Categories > Anime/Manga > .hack//Sign > The Twilight Generation

Waking Up, Breaking Out

by Tylec-Asroc 0 Reviews

Ovan and Shino, guildmasters of the Brigade, reveal to newcomer Haseo some of the curiosities and enigmas of The World. But some mysteries - and some people - will forever elude the enamored boy.

Category: .hack//Sign - Rating: PG - Genres: Action/Adventure, Romance - Characters:  - Published: 2006/09/27 - Updated: 2006/09/27 - 7101 words

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Touching down as globes of light, Shino, Ovan, and then Haseo re-materialized at an identical portal, this one planted in the heart of a lush rainforest. Birds hooted and water rushed deep within the trees. Haseo was bouncing on the spot, so pepped he forgot to play the cool badass. "All right, let's go, let's go!" Last to enter, the multi-weapon was first crashing through the trees, eager as a puppy to sniff out the dungeon entrance. Ovan and Shino exchanged smiles - youth! - and proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

A stone archway - Haseo found his mark embedded in a mound of earth gripped by a black and sinister tree. Roots thick with age coiled over the entryway like wooden serpents; cold air and darkness exhaled from the jungle tomb. Haseo squatted in the doorway and squinted inside, bubbling with guesses at the monster count, or the treasures he would find. "I found it, Shino! Hey - Ovan!" Haseo turned, and jerked back from a gun barrel.

Ovan, his left arm a pillar, his face muffled under scarf and glasses, his shotgun pressing the multi-weapon to the earthy wall. The needlenose bayonet drew tiny circles at Haseo's nose. "Don't move, Haseo." And the boy couldn't - his mind was trapped in a looping feed - how many other players had claimed him as a friend before taking him for a kill?

"Turn around, Haseo." He was obedient to every word, he knew the routine - face away; weapons down while they bound and gagged you with paralysis spells. It's only a game, it's only a game - but Haseo's controller shivered with force feedback as Ovan's blade traced imperceptible circles over his back. A thrust and a squelch of flesh.

"Take a look, Haseo." Oh God! He'd never pegged the man a sadist! You couldn't feel the pain, but they could make you watch blood dribble out wounds and off knives. Haseo turned meekly, getting a facefull of the largest tarantula he'd ever seen. "Blah!"

Ovan flipped his gun skyward to examine the skewered monster himself. "Mm-mm," he frowned. "Level 10. Parasite class."

"You need to be careful running through jungle areas," Shino cautioned, reaching on tiptoes to brush an arachnid from Ovan's shoulder. "If you don't catch them quickly, they'll drain your health dry."

"You've found the dungeon," Ovan noted. "Let's proceed."

"Right. Right." God, he felt so stupid, though not entirely unjustified: Ovan's character was a steam gunner, employing bladed shotguns, rifles and chain-guns to attack at any distance: shooting from a range, stabbing up close; steam gunners left no exposed weakness. In a word, that was Ovan - flawless, impenetrable, both in combat and motives. Who could tell what ticked behind those glasses?

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The dungeon interior dripped, and squished underfoot. A tap from Shino's jeweled staff illuminated the spider's crypt - every corridor of earth spun with eight-legged weaver's white webbing. Long, endless corridors.

"Are we there yet?" Haseo had given up all effort to walk upright. No. "Are we there yet?" No. " . How about now?" Ovan didn't reply. He only took Haseo by the shoulder and motioned to shimmy along the wall - around a funnel of light cast from a break in the ceiling. "Don't ever step into the light," the man cautioned.

Haseo was this close to pushing away and stomping all over one of those forbidden spotlights, he was so bored! "Shino, this place is a dud! We've gone down at least ten floors, and I haven't seen a monster for the last three!"

"Isn't it suspenseful?" she remarked. "The next one could be waiting just behind the corner."

Ovan offered his own wisdom. "There's more to this game than fighting monsters, Haseo. You should take the time to enjoy all this world offers."

"Like what?" Haseo asked, realizing a second too late he'd walked himself into a lecture. That cunning gleam was flooding Ovan's glasses!

"For example," the guildmaster began, "have you observed how you can interact with the floorplan?" The march paused for demonstration - Ovan reached overhead and seized a fistful of spiderweb, pulling and bundling the sticky net like candy floss. He scraped his glove clean and seized an imbedded root, jerking it from the wall and dropping a miniature cave-in of dirt.

"Look around, Haseo - you won't find any repetition to the pattern of roots, or the webs - every square of this dungeon was hand-crafted. The areas in the previous version were primitive by comparison: basic corridors and boxes that overlapped the same texture every five paces. Today, interaction is limitless."

"So, what - I could make a little avalanche and bury off the dungeon, or light the spiderwebs on fire and burn the whole place down?"

"Exactly!" Ovan's glasses beamed a delighted fire. (/Bloodlust, or my listening?/ Haseo worried.) "The World has no linearity to it, Haseo - no set objectives or storylines to guide you by the hand. It has only possibilities. Detail, and endless possibilities that allow you to approach the game however you please."

