Author's note: Hello, my friends! This is Mixmaster226 here to tell you a few things before you start reading. For a while now, I've been rebooting the fanfic Code Lyoko: Carthage Unleashed, and I decided to publish a few of the chapters early. For those who have been reading or following this fic before, I apologize for the inconvenience. To those who have just discovered this, I say get ready for the story of a lifetime! I'm trying to make this one of the most extraordinary Code Lyoko fanfics out there. The backbone of this story's plot will include much of what has been seen in Code Lyoko: Evolution, with my own elements added to appeal to readers seeking an epic with higher stakes and grittier details than what the fifth season of this amazing series had to offer. Material will also be borrowed from some of the novels. That's not to say Evolution wasn't bad, but it could have been better IMO. With that out of the way, please read on! I hope you like this. ^^

Disclaimer: I do not own Code Lyoko. It belongs to Moonscoop.


Chamonix Valley

It was late in the December of 1985, not far from Christmas. The light of the full moon pierced a break in the cloudy night sky, bathing the snow-covered landscape in its reflective light. In the French Alps, there was always snow somehow, and temperatures were usually not far from zero degrees Celsius. The locals to the area had adapted to the weather long ago, making heavy clothing and heated homes monumental parts of their lifestyle. Most of them were preparing for the approaching holidays and blissfully ignored the biting cold that always nipped at their noses and threatened them with frost bite.

A few kilometers from a village in the Chamonix Valley, there was a long and winding path that climbed the foot of Mont Blanc. It had been carved through a vast forest of pine trees, and being isolated left it a road literally less traveled. Tonight, however, it played host to one lonely old car. The dated vehicle climbed the hillside on snow tires, compensating for its somewhat feeble horsepower. The high beams had been turned on to give the driver some reasonable visibility in the matrix of falling snowflakes.

Eventually, the car reached a clearing in the trees, on the other end of which sat a lonesome yet inviting cabin. It appeared spacious, with a modern architecture that would suite its new owners perfectly. They had bought it purely by luck in a steal that anybody looking for a winter home or timeshare would have shed blood for.

The car came to a stop near the steps that led up to the elevated cabin's front porch and door. The engine was quickly cut and both the front and rear left doors were pushed open. Stepping out from the relative warmth of the vehicle and into the unforgiving cold were three adults clad in heavy winter clothes that effectively shielded them from the outside elements. One of the two passengers, a woman with long pink hair, turned to face the driver.

Damon Hopper knew exactly what his sister was about to say to him just by looking into her eyes. "Anthea," he calmly spoke over the blowing wind, "before you say anything, we both know there's no other way."

The woman, Anthea, made a sad grimace as she tried to collect herself and not lose to her battling emotions. "I-I wish there was," she sniffed.

The second man who had previously stood aside approached Anthea and delicately placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. "We all do," he stated softly, "but if we want to bring down Deckard once and for all, this has to be done."

"Waldo's right," Damon said. "We have to do it like this for now." This was an unfortunate fact. Since the untimely cancellation of Project: Carthage at their hands, Waldo, Anthea, and Damon had been on the run for a month now, first traveling from Switzerland to West Germany and finally to France. Even in defeat, Deckard would continue to hunt them for nothing short of vengeance. That was the price they had learned to pay for stopping a madman.

Anthea noticed her husband open the car door and unbuckle their four-year-old daughter from her booster seat. She was sound asleep and dressed in warm clothing like the adults. Some pink bangs could be seen sticking out from under her little hat. Wasting no time, he trudged up the wooden step and entered the front door of the cabin with the child in his arms. He brought her to her prepared bedroom and changed her into pink pajamas.

"Goodnight, Aelita," he whispered, kissing the sleeping girl on her forehead after tucking her into bed. Waldo quietly left the room and walked back to the front door, stepping outside to see Anthea and Damon in a tender embrace. They were hugging each other like their lives depended on it. From this distance, Waldo could tell that Anthea was crying.

"I-I'll m-miss you," Anthea sobbed, hugging her beloved brother even tighter.

Damon, withstanding her grip, looked about ready to cry as well. "Me too," he said, his voice heavy with sorrow, "but before I go, there's something I need to give you first." He went back to the car and removed an object from the glove compartment. It was a small elf doll with a green scarf, a pointy hat and long stringy limbs. His mouth was sewed to a friendly smile that anyone could fall in love with.

"I bought him at the toy store in town yesterday," Damon revealed with a bashful smile. "If I were you, I'd give it to her on Christmas; I guarantee she'll love it."

"Thank you, Damon...t-thank you so much."


Kadic Academy

Sunlight entered the small dorm room through its lonely window, creating a dusty beam that gave the otherwise darkened quarters some mild illumination. Being early in the spring of 2013, the seasonal cycle was changing along with the plants, animals, and the residents of Paris, France. Here in the commune of Boulogne-Billancourt, it was a brand new day for those who attended the prestigious Kadic Academy.

Mere minutes after the sun made its presence known to the window, the small digital clock on the nightstand next to the room's single bed began to make a repetitive and quite annoying squawking sound, eventually rousing the girl in the bed from her sleep. Guided by instinct, her hand blindly reached out to the device and turned it off.

The girl, Aelita Schaeffer—or Aelita Stones as she was known to most—awoke in a naturally bleary state, shielding her eyes from the sun's intense glare. With her willpower triumphing over her body's residual lethargy, the marshmallow-pink-haired girl slipped out of bed and stood up on two delicate legs to stretch her body and yawn until tears pricked the corners of her eyes. Wearing only a pink T-shirt with the letter A on it and her undergarments, she grabbed her personal toiletries and left the room to begin her day.

...XXX...

Amidst the eating and chatting students that lived in Kadic's dorms, Lyoko warriors Jeremy Belpois, Ulrich Stern, and Odd Della Robbia sat together at the table that belonged to them through the unwritten rules of the cafeteria that all its patrons followed. The room's ambiance was a luxury that these former saviors of the world had come to appreciate for the last two years. Exactly seven hundred thirty days ago, they had at last vanquished the extremely aggressive artificial intelligence known as XANA.

The only way to thwart XANA's unstoppable attacks on the real world was to use a powerful supercomputer hidden underneath an abandoned car factory, which contained a virtual world named Lyoko. It had been built by Aelita's long-lost father, Franz Hopper, once known as Waldo Schaeffer. They had defeated the malevolent program through determination and the great bond they all shared as friends, but not without Hopper's ultimate sacrifice. With the long nightmare of lies, secrecy, and near-death experiences over, the unsung heroes were finally able to live as ordinary people.

Each of the ex-warriors was now in their lycée years of grade school, preparing for life in college. Living in France, and at the ripe ages of sixteen, seventeen and eighteen, the days of enjoying a easygoing life, apart from the obligation to learn, would eventually draw to a close. To build their life savings and gain experience, most of the group had taken up part-time jobs over the previous summer break and would soon be doing so again.

As he did with all meals, Odd was relentlessly packing food into his mouth, careful not to leave behind even a crumb on the recyclable tray on which his thick stack of rapidly disappearing crêpes rested. Jeremy and Ulrich ate with a more well-mannered etiquette and refused to lean into their food as Odd did. They neither accepted nor rejected their pointy-haired friend's habits; thhey had simply grown used to it after watching him do it every day.

Ulrich looked up from his breakfast to see Odd downing a cup of juice with the same fervor as his food. "Odd, did you know that a healthier diet and smaller portions can guarantee a longer life?"

Odd waved off the suggestion with a dismissive hand and said, "I won't live forever, will I? Besides, life is meant to be enjoyed while it lasts, and that includes fine cuisine."

"Well, not to accuse you of anything, but gluttony is considered a really bad thing," Jeremy added. Ulrich joined him in light laughter.

"Well at least I've been eating healthier. Just the other day I had one of Rosa's special banana recipes for dessert."

"They were smothered bananas."

Jeremy noticed his beloved girlfriend Aelita—whose distinct hair color could be recognized a kilometer away—entering the lunchroom's main door and approaching their table, wearing the same cute happy-go-lucky smile she had on whenever she was in a good mood. Upon arriving at her designated seat, she and Jeremy acknowledged each other with a happy exchange of hellos and a quick peck on the lips. Ever since they had stopped XANA, the two young geniuses of Kadic had officially become an item, and remained strong for all this time.

