The ghost of Kaiba Land sat between the claws of a Blue Eyes White Dragon statue, eating a hot dog.
A close observer might have noticed that when he bit it, his teeth passed through it without meeting any resistance, and that he didn't appear to be chewing or swallowing it.
Noa really was a ghost, just a technologically enhanced one. After all, he'd been dead for years, and even with all of his constantly upgraded hardware and software, he still had to be careful about bumping into people so that they wouldn't realize that there was something fundamentally not there about him. Even he wasn't really sure how much of his original self was left, and how much had gotten lost in a maze of file transfers and part replacements.
He should have been dead twice over: once in the original accident, and again when his file had been erased. The only thing that had saved him was his father's paranoia, which had led him to create an automatic backup, and had put it in a place even Noa himself didn't know about and couldn't access. One of Seto's technicians had found it by accident, marveled at its size and complexity, and brought it to Seto's attention. Seto had been the one to work out what it was, had moved the whole file to a stand-alone server with a version of his virtual world software running on it, and booted him up. Noa suspected that Mokuba had probably talked him into it, but he'd never wanted to ask. He felt he was probably happier not knowing.
At least now he wasn't confined to a server anymore. Over the course of months, Kaiba had used a complex combination of park schematics, cameras, sensors, and the latest innovations in Solid Vision technology to give Noa an almost physical presence. He could walk around the park. He could see, hear, and to some extent, feel and even smell everything going on around him. Inside his server, he had absolute freedom - he could control the world with little more than an effort of will. He could ride a unicorn, walk on the ceiling, fly to the moon, or eat his weight in chocolate ice cream. Nothing was impossible for him. In the park, though, Seto was king and he'd laid down rules. Noa couldn't walk through solid objects. He had difficulty gripping things, though he could sometimes carry them short distances if he concentrated very hard. He got "hungry", and when he did, he could only produce food that could be purchased on the park grounds, and then only in limited quantities. He felt something like pain if he collided with a solid object too suddenly. Most of all, he could never set foot beyond the gates of the theme park. His contact with the real world began and ended within the confines Seto had set up for him.
It had been years since he'd first started coming here. He knew every inch of the grounds by heart now, knew all the staff by name, and had ridden the rides countless times. He should have been completely bored of it by now, and ready to retreat back to his box where things were constantly changing.
That was the last thing he wanted to do. The world inside his server was limited by his imagination. Nothing there could ever surprise him, much less hold his interest for very long. Here, at least, he could observe the endless little dramas of humanity - the courting couples, the children throwing tantrums, the thrill seekers, the birthday parties. He'd developed a knack for finding lost items and returning stray children back to their parents. He sometimes offered translations to confused tourists. They might have been small things, but they were real, and they kept him at least a little bit human.
The theme park was his home, his refuge, his sanctuary, his escape, and his prison, and it never felt more like all of those things than the moment when the park started closing down for the night.
Noa sat on his statue, finishing the last of his virtual hot dog, with his eyes fixed intently on the front gate.
"G'night, brother!" Mokuba shouted over his shoulder.
"Don't stay out too late," Seto warned, which was the same thing he always said.
Mokuba flashed a smile at his big brother and rushed out the door, still only half inside his jacket. He was running late tonight, and he knew that Noa would be waiting for him.
The sun had already gone down by the time he reached the gates to the park. The night watchman waved to him as he let himself in through the staff door. This had been his nightly routine, every night since Noa had first been installed in the park. At first, it had been mostly about making sure that Noa was settling in comfortably, that he wasn't encountering any glitches, and that he hadn't been panicked by the sheer number of people around him. After that, it had gradually become a matter of mutual enjoyment. Mokuba liked having another boy around of his own age, one he could spend time around without any fear that his eyes would start glazing over as soon as he started talking about computer coding or market shares. Being a corporate vice president was all very well if you were thirty or forty, but it made high school life a little awkward. When everyone else was talking about the latest TV shows and what the school soccer team was doing, slipping and starting to talk about investments tended to get some odd looks. Never from Noa, though. He'd been raised on that sort of thing. Not only did he not get bored with it, he understood and offered constructive advice about it. Besides, he was one of the few people still willing to play CapMon with him, and that was a rare and special thing. Spending time with Noa had become one of the high points of his days.
Tonight, though, there was something more on Mokuba's mind than just socializing.
He found Noa waiting for him at their usual meeting spot, between the feet of one of the stone dragons that guarded the entrance to the park. His face lit up when he saw Mokuba approach, and he vaulted down from his perch.
"What took you so long?" he asked.
"Just testing some new hardware Seto and I have been working on," said Mokuba. "I'll tell you all about it later."
Noa nodded. "All right, but you'd better not forget."
