The Satella Officers filed out the other side of the room as Sonia came in. A crowd of humans and EM beings followed behind her, quickly filling the room back up, so she moved fast to get a seat at the front. Boreal adjusted some papers as he waited for everyone, and then cleared his throat and turned to the screen to his side.
“As you no doubt already know, due to the hard work of Doctors Goodall and Vega, we have located Dealer’s base.”
An image appeared on the screen: a non-descript concrete bunker built at the bottom of a massive canyon.
“Detective Copper retrieved these images,” Boreal continued, “but it was decided that any closer inspection would run the risk of alerting Dealer to our discovery, which would set us back to square one. Unfortunately, this means we don’t have much for you to go on. We must attack while we have the opportunity, but I urge you all to proceed with the utmost caution.”
“We’ll be going in with our best Satella Officers as support,” Copper said. “They’re going to divide into squads and attack the facility from various angles to probe for opposition. As for all of you…you’ll be breaking down the front gate.”
“Sounds good to me!” Mega said. “Nice and simple!”
“Just like you, Mega,” Lyra said.
“What about you, Detective?” Geo asked as Mega grumbled to himself. “Are you coming with us?”
“I’ve got a different objective,” Copper said. “With Plesio’s skills, he and I should be able to properly scope out the interior of the facility, and relay that information to everyone’s Hunters so you know what you’re getting into before you get to it. If anyone needs help, though, don’t hesitate to let us know.”
“Once we’re inside, I’m sure Dealer will have something waiting to greet us,” Ace said. “We may be surprising them, but King is always prepared. However, we can’t waste time playing his game. A select group of us is going to focus on tracking down Joker, and we’ll need to save all our strength for that—if it becomes necessary, the rest of you may have to buy us the time we need.”
“What about Jack and Tia?” Sonia asked. “Do we have a plan for them?”
“Judging by what they said when they escaped,” Copper answered, “it sounds like those two are no longer interested in working for Dealer. Of course, we can’t be too sure—you’ll all need to keep your eyes peeled. But we feel there’s not enough reason to expect them to be there.”
Bud raised his hand. “Um, excuse me. Who exactly is on the team to go after Joker?”
“I’ll be leading it,” Ace said. “I know how King likes to organize his bases, so I’m confident I’ll be able to get us to him. I’m going to need Sonia and Geo’s help, and I know Solo wants another shot at the guy…”
Solo, leaning against the back corner of the room with his arms crossed, just hummed.
“And, with luck, that’ll be all we need.”
Bud clenched his fists. “Ace…I request to be added to that team!”
This made Ace pause. Eventually, he said, “I’m not so sure that’s the best idea.”
“I can do it!” Bud said, shooting to his feet. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger, and I’m sure I can help you guys take him on!”
“You’re definitely one of our heavy-hitters, Bud. But, I was thinking it might be best if one of our heavy-hitters stays with the larger group, to help them out.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. Please, let me help fight Joker!”
Ace looked to Boreal, who said, “I know you’re eager, Bud. But with the way Joker utilizes Noise to fight, we’re not sure it’ll be safe for anyone without a Noise Control Program to take him on—not if he unleashes his full power. Solo’s got his own protection, but we’re not sure if your Noise Filter will keep you safe.”
Bud thought a moment. “Then, uh, shouldn’t we test it out? If the Noise Filter is going to become standard-issue, you need to know its limits, right?”
Boreal sighed. Goodall chuckled, saying, “Oh, give him a chance. If it proves to be too much for the Filter, surely he can still help you secure the area.”
“Yeah!” Bud said, nodding furiously. “If the Filter’s a bust, I’ll hang back and find something else to do! I—“
“Alright, alright,” Boreal said. “Ace?”
With a slow nod, Ace said, “Okay, Bud. But you’ve got to keep a close eye on your Filter, alright?”
“Definitely!” Bud said. “Thank you so much! I won’t let you down!”
He bounced happily until Amy tapped his arm, reminding him to sit. Geo raised his hand next, saying, “One other thing. After what happened at the studio, Ace…should you really come into contact with Joker? What if he tries forcing you to Finalize again?”
Ace scratched his head, glancing sideways at Boreal. “Yeah, that…I actually have my own request, Chief.”
“Hm?” Boreal said. “What is it?”
“Well…I want Acid’s restrictions to be removed.”
Boreal stared at him blankly. “…What?”
“The reason we went nuts was because we couldn’t control the Finalization—because the restrictions make that impossible. So I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
“But you could still lose control, Ace. And that would just make the situation even worse, with you fully Finalized!”
“Hah, if that were to happen, I’m sure Joker would knock me flat before I had the chance to do any real harm.”
“I’m not convinced of that. Besides, that would also disable the safety lock: your Wave Change won’t deactivate on its own no matter how much stress it puts on your body.”
“It’s the final battle, Chief! What better time to take the extra risk?”
Boreal shook his head, but then paused. Turning, he said, “Sonia, Geo. You two had to deal with this situation last time, so I want to know what you think.”
The two of them exchanged a look. Geo was first, saying, “Well…from what I understand, it sounds like there’ll be less of a chance of him going berserk if we remove the restrictions. And even without the safety…if the stress pushes his body too far, I’m sure he’ll still…”
“He’ll be too broken to be a threat before too long,” Mega finished. Geo looked down and began to fidget.
“You’re right,” Ace said. “I won’t be able to cope with the damage very well if I’m not in control. Even if I pose a problem, it won’t be for very long.”
Sonia could feel everyone looking at her now. She thought back to the incident, and to her fight with Joker, and tried to weigh them against each other. She stopped when she remembered Ace fainting.
“…It’ll be risky for us, sure,” Sonia said. “But no matter what happens, Ace and Acid are the ones who have to really deal with the consequences. So…I think it should be their choice.”
Boreal glanced over at Goodall and Vega. Neither said a word. Ultimately turning back to Ace, he said, “Ace…I want to be sure you’ve thought this through.”
“I had a lot of time to do just that, Chief,” Ace said.
“There are no guarantees,” Acid said. “However, I find I largely agree with Ace’s assessment. I have been backed-up, so the situation poses little threat to me—I will go along with his decision.”
Ace looked to his Hunter. “Hey, none of that talk! Back-up or no, what happens to you matters, buddy.”
“…Thank you, Ace. I will retain my stance nonetheless.”
Boreal ground his teeth, tapping his fingers against the podium for a very long time before finally speaking. “Fine. If you’re both sure about this…then I’ll approve your request.”
“Thanks, Chief,” Ace said. “You won’t regret it!”
“That brings up another point. As this is going to be a very dangerous assignment, we wanted to offer all EM beings the chance to have their data backed up as a precaution. If you need some time to think, that’s fine, just talk to one of the doctors before you leave.”
Geo turned to Mega. The AM-ian shrugged, saying, “Eh, not exactly sporting if you ask me. Besides, if they can’t make a Wizard without super-compressing the waves, I’m not confident in their ability to restore me if I needed it.”
“I concur,” Lyra said. “And it’d be a bit unfair, don’t you think? Our partners have no such opportunity. I’m willing to take the same risks.”
“I appreciate where you’re coming from,” Sonia said, “but are you sure? I don’t want to—“
“Perish the thought, dear. We’ll make it out just fine in the end, so it’s really a moot point, don’t you think?”
Sonia realized Luna was staring at her nervously from the next seat. Squeezing her hand a little, she said, “…Right. We’ll be fine.”
“I think that covers it,” Boreal said. “If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask. You’ll be departing shortly. I wish you all the best of luck.”
The bunker looked a fair bit larger in person. From where they stood behind the cover of a rocky outcropping, Sonia gazed intently at the base, taking the time to steel herself for whatever was waiting inside.
“How are you feeling?”
She turned to see Ace standing there. Looking back at the base, she answered, “A little nervous, I guess. But I’m ready for this to be over. What about you?”
Ace breathed deeply. “I have to admit, there’s something vaguely surreal about it. I can’t help but think that if I never made it out, I’d be here right now, about to defend it from all of you alongside Joker.” He chuckled. “I’d hate it here. Not much of a yard.”
Sonia laughed a little. “On the bright side, you wouldn’t have to deal with noisy neighbors, at least.” A short silence passed over them. “Hey, Ace. I never asked: what was it that made you decide to leave Dealer?”
“Well, to be honest…it was you.”
She turned back to face him. “What?”
“When the FM-ians launched their full-scale invasion of Earth, King picked up on their transmission. I heard it, and I was prepared to mobilize against the FM-ians, ready to do whatever it took to defend the Earth. King told us to just sit tight. That really confused me—I was raised to think that Dealer was doing the right thing, that there was some very important end we were all working towards…but what kind of goal did we have that we weren’t willing to even try to protect the Earth? It didn’t make any sense to me. While I was busy trying to work that out, you went ahead and actually saved the planet.”
Ace looked up at the sky.
“After that, I was constantly questioning if what we were doing was right. Slowly starting to see that it wasn’t. And when Mu showed up in the sky, and again King said we weren’t to do anything about it, and you reappeared to take care of that problem too…I realized that I couldn’t stay with Dealer. We had the power to help the world, but King had clearly shown he was willing to let it burn. It was hard, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want to help a guy like that, even if he was the one that raised me.”
He smiled at Sonia.
“But you? You always use your power to help people. You’re a real hero, Sonia, and I knew you’d be able to stop King from enacting his plans. I knew your team was the one I belonged on.”
Sonia needed a moment to take his words in. When they settled, she said, “I think…you’re giving me a little too much credit, Ace. But thanks. I’ll try not to let you down.”
Ace headed back towards the group. Sonia took one last look at the bunker before following him, thinking, I thought King wanted to control the world. Why would he be okay with Planet FM destroying it, or Dr. Vega taking it over before him? There must be something I’m missing…
“Alright, team!” Ace said. “This is it! We’ll rush the door at my signal!”
Everyone gathered around, all of them but Ace Wave Changing in preparation. Copper sank into the ground and headed off, and Ace held up his hand, watching the time on his Hunter to give the detective a proper head start. Sonia tightened her grip on her guitar. She glanced over the others—Geo, Pat, Rey, Bud, Amy, Claude, Kidd, Wolfe, Shepar, Dubius, Hyde. Nervous as some of them looked, she could tell they were all ready for this. She nodded to herself.
I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re finishing this here and now. Dealer doesn’t get to hurt anyone else after today.
Twelve Wave Changed humans bore down upon Dealer’s door, Ace bringing up the rear with only his gun. Bud made it there first, tackling the entryway head-on, and plowed straight through as if the door wasn’t even there. The massive room beyond was every bit as dreary as the exterior: giant glass tubes filled with Crimson lined the walls, connected by thick pipes to a great machine in the center that rattled incessantly. Alarms sounded as the others rushed in. A light atop the machine shimmered, and it fired a spread of laser beams at the intruders; Amy slid forward and threw up a wall of ice, blocking the shots, while Pat and Rey ran around it and towards the machine. Carefully dodging the blasts, they got high enough to fry the mechanism with electricity, and then shouted down that it was clear. Everyone fanned out in an instant.
“Don’t hit that thing too hard,” Ace said. “We don’t want this much raw Crimson floating around. Now, which way is forward?”
“There’s a door up here!” called Dubius, landing on a balcony. “I don’t see a good way up, though…”
“Can you give me a boost?”
As Dubius flew down to where Ace was, Hyde teleported right up to the door and stabbed his cane through the lock. The door swung open slowly, and as it did, a card fell from above it—a king of clubs. With a yell, Hyde leapt away. The central machine flashed, and tiny cracks appeared along its surface to allow Noise to stream out of containment, very nearly hitting Pat and Rey in the process; it all streamed through the air straight to the card, forming around it into a very large body. The balcony collapsed under its weight as it solidified into the visage of Club Strong.
“Strong?!” Geo said. “No, he’s definitely still back in Alohaha…”
“It must be the Noise,” Lyra said. “It would seem King found a way to use the data it contains to reconstruct the beings it corrupted.”
Sonia looked to Claude and Kidd. They stared wide-eyed at the replica, struck silent for a moment. Then, after nodding to each other, they got into their battle stances and moved in. Sonia and Geo readied to help them, but Ace held out a hand.
“We need to save our strength,” Ace said. “Let the others handle this.”
“I’m sure we can spare a little!” Sonia said.
“That’s not a risk we can take. Just focus on getting past Strong.”
Kidd shot a blast while forming a doppelganger to give him a boost. Strong shrugged off the shot and spotted Kidd flying towards him, but Claude’s pincers smacked him in the knees before he could do anything—Kidd kicked Strong in the face, but it didn’t do much. The boys regrouped as Strong pulled back his club. Wolfe bounded forward, and in a flash, extended his claws to cut apart the weapon, leaving Strong open for an attack from Hyde. Noise streamed over to Strong to repair his club, but once that was done, the corrupted waves began to flow to another corner of the room. Shepar watched them go, and spotted another distortion forming behind the group.
“There’s more of them!” he shouted, summoning a few weights.
The Noise formed into Spade Magnes, a swipe of his sword just barely blocked thanks to Shepar. A blast of water consumed him, and Amy quickly froze it, giving them enough time to reassess the situation—and it was now they noticed a third body forming on the other side of the room, emerging as Diamond Ice.
“Like I said,” Ace reminded Sonia, “just move forward. Trust the others to handle this!”
Sonia scanned the room. The others had recovered from the initial surprise and were ready to deal with these foes, rapidly conferring with each other to get their strategies laid out. With effort, she set her concern aside and focused on the door behind Strong.
“Let’s roll,” she said.
Geo and Solo were able to get there quickly thanks to their teleportation abilities. Dubius had carried Ace into the air, and now was just waiting for an opportunity to deposit him, while Bud breathed out a puff of flame and ran forward. Claude and Kidd were still drawing Strong’s attention, so it wasn’t until Bud was bounding up the rubble to where the door was that he noticed them. Strong spun and raised his weapon, and Sonia fired her strings at it—she pulled herself through the air and over Strong’s head, distracting him further, and Claude smacked an enlarged pincer into one side of his face while Kidd threw his all into a heavy punch at his ankle. The behemoth toppled over on his side, and Dubius quickly set Ace down and turned around to join the fray.
“Alright,” Ace said. “No more delays: get going!”
The five of them ran for it. Sonia could hear the battle raging on behind them, and though she wanted to turn back, she did not.
I don’t know if we need to save our strength quite this badly, but…Ace is right. I should trust them.
She sighed heavily, willing her worries to step aside. And then she kept running.
King stared up at the screen: on one side, it depicted the battle taking place in the Crimson refinery, and on the other, he could see Sonia’s team moving through a corridor. Stroking his chin, the man hummed quietly and just watched until he heard the door open.
“Mr. King,” Joker said, striding forward. “Do we really have intruders?”
“Indeed we do,” King said, turning his chair around. “It would seem WAZA has found us out at last. Right now, Harp Note is on her way here.”
“Allow me to deal with them,” Joker said. “I will expel them from this place.”
“In time, my boy, in time. As I said, they are coming to us. No need to run around in a panic.”
Heartless entered the room next. King gestured to the giant roulette wheel on the wall behind him, and she nodded, making her way over to it.
“Heartless and I will wait within the vault as a precaution. You, Joker, are to wait right here: I want to have a front row seat to see you best our enemy’s royal flush.”
“As you wish, Mr. King,” Joker said. “I hope it shall prove entertaining to you.”
The wheel opened from the wall on a hinge, revealing a relatively small room beyond. Heartless and King made their way inside, the latter saying, “I am doubtless it will, Joker! You always put on the most thrilling performances. Ho ho ho ho!”
The door swung shut and sealed itself. Joker turned around, staring down the room as he waited for his opponents to arrive.
Harp Note…Ace…Rogue…bring as many as you desire. I will crush each and every one of you using the power of Meteor G. Acid shall finally join me, and we shall be free to use our power as we please. I will enact the will of nature and see the weak perish…and prove to you that it was no mistake to grant me this strength, mother.
Copper moved silently through the halls of Dealer’s base, doing his best to put together a map of the facility while keeping his eyes and ears peeled for any sign of trouble. He carefully poked into a few rooms, finding nothing of particular interest in any of them. Thus far, he’d yet to encounter even the slightest resistance…and that struck him as odd.
This place is a ghost town. I remember Ace saying there were only a handful of operatives left, but I still expected more Wizards and viruses. Did they really use all of them up in the recent attacks? And if they’re that willing to throw their forces away, then—
“I thought I sensed something over here…”
Copper started. He quickly sank into the floor as footsteps drew closer, barely making it underground as someone rounded the corner. It was Jack who appeared.
What?! What’s he doing here?
Jack glanced about the hallway. Tia stepped out behind him, saying, “Focus, Jack.”
With some reluctance, Jack followed her, and Copper relaxed just a little.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Jack said as they moved on. “Finally we’re putting an end to this farce! I was sick of waiting.”
“I told you: we would not be able to defeat Joker. We must let WAZA handle him while we claim the Crimson.”
They quickly moved out of earshot. Copper thought, So they’re here after all. It still doesn’t sound like they’ll be an obstacle, but we can’t be too careful.
“Plesio,” he murmured. “Let the others know that Jack and Queen Tia are here pursuing their own objectives. I doubt they’ll cause trouble for us unless we engage them, so I suggest giving them a wide berth.”
The PM-ian set about composing the message. Copper moved forward slowly, considering his next move.
That being said…if I can successfully tail them, I’d be able to make sure they don’t cause a problem.
He paused at a branch.
Well, the way they came from probably doesn’t have anything worth investigating.
Keeping his head underground, Copper headed in the same direction Jack and Tia had gone, hoping it was the right decision.
Freezing cold permeated the entire room. Missiles flew about at random, and the floor shook sporadically under the heavy footsteps of Strong; several tanks of Crimson had now been broken open by stray attacks, leaving small clouds of the stuff to float about freely. Pat took a deep breath as he did his best to stay calm.
“You alright bro?” Rey asked, standing in front of him with his arm transformed into a shield.
“Yeah, I’ll manage.” Pat steeled himself. “Let’s give it another try!”
The two of them ran forward, Pat hurling a series of lightning bolts as he went. Up ahead, Ice wove between the blasts and summoned two large chunks of ice, sending them out to meet the boys. Rey reinforced his weapon arm to punch through one of them. Pat slid underneath the other, and then resumed his attack. Ice was still too fast for him to hit. Hyde suddenly appeared in front of her to swing his cane—she narrowly spun around the attack, doing her best to stay on the edge of Pat’s range as she did, and Rey took the opportunity to fire a rocket punch. Finally, they hit her.
“Yes!” Rey exclaimed, rushing forward in excitement. “Take that, you—“
Ice darted straight at him. Rey tried to dodge, but the floor was too slick for him to get his footing. Skates kicked him in the face, knocking him flat; Hyde summoned a shadowy hand to try to grab their foe before she got away, but she slipped right through his fingers. Pat nearly hit her, a snowflake spawning between them just in time. He dodged the icy wind as best he could, falling down in the process. As Pat started to get up, Rey suddenly jumped forward and pushed him back down, keeping them both low as Ice swung a massive hammer in a wide arc.
“Ah, thanks,” Pat said. “I thought this was going to be easy…”
“And are you going to let a little challenge discourage you?” Gemini asked. “Get to it.”
“Shut up,” Rey said. “We don’t need you to tell us that!”
