Level 2- Children

Takuya Onodera- Age 21
Born to TK and Tally Takaishi on July 10, 2018
Senior in college
Currently living in a Tokyo university residence hall with roommate Kouta

Stage Eight- Truth

----2028 to 2029----
On December 31, 2028, the Digital World was completely severed from the real world, fulfilling a resolution narrowly passed by the United Nations earlier in the year. During the Sealing, all of the Digimon living in the real world were sent back to the Digital World permanently. Most of the world's population surrendered their digivices to authorities, since they no longer served a function. While authorities were not able to retrieve every digivice, it usually did not matter- the Digimon Activity Advisory Board had severely restricted access to the Digital World since 2007. Only the "Chosen" (original digi-destined selected prior to 2004), and "Gatekeepers" (researchers and regulators with government clearance), could use their digivices to enter the Digital World. Those two groups were therefore forced to hand over their digivices.

Seven Chosen from Japan and the United States- Kari Fisher, Cody Hida, Matt and Sora Ishida, Izzy Izumi, Joe Kido and TK Takaishi defied authorities by refusing to submit their digivices. On December 31, the seven were sent to New York City, where they were forced into the Digital World moments before it was cut off from the real world. They were never heard from again.

In 2029, a group of former Digital World researchers met in Palo Alto, California to research ways to safely reintroduce Digimon into the real world. Led by Dr. Rob McCoy, the group represented the top minds in the field, including Janyuu Wong and Goro Mizuno, co-workers of the departed Izzy Izumi. In order to test out their vast array of proposals, they received a university grant to bring their ideas to life. Using the MAXIS, a virtual simulation program normally reserved for medical research (developed after the Age-Reduction Surgery fallout in the mid-2010s), the group created their own world, and subsequently their own Digital World. It is considered the most ambitious use of the MAXIS to date.

Since the entire virtual Digital World had to be created with manmade parameters, the researchers were forced to use their own theories, both proven and unproven. They started small, with a basic plain using the early ABC and ENIAC computers as foundations. The Digital World was programmed to evolve and grow. As it slowly did so, the researchers turned to matters of their "real" world.

Fully intending to start over, they designed the real world to simulate life at the beginning of the Digimon Age. Although the Digital World had not evolved to a point where it could interact with the real world, the researchers planned for this eventuality. Dr. Goro Mizuno took command of this aspect of the project. He envisioned a return to the days of morally upright children selected to become partners with a Digimon. These children, called "Tamers," would be responsible for ensuring the safety of the Digimon, and the safety of the Digimon's environment.

Dr. Mizuno eventually wanted to make all of his world's randomly generated children candidates to become Tamers. First, however, he created his prototype child, establishing characteristics he believed would make the perfect Tamer. Since the Digital World was not yet ready, Dr. Mizuno deposited this child to grow naturally in the MAXIS. This child was named Takato Matsuki, after a character in one of Dr. Mizuno's favorite novels. As a result, the plan for integrating the two worlds through human Tamers was dubbed "The Matsuki Project."
--------

The drive to Tachikawa felt very short to Koji, despite not sleeping in the back seat. It wasn't long before Tally pulled into a garage, shut off the ignition, and nudged Riley awake.

"Here already?" Koji asked.

"Yep. And this is a secure location, so they won't find us unless we get careless," Tally replied.

"Then let's go inside," Riley muttered, opening her door.

Tally and Koji stepped out of the car, Tally staring at Riley's drained face. "Seriously, Riley, are you all right?"

"No. Can we go inside first?"

Tally made no effort to inquire further. She unlocked the front door and let Riley and Koji into the building. It was a small house, but had plenty of room for the three. Beyond the ample kitchen they had entered into, Koji also saw a living room, with doors leading to two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an extra room set up as an office. As Koji explored the layout, Riley lay down on the couch.

"Nice place. So you live here?" Koji asked.

Tally nodded. "For a couple months every year. One of my friends spends a lot of time in America, so I housesit while she's away. Better than my apartment in Odaiba, that's for sure."

Koji peeked into the office. Tally had obviously brought in a few computers; Koji saw them lined up along the back wall, with only a few connected to monitors. All were turned on.

"Since she's not on Yasuo's black list, this is also where I do my hacking and stuff." Tally added, "Which reminds me that I need to make a phone call."

As Tally picked up a phone in the room, Koji left to give her some privacy. He approached Riley, who had turned on the television and was watching the news.

"I hope I'm not causing too much trouble for you. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't shown up," Koji said, sitting down on a nearby chair.

"Well, besides the red-eye from New York this morning, coordinating everything with Tally, and getting you out of there... today was a pain and a half," Riley replied. She looked up at Koji and added, "But for you, it's worth it."

"You don't know what it means to hear that. Lately, it seems all I've been hearing is that I don't belong in this world, and that I don't have the right to be here."

"You don't," said Riley, sitting up to talk to Koji properly, "We've been trying to fix that. We wanted you to have a chance. It's been that way for two years."

"You mean..." Koji stopped. He didn't want to bother guessing. In the two years he had spent in this world, he had never thought of somebody watching him from above and pushing him along. Was everything in his real-world life just as pre-ordained as his virtual-world life?

"If you had arrived in Shinjuku like Izzy had programmed, Yasuo would have spotted you and you would have been taken in the day you got here. So I hacked in and sent you to New York instead. Meeting Dwayne wasn't a stroke of good luck. He was there to help support you, and make sure you didn't do anything that would get Yasuo's attention."

Koji leaned forward and stared at the floor. "And then I ruined it all with those damn letters."

"It's not your fault. You didn't know. I'm sure Matt and the others asked you to do it. Which is understandable." Despite her sympathetic words, Riley said them so quietly and in such a monotone that Koji wondered if she was being sincere.

She laid down again, murmuring, "I guess this was all bound to happen eventually. Are you tired?"

