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Super Fighting Pahrak

Shooting Star Sonia 3: Red Joker

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Chapter 1


Luna scowled up at the sky as gray clouds rolled over Vista Point.  Tapping a finger against the umbrella hanging on the railing, she thought, It had better hold out a little longer…


She set the matter aside for the moment and looked back at the device in her hands.  The terminal, dubbed the Hunter-VG, was the newly-released replacement of the Star Carrier, and was being advertised as so upgrade-friendly that there would never need to be another new terminal again.  If she was being honest, Luna didn’t think it looked particularly revolutionary: it was little more than a thick disk with a narrow tray sticking out of one side, though the holographic interface it projected had worked very smoothly thus far.  As she examined it, her eyes sought out the clock on their own.


“What’s keeping her?” she huffed.


In a flash of bluish-white, Ophiuca appeared on the other side of the railing.  “She did say that she was unsure how long the meeting would take exactly.  Though, by now, I’m sure she’s on her way if nothing else.”


Luna tensed a little in surprise.  “Huh…I’m still getting used to being able to see you.”


Looking down at herself, Ophiuca said, “Yes, this Real Wave body will definitely require some adjustment, but it is exquisitely-made.  What gives me more pause is this new classification of EM beings…I’m not truly sure I like the sound of ‘Wizard’.”


“Well they had to pick something easy to remember.  You’re going to have to get used to it.”


Ophiuca dramatically raised her arm over her face.  “My, how dreadful…but, if I must.”  She vanished, only to reappear on the Hunter’s screen.  “You know, I have a hunch that Sonia wouldn’t mind terribly if we were to move the rendezvous point.”


Luna puffed out her cheeks.  “Really, where is she?  She knows I don’t appreciate being kept waiting!”


A flash from behind the deck caught her attention.  A familiar voice followed with, “Sorry, sorry, I know I’m late.”


“I’ll say!” Luna replied.  She deactivated the Hunter’s screen and pocketed the device, and then walked over to the corner of the deck.  “I hope you have a good explanation for…”


She stopped as Sonia stepped into view and began to climb the stairs.  She was still Wave Changed, but the form looked slightly different: her golden bracelets were thinner than they used to be, and on each greave were two vertical white stripes like the ones on her dress.  Her sleeves were totally different, with white patches on her shoulders that each spawned a single vertical line down the front of her arm and another down the back, dividing the pink on the outer side from the black that colored the inner sleeve and the area around her collarbone.  There was also something coming off of the bottom edge of her helmet—a headset mic, by the look of it.


Sonia reached the top stair and paused for a moment.  Averting her gaze just a little, she asked, “Um…does it look good?”


Realizing she was staring, Luna blushed and said, “O-Oh, yeah.  You look great.  But, what…”


Hearing Luna’s answer, Sonia brightened up.  “This is what Mr. Boreal wanted to see us about.”


“I thought he was just adding Hunter functions to your guitar?”


“He did, but apparently the Hunter-VG has a function for streamlining Wave Changes to enhance them.  They wanted to see how it turned out, which is why he wanted Bud and Geo to come too.”


Lyra materialized beside her, adding, “I must say, I feel more energized than I’ve felt in a long time!  The humans have really outdone themselves.”


“So that’s why you look different,” Luna said.  “Wait, where is your guitar?”


“Oh, right!” Sonia said, raising her left hand.  Luna realized that the bracelet on that wrist was pale blue with a heart decoration on it.  A second later, it returned to the familiar gold, and Sonia’s guitar appeared in her hands.  The instrument had also gotten a minor change, with the face and microphone at the head being replaced by a large heart with pink light shining in its center, a light which flowed in a single line down the length of the neck before splitting and encircling the main body.  There were also a few knobs added at the point where the body was at its widest.  Striking a pose, she said, “So, what do you think?”


Luna placed her hands over her heart and smiled wide.  “Amazing!”


Sonia blushed, scratching her head.  “Heheh…well, I guess that’s enough showing off for now…”


As Sonia undid her Wave Change, Ophiuca asked, “Then this affects every Wave Change?  We should expect something different as well?”


“Oh, let’s try it out!” Luna said, reaching for her Hunter.  “The Wavehole’s over there, right?”


“Actually, we don’t need Waveholes anymore!  You can Wave Change wherever you want.”


With a nod, Luna initiated the transformation, and Sonia stepped forward to take a look at her.  The new Queen Ophiuca wore a triangular black breastplate over her torso, and her shoulder armor was much smaller, now looking like the heads of two purple snakes clamping down on her arms.


“Wow, you look great!”  Pointing, Sonia added, “Your…’hair’ is different.”


Luna touched her helmet.  “Really?”


“Yeah, it doesn’t come out as much, and it’s more flat.  Actually, it sort of makes you look like a cobra.  It’s neat!”


Satisfied, Luna returned to normal, and then took a look at her Hunter.  The screen came up and displayed some sort of notification, a window that looked like a gray card with the Satella Police emblem on it.  “What’s this…Transcode 007: Queen Ophiuca?”


“Ah, I forgot!” Sonia said.  “NAZA is…er, no, WAZA, is going to be keeping a registry of everyone who can Wave Change.  Mr. Boreal said it’s part collecting data and part public safety.  I’m 004, Geo’s 003, Bud’s 005…”  After a moment, she muttered, “Wait, who’s 006, then?”


Turning to her, Luna asked, “You don’t know?”


Sonia shrugged.  “I’ll have to ask next time I see Mr. Boreal, I guess.”


“Wait, what about 001 and 002?”


She thought she saw a slight shift in Sonia’s expression, but she didn’t quite know what to call it.  “001 is registered to a new Satella Officer testing a Battle Wizard made with Wave Change capabilities.  I’ve met him a few times—I keep meaning to introduce you, we just haven’t gotten the chance yet.  002…they said I’d meet him soon, and kind of pushed me on to the next topic.  I’m not sure what that was about.”


Luna waited a moment before saying, “A Battle Wizard made to Wave Change, huh?  I didn’t know WAZA had that technology.”


“He’s still experimental,” Sonia said.  “They decided to base him on data they collected from Mega, since his lock-on works so well with Battle Cards and the Satella Police are already so used to using those.  The two of them look like brothers, almost.”


“You can imagine how thrilled he was to learn that,” Lyra said.


“Oh, I’m sure,” Ophiuca laughed.  “Now I want to meet him all the more!”


Luna was about to say something when she felt a drop fall on her.  Holding out her hand, she began to feel more, and realized the rain had finally started.  “Oh shoot…”


She went back for her umbrella and quickly opened it, and then turned back around to see Sonia frantically pulling her hood up while hunching over her guitar.


“…You don’t have an umbrella, do you?”


Flashing an embarrassed grin, Sonia said, “You know I can never remember.”


Luna sighed.  As she walked over, she said, “If you’d gotten here sooner, we could’ve been gone before this started.”


Sonia stepped underneath Luna’s umbrella, defending herself with, “Hey, we had a lot to cover!  I did say the timing was more of an estimate.”


“You still should’ve tried harder to make the time you decided on!”




They walked side by side, staying close as they could so neither would get wet, and slowly made their way back into Echo Ridge.  At one particularly long wait for a crossing signal, Luna glanced tentatively at Sonia—she was leaned up against her with a look of pure contentment.


“…It’s been a while since we shared an umbrella, hasn’t it?” Luna mumbled as she tried not to blush.


Sonia giggled softly.  “A little while, yeah.”


Luna could feel her heart pounding.  C-Calm down!  There’s no reason to make a big deal out of this.  It’s only natural we’d share an umbrella, since we’re…w-we’re…


“Hey,” Sonia said, “would you…be mad at me if I said I took a little longer getting back because…I was hoping we could do this?”


The blush became too strong for Luna to hold off.  “I…well, I guess that’s okay…”




“Wait a minute, is that why you never remember your own umbrella in the first place?”


“No, that’s just honest forgetfulness.”  She paused, and then: “Darn, I should’ve thought of that.”




The light finally changed, so they continued on.


“So, have you started preparing for the election yet?” Sonia asked.  “Well, I guess I should ask if you’ve started on your victory speech yet, huh?”


When she didn’t get a quick response, Sonia lifted her head off Luna’s shoulder and looked at her.  Luna stared ahead with a solemn expression, and soon mumbled, “I’m…actually wondering if I should…”




“It’s just…I’ve been Class President every year, and each time fewer and fewer people run against me.”


Not sure what she was getting at, Sonia grasped for something to say.  “People probably just figure you’re going to win again, so…”


“Exactly.  I’m pretty much unstoppable at this point.”


“…Um, is that bad…?”


Luna’s footsteps slowed, so Sonia slowed down to match her.


“Shouldn’t I let someone else have a chance?” Luna asked, turning slightly.  “If I just keep taking charge, then no one else has much opportunity to do what they can to help the student body.  I’m…”  She paused to wring her hands around the umbrella handle.  “I guess I’m worried I’m pushing everyone else out of the way to do what I want.”


“Oh,” Sonia said.  She thought a moment, and then smiled and wrapped her arms around Luna.  “Come on, don’t overthink it so much.”


Luna stumbled a bit.  “Wha…?”


“Quick: why do you like being president?”


“Well, I get to help improve conditions for the students and get their voices heard, so—“


“There you go.”




“What do you mean ‘what’?  You want to be president because you want to help your classmates out.  So, it’s not that you’re being pushy, you just want what’s best for the students and think you can provide that.  Right?”


Luna looked up as she considered this.  “…Well, yes.  But I don’t necessarily need to be in charge to do those sorts of things.”


“I think the reason everyone keeps voting for you is because they think you’re very good at being in charge.  No one knows how to motivate and organize people like you do, and you’ll never back down from something once you’ve made up your mind.  They love having someone like that fighting for them.”  She returned her head to Luna’s shoulder as she finished, “I know I love having you on my side.”


For a while, Luna watched the raindrops fall without saying anything.  Then, she smiled, and she said, “Hmph.  Well, if I’m worried I’m blocking good ideas, then I should be looking for better ways to take in the class’s opinion rather than just stepping aside.  I’ll have to pay attention to what pieces of my opponents’ platforms get the most support—after the election I can approach them to negotiate implementing their plans.”  She glanced at Sonia.  “…Thanks.”


“Don’t mention it!”


They both looked up as they approached the building Luna lived in.  Sonia started to reach for her guitar screen, saying, “Guess I should get going.  I’d love to call you later—what time would be good?”


Luna stared at the building for a few seconds.  “U-Um…you know, we really didn’t get to spend much time together…”


“Yeah, I know, I was late.”


“What I mean is…for you to go so soon…”


Sonia tilted her head.


“…Well…why don’t you come inside for a while?  I-I mean, if you want to…”


It took Sonia a minute to absorb this.  When she did, her eyes went wide in surprise, and she blushed slightly.  “Oh…really?  Yeah, I’d love to!  It’s no problem?”


“Of course not!”  They both stood there nervously for a moment before Luna cleared her throat.  “Come on, then.  I’ll make us some tea.”


The apartment Luna lived in was near the top floor of the building, and each room was stocked with expensive furniture and lavish decorations.  Luna immediately went to the kitchen to prepare the tea, Ophiuca following to assist her, meanwhile Sonia and Lyra wandered down the hall marveling at the place.




Luna craned her neck, barely hearing the distant remark.  “What is it?”


“All these trophies…”


“Oh,” Luna muttered, remembering the case at the end of the hall.  “Y-You don’t have to pay attention to those, they’re just—“


Sonia poked her head around the corner, a bewildered look in her eyes.  Luna stopped what she was doing and waited.


“…You play the piano?” Sonia finally asked.


“That’s what…” Luna sighed and returned to making tea.  “I’ve told you that before, haven’t I?”


“Hm, have you?” Ophiuca mumbled as she set a cup down next to Luna.  She playfully ignored the glance Luna gave her.


“You definitely haven’t!” Sonia said, walking into the room.  “How has that not come up in all this time?!”


Luna grunted as she grabbed the cup.  “Well, come on, what sort of person brags about putting on piano recitals when talking to an actual award-winning idol?  It’s nothing.”


Sonia leaned to one side in disbelief, and then turned around.  “Lyra, how many of those trophies are for piano competitions? “


Lyra could be heard muttering, “Let’s see, everything on this shelf, that one too…quite a lot of them, actually.”


Leaning back towards Luna, Sonia said, “It hardly sounds like nothing!  Let’s play something together!”


Luna nearly lost her grip.  “Huh?!”


“Come on, it’s perfect!  Getting to play music with you, it’d just…”  She trailed off.  Latching onto Luna’s arm, she bat her eyes and quietly asked, “Please?”


Luna thought about it for a moment, but then closed her eyes and pushed a cup towards Sonia.  “For now, let’s just drink tea.  I need to warm up after being out in the rain.”


Sonia slumped against Luna, moaning, “Aww…”


But, she took the cup she was offered, and sulked after Luna as she headed out into the living room.  Lyra soon reappeared, and she and Ophiuca came to rest just inside the room as Luna and Sonia sat down on the massive sofa.


“Anyway,” Luna said, “how’s your drama going?  You said you were starting to film the season finale, right?”


Sonia took a sip and nodded.  “Mm-hm.  We’ve got most of it done.  Next week is the final scene and wrap party—I was actually going to see if you and everyone else wanted to come.”


“Really?  I’d love to!”


“Great!  I’ll talk to the studio about getting some passes, and then I’ll let you know the exact details.”


After pausing to take a drink, Luna asked, “So?”


Sonia turned to her.


“When you first agreed to do the show, you weren’t entirely sure, and you said you’d try it for a season before deciding if you were going to continue or not.  So, how do you feel about it now?”


Sonia looked up at the ceiling, resting her teacup in her lap as she thought.  “Hmmmm…I don’t know that my feelings have really changed all that much.  I still think there are some benefits—people can relate to some of the show’s events, so I can try to inspire more people this way.  We’ve gotten a lot of support, and I’m really thankful for all of it, and I don’t want to let anyone down.”


Leaning towards her, Luna said, “If you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t keep at it just to please other people.”


“It’s not…” Sonia started, but then stopped.  “…I know.  I know, I’m not going to be able to please everyone.  But I don’t mean to sound like I hate working on the show.  It can be a lot of fun, and they’ve given me tons of creative freedom.”  She sighed and took a drink.  “I guess I’m kind of indifferent.  It’s weird, you’d think I’d have a better idea by now, right?”


“Maybe.  I don’t know, it could just be a relative thing.  You seem to enjoy it, but not as much as you enjoy music.  Comparing the two, the drama must come up short.”


“Huh, maybe that’s it…”  She shrugged.  “Whatever it is, I actually haven’t decided if I want to do a second season yet.  I’d like to give them an answer before we finish production, but…”


Luna watched as Sonia rotated the cup in her hands, staring at the tea as it swirled around.  Reaching out, she tugged on the sleeve of her hoodie and said, “Don’t let them rush you into any decision.  If you need a little more time to know for sure, then you take it, alright?”


“I’d hate to keep them waiting.”


“If they have to wait, they have to wait!  A little hiatus never hurt anyone.  You’ll have an answer for them when you’re good and ready.  That’s all there is to it!”  Shifting her attention to Lyra, she added, “Make sure she remembers, okay?”


Lyra nodded.  “You can count on me, dear.”


A smile slowly broke across Sonia’s face.  Looking between the both of them, she said, “Thanks.”


Luna let go and took another drink.  “Well of course.”


“Either way, I was thinking I’d like to go on tour soon,” Sonia said.  “It feels like it’s been forever since I put on a show someplace new.  I already picked out a few possible cities, actually.”


“Oh…um, so…” Luna started, hiding her mouth behind her cup.  “H-How far were you thinking of going?”


“At this point, I almost feel like a world tour, buuuut maybe that’s going overboard.”  After thinking a moment, she turned sharply and added, “Uh, so I probably won’t be going too far.  And even if I do, we can just use the Wave Roads to get back and forth in a snap, so it’ll be like I never even left in a sense!”


“Ah, that’s right,” Luna mumbled.


“Heck, considering that, you could come and see me anywhere and get back home in no time.  I’ve always got a ticket with your name on it, you know.”


A small smile could be seen behind Luna’s glass.  “Heh.  I’ll keep that in mind.”


Sonia giggled.  Finishing her cup, she said, “The tea’s delicious, by the way!”


She set the glassware on the coffee table and then grabbed her guitar, taking a moment to tune it and verify it hadn’t been damaged in the rain.  Once she was satisfied with the instrument’s condition, Sonia thought for a moment, and then started to play slowly, while Luna watched intently and she pretended not to notice.  Lyra and Ophiuca floated quietly on the other side of the room.  Sonia’s music lazily wove around them all, set against the faint roaring of the rain hitting the roof.


Luna stared, mesmerized by the gentle melody coming from Sonia’s guitar.  She moved from one note to the next so fluidly, like it was happening on its own, like she could produce such expert sound without even needing to put conscious thought into it.  Luna’s eyes wandered over Sonia’s face, her expression neutral but still having a cheery air about it.  She thought she saw her eyes move her way, just a little, but wasn’t sure—the hypnotic sound gave everything a dreamlike quality.  Luna wanted to move closer to Sonia, but all she could do was shift slightly before she froze up.


What’s holding me back?


She wanted to be closer, but when she tried, a nervous shock swept through her, rudely waking her from the dream.  So Luna stayed where she was, and she listened.  After some time there was a flash at the window—headlights, she assumed, and they reflected off of the trophy case for a brief moment.  Remembering Sonia’s request, Luna decided to try something else and downed the remainder of her tea.


“Hey,” she whispered, almost feeling wrong for ending the tranquility of the moment.  Sonia immediately stopped playing and faced her.  “Let’s…I-I mean, if you still want to…we could play together…”


Light filled Sonia’s face.  Eagerly, she leapt to the edge of her seat and near-shouted, “I’d love to!”


They both blushed a little.  Luna cleared her throat as she stood, and then headed down the hall to her room.  Sonia followed, while Lyra and Ophiuca decided it best to stay put.  Rounding the corner, Luna reached through the doorway and flicked on the lightswitch, and then stepped over to the piano and carefully lifted the cover off the keys.  Sonia sat down on the bench next to her, facing the opposite direction so that she could hold her guitar without it poking Luna in the face.


Luna ran her hand down the keys, and they each sounded off.  “I, um, I’m not really used to being part of a duo, you know.  So…what should we play?”


Sonia tapped her finger against the neck of the guitar.  “How about…”


She started playing a simple tune.  Luna listened for a few bars, and then began to mimic the notes on the piano.  The two instruments strived to match each other, but the timing didn’t exactly match up, so the sound came out wrong.


“Hold on,” Luna said.  They both stopped, and after a few seconds, she motioned to start again.


The two of them began playing at the same time, and were able to keep pace with each other much better.  This time, rather than playing the exact same notes, Luna adjusted her playing to produce a slightly different sound that rose and fell just the same, and the resulting fusion sounded much better than their previous attempt.


“Great job,” Sonia said as they finished.


“I think I’ve got the hang of it now,” Luna said.  “Let’s try something else.”


“Okay.  You want to start this time?”


Luna nodded.  When she had an idea, she played a piece of it for Sonia to listen to.  It was more complex than the first tune, but nothing especially difficult; Sonia joined her when she restarted it, her guitar lining up perfectly with the piano and strengthening it with their harmony.  They exchanged a glance, and then Luna altered the notes just a bit.  Sonia matched her.  They returned to the basic form for a short time, and then Sonia took her turn to improvise, and Luna followed her lead.  They continued going back and forth like this for a while—neither was sure how long, but they enjoyed it so much they didn’t entirely care about the time.


Eventually, they wrapped up the performance and let the instruments grow silent.  Sonia laughed, and said, “You really are incredible, Luna.”


Luna closed her eyes and straightened her back.  “Hm.  Well, it takes someone incredible to notice.”


She turned slightly, her eyes locking with Sonia’s.  As they held their gaze, rain continued to pound against the roof above, though Luna could swear the pounding of her heart soon overtook it.  Unconsciously, she just barely leaned towards Sonia.  Sonia slowly came to meet her.  Mere inches separated them.  Luna felt herself freeze up again, and seeing this, Sonia stopped where she was as well.


No, I…


She wanted to keep moving.  Reaching within herself, Luna searched for the power to move her body those last few inches.  Her concentration was broken by a sudden sound from the piano—her hands were shaking, and they had hit one of the keys by accident.  Both of them recoiled in surprise.  Luna pulled her hand close and clenched it into a fist, grabbing the wrist with her other hand, while Sonia looked down and awkwardly fumbled with her guitar.


“I-I’m sorry,” Sonia said, “I shouldn’t have—“


“N-No,” Luna interrupted, “you have nothing to apologize for, I’m the one—“


“No, no, it’s fine!”


“It’s not that I—I just—“


“It’s okay, really.  It’s…it’s okay.”


They stared off in opposite directions, a deadly wave of embarrassment washing over both of them.  The pounding of the rain sounded deafening.


What’s wrong with me?




The door groaned gently as it swung open.  A tall, slender woman slipped into the room, scanning her surroundings with a narrow glance from beneath the pink hair that framed her pale face.  Her shoulders and arms were covered in gleaming white sleeves, while the rest of her dress was a deep reddish-brown sporting a faint argyle pattern, each piece of the design housing one of the four suite symbols found on playing cards.  Her fingerless gloves were the same color, though her boots were a much lighter shade of red, and from her neck hung a massive piece of jewelry, made of blood-red gemstones encased in gold.


Heartless barely made a sound as she strode purposefully across the green-carpeted floor, moving past the enlarged poker chip decorations on the wall and setting her sights on the vault at the other end of the room.  There was someone waiting at its door, a middle-aged man with thinning black hair slicked back in neat rows and a long, spindly mustache sprouting from just above his mouth.  He wore a high-collared dress suit that was a very dark shade of blue, accented by gold buttons and ornaments, and beneath that there was a comparatively plain white shirt topped by a red ascot.  White gloves sheathed his hands, and over his eyes was a mask made of thin metal that curved upward into two sharp points just beneath his hairline.  He sat encased in a floating chair made of black and gold metal, its front coming up to his waist before flattening into a desk that projected a series of holographic screens before him.  When he saw her approaching, he spread his arms out welcomingly.


“Ah, my dearest Heartless!” he greeted.  “Thank you ever so much for responding so quickly to my summons.”


Heartless bowed slightly.  “Of course, Mr. King.  What can I help you with?”


King moved his hands to either end of the row of screens before him, and then moved one towards the other in a single sweeping motion.  The screens moved at his command, shrinking so that they all fell into a single stack in his palm, and then he swiped his fingertip across the top of the deck to send one screen flying out towards his associate.  It came to a stop a few feet in front of her and grew into a full display once more.  The image she saw was of a field of stars, and in one corner was an ominous blot of red light.


“This image was captured about an hour ago,” King said, shuffling the screens in his hand absent-mindedly.  “It’s close now—almost close enough.”


Heartless grinned.  “What wonderful news.  It would seem you were able to lure it successfully, as we all expected.”


“Naturally,” King said with a flourish of his hand.  “However, the plan is still far from complete.  We have only a fraction of the Crimson we need.  Therefore, I believe it is time to escalate our efforts.”


“A very wise decision, Mr. King.”


“Ha ha ha!  Heartless, gather the children, if you would be so kind.  It’s high time we had a family meeting.”  As she turned to leave, King drew the top screen of the deck he held and smiled at it.  “You should prepare your wager, WAZA.  True, I may no longer have an ace up my sleeve, but now we’ll be playing by my rules.  And here, the house always wins!  Ha ha ha ha!”




Edited by Pahrak #0579

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Chapter 2


“I was weighed down by pain, couldn’t get away…”


Sonia grimaced, her fingers slipping off of the guitar’s strings.  After thinking for a second, she tentatively started over.


“I was afraid to be lied to, so I never got close…”


With a sigh, she leaned back in her chair and kicked at the vanity set before it, spinning herself around.  “It still doesn’t feel right.”


Watching from across the dressing room, Lyra commented, “It’s been a while since you’ve had such trouble writing lyrics.”


Sonia kicked again to combat her slowing momentum.  “I don’t know what it is.  I just haven’t been able to pin down the feel of this song, I guess.”


“Perhaps you’re preoccupied?”


Sonia’s spinning began to slow, and this time she didn’t do anything to stop it.  As she faced the mirror once more, she found herself looking at the picture tucked into the corner of the frame: it showed her and Luna at a wintery Vista Point, grinning and holding each other close enough that they could share a scarf, while glittering diamond dust snow drifted down behind them.  She could feel a subtle chill as she stared at it.


“I’d be happy to listen, you know,” Lyra said.


“I know,” Sonia said, coming to a complete stop.  “And thanks.  But…I don’t have anything new to say.”


“Even after your duet?  Nothing?”


Sonia traced the outline of her guitar, eyes still fixed on the picture.  “…We came closer…I thought that maybe we’d finally…”  She turned and shook her head.  “Listen to me.  I shouldn’t be talking like that.”


She hopped to her feet.


“Either way, nothing’s really changed.   Besides, I don’t want to bring myself down!  I want to make sure everyone has fun today!”


“Hm.  Well, you know I don’t have much advice to offer you on this matter…but I think I know someone who does.”


Sonia glanced in the mirror, lightly touching up her make-up.  “…I’ll think about it.  Just, not today.”




She smoothed out the wrinkles in her costume, a school uniform with a light grey shirt and a long, solid dark blue skirt.  Hearing a knock, she headed for the door, opening it to find Luna there holding a bouquet of flowers.


“Hey!” Sonia greeted, instantly smiling.  “Wow, are those for me?”


Luna’s arms jerked a bit as she held out the flowers.  “I-Is it too much?  I wasn’t sure, but I thought I should do something, so…”


“No, they’re beautiful!”  Taking the bundle of red and yellow roses, Sonia paused to smell them, and then added, “Thank you!”


Luna smiled, letting out a short breath.  “Sure.  I’m glad you like them!”


Sonia backed up to search for a vase.  “Is everyone here?”


“Mostly.  Amy’s bus hasn’t arrived yet, so I said I’d come get you while the others waited.”


“Ah, I guess she is a bit farther out.  Well, let’s go!”


Once Lyra returned to her guitar, Sonia stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her.  She and Luna headed for the lobby—her hand moved towards hers instinctively, but she hesitated before she reached her, and ended up pulling back.


“This place isn’t as busy as I expected,” Luna commented as she surveyed the halls.


“We’re the only ones shooting today, and we only have one last scene to do,” Sonia explained.  “It’s a nice change, really: most days it’s so crowded I have to dart and weave through the halls.  I should be an expert at dodging next time I fight someone.”


“Don’t get too sure of yourself, dear,” Lyra warned.  “It’s been some time since you’ve had a real fight, and avoiding hallway collisions doesn’t take quite the same combat sense.”


“Come on, it was just a joke.”


Luna chuckled.  “Well, here’s hoping you won’t have to find out any time soon.”


Up ahead, someone emerged from another room: the girl looked about the same age as Luna and Sonia, and had brown hair pulled into a ponytail on one side of her head.  She wore a dress that was light green and off-white, with blue pants beneath.  Following behind her was a small blue Wizard carrying a clipboard in her hands.


“And don’t forget!” the Wizard said.  “You have that interview next week, so we’re going to need to go over some wardrobe options later!”


“I know, Ice,” the girl said.  She turned to say something more when she spotted Sonia.  Stopping and waving, she called, “Hey, Sonia!”


“Morning, Belle!” Sonia greeted.  “Good morning, Ice.”


“Hmph,” the Wizard snorted.  “Belle, we need to go.”


“Just a second,” Belle said, “I should at least introduce myself.”


“Right!” Sonia said, gesturing towards Luna.  “This is Luna, my…one of my Brothers.”


“Oh, so you’re Luna!  I’ve heard so much about you it almost feels like we’ve already met.  I’m Belle, Sonia’s co-star!”


“Nice to meet you!” Luna said.  “I watch the show every week—you’re phenomenal!”


“Ah, that’s so nice of you!  Sonia’s the really incredible one.”


“Don’t sell yourself so short,” Sonia said.  “You’ve been acting a lot longer than I have, after all.  I wouldn’t have lasted til now without all the advice you’ve given me!”


“And don’t you forget it!” Ice butted in.  “Belle’s the one who’s carrying this show!”


Belle’s smile weakened as she turned to her Wizard.  “Ice, don’t be like that.”


Luna turned Ice’s way as well, her eyes narrowing a bit.  “So, your name is Ice?  I can’t say I’ve heard of you.”


“I’m Belle’s Wizard, and her manager.  So I would appreciate it if you didn’t do anything more to distract her.”


“Oh, I didn’t realize politely greeting someone was so distracting.  I suppose I should tread more carefully.”


“Yes.  You should.”


Belle nervously glanced between the two of them, while Sonia gently tapped Luna’s shoulder.  “Uh, we should probably get going, actually.  I’ll see you on set, Belle.”


“Y-Yes,” Belle said, quickly smiling again, “see you!  Come on, Ice, I still need to get in costume.”


It took a few seconds, but Luna and Ice complied and went their separate ways.  When they were out of earshot, Luna mumbled, “I can see why Ice never came up.”


“Yeah, I’m not good with her,” Sonia said, scratching her head.  “She doesn’t like the fact that Belle and I actually get along well, but it’s not like I want to change that, so I’m at a loss.”


“Hrm.  It’s a shame someone as nice as Belle has to be stuck with a terrible manager…well, I guess you can relate.”


Sonia shook her head.  “No, it isn’t really like that.  Ice is definitely abrasive, but she really cares about Belle and wants her to succeed—she’s always saying that Belle is ‘too nice’ and that she needs to be more aggressive to make it big.  I don’t agree with her, but she’s just trying to help Belle, so I can respect that.  That’s way better than my old manager.”


Luna thought for a moment before replying, “Alright, but if she keeps putting you down I can’t be expected to hold back.”


“Heheh.  Duly noted.”


They exited the building and came out onto a long path made of gray bricks, with a line of evenly-spaced trees on either side all the way from the studio entrance to the Wave Liner stop at the road.  It wasn’t long before they could spot the group hanging around the stop: Geo, Pat, Bud, and Zack all waited on the sidewalk, and they soon turned and waved to the two of them.


“Hi guys!” Sonia said as she ran up to the stop.  “Thanks for coming!”


“Thanks for inviting us!” Geo said.  “It’s a little hard to believe we’re really here.  I’m kind of nervous.”


“I know what you mean,” Zack said.  “Just thinking about all the important people around here is making me dizzy.”


“There’s absolutely no pressure!” Sonia said.  “Pretty much everyone here is really nice—the worst they’ll do is say hi to you.”


“But what if I make a mistake in returning the greeting?” Zack said, adjusting his glasses.  “I could end up disrespecting someone big, and then the next thing I know I have a bunch of enemies in high places…”


Appearing out of Geo’s Hunter, Mega said, “Aren’t all your enemies in high places compared to you?”


As Zack began arguing over how many inches he’d grown in the past year, Luna noticed Bud was still staring up the road.  “Bud!” she called.


Snapping to attention, he said, “Huh?!  O-Oh, yeah, I’m nervous too!”


“About Amy?” Sonia asked.


Bud glanced up the road again.  “…Yeah, mostly.  She’s been out of the country competing for a while, and this’ll be the first time I’ve seen her in person since she’s been back.  I want to show her how cool the new Taurus Fire is!”


“You don’t really look all that different,” Geo said.


“Oh…well, then I’ll impress her with my skills!  After all the training we did, I bet I can burn hotter than ever!”


“I’d say you burn hot enough already,” Pat said.  “We needed an awful lot of help putting out the school garden.”


Bud slumped.  “Y-Yeah…I’m still sorry about that.”


With a burst of flame, Taurus appeared in the air next to him.  “I’m sorry too, but it was still an accident!  And we did everything we could to keep it from spreading.”


Pat sighed.  “I’m just glad it was out before Mr. Wolfe got back.  He can get really scary when he’s mad.”


“He was scary.  You’re saying he can get worse than that?”


“Oh, definitely.”


Giving Pat a concerned glance, Geo asked, “When did you see him get that angry?”


Pat chuckled.  “It’s, uh, kind of a long story…”


Before anything more could be said, Bud suddenly jumped.  “There!  That’s gotta be her!”


Sure enough, a Wave Liner was on its way down the track.  Everyone took a step back (though Geo and Zack had to pull Bud) and waited as it came to a stop, opened its doors, and slowly let its passengers out.  Hidden within the small crowd was a tan girl with brown hair that fell to the sides of her face and also formed a geyser-like ponytail at the top of her head, wearing orange and yellow skirted skiwear and a large yellow headband.  She glanced around as she stepped onto the sidewalk, but upon seeing Bud, she stopped where she was and smiled.


“Amy!” Bud said, running towards her.


“Bud!” she said as he hugged her, lifted her up, and spun her around.  “It’s so great to see you!”


Light shot from her Hunter and onto the ground, soon shaping itself into the familiar form of Yeti.  Clasping hands with Taurus, he said, “Taurus!  How’ve you been?”


“Mrrrgh, not too bad!” the FM-ian replied.  “And how about you?  Haven’t gotten rusty spending so much time riding around in a Hunter, have you?”


“Hey, I’ve been fighting my fair share of viruses!  If you need to see it for yourself, I’d be happy to show you.”


“Haha, maybe later.  I’ll give you a chance to prepare yourself.”


As Bud set Amy down, she turned to the rest of the group.  “It’s great to see all of you!  Thanks so much for the pass, Sonia—I wasn’t sure when I was going to get the time to catch up with everyone.”


“My pleasure!” Sonia said.  “How was the competition?  Set any new records?”


Amy held two of her fingers close together.  “Almost.  I’m going to need to shave off a few seconds if I want to get into the books, but I still managed to outpace my competitors by a good margin.”


“They never stood a chance!” Yeti said.


“And it seems you’ve been doing well!” Amy said.  “I love the show, though with all the travel, I am a little bit behind.”


“Ah, I see,” Sonia said.  She raised one finger in front of her mouth.  “We’ll try not to spoil anything.  This scene is just a normal conversation, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”


Amy laughed and nodded her thanks.  Bud began to talk to her excitedly while Sonia turned towards Luna, who was staring off somewhere.


“…You okay?” Sonia asked.


Luna turned.  “Huh?  Oh, sorry, I just thought I saw…”  She turned back for a moment, and then took a step towards Geo.  “Hey, Geo.  Am I seeing things, or is that…?”


She pointed, and Geo and Sonia both looked.  Further down the sidewalk, near the edge of the property, a short boy with a mess of black hair, some sort of pendant, and an unusual purple jacket ambled about, occasionally making short glances in their direction.


Geo inclined his head.  “Oh…no, I think that’s actually Jack.  What’s he doing here?”


“Go ask him,” Luna ordered.  Geo reluctantly complied, and she turned back to Sonia.  “Sorry, but I think that’s someone from our class.”


Sonia took another look at the boy.  “Really?  I don’t think I’ve seen him around Echo Ridge before.”


Luna shook her head.  “He just transferred here.  He’s very…”  She stopped, averting her gaze as she contemplated what she wanted to say.  “Well, he acts a little like Geo used to, back before we all got to know each other.  Just, with more of a temper.”


Sonia nodded, watching as Geo started conversing with the other boy.  “I’m guessing you’re trying to bring him out of his shell?”


“More or less,” Luna said.  “…I was going to back off for a while, actually.  But, if he’s here, maybe…”


Soon Geo returned with Jack in tow.  Hands in his pockets, Jack’s eyes darted back and forth between everyone assembled, and he was hunched over in a way that seemed like he was trying to keep his guard up.  After a pause, he quietly said, “Um…hi.”


“I have to say, we’re all a bit surprised to see you, Jack,” Luna said.


Jack shrugged.  “I was just…out walking around, and I noticed you guys were over here…so, I was thinking I might…see what you were up to?”


Sonia found herself frowning a little as she watched him.  It was easy to see how much effort he was putting into those words—he clearly didn’t want to interact with them at all, or at least that was how it seemed to her.


Does he even want to be anywhere near us?  But then, why’s he trying?  Is it just to be polite?  Or, maybe he actually wants to try to break out of his comfort zone?


Suddenly he glanced at her, and she felt a chill run down her spine.  Smiling as fast as she could, she said, “Hi.  I’m Sonia.  Luna tells me you just transferred to Echo Ridge?”


Jack glanced away without answering.  Luna said, “We’re here to tour the studio, actually.  Sonia here is filming a show, so she invited us to watch.”


“I could get you a pass too, if you’d like,” Sonia offered without thinking.  “If you’re friends with my friends, then you’re definitely welcome.”


He thought it over for a minute, and then mumbled, “I-If…if it isn’t any trouble…”


“Sure, just wait here for a second and I’ll be right back!”


Sonia doubled back towards the studio, leaving the others to keep Jack company.  As she went, Lyra said, “What a charming fellow.”


“I’m sure he has his reasons.”


“Maybe.  But, to tell you the truth, dear…there’s something about him I find rather unsettling.”


“Huh?  What do you mean?”


“I can’t say for certain.  It’s more intuition, I suppose.”


Sonia stopped to look back.  Everyone was right where she left them, Luna patiently trying to talk to an unresponsive Jack.  Sighing, she said, “If you think so, then I’ll keep an eye on him.  But, if Luna’s decided to ‘recruit’ him, then I’d like to help her out.”


Lyra chuckled.  “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to get in her way without a more concrete reason.  Carry on, dear.”


Sonia opened the studio door and made her way towards the desk.  She did her best to stay optimistic, but Lyra wasn’t the only one with a bad feeling.




“You’re really sure about this, Sky?”


Sonia nodded, her back to Belle.  “I’ve thought a lot about it, Aqua...my mind’s made up.”  Turning and grinning, she added, “Can I still count on you?”


Belle smiled and said, “Definitely.  We’re Brothers, right?”


Sonia stepped forward to reply, but a loud sound cut her off before she could say her next line.  Glancing back, she could see a plume of smoke rising up from behind the studio, and her expression changed in an instant.


“Wow,” Bud muttered, “this finale’s really shaking things up.”


As the crew began to murmur worriedly, someone burst out of the studio and ran towards them.  “Someone call the police!” they shouted.  “A bunch of Wizards have started going crazy!”


“What?” one of the crewman said.  “Hang on, what exactly do you mean by—“


Suddenly, a Wizard holding a camera cried out, their whole body spasming as sparks popped around them.  The person who had come from the studio pointed at them, and that was enough to make the crew scatter.


Facing the malfunctioning Wizard, Sonia asked, “Lyra, can you tell what’s going on?”


The EM being before her was morphing slowly—his torso was growing larger at a steady pace, while static-like energy oozed out from his joints and coalesced into globs in various places.  His eyes went wide, blanketed by eerie yellow light, and one hand became coated in enough static that the energy formed into a long blade, while his other hand twisted and stretched until it came to resemble a triple barrel gun.


“Urgh…” Lyra grunted, sounding like she was about to be sick.  “I’m not sure, dear, but I think we’ll have to figure that out later.”


The Wizard screeched.  Sonia reached for her guitar immediately, but then stopped to look around and realized Belle and Ice were still nearby.


I might not have a choice but to transform in front of her, though.


Belle turned towards her for a second.  Almost in response, she turned to Ice and said, “L-Let’s get out of here.  We need to make sure the police are on their way!”


Ice nodded fervently.  “Oh!  Good thinking, Belle!  Let’s go!”


As the two of them headed off, Geo and the others moved towards Sonia; she waved them back, trying to gesture towards the smoke behind the studio without drawing Belle’s attention.  They understood: there were more Wizards like this running around the studio, so it would be best if they split up and tracked down each one.


The group set off, Amy saying, “We can help out too, right Yeti?”


“Yeah, definitely!” the PM-ian said.  “I can knock a few heads!”


“You just focus on keeping the innocent bystanders safe,” Mega replied.  “Amy, Zack, Pat, find somewhere to hide and let Yeti take care of anything dangerous.”


Amy frowned.  “But, we can help!”


“No need to worry, Amy—we’ve got it covered!” Bud said.


“Hey,” said Luna, almost out of Sonia’s earshot, “has anyone seen Jack?  If we lost track of him, then…”


Another screech from the corrupted Wizard told Sonia she needed to focus on what she was doing.  She smiled and swung her guitar forward, saying, “Sorry to keep you waiting.  Let’s roll!  Transcode 004!”


In a flash, she was Wave Changed, and she took up a defensive stance as she watched her opponent.  She didn’t have to wait long—the Wizard lunged forward, swinging its sword hand, so she leapt to the side and played a few notes to see how it would react.  The attacks hit their target dead-on, and the Wizard shouted and flailed a bit before turning to face Sonia again.


“Not too bright,” Lyra said.  “Perhaps the poor fellow just can’t think straight as a result of whatever this is.”


“So he’s not in control of his own actions,” Sonia mused, feeling a bit more reluctant.


The Wizard, on the other hand, had no such qualms.  Shooting forward, he swung again, and again Sonia dodged, though this time she didn’t strike back.  She ducked as the Wizard fired a few bullets from his gun, and then heard another explosion from not too far away.


Right.  In control or not, I need to disable him for everyone’s safety.


She twisted one of the knobs on her guitar, and the pink energy flowing through it changed to a lighter shade.  When she played more notes, the resulting energy blasts she summoned shot out much faster than before, battering the Wizard a dozen times in the blink of an eye and making him reel.  Sonia jumped forward and took the guitar’s neck in both hands, swinging upward and sending the Wizard flying with a solid blow from the instrument.  He was wrapped in strings before he even hit the ground.


She cautiously approached, saying, “I don’t want to hurt you.  Can you understand me?  If you tell me what’s wrong, I may be able—“


The Wizard opened his mouth and coughed up some sort of energy ball.  It flew out and hit Sonia, releasing a paralyzing shock on contact, and the Wizard used the opportunity to struggle free of the strings restricting him.  Sonia tried to get out of the way, but her muscles didn’t respond fast enough to get her clear of the next slash.  She rolled back up onto her feet, getting a trio of bullets in the face, and staggered back until she could regain her balance.  In seconds, the Wizard was on top of her again.  She was able to raise her arm and catch the sword on her bracelet, but he pulled back before she could hit him with her guitar.


“Shoot,” she breathed, running past more bullets.  “He’s doing awfully well for a non-Battle Wizard.”


As soon as the Wizard stopped his attack, Sonia planted her feet and threw her guitar at him.  When it left her hand, the strings automatically extended and wrapped around her wrist; the instrument kept going until it hit the enemy, at which point Sonia grabbed the strings and they locked, allowing her to swing the guitar in a circle and get in three more hits before reeling the flail back in.  The Wizard hacked up another energy ball, but this time Sonia unleashed a barrage of fast notes that dissipated it while also pushing her foe back.  She ran forward then, twisting the dial in the opposite direction, and the light on her guitar darkened until it was deep red.  The Wizard swung his sword, so she maneuvered her guitar so that the head blocked it.  The next note she played produced one very large, if slow-moving, musical note directly in front of her, and a second later it touched the Wizard and released a devastating blast.


Sonia allowed herself a deep breath.  She stayed put as she watched the Wizard, setting her guitar back to quick blasts just in case.  The explosion had flung him back into a tree, where he still sat dazed, though it appeared the static-like energy he produced was starting to flicker and fade.  A few seconds later it vanished entirely, and the Wizard returned to his original form and dropped onto the pavement with a moan.


“Are you alright?” Sonia asked as she stored her guitar and ran over.


“Ungh,” the Wizard grunted, “I don’t know…what happened?  I was filming, and then…”


He put a hand to his head.  Sonia looked to see if anyone who could help was nearby, and that was when she noticed something else falling from the tree: a card, roughly the same size as a Battle Card, with a stylized image of a sword printed on it.  She picked it up and stared for a second, before pocketing it and turning her attention back to the Wizard.


“I’m going to get you some help,” she said.  “Just stay here and rest.”


She got up and headed for the studio, ducking behind a tree to undo her Wave Change before she entered.  “So he wasn’t in control after all.”


“Do you suppose that card has something to do with this?” Lyra asked.


“I don’t know, but it can’t hurt to hang onto it.  I’ll call Mr. Boreal once this is all under control—hopefully he’ll be able to clear some of this up for us.”




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Chapter 3


Sonia held the mysterious card up in front of the holographic screen.  Boreal narrowed his eyes at it.


“It fell out of the tree just after the Wizard,” she explained.  “I’m not sure if it was there the whole time or if he had it on him, but it seemed a little suspicious.”


Boreal put a hand over his face, still glaring at the card.  In a hushed tone, he said, “I see.  Do you have somewhere safe you can keep it?”


“Um…yeah, I should be able to hide it if that’s what you mean.”


“Good.  Please make sure it’s somewhere no one but you can find it.  I can’t send an officer right this second, but I’ll send somebody as soon as I can to collect it.”


“Okay.”  Sonia turned it over in her hand.  “…So you do recognize it.”


Boreal averted his gaze for a few seconds.  “Yes.  But I can’t explain over a call.”


Floating closer, Lyra said, “My, that makes it sound a bit serious.”


“You can worry about that later.  For now, just forget about it and have fun.  I promise I’ll explain everything later.”


Sonia tapped her fingers.  “…Alright.  I’m going to hold you to that.”


Boreal finally smiled as he replied, “I’ll prepare the briefing immediately.  Break a leg.”


The screen vanished, and Sonia slung her guitar back over her shoulder.  She looked to Lyra, who said, “I get the strangest feeling we’re about to be very busy.”


“Yeah,” Sonia said with a sigh, “I guess that tour will have to wait.”


As she surveyed the dressing room to select a hiding spot, Lyra said, “I can’t imagine it’ll take too long.  After everything we’ve already dealt with, not to mention the allies who keep accumulating, we should be reasonably well-prepared.”


Sonia hummed.  “I hope.  But, I don’t want to get cocky again.”  Opening a drawer in the vanity, she held the card over it for a moment, and then grabbed some tape and stuck the object inside the drawer on the underside of the desk.  “I’ll be sure to take it seriously…starting tomorrow.”


The two of them exited the room and made for the lobby, where virtually the entire studio crew had gathered.  Sonia picked her friends out from the crowd and aimed for them, and as she was drawing close, Luna faced her.


“Are you alright?” the other girl asked quietly.


“Just fine,” Sonia said.  “No one else is hurt, right?”


“We were able to knock the Wizards out easily enough, but we still haven’t found Jack.  I’m getting worried.”


Before Sonia could say anything else, a crew member stepped towards her.  “Sonia, did you see her?”


Turning towards him, she asked, “Huh?  Who?”


“The Wizard they’re patching up said he was helped by a girl with pink armor who fought with a guitar.  It sounds just like that girl we keep seeing every so often, Harp Note!”


Sonia almost winced.  Luckily, she caught herself in time and instead looked up like she was thinking.  “Uh, who?”


“You know!  That girl who shows up every now and then when there’s an accident or a crime report.  There have been rumors about her for a few years now, but she’s been doing a lot more little things lately—she keeps showing up to incidents we’re reporting on, sometimes with other people with weird powers, but she never sticks around.  How can you forget someone like that?  Belle, you know who I’m talking about, right?”


Belle jumped.  “H-Huh?  Yeah, I…I’ve seen her a few times.”


Sonia heard a quiet, snickering voice say, “And she says she stays here just for the show.”  Judging by how Geo moved to cover his Hunter, it was probably Mega.


“You had to see her,” the crewman said.  “You stayed out there the longest, after all.”


Realizing she couldn’t get out of this, Sonia faked an epiphany.  “Oh, her!  Right, uh, someone like that did show up.  She didn’t say her name, so I got confused!”


The crewman and a few others leaned forward.  “Really?!  What happened?”


“She just…said she had it covered, and that it’d be safer if I got out of there.  That’s all, really.”


The crew backed off and started chattering.  Ice was hanging nearby, and smirked at this.  “Oh.  So, despite putting up a show of staying behind, you didn’t really accomplish anything, did you?”


“Ice,” Belle whispered, “don’t do that.  It’s not like we’d do any better.”


“Right.  I guess there’s not much you can do with a simple Wizard.”


Lyra materialized with a scowl.  “Hm?  Funny, I could almost swear you were insulting me.  How peculiar that would be, seeing as you certainly didn’t accomplish anything either.”


Ice glared at her.  Behind her, the crew was saying, “People saw a few others with weird powers handling the Wizards too.  Do you think any of them are still around?”


Bud snorted.  Amy gently elbowed him in the ribs.


“They could be,” said another crew member.  “Maybe we should go look for them, see if they’d agree to an interview!”


“Excuse me!” Ice interrupted.  “We have a scene to finish!”


“But this could be our only chance to meet up with these strangers!  There are so many rumors about how they pop up and disappear all the time—if we could get some answers on the subject, the ratings for our network would skyrocket!”


“What?  So you’ll just leave the episode unfinished?!”


“We’ve got enough footage to edit together a proper ending already, really.  It wouldn’t be a big deal, right Sonia?”


She knew she had to make a quick decision.  Her first instinct was to redirect everyone’s focus onto something else, so she was about to push the filming, but when she remembered that Jack was still missing she realized that having everyone scouring the studio would give them a much better chance of finding him.  Luna seemed to think so too, as she tugged on Sonia’s sleeve.


“Yeah…you’re right,” Sonia said.  “We could just go with what we have.”


The crew immediately began to scamper away.  Ice, on the other hand, stormed right up to Sonia.  “How dare you!  You can’t keep robbing Belle of chances to shine!”


“That’s not what she’s doing!” Belle said, desperately jumping forward.  “It’s fine, Ice, it—“


“It’s not fine!” Ice said, hopping up and down in anger.  “When someone gets in your way, Belle, you need to make them move!  You need to play more aggressively if you’re going to make it to the top!”


Belle sighed deeply.  Ignoring Ice, she turned to Sonia and said, “Anyway, I’m glad to see you didn’t get hurt.  For what it’s worth I agree: the tail end of that scene wasn’t really essential, and with all this excitement I’d actually prefer just taking a rest.”


Sonia smiled at her.  Ice moved to say something, but Lyra cut her off with a look.  As Sonia and her friends left the lobby, Ice turned to Belle and asked, “What are you thinking?!”


Belle faced Ice.  The look on her face was far from intimidating, but still, it was probably the angriest Ice had ever seen her look.  “Ice, you need to calm down!  This isn’t the time to be making a fuss over something so small.  You’re always overreacting and making accusations against people, and…”  She paused, apparently needing a moment to prepare herself.  “Well, it’s seriously unhelpful!”  A second later, all the energy she had built up faded, and her voice became quiet once more.  “So…just, please…please, calm down.  Okay?”


At first Ice stared at her.  Then, she turned around and crossed her arms.  With another sigh, Belle walked out of the lobby, leaving Ice alone.


“…I’m just trying to do my job,” Ice murmured to herself.


“Must be frustrating.”


She spun around to see a boy standing there.  “Huh?  Who are you?”


“Seems that girl doesn’t appreciate what you do for her.”


Though unsure about this newcomer, Ice’s need to vent won out over reason.  “She doesn’t get it.  She’s wonderful, but she thinks everyone else is wonderful too, and that just isn’t the case!  I was programmed to be her manager, so I gathered all the data I could on the entertainment industry.  There was only one conclusion: it’s a brutal competition.  Belle isn’t prepared for that, so if she wants to succeed, I have to push her in that direction.”


“Heh.  So you’re saying she needs to toughen up, right?  Grow a backbone, make some enemies, maybe cut a few throats?”


“Of course!  That’s what she’s up against—she has to be able to match her rivals.  Otherwise, she’ll never beat that Sonia Strumm.  And now everyone’s head over heels for these weirdos who popped up out of nowhere, and she’s perfectly fine with it?  She has no idea what she’s doing!”


“In that case…why don’t you show her yourself?”




Before Ice realized what was happening, the boy had drawn something out of his pocket—a card, she thought—and thrown it at her.  She was too surprised to avoid it.  Once it touched her, a wave of intense pain rushed through her, and electricity began to crackle around her body.


“Agh!  W-What is this?”


Though Ice couldn’t see it clearly, an image made of yellow light appeared in front of her: a stylized diamond.  The boy laughed, and said, “A gift.  With this, you’ll be able to cut all the throats you want!”


Soon the pain stopped.  Ice took a moment to catch her breath, and then looked at herself to see if she had taken any kind of damage.  What she saw was that her body had changed completely. Her form was like that of a human, but with unnatural gray skin; she wore a jumpsuit decorated with sharp designs in black and multiple shades of blue, and large angular fins jutted from her back and shoulders, with similar protrusions on her legs that almost resembled a skirt.  A blue hood with two massive, triangular, ear-like decorations was pulled over her head, from under which poked a tuft of red hair, and attached to her feet were large blades like ice skates.


“You should be a good test run for this suite.  How does it feel, Diamond Ice?”


As she examined herself, a strange feeling started to seep into Ice’s head.  It was as if some haze was being pulled over her mind, covering up any concerns she might’ve had and letting her instead focus on the immense power she could now feel.


“I’m…strong now, aren’t I?” Ice said, staring at her open palm.


The boy rolled his eyes.  “Wow, you catch on quick.”


Ice tried to gather her thoughts, but the intoxicating haze made it impossible.  For the first time, she felt powerful.  She felt like she could take apart anyone who got in her way.  She felt like she was strong enough that she could do anything she wanted.  And what she wanted was…


She clenched her fist, and a smirk formed on her lips.  “I’ll freeze Belle’s enemies in their tracks.  No…I’ll shatter them into a million pieces!  Anyone who tries to stop her from reaching the top will be ground into powder!”


The boy smiled.  “Now you’re getting it.”


Ice laughed, spinning around with her arms outstretched.  “Oh, this is incredible!  With this power, I can finally get Belle what she deserves!  And I know just where to start!”




“I don’t think anyone’s checked down this hall yet,” Sonia said.


“Perhaps I should go inspect the security footage,” Lyra proposed.  “I’m sure he’s been on camera somewhere.”


“I’d hate to mess with the security, but that might be…”


She trailed off as she spotted someone going around a corner.


“Jack!” she shouted, running over to him.


He slowly turned around.  “O-Oh, hey…”


“I’m so glad we found you!  Ah, I need to let everyone else know you’re okay.”


She quickly put together an email to send to the others.  Jack stared at her, ultimately asking, “Were they all running around looking for me?”


Looking up, she replied, “Of course!  We hadn’t seen you since before the Wizards starting going crazy.  What happened?”


Jack scratched his head.  “I…was just walking around, and when I saw Wizards freaking out I went and found a place to hide.”


“Where did you hide?”


“…I think it was some kind of closet.  I stayed there for a while—I just now came out to see if things had settled down.”


“I see.”  Completing the email, she hit send, and then put her guitar away.  “Well, don’t worry: all the Wizards are back to normal, so it’s perfectly safe again.  We can get back to the others and kill some time until the concert starts.”


Jack turned all the way around.  “Sounds great.”


Sonia waited, but he didn’t say or do anything else.  Eventually, she got tired of waiting, sighed, and said, “You aren’t really interested in spending time with everyone, are you?”


He whirled around, eyes wide.  “What?!”


Holding her hands up, she said, “S-Sorry if I sounded rude!  I just mean, you don’t seem like you’re all that used to getting to know people.”


Jack appeared to relax a bit.  “Oh…uh…y-yeah, that’s it.  Sorry.”


“It’s okay.  If you really don’t like people, then I’m sure you have your reasons.”


He turned away again.


“…Still, it looks like you’re trying to change that.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, right?”


Jack chuckled to himself.  “Not sure I have much of a choice.  Does that Prez girl ever let up?”


“Heh, she’s definitely not one to back off.  I know she’s a force to be reckoned with, but she has good intentions, trust me.”


“Really…”  Jack stared off for a few seconds.  Looking over his shoulder, he said, “But she probably wants something in return, right?”


She stopped to think for a second.  “She’ll put you to work, I’m sure.  But that’s something she does with all her friends.”


Jack shrugged.  “Some friendship.”


A spark of annoyance flared in the back of Sonia’s mind.  She did her best to set it aside, but it still showed more than she had wanted it to.  “She’s also always willing to return the favor.  So, yeah.  She’s a good friend.  And if she’s making an effort with you, then it’s because she’s seen something that makes her want to be your friend.  She doesn’t choose just anyone, Jack.”


Jack faced her again.


“…I don’t know all the details, but from what I’ve heard, Bud, Zack, and Geo were all pretty much on their own before Luna reached out to them.  I didn’t know any of them back then, but I know that they’re all really happy around her now.  And…I’ve gained a lot from her friendship too.”


“You’re saying I should just become friends with her?”


“No.  I’m just letting you know what it is she’s really offering you.”


Jack stared for a moment, and then shoved his hands in his pockets with a sigh.  “So you two are a thing, right?”


The sudden question made Sonia blush.  “Huh?!  Are we…why do you ask?”


“You’re totally obvious about it.  I don’t even care about that stuff, but really, anyone would notice it.”


Unsure what to say, Sonia ended up stammering, “That’s, uh…well, we’re…we’re…I mean, I guess you could…”


Her thoughts suddenly went back to the duet.  In seconds, her flustered feeling abated, replaced by a dull heaviness.


“…Ah…not really.  No.”


Jack cocked his head and gave Sonia a strange look.  A chime from her guitar saved her; after checking the email, she said, “Luna’s gathering everyone back at the lobby.  We should at least go give them proof you’re okay, right?”


He simply shrugged.  Sonia steps were tentative at first, but once she saw Jack follow her lead, her pace picked up just a little.  For some reason, she found her thoughts lingering on his last question.


…Not really.  No.




After regrouping with everyone, Sonia had handed Jack off to Luna and gone back to her dressing room.  Now back in her regular clothes, she sat down for a minute to gather her thoughts, keeping a careful eye on the clock.


“Do you think the crew has given up their search for the ‘heroes’ by now?” Sonia asked.


“Most likely,” Lyra said.  “Given our trend of quick exits, they must have realized by now that Harp Note and friends are long gone…so to speak.”


Sonia leaned back in her chair.  “I actually forgot how bad the studio wants to know more about Harp Note.  If anything else happens, I need to be sure to stay out of the visible spectrum.”


“If it’s more trouble with Wizards, we’ll probably need to stay visible.”


She sighed and started spinning.  Catching sight of the flowers Luna had brought her, she smiled, but the expression was brief.  As she slowed down, she said, “Even Jack said something…”


Lyra materialized over the desk, listening attentively.


“…Am I really that obvious around Luna?”


With a short delay, the FM-ian said, “To be fair, I already know.  Perhaps I can’t give the most objective answer.”


“I guess that’s it,” Sonia said, slumping over one of the chair’s arms.  “I just got an objective answer.”


“You’re embarrassed?”


“I was.  Now, it’s…something different.”


Lyra waited patiently as Sonia half-heartedly clawed at the armrest.


“…If I’m so obvious about it…why can’t I let Luna know?  She’s still holding back, like she’s afraid, and I want her to know she doesn’t have to be.  I’m trying to let her know…and I’m being so blunt that someone who doesn’t even care can tell…but I still haven’t convinced Luna.”


Sonia sat up and pulled her legs in, wrapping her arms around them.


“I know she has her reasons, and the last thing I want to do is rush her or make her feel uncomfortable.  But, I…”  She sighed, shuddering a little.  “You already know this.”


Lyra floated behind Sonia and set both hands on her shoulder.  “I’m always here to listen, Sonia.  But as I said: I don’t know what advice to give you in a situation like this.  This is weighing so heavily on you…truly, I think you need to talk with someone who has relevant experience.”  She hesitated.  “…Can I ask why you haven’t?”


Sonia shuddered once more.  “…I guess I really am embarrassed.  Plus, I feel like this is a personal thing for both of us, so it feels like a betrayal to share the details with someone else.”


“So long as you’re careful who you approach, I doubt there’s anything wrong with seeking help.”


“Maybe…but…”  Sonia stopped and looked up, shuddering again.  “…Is it getting colder in here?”




Standing up, Sonia said, “It’s f-freezing.  Is something wrong with the air c-conditioning?”


She walked over to the door and switched off the lock.  When she approached it, however, it didn’t open.  She backed up and tried again, but the result was the same.  As she tried to think of what to do next, she felt the cold growing suddenly stronger, and she could see ice forming on the door.


“…L-L-Lyra?”  She turned, finding that Lyra was nowhere to be seen.


“I’ve already contacted the others,” the FM-ian replied, her voice coming from the guitar (and sounding just a little frantic).  “I’ll go inside the system and see if there’s anything I can do!”


“Th-Th-Thanks-s.”  Sonia pulled up her hood and retracted her arms inside her sleeves—she didn’t expect it to help much, but any improvement seemed worth it at this point.


She wasn’t sure exactly how much time passed before she heard pounding on the other side of the door.  “Sonia!” Luna called.  “If you can hear me, back away from the door!”


Sonia moved, but found her legs were starting to feel a bit numb, and fell over on her side.  She saw an orange flash and felt a burst of heat.  Soon after, the door finally slid open, and she saw Taurus there with smoke still pouring from his snout.  Luna rushed past him and crouched down next to Sonia.


“Sonia?!” she asked, shaking her.  “Sonia, are you okay?”


Somehow, Sonia managed to smile.  “Y-Y-Y-Y-Yeah…f-f-f-fine…”


Luna started helping her to her feet, already shivering herself.  Geo was soon there to assist, and it wasn’t long before the three of them made it out of the freezing room and into the hallway, where thankfully the temperature was unaffected by the strange anomaly.  Sonia was gently set against the wall; Amy quickly threw her jacket around her, adding her gloves and headband a few moments later.  Gradually, the feeling started to come back to Sonia’s body.


“What happened?” Luna asked.


Sonia shook her head.  “I was just sitting there when suddenly it started getting colder.  Lyra’s checking the system now.”


When Lyra reappeared, she glanced first at Sonia, and then turned to Taurus.  “I’m afraid the controls are frozen over as well.”


“Mrrgh,” Taurus grunted, facing the door.  “Say no more.”


As he went to work, Zack said, “Ice in the cyber world?  Is that normal?”


“Not normal, really, but it certainly ain’t unheard of,” Mega said.  “Problem is…for a control program to ice over…”


Lyra nodded.  “There’s no chance of it being an accident.”


The statement hung grimly over everyone until Taurus returned.  “I’ve got it clear.  The room should be back to normal in a minute or so.”


“Thank you all,” Sonia said, standing back up.


Reaching for her, Luna said, “Take it easy!”


“I’m fine, really.”  Removing Amy’s gear, she returned it and thanked her again.


“No problem,” Amy said, slipping it back on in seconds.  “I always put it on without thinking—glad it came in handy!”


Sonia stepped forward and reached one arm through the doorway.  Verifying that the room felt normal again, she breathed a sigh of relief.


“Are you really okay?” Luna asked.


Sonia turned around to face everyone.  “Yeah, but…I think maybe I should rest up a bit before the concert starts.  Sorry.”


“You still want to do the concert?” Pat asked.  “A lot of weird things are happening, so I’m sure everyone would understand if you wanted to cancel it.”


“No, I want everyone to have something to look forward to—especially if weird things keep happening.  Carrying on like normal should help stop people from getting worried.”


Luna stepped forward.  “I’ll stay with you.  You shouldn’t be alone in case something happens again, right?  And Ophiuca can help Lyra keep an eye on the systems.”


“Indeed,” Ophiuca said, “I’d be delighted to be of assistance.”


Sonia smiled.  “Okay.  Thanks.”


“If things get cold again, just give me a call!” Bud said.  “Taurus and I can be here in a jiffy!”


“We’ll ask around as well,” Zack said, adjusting his glasses.  “Whoever’s behind this must have left some kind of trail, and I’m sure we’ll be able to find it.”


“Yeah, Yeti and I can scout around too!” Amy said.  “They can’t have gotten far!”


The group began to move on, Jack trailing behind everyone else.  He glanced back at Sonia for a moment, but she wasn’t sure why; before she could ask, he was off.  Sonia and Luna went back inside the dressing room, while Lyra and Ophiuca disappeared.


“What a day,” Sonia said, sinking back into the swivel chair.


Luna searched around until she found a blanket, which she then draped over Sonia’s shoulders, and then sat in an extra chair by the wall.  “I can’t believe someone would try to freeze you like that!  Who would resort to something so terrible?”


With a chuckle, Sonia pushed her chair closer to where Luna was.  As she was in transit, she spotted the flowers again, which looked much worse in the wake of the sudden temperature swing.  “Oh…”


Luna followed her gaze.  “Oh.”


“…I’m sorry.”


“What?  It isn’t your fault at all!”


“I know, it’s just—“


“Nope!  You’re not allowed to apologize for this!  This was something no one saw coming, and all that’s really important is that you weren’t hurt!”




“I’ll buy you some new ones as soon as I can.”


Sonia pulled the blanket tighter and closed her eyes for a moment.  Luna’s eyes wandered, soon spotting the picture against the mirror, though she quickly turned away and suppressed a blush.  She looked next to Sonia, who didn’t move an inch.  When Sonia opened her eyes, she found Luna still gazing at her, and smiled.  Luna smiled back.


“…I’m really glad you’re okay,” Luna said softly.  “I haven’t been that scared since you went to Mu.”


Sonia shivered a bit remembering.  “It was scary for me, too.  It came out of nowhere.”


There was a break in the conversation.  Luna moved in her seat and gestured.  Sonia moved to sit next to her, opening the blanket so Luna could get inside it as well.  She set her head on Luna’s shoulder.


“It was just for a second,” Luna mumbled, “but, I thought…you might actually…”


“Yeah,” Sonia muttered.  She moved just enough to nudge Luna.  “But, hey: I’ve promised, haven’t I?  I won’t do that to you.”


A few seconds later, Luna nudged her back.  “You sure like cutting it close, though.”


“Huh?  Name one time.”


“You dawdled on Peace and nearly got lost in space.”


“…Okay, but that—“


“Not to mention you blew up Mu while you were still standing on top of it.”


“I said one time.”


Luna didn’t respond, so she tried to think of something else to say.  Unfortunately, her thoughts ended up on the mysterious card from earlier, and the way Boreal had acted about it.  She tried to distract herself, but it was no use.


“…Hey, Luna.”




“I talked to Mr. Boreal after I fought that Wizard.  Judging from what he said…it sounds like something dangerous might be starting again.”


Luna turned her head sharply.


“I could be wrong.  I just…I don’t know, I guess I want to prepare you in case I’m not.”


Luna faced forward and stared intently at nothing for a while.  “…Well,” she finally said, “if there is trouble, then we’ll all just need to handle it as well as we can.”


Sonia looked up at her.  “I don’t want to drag you into—“


“Stop right there.  We were just talking about how reckless you get when I send you off on your own.”


“…Is that what we were talking about?”


Luna fidgeted.  “I’m sick of worrying all the time.  So, this time…”  Facing Sonia, she continued, “This time, I’ll fight right alongside you.  Whatever you have to face, I’ll be there too, doing whatever I can to help.  And I’m sure the others will help too.  I’ll make them.”


Sonia blinked.  “Luna…”


Blushing, Luna looked the other way.  “I-I mean, you do get reckless on your own.  So if trouble is starting again, then I won’t let you face any of it alone.”  More quietly, she added, “Never again.  I promise.”


Sonia gazed at Luna in stunned silence.  Before she knew it, tears were forming in her eyes, so she buried her face in Luna’s shoulder.  “Luna…I…”  She trailed off.


Turning back, Luna asked, “Huh?  Why are you crying?!”


Grinning up at her, Sonia said, “I’m just…really happy.  Thank you, Luna.”


After taking a moment to process, Luna moved to wrap her arms around her.




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Chapter 4


Sonia tested her guitar one final time.  She was more nervous than she had expected, though she wasn’t sure if it was due to what had happened earlier that day, or what she dreaded might be coming the next.


The concert was taking place on a stage made completely out of Real Waves by the studio’s tech crew.  It was a relatively simple design, but it had a clean style to it, and the real draw was that the stage and the area for the audience were both held high in the air by a set of Real Wave pillars.  Sonia couldn’t help but feel the crew had gotten just a bit carried away putting the stage so high up, but the novelty seemed to impress everyone.  She peeked through the curtain: everyone still in the studio had gathered already, and she could spot her friends standing at the very front.  Seeing Luna’s smile helped calm her nerves considerably.


Lyra materialized as she pulled back.  “Are you ready, dear?”


Sonia nodded, doing her best to set her worries aside.  “Yep!  I’m going to make this a spectacular show!”


Just as she was about to signal for the curtain to rise, she heard the backstage entrance being thrown open.  Belle came running in and stopped just a short distance away to catch her breath.


“Belle?” Sonia asked as she walked towards her.  “Are you okay?”


“Sonia,” she breathed.  “I think…there’s something wrong.  I haven’t seen Ice for a few hours now.”


“I’m sure she’s okay.  Let’s see if we can get some people together to search for—“


“No,” Belle said, “I think she’s here!”


“Huh?  Why?”


After hesitating a moment, Belle said, “I heard about what happened to the temperature in your room earlier.  And, when I tried to leave my room to come here, my door was frozen shut.”


“Really?” Sonia said, setting a hand on Belle’s shoulder.  “Are you okay?”


Belle nodded.  “I’m fine.  It was just the door, and your friend Amy was nearby.”


Sonia looked towards the curtain.  Oh, I didn’t see her out there, did I?


“She and her Wizard were able to help me get out.  We rushed right here, because I needed to warn you!”


Sonia furrowed her brow.  “But, why does that make you think Ice is here?”


Belle bit her lip.  “…Earlier…Wizards were going out of control.  I haven’t seen Ice, and now the temperature control systems are suddenly going haywire, and things are freezing over…”


Sonia suddenly realized what she meant.  Her eyes widened.  “Oh.  You think…?”


Before she could even finish her sentence, a chill filled the air.


“Sonia, you…” Belle started.  She stopped herself, appearing to rethink what she was saying.  “Is there something you can do to stop her?”


Sonia exchanged a look with Lyra.  “We still aren’t sure this is Ice.  Either way, I can probably do something, but it’ll take time.”


“Please do it!” Belle said.  “Please, and if it is Ice…please help her.”


Sonia smiled.  “I will.”


Belle relaxed just a little.  “I’ll tell the audience there’s been a delay.  If they need a distraction, I’m sure I can keep them busy.”


“Thanks.  Hopefully we can stop anyone from getting too worried.”


The two of them parted ways, Belle going in front of the curtain while Sonia went out the door she had entered through.  Returning to Sonia’s guitar, Lyra asked, “Do you think it really could be Ice?”


Sonia Wave Changed quickly and scanned the stage.  “Without knowing more about what’s making Wizards go crazy, it’s hard to say.”


“Hm…well, this could be rather cathartic.”


Sonia couldn’t help but smile.  “I’ll admit it’s tempting, but we do need to help her.”


“Oh, that’s right.  Pity.”


“Sonia!” someone called.  She looked up to see Geo, Wave Changed, standing on top of the stage.  “There’s an access point up here!”


She jumped up to where he was, seeing Bud and Luna battle-ready as well.  The changes in their appearance were still a bit new to her: the armor around Bud’s neck was less bulky and restrictive, and the spikes that he once had on his knees were gone, though he did have red armor on his thighs now and a vertical orange stripe on each shoulder plate.  The changes to Geo’s appearance were extremely subtle, barring the notable exception that his left arm now ended in a hand rather than Omega-Xis’s head.  On the rooftop between the three of them the word “ACCESS” was printed in large blue letters.


“Amy told us there was gonna be trouble,” Bud said.  “Whatever’s waiting, we’re here to back you up!”


“She does move fast,” Sonia said.  “Thanks, everyone.  Let’s roll!”


As they approached the access point, she could hear Belle on the stage.  “Everyone!  Um, we’re having a slight malfunction with the environmental system—sorry.  But we’ve got it under control!  Sonia’s looking into it personally, so please just give her a little time!”


A murmur rippled through the crowd, but no one seemed particularly upset.  In fact, as she moved to enter the system, Sonia thought she felt the temperature rise just a little.


I wonder…


She stepped onto the access point and entered the stage’s Cyber Core.  Inside, she was shocked to see the Wave Road covered in a layer of ice from the entrance all the way to the control panel at the far end.  The panel itself was partially iced over as well, and on its screen could be seen an image of Belle talking to the crowd.  More importantly, someone was standing in front of the panel, beating it with one fist.


“What is she doing here?!” Ice shouted.  “She should be safe back in her room!  How did she get out?  I can’t take care of this trash with Belle here!”


A smashing noise made them all jump.  All eyes turned to Bud, who had stomped through the ice to gain a foothold, and now scratched his head sheepishly as Ice approached him and the others.


“Your timing could be better,” the Wizard grumbled, “but I guess the important thing is that you’re here.  At least I can deal with you without putting Belle at risk!”


Sonia moved forward, slipping along but managing to stay on her feet.  “Hang on.  Is it really you…Ice?”


Geo whirled to face her.  “Belle’s manager?”


Ice smirked.  “Oh, you know of me?  How flattering!  But I’ve been given a new stage name, so please: call me Diamond Ice!”


“I was hoping it wasn’t true,” Sonia said.  “Belle’s worried sick!  She’s been trying to find you, Ice!  Why don’t we go let her know you’re okay?”


Ice floated just off the ground.  “No no, this is my show, Harp Note.  You’ll be following my direction.”