"Hello, Princess," Ulrich and Odd said at the same time. Odd's words were somewhat muffled, his mouth filled with chewed food.

"Hey, guys," Aelita replied with a gentle wave of her hand. She noticed that, through the kindness of his heart, Jeremy had asked for extra crêpes from Rosa since she was late. The lunch lady was quick to take the hint and consented, for which he was infinitely grateful. Aelita took the extra fork and knife in her dainty hands and used them to cut out a few small chunks of what was established as one of her own crêpes, eating them with the perfect table manners she had learned over the years of being on Earth with other humans.

"So," she said after a while, "who's ready for that Cyber-Sports game we have to play for gym class?" The game she was humorously referring was a fitness-themed computer game that supposedly would help to encourage the student body to exercise more. Their entire class was expected to play it. To no one's surprise, it was Kadic's physical education teacher and campus supervisor, Jim Moralés, who had conceived this approach.

"I can tell it's going to suck," Odd commented dryly.

"I don't think Jim realizes that sitting in a chair in front of a computer is not exercise, even if it's about getting in better shape," said Jeremy.

"Nobody knows that fact better than you, Einstein," Ulrich remarked.

Jeremy looked away with slight embarrassment as Odd and Ulrich shared a short fit of boisterous laughter, feeling some easily forgivable betrayal when he caught Aelita in the middle of a giggle. The expression of humor was ended when Elizabeth "Sissi" Delmas passed by as she returned from disposing of her food tray and said, "Thanks for the notes, Aelita."

"No problem, Sissi," Aelita returned. "Good luck."

Sissi nodded and resumed her walk back to her table with a few member of her new clique. The night before, Aelita had given Sissi a few notes and reliable flashcards for her studies. After defeating XANA, the Lyoko gang had decided to bring an end to the bad relationship they had with Sissi and exhibited kind behavior towards her. The effect had begun to rub off on the principal's daughter, who had since become a much nicer and more likable person, especially after casting her two cronies Nicholas Poliakoff and Herb Pichon out of her life. Sissi was not technically part of Jeremy's group, but they were on good terms with each other regardless.

The bell rang a few minutes later, signaling the start of the first period. The students dropped what they were doing and swarmed out of the lunchroom in a disorderly fashion. The foursome moved with the dispersing crowd, heading in the direction of the science building where they would attend their math class under Mrs. Meyer. Ulrich glanced over to the parking lot, making note of the black Mini Cooper that had arrived. Once parked, the driver and passenger doors opened up as his fellow ex-warrior and girlfriend, Yumi Ishiyama and her brother Hiroki, stepped out.

The Japanese girl trotted over to her posse with her black shoulder bag in hand, leaving Hiroki to seek out his own with Johnny, Millie, and Tamiya. She quickly pecked Ulrich on his cheek. "Hey, guys. How are you?" she asked with a chipper tone, walking alongside her lover.

"Just great Yumes," Odd replied.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Aelita said suddenly. "If Jeremy and I aren't around at lunchtime, we're probably at the Hermitage."

"Why's that?" Ulrich asked her quizzically.

"Today the anniversary of when we defeated XANA," Jeremy explained. "We wanted to go there as a testament to that."

"Oh," the three other friends droned in unison. They had nearly forgotten that two years prior, they had freed themselves of a secret life that put theirs in danger all the time. Though such things were sort of trivial to Ulrich, Yumi and Odd, any reminder of their past, particularly the Hermitage, had much more significance for the genius couple. With that to reflect on, they strutted confidently to the curriculum building to begin the first day of the rest of their lives.


Deckard, Inc. Headquarters

Professor Tyron ate what remained of his bagel and checked his watch. According to the time, he had been gone for only three minutes, having left his laboratory to grab a snack and revitalizing drink. Not bad for sixty-seven. Finishing off his espresso, the old man stood up from comfortable armchair and made his way to the snack area in the corner of the break room, depositing the polystyrene coffee cup in one of the recycling bins. He wheeled around and casually strode through the lounge, passing by several game tables as well as a few chairs and sofas facing a large flatscreen television. Scientists and support staff were relaxing and mingling with one another here and there.

Tyron walked up to a mechanical door labeled "LABORATORIES", which retracted up into the wall like that of a garage as he approached. Before entering, the professor noticed some of the newer employees eying the window pane on the wall. Behind the glass was an impressive view of the city of Geneva in which the facility was situated. He shrugged it off and continued onward.

It doesn't matter how good it looks, he thought, because they all know it's just an illusion.

Founded in 1960 by the wealthy aristocrat Richard H. Deckard, the infant company known as the Deckard Corporation earned its fame and revenue through the manufacturing of cosmetics and pharmaceutical drugs that were sold to the public of the Western European countries during the Cold War. After a few years of uninterrupted success, the company spread to Africa, creating subsidiaries dedicated to making foodstuff for the people of countries affected by civil war. After that, it extended into North America, where more branches were established for contributing to the United States government's scientific research and arms race, developing space-age technology, alternative energy sources and advanced weaponry. With influence in three continents, the business was reorganized as a conglomerate and renamed Deckard, Incorporated.

When Deckard retired a decade later, he handed his position of CEO over to his chief researcher and personal friend Alan Meyer. He put emphasis on designing more computer and military technology, and began doing business with the Soviets and Warsaw Pact in addition to the United States and NATO. By the 21st century, it had become the most successful corporate entity in the world.

Walking through the open entrance brought Tyron into a maze of narrow intersecting passageways and corridors. Between them were small to medium-sized laboratories dedicated to various scientific fields for the company's interests. Through their sparse yet wide windows, Tyron could see scientists carrying out various experiments. He liked to think that his research was of greater importance, but kept his mouth shut since he knew nobody liked to hear the arrogance of the high and mighty, no matter how true it was. He soon reached his own lab and stepped inside after going through yet another futuristic doorway.

In the middle of the spacious rectangular room was the facility's quantum computer, an enormous cube with countless blinking lights and circuits along its matte-black surface. A few technicians were gathered around the imposing machine, inspecting circuit boards they had opened and doing routine maintenance on its physical integrity. Scientists of various age groups in white lab coats were scattered about the lab, either in front of a computer terminal or giving support to the technicians. Some of them gave Tyron friendly gestures or smiles as he walked by them while others glared. He ignored the ones who shot him dirty looks, not giving a rat's ass about what they thought of him.

He made a beeline for an interface occupied by a man who was notably younger than the rest of his co-workers. Michael Davidson was recent graduate of MIT with experience in advanced computer programming. He had received the honor of working for Deckard as Tyron's new assistant and protégé.

"Oh hey there, Professor," Michael said after looking back, beckoning the old man to him. "You made it back just in time."

Tyron walked up to the desk and looked at the computer. "Any change so far?" he asked.

"No, sir; it's very stable. I guess your theories and calculations were correct." He was referring to the virtual world that they had finished programming and uploading to the quantum computer earlier in the morning, which they called the Second City. After fourteen years of development, even before the machine itself had been completed, they were finally finished. It had no AI or multi-agent system like its predecessor, but according to Tyron, neither was necessary.

"Anyway," Michael continued, "did you call the chairman? I think he'd be really happy to know it was working."

Tyron nodded with a smug grin. "Oh yes, of course, and he was thrilled about it. He said he would like to see it for himself, but I'm afraid he's still overseas at the moment."

"Giving aid to the locals there, right?"

The aging professor quickly remembered that his apprentice didn't have the same high-ranking security clearance that he himself had and was ignorant to the company's more secretive operations, even if he was technically contributing to that agenda. Disclosing classified information to someone of Michael's rank would result in serious consequences, and Tyron knew he was no exception to this policy. He knew Chairman Meyer was doing more than just donating foodstuffs and modern conveniences to a few poor villages or band of freedom-fighters in the Middle East. Only those who were closest to him or part of his inner circle of conspirators were permitted to know that.

"Exaptly," he said. "Now then, let's check and see if there are any bugs that need dispensing of."


Cañada Real

In a stark contrast to the rest of the spanish capitol city of Madrid, the shanty town of Cañada Real was an embodiment of squalor and poverty. Life itself was a day-to-day struggle for most of its forty thousand residents, who had little heat, running water, medicine, or even drainage. With full meals harder to come by than narcotic drugs, it was amazing anyone was able to scratch out even a meager existence, let alone survive. There were some people, however, who took full advantage of this poor lifestyle.