Hyde worked to keep Ice distracted, constantly moving and throwing his hat in her path to keep her boxed in. Levitating above the ground, he remained unaffected by the hazardous conditions that had been laid down, yet still he was finding keeping up with Ice to be a difficult task. As Ice dodged his next attack, she skated up a wall that had frozen over and leapt through the air towards Hyde, generating three icebergs around herself as she came crashing down. Hyde dodged back, and was pushed away when the icebergs spiraled outward. Ice tracked him but couldn’t chase—Pat and Rey had moved in with their swords ready, so she rolled back and onto her hands. Kicking out with her legs, Ice swung her skates to deflect both swords before flipping back upright and clapping her hands together. The icebergs were pulled back in at her command. Pat avoided them, but Rey was blindsided and sent flying through the air. Ice grinned…until a bolt of lightning arced around her defenses to strike her.
Rey ultimately collided with Spade Magnes, unknowingly stunning the Wizard and giving Dubius the chance he needed to pelt him with precise feather bullets. Wolfe ducked in quickly to pick the boy up and get him clear, and then slashed the air to send a cutting shockwave at Magnes. With a roar, Magnes fired a series of missiles at the two of them while charging headlong at Dubius, but a line of Libra’s weights materialized to block the projectiles.
“You alright, Rey?” Shepar asked from nearby.
“Fine,” Rey snarled, “but what about Pat?!”
He looked back to see Pat still locked in combat with Ice, swinging his sword over and over as she continued to spin around and parry his blows with careful kicks of her skates. Rey was about to charge in when Hyde suddenly appeared and swatted Ice away. Pat looked over at him with a grin.
“I’m fine, Rey!” he said. “See if they need help while you’re there!”
Groaning, Rey glanced back at Magnes. Dubius and Wolfe had summoned a small group of ducks and wolves to charge their enemy, who shot one red missile forward before swinging his sword of the same color. An energy field spawned from the missile, engulfing the lackeys, and when the sword was swung the entire group was sent flying back at Dubius and Wolfe by a powerful repulsive force. Magnes transformed his body into a rocket and launched himself at the two of them. More weights blocked him, and as he transformed back, Shepar switched places with one of them and spun himself into a spiral of fire and water, catching Magnes by surprise. It didn’t last long, however: the Wizard swung at Shepar’s arms, keeping him from attacking, and managed to push him back a bit. A rocket punch from Rey knocked him out of it.
“That’s all the help you’re getting!” the boy called as he bounded back towards Pat.
Shepar switched places with a nearby weight to buy enough time to charge one scale with fire. He smacked Magnes with it, and then enlarged the other to serve as a shield when the Wizard counterattacked. Dubius flipped over the weights to land a diving kick, and Wolfe wasn’t far behind, though the blow he dealt with his claws didn’t seem to do much. A cluster of missiles came their way—Dubius scattered them with a gust, and then Shepar extended the cords of his arm to smack Magnes again before all three retreated.
“What’s the matter with you?” Wolf asked.
“Nothing,” Wolfe said.
“Nothing? You barely scratched that guy.”
Wolfe pressed himself against the floor as Magnes shot by overhead. While he was still in rocket form, Dubius rammed into him from the side to send him careening straight into one of Shepar’s weights. Wolfe got up and ran at his dazed target, delivering a shallow cut, but his follow-up came slow enough that Magnes was able to catch it on his sword. Magnes slashed Wolf and immediately repelled him. He then attracted a magnetized weight to his arm, spun it around, and repelled it with such force that it buried itself deep in the wall; only the timely intervention of Dubius enabled Wolfe to avoid it.
“If you’re gonna hold back, then what’s the point of us even being here?” Wolf asked.
As he set Wolfe down, Dubius asked, “Um…are you alright, Damian?”
“Fine,” Wolfe said, running past him without another word.
Dubius prepared to follow, but Cygnus said, “Tom, on your left!”
Three small whirlwinds of Crimson were moving towards him. Dubius quickly spun around with his wings outstretched, generating his own whirlwinds to counteract the intruders, and then watched as the Crimson gradually settled in place.
“We really need a way to clean this stuff up,” he murmured, glancing past the cloud to see Strong raising his club.
Amy bounded to the side to avoid the weapon, and then up onto Strong’s shoulder, kicking him in the side of the head. She hung on tightly as he tried to shake her off, and looked down to see Kidd throwing Claude up with all his might. The boy enlarged his claw as much as he could so that when he connected with Strong’s jaw, it actually stunned him for a moment—seeing her chance, Amy beat her fist against Strong to call down an avalanche that knocked him off balance. Kidd fired a barrage of energy blasts while Claude shot a stream of water at the same point, and together they managed to send Strong toppling over with a mighty crash.
“Take that!” Claude cheered. “This guy may look like Strong, but he ain’t so tough!”
“Nice job!” Amy said. “Now let’s see if we can keep him down!”
Strong waved his arm blindly as they continued to pelt him with attacks. None of them damaged him all that much, but together they proved enough of a nuisance that he was unable to get back to his feet. Eventually his fingers closed around a small cloud of Crimson. With a bellow, he smashed it into the floor, and it exploded into a radial burst of Noise shrapnel that hit all three of his opponents. They stumbled back, waiting for the stinging pain to die down, as Strong rose up once more.
“Owowow,” Claude grumbled. “Great, back to square one…”
Kidd took a step forward, saying, “I shall draw his attention this time.”
“Huh? You sure about that?”
“Absolutely. You and Amy wait for an opportunity to restrain him.”
Kidd ran at Strong. The lumbering Wizard spat out several acorns to impede him, but they barely even slowed Kidd down. As he drew near, he began creating doppelgangers in a trail behind himself—when Strong swung his club, they all evaded and grouped together. When they separated, Strong was no longer sure which was the real target.
“I’m ready,” Amy said as she slid up next to Claude. “Just tell me as soon as you are.”
Claude snapped his pincers anxiously as he watched Kidd circle around Strong. One of the doppelgangers leapt high and shot an energy blast, its form looking far less solid once it did. Strong destroyed it with his club, and then Kidd and his other doppelgangers leapt in, hitting Strong all over his body before he could pull back from the swing. Grunting, he waved his arm, but accomplished little. Strong raised both hands above his head, shouted, and then slammed them both down, fragmenting the ground around him, destroying Kidd’s doppelgangers, and sending the real one flying a short distance away.
Claude winced, but threw his arms up and said, “Now!”
A great tidal wave came up from the floor. At the same time, Amy reached out and exuded as much cold as she could muster. The wall of water was part-way through breaking over its target when it froze completely, leaving the majority of Strong’s body trapped in an enormous block of ice.
“Whew,” Amy sighed. “Hopefully this’ll hold…”
Claude yelled and ran at Strong, throwing one of his claws to punch him in the face. He alternated his left and right as he continued, and soon Kidd was at his side, adding quick blasts between the punches.
“Take this!” Claude said. “And that! We ain’t afraid of you, right Kidd?”
“Not at all!” Kidd said. “We will not allow this monster to continue disgracing Lord Strong!”
Amy chuckled. “Maybe I should leave it to them.”
“Beg pardon miss,” called Hyde, “but if you are not busy we could use your assistance!”
Amy turned to see Pat and Rey frozen while Hyde desperately fended off Ice by himself. Sliding over, she collided into Ice shoulder-first, sending her crashing into the wall. Ice immediately sent out an iceberg, but it was pulled into a snowball Amy rolled and returned back to its maker. Amy turned to say something and frowned: cracks were already spreading across Strong’s prison.
“What do we try next?” Yeti asked. “That guy’s defenses aren’t gonna be easy to bust through.”
“Sort of wishing Bud was here after all,” Amy mumbled.
Hyde tugged on the brim of his hat and tapped his cane against the floor. “Not to worry, miss. The curtain is about to rise on a scene that I think you will find most thrilling. Heh, heh, heh…”
Pat and Rey finally managed to free themselves at about the same time Ice did. They took up fighting stances as the Wizard looked around in a rage, but rather than take them on, she darted off in the opposite direction.
“No you don’t!” Rey said, raising his arm.
“Wait a second!” Pat said. “Look at Hyde!”
Rey glanced his way—the man was grinning to himself, watching Ice make her way over towards Strong. The immense Wizard shattered the remains of his cage and smashed the ground with his club, narrowly missing Kidd and Claude. He pulled back for another swing, only to find two large icebergs crashing into his shins. Turning, he saw Diamond Ice skating right at him, and tilted his head in confusion. Ice wasted no time in generating a massive hammer and bludgeoning him in the face with it.
“Huh,” Rey said, “guess that works…”
“If they’ve got that handled, let’s help the others,” Pat suggested.
“You sure you don’t need to rest?”
Gemini scoffed. “Show some initiative, boy. Lazing about in the midst of battle is hardly what I’d call productive.”
Pat was off before Rey could respond, so he just followed quietly. Dubius was currently driving Magnes back with a series of kicks—the Wizard evaded each one, sending missiles out at random while he waited for an opening. When he did make a swing, Dubius crossed his arms to block, and Magnes smirked and readied his second blade. Dubius just narrowed his eyes, and the tip of his hat suddenly sharpened into a fine point that extended forward, piercing Magnes’s helmet and interrupting his attack. A swift kick to the chest sent him reeling. That was when Pat and Rey dropped down on either side of him and attacked with their own blades.
“You two?” Wolfe asked. “What about…”
He turned to see Ice assisting in the fight against Club. Before he could ask, a mighty roar from Magnes prompted him to return his attention to more pressing concerns. Magnes retaliated ferociously, Pat and Rey only barely able to parry, and then he leapt backwards and exerted his power. Pat and Rey’s weapon arms were drawn together by magnetism. Rey laughed as they blasted Magnes with Gemini Thunder.
“Heh,” Wolf said, “maybe they don’t need us after all. Good thing, since you weren’t much help anyway.”
Wolfe scowled. Shepar approached him then, asking, “Damian, what’s going on? If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem to be giving it your all.”
Quietly, he replied, “It’s…Magnes. I know it isn’t really him, but…it’s a Wizard I know. A harmless school Wizard.” He looked at his claws. “I spent a long time learning to control myself so I wouldn’t hurt innocent people. Guess part of me can’t help but think that’s what I’m doing now.”
“I see. Then in that case, you’d better leave this to us.”
Wolfe looked up. “I appreciate that, Mitch, but I can’t. You and Tom are still new to this—Pat and Rey too. I can’t just turn tail and leave you all to fend for yourself. You guys need my help.”
Shepar nodded. “So then…you’ll fight Magnes to keep the rest of us safe?”
After a short delay, Wolfe sighed. “Yeesh, it’s really that simple, huh? Gosh, I’m an idiot.”
“Haha, we all need a little push every now and then. Just focus on who you’re defending, not who you’re fighting. You can do this.”
“Right. Thanks, Mitch.”
Wolfe turned to Magnes. Pat, Rey, and Dubius had him surrounded, but his attacks were too wild for them to land a solid hit. Wolfe lengthened his claws and glanced at Shepar.
“You mind?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
A weight appeared over Magnes. He realized in time to jump away, and that was when Wolfe pounced. Before Magnes even saw him, he dealt a blow that threw him up against the side of the now-grounded weight, and then followed up with several more claw slashes before Magnes finally got in a lucky shot. Magnes switched to his rocket form to escape, weaving through weights as he did; Pat used precise lightning blasts to limit his running space even further, and Dubius swooped down from above to send him straight towards the ground. Rey was waiting with his arm in the shape of a hammer. He smacked Magnes so hard he went flying off to the other side of the room, where Strong’s club accidentally hit him dead-on, and he was ultimately launched straight into Ice, leaving the two of them in a tangled heap.
“Good job, kids,” Wolfe said. “Come on, let’s keep on him!”
Pat chuckled. “Whatever you say, Mr. Wolfe!”
Strong was vaguely aware of Magnes, but didn’t have time to do much about it. A tidal wave nearly knocked his club from his hand, and as he was struggling to keep hold, Kidd dealt a pinpoint blow to his opposite shoulder. Strong’s arm went limp for a moment, leaving him even less able to defend himself. He roared in frustration as the attacks just kept coming.
Nearby, Hyde turned to see Pat, Rey, and the others chasing after Magnes, greeting, “Well…bang-up job, I suppose. But, there is a slight complication…”
Ice threw Magnes off and leapt to her feet. Her eyes were burning with fury, and they were now fixed squarely on Hyde. Pat acted fast: he generated a few dozen orbs of lightning that hung low to the ground, and they all gradually moved in on Ice’s location. Wolfe extended his claws to try swipe at her from afar, but she ducked and put both hands on the floor, willing sharp icicles to jut up all around her and offer some defense against the minefield closing in on her. Shepar shot a fireball to obliterate them instantly.
Magnes was back up now, looking worse for wear but not defeated yet. He roared weakly, and then fired a barrage of missiles that absorbed the lightning orbs Pat had made and forcing him and his allies to scatter. Ice rushed forward at the chance. Pat shot a rocket punch, but she generated a snowflake in her hand to block it and then rammed into him with it. He slid across the ground, barely noticing Magnes fly by overhead, but his attention was drawn to Ice, who was rearing back with another hammer. Pat’s eyes widened. He scrambled futilely to get up off the slick floor, and braced himself as Ice swung down. At the last second, Rey dove in and pushed him out of the way. The hammer struck his brother with enough force that the ground beneath him cracked, drawing a quick shout of pain from him before the strength completely drained from his body.
“Rey!” he shouted, finally rolling back up on his feet. “Rey, are you okay?!”
Shepar dropped a weight to snap the hammer in two. Moving towards Ice, he shouted, “Hey, over here!”
As he forced Ice back with a shower of fireballs, Pat ran over to Rey, who lay sprawled out on the floor with his teeth clenched. “Rey…!”
“Heh…sorry, Pat,” Rey said. “I’m…not so sure…I can move…”
“Not only that, we’ve lost quite a lot of energy from all the hits you’ve been taking,” Gemini said. “We may not be able to maintain Wave Change much longer.”
Panic began to swell in Pat’s chest. “Well…what do we do? What are we going to do, Rey?!”
“Calm down,” Gemini said. “I will be able to conserve energy if I gather it into one form—dismissing Rey’s body will allow me to focus my power upon maintaining Wave Change with you. And, mangled as he is, it’s the better idea anyway.”
“What?! But I need Rey! I can’t do this without him! There has to be another way, I—“
“Hey,” Rey said, slowly reaching up. “Pat…c’mere.”
Pat took Rey’s hand, leaning down to listen.
“It’s gonna be…okay. I’m not…gonna be much help…in this state…I gotta rest…regain my energy…so I’m sorry…but you’re gonna need to finish this…without me.”
“But…I still need you, Rey! I’m not ready to do this myself!”
Rey grinned. “I’m not gonna be gone forever…I’m always here for you, whenever you need me. Thing is…right now? You don’t need me, bro.”
Pat shook his head. “Rey, I…”
“I know…you can do it. You’ve gotten…so strong, Pat…and you’ve got plenty of others watching your back too. I…I trust them. And I know that you can do this…without me.” He cringed as his body spasmed, but then chuckled. “’Sides…even if I’m not out here…I’ll always be a part of you. You’re never really alone, Pat. So…go get ‘em.”
Rey tightened his grip. In a flash, his form vanished, and then Pat’s right arm began to glow. A second later, it was encased in the same gold metal as his left, but rather than a + on the shoulder, it bore a – symbol. He gently grabbed the arm, and bit his lip.
“…Right. You’re still with me, Rey. And right now, you need me to protect you. So…I’ll take the lead this time.”
Pat turned around. Shepar and Hyde were holding off Ice—they weren’t having much luck hitting her, but Hyde was similarly evading her attacks, while Shepar took very little damage thanks to his armor.
“How dramatic,” Gemini said. “If you’re quite done, then—“
“Shut up, Gemini.”
The FM-ian was taken aback. However, he said nothing more. Pat headed off across the icy floor, raising his right arm and firing each of its fingers individually while his left crackled with electricity. Ice dodged the projectiles and skated towards him. As his fingers regenerated, Pat hurled a lightning blast; Ice easily avoided it and sent out an iceberg, circling around to keep an eye on her target. Turning his arm into a clawed gauntlet, Pat jumped and clung to the iceberg, firing more lightning bolts to keep Ice on her toes. Hyde and Shepar had caught up now to assist him, and together they boxed Ice in. Pat leapt off the iceberg and formed his arm into a drill, pushing Ice back as he created another electric orb behind her—she was stunned, allowing him to knock her back with a hammer. Ice quickly jumped up and cut him with her skates, but stumbled when she came back down. Both Pat’s hands crackled.
“This is for Rey!” he said, clapping them together. “Gemini Thunder!”
He opened his palms and thrust them forward. A spiraling torrent of lightning poured forth, colliding headfirst with Ice and tearing her body into shreds of Noise near-instantly. Pat let out a long breath before smiling.
“Hm…well done,” Gemini said. “You truly have improved.”
Pat nodded. “Thanks. But we’re not done just yet.”
Meanwhile, Dubius and Wolfe had continued to beat down a rapidly-weakening Magnes, one of his arms now completely severed as he floated back cautiously. He fired a missile that exploded into an energy field, allowing him to repel the both of them, but not before they summoned a handful of minions just beyond the field’s limits to keep him occupied.
“Hey, Tom,” Wolfe said. “Whaddaya say we finish this guy so we can move onto the big one?”
Tom chuckled nervously. “Ah, well…sure. Why not?”
Magnes looked up to see Wolfe extending his claws across the room. They pierced him like a group of spears, pinning him to the wall, and he flailed his remaining arm against them as Dubius danced towards him. Magnes managed to cut through one of the claws, but that was all he could do before Dubius smashed his head into the wall with a kick. A few seconds later, his body too disintegrated into Noise.
Everyone’s attention was now on Strong. He surveyed the room, realizing that his allies were down, and scowled. After enduring a few more hits, he clenched his fists and shouted—slowly, all the Crimson in the room converged on him, soaking into his body until none of it remained. A red glow enveloped Strong, and he glared down at his foes with new malice.
Shepar was quick to act, peppering Strong with fireballs. Wolfe ran forward to swipe his claws through one of them, lighting them before slashing at Strong’s chest, but even that only stopped Strong for a second. He swung his club, and a massive tornado moved forward to toss everyone about. Opening his mouth, he began spitting out acorns, and each one exploded as soon as they hit something, causing even more damage to the room. One of Hyde’s shadow hands reached out from the wall and grabbed Strong’s club—it tried to wrest the weapon away from him, but it was no use. Strong simply ripped it free and bashed it against the floor, sending cracks shooting all across it.
“Uh-oh,” Cancer said. “This is really, really bad! We could barely touch this guy before, and now…”
Claude gritted his teeth. “I know…but we can’t give up! He’s taken a lot of damage already, we just gotta keep pushing until he finally breaks, no matter how much it takes! We’re not running away this time, right Kidd?”
Kidd nodded. “…I do believe a change of strategy is in order, however. Allow me a moment to gather my energy.”
Claude turned to him and, after a short delay, said, “Wait, are you gonna try that new technique? Are you sure about that?”
“Perhaps not sure, but I have decided. That is, if you agree, Goat?”
“I do,” Goat said. “Claude is right: we must do whatever it takes.”
“…Alright then,” Claude said. “I’ll make sure you have all the time you need!”