“You’re annoying,” Luna said.  “Just tell us what you’re doing already.”


“Hmph.  I thought it was obvious, but I’m trying to freeze out that unbearable Sonia Strumm, along with all these morons who took her side.  I was hoping to get rid of her earlier, but doing it this way is much better, actually.  I was trying to find a way to lure you all out of hiding, and here you are!  Now I just need to take care of you, get Belle to safety, and then I can finish clearing this place out!”


“Yeesh,” Mega said, “she seemed nuts before, but she really took it up a few notches.”


Ice scowled.  Raising both arms, she summoned two giant chunks of ice to float on either side of her.  “If that’s how you feel, I’ll cut your part first!”


With a wave of her arm, one of the ice blocks went spinning towards Geo.  He raised his shield, but the attack rammed into him with enough force to send him sliding backwards; a snowflake-shaped object appeared along his path and released a blast of cold air, freezing him solid.


“Mega Man!” Sonia shouted.  “Ice, stop it!  Why are you doing this?”


Ice shook her head.  “You really are slow on the uptake.  It isn’t complicated!  You all got in Belle’s way, so I’m removing you!”


The first block of ice returned to her side while the other headed towards Sonia.  From where he stood, Bud was able to punch it before it reached her, causing it to shatter into a dozen pieces.  As he turned towards Ice, however, he realized she was no longer there, and instead sensed something behind him.  Using the skates on her feet, Ice had quickly outmaneuvered him, and now jumped and kicked at Bud’s back.  The blades left a shallow cut, but Bud recovered quickly and swung his arm in a wide arc.  Unfortunately, Ice was too quick.


“Back off!” Luna shouted, throwing a few snakes at the oncoming Ice.


Swerving around the reptiles was no trouble for Ice, but it did lead her right into Sonia’s strings.  Sonia tried her best to keep Ice in place, but it was difficult without proper footing, and soon enough a newly-reformed ice block came charging at her.  Releasing her hold, Sonia kept sliding to avoid getting flattened.  Luna tried to recall the snakes she had thrown, but to her surprise, they had curled up and were starting to fade away.


“You really think this is what Belle wants?” Sonia asked.  She eyed Geo—cracks were starting to appear along his icy prison.  “There’s no way she’d think this is right!”


Ice spun to a stop, commanding her ice blocks to chase after Sonia and Luna.  “I know she’d never condone this.  That’s precisely why I have to do it!  It’s my duty as her manager to guide her to the top, and cutting down any opposition is the quickest way to achieve that!”


Sonia summoned a speaker to use as a foothold, flipping high above it.  When the block passed the speaker, strings shot out from its face and grabbed the chunk of ice, and Sonia landed on top of the box to give it some extra weight.


“Bud!” she shouted.


Bud punched the block from the side, a little gentler this time, and Sonia tightened the strings at the same time.  Using the speaker as a point of rotation, the block was swung around in a circle, arcing straight back towards Diamond Ice.  The Wizard skated clear and immediately looked to Luna, who sure enough had more snakes ready; she drove her back with another gust of wind, and the snakes vanished instantly.


“Hah!” Ice laughed.  “It’ll take more than that to—“


Geo popped into existence right in front of her.


“—hit me?”


In a flash, Geo’s left hand transformed into a lance that crackled with electricity.  He jabbed, managing to catch Ice off-guard, and landed a clean hit that knocked her down and gave her a mild shock as well.  Geo teleported over to where Sonia was before she could get up.


“Nice hit,” Sonia complimented.  “Luna, are you okay?”


Luckily, the other girl had avoided being frozen, but she moved rather stiffly as she regrouped with them.  “Yeah…but there’s something strange with my snakes.  They’re not lasting as long as they usually do.”


Sonia hummed, keeping a close eye on Ice as she floated up once more.  “Maybe hang back for a second.  Bud, you okay with taking the lead for now?”


Bashing his fists together, Bud said, “Sure thing!  I know just how to deal with this frozen floor gimmick!”


Jumping in front of the others, Bud leaned forward and shot a wide swath of flames from his mouth.  The ice before him melted away to leave a path of solid Wave Road, and he barreled towards Ice with his horns out.


Ice smiled and summoned two snowflakes.  “Idiot.  What are you running through right now?”


Bud didn’t look down, but when he noticed the splashing sound that accompanied his footfalls, he began to realize his mistake.  When the icy wind was unleashed, the water left on the Wave Road froze back over in an instant, only now the ice had formed around Bud’s feet and locked him in place.  He wobbled a bit, but the ice held strong enough that he didn’t fall over.


Ice laughed.  “One lucky shot is all you’re going to get!  I’ll make sure of it!”


She raised her hand.  A weapon made of ice started to form, at first looking like a staff that grew until it was roughly four times long as Ice was tall.  When it finally stopped, a hammer head formed on its end, one that was even larger than Bud was.


“Uh-oh,” Sonia said, raising her guitar.


To her surprise, Geo grabbed her arm.  “No, he’s got this.  Can you give me a push?”




“I know what Bud’s going to do, and I have a plan!”


Ice floated higher into the air as she reared back with the deadly hammer.  Looking unconcerned, Bud pulled back his fist.


Hesitantly, Sonia grabbed Geo by the shoulder.  “Alright…”


She shoved him just as Ice swung the hammer overhead.  At the same time, Bud punched, the jet of flame that spouted from his gauntlet intensifying as he did so, and his fist actually detached from his arm and rocketed straight towards Ice like a fiery missile.  Already in mid-swing, there was nothing the Wizard could do to avoid being clobbered, and her hammer slipped out of her grip and just narrowly missed Bud.  While she was reeling, Geo continued to slide forward, teleporting a short distance ahead as his momentum increased; Ice bounced off one of her ice blocks and tried to get steady, but Geo teleported again to get right in front of her.  His left arm transformed into a glass bulb filled with electricity, and he swung it at her with all the momentum he had built up.  The electrified haymaker sent Ice spiraling through the air.


“…Wow,” Sonia said.  “Couple questions, but I should probably save those for later.”


Bud’s fist had regenerated by now, so he began punching away the ice that held him.  Geo rolled a bit before getting to his feet, and as he continued to slide he called, “She’s not out yet!”


Springing to her feet, Ice yelled in frustration.  “You obnoxious freaks!  Fine, struggle all you want!  It’ll just make it more satisfying when you finally stop moving!”


“Cut it out already!” Sonia shouted back.  “You already know this isn’t what Belle wants!  I don’t understand why you’re going through with it anyway!”


“I’m not going to repeat myself again!”


“What?  You mean that thing about this being the best way to get Belle to the top?  Is that really worth doing something this terrible?”


“Of course!  The sole reason I was created was to be Belle’s Manager—of course I’m going to do everything I can to be the best I can be!”


Sonia sighed.  “…Ice, being a good Manager doesn’t mean you have to take down everyone you think is standing in her way!”


“Shut up!  She deserves to be at the top!  I wasn’t so fixated on it at first, but…”  Ice shook her head.  “Oh, what does it matter?”


As she raised her arms, Sonia said, “No, tell me!”  She relaxed her stance to look as calm as she could.  “Please, Ice, help me understand what you’re doing.”


Ice didn’t lower her arms.  “…Belle’s…really a wonderful person.  She’s always nice to everyone, and she keeps helping others out without asking for anything, and she never makes a big deal out of being a star.  The more I worked with her, the more I came to really care about her.”


She paused for a moment, and then glared at Sonia.


“She wants to make as many people happy as she can.  And once she reaches the top, she can do that for everyone!  So I’m going to get her there so her wish can come true!”


Four blocks of ice appeared around Ice, and each went spinning after someone different.  At the same time, she created a trio of snowflakes before herself, unleashing an enormous gust of cold wind upon the area.  Bud punched the ground—pillars of flame erupted to melt away the ice blocks.  Ice was on the move, so Geo rapidly fired his buster in an attempt to hit her.


“She really does think this will make Belle happy,” Lyra mused.  “She truly has lost her mind.”


Sonia adjusted her guitar for quick blasts, saying, “Maybe not.  That Wizard earlier had no idea what he was doing, so maybe something similar is affecting her judgment.”


“Hm.  Either way, we’ll need to stop her to get through to her.”


Sonia flicked the second knob on her guitar.  “I know.”


She played, and numerous musical notes made of energy appeared around her.  Rather than fly at their target, however, they hung in the air, not budging an inch.  Geo was still chasing their foe around with his bullets, but now she was headed in his direction.  Hoping to contribute, Luna fired a blast of her eyebeams, and though she wasn’t able to get a hit, she did force Ice into a very narrow path between the two attacks coming at her.  Sonia spun the knob in the opposite direction, and the notes all immediately shot out to batter Ice.  The Wizard fell and tumbled forward.  She tried to rise, but Bud hit her with a flame blast to keep her from regaining her balance.


“This won’t make Belle happy,” Sonia said as Ice ground to a halt.  “Why do you think she came to stop this?  And you knew she would, or else you wouldn’t have frozen her door.  Right?”


Ice eyed them all.  Sonia wasn’t sure if she was listening.




Baring her teeth, Ice replied, “It’ll hurt now, but she’ll be happy later!  She will!  This is all for the sake of her wish.  Wouldn’t you be willing to do anything for someone you cared about?”


Sonia clenched her fists.  “The people I care about would never want me to do something like this!  Neither does Belle!  If you hurt these people—if Belle realizes that you hurt innocent people for her sake—it’ll destroy her!”


Ice looked down.  Slowly sitting up, she muttered, “She…I know she’d never want to hurt anyone, but…would this really…hurt her…?”


Suddenly, her head jerked violently to the side.  A soft, garbled hissing sound could be heard, and appearing around Ice’s head were several green static-like distortions that flickered constantly.  She grabbed her head and groaned.


“What’s happening?” Geo asked, cautiously raising his buster.


Ice floated up.  When she glared at them again, they saw that her once-blue eyes had turned red.  “I’ll delete you all for getting in her way!”


Another blast of wind smacked into all of them, freezing Bud entirely.  Luna tried her eyebeams again, but without being able to see Ice she only hit random points.  Geo was able to teleport behind Ice, raising a Wide Sword as he did, but Ice spun and kicked one skate into his face before he could attack, and then started to form another hammer as he hit the ground.


Sonia wrapped strings around the hammer’s head, shouting, “Ice!  Think about what Belle really wants!”


Ice turned and snarled at her.  She swung the hammer, pulling Sonia into the air and smashing her down into the icy Wave Road with a loud crack.


“Harp Note!” Luna cried.  She tried to rush at Ice, but her body didn’t respond the way she wanted it to.  “Darn it!  What’s happening?”


“I believe I may have figured it out,” Ophiuca said.  “It’s affecting us first, but if I am correct, it is about to begin taking its toll on the others as well.  The ice on the ground…it’s more dangerous than any of us realized.”


Luna looked down.  As far as she could tell, it was just normal ice—cyber ice, granted, but it didn’t look special at all.  Spotting her hand, she realized it was shaking.


“It’s generating cold.  Real cold.  I cannot be certain if this is one of Diamond Ice’s abilities, or a side-effect of us being made of Real Waves now, but regardless, this cold is slowly wearing all of us down.  No wonder our snakes didn’t last long.”


As Luna looked around, she noticed that Sonia and Geo were shaking as they got to their feet.  Bud had managed to free himself, but rather than attacking, he had stopped to breathe a small puff of flame around his hands.


“Oh no,” Luna whispered.  “Then…we’re really not of much use in this fight, are we?”


“I wouldn’t despair quite yet, darling.  Take a look at where the Gorgon Eye blasts struck.”


Trying to remember where she had aimed her eyebeams, Luna scanned the surface of the ice until she found something peculiar.  What she saw wasn’t ice, or even the Wave Road, but a small patch of stone.  Looking around, she saw a few more scattered about, and started to get an idea of what Ophiuca had in mind.


“Mega Man, Harp Note!” she called, getting them to face her.  She beckoned, and then slithered towards Bud as fast as she could.


Across the Wave Road, Mega grumbled, “If she’s gonna yell at us at a time like this…”


“I’m more inclined to think she has a plan, actually,” Lyra said.  “The real question is how to get past our good friend Ice.”


Ice summoned two new ice blocks.  Geo aimed his buster and said, “Sonia, wait ten seconds, alright?”


Sonia nodded.  As Ice prepared to launch an attack, Geo shot one of the blocks, and when the energy bullet impacted it released a shockwave that radiated over the nearby area.  Ice recoiled.  Geo teleported in Luna’s direction, meanwhile Sonia grabbed a block with her strings and pulled herself forward, sliding straight past Ice and towards her friends.


“What’s up?” Sonia asked as she came to a halt.


Luna began to fire more blasts.  “Everyone pay attention!  We’re going to have to finish this quickly!”


“Uh, Prez, where are you aiming?” Bud asked.


“This is important!  I think it’s a result of the Hunter’s streamlining, but look: my Gorgon Eye can create stone now!”


The others turned.  Brightening up, Geo said, “Oh, I get it!  Those footholds can help us get across the ice more reliably!”


“This is all I can do, though, so you’d better make good use of it, and fast!”


Sonia eyed Ice.  The Wizard was still recovering, and more of the odd static was surrounding her.  “…It might not take much more.  I could probably win this with a sound pulse, but even with these footholds it’ll be difficult to get close enough.  Maybe if we lead her towards one of my speakers…”


“Give it to us,” Mega said.  “With the Mega Attack, we can get it right in her face.”


“That’s great thinking,” Geo said, “but she’ll still see us coming.  We need a distraction.”


He instantly turned to Bud.  Chuckling, the larger boy stomped forward and said, “Okay, Taurus!  Time to quit holding back!”


“Mrrrgh!  You got it, Bud!”


Ice shook her head.  Seemingly focused once more, she turned and saw her four targets gathered in one place and began to create more snowflakes.  “Just die already!  Can’t you see it’s over for you?”


“Over?” Bud repeated.  “Hah!  I’m just getting warmed up!”


He clenched his fists and squatted, giving a long grunt.  Ice aimed the snowflakes and willed them to fire.  Freezing wind rushed at them, but the flames on Bud’s gauntlets started to grow larger, and instead of feeling cold, the others all felt much, much warmer.  Irritated, Ice formed another hammer and got just close enough to swing it.  As she was raising it, Bud’s armor started to glow redder than usual, and when she brought it down, he threw an uppercut to meet it.  The head of the hammer shattered instantly.


“Now we’re burning red-hot!” Bud roared.  “See if you can handle this, Ice!”


Bud ran forward in a burst of speed, the ice turning to steam underneath his feet.  Ice skated away to put some distance between them.  Rearing back, Bud unleashed a massive blast of fire; he missed, but the heat was enough that Ice faltered, giving him the chance to charge closer still.


“We’ll leave it to him,” Sonia said.  Turning to Geo, she summoned one of her speakers and put it in his hands.  “When you see a chance, jump towards her—I’ll wait to use the pulse until you’re right on top of her.”


Geo nodded and watched Ice closely.  Sonia turned to Luna, who was still shaking but smiled at her anyway.


Bud plowed through a group of ice blocks and fired off a rocket punch at Ice.  She did her best to evade, but she skated right through a wall of flames, and closed her eyes as she did.  Seeing his chance, Geo teleported, hopping from one stepping stone to the next, and Sonia dialed her guitar to its most powerful setting.  Ice opened her eyes just as Geo appeared next to her and held the speaker forward.  Sonia brought her hand down on her guitar, and a massive blast of sound exploded out of the speaker and blew Ice away.


“Yes!” Luna shouted.  “That should show her!”


The recoil sent Geo spinning, but he teleported closer to the ground so he didn’t hit it as hard.  They all watched as Ice landed in a heap next to the control panel.  At first they moved closer, but suddenly, they all stopped at once.  No one said anything, but each of them felt totally numb for just a few seconds.


“No…” Ice hissed, pushing herself up off the Wave Road.  “No…delete them…clear the way…for…”


She looked up, spotting Belle’s image on the control panel, and froze.


“…She looks…so unhappy…”


Ice hung her head.  Her body started to spasm, and more of the odd distortions surrounded her.  She shrieked, and then green energy exploded out of her body, drifting a short distance away before coming to a stop.  When it cleared, Ice could be seen—unconscious, but back to her normal appearance.


“Even with all that messing with her head, taking a good look at Belle helped her finally realize the truth,” Sonia mumbled.


“Great, but…what is it?” Bud asked.


Before he could get an answer, the static began to move.  The great cloud seemed to condense into several smaller bundles, and as they shrunk smaller and smaller, their color shifted to a deep shade of red.  Where there had once been a sea of green static, there was now about a dozen balls of red light.  Seconds later, they all shot off into the distance, disappearing from view almost instantly.


“The heck was that about?” Mega asked.


Ice moaned, reminding everyone she was still there.  They rushed to her side and made sure she wasn’t in danger of getting deleted if they moved her.  As they did, Sonia noticed another card lying on the ground, this one bearing the image of a diamond, and discreetly pocketed it.  Once they were sure Ice was stable, Sonia gently picked her up and carried her to the exit.


“Taurus I will stay and defrost this place,” Bud said.  “Tell Amy we’ll be out in a few!”


The rest of them exited the core, arriving back on the roof of the stage.  Sonia quickly ducked behind it—Ice’s programming automatically adjusted her to the visible spectrum upon leaving the Cyber Core, so Sonia needed to do the same to avoid dropping her, and she didn’t want to risk any of the audience seeing her if she didn’t have to.  Luna and Geo followed and cancelled their Wave Changes, exchanging a silent nod with her before heading back around towards their seats.


I’d have to set Ice down to cancel my Wave Change…I should probably just talk to Belle as Harp Note.


Lyra materialized just long enough to open the backstage door, and Sonia carried Ice inside.  Belle came back through the curtain soon after.  When she saw Sonia holding Ice, she stopped and covered her mouth with her hands.


“She’ll be alright,” Sonia said.  “I, uh, was in the area and heard there was more trouble, so I came to check things out.”


“I-I see,” Belle mumbled.  “…Um…was she responsible for…?”


Sonia hesitated.  “She seemed to be under the same effects as the out of control Wizards earlier.  In all honestly, I don’t totally understand it, but I do think it affected her judgment.  We’ll have to ask her when she wakes up to be sure.”


Belle clenched her hands together over her chest.  “I’m sorry Ice caused so much trouble.  If I hadn’t left her alone earlier, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened to her.”


Sonia smiled.  “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Belle.  In the end, no one got hurt—no one out there even knows Ice was messing with the system.  Things will be okay.”


Belle’s entire body relaxed.  “Hah…thanks, Sonia.”


It was so casual she almost missed it, but a few seconds later, Sonia and Belle’s faces both went blank.


“…Oh,” Belle said.


Sonia gulped.  “…So, uh…I guess you figured me out, h-huh?”


Belle averted her eyes.  “Well, it’s just…every time we heard about trouble, you’d excuse yourself and then Harp Note would appear on site.  You fight with a guitar.  Your Wizard is a harp.  Things just sort of fell into place.”


“Seems we need to invest in a bit more subtlety,” Lyra said.


Sonia chuckled nervously.  “…Does anyone else…?”


Belle shook her head.  “N-No, I haven’t told anyone, and I don’t think anyone else has put it together yet either!  Your secret’s safe with me!”




Belle drew her Hunter and clicked a button, and Ice disappeared back inside the device.  With no reason not to, Sonia cancelled her Wave Change, and she let out a deep sigh.


“I’d better get on with the concert,” Sonia said.  “Thanks for keeping everyone calm while I was gone!”


“No problem.  It’s nothing compared to what you did for Ice.  I’ll be sure to let you know when she wakes up—I’m sure you want to know more about what happened as well.”


“Whenever she’s ready.”


With that, Belle headed out the backstage exit, and Sonia faced the curtain once more.


Despite the delay, the concert was a big success.  Afterwards the crew all went their separate ways, most heading for either the parking lot or the Wave Liner stop, though a few went to finish up some remaining business.  Sonia regrouped with her friends right away, and they congratulated her on the performance.  Jack didn’t seem particularly impressed, though that didn’t surprise her; he said he had to get going, so after Luna scolded him one last time for going off on his own earlier, he took his leave.


“You must be exhausted,” Amy said.


“I’ve been in worse shape,” Sonia said.  “Oh, before I forget: thanks for helping Belle out earlier!  There would’ve been real trouble if she hadn’t been there to make Ice stop what she was doing.”


“Sure!  I figured whoever was messing with the system wouldn’t stop just because the concert started, so I wanted to take at least one look around.  Of course, it was you all who did the heavy lifting.”


Bud raised one fist triumphantly.  “Hah, she never stood a chance against us!  After training so hard and getting enhanced by the Hunter, we’re stronger than ever before!”


“That red-hot state was actually rather impressive,” Luna said.  “I’ve been wondering, though: why didn’t you do that in the first place?”


“You can’t give away all your tricks right at the start, you know.  It’s important to get a feel for what the enemy can do, and save your strength until you’ve got a plan together.”


“Huh,” Pat said.  “That’s really logical of you, Bud.”


Geo chuckled.  “He just can’t do it for very long yet.”


Bud cringed.  “G-Geo!  Not cool!”


Amy laughed, grabbing onto Bud’s arm.  “Whatever the reason, it’s awesome you’ve got this new power.  You’ll have to show me some time!”


“Oh!  D-Definitely!”


Zack turned to Sonia, asking, “Did you figure out anything new about what’s affecting the Wizards?”


“Not really,” Sonia said, shaking her head.  She drew the Diamond card out of her pocket.  “But I found this when we beat Ice.  It’s just like the one I was telling you was around when I beat that other Wizard—except that one had a sword on it.  I don’t know exactly how it works, but it’s got to be responsible for the corruption.”


The air over the group began to take on a solemn quality.  Giving a shrug, Sonia put the card away and smiled.


“But, Mr. Boreal said he’ll explain it to us, so let’s not worry about it just yet.”


Something caught her eye.  Turning, she saw Belle approaching them, with Ice floating just behind her.  The Wizard’s expression was unfriendly as ever, but this time it looked more like one of shame than malice.


“Sorry to interrupt,” Belle said.  “Ice just woke up, so I figured…”


Hesitantly, Ice came forward, eyes fixed on the ground.  “…Um…Sonia.  About what happened to the stage…and in your dressing room, too…that…that was me.”


Sonia waited for her to continue.


“I’m sorry.  It was a terrible thing to do, and I really regret it.”


“Why would you go that far, Ice?” Belle asked.  “You could have seriously hurt somebody!”


Ice poked at her clipboard.  “I just wanted to help you get ahead, Belle.  I thought the quickest way to do that was to get rid of anyone in your way.”




“I don’t know what came over me.  Ordinarily I’d never go that far, but something…”


She shook her head.  Sonia asked, “Belle, when was the last time you saw Ice before this started?”


“In the lobby, when everyone decided to go look for Harp Note.  I…got kind of angry with her, and then I left.”


Sonia turned to Ice.  “What happened after that?”


Ice paused to think.  “Someone walked up to me.  It looked like a boy, but he had black armor that looked more like a Wizard.  I don’t know who he was, but…I was frustrated, so I just started talking.  He threw something at me, and then…”  She shook her head.  “Things get fuzzy.  I remember thinking I could help Belle by taking out her competition, and I mostly remember fighting Harp Note and her friends.  But the details aren’t there.”


Sonia nodded.  She took a deep breath, and then said, “It sounds like you weren’t really in control of yourself after what that guy did to you.  If that’s the case, then I don’t really want to hold a grudge.”


“Th…thank you.  Again, I’m very sorry for the trouble I’ve caused.  It won’t happen again.”


Ice turned around, but Belle got in front of her.  “Hang on.  Influenced or not, we really need to talk about your ideas about competition.”


Looking up at her, Ice said, “I’m not going to do anything crazy again.”


“I believe you.  But we still need to talk.  You’re always putting down anyone you see as my rival, or trying to push people into doing something that they don’t want to do.  You keep telling me I shouldn’t be friends with Sonia because we’re both trying to do the same thing.  If someone tries to influence you again, and you still think that…well, I think we really need to deal with it now.”


Ice started to regain some of her usual energy, saying, “Well…it is a competition!  I’ve studied the industry thoroughly, and if you want to get to the top, you need to outdo everyone else.  I’m trying to get you in a mindset to take on those challenges!”


“Ice, I never said I wanted to be at the top.  I don’t care about being better than anyone else—I just want to do the best that I can do!”


“But you could reach so many more people at the top!  I love that you want to help people, and the higher up you are the more of that you can do!  I want to give you the chance to do everything you want, Belle.  That’s why I’m so focused on this!”


Belle smiled.  “Ice…it’s true I want to help anyone I can.  But if we go out of our way to hurt people for our own sake, or try to push them out of a place where they can help people, then we’re not really helping anyone.  I’m all for looking for more opportunities to help people, but that doesn’t mean taking those opportunities away from others.”


Ice clutched her clipboard tightly.  “…I just…thought it would make you happy…”


Belle reached out and took Ice’s hand.  “I’m happy where I am.  I’m doing what I love, I’m helping plenty of people, and I’ve got great friends, too.  It’s enough.”


Ice’s body shook.  “I’m sorry, Belle.  I got carried away.  I guess, in the end, I’m not fit to be your Manager after all.”


Belle pulled gently on Ice’s hand.  “Hey!  That’s not true!”




“No one cares about me as much as you do, Ice.  Having you for support is a big part of why I’m happy where I am.  I don’t want you to get carried away, of course, but…I’d be lost without you.”




Belle giggled.  “So, if you don’t mind, Ice…please keep being my Manager.”


After a second’s delay, Ice moved forward and hugged Belle, sobbing into her shoulder.  “Of course, Belle!  I’d love to!”


Watching them, Sonia couldn’t help but smile, and found herself glancing at Luna.  Tentatively, she reached out and brushed Luna’s fingers.  Luna slowly took her hand in hers.


After Belle and Ice said their goodbyes, the group made their way inside the studio and towards the lobby.  “Thanks for coming, everyone,” Sonia said.  “Even if it didn’t all go smoothly, it was great to see you.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until next time.”


Just as she was about to part ways with them, she noticed someone standing in the lobby and grew still.  Next to the reception desk was a young man with straight, dark blue hair, wearing a white Satella Police uniform with red-lensed glasses clipped to the neck.  He hadn’t noticed them yet, and was busy eating some sort of candy bar.  She remembered that Boreal had said he would send an officer, but she hadn’t been expecting he’d send this one.


Noticing them, the man smiled and waved to her.  “Hey there!  How’s everyone doing?”


“Ace?” Geo said.  “What’re you doing here?”


“The Chief told me there was some trouble.  I knew you’d have it under control, but he wanted me to help transport some sensitive evidence, plus extend an invitation.”


Mega materialized next to Geo, grumbling, “If you’re here, then that means…”


Another Wizard appeared next to Ace.  His general shape had some similarity to Mega’s, but he had a much sleeker look, being made completely out of what looked like white and gray metal.  With his narrow, featureless face, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking as he hovered a few steps forward.


“Greetings, Omega-Xis,” the Wizard stated in an even, robotic tone.  “I have been informed that you were involved in the effort to suppress the erratic Wizards.  We would like to thank you for your efforts.”


Mega turned and crossed his arms.  “Yeah, yeah, keep your thanks, pal.  I don’t need no medals for trashing a few nutty programs!”


“Very well.”


“Is this the one you mentioned before?” Ophiuca quietly asked.


“Indeed,” Lyra replied.  “That’s Acid, Mega’s new brother.  Isn’t it adorable to watch?”


“Hey!” Mega snapped.  “I heard that, stringy!”


Trying to cut off the argument before it broke out, Sonia said, “Ace, you said something about an invitation?”


Ace smiled brightly.  “That’s right!  Chief Boreal wants to brief you on what we’re up against, and he’s ready when you are.  Anyone who wants to come along is welcome!”


Sonia nodded.  “Okay.  I’ll just go grab the card from earlier, and I’ll be right back.”


She headed down the hallway, and Luna followed.  “If Acid is the Wizard you were talking about, then this Ace guy is Transcode 001, right?”


“Huh?” Sonia muttered.  “Oh, yeah.  Sorry, I’ll introduce you properly on the way to WAZA HQ.”


Luna tilted her head.  “…You seem a little off.”


Sonia stopped in front of the door to her dressing room, thinking for a moment.  “Sorry.  Ace and I just don’t really…”  She fumbled in search of the rest of that sentence, but it was nowhere to be found.


As she opened the door, Luna said, “I see.  That’s kind of strange: you’re awfully agreeable unless someone goes out of their way to antagonize you.  Did he do something?”


“No,” Sonia said as she retrieved the card.  “I don’t really know what it is.  But, it doesn’t really matter.  He’s someone I’m working with right now, so I’m sure we’ll get along well enough.  Did you want to come with us, or are you heading home?”


“I’ll come with you.  I’m pretty curious after seeing what happened to Ice.”


Sonia nodded and locked the door to her room.  The two of them headed back towards the lobby, but she didn’t say another word.




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Chapter 5


He didn’t know how long he had been marveling at the Wave Roads, but it still felt like he hadn’t fully appreciated this glimpse into the unseen world all around them.  To think that these vibrant paths had always existed just above people as they went about their lives unaware, that programs walked around looking for ways to pass their time, that EM waves shone so beautifully—it was almost unfair that people couldn’t normally see them, he thought.


His train of thought was cut short as a virus appeared on the Road above him.  By habit, he reached for some Battle Cards and turned to the Virus Busting interface on his Transer, but then he stopped.  Looking back up, he watched the virus (a single Mettenna) plod forward a few slow steps and raise its pickaxe.  Before it could swing, he swiped a Cannon.  The turret-like weapon popped into existence just in front of the Mettenna, blasting it back while its guard was down.  The virus was stunned by the sudden attack.  Quickly swiping another Cannon, he deleted the virus, and then laughed as he closed up his Transer.


“Busting is way easier when you can read the viruses’ moves, compared to dots on a screen,” he muttered.  “These things have more potential than I thought.”  Somewhat reluctantly, he removed the special eyewear he had invented—the Visualizer—and turned it over in his hands.


“Having fun, Kelvin?”


He fumbled with the glasses, steadying his grip just before they slipped free.  Setting them on the console gently, he turned to see a woman approaching: her hair was a dark shade of purple, pulled into a loop that hung over her right shoulder and with a horseshoe-shaped gold clip holding back her bangs.  Beneath her lab coat she wore a simple white shirt and black pants.  She stopped at the edge of the console and smiled, waiting for his answer.


Kelvin leaned back in his chair and sighed.  “Rosa?  I thought you were taking a few days off.”


She sluggishly waved her Transer arm.  “I forgot a few documents I wanted to skim tonight and figured I’d better come download them before I get too relaxed.”


“What about your daughter?”


“Sonia’s in the lobby; Aaron’s watching her until I get back.  So?”  She gestured to the Visualizer.  “What’s this new gadget of yours exactly?”


Kelvin ran a hand through his hair.  “I was gonna wait until you got back, but…”  He picked up the glasses.  “I call it the Visualizer.  It detects any EM waves in range and depicts them on the lens within the visible spectrum.  I actually made some for you and Aaron, too.”


Reaching into the pocket of his lab coat, he fished out another Visualizer, though unlike the blue-green one he held, this one was pink.  He offered it to Rosa, who slipped them on and glanced up.


“Wow,” she murmured.  “This is…pretty incredible, actually.”


Kelvin grinned.  “Heh, thanks!  I figure these’ll make it a lot easier for us to talk to the Admins.  We’ll be able to actually see them now, without them needing to be on a screen!”


Rosa stared at the Roads silently for a moment.  Looking back down and removing the glasses, she asked, “Is that all you had in mind?”


Kelvin’s grin gradually faded.  “Well…there are other uses, of course.  Just now I was seeing how they assist in Virus Busting, and I think that’s an avenue we can really explore.”


Rosa clipped the Visualizer to the neck of her shirt.  “…You’re going, aren’t you?”


Kelvin stared at the wall for a few seconds.  Ultimately, he sighed, hunched over the console, and said, “Can’t fool you, huh?  You know me a little too well.”


“Well, to be fair,” Rosa said, pointing.


Looking, Kelvin realized he had an image of Planet FM displayed on his computer screen.  He hastily shut the window.


“This is a bad idea.”


“And that’s why I didn’t bring it up.”


“I’m being serious, Kelvin.  If you try to approach Planet FM to negotiate, all they’re going to do is kill you.”


Kelvin faced her and crossed his arms, saying, “We won’t know until we try.”


Rosa’s expression began to darken.  Pointing up, she said, “Actually, we do know.  All Planet AM did was ask them to play nice, and Planet FM annihilated them.  You’re going to be repeating that exact same mistake.”


He spun in place.  “…If we don’t at least try to pursue a peaceful solution first…if we just go straight to war, then aren’t we just as bad as we’ve been told they are?”


Rosa circled around to look him in the eye.  “No, it’s…”  She stopped, thinking more about what she wanted to say.  “…I can see where you’re coming from.  This sort of thing could lead to a very slippery slope, I’ll easily grant you that.  But we’re talking about one very specific situation, not debating a broader philosophy.  The Admins’ plan is just to defend this planet in case Planet FM comes across the galaxy to smash us to bits—which they very possibly might decide to—not charge over to their house guns blazing.  We’re not taking aim.  We aren’t even making a show of shoring up our defenses, we’re just quietly making arrangements for a worst-case scenario, and then waiting and watching.  We aren’t taunting them.  But if you go to open a dialogue with them, Kelvin, everything we know about them says they’re going to take it as a taunt.”


“But there’s a chance they could listen this time!” Kelvin argued.  “A small one, definitely, but there is a chance!  I can’t just not take that chance.”


“That chance is infinitesimal.  And even if by some miracle they don’t shoot you on sight, how much do you think it’ll really accomplish?  A culture—an entire planet that has revolved around war for so long cannot possibly change overnight.  Even if, and I cannot stress enough the size of that ‘if’, they actually listen to you, it would take years at best for Planet FM to actually, properly reform.”


“It would be a start.”


Rosa turned and covered her face with her hands.  When she turned back, she leaned over, locked eyes with him, and started, “Kelvin Stelar, you listen to me, if you think—“


The door to the lab was flung open suddenly, causing her to back up.  In ran a small girl with red hair dressed in pink, who bounded straight towards Rosa and tackled her leg.


“There you are, Mama!”


“Sonia?  What are you doing here, I told you to stay with…”


Boreal came through the door then, stopping to catch his breath.  “Rosa…I’m sorry…she got away from me…”


Kelvin couldn’t help but grin.  “Getting out of shape there, old man?”


Grinning back, Boreal said, “If I’m old, that puts you in the same boat, Kelvin.”


Rosa wagged her finger.  “Sonia, I told you to stay with Mr. Boreal!  Why didn’t you do that?”


Smiling up at her, Sonia said, “You were taking so long!  I got tired of waiting, so I came to find you.”


With a sigh, Rosa said, “That’s no reason to run off on your own like that.  You could’ve gotten lost, or hurt!”


“But I didn’t!”


“Sonia, you’re supposed to listen when your mother tells you to do something.”


“But it’s fine now.  Nothing bad happened, so it isn’t a problem.”


Kelvin laughed.  “Seems she’s as stubborn as you are, Rosa.”


Turning to him, Rosa said, “Kelvin, one day your son is going to be just like you and you’re going to come to regret taking joy in this, and I promise you, I will take immense joy in that.”


“Sure, that’s fair,” Kelvin said with a shrug.


Finally recovered, Boreal walked over and said, “Sonia, let’s head back.  I’m sure your mom has some important stuff she needs to get done.”


“I won’t get in the way!” Sonia said, clutching Rosa’s leg.  “Please, Mama, can I stay with you?”


Rosa ground her teeth as she sorted through her thoughts.  Closing her eyes, she set a hand on top of Sonia’s head and sighed, “What am I going to do with you…”  She smiled a little and picked her daughter up, hugging her tightly for a few seconds and then moving to carrying her more loosely on her arm.


“Sorry again, Rosa,” Boreal said.


“No, I got what I needed anyway.  I just spotted Kelvin and…turns out we had something to discuss.  And while that discussion isn’t over—“ She paused to narrow her eyes at Kelvin.  “—I did tell Sonia I wouldn’t dawdle.  So, I guess I’m the one who should apologize.”


Reaching out to hug her mother again, Sonia said, “It’s okay, Mama!  I forgive you!”


Rosa laughed, pressing her forehead against Sonia’s.  “Well that is a huge relief!  I’m blessed to have such an understanding daughter.”


As they pulled away, Sonia grabbed hold of the Visualizer.  “What’s this thing?”


“It’s a gift from my friend here.”


“That’s so nice!  Should we give him a gift too?”


“Hmmm, maybe, I’ll see what I can think of.  For now, if I recall correctly, we had an exciting day planned, didn’t we?”


“Yeah!” Sonia exclaimed, throwing her hands up.


“Well gentlemen, if you will excuse us.”


She set Sonia down, kissed her on the cheek, and took her hand.  They both waved goodbye as they left the laboratory, though Rosa took a second to flash a more serious look Kelvin’s way.  When they were gone, Kelvin produced a yellowish Visualizer, and Boreal took it when it was pushed in his direction.


“You finished them,” he said, examining the device.  “Did you tell Rosa about Peace?”


Kelvin rubbed his neck.  “…Not really.  She gathered that I want to head for Planet FM, though.”




“Huh?  What makes you say that?”


“Because neither of us have ever won an argument with her, so Rosa will definitely be able to talk you out of going.”




I wouldn’t say he ever really won that argument…but neither did she.


Boreal shook his head, clearing the fog of a memory as he stepped off the elevator and into the briefing room.  Around the table sat Sonia, Luna, Geo, Bud, Ace, and Copper, who all turned to look as he approached his seat.  Boreal sat down, laid out a folder, and looked over the first page.


“First of all,” he began.  “Have you kids heard of Noise?”


Geo raised his hand.  “I’m not entirely familiar with it, but it’s a type of EM wave, right?  I think I remember reading that it’s a form of pollution that can harm technology when present in large quantities.”


“That’s right.  We haven’t made a big deal of it yet, but the Hunter and other very recent technologies are producing much more Noise than anything we’ve had before.  Previously, we really didn’t have any reason to invest in Noise research since there just wasn’t enough of it to cause real problems, but now, it’s necessary to make it a top priority.  Sonia, do you still have that card?”


Sonia nodded, setting the Sword card on the table.  “This is the one I found after fighting the out of control Wizard in front of the studio.  Also…”  She set out the Diamond card.  “Ice dropped this one.  You’ve encountered these before, right?”


Boreal nodded, turning to Ace.  Clearing his throat, Ace explained, “These are Noise Cards.  They’re imbued with extremely powerful Noise, which they use to corrupt and reprogram Wizards.  So, the Wizards you were fighting: the reason they went out of control was because their AI was compromised by the Noise of these cards.”


“Then the ones we fought must have had these as well,” Luna said.  “Shoot, we should’ve been more observant.”


“Ice was different, though,” Sonia said.  “She definitely went out of control, but she could still speak to us.  She remembered who she was, she remembered Belle—her AI seemed more intact.  At least, at first.”


“That Diamond card must have been programmed differently,” Ace said.  “They don’t all necessarily do the exact same thing.  Still, it’s pretty remarkable if she was able to avoid being totally taken in by that strong a suit.”


“What, you mean suites like playing cards?” Bud asked.  “Where’d this Sword one come from, then?  I’ve only ever heard of four suites.”


“Without getting too much into ancient history, different parts of the world used to have different but similar playing card decks,” Ace explained.  “The one you’re probably most familiar with includes Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts, but Swords are present in the older Latin suit system: Clubs, Swords, Cups, and Coins.  We’ve reason to believe both sets are being used as different levels of Noise Cards.”


Bud mumbled to himself as he tried to get all the names straight.  Sonia turned to Ace and asked, “Being used by whom?”


Ace grinned.  “Well, that’s the real reason we needed to bring you here to explain things.”


“For a few years now,” Copper took over, “we’ve been monitoring the activities of a criminal organization known as Dealer.  There wasn’t a whole lot to monitor at first, and it seemed fairly random and non-disruptive for some time.  More recently, however, we’ve come to believe their goals revolve around the utilization of Noise, and they’ve become noticeably bolder in causing chaos.”


Sonia looked back at the cards.  “Then they’re the ones who make Noise Cards?”


“Correct.  One of their operatives must have been present at the studio, and set Wizards out of control to further their goals.”


“But what did that accomplish?” Geo asked.  “We stopped them before anything too bad happened.  Even Ice’s attack on the concert didn’t hurt anyone.”


Copper shook his head.  “They might not care if people get hurt, but that isn’t their goal.  At least, not yet.  You see, when a complex program like a Wizard goes out of control due to Noise corruption, they in turn generate more Noise.  The more Noised Wizards there are and the longer they’re active, the more Noise gets created.”


“Wouldn’t that mean there’s a bunch of Noise still floating around the studio?” Sonia asked.  “Is there something we can do about that?”


Copper looked to Ace.  The other officer frowned, saying, “The only Noise I detected was what was being given off by the studio’s equipment.”


“Sonia,” Boreal asked, “at any point did you see a cluster of EM waves that had an odd red light to it?”


Remembering the fight with Ice, Sonia said, “Yeah…after we’d been fighting for a while, this green static started appearing around Ice, and when she returned to normal it all condensed into these red orbs.”


“I see.  What happened to them?”


“I’m not sure.  They just kind of flew off before we knew what was happening.”


Ace tapped his fingers.  Boreal said, “That’s what we’ve come to expect.  When enough Noise is present, it crystalizes into an exceptionally dense type of Noise called Crimson.  We’ve managed to collect one or two samples, but it seems that whenever Crimson is generated, it mysteriously vanishes before we can even get there.”


Sonia thought a moment.  “Dealer.”


“That’s right.  We believe Dealer’s current focus to be the generation and harvesting of Crimson.”


“But, why?”


Copper was the one to answer: “We’re still looking into it.”


The way Boreal and Ace shifted made Sonia question that, but she let it go.  “Okay then.  How do we stop them?”


“I’m afraid at the moment, all we can really do is react whenever they appear,” Copper answered.  “We’re investigating every lead we have, but progress is slow.  We had hoped to hold off on this, but…now that they’ve made such a public attack, it’s time we prepare you kids to confront them.”


“I’d say we’re pretty prepared,” Bud said.  “We handled Diamond Ice without too much trouble, after all!  How much worse can they get?”


“Much worse, actually,” Ace said, “but we’ve got something more pressing to deal with.  Tell me: did any of you feel strange at all during your battle?”


“Actually, yes,” Luna said.  “It didn’t last long, but it felt like my body went totally numb.”


Turning, Sonia said, “You felt that too?  The same thing happened to me.”


“Me too,” Geo said, “but I figured it was just an effect of the cold Prez was just explaining to us.”


Bud scratched his chin.  “Well…it happened to me too.  But it was when I was burning red-hot, so there’s no way it could’ve been the cold.”


“It wasn’t,” Ace said.  “Remember that Noise corrupts other EM waves, including Wizards.  FM-ians are not immune.”


The table went silent.  Mega asked, “Just checking, but what about AM-ians?”


Ace chuckled.  “Sorry, no.  What I mean is that Noise affects naturally-occurring EM beings just the same as man-made Wizards.”


“Yeah, I figured,” he grumbled.


“So the more we fight around and against Noise, the more we’ll be corrupted,” Lyra summed up.  “Hm…not a very appealing prospect, I must say.”


“Not to worry,” Boreal said.  “Again, we’re actually doing quite a bit of Noise research now, and we’ve constructed a prototype Noise Filter that we believe will protect you from being corrupted.  We should also gain a lot more data from observing how it behaves when you fight Dealer, so we’ll patch it as needed.”


Taurus nodded once.  “Mrrgh!  You had us going there for a second.  Never should’ve doubted you!”


“We’re just waiting on our specialists to get here,” Copper said.  “They’ll help you install them, plus explain a little more.”


Soon enough, the elevator doors opened once again and two people stepped off.  One was a tall woman with black hair in a single topknot-like loop, while the other was a much shorter, elderly woman with large white hair and glasses; the labcoat-clad women approached the table at a steady pace, greeting everyone without stopping.


“Good evening,” said the taller woman.  “It’s nice to see you all.”


“Sorry if we’re a little late,” said the shorter woman.  “Took me a minute to cross this oversized building.”


“Dr. Vega?” Sonia asked, referring to the dark-haired woman.  “You’re one of the Noise specialists?”


Vega nodded.  “After seeing how crucial this research can prove, it was hard to ignore.  Still, I’m certainly secondary to my colleague here—she’s the real expert.”


The older woman waved her off.  “Oh, don’t flatter me so much, Veggie.  Let’s see, I should probably introduce myself, shouldn’t I?”


“You’re Dr. Goodall, aren’t you?” Geo asked.


The woman’s eyes widened.  “Eh?  That’s right.  Did we meet and I forgot all about you?  Sorry if that’s it, things keep slipping my mind lately.”


“No, we haven’t met before.  I’ve just read about some of your research.  You’ve done some really amazing work!”


Goodall smiled.  “Why thank you, sonny!  You sure know how to make an old woman feel welcome.”


“We just told them about the Noise Filter,” Boreal said.  “Would you like to take it from there?”


Goodall cleared her throat, sitting up in her chair as high as she could.  Facing Sonia, she said, “First of all, Sonia.  We wanted to tell you that as part of our research, we’ve been studying the EM Compatibility Tuner your mother designed.  It has some very unique coding in which we saw the potential to really help our work.  We also want to apologize for not asking first—we moved right on without really thinking about it, and for that I’m very sorry.”


“Oh…no, I don’t mind.  I’m sure Mama would be happy to know her program can help people.”


Taking over, Vega said, “From there, our research came to focus on one particular source of Noise.  Some time ago, WAZA’s deep space probes detected an extremely powerful cluster of EM waves, but initially we were unable to make any sense of what we were picking up.  Further investigation revealed that it was in fact a gigantic mass of Noise drifting through space.  We’ve spent a lot of time studying that mass specifically, and our first real breakthrough was made by accessing it with a program derived from the Tuner.  It is not simply a cluster…it is a highly organized data structure made completely out of Noise.  A Noise Server, if you will.”


“Wait, wait,” Mega said.  “You’re saying there’s a big ball of Noise just rolling around space, and it’s actually some kinda roaming server?  I’ve never heard of anything like that.”


“I’m afraid I must agree,” Ophiuca said.  “In all my years crossing the galaxy, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a single thing like what you’re describing.”


“Hm,” Goodall mused, “that’s interesting.  We were wondering what the aliens might be able to tell us about it, but it seems like you’re just as in the dark.  How fascinating!”


“Bizarre as it may be, nevertheless, that is what we’ve discovered,” Vega said.  “By modifying the basic functions of the Tuner, we’ve learned how to access and navigate the Noise Server, and even recall data from it—though, naturally, it is encrypted by Noise and destroys any normal device that attempts to analyze it.”


“That’s why the Tuner’s so invaluable!” Goodall said.  “Any EM Being who uses it can harmonize with other powerful sources of EM energy.  Wizards using the modified program can decrypt the Noise Data recalled from the Noise Server, and use it to augment their abilities.  The Tuner can also harmonize with other external Noise to prevent corruption.  This eventually led to the development of the Noise Filter.”


Hearing this, Sonia smiled.  “Mama’s program really is incredible.”


“Excuse me,” Luna said.  “You mentioned augmenting abilities—is that another function included with the Filter?”


Goodall pointed.  “Ah, good catch!  Unfortunately, no: the standard issue Noise Filter is just that.  A filter.  Our goal is to eventually mass produce and install it in every Hunter, and if everyone could access the Noise Server and use its data freely, that’d likely cause some serious issues.”


“Access to the Noise Server is done using two highly specialized Noise Control Programs,” Vega said.  “The first generation samples of these programs were used in the construction of special Wizards who were instrumental in charting and analyzing the Noise Server.  Just recently, we finished work on the second generation programs, so…Sonia.”  The girl turned to her.  “Rather than giving you a simple Noise Filter, we thought it fitting to give you one of the Noise Control Programs.”


“Huh?” Sonia said.  “That’s…I mean, are you sure I’m the one best suited to use that?”


“You’ve saved the world twice, sweetie,” Goodall said.  “You’ve earned our trust and then some.”


Continuing to think over it, Sonia glanced at her guitar.  “…Using Noise as an augment…that sounds dangerous.  Is there really no chance that it’ll make me go out of control like those Wizards?”


Goodall paused.  “It’s good to be careful about this.  You’re right: this is a dangerous power, so it’s important to treat it with respect.  Mathematically, the chance of corruption is not zero, however, under ordinary circumstances it is less than 1%.  We weren’t able to test in any super dense Noise fields, but we ran numerous simulations, and even in those conditions the chance never exceeded 3%.”


“According to our research, you’d need to actually be inside the Noise Server to produce a notable danger,” Vega said.  “Even then, the chance is roughly 10%.  I assure you our research was quite thorough—we would not offer this program so readily if we did not have the utmost confidence in its effectiveness.”


Sonia looked down at the table.  Behind her, Lyra said, “Well, that sounds fine to me.”


Turning, Sonia asked, “Really?  Are you sure?”


Lyra smiled.  “I am.”


Slowly, Sonia turned back around, and after thinking for a short time longer, she looked up and nodded.  “Alright, then.  I’ll take one of the Noise Control Programs.”


“Wonderful!” Goodall said, reaching for her Hunter.  “I’ll send it over immediately.”


“What we thought was best for you was the Joker Program, Version 2.0,” Vega said.  “You’ll be able to install and uninstall it at will, in case you change your mind.  Now, we also have a second generation Ace Program, and we don’t want it to go to waste.”


Sonia glanced at Ace.  “Wait, then is Acid…?”


Acid appeared, saying, “You are correct.  I am the Wizard constructed with the first generation Ace Program.”


“Huh.  Then where’s the Wizard made from the Joker Program?”


Everyone who she expected could answer the question got a very grim look.  In a hushed tone, Goodall said, “He is…no longer with us.”


Sonia tensed.  “Oh.  I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”


“Of course not, dear.  It’s quite alright.”


Vega set a hand on Dr. Goodall’s shoulder.  Across the table, Mega said, “So you got some fancy programming.  I’m still positive I could outfight you any day, Acid!”


“We’re glad to hear you say that,” Vega said.  “After careful consideration, we were thinking that Mega Man would be the best candidate to receive the new Ace Program.”


Geo nearly jumped out of his seat.  “W-What?!  Why do you say that?”


“As you know, Acid was designed to be very similar to Mega, and after seeing how well he performed with the Ace Program we became quite curious how the two of you would compare.”


“We’ll do it!” Mega said, slamming his fist on the table.  “Gimme that program, and I’ll settle once and for all that no copy can beat me!”


“Hang on!” Geo said.  “I mean…I’m honored, but really, I haven’t been serious about fighting for very long now.  What about Bud?  He’s been working really hard to master Wave Battling for years, so he’s probably a better candidate.”


Bud’s expression was a bit hard to read at first, but he gradually smiled.  “…Nah.  They’re right, it should probably go to you.”


“Y…You really think so?”


“Yeah.  I mean, we spar all the time and I hardly ever can beat you, and even before you got serious you were still able to help Sonia fight some pretty tough opponents.  You’re the best choice.”


“Besides!” Taurus said, lightly punching Bud’s arm.  “With our new technique, we won’t even need this Noise power-up!  Don’t think it’ll be enough to tip the balance in your favor next time we fight, Omega-Xis!”


Mega shrugged dismissively.  “Sure, sure, we’ll see.”


Geo wrung his hands together.  “…Well, I guess…”  He shook his head.  Looking up, he hardened his face a little and said, “I mean, yes, I’ll take the program!  The whole reason I want to be better at fighting is to make sure I can keep everyone safe, and it sounds like this’ll really help me do that.  Thank you very much for selecting me!”


“Excellent!” Goodall said.  “Now, just as soon as this is done loading, I’ll…”  She glanced at her Hunter screen, tapping it a few times.


“The Noise Control Programs have a large file size, so it may take some time,” Vega said.


“Hm,” Goodall huffed.  “In the meantime…”  She pointed in Geo and Sonia’s direction.  “First important thing to note!   I’ve heard about those Star Force and Tribe On powers you’ve used before, Sonia, and the Noise Changes this program will let you use aren’t going to be quite as significant a boost in raw power as it sounds like those were.  You will be stronger, of course, but the data files accessed by the basic Noise Changes are more about altering abilities than simply supercharging them.”


Sonia nodded.  “You said ‘basic’, though?”


Goodall grinned.  “Because that’s what we want you to focus on for the time being!  Once you master those, then you’ll be ready for the more advanced functions of the program.”


“That makes sense.  Okay, we’ll do our best to get the hang of those quickly in case Dealer makes another move.”


Her guitar beeped.  Examining the screen, Sonia found an email with an attachment, and showed it to Goodall.


“Yep, that’s it!” the doctor said.  “Alright, another thing: your Wizards will need to hibernate while the program installs…the first time, at least.  If you uninstall and then reinstall later, they should be able to do that in a snap.”


Sonia turned to Lyra, who said, “Understandable.  Perhaps later tonight would be better.”


Turning towards Geo, Goodall poked at her Hunter again and muttered, “Now for you two.  Here we are, Ace Program 2.0!  Send!”


Vega produced her own Hunter, saying, “Oh, before I forget, I’ll distribute the Filters as well.  Again, we recommend your Wizards hibernate for the initial setup.  That’s all we have for now, I believe?”


Goodall didn’t have anything to add, so Boreal stood.  “Hopefully you’ll be ready in case Dealer strikes near you again.  We’ll keep you all updated as we learn more information, and if you stumble across anything, please share it with us as well.  For the time being, let’s all just keep our eyes peeled.”


He, Copper, and Ace were all quick to leave after that.  Luna and Bud checked to see that they had received the Filter, and then faced Geo.  Grinning, he said, “Uh, you guys can go ahead without me.”


“We’ll wait for you at the Wave Liner,” Luna decided.  “Come as soon as you’re done.”


She stood to leave, and Sonia and Bud inevitably followed.  As they walked, Sonia turned to Bud and said, “Hey, sorry about the limited Control Programs.”


Bud shook his head.  “It’s no big deal.”  Appearing to remember something, he went on, “Oh, Sonia, I need to tell you!”




“You know how Zack joined the Science Club this year, right?”


“Yeah, he told me.  It sounds like he’s really enjoying it.”


“He’s having an awesome time.  But, the thing I wanted to tell you is that next week, the Science Club is launching a rocket that they made!  Into space!”


“Really?  That sounds cool!”  They stopped as they waited for an elevator.  Something occurred to her, delaying her from stepping onto it when it arrived.  “Wait, why didn’t Zack say anything, then?”


“I told him to,” Luna said, “but he insisted we hold off.  Since today was your shooting, he didn’t want it to seem like he was stealing the spotlight, so he was going to wait to invite you until tomorrow…or maybe later.  He wasn’t entirely clear.”


Sonia paused, and then smiled and shook her head.  “Come on.”


“Right?  Of course it wouldn’t have been a problem!  But, he seemed really adamant about it, so we all agreed not to mention it at the studio.”


“But we’re not at the studio anymore,” Bud said, “and I wanted to make sure you knew!  He’d really like it if you could come see the rocket launch.”


“Definitely!” Sonia said.  “Now that the season’s done, my schedule’s pretty free.”


“Don’t forget,” Lyra said, “we should spend a bit of that free time learning the ins and outs of this new program.”


“Ah, right.  I’ll make sure to master this Joker Program before then!”


Bud pumped his fist.  “Awesome!  I’ll tell Zack, and then he’ll give you the rest of the details.”


The elevator opened, and the group crossed the lobby of WAZA HQ and exited the building.  Sonia stretched.  “Speaking of forgetting things, I meant to ask how your campaign is going now, Luna.  The election’s coming up pretty fast, isn’t it?”


Luna smiled proudly.  “We’ve still got some time, but I don’t plan to waste any of it.  I don’t have many opponents, and they’re each focused on only a few issues—I’m trying to construct a broader platform to appeal to a wider demographic, and after I win, I’ll offer my competitors a chance to head committees for the issues they care about.”


Sonia giggled.  “You’re really thinking ahead.”


“I have to, if I’m going to get the school into shape anytime soon!  There won’t be a moment to waste, so I’m just going to do as much planning as I can now to get it out of the way.”


“Don’t you have time between the election and when you take the position, though?” Taurus asked.


“Yes, but still: I want to get everything organized so it’ll move as smoothly as possible once I do take office.  It’s what I always do.  There’s no point in changing what works.”


It wasn’t very long before Geo joined them.  Everyone said their farewells, and then Luna, Geo, and Bud boarded a Wave Liner headed back for Echo Ridge while Sonia Wave Changed and started back towards her studio.


“Hey, Lyra,” she said.


“Yes, dear?”


“Is it…weird if I think WAZA’s hiding something from us?  Something pretty big?”


“I was thinking the same thing.”


“If Dealer’s as dodgy as they say, it’s strange they know even that much about them, and I get the feeling there’s still more that they know.  And…”


Lyra waited for a moment.  “You’re curious about the other Wizard, I take it?”


“The last thing I want to do is pry.  I don’t even have a real reason to, it’s just…a gut feeling that something important happened.  Something it might be helpful to know.”


“We’ve been doing this a long time, you and I—it’s only natural your instincts would heighten by now.  If you want my advice, I think we should simply do as they say for now and figure out this program.  An opportunity to ask will present itself, and when it does, we won’t let it slip away.”


Sonia smiled.  “You’re sounding like Ophiuca.”


“…Oh, what can I say, now that we’ve both reformed I’m actually enjoying her company a bit.”


“Thanks, Lyra.  It’s nice to know it isn’t just me.”




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Chapter 6


Lightning bolts shot down in sequence, obliterating a line of viruses immediately.  A song carried through the air, directing when and where the bolts fell, and in the midst of the dazzling display danced Sonia.  She was Wave Changed, of course, but her appearance was different even compared to how it had been a few days ago: the pink on her dress and armor had been replaced by a medium shade of green, the jumpsuit beneath had taken on an ashy gray color, and her greaves had turned golden.  Instead of a scarf, she wore a large green coat that hung loosely from her shoulders, and round, blinking lights lined its edges.  Her mostly orange helmet had a more angular look with rounded horizontal ridges, with three vertical bands of gold spaced along it evenly.  Her guitar was a ghastly shade of white, with the body shaped to resemble a cartoon-like skull, and rather than the head forming a heart, it was now ornamented with a roughly trapezoid-shaped crown symbol.


With one final note, she called down a wall of lightning and spun her guitar around.  “Thank you,” she declared with a boisterous laugh, “you’ve been a wonderful audience!”


She bowed, and then rotated as she stood.  Luna, Wave Changed as well, was watching from a safe distance and looking rather impressed.  “You’re having a lot of fun out there, aren’t you?”


Sonia scratched the side of her face, chuckling.  “Well…I kind of do miss Crown and Couronne.”


She walked over to the edge of the Wave Road, sitting down next to Luna.  Lyra appeared on her opposite side, saying, “They were bizarre, and an exhausting chore to interact with.”


“But still, they were a lot of fun.”


Lyra rolled her eyes.  Ophiuca joined them next, and said, “I never got the chance to meet them, but…this is most curious.  Are all the Noise Change files based on the abilities of FM-ians?”


Her expression turning serious, Lyra answered, “The ones that we’ve been able to access, at least.  Admittedly, it’s…quite strange.  I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering how data from our species ended up in this Noise Server when we’ve never even heard of it.”


“Are you sure that’s really what it is?” Luna asked.  “Maybe the actual data is more generalized, but the Control Program shapes it into something you’re more familiar with?”


Lyra shook her head.  She called up a screen and pointed.  “The data’s labeled ‘Crown_Noise.noi’, so that can’t be it.  I thought perhaps it was simply because I resonated with the FM-ian data, but Mega’s finding all the same files with not an AM-ian-derived Noise in sight.  It’s as if this Server has some sort of fascination with us…”


“Did you ask anyone at WAZA?” Luna suggested.


“We did ask Ace,” Sonia said.  “Apparently, the first generation Control Programs access a different set of files, so Acid has never used these Noise Changes.”


“Huh…well, then maybe that’s why.  If the doctors built the second generation programs to access different files, then they could have picked the FM-ian set because they thought it’d be a good fit.”


Sonia looked up at the sky.  “Hm, maybe.  I guess I’ll need to ask them.”  She rolled back and lay down, and started to pick at her guitar strings absent-mindedly.


“Not terribly concerned, I see?” Lyra asked.


Leaning up a little, Sonia said, “Uh, sorry, I…”


Lyra smiled, dismissing the screen.  “Well, it’s possible I could just be getting worked up over nothing.  No point in fretting right now.”


As Sonia resumed playing, Luna said, “Oh yeah, what was that you were playing when you fought the viruses?  I couldn’t recognize the tune.”


Sonia stopped to think.  “Hm, remind me again what I was playing?  I got a little caught up in the moment.”  Luna hummed a few notes, and Sonia’s eyes shot wide.  “Oh!  Hah, I didn’t even realize…that’s, um, actually something new I’ve been working on!  Here…”


She started playing the song, and Luna sat quietly and listened.  A minute or so in, she asked, “It sounds pretty polished—what more do you need to do?”


“Honestly it’s just the lyrics that are giving me trouble.”


“Really?  Why’s that?”


Sonia set the guitar on the Road next to her.  “Tough to say.  I keep trying to think of ideas, but nothing really feels right for some reason.  I guess…I haven’t really decided what this song is about yet?  Or more like, I was feeling something really specific when I came up with those notes, and I haven’t figured out how to put that feeling into words yet.  You know what I mean?”


Luna’s gaze drifted.  “…Yeah, I think I do.”


No one really had anything else to say, so the conversation ended on its own.  Lyra and Ophiuca dematerialized soon after—they had found that using their Real Wave bodies while also Wave Changed for too long would gradually turn uncomfortable.  Sonia and Luna didn’t move much at all, simply sitting on the edge of the Wave Road and watching the clouds go by as they silently enjoyed each other’s company.  Eventually, Luna looked over at Sonia: she lay perfectly still.  Slowly, she leaned over to see if her eyes were shut (they were), but in the process, the veil that covered her face slipped out and brushed against Sonia’s, causing her to wince in surprise.


Blinking, Sonia jokingly said, “Hey, careful.”


“Sorry,” Luna said, pulling back the fabric.  “You looked like you were falling asleep.”


“No, I’m still awake.”


“I was just checking.  I mean, if you fell out of Wave Change, you’d probably go right through the Wave Road, and…”


Sonia smiled.  “It’s fine.  Thanks for checking.”


Luna giggled.  “I still worry too much, don’t I?”


“I don’t really mind so much,” Sonia replied, shaking her head.  “It’s just that this got in the way.”


She took the veil in her fingers and gently pulled it up and over Luna’s head.  The two of them locked eyes, and suddenly the air of the situation felt very different for them both.  Their faces flushed, and they stayed frozen where they were, unsure of exactly what to do.  Sonia’s grip on her guitar tightened.


…I want to let her know…that I…


Sonia took a deep breath.  “Luna…there’s something I’ve been meaning to…”


It was slight, but she could feel Luna pull away just a little.  That was enough to make her panic.


Oh no.  No, no I shouldn’t have!  This is still too fast for her!  No, no I didn’t mean to…


She quickly retraced her arm.  The veil fell back over Luna’s face as she pulled back further, saying, “I-I’m sorry, I—“


A nearby sound cut her off.  Turning, they saw that a new group of viruses was approaching, and so Sonia leapt to her feet.


“J-Just hang back,” Sonia said, trying to sound normal.  “I can take care of ‘em no problem!”


She played a chord; the musical notes that appeared in front of her wavered like they were made of flames, and at the core of each was a skull-like face that sprouted two stubby arms.  The notes danced towards their targets, boxing them in so that Sonia could call down more lightning to catch them off-guard.


Stupid, stupid!  What was I thinking?  All I did was upset her—darn it, I didn’t want to upset her!  Stupid!




“Just a little more…”


“You still got it?”


“Yeah, I’m fine.”


“Almost, and…”


Zack stepped back tentatively, making sure the rocket wasn’t going to fall.  When it stayed standing, he grinned, and turned to the others.  “Nice job, everyone!  Now everything’s in place!”


The other Science Club members cheered and congratulated each other.  To have more space for the launch tomorrow, they had relocated the equipment to Vista Point, which had been a short hike but hadn’t been nearly as bad as they were expecting.  Of course, a big part of that was probably due to Bud stopping by to help them out.


“Is it really okay to leave it here overnight?” asked a student who was checking readings on their Hunter.  “I still think it might’ve been better to just come early tomorrow morning.”


“Stop worrying,” Zack said.  “We have one of the school’s security Wizards patrolling the grounds, and even if someone gets past them, we’ve still got our club mascot.  Right, Magnes?”


A flash of light signaled a Wizard exiting the rocket.  His thin body was blackish-gray with a large piece of curved white armor encasing his chest, and his hands were two oversized gloves—the  right hand was red, while his left was blue.  His rectangular head had a plain gray face, a yellow visor, and a rounded white helmet with a red stripe down its center and two gray protrusions that covered his ears.


“Yup!” the Wizard said.  “I’ll make sure the rocket is well-protected!  Don’t you worry about a thing.”


After checking over everything one more time, the club members started to leave, until Zack and Bud were the only ones still hanging around.  Magnes had gone to attend to the Cyber Core of the rocket, while Taurus was resting in Bud’s Hunter.


“Thanks again for helping us move this,” Zack said.  “I don’t know how we would’ve made it otherwise.”


“No problem!” Bud said, pounding one fist against his chest.  “What are Brothers for, right?”


They turned at the sound of footsteps: Sonia appeared from behind the observation deck, waving to them.  “Hey guys.”


Magnes emerged from the rocket then, saying, “Who’s there?”


“It’s okay, Magnes,” Zack said.  “She’s our friend.”


“Oh?  Sorry miss, I guess I shouldn’t have been so jumpy.”  He bowed in apology.


“No, that’s fine,” Sonia said.  “I see you guys got it out of the lab easy enough.”


“Bud did most of the work, really,” Zack said.


“I couldn’t have lifted it by myself, though,” Bud said.


Sonia walked in a circle around the rocket, marveling at it.  “It’s so cool that you were able to build this!  How long are you planning to leave it in orbit?”


“We’re still debating the specifics,” Zack said.  “We want to leave it up for as long as possible, but we’re probably going to need to bring it back before winter break.  Still, even that’s a ways off.”


“Yup!” Magnes said.  “I’ll need to report in to the school board before classes are out, and I don’t want to just leave the rocket up there without a pilot.”


“You’re going to be in this when it launches?” Sonia asked.


“Yup!  The systems of the rocket are all set up so I can connect to them in a flash, and I even use my magnetic abilities as an integral part of the power cell.  They’ll probably help with repairs, too, but…hopefully I won’t need to put that to use!”


“Wow.  Are you excited?”


“Yup!  I’m honored to be entrusted with all the hard work these kids put in!  It’s been great working alongside them all this time, and seeing them all so happy to have completed their work is awesome.  I’m going to miss them while I’m up there, but I’m definitely going to make them proud!”


“We all know you’ll do a great job, Magnes,” Zack said.  “This is the result of all your work as well!”


“Thanks, Zack.”


Sonia turned to Zack.  “Do all the clubs in your school have Wizards?”


“Not all of them, no, but it’s something they’re in the process of implementing,” Zack said.  “Magnes was the first one they tested—since we’re working with some pretty dangerous materials, they wanted us to have some extra guidance as soon as possible.  When they saw how well he performed, the school started commissioning more specialized Wizards to serve as club mascots, and other schools have begun doing the same thing.  You left quite a first impression, Magnes!”


Magnes scratched his head.  “Ah, stop it, I’d blush if I was programmed to!”


They laughed, and then Magnes departed to check on something inside the rocket.  Approaching them, Bud asked, “So Sonia, you’ll be here for the launch, right?”


“I’ll be here, definitely,” Sonia said.  “Though, I’ll probably be hanging around the Wave Roads until the crowd disperses.  Sorry.”


“No, I completely understand,” Zack said.  “The school would be thrown into chaos if they knew you were here!  I’m just happy to know that you’ll be watching when we finally accomplish our goal!”  He paused to look up at the rocket.  “The entire club has been working so long for this…and tomorrow, it’s finally going to go up!  I’m so excited I can hardly wait!”


Bud lightly hit Zack’s back.  “It’s great to see you so pumped up, man!  You’ve seemed way happier ever since you joined the Science Club.”


Zack smiled.  “I guess so.  It always sounded interesting, I just never felt like I could actually excel at it.  But now that I’ve given it a shot, I’ve found out I’m really, really fascinated with rocket science!”


“WAZA will be lucky to have you someday,” Sonia said.


“Oh, I hope so.  I actually have an idea of what I want to do now, and…well, it’s just a great feeling!  Is that what it was like when you started singing?”


“Hm, I wasn’t really thinking about my future, to be honest.  But, if I do think about it, I guess it is nice to know I have something like a plan.”


“Maybe you should think of something too, Bud,” Taurus suggested.


With a shrug, Bud said, “Nah, I’ve still got time.  I’ll just wait for something to come to me, and if nothing does I can always become a professional eater.”


Zack laughed.  “Laid-back as ever!”


Magnes appeared once again, turning to Zack.  “Hey Zack, it’s starting to get kind of late.  You’d better get some rest before tomorrow.”


Checking his Hunter, Zack said, “Oh, you’re right!  Sorry, I need to get going—I’ll see you both tomorrow, and thanks again!”


Sonia and Bud waved as Zack ran off.  Magnes was gone again in an instant, and Bud decided he may as well head home too, leaving Sonia to wander off on her own.  Luckily, the streets of Echo Ridge were a bit empty and no one recognized her, so she was able to walk without being bothered, and found herself at the gates of the school before she knew it.  Crouching in front of the wall was Pat and a man with shaggy hair and a dirt-covered apron—none other than Wolfe—and not far away, Geo stood watching them with a smile.


“It’s too close to the last one,” Wolfe said, pointing vaguely.  “Move it over just a little.”


Holding a small bush, Pat slowly moved to the side and asked, “Here?”




Pat set the plant down and picked up a tool, starting to fill the space around it with dirt that he packed in to make sure it would hold.  When it was stable, he leaned back and gave the tree a once-over, before pulling out a pair of shears and clipping a branch.


“I was wondering when you’d catch that,” Wolfe said.  “Nice work, Pat.”


The boy wiped the sweat from his brow and grinned, saying, “Thanks for letting me help out, Mr. Wolfe!  Is there anything else that needs done?”


Wolfe stood and started to remove his gloves.  “If I keep you much longer, the teachers are going to say I’m cutting into your homework time.  Come see me tomorrow if you have the chance and you can help me work on the soccer field.”


Pat nodded.  Getting to his feet, he turned back to Geo and said, “You didn’t have to wait the whole time.”


Geo kissed him and said, “You looked like you were enjoying yourself.  It’s hard to turn away when you’re smiling so much.”


Wolfe finally noticed Sonia.  Putting away his gloves, he said, “Well, look who it is!”


“Sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt,” Sonia said.  “How’ve you been, Mr. Wolfe?”


He smiled, showing his sharp teeth.  “Can’t complain.  This job’s been pretty good to me, especially since I have this eager kid willing to do so much of my work for me.”


Pat shrugged, not looking especially apologetic.


“What about you?  I hear you’ve been doing a TV show?”


“I have!  We just finished recording the season, though there are still a few more weeks in the broadcast schedule.”


“Guess you’ll need something else to occupy yourself with.”


Sonia deflated a bit.  “Well, something’s…turned up to do just that.”


Wolfe’s Hunter flashed, and the FM-ian Wolf emerged from it.  “Hang on.  Between that and how dodgy Mega’s being, I’m starting to get the idea that something serious is going on.”


“Don’t worry about it, old-timer,” Mega said as he materialized.  “You just kick back and enjoy your retirement.  Let us take care of whatever nuisance pops up.”


“Who said anything about retirement?  I’m still more than capable enough for a battle—got one of those fancy new Transcodes and everything!”


Mega leaned forward, saying, “Butt out!  You’re a civilian, so mind your own business!”


“Oh yeah?” Wolf snarled.  “Maybe it’s time I get back to causing trouble of my own, then, if being a boring ol’ civilian is the role you want me to play.”


“Don’t joke about that,” Wolfe said.  “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”


Wolf glanced at him for a moment, and then turned back to Mega.  “We’re not done.”


Mega faced the other direction, saying, “Pfft, sure.”


At first Wolf growled at him, but when Wolfe started walking he reluctantly returned to the gardener’s Hunter.  Taking his place, Lyra said, “It could just be the criminal history, but for some reason, I feel as though you really shouldn’t provoke him, Mega.”


“Ah, don’t worry about it.”


“Further, Wolf Woods could potentially be a very useful ally.”


“Maybe,” Geo said, “but I don’t want to ask them if we don’t absolutely need to.  After they spent so much time learning to calm down and control themselves, I’d hate to ask them to start fighting.”


“We’ve got it covered!” Mega said.  “Far as we can tell, this Dealer group is just a few shady card game fanatics.  How much muscle will we really need to take them down?”


