You people keep giving me lovely reviews, asking me to update. Every review was motivation to get a few more pages written, and now, FINALLY... here you go! Enjoy!
(Also I hate the description for this story now. Someone help me think up a better one, please!)
Please be there... please...
The last time Rockman saw Netto was in Meijin's laboratory. Knowing Netto, that was the least likely place he was now.
Please, for once in your life have followed protocol...
SciLab's Safety Regulations stated that during an intruder alert, all doors and entrances were to be sealed. For this purpose, all doors had old fashioned deadbolt locks on them that could (in case of virtual intruders from the internet) not be controlled electronically. Only a human or another real-world object could lock or unlock them. It was then highly recommended to shut down, isolate, or firewall protect any electronic equipment in the room that was connected to the network.
But Rockman knew Netto; Netto was not the kind of person who hid and did nothing during a crisis. No, he was the sort that jumped right into the thick of things.
Maybe Meijin-san talked some sense into him...
This hope was unlikely. If anything, Meijin would be the first one out the door. And, knowing Netto, nothing could stop him from following. He had every right to do so; technically, he was still a Net Savior.
But we haven't been called to do anything in over a year... Why does Netto-kun always have to go looking for trouble?
Meijin tended to operate from the sidelines. As far as Rockman was concerned, the only thing Meijin would accomplish by finding that sideline would be to give Netto a clear view of the front line.
Please be there... please have waited for me...
That front line contained one of two things: a NetNavi in a Dimensional Area (which Netto could not fight without Rockman to Crossfuse with) or a real life threat in the form of people, weapons, or dangerous electronics (which Netto should not attempt to fight alone without equipment of his own). Rockman guessed that today's mishap was the latter; while shoving through a crowd of Mr. Progs he heard one yelling, "Let me go back! I have to sweep! There's glass all over the floor, I'm supposed to keep the floors clean!" at the top of his lungs, fighting to be heard over the discord of his green brethren. Both Navi and human were equally capable of breaking glass, but after a few highly unsuccessful attempts to attack SciLabs with a Dimensional Area, they were rarely used anymore. Plus, it was now a widely-known fact that the (in)famous Hkari Netto and Rockman worked here. Few people were dumb enough to put up a Dimensional Area with the two of them already inside it.
Broken glass... and that bolt from the roof...This isn't a drill. Netto-kun, please...
It was both joyous and foreboding to find the pathway to Meijin's laboratory wide open. Firewalls were supposed to be put up between servers during an intruder alarm, and the fact that Rockman had not encountered even one on the way here was an ominous sign. Regardless, Rockman was thankful for this fluke. He barreled through the connection to Meijin's server.
And there was Netto. He was sitting at the very console Rockman had entered. Having been expecting anything but this, Rockman came to a screeching halt which tripped him up and sent him to all fours.
"Netto-kun! You're here! You didn't—the alarm—I thought..." His words came out in a relieved, garbled mess. "I'm so glad to see you, I thought for sure you'd run off with Meijin-san and you don't have your PET so I couldn't plug-out and find you and I didn't know what I would do if..." He had to stop to inhale, out of breath— which was stupid because he did not actually breathe, it was just something done to look more realistic and, in accordance with human breathing, he couldn't talk while inhaling— from his frantic running and run-on sentences. "...if you got into trouble and I wasn't there, I..."
"Of course I'm here! Where the hell have you been?!" Netto snapped, not tearing his attention away from his typing.
"But I... you..." The wave of relief that had crushed Rockman against the floor vaporized in a flash. "You're the one who told me to get lost and not come back!" He'd lied to Roll earlier; his PET was not charging in Netto's lab, Netto had left it there intentionally.
"I wouldn't have told you to leave if you had just shut up and left me alone like I asked!"
"I was trying to help, Netto-kun!"
"Then you should've gotten a Sweeper to clean up the pieces of Generator 2, because-"
"Boys! Not now!" Meijin barked. His glare, however, was sent in Netto's direction. Netto did not fail to notice this, but did not disobey. He went back to work with a growl, firmly ignoring the Navi sharing his workspace.
Rockman fought to regain his composure. Even with Meijin's order and the pressing imminence of the situation, it was hard to keep his mouth shut. He and Netto had spent most of the morning arguing to no effect, and bringing up the topic again would only result in the same, useless finger pointing, but... somehow, Netto flat-out ignoring him was worse than the shouting. Netto was intent upon blaming his Navi for this fiasco. It was infuriating. He wouldn't listen to reason or apologies, and now wouldn't even acknowledge Rockman's existence.
Netto did have a halfway decent reason for being cross with him, though. Today during a test run, Rockman had somehow overloaded and broken their second Bubble Generator. Seeing as the first one was long since dead and they only had three Generators total, this was a significant loss for them. All three had been custom built by Meijin; Netto was an amazing programmer and had actually been the one to miniaturize Dimensional Area technology, but he lacked in practical engineering skills. Meijin was enlisted to help with this problem, but seeing as he did not have the time to continually repair his creations, he had decided to impart his wisdom onto Robert and Netto this afternoon. The tools and parts abandoned on their worktable indicated they had not finished their work before the alarm went off.
Meijin was (amazingly) still in the room, but Robert was nowhere to be seen.
"Netto-kun, where is Asano-san? And what's going on?" he asked, giving a quick brush off to his knees as he got back up. "I heard about broken glass on the first floor and Roll-chan and I saw-"
"Roll?" Netto interrupted. He glanced up from his typing and blanched at the sight of the pink Navi. "Roll! Why is she here? Is Meiru okay?"
"What? Oh, yes. She's fine," Rockman reassured. "I invited Roll-chan here." He didn't feel like giving the details, and Netto didn't press the issue. "What's going-"
"Thank goodness!" Netto sighed. "You really need to come with a disclaimer, Roll. Meiru's getting so big, it makes me nervous."
Rockman took a deep breath. Netto could ignore him all he wanted, but that wouldn't stop the ongoing intruder alarm and the fact that Rockman still knew nothing about it. "Netto-kun, the alarm! What's going on?"
"Oh. That," Netto muttered, resuming the previous topic and attitude. "There's a forklift on a rampage downstairs and Rob went to get coffee. He probably stayed where he was when the alarm went off."
Rockman found himself at a loss, not quite sure what he'd heard. "A forklift?"
"Yeah. A forklift from the warehouse just came crashing through the front doors. I'm assuming it's been hacked, but it's got one heck of a firewall keeping us out, so we can't confirm that."
"Has anyone been hurt?" Rockman asked. A forklift was an odd choice of weapon, but he supposed in the right hands it could be an effective one. If it ran into someone, even at a slow speed, it could be fatal.
"I don't know. Meijin-san?"
"I'm not sure either," Meijin frowned. It was not the answer Rockman expected; there was a distinct lack of his usual "no need for formalities". Unlike Netto, Meijin was using his personal laptop which, under normal conditions, made him near omniscient. If he found this situation troubling, it was cause for real concern. "By the time we figured out what was going on and connected to surveillance, the main lobby was cleared out." He keyed a quick command, and a live security feed popped up.
From the view it presented, Rockman could tell it was the camera positioned above the font receptionist desk where their quirky security guard Bob sat. Normally used to keep an eye on visitors at the desk, Meijin had it pointed towards the double doors that were the entrance to the first floor labs. They were lightweight, metal doors that required an ID card to open, and were currently shut tight. How long they were going to remain this way, however, was uncertain. There was a definite dent in the middle, obviously due to the unmanned, orange-and-black forklift in front of them. It drove out of view, but Meijin did not switch cameras. Rockman took this to mean that it was coming back for another hit, and sure enough a moment later it reappeared going reverse at full speed.
