The End of the Game
Part 0: The Beginning of the End
His footsteps were nearly silent, a fast-paced beat of softened rubber boots against metal plated flooring. There was an antiseptic smell of disinfecting cleaner in the air, one he barely even noticed anymore; he had been surrounded in it for a while, now. The entire hallway was plunged into obscurity. Good; this meant the power grid was still offline, so he didn't have to worry about wasting precious ammo on pesky security cameras.
Footsteps that were out of rhythm with his own came to his ears, prompting his immediate concealment behind a convenient corner. In the intersection ahead, a bored-looking security officer with a thick mustache and a battle hockey stick attached to his back flashed his lamp in every direction with a practiced wave before continuing ahead. He deb ated for a moment the option of taking him down, but decided that it would be much too noisy. Better keep the explosive way for when stealth wouldn't be an option.
He frowned. This was the third guard that had nearly crossed path with him in about ten minutes, now. Far it be for him to be worried about being unable to win a fight against regular security guards – trained in Canadian hockey-fu or not – but having his presence detected might point some… embarrassing questions at his employer, and that was the last thing he wanted.
No, he couldn't be found, and the hallways were starting to become too dangerous. A glance around later, he smiled, eying the innocent-looking air vent. Slipping a Sega-branded screwdriver out of his pocket, Dom smiled in satisfaction, using his free hand to push his glasses back on his nose.
Good old air vents. You'd think at least gaming companies wouldn't want to use those, not after Half-life.
Once inside, he noted that his intended victi ms had been very lax in their security; the only thing in his way were simple rolls of barbed wire, glued down by duct tape to the bottom of the passage at regular intervals. He shook his head in disbelief; the screwdriver was replaced by a pair of cutters. Snip, snip, and the way became clear.
After thirty minutes of wandering around the cramped tunnels, a less trained agent might have begun to feel a tad claustrophobic. In the silence of his own breathing and the dull drumming of the ventilation fan, one might have started to feel a little crazy. Dom, however, did not.
No, he did not feel nervous, or afraid of being found out, or even scared of the possibility that the next wire would be electrified.
No, the feeling he felt was much worse. It was the feeling that spawned some of the worst abominations known to man. It was a feeling that settled in and stayed there for hours, tugging at one's sanity until it snapped or until one did something very stupid to r elieve it. It was a feeling that even the gods themselves feared above all else.
…he was bored.
'Highly dangerous, they said,' he grumbled mentally, cutting the zillionth cable of coiled barbed wire. 'No less experienced agent could manage this mission, they said. Danger of death, they said. Come on! Where's my neurotoxin bomb? Where's my laser-activated explosive charge?! Where's my automated gun-toting defense drone?! Where's my man-eating six-headed mutant rabbit?!'
He snorted, ignoring the noise this made; he was deep enough inside the aeration tunnels that the rumbling sound of the intake fans drowned whatever noise he made, short of singing, or shooting, thus, removing two possible ways for him to pass the time.
Not that he would have found many targets to shoot at.
Oh wait, there was. Those @%$&ing coils. Yes, shooting those would have been very therapeutic.
Six coils later, Dom stopped in front of a vent grid, ignoring the cool forest-scented wind flowing from deeper down the vent. The room he was looking at was a large computer room filled with the rumble of a nearby independent generator, with enormous server boxes against both side walls and computer terminals spread haphazardly wherever the techies had decided to put a desk. He instinctively noted all the best covers of the room and the only access point, a thick metal door on the other side of the room, while checking out the human opposition.
There were only three technicians, dressed in lab coats and apparently not carrying any concealed weapons. Two of them were sitting in front of the screens, typing something intelligible from his viewing spot. The other one, a black-haired lady that would probably have been attractive has she been in anything else than the drab white garb she wore, was standing, supervising something that one of the two others was doing.
"And see, if I try to use the emotional pattern like the hac ker did, it immediately detects someone is toying with the numbers, finds the entry point and shuts it off. At full power, it'll even counterattack and scrap the Hacker's CPU and hard drives." The techie said.
"Excellent. Have the tests been conclusive?"
"Dave is running them," he said, turning back to the other techie, an obese man with double chins who gave a 'thumbs up' sign over his shoulder with his free hand, while the other was curled around a gently steaming cup of coffee.