“I hate it when you tempt fate like that.”


Sonia laughed.  “Your optimism is inspiring if nothing else, Mega.”


Geo sighed.  Pat put an arm around him, and then asked, “So what brings you out here, Sonia?”


“I wanted to check out the rocket, now that they’ve moved it.  Zack’s already gone home, so I figured I’d come see if anyone else I knew was still about.  Seems like you’re really learning a lot from Mr. Wolfe.”


“Yeah, it’s been great!  At first it was just a way to pass the time until my bus got here, but I’ve started to really enjoy gardening.”


“I figured it’d be a good fit since you like nature so much,” Geo said.  “I’m glad you’ve found something you love to do, Pat.”


“Heheh.  It’s hard not to enjoy myself when I’ve got you cheering me on the whole way.”  Pat leaned over and kissed Geo on the cheek.  Sonia smiled, though she felt a familiar pain tug at her heart.


It wasn’t much longer before Pat’s bus finally showed up.  Sonia ducked behind the school wall to avoid the risk of being spotted, and after Geo saw his boyfriend off, he waited for her to return and they started walking.


“How’s your work with the Joker Program going?” Geo asked.


“Fine.  Starting to wonder just how many Noise Changes there are, but I’m finding that the basics aren’t too varied.”


“Same here.  It certainly helps that I’ve got a point of reference for these abilities, either from seeing them in action or talking to Mega.”




They passed an empty park, and Sonia slowed down.  Geo noticed and stopped to look at her.


“Hey, Geo,” Sonia said quietly.  “Can I talk to you something?”


“Of course.  What did you want to talk about?”


Sonia hesitated, looking across the street at nothing in particular for a few seconds.  “Me and Luna.”


Geo inclined his head.  “Oh.”


Lyra beckoned to Mega, saying, “Mega dear, would you come this way for a moment?”


Mega complied without much fuss, and Geo and Sonia ambled into the park and sat down on a bench.  Sonia looked down, not sure where to start, and began fidgeting nervously.


“Since you brought it up,” Geo said, “it kind of seems like you two…haven’t really made much progress for a little while.  Not that that’s bad, it just seemed a little weird because of where you were, I guess.”


Reluctance swelled within her one more time, but she pushed through it.  “Yeah.  We, um…things have kind of stalled, yeah.  I mean, we’ve always moved a little slow, but I didn’t mind that—it felt like we were moving at about the same pace, like we had a decent understanding of each other’s feelings.”


“When do you think it changed?”


“I don’t know exactly.  Sometime after I destroyed Mu.  Right after that was the first time I kissed her on the cheek, and I thought things were going to keep moving from there, but…they really haven’t.  She kissed me on the cheek at the Christmas party, but other than that…”


Geo shifted.  “We’re a lot closer to next Christmas than last Christmas.”


Sonia chuckled a little.  “Exactly.  Like I said, it feels like we aren’t really moving forward now, and I…well, I…”  She clenched her fists, and felt as if her entire body was contracting.  “…I really want to.”


“But you don’t think Luna does?”


After a short pause, Sonia said, “I’m not sure what Luna’s feeling.”


“I see.”


“The other day, I thought that maybe things were going to change.  At the studio, after the temperature swing in my room—she stayed with me, and she promised she’d never let me face anything alone again.  That made me so happy.  It felt like maybe we could finally cross this distance I’ve been feeling, but…”  She started to shake a little.  “…Yesterday, I…I was going to tell her how I feel, but…she just looked terrified.”


Geo leaned forward, saying, “I’m sure she wasn’t terrified.”


“I’m so frustrated with myself.  I want to move on—I really, desperately want that, but I can see how she reacts, and I just feel like I’m…like if I tried, I’d just be…pressuring her into something she isn’t ready for.  And that’s the last thing I want to do!”


“I know you’d never do that.”


“I don’t want to upset her.  I love Luna, and I just want to tell her that!  I want…”  She covered her face with her hand.  “…I want to hear her say she loves me.  I don’t know why, I just feel like I really need to hear that.  I want to push forward.  And when I think about that, I feel like I’m being so selfish, when what I should be doing is thinking more about what Luna feels and needs.  I know she has her reasons for being afraid to let people in, and I want to respect that.  If that’s the problem, then I need to focus on doing everything I can to make her comfortable with me, right?”


She turned to Geo.  He thought for a moment, and then said, “Well, does it hurt to feel like she isn’t already comfortable around you?  You two have been through a lot, and you have grown really close, and from your point of view it’s just one more step.  It must be difficult to wrap your head around how she can see the situation so differently even if you have an idea as to why.”


“…Yeah,” Sonia mumbled, hanging her head.  “It hurts…but that’s no excuse for me to hurt Luna.”


“You didn’t mean to hurt her, though.”


“But I did.  I am hurting her, because I keep wanting to push forward.  And now, I’m just at a loss.  I feel like I’ve failed her.  But, despite that, I…” She looked Geo in the eye.  “I don’t want to just give up.  Luna’s really important to me, and I don’t want to lose her.  I want to keep trying, but I know I need to stop pushing…and I’m not sure where the balance is.”


Geo glanced over the park as he collected his thoughts.  “It’s a pretty simple suggestion, but I really think you should talk to Luna about this.”


Looking away, Sonia said, “I’d feel like I was pressuring her.”


“Telling her that you’re concerned about where the two of you are isn’t pressuring her.  She’ll get to voice her concerns too, and hearing what she’s actually thinking will go a long way towards helping you figure out what steps to take next.  She needs to feel secure, and you need to know she’s committed—the only way you’re really going to address those is by talking about it.”


Sonia just fidgeted.


“This sort of thing doesn’t have to be as scary as it looks.  There was a point where I was nervous to move things with Pat along, too.”


She turned sharply.  “Really?!”


Geo nodded.  “It was pretty early on.  Since he was still working on accepting his condition, I was worried that if I kept pushing our relationship it might distract him, or get in the way or something.  I thought maybe I should give him more space.  But, by hanging back I was starting to make Pat feel like maybe I was giving up on him.  So, we talked about our concerns, and figured out how we wanted to proceed, and now…”  He smiled.  “Now, we’re really happy together.”


Sonia looked ahead.  “…What if I get carried away?  I’m so eager to move on, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold myself back enough to talk things over rationally.”


“Spend some time thinking about what it is you want to say.  Just having some time to prepare yourself can work wonders.  And if you need someone to bounce ideas off of, just give me a call.”


Sonia breathed deeply.  “Thank you.”


“You’re welcome.”  He nudged her with his elbow.  “This is just a temporary thing.  You two will work it out, definitely.  You’re a natural at talking things out.”


Sonia turned and hugged him.  “Thank you, Geo.  I really am lucky to have a Brother like you!”




Magnes emerged from the rocket.  The sun had set long ago, and lighting at Vista Point was rather scarce, but he could definitely make out a figure approaching.


“Who’s there?” he called.


The figure stopped.  “You’re the Wizard connected to the systems of this rocket, correct?”


Magnes backed up.  “How did you know that?  And how did you get past the guard?”


“Hm.  I doubt we needed to program such strong repression, but after what happened with the Diamond we do need to be more careful.”


“What are you talking about?”


Something struck him.  Intense pain washed over him an instant, and electricity burst out of his body to form an image of a stylized Spade in front of him.


“Not yet,” the figure ordered.


Suddenly, Magnes vanished.


“Sleep for now.  Tomorrow, when they come to launch the rocket, awaken and use the power of the Spade card to run amok.  Then, fight Harp Note and her friends, and generate as much Crimson as you can.”


They turned to leave then, muttering to themselves, “We need to move much more quickly if we’re to get our wish.”




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Chapter 7


As the entire class rushed to get out the door, Bud hung back and rummaged through his bag.  Eventually, he heard the door close, and went to watch through the window until everyone had reached the end of the hall.  He turned back around and nodded.  In a flash, Sonia materialized, undoing her Wave Change a second later.


“Thanks,” she said.  “I was going to stay on the Wave Roads the whole time, but it feels like there are a lot more viruses out there than usual.”


“Sure thing,” Bud said.  “You can hang out here until the launch officially starts—I’ll send you an email when Zack is ready.  Want me to go get Prez?”


Sonia sat down in a desk, facing away from Bud.  “…She’s probably busy campaigning.  I don’t want to bother her.”


“I’m sure she’d like to see you, though.  I’ll tell her where you are.”




She looked over her shoulder and smiled as Bud left.  Once he was gone, she turned back around, sighed, and hung her head.  She leaned against the desk and propped herself up on one elbow, staring out the window at the trees.  Lyra let her be.  Eventually she heard the door open and turned around, expecting to see Luna there.


The young woman who entered the classroom wore a purple and black dress, and a roughly diamond-shaped pendant that was made of silver metal and blue crystal.  Her jet black hair sprouted two long tails that extended just past her waist, as well as two locks that fell to either side of her face, and bangs that met in a sharp point between her eyebrows; disk-like ornaments of yellow and orange decorated the tails, and she wore a similar headband.  Her expression was uninterested and unchanging, but the unusual orange shade of her eyes gave a certain edge to her otherwise dull gaze.




The woman stopped where she was, staring at Sonia with no clear reaction.  After about a minute, she turned and walked over to the teacher’s desk, sat down, and without looking back at her, said, “You’re not a student.”


“S-S-Sorry!” Sonia stammered, leaping to her feet nervously.  “I, um, I came to see the rocket launch, but I was trying to keep a low profile, so…”


The young woman flipped through a stack of papers.  “I see.”


That sounds suspicious, doesn’t it?


She looked at Sonia, turning as little as possible.  “You’re Sonia Strumm, correct?”


Sonia blinked.  “…Yeah, actually.”


The woman turned back to her papers.  “That would explain why you’d want to keep a low profile.”


Quietly breathing a sigh of relief, Sonia said, “Yeah.  One of my friends is in the Science Club, so I wanted to come and support him.  I was worried if people saw me it might distract them.”


“Probably right.”


“Um…I’m sorry to bother you.  I thought this classroom wasn’t being used—I’ll go find another one.”


“You can stay if you want,” the woman said, not looking up from her work.  “I’m just doing some grading while I have the chance.”


“You’re a teacher?  You don’t look too much older than me.”


“Student teacher, under Mr. Shepar.”


Mr. Shepar?  Wait, has anyone mentioned a new student teacher…?  “Oh.  What was your name?”


The woman looked at Sonia again.  “My name is Queen Tia.  Ms. Tia, if you prefer.”


“Ms. Tia,” Sonia repeated.  No, I don’t remember that name coming up.  Huh.


Tia lightly pinched the pendant she wore, and it flashed once.  A holographic screen appeared to her side—she turned to read something off of it, and then went back to the stack of papers.


Cocking her head, Sonia asked, “Is that pendant…your Hunter?”


“It is now.  An associate upgraded it recently to share all the same features.”


“That’s the same as my guitar!  It was originally a Transer, but I’ve been getting it upgraded to keep up with each new terminal since then.”




Sonia waited, but the pause dragged on.  “So, what was your pendant originally?”


“It was a unique terminal never released to the public.”


Nodding Sonia said, “That’s cool.  Come to think of it, it looks a lot like one I saw a student here wearing.”


“I assume you mean Jack?”


“Oh, right, he’s in Mr. Shepar’s class isn’t he?”


“He is.  The pendant he has is the same as mine.”


“Really?  How did you both get it?”


“We’re siblings.”


Sonia took a moment to process the statement.  “…You are?”




“…Huh.”  After thinking about it a bit more, she said, “Well, that’s great that you were able to student teach in the same class he joined!  I’m sure your family’s relieved that you’re able to look after him.”


“I wouldn’t say that.”


“Why not?”


“Our parents died a very long time ago.”


The sentence hit Sonia like a physical blow.  Her eyes widened and her heart sank, and she said, “Oh.  I…I’m so sorry.”


Tia simply continued grading papers with the same look on her face, consulting the screen to her side occasionally.  “You had no way of knowing.  I’ve taken no offense.”


Sonia was a bit confused by how casual she was being.  Though, as she thought about it, she began to wonder if this had something to do with why she seemed so emotionless.  “I know how hard that can be.  I lost my mother a few years ago, and I’ve been on my own ever since.  I know that it never really stops hurting.”


For the first time, Tia actually stopped what she was doing and faced Sonia.  Still, her expression didn’t change at all, so Sonia had no idea what this action meant.  After a few seconds, Tia looked back and resumed working.  “No,” she murmured, “it doesn’t.”


Before Sonia could figure out how to reply, the door opened again, and this time it was Luna who made her appearance.  She walked a few steps before doing a double-take.  “Ms. Tia?!”




“You didn’t tell me you had a student teacher,” Sonia said.


“W-Well,” Luna said, “it just…never really came up, I guess.  I mean, she only just recently got here, so…”  She stopped to shake her head.  “Anyway, come on: if she’s busy we shouldn’t bother her.”


Luna headed back for the door.  Sonia said good-bye to Tia, not getting much of a response, and followed Luna to another classroom, one that was completely empty.  As Sonia settled into another desk, Luna asked, “So…what were you and Ms. Tia talking about?”


“Huh?  Oh, nothing really.  Just introducing myself.”


“I see.”


Luna started to pace slowly, while Sonia sat quietly and looked around the room.


Should I talk to her now? Sonia wondered.  But, I haven’t really had time to figure out what I want to say.  Plus, the launch is going to start soon, so I don’t know how much time we have, and…if I upset her again…


Sonia glanced Luna’s way, seeing that she had stopped next to the window.  The sunlight coming in formed a sort of aura around her, as if she were glowing, and Sonia felt her heart pick up.


“The leaves are starting to change,” Luna mumbled.


Snapping out of her trance, Sonia said, “Y-Yeah?”


“I hope we can take care of this Dealer business before winter gets here.  Shorter days always sap everyone’s motivation, and I don’t want to have to get everyone in gear to break up a crime syndicate on top of the normal duties.”


Sonia chuckled.  “I’ll try my best.”


Luna paused, but then turned slightly.  “We’ll do our best, right?”




Ordinarily, Sonia would’ve felt reassured.  But now, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was feeling.  All she knew was that something awful was building in her chest, and she felt like it was going to explode at any second.


“Um,” Sonia said, standing, “I think I’m going to…I mean, I should probably train more, I just started using a new Noise Change and I want to make sure I’m ready for the next time something happens, so…”


“Oh,” Luna said.  “Right, right…”


Sonia dashed out of the room.  Luna stared after her a moment, faced the window again, and slumped against it.


“Luna?” Ophiuca asked.  “Are you alright?”


Luna put a trembling hand over her eyes.  Just as she was about to respond, she heard the door open and turned without thinking.


“There you are!” Bud said.  “When you weren’t in the…”


Luna turned back around quickly.


“Prez?  What’s wrong?”


“N-Nothing!” Luna said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.  “Everything’s fine, Bud!”


Bud stayed where he was.  “Prez…we’re Brothers, y’know?”


The room went completely silent.


“I don’t know what to do, Bud,” Luna whispered.  “I know what I want to do, but for some reason I just can’t make myself do it.”


“Is this about…Sonia?”


Luna nodded.


“I dunno how much help I can be, but if you need someone to listen…”


She looked out the window.  She was incredibly reluctant, but her emotions were boiling over, and she couldn’t stop them now.  “I’m…so embarrassed.  And I think I’m hurting Sonia, too.  None of this is how I want it to be, but I can’t seem to get myself to change any of it.  What I want…I want to be closer to Sonia.  I want to tell her how I feel and move forward with our relationship, but every time I try I lock up or pull away, and I just end up embarrassing the both of us.  I want to be closer, but I just keep pushing her farther away.  What happens when I push her too far away?”


Luna gave a short sigh, pacing a few steps.


“What if I ruin any relationship Sonia and I could have?  I keep asking myself that, and I have no idea how I’d react, and I think of how miserable it would be, and I just don’t…I don’t want that to happen.”


“Then don’t think about that,” Bud said.  “I mean, if you keep focusing on that worst-case scenario, then all that’s gonna do is make you more nervous, and that’s not gonna help anything.”


“I know, but…”


“First, just try to relax a little.”


Hesitantly, Luna stopped pacing, took a deep breath, and tried to let out some of the tension in her muscles.


“What might happen isn’t so important as what is happening, right?  It sounds to me like you’ll accomplish more if you focus on the reason why you’re having trouble getting closer to Sonia.”


She tensed again, though not as much as before.  “It’s nothing new, though.  I’ve always been nervous about getting close to people.  I thought I was getting better at it, too…”  She laughed, sliding both hands over her face.  “All the progress I thought I made…and it’s gone, just like that…”


“No way!  You’re definitely better at being open with people than you used to be!  This is just uncharted territory for you.  You know how to be around your Brothers, but if you go any farther with Sonia, you’re letting her in closer than anyone’s ever been before.”


Luna shifted her weight.  “Either way…”


“And I mean, that sort of thing can totally be scary.  It isn’t just you.  When you’re super close to someone, it’s impossible to think you’re never going to hurt each other, and when it does happen it really sucks.”


Turning, Luna pulled her arms around herself.  “I’m worried about that, of course, but really…”


Bud waited patiently.


“If I really open up to her…what if she sees something that she didn’t notice before?  Something that she doesn’t like?  It sounds so stupid and insecure, but…I guess what I’m really afraid of is that, when she really sees everything about who I am, she won’t like me anymore.”


“You mean, you’re worried you might let her down if you don’t meet her expectations?”


Luna shuddered.  “Yeah, sort of.”


“You don’t have to worry about that.”


“And how are you so sure?”


“Don’t you remember?  That’s basically what I was worried about before.”


Thinking back, Luna muttered, “Before…wait, do you mean back when the FM-ians first appeared?”


“Right.  I was so focused on how everyone expected me to be strong, and I felt like I’d let them down.  But you showed me that when people really care about you, you don’t have to fulfill any expectations to get them to care.”


“That’s right.”  She paused.  “So, you think…?”


“I know you want to always look strong—you’re the Prez, after all!  People really look up to you, and we depend on you all the time.  So I’d get it if you felt like if you don’t keep up that strong appearance, you’ll be letting people down, or that we’ll think less of you.”  He grinned.  “I’ll tell you right now: not a single one of us would!  None of your classmates, none of your Brothers, and not Sonia.  We already care about you, Prez, so don’t feel like you need to always look strong in front of us.  Brothers are worth more than that, right?”


Luna stared at him for a few moments.  Then, she smiled, giggled a little, and said, “Thank you, Bud.  It’s really a relief to hear that!”


A few tears came to her eyes, but she didn’t wipe them away immediately.  There was still a lot more ground to cover, she knew, but after hearing that she felt far more confident that she and Sonia could cover it.


“Right,” she said at last, standing tall.  “How silly of me!  I’ll need to find a new approach to the problem, but now isn’t the time for that.  Come on, Bud: our Brother’s about to launch a rocket!”


Bud smiled at her as she strode out the door, but still hung back a few steps.


“Bud…” Taurus muttered.


He shook his head.  “Let’s go cheer Zack on!”




Vista Point was packed full with students and faculty all vying for a good view of the rocket.  Luna, Bud, Geo, and Pat had managed to get to the front of the mob, and watched excitedly as the Science Club approached the rocket.  After some nods from his club mates, Zack tapped a button on his Hunter and held it near his face.


“Good morning!” The terminal amplified his voice like a microphone, making it loud enough that the entire crowd could hear.  Immediately, they went silent.  “Thank you all for being here, as we officially launch the Echo Ridge Science Club rocket!”


A round of applause replied.


“This rocket is a culmination of many hours of hard work put in by every member of the club.  It’s become a symbol of all of our aspirations, and proof that if we continue to work together, we can achieve all the goals we’ve set out to conquer!  So it’s a great honor that you’re all here to celebrate this with us, and we cannot thank the faculty enough for allowing us to hold this demonstration.”


He turned and smiled at the rest of the club, who started tapping buttons on their Hunter screens.


“Now it’s time to make our wish a reality!  In just a few short moments, launch will commence!”


The crowd applauded again, and Zack lowered his Hunter.  He exchanged a few words with the rest of the Science Club, and as they all started to back up, he opened the connection to Magnes.


Instantly, the entire rocket began to crackle with random sparks.  Fearful, the audience murmured loudly, and the Science Club gaped for a few long seconds.  Zack tried to run a diagnostic on the rocket, but the program wouldn’t load—and then his Hunter sparked, making him drop it.  A roar could be heard from somewhere.


“Zack!” Bud called.  “What’s going on?”


Zack shook his head.  “I…this shouldn’t be…Magnes?  Magnes, can you hear me?”


Another roar was his response.  One of the club members said, “Uh-oh.  From what I can scan, it looks like the systems are all going into overload!  If something isn’t done to stop it soon, the rocket will explode!”


“What?!”  Zack whirled, seeing a few teachers approaching cautiously.  “S-Something’s gone wrong!  Please get everyone out of here while we try to fix it!”


Panic began to seize the mob.  As everyone started dashing away from the rocket, Luna managed to push her way over to Zack and tap his shoulder.


“What’s happening, Zack?”


“I don’t know!  Things were fine a second ago, but now I can’t get a detailed reading on anything, and Magnes won’t respond either!  I don’t have any information to work with!”


“So you need eyes inside that thing?” Bud asked.  “We could do that.”


“But, if you’re in there when the rocket explodes—“


“Then we won’t be!” Luna said.  “You get to safety, and we’ll handle whatever’s happening.”


“But, I—“


“Get going!”


Zack looked back at the club.  Some of them had headed off, and others were still desperately typing away at their Hunters.  Another roar sounded.  Clenching his fists, Zack turned back and said, “I…I can’t just run away!  This is everything we’ve worked for—I can’t abandon it now!”


Luna shook her head.  “I told you: we’ll take care of it!”


“And I can’t abandon you all either!”




Zack scrambled for his Hunter.  “If that thing explodes with you all inside it, you’ll be killed.  So, I’m going to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen!  You guys just focus on whatever you find, and…”  He gave a grin.  “I-I’ll take care of everything else?  Okay?”


It took a moment, but Luna eventually smiled.  “Hmph.  Well, we’ll hold you to that, then!”


As Zack set to work, Luna, Bud, and Geo disappeared into the crowd.  Once they had enough space, they Wave Changed outside of the visible spectrum and doubled back to the rocket, spotting an access point along its body.  Inside, they saw Sonia had beaten them there, and was staring down the green Wave Road at a figure wreathed in Noise.


The entity was a cylindrical white torso that hovered above an orb of dark purple energy, a malevolent grin permanently stuck to his face.  His wedge-shaped helmet was white with a red stripe down the middle, and sat between two massive, angular horns made of dark gray metal; rounded, triangular plates rose from his shoulders, easily dwarfing his head, one colored red and the other colored blue.  He had no hands: at the end of each short arm was a lengthy energy blade that matched the hue of the shoulder plate it sprouted from.


“Oh no,” was all they heard Sonia say.


Coming up beside her, Geo asked, “Sonia, did you see Magnes get out?”


Sonia shook her head.


“Zack hasn’t been able to get in touch with him.  Do you think he got deleted?”


Again, she shook her head.  “Don’t you see anything familiar?”


They all took another look at their enemy, and then it dawned on them.


“Someone used a Noised Card on Magnes,” Bud said.  “Why those…!!  How dare they do that!  What kind of monster makes a Wizard go berserk at a school event?”


“Guessing it’s another one of those Sword Cards?” Mega said.


“Look more closely: that’s a Spade symbol on his helmet,” Lyra noted.  “I get the feeling this could be a tiny bit difficult.”


“Egh, whatever,” Mega responded.  “Either way, let’s rock, kid!”


Spade Magnes roared, and then crossed his blades and slowly moved forward.  Bud lowered his horns and charged.


“Wait, is this okay?” Luna asked.  “I’d hate to hurt Magnes when Zack needs him most.”


“The Wizards before just needed to take some damage, and the corruption stopped,” Sonia said.  “It should be the same…I hope.  Either way…”


She crossed one arm in front of herself, almost touching her opposite shoulder, and a static effect slowly covered her armor.  Geo made the same motion, and he too disappeared behind the distortion.  Meanwhile, Bud was upon Magnes, but the Wizard slipped out of his way and swung one sword, cutting his side as he passed.  Luna summoned two snakes around her arms and rushed forward to help.


Sonia emerged from her transformation a second later: the heart plate on her chest now sprouted two long, claw-like protrusions on either side that reached up towards her shoulders, her bracelets had lengthened into vambraces, her scarf now looked ripped and tattered, and her helmet had a pulled-back, more aerodynamic look to it, with the nodes now resembling small animal ears.  The body of her guitar was so sharp the instrument almost resembled a spear, and the head was in a shape that looked like the face of a wolf.


Geo, on the other hand, had grown a thick case of armor around his chest, while his shoulders sported two bulbous ornaments.  The sides of his helmet came down to frame his face, while the top opened more than usual and rose to form a ridged wall around his head.


“We’re starting at 0% Noise, dears,” Lyra said.  “Though with all that’s floating around, it shouldn’t be long before we have enough to forge a stronger connection to the Server.  Stay tuned.”


Geo steadied his buster while Sonia ran in.  Luna was weaving around Magnes’s sword slashes, getting in a few counter hits with the snakes on her arms, and Bud was just about back on his feet.  Sonia prepared to swing her guitar, and Magnes’s blue sword suddenly glowed brighter.  Bud felt something pulling on him and was yanked right off his feet, pulled through the air straight towards Magnes.


“Whoa, look out!” he cried.


Magnes leapt back, his sword returning to normal.  Bud careened straight into Sonia.  Luna held both arms forward and her snakes opened their mouths, firing purple blasts that narrowly missed their target—when they hit the Wave Road, however, small pools of purple fluid began to form.  Geo had opened fire, but had to abort when a wave of missiles materialized and shot out at him.


“Sorry,” Bud said as he got up, “I’m not sure what happened.”


Shrugging it off, Sonia said, “It’s alright.  See if you can draw his attention!”


Bud nodded and moved in.  Magnes saw him and created more missiles; Bud tried to dodge, but to his surprise, they homed in on his location.  Luna’s snakes kept spitting poison blasts, coating the floor around Magnes, but when she realized he was too high off the ground for them to affect him she thought better of it.  Bud exhaled a wave of flame that singed Magnes.  The Wizard rushed forward, his blades locking with Bud’s horns, and the next thing he knew he was under attack from both sides: Luna flung a trio of snakes onto one shoulder, while Geo appeared next to the other to attack with a flaming uppercut.  Magnes roared and raised his swords to counter.


“Don’t think so!”


Strings entangled him suddenly, and he was yanked away from his targets and towards Sonia.  When they were just about to collide, Sonia swung one hand forward, and sharp claws grew from her fingers to cut shallow gouges in Magnes’s armor.  She followed up with a blow from her guitar, and then Magnes smacked her away with one of his swords.  Sonia rolled with the momentum and stayed low, because when Magnes turned around, he found a wide wave of water washing over him.  Geo lowered his buster but stayed on the move.


“Magnes, snap out of it!” Sonia shouted.  “You’re about to destroy the rocket, and if you do, you could kill Zack and the rest of the Science Club!  I know you can’t want that!”


Magnes just roared, swinging his swords blindly.  Sonia kept her distance, but Magnes remained focused on her until Geo, Bud, and Luna all started shooting at his back.  Suddenly, Magnes’s swords vanished and his shoulder plates grew to encase him, making his entire body look like a rocket.  He shot out and bowled over all three of them like it was nothing.


“He seems a touch more…feral than Ice was,” Lyra commented.  “Getting through to him seems exceptionally unlikely.”


Silently agreeing, Sonia started playing her guitar, letting the melody batter Magnes to keep him busy while her friends recovered.  Bud blindsided him with a rocket punch and then charged in to follow up, but Magnes raised his red sword, and it started to glow.  Instantly, Bud slowed down dramatically, until he found himself actually being pushed back.


Bud looked down at himself in disbelief.  “What the heck?!”


Just as it looked like he was about to lose his footing, Luna shot Magnes with her Gorgon Eye.  Magnes turned to her, his sword changing back to normal, and flew at her.  Geo jumped in front of her to provide cover with his shield, and snakes went around him to nip at Magnes while he was close.  Magnes tried to retreat, but a speaker materialized near him and trapped in him strings, giving Geo the opportunity to draw a large shuriken and hurl it at the Wizard.


“I think we’ve just about got it, kid,” Mega said.  “You ready to enhance the connection?”


“Go for it!” Geo said.


In a flash, Geo’s blue armor changed to a light shade of brown…but as soon as Magnes rammed into him in rocket form, the change was undone.


“Shoot, I guess we left ourselves open,” Mega grumbled.  “What, we’re back to 0?!  Rrgh…”


Magnes emerged from his shell to see Luna and Bud both charging at him.  He fended Luna off with his blade and took a punch from Bud, then sliced at Bud’s legs and toppled him over with a mighty roar.  Sonia tried to reel him in again, but Magnes pointed his blue sword at her—a new force appeared, trying to push her back, and Sonia found she wasn’t able to pull him any closer no matter how hard she tried.


Usually they explain their powers at a time like this.  We’d better figure out the trick before—


Missiles homed in on her, though she managed to keep hold of her enemy.  Bud shot a blast of fire that stunned Magnes, allowing Sonia to reel him in, and after another claw slash she bounded away and regrouped with the others.


“50%,” Lyra mentioned.


“I’m ready,” Sonia said, keeping a close eye on Magnes as her armor turned greyish-teal.


An enormous onslaught of missiles came at the group.  They scattered, and each missile turned to home in on either Sonia or Luna.  Bud used the chance to shoot another rocket punch, but Magnes’s sword soon glowed, and he found himself pulled in for another slash.  He grappled with the Wizard, but his foe’s wild movements made him too difficult to get a good grip on.  Punching Magnes back, he stepped to the side as Geo appeared to slash at their enemy with a sword of his own; Magnes spun, cutting them both, and zipped away from them.


“Darn it, we don’t have time for this!” Sonia said.


She strummed her guitar, which now sent out a white shockwave that cut into Magnes.  Luna tried a few more poison blasts while Sonia ran in, but when Magnes swung his glowing sword, she was sent careening back into her, narrowly avoiding being hit by one of the blasts in the process.


“Ow,” Luna said as they moved to get untangled.




“Oh, no, I know it wasn’t you, I…”  She shook her head.  “Have…have you got any ideas about what it is he’s doing?  I’ve noticed he’s being particular about which swords he uses, but that’s about all I’ve got.”


“I’m not really sure myself,” Sonia said.  “But, there’s got to be something simple we’re just missing.”


Twisting a dial on her guitar, Sonia started playing: a trio of wolves materialized in front of her, and as one they rushed at Magnes.  The Wizard was busy hurling homing missiles at Bud and Geo, though when he noticed the wolves he turned to fire at them.  However, rather than homing in, the missiles were easily evaded by the animals, and when they eventually neared Sonia and Luna they actually veered off-course.


That’s really weird…


Magnes deleted one of the wolves while another bit into his shoulder.  Geo opened fire to add to the damage, making it more difficult for Magnes to delete the last two, and when Magnes moved to pull him in, Sonia stunned him with another shockwave before he got the chance.  Luna and Bud both charged, but Magnes held out both swords and they found themselves being pushed back.  When he crossed his arms and moved back, however, they were thrown right into each other.


“Are you two alright?” Sonia asked as she jumped over.  She helped Luna up, and then turned to look at Magnes—and immediately crossed her arms to brace against the missiles closing in on her.


“Sonia!” Luna said.


“I’m okay,” she said.  “But, guys, I think maybe we should keep our distance until we figure out exactly what Magnes is…”


Her eyes widened.


Magnets, duh!  He magnetized us, and he’s been generating more magnetism to either attract or repel us!”


“…Wow,” Geo said, wondering how he missed it.  “That’d also explain why the missiles only home in on some of us.  Wow.”


“Okay, but how do we beat it?” Bud asked.  More missiles came their way, so he stepped forward and created a wall of flame to destroy them.


“I believe the easiest way would be to break his swords, since they seem to be his primary method of generating magnetic force,” Ophiuca said.  “Though, I imagine that’s not a favorable idea.”


Thinking about the idea of breaking the arms off of the Wizard in charge of Zack’s club, Sonia shuddered.  “Yeah, but…if we don’t act fast…”


Geo suddenly looked up.  “You know…I think I’ve got something.”


He quickly explained his plan.  Getting tired of waiting, Magnes roared and shot forward in his rocket form.  His four opponents all managed to get out of the way, and then they spread out over the area.  When Magnes unfolded, he moved quickly to avoid all the attacks being thrown at him, and turned to hurl missiles at whoever he could see.  However, he couldn’t see Sonia firing strings at him.


“Got him!” she shouted.


Magnes turned and started bombarding her with magnetism, trying to repel her.  He felt a powerful blast hit him from behind, but continued to amplify the magnetism until Sonia lost her footing, and with the strings released Magnes turned to face Geo.  Geo’s armor was brown again and he watched Magnes carefully, though a sudden spike in temperature soon drew the Wizard’s attention away.  Bud was starting to burn red hot, and it seemed Magnes recognized him as the bigger threat—he began creating missiles, but only got a few out before Luna hit him in the back with a poison blast to distract him.


“You’re not looking where you should be,” Luna said.


Strings entangled Magnes again.  Roaring, he turned and tried to repel Sonia, but this time Luna shot her eyebeams at the point where Sonia’s feet met the Wave Road, encasing her boots in stone to keep her anchored there.  Geo blasted Magnes, and then he ran forward as his arm became a sword.  Magnes used his other blade to repel him.  Being so busy trying to fend them both off, Magnes couldn’t act fast enough when Bud jumped in front of Sonia, and the same current that held her back ended up pulling him in.  A searing hot punch was delivered straight to Magnes’s face, spinning him in circles as he crashed and bounced down the Wave Road.


“How do you like that?” Bud said, pumping his fist into the air.


“Nice work!” Sonia said.  “Now, I just need to—“


Suddenly, Magnes got back up and roared.  It wasn’t as powerful as before, but he wasn’t quite defeated yet.  He raised his swords high, but before he could do anything, Geo teleported in front of him and cut him across the chest, jumping back and up when Magnes swiped back at him.


“Magnes…” he said, his hand glowing with white light.  “Please pull through this—for Zack!”


He thrust his hand forward, and at least a dozen spheres of light shot out from his palm and rained down on Magnes.  The Wizard’s roars were drowned out by the explosive onslaught, and when the smoke finally cleared, he swayed back and forth a few times before dropping to the Wave Road.  Everyone collectively sighed.


“Uh…good job, Geo,” Bud said.  “I thought I’d taken him out with that punch…”


Spade Magnes’s body melted into Noise, leaving behind the original Magnes and a Noise Card.  Geo headed towards Sonia, but she pointed, saying, “Wait, the Crimson!”


Sure enough, the Noise had crystallized, and the clusters were already being pulled off into the distance.  Geo teleported forward and tried to grab one, but it slipped right through his fingers.


“Darn it,” Geo said.  “I need to remember that next time…”


When Sonia clawed herself free of her rock shoes, she came over and picked up the Spade Card, tucking it away for the time being.  She knelt over Magnes and said, “He seems okay…and I don’t see any more Noise forming in this space.  We’ll need to go check with Zack to be sure, but I think we’re in the clear.”


Sonia picked up Magnes, and together they all headed for the exit.




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Chapter 8


By the time Sonia and the others emerged from the rocket, Zack was the only one who had stuck around trying to avert the disaster.  He was sweating profusely as he typed away, but when he saw his friends he stopped what he was doing and stared.


“…Y…you’re okay…”


Smiling, Sonia said, “Yep.  We’re all okay.  Thanks for keeping things under control, Zack.”


As she set Magnes down, she realized there was one other person nearby: Wolfe.  He stood at a bit of a distance just observing, but Wolf appeared quickly and rushed up towards the group.


“I knew something was going on!” the FM-ian snapped.  “What’s the deal?  How did you even get in that thing—when we tried, those weird waves blocked us out!”


“You mean the Noise?” Bud replied.  “Oh, they probably haven’t given you a Filter yet, huh?”


“Can it, Bud!” Mega said.


“They?” Wolf repeated.  “Who’s they?  You really are keeping a lot of secrets, Mega, and I don’t like it!”


Stepping between them, Luna said, “Now is not the time for this!”


Zack shook Magnes, shouting, “Magnes?  Magnes, wake up!  What happened?”


“It was another Noise Card,” Sonia said, showing him the item.  “We had to fight him, but he’s definitely okay now!  He should wake up real soon.”


“A Noise Card…” Zack mumbled.  As he stared at the card, Wolf opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again when Luna glared at him.


“You don’t say?” called a voice.  “I wonder how they got one into an event like this?”


Sonia sighed, looking up to see Ace approaching.  “The situation’s under control.”


“I can see that,” Ace said, coming to a stop.  “When we heard there was an unusual amount of Noise at Echo Ridge, Chief wanted to send everyone, but I told him it’d be pretty excessive considering all our best operatives are already there.”


“We’re not really part of the Satella Police.”


“Eh, formalities,” Ace said with a shrug.  He paused to pull out a candy bar.  “Anyway, I’m glad to see no one got hurt.  Were you able to get ahold of any Crimson?”


Geo shook his head, but before he could say anything, Wolf jumped over towards Ace.  “Hey, you!  Explain to me what’s going on here!”


Acid materialized, and Wolf stepped back in surprise.  Ace set a hand on his partner’s arm, saying, “Easy, Acid.  I’m guessing you’re Wolf?  I’ve heard a lot about you.”


“Right,” Wolf growled.


“Anyway, I’m not sure we have time for a full explanation right now, but I’d be happy to give you a proper briefing when we’ve got time.”


“At least tell me why I couldn’t enter the Cyber Core!  If there’s some secret to it, I want to know what it is—I’m not gonna sit out if something like this happens again!”


“Oh?”  Ace turned to his Hunter.  “Well that’s easy: I’ll just send a Noise Filter to your partner.”


Sonia’s eyes widened as he clicked a button.  “Wh…just like that?!”


Ace gave her a curious look.  “Huh?  Well, yeah…”


Wolfe’s Hunter beeped; he picked it up, and Wolf looked back at him for a second.  “So…whatever you just sent him is going to let me get through those nasty waves?”


Ace nodded.  “Won’t feel a thing!”


“…Well, alright.  That’s enough for now, I s’pose.”


As Wolf turned around, Ace said, “I’ll get authorization for a full briefing as soon as I can.  I look forward to working with you, Transcode-011.”


Wolf stopped to glare at him for a moment, and then disappeared back into Wolfe’s Hunter.  The gardener didn’t say anything as he left.




Zack started.  “M-Magnes?!”


The Wizard sat up slowly, putting a hand to his head.  “Yup…what happened?”


Zack wrapped his arms around Magnes, crying loudly as he attempted to say something.  The others backed up a bit to give them space.


“Woah, it’s okay, Zack!  I mean, I think it is.  I am a little sore…”


Ace stepped forward.  “Magnes, was it?  My name is Ace—I’m with the Satella Police.”


Sonia frowned.  Magnes looked up nervously, saying, “Th-the police?  Uh, okay…”


“Relax, no need to worry!”  Ace crouched down next to Magnes, grinning brightly.  “I’m here to help.  Are you feeling up to just a couple questions?”


“Oh, is that all?  Yup, I can do that.”


“Great!  So…I’m guessing you’re missing some of your memory?”


Zack finally pulled away from Magnes, who sat scratching his head for a moment.  Eventually, the Wizard replied, “I guess I am.  That’s unusual…”


“In that case, what’s the last thing you remember before things go blank?”


“Let’s see…I was in the rocket last night, and the proximity alert went off.  I came out to check, and…uh…”  He trailed off.


Ace put a hand over his mouth.  “Hm.  And nothing at all between then and waking up here?”


“No, not a thing.”


“So that’s how they played it.”  Standing up, Ace smiled again and said, “Thank you, Magnes!  That’s all I need from you.”


“R-really?  I think I still have a lot of questions…”


“I don’t want you to overexert yourself, so I’ll get the rest of what I need from my associates.  For now, get some rest, yeah?”


“Right!” Zack said.  “You can stay in my Hunter until we get you back to the club room!”


“Thanks, I think I’ll do that,” Magnes said.  “Man, what a day…”


As Magnes disappeared, Ace turned to Sonia.  “When did you notice something was wrong?”


“Zack tried to launch the rocket, and it went on the fritz right away,” Sonia said.  “When we confronted Magnes…”  She glanced at Zack, but he met her gaze.  “…he didn’t say a single word.  All he did was roar and attack us, almost like an animal.  We did manage to get the card, though.”


She handed the Spade card over to Ace.  After glancing at it, Ace said, “It sounds like they totally shut off all the higher functions of his AI.  Not really surprising—after Ice was able to think her way out of the Diamond card’s corruption, I bet they wanted to prevent that from happening again.”


Zack looked up at him.  “Is…is Magnes really going to be okay?”


“Oh, definitely!  Now that the card has been deactivated, his systems are rebooting, and there should be little if any change.”


“Good,” Zack said.  “I was getting worried there…”


“So, Sonia,” Ace said.  “Would you mind coming back to WAZA HQ with me?  I’m sure the Chief wants to hear this from you, plus there are one or two other things we want to run by you while we have the chance.”


Sonia shifted.  “I, uh…I’d hate to just run off on everyone.”


“It’s okay, Sonia,” Zack said.  “We won’t be able to send the rocket up like this.  But still, thanks for being here, and thanks for stopping Magnes!  Hopefully we’ll be able to reschedule and things will go a bit better.”


“Heh, I hope so.  Okay, then, I guess I’ll see you all later.”


Sonia followed Ace down the hill to the Wave Liner stop, where a liner with the Satella Police emblem on its side was waiting.  The transport set off as soon as they were on-board, and Sonia sighed as she sank into one of its seats.  Ace began eating another candy bar.


“…Can I ask why you gave Mr. Wolfe a Noise Filter?”


Ace looked up.  “Huh?  Wolf said he wanted to help out next time something happened.”


“But should we really let him?  We’ve been able to handle things thus far, and Mr. Wolfe is a civilian—I don’t want to drag him into a dangerous situation.”


“Wolfe and Wolf are gonna be better off with the Filter.  Like we said, Noise is becoming a serious problem and our goal is to get a Filter in every Hunter, plus Wolf seemed like the type to try to muscle past it and I do not want to see that happen.  You’ve seen what Noise can do to regular Wizards.  Can you imagine what a Noised FM-ian might be like?”  He shuddered.


Sonia thought for a moment.  “…Fair enough.  Maybe it will help keep them safe.”


“Besides, I was hoping to get their help eventually anyway.”


She turned sharply.  “What?”


“Well, not just them.  We’ve got plenty of FM-ians and PM-ians about, and I’m sure they’d all be a real help.”


“That’s…”  She shook her head.  “Again: we’ve been handling everything thus far.”


Ace’s expression darkened ever so slightly.  “Dealer has much worse in store.”


Sonia blinked.  When Ace returned to normal and resumed eating, she said, “Is this the real reason why you’re registering everyone with Transcodes?  To draft them all into the Satella Police?”


“No, Project-TC’s main purposes are just what Chief told you: collecting data on Wave Change and, in our case, how the Noise Filters and Control Programs work; and keeping track of who can use Wave Change for the sake of public safety.  But, since those of us under the program who are fighting Dealer are doing a pretty good job of it, I thought it’d be worth asking all the others if they want to join in.  I won’t force them, of course.”


Sonia glared at the floor.


“You don’t like that idea.”


“…No, I don’t.”


“Because you don’t want to involve any more people if you don’t have to?”




Ace paused.  “Well, there are a lot of people at WAZA who agree with you.  Of course, they don’t really want you or your friends involved either.”


Turning, Sonia said, “What?  That’s ridiculous.  We’re the ones most able to do something in a situation like this.”


“Because you can Wave Change?”


“Exactly, we…”  She trailed off.  After a moment, she said, “There’s still a difference of experience.”


“Oh, for sure.  I’m not saying we just throw them to the front lines—we’d have to train them and get them properly used to what they’ll be facing.  But, these miscellaneous FM-ians and PM-ians floating around Earth are the ones most able to help.”


Sonia ground her teeth.  “More importantly, we’re already involved, and they’re not.”


“Because WAZA’s asked you, and not them.”


“I get the feeling we’d get involved even if WAZA hadn’t asked us.”


Ace shrugged.  “Well, probably right.  But the fact of the matter is that WAZA is already asking qualified civilians for help in this matter.  Children, even.”


“What does that have to do with it?”


“Picture this: a massive organization preparing for a deadly confrontation, employing children to fight on the front lines.  Sounds terrible, right?”


“Of course!”


“The thing is, that’s what WAZA calling you in would look like out of context.”




Ace sat back.  “You are kids.  And WAZA’s having you fight their battles.  It makes sense knowing everything you’ve done, but if you just look at the basics of the situation, it’s not a pretty picture.  Even some of the people who know the details can’t shake that feeling.”


Sonia thought for a while.  “We’re not working for WAZA, though.  We never have been.  I’ve always taken on these threats because I decided to—because I understood what was going on and knew I could do something about them.  I have a choice, and I’m choosing to do what I think is right.  WAZA’s helping me because they agree.  We’re not…child soldiers, Ace.”


Ace gave her a thoughtful look.  “Huh.  I guess that’s the answer I can expect from the Heroine of Earth.”


Sonia wasn’t sure how to take that, but Ace didn’t seem ready to elaborate.


“Well, we can put the topic of Project-TC on the back burner for now.  There are some more important things we need to focus on.”


Sonia leaned back, closing her eyes.  “Okay.  Like what?”


“Dealer attacked your studio recently, and today they attacked Echo Ridge.  It stands to reason they know who Harp Note really is, and maybe Mega Man, Taurus Fire, and Queen Ophiuca, too.”


Her eyes opened.


“We’ll be sure to keep some protection near Echo Ridge, don’t worry.  Just make sure everyone’s on their guards.  If Dealer’s decided you’ll be useful in helping them make Noise, then they’re going to keep involving you until they have enough of the stuff.”


“Enough for what?” Sonia asked.


“…Hard to say.  But they must be gathering it for some purpose, right?”


“I guess.”


Ace resumed eating.  “We should be at HQ soon.  I doubt Chief will keep you for too long.”


Sonia looked out the window, watching the road go by.  It felt a lot longer than she remembered.




Things at Echo Ridge had settled down, but in the wake of the incident, several parents had elected to bring their children home early and the classes were starting to look rather thin.  As a result, Shepar had told his remaining students they could use the rest of the day as free study, with he and Tia there in case they needed help, and so the layout of the room had gone from neat and orderly to a few haphazard clusters of desks pushed together.  To Jack’s dismay, he found that one had formed around him.


“I know what I’m doing—I don’t need your help,” he said.


Tapping her foot, Luna said, “We’re only trying to include you, Jack.  If anything, we’d need your help in getting Bud caught up on his math homework.”


Turning to the other boy, Jack asked, “What?  You can’t really be having trouble with problems so basic.”


Bud scratched his head and flipped through his textbook.  “I don’t know, it seems pretty hard to me…”


“It’s simple.  You have the rules, just apply them to the equations.”


“Yeah, but there are so many, so I forget.”


Luna put her hand down on the desk.  “Listen, I know you’re really good with math, so let’s make a deal.  You help Bud, we’ll lend you a hand in return.”


Jack crossed his arms.  “I already said I don’t need your help.”


Smirking, Luna said, “Not even with history?”


Jack flinched.


“It’s simple, Jack.  You’ve been told what happened, you just need to remember it.”


“…W-Well, why should I care about all these random things that happened forever ago?  It’s not like it has anything to do with me.  What’s the point?”


“Haven’t you ever heard that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it?”


Jack cocked his head.  “…What?  That’s nuts.  If you don’t know what happened, how can you recreate it?”


Luna blinked.  Geo chuckled a little, but then explained, “That’s, uh, a bit more literal than what she means.  The idea is that people who aren’t aware of what’s already happened are likely to make the same type of mistakes, while if they knew about the first mistake, they might know better than to try that sort of thing again.”


“Right,” Luna said, massaging one of her temples.  “History is important because it gives us a chance to learn from other people’s mistakes, and build on that foundation to more efficiently build a future world that benefits us all.”


“Wow, Prez, that sounds really good,” Pat said.  “Do you mean that, or are you planning to use it on an essay?”


Luna closed her eyes.  “…It can be both.”


Scribbling in the margin of his notes, Bud mumbled, “I think I’m going to use that too…”


“Hey, don’t steal that!  Come up with your own ideas!”


Jack furrowed his brow.  “Repeating the same mistakes?  Really?”


“History can be more interesting than it sounds sometimes,” Pat offered.  “Either way, you’ll at least need to figure out how to fake it until you graduate, so my advice is you take the deal.”


A second later, Jack sighed.  “Fine, I guess it’ll be a decent way to kill time.  Give it here.”


Bud slid the book over and pointed to one of the problems.  “So on this one—“




Bud nearly jumped out of his seat.  “Wow, that was fast!  You really are good at this, Jack!”


Jack shrugged.  “Hmph…”


“Hey!” Luna said, pointing right at him.  “Don’t just give him the answers!  You need to work through it with him to help him understand how it works!”


“What?  Why?”


“Because you won’t be there when he takes the test, so he needs to learn the actual process to use it on his own then!”


Jack rolled his eyes.  “Fine, fine.  What’s the next one?  Start doing it, and I’ll tell you…what?  How on earth did you get that answer?!”


As Bud tried to explain himself, Geo turned to Zack.  The short boy’s desk wasn’t entirely lined up with the perimeter of the others, and he was hunched over it with a distant, concerned expression.  Leaning towards him, he asked, “Hey, Zack?”


Zack looked up suddenly.  “Oh, sorry.  I guess I’m still thinking about Magnes.”


“Sorry we weren’t able to prevent this.”


“No, I know there’s no way you guys could’ve done that.  And I know he’s going to be fine.  He just seemed really disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to launch the rocket…and…”


As Zack fidgeted, Geo asked, “And what?”


“…The school…is saying that they want to discontinue Magnes…”


“What?!” Geo shouted.  The rest of the room turned to him.  “S…sorry…”


Everyone went back to what they were doing soon enough, and Pat asked, “What do you mean ‘discontinue’, exactly?”


“They want to stop using Magnes as a school Wizard, and either turn him over to someone else or…delete him.”


“Delete him?!” Mega repeated.  “They can’t do that!  The nerve of those people!”


“It makes sense,” Jack muttered.  “He caused a lot of trouble and made the school look bad.  It’ll make people happy if they eliminate the cause of the problem.”


Zack glared at him.  “It wasn’t Magnes’s fault!  He got corrupted, and was driven out of his mind!  He’s a victim in this!”


“Why are you getting so upset?”


“Why?  Because he’s my friend!”


Jack looked confused, but Luna cut him off.  “I can understand the school board’s desire to take action, but punishing Magnes is the wrong way to go about it.  We’ll have to do what we can to fight their decision.”


Zack looked down.  “They seem really adamant.  I’ve been going over it, and…I think the best option is to persuade them to let me take custody of Magnes.  Or if that doesn’t work, maybe ask Mr. Boreal if he can convince them to send him to WAZA.”


Luna looked at Zack.  “You don’t want to fight to keep him in the club?”


“I…I just don’t see it working out, realistically.  What Jack said makes sense.  If we spend time fighting to let him stay, and then it doesn’t work out, I’m worried it might affect our chances of getting custody of him afterward.  So, maybe it’s best just to go straight to that.”


“…If that’s how you want to do it, then we’re behind you.”


Zack shook his head.  “Thank you, but I’m still not sure.  Magnes really loves working with the science club—it’s what he was programmed to do, but more than that, you can see how he’s really come to enjoy it.  If that gets taken away from him…I have no idea what’s going to happen…”


The group fell silent.


“Didn’t you say you were friends?” Jack asked.


Zack looked up.  “Huh?”


“You said you and this Wizard are friends.  Aren’t friends supposed to help each other out or something?”


“Exactly right,” Luna said.  “If the worst does happen, then we’ll help Magnes through it.  One way or another, Zack, this is all going to work out—that’s a promise!”


Slowly, Zack smiled.  “…Thank you.”


“That was really cool, Jack!” Bud said.  “I didn’t know you had it in you!”


Jack turned.  “Huh?  I was just asking a question.  What did I do that was cool?”


“Wow!  He’s cool without even trying!  That’s even cooler!”


“What are you going on about?!”


At the front of the room, Shepar watched the lively group and chuckled to himself.  He glanced at Tia, whose gaze was fixed on Jack, and took a sip of his coffee.


“You look worried,” he said.


She blinked, but didn’t turn towards him.  “Do I?”


“Just a little.  It’d make sense if you were: Jack’s your brother, after all, and moving to a new school is always a big deal for kids.”


“…I suppose I am a bit concerned.”


“Things will work out.  Looks like he’s already making friends!”


Jack looked over Bud’s work, shaking his head, and then turned to reply to something Pat was saying.  Tia watched him and commented, “Indeed.  I never expected it would move this quickly.”


Shepar turned to her.  “Oh.  So that’s what you’re really worried about?”


Tia didn’t say anything.


“Luna can get carried away at times, but I don’t think she’s going to push Jack too hard right now—she’s learned when to let up and give someone their space.  And if Jack does start to feel overwhelmed, then you or I can ask them to stop.”


Turning very slightly, Tia asked, “And you think they will?”


Shepar nodded.  “Definitely.  I’ve known these kids for a while now, and if they realize what they’re doing is hurting someone, they’ll cut it out.  So don’t worry: Jack’s in good hands.”


Tia resumed watching Jack.  Luna appeared to be lecturing the group about something, and Bud didn’t appear to get it.  When Bud finally spoke up, Luna hung her head in exasperation, and the rest of the group started to laugh—Jack included.  Tia raised her eyebrows.


Once the event was processed, she decided to set it aside for the moment and turned back to Shepar.  “I suppose you would know them quite well.  You’ve been looping with the same class for a few years now, if I recall?”


Shepar scratched his head, grinning.  “Yeah, I guess it’s three now.  I always tell myself I won’t get too attached to my class, but when I get a new one, I always end up following them through their stay here.  Sure am glad I got certified to teach so many different grades!”


“If I may, the practice seems a bit self-defeating.  It’s inevitable that they will leave the school at some point, and the more time you spend with them, the more painful it is for you to see them go…I assume?”


“You’re not wrong.”


“Then why do you still continue those actions?”


Shepar thought for a bit, taking another drink of coffee.  “Really…I guess I just want to spend as much time as I can with them, even if I know it’s going to be limited either way.  It might hurt to see them go, but that doesn’t invalidate all the good memories, you know?”


Tia paused.  “I’m not sure that I do.”


“Heh, well, maybe I’m just a sentimental old man.  We’ll see how you handle it when your first class moves on!”


Shepar laughed.  Tia’s gaze drifted upward, not fixed on anything in particular.




Heartless entered the room to find King shuffling a deck as he glared at the wall.  Approaching just loud enough to be heard, she asked, “Is something the matter, sir?”


King flicked one card towards the wall, where it expanded into another screen.  Once again, a ball of red light could be seen amidst many stars, but this time King seemed far less pleased with it.


“It is coming,” he muttered.  “But recently its pace just…slowed to a crawl, abruptly.  Even if we need more Crimson to complete the process, with the amount currently in our possession, we should be drawing it more rapidly than this.”


Heartless tilted her head.  “Hm.  How very peculiar.”


King placed a hand over his face.  “I swear…it’s almost as if there’s someone interfering, trying to steer it off in another direction…”


For a split-second, Heartless’s eyes widened.


King was lost in thought, but soon recalled the screen, breathed deeply, and grinned.  “But that would be absurd.  Tell me, my dear: how are the children doing?  I trust they haven’t let their recent failures dissuade them, hm?”


“You’ll be pleased to hear that they’re just as motivated as ever, sir,” Heartless replied, looking perfectly composed.  “They are currently preparing for the operation in Alohaha, and I believe they’re shaping up to do a fantastic job of it.”


“Excellent!  This will need to cause quite a stir, more than these trifling warm-ups have.”


He drew one hand across the desk of his chair, spreading out several cards face-down.  He flipped over three: a queen of hearts, a ten of spades, and an ace of spades.


“You know, I’ve been so focused on Harp Note, WAZA, and that prodigal son of mine…I must confess, I’ve been neglecting that other nuisance who has been plaguing us.”


He flipped over another card—the ace of diamonds.


“His meddling is starting to become quite annoying.  Before he has the chance to interfere with anything crucial, I think it best we discard him.  And since he likely won’t be all that useful in producing Crimson…I see no reason to bluff.”


He flipped over one more card—a joker—and then leaned back in his chair, chuckling to himself.


Heartless bowed.  “Whatever you deem appropriate, Mr. King.  I shall see that your orders are carried out.”




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Chapter 9


“…and after that, we headed over here.”


Boreal leaned forward, looking down at his desk as he absorbed what Sonia had told him.  “…First the studio, now the school…”


“Yeah,” Sonia said, “Ace mentioned that on the way here.”


“I’ll station more officers at Echo Ridge, and near your studio.”  He was already typing into his Hunter.


Nodding, Sonia’s gaze drifted out the window, watching the clouds drift past the rock walls surrounding the HQ.  She turned back suddenly when she realized Boreal was looking at her.


“How are you doing?” he asked.


“Oh, not too bad, I’m just…”  After a few seconds, she leaned back in her chair and sighed.  “Ace was saying that some people here weren’t keen on the idea of getting my help.”


Boreal seemed surprised for a moment.  “He told you that?”


“I sort of get it, but…and, I don’t mean it to sound like I’m taking offense from it or anything.”  She watched herself fidget.  “I don’t know.  I want to do this.  I’m glad that you asked for my help.  Maybe I just automatically assumed that you would.”  She looked up at Boreal.  “How do you feel about it?  Me and Geo and Luna and Bud working with WAZA to fight Dealer?”


What surprised her was that he didn’t answer right away.  After pondering it for a short while, Boreal slowly began, “If I’m being honest, I can’t say I’m not conflicted.”


“Because we’re kids?”


“Well, yes.  It’s the job of adults to protect children, not lead them into more danger.  It’s only natural that, on some level, a lot of us would feel like what we’re doing here is a betrayal of that. Ultimately, Sonia, you are who we need in this situation.  I can recognize that.  But to get there, it’s almost like I have to let a part of my mind go dark—the part that approaches things as an adult who wants children to be protected.  I have to approach it with total objectivity, as a scientist, and watch the math prove that you kids are our best option.”  He shook his head.  “Sonia, I can’t be completely objective all the time.  Especially when it comes to you and Geo.”


Sonia rubbed the armrest of her chair.  “I guess not.”


“I believe in you all, but I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe.  Really, that’s exactly what we’re asking you to do for us, so it’s only fair.”




“So, how did this come up anyway?  With Ace?”


Frowning, Sonia said, “When I asked about giving the Filter to Mr. Wolfe, he started talking about his hopes for Project-TC.”


Boreal nodded, shutting his eyes.  “He’s a bit too talkative sometimes.”


“How long has that been the plan?”


“It isn’t really the plan.  It’s something Ace, Detective Copper, and I have discussed at length, but we haven’t reached a decision yet.”


“Ah.  Mind if I contribute?”


Boreal smiled.  “I’m guessing you’re against it.”


Sonia leaned to the side, trying to hide her grin.  “Look, the four of us are doing well enough already!  And if we did need back up, we could still call in Ace…I guess…I think we’re covered.  I mean, who was he even planning on calling in?  I guess I’d understand Claude and Kid, and I’ll probably get over involving Mr. Wolfe.  Who else is there?  Yeti doesn’t Wave Change with Amy.  We still haven’t found a home for Plesio.  Crown and Mr. Couronne are off-planet, and the other FM-ians I know might be too.”


“He’s at least considered every one he knows of,” Boreal answered.  “Which is, well…all the ones you know.  Even suggested we call the Admins back.  Or, I guess I should call them Sages now?”


“My word,” Lyra said, “this fellow truly is searching for the largest hammer he can find.”


“Is Dealer really even this big of a…well, deal?” Sonia asked.  “I’m not saying we should leave them alone, but right now I feel like we’re much better prepared than we were for bigger threats in the past.  And we came out of those just fine.”


Boreal tapped his fingers briefly.  “We can’t be completely certain.  But…we do have suspicions.  And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to err on the side of caution.”


Sonia sat up.  “So…you agree with the idea?”


“No, like I said, we’re still discussing.  I’m not fully convinced one way or the other.  I don’t want to involve any more people than are necessary, especially now that we’ve expanded into a worldwide organization—our manpower is higher than ever, so there shouldn’t be a need.  But this could become a very specific kind of battle, the kind that can only be fought with EM Wave Change, and it might be wise to plan for that possibility as well.  Part of me just wants to wait and see, but I’m also worried that the only way we’ll get enough information to decide is if something terrible happens.”  Boreal gave an exasperated shrug.  “We’re at an impasse.  I don’t know what’s next.”


Sonia nodded and leaned back again, humming as she stared up at the ceiling.


“Well, before I forget…we were considering asking you about something, and in light of today’s events I’m more convinced than ever.”


Turning back to him, she said, “Huh?  What do you mean?”


“It’s sort of an assignment.  If you want it.”


Sonia sat up.


“Not long from now, your friends are going to be taking a school trip.”


“Yeah, Luna was talking about that.  They’re going to stay a weekend in Alohaha, right?”


“Exactly.  We’ve been thinking it might be best to make sure they’re safe, and it seemed the best way to do that was to ask you to go with them.”


Sonia blinked.  “R…really?”


“If Dealer does know who your friends are, then they could see this as an opportune time to strike at them: they’ll be on a relatively isolated island in the south, much farther away from the bulk of WAZA’s presence than they normally would be.  I have confidence in Geo, Bud, and Luna, but an extra pair of eyes might make everyone feel safer.”


“Ah.  When you put it like that…”  She nodded.  “Sure, I’m up for it.  I won’t let anything happen to them.”


Boreal smiled.  “Thank you.  If you need any help with arrangements, just let us know.”




Hesitating a bit, Boreal went on, “Also…if you get a chance while you’re down there, there’s someone we were hoping to make contact with.  We’d like to get his help in keeping an eye out for Dealer.”


Sonia’s expression flattened.  “Just keeping an eye out?”


“…Possibly assisting in some other way.”




“And who,” Lyra asked, “might this mysterious contact be, Mr. Boreal?”


“A Wizard named Strong,” Boreal answered.  “He’s the Admin of Alohaha’s famous environmental system, and he’s been a part of Alohaha’s community for ages.”


“Ages?  Were you hiding Wizards that long?”


“Strong wasn’t originally a Wizard.  While the environmental system only reached its peak somewhat recently, the groundwork was laid a long, long time ago, and Strong was created at the same time as a Net Navi.”


“Wow,” Sonia remarked.  “Haven’t seen those in use for a while.”


“Strong was so integral, not only to the system but to Alohaha itself, that the people unanimously decided to keep him functioning even after Net Navis fell out of use.  And now that the technology for Wizards exist, they opted to upgrade him into one.”


Sonia averted her eyes.  “Well…I’ll at least talk to him about keeping an eye out for Dealer.  That’s easy enough.”


“Thank you.  I think that’s everything, then.  Be sure to contact me if anything comes up.”


Sonia said good-bye and left Boreal’s office, wandering out into the hall and taking a cursory look around.


“Well,” Lyra said, “seems we’ve a trip to prepare for.”




Lyra materialized next to her.  “Not a fan of the beach?”


“What?  Oh, no, I...”  She paused.  “I guess I wasn’t expecting Mr. Boreal to be so concerned.  Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, but I never thought my age would make people hesitant to let me help.  What do you think?”


“Hard for me to say.  The way children are regarded here on Earth is a bit different than how it works on Planet FM—otherwise Cepheus wouldn’t have taken the throne when he did.  Not to mention I didn’t think twice to impose upon you when I landed.”




“From what I can gather, our case does seem to be out of the norm, but you heard Mr. Boreal: despite some misgivings, he still has absolute confidence in you.  If others have similar concerns, then surely they too will come to see reason.”


“Thanks,” Sonia said, smiling a little.  She came to an intersection of halls, but then stopped.  “Hey, would you mind if we checked in on Plesio?  That talk made me realize I haven’t visited him in a little while.”


Lyra shrugged.  “I suppose so, though I doubt it’ll be a particularly cheery affair.”


Sonia giggled.  “Come on.”


They ventured further down the hall until they came to a small lab.  Poking inside, they quickly caught the attention of its occupants, though they weren’t exactly who they expected to find.


“Sonia!” Goodall greeted.  “I heard you were about—wonderful to see you again!  Veggie, say hello!”


Vega bowed slightly, saying, “Hello, Sonia, Lyra.  What brings you this way?”


“I was telling Mr. Boreal about a new incident,” Sonia answered, “and then I thought I’d check in on Plesio.  He’s usually around here…”


“Oh, I see,” Goodall said.  “So you didn’t come down here just to visit us?”


“Huh?  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“


“Haha, I’m just pulling your leg, dearie, no need to fret.”


Vega stifled a small laugh, saying, “I’m afraid Plesio’s not here at the moment.  He’s gone out to assist in a mission once again.”


Sonia nodded thoughtfully.  “He’s been doing that more and more.  I’m glad he’s getting out, but…I can’t help but worry a little.”


“I understand your concern.  At first I also thought Plesio was simply sticking with what he was familiar with, not willing to try anything new.”


“At first?”




She trailed off as voices could be heard coming up the hall.  It wasn’t long before Copper stepped into the room, holding an ice pack to his head as he muttered, “I would’ve thought it was obvious.  Guess I assumed too much.”


Behind him came Hyde, an unpleasant frown on his face as he worked to clean some kind of grime off his cane.  “Oh, of course, my mistake.  In the future I’ll be sure to ask for every minute detail you can provide, o wise detective.”


Copper clenched his teeth and turned around.  Upon realizing Sonia was in the room, he stopped short, and took a deep breath.  “Hello, Sonia.  Sorry if we interrupted anything.”


Taking note, Hyde lowered his cane and said, “Good day, Harp Note.  Apologies if you heard any coarse words on our approach, but we’ve had something of a day and weren’t fully prepared for company.”


“Ah, no, that’s fine,” Sonia said.  “I was actually looking for…”


Before she could finish, Plesio floated into the room at last, and turned to look at her.  “…Hello.”


It took her a moment to smile.  He looked and sounded somber as ever, but for all the times she’d visited over the past year, Plesio had never gone out of his way to greet her, leaving her a bit shocked at the change.


“Just the PM-ian we were looking for!” Lyra said.  “How’ve you been as of late, Plesio?”


“Alright,” Plesio stated.


“So, you went on another mission?” Sonia asked.  “How was that?”


Plesio turned to Hyde and Copper.  The latter managed a smirk, saying, “Even if it was a bit rough, we were very glad to have you.  That exit you found really saved our skin.  Thank you.”


With a nod, Plesio headed for a console near the back of the room.  Goodall stopped him part way and said, “Hold on a second, Messie!  Don’t you want to visit some more?”


Plesio slowly turned back to face the others.


“It sounds as though the mission was…” Vega started.  She glanced at Plesio.


“Not to worry, Lady Vega,” Hyde said, suddenly far more enthusiastic.  “We were able to accomplish our goal as promised.  True, things got a bit hairier than expected, but it would take more than that to foil your loyal servant!”


“It was your fault we almost failed,” Copper said flatly.


Hyde scowled.  “A matter of perspective, my fine old detective.  I for one believe our enemies were simply more prepared than we gave them credit for.”


Copper rolled his eyes.  “Fine, then I guess that makes it your Wizard’s fault.”


A quiet grumbling could be heard.  Grinning, Lyra called, “Afraid to show yourself, Phantom?  My, I had no idea you were such a shy individual.”


“Pipe down,” replied a voice from Hyde’s Hunter.  “I just have nothing to gain from indulging you simpletons.”


“Well!  Small wonder you can’t do your job effectively: that’s not exactly the attitude of a team player!  Perhaps we should ship you off to a seminar for the weekend, that could do you some good.”


“Excellent idea, Lyla!” Goodall exclaimed.  “I know of an excellent program making the rounds—I could easily book tickets for our troublesome team here.”


“No!” Hyde and Copper said in unison.  After they exchanged a glare, Copper elaborated, “I, um, appreciate your offer, doctor, but I really don’t have time for that sort of thing.  Got to stay on top of Dealer, you know.”


“Indeed, indeed, quite gracious, my good doctor, but I’m afraid I also simply cannot attend,” Hyde said.  “Simply put, I don’t want to.”


Vega inclined her head.


“Er, rather, I too must be on alert to aid in the war against Dealer!  There is but one Transcode-006, after all, and who could replace the Dark Phantom?”


“Just about anyone,” Copper said.


Hyde turned to say something, but Goodall interrupted, “Now now, boys, I think that’s quite enough of that!”


The two of them grumbled.  Hyde walked over to a table in the corner of the room, while Copper turned to Sonia.  “On the way in I heard there was an incident at Echo Ridge.  Was it Dealer?”


Sonia drooped.  “Yeah.  They used a Noise Card to send the Science Club’s Wizard out of control, and nearly blew up the rocket they were trying to launch.”


Vega’s jaw dropped.  “They were willing to cause an explosion like that at a school event?!  That’s abominable!”


Grinding his teeth, Copper said, “Those monsters…and I bet their operatives didn’t show their face either?”


Sonia shook her head.


“And was there Crimson?  Did it disappear?”


“Yep.  We tried to grab some, but it was pulled off before we could.”


Vega put a hand over her face, turning and taking a few steps towards the wall.  Hyde looked up from what he was doing.


“But we were able to save the Wizard.  Nobody got hurt, in the end.”


“It isn’t the end yet,” Vega mumbled.  “They’re going to keep gathering Crimson, and who knows what they’ll resort to next?  They really don’t care at all if anyone gets killed by their reckless actions!”


Sonia tilted her head.  “…Whatever they try, we’ll stop them.  You can count on us.”


After a moment, Vega turned slightly.  “Of course—I apologize, I didn’t mean that I doubt your ability.  I’m just…”


As her pause dragged on, Goodall walked over to her and tapped her arm.  “Not to worry, Veggie.  This whole mess’ll get sorted out soon enough.”


Vega nodded.  “Thank you, Dr. Goodall.”


Goodall spun around.  “Before I forget!  How are the Noise Control Programs working?”


“Oh, they’re working just fine!” Sonia said.  “We haven’t experienced any problems, even when we were fighting in the Noise.”


“I do have a question,” Lyra spoke up.  “I couldn’t help but notice that all of the Noise Changes we’ve been able to access are directly inspired by various FM-ians.  It’s made me exceptionally curious.”


Goodall nodded, humming quietly.  “All of them, you say?  We could see a few that were labeled that way, but we couldn’t be entirely sure.  How fascinating!”


Lyra sighed.  “Then I take it you don’t have any ideas on why…”


“Sorry, can’t help you on that one.  The NCPs can only access so much—there’s a lot of data in the Noise Server we haven’t been able to touch yet.  There could be some information locked away that might give us some insight into the history of the server, but I’m afraid we’ve got nothing for you at the moment.”  She chuckled.  “Although, hearing this makes me exceptionally curious as well!  Veggie, what do you say we get back to fiddling around and see if we can’t work anything out?”


“Yes, Dr. Goodall,” Vega said.  “I’d be more than happy to assist you.”


Sonia turned to Lyra.  The FM-ian stared at the wall for a few moments more, but then she closed her eyes, let out a breath, and returned to the guitar.


“I should probably get going,” Sonia said.  “I’ll see you all later!”


“I’ll walk you out,” Copper offered.  “It’ll give me a chance to prepare myself before I go to file my report.”


Once they were out in the hall, Sonia asked, “So do you think Plesio’s doing alright?”


“I can’t be sure.  He’s become a bit more talkative—a little bit—and he’s always helpful when he comes on missions.  But I’m still not really sure why he keeps asking to come with us.  Says he’d just like something to do, and that this is something he feels he can do well, but…he’s not showing much interest in anything else.”


“Hm.  I still haven’t been able to find a good home for him.  Maybe we should try harder to find some kind of hobby he might be interested in?  That could lead to something.”


Copper shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Dr. Vega’s been spending a lot of time with him, but she’s come up with nothing.”


Sonia nodded.  “…And how is she doing?”


“Alright, for the most part.  I think that’s all down to Dr. Goodall.  Still, she’s been on edge lately.”


“Why’s that?”


“Dealer, mostly.  They’ve got us all pretty nervous.”


Sonia looked up.  “You know, I really think everyone’s worrying too much.”


“Better too much than not enough.”


They walked in silence for a short time.  As they waited for the elevator, Sonia turned to Copper and said, “I’ve heard that some people around here don’t want me and my friends handling this.”


Copper turned sharply.  When the elevator arrived, he stepped onto it slowly.  “Ace?”


Sonia stepped on behind him.  “Yeah.”


“Thought so.”


The doors closed, and the elevator began to descend.


“Mr. Boreal kind of explained why,” Sonia said.  “I guess I was just wondering where you stand on the matter.”


“I learned a few years ago to trust in your ability to handle these things,” Copper said.  “Though I have to admit, I don’t think it’s fair that you have to be the one to take this problem on.  It seems like you don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”


“I don’t feel that way.  If I have the power to help, then I want to use it.”