"Not really," Koji replied. He had slept plenty in captivity, and had been able to relax a little in the car. His body was still drained from the day's exertion, but he was wide awake. "Just hungry, that's all."

"We'll have Tally get some takeout."

Tally emerged from the office, still on the phone: "That's fine. I'd just feel a lot better if you got out of there in case they come looking for you." She listened for a moment, looking worriedly at Riley and Koji, then smiled briefly. "Okay. Yeah, just in case. Thanks a lot."

She turned the phone off and said, "Takuya's going to be staying with his girlfriend." She shook her head and added, "They grow up so fast."

Riley sighed. "Yeah..." she mumbled, rolling over.

"Oh. Sorry."

"Was that your son?" Koji asked.

"Yeah. He called me yesterday and told me you might be in trouble. Said Mari Izumi stopped by to see if you visited him."

Koji smiled at that. It was a huge relief to hear that Mari was not only safe, but that she was also trying to find him. Now he only hoped he could find a way to contact her.

As Tally went into the kitchen, Koji stood and followed her. "Say, is there any chance we can get a hold of Mari and tell her I'm okay?" he asked.

Tally sighed. After looking around for awhile, she finally answered, "Um... let's hold on that for now. It's been a long day. I just want to relax for the night. Looks like Riley feels the same way."

"Oh. Okay," Koji tried not to sound disappointed. "Sounds like you two really went through a lot to help me."

Tally smiled weakly. "Nah, it's just that all this action is rough on us. ARS does that to you, you know?"

"ARS?" Koji was surprised to hear it come up again. Mimi getting it was one thing, but these two?

"Makes you look 15 years younger... and kills you 15 years faster," she replied sullenly, "All for the chance to be a part of the project. I guess it was worth it."

----2030-2031----
As life without Digimon continued, the multitude of Digimon supporters kept the memory alive on Earth. Without the negative publicity of uncontrollable attacks and other Digimon-related crimes, the Digital World received an outpouring of goodwill in the media. No longer a permanent fixture in life, Digimon saw new life as a trendy pop-culture element. Although the real thing was gone, Digimon-related games, stuffed animals, and books dominated their respective markets. Of course, Digimon opponents were quick to remind people why the Digital World was sealed off in the first place. As a result, there was very little serious advocacy towards unsealing it.

During this wave of popularity, TK Takaishi's books about the Digital World enjoyed a second visit on best-seller lists, most notably the Chronicles of the Odaiba Chosen series- a historical account of his adventures at the turn of the century. Television producers attempted to coax his widow, Tally Onodera, into selling Chronicles' TV rights. However, fed up with the constant stream of offers, Tally sold the rights to friend and Odaiba Chosen Davis Motomiya, hoping a television series would be more legitimate if one of its main characters had a say in its production.

As executive producer, Davis eagerly began work on an animated adaptation of Chronicles. Naturally, the series involved the seven defiant Chosen that disappeared in 2028. Unwilling to see the seven go from traitors of mankind to cartoon heroes, the Japanese government, particularly U.N. Ambassador Yasuo Akiyama, pressured networks not to air the series. Without the promise of being broadcast, the project was scrapped. Instead, a separate company managed to buy the rights to TK's fictional novel Digital Frontier. In April of 2031, the anime Digimon Frontier premiered in Japan.

In America, the Matsuki Project did not last long. After hearing about it, Yasuo convinced the U.S. government to cut funding for the research. Ordered to scrap the project, Dr. McCoy and the others did so through D-Reaper, a sophisticated data-deletion program originally pioneered by Izzy Izumi. However, although D-Reaper did destroy several of the Digimon that had arisen in the MAXIS, the Digital World had not evolved to a point where D-Reaper could recognize it as excess marked for destruction (a limitation of the initial program). Without enough evolved data to eliminate, D-Reaper became dormant, slowly absorbing the energy of what it had destroyed.

This went unnoticed by the researchers for almost a year. It wasn't until 2031, when Dr. Mizuno happened to peer into the world inside the MAXIS, that he noticed that his world was still growing. With no sign of D-Reaper on the surface of the Digital World, Dr. Mizuno wrote an algorithm to boost the rate of evolution in the Digital World. The parallel real world also remained in perfect health, showing no evidence that D-Reaper ever reached it.
--------

As Koji answered his aching appetite with a few helpings of okonomiyaki, Tally and Riley answered as much as they could about the creation of his world, and the need to defend it from D-Reaper. They also thoroughly justified the need for the elaborate series of lies about the origins of the Digital World and the "Monster Makers." There was the need to explain why a group of forty-year-olds were taking an interest in Digimon. They also needed to rationalize the reason for D-Reaper's emergence. The truth simply would not do.

"How would you have felt then if you knew your entire existence was merely an elaborate science experiment, and D-Reaper was the response to a disappointing result?" Riley asked.

They reassured Koji that at least some of it was genuine. The existence of Digimon Tamers, with the exception of Ryo, was an unexpected twist that nobody could explain. The behavior of the Digimon Sovereign was not predicted, particularly that of Zhuqiaomon. And of course, the bond between the Tamers and their Digimon was stronger than any of the researchers could have imagined, and was ultimately the difference between success and annihilation.

Although Koji was happy to hear the story from the perspective of the good guys, it wasn't very comforting. It just confirmed the awful truths about his home and his reason for being. Furthermore, it showed that Yasuo and Ryo had been right for the most part. What reason was there to believe that Ryo had lied about the Digital World's destruction?

Before Riley or Tally could get to that point, however, they heard a knock at the front door. The three raised their heads simultaneously and turned to the foyer, all at once nervous. The knocking continued.

"Do we know who that is?" Riley asked.

"We can't be sure," Tally replied.

Riley turned to Koji. "Quick, hide in the bedroom," she commanded as Tally stood.

