Epilogue: Promises kept,
Lios finally responded, a day and a half later he'd sent the official company forum letter "Thank you for your time and effort that you've put in via your investigation" and so on and so forth. It was so forum he had to open a reader program to look at it. It was so forum, from a man who seemed to hate formality that he knew Lios hadn't sent it. Call it a gut feeling, a hunch, intuition, but though Lios' mail address marked him as the sender…
It just wasn't, wasn't him, wasn't right.
So it wasn't Lios, and knowing that he found it easy to get over it. The what, though? He had to get over what… pain? Yes the forum letter had hurt, but not deeply. Not enough that he needed to get over it. Perhaps it was less the lack of consideration and more just the lack of information. They had locked down the area he and Orca had investigated, and he'd learned that fun fact through the board. Not through them.
Perhaps it was just the lack of… well the lack itself, the subtle shunting off to the side that worried him the most.
And considering everything else going on. This sudden revelation, this lack of information, it weighed on him day and night. It was a burden that never let up. Enough so they noticed, both Mother and Father questioned him, and one of his teachers who was fond of him in a distant fashion had pulled him aside, obviously concerned. Tossing out a "Guess I'm just tired from work" to one and all he mewed himself up in his room every day. Pretending to sleep, fearing his dreams.
That wore as well, and added to the weight he already endured it almost was too much.
Still, like that night when he braced against the door shaking, he found enough within to keep a collected façade without. Enough so that they stopped asking at least, not enough that he slept easily, but it served. Though he was sandy eyed and irritable for many days after he took pains to hide it, and even the worried looks tapered off in time.
Laying on his back, completed model in hand, he stared at angular shadows and edges of wings. Wondering, idly where to put his newest project. But the ceiling was all but full, birds and planes contested the sky from their gossamer hangings. Still rolling the plane in his hands, testing the edge of fragile wings, he closed his eyes with a sigh.
Though it had been three days since their last conversation he missed talking to Orca. But nary had a text or flashmail come his way. Distinctly odd, that, but then perhaps Orca was adhering (or being forced to adhere, more honesty in that thought) to the rules of his punishment.
Resolving not to worry until later, Satoshi yawned, resolving not to define later. If he did, in his present mood, he'd start counting the minutes between now and "later" and fretting himself sick. Which was all he'd needed. School was kicking up a notch, and home was… distinctly frigid.
"I'd rather be facing that ice dog again." He… or rather his "other" groused. "The reception was warmer, and at least it was happy to see me. Even if all it wanted was a screaming chew toy at the time."
To that bitter bit of truth Satoshi's heart twisted and squirmed. He ached to deny, rebuke, and refute even that idle comment. But it was truth, the truth and both he and Balmung were too damned honorable to deny any truth. No matter the discomfort it raised. He couldn't close shut eyes, but he could scrunch them tight. He did so, till the sting behind his lids ceased and a dull headache took it's place.
Hovering between the burning stab and aching throb he loitered, mind blessedly empty, basking in silence that was wonderfully pure. Awareness left him in bits and pieces. Drowsing, he drifted on nothing at all, vaguely disturbed by an idea. No, not an idea, call it an image instead. Of green, and numbers, cast in putrid and spring hues, cycling through all the viridian hues beyond the edge of sight. And it was in edges, tucked into the edge of everything, so faint as to not be there, yet still there despite the weakness of its own illumination. There was something wrong with that, unsettling, but the currents of being half aware only permitted him enough wit to note and ushered him along.
"I've arranged leave for you, a few days off as reward for your work. You take that time off young man, no investigating on your own. In a worker's week I'll meet you at Mac Anu, usual time, usual place."
Sent via text –not email, therefore it wasn't official- two days after the incident Balmung did as ordered. Going to the farthest corners of the World he sought wonders instead of answers. Strolling amongst the living ruins of a dead sea, wending past yammering cacti and 'waring the golden gates that marked monster's dens, he searched. For what, he wasn't sure. Drawn by the omnipresent scent of salt water perhaps he walked the oceanless beach, sparing only the occasional glance for blue skies that was so vibrant they shamed his very name.
Eventually glances became long looks, and before very long his gaze was fixed on heaven. He smiled at the tufts of white, the unhindered sun and all its golden light.
Something rose in him. Something warm, and soft, yet not smotheringly so. It was a familiar revelation, sweet as unnamed drinks sampled in fantastic taverns. Having something of sternness at its edges it was stiff as pride, stable as the companion at his back. The epiphany was so varied as it was true that he savored its many textures as he'd mull over a drink. Taking each moment, steady and slow, enjoying each moment.
