By Eric "Erico" Lawson


"The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity... In our tenure of this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity."

-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

"Hollywood got it all wrong. They said the end of the world would come from falling meteors, killer robots, some zombie disease gone rampant. They wish it could be that simple. In the end, we didn't need any of those things to kill off humanity. We only needed ourselves."

-A man on his deathbed, 2045 C.E.

Quesnel Lake, British Columbia

May 3rd, 2047 C.E.

1:42 P.M.

There were still parts of the landscape where snow hadn't yet melted away. Trees still stood proud and full, evergreens pristine as ever and the deciduous sprouting their buds in the promise of what was to come. Here in the wilderness of Canada, spring had come, and summer was coming.

Deer and elk, bears and caribou, and even rabbits and birds thrived. They foraged for their meals, wandered through lands that had been there before humanity had come, and would be after homo sapiens was a distant memory. They had no idea that only a few hundred miles distant, a dead wasteland reigned. They did not know that their pristine living was not the norm. They did not know that the reason they had to find new water supplies three years ago for a time had been because of atmospheric radiation drifting down to the mountain streams. They knew none of that, for the forests and the mountains were home, and nothing existed beyond them.

A low beating hum echoed in the wooded hills about the glacial lake, soft at first, then with increasing and incessant force. Heads and ears came up, turning to the source. It was still high overhead, and they responded first with curiosity, then outright panic. A great metal bird with a spinning wing shot over the lake, sending fish diving deep to the bottom and even the vicious wolves dashing from the water's edge as fast as their paws could take them. Only a singular bear, too old and grumpy and thirsty to care about the threat refused to turn away from the shore and move for the safety of the treeline. Shaking out his brown fur, he looked up at the foreign entity once, roared a challenge, and turned back for another drink when no answer came.

Of course, no answer could come from the creature flying above them; it wasn't alive.

At the back of the Carlisle class transport helicopter, the cargo officer looked past his two underlings to the sole passenger aboard. Their guest was staring out the open door of the craft, an oddly satisfied and triumphant smile looking out over nature's untamed domain.

The cargo officer sidled up beside him and clicked his helmet mike on; the noise of a helicopter's main rotors, after all, drowned out normal conversation. "Dr. Wily, are you sure that he's out here?"

Dr. Wily was older and thinner, but he heard the message through his earpiece clear enough. He smiled just enough to make his regrown mustache twitch, and bobbed his head. "Positive."

The cargo officer wasn't convinced. "There's nothing down there but wilderness, sir!"

"Untainted wilderness, lieutenant." Wily amended the statement with a calm knowing. "The kind of place a man would go to lose himself. And I'm inclined to believe the reports we got from the Ts'kw'aylacw nations about this mysterious 'pale shaman.' It sounds like the sort of thing that he'd do."

"I don't know how much I trust the Skooerlack…"

"Ts'kw'aylacw." Wily corrected him.

"Whatever." The officer snapped irritably. "All we've got to go on is your word, and a few rumors by a bunch of fire-water crazed natives."

"They're hardly crazed, lieutenant." Wily pointed out, staring deep into the woods. "After all, they're thriving…while the rest of the world is collapsing apart."

That subtle reminder of their purpose brought the argument to a halt, and it was a few seconds before Wily spoke again.

His sharp eyes traced a course into the treeline, and he scanned for any sign of activity. He blinked, and smirked to himself when he saw none but the birds flying away from their approach.

"You did a good job hiding, Tom…but you're needed again."

The helicopter settled on the only part of the lakeshore large enough to sustain it, and Wily was out and walking into the brush while the rotors were still whining down. One of the soldiers, the cargo officer he'd been talking to before, sidled abreast of him and nodded curtly.

"You know the restrictions. Anything more than four miles out, and…"

"I know, lieutenant." Wily sighed, slipping his hand into his pocket very slowly. "I've lived with it for two months now. I know the rules well enough. Don't worry, I'll be back before you know it."

They exchanged another nod, and Wily hefted his rucksack over his shoulder and trudged into the wilderness.

He'd never been an outdoorsman, so it was slow going. In a lot of ways, he was probably the worst one for a job like this. After forty minutes and stubbing his toe for the third time, Wily let out an angry curse and kicked the fallen branch away. It landed with sound of snapping branches…and another noise entirely. A solid and unmistakably unnatural thud.

Wily did a double take and turned back to where he'd sent the branch falling. He knelt down and lifted the dead limb, and to his amazement, found a slightly rusted metal device jutting out from the ground. "…Now what in the blazes is…"

He finally noticed a radial meter on the far side of it, and a cable that ran into the ground and vanished in another direction. Thanks to the deceased foliage, pine needles and other remains, it was well hidden. If he hadn't kicked the tree branch into it, he might never have found it.

"Your work, Tom?" Albert Wily mused aloud, looking at the gauge with sad realization. It displayed gray Units, the SI measurement that had replaced the Rad decades ago. His smile weakened as he ran his thumb over the readout. It was somewhere in the milligrays; not lethal, but a stark reminder of what the rest of the world groaned and bled under. "Even here, the poisons came."

He pulled up the line of communications cable and slowly worked his way back along the ground, tugging it as he went. Another two hundred yards in, the treeline began to thin, and Wily found himself strolling through a sea of sawed off stumps. He craned his neck about, and let out a strangled gasp as something hopped up onto a stump by him.

A Kewbee, he realized. An honest to God Quadriped/Bipedal Mechanoid. The green paint had flaked off, and the metal underneath showed signs of scouring and scraping, but it was there all the same. Its eyes glowed with a blue light, and Wily stared hard as the robot cocked its head to the side.

It seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and after a pause, he found only one thought worth speaking. "…I hate blue."

The Kewbee's blue-lit optics dimmed for a moment, and then it climbed back down from the stump and continued wandering about. Wily drew in a deep breath and took another look around, and for the first time, noticed details he'd missed before.

Where he'd seen only trunks before, he now saw camouflaged solar panels and very ingeniously designed windmills. A tree stump hid a well that other robots, more scrap than substance in their design than the wandering Kewbee, drew water from and poured into wooden buckets.

"…What is all this?" Wily asked himself, marching on ahead with a new sense of wonder in his eyes. "This isn't…"

But it was, he finally told himself. It was a settlement of the mechanical in the middle of the woodlands. And it made Albert Wily smile in triumph…for he knew of only one man who could cobble such a bizarre assembly together.

He kept walking, and there, hidden underneath a thick canopy of high standing conifers, was a picturesque log cabin with smoke rising from the chimney. A small porch lay in front of the door, and a man in denim overalls and flannel sat whittling in a rocking chair. Thanks to his thick and bushy brown beard, he looked for all the world like a logger of old.

Dr. Wily tightened his parka around his emaciated frame and began to stroll up towards the cabin at a leisurely, non-threatening pace. The man eyed him and set his whittling stick into a front pocket of his overalls, then reached behind his chair and pulled out a rifle. He set it across his lap and watched Wily come closer.