"Backwards?" Roll gasped.
The forklift hit the doors with a shuddering impact which made Roll flinch closer to him. On the whole it looked like the forklift itself took the brunt of the damage, but as it drove away Rockman noticed that the right door's handle was now broken off.
"Yeah, the forks can't go through the door, it already tried that," Netto explained. "See how they're a little bent? It's going backwards and using its flat back as a battering ram."
"How many people are in there?" asked Roll.
"Enough," said Meijin tersely.
Rockman groaned at this news. The number was probably quite high. About thirty various scientists routinely worked on the first floor. In addition to this there could be people from other floors, maintenance workers, and contracted workers. The few who had been in the main lobby had probably fled there as well, thinking they could barricade themselves inside. It was only a matter of time before they were going to be wrong; another hit from the forklift visibly warped the top hinge of the right door.
"Do you think they've used the fire exits to evacuate?" he asked.
"If they've got half a brain they will," Netto muttered. "Or just go upstairs."
"We can't assume all of them have done that," Meijin corrected. "But that's the immediate problem, not our biggest problem. The rest of us on the higher floors are trapped. Unless we can secure a staircase, nobody can evacuate."
Rockman said, "Oh," in unison with Netto. The elevators were off-limits during intruder alarms (due to the risk they could be tampered with via the net) which left only the stairs as a means of exit. The main building contained three staircases, two of which were on either side of the main lobby. It would be easy for the forklift to block either of these. The third was in the middle of the locked hallway to the labs, and if the forklift was successful in its attack on the door this would not be a viable option either.
"So what do we do?" Netto complained.
Rockman knew where this was going. "We don't do anything, Netto-kun. Meijin-san, aren't there any Net Police here?"
"No need for formalities. There's four here and more on the way."
"What are they going to do?" said Netto. He smacked the enter key hard with an air of finality. "This forklift is firewalled like crazy. They're layered on top of one another... I can't get in the steering controls or the engine. It can't be stopped remotely."
"Keep trying!" Rockman scolded. He knew it wasn't an impossible task to hack back into the controls; there could only be so many layers of firewalls before they broke through. Netto just had his own, dangerous ideas on how the problem should be handled and wanted to give up on their current, safer method. "Plug me in, maybe I can help."
"It's going to take too long!" Netto growled, his voice rising. "That door is gone in a few more minutes! And what about the injured? We can't just leave them there!"
"We're not," Rockman countered. They had no proof that anyone had been injured, anyway. "Plug me in and I can stop it!"
"What do you think Meijin-san's been doing this whole time on his laptop?! If he can't do it, we sure as hell can't!"
"You can't say that until you've tried!"
"I did try! I failed!" Netto shoved his chair away from the terminal with a huff of exasperation. "Rockman, all we have to-"
"No." Rockman didn't even need to hear Netto's plan to reject it. Any method of manually shutting down the forklift would require getting close to it, something he was not willing to let Netto have any part of. A forklift could change directions surprisingly fast; letting Netto anywhere near the first floor would be a mistake.
"No." Rockman repeated, a full ten decibels louder.
"It's got an emergency brake!" Netto said just as heatedly, pushing himself upright so hard that his chair tipped over. "All we have to do is turn the stupid thing off!"
Meijin issued another warning of, "Boys!", but was too engrossed in his work to take any action on his threat and thus promptly ignored.
"If it's been hacked," Rockman argued, "then I'm sure the brake won't work, they will have thought of that!"
"Then we'll just push it over!"
"Push it over?" Rockman asked, incredulous. Before he could get an answer, however, he comprehended the meaning behind "we": Netto wanted to Cross Fuse. With their combined agility and strength, it would be child's play to both dodge and tip over the forklift. On its side, the forklift would be powerless. "Aah. Cross Fusion."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you! We blow the thing to pieces and our problem is solved in thirty seconds! Why can't we just do this already?!"
The idea had merit, but it contained two major flaws which made it unfeasible.
"Netto-kun, we can't put up a Dimensional Area."
Rockman tried to force his frustration (and volume) down a notch. There was a logical reason for this refusal; Netto was just too impatient to see it. "If there's a Navi controlling the forklift, he could substantiate here inside the building. And if he's hacked in it from outside of SciLabs, then there is a good probability that our Network has a hole in security somewhere. It could be a trap! He might have an army of viruses waiting. Do you remember the first time that happened? With Shademan and Beastman? It was a disaster, SciLabs was overrun!"
There was no way Netto could forget this. It was the first time they had ever used Cross Fusion. Nonetheless, Netto brushed the memory off with an irritated wave of his hand. "We stopped Beastman, didn't we? We can handle whatever happens."
"Netto-kun, that's not the point!"
"So what is the point, Rockman?" Netto yelled at him, throwing both arms akimbo. "It's not safe, right? I'd be in danger? What about the people downstairs? You want me to sit here and donothing," he slammed a fist down on his keyboard, "while they get run over?"
"That's not what I said!" Rockman shouted back, sidestepping the "compose new message" window that popped open at Netto's outburst. He could see why Netto was so adamant about getting this over with, but to his own, more mathematically-inclined mind, a Dimensional Area had a far higher potential to injure more personnel than it did to save them.
"We're wasting time! We should be helping!"
"We would be helping if you would plug me into the forklift!" In the long run, Rockman had the better plan. He knew he did. Even if there were people who required medical attention, the labs had first aid kits, right?
"That's stupid!" Netto's face was an inch from the screen now. "We can Cross Fuse in two seconds and stop this!"
"I told you, we can't put up a Dimensional Area! It's too risky!"
"It's going to be up for two seconds, Rockman! Viruses can't overrun the place in tw-"
"Yes they can!" Both he and Netto had seen firsthand how quickly a room could fill with Mettaurs, and Rockman was not keen to repeat this experience.
"No they can't!"
"Yes they can!
"Boys! Knock this off already, you-" Again, Meijin went unnoticed.
"So what if they do? Small viruses are weak! You can step on them and they'll be deleted, it's not a problem!"
"It is a problem! Why are you being so stubborn?"
"Me?!" Netto cried. "It's not me! If you'd just shut up and quit ruining our Synchro Rate, we could-"
"Netto-kun! You..." By now he and Netto had to have a negative Synchro Rating, if such a thing was even possible. Rockman's right hand, so tightly balled the nails would draw blood were he human, morphed into his Rockbuster without him actively choosing to do so. "I wouldn't Cross Fuse with you even if I could!"
"I am the the reason our Bubble Generator broke. I am the one who is ruins our Synchro Rate by not wanting to take the risks you do. I am the reason we are standing here doing nothing. You never take responsibility for anything, Netto-kun!" His buster arm shook with the effort to keep the weapon at his side. With Netto being in the real world, his Rockbuster was an empty threat. He could shoot, and Netto's image would shatter into a satisfying pixeldust, but he could not stop the sound from coming through, could not stop Netto from just opening a new window. Rockman had never wished harm upon his Operator before; fear at this realization was making him shake as much as his anger was. "I am tired getting blamed for your careless decisions! I won't go downstairs, and I refuse to open a gaping hole for viruses to swarm the build-"
Netto punched the computer screen with a resounding crack. The screen was unharmed, though the same could probably not be said for Netto's hand.
Meijin finally felt it time to intervene, and restrained Netto before his second raised fist could make contact. "Both of you stop this nonsense at once! This is not-"
"Useless!" Netto shouted breathlessly, fighting for all he was worth. "You are so useless! I can't- Meijin-san, let me go!"
"I will when you stop acting like a child!"