Copper smiled.  “I know.  You’re a good kid.  I’d just feel better if we could give you some more options.”


They exited the elevator.


“I wish there was more I could do to help you,” Copper went on.  “I swore an oath to protect the people of Earth, but it’s become quite apparent I can’t do that against what really threatens it.  Wave Change really has become the weapon of choice on all sides.  Simple humans like me can’t keep up with that.”


Sonia lagged a few steps behind as she tried to think of something to say.


“In any event,” Copper said, “we’ll continue to offer whatever assistance we can.  If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let us know.”


“Right.  Thank you, detective.”




When the final bell rang, it didn’t take long for the students to begin pouring out of the school.  At the gate, Luna stopped, stepped off to the side, and turned back to the others.


“Zack, let us know if there’s anything we can do to help with Magnes,” Luna said.


Zack nodded.  “I will, thank you.”


“Bud, you go straight home and finish that assignment pronto!  I don’t want you turning up tomorrow with a blank page and lame excuses!”


Bud saluted.  “You got it, Prez!”




“I know, I know,” Jack interrupted, “write up some notes for the history essay.  I already said I’d do it.”


“Good.”  Luna paused.  “Are you going to be waiting until your sister’s done?”


“What?  No, she said she’ll be awhile so I should go on ahead.”


“We can walk with you if you want,” Bud offered.  “Where do you live?”


Jack shook his head.  “No, it’s a long trip.  I’ll go on my own.”


“Well, alright.  Hey, thanks again for all your help today!  No way I would’ve been able to get caught up without your help!”  Grinning, he reached out and pulled Jack in with one arm.  “Who knew you were hiding such a big brain?”


“Sh-shut up!” Jack said, kicking as he tried to pull free.  “Don’t you have work to do?”


Finally, Bud let go, and he and Zack departed.  Jack straightened his jacket in a huff, but as he watched them go, a smile crossed his face for just a second.  When he got his scowl back, he muttered goodbye to everyone and headed off.


“If it’s a long trip, I don’t understand why Ms. Tia lets him make it himself,” Luna said.  “She should watch her younger brother a bit more closely!”


“She doesn’t really seem the type to worry,” Pat said.  “Doesn’t surprise me.”


“Come on, I’m sure it’s just that she trusts Jack,” Geo said.  “Not that it’s really any of our business…”


Luna closed her eyes and frowned.  “The well-being of my classmates is my business, thank you very much!  It’s only natural I’d show concern.”


Geo chuckled.  “Heh, right, sorry.”


Bumping him lightly, Pat said, “We sure are lucky to have a Prez like Prez, right Geo?”


Luna shot a cold glare at both of them.  At first they were too afraid to move, but soon her expression brightened and she quietly giggled.


A beep from Geo’s Hunter caught their attention.  He pulled it out and checked the notification, and then uttered, “Oh…”


Pat leaned behind his shoulder to get a look.  Luna asked, “What is it?”


“It’s from Sonia.  Apparently Mr. Boreal’s worried Dealer might try something while we’re in Alohaha, so she’s been asked to go with us in case we need help.”


“…Oh,” Luna mumbled.  Turning, she tried to check her own Hunter as discreetly as possible.


“Um, I’m sure she’ll be sending a mail to each of us before too long,” Geo said.  “This also says Lyra was asking the doctors about the Noise Server, that’s probably the only reason mine came first.”


Nodding absently, Luna slipped her Hunter back into her pocket and stared up at the sky.  “Sonia’s coming to Alohaha…”


Geo and Pat exchanged a worried look.


Suddenly, Luna smiled.  She clenched her fist and nodded, saying, “Okay!”


“Okay…?” Geo repeated.


Turning, Luna said, “I’ll see you both tomorrow!  Don’t forget…well, you two pretty much have it together.  Bye!”


She was off before they could form a proper response.  Geo scratched his head and asked, “What do you think that was?”


Pat shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But I get the feeling this is going to be one wild trip.”




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Chapter 10


Sonia surveyed the beach from the Wave Road with a smile on her face, letting the warmth of the sun seep into her.


“I can’t believe I’ve never been here before!” she said.  “Next tour I definitely need an Alohaha concert—this place is too gorgeous to skip!”


“I suppose it’s nice enough,” Lyra said.


“What, is that all?”


“This human fascination with beaches still eludes me.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a species so fascinated by a bed of sand and a large pool of salt water.”


“I’m sure you’ll come around eventually.”


“You really think?  Now that the novelty of oceans has worn off I’m inclined to think my ways are quite set.”


Sonia giggled, and then turned to look up the Road.  She could see Claud eagerly running in her direction, and a short ways behind him, Kidd came at a more leisurely pace.  The alterations to their Wave Changes were barely noticeable: the hair-like protrusions on Claud’s helmet stuck out less and had blue tips, and the blue areas on his pincers were a good deal more narrow, meanwhile the belt and trim of Kidd’s uniform were now the same shade of green as the swirl designs on its legs and sleeves, which now extended to intersect with the trim, and the bell he once carried at his waist was gone.


“Sonia!” Claud shouted, skidding to a halt.  “It’s so great to see you!”


“Great to see you too!”


When Kidd arrived, he paused to bow slightly.  “Hello, Miss Sonia, Miss Lyra.  Apologies if we’re a bit late, we encountered a few viruses that proved rather tenacious.”


Sonia returned the bow.  “No, I haven’t been here long.  Nice to see you again!”


Cancer materialized in front of Claud, asking, “Hey, so, you’re not here because anything b-bad is going on are you?”


Appearing next to him, Goat said, “Cancer, do not be rude.”


“It’s a fair question!  If she’s asking to meet with Strong out of the blue like this, what am I supposed to think?”


“Even if something is about to happen, we must face it with courage when it comes.  Be patient, and steel yourself.”


Cancer scoffed.  “Easy for you to say…”


Sonia’s gaze drifted.  “Well…it’s nothing too extreme.  Mr. Boreal just thought it’d be worth asking Strong to keep an eye out for us.”


“Huh?” Claud said, jumping.  “Sonia, if something’s going down you shoulda called us!  We’d be happy to swoop in and bust some chops!”


Taking a few steps back, Cancer said, “Now now, Claud, no need to be overeager.”


“We haven’t exactly had notice,” Lyra answered.  “Rest assured that should the time come to marshal our forces, you’re all at the top of the list.”


Claud and Kidd nodded and turned to each other, while Sonia hummed quietly.


“Then let us not waste any more time,” Kidd said.  “Please follow us, and we will show you to where Lord Strong resides.”


Smiling quickly, Sonia said, “Ah, thank you!”


It was a short walk to where the beach gave way to a paved plaza, and rising up from behind the dozens of small shopping stands was a long building made of ancient gray stone, with a gabled roof made of rounded, bright red shingles.  As they came closer Sonia noticed several lion-like statues in front of the building and on its roof, but she only examined them for a moment before noticing her friends had stopped.


“We shall go greet Lord Strong in the material world,” Kidd said.  “Please join us on the castle’s Wave Road, and I am sure he will be willing to speak with you.”


Sonia nodded and they temporarily parted ways.  While Kidd and Claud went to find a point where they could get down from the Wave Road, Sonia continued through the arched doorway of the castle to find a hall with a high ceiling that housed several small displays, though her eyes were drawn to the massive computer console that took up most of the far wall.  In front of it floated a Wizard who looked as if he were made of the same stone as the castle, with his body, shoulder armor, and head all having a distinct rectangular shape to them.  He sported a few blue lines and green squares on his armor, and wore a red belt with gold designs along its length.  A red staff with a gold tip that held three floating rings was in his hand, and as he watched over the hall, his expression never changed from the neutral, not quite stern one he had when she entered.


Kidd and Claud soon entered the hall below Sonia, and quickly made their way to where the Wizard floated.  After bowing, Kidd said, “Good day, Lord Strong.  Pardon the intrusion, but may we ask for a moment of your time?”


Strong’s expression remained the same as he faced the children.  When he spoke, his voice was deep and clear, with a very even tone that gave his words a soothing quality.  “Good day to you all.  I trust you are doing well?”


“Never better!” Claud said.  “Hey, a friend of ours is in town, and she wanted to talk to you if you had the chance.”


“Oh?  A friend, you say?  I would be delighted to meet her.  Of course, I do have to execute a manual maintenance cycle in roughly an hour…where is your friend now?”


“She should be here now, on the Wave Road,” Kidd said.


Strong looked up, spotting Sonia.  She waved and took a slow step forward.


“Ah, that sort of friend,” Strong said.  “I should have suspected.  In that case, I believe we should meet in the environmental system’s Cyber Core.  This way.”


Kidd and Claud thanked Strong, and then they both raced back out of the castle to find a place to discreetly Wave Change.  Strong disappeared inside the environmental system, and when she reached the end of the Wave Road, Sonia followed him to find a wide expanse of Road, empty save for more lion statues that lined the edges.


“Pleasure to meet you,” Strong said.  “My name is Strong, and I am the Administrator of the Alohaha Environmental System.”


Sonia bowed.  “The pleasure is all mine.  Thank you very much for letting me speak with you.”


Strong turned his head for a moment—a screen appeared next to him, and after he scrolled through a few lines of data, he turned back, and the screen vanished.  “Forgive me, I may receive updates on the system from time to time.  Now, if I had to guess, are you perhaps another Wave Change user like those boys?”


“Yes, that’s right.  My name is Sonia.”


Lyra appeared next to her.  “And I’m Lyra, from Planet FM.”


Strong nodded once.  “I see.  And would I be correct in guessing that you are the famous Harp Note I’ve been hearing about?”


“Yeah, that’s us,” Sonia said.


“Remarkable.  It is an honor to meet with someone who has been able to defend the Earth from such extravagant dangers as you have.  What is it that brings you to my humble island?”


Before Sonia could respond, Claud and Kidd entered the Cyber Core.  “Let us hear too!” Claud said, bounding her way.  “I’m dying to know what’s going on!”


“Sure,” Sonia said.  Turning back to Strong, she said, “I’m actually here representing WAZA.  They were hoping you could assist them in monitoring the activity of a criminal organization that’s been causing some trouble recently.”


“Oh dear,” Strong said.  “That’s worrisome news, but I will help in whatever way I can.”


Sonia nodded, and took a moment to prepare.  “Have you ever heard of Dealer?”


Strong stroked his chin.  “Hmm…not that I can recall.”


“Have there been any incidents of Wizards going out of control, like they were losing their minds?”


“There have been crime reports involving Wizards, but I would not say any were behaving in that fashion.”


“I see…and would you be aware if there were abnormally high levels of Noise anywhere on Alohaha?”


Strong checked a screen.  “Yes, the environmental system would detect such a thing.  The levels have been somewhat high, but still within the levels projected as a result of the Hunter and such devices—there have not been any unusual spikes.”


Sonia breathed deep.  “Okay.  So it sounds like they haven’t been here.  That’s good.”


“Wait, hang on,” Claud said.  “What’s this about Noise and Wizards going out of control and stuff?”


“This group, Dealer, has been using these special cards to infuse Wizards with Noise, overwriting their programming and making them run wild.  When they do, they create a lot more Noise, and then Dealer harvests it and retreats.  We’ve been able to stop them, but…if we hadn’t, plenty of people would’ve gotten hurt.  They don’t seem to care much about the results of their actions so long as they can make Noise.”


“Understood,” Kidd said.  “So we should be on the lookout for any Wizards acting suspiciously, and any sudden rise in Noise.”


Strong took a moment to look at another screen, and then returned his attention to Sonia.  “Thank you for the warning, Harp Note.  I shall pay special attention to the Noise levels going forward, and should I notice anything unusual I will contact WAZA at once.”


 “Don’t you worry, Sonia!” Claud said.  “If those creeps show their face around here, we’ll shut ‘em down faster than they can blink!”


Strong chuckled softly.  “We are in good hands.  These boys told me of their Wave Change abilities several months ago, and offered to assist me in maintaining order on the island.  Their help has been indispensable.”


“We are privileged to assist you, Lord Strong,” Kidd said, bowing again.  “It is an honor to work alongside the guardian deity of Alohaha.”


“Yeah, and it’s been a ton of fun!” Claud said.


“So that’s what you’ve been up to?” Sonia asked.  “Well, I feel better already!  Just be careful, alright?”


“Of course,” Claud said, “we’re always careful.”


“You could afford to be a bit more careful,” Cancer mumbled.


“Thank you again, Strong,” Sonia said.  “Hopefully nothing will happen, but I’ll be around to help for the next few days.”


“Your help is much appreciated,” Strong said.  “Though, I too hope we will have no need for it.”


“One last thing,” Sonia said, calling up a screen of her own.  “WAZA wants to provide you all with Noise Filters, to keep you safe in case Dealer does make a move, or if the Noise levels become a problem on their own.”


“Be sure to hibernate while it installs,” Lyra said as Sonia distributed the programs.  “Once it’s in place, you’ll be perfectly safe from the effects of Noise.”


Strong nodded.  “I see.  Thank you very much—we have been attempting to combat Noise using the environmental system, but our results thus far have not been encouraging.  If I may ask, will this tool be made readily available at any point?”


“Definitely,” Sonia said.  “Once WAZA feels they’ve got all the bugs worked out they’re planning to put Filters in a Hunter update.”


“I am glad to hear it.  It sounds like Noise shall soon be of no concern for the people of Alohaha.”


Sonia smiled.  “We’ll do what we can to speed that up.”


They exchanged goodbyes, and then Sonia, Kidd, and Claud left the Cyber Core and followed the Wave Road until they were outside the temple.  Claud snapped his pincers and said, “Man, I can’t wait to get a shot at these Dealer creeps!  It’s been way too long since I got a real fight!”


Kidd chuckled.  “Do you mean a fight you can win?”


“Hey!” Claud said, pointing.  “Our matches don’t count ‘cuz we’re friends!  I’m talking about a serious, tough battle, with real stakes!”


“Well we don’t know if they’ll target Alohaha for sure,” Sonia said.


“Then I’ll just tag along with you, Sonia!  Trouble always seems to follow you, after all!”


Sonia made herself laugh, but couldn’t manage much.  She turned, looked at the ocean, and let her expression droop for a few seconds.


“Sonia?” Lyra asked.


She turned abruptly.  “Hm?”


“I think that Wave Liner coming down the tracks is the one we’re waiting for.”


Spotting the transport, she said, “Oh, thanks Lyra.”


“Those are your friends?” Kidd asked.


Sonia nodded.  “Yeah, should be.”


The Liner slowed to a halt, waited a moment, and then opened its doors, releasing a flood of passengers mostly made up of the Echo Ridge students.  Shepar acted quickly to keep them from scattering, and once the class was all rounded up he led them to a less busy section of the plaza.


“Alright,” the teacher called, “I know you’re excited but just hang on for a second!  Let’s see, is everyone here?  No one’s still on the Liner?”


He did a quick roll call—all the students were accounted for.


“Okay.  Ms. Tia, why don’t you remind everyone what our schedule is?”


Tia turned towards him, actually looking a little surprised.  “Me?”


“Sure!  You’re going to need some lecture experience at some point!”


Tia looked at the students for a few seconds, her face blank as ever once again.  She closed her eyes, called up a screen from her terminal, and scanned over it quickly.


“Shortly…” she began, too quiet for many of the students to hear.  She stopped and cleared her throat, and then started over in a more audible voice.  “Shortly, we will visit the hotel and ensure that everyone knows where their rooms are, but beyond that the majority of today is free for you to do as you please.  You are encouraged to be on your best behavior, and remember to be safe—try not to wander too far by yourself.  All students are expected to report back to the hotel by 7 PM this evening; the school has provided for a barbecue event to be held at that time.  As for tomorrow…”


She gestured to the castle.


“We will be taking a tour of Alohaha Castle to learn about the history of this region, as well as the famous environmental system that maintains the climate and prevents natural disasters.  Following that, we will return to Echo Ridge in the afternoon.”


Tia looked at her screen again, then to Shepar.  He nodded.


“You heard her!” Shepar said to the class.  “If there’s anything you want to do while we’re here, make sure you do it today!  Now let’s find our hotel!  Everybody, this way!”


The class began to move.  Sonia watched, picking her friends out of the crowd: Luna appeared to be lecturing them, with Bud and Zack nodding along.  Geo and Pat were off to the side having their own conversation, and Jack was fiddling with his Hunter, though he did stop every now and then to respond to Luna or glance at the stalls they were passing.


 I haven’t talked to Luna much since I told her I was coming here.


She shook her head.


Well, this is the perfect time to change that!


She turned in the direction the class was headed, but then stopped.


…But then, I guess I need to wait until they get away from the rest of the class.


Before long they were out of sight.  Claud asked, “Are they coming back?”


“I’m sure they’ll get in touch once they’re checked in,” Sonia said.  “So Strong says you’ve been helping around here?  What exactly have you been doing?”


“Fighting viruses mostly,” Kidd said.  “Though on rare occasions we will have a run-in with human or Wizard criminals.”


“Yeah, like those Mal Wizards that are going around!” Claud said.  “I still don’t get why people would even use that model.  Even if the Wizard is going to do something illegal, why make them look so suspicious?”


“They are predictable through and through,” Goat said.  “You are right that there is no one challenging out here.  I am not happy to hear trouble is brewing, but I cannot deny I hope to get a good fight out of it.”


Sonia hummed.  “You’ll probably get one.  The first time I saw a Noise Card it was used on a normal utility Wizard, but it made him a lot tougher than I expected.”


“Really?” Kidd said, his eyes gleaming.  “Then I may get to push my limits a bit more after all!”


“In that case, the actual Dealers must be super tough!” Claud said.  “Have you fought any of them yet?”


“No,” Sonia said, “I still haven’t met any.  Seems they’re the type to control things from behind the scenes.”


“Aw, that’s lame.  A battle like this doesn’t really start until the top brass get out and fight!”


“I’d definitely like to settle things as soon as possible.  But there’s no telling when they’ll attack next, so for now all we can do is wait.”


A loud grunt from below caught her attention.  Turning, Sonia saw a Wizard down at one of the stands who was doubled over in pain, stumbling out into the street as he moaned.  It wasn’t long before more Wizards started acting the same.


“Perhaps they’re more punctual than we give them credit for,” Lyra said.


Sure enough, Noise began to erupt from the Wizards, startling the crowd as they began to mutate.  Sonia held her arm in front of herself and said, “Claud, Kidd, we need to do something!  I’ll be there in just a second!”


Claud bounced to the edge of the Wave Road, snapping his pincers in glee.  “Awesome!  First day on lookout and I’m already getting to kick these goons around with Sonia!  You coming, Kidd?”


Kidd simply chuckled and leapt onto the street below, entering the visible spectrum as he did.  Claud soon followed, leaving Sonia to execute her transformation.


“Hey!” Claud shouted, pointing at the nearest Wizard.  “You lot better not be planning to make any trouble!  Surely you know that you’ll never get away with it as long as Cancer Bubble is around!”


Ignoring him, the Wizard turned and brandished their new sword, smashing it into the stand they had just been operating.  The rest of the bunch did the same, some of them swinging in the direction of the humans nearby, causing the surprise in the area to swell into a full panic.


Kidd dashed out in the blink of an eye, knocking a Wizard flat.  “Seems it’ll be a bit more difficult to get their attention.”


Claud spotted a Wizard about to attack a human, hurling a pincer through the air; it clamped onto the target’s arm, pinning it to the stall right behind them.  While they tried to pull free, Claud charged, opening his other pincer and shooting a jet of water at his foe.  He was almost on top of them when a stream of bullets from another Wizard hit him.  Kidd leapt at this Wizard, kicking them in the head, but had to react quickly to block the swing of yet another Wizard.  Claud was recovering slowly, and had only just realized that his initial target was free.  The Wizard loomed over him, but before they could swing, something came down from above and smacked them into the pavement.


Looking up, Claud saw that it was Sonia, her new form complete.  She had rather simple-looking armor over her torso, and her hands were encased in gauntlets that thickened around her wrists.  Her shoulders sported large, flat, hexagonal plates; her scarf was pulled up over the bottom half of her face, and the nodes on her helmet had grown into horns.  The guitar, currently pressed against the corrupt Wizard’s back, had a more metallic sheen and a number of circular openings down the length of its neck, while the now-red body constantly spouted two tongues of flame near where the neck joined, and the head was in the shape of a bull’s head.


“We need a way to lure them away from the plaza,” Sonia said as she surveyed the area.  “There are too many people here to keep track of!”


Getting to his feet, Claud said, “Got it!  Kidd, you hear that?”


Between punches, Kidd replied, “I did!  I believe I can manage that, but I will require a moment!”


Sonia and Claud went to his aid, the latter shooting many of the Wizards nearby to encase them in bubbles.  As Sonia flung them away with a sound pulse, Kidd took a few quick steps backward and put his hands together.  Around him, several duplicates of the fighter flickered into existence, jumping in different directions almost as soon as they appeared, and then another set appeared in their place.  After producing over a dozen doppelgangers Kidd stopped to catch his breath, and then he turned, found a target, and jabbed.  Similarly, his clones each sought out a different Wizard to attack, managing to snag the attention of all who weren’t already focused on Sonia and Claud.  Once that was done, they all withdrew just slowly enough to keep their foes’ attention.


“Great job!” Sonia said.  “Lead the way!”


The mob converged on Kidd’s location just as his doppelgangers began to vanish.  Sonia battered the rows of enemies with musical notes, and Claud jumped from one to the next bashing them with his pincers.  A pair of Wizards went straight for Kidd, but he flipped back into the air to avoid their strikes, retaliating with a bolt of energy that stunned them both.  Claud and Sonia regrouped with Kidd as he headed onto a now deserted road—the horde followed them, shouting and shooting wildly.  Once they were far enough away from the plaza, Claud jumped forward and raised his hand, and his pincer suddenly grew until it was three times his size.  He scattered the Wizards with a single swing.


Kidd rushed some of the survivors, meanwhile Sonia paused to enhance her transformation: her armor turned red, and her scarf became gray with black circles that resembled the openings on her guitar’s neck.  Aiming the head, she played a note, and an orb of fire shot into the pile of Wizards trying to pick themselves up, exploding on impact.  The Wizards that managed to avoid getting hit raised their guns.  Sonia ran to avoid their shots, letting Claud trap them in bubbles so that Kidd could more easily kick them into each other.  One stray Wizard moved forward and raised its sword, but Sonia just ran faster and tackled it to the ground.  Before she could follow-up, however, the Wizard coughed up a ball of energy, paralyzing her.  She was unable to do anything as the Wizard knocked her back and unloaded a series of bullets into her.  Once the effects wore off she slammed her guitar into the ground, causing a line of fire spouts to shoot up in front of her and send her foe reeling.  Another Wizard was coming in fast, and she prepared as best she could, but before either got a chance to attack, the Wizard was sent flying by a blast of energy.


Sonia turned to see Geo standing there, buster aimed.  Smiling, she said, “Thanks for the help.”


“We heard Wizards were going berserk, and we figured you could use an extra pair of hands,” Geo said, keeping an eye on the Wizards as he ran closer.  “It’s just me, though—we thought it’d be too conspicuous for us all to try to sneak away.”


Sonia turned and shot a fireball at an incoming Wizard.  “Makes sense.  We’re pretty covered here, though.  It’s just that these guys came out of nowhere; I’m not sure when they could’ve gotten corrupted.”


A massive axe appeared in Geo’s hands, and he teleported a few feet forward to swing it at a group of enemies.  “Guess Mr. Boreal was right that Dealer would take this opportunity.  We’re going to need to be careful while we’re here.”


“Don’t worry too much—between all of us I’m sure it’ll be fine.”


She checked Claud and Kidd: both were still steadily whittling down their opponents’ endurance, looking like they were having the time of their life.  When Claud prepared to hurl a pincer, however, he froze up suddenly, and he lost his footing.  About the same time, Kidd put a hand to his chest and closed his eyes.  Sonia scrambled to aim her guitar at the Wizards closing in on them.


“Shoot, that’s right, they haven’t had a chance to install the Filters!” Sonia said.  She blasted away a few of the attackers, but the explosion didn’t catch all of them.  “We’ve got to hurry!”


Geo activated a Whistle Battle Card, emitting a shrill sound that stunned the Wizards and caused them to be dragged through the air away from Claud and Kidd and towards Geo.  Sonia began to smack them with her guitar, but she couldn’t get them all, and Geo wasn’t able to load another card fast enough to take proper advantage of the situation.


“Rain of Fists!” called a deep, clear voice.  In an instant, a storm of projectiles rained down on the mob of corrupted Wizards, pummeling them all into the ground.  Sonia looked up: just past where Claud and Kidd stood, making his way onto the road, was Strong.


Sonia sighed.  “That’s impressive.  Thank you, Strong!”


“I became concerned by the ruckus I was hearing,” the Wizard said, stopping next to Claud.  “I would’ve been here sooner, but I needed to ensure the environmental system was properly secured.  Tell me, what exactly is going on?”


One by one, the Wizards were starting to revert to normal.  Sonia gestured to them and said, “This is what I was telling you about: these Wizards were corrupted by Dealer.  They’ll be fine now.  Oh, but we should try to pick up their Noise Cards, and…”  She looked around.  “Is there any Crimson?”


Strong helped Claud and Kidd to their feet.  “I see.  This is every bit as horrific as you described it.  Is everyone unharmed?”


“I’m not really sure,” Claud said.  “I felt totally numb for a minute there…”


“I felt the same,” Kidd said.  “Miss Sonia, is this some technique these Wizards employ?”


“It’s the effects of Noise,” Sonia answered, stooping to pick up a few cards.  “That’s the reason why we gave you Filters: once you install those, you won’t have to worry about that again.”


Kidd nodded.  “I see.  What an awful feeling…”


“Hm,” Strong said.  “To think it would take effect so quickly...I must be sure to install this Filter as soon as possible.  But for now, I think it best to return these Wizards to their homes.  I hope you do not mind if I leave the disposal of these Noise items to you, Harp Note?”


“Oh, not at all!  That’s what we’re here for,” Sonia said.  Turning to Geo, she added, “We can handle this, if you need to get back.”


Geo looked over his shoulder for a second.  “Well, it can’t do much harm to take another minute to help you with this.  Prez would probably scold me for leaving you so quickly anyway.”


Sonia smiled a little, and then returned to what she was doing.  Claud and Kidd were helping Strong revive the other Wizards and lead them back to the plaza, so she didn’t say anything to interrupt them.


“Hey, Sonia,” Geo said.


She turned.  “Hm?”


“I know you’re going to be on lookout, but you should come to the beach for the barbecue later.  It’ll be a lot of fun!”


“Heh.  I don’t know—I definitely want to spend time with you all, but I can’t exactly join in the party with everyone else around.”


“I think you’ll really enjoy it.  Trust me.”


He handed Sonia the cards he had picked up.  She let out a breath as she counted up how many they had collected, and mumbled, “Maybe.”  She looked around to make sure they hadn’t missed any Noise Cards, and to verify that Crimson didn’t seem to be turning up.


I’m glad this wasn’t a huge problem…but then again, I doubt Dealer would make the trip if this was all they had planned.





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Chapter 11


“Finally,” Geo said.  “It’s been forever since I got to visit a beach!”


As the group made their way towards the water, Zack said, “I’m surprised there aren’t more people here.  Unless, maybe they’re nervous after the incident with the Wizards?”


“I wonder,” Pat said, raising a hand to shield his eyes.  “That’s too bad—it really is beautiful out today!”


Jack wiped his brow.  “It’s too hot.”


“That’s why I told you not to bring that dark coat,” Luna said.  “Honestly, do you not own any other clothes?”


“Give it a rest,” Jack grumbled.  “I just didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”


“You’ll cool down fast once you get in the water,” Geo said.


“Uh, I don’t know about that…”


Zack looked up.  “Huh?  Why come to the beach if you aren’t going to get in the water?  I mean, I don’t plan on going far, but still…”


Jack scratched his head.  “I’m just…not really interested, is all.”


Stopping where she stood, Luna turned and faced him.  “You can swim, can’t you?”


Jack’s eyes widened.


“Unbelievable!  It looks like we’re going to have to teach you.”


“H-Hey, don’t assume anything!  I can swim!”


“Don’t feel bad, Jack,” Pat said.  “It was a while before I learned to swim.  You pick it up in no time!”


“I can swim!  Can’t you hear?”


“I guess there’s only one way to know for sure,” Geo said.  “Why don’t we have a race and see?”


Shaking his fist, Jack said, “Fine, if that’s what it’s gonna take!  I’ll swim circles around all of you!”


“Um, I think I’ll sit this one out,” Zack muttered.


“Too late now, Zack,” Pat said.  “Time to see what you’re really made of!”


Zack grimaced.  “I already know what I’m made of, and it isn’t really seaworthy…”


As they picked up the pace, Luna turned to look back at Bud.  “Aren’t you coming?”


Bud waved and said, “Actually, I’m expecting a call from Amy.  I’ll catch up!”


Luna nodded and went after the others.  Bud loitered near the greenery lining the docks, but it wasn’t long before his Hunter started to ring.


“Amy!” he shouted as the screen appeared.


“Hi Bud!” she replied.  “Looks like you made it to Alohaha in one piece, huh?”


“Yep!”  He turned so that Amy could see the shoreline.  “Take a look!  Isn’t it great?”


“It does look nice!  Though, I’m pretty sure I would melt if I went down there, haha!  So did you just get in, or have you done a lot already?”


“We haven’t been here long, though I did tour some shops already.  You wouldn’t believe the food they’ve got down here!”


“Ooh, tell me!”


“First I was sure to grab some of the local barbeque.  Boy am I glad I didn’t wait until tonight: it was some of the most delicious meat I’ve ever tasted!  They use some kind of seasoning I guess you can only get in this region, and it was cooked just right, and covered in this sauce that’s out of this world!”


“Ah, that sounds awesome!”


“Then I tried this thing, it was like, a ball of fried dough, coated in sugar.  I was surprised by how good that was!”


“No kidding!”


“But the best thing I had was this special seafood skewer!  I’m not 100% sure what all was on it, but the way it was prepared and how all the different tastes blended together, it was just…aw, I think I’m getting hungry again…”


“Man, maybe I should try to get down there some time…”  She paused and shook her head.  “Well, I’m glad to hear you’re having a good time!  And there hasn’t been any trouble?”


Bud looked up.  “Uh…there was an outbreak of Noised Wizards when we showed up, but it’s taken care of now.”


“Oh, okay.  I guess they didn’t stand a chance against the one and only Taurus Fire, eh?”


“I, er, didn’t get to fight them, actually.  We decided it would be suspicious if we all snuck away from the class, so only one of us went, and…it was Geo.”




A long, quiet moment passed.


“But, uh, no other trouble,” Bud said, “and I’m ready to strike back if anything else does happen!”


He laughed a bit, but when he was done, Amy leaned forward and asked, “Hey Bud…what’s wrong?”


“Huh?  W-What do you mean?”


“Whenever you talk about Geo lately, you get kind of…awkward.  Is there something going on between you two?”


“What?  No, of course not!  Geo and I are Brothers—no way anything could come between us!”


Amy crossed her arms and squinted.


“…I mean…”


A grunt came from Bud’s Hunter.  “Bud, you should tell her.”


“Is that Taurus?” Amy asked.  “Tell me what?”


“It’s nothing!” Bud insisted.  “There’s nothing to tell, really.  I’m really happy for Geo!  He’s come a real long way in such a short time, and he’s way more confident now, and he’s become super valuable to the team!  He’s my Brother, so of course I’m happy for him, even if…”


He looked at the ground.  Amy waited.


“…even if…part of me, might be kinda…jealous.”


He sighed.


“I dunno.  It’s like, we trained together, you know?  And he got way more out of it than I did.  I’ve been trying so hard for so long, and in months he was able to pull ahead.  Heck, even before he really got serious, he was kind of more useful in big fights than I was, when I think about it.”


“Bud,” Amy said, her expression softening considerably.  “You can’t judge yourself based just on how useful you are in a fight.”


“I know,” Bud said, nodding.  “I know, really.  But it’s still frustrating.  I really am happy for Geo, but it still hurts to see just how much better than me he is at this.  Like…he’s just got talent for it that I don’t have.  Makes me feel like all the work I’ve been putting in doesn’t really amount to much in the end.”


Amy took a moment to absorb what he was saying.  “I can kind of relate.  Whenever someone beats me in skiing, I honestly feel happy for them, but I always want to kick myself for not doing better.  Still, though, I don’t ever feel like the work I’ve put in was a waste.  I enjoy seeing myself improve, even if it isn’t at the same rate as someone else.  I might not be as good as I could be, but I’m still better than I was, and I feel like that has to count for something.  You know?”


“…I guess.”


“Bud…I want you to know that I don’t think you’ve wasted any time.  Because of the work you’ve done, you’ve been able to help plenty of people—including me.  So I think it definitely counts for something.”  She grinned.  “Then again, I might be a little biased.”


Bud chuckled.  “Thanks, Amy.  I’ll try to remember that.”


“Good.  Now go enjoy your vacation!  And see if you can smuggle some of that food back with you, I’m not going to be able to get it out of my head until I can try it myself!”


“I’ll see what I can do!” Bud said, giving a thumbs-up.  “Talk to you later!”




The call ended.  Taking a deep breath, Bud turned and looked out at the ocean.


“What did I tell you, Bud?” Taurus asked.


“Yeah, I know, I should’ve talked to someone about it sooner.”


“Mrrgh!  That’s right!  Now with that out of the way, it’s time to find our path forward!  I won’t give up if you won’t.”


Bud nodded.  “Right.  I can’t give up yet.  Thanks for everything, Taurus.”




Sonia sat on the Wave Road above the beach, keeping a lookout for anything out of the ordinary.  Night had fallen, and the Echo Ridge students were gathered around a fire pit below, chatting excitedly as they ate.


“Messages from Claud and Kidd,” Lyra said.  “They’ve yet to find anything suspicious in their areas.”


Sonia crossed her arms.  “Hmmmm.  We haven’t seen a single trace of Dealer since the incident earlier, but that almost makes me more nervous.”


“I think you should relax a bit, dear.  Everyone’s safe at the moment.  See for yourself.”


Sonia looked down at the class, picking her friends out of the crowd.  Bud was tearing through a plate of meat, and nearby, Jack was eating with nearly equal enthusiasm.  Zack cheered them on, but Geo and Pat hung back, eating their food at a healthier pace.  And Luna…


For some reason, Luna was at the edge of the group, gripping her Hunter and breathing deeply as if she were preparing for something.  Sonia tapped her fingers against her arm.


...I might not have it all figured out, but…I can’t stand putting this off anymore.


She reached for her guitar screen, but it beeped before she could do anything.  Taking a look, she saw an alert that she had a new message from Luna.  She looked back—Luna was walking away from the group now, towards a secluded dock further up the shore.  Confused, Sonia quickly checked the message.


“Where are you right now?”


Sonia typed in her reply: “Just above you.  What’s up?”


Luna’s reply was fast.  “I want to see you.  No one should bother us out on the dock.  Please?”


Sonia hesitated for a moment, but then she pushed it aside and steeled herself.  “Sure, I’ll be right there.”


She made her way down, not undoing her Wave Change until she was right at the dock.  Her steps slowed a bit, but she didn’t stop.  Luna stood at the edge of the dock looking at the water—there were only a few lanterns lining the platform, but the moon provided more than enough light to make her out in the darkness.  She turned as Sonia drew closer.


“Hi,” she said quietly.




Sonia came up next to her.  They both sat down facing the water, letting their feet hang over the edge.  For a time, they just sat there, neither saying a word, until eventually Luna took a very deep breath.


“I-I-I th-think we…”  She cut herself off, cleared her throat, and started again.  “I think we have some stuff we…need to talk about.”


Sonia nodded slowly.  “Yeah.  I was thinking that too.”


Luna bit her lip.  Turning, she said, “Sonia…I know I’ve been coming off as sort of cold for a while now.  I’m really sorry about that.”


Sonia turned.  “What?  No, I wouldn’t say you’ve been cold!  Just…I just thought you needed a bit more time, that’s all.”


“Either way, I can tell it’s been bothering you.”


Sonia looked down.


“I haven’t been acting like this because I want to,” Luna said, wringing her hands.  “There’s…this fear inside me that keeps getting in the way.  It’s overwhelming, and I try to ignore it, but I just keep running away to escape it.  But…I guess it ends up looking like I’m running away from you.  So I’m sorry.”


“I’m sorry too,” Sonia said.  “I can see that you’re struggling with this, but…I keep trying to push things forward.”


Luna shifted.  “Y…yeah.  You have seemed pretty eager.”


“I know I shouldn’t push so hard, but I…it’s like I’ve got this compulsive need, and I can’t hold back, and…”  She shook her head.  “No, whatever it is, it’s wrong.  If I keep acting so selfishly, then it’s no wonder I scare you.  I’m sorry, Luna.”


Luna seemed to relax a little.  She reached out with one hand, brushing it against Sonia’s; Sonia turned her hand over and let Luna take it.


“I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine,” she said.


Sonia looked up.  “Are…are you really sure?  I mean, I’d understand if—“


Luna tugged on her hand, cutting her off.  “I don’t want to just quit.  We’ve both made mistakes, but…I know we can get past this.  That we still have a future, as long as we’re both willing to keep working for it.”


Sonia stared at her.


“Do you…feel the same?”


“Y-Yes, of course!” Sonia said, nodding.  “Of course, Luna, I…”  She paused, chuckling a little.  “You really are incredible.  I promise I’ll try harder to make this work.”


“Good,” Luna said.  “And I promise to do the same thing.”




“First things first,” Luna said.  “From now on, whenever we’re worried about anything, let’s be sure to talk about it right away.  This has been exhausting.”


Sonia smiled.  “Definitely.  I’ll try not to wait so long next time.”


“Neither will I.”


They both looked ahead, watching the waves come in.


“What’s next…really is kind of scary,” Luna said.


“If you’re not ready, then I’ll wait.  And I’ll do a better job of it.  The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable, Luna.”


She thought for a moment.  “Thank you.  But, the only real reason I have to stay here is that I’m afraid.  I’ve had enough of doing what fear wants.  So, even if it is scary…what I want is…”


Sonia turned to look at her.  Even in the dark, she could tell the other girl was blushing.


“Sonia,” Luna started.  “I want to stop letting things get between us.  I want to be totally open with you, because…because I know I can trust you with everything that I am.  Y-You should already know the reasons why, so…I’m just going to say it, okay?”


Luna turned to look Sonia in the eye.  Sonia felt her heart pound.


“Sonia…I love you.”


Hearing those words, Sonia was overcome with joy.  She could feel it surge through her body, bringing a smile to her face and tears to her eyes.  Clasping both her hands around Luna’s, she said, “I love you too, Luna.”


Luna grinned, her eyes starting to water as well.  They both giggled and took a moment to dry their eyes, and then, after a short pause, Luna started to lean towards Sonia.  Sonia moved as well, careful to be sure she wasn’t going too fast.  The anticipation turned seconds into hours, but when they finally kissed, both were sure that the wait had been entirely worth it.


“Wow,” Luna breathed.


Sonia giggled.  She slid closer to Luna, weaving her arm together with hers, and gently rested her head on her shoulder.  Luna rested her head against hers.


“I might still struggle a bit,” Luna said.


“I’m sure I will too,” Sonia said.


“Hm.  I guess it’s alright, then.  No, I’m sure it will be.”


Sonia closed her eyes.  For a moment, it was like everything else faded away, and the entire world was just the dock where she and Luna sat together.  The pain she’d felt for so long was gone, and in its place was a sense of closeness and affection greater than anything she’d ever felt before.  It was the peace she had been looking for.


She loves me.  She actually, really loves me.  It feels so good to be loved again.




The halls of Alohaha Castle were lit only by the glow that came from its exhibits, the only sound being an occasional beeping coming from the environmental system.  Standing before the console were two figures, one tall and engrossed in a screen projected from her terminal, the other short and glaring at the wall.


The tall one turned, breaking the silence with, “The preparations are complete.  Once Strong exits hibernation, we shall act.”


Her companion grunted.


“…There will be no turning back.”


He looked up.  “What?  I know that.”


“You do not fully realize.”  She flashed a Noise Card.  “The coding on this card is incredibly complex.  We cannot reduce this one to a feral beast, but we cannot leave his base personality intact, therefore we will need to completely rewrite who this Wizard is to make him capable of wreaking havoc.”


“I know, sis, King went over it.”


“And now that he has installed a Noise Filter, we have needed to enhance the corruptive power by a factor of 300%.  As a result of all this, the programming nearly exceeds the data limit of this card…meaning there is no room left for the memory hack.”


He said nothing.


“Let me be clear, Jack.  When Harp Note defeats Club Strong and reverts him to normal, he will remember seeing us.  Our undercover assignment will be over for good.”


Jack scoffed.  “About time!  I’m sick of these losers—I’m more than ready to show our power and start kicking them around!”


Tia stared at her brother.


“…What?  You think I’m going to chicken out or something?!  I’m not going to give up when we’re so close to getting our wish!  Let ‘em know we’re from Dealer!”  He turned and shoved his hands into his pockets.  “I…I don’t care.”


Tia waited a few more moments, and then turned back to her screen.  Neither said another word until the environmental system started to hum.  With a flash, Strong emerged from the system, and he immediately took note of his visitors.


“What are you doing here?” he asked.  “The castle is closed.  I’m afraid I must ask you to leave the premises.”


“We will,” Tia said.  “This shouldn’t take long.”


Taking one last glance at Jack, she hurled the card at Strong.  She waited patiently until the Wizard’s screams of agony died down before examining the results of the mutation.  Strong’s body was many times larger now, his rock-like form now sporting a patchy layer of moss.  His blocky shoulders were far more pronounced, and his head sat lower between them, his massive, jagged-edged maw left hanging open.  Strong looked at his now enormous hands as he processed the change, and then reached out: a gigantic wooden club appeared in his grip, and he grinned hideously as he hefted it.


“This is…some serious power,” he said, his rumbling voice sounding like thunder.


“Strong, guardian deity of Alohaha,” Tia said.  “You have spent so many years protecting these worthless people, and what have you gained from it?  What deity makes himself a slave to his people?  With the power that you possess, the people should not simply command you…they should fear you.”


“Fear me?  Heh, I like the sound of that.”  Strong turned slightly, looking back in the direction of the environmental system.  “Y’know, I think I know just the way to make that happen.  Heheh…yeah.  By this time tomorrow, I’ll be living like a real god!”


With that he disappeared into the system.  Jack stalked out of the castle without another word, and Tia did nothing to stop him.




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Chapter 12


Sonia had a new spring in her step as she came down the Wave Road.  Claud and Kidd were waiting near Alohaha Castle, and turned to greet her as she closed in.


“Morning, guys!” Sonia said.  “How’re you doing today?”


“Nothing new to report,” Kidd said.  “Though, I think we’d best stay on our toes.”


“You’re sure in a good mood today, Sonia,” Claud said.  “What’ve you been up to?”


Grinning, Sonia said, “Not much really—I just finally got to spend some time with my girlfriend is all.”


Gosh I love being able to say that.


“Ah, so that’s it!” Claud said.  “But hey, don’t forget to spend a little time with us before you head back!”


Sonia laughed and set a hand on Claud’s head.  “Of course I won’t—you’re my Brother, after all!  Now let’s do our best to keep this place Noise-free!”


“You got it!” Claud said, saluting.


Beneath them, the Echo Ridge students were gathering in the plaza, with Shepar keeping a close eye to make sure no one wandered off.  Luna was brimming with energy; she faced the group and said, “Isn’t this exciting?  This sort of opportunity only comes around every so often!”


“I am looking forward to learning more about the environmental system,” Geo said.  “It’s remarkable how much it’s evolved over the years—makes you wonder what it could be able to do in the future.”


Luna turned to Jack, who was staring off in the opposite direction, hands firmly in his pockets.  “We’ll also be learning about Alohaha’s history, so you’d better pay attention, Jack!”


Jack whirled, wide-eyed.  “What?!  Why me?”


“It’s probably going to be on our next exam.  We’ve still got to improve that history grade of yours!”


“O-Oh…right,” Jack mumbled.  He quickly turned away.


“…Jack, are you okay?” Pat asked.  “You seem kind of distracted.”


“What do you mean?” Jack snapped.  “I’m perfectly fine, I was just…”  As he trailed off, he caught sight of Tia: she was standing a few steps away from Shepar, watching the class with a totally blank expression.  Calming himself, Jack said, “…It’s nothing.  Just forget about it.”


Before anyone could question him, Shepar called, “Alright class!  It’s about time for us to head in!”


As the class slowly made their way inside the castle, Sonia, Claud, and Kidd proceeded along the Road towards the environmental system.  Lyra muttered, “Oh.”


“Hm?” Sonia said.  “What is it, Lyra?”


“I’m detecting Noise.  Curious I wasn’t picking it up earlier, it feels like quite a bit…”


“What, it’s in here?” Claud said.  “No way!  Strong would’ve smashed any Dealers who tried to make trouble in his house.”


“Curious indeed,” Kidd said.  “Perhaps something was done while Lord Strong was away?”


Sonia scanned the room.  “Can you tell where it’s coming from, Lyra?”


The class came to a stop before the system’s console.  Shepar took one step forward and said, “Excuse me, Strong?  It’s the Echo Ridge class—we were scheduled to do a tour today.”


“Oh no,” Lyra said.  “This can’t be good at all…”


Without any warning, the ground began to shake.  Claud said, “W-What is that?  An earthquake?!”


“Impossible,” Kidd said.  “The environmental system should prevent such occurrences.”


“I’m afraid that won’t be the case today,” Lyra said.  “The system is where all the Noise is coming from!”


Sonia froze.  “What?!”


Shepar stumbled backwards, trying to regain his footing.  “What the…class, is everyone still here?  Don’t panic!  We need to make our way back outside and find someplace safe!”


A thunderous laugh echoed through the castle.  In a bright flash of light, Club Strong appeared, his form so massive he barely fit in the building; he looked down at the class with an air of smugness, and shook his head.


“There is no safety!” he said.  “All of Alohaha is mine!”


Claud’s jaw dropped.  “Is…is that…Strong?”


“People of Alohaha!” Strong bellowed.  “Your deity has been reborn, stronger than ever before!  But my days of playing guardian to you weaklings are over!”


“No,” Kidd whispered.  “No, Lord Strong would never behave this way…”


“This is just a taste of what I can do—if I wanted, I could sink this entire island into the sea!  So if you don’t want that to happen, you better come up with a way to appease me, heheh!”


Sonia watched as he spoke, totally stunned.  “But…I gave him a Filter.  Did he not install it?”


“I’ll be waiting!  You know where to find me!  Hahahaha!”


Strong vanished just as quickly as he had appeared.  The class was in full panic now, most of them bolting for the door.  Shepar’s gaze lingered a moment where Strong had been, but he quickly pulled himself together and followed the kids, doing his best to keep them together.  Tia, calm as ever, tapped Jack on the shoulder, and the two of them slipped away in the confusion.  Luna, Geo, Pat, Bud, and Zack remained in the castle, and Geo got out his Hunter.




Turning, she put a hand against the side of her helmet that the mic extended from.  “Geo?  Is everyone okay down there?”


“Yeah, we’re fine.  Didn’t you say that you gave Strong a Noise Filter?”


“I did!  I don’t know how this—“


“The important thing,” Lyra interrupted, “is that it is happening, and now we must deal with it.  Shall we proceed into the system?”


“Hold on,” Luna said.  “Shouldn’t some of us go help deal with the earthquake?  Some people might be in real danger!”


“Perhaps,” Ophiuca said, “though we would be splitting our forces…”


“Bah, no need to worry about that!” Mega said.  “I’m sure each one of us is tough enough to handle this guy!  So who’s going where?”


Sonia looked to Kidd and Claud.  Both were still staring at the environmental system, oblivious to the conversation around them.


It makes sense: Strong was really important to them, so they don’t know how to handle this big of a change.  I can’t ask them to fight him.


“Claud, Kidd,” she said.  They snapped out of their trance.  “You two know this place the best, so I think you’d be our best choices for keeping the people safe.”


“Uh…yeah,” Claud said, “we can do that.”


Hesitantly, Kidd said, “Are you certain…you won’t need our help freeing Lord Strong?”


Sonia smiled.  “Positive.  Just leave it to us!”


“We’ll be up in just a second, Sonia!” Bud said.


Geo moved to end the call, but Sonia said, “Wait.  Geo…with your Mega Attack, you’d be able to get in and out of difficult places really quickly.  I think you should go with Claud and Kidd.”


“Really?” he said.  “Are you sure the three of you will be okay?”


Bud scowled.  “Hey, the three of us are more than enough!  I’ll singe the moss right off that guy’s butt!”


“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Luna said.  “Now get a move on!  We can’t afford to waste more time debating!”


“Alright,” Geo said.  “Good luck.  Pat, Zack, let’s get you back to the class.”


Pat nodded, but Zack said, “I might be able to help!  If I access the environmental system from here, then maybe—“


A particularly violent tremor shook the castle.


“But Strong’s the one holding the admin privileges,” Geo said.  “You’re good, Zack, but against that I don’t think even you will be able to gain much headway.”


Zack looked down.  “Right…”


“If everything’s settled,” Lyra said, “then let’s not delay any further, yes?”


Sonia nodded and ran for the environmental system’s access point, warping inside the system while the others ran to complete their own tasks.  Strong waited inside, surrounded by screens that were constantly scrolling with massive amounts of data, all while a faint siren could be heard blaring.


“ERROR, ERROR,” an automated voice repeated over and over.


“Darn thing won’t shut up,” Strong said.  “So you showed up after all, Harp Note!  Good—I wanted someone to test my new power, and you were the best choice!”


Sonia initiated a transformation to Taurus Noise, the amount of Noise in the system so immense she was able to immediately increase the connection to 50%.  “Strong, what happened?  This isn’t like you at all!  Did Dealer get to you before you could install the Filter?”


“Oh I installed it alright.  But the card they used was so powerful it broke the program to bits!  And now…”  He hefted his club.  “That kind of power is mine!  I wonder how long it’ll take me to smash you into pieces, hahahaha!”


“Well, that’s an important bug report we’ll have to get back to Mr. Boreal,” Lyra commented.


“You’re going to hurt the people of Alohaha if you keep this up,” Sonia said.  “Don’t you still care about them?”


“Of course not!  Those pathetic humans have nothing to offer me.”


Sonia sighed.  “I guess I won’t be able to reason with you…”


Bud and Luna finally arrived, coming to either side of Sonia and readying themselves for battle.  Luna said, “You mentioned he was already tough, and I know Noise Cards provide quite a boost.  How bad do you think this is going to be?”


Sonia looked at her and smiled.  “I’m not worried.”


Strong frowned.  “Feh.  If you’re going to be like that, maybe I should give you something to warmup on!”


He reached for one of the many screens floating around, smashing a giant finger onto a button.  The lion statues that lined the Wave Road glowed briefly, and then began to move, slowly stepping forward to surround the intruders.


“No time for small fries!” Bud said, already burning red-hot.  “Come on, Strong: you and me!  Let’s settle this before anyone gets hurt!”


Without waiting for a response, Bud charged forward.  Sonia tried to stop him, but the statues took the opportunity to launch their attack, several of them pouncing on her and Luna at once.  Luna used her eyebeams to shatter one of them, meanwhile Sonia flung one backwards with a punch.


“He’s always so impatient,” Luna said.  The snakes on her arms shot a series of blasts at the ground between her and the statues, creating a wide swath of purple muck to encourage them to keep their distance.


Sonia shot a fireball into the mass, and a second later, chunks of stone were flying everywhere.  “If it works, I certainly won’t complain.”


Bud rushed right up to Strong and threw a vicious uppercut at the Wizard’s jaw.  The leaping blow connected, making Strong take a half-step back, and before Bud even landed he shot a blast of intense flame at his foe.  The resulting smokescreen completely enshrouded Strong, but judging from his grunts of pain, the move stung decently, and that was enough for Bud.


“Take that!” he shouted, pumping his fists.  “Maybe you should change your name, you pushover!  Haha—“


His laughter was cut short when Strong’s club emerged from the cloud of smoke, ramming directly into him.  The mighty blow sent Bud flying.


“Not bad,” Strong said, stepping into view.  “You got a good punch there, kid!  Now get up and come at me again!”


“Bud!” Sonia shouted.  She beat back another statue and ran to his side, but he was already getting up.


“Rats,” he grunted.  “Okay then, this time I won’t let up!”


He barreled past Sonia, through a couple of statues, and up to Strong once more—the Wizard swung his club downward, but Bud skidded to a halt, dug in, and caught the weapon in both hands, managing to cushion the blow.  Unfortunately, Strong continued to press, leaving him unable to get out from under the bludgeon.  He pushed up with a mighty heave.  The club lifted, and Strong punched Bud with his free hand.  The boy slid back a bit, but then unleashed a volley of fire blasts that caught Strong off-guard.  After stumbling a few steps backward, Strong swung his club through empty air, and the wind around Bud whipped into a miniature tornado.  He was too shocked to continue his attack, and so Strong took a lumbering step forward.


Luna plowed through the last statue and fired her eyebeams at Strong, the hit just enough to make him stop.  When he looked her way, he saw Sonia next to her, and she slammed her guitar into the Wave Road to call up a series of flame pillars that advanced rapidly on him.  Strong endured the hit and reared back.


“Rain of Fists!”


He punched a hundred times in the span of one second.  The force of each blow caused a devastating, precise shockwave to shoot forward, and the storm of blows battered Sonia, Luna, and Bud before they could figure out a way to dodge.  Strong took another step to get in range of Bud, and then swung his club to flatten him.


“Heh, maybe you aren’t worth my time after all, Harp Note,” Strong said.  “Keep playing with my pets for now.”


He pressed another screen, and suddenly the statues reappeared along the edges of the Road, completely repaired.  She was surprised for a moment before she resumed blasting them.


“Come on, it’s not that strange!  I’m the admin here—I have complete control over this system, meaning I can return it to its previous state with the press of a button!  Those statues will keep coming until one of them finally makes a meal out of you!”


Sonia entangled one of them in strings, and then turned back to Strong.  “You’re still in there somewhere, aren’t you?  What part of you thinks what you’re doing is right?!”


Strong laughed.  “Sorry girl, but like I said: I’ve been reborn!  I’m nothing like the old Strong, who wasted his days watching these worthless insects.  All I want is power, and glory, and fear!”


She shook her head.  “Darn it…all this from one card?”


As she returned to the statues, Strong looked down at Bud, who was back on his feet.  He grinned and shrugged.  Bud snorted, punching the ground to call up a ring of flame pillars around Strong—a low sweep of the club came for him, but he leapt high into the air and aimed at Strong’s face.  He shot a rocket punch, grazing his target, and then was tossed about by another tornado.


“Sonia!” Luna said.  “I can handle these things!  You go help Bud!”


Sonia kicked a statue back and split its head with her guitar, and then turned towards Luna.  “Are you sure?”


Luna beamed.  “What sort of question is that?  You know better than to doubt me!”


With a giggle, Sonia jumped away from the statues and bolted for Strong.  A few tried to chase her, but with a wave of her hand, Luna summoned snakes to trip the creatures up.  She strafed to avoid another statue’s pounce, obliterating it with a look.


“Strong!” Sonia shouted.  “No matter what it takes, I’m going to free you from this!”


She shot a fireball, and Strong batted it away with his club.  “What’s that?  I’m freer now than I’ve ever been!  You’re a bit late, Harp Note!”


Sonia rolled aside to dodge the club.  Strong stepped forward and swung again, but she was able to narrowly avoid that blow as well, and shot a fireball into his face to blind him.  She glanced at Bud—he bounded forward, jumped up, and punched Strong in the chest as hard as he could, letting the flame jet on his gauntlet flare up for a bit of extra push.  Strong stepped back and doubled over, clutching his injury.


“Now’s our chance!” Sonia shouted.


Flames surrounded her guitar as she ran forward, and she smacked Strong in the face with it.  Noticing Bud wasn’t joining her, however, she turned to see him breathing heavily, his armor no longer glowing with heat.  The distraction cost her: Strong sent her rolling away with a kick, and then he too turned to Bud.  Something that looked like a seed shot from Strong’s mouth, bouncing down the Road until it collided with Bud—it broke open on contact, and a bunch of vines burst out and wrapped around the boy.


“So the two of you can test my new power!” Strong said.  “Good, I was beginning to get worried!”


He grabbed another screen.  This time, the surface of the Road transformed into a bed of grass, and Strong grinned as he walked towards where Bud stood.  Bud tried his best to break free, only for Strong to smash his club down repeatedly, leaving him in a crumpled mess on the ground.  Sonia only made it a few steps before Strong summoned a tornado around her, the wind ripping up a number of grass blades and turning them into deadly razors that made the pain unbearable.  She fell to her knees and paused to catch her breath.


“You okay?” Luna said, setting a hand on her shoulder.


“Starting to wish we’d brought a fourth,” Sonia chuckled.  “Think you can get Bud out of there?  I’ll handle the lions if he rebuilds them.”


“I thought you’d never ask!”


Luna advanced on Strong, earning a laugh from the giant.  He tapped a screen and tall wooden spikes began to spring up in Luna’s path, threatening to skewer her—she wove expertly around each of them, ultimately coiling around one and riding it as it rose, letting her eyebeams slice all the way up Strong’s side.  With a single swing, Strong decimated the makeshift forest.  Luna leapt onto his arm as it went by, slithering up closer to his face, and let her snakes pepper him with poison blasts.  Strong looked annoyed now.  He rotated his arm swiftly, knocking Luna loose, and then slammed her into the ground with his club.


“Luna!” Sonia shouted, jumping up.  She ran forward, but Luna recovered quickly, and was now letting her snakes blast Strong’s ankles while she had her eyes locked on his arms.


“I believe Bud needs our help more, dear,” Lyra said.


A handful of Luna’s snakes had made their way over to Bud and gnawed through the vines restraining him—he was in the process of getting up, but he looked awfully worn out.  She ran to his side.


“I can’t believe this,” Bud grumbled.  “How is he so tough?  I should be doing way better than this!”


“It’s okay, Bud,” Sonia said.  “We’ll just have to keep trying until—“


Bud beat his fist against the ground.  “I’ve been landing hit after hit, and he just keeps swatting me like a fly!  Why can’t I hurt him?  Haven’t I gotten strong enough to do that much?!”


Sonia paused.  “Bud…”


A shout from Luna drew her attention.  Strong had used a whirlwind to blow her away, and now several more wood towers were rising up.  He swung his club, and they all snapped in two, collapsing on Luna in a pile.  Without thinking, Sonia sprang forward: she dialed up the power of her guitar and played, sending a massive fireball up at Strong that erupted in a brilliant display.  Sonia started for Luna, but then stopped and looked back to Bud.  He was standing now, and he nodded before running at Strong once again.


“Luna!” Sonia shouted as she ran over.  “Luna, are you okay?”


After she pulled aside a few of the logs, Luna was able to squeeze her way out, leaning on Sonia for support as she rose.  “Thanks,” she said.  “How’s Bud doing?”


Her question was answered when he crashed into the pile of wood behind her.  They all turned to Strong, realizing he was rearing back his fist again, and Sonia quickly moved to get in front of Luna.  Another Rain of Fists came down on them, though Luna came out nearly unscathed.  Sonia, on the other hand, slumped on the ground.


“Sonia!” Luna exclaimed.  She gently took hold of the other girl, trying to steady her.


“What a waste,” Strong said.  “If you saw it coming, you should’ve saved yourself!  Now you’ve just wasted your endurance—you won’t be as much of a challenge now, and that girl’s no replacement!”


Glaring up at him, Luna said, “I was doing pretty well a moment ago, in case you’ve forgotten!”


Sonia laughed weakly.  “You tell him…”


With a roar, Bud rose once again.  Picking up one of the logs, he hurled it through the air at Strong, managing to deal a blow to his shoulder.  While Strong was stunned, Bud exhaled a huge amount of flames that washed over the grass in front of them, burning it all away and covering Strong as well.  The Wizard shouted, and Bud staggered forward.  Luna used the chance to help Sonia to her feet.


“We need to finish this fast,” Sonia said.  “Get ready!”


Strong came charging out of the flames with his club held high.  He swung downward, cracking the Wave Road on impact—luckily everyone was able to get out of the way.  Sonia used a series of quick blasts to draw his attention, and when he turned, Luna’s eyebeams hit him in the face, sending him stumbling back towards Bud.  Rushing at his foe’s foot with all his might, Bud collided with the hunk of rock and pushed, causing Strong to lose his balance and topple over.  Sonia and Luna immediately unloaded everything they had, with Bud joining them as soon as he found a safe place to stand.  Strong tried to get up, but it was no use: his bulky body made the task a difficult one, and the constant pain made it impossible for him to concentrate.  He yelled in rage, and reached out with his free hand.


“We’re almost there!” Sonia said.  “Just a bit longer, and we’ll have you back to normal, Strong!”


Strong clenched his teeth.  “That’s what you think!”


His finger just barely brushed the screen he was straining for.  At once, an intense rain storm kicked up within the system, blowing Luna back in surprise and extinguishing the flames of Sonia and Bud.  For Sonia the pain stopped when her transformation went down a stage—for Bud, it persisted.


“Heheh…” Strong chuckled, finally getting into a better position.  “You had me worried for a second there.  I knew you’d let me really see what this new power can do, Harp Note.”


Sonia fumbled for her guitar and began blasting Strong, trying to keep him down.  “This isn’t your power!  If that was enough to beat us, you wouldn’t need to manipulate the system like this!”


Strong pushed himself upright, looking more annoyed than damaged.  “…Not what I hoped for, maybe…but the point is, I still win.”


Luna fired her eyebeams at Strong’s feet, creating a thick layer of stone to try to anchor him.  It took some effort, but he broke free, and the first thing he did was create one massive tornado that scattered the three of them.


“The people won’t know any better,” Strong said.  “All they’ll see is that I’ve bested the legendary Harp Note in battle!  That should be more than enough to scare everyone into line!”


Sonia grabbed her head—it was still spinning.  She tried to find her guitar, but she wasn’t sure where it was.  “Listen to yourself, Strong.  I know you don’t really think that!  They’ve reprogrammed you, changed who you were!  Doesn’t that bother you?”


“Not that much, no.  I’m enjoying myself too much!”


Strong felt something at his ankles.  Looking down, he saw several snakes biting him, and brushed them away.  He took a step towards a screen.


“That’s enough fun for now, though.  I’ll just destroy you all at once.”


Sonia forced herself to sit up.  She spotted her guitar, but wasn’t sure she could reach it in time.  She moved anyway, but as she did, she heard Bud shouting, and once the instrument was in her hand she was able to look.  Burning red-hot once more, Bud had landed a rocket punch directly in Strong’s face, and was now running in to continue the assault, his aura of heat turning all the rain around him into steam before it could touch him.  Sonia ran to where Luna was.  Strong took a swing, but Bud rammed right into the weapon and sent it spinning out of its owner’s hand.  Luna and Sonia both took aim, and when Bud shot a focused beam of flame up at Strong, they added attacks of their own to floor their opponent once more.




The rain stopped.  The statues reappeared, but they were mere statues once more.  Strong groaned horribly, and in a burst of green, his massive body evaporated to leave his original self lying there.  Sonia sighed heavily.


“It’s over.”


Bud collapsed next to Strong.  “Yikes…that was rough…”


“No complaining,” Luna ordered.  “We won, didn’t we?  Now come on: we need to be sure the earthquake has stopped.”


She and Sonia made their way over, and each put one of Strong’s arms around their shoulder so they could lift him.  Bud managed to get on his feet before much longer, and the group slowly but surely made their way back to the Real World, happy to see it was no longer shaking.  After setting Strong down, everyone undid their Wave Changes and took a seat.


“Thanks for your help,” Sonia said.  “Though I guess it’s not much of a vacation if you end up having to work, is it?”


Luna shook her head.  “It’s not as if I’d prioritize our vacation over everyone’s safety!  Besides…”  She fidgeted a bit, and then finished, “It’s more time I get to spend with you.”


Sonia smiled, taking Luna’s hand.  “…We really need to have more dates that don’t involve our lives being in danger.”


“Hehe, I’m going to hold you to that!  You’d better come up with something nice.”


“Alright, leave it to me!”


A beep from Sonia’s guitar interrupted them.  A message from Geo had arrived, saying that no one was seriously injured; Sonia told him Strong was back to normal, and that they were waiting at the castle until he woke up.  Geo’s reply asked if any Crimson had appeared.


“Oh, I forgot about that,” Sonia said.  “Do you think it’s still in there?”


“I suppose we should check,” Luna said, not sounding very thrilled about the idea.  “Though even if there is, what are we going to do with it?”


As the two of them got up, Strong began to stir.  His eyes slowly opened, and he looked around before finally getting up.  Sonia said, “You’re awake.  How are you feeling?”


Strong stared at her for a moment.  “…Was it…a dream?”


She averted her eyes.


“I see.”  Strong put a hand over his face.  “How shameful.  To think that I would say such things—that I would put the people of Alohaha in danger, and simply for my own ego.”


“Don’t blame yourself,” Luna said.  “You weren’t in your right mind—whatever happened to you, you came out of it completely brainwashed!  This wasn’t your fault, Strong.”


Facing her, he said, “Still…I cannot forgive myself so easily.  But, tell me, why did those agents of Dealer come here with you?”




“The two who corrupted me were with your class earlier.”


“Excuse me?  We’d know if someone from Dealer was in our class—you must be mistaken.”


“No, I’m sure of it.  The boy in the dark coat, and that stoic young woman.  It was definitely them who did this.”


Luna blinked.  “…Jack…and Tia…?”


She and Sonia looked to each other, a deep sense of dread filling them both.  Sonia murmured, “That would…explain how they always know where we are.  Jack was at the studio, and they were both at the rocket launch, too.”


“B-But…that can’t be!” Bud said, leaping to his feet.  “Sure Jack’s a bit of a jerk, but he can’t be with Dealer!  He…he just can’t…”


Luna put a hand over her mouth.  “They did show up right before all this started…oh no.  This is terrible!”


“Where are they now?” Sonia asked.  “Still with the class?”


She turned to leave, but stopped short.  Someone was entering the castle: a very tall, broad-shouldered man with dark skin, wearing a burgundy-colored coat and narrow sunglasses.


“Um, sir, it’s still not safe here!” Sonia said.  “You should go find shelter in case there’s an aftershock!”


The man came about half-way across the room before he stopped.  “Pathetic.  And you dare to call yourself ‘Strong’?”


Coming forward, Strong said, “My deepest apologies.  The environmental system is functioning again—I assure you that everyone is safe once more.”


Luna tugged on Sonia’s sleeve.  “Let Strong talk to him.  We need to warn the others!”


Reluctantly, Sonia nodded.  She and Luna began to make their way out as the man went on, “I had high hopes for you.  But in the end, you’re just as weak as all the other pawns.  At least this time, I am permitted to erase your miserable existence.”


A chill crept up Sonia’s spine.  She looked back to see the man making a fist, and shouted in confusion as he punched Strong.  The Wizard’s face contorted in agony…and then he was gone.  Several orbs of light flew outward from where he had been—at first she wasn’t sure what they were, but soon it came to her.  That was all that remained of Strong.




From where he stood at the back of the castle, Bud ran towards the man.  “You…how could you?!  That was a cheap shot, you—“


The man made a sweeping blow with his arm, knocking Bud out instantly.  “You and he are no different: weaklings claiming you have strength.  Count yourself lucky that my orders don’t include you.”


“H-Hey!” Luna shouted.  “What do you think you’re doing?!”


“Bud…” Sonia mumbled.  “Strong…!”


The man looked over his shoulder at them for a second.  Turning back, he reached into his coat and drew out a tube-like device, and twisted one end of it.  Clouds of Crimson came streaming out of the environmental system and into the device, filling it until it was completely blood-red.  He tucked the item back into his coat, and then he faced Sonia.


“So you’re the one they chose to replace me,” he said.  “Hmph.  You may have shown some strength in the past, but the power of the Meteor Server is not for the faint of heart.  I’m insulted that mother would even consider you.”


Sonia struggled to process what was happening.  There were so many questions flying through her mind that she couldn’t pick one to grab onto, and so she just stood there, gaping at this mysterious person who had appeared.


“Sonia?” Luna asked, grabbing her shoulder.  “Sonia, we have to do something!”


Sonia swallowed hard.  “R…right.  I’ll stay here, and you go find…”


She turned at the sound of footsteps.  Jack and Tia were entering the castle now, looking right past her at the man in the coat.


“Joker,” Tia said.  “Collecting Crimson is our assignment.  We shall be the ones to hand that over to Mr. King.”


“You were about to miss your chance,” he said.  “Take it if you want.  But Mr. King would have been most displeased if you had let any Crimson be taken from us through your inaction.”


Joker? Sonia thought.  …Does that mean…


Luna turned to look at Jack.  “Jack?  Ms. Tia?  So…it’s really true?”


Jack scratched the back of his head, looking to the side.  “Yeesh, why did you still have to be here?  You’re so obnoxious.”


“Sonia,” Lyra said.  “They have us surrounded.  We should Wave Change quickly before—“


She stopped as a shrill laugh was heard.  A Wizard materialized next to Tia: most of her body was made of clear blue water, with bits of gray and dark pink armor holding her together.  “You should listen to your friend, little girl!  It won’t be any fun to kill you if you don’t put up a fight, kyahahaha!”


Lyra emerged with a shocked look.  “Virgo?!  What are you doing here?”


The Wizard cocked her head.  “Huh?  Have we met?  I don’t remember you, so you must not have left much of an impact…”


Ophiuca came out next, leveling a deadly glare at Virgo.  “My my.  And here I was hoping Cepheus might’ve finally captured you.  I suppose I should’ve known better than to be so optimistic.”


Sonia’s sick feeling only grew worse.  “Wait, are you saying this is an FM-ian?”


Ophiuca nodded.  “Virgo here used to be an elite solider, much like we were.”


“We’re nothing like her!” Lyra spat.  “This psychotic wretch liked killing a little too much, and when her commanding officer finally said something about it, she killed him too.  She’s been a fugitive ever since.”


“And it’s been a blast!” Virgo said.  “Especially lately, with how much easier it’s gotten to kill people—right, Corvus?”


Another Wizard emerged from Jack’s pendant: his black armor resembled a bird of prey, with wild orange energy filling in the gaps.  Showing his teeth through a smirk, he said, “You know it!  So, this is the great Harp Note we’ve heard so much about?  Shouldn’t Mega be around here too?  I heard you were inseparable.”


This is bad, Sonia thought.  We’re still tired from fighting Strong, and we’ll need to protect Bud as well.


“You want to save them, don’t you?”


Sonia turned slightly.  Joker had come closer without her realizing it, and she only now realized how much he towered over her.  She wanted to face him, to say something, but she couldn’t—she was trembling with fear.


“Pathetic.  So much power could be yours, and you’d squander it protecting weaklings.  If they don’t have the power to protect themselves, then they don’t deserve to exist.”


Luna clenched her fists and glared up at him.  “Where do you get off saying garbage like that?  Get out of here before we show you just how wrong you are!”


Joker sneered.  “Excuse me?”


Luna turned back to Jack.  “And you!  How can you work with a guy like this, to say nothing of FM-ian criminals!  I thought we were finally starting to get along, Jack!  Was all of this just a game to you?”


Scowling at her, Jack said, “O-Of course it was!  Gosh, you are so dense!  Shut up for once in your life, will you?  I’ve half a mind to—“


“Jack,” Tia said.  “Calm down.”


Jack looked at her for a moment, and then turned aside.


“I dunno,” Corvus said, “this girl’s getting on my nerves too.  I say we just axe the lot of them right now!”


Virgo laughed.  “Oh, that sounds like so much fun!  Can we, Tia?  Can we?”


“Out of the question,” Tia said.  “Mr. King has given us strict orders.”


“Oh, boo!  I’m sure we can collect plenty of Crimson without them!”


Ignoring her, Tia looked back to Joker.  “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”


“My target has yet to arrive,” Joker said.  “I hope, for your sake, that this event was enough to draw him out.”


Luna whirled, ready to snap at him, but caught sight of Sonia.  The other girl hadn’t moved an inch.  “…Sonia?”


What do I do? Sonia thought.  I don’t want to let them get away, but we really can’t afford a fight right now!


“Sonia,” Luna said.  “I know this is a surprise, but we have to do something!”


“What can you do?” Joker asked.  “You are the weakest one here.”


“Give it a rest!” Luna said.  “I’m sick of hearing that from you, and I’m not going to let you get away—not after what you did to Strong!”


Sonia took a deep breath.  Turning around finally, she said, “She’s right.  How could you just delete him like that?  He was no threat to you!”


“That is precisely why I deleted him,” Joker said.  “Weaklings annoy me.  Weaklings who think they’re strong…they infuriate me.”


She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  “Is strength all that matters to you?  That sounds like a pretty miserable way to live.”


“I’ll say!” Luna chimed in.  “You’ll have to seriously rethink things once we put you in your place!”


Joker gritted his teeth.  “You two?”


Pain.  That was all Sonia processed at first—it took her a moment to realize she had been flung into the wall, and a moment more to realize that it was Joker’s arm that had flung her.