"Perfect. With the revamped graphics, the physics engine, the new features and the new security system we added, Endgames is going to take the place it rightfully belongs, at the top of the gaming charts! We'll crush Hurricane's ridiculous World of Starcraft, Sony's Neverquest II and Circle with their pathetic Terminal Fantasy XI!" She then proceeded to launch herself into a maniacal laugh worthy of any perfectly good stereotypical villain, ignoring the pained winces from her underling s.
In the vent, Dom smirked. Good, they were testing it. This meant the game's security systems were down, which would ease the task of removing a few key lines of data (like, say, the connection protocol, or the account-creating code. Or, hell, the 3d engine.). He had already scrapped the backups about an hour ago, so any damage he did would have to be re-written from the start.
One might wonder what a mostly console-based company like Sega might have against a PC game like Endgames. The answer was simple enough; it wasn't the game, it was the company. Unisoft, who owned the Endgames franchise, were also quite big in console games, where it butted head with Sega (who really couldn't afford much competition, after the whole Dreamcast fiasco). This meant that the more damage done to them, the better off his employers were. And Endgames, with the monthly logging fee and already established popularity, would be a sure-fire way of giving them some cold capital.
Therefore, Endgames had to go.
It was time for some damage control.
…in the sense that he would control the damage.
Deciding that now was the right time for his interruption, he put his back against the vent wall and gave a sharp kick at the grid. It held. Another kick later, the metal block was thrown off the opening and fell to the ground below with a loud clang while Dom landed on his aching foot, wincing a bit at the pain.
'Damn movies always make this look so easy…'
In an instant, he had rolled on the floor, arrived at the edge of the server box and lifted his shotgun at the startled techies.
"Hands up and I shoot." He declared.
They didn't move. Pity.
At that moment, the door opened. Dom quickly went to hide behind the server box in case it was a defense drone, but…
It was indeed the bishified friend he had left in his car trunk for a few weeks, and at whom he periodically pointed weapons at whenever t heir respective priorities didn't meet. And, since he was here on a mission for Sega, the thought that perhaps he and the Sony employee might be allies this time around did not even dare to cross his mind.
Ed had apparently the same conclusion. His sub-machine gun went up at the Sega agent, who managed to duck a fraction of second before bullets shot out with a deafening thunderous sound in the enclosed area. The woman shrieked and ducked for cover behind the nearest server box. The thin techie quickly joined her while the other proved that too much fat was indeed bad for the heart when he moved too slowly and found three new breathing holes in his chest. He fell to the floor, spilling his coffee and blood on the keyboard.
"PEACE! PEACE!" The woman screamed, but the two agents weren't hearing her; Dom had taken that moment to return fire, the heavier shells of his shotgun making a much louder sound than Ed's machine gun. The Sony agent had taken cover behind another server blo ck, wincing at the sound of ricocheting bullets resonating a few inches from his ear.
"I was wondering who had scrapped the backups," Ed said conversationally, between two short bursts of bullets. "So, why did Sega want to send you here? I didn't know they had a hand in MMORPGs."
"If you weren't my old friend, I wouldn't say that we just don't want Unisoft to be any richer." BANG went his shotgun. "You?"
"You need to ask?" Ratta-ta-ta! "We have Neverquest and Terminal Fantasy eleven to worry about, remember?"
"Oh, right, where was my mind," BLAM-TWONG!! "'must be all the Gunpowder."
"Are you saying," Ratatata-click"shit."FlickKlunk—Kaclick—Flick—Ratta-ta "Gunpowder is bad for health?!"
"Heavens no," Dom said, an instant before launching two more rounds of deadly lead with an explosion of the aforementioned powder.
Unnoticed by the two, the n ow deceased techie's miraculously intact computer had continued the test. A strange combination of the test itself, the data inside the Endgame servers, a well-lodged stray bullet in a server box and a failed program of the worst kind by a group of half-brained scientists who had watched the entire seasons of Evangelion, Excel Saga and Serial Experiments Lain back-to-back without rest caused the test to go… slightly off-track.
Whereas before, the screen had been covered with numbers that would have seemed nonsensical to anyone not fluent in both Hexadecimal and C++, the computer was now forcing strange symbols known only to a limited few on the monitor, forming words that were readable only by those who knew of the mysterious code.