"Yeah? Well seems like everyone I know decided that player-killing the new guy was the way you play the game."

Shino's fingers touched his shoulder. "Pity them, Haseo. Intimidation, PKing - Those people only isolate themselves from the most delightful element of this world."

"Yeah? What's that?"

The steam gunner scholar and the fairy princess shared another in-joke smile, and Shino ruffled Haseo's hair. "The company of others, you silly goose!"

Ovan's observations continued as they trekked deeper. "Have you noticed that the floor here is mud? Look back and you'll see the footprints we've left. Or see how your shadow grows and falls as you pass each beam of light - it used to be the only silhouette players cast was a round disc at their feet." Haseo had scooped a spiderweb onto his own fingers, and now marveled at the polygonal netting he could stretch and squeeze and mold like a glassblowing artisan.

"This is insane," he whispered. How much code existed simply to track all the possible permutions of this web? What kind of CC-Corp supercomputers kept this fragile, variable-infested world from collapsing on itself? His head spun! "How do the system administrators keep this thing running?"

Ovan and Shino jerk-stopped, and the scholar's mouth parted into a thrilled grin. "That," he smiled, "is a question well worth some consideration. Another time, though. For now, we've achieved our destination."

The party rounded one final corner and light dawned over the crypt. They'd crossed a threshold into an unspoiled corridor of stone and sand, the earlier erosion warded off by the guardian masks and demon heads carved into the hallowed walls. Haseo squinted towards the light source - a sparkle of gold! The treasure room!

"There, you see," remarked Ovan, "the insurmountable distance has been traversed in spite of the grumbling of our flawed mental perceptions."

Haseo groaned. "In Japanese?"

"That wasn't so bad now, was it?"

Haseo crossed his arms and snorted, prepared to admit any fact but that.

Looking ahead, Haseo could make out a raised altar, and a round pedestal like an oil drum holding the shimmering treasure. "And no monsters? Too easy," he laughed, taking the lead once more. A snap of compressed air, and Haseo's screen flashed red. Wha' the? A blowdart had caught his right leg; his displays blinked a warning for poison! Drawing daggers, Haseo spun around for his attacker. Another rush of air flew by, and another dart struck his character, forcing him to move again, but every jump he took from the line of fire only added another needle into his skin!

"SUVI LEI!" Merciful Shino tapped her staff into the ground, ending Haseo's rapidfire acupuncture treatment with a paralysis spell. "What a silly time to be dancing," she giggled.

"Uh, little help before the monster gets me?"

"Monster?" Shino mock-gasped. "Dear me, Ovan, I can't see any monsters at all! Where could they be?" The steam gunner played along and shrugged, and while Shino squinted and peered around, Haseo clued in.

"Okay, okay, okay - I get it. It's a dungeon trap." Now that he looked, the many masks carved over the walls were riddled with firing tubes. "Yeesh." He checked the ground, noting the darker stone tiles interchanged with a lighter variety of which her currently stood upon. "The black squares fire the darts. Is that it?" Neither guildmaster spoke, but they smiled proudly. A complementary healing allowed Haseo to move on with carefully chosen steps. Ovan and Shino followed as far as the altar, leaving Haseo to ascend its stairs and retrieve the most sacred idol.

Haseo paused. "Wait. This can't be the treasure!"

Shino took a look at the pedistal and gasped. "Ovan, look!" The scholar was equally breathless. "I see it, Shino; the rumors were true! It does exist in this version!" She was melting and he was gushing poetry. "It's magnificent!" "It's splendid!" Haseo's face just drooped like mush. "A sight for sore eyes," Ovan whispered.

Haseo shook his head and double-checked, but the sacred idol remained a gold-plated, pot-bellied hipppotamus with a cereal-bowl haircut. "A golden grunty," Ovan beamed. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen!" Haseo retched. "My God, my skin is going to melt off if I look at this any longer!"

"Don't worry," Shino informed him. "That only happens in the Hidden, Nazi, Island field on the Sigma server."

"And what's with this pile of sand here?"

"It's a mini-game," Shino explained. "You have to guess the treasure's weight, and replace it with an equal amount of sand. There's a bag over there on the floor."

It sounded stupid. "And what if I guess wrong?"

Shino and Ovan exchanged glances. "Don't."

Now a trifle creeped, Haseo decided that cynicism would be a poor guide with which to solve this puzzle. He thought back to science class. Gold was a light metal, right? He filled the bag halfway. Buut, then again, hippos were fat, weren't they? He added another third. On second thought, it looked like a baby. Babies didn't weigh much. He tossed out a handful. Come to think of it, shouldn't he add a little extra? It was ugly. Looking at the mirror every morning into those pudgy, anime eyes, and that balloon belly jiggling around your toes was bound to make you sob and eat ice cream on the couch all day.

