Pre-chapter notes:

[1] Whew! Finally done with part 2 of The Value of Life! This bastard is roughly 30,300 words in length, with the end of Christopher's segment marking the midpoint. Unfortunately, cutting it there didn't seem to serve the content of the chapter too much, so I'm sorry to say that I'll be posting CH28 without any sort of bifurcation.

[2] BGM options from the last chapter still apply, of course, though anything from Assassin's Creed will definitely fit as the combat escalates near the end.

[3] Big thanks to SacchiHikaru and LBAnime for being my character checks for this chapter! I had a very difficult time working with Taichi here and I'm glad everything eventually turned out to my satisfaction when I was done. Thanks, you guys!

[4] Anyhow, enough rambling. Once again, all feedback and criticisms are welcome. I am especially interested in knowing how well I did with Taichi's and Hikari's segments, and if the ending of CH28 was executed well, since I had trouble passing those through my head. Happy reading, everybody!


THE INTERLOPER

STORY ARC: PRIORITIES

CHAPTER 28: THE VALUE OF LIFE II


Daisuke Motomiya taught Veemon soccer early in his life. He could still remember it as though it was yesterday. It hadn't been more than a few weeks since the Chosen Children stamped the Digimon Kaiser out of Ken, a few weeks since they took it upon themselves to reconstruct the ravaged Digital World, toiling in village and town after village and town to rebuild homes and bridges and destroy what remaining Control Spires were left, unaware of the sinister puppeteers behind the kind Ichijouji's corruption.

This was long before Daisuke and Ken drafted their own teams and hosted the first soccer match in the Digital World out of fun. Long before Armagemon invaded the Tokyo Metropolis, engaged Omegamon and Imperialdramon in the skyline, and in so doing, rent the barriers between worlds asunder, eviscerating them to the extent the Destiny Stones were no longer reliable and the problem became irreparable on either side.

.

.

"Okay, Veemon!" Started the Child of Miracles, noticing the unusual attention the blue dragon was giving him. He was eager to learn this. Excited to learn Daisuke's favorite pastime and play it himself, or better yet, train with the young boy and help him with things that mattered to him in the other world. That strange, fun world full of curious things and curious people. "Today, I'm showing you how pros like me score goals."

He and the Inheritor of Courage and Friendship had just set down a line of several hollow blocks in the forest clearing, with the soccer ball in question sitting undisturbed at the end. "Once you learn how to kick the ball, we'll start incorporating footwork drills." Gesturing towards the line they made together, "You'll have to be nimble. Speedy. So fast you'd make Sonic the Hedgehog piss himself!"

Daisuke's cultural reference passed over him as quickly as it would have with any other digimon in his position. The blue dragon had no idea who this "Sonic" character was or how he figured into his partner's—his brother's life, but the prospect of learning how to kick a soccer ball confused him to no end.

"But Daisukeeeeee, don't I just kick the ball like this?"

Veemon trotted to the black-and-white globe in question and forced his leg forward, pushing his foot through the shot. Daisuke flinched from how the blue dragon nearly impaled the ball with his toes and popped it with those three sharp nails; on the other hand, the Child digimon felt the synthetic leather on the ball of his foot. Scarlet eyes stared ahead, watching the ball travel a good thirty feet.

"See?" He happily pointed out, tail wagging. "That's far, isn't it? I don't need to learn that."

"That's what I thought at first, 'til Taichi and Coach Mayuzumi showed me differently," Daisuke laughed. "What you did, they call it a 'toe kick'. You don't know this yet, but if you change the way you kicked the ball just a little, you'll send it flying much farther!"

If Veemon had an eyebrow, he'd have cocked it from skepticism long ago. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, buddy! Believe it."

" Let me see you do it then. I'm stronger than you; there's no way you'll beat mine."

"Trust me, little bro. You'll be awed."

"Heh, bet on it."

"What's your wager?"

"You know me, Daisuke," his digital half was ebullient. "Chocolates for a week! You?" Had he been a few years older, he'd have also asked for a submissive, complaint-free Daisuke whenever he licked him, out of fun or affection or plain ol' habit or anything else conceivable.

"Nothing special, Veemon. Just you accepting I know a thing or two about soccer and that you'll trust me on it even if you think it doesn't make sense. Deal?"

Although neither discerned this at the time, Daisuke's wager was a mature one. His experience over soccer assured he was in the right and, as much as his partner was after his chocolate fix, he simply wanted Veemon's acknowledgement. Nothing more than Veemon's trust in him and his judgment. They've been together for at least three months now. Three months after their first meeting in April 2002. They've defeated the Kaiser and in the process nurtured a close relationship with each other. Though Daisuke's love for Veemon was nowhere near the immense loyalty and rather intimate devotion it had been by the year 2009, by the time he left him in the Digital World, since their "camping trip" he finally regarded the blue dragon not only as a "partner", not only as a "friend", but a "brother".

The feeling was mutual.

There were still some trust issues, for sure. Remnants of the doubt Veemon felt during their ordeal with the Digimental of Friendship. It was there. It was always there, waiting for a chance to resurge with force. Hopefully, by the time the Chosen internalized these lessons, he'd know for a fact that Daisuke Motomiya was reliable when he was needed the most and would prove to be so time and time again. Daisuke's bet was one an adult would make. One his coach or his senior would make had it been the Child of Miracles in the digimon's stead.

They shook hands on it. "Deal."

And the leader of the Twelve's second generation did not disappoint. Daisuke Motomiya's instep kick catapulted the ball, exceeded Veemon's thirty-foot mark, and kept going until gravity summoned it back to the ground and a tree obstructed its path.

Fifty feet. Approximately 15 meters.

"Uh, b-bu, buh, but, I…" His muzzle went back and forth, from the ball at the edge of the clearing to Daisuke and back to the ball. "You—what? I, I… Harmonious Ones, that's, that's totally unbelievab—

Daisuke smiled. "We had a deal," he chimed.

Veemon pouted. No free chocolates for a week, then. He half-wondered if Poromon was willing to smuggle some goods from the Inoues' mini-mart.

"Ooookaaaaaay," he acquiesced. "When do we start?"

"Right now."

.

.

With the SIG P239 ready, he needed something to distract both Imai and the soldiers targeting Tailmon. With them down for the count, three soldiers would be out of commission and there'd be much less trouble until the ODC decides Igarashi and his squad couldn't contain the Chosen Children on their own.

The garbage can was the best bet, of course. A kick in the right direction and it would travel towards Imai and the two soldiers opposite Igarashi, maybe land in the middle and give Tailmon some needed cover. It was a little taller than him, a skeleton of metal housing a black plastic bag inserted by the janitors after their cleanup last night. With his strength, he knew he could do it.

.

.

"Now listen carefully. When you swing your foot, you want to hit the ball sooner than later. You want it further back during your swing."

.

.

Veemon stopped literally next to the garbage can, planting his right foot adjacent to the metal. His peripheral vision verified his aim while he lifted his left, loaded his leg, and maintained a constant "V" position.

His tongue poked out of his muzzle and stayed out there as he focused on the task at hand. His "ball" may have been hollow, but it was not an inflated combination of synthetic leather and other composite materials. It was metal, and from the way it looked, from the way it seemed to weigh in on the space next to him, it was quite dense.

He needed to put in his full strength into this, as though he was giving this thing the strongest headbutt he could make. As though his very life depended on it.

.

.

"See my shoes? Imagine you're wearing them too. When you kick, keep your toes down. If you're kicking to the front, it's like you're kicking with the laces. If you're kicking sideways…"

Daisuke kneeled next to him and rubbed the solid bones on his inner toes. The boy noted how solid they were. "You hit the ball from here."

.

.

The Digimon of Miracles swung. His left foot dug its first metatarsal into the metal receptacle, putting as much power as he managed without messing up the form, without dramatically altering the angle, and without deviating from everything his surrogate brother drilled into him ten years ago. A soccer ball would have traveled much farther than 35 meters with this sort of kick, and it wouldn't have slowed down until 50, probably.

The metal frame was flung through the air at the same speed a soccer ball did when kicked by a star player like David Beckham. It flew with such velocity Imai might have broken her skull and knocked her out cold had she failed to withdraw in time and caught the flying garbage receptacle with her head. "I still got it, Daisuke," the Chosen murmured with a smile at the memory of his partner's lessons.

With all the power Veemon planted in his kick, drawn from whatever was left of his skills in a sport he had largely forgotten during the years that followed the Shinjuku March, the flying skeleton did not touch the ground after passing Sergeant Igarashi. Even if he or Imai were able to warn them of the oncoming danger, there was no saving their two colleagues. It was simply too fast and too sudden. It had descended low enough to smash into the hips of the two DSI guards flanking Tailmon. They were not only knocked off their feet and flung to the floor with such force they were stunned or knocked out cold from the firm hit but also felt the sharp, paralyzing pain of their femurs and pelvic bones breaking with audible cracks.

None of their protective garments, none of their armor or headgear could protect the two guardsmen from such damage. Witnessing the results for herself, Imai popped out of her cover and rained everything in direct line of sight with bullets. She didn't bother aiming down the sights anymore. All she wanted was Veemon dead. "YOU F*CKING LIZARD!"

But Veemon wasn't there anymore. Blessed with months of experience fighting soldiers, fighting grunts and veterans alike, the blue dragon knew how humankind acted and reacted in heated battles. Aware how they were often consumed by anger and sought retribution as remunerations for any sustained losses. He had long known the DSI solder was going to step out from the safety of her column and in her characteristic human rage and bloodlust, flood whatever her vision saw with enough bullets to turn the Child-level into a disintegrating heap of meat.

The digimon approached from the other side and closed in on her. By the time Imai realized her opponent—her intended victim—was not dropping with wisps and clouds of digital particles tapering off of his body, dispersing into the air like many of the digimon that had died during the failed defense of the Spire of Courage, Veemon's left hand reached in and yanked her FN FAL away the split second she was finished reloading while his right brought the SIG to bear on her legs and arms, as she turned around, and fired away, crippling the woman before a second could even lapse.

Imai shrieked from the pain, from the throbbing of her limbs and from the burns inflicted by the gunpowder, and the Chosen added icing to the cake by slamming his thick, dense skull into her stomach before her body collapsed to the floor. "VEE HEADBUTT!"

To her, it was like a sledgehammer was thumped into her by a professional wrestler with so much strength it sent her airborne for a couple seconds.

To him, it was like a striking a water bag, considering the way his head bounced off her soft, vulnerable flesh and subjected the poor soldier to internal damage and some ruptured organs. Maybe cracking the spine a bit.

Oh well. At least she would live.

Sergeant Igarashi gyrated upon hearing the guardswoman behind him screeching like a demon facing exorcism, screaming her head off as though her entire body was being immolated from the inside out. His eyes widened at the way Veemon turned his own disadvantages into his favor, exploiting the distractions Tailmon made and somehow supporting her in the process. "Crap!"

Instantly he focused on the FN FAL in those blue, leathery hands. The blue dragon read him easily, as the prospect of losing—and dying—became real to the DSI squad leader. Horror and fear cast their shades on his face and prompted him to raise his own rifle on the Chosen and fire before Veemon could pull the trigger.

But Veemon was faster.

Veemon held the trigger down and sent three, four round bursts into Igarashi's legs, into Igarashi's arms, and into Igarashi's crotch. The man had long succumbed to unconsciousness when he was done. By the time he was looting the body, seeking additional magazines for the FN FAL, he entertained thoughts of simply killing the squad leader for what he did to them, for giving them the false hope they could still get away from the patrol unit without a single alert to the entire M&A Wing. But he didn't. He refused to.

He may have killed a DSI soldier already, cutting him down himself with Christopher's DITE. He may have truly wanted Dr. Kurata Akihiro and his vile invention annihilated for the trauma—for the loneliness and despair that had been inflicted on him throughout the past three years, and Veemon knew in his heart he would've shot the man to death if given the slightest opportunity and aggravated the deed by emptying another clip on him even if he was lifeless on the ground with blood leaking out of ten bullet holes.

But as far as anyone else was concerned, including Christopher Van Numen if he actually had the ability to harm him, Veemon was revolted by the idea of crossing the line and killing human beings. He'd much rather refuse this option as far as he managed it and be stubborn about it. Obstinate enough to make Daisuke look like an acquiescent slave devoid of self-esteem. Truly welcoming this idea—truly embracing the other side was hypocrisy. It was plain irreverence. A dismissal of the reality that permeated the complexities of the two worlds. A flippant repudiation of the values he grew up with, he forged throughout his entire life to date.

No matter how much the Sergeant's life would change for the worse because of the injuries Veemon plugged in his body, "At least you'll live." And that was all that mattered.

He'd live to see another day.

Live to understand.

Live to atone.

Live to make friends.

Live to ponder and reflect and cogitate.

He remembered the ex-Modifier Tina Fujieda informing him that not everyone in the Digital Suppression Initiative supported their goals and, for that matter, shared their beliefs. Sometimes they were in it because they had to be. Because their own stations in life compelled them to. Sometimes these people might have been more than willing to become his friend or make an acquaintance if they simply weren't so desperate to live!

Unfortunately, not everyone shared Veemon's idealism. Even among the Twelve there were those who would most likely debate with him over the worth of holding on to what remained of his ideals, of the code he adhered to since their adventure ten years ago.

Evidently, Tailmon was one of them.

Otherwise, she wouldn't have run her claws through the fifth soldier and left an opening large and wide enough for the human's intestines, stomach, kidneys, and all his entrails fall out and form a repulsive heap on the cement, drenched in bright red blood.

Veemon would have brought up that argument right now if it weren't for Hikari Yagami screaming.


Though life had been as cruel as it could possibly be for Hikari Yagami over the past seven years, the Amida Buddha himself wouldn't truly teach his followers that life was simply that, cruel and merciless. After all, life brought about good things, too. Favorable events and lucky times. Miracles and the compassion of others.

Nothing ever happened to people unless they truly deserved it, for they received exactly what they earned. The Buddha had once said that those who did good would reap good results, that those who did evil would reap evil results—that the thoughts and actions of a person determined the life of a person. Shaped it. Fashioned it. Guided it.

For Hikari Yagami, the Child of Light, the third universal truth of karma—of cause and effect—shined providentially upon her, and it was sublime.

A second before Toraichi's dagger penetrated her skin, before the man found the weak spot between her clothing and armor and sentenced her to an agonizing and painful death, a cry of unspeakable rage shattered his momentum. The soldier's eyes rolled back for a moment, leaving his body to kill the innocuous woman on autopilot and consummately perceive the roseate jewels approaching him from above.

Salmon lights that enraptured his body and froze it in place, for the DSI patrolman no longer had the reflective sheen of his goggles to shield him from the glowing orbs. So enthralled was Toraichi by Cat's Eye that his mind had just accepted the psychological condition it had imposed on him when he was beheaded ferociously by the cat's extended paw.

Liters of blood splurged from the gaping neck, splattering over the cement, tainting Tailmon's fur and some parts of her human half's cheek and those moss green arm warmers as the momentum of the fatal attack carried the dead body after the severed head, slumping right on top of it in utter disgrace.

In five seconds, Hikari was dead. Her knees buckled. Her body collapsed mortified on the guideway and for sure Tailmon felt her palpitating heart ebbing away, receding into gelid, inimical trauma.

"Hikari!" the stained cat bounded to her partner, taking care to flick the blood off her paws and wipe the residuals off before skimming her body. She pleaded to the Harmonious Ones, please be okay, please don't be hurt, please, please, please!

It was only because of her screaming did the Digimon of Light realize where the final guardsman had run off to after she and Veemon dealt with his squad mates. She barely made it on time. A second or two later, and who knew what would have happened next? It was a miracle. One even Tailmon knew Veemon probably had no influence over, no matter how much dumb luck that dragon had in spades.

"Hey, how's Hikari doi"—Daisuke's surrogate brother poked out the edge of the platform. Crimson spheres distended at the woman hugging her knees in a state of concentrated distress and the headless body of a sixth DSI soldier. "Four Gods. Is she okay?"

Tailmon did not reply. Her now cerulean eyes had long confirmed the lack of injuries or wounds on her body. There was nothing wrong with her physically, but the ordeal she must've endured…

"Kill me…"

"I'm here, Hikari," She licked her cheek several times, ignoring the taste of human blood to focus on cleaning the smooth skin. "Shhhhhh. You're okay. I got you. You're safe."

"H-he, he was going to kill me!"

"Sssshhhhhhh…"

Until she had a few seconds to recuperate, Hikari did not realize her partner had not only hugged her out of love but also brought her up to the Third Gate's platform, distancing the 21-year old from the body. "Tailmon!" she jumped, as though apprehending her presence just now. Her mind was still reeling from shock, and not until much later did the Chosen Child remember the clear sadness impregnating the cat's muzzle. "I, I did everything—everything I could. P, po-poured out the entire c-clip and sh, shot, shot him everywhere. But it didn't work—didn't put him down.

"I also tried to follow Veemon—told him I was going to push the button, b-but, b-b-but—but he—he, he kept going. Didn't stop, didn't think, didn't even thank me for bringing a nonlethal and, a-a-and sparing—sparing his life! He just rushed me and, a-and…!"

She was shivering in the cat's warm embrace, and it had nothing to do with the air-conditioning. The junior Yagami kissed Tailmon's snout out of gratitude before raising her eyes. In normal times, in happier times, her gaze was often filled with a hope for the future. A fervent belief in the light. Although Hikari wasn't perfect, although she made mistakes of her own like any other human, everything she did, everything she was, exuded the brightest light Tailmon felt from any person on Earth.