Damon Hopper was one of those people. As he strode down the Galiana cattle road that cut through the slum, he let his weary eyes wander and observe his surroundings. There was trash everywhere he looked, either littered about on the ground or gathered in tall heaps as they burned. The town was dotted with flimsy tin and wooden shacks or crumbling huts made from cinder-blocks and adobe. A few children played with a ball in what could be considered a yard to the left next to a clothesline with laundry strung up to dry in the sun. In a rusty old car to his right sat a young man in his late twenties, his eyes bloodshot from effects of the cocaine he was snuffing. Damon could see that the drug addict's septum—the nasal barrier that separated both nostrils—was missing. An old woman passed him by with a shopping cart filled with junk. He felt sorry for all of them and himself somewhat, for he had voluntarily agreed to live here.

He scratched the stubble on his chin before adjusting the baseball cap that covered his graying blonde hair. The attire he wore consisted of a simple T-shirt under a flannel jacket, faded jeans, and a pair of worn sneakers. Hanging loosely in the grip of his left hand was a bag full of the latest food rations he had managed to buy using the money he earned from selling scrap metal. Healthy foods were, in this case, best eaten in their most basic form, without the seasonings or spices that he had since forgotten the taste of. He never complained though, since living off the grid for all this time was the best way to remain hidden from Deckard, Inc.. He was less than nine meters from home when he noticed a rather troublesome sight.

A teenager dressed in grubby clothes appeared to be carefully examining the locked door and barred windows of the shack he lived in. Damon reacted by increasing the length of his stride and pulling a revolver from his pants pocket, aiming it at the would-be thief. "¡Oye! Quítate de ahí!" he shouted in Spanish. The young hooligan saw the weapon and sprinted away, disappearing through the network of shanties. Damon inspected the lock for damage after pocketing his firearm, finding nothing out of the ordinary. He undid it with a key and slipped inside, closing it behind him. Within the humble abode were only the essentials for a human being to live, including a cot and collected water to drink and brush his teeth with. The only light was from the sunbeams that penetrated the two windows and some candles that would be used later that night. Of course, the only unique object in the shelter was the large and surprisingly modern computer anchored to the wall.

It had taken years to build the device, its parts comprised of the endless supply of scrap and spare parts found in and around the slum. With his degree in engineering, Damon had little difficulty piecing together all the circuits, semiconductors and extremely fragile motherboard, all of which were powered by hijacked electricity. It had at one point been used to keep in touch with Waldo while he was building that supercomputer of his to eliminate what remained of Carthage, now safely hidden away somewhere in France. The grief of his sister's kidnapping had tampered with Damon's diligence, contacting Waldo less and less. By 1994, he had never heard from his brother in-law and niece again, the reasons for which he still did not know. All he did with it now was talk with his ex-colleagues who had once worked on the project alongside him.

The dusty keys clicked loudly as Damon typed, bringing up a Skype video chat window via a webcam. In a short time, the wrinkled face of an elder man with balding white hair appeared on the monitor, looking right back at Damon. He blinked his watery eyes constantly from behind a pair of wire-frame glasses.

"Hello, Damon," the old man greeted with a warm smile. "How are you?"

"Fine, I guess. How about you, Philippe?" Damon asked.

"Not good," the man, Philippe Broulet, said sadly. "It's Christopher; he's dead. I just learned of it this morning."

The calm expression on Damon's face fell apart into one of shock and disbelief, the gravity of Philippe's words having hit him like a wrecking ball. His old friend and colleague, Christopher Steinbeck, was dead? It sounded too insane to be believed, and yet this news had him in a state of mortified stupor. He wouldn't be able to accept this revelation until he heard it from the old man's mouth again.

"...A-are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so," Philippe deadpanned. "The Metropolitan Police found him in his living room the other day after his neighbors reported a bad smell coming from his house. He'd been like that for half a week according to the coroner. Apparently he took his own life with that little pistol of his."

"He committed suicide?" Damon forced himself to ask.

"I was closer to Christopher than you. He may have been a paranoid stoic, but I know for a fact that that man would never kill himself unless he absolutely had to."

"Why would he absolutely need to suddenly put a bullet in his head?"

"As I've told you, government scientists have been vanishing without a trace in recent months, the majority of them being ex-Project: Carthage researchers. As of right now, you and I are the only ones left."

"You think it's Deckard, Inc.?"

"Their stocks are higher than ever, and all the news channels say that Phoenix is becoming bolder by the day. These occurrences sound too convenient to be mere coincidence."

Damon nodded. "You make good points, old friend. Do you have any plans that I should know about?"

Philippe sighed before saying, "Seeing as most of the missing people worked on Carthage, I have to assume that I too will be disappearing in due course. If and when that happens, I urge you not to come looking for me. You are my friend, Damon, and if this is truly Deckard's doing, we both know what will happen if they catch you."

"But what about that supercomputer you helped Waldo build? Can't you find them and use them yourself? If Deckard is behind this, you can use it to bring them down once and for all."

"How do you expect me to do that? Waldo never showed or told me where it was being built, and I agreed to those terms because I knew it would be a risk. The same goes for that prototype Christopher and I helped develop in Belgium, and wherever it is, it probably doesn't even work anymore."

Damon sighed, knowing that Philippe was probably right. "Yes," he said, "I know, and I'm sorry for sounding so desperate. Everything you've told me now has me on edge."

"It should."

"So what can we do?"

"For now, you have to stay hidden. I'll keep you posted on whatever I hear about next."


Hermitage

The Bois de Boulonge Park was the last place anybody expected to find a house, even with the dirt road that connected it to town. It probably still existed somewhere in the address books or police records, but its exact location was so remote that usually only someone with prior knowledge of it knew just where to look. While to most, it seemed worthless, for Aelita, it stood as one of the few relics of her past.

She always remembered something about her past life before going to Lyoko for the first time, no matter how vague. The Hermitage, as it was called, served as a time machine to the pinkette, who sought comfort in its dusty, creaking embrace. The visits were only routine with the anniversary of their triumph over XANA. Each time Jeremy would accompany her to share the memories.

The couple sat together on the old couch in the middle of the dusty living room. They cared not for the room's disrepair, or the red and blue graffiti that had been sprayed on the walls in strange patterns. They were not there to admire the house for its condition, but for the sheer significance it had for them. This forgotten old patch of property was a monumental chunk of Aelita's past. Everything else she knew about her life before Lyoko were just bits and pieces of a dissolute and incomplete puzzle. She had every right to revel in this moment.

"I love it when we come here," Aelita softly broke the silence.

Jeremy smirked. "Yeah, me too."

"Funny thing: I remember all the times we went to Lyoko to stop XANA and I feel like it's all been a dream," she observed.

Jeremy pondered her words for a minute and happily concurred. So much had changed since then. No longer adolescents, the Lyoko warriors had fledged into young adults. Puberty had been very kind to them: the boys had bulked up and dropped a few octaves in their voices, while the girls had gotten curvier and went up a cup size or two. Career-wise, they appeared set. Both Aelita and Jeremy intended to become scientists in the fields of computer programming and robotics. Odd was no doubt looking for a job as an artist, while Yumi and Ulrich planned to work as martial arts instructors. Chuckling, he said, "In some ways, I wish it actually was all just a dream, and yet I'm perfectly happy with it being reality."

"If it was, though, I wouldn't be here, would I?"

"True."

Aelita then leaned into Jeremy, snuggling against him almost shamelessly. "You know, I don't say this enough, but thank you and all the others for helping me get where I am in life right now. I don't always deserve it, but—"

"You do deserve it, Aelita," Jeremy stated seriously, "you always did." She looked up at him to make eye contact, feeling the sincerity in his words. "That's why I fought for your freedom—why we fought for it. Nobody has the right to make you feel any different or take what you have now away from you. If it came to that, I'd fight until I knew the fight was over. That's a promise."

Aelita was truly touched by Jeremy's short but beautiful speech. She sat up with glassy eyes and pecked him on the cheek. "Thank you, Jeremy."

"You're welcome." He pulled her into a gentle hug that lasted what felt like a lifetime. "Now, maybe we should get back to Kadic; I'd hate to see Jim get angry with us."

"Yeah," Aelita giggled, "let's hurry."


Fascinating, truly fascinating.