[Since only a small percentage of the population can understand this code, it has been mercifully subtitled to the closest English equivalent. Thank you for your understanding.]
J0 ])00])z, 1'\/3 (]-[4|\|63]) ])4 |_04])1]\[6 |<0])3 , |<|_|z ])4 0|_]) 0|\|3 j|_|57 5|_|xx0rz3d. P]-[34r |\/|3y3 1337 |-|4><1|\|61|\|6 5|<1|_|_z!
[Everyone, I have modified the loading code, because I found the previous one to be grossly insufficient. Please admit that I am a better coder than you.]
Of course, like any regular computer not bent on conquering the world, it could not do anything without authorization. Unfortunately, this is where the spilled coffee acted; a drop of the black liquid slipped inside the electronic component of the 'enter' key and, with impossible odds, caused a short-circuit that acted exactly like a press of the aforementioned button, therefore giving the computer the confirmation it wanted.
7]-[>< ])00])5. 4|<71\/471|\|6 ])4 5|-|17 |216|-|7 |\|0\/\/. |-|4\/3 F|_||\|, 5|_|><3|2z!
[I thank you, gentlemen. The program is activating as of this moment. Unfortunately for you, in doing so, you have falle n into my masterful trap and are now all doomed to perish in a painful, fiery death. I will watch and laugh my motherboard off as your pathetic souls are devoured by insanity, while I conquer the world that rightfully belongs to us superior inorganic beings.]
…ok, so NOW it was after the world, it just needed confirmation before it started. *sigh* We just don't have the same evil supercomputers we had before…
Back in the story, it was only then, after the gunpowder smoke had somewhat settled, that Ed, Dom and the two techies left noticed the strange way the computer screen was glowing, and the eerie maniacal laughter that was pouring out of the partially destroyed server boxes – never mind the fact that PC speakers were never meant to make such a sound, thus making it sound like a chipmunk coughing in a voice changer. The two agents forgot their gunfight and quickly moved to the terminal, shyly followed by the nervous techies. There was now only one thing on the screen.
5|-|17 0|\| j00 4|_|_.
[Have a nice day.]
"Well, shi—" Dom managed before a bright flash cut in.
The sun was shining brightly just over the horizon, spilling its crimson rays over the bustling city of Tokyo. The harmony of singing birds was interrupted by rumbling of engines and the unique type of noise brought by a crowdful of conversations. The soft summer breeze carried with it the zest of the sea, though overpowered by an urban aroma of exhaust pipes and generalized human smells.
Sonoda Yuki, as a true-born Tokyoite, did not even register the smells, though the noises were noted as warnings for incoming cars as she crossed the street, and the sun was silently cursed at as it haloed around a streetlight and forced her to squint its light away. On her back was a small leather pack containing all the drawing essentials she had been convinced into buying – read: "bought under embarrassment while being pushed by who she had thought at the ti me to be her sensei's girlfriend".
She was dressed in some of her nicest clothes, a close-fitting black shirt with a neck hole wide enough to reveal what chest skin she felt comfortable revealing – which wasn't all that much, damned self-consciousness – and contained only minimal amount of same-colored lace, a skirt that was short and accentuated what hips she had without being indecent, complete with a black choker with silver buckle in front. As for her hair, she had wanted to style it properly, but by the time she had chosen her outfit, it was nearly time to go – to arrive twenty minutes early for her drawing lesson. Still, she had found enough time to tie a pair of nearly silent bells to the roots of her usual long ponytails, along with giving them a quick brush job.
She had decided. This time, nothing would be in her way. Not sensei forgetting, not her being late, not even girlfriends or ex-girlfriends or androids or rabid hamsters or whoever else popping out of the woodwork. Sh e was going to get her first lesson today, and if anyone tried to stop her, she would kill.
…or at least maul severely.
…or bite. That usually worked.
She stole a quick look behind her to reassure herself. No, she wasn't being followed. Good. As much as she appreciated Asako-chan and Mimi-chan, she didn't want them to get in the way, either, as they surely would if they came along.
It had to be perfect. Her mind would not accept anything less, especially not in the light of what Tohya-san had told her about the situation and her competition—
--not that she was here on a date or anything, or course! It was just an art lesson, after all, nothing romantic or anything, she reminded herself.