In the end, Haseo had trouble closing the drawstrings. Now came the coup de grace. Licking his lips, crouching low to the pedistal, reaching his fingers ever so close to the prize, Haseo swapped grunty for sand. Perfect! You couldn't have flicked a lightswitch any faster. "Hey, I got it!" It needed two hands to carry, but the statue wasn't too heavy. "Ovan, Shino, I - " Turning around he saw two faces raised with concern. "Haseo . . ."

Stones were scraping together at his back. Very reluctantly, Haseo turned around, offering a little-too-late 'oops' while the stone pedistal sank like a button under its newfound weight, stopping with a locking click.

The entire temple trembled; dust and pebbles shook the air. Ovan muttered to himself, but dutifully reloaded his shotgun. Shino gripped her Harvest's wand in both hands like a bowstaff, scanning for the attack. Haseo, very much in need of a comfort doll, squeezed the golden grunty to his chest.

"And now we run," Ovan sighed. A rock landing next to Haseo's foot made for a nice starting whistle. The multi-weapon bolted past his party members into the hall of masks, shooting himself full of darts in his mindless escape.

Ovan and Shino obeyed a different instinct, pressing their backs together and sidestepping through the firing squad with matched steps. Shino twirled and juked her staff like a lightsaber, catching and ricocheting every poison needle fired her way, while Ovan's rapidfire shots blasted each blowdart in midair. Behind them, the altar splintered and cracked like delicate ice, collapsing into abyss. Brick by brick the temple crumbled, hot in pursuit.

Up ahead, Haseo busied himself in another hopping dance, trying to dodge all the falling rocks while pulling the poisoned porcupine quills from his butt. "This is all your fault, you bulemic little jerkwad," and he throttled the golden grunty. He wanted to throw it away except it made such a convenient safety helmet. Dust blasted his vision, but he could make out the halos of light Ovan forbid him to enter. He ran across each one anyhow, screaming as rows of spikes exploded from the walls, floors and ceiling, forcing him into improvised contortions, ducks and bunny hops. "Haseo!" shouted Shino, "Wait for us, Haseo!"

Far back, but gaining ground, Shino slipped around the barricades Haseo had released, while Ovan had to blast through the each row of spiked prison bars to admit his left pillar of an arm. The darkness nipping their heels paused for no obstacle. "Go on ahead," Ovan said to Shino, silencing her protests. "Before he sets off any more traps and kills himself!"

Further up, solo Haseo barreled ahead: tangled in cobwebs, stuck full of darts and mindless of all the rigged floor panels he mashed underfoot. He tripped, and the wire snagged by his ankle drove splinters through the dry earth. The ground past his knees fell in a wave, and Haseo wobbled at the pit's edge, dribbling unlucky pebbles into the deep he would quickly join.

Shino caught his shoulders and yanked him into her chest. "Are you all right?"

Heavenly. . . But Haseo could see no bottom to the gap he'd created. "How do we get across, that's gotta be ten meters!" Shino assessed the trap: the pit left them a small patch of land before a stone archway, slowly shrinking as a slab of granite rumbled for the floor. Dropping Haseo, she took a running start and leapt. For a frozen moment, the black wings across her back buzzed with hummingbird speed, and Haseo stared stupidly, never more convinced he'd found an angel.

Shino landed in a roll and threw herself into the archway, pushing back at the lowering door. "Haseo, jump! I can't . . ." Her arms strained, and actually held off the doom, but her petite Harvest frame couldn't brace such a load for long.

Haseo peered into the bottomless deep. Everything he saw, The World projected in first-person. What roller coaster horrors would rush his brain if he missed? "I . . ." The controller fell from his shaking palms. "I can't . . ."

Armored footthuds crashed at his back. "Haseo! Move!" He paled. The voice was Ovan's, but the sight made Haseo's eyes water: The panting gunman charged a few paces, stumbled; stabbed his casket-bound arm into the soil like a crutch while he caught his breath. Sweat dripped down his chin and breath wheezed out his throat. Meeting terrified eyes, the old man willed his character to move, rushing with right shoulder forward while his dead left arm dug a trench through the ground. He was going to try and jump but - oh, what ungodly mirror had twisted such a dark reflection? - the invincible guildmaster was /limping/: crash-drag, crash-dragging himself through the dirt like a wounded beast. And with a paralyzed multi-weapon in his path, the ruined scholar had to stop entirely.

"Ovan . . ."

"Haseo! Jump!"

He hid his face. "It's too far! I can't do it!"

Shino dropped to her knees, the stone half-down. "Hurry . . ."

"I'm sorry," Haseo whimpered. "I'm -"

The devouring maw was gaining. Ovan cursed. "No time." Snatching Haseo by the collar with his one functional arm, Ovan spun like a discus athlete and chucked the boy over the gap and into the dirt.

