If before I'd had any reservations about diving into the Major's mind, they were all gone now. The situation before us was too dire to be worried about politeness. I kept my mind in detective mode as I searched her memories along with the others, though I heard groans from Batou every once in a while as he ran across intimate information he didn't like. I hoped for his sake that Kusanagi never found out what he had been doing.

/This way,/ I felt Aoi nudge us in another direction. As I followed him, the image of an ICU ward slowly materialized in front of my eyes. It was empty save for one pre-teen boy lying in bed, hooked up to an IV and several other things I could not identify, with a box full of paper cranes on one side. He spoke to a small girl, and I recognized her from the antique shop.

Kusanagi, I remembered, had been brought in to encourage him to switch to a cyborg body. She seemed pretty skilled with it, even though it was a fairly primitive model and she'd only been using it for a short time.

This wasn't enough for Kuze, however. He folded a square of paper with one hand, the other apparently paralyzed. "Can you fold paper cranes?" he asked Kusanagi.

Kusanagi eagerly took up the paper and started folding it. But she hadn't mastered fine motor skills yet, and she wound up with a ball of crumpled paper. Kuze glared at her with an accusing stare. "See, that's why I don't want a new body. It's useless." Kusanagi ran off in tears.

"Stupid kid," Batou grumbled. "He's fussing over origami? Heck, I don't think I could fold a paper crane. Not that I'd have any use for it. Jeez, lots of people lost limbs or more before prosthetic bodies were invented, and they managed to cope." He could not keep his contempt hidden.

I doubted that the fight was really about origami. Looking at the overflowing box, I remembered sitting in the hospital with some childhood illness or other, and kids from school bringing me sets of paper cranes. If you made a hundred of them, the old wives' tale said, the ill person would be cured. Nobody really believed that, but it was taken as a sign of goodwill, a get-well-soon wish if you will. The problem with Kuze, it seemed to me, was not his body but his mind. Obviously the plane crash that put him in the hospital left him traumatized; though I found it hard to believe that he carried this grudge over the loss of his body beyond the grave.

"Look out! Something's coming!" Tachikoma's voice echoed in my mind, and suddenly the scene around us wavered like the landscape on a hot August day. The next time I blinked, Kuze stood before us.

"You're getting much too close," he said in a soft voice that nevertheless rang throughout the room. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to stop you here, lest you interfere with destiny."

"Destiny my ass," Batou snapped. "I don't believe in that crap."

Suddenly a wall appeared between us and Kuze, and Aoi motioned behind us. A door, which had not been there before, opened. "I can only hold him off for so long. Once you free Kusanagi, you must bring her back here so she can confront him and take back her body."

Batou and I sprinted through the doorway, only to find us in a maze of hallways, every door shut tight with an elaborate old-fashioned lock. He scowled at the locks. "We don't have time to be hunting for keys. The Major'll probably kill us afterward, but we're going to have to smash through. Let's split up!"

I broke down the first door with a good hard kick, then stepped carefully inside. Nothing but an empty room, save for a single naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. "There's nothing in here," I said aloud.

"Nothing in this one either," I heard Batou yell. "Dammit, I wonder if Kuze set this up just to slow us down."

"D'you think he might have put her in the farthest room?" I asked.

"Let's check."

We both sprinted to the far end of our respective hallways, then kicked down both doors on each side. Nothing. Running back, I yelled, "He's probably got it set up so that it's the last door we try, no matter what door that is!"

"Better get kicking, then!" I heard a crash from his direction, and more cursing. Apparently he'd hoped he was wrong.

I stood for a moment, thinking. It seemed like an odd security system, but then Kuze was an odd person. I stared at the wall near the entrance, the only place without a door on it, and gave it a solid kick.

A door-sized piece of the wall fell down and shattered. "What the hell was that?" Batou asked, running to my side.

Inside the door, in a small white room devoid of everything except a small bed, sat the Major.

Batou shoved me so hard I nearly fell over. "Major!" he barked. "Are you all right?"