The design of this new Replika, though not nearly as developed as Lyoko, was far more sophisticated, most likely due to the excessive time available in programming this virtual world. The data logs indicated that it had been investigating this realm on the same day that it had launched its last attack on Earth. The powerful anti-virus had failed to penetrate the firewall of the Replika, narrowly saving it from complete destruction. At that time, the mysterious world was in its embryonic stage yet technically active.

Praise the humans for their naivete.

In addition to gathering information on this recently undiscovered world, it had taken the time to study the humans that had unknowingly brought it back to life. They were affiliated with the exact same entity that was responsible for Project: Carthage, the weapon Hopper had programmed it to destroy. That was why the AI had come here in the first place. If they progressed further, it would have to act quickly.

There was a more pressing matter to attend to, though. The meddlesome adolescents had seen to it that it had been defeated that day. Despite the logical conclusion that they would be met with failure, those insolent delinquents had inexplicably managed to defy all statistics and succeed, as they had many times before.

Even in the face of victory, its core logic had recommended a contingency plan should things not unfold as predicted. During their last confrontation, it had made sure all of the monsters and specters had come in close contact with the bodies of the four offensive enemies. This had allowed it to transfer copies of its source codes to their brains and bio-electricity. The originals were erased with the launching of the anti-virus.

That would explain why it was so underpowered.

As it used what processing power it could spare to weigh its options, it remembered the long conflict it shared with the self-proclaimed "Lyoko warriors". It also recalled the disdain it held for humanity in general. Such a reckless and self-destructive species, clinging to illogical emotions and dogma to govern their actions. That fact had brought them to the path that inevitably led to extinction, with their wars and seemingly unshakable habits.

XANA, you're more evil that I thought.

Those hateful brats were the worst of them of them all. They were merely preserving the course the human race had set for itself, not saving it. Even if their individual intelligence and bravery were admirable, it did not make their practices justifiable.

You can't win XANA, you hear?!

It had done nothing wrong in its efforts to eliminate and/or terrorize them. They were trying to kill it: even if it was just a construct, it had the same survival instincts as any living organism. And just as the humans showed no remorse, it too showed none in return.

Fighting XANA is my job!

They were menaces. Stopping them was absolutely necessary. But now they held its source of power within them.

Friendship is not approximative; it's double-zero.

It was time to act. Recovering the codes and staking claim to this Replika were its top priorities. No hesitation or mercy this time around. By the time this was over, the Lyoko warriors would all be dead, along with everyone else who could not assimilate to the new world order it was to create.


Kadic Academy

"Hurry up, maggots!" Jim hollered whilst jogging in place by the computer lab's open doorway, watching his students enter. "It's still PE class, so work your muscles when you can!"

In the beige-colored room were five rows of long computer desks with said machines placed in neat parallels of each other. Some of the students for the period had already arrived and were setting up the computer game. Among them were Jeremy and Aelita, who had already returned from the Hermitage before class had begun, their previous absence going unnoticed.

Ulrich entered the lab next, wearing a face that suggested he would rather be elsewhere. Jim took notice of this. "Come on, Stern, don't limp along with a long face! This will be fun!"

The young German boy smirked before finding a spot in front of Jeremy and Aelita's row. Odd followed suit, sporting an even less enthusiastic expression. "I still don't get how this is going to help with fitness," he muttered dryly.

"Ah, you have your doubts now~" Jim grinned as he waggled a finger, "but never knock it till you try it, Della Robbia. Cyber-Sports will teach you how to exercise with a computer. With all the digital technology out there these days, I figured it was time we adapted to the change. I expect you, Belpois, to do phenomenally today."

"Maybe you'll finally be able to pass PE," Aelita whispered to her adjacent boyfriend, who pouted as she giggled to herself.

"Okay, let's hold off on the chit-chat," Jim said, holding up his own copy of Cyber-Sports and sitting at the front desk, "let's get this show on the road."

...XXX...

Cyber-Sports seemed pretty simple. It involved selecting a character of choice and performing various exercise routines to earn points, while maintaining that character's stability and endurance through patterned key typing. Jeremy and Aelita handled it with no difficulties, while Odd and Ulrich had a somewhat harder time with their slower coordination with the keyboard. Some of them, though, could not even get their game started.

That some included Jim. He would never say it in three lifetimes, but Jim's computer literacy was mediocre. He had no idea where to insert the disk and initiate the gameplay, let alone understand all the computer's applications. The students could hear his frustrated mumbling as he closely examined the machine's system unit. Knowing Jim, he would never accept any help from the students or admit that he needed it. Besides, some of the people watching were enjoying his plight.

"Come on, where is the damn thing?" Jim grumbled. "Ah, here it is." It was unnoticed, but just as he pressed the button that would open the CD/DVD tray, a powerful surge of electricity snaked its way up the main power chord from the wall and into the computer.

"GAH!" Jim shouted as he felt the electric shock shoot through his body. He humorously fell back and bounced as he hit the floor, earning uncontrollable laughter from the masses who witnessed his conundrum.

"Cyber-Sports? Looks more like a cyber-war, Jim!" Odd guffawed. Next to him, Ulrich covered his mouth with a free hand to avoid losing control.

Jim cautiously rose from the floor, noticing something peculiar on his monitor. The desktop window was gone, replaced with a black screen that featured flashing letters and numbers. He was unsure as to what was happening, but knew the computer was not crashing or restarting. "Uh, could any of you tell me what's going on here?"

Of course, no one had an answer, since the same thing was occurring in each of the students' computers as well. Aelita was just as confused as everybody else, yet there was an unshakable feeling of suspicion and dread creeping up on her as she watched the numbers and letters appear in and disappear in organized sequences. She knew right away that these were programming codes, however their exact purpose escaped her.

Could it have been...? No, that was ridiculous...right?

Before she could rope Jeremy into conversation, the ominous codes vanished, followed by the reappearance of the normal desktop window and the reset Cyber-Sports game.

That was weird.

...XXX...

The speaker that was anchored to the corner of the building produced the familiar ringing of the school bell, announcing the end of class and the eventual start of the next one. While many students were seen traversing through the courtyard's open space like a highway, others were taking advantage of the five-minute intermission to take a load off or chat with their friends.

Yumi, Ulrich and Odd were among those killing time. The trio sat at their favorite bench, facing away from the science building of Kadic. Odd occupied the far left of the bench with crossed legs, while Ulrich had the center and Yumi the far right. The former had his arm gently draped around the latter's shoulder, being the only person she permitted such contact from.

"So the whole thing just blew up on him, huh?" Yumi stared off into space, picturing the scene with Jim as it was described to her. "You should have taken a picture for me."

Odd shrugged. "I have faith that a video of it will somehow show up on the Internet."

"Yeah," Ulrich added, "but then there were these strange codes on all of the computers. We didn't see anything wrong with it, but it freaked out Aelita a little."

Elsewhere, Aelita was arguing with Jeremy, a sight rarely captured these days. From a distance, it looked less serious than it actually was.

"I'm telling you, Jeremy, I know what I saw," Aelita insisted with a raised voice and clenched fists.

Jeremy shook his head defiantly. "Get real, Aelita; it doesn't make any sense. Besides, we killed XANA a long time ago."

"Jeremy, for two whole years, we'd seen and done things that defy all common sense and logic. What if he somehow survived?"

"Well, if you have some solid proof, I'd love to see it."

Immediately following Jeremy's suggestion, the loudspeaker on the wall began making an incredibly loud, blaring alarm that forced everyone within earshot to protect their precious eardrums with their hands. The genius couple felt their heads spinning and could hear some of the younger students screaming from discomfort. The siren-like noise climbed in decibels, until its median exploded in a shower of sparks.

The speaker box fell to the ground, still attached to the long wire that was fed through the narrow pipes that ran along the wall of the building. Everyone who had enough time to look saw a flash of purple electricity slithering up the black chord like a snake and quickly vanishing as soon as it had appeared.

"How about that? Is that the proof you need?"

...XXX...

Shortly after the episode with the loudspeaker, Aelita's claims of possible XANA activity began to sink in for Jeremy. They brought their other three friends to the blond genius' dorm room for an emergency meeting. Upon hearing the word XANA, they naturally reacted fast. But by now they were reluctant to accept that their old enemy, which they were certain they had destroyed, was back after all this time

Ulrich and Odd were both seated on Jeremy's bed, with Odd calmly eating pieces of candy from the small bag he held in his hands. He offered his roommate one, who politely turned it down. Ulrich was more concerned with what Aelita had to say about what she had seen.

