Chapter 9:



The void was both too dark to see and too bright to look at. Gray shapes colored the rotating white plane while metallic spheres walked a never-ending tightrope around the colorless globe. Roy's blurred fingers couldn't unstiffen, or else the spheres would fall. So he threaded them along, un-phased by the voices bouncing off the gray puzzle pieces that ached to settle into the white backdrop.

One voice stood out above the rest, its weathered drone drawing him right in. "Roy, it's so good to see you again… I know you're taking good care of my wife in my absence."

"Isaac… Baranov?"

"Yes, I'm pleased you remember me. I wouldn't be here without your diligent screenings and guidance."

"I guided you… here? How?"

Issac's voice was pushed out by an effortless entry to the spinning void. "You've never been here before, have you?" The muffled growl in Mika's voice buzzed with the static fluff that blurred his effervescent form.

"You wanna know what this place is?"

"Cyberspace? Inside the tower?"

"Heaven," Mika replied, a shadowed smirk rising like hellfire within the white static.

"Did we… die?"

"Nah, I have a piece of land in hell reserved for when I die," he replied, cackling. "So, Roy Grainger, cyberbrain ID 948770, navi ID 948027, what do you do in Aesthetica?"

"What does it matter to you?" Roy cried, raising his fists which were still knotted inside as he controlled the rolling spheres. "I don't have to tell you anything. I'd rather hear why you're hacking my people into Derangement Syndrome."

"Take it easy," he said with a chuckle. "I'm busy dealing with Ken outside your bubble. I can't do anything to you here, so I thought we could have a little chat. So, what do you do?"

"I'm… an Aesthetics officer."

"So you're well aware of Father Gregory's belief that your dead "join the AI" to assist in your happiness, right?"

Roy nodded, and Mika laughed through his nose. "Well, he's not lying about that."

"You're saying citizens go to cyberspace when they pass… and become navis?"

"Not just your citizens. Anybody with a cyberbrain and a navi. The system's nothing but a vacuum, only they use the dead bugs to sheperd more in. The founders of Aesthetica created the system when aesthetics were first invented, and used it along with The Truth to push an already volatile world over the edge."

"I don't understand… But if you're trying to talk about The Truth, I won't hear it."

"I don't give a shit if you hear it or not… Not like you'd go deranged in here anyway."

"I wouldn't…?"

"Your navi isn't here to flip the switch. This is the only safe place for those of you with navis."

"Flip the… Wait— you just said outsiders have navis too… But you're implying you don't…?"

"I couldn't stand the buzzing," MIka said, pointing his blurred finger at his eyes. "I took it out by force. But after a little peace and quiet another one landed in me. So I got another pair of eyes. But no matter how many times I replace them, the god damned buzzing in my head comes back. And it always will as long as these towers, and the walls of Aesthetica stand."

"Then you're hacking people for the sake of complete destruction… You want Aesthetica gone."

"I want the founders dead," he replied, his muffled growl echoing across the globe. "And the navi system dismantled. If Aesthetica falls in the process, so be it."

"All for your own sake?" Roy asked, his tensed fingers curling as the spheres quickened their pace. "Because you can't handle the voice in your head?"

"You have no idea what it's like to have a navi that isn't configured to serve a citizen of Aesthetica. The millions of navi floating across cyberspace around the world have just two purposes in their programming. To herd the living toward Aesthetica, or lead them to death."

"That can't be…"

"So, no, it's not just me," Mika said, his blurred face inching closer. "There's still thousands of refugees around the world, struggling to survive. Outside Tokyo, the air's too polluted to breathe. They have to contend with that, a lack of food and resources, and to top it off, they have a voice inside their head pitting them against one another with that Truth you're afraid of."

The chatter of the navis battled against the rhythmic rolling of the spheres on their tightropes, and Roy found himself forced to fasten their pace even more. "That… Even if it's true, it doesn't make it right to bring harm to the people inside."