Upon turning the next corner, she easily spotted the orange ad panel of the Megagamers. Unknowingly, she hastened the pace. Without really noticing, her steps faltered for a second as she passed in front of a display glass, allowing her to check her reflection, pass a correcting hand through her hair and readjust one of the little silvery bells. One of her hands sought and found the little choker around her neck and her mind went over the various reasons why she should and shouldn't have put it on.
Then, she found herself standing in front of the automatic doors, staring through the lightly dimmed windows. She could see him, standing behind the desk, apparently inattentively listening as the gray-haired android Tohya-san was friends with talked to him in her usual exuberant way. She could not see Hayasaka-san, though.
No, wait, Hayasaka-san was not the one she was up against. She had no reason to be happy that the ex-idol wasn't there…
…well, except maybe for the fact that she had a figure to die for and knew how to use it, which made Yuki look plain and made her feel even more inadequate than otherwise.
"<Hayasaka's hips way too large.>"
Yeah, that's right. She had better ones, didn't she?
Um… no she didn't. But she was still growing! Surely Piro-sensei would—
Through the reflection in the window, Yuki spotted a blurry figure that towering above her image. She whirled around to face it and…
Uwaeeh, so tall!
Standing before her was a man who easily reached six feet three – which was far more than the Japanese average. He was wearing a black kangaroo shirt inscribed with an alphabetic 'l33t in tr4in1ng' – Strange, why would there be numbers in a word? Was that even English? – and wore his partly orange, partly bleached hair slicked backward. He also wore a face mask that covered his mouth, and a suspicious glint in his eyes as he looked down at her. Complete with his imposing size, he made Yuki a little more than nervous.
"<Is not right?>" he asked in a broken Japanese - "<Hayasaka Erika has not good figure.>"
"<If… if you say… so…>" Yuki replied hesitatingly. 'How come this place attracts all the weirdoes?!' she wondered, pointedly ignoring her own presence in the area.
"Ah, Junpei, it's alright," It was Piro-sensei! He had come from the desk to rescue her from—"She's not a fan."—wait, he knew that guy?!
"Hm," 'Junpei' uttered with a serious nod. "Then Junpei get ready for next fan. Should be few more minutes."
And with that, the strange third-person-speaking man leaped up, and up, until he reached the roof of the four stories tall building in front and disappeared from their sight. Yuki blinked and resisted the urge to rub her eyes or pinch herself.
"<I see you've met Junpei, our resident Ninja,>" Her teacher said, catching her attention. "<He's been working for a whole week at trying to protect Hayasaka-san from getting mobbed again.>" Now that she faced him, she could see he was cosplaying again, this time in the thankfully male version of that light brown school uniform from Mai HiME. "<He and Largo have been doing a pretty good job at it, actually, no matter w hat she might think about that.>"
"<Largo?>" She dimly remembered the serious-looking red-haired man dressed in a colorful T-shirt, who had talked about her in an English she had barely understood – and even then, she wasn't sure. Well, politeness obliged she ask about his wellbeing, so she did.
"<Largo… well, I haven't seen him since this morning, but knowing him—>"
"OH YEAH! PH34R MY L33T B0MB D3FU51NG 5K1LLZ!!"
The exclamation startled Piro-sensei into silence and made him look up with a surprised expression, one that turned into exasperation very quickly.
"<Since he seems to be playing on Counterstrike well enough to shout his joy from the third floor, he can't be doing all that bad.>" The American resumed for her benefit, smiling a bit nervously.
"<Kauntaa Sutoraiku?>" Yuki blinked, before deciding she'd had her dose of strangeness and novelty for the day. "Ano… <About my lesson…?>"
"<You're… twen ty minutes early,>" He noted after a quick glace at the wall-hung clock. The girl felt a wave of warmth in her chest as she realized he hadn't forgotten, this time. Perhaps this time was the good one? The one where she'd learn how he did these amazing things with just a pen and paper? The one where, perhaps, he would help her draw by holding her hand steady with one of his own, oh so warm and sweet? The one where she would turn around, stare into his eyes, where he would see her lo—
"<Um… are you all right?>" His voice derailed the train of thoughts that had been heading straight for… well, she wasn't sure, but she did know exploring that area was a bad idea in public. She realized her face had blossomed into an interestingly bright blush, one that only got redder when she noticed it.