“You two are the ones who need to learn your place.”


“Sonia!” Luna shouted, running towards her.


Sonia looked up at Luna as she approached.  Behind her, Joker pulled back his fist, and her eyes widened.   “Luna, watch—“


It happened in the blink of an eye, faster than anyone could attempt to stop it.  Yet at the same time, to Sonia, that single moment lasted forever.  Joker drove his fist into Luna’s back, knocking her forward.  But she never hit the ground.  Her body dissolved into a mass of light, one that broke into a dozen tiny pieces that each soared off in a different direction, leaving nothing but empty space where there was just a living, breathing girl.  Corvus and Virgo seemed amused; Ophiuca, Lyra, and Jack stared on in shock; even Tia’s eyes widened, just a little.  Sonia felt something sharp in her heart, followed by an all-consuming numbness.




Joker turned and walked out of the castle.  Tia said, “You were not permitted to kill her.”


“She annoyed me,” Joker said.  “I will discuss the matter with Mr. King later.  Right now, I have other duties to attend to.”


He left without another word.  Tia waited a moment, but then recalled Virgo and tapped Jack’s shoulder.  Jack stared up at her with a mix of emotions on his face.  She spun him around and gently led him out, Corvus following with a snicker not soon after.  Lyra and Ophiuca slowly floated over to Sonia.


“…What…happened…?” Sonia asked.  Her gaze was fixed on the point where Luna had stood.  “W-Where…where is…she?”


Lyra closed her eyes.  “Oh Sonia…”


“Luna?” Sonia called, getting to her feet.  “Luna, you…what…where…”


Ophiuca pulled her arms around herself tightly.  “Sonia, Luna is…she’s…”


Sonia took a step forward.  None of it felt real, she thought—it couldn’t be real, she told herself.  She knew that if she just reached out, Luna would be there.  So, she reached out.  And her hand moved through empty air.


“…Th-This is some kind of dream,” Sonia stammered.  “Y-Yeah, th-that’s…all…Luna’s fine, right, she’s…she’s just…”


“Sonia!” Lyra shouted.


Sonia turned to look at her.  She turned to Ophiuca next.  Finally, she looked back at the empty space in front of her, and the numbness wore off all at once.




Her emotions washed over her like a typhoon.




She shuddered and fell to her knees.




She was gone, Sonia realized at last.  And all she could do was scream.




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Chapter 13


The doors burst open as Rosa stormed into the room.  Slamming her hands down on the table, she whispered, “ you, Walters…”


Boreal entered next, approaching her cautiously.  “R-Rosa, I know it’s frustrating, but I think you should calm down a little.”


“But he’s still out there!” Rosa shouted, whirling on him.  “The FM-ians have Kelvin, and we could find him in a flash if we could just connect to Peace!  But that coward cares more about covering his tracks than the lives of those who went out there!”


“He was clear: he’s not going to let us use NAZA’s resources to pursue this.  I…I don’t think we really have much of a choice.”


Rosa shook her head.  “I’m not giving up.”


“If Walters catches you, he’ll—“


“What, fire me?  If he does that, then I’ll just cause a fuss about the FM-ians and his refusal to deal with it, and that’ll put more pressure on him than he’s willing to deal with.  He knows that.  He’s in no position to blackmail me.”


Rosa stalked over to a desk with a computer console built into it.  She started typing furiously, and Boreal slowly edged towards her.


“But what’s the plan?” he asked.  “If we use NAZA equipment, Walters will be able to shut it down.”


Rosa stopped what she was doing to glance at him.  “We?”


“…He’s my friend too.”


Resuming her work, Rosa said, “We’ll get equipment elsewhere.  Set it up off-site.  It shouldn’t be too hard to get everything together, and I’m sure I can outmaneuver Walters if he tries to lay some kind of claim to our work.”  She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.  “Still…we’re going to need help.”


“What about the Sages?” Boreal suggested.  “Having EM Beings working with us sure would be useful.”


Rosa covered her mouth with one hand.  “I definitely want to consult with them…but I don’t expect them to do anything directly.  They do need to manage the Satellite Network, plus if they reveal themselves now, the Star Force plan could be put in jeopardy.”


She stared forward, eyes unfocused, as she ran through all the possibilities she could think of.  Unfortunately, given how much power Walters held, the Sages of AM really were the only ones beyond his reach, so their chances weren’t looking very good. 


No, there’s still one more.


Her gaze sharpened as an idea came to her.  “…Hm…”


“You’ve thought of something?” Boreal asked.


Rosa stood up and started to pace the room, tapping one finger against her arm.  Boreal watched her, waiting for an answer.  Eventually, Rosa came to a stop and closed her eyes.


“I’m going to call her.”


“Her…?” Boreal repeated.  A few moments later, he realized who she meant, and his eyes shot wide.  “W-Wait, her?!”


Rosa flipped open her Transer and began setting up a secure connection.  “She’s the only person on Earth who I know can slip through Walter’s web.  If we’re going to have any chance of getting Kelvin back, we need her help.”


Boreal rushed forward and grabbed Rosa’s arm.  “Wait!  Are you really okay with that?”


Rosa averted her gaze.  “…My biggest problems with her are personal ones, so it’s just a matter of swallowing my pride, really.”




Finally looking him in the eye, she said, “We need her, Aaron.  You know Kelvin would do anything to help us.”


They stared each other down for a minute.  Ultimately, Boreal released his hold.  As he took a step back, he said, “You’re right.  If you think this is the way, then I’m with you.”


Rosa nodded and turned to her Transer.  She checked the encryption one more time, took a deep breath, and made the call.




But this situation is different, Boreal thought, his mind returning to the present.  Sonia’s still so young…and she watched it happen, right in front of her.


He and Ace walked slowly down the hall of WAZA HQ, coming to a halt near a door guarded by Lyra and Ophiuca.  The two FM-ians looked up as they approached—they didn’t say anything, just regarded them with sullen eyes.


“Lyra,” Boreal asked, “how long do you think she’ll need to recover from the shock?”


Lyra shook her head.  “Hard to say.  Sonia built her entire world around Luna, and without that central pillar, it’s all come crashing down on her.  She was able to pick up the pieces the last time that happened to her, but I imagine it’s even harder to do a second time.”


Ace crossed his arms, nodding thoughtfully.  “Hm.  It won’t be easy to take Dealer down without her help.  Especially now that Joker’s in play…”


Lyra paused a moment.  “Mr. Boreal, while I have you here: has there been anything unusual about any recent communications from Planet FM?”


“Not that I can think of,” Boreal said.  “Why do you ask?”


“Corvus and Virgo.  Not only are they here, which is troubling in and of itself, but they said something even more worrying.  Something about it becoming even easier to kill on Planet FM.  I can only imagine what they could’ve meant, and was wondering if—“


“Listen to you,” Ophiuca hissed.  “Luna died, and you’re concerned about a hypothetical situation star systems away?  We have far more pressing issues to deal with, Lyra.”


Lyra opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it.


“We can strangle the answers out of Virgo later.  First and foremost, we need to exact our revenge on that man.”  She turned to the humans.  “Unless you have something to tell me about that, I would ask that you leave.”


Ace and Boreal exchanged a look.  Before either could say anything, the sound of running footsteps could be heard—Vega careened around the corner and right up to them, stopping only when the FM-ians moved in front of the door.


“I can handle this, doctor,” Ace said.


Still catching her breath, Vega huffed, “No…I need to…speak with her…please, let me in!”


Lyra glanced at Ophiuca.  The snake charmer didn’t budge.


“Please!” Vega said.  “I can help her—you must let me through!”


“She does have…experience, with this,” Lyra said.  Begrudgingly, Ophiuca floated aside.  Lyra followed suite, but took a moment to add, “Tread lightly, doctor.”


Nodding to them, Vega gently opened the door and took a step inside.  The room was small and the lights were out, only a single shaft of sunlight from a very narrow window dividing the darkness.  The light hit the corner of a square table, at which sat Sonia, slumped forward with her arms crossed on the table to provide a makeshift cushion she could press her face into.  She didn’t move an inch.


“Sonia?” Vega asked quietly.  There was no answer.  “Sonia, are you awake?”


When she still received no reply, Vega walked over to the table and pulled out a chair, taking a seat opposite the girl.  She thought a while longer about how best to say what she needed to say before speaking again.


“Listen to me, Sonia.  There might still be a way we can save Luna.”


Sonia’s fingers twitched.  She slowly lifted her head up: her eyes were red, tears still streaming from them, but they were forming into a very nasty glare.  Vega quickly understood why.


“I’m being genuine.  You know that I’m the last person who would lie to you about something like this.”


Whatever Sonia had been preparing to say, she set it aside.


“If it had been anyone else, then the situation would be different, but Joker uses a very unique weapon.  It’s designed to break the target into multiple fragments—fragments specifically intended to be pieced back together later.  Even when used against a material being, its Z Wave output automatically increases to the point where the target is transformed into an EM being, so that this division can take place.”


Sonia’s gaze finally softened.  Vega leaned forward and took her hands.


“Luna isn’t gone for good yet.  There’s still hope.”




Sonia tried to hide her face as she followed Vega into the lab.  She had finally stopped crying, but she knew she couldn’t be looking good and didn’t want the others to see her like this.  They realized her intent and did their best not to stare.


Dr. Goodall stood before a large machine of some sort, and turned around when Vega stepped next to her.  Facing Sonia, the old scientist breathed deeply, adjusted her glasses, and said, “I’m so sorry, Sonia.”


“Dr. Vega said there was still a chance,” Sonia said.  She cleared her throat when she realized how awful she sounded.


“There is…but you must understand that it is a chance.”  Goodall gestured to the large tank-like machine behind her.  “This is the machine designed to piece together what Joker breaks.  We’ve done extensive work on it, but even at its current stage, it is not infallible.”  She pointed then to a wall covered in buttons and switches, next to which was a large, cylindrical chamber.  “More importantly, there’s this machine.  It turns an EM being that was once material back to its original state…in theory.  For obvious ethical reasons, we have never been able to test it, much less how it would work in conjunction with the first machine.  Not that that’s stopped Aaron from pouring his heart and soul into it…”


Boreal lowered his hat.  Geo shifted a bit.


“So I need to be absolutely clear, Sonia,” Goodall said.  “We will do everything within our power to save Luna…but science is not perfect and almighty.  I cannot make any guarantees.  You must understand this before we proceed.”


Sonia closed her eyes and bit her lip.  After a few seconds, she nodded jerkily.


“…Alright.  I’ve already gotten the finest team in the world together, and we’re running thorough checks on these machines as we speak.  With that out of the way, all that remains is gathering up Luna’s data.”


“How do I do that?” Sonia asked.


Goodall turned to Ace.  “For best results, I think you should take Acid with you.”


Ace raised his eyebrows.  “Uh…is that really necessary, doc?  Acid’s technically still a secret project, so we’re not supposed to take him off-site unless it’s an official Satella Police mission.”


“It is,” Boreal replied.  “We can’t afford to miss a single piece of data, and Acid is our best analyst hands-down.  I’ve authorized Sonia to take him with her.”


Ace rubbed his neck.  Grabbing his Hunter, he pressed a button to materialize Acid, and then said, “Well, what do you say, Acid?  Ready for a trip to the beach?”


Acid faced Sonia.  “I have calibrated my sensors to pick up the energy signature left by Joker’s weapon, and augmented it with what data we have gathered from observing Luna fight in wave form—it is highly likely that her data fragments will possess a congruent wavelength.”


Sonia nodded.  “Thank you all.”  She paused a moment, and then asked Boreal, “Should I be looking for Strong’s data too?”


Boreal didn’t look her in the eye.  “We already gathered up Strong’s data.  The environmental system is equipped to track him in case of an emergency, so it was a pretty quick process.”


“Were you able to repair him?”


“…It’s important to remember that Strong was corrupted by a very large amount of Noise.  Since Joker absorbed the Crimson he released afterward, it’s also possible the device he used affected Strong’s data, and…”


Sonia fidgeted.  “It’s not good, is it?”


Boreal sighed.  Goodall was the one who answered, “We were unable to restore Strong using his fragmented data.  It had eroded to a point that we could not complete his program.”


Sonia nodded.


“But there’s good news for Strong,” Boreal said.  “The environmental system keeps backup data for him that it frequently refreshes, and using that the people of Alohaha were able to rebuild him.  The data was from a few days ago, so he doesn’t remember anything about Noise or Dealer, but…he is alive.”


She wanted to be happy, but all Sonia felt was an urgent sense of anxiety, and an inkling that even were that not the case her actual feelings would be mixed.  Not wanting to waste any more time, she turned back to Acid.


“Let’s go,” Sonia said curtly.


The Wizard followed as she headed for the door.  Boreal called, “I’ll send you an access code so that you can use the Astro Wave—you should be able to get to Alohaha much more quickly using that!”


“My, Earth has an Astro Wave at last?” Lyra commented.  “It would seem your EM technology has taken quite a leap after all.”


Geo stepped forward, saying, “Let me come too.  I want to help get Prez back, and…well…”


Before he could finish, Ophiuca interrupted, “Please let me come as well.  I don’t know that I’ll be much help, but…I at least want to be there.”


Sonia just nodded, and then continued on her way, expecting the others to follow.  However, just before she walked through the door, she stopped.


“…I have a question,” she said.  “Joker said I was his replacement…and since the Ace Program is named after Ace…”


She looked to Ace, then Boreal, then Vega, then Goodall.  With a sad look in her eye, Goodall said, “That’s right.  Joker used to work with the Satella Police, and we named a Noise Control Program after him—he still possesses the first generation sample of it.”


“I see,” Sonia mumbled.  She continued out the door, not saying anything else until they reached the elevator.


“I wonder what the rest of that story is,” Geo said.  “It’s weird to think we haven’t heard about Joker before now.”


Sonia stared at her guitar screen.  She started to reach for it, but then stopped.




She gave him a quick look, and then slung her guitar over her shoulder.  “…I can’t use it.”


“What do you mean?”


“This is…the power that killed Luna.  I want to just uninstall it, and destroy it so it can never be used again.”  She clenched her fists.  “But…I don’t have time to replace it with a Filter.  I guess I just have to keep it for now.”


Lyra offered, “If it makes you feel any better, dear, I won’t prepare any Noise Change connections.”


“Thank you.”


“I do not believe your assessment is accurate,” Acid said.  “This is not the program that Joker used to make his attack.  Even if it was, refusing to use it now does not change the fact that—“


“Lay off, will you?” Mega snapped.  “She said she’s not gonna use it, so that’s that!  Why don’t you fire up your sensors, or whatever it is you need to do?”


Acid said nothing more.  Geo watched Sonia, but she just stared forward with a look he’d never seen before.  He wanted to believe she was being hopeful, like she always was, but there was unmistakably something different this time.  She looked drained, and desperate.  It was like this was the last scrap of hope she had left.




King sat and shuffled his cards for a moment.  Eventually, his chair rotated, and he looked down at Jack, Tia, and Joker.


“Well,” he said, “this is a most unusual draw, now isn’t it?  Jack, Queen Tia, you did an excellent job.  You generated a hefty amount of Crimson, instilled fear in the people of Alohaha, and successfully drew out that pest so that Joker could engage him in combat.  But Joker…”


He set down his cards and leaned forward, folding his hands in front of his face.


“It’s bad enough that you couldn’t finish off your opponent, but worse still is that you’ve crippled Harp Note’s will to fight!  How are we to proceed without one of our most necessary pieces?”


Joker hung his head.  “I am truly sorry, Mr. King.  My anger got the better of me, and I acted rashly.  I regained my composure when I fought my target, but he surprised me, and slithered away like a coward.”


King sat back and sighed.  “I had a bet you weren’t prepared to fight cowardice.  Heartless?”


She swiftly produced a stack of poker chips, which she set in King’s outstretched hand.


“Thank you my dear, at least I’ve some profit to show.  Really, Joker, I’m disappointed in you.  You couldn’t control yourself when faced with simple taunting, and you failed to complete a mission that should have been very easy for someone with your power.”


Joker’s fists tightened as he continued to stare at the floor.


“I suppose I’ll have to think of a suitable punishment for you.  For the time being, you are dismissed.”


Joker turned and slowly made his way out of the room.  Jack glared at him as he went.




Jumping a bit, he said, “W-What?”


“Are you feeling alright, Jack?  I just complimented you on a job well done, yet you don’t seem all that pleased.”


Jack put his hands in his pockets.  “Right, yeah, I’m thrilled.  Glad we can finally put all that undercover nonsense behind us.”


King scratched his chin.  “Hmm, I see.  And is that the truth?”


“What do you mean?!” Jack snapped.  “Of course it is!  Now quit beating around the bush and get to our orders, will you?  I’ve been waiting too long to take a stab at Harp Note!”


King wagged his finger.  “Ah-ah-ah, Jack, that’s no way to behave.  What am I going to do with you?  Even when you finally succeed in something, you fail in the end.”


Before Jack could say anything, Tia took a step forward.  “I apologize, Mr. King.  I will have a word with Jack in private later.  We are simply eager to continue our work.”


“Sis…” Jack mumbled.


King grinned.  “Oh, very well.  I do have a rather important task for you.”


He gestured to Heartless.  The woman took a few steps aside and then clicked a button on her Hunter: a large screen appeared where she had been standing, displaying an image of WAZA HQ.


“Our surveillance network has confirmed that Harp Note and Mega Man have both left WAZA HQ and are en route to Alohaha,” she explained.  “Further, they have taken Acid with them, and counting the death of Luna Platz this leaves our enemy’s base short four key fighters.  To compound matters, the staff is in mild disarray as they attempt to prep machines they believe will reconstruct the data of Luna Platz.”


Jack looked up.


“Therefore,” King said, “I believe it is time to call their bluff.  Queen Tia, you are to leave immediately to launch an assault on WAZA HQ.”


Tia nodded.  Furrowing his brow, Jack said, “And what about me?”


“You will stay here and await further orders,” King said.  He picked his cards back up and resumed shuffling them.


“…What?” Jack asked.  “But sis and I always run missions together!  What are you trying to pull?”


“This is exactly why I’m not sending you,” King said.  “You’re quite out of sorts, Jack.  Frankly, I expect you to ruin this mission if you are a part of it.”


“What?!  That’s a load of—“


“Jack,” Tia said.


He turned to his sister, ready to continue, but froze under the ice-cold glare she was aiming at him.  Shrinking back, Jack pulled his coat tighter and mumbled something under his breath.


“I have no qualms about this assignment,” Tia said to King.  “Am I permitted any troops?”


“Actually,” King replied, “I was going to send the copies with you.  They’ll be perfect for this particular attack.”


Tia nodded.  “Of course, Mr. King.  Thank you for trusting me with such valuable technology.”


“Of course, my dear!  You’ve more than proven yourself.  But then, at the same time…with so much in your favor on this mission, should you somehow manage to fail it…”  He leaned forward again.  “I will be incredibly displeased with you.”


“I understand.  Rest assured that the mission will proceed as planned.”


“Good!  That’s what I like to hear!  Run along, now.”


Tia departed, leaving Jack standing alone.  He looked up at King and Heartless expectantly.


“Didn’t I already tell you what to do?” King said.  “Go and think about what you’ve done.  I’ll expect you to have a clearer head by the time your sister returns.”


Jack left without another word.  When he was gone, King sat back in his chair and sighed.


“I suppose he’s about that age.  I do hope he doesn’t get any particularly rebellious ideas—it’d be such a shame.”


“Indeed, Mr. King,” Heartless said.  “I am certain that once he has some time to readjust, he will be useful to you once again.”


King hummed.  “There’s still the matter of Harp Note.  This hunt for her lover’s corpse is bound to end in failure, so we shall need to find a new way to motivate her to fight.”


“I doubt we will need to go far out of our way, sir.  Once she fails, she will likely settle for revenge next, especially with the devastation of WAZA on her conscience.”


“Hmm, perhaps, perhaps.  But now that you say that, I find myself wondering if we should raise the stakes of this operation…”


King snapped his fingers.  Ten Wizards with spiky purple armor soon appeared in the room, eagerly awaiting their orders.  King drew ten cards from his deck and held them out.


“Each of you take a Noise Card, and then round up as many viruses as you please.  Our enemies think their recent global expansion will leave them better prepared to deal with us…we’re going to need to make a point.”




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Chapter 14



“Here, Acid?”


“We are close.  Please proceed slowly.”


Sonia took a few steps, looking around anxiously.  As soon as they had arrived in Alohaha, Acid had begun scanning the area for any trace of Luna’s data, and the team was currently searching the Wave Road above the plaza outside Alohaha Castle.  Sonia knew she just needed to be patient, but that was beyond her ability right now.




Sonia froze.  “Here?”


“I believe so.  Focusing scan now.”


From where he hovered just above Sonia, Acid put both hands forward and emitted a low whine.  A flash nearby caught Sonia’s attention.  Gradually, a small, blue orb of light flickered into view, and Sonia immediately started forward.


“Is this…?”


“Luna fragment located,” Acid said.  “Confirmed safe for retrieval.”


Sonia reached out, gently cupping her hands around the ball of data.  She pulled it in close, eyes fixed on it, and tried to make sense out of what she was holding.


This is Luna?


Acid came forward and glanced at the orb.  “According to my estimations, this fragment contains approximately 20% of Luna Platz’s data.”


Sonia tensed.  “T…twenty percent?”


Acid gave a nod.  Appearing to realize Sonia’s mood, he then continued, “This is promising.  If all the data fragments we find are this large, it will greatly increase the chance of successful reconstruction.  It is more common that fragments of Joker’s victims contain roughly 11-15% of data each, and if any fragments dip below the threshold of 10% it virtually guarantees that reconstruction will fail.”


“Her chances are looking very good, dear,” Lyra said.  “Luna’s holding on.  It’ll be alright.”


Sonia nodded slowly, continuing to stare at the data.  She felt a little more optimistic, but at the same time, actually holding a piece of Luna in her hands made the situation feel much more real suddenly, and her worries were starting to swell again.


No.  I don’t have time to break down right now—Luna needs my help.


She closed her eyes and lowered her head, cradling the data even closer, and whispered, “Don’t worry, Luna.  You’ll be okay soon.”


It might’ve just been her imagination, but when she opened her eyes, she was sure the light was shining more brightly than before.


As Acid helped her download the data into a specially-made folder, Lyra said, “We’re getting a call from Geo.  Shall I pick up?”


Sonia nodded.  A screen popped up before her, showing not just Geo, but Claud and Kidd as well.  Claud leaned forward and said, “Sonia, there you are!  We didn’t know you were back already.”


“Uh, sorry,” she said.  “We were really in a rush, so I didn’t get the chance to let you know.”


“No, it’s okay, I understand.”


“We wanted to apologize, Miss Sonia,” Kidd said.  “Earlier, when we saw that Lord Strong had been corrupted, we were too alarmed to be of any use to you.  Perhaps if we had been stronger…”


Sonia shook her head.  “Don’t worry about it.  I know it must’ve been hard for you.”


“How are things going on your end?” Geo asked.


“We have reclaimed roughly 20% of Luna Platz’s data,” Acid answered.  “May I utilize this connection to extend the range of my radar?”


“Oh, of course!”


As Acid went silent, Claud said, “Geo gave us the basics of what you’re doing, though I’m still a little fuzzy on the details.  But you’re looking for a way to save Luna, right?  Is there anything we can do to help?”


“Sure, we’ll take all the help we can get,” Sonia said.  “We need Acid’s radar to verify the data, but if you could ask around, maybe see if anybody has seen any unusual data over the past few hours, that would narrow it down.”


Claud and Kidd saluted, the former saying, “We’re on it!  Don’t you worry about a thing, Sonia: we’ll get Luna back to you in a flash!”


Sonia gave them a smile, albeit one that was weaker than she intended.  The two boys rushed off, and then Acid said, “Geo, hold location.  I am detecting a potential match in your immediate vicinity—will rendezvous at once.”


“Oh, great!” Geo said.  “We’ll stay right here!”


Lyra ended the call, and Sonia began to move.  She turned to Acid and whispered, “Forgive me for asking, but the assessment you just gave her was truthful, yes?”


“Correct,” Acid said.  “Were there a problem with the data, I would inform her.”


“Oh, good.  And if this one fragment is of decent size, can we expect the others to match it?”


“Uncertain.  There have been instances where fragments of the same victim have wildly varied in size, with no clear variable to associate.”


“I see…”


Acid didn’t continue the conversation.  Lyra stared at Sonia for a moment, and then quickly moved to her side.




Hyde stepped into the room and stopped, surprised to see he was not alone.  Zack, Pat, and Magnes were crowded around a small table in the corner, and they looked up as he entered.


“Ah, pardon the intrusion,” he said.  “I was sent to retrieve some files Lady Vega requires for her work.  I hope you won’t mind.”


“No, of course not,” Zack said.


As he walked over to one of several consoles lining the walls, Hyde glanced at Magnes.  “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.  My name is Hyde—I work as Dr. Vega’s assistant.”


The Wizard gave a forced smile as he replied, “I’m Magnes.  I used to help the Science Club at Echo Ridge.”


Hyde nodded awkwardly.  He reached for his Hunter, faced the console, and began searching for what he needed.


“It’ll be okay, Magnes,” Zack said.  “We’ll find something for you to do here in no time!  With your specifications, you’re practically made for this place!”


Magnes shook his head.  “I was made to help out at the school.  I’m programmed to teach, and to work with kids, and to oversee simple experiments.  This just isn’t the same.”


“Even if it’s different, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it,” Pat said.  “Just give it some time.”


“I appreciate that you’re trying to help, but it isn’t that simple.  I’m a Wizard built for a specific purpose—I need to fulfill that directive.  If I can’t do that, then…it feels like I’m just wasting drive space.”


Zack leaned in.  “You aren’t a waste!  There’s still a lot more you can do, Magnes!”


Magnes sighed.  “Zack…I’ve lost the opportunity to do the one thing I was created to do.  Anything else I can try would just be empty.  Maybe it would be better if I was dele—“


“Don’t say that!” Zack interrupted.  “You’re more than a simple program, Magnes: Wizards are so complex that they have to be able to grow and change.  You just have to work at it.”


Magnes looked down at the table.


“…Well,” Pat muttered, “you also have to want to work at it.”


Hyde quietly put his Hunter away and slipped out of the room before the conversation could continue.  When they were a few steps away, Phantom said, “All this technology and the humans can still only produce such primitive EM beings.  It only grows clearer that PM-ians are the only lifeforms worthy of their sentience.”


“Yes,” Hyde mused, “the wise, flawless PM-ians, brought into being by a warmongering god-machine that couldn’t think of anything other than consuming power and breaking what it didn’t like.  You come from such a noble adoptive lineage.”


“Hmph!  Don’t tell me you were impressed by that sniveling wretch?”


“I must admit, there’s a certain advantage to admitting that one has failed at their life’s goal, rather than simply denying the obvious.”


“And what exactly are you implying?!”


“I’m afraid you’ll need to wait for the revision to know.  Much work remains to be done on-set.”


Hyde ignored Phantom’s retort and glanced out the window.  In the courtyard outside of HQ, he could barely make out Bud, standing off by himself and staring up at the walls of the crater the structure was built into.  Thinking little of it, he continued on his way.


Down below, Bud kept staring until he heard the Wave Liner pull in.  Amy disembarked, fished out her Hunter to show some identification to the posted guards, and then rushed straight over to him.  She practically tackled him as she moved to hug him, but he was a bit sluggish in returning the embrace.


“How are you doing?” she asked.


Bud shook his head.  They stood there for a moment, still entwined, before he finally said, “I couldn’t do anything.”


Amy hugged him tighter.


“It seemed like he barely moved, and I was out.  And then, Prez…”  He bit his lip.


“But they have a way to save her, right?” Amy said.  “She’s going to be okay, Bud.”


“They don’t know if it’s gonna work.  And if it doesn’t, then that means it’s my fault that—“


“It isn’t your fault.”  She reached up and put a hand on his face, gently turning him to look at her.  “Bud, you can’t blame yourself for what happened.  You had no warning.”


“I know, but…once I did realize what was happening…I couldn’t stop him.  I wasn’t strong enough to even slow him down.”


He sniffed as tears finally started to fall.


“I’ve worked s-so hard, and I…I still can’t…protect my friends…!”


Bud began to cry loudly; Amy could feel herself tearing up as well, but she did her best to fight it, and just held onto Bud until he could talk again.


“I-I just…all this time, I’ve been giving it my all!  I thought, if I was really dedicated, it was supposed to payoff, y’know?  That I’d be strong enough to keep everyone safe!  But, I did my best, and I…I’m still not good enough for this new threat!  There was nothing I could do to help Prez!  Even if she pulls through this time…what’s going to happen next time?”


Amy looked up, wishing there was something she could say.  Nothing she could think of seemed like it would be enough.


Bud sighed in an attempt to calm down.  “…I’m sorry.  Thanks for being here.”


“Don’t apologize—of course I’ll come when you need me!”  She paused to smile at him.  “Let’s head inside.  We’ll see how their work is going.”


Bud nodded.  Taking Amy’s hand, he prepared to head back when he spotted something on the far side of the crater.  “Huh?  What’s that?”


Amy turned to look: it appeared to be an EM body of some kind, a pure white, mechanical-looking creature that floated a few feet off the ground.  “Isn’t that Acid?  I mean, he looks a little different, but…”


“He left with Sonia, though,” Bud said.  “Are they back already?  I thought they would’ve told us once they were done searching.”


Suddenly, another EM body appeared, also identical to Acid but being a yellowish-green color.  A few seconds later, a pinkish-red Acid appeared not far away.  Bud’s eyes widened.


“Th-this isn’t good,” he said, tugging on Amy’s arm.  “Come on, we’ve gotta warn someone!”


The two of them dashed inside, nearly bumping into Ace in the lobby.  He looked at them and said, “What’s the rush?”


Bud pointed.  “It’s—I mean, they—well, I don’t really know, but…”


Ace approached the door, looking out to see a steadily growing swarm of Acids slowly approaching WAZA HQ.  He grimaced and drew out his Hunter.  “Sound emergency alert!  Deploy Real Wave barrier at main entrance and evacuate all civilian personnel!  We are under attack—this is not a drill!  I repeat, HQ is under attack!”


Alarms blared overhead, and just outside, a tall, glowing barrier flashed into existence.  Ace turned and headed for the stairs.


“Chief Boreal, do you copy?”


“I copy,” replied a voice from Ace’s Hunter.  “What details do we have on the enemy forces?”


“Well Chief, they all look like Acid.”




“Misprints, granted, but some people actually pay more for those.  I’ve deployed the barrier, but hard to say how long that’s going to hold.”


“Rats…we’ll just have to…”


Ace stopped mid-step.  “Chief?  You there?”


“I’m getting an urgent report from our Netopia Branch HQ,” Boreal replied.  “Wait, and also one from NetFrica…Sharo too?  They just keep coming!”


Ace tightened his grip on his Hunter.  “A coordinated attack on all branches, huh?  So much for backup.”


“This is a nightmare!  Ace, we’re just going to have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.  Deploy all Battle Wizards and notify all Satella Officers on-site, I’ll see who I can call in!”


Turning slightly, Ace shouted, “What are you waiting for?  Let’s move!”


A crowd of people in combat gear began to rush past him.  A new voice came from Ace’s Hunter, this one belonging to Goodall.  “Arthur?  What’s going on?”


“I’m afraid we’ve come under attack by a swarm of Acid clones, doc.  Still working on an explanation.”


“Dear me…an army like that is going to be tough to repel.  You know, I think I could recalibrate that EM weapon we’re working on, but—“


“But you’d need Acid’s help to do it properly.”


“Bah, you should at least let me finish!”


Ace chuckled.  “Sorry, but once Acid gets here I’m going to need him with me.  Besides, you and Dr. Vega still have important work to do.”


“…Arthur,” Goodall said.  “You will be careful, won’t you?”


“I will, doc.  I’ve gotta contact Acid now, but I’ll be up in a second.”  He hung up, and then turned to Bud and Amy.  “Bud, we could use your help out there!  Amy, if you don’t want to evacuate, then you should get to the main computer room!”


He ran off before either could say a word.  Taurus appeared and set a hand on Bud’s shoulder, saying, “Come on, Bud!  We’ve got some heads to knock!”


Bud glanced at the door.  “I…I don’t know how much help I’ll really be.  There’s a lot of those things, and if they’re all on the same level as Acid…he’s supposed to be really strong, isn’t he?  He is based on Mega.”


Taurus leaned in.  “Mrrgh?  We can’t just sit by, Bud!  We’ve gotta do what we can to protect this place!”


Squeezing his hand, Amy said, “I believe in you, Bud.  You’ll be able to stop those things, I’m sure of it!”


Bud looked between them for a moment.  Hesitantly, he nodded, and he reached for his Hunter as he slowly approached the door.  Amy paused a moment, and then looked at her Hunter.  A few moments later, she turned and climbed the stairs.




“…but that’s all we know for now.”


Sonia stared hard at the screen, trying to process what Ace was telling her.  “…Ace…if they get inside, then…”


“We’re doing our best to prevent that,” Ace said.  “But to tell you the truth, we really need you all back here ASAP.”


Acid nodded.  “Fortunately, we have just completed our search—100% of Luna Platz’s data has been recovered.  We will return to HQ immediately.”


“Great news!  That’ll be a nice morale booster for everyone.  See you soon!”


The call ended.  Sonia looked to her guitar: it was true that they had managed to find all of Luna’s data, and from Acid’s assessment, her chances still sounded high.  But now she couldn’t help but feel even more worried than before.


If they destroy those machines, we may never be able to save Luna.


She turned to Geo.  “We need to hurry!”


“Should we come too?” Claud asked.  “We can help take out these copy things!”


“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Geo said.  “It sounds like Dealer’s attacking several places at once—you guys might be needed here.”


“Is there really much threat of them returning here?” Kidd asked.  “I’m not sure Alohaha would be a very strategic target.”


“Strictly speaking, perhaps not,” Ophiuca said.  “But it would provide a way to kick us while we are down, and I hardly put that beyond Dealer.  You boys stay here.  We will be in contact once this matter is settled.”


It wasn’t much of a goodbye, but Ophiuca and Acid headed for the Wave Road while Geo and Sonia Wave Changed in order to join them.  As they headed for the link to the Astro Wave, Geo asked, “Acid, do you have any idea what these copies are?”


“There is a high probability they are being utilized by Dealer,” he said.  “Aside from that, there are many possibilities as to what their origin might be.  I do not think it fruitful to speculate with the limited information I currently possess.”


“Whatever they are, we’ll need to take them out as quickly as we can,” Sonia said.  “I’ll draw their attention when we get there—Geo, you should try to get between them and the HQ.  Ophiuca…”  She paused.  “I think you should take Luna’s data, and get it to Dr. Goodall.”


Ophiuca nodded.  “I’ll protect her with my life.”


“And then, Acid…”


She then realized that Acid had stopped moving.  Before she could ask why, he stated, “Unidentified Wave Change detected.  Intentions unknown.  Incoming.”


“Shoot,” Geo said, “they must’ve sent someone to intercept us!  Sonia, Mega and I will hold them off!”


She turned towards the direction Acid was facing and scanned Wave Road.  At first she didn’t see anything, but then, someone did emerge from a path leading behind Alohaha Castle.  Her jaw dropped when she recognized who it was.  He stopped for only a moment when they locked eyes, and then continued his approach, moving a good deal slower than she expected him to.  Geo glanced at her, keeping his buster ready.


“Do you think…?” he mumbled.


“I don’t know,” Sonia said.


He was still a short distance away when he stopped.  He stared at them for a moment, but then, finally, said, “It’s been some time, Harp Note.”


Shakily, she nodded.  “Yeah.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Solo.”


Acid cocked his head.  “This is Solo?  Curious.  I have heard mention of him, but was not given any information on what he looked like.”


Solo eyed Acid warily.  Turning back to Sonia, he said, “I mean you no harm.  I simply have something I wish to discuss with you.”


Sonia tapped her fingers against her guitar.  “…I’m sorry, Solo, but we’re really in a hurry right now.  Someone’s life is at stake.  I don’t have time to spare.”


Slowly, Solo nodded.  “I see.  Then…”  He paused for another few seconds.  “May I come with you?”




“I’m not going to impede your efforts, if that’s what you’re worried about.”


“No, I just…wasn’t expecting that.  Er, I’m sorry.”  She turned to Acid.  “Do we need to get him clearance to get to WAZA, or can we skip that since this is an emergency?”


“Uncertain,” Acid said.  “I have been told that this individual is rather dangerous…although, he does not seem to be a grave threat at the moment.”


Taking another look, Sonia realized what he meant: though he was Wave Changed, there appeared to be several scars on Solo’s body, and every now and then he swayed a bit before catching himself.  His eyebrows soon lowered.


“Fine, I’ll cut to the chase,” he huffed.  “Tell me: are you in conflict with Dealer?”


Sonia said, “D…well, yeah, we are.  How do you know them?”


“They’re my enemy as well.  So…”  He swallowed hard.  “After considering it…I’ve come to feel that it might be worthwhile for us to compare what we know.”


“Please clarify,” Acid said.  “Are you requesting to ally with us in the fight against Dealer?”


Solo ground his teeth.  “…Potentially.”


“I require definitive confirmation.”


Solo hesitated, and Sonia grunted.  “Acid, we don’t have time for this!  Let’s just take him with us—if anything happens, I’ll accept the blame!”


“Are you certain you trust him?” Acid asked.  “He could also pose a threat to Luna’s reconstruction, you must be aware.”


Sonia looked at Solo, feeling just a twinge of doubt.  If she was being honest, she wanted to take a more cautious approach, but she knew they didn’t have time and she had to make a fast decision.  It didn’t help matters that she still couldn’t entirely think straight.  Still, she took stock of her feelings as best she could, and made the decision she thought was best.


“…He wouldn’t have any reason to do that.  I’m trusting him.”


Solo’s face went oddly blank.  With a nod, Acid said, “Very well.  Then let us be off.”


“Come on!” Sonia called to Solo, turning back towards the Astro Wave.  “Just so you know, we’re heading for a fight.”


Regaining his composure, Solo came closer and said, “Hmph.  So long as it’s with Dealer, you’ll hear no complaints from me.”




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Chapter 15


The structure of the Astro Wave was almost exactly the way Sonia remembered the Sky Wave, with the only monumental difference being the obvious one: rather than hanging just above the clouds, it formed a loose net in the empty space around all of planet Earth.  The purple and gold platforms looked more or less the same, linking to each other via identical warps, though luckily there seemed to be fewer viruses overall.  It provided a fantastic view of the planet, the moon, and hundreds of stars, but Sonia wasn’t interested in any of that right now.  Geo was unable to keep his eyes forward, constantly looking about at something new he spotted out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t let it slow him down.  Solo just seemed vaguely uncomfortable, though no one was sure if it was due to where he was or why he was there.  The party travelled in silence until Acid suddenly materialized in their path.


“What now?!” Sonia snapped.


“I am detecting a large group of viruses heading this way,” Acid said.  “There is no way to circumvent them—we will have to fight to clear a path.”


“You’ve got to be kidding…”


Sonia unlimbered her guitar while Geo activated a Noise Change: his armor became teal and white, with two large wing-shaped protrusions on his shoulders and a long beak-like extension on his helmet.  Solo stared at him for a moment, and then turned to Sonia.


“So you’ve let someone else take the transformations this time?” he asked.


Averting her gaze, Sonia said, “I have the same power.  Just not using it.”


“Why not?”


She shook her head.  “It’s complicated.  I’ll be fine.  What about you: aren’t you going to call out Laplace?”


Solo gritted his teeth.  “…I can’t.”


Sonia turned towards him.  “Huh?  Why not?”


Before Solo could answer, a warp ahead lit up, and a Wizard with spiky purple armor appeared out of it.  He floated a few steps forward before noticing the party, and jumped in shock.  “What the…what are you doing here?!”


“I thought you said you detected viruses?” Sonia asked Acid.


“You what?” the new Wizard asked.  “Well, no big deal I guess, I’ll just…hey, wait.  You’re Harp Note!”


Sonia’s patience was growing thin.  Stepping forward, she said, “If you’ve got anything to do with those viruses, call them off.  We don’t have time for distractions.”


The Wizard smirked.  “Distractions, y’say?  That sounds perfect!  I was ordered to meet up with Three and attack Alohaha, but if I keep you distracted I bet I’ll get way more credit!”  He gave a short wave.  “The name’s Two!  On behalf of Dealer, I’ll be harassing you today!”


With an angry grunt, Sonia rushed forward.  Two touched a hand against the Wave Road, and a large swath of it suddenly changed to an odd shade of gray; when Sonia reached the edge of the patch, she received a powerful jolt, making her stumble back.  The warp lit up again, and this time viruses began to pour out of it.


“Oh great!” Sonia said as she took aim.  “We don’t have time for this!  Move!”


She hurled her guitar in flail form.  Two strafed to avoid the initial attack and ducked when she swung it around, letting it knock aside several of his viruses as he lobbed a small explosive.  Sonia was struck head-on, and when she recoiled, several viruses moved in on her at once.  Acid swooped in just in time to knock them away.


“I believe it wiser to fight from a distance,” Acid stated.  “Stay focused, Sonia.  The others will hold out until we arrive.”


“Alright,” Sonia muttered as she got up.  She played as she backed away, sending a flurry of notes into the oncoming horde.  “I hope they will.”




The courtyard was in total chaos.  Those who had not evacuated WAZA had gathered in the main computer room, watching a feed of the battle on a large monitor, and their sense of security was in steady decline.  On their own, the Acid copies didn’t seem especially powerful—each took only a few blows to be deleted, and they had only displayed very light projectile weaponry in addition to their physical attacks—but they kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming, and coming.  The Battle Wizards were keeping their formation strong to avoid being flanked while the human Satella Officers fired over their heads with anti-Z Wave artillery, managing to steadily chip away at the enemy ranks and give their front line some degree of relief.  But when one copy fell, it seemed like three more sprang up its place, and it was apparent that the Satella Wizards were in danger of being overwhelmed.


Out in the thick of it was Bud, swinging wildly and sending one Acid clone after another flying off into the distance.  He was able to shrug off their attacks for the most part, and when they became too much, he was able to create some room to breathe using a wide fire attack, but then the cycle would start again.  He didn’t seem to have much of a plan, and his swings seemed to focus more on repelling the clones that outright destroying them.  It wasn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but while some of the clones he flung away bowled over others, at least as many got right back up and marched on the line of Battle Wizards, only worsening their already poor situation.  At this point, some of the viewers couldn’t help but feel Bud was causing more harm than good.


Come on, Bud! Amy thought, wringing her hands together.  I know you can do better than this!  Quit holding back!


On the other hand, much to everyone’s surprise, Hyde was proving quite valuable with his hit-and-run tactics.  His new Wave Change form was visible for only seconds at a time: the spikes that had once decorated his elbows were gone, his crumpled shoots of hair stuck out at smaller angles, and instead of a cape, his armor was now covered with a well-trimmed longcoat not too dissimilar from his everyday clothes.  He made his way from one side of the crater to the other, appearing only long enough to smack an Acid copy with his electrified cane and stun it, forcing the others to detour around their prone companions.  Then he would throw his hat into the ring—literally—and watch it slice through a few dozen enemies before a shadowy hand would rise from the ground to catch it, swipe away a few more enemies, and hurl it right back across the field and into Hyde’s hand.  Then, he made another pass, occasionally stopping to execute a spinning attack just for variety’s sake.  A few Acid clones got in lucky shots, but none of them lasted long enough to make a second.  Remarkable as it was, despite all his success, he could not put a large enough dent in the swarm to lessen the burden on the Satella Police, and this left him looking a bit less pleased than Vega expected he would.


“He can’t keep this up forever,” Vega said, and then turned back to what she was doing.


“He’ll be fine, Veggie,” Goodall said.  “Let Jekyll have his fun, and once Sonia and the others arrive, he can come take a breather while we wrap up our own work.”


“Of course…”


Copper stared intently at the screen, arms crossed, tapping his foot as well as his fingers.  He started when he felt something nudge him, and looked down to see Plesio.


“Is it going badly?” the PM-ian asked.


“…It’s more of a stalemate, really,” Copper answered.


“You’re nervous.”


Copper sighed.  “I just wish there was more I could do to help.  I’d be of at least some use down there, I’m certain.”


“We need you here, detective,” Ace said.  “You’re the all-important eye in the sky—just keep watch and tell our comrades what to expect.”


“They know exactly what to expect!” Copper said, gesturing to the screen.  “I can’t see anything helpful, just an everlasting flood of enemies!  At this point, the only thing I can think of that could potentially change the situation would be entering a new combatant…that, or figuring a way to get Bud more motivated.”


Ace nodded, thought for a moment, and then turned to Amy.  “What do you say?”


She jumped.  “Huh?  W-Well, I already talked to Bud—I don’t know that there’s anything more I can say to him, and if I called I’d just be distracting him…even more….”


“Okay.  Then what about entering the fight?”


Copper squinted.  “Ace, what are you doing?”


“Well, her Wizard is a PM-ian.  She could really help out here.”


From Amy’s Hunter, Yeti replied, “Yeah, but we don’t Wave Change!  I’d be happy to go fight these things, though.”


Amy looked to her screen.  “Hang on!  You’re not properly equipped for something like this, especially since you won’t be able to use your full power!  Look at how rough those Battle Wizards have it—you don’t have armor like theirs to keep you safe!”


“Maybe…I could attack from a distance?”


“But what if they spot you and counterattack?”


Ace nodded.  “She’s right: it isn’t safe for a non-equipped Wizard out there, even an elite PM-ian like yourself.  But you’d be in much better shape if you Wave Changed.”


“Like I said,” Yeti insisted, “we’ve never—“


“Yeti.  I know.”


Yeti paused.  Fidgeting, Amy said, “…You know…what?”


“Come on, you know.  I’ve got access to the Transcode registry, so of course I noticed when 010 was added.”


Zack pushed his way over to where they were, looking up and asking, “Wait, is that true?  You two have Wave Changed?”


“We didn’t fight anything, though!” Yeti said.  “At the last skiing event, there was an avalanche—someone got trapped in the woods, and Amy wanted to go help them.  She couldn’t get her footing, and we were near the edge, so…we Wave Changed, just so I could help her get to safety.  But that’s it!”


Turning to Zack, Amy said, “I’m sorry for hiding it.  Yeti just didn’t want to talk about it.”


“Then, you can help Bud!” Zack said.


“We’re not going to Wave Change to fight,” Yeti said.


“What?!  But you can help him!”


“I want to, but if I did that, I’d be putting Amy in danger too!  I…”  He hesitated.  “I can’t do that.  Not after all she’s done for me: she took me in and gave me a place to belong, even after the terrible things I did.  I can’t accept all that and ask her to put herself in danger!  I won’t Wave Change!”


Amy furrowed her brow.  “Yeti, I…I appreciate that you don’t want me to get hurt.  That’s why I haven’t pushed the issue, especially because there was no need to.”  She gripped her Hunter more tightly, leaning in.  “But, please…Bud’s in trouble!  We’re all in trouble!  If I can do anything to contribute, then I want to be useful, even if it’s a little dangerous!”


“Amy, I don’t know if I can keep you safe!  If you were to get hurt, it’d be my fault again!  I don’t…”


A shout from the main screen caught their attention.  Looking up, they saw Bud down on one knee, breathing flames to keep away the Acid copies but unable to fight off those that were clawing at his back.  Eventually, he was able to buck backwards and smash them against the crater wall, but in seconds more were coming.  He just stood there, unsure of what to do.


“Bud!” Zack shouted.  “Do something!”


Amy turned back to Yeti, who still didn’t say anything.  She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Pat.


“Yeti,” he said.  “I know you want to keep Amy safe, but you also need to think about how she feels.  Someone she cares about is out there fighting for her, getting hurt to protect her, and she just wants to try to help protect him in return.  Are you really going to deny her that chance?”


The PM-ian covered his face with his hand.  “That’s easy to say, but…”


Amy faced Pat and said, “I guess…you feel that way too?”


Pat smiled a little, but it didn’t last long.  “…Yeah.  But at least you have a way to help.”


“So do you,” Ace broke in.


Before Pat could ask, Copper and Vega both started towards him.  The former grabbed his shoulder and stated, “That’s enough!”


“Don’t you dare, Ace!” Vega shouted.  “I won’t let you!”


“You just find somewhere quiet to wait until Acid gets back,” Copper said.  “I think you’ve said more than enough.”


“We need help if we’re going to last until Acid gets here,” Ace argued.  “These two are the only ones who can give us that help.”


“At what cost?!” Vega replied.  “You have no idea what you’re asking!  Just stand down!”


“Doctor, if we lose this battle there might not be another.  We’ve got to protect everyone here, as well as the equipment needed to save Luna.  If Taurus Fire is defeated, and if Harp Note loses her will to fight, then there’s no way we’ll ever beat Dealer!”


“And that’s all that matters to you, isn’t it?  You’ll do anything to destroy them, even if it means throwing more children into harm’s way!  You really are just like him!”


Something dark flashed over Ace’s face.  Recovering quickly, he calmly said, “I’m not throwing anyone.  It’ll be their choice.  I just want them to know what choices they have.”


Before Vega could say anything more, Pat stepped forward and said, “Stop it!  What are you talking about?  How can I help?”


“Just ignore him, Pat,” Copper said.  “What he’s proposing is a terrible idea, and you—“


“I want to…” Pat interrupted, quickly growing quiet before trying again.  “I want to make that decision myself.  If there’s…if there’s really a way for me to help here, then I want to know what it is.  People keep getting hurt trying to protect me, and I…”  He faced Ace.  “Please, tell me.”


Ace and Copper locked eyes for a minute.  Eventually, Copper released his hold.


“No!” Vega said.  “You can’t do this, Ace!”


“Vega!” Goodall said.  The other scientist turned.  “…If he wants to know, let him know.  It’ll be his decision in the end.”


Still looking furious, Vega glared back at Ace, but didn’t say anything more as he led Pat out into the hall.  They made their way around several corners and down a flight of stairs before coming to a metal door with a keypad, and after Ace punched in a string of numbers, he pulled it open to reveal a small room that was empty except for a pedestal at the center, and the Transer that sat on it.  Pat cautiously entered the room and examined the terminal.


“I don’t get it,” he said.  “It’s just a Transer.”


Ace shook his head.  “This was Chief Boreal’s Transer.  He had it stored here as soon as he took over NAZA, because he didn’t want any risk of what he sealed inside it getting out.”


“Sealed…?” Pat repeated.  Suddenly, his eyes widened.


“It’s been three years now.  I’m told you were there, when the FM-ians made their final push to destroy the Earth, and Chief used a special program to trap one of them who couldn’t be reasoned w—“


The boy whirled and punched him.  Pointing a malicious glare, he said, “What the are you thinking?!  You want us to let that monster out?  He’ll just find a way to get us killed faster!  I’m not just gonna let you put my brother through that!”


Ace rubbed his face.  “Nice to meet you too, Rey.”


He started forward, but stopped suddenly.  Putting a hand to his head, Pat said, “No, wait…just wait a minute…”


Rey clenched his teeth.  “Are you joking?!  You can’t actually be considering this, Pat!”


Pat took a deep breath.  To Ace, he said, “Can you…give us a minute?”


Ace nodded and stepped outside, pulling the door around but not enough that it would lock.  Pat took another step towards the Transer.


“That jerk really has no idea what he’s talkin’ about.  What’s more, they shoulda destroyed this thing the second Sonia wasn’t looking!”




“We can’t trust him, Pat!”  Rey paused, and sighed.  “Look, I know I’ve said that too much before, but with this guy I’m sure of it, and you know exactly why!”


“I’m not saying we trust him.  But if there’s a way to use his power, then we’d actually be able to help our friends.”


“Close enough!  He’ll still be able to hurt you, and you know he’ll take that chance!  Just leave it to the others—Geo will be here soon!”


“And then Geo will get hurt!  Is that what you want?”


“…Not really, but—“


“He’s always doing whatever he can to keep us safe, and he keeps getting hurt because of it.”  He shuddered.  “Rey, I’m…I’m so scared that something’s going to happen to him, and that it’s going to be my fault.  I want to fight to keep him safe!  I know it’ll have risks, I know I’ll probably get hurt in the process.”


“Then don’t do it!”


Pat breathed deeply.  “Rey…I know you want to protect me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.  But I’m stronger now.  I don’t want to keep running away from the pain: I want to face it, and show that I can handle it!  Maybe this won’t work out, but I want to see if it can.  Please, Rey, I need your help to do this.”


It took a long time for Rey to reply.  “Pat…are you really sure that you’re ready for this?”


“I am.  Everyone’s always protecting me…after so long, I’m finally ready to protect someone else for a change.  It isn’t fair if things stay a one-way street forever, you know?”


“But if that’s what you need…”  Rey sighed.  “I don’t like this.  But if this is really what you want to do…then I’ll support you however I can.”


Pat smiled.  “Thank you, Rey.”


After taking another deep breath, Pat called Ace back into the room.  He paused once more, and then he reached out, flipped open the Transer, and stared at the screen.  It took a moment for the device to activate.  When it did, an image of an EM being appeared on the screen: a yellow cloud of energy with two masks sitting atop his form.  He regarded Pat for a moment, and then chuckled.


“Well well,” Gemini mused.  “I must say I’m surprised to see you again.”


Pat felt his muscles tense.  On instinct, he prepared to retreat, to let Rey take over, but he stopped himself and stayed right where he was.  “Hello, Gemini.”


The FM-ian glanced at Ace, saying, “Ah, it’s you again.  Still trying to convince me to join in your precious cause?  I told you, I have no interest in the dealings of humans.”


“Come on, Gemini,” Ace said.  “Aren’t you at least interested in finally getting out of your cell?”


“I will admit I’ve grown a bit tired of this cramped terminal.  But, the mere ability to leave is not motivation enough to bend to your terms.”


“Listen,” Pat said.  “WAZA is under attack, and we need to defend it.”


Gemini turned aside.  “Isn’t that what you have Harp Note for?  The girl destroyed Andromeda, I imagine she’s capable of repelling a few troops.”


“She’s not here right now.”


Gemini perked up.  “Oh?”


“We’re going to get overwhelmed if we don’t do something.  But…”  He bit his lip.  “…But if you and I were to Wave Change…”


A low, chilling laugh came from Gemini.  “Now that’s an interesting offer…”


“There’d be conditions, of course,” Ace said.  “You’ll be put in Pat’s Hunter and granted a Real Wave body, but a modified one with built-in restrictions to prevent you from running wild.  We’ll also be able to remotely terminate your Wave Change if you try to take control of Pat.  So long as you don’t cause any harm to our side, we’ll keep you out of this room.”


“And when this is all over?  What would become of me then?”


“That all depends on you.”


“Hah…a very strategic answer.”  Gemini faced away from the screen.  “I’m afraid that’s just not enticing enough.  There’s no promise of anything to be gained, only a short reprieve to see how useful I am to your efforts.  Perhaps whoever overruns this facility will grant me a more appealing offer.”


Stepping forward, Pat said, “You’d really rather sit here trapped?  Just on the chance that Dealer won’t smash this Transer when they overwhelm us?  How is that a better option to you?”


“To be frank, being on a human’s leash sounds equally appealing as death.  And since I hold more of a grudge against you lot, I’d rather take my chances elsewhere.”


Pat gritted his teeth.  “You…”


Gemini laughed.  “But I thank you for coming here!  Getting to see you so distraught really reminds me of the good times, and it will—“


His body lurched suddenly, and then began to waver, and he gave a pained moan.  Pat gave a confused look to Ace, who smirked.


“Seems the Noise is getting to you after all,” Ace said.  “Yeah, all the equipment in this building produces quite a bit, so I’m actually really surprised you’ve avoided corruption this long.”


“Hmph,” Gemini scoffed, his form solidifying again.  “As if I would allow myself to be harmed by some ambient static.”


“Whether you allow it or not, the Noise is only going to keep building up inside of you, and if left unchecked you will be corrupted.  You’ll probably go feral and mutate into some hideous virus.”


Gemini faced him.  “Silence!  Such a thing could never befall—“


He was cut off by another spasm.  Ace waited until it was done, and then said, “We have invented something to protect EM beings from the effects of Noise, you know.”


Gemini waited.


“Of course, it’s only compatible with Real Wave bodies.”


“Of course,” the FM-ian sneered.  “So if I don’t cooperate with you, you’ll just allow me to be corrupted, is that it?  How noble.  Clearly you humans have retained the moral high ground Harp Note loved so much.”


Leaning forward, Ace said, “Like we just told you, Sonia isn’t here right now.  So what’s it going to be, Gemini?  You say working with us is as bad as death…but how does corruption compare?”


As Gemini considered this, Pat said, “Ace, if it’s something he needs, shouldn’t we give it to him regardless of whether he’s on our side or not?”


“That’s a matter of opinion.”


Pat shifted uncomfortably.  “…I think it’s more a matter of ethics…I don’t want to threaten him into helping.”


“It’s not threatening, per se.”


“I disagree.”


“If I could have your attention,” Gemini interrupted.  Pat and Ace both looked at him.  “…Deplorable as it may be, I will agree to work alongside you for the time being.  Though I’ll hate every second of it, at least with my faculties intact, I’ll know that I’m hating it.”


“Then we have a deal,” Ace said.  “Pat, hand me your Hunter: I’ll install the data for the specialized Real Wave body and then transfer Gemini.”


Pat took out his terminal and stared at it.  He glanced at Gemini for a moment, and then hesitantly handed the device over to Ace.  As the Satella Officer got to work, Pat said, “To be honest, Gemini, I wish we didn’t have to do this.  But, thanks for your help, I guess.”


“Keep your thanks,” Gemini said.  “Just try not to waste my power this time, otherwise you’ll get us both killed.  Or rather, all three of us.”


Rey glared at him, saying, “Keep yer trap shut, or my finger might slip and I’ll delete ya.”


“Heheh, there you are, partner.  I was wondering how long it would take for us to be reunited.”


Before Rey could say anything else, Ace declared, “Okay, ready to transfer.  Sit tight for a second, Gemini.”


A thin beam of light linked the Hunter and Transer for roughly a minute.  Gemini disappeared from the Transer screen, and when it was over, Ace handed the Hunter back to Pat, who could now see the FM-ian on his device.


“I’ve already registered your Transcodes,” Ace said.  “Go on and give it a whirl!”


Pat clutched his Hunter tightly.  Breathing deeply once more, he brought up the registration card, and then held the terminal out and said, “Transcode 012!”


Rey pulled the Hunter around next, saying, “Transcode 013!”


Ace shielded his eyes as a bright flash engulfed the boy.




From the edge of the crater WAZA HQ sat in, Queen Tia watched the battle with her usual uninterested expression.  She would occasionally glance at a screen floating next to her to keep track of how many Acid copies she had left.  Nearby, Virgo floated around in circles, wringing her staff like she was trying to choke the life out of it.


“Awwwwww, come oooooon!” she whined finally, jumping up and down.  “When do we get to kill ‘em?!  I’m sick of waiting, Tia!  Just let me kill one—I promise I’ll stop at just one!  Well…for a little bit…”


Tia shook her head.  “It is not yet time for us to act.  For now, these disposables are sufficient.”


Unconsciously, her hand twitched when she said that.  She quickly directed her thoughts elsewhere, scanning over the mob until she spotted Bud backed into a corner.


“Ugh, come on, that one’s already about to die!” Virgo said, pointing her staff at him.  “What’s the harm in letting me jump in and finish him off?  Please?!”


Down below, Bud continued swinging his fists, but the Acid copies were unrelenting.  Between gasps, he said, “This…isn’t going…so well…”


“Mrrgh!” Taurus grunted.  “We can’t give up, Bud!  Everyone’s counting on us!”


Bud punched through another copy.  “I know, but…I think I’m…at my…”


A blast hit him, sending him stumbling back into the wall.  The copies moved in, but Bud unleashed his fire breath, incinerating several dozen.  He righted himself only to see more coming.


“This is…too much…”


“Mrrgh, that’s quitter’s talk!  Come on, Bud: I know you can do better than this!”


“No…I can’t…this is…”


One of the copies slashed with its claws, hurling him back into the wall again.  He raised his arms to shield himself, but suddenly, a shadow moved over him, and he looked up.  Something plummeted through the air, landing on top of the nearest Acid clone and smashing it to bits.


“Who…?  Wait a minute…”


It didn’t take him long to recognize the form, even if it did have a few changes.  Yeti Blizzard was somewhat smaller than he remembered, with longer, slightly narrower feet, and the purple hair atop the creature’s head was pulled up into something like a ponytail that spilled down into the same shaggy mess as before.


“Yeti?  Amy?!”


She spun, extending her arms to knock away a few copies as she did.  “What do you think you’re doing, Bud?!”


“H-Hey, that’s what I was gonna say!”


Amy faced the horde again, creating a large snowball in her hands.  She rolled it forward, letting it scoop up Acid copies as it bowled over them, and then lashed out at another with a flying kick before bouncing off of it and crushing another one.


“You’re not giving it your all!  You’re holding yourself back, fighting like you’re not expecting to win, and if you keep it up you’re going to get hurt—or worse!”  She threw one Acid copy into another before turning and staring hard at him.  “If you’re not going to fight like you mean it, then I will!  We can’t afford to lose!”


A projectile from one of the copies struck her in the shoulder, making her flinch.  She turned back and started to create snowballs in her hands, rapidly hurling them at her foes.


“But…”  Bud shook his head.  “Yeti, what are you doing?  I thought you didn’t want to Wave Change so Amy wouldn’t get hurt?”


“I didn’t have much of a choice,” Yeti said.  “Her mind’s made up!  She didn’t want to keep watching you get hurt, Bud.”


Bud hung his head.  “So it’s my fault…if I was stronger, than Amy wouldn’t have to—“


“Cut that out!” Amy snapped.


Bud looked up.  “What?”


“I know you’re taking your loss hard, but you can’t just give up!  Even if you might not be as strong as you want to be, you’re still a lot stronger than you’ve been acting!  So cut it out already!”


Amy struck the ground with both fists.  A fast-moving avalanche rolled over the edge of the crater and to either side of her and Bud, sweeping away huge swaths of Acid copies.  She turned to face him, out of breath but still looking determined.


“Losing doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough!  Someone else being better than you doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough!  It’s just an opportunity, Bud—a chance to keep working, something to keep striving for!  So get up!  And charge straight at that wall, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many tries it takes!  Be as thick-skulled as you need to be until you shatter it completely!”


He stared up at her for a moment.  “…Amy…”


She turned and blocked a swing from an Acid copy.  She managed to push it back, but before she could finish it off, a flaming fist shot past her and into the enemy, carrying it off into the distance before exploding.  Amy grinned.


“…Thanks, Amy,” Bud said, walking up and setting a hand on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry I was being so lame.  To make up for it, I’ll buy you a whole plate of burgers when this is all over!”


“I’m looking forward to it!” Amy said.  “Now, what do you say we take out these posers?”


Bud reared back.  “You got it!”


He smashed his fist into the ground, cracking the stone beneath them.  Countless flame towers erupted all over the crater, wiping out several Acid clones and confusing the remainder.  Letting out a roar, Bud lowered his horns and charged at them, his armor starting to glow red-hot as he did.  Amy started forward as well: a thin layer of snow and ice formed just a few inches ahead of her, reaching out along the path she planned to take, and she used the large feet of her Wave Change as makeshift skis to slide across the slick surface, reaching out to punch numerous Acid clones as she went.  Bud eventually hit the wall, and it took him a moment to free his horns.  The copies tried to attack him in this opening, but as soon as they touched him, their arms burned to a crisp.  Seconds later, Bud lashed out and finished the job.


“Mrrrrrgh!” he shouted, his aura of heat growing stronger.  “Come on, show me what you’ve got!  I’ll reduce you all to cinders!”


He, Amy, and Hyde continued to work on the mob, but at the front gates of WAZA, the Satella Wizards were starting to falter.  Three Acid copies focused their fire on one of them, and then a fourth moved in to swipe at it.  The Wizard cried out, and disappeared in a burst of light.


“The line has been breached!” one of the human officers shouted.  “Fall back and tighten formation—all units focus fire on the opening!”


The humans aimed their weapons at the oncoming Acid copies, but before they could fire, someone behind them shouted, “Make way!”


They took one look and parted.  Once the way was clear, a massive blast of electricity shot out through the gap in the line, ripping a huge chunk of Acid copies to shreds.  When it was over, two boys walked through the opening and took up stances in front of the Battle Wizards.


“I can pick them off from afar,” Pat said.  “Can you take care of any that get in close?”


“You got it, bro,” Rey said.  “They won’t lay a finger on you!”


The new Gemini Sparks sported longer torso armor, which had a golden coating on its rim that was also found on their greaves and their non-weaponized arms.  The golden arms they used to fight, meanwhile, were now no larger than their regular arms, making the armored coating look far sleeker.


Rey extended a blade from his golden arm and shouted back, “What’re you waiting for?  Get back to firing!”


Hastily, the Satella Officers complied, and Rey turned to effortlessly cut down a trio of Acid copies.  Pat held both hands out: electricity was generated from his golden arm before moving along his entire body, and then it began to shoot out in focused bolts, each of which lanced through three or four Acid clones before disappearing.  One enemy rushed him, but Rey transformed his hand into a drill and impaled it, ultimately using a rocket punch to slam it back into its fellows.


From above, Virgo turned excitedly to Tia.  “How about now?!  They’re doing better now, and we’re starting to run low on copies, right?  Can we start killing them now?!”


Tia just watched the battle unfold, her expression frozen in place.




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Chapter 16


Sonia summoned her speakers and brought her hand down on her guitar, sending out a trio of sound pulses that swept away all the viruses she could see.  The Wizard Two endured the attack, and instantly more viruses came from the warp, attacking as soon as they did and forcing Sonia to evade.  Their numbers were quickly replenished.  Geo floated around the edge of the gray tiles and pointed his buster, sending out a blast that struck one virus and unleashed a shockwave all around it; Two was caught in the blast, but he shook it off, dashed forward, and threw out a whip made of electricity.  Geo narrowly avoided the attack and backed off a bit.  Sonia wrapped the Wizard in strings and tried to drag him out of his territory, but a sword-wielding virus snapped the bindings before he was close enough, and Sonia was on the run again while Geo unloaded a rapid series of shots.


This is taking way too long!


Ophiuca and Acid were doing what they could: the FM-ian would distract foes with her snakes before stunning them with her Gorgon Eye, giving Acid a chance to finish them off, and they were having some success.  She had seen Solo fighting off viruses when things had first started, but she had very quickly lost sight of him.  If that worried her at all, she was too frustrated to notice.


“What is it that you want?!” she shouted at Two.  “What are you going to accomplish by keeping us here?”


With a smirk, Two said, “Longer you’re here, more damage gets done to WAZA, and then I get to claim a share of credit in that.  That’s all there is to it.”


“So you’re just some attention-hungry jerk?  Sounds pretty pathetic!”


Geo glanced at her in surprise, leaving himself open to a minor attack.


“Whatever you say, Harp Note,” Two said as he readied another whip.  “I’m having a grand time!”


As he reared back, Geo dispatched the virus he was facing and held his hand forward.  A high-pitched whistle came from his Hunter arm, and suddenly Two’s body went stiff, and he was pulled through the air by some invisible force until he was right at the edge of the distorted panels.  Geo shifted his stance—a large, fan-shaped weapon appeared in his hand, and when he swung it Two was launched backwards by a damaging gust of wind, sliding to a stop on the far edge of his territory.


“Heh…not bad, but not smart either,” Two said as he got up.  “You shoulda tried harder to keep me there, dumb—“


In a flash, Solo appeared behind him.  He grabbed the Wizard by the head, yanked him off the altered portion of the Wave Road, and slammed him down with all his might.  Two turned enough to look at Solo: the boy was glaring fiercely at him, silently warning him not to try anything.


“Thanks, Solo!” Geo shouted.  “We’ll cover you!”


Sonia set her guitar for quick blasts, unleashing a flurry of shots on the herd of viruses.  Ophiuca and Acid grouped the strays together, and Geo teleported into their midst, spinning around and whipping up a sharp air current that demolished them.  Once they were sure no more viruses were nearby, the Wizards went to guard the link while Geo stooped and loaded a Battle Card to restore the Wave Road to normal.


“The other viruses will come even if I don’t signal for them,” Two said.


“Then we’ll just handle them,” Sonia huffed, stalking forward.


Joining Solo, Geo asked, “What are we going to do with him?”


Sonia stopped and faced them.  She tried to consider what her options were, but she couldn’t focus her thoughts on the matter.


“He may possess valuable information,” Acid stated.  “If we have some way to bind him, then it may be worth taking him with us.”


Solo turned slightly, raising his free hand.  The second he did, Two smirked, and he quickly reached for something.


“Solo!” Geo shouted.


The Wizard pulled out a Noise Card, took aim at Sonia, and then shouted in pain as Solo snapped his arm clean off.  After discarding the appendage, he asked, “What is that?  Should we keep it?”


Geo paused a moment, and then went to pick up the card.  “Uh…yeah.  We’ll explain later.”


Solo nodded.  Raising his free hand again, he pulled one finger through the air, creating a line of light as he did—in this way he drew a symbol in the air, and when he then pointed down, chains shot from the glyph to wrap around Two.  With the Wizard secured, Solo stood and dragged him over to the link.


“Yikes,” Two grumbled, “guess I bit off more than I could chew…”


“Looks like you’ve got some new tricks too,” Mega commented.  “Shame we couldn’t see more of ‘em in action, it might’ve helped.”


Solo grunted.  “If you can’t tell, I’m not exactly in good condition right now.  Fighting those viruses head-on would’ve been suicidal without Laplace’s barrier.”


Geo nodded.  “Okay, that makes sense, but…why is it that you can’t use Laplace’s powers?”


“We need to get moving!” Sonia interrupted.  “He can tell us on the way—let’s go!”


“Sonia,” Lyra said.  “We can expect a swarm of viruses beyond this link, and charging in headfirst would be foolhardy.  We need a strategy, and if there are currently limits on how Solo can contribute, we need to know what they are.”


Sonia looked at her guitar for a few moments.  She then sighed, turned back to Solo, and said, “I’m sorry.”


Solo didn’t give much of a reaction.  Turning back to Geo, he said, “I fought an agent of Dealer in Alohaha.  I heard the environmental Wizard was going out of control and figured it was them, so I came to get the jump on them.  But, it seems they were expecting my arrival…”  He grabbed the spaulder adorning his left shoulder.  “That man…shattered Laplace’s barrier in a single punch.”


Geo shuddered.  Sonia’s eyes widened slightly, and she said, “Wait a second…what was this guy like?”


“He was extremely tall, in a red coat.  Somehow, he was able to fight me without even Wave Changing…I believe he said his name was—“




Solo inclined his head.  “Ah.  So you’ve met him too.”


Sonia’s teeth and fists clenched, and she said, “He’s the one who…he’s the reason we need to get back to WAZA right now.  It’s because of him that Luna’s life is in danger.”  She looked up.  “…And he beat you?”


“He surprised me.  Destroying Laplace’s barrier so easily left me bewildered, and he took advantage of that.  Not only that, his weapon is unlike anything I’ve seen before.”  He gestured to his scars.  “My Wave Form was damaged.  He seemed to think it should’ve been destroyed.  I thought that would allow me to surprise him, but…when I attacked him with the Laplace Blade…”


Solo gripped the piece of armor more tightly.  Geo said, “I think I get it.  I’m sorry to hear that, Solo.  Will…will Laplace be okay?”


“He will regenerate, like any PM-ian.  But I don’t know how long it will take.  This…has never happened before.”


A thick silence enveloped the party.  Acid eventually broke it, saying, “Taking this into consideration, I believe I have a plan of attack.  We shall proceed as soon as everyone is ready.”


Sonia stepped forward.  “I’m ready.  Let’s get back to WAZA as soon as we can.”




It was hard to say for sure if the tide was turning.  The Acid copies continued their relentless march, and had managed to delete several more Battle Wizards and wound a number of human Satella Officers, but the line had held and the Wave Change users were still fighting.  Tia glanced at Bud, who kept fighting despite his clear exhaustion, and then to Hyde, who was now beginning to show signs of fatigue as well.  As for Amy, Pat, and Rey, they certainly had more stamina remaining, but it was very apparent that they were novices to this sort of fighting.  She finally looked to the screen floating next to her.  The last few Acid copies were just now being sent out.


“Let’s go,” she said, dismissing the interface.


Virgo leapt up.  “Really?!  It’s finally time?!  Yay!  I’ve been waiting for this!”


The FM-ian disappeared into Tia’s pendant, and a second later they were fused.  Heavy armor shaped like a dress encased Tia, its interior alternating bands of blue and white while the outer plates were a dark, dull shade of reddish-pink sporting golden accents.  Her angular sleeves and tall headgear with the same shade, and the hair trailing behind her now bent upward into sharp points.  In one hand she carried a tall, silver-plated scepter, its tip sporting a wide dish with a small spike atop it.  Tia made a short jump forward and gently floated down into the crater, landing in the midst of the final Acid copies.


