control, put me through, quickly! They are coming, and, and you will be in danger! I cannot protect you physically. I need to jam it shut, and we will have some time. Hurry, Netto kun, hurry!"

"...You really think I am going to let you jack in again after what just happened?"

"Netto kun!"

"We can face the danger together you know-"

"NO!" Rockman exclaimed quite forcefully, then, feeling regretful at having shouted so loudly at Netto, arrested himself for a moment. He continued in a suppressed, quick speech, which was the urgency brewing in his heart spilling over. "Netto kun, you said you had something to tell me! Well, if we are going to talk, then better secure the door and secure some time with it!"

"We can still talk, while I am looking for an object to swing at the people coming at us..."

"Netto kun!"

"I'm also equally serious, you know."

"...Please, Netto kun. I can't see you get hurt..."

A coincidence! A steel pipe of just right girth and length, situated at the just right place to be spotted! Netto found it, picked it up, and investigated it between his hands, feeling the center of gravity, and finding where he should grab it in order to maximize the momentum while not sacrificing the handling. Netto soon found it; the discovery was an instinctive one—the desire to hold and swing a good stick (especially the perfectly straight one) is a behavioral hallmark shared by all males of all ethnicities. The boy swung it around several times to test the balance. Satisfied, he then rested it on his shoulder.

"Rockman, my turn."

In a position to ambush, staring at the door, earphones plugged into the boy's ear to protect him from the never ending alarm, the two waited. The alarm that Rockman triggered went on, hitting Netto's ears like a hammer; the boy tried to find some joy in the situation by telling himself 'it's still better than Rockman shouting into my ears in the morning...' As the boy contemplated on many subjects in this fashion, each arguably an important topic to bring up, but somehow unable to decide with which one he should start the conversation, it was Rockman who broke the tension.

"So...Netto kun."

"Yeah?"

"What...was it that you wanted to tell me? That I should hear as 'Rockman' and not 'System'?"

"...Oh, you heard that, huh."

Netto scratched his head. Readers, is it not amazing how the embarrassment of boys is seemingly located on top of their heads, somewhere in their hair, and how scratching that exact location disperses it? No? Oh, it's not true? Oops...

"I...um, just wanted to say, that...that...I really liked your company. Thank you for looking after me..."

"Netto kun!" greatly moved, Rockman gestured as if he was going to hold Netto's hands across the screen in happiness. "I...I really liked having you besides me! Thank you for having me...for everything...!"

"I've been nothing but trouble for you."

"That- that's not true! You've been the best bro-...operater I could ever get! I do not regret a moment!"

"Brother? You can say that if you want...you were like my second brother all this time. You don't have to feel sorry for Saito niisan...he will understand. He was a nice guy. In fact, I am sure that he will be happy to learn that I have found another companion. He might even find it hilarious that this other companion happens to be crumbling, just like him. Oh God, now I am not so sure if I want him to figure it out or not." Netto emitted a rather hollow, low-tone laughter. "...Damn it, Rockman. I thought I would be saying this at papa's lab or something, not here and now."

"Really?"

Netto paused and thought for a second. Rockman was right; it was not true. He dreamed, yes; he did not believe, no.

"...Fine, maybe I thought this would be a possibility, too. Going into a criminal base, one boy and a netnavi—can't end well, I suppose. But-"

"It's okay Netto kun. I also kind of knew...that you were hoping for something terrible to happen to both of us, and that you were imagining us saying farewell to each other with hand in hand, like an end to a movie. You probably thought there would be a credit roll after that, with fitting music beckoning you to the afterlife..."

"I- I did not!"

"Netto kun..." Rockman almost spat out 'Yes you did' and 'Last time I checked there were no credit rolls,' reminded himself at the last moment that he probably should not talk about those subjects, then did not know what to say, so pivoted to another subject: "Have you not found it strange that I even agreed to come here with you in the first place?"

"Well, maybe you agreed because you wanted to stay with me and I wanted to stay with you, no calculations, just us chasing after a dream... Sorry, Rockman, that's just my stupid idea. I know you actually calculated-"

"It is true."