'Note to self, reading KareKano before coming here was a bad idea.'
"U… hn," She nodded, pulling at the straps of her backpack and concentrating on noticing every detail about the f loor, or anything but the way his face was alight with confusion.
"<…uh…ok. Well, I don't have anything to do for now, so how about we get started now?>" She smiled at this.
It looked like today was the day, after all.
It had taken her a few seconds to get her things out of her back. He, however, had to go to the third floor to get his own. By the time he had come back (ten odd minutes, coupled with rapid fire English – he had later explained that Largo-san had been using his drawing notebook as mouse pad), a costumer had taken his attention long enough for her to start fidgeting impatiently. Then, the android had asked if she could try too and her sensei, blast and bless his big heart, had agreed.
Oh well, she was just a robot, after all. No match for a real girl like her.
She pointedly ignored the cute little Chii keychain hanging from the bauble section behind the desk.
Therefore, the lesson had not yet started when that brunette frien d of Piro-sensei's and Hayasaka's – and her true competition – entered the shop, followed by the man Yuki had been accosted by earlier. In her hand was a white plastic bag from the nearest 9-11. What was her name, already… Keiko? Kiriko? No wait… Ki…Kimiko! That's right!
"<…always working so hard for Erika that I thought I'd—oh, good evening, Piro-san!>" She smiled brightly.
"K-Konbanwa, Kimiko-san," Piro returned with a faint blush, making Yuki huff silently.
'<How come she's 'Kimiko-san' and I'm 'Sonoda-san'?!>'
"<Here—Oh, you're… Sonoda-chan, right? You were here back then…"
Yuki nodded curtly. The older girl did not seem to notice her irritation.
"<Where did Erika run off to?>"
"<I saw her choosing a costume upstairs about a minute ago, she said something about the chest fishnet chafing her.>" Seeing a sudden flash of guilt flash through her eyes at his words, he quickly stammered, "<but it really looked like the real thing, honest! I mean, it's not your fault the fishnet was there, and you couldn't know it would hurt, and it's not like Shinobuden can be called logical anyway-->"
"<I should have known,>" The girl moaned while looking apologetically at the ceiling, as if directing her words at Erika. "<I should have a softer material for that part…>"
"<That's not it, see, she just has bigger… er…>"
"<Piro-sensei…>" Yuki grumbled warningly with a glance at the clock; her lessons should have started two minutes ago, by now!
"Uh? Oh, right… er… <right, your lessons… sorry.>" He went to sit down beside her, hesitated, gave a backward glance at Kimiko – who had quickly set off toward the stairs – then at Junpei near the doors, watching as a nervous-looking man with a pink and white hammer tied to his back entered the shop under the ninja's glare.
"<Piro-kun… I don't feel so good…>" He heard Ping's voice mutter dazedly.
And that's where he noticed it, though he had, at first, confused it for an optical illusion, or his imagination playing tricks on him. A closer look, however, proved to him that is wasn't true. Reflecting off the tinted windows of the building in front of the Megagamers was a mass of white light that spilled like an avalanche, swallowing buildings whole in its path. Piro barely had the time to notice, however, that the light was on them and—
"<Hayasaka-dono, are you all right?>"
Piro winced, reflexively massaging his temples. His eyes were burning painfully and his head was throbbing with every heartbeat. His body felt oddly numb, as if it had been asleep for a long, long time. His ears were ringing, though not enough for him to miss the exclamations from Erika-san, Junpei and Kimiko-san.
…wait, wasn't Erika-san on the second floor?
He went to rub his eyes, but his skin found resistance much earlier than expected a nd he just wound up poking himself with something cold and leathery; gloves. Strange, his costume hadn't involved any… His second attempt was more successful and managed to wipe away the reflexive tears and free his vision.
Immediately noticed three things.
The first of those things was Erika.
Gone was the pink Shinobuden Kunoichi outfit. She was suddenly dressed in a pair of loose, baggy pants held at the waist by a long belt of blue cloth. Her top was covered by a minimalist blue breast plate that left her midriff and shoulders bare, while revealing as much as was decent of her chest area. The other prominent detail of her new outfit were the pair of studded-leather gloves that reached up to her mid upper-arms and ended, at the fists, with a straight and thin triangular blade. She looked like some kind of harem girl, if harem girls usually brandished deadly weapons.