In this callous society, in this war-torn conflict between the egalitarian ideals of the Chosen Children and the abusive paradigms of the Digital Suppression Initiative, her gaze was often filled with increasing anguish. The light in her coquelicot eyes right now was barely visible, for in its place was stupor. Hikari was baffled. Hikari was stunned. Hikari was perplexed and flabbergasted and speechless and numb from the trauma of her life's closest brush with death.

"Tailmon, Veemon," she verbalized weakly. "This is—this is so wrong." A hollow gape from the distressed adult, directed to both Chosen digimon. "It's so messed up. Why? Why is this all happening? Why didn't he stop? Why didn't the patrol cooperate with us? We could've negotiated. Nobody needed to die he—

"You…" Hikari shuddered, remembering the man that almost stabbed her to death. "YOU KILLED HIM!" She wrenched herself out of Tailmon's hug and kept away from her as though she committed the most horrendous blasphemy there ever was to the Twelve. "You didn't have to do that! You could've just—

Why couldn't she just accept the world never worked the way they hoped it would as they grew up? Why was she clinging to these beliefs? Why wasn't she being realistic? She saw for herself how that Gods-damned soldier was about to gut her! This should've been a wake-up call for her. A lesson that even their human adversaries must be treated no differently than the digimon that opposed them thirteen years ago! "You were in danger!" Tailmon attacked her partner. "I only had a split second to think and all I thought was you, Hikari. I had to save you. I had to PROTECT YOU!"

"But you didn't need to swipe his head clean off the—

"No, I didn't, but it was the fastest way to do it." Cerulean orbs took in the knife lying inconspicuously below them. "A little slower and that thing would've been in your gut right now, you know?"

"Tailmon…"

"I told you before," the white cat grimaced. "Sometimes, doing what's right means doing something you'd never do if you had a choice. I know it's hard, but if you can't do it… I will."

Hikari rebutted, "But there's nothing right with murdering someone! We don't even know if he just worked for the money or believed in the DSI's views."

"They've been ordered to kill us."

"But—

"The ODC 'heard' our demands and changed nothing! Veemon can vouch for that."

"Eh—

"F*cking everything was going to hell, Hikari! Four Gods, I wasn't going to stand by and let those bastards do us in—

She suddenly stood, buoyed by a strength she didn't have before. "WE'RE NOT FIGHTING DIGIMON, TAILMON! These PEOPLE have families!" Gesturing to Toraichi's body, "Look at him, he could've had a kid. He might've been supporting a baby on his own, or his wife and many more children. He could've been sending them to school, putting a roof on top of their heads, or, o-or, or SOMETHING! Maybe he was taking care of his parents!

"I know they're soldiers. I know they're just doing their jobs. But it isn't their entire life! If we take that away, there's no digiegg for them to be reborn in. There's nothing, and it'll hurt more than just the people who died. I can't even understand why they kept going after me—why nobody cooperated with us. It isn't shameful to admit we beat them when they didn't run away, when they did everything they're paid to do!"

"Uhhm, M&A's getting active!" Veemon tried to interject. "We got to get out of here soon…"

"We can't think about that all the time! We can't stop to think if we just messed up a family, deprived a kid of their parents, or sentenced some old people to death. We don't know anything about them, and we have to focus on what we want, on what we need to do!"

"Then what's the value of life, Tailmon? Do the means justify the ends? The digimon we fought before. Vamdemon, the Dark Masters, MetalEtemon, Demon, their goons… would, w-would we have deleted them if they weren't completely evil to begin with? If they were also good people? If they had digimon depending on them, too?

"And what about those digimon Arachnemon made with her hair? What if they were all like BlackWarGreymon? Would it change anything?"

Tailmon bowed her head, her snout blushing from the awkward silence. At a loss to answer Hikari's piercing questions. Too speechless was she to notice the growing amount footsteps vibrating throughout the M&A Wing, sense the innumerable movements ongoing around them as the unstoppable beast that was the DSI was roused from its slumber, and detect Veemon's heavy footfalls scampering around them, doing Gods know what.

"Tailmon?"

"Hikari, I'm sorry." She bit her lip. "But I don't have anything to say. I don't have the answers. There's no 'right' or 'wrong' here. Maybe yes and maybe no. Maybe we could have done something differently. Maybe we could've talked with them. Could have helped them. Could have made compromises. Could have convinced them to stop—even join us. Maybe we could've been forced to kill them anyway. We might have lost friends because we hesitated. We might have seen the consequences of our choices. Everything could've been so much harder. More brutal. More scabrous. Adult decisions, complex problems—that's too much for 11-year old children, isn't it?

"We'll never know the paths we would have treaded, the life we would have lived. Harder or easier, I can't tell you that. Maybe yes, maybe no. But one thing is clear: what has happened has happened, and what will happen, will happen. We can't dwell on the past. We can't get stuck on what-ifs, should haves, and could haves. NOW is all that matters. The big picture. Our goals. Our mission. Our vision! That's got to be the context behind everything we do!"

Hikari clenched her fists. "Is that it, then? Look at it from the top down? Dismiss the small stuff? All the little things that don't move the needle? How does that make us any different from the DSI? From—

"I know two wrongs don't make a right! The ends shouldn't justify the means. I know that. I know all that! But if we must do something unforgivable for good reasons—something we would never get over for the rest of our lives, then we have to—we GOT TO do it! Grit our teeth and follow through, because the alternative might be worse and we simply can't afford to take chances. The best we can do after is to atone for everything, even if it never feels enough. The lives we'd ruin—the people we'd kill—they at least deserve that."

Hikari Yagami was as a cowed puppy. A browbeaten debater who knew she and her opponent were at a gridlock, with their only solution a mutual disagreement. The woman's hazelnut hair drooped below her shoulders, the way they fell casting a shadow on her face. Tailmon believed she was right. This was the only way to properly explain her thought process to her surrogate sister and defend it while concurrently respecting the value of life, of each individual regardless of the species.

The Chosen Child pouted. Perhaps Hikari was relenting. Perhaps she withstood the digimon's dialectics and was preparing her rebuttal. Maybe yes, maybe no. Whether the junior Yagami finally cast away the innocence she clung to for so long, finally recognized the reality of the world and adapted to it as her older brother had done years before her, only time would tell.

For now, Tailmon was content with seeing her defeated pout. "I," her soft lips parted a little, mumbling. "I just wish you wouldn't kill anyone without me saying so…"

"Harmonious Ones!" the cat snapped at her partner. "Some choices are made in the heat of the moment. Swiftly—Decisively! And whatever happens from then on is ABSOLUTELY FINAL! You're still hesitating; you're still clinging to what was, so much that it's getting in the way."

The nonlethal bullets.

The reluctance to reveal their hostage.

The penchant for negotiations and deliberations when there was nothing left to contemplate on.

She cocked her muzzle at Toraichi's body on the guideway. "You almost died because you're TOO SOFT!" Yagami flinched at Tailmon's reproof, recoiling from the truth she echoed. "But I can't fault you for who you are. You've been sweet and kind as a little girl, and you still are. That's why I'm doing those things, Hikari, so you don't have to."

Tears started coalescing in her eyes. Emotion sprung from the Child of Light. Her heartbeat quickened. Her breathing fluttered. Stammering, "I—but it's un—I, I, I—Tailmon, you can't just—it's—you need to let me—you got to—

"Stop! Both of you, just stop it!"

The white cat and her human half put their conversation on hold and searched for the one who broke it. They didn't have to look far. A blue dragon ogled them, one of the patrolmen's assault rifles in his groping hands. Though he seemed busy trying to figure out the best way to hold the FN FAL, his own thoughts were on prominent display through the frown on his ashen muzzle.

"We don't have the time for this. I don't know if you're paying attention, but the entire M&A Wing's awake and I can already hear the soldiers moving about, with several groups heading our way."

Tailmon tuned her ears and focused on sensing the collective body heat and sound vibrations coursing throughout the underground facility. She blanched the instant she did. Four Gods, Veemon was right! How much time have they wasted talking like this? Was there still a way out of this? Could they still use the tunnels to get away? Do they have to meet the DSI's security force in combat? Or were they all doomed to fail?

"Tailmon," Veemon called. The tone in his voice wasn't the childish and ebullient melody her ears were used to hearing. "Don't make the decisions for Hikari. I don't care if you think she's too soft, too sweet, or too kind. I don't care if she's too slow and hesitant." His inflections were somber, devoid of all pubescent mannerisms and replaced with an unreadable Veemon.

A total stranger.

Tailmon couldn't answer back. Where were her retorts? Where were her replies? Why was her head frozen stiff, unable to even find a proper response? It was as if this new Veemon unsettled her. A side of Daisuke's partner that she'd never seen, not in the ten years they've known each other.

Was this the person he really was deep down? Was this the digimon he became over the past three years?

Daisuke Motomiya, what have you done?

"When Daisuke left me in the Digital World, he made a choice for me. He forced me into something I didn't want—I would NEVER want. With or without my consent, my brother decided to fight alone and dropped me off at File Island. I'm happy he protected me. I'm happy he did so much for me. I'M HAPPY DAISUKE LOVED ME! But that stupid idiot never gave me the choice, and now I'm seeing it all over again.

"I don't want Hikari to go through what I did, even if it's just a resemblance. Give her the choice, Tailmon, and respect her decision. Don't do it because you're sisters. Don't do it because you're friends. Do it because you're partners. Do it because you both have obligationsthat overshadow your personal relationship.

"That's what Daisuke forgot, you know." Done with the check-up and the evaluation, he slung the FN FAL over his shoulder. Veemon strolled to a pile of weapons next to a column and rummaged through it, isolating an M9 pistol and a few magazines. "He saw me as family. Considered me family. To him, we were brothers first and partners later. I viewed him—I loved him the exact same way, but I never forgot about our partnership."

The Digimon of Miracles approached his brother's best friend with the items he picked out. "Here's a real gun, Hikari. I don't know how many mags you can fit in your pockets, but it'll be enough if you're caught without Tailmon again."

The junior Yagami trembled as her gaze fell on the firearm. "But I… b-but I, I don't want—Veemon, I, I can't kill—

Veemon knocked the ceramic pistol out of the 21-year old's quivering hand. Like a mortar and pestle, he lifted his leg and crushed the handgun beneath a dirty foot. In several smooth movements, Hikari Yagami found a pair of blue hands clasping her own tightly, putting the M9 in her grip as he smiled. "You don't have to kill when you shoot. Go for their legs and arms. Disable them. Put them out of action for a while. That's what I do and you know what? It woooooorks!"

"But you've been at it for years," coughed his colleague, recovering from her initial shock. "She's good with a gun, but she isn't that good. Hikari's precision is decent, but Gods, you've got to be joking if you expect her to catch up to your level next time! We're up against people trained to kill. They're not going to give her the time to line up her aim and shoot. And even if you spare them, they have their orders, and no matter how much they feel about it, they'll execute it when given the chance! Take out their legs and they'll shoot you. Take out their hands and maybe they'll rush you. Take out both… I don't know what they could do, but if they're determined enough, they'll find a way. Humans always do.

"Weren't you out there yesterday? And the other day? The DSI's winning and the way of life they cultivated is settling deeper—becoming a culture. Not just in Japan, but across the world! This is a war we're losing, and we're at the point where we can't afford mistakes—where we can't let our guard down—where we can't give them any slack at all! Hikari—you and Hikari need to get off that—

"I WON'T! Four Gods, it isn't right—

"But—

"But nothing! I know what I believe in, Tailmon, and I'll stick to it, NO MATTER WHAT! I won't be like Chris, and I won't be like you! I'm not gonna take anyone else hostage. I'm not gonna use anyone; and I'm not gonna kill humans on purpose." The dragon winced, his tongue shuddering as though a horrid taste touched it. "Whatever happens to me—I get shot at, I kill someone by accident, I'm used up like some tool—I have my ideals and they'll never change!"

The Digimon of Light resiled from Veemon's prodigious ardor. This was by far the most mature she'd ever seen him act, and until now it was difficult reconciling this austere and pensive character to the immature and babyish face this Child level normally showed. The stress of the war and the torrential pressure it was heaving on top of him had truly changed the Chosen, but he struggled to pursue his ideals. He hasn't given up, when it would've been much smarter to give in and yield to reality.

For some reason, Tailmon heard Patamon's own voice speaking to her, articulating concurrently with the dragon. It seemed right to think the Digimon of Hope would've been against this if he was here. He would've taken his best friend's side and scold her, his dearest, and chew her out for being too harsh on her opponents. Too harsh and extreme with humankind.

Yet they knew where she was coming from. Yet they knew—and Patamon and Hikari especially—why she was fairly desensitized to the morality of her own actions. Her upbringing as a servant of Vamdemon anesthetized her to these sorts of things. What discomfort she may have felt for immoral choices was stamped away by the mere fact Vamdemon made her do it all. Tailmon had been corrupted during her servitude to a would-be Dark Master, embracing the depravity for the sake of survival. For the sake of filling the emptiness and longing in her heart. A gap Hikari Yagami had filled when they finally met.

To think she was tasked on killing her. Until now, the white cat still dreamt of what could've been if she truly followed through with that command. Especially now, the white cat dreamt of losing Hikari to these people.

It was easy to disregard the fact her connection to the woman ensured her simultaneous death. Because those dreams…

They were all nightmares.

Nightmares she'd never allow. That should never come true.

"Obviously," the Adult-level chuckled. "After everything you've been through, you're still that naïve digimon deep down, and you'd like to keep it that way. I can't fault you for who you are either, Veemon; and to be honest, that's something I like about you." A smile grafted itself onto her muzzle, as the blue dragon grinned from the mutual understanding and Hikari beamed at her partner's acknowledgment, who pocketed the equipment she just received.

Cerulean spheres averted to the nearby wall. They stared at the wallpaper daubed all over the smooth surface, stretched from end to end without deforming the proportions. Its colors were dazzling, brilliant with the same contagious cheer that characterized the Digimon of Miracles.

Printed on the wallpaper was an image of the night sky, occupied by hundreds of stars. There was a digimon there. A yellow creature that resembled a cross between a jet plane and Latias, that Pokémon thing Veemon used to "fanboy" over during the good old days. Had Tailmon been lucky enough to meet one in her lifetime—for they were rare in either world—the cat would've learned its species was called a Sparrowmon.

Sparrowmon was flying higher and higher, towards the twinkling stars. The digimon cruised the quiet, serene air above a carpet of clouds. A Japanese actress Tailmon recognized—Nami Tanuki, was it? She didn't exactly commit unimportant names to memory—rode Sparrowmon's back, her eyes aglow with wonder. Marveling at the expanse few had the privilege to see up close without the protection of an aluminum shell and a pressurized cabin.

It would've been a great photograph to gape at, to appreciate, if not for the black triband on one of Sparrowmon's arms. If not for the logo of the Digital Suppression Initiative and the tagline directly below it.

"For peace and harmony"

More aware of the incoming danger than ever before and painfully regretting the three of them have wasted so much time arguing and disputing instead of spending what freedom they had left rushing to the Sixth Gate, Tailmon realized there was still something she could do to salvage all this and gain some traction against the DSI, just in case.

"Veemon, Hikari, I'm sorry, but sometimes..."

She took a deep breath and steeled her own nerves.

"But sometimes, ideals must be sacrificed for progress."

Before either of them could react, Tailmon lunged at her human half. She pounced on her partner, on her surrogate sister, and snatched the detonator that had been dangling loosely from Hikari's other hand since they started arguing.

Before either of them could protest, Tailmon pushed the button. Her timing was uncanny, for two six-man squads of patrolmen emerged from the corridors, flanking them from two different sides.

Before either of them could open fire, a shrill and tumultuous rumble flared from the direction of the First Hub and a short distance beyond that. The explosion caused the very ground to shudder, tripping everyone on the maglev's platform including the perpetrator herself.

Tailmon did not lose focus. "HIKARI! We're getting Taichi while we still can. I need to evolve!"

Hikari and Veemon were furious at her. Infuriated at the way she suddenly ignored them and went for what she believed they needed, disregarding everything they have just talked about. However, and fortunately for her, the presence of two squads surrounding them clearly told them enough was enough. They'll need to discuss this some other time.

"NOW!"

The Chosen Child of Light grumbled in frustration. "Fine," she acquiesced, releasing an irate grunt that could've only been interpreted one way: we're having a nice, long chat when we're back at Mt. Fuji.

Hikari Yagami drew her D3 from a pocket. It resembled a radio, a walkie-talkie, or some machine antiquated relative to the powerful handheld devices of the modern era. Despite the old-fashioned shell, it was one of the most distinguishing machines known to Man. She lifted it up, fingers clutching the pink side grips tightly. Coquelicot eyes communicated the adult's readiness for battle. With her digivice pointed in Tailmon's general direction, "DIGIMENTAL UP!"

The spitting image of the metallic Digimental of Light flashed on the screen once before a blinding splendor engulfed the white cat as did the familiar feeling of euphoria and limitless confidence that always accompanied digital evolution. Her radiance torched the eyes of all who cast eyes on her. DSI soldiers were momentarily blinded.

Rendered sightless, the twelve men that had them all surrounded were deprived the miniscule chance to evade the gemstones rolling out of the light. Every one fell to the ground out cold, with the unlucky few already dead with their spines broken beyond medical help or their heads crushed by the dense and heavy jewelry. It was the least she could do, to atone for crippling the DDS and murdering its creator at the same time.