"Crawl through . . . Haseo." Shino's stomach pressed into her knees. "Hold it . . . from the other side." He squeezed through the gap like a worm but couldn't wrap his mind around further orders. Oh God, he'd just killed Ovan - the man couldn't run; how could he jump across!?

Shino and Ovan looked to each other - crumbling ground at his back; falling doors at hers; a chasm in between, and hysteric smiles over their sweaty faces. "Just like the old times," she called. "Remember that Carmina Gadelica field?"

He cracked a grin. "Abysmal, Hopeless, Nothingness. Angle jump?" "Angle jump," she confirmed.

They sprinted for each other, making diagonal runs at the dungeon walls. They leapt, and kicked their heels off the wall to spring for each other over the pit. Ovan reached out his hand, Shino grabbed his wrist, and with another humming tremble from her wings she flung the gunner over the pit with a discus toss of her own. He didn't stop once - Ovan hit the ground, rolled through the archway like a log, and jammed his casket into the remaining gap. The hollow iron whined and contorted under the press. "Help me up," he ordered Haseo, and once his feet could dig into the ground and his hand could grip his impromptu wedge, Ovan bellowed and pried the stone up and away.

Shino rolled through with fairy nimbleness. Ovan let the door fall with a final thud. All three of them collapsed and panted there a moment while their stamina bars refilled. "Is . . . is that . . . all?" Haseo panted.

An earthquake more violent and brutal than anything before answered on behalf of the giant stone boulder rolling towards the party. Haseo screamed and hid. Ovan stood up. Shino stood with him. A sphere of light was expanding from his gun barrel, a wave of energy was rolling down her staff. They braced, aimed and loosed the spiraling charge shots into the coming doom.

Haseo's controller twitched for every pebble that plinked over his avatar, but Ovan spared them the worst of the debris - Haseo guarded at his feet, Shino huddled to his chest, his crippled left arm presented as a shield to the onslaught.

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"You guys've played this game for a while, haven't you?"

"A while," Ovan answered, offering nothing definite - the standard Twilight Brigade answer. Traversing the top level of the dungeon once more, the awaiting sunlight spread a jolly gleam over the guildmaster's glasses. The sudden light only added to Haseo's dizzy spell and his character wobbled.

"Yeah, but you've got this game all mapped out - all those fancy glitch jumps and special attacks!"

"You'll learn those for yourself, one day," Ovan smiled. "Every day sees you growing stronger, Haseo."

"Whatever," he shrugged, playing it cool while he stole another glance at Ovan's mangled left arm. Their tattered costumes had sown together under Shino's healing spells, but the casket retained its dents and gouges from the escape. A familiar chant rose in his ear - hacked, hacked, hacked - but why on earth would Ovan modify his character to carry such a burden? His run stamina bled dry in seconds, his jump distance halved from weight, and his one-handed carrying capacity automatically barred him from the truly powerful, two-handed weaponry. The man made a good show of hiding his limp at walking speed, but after seeing Ovan force himself through the dungeon, Haseo could pick it up: that slow response from his left leg while it gathered the strength to propel a useless metal coffin. The scholar was a cripple.

Shino interrupted his thoughts. "I was saying: what will you do with the treasure, Haseo?"

"Huh?" Hard to concentrate. All that dungeon crawling had left his eyes bleary and his head spinning. But miracle of miracles, after all that mindless running and jumping he still held the rare and hideous golden grunty to his chest like a plush doll. "I dunno. Why don't you keep it? Here."

"Oh, Haseo, I couldn't," she said, forcing the gift away.

"Take it," he insisted; bold and senseless in his vertigo, he added, "you can turn it into a prince."

"Eh?" Dark and inward Haseo slapped himself, compounding his headache.

"I mean, since it's so ugly and all it's uh, like a frog." She still wasn't getting it. "The frog prince?" Nope. "You know, the princess, she took the frog and changed him into a prince with a ... a k-" He couldn't force out the forbidden word, so he just shoved the idol into her hands. "Look, it's ugly and you like it more than I do. Keep it!"

Shino gave another of her mischievous smiles. "All right, Haseo. You know, I think I'll set it up at our guild hall. That way we can look at him all the time."

Haseo twitched. "Give it back."

"Finders keepers," she sing-songed, and Haseo had to give up. His male mind had been fantasizing of a thank-you hug, but her smile would have to do.

"Hey, I just thought of something," Haseo added as they stepped into the jungle, "don't these bigger dungeons usually have a boss monster at the end?" He made a quick double-take. "Whoa, did we switch fields or something?"

The many branching jungle paths had compressed themselves into a circular arena in their absence. The dungeon entrance slammed shut at their backs; a ring of trees barred escape to the Chaos Gate, and a towering, hooded skyscraper of a cobra reared its coiled neck into the air for battle.

"Snakes," Haseo groaned. "It had to be snakes."