Kidd smiled, and then closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Claude turned back around to see how the others were doing: Amy was pelting Strong with snowballs while Dubius flitted around his head battering him with feathers, and Hyde, Wolfe, and Pat hacked away at his ankles. Shepar alternated fire and water blasts as he slowly circled the field, dropping a weight on Strong’s head when he saw a chance. Strong spat an explosive acorn at him, but he had already switched places, and spun himself into a whirlwind right on Strong’s back. With a heave, Strong threw himself back into a wall, smashing Shepar into it, and then summoned another tornado that swept up Dubius. Strong peeled Shepar off the wall and threw him across the room—Shepar was barely able to switch places with another weight, ending up safe on the ground while he caught his breath.
“Can you put him in an illusion?” Pat asked, carefully avoiding Strong’s swing.
“Unfortunately,” Hyde said, “I put so much energy into Miss Ice’s show that the budget won’t allow for another performance. Dreadfully sorry about that.”
Wolfe lengthened his claws and swung them upward, slashing Strong’s chin. The Wizard responded by kicking him, putting him in the opposite wall. Pat distracted him with a wall of lightning bolts as Amy came closer, Hyde offering what help he could; Amy tried freezing Strong’s damaged shoulder, but he whipped around as soon as he felt a chill, dealing a powerful hit that sent her flying. Strong swatted at Pat, but Hyde managed to get him away in time. That was when Strong finally noticed Claude and Kidd. He spat an acorn at them, but Claude acted quickly, catching it in a bubble before it exploded.
“You kids need to move!” Shepar shouted.
“He can’t!” Claude said. “He’s focusing his power for a last-ditch move right now! I gotta keep him safe so he can finish!”
Shepar grunted. Strong was rearing back, so he focused on the space in front of Claude and dropped a few dozen weights as fast as he could. Just as he finished, Strong threw a hundred punches, releasing a hundred precise shockwaves that battered against the barrier and slowly but surely rattled it apart. Still, not a single hit reached Claude. Strong prepared to fix that just as Dubius kicked a clawed foot into his eye.
“Thanks, mister!” Claude said.
Shepar rolled over to them, asking, “How much more time does he need?”
Claude looked back at Kidd: a subtle glow was emanating from him. “He should be close…just a little more time!”
Wolfe and Hyde were back in the fight. Amy shook her head before limping over, and noticed the pile of dented weights lying around. She grinned.
“Hey,” she called, forming a snowball, “heads-up!”
With a push, the snowball went rolling into the pile of debris, absorbing them all to grow far larger. It rolled to a stop, now looking a bit too heavy to be thrown, so instead Claude slammed his pincers into the floor to summon a tidal wave, the wall of water picking up the snowball and carrying it forward to break over Strong. The Wizard was stunned—even more so once Pat fired off a Gemini Thunder, using the snow around him to strengthen the effect. Claude looked back again to see Kidd’s eyes open.
“I’m ready,” Kidd said. “Here we go…”
The glow surrounding him grew brighter. Gradually, Kidd began to increase in size, growing until he was about the same height as Strong and then taking a moment to exhale. Strong immediately took notice and grunted at him.
“This ends now!”
Kidd lunged and bashed Strong in the chest before he had time to react. The Wizard was slammed back against the wall, nearly breaking through it, and watched wide-eyed as Kidd pressed his advantage. After taking another punch, Strong managed to catch Kidd’s fist in his hand—he twisted the boy’s arm, giving him time to kick him back, but Kidd rolled up onto his feet and right back into his stance. Strong jumped forward to throw a punch, and when Kidd blocked him, he backed away and readied his club. Kidd retreated, the weapon narrowly missing him. He saw Strong getting ready to spit more acorns, so he moved in, dealing several hits in rapid succession to stun his enemy and whittle down his endurance. Kidd raised his fist for the final blow, but without warning, Strong’s aura burst, throwing him off-guard for a moment. That was all the time Strong needed to floor him with his club.
“Kidd!” Claude shouted.
Strong reared back for another blow, but before he could swing, a snowball blinded him. He cleared it quickly, whirling to send a tornado after Amy, but Dubius appeared to dispel it, sticking him with a few feathers at the same time. Wolfe leapt onto Strong, and as the Wizard struggled to pry him off, Hyde teleported just behind his neck and kicked up a shockwave. Strong shooed him away and tossed Wolfe aside, spotting Shepar wheeling over. He was about to strike when Pat appeared, stunning him with a drill strike to the ankle, and Shepar was able to close in and generate a column of fire and water right in front of Strong. The Wizard was fuming by the time he could move again. He didn’t realize Kidd was back on his feet until the boy drove both fists straight into his chest, flinging him into the wall once more.
“There,” Kidd panted. “That should...do it…”
Kidd rapidly shrank back to his normal size, falling over in exhaustion. Everyone watched carefully to see if Strong would get back up. He did.
“We need a new plan!” Shepar said. “I’ll get Kidd out, the rest of you keep Strong back!”
They readied themselves as Strong took a slow step forward. The giant hefted his club high above his head, growling weakly as he did. Then, one of Claude’s pincers came flying through the air, striking his fingers and making him lose his grip. The club fell directly onto Strong’s head, dropping him instantly. As his body finally began to fade, Claude reattached his pincer and ran over to Kidd’s side, and the others all collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
“Kidd, are you alright?” Claude asked, gently grabbing him the shoulders.
“I’m fine, Claude,” Kidd said. “Nice throw.”
“Hehe, yeah, I guess. We did it, huh? All of us did!”
He grinned at everybody as they undid their Wave Changes one by one. Hyde clapped his hands slowly, saying, “Bravo, bravo to all! Seems the troubled production of Project-TC came together quite nicely in the end! The question is, what do we do now?”
“I think we should rest up,” Shepar said. “That battle took a lot out of us.”
“I agree,” Dubius said. “Besides, the others haven’t requested backup…and, really, I don’t think it’s likely they will.”
“Wouldn’t hurt to go see if they need it, though,” Wolfe said.
“Oh, we can discuss that later,” Hyde said. “For the time being, I believe Mr. Shepar has the right idea. We’ve earned a brief intermission. Whatever comes next can wait at least a few minutes, don’t you think?”
There were no complaints. As they all found somewhere to sit in the rubble, Pat glanced up at the doorway that led deeper into the base; despite the relief he felt at his own battle being over, a strand of worry was gradually creeping over him now that he had the chance to think of something else.
We’ve got this part covered…so you’ll be fine too, won’t you? Geo?
The Satella Officer peeked up over his cover. Viruses were rushing across the plains of Whazzap, a handful of which were nearly upon them. Turning to his new blaster, he flipped through the Battle Card display and then took aim: loading an Air Spread, he shot one virus and the energy burst out to damage the others nearby, making a small hole in the oncoming forces.
“Keep at it!” shouted another officer. “We can’t let them through!”
A shadow passed overhead. Seconds later, missiles fell upon the enemy forces, eradicating huge swaths of them at a time. The officers looked up and cheered, and Terra Condor screeched as he circled back around.
“The other fronts are accounted for!” the Shaman said. “As soon as these interlopers are dealt with, the battle will be over!”
A few of the viruses below took note of him. They attacked, but only a handful had the range to even threaten him, and even those he could easily avoid. That is, until one powerful blast of flame caught him by surprise. The Shaman took another look at the forces below: standing at the rear was a rather large humanoid Wizard clad in gleaming silver armor lined with small spikes, his head shaped like that of a Mal Wizard and a Coin emblem on his chest. In place of hands, each arm ended in a long, rectangular gun barrel.
“Finally!” he shouted. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d EVER show up! See, I was told to save my strength to take you out, and I’ve been itching to test out this new power!”
“Hmph!” the Shaman scoffed. “Dealer thinks you will be able to defeat me? You hardly look like much.”
The Wizard laughed. “Looks can be deceiving, buddy! Let’s find out together if you can handle the onslaught of Silver Ballistic!”
With a shout, Silver fired a volley of blasts into the air. The Shaman dropped and angled his body to weave through the spread, returning fire as soon as he saw an opening. Silver shot up one more blast as he jumped to the side, this one erupting into a bright flare that blinded the Shaman; he pulled up and tried to keep his distance until his sight returned, but he felt the sting of several shots nonetheless.
“How irritating,” the Shaman grumbled.
“My friend,” Condor said, “while we deal with him, we must not forget our comrades.”
The Shaman realized the virus horde was once again advancing on the Satella Officers. Circling wide to give himself a bit of time, he released two missiles that dropped a few feet before slowing down a bit, flashing a few times before transforming into miniature replicas of Terra Condor.
“That should suffice for now,” he said as they swooped down towards the battlefield. “Now, back to the loud one…”
Silver was still sending shots up, making him an easy target. The Shaman fired missiles just as he started his approach, and, predictably, Silver shot them out of the sky. Still, the distraction allowed the Shaman to close in and take aim with his lasers. The Wizard barely stumbled out of the way.
“Whoa, almost!” Silver said.
More missiles came at him before he was ready, so he pointed his weapons down and fired them as he jumped: the recoil of the blast propelled him a good distance out of the way, enabling him to avoid damage. The Shaman gave chase, so Silver stayed on the defensive. He was slowly losing room to run, so the Shaman watched for an opportunity, but before he could find one, something hit him from behind. Shocked, he faltered in his attack, and Silver grinned.
“Try this one!” he shouted, aiming one of his arms. “Silver Bullet!”
The barrel glinted briefly before something shot out of it. The bullet moved so fast the Shaman barely even saw it, but despite how small it was, it stung horrendously when it struck the base of his wing. He spiraled briefly before righting himself, and glanced back a moment to see what had initially surprised him. Where Silver had fired at the ground earlier, two turrets resembling his weapon arms now sprouted up from the rock, tracking his every move. He grunted.
“So even when he’s not shooting at us, we still have cause for concern,” the Shaman said. “I suppose he’s not to be taken lightly after all.”
He created two more miniatures before renewing his attack on Silver. As he did, the miniatures went to deal with the mounted artillery—carefully avoiding their shots, one miniature sent out a wave of missiles to provide some cover, and the second used a laser beam to slice the arms apart. Silver launched a massive fireball, so the Shaman fired missiles to intercept it. Before they hit, however, the ball split apart into a dozen tiny streams of flame, each arcing in a different direction. Several grazed the Shaman, and one destroyed a miniature as it was coming around to assist him. The Shaman flew low to the ground as his remaining miniature rained missiles on their foe. Too off-balance to counterattack, Silver rolled to the side as the Shaman bore down on him, taking aim once he came back up. A laser from the miniature hit him square in the back, cutting him off before the tiny craft crashed into him and self-destructed.
“Argh…alright, not bad,” Silver said. “But I’m not quitting until I shoot you out of the sky!”
He brought his arms together, and in a flash they merged into one enormous gun that he aimed at the Shaman. The barrel spun rapidly as shots poured out of it, Silver’s cackling almost drowned out by the sound; the Shaman was able to stay ahead of the stream of destruction, but not by a wide enough margin that he would have an easy time retaliating. He deployed a few missiles to see what would happen. Before they could reach Silver, they were destroyed by blasts coming from another direction—this drew the Shaman’s attention to a nearby rock outcropping, where he realized one of Silver’s turrets was sitting.
When did he plant that?
It occurred to him too late that the sound of bullets had stopped. Silver had already separated his arms and sent out two blasts: one a flare that blinded the distracted Shaman, and the other a splitting attack that impacted all across his body. The Shaman veered off, trying to safely recover. Even if he couldn’t see, he knew this area well enough that he could navigate it blind…or so he thought, until a blast from an unexpected direction hit him.
More artillery? When…oh, that’s right. He said he’d been waiting. I should have expected he was not simply twiddling his thumbs.
The Shaman’s eyesight returned just in time to see one of Silver’s barrels gleaming. He banked, but the Silver Bullet still found its mark, blowing off an entire chunk of his wing. Several nearby turrets sniped him as he lost altitude, leveling out only just before hitting the ground.
“We’re sitting ducks,” Condor said. “There is no sufficient cover nearby, and we cannot be sure how many of those guns he’s planted. We require caution…but, I am not so sure a cautious approach can defeat a foe like this.”
“It will have to,” the Shaman said, creating two miniatures. “The people of Whazzap are depending on us. We are not allowed to fail.”
The miniatures stayed low and went in different directions, skirting the edges of the area to hunt down the turrets. The Shaman made a show of charging back in, firing dozens of missiles at once, in the hopes of baiting some of them into giving away their position. Many did: fireballs came at the Shaman from what seemed like every direction, and at the last second he accelerated suddenly to pull out of danger. Silver had both weapons aimed at him, but he wasn’t able to shoot before the Shaman fired a trio of lasers that swept over the ground towards him. He dodged narrowly, spinning back into position to finish his attack, and this time he heard a screech from behind. One of the missiles the Shaman had sent earlier had transformed into a miniature after he had dodged it, and it had now doubled back to stun him with its own laser as the Shaman closed from the other side. Two more turrets made themselves known, but the Shaman took the blasts and kept going until he smashed nose-first into Silver. The Wizard was flung back, bouncing off the ground a few times before the Shaman collided into him again—he then opened his mouth and fired a beam that pushed Silver off into the distance, stopping only when it slammed him into a rock face. The Shaman slowed then, powering up his wing cannons as the dust settled.
“You were destined to fail, you fool!” the Shaman called. “Unlike you, I have a reason to fight, and—“
A Silver Bullet shot from the dust, striking one of his cannons and shattering its casing. The energy that had built up exploded out, knocking the Shaman sideways and straight into the ground.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Silver said, fusing his weapons together. “I’m not interested in any speeches today!”
The Shaman couldn’t get off the ground before the blasts started to batter him. Luckily, his miniatures had dealt with all of the turrets and now came to his aid, their combined assault able to distract Silver just long enough for the Shaman to take off. Snarling, Silver knocked one miniature away and then spun to face the other two, waiting for them to get close to each other so that when he shot one with a Silver Bullet, the explosion it left behind took out the other.
“We have sustained heavy damage!” Condor said. “If we do not finish this quickly…”
The Shaman’s breathing was ragged. Focusing on Silver, he said, “I think I know the best way…muster your strength, Condor. One last attack!”
He screeched as he dove back towards Silver, the Wizard laughing at him. Lasers came from the Shaman’s mouth and remaining cannon, the beams twisting slightly as they moved; Silver stepped back, but the attack did not take the path he thought it would, instead curving to the side before coming back around.
“Okay—almost got me there,” he said as he shuffled past another beam. “But was that it? Just trying to surprise me with some random beam patterns? That won’t cut it!”
The beams suddenly ceased. The Shaman stopped in mid-air, panting. Silver took aim.
“You done? Good.”
A chuckle came from the Shaman. “You are…a fool…you misunderstood…my intentions…”
Cocking his head, Silver glanced down at the ground. The beams had carved an intricate design under his feet, some sort of symbol that he did not recognize. “What’s this, one of your fancy Lines this place loves so much? I’m not impressed.”
“No…this symbol…is from the language of Mu…”
A sudden shriek caught Silver’s attention. One miniature was still around, firing a laser that carved one final detail into the symbol. The glyph shone with light as soon as it was complete.
“Whazzap,” the Shaman said.
A massive explosion engulfed Silver. When it cleared, he was nowhere to be seen. The Shaman sighed deeply, and slowly sank to the ground.
“Excellent work, my friend!” Condor said.
“And same to you, Condor.”
“Whazzap is safe at last. Shall we separate so that you can rest properly?”
Slowly, the Shaman lifted back up. “Not yet…we still need to be sure the Satella Officers have finished off those viruses.”
“Haha, you never rest, do you?”
“Not when our people are concerned.”
“An excellent point. In that case, let us be off.”
Countless emotions mixed together in Sonia’s mind as she made her way down the long room, Geo, Ace, Bud, and Solo right behind her. They came a halt right at the top of a staircase, and all silently fixed their eyes on Joker. He regarded them collectively with a calm fury in his eyes. Sonia took a deep breath.
“There you are, Joker,” Ace said. “Hey, mind telling us where King is? I figured he’d be here, but it looks like he must’ve taken off already.”
A massive screen appeared behind Joker. It displayed an image of King, who said, “Ho ho, welcome back, Ace! I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever come home!”
Sonia looked up at the screen. So that’s Mr. King? And…
Her eyes wandered, allowing her a glimpse of Heartless in the background.
…Wait a minute…have I…seen her somewhere?
“Don’t get all sentimental on me,” Ace said. “I’m just here to finally shut this place down. If you’d be willing to come quietly, that’d make things a lot easier for all parties involved.”
King laughed. “Don’t bother bluffing, Ace! You know I hold all the cards. There isn’t a thing you can do to stop me.”
“Heh…we’ll see about that.”
“Won’t you introduce me to your friends?” He leaned forward. “Hello everyone. My name is Mr. King, and I am the leader of Dealer. You’ve already met my sons Ace and Joker, and this is my assistant Heartless.”
Heartless bowed slightly. Sonia thought, Somewhere…where? Why can’t I put my finger on it?
“And who do we have here? Harp Note, of course—the legendary heroine who has been so helpful as of late.”
Setting the matter of this mysterious woman aside for the moment, Sonia turned back to King.
“I see she brought her sidekick Mega Man, no surprises there.”
Mega scoffed. Geo just waited patiently.
“And…why, if it isn’t Rogue! Truth be told I’m quite surprised you’re actually cooperating with anyone!”
“Hmph,” Solo said. “I didn’t ask you.”
“And that just leaves…” He squinted at Bud. “Hm. You know, I’m sure I’ve seen this one before, but his name escapes me at the moment…”
“H-Hey!” Bud shouted. “That’s Taurus Fire, and don’t you forget it!”
“Regardless,” King said, “I’m afraid we’re just not ready for guests at the moment. Why don’t you all run along and keep producing Crimson for me like good children? Otherwise…I shall become very cross.”
“We’re not going anywhere until we have you in custody,” Ace said. “If you won’t come willingly—“
“Wait,” Sonia said. “Ace, let me try, please.”
Ace nodded. Sonia stepped forward, and King said, “Oh, how splendid! I’ve heard such excellent things about your methods, Harp Note—it’ll be such a treat to participate in a demonstration!”
“Mr. King,” Sonia said. “There has to be some way we can settle this peacefully. What is it that you’re really after? Maybe we can find a different way to achieve it, one that doesn’t involve so much violence.”
King stroked his chin. “What I’m after, eh? All this time, I’ve been telling my subordinates our goal is to control the world…but now, perhaps I can finally come clean about my true goals.”
Ace inclined his head. “Y…you’re not trying to control the world? Then, why do you need Meteor G? What was the point of creating Dealer?!”
King shrugged. “What’s so wrong with wanting a family, Ace? Whatever other purposes you’ve served, I truly do consider you all my children. What more point do I need?”
Ace gaped. Sonia went on, “So you wanted a family? This couldn’t have been the only way to have that.”
“No,” King sighed, “it wasn’t. But when I explored a more traditional route, things…didn’t quite go the way I wanted them to.”
“…Oh.” Sonia began to feel a painful sting in her heart. “I’m sorry…something happened to your family?”
King folded his hands, looking up at nothing in particular. “How long has it been now? How long since I married the love of my life, since we were living happily together, raising our children as we both worked to better the world with our scientific skill? How long since I was truly happy…hah. Seems I’ve lost track. What a shame.” He paused. “But…how long has WAZA been studying Noise? A year, if that? Do correct me if I’m wrong.”