The tall sphinx that was Nefertimon emerged in Tailmon's place as the light of evolution faded into obscurity. She flexed her wings. She curled her gloved paws into fists, not even bothering to retract the claws. The blood that had tainted the white cat's fur had completely disappeared thanks to the cathartic evolution. "Get on, quick. We don't have much time!"

Hikari and Veemon had just settled on her back when a fireteam flanked them from behind and trained their guns at the two riders. The FN FAL seemed unwieldy in Veemon's hands, having been built for an adult human as opposed to a bipedal dragon who could pass for a child soldier. Backed by tremendous skill and experience, he shot them the instant their bodies twisted to catch Nefertimon going airborne, flapping her powerful wings. None were dead, as he promised.

If Nefertimon noticed this, she did not react. Hikari's partner sped through the nearest hall out of Platform III. They'd turn into the larger corridor, and from there she knew where to go. Guided by the 3D map in her photographic memory, there was no way they'd get themselves lost now. They were going to fly to the Second Hub, meet Taichi in the Sixth Gate, and extract him as quickly as possible.

Comrades of the fireteam Veemon took down intercepted them on the way out, guns blazing. Bullets were bouncing off the Nefertimon's metal armor, and Four Gods, she wasn't letting them get a chance to strike Hikari or Veemon as they passed. The sphinx lowered her altitude a bit and spread her arms wide, barreling into the four patrolmen with the strength and power of a truck. Two met a bloody end at the wall and the last two was crushed into paste between the Armored Digimon's arm and a Toyota Mega Cruiser.

"Nefertimon!" Her human half gasped, horrified at all the goop they're leaving behind. There probably wasn't anything left of the soldiers for their families to mourn over. "Try not to kill them, please."

"I'll try, Hikari, I'll try. But no guarantees…"

Roseate gemstones were flying out of the sphinx's steel bracers. They crashed into the concrete walls, echoing loudly as rubble burst from all four corners of the passage and showered the guardsmen barring their path to the Sixth Gate.

The Digital Suppression Initiative had clearly trained their men well. Taught them how to fight even monsters imbued with the power to level infrastructure, stripping them of their very foundations. The most dexterous of the guardsmen rolled out of harm's way, while the most unfortunate were trapped beneath, paralyzed and unable to move.

Yet the resistance the DSI presented so far was just the beginning. Wireless communication—commanding orders—were being relayed to each individual man on the ground. Regardless of the sounds of battle, Nefertimon was flying close enough to comprehend the announcement they've been given. Surely, Veemon had heard it as well, owing to excellent hearing.

"This is ODC. The Digital Dive System has been bombed. Patrols have engaged Hikari Yagami, Nefertimon, and Veemon in the corridors near the Third Gate. Both SCAI's are considered hostile and extremely dangerous. All DSI combatants are ordered to pursue and kill. I say again, all DSI combatants are to pursue and kill. Administrator Maruyama has authorized all available ordnance. ODC out."


Lucille Diaz ogled the pistol in her hands. The Beretta M9, a standard issue for any DSI soldier, was a semi-automatic 9mm pistol still in use by the United States military. Each magazine had 15 rounds, with an effective range of 50 meters and a Picatinny rail for any attachments deemed necessary. Lucy, however, through her ability to modify the weapon on the spot, had no need for such attachments.

Even then, she felt grossly unarmed, putting her fate on a sidearm and a Digital Modification digivice with limited power, of which 30% had already been used in her earlier (and pathetic) attempt to hurt the manipulator that had been pulling the strings behind the Fifth Crusader, her pet name for the god-moding Christopher Van Numen.

She paused at the upper level. She turned back, her titian gaze falling on the Vice-Chair. His shoulders were slumped. His entire body, sagging from an invisible burden on his back. It was the first time the Modifier had ever seen the second most powerful man in the world slouching with his head craned forward, as though submitting to the Heavens. Resigning himself to his fate, yet reluctant to…

Which was it?

To run? To fight?

To face those who had once saved humanity in combat—those who now threatened its progress—the heaviest of the chains that bind?

Would he follow his superior's commands? Or would he place the true purpose of Digital Modification above even that of the DSI Chairman?

Obedience.

Absolute obedience.

That was the heart and soul of any military organization. For the Digital Suppression Initiative, a coalition—the first military coalition at that—it was especially true. Soldiers and employees alike were as dogs. They bowed their heads and flattened their ears before their superiors. The alpha. The dominant figure of the group.

Such people were more knowledgeable. More informed. As managers—as leaders, those who stood at the top endured a crushing weight no mere lemming could ever want on their shoulders. They were the people with the information of the battlefield. They were constantly aware of the state of battle. Cognizant of the teleological goals.

Leaders held the highest epistemological position in any chain of command. With access to data—access to information, they would call the shots. They would direct the organization—their subjects, their subordinates, whose loyalty only existed for so long as this collective they themselves were a part of served their needs and embodied their beliefs, their ideals—their vision and mission.

And most importantly, so long as their commands were lawful. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the cornerstone of the United States' military law, demanded military personnel had an obligation and duty to not only obey lawful orders, but also disobey unlawful orders.

Unlawful. Unethical. Immoral.

Of course, any "crimes" to Self-Conscious Artificial Intelligences were precluded from this rule. Much to the chagrin of the Digidestined and their international counterparts, as well as those who sympathized with the Wild Ones, both the world and the scientific community at large considered SCAI's mere creations of man. They did not occur naturally. Regardless of their sentience, they were beasts to control. Innovations to exploit and direct for the sake of mankind's ascension.

Yet what the DSI Chairman wanted were not crimes against humanity. What the DSI Chairman desired was lawful, for the Digidestined—the Chosen Children were terrorists. They overturned the peace. They refused to accept the state of the world. Rejecting reality in pursuit of some naïve, idyllic notion that SCAI's were people. That they shouldn't be "tamed" and "domesticated". That they must be free, like a true human person.

Absurd delusions. That's what they were.

Mitsuo Yamaki had no binding obligation to disobey his only superior. Nothing tied him down to the command of the DSI Chairman, save for a yearning—a vision that only the Digital Modification project could achieve. A kind of progress no other prototype technology could ever hope to replicate. It was revolutionary, he must've believed, and he was willing to throw away and disregard the chain of command for it.

What was he diffident about? Why was he hesitating?

Would he choose to obey the Chairman? Or would he follow through with his life's purpose?

Lucille Diaz would not learn the Yamaki's answer now for at least another hour.

For now, she would learn the reason why the Vice-Chairman achieved his position within a couple years. The reason why he had been the one to take Daisuke Motomiya into custody, not anyone else.

She would see it for herself.

Yamaki's ultramarine spheres stared at the Child of Miracles, ogling the naked body. It was floating silently, heavily sedated and kept alive by the innumerable needles sticking into Daisuke's human form. The Chosen Child had only the whirring of machines and, for a few more seconds, the hollow gaze of his captor for company.

Click.

Clack.

When Mitsuo Yamaki was done, when he was finally ready, he reached for the sunglasses on the lectern. Both the furniture and the eyewear were surprisingly undamaged despite Lucille's short clash with the manipulator that was Felicia Portal. The Vice-Chairman set the dark, translucent spectacles on the bridge of his nose and turned around.

Now that his emotive eyes lied hidden behind the darkness, the man straightened his back. Yamaki adjusted his tie, fixing his suit. As he took his first step, the Modifier discerned the emotionless face of the man known throughout the Digital Suppression Initiative.

This was the face of the man she admired.

"Lucy, return my earpiece. I'm ready now."

This was the face of the man who shook the world.

He did not lie. Major Diaz fished a miniature device out of her BDU and tossed it down to the Vice-Chairman, who caught the accessory using only his peripheral vision. While securing the device to his ear, "We need to delay Christopher for at least ten minutes or he'll catch us at the Platform, so if he's as invulnerable as ODC's reporting, we need a way to hurt him."

"Those XM8 rifles—

"Out of the question. After your debriefing yesterday, Kurata had the XM8's dismantled. He removed the dark matter cores to recalibrate weapon designs and there's no way we'll be able to use them now."

"Holy shit. Then I'm not going to last long—

The sleek swoosh of the doors opened before them, beckoning the two to the ectal passageways of the R&D Wing. Instead of turning left, towards the exit—and the maglev platform—Mitsuo Yamaki veered right while preempting the horror clearly spreading across her countenance. "Yes you are. We have considerable resources in the Processing Unit below and they might slow Christopher down long enough for us to escape R&D. I want you to go down there, seize control of our assets, and use them however you see fit."

"Sir."

They passed another door to the right. The Dark Matter labs remained shut, unmoving, as both the Vice-Chairman and his escort strolled onward with purpose dogging their heels. "But don't linger too long. As soon as you see results, bug out ASAP. You'll have fifteen minutes before I exfil and leave you behind."

Lucille's mouth popped open in astonishment. "B-but—wha?" she stammered. "I—I, s-sir… Mitsuo, you can't wait for me. You're too important! You're the second in command and it's because of you the soldiers have so much morale—

"Major Diaz, that's an order."

Her protests were fierce. "Listen! You can't do this. You have to get out of here. If we lose you—

"It is also my personal request. I respect your reasons for devoting your life to the DSI as you respect my own, Lucy, and I don't want to see you throwing your life away when we both know it'll be useless in the end. Heroic sacrifices won't stop forces beyond our control. They won't stop another Fourth of July and they won't stop Christopher, even if you manage to hurt him.

"We don't know how dangerous he really is. Remember what Felicia can do. If he's her target, he should've been dead long ago. But he isn't. He's upstairs slaughtering men and women and destroying everything we're rolling out. We are obviously missing information, and without it, we cannot seriously threaten either of them. If there's something going on between Christopher and Felicia, right now it is way beyond our league."

An unusual concern graced Mitsuo Yamaki's words. The didactic tones in his sentences yielded to a casual air. It was an acknowledgement of sorts, one that recognized the depths of the relationship they shared.

Lucille blushed at the care the Vice-Chairman showed for her. It stoked warm feelings. Reminded her of the not-so-distant past. But it also stoked feelings of anger—of betrayal. A reminder of how strongly her preconceptions and expectations were shattered beneath the unbending will of truth. "I, I—Mitsy, I—uhm…"

The Modifier was stammering. She found it difficult to swallow her emotions, especially those that had been lingering in defiance of any attempts at closure. "T, t-t, thank you," she finally managed to wrest control. "I won't let you down."

The path then split into two directions. While one went to the Chairman's personal labs, the other descended fifty feet further into the ground before a massive slab of Modified metal and reinforced concrete barred any errant intruder from wandering in. Beneath them was the Processing Unit, the largest and deepest facility in the entire R&D Wing. To think the residents of Odaiba had no idea how they were living literally on top of a gigantic complex of tunnels and laboratories.

"Give me your digivice," commanded Yamaki.

Major Diaz complied without doubt in her movements. "What are you doing to it?" That question, too, was devoid of doubts. Lucy trusted the man leading her into the bowels of the R&D Wing, when by all rights she shouldn't be.

The shimmering haze of a Digital Field enshrouded his left hand, illuminating from within the thin digivice it clutched. She sometimes wondered where Yamaki kept his digivice. He wasn't wearing the standard snap-catch mechanism the Modifiers used to secure their digivices to their hands. It was probably a hands-free tool, one of his own personal design.

"This week, I was reviewing the architecture of the digivices you were issued before your recent dive. I altered the internal structure and recalibrated the embedded programming, effectively tripling the energy efficiency. You'll notice this quickly if you study the diagnostic app." He smiled. "Or if you're someone who uses power-consuming modifications."

"Plain language, please?"

Thanks to a short pause, Lucille Diaz swore he was rolling his eyes at her apparent ignorance. "All Modifications consume two-thirds less energy. If Mega level attacks ate 25% of your battery before, now it'll only consume a little bit above 8%."

"That's nice." Luckily for her, she was going to need that extra capacity.

What happened next was something so rare under different circumstances Lucille might have immortalized the memory for all eternity. Mitsuo Yamaki chuckled. It was a miracle, coming from someone who never smiled. Who was always serious and excessively focused on his job. "I'm proud of it, to be honest."

Then he returned the digivice to its owner. Thin, long, and of course, still maintaining a shape that reminded the Modifier of an iPod Nano. It was also fully charged. "The Chosen Children survived a hostile world because they evolved. They adapted to every situation they faced. You're a Modifier, Lucy. You will survive this."

Rather than a code, Mitsuo Yamaki made a few gestures in front of a tiny box on the wall after slipping his RFID through the card reader. Some were angular, and some were circular. In five seconds, a computer had analyzed his movements—and possibly his fingers—and recognized the man's identity, causing the thick metal to jolt and shudder away. It moaned from the movement, as though protesting the lady preparing to enter the Class VII facility.

As the passage slowly widened before her titian pools, Lucy couldn't help but ask. "What will you do about the situation in M&A?"

"I'm deploying the Modifiers we have on reserve. Two squads of equal size against both Hikari and Taichi. It sounds excessive, but we ARE dealing with the Chosen Children…"

That sincere reply was a testament to their tight rapport. Even more so was the fact he allowed her to challenge this plan.

"But we don't have enough resources, Mitsy. The only real Modifiers here are Ivy, Aldo, and myself. There're only six others in the team and they're all still in training! They haven't been issued digivices yet. Junko just dove into the Digital World yesterday morning with our second platoon for the Izumi mission and—

"That's not a problem," he said dismissively, fishing out what looked like a Samsung Galaxy from his blazer. "You know I don't induct greenhorns into my project. Variability of professionalism aside, in terms of combat experience, the Modifiers are among the best in M&A or brought in from the JSDF's Special Forces Group or their foreign equivalents. For the digivices, I'll instruct Ivy and Aldo to bring the trainees to the 3D Printers near the First Gate. I'll run a job for six units on the spot."

"You can do that? Aren't the components of the digivice too complex for mass production?"

"It is. This is a rush job; it won't have the many components and parts we can only make in my laboratory, so it'll limit their attacks to Armor and Champion. There's no Biomorph, but they do have much larger battery power than the normal digivice. I normally don't allow this, but this is an emergency."

The doors were open. "Copy that, Yamaki." Lucille Diaz did not hesitate giving the man a hug, just in case. "I'm ready." She walked in. "See you in fifteen."

There was no farewell.

There were no wishes for good luck.

As far as Mitsuo Yamaki was concerned, a nod from him was tantamount to both.

When the Modifier turned her back on the DSI's second-in-command, her ears heard the transmission that would surely tilt the tides to their favor.

"Divine Assault to Maruyama. The call sign 'Fifth Crusader' will be designated for the hostile agent in R&D. Reduce ODC blockades and limit the manpower. Our guards can't stop Fifth Crusader reaching the Class VII facilities, but I need him delayed long enough for Major Diaz and I to exfil. As for subduing Hikari and Taichi Yagami…"


Christopher Van Numen had been long desensitized to the depraved acts he was committing in this very hour, ripping apart human beings the instant he laid his hands on them and plunging the tips of his hands into the bodies of the digimon assaulting him as though they were blades.

But with his Herculean strength, there was no difference between his finger and a razor edge.

Mowing down everything the Digital Suppression Initiative obstructed him with, Christopher blocked out the anguish and screams emanating all around him. He ignored the blood splattering over the walls, gushing out of countless bodies and staining his coat's vibrant coat until much of it was a dark and maddening red. Instead his thoughts turned to musings on whether he deserved going to Hell for all the lives he blatantly snuffed with his bare hands, despite fulfilling his destiny—despite following the will of God to the letter, to use Felicia's words.

It was frightening how depraved he had become over the years spent on the run. The five years of peace, of tranquility, of normalcy were no more than ghostly whispers, repressed by necessity as Christopher ran and ran and ran from relentless enemies, whose persistence with their hunt rivaled his yearning to flash the middle finger to Fate and switch out the cards he'd been dealt with. Beyond the people he cursed, the friends he disappointed, and all the broken promises that had been shattered in every waking moment, the lives weighing him down on his shoulders were no more countless than the vast population of eldritch abominations pursuing him to this very day.

Directly, they numbered by the millions. Indirectly, they were no less than ten billion.

All of them were innocents, caught in the crossfire between Christopher and his unending rebellion against kismet. If he let his guard down and allowed complacency to hold him, Chris could doubtlessly remember the moaning, the sobbing, and the angry curses against God for the obliteration of families, of entire communities. He'd still remember that politician begging him not to doom his civilization to oblivion.

Sally wept for weeks after watching Christopher do what he had to do and rob the planet of an energy source that kept its populace alive despite all the pollution, overcrowding, and constant warring. Ivan developed a habit for drinking to sleep since then, and Joshua would join him at every opportunity he got if it wasn't spent immersing himself in Millena's programs and video games, which were curiously plugged into the brain, unlike the software of Chris' era.

The blond was constantly under fire, and even with his Chrome Digizoid vest he felt the bullets hammering his chest with what should've been strenuous force. Some of the projectiles struck his forehead, dead center, but none of them penetrated him, let alone breaking the skin. To the DSI's horror, their weapons were ineffective. Bullets collapsed in on itself as they bounced off his body. They left nothing, let alone a bruise.

A platoon of six hid behind a barricade of cement dividers, much like the first hundred before them. The hallway was wide enough for a couple turrets on either side of the hall and tall enough to accommodate at least two digimon as large as those scarlet dinosaurs in the Satellite Base. All were opening fire, trying to kill him.