"You're barking up the wrong tree talking about what's right. I already said I got my spot in hell. I don't want salvation. I want a reckoning." His shadowed wisp of a smile curved as far as it could, and the blur around him suddenly vanished. "You want the same thing, Ken. So why are you trying to stop me?"

Roy's gaze shot to the side as a blurred Ken crashed through one of the gray windows and stumbled across the void toward them. "Ken!" Roy cried, unable to rip his hands from the invisible strings attached to the spheres.

"Good job, Roy," Ken said. "You took hold of the tower's defense system inside your own bubble, and gave me time to fend off his attacks. I'm impressed."

"I didn't know I was doing anything, though," Roy said, while Mika scoffed.

"You're ignoring me, Ken? You come back after months and fight against me without an explanation? You're still working on getting past the firewall, aren't you? Rocks is working on his mission, right?"

"Is that true, Ken?" Roy asked. "Were you planning to work with Mika all along?"

"Of course he was," Mika cried, turning his bloodthirsty gaze on Roy. "He's wanted to bring the navi system down longer than I have. He had to watch his own parents turn on each other…"

"He has friends there," Roy replied, matching Mika's expression. "Ken, what about Ellie? Do you want this lunatic to destroy what keeps her safe?"

"Um… can I speak for myself?" Ken said, the blur falling off him like snow from a windblown tree. Roy and Mika turned their expectant gazes on him, and he smiled awkwardly. "Mika, me and Rocks didn't leave to infiltrate Aesthetica for you. Well, maybe Rocks was thinking about it, but the priority was to get away from you. You're so dead set on destruction… You're gonna set the whole world on fire, not just Aesthetica."

"It's already been on fire for years, Ken," Mika growled, stomping toward him. "You're the one that made me see that. YOU'RE THE ONE that pushed me this far." He wrapped his hands around Ken's throat before he could react, lifting him like a crane. "This has all been for YOUR SAKE. For the tears YOU CRIED every night!"

His hands, pressed just underneath the mole on Ken's throat, turned red along with Ken's face. In that instant, all the static that had fallen off the two flashed like lightning through Roy's head. With it, an image of his own hands wrapped around somebody's throat, and the sound of a boy wailing and a whistling kettle.

Roy, listen to me, what happened is nobody's fault.

Let him go, Roy. Everything's going to be okay.

Go to Aesthetica. That's your path. It's a better way for you, Roy.

The static gone, Roy turned his spheres toward Mika as Ken's face grew beet red. "What is it you want now, Ken?" Mika asked, the ink around his eyes trembling. "You want salvation?"

"I want… to grow up." The stifled words barely broke through his constricted trachea, and a tear crawled out of the corner of his eye. "I want to find… a better way."

Mika's eyes grew wide, and his lips curled. Just as he squeezed harder, two spheres closed in on either side of him. Just in time, he threw Ken and dove backward, and the spheres collided with a hollow clank.

"Roy, get them moving again before he takes hold!" Ken gasped.

"I don't need to take hold," Mika said, raising his hands to his sides, his back turned to Roy. "You gave me what I needed. Don't worry Ken, I'll take care of everything myself."

"You're going to blow it from the inside? You'll lose yourself in cyberspace!" Ken cried, the static blur returning to him in flurries while Mika smiled. "Roy, we gotta get out, now!"

"I'm still tied down!" Roy cried, pulling at the spheres suspended above Mika to no avail.

"Remember, move with the hack!" Ken said, and Roy found himself gliding toward the gray puzzle pieces.

"Tower will self-destruct in 3…" a robotic voice echoed throughout the small globe.

Roy, follow my voice!


Roy mustered every knot in his fingers, and focused on reaching for the gray window Ken had crashed through, where the voice of his navi was coming from.


Let's go back to Aesthetica!

A muffled explosion resounded inside the globe, but Roy and Ken were outside, in a city of lights more vibrant that Aesthetica itself. The white globe blasted open while they flew across the blur of lights as if propelled by a jet.