"I'm not- this is serious!" Meijin was proving surprisingly strong. Unable to break free, Netto gave Rockman a venomous look. "If you don't want to help, I'll do it myself! Meijin-san... let me go..."
A shout cut through the chaos like a gunshot. "Netto-san, you idiot!"
Rockman jumped at the noise. He whirled around, buster raised... only to see Roll back away in alarm. He had forgotten she was here. With a sheepish apology, he morphed his hand back.
"You can't go, Netto-san!" Roll continued, still a bit shaken. "Have you forgotten that you have a wife and unborn child at home?" Her words accomplished what half a morning of yelling did not: Netto was rendered speechless. "What if something happens to you? What am I supposed to tell Meiru-chan, huh? That you didn't love her enough to think about her before you threw your life away?!"
"I... it's not..."
"I've got news for you, Netto-san," said Roll, smacking her hands on her hips, "You are not responsible for the entire world. You have your own responsibilities now. You are a husband. You are a father. You have a family now, Netto-san! Are you telling me that these things are less important than your Net Savior duties?"
"I didn't say that!" Netto objected.
"But you're acting like it. You told Meiru-chan you could do this. You promised her you would find a good balance between work and home."
Netto shrugged out Meijin's grip, having calmed down enough to be released. "Yeah, and I-"
"You are not!" snarled Roll. "Rockman is right: you are making rash, hot-headed decisions. You are being reckless, careless, downright stupid! You can't do this anymore, Netto-san!"
"Then what do I do? I can't just sit here; look! The door! It's gone!"
Both Roll and he, Rockman, were caught unaware by this statement. With a horrified turn back to the surveillance feed, it was confirmed: the right-hand door had fallen. The left was still up, so the doorway was not yet wide enough for the forklift to go through, but a sudden, angled blow from the rear of the vehicle left the remaining door shuddering. It would not hold out much longer.
"Back-up hasn't arrived yet, as far as we can tell the Net Police already here are doing nothing, and I'm supposed to stand here and watch?!"
"No," Roll shook her head, "I didn't say you have to watch. I said you have to find a balance. That means you have to rely on others, sometimes. Send Rockman and me!"
Rockman's gut reaction was to tell her no, she couldn't come (she wasn't supposed to be here in the first place), but Netto beat him to the punch. "We tried hacking it... aah, Rockman, I guess I'll plug you in..."
"No, I mean use a Bubble."
Netto, stooping down to pick his chair off the floor, froze. "What?"
"A Dimensional Bubble!" said Roll. "We could physically go downstairs. They're not connected to the Network, are they? So nothing could substantiate but the two of us... right? And if we got run over the... the bubble would pop and we'd... plug..." Her voice grew quieter and less confident as three sets of eyes bored in on her. "I-I'm sorry! Is that not a good idea?"
It was the perfect solution. Rockman could go downstairs alone. With his speed and agility, he could get inside the forklift and manually shut it off. If the controls didn't work, he could use his superior strength to push it over. And if for some reason neither of these could be accomplished or his bubble popped during the process, he would just plug-out into his PET. Nobody would be at risk (except for the Bubble Generator), and no other Navi or virus even knew about the belt, much less would try to hack into it.
"No, it's..." Netto stumbled. The three of them had spent all morning trying to fix one such device; why nobody had thought of this solution was dumbfounding. "It's perfect!" he breathed at last. "Roll, you're a genius!"
"It is a good idea," Rockman told her gratefully, "but can we make it work, Netto-kun? We still don't know why Generator 2 broke this morning, and we have never tried to simulate combat with a Bubble before..."
"Pfft! Combat? It's a forklift, not a Net Battle," said Netto with growing excitement. "So what if you can't use your Rockbuster? You won't need it. Meijin-san, what do you think?"
"No need for formalities." Meijin retrieved his laptop with a weary sigh. "I think it's our only option at this point. Whoever got inside that forklift did a very good job locking us out. What do we need, Netto-kun?"
"Generator 3 is upstairs in our test room," said Netto, "and I'll also need Rockman's PET, which is in my office."
"Let's not waste time, then," Meijin replied. He reached into a pocket of his lab coat and pulled out a short cable which he plugged first into his laptop and next into the console Netto was using. "You two," he said, addressing both Navis, "get inside. You won't be able to get upstairs through the network, by now there should be firewalls between the servers."
"Okay." While Rockman had been lucky on his way here to not run into any, the firewalls had to be up by now. If not, SciLabs had a much bigger problem than a forklift. Netto did not have his PET, so Meijin's laptop would have to do as a form of transportation. "Netto-kun?"
Netto quickly gave the voice command. "Rockman,EXE, Roll,EXE, Plug-In! Let's go!"
Rockman let himself dissipate. After a brief flash of disorientation, he reassembled inside Meijin's laptop. He had never been in here before (at least not while conscious), but he found it to be an unsurprising sight. The desktop was flooded with icons of all sorts, most of which had names incongruous with the picture above them, and there were at least two dozen minimized programs currently running goodness knew what. He was not a claustrophobic person, but with enough time in this clutter he was sure he could learn to be. Three milliseconds later, Roll appeared as well. She was not as lucky as he had been in arriving; she opened her eyes to find an icon nearly touching her nose and, with a small cry of shock, fell backwards.
"Aiee... what is all this?" she moaned, eyeing their travel arrangements with apprehension.
Rockman wound his way through the mess to Roll. She accepted his outstretched hands and kept close after he pulled her up. There was really no space to stand much farther apart.
"Rockman?" A video window opened, showing Meijin's distorted face. "Good. Please do not touch anything."
"We won't," Rockman promised. "But please be careful in the hallways, Meijin-san! Don't let Netto-kun do anything..." there was no nice way to phrase it, "...too stupid."
"No need for formalities," Meijin agreed with a nod. He shut his laptop and the video disappeared.
Once again alone in the semi-darkness, Rockman returned his attention Roll. "You were supposed to go home after you saw Netto-kun, you know," he told her.
"I know," she said with an apologetic smile. "I lied. But I don't think I could have gotten out, even if I'd gone right away... wouldn't the exit have been firewalled when the alarm went off?" She'd been hoping to get caught along for the ride, and had succeeded. "But see? Aren't you glad I'm here? I can help you!" she sing-songed.
She'd also guessed the topic he was about to bring up. "Yes, your idea to use a Bubble is brilliant... but about that, Roll-chan..."
Her smile faded instantly. "I can't come with you, can I?' she sighed. "Why not, Rockman? I'm good at Dimensional Bubbles! You saw me, I did the entire Happy Happy Love dance!"
"I know you did, but that's no-"
"I picked up that rose! You said that was hard to do!"
"It is, but-"
"But what?" Roll demanded.
Rockman had a simple answer. "We only have one working Bubble Generator."
"I broke the second one this morning," he admitted. "I know you want to help, Roll-chan, but with one belt..."
Roll scrutinized his face. After a thoughtful minute, she relented with a sigh. "I suppose it doesn't matter if that's the truth or not; I'd be left behind either way, right?" She clasped her hands over her Navi icon. With a serene look, she continued softly. "Rockman... You know, you're more similar to Netto-san than you think."
"What? I'm nothing like Netto-kun!" he exclaimed. They were nothing alike. At the moment, Rockman wasn't even sure if he wanted anything to do with Netto. He was more than willing to go downstairs and stop a forklift, but that had no correlation to forgiving Netto for (figuratively) punching him in the face not three minutes ago. Their argument was by no means solved; it was just put on hold. He had every intention of chewing Netto out once this was over.