He forged naming this moment however, simply paused in the thin bars of shade offered by the massive ribs of a beast form long ago. Eyes fixed to heaven, gauntleted hand idly tracing meaningful runes whose messages were long forgotten, he smiled. And basking from that unfamiliar warmth within, enjoying the warmth without, for the longest of whiles. Eventually he left his writings on the bone, and let his feet pick the path. As always they took to the heights, first tackling hills, than leading him to towers.
Artfully slender, with edges rounded by the pull and fall of surf so long gone it was meaningless to dwell on the times before; their very flanks were shards of wrinkled grey stone. Or, perhaps it was coral; there was a ghost of color about the edges of each fold. Whatever the bases' nature, he approached, then caught the edges in gauntleted hands and pulled himself up. Forgoing unrealistic leaps and other unreasonable feats of strength, he took to the spire with his hands and legs. Scaling the sides till the base ran out than daring the fragile heights he clawed hand holds into the sands beyond the stone. Soft as ash, brittle as snow, only sheer speed saved him from falling at times. Still, he strived, steadily scaling inhospitable heights, his wings all but forgotten.
Finally when he found a level span large and sturdy enough to bare him, he took a rest. What was forgotten seemed intent on being reclaimed as all on their own his wings unfolded and lazily summoned winds all their own. For a while it was only him, his thundering heart, and the silken sweep of his wings. Only that.
Legs dangling over the edge, armored limbs gleaming in the diming light, the pressure left him. That riding tension that had weighed so much, and was composed of so much more. Too soft to be a sigh and with nothing bite about it to grant it an edge, the breath he drew than released was simply that, breathing. Savoring the tranquility, hands clenching the edge so that it crumbled, he smiled into the glistening gold that was sand, and sun, and a moment that was just right.
A perfect moment.
Hands loosed the sand; fragments fell from his fingers as he dared that fragile edge, crowding its flawed extension.
Where what was true and false fell away, where it didn't matter.
Divorced of conscious thought, born of impulse (Surely impulse and not instinct. For despite all his dreams it never was meant to be and in his mind he knew that. All the protests of his heart to the contrary) he shoved off. Hands pushing away, legs kicking the earth back. He half slid, half slipped, wholly fell, and bizarre as it was the earth and it's spires raced behind and below. But not before and never up. Looking up, through falling's tears, the sky was blue, its clouds cotton ball white. Hair pulled back and up, wings stretched painfully high, he fell a picture perfect image of the celestial.
Save angels never fell; they only aspired and attained grace.
So though they fought, and thus he fought, he brought his wings down. The drag was tremendous, terror and laughter crowded his throat and never knowing which he'd have indulged he gritted his teeth and allowed nothing out. Pulling them up, feathers framed the sky above his head; his wings all but screamed their protest. Up and down, not frantic or frustrated, but wide and sure. As the idle sweeps had been forbearing to brace for a fall, eyes locked up, thus he flew.
And slowly, surely, his fall slowed, and then heart hammering, eyes wide, it stopped all together.
The sky was empty they said. With its clouds simply painted on the underside of heights unimagined and unattainable. Eyes would glare down; impossibilities would soar, all beyond touch. It would be as if they were drawing's on heavens' arch, that's all that would be, all it could be. Such was their promise; the skies would be empty, soundless, sterile bright.
Such was their primes, that echoing untouched place would be his, only his, if he wanted it enough. So they gave him wings without instructions, stripped of instinct, divorced from the bird they might have borne. They had given him wings! And he exulted, taking joy from flight he'd earned and learned all on his own. Laughing so hard and sure all of heaven must have heard, he chased an apex beyond fancy, chased after fantasy itself. Wings burning, sight blurring, he filled the sky with his happiness.
And all their promises aside, the sky was not empty, far from it.
Orca, oh Orca I can't describe… I just can't. It's amazing, beyond amazing. I'm flying! I figured out how to use these wings at last! If you could see what I've seen… Just meet met at Mac Anu tonight, or tomorrow, or if you're really in trouble at home text me or something.
Balmung of the Azure Sky
In the hospital, surrounded by sterile white walls, the very air burning her lungs, she cradled her son's phone. It had hopped to life under her hands once just once since that horrible day… The day she'd found her little boy sprawled before a staticy screen, headphones snapped over his ears, arms extended to the computer in some grotesque poise of worship. Or, perhaps, it was terror. A belated rejection, a futile recoil. Regardless, since finding him and that frantic race to the hospital, she'd been keeper of his phone, both she and it silent.
Save for that one time, that one deviant.
Opening it again, the click of its hinge thunderous in a world where there was only his breathing, the soft beeps that confirmed his heartbeat, she looked at the message. She read it again, though it seemed madness. After all, who could truly fly, with wings? Still, she went over the sparse lines, and wondered as she always did.
Who was this Balmung?
What was he to her little boy?