No one did.
“Yes, something like that. They only just began working on it, only now that it’s become a problem. We’ve known about Noise for years, decades now. There was so little of it that no one thought it was worth looking into…save for me, and my lovely wife. We realized the terrible potential Noise had, that if the world waited for it to become a problem, it would already be too late. So we gathered what Noise we could and devoted our lives to studying it. After years of work, we were finally so close to a breakthrough…when I lost everything.”
King slid a hand up over his face.
“We were running a new experiment on the Noise…I left the house to make a call. As I was coming back, something went wrong—the Noise corrupted our equipment, all of the devices in our building, and before I even knew what was happening…”
He pulled his hand away, taking his mask with it. The skin it had covered was badly burned, blanketed in dozens of tiny cuts. Sonia covered her mouth.
“It all blew up in my face.”
King slowly removed his glove—the hand beneath was mangled in the same way.
“Roughly 70% of my body is still covered in scar tissue from the explosion. I was paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors said I was lucky to be alive. I had trouble agreeing…seeing as the rest of my family was not.”
“…I’m so sorry,” Sonia said, feeling the sting intensify. “I know how much it hurts to lose someone you love. And…I know how desperate the need to fill that void can be.”
King studied his hand, mumbling, “Indeed, indeed. It broke me, quite frankly. I didn’t want to go on, not after Noise took everything away from me.”
“Then…why are you still working with it? What are you trying to gain from it?”
King raised an eyebrow. “Gain? Weren’t you listening, my dear? Noise doesn’t bring gain, only loss. I lost everything because of it…and that sort of unbridled, destructive power, it’s simply…” A grin crossed his face. “Magnificent.”
Sonia blinked, unable to process what he had just said. “W…what?”
“The potential of Noise is terrible indeed,” King said, slowly lifting his arms. “Terrible, and wonderful! It corrupts and destroys everything it touches—it is as inevitable as entropy itself! After seeing it with my own two eyes, I finally understood! And it is my duty to share that epiphany!” He laughed. “Control the world? What a bore! I want to see the world corrupted and destroyed, preferably by the wretched, all-consuming power of Noise!”
Shuddering, Sonia said, “I…I don’t understand! Why would you want that?! If you know what it feels like to lose everything, then why would you want to inflict that on someone else?”
King chuckled as he slipped his mask and glove back on. “Oh, you simple, naïve child. I knew you would never be able to grasp such concepts.”
Sonia stared up at him, completely baffled. As she struggled for a response, Solo walked past her, fixing a glare directly on King. “I’ve waited long enough. King. Tell me what you’ve done with the xarium.”
King tilted his head. “Beg pardon? The what?”
“Don’t play dumb. I want to know where you’re keeping the xarium you stole from the Murian shrine. It does not belong to you.”
“Oh? Is that why you’ve been butting into our affairs?”
With a shake of his head, King replied, “I’m sorry, my boy, but I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Whatever was in this shrine of yours, Dealer was not the one who stole it.”
Solo narrowed his eyes. “Am I supposed to believe that? Who else could it be?”
“How should I know? And, more importantly, why on Earth would I lie about it? If I did have such a thing, I’d have it in my hands right now, watching you froth angrily as I taunt you with it. Surely you can vouch for me, Ace?”
Solo turned to Ace. Hesitantly, he said, “…Yeah. That sounds about right.”
After a slight pause, Solo’s gaze fell to the floor. “…The xarium…isn’t here…?”
King laughed. “Oh this is hysterical! This whole time, you’ve been picking a fight with us out of petty vengeance for something we didn’t even do! How absurd! Ho ho ho ho!”
Gritting his teeth, Solo glared at Joker. “…Well. Whatever the case, I still have a score to settle with this one. So let’s just move on to that.”
Joker nodded. “I too am eager to put an end to this. May we begin, Mr. King?”
“One moment,” King said. “Is there anything else you would like to add, Harp Note? Or are we in fact done?”
Sonia clenched her fists. The sting had become a burn, slowly spreading through her body. “…You…you just want others to share the same pain you feel. The exact same pain I’ve felt—the pain I’ve sworn to protect people from! I don’t know if I should feel sorry for you…or if you’re just a monster deep down. Either way…” She glared at him as she formed her guitar. “I’m not letting you get away with it, King! Dealer is finished!”
King smirked. “How quaint. Well, now that I’ve got your foes all riled up, Joker…why don’t you quash their enthusiasm? Go on. Unleash your true power!”
A smile of pure glee came to Joker’s face. “Yes, Mr. King! Thank you!” Facing the group again, he added, “Finally…it is time! I shall show you weaklings what true power is, and grind you to dust beneath my unstoppable might!”
He bellowed as an aura of Noise instantly sprang up around him. The team was prepared in a flash: Ace Wave Changed, Solo drew Laplace, Bud began burning red-hot, and Geo activated Wolf Gemini Noise. Sonia chose Cygnus Gemini, her helmet growing a beak-like brim and sharp talons sprouting from her boots, her single scarf splitting into two shaped like wings—one white, one black. The armor was mainly yellow in color with a few silver accents, but the outer sides of her arms and legs had splashes of white and black to match the wings. Her guitar, which featured two necks, was made of gold metal, with spikes on the body that crackled with sparks when she held it at the ready.
“Noise level 100%,” Joker said. “150%...200%. Rrrragh! 300%!”
Energy swelled around him, acting like a gust of wind that nearly bowled over Sonia and the others. They held their ground as Joker’s power continued to climb.
“700…800…900…! Noise level at maximum! Now…” He threw back his head. “Finalize! Grave Joker!”
A sphere of dense Noise formed around Joker, a shape that resembled Meteor G itself. It compressed around him slightly, and then expanded greatly, keeping its form for only a few seconds more before bursting apart to reveal Joker. In many ways, his attire hadn’t changed too dramatically: he still wore his coat, which now featured brighter gold designs and patches of bright red that lined up with matching designs on his boots, which sported wider, rounder armor. His sunglasses remained as a visor, now connected to silver metal that lined the sides of his head and his jawline, and similar light blue glass covered the top of his head. His arms saw the most change, both in the bulbous red armguards he now sported, and in the two massive, angular protrusions that sat on his shoulders. Crimson radiated from their points as he looked down on his opponents.
“This,” he said, “is the full power of Meteor G, available to those of us able to wield the Joker Program.” He pointed at Sonia. “Count yourself lucky, Harp Note…for this is the only time you will see the power you lack the ability to master.”
Sonia wished she had a retort for him, but she couldn’t speak. Without even trying, she could sense the incredible power Joker had at his disposal, and it was far, far worse than anything she had been prepared for.
She snapped to, realizing it was Lyra who had spoken to her.
“We can do this,” the FM-ian said gently. “I imagine it will not be easy, but we will no doubt find a way. Don’t forget that our friends are here to aid us.”
Sonia glanced back over her shoulder. “…That’s…part of why I’m so worried…”
Joker suddenly took a step forward. Everyone else stepped back unconsciously. With a shout, Bud lowered his horns and charged, saying, “Whatever! You’re through, pal!”
He barreled ahead too quickly for anyone to stop him, and rammed headfirst into Joker. Joker didn’t move an inch. Bud pushed with all his might, but it was no use.
“Pathetic,” Joker said as he raised one hand.
With a mere flick of his finger, Bud was sent flying. Joker looked up to see Laplace, in blade form, spinning through the air towards him, but made no effort to dodge. Laplace similarly failed to affect Joker, transforming back to normal as Solo dashed in to use an uppercut. Despite connecting with his foe’s jaw, Solo’s attack did nothing—Laplace grabbed him before Joker had the chance to counterattack, swinging him around in a full circle to deliver a kick to Joker’s face. Solo flipped up as Laplace became a sword once more, swinging down with all his might to execute a slash that caused a massive geyser of purple flame to erupt from the ground. Joker then threw a knee, obliterating Laplace’s barrier without slowing down and sending Solo rolling back down the stairs.
Ace’s wings fired, propelling him around Joker in a circle as he fired off a series of Wide Waves. Sonia and Geo leapt forward to unleash a joint lightning attack, and then quickly retreated, Sonia wrapping Joker in electrified strings while Geo teleported behind him to execute a series of fast sword strikes. Ace shot an arrow that increased gravity around Joker, trying to hold him down, and then rushed forward to thrust his bayonet. Joker waited until they were done before effortlessly snapping through his bindings.
“You’re all so weak!”
He beat his fists together. A shockwave of Noise radiated out from him, knocking everyone off their feet. Next he punched the ground, causing two massive blocks of metal to shoot up from the floor beneath Sonia and Geo, while a third fell from the ceiling and nearly crushed Ace. Taking another slow step forward, he shrugged off the blasts Ace peppered him with and watched as the team regrouped. Bud fired two rocket punches at him, but they too had no effect.
“Not even a scratch…” Geo muttered. “Does anyone have any ideas?”
“Acid,” Sonia said, “you’re analyzing him, right? How long until you’ve got something?”
“I already possess complete data on Joker,” Acid said. “At this level, the only approach known to be effective is Finalization.”
Joker’s arm turned into a buster. A steady stream of missiles shot out of the barrel, so the group scattered, Sonia using her strings to pull herself over to one of the metal blocks for cover. She waited for the attack to stop, but it kept going and going. Eventually, Joker ceased firing, and a trio of flame pillars sprang up around him as Bud moved in. Sonia played quickly: a series of connected notes bursting with electricity shot from her guitar, and Joker stopped as they hit him. Bud began to punch at him wildly; meanwhile, Solo hung back drawing a series of glyphs in the air, and Geo and Ace seemed to be planning something. Sonia played more notes to keep Joker stunned…until he slowly managed to break free of the paralysis and flatten Bud with a swing of his arm.
“You should not have come, boy,” Joker said. “Even compared to these weaklings, you are pitifully frail.”
“No,” Bud said, “I’ve definitely gotten stronger! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
He breathed out a wall of flame as he backed away. Sonia carefully aimed the head of her guitar and began rapidly firing feather bullets at Joker, and soon Solo joined in, shooting a storm of fist-shaped blasts as he walked forward with a subtle glow. His eyes flashed as he swung Laplace, and this time Joker reacted: he stumbled back a half-step and clutched his wound, giving a muffled grunt. Solo leapt back as his glow disappeared, but this was when Ace charged in at top speed—he tackled Joker, slipped behind him, and wrapped his arms around Joker’s, holding him in place. Sonia was about to move in when she saw Geo taking aim.
“Stay back!” he said. “Here we go…Buster MAX!”
His arm cannon lit up red. When he fired, countless massive bullets burst from the weapon’s tip, flying across the room to pound against Joker one right after the other. Joker gritted his teeth as he grunted.
Finally, Sonia thought, adding her own blasts to the assault. If we can just keep up the pressure…
Joker opened his palm. A beam of Noise lanced forth, striking Geo and knocking him against the wall. Ace leapt back as Joker tried to grab him, but Joker was back on him in a second, dealing a rapid series of kicks that stunned Ace. One of Bud’s rocket punches exploded against Joker’s back. The Wizard turned and lunged at Bud, bashing him into the floor with both hands.
“NO!” Sonia shouted, rushing forward in a panic. She nimbly danced around Joker for a time, dealing a few swift kicks to him, but soon Joker made contact and she hit the ground, dazed.
Joker looked up as Solo came back, glowing once again. He raised his arm to block the slash, still grunting as the blade bit into him, and then retaliated with a Noise beam that Solo only barely avoided. Solo drew a glyph as he pulled back, calling down purple thunderbolts on Joker. But Joker walked right through the attack and picked up one of the metal blocks he had generated, hurling it and hitting Solo dead-on.
“Urgh…no way,” Bud groaned as he pushed himself off the floor. “How can he be this tough?”
“Do you see yet?” Joker asked as he loomed over him. “You are weak. It is impossible for one such as you to gain any strength that matters. Try all you like to build yourself up, but you will only be wasting your time.”
Bud tensed. “…What…?”
Strings wrapped around his shoulder armor. Sonia pulled herself in and smashed a speaker over Joker’s head, shattering it in the process. He reached up to grab her, but she flipped down in front of him and generated four more speakers, bringing a hand down on her guitar to send a lightning-infused gust of wind from each of them that managed to hold Joker off. A dragon-shaped blast of electricity rammed into Joker from the side, and Sonia turned to see Ace already loading up another Battle Card. Geo was behind her, helping Bud to his feet, and soon he stepped forward, transforming both his hands into swords. He launched himself into a frenzy of slashes as Ace and Sonia carefully shot around him, moving just fast enough that Joker was unable to catch him. Watching this, Bud sighed.
“Guess even after all that work…I still haven’t caught up yet,” he said.
“Bud,” Taurus said, “don’t talk like that! Maybe we’re not as strong as we want to be, but that doesn’t mean what Joker said is true!”
Bud shook his head. “It’s okay, Taurus: I know. I know this isn’t a waste…I’ve definitely gotten stronger. And if this still isn’t enough…” He clenched his fists. “Well…then I guess I gotta push these new limits until I get even stronger!”
He increased the heat of his armor, generating a thin veil of steam as he did. Solo leapt over him with Laplace raised high—Sonia, Geo, and Ace scattered as he came down, and even Joker backed up, though he was caught in the flames that burst up when the sword touched the floor. Geo was immediately behind Joker as soon as it cleared, stabbing over and over with an electrified lance. Sonia complimented his maneuver with quick swings of her guitar. Ace jumped up and fired several shuriken down at Joker, but when he saw their foe rearing back, he gave a shout and used his wings to control his fall. That was all that saved him from another metal block. Sonia and Geo were able to avoid damage, and Solo was still hanging back. Bud, on the other hand, ran forward; he punched through the block right before him, his fist so hot that it melted right through the metal, and then threw a follow up that made contact with Joker. The Wizard simply glared at him.
“I told you,” he said, grabbing Bud by one of his horns. “You will never be strong enough to matter!”
He knocked the wind out of Bud before hurling him away. Sonia dashed over, using her guitar to summon some wind currents to soften his landing. Joker faced Geo as the boy loaded another Battle Card, and when he pointed at Joker’s blocks, they all exploded, engulfing him in a cloud of flame. Ace didn’t wait for it to clear: he fired twin lasers from his shoulder cannons, striking Joker just as he was walking out. They slowed him down a little.
“Are you alright, Bud?” Sonia asked.
Bud was back on his feet, increasing the heat of his armor once again.
“Bud, stop! You’re just going to get hurt—you need to leave this to us!”
“Please, Sonia!” he said. “Please, let me do this! I have to see how far I can push myself!”
Geo and Ace were thrown against the wall. Solo popped up in front of Joker in an attempt to surprise him, but the Wizard dodged his attacks and kicked him a dozen times in the span of a few seconds.
“Bud,” Sonia said, “I know you want to help, but—“
“It’s more than that! I…I have to prove that he’s wrong! Wrong about me, wrong about the way he thinks! Strength isn’t all that matters…but if it’s all he’ll listen to…then a weakling like me showing some will definitely get his attention!”
Joker was walking towards them now. “Why do you continue to try? Is it not apparent already that your efforts are all in vain?”
Bud chuckled, the temperature of his armor still climbing. “You know…to be honest, part of it is just that you really me off, Joker! I’ve been mad before, but never this mad! It’s like my blood is boiling…white-hot!”
The heat surrounding Bud spiked, his glow quickly shifting from red to orange to white. Joker raised his buster. Before he could fire, Bud dashed forward, leaving a trail of flames in his wake, and punched Joker in the gut. Joker hunched over, wide-eyed.
“I’ve always wanted to be strong…and yeah, there was a time where I thought that strength defined me! That I’d be nothing without it!”
He threw an uppercut, successfully knocking Joker back.
“But now I know better than that! So a guy like you, telling everyone else they don’t matter because they’re weak…”
Bud reared back.
“I won’t stand for that!”
He bucked forward and shot out white flames. Joker shouted briefly, crossing his arms in front of his face as he endured the attack. When the fire eventually died down, Bud stopped to catch his breath…and his armor immediately cooled.
“D…darn it,” he panted. “Guess that’s…it…for me…”
Joker stepped towards him. Sonia rushed forward, but he blindsided her with a Noise beam and turned back to Bud, who wobbled as he tried to stay on his feet.
“…Well done,” Joker said. “You are stronger than I realized, child. However…”
He pulled back a fist.
“This is as far as that strength will carry you.”
Joker punched Bud, flinging him to the far side of the room where he crashed into the wall. Falling to the floor, Bud’s Wave Change shut off, and he lay there unconscious with a pained smile on his face.
“Bud!” Sonia yelled. “Bud, no!”
Geo got to him as fast as he could. “He’s still breathing! I’ll get him out of here, and then I’ll come right back!”
As he moved Bud, Sonia put a hand to the side of her helmet, saying, “Detective Copper, are you there? We need help! Bud’s been knocked out—we need to get him to safety!”
“I’m on my way!” Copper replied. “Just hold on!”
Sonia turned back to face Joker. Solo stood on the other side of him, clutching Laplace with both hands as he watched his opponent. Ace came to join them, but as soon as he stopped, he hooked his blaster to his belt and lowered his arms.
“Ace?!” Sonia asked.
“We aren’t making enough headway like this,” Ace said. “We’re down Taurus Fire, Mega Man’s out of commission for a few, and I think we’re all running low on stamina already. Drastic times…call for drastic measures.”
Ace clenched his fists, widening his stance.
“Hope you guys don’t mind, but I’m going to take the lead now. Acid…it’s time for us to Finalize.”
“At the very least, I think we should wait to hear back from Detective Copper,” Hyde said.
“They aren’t going to need us,” Shepar said. “We should get everyone out of here, maybe secure the perimeter or something. That’s the safer option.”
“That’s fine,” Wolfe said, “but I’m gonna go on ahead. I want to at least see how things are going.”
The discussion went on. Pat turned to Gemini, who floated a short distance away, and asked, “What do you think?”
“It is something of a conundrum. Our enemy is right before us, and at their weakest, so it may be wise to strike now and finish them off. But then again, we are still not at our full power. So perhaps it would be wiser to retreat for the time being?” Gemini turned. “What say you, Phantom?”
Phantom met his gaze. “Hmph. Well, if you ask me…” He floated a few paces forward, calling up a screen. “I think now is the perfect time to act.”
Gemini snickered. “I see. Well, you are our strategist.”
Pat turned back to the debate. Phantom’s hand hovered over the screen, and he subtly nodded to Gemini. Gemini took one last survey of the room, locating potential exits and verifying that everyone was distracted, and then turned towards Pat.
The boy was startled by his shout. Turning, he saw Gemini charging straight at him, body bursting with electricity, and his eyes widened. Phantom hit a prompt on his screen. Pat pulled back and braced himself, but…he felt nothing.
Hesitantly, he opened one eye. Gemini was nowhere to be seen.
“…Huh?” he muttered.
“W…What is the meaning of this?!”
Pulling out his Hunter, Pat saw Gemini on the screen, confined to a small window in the corner. The FM-ian was writhing about in fury, and nearby, Phantom burst out laughing.
“Phantom!” Gemini shouted. “I thought we had an arrangement?! Explain yourself!”
“Yes, you did think that, didn’t you?” Phantom said, coming to look at the screen. “You were so convinced I would go along with your silly little plan—that your pretty words would be enough to manipulate even me. Did it never cross your mind, Gemini? That perhaps I would be the one manipulating you?”