"Yes you are," said Roll. "Both of you like to try to take the weight of the entire world upon your shoulders. You always insist on doing things alone," she shut her eyes, and her Navi icon began to glow, "but that's ridiculous, because you're never alone. Even if you won't let me go with you, I can still help... in a little way, at least..." She drew her hands away slowly, and the glow went with them until it separated from her icon entirely. She was left cupping a small, brilliant pink sphere of energy in the scant few inches between their bodies and, before he could react, thrust it into his own icon with a firm shove.
As always, the rush was electric. What was supposed to come out as, "You don't have to do that," became an inhale between clenched teeth.
"Arguments are tiring, aren't they?" Roll no. "Especially when both opponents are so stubborn. Give Netto-san some time, he will get his priorities straight."
Extremities still tingling, Rockman was at a loss for a reply. She was right, of course; dealing with Netto in a foul mood was exhausting. With his newfound warmth, Rockman's resolve was strengthened He would forget the cruel things Netto had said to him this morning, forget how he ran away from the team's disappointment, forget how he and his Operator had come to physical blows for the first time in their lives... He had a job to do and, because Cross Fusion would not be involved, he didn't need Netto. He could plug in to the Bubble Generator by himself, turn it on himself, handle this problem by himself. If and when Netto came to his senses and apologized, Rockman would consider listening.
But that was not the point of Roll's reassurance, was it? He wasn't alone. He still had Roll. Confident, calming Roll. She knew why Netto could not go downstairs. She was the only one who had kept a cool head and thought of a viable solution. She was the one standing here now, offering him all the support she could give. She was also, and most importantly, standing much too close. It was so cramped in this computer, it couldn't be helped, but... with less than a step they would be touching... with barely any motion he could embrace her... he could... could...
"Rockmaaan! Are you ready?"
...and of course Netto choose this moment to butt in, loud and capricious as always. It was hard to believe that only three minutes ago they'd been in a semi-fistfight.
"Aah, um, yes! One second... Thank you, Roll-chan!" Rockman gripped her shoulders, feeling it a necessary gesture to emphasize his next point. "Please," he stressed with a squeeze, "stay here."
"You're the one who needs to be careful," she said, annoyed. But she brightened for a final "Good luck!" before he plugged out.
Muscle memory from months of practice guided Rockman through the Bubble Generator on auto-pilot. Two firewalls, a written password, a joint verbal password with Netto... through the initiation process, and when Rockman clipped the belt on, he had no trouble shrinking his oversized bubble down to a perfect, form-fitting skin. Everything running smoothly, the three humans (Robert had been picked up somewhere along the way, and from the cup in his hand appeared to have succeeded in getting coffee) and one Navi set off down the hallway.
As they approached the stairs, they could hear the whir of heavy, motorized machinery below. It was punctuated by occasional thuds and crashes; the forklift was still at work. Rockman took the lead down the stairs. He paused at the halfway landing and motioned Netto, Meijin, and George to halt behind him. Cautiously, he peeped around the bend.
There were no doors on the staircase entrance, but Rockman's view of the first floor was small. All that was visible was the tiled floor and a spray of dirt. Rockman went down the steps one by one, hugging the handrail. After two steps a knocked over potted plant came into view (and explained the mess on the floor). At four steps, tipped over and in some places ripped chairs came into view. Halfway at seven, most of the room could be seen, and it was in shambles. Tables were upended. Wood, glass, dirt, and upholstery littered the entire floor. Only a vague frame of the Welcome Desk was left standing, and the rest was in jagged, widely scattered pieces.
Rockman only spared a moment worrying about the quirky security guard; a much larger problem lay right beyond his desk. The glass double doors, supposedly bullet and shatter proof, were gone. Instead, a gaping, cracked hole opened to the outside. A single police car was parked halfway in front of it, as though it was uncertain if it wanted to block the entranceway or not. A policeman was crouched behind the trunk. He had his weapon out and trained on something to Rockman's left, presumably the forklift. Not far behind him was another officer who had his gun ambiguously pointed outwards, presumably on the lookout for more forklifts.
Rockman bit back a sigh at their completely ineffective and dangerous antics. Net Police did not routinely carry weapons that were capable of killing, as they so rarely had to deal with real-life threats; they carried things that were meant to incapacitate or stun. Even if by some miracle these two were equipped with higher grade firepower, what good was any of that against an unmanned forklift? And how could a single car make a barricade? A forklift's forks would go right through that car like parallel knives through warm butter. Though he could hear more sirens in the distance, Rockman now shared confidence with Netto in this plan. He was needed here.
When Rockman took three more steps down, he was spotted by the officer behind the car. The officer did not agree with Rockman's reasoning.
"Halt! It's not safe to..." His face lost all color. He stumbled backwards, looking skywards. "D-dimensional...?!"
"Crap," Netto muttered, leaping the last four steps to in one bound. He waved to get the officers' attention and made a shushing motion.
"Is that... Hikari Netto? Then how is...?! What's going on?!" the second officer gasped.
"Shut uuup," hissed Netto.
Meijin stepped down to do some pantomiming as well, which Rockman had no patience to wait for. He peered around the corner to observe the source of today's trouble. True to their surveillance, a forklift was in fact ramming the laboratory doors backwards. The second door had now lost its bottom hinge and the bottom half was warped crookedly backwards.
"Netto-kun, I'm going."
"Mm," Netto nodded his approval.
Rockman ducked and ran out into the lobby, hugging the wall closest. He had really given no thought to how he was going to do this; it was a very Netto-like attitude and exactly what Roll did not want, but how exactly did one plan out an attack against a forklift? This required good old-fashioned improvisation and Rockman trusted his reflexes to see him through this task.
The truck frame of the forklift was black, and the empty cab was orange. The paint was chipped off in places and the metal dented badly. There was a clear "LGV" written on the side underneath the manufacturer's logo, which Rockman guessed to mean "Laser Guided Vehicle", but inbetween the masts and hydraulics he could see a recess into the carriage that was wide enough for a single human to stand in. Hopefully this meant it also had manual controls and, more importantly, a working Emergency Off button. Nearly all of the instruments in the lab came with a large, red "EMO" button... surely this forklift must, too. Rockman slowed as he neared his target. There was no way of knowing if someone had simply hacked the path decision sub-routines or if an actual Navi of some sort was inside, controlling the unit. The damage around the room appeared to be rather specific, though, so Rockman was betting on the latter. He also, since it was going backwards and he was approaching it head-on, was expecting it to notice him and take some sort of action before he could reach it.
He was not disappointed in this assumption. Nine meters away the forklift dashed his hopes of calmly climbing inside by altering its course towards him and charging full speed. Rockman altered his own to be perpendicular, and ran through a knocked over table and chair setting, thinking this would impede his pursuer They did not; a quick swerve and the truck went around them with grace. This was almost proof that somebody was inside driving, and also made Rockman notice a little spray of liquid that came out the back as it swayed back onto course. Was it leaking something? It was clear, so it couldn't be oil... and that far back on the cab it couldn't be from the hydraulics of the carriage... What would be in the back by the counterweight that- The counterweight. Rockman had a limited knowledge of forklifts, but he knew like most levers, the forks needed a counterweight to keep the truck from falling forward when they were raised. That counterweight was not just a dead weight; it was probably something heavy and practical, like the engine.
"Netto-kun!" he called out, "There's no way this is a diesel engine, is it? Is it a hydrogen fuel cell?"
"It's leaking something!" Rockman bolted sideways, making another ninety-degree turn. The forklift was faster than him and catching up quickly, but made wider turns. So long as he kept moving...
"I dunno! Does it say on it somewhere?"
"Not on the outside!" Another hairpin turn, but this time he avoided going through obstacles. All of the things he could think of that could be leaking were flammable, and he was not keen to have the forklift hit something and create a spark. "Maybe inside it does, but..."