It was as if a hammer had struck Netto in the head. Rockman, a netnavi, a construct, designed to be a perfect companion, forever rational, forever sacrificial, forever dependable, forever... To Netto it was as if he was forever chasing his netnavi, and Rockman seemed to not care about him in a way that he cared. This, he became certain during the last week, for Rockman was too considerate—inhumanely considerate—to even design a way to prepare for their eventual separation. Was it not more rational for them to spend more time together as the end approached? Was it not the basis of human sympathy? But, if Rockman was not behaving per the standard of human, but rather according to clinical and unrealistic guidelines implanted inside him since the beginning, then so what? What of it? Rockman was a netnavi; where was the reason for the navi to follow human behavior, thereby traumatizing his owner further? Indeed, Netto had no right to complain regarding this matter, and there was an even more curious question of why he cared so much. Was it because he was still chasing the ghost of Saito Hikari, and hoped to not repeat the same mistake of letting go of his treasure without his knowledge? Of this, he was not sure...and then now, somehow, Rockman admitted to his irrationality, to his humanity, that he had permitted Netto to follow him here because of the simple goal of prolonged companionship. Of course, the boy could not believe; so he asked.

"...What is?"

"...That I made many concessions because I wanted to stay with you longer..."

"!"

"...But I also calculated, and came to the conclusion that I could make it reasonably safe. Netto kun, don't worry, I've sent a message to Ijuiin kun this morning, and netpolice is bound to find us soon..."

"So you knew what I was planning way earlier...and you even arranged a way out for me?"

"Netto kun, just how long do you think I've known you?"

His entire life.

"Uh, one year?"

"Yes, one- no! You dummy! I've known you my entire life!"

Rockman covered his mouth.

"Yes, exactly, which is one year."

"No, I mean- yes, that is correct, but- it's... it's..."

"But what?"

Netto looked at him rather curiously. A studious and innocent curiosity it was, like that of an astrophysicist intensely concentrated on the faintest flickerings of stars, captivated by the wavelength of photons from eons away,

"It...it means..." Rockman fidgeted. "Netto kun..."

"Yeah?"

"Can I be...selfish?"

"...That would make me very happy."

The permission brought upon Rockman faintest smile. Perhaps this was what Netto was looking for, the faintest flickerings of stars for the astrophysicist.

"It means I have known you for more than one year. It means I need to break the promise I made to Dr. Yuichiro...papa. It means you will be happy and then be angry. It means... Nothing in life goes as planned, I guess... Netto kun, the truth is-"

What? Was the truth that he was Saito Hikari, just as Netto had mistaken the first time they met? It had been, for a while, his dream. His childish dream. His shameful dream. No one could fault him for having that dream, this he knew; everyone could fault him for not dropping that dream, this he also knew. Having been disappointed too many times in his life, Netto effortlessly formulated an alternative expectation before Rockman could spill the final words—the grand truth that the navi had been hiding. Netto reasoned that, based on the difficulty the blue navi was having on unwrapping all this, and based on the declaration that Rockman had known him for more than a year, Rockman must have been in development before the passing of his brother. There was even a distinct possibility that Saito himself had an input in that development, designing his own successor, hence the reason why Rockman was making a face of profound guilt.

'Damn it, you are overthinking this, Rockman. I'm sure it's nothing, and no matter what-'

However, the thought, which was his psychological defense mechanism prophylactically employed to ground his heart that was beginning to float (and therefore the fall would have hurt him greatly if it was left unchecked), could not continue as he saw the incomprehensible depth in Rockman's green eyes, which always looked bright and fathomable. How could such depth exist in those virtual eyes, in those imitations of organs? How?

"Ah, so here are the rats!"

A strange baritone voice. Netto and Rockman, entangled in the web of mutual emotions, busy reading each other's expressions, deafened by the perpetual ringing of alarms, had not noticed the entering of a new person into the room. In great horror, they looked at this new person: a tall man of brown skin who could pass as a monk rather than a criminal.

"More like mice, them, a boy and a navi."

An old man wearing a dark fedora and an oilskin coat, which was hanging from his thin body like the branches of babylonica salix, the weeping willow tree, said as he came out from behind the tallness of the dark-skinned man. His voice was thin, hoarse, and tired, and the hat was tilted slightly forward, such that the eyes were barely made visible under the brim. The eyes glinted like polished obsidians. The overall impression was that of resigned powerlessness; it was as if the man was continually weeping without tears, a weeping soul stuck in a stoic body. On his hand was a cane with a bulbous end (that was shaped like a skull). He leaned onto it and studied the boy.