“What?” Pat asked. “What’s going on?”
“Your friend Gemini was plotting to take his revenge upon you all. But he needed some way to break free of the chains binding him, and for that, he turned to me.” The PM-ian cackled. “He actually thought I was going to release him! Join forces! Oh, what an utter buffoon!”
Frowning, Pat turned to the screen. “Gemini…! You still don’t want to help us? I thought—“
“Oh, shut up!” Gemini said. “What, you thought I was willing to change, same as all the rest of these pitiful specimens? Never! Now tell me, Phantom: why have you betrayed me?!”
Phantom just waved him off. Hyde stepped over and said, “More importantly, Phantom…why did you not inform us that Gemini was formulating such a scheme?”
With a grin, the PM-ian said, “Isn’t it obvious? Gemini is feared as a master manipulator. By outwitting him in such a way, I have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that my strategic mind is the greatest in all the galaxy!”
Hyde rubbed his temple. “…My word…you truly are a despicable one.”
“Hah, I have no qualms with that assessment. Even aside from proving my brilliance, I knew he would prove most useful in this mission—revealing him too soon would have left us quite ill-equipped for the battle we just endured. Don’t you agree?”
Choosing not to answer, Hyde instead turned to Pat. “Patrick? Are you alright?”
“Uh…yeah, I’m fine,” Pat said. He sighed. “Just…disappointed, I guess.”
“Cheer up, boy. Wretched as Gemini might be, you wielded his power expertly in defense of your own associates and ideals! That is something still worth taking pride in, and much more worthy of your focus, I would say.”
To his own surprise, Pat smiled a little. “…Thanks.”
A chime came from Hyde’s Hunter. Picking it up, he called up a screen that displayed only static. “Hello?”
“It’s me,” came Copper’s voice.
“I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name—are you sure you have the right number?”
“Not now! First off, are you all still safe?”
Glancing at Pat’s Hunter, Hyde said, “I’d say so. There was a brief scare, but it has been dealt with.”
“Alright…I’ve been trailing Jack and Tia, but they’re hiding out for the time being. The advance team has engaged Joker, and Bud is down.”
Amy ran forward. “What?! What did you say?”
“He’s alive, but he’s been knocked out. Geo got him out and now I’ve got him—I’m bringing him your way so we can get him out of here.”
“Bud…” Amy murmured.
“I’m sure he’ll be okay, Amy,” Yeti said. “Bud’s too tough to stay down for long!”
“Please clarify, detective,” Hyde said. “Are you suggesting we all vacate the premises?”
“I was certainly considering it. Judging from what Geo said, Joker’s on an entirely different level, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to stick around.”
Hyde turned to Shepar. “Well, that’s what you wanted to hear, isn’t it?”
Shepar stared intently at the screen. “But…what about Geo? And Sonia, Solo, Ace?”
“…We just have to leave it to them,” Copper said. “We’ve already done everything we’re able to do. They trusted us to take care of our duties, and now we need to trust them.”
That didn’t entirely satisfy Shepar, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“The Satella Officers have already withdrawn and formed a perimeter. You should go meet them, unless someone wants to help me with Bud once I get there.”
“I will!” Amy said. “I’ll wait right here!”
“Thank you for the update, detective,” Hyde said. “We shall see you when you arrive.”
The call ended, and the group began to move out. Pat cast a glance back at Amy, who tapped her foot rapidly as she watched the hallway, and soon he found himself following her gaze. He only tore himself away when Wolfe set a hand on his shoulder.
“Geo’s gonna be fine too, Pat,” the gardener said. “Come on.”
Pat followed him out of the base, hesitation weighing down his every step.
“Noise level…100%,” Ace said. A thin, red aura formed around him.
“Ace, wait!” Sonia said. “We might still have another way! You don’t have to risk it!”
“We can’t waste time, Sonia. It doesn’t matter what happens to me: we need to stop Joker, and Finalizing is my best bet! 200…percent…!”
A flash of anger came over Sonia. Stepping forward, she shouted, “Don’t talk like you’re expendable! You’re just as important as the rest of us, Ace, even if you don’t think so! I won’t let you just throw it all away like that!”
Ace smiled. “…Thank you, Sonia. Alright, how’s this? I’ll do what it takes to beat Joker, and I’ll come out alive. Deal?”
King laughed. “Oh, what’s this? Think the luck of the draw is on your side, Ace? It would be most unfortunate if you were to lose control here and now.”
“That’s not gonna happen,” Ace said. “Acid’s restrictions have been removed! Now, we can control the process, so you’ll get to see our full power! 400%!”
Joker inclined his head. “…Hm. Very well: allow Acid to truly be set free. Let him reclaim the strength that is his birthright. Then, he will understand.”
Ace’s aura grew slowly but steadily. Sonia said, “Lyra, we can’t let him do this! What if we Finalize instead?”
“Hard to say, dear,” Lyra said. “It seems to be a rather complicated process, and we’ve no experience with it. I can’t be sure we’d pull it off correctly.”
Sonia tightened her grip on her guitar.
“You said this should be their choice. Well, they’ve chosen. Now we just need to see if they made the right call.”
She still felt like she should do something. But, as she thought about it, Lyra was right. So she stayed back and let Ace carry on.
“Five…hundred…percent,” Ace groaned. His aura fluctuated.
“Ace,” Acid said. “I would not recommend pushing any further. We are already struggling—the risk outweighs the benefit.”
“Alright, then. You ready for this?”
“I am prepared. Proceed at your leisure.”
Ace looked down at his hands to see they were shaking. He chuckled to himself. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and leaned back a little, before leaning forward and shouting, “Finalize!”
Noise curled into a sphere around him, and in that moment everyone held their breath. It compressed slowly, expanded in an instant, and then slowly fell away. Ace emerged looking completely different. The black jumpsuit that covered his body had glowing red lines running along the front of each limb, all meeting at a central point on his torso, and his lower legs were encased in cylindrical greaves made of sleek black metal. Thin vambraces of the same material adorned his forearms, sporting long spikes on the wrists and elbows, and a piece of it also wrapped around his upper body, though it was barely more than collar. Two long, narrow wings extended back from his shoulders, black frames constantly gushing red Noise. His head was protected only by a black guard that was more like a mask than armor. At first he just stood there, still and silent, leaving everyone to wonder if he was still in control of himself. Time dragged until he looked back at his hands and clenched them into fists.
“Grand Ace,” he said quietly. He locked eyes on Joker. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Joker. Shall we?”
On the screen, King folded his hands before his face to hide his smile. Sonia was relieved that Ace was alright, while simultaneously awestruck at the power he had gained; even Solo seemed impressed as he observed the two Finalized warriors from a distance.
Joker stepped forward with a big grin. “Acid! You’ve reconnected with Meteor G at last! Tell me, brother: how does it feel to know true strength once again?”
“I doubt my answer would please you,” Acid said. “Initiating combat.”
Suddenly, Ace was right in front of Joker, sword in hand. Joker stumbled back in disbelief as Ace swung the weapon faster than his eyes could follow, cutting him half a dozen times almost instantly. He swung his arm out to repel Ace, but he was already behind him. Ace spun rapidly, generating sharp air currents around himself that dug into Joker’s back, until the Wizard whirled around and just narrowly missed Ace as he retreated. Stopping on the other side of the room, Ace smirked at Joker. Joker scowled, charging Noise into his fist—Ace’s fist also lit up, and he shot straight forward just as Joker punched, throwing his own at the same time. Their fists collided, and Noise rippled out from the impact, shaking the entire room.
“Acid, what are you doing?” Joker asked. “Don’t you see? We were born to use this power! But the humans are jealous of our strength, and will only try again to take it from you! Come with me, and we will be able to do whatever we want!”
“You are incorrect,” Acid said. “What I want to do is to continue to fight and work alongside Ace. There is nothing that you can offer me, Joker.”
Joker’s jaw dropped. “W…what?! Are you so far gone, brother? Why would you willingly side with the humans after what they’ve done to us?”
“Our limits were put in place for our protection. The humans have shown that they care about our well-being, through that concern and more. Ace especially has proven…quite enjoyable to be around.”
“Aw shucks,” Ace said, “you’re gonna make me blush, Acid!”
Joker swung his other fist forward, Ace narrowly dodging. “Acid…even you have been taken in by their lies. Fine then. If the only way to release you from their control is to delete you, then I shall send you from this world myself!”
He punched the ground, summoning metal blocks from the floor and ceiling. Ace wasn’t even slowed down as he wove through them. Joker launched into a rapid series of kicks as soon as Ace was in range, but Ace did the exact same thing, his feet moving even faster to enable him to parry Joker’s kicks while still landing a few of his own. He leapt back as Joker slammed his fist down, shooting pinpoint lasers from his hand as he circled wide. Joker roared, and Noise shot out from him in every direction; Ace got to where Sonia and Solo were and generated a blade, swinging it at just the right time to slice the incoming waves apart before they could strike the spectators.
“Everyone alright?” Ace asked over his shoulder.
“Uh, yeah,” Sonia said. “Thanks…”
Solo didn’t answer. Not waiting, Ace dove back into battle, continuing to deal hit-and-run strikes to Joker as he carefully dodged each of his foe’s attacks. Sonia looked away when she heard footsteps behind her, turning to see that Geo had finally returned.
“Bud’s going to be alright,” he said. “Detective Copper is taking…”
He trailed off as he became aware of the fight going on. They all watched Ace attack and retreat over and over—Joker managed to dodge one of his blows and threw a punch, but Ace ducked under it and spun, kicking Joker in his exposed side and then putting some distance between them. Joker aimed his buster and fired a stream of missiles, but Ace calmly shot down each one, lifting higher and higher off the ground as he did.
“Curse you, Ace!” Joker said. “You are the one responsible for corrupting my brother!”
Ace shook his head. “Come on, Joker, give it up. Acid’s not like you. He held onto the relationships he had, and learned to share strength through them. But you thought those same relationships would only weigh you down, so you rejected them…and that includes your bond with Acid. The rift between you two isn’t my fault, Joker. It’s yours.”
Joker clenched his teeth. Holding his palms to his sides, he began to charge Noise in both of them, saying, “I will not be lectured by you! You turned your back on Dealer, yet still seek Jack and Queen Tia’s forgiveness—yet you claim I am in the wrong, you hypocrite?”
“Yeah. Because I realized I messed up. I admit it’s not much of an edge…but I’ll still find a way to cut you down with it.”
The Noise in Joker’s hands began to spill out between his fingers. “Try it, then!”
He thrust both hands forward, sending out an enormous beam of Noise. Ace’s wings shot out a small pulse of their own as he rocketed forward and to the side, skimming the outside of the beam as he spiraled around it back towards its source. He threw his all into a punch that connected with the side of Joker’s face. The Wizard’s head turned, and his beam skewed to the side as well, carving a deep gash into the wall. Joker retaliated quickly, but Ace was still quicker: he backed up and swung a sword, the attack covering a massive amount of ground to cut Joker from a safe range. He then used the same attack again, and again, and then put his hands out to fire a barrage of white energy balls that rained down upon Joker. Ace was about to continue attacking when suddenly he flinched.
“…,” he murmured under his breath. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.”
With a snap of his fingers, a small but focused tornado spun into existence around Joker. Ace backed up a bit more, being sure to dodge more blocks in the process, and adjusted his stance, his wings glowing brighter and generating even more Noise.
“It’s time to end it! Wing…”
In the blink of an eye, he was behind Joker, arms apart. Neither of them moved.
Joker recoiled suddenly, Noise spewing out from his armor. Ace smiled, and then dropped to one knee, trying to muffle his grunts of pain. The sound of clapping could then be heard.
“Splendid!” King said. “Such a marvelous performance from the both of you! I’m almost sad to see it end.”
Ace forced himself to stand. “Heh…well, save your tears, King. I want to see you bawl when we take you away.”
“Oh Ace, you poor child…you actually think you’ve won?”
He turned around a second too late. Joker’s fist rammed straight into his solar plexus, and he nearly blacked out from the pain. The next thing he knew, he was in the far wall, every inch of his body aching, as Joker lumbered closer.
“It seems your time is up, Ace,” Joker said, raising a Noise-wreathed hand. “Your body is too weak to wield the power of Meteor G. You tried to claim strength beyond what you could control…and now, you shall pay dearly!”
He fired. Just before the beam hit Ace, Geo appeared in front of him, deploying his shield to narrowly save them both. He glared through the barrier at Joker.
“What do you hope to accomplish, boy? I can crush you even more easily.”
Geo aimed his buster. “Break Time Bomb!”
A large device with a timer appeared next to Joker. As soon as it did, Sonia played furiously, sending out a constant stream of notes to try to keep Joker paralyzed, while Solo moved in to slash him across the chest. Joker shrugged off their attacks, punched Solo, and crushed the time bomb beneath his foot. Geo stepped back.
“I know all about you,” Joker said. “You had the potential to gain strength for so long, yet shied away from it like a coward. Your conviction is a lie.”
Geo activated an Aura card as Joker fired another beam at him. Its protective light enveloped him, but was immediately torn away by the laser, leaving Geo to take the brunt of the assault before falling to his knees. Joker ignored Sonia’s attacks and stepped forward, blocking Laplace on his arm.
“And you, child of Mu,” he said as he faced Solo. “Interfering in the battle over Meteor G, believing your own long-disgraced culture still deserves some retribution…”
Solo drew a glyph and pushed it straight into Joker. With a burst of Noise, it instantly dissipated, and Joker punched Solo into the ground. The boy writhed as Joker raised his fist high.
“You do not belong here!”
Panic seized Solo, and all he could do was turn and cover his head. He heard the blow connect. But he didn’t feel it. Looking up, he saw Sonia standing there, arms crossed above her head—she had intercepted Joker’s punch, and while she was still on her feet, her entire body was trembling like it was about to collapse under its own weight.
“H…Harp Note?” Solo mumbled, eyes growing wide.
Sonia sluggishly lowered her arms, glaring up at Joker. “He…belongs…here.”
Solo sat there, stunned. Joker, teeth clenched in fury, placed his palm directly in front of Sonia’s face, charging it with Noise in preparation for another attack. Sonia didn’t move.
“And you,” Joker sneered. “The lauded idealist who preaches her notions of bonds and growth. Do you have a speech you hope will change my heart as well?”
Sonia remained silent for a long time. Then, hanging her head, she simply said, “No.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“…Because…you’re an idealist too.”
Sonia shook her head.
“I really hate to say it. What you believe is so against what I believe…but you believe it so intensely, and you keep fighting to prove it. You’re fighting for your ideals just the same as me…so if I want to win…if I want to prove that my ideals, my belief in them, is stronger…then I have to accept it. Which means I don’t have much chance of changing your mind.”
“Hmph,” Joker grunted. “So you admit that you can’t convince me to change. Isn’t that the same as admitting your ideals are wrong?”
“No, it isn’t. Everyone can change, and that includes me. I guess…even my ideals need to change, just a little. Otherwise I’m just ignoring the world around me.”
She paused to look back up at him.
“I…don’t think I can forgive you for what you did to Luna. So even if I do believe that everyone can change if they want to, including you…it’s hard for me to want you to. And more than that, I can see that you don’t want to. So this fight isn’t going to change anyone. And I need to stop pretending that it can.”
“Then,” Joker said, “what reason do you have to fight me?”
Sonia finally stopped shaking. “To protect people.”
“Is that all?”
She took up a battle stance. “That’s more than enough.”
Joker stared hard at her. Then, he clenched his hand into a fist, letting the Noise form around it, and said, “Very well. Then let us see just how strong your will truly is.”
He reached out faster than she could react, grabbing her by the neck and lifting her off the ground. The Noise moved to envelop her, and immediately, Sonia could feel it overwhelming her senses. It took all her focus just to scream.
“No!” Solo shouted, leaping to his feet. Joker repelled him with a kick before he could even swing, and then summoned a metal block on top of him to pin him down.
“Sonia, hang on!” Geo said, already teleporting forward. Joker anticipated where he would appear, bashing him across the face as soon as he did; he then fired a continuous beam of Noise for a few seconds, whittling away what stamina Geo had left, leaving him in too much pain to move once he was done.
“Oho, now this is an interesting play!” King said. “A berserk Harp Note, now that would be a sight to see! I’m on the edge of my seat!”
Behind him, Heartless watched events unfold with a frown, tapping her finger against her leg. She raised her arm slightly, but then put it back down.
Sonia could barely think straight. Noise rushed into her, making her body twitch and spasm randomly; Lyra could feel it too, and she cried out in agony.
“N-No!” she said. “Not again! Oh, no!”
Tears welled up in Sonia’s eyes. “L…Ly…ra…”
“Where is the strength of your ideals now?” Joker asked. “Where is the unbreakable will that so many have bowed to? Or does it still pale in comparison to the might of Meteor G?”
Slowly, Sonia’s fingers curled into fists. She put every ounce of strength she had left into forcing her body to calm down. When that ran out, she found more. Soon, she was almost still, vibrating only slightly, and she breathed in.
“Lyra…!” she said. She could barely recognize her own voice, the Noise distorting it into something alien. “I won’t…give in! So don’t worry! I won’t…lose…control!”
“S…Sonia?” Lyra said.
“I’ll fight back…against Meteor G…but…I can’t…do it…alone! Please…help me!”
She held firm against the Noise, but it was steadily wearing her down. Just when she began to wonder how long she could last, she could feel Lyra pushing alongside her, making the monumental task suddenly seem so much less imposing. Immediately, it was as if Sonia’s strength had been renewed. Her eyes snapped open—they were glowing red.
“200%,” Sonia and Lyra said in unison.
Joker’s expression flattened. “What…?”
Joker dropped Sonia and moved away. She landed on her feet, swaying slightly before standing tall. He muttered, “This shouldn’t be possible…your will was so weak before!”
“You should’ve listened,” Sonia said. “I’m fighting to protect Lyra…and she’s fighting to protect me!”
“All you’ve done is brought out the strength of our bond, Joker,” Lyra said. “Remember that…as we use that strength to defeat you!”
Together, they both shouted, “Finalize!”
Noise obscured Sonia for only a few moments. Then it passed, and Joker stepped back when he saw how she had changed. The central part of her heavy-looking dress was deep burgundy, while the sides were bright scarlet, the lines that divided them and circled her familiar heart plate had turned gold, and the jumpsuit beneath was an ashy gray. She had large points on her shoulders like he did, but rather than curving they jutted straight out on an angle, and were flatter like fins. Red, gold, and gray colored her upper arms, her forearms now protected by two triangular guards that were mostly red, with a gold-lined iron gray center, all growing from her large red bracelets. The knees of her greaves and the lines running down them were gold, and the enlarged, bulbous armored boots now closely resembled Joker’s—burgundy inside and scarlet outside—though her feet were encased in a more solid sheet of iron gray, and that color ran between the two gold lines on each shin. Her helmet and visor had both turned red as well, the nodes atop her head now gold and significantly smaller, while on her forehead was a tall horseshoe-shaped crest of gray metal with a gold, triangular emblem at its base, and more gray lining the lower edge of the headgear and running down and under her jaw. A long, bright red scarf hung behind her as she stood there, staring at him with a solemn look on her face.
“Red…Joker…” Sonia said.
