Chapter 43:


Red-Black Course

“And that’s what happened,” Zain concluded. “What do you think?”

On the other side of the screen was a pondering Jack. The man had prepared himself for a wild story coming from a supposed scheme from his former workplace, but hearing about someone who could even match their greatest creation in a one-on-one situation was not something that he could predict.

“This Leo that you speak of… is he really just a freelance contractor?”

“That’s what he told me,” Zain answered. “And that’s all I have.”

“What about you… Michael, isn’t it? Didn’t you hire him before?”

Sitting next to Zain was an equally stumped Mike. “Yeah, but we had an agreement to never talk about each other. Honestly, I don’t even know how you managed to know that about me.”

“You might be well above average for someone your age, but your cover work is not as clean as you thought it might be,” answered Jack with a smirk. “Think of it as advice from someone with experience.”

“Didn’t Zain tell you about it?”

“Nope, not a word from me,” the young man quickly denied the claim. “But if he can’t even track you, then I seriously doubt the Infinite Prison’s officers.”

“I’m both flattered and humiliated. Your words cut deep as always,” Jack let out a half smile once more, but soon retracted it as the group returned to the topic at hand. “But I digress. The fact that neither of you has any lead about our current opposition is a threat in itself.”

“I have a guess though,” Zain replied, “but this is just speculation on my part.”

“Let’s hear it, then.”

“Do you happen to remember anyone… particular during your years of being a warden?”

The question was roundabout, but the meaning was clear as day. And to which, Jack only answered with a shake of the head:

“Impossible. You’ve seen the Course’s logs, right? You’re the first – and as far as I know, only successful experiment. Unless there’s another hidden entry that I can’t access with my rank, there shouldn’t be anyone else with the same capabilities as you…”

At this point, Jack suddenly hesitated. Shifting his eyes around as if realizing an important matter that he had missed, the former warden only continued with an unsure tone:

“That is… throughout the time I was there.”

“So, you’re thinking the same as me,” Zain nodded. “It’s been a year since I escaped. Even if you were still there for another while before being fired, I’d say it’s around… a couple of months at most?”

“Around two or three months, yeah. If we factor in this delayed time, then it’s not impossible, but…”

“Still highly improbable, right?”

“Exactly. Remember, Zain, your complete training took seven years. This is around ten months, at the very most. There is just no way that someone is ready by just that much time.”

“Then what else could there be?” Zain asked. It wasn’t so much to question back Jack’s deduction, but rather a frustrated sound of defeat.

“… I have another theory,” this time, Mike was the one who answered. “What if Leo’s just an NLS player?”

“You mean an ex-pro?” Jack questioned.

“Or a pro. But an ex-pro is more likely, yeah.”

“Why ex-pro?” Zain asked with a confused look. “Wouldn’t a pro be more likely, considering his skills?”

“Because a pro would catch too much attention,” answered Mike. “Imagine if someone like Messeo would suddenly disappear from the scene for a couple of days, and then reappear in this who-knows-where of a town. The populace would go crazy.”

“Isn’t that why he’s wearing a helmet?”

“Exactly,” nodded Mike. “That getup of his will just cause more eyes to gather towards him, especially in broad daylight. It’s the basic disguise rule for celebrities: the more extravagant your look is, the more likely you’ll be busted.”

“It’s not without basis,” Jack nodded in agreement. “If one wanted to wear a disguise as a celebrity, then something plainer, or better yet, the same kind of holographic disguise as Bruce is using would be miles better than just putting on a helmet and a leather outfit.”

“But would an ex-pro be able to pull those kinds of stunts that he did?” Zain retorted.

“It’s not likely, yeah,” Mike admitted, “but combining everything we have together, then the ex-pro theory seems to be the most likely.”

The scene went silent for a moment before Jack continued with a shake of the head once more. “… I wouldn’t put it past that just yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“These are all just our conjectures. Maybe the truth is just a lot simpler than we thought, and he’s a trained assassin from somewhere.”

“An assassin, huh…” Zain mumbled. Only now did he realize that he had never thought about the possibility of Leo being after his, or anyone else’s for that matter, life. Though he did not say it out loud, he knew that it couldn’t be true. Leo, as much as Zain hated to admit it, had more skill than he did by a wide margin. Zain couldn’t believe that a simple assassin could control his bloodlust and temper enough to deliver those decisive, yet completely non-lethal swings.