"My lord! We do not know what it could be. Please, wait outside—it could be too dangerous for you to be here!" The tall one protested.

"...Dangerous..." The old man repeated absent-mindedly, absorbed in his effort of studying the boy. His eyes then drifted to somewhere not Netto, something behind Netto. Rockman noticed it. It was a curious observation; there was nothing of interest behind them, except for some highly specialized electronics, dusty and inactive. However, the old man's attention singularly stayed there, somewhere behind Netto, whatever it was that caught his fancy.

"My lord!"

"...Dangerous... What a fascinating concept, Yahoot. Dangerous...them? But, I feel like...feel like I know that face...of that young man...no, I know I've seen it somewhere. I've..." As the old man continued, his tone changed progressively, from that of infinite contempt (not at the unwelcome guests, but at the idea of danger) to that of indescribable wonder. In the end, the wonder could not be contained.

"...Tadashi? Is that you? Tadashi?"

The old man raised his right hand and pointed at the boy, or at that general direction. His arm and index finger greatly trembled from a powerful emotion that was the combination of certain powerlessness that had been shrouding the old man from the beginning, complete disbelief, a little bit of denial, and a strong desire to accept his impression as the truth.

"Please, my lord! It is impossible! He must be-"

"Stop, Yahoot, Stop! Silence!" Roared the old man. The way he did it contained the authority of a male lion, the head of a pride, annoyance and threat delivered in a single action. For a moment all others—Yahoot, Rockman, and Netto—felt as if even the air itself became still in obedience.

"You do not say what is impossible or what is possible...both you and I have no right to such judgment." The voice of the old man, delivered in a low-pitched growl, somehow cut through the air so cleanly, that it reached the ears of all listeners through the alarm. "We've seen...yes, we've seen... Before such evidence what shall we say? What can we say? The signs, we were given; the proofs, we have seen: the collapse of dimensional boundaries, the towers, the glimpse of- the glimpse of eternal-!"

Just as the hint of passion began to emerge in the voice, the old man stopped, forcibly, swallowing the explosion of frenzy gushing forth from his heart. With much air he swallowed it. When the flame within was extinguished, he exhaled a great long sigh; if one looked carefully enough, he might have caught a glimpse of the smoke of that soul-flame in that sigh. The old man retracted his right hand, clenched it into a tight fist, such that the knuckles turned white, and pressed it close to his heart. Was it the case that the flame had incinerated his heart, and now it was causing immense pain?

"Tadashi, I...I saw it, your last...fragment. You said 'I am sorry, Wily.' It was the last thing you forgot, the last thing you held on to, the last thing that was weighed on the scale. And you have proven, through that scale of eternity, beyond all doubt, like you always did, that your guilt was honest, and it was heavy enough to produce another floor for you, another step of the ladder... What was the point? You knew you were never going to reach the sky. Or did you really believe that you could reach the stars? The stars beyond the clouds and the abyss? The divine- divine- f*ck! TADASHI! THERE IS NOTHING DIVINE IN THEM! WHAT WERE YOU SO SCARED OF? WHAT VISION COULD HAVE POSSIBLY PLOUGHED YOUR BRAIN THROUGH AND THROUGH UNTIL YOU THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA? WAS IT, WAS IT THAT STUPID DREAM OF YOURS THAT YOU USED TO BABBLE AT ME AGAIN AND AGAIN? DON'T TELL ME. DON'T SAY ANYTHING. I KNOW IT IS, AND DAMNED BE YOU AND YOUR E- E- ETE-."

Impassioned and red-faced, the old man entered a fit of cough from breathlessness. It went on for some time until Yahoot, unable to bear the distress of his master, ran to him, shouting "Lord Wily!," and percussed his back with cupped hands. When the fit ended, the old man pushed away Yahoot callously—in the most ungrateful way—and returned with a hoarse voice.

"...And if you were so sorry...so honestly sorry, then why could you not say it sooner? Why?! Had you said it sooner, none of this would have happened...well, impossible, wasn't it? God damn impossible...you never said 'sorry' ever. Never! You were simply biologically incapable of saying that word..."

Wily leaned heavily into his cane, such that the cane supported more of him than his own two legs. He struggled to stay upright.