Crippled Ovan locked his rifle into rapid fire and rattled off a scattershot of explosives around the serpent's head. "Level 80!" At that strength, even Ovan's attacks would be down to frustrating chip shots! The cobra snorted off this first round like a cloud of nuissant mosquitos and responded by throwing its tail down like a guillotine.

The party dodged, but when the dust settled, Haseo found himself alone, with a massive scale wall blocking him from Ovan and Shino. The gunner and the Harvest were peppering the slithering titan with shots and spells, but the boss cobra ignored the insect stings, much preferring the black, multi-weapon morsel in its tendrils. Haseo squeaked, weaving left and right, but the monster pursued with an auto-lock, snapping at him, and squeezing the boy's heart with the worst terrors a 3D, first-perspective virtual reality could scare up.

A close lunge threw Haseo against the arena walls. Pinned! The cobra raised its head for a final strike, and Haseo could see the poison dribbling from its mammoth-tusk fangs. His heart drummed through his ears, summoning the dizzy spells with a vengeange. The last he remembered was raising his daggers - useless, little level 20 daggers against the reptile horror speeding for his face like a piston.

Then it all went black.

Ba-dub.

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When he awoke, Haseo was a perspiring mush slumped back in his bedroom chair; once he readjusted the Face-Mounted Display goggles, his character was staring into the green jungle canopy. Shino was bent over and checking his connection. "Haseo?"

"... yeah?" He sat up, a great relief to her.
Ovan stood at a distance, face tight and neutral behind orange glasses. A reptilian skull and its trailing column of spine dwarfed even the tall guildmaster. "Hey, you guys got it," Haseo exclaimed.

Now the smile on Shino's face dimmed. She wrung her hands, seeking for words to speak, but Ovan pinned his good hand over her shoulder and spared the trouble. "/You/ got it, Haseo."

"Huh?"

"You scored a critical hit," Ovan explained quickly. "Well done."

"How do you feel, Haseo? Are you hurt? Bleeding?"

Huh? Yeah, he'd fainted, or something, but what made Shino jump to that conclusion? For all they knew, his PC wipe-out could have been him leaving for the bathroom. "Fine ... I guess." Actually, his headache had cleared up - he felt like a hundred million yen! And he'd grown - level 25 in one steroid-boosted shot! New items appeared in his inventory: Poison Fang Daggers - spoils of victory, apparently. "Yeah, I'm perfect!"

Ovan nodded. "I think we've done enough adventuring for today. Haseo, you should log out. There's school tomorrow, isn't there?"


When they returned to Mac Anu, the root town had shifted to evening ambiance: moonlight, and the faint glow of stars over the desert city. Which was strange, considering it was five o'clock and sunny outside Haseo's room. Don't these servers follow Japan time? "And where is everybody?" body, body body. Haseo's exclamation echoed down the street. Sure, one or two players wove around drunkenly and knocked into walls, but the hub city was otherwise deserted!

"There must be a special event on the Omega server," Ovan offered quickly. "You should go now," Shino urged.

"Hey, I'm good for another run!"

Ovan clapped his back, a rare gesture of acceptance. "Part of becoming stronger is knowing how to pace yourself, Haseo."

"Go on," Shino smiled. "We'll organize activities for tomorrow and contact you."

"Well ... all right." The guildmasters even escorted him to the Chaos Gate - that was new. Twilight Brigade meetings usually ended with everyone scattering, not clinging at one another's shoulders like a security detachment.

"Hey, Ovan," Haseo asked, "Is your ... you know, okay?" Gating back to root towns automatically healed all battle damage, but that left arm was still crumpled like a soda can. Haseo could hear a steady lub, lub, lub beat against hollow drum, like drops of oil (/or blood?/ he freaked.)

"Hmm?" The scholar had been busy scanning the empty streets. "Oh, that. No worries." Shino's eyes were also darting quickly.

"You sure?" Haseo checked. The oil drops were increasing in tempo, coming in heartbeat pairs now. lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.

"Positive," Ovan affirmed.

lubdub lubdub lubdub BANG! The giant padlock shivered in its hinge like teeth. Ovan slapped his hand over it. "Until tomorrow, Haseo." The multi-weapon gave one final odd look before finally conceding. "Umm. Okay... See ya." A sphere of blue energy began to dissolve and collect his avatar.

Ovan nodded farewell. Shino waved to him. "Goodnight, Haseo!"

The moment Haseo disappeared, the guildmasters cut their smiles, turning and walking off at a hurried pace.

"You're fine?" Shino confirmed.

"The code's degraded slightly. Nothing I can't edit at home. I'll be fine." The pulses had died off, but Ovan hadn't removed his hand from the lock since. He had to repeat himself to convince her. "I'll be fine."

Critical eyes surveyed the ghost town. Theirs were the only footclops down the cobblestone paths.

"Back in the boss arena, did Haseo awaken?"