Amy was the first to notice her.  She tapped Bud on the shoulder, and he turned around, flinching instantly.  “M…Ms. Tia?  Is that really you?”


She didn’t say a word, simply planting her staff in the ground.  A translucent veil of water rose to encircle her, and then she locked eyes on Bud, raised her weapon, and tilted it slightly.  Instinct allowed Bud to strafe clear of a small burst of rain overhead.


“Ms. Tia, we don’t have to fight!” he said, trying to think of what Sonia would say.  “Why are you working for Dealer?  There’s gotta be some way to solve this without—“


More water fell from above, forcing him to run.  Amy hurled a snowball at Tia, but it shattered against her barrier; a second later, a focused blast of water shot out from the shield right at Amy, who barely stumbled out of the way.


“…Alright, can’t say I didn’t try,” Bud mumbled.


“Be careful, Bud,” Taurus warned.  “With all the damage we’ve taken, an opponent like this is really risky for us.”


“I know, but we’re going to have to break that shield to even have a chance.  I’m gonna put everything I have into it!  Are you with me?”


“Mrrrgh…ah, sure, might as well give it a shot!”


Bud dodged more rain as his armor started to glow red-hot again.  He turned to Amy and shouted, “Get ready, Amy!  I’m gonna make an opening for you!”


“Huh?” Amy said.  “Wait, Bud, I don’t think that’s such a good—“


He was already charging horns-first.  Tia just gave him a dull stare.


“Kyahahaha!” Virgo laughed.  “What an absolute moron!”


Bud rammed into the barrier with all his might…and it didn’t budge an inch.  The fact had barely processed when water burst out of it, flinging him back at high speed.  His head hit the ground, and with a groan from both him and Taurus, they passed out, their Wave Change vanishing instantly.


“Bud!” Amy shouted, bounding towards him.


“It’s been waaaaay too long since I last got to kill a moron!” Virgo said, practically shrieking with glee.


Amy reached over Bud, doing her best to shield him from another burst of rain.  The attack stung, but she kept moving, trying to get Bud on his feet and keep an eye on Tia at the same time.  Tia’s expression still hadn’t changed.  Amy dragged Bud a step forward, but it seemed to take forever, and Virgo cackled as she watched them slowly lurch away.


“This is great, this is great!  Let’s torture her some more and then kill them both at the same time—it’ll be so much fun!  Kyahaha, I can barely wait!”


Tia moved, and Amy tried to shift without dropping Bud.  To her surprise, a shadow moved over them, and she didn’t feel a thing—looking up, she saw a large hand made of darkness spread out above her, and it slowly retracted into the ground from whence it came.


“Huh?” Virgo said.  “Who’s the spoilsport?!”


“Beg pardon, fair patron,” called a voice, “but that would be me.”


Tia looked over her shoulder.  Hyde stood there, bowing with his hat in his hand, and he soon flashed a satisfied grin at her.


“It seems our star is a bit under the weather, so for tonight’s performance the understudy shall be taking center stage.  I assure you this will in no way diminish your entertainment of the performance…or at least, it shan’t diminish mine, heh, heh, heh.”


Tia turned back to Bud and Amy, noticing that Pat and Rey had come out to help them.  She beat her staff against the ground: her shield swirled and grew, a piece of it soon breaking off and molding into a massive, spinning torrent of water shaped like a dragon.  The elemental swept along the ground towards the children, but Hyde suddenly appeared in its path and thrust his electrified cane directly into the dragon’s face.  Its entire body burst into droplets.


“Please, miss,” he said as he adjusted his hat.  “We ask that you not distract the rest of the audience.  Eyes.  On.  Me.”


“Ugh, you are sooo frustrating!” Virgo said.  “Let’s just kill him first, then we can get back to the brats!  Come on, Tia!”


Without a sound, Tia faced Hyde and raised her staff.  He effortlessly avoided her rain attack, musing, “Seems your offensive ability is somewhat lacking, my dear—but those defenses of yours will prove quite the trick.  Ah, such wonderful balance, a perfectly matched countermeasure!  Truly, I admire it!  Yet at the same time, all I need do is breach said defenses, and—“


“Do you ever shut up?!” Virgo shouted.


“No,” Phantom replied, “not even when his life depends on it.”


Hyde shrugged.  “Too dialogue-heavy for your taste?  Oh, very well, I suppose I can simply cut to the action scene.  I’ve bought more time than I really needed anyway.”


Tia narrowed her eyes a bit.  She called down another burst of rain, this one striking Hyde before he could move.  But, for some reason, it passed right through him.  She paused, and he smiled arrogantly at her.


“W…what the heck?!” Virgo cried.  “We hit you, you’re supposed to get hurt!  You better play by the rules so I can kill you, or else I’m gonna make it extra painful!”


“My word,” Phantom said, “you’re almost as bad as he is, you simpleton.”




Tia looked around.  It seemed to be getting darker suddenly, save for the areas directly around her and Hyde.  As the darkness grew thicker, spotlights could be seen around the two combatants, and Tia didn’t move an inch as she worked out what was going on.


“An illusion,” she stated.


Hyde clapped.  “Bravo!  Aren’t you clever!  It takes some time to prepare the stage, but now that the scene has begun, there’s nothing you can do to escape.  So just sit back and enjoy, fair patron…though eventually, the script will call for your role to end, heh, heh, heh.”


Virgo continued shouting, but Tia ignored her and swung her staff around.  A wide swath of rain blanketed the area in front of her, and she hoped Hyde would be caught in it somewhere, but all she heard was a laugh from the illusion in the spotlight as he rested both hands on his cane.  Deciding to try a different approach, she struck the ground again.


“Oh, go ahead,” Hyde said as the water dragon passed right through him.  “You won’t hit me, you won’t hit anyone.  I wonder, are you even actually using that attack, or is it simply stage magic?  Heh, heh, heh.”


Tia considered this for a moment.  “No.  If your powers of illusion were truly that strong, you would not have waited this long to unleash them.”


Hyde pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes.  “Heh, heh…an interesting theory.  Care to try it out?”


Tia raised her staff high.  She floated a few inches off the ground as pieces of her dress began to shine with light, but before she could do anything more, a terrible pain sprang from her back to lance through her entire body, stopping her cold.  The illusory Hyde laughed, and she was able to turn just enough to see the real one behind her.


Pointing up, he said, “Your defense lacks a certain verticality, miss.”


He spun rapidly, whipping up a shockwave that cut into Tia several times as the stunning effect of the earlier attack wore off.  Hyde electrified his cane once again, but she moved more quickly than he anticipated: she rammed the head of her staff into him, spawning a water dragon from it as she did, and the creature swept him away to be driven directly into the wall of rock.  Tia straightened herself as the illusion around her quickly faded away.


Amy, Pat, and Rey were fighting off Acid copies not far away.  Most of the clones were behind them, however, clawing away at the remainder of the Satella Police forces; Tia assumed this meant their intention was to leave the horde to the officials while they came to assist Hyde.


“Oh, you came back!” Virgo said.  “Wait, did you dump the other one already?  Awww…well, I guess that’s something to look forward to killing later.  I’ll just have to enjoy the three of you right now, kyahahaha!”


Amy jumped on top of an Acid clone and then bounced off of it, aiming for Tia as she raised a new barrier.  She managed to aim herself towards the open area above her enemy, but Tia saw this and leapt to the side, meaning Amy landed on nothing but solid rock.  A quick downpour nearly pushed her into it face-first.


“Urgh,” she grunted, “hard to believe raindrops hurt so much…”


“Kyahahaha, never heard of acid rain?” Virgo taunted.  “Not that it matters, I guess.  What’s important is that you suffer!  Kyahahaha!”


Amy threw a snowball as she retreated, not accomplishing much of anything.  The Gemini Sparks were running in now, Pat curling lightning bolts into a ball while Rey readied his sword, but Tia just beat the ground and summoned another dragon.  Pat and Rey scattered, while Amy jumped out and stomped on its head.  Tia didn’t flinch as the electric orb was hurled at her barrier, nor when Rey slashed at it from the other side.  A rocket punch hit from a third angle a moment later, but despite all their efforts, the twins couldn’t create a single dent in the barrier.


“Darn,” Rey hissed as he dodged a water blast.  “I thought if we split her focus we might get somewhere…”


“Nice try!” Virgo said.  “My defenses can’t be beaten that easily, kyahahaha!”


“She’s right,” Gemini said.  “Disappointing as she turned out, there’s a reason Virgo was considered one of the elite.”


“Huh?  You know me too?  I guess this Wave Change looks sorta familiar…”


Gemini chuckled.  “Can you remember nothing but how best to kill, Virgo?  While I applaud your devotion, you always did seem a bit too single-minded to me.”


“Aw, who cares!  Let’s just get back to me killing you!”


“No, I think not.”


Pat and Rey continued to circle around Tia, attacking her barrier in an attempt to find some weakness to it.  Amy glanced at Hyde, currently peeling himself off the wall, and tentatively formed a snowball in one hand and took a step forward.


“Amy, what’s the plan?” Yeti asked.  “She can block anything we throw at her from the front, and she’ll see us coming if we try to attack from above.  Unless we can manage to get her really distracted, I think we’re kind of stuck.”


“There’s got to be something we can do,” Amy mumbled.  Hyde had joined in the attack now, but Tia just stood there and watched their futile efforts.  Amy opened her hand, preparing to create another snowball, but stopped to think better of it.


“You can’t hold us off forever!” Hyde said, attempting to leap over the barrier.  “You’re vastly outnumbered, you—oof!”


Tia smacked him away with her staff head before he could finish.  Rey charged the barrier with a drill, but he was repelled instantly.  Pat raised one hand and shot a bolt of lightning into the sky—a second later, it came back down and struck Tia, and he smiled.  Amy took this opportunity to lob her snowball.  To her dismay, the barrier was back before it hit its target.


“Shoot!” Amy said.  “If only we could…”  She paused to look at her hands.


“What are you thinking?” Yeti asked.


Amy grinned.  “Of course!”


She rushed forward, both palms open.  Tia spotted her but didn’t make a move to interfere.  Amy skidded to a halt and stuck both hands out, and once they met the barrier, she unleashed an intense wave of cold that froze one section of the shield into solid ice.  Tia’s eyes widened.  Amy reared back one fist and prepared to punch through.


“Got you n—“


Tia’s staff came through the ice instead, jabbing her in the gut and sending her toppling over.  At the very least, this provided Hyde an opportunity to stun her, which allowed Pat and Rey to get in some more hits.  Before long, however, Tia’s dress began to glow again, and she raised her staff high.  Beams of light shot down from the sky and rapidly encircled her, sweeping away all three of her attackers and giving her plenty of time to raise a new barrier.


“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Amy growled as she rolled onto her side.  “Even when we find something that works, it’s still not enough?”


“She must have a lot of combat experience to respond so quickly,” Yeti said.  “Our chances don’t look great, but…we just need to keep her busy, until Sonia gets here, right?”


Amy clenched her teeth.  “Is that all we can do?”


She started to get up, but one of the Satella Officers shouted at her.  She looked, and then immediately pressed herself against the ground, yelling at Pat, Rey, and Hyde to do the same.  They complied, and Tia turned to see what the officers were up to.  That was when she realized they all had their anti-Z Wave weapons pointed directly at her, and all at once, they fired.  As the blast soared over Amy, she felt a sensation like pins and needles along her back, and she dared not look up until she heard an impact.  She saw that Tia’s barrier had warped horribly…only to snap right back into shape and unleash a water blast even more massive than one of her dragons.  Amy rolled enough that it only grazed her.  The Satella Officers and Battle Wizards were slammed into the Real Wave shield they were protecting, and when the furious torrent finally stopped, none of them got back up.


“Oh no…”


There weren’t many Acid copies left, but those that did remain quickly realized their opportunity.  They advanced over the defeated Satella forces and began clawing at the shield.




Amy prepared to rush them.  A burst of rain prevented her from doing so.  To her relief, Pat and Rey ran past either side of her, and they immediately began picking off the invaders as quickly as they could.  The downside, Amy knew, was that it now fell to her to continue distracting Tia.  Finally standing, she faced the woman with an exhausted scowl on her face.  She only received that same blank stare in return.


“Kyahahaha!” Virgo laughed.  “This is so much fun!  Do you think they’re dead?  I hope at least some of them are dead.  Oh what does it matter, I can slice them all apart later just to be sure, kyahahaha!”


“You’re despicable!” Amy said.  “And you, you’re really okay with this?  What’s worth this?  What’s so important that you’re ready to kill for it?”


A spark of something flashed behind Tia’s eyes.  What is was, Amy couldn’t be sure, but it was enough to surprise her.  Still, she didn’t have time to be shocked: Tia was forming another dragon above her head, and though Hyde came to regroup with her, he was looking extremely worse for wear.  Amy opened her hands and generated as much cold as she could.  Tia swung her staff forward and the dragon dashed.  Hyde called a hand from the earth to swat the creature, but it barely proved a distraction.  When it was almost upon them, Amy thrust her palms out to freeze the monster, its forward momentum enough to shatter its newly-fragile body, but she still felt herself being pushed back.  As she caught her breath, however, she noticed something shooting through the air.  It was a small object, something that looked like a box, and though she couldn’t tell where it had come from, it was headed straight towards Tia.


“What is…”


As the box moved over Tia, strings shot out from its face.  They reached through the opening atop the barrier and entangled Tia, catching her totally by surprise, and then the box was quickly reeled in closer to her.  Amy looked up at the Wave Road.


“…Is that…?!”


Devastating sound waves exploded from the speaker, enough to make Tia shout in pain.  She too looked up, seeing someone standing on the Wave Road, and then threw away the object that had attacked her.


“Here at last,” Hyde breathed.  “I was beginning to think you’d missed your cue, dear heroine.”


Sonia didn’t pay him any mind.  Her eyes were fixed squarely on Tia, and as the Dealer operative called up another water veil, Sonia adjusted the settings on her guitar.


“You only get one warning,” Sonia yelled.  “Leave.  Now.”




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Chapter 17


Pat shot a blast of lightning that lanced through an entire line of Acid copies.  There weren’t many enemies left, but the situation felt hectic as ever now that they were tearing away at the Real Wave shield keeping WAZA safe.  Rey intercepted one clone and hurled it into another.  As he sliced them both apart, another copy floated into place and renewed the assault on the wall, so Pat ran over to obliterate it before it could do much damage.


“Wish we knew how much longer this’ll hold,” Pat said as he backed up against Rey.  “The way things are it’s impossible to know what our margin for error is.”


Rey fired off a rocket punch.  “Don’t worry about that: just keep taking ‘em out!  We’re almost done, and then it won’t—“


A shout from Tia distracted them.  One of the copies swept in and swung its claw, knocking them both off their feet.  It prepared to follow-up, but before it could, Geo blinked into existence behind it, running it through with a Long Sword and making its body go limp.


“Geo!” Pat said, sitting up and smiling.  “I’m so glad you’re back!”


A very confused look was what he got in return.  Geo looked from him to Rey, saying, “Pat, Rey…are you…what’s happening?”


“Take it easy,” Rey said.  “We’re both fine, and we’re both still on your side.”


Pat got to his feet.  “Sorry, I guess this must be a shock.  We just…we wanted to help out, and when Ace showed us where Gemini was being held—“


“Ace did what?!” Geo asked.


“If you’ll forgive the intrusion,” Gemini said, “your foes haven’t quite given up yet.”


Geo spun and blasted away several copies.  As Pat and Rey resumed their own efforts, he called, “Gemini, you better not even think about hurting them!”


Gemini laughed.  “Oh, you seem a tad less fragile than the last time I saw you.  I suppose if something would befall these boys, I’d have to answer to you?”


Geo turned towards an Acid copy that was charging Pat.  In a flash, Mega materialized and swung his claw, ripping the clone to shreds instantly, and then he glared forward with his fangs bared.  “Nah.  You’ll answer to me.”


A small opening appeared in the barrier.  Ace dashed through it, narrowly avoiding a swipe from an Acid clone.  “Where’s Acid?”


“Get back, idiot!” Rey shouted, creating a mace to bash the copy aside.


“Acid!” Ace called, scanning the field.  “Acid, hurry up!”


A beam swept through a group of clones, and then two figures rushed through their remains: Ophiuca, holding something tightly against her chest, and the real Acid.  The FM-ian made a beeline for the opening in the barrier—it sealed behind her—while Acid went to Ace’s side as the Satella Officer drew his Hunter.


“I apologize that we could not get here sooner, Ace,” the Wizard said.


“Don’t worry, pal.  Let’s just make up for lost time!”


Ace held out his Hunter, but Acid made no move.  “Ace…are you certain?”


With a frown, Ace said, “Of course!  I’m not just going to sit by when Dealer’s at our door!”


Acid glanced at Tia.  “…You are entirely certain?”


“I am,” Ace answered without hesitation.  With a final nod, Acid disappeared into Ace’s Hunter, and Ace made his way across the crater.


While all this was going on, Sonia and Tia continued to stare at each other to see who was going to make the first move.  Sonia had yet to launch another attack, but with the way she was glaring at Tia, it was obvious to all that she wanted to.  Eventually, Tia tilted her staff.


“Look out!” Amy shouted.


The rain attack came down on Sonia, catching her off-guard.  Hyde touched the ground: several shadowy hands sprouted all around Tia, trying to fence her in, and Amy made a leap.  It was exactly what Tia expected.  She called down another wall of light, smiting the hands and repelling Amy, and then she slowly moved forward with one eye on Sonia.


“Fine then,” Sonia grunted.  She played a series of notes, but the projections she produced just hung in the air.  She jumped down to the ground and brandished her guitar.


“Kyahahaha, I’ve been waiting for this!” Virgo said.  “I finally get to kill the great Harp Note!  Though I gotta say, you’re way more intense than I was expecting—the FM King made you out to be such a nice little girl!”


“You caught me on a bad day,” Sonia said, rearing back.


“Kyahaha, fine with me!  It’ll be more fun this way!”


Sonia hurled the instrument.  It bounced off the barrier, incurring a blast of water in response, so she rolled aside and reeled her guitar back in.  When Tia moved to call down more rain, Sonia flicked a dial, and the notes above came crashing down on Tia before she could move out of the way.  Seeing the opportunity, Hyde tossed his hat at Tia’s hand.  Her staff was pushed back, but she managed to hold onto it, and also endured the snowballs Amy hurled at her.  Sonia unleashed a sound pulse, but the attack was just slow enough that Tia got her shield back in time to block it.


Sonia huffed.  “What a waste of time!  Even if it takes a while, you aren’t going to win, so just get out of here!  We’ve got more important things to take care of!”


Tia stared at her.  A moment later, however, she turned, and Sonia tentatively glanced over her shoulder.  Ace stopped next to her.


“Tia,” he said.  “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”


Eventually, Tia replied, “That’s because of you.”


Ace smiled.  “Man, I can’t believe you were at Echo Ridge this whole time!  We must’ve just kept missing each other—how crazy is that?  Well, at least now we have a chance to clear the air.”


Sonia cocked her head.  “You know her?”


Tia looked between the two of them.  “Hm.  I was wondering how many people knew.”


“For what it’s worth, I knew,” Hyde said.  Everyone looked at him.  “…For what it’s worth…”


“Knew what?” Sonia asked.


Virgo laughed.  “Oh, this is so good!  You don’t have a clue about Ace’s history, do you?  Surprise, girlie: your friend there has spent almost his whole life as one of Dealer’s top operatives!”


Sonia gaped.  She glanced at Ace: his expression had dulled quickly, and that was enough to let her know Virgo wasn’t lying.  I guess that explains how WAZA knows so much about Dealer…


“I gave up that life,” Ace said.  “I have no intentions of going back, so it doesn’t really matter.”


“Kyahaha, are you sure?  How do you feel, Harp Note?  Still think you can trust him?”


Sonia stepped forward.  “If Mr. Boreal still trusts Ace, then that’s good enough for me.”


“Oh?  You don’t mind they’ve been hiding something this big from you for so long?”


“Shut up!” Sonia said, preparing to throw her guitar again.


Ace held out a hand.  “Wait a minute.”


Shooting a glare at him, she said, “What?!”


He met her gaze.  “I need to talk to her.  Please.”


Sonia wanted to scream.  Reluctantly, she lowered her weapon and took a slow step backwards.


“Thank you,” Ace said.  Locking eyes on Tia, he said, “Tia…I’m sorry.”


Tia inclined her head.  “What?”


“I don’t regret leaving Dealer, but still, it didn’t really go the way I wanted.  What I really wanted was to take you and Jack with me.”


Tia continued to stare at him.


“But…I couldn’t.  I left you with King, and you’ve had to keep suffering under him all this time.  So for that, I’m sorry.”  He clenched his fist and raised it.  “But Tia, things are different now!  You don’t have to keep working with that scumbag: you can stand down, come with us, and we’ll keep you safe from him!  Then we’ll get Jack, and finally put an end to all the terrible things King is doing!  We’ll all finally be safe, Tia!  Isn’t that what you always wanted?”


After a few long moments, Tia’s lips parted to reveal clenched teeth.  “All of us…?” she said in a voice like ice.  “You’re saying we can all be safe?  It’s far, far too late for you to start saying that, Ace.”


Ace gulped.  “…I made a lot of mistakes.  I know that now.”


“Good,” Tia said, lifting her staff.  “I wanted you to know just how much you’ve done wrong…I want you to agonize over that guilt as you draw your last breath.  I’m not going back with you, Ace.  I still have one thing left to live for.”


Ace shuddered.  Raising his other hand, the one with his Hunter in it, he said, “I’m going to save you and Jack.  I promise you, Tia.”  He grabbed his Hunter with both hands.  “Transcode 001!”


He transformed in a bright flash, gaining a small amount of white and grey armor over his Satella Police uniform.  The main bulk of his protection was in a boxy shape over his chest, with rounded shoulders that spawned four long, wing-shaped plates.  White armor with sharp fins was on his feet and forearms, and a narrow helmet with three fins covered his head and eyes, a thin band of silver coming down over his chin as if to strap it into place.


“Hyde, Amy, you’ve done enough,” Ace said, readying the small black blaster that he now carried.  “You should go rest—I’ll send word if we end up needing back-up.”


Amy shook her head.  “I can still fight!”


“Amy,” Yeti said, “I really think we should pull back with how much damage we’ve taken.  Just let Sonia and Ace handle things!”


“I’m afraid I must concur,” Hyde said.  “We’ll only be a detriment if we collapse and they have to remove us from the battlefield.  Let’s hold off until we are needed.”


Amy turned to Sonia.  Trying not to sound as frustrated as she felt, Sonia said, “We can handle this.”


Hesitantly, Amy cast one last look at Tia before turning and heading back towards HQ, Hyde not far behind her.  Tia’s staff moved.  Luckily, Hyde was prepared: he gave Amy a small push before gliding away from the rain himself, and the two then quickened their pace considerably.  Sonia played furiously, sending a volley of blasts at Tia’s shield.  She held her ground when the water came rushing at her.


“That’s not going to work,” Ace said.


Looking up, she snapped, “At least I’m doing something!”


A roar signaled the creation of a new water dragon.  Sonia prepared a sound pulse, but before she got the chance, Ace pointed his gun and launched a spinning, bladed wheel from it; the weapon shot forward a short distance before turning sharply, intercepting the dragon and destroying it.  Deciding to try something else, Sonia lowered the head of her guitar and fired her strings as Tia called a shower down on Ace.  They managed to slip through the veil of water and wrap around Tia’s midsection.  Eagerly, Sonia sent a pulse down the wire, stunning her opponent and bringing the shield down.


“Nicely done!” Ace said.  “Target locked, and…”


He held out his blaster: a small, flat blade made of energy extended from the tip.  In a second he was in front of Tia, swiping at her twice before she knocked him flat with her scepter.  Sonia tried another pulse, but Tia snapped the strings, pointed her staff at Sonia, and sent out a water dragon that bowled over her.  Ace leapt up and aimed his gun.  Tia raised her shield as a series of small electric blasts came from the barrel, and then forced Ace back with her staff.  The two of them stared each other down for a moment.


“I never wanted anyone to get hurt,” Ace said.


“Why should your intentions matter?” Tia asked.


“Tia, I was just a kid, and all I knew was what King was telling us!  How was I supposed to—“


Another water dragon spawned from the barrier, carrying Ace away before he could finish.  Sonia was back on her feet now, launching more strings, but Tia predicted this and floated out of the way.  She was quick to call down more rain, and as Sonia was dodging, a flash of blue could be seen darting towards her.  Geo’s blade didn’t even leave a dent in the barrier.


“Darn,” he said as he teleported a short distance back.  “…Ms. Tia, I—“


“Ugh, don’t even start!” Virgo said.  “All of you keep saying the same thing, and I’m so tired of it!  Let’s just get back to killing each other!”


“With pleasure,” Mega growled.  “Though I have to say, I’d much rather take out you and that rotten crow together!”


“Don’t be hasty, Mega dear,” Lyra said.  “Ophiuca and I would very much like to have a word with Virgo.  Don’t go eliminating her just yet.”


Geo turned slightly.  “What’s with you two?!  We’re not killing anyone, right Sonia?”


“Of course not!” Sonia said.  “We aren’t going to stoop to these monsters’ level!”


“Kyahaha, this is fun, this is fun!” Virgo laughed.  “Come on, Tia, don’t stop!  Let’s see how many we can kill at once!”


 Taking a slow step forward, Tia rapped one knuckle against the interior of her barrier.  The exterior spawned a shockwave that nearly hit Sonia and Geo; not long after they dodged, however, they heard an impact and something shuddering behind them, and they quickly realized what it was.  Tia struck her barrier several more times as she walked forward—Sonia and Geo blocked what they could, but most of the water blasts went right past them, pounding away at the Real Wave shield.  Deciding to change tactics, Sonia shot her strings again.  Tia let them wrap around her arm, wincing a bit as she endured a sound pulse, but continued to move forward, now using the end of her scepter to spawn the shockwaves.


“Dang it!” Sonia shouted, playing as fast as she could to try to wear Tia down.


“Sonia, calm down!” Lyra said.


“I can’t!  Nothing’s working—she’s not stopping—and if we can’t stop her, she’s going to wreck everything, and Luna…”


She paused.  Seeing this, Tia whipped up another water dragon and sent it forth, tearing her free of the strings in the process.  Sonia and Geo occupied themselves with destroying this projection, but out of the corner of their eye they saw two beams of energy lance into Tia from the side.  Ace followed up his surprise attack with a series of rapid shots, an assault which Sonia eagerly added to.  Geo took a moment to angle his buster, and then launched an arrow from it that arced high before striking Tia in the abdomen, prompting her to stumble and fall to her knees.  Ace stopped firing.  A few seconds later, Geo touched Sonia’s arm, and she stopped too.


“Please just surrender, Tia,” Ace said.  “There’s no need for anyone else to get hurt here.”


Tia didn’t even look at him as she straightened herself.


“Stand down, Tia!  Acid’s been running analyses on you this whole time—with the data he has now, this fight is already over!”


“Is that so?” Tia muttered.  Water began to appear around her.  “Then stop talking and do what you do best, Ace.  Pull the trigger.”


Ace stared at her for a moment.  Then, he lowered his weapon.  A second later, the armor plates on his back shifted, and a loud whirring noise could be heard.  Red energy blasted out from behind Ace’s shoulders, fanning out to create projections that resembled wings.


“I think this one needs to be more personal,” he said.


Ace leaned forward…and then the energy faded.  His body spasmed, and he fell to one knee, clutching his arm.


“No, not now…!  Acid!”


“Limiter is activating,” Acid stated.  “There’s nothing more I can do, Ace.”


Tia’s eyes glinted.  A water dragon rushed straight at Ace as his Wave Change evaporated.  Sonia started forward, but Geo quickly overtook her, using his Mega Attack to get in front of Ace just as the attack connected.  The water clung to them both, wrapping around them in the shape of a bubble; Sonia tried to play a note as she ran, but Tia sent out a shockwave while she wasn’t looking, knocking her feet out from under her.  She hit the ground face-first, hearing a loud crack as an intense jolt of pain dulled her senses.


“No,” Sonia said, groggily picking herself up.  Her vision was blurred, and her visor was covered in a web of fractures.  She tried aiming, but another shockwave sent her back down.


“Sonia,” Lyra groaned.  “I’m sorry, but…we’re about to run out of power…I don’t know how much more of this we can take!”


“Kyahahaha!” Virgo laughed.  “What a stupid girl!  And what stupid boys!  Hurry up, Tia—we’re finally going to kill them, kyahaha!”


Sonia screamed in fury, shooting blindly in the hopes that she would hit her mark.  She couldn’t give up, but she didn’t know what to do, and though the rage was undoubtedly the loudest voice in her mind, there was another thought that still came through perfectly clear.


Am I really going to lose them?


Another shockwave rolled her backwards.


I don’t know how to save them!  If I don’t do something, I’m going to lose Geo!  I’m going to lose Bud, and Amy, and Pat, and Zack, and Mr. Boreal, and…


She could feel rain battering away at her, the downpour not letting up for even a second.


Luna…I’ll really…lose…Luna…


Sonia’s thoughts suddenly shifted.  The idea grew strong enough to overpower the rage, and all her thoughts snapped into focus around it.  Tia was preparing one more attack—she couldn’t see it, but she knew.




She raised one hand as she felt water rush over her, pushing against the current with all the strength she had left.  It was agony, feeling the rapids break over her, doing their best to tear her apart, but she still forced herself to stand.  When it finally ended, she stayed where she was—she trembled violently, but she stayed standing, and readied her guitar.  She could see clearly again.


“What the heck is that?” Virgo asked.  “Oh, right, I think you were saying something about this, weren’t you, Tia?”


Tia took a moment to reassess her foe.  Sonia’s dress was now a pale shade of green, covered by an angular black breastplate and with the outer part of her sleeve dyed purple, a pink scarf coiled around her neck.  Purple had also found its way into her gloves, as well as her helmet, the nodes on which were now silvery spikes, and her greaves were green on their outer sides with a vertical purple stripe down their centers.  The body of her guitar had a design on it reminiscent of the hood of a cobra, while the head sported a snake-like ornament.  Tia hummed quietly, waiting to see what she would do.


Sonia looked herself over as well, but only for a second.  Lifting her guitar, she aimed the head at the bubble holding Ace and Geo and played, firing off a pink beam of energy that pierced through the orb and freed them.  Immediately, she set her sights on Tia.


“When…did you have time to access the Noise Server?” Lyra asked.


“I didn’t,” Sonia said.


“What?  But then…”


Sonia bit her lip.  “…Are you saying it’s okay, Luna?  I didn’t want to, but…if you really think this is the only way…then…”


Seeing that she was distracted, Tia walked forward, closing in rapidly on the Real Wave shield.  Sonia played a short song, and Tia paused mid-step: the ground before her was suddenly covered in a blanket of snakes, all closely watching her.  Sparing a glance at Sonia, Tia raised her staff and began to form another water dragon.


As this was happening, Geo was helping Ace into a sitting position, asking, “Are you okay?”


“Yeah,” Ace said, stopping to hack and cough for a few seconds.  “Yeah, guess so…”


“Get over to the Wave Liner stop—you and Solo should be able to hide back in there until this is over.”


“Did you say Solo?” Ace asked, turning towards the stop.  Sure enough, he could just barely see the boy slumped against the wall of the entryway, watching the battle with a weary focus.


“It’s a long story,” Geo said.  He started to get up, but Ace grabbed his arm.


“Hang on!  Her barrier…it’s weaker when she’s attacking.  If you’re trying to break it, that’s your best bet!”


Geo nodded.  “Alright.  Thank you.”


“And, Geo…I’m sorry about Pat.”


After a moment, Geo turned away and said, “We’ll talk later.”


Back at the shield, Tia was sending out shockwave after shockwave to repel the oncoming snakes.  Sonia fired another laser, but her opponent floated out of the way, and she dodged a counterattack—only to immediately regret leaving the Real Wave barrier unprotected.


“…Sonia,” Lyra said.  “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but…while this form is certainly giving us more to work with…”


“It doesn’t really have a good way to stop her,” Sonia said.  “I know.  But, I don’t have time to switch forms.  We’re just going to have to do the best we can with these abilities…unless…”


Tia called down more pillars of light, letting them sweep away the snakes as she walked forward.  Sonia waited for an opening in the lights and aimed at Tia’s feet: she hoped her laser could create enough stone to shackle her to the ground, but the barrier just absorbed the shot, and she had to use her guitar to block the retaliation shockwave.  Tia was only a few steps away from her now.  Sonia wondered if it was better to take the hit or let the shield take more damage, but as a water dragon began to take shape, Geo appeared behind Tia.  Making a fist, he threw an electrified jab that punched right through Tia’s veil and hit her in the back of the head, releasing a shock that stunned her and caused her shield to instantly vanish.


“We have to stop her now!” Geo said, readying another Battle Card.


Nodding, Sonia pointed the head of her guitar at Tia and fired, pushing her back and nearly making her fall over.  Geo spun into a small whirlwind, keeping Tia too dizzy to attack, and then Sonia struck her with a sound pulse.  As Geo unloaded a series of rapid shots, Tia gripped her staff tightly.  Sonia fired one quick sound blast before the shield came back up.  Geo reluctantly prepared to defend, but no attack came.  Tia turned slowly.  She knew her foes must be close, but she couldn’t be sure where, since Sonia’s last attack had temporarily blinded her.


“Lyra,” Sonia whispered, jumping a few feet back.  “Is it possible to access two Noise Changes at once?”


Lyra thought about it briefly, ultimately replying, “Let’s find out.”


Tia blinked as her vision started to return.  Geo said, “Ms. Tia…I don’t want to fight you, but I’m not going to let you destroy WAZA.”


“Shut up already!” Virgo shouted.  “Ugh, you stupid brats just don’t know when to quit!  I’m getting real fed up with this, Tia: let’s kill someone already!”


Tia raised her staff and locked eyes on Geo as he slowly circled around her.  Then, she turned to look at Sonia.  She saw the girl pull one hand in front of herself, and moved to fire off a water dragon, but all she did was give Geo the opportunity he needed to ram a drill through her shield.  Sonia’s armor flashed briefly before changing to a darker shade of green complimented by gold, her guitar transforming to the shape belonging to Crown Noise.  While Geo jumped up and unloaded a ferocious series of blasts, Sonia began to play, calling up three tiny skulls coated in electricity that trailed behind them like the bodies of snakes.  The small creatures darted over to Tia and flung themselves up at her, leaving her too confused to reform her shield, and Sonia pointed her guitar as Geo charged his buster.  Neither said a word as they fired.  One massive blast came from Geo’s side, while Sonia fired a beam made of focused electricity; caught in the middle of both, Tia felt a sharp, stinging pain, and then her knees buckled and gave out, her staff rolling away as she hit the ground.


“Are you…kidding me?!” Virgo screamed.  “No way is this happening!  No way, no way, no way, no waaaaaay!”


Geo picked up the staff, keeping his buster armed.  Sonia approached quickly, saying, “Give it up already.  It’s over.”


Tia looked up at her, her expression still blank.  “…No.  There’s still Jack.  It isn’t over yet…”


“Sure, whatever,” Mega said.  “Why don’t the two of you separate and we can have a nice long chat?”


“Get real!” Virgo said.  “Like I’d really let you idiots capture me!”


In the next second, Tia’s Wave Change was undone, and Virgo floated in the air above her.


“Huh?” Mega said.  “Hey, wait a sec!”


The FM-ian turned and bolted across the sky, her decision too sudden for anyone to do anything about it.


“Why that…!”


Tia looked up after her for a moment.  Then, she looked down at the ground, and sat perfectly still.


“Her cowardice is truly astounding,” Lyra said.  “Well…at least we’ve secured one of them.”


Ace approached then.  He stared at Tia for a moment, and then reached into his uniform to pull out a pair of handcuffs.


“Queen Tia…you are hereby under arrest.”




The main computer room of WAZA HQ was unnervingly quiet, the only sounds being those made by Vega and Goodall as they made the final adjustments for the reconstruction process.  Boreal sat at a table with his hands over his face.  Sonia stood nearby, eyes on the two doctors, while Amy and Zack tended to Bud on the other side of the room, and Geo and Pat sat a few steps away.  Copper was along the other wall glaring at Ace, who either hadn’t noticed or didn’t have anything to say.  Hyde was next to the machinery, ready in case Vega needed anything, and Solo just stood in the midst of the room periodically glancing around at everyone.


“So Chief,” Ace finally said, rubbing his shoulder.  “Any news from the other branches?”


Boreal lowered his hands enough that his eyes were visible.  “NetFrica HQ managed to repel the invasion, but their facilities suffered immense damage in the process.  They’re crippled.  And as for everyone else…”


Ace crossed his arms.  “Then it looks like we’re on our own.”


“For some reason hearing you say that makes me nervous,” Copper grumbled.  “Like you’re going to use it as justification for another one of your hare-brained schemes.”


“Don’t be like that, detective,” he said, smiling.  “Everything worked out in the end.”


Copper stepped forward.  “Everything…?  The Satella Police are in shambles after that battle!  All of our officers, humans and Wizards, are out of commission, and that’s not even getting started on how banged up our Wave Change users are!  And despite all that, we have only one untalkative captive to show for it!  I’d hardly say this all worked out, Ace!”


“I didn’t know you were so worried about us.  Don’t sweat it, I’ll be fine.”


“I’m more worried about…”


He sighed.  Bud raised his fist, saying, “No, I’ll be okay too!  I’m just a little sore is all.  Ow!”


“Just relax, Bud,” Amy said.


“Yeah, I know.”


She paused a moment.  “Bud…are you doing okay?”


He let out a breath.  “I really wish I coulda put up more of a fight against her.  It sucks that I wasn’t able to contribute at all to that fight.”


Amy set a hand on his arm, and he grinned at her.


“So I’ll just have to do better next time!  I’m gonna get back on my feet, and I’m gonna train until I’m stronger than ever, no matter how long it takes me!  Wait and see: I’ll get so strong I’ll even be able to take on that Joker guy!”


A relieved smile came over Amy’s face.  “Alright.  And I’ll be training with you!  Now that the cat’s out of the bag there’s no sense in going back to the sidelines!”


“I knew you were going to say that,” Yeti said.  “Well, if that’s what you want, then I’ll help you out.  I may not be able to stop you from fighting, but I’ll definitely keep you safe, Amy.”


As Amy thanked him, Sonia turned to look at Boreal.  “Apparently Joker was in Alohaha to fight Solo,” she said.  “I don’t think I got a chance to tell you that.”


Boreal nodded and looked over at Solo.  “…So.  You’re fighting with Dealer as well?”


“I am,” Solo said.


Boreal waited a moment, and then asked, “Can you tell us why?”


Solo took a moment to organize his thoughts, finally saying, “I’ve reason to believe they have something they should not.”


When it became apparent that was all he was offering, Boreal leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose.


“He used to work for you, correct?”


“…That’s right.  And he must have taken Acid’s blueprints when he left—that’s the only way I can explain how Dealer would be able to make so many copies.  I’m just glad they went for quantity over quality, or else we could have been in real trouble.”


Mega scoffed.  “Right, cause Acid’s so tough.  He didn’t even last long in that fight—we did the real heavy lifting!”


“Our contributions were reduced only due to my built-in restrictions,” Acid stated.  “Had we continued fighting any longer, the damage done to Ace’s body would have far exceeded the damage we would have caused to Queen Tia.”


“Why is that?” Geo asked.  “Is there something wrong with your Wave Change?”


“I wouldn’t say ‘wrong’, but…” Ace began, ultimately trailing off.  He drew his Hunter, and Acid materialized next to him.  “Well, you’ve probably noticed that man-made Wizards look a bit more ‘solid’ than FM-ians and the like, right?  Natural EM beings usually look like clouds of energy with bits of armor, but the ones we make are pretty much all armor.”


“While we can now create our own EM beings,” Boreal picked up, “the process is not perfected by any stretch of the imagination.  Keeping an amorphous being’s body together is a very, very tricky process, and we just haven’t figured it out.  So with current Wizards, in order to keep the entity’s waves from drifting too far apart and dissipating, their bodies are compressed to an incredibly high degree, which is why they look…’solid’.  And, unfortunately, that also applies to the Wave Changes produced using these Wizards.”


Ace nodded.  “Such high-level compression puts a lot more stress on my body than a normal Wave Change.  Acid’s constantly monitoring my vitals, and if they ever reach a certain threshold, our Wave Change automatically deactivates.  I keep telling them it’s set too high—I can take more stress than they give me credit for.”


“So that’s why you haven’t experimented with more Wave Change-capable Wizards,” Sonia said.  After a pause, she asked, “I’ve been wondering about Transcode 002.  When we encountered Solo, I thought maybe it was him, but he doesn’t have a Hunter so I don’t see how he’d be connected to the network that registers them.”  She paused again.  “It’s Joker, isn’t it?”


“…Yes and no,” Ace answered.  “Joker was originally planned to be a part of Wave Change Wizard testing, so 002 was registered as a placeholder he would eventually assume.  He never actually took it, but it’s still sort of his.”


Sonia nodded slowly.  “Something else.  When I met him, he said we were drawing power from a ‘Meteor Server’.”  She faced Boreal, but he wouldn’t look her in the eye.  A long, uncomfortable silence followed.


With a powerful sigh, Boreal said, “It wasn’t on a course for Earth, so we thought saying anything would create a problem where there wasn’t one, but…yes.  The Noise Server is actually what we would classify as a meteor, officially dubbed ‘Meteor G’.”


“And what does the ‘G’ stand for, exactly?” Lyra asked.


“No one could really agree,” Ace said.  “Giant, Grand, Grave…a lot of possibilities got tossed out, we just kind of settled on ‘G’ in the end.”


“Since Dealer’s so focused on Noise,” Sonia said, “I’m guessing the meteor has something to do with their goals?”


“That’s right,” Ace said.  “Dealer’s ultimate goal is to take control of Meteor G, and use its powerful Noise to take control of the world.”


“And now Joker’s with them, and he has a program than can access it.  That sounds pretty bad.”


“Hard to say exactly how bad, but…Meteor G does appear to be getting closer to Earth, so…”


Everyone looked up.  “It’s headed for Earth?” Geo asked.


“It’s moving very slowly—we still have plenty of time to deal with it,” Boreal assured.


“How are we going to deal with it?”


“Until we know exactly what Dealer is doing to it, it’s difficult to say for sure.  But defeating them is going to be essential.”


“So we just keep at it,” Sonia mumbled, “and hope that when we do stop Dealer, the way to stop the meteor is obvious.”


No one else said a word until the doctors stopped their work.  Approaching them, Goodall said, “Conditions are as ideal as they’ll ever be.  If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it now.”


Sonia swallowed hard.  As she came forward, Goodall, Vega, and a few other scientists took up stations all along the machinery, and at the flick of a switch a low hum filled the air.  Ophiuca emerged from the corner she had been hiding in and approached as well.  In her hands she held a large ball of light, and at the prompting of Goodall, she inserted it into an opening and reluctantly moved back.


“Let’s begin,” Goodall said, her face frozen as she stared directly at the screen in front of her.  “100% of Luna Platz’s data accounted for.  Now activating reconstruction program…”


Sonia fixed her eyes on the machinery in front of her.  She was vaguely aware of the others around her—she thought Geo might be saying something—but nothing else felt real, none of it registered.  The only thing she could think about was this last chance to save Luna.


At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly.  Every few seconds one of the scientists would make some observation, and Goodall would respond, at the same time carefully watching her own screen while her fingers darted over the buttons laid out for them.  The first thing that indicated a reason to be concerned was Vega flinching slightly.


“…Reconstruction speed has slowed,” she reported.  “Correction, is slowing.”


“Increase support functions to compensate,” Goodall replied.


“Compensating…negative.  It’s not having any effect.”


“Dr. Goodall,” said another scientist, “if we push those functions any further it’s likely to lock up the entire system.”


One of the others glanced back at the spectators before saying, “Data is beginning to degrade.”


Sonia started shaking.


“Deactivate auto-support and switch to manual input, at my station,” Goodall ordered.


Her colleagues all looked at her, one of them saying, “Manual?  Doctor, stabilizing this process with manual input is just impossible!”


Goodall didn’t look up.  “That’s no reason to give up.  Switch to manual input.”


“…Switching to manual input…”


The speed of Goodall’s fingers increased.  Vega said, “Reconstruction speed stabilizing…degradation has ceased.  Analysis shows no corruption—I think we’re back on track.”


“Prepare to engage the rematerialization process, at one-third default settings,” Goodall said.  “We need to get the timing precisely right.”


“Standing ready,” came the reply.


Someone next to her was saying something, Sonia was sure.  She couldn’t make out what it was.


“Now!” Goodall said.


More and more lights flashed down the length of the machines.  The hum grew louder.  Goodall typed away, never stopping for a split second, and all anyone else could do was watch.  After about a minute of silence, one of the lights flashed red.


“Reconstruction is slowing immensely!” Vega said.  “Rematerialization process as well…data integrity is…oh no…”


Goodall shouted her orders, but suddenly Sonia couldn’t make those out either.  It was as if her senses just ceased to function altogether, as if she had just stepped away from reality and it was going on without her.  A chaotic jumble of thoughts and emotions filled her head, and for what seemed like forever, she was lost in it, having no clue what was going on or what she was feeling.  A hand on her shoulder and it became crystal clear all at once.


“Sonia…” Geo said.


Tears erupted from her eyes.  More and more lights were turning red.


“Luna,” Sonia said.  “Luna…don’t leave me…”


She took a step forward.  Geo tried to gently keep her back, but she kept moving.


“Please, don’t go!  I need you!  I can’t do this without you, Luna!”


“Sonia!” Geo said, moving forward and wrapping his arms around her.  “Sonia, we need to stay back!”


She leaned forward, struggling against him as she continued to cry out.  “Don’t leave me!  I did everything I could—I did my best to save you!  You’re supposed to be okay now!  Come back, Luna!  I’m not ready to lose you!”


Vega pounded furiously at her terminal.  “I’m doing everything I can to keep the data intact, but I need more power!  Somebody reroute energy from all non-essential functions!”


“In progress,” someone said, “but if we don’t get the process realigned soon the data will corrupt!”


“It’s not over,” Goodall said.  Try as she might to stay calm, a hint of desperation was creeping into her voice.  “Just stay focused, and…”


“I can’t lose you!” Sonia sobbed, sinking to her knees.  “Don’t do this to me, Luna!  Don’t give up, not when we’re this close!  You have to make it!  You just…have to…”


“Corruption inevitable,” someone said.  “Dr. Goodall…I don’t see how we can stop this.”


“Just keep trying!” Goodall said.  “There has to be some way!”


Vega clenched her teeth.  “…It’s slowing too much…she…she’s…”


Geo tightened his hold on Sonia.  She hung her head, trying one last time to pull away, and said, “Please, Luna…I love you so much…please, don’t leave me…I need you…”


The hum began to dim.  Sonia’s heart plummeted.


Staring wide-eyed at her screen, Vega said, “…It’s…stabilizing…”


Unsure of what she had heard, Sonia turned to look at her.


“D-Data is retaining integrity!  Reconstruction sequence is stabilizing—no, it’s actually picking up!  Modifying rematerialization program to match!”


Sonia looked up at the machine.  “…Luna…?”


“This is incredible!” one of the scientists said.  “It’s some kind of miracle!”


Goodall continued to type away, and a small smile came to her face.  “Don’t act so surprised, dear.  Miracles happen all the time.”


The lights along the machinery all returned to normal, and soon a hissing sound could be heard from the tall, cylindrical chamber attached to it.  Sonia held her breath as she stared at it.  One be one, the scientists all turned away from their stations to watch the chamber, Goodall being the last.  Slowly, the glass wall of the chamber pulled aside, revealing an off-balance, confused-looking, but very much alive Luna.


“Oooh,” she groaned, taking a few shaky steps out of the chamber.  “What happened…?”


Sonia got to her feet—Geo had finally let go of her.  “Luna…?  Is that really you?”


Luna faced her.  “Huh?  What do you mean—of course it’s me!  What kind of…”  She paused, taking a good look around.  “…Are we at WAZA?  What’s going on?”


“Luna!” Sonia shouted, rushing over and nearly tackling her to the ground.  “Y-You’re okay!  You’re really okay!  Hahaha!  Luna’s okay!”


“H-Hey, easy!  I’m not…feeling well, for some reason…wait, why are you so upset?  Sonia?”


Sonia kissed her, saying, “I’m so glad you’re okay…I love you, Luna.”


Luna blushed a little.  “Y-Yeah, I know…I love you too.”


Sonia held Luna tight, the other girl glancing around in confusion for another moment before returning the embrace.


“Sonia…what happened?”




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Chapter 18


Sonia sat outside the infirmary fidgeting constantly.  Lyra floated nearby, keeping an eye on her but not really having anything to offer.  Both checked the clock again and again, taking a look at the door each time, unable to stop themselves even though they knew it wasn’t going to help anything.  When a doctor finally did step out of the room, Sonia leapt straight to her feet.


Before she could say anything, the doctor said, “We’ve finished the tests, and she’s fine physically.  But, she is still a little shaken.”


She clenched and unclenched her fist.  “…Can I…?”


The doctor nodded.  Sonia gently pushed the door open and peered inside: there were a number of beds lining the wall, but they were all empty save for the closest, where Luna sat wearing a hospital gown and with her hair hanging loose behind her.  Ophiuca hovered near her, and glanced up when the door opened.  Luna smiled when she saw Sonia, but she still radiated unease.


“Hey,” Sonia said as she came closer.  “The doctor said your tests went well.”


Luna nodded once, and then averted her eyes.  She stared at the wall for a few seconds, then bit her lip, turned back to Sonia, and said, “I, um…well, thanks…for saving me…”


With a grin, Sonia replied, “Don’t mention it!  I’d do anything for you, Luna.”


Tentatively, Luna extended her hand; Sonia stepped forward to take it.  Luna stared, confused, at their fingers for a moment, and then opened her mouth to say something.  She stopped.  Sonia lightly rubbed the back of her hand, waiting patiently until she tried again.


“Sonia,” Luna mumbled.  “Is this…real…?  A-Am I really…”


Sonia touched her shoulder, locking eyes with her.  “Yes.  It’s real, Luna.  You’re really here with me.”


Luna just stared into her eyes for a time.  She breathed deeply, and then started to look around the room.  “It’s just…it’s weird to think about…I mean, I was…I was in pieces?  And I don’t remember anything…Joker attacked me, and then…”


Her eyes slowly widened.  Sonia could feel her pulse starting to quicken.  She calmly said, “Luna, I’m here for you.  You’re safe, okay?  I’m right here.”


Luna shut her eyes tight, pulling one hand over her face.  Eventually, she looked at Sonia, and then reached both arms out—Sonia hugged her, feeling Luna cling to her more tightly than she ever had before.  Sonia was sure her grip was just as tight.  She was so happy to see Luna whole again, but at the same time, it broke her heart to see her hurting.  When at last they let go, Sonia sat down on the bed next to her, still holding fast to Luna’s hand.


“I’m not sure how to make sense of it,” Luna said, her voice so quiet Sonia could only just hear her.  “I just feel…disturbed, I guess…and really unsure in general…”  She looked up, but hesitated.


“It was a bit jarring for me as well, when I was reconstructed,” Ophiuca said.  “Perhaps not as much, given that EM beings are at least aware of the idea of being broken up, but it was bizarre to realize I had actually been put back together.”


Luna turned to her.  “How did you…?”


“I realized that, truthfully, I was just glad to be alive.  And that that was all I needed to focus on.  The minute details of what had already transpired seemed not to matter quite so much, and that unsettling feeling just slowly and naturally found its way out of my mind.”


“I see,” Luna mumbled.


Sonia waited.


“…Well, it doesn’t help matters that these doctors kept me up all night,” Luna added as she rubbed her eye, her tone sounding a bit more familiar.  “Of course I’m grateful for their dedication, but I have a policy against all-nighters for a reason.”


“Do you want to rest?” Sonia said.


Luna squeezed her hand.  “…I…don’t want to be alone…”


“I won’t leave you alone.”


“Neither will I, of course,” Ophiuca said.


“Go ahead and rest a bit, dear,” Lyra said.  “We’ll all still be here when you wake up.”


After a few seconds, Luna shifted a little.  Instantly catching her meaning, Sonia moved back a bit, and then Luna laid down so that her head came to rest on Sonia’s lap.


“…Thank you,” Luna said.  “I’m really…really glad you’re all here…”


Sonia reached down to stroke her hair.  “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than by your side, Luna.”


It wasn’t long before Luna was asleep.  It wasn’t long after that Sonia could feel her trembling.  Biting her lip, Sonia just kept stroking Luna’s hair, and after calming herself down a bit, she started to sing quietly.  Gradually, Luna’s shaking stopped.  Even when she finally seemed to be resting easy, Sonia kept singing.




“…and that’s when you showed up.”


Geo closed his eyes, taking a moment to process what Ace had told him.


“We were in serious trouble,” Ace added, “and Pat said that he wanted to help if he could.  It was his decision.”


“Sounds like you sort of led him into it,” Geo mumbled.  “Ace…I can kind of get your reasoning, and if this is what Pat wants then I’m not going to stop him.  But…”


“You don’t think it was a good idea to take him to see Gemini?”


Geo sighed.  “I don’t know.  And I guess that’s my problem: I don’t know what to expect from Gemini in this situation, or how this could affect Pat and Rey long term.  I’m worried about them, and I’m not entirely convinced it was necessary to put them up to it.”


“We’ll be keeping a close eye on them, Geo.  At the first sign of trouble, we’ll call the whole thing off—you don’t have anything to worry about.”


After a very, very long pause, Geo said, “I’m sorry, Ace, but…it’s a little difficult for me to trust you right now.”


Ace slowly nodded.  “Alright.  That’s fair.”


Geo turned and headed down the hall, saying, “I’m going to go check on them.  I’m sure I’ll see you later.”


Ace turned in the opposite direction, and took a moment to prepare himself before he started walking.  He came upon a door with three locks and two guards—nodding to his colleagues, he punched in the access codes, waited for a flash of green light, and opened the door just enough that he could slip inside.  The room beyond had dark gray walls, and was divided in two by a series of bars that ran from ceiling to floor.  A bed was on the other side, and sitting at its foot, facing away and gazing out the window, was Tia.  Ace pulled up a chair.


“I was glad to hear you weren’t injured,” he said.  “Things got a little crazy there, but I guess Virgo’s defenses really are insanely tough.”


Tia didn’t react.  Ace reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a candy bar.


“Want a Mega Snack?”


Receiving no response, he shrugged and undid the wrapper.


“Well, in that case, hope you don’t mind.”


As he took the first bite, Tia turned her head ever so slightly.  “…Congratulating yourself on a mission well done?”


Ace chuckled as he looked over the treat.  “Nah, I’m eating these all the time now.  Wanted to stop thinking of them as a reward.”


“Is it working?”


“Can’t tell.  They still taste good, though.”


They remained in silence until Ace had finished the bar.  Before he could reach for another, Tia asked, “Where is my pendant?”


“It’s safe.  No need to worry about it.”


“I’m supposed to believe you?”


“I know how much it means to you, Tia: I won’t let anything happen to it.”


Tia’s eyes narrowed just a bit.  “You’ve already destroyed everything else I cared about.  Why should this be different?”


Ace stared at her for a moment.  “You still have Jack.”


She faced the window again.


“C’mon, Tia.  Tell us where King’s hiding now—the sooner we can get to Jack, the better.”


“You’re so eager to capture him too?”


“I’m eager to reunite the two of you.  He’s not going to do well once he finds out you’re in custody, Tia, you know that.  We have to get to him before he has a chance to do anything reckless.  I’m only pushing the issue because I care about him.”


Tia flinched.  “…So…now you care…”


“Of course I care about him.  And you too.  I promised you, I’m going to save the both of you, but you’ve got to help me out.”


“Just get your new team to track him down.  You always do your best work when you have someone else to use.”


“I always thought we did our best work together.  You and I were always the leaders of our little family.”


In a flash, Tia was on her feet and whirled to face Ace.  “You and I?!” she said, an intense fury quickly seeping into her voice.  “No, Ace, you were the ‘leader’—you led all the other kids off to die, led them in droves to be slaughtered so that King would congratulate you on completing whatever he’d told you to do!  I was doing whatever I could to keep them safe from your recklessness!”


Ace closed his eyes.  “I didn’t…I never wanted them to die.”


“But you never did anything to keep them alive, did you?” Tia said, stalking forward and gripping the bars.  “You just kept charging ahead no matter who was mowed down—you never even looked back, not once!  Do you…”


She gritted her teeth.


“Do you know…how many I had to watch die?  How many times I felt the life drain out of someone right in my grasp?  I tried to save them, but there wouldn’t be anything I could do…some of them actually told me to leave them behind, but most of them just cried, scared and confused.  And every time…every time…King would give you that stupid candy and pat you on the head, and then punish me for not staying focused on the mission.”


Ace opened his eyes, but he didn’t look at her.  “…You never stopped, though.”


Tia leaned her head against the bars.  “No, I did.  I had to…to keep Jack safe…”


Ace looked up.


“Eventually there were so few of us.  If one of the others went down, it usually meant Jack was in the line of fire next.  And, I…if I stopped to try to save the other, then I wouldn’t have been able to keep Jack safe…so I stopped.”  Tears started to drip from her face.  “I let them die…I had to, to keep Jack safe…I couldn’t lose him…even if it meant losing everyone else, I couldn’t lose Jack…”  She glared at Ace.  “So I had to let the others die.  Or else you would’ve gotten him killed too.”


“I was a kid too,” Ace said.  “I didn’t understand what was going on, not really.  All I knew was that if I didn’t do what King asked, I was going to get punished just the same.”  He looked down at the candy bar in his hand.


“Is that what you tell yourself?” Tia asked.  “You didn’t know, so that makes it okay?  But now things are different: now you can lead a whole new group of kids off to be slaughtered, because the first time you didn’t know any better.  You’re doing the same thing you’ve always done, Ace.  Stop lying and just resign yourself to it, like I have.”


“But you haven’t given up.”




“When you infiltrated Echo Ridge, you decided to pose as a student teacher, right?  You saw another opportunity to take care of a bunch of kids, and you felt like you wanted to try again, to try to do a better job this time.  Right?”


Tia said nothing.


“…And I guess that’s why you’re so mad at me now.  Because some of those same kids are on my team, and you’re afraid I’m going to get them killed.”


Ace stood and took one step forward.


“I won’t let anything happen to them, Tia.  I promise you.  I might not have it all figured out yet, but this time, I know that what I’m doing affects others too, and I’m not going to get anyone else killed by being reckless.  Not anymore.”  He took a deep breath.  “So please…tell me where King is hiding.  Tell me where to find Jack.”


Tia glared at him for what felt like hours.  Ultimately, her eyes returned to their usual dull, uninterested stare, and she stepped away from the bars.


“No, Ace,” she said.  “No matter what you say, I’ll never be able to trust you.  Not with Jack.”


She sat down, looking out the window once again.  Ace remained standing there for a minute, then slowly walked out.




Sonia turned at the sound of the door opening, seeing Luna emerge in her regular clothes.  “Hey.  Oh...hang on a second.”  She reached up and adjusted the other girl’s bow.


“Guess I hurried too much,” Luna said.  “Thanks for catching that.”


“No problem!”


Taking Luna by the hand, Sonia led her down the hall in the direction of the lobby.  She glanced at her quickly: she seemed like her usual self for the most part, but despite her rest she still looked a bit worn out.  Suddenly, Luna started.


“Ah, I almost forgot!” she said.  “The election’s just a little over a week from now—I still need to co-ordinate my final campaign effort with everyone.”


After a short delay, Sonia smiled.  “I’m sure they’d understand if you took a few days to recuperate.”


Luna shook her head.  “I can’t afford to let up this late in the game.  We need to hold onto our momentum if we want a decisive victory!  Besides…”  She fidgeted.  “It might be nice to get back to my usual routine…keep busy, you know?”


“Alright.  Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!”


They rounded a corner.


“…Hey, Sonia?” Luna said.  “About Dealer—“


“Don’t worry about it,” Sonia interrupted.  “Just leave that to me.”


“Well, I…I mean, I think I need a break for now, but I’ll want to come back eventually.”


“It’ll be okay, Luna.  You don’t have to.”


Luna tugged on Sonia’s arm.  “Well of course not.  What I’m saying is that I want to stay informed so that I can help you out again when I’m ready.”


Sonia hesitated.


“…And it might be a while.  We can discuss that later, I guess.  But don’t think I’m going to stand for being kept in the dark in the meantime!  I expect to remain in the loop!”


“Luna…”  Sonia stopped to choose her words.  “I don’t want to put you in danger again.  I don’t want to make it any more difficult for you to heal.  Going forward…it could get really hard on you, and you shouldn’t have to be put through that.”


Their pace slowed to a halt.  Luna’s eyes scanned the floor as she began, “Today…or, yesterday, I guess…it was really scary.  I know I need some time to cope with it, and I’m going to take it.  But…”  She looked Sonia in the eye.  “I don’t want to just stop fighting forever.  No, I refuse to let this stop me forever!  I still want to help you, Sonia—I’m still determined to do everything I can to keep you safe!  I’m going to get my strength back so that I can lend it to you, and to the others as well, so that we can stop Dealer before they have the chance to hurt more people!”


Sonia was the one to break eye contact.  “Luna…”


Luna stepped in closer, pressing her forehead against Sonia’s.  “I know you’re going to worry, and I’m sorry.  But I’m going to worry about you too.  If I stay away longer than I need to, then I’ll just be wondering what’s happening, wondering if maybe you’re in danger and that maybe if I was there you’d have better chances.  I’d hate to just…sit around doing nothing when I’m perfectly capable of helping.”


Closing her eyes, Sonia sighed softly.


“Like I said, it might be a while.  Let’s just let that be enough for now.”


“…Alright,” Sonia said.  She looked at Luna for a moment, and then kissed her.


“Now then,” Luna said as they resumed walking.  “What’s the plan going forward?  I heard that we managed to take Ms. Tia into custody, but has she said anything?”


“As far as I’m aware, no,” Sonia said.  “And I doubt Jack will just show up at school.  We still don’t have much to go on, but…”




“I don’t know.  I wasn’t taking Dealer seriously before, and it…well, now I know I need to.  So I wish there was more I could do than just wait and react to them.  I want to find a way to go on the offensive.”


When Luna didn’t respond, Sonia turned towards her.  She recognized the uneasy look in her eye.


“…I must seem pretty on-edge, huh?  I’m sorry.  I’ll settle down before I have the chance to get carried away.”


“No, I just…when you’re upset, I…”  She turned away, blushing.  “Well, you know.”


Sonia chuckled.


“You have every right to be frustrated.  I heard about how badly you wanted to save me, and…well, with the Tuner…”


“Hm?  What do you mean?”


“The Noise Control Programs were derived from the Tuner your mom made, so I figured knowing Joker had one…”


Sonia stumbled a bit.  …I…hadn’t thought of that…


Seeing this, Luna said, “Oh, no, I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean to—I figured that was part of why you…I shouldn’t have said anything.”


Sonia shook her head.  “No, don’t worry.  I guess I was just so focused on…other things that I hadn’t gotten that far yet.”  She watched herself walk for a moment.  “But, now that I think about it, it does bother me that Mama’s program is being misused.  One more reason to stop Joker, I guess.”


Luna felt like there was something she should say, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.  Before she could, they finally reached the lobby, and Sonia helped her down the stairs to where the rest of their friends waited.  They rushed over the moment they saw her.


“Prez!” Bud exclaimed.  “I’m so glad to see you’re okay!  I mean, we knew you were okay, but now you’re up and about and stuff!”


“It was really a relief when Mr. Boreal told us there wasn’t a problem with any of your tests,” Zack said.  “How do you feel?”


“More tired than anything, really,” Luna replied.  “Anyway, sorry for worrying you all.”


“Don’t apologize!” Bud said.  “It’s not like you did anything!”


“That’s right!” Zack said.  “We know you’d worry for us if we were in danger!”


“We’re just happy to see you safe, Prez,” Geo said.  “Aren’t you always saying it’s part of a Brother’s job to worry?”


Luna paused for a moment.  Slowly, a smile came to her face, and she giggled to herself.  “Thank you all.  That…really means a lot to me.”


“Okay,” Mega said, “now that the sappy stuff’s out of the way, can we get going?  I’m getting tired of this boring ol’ place.”


“Right,” Luna said.  “We’ve got business to attend to!  As soon as we get back home, we’re holding a campaign meeting to determine how we’re going to handle the rest of our time leading up to the election!”


“Straight to work, huh?” Pat said.  “Now we know she’s fine.”


“That’s right!  And I better not hear a single complaint from any of you!”


“Understood, ma’am,” Geo said.


Just as they turned to face the door, someone called out from the upper level.  Ace made his way down the stairs, saying, “Sorry to butt in, but there are a couple things we should settle while you’re all here.  If you don’t mind?”


Sonia ground her teeth, but she didn’t object.  Geo said, “I assumed it was back to waiting for the next incident, unless you’ve got some new information for us.”


“No new information, no,” Ace said.  “But after yesterday, we’re a lot less prepared for a new incident than we were.  Our troops here will bounce back fine enough, but all of our regional branches are down, meaning we have no back-up and no one else keeping an eye out for us.  I thought we should address the sudden lack of manpower.”


“Well, how do we do that?” Bud asked.  “We can’t just replace so many people at once, can we?”


Ace glanced at Sonia.  She thought a moment, absent-mindedly rubbing her fingers against Luna’s.  Ultimately, she looked up at him and said, “Go on, tell them.”


She got a sick feeling seeing the glint that entered Ace’s eye.  He turned to the group and said, “We may not be able to get our analysts and Satella Officers back, but we have another option—one that’s worth a lot more.  We can get more fighters who can use Wave Change.”


“Hang on a second,” Mega said, materializing.  “You’re not still thinking about bringing Wolf onboard here, are you?”


“Him, and all the other FM-ians and PM-ians still on Earth, if they’re willing.”


“Oh of course,” Gemini muttered, “because I’m a willing participant in all of this…”


Everyone exchanged glances, not knowing what to make of the idea.  Mega, fangs curled into a snarl, said, “No way are we dragging Wolf into this mess!  The guy’s been through enough, and he can’t know that Corvus and Virgo are on-planet!  You don’t know how bad an idea that would be!”


Giving him a puzzled look, Geo asked, “Wolf knows them?  How?”


Mega didn’t look at him.  “It’s a long story, kid, and I ain’t in the mood to tell it.”


“Wolf seemed interested in what’s been going on,” Ace said.  “From what I’ve heard, he’d be a real asset to the team.”


“Wolf’s out of the question!” Mega said.  “That’s the bottom line, pal!”


“Your assertions remain unconvincing without additional explanation,” Acid replied.  “We have yet to be given any information that would logically preclude an idea as useful as recruiting Wolf Woods.”


Before Mega could say anything, Ace said, “Alright, alright, I get it: if you don’t want to talk about Wolf, we won’t talk about Wolf.  I won’t approach him.”


Mega nodded.  “Good!”


Ace pulled out his Hunter, calling up a few files on his screen.  “Aside from him, and barring the possibility of finding a partner for our friend Plesio, that still leaves quite a few candidates worth exploring.  How about it?  A few extra pairs of hands would’ve been a big help in Tia’s siege.”


Bud scratched his head, saying, “Well…why not?  I mean, we’re just gonna ask them if they want to help, right?  What’s the harm in that?”


Sonia turned to face him.  “But what if they don’t understand what they’re getting into, Bud?  This is way more dangerous than we first thought, and we won’t be able to really guarantee anyone’s safety.”


“Wouldn’t it be safer for all of us if we had more help?” Pat asked.  “And even if some of us don’t completely get the hang of things, we can still take care of smaller jobs so that our best fighters can focus on the real problems.  I think it makes sense.”


Geo glanced at him nervously.  “I don’t know, Pat.  I mean, we need to think about who we’re talking about.  Claud and Kidd might not be ready to deal with opponents like this, and I’m not sure Condor really wants to get involved in a fight this big.  And…who else is there?”


“Aren’t Claud and Kidd about the same age now as when you and Sonia fought the FM-ians?” Zack asked.  “Plus, they’ve got the experience of Cancer and Goat on their side, and like Pat said, we can distribute our fighters however we need.”


Geo rubbed his neck.  “Mmmm…”


“Like Bud said, we’d only be asking,” Ace said.  “And if they change their minds later it’s not as if we’ll object.  We’ll also do everything we can to prepare our recruits and keep them safe on the field.”


“I say we do it,” Amy said.  “It’d be nice to have more people my level to practice with.  And I mean, it does sort of seem like we could use all the help we can get.”


Bud and Zack nodded.  Pat turned to Geo, giving an encouraging smile.  With a small sigh, Geo said, “I’m still not sure…but, as long as we’re up front about the danger, I guess it might be worth asking.”


Sonia stared hard at the floor as she contemplated the issue.  She was broken out of it when Luna tugged on her arm, and she looked the other girl in the eye.


“I know you’d rather do this with as few people as possible, so that there’s less risk of anyone else getting hurt,” Luna said.  “But having more allies lessens that risk too, and it also increases your chances of winning—and if you don’t win then a lot of people will get hurt either way.  I may be on leave, but if I still get a vote, I think it’s worth pursuing.”


Sonia took a look around the room.  Very reluctantly, she turned back to Ace and, after a long pause, said, “Okay.  Who do you have in mind?”


Ace grinned, and then jabbed a finger over his shoulder.  “Well, first we should get Solo to officially sign off on this.”


Leaning to see where he was pointing, Sonia could just barely make out Solo standing behind a staircase, facing the opposite direction.  He glanced their way but didn’t make a move.


“How long have you been there?” Sonia asked.  “You could’ve just come over and joined us.”


Solo looked away, faintly groaning, but then slowly approached.  “…So.  You’re going to get even more people to fight Dealer?”


“It seems that way,” Sonia said with a sigh.  She thought for a moment.  “Hey, Solo…thank you for helping us yesterday.  I was too preoccupied to say it, but I want you to know that I really appreciate it.”


“…Sure,” Solo muttered.  “Whatever.”


“Anyway, Solo,” Ace said.  “You were saying you think Dealer has something they shouldn’t, right?  Can you tell us what it is?”


Solo didn’t answer.


“It must be something from Mu, and that’s enough to know we probably don’t want it in Dealer’s hands,” Sonia said.  “All we really need to know, Solo, is if you’re willing to continue helping us fight Dealer.”


After a short delay, Solo crossed his arms and said, “It’s important I retrieve what they have, so for the time being…I will.  Just know that I’m not much of a team player.”


Electing not to say the first thing she thought, Sonia instead said, “Thank you.”


“Glad to have you on the team, Solo!” Ace said, clasping his shoulder.  “As soon as I heard how much trouble you gave Sonia before, I hoped we’d get a chance to win you over to our side.  Taking Dealer down just got a lot easier!”


Solo flinched and waved Ace off.  “Sh-shut up!  Just…get on with your stupid plan already.”


Ace hummed as he turned to his Hunter.  “Well, the easiest thing to do will be to pop over to Alohaha and talk to Kidd and Claud—I should be able to knock that out tomorrow.  As more officers come back on duty I’ll ask them to do some digging regarding others we think are still hanging around, but in the meantime…”  He turned back to Solo.  “How do you feel about going to Whazzap?”


Solo looked at the ceiling.  “Whazzap?  Wait, I remember that place…”


“Since they’re crazy about Mu, I figure you’ll fit right in, and that should make it easier to talk to the Shaman and his friend Condor.  No need to answer now: it’ll take at least a few days for us to organize a trip like that given our current state, but it’s something to think about.  And of course the rest of you are invited as well!”


“Sorry, but no thanks,” Sonia said.


Ace frowned.  “Huh?  Why not?”


“Luna needs us right now.  We’ve still got a lot of work to do for the election, after all.”


“Uh, Sonia,” Luna said, “I appreciate it, but maybe—“


Sonia shook her head.  “You’re my priority, Luna.  I can’t be there for you if I’m in Whazzap.”


“Th-that’s…” Luna stammered, blushing as the remainder of her sentence disappeared.


“Hm, I guess that makes sense,” Ace said.  “Plus we do still need to keep Echo Ridge safe, and with the Satella Police slowly recovering we don’t really have alternatives.  We’ll check in with you when we get back, then.”


“Alright,” Sonia said.  “If that’s all for now, we’re out of here.”  She turned, paused, and then turned back to Solo.  “You’re welcome to come with us, if you’d like.  I’m sure we can find somewhere in Echo Ridge to set you up.”


“…I’ll stay here,” Solo replied.  “I get the feeling it’ll be quieter.”


“Okay.  See you later, then.”


With everything settled, Sonia and her friends made their way out the door, leaving Ace to type a few notes into his Hunter screen before grinning at Solo.  “Okay then!  If you’re going to be our guest, let me show you around a bit, help you find everything you need.  This way!”


Ace emphatically gestured towards the stairs.  Solo blinked, wondering if his assessment may have been off.




Jack burst through the door and ran down the hall, Joker already in pursuit.  Glaring ahead at the back of King’s chair, he shouted, “King!  What the heck are you thinking?!  Why do they still have Tia?!”