Koji did so and closed the door behind him, putting an ear to it.

He heard an unfamiliar woman's voice ask, "Did you find him?"

"Oh, it's you. Scared us for a second," Tally replied, sounding relieved, "Yes. You didn't bump into him a few days ago, did you?"

"I don't bump. I encounter nobody unless I intend to." After a pause, the woman added, "Where is he?"

Koji cautiously slid the door open and re-entered the living room. The stranger was only slightly older than he was, staring back with narrowed eyes- one blue, one brown. Contrasting her stark black dress and shoes was her fiery orange hair, cut very short. Before he could gather up the nerve to say anything, she was approaching him.

"Remarkable," she whispered as she placed her hands on his cheeks. Dumbfounded, he stared back silently as she felt around his head, pulling down his eyelids and opening his mouth. All the while she did not flinch. Her eyes widened and her mouth remained slightly agape.

"This answers the question of which Mari you met," Tally remarked. Unable to move his head, Koji's eyes darted to his right, where he could make out Tally smiling.

Koji's reverted his gaze back to the mysterious woman. She had let go of his face, but remained in close proximity.

"You met... Mari?" she asked, slowly and deliberately.

Something about the way she said "Mari" struck Koji as odd. He made the connection himself and stepped back. "You... you sent that e-mail," he accused, "You're Alice!"

Her eyes narrowed. "I no longer have a name," she replied.

Koji took a step forward. "You know that e-mail made her really upset. What's your problem with her?"

"It would be unwise for her to get too comfortable in my life."

"Come on, Alice, you weren't using it anymore," Tally said as approached the two. She turned to Koji. "Takato, did you get to know this Mari at all?"

"Yeah, we um..." Koji stopped for a moment, then snickered quietly as he started to blush. Not wanting to give too many details, he said, "We uh, got to know each other real well."

Riley and Tally both smiled knowingly. "Maybe picking Dwayne wasn't such a good idea," Riley said.

As Riley chuckled, Koji couldn't help but join in. Not amused, Alice sneered and asked, "So who was this girl?"

Koji tried to compose himself. He knew it wasn't a laughing matter. Alice's question was certainly sobering. He still wanted to believe the Mari he knew was the real one. If she was not, then he had no idea who she was.

"She was Mari Izumi," he finally answered, "Who are you?"

Alice scowled. "I am no longer anybody. But just because I was not using my identity does not give her the right to steal it."

Koji was beginning to get angry. He knew he had to stand up for Mari. No way would she ever intentionally deceive somebody. And rather than trying to sort things out, Alice seemed content remaining vague in her accusation.

"Look, I don't know what's wrong with you, but leave Mari alone. Do you have any idea what she went through? She's the only one who got out of the Digital World besides me," he said.

"She was in the Digital World?" Alice asked, backing away slightly. Finally she shook her head. "Impossible."

"Don't ever say that!" Koji yelled, "I'm getting really sick of people calling the truth impossible!"

Before their arguing escalated, Tally stepped in with a hand on Alice's shoulder. "Uh, Alice, I'm assuming you're staying here tonight. Let's put your things in my room," she said, trying to sound as pleasant as possible.

Alice silently assented. As they went to get Alice's bag from the foyer, Koji angrily turned to Riley. "So who the hell is she?"

Without a word, Riley led Koji into the second bedroom. With the door shut, she quietly asked, "Did you hear what happened to Jim Kido?"

Caught off guard by a seemingly unrelated subject, Koji barely managed a "yes."

"Well, after that, you can imagine that the relatives of the Japanese Chosen were hesitant about doing anything remotely suspect."

"Okay..." Koji understood, but still didn't see the relation.

"When we got involved with the project, we didn't want to let on that we had any connection to the Chosen. If Yasuo found out we were involved, it could have endangered everybody."

"Is that what the ARS was for?"

Riley nodded. "I guess Tally told you already. Not only did it change our appearance, the Hypnos program wasn't going to pass up on a pair of young, qualified computer girls like Tally and I."

Koji cracked a slight grin, matching the one that had crept on Riley's face. His smile diminished just as quickly as he continued, "So what about Alice?"

"Mari?" As soon as she said it, Koji frowned. "Mari went to even greater lengths. She wanted to keep any semblance of the Izumi family out of trouble, so she passed herself off as Dolphin's granddaughter." With a shake of her head, Riley added, "It's purely cosmetic though. The real Alice acts nothing like that. Then again, Mari was never quite the same since her father left."

'She's completely nuts,' Koji thought. Unfortunately, she was also the original Mari Izumi. All of his efforts to reassure and comfort Mari had been for the wrong one. The puzzler was how the false Mari ended up in this scenario.

"I wouldn't think about it for too long Takato. It gives me a headache too," Riley said, "If you ask me, she had it coming. After it was all over, she decided not to go back home and I guess she's just been doing her own thing for the last few years. She wasn't really Alice, and she didn't want to be Mari."

"So she became nobody..." Koji answered.

"And frankly, we have bigger things to worry about than this other Mari."

Somewhat satisfied, Koji slid open the door as Tally and Alice exited the other bedroom. Suddenly, he thought of one more question, and turned back to Riley: "What exactly did she do for the team anyway?"

"Simple," Alice answered. Koji faced her as her mouth curled into a grin. "I merely invented bio-merging. I believe that establishes my significance to the project, wouldn't you say, Takato?"

As he stared at her, dumbfounded, she added, "Or is it Koji?"

----2032-2033----
As the Digital World within the MAXIS grew larger and stronger, Dr. Mizuno contacted the other researchers and told them about the exciting developments. Eager to restart the project, and hoping to avoid the bureaucracy of government funding, Dr. McCoy received financial support through a private donor- Davis Motomiya. With this, they were able to enhance their Digital World to include versions of the Digimon Sovereign. Hoping to restrict the rampant level of digivolution, they also contained Dr. Mizuno's prior algorithm into a single entity- the Shining Digivolution, guarded by the Sovereign on the Digital World's highest plain.