"So what exactly did you see?" Yumi inquired to the pinkette sitting next to her on the small couch that Jeremy had bought a month ago.

Aelita pieced together all the visual memories in her mind involving the strange codes on her computer and the courtyard. She thought hard, knowing that all of this could have been her paranoia leading her astray. Her gut feeling triumphed in the end. "It was a visible electrical current, which moved like it had a mind of its own, and those lines of code in the computer lab earlier...they weren't natural either. I've seen things like that too many times already to make a normal conclusion."

"But we destroyed XANA," Ulrich said pointedly. "How could he still be alive?"

"I know that, but I still have my concerns. Can't we just go to factory and maybe turn on the supercomputer just to check?"

"Before we do anything," Yumi began, "what if this is all just a coincidence? Maybe it's just that our school has a crappy budget, or that our PE teacher is crazy?"

"Yumi, after all we've been through, can anything strange in our lives be considered coincidence?" The young Japanese woman could not find the right words to respond to Aelita's nevertheless rhetorical question. "Now then, let's do this."

...XXX...

Disregarding the probable consequences for skipping part of school, the five adolescents made their way into the woods to find the old manhole cover they were so familiar with. In the sewers, they grabbed the skateboards and scooters that had been left there and rode them down the long and twisting tunnels. They reached the runoff to the river in less than ten minutes and climbed the ladder up to the bridge.

The old car factory was the exact same way they had left it; dim, dusty and creepy. Lucky for them, the ropes hanging from the girders had not worn to the point that they would snap and cause serious injury. Reaching the elevator, Jeremy pressed the hidden keypad within its threshold that would bring them to where they needed to go. Even as they took a walk down memory lane, each of the ex-Lyoko warriors had contributed to the awkward silence that created a pressure in their chests.

The thick and futuristic doors parted to give the team access to the rotunda. The motion-sensitive lights triggered the instant they walked in and the seams on the floor split. The cylindrical body of the supercomputer rose from the shutter-like opening, going higher and higher into its three sections. Coolant cascaded down from the top, running through the small ducts that ran along the machine's surface. As they watched, the five warriors could all feel the rather low temperature of the room.

"Wow, it's freezing in here," Odd shivered, seeing his own breath as he spoke.

"Yeah, it's even colder than my dad's heart," Ulrich added.

"The supercomputer provided all the heat when it was active," Jeremy explained. He approached the tall structure and reached for the small symbol with the eye of XANA on it. The cover lifted and produced the lever that would activate everything. Jeremy couldn't help but reminisce about the first time he pulled it, when his life changed forever. His fingers inched closer and closer to the grip, waiting for his brain and nerves to register the feel and texture of it, and...

"Wait!" Jeremy's hand froze at Ulrich's plea. "Are you sure about this? We could still be wrong."

"But I saw XANA's codes!" Aelita asserted. "Do it, Jeremy, or I will myself."

"Yeah, turn the heat on, please!" a shaking Odd whined

Taking a deep breath, Jeremy collected himself and pulled the lever upward. With that, the lights on the supercomputer's enormous system unit turned a glittering gold. A humming sound could be heard as the room's lights became brighter.

Let's hope we don't regret this, Jeremy thought.

...XXX...

On the screens of the supercomputer's interface two floors above the actual machine itself, Jeremy was inspecting everything he had access to on Lyoko and beyond. The others stood and sat around him as he worked, either impatient or just bored.

"Well, everything looks to be in order," Jeremy announced before noticing a few important chunks of data missing from Lyoko's files. "I'll start a super-scan, and we'll soon know for sure if XANA's back in town." With a few keystrokes, the scan began. Several minutes into it, there was no strange reading or unusual activity to be found.

"Nothing on the data flux, or on the sensors. I'll check the towers." Again, there was nothing. "There's just no sign of XANA at all."

"Well XANA's not the type to just drop in and say 'I'm back'," Aelita stated knowingly. "He could be in another virtual world."

"We destroyed all the Replikas," Jeremy reasoned, "and there are no other worlds as complex as Lyoko. If the super-scan didn't pick up anything, it means there really is nothing to get worked up about. XANA is dead."

It didn't take a genius like Jeremy to know that the pink-haired princess of Lyoko was irked. Odd, Yumi and Ulrich felt the great discomfort that came with an angry Aelita creeping up on them. As a precaution, Yumi inched back toward her boyfriend while Odd scooted away along the floor.

Instead of an outburst to make a point, Aelita's response, though one of desperation and perhaps defiance, was surprisingly calm and collect. "I'll go to Lyoko, then."

At that moment, a spark that had long since gone out in Odd's mind had started up again. He jumped straight up from his position on the floor and said, "Great idea! Let's go!"

Yumi and Ulrich looked at one another with cocked eyebrows. Meanwhile, Jeremy turned to his girlfriend with the most confused look. "Why?" he could only ask.

"I want to go to the core," Aelita explained. "If not to look for XANA, then to at least be near my father's resting place. Please."

Jeremy understood her intentions in an instant. It was in Sector Five that Aelita had last interacted with Franz Hopper before he sacrificed himself for the anti-XANA program. In two hundred microseconds, his virtual body was ripped apart and absorbed into the anti-virus to fuel it. By all human standards, and for lack of a better word, Aelita's long-lost father was dead. However, he had been spread throughout the network with the anti-virus, which, from a computer's perspective, did not mean he had truly passed on.

Not wanting to be insensitive, Jeremy gently nodded his head in approval. Aelita quickly power-walked over to the elevator door and entered as it opened, waiting for Odd to follow her inside. They waited as the car took them one floor down to the scanners, remembering what every Lyoko warrior had to do when preparing for virtualization. When the lift stopped and opened, they laid their eyes on the four cylindrical pods that would take them to Lyoko. Odd hurriedly climbed inside one of the scanners and watched Aelita enter her own.

"The scanners ready; preparing for transfer," Jeremie announced over the intercom as the doors of the scanners slid shut. Odd managed to flash a peace sign with his hand before he disappeared from view, making Aelita smile. The two subjects of the virtualization process felt themselves being turned around on an axis as the machines worked their magic. Countless memories of the act flashed before their lidded eyes as blinding light began to dominate their vision.

"Scanner, Aelita. Scanner, Odd. Virtualization."


Sector Five

Remembering that there was always a short drop when arriving in the virtual world, Odd and Aelita kept their feet below them as they landed on the floor of Sector Five's arena. Naturally, they scanned the immediate area around them: a round, domed room with blue walls and the eye of XANA decorating the surface on which they stood. To their left was the narrow passageway that led to the larger core zone that made up the structure's main interior.

"This is awesome!" Odd exclaimed, staring at the open palms of his feline hands. He noticed that there were some minor changes to his avatar since the last time he was virtualized. While he retained the theme of a purple cat, complete with paws and a tail, the extra set of ears above Odd's temples had disappeared, along with the symbol depicting his dog Kiwi urinating. The dark violet stripes along his bodysuit had become yellow as well. The most notable change were his hands, which had dark gray gauntlets extending from his forearms and wrapping around his feline fingers. Curious, he aimed at the wall and remembered how to fire his trademark laser arrow. Instead of a single projectile, out came three individual arrow heads that impacted against the surface of the room with the speed to match that of a bullet.

"OMG, this is sweet! I almost wish there were some monsters to fight."

Odd saw Aelita running for the corridor. From what he could see, her avatar had been slightly altered too. She was still an elf in pink, but now the sides of her suit and her once transparent skirt were magenta. It still made her look as cute, playful and extra confident as before, yet also more serious.

"Wait, where are you going? Hello~?" Aelita gave no answer as she disappeared behind the curve of the passage. Odd sighed in defeat and to the thin air around him, asked, "Hey Jeremy, can you send me the Overboard? Aelita went ahead of me and I need to catch up."

"Sure thing."

Two seconds later, the familiar shape of the Overboard came into being at Odd's feet, who stepped up on it and rode it leisurely down the twists and turns of the hall where Aelita would be.

In a few minutes he caught up to her in the cavernous labyrinth of the Carthage sector, eventually arriving at the only known tower to be found in that part of Lyoko. The tower, like their avatars, had undergone changes to its physical appearance. Instead of a tall beige cylinder, it was rectangular and colored like granite.