The questions tickled her mind, unsettled her to say the least. He'd always told her everything. Of school and friends, his hopes and dreams, even (though shyly, endearingly so) of an infatuation with a girl in his homeroom. But this Balmung, this one who spoke of flying, seemed a fragment of one of her son's inane flights of fancy. A part of a world that wasn't, a part of the world that had taken his attention from real matters and coaxed him to spend hours at play.
Fingers tracing the phone's back, she applied enough pressure, enough that it eased closed, without sound this time.
She could… call this… person. He (or she, with online folk you never really knew) might know… something.
To hopes ghost she clenched her fingers, hard and tight, grateful the phone was sturdy, half wishing it was not.
Wholly wishing her little boy would wake up, just wake up, just for her.
Closing eyes against air that burned, shutting eyes that blurred, she wept.
Though his was sober and there was a steady grace to each step, his eyes shone. Armor meticulously clean, hair smoothed and styled as much as the pixels would allow, he was a study on professionalism. Save those wings, they twitched something fierce.
Seeking skies not yet claimed perhaps, recalling past flights, maybe. Whatever the cause or clause Lios grinned at the pretty bundle of contradictions before him that composed the Azure Sky. Then, he hid his smile with a drink. He took a long drink of his "tea" that wasn't. "Tea" that tasted like vodka but would never get him drunk. No matter how much he'd like to be drunk right about now.
Was the number three or four thus far? Three perhaps, three too many, too young by far to have taken sick so. Still they had, and though one had escaped, this one though he didn't know it, it had been luck and nothing more. He was hardly comforted by that last thought. Traces left by hackers had been found at the latest scene, electronic fingerprints stripped of all trace. Ironic how that lack of trace, that "indigenous to the World" marking gave away the very identity of the hacker.
Helba… he half at the mere thought of her name, then shelved it with another pull.
Pull done; he set the cup aside for now. Meeting the knight's eyes the administrator nodded. No "get over here" needed, the boy –yes, boy though the avatar looked to be a man the person behind it was not- trooped over. Quietly obedient that one, he'd have to bring that up as an example next board meeting with his insubordinate subordinates in
attendance. Wordlessly taking his seat, pointedly folding his wings just so, the Azure Sky settled and to that stimuli an idle NPC snapped to life.
Over all the motion was a touch too prompt, like a man being tugged by an invisible string, but few noticed. Falling into trademark politeness, Balmung made his order, and Lios took advantage of that quiet span to polish off his drink.
"And while you're at it, fill this would you?" Sliding the now empty cup to the NPC the Admin added. "No rush, though."
To that the computer controlled barkeep nodded, shuffled off, and was pre-programed to know that "no rush" meant come back when I call you back. It all but guaranteed them some privacy. As much as a public place well after midnight would allow them, anyways.
"Glad to see you're better." Lios said in greeting, and to that Balmung cracked a cautious smile.
"Was I that transparent?"
"To be blunt, yes. You're last mail came across as unsettled, but I'm glad to see you shook it off."
For a long moment Balmung said nothing, though something made his lips press into a thin line. Call it a mix mash of instinct and experience but the Admin knew something was up. From the knights reluctance to articulate it, it must have something to do with the Real. Had it been World related he'd have tossed it up on the table for them both to worry over, after all it was the boy's job. What was unsaid lingered, thickened, than with a sigh the knight set his face into a pseudo placidity that fooled no one and was pathetically forced.
"I got some sleep, that helped."
And the following silence hung about them. Thick and cloying, and no little bit choking. Both wished for distraction, be it mugs that weren't, or idle chit chat. Yet neither knew the other well enough to make even banter safe, small talk was a lost art to them both, and Lios held back from calling the server over. Held back, and hoped, prayed the knight would shoe his age at long last.
Do something stupid, he prayed say something rash, brazen, even idiotic. Something, anything that gets me off this hook.
For any show of immaturity now with so much as stake would excuse Lios this final task. Generous severance pay, a glowing recommendation, and they'd be quits. The boy would keep his wings, free gaming for a year, and it would be done. So he prayed, to a god he'd stopped believing in years ago. It had been years since he'd done so, not since….
Well happier times, then that moment's desperation, than never more, save this one digression.
Then as from the head of a stranger, his own thought revisited.
Three is three too many.
Looking at the young man's face into features sickly pale and a frame warrior strong, Lios sighed. Closed his golden eyes. He felt old, was made old by the comparison between himself and this would be knight. A pseudo samurai, who held to honor when most of his generation didn't know the meaning of the word. A child who strived for enlightenment, exchanging games for investigation when he knew something wasn't right. Opening his eyes, holding the knight in a gaze of gold, Lios considered courage. And grieved courage's cost.