As always, the simplest (and most dangerous) solution to getting inside was going to be the easiest: Rockman stopped dead in his tracks and let the forklift charge him. He braced himself and, at the last second, jumped. The forks were only raised knee-high, so it did not take much effort to jump atop them, but the change in velocity (and impact against the mast) was painful. Luckily, Rockman managed to turn and hit his side more than his front, which protected the precious electronics in the buckle of his belt. His Bubble was still intact.
In the background, Netto and Rob cheered.
The masts were too tall for Rockman to climb over, so he went around the side. He grasped the front support of the cab and, with a deft swing, whipped around the back and landed successfully in the rider's stand.
The controls were surprisingly simple. There was a joystick to control speed and direction, a touchscreen which was lit blue with "LOCKED" in large red letters across it, and the expected emergency off button. Other than company branding, there was no indication about the battery type.
"It doesn't say what the battery is, Netto-kun. Stand back, I'm going to try and unlock the controls!"
This was also a dumb idea- what if this was a trap, rigged to explode when touched?- but when both parties of humans were out of sight in stairwell and behind police car, Rockman tapped the touchscreen. An electric shock shot up his arm, sizzled like fire, and Rockman yelped; somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard Netto echo it. He lost his vision when the Bubble went opaque and Rockman was terrified the belt would be fried, but when the pain subsided a moment later, there appeared to be no consequence. The forklift was still locked, he was still in his Bubble, and the belt...
"Netto-kun? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, are you? What happened?"
"The controls are electrified, please tell the Net Police not to touch them. I am okay, but my Belt... it... I can't control the output anymore, it's stuck on automatic!"
"You're kidding me..." Netto moaned.
In their current research, Rockman often operated his Dimensional Bubbles manually. To keep Bubbles uniform across a complicated, moving or changing surface required a finesse which their automatic controls had not yet mastered. The goal was, of course, to have the machine be fully automated, but... Cautiously, Rockman made the Bubble expand around his right hand. It ballooned out, thinning in a way he wasn't used to, but stayed intact.
"Hm! Netto-kun, it looks like the belt is trying to keep the Bubble's conductivity constant rather than keep the overall thickness uniform."
"Yeah?" Netto called back. "Will it be okay?"
"I think so. If I-"
"Rockman! Get out... of my way..." On the touchscreen, a triumphant Roll was removing the "LOCKED" letters one by one.
Rockman was aghast. "R-roll-chan! What are you- I told you to-!" This was exactly what he had told her not to do.
"Meijin-san made a hole, so I slipped in! I'm in the fork controls; the engine is still blocked. I can-"
"No! Get out of there!"
"It's fine, there's nobody here. I am going to-"
"Roll-chan, this is dangerous! Plug out now! I told you to stay with Meijin-san!" How could Roll admonish him for being a risk-taker when she did things like this? There was definitely somebody controlling the engine, and even if the forks had separate controls which had been abandoned, it couldn't be hard for that person to come back. They were the ones putting up the firewalls, after all. They must know Roll had broken in.
Roll did not listen. "It's fine, I'll be quick. I am raising the forks," and indeed, with a clunk then a whir, they began to rise, "so the forklift will be top-heavy. Get it to turn at a high speed and it will tip over!" When they reached their top position with another shuddering clunk, Roll morphed her arm into its trademark bow. "Roll Arrow!"
Roll's heart-shaped projectile caused a prolonged flash of light off-screen. At the same time, the forklift stopped dead in its tracks.
"There! I've destroyed the controls, so the forks should-"
The screen went dark.
"R... roll-chan!" Rockman's panic was immediate and all-consuming. "Roll-chan!"
The screen came back to life for a brief moment. Nobody was in sight. Then Roll screamed, a high-pitched shriek of surprise or pain he couldn't tell, and the screen died again.
"Roll-chan!" He pounded the panel without thinking, and found it no longer electrified. Rockman used this newfound opportunity to smash the emergency off button, but it had no visible effect and did not stay depressed like it should under normal operation. "Roll-chan! Roll-chan! Netto-kun Roll-chan is-"
There was no time to talk; the forklift reignited. The touchscreen again glowed with a "LOCKED" message, and Rockman removed his hands right before an audible crackle of static electricity sparked its way across the controls. They were electrified again. There was no longer anything Rockman could do from the inside, so he scrambled out of the driver's stand. His best option now way to try and tip it, like Roll had suggested.
"Hey! Hey! Over here! I'm right behind you!" Rockman skipped a few steps backwards, goading the forklift to chase him. He had no idea if the Navi inside could hear him, but it spun on the spot and gave chase all the same. Rockman ran a short four meters and turned at a right angle. The forklift followed and tilted on its wider turn, though unfortunately slowed and caught itself before it fell.
There was no time for this, Roll was in trouble, he had to stop this thing and get inside it now. No longer caring about being cautious or what was leaking out the back of the forklift, Rockman ran to the nearest furniture- which he had run through earlier- a tipped over end table with magazines scattered nearby and a squat, upholstered armchair. He did not have quite the super-human strength in a Bubble that he and Netto did together in Cross Fusion, but so long as his Bubble didn't tear he had enough power to pick up both of these things. The end table was easier to grasp and thrown first; it impacted loudly against the forklift, a wide crack splitting along its top, and fell to the floor where it was pushed easily out of the way. Rockman had time to raise the armchair, but not enough to throw it. The raised forks ripped straight through the upholstery, and had he not held on tight and lifted his lower body up to dangle from the chair, Rockman would have been run over.
Rockman swung to launch himself sideways out of harm's way, and landed on all fours. The forklift made an attempt to follow his motion, but the added weight of the chair caught on the forks was too much and it tipped precariously onto two wheels. Rockman launched himself at the cab, striking it hard. His impact was the final blow; with a resounding crash they both fell to the floor.
"Aaaie..." Gingerly, Rockman picked himself out of the mess, amazed that his Bubble was still perfectly intact. "Netto-kun, it's..." he shook his head to clear it, "it's Roll-chan! Hurry, she's inside and I don't know what happened!"
Netto's rag-tag team of three came running, along with six Net Police from outside.
"She plugged out!" Meijin called. "She went through my laptop and out."
"I gave her the password to get out of SciLab's firewall and go home. I have a record of her data passing back through my laptop when you started calling for her. She must have plugged out all the way back to her PET."
"Is she okay?!" Though this could have been a conscious decision on her part, Rockman had a feeling she would not have left entirely if able. A PET plug-out was normally something done for speed if your Operator called or if, during a Net Battle, your life was in danger.
"She wasn't deleted," was the simple reply.
Rockman's knees gave out. He sank back to the floor. Roll hadn't died in her confrontation, but that said nothing about why she'd plugged out or what state she had left in... or what state she was in now.
"Rockman, I'm sure she's fine..." said Netto. "Hey, guys!" He addressed the Net Police now busy with the forklift. "You got this? Can we go? Rockman, get out of your Bubble and you can-"
His hand extended in an offer for help up, Netto was interrupted by a sudden flicker and dimming of the fluorescent lights above them. This was an indication that something was drawing large amounts of energy from their generators and, in his many years of working with Papa and Netto at SciLabs, Rockman only knew of one thing that used this much power: the Dimensional Generator. From the way their faces fell, Rockman could tell Netto and Meijin had both come to this conclusion as well.
"No way," Netto breathed, racing for the window at the halfway landing of the stairs. He pressed his face to it, trying to get a good view of the sky. "Nothing. Was it put somewhere else with the Dimensional Converter, Meijin-san?"
