A note from the Hime no Argh herself-

Disclaimer part 1: Ghost in the Shell does not belong to me, nor do any of its related characters and concepts.

Disclaimer part 2: From the summary my readers may have seen that the premise of my story is similar to the premise of Manica's fic entitled Ghost in the Shell: Virus. I want to assure my readers and Manica that this fic is entirely original, written before I even looked at Manica's GitS fanfic.

That said...

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Crossroads
Part 1: Mission


Togusa's black shoes echoed off the linoleum floor in the silent corridors of the Neuroward. Following a map of the hospital in his hand, he crossed a few more drab halls and turned a few more bends before stopping before room 156-N.

Stepping through the door, Togusa found himself in a small, dreary hospital room, full of monitors flashing with a ghostly green light. A feeble, fatigued old man waited in the white hospital bed, watched by an armed guard wearing dark sunglasses.

Togusa glanced at the guard. The old man smiled in response to the question is his eyes. "The Ministry of Defense insisted on appointing a guard to make sure I'm not ghost-hacked again," he explained, adding dryly, "They seem to think I'm important."

"You are important, Chief," Togusa replied, grasping the man's hand warmly.

The elderly half-human, half-cyborg called 'the Chief' grimaced at Togusa, but shook his hand firmly. "You're late, officer," he said with a ghost of a smile.

"I only got the phone call this morning," Togusa said, pulling a chair up to the Chief's bedside. "This new hacker's getting everyone, isn't he?"

The Chief nodded soberly. "Bateau was struck last night," he said quietly. "Did you hear?"

"No." Togusa's hands were suddenly trembling. "Was it...bad?"

"He's in a coma." The Chief made a face; they both knew the word coma was only used for lack of a better one. "His ghost was practically destroyed by the virus this new hacker put into him. The doctors are using him as a test subject for the experiments to free the immobilized ghosts."

Togusa leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. Fear was spreading rapidly through Tokyo; a person could practically smell it out there on the streets. No one was safe- at least, no one who wasn't almost fully human.

It had been almost a year since the last destructive ghost-hacking incident, and this time around, the situation was much worse. The last ghost-hacker on the scene had been known as the Puppetmaster. When cyborg Matoko Kusanagi, one of the head agents assigned to the capture of the Puppetmaster, had died on the job about a year ago, the Puppetmaster had disappeared. Some agents in the Ministry of Defense believed strongly that the Puppetmaster was back on the scene, behind this new case of ghost-hacking, but Togusa was sure that wasn't so.

Matoko Kusanagi had once been the major of Section Nine, the section of the Ministry where Togusa, Bateau, and the Chief all worked. Together they had worked diligently to solve the mystery surrounding the Puppetmaster, and Togusa was familiar with his style. The Puppetmaster ghost-hacked individuals, mainly government officials, through everyday people that he had hacked into as well. He used his marionettes in small but destructive plots such as communications disruptions and acts of terrorism. When he'd disappeared, the entire episode had been hushed up so fast it made Togusa's head spin, and he hadn't reappeared since.

This new hacker's style was different. He was also a ghost-hacker, but no Puppetmaster. He was not using, but simply striking- dozens each day were found, half-dead with their ghosts rendered useless. The hacker transmitted a virus to his victims over phone lines and the Internet. The virus invaded the victim's ghost and immobilized it, literally freezing a cyborg's human essence. And without a human essence, a cyborg was only a cyborg.

People like Togusa were unaffected. Except for the small brain augmentation that
allowed him to communicate telepathically with cyborgs, Togusa was completely human. He was not a ghost hiding within a shell; therefore he was immune to the hacker's virus.

The Chief was a special case. He was one of those few who were half-human, half-cyborg; most people went one way or another. Because he was half-human, his ghost was much stronger than a full cyborg's. He was able to resist the virus somewhat. For weeks after he'd been struck, the Chief fought with the ghost-hacking virus before finally overcoming it. It was a battle hard-won.