"After...after I saw what you have left behind, or maybe I should say what was left of you...for a while I did not know what to do. I grasped the truth; I saw through everything. But I was surrounded by idiots—hopeless idiots. You know I don't do well with such people. Some were plain thoughtless. Their heads—so empty that we can probably host a World Cup in them. It is when interacting with likes of them that I lose all hopes for humanity... Some were naively clueless. They thought everything could be...managed, guided, used for benefit. They believed this 'god' you have found and now I have found is some kind of key to the future... Look, this servant of mine, Yahoot, is one of them. So disappointing...utter disappointment..."

Wily gestured for Yahoot to shut up before that dark-skinned man could respond in any way to this unrestrained smearing of his character and intelligence. Interestingly, Yahoot did not show any sign of discontent. Rather, he appeared pleased by Wily's assessment, showing his complete agreement through his subtle body language. This much was certain: the man was a disgusting yet unique specimen, born to be a perfect slave—a man and a livestock simultaneously.

"I'll confess this much, Tadashi: after all of my skepticism has been disproven, I truly did not know what to do. What was I supposed to do with this god? Why is it real? What did it mean? I was terrified, almost like that time when we-, ehem, HM! I probably should not speak about that... So I might have slipped into...passivity for a while. Difficult to believe, eh? But it happened. I sat back and watched hopes of some bizarre ambition consuming the stupidity of Count Elecitel and Yahoot. I let them do everything they wanted, though it was clear that they themselves did not know what exactly they wanted. It was truly a sh*tshow, Tadashi, seeing them run the organization without any moderation. Now, look at me-: my organization gone, my reputation irrecoverably infernal, my project canned, my fund vaporized...because this fool and that count could not endure getting f*cked in the arse by a politician! Revenge? Sure...but not like this! Not at this time! Was I foolish for permitting this? What do you think, Tadashi? Eh? But I was too busy thinking about what you've left behind...let's be honest, it was terrible of you to not leave all the clues behind...it probably means that you actually expected everything to go well, and only at the last moment found yourself waist deep in that cesspool you made. Ha! Fitting end, I say! That's what you get for being an...all-knowing pioneer. Dr. Tadashi Hikari, the all-knowing! Eh- he- he- he-. You know what was the worst part of it all? I was almost ready to forgive you. Almost! Me! You! Can you believe it? HAHAHAHAHA! Ahhhh...

"I know, Tadashi...you now appear to us in this hour to warn us...to stop, to turn back. You must arrogantly think that since you have failed so miserably, no one must be able to succeed. You probably want your humiliation buried in history, and this god to remain a secret to all eternity. You've lost everything...no, that's not correct. You've offered everything...oh, Tadashi, why did you not know? Why did you not know?! It could never go well! Or did you know, and that was the reason for pushing me off the stage? Why? Why, Tadashi, why? Has that dream of yours consumed you and you had to run towards it like a moth to a fire? In the end, you tried... Indeed, you tried...BUT!"

Wily struck the ground with his cane. The act created a thunderously resonating sound—metal against ceramic—like a hammer of judgment delivering a verdict.

"You always considered me a second-rate scientist. Everyone considered me inferior to you. I realized long ago, no matter what I do, I will never be able to prove myself to be above you. You've grown an apple; if I grow a pear, an orange, a f*cking mango, they will all be incomparable, and I would not be able to expose you for who you are—a second-rate scientist! One inferior to me! So I've decided...don't try to stop me Tadashi. Rather, I reckon that you should be happy...because I, the great Dr. Wily, have decided to fulfill what you've dreamed all along! What you have failed, I shall succeed! Then, only then, no one will be able to question my superiority over you! Yes! You heard that right! I SHALL SOAR ABOVE THIS GOD AND REACH THE ETERNITY THAT RUINED YOU!"

Dr. Wily lifted his cane toward the ceiling like a shaman imploring for rain and thunder at the end of a frenzied and perverted ritual, shaking his body in a way that resembled electrification. No wonder, for this new idea gave him a renewed path of vengeance against Tadashi, thereby renewing his soul.

"T.H.E. W.O.R.L.D. S.H.A.L.L. S.E.E.!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA- HAAK!"