"I won't," Mokuba promised. "But first things first."
"Well, what are we waiting for, then? Let's get going already!"
He turned and dashed off, without waiting to see if Mokuba was going to follow him. Mokuba just smiled and trotted after him. Noa could be imperious sometimes - a lot of the time, really - but you had to expect that from someone who had spent years as the god of his own personal universe. That was all right - not even Noa could match Seto for imperiousness. He had the ego, yes, but not the experience with flaunting it in front of other people. On the whole, it mostly made him more endearing rather than less so, like watching a small puppy attempt to intimidate a larger dog.
Besides, nothing trumped the fact that every time he walked through Kaiba Land's gates, Noa smiled as if all his fondest hopes had been realized. You couldn't get too angry with someone who reacted to you that way.
They raced through the park together: two boys, one set of footfalls. The rules were simple: by day, Noa wasn't allowed to interfere with the normal operations of the park, not unless there was some sort of emergency. By night, though... once the park doors closed and the general public was out of sight, the whole park was theirs to do with as they pleased. In Noa's case, that stipulation became a little more literal than it did to Mokuba. As he ran, the lights on the rides and booths sprang to life, surrounding him with a soft golden glow, accented with the occasional flash of neon. The carousel emitted a short burst of happy music as he passed it. Mokuba never got tired of watching this procession, the way Noa's simple joy in their companionship filled the dark world with a light that shone faintly through him until he seemed to glow himself. It gave him a sense of awe. How could anyone who could cheerfully talk about stock options and patent law for hours be so magical?
They raced through the park together. The night was clear, and the deeper they went into the park, the less city light they could see and the brighter the stars seemed to become. The city noises dulled to a distant hum. Instead of skyscrapers and cars, the two of them wandered through a wonderland of shadowy roller coaster mountains, of waterslide rivers and lamp post trees. They wound their way through the game galleries, with their walls of plush animals watching them silently as they passed, and past the empty stage where performances were held, where the spotlights winked on to track their progress until they were out of reach. It was their own little dark kingdom, and everything in it welcomed them.
At the very center of the park was an ornamental fountain, where statues of various Duel Monsters struck dramatic poses while water poured from their mouths or shot from the tips of magic wands. At the center, larger than all the rest, was a gloriously detailed Blue Eyes White Dragon. They were all over the park, of course, but this one was the largest and most detailed of them all. Noa was the one who had figured out, during his endless explorations, that it was possible for someone with steady nerves and good balance to climb the dragon's tail and up to its head. Noa did a lot of climbing when he explored, mostly because it didn't hurt him particularly when he fell. Now Mokuba removed his shoes and socks and rolled up the cuffs of his jeans so that he could splash through the shallow water of the pool. He felt coins shift under his feet as he walked, his path paved by tiny thrown wishes.
Noa walked on the surface of the pool. His software hadn't quite figured out how to handle water yet, so his feet only touched the surface, sending out concentric ripples. They lapped against Mokuba's knees, and he stopped walking for a moment, as he sometimes did. It was one of the most direct ways the two could touch each other, and he didn't like to miss it.
They scampered up the dragon's tail, Noa jumping nimbly from one foothold to another, unconcerned by things like gravity and physics in general. Mokuba proceeded with more caution. He had been doing this nearly every night ever since Noa had discovered the trick, and he hadn't fallen down yet, but he wasn't in any hurry to try it. Not only would he get soaking wet, but Seto would probably shout at him and he wouldn't be allowed to do this anymore.
He made it to the top without incident, and he perched himself comfortably on the dragon's broad smooth brow. From up there, he had a glorious view of the park. He let his legs dangle over the dragon's nose, swinging freely over the water twenty feet below them.
Noa hovered, balanced precariously on the edge of the dragon's wing.
"I'm going to turn it on," he declared.
Mokuba gave him a half-smile. "You know Brother doesn't like it when you do that. He says it's a waste of electricity."
"He shouldn't let me keep doing it, then," said Noa. "He could block me if he really wanted to. I'm going to do it."
Mokuba just smiled. That was Noa all over - cocky, independent, so sure that his way was always the right way. In this case, Mokuba was willing to allow he had a point.
Noa turned his attention to the fountain. A low murmur preceded the moment the fountains started up. Then the lights came on, tinting the streams and plumes of water in every color of the rainbow. Mokuba watched them ripple and flash, shifting from one color to another in a balletic display. Then, slowly, more lights began spreading throughout the park. Mokuba watched them spread out from them in concentric circles, like the ripples on the water, and then whirl around in long sweeps like the arms of a galaxy. They shivered, bent, doubled back on themselves, creating new and ever more complex patterns. He watched, enraptured as always. No matter how many times they did this together, Noa always managed to invent something new for his lightshows. The only constants were that they were always beautiful, and they always began here at the statue.