In lieu of the temporarily scrapped Matsuki Project, put on hold due to its complexity, the researchers introduced the concept of Digimon to their human world through various media. The Digimon card game, which had arisen a couple years earlier, was duplicated in the MAXIS. Plans to air Digimon Frontier were also discussed, but an informal suggestion by Davis convinced the group to go a step further- they arranged for the MAXIS to produce the ill-fated Chronicles of the Odaiba Chosen series. With no government interference, the residents of the MAXIS were able to view the origins of human/Digimon interaction, even if portrayed as fiction. Finally, the researchers also created Digimon computer games- an important element of the research since the game actually operated within the Digital World. This marked the first true interaction between the two MAXIS worlds.

A project of this magnitude was bound to catch the government's attention eventually. It did early in 2033 when Yasuo Akiyama heard about it through various sources and quickly called for the government to step in. Since it was now privately funded, he was unable to stop the project entirely. He did, however, demand that the government become involved. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, the researchers agreed to negotiate.

The result of this negotiation was Hypnos, a government organization that would theoretically monitor the Digital World's activity, and prevent any undue influence on the real world. Although most of the researchers agreed to implement Hypnos in the MAXIS, Dr. Mizuno angrily opposed it, still clinging to the Matsuki Project and his belief that children could control Digimon better than an organization. He was voted down, and later walked out on the project in disgust.

A neutral third party was contacted to develop the Hypnos program. One of its main developers, Mitsuo Yamaki, was appointed as its head. As plans were made to install Hypnos, the researchers recognized that it would have incredible power over the project. Hoping to maintain some control, they enlisted the help of Riley Kamiya and Tally Onodera, wives of two of the Odaiba Chosen and both highly skilled programmers. Using Age-Reduction Surgery and their maiden names to avoid being connected to the Chosen, Riley and Tally were hired as engineers.

As Hypnos went online, Yamaki, Riley and Tally entered the MAXIS using a new development that allowed physical entry in the virtual world. A fourth entry was Janyuu Wong, who agreed to go in on behalf of the researchers, despite the inevitable separation from his family. In order to ameliorate this, he programmed virtual clones of his wife and four children into the MAXIS. Yasuo Akiyama volunteered to monitor the behavior of the MAXIS from the outside.
--------

Ken normally didn't go up a floor while he was at work. The floor above his branch's office was still Yasuo's territory, therefore Ken had every right to go upstairs and snoop around. Perhaps it was his fear of making Yasuo suspect something underhanded that kept Ken away. It also could have been the fact that it was none of Ken's business.

It may have been an manufactured reason that brought Ken up here, but it would suffice. Ken wanted to at least catch a glimpse of what else Yasuo was doing. In particular, he wanted to know what Yasuo was doing with Koji. Although he knew he had to tread carefully, Ken also sensed some extreme significance in Koji Mathews that may have connected him to the other digi-destined.

Ken draped Yasuo's gray jacket over his shoulder as he proceeded down the hallway. Yasuo had left it in the office and, officially at least, Ken was just heading up to find Yasuo and return it. He walked slowly, keeping both ears open to eavesdrop on any potentially revealing conversations. He heard nothing useful until Yasuo's voice bellowed through the door.

"All signs are good. D-Reaper has penetrated the system."

"How long do you suppose it will take?" asked a second man, whose voice Ken didn't recognize.

"Without the presence of a source agent I am guessing two weeks to eradicate it completely."

It sounded completely irrelevant to the Koji situation. But Ken knew the best way to find out for sure without Yasuo realizing it. He knocked on the door.

"Who the devil is that?" Yasuo responded before opening the door. Upon seeing Ken, his eyebrows narrowed and he backed away slightly. "What are you doing here?" he asked hurriedly.

As Ken mentally noted Yasuo's reaction, he smiled pleasantly and handed over the jacket. "You left your jacket in the office. I hear it's supposed to be chilly tonight, so you don't want to forget it.

Yasuo closed his eyes and exhaled before taking the jacket and nodded. "Yes. Thank you. I was in a hurry this afternoon. I had to drive my son to the emergency room."

"Is he okay?" Ken asked, instinctively concerned.

"He's fine. Just a few stitches and a mild concussion." Yasuo looked away, carelessly answering the innocent question.

"What happened?" Ken was only mildly interested, but the harmless conversation was clearly keeping Yasuo from suspecting anything.

Yasuo shook his head. "He was just… being himself." Quickly, he added, "Have you ever met Ryo?"

"Uh… it's been a few years."

"Hmm, well if you would excuse me, I have work to do."

As Yasuo began to pull the door shut, Ken replied "certainly" and walked away.

It was a good start. Yasuo looked threatened at first. Whatever was going on with this "D-Reaper" it either was relevant to the Koji case, was something Ken was not supposed to learn too much about, or was something completely underhanded. Whatever it was, Ken was going to have to start looking into it further.

"Ichijouji!" Ken stopped as Yasuo called after him. "What's the status on the Ishida girl?"

Despite his initial surprise at Yasuo finally asking about Michi, Ken answered very plainly, "We're still tracking her. Why?"

"Good. Keep doing so. And please keep her in the country if at all possible."

Again, Yasuo's request caught Ken off-guard, but he tactfully hid it. "That shouldn't be a problem, but I thought Michi was in the clear."

"Just a precautionary measure. Keep close tabs on her and report anything suspicious. We'll find out soon if she's in the clear."

That last statement completely baffled Ken, but he affirmed and Yasuo turned around with no further elaboration. Ken stepped into an empty elevator, and called home as it descended.

"Hello?" his wife answered.

"Yolei, we're going to have to keep Michi with us for a little while longer."