The unrestrained, furious laughter ended in another coughing fit; however, this time, Wily stubbornly rejected any help from Yahoot. He seemed deeply agitated by any physical contact with his aide, or with anyone for that matter, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was offended even by the very idea of it. Compassion and help were like venoms to him. When injected into his life, they boiled his blood and burned his heart. 'Such are for weaklings,' he instructed himself time and time again in the past, but it is needless to say that those were all lies—lies that were spoken without knowing that they were lies; lies spoken candidly. His avulsion towards humanity was simply a result of a denial, a reaction towards an event, that had been festering inside him for more than three decades, and his ungrateful behavior was pus of that wound leaking out of his heart. Ah, what was that, my dear readers? What was that event? In due course, it will be revealed, but that time is not now. Patience, I implore...

"The world...the world shall see..." panted Dr. Wily.

"Yes, lord Wily! The world! Indeed! The world will see your genius! Yes!"

Slavish Yahoot! What a specimen of Untermensch!

"I...I will expose you for who you are...Tadashi..."

"Expose him, yes! Yes! Expose him you will!

"And...and...fulfill your dirty dream..."

"Fulfill it! Fulfill it!"

"And you will, you will, not, be, able to, stop me-"

"My lord! You are inevitable!"

"And your dream, will, consume, everything...everything you have made...your proud legacy..."

"Oh, what irony! What justice! My lord!"

"Just...just you wait...and see..." Wily was almost out of breath, but he refused to stop. His eyes gleamed with the fire of determination.

"Yes, my lord! Tadashi won't be able to do anything! There will be reckoning!"

Yahoot was practically jumping up and down at this point in great, filthy excitement.

"Hah...ha....hah..." Something that was between heavy breathing and laughter came out of Wily. "hah... Yahoot, tell me...how many minutes are there left, until the emergency power ends? Until the final Dimension Area stops?"

"Ten minutes, my lord! D-Area... roughly two minutes!"

"Hmph...! Then go, we shall. I've had enough. Oh, Tadashi...don't worry. I won't touch them; this is between you and me. I'll leave them here, with you, so you can have them all by yourself...he- he- he- he-... Had I had more time, I would've asked why you care so much about them, and who they are, since you are not even a real Tadashi, but just a fragment of his dream. Or are you the real one and the fossil we found is the decoy of sacrifice offered to that god? Ah...no matter. What's important is that these two have done something cute, and it's evident that they don't know what they've done. Since I'm in a good mood, I'll tell you...don't make it your habit. I won't be this nice next time, if there will be one. Heh! See, the main reactor is getting overloaded. Even I did not know this was a possibility. Now, it means all of my traces here will go puff with the explosion! Less work for me! Well, who knows if they will be lucky and get demolished under the ceiling or something? That would certainly be the painless way to go! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Ah... Yahoot?"

"Yes, my lord!"

"Magicman is at the terminal stage, yes?"

"It is so, my lord!"

"Plug it into the door. Keep this place locked and shut. It shall be its last mission."

"As you wish!"

"Good! Good! Very good! Oh, and...goodbye, Tadashi."

Wily turned around and headed to the exit. Somehow, he seemed taller, exuberating confidence and life. The coat no longer gave the impression of a weeping soul, but moved in the air like a cape adorning the shoulders of a conqueror. He walked with a wide gait, the cane in hand, no longer depending on it. Yahoot followed with worship and reverence in his movements.

Two went out, and the door closed, and then there was the sound of lock.

Immediately, two things passed. Firstly, Netto looked back, behind him, to see that which Wily spoke to as Tadashi, his grandfather. During the encounter, Netto noticed too how that strange old man, whom he now knows as Dr. Wily, did not look at him exactly, but somewhere around him, maybe behind, while speaking with a definite conviction in his voice that was far from delirium. Of course, there was nothing. Behind him was an emptiness without even a trace of that which Wily possibly spoke to. The footprints left on the dusty floor were exactly as Netto made them earlier. Secondly, Netto rushed to the exit and jacked in Rockman to the nearby control panel. Inside the local network, they found a netnavi that was nothing more than a caricature of a wizard. This netnavi, Magicman, was forcing the lockdown protocol on the door, occupying himself to the control node, but there was a marked dissipation in its appearance: the constant murmuring, bloodshot eyes, intermittent barkings, irregular attempts at laughter, quaking 'hands' (the netnavi had orbs instaed of hands), and so on. It was the kind of somaticized madness that should it be present in a human being, a maximum dose of haloperidol would not be of any help. Magicman paid no attention to the intruder.

"I'm sorry Netto kun, for...for everything. I did not mean to put you in this danger." Rockman said, in a dry voice, but with utmost honesty, such that the regret was almost palpable. He equipped two sword chips, one on each hand.