The Chief was rummaging in a drawer in the nightstand next to his bed, bringing Togusa back to the present. The Chief removed a small, round disc and placed it in Togusa's hand.

"I didn't bring you here just to chat," the old man said dryly in response to Togusa's unspoken question. "I'm giving you a new assignment. I want you to head the investigation to find this ghost-hacker."

Togusa's eyes widened and he nearly dropped the disc. "Me? But...I mean, I'm just a special officer. I don't head anything."

"Then consider yourself promoted," the Chief said crisply. "You're a necessity to this investigation. You've been through all the special Ministry training. You're one of the officers who were on the case of the last ghost-hacking incident. And let's not forget that you're one of very few in the Ministry who's immune to ghost-hacking." The Chief shook his head, adding quietly, "We've relied too much for too long on computerization within the Ministry. Now our best agents are useless. But you, Togusa-" He fixed Togusa with a glittering eye. "You're also one of our best agents, and you're immune. You are to find this ghost-hacker and bring him to justice. There will be no argument."

"But...Bateau?" Togusa asked shakily. "Ishikawa?"

The Chief's eyes flashed with annoyance. "You know as well as I that they are both ghost-hacked! They cannot help you, so stop wasting time and get on the case!" He gestured impatiently at the disc in Togusa's hand. "You'll find everything we know about the hacker on that disc. Have you any questions?"

Togusa stared at the disc. "No," he whispered.

"Good." The Chief cleared his throat meaningfully, and Togusa looked at him. "Good luck, officer. The world is depending on you."

* * *

Togusa went straight home from the hospital, back to his apartment high in a skyscraper overlooking the city. For a moment he looked around his dreary home, sighing. Once he had lived in a small but pretty suburban house with his wife, son, and daughter, but that had changed. After Matoko Kusanagi's untimely death, all of Section Nine had lapsed into a black depression to which they reacted by working harder than ever. Togusa found himself drifting away from his family, as his wife always feared he might. Finally she had left, taking the children with her.

Togusa wondered for a moment what his wife would say if he told her he was at the head of an investigation to catch an infamous criminal. He smiled ruefully as he realized he knew- she'd tell him he was working too hard. His wife had never exactly been thrilled when Major Kusanagi personally transferred Togusa from a cushy police officer's job into the exciting and highly dangerous world of Section Nine.

Togusa sat down at his desk and waited for his computer to boot up as he twirled the disc in his fingers. He loaded the disc into the computer, then sat back for a long and dull read of basically useless information that the Ministry had gathered on the hacker. When he was finished he sat back with a sigh. All of it was stuff he pretty much already knew. The message was loud and clear- the hacker was striking masses, and had to be stopped.

Togusa closed his eyes. Why the Chief had assigned him to finding the hacker, Togusa didn't know. He didn't have the slightest clue as to where to start. Perhaps if he slept on it, an idea would come to him.

* * *

Fortune was with him. The following morning, Togusa woke up with a plan fully formed.

"I need one of those special SD-T's that Section Three's always on about," Togusa told the Chief at noontime in his hospital room.

The Chief frowned. "A Search and Discover Tracer? Why?"

"Well you see, I had this brainstorm about the hacker when I was trying to figure out what to do with the information I have on him," Togusa said eagerly. "I kept thinking how it's weird that everyone keeps comparing him to the Puppetmaster, and then I realized why it's weird."

"Go on," the Chief urged when Togusa paused.

"Well, it's because this hacker doesn't use his victims. That's what the Puppetmaster was all about- I mean, that was why they called him that, anyway. But this hacker just hacks, and does nothing to his victims. Unless of course there are puppets he's using that we don't know about; in any case, I'm sure this is all part of some big master plan of his-"

"Yes, yes, get to the point," the Chief interrupted irritably.

"The point is that somebody's got to be making those phone calls and connecting those Net lines that the hacker's using to ghost-hack his victims. And since there's no obvious puppets being used..." Togusa took a breath. "I think the hacker's doing the hacking on his own."