"What do you mean? She's supposed to go home Saturday."

"Yeah. Yasuo doesn't want her leaving the country. And right now I think she's safer with us."

"What makes you say that?" Yolei asked.

"Something weird is going on. I don't know if we need to protect her from Yasuo or protect her from Koji, but what I do know is that we can protect her."

"Okay. I just don't want her to end up in the middle of all this. Looks like she's already been beaten up once from it."

"I know. Poor kid." Ken shook his head. The only thing he knew for certain was that Michi couldn't take more of whatever was going on. "I'm on my way home now. I love you."

Ken turned the phone off and set it aside. Somehow, he could feel something brewing. Somehow, he was going to have to get to the bottom of it.


Another day had passed, and Mari still had heard nothing from Koji. She wanted to go the distance to find him- to scour every corner of the city until he was safe in her arms- but the idea was preposterous. She knew his mission had been discovered. She also surmised that he no longer had the ability to contact her without endangering either of the two. And as much as she wanted to look for him, she could only imagine the danger she would be putting herself in. With such a small chance of success, it wasn't worth the risk.

Besides, her mother was due home soon and Mari didn't want her to know about the little escapade with Koji. Not only was she a little embarrassed to admit having a brief affair with a near stranger, anything related to the Digital World was off-limits. When Mari returned from the Digital World, her mother had pressured her into silence. This repression was part of the reason for her instant chemistry with Koji; Mari could not let her mother know everything had come gushing out one night.

With a sad sigh, Mari lifted herself off of the living room couch. The best thing to do was forget about the whole thing and move on. Sad as it was to leave Koji to the wolves, any other option was too dangerous. Mari began tidying up the living room, waiting for her mother to return. At least her normal life could be a little more comfortable now that she was able to bare her soul to somebody.

As she cleaned, she noticed an envelope lying on the floor. She picked it up. "MARI" was written on the front in bold letters. It was the letter from her father- the reason Koji had stopped by in the first place. Without hesitation, she sat down and opened it. As expected, the letter was neatly typed and formatted:

--------
Dear Mari:

Many things have changed recently. I am no longer as confident in my theories as I once was. In fact, I am not entirely sure who will be receiving this letter. If you have not journeyed to the Digital World recently, then rest assured that I am living comfortably here with my fellow Chosen. Please give my infinite love to Aya and ignore the remainder of this letter.

On the other hand, if you are the same girl who arrived here in the Digital World, giving me overdue joy as I fought for your safe return, then things are cloudier than I thought they were at the time. You came to me with memories of the impossible- the remnants of a realistic nightmare that somehow infected your mind during your journey between worlds.

Unfortunately, I now have reason to believe that these very impossible events may have been a reality somewhere. A second visitor has arrived in the Digital World with experiences supporting yours. I do not remember if you explicitly mentioned the name Takato Matsuki when you recalled everything to me (I must admit that I had dismissed your story as false without attending to the details). But he did mention similar memories, and also alluded to your pseudonym of Jeri Katou.

Although I am still straining to determine how this string of implausibility came to inhabit your memories, I am now forced to acknowledge the possibility that the events actually happened in some alternate world. If that is the case, then I may have erred in identifying you as my daughter. Whether you are Mari, Jeri, or perhaps a combination of the two, I hope Aya is taking good care of you and that you are safe. If he is not delivering this letter personally, I encourage you to contact Takato and attempt to decipher the truth. If he hand-delivers this, I hope you and he are able to solve this puzzle without any bitterness stemming from the relationship you two may have had.

Love,
Izzy Izumi
--------

Mari calmly set the letter on her lap and stared forward, her face blank. It was all conjecture, of course. Izzy clearly indicated that he didn't know for certain. Unfortunately, it worked both ways- he didn't say that she was definitely not Mari Izumi, but he also questioned his prior verdict saying she was.

She did not need this. Still haunted by Alice's e-mail, she wanted more than anything to be the original and true Mari Izumi. With the blinding spotlight of her return fading, and having opened herself up to Koji, she finally had the chance to live happily- ready to put the Digital World behind her and move on. But not with this letter throwing her entire past in doubt.

Even more troubling than the possibility that she was not truly Mari was the chance that her "impossible" memories actually happened. Her experiences before arriving in the Digital World were painful, and she had done quite well in convincing herself that it was all just a bad dream. Not only did the letter hint that the pain was real, but that "Koji" was the one positive out of the whole mess; the one who had rescued her, helped her recover, and fallen in love with her. If it was all true, she came to the Digital World to find him. When she did, neither she nor Takato realized it.

If he was really Takato, then Koji suddenly meant a lot more to Mari. But it didn't change the fact that the situation was beyond hope. She still couldn't afford the risk of looking for him. He was lost, and Mari had to accept that. Of course, doing so suddenly became a lot more difficult.

Mari looked down at the letter. It had ruined everything for her; everything she wanted to believe was suddenly cast in doubt. Everything she didn't want to believe was looking more and more like a grim reality. There was only one option for her-

"I am Mari Izumi," she announced defiantly, tearing the letter in two. Just to be certain, she tore it again.

Mari stood, tearing the pieces one final time before she cast them into the trash. As she did, she heard somebody enter the apartment.

"Mari, I'm home!" Aya shouted from the doorway.

With a deep breath, Mari approached her. She smiled brightly and bowed. "Welcome home, mother," she said, "How was the conference?"

Aya hung her jacket and set her luggage down. "Very interesting. I'll tell you about it later. What did you do while I was gone?"

"Oh... nothing," she replied, her smile thriving as Aya sat down on the couch, "Just hung out with some old friends. Nothing to write home about."

----2033-2034----
The early days under Hypnos operated smoothly and efficiently. Although Digimon did occasionally "bio-emerge" into the real world, nothing was above the technological capabilities of the program. However, the original researchers became unhappy with the often-violent responses to the Digimon. As they began to reconsider their rejection of Dr. Mizuno's stubborn faith in the Matsuki Project, an opportunity came to revive it.