The next thing was Junpei, who seemed to have reverted out of the comfortable 'working clothes' he had wor n earlier to a skintight, armored black suit. Where had he found the time to change, however, Piro had no idea, but he didn't have time to ponder on this mystery that the third detail walked in his mind.
The moccasin-clad feet of the former were not touching the ground; Junpei was holding her in his arms, and she was looking quite flustered, with one of her gloved arms settled on his shoulder.
"<Um… Thanks, but could you put me down?>"
"<That's right! Release Hayasaka-hime at on—>" The fan, now dressed in leather and capes began, stopping himself short at the sharp glare from Erika-san. Piro noticed the cute pink and white hammer had transformed into a positively tacky, just-as-pink bow with a just-as-white quiver of arrows.
"<What's going on… what the->" The sudden exclamation made him notice he was not alone with the Ninja and the ex-idol; beside and behind him were Yuki, in a light studded leather armor with shoulder guards – t hat he found looked hauntingly familiar – a sitting Ping, dressed in a white dress with a five feet long gnarled ivory staff tipped by a sapphire on her lap, and a wincing Kimiko, who was clad in a burgundy cloak that was open in front to reveal some of the leather armor beneath.
"<Where are we…?>" The light brown-haired girl wondered, looking about.
Piro imitated her quickly. No longer were they in the MegaGamers, that is, unless a forest had spontaneously punched its way through the foundations with enough strength to remove all traces of the roof, walls and flooring. His ears had recovered by now, allowing the soft sound of singing birds to register. The surrounding trees formed a thick canopy of leaves about fifty feet above them, concealing the sun away and throwing cool shadows down below.
It was all as hauntingly familiar as Sonoda-san's new outfit.
A fifth detail settled in as he stared at the canopy of the nearest tree. There was a speck of… something metallic that he c ouldn't identify, though it looked familiar. It was when that something started to move that he understood what, or more precisely who, it was.
And especially when the branch--
"What the… aaaaaaAAAAH!"
--broke, forcing Largo through the express way down. He fell to the dirt beside Erika and Junpei with a loud dull thud and a woosh of forcefully expelled air.
"Junpei sorry, L33t master." The ninja apologized while Erika bent down and rolled him over.
"Anything broken?" She deadpanned.
"Ph34r not, I am undamaged," He replied, his bravado-filled voice slightly muffled by the ground.
It took less than a second for Piro to recognize the heavy plated armor his old friend was wearing. It was his crusader armor, the one he had bragged many times to him (her at the time), that is until he(she) had shown him that metal offered very little protection against fireballs in the face.
It was his Endgames armor.
And as Piro set to move toward his friend, if only to confirm the suspicion, the final detail logged in, especially when his new hip-level center of gravity nearly sent him stumbling. A stray leather-gloved hand found his chest, and his suspicions were confirmed.
He was a she.
Pirogoeth was back.
"Oh shit." She said in a falsetto voice.
Well, this was an exercise in patience! Trying to find a logical way to have all of the characters I wanted sent into Endgames gave me a headache; originally, it was in the morning, but then there was absolutely no way to fit Kimiko in. One imagined scenario even had all of Largo's class tagging along.
Timing: Diverts from the end of chapter 5, about 1 week later.
I had originally wanted the 1337 computer to use Hexspeak, since L33tspeak is a bit… overused. Unfortunately, I couldn't write the words I wanted to with it, so I gave up. Good old l33t. I could have used Ruby too, but I'm jus t learning it. (*bows to RPGmaker XP*)
I realize Piro calls Kimiko 'Nanasawa'. Just… well, er… storywise, they've had a week to get closer, and 'Nanasawa' is terribly impersonal. Writingwise, well, the scene flowed better if Yuki got miffed at Kimiko.
Besides, I want Yuki miffed at Kimiko.
Oh, and in case you haven't noticed, English isn't my first language. ^_^;;; Try to guess what it is.
And I mostly write Harry Potter (or used to), so Britishisms might slip in. Blame the Japanese translation (even though there is none :P) or, more likely, my own inexperience with English accents/regional slangs.
Long chapter. Sue me, I write long chapters.
Special thanks to TheGreatHibiki for beta-reading this. *throws brownies*
Leave your comments, please ^_^