As though their efforts could hurt an invulnerable god.

Even as Christopher ripped one of the turrets from the walls and appeared right in the middle of the soldiers in a blink of an eye, exploiting their lack of reaction to pound their bodies into mush, his head couldn't help but wander to Veemon. He thought he saw him in each non-human he slew, still gazing at him with those wide, pitiful eyes. He was so sure the Chosen would've dissolved their friendship if he ever discovered all these atrocities Christopher committed. He would've been utterly disgusted, Chris was convinced, at befriending the blond and introducing him to his life and this entire squabble between men and monsters without knowing how dirty—how treacherous his newfound acquaintance really was.

The days Christopher Van Numen respected the value of life felt like lifetimes ago. Those were the good days. The days of a bygone era.

The days when he was a revered hero.

The days when he shared a destiny with four others. Each with their own individual roles.

Such were the days before he was dashed and ground into fine grain.

How many years had Chris spent eluding his fate? How long has he been wandering throughout the Eternal Maelstrom?

These days, every person coming across his path was a bag of meat. To Christopher, they were as bugs. Insects that knew nothing and cared for nothing but themselves. They would never consider going out of their way to help him in however they could if they knew what they were getting themselves into. Ignoramuses, they were, preferring to hide in their closet and focus on their own petty problems.

Did it matter if such people were humans? If they were hybrids of some sort? Or if they were anthropomorphic beings? Like a talking cat? An oversized caterpillar? Or a naive dragon of the brightest blue?

People were always people.

Disregarding the so-called value of life—suppressing what made the blond as human as those he debased to nothingness—became easier as he endured the cataclysms that seemed to follow him wherever he went. What more was one life? What more were a hundred—a thousand lives—a few hundred thousand—or perhaps a million, if Christopher Van Numen had sentenced to death too many people to count?

Sally was dead.

Ivan was dead.

Joshua, Milenna, and Peppita were purposeless drifters, at best.

All his friends were gone, milled to dust in spite of their accomplishments—their service to the Divine Creator. They would never return again.

.

.

Felicia Portal presented the space pirate for Christopher and Sally to see. His severed head was covered in blood, mouth agape in the most frightening expression of agony. What he had gone through in the minutes before his death must have been beyond description. Ivan Beleegar must have prayed for the release of death long before the Realmdrifter decided to grant him mercy.

From her point of view, it was probably boredom.

Chris knew this bitch well. She had been chasing him from one universe after another for at least six months now, displaying the intelligence the Specter and its innumerable thralls failed to present. If she was any smarter, Felicia would've called in the Avatars of the Gate before pressing her assault. But she didn't want the Fifth Crusader destroyed so easily. She was a hunter.

A hunter who reveled in the despair and emotional turmoil of her enemies. A hunter so sadistic she'd take her time to rent the hearts of her prey and subject them to unspeakable torment before finishing the job, even if it risked her targets' escape.

Seeing the horrified mien on Christopher Van Numen's face was all worth the trouble of subtlety and manipulations. "You really shouldn't let people weaker than you buy you time." The Realmdrifter thanked him with her menacing grin. Her free hand wandered beneath her waist, where something sensitive would've been if her form possessed even the minimum faculties of a human being or any typical organism in the multiverse. "I had to indulge myself. Hearing him scream, beg for mercy, wonder why I haven't gone after you as I slowly vaporized his body…"

.

.

Christopher screamed as he dashed in the corridors. A squad of six flanked the blond. They did not hesitate to fire their Howa Type 89's in unison, unleashing explosive bullets modified for maximum penetration. Neither one of his goldenrod eyes even went in their direction; he had sensed their approach the instant the gunpowder started to burst.

Restored to full strength—to top shape by the week he had spent in the Great Forest and empowered by uncontrollable rage, the frequent apparitions of Sally and Ivan and even Veemon himself, and the unending whispers of his own accursed guilt, there was no stopping both his brain and the Realm Scanner from calculating their trajectories. His goldenrod eyes already glowing from the machine that was the Ultimate Shield, Chris had little trouble locating two digimon popping in from front and behind, supported by a triumvirate of unmanned ground vehicles training their grenade launchers.

"Open fire, open fire! Handlers, get your SCAI's attacking!"

"Hanumon, Nyoi Bone! Aim for the head!"

"Mojyamon, use Icicle Rod and throw 'em! Don't stop 'til I tell you to!"

"Let's give this son of a bitch everything we've got!"

Fog faded into the air, casting a gloom in the R&D Wing's corridors. It would've disabled Christopher's sight if the Realm Scanner did not already adjust by overlaying his illustrious gaze with thermal vision. He watched the yellow, ape-looking creature materialize a bone in its grip and come in charging, even as the white, shaggy-haired yeti behind him condensed the air into ice.

"Hanu HAAAAAANNN!" came the battle cry, challenging Christopher in close quarters. The red spiral on its right arm seemed to glow ominously, as though compelling the digimon to something this stupid—suicidal.

But the guardsmen's bullets were upon him first, beating Hanumon to its prey. From there, it was easy to pluck each bullet out of the air. The average reaction time of a normal human being was 15% to 30% of a second—15 to 30 billion picoseconds in another measure of time. For Christopher, for someone whose entire body lived a life irradiated by A-grade æther particles for no less than two decades, his reaction time was but a small fraction of this total. If he concentrated—if he focused and did not relax his guard—then the world moved sluggishly around him.

To him, the bullets were as still as cherries hanging from the low-lying branches of a tree. To him, they were his for the picking. One by one he gathered each modified bullet in hand until he had roughly thirty within his fingers. Christopher Van Numen took ten with his free hand and hurled it at Hanumon's face, deleting it instantly. Then he took fifteen, throwing them at the DSI soldiers like a little boy tossing a few coins into a fountain.

Carefully the man flexed in and out of the few icicles Mojyamon had somehow condensed into existence in this short time. Its white, unshorn fur exploded when Chris shoved all the remaining bullets into this Yeti creature's muzzle, his hand coming in with all his strength. If he did not punch a gaping hole in the bear's skull, then the explosions finished the job. "Mojyaaaa…."

All three drones were destroyed in a few seconds, their chasses dismantled by the very same grenades they shot.

When Christopher relaxed even slightly, the world around him regained its speed and everything he did happened all at once. Six people were caught in explosions, leaving behind raw meat and body parts. Both digimon dispersed into clouds of data, and the three TALONs ignited into explosions. Their controllers would have no idea what just happened. With 21st century cameras as pitiful as they were, anyone reviewing the feeds would've been confounded by the speed Chris moved.

Two seconds before, they had cornered the blond. Two seconds later, they were gone, and Christopher went on his way howling like a madman on the loose, moving as though this tremendous burst of speed did not happen.

What a sharp contrast it was to the harrowing ordeal of the M&A Wing's infiltrators! Veemon and his two colleagues were surely fighting for their life, barely capable of meeting the DSI in battle without risking a debilitating wound—even death. They couldn't move the way he did. They couldn't fight the way he did. The Digimon of Miracles may have had the DITE in his possession, but could he wield it with frightening efficacy Christopher could? Could he use it to cut through every person in front of him, without batting an eye, without ignoring the stuff their weapons were releasing?

And what about the woman and her pussycat? What hope could they have to overwhelm the Digital Suppression Initiative as he was doing this very moment? How closer were they to really rescuing her older brother? If she forced that little pussy to "evolve" beyond the gigantic sphinx he saw earlier last night, could it make a difference?

"I am surrounded by cardboard," Christopher said to himself, plowing through yet another blockade. As he ripped off the arms of a soldier, tearing his muscles and bones like they were paper, he wondered if Superman existed on this version of Earth, if his character was as popular and iconic as it was in his home. "When I want it to, something breaks; something bends; something dies." Without any effort on his part, he changed things—broke things—destroying people as easily as he manipulated the environment around him. It was almost miraculous how Chris hadn't killed someone by accident already.

Blood spurted all over the walls all while the unfortunate guardsman was lifted and tossed into his squad mates. They crumpled on the wall, a split second before the blond charged and dropped his elbow into the human pile, crushing every person and covering himself in bloody guts as he destroyed the thick, concrete wall en route and entered a laboratory.

The moment Christopher absorbed the view his glowing eyes were taking in, it marked the first time in this universe he felt his blood rime so acutely he did nothing but ogle the facility, cement its features in his memory, and immortalize the grisly sight in the archives of the Realm Scanner.

Cages of digimon populated two corners, stacked together to form twenty, no, thirty feet from the concrete flooring. Some of the cages were small enough to fit those as tiny as plush dolls. Some were made for creatures of Veemon's size. Others were slightly bigger, like a monster twice the size of a human adult or one as large as the Adults in the Satellite Base.

They were filled with occupants, but instead of clamoring for freedom like a rational person or exhibiting the neurotic behavior of incessant spinning in circles, they remained still. They wore a glazed look over their eyes as they stood obediently, waiting… waiting for what, Christopher discovered when his glowing eyes found the tables and platforms dotting the chamber.

Digimon of various shapes and sizes were strapped to these tables, shackled to place in spite of their docility. Their bodies were cut open, presenting their entire physiology for any scientist to inspect and investigate, poke and push and pull, and make notes without giving a damn. Christopher recoiled at the way their bodies convulsed, trembling—twitching wildly. Clear indications there was no anesthesia involved, at least after these… these vivisections.

"Goddamn DSI bastards." These caged prisoners here were merely waiting for their deaths. The white triband suppressors on their bodies rendered them docile, if not borderline catatonic. The ones on the table had their naked bodies sliced open by surgical tools—and industrial tools, apparently—in the name of science. Those that died but did not yet disintegrate were unceremoniously plopped into a pile in another corner, where various digimon were gradually dispersing into clouds of data particles.

There were only a few times in his life when Chris felt such incisive and indescribable animus career through his psychopathic indifference.

He clutched his head, reeling from the shock, nearly buckling down at the sight. Chris couldn't bear everything his eyes were seeing, yet the blond couldn't turn his eyes away. He remembered how important Veemon was in this universe. He was a "Chosen", the blue dragon once said. That he was special in some way. That there were only twelve of them in the entire world—in both worlds, and he was among the strongest of them all, if Chris remembered his stories right.

Was this Veemon's eventual fate? Was this cruel and unethical ending awaiting the Digimon of Miracles if he failed—if the Digital Suppression Initiative caught him and stripped him of his free will and reason? Would Veemon suffer like the creatures rotting away in those cages, barely fed and attended to? Would the biologists smile with merciless glee at the chance to explore firsthand what made a Chosen digimon so special?

Those scientists wouldn't care about his enslavement and the loss of dignity that came with it. They wouldn't care about his quivering body. They wouldn't give a damn for Veemon's whimpers and cries of pain, nor would they feel shame for regarding this wonderful character—this trusting and endearing friend as a goddamn test subject to use, abuse, poke, molest, and utterly violate until there was simply nothing left.

And considering all the trouble he and his colleagues had given the DSI, their bosses might as well be heartless enough—be sadistic enough to leave his mind alone and instead disable his brain's motor skills, paralyzing Veemon and forcing him to endure torture after torture, all of them painful and agonizing and humiliating beyond description, all of them Chris couldn't even begin to explain in his native language, with no hope for the future, save the release of death in a massive pile of disintegrating bodies.

Every creature in this place was beginning to look like Veemon. To his horror, the random faces on the tables, each varying in shape, size, and color, transmogrified into haunted muzzles. They were all agape in what appeared to be a drug-induced trance. They all stared back at Chris with wide and unmoving scarlet eyes, glazed by lifelessness and hounding every step he took. Their tongues lolled around. Strings of saliva dripped to the floor for they were too numb to reach for him and wildly lick his face with contagious cheer and mirth, as Veemon had done to him yesterday morning—as Veemon probably did to his beloved brother on a regular basis, a ritual of immense love and affection.

Sally Xyphard's apparition was found leaning over one of the tables. Her purple robes hovered over a particularly mutilated mirage of Veemon, with all his organs but his heart, lungs, and brain spread all around the quivering frame of leather, arranged as though someone had prepared a most grotesque show for the biologists.

The priestess's cerulean eyes sent icicles in his direction as she mouthed raspy words Christopher Van Numen understood without a sound coming from her empty mouth. "You coward!"

"Shut up…"

He no longer cared if he was a standing target. The sensation of bullets and explosives, and the attacks of enslaved digimon ebbed away, buried beneath his consciousness as he wandered from table to table, concentrating on Sally and the vivisected dragons instead of the events playing out in reality.

"It'll be your fault. It will all fall on you."

Ivan's severed head faded in and out of his vision, his anguish and terror impossible to hide. The rambunctious glint in his eyes had long paved way to accusatory glowers, accentuated by the blood dripping from them as his voice commingled with Sally's and Veemon's alike. "Shut up…"

"Because you're too scared. Because you're always running away. Why can't you accept—

"AAAGGGHHHH!" The blond suddenly screamed. His voice carried powerful rapidity and thunderous ferocity, and it broke the eardrums of anyone unfortunate enough to catch it. Somehow he had managed to attract the attention of the caged digimon, their submissive gazes aimed at his direction. Christopher shook his head violently, trying to banish his second thoughts, his own regrets. "SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP, JUST F*CKING SHUT UUUUPPPP!"

He snatched the æther gun holstered to his waist and opened fire, obliterating everything in its path. He annihilated the cages. He vaporized the tables. He erased the cutting tools and the computers. He completely disintegrated the bodies. Globes of æther extinguished all forms of life within. Soon, Veemon's doppelgangers vanished into nothingness—and the phantom of his conscience with them.

Holes were left behind in Chris' wake. They were clean, empty spaces, the matter previously occupying them erased from existence. "They won't do this to him! No, no they won't." Chris kept firing. "No, they f*cking won't!" He didn't stop shooting. He didn't stop pulling the trigger, sending orb after orb of B-grade æther until he finally stripped the entire facility of reinforce concrete, removed the Zone Emulators from the world, and caused enough subterranean instability to cause the ground to collapse all around him and bury the laboratory beneath the earth. "RAAAAHHHH!"

When he finally registered the bullets striking his back, he concentrated his gun on the DSI soldiers, their mindless thralls, and their annoying robots. Tears rode down his cheeks and demonic snarls escaped between his lips. If any of the DSI's guards showed fear, he ignored it. They deserved it all. He'd murder every one of them—the soldiers, the technicians, the noncombatants, the civilians—even if their families if they just so happened to take their relatives to work— and he'd lay waste to the entire R&D Wing for so long as he has reason to stay in this goddamn universe.

Because Chris was their judge, jury, and executioner.

Because Chris was an enraged and invincible demon.

Because Chris was the wandering god.

He would arbitrate these people because he could. He would sentence them all to their doom because he could. Their intentions didn't matter. He couldn't care if they did it for their livelihood like Tina. He couldn't care if they did it to cultivate the DSI's vision-mission like the late Colonel Reeves. He couldn't care if they did it to rid the two worlds of liberated digimon and so-called "Wild Ones" like the shit of a society infesting this Earth.

It was the arrogance of humanity impelling them to act this way, to believe they themselves were the lords and masters of their own realm. Conceited were these humans, thinking they could peer into the territories of the Divine, manipulating æther like a plaything and pursuing this foolish conquest of subduing a parallel plane of reality and its people.

Christopher Van Numen would judge them all, for he was an instrument of justified vengeance. What mercy he had in his heart did not belong to mankind. There was no way he would hold himself back—exercise caution to respect the sanctity of life, because they didn't matter to him. Because none of these people would ever matter to him!

"What is the value of life, huh?" He shouted to the emptiness of the corridors—yelled to the body parts scattered along the floors—screamed to the monstrous creatures fading into nothingness. It did nothing to quell the disapproving apparitions of Sally and Ivan. It did not let Chris forget what his twisted imagination conceived in that damn laboratory. Yet he continued to dwell, continued to ask questions, continued to seek answers only he himself could make. Why care for others? Why give a damn about the amoral? For the mindless? For the heartless? "Why should I care about them, Sally? WHO THE HELL GIVES A DAMN?"

The value of life wasn't something to gift to the random person, to rip out of one's heart and give to an unknown stranger. From an ideal to uphold whenever and however possible, from an expression of heroism, of ethics, over the long time Christopher Van Numen journeyed through the multiverse, it transformed into a golden pedestal. A special place, reserved solely for those who truly deserved his compassion. His concerns.

That's all it was now.

And for the unimportant, for the insignificant, this pedestal was unreachable.

Two turrets emerged from their concealed installations, recently activated by M&A's security center. Another six-man squad, forced to fight by their superiors or emboldened by the distracted blond, rounded the corner and opened fire, shooting at him with bullets meant to debilitate, ordnance meant to utterly destroy. "For our friends!" one of them snarled, tears being shed from his eyes.

This was the chance to pay back the Digital Suppression Initiative a hundredfold for exploiting his critical state.

A seventh DSI guardsman reinforced this new salvo, pointing a finger straight R&D's lone invader. "GO, DASH DOUBLE CLAW!" A blue wolf sprinted towards Chris on all four legs, its crimson scarf flying behind its neck as it reared its vicious claws. The self-conscious artificial intelligence obeyed its master without question. "Gao, gagaogaaaaa!"

This was the chance to pay back this degenerate society a thousandfold for treating Veemon like shit behind his back.

Gaogamon was evaded without much effort. Its vile, gut-wrenching snarls died abruptly—turned into a cowering whine the instant Christopher caught the wind-battered scarf and rammed his own head into the enslaved digimon's neck, destroying the red triband and the creature with it.