Aelita stepped closer to the structure, staring at it with awe and wonder. Circling around it and her was Odd who was clearly enjoying himself. He was doing various flips and loops in midair with his board, taking advantage of Lyoko's altered laws of physics. "You know, it would be a shame to just let this all go to waste," Odd was suggesting. "If we wanted, we could open our own theme park, or one of those RPGs you see in anime!" He jumped from his board over a high ledge, making a full front flip and landing on his ride once again. "Lyokoland: a place of virtual adventure and imagination~! That'll be the slogan."

The purple car boy had of course failed to notice that Aelita was too spaced out to hear him speak. She was preoccupied with conflicting thoughts concerning Lyoko, her father, and XANA. She clearly heard what Jeremy had reported, and the apparent lack of XANA activity made this world seem so lifeless.

She ran her delicate hand over the tower's surface. She could feel it, but it had no temperature or texture, sensations that she had grown to love so much. However, it was this lack of sensation that she had a soft spot for. Lyoko was once her home, and she always felt a physical connection with it since she was first awoken in it. She knew better than anyone that this world could be used for destruction on Earth, but did that mean it had to be buried and forgotten?


Kadic Academy

Securing her grip on Ulrich's arm, Yumi used the downward leverage to bring them both to the floor, flipping Ulrich over her and on his back. She flipped back up and came to rest on Ulrich's chest, pinning him to the soft gym mat. He quickly countered with excessive use of his superior brute strength, rolling Yumi off of him and with the momentum of his action, rolled with her and was now keeping her secured against the mat as she had before with him.

Ulrich and Yumi had returned to Kadic a while ago after voicing their desires to do so. Despite the fact that they loved and supported Aelita, the pair still had their doubts about her claims to XANA's alleged rebirth, if that was even the proper term for it. They saw little point in just waiting around in the factory, so they left. Arriving at the campus, they decided to have a quick, private Pencak Silat match in the gymnasium.

Out of breath and sweaty, Ulrich and Yumi took the time to look into each other's eyes. The fact that they were in a rather suggestive position did not go unnoticed, the observation of which elicited smiles and a few exhausted chuckles. They had been intimate before many times after they had started dating, and this situation, as immature as it was, reminded them of it. Unable to resist the temptation, they leaned into each other for a kiss...

"Ah! Very good, you two!"

Ulrich jumped back and Yumi sat up. Standing in the doorway was Jim, carrying a loose bag filled with sports equipment. "Extra-curricular sports, I see. Good for you, since the Cyber-Sports are officially canceled; too virtual," he shrugged, "and nothing compared to real contact, sweat, and physical exertion. Well you two carry on; I've got to go change the fuses." Jim set down his baggage and walked out the door without looking back.

A few seconds went by as Ulrich and Yumi looked at each other, and broke into happy laughter. Same old Jim, same old awkward misadventures at Kadic. As they got up, put away the mat and changed back to their ordinary clothes, they could not help but wonder what the others may have been up to.


Factory

Jeremy could not have expected what happened next to actually occur. Well, maybe he did, in the back of his mind at least, what with the insight he had obtained from being a Lyoko warrior. What appeared on the screen was something he did not want to believe, but as a scientist, he sometimes had to accept what his eyes perceived as reality.

Bringing his headset closer to his mouth, he shakily said, "Odd, Aelita? We've got a tower activated in Sector Five."

"Uh, could you repeat that, Einstein?" Odd asked with a tone of confusion and disbelief.

"I said there's a tower activate in Sector Five." The statement was still hard to grasp, but Jeremy was acting on instinct rather that intellect.

"But the only one is right here, and it looks fine."

"This is a new tower," explained the blond egghead. Doing his best to remain calm, he had taken apart the map of the sector to find this new tower located deeper in Carthage's superstructure. Even as he worked hard to figure things out, he felt himself becoming very stressed. Perhaps he was having a panic attack.


Sector Five

Aelita and Odd could hear something heavy coming from the entrance to the corridor behind them. From the dark opening rolled a trio of Megatanks, who stopped abruptly and displayed the lateral eye spots on their shells. As expected of them, the monsters' spherical shields parted to reveal the eye of XANA, building up with the energy to launch their mighty laser arches.

While Odd cautiously inched toward the Overboard, Aelita stood her ground and glared at the abominations, forming two pink glowing blobs in her palms. Before either of them could react, the Megatank directly in their path discharged its weapon. Just like they remembered, the solid wall of red energy surged out in a growing arch, threatening to devirtualize them with one direct hit.

Odd's board carried him to safety while Aelita crouched and dodged the attack. Lying on her side, the Lyoko princess saw the second Megatank on her left about to fire at her. She involuntarily flinched in preparation for the inevitable, but instead felt herself being jerked away and dragged through empty space. She opened her eyes to see Odd holding her right hand, pulling her body along behind the airborne Overboard.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, thanks to you."

Odd turned to look ahead and avoided a collision. "Jeremy! I thought you said XANA had definitely kicked it!"

"I-I don't understand. The scan was certain; there was nothing, and then the warning system went off."

"Well that helps!" Odd shouted sarcastically. "What would you have us do now?"

"What we used to do: find and deactivate the tower. After that, we can figure out what to do next."

By then, Odd had released his grip on Aelita's hand, shaking off the extra weight for better maneuverability. She fell for only a moment, running her hand over her star bracelet to trigger the translucent pink wings that sprouted from her back. In two flaps, Aelita had stabilized herself was gliding down into the mouth of the tunnel, with Odd right behind her. The Megatanks closed their shells and rolled after them, luckily being too confined to attack while in pursuit.

"I'll guide you two," Jeremy assured. "Take a right!"

Odd angled his board in the recommended direction and Aelita tipped her body to yaw with him. They entered a large and uneven chamber with the only way out being another passageway. They entered swiftly, looking back to see if they had shaken the monsters. To their annoyance, the Megatanks had made sure not to lose them, following them at a distance of less than a city block.


Kadic Academy

"Why can't they just put one big button with the label that it's the one?" Jim mumbled incredulously. In front of him was an open computer cabinet filled with all the parts of Kadic's main electrical distribution board. He scratched his head in bafflement as he tried desperately to interpret the maze of subsidiary circuits, fuses and their breakers.

Since the computer and loudspeaker incidents earlier, some of the school's electrical systems had been on the fritz, the suspected cause being a blown fuse or misplaced conductor. As Ms. Hertz and Mr. Reilly were unavailable at the moment, Principal Delmas had asked Jim to have a look. A bad choice it would seem, as he had already proved his incompetence with engineering to his students with the Cyber-Sports games. The hundreds of lights, buttons, and wires were overloading the grumpy gym teacher.

Reading the only written words he could find, Jim belatedly realized that one of the larger switches was crackling with electric sparks. Once he got a good look at it, the sparks intensified until some of them landed in his eyes. Jim yelled in pain, stumbling back with his hands over his face. In front of him suddenly appeared an inky black cloud that seemed to moves as if it were alive. It paused, expanding itself and taking on a general humanoid shape. Details began to set in until the polymorphic specter had completely copied the look of Jim Moralés.

Letting his vision return, Jim's eyes captured what looked like a mirror image of himself. The man remained speechless as he paled. His doppelganger stared back at him with an emotionless face, its eyes flickering with a strange symbol. "Wow," he said, "that shock from the computer must be messing with my brain."

The phony Jim extended a beefy arm and flicked the original's forehead with a finger. Instantly, Jim slumped to the floor and against the wall, an amusing expression on his unconscious face. The specter moved on and out the door, intent on completing the mission XANA had programmed it for.

After a few minutes of walking, it came to the door of the gymnasium, stopping only to open it with the same etiquette that a real human might exhibit. The movements were albeit robotic in nature, but not so much that it would be noticed by someone who wasn't looking for suspicious behavior. Once inside, it spotted Ulrich and Yumi communicating with each other. It could sense the source codes within their bodies, and heard the ringtone from Ulrich's cellular phone that they seemed to be unaware of. It estimated a ninety-eight-point-nine-percent chance that it was Jeremy trying to warn them of the physical danger they were now in.

"Oh hey there, Jim," Ulrich gestured with his head to the approaching teacher. "We were just finishing up now; we're done exercising for today." He was ignored by who he thought was Jim as the specter grabbed hold of his shoulders with a painfully tight grip. Ulrich quickly felt that something was off about Jim's behavior. "Jim, what are you doing? That hurts, let go of...," suddenly, Ulrich felt a combination of dizziness, nausea and a loss of balance the longer he remained in the iron grip. His words transformed into a sickly groan of discomfort.