The scientist stopped fifteen feet away from the now armed woodsman and nodded slowly. After a few seconds the tense look in the other man's deep blue eyes faded, and he nodded back.

Wily chuckled a bit, glad to have the moment behind them. "Mein gott, ist Grizzly Adams."

"You don't shave for seven years, you tend to look this way." Dr. Thomas X. Light answered, maintaining a stoic posture. "I didn't ever expect to see you again."

Wily ran a hand over the thinning hair in the middle of his scalp. "Things changed."

"Someone once said things always do."

Wily pursed his lips and pointed to the rifle over Light's lap. "Is that thing loaded?"

Light cracked a smile, pulling muscles in his face that seemingly hadn't been used for years. He tapped the side of the stock and shook his head. "Rock salt. Good for keeping critters out of your hair. Doesn't kill, usually."

"Usually?" Wily asked, lifting an eyebrow.

Thomas smirked. "Sometimes, my deer jerky comes pre-salted." He set the salt-loaded rifle aside and strolled to his cabin door. "Seven years go by, and the first thing you say to me is that I look like a character from a television show that's nearly a century old?"

"I had this prepared speech about how long it's been, but…Well, I saw the beard, and it just popped into my mind." Albert replied, shrugging sheepishly. "Can I come in? I'd like to talk."

Thomas Light opened the door and bowed his head a little. The levity of their reunion sank away, and the weight of the world he'd left behind came rushing back. "You want to take me away."

"I…" Wily began, but stopped himself before he could start to utter a protest that was a lie. Silenced for the moment, he followed his long-lost associate inside the small cabin. There was no lie he could spin. Thomas Light would have to settle for the truth.

Inside the cozy cabin, Light sat down on the end of his bed and reached for an old-fashioned, woodcarved smoking pipe. A pinch of tobacco was dropped in the bowl, and one struck match later, a faint blue cloud of smoke billowed forth.

Wily sat on the floor beside the wood-burning stove, amazed at the heat the archaic device put off. "Since when did you take up pipe smoking?"

"About five years ago." Light responded, puffing slowly. "Gave me something to pass the time."

"And you're not worried about cancer? About dying?"

"Everybody dies, Albert. It's just a matter of when." Dr. Light looked towards the ceiling and changed the subject. "Just how in blazes did you find me, anyway?"

"You can thank the Aboriginals for that. Or the First Nationers, if you prefer." Wily leaned forward a bit. "The Ts'kw'aylacw Tribe said that they'd had dealings with a 'pale shaman.' Or a walking bear." He smirked as he looked at Light again. "Short of a bigfoot sighting, I figured that the pale shaman of Quesnel was more than likely you…especially given the technological aptitude they all said you had."

"Up here, Al, we call them Sasquatches. Not bigfoots. And I think they'd resent the comparison." The mountaineer motioned to a percolator sitting on the stove. "You can have some, if you'd like. It's been a few months since I last entertained guests, but the least I can do is offer you a drink. Cups are on the table."

Wily procured one of the wooden glasses at Light's suggestion and looked hopefully to the kettle. "Coffee?"

Dr. Light shook his head, making his thick beard bounce a bit. "Ran out of that three years ago, when the radiation storms came. You'll have to make do with grasswheat tea."

Wily did so, grimacing at the taste. "You sure this stuff's healthy?"

"The animals eat it." Light shrugged. "It's good enough for me."

Wily took another sip for courtesy's sake, then put his drink aside. "So…you became a robotics engineer, then?"

"I'd call myself an applied mechanics worker." Light corrected him. "I spend more time fixing up generators and computers than I do refurbishing robots. It's a living. I fix their gear, and the Tribes bring me food and supplies. It was a good little secret, up until you came along."

"If I were a Psychiatrist, I'd say that it happened for a reason." His former rival suggested placidly. "That maybe you wanted to be found."

Light pulled the pipe from his mouth and stared. "Luckily, Al, you're not a Psychiatrist." Their eyes locked for several long seconds, and Wily broke first, acceding victory as he looked away.

"So…I saw a Kewbee out there when I came in. A refurbished Kewbee."

"Aah, Kay."

"Wait, wait, wait." Wily waved a hand in front of him. "You named it?"

"Him, Albert."

Dr. Wily rolled his eyes disapprovingly. "Boy, you really did lose it. But where in God's name did you find it? The United States commandeered all the Kewbees at the start of World War III, converted them to GAIDNs."

"Kay was shut down and out of service when I found him. He was buried under some rotted logs. He'd been registered to the Canadian Forestry Service. His original purpose had been census and surveying."

For a moment, sympathetic relief passed over Albert William Wily. Along with it came the pain of their joint failure, and the hope he'd once held for his greatest invention. "So…At least there is one mechanoid still doing what it was programmed for."

"He surveys the immediate area, keeps track of the radiation readings, occasionally even repairs a piece of equipment out in the field."

"You programmed it to…" Wily started, but cut himself short and shook his head. "Of course you would. You must have even found a way to sever it from the GAIDN servers."

"I did." Light admitted, wincing inside at the marked difference that he and his associate had for the robot. Wily referred to the Kewbee as an it; an object, no more, no less. Light, perhaps out of loneliness or a desire for even an imagined human contact, had given it the male pronoun he.

Even if Albert's term was more accurate, Thomas Light found it to be heartless as well. The woodsman folded his hands together, took a deep breath, and began. "All right. We've moseyed around the bush long enough, Al. So why don't you tell me why you broke your promise to let me leave and live and die in peace? I'm assuming you think you have a good reason."

"The Wars are over." Wily announced, watching Light carefully for a reaction.

Dr. Light took another puff of his pipe and blinked. "This is probably all academic, but I thought you called it World War III earlier."

"The United States calls it World War III. Everybody else refers to the conflict as the Wars of 2040. A broader term, meant to show how disjointed the fighting was. But whatever you call them, the wars are done. The world powers signed the armistice at Canberra; Australia, one of the few places on earth not completely destroyed."

"Congratulations. The boys finally decided after seven years to put their toys away." Light breathed. "But how is that supposed to make going back any more attractive to me?"

"It's not." Dr. Wily shrugged. "But I didn't come home to take you back to Redmond. The Institute was dismantled at the start of the war; Departments whose work had military applications were absorbed. The rest were cut loose."

"I suppose that with your GAIDNs, they put you straight to work." Light accused him.

Wily's face hardened. "Actually, I spent the first six years of the war in a military prison, being held without charge or conviction. At least you got to breathe free air."

Light's high and mighty routine crumbled fast under the announcement. "I'm sorry…I didn't know."

Wily raised his arm up and let his sleeve fall away. A metal bracelet was locked around his wrist, and it flashed a green LED light every few seconds. "They eventually released me on 'parole' and put me to work. I figured that parole was better than prison. I was wrong, though."