Chris did not pay attention to the shrinking form of the Adult level. He ignored the bronze eyes following his trail of death and destruction. The man was too busy gunning down soldier after soldier to even hear the dying but liberated Gaomon whisper its gratitude, thanking this enraged demon for sparing it from a life of slavery, of humiliation, of mindlessness, of meaninglessness.

Spheres of æther spouted from his gun like flowing water. He was annihilating any form of life—any form of resistance that dared to come within a fifty-foot radius. There were times he toyed with them, running to his enemies at such terrifying speeds they were instantaneous for the cameras and his hapless victims. What enslaved digimon the DSI had left were deleted in two blows at most. Drones were thrown into each other or crushed mercilessly into scrap, while the human guardsmen were eviscerated, viciously ripped apart just so they couldn't—they'd never have the luxury of dying quickly and painlessly, no matter how much they begged the gods to finish them off and let them rest in peace.

The blond lost track of his kills after five minutes, but he kept on going—kept killing—kept annihilating any obstruction the Digital Suppression Initiative dared to set in front of him. By the time he stood before a set of double doors near the bottom of the R&D Wing, blood, guts, severed flesh, and debris of metal, concrete, and dust of unspeakable volumes trailed long behind him. His coat, once as bright blue as Veemon's warm and leathery skin, was now immersed in crimson by layers and layers of coagulating blood.

Nobody seemed to follow him down into this level. Christopher might have thought he had slain all 800 or so patrolmen in the R&D Wing if it weren't for the life signs the Realm Scanner detected above.

For now, he wrote them off as too afraid to meet him. Fully intimidated by the works this wandering god left behind. Reviewing the HUD displayed across his eyes, he confirmed the presence of inert æther particles in this area. They oversaturated the corridors, rendering him unable to pinpoint the Realmstone Fragment with the Realm Scanner's algorithms and unparalleled computing power. The Medallion seemed to thrum weakly, reassuring Chris the Third Fragment was still close by.

"Three out of five," he chuckled to himself. As if anyone other than the Ordained Carrier could move it. Ha!

He laughed maniacally, confident he had finally found the DSI's hiding place at last. Chris had no doubt the Fragment would've landed on some kind of pedestal, like any precious artifact. If the DSI or their enthralled monsters mustered the stupidity to approach him at that point, they would be met with power overwhelming.

"Three out of five now, Christopher. This is it."

They did not open to his presence, yet for all the money spent on providing the maximum security, their locks were instantly ripped apart as the blond pulled the doors open. He strutted into the chamber, ambling past the two alcoves on either side, overlooking the drawers and pigeonholes within. He passed the terminal in the center and disregarded the empty dais constructed on top of it, next to the LCD screen embedded on its surface.

"Yes, yesss…"

Christopher's body tingled with excitement, his senses prickling from the extreme levels of æther radiation around him. He eyed the empty space beyond the railing, wondering if the Third Fragment was just beyond. It was a blind spot, of course, but if this was where the DSI was going to make some kind of last stand and attack him with hastily-made defenses, then this was it. The man did not bother taking the two flights of stairs. He leaped instead into the empty space, drawing his gray firearm as he fell to the lower level.

In the end, Chris didn't need the gun.

The first thing his goldenrod eyes saw was not a pedestal containing the third Realmstone Fragment.

What his initiative rewarded him with was a lectern and a glass cylinder within which suspended the naked body of a man. Oxygen and feeding tubes greeted the blond's impeccable vision. It was impossible to hide neither the wires and tubes drugging the malnourished body nor its atrophied muscles.

The first thing his goldenrod eyes saw was the unconscious form of Daisuke Motomiya.

The Chosen Child of Miracles.

Veemon's beloved partner and surrogate brother.

A disgusted mien, severe and lasting, crept onto his face.

And Christopher Van Numen suddenly felt he was missing something important…


After Felicia Portal expunged their captors, freed them from their individual prisons, and reunited the two of them in one cell, Taichi and Agumon scuttled away from their cell, not wishing to see once more the carnage left behind by the woman in green.

Although the Child of Courage felt more confident now that he was fully healed, enveloped in the protection of his cloak, and armed with the DSI soldiers' standard gear as well as enough ammunition to last a firefight, the fact of the matter was they were still in a deep pile of excrement.

They had no keys. They had no knowledge of the facility around them, the Military and Administration Wing. Felicia may have been kind enough to break them out, but the damnable woman didn't bother with helping them out. Worse, she was the schemer—the true villain behind the Digidestined's most recent misfortune. Thanks to a slip of the tongue, Taichi learned both Daisuke and Veemon were still alive, but perhaps not for long, when a beast as powerful as this mysterious puppeteer was out for blood, manipulating everyone around her to pursue her mission and realize the vision perceived by her beryl orbs.

With the bullets limited and the DSI's resources practically inexhaustible barring any further outside intervention, Taichi Yagami and Agumon skulked slowly, mindful of alerting anyone to their escape. The woman in green might have obliterated his guards, but if she wanted him to sow chaos, chances were high she did nothing to make it any easier for them. They were lucky cameras were sparse around the area. Being caught on video was the last thing he wanted, not when he was still walking through the place practically blind.

He and Agumon were luckier by the fact these weren't the type shelled in opaque domes, but the kind sticking out in the open, nearly inconspicuous in its placement.

"There," Taichi pointed at a shape on the far side of the hall. "Agumon, Spitfire!"

A guttural belch rose from Agumon in reply, coughing up a small stream of fire from his maw. The digimon's aim was true. Even if it failed to destroy the device itself, at the very least the complex circuitry inside had been melted and its wires damaged from the residual flames.

"Advance," ordered the Child of Courage. "And again, light on your feet. We don't want anyone—huh, what?"

The man had paused at his digital half's confused stare. "Uhmmm, 'light' on my feet, Taichi? Sorry but I don't know—I mean, I forgot what that meant."

Taichi palmed his face, barely suppressing a groan and stopping himself from running a hand through his hair. Drawing attention to the fact his hair was no longer the bushy afro it was in his heyday was not a reminder Taichi wanted to entertain during these dire circumstances. "Dude, just try not to make any noise as you walk."

Agumon groused. "You could've just said so. Humans and their figures of speech…"

"Ten years of life on Earth and you're not used to it yet?" A dry chuckle. "For shame." Hazel eyes spotted another one of those vile cameras, guarding the corner ahead. This was the fourth one now, and unlike the others before, the little bastard was encased in the telltale black dome, opaque from all sides. "Alright, another Spitfire. Go."

The Digimon of Courage stepped into the camera's possible field of vision and eructated another burst of flame. It didn't work; the small stream dissipated instantly, leaving no mark in its wake.

Taichi winced. If anyone manned the security terminals now, the fire might have been caught the viewer's eye. For all he knew, whoever monitored the feeds was now panning the camera in their direction. Maybe the viewer was even cycling through the three cameras they've already destroyed. They couldn't afford a single mistake. Not a single one.

One talented survivalist and his digimon against a hardened army of trained killers? Those weren't odds Taichi wanted to gamble his life on. "Just get rid of it," he hissed.

Agumon did not hesitate. Himself very much aware of the dire consequences awaiting their detection, the dinosaur dashed forward and put in as much power as he could into the fiery blaze his snout housed. "BABY FLAME!"

It wasn't a full charge, but it had enough in it to shatter the glass and destroy the camera in a small flash, a miniature explosion that in all likelihood immolated everything inside. Shards of glass and metal tinkled and clanked as they fell on the cement as the smell of burning metal flared in Taichi's nose when he got close.

Thud-thud, thud-thud-thud.

Heavy footsteps. "Acker, what the hell was that?"

"I don't know, but I heard it from here."

A pair of footsteps.

Taichi hugged the edge when he came close, his body sliding along it thanks to the smooth contours of his cloak. He stacked himself up on the corner, with Agumon directly behind. The man's entire body tingled from the adrenaline being pumped into his body. The elder Yagami heard his heart beating powerfully, its anxiety thrumming in his ears.

A fireteam. He peeked out, cautious eyes scanning their BDU's and taking note of the FN FAL's and combat vests on their persons. "If we're caught, it's over, and we'll have a much tougher time on our hands."

"What do we do? Can we sneak up on them?"

Taichi shot out at Agumon's snout and touched it, staying in place for a few seconds before retreating into his garbs and clasping the assault rifle scavenged from the goop Felicia left behind. "Shhh!"

"Look, the camera's down."

"Damn. What do you think caused—

"Could be a SCAI."

The footsteps drew closer.

"No way!"

"You know who's on the other end of this hall, Acker." The man's partner did something with his gun. Whatever he did, it splintered the tense silence flooding the small corridors—alerted Taichi to the enormous risks of popping out in the open.

And closer.

"Radio ODC. I don't know how he got his SCAI back, but if Courage escaped from his—

That, and the substantial vibrations on the floor, cued the man to act. To the soldier, Hikari's older brother almost seemed to appear in front of his face in a flash of blue and flowing brown. It caught the man by surprise, allowing Taichi a few split seconds to bash the patrolman's chin with the butt of the FN FAL and finish him off, throttling the very same into the bridge of his eyes.

Out cold in a moment's breath.

Acker blanched from the ambush. Instead of reaching for this 'ODC', the soldier lifted his FN FAL and aspired to shoot the Chosen Child from the hip. But Yagami's digimon partner had his back; Agumon leaped almost as soon as his human half did and gave off yet another ball of fire. It was one straight shot to the DSI soldier's chest. Baby Flame was effective, shoved the soldier back a couple steps, forced him to let go of his weapon, and set his uniform on fire. "Shit, shit, shit, shi—

The flames began dying. The flickering tongues flagged and dimmed, turning into hot but mostly harmless embers. It defied the laws of nature, for the air within these halls was no more oxidized than the atmosphere blanketing the Tokyo Metropolis and these uniforms looked like they were made of synthetic fibers, rather than something fire-retardant. Were these fibers saturated with Lockheed's dispersion coating?

Taichi was the first to notice the waning blaze and he was the first to act, discarding all his speculations and all his ruminations to seize the upper hand seconds before the guardsman reached for his sidearm and literally an instant before Agumon himself lurched forward to gut the human alive.

Blazing the trail with the full confidence of an experienced fighter and the muscle memory of a hardened survivalist, the elder Yagami dropped his rifle, stepped towards the man, and slammed his shoes onto the man's shins. His opponent jabbed with his right, but Taichi intercepted it with his own and guided it straight into his elbow, clearly fracturing the fingers if the sickening cracks indicated anything.

A pained hiss slithered out the soldier's mouth, but amazingly enough Acker was still lucid enough to remain aware of Taichi's hostile presence. He managed to lift his left arm and circle it around to strike the Chosen Child with a strong hook that would've sent him down to the floor if it ever connected.

That it never connected testified to Yagami's skill, for the adult Taichi suddenly reeled forward, closing in on his enemy and gripping his shoulder tightly, restricting the oncoming left arm, while his other hand careened into the man's eyes. Now blinded and stunned, the soldier could do nothing but let Taichi clasp his left hand, pull it behind his neck, moving behind him and hooked his right arm at the same time, trapping his movements.

Completely at the mercy of his opponent, Acker's attempts to buckle Taichi intensified. He had already tried to bash the man's face with the back of his skull twice when he felt the tip of his own pistol Hikari's older brother must've snagged from his holster during the entire process. "Keep at it and I will shoot you," the Child of Courage snarled at him.

"W-why don't you just kill me and get it over with, Yagami?" questioned the patrolman, refusing to show any weakness to the most wanted man in all of Japan. "You damn son of a bitch."

"Because I need information." Taichi thrust the M9's barrel into Acker's side, forcing his body to buckle from the sudden pressure and the pain accompanying it. "And because I don't make unnecessary kills." Brown eyes locked with the beryl orbs of his best friend and surrogate brother. "Agumon." He cocked his head towards a room several meters back. Luckily for Taichi its door was open, explaining where these two came from.

The Digimon of Courage nodded and picked up Taichi's FN FAL. He dragged Acker's unconscious comrade by the foot, deliberately ignorant of his welfare, while his human half gradually walked back, with the patrolman himself in tow.

It was a storage room, roughly as large as a room at a five-star hotel and certainly with none of the amenities. He would've welcomed it too, especially the toilet. After watching Felicia liquefy four men in front of his brown spheres and rummaging through the blood and unidentifiable flesh for weapons and ammunition, nothing else in the world would relieve Taichi of the sickening bile stewing at the bottom of his belly than to vomit into the nearest toilet and wash the streaks of blood off of his hands, his gun, and his cloak, and hopefully do something about the stench of death.

As he strolled inside, Taichi Yagami noted this particular room had more to do with housekeeping and leisure than security. Several robotic vacuum cleaners were gathered in one corner of the room, where beside them multiple cleaning fluids and tools stood guard. On another corner were towels of an assortment of sizes, bed sheets, and pillow cases. Drawers and cabinets lined the room on both sides, and Taichi didn't need to have Agumon open them all one at a time to expect nothing more but household tools and essentials inside.

It held nothing but good news and bad news for the venerated leader of the Digidestined.

The good news was there were little chances of them being interrupted by another soldier.

The bad news was this hinted on living quarters and everything that came with it. Taichi was unnerved by the fact he was close to a freaking barracks of all things. This meant he was that deep within the M&A Wing.

Taichi tossed the gun away and squeezed his left wrist, abruptly bearing down with such force Acker had no choice but to go down with him and land on his butt, for he had none of the grace and control the Chosen Child possessed thanks to his position of strength. Taichi quickly weaved his right arm through the guardsman's bent left and clutched his own humerus, forming a chicken wing. "Agumon, find some rope and bind his friend over there. Gag him. Then I want you at the door and listen for anything. Got it?

"Now, DSI, first things first," he asked. Taichi flexed his arms, letting Acker know he could easily break the soldier's left arm with this submission hold. "How does security operate in here?"

Between him and Agumon, eluding detection would be impossible if they couldn't eliminate each camera silently. They simply weren't prepared. The weapons they scavenged were prepared for actual combat, not stealth. If they were caught, that would mark the beginning of a chaotic battle of attrition, one Taichi would lose in minutes.

"You won't get any answers out of me, SCAI f*ck—AGH!"

Taichi was frowning. "I call the shots here. Don't even think of crossing me." He flexed his arm again for good measure, this time pushing it a few more millimeters and holding it for a couple seconds longer to intensify the soldier's agony and prolong it.

"C, c, cameras! W-with e, e-ex-tremely high frame rates! ODC's got cameras installed all over M&A, and there's nothing you can do to get around them. Show up on ODC's screens for a split second and you'll have all of M&A hunting you down."

"Split second detection? That isn't humanly possible."

"Of course not. They're using algos."

"Algos?"

"Computer algorithms. Admin flew in some people from Wall Street a while ago. The bunch of geeks called themselves 'quants'. Most of us don't know why the Vice-Chairman hired them, but we think they lost their jobs after interest rates went up last month."

"And how do I get around them? If they're programmed to ID friendlies, then there's got to be a way to identify you individually."

"F*ck off, Yagami! You won't escape from here. We'll drain the life from your eyes and stick another triband on your SCAI. And when we're done, we'll hand you and your little pet to R&D and they'll go ballistic all over you—ohhhhwhooaaaahohoooooooah!"

"Answer me!"

Acker was panting. He was rattled. His body quivered from the pain in his elbow. His breaths came in deep gasps. His spine must have begun aching from the awkward position, yet In spite of all these, he locked his gaze with Taichi's and defied him. "Never, you shameless prick."

Then I'll take it up a notch. The Chosen Child grimaced at the thought, but any remorse crawling up his nerves were easily squashed away by necessity and the resentment that seized him the second the patrolman dared to threaten him—demotivate him. Unfortunately for Acker, the DSI soldier hadn't realized how much power Taichi had over him in a supply room of all places. "Agumon?"

The orange dinosaur turned at the sound of his partner's voice. "Nothing out there, Taichi. He's giving you a hard time, huh. You need my help?"

"You can say that." Taichi's head bobbed towards the drawers closest to him. "Go through the drawers and find some duct tape."

After ten years of life on Earth, and nearly eight of them spent within the civilized life in Tokyo, he was certain the Digimon of Courage knew exactly what he was talking about. Taichi held Acker's arm firm within his crisscrossing arms, keeping it at barely below the point he would scream from the white-hot pressure being put on his bones while watching his surrogate brother rummage through the drawers one by one.

It felt like forever, waiting for Agumon to find even a single roll of duct tape. Taichi Yagami was going at this blind, making up as he went along. Any minute wasted was another minute someone could saunter into this room or the prison cells and unravel what little stealth they were enjoying at the moment.

But find it the dinosaur did, and within a wonderful time frame of two minutes. Taichi's confidence returned to him as Agumon stomped towards him and Acker, his emerald eyes level with his human half's and no less serious than it's ever been. "Slice a piece off and stick it to his mouth," the Chosen Child instructed. "When you're done, go back to the door. I'll call you if I need help."

"What the hell are you planni—mmmmmff!"

Emotions and intonations were absent in his next word, spreading a color of finality throughout his voice. "This."

SNAP.

"MMMMMMMRRRRRGGHHHHFFFFF!"

Eyes shut from the blinding hurt in his broken arm, body twisting and turning and writhing all at once, not for one second did Acker realize Taichi exploited the distraction and frisked his pockets, pulling out an unusually thick identification card and a combat knife, six inches long and sharp enough to penetrate human skin and slice through organs with some ease.