Ovan grunted negative. "No, not fully - but he was able to access its power momentarily." It was almost unbelievable! "They boy's only played several weeks; he can barely defend himself, but he's already mastered this ... this reflex control."

"He fainted back there," Shino reminded him.

"It was a stressful moment," Ovan rebutted. "Look at how long he's suppressed it until now. I can't even -" The scholar trailed off.

"Go on, finish your thought."

Off-line, Ovan's hair prickled, hit by a cold aura. In The World, a digital breeze flapped the sleeves of his scarf and ruffled Shino's hair - the only perceptible aftershock rippling out from a meteor impact of massive data. "She's here," he whispered. "Keep walking."

The scholar and the sprite continued silently up the empty streets, halting for the cross-armed shadow stretching into their path. "How predictable," sneered the voice at the silhouette's origin. "You know, when children break something valuable, they have the intelligence to at least run away and play innocent. But you two," she tssked, "always admiring your handiwork."

The stranger waltzed into the light, (chest first): a luscious, long-legged character that held herself stern and serious, unfazed by her gorgeously naked body. A red bikini, straining at the seams to contain her mass, was all the clothing her bare body wore; otherwise, she accessorized in a mess of conflicting fetish gear like an athlete stamped with multiple logos for product endorsement. Bubblegum pink pigtails accounted for the Lolita demographic, while her legs were strapped tight with leather bondage belts. Her tiny nose balanced a coy librarian's spectacles; her hands, a Playboy bunny's white gloves. Snaking down her neck was an office lady's collar and necktie, very much in danger of being swallowed down the bottomless abyss that was her cleavage.

These encounters always brought such conflict - to respect the authority of her office, and the seriousness of her face, or to break into fits of giggles over this little girl who'd doused herself with mommy's perfume and pearls, smeared on clownish lipstick and declared herself 'pretty'.

"Administrator Pai!" and the smile on Ovan's face worked hard to remain serious, "what a surprise to find you in this district, considering the lack of red lights."

Shino was quick to step in. "Ovan," she scolded with a grin, "We should address Administrative Assistant Pai by her proper title. It wouldn't do to name the peon above her station and tease her ego; why, her head's sure to swell up with hot air!"

"No chance of that," Ovan returned. "There's a blockage at her chest."

The player named Pai kept her face rock-steady, but her eyes snuck a confused glance down at her torso (or perhaps she was hoping to look at her toes - both attempts would have yielded the same sight), then screwed her face into a taskmaster's sneer. "We could delete your accounts on whim. Count your blessings System Administration is still willing to talk matters over."

"Of course," Shino nodded, curtseying with mock respect. "To what do we owe the company of Yata's errand girl?"

"If you've come seeking another fight, I am always ready to indulge your masochism," Ovan added, giving his trusty left arm a pat.

Pai snorted and spoke down her nose. "You play such convincing fools. Four-thousand players booted off Japan's Delta server? An entire root town emptied? Really, Ovan - did you think you'd get away unnoticed?"

For one brief moment the guildmasters were left stupid and speechless. They'd been found out. Shino swam in distress - their accounts would be suspended, their guild decommissioned; Haseo imprisoned for testing; oh Haseo!

Ovan's hand brushed her own, drawing her panic to his eyes: focused, collected, masked. Be steady, they whispered, while turning to confrontation. "A weighty accusation, Administrative Assistant. Are you confident I'm to blame?"

Pai narrowed her eyes. "Who else fits the bill? Lord Yata has been highly patient with you and your guild, but don't think he'll tolerate another incident like this!"

"Hmph." A non-committal grunt was Ovan's only response, but at his side, Shino could see the smile he worked hard to suppress, the smile that eased her beating heart. /Haseo/, had he tapped into such vast power so easily, and left sysadmin none the wiser? The smile on Ovan's face was a proud, fatherly grin.

"You have my most sincerest apologies, Administrative Assistant." Now, they had only role-play, and Ovan to present the part of the unrepentant anarchist. The final, missing member of their party would remain hidden. "As you undoubtably know," he droned on, "the Twilight Brigade has only the greater good of the system in its intentions. But perhaps I have been ... overzealous with my personal capabilities. Today's incident will not be repeated."

A self-satisfied nod. "Lord Yata will be pleased to hear of your promised docility, guildmaster."

She made it all too easy to snatch and twist her language. "/Lord Yata?/" Ovan repeated mockingly. "My, such deference! Tell me," and the scholar took a challenging step forward, "is the puppet master watching us right now? Is the tyrant breathing over your shoulder this instant to keep you in line? Or has his lapdog finally learned to fetch and beg?"

Pai's wrath was swift. "You shut your - "

"It must be so frustrating -" Shino interrupted, "- a woman of your potential, suffering and sniveling under such a taskmaster."

Ovan agreed. "There's no reason to prolonge such misery, Pai. When you choose to resign, there is a home awaiting you with the Twilight Brigade."