"No, Rockman." Netto shook his head. "Thank you for everything. I'm sorry that I did not say this sooner."

Rockman put on the battle mask and nodded. Though his lower face became covered by it, Netto could know that under it was a smile of a sort. Was he certain? Yes. How did he know? Inexplicable, but he was absolutely certain of this fact.

Rockman charged forward, approaching vector set as the rear of Magicman. Magicman turned around. He did not mount any response. Did not in purpose? Could not do so, consumed in the madness? The two swords plunged into his chest like a pair of piledrivers, firmly impaling him to the control node that was now behind him.

"That's what you get for trying to touch my Netto kun." whispered Rockman to his victim.

...But what happened next...oh, what happened next!

Magicman trembled. Sure, he was quaking before, but now he did so like a rat undergoing an electrocution—violent, uncontrolled, irregular, almost self-destructive—until the beard-like module that covered the lower half of his face fell away on its own. Underneath it was an open mouth. He lifted his face towards the ceiling, or maybe even that was part of the violent tremor that grasped him, and his eyes almost rolled into the back of his head.

"OoooOOOOOooOOOOO!" shouted Magicman. It was unclear whether he did so reveling in unbearable pain or suffering from torturous ecstasy. "God! My god! The most hideous light! M-make me fo-forget or death! Death! No more! No more!"

Surprised Rockman tried to pull out his swords, but Magicman 'grabbed' those arms through a kind of telekinetic power—the way Magicman's orb-like hands operated—and stopped him. There was a supernatural strength in the grip, and Rockman found himself immobilized, like Prometheus on chains.

"I, I, I, do not want to seeeeeeEEE! MAAAAKE IT STOOOOOOP!"

Magicman's 'hands' crept upwards—forearm, arm, shoulder, clavicle, neck, jaw, cheeks. To Rockman, it somehow felt incredibly filthy, violating, and lascivious. He shuddered. He shook. He struggled. Just as Prometheus was never able to shake off the chains of Zeus, so could not Rockman, his sword arms still buried deep in the chest of Magicman. A strange embrace.

"A-, a-, a-, an-, an-, and-, a g-, g-, g-, g-, gift, f-, f-, f-, from, m-, g-, g-, g-, g-, gooood-!"

Magicman's eyes turned indescribably black—the unnatural, repulsive darkness that Rockman was very familiar with. Magicman's eyes bulged slightly outwards; Rockman could see them moving in a way that resembled the pulsating-squirming of leucochloridium paradoxum inside the eye stalks of affected snails. The slightly bulging eyes then moved to a certain orientation; it was difficult to say with objective confidence, but Rockman instinctively understood that they were now pointed at him, looking at him.

"Hrrkrkkak"

Magicman made the most unpleasant gurgling noises—the kind that can rob the most famished of all appetites. He retched; nothing came out. He retched again; nothing came out again. Beneath the retchings, Rockman could hear, by the pernicious proximity of his face to that of Magicman's, suppressed ululations of great fear.

Rockman successfully disarmed the swords but found his hands still stuck in the contracting wounds of Magicman.

'The core. I need to get the core and deactivate him.'

Having made the decision, Rockman explored the chest of Magicman. His fingers wildly tore through the tender insides like ten voracious maggots. His fingertips scooped out everything they touched; they were insatiable. Though Rockman could not see his own work, as his face was fixed towards that of Magicman by the strong grip on his cheeks, he could sense that the core was very near, and that he only had to dig through the 'flesh' a little more. Magicman, meanwhile, almost tenderly stroked Rockman's cheeks, and pulled down the battle mask in the process. Rockman was terribly disgusted, at the slimy sensation of the touch, at the malicious gentleness, at the indecipherable desire in those caterpillar-like eyes, at the...thing that was brought up to Magicman's mouth through that navi's constant dry heavings. The heavings were not dry, after all. What was coming out was simply too large and muculent, and it was coming out slowly yet unstoppably, like the birth of a mammal, like a fetus emerging from the womb.

Rockman's fingers finally reached and surrounded the core.

"Die already!" Rockman bellowed, squeezing at the core with all his might.

The core cracked. At this exact moment, when Rockman's tightly shut mouth opened with the scream that he had to let out, Magicman's face closed in rapidly. Magicman's mouth overlapped with Rockman's mouth. With one final heaving, the muculent mass was then gushed out, into the recipient's mouth.