Light looked at the trinket. "Is that a locator band?"

"A little more than a simple GPS emitter, I'm afraid." Wily corrected him quietly. "This contains a lethal dose of strychtnine and a miniaturized delivery system over my wrist. My 'keepers' lug around a similar device. If the distance between me and this thing's partner becomes more than four miles…I'm pushing up daisies from a pinprick."

"So how did you convince them to let you come all the way out here?"

"That's easy. I told them you were probably still alive."

Light tapped the ashes out of his pipe and set it aside. "Well, if you didn't come here to bring me back…just what are you here for?"

"I need your help." Dr. Wily finally caved in and revealed the reason for his unannounced visit. "The world's gone to Hell, Tom. Radiation poisoning's turned vast swaths of earth into uninhabitable wastelands. Biological and chemical agents wrecked a lot of the rest. They didn't stop fighting because somebody won: They stopped fighting because there was nothing left to fight about. The United Nations is desperate. As a part of the Treaty of Canberra, every nation in the world had to agree to relinquish international authority and control to the U.N. for the foreseeable future. There's another part that goes along with it, though. And that's where you and I come in."

Light rubbed at his bushy beard. "Just how do you and I enter this mess? You're a literal prisoner, and I'm a self-made hermit."

"They need scientists, Tom." Wily urged him. "Every nation that can is sending what's left of their best and their brightest to Alaska to figure out if there's a way to save earth and ourselves before we all die. They told me I had to go…but I can't do this alone. I need you with me."

Light laughed mirthlessly and stood up. The great bear of a man turned away and tucked his hands into his pockets. "You need me? No, Albert. You don't need me. You're strong enough."

"Then the world needs you, Thomas!"

"I don't give a ruddy fuck about the world." Light snapped. Wily cringed at the outburst, and Light kept his face turned away. "The world didn't need me when it killed Vanessa. It didn't need me when it turned away from my solution to its problems and went with greed and warmongering. It's found its own way to repay me. I'll have you know, Albert, that I got radiation poisoning three years back. It's taken its toll."


Light's head shook. "The radiation's affected my reproductive system. I'm sterile."

"How do you know for sure?"

Dr. Light craned his neck about and lifted an eyebrow. "You don't think I can put a sample of my best work under a microscope? Trust me; My swimmers couldn't handle a four foot wide washtub, much less a marathon."

Dr. Wily pursed his lips together, then exhaled. "Look. Back when you were working on the Network proposal, you said that humanity had to pull together. That's still true. More now than ever. The world that you had hope for, the world Vanessa loved is still there. It's broken into bits and pieces, but it's there, and it needs you. In a day, Tom, we almost stopped the Kewbees from marching. In a DAY. Imagine what we could get done in a month, in a year, working with the best and the brightest!"

Thomas Light moved back to his chair and stared on, unrepentant and unchanged. "We failed to save the world in a day. What makes you think that we could do any better with more time? No, Albert. Play at saving the world if you want, but leave me out of it. I've paid my debt. I paid it in blood."

The two scientists glowered at one another, and Dr. Wily slowly stood back up. "You've changed, Tom."

"So have you." Light remarked coolly. "There was a time that you thought optimism and charity were signs of weakness. You've taken on my mantle more than anybody had the right to."

"Somebody has to." Wily shot back hotly. "It may not need me anymore, but it needs you. And if you don't have the guts to get over your funk and help, then by whatever god is listening, I'll be the closest thing possible!"

Light's blue eyes turned dark, and he clenched his jaw. "You want my reputation? Fine! Take it, Al! You've taken everything else away from me!"

The two men fumed, and outside of the crackling of the embers in the wood stove, silence held.

Wily bitterly turned to the door and opened it up.

"What, no passing retort?" Dr. Light snorted. "Where's the fire, Albert? Are you my rival or aren't you?"

Wily bowed his head and looked out into the woods. "I was the rival to a man I respected. I was the friend to a man I trusted. He believed in the world, and that was why Vanessa loved him." The mad scientist straightened and stood up tall. "He must have died. Because I don't know who you are."

Light shut his eyes and listened to Wily shut the door of the cabin. A few seconds later, even his muffled footsteps disappeared.

Thomas Light focused on the noise of his woodstove, and rolled the stem of his pipe between his fingers. His glazed eyes looked across the room to the bench cabinet where he stored his extra firewood.

She was smiling at him.

"Is he wrong?" Thomas whispered. Seven years had passed and he could still trace every curve of her face, feel the warmth of her smile. In the long winters, he would dream of her and wake up crying. Even now, in his self-prescribed solitude, he couldn't escape her. Perhaps he did not wish to. "Is he wrong, Vanessa?"

"Well, that depends." She would have answered, if the imaginary image of her had been able to speak. "The world that killed me is dead. Or it should be. What are you hiding from?"

"I don't know." He sighed, putting a hand to his head. "Maybe I'm just tired. Maybe I don't want to put up with it any longer."

"You used to tell me that the world needed dreams. That it would starve without them. Why, then, would you refuse Albert's offer? It's not like you."

"But I'm not the same." Light argued. "I don't believe in those things anymore. How can I, after all that's happened?"

She looked sad; her illusion had never done that.

"If you don't, Tom…Who will?"

He blinked, and the illusion was gone.

The embers in his woodstove crackled, and Light put the empty pipe in his mouth and chewed away.

Dr. Wily fought his way back down the wooded slope, grunting and grumbling and swearing as he tripped over more fallen fauna. He could begin to smell the waters of Quesnel Lake again, and the low hum of the rotor blades. "Looks like they couldn't wait to get out of here." An owl hooted just far enough away to sound ghostly, and he shivered. "Guess I can't either."

He moved faster, feeling the woods about the glacial lake press in around him. Maybe he'd spent so much time inside walls of iron and concrete that the outside world frightened him, or perhaps Light's refusal had produced a change in the wilderness of British Columbia itself. The fact that they were nearly 500 miles from the border to the United States probably had a lot to do with it as well.

His short-range phone chirped at him, and Wily dredged it out of a coat pocket and set it to his ear. "Yes?"

"Our sensors show you're nearly back at the helicopter, Professor Wily."

"Doctor." Albert grumbled. "And yes, I'm coming back now."

"Was your lead solid? Were you able to find him?"

"About that…" Wily began slowly, wondering how exactly he was going to tell the ship carrying him and the rest of the scientific contingent what had…or rather, hadn't…happened. It never came to that, though.

Once he cleared the treeline, he saw that somebody not of the helicopter's crew was standing by the side door. There was a briefcase in each arm, and a faint smile underneath the thick beard. Wily stopped and gawked with all the grace of a dying fish, and Dr. Thomas X. Light merely nodded his head and threw his bags aboard.

"Dr. Wily? What about that?"