Yasuo Akiyama's adopted son Ryo, who had heard about the experiment through his father, approached Tally Onodera's son, Takuya, to learn more. Having no information himself, Takuya directed him to the researchers. Ryo agreed to go into the MAXIS as the researchers developed a way to make him a Tamer.

While they did, he made quite a name for himself, attaining prominence as a master of the Digimon card game (quite natural for him, since he had attained similar success in his home world). The researchers did manage to link him to a Digimon, but Cyberdramon was too dangerous to be kept in the real world, especially under the prying eyes of Hypnos. Therefore, he and Cyberdramon entered the Digital World.

Once Yasuo found out about this, he was livid and sought to end the project entirely. However, with D-Reaper's evident unreliability in 2030, Yasuo had no method of doing so. It was not until 2031 when Yasuo noticed the traces of D-Reaper still subsiding deep within the Digital World. He reactivated it, hoping to either destroy the world or determine why it wouldn't. He succeeded in the latter, discovering that D-Reaper only deleted what it considered a surplus of evolutionary data. The Digital World handled this crisis on its own- unprompted by the researchers and unobserved by Hypnos. One of the sovereign simply took it upon himself to expel the Shining Digivolution into the real world, disguised as Calumon.

However, a second sovereign disagreed with the actions of the first, and sent a legion of powerful Digimon into the real world to retrieve Calumon. Significantly more overt and incredibly destructive, these "Devas" were not only noticed by Hypnos, they were beyond its control. In fact, the only reason the Devas were defeated at all was the mysterious emergence of Tamers in the real world. Although two were artificially created by the researchers, they had no idea how these Tamers had come forth to subdue the beasts. Unfortunately, it did not matter as the damage done was too high and the experiment was quickly deemed a failure.

Now seeing why D-Reaper was unable to destroy the world under its original program, Yasuo modified it to delete anything and everything. Having grown somewhat fond of it in the time spent inside, Janyuu Wong opposed the world's elimination and contacted the researchers to help oppose D-Reaper. Hypnos operatives Yamaki, Riley and Tally felt the same way, and allied with the researchers. Other supporters included the returning Dr. Mizuno, Ryo, and Izzy Izumi's daughter Mari, who posed as Dr. McCoy's granddaughter Alice to avoid connection to the Chosen. With key allies to be found in the new Tamers (who had entered the Digital World to retrieve Calumon), "Alice" began applying old theories of digivolution, hoping to create a new evolutionary stage to help battle D-Reaper. Through tireless work with her created "partner" Dobermon, she created an algorithm allowing a physical unification between Tamer and partner known as "bio-merging."

With the help of an elaborate back-story concocted by Janyuu (expanded from one he used with his son Henry as his interest in Digimon peaked), the Tamers became the crucial members of the team. With the added support of additional algorithms supplied by Alice and Dr. Mizuno (and despite miscommunications between the two creating unnecessary drama), the Tamers successfully saved their real world from D-Reaper.

Yasuo had no choice but to acknowledge this defeat, and allowed the real world to be spared if the eradication of the Digital World could continue. Since the Digital World had already been ravaged by D-Reaper, the coalition agreed to the terms, happy at least to have salvaged part of their experiment. Janyuu returned home (using a botched experiment to account for his disappearance) as did Ryo, Yamaki, Riley and Tally. Under the agreement, the remainder of the MAXIS world could only be destroyed if it presented a threat the real world. Yamaki and Yasuo agreed to be the judges of this criteria if it ever applied. It did not become a factor until 2040, when the two discovered Takato Matsuki's intrusion into the real world.
--------

Despite everything troubling Koji, he slept very well that night. He still wrestled with the possibility that Guilmon was no longer alive, fretted over the fate of his home world and knew that more trouble awaited him no matter where he went. But Riley and Tally had given him a temporary reprieve from his death sentence. Now that he was out of harm's way for the moment, he was bound to sleep a little easier.

He woke up early the next morning, happy to rise up and face the day. He hadn't been as excited about waking when he was captured- facing reality under Yasuo's custody wasn't worth getting up for. But on this day, he not only could enjoy his sleep, he was also eager to see what the future held for him.

Koji barely heard Riley's voice on the other side of the wall. "Well?" she said quietly.

He caught Tally's reply as well: "I just checked." She too was quiet. After a lengthy pause she added, "Yeah. It's been released."

Not wanting to eavesdrop further, Koji slid the door open. Riley was sitting on the couch, slouching forward with a sad look on her face. Tally stood in front of her, with a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll get him out of there," she said.

"Good morning," Koji said, doing his best to sound unobtrusive. However, Tally turned to him anyway and smiled.

"You're up early Takato. Er... Koji," she said pleasantly, adding, "What do you want us to call you?"

He thought about it for a moment. After all he had been through, he no longer had a preference. "I'm not sure. I guess it depends on where I'm going next."

With that, Riley stood suddenly. "You can't use either of the two anymore. Koji or Takato, it doesn't matter. Yasuo's out for either of them."

The news was somewhat difficult for Koji to take. After so much work defending his existence as Takato or Koji, his investment into the two was far too heavy to want to shed both and start over again. He slumped down on the sofa.

Tally said nothing to help. She went into the kitchen and said something about having breakfast started before Alice woke up.

"So I have to give up Koji too?" he said lowly.

Riley found the nearest chair. She was also considerably melancholy. "I think I have to start over as well. Yasuo's been looking for a reason to go after me; helping you escape is as good as anything." She extended a hand and found his shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll do it together."

As Tally cooked, Riley rambled off a few possibilities for relocating. Anything in Japan was out of the question, but she had a few ideas about new homes in America. She discussed potentially safe locations in Texas, Connecticut, and even a few right in New York, but Koji was barely listening to them. He just nodded and mumbled in disinterest until Tally called them in for breakfast.