"No need... for..." Meijin's usual mantra was cut off by a curse. "It's the Generator. It's the Generator, not the Converter. It has to be here... but..." His fingers were flying across his laptop, and his concentration on whatever he was doing caused him to fall silent.
"But what?" Rockman asked, afraid by this response. The Dimensional Converter was the satellite dish on their roof used to place a remote Dimensional Area around a spot of interest; the Dimensional Generator was the machine that produced such Areas, and by itself could only produce them here at SciLabs.
"I can't get into the Dimensional Core!" Meijin sounded incredulous. "I designed the security for this; it should have notified me if anything..." He cursed again. "There's a Dimensional Area in the building and I have no idea where."
"Our satellite network is down!" one of the Net Police holding a PET gasped.
"Not down; we're locked out!" another officer amended.
"Is the Dimensional Area just blocking the signal?" Netto pondered outloud. "Is it on the roof?"
"No, radio signals can still pass through a-"
"The roof!" Rockman clapped a hand to his head; in this mess he had completely forgotten about it. "Meijin-san, we saw debris falling off the roof! I don't know if it was just wind or..." With a jolt of horror, he understood. "We were in a camera near the satellite dishes, a human must have gotten in directly through a dish itself, not through the network or radio jamming... The forklift was just a diversion!"
It was all a diversion. Just by chance he and Roll had seen the real threat and, because of a petty argument with his Operator and how much time they'd wasted with said diversion, Rockman did not even think to mention it. Now their satellite system was hacked, a Dimensional Area was blocking any access to their satellite dishes, Roll was who knew where, and Netto, already half a flight up the stairs, was now racing up them two at a time. This bad day was getting progressively worse. Going home to check on Roll, as desperately as he wanted to, was going to have to wait. She was alive, and that was all that mattered for now. Rockman let instinct take over; his body righted itself and charged after his Operator. The sound of multiple people protesting, telling him to wait, bounced off as a minor annoyance. Netto was not going to wait, and he couldn't let Netto go alone. Angry at each other or not, this was a fact hard-wired into his brain. He had to follow. He took the stairs three at a time.
There was only one staircase with roof access, and this was not the one. Those stairs were at the other end of the building, and came out right next to the rooftop helipad. Navi and Operator reached the fourth floor together and squabbled in breathless gasps as they barreled down the hallway.
"Netto-kun, we can't- it's dangerous!"
"Just gonna look- see if it's on- on the roof!"
"That's dangerous! Let's- look at surveillance!" Netto was pulling ahead, his forever unbuttoned labcoat billowing out behind him, and Rockman grabbed the flapping hem to yank his Operator to a halt. "Don't need- to go up!"
"Oh," Netto panted, "Yeah, that... that makes more sense."
"Need to stop... and think," Rockman admonished. They weren't far from their intended target, the other set of stairs, and Rockman was not keen to stay out in the open if this staircase was being watched. Thankfully there were also bathrooms at this end of the hall. He attempted to push Netto into the closer of the two, but was met by a surprising resistance.
"Rockman! This is the girls room!"
Today, Rockman could not find the strength to be embarrassed by this fact. It was an open door to a room with no cameras, ideal for hiding, and the mens room was an additional six meters away (and thus, six meters closer to the stairs he wanted to avoid). He cracked the door and called softly, "Hello? Is anyone in here?" When he got no response, Netto was shoved unceremoniously inside. "Watch out for Asano-san and Meijin-san, will you? I think they followed us and I do not want to be seen."
"Seen?" Netto grumbled. He was leaning over to check for feet in the stalls, obviously still uncomfortable with their hiding spot.
"Whoever is on the roof might be watching the stairs. I don't want them to see me. Should I plug-out of the belt?" He'd only ever worn a Dimensional Bubble outside of their lab once, and for most of that trip he had been smuggled around in a labcoat, boots, glasses, and a large hard hat to avoid attention. It was only when they stopped to buy flowers (to bring home to Meiru) that anyone saw him, and even then they'd gone to a store right outside the Castillo theme park and told people he was in costume for the stage show, getting flowers for a fellow actor.
Netto took up post at the door, shaking his head negative. "Nn. If they've got eyes on the stairs then they were probably watching the forklift too. They've already seen you."
"Oh..." Of course. The forklift had been making intelligent decisions, following him... watching him. True, it was only a matter of time until their Bubble work became public knowledge, they'd always known that, but this really was not the way Rockman had intended it to happen.
All the same, Netto kept guard and ushered a winded Meijin, Robert, and two Net Police into the bathroom. After a quick round of, "What were you thinking?" from Meijin, they got down to business. Yes, there was a Dimensional Area on the roof. It was relatively small for an Area, only covering half of the roof, but contained inside were all three of their satellite dishes and what appeared to be two NetNavis. What these Navis were trying to accomplish was unknown, Meijin could not shut down the Generator, and none of the three helicopters in the area were available for immediate use. On the verge of asking if this attack was malicious and a jump indeed necessary, Rockman was interrupted by a call from the Chief of Net Police and IPC Chairman of the Board, Ijuuin Enzan.
"Enzan!" Netto cheered. "Long time no see, buddy. What's the good news?"
Meijin set his laptop down on the sink counter so Enzan could address everyone. Though tight-lipped, the essentials were answered: Yes, the intent was malicious, yes, Netto should prepare for a jump, and...
Ice blue eyes narrowed at the Navi in the room. "Netto. I thought you said the Area was on the roof."
"It is," said Netto.
Enzan's penetrating stare did not leave Rockman. Navi and Operator came to the conclusion at the same time: Enzan knew nothing about Dimensional Bubbles. To him, Rockman being here outside of the Area was a physical impossibility. With similar cries of shock, Rockman ducked as Netto pushed him down.
"Or... er, that... that is to say..."
If this was not the way Rockman wanted their enemies to find out about Dimensional Bubbles, it was even less the way he wanted Enzan to find out. They'd had their doubts about how Enzan and the Net Police would react to their new technology, even if Meijin was enthusiastic about the project, so... in Netto's words, they had been waiting to finish the project to ask forgiveness rather than ask permission before starting.
"Nevermind," Enzan massaged his forehead with his knuckles, "You can fill me in later. For now, prepare for Cross Fusion. We will try to keep them out of anything crucial until you get in."
"Great. Rockmaaan, come help me pick chips. What do you want?"
In the time since they'd become Net Saviors, Cross Fusion technology had not changed much. A PET could be pre-loaded with eight battle chips instead of five, but it was still the same combining of bodies, the same sensation of being one but still having to act synchronously with what was, essentially, yourself. Rockman took a deep breath. Netto was going to be jumping out of a helicopter, a task which if done incorrectly would lead to nothing but death. They had to work in unison and, at the very least, Rockman would have to fake that to some degree of success. To this end, he joined Netto at the sink counter where their collection of battle chips was being laid out.
Netto's PET holder only had room for a few key battle chips, and nowadays he did not routinely carry the spare chip holder filled with the rest of his collection. All the same, he always had a few more somewhere on his person. He was now fishing a few out of his labcoat and pants pockets, and Robert was offering the few he had stashed in similar places. "Okay, so let's see, the usual sword and cannon... you up for a Program Advance, Rockman?"
"I don't want to damage the building."
"Zeta Cannon it is. We can shoot that up and not hit the building. What else? Stone Cube, Dash... Aqua Tower... Why do you have Aqua Tower, Rob? Your Navi's default weapon is a water cannon!"
Netto had not gotten the hint that no, he was not in fact up to attempting a Program Advance. Unwilling to argue and hoping to salvage one of the remaining five slots, he acquiesced with a mumbled, "Life Aura." It was still the best defensive chip that existed and, at his insistence, one was forever kept in the PET holder.