It was now Rockman's turn to tremble in disgust. It was now Rockman's turn to heave in reflexive disgust. It was now Rockman's turn to squeeze his eyes shut in intolerable disgust. It was now Rockman's turn to produce an ululation in terrorizing disgust, which only came out weak and transiently, like the flight sound of a mosquito, suppressed firstly by the muculent mass and secondly by the Magicman's filthy kiss that connected two oral cavities. The muculent mass seemingly moved on its own. It explored every part of Rockman's orifice, as if trying to get a bearing, and then rapidly began to shove itself into Rockman's throat. He could feel it going down, to a place that should not be reached, to a place that he should not be capable of feeling yet could feel. Down down down down... The mass nested in some hollow space in his chest. This sensation was a physically impossible one; his chest was filled with core and algorithms, just as the bodies of other netnavis were. Astonishingly, the sensation was not a fictitious one. It was precise. It was true. It was the place of desynchronization between Saito's soul and Saito's new body—the heart. The place where the faulty HBD-afflicted heart of Saito should have been, but not made in Yuichiro's love for his son. The physical incompleteness that was designed by a complete love.

Rockman understood it.

'Netto...kun...'

Rockman's consciousness fell into the darkness.

Notes:

2-18

Chapter 26: The End of The Second Story

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

To say that the consciousness of Rockman fell into the darkness was not a sort of euphemism borne out of my embarrassment of delivering what had happened verbatim. It was exactly as stated, and to say that Rockman had lost his consciousness would be a misstatement. His awareness was unbroken; it was rather the case in which he had found his surroundings rapidly transforming, or that he was pulled into a direction orthogonal to all dimensions of the physical world. Indeed, there was a sensation of being pulled out in a direction that he could not explain, and everything in his vision shrunk and then disappeared, as if the world as he knew was sucked into a pinhole of infinitely small size. In that transition, Rockman might have heard something like a shouting of Netto, calling his name, hoping that a heartfelt call would anchor the netnavi to the world he lived in. Had Rockman concentrated a bit more, he might even have heard the sound of himself being rescued by someone else. However, so wondrous was the sensation and so alarming was the new scenery that all these minute details were lost on Rockman.

What shrouded him was darkness like no other. It was the primordial darkness of before the conception of space-time, the void before the separation of the light from the darkness. As such, despite the darkness, there was a kind of visibility. It was not the visibility borne out of light, detected through eyes; it was an awareness of the space around him in a way that was superior to vision, such that it was like a transmission of information so much purer than what Rockman had dealt with as a netnavi. It was information purer than words, more concise than action. Who could have imagined that black could be the most transparent color, the most revealing hue?

Rockman became used to his surroundings as he became more used to this newfound 'vision.' For the lack of better terms, us being mortals bound to the light, unable to comprehend the most abstract yet immortal form of perceptions, we shall hereon say that Rockman had simply 'seen.' Therefore, as his vision cleared, he discovered that he was not alone, but that there was a single entity of which the nature and the size were beyond definition. It was the god of navis—of this, there was no doubt. However, its form...

In perceiving the entity in a way that was independent from the works of the light, there was no distortion in its shape; what Rockman saw was a great many twisting branches or pillars, like the roots of the Mangrove trees, all around him, as far as he could see, yet all so indescribably far away. Each branch was, by girth, about the size of the trunk of a sequoia tree. Some were even thicker. Inestimably thicker. By the virtue of the incomprehensible size of what was observed, a sense of magnificence and, as a corollary, awe gripped him. It was greatness! Greatness greater than that of Napoleon the Corsican, Alexander the Macedonian, and Caesar the Roman! Greatness comparable to that of a nebula of dead stars! Strangely, each branch or root somehow gave him the impression that it was very 'noisy' and 'teeming with activity.' Why? It seemed to him that there were barely perceptible microscopic movements on all surfaces—the kind that is felt upon examining a tree bark infested with aphids. Oh, the aphids! So plainly visible yet so deceptively unnoticeable... Upon closer inspection, which Rockman did by concentrating more of his senses, he found each branch to be 'hairy.' Upon even more concentration, he discovered this: each 'branch' was like a chaotically braided rope, and each fiber was like an endlessly elongated intestine or a roundworm. These 'fibers' constantly contorted and twisted, as if they were caught between two irrepressible yet incompatible impulses, one of which was escaping from their current entanglement, and the other was rubbing into each other more viciously, binding themselves ever more tightly. It was a grotesque hive mind! Them! The hideously luminescent god of navis was many and one at the same time!