Wily blinked a few times and coughed. "We'll see you in a bit." He offered meekly, and clipped the phone shut. He stumbled at first, then trotted up to the helicopter and looked at Light as if he'd seen a ghost.

"I…You said…"

Dr. Light scratched at his beard, and sighed. "It occurred to me that I should apologize."

"What for?" Albert said, lifting an eyebrow.

"Because you were right." Thomas explained. "You were right about me. I'd forgotten who I was. The Light Vanessa loved…he wouldn't give up. And he wouldn't hide when he was needed most."

Wily smiled genuinely, and clasped a hand on Light's shoulder. "Welcome back, Tom."

Light smiled back. "Good to be back, Al." The two climbed aboard the helicopter, and put on their communicator helmets to compensate for the noise of the rotors as they lifted off. "Besides, I couldn't leave you alone yet."

"Why not?" Wily quipped, pleasantly curious.

"Well, there's the small matter of that three-fifty you still owe me."

"…For Christ's sake, Tom, that was eight years ago!"

"So accounting for a four point five percent interest rate, you should now owe me three dollars and sixty five cents. More or less."

"You'll get that three sixty five when you pry it from my cold, dead…"

The Canberra Treaty World Reclamation Consortium

Ewan Lake, Alaska

May 6th, 2047 C.E.

1:31 P.M.

The helicopter had been assigned to a U.S. Frigate. It had sailed them to the southern waters of Alaska, and from there, they were flown the rest of the way in, one of an entire squadron of transport helicopters. Light had found the whole experience more than a little unnerving, given that there were also assault helos guarding them on all sides, and a team of jets from some distant airbase that streaked by every few minutes. Wily had patted him on the back of his hand, and in that consoling way only he had by way of snark, had kept Dr. Light laughing long enough to forget the destructive hardware all about them. He knew why such drastic measures had been taken, though.

The conditions Wily had mentioned had showed on every face he'd seen.

They settled on ground that was still fighting to break free of winter's long grip, on a hastily constructed landing pad. Light stepped off and immediately noticed that the paint was still wet; it clung to the bottom of his boots. Wily took up beside him, and pointed towards a vast assembly of construction equipment that rolled and roared a half mile off, making noise and smoke. In the center of it all, a complex of skeletal buildings were slowly taking shape, thanks to the efforts of the crews that scurried all over it.

Light swallowed, and looked to Wily. "I guess they're still working on it."

"They've been working eight hour shifts round the clock for nearly a month now." A black-haired man in a thick parka said, strolling up to them. He carried a clipboard in one arm, a walkie-talkie on his belt, and an ID card pinned to the front of his jacket; A U.N. peacekeeper. He pulled up his clipboard and readied his pencil. "Names and nation of origin?"

The rest of the helicopter's passengers began to empty out, so Wily took the initiative. "Doctor Albert Wily, United States…And Doctor Thomas Light. Same nation."

The man checked Wily's name off easily enough, but frowned as he flipped through the pages. "Huh. A Doctor Light? I don't have him listed here…"

"He's with me." Wily insisted.

"Right." The peacekeeper said, not really believing him. Another worker came over and the man handed over his clipboard. "Check out the others; I've got a situation to resolve." He informed the man.

Light pursed his lips and stayed back; though the peacekeepers didn't look hostile, they both had a military rifle slung over their shoulders. Those weren't there for decoration. "They're taking this seriously." He mumbled to Wily. His old associate nodded grimly.

"We and the other scientists coming here have to be more important than I thought…"

"Yeah. Yes, sir. All right." The peacekeeper lowered his walkie-talkie and nodded to Light. "You've been granted clearance. Gentlemen, welcome to the CTWRC." He stepped aside, and Wily and Light headed after their departing group towards a large tent put beside the construction work. Others were also streaming towards it.

His luggage in hand, Light both lived outside of the spectacle and in it as they came closer. "I feel like an ant."

"Oh, I doubt very much you're an ant, Tom. They don't have the stupidity to use nuclear weapons." Wily retorted with a smirk. "But the CTWRC? That's a mouthful, isn't it?"

"First thing I say we do, we get that name changed."

"Agreed, but what else could we call it?" Wily asked.

Closer to the tent, Light could see more than a hundred people gathered inside.

"I'm sure somebody can think of something." He mused.

Wily and Light took up seats near the back; they had apparently been one of the last batches to arrive. As they sat down on the provided foldout chairs, Light gave the crowd of enlightened minds a cursory glance. He was shocked to see familiar, yet changed faces: Faces just as shocked to see him.

He swallowed to try and moisten his throat. "Al…" He pointed over to one side of the makeshift room. "Is that…"

Wily frowned and followed his gaze, then turned away quickly. Dr. Harutara Yoshi and Dr. Flora Jane looked at the two of them as though a pair of ghosts had wandered in. "Yes, Tom. Those are some of our former fellow Institute members. I imagined if we looked hard enough, we'd find more."

Light looked around again, and saw two more worth noticing. The first was Paul Beskin, who had been in the meteorology department when the Institute was alive and well. The other was someone new.

Positioned slightly behind a grim-faced but very attractive woman in a pressed business suit, a middle-aged Grecian gentleman watched the crowd with the same evaluative gaze that Light had.

Thomas stared, caught by the subtle aura of charisma about the man. His swarthy black hair was thinning, and even with a bronzed Mediterranean complexion, he looked a little sallow around the cheekbones. Light realized it wasn't a look gained by hunger. The dark bags marring his eyes spoke of a different kind of suffering.

The man blinked, and then turned to look at Light. The two men watched each other, seeking to learn by the other's reactions what sort of man was there. Neither flinched, and that was most telling of all. Light suppressed a shiver, for in the man's aura of command and confidence, there was a ghost he dared not seek.

Light nudged Wily in the shoulder. "Al, who is that?"

"Eh? Who's who again?" Wily looked up and followed Light's stare, and when he locked on, the man turned about and left through a side flap of the tent. His female companion followed, pausing only briefly to adjust her glasses and give the room a final look. "The guy who just left? Don't know, Tom."

"He didn't look like a scientist."

"So he's somebody else then." Wily shrugged. "Relax. Nobody's here that isn't supposed to be. It's a miracle that you got in."

The room's idle chatter died out quickly when a woman took center stage in the tent's upraised podium. A chill went through Light's bones, and all of the journey to Alaska, even the walk to this place, finally hit home. There could be no denying why they were there, with her presence. Radiation burns had left one side of her face permanently marred, and she wore a patch over an eye blinded by nuclear flash.

"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Rebecca June. You do not know me, but you know my face. It is the face that you have seen in your friends, in your families, and in your countrymen. Seven years, war was fought on land, on sea, and in the skies. At long last, it has ended, and we have come here."

She paused as the translators and multilingual scientists caught up to her. Light thought about asking Wily why he hadn't asked Tom to translate for him, but stopped himself as he turned his head and saw the absolute bitterness in his friend's eyes.