The sex-goddess had never heard a more ridiculous joke. "Join the Brigade? Join the crippled schoolmaster and his class of misfits!?" A nasty glimmer twinkled over her secretary lenses; Pai swept her arms open - and Ovan had to grab Shino by the arm to steady her against the hurricane winds unleashed. Streetlamps popped, windows twitched into spiderwebs, and Pai's shadow crawled up the cobblestones for the guildmasters, her pigtails bobbing with the rhythmic flap of wings.

"Join you!?" Pai laughed. "Why, pray tell, would I give up all this delicious power?"

A gleam of madness ruled her eyes, but the woman's next move was interrupted by a mail delivery chime. Pai woke as from a trance - eyes darting back and forth, startled and trying to assess time lost to a blackout. Her pupils then scanned up and down, reading otherworldly columns of text.

"Ah," Shino smiled, eager to prove undaunted, "That must be your master, calling you home with flash mail."

Ovan scoffed. "Flash mail? When Yata wants his lackey's attention he uses Crash mail."

Shino played along. "Crash mail?"

"He throws his coffee cup at her."

Pai snapped. "It was only styrofoam!" She woke again, blushed and slapped her mouth shut. Had she really ... She managed another recovery, and with a freshly renewed scowl, warned them: "We're watching you, Ovan. Don't think there won't be consequences!"

Role-play returned, Shino thought. Pai's hand clutched her chest as if holding in a wound, while her knees shook from even that minimal burst of power.

Against the breathy outrage, Ovan remained the ideal gentleman, bowing his head and teasing her with civility. "Of course, Administrative Assistant. Please, don't let us keep you - you have coffee to purchase, and donuts to deliver. Run along, then."

Cursing defeat, Pai left them with a one-fingered gesture and gated out. "I pity her, sometimes," Shino commented.

"She's a sys-admin hitwoman, payed to harass players," Ovan snorted. "So don't."

To next topic, then. "Is he here?"

"Oh yes," Ovan grumbled. "After her little show-off, thankfully. /Come on out, Haseo!/"

Across the street, a mop of white hair bobbed up from behind a wayward barrel. "But how'd you -?"

"The town is deserted, so it's no trouble to hear your footsteps against the cobblestones. And from where you were hiding, the streetlamps cast your shadow rather far, don't they?"

Haseo consulted the black taffy stretching from his feet, both surprised and ashamed at its obvious length. "Ovan, I - "

"- should be paying closer attention to your surroundings the next time you try to spy on someone! Log off, Haseo. Now." He was rightly furious, Shino thought. Today's talks on shadows, footprints, and nuances had obviously gone to waste. Worse, one stupid blunder and Yata would have known everything...

Haseo's mouth quivered, his eyes pleaded for her to intercede. Shino looked away. The boy hung his head. "... right."

Ovan watched their protegee slump away - a miserable, shriveling shadow. He did not call out until the teen neared a corner. "Haseo!" The boy spun; a hopeful, puppy-dog look in his eyes.

"The instruction manual is manna from Heaven," Ovan smiled. "Take it in - read the section on stealth action if you want to catch me off guard."

His face lifted like a sun; Shino couldn't help but smile herself, drawing on Haseo's rekindled hopes. The multi-weapon bobbed his head, and ducked the corner with an energized run.

After all that strain, Ovan was looking forward to logging off as well. "Goodnight," he nodded, which set Shino off with a mischievous smile. "Don't speak too soon," she winked.

The scholar lifted an intrigued eyebrow, but she left him hanging, offering a little flutter of fingers before dissolving off-line.

||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Crouched up on his bed under the lampglow from his headboard: at any other time, Haseo Kiyoshi would have been catching up on his neglected studies with some last-minute textbook cramming. Tonight, his choice of ignored literature was a thin, stapled booklet that might have slid into his pocket. The World R:2. Instruction Manual.

R:2.
Right, something had gone screwy with Ovan's much-hailed 'older version'. CC-Corp headquarters had burned down after an electrical fire - that much he'd skimmed off newspaper headlines.

Haseo flipped through, looking for interesting pictures (maybe Shino's character model was in here?), and finally settled for reading cover-to-cover. The fine print inside caught his interest with it's bolded lettering.


HEALTH AND EPILEPSY WARNING

Some small number of people - already physically predisposed to epileptic seizures - are known to have experienced dizziness, blurred vision, disorientation, eye or muscle twitches, involuntary movement or convulsion
andlossofconsciousnesswhile playing interactive games similar to, but not including "The World R:2". The skilled and highly-experienced legal team of CC-Corporation advises that if you or anyone in your family has ever had symptoms related to epilepsy when exposed to flashing lights, consult your doctor prior to using any interactive game.

Thank you, and enjoy your stay in "The World" - a dazzling, twilight fantasy of no legally-proven health detriments!



He was squinting over the tinier fonts when an angry thrust slammed his bedroom door into the wall. Haseo jumped and shoved the manual under his pillow. "Um ..."