She raised one hand. In it appeared a massive harp guitar, gray iron down its neck to where the strings were anchored, while the rounded, red body of it shot up at one corner and arced gracefully towards the head, its end molded to resemble a shooting star: Meteor G. Sonia turned slightly so she could aim its head at the block pinning Solo down. She plucked a single string, and the instrument fired a focused beam of Noise that knocked the hunk of metal onto its side.
“Ridiculous!” Joker said. “How could Meteor G heed the call of one as weak as you?! Why would it grant you its power?!”
Sonia faced him. She hit the ground with the bottom of her guitar as if it were a scepter, and behind her appeared two gray and red standing speakers that were almost twice as tall as she was. Her eyes flashed, and then bright orange Noise began to dance around the speakers endlessly.
“I’m not repeating myself again,” she said calmly. “If you want to surrender, I’ll give you one last chance. Please, take it. For Dr. Goodall’s sake.”
“…Surrender?” Joker began to walk towards her. “You think I would ever surrender?”
Sonia readied her guitar. “No, I don’t.”
She began to play. Noise-infused sound waves blasted out from the speakers, stopping Joker in his tracks and even pushing him back slightly. The onslaught was deafening, but Joker endured it, taking aim with one of his beams. Sonia sidestepped it and retaliated with the same move. The head of her guitar lit up as Joker reeled—Battle Cards appeared to orbit around it, stopping when she tapped one and swiped it down. It became a point of light that shot down the neck of the instrument, and then a portion of the body displayed a Big Drop card. Sonia resumed playing, and this time, every note summoned a massive block of stone in the air above Joker. He evaded several of them before punching one apart as it fell, and fired another beam at Sonia. She kept playing even as she took the hit, and before Joker knew it, he was buried under half a dozen or so of the rocks.
From where he watched, King snickered. “Well now...this is a most unexpected result…”
Joker yelled. The blocks shot out in every direction as Noise exploded from him—Sonia fired her strings at one of them, swinging it around to smack right back into her foe. He punched the ground, and though Sonia managed to dodge the metal blocks that appeared, they did hide him from view long enough for him to close in. Joker punched Sonia back into one of them, but she ducked beneath his follow-up and grabbed the block by its base. Pulling it around, she knocked Joker’s feet out from under him, and then raised the weapon overhead only to smash it down on top of him. She leapt away and swiped another Battle Card into her guitar as Joker pulled himself up. Now when she played, missiles shot out from her speakers to home in on Joker; he was surprised at first, taking direct hits from several, but then clapped his hands together and sent out a shockwave of Noise that detonated the rest. He turned to see Sonia right in front of him, swinging her harp guitar as a bludgeon. The force was enough to hurl him back against one of the speakers, and then she played, letting the intense sound rattle through him at point-blank range.
Whatever curses Joker yelled, they were drowned out by the sound of the speakers. But he didn’t stop at words: he spun and buried his fist in the speaker directly behind him, rendering it inoperable, and then whipped around to send it flying towards Sonia. She jumped out of the way, but Joker was on top of her at once. Sonia kept her guard strong as kicks rained battered her, but Joker’s relentless assault steadily wore her down, and he finished with an overhead swing of his fist that slammed her into the floor. Her vision blurred for just a moment, and then she leapt back up fist-first. With a mighty uppercut, Sonia knocked Joker off his feet, and then she aimed her guitar and blasted him once for good measure.
“Rrrgh…so, you do know how to wield strength when it is given to you,” Joker said as he got up. “But if these attacks are the best you can muster, they will not be enough to overpower me!”
He charged. Sonia swung her guitar high, forcing him to duck and punch. She took the hit to her side, wincing, and then pulled her instrument down, hooking the space between its neck and the offshoot of the body around Joker’s neck. Using it to leverage him, she pulled him down face-first, diving after him to punch his skull as hard as she could. She hung on as he stood up—he couldn’t reach her, and she pulled on her guitar at just the right angle so he couldn’t push it off, leaving her relatively safe to repeatedly hammer her knee into his back.
“I’ve got enough!” Sonia said.
Joker stomped one foot. A shadow appeared over Sonia, and she jumped away as a metal block landed just a centimeter away from Joker’s back. Her guitar dispersed into Noise and flew back to her hand to reform. Joker ran at her, so she shot her strings at the block he had just summoned and pulled herself forward, clotheslining him with her free arm. She stood atop the block, playing to charge energy as Joker just glared at her.
“Incredible…” Geo muttered. “Sonia couldn’t even scratch him earlier. I know Ace weakened him, but even still…I can’t believe how much stronger that Finalized form makes her.”
“Eh, it’s alright,” Mega said. “She can show off for now, but once we figure it out, I’m sure we’ll show her up.”
“It’s not a competition, Mega.”
Geo glanced over at Solo, who sat watching the fight with an expression he couldn’t quite read. He then looked back at Ace, on his feet now, but leaning against the wall for support as he panted heavily. Unfortunately, he didn’t see Joker look over at them as well.
Sonia shouted a warning. Joker fired a beam at Geo, but he didn’t realize in time to react to it. At the last second, Solo pushed him to the ground, the beam narrowly missing both of them to hit an empty portion of wall. Joker scowled at the sight, and then stumbled back as Sonia’s guitar was thrown directly at his head.
“You leave them out of this!” Sonia said as she walked over to him, her fists glowing with Noise. “You’re fighting me right now!”
Joker stepped back as she punched. “Why do you care about them so much? They are weak! If they cannot defend themselves—“
“Then I’ll defend them!”
Joker dodged another punch before moving to counter. Sonia swung one of her arms aside to push his arm out of the way, and drove her other fist straight into his face, Noise bursting around him on impact.
“I know you won’t understand,” Sonia said, pressing her advantage with more blows to Joker’s chest. “I don’t care if someone is strong or weak! If they’re alive, then I want to keep it that way! I don’t want the people they love to have to lose someone! Can you imagine how that feels? Can you imagine how your mother will feel if something happens to you?!”
Joker caught her next punch. Striking her in the face, he shouted, “Nothing will!”
Sonia recoiled, but Joker maintained his grip and pulled her back in, punching her again.
“Mother made me strong enough to fight for myself! She will never have to know what it feels like to lose me!”
Rage flared in Sonia’s eyes. She threw herself forward, headbutting Joker in the teeth, and shouted, “She already has!”
Joker lost his grip, turning aside as pain shot through him.
“You left her so you could preserve your precious strength! She’s hurting so much, Joker, and it’s all your fault! How do you not realize that?!”
When he turned back, a look of genuine confusion was on his face. But only for a moment. Then, he came forward to throw another punch. Sonia spun and grabbed his arm, kicked at his ankle, and pulled, flipping him over and onto his back. She raised one hand, summoning her harp guitar to it, and then slammed it down onto him in an explosion of Noise.
“Not being able to think of how other people might feel is bad enough!” Sonia said. “But what’s worse, you ran away from the only people you actually cared about, and refuse to see what you did to them! You keep blaming everyone else, but you’re the one giving up everything else to focus on nothing but being strong for its own sake!”
She jumped away as Joker leapt up. Playing quickly, she charged more energy into her guitar.
“But I’m wasting my breath, aren’t I? Fine! If strength is all you’ll understand, then listen up: I’m about to tell you something you can’t ignore!”
A red aura enveloped Sonia. Drawing his hands apart, Joker gained an identical glow, saying, “Stupid girl! You understand nothing! And I shall prove it to you once and for all!”
They both fired at the same time. Two immense beams of Noise met in the center of the room, colliding head-on and coming to a screeching halt as each fought to overpower the other. Slowly, Joker’s beam began to gain ground.
“Strength conquers all!” he shouted. “I was born to be strong, and I refuse to fail in that mission! I will prove that Mother’s design is flawless—I will make her proud!”
Sonia shook her head. “Joker…wasn’t she already proud of you?”
He didn’t answer. But Sonia knew she had larger concerns, as her prospects of winning their clash grew only bleaker. Joker’s beam had nearly consumed hers, and though she funneled more and more power into her attack, nothing seemed to change. Not until Geo appeared behind Joker.
He raised his buster—it was still glowing red from the card he had used earlier. A rapid stream of giant energy shots slammed into the back of Joker’s head, and his beam began to lose intensity as his focus wavered.
“Get out of there!” Sonia shouted. “It’s dangerous!”
“That’s exactly why I won’t!” Geo said. “I’m not going to abandon you when you need my help, Sonia! That’s not what Brothers do!”
“Trust me! If we work together, there’s no way we can lose! Isn’t that right?”
Sonia hesitated for one moment. But only one.
“…You’re right. Let’s put an end to this!”
Joker’s beam was still gaining, if only just barely. Sonia dug in her heels as she began thinking of something else to try. But, to her surprise, there was a flash of light just to her side, and she felt a surge of energy rush through her. Turning, she saw Solo standing there with a glyph in his hand.
“Solo? What are—“
“Just take him down!” Solo said. “This has gone on long enough, and I have other matters to attend to!”
Sonia grimaced. “I’m doing my best here!”
“I know. So to speed things up…I’m giving you a little of my power.”
“You heard me! I know you can handle Murian power, so just…put it to good use, alright?”
Sonia smiled. “…Alright. If you insist!”
She focused again on the beam she was firing. Immediately, it doubled in intensity, rapidly gaining back the ground it had lost and encroaching further upon Joker’s territory. The Wizard pushed back with all his might, slowing the shifting balance just before he was about to be overwhelmed.
“I…will not…lose…to you!” he said. “I am Grave Joker! The strength of Meteor G belongs to me! My power…will conquer…all!”
Sonia opened her mouth to say something. Realizing it wouldn’t help, she closed it again. On the edge of her vision, she saw someone else moving, but as she didn’t dare split her focus, she couldn’t be sure until he spoke.
“Sorry for bailing on you there, Sonia,” Ace said. “Might be a little late, but mind if I lend you a hand?”
Sonia chuckled. “Your timing’s perfect!”
Ace’s hands lit up with Noise. Holding them forward, he said, “Alright, everybody! Give it all you’ve got!”
A second later, he added his Noise to Sonia’s beam. That was enough to tip the balance. Sonia’s laser swallowed up Joker’s, and Geo teleported out just as the torrent of Noise washed over the bewildered Wizard. The attack raged on for a short time longer before ceasing, and a wave of exhaustion overcame Sonia, Solo, and Ace. Geo appeared next to Sonia just as she fell forward, catching her shoulder. She grinned up at him, exuding a sense of relief.
“Thanks,” she said. “To all of you.”
She tensed briefly as a strange sensation moved through her. The armor of her Red Joker form slowly broke down into Noise, leaving her in her base state, and suddenly she felt even more tired.
“Guess I haven’t quite mastered it yet…”
A laugh from King caught her attention. He said, “Be that as it may, you’ve still done a spectacular job, Harp Note. Not to mention generated a good deal more Crimson for me, ho ho ho!”
Sonia leveled a glare at the screen. Before she could say anything, however, she heard a door open, and turned to see Jack and Tia walk into the room.
“…Hm?” King said. “Are my eyes deceiving me? Or have the rest of my children finally come home as well?”
“Cut the ,” Jack said. “You really are batshit insane if you think we ever considered you our father!”
“Mr. King,” Tia said. “There is only one thing we need from you.”
King leaned forward. “Oh? And what is that, my dear?”
“We want the Crimson. All of it.”
King paused. “…And why, pray tell, would I agree to that?”
Jack cracked his knuckles. “I can hack the lock on that vault in seconds! And without Joker at your side, there won’t be anyone to stop us from beating you within an inch of your life!”
Tia turned to Ace, who was staring at the both of them. She looked away without saying a word.
King tapped his fingers. “Hmmm, what to do? Much as I hate to admit it, I am in quite the bad spot now that Joker’s been defeated…”
The sound of one heavy footstep could be heard. Sonia felt a chill run up her spine. Everyone turned to see Joker back on his feet, his armor badly damaged and holding onto one shoulder as he leaned to one side.
“No…” he groaned. “I am…not…defeated…I cannot…be…!”
“Good heavens,” Lyra said, “he’s as stubborn as they come!”
“This is looking real bad,” Mega said. “We might still be able to put Joker down, but if those two interfere…”
Corvus appeared, saying, “Haha, scared, little Mega? Why don’t you run crying back to Wolf and see if he’ll save you?”
“Last I remember you were running away from him.”
“Hmph! Come over here and say that again!”
Virgo laughed. “Yeah, come on, I’m itching to kill someone! Lemme, lemme!”
Joker took another step. “My strength…cannot fail! I will finish you…whatever it takes!”
Sonia shook. She tried desperately to think of a way out, but the odds were clearly not in the favor. The only real option they had was to call for the others and hope they could hold out until then. But, even that didn’t seem very promising in the face of their current dilemma.
“Well then,” King said, clapping his hands together. “I’m not so proud I won’t admit to having a bad hand—quite unfortunate, considering my recent winning streak. But, I do have another game to get to, so I can’t be doing anything too risky. All things considered…” He pressed a button on his chair. “I fold.”
Joker lurched. His body began to glow red, but not with Noise—there was something different this time, and even Joker seemed not to know what it was.
“M…Mr. King?” he asked.
“Joker, you have done such an excellent job,” King said. “But now that I am within arm’s reach of my goal, I’m afraid I have no further need for Dealer. So, I’m sending you out with a bang…oh, and, do take those interlopers with you, if you would be so kind.”
“W-Wait,” Joker said, shuffling towards the screen, “you can’t! This isn’t…I can’t…”
Everyone slowly came to the horrifying realization of what was happening, but no one spoke, as if that was the only thing that would make it real. It was Mega who finally shouted, “You…you’re going to blow up Joker?!””
“Not just Joker,” King said, starting to shuffle cards in his hand. “The blast should decimate this entire facility and everyone in it. Well, save for Heartless and myself, thanks to this vault I keep on hand.”
Tia’s eyes were wide. Jack nervously looked up at her, saying, “Sis…what should we—“
She grabbed him. “Run, Jack!”
They were out the door in seconds, Tia practically pushing Jack the whole way. Geo helped Sonia that way, but they were too bruised to move with any semblance of speed, and Solo wasn’t moving much faster.
“No!” Joker said. “No, this can’t be! I can’t…I can’t…be deleted! Not with all this strength! No!”
King rolled his eyes. “My word, were you always this dramatic?”
The screen shut off. Joker put his hands to his head, staring at the floor and saying, “No, no, no, no, NO!”
He was flashing now, the explosive energy building up quickly within his body. As the others worked to make their escape, Ace just stood there, staring at him.
“…Acid,” he said quietly.
“I agree,” Acid said.
“Are you really sure?”
“You won’t hate me for this?”
“I am incapable of hating you, Ace. You are my friend.”
Ace chuckled. “…Thanks, buddy. Okay…here goes.”
Sonia and Geo were at the door now, but they stopped and looked back just then, seeing Ace run at Joker and grab him by the shoulders.
“Ace?!” Sonia shouted.
Ace began to glow red as well. He gave a short grunt, and then said, “Keep going! Don’t stop!”
“What are you doing?! Get away from him!”
“You heard King: this blast will level the whole place if we don’t do something! I can absorb and diffuse some of the energy, but I don’t know how much it’ll help!”
“But what about you?” Geo asked.
“No!” Sonia said. “We’re not leaving you, Ace! You need to make it out of here too!”
Ace shook his head. “Sorry, Sonia…but this is the only way! Now get going! We’re running out of time!”
“We have to help him!” Sonia said. She tried to run over to him, but to her surprise, Geo held her back.
“Sonia,” Geo said, “we…we can’t!”
“I know! I’m sorry! But look at what’s happening: there’s really no other option! We still need to deal with Meteor G, and Ace is giving us a chance to do that! I really wish we could save him, but…we can’t, Sonia! If we try, we won’t be able to save anyone!”
Sonia looked back and forth frantically. She wished she could argue, but she knew she couldn’t.
“It’s too late anyway, Sonia!” Ace said. “I’ve already absorbed too much of this energy to make it out! Sorry, but there’s nothing you can do for me now!”
Geo started to push Sonia along. She called, “But, Ace!”
“Go do what you do best, Harp Note!” Ace replied. “The world needs saving! I know you can do it!”
With great reluctance, Sonia finally turned away, and soon they were gone. Ace let out a breath. Joker seemed to finally become aware of him, and grabbed him by the chest, glaring at him angrily as if it were somehow his fault. Ace ignored him and looked down. Soon, he began to chuckle.
With an enraged grunt, Joker asked, “Is something funny?!”
As he looked up at Joker, Ace’s façade finally fell away: his smile was gone, and his gaze was one of confusion and fear. “I wanted this for the longest time…I thought it would make up for what I’ve done wrong. But now that I’m here…I…I’m actually scared to d—“
Sonia had her eyes on the floor as she made her way down the hall of the hospital. She only looked up as she rounded the now-familiar corner, and immediately stopped short. Stepping out of her mother’s room was a tall, slender woman with pink hair, wrapped in a long black coat and giving her a look of surprise as she too came to a halt. Sonia had no idea who this person was, or what to say. Before she could think of anything, the woman smiled at her, and walked off without a word.
Who was that?
She entered the room to find her mother wiping her eyes. “Mama?”
Rosa jumped a little. “O-Oh, Sonia! I’m sorry, I…”
Sonia rushed to her bedside. “What happened, Mama? Did that woman upset you?”
“It’s…it’s nothing she did.” She breathed deeply, and then looked up at Sonia with a weary smile. “Sorry, kiddo. I’ll be alright.”
Hesitantly, Sonia sat down on the edge of the bed. “Who was that?”
Glancing aside, Rosa said, “She’s…an old friend. She heard about my condition and wanted to come say goodbye.”
Rosa turned back. “…Sonia?”
“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” the girl asked quietly.
“…Sonia…like I said before…I probably don’t have much time.”
“But, we can’t know for sure! Maybe we’ll still find a way for you to recover! There’s no need for anyone to say goodbye when you’re still here!”
“Maybe. But, they won’t have a chance to say it when I’m gone.”
Sonia looked down. Rosa reached out and set a hand on her head.
“I’m sorry, Sonia,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is the situation we’re in. But…we need to be prepared for the worst. And part of that is saying goodbye.”
Her daughter leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her, trembling fiercely. Rosa hugged her back with what little strength she had.
“I don’t want to lose you, Mama!” Sonia sobbed. “I’m not ready to lose you! What am I supposed to do without you?”
“The same thing you’d do if I was here. Live your life.”
“No, not alone. You’ll make friends, maybe fall in love, find wonderful people to share your life with.”
Rosa bit her lip. “…No, sweetie. But I’ll be up in Heaven watching over you.”
“But I need you here!”
Rosa could only bury her face in Sonia’s shoulder. She let her cry, and when she was finally done, she pulled back slightly and sat there, staring down with a look of hopelessness.
“I wish things could be different, Sonia,” Rosa said, reaching out to wipe away her tears. “If there was any way I could change it, I would. I want to be here for you as long as you’ll need me. But it just isn’t up to me. Sometimes you lose people before you’re ready to…it isn’t fair, but sometimes it happens. And when it does, you need to decide how you’re going to react to it, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t happening.”
Sonia looked up to meet her gaze.
“Horrible as it is…you’re going to be here without me. But please, Sonia: don’t stop living your life. Don’t stop being you. I know it’ll be sad, and lonely, and painful, but don’t let it stop you from doing all the things you want to do, all the things you can do. You’ll still be able to shape your life into something wonderful without me here to help. And that’ll make me so happy.”
More tears came to Sonia’s eyes. Rosa pulled her back in.