Both Riley and Tally agreed that getting Koji out of the country was the most important and potentially the most difficult thing.

"When were you supposed to leave?" Riley asked.

"Saturday," Koji replied automatically. But the question made him realize something and he added, "What day is it, anyway?"

"Friday." He was a little surprised to hear it. That meant he had only been in captivity for two days. It seemed like a lot longer.

"Whatever the case, it wouldn't be a good idea to leave on your scheduled flight. Yasuo probably has every customs department in the country on high alert by now," Tally said.

She and Riley began discussing the safest way to get him out of Japan. Somewhere around the plan to ferry from Kyushu to Korea, Koji tuned out. He assumed that they would account for his safe departure. He was more worried about the other person scheduled to leave the next day.

"What about Michi?" he blurted.

The women were immediately silenced. They looked at him nervously before eying each other.

After considerable hesitation, Tally said, "That's a good question."

Riley turned to Koji and said, "The problem is that we don't know what Michi's situation is. We don't know if she's safe, we don't know if Yasuo's after her..."

"We also don't know if she would leave without you."

"Isn't there a way of finding out?" Koji asked.

"Not without taking some serious chances," Riley replied, "I don't know if I'm up to calling Mimi to see if she heard anything. And we're definitely not calling your hotel room. It's too risky, especially if we don't know where she is."

Tally added, "If I played the concerned aunt I could get away with being more inquisitive, but we would need some sort of a clue first." She extended a hand and put in on Koji's. With a reassuring smile, she said, "Besides, I know Michi and she's a tough girl. I'm sure she has things under control."

"And you may as well forget about Mari. Whoever she is, she's an unnecessary complication. The important thing is keeping you away from Yasuo."

Koji nodded in understanding but he didn't like the idea. He didn't want to forget about Mari. She certainly didn't forget about him when she sought out Takuya. Koji could picture her worrying and imagining all the horrors he was going through. In reality, he was finally safe and desperately longing to tell her so. But if he followed Riley's plan, he would abandon her. And after finally finding somebody who fully understood him, it was the last thing he wanted.

Increasingly, however, he still had a desire to return to his original world. As much trouble as it had caused Takato before, he now understood that he belonged there. He didn't care about all the talk of computer simulations and virtual reality- the MAXIS was the only place where he could be Takato Matsuki. It was the one place where he had nothing to hide and nothing he said would be dismissed as impossible.

Koji reasoned that if he could face the challenges of the real real world, he could conquer his fake real world as well. Ultimately, Koji saw no fundamental difference between the two worlds. The technological hierarchy didn't matter- the only way the simulation could be accurate is if it was an accurate imitation of the real world. Therefore, if Koji could survive in one, Takato could survive in the other.

It took him a while to summon the courage to ask Riley and Tally about the possibility of re-entry. For all he knew, the very notion of accessing the MAXIS was ridiculous. He finally got the nerve to ask after breakfast. As Tally snooped around the internet and Alice belatedly ate her meal, Riley tossed him a few suggestions for new identities. After Koji gave no response to any of them, Riley asked, "What's wrong? I need to know what you think works the best. This affects you more than anybody."

Eyeing the floor, Koji asked, "Can't you just send me back to my world?"

He looked up at Riley. She was staring back at him, her eyes wider and her lips quivering slightly. She sighed before answering, "That's not an option. Sorry."

"What, you don't have the ability to get me through?"

"We didn't say that!" Tally shouted from the other room. Both Riley and Koji turned to the door as she entered.

"So what's the problem?" Koji asked her.

Tally was looking past Koji at Riley. With a heavy frown, she stepped forward and nervously rubbed her hands together.

"Takato there's no sense trying to hide this from you. I know it's going to be difficult, but it makes your existence all the more important and we're going to work twice as hard to keep you safe."

"What?" Koji asked, already dreading the answer.

"D-Reaper has been re-initiated into your world." She shook her head. "We're helpless to stop it."

As his worst fears were confirmed, Koji could only continue to stare at Tally, hoping that somehow it wasn't true. Of course, he knew it was. He could ignore Ryo's speculations, but hearing the news from Tally made it undeniable. He felt Riley's hand on his neck, rubbing it in futile sympathy. The worst part wasn't D-Reaper being re-initiated. It was the "helpless to stop it" part.

"You can't do anything?" he said, still looking up at Tally, "But you were able to help us last time."

"Exactly. We only supported you. You and your friends made the difference."

With that, Koji jumped off his chair and walked to the end of the room, a place where he could face both Riley and Tally. "So me and my friends will just have to make the difference again. I can't just let it be destroyed."

"Well, we can't be unrealistic," Riley replied, stone-faced, "Takato, you and your friends have nothing to fight with. You have no chance."

He snapped back, "Why? Because you left our Digimon to die?" If it was indeed the reason, he was going to get his answers. It was painful enough to hear what happened to Guilmon. But if it was the reason his entire world would be destroyed, it was unforgivable.

Riley's mouth fell open at the accusation. It began forming words, but nothing came out. She looked at Tally, who silently nodded to Koji.

He grew fiercer, breathing harder and forcing back his tears until they evaporated into resentment. "Why? After all we went through, why was the Digital World so expendable?"

Riley and Tally were stuck for an suitable answer. After several false starts by each of them, it was Alice who stepped in and flatly said, "It was damaged beyond repair. We were working to salvage what we could." Despite being colored differently, her eyes were equally cold and each were aimed at Koji. "At least you didn't have to witness your partner's death."

Alice took a step towards Koji, but Tally intervened. She put a hand on Alice's shoulder and said, "Takato, you just have to trust that we did everything we could to save whatever could be saved."