He set the ID card aside and kneeled on Acker's side, letting the weight of his body dig deep into it while punching the broken arm—causing another muffled scream. The guardsman's free, uninjured hand rose to meet Taichi and push him off, but whatever force it had in it died when the man's own knife flashed and cut into its flesh. "There's a lot more I can do to you, DSI. Now talk before I start making you pray to Buddha."

And with those two words, he ripped the duct tape off without any regard for Acker's comfort. A shriek not unlike that of a woman's escaped the soldier's lips. "Shit, that hurtssss. All right, Yagami. All right. You f*cking win. " His hands twitched, jolting towards the ID card on the floor next to the hems of Taichi's cloak. "See that card? There's an RFID chip in there. The cameras can detect it and ODC's algos will flag down anyone who doesn't have one on their person."

He nodded, pocketing his lifeline and key to escape. "Agumon, fish one out from the other guy and keep it." Attacking the man with another question, "Now how do I get out of here? What's the layout for M&A? Where exactly am I?"

Between a strong and hardened survivor, a knife, and his vicious digimon, Acker resigned himself to his fate. His defeat manifested in his deflated body, in his wilted arms, in his displeased frown and its crushed sigh. "There's an iPhone in my teammate's pockets," the soldier revealed. "You can find a 3D map of M&A in one of the apps. You're going to need it."

"Why? How big is this place?"

"Big can't come close to it. We're deep underground. Several kilometers beneath the Shinjuku perimeter. I don't know how the DSI built it all so quickly, but it's so large and complex, I sometimes get lost around here…"

Agumon found the iPhone easily. Taichi opened it for him, knowing his partner's claws would easily damage the delicate screen and render it useless. As the digimon absorbed the information and preserved it inside his eidetic memory, the Child of Courage learned much about the DSI's headquarters. Acker was thorough in his explanation, covering the Nine Gates, the DDS, and the three Hubs. He did not neglect to mention the maglev connecting the Nine Gates, nor did he forget about the passageways connecting to several destinations at once, increasing the redundancy and at the same time, bolstering internal security. No person would be able to invade or infiltrate DSI Global's headquarters and expect to escape detection or security, not when there was nothing that was inaccessible.

"Other than the main tower, the only way to access the surface is through the Nine Gates. There are two to three two-way ramps ascending to the street level. That's how we rolled out those tanks and soldiers no more than an hour after you broke through the perimeter the other night."

"Are there any automated defenses?"

"Yes. All defense turrets are active, equipped with anti-personnel and anti-vehicle weapons. The IFF system is on at all times, but they're all facing forward." The soldier couldn't help laughing at the arrogance of his superiors. "It's funny. All this time, we never considered someone breaking out from the inside."

"Your weapons," Taichi listed. "Your gear. The people heading your security center. Everything. Give me a brief profile."

Sure enough, the compromised soldier started to talk. He breezed through the Office of Detection and Containment and the experience of its administrator and the various analysts supporting him. Information on their issued equipment was provided just as easily, and it was during this Acker confirmed, "Our uniforms are woven with fibers soaked in Lockheed Dispersion Coating. Your SCAI's non-physical attacks will not be as effective as you'd expect."

But it was the patrolman's intelligence on recently-issued technology that disturbed Taichi Yagami the most. The DSI had attachments augmenting their bullets, charging them with enough electricity to paralyze an adult human, increasing their penetration power and wound Adults and even some Perfects, or both enflaming and imbuing the projectiles with explosive properties without the need for any chemicals. The disgraced ambassador learned, too, about another technology that produced a screen of light, designed specifically to provide cover against digimon from long range.

To any normal man—to anyone who had never seen humanity's amazing talent for innovation in the face of overwhelming adversity, all these sounded like science-fiction. The effects described were too fantastic, even in a world where mankind now shared the Earth with creatures born during the rise of the Internet, the dotcom era, and the years since. And how couldn't it? It's as if they're learning how to master the Digital World.

And they're succeeding.

What gaps that existed between the Chosen Children and the tamers and the vast majority of humankind several years ago were narrowing, and at a rate so quick it could only be described as horrific. How far could the DSI's Research and Development department go from here? What would their scientists unearth about the Digital World and the Digimon? Where would the discoveries be? In the R&D headquarters in Japan? In another R&D facility somewhere around the world? And how much more could life benefit from it?

The Digital Suppression Initiative was succeeding—well on its way to conquering the laws of a different plane of existence. If only the global coalition wasn't filled with damn bigots and speciesists!

Taichi Yagami deflated at the thought of the DSI's success. Operation: Pyramid had been a mistake all along. He, the renowned Chosen Child of Courage, the most dangerous of the Twelve, had underestimated the leaps and bounds the DSI had made in the years the Digidestined have gone into hiding. Even if Taichi had won—taken over the skyscraper without the blood of his friends, their partners, and the liberated digimon on his hands, without Felicia Portal's interference, what good was this one building when the Digital Suppression Initiative controlled a gigantic, subterranean military complex?

They could have never taken anyone among the executive management prisoner. The Digidestined's advance would be noticed from a distance, ensuring none of the higher-ups were present by the time they reached the tower. An escape to the Digital World was all too likely, and they would either remain there or instantly emerge in another country, abusing the digiports and the Internet to access literally any part of the globe as Daisuke's team had ten years ago during their "world tour".

Demolishing the DSI's Japanese presence required a full assault. Outright war, breaking out in the Tokyo metropolis. Shinjuku must be stormed on the surface while a forward platoon would sneak in at the same time and disable the security from the inside.

But such monumental effort was impossible.

Not when the DSI had branches throughout the globe, repressing the Digidestined's international equivalents.

Not when Dr. Akihiro Kurata's Digital Dive System blocked off any support from the Digital World and the powerful allies the Twelve could have gathered across its vast continents.

Not when the Chosen Children themselves were diffused. Spread too thin. Half of them either dead or missing.

And especially not when that sadistic woman was out there, who defended this bigoted organization with powers and allies so ridiculously overwhelming the Chosen Children's best could never hope to compare. An enigma whose intervention directed an orchestra, a grand game of manipulation for what was surely an insidious purpose, one that had the missing Daisuke Motomiya and Veemon in its crosshairs.

.

.

.

"T-Taichi," Yuuko's voice buzzed in his ear. "Where exactly are you right now?"

"We're at the straightaway," he answered. "Look, that's not important." He needed to regroup his team. Keep them together. Keep them alive. "We're heading back for you right—

"NO!" the woman on the other line interrupted. She admonished him. She warned him. But her voice did not carry any arrogance. Neither did it carry any authority. Instead, fright and desperation belonged to it, and not even a man of Taichi's caliber and experience saved him from feeling it reverberate in his very soul. "Stay right where you are! Don't you dare pull out; if you retreat now, it will be a gross injustice—a f*cking insult—to everyone's brave sacrifice."

Yagami grimaced at the unearthly howls of her partner digimon. SuperStarmon's attacks brightened the west sky, and for a second, the Child of Courage was gripped by portentous dread. He knew what she was going to say next, and it was something he didn't want to hear.

No.

Not like this.

Yuuko Urameshi gurgled, willing herself to speak despite the blood, tears, and emotion. "My brave sacrifice."

.

.

.

They died in vain. Died for a mission destined to fail. Died trying to take control of what was merely a tip of a gargantuan iceberg.

Days from now, when Taichi Yagami began entertaining idle thoughts—started moving on from the epic fail that was Operation: Pyramid, of all the men, women, and digimon who sacrificed themselves for this lost cause, hurled themselves into the line of fire, and truly adopted the DSI's terrible moniker in place of those they left behind, Yuuko Urameshi, Yuuji, the Kurosawa Family, and Rika Nonaka would haunt him the most.

Yuuko was a close friend of Hikari's, Taichi remembered. They met during her short-lived stint in education, introducing freshly-inducted tamers into the life and responsibility shared by all who had been touched by digimon, who would have these sentient companions shadowing them for the rest of their life. From there, they had built their relationship—took a liking to the elder Yagami on his return from the United Nations in New York City, and had been a member of his team since the day he began preparing a hideout for sympathizers vilified by their own government.

Yagami did not know what happened to Yuuko at the very end, and he would never discover anything, not even a body. Did the Gatespawn devour her alive, or had the DSI completely overwhelmed her? Taichi could only hope the law of karma showered her with mercy—spared her from the gruesome fate that had fallen upon Yuuji and the Kurosawa family.

Because Yuuji's digimon partner died in front of him, and no sooner had he regained his senses, shook himself out of a stupor of incomprehensible psychological—mental trauma, the man was eaten alive by a predator.

Because the Kurosawa family was cleaved in half by a gigantic suit of armor, bowling its way into the streets from the side of a building as it crushed its solid foundations and proved invulnerable to even the pinpoint, surgical strikes of a digimon in its Ultimate level. A tragedy that could've been prevented had the creature that was Ai and Mokoto's shared partner been astute enough to target the headless knight at its weak spot.

But it was the thought of Rika—the imagined scenes of a last stand between the DSI and the Digidestined's Rising Star that shook him the most. The Child of Courage wanted to bite his lip and shed his tears. He, the greatest champion of the Chosen Children, the United Nations' ambassador to the Digital World—its first and its last—the revered general of the Digidestined, and the strong, unwavering brother of Hikari Yagami, was so devastated by the loss of Rika Nonaka he nearly shut down and wept.

I'm sorry I dragged you into this, he wanted to think, but Taichi knew what she thought of such regrets and apologies. Rika was a woman of self-sufficiency. A woman who always projected a position of strength—an air of confidence in a manner that reflected the elder Yagami's own conviction and attracted the man to her—despite the unending pressure of uncertainty.

Taichi had seen that for himself in the way she brusquely inserted herself in his life.

How desperate were her last moments? Among all the operatives of Operation: Pyramid, Rika had been the most isolated. It was simply her and her surrogate sister, their hawk-like eyes and sniper rifles watching over the invading squads of tamers, humans, liberated digimon, and Wild Ones.

Of course, Felicia Portal took her sweet time bragging how she snuck in veteran soldiers of the Digital Suppression Initiative without revealing her presence.

It was Yuuko Urameshi all over again. Taichi didn't know if Rika was gunned down. Taichi didn't know if she had been mauled viciously, mangled and shredded as though the woman had been suddenly thrown into a cage full of hungry alligators. But he was sure she was dead. Not even Renamon's amazing inclination for stealth and escape could've helped her.

With the Rising Star gone, Taichi had no choice but to get Agumon and himself out of there, as soon as possible. Otherwise, the Child of Light would take his place. Hikari. His sister. His little sister. Considering the way she turned out over the past few years, someone like her couldn't lead now. Not until she spent time digging herself out of her own misery. Not until she retraced her steps and reclaimed the road she once lost.

"Enough."

He needed to get out. He needed to escape and flee to a friendlier place, where he could spend a few hours—a few days mourning and groveling, away from all eyes. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to see their great hero crumble and fall apart from his own human failings.

Taichi was done with learning. He knew all he needed to know about M&A Wing, its layout, and its security system. Acker had rapidly put him up to speed on the population of guardsmen belowground, and it was a significant number despite the fact half the barracks were empty solely because they were all shifted to the Digital World. (And that weakness wasn't going to last long, not when DSI Global intended on making up for this lost manpower by outsourcing people from local governments.)

Agumon already digested enough information from the soldier's iPhone, completing this responsibility while watching over the halls for any wayward intruder… and luckily, there had been none.

Rising from Acker's right side, "We're done here, DSI," the former diplomat declared. The guardsman sighed in relief from the sudden lack of weight. If he had been planning on a last-ditch attempt to subdue the venerated leader of the Twelve, neither Taichi nor Agumon would ever know, for the Child of Courage immediately slammed his boot on Acker's face repeatedly, bashing his nose in and cracking his cheekbones, stomping again and again and again until the patrolman was unmoving—face black and blue from all the bruises.

True to his word, Taichi did not kill him or his teammate. Instead, he left them both to their own devices, but not before Agumon wrapped Acker in duct tape while Taichi stole an earpiece from his ear, figuring it was important to stay on top of communications between DSI personnel. Of the ten frequencies used to contact the ODC, Taichi stuck with the sixth.

Not once did Taichi Yagami consider how this act of caution was an act of kindness. He didn't know it—and would never realize it—but in ensuring his own security he had unknowingly spared these two guardsmen's lives. The disgraced ambassador was fortunate to have never been friends with them, for there was simply nothing he could do to alleviate the despair and irreparable dejection they would feel when they woke up a few hours later to the sight of friendlies unraveling Agumon's handiwork informing them everyone they had known in their company had been killed. Killed so thoroughly they couldn't find whatever was left of their bodies.

Going past corridors and turns and hallways, unafraid of getting lost now that Agumon knew exactly where to go, the escaped prisoner and his surrogate brother soon snuck past an open doorway. Inside was a large room, completely occupied with soldiers who preferred to stay awake instead of sleeping. Some of them were playing Poker. Others were huddled together, drinking alcohol and singing karaoke in somewhat enclosed areas. There were also a few who isolated themselves, and these were the people who lounged in a couch and escaped the world into another, a world of music blaring through Skullcandy headphones or a world of fantasy and otherworldly creatures through what looked like a Nintendo 3DS.

It was strange, how they were obviously legal adults, presumably with their own families, instead of bored teenagers.

The recreation room had windows overlooking the hallway adjacent to it. There was no way Taichi could stand up and expect the people inside to ignore his escape. Surely they'd all recognize both of them. It wasn't so difficult, really, with Agumon missing his fake triband suppressor and Taichi's face a regular sight on social media and the news.

A belch ripped into his ears, obviously from one of the drunken soldiers sitting close to the divider. "You know, guys, lately there's been something that's really making me think."

"Tsutomu, something's always making you think!"

"Yeah, man, work, work, work, woooork! That's all you EVER do. I swear, your parents really got your name right."

"Dude, stop working on shit and just effin' DRINK UP! Yagami's in the bag now and I bet half this month's salary the war will end by December!"

"Hell yeah to that, brother. No more Wild Ones. No more Tamers pretending their SCAI's are people. And if we're lucky, we'll get free dibs on the real estate!"

"Woohoo!"

The voice belonging to Tsutomu's begged to differ. "But don't you find it strange? Divine Assault declared him dead."

Taichi bristled at the word. Dead, huh? Was that why the DSI seemed to have free license in his handling? The Child of Courage barely remembered any of it, though any attempt to remember the times that passed between his capture and liberation by the woman in green evoked white, blinding pain and sonorous, unfriendly demands. I wonder how much they f*cked me up before she did that thing…

That thing where she healed every single one of his past injuries. Him and his digital half both.

Another belch. This one from another drinking buddy. "So what, Tsutomu?"

"So what? You know he isn't dead. Yagami's here with us in the Sixth Gate, waiting for his next interrogation. If the public finds out—

The third voice cut him off. "The public won't find out. You know how soft the masses are these days. Just look at the Americans! Watch the way they go off on everybody about privacy and human rights and all that stupid bullshit—hic! Believe me, Divine Assault knows what he's doing. Otherwise, he wouldn't be our Vice-Chairman."

Why would the Vice-Chairman have his own call sign? Taichi cursed himself for overlooking this. I should've asked Acker about that before knocking him out.

"Kenshin's right," concurred the second voice. "Maybe Divine Assault's trying to bait the Digidestined. Yagami's got a little sister, right? Maybe he's trying to make her act without thinking. If she's anything like her brother, she'll see through yesterday's announcement and do something so stupid it'll destroy the organization from inside."

A fourth voice—a female—also had her turn consoling her comrade-in-arms. "I don't think anyone can top launching a full assault on the perimeter in the middle of the night. Even if she tried, we still have enough people here to fend it off."

Taichi could imagine Tsutomu scratching his head. "But what about sleeper agents? Won't the Digidestined have inserted some spies in the DSI—OWWWW! What was that for?"

The female retorted at once. "Don't tell me you forgot about DSI's policy for new hires. It's designed to weed out spies and just about anyone who thinks SCAI's are anything more than wild, rabid critters. And you know it works! We discovered a potential mole in your batch, didn't we?"

Tsutomu was silent. If he had anything to say at all in response to that, Taichi Yagami wasn't finding out anytime soon. The third voice took over now that he had the chance of usurping the conversation. "What about a superhero?" He blurted. "Hic! Maybe that's their secret weapon."

A superhero for a secret weapon, he said! What the hell did this f*cking drunk think life was? Did he really expect something like that would waltz into this messed up series of catastrophes and resolve everything, address all their problems, and bring the Digidestined to victory like a wonderful, miraculous, phenomenal Deus ex Machina?

It was a comic book.

It was a fairy tale.

It was a poorly-written online story.

All statements asserted implicitly, and all of them so stupid Taichi couldn't mask his face from expressing what he thought was the most idiotic thing he's ever heard. Life was none of these things. Life never held back, and for every good thing that happened, two or three bad things happened afterward. It was the price of living in a world of concupiscence, a world where good and evil—light and dark were in a constant battle for domination.

Every "miracle" the Chosen Children had accomplished in the past was a product of their determination, their development, their sheer will and fervor in pushing more, and more, and more. They might have had some help along the way, but ultimately the Kaiser's, BelialVamdemon's, and Armagemon's defeats resulted from their synergy, from their own choices.

There was no such thing as a shortcut.