There was no room to joke.

"I am the site coordinator for this endeavor. It is my duty to see that this project receives adequate housing and facilities to do what must be done." She paused again, and then shook her head. "Many of you still do not know why your nations have sent you here, or what you are to do. To answer this, I turn the floor over to a man recently inducted into the United Nations, and your on-site representative: Darwin Rex Vinkus."

A man from the front row stood up and slowly trudged towards the podium, wearing functional but nondescript clothing. Miss June stepped aside respectfully, and he took his position.

There was a hard and harsh glint in his eye, and though he could not have been more than twenty-five years old, he moved and walked as a man two decades older. He spoke with gravelly conviction and a harshness that commanded attention.

"The Treaty of Canberra stands as the most unique Armistice agreement in human history. It had three major points in the Preamble. Perhaps you have not heard it yet; It stands to me to inform you of it."

He let his eyes wander around the room, making sure that every eye was turned.

"There were no victors." The news caused murmurs, but Vinkus silenced them as quickly as they'd started with a lift of his hand. "The surrender brokered at Canberra was not of one world power to another, or even an allied force to another force. The surrender at Canberra was of all the world's nations to International Authority. There were no winners, ladies and gentlemen. We all lost. And failure has taken a heavy price."

He moved out from behind the podium, the movement keeping them all right in the palm of his hand. "That was the second portion of the Treaty. As of one month ago, your nations surrendered all international authority to the United Nations. Some of you know this. Some do not. There will be no trade agreements, no shipping lanes, no military tours without U.N. permission. There will be no travel not sanctioned by the United Nations, at least for the foreseeable future. Along with this comes substantial national controls; rationing, for one. Curfews. Steps I wish did not have to be taken…but in light of the circumstances, must."

"The third part of the Treaty is all of you. Ladies and gentlemen, you represent the best and the brightest surviving scientific minds that the world has to offer. Look around the room." Nobody did so, and Mr. Vinkus growled warningly. "Look around right now." This time, they did, and saw each other…some for the first time. "These people come from all walks, all corners, all races, all religions, all beliefs. So many of the conflicts during these last traumatic seven years were caused by such bigotry. So put whatever such thoughts you may be fostering away. They have no place here. You are scientists. You are engineers. You are biologists and chemists and physicists and God knows what else. All of you have areas of specialty that play a vital role. In what, some of you ask? And we come to the crux of it."

Vinkus pointed a finger at them. "Humanity has nearly destroyed itself, and the world. And now they have charged all of us, the entire World Reclamation Consortium, to undo what it took them seven years to annihilate. Ladies and gentlemen, you have been brought here to save the world."

Nobody dared speak, and Vinkus sighed. "You have seen the construction outside. When they finish, that will be home for all of us. For as long as it takes this group to fix the mistakes of war, we will work together, we will live together, and we will become closer than you have ever been with anybody else. Some of you may not be around here for long; nevertheless, this place will always be here. Are there any questions?"

Again, not a peep was uttered. Vinkus tucked his hands into his pockets and gave them all one last solemn nod. "We are still calculating the damage, but what we do know right now is this: There are perhaps four or five regions in the world that were spared the worst of war's effects. Alaska was one. This was why this place was chosen. Before we can rebuild, we must first determine how bad off things are. What percentage of the pre-war population still stands. What areas are inhospitable. The status of the environment. The damage to infrastructure, both national and international. That work starts immediately. For now, you will be divided up into teams of individuals with similar skills. Your assignments are being posted outside right now; See to them, get settled in, and get to work."

"Thomas Light. As I live and breathe, I never though we would ever see you again!" Paul Beskin, far more ageworn than he'd been seven years prior, stood beside the other Institute scientists inside the main pavilion tent. The rest of the occupants had started filing out, and they'd come together in the lull. They ignored Wily, or gave him bitter glares. Inversely, they all regarded Light as a reborn ghost. "Where the devil have you been?!"

"Hiding out, I guess you'd call it." Dr. Light offered in apology. He looked between the three and chewed his lip. "Is there anybody else from the Institute here?"

Dr. Yoshi and Dr. Jane bowed their heads at the question, and Beskin's chipper demeanor died fast. "Nobody's told you yet?" He asked, looking over to Wily with a grimace.

Light glanced over to Wily, who was rubbing at his growing bald spot. "Al?"

Wily frowned at the question and looked to Beskin. "I told him that the Institute was disbanded at the beginning of the Wars."

"There's more to it than that, I'm afraid." Beskin added, glaring at Wily. "By the time they signed the Armistice and decided to get us back together for this, we were all that was left. Everybody else…is dead."

The news hurt Light, but not as terribly as it should have. "Simdorn too, then?"

"He was one of the first to go; a nuclear missile was fired at Seattle about a month after the start." Dr. Jane explained, touching her elbow. She looked at Wily with a pointed stare. "China's response to stop the advance of the GAIDNs."

Light had taken all the bitterness directed to his former rival with a grain of salt, but after the third repeat, he could stand no more. "All right, hold up a minute. Just why are all of you treating Albert like a diseased leper?"

"You really did drop off the face of the earth." Beskin snorted. Wily folded his arms, but there was no sign of anger or resistance in the mad scientist's eyes. "Wily gave the U.S. government the GAIDN robots. He has more blood on his hands than anybody else in this entire base…" Dr. Beskin affixed a scathing frown on Wily's head. "I don't understand why they let you even come here, after everything you've done…"

"Because there's a few hundred jobs to be done, and right now they can't get picky about who's doing them." Wily countered calmly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think that Tom and I have to check the assignment board."

"Wait just a minute!" Dr. Light exploded, incensed at the room's hostility. "Albert didn't give the government anything, he…"

Wily turned about and put a hand on Light's shoulder, stopping the rebuttal. Stunned blue eyes met dark and clouded ones. "Just let it go, Tom."


"Let it go." Wily mumbled, looking down at the ground and shuffling away for the exit. "It's not important."

Light started to move after him, but Dr. Jane's voice kept him tethered. "Thomas, for your own sake, please, stay away from him. You want no part in anything he does."

"You're all awfully concerned about me, aren't you?" Light snapped harshly. "Where's that compassion when it comes to him?!"

"I'm telling you this because you're different than he is. And he'll ruin you if he's given the chance. He ruins everything." Dr. Jane pleaded, clasping her hands together.

Light shook his head back and forth, and a sense of pity mixed with the bile in the back of his throat. "Keep your judgments to yourself." He stormed off and left them behind inside the tent, tightening his parka against the chill spring air.

Wily was waiting by the assignment board, silently running a finger down the list. Light came to a halt behind him, and after regaining his breath, spoke his mind.

"Why did you let them say all that about you, Albert? You didn't give the government the GAIDNs. They reprogrammed your QB/Ms without your permission, they turned them into murdering mechanoids!"