A dull pain occupied Sonia’s heart as she watched Goodall and Vega work. Luna was next to her, firmly holding her hand, but even that couldn’t quite cut through it. The two doctors turned—the screen they were working at flashed, and with a flurry of particles, Acid appeared between them. The Wizard looked about curiously.
“…Accessing AMAKEN system,” he said. “Synchronizing internal clock…I see. Then I presume my former body was destroyed during the attack on Dealer?”
“It was,” Vega quietly replied.
Acid waited a moment before asking, “Where is Ace?”
Sonia swallowed hard. Luna squeezed her hand.
“Acid,” Sonia said. “Ace…Ace is gone.”
Acid simply turned to face her.
“King…he rigged Joker to explode—he said it would be enough to level the entire hideout. You and Ace went to absorb the energy he was using, to try to weaken the blast…it was because of that the rest of us were able to escape. But…”
Acid nodded once. “I see. Thank you.”
A long, suffocating silence filled the room.
“Where is King now?” Acid asked.
Sonia closed her eyes to fight back tears. “…We don’t know.”
“Is there a way I can assist in locating him?”
“I believe there is,” Goodall said, starting towards the door. “Right this way, please.”
Taken by surprise, Sonia said, “D-Dr. Goodall…”
The old woman turned and smiled at her. “It’s alright, dear.”
She and Acid left. Vega said nothing more, and soon she left as well. Luna just stood there, waiting patiently as Sonia worked to process what she was feeling. Sonia glanced at her briefly before averting her gaze; Luna tugged on her sleeve, prompting her to turn back, and stepped closer to her. With a sigh, Sonia leaned forward to rest her head on Luna’s shoulder.
“I…just…” she murmured, followed by a long grunt made of syllables that didn’t quite form a proper word. The tears began to flow slowly from her eyes. “…It’s too much.”
Luna gently put her arms around Sonia, saying, “Talk to me. I want to help you.”
Sonia groaned. “I’m confused…I’m sad…and worried, and…I’m…mad. And I’m not really okay with being mad.”
“Mad at King?”
“Of course, but also…part of me is mad at…Ace.”
Luna paused. “Why’s that?”
Sonia balled her fists. “He just…he decided to die! After I just told him not to, told him he mattered—he knew we would miss him! But he did it anyway! He didn’t try to find another way, he…”
After waiting to be sure she wouldn’t interrupt, Luna said, “The way you explained it, it doesn’t sound like there was another way.”
“Maybe not once he had already started absorbing energy, but before that, there might’ve been!”
“The blast was going to destroy the entire facility, wasn’t it? I saw how beaten up you looked when you got back: you and Geo never would have made it out in the state you were in.”
Sonia sighed. Luna adjusted her arms slightly, and Sonia rolled her head onto its side and stared blankly at the corner.
“Sonia,” Luna said. “I understand why you’re mad. You value life so much that someone being willing to give theirs up doesn’t really make sense to you. But, honestly…I think Ace made the best decision he could make in that situation. What he did saved you, so I can’t bring myself to be mad at him for doing that. Maybe I’m biased that way.”
“…I understand,” Sonia said. She could hear Luna’s heartbeat, and that helped her calm down a little. “…Maybe it isn’t really Ace I’m mad at…maybe it’s what that choice might mean.”
She slid her arms up around Luna.
“I don’t want to think about if…if maybe we really do need to make such terrible compromises in life…but if we don’t, then it’s like saying Ace died for no reason, and I don’t want to think that either. I’m stuck, and confused, and frustrated. And…this isn’t even over yet.”
She pulled away from Luna as the ache in her heart deepened, taking a few steps and running her hands up over her face.
“King’s still out there, somewhere, ready to use Meteor G to destroy the world. I have to stop him, but even if we can find him time…I don’t know what I’m going to do when I see him again.”
“What do you mean?” Luna asked.
Turning, Sonia said, “This time is…different. King talked to me, explained himself, but that only made everything worse. Usually I can think of a way to help someone once they talk to me—at the very least, I can understand where they’re coming from even if I really disagree with them. But King…I can’t begin to make sense of the leaps in logic he’s taken. I should understand him now, but I don’t, not one bit, and it…it scares me, Luna. Especially now that I’ve seen what he’s capable of up close.”
Luna stepped forward. She reached up, adjusting some stray strands of Sonia’s hair, and said, “It’s okay to be scared, Sonia. And it’s okay to admit that you don’t understand something. Knowing you, you’ll keep trying, and maybe you will figure it out. But, even if you don’t, I know you’ll still find a way to solve this.”
Sonia didn’t say anything. Luna reached past her head to pull her hood up, and then yanked on the sides as she leaned in to kiss her. A bright spark seared right through the pain she felt.
“I believe in you,” Luna mumbled, blushing only a little. “After all, you’ve got all of us here to support you, so there’s no way you can lose!”
Despite herself, Sonia giggled. “Of course.”
“And…we’re going to stay by your side. So whatever life does end up throwing at you, whatever situations you are forced into…whenever possible, we’ll do whatever we can to prevent you from needing to compromise on anything truly important. Okay?”
Sonia nodded. “Okay. Thank you.”
She was about to steal another kiss when a glint outside the window caught their eye. When they turned, they saw a bright red beam of some kind cutting through the sky, falling straight down until it disappeared below the horizon. A small tremor reached them. The beam vanished soon after, but the dread it instilled in them only grew stronger.
“There’s a news bulletin,” Lyra said. “Hope you don’t mind…”
A screen popped up beside the two of them. It displayed an image of a small island just off the coast, its landscape pulverized to bits, immense fissures dividing it up at random. A fog of Noise hung over the ruined landmass. Sonia bristled.
“This is King,” she said. “It’s got to be. Is he putting his plans in motion already?”
“What we need to be asking is how do we respond?” Lyra said. “We’ve yet to pick up his trail, after all—there’s no telling where he could be hiding.”
A chime sounded as she finished speaking. At the bottom of the screen there appeared a mail icon, so Sonia reached out and tapped it.
“King is utilizing an orbital base,” it read. “Attached is a key to gain access via Astro Wave. Hurry.”
Sonia blinked. “…What?”
“Interesting,” Lyra said. “There is a key attached, just as it said. This is…almost too good to be true.”
“You think it’s some kind of trap?”
“It’s quite possible. After all, who would even be able to send us something like this?”
Sonia thought for a moment, and then dismissed the screen. Turning to Luna, she said, “I have to try. It might be the only chance I get.”
“You’re not going alone, are you?” Luna asked sternly.
“It doesn’t sound like I have much time, but I’ll see if I can grab someone.”
Luna’s face hung in a state that teetered on the edge of scowling. “…Alright. Be careful.”
Sonia ran out of the lab and down the hall, sliding a little as she burst into another room. Geo and Pat sat on a bench there, grasping each other’s hands as they watched the same news, and they looked up sharply as Sonia entered.
“Sonia?” Geo asked. “Did you see this too?”
“I did,” she said, “and I got a message. Someone told me where King is hiding.”
“It might be bogus, but we can’t afford to pass it up. Are you up to coming with me?”
Geo turned to Pat. The boy nodded, saying, “Yeah, go. I’ll be okay. Just stay safe!”
Pausing to give him a kiss, Geo got up and followed Sonia outside. “Just us?”
“Yeah, apparently we need to hurry.”
“Alright. So, where are we headed exactly?”
The interior of the base was simple as could be, an empty room of cold metal with barely a window to see the vast expanse of space beyond its walls. At one side was a massive device of some kind, glowing eerily as it hummed along. Another wall was occupied by a large viewscreen and its control panel, showing the news feed as it reported on the devastated island, and King looked up at it with a less than satisfied expression.
“I’m surprised, Mr. King,” Heartless said as she walked up behind him. “I expected you to have a speech prepared for the moment you revealed you have Meteor G under your thumb.”
“I did,” King said. “However, due to that mysterious interference, I thought it best to hold off for the time being.”
The viewscreen blinked, now showing Meteor G as it drew ever closer to Earth.
“You see, I had instructed Meteor G to attack the AMAKEN facility…but it would seem whoever else has a share of Meteor G was able to redirect its attack to an uninhabited area. I’d look like something of a fool if I gave a speech and then misfired like that.”
King leaned back in his chair. “Hm. The attack was still carried out, meaning my foe’s control over Meteor G is not absolute. But then, neither is mine. Now, how do I proceed…?”
Suddenly, the lights flickered. King looked up in surprise. He turned his chair around, and when he did, Jack and Tia were standing before him, both Wave Changed. King hummed.
“Mr. King,” Tia said. “We still have matters to discuss.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised you found this place,” King said, leaning on one elbow. “What is it that you want, children? Can’t you see I’m very busy right now?”
“Having some trouble?” Jack asked. “Don’t sweat it: in just a minute, you won’t have to worry about anything at all!”
Ignoring him, King said, “You said something about wanting the Crimson? What is it you hoped to accomplish with that?”
“Controlling Meteor G, of course,” Tia said. “We wish to see it crash into the surface of the Earth.”
“It’s on track to do just that. I’m certainly not about to stop it.”
Tia narrowed her eyes. “…Is that so?”
“I simply wanted to cause a little extra terror and destruction prior to that. If that’s all, I really must get back to it.” King returned to the screen.
“Not so fast. Whether you’re telling the truth or not is irrelevant…once we kill you, we shall ensure Meteor G cannot be stopped.”
King tilted his head. “Kill me? That’s no way to speak to your father.”
“!” Jack said. “Our real father died years ago! You just scooped us and all those other kids up to play soldier for you while you sat back and reaped the rewards!”
“Caring for us was only a means to an end,” Tia said. “You sent them all to die, King. And for that, there must be retribution.”
King turned and stared at her for a time. Quietly, he said, “I too was saddened by their loss.”
Tia’s eyes were practically aglow with fury. “You were saddened? I was the one who watched them die! I was the one who felt the life drain out of their bodies! Can you hear them weep in your nightmares, King? Do you see their faces out of the corner of your eye? Have you had every last shred of your own hope wither and die within you until you float through life as an empty husk?! Don’t tell me you were saddened by their deaths, King! You cannot even comprehend the atrocities your pointless campaign has inflicted!”
She pointed her staff forward.
“I will put their souls to rest once and for all!”
King tapped his desk. In an instant, Jack and Tia’s Wave Changes were undone, and they stumbled back in alarm.
“What the ?!” Jack asked. “Corvus, what gives?”
“, there’s some kind of Noise interfering with the Wave Change!” Corvus replied.
“No fair!” Virgo said. “I wanted to kill him!”
Tia looked back up at King, her fury replaced with fear. The man’s face was set as he hit another button. A ring of energy appeared around her, binding her arms to her sides—another appeared around Jack.
“You two need to be punished severely,” King said.
The rings began to tighten. The pain was immediately unbearable, numbing Tia’s mind for a moment as it overwhelmed her. Then she heard Jack scream and it all can into agonizingly clear focus.
“N…No!” she groaned. “S-Stop…! Let Jack…go!”
“And why would I do that?” King asked.
Tia clenched her teeth, doing her best to hold on as the pain only intensified. “It was…my idea…to come here! Jack was…just…following me! Let him go…please…!”
King rubbed his chin. “Hm…well, since you were so polite…”
He tapped his desk again. The ring holding Tia disappeared, letting her drop to the floor. The one holding Jack only continued to tighten.
“No!” Tia shouted, leaping towards her brother. She grabbed at the binding, trying desperately to get her fingers under it and loosen it, but it was already too tight.
“S…is…” Jack said. His eyes fluttered; he tried to scream, but he had no breath remaining. Tia’s panic consumed her.
“Jack, no! King, please, just let him go! I can’t lose him too, I can’t, please!”
King just laughed. Tia kept struggling in vain to save her brother, whose eyes were now rolling back into his head. She screamed…and then the ring holding Jack disappeared, letting him drop into Tia’s arms.
“What?!” King said.
Tia clutched Jack close, cradling his head as she cried quietly over him. “It’s okay, Jack…it’s okay…it’s okay…”
King tapped his desk again, but this time nothing happened. He tried a few more times before shouting, “Impossible! What is the meaning of this? Heartless, run a diagnostic on this place!”
Heartless silently walked past him.
She turned to look at him, a chilling smirk on her face. Then, she raised her hand, and gave a simple snap. A Noise Wave opened up directly beneath King. His face went white.
Heartless threw her head back and cackled. “Yes! Oh, I’ve never had to wait so long, but it’s always worth it! That face they make when it all comes crashing down around them is priceless, ahahahah!”
“H-Heartless!” King shouted, his arms scrambling as his chair was slowly pulled down into the Noise. “Explain this!”
“I was the only one you thought would never turn on you, wasn’t I?” she said, bringing one palm to the side of her face as she grinned at him. “Surprise! You’ve been surrounded by traitors this whole time!”
The majority of King’s chair had been pulled under now. Reaching out to claw at the floor, he said, “What…what is it you want? What are you after?!”
“All you need to know is that I’m in the business of…let’s call it ‘karma’. And you know what they say about karma.” Heartless tossed her hair. “It’s a real .”
King shouted, but his cries were cut short as the Noise Wave swallowed him up. Heartless sighed loudly as she walked across the room, Tia watching her very closely as she did.
“You almost ruined it, you know,” Heartless said. “You should’ve just kept your distance.”
Tia held Jack tighter.
“Relax, sweetie. I’m not going to hurt you. Harp Note’s on her way, and she’d be awfully distraught if she found you two dead. Why do you think I stopped his attack?”
Jack stirred. Tia looked down as he opened his eyes, saying, “Jack?!”
“Sis?” He sat up. “What…where’s King?”
“Gone,” Heartless said. “Paying for his sins in the bowels of his own Noise.”
Jack leapt to his feet. “What? You took out King?!”
Heartless turned, saying, “Oh, I’d rather not go over it all again. Will you two be on your way? Harp Note will be here any moment, and surely she’ll attempt to stop you.”
“If she does, we can take her!” Jack said. “Right, Sis?”
Tia Wave Changed, turning to the large, glowing device in the wall. She blasted it with water, blowing a hole into it, and Noise streamed out of the gaping metal.
“…Now Meteor G cannot be stopped,” Tia said. “Tell Harp Note we’ll be waiting there if she still wants to try.”
She turned and started off. Jack ran after her, Wave Changing quickly, and they both disappeared. Heartless shook her head, and then stood there examining her nails as she waited.
It wasn’t much longer before she heard new footsteps. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Sonia and Geo approaching her, Wave Changes still active as they cautiously scanned the place. Heartless turned and smiled at them.
“So glad you could join me,” she said. “Unfortunately, Jack and Queen Tia interrupted, so I had to go ahead and deal with Mr. King myself. Hope you don’t mind.”
“…Jack and Ms. Tia are here?” Geo asked.
“Sorry, just missed them.”
Sonia stared at her a moment longer. “How did you know how to reach me? Why did you bring us here—aren’t you working for Dealer? Who…who are you?”
Heartless looked up at the ceiling. “Well…I’m something of a freelance espionage professional. I infiltrate various organizations, learn all I can about them, and then destroy them from within. It’s something I find quite satisfying. For several years now, I’ve been in deep cover in Dealer under the alias of ‘Heartless’ in the pursuit of a very particular goal.”
“So you’re on our side?” Mega asked.
“More or less,” Heartless said, adding a non-committal shrug.
“Yeah, that’s real trustworthy…”
“Alright,” Sonia said, “but that doesn’t explain how you got my contact information.”
“I have had to make one or two excursions in recent years,” Heartless said. “Most recently, I had to stop at NAZA to let them know I was sending someone useful their way.”
“Sending someone to NAZA…” Geo said. “Wait, are you saying you helped Ace escape Dealer?”
Heartless nodded. “While I was there, I may have poked around a bit and found a way to get in touch with the legendary Harp Note, expecting the need would arise sooner or later. And of course, it did. Though things didn’t go exactly according to plan…”
Sonia continued to stare. Then, she deactivated her Wave Change, and took a step forward. “That doesn’t answer my question. Who are you? I remember you…just barely, but I remember you visiting Mama right before she died.”
Heartless raised her eyebrows. “You remember that? I’m touched. But I’m afraid that will have to wait for now.” She turned and started to walk. “We should head back to AMAKEN before I get into all the details. There’s some very important information to cover, and I’m sure everyone will—“
Heartless looked back at Sonia. The girl had locked a fierce gaze onto her.
“I’m not going anywhere until you answer me. I’m tired of getting pulled around by everyone and never getting any explanation until it’s already too late. So tell me: who are you? How do you know my mother?”
After a few long, tense moments, Heartless chuckled. “…You look just like her.”
She glanced around the room, and then turned back with a sigh.
“Oh, very well. I hate repeating myself, but I can see I won’t get you to budge easily. So I’ll tell you, Sonia. I’ll tell you everything.”
“Sonia, I hope you know how much I love you. And I hope you have a wonderful, long, happy life…goodbye.”
Rosa tapped her Transer to end the recording. A coughing fit immediately overtook her, lasting for what felt like hours. When it finally stopped, she gasped for air and shakily reached towards the terminal again.
“You look terrible.”
She glanced up. Standing just inside her room was a tall, slender woman with pink hair, wrapped in a long black coat. After staring for a moment, she hoarsely asked, “What are you doing here?”
The woman shrugged with one shoulder. “Is it so strange to pay someone a visit when they’re in the hospital?” With a grin, she added, “Well, I suppose it is for me.”
She came forward and sat at the foot of Rosa’s bed. Rosa fidgeted for a moment, and then said, “I’m dying, you know.”
She nodded. “I know. That’s why I’m here. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to say goodbye.”
Rosa smirked. “It won’t hurt?”
“Don’t act surprised. You know that I’m heartless.”
They chuckled together. Rosa rubbed her Transer absent-mindedly. Though she already knew the answer, she had to ask. “Once I’m gone…Sonia won’t have anybody.”
“She’s your daughter, isn’t she?” the woman said, eyes aimed at the wall. “She’s strong enough to handle that.”
Rosa sighed. “Of course.”
The woman turned towards her slightly. “…I have a lead.”
It took Rosa a moment to realize her meaning. Lighting up a bit, she asked, “You do? Really?”
“You’re not just making it up so that I can die in peace, are you?”
“You really think I’m that kind?”
Rosa didn’t say anything.
“I know where he is. Or, maybe where he’s going to be. Either way, I think we’ll have a chance to rescue him…but it’ll be a few years still before we get it. And in order to be in the right place at the right time, I’m going to need to get cozy with some dangerous people.”
“That is what you do best,” Rosa muttered.
The woman smiled. “Precisely. But, of course, bringing a child into that…not a wise idea.”
“…I suppose not.”
“But then, maybe Sonia could handle it. You are planning to use her as a weapon against the FM-ians, aren’t you?”
Rosa glared at her. “It’s not like that.”
“Oh, of course not,” the woman said, adjusting a stray hair. “Someone as kind as you would never dream of sending her only child into battle. What was I thinking?”
“Listen here, you—“ Another coughing fit cut her off. When she could breathe again, she said, “…I’m just making preparations. If the FM-ians attack Earth and no one’s prepared, everyone could die, including Sonia. I didn’t create this situation, I’m just reacting to it.”
“Fair enough. But why does it have to be Sonia?”
“Suddenly you care about her?”
“That’s not an answer.”