And the only female in his group agreed with him. "Are you stupid?" she yelled, standing as Taichi would have done in her place. "Did you sneak in some marijuana? Because that crap isn't—

"I'm serious, Hana. I swear. Hic! Someone's spreading rumors about some kind of 'superman' working with Ichijouji in the Digital World. He's supposedly killed a full platoon of DSI elites last week!"

Whatever response Hana had for her colleague, the Child of Courage never heard it, for he had taken the drunken man's suggestion as his cue to leave. Hana's voice had already become distant and inaudible by the time she retorted the drunkard, as Taichi pushed forward, crouching even after passing the recreation room and the many more beyond it, most of them locked behind double doors.

Agumon, hopefully oblivious to their dim prospects of successful escape, directed him through one turn after the next. Sometimes Taichi wondered what sort of rooms these other passages would've led to, but the necessity of his escape and the magnitude of the stakes involved quelled everything stirring his curiosity.

They also buoyed all his worries to the surface of his thoughts. "Agumon," he broke the ice. "I'm, I, I'm a little worried." A little worried about Hikari, he meant to say.

Agumon understood anyway. They were brothers, after all. "Don't let them get to you, Taichi. It's their alcohol talking."

"But they're right. They, are, right." Shaking his head, "I'm all she's got. You know that. She can't visit our parents, Daisuke needs help wherever he is, and Takeru's dead. Hikari will do anything to get me back. ANYTHING! And if it means crawling through the Nakano passage to who knows where in this hellhole, she'll do it."

"Tailmon won't let her!" The orange dinosaur was quick to rebut. "They don't know what they're going into. They don't know what we know. She'll—

"Acquiesce," the Chosen Child interrupted him. "Because she loves Hikari as much as you love me. You're forgetting, she's my little sister. She's her own person, but she takes a lot from me. Maybe you've never seen it before, but Hikari can be just as stubborn—just as brave as me. She knows her limits, but that won't stop her from trying, even if it gets herself killed or turned into an R&D plaything, and you know Tailmon will follow her to the very end."

The digimon did not say anything. A tense and emotion-filled moment existed between the two of them as they made their way through the corridors, mindful of their stealth and especially wary of their surroundings despite their conversation.

In the end, Agumon let out a sigh as long and as exhausted as Taichi's had been minutes earlier. "I'm worried too."

"ODC," Static from Taichi's stolen earpiece stirred, crackling as a transmission went over the public channel. "This is Corporal Hamasaki. Over."

"This is ODC. What's your situation? Over."

"I'm reporting debris scattered along the main corridor leading to First Hub. My men discovered a Wild One in the middle of destroying a security camera. The SCAI is not alone and may be using a stolen RFID to avoid patrols."

"Copy that, Corporal. What did it look like?"

"It looked like a giant cat. Most likely a Rookie."

"Duly noted. We will inform all stations. Keep searching. ODC out."

"Wilco. Hamasaki out."

Agumon's hot breath reached Taichi's neck. "A giant cat? Do you think it could be Tail—

"No," his human half muttered. "Nah, that couldn't be her. Hikari couldn't have acted this quickly."

"But Taichi…"

Taichi palmed his face. "I really hope she didn't." He ran his hand through his short hair, still missing the bushy mess it used to be years ago. "This place is so big, we'd already be lost without that map. If she comes in here because she felt like it…"

Agumon implied it himself. They would be going in blind.

Chances were high Hikari and Tailmon—and whoever else tagged along—would find themselves lost in a maze of concrete, technology, and soldiers. He didn't know where the Nakano passage led to, but Taichi hoped it didn't lead them to a trap. Something like that would make any day the worst day of his life.

Imagining his sister and her surrogate sister imprisoned by the Digital Suppression Initiative and shipped to a remote facility across kilometers of oceans, far from Taichi's reach and subjected to inhumane probing and abuse from scientists renowned the world over taxed Taichi's mind. It enervated what energy the former ambassador had for this great escape.

Yagami was, in fact, right about to whisper another prayer to the great and wise Buddha, only for these urges to stop at the sight of the Child digimon next to him. Brown eyes locked with a bright emerald gaze. "Agumon, do you… do you ever pray to the Harmonious Ones?"

"I," the waist-high tyrannosaurus blinked at Taichi's queer request. "I do, sometimes." Confusion was cast into his eyes, pouring out of them like an open book. "But what's that all about, Taichi? What're you thinking?"

A ragged sigh, one that could only come from one so jaded, so worn down by the winds of tribulation. Taichi shut off the earpiece and squatted in the corner. He had hidden himself behind one of the many support columns running along the walls. "Because I'm tired."

Agumon walked over to him. He placed one of his hands on his human half's shoulder, taking care not to damage the cloak with his claws. "But we can't stop now. We don't have time for rest. We—

The message had gone over his digital half's head. Ten years of life with his human partner and until now the digimon the disgraced ambassador loved no differently from a brother still overlooked the subtleties of human communication.

"I'm tired of everything! Fighting this damn war—a war we're losing. Living under the rocks, away from a normal life, away from my family. Seeing for myself the perverted coexistence between humans and digimon. Watching my sister slowly go insane."

Taichi felt helpless. "I don't even know why I haven't gone insane myself!" Were they abandoned by karma? Were they left behind by the Heavens? Have they been forgotten by the Powers that Be, the forces driving and shaping the world all around them? "Everything's worsening by the day. Several of my close friends just died, and I learned minutes ago it was all for nothing! Technology's bridging the gap between us and them and—ARGH!"

Slamming his fist on the concrete wall, "Even if we do get back, what'll we do next? We're cut off from the Digital World and every member of the Digidestined's wanted almost everywhere, because we're all considered terrorists!" He slumped down. He collapsed in a show of human weakness the Child of Courage would never show to anyone but his digital half.

Taichi Yagami was the United Nations' first Permanent Representative for the Digital World, and he had also been its last. He was the Chosen Child of Courage, the champion among the Twelve, and the general of the Digidestined. A revered strategist and talented fighter.

Taichi was a man who could do all.

And Taichi was as fallible as any other human being.

"I'm out of ideas. I got nothing. We… we need help, Agumon. Badly. Very badly."

His digital half did nothing but share Taichi's forlorn look. The dinosaur sat next to his partner and slung an arm across his shoulder, pulling him in. They sat together in silence, drowning in a sadness that had overtaken Agumon as much as it did with his surrogate brother.

They didn't care about the circumstances now.

Never mind the dangers of sitting here!

Never mind the fact they weren't that completely hidden.

Never mind the urgency of escaping from the Military and Administration Wing.

Never mind the thought of Hikari mustering the courage to enter this concrete labyrinth.

For now, Taichi needed the moment to yield, to succumb to his own humanity and suffer for his own mistakes.

"It would be nice, you know." Taichi had no idea how much time had passed when he finally decided to speak and break the silence.

"What would?"

"If that story was true."

"Story? What story?"

"That bullshit we heard earlier." Taichi chuckled, yet the 24 year-old himself couldn't tell if he felt a genuine hope taking root in his heart or was just messing around with unrealistic, wishful thinking. "About Ken finding a 'superman' to work with us. It'd be great, if that was true.

"He'd make quick work of the Digital Suppression Initiative and that bitch of a woman. Wipe the whole place clean. Bring Daisuke back. Find Mimi and Sora. Find Gennai and the Harmonious Ones. Free us all from this war. And he'd do it all without breaking a sweat." Yagami's lips curled into a smile. A hopeful smile, borne from fantasies and delusional wishes. Borne from the desire for relief, for the weights on his shoulders to vanish forever. "Now that would be one hell of a miracle, huh, Agumon?

Taichi didn't think his surrogate brother would give weight to such rumors, let alone accept the concept of a human who possessed enough power to stand toe to toe against other digimon. In fact, Agumon did not say anything. The Digimon of Courage, he thought, was allowing his human half to enjoy such wishful thinking—to at least envision a day when he didn't feel the weight of tens of thousands on his shoulders, digimon, tamers, and sympathizers alike.

For that kindness, he was grateful.

For that consideration, it reminded the man why he loved the orange dinosaur so much.

Voices and footsteps echoed from the path in front of them. There was a fork in the corridor several paces ahead, with the same support pillars protruding from the sides. It would make a good hiding place—and an even better location to conduct an ambush. Back to work, he grumbled to himself. Neither he nor Agumon had a say in this. After all, both had their balls to the wall.

Taichi Yagami rose and held the hems of his cloak as he and Agumon assumed position, facing each other on opposite sides. Taichi sent his prayers to Buddha, hoping they didn't have to deal with them. He considered making a few for Agumon's own gods, but then again, the damn tyrannosaurus never did answer his question.

"Hey, did you hear about the missing persons report filed an hour ago?"

"From Twin Towers again?"

"Yeah! It looks like Divine Assault's gone from his suite in the 83rd floor. Where do you think he goes?"

"I wouldn't be able to guess. He could be anywhere. I'd rather know why he does it twice a month. I counted."

The footsteps were louder. Were they right at the junction?

"And he's always alone. Do you think he's hiding something?"

"He probably is."

"Then maybe we should round up some of our friends and investigate!"

"Trust me, it'll be a waste of time."

"What makes you say that? He could be doing something—

"Something he thinks is so important to the DSI he'll sneak off and do it even when he isn't supposed to. Divine Assault's the Vice-Chairman for a good reason. Didn't you know he's responsible for a lot of the things we have now?"

"Like what?"

"The triband suppressors. Some of the technology we use in our weapons. The Peacekeepers patrolling our streets. The entire domestication and distribution process."

Taichi's sweat was wetting his hair. Damn it, when are these two leaving? He could care less about these useless gossiping on the higher-ups. The Chosen Child gripped the FN FAL. What he'd give to pop out of his cover and shoot these chatterboxes dead without alerting the entire base to his escape!

"No way! I didn't know that."

"That's because you don't do your own research. Check Wikipedia or ask some of the ranking officers. Divine Assault's got only the DSI's best interests at heart."

"Then why does he—

"Well, maybe he's got bad health? Maybe his doctors want him to stop putting so many hours at work and maybe he's so stubborn the Chairman told his bodyguards to keep him in his office?"

The two left as they continued speculating about the Vice-Chairman. Taichi was relieved. For once things had gone the way he wanted; they walked off in the other direction. Agumon was at the corner now, thankfully pointing the way those guards came from.

As he and Agumon ventured towards the exit, Taichi realized he forgot about the deactivated earpiece. He switched it on again, eavesdropping once more into DSI's internal communications. Unfortunately for him, it was set to only one of ten frequencies the guards used to communicate with the Office of Detection and Containment. Had it been set to a different one, Taichi Yagami might have had the chance to learn about the dramatic situation unfolding near the Third Gate. He might have realized early on how his sister had, as he expected, been emotional enough to conduct a rescue mission.

Blind.

With or without the approval of the Digidestined's Core Group.

In the end, whether he would have heard about it or not wouldn't have mattered. For Taichi had finally realized what was going on when a distant rumble reverberated through the concrete walls, knocking the elder Yagami and his digital half off-balance as soon as they found the main corridors of the Sixth Gate.

"What the hell was that?"

Agumon's heart was palpitating. "I don't know, but it sounds like it came from the First Hub. Maybe farther. Felt like some kind of bomb went off…"

It signaled the start of the chaos Felicia Portal desired, for alarms began blaring all around them. Soldiers asleep in the barracks the two Chosen of Courage had left behind were leaping out of their beds, switching to fatigues and BDU's, picking up their weapons from the nearest armories with the smooth and straight movements honed by countless days in boot camps and their hollering drill sergeants.

"This is ODC. The Digital Dive System has been bombed. Patrols have engaged Hikari Yagami, Nefertimon, and Veemon in the corridors near the Third Gate. Both SCAI's are considered hostile and extremely dangerous. All DSI combatants are—

"HOLY SHIT!" A nearby shout drew their attention to a DSI soldier pointing a finger straight at them. "IT'S COURAGE! He's escaped! Someone radio ODC—

Yagami raised his weapon and opened fire. The patrolman was down in two shots. He turned to Agumon, panic in his eyes. He didn't know what to feel about Hikari being there. An odd combination of pride and anger flowed in his veins and animated the very adrenaline his heart was pumping each second, but concern was quick to overshadow these fleeting sentiments.

All thoughts of Felicia Portal's purpose behind the pandemonium being raised throughout Military and Administration had gone to the trash can, accompanying any speculation on Veemon's presence and what exactly it implied. Taichi's mind focused completely on his little sister, latching on to the fact she was attempting the impossible ON HER OWN.

Left or right?

"The Third Gate? Where is it?" He couldn't think of anything but her. An image of the Child of Light fighting a last stand, and a terrible one at that, overtook his mind. He saw her fumbling her weapon, saw her refusing to kill another human being in spite of the fact she would have had no second thoughts performing the equivalent on an enemy digimon.

The giant corridors were empty, but with all the alarms blaring, it was a matter of minutes before more soldiers filled the place. They had less than three at the most. Seeing how the massive columns of concrete were spaced every fifty meters in this long and enormous corridor, the heavens were clearly against him, providing him borderline inadequate cover. This was not a good environment to be caught in. "Which way?"

Left or right?

The sounds of yelling, footsteps, and the roars of various engines was increasing in volume and intensity, and the tension grew heavier the more they waited here, the more they wasted one second just standing! Damn, his mind's eye was relentless. As time kept running out on them, he started conceiving scenarios of Tailmon taking some sort of blow for her, before her sacrifice was invalidated by the Child of Light being murdered before her very eyes, minutes or even seconds ahead of her own deletion.

This was why he knocked her out in Daisuke's memorial.

This was why he didn't want her involved.

Hikari had never been the same since the Shinjuku March—since the Reception—since Daisuke Motomiya disappeared from the face of the planet. She had become more fragile, more desperate, more emotional, even as she clung to what remained of her innocence from a time already forgotten by the world.

If she lived—and Taichi swore, he'll do everything he could to ensure it—what would she turn into? What would she become? How would the horrors of war demolish her, continue the job left unfinished by the world's rejection of her ideal—of her dream?

"Agumon, WHICH WAY?"

The Child digimon did not hesitate and pointed his claws to the right. "THAT WAY!"

"Let's go!"

He wasn't going to lose anyone else important to him.

Not now.

Not ever.

Gunfire erupted behind him. "Damn it!" DSI security responded far quicker than he anticipated. He rolled out of the way and barked an order. "Agumon, FIRE BREATH!"

"ODC. This is Corporal Takenaka! We've sighted Courage and his SCAI in the corridors near the Sixth Gate. He's scavenged weapons from fallen patrolmen and we're—crap, the Rookie's breathing fire! Everyone, get out of range. Get out of—ARRRGGGHHHHHHH!"

The former diplomat did not need to look back to see the dinosaur step in front of the opposing soldiers. He did not need to glance over his shoulder to watch the Child-level take a deep, deep breath and exhale a bright orange jet of flame at the oncoming squad, maybe roast an unlucky man. Taichi was too busy defending the other side, peppering 7.62 mm bullets at the people obstructing his path.

"Taichi! I can hear vehicles coming our way!"

"Which direction?"

"Both of them!"

"At this rate, we'll both be pinned before we can even help each other!"

"What'll we do now?"

"Level the playing field."

Taichi glanced at Agumon and gave him a nod. The Digimon of Courage nodded back.

Unprotected by the suppressors that dotted the streets behind the DSI perimeter, the corridors were thus bathed in the glow of digital evolution.

"Agumon, EVOLVE!"


Ebullient over their narrow escape from the Second Hub, Veemon bounced on Nefertimon's back. "Hey, ODC!" he was yelling. "See this? We survived your trap!" Hikari looked back and watched the blue dragon face the walls and stick his tongue out, flapping it while pulling on his lips or his eyelids to make funny faces at the DSI's security center. "BEEEEHHHHHH! What'll you do now, huh?"

Veemon's jubilation was contagious. It infected Hikari Yagami. As soon as he started insulting the Office of Detection and Containment the Chosen Child started laughing. Daisuke's surrogate brother had heard her cheers and whoops and he gazed at her, his muzzle sporting the happy, childish smile Veemon wore often in the past.

Nefertimon, ever the serious one, was the first to reprove her colleague. "Veemon, we're on a lucky streak here. Our second one. Try not to jinx us."

Now that she mentioned it, "Looks like the DSI focused everything at the Second Hub."

Her digital half's attempt at pulling Veemon down to reality failed to dull his cheer. "Nefertimon," he tittered, "you worry too much. At the rate things are going, we'll have Taichi back in no time!"

The Child of Light rubbed Veemon's blue head. "I hope so. We'll need all the luck we can get." She laughed along with him, and the blue dragon widened his grin. At least someone didn't mind the cheer he brought to the team.

Karma was a fickle one these days. Hikari Yagami had done nothing to deserve the constant disasters and tragedies falling on the shoulders of the Chosen Children like rocks in a landslide. In her teenage years, the Chosen Child of Light devoted herself to a life of education and example. She showed her contemporaries how to properly handle the responsibility over a digimon partner. She differentiated it from owning a pet and associated it with something akin to childbirth. To adoption.

Hikari back then considered it practice, a precursor to her becoming a renowned teacher. An inspiration—no, a beacon of light for the Japanese children, the future hope of the world. But whatever career path Taichi's little sister wanted was deemed irrelevant the instant the Fourth of July incident happened and public antagonism against the digimon grew and spread like the Asian bird flu, extending from people to people faster than the Chosen Children could contain. Out of her love for the digimon, she decided to quit school and begin her teaching career in a most unorthodox manner, exploiting her status as the Child of Light and her relationship with a famous Taichi Yagami to gather the attention and credibility she sought.