"Says us." Wily noted, looking very tired. "Look, Tom. It doesn't matter what the truth of things are. What matters is the perception. All the records the government has show that I built the QB/Ms with the GAIDN code built into them."

"But…but that's a lie!" Light ejaculated.

"You really don't get it, do you?" Wily sighed, holding up his arm until his sleeve fell away to show the blinking bracelet latched around his wrist. "You know a me that nobody else does anymore. The rest of the world…To them, Tom, I'm just a monster. And I always will be."

"But if we told them the truth, you could…"

"Get you into trouble as well?" Wily finished, raising an eyebrow. "I've lived this long by telling people I acted alone. That's the account. Just let it be, Tom. You can't change the way that the world looks at me. You just don't have the proof, or the ability to."

Before Dr. Light could protest again, Wily tapped a finger on the bulletin board. "There. We're on the engineering team; fifth hut. That means we're on the western side of camp. Come on, the sooner we get settled in, the better."

2:14 P.M.

Light plopped his suitcase down and looked about the four-man trailer hut set up atop the Alaskan permafrost. There were cots for them, but very little else in the way of furnishings. Although well insulated, the structure relied on a single portable space heater for warmth. Looking sorely out of place, a single teenaged boy sat on the cot in the far corner of the room, facing the wall and tapping away on his laptop without a care in the world.

Wily rolled his mustache between his fingers. "It looks cozy. But what's with the kid?"

The door to the outside opened up again, pulling even more precious heat into the chilly Alaskan air. A fourth tenant strolled inside, lugging a briefcase and a travel cart after him. The scientist was straining to pull the cart up the steps, and his glasses were askew on the bridge of his nose. "A little…help here?" He grunted. Light dashed to his side and grabbed onto the side of the bag, and with little trouble at all, pulled the heavy bag and the man inside and shut the door. The man smiled gratefully. "Thanks. I think I've been assigned here." Light noticed the man spoke with a distinguished Australian drawl. "Titus Grant, from Sydney originally. Who are you blokes, then?"

"Dr. Thomas Light, and my counterpart's Dr. Albert Wily."

"Wily?" Mr. Grant seemed to frown at the notion, but let it pass. "Huh. Could've sworn I heard that name somewhere or other. Are you yanks famous, then?"

"Not to my knowledge." Wily replied tonelessly. "So what brought you here?"

"Well, I was working on my doctorate in networking technologies when the big one hit; put the kibosh on things right quick, it did. But, luck would have it, they needed me to keep the systems going in Queensland. So yeh, that's why I'm here, I guess. I build connections."

Light's stare wouldn't have been any funnier if he had let his jaw hit the floor. Grant looked between the two and frowned. "What? I'm in the right place, right? Fifth hut?"

"Oh, you're in the right place." Wily remarked, patting Light on the back to jar him back to his senses. "You'll fit right in, I think. Now that that's resolved, do you have any idea who that kid over there is?"

If he heard them talking about them, which he surely must have, the adolescent made no sign to indicate it. He simply kept tapping away at his machine, acting oblivious. His black hair was mottled and scruffy; the unkempt clothes spoke volumes about his personal habits.

"Oi, him?" Grant mused. "I don't remember his name, but I think I heard about him. He's the youngest person here, you know."

Wily snorted. "I figured that. But what's he doing here? Isn't this supposed to be about scientists and technicians trying to save the world? When did we get roped into babysitting?"

"Well, that's the thing, Willy…"


"…Right, sorry about that. Anyhow, I heard that this bloke was some sort of super hacker, but a real oddball. I heard from some o' me Aussie mates that there was a row yesterday, and he got scrambled into it. Word was somebody got in front of him and tried to start up a conversation, and he went absolutely tin-crazy. Started screaming and thrashin' like a tazmanian devil in a beaver trap, and they ended up having to sedate 'im." Grant shivered a bit. "Oi. Just our luck we'd get stuck with 'im."

"So he's off his nut." Wily shrugged. "Who is he, and why is he here?"

The United Nations (Temporary) Shelter, Darwin Vinkus' Office

2:47 P.M.

"His handle is Latchkey." In another temporary shelter, Mr. Vinkus took another sip of his coffee and set his workpad aside. "At least, that's what he prefers to be called. His real name is Schroeder Dunlap." He pointed at Light. "One of yours, I believe."

Light frowned. "One of mine? My what? I never saw him at the Institute."

Vinkus rubbed at a chin that hadn't seen the blade of a razor in at least a day's time and rolled his eyes. "I meant he's American."

"Well, shouldn't you have then said, "one of ours" instead, sir?" Light asked.

Darwin Vinkus drummed his fingers against his desk. "I'm afraid not, Dr. Light. While my parents were American by nationality, I was born overseas during one of their tours in Japan. I lived there when the Wars began. I only claim citizenship to the land of the rising sun." He pulled his hands together and stared over the top of them to examine the headstrong scientist. "I've read what little data there is about you; Did some work at Roberts University, then finished up your schooling at Franklin U. with a Doctorate." He blinked exactly once, gauging Light's reaction. "An impressive accomplishment. You then went on to work at the National Institute of the Sciences for a year after that…but then abruptly disappeared on the eve of the Wars of 2040, right after the terrorist attack on the Institute. After that, the records ended. The world thought you were dead…until that criminal Dr. Wily dug you back up." Vinkus watched him a few moments more, then lifted an eyebrow. "Were you trying to hide something?"

Light leveled an even stare back. "Why? Do I look like the sort of man who keeps secrets?"

"Right now, you look like the sort of rugged outdoorsmen that they used to put on postcards. But I imagine that wasn't always the case. Even though I'm not privy to what the inner workings of things in the government were before the former President declared martial law, something happened to make you leave."

Light looked away. "I'd thank you to drop it."

"Are you protecting yourself from being incriminated for Wily's crimes?" Vinkus goaded him.

"No. I'm just trying not to remember the most painful moment of my life." Light retorted. "My fiancée, Vanessa Tercel…She was in the blast that destroyed the Institute. I got there too late to do anything but watch her die in my arms."

Vinkus pursed his lips. "I'm sorry…I didn't know."

Light folded a leg over his knee and leaned forward a bit. "I suppose you can imagine why I didn't exactly feel a need to stick around. Just as well, from what I heard about what happened to Seattle."

"A bad bit of luck, that." Vinkus agreed calmly, reaching for his coffee mug again. "I won't bother you with my stories about life on the Pacific Rim. So then, Dr. Light. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Well, Mr. Vinkus, I'm a little confused as to what exactly my group's assignment is…"

The U.N. Representative smiled placidly. "Oh, nothing much. The people assigned in your hut have all been put there to restore global communications."


"A simpler task, stacked up against some of the other cleanups we have left to do. But it's a very vital task, Light. We're uncoordinated, disjointed. There's no unity, even with this project. There are still parts of the world that don't know that the Treaty's been signed and that the Wars are over. If this endeavor's going to put the earth back on its feet, then we're going to need to be able to talk to each other like we used to. Not just between countries, but between the agents here in Alaska and worldwide."