"Follow your navi's voice out of here and then pull me out!" Ken cried, swiping a finger. Roy's eyes closed, and he heard nothing.

Wake up, Roy! You have responsibilities to return to! Come back!

Roy woke with a start, and leapt to his feet before his knees gave out. He staggered, fell into Ken's limp body, and snatched the tablet from his hand. With a gasp, he woke up, and sat up. "What about Mika?"

They turned to find the young man still lying motionless on the rainbow-colored steps. Behind him, smoke frothed where the glass tower should have been, and a woman dragged her mangled leg through the flower bed, pointing a pistol at Mika.

"You failed," Emery grunted, a fire burning her purple eyes to make up for Mika's absence. "But you got me close enough to kill him, so we still win."

A single gunshot pierced the air, and the flowers next to Emery's foot were turned to dust. Emery looked up to find the black-clad woman who'd fallen off her motorcycle readying her rifle with a shaking arm as she descended the steps.

"Next one goes in your head if you don't lower your gun," she said, passing Roy and Ken with a scowl on her way to snatch Mika by his vest.

"Can you hack her, Ken?" Emery asked, staying her aim on Mika.

"No, Miyuki has a strong defense," Ken replied, standing to his feet. Miyuki sneered at him, before glaring at Emery.

"You heard the little traitor. Don't waste getting your red eyes just to lose your life. You're more ambitious than that, aren't you, Commanding Officer?"

A click of Emery's tongue saw her pistol lower, and the clicking of another gun's cocked hammer saw it snap back onto its target.

"Take your sights off my sister and I'll consider letting you live," Akos said, limping down the steps behind them. Miyuki glanced at him, smirked, and focused her rifle's aim on Emery.


"WAIT!" Ken cried, and Roy's fingers stopped shaking as all eyes fell on Ken. "Mika's consciousness is lost in cyberspace. It's the price he paid for blowing up the tower from inside its own defense system. I don't know what it'll take for him to return, but it won't be anytime soon. He's basically in a coma."

"Are you sure, Ken?" Akos asked, stepping alongside them.

"Yeah, trust me," Ken replied. "He's useless like this. In fact, this is where we want him. He can't hack like this, but if we kill him, he'll become a navi. I don't know what he'll be capable of as one, free of Aesthetica's control. It might make him even better at hacking."

Roy leered at Ken, whose eyes were more frantic than his own. "Akos, Emery, I think he's right. I don't want to take the risk of anyone dying here, either. Please, let's just let her take him."

"You don't let the enemy go when you have them outnumbered," Emery said, baring her teeth at the woman who refused to flinch.

"I promise you won't get out of this alive, otherwise."

"Okay," Akos said, taking a step back. "Roy's right. Come on, Emery. Everybody, slowly back away." They all did as he said, while Miyuki defended her position, until they reached the top of the hill.

"Hai!" Ken cried as he rushed to the man lying in the road, his prosthetic arms torn into several pieces. Roy followed, and crouched at Hai's side.

"I'm alright, guys," he said, smiling through bloodied teeth and wincing, his eyebrows swollen and split open. "That girl's no joke."

"You held her off as long as we needed," Ken said with a forced smile. "Otherwise we'd both be toast." He looked at Roy, who nodded. "Thanks, Hai. You did great. Let's get you to the truck."

Only five other men returned to the bridge when Akos pulled up, and they all packed into the truck together for the ride back. Everyone licked their wounds in silence, except Emery, who tapped at her watch in the passenger's seat until a sturdy "Emery?" sounded from a speaker on her watch.

"General Braun, I regret to inform you the towers were all destroyed, and we lost the majority of our forces and equipment. However, Ken Jitsuo and Roy Grainger forced Mika Furuya to resort to blowing himself up in cyberspace to destroy the main tower from the inside. He should no longer be a threat. It's just them, Akos, and a few others, but we're coming home."