He jumped up the stairs towards King’s chair.  Suddenly, Heartless stepped into view and swung her hand, smacking Jack across the face and sending him tumbling back down.  Joker grabbed him by the collar before he could get up.


The gaze Heartless turned upon the both looked just the slightest bit annoyed, and she adjusted a loose hair as she said, “Mr. King’s orders, I remind you, were that he not be disturbed.”


“My apologies,” Joker said.  “I turned him away, but he managed to slip past me.”


“King!” Jack shouted.  “They captured Tia—what are you gonna do about it?  You better be working on a way to rescue my sister, you jerk!”


He fell immediately silent as Heartless took a single step.  “I believe that is quite enough out of you, Jack.”


Jack glared at her for a moment.  Ultimately, he closed his eyes and hung his head, weakly saying, “They…they’ve got Tia.  We have to get her back!”


“Mr. King was quite clear when giving Queen Tia’s orders.  Even with all the advantages provided to her, your sister failed.  We are under no obligation to assist her now.”


“Like heck we aren’t!” Jack yelled, tears now streaming from his eyes.  “We’ve done everything we could for this stupid plan you’ve got—the least you could do is try to show us a little respect in return!  You talk like we’re some kind of family, but you’re willing to throw that away the second one of us actually needs something from you, King?  Answer me, you—“


King slammed his fist into his desk.  The surface fractured under the blow, producing a small flourish of sparks that was totally drowned out by King bellowing, “ENOUGH!”


Jack was stunned into silence.  Heartless rolled her eyes, and walked back towards the chair.


“Joker,” King said, speaking very quietly.  “Escort Jack to his room, and see that he remains there.”


“Yes, Mr. King,” Joker said.  “Come along, Jack.”


The boy didn’t recover by the time he was pulled from the room.  Heartless took a moment to examine the hand she had struck him with, and then gave a sideways glance to King.  The man was hunched over his now-damaged desk, one hand planted firmly over his eyes as he continued to sob silently.


“Mr. King,” she said, “you truly are pathetic.”


A ragged sigh escaped King’s lips.  Sitting up, he said, “Still no compassion in your hand?”


“Why is it that you think I accepted a name like ‘Heartless’?”


King wiped the tears off his face.  “Ah, that’s right.  This is precisely why I value you: always keeping me on-track with your callous indifference.  Many thanks, Heartless.”


King turned to the damage he had caused, noticing that his glove was now stained red.  He peeled it away, spotting a new cut amidst the scar tissue that covered his hand, and tossed the glove aside.  Heartless procured a roll of bandages from a compartment on the back of his chair.


“Losing children,” he mused.  “No matter how many such wounds I receive, they continue to cut deep.  Oh, how much have I lost, after all these years?  Nearly all I’ve ever cared for have been smote by simple luck of the draw.  When I fell for Ace’s bluff, I thought I had felt the worst sting of all, but the pain only continues to grow.  And now, my favorite daughter—“


He winced as Heartless pulled the bandage tight around his hand.


“…But, I must remain strong.  My poker face must be unreadable.  This pain shall be fused with the rest, creating only a stronger vessel for the ambition that has carried me through my despair.”


King looked to his desk, seeing an image of Meteor G displayed on the screen.


“Soon…so very, very soon now…I will at last be able to bring this game to an end…”




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Chapter 19


“…and I look forward to serving as your Class President for another year!”


The others clapped, and Luna smiled a bit.  Looking back down at her Hunter screen, she said, “I don’t know, maybe it still needs a few adjustments…”


Sonia reached out and pushed Luna’s arm aside.  “There’s such a thing as over preparing, you know.  Take a few minutes to relax—that’s going to be way more useful.”


Luna sighed as she sat down at a desk.  “Probably.  I just want to be sure I do well.”


“What do you have to worry about?” Geo asked.  “There are only two other candidates, and it’s obvious they’re nowhere near as organized as you are.  You’ve got this!”


“Just because it looks easy doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give it my all!  Zack, have you finished analyzing the data from the early polls?”


Zack tapped his Hunter a few times.  “Mike has achieved very little support, and that’s been the case more or less since the race began—virtually identical results across all polls.  Trisha has been steadily gaining some favor, but the most recent poll still puts you at a significant advantage.  Barring some massive unforeseen shift in opinion, neither has a viable chance of victory.”


Luna hummed.  Before she could say anything, Sonia leaned against her shoulder, saying, “Relaaaaaax…”


On the other side of the classroom, Pat and Bud were putting the finishing touches on a banner; Pat glanced over as Luna started laughing, and then turned back to look at Bud.  The other boy was working sluggishly, his eyes unfocused.


“Hey, Bud?” he asked.


Bud snapped to attention.  “H-Huh?”


“You looked like you were dozing off there.”


“Oh, no, sorry.”  He turned back to his work, resuming it with a bit more enthusiasm.  “I was just, uh…”


Pat resumed working as well.  “Amy?”


Bud sighed.  “Well, yeah.  I’m sure she’s doing fine, and Whazzap is a nice place too.”


“But you wish you could’ve gone with her?”


“Kind of.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t dream of missing the election!  But, if WAZA’s trip had been pushed back just a little, then Amy and I coulda both gone on an important mission together, and, y’know…”


Pat chuckled.  “You’ll get your chance, Bud.  I bet you and her will go down in history as WAZA’s best agent duo!”


Bud gave a short laugh at the idea, and then paused.  “So, how are you doing with…?”


Looking up, Pat nodded.  “It’s going alright.  Not perfect, maybe, but I’m managing.  I’d like to think I’ve improved a lot in a short time.”


“Well of course you’d like to think that,” Gemini said.  “Whether or not that’s the case is another matter entirely.”


Pat just smiled.  “I gotta say, I really envy how well you and Taurus get along.”


“Mrrg, if you ever need help putting that snob in his place, just give us a call,” Taurus said.


“Were I in a better mood I’d be in hysterics over your delusions of grandeur,” Gemini said.  “Earth seems to have the most curious effect on FM-ians…well, those base enough to be susceptible to its thrall, at least.”


“Hush,” Pat said, reaching for his Hunter.  “I’m trying not to keep you locked in sleep mode all the time, but you really need to be more polite if you want it to stay that way.”


Gemini grumbled something to himself.  Pat moved to put his Hunter away and noticed Geo staring at him, a slightly concerned look on his face.  It was an exasperated smile Pat gave him in response, but a genuine one, so Geo nodded and they both returned to their respective tasks.


“They should call for the candidates in about five minutes,” Geo said.  “Anything you need us to do before then?”


Luna looked over her notes again.  “Mmm…I can’t think of anything.  Why don’t you all get a head start and join the rest of the class?”


“Are you sure?” Zack asked.


“Positive.  You’ve already done more than enough—I think you all deserve a break of sorts.”


“Well, okay.  We’ll see you out there!”


Zack and Geo helped Pat and Bud gather up the banner, and then they carefully moved it out of the classroom and shut the door behind them.  Luna sighed.


“Doing alright?” Sonia asked.


“I needed a bit of quiet,” Luna said.  “Grateful as I am for everyone’s hard work, if I didn’t get a little room to breathe I was going to start feeling smothered.”


Sonia giggled.  She waited as Luna glanced out the window, her face softening a bit.


“…I’m more nervous than I expected,” she mumbled.  “I mean, I’m still confident I’ll be victorious.  But I just have this anxious energy—and I used to feel that way before elections, but not in…well, a few years, at least.”


Sonia came behind Luna, standing there and gently rubbing her shoulders.  “Can I help?”


Luna closed her eyes and breathed deeply.  “Listening is enough…thank you.  I’ll be okay—it’ll take more than this to stop me.”


“Hehe.  Your determination is always inspiring, Prez.  How do you do it?”


“Hmph!  It’s a natural talent honed through years of discipline!”  Pausing, she reached up and grabbed one of Sonia’s hands.  “And…I’ve got all the support I could ever dream of.”


Sonia leaned forward, giving Luna a kiss on the cheek and then wrapping her arms around her.  They remained that way for a moment, before Sonia eventually stepped back, allowing Luna to stand.  Luna checked the time.


“Just about.  How do I look?”




“You’re not just saying that, are you?”


Sonia tapped her guitar, calling up a small holographic screen in front of her; when she touched that screen’s surface, it emitted a small flash, and then a photograph of Luna appeared on it.


“Nope,” Sonia said as she held out the image.  “You really look great!”


“H-Hey, no pictures!” Luna said, blushing as she pointed.


Sonia cocked her head.  “Huh?  But it’s important proof!  Besides, today’s a special day—why not have something to remember it with?”


“Well, maybe…but, you should at least warn me!”


“It turned out great!  Here, take a look!”


Hesitantly, Luna stepped forward and took the image.  “…It’s…alright.  But don’t share this with anyone!  And no more!”


“Fine, fine,” Sonia said, taking the picture back.  She waved it lightly, and it evaporated into a cloud of pixels.  Giving Luna a grin, she added, “See?  All good!”


Luna sighed, but couldn’t hide that she was also smiling.  “You can be such a troublemaker.  Be glad I’m so lenient with you.”


Sonia bowed.  “Of course, Madame Prez.  Thank you for being so gracious.”


They laughed together, and then Luna’s Hunter chimed as she received her summons.


“I’m off,” she said.  “Wish me luck!”


Sonia kissed her, saying, “You’re unstoppable.  I’ll be watching from the Wave Road, cheering you on the whole time!  Show ‘em who’s boss!”


Luna nodded, now brimming with a more vibrant energy, and strode out of the classroom.  Sonia reached for her guitar again, but that was when Lyra materialized next to her.


“Pardon me, dear,” Lyra said, “but there’s something I need to bring to your attention.”


“Huh?  What do you mean?”


“I didn’t want to interrupt, but I’ve been picking up some curious Noise readings nearby that I think we should take a look at.  Hard to say if it’s anything dangerous, but I’d feel much better if we checked.”


Sonia looked at the clock.  “Well, we have a few minutes before the speeches actually start…and that isn’t something we should just leave be.”  She pumped her fist.  “Okay, Lyra, let’s roll!”


They Wave Changed, and Sonia stayed out of the visible spectrum as she navigated the halls, allowing her to make her way in the direction of the disturbance without being noticed.  As they went, Lyra said, “I must admit, it’s nice to see you looking so bright again.”


Sonia smiled.


“Though I also have to ask…how are you handling the matters still weighing upon you?”


Her expression turning a bit melancholy, she said, “I’m mostly focusing on the positives.  Maybe I’m avoiding a few things, and maybe that’ll bite me, but for now I’ve got other priorities.  I’ll figure out the rest when I have the chance.  Besides…”  Her smile returned.  “Getting to spend time with Luna helps everything.”


“Hmhm, alright.  Just be careful, dear.  Ah, it’s just ahead.”


Sonia came to a stop and took a look around.  She was right next to the school’s main entryway, and while she hadn’t spent much time in this particular hallway there wasn’t anything that looked obviously out of the ordinary.  She took a few more steps, and suddenly she became aware of an odd, nagging feeling, almost like she was being watched or that someone was standing right next to her.  A few more steps, and the feeling dimmed.


“…Huh.  I’m feeling it now, too.”


Backing up a few steps, Sonia moved to where the feeling was the strongest, and ended up approaching one of the electronic display boards lining the hall.  Squinting at it, a flicker caught her attention: one of the corners of the display was wavering intermittently, and after watching it for a few seconds she saw a brief flash of static around the affected area.


“This must be the source,” Lyra said.  “Yet, for as much Noise as I’m detecting, I would think it would be having a greater effect on this device.”


“Lyra, if we use the Joker Program...” Sonia said, taking a short pause.  “Is it possible for us to tune into the Noise you’re detecting?  Maybe access it in some way?”


“We should be able to.  It’s optimized for the Meteor Server, but since we can still gather up ambient Noise, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to rig a new connection.  Let me see…”


The flickering on the board intensified.  The image flashed more and more rapidly until it suddenly froze, wreathed in a thin halo of static, and then all at once returned to normal.  A second later, a feeling like a static shock hit Sonia head-on; she stumbled backwards, grunting at the surprise jolt, and then turned back to the board.  Directly in front of it was a patch of green static roughly the size of her hand, a distortion that immediately reminded her of what she had seen when fighting Noised Wizards.


“Sorry about that, dear,” Lyra said.  “It broke open a bit more violently than I was expecting.  However, it appears that we’ve uncovered some sort of access point.”


“Does it lead to the display board’s Cyber Core?”


“Uncertain…but unlikely, I’d say.  The Noise seems far more intense in there, enough to shred this poor thing’s systems to bits under normal circumstances.”


Sonia tapped her fingers as she considered her options.  “What do you think, Lyra?”


Lyra hummed a bit, ultimately saying, “We won’t be at risk with the Joker Program, and I’d feel rather unsafe just leaving such an odd thing be without knowing more.  I think we should take a look.”


Nodding, Sonia reached forward and touched the distortion.  The world warped around her, and when it settled again she took in her new surroundings.  It was a Wave Road of some kind, that much was clear, but the platforms beneath her was oddly shaped, and glowed with an eerie light that contrasted with how dark the surface was.  The space around them was pitch-black, though numerous sporadic bursts of white and green and red rolled through it like silent storm clouds.  That same nagging feeling was all around.




She managed to find a path and walked until she came to a wider platform, but still couldn’t find anything of interest.  Turning back, she looked towards where she thought the access point should be—rather than where she had entered, however, the point was off on the other side of the space, hovering just above the edge of an absurdly narrow platform.  She scratched her head.


“It appears,” Lyra said, “that this is an EM space made entirely out of Noise.  Fascinating—I never would’ve thought jumbled up waves like Noise could create something even this cohesive.”


“So what do we do about this…Noise Wave?” Sonia asked.


“Now that I’ve analyzed it more closely, I believe I can reseal the entrance once we’re outside.  I find it doubtful someone without a Noise Control Program could access this place, and you saw what minimal effects it’s having on the outside world.  I don’t think there’s anything else to be done, really…though we should probably send our findings to Mr. Boreal just in case.”


“Sounds good.  Okay, let’s just—“


She stopped short as she heard a strange hissing sound.  Turning around, she spotted something that hadn’t been there a moment ago: a ball of red energy that looked suspiciously like a piece of Crimson.  Tentatively, Sonia took a few steps towards it, confirming that it was the source of the hissing, and reached out.  Two empty white eyes appeared on the orb.  Jumping back, Sonia readied her guitar as the creature revealed a mouth, snapping at the empty space she had just occupied.


“What the heck is that thing?” she asked.


“I’m just reading Noise.  Be careful, Sonia: we’ve no idea what this creature is capable of.”


The Noise creature continued to hiss angrily at her.  Glancing back at the access point, she said, “Probably shouldn’t let it out, then.”


Suddenly it lunged.  Sonia swung her guitar, smacking it across the platform, and then took aim and started playing.  The first few notes hit their mark, but then the creature zipped up and out of the way, gnashing its teeth before lifting higher, radiating more Noise.  The energy shot forward all at once, knocking the wind out of Sonia.  Seeing its opportunity, the creature shot out and rammed into her helmet, sending her staggering back; she nearly fell, but she managed to stay on her feet, enduring a few more pushes from the creature, and then knocked it away again, this time following-up with a sound pulse that left it stunned.  She fired her strings straight into the creature.  After playing a few more notes, it shook violently, and then it burst apart into a shower of red sparks that vanished near-instantly.  Sonia relaxed her guard slowly.


“Yikes,” she muttered.  “Remind me to keep a close eye on those if we run into any more.”


“I’ll add it to the report.  We should get going—I don’t think I’ll be able to send the message while we’re in here, and also…”


Nodding, Sonia quickly headed for the access point.  “We’ve got to get to the roof!  I don’t want to be late for Luna’s speech!”




“Aren’t you hot?”


Solo turned.  “What?”


“It’s just, you’re wearing all black, and the sun here is so intense,” Amy said.  “Aren’t you hot at all?”


Turning back, Solo said, “It doesn’t bother me.”


Amy wiped the sweat from her brow.  While she had known she was much too used to the cold and had done her best to think ahead, packing a simple yellow sundress rather than her usual skiwear, she was surprised at just how hot Whazzap felt to her.  Even more puzzling, she seemed to be the only one suffering, despite Solo wearing black, Copper wearing a trench coat, and Hyde wearing a black trench coat.  Somehow, she thought, it just didn’t seem fair.


“Why don’t we Wave Change real fast?” Yeti offered.  “I can whip up a little snow to keep us cool.”


Amy shook her head.  “No, that’d be excessive.  Ace should be back any minute, I bet, so I’ll just tough it out.”


Copper held a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun, surveying the nearby desert.  He eventually turned to Hyde, who leaned against a large rock swinging his cane around, and said, “Will you stop that?”


“Oh, does this distract you, Detective?” Hyde said, not even slowing down.  “My apologies.  Pre-stage jitters must be getting the better of me.”


Copper grunted.  “That makes sense.  I sure wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, trying to ask for help from someone I tricked and manipulated not too long ago.”


Hyde’s cane came to a stop.  “Quite.  Perhaps I should go wait in the car.”


“Afraid to face your mistakes, Hyde?” Phantom asked.  “I would think you’d be used to it by now.”


“No moreso than you, dear friend.  Shouldn’t you understand?”


Solo ground his teeth, trying as best he could to tune them out.  Luckily for him, it wasn’t much longer before Ace reappeared, waving to them eagerly as the Shaman and Condor followed a few steps behind.  The PM-ian seemed calm as ever, but the Shaman eyed them all cautiously, his steps slowing considerably when he spotted Hyde.  Once he saw, Solo, however, he paused for a moment, his eyes widening slightly before he resumed his approach.  Solo wasn’t sure what to make of that.


“Okay team!” Ace announced.  “I’d like you all to meet the Shaman of Whazzap, and his friend Condor.  Shaman, Condor, here we have Detective Bob Copper of the Satella Police…”


Copper bowed, greeting, “Whazzap.”


“Amy Gelande, a friend of our mutual acquaintance Harp Note, and her Wizard Yeti…”


Amy smiled and waved.  Yeti materialized next to her, saying, “How’ve you been, Condor?”


“Good to see you again, Yeti,” Condor said.  “I am well—and it seems you are also?”


“Can’t complain.”


The Shaman turned to Condor, asking, “You know him?”


Condor nodded once.  “Yeti is of Mu.  He was one of our finest soldiers.”


“Oh!  So he is one of the other survivors you mentioned.”


Ace said, “And you’ve already met Mr. Hyde and his Wizard Phantom…”


The Shaman glared at Hyde, saying, “Indeed, I have.”


Hyde sighed quietly.  Taking a few steps forward, he removed his hat, bowed, and said, “I offer apologies for my previous actions, esteemed Shaman.  It was wrong of me to trick you the way I did.  You have my word that I will not behave in such a way again.”


The Shaman grunted.  Floating forward a bit, Condor said, “Come, my friend, let us not hold grudges.  Were it not for him, we would not have met each other.  I think we should allow him a second chance.”


The Shaman didn’t answer, so Ace went on, “And finally, Solo.”


Solo met the curious gaze of the Shaman, but didn’t say a word.  After a moment, the Shaman asked, “I remember seeing you here before as well.  Condor tells me that you are a descendant of Mu, and were working to see it restored?”


“I am, and I was,” Solo said.


“Remarkable…never did I think I would see a Murian with my own eyes.”  He paused to bow.  “It is a great honor to meet you, Solo.”


Solo watched him silently.  Condor said, “If I may, Solo, I find it curious that you are a part of this group.  Could I ask why?”


“I believe Dealer stole something belonging to Mu,” Solo said.  “I want it back…and my last attempt at fighting them went poorly.”


Condor waited a moment, and then asked, “Is Laplace…?”


Solo looked away, grabbing his shoulder.


“I see.  I am sorry.”


“Well, that’s all the introductions out of the way,” Ace said.  “What do you say, Shaman?  We could really use your help, plus you’ll be able to lend Solo a hand retrieving a precious artifact from Mu!  Want to join the team?”


The Shaman stared at the ground, wringing his hands around his staff.  Ultimately, he turned to Ace and said, “I am sorry, young man, but I must refuse.”


Ace frowned.  “…Oh.”


“Please understand: my duty is to the people of Whazzap.  I cannot simply abandon them to fight in what could be a drawn-out confrontation.  Besides…it’s not as though Condor and I have practiced our combat abilities, and I am not as young as any of you.  I doubt I would be much help in the first place.”


“I’m sure you’ll be more useful than you give yourself credit for.  Amy and Yeti were a big help in the first fight they jumped into—and we’re going to set up a training program to get all our new recruits up to speed, so there’s no need to worry about that.”


“Ace,” Acid said, “I believe you are missing the point.”


The Shaman shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  I cannot leave Whazzap without good reason.”


Ace stood there for a moment, and then turned and scratched his head.  “Hm, what would Sonia say…?”


“We’ll respect your wishes, sir,” Copper said.  “We won’t bother you any further.”


“Thank you,” the Shaman said.  “If you would like, why don’t you all come back to the village with me?  We’d be happy to have you.”


“Thank you.  We would be honored.”


The group fell into line behind the Shaman, Ace looking a bit dejected as he joined.  Copper quietly said, “Get it together.  You should’ve been prepared for the possibility of them saying no.”


“I thought it’d be better to stay optimistic.  After Kidd and Claud agreed, it seemed like I was on a roll…”


“Just don’t bring it up again, alright?  If you get pushy all you’ll do is offend them.”


When they reached the village, the group instantly drew the attention of the people, though it was Solo who all of them ended up fixated on.  He glanced around, feeling just a little nervous to be the center of a crowd’s attention.  No one come closer, however, and soon the Shaman stopped and raised his staff, drawing them away for the moment.


“Whazzap!” he said, receiving a few dozen replies.  “I trust you will all treat our guests with hospitality while they are here.  And, though I know you all must be curious, it is important that we also not overwhelm them.   Let us carry on with our respective duties.”


The crowd slowly began to disperse.  Solo let out his breath, just now realizing that he had been holding it.  However, a young boy ran right up to him, staring up with wide, shining eyes.  Solo froze.


“Whazzap!” the boy greeted, hopping in place.


“…W…Whazzap?” Solo said.


“Hey, that’s the symbol of Mu, isn’t it?  Are you actually from Mu, mister?”


“…Not exactly.  But I am descended from the Murian people.”


“That’s so cool!  I bet you know even more about Mu than Mr. Condor does, don’t you?”


“I wouldn’t say that.”


“Do you have any neat powers like him?  Can I see?”


Before Solo could answer, a man and a woman came up to the group, taking the boy by the shoulder.  The man said, “There you are!  Sorry, sir—we turned our backs for one second and he was off!”


“…It’s fine,” Solo said.


“Come on,” the woman told the boy, “let’s give our guests some space for now.”


The boy waved as his parents led him off.  Hesitantly, Solo waved back.


“I never knew you were so great with kids,” Amy chuckled.


“Shut up,” Solo grumbled.


The Shaman turned to face the group.  “If any of you need anything, please let me know.  I hope you enjoy your time in Whazzap.”


“Oh, I have a question,” Amy said.  “Bud told me he had some really good barbeque when he was here—could you show me where I can find some of that?”


“Of course!  This way.”


The Shaman began to lead Amy off, but suddenly Solo stepped forward and said, “Wait.  Don’t move, anyone.”


Amy looked at him.  “Huh?  What is it?”


Solo stared past her, saying nothing.  He stepped around her and the Shaman, walking out across the street, and Hyde said, “Is it possible our companion has suffered a small heat stroke after all?”


“He seems to have noticed something,” Ace said.  “Not sure what, but then again…”


Ace trailed off.  Reaching for the Visualizer clipped to his shirt, he slipped the device over his eyes and took another look at where Solo was headed.  Floating on the other side of the street, hiding outside the visible spectrum, were a trio of Mal Wizards.


“Shoot, looks like we do have company.”


The Wizards were just now becoming aware of the fact that Solo could see them.  One of them raised a Noise Card, but a second pulled their arm back down, and then dragged them back a few steps saying, “What do we do, Ten?”


The third Wizard grinned at Solo.  “I’ll handle this.  You two focus on your job.”


Becoming visible a second later, Ten summoned a whip made of electricity and flicked it at Solo, stunning him and alerting the surrounding crowd to his presence.  As the crowd broke into a panic, the other two Wizards slipped away, and Ten just stood there laughing.


“I’ll help Solo,” Ace said, grabbing his Hunter as he began running.  “The rest of you, there are two Wizards headed that way—make sure they don’t hurt anyone!”


“Where?” Amy said, looking around.


Having already Wave Changed, Hyde pointed with his cane and said, “I believe I’ve spotted them, miss.  Detective, I think it’d be best if you stand back, wouldn’t you agree?”


Copper grumbled to himself as Hyde took off.  Amy Wave Changed and went in pursuit, while the Shaman looked about in confusion.  “What…what is happening?”


“It seems our enemy had their eyes on Whazzap as well,” Copper said.  “Don’t worry about a thing, sir: we can handle this.”


“I can help as well,” Condor said.  “Even without my full power, I am certain I can assist in keeping these invaders at bay.”


“Hold on!  It’s likely they’re in possession of an item that can corrupt EM beings and make them go berserk—our people are protected against it, but you’d be an easy target for them!”


Condor came closer to Copper, asking, “Then, is there a way I can be protected as well?”


Copper hesitated.


“Please, sir.  This land is precious to me, and I want to fight for it!  Please give me that choice!”


Meanwhile, Ace reached Solo just as he was recovering, and they both Wave Changed and stared Ten down.  Smirking back at them, Ten said, “Oh, now this is a treat!  The meddler and the traitor—if I take you both out, King will give me quite the promotion!”


“This is your only warning!” Ace declared.  “Surrender now, or we will not hesitate to delete you.”


Ten slowly raised his arms.  “Well, maybe you got a point…”


Solo dashed at him, but he was still too slow.  In a fraction of a second, Ten materialized and dropped a small energy bomb, and the explosion knocked his foes away and gave him the opportunity to charge off at the nearest civilians.  By the time they had recovered, he already had a man by the neck.


“Now listen real close,” Ten said.  “I got a present for a certain bird nesting here, and I could use a hand in delivering it.  What do you say, Officer?  Want to lend me a hand?”


Ace gritted his teeth.  Solo, still crouched on the ground, looked back and forth between Ten and the hostage.  Turning to the side, he realized Ace was glancing at him, and after taking a moment to think, he nodded.


“Alright,” Ace said, putting away his weapon.  “I’m coming.”


He slowly walked towards Ten, who laughed at him and squeezed the man’s neck tighter.  “Just a reminder, don’t try anything funny.  I wouldn’t want to have to make a mess, y’know?”


Ace walked until he was only a few paces away.  Ten held out something: a Noise Card with a Sword symbol.  Taking one more step, Ace started to reach for it.  It was at that point Ten realized Solo was drawing something in the dirt.  Suddenly there was a flash, and Solo was right behind Ten, reaching forward to wrench him away from his hostage and kick him into the dirt.  The man scurried away quickly, and Ace drew his weapon again.  He paused when he saw that Ten had stuck the Noise Card to Solo’s chest.


“Heheheh,” Ten chuckled as he got up.  “Not the brightest move, buddy.”


Solo looked down at the card.  Then, he delivered an uppercut straight to Ten’s jaw, before reaching down to peel the item away.  The flames encasing his hand grew more intense when they came into contact with it.


“What you call ‘Noise’ isn’t as new as your pathetic scientists believe,” Solo said, gesturing to the bracelet on his flaming hand.  “The Rogue Wave, and the Darklight Harvester it grants me, were designed specifically to refine chaotic EM energy into a devastating power source.  To me, your Noise is nothing but a whisper.”


The purple flames engulfed the Noise Card, burning it to cinders.  Ten backed away.


“I’d been meaning to ask you about that,” Ace said as he came closer.  “Say, do you think—“


He pointed his Acid Blaster at Ten, firing a series of electric bullets to stun him just as he materialized another bomb.  Solo reared back and punched Ten one last time.  The Wizard shattered into raw data, quickly dissipating into nothing.


“As I was saying, do you think our people could have a look at that Harvester when we get back?  If it’s capable of refining Noise, it sounds like a technology we could really use right now.”


Solo just glared at him.


“…We can talk about it later.  First, I guess we should go see how the others are dealing with Ten’s cohorts.”


As they turned to leave, Solo caught sight of the boy from earlier.  He ran to his father the one Ten had been holding, and cried as he clung to him, his mother in the same state when she joined them.  Solo stared for a few seconds, and then went to follow Ace.




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Chapter 20


The Mal Wizards Eight and Nine dashed out of the village and towards the open desert beyond.  However, Nine soon screeched to a halt, and grabbed Eight before he could get any farther.


“Ow!  What’re you doing?”


“Take a look, idiot!”


A silhouette was fading into view not far ahead.  Unfurling his cape, Hyde said, “Greetings, gentlemen.  Would it be presumptuous of me to assume you are under the employ of Dealer?”


“Ain’t it obvious?” Eight said.


Nine glanced back over his shoulder.  Amy had caught up as well, and looked ready to attack as soon as she saw an opportunity.  Nine turned and backed up against Eight, saying, “Seems it’s time, pal.”


“Urgh, guess so,” Eight grumbled, putting a hand to his arm.  “I’m turning off our Noise Blockers.”


“You know,” Hyde said, “this doesn’t have to end in violence.  I’d be more than happy to jump to the scene where you surrender to us.”


“Dream on!” Eight shouted.  “Do it, Nine!”


Nine raised one hand high, revealing two Sword Cards.  Before Hyde or Amy could do anything, a dense orb of Noise engulfed the two Wizards, growing steadily larger for a few seconds before collapsing away.  Their bodies looked larger and sturdier, with geysers of red Noise shooting out from their shoulders, the tops of their heads, and their backs.  Each had some sort of cannon weapon on one hand, while the other was a large claw made of electricity.  They stared blankly at their foes, and then slowly advanced, growling and gnashing their teeth.


“They Noised themselves?” Yeti said.  “Why would they do that willingly?”


Amy reared back and created a snowball in her hand.  “I’m not sure the reason really matters right now!”


She attacked Nine, but he pulverized the snowball with a blow from his claw.  Roaring at Amy, a light could be seen inside his mouth, and soon a laser beam shot out of it and hit Amy square in the midsection.  She stumbled back and tripped over her feet, and Nine pointed his weapon arm.  Amy managed to call up a small shield of ice, but the grenade exploded on impact, flinging her further back despite the barrier.  She got back up to see her foe advancing.  Leaping high into the air, she angled herself towards Nine and began to spin, generating cold as she did: snow materialized and wrapped around Amy, encasing her in a giant ball, and when Nine coughed up another blast it barely affected the protective coating.  The Mal Wizard was flattened by the impact.  Amy burst out of the snowball and stomped on Nine again, and then rolled away to avoid a swipe of his claw.  However, the tendrils of electricity lengthened suddenly, getting a clean hit on her just the same.


Meanwhile, Hyde moved about the field erratically in an attempt to confuse Eight, and it seemed to be working.  Unfortunately, as a result of this, Eight decided to simply open fire with his grenade launcher, slowly blasting away the landscape before him.  Hyde appeared before him and swung his cane, but it had little effect.  Eight grabbed him with his claw, letting the electricity course through Hyde’s entire body at once, and then smashed him into the ground a few times before hurling him away and launching another grenade at him.


“Splendidly done,” Phantom grumbled.


“My door is open if you have revisions, partner,” Hyde said as he got up.


Yet another grenade was headed his way.  Tapping his cane against the ground, Hyde called a shadowy hand up to block the attack and threw his hat at the same time.  The maneuver caught Eight off-guard, so Hyde teleported forward, spun in a circle to kick up a whirlwind, and tossed his enemy into the air.  Before Eight could recover, Hyde summoned another hand to swat him into the dirt.


“Hyde,” Amy shouted, “get clear!”


Jumping up and out the way, Hyde looked down to see an avalanche sweep over the field, taking both Wizards with it and breaking as it finally slammed them into a large rock.  He landed beside Amy and said, “Excellent delivery, miss, but be sure not to strain yourself.”


“Don’t worry about me,” Amy said, forming more snowballs in her hands.  “More importantly, we should try to steer these guys in a different direction—the village being right behind us is making me nervous.”


After she launched her attack, Hyde swung his cape out in front of her, and a second later they both stood at their enemies’ left flank.  Hyde was quick to smack them with his cane before they realized what was happening, and Amy followed with a powerful kick to Nine’s face.  However, her target recovered quickly and slashed her with his claw, and Eight followed up with a laser blast that sent her flying.  Something cushioned her impact: one of Hyde’s shadow hands, she realized.  Giving him a nod, she encased herself in another shell of snow, and with a grin, Hyde willed the hand to hurl her back at the Wizards, bowling them over and stunning them for a moment.  They both advanced on their opponents and managed to get in another hit.  However, before they could retreat, both Wizards lashed out with their claws, trapping them both in their electric grip, and pinned them to the ground.


“Darn it!” Amy grunted as she struggled to break free.  “Don’t suppose you can get us out of here?”


Hyde’s body spasmed from the shock.  “Erg…trying, but it’s a bit difficult…”


Eight and Nine readied their launchers.  Just as they were about to fire, a blast of purple flame rammed into both of them, knocking them aside and freeing their captives.  Amy turned to see Solo standing not far away, a still-smoking glyph in front of his palm.


“Thanks for the save,” she said.


“Hmph,” Solo said.  “I was just attacking my enemies.”


“Right,” Amy said with a sigh.


Ace dashed in next, whacking Nine with his blaster before turning and spawning a small tornado on top of Eight.  They both tried to counterattack, but he was too quick for them, and regrouped with the others a moment later.


“Hope you don’t mind us joining the fun,” Ace said.  “Our guy didn’t stick around as long as we were expecting.”


Solo was already on the move.  Nine shot a blast at him, but he stepped aside and dashed, tackling the Wizard and carrying him away from his ally.


“I’ll back up Solo…again,” Ace said.  “Think you two can finish off the other guy?”


“Leave it to us!” Amy said.


As Ace rushed off, Eight turned and raised his weapon.  Hyde’s hat knocked him out of the attack, and when he looked that way, all he saw was Amy sliding towards him.  She flattened him with a kick and then bounded back a short distance.  Eight lashed out with his claw, and Hyde summoned one of his own to catch it.  One snowball to the face later, Eight found himself a bit disoriented, and that gave Hyde the chance he needed for his claw to flip Eight overhead and into the ground.  Amy jumped on him once more, and he gave a weak shout.


“And thus the curtain falls,” Hyde said as he came closer.  “I do hope you’ll be a bit more cooperative once we dig you out of all this Noise.”


Suddenly, Eight screeched; energy shot out from him in every direction, expanding in an instant to form a small dome around him and his opponents that greatly reduced the light in the area.  Amy was taken aback by the change, but Hyde jabbed his cane into Eight without a second thought.  The Wizard pushed him up into the dome, and an intense, burning pain shot through Hyde, leaving a sickening feeling in its wake that made it difficult for him to stand.  Seeing this, Amy moved to attack Eight.  He dodged, and she had to carefully stop herself from charging on into the barrier, making dodging the next attack more difficult.


“Hyde,” Phantom groaned, “it seems touching the barrier briefly overloaded our Noise Filter.”


“Ah, that would explain some things,” Hyde said as he shakily got to his feet.  “I trust you’re not permanently damaged, my dear friend?”


“Oh, shut up.  I’m sure I’ll recover once we’re done here, but the Noise is too concentrated right now—if you screw up too much, I’ll be too damaged for us to continue fighting.”


Hyde glanced at Amy.  “Did you get that, miss?”


Narrowly dodging another swipe, Amy said, “Uh, yeah, the gist of it!  Think you can lend me a hand still?”


Not too far away, Nine had opted to employ the same tactic, though he seemed to be having less success.  Ace and Solo still flinched whenever they came into contact with the barrier, but it took them seconds to recover each time.  If anything, it was the restriction to their movement that was causing problems.


“Noise levels within manageable range,” Acid reported.  “However, our time is starting to run low.”


Ace ducked under a grenade.  The shields on his back shifted to protect his head and neck from the blast, though it still pushed him forward a bit.  “Copy.  Solo, any objections if we speed things along?”


Solo didn’t answer.  Nine extended his claw, managing to pin Solo against the barrier and making his fist light up in response.  Forming a glyph in the air, Solo then flicked his fingers up, and three sharp wooden stakes rose from the ground to strike Nine.  Ace attacked with his blade while the Wizard was reeling.  He loaded a Battle Card and prepared to finish it, but Solo charged in right as he aimed, and the two of them collided and fell in a heap.


“Watch it!” Solo said, rolling back to avoid Nine’s claw.


Before he could reply, Ace realized Nine’s grenade launcher was in his face.  Thinking fast, he darted forward and punched the Wizard’s lower body, throwing him off-balance, and the grenade was shot at the ceiling of the dome, raining fire down on everyone inside it.  Just as Nine was about to recover, Ace pressed his blaster into his chest and activated a Mad Vulcan card, firing a series of bullets that tore through their target with little resistance.  Ace stepped back and let Nine fall to the ground.  After a moment, the dome began to recede.


“All’s well that ends well,” Ace said.


Rather than dispersing, however, the energy all converged on Nine, messily forming a new layer of armor on the Wizard as he got back up.  Ace slashed, but Nine barely reacted.  He retreated, but it wasn’t enough: Nine shot a clump of Noise from his fist, the loose mass of particles clinging to Ace and weighing him down immensely.  Solo lashed out with a flurry of punches, and appeared to succeed in pushing Nine back.  Before long, however, Nine coughed up a blast right in Solo’s face, sending him tumbling backwards.


“Shoot,” Ace muttered, trying and failing to get closer.  “Acid, how much power to we have left?”


“I estimate one significant attack being enough to drain what is left of your stamina,” Acid replied.


“Sounds great.  Let me know when it’s ready, and I’ll tell you when to fire.”


Solo stood and glared at Nine.  He shot a barrage of fist-shaped projectiles, some of which managed to break off small chips of Nine’s Noise armor.  His foe still took aim, so Solo stopped his attack, crossed his arms, and braced himself.  The grenade shot through the air, but exploded before it reached Solo.  An oval-shaped shield of translucent white light had appeared to block it.  Solo’s eyes widened.




Nine roared, spitting up a laser beam that similarly failed to hit Solo.  As he moved to make a third attempt, Ace shouted, and the Wizard turned in surprise.  Two powerful blasts launched from Ace’s shoulders, striking Nine dead on and blasting huge chunks of his armor away.  Solo immediately grabbed his shoulder armor.




Purple flames spewed out of the adornment.  Solo rushed forward as Nine staggered, and Ace hit the ground as his Wave Change dissipated.  The flames compressed around Solo’s hand, and as he came upon Nine, he lunged and swung that hand out.  A large, curved blade with jagged edges formed in it as he did.  Nine gave a short yelp.  A few seconds later, the two halves of his body slowly slid apart, and then the Wizard faded away.  Solo turned to look at the sword.


“…Took you long enough.”


The blade floated up and out of his hand, and then transformed into a simplistic EM being with long arms and a nearly featureless face.  A low buzzing sound came from the creature.


“Hmph.  I suppose that makes sense.”  After a short pause, Solo mumbled, “I’m glad to have you back, Laplace.”


Laplace nodded, and then glanced at Ace.  Solo now noticed that the Satella Officer was still trying to crawl free of the Noise that had been thrown at him.  He looked up and grinned.


“Oh, is that Laplace?  Great, glad they’re doing alright.  Say, um, would you mind lending me a hand here?”


Laplace buzzed something.  Reluctantly, Solo walked over to Ace.


As that was happening, Amy and Hyde were continuing their battle with Eight, and had very nearly managed to wear him down.  Amy had been pushed into the barrier once or twice, but Yeti was doing his best to pretend it was nothing.  They were feeling a bit sluggish, but regardless, Eight was moving far more slowly, so when he went to make a claw swipe it was easy for Amy to move in and grab his arms.


“Got you!” she declared.


Releasing as much cold as she could, she began to slowly freeze the Wizard, and he was too exhausted to do much in return.  It wasn’t long before Eight was entirely encased in ice.  Hyde raised his cane and electrified it, and then he stepped around Amy and thrust the weapon straight through their foe.  Slowly, the dome began to recede.


“Whew,” Amy muttered, sitting down on the ground.  “That was a little rough.  You okay, Yeti?”


“No need to worry about me,” Yeti said.  “You just rest for now—you’ve earned it.”


Eight twitched.  Scrambling to her feet, Amy tried to get battle-ready as the Noise from the dome coalesced around him.


“Rats, an encore,” Hyde said.  “I was thinking an illusion may be excessive, but this can’t go on much longer.  Are you up to the task, Phantom?”


“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Phantom replied.  “Get the preparations in order, fool.”


Hyde and Amy stood ready as Eight roared at them.  The corrupted Wizard pulled back his claw, but then paused, looking curiously up at the sky.  Against her better judgment, Amy turned slightly.  All she saw was a rush of green as a missile shot just above them and hit Eight dead-on.  The weapon detonated in a small but focused implosion, eradicating the Wizard altogether.


“…Nevermind, Phantom,” Hyde said.  “It seems our good friend Eight had to cut his performance short.”


With the threat dealt with, Amy was able to turn fully and get a good look at what was flying through the air at them.  It appeared to be a crimson jet with a bird-like face, its wings carved with notches that resembled feathers and angled inward slightly, with white lines that ran down its body to a tall fin at the rear just above an opening that housed a tongue of flame.  Amy blinked a few times as she tried to process the image.


“Are you unharmed?” came the voice of the Shaman.  “I apologize for surprising you, but you seemed injured and I felt I had already wasted too much time.”


“Oh, so this is what your Wave Change looks like,” Amy said.  “Thanks for the save!  Or, um, thank you very much, Shaman.  We’re in your debt.”


It was at that point that Ace made his way over to join the group, with Solo and Laplace trailing behind.  Coming right up to the Shaman, Ace said, “I see you joined us after all!”


“We could not merely sit by and let outsiders defend our land,” Condor said.  “Your friend the detective provided us with one of your Hunters so that we could help—he said it would provide me with a program to defend against that strange energy these villains use.”


“Good call.  Without that, they probably would’ve made you berserk as well, and that would’ve only added to our problems.”  He paused to stretch.  “Well, we should probably go over the logistics…but if it’s all the same to you, mind if we go sit down somewhere?  I’m kinda beat.”




“…lighting up the sky for all to see, because I know, no matter what, you’re all here with me.”


Sonia lowered her guitar and looked up at the sky.  “Hm, maybe, but I’m still missing a bit…”


She got to her feet and went to the other side of the Wave Road.  Over on the roof of the school, it looked like one of the candidates was just finishing their speech, meaning it was almost time for Luna to give hers.  Sonia could see her standing just behind the stage that had been set up, checking the notes on her Hunter one more time.


“Don’t worry,” she said quietly.  “You’ve got this.”


Someone replied, “You think so?”


Whirling in a small panic, Sonia raised her guitar and stumbled back a few steps.  Floating just down the Road was none other than Virgo.


“What crack did you crawl out of?” Lyra said.  “I’m more than happy to humiliate you again, but now’s not the best time.”


“Kyahaha!” Virgo laughed.  “What’s that, you’re not in the mood to have some fun?  You’d better change your tune real fast!  The fun’s about to start whether you like it or not!”


A chill crept up Sonia’s spine.  She glanced back over her shoulder: the other candidate had finished their speech, and the class was applauding as Shepar made his way over to the microphone.  “Thank you, Trisha, for that wonderful speech!  It sounds like all of our candidates are very well-prepared for this race.”


Sonia quickly turned back to Virgo.  “Look, Virgo...I’d rather we settle this peacefully, but I’m not about to let you cause any trouble here.”


“Bleh, settle things peacefully?  How boring can you get?”


Shepar continued, “With that, we only have one more candidate for you all to hear from!”


“Fine!” Sonia said.  “If you want to fight we can, but let’s at least take it somewhere else!  There’s no reason for anyone here to get hurt!”


Virgo cocked her head.  “Huh?  But if you go somewhere else, they’ll all get hurt a lot more.”


As Sonia tried to figure out what she meant, she realized that Shepar’s pause was dragging on exceptionally long.  More than that, a nervous murmur could be heard coming from the class.  Sonia turned to take another look.  A massive, flickering distortion had appeared in the air above the roof, surrounded by bursts of green static that she was certain was Noise.


“Oh no,” she said.


Virgo waved.  “There you are, Corvus!  I was beginning to wonder how long you’d keep me waiting!”


The distortion burst open suddenly, and several red orbs flew out of it.  The class screamed, but Shepar said, “E-Everyone, remain calm!  Make your way to the elevator, or the stairs, and we can—“


One by one, faces appeared on the balls of Noise.  The cloud swooped down on the students, and their panic was instantly renewed.  Sonia played as fast as she could, sending out note after note to blast the creatures, but that plan was ruined when Virgo dealt a stunningly painful blow to her back.


Sinking to one knee, Sonia said, “Why are you doing this?!  Why did it have to be here?!”


“It’s just orders,” Virgo said, raising her staff again.  “Now hold still!”


Sonia spun and swung her guitar, batting Virgo away and giving her a chance to get over to the roof.  By the time she had gotten there, Geo, Bud, Pat, and Rey had already Wave Changed and were doing what they could to protect the students as they fled.


“Virgo’s here,” she said as she continued blasting, “and it sounds like we’re about to see Jack and Corvus too.”


“Are we gonna have to fight Jack?” Bud asked.


“I’ll do what I can to talk him out of it, but…”


“We know you’ll do your best, Sonia,” Geo said.  “If things go wrong, I’ll back you up!”


Sonia thanked him, and then used a sound pulse to clear a path over to the stage.  Luna sat crouched behind it, hand on her Hunter; she started when she saw Sonia, and then looked down at the device.




“No,” Sonia interrupted, “you need to get out of here!”


“But, I think I can—“  A Noise creature landed right next to Luna, and she practically flung herself in the opposite direction.  Sonia kicked it away and destroyed it with a note.


“Luna!” she said, gently but urgently taking her by the shoulders.  “It isn’t time.  We can handle this—you just focus on getting to safety, okay?”


Hesitantly, Luna nodded.  Before she could take a step, however, the distortion opened even more, and a new form flew out of it.  It was a boy in Wave Change, wearing a black jumpsuit covered in zig-zagging orange lines, accented by grayish-black armor on his feet, shoulders, and clawed hands.  A small blue crystal could be seen on his chest, and his head was covered in a helmet with four sharp points that held a raging purple flame between them.  Four large feathery wings carried him through the air, and when he reached roughly the center of the roof, he flapped them and ascended quickly.


“Is that…Jack?” Luna asked.


Up above, Jack held his arms wide, purple flames appearing around his claws.  He shouted, “Harp Note!  I know you’re here—come out and fight me!”


“Finally some good old-fashioned chaos!” Corvus said.  “Let ‘em have it, Jack!”


Jack swung one hand forward.  A ball of fire shot out from it, striking the roof as the teachers were guiding the last of the kids into the building.  Shepar took a look back, but suddenly a Noise creature swooped at him, knocking him back into the wall.  He managed to stay on his feet and watched the odd entity carefully.


“What’s going on?” he asked, mostly to himself.  “It’s one crazy thing after another lately!”


The Noise creature roared, but it was blasted apart before it could do anything more.  Shepar turned to see Geo lowering his buster and shouting, “Get inside!  Keep the students safe!”


With a nod, Shepar left the roof.  Jack took notice of Geo and moved towards him, saying, “Hey, you!  Where is she?  I know she’s hanging around here somewhere!”


“I’m right here, Jack!” Sonia said, stepping out and readying her guitar.


Jack whirled to face her, but as soon as he did he froze.  He stared, wide-eyed, right past Sonia, spotting Luna hiding behind the stage.  “…You’re…alive…?”


Luna looked up at him, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.


“But how?  I saw Joker—“


“Snap out of it, Jack!” Corvus said.  “Who cares about her?  You’ve got more important stuff to see to!”


With a quick shake of his head, Jack scowled down at Sonia.  “R-Right!  Harp Note!  I hope you’re ready to die!”


“We don’t need to fight, Jack!” Sonia said.


“Shut up!  It’s your fault they captured my sister!”


“Listen to me!  If you stand down, we can take you to see your sister.  There’s no need for any of this!”


“Shut up!  Just shut up and die!”


Jack hurled a fireball at Sonia.  Not feeling it was a good idea to dodge with Luna so close, Sonia crossed her arms and took the attack head-on—she winced at the pain, but stayed focused, and said, “Lyra, can you connect us?”


“With this much Noise, easily,” Lyra replied.


Sonia transformed as she brought her arms apart, her armor taking the shape of Ophiuca Noise but most of it turning red, save for the blue breastplate and scarf and the blue highlights on her boots and sleeves, and her guitar sported a crab-shaped ornament at the head while its body was shaped something like a crab’s claw.  She played one note to strike Jack in the face with a blast of water, and then leapt onto the Wave Road and tried to get as far away from the roof as she could.  It wasn’t very long before Jack recovered and chased after her, and at that point, Luna slowly crept out and made her way towards the elevator.  However, she paused.


“Luna,” Ophiuca said, “the rest of your class likely needs help as well.  It’s part of your responsibility to keep them all organized and safe, is it not?”


“Well, yes…”


“Then we’d best get back to them.  Everyone up here will be fine.”


Hesitantly, Luna stepped onto the elevator.  As she did, Geo shot down another Noise beast and looked around, seeing Sonia leading Jack away.  He got about two steps before a large wall of water sprang up in front of him.


“I don’t think so!” Virgo said from the other side of it.  “Corvus and his pet have a very important mission to fulfill, and I can’t have you mucking it up!”


Clenching his teeth, Geo used the Mega Attack to teleport to the other side of the barrier and swing at Virgo, just barely missing her.  He sprayed bullets as he headed in Sonia’s direction, but a loud sound from above caught his attention, and he looked up to see even more Noise beasts pouring out of the distortion.


“Kyahaha, nice try!  But if you go help out your friend, who’ll stop these lovelies?”


The beasts dove at the school roof, blasting loose chunks of concrete at every impact.  Realizing he couldn’t leave them unattended, Geo readied his Battle Cards and went at them.


Not too far away, Sonia was dodging Jack’s fireballs, trying to retaliate with water blasts but missing every time.  Jack twisted as she soared, darting about erratically; it was impossible to predict when he would attack, but luckily it took him a moment to launch his flames and they didn’t move too fast, allowing Sonia to maintain the stalemate if nothing else.


“Stand still already!” Jack shouted.


“Jack, calm down!  This isn’t the only way to solve things!  Let’s just talk!”


“Don’t give me that!  You beat my sister down and then I’m supposed to believe you just want to talk?  No way!”


Sonia twitched a bit, and one of the fireballs grazed her.  Seeing this, Jack dove in, and when Sonia fired a blast he moved just past it and extended his wings.  One of them sliced a gash in Sonia’s armor as he passed by.  He ducked under the Wave Road then, and Sonia clutched her wound as she tried to steady herself.


“…Fair enough,” Sonia said.  “I wasn’t really trying to help your sister—I was just focused on stopping her.  I should’ve tried harder to find out why she was doing what she was doing, to talk her out of it.  I’m sorry.”


She ducked under a fireball as Jack flew back up over the side of the Road.


“But I’m asking you now, Jack!  Why are the two of you working for King?  Do you really think this is the only option?”


Jack spread his wings wide, and numerous purple flames spawned in a circle around him.  “Who cares?  Killing you is exactly what I want to do, orders or not!”


He swung both hands forward, and the flames all shot out, angling to home in directly on Sonia’s position.  She dug in with her feet and brought her hand down on her guitar: a tall tidal wave sprang up in front of her, intercepting the projectiles, and then she played a few more notes that she set on delay.  She jumped back just as Jack flew down at her, and released the notes so they would all charge him at once.  He whirled around expertly to avoid them all, but when he came out of the maneuver he was met with Sonia’s flail, and the attack sent him careening backwards.


“So King sent you here?” Sonia asked.  “Why would he want to attack the school?”


“It’s not about the school, idiot,” Jack said as he picked himself up.  “It’s about you!  He said if I kill you, he’ll go break my sister out of WAZA!  Anything else is just collateral damage!”


Sonia quickly set her guitar for more power as Jack’s claws lit up.  Producing several large, slow-moving bubbles in front of her, she said, “You really feel that way?  You don’t have a single problem if any of your classmates get hurt?”


“Why would I?” Jack yelled as he began hurling fireballs.  “This whole thing was just an act!  It’s not like I actually care about any of these jerks!”


The bubbles popped easily, but from each one emerged either a crab or a snake that rushed down the Road directly at Jack.  Surprised for a moment, he switched his focus to dispatching them, and Sonia took the opportunity to aim the head of her guitar at him.  A highly-focused jet of murky water shot out and struck Jack square in the chest, the force enough to send him sliding back several feet.


“I’m not so sure about that,” Sonia said.  “You had plenty of opportunity to attack the students when you first appeared, but you didn’t.  And you looked pretty surprised to see Luna again.  Would you be more willing to talk to them?”


An aura of flame enveloped Jack, drying him instantly.  “Shut up!  Once I’ve killed you, I’ll burn the whole school to the ground if that’s what it to takes to prove I don’t care about any of you!  And when Sis is free, then…”


His final words were lost in a scream as he charged forward.  Sonia fired shots as he charged and then prepared for another attack from his wings, but she soon discovered she made the wrong call.  Jack tackled her, carrying her off the Wave Road and careening straight towards the ground, only letting go so he could veer away at the last second.  The force was more than Sonia had been prepared to deal with, and the pain made her mind go blank for a few seconds.  She looked up to see Jack readying another fireball.


“Just die!”


Her body ached, and she knew it wouldn’t move fast enough.  All she could do was brace herself.  As she did, however, something else leapt at Jack from his blind spot, colliding with him and sending him crashing to the ground a short distance away.  With effort, Sonia was able to push herself up and take a good look at the newcomer.


“Get up, girl,” Wolfe said.  “You know how long it’s going to take me to landscape that crater you made?”


Wolf Woods had lost the spikes on his armor, and he no longer had extra bits of armor attached to his cheeks.  His hands also looked like normal hands, though his large armguards looked quite familiar, and he already had long claws extended from the fingers on one hand.  As she got up, Sonia said, “S-Sorry about that, Mr. Wolfe.  Won’t happen again, eheh.”


Jack was getting up now too.  He immediately glared at Wolfe and Sonia, but before he could move, Corvus said, “Hang on a sec, kid!”


“What?!  Why?”


“This here’s an old friend of mine.  Charge in if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  You might just get sliced to ribbons!”


Jack gritted his teeth.


“So, how you been, Wolf?  I see this planet’s just full of familiar faces!”


“It won’t be once I rip off yours,” Wolf growled.


“Hey, is that any way to treat your old partner?”


“Look who’s talking!  You’re the one who tried to stab me in the back, you overcooked fowl!”


“Hey, hey, get the facts straight!  I tried to stab you from the front.  At least I was polite enough to let you see it coming!”


Wolf roared at him.  At that moment, Jack decided he had been waiting too long, and he threw two fireballs forward while he took to the air once again.  Wolfe slashed his claw through one of them, and the fire bent around the blades and stuck to them.  Sonia blocked the other and then took aim.


“I tried poisoning him earlier, but I don’t think it’s affecting him,” Sonia said, firing quick water blasts in succession.  “He’s definitely taken damage, though.  It shouldn’t take much more.”


“Then let’s slice him in two!” Wolf said.


Wolfe extended claws from his other hand and swung upward, sending out a shockwave that scarred the school building when Jack dodged it.  Sonia managed to hit him with a few blasts when he moved, but he retaliated immediately with a rain of fireballs, and she quickly summoned a wall of water to extinguish them.  Jack used the opportunity to charge, but Wolfe then raised the claw that was still on fire: it extended tremendously when he swung it, allowing him to swat Jack out of the air and straight into the ground, and Sonia followed this up with another focused water beam.  Wolfe charged as Jack was getting up.  The boy managed to slash him with his wings as he leapt up, but Wolfe jumped and caught him before he got far, driving him back into the ground and doing his best to pin him there.


“Give it up, kid,” Wolfe said.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”


“Yeah, just give us Corvus!” Wolf snarled.  “I’m not gonna pass up my chance for revenge!”


“Yikes, dial it back, buddy!” Corvus said.  “What makes you think I’m going to be the one getting revenge-killed today?”


Jack shoved a fireball straight into Wolfe’s face, making him stumble back.  He then leapt forward, lighting his claws as he did, and started to swing furiously, gradually pushing his enemy back.


“Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!” he shouted.  “Drop dead!  I’m not giving up until you’re all dead!”


He was so focused that Sonia was easily able to entangle him in strings.  Using a few notes to stun him, she said, “That’s not happening, Jack!  You have to be able to see how this is going to end by now!”


Jack screamed.  Spreading his wings, he was able to snap the strings apart, and he flew straight at Sonia in a purple blaze.  “It’s not over until I’ve got my sister back!”


Sonia brought her guitar forward, using it to block Jack’s initial claw strike.  The force still pushed her back, so she leaned with it and used the momentum to cartwheel back, avoiding his follow-up.  He kept coming, however, and Sonia expected that.  She swung her guitar around and smacked Jack right in the face with it.  He spun around in the air, flapping his wings to get stable.  Just as he did, Wolf Woods’ claws extended past either side of him, and before he could react they snapped shut.


“Let me go!” he yelled.  He struggled fiercely, but Wolfe’s grip was too tight.


Sonia aimed the head of her guitar.  “I’m sorry, Jack.  I know you just want to help your sister…but I’ve got people I love too.”


Another focused water blast rammed into Jack.  His body went limp, and Wolfe retracted his claws and let him fall to the ground.  Jack twitched a few times, trying to do his best to get up, but he could only move an inch before he passed out.


“Get over there, Wolfe!” Wolf said.  “Now!”


In a burst of light, Corvus separated from Jack, and he immediately bolted back towards the school roof.  “Virgo!” he shouted.  “Pack it up!  We’ve gotta jet: Wolf’s here!”


Wolfe rushed forward and leapt onto the side of the school, extending his claws just enough to let him dig into the wall and propel himself further up it.  About half-way up he pushed off of it and extended his claws to try to pluck Corvus from the air.  The FM-ian managed to weave between the blades, continued upward, and turned back to smirk.  Sonia launched strings at him, but he incinerated them before they caught up.  He darted up and over the rooftop.  Wolfe looked up after him, and then turned back to Sonia.


“Dang!” Wolf said.  “How long has that guy been on Earth?”


Sonia’s guitar rang before she could answer.  Putting a hand to the side of her helmet, she said, “Hello?”


“It’s me,” came Geo’s voice.  “Corvus came back this way, but he and Virgo disappeared into that weird opening and shut it behind them.  There are a couple of Noise balls left, but other than that…I think it’s over?”


Sonia glanced at Wolfe.  He shrugged, deactivating his Wave Change.


“Do you need any help down there?” Geo asked.


“No,” Sonia said.  “I’ll contact the Satella Police in just a second—the others should get back to class when they’re done, but could I ask you to stay put for a minute?  I think we should be able to investigate that distortion they used.”


“Sure thing.”


Sonia hung up.  Wolf didn’t seem to have anything to say for the time being, so she turned back to Jack and sighed heavily.


“Well,” Lyra said, “I think first we need to decide what to do with our friend here.”


Crouching next to him, Sonia called up a display and began dialing WAZA.  “…It might not be how he wanted it…but he’ll get to see his sister.”




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Chapter 21


Wolfe stared at the newly reopened distortion, Wolf pacing behind him.  It flashed suddenly, and a moment later Sonia and Geo reappeared on the roof, neither looking very satisfied.


“Empty,” Sonia said as she closed up the Noise Wave entrance.  “Not even any Noise beasts—they must have used another exit before we got in.”


“Can’t you find it with your program?” Wolfe asked.


“We tried,” Geo said, “but the Noise is way too intense in there.  We’ll never be able to find the access point from the inside.”


“What a shame,” Lyra said.  “At the very least, I’ve taken further readings for our friends at WAZA to comb over.  Perhaps they’ll be able to improve our tools before such a thing occurs again.”


Wolf came forward then.  After a few awkward seconds of silence, Sonia said, “I, um…I’ll go check in with the Satella Officers.  They’re probably ready to go by now.”


She made her way to the Wave Road.  Geo deactivated his Wave Change, and Mega materialized next to him, arms crossed and face pointing away.


“You coward,” Wolf said.  “If you knew Corvus was on Earth, you should’ve told me.”


“Oh, was that Corvus?” Mega said.  “I thought he looked familiar.”


Wolf snapped his teeth.  Mega brandished his claws and snarled back.


“Hey, take it easy!” Geo said.


“I don’t know why you’re so keen on keeping secrets these days, Mega, but this one crosses a line!” Wolf said.  “After what that guy did, you know I want him dead!”


“Yeah, of course,” Mega said.  “I kind of agree, but I always thought it was a bit out of character for you.  You always told me murder wasn’t your thing.”


“Killing a killer ain’t a crime!  Especially when he tried to kill me first!”


“I think you know our resident heroine would disagree with you on that!”


“What, you’re taking her no kill rule all of the sudden?”


“I haven’t decided yet.  But I knew that if you found out Corvus was here, you’d get swept up trying to kill him, and that’d put you and Sonia at odds.  The last thing we need right now is infighting!”


Wolf growled quietly.  “So what was your brilliant plan then, Mega?  Just hope I didn’t find out?”


“I was going to keep fighting Dealer and hope it settled itself.  If Corvus happened to die, then it wouldn’t matter and I could tell you then.  If we caught him, then after things settled down we’d have a chance to debate the issue.”


“Sounds spineless to me.”


“Wolf,” Wolfe said.


The FM-ian whirled.  “What?!”


Wolfe shifted nervously, saying, “…I…don’t want to kill anyone.  I understand why you want revenge on Corvus, but…I can’t help you take it.”


Wolf glared at him.  Before he could say anything, however, the sound of footsteps could be heard, and everyone turned to see Shepar stepping out from the stairwell.


“Oh,” Geo said, “M-Mr. Shepar!  Sorry, I was just on my way back to class.”


“It’s my fault, Mitch,” Wolfe offered.  “I asked him to help me get started cleaning up.  Thanks, kid, you’ve done plenty.”


Shepar looked from one to the other.  Eventually, he quietly asked, “You two know what’s behind all these strange things that’ve been happening, don’t you?”


Geo rubbed his neck.


“Please, tell me what’s going on.  My students keep getting put in danger: if I know why, maybe I’ll have a better chance of protecting them from it.  I need to know if there’s anything I can do.”


After a tense pause, Wolf scoffed and said, “Tell him.”


Mega eyed him.  “Huh?”


“He was the one Libra attacked, right?  He’ll probably be of use to ya.  Tell him.”


“You know Libra?” Shepar asked.  “Does he have something to do with this?”


“Er, no, he doesn’t,” Geo said.  Exchanging a look with Mega, he took a deep breath, and then turned back to Shepar.


Meanwhile, back inside the school, the students had been gathered in the gymnasium so the faculty could make sure they were all accounted for.  Luna finished a conversation and then stepped off to the side, drawing her Hunter to find a new mail from Sonia.


“Are you okay?” it read


She smiled.  The reply she sent said, “Perfectly fine.  What about you?”


The response came almost instantly.  “Nothing to worry about.”


Hesitantly, Luna typed out, “What about Jack?”


“He’s okay.  But, the Satella Police are taking him into custody.  They’re getting ready to leave as soon as they’re done talking with the faculty.”


“Are you going with them?”


“I was thinking about it.  But, I could just as easily go report in later if you want me to stay nearby.”


Luna considered it a moment.  “No, you should go now.  We’re all fine.”


“You sure?”


“Of course.  Why else would I have said it?”


“Okay, I’m going.  I’ll call you once everything’s settled.  Love you!”


“Love you too.”


After hitting ‘send’, she returned the device to her pocket and sighed, taking a seat on the bleachers.  She glanced over the crowd.  Many of the students looked nervous, but they seemed to have calmed considerably now that they knew the Satella Police had arrived.  Zack pushed his way out of the mess of people and jogged over to where Luna sat.


“They’re still looking for Geo,” he said.  “I hope he’s got a good excuse lined up.”


Luna nodded.


“Well, in all likelihood the election will be rescheduled for some time next week.  Should we use the opportunity to get in a little extra campaigning?”


“Maybe…I don’t know.”


Zack scratched his head.  “Um, Prez…are you okay?  You seem a bit…er, that is to say…”


Luna gently rubbed her hands together.  “…It just feels like I ran away.”


“Luna,” Ophiuca chimed in, “that’s not at all what happened.”


“I can’t help it.  I know we could’ve joined in, but I decided to do nothing.  It doesn’t seem right.”


“You know that you aren’t ready for that yet.  The way you reacted, it’s clear you still need more time to recover.  That’s the most helpful thing you can do right now.”


Luna hung her head.  Zack said, “Prez, there’s no reason to feel guilty or anything.  Everything turned out fine.  And, didn’t the others all agree that they wanted to give you the time you need?  There’s absolutely no pressure.”


“It just…” Luna started, pausing to look up at the ceiling.  Quietly, she went on, “It just…makes me feel…weak.  Vulnerable, I guess.  And I hate feeling like that.  I’d rather fight back, even if I know that’s not the smartest thing to do right now.”


Zack stepped forward emphatically.  “Prez, no one here thinks you’re weak!  The rate at which you’re already recovering is awe-inspiring!  And as for vulnerable, well…as long as you have us, that’s nothing to worry about, right?  Brothers protect each other!  So let us take this chance to protect you, as thanks for all you’ve done for us!”


Luna looked at Zack for a moment.  Slowly, she grinned.  “Heh…thanks, Zack.  I really appreciate it.”


She leaned back and breathed deeply.  Zack sat down next to her, and together they silently watched the crowd.




Ace called a display from his Hunter.  Glancing around the Shaman’s hut, he said, “So, let’s be sure we get all the relevant information covered.  Three Wizards working for Dealer attacked and were deleted.”


Everyone sat in a circle, except for Solo, who leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed and his eyes closed.  They took a moment to exchange glances before someone finally went first.


“There was no sign of the Noise Cards they used,” Hyde said.  “It would seem they were destroyed along with the poor follows.”


“And we did try to avoid deleting them,” Ace added, typing away.  “Feel like that’s gonna come up…also, no Crimson detected?”


Copper shook his head.  “If I had to guess, they crystallized all the Noise they had generated when they made that armor you mentioned, and it went with them too.  We were able to scrape up that bit he threw at you—we’ll take that back and have the doctors analyze it, see if maybe we can learn something.”


Ace nodded.  Turning to the Shaman and Condor, he said, “And you’re now properly registered as Transcode 014!  Contact info for WAZA is in the Hunter that Detective Copper gave you, so call us if there’s anything urgent…or, if you change your mind about taking the fight to them.”


Copper grunted.  The Shaman said, “Thank you, but it now seems more important than ever that I stay here.  Dealer could very well return.  I only hope that we will be enough to stop them if they do…”


“We will because we must,” Condor said.  “No matter what, we will find a way to keep Whazzap safe.”


The Shaman nodded, but he still looked distraught.  Ace thought for a moment before saying, “Well, that’s a good point.  We’ll help you out.”


Looking up, the Shaman asked, “What?”


“WAZA can help you protect Whazzap from Dealer.  Stopping them is our main goal right now, and preventing or managing an attack would certainly help with that.”


The Shaman’s eyes widened.  “Truly?  You would offer us your aid?”


“Of course.  Although, the thing is…”  Ace stopped for a moment, seeming to wonder if he should continue.  “Well, I’m sorry for this, but we wouldn’t be able to get a full security detail out immediately.”


Hyde raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.  It was Amy who asked, “Wait, why’s that?  Aren’t all the officers pretty much recovered?”


“That isn’t the problem,” Solo said.  “He’s not sure who he can trust.”


“Huh?  What’s that mean?”


Ace put a hand over his mouth as he stared at the screen in front of him.  “When Sonia, Geo, and Acid left WAZA to track down Luna’s data, Dealer attacked immediately.  It was too well-timed to be a coincidence.  And it was the same today: those Wizards were here just in time to welcome us.  It’s possible they just monitored the Wave Roads or something…but…”


Amy frowned.  “Oh.”


“We can’t totally rule out the possibility that there’s a Dealer spy somewhere in WAZA,” Copper said.


“Right,” Ace said.  “So, I’ll need time to assemble a force of people I trust to protect this place.”


The Shaman looked down.  “I see…”


“Still, we should make some kind of arrangement for now.  If one of us stays here while I get things sorted, that should keep things covered well enough, don’t you think?”


“But who would that be?” Hyde asked.  “You need to be back at WAZA to assemble this team.  Our dear detective here cannot Wave Change, so he alone would make little difference.”


Copper scowled at him.  “And no one here trusts you.”


Amy scratched her head.  “…Well...exactly how long are we talking about?  It’s just, I’m  really not doing well in this heat, so I’m not sure how useful I’d be.”


Ace glanced at Solo.  The boy kept his eyes closed as the silence dragged on, but eventually, he said, “I’ll do it.”


Everyone looked up.  The Shaman stood up and said, “Oh, we would be honored to have you as our guest!  Yes, I’m positive the people will feel much safer simply knowing a descendant of Mu is protecting them!”


Ace turned towards Copper, who was staring hard at him.  Reluctantly, Copper gave a short nod, and Ace typed into his screen.


“Thanks, Solo!  We’ll keep in…oh, wait, you don’t have a Hunter.  Do you have another spare, detective?”


“I don’t want your human technology,” Solo said.  “If you must speak with me, then contact the Shaman.  And make sure it’s something important.”


“As long as you’re okay with that?” Ace asked.


The Shaman nodded.  “Yes, of course.”  He inhaled sharply, looking around and smiling.  “Thank you all so much.  I don’t know that Whazzap has ever been treated so kindly…I cannot tell you how much this means to me.”


“It is an honor to work with you,” Copper said with a bow.  “We will return to Electopia tomorrow and immediately begin constructing your security team.  The moment we have news for you, we will contact you.”


“That should do it, then,” Ace said, closing the display.  “Thanks, everyone.  Now go enjoy yourselves while we’re here!”


As the others got up, Ace realized there was a notification on his Hunter.  Pulling it up, he discovered it was a new mission report, and as he began to read its contents a heavy frown came to his face.




Sonia sat against the wall not far from the door to Jack’s cell, neither of the guards seeming all that willing to interact with her.  She hopped to her feet when she saw Boreal approaching.


“I got the gist from the officers,” he said.  “Is he awake yet?”


“Yeah, he is.”


She followed him over to the door.  Before he opened it, however, he stopped short.  Turning back to face her, he said, “You’ve done enough.  You don’t need to be involved in this part if you have something else to do.”


Sonia gave him a confused look.  “Huh?  No, I’ll stay.”


Boreal slowly undid the door.  Inside, Jack was pressed up against the bars, holding them like he expected to rip them off and shooting a malicious glare at his visitors.  Boreal sat down.  Sonia remained standing.


“Where’s my sister?” Jack asked.


“She’s still being held here,” Boreal said.  “No need to worry about her.”


“I want to see her!”


“We can’t allow that.”


Sonia glanced at him sideways.


“Aren’t you supposed to be in charge?” Jack asked.  “It’s not like anyone can stop you, right?  Make it happen!”


Boreal opened the file he had brought and flipped a few pages.




“So tell me, Jack,” Boreal said calmly.  “Where is Dealer’s base of operations located?”


“What?!  I’m not telling you anything until you let me see my sister!”


“That’s not how it works here.  Please answer the question.”


Stepping forward, Sonia said, “Mr. Boreal, we can at least let them see each other.  I’m sure they’ll be more cooperative after—“


“Not if we just give in to their demands,” Boreal interrupted.  “Jack, what can you tell me about what Dealer is planning?”


Sonia furrowed her brow.  Jack, meanwhile, gritted his teeth and said, “I’m not telling you anything!  If you want answers so badly, let me see Tia—then maybe I’ll feel like talking!”


“What can you tell me about the Noise Wave you used to attack the school?”


“Listen to me, you idiot!  What part of ‘I’m not talking’ do you not understand?”


Boreal sighed and closed the file.  “Well, if that’s the case…”


He got up to leave.  Jack’s eyes widened, and he said, “Hey, hang on a second!”


Boreal grabbed the door, but Sonia put her hand against it.  “Mr. Boreal!”


“There’s nothing more to be done,” Boreal said.  “If he’s not willing to give us any information, then there’s no point in talking to him.”


“If we let him see Ms. Tia, we’ll probably get some answers!  It can’t hurt to try!”


“It can, Sonia.  I can’t just let them meet on good faith.  One of them needs to give me something before I can even consider an exchange.”  He turned back to Jack.  “Do you have anything for me?”


Jack just glared at him.


“Still,” Sonia said, “this doesn’t…even if we don’t get any additional information, isn’t it enough that we’ve captured them?  Can’t we just—“


“No, Sonia,” Boreal said.  “That’s my stance until they hand over something to negotiate with.  Now, let’s go.”


Sonia stared hard at him.  Behind her, Jack mumbled, “Fine…I got something you’ll want to hear.”