"And then some." Light mumbled, shaking his head. "Well, that explains why I'm there, and why Mr. Grant is as well…but I'm still out in the cold as to why you put a youngster who goes by the name of Latchkey under my wing."

Vinkus smirked, and shook his head at Light. "You really have no idea who he is, do you? You were serious about dropping off the face of the earth. He's here under loan from the U.S. federal prison system, the same as your friend Albert Wily. A different division, of course; minimum security, highly secluded." Light still wore a blank look, and Vinkus elaborated. "Your country loves to keep its secrets…but the boy called Latchkey apparently caused a lot of damage three years ago before they shut him down. He's a hacker, Tom. Probably the best there is. He was assigned to your group because he knows what flaws to look for…and how to probe what's left of the digital infrastructure."

"A genius?" Light mused. "Then how come he's so withdrawn? He didn't talk to any of us, and Grant mentioned something about an incident…"

"He's severely autistic, Dr. Light." Darwin Vinkus explained, picking up his workpad. "As long as he's facing that screen of his, he's invincible. But in real life?" He shook his head. "If you want to talk with him, you're going to have to do it through his world. That's how he came here, that's how we worked with him. Don't touch him. Don't try to make eye contact."

"Then how am I supposed to get him to be a member of our team?" Dr. Light asked, caught by the gravity of it. "How can I get him to work with us when we can't even look at him?"

"According to your dossier, you're fluent in more than a dozen languages." Vinkus pointed out, turning his chair halfway about. "Learn his."

"There's still the age gap…"

"You mean, like the one between you and me?" Vinkus implied calmly, and Light blinked in surprise. Vinkus seemed unfazed by it. "Relax; I've gotten used to it. I was sixteen when I joined the U.N. Peacekeepers in Honshu. Believe me, Light; Right now, we need everyone the world can spare. The fact that some of the survivors are younger than you are is going to be something you'll just have to get used to. Now, was there anything else? I've still got to prepare this message for Secretary-General Laerdemik…"

"Sorry to occupy your time." Light apologized, rising to his feet. "And thank you for the answers."

"Oh, no." Vinkus mumbled. "If there's anything we need, it's teams that are at ease in their minds about each other."

Light turned about to leave, but another thought came to his mind as he set his hand on the doorknob. A spark of static electricity arced over his fingers, and in the wincing came the remembrance. He turned about.

"Sir, there was one more thing…"

Vinkus set his workpad and pen down, rubbing at his forehead. "No, I can't get you better sleeping arrangements."

"No, it's not that, sir. Earlier today at the assembly, I noticed a man staying back by the periphery. He had a very attractive woman with him…and a look in his eyes."

"You don't say?" Vinkus mused. "Well, I just happen to know who you're talking about."

"Who is he?"

"If he wishes to make himself known to you, he will." Vinkus was no longer smiling. "For now, all you need to know is that he is a benefactor without whom this endeavor might well be wasted effort."

Sensing he had pressed as many buttons as would be allowed, Light took his new information in stride and exited Vinkus' office, then the U.N. shelter altogether. A chilly spring breeze caused him to pull his coat tighter around him, and he watched the Alaskan sun hover strangely above. Light watched it safely behind a murky cloud, then sighed and turned away as the currents blew the shade aside. "What am I doing here?" He asked himself quietly. "I thought I knew, but…"

Light couldn't bring himself to finish the thought, and so he marched across the compound that reeked of diesel and machinery, and made a pace for the hovel he now called home.

As sad as it sounded, he was beginning to miss the log cabin out in British Columbia.

"We've been given the task to do the impossible." Wily mumbled, as they moseyed towards the chow line. A dinner bell had sounded, and Grant had smiled and waved them on after saying, "I'll keep an eye on Latchkey 'til you two yanks get back."

Light, after talking with the young Representative Vinkus, seemed more subdued than he had been when he accepted Wily's invitation. The humor of Wily's flip-flop, however, wasn't lost on him, and he managed a weak smile. "Having second thoughts about this?"

"Well, I never really had a choice in the matter, Tom." Wily reminded him. "I'm just stating the facts."

"It's difficult, yes…"

"It's impossible." Wily reiterated blandly. "Reconstruct global communications? Hell, it can't be done! All the international news landlines and satellites were captured and made the property of various world governments. Countries spent a full year shooting down satellites with missiles, flying more satellites up, and blowing them apart all over again."

"And if you remember the mandate, those same countries have relinquished authority over to the United Nations…and thus, to us." Light pointed out. "It's not going to be easy. But we've got to do it, Albert. And trust me, we will."

They finally reached the front of the line, and the cook over the massive ten gallon kettle smiled at them. "Come for the house special, eh?"

"Reconstituted gruel, no doubt." Wily grumbled. "The same slop I've been fed for years."

Light, however, did a double take at the sight of him, and pointed with the corner of his tray. The same unmistakable Grecian features and piercing eyes stared him straight in the face. "It's you."

The man kept smiling, but it lost some of its luster. "It's me."

"You were in the main tent, when we were all meeting. You left in a hurry."

The middle-aged fellow shrugged, and dropped his ladle into the steaming pot. "Crowds aren't really my thing, Dr. Light."

Light did a double take. "How do you…"

"Know you?" The fellow dipped out a spoonful of hearty stew and dropped it on Light's tray, staring at him again. "I make it a point to know the people around here. I also know of your associate here, Dr. Albert Wily…The creator of those accursed little GAIDN robots."

Wily didn't seem ruffled at all at the accusation. "And you would be…?"

"For the moment, your server. But when I'm not found in the kitchen, I'm known around here as Oliver Xanthos. Benefactor to this project." Now introduced, Mr. Xanthos ladled another spoonful of stew onto Wily's tray. "I think you'll find that this isn't your usual prison slop, Dr. Wily."

The two men looked down at their trays, and for the first time noticed everything in the stew. Slices of carrots and celery, diced potatoes, onion slivers, and honest to god meatballs.

"This is…" Light began, a solemn hush in his voice.

"Probably a better meal than you've had in a very long time. I know." Mr. Xanthos finished. "Hell, better than most people here have probably had."

"But these carrots, these onions…they're fresh!" Wily sputtered. "Where on earth did you…"

Oliver Xanthos shook his head. "If it puts your nerves at ease, none of this was taken from the less fortunate. All of this comes from contingency plans set aside years ago. But there's only so much, even for you and the others here. So enjoy it while you can. Get strong. You'll need all the energy you can muster to protect and feed the rest of the world." He finished the dialogue by dropping a square of cornbread onto the trays, but away from the stew, then shooing them away. "Good luck, gentlemen."

Light went to an empty table, and had his tray set down when he realized that Albert wasn't off of his shoulder anymore. "Hey, Al, are you…" He turned about and felt his voice catch in his throat.