"Rockman?" Combination of tone and chip choice drew Netto's attention. He gave his Navi a gentle prod with his closest elbow. "Hey. What's up?"
The answer didn't need to be spoken. Their Synchro Rate was still in the toilet. Enzan had given them nothing to prepare themselves for what was on the roof. They were being ordered to fight blind, something Rockman hated doing, and if he screwed up their entry his Operator would die. Roll was who knew where and in what state, and after putting their Bubble technology through the strangest, probably most difficult test run it had ever received, her little burst of healing and encouragement felt like centuries ago. To top this off, the normally unshakable Enzan was now in an infuriatingly detail-absent panic, saying they needed to get on the roof as quick as possible.
"We're ready to go," Netto said with a confidence directed more at his Navi than his friend. "What's the ETA on our helicopter?"
Enzan glanced over the top of the camera filming him, presumably searching for the answer from someone in the room, then frowned. "What?" A mumble off-screen was followed by, "What do you mean they're all grounded? Why?!"
The room exploded.
"Were they infected with viruses? Is this attack really that coordinated?!"
"How will we get Hikari-san to the roof now?"
Oddly enough, Netto added nothing to the exchange beyond the initial surprise. But then his jaw set, shoulders squared, and Rockman knew this meant nothing good.
"Enzan. Enzan! Everybody shut up for a minute! Enzan!" When sufficient attention was gained, Netto continued, "I have an idea how to get to the roof without a helicopter." Then, as an afterthought, "You won't like it."
Enzan placed his elbows on his desk and folded his hands together in front of his mouth, weighing the situation over in silence. At last he asked, "Is it dangerous?"
"Will it work?"
"I don't know. I have to talk it over with Meijin-san."
Rockman was feeling faint. This idea was sounding worse by the second. "Netto-kun..."
Netto was not going to have any protests, and held up a palm to shush his Navi. "If I can make it work, should I attempt it?"
There was a long pause as blue eyes searched Netto's chocolate. "One of ICP's orbiting communications satellites has been put into a rapid decaying orbit. The current projected crash site is not water."
Netto cursed, a sentiment that echoed around the room. "Not water" meant "populated". Rockman gripped the counter for support, now truly faint.
"How much time do we have to do a course correction?" Robert spoke up.
"Until communication with the satellite is severed."
"And I bet you good money the two Navis on the roof are trying to do just that," Netto muttered. Thus, the decision was made. Netto hung up on Enzan so plans could be made in secret. "Meijin-san, please calculate the minimum speed we need for entry and Cross Fusion. It's a small Dimensional Area, right? So it should be pretty thin."
"Well yes, but-?" Meijin was not allowed to finish his question.
"Robert. Remember that time we brought a Handy virus into the lab with a Bubble? To see if it could still float, and it did? Do you think the same thing could be done with your Dash chip here?"
"What?! Net-" Taken off guard by this statement, Rockman was even more surprised by the speed at which Netto had him in a headlock. It was the shock more than the pressure on his windpipe that silenced him.
"I know it's dumb, okay? Just hear me out. We'll ride it together and charge the Area head on, or... we can try fling up and dropping in? If neither will we'll have to wait for a helicopter. Enzan's gotta get one here eventually; we borrowed a news helicopter once, he'll figure out something. You," he addressed Rockman here, "come with me. Guys, give us a minute."
Rockman was dragged out the bathroom in his headlock, but freed himself with a shove the second they were out the door. There were no words for this stupidity. A Dash chip came from the Fishy virus, and manifested itself as a smaller version of said virus: a sleek air glider with black and green bird markings. It flew, and the idea was to stand on top of it and dash into your enemies... but it was small, more suited for gliding than actually flying.
"Netto-kun, what are-"
"No! I'm not... we can't! My Bubble is stuck on automatic, I don't trust it, and... and I'm not even... You get an initial boost with a Dash chip, so maybe going straight would be okay... if we fell we'd just fall on the roof... but going up?! I have no idea how high I can propel a Dash... and you want to ride with me?! I've never had... I don't know if two will fit... Netto-kun, if we fell..."
"I know, I know, but let's just do the math, okay?"
Again, Netto had his own ideas on how to solve the situation and would not listen to reason. And again, their complete disagreement with one another was making Cross Fusion look like an impossibility. Roll was the only one who had a good counter-argument earlier; maybe it would still work now.
"Netto-kun, you are forgetting Meiru-chan again. You know you can't take these kinds of risk anymore."
"I know what I'm doing," Netto said simply, turning away.
"What?" Rockman gasped. Was Netto going to ignore this fact now that Roll wasn't here? "You do not! We've never done anything remotely like this before, how can-"
"I'm not forgetting the baby, okay?! I know what will happen if we screw this up!" Netto growled.
"Then why are you so set on doing it?"
"Because I have to!"
"But nothing!" Netto roared. He spun around, grabbed Rockman by the shoulders, and bashed their heads together hard. The pain shut them both up. For a moment they glared eye-to-eye at each other, but when Netto broke the silence his voice was much softer than before. "Enzan knows about the baby. I told him myself. Why do you think we've seen hide nor hair of him for the last five months? He hasn't even given us any low level missions."
"Oh." True, nothing big that required their services had happened for about a year, but Netto was right; they'd gotten nothing at all these last few months.
"And why do you think he told us about the falling satellite over a possibly insecure line? Big pieces are going to be land in a real populated area. He never ordered us to try my idea; he just told us the truth about what will happen if we don't. This was always my decision to make." Netto made a small "hm" of regret here. "Our decision, I guess. I can't do this without you."
Netto gave a deep sigh, shutting his eyes."I'll make a deal with you: we only do this if we can do it going straight, no flying up. And we can practice here in the hallway! We can get a speed gun from the Police, one of their cars has to have one, and clock ourselves."
With their foreheads still touching, Netto's sigh tickled Rockman's Bubble. His suggestions were almost... reasonable, but Rockman couldn't shake his uncertainty. "But if we go straight I will have to stay in my Bubble until the very last second. I am not sure I can plug-out of a Bubble back into my PET and initiate Cross Fusion that quickly."
"Then we'll fly up at a really low angle, you pop your Bubble a second early, and I get flung the last bit of the way."
"Rockmaaan," Netto opened his eyes again. "That's as good as it gets. It's a decent option, and at the moment our only option. We can do this." His hands traveled from Rockman's shoulders to his upper arms and he gave his Navi a confident part-rub-part-shake. "We can do this, but I need you to be one-hundred percent in. If you say no, we won't."
"Wait... what? I can say no?" Rockman could not think of a single other time in which one of Netto's let's-get-psyched-up-to-try-something-crazy speeches had ended with the option of declining.
"You can say no."
"Really!" Netto chuckled, pulling his face away but not letting go yet. "I'm asking you to trust me, but I also trust you; if you say we can't, we can't! Like I said, Enzan will get a chopper here somehow." His focus traveled left and right between Rockman's two eyes, and his smile crooked up at one corner. "Do you know what I like best about Dimensional Bubbles?"
It was off-topic, and Rockman could not give an answer on the spot. "What?"
"This! Standing here with you. We're the exact same height, same build, our noses... and except for the color, our eyes... We really are identical, huh 'nii-san?"
This morning had been terrible. Roll was, for all intents and purposes, missing in action. A satellite was about to crash to Earth and, to top this off, he and his operator were going to chuck themselves skyward at a crazy speed on top of a four story building. And suddenly none of that mattered anymore.