The Chief pondered that for a minute or two. "It's a good hypothesis," he said at last. "But that doesn't bring you any closer to catching him."

"Well, say it does," Togusa said with a sly grin. "Say I lured him into calling me to try and ghost-hack me. Say I used something, oh, maybe a SD-Tracer, to discover the location from which the hacker is calling. That might bring me a bit closer to him."

"Unless the hacker changes locations," the Chief retorted, unimpressed.

"In which case I'd simply set a second trap and have a team ready to move in and take him from his current location. And he'd never realize what I'm using against him, because an SD-T can't be detected."

"Unless you're a master hacker, which this person is," the Chief pointed out.

"True," Togusa acknowledged, "but I figure he'd be too busy trying to hack me to think of checking for a tracer."

The Chief mulled this over. "It might work," he said grudgingly. "It's good for a start, anyhow."

Togusa grinned. "Exactly."

* * *

The plan that Togusa and the Chief implemented was simple enough. The Chief set up a new profile for Togusa under the listings of the agents in Section Nine, contained in a heavily guarded location in the Internet. The new profile labeled Togusa as a cyborg with a human ghost, along with a fake registration number, a date of computerization, and a list of doctors who created Togusa's body to make it all convincing. All of the Section Nine cyborgs had been struck down thus far; the Chief was sure that the hacker would attempt to ghost-hack Togusa as soon as he was discovered. But, the Chief warned, the attempt would probably not occur for a while.

The waiting was difficult. Togusa carried his phone everywhere, the tiny SD-T device permanently attached. Days went by and the hacker continued to strike dozens, but Togusa wasn't one of them. Grimly he resigned himself to his fate of 'eventually'.

Then one night the phone rang, jerking Togusa out of a restless sleep.

He expected it even as he answered, but the voice that issued from the receiver was far different from anything he'd anticipated.

"Zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero, three, five, nine, two, five..." Togusa listened silently to the voice reciting a string of numbers, numb with disbelief. The voice was that of a little girl, high-pitched and musical. It could have been his own daughter.

"Four, seven, six, five, one, three, eight, zero..." The numbers continued, and Togusa shook his head in admiration. Little girl or not, the hacker knew her stuff. She was using a simple but highly effective code, a string of numbers that would react against a cyborg's normal strands of zeros and ones and shut down its functions. Then, Togusa suspected, the hacker would attempt a passcode that would unleash the virus into her victims' body. Without the cyborg's normal functions working the virus would invade its ghost easily, immobilizing it.

"Three, three, seven, eight," the hacker finished. "Opening pathway to ghost. Passcode
is-" Abruptly the little-girl voice fell silent.

Togusa waited with bated breath. The SD-T was still buzzing, scrolling through locations at top speed.

Then the girl spoke again. "A human? Well, there's a surprise. We haven't made a mistake like this since we started the whole damn project."

Togusa blinked. He wanted to say something, but didn't know what.

"Ah, very clever. You laid a trap for us, didn't you?" The little girl sounded pleased. "You must be one of those who want to capture us. Well, you can stop trying. That tracer of yours is never going to work. We're not contacting you from a physical location- or at least, not any you could reach."

Togusa's throat worked, but no sound came out.

"But tell me, please, because I'm very curious," the hacker said prettily. "How many strings were pulled in order for you, a human, to get into Section Nine?"

Suddenly Togusa had plenty to say. "I didn't pull any strings," he snapped furiously. "I was the right man for the job! Major Kusanagi transferred me in personally!"

There was an abrupt silence on the other end of the line. Togusa gripped the phone so tightly that his hand shook. An unreasonable panic rose. What did I say? he thought wildly. I can't lose her now! He looked at the tracer. It was still scrolling.

Click. The line went dead.

The SD-T shut off with a beep. A sweating Togusa very slowly took the receiver away from his ear and placed it down on his nightstand. In silence, he looked out into the darkness before him.

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