As I walked in I saw her look up at him with dead eyes. "What are you doing here…? You should get ready, it will all be over soon…"

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. "Dammit, snap out of it!" Batou shouted. "That Kuze is just screwing you over. Do you want to be taken for a fool?" He grabbed her arm, but she pulled back. I clamped my hand on his shoulder.

"Remember what Aoi said," I told him. "She has to leave willingly, or this won't work."

"Why won't she leave willingly?" Batou grumbled as the Major just stood there, staring at the floor. "I've never seen her act so strange. Are you positive it's even her?"

I frowned and sat next to her, racking my brain for all the information I'd read about cults and their methods. "Where are you going, Major?"

She answered to the floor, not to me. "To another life, to immortality, in the Net."

"Why?"

"This world is too fake, and to difficult. We will erase the mortal bonds that our manufactured bodies have placed upon us."

"Why?"

Batou looked at me as if I were imitating a three-year-old. But there was a method to my madness, and I didn't have time to explain. From what I understood, the best way to break someone out of a cult's grip was to make them question what they had been conditioned to believe. Often this process took weeks or months. I hoped the Major would be able to catch on quicker than most.

"There are…endless possibilities in the Net," Motoko said. "We will see all, know all…we will be like…deities…"

"Is that so?" I had already thought up a good argument. "The Net was created by people, Major. And there are still plenty of people in the world who aren't connected to it. Don't you remember Aoi, and all the trouble he went through to guard information so that it wouldn't be lost or corrupted?"

"It is still a better alternative than being trapped in a metal body," Motoko answered dully.

"Really." I could feel Batou's temper rising. "So, you feel helpless in your manufactured body, which by the way helps you see, hear, run, and everything else better than a human body…but you're going to let what's left of your ghost get carried off in the Net, with a zillion other people? Where's the logic in that?" Appealing to her harder side, Batou bent down near her face and demanded, "Are you such a weakling that, if we were living a couple hundred years in the past, you would fall over in defeat if you so much as had a leg amputated?"

"Is this you talking, or Kuze?" I demanded. This time she looked up at me. "Just because Kuze couldn't adjust to his cyborg body doesn't mean the rest of the world has to suffer."

She dropped her gaze back down to the floor. "He's only doing what he believes is good…"

"Yeah, if I had a dime for every time I heard that…" Batou muttered.

Time to try a different tack. "Major, do you really want to spend eternity with a bunch of people you don't even know? What about us? Don't you miss the rest of Section 9?"

"The rest of them are here…except for you…"

"So you're gonna leave me and Batou behind?"

"Kuze said he would allow the both of you to come with us…once you opened your eyes…"

Batou said something rather unsavory even for him.

"We can't come, Major," I told her evenly. "Batou and I have work to do. But, you know, I figured you'd leave me behind…I'm the weak link after all…but I didn't think you'd leave Batou for Kuze…"

Batou had this look on his face like he wanted to agree with me, but didn't want to admit it.

I took a deep breath and decided to run with it. What did I have to lose? "I mean, after all, you and Batou do have this deep, unrequited love.."

"Hey!" Batou yelled. "What are you trying to…"

"You know he sits up late at night, imagining the both of you locked in a desperate, passionate embrace…"

"Togusa! What the hell are you doing?!"

"…I know how much you both want to, I just don't understand why you guys keep putting yourselves through all the angst…you're like a couple of teenagers…"

Suddenly I felt myself lifted up from the bed and thrown violently into the wall. Batou stood with his hand clenched around my neck. "Dammit, Togusa, quit fooling around! What the hell are you trying to…"

He turned around and stared as light laughter floated over to the both of us. We both saw Motoko put her head down between her legs as if she were ill, then slowly raise her head up again. She blinked, and looked at us with clear eyes.

Batou let me go, and I fell hard on the floor, but I didn't care. "Welcome back, Major," I sputtered, massaging my neck.

Before she could answer, Aoi's voice ripped through our skulls. /I couldn't hold him back any longer! He's coming!/