"We've shut down all the root towns save Mac Anu." He noted, only that.
Equally minimalist the knight nodded waited.
"Official statement is, and I quote technical difficulties." Lios took a breath; let it out, than dared. "Do you believe that?"
Sparing a glance first left than right, the knight confirmed they were alone before shaking his head. No. He didn't believe.
"We've three people near death, ran into what you and Orca fought or something like it and passed out. Two are in intensive care, one's in hospice. If she's still alive, that is."
"Three people!" Balmung gasped.
"Dead, or as good as. Vegetative state, repressed brainwave, with only a ghost of physical reflex to show they're alive. Each ran into a… "bug" is the official jargon. Unlike you, they didn't run, which is why you are here and they are not."
Silence filled a moment, took two, as Balmung slumped back into his chair and Lios waited. Waited for the bail out, the back out. Waited and hoped beyond such hypocritical activities as prayer, for this to go right. Eyes closed, posture screaming defeat, the Azure Sky all but folded into himself, blown away by how close it had been. Too close, he'd realize, that he'd walk out and Lios would give that severance check and be done with it all.
"What servers, what areas?" It came out through gritted teeth, that last bit.
"All save Mac Anu."
"My God." With a shuddering sight the knight opened his eyes; the realized could have been so very alive in those eyes. "Three people. What… what's the company doing?" Then with such sincerity it made the Admin curse, inside, he added. "What can I do?"
"Nothing… and nothing. "
Incredulous indignation caused the knight to stand wings flared face flushed. Lips trembling, gaze so wounded it stung all who were regarded. He stared down at his superior, disbelieving to say the least.
A whisper that, so ragged it was nearly incoherent.
"Sit down you fool!" Lios hissed snatching at the knights wrists he hauled the young man back towards the chair with on almighty tug. Taking his seat –it creaked as he sat back down- the Admin. motioned for silence. Drawn by the disturbance -string drawn another NPC- the Admin opened his mouth to snap a code word that would drive it off. Balmung beat him to it.
"Go away, and don't come back."
So bidden, the AI obeyed, scurrying off. While harsh, it wasn't unreasonably so, all considered. Blue gaze venomous the knight pointed look made that an order that Lios was more than welcome to try on for size. Meeting that passionate look with a placid façade, Lios gave his subordinate a few moments too cool down. Those moments came and went, and when the stern, unbending look that screamed "I'm pissed, bite, and am rabid you have your shots right?" look faded Lios spoke.
"They want you gone, you know. You've seen a lot, and any posts related to this are being deleted. Anyone talking about it had their character data "corrupted" by "accident" and their flashmail "deleted during "routine maintenance"."
"You can't keep something like this quiet!" Balmung snapped.
To that Lios growled, letting the boy see a hint of his temper from his boss. Instead of scaring him, making him go timid, the knight simply stiffened. Waited.
"I don't agree with what they're doing." Lios confided, edge still very much present. "Or what they'll make me do." Golden eyes locked on blue, trying to drill his meaning home occularly. "Do you understand?"
Swallowing, sick, the Azure Sky nodded.
"Now knowing what you know… Now that is. If I said "you did good, thank you for your effort, here's your last check, one year's free subscription, and you get to keep your character data" what would you say to me?"
"Go to Hell." That hung between them, unsurprising save for the placid seeming tone. Like any adolescent Balmung did passive aggressive very well. "If you won't fix things I will."
And to that, Lios grinned, a fierce smile akin to one shared at Sin's fall.
"I don't believe in hell." The Admin confided. "Or heaven. Just people. From time to time." He conceded. "When they prove themselves by doing what's right."
With a chuckle the Admin loosed his grip. "Since God has no care for what happens in this world of zeros and ones of ours it's up to us. I'm no higher power, but I am up there enough to make a difference. To give an insight when we get stuck, and I have enough resources to know where to start."
We, mulling over that the Azure Sky smiled, found he liked it.
"When do we start?"
Beckoning a server Lios didn't answer, not right as first. Too busy taking their orders for a while. Sure he'd heard, more than a little surprised at what was ordered, Balmung waited. Only when the two glasses (one sake one vodka) were left behind did Lios look to him. Golden eyes grave.
"After this drink we'll hammer something out, and not one second before."
Not sure if it was a joke, the Azure Sky simply smiled and sipped content for now to give his drink his total attention. Across from him Lios took his time as well. Mind a thousand miles away, he dwelled of courage, and fools, and would be heroes in imaginary worlds.
And of three, maybe four, too many. One was too many. And bitter truth be told he sat across from number five, and he'd be number six if this went wrong. Sipping vodka, wishing it was real so he could wash out the taste of the biter, he in truth consumed nothing. So it remained with him, his bitter desperate thoughts, and no illusion could wash them away.