Rosa clenched her fists, strangling the sheet in her hands. “…She’s the only one who can. The Star Force is our best bet, but with the AM-ians all but gone, the only EM beings we’re likely to run into are the FM-ians. Someone is going to have to befriend one of them, convince them to change…and Sonia’s someone who can do that.”
“Hm. You think so?”
“Stop it. You think I don’t know how terrible what I’m doing is? She’s my daughter. I don’t want her to have to fight—I don’t want to put her through the pain she’s going to face if she gets involved in all this. But I don’t have the luxury of approaching this like a mother. I have to approach it like a scientist. And if that means I have to place this burden on Sonia’s shoulders…” She hung her head. “Then I’ll do it. It’s not like I need to wait long to see how God judges me for it.”
The woman watched her for a moment, and then reached out and set a hand on hers. “Welcome to the world of hard choices.” When she looked up, Rosa saw the woman smiling at her, looking somewhat relieved.
“…Don’t you do what you do because you enjoy it?” Rosa asked.
“I do. But every so often there are some joyless decisions that are tough even for me to make, times when I too have to think objectively and make the call that’s most beneficial no matter how terrible it is. Easier for me than it is for you, I’m sure…but, if you’ll allow me a little sentiment, it’s nice to think we understand each other a little better now.”
The woman stood up, straightening her coat. “I’ll help her out if I get the chance, though I’m not so sure I will. Again, dangerous people.”
Rosa thought for a moment. “If I hadn’t asked you to find Kelvin, if you weren’t about to take this chance to find him…then, would you have taken care of Sonia after I died?”
Without hesitation, she answered, “No.”
“I see.” She sighed. “How awful…I’m relieved to hear you say that. At least now I know my selfish request didn’t ruin a chance she never actually had.”
The woman laughed. “Careful, Rosa: you’re starting to sound like me.”
“Oh, then it’s a very good thing I don’t have enough time for that to develop.”
The woman stayed where she was for a few moments. Then, she walked up to Rosa, smiled sadly, and set a hand on her head. “I don’t exactly have a right to say it…but I really do love you, little sister. The world’s going to feel very empty knowing that you’re no longer in it.”
Rosa smiled back, tears starting to form in her eyes. “I still love you too, sis. Remember that, okay?”
“Heh. Well, I suppose I could try to.”
With that, she turned and left the room. Just outside the door, she felt eyes on her, and turned to see Sonia staring right at her. She froze, not knowing what to do for a split-second. But that was all the time it took her to remember what she had to do.
So, she smiled at Sonia, and then she turned her back on her and walked away.
“Rosa was my younger sister,” Heartless said. “I was there that day because I wanted to take my only chance to tell her goodbye.”
Sonia’s eyes widened. “W…what? But, Mama never mentioned having a sister…”
“She probably didn’t talk much about her family at all, did she?”
Sonia didn’t answer.
“Yes, I’m sure Rosa felt she’d be taunting you with a family you’d never meet. We went our separate ways long ago—your mother, myself, and our parents. It’s a rift we could never agree to mend.”
“She told me about that,” Sonia said. “She said her family wanted her to give up on something, but she didn’t, so they cut ties with her.”
“Oh, it was a long time coming,” Heartless said. “Our parents liked to call themselves ‘old-fashioned’…because they thought that justified their backwards thinking. They were absurdly strict, emotionally distant, always pushing us and never making us feel like what we did was enough. Myself, I simply gave up trying to please them. It was quite freeing to throw myself into the role of ‘wild child’. But Rosa…” She sighed. “For Rosa, it wasn’t quite that simple. She wanted to please our parents. An impossible task, but she kept at it, no matter how it wore her down over the years. Our differing approaches caused a good bit of friction between the two of us as well, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
The information processed slowly in Sonia’s mind. She still wasn’t entirely sure she could trust this woman’s words, but if she was telling the truth, then she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Hesitantly, she asked, “…Then…what was the final straw? What did they want her to give up on?”
Heartless frowned. “…You.”
A chill crept up Sonia’s spine. “What?”
The woman crossed her arms. “Despite the aforementioned friction, Rosa and I could still get along from time to time. It got easier once we were both adults. However, she still wanted our parents’ approval so badly…she really thought she would get it once she established herself as a scientist. But even that wasn’t enough for them, and realizing that nearly broke her. With little choice, she ended up turning to me. I wanted to cheer her up, get her to relax a little, so I convinced her to come with me to a party.” She smiled. “…She did have fun. It was nice to see that. However, soon after we found out she had a little too much fun that night…and had wound up pregnant.”
“Our parents were furious. The man she had been with wanted nothing more to do with her, so they told her the only thing to do was to terminate the pregnancy. It was Rosa’s decision of course, but they didn’t see it that way. They told her what choice to make…and there she finally drew the line. And our parents told her they never wanted to see her again.”
Sonia stared at Heartless silently, waiting for a coherent thought to form.
“I imagine this is a lot to take in,” Heartless said. “And of course, you may not even believe me. Aaron Boreal can vouch. So can Hope Stelar—I got to know her and Kelvin through Rosa, lovely people.”
Geo stepped closer to Sonia, asking, “Sonia? Are you alright?”
“…Not sure,” Sonia said. She gently shook her head, trying her best to clear it. “But we’ve got other problems…so…Heartless. If you’ve been planning to dismantle Dealer all along, why did you wait until now to do it?”
Heartless hummed to herself, glancing at Geo. “…I suppose it’s fine, as long as he’s here.”
Geo turned to her, waiting for an explanation.
“I didn’t join Dealer to dismantle it. That’s just a bonus. The real reason I joined it was because I knew they would bring about this exact moment, when Meteor G is finally within reach.”
Sonia tensed. Preparing to Wave Change again, she asked, “And what do you want Meteor G for?”
“It’s not the Meteor itself I want. I want the one trapped inside it.”
“…What was that?”
“A few years back, Rosa contacted me out of the blue to ask me for help in finding someone. However, when I finally locked onto this person’s Transer signal, I discovered he was directly in the path of Meteor G. So in order to fulfill Rosa’s request, I knew I had to ensure the Meteor would get close enough that we could properly extract him.”
“Mama asked you to find someone? Someone in space? Who…”
She trailed off as she realized. Sonia turned slowly to Geo, who took a shaky step forward.
“Wait…” he murmured. “Do you mean…”
Heartless nodded. “I’ve checked a few more times to verify. Kelvin is still alive, inside Meteor G.”
Geo turned to the monitor, staring at the image of the glowing red star. Mega materialized beside him, saying, “Hang on, really? You’re completely sure Kelvin is inside that thing?”
“Well…I did turn him into a wave being, so he would be able to exist inside the server. But…” Mega hesitated.
“But the Noise would corrupt him, wouldn’t it?” Geo quietly answered.
“…Well, it’s hard to be certain,” Heartless said, “but I’m not worried. If the Noise did affect Kelvin, his signal would surely degrade as a result, and I can confirm that it has only grown stronger as Meteor G has grown closer.”
Geo faced her. “Then…he’s okay?”
“Again, it’s hard to be certain. We can only be entirely sure of his status once we’ve extracted him.”
Starting forward, he said, “Okay, well, how do we do that?!”
Heartless glanced briefly at the broken machine in the wall. “Not to worry: I’ve had plenty of time to plan this out. But for best results, we will need to consult our mutual acquaintances down at AMAKEN. Hope you don’t mind, but I will insist we rendezvous before we continue this conversation.”
Geo nodded. He headed back the way he had come, but quickly stopped and turned back to Sonia. The girl was still staring at Heartless.
“…Yes?” Heartless asked.
“Sorry,” Sonia said. “I guess I still don’t know what to think.”
“I know we don’t have time right now. But…when this is over…can we talk more? Please?”
Heartless took a moment before answering. “…Very well. If that’s what you want, then I’ll oblige. I suppose it is the least I can do.”
Sonia turned back around. Geo was still watching her, so she nodded to him, trying to smile. Still, the two of them ended up looking back at Meteor G.
Boreal stared across the table at Heartless. She sat there silently, looking only the slightest bit impatient.
“So Kelvin is really inside Meteor G?” he asked. “And you have a plan to get him out of it?”
“Yes,” Heartless said, “and it even involves saving the Earth. Have I permission to share it, Chief?”
Copper leaned over towards Boreal, whispering, “You’re sure we can believe her information?”
“I know her,” Boreal replied. “I trust her…at least, I trust her on this.”
He nodded to Heartless, so she stood and cleared her throat. “What I have done is quite simple: I have constructed a Noise Wave that will allow a wave body to enter the Meteor Server. By utilizing it, Harp Note will be able to find and extract Kelvin, as well as destroy Meteor G’s core, which will cause the meteor itself to disperse before it can impact the Earth’s surface.”
Sonia lightly tapped her finger against the table. She could see her friends out of the corner of her eye, both Luna and Geo wearing very worried expressions.
“Interesting,” Goodall said. “You’ve found a way to make it through the dense outer layer of Noise? Mind if we ask how?”
“I thought you’d be curious,” Heartless said. “Rest assured, I have a report ready that will detail everything I’ve learned about Noise while working at Dealer, which I’ll be turning over to WAZA free of charge.”
“That’s very generous,” Vega said. “However, when you say ‘disperse’…does that not mean the Noise will still remain in the upper atmosphere of the planet? Might some of it still fall and affect the Earth?”
“You are correct, but I’ve handled that as well. The orbital base King used possesses Noise-resistant shielding—if I position it between the Earth and Meteor G, then when the core is destroyed, it will hold back the brunt of the Noise long enough for me to download all of it elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere? The Meteor Server is enormous! Where else could you download that much Noise?”
“I found just the thing lying around. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there happen to be three powerful satellites orbiting our planet, which have been lying empty for some time now.”
Boreal looked up. “The satellite network? From when we used Transers? I suppose it would be just about the right size, but they’re not…well, you’ve probably seen to that to, haven’t you?”
Heartless smirked. “If you were about to say they’re not capable of dealing with Noise, then yes, I’ve modified them myself with Dealer technology to ensure they will be able to function as a new Noise Server. As I may’ve mentioned, I’ve had plenty of time to formulate this plan.”
“Alright. So, all we need to do is get Sonia to this Noise Wave.”
Sonia nodded. “Okay. How can I get to it?”
Heartless’s smirk fell away, and she glanced to the side. “Yes, well…we have hit one tiny snag. Queen Tia destroyed the orbital base’s mechanism for controlling Noise. With that, I could’ve simply opened an entrance from anywhere, but as it stands…”
Boreal sighed. “This sounds like more than a ‘tiny snag’.”
“But,” Vega said, “we need only repair the mechanism, isn’t that right? We must begin immediately!”
“I do appreciate your enthusiasm,” Heartless said. “However, even if we begin now, I can’t say for certain if we would have enough time to get the mechanism working properly; much less enough for Harp Note to traverse the wave, deal with Jack and Queen Tia, and then destroy the core. I’m prepared to do what I can, but I thought perhaps we should look into alternatives.”
Before the discussion could continue, a strange sensation filled the air. The various technologies around the room all went to static, and the lights began to flicker; Sonia got to her feet, cautiously glancing around the room. Suddenly, the entrance to a Noise Wave popped into existence on one side of the room. She immediately Wave Changed as everyone scrambled away from the portal.
“Ho ho…” echoed a voice from within the wave. “Yes, come join me. The Noise is marvelous!”
Geo Wave Changed as well, saying, “That sounds like…”
He didn’t have to wait long for confirmation. King emerged from the Noise Wave, hands folded on his desk, and gave a toothy grin to the crowd waiting for him. Sonia and Geo quickly put themselves between him and the others.
“That…isn’t possible,” Heartless said.
“Come now, dear Heartless,” King said. “Did you really think this would be enough to kill me? You’ve underestimated me. I’m hurt.”
“A human can’t survive for long in an environment as harsh as a Noise Wave. You should…” Her eyes widened.
“Think it through, my dear. It’s true that a human cannot survive in a Noise Wave…so, I ceased being human.” King rapped his knuckles against his desk. “I’ve long been prepared for the possibility of shedding my humanity. So I built a special Z Wave generator into my chair: when my physical well-being was at stake, it activated, and turned me into an EM being. And, I just so happened to have a spare Noise Blocker on hand as well, rendering me immune to any potential side effects my surroundings may’ve caused. Your trap has failed, Heartless.”
Copper raised his Hunter, preparing to Wave Change. When he saw the screen, however, he realized Plesio was spasming. “Plesio? What’s wrong?!”
“Noise…” Plesio murmured, sounding like it pained him just to speak. “Too much Noise…”
“Oh, you don’t say?” King said. “This wave does lead to Meter G—I suppose its intense Noise is too much for your primitive Filters! Ho ho ho ho!”
Sonia and Geo exchanged a brief look.
“But on to more pressing issues…I have a traitor to dispose of!”
Heartless stepped back. Aiming her guitar, Sonia said, “I won’t let you!”
Geo got in front of Heartless, shield ready, while Sonia sent a note at King. His chair moved quickly to the side, and the lights decorating its front shone. Beams shot out from them, but just as they did, Laplace cut the side of the chair, tilting it so that the attack only hit the wall. Solo appeared a second later. He drew back his fist to attack, but paused: for just a moment, the flames that cloaked it wavered oddly, and that was enough for him to take a more cautious approach.
“Hmph,” King scoffed. “Very well. I’d hoped to personalize your doom, but you will perish just the same when Meteor G strikes.”
King moved back into the Noise Wave. Sonia wondered if she should charge him, but the lights on the chair continued to shine, warning her to stay back.
“But please, if you think you can stop it, do your worst! I’ll leave your Noise Wave intact, dear Heartless—if you can still find a way to get Harp Note to it, then I’ll gladly destroy her with my own hands!”
“King!” Sonia shouted. “No matter what, I’m going to stop Meteor G! Make it easy on yourself and surrender now!”
“Ho ho, is that how you see it? I look forward to seeing you join us at the table, Harp Note. You’ll make this final game so much more interesting!”
The wave closed, and King was gone. As the room returned to normal, Sonia checked her guitar screen: she wondered if maybe she could still access the Noise Wave, but she discovered that was not the case. She undid her Wave Change and made sure everyone was alright, ultimately turning to Vega.
“I can’t get in,” she said. “Can you think of any other way I could get to the Noise Wave?”
Vega averted her gaze as she thought. “You need to get close in order to access it with the Joker Program. If the Noise Wave is connected to Meter G, it would need to stay close, which means it’s still rather far from us—except for when King moves it, I suppose.”
“He said he would leave it, right?”
“He did. Now we just need to figure our part out…I suppose we could wait for the Meteor to come close enough that it could be accessed through the Astro Wave, but by that point we’d have almost no time left. So we need to find some way to get Sonia even closer to Meteor G…”
“The problem is that all the Noise it’s putting out will corrupt any craft we could send that way,” Goodall said. “Although, you did say that orbital base was Noise resistant. Would you be able to take it closer and get Sonia in from there?”
“I thought of that, but I’m not sure it’s the best course of action,” Heartless said as she sat back down. “At that proximity to a fully intact Meteor G, I’m not certain the shields would hold out, and if they were compromised, it may prevent me from being able to properly execute the server transfer.”
“Leaving all that Noise out in the open,” Goodall said. “And I don’t suppose we have time to build our own Noise-resistant craft…”
They turned to Zack, who had been sitting quietly in the corner until this point. Nervously adjusting his glasses, he continued, “Y-You know, since the incident where Magnes was Noised, I’ve been making repairs to the Science Club’s rocket, and, um…I-I noticed that it’s actually become quite resistant to Noise now. Probably as a result of being exposed to so much, I would guess, but, well, I’ve tested it a little, and it seems to be…a significant resistance. I-I don’t know how it compares to this base, but…well…”
Goodall’s face brightened. “Oh! That could be exactly what we need! Sonia can pulse into the rocket, ride it into orbit, and then access the Noise Wave from there!”
“We should bring it up for some testing just to be safe,” Vega said, “but this sounds very promising! Let’s begin right away!”
Zack’s nervousness quickly faded, replaced by a grin. Rushing forward, he said, “Y-Yes, absolutely! I’ll get it right now!”
He and the doctors left the room. Turning to Sonia, Boreal said, “Are you sure about going to the server? With that intense Noise, it looks like you may be on your own. The Joker Program should be fine, even if our Noise Filters can’t handle it, but…”
Sonia looked at her guitar screen. “Lyra?”
The FM-ian nodded. “I’m with you. It may be risky, but our inaction would lead to Earth’s destruction, and I’ve grown rather attached to this ball of rock.”
“Heh, thanks. Let’s go save the world again!”
“Will we be done after this? They say the third time’s the charm, so I can hope…”
Geo stepped forward then, saying, “Sonia…”
She smiled at him. “You’re coming too, right? We could use some help if Jack and Tia are waiting for us. And…I’m sure you’re eager to see your father again.”
After a short delay, Geo smiled back. “…Thanks, Sonia. It means a lot to me.”
“Alright,” Mega cheered, “this time we get to knock heads all the way up to the end! I’m raring to go!”
“So,” Sonia said, “it’ll be you, me, and…”
She turned to Solo just as he reverted to normal. He paused a moment, and then turned to properly face her.
“Solo…you’re the only other one who can help us. I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with you, but please…can you come with us?”
Solo glanced around the room. Then, he turned towards the door, and jerked his head that way. Sonia followed him out into the hall.
“Please,” Sonia said, “we—“
“I’ll do it,” Solo said.
Sonia blinked. “…You will? Really?!”
“S-Sorry. I just…” She smiled. “Thank you, Solo. Thank you.”
Solo nodded. He looked like he still had something to say, so Sonia waited.
“At Dealer’s base,” he finally said, so quiet Sonia could barely hear him. “When Joker was attacking me, and you stepped in…you said that I belonged there. That’s…the first time in a long while…anyone has stood up for me like that.”
Sonia wasn’t sure if that warmed her heart or broke it.
“I appreciate it. Truly. So I’ll help you…as a favor. I’ll help you protect what’s precious to you.”
He walked off in a hurry before Sonia had a chance to reply. She chuckled a little, and then walked back into the room, finding Luna there waiting for her. Seeing her expression, she suddenly became aware of her nerves.
Luna walked over, taking hold of her hands when she was close enough. They stood silently with their fingers entwined for a moment, and then Luna squeezed Sonia’s hands and looked her in the eye.
“I know,” Luna said. “At least this time you’ll have Geo with you—that makes this a lot easier. I know he’ll watch your back…but, I still want you to promise me something.”
“I’ll come back,” Sonia said. “I promise.”
“Not just that.”
“Huh? What else?”
“When you do get back…I want you to promise that you’ll take me on a date.”
“A proper date!” Luna said, leaning forward with a very serious expression. “I expect something very nice, with not a hint of danger in sight! I’d say we’ve both earned it, don’t you?”
Giggling, Sonia said, “Yeah. You’re absolutely right! I promise we’ll have a spectacular date when I get back, Luna!”
She gave Luna a kiss, and then hugged her tightly. As she did, Sonia saw Heartless on the other side of the room, casually typing something into her Hunter. Her mind was still a whirl, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from doing what needed to be done. With Luna in her arms, she finally caught a glimpse of clarity, and she used that moment to fully prepare herself for everything that lay ahead.
I can do this. I’ll save everyone on Earth, save Geo’s father, and come home to Luna and all my friends. And then…maybe I’ll have a chance to figure out exactly how I feel.
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