Not moving from her seat, Riley added, "And you have to trust that we're doing whatever we can to save you now."

Koji's anger subsided. It was hopeless to take his frustration out on his allies. This was the responsibility of Yasuo, and the only one worthy of Koji's wrath. Still facing the three, he asked, "So you can't do anything for Henry and Rika?"

"We're sorry, but without your Digimon there is no way to repel D-Reaper."

"Can we even get in? Can we get them out?"

After thinking for a moment, Tally answered, "I have no doubt that given our abilities, we could engineer some way to hack into the MAXIS. But if you're created in the MAXIS, there is no way out."

Koji didn't bother to use himself as a rebuttal. His was a freak circumstance that had no explanation and could probably not be duplicated.

"Takato, you are the surviving product of this experiment. Unless you stay here, and stay safe, in the end we got absolutely nothing from your world. There would have been no reason for it to have ever existed," Riley said.

Exist.

There it was again. Koji existed in the world to prove one thing. It had nothing to do with the true nature of his home or to keep alive the diminishing dreams of a few rebellious researchers. He existed to deliver a series of letters to the children of his friends in the Digital World. To the best of his ability, he had done that. If Mari had contacted Takuya, all seven were accounted for. His responsibility to the Chosen was met.

With that out of the way, he had two choices. He could continue to exist under a false identity in the real world, keeping some endangered notion of hope on life support. Or he could go back and face the consequences of his departure. If it was his fault this was all happening, he was not going to let his friends take the bullet for him.

"I don't care. I'm going back," he announced.

Riley grinned in stupor, shaking her head as tried to reason with the boy, "Takato, why? There is no way to defeat it. Don't you think that we would tell you if there was?"

"Start looking. There has to be something we can do. This is my home, and if Yasuo's destroying it because of me, then I can't run away from it."

"What if we're as powerless as we think?" Tally asked.

Still defiant, Koji replied, "Then I guess I'm just going to go down with my friends. I don't care about your experiment. I don't care about preserving it. All I know is that somewhere in that MAXIS is my world. Shibumi created it for me and I'm not throwing it away."

Still unconvinced, Riley continued to shake her head. "This isn't like last time Takato. We don't have any of the researchers, we don't know if Hypnos is still operational, and there aren't any Digimon to fight back with. I know what you're trying to do, but..."

"Yasuo destroyed my Digimon. He is not destroying my world," Koji fired back, "Call the Monster Makers. Get Hypnos up again. I don't care what needs to be done. If you really want to help me, you'll send me home."

After a lengthy silence, Riley stood up and threw a hand into the air. "I guess we have some work to do," she said, briefly looking at him, "I don't suppose we can talk you out of this, huh?" Koji shook his head. Riley went into the computer room, mumbling something about four years being rendered useless.

Tally remained in the room. "You understand exactly how low the odds are, don't you?" But she didn't sound skeptical. She sounded astonished at his resolve.

"I don't think the odds are low at all," Alice interrupted, approaching Koji, "We all see this from the vantage point of our world. Takato is sees this from his."

Re-entering the room, Riley replied, "Alice, our world or his world, all I see is a giant red blob devouring everything we fought for."

"Yes, but his world is different from ours."

"No it isn't," Koji said, "Just because it's a computer simulation doesn't mean anything. It has to be the same world for it to work, right?"

Alice smiled. "Unlike our world, in yours anything can happen. In your world, the rules can be redefined and rewritten on a whim. Unlike our world, your world has a god."

As Koji stared incomprehensively at Alice, Riley and Tally went into the office. God or not, they all had a world of work to do- Takato was going home.

To Be Continued in "Level 3: Experiments"

Author's Notes
In most trilogies, the second part tends to end on a bit of a downer, with only a small amount of hope to go off of. That's very much the situation here. Fortunately, the clouds are starting to clear, and everything is in place for the big finale. I don't think I need to explain where Level 3 is going. Look for it starting in October.

The bits of the story inspired by Lain are more evident here than in any other stage. The segments of stark historical narrative are based on one episode of Lain that literally inundates the viewer with tons and tons of information, most of which is not relevant to the story. Here, the "infornography" as they called it is more applicable to the story (many of the oddities posed in Level 1 are explained), but the effect of drowning in the truth is intentional. It is also safe to assume that most of this was relayed to Koji as well.

The "your world has a god" issue is also from Lain. It will remain one of the few mysteries left to be explored in Level 3. If you have seen Lain in its entirety (and have a general idea of what is going on), you can probably make an educated guess. If you haven't seen Lain, don't even try.

A brief word about the new girl- whether you want to call her Alice, Mari, or a walking identity crisis. If you haven't noticed by now, identity is one of the prevailing themes in the story, and Alice is an additional contrast to Koji and Mari's identity issues (not ignoring Michi either). She is caught in-between two personas, with the further problem of both personas currently belonging to somebody else. Her hair and eye colors overtly represent this. Needless to say she isn't quite right upstairs.

Which brings us to Mari. Since this stage is devoted to exposing the truth, it was a great time to confirm what's been up with her. Although only one reader actually said she was Jeri, I'm sure several others were thinking the same thing (and several more are kicking themselves). There were plenty of hints along the way, and the focus should not be on the big revelation but rather Mari's reaction to it.

So with almost everything explained, the stage is set for "Level 3: Experiments." Once again, it will feel very different than the first two, especially since you actually know what's going on for a change! The mind-fuck element is still ever-present, but like the difference between Level 1 (where the atmosphere was very jovial but you knew things were not right) and Level 2 (where you knew where the characters were coming from and what they were doing, but the mood was foggy), I'll have to find a new way to screw with you. Big thanks to beta-readers Rb and Crest of Empathy for sticking with me through all this. Hopefully they'll be along for the ride in Level 3 as well and hopefully I'll learn how to use commas by then.

This ends Level 2 of The Connection.