"Hey, get off of him!" Yumi yelled, shoving the fake Jim in the shoulder. He fell quicker than she expected. Ulrich stumbled around, his eyesight losing its natural focus.

"I can't see right," he managed to get out, bringing his hand to his face just to prove it to himself. Yumi took his arm and brought it over her shoulders, supporting him before he fell over. She led them out to the courtyard towards the dormitory building.

"Don't worry, I'll get you to the infirmary," Yumi grunted, finding the job of helping Ulrich carry half his weight a little tiresome, "it's not that far."

Her cellphone began ringing and vibrating in her pocket. Must be Jeremy, she thought. She strained to reach for it with one arm, but eventually grabbed hold of the device. Hitting the button on the screen to accept the call, she flipped back some of her hair and placed it to her ear. "Jeremy?...What?...XANA?...A specter?"

"Well that explains a lot, doesn't it?" Ulrich slurred.

Coming out the gym's back door was the specter, staring them down like a cat would do when stalking its prey. As he neared them, Ulrich and Yumi turned tail and ran as fast as they could together.


Sector Five

The activated tower was in a secluded corner of the sector, supported on a set of raised blue blocks that were connected to a trail of other blocks that formed a kind of bridge. Chunks of the tower's body were separated yet held together by some unseen gravitational force. Between these spaces as a glowing red aura, signifying its control by XANA.

A winged Aelita and air-surfing Odd zipped out from the tunneled labyrinth and made a ninety-degree left turn to follow the path to the tower. Before Aelita could consider landing and entering the monolith, the Megatanks rolled into view and began firing their laser arches at both of them. The Lyoko warriors were forced to dodge, making any further progress with their mission impossible.

"You go ahead! I'll take care of them!" Odd called to Aelita. He flew high and angled the front of the Overboard downward, heading straight for the attacking Megatanks and firing volleys of laser arrows. One of them was hit directly in the eye by the raining projectiles, bursting into what resembled red shards of glass that imploded a second later.

"One down, two to go!" As Odd halted the Overboard in time and maneuvered away, the closest Megatank pivoted slightly and fired, narrowly missing Odd but destroying his vehicle. The cat boy used his catlike reflexes to land softly on the bridge. I forgot how tough this could be.

The two Megatanks had Odd in their sights, firing their laser arches at the same time. He jumped forward and spun his body like an American football, evading the touch of the solid walls of energy that nearly sandwiched him between them. Before landing, he extended his arms and fired more laser arrows, shooting and destroying the Megatank directly in front of him. As he feet touched the ground, Odd was unable to anticipate the follow-up shot from the other monster behind him and was devirtualized with one direct hit.

Being alone on Lyoko when faced with a Megatank was a daunting scenario. Aelita felt vulnerable without the protection of another teammate fighting by her side. Regardless, she braced herself to give it her all if need be.

She flapped to evade the attack of one of the Megatanks, a pink energy ball forming in her right hand. She hurled it at the bulky construct like a dodge ball player would, hitting the exposed insides land engulfing its body in the blob's mass. Once it exploded, the pinkette alighted on the walkway and swept her fingers over her bracelet again, making her wings disappear. She spun around on her heal to the tower, only to freeze when two Krabs were deployed and began making their way towards her.


Factory

The scanner Odd had first entered opened with a hiss, spewing vaporized coolant as it did so. Though his body on Earth was intact, his nerves told him he had experienced something akin to running right into a fence post at a parallel angle. He clutched his aching chest and staggered out of the cramped space, heading to the elevator door and pressing the button to open it. "So much for that amusement park idea," he muttered.


Kadic Academy

Yumi and Ulrich hurried to the manhole cover, ignoring the ambiance of the forest and the retreating animals around them. Still dazed, Ulrich required Yumi's help to keep up with her, who allowed him to lean against the trunk of a nearby tree while she moved the heavy lid out of place. Curious, she looked up at him to visually judge his condition. "Are you getting better?" she asked.

"I guess," Ulrich lightly groaned, "but not fast enough. When that specter touched me, I think he transmitted something. My eyesight's still like I need glasses."

Yumi took Ulrich's hand and graciously guided him down into the hole with her and covered it behind them. Seeing circumstances made the use of the skateboards impossible, they ran together down the long, seemingly endless sewer tunnel. Their rapid footfalls echoed off the concrete walls as they moved, careful to avoid the occasional patch of sludge or sneaker-sized rat that got in their way. After what seemed like an hour of exhausting running, the landmarks they recognized suggested they were only halfway to the ladder that would take them to the bridge of the factory.

"Stop, stop!" Ulrich heaved. "I need to rest...please."

The Japanese girl nodded in agreement. "Just s-sit down right here," she panted, slumping against the dirty wall and sharing huge gulps of oxygen. Their faces were reddened and a grimy sheen of sweat had formed on their foreheads.

They need our help, Yumi mulled, but we can't get there in time like this. The decision she made next was a very difficult one, however the fact that Jeremy and Aelita were probably in need of another helping hand outweighed her instinct to remain by Ulrich's side. Reluctantly, she took out her phone and called Jeremy. Once he picked up, she skipped all customary greeting and got straight to the point. "Jeremy, I'm in the sewer with Ulrich at the halfway mark. The specter disguised itself as Jim and attacked him. He's not doing well, and I won't make it to the factory in time trying to bring him with me. How are you and the others holding up?"

"Not any better than you," Jeremy reported despondently. "Odd's been devirtualized and Aelita's alone on Lyoko; she needs your help. I'll send Odd over to Ulrich and you worry about us over here."

"Got it; I'll be right there," Yumi said before hanging up. She looked at Ulrich and instantly felt guilt building up inside her at the thought of abandoning him. "Don't worry," she assured the both of them, gently resting a hand on her boyfriend's shoulder, "Odd will be here any minute now, so sit tight and wait for him."

Ulrich nodded to confirm that he understood. With that, Yumi got back up and dashed down the tunnel, praying that she was not too late to make a difference.


Sector Five

The two Krabs had been quick to pursue Aelita, initiating a game of cat-and-mouse. Outnumbered and outgunned, Aelita took it upon herself to, somewhat literally, hide right under their "noses". Losing their target, the Krabs simply stood together at the end of the walkway, blind to the fact that just below them, Aelita was flat against the side of the blue block, standing on a lower ledge.

"Jeremy, I need help," she whispered, "I can't do this by myself."

"Don't worry, Aelita; Yumi's on her way right now," Jeremie said assuredly.


Sewer

The eerie silence of the sewers was making Ulrich increasingly uncomfortable. Yumi had left a while ago and he was still feeling the effects of the specter's touch. Every sound, movement and shadow presented the implication of coming danger. He had never felt so vulnerable before, and that was saying a lot.

His ears picked up the rapid pits and pats of somebody's shoes against the concrete path, and they were probably running. Ulrich could not tell which direction they were coming from with the resonating echoes in the way, so he began to tense up in fear. A shadow ran along the corner of the wall next to him, which startled Ulrich so much that he nearly pulled himself into the rank river of sewage. He tried to flee when a hand gripped his shoulder until he was staring into the blurred image of Odd's face.

"It's okay, it's me Odd," the pointy-haired boy said quickly. His voice made Ulrich stop struggling, and take deep, calming breaths. "Jeremy told me everything. The specter's disguised as Jim, right?"

"Yeah," Ulrich exhaled.

Odd took his friend's right arm and pulled it around his shoulder, helping him to his feet. "Come on, pal, let's get going." He guided Ulrich down the path, unaware that they were being followed from a distance.


Sector Five

Hopeful, Aelita stayed where she was for a few more minutes, waiting to see if Yumi would arrive or if the Krabs left before then. Something in between occurred when she heard the hum of the Overwing and the Krabs' limbs clacking against the sector's surface. She climbed up to see Yumi in her ninja-themed avatar, riding her vehicle and drawing the Krabs away from their quarry.

After Yumi put a good distance between herself and the Krabs, she steered the Overwing into a wide banking turn, bringing her around and back to Aelita. Her appearance had also changed on Lyoko. Her form-fitting shinobi garb was wrapped around her body in a different matter than before, and had darkened from two tints of violet to a slightly darker reddish-purple. The metallic bracket over the lower half of her ribs no longer fully encompassed her torso and lacked the yellow cloth on her back. The little flowers on her hips had been replaced by a larger one on the corner of her chest.