And one more thing.
"Why am I the only one you ever show these to?" he asked.
Noa looked at him with surprise written across his features.
Noa looked at Mokuba in surprise. He wasn't sure how to answer that question. He hadn't ever really even thought about it. It was like asking why people at when they got hungry, or why they slept when it got dark and rose up again when it was light. It was so obvious it didn't really bear considering.
"Who else would I show?" he asked.
Mokuba shrugged. "I don't know. Anybody. It's not really a secret that you're here."
That much was true. While his existence wasn't really advertised, Seto hadn't gone out of his way to obscure the fact that the boy was there. That he was the electronically encapsulated consciousness of the late Gozaburo's son, yes, he definitely wasn't talking about that, but the fact that there was an artificially intelligent hologram running around his theme park... well, he couldn't have kept that a secret if he'd wanted to. For one thing, there were too many park employees who saw him every day, and who would have eventually started asking questions as to why an apparently school-aged boy spent every day hanging around a theme park with no sign of parents anywhere. Aside from that, there was a whole league of technicians who kept his hardware running and kept him supplied with various upgrades. They considered him a valuable research tool - not only did the beta versions of software they used on him eventually go towards improving the Solid Vision technology used in Duel Disks, but Seto had started selling some of the developments to various medical outfits. After all, he reasoned, if technology could preserve Noa's memories and allow him to see, hear, feel, taste and smell, couldn't it be adapted to work for human beings? To those people, Noa was something of a celebrity.
But that was just it: to most people, Noa was a computer program - an advanced one, one that sometimes actually managed to seem like a human being, but still more of an interesting technological gadget than a person. Seto didn't treat him like a computer program, but he treated him like an employee, and he wasn't well known for his chummy attitude with his employees.
Not Mokuba. He treated him like a human being. More than that, he treated him like an equal - like a friend. He was always willing to talk about his friends, his school work, his job, and to do it in such a way that Noa felt like he was part of that world. When you were nothing but a bundle of data, lights, sound waves, and sensory impressions, that sort of thing mattered. Anything that reminded him that he still had some humanity left mattered. It made him want to give something in return, and all he had to give was light.
"I don't want to show anybody else," said Noa. "I want to show you."
Mokuba's smile was so warm that for a moment Noa's control faltered, and the rainbow colored lights around him shifted as one to become a blushing rosy red.
Noa was pretty sure he had never loved anyone before. He didn't think he'd loved his father. Wanted to please him sometimes, feared him sometimes, but it was hard to love someone who saw you more as an investment than a person, and even harder to love anybody when you'd been forced into a life of absolute solipsism at the age of ten. He didn't think he loved Seto - admired him, yes, and felt a certain amount of gratitude towards him for ensuring his continued tolerable existence, but that was all. Mokuba, though... he felt more for this boy as a computer program than he ever had as a flesh-and-blood boy. For him, he'd have lit up the world.
"I have a gift for you today, too," said Mokuba.
Noa was surprised. "A gift?" He wasn't used to gifts. He had nowhere to keep them.
"Yeah!" said Mokuba. He was bubbling over with enthusiasm now. "Remember I told you I was working late with Big Brother tonight, and I'd tell you about it?"
Noa nodded. He was on firmer ground now. Of course, any gift for him would probably be in the form of a new upgrade. Still, Mokuba didn't usually get excited about a new optics program...
Mokuba reached into his bookbag and took out a... what? Noa took a few steps closer for a better view of it. Mokuba took the whatever-it-was and snapped it onto his wrist, as if it were a Duel Disk. It was about the size and shape of a soup bowl, and had the exposed wires and circuitry of a prototype that had been built to function but not yet look pretty. There seemed to be a lot of little glass lenses affixed to it that might have been projectors or optical receivers, and a couple of stubby antennae. Noa couldn't begin to guess its purpose.
"What is it?" he asked at last.
Mokuba grinned. "It's a new Solid Vision projection array. It's linked wirelessly to your server, and it can scan your surroundings and relay everything back to you, and... well, it does a lot of really complicated stuff, but the point is, you can use this to get outside the park!"
"Out...outside?" Noa stammered.
"Yeah!" said Mokuba, eyes shining. "Isn't it great?"
Noa didn't know what it was. For years, this theme park had been his entire world. He knew every inch of it, from the top of the Ferris wheel to the garbage bins in back of the snack bars. Outside was... well, there could be anything, for all he knew. He wouldn't have the automatic control he had of the park systems out there. He would be surrounded by strangers - no friendly park staff or happy regulars. The real world was out there.
"I don't know," he said. "I mean... I don't know if can."