His mother just looked down on him from the doorway; he must have appeared like a toad, hunched over in the dim light. "I was just ..." but his math textbooks were on the other side of the room. He couldn't even give her a good lie. He shriveled, and braced for the lecture on 'making good use of your time'.

She just stepped through his private space, up to the bed and removed the booklet. The World R:2. Her eyes dropped from the manual to her son, and Haseo almost wished she would hide her eyes behind glasses - miserable eyes, weary with life and this bundle of disappointments. He pulled up his sheets, feeling naked under her cold, expecting stare.

"Just go to sleep," she whispered with the last of her strength. "It's the one intelligent thing you could do with your life." She slammed the door on her way out.

Even with the lights off it wasn't dark enough; Haseo smothered his face into the pillow and pulled the bedsheets over his head, shutting himself in his cocoon. It took ten minutes to release all his muffled tears into the fabric. stupid jerk can't tell me what to do! now Ovan's gonna be pissed! hateher! Ihateher! Ihateher!

She
wasn't like that. His black thoughts cleared a little, and his sniffles held while he reflected on that reservoir of patience, grace, kindness. She had a smile for everyone, but she smiles at me differently, doesn't she? He was sure of it. God, he'd said such stupid things in front of her ... but she toughed it out, right? He wiped his eyes clean, comforted with this conclusion: /Shino smiled at me/. The thought alone made him lift his lips.

He fell asleep with an ache in his chest, and a lonesome dream in his heart. A white angel in the darkness.

||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

A few final keystrokes logged Ovan out of The World. To onlookers, a sphere of fairy's dust wrapped over the scholar and removed him from existance. To his player, the globe was a shuttle, fired like a bullet through a high-speed tunnel of glowing rings. The velocity pressed at his avatar, red-hot with friction like a spacecraft plummeting for earth; cracks and splinters spread over his clothing until the tugging g-forces stripped the shell away in tiny scales.

His vest and scarf shattered from above cheap jeans and a flannel shirt. His blue hair charred to black, but lost none of it's disorder while it grew past his neck. The orange headlamps over his eyes melted down and spread into a bulky VR headset strapped over his face and ears. The iron casket was the last to disappear, and it did not burn away: the cylinder shrunk, and bent at the middle to produce an elbow; fingers and a palm bulged out the tip, while the metal melted and squeezed to fit his bone structure like tightly wound bandages. The silver fluid slithered into his pores.

The shuttle stopped roughly - but not painfully - dropping him in a cushioned chair before a busy computer terminal. Hands peeled off the game controller to pry the sweaty FMD from his face. His fingers groped the desk blindly for a moment, then fished up his glasses, his real glasses - boring, black and square rimmed. Hardly anything intimidating or fascinating.

Ovan had hung up his costume; now he was just Hideki - plain and tall, another oyster on a seabed of computer techs. He sighed a little, having to give up thrills for an ordinary adventure. This apartment was his guild hall, and it had a marvelous view of the city; it held his library, and the freshwater blast of open air through the windows. Mmm...

Best of all, this world didn't hurt. As was his routine, Hideki stretched and flexed every joint in his left arm, massaging out the leftover pins and needles. He moved a little faster this time - there was work to be done.


In about an hour, his apartment's cleanliness was polarized: pots and pans and spilled spices cluttering his kitchenette; pasta and French bread arranged with meticulate neatness on the tablecloth. Dinner for Two was his portrait, and the final brushstroke it required was a touch of candlelight. He was swiping through his matchbook when a knock startled him, and made him burn his fingers. His gangly legs covered the distance to the front door like a stilt walker. Height was a trait Hideki enjoyed under all his aliases.

His visitor was tiny against her suitcase - its wheels had broke, and hefting the load in her arms had left the woman panting under her business suit.

She was so small; stunted perhaps, as if her body had to conserve its height, its weight, even the colour in her skin to hold together. Blue veins trailed up her thin wrists, and her hair curled in messy little twists. At the same time, she had an energy in her smile, a tiny sun bundled up and concentrated in her blush: an embraceable, heavenly blaze.

"Forgive me," she puffed, breathless with excitement. "Have I kept you waiting?"

Hideki waved off her apology with a smile. "Yes, but just a little bit." Without another thought he scooped her into his arms and spun her over the threshold; she giggled while her heels flew off her feet; they twirled in their celebration dance until his head bonked the light fixture.

"OW!" "Whoa," "Ow, ow -" "You all right?" "ah, yeah -" "not bleeding?" "I'm good" "you sure?" She bent his head down to check the tender spot.

"I'll be fine," he winced. And he smiled. "I have you, don't I?"

"Oh you!" That earned him a nuzzle.

"Welcome home, Ms. Nanao."

He bent to touch her mouth with a kiss, and she pulled him in tight, and squeezed their matching hands: fingers intertwined with bands of gold.

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