"We are, aren't we?" Rockman marveled, also taking a chance to scrutinize the facial features of his brother. Brother! He could not recall the last time they'd used those terms. "You know, when you had me wearing your labcoat that one week," Netto gave a loud snort; it was the week they'd been testing Bubbles with various percentages of surface contact (which was most easily accomplished by trying one arm in a sleeve, both arms, coat on, coat fully buttoned) and Rockman had spontaneously combusted Netto's supposedly flame-resistant labcoat, "George told me a few times that we were uncannily similar! He asked if Papa made me that way intentionally!"
"Haha, really? Aah, remind me not to bring you around Papa then. You know how he gets."
"Mm," Rockman agreed. Growing up, he was always the taller of the two partners. Netto was a growing boy, however, and surpassed his non-growing Navi at the age of 13... or should have. Roll was the first one to notice that her best friend was taller than she and he had both always been, and it was Papa who figured out that the brothers were in fact growing together at the same rate. He tried to put a manual stop to it with a patch to Rockman's programming, but their Synchro Rate took an alarming nosedive and, despite his longstanding misgivings about their link, was forced to delete the patch and let what may happen happen. Papa would not be pleased with this newfound, reaffirmed identicality. "Oh! But Mama would like to see us!"
"Yeah; that's what I was planning for her birthday, to smuggle you home! Didn't I ask you about it?"
"As usual, no you did not. I want to, though, even though she will cry."
"I know. Remember when Papa put her and me in a Dimensional Area?" Rockman reminded.
"I know. But she still liked it. I think we should. What else can we do?" Netto brightened. "Oh, I can teach you to rollerblade! We can have races! And soccer- or would you prefer baseball? And... wow..."
The word "race" brought up the recent memory of chasing Netto down this hallway. "You know, Netto-kun," he said with a pout, "I think you are faster than me."
"Just now, when we ran down the hallway! We got to the top of the stairs at pretty much the same time, but I fell behind and grabbed your coat to stop you. In an all-out race, you won."
Netto blinked. "Really?" Then he broke out in a huge grin. "Awesome!" After a bout of triumphant laughter, he asked, "So what do you want to do first, Rockman?"
Without any thought or reasons how or why it came to him, Rockman knew. He raised one hand and, slipping under the lapelled front of the labcoat, pressed his palm to his brother's chest. Netto gave him a puzzled face, but he closed his eyes to focus on nothing but the rhythmic thump now in his hand.
"I've seen it," he explained softly, "once or twice. When you put my PET on top of yourself right. And I've heard it a few times, when you are holding me face-down and the speaker is placed right. But... I've always wanted to feel your heartbeat, Netto-kun."
Netto responded with silence and, after a moment, another soft bumping of foreheads. They stood together, unmoving, until Robert poked his head out of the bathroom to inform them they had calculated the speed needed for entry. Then they locked eyes again, identical chocolate meeting a chocolate that had only been artificially masked with green, non-verbally asking each other the same question.
Rockman answered, calling out to the room beyond, "Would any of you Net Police have a speed gun in your car? We need it, please!"
Netto whooped, pumped his fists in the air, gave his brother a one-armed hug, and ran into the bathroom to collect the things they would need for their adventure.
Roll was a patient Navi.
…but even her patience had its limits. She opened a Date and Time window; one minute and thirty-seven seconds had passed since she last checked.
"Where is he?"
Netto had called at 4 'o clock. The message he gave Meiru was pathetically short: "I'm okay, so's Rockman, but I can't talk. All the lines are crazy busy. Where's Roll? Is she okay?" When the answers were here and yes, he rushed out, "Good! I'll be late tonight, don't wait up. And don't worry! I'm fine! I love you!" Then he hung up on his wife before she could say another word.
Needless to say, Roll and Meiru were less than pleased with this report. But it had covered the essentials, so Meiru spent a significant less amount of time complaining about his rudeness than she normally would have.
The two of them had somehow come to an unspoken agreement that they should not turn on the television (for fear of what the news might be reporting), but after Netto's call it was turned on and stayed on until well after the last reports at ten o'clock. The aerial view wasn't a pleasant sight; most of the windows on the first floor of the main building were wrecked, as well as a few on the fourth floor. More importantly, however, were the two downed satellite dishes on the roof. The first in the row was untouched, the second one was standing crooked, and the third was smashed beyond repair four floors down in front of the main doors. News Channel 5 in particular had a juicy tidbit: in exchange for allowing a cameraman along for the ride, their weather helicopter had been borrowed by Ijuiin Enzan himself. Hoping to film the iconic Net Savior diving into a Dimensional Area, they'd been disappointed to find only aftermath at the scene.
Even though Netto had called to say that he and Rockman were okay, Roll couldn't tear her eyes off the wreckage. All of the news stations kept showing their initial footage of the scene when there was still an angry blaze of black smoke pouring out of the top left corner of the building. Roll did not have the layout of SciLabs memorized, but comparing against the parts she did know, that was right about where the stairs to the roof should be… the stairs which Rockman would have had to go up if he wanted to get to the roof.
What exactly had happened on the roof that was so violent as to push a forty kilogram satellite dish off its foundation and over the edge? To make that plume of smoke, to break those windows on the top floor? If Enzan was preparing for a Cross Fusion jump, then there must have been a Dimensional Area... so did Rockman and Netto have to Fuse? How had they done so with their terrible synchronicity and no helicopter? What insane mischief and risks had they gotten up to...?!
Roll opened the Date and Time again. 11:18 p.m., just over three minutes later than her last check. This was getting infuriating. When the television was on, she'd kept one eye on it and one on the portal that Rockman would use if he came home via internet. Now that the TV was off (the news reports were useless, nobody knew anything more than she did), Roll was staring at the glowing portal, waiting. Meiru joined in on the effort and took up post at the front window. Every now and then one of them would call out to the other to see if anything had changed.
But nothing had, so they continued to wait.
Where could they be? Were they hurt? Had something happened since the phone call? Roll was beyond irritated; she told Rockman she didn't want to sit and home and worry about him like some damsel in distress, and here she was doing exactly that. She should have gone back to SciLabs when the news crews starting leaving. Rockman would be upset with her, but what was the harm in being there after the danger had passed? Sure, security would have tough to get past to see him, but—
"Roll! Roll! His car! He's back!"
Roll jumped as though burned, and made a mad dash back to her PET. Her haste did her no good, however, as Meiru had left the PET face up on the kitchen table. All she could see was the ceiling and their dated light fixture. By now the front door had been thrown open, so Roll chose to stay where she was and listen rather than go somewhere with a better viewpoint.
"Meiru! I told you not to wait for me," Netto's voice chuckled.
A slap echoed in the doorway. "You idiot! What took you so long to get home? I was worried!"
"Ouch! Meiru, I told you I was okay!"
There was a thud this time. "I-idiot! You call," another thud, "and then hang up," a quieter one, "and then the news… What am I… s-supposed to think h-happened…?"
"Aah! Meiru, don't! I'm sorry! C'mon, let's get inside so you can keep hitting me without the neighbors seeing…"
oll heard the front door shut. As much as she was reluctant to ruin what was promising to be a tender and very violent reunion between husband and wife, she couldn't take the suspense. "Netto-san? Is Rockman…?"
"Rockman! There she is, in her PET!" Netto called.
Under normal circumstances, Rockman sent a message asking permission to enter her PET even though she'd granted him permanent access ages ago. Under today's circumstances, he charged in with no warning, frantic.
They ran together, stopping half a meter shy of the other. They stared each other up and down. Roll found nothing wrong with Rockman, and from his loud sigh it was clear he was satisfied with his visual inspection as well.
"I'm home," he greeted.
"Welcome back," she returned.