Wily stood there, looking down at his tray of food as though he held a king's feast in his hands. Tears came freely down the sides of his face, salting the stew with bitterness.

Light walked over to his friend. "Hey. Are you going to be all right?"

Wily sniffed, and Light had to take the tray from him before his shaking hands dropped it to the floor. "Real food. God, Tom. It's so beautiful. The smell…the warmth of it. Why me, Tom? Why do we get to eat this?"

Light led him to the table and sat him down, realizing again how very much the years had changed them. He was still gaunt, but he had the bulk and beard of a lumberjack. Albert Wily, on the other hand, was frail and broken.

Wily sat there, spooning mouthfuls of the sustaining stew away and weeping the entire time, and though Light didn't miss out on his own meal, he didn't truly enjoy it. The suffering that the world had endured shone through Wily's beaten stature. No matter how savory the meal…There would be no enjoying it until the smiles had returned.

May 7th, 2047 C.E.

5:14 A.M.

His eyes were shut, and through the low moan of the Arctic wind, Thomas Light heard the constant and steady sound of fingers clacking against the keyboard. He ran through some slow breathing exercises, trying to convince himself that he wasn't hearing it, that everybody in his four man shelter was still fast asleep.

Light finally opened his eyes, cursing himself for doing so in the process. He'd always had trouble sacking out the moment he opened his eyes, as if visual stimulus snapped all hope of sleep away from him.

Wily was curled up into a tight ball, covered and scrunched inside the surplus army issue blankets. Titus Grant…who unfortunately, by the look of things, preferred to sleep in the nude…was snoring gently with one hairy leg sticking out from underneath the covers of his own cot.

Which means that the person that I'm going to kill for being awake at this hour is…

He turned about, and there in the corner still, with his mottled black hair looking very much unchanged, was Schroeder Dunlap…the self-titled "Latchkey."

Light groaned and threw the covers aside, lurching to a sitting position and teetering ever so slightly as he struggled to maintain a balance between awake and asleep. The middling stage played Hell with his speech, after all. "Mmmrphm." He mumbled, then remembered what Vinkus, that U.N. golden boy, had said to him.

If you want to talk with him, you're going to have to do it through his world.

"Computer." Light mumbled, more cohesively than his first attempt. He looked around the room, trying to recall in the dark where they had put their laptops. "Need a computer."

Five minutes, one stubbed toe and one bumped noggin later, Light climbed back in his bed and covered his shivering body with the blankets. He set the still-booting computer across his lap and signed on…then went searching over the airwaves. He'd noticed that Latchkey had been running an open-source chat program in the background; An old fashioned IRC. A quick scan of the local airwaves turned up his channel, and hoping that the boy stuck to his guns…and his name…Light took the plunge.

To: Latchkey
From: BriteLite

What are you doing up this early?

Across the room, Light saw his message pop up on Latchkey's screen, and the youth froze. The noise of keystrokes came to a standstill, as the autistic savant considered the new stimulus.

Light bit his lip. "Come on, kid…Take the bait…"

Ten seconds after the message appeared, Latchkey hunched over a little more, and began to type a response.

Latchkey: L00kn at teh CTWRC pursonnel files. U?

Light smiled. "Research, eh?" He whispered to himself. His fingers went to work, and the conversation continued.

BriteLite: I'm Tom Light. They tell me that you've been assigned to work on my team.

Latchkey: O rly? Thats kool. But who r u again?

BriteLite: …I'm the only other person in this cabin with you who's awake. Your typing kept me up. Why aren't you asleep?

Latchkey: Cant sleep. 2 much 2 do.

BriteLite: And just what are you doing, Latch?

Latchkey: Figring out where the trickr is.

BriteLite: …The Tricker? What's the Tricker?

Latchkey: Who. Tricker wuz sent to k33p n i on us. R u the trickr?

Wonderful, Light thought to himself. So either there's a spy here or this kid is absolutely nuts.

BriteLite: I don't think I am. Latch, did they tell you what we're supposed to do?

Latchkey: They told me I wuz going to h4ck sum internetz.

BriteLite: It's a little more than that, I'm afraid. We need to fix it.

Latchkey: Itz broken? U can't break the internet. U noob.

Across the way, Light thought he heard the boy snicker. In spite of himself, Light cracked a grin. "Little shithead." He mumbled, typing back.

BriteLite: They divided it up. We have to reconnect everything…whether it's using landlines or satellites. Whatever's left, we have to get it working. The CTWRC needs communications back to coordinate the Reconstruction efforts.

Latchkey: Ur nutz. I no u. U cant make a N3twrk out of the pieces. U cant hack them all.

BriteLite: You're right. I can't. But you can.

Latchkey: …?

"All right, kid. Let's see if you've got a hacker's egomania underneath all those layers…" Light mumbled again. If Schroeder heard him, he didn't show it.

BriteLite: I heard you were a good hacker. I heard you caused Uncle Sam a lot of headaches. Is that true?

Latchkey: Yes. Hacked the GAIDN protuculz.

Light sucked a whistling breath through his teeth as he read the last line. "What in the…"

BriteLite: The GAIDNs? As in, the warrior robots? When? How?

Latchkey: 2 yeers ago. Tuk 1 apart and hacked itz uplink.

BriteLite: Didn't they try to stop you? Didn't they force you out?

Latchkey: They tried. Epic failz.

BriteLite: Why did you do it?

Latchkey: Tired of feelin like a prizonr in my own hom.

Light's ears perked up…Latchkey was actually softly laughing.

Latchkey: Made the GAIDNs start brakedansing. LOL.

BriteLite: UR…I mean, you're kidding me!

Latchkey: Heard that the US lost a battle cuz of that. Then the bad men came. Tuk me to jail. No PC. Wuz sad.

BriteLite: Latch…I'm sorry.

Latchkey: Y? Not ur fault.

BriteLite: I still feel sorry for you. So, they sent you here, then?

Latchkey: They said if I helpd, I get to h4ck again. No help, stay in jail. Not much chois.

BriteLite: Well, they were right about that, kid. You are going to hack. Because we've got to get communications up and running, or else everything else going on here isn't going to happen. We're going to have to hack, crack, and access whatever's left and try to build working communications. That's internet, digital, everything. You up for the challenge?

Latchkey: Letz pwn them.

Light looked at the last line, smiling with a certain sense of pride. This Schroeder Dunlap had been good enough to do what he and Wily had nearly succeeded at…of course, he'd had more time, and the benefit of a genuine Kewbee at the time…but the simple fact was he was still a hacker. He'd hacked the GAIDNs. He'd done it for the right reason…to stop the U.S. from using them as shock troops to take over everything.

Light looked across the room; Latchkey was still typing, presumably on another hacking program, once more oblivious to the world not on his computer screen.

"You're a hell of a kid." Light whispered. "And you've got a good heart."