“Argh, I can’t take it anymore!” In the end, Mike scratched his head in frustration as the boy stood up from his chair. “Let’s just hack into the tournament’s database!”

“Don’t be rash, Michael,” Jack immediately shut down the idea. “The tournament’s server is the same as the Infinite Prison’s database. Even if you managed to hack it, the resulting IP tracking program would pinpoint your location with ease.”

“Then we go analog! I have an old flash drive that we can copy the data from, and the machines hooking to the helmets should have a power outlet fitting it!”

“That would take care of the tracking problem, but how are you going to…”

Jack stopped at this point, because he knew what the boy was going to suggest.

Zain noticed it too, and that was enough for him to let out a sigh of defeat. “Leaving the heavy work for me again, eh?”

“I’ll provide support as always, of course!”

As night fell, the once crowded and exciting stage for the tournament also came to a stop. However, it was only the outer appearance, for within that darkness of the night, a lone shadow lurked around.

Zain, back in his Bitleo suit, easily got past the initial security cameras. His black outfit had already been a challenge to detect at night, let alone his new Camo Mode that masked even his heat and scent. The suit, or rather, Zain’s imagination had also been expanded as well, with the nanobots not having to dissolve and create a barrier around him anymore. This time, the full suit stayed on, and it only made a camouflage layer sticking close to Zain himself.

“What’s next on the menu?” The young man spoke to the listening device on his helmet.

“Robot guards at three o’clock,” answered Mike. “Here’s the exact map.”

As the holographic image showed itself on Zain’s helmet, it showed a plethora of red dots running in all directions. However, just as Mike said, the most crowded spot was indeed to the east, where at least a dozen of them gathered.

“Calculating the optimal path…” Mike continued on the other side. “Done.”

“Got it. Combo Mode: Camo Move.”

As the words left his mouth, Zain’s armor transformed once more, this time growing the same rollerblades he had before, when he was chasing Mike’s drones. It was a new function that he had thought of: by combining features unrelated to each other, Zain could add more functions to an already flexible Bitleo to fit any situation he could. It still had its limits, of course, but for now, a faster movement combined with the ability to stay invisible was a godsend.

Zain zipped through the lines of robots with ease and made his way towards the lines of NLS devices. Scanning through the various helmets once more, he called out to his partner:

“You sure that it’s the same one?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Mike. “Leo always picks the last one, number 512.”

“Okay. Just gotta plug this thing in and we’re good to go.”

Zain took out the flash drive from his back pocket. True to Mike’s words earlier the day, it was the same kind of plug as the power source from the helmet, meaning that getting the data they needed was child’s play. The flash drive soon blinked a quick red light before turning green itself, signaling the completion of the transfer.

“Got it. Now…”

Before Zain could be too happy with his work, however, another figure had somehow managed to sneak behind him. Their motive wasn’t to go for a sneak attack, however, but just to take the flash drive out of Zain’s hands.

“What the…”

Following the astonished question was a slow clapping sound from the helmet man before him.

“Good work, Hero,” said Leo. “You even managed to get past all of this extra security that guy set up.”

“What are you here for?” Zain asked, readying himself into a battle stance.

However, his opponent showed no signs of retaliating himself. Instead, a sudden spark ensued behind the two of them, and soon enough, a faint smoke began to rise.

“That’s all of them,” before Zain could even begin to question, Leo had already let out a smirk. “The security cameras, I mean.”

“What’s your goal here, contractor?”

“It seems like you’ve been misunderstanding me for a while, so I come here tonight to explain myself,” Leo let out a hidden smile.

“What kind of misunderstanding?”

“I’m your ally, Zain,” for the first time, Leo addressed Zain by his real name. “Take it as you will. And… prepare yourself for the finals.”

“Wait, what do you mean…” once again, the mysterious contractor had excused himself before Zain could ask for any more information, leaving the young man with a pile of unanswered problems on hand.

However, not all was lost.

“Did you get all of that?” Zain tapped on his earpiece.

“Everything recorded,” Mike nodded. “The scans from your helmet and recorder should be able to analyze if his words are true, too.”

“Good. We’ll crack that helmet of his even if it’s the last thing we did.”

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