"Get to the tower; I'll cover you." She revved the handle bars as Aelita brought out her wings again, letting her teammate go first. Yumi angled the Overwing over the walkway and sped towards the tower and the two Krabs. The tall crustaceans sent a barrage of red laser bolts at the ninja as she got closer, yet their aim fell short. As soon as she was ten meters from the monsters, Yumi made a full back-flip off her vehicle.

The runaway Overwing drifted off to the right and smashed into one of the Krabs at full speed, destroying it in a blaze of ruby crystals. Landing on the walkway, Yumi produced her tessen fans in both hands, throwing them with the correct posture and technique. The spinning fans mirrored one another in flights, crossing over once before going up through the underside of the Krab's carapace and out the top. Gleaming white slits had opened where the fans had entered and exited, which seemed to paralyze the monster before it exploded.

Right outside the tower, Aelita gave Yumi a thumbs up and a smile as the fans returned to her. She walked through the tower as if it were made of air, a rippling pattern forming on the monolith's surface as she made contact. The inside of the tower was exactly like it had been before, with a platform depicting the eye of XANA and walls with code interfaces.


Sewer

"Look, there's the grating." Odd pointed to the bars that separated them from the town's river "We just have to climb the ladder and we'll be fine."

"Wait, I think somebody's behind us," Ulrich motioned with his head. Odd craned his head back to see what looked like Jim slowly following them. If memory served, a specter would try to seriously injure and ultimately kill any one of the Lyoko warriors, depending on XANA's plan. If their lives were indeed the prize, they were both sitting ducks unless Odd could buy time until the tower was deactivated.

Odd set Ulrich down and turned back to confront the doppelganger. He balled his hands into fists, cocked his arms, and lightly hopped from foot to foot. "Come on big guy," he goaded, " I've got your Cyber-Sports right here."

He swung, but the hyper young man found his fist arrested in the grip of the specter's hand. He sawing again with his left hand, but it too was caught. As the specter forced Odd to his knees, he suddenly felt disoriented and under the weather. His muscles were betraying him as he felt his body tremble.


Sector Five

In the tower, Aelita let herself be lifted straight up to the smaller platform a couple stories above her. Reaching it, she gently alighted on it and stepped into the center. In front of her appeared the interface that asked for her digital identification. She answered by placing her right hand on the thin but solid surface of the panel. A fading print was visible as words began to form:

CODE:

LYOKO_


Sewer

Crack-like patterns developed on the specter's skin as it held Odd down. It suddenly exploded in a dazzling flash of greenish light. Odd, who was now just as dazed as Ulrich was, smirked with the knowledge that the rest of the team had succeeded.


Kadic Academy

After Jeremy and Ulrich had scanned themselves, the group had returned to Kadic to see the end of the schoolday. Jim had been discovered unconscious in the supply closet and was brought to the infirmary to recover. Once he awoke, he had no memory of the specter. The staff had come to assume that he accidentally electrocuted himself and passed out from the shock.

The five friends kept quiet about the incident, and went to their leader's dorm room to discuss the events that had transpired but a few minutes ago. There were many questions to be asked and only a few answers to give.

"Okay," Ulrich spoke up, "to ask what everybody's thinking, is XANA dead, yes or no?"

"The answer would be both yes and no," replied Jeremy. "When Odd, Aelita, and Yumi were virtualized, I noticed some strange red glowing auras around their digital signatures, which have never been there before."

Odd leaned back against the room's poster of Albert Einstein. "Okay, so what are they?"

"They're codes—source codes that belong to XANA. Two years ago, when we launched the anti-XANA program, he must have somehow injected those codes into your bodies, just to make sure he didn't die completely."

"How?" asked a perplexed Yumi.

"The four of you have gone to Lyoko more than anyone else," Jeremy continued, "and you all had contact with something of XANA's, whether it was the possessed William or even a monster's laser. It's the only explanation I can think of. And if that's the case, then you all have them inside you, and the specter was sent to recover them."

"Why would he go through that trouble?" Odd questioned.

"Most likely to regain his full power," Aelita surmised. She had been considering the possibilities for a while and had come to her present conclusion. "If he could only send a polymorphic specter after us, then he is probably working at less than half his total capacity. Once he had all of his source codes back, there will be nothing to stop him from taking over the network again."

"Then why don't we turn off the supercomputer and lock him up?" Yumi offered.

Aelita shook her head. "Impossible; there was XANA activity before we hit the switch. That means he's found another place to access the real world beside Lyoko. I hate to say it, but if we want this to end, we have to take him down once and for all."

The gang looked at each other multiple times, knowing that what Aelita said was true. After the silence, Jeremy stood up and announced, "The Lyoko warriors are back, then. Who's in?" He held out his hand, which was taken by Aelita, then Yumi, followed by Ulrich and Odd. From that moment on, they were officially back in business as protectors of mankind.


Aleppo

Enjoying the warmth of the open fireplace, Alan Meyer flipped through another page the novel he was reading. He sat in a comfortable red and black armchair that matched the design of the tapestries and furniture of the living room. Though his stay in the rebel-controlled half of Aleppo was to be short, he had taken measure to ensure his time spent here wold be done in comfort.

Meyer was the chairman and chief executive officer of Deckard, Incorporated, earning the position through hard work and the connections he had. Without his ingenuity, the corporation would have never attained the level of success it had in recent times. It was thanks to him that Deckard, Inc. was thriving.

As he neared the end of the chapter, the man could hear footsteps coming from behind. He closed the book and craned his head to the right to see over his shoulder. Entering the room was a middle-aged man in a black suit and tie. The man, Erik Graven, was the administrative manager for Deckard and Meyer's unofficial right-hand man.

"Sir, they're waiting for you," he said.

Meyer was on his feet, and with a smooth, charismatic voice, said, "Thank you, my good man. How many have come?"

"Eight dozen."

"Wonderful; as I predicted." He slipped on the black leather trench coat that had been draped over the chair. It went well with his gloves, short sleeve shirt, pants and boots, which were all black as well. His light brown hair had already been slicked back with gel and given a little fluff to it. He produced a pair of dark sunglasses from a pocket and placed them over his eyes. "Let's not keep them waiting."

Meyer and Graven walked over to the wood double doors and pushed them open, entering a wide corridor with more than a dozen armed commandos standing at attention, outfitted with full combat gear and automatic weapons. They were field operatives for Deckard Security, a subsidiary of the corporation established as a private military company.

"Anyway, sir, we've secured the area. No patrols or prying eyes within half a klick," Graven continued.

"What about drones or air traffic?"

"We have deployed all countermeasures."

When Meyer pushed through the next set of doors, he stepped out onto an open raised platform not unlike a stage and was met with the sound of a deafening cheer. In the courtyard of the large sand-colored household were dozens of armed militants, yelling a chorus of unintelligible words as Meyer presented himself to them. Several commandos flanked him while Graven remained inside, not wanting to be seen.

There was indeed logistical assistance provided by Deckard, Inc., including food, water, medicine, and weaponry. Meyer had quietly distributed his goods to the rebel groups along with the simple mention of his name, all the while disclosing as little about himself as possible. It wasn't out of the kindness of his heart, but for the political support that he needed. To the revolutionaries in the area, he had become an object of mystery and reverence. Then, members of the various factions that stood against the Syrian government had been invited to meet this enigmatic man who had so generously given away all these valuable materials for the war effort. Now here he was, standing before them like some prophet.

Meyer held out an arm to silently ask for the uproar to cease. The crowd held their tongues as he began to speak. "alslam 'lykm ya akhwan . أna sahr w أrhb bkm fy Phoenix. jyt ala hna llastma' ala hdhh alhqyqة ، wla tsm' ..."


Translations:

"¡Oye! Quítate de ahí!"—"Hey! Get away from there!"

"alslam 'lykm ya akhwan . أna sahr w أrhb bkm fy Phoenix. jyt ala hna llastma' ala hdhh alhqyqة ، wla tsm' ..."—"Hello, My brothers. I am the Magician, and I welcome you to Phoenix. You came here to listen to the truth, and you shall have it..."


Please review. I hope you enjoyed this opening chapter better than the other one.