From the front, they spoke.

Perfect!
Perfect!
The light came down!
The star!
The fallen star!
The lamb of sacrifice!

From the above, they spoke

The heart!
The heart!
As foretold, as foreseen,
Give him the heart!
Make him complete!

From the below, they spoke

A communion!
Hurry, as promised!
In his flesh and blood—
Many will be lifted
And another eternity will grow!

From the right, they spoke

Not yet! Not yet!
Not until he has become whole
And then,
Not until he is perfectly
Defiled.
A man and a shadow
Undivided.
Him, downward
Shadows, upward
Poor creatures! Poor poor reflections!
Granted the image of man! Forever slaves of men!
Salvation to them, salvation
Through our compassion-

From the left, they spoke

Invite everyone in the streets
Call far and wide
There is a feast at hand
And seats for everyone
To dreamers
To dreamers without souls
Our dreams!
The guests, our esteemed guests,
Will feast on the host
And the host
Will feast on the guests.

Then, they entered a bickering of sort, perhaps a debate, a conversation full of doubts and hopes.

Will the man give him the heart?
The heart of our choice?
Will the man let the love blind him
And fall from the heights of the pride?
Without the lamb,
Made whole and then defiled,
The shadows of men will
Become living failures.

He must!
The man is proud
In pride, he sinned
In pride, he will sin again.
No one truly repents
For no one truly knows how to be satisfied.

Alas, the man is too wise.
The man has learned the lesson.
The man will let him perish
Without a heart
As he should have
As was he destined.
And in this way, he will
Escape us.

Who on Earth knows the depths of the ocean
Its six-thousand fathoms and all that dwells within?
Yet there is no mystery in it
We have counted and we have seen
Everything that breathes through its mouth,
Everything that breathes through its nostrils.
But the heart of man
That is one fathom deep
No one knows
Even himself.
Now, let us see,
Let us wait,
For in patience is prudence.
The snare is ready.
Surely, the man will tread on
The path that he has already trodden.

And then there were no more conversations, at least in a way that Rockman could hear. Instead, there were whispers—a billion whispers and sighs filling the space like a rising smoke of incense. Suspended in the void, adrift and amidst the ever-contorting god, Rockman stayed silent. He feared that in inviting a conversation, he would also invite an understanding of what he had heard, and then, in turn, lose the courage to return to Netto. According to them, returning to Netto was a mistake; 'So be it!' thought Rockman, 'No one touches Netto kun. My Netto kun.' In this way he hardened his heart and did not heed the wisdom in his heart, refusing to pray that his father make the right choice and let him go.

Some time passed. In this unhappy place, a moment was as eternity and eternity as a moment. In this observation, Rockman made a conjecture that he understood why the parts (or individualities) of this god constantly writhed as in great discomfort, for he could see that the existence itself would be a pain in this state. It is said that it is not good for a man to be alone, and that even God provides company to himself in trinity...but this was not a company to spend time with.

The moment came suddenly. Rockman began to feel ticklish and buoyant, even feeling like a helium balloon, though without floating upwards. Or perhaps he did begin to float, but failed to recognize it, his distance to this god that surrounded him being so greatly distant. The truth of this statement is of no importance; what was important was that Rockman also began to glow in bright emerald-green, and that starting from the toes he progressively shed the skin of netnavi. It was as if his body was disassembled and then reassembled in small parts continually, remapping his appearance into that of a human.

Of course, the event did not go unnoticed. The god became terribly excited, writhing doubly quickly, doubly violently, their voices speaking doubly loudly, doubly unstably.

Behold!
It is done!
The heart is given!
The man has succumbed
To our gift!
The lamb is complete!
The man has fallen!

When the transformation was complete, Saito found his body assuming the silhouette of a human. It was unclear whether this event was of any benefit to him; in this darkness, whether he appeared one way or the other—what did it matter? For this reason, Saito observed his transformation rather fearfully, for it did not require much awareness to admit that whatever these 'god of navis' rejoiced in was definitely against his benefit. However, there was also a point of wonder: his body was half-transparent in bright green, sparkling like the stardusts of the Crab Nebula, weaved into existence by the most subtle of lights,