Mokuba looked hurt. "Why not?"
"Because I'm not real."
"You're real enough," said Mokuba. "You're real to me."
"I don't know if that's enough," said Noa. "Everyone else is out there, too."
"Yeah, but that's the point," said Mokuba. "I don't want you to have to be shut up in here forever. You deserve better than that."
Noa smiled wryly. "Are you sure? I think this is the perfect place for me - a fantasy world for a virtual boy."
"Yeah, but..." said Mokuba. He looked momentarily crestfallen, and uncertain. "I want you to be part of my life - my whole life, not just in here. Seto said he could set it up so you could even go to school with me. We could go to the movies and the arcade, and I could show you the game store where Yugi and the others hang out, and I could show you my room, and..." He trailed off hopefully. "I just thought we could spend more time together."
"That's really what you want?" Noa asked.
"Why?" Noa couldn't stop himself from asking.
"What do you mean, why?" Mokuba asked, surprised. "Of course I want to spend time with you, Noa. You're one of my favorite people. I always like being with you. It doesn't matter where you came from or how you got here. It's just..." He waved a hand, taking in the twinkling lights all around them. "The world's just brighter when you're around."
Impulsively, Noa moved to put his arm around Mokuba's shoulders. To him, it felt like encountering a vague pressure, like the force of two identical poles of a magnet being pressed together, along with a faint sense of warmth. He wondered suddenly how it felt to someone else when they touched him. He had never thought to ask. Did they feel that same sense of warmth and pressure? Or an electric tingle? Or nothing at all?
Until that moment, he hadn't known he could be hugged, either, but somehow Mokuba had flung his arms around him and they didn't pass through him. The two of them stood there for a long time, silhouetted against the starry sky, and the lights around them flashed like fireworks.
"I'll go," said Noa into Mokuba's ear. "If it's for you, I'll go."
Mokuba smiled at him. "I knew you would."
They clambered back down the statue again - Mokuba climbing carefully, Noa simply jumping. The fountains shut off as he dropped, and the last few droplets passed through him and landed in the pool, their ripples crossing the ones created by his feet resting lightly on the surface. Impulsively, he held out his hand, and Mokuba took it. They ran like that, one splashing through the water and the other leaving no more than ripples on the surface.
A few minutes later, they reached the front gates. Noa couldn't help it - he stopped walking, staring at them with wide eyes. They were no more than metal grids, with some impressive draconic designs worked into them about halfway up. Ordinary human eyes would be able to easily see through them, and a good distance up and down the street if they looked from the correct angle. To Noa, things tended to get a bit blurry if he looked too far to the left or right - he literally couldn't see more than a few yards beyond the gate. Everything he knew about what was out there came from hazy memories of childhood and the things Mokuba had told him. It couldn't have been any more of a mystery to him if he had been going to the moon instead of just beyond a set of metal doors.
"Are you ready?" Mokuba asked him.
Noa started to say he wasn't ready, and probably never would be. He'd been out of touch too long. He wasn't fit for anything more than this idealized replica of the real world.
Then he thought about what Mokuba had been offering him. He could go to high school, have a room of his own and things to put in it, go to the movies. He could watch Saturday morning cartoons, go hiking in the mountains, go out for pizza with friends - well, he could approximate eating pizza, but the point was, he could make some friends and socialize with them if he wanted to. He could have a life. He'd almost be real.
"Whose idea was this?" he asked. "Is this another of Seto's innovations he wants me to try out?"
Mokuba blushed a little. "Kind of. Actually, I kinda bugged him into doing it."
Noa nodded. That was all he needed to hear. He sized up the doors, wishing fleetingly that he still breathed so he could take a reassuring breath.
"All right. I'm ready," he said.
Mokuba looked delighted. He brought his device up so he could see it clearly and flicked some switches on it.
Noa felt the shift at once, as his perspective shifted from the more refined camera array he used in the park to something a bit lower-resolution. His sense of smell faded away entirely as he lost touch with the sensors that supplied his olfactory information. Suddenly, though, the scene outside the gates loomed up larger and clearer than he'd ever seen it before. He could see the world...
Mokuba took a key card out of his pocket and unlocked the gates, and they swung open just enough that two teenaged boys might walk through in single file.
"Come on!" said Mokuba. "Let's go get dinner - I'm starving!"
Noa laughed. It was so absurd, the idea of him eating dinner, and so wonderful.
"That sounds like just what I want," he declared.
Mokuba laughed too, and took his hand again. Maybe it was Noa's imagination, or maybe it was just the new hardware, but somehow the touch felt a little more solid and real than it had before. The two of them ran off into the night and into the world together, and behind them, the lights of the park slowly went out.