Boreal glanced over his shoulder.


“Before I left, I heard King giving Joker his next orders.”


Sonia bristled.


“Let me meet with my sister, and I’ll tell you what they were.”


Boreal just looked away.


“I’m serious!” Jack shouted.  “He’s gonna attack in a matter of days—if you guys don’t stop him, who knows how many innocent people he’ll kill!  Don’t you want to stop that?”


“Mr. Boreal,” Sonia said.  “You can’t really—“


He silenced her with a look she’d never seen before.  It was enough to get her to release her hold, so he opened the door and left the cell.  A few moments later, Sonia’s surprise started to turn to anger, and she rushed after him.


“Mr. Boreal!”


He didn’t answer her, just continued down the hallway.


“If Joker’s going to attack, then we need to know where!  How is that not something we can work with?”


“It is,” Boreal said.


Sonia blinked.  “What…?”


“Assuming he’s not bluffing, that’s valuable intel.  But we’re not going to discuss whether to grant his request or not in front of him.”


It took her a few moments to process his response.  Shaking her head, she asked, “Mr. Boreal…what are you doing?”


Boreal stopped in front of the elevator and sighed.  “Sonia…I’m just trying to get as much information as I can.  Jack’s much more likely to give us something, but I’m positive he’ll clam up once we let him see Queen Tia.  We have one chance.  I need to make the most of it, and the best way to do that…is to make him think he needs to tell us as much as he can, or he’ll never see his sister again.”


Sonia gaped at him.


“I know.  But this might be our only chance.  Dealer is dangerous, and has to be stopped.”


“I don’t need to be reminded of that,” Sonia said quietly.  “But this isn’t the right way to do it.  Jack’s scared, and lonely, and just wants to see his sister so he knows everything is okay.  How can you take advantage of that?”


Boreal looked her in the eye.  “By approaching it as a scientist.  It’s a simple matter of what’s likely to do the most good, and if Jack can tell us something that’ll help us stop Dealer soon, that’ll go a long way towards keeping plenty of people safe.  When you look at it objectively, the choice is easy.”


“So that’s it?!  You’re willing to let the end justify any means?”


“Of course not.  I’m not going to take this too far, I’m only going to apply a small amount of pressure before I give him what he wants.”


“This is already going too far!  How can you be okay with what this is going to do to Jack?”


“Look at it another way.  Suppose he does know where Joker’s going to attack next, we let him see Queen Tia, and then he decides he doesn’t want to tell us anymore.  Would you be alright knowing we missed an opportunity to prevent the damage Joker ends up doing?”


Sonia clenched her fists as she tried to think of a counterargument.


“I know you don’t like it.  But if we have a chance to stop Joker—“


“Stop it!  Of course I want Joker stopped, you don’t have to make this about him!”


“It is about him, Sonia.”


“No, it’s about Jack!  We have a chance to help him, and you’re only making things worse!  Wherever Joker shows up, I’ll be there to tear him down, but we don’t have to hurt Jack to get there!”


“This will get us there ahead of time.  We can help Jack when this is all over.”


“But he’s here now!”


“Sonia, you aren’t thinking ahead at all.  This could be the difference that saves someone’s life!  Is letting Joker kill someone really worth this?”


Sonia jerked a half-step back, her face twisting into a dark scowl.  She shouted, “He’s not going to kill anyone else!  I can stop him—“


You don’t know that!” Boreal said.  “I know you’ll do everything you can, Sonia, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a perfect victory!  There’s no way to guarantee Joker won’t kill someone before you even get there, no way to guarantee he’ll leave them in a state where we can piece them back together afterwards.  It’s too risky a gamble!  You can’t just expect you’ll find a way to resolve this in a completely ideal fashion.  We can take steps to increase your chance of success, but sometimes the only way to do that is by doing something less than ideal.”


“That’s terrible!  You sound just like…” she started, but couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.  She didn’t need to, however.  Boreal knew who she meant.


“I may not be able to do things ideally, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up all my ideals.  It isn’t that black and white, Sonia—I wish so much that it could be, but it’s not.  You’ve already had to do things you didn’t think were ideal, haven’t you?”


“Only when I didn’t have a choice!  We have a choice here, and you’re choosing what you know isn’t good for Jack.”


Boreal sighed.  “Sonia.  Was Jack open to you helping him when you fought him at the school?”




“Did he seem all that open to it now?”




“Do you think meeting with Tia, and having her tell him not to share any information at all, will make him more open to it.”


“We don’t know that she’s going to say that!”


“She’s hardly said a word since coming here.  Her stances on giving up information is already clear, and Jack will do whatever she tells him to do.”




“We can’t help them right now, Sonia.  All we can do is get information that will help us end this, and see if that changes their mind.  What other choice do we have?”


A heavy silence spread over them both.  Sonia tried desperately to think of something to say, but her mind was reeling, still trying to process exactly what was happening.  And then her thoughts turned to Joker.


Sonia looked down and mumbled, “At least keep me informed.”


“I will,” Boreal said.


She turned and started walking.  She wasn’t sure which way she was headed, but she just kept moving.




King looked at the card-sized display in his hand.  An image from security footage outside Echo Ridge school was on it, showing Jack being taken away by the Satella Police.  He sighed and dropped it in a pile.


“Now perhaps he’ll learn his lesson,” King muttered, shuffling the remaining cards he had.  “He’s always been a tough one to discipline, but perhaps WAZA will have better luck with him than I.”


He spun his chair around and moved it forward, coming to a stop next to Heartless.  Joker stood ahead, just down a handful of stairs, and he waited attentively to hear what King would say next.


“Regardless, I have a feeling we’ll get much more work done now that we won’t have Jack blundering about.  It is time for us to play our wild card.”


Joker nodded.  “I will not fail you again, Mr. King.  Now that Jack has been captured, have my orders changed?  He may leak our initial plans to WAZA.”


King laughed.  “That is precisely the point, Joker!  How do you expect to collect multitudes of Crimson without our friends there to harvest it?  I gave Jack this task knowing that he would fail it—of course I don’t want Harp Note dead!  This was chosen as punishment for Jack’s disobedience specifically so that he could deliver a message to them, so that they could mark their calendars and come lend us a hand.”


“I see.  Forgive me, Mr. King, I did not realize.”


“Oho, no harm done!  Though, there is one thing I want to be sure you keep in mind.”


King beckoned.  Joker stepped forward.


“While you are most certainly free to have a bit of fun…I will not tolerate any more unauthorized killing.”


Joker nodded.  “Yes, Mr. King.  I understand.”


“Excellent!” King said, clapping his hands together.


Joker paused for a moment.  “If I may, Mr. King…should Acid be there…what permissions do I have?”


King stroked his chin.  “Hm, not satisfied with the copies, it would seem.”


“To be frank…no.”


“You must have known we lack the required programs to fully recreate Acid,” Heartless said.  “Do not act as though this comes as a surprise.”


“But they are weak,” Joker said.  “Weaker than I expected.  And weakness does not befit Acid.”


King chuckled.  “Indeed, I do not think the Acid copies possess much potential either.  So, all things considered…yes.  I will permit you an opportunity, Joker.”


Joker straightened up in surprise.  A smile came to his face, and he said, “Thank you, Mr. King!  I truly appreciate your generosity!”


“And that is one opportunity, my boy.  If they turn out to have the stronger hand, you are not to play another round.  Do I make myself clear?”


“Perfectly, sir.  One opportunity is all I require.”


“Hoho, it is nice to see you so enthusiastic!  That will be all for now, Joker.”


Joker made his way out of the meeting room.  As King returned to shuffling his cards, Heartless brushed aside her hair and glanced at him.


“It’s a fool’s wager,” she said.


“Of course, my dear Heartless.  I know how to read the odds.”


“And you are certain Joker will stick to his orders when he fails to reach Acid?”


“Ho ho…well, he is a wild card.  It’s difficult to say for sure.  But if it worries you, my dear, fret not: I have prepared for the possibility of Joker defying me.”


Heartless simply looked away and hummed.


“It’s too late for them to stop us now,” King said, drawing a card that depicted Meteor G.  “Joker’s efforts are only to hasten the inevitable!  Ho ho, I cannot wait to see the look on their faces when the deck runs out!”




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Chapter 22



“What do you mean it was destroyed?!” Rosa asked.


On her Transer screen, Boreal shook his head.  “I went to check on the equipment first thing, but it’s been smashed to bits.  Whoever it was, they were thorough: I don’t think we can salvage anything.  I’m sorry, Rosa.”


Rosa rubbed her temple.  “And it was this hard to find someone who would even agree to work with us…can we afford to replace everything?”


“It’s…hard to say for sure…”


“Walters must have found out somehow.  We’ll need to be more careful going forward.”


“I don’t suppose our friend could help us out with this part too?”


Rosa picked at the bench beneath her.  “Too late to ask.  She’s officially off the grid—even I can’t get ahold of her.”


“Oh,” Boreal said, brightening up a bit.  “That sounds like good news, though!  Maybe she’s got something.”


“It’s hard to tell, but we can dream.  She seemed to get along with Kelvin and Hope for some reason, so I…”  She trailed off, looking down at herself.  An incredibly sharp pain had just appeared in her chest, but it was gone just as suddenly.




“Uh, sorry.  The point is, we can’t just leave it all to her.  I’ll go over my finances and see what I can work out.  In the meantime, would you look into some hired security?  The third time might be the charm, but there’s no way our funds will stretch that far.”


“I’ll do what I can,” Boreal said, leaning slightly out of frame to write something down.  “Unless I have any good news, I’ll see you on Monday.”


Rosa said goodbye and closed her Transer, taking a moment to put a hand to her chest and breathe deeply.  Nothing felt out of the ordinary.  Pushing the matter away, she looked up towards the playground, smiling as she realized Sonia was running over.


“Mama, did you see?” Sonia said as she bounced onto the bench.  “I swung real high, even higher than the other kids!”


“That’s wonderful, Sonia!” she said, immediately hugging her.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t see it.  I was on the phone with Mr. Boreal about an important project.”


“That’s okay, Mama—I can do it again!  Oh, but the kids I was playing with had to go home, so I can’t show you I was higher than them…”


“That’s okay, I believe you.  Of course my incredible daughter can do incredible things!”


Rosa set her hand on Sonia’s head, and the girl giggled for a moment before getting a thoughtful look in her eye.  “Hey, Mama, did your Mama say the same thing to you?”


For just a moment, Rosa frowned.  Catching herself, she smiled an almost-convincing smile and answered, “Ah, well…my relationship with my Mama was a bit different.”


Sonia reached up, picking Rosa’s hand up off her head so she could hold it.  “You never talk about your family.  The other kids were talking about their grandpas and aunts and cousins…what’s the rest of our family like?  Can I meet them?”


Rosa’s façade only cracked further as she stroked Sonia’s hair.  “I’d like that, Sonia…I have tried to make it happen.  A lot of times, actually.  But I’ve never gotten an answer, so…I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.  I’m sorry.”


She kissed Sonia’s forehead.  The girl gave her a confused look, saying, “That doesn’t sound very nice.  Why would they act like that?”


Rosa put her arm around Sonia’s shoulder.  As her daughter leaned against her, Rosa looked up at the sky.  “Well…a few years ago, my family and I really disagreed about something; something I really wanted, that was very important to me, and they were dead-set against.  It wasn’t the kind of thing we could compromise on.  But it was my choice to make, and I went through with it…and my parents haven’t spoken to me since.”


“What?!” Sonia said.  “That’s terrible!”  She paused for a moment before mumbling, “They sound like…bad people.”


Rosa just stared up into the sky for a few seconds, taking all the time she needed to figure out what she needed to say.  “Well, Sonia, I think that more often than not…people aren’t just ‘bad’.  We all have our own reasons for doing the things that we do: the things that others have told us, the things that we experience, they all affect us in ways we don’t even realize, turning each and every one of us into our own individual, unique person.  I think most people want to do what they think is right.  But because we’re all so different, sometimes people disagree on what the right thing to do is.  Or sometimes, people get confused, or misguided, and do something they’re not sure is right because they’re also not sure if it’s wrong.”


Sonia squirmed.  “I don’t think I get it, Mama.”


Rosa chuckled, nudging her gently.  “Sorry, kiddo.  People are a lot more complicated than they seem—even I don’t fully understand it!”


“So…you don’t think your family are bad people?”


“No, I don’t.  We’re just different.  But we all share a stubborn streak that makes working out those differences way harder than it needs to be.”  She chuckled softly.  “If I end up passing that onto you, I’m sorry.  Just remember: there are times to be stubborn, and times to not be stubborn.  Okay?”


Sonia nodded.  “Okay!  I’ll remember, Mama!”


Rosa patted her on the head again, and then returned to looking up at the sky.  Sonia looked that way as well.






“Do you miss your family?”


“…Yeah.  I do.”


“Do you…do you regret doing whatever it was you wanted to do?”


Rosa turned and smiled at Sonia.  This time, it was genuine.  “Not at all.”


She hugged Sonia again, but when they parted, that same pain came back.  Turning aside, she leaned forward and found herself coughing uncontrollably.


“Mama?!” Sonia cried, latching onto her shirt.


Thankfully it didn’t last long.  Rosa turned back to Sonia and said, “S-Sorry, kiddo, I’m fine.  Must’ve gotten something stuck in my throat, I guess.”


“Are you sure you’re okay?”


“Yeah, I am.  Sorry to worry you.”


Sonia let out a sigh of relief.


“Hey, why don’t you show me how high you can swing?”


Cheering up again, Sonia nodded and scampered off.  While she had her back turned, Rosa rubbed her throat, and then opened her Transer to type something into it.




Sonia snapped to attention as Jack was brought into the room.  She looked from him, to Boreal, to Ace, to the one-way mirror through which they could see Tia in the room beyond.


…I’m…not sure…


Jack stopped and glared at Ace.  “What are you doing here?”


Ace smiled.  “It’s good to see you again, Jack.  Hey, have you gotten taller?”


“Shut up!  I’m not here to see you!”


Craning his neck, he spotted Tia.  He started forward, but his escort held him back.  Boreal stepped forward.


“Jack,” Boreal said.  “We need you to give us the information now.”


“I’ll tell you after I talk to her,” Jack said, refusing to make eye contact with the man.


“No, Jack.  Either you tell us now, or we call this whole thing off.”


Sonia bit her lip.


“…Fine,” Jack grumbled.  “Listen up, alright?  It’ll be four days from now.  Joker’s going to attack WBG Studios, make all the Wizards there go crazy and generate as much Crimson as he can.  That’s all I heard.”


The studio again? Sonia thought.  That’s not a lot of time.  We need to make sure everyone’s out before then.


Boreal waited a moment before stepping aside.  The officer brought Jack over to a door, opened it just enough to push him through, and then stepped back.  Everyone’s eyes then turned to the mirror.


Tia looked up as Jack stumbled into the room.  Her face showed actual surprise as she said, “Jack?”


“Sis!” Jack said, running over to her.  “You’re okay!  I’m so glad…”


Tia’s expression dulled slightly (though not entirely) as she stood up.  “Jack, what are you doing here?”


“King had me attack the school.”


Sonia didn’t know what to call Tia’s split-second reaction.


“He said if I killed Harp Note, he’d break you out.  So, I did my best…but…”  He scratched his head, his eyes drifting.


“Now WAZA’s captured you too,” Tia finished.


Jack stared at the floor.  “…I’m sorry, sis.  I just…I didn’t know what to do…you were in trouble, and King wasn’t doing anything!  I only wanted…I didn’t mean to mess it up.  I’m sorry.”


A long silence followed.  Then, surprising everyone, Tia suddenly reached forward and wrapped her arms around Jack.  “Don’t apologize, Jack.  You didn’t do anything wrong.”


Jack started to shake as he hugged his sister back.  He shut his eyes tightly, and clung to her for dear life.  “Sis…”


“It’s going to be alright, understand?” she said, her voice quiet and smooth.  “We’re going to be alright.”


“R-Right.  Right…”


Sonia glanced at Ace.  His face seemed calm enough, but in his hand he was grinding a candy bar to dust.


Eventually, Tia pulled back, keeping her hands on his shoulders as she bent slightly to look him in the eye.  “Jack.  If they let us meet, then I assume that means you gave them some kind of information.”


Jack gave a short nod.  “…Joker’s next orders.  I know I shouldn’t have, but—“


“I see.  Listen to me, Jack: that’s nothing important.  I’m not mad.  But I want you to promise me you won’t tell them anything else.”


“Okay, sis.  I promise.”


Boreal let out a loud sigh.


Tia reached for Jack’s face, wiping a tear away with her thumb.  She smiled, and it was such a warm, loving smile that it rendered her unrecognizable to the onlookers.  “We’ll get through this, Jack.  It’s nothing but a short inconvenience.  We’ll be fine.”


“Y-Yeah,” Jack said with a sniff.  “This is nothing!  Our dream will come true in no time—I’ll make sure of it!”


Tia nodded.  Her smile faded quickly as she straightened up, and she turned her usual, dull gaze at the mirror.  Jack turned as well, making a rude gesture, and then he faced the other way and crossed his arms.


“I guess that’s that,” Boreal said.  “Take them back to their cells.”


No one said anything as the two were led out by the officers.  Boreal departed soon after, leaving Sonia and Ace the only ones still in the room.


“…Are you really okay with this?” Sonia asked.


Ace turned to the candy bar he held, but realizing what had become of it, he shoved it into his pocket.  “You seemed to be.”


Sonia gaped as he drew out another bar.  An irritation started in the back of her mind, quickly becoming guilt, and she said, “Maybe there’s something we can do: put them in a single cell, or transfer them elsewhere if that’s not possible here.”


Ace slowly peeled away the wrapper.  “I’ve already suggested a lot of ideas like that to the Chief.  He’s not budging on this one.”


“But still…”  She shook her head.


Ace stared at the candy bar for a moment.  Turning his head, he asked, “Hey, Sonia…why did you go along with this?”


She felt a flash of hostility.  “Mr. Boreal said this was our best chance to stop Joker.  I want to stop him, so…I ended up giving this a try.”


“So stopping Joker is what’s most important?”


Her anger boiled up even further.  “What are you trying to say, Ace?”


“What?  No, I’m asking.”


Slowly, she turned to face him.


“Is that what you think is most important?  Is that what you think is right?  Because, I’m…”  Ace glanced aside as he finished, “I’m really not sure.  But, you always do what’s right, so if you’re okay with it, then…”


The hostility was gone, replaced by an immense, crushing weight.


Ace looked at the candy bar again.  He sighed, hastily stuffing it back in the wrapper and into his pocket.  “Sorry.  I’m still trying to figure out how to do things the way you do, but I know I still have a long way to go.  I’m definitely willing to take down Joker and crush Dealer—if that’s what you think is best, then I’m behind you 100%, Sonia.  Just…”  He tried to smile.  “Well, don’t hold it against me if I get a bit distracted.  I just wish there was more I could do for Jack and Tia.”


Sonia stared at him in silence as he left the room.


“Are you alright, dear?” Lyra asked.


Sonia put a hand over her face.  “…Never thought I would make someone feel guilty…just for wanting to help people…”




She pulled her hand away and inhaled sharply.  “We, uh…we need to see what’s being done about the studio.  It’s important we stay on top of that.”


Sonia made her way out into the hall and off in the direction she figured Boreal had headed.  The weight followed her.




Shepar stood next to the window, looking out and down the side of the mountain where WAZA HQ was built.  Behind him, Copper and Wolfe sat at a table, waiting for him to take in all the information they had just shared with him, and Wolf grumbled quietly near the door.  The teacher sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and mumbled, “I can’t believe it…”


“I know this all must come as a shock,” Copper said.  “We’ve been trying to keep quiet about things like Wave Change and Dealer to avoid throwing the public into a panic, but—“


“That’s not what I mean,” Shepar interrupted.  “After all that happened with the FM-ians before, I can handle learning about that.”


“Then what…?”


Shepar turned around, glaring straight at Copper.  “But I can’t believe that an organization as big as WAZA is recruiting children to fight their battles for them.”


Copper looked down.  Wolfe said, “Mitch, that’s not—“


“And you knew about this!” Shepar went on, now turning his glare on Wolfe.  “I thought you cared about keeping the kids safe—how can you be okay with sending them into battle like this?”


“Frankly, they’re the ones most qualified for the job.”




Wolf snorted.  “Heard two of ‘em beat you and Libra back in the day.  Can’t be that big a shock.”


Shepar turned to the FM-ian, but before he could respond, Copper got up from his chair and came forward.  “Mr. Shepar…I understand how you feel.  Many of us here are deeply troubled by the reality of our situation, and would like nothing more than to let these kids live normal, safe lives.  That’s how I feel.”


“Then why have you let it go on?” Shepar asked.  “I can’t believe that this is the only way!”


“Unfortunately, it is.  As much as the Satella Police have advanced, our best weapons are no match for even a single competent Wave Change user—that was made quite clear to us when one of them stormed this very building.  We were powerless.  This technique simply puts its users on a plane too high above us.”


“Isn’t there a way for the police to use Wave Change?”


“We’ve got one officer testing a Wizard specifically made to do that, but our replication of the process is still flawed.  It’s killing him.”


That stunned Shepar for a moment.  When he recovered, he said, “You said you were allied with Planet FM now, right?  Couldn’t you ask them to send more help?”


“…Possibly.  However, we have reason to believe the current state of Planet FM might make such a request less than ideal, and more importantly: the interference currently being caused by Meteor G makes contacting them in any capacity extremely unlikely.”


“Was there a time where you could have made that request?  When you knew this Dealer group was a potential issue and that getting some more help was a possibility?”


Copper averted his eyes.


“Then why didn’t you?”


“We didn’t know the situation would become this dire!  Looking into recreating Wave Change seemed the best solution at the time, and even if we hadn’t actively approached Sonia and the others, they surely would’ve been drawn into this nonetheless.  We could either provide them with what knowledge and support we had, or leave them to their own devices.  I think we chose the better option.”


Shepar shook his head and turned away.


“Keeping those kids out of the fight just isn’t an option, Mr. Shepar!  Sonia’s made such a name for herself already that anyone with nefarious intentions already has their sights set on her and her friends!  And there was no way to stop her from achieving that in the first place: I was assigned to do just that, and my then-superior resorted to things so underhanded in his attempts…”  He sighed heavily.  “…This is the situation we find ourselves in.  Of course I wish there was more that we could do for them, but the fact is that there isn’t, not now.  I’d take Ace’s place in a heartbeat if I could, but…”


Wolfe looked back at Wolf.  The FM-ian snarled, saying, “Look, I don’t get what your problem is.  They’re strong—that’s all that matters.  Don’t think this extreme value on ‘children’ you’ve got is going to sway me.”


“Fine,” Wolfe said.  “But don’t you want another chance to fight Corvus?”


Wolf growled.


“Between that and how you’ve been complaining about being bored, I don’t see why you’re being so stubborn.”


“Because you said you weren’t willing to kill him!”


Wolfe paused for a moment.  “…Is that really worth totally passing on the opportunity you’re being given?”


Wolf didn’t answer.  Shepar walked up to Copper and said, “Detective…are there any other EM beings on Earth right now?”


“We have a PM-ian named Plesio under our care,” Copper said, “but he has deep psychological damage.  I can’t in good conscience force him to help us.”


“What about the FM-ians?  Are any more of them still around?”


“…We’ve been looking into it.  I assume you’ve got someone in mind?”


Shepar nodded.  “Do you know where Libra is?”






“Really.  We’ve been searching high and low—Ace is far more zealous than you know about this very issue—but we haven’t been able to determine if Libra’s still about.”  Copper paused.  “Would you like to be notified if that changes?”


“I would like to be notified of all changes.  Now that I know these kids—some of my students—are in danger, I have to do whatever I can to help them, even if it’s as limited as you keep saying it is.”


Copper put his hands in his pockets, taking a moment to think.  “I may be able to arrange that.  But again, this could get dangerous.  Are you really ready for what could happen if you get further involved?”


Shepar grinned.  “Hard to say for sure before trying…but I have to at least try.  Just tell me what I can do.”




Solo stood silently atop the cliff wall, his eyes fixed on the sprawling temple down below.  Laplace floated next to him, and when the EM being turned suddenly, Solo became aware of the Shaman and Condor approaching.  He glanced at them over his shoulder.


“May we join you?” the Shaman asked.


Solo looked away.  “…Suit yourself.”


The Shaman turned to Laplace, who nodded, and then came closer to the edge.  “I’ve always enjoyed this view.  You can get a much better look at the lines from here, as well as a better appreciation for the temple’s true splendor.  Something of a walk, though—these days I worry each visit could be my last.”


“We could fly here easily when Wave Changed,” Condor said.  “There is no need to strain yourself, friend.”


“I am grateful, Condor.  I may have to take you up on that soon.”


Solo didn’t say anything.


“…So,” the Shaman said, “what do you think of our humble village?”


After thinking a moment, Solo said, “I don’t know that I’m qualified to judge a community.  However, this place…does have a very pleasant feel to it.  I can understand why the Dinosaur Tribe chose to settle here.”


The Shaman smiled.  Condor perched on the head of his staff then, asking, “Solo, if I may…why is it that you fight against Dealer?  It seems unusual that you would take an interest in them, unless…”


Laplace buzzed.


“I suppose you have a point,” Solo said.  Still, he took a very long pause before continuing, “When I went to Mu, I discovered something…a scroll detailing the location of a priceless treasure.  Something that will grant me truly unstoppable power.  After months of searching, I finally came upon a hidden Murian shrine, only to find that its seal had been broken and its contents taken.”


Condor cocked his head.  “What treasure is this?  I do not recall hearing of such a thing.”


Laplace said something, but Solo only replied, “You’ll know when it’s mine.”


“…Well,” the Shaman said, “if you’re saying that Dealer stole this treasure, do you have something linking them to the crime?”


“Not exactly.”


The Shaman blinked.


“Whoever stole this treasure must have some need for Murian power, like Vega did.  It didn’t take long to discover that Dealer is the only organization with the means to uncover the shrine.  It has to be them.”


“I suppose that makes sense,” Condor said.  “But, is it not also possible that there is some other unknown agent at work?”


“…Perhaps.  I suppose if Dealer doesn’t have it, then I’ll just forget them and look elsewhere.”


Laplace poked Solo’s shoulder, and the boy waved them off mumbling something.  The Shaman asked, “You would abandon Harp Note and the others to continue their fight alone?”


Solo turned to look at him.  “Of course.  I don’t owe them anything.  All that matters is getting this power back in Murian hands.”


“Why?  Why does power matter so much to you?”


“Murian power matters to me because I am the last who can wield it to its true potential,” Solo said.  “I am the Final Heir to Mu, the only one who can show exactly what a Murian warrior is capable of.  When I fight, the legacy of Mu is tested.  If I lose, then it is blemished…so I must find a way to win, no matter the opponent.  That is all I can do to honor the achievements of my ancestors.”


The Shaman stroked his beard as he contemplated this.  “I see.  What I have heard of your love for Mu was no exaggeration.  Your pride in that legacy is quite admirable, Solo.”


It was slight, but Solo’s expression grew a bit softer.


“Though, I cannot help but wonder if fighting is truly all you can do to honor it.”


“There was so much more to Mu than its warriors,” Condor said.  “I have shared tales of every aspect of the culture, all I can remember, and tried to pass on the knowledge of Mu.  Dr. Vega works to emulate the best of its technology, so that their discoveries can continue to aid the world.  Why should you focus solely upon how Mu fought its battles?”


Solo turned away again.


“We do not mean to criticize,” the Shaman said.  “We only seek to understand, Solo.  From what you have told me…you speak almost as though you have no choice in the matter.  Walking a path such as that is something that can easily wear on a person’s soul.”


Laplace set their hand on Solo’s shoulder.  Eventually, Solo faced the Shaman once more.


“Fighting is all I’ve ever known…so you’re right: I don’t entirely feel like I have a choice.  But even so, I don’t feel trapped, not anymore.  I’m sure I could stop fighting if I wanted to, find another way to continue Mu’s legacy if I wanted to…but I don’t.  I want to keep fighting.”


“And why is that?” the Shaman asked.


Solo looked down, unable to answer.


“If you don’t know, then that’s fine.  You’re still young, Solo—and from what I’ve been told, you’ve faced many hardships.  Making sense of the world, or even ourselves, is something we all need ages to do even under the best conditions.  Take all the time you need.  If there is ever anything we can do to help you, know that you will always be welcome in Whazzap.”


The Shaman didn’t expect an answer, and he left without receiving one.  Solo stared after him for a time.  Laplace leaned down next to Solo, stayed silent for a moment, and then emitted a short buzz.


“Shut up.”




Luna glanced to the other end of the sofa, where Sonia sat.  She was staring ahead at nothing in particular, not moving an inch—she had barely touched her tea.  Setting her own cup down, Luna moved towards her and asked, “Sonia, what’s wrong?”


Sonia turned sharply, like she was snapping out of a trance.  Quickly smiling, she said, “O-Oh, nothing, nothing!  Just lost in thought.”


“And what were you thinking about?”


Sonia’s eyes wandered.  “…Nothing in particular,” she muttered, lifting her cup to take a small drink.


A scowl began to form on Luna’s face.  Before it completed, however, she sighed, opted for a calmer expression, and said, “Sonia, talk to me.  Please?  If something’s bothering you, I want to know what it is.”


Sonia turned back and insisted, “It’s really nothing, Luna!  Nothing for you to worry about.  Everything’s fine.”


Luna looked down and fidgeted for a moment, and then reached out to tug on Sonia’s sleeve.  “Look…I know you just want to help me, but I want to help you too.  It’s not fair to give you half of my burden while you’re struggling with your own.”  She looked Sonia in the eye.  “I can at least listen.  Let me do that much.”


Sonia stared back at her.  Eventually, she broke eye contact, shifted in her seat, and quietly said, “It’s just…it’s Jack, and Tia…and Ace, I guess…WAZA…and…”


Luna inched closer.  “Okay.  Start from the beginning.”


Sonia focused on her tea, slowly stirring it.  “I was there when Jack and Tia were talking, like I told you before.  And the whole thing just…didn’t feel right, somehow.  I noticed Ace looked really agitated, so afterwards I asked if he was okay with it…he turned around and asked me why I said I was okay with it to begin with.”


Her motions ground to a halt.


“I was so sure at first, telling Mr. Boreal that we shouldn’t try to coerce information out of Jack.  That what was most important—that the right thing to do was to do what we could to help the two of them.”


She paused, so Luna asked, “What changed?”


Sonia narrowed her eyes, clenching her teeth before she could answer, “Mr. Boreal said it was our only chance to stop…Dealer.  That they were going to hurt people if we didn’t get the information.”


Luna nodded.  “So you wanted to save people.”


After a small delay, Sonia shook her head.  “It wasn’t that.  I mean, of course I want to save anyone I can, but that’s not what changed my mind.  I wasn’t thinking about saving anyone…I was thinking about stopping…about fighting…”


She hesitated.  Just as hesitantly, Luna finished, “Joker?”


Sonia nodded.  A tense silence followed.  She leaned forward, setting her cup down on the coffee table, and then put a hand over her mouth and stared ahead and down.  Finally, she said, “I cared more about fighting him than helping Jack and Tia.  I stopped thinking about helping them, because I wanted…to fight Joker, and…”


Luna uneasily slid forward so she could take Sonia’s hand.


“I gave up on what I knew was right because I wanted a chance to take revenge,” Sonia muttered.  “And now that I’ve realized that, and I’ve seen what state Jack and Tia are really in…that’s my fault.”


“It is not your fault,” Luna stated.


“But I’m making it worse.  I had a chance to help them, and I decided I’d rather fight someone, I…”  She closed her eyes and clenched her fist, sliding it up towards her forehead.  “Ace was saying he was okay with it because I was…because I always do the right thing, because I’m a heroine…but I didn’t do the right thing.  I knew what I should’ve done, and I didn’t do it, and now they…”


“You can’t expect yourself to be perfect, Sonia.  Everyone makes mistakes.”


“But this is…”  She paused to gather her thoughts, sitting up a little straighter.  “…I always fight for my ideals.  If I’m going to be a heroine, then it’s important to act like one: to care about saving people instead of hurting them, to do what’s right…not choose to do what’s wrong.  I just gave up on…it’s like I betrayed what I stood for, who I was, and that…like I’m not really…”


Sonia started to shake.  Luna hugged her shoulders and said, “That’s not fair.  You can’t hold yourself to that high a standard Sonia—you’re only human.  We all…”  She trailed off, realizing that she was shaking now too.


“I’m sorry,” Sonia said.  “You’ve already…I don’t mean to…”


Luna knew the tears were coming, but she did what she could to hold them back.  “Don’t apologize!  Just because I’m hurting doesn’t mean you can’t hurt too.  I’m here for you, okay?  We’re here for each other.  Whatever happens, we need to face it together…that’s the only way…we’re going to…”


She couldn’t fight them back any more.  Sonia started crying at the same time she did.  So they just cried together, feeling overwhelmed by their fears and their failings, both their own and each other’s, letting the emotion break over them until there was none of it left.  And, when it was all over, they were both still there together.


“…What are we going to do?” Sonia asked.


Luna shook her head.  “I don’t know.  But, still…I know we’re going to be okay.”


Sonia turned to look at her.  “Will we really?”


“We will,” Luna said, tightly grasping Sonia’s hands.  “Even if we don’t know how yet, I know that things are going to get better.  Because I believe in you…and in us…and I know that even with the problems looming over us now, we’re not going to quit until we’ve solved them.  It’ll be hard, I’m sure.  But we’re going to do it.”  She smiled as she finished, “Right?”


Sonia smiled back, and then came forward to kiss Luna.  “Right.  I should’ve known that.”


The two of them leaned back and moved closer together, entwining their arms as Luna set her head on Sonia’s shoulder and Sonia set her head against Luna’s.  In unison they breathed a deep sigh.  A pervasive sense of dread was still there, but it felt duller now, more distant.  They knew they couldn’t fix anything in that moment.  So, while they waited for a moment when they could, it was an immeasurable comfort just to have the other next to them.


“I love you, Sonia,” Luna said.


Sonia nudged her gently.  “And I love you, Luna.”




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Chapter 23


The officer locked the door behind him as he stepped into Tia’s cell.  Over on the other side of the room, she sat perfectly still on the bed provided to her, her back to the entrance and not speaking a single word.


“Meal’s here,” the officer stated as he approached the bars.


As he expected, there was no response.  He gave a shrug and crouched, sliding the tray of food he carried through a slot just above the floor, and then looked back up.  Tia was standing over him.




Before he could say anything else, her hand shot through the bars and clamped onto his neck.  Despite her vice-like grip choking the air out of him, the officer did his best to remain calm, reaching immediately for his Hunter.  Tia pulled him forward into the bars just as he reached it.  The first impact was enough to daze the officer, and by the third he had lost consciousness entirely.  His Hunter fell from his hands and clattered on the floor.


Shifting her uninterested gaze from the man to the device, Tia tossed him aside and got down on the floor, reaching as far as she could to get a good hold on the Hunter.  She then stood, brushed off her clothes, and slowly stepped away from the bars, the terminal already booted up.  In a few flicks she was past the security, and then she set to work.




Sonia paced anxiously across the roof of the studio, constantly surveying the area for anything out of the ordinary.  Since WAZA had successfully evacuated the facility, there was very little to see: the only movement that caught her eye was that of Geo and Ace, who waited a bit more patiently near the center of the roof.  Ace had yet to Wave Change and was just standing around eating a candy bar; Geo, however, had already activated a Multi-Noise Change in preparation, his helmet having the familiar horns of Taurus but clad in the more vibrant colors of Crown.  Sonia figured she should prepare as well, but she was more concerned at the possibility that she could miss something while transforming.


“Dear, stop for a moment,” Lyra said.  “You’re only going to wear yourself out.”


Sonia slowed, but she didn’t stop.  “He could show up from anywhere with that Noise Wave—we can’t let him catch us by surprise!”


“It’s possible.  It’s also possible that Dealer has kept an eye on the studio, sees that we’ve prepared for them, and called the operation off.”


“Doubtful,” Ace said.  “King wants someone to play against.  If anything, he’s more likely to attack now that we’re onto him.”


Sonia took another look around.


“…Thank you for the contribution, Ace,” Lyra muttered.


Geo gave a concerned glance to Sonia.  He looked off at nothing in particular for a few seconds, and then, with some reluctance, said, “Hey, Ace.  If Joker used to work at WAZA, then you must know him, right?”


“Only a little,” Ace said.  “Even once I started working with Acid, I only met Joker a couple of times—he was never the most social guy there.  Acid’s the one who knows more about him.”


The Wizard materialized then.  “Why is it that you ask?”


“Well,” Geo said, “I just want to try to understand him a little better.  There might be some way to convince him to leave peacefully.”


This time Sonia actually stopped.  She stood there a moment, but then turned and walked back to where Geo and Ace were.


“Highly unlikely,” Acid said.  “Joker is single-minded in the pursuit of his goals.  Once he decides to do something, there is rarely anything that can be done to sway him.”


“Okay, but you say ‘rarely’,” Geo said.  “There were times where he was swayed?”


“Three incidents, the circumstances of which are classified.”


“What?  If there’s something in there that can help—“


“I can share that the key factor in all three was the presence of Dr. Goodall.  However, even if the doctor was here, I do not believe she would be able to change Joker’s mind now.”


“He listened to Dr. Goodall?” Sonia said.  “But why?  When we met him he was going on about how strength is all that matters, and Dr. Goodall…well…”


“Dr. Goodall is a unique case,” Acid answered.  “While Ace’s classification of Joker as unsocial is accurate, the doctor and I are the two notable exceptions to that behavior.  He spent a great deal of time with us, and seemed to enjoy our company.”


Mega huffed, “Why anyone would enjoy your company, I can’t imagine.”


“I see,” Geo said.  “If you spent that much time together, then you must have a pretty good idea of what Joker’s like.”


Acid looked aside.  “In a sense…however, I am not able to comprehensively formulate the type of evaluation you are requesting.  I was not programmed with a working understanding of emotions, and as a result, my inability to ‘judge’ people is perhaps my greatest shortcoming.”


Geo leaned back slightly, saying, “Oh…I’m sorry.  Why…why were you programmed like that?”


“Dr. Vega had a hand in programming Acid,” Ace explained.  “The idea of giving artificial Wizards full emotional intelligence was being hotly debated at the time, and she was dead-set against it.  Said it would cause more harm than good to let them develop a strong attachment to something or someone—that it was programming that was impossible to execute correctly.”


Sonia shifted her weight.  “…I can see why she’d think that.”


“But hey, Acid, you’ve grown a lot since then!  When I first met you, you were straight-up robotic.  Now we can actually have a proper conversation with each other!”


“I appreciate your encouragement, Ace, but there is no need for concern,” Acid said.  “I tend to agree with Dr. Vega’s assessment, especially due to my assigned function of analysis.  Emotions would only complicate my work.”


Ace draped his arm over Acid’s shoulders.  “C’mon, buddy!  You can analyze a situation and still have emotions every now and then!  Developing an understanding of that would even let you to consider a whole new side of things—you were just saying you couldn’t complete the evaluation Geo’s asking about, right?”


“…You may have a point.  However, it is much too late to rewrite my programming.”


“Maybe so, but you’re more than just programming.  I’m positive you can learn!”


Sonia heard a sound and turned sharply.  All she saw was a bird emerging from the trees.  She let out a long sigh, and then glanced around the area again.


“So Acid,” Geo said, “you’re completely sure that there’s no way to get through to Joker?  Even if we could get Dr. Goodall to talk to him?”


Acid nodded.  “He answered to her authority while he was at WAZA.  She no longer has that power over him.”


“I’m sure she still has some power over him,” Ace said.  “After all, she is…”


He trailed off.  Sonia stared at him for a moment before she remembered something.  She opened her mouth to ask, but then she heard another sound, this one far more unusual.  Looking past Ace, she saw a large distortion appear behind the studio—the very same kind she had seen at the school.


“He’s here!” she said, getting ready to transform.  “Let’s roll!”


Dozens of cluster-like Noise Beasts began to pour from the opening.  Geo armed his buster and said, “I’ll draw their attention.  You two flank them when you’re ready!”


He leapt off the roof and opened fire.  Ace took this moment to Wave Change, while Sonia engaged a Multi-Noise with the form of Ophiuca Noise and the colors of Cygnus.  Sonia ran to the edge of the roof; she dropped to the ground, generating a gust of wind on contact to blow away some Noise Beasts, and then rushed in the direction of the distortion alongside Geo.  More Noise Beasts popped out of it, but a salvo of bullets from Ace made quick work of them.  Sonia and Geo lunged towards the opening.  However, just as they were about to reach it, three forms emerged from its depths and pushed them back.  A trio of beasts five times larger than average were circling the grounds when they regained their bearings.


“Seems they brought some heavy artillery,” Lyra said.  “I think we’ll need to focus on this for now.”


Sonia played her guitar furiously as she ran at one of the giant beasts.  A small flock of duck-like creatures appeared around it, harassing the monster into staying still—taking careful aim, Sonia shot a dozen feather-shaped laser bullets at her target, causing it to shriek in pain and turn on her angrily.  She kept her distance as it opened its mouth again: this time, orbs of Crimson came pouring out from its maw, pushing away the ducklings only to float about randomly.  Not thinking much of it, Sonia hurled notes at it from where she stood, realizing a bit too late that the Crimson was shining brighter and brighter.  She crossed her arms as the Noise clusters exploded, the force launching her several feet away before she skidded to a halt in the dirt.


“Should’ve guessed,” she grumbled.


She sat up to see the beast charging at her.  Rolling back, Sonia narrowly avoided its attack, and then spun on one foot to deal a powerful kick with the other.  The beast rolled back, scattering a few of the remaining smaller ones in its wake, and Sonia took the opportunity to summon a few speakers nearby.  As soon as it recovered, the beast spewed forth more Noise.  Sonia made quick work of it with her additional notes, and then adjusted her guitar to fire quick blasts to keep the beast stunned as she closed in on it.  She paused right in front of it and prepared to finish it off with a sound pulse.  The beast’s eyes flashed, so she jumped aside—a focused beam of Noise shot through the space where she had stood.  Sonia put more distance between them, and the fight continued.


Meanwhile, Geo was using a wide flamethrower attack to destroy the Noise generated by the beast he was fighting, at the same time summoning half a dozen Stealth Fighter viruses to encircle it.  They attacked just as it prepared to, leaving the beast stunned.  Geo teleported forward and dealt a mighty, flaming uppercut, cleaving the creature in two.


“Nice one, kid!” Mega said.  “Now, why don’t we—“


“Hang on!” Geo said, leaping backwards.  The two halves of the creature still squirmed about in the air, and soon a face appeared on each one.


“What, seriously?!”


Geo stepped carefully to dodge the lasers the beasts fired, and then teleported aside to avoid one as it charged at him.  The second one, however, took him by surprise, pounding him into the dirt and cutting him with its teeth.  He quickly grabbed the creature and electrocuted it, giving him time to slip away, and then located the other to see it opening wide; he raised his shield just in time to block a laser, and when he raised his buster in retaliation, three powerful fireballs shot out in rapid succession, obliterating chunks of the beast until it was no larger than the standard variety still floating about.  Geo hoped to finish it off, but he had to abandon that as he dodged the remaining larger beast.


While the giant beasts were clearly the most dangerous threats, the smaller ones still remained, and for some reason the majority of them were swarming Ace.  He was able to dispatch each one swiftly, but this left him distracted as the third enormous Noise Beast rampaged around him.  Just as he obliterated a cloud of beasts with a swing of a large axe blade, twice as many appeared in their place, and now he could see the larger one starting to surround itself with Crimson bombs.


“We need to speed this up,” he decided.  “Acid, mind if we blow them away?”


“You may proceed,” Acid said, “but remember why we are here, Ace.  You must conserve some energy to fight Joker.”


“Oh, I won’t forget.  Okay then!”


Ignoring the bites of the tiny creatures, Ace took a wide stance as the armor on his back shifted.  Noise shot out from his fins to propel him forward and an incredible velocity, charging straight through the small beasts, the bombs, and fist-first directly into their larger companion, the explosive wake of his speed enough to dispel those he didn’t make direct contact with.  The Noise Beast bounced off of the studio wall and shook its head as if dizzy.  Ace shot three bladed wheels at it, restricting its movements, and then aimed directly at the beast and fired a single powerful blast.  The target slowly dispersed, and Ace used a Black Hole Battle Card to suck its remains into a small vortex.


“How we doing, Acid?” he asked.


“Stamina holding.  However, it is recommended we engage quickly.”


Ace turned to see Sonia and Geo finishing up their fights as well.  Unfortunately, no one was particularly close to the Noise Wave entrance, and so no one could do anything as it opened wide once again.  This time, only a single figure stepped through it—not a Noise Beast, but one who towered over them just the same.


As soon as she saw him, Sonia bristled in an instant.  She turned and shouted, “There you are, Joker!”


The man regarded her coldly, his annoyed glare easily penetrating the sunglasses that covered his eyes.  He swept the area with this glare, but when it settled on Ace, it took on a different quality as a smile came to his lips.


“Finally,” Joker said.  “It has been too long, brother!  At last, Mr. King has granted me a second chance to save you!”


Ace kept a close eye on Joker as he, Sonia, and Geo regrouped.  “Joker!  You are under arrest!  Come quietly, or we will not hesitate to subdue you by force!”


His words weren’t entirely accurate.  Geo said, “By force?  But, he’s…”


“Don’t you remember what Solo said, kid?” Mega said.  “He fought him without Wave Changing or anything.  Doesn’t sound like someone who’ll bruise easily.”


“I guess…but, still…”


Everyone tensed as Joker took a step forward.  Holding out his arms, he called, “Acid, come with me!  I have found a place where we can do what we were always meant to do, a place that will not deny us our purpose!”


“I have no desire to leave with you, Joker,” Acid said.  “As Ace has said, you are under arrest.  Please come quietly.”


Hearing this, Joker frowned.  He clenched his fists and said, “Think, Acid: you can never truly be content while you are held down by WAZA’s fears!  Dealer will let you fulfill the absolute extent of your design—will let you keep the reason for which you and I live!  Join me, brother!  It is all we could ever want!”


Acid paused.  “Interesting.  You seem to be under the assumption that my desires align with your own.  Tell me: is this the reason why you took a copy of my blueprints when you defected?”


Joker lowered his arms, hanging his head as a sad look came to his eye.  “…It was the best I could do, at the time.  I wanted to take you with me, but I knew that if I tried, those fools would use some trickery to disable us both, and we would only be reduced to even less than we already were.  I had hoped Mr. King would rebuild you, that at least some version of you could live as you ought…but…”


Sonia smirked.  “Weren’t you just saying Dealer is everything you ever wanted?  What happened to that?”


“Sonia,” Geo said, giving her a look that made her feel awfully guilty.


“This does not concern you, girl,” Joker said.  “Acid, please.  I can save you this time—the real you!  I won’t fail you again!  Just come with me, and—“


“That’s enough!” Ace interrupted.  He flicked his blaster, extending a bayonet from it.  “Acid’s not going anywhere, Joker.  Now for the last time: will you surrender or not?”


Joker scowled at him.  “Surrender is for the weak, Arthur.  I will not stoop to your level.”


Ace lunged.  Joker raised his forearm to meet the blade, blocking it entirely.  Sonia and Geo stared on in disbelief.  Ace was stunned as well, but quickly realized he should pull back—though not quickly enough to avoid Joker knocking the wind out of him with a punch to the gut.  He dropped his gun as he collapsed to his knees.


“I will save you, Acid,” Joker said.  As he spoke, a thin aura of blood-red light began to emanate from him.  “I will restore you to who you truly are.”


He grabbed Ace’s head in his hand, lifting the man until his feet dangled inches above the ground.  Ace screamed as Joker’s aura moved to envelop him as well.


“P-Put him down!” Geo said, shakily aiming his buster.  “Let Ace go, Joker!”


Joker ignored him, saying, “Wake up, Acid!  Embrace your purpose, and become who you were made to be!”


“H…how…?” Acid gasped, his voice garbled and faint.  “How are you…hacking my…A-Ace…it…hurts…”


Fury boiled up within Sonia.  She stepped forward to attack, but when she tried to lift her guitar, she found she could not.  Instead, she yelled, “Joker!  If you want to help him, then you’re doing a pretty poor job!  Stop what you’re doing and fight me!”


Ace’s screams continued.  Sonia decided to try to attack again, but that was when she noticed that Ace’s armor was changing.  Normally white and silver, his plating was now taking on shades of black and gray and green, while the red trim changed to a sicklier shade to match the light now enveloping him.  For some reason, the sight filled her with an uneasy feeling.


“What’s happening?  Ace?  Acid?”


All at once, Ace’s screams stopped.  Joker dropped him and he crumpled, resting on the ground with limp limbs and an empty look in his eyes.  Sonia felt ice shoot through her veins.


“Acid?” Joker asked.  “Can you hear me, brother?”


Ace didn’t stir.


“You have all the Noise you need now.  Finalize!  Show the world who you truly are!”


Slowly, Ace looked up at him.  Some relief came to Sonia.  Joker, on the other hand, was looking very surprised.


Geo edged a bit closer.  “…Ace…?”


In a flash, Ace shot to his feet and swung his hand, the blow colliding with the side of Joker’s face and making him stumble back a bit.  He then hunched over, letting his arms dangle in front of him, and, for some reason, made a hissing sound.  For a very long second, no one even breathed.


“Wh…what have they done to you?!” Joker exclaimed.  “They’ve put even more restrictions on you, haven’t they—robbed you of every last bit of your true identity!  How could they—“


He moved quickly, narrowly avoiding another swipe.  His expression then turned to one of horror.


“…Was it…because of me?  When I left, did they fear you might do the same…and so they did this to you?”


Ace just hissed at him, already tensing for another strike.  Joker dodged the attack when it came.


“…I’m sorry, brother,” he said in a pained whisper.  “I’m so, so sorry.  If I had known they would do this to you…”


The entrance to the Noise Wave expanded.  Ace shuffled back away from it, grabbing his head in both hands, and Joker reached for something in his coat.  But then he stopped.  With a heavy sigh, he instead turned to face the portal, taking one last look back at Ace.


“This is not over, Acid.  I will find a way to save you from this life.  I promise.”


He was gone then, and the portal vanished behind him.  Ace hunched over again, twitching as he looked around, seemingly wondering where Joker went.


Sonia tentatively lowered her guitar, that sense of unease not yet abated.  “Ace…?”


Ace whirled, as if he was just now realizing she was there.  He hissed and took a step forward.


“Ace, it’s me, Sonia!  It’s okay—Joker’s gone!”


“What happened to him?” Geo asked.


“I don’t know.  Ace, you can still understand us, right?”


Ace looked down as he bumped into his gun.  He stared at it curiously for a few seconds.  Then, he picked it up, turned, and pointed it at Sonia.




She leapt away just in time.  A blast went right past her, blowing a massive hole in the side of the studio.  Ace snarled and ran at her.


“I don’t think he’s listening, dear!” Lyra said.


Sonia prepared to retaliate, but Geo knocked Ace out of his charge with a few weak buster shots.  Ace spun to face him next, and the boy said, “Ace, Acid, snap out of it!  We’re not your enemies!”


Ace spread his arms wide.  Twin laser beams shot from his shoulders, narrowly missing Geo as he teleported out of the way, but Ace kept firing, carving a trench through the studio grounds.  Sonia brought her hand down on her guitar, sending out a huge gust of wind that interrupted Ace’s attack and sent him rolling away.


“It…it looks like he can’t hear us, Geo,” Sonia said.  “I think we need to hold him off!”


Ace came up on all fours and growled in her direction.  Sonia pointed the head of her guitar, but then she noticed Ace’s armor plates shifting.  She fell to the side as Ace charged past—the Noise trailing in his wake left a cut in her arm.  Ace turned around and raised his gun, but Geo popped up right in front of him and unleashed a flamethrower attack, pushing his foe backwards and giving Sonia time to recover.


“Come on, Ace!” Geo shouted.  “You’re in there somewhere, aren’t you?!”


Ace responded by firing a shuriken from his blaster.  The throwing star buried itself in Geo’s shoulder, shocking him out of his Noise Change; Ace flung Geo back with a swipe, and Sonia shot a stream of feathers at him while he was open.  She jumped high to avoid a wide wave of water, but landed hard when Ace used a series of rapid shots to shoot her down.  Geo sprang back to his feet with teeth clenched.  His arm transformed into a long spear that crackled with electricity, and he rushed Ace with it, stabbing him five times in the blink of an eye and leaving him stunned.  Geo reared back as he prepared to follow up, but then he hesitated.  Ace did not.


As Geo hit the ground again, Mega said, “What’s wrong, kid?  I know you don’t like to fight, but we’ve gotta!”


“I know, but…it’s Ace.”


Ace swung his sword down, and Geo rolled out of the way.


“Okay,” Mega said, “but you can’t let that hold you back!  Can’t you just get mad at him or something?”


Geo glared at Ace as he avoided more attack.  “Well yeah, after what happened with Pat…but…I don’t want to fight him angry!  This isn’t his fault, and his Wave Change is already hard on his body.  It isn’t fair to make that worse just because I’m mad at him!”


Geo teleported behind Ace and made a few quick sword swipes, and then teleported away so Sonia could land a solid kick to his face.  The blow didn’t have much effect, however, and Ace slashed her midsection—shorting out her Noise Change—and then grabbed Sonia by the helmet and drove her into the ground.


“A…Ace!” Sonia said.  “It’s me, Sonia!  You need to stop!”


She froze as Ace pointed his gun directly at her.  Geo came charging in, tackling Ace and knocking the weapon from his hand, and Sonia quickly shot strings to restrain him.  It seemed to work at first, but it wasn’t long before he slowly began to free himself.


“He can’t have much more time,” Geo said.


“Are we even sure the timer’s still active?” Sonia asked.  “What if it got shut off when this went into effect?”


“We should decide swiftly,” Lyra said.  “I don’t think we have much more time either.”


Ace snapped the strings and got to his feet, eyeing Sonia and Geo angrily.  They both raised their weapons as he slowly walked towards them.


“We need to attack,” Sonia said.


“They’re about to separate,” Geo said, “I’m sure of it.”


Ace continued to advance.  Sonia and Geo backed up, still looking ready to attack.




“Just hold on!”


Ace slowly spread his arms.  Sonia raised her hand, but Geo stopped her.




She prepared to dodge as best she could.  But the attack never came.  Ace stumbled about, gripping his head tightly, and then reared back and screamed.  In a flash, his Wave Change evaporated, and Acid materialized in the air next to him.  It took a few seconds, but Sonia and Geo finally relaxed.


“…Good call,” Sonia said.  “Ace?  Acid?  Are you back to normal?”


They didn’t answer.  Both still had the same empty look in their eyes.  The uneasy feeling came rushing back.




Acid hit the ground hard.  A second later, Ace did the same.  Sonia and Geo rushed over to them—Ace was still breathing, if only barely, but there wasn’t really a way for them to check Acid’s vitals.


“This is bad,” Geo said.  “We have to get them back to WAZA!”


Sonia took a quick glance around.  “You take care of the rest of the Noise Beasts.  I’ll call HQ and tell them to send help!”  Geo nodded and went off.  Sonia put a hand to the side of her helmet as she established the connection.  “Mr. Boreal!  We need some help!  Are you there?”


There was no response.


“Mr. Boreal?  It’s Sonia!  We have an emergency!”


Still, nothing.


“…Mr. Boreal?”


The unease slowly turned to panic.  Sonia looked from Ace, to Acid, to Geo, and then tried calling again.  Still, she could not get through.


What do I do? she wondered.  What am I supposed to do?!



Chapter 24



Copper quietly closed the door behind him and made his way across the lab.  As expected, Vega was here: she stood in front of a tiny viewscreen attached to a large, box-shaped machine she had set on a desk, typing adjustments one at a time into the keyboard she had laid out.  He waited a moment before clearing his throat.  Vega’s finger twitched to a halt mid-motion, and she gave a surprised look over her shoulder.


“Oh, detective—forgive me,” Vega said, turning fully.  “I was just doing some further study on the Crimson sample you brought back from Whazzap.”


“Still at it?” Copper asked.  “You’ve been studying Meteor G for so long now, I would’ve thought you’d run out of things to discover.”


Vega gave a short laugh.  “Hardly.  We learned a great deal by interfacing with the Meteor Server, but that was remote, making it quite limited.  The NCPs can generate some, but it doesn’t last very long.”  She gestured to the machine as she continued, “This…a pure sample right in my hands…this is worlds beyond what we’ve had until now, and I’ve only just scratched the surface.”


“I see,” Copper said.  He glanced about.  “Where is Dr. Goodall?”


“She’s lying down at the moment.  She’s been a bit more stressed these past few days, since…”


Copper nodded.  “Understood.”


“…Have you heard anything from Sonia yet?”


“Nothing.  We could be waiting a while.  Hard to be sure, really.”


Vega’s gaze drifted as she hummed to herself.  Looking back to Copper, she asked, “Since Dr. Goodall is unavailable, is there something I might be able to assist you with?”


Copper scratched his head.  “…Well, yeah, actually.  I was wondering about something, and you two are really the only ones who can answer me.”


“Oh?  And what is it that you’re wondering about?”


The detective hesitated.  Eventually, he answered, “Wave Change-capable Wizards.”


Vega frowned.  “Oh.”


“Look,” Copper sighed, “speaking with Mr. Shepar got me thinking again, about having such young kids doing everything on our behalf.  I just want to know if there’s any way to change that.”


“I understand your concern, detective, but I can say nothing you’ll want to hear.  Constructing a Wizard with that functionality takes a great deal of time and resources, neither of which we have in abundance right now—not to mention Mr. Boreal is a bit unlikely to approve of such a project given how our previous attempts turned out.”


“What about modifying an existing Wizard?  Would that take less time?”


The scientist paused, her eyes losing their focus as she ran the numbers in her head.  “…That’s an interesting idea, I’ll admit.  However, I’m afraid that without having ever attempted such a thing, I can’t give a definite answer.”


“But can we try?”


“There are quite a few obstacles.  Mr. Boreal’s approval, of course, not to mention a willing human participant—“


“Why do you think I’m asking?”


Vega glanced over Copper.  “…Detective, if I may be a bit blunt…our incomplete Wave Change would destroy anyone’s body, and for a man of your…well, I think it would destroy your body quite quickly.”


“…Point taken,” Copper mumbled, closing his eyes.


“And aside from that, we’d also need to find a Wizard.  Or did you have someone in mind for that as well?”


“I was thinking about Magnes.”


Vega raised an eyebrow.  “Magnes?  I doubt he would be excited by the prospect.”


“Why not?  He says that he’s lost his purpose in life—this would be a way to give him a new one.”


Turning around, Vega said, “I don’t know…thrusting a new purpose upon him like that—do you think that’s fair?”


“I’m not thrusting it upon him.  I’m just saying we could offer.”


“But he could be so desperate he could accept it without thinking it through.  He could end up just drifting from one duty to the next, never truly doing what he wants, just like Plesio.”


Copper sighed.  “I don’t think he’s in that dire a state.  Besides, Plesio is…adjusting.  I’m sure we could give him a push without there being much of a problem either.”


Vega fidgeted in her pockets.


“Alright.  Well, if you could just give some thought to what I asked about, I would appreciate it.  Do you know where Hyde is?  He was supposed to report in for duty, but he’s late.”


“He is?” Vega asked, checking the clock.  “That’s unusual.  Do you think something’s happened to him?”


“Truthfully, I was expecting to find him here with you.  But, you haven’t seen him?”


“Not since this morning, no.”  She drew out her Hunter and tried to call Hyde.  The window rang for a bit, but he did not pick up.  Vega bit her lip.  “…Usually he at least has Phantom pick up if he’s busy…maybe something did happen…”


“Or Phantom’s just being uncooperative.  I’ll keep looking around, and I’ll let you know when I find him.”


“Thank you,” Vega said, already making another call.


Copper left the lab and made his way back up the hall.  While he wouldn’t say he was worried, he did find it a bit unusual that Hyde would ignore a call from Vega, and that did make him…curious.  He kept his eyes peeled as he walked, and it was that alertness that allowed him to avoid bumping into Magnes as the Wizard rounded a corner.


“Oh, sorry about that,” Magnes apologized.


“Nothing to worry about,” Copper said.  “What are you up to?”


“Huh?  Nothing, really, just…talking a walk, I guess.  I thought a change in scenery might be interesting.”


“Hm…not much of a change, though.”


Magnes stared at the floor.  “Yup.  But, if I’m going to be confined here, then I guess I need to take what I can get.”


Copper thought for a moment, and then said, “Magnes, don’t you think there are ways to enjoy your time here?”


“What do you mean?  I don’t belong here.  I was programmed for—“


“I know, but that doesn’t mean…”  He paused and sighed.  “Honestly, Magnes, I don’t understand why you’re so intent on limiting yourself to that.  Wizards like you are the pinnacle of autonomous programming: you can choose to do whatever you want, even something other than what you were originally created to do, but you keep dismissing that idea outright.”


Magnes shrugged.  “I liked doing what I was created to do.  I had a life that I loved, and it was all taken away from me.”


“And I’m sorry that happened to you.  But you can move beyond that, and start a new life, maybe one you’ll love even more.  You can’t be sure unless you try.”


The Wizard shook his head.  “Well…I’m not really sure if I want to try.”


Copper turned aside, running a hand over his face.  As he tried to think of what else to say, he glanced down the hall, and he noticed light coming from a door that had been left ajar.


“…Pardon me,” he said to Magnes.


He approached the door quietly.  Crouching next to it, he leaned to take a look inside.  The room was cramped and mostly dark, the light coming from a small terminal set in the far wall.  A single Wizard floated before it: he was of a very simple design, the same kind used all over WAZA, and he typed furiously for a minute before leaning back and chuckling to himself.  Copper carefully reached for his belt.


“What are you doing?”


He jumped as he turned to face Magnes, not realizing he had come up behind him.  The Wizard inside the room turned around—cursing silently, Copper barged through the door and drew his weapon, pointing it straight at him.  “Hold it right there!”


The Wizard sneered.  Slowly raising his hands, he said, “What is it, detective?  I must say, you seem rather threatening.”


“Tell me what it is you’re doing,” Copper ordered.


“I was just running a diagnostic on this terminal.”


“On whose orders?”


“On Dr. Goodall’s.”


“Really?  Because Dr. Vega just informed me that Dr. Goodall is resting right now.”


The Wizard didn’t answer.  Copper then noticed a Hunter lying on a desk.


“What’s that?”


The Wizard’s eyes immediately shot to the device, then back up.  “What’s what?”


“Don’t play stupid.”


“Oh, you mean the Hunter?  Well, it’s a Hunter, obviously.  What else would it be?”


“What’s it doing here?”


“It’s…part of the diagnostic.”


Copper waved his weapon.  “Step aside.”


The Wizard nodded.  He floated a short distance to the side, so Copper stepped farther into the room.  Suddenly, the Wizard grabbed his chest plate with both hands—Copper prepared to fire, but when he saw the Wizard prying himself open he stopped.  Something was hidden in a small compartment inside the program, and he wasn’t sure what it was.


“At least I managed to get everything ready,” the Wizard said.  “You should’ve gotten here sooner, detective!”


A flash from the terminal illuminated the Wizard, allowing Copper to identify the item he contained.  It was a card bearing the image of a Coin.  He fired, but Noise enveloped the Wizard faster than he could pull the trigger, and the dense EM waves absorbed the shot.  Taking a step back, Copper turned to a frightened Magnes and shouted, “Go!  Get help!”


He looked back as the Wizard finished his transformation.  His large, humanoid frame was lined in gold-plated armor, all but his eyes obscured by both his collar and the rounded helmet that sat atop his head.  Copper fired more shots, but they bounced harmlessly off their target as he created a large pickaxe in one hand.


“W-What’s going on?” Magnes asked.


“I told you to go!” Copper said, shoving the Wizard back.  “Find someone who—“


Some massive object impacted them both, cutting him off and sending them clattering to the floor.  When his wits returned to him, he saw a large rock lying not far away, and the Dealer Wizard was currently swinging his pick at the terminal.  Sparks erupted from the screen, and the halls turned red as an alarm sounded.


“You know, I’m actually a little glad you showed up,” he said as he stepped out of the room.  “I can’t deal with you as quietly as that showboating screenwriter, so now going back to my typical boring role is out of the question.”


Copper struggled to his feet.  “I should have figured that Dealer’s spy would be as inconspicuous as possible.”


The Wizard shrugged.  “Wouldn’t have helped.  Normally even I don’t know I’m a spy, not until I get activated by the higher-ups.  Let’s me mine as much data as I need without raising any suspicion.”


Magnes was getting up now.  Keeping himself between the two Wizards, Copper said, “I have to admit, that’s a good strategy.  So who activated you this time?  And what is it you’re trying to accomplish?”


The Wizard struck the floor with his pick; in the next second, a wall had formed behind Copper and Magnes, trapping them in the hallway.  He then rested the weapon on his shoulder and said, “No need to worry about that.”


Copper reached back, determining how much space was between him and the wall.  Turning slightly towards Magnes, he whispered, “Magnes.  I’ll distract him, but I need you to get past him into that room.”


Magnes jumped.  “What?!”


“Shh!  Just get the Hunter, okay?  Can you do that?”


More quietly, Magnes said, “I…I guess, but—“


The spy raised his pickaxe, and Copper threw himself forward.  He managed to grab the handle of the pick and push it aside, which surprised the spy a little; with a bit of hesitation, Magnes took the opportunity to run at the room.  Seeing this, the spy reached towards the door, but Copper anticipated this: he jumped and grabbed onto the spy’s armor, and then jammed his weapon into the opening beneath his helmet and fired point-blank.  Unfortunately, when the spy stumbled, he wound up right in Magnes’s path.  Magnes shrieked and backed away.  The spy grabbed Copper and tossed him aside, and then swung his pickaxe through the doorway to create a pile of rubble that almost totally blocked it off.


“Huh…not bad,” the spy said.  “But you don’t have the firepower to stop me!”


His pickaxe struck the floor again.  This time, a burst of hot magma erupted up and surged forward, opening a fissure as it traveled and knocking Magnes against the wall.  Copper kept his guard up as the spy faced him, but he knew there was little he could hope to do.


“You there!”


The spy rotated.  Down the hallway stood Dr. Vega, holding something behind her back and pointing right at him with her free hand.  With a laugh, he said, “What do you want?”


Vega narrowed her eyes at him.  “You’ve done something to Hyde, haven’t you?  I demand he be returned unharmed!”


“And why would I do that?”


“Because I have something you want as well.”  Vega pulled her arm from behind her back, revealing that she held a small container with a sample of Crimson in it.  “Whatever it is you’re doing, losing a spy here will be quite the loss to Dealer.  Perhaps your superior will be less upset if you manage to bring some Crimson back with you?”


Copper eyed the container—it was only a fraction of what they had brought back, but he hoped the spy didn’t know that.  The corrupted Wizard said nothing at first, but then suddenly grabbed Copper by the collar and hoisted him into the air.


“How about this.  You give me that Noise, and I’ll let this guy go.”


“No,” Vega said.  “The deal is for Hyde.”


The spy pressed his pick against Copper’s neck.  “Really?  You don’t care about this one?”


“Not especially, no.”


Copper grunted.  I’m touched.


“…Okay then,” the spy said.  “If you care so much about Mr. Dramatic, I’ll tell you where he is.  But you’re going to give me that Crimson first—and if you try anything funny, I’m going to tear this guy open, and I bet your superiors won’t be very thrilled about that.”


Vega pursed her lips.  “…Very well.”


The spy slowly made his way down the hall, still carrying Copper in one hand.  He and Vega watched each other carefully as they approached, each waiting to see if the other was going to try anything, but soon they were only a step away and the spy came to a stop.  Reaching out slowly, he dropped Copper and snatched up the Crimson.  He took a few steps back to examine it, and then looked back at Vega, chuckling quietly.


“Now,” Vega said, “where is Mr. Hyde?”


The spy raised his pickaxe.  “Nah, I changed my mind.”


Vega snapped her fingers.  Instantly, the Crimson exploded, shattering its container and driving shards of itself into the spy’s shoulder and along the side of his face.  He screamed and threw himself against the wall—Vega grabbed Copper’s arm and pulled him behind her as they skirted the spy and headed back the way he had come.


“I trust you’ve already deduced my assistant’s location?” Vega asked.


“Well, I’ve got an idea,” Copper said as he looked up ahead.


The spy had recovered now, and turned to glare at his escaping foes.  Past them, however, he saw Magnes standing next to the entrance he had destroyed, arms outstretched and glowing as he magnetically pulled the Hunter through the air towards him.  The spy shouted and raised his axe again, but again Vega snapped, and the remaining shards of Crimson burst into even tinier bits.  Magnes plucked the Hunter from the air just as Vega and Copper caught up to him, at which point they took him by the arms and rushed him around the corner.


“Nice job!” Copper said as he took the device.


“Th…thanks,” Magnes said.  “But, why do we need that?”


“He obviously didn’t want us to have it.  And since he mentioned an easy way of dealing with Hyde, I figured he probably meant—“


A tremor rocked the building.  Suddenly, the walls around them shifted, cutting off their path ahead and also giving them a straight line of sight to where the spy stood.  He raised his open hand, and what appeared to be a bundle of dynamite appeared between his fingers.


“Detective!” Vega shouted.


Copper dashed the Hunter against the floor, breaking it into nearly a dozen pieces.  A bright flash of light followed and then, the next thing they knew, Hyde was standing there, Wave Changed and looking very disoriented.


“Urgh,” he groaned, “truly an atrocious experience…I’ve got a nasty review for whoever directed that one.”


Vega’s face lit up.  “Hyde—you’re alright!”


Turning sharply, Hyde said, “Ah?  Oh, Lady Vega!  Have I you to thank for—“


Copper spun Hyde around and pointed at the spy, who was already preparing his throw.  “Focus!”


The fuse on the dynamite became lit as it soared through the air.  Hyde swung his cane and a portion of the wall went dark.  Soon enough, a shadowy hand emerged from it and caught the dynamite, the explosion consuming the appendage but not reaching far enough to harm Hyde or his companions.  When the smoke cleared, Hyde straightened his hat and glared at their foe.


“So this is your true form, eh?” he mused.  “Well I have to call you something, but a simple being demands a simple name…thus I think ‘Gold Miner’ suits you nicely.”


The spy struck the floor to create another magma fissure as Hyde knocked out a wall.  Vega, Copper, and Magnes made their escape through the opening, meanwhile Hyde carefully dodged the wave of flame and went to make his counterattack.  They weren’t far before Vega looked back.


“Should we really leave him on his own?” she asked.


“There’s nothing else we can do,” Copper said.  “I can’t do much more than distract him, and Magnes isn’t built for combat.”


“Up ahead is a weapons lab—we should search for something useful there!”


Copper hesitated.


“I thought you were eager to join to the fight, detective?”


“Fine, we’ll check.  But there’d better be something good!”


They ran up to the door and waited as Vega threw it open.  She took one step inside, and then she froze up.  Copper stepped in behind her and immediately saw why.  On the far side of the room stood Jack and Tia, pendants in hand; Jack turned at their entrance, but Tia did not, for she was too busy pointing a weapon directly at Plesio.


“Great, more of ‘em,” Jack said.  “Sis, let’s hurry and get out of here!”


Tia did not answer, keeping her dull gaze locked on Plesio’s equally dead eyes.  She heard Copper take a step forward, so she did the same.  Copper didn’t move again.


“So it was you,” Vega said.  “You activated the spy to help you escape!”


“Plesio,” Copper said, “are you alright?”


Plesio turned to look at him.  “…I guess.”


Copper nodded, and then turned back to Tia.  “This has gone far enough, you two.  Put down the weapon and come with me.”


“Why the would we do that?” Jack asked.  “You’re in no position to order us around, old man.”


“Stop this at once!” Vega said.  “Why do you seek to continue this battle?  What does Dealer offer you—why would you want to go back there?”


“Who said we’re going back to Dealer?  We’re done with that idiot King, just as soon as—“


“Jack,” Tia interrupted.




“We are leaving,” Tia said, now addressing Copper and Vega.  “If you attempt to stop us, this Wizard will be terminated.”


Plesio turned back to look at her.  Vega said, “Why?  What would you gain from hurting him?  He’s done nothing to you!”


Jack glanced at Plesio, and the PM-ian met his gaze.  The boy shifted uncomfortably.


“You can’t be so cruel you would harm an innocent bystander just to—“


“Doctor,” Copper interrupted.  “…Let’s not antagonize them.”


Slowly, Vega nodded.  Tia raised her pendant, and it emitted a red flash: a Noise Wave entrance appeared behind her, and she tapped Jack’s shoulder as she slowly backed towards it.  Jack’s eyes lingered on Plesio for a moment, but then he jumped through the portal, and in a few seconds Tia was through it as well.  It snapped shut before anyone could even think of following them.  Vega and Copper both let out the breath they had been holding.


Plesio turned to face them.  “Why did you let them escape?”


Copper gave him a troubled look.  “What?  Plesio, if we did anything they were going to delete you.”


“So?  They’re more useful