No other person bore the responsibility of a Chosen Child more heavily than she did. Even Taichi thought so, Hikari surmised one day. He wouldn't have grown more protective otherwise.

Maybe it was because of her empathy. Maybe it was because of her unconditional love for each and every digimon. Maybe it was because of her attunement to the Good, to the Ideal, that the woman, as an adolescent, took each maltreatment, every misconstrual, every single rejection of what a digimon truly was so personally.

Sadness broke her heart in each moment another human, another person—another potential tamer accepted the so-called "irrefutable research" propagated by Dr. Kurata Akihiro and his team. Yet she continued. She persisted, stubbornly swimming against the flow of the world in a feeble attempt to maintain the glory of her Golden Age.

By all rights, the Buddha's renowned law of karma should have never turned against her. Not once. Not ever.

Yet it did.

And it continued to do so, for not a minute had passed since Nefertimon evaded the trap in the Second Hub did the clanks and clangs of machinery echo throughout the corridors, revealing automated turrets that opened fire as soon as it was set into place and the familiar yellow coat of the Light Screen enveloped it . A process that had taken two seconds at most.

The real world was cruel.

The real world was unforgiving.

The real world was unfair.

Coquelicot eyes widened at the sight of a bullet clipping off a bit of the sphinx's metal pauldron, even as it left an orange streak of fire in its wake. These bullets were no different from the electrified projectiles the DSI guardsman used on them in the Second Hub, and somehow the Digital Suppression Initiative had imbued them with the power of fire and increased penetrating power.

"Harmonious Ones! We never catch a break!"

"It's your fault for jinxing us, Veemon!" Nefertimon hissed, her gauntlets flooding the path ahead with roseate gemstones. But the turrets were more resilient. They endured twice as many shots from Nile Jewelry compared to the drones the patrolmen had used on them, and the giant, flying cat had seen this just as well as Hikari did. "Gods damn it. They're not making it easy!"

"Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeehhhh! You can't blame me! I didn't know they had automated turrets 'til now."

The Chosen Child strengthened her grip on the sphinx's armors, her eyes trained forward. Assault rifles were firing at them from all sides, but Nefertimon was a skilled flyer, weaving her way between each support pillar at speeds she wouldn't have thought possible in a narrow and tight corridor. No soldier had an opportunity longer than a half-second to shoot them down before the Armor digimon barreled her way past, speeding as fast as she could.

A turret popped open fifty meters ahead, its guns aimed directly at the sphinx and her two passengers. "Hikari, Veemon, hold on tight!"

"Nefertimon, what're you—AAAHHHHH!"

"WHOA!"

She did a barrel roll.

A barrel roll in a tight corridor with solid concrete propping the passages up, while traveling said hallway at her top speed.

Hikari was caught off-guard. Nearly thrown off her partner's back from the sudden change in velocity, the 21 year-old found her nails chipping from the extremely tight clasp on the sphinx's armor, and she was already worried the sweat her hands were producing would eventually be the death of her. Wind blasted the Child of Light's hazel hair as her digital half performed one dangerous maneuver after another, refusing to let her partner or her best friend take even a single hit.

Miraculously, Veemon was still behind her. She could feel the dragon's weight right at her back, and if his position indicated anything, it would be security—clearly he had no problems hanging onto the sphinx in such an awkward position.

If he had anything to say about this sudden move, it had been shelved away, for he was firing seven, ten bullets—and Hikari honestly couldn't tell with this race happening all around her—at the men and women they were leaving behind at a rapid pace. Some had fallen down from a successful hit, while others went prone or launched themselves behind pillars. Few ignored the blue dragon's shots and returned fire, only for them to lose their quarry when the passage veered off in an angle.

Bullets whizzed by the two riders from the front, sent by turrets that already deployed at least a minute ahead of the Hikari's digimon partner. With her legs and arms clinging on to Nefertimon's back, Yagami gasped from the vibrations and telltale sounds of bullets striking the armor.

Nefertimon hissed. Those did not sound like ricochets.

The sphinx twitched no less than three times each second, and Hikari felt her blood heating up with worry. "Nefertimon, what's—

"Nnnnnggghhh!" She hissed again. "Something in these bullets—! Making it… making it harder to fly."

"Is it the Fatigue Bul—

"No, it isn't that! Nghhh, feels like—feels like I'm being electrocuted."

Nefertimon had been hit by Neutralizers, but neither she nor her partner knew it, for Taichi's sheltering prevented either from learning about the technology that had been used against the Digidestined during Operation: Pyramid. Veemon himself was ignorant, for it had never been used by any of the grunts during the Spire of Courage.

Why the Armor level did not succumb to complete paralysis in midair would remain a mystery should anyone ever give it thought.

Perhaps it was Nefertimon's affinity to Light. Perhaps it was Veemon's uncanny magnetism for miracles at work. Or perhaps the cause was something unexpectedly simple; maybe the developers behind this weapon underestimated the binary code of digimon beyond a certain evolutionary level.

Their progress nonetheless began to flag, began to slow down. It was cruel as it was unfortunate, for the massive opening into the Fifth Gate yawned before them, almost mockingly, because it was a minute's flight from their current position. From the looks of it, the hangar had enough space for Nefertimon to maneuver safely. It didn't seem to be saturated with soldiers, tanks, and drones, as the Second Hub had been.

They outsmarted the Office of Detection and Containment, after all. Otherwise they wouldn't have been so desperate to activate the automated turrets at risk of accidental friendly fire, as no IFF system could stop a stray bullet from lodging itself in the body of a DSI soldier.

A fireteam leaned out of the pillar and smaller hallway across from them, as Nefertimon hovered behind a concrete pillar and intermittently flapped her angel wings to stay aloft.

As the woman would one day narrate this tale of audacity, this daring rescue of a brother in need, to an audience who sought firsthand accounts during the Digidestined's first infiltration of the DSI's global headquarters, it was at this moment the back of her neck began to itch, she'd say. A bother—a minor irritation that was no more intangible than it was psychological, one that resisted any attempt to cast it out, beyond the forefront of her mind.

This was one of the rare times her innate talent for strategy and battle surfaced. A moment, over which historians and biographers agreed, that truly exuded her relationship to the champion of the Twelve. An instant in time when she had truly experienced the very thing that made her a true Yagami. When she proved she could bear the burden borne by the person entrusted with the fate of the Twelve, the Digidestined, and scores of digimon, in both the Real and Digital Worlds.

And it took only three seconds before the Child of Light yielded.

She swiveled her coquelicot gaze to the blue dragon behind her, who faced the rear with the stolen FN FAL. When Daisuke's surrogate brother struck empty and started reloading his firearm, Yagami found her opening and charged at it. "Veemon," she verbalized ex cathedra. "Switch places with me and help me spot for Nefertimon."

"What?" He blanched. "No! Someone's got to watch our backs. Those goons are—

"—aren't important!" She disrupted him. They were moving too fast and too much for the DSI soldiers to accurately land a bullet in a vital area. "If we're shot down here, we'll never get out! We need to make it past those turrets." The 21 year-old whipped her finger at the distant opening to the Fifth Gate, which grew larger little by little as the flying sphinx approached, her progress slowed by quick evasions and targeted attacks, aimed at the turrets waiting for them.

Veemon's jaw slacked at the sheer number of automated turrets assailing them with modified bullets, each barrel churning out rounds at rates greater than 1000 RPM. Thousands of birds chirped around them, their noise no less incessant than the ubiquitous whoosh of fire whizzing past her ears, the heated explosions they narrowly escaped, and the sounds of piercing bullets burying themselves in the concrete with either a deafening crack or the pained howl of a guard unlucky enough to fall victim to friendly fire.

If Hikari Yagami was a lesser woman—if she was someone completely unfit for leadership, unworthy of Taichi's goggles, or incapable of coping with the maddening pressure of the very world on her frail, human shoulders, her face would pale from intimidation. A shriek would escape her lips as she flinched and jerked and twitch from a bullet zooming past her cheek. It was ablaze and set to explode on impact, imbued with the properties of Fire Rocket, but what the Chosen Child fell victim to was not the bullet itself—for she'd have died at the spot—but the tremendous heat radiating from its casing.

But the Child of Light was a hardened survivor as much as her older brother was. At eight years old, the Child of Light had seen to the death of VenomVamdemon in her. At eleven, she had fought alongside the Daisuke Motomiya, liberated the Digital World and Ken Ichijouji's persona from the tyrant Kaiser, escaped the clutches of Dagomon, and finished off Vamdemon once and for all. And over the years since then, she had weathered the countless storms and hurricanes Buddha's law of karma brought down on her.

Broken as she was…

Disheartened and desperate as she was…

The fact remained that Hikari Yagami was no ordinary woman.

She faced the turrets not with Veemon's astonishment. She did not mimic his yelps of surprise at the twists and turns Nefertimon took to narrowly elude the hundreds of projectiles vying for their deaths and destroy the turrets, using Nile Jewelry from a distance or her massive, armored claws at point-blank.

What Hikari possessed was a mien of composed determination. Every muscle on her face set in unwavering recalcitrance. She wasn't going to let these damnable circumstances stop her. She refused to give the Digital Suppression Initiative the satisfaction of taking down both the Taichi Yagami and his younger sibling. She came here to break her older brother out, and against all odds, the figurehead of the Twelve's so-called Golden Age intended on succeeding.

With or without the help of the great Buddha.

With or without the blessings of the digital monsters' Harmonious Ones.

All on her own.

"In front, Veemon." Hikari scooted back a bit, until she felt the blue dragon's tail next to her tailbone. Her ears caught the click of a reloaded weapon and the sounds of four bullets bursting from his assault rifle. "Now."

"Fine," he said.

Not a childish whine.

Not a pathetic complaint.

Not a begrudged grouse.

Enlightened by the terrible obstacles ahead, Daisuke's surrogate brother knew there was no point in arguing. Hikari saw it on his muzzle. On the somber expression coloring his white lips. Coquelicot eyes noticed Veemon's ashen canines digging into his jawline while his hands gripped the Chosen Child's trousers and Nefertimon's armor—gradually falling apart in front and distinctly pristine at the back, tightening the instant Veemon was airborne, switching places as the younger Yagami commanded.

The Digimon of Miracles felt no shame leaning back on Hikari's torso, having raised his weapon like a trained soldier instead of worrying about disrespecting her personal space and the body that had once captivated Daisuke Motomiya. No sooner than a second had lapsed when a shot rang out of the FN FAL, striking a soldier in the head when his helmet popped out of a distant corner.

If Veemon felt bad about the kill, it showed in the slight recoil of his tail and a light grunt rippling from his throat—and it did not last long. Many more soldiers were trying to shoot them from the front, and he did his best to neutralize them while simultaneously warning the flying sphinx of the turrets ahead. To actively avoid kills was a luxury he couldn't afford now.

Less than four branching corridors remained before the opening to the Fifth Gate.

"Turret, left on the next corner!" Daisuke's digital half aimed down the sights of his weapon and pulled the trigger several times, for what little good it could do. Rounds burst from the nozzle in rapid succession, each one veering towards the barrels just as enflamed projectiles escaped. He just had to keep shooting. Keep at it, until he got lucky and struck a bullet just as it was coming out.

"CURSE OF THE QUEEN!" The sphinx announced, melting an FM TALON to a lump of inert metal and plastic before it could shoot her down with its grenades and high-powered machineguns.

But Veemon wasn't the only one spotting for Nefertimon. Hikari glimpsed another turret stationed at the corner of the last corner and raised her finger, her intent no different from Veemon's. "Rosetta Stone at 2 o'clock!" Her voice did not shake, withstanding the turbulence of her surrogate sister and life partner taking down a hallway turret with her solid paw.

"Got it!" A dazzling pink light erupted before her eyes and out materialized the thick slab of stone Hikari knew would, at the very least, dent the hollow barrels.

She was wrong.

She made a mistake.

This particular turret had been fitted with an attachment that amplified the penetrating power of its armor-piercing bullets, and with tens of bullets popping out of its barrels, it took no more than four seconds to demolish Nefertimon's Rosetta Stone and pummel it into powder in midair.

.

.

"You are special."

"You deserve to have everything you want."

.

.

Leaders were not always correct.

Leaders sometimes made mistakes.

Decades ago, a naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin—the man who wrote the famous Origin of Species—he who originated the very notion of evolution—once said the ones that survived the harshness of the natural world were neither the strongest nor the smartest. Rather, it was the most flexible.

The most versatile.

The most malleable of them all.

Leaders who grasped the grail of success, drank from it, and held onto it despite the competition, were only those who embodied these traits. Who prepared contingencies. Who bore the pressure and stress brought by emergencies and disasters, acting to minimize the damage dealt to their organization.

Or to meet an objective despite all odds.

Nefertimon reached for the support pillar and pulled, barely swiveling out of harm's way. When the barrels caught up to them, there was no escape without any more pillars to hide behind or maneuver around. But Hikari was ready. "It's no longer shielded, Nefertimon. Liquefy the target!"

Once again, Hikari Yagami proved herself worthy of Taichi's goggles.

Once again, her partner proved herself worthy of being the Digimon of Light.

For the sphinx already had the same idea coursing through her head the instant she switched to the other side, moving too fast for the barrels to adequately follow. "Full charge, CURSE OF THE QUEEN!"

Taichi's little sister felt her chest inflate with pride; and her confidence bloomed. The adult woman was a flower. A flower that spread itself open, exposing its bright and vibrant petals for the heavens to view and appreciate. A flower that reached out into the world once more, mustering the courage to face the unforgiving circumstances it had retreated from in the past.

.

.

"Just be yourself, and it will be enough."

"You can achieve anything you want, no matter what."

"Anything can happen if you believe."

.

.

Hazel hair whipped about, flowing with the currents of air gusting around them as the Chosen Child's digimon partner flapped her majestic wings and soared triumphantly into the Fifth Gate. Hikari's gaze swept over the hangar, scanning various crates, steel containers, and other such heavy equipment stored within. Coquelicot eyes noted the multiple openings leading elsewhere.

Two of them, the largest of the doors and probably the thickest of them all, were shut tight. Surface access, most likely. Had she asked, both Nefertimon's and Veemon's eidetic memories would have verified her suspicions.

The wall opposite the surface access was blank. Devoid of any opening. Paths led neither to it nor away from it. A mild curiosity stirred within the Child of Light when she noticed a mechanical rail of some sort running along the edges, where the corners of each surface met. Shaped like a trapezoid, its girth was wide, its height no shorter than Veemon's three feet, and its make seemed more solid than reinforced steel. And for some strange reason, the whole setup exuded an aura intrinsic to the environment of the Digital World.

It was only due to Hikari's proximity to Veemon that she overheard his muted whispers. Caught his musings at the scenery being broadcast into those lively pools of crimson. "Wow," he was muttering, irradiated by an odd combination of awe and satisfaction.

Of discovery, and a little bit of fear. "So this is the other side of the portal…"

Hikari dismissed any and all forms of curiosity creeping up from within. Her biggest priority now was Taichi, and Taichi alone. They had to rescue him first, before thinking about anything and everything else. He's what they came here for. He's what drove the Child of Light to rip away the chains she herself wrapped around her broken spirit.

Any idiot could see the love fueling her every act.

And love always came first, above all.

.

.

Every day, children are bombarded with these maxims—these apothegms. And like the innocent beings they are, they believe it. They take it to heart and scrutinize the world around them, thinking their fables and tales of fantasy are real, thinking the world existed exclusively in black and white.

.

.

Hikari huffed at the sheer number of options available to them. Even with one of the walls completely eliminated from the picture, the hangar was so gargantuan that multiple corridors connected to it. Many of them led away, toward either the Second or Third Hub, or maybe the various ancillary facilities specific for the Fifth Gate.

Was there a hall that led to her brother? That led to the corridors of the Sixth Gate? Or better yet, one that led to the hangar itself?

"Nefertimon, Veemon," she started. She hoped to get a move on before the Digital Suppression Initiative boxed them in. Although the DSI failed to capture them in its trap at the Second Hub, there was no telling what would happen next. All Hikari knew was, their escape bought them a little bit of time, and this blooming leader didn't want to waste a precious second. "You two think back to the map. Do you remember seeing a path going from here to the Sixth Gate?"

Veemon's ears and tail sagged at her question. "I'm sorry, Hikari, buuut I don't remember the Nine Gates being connected with each other."

The armored sphinx, however, filled her reply with a sudden, earsplitting screech. "FOUR GODS!"

.

.

Many would say it is adorable and endearing.

Only a handful would go against the crowd and say it is foolish. Assert it is ignorant of reality.

They are chided for it by the public. Deemed naysayers and portrayed as idiots and oppressors of hope. Yet it is these few who nail it right. It is these few who learn early on how to truly succeed, for they have seen the true nature surrounding them all—permeating the very society, the very world they lived in.

.

.

Real life had finally decided to join their party, and to commemorate its arrival, it strolled towards the blooming flower and plucked it straight off the stem, condemning it to a prolonged death.

Before Hikari Yagami knew what was happening, her digimon partner twisted and contorted her body. She had done it with so abruptly neither the 21 year-old woman nor the surrogate brother of her best friend held on to the Armor-level's armor.

Looking back at it now, they were lucky they didn't.

Because a crack of the loudest thunder, a booming flare that numbed her ears, resounded through the Fifth Gate microseconds before something struck the winged, armored sphinx right in the shoulder…

.

...AND TORE A GAPING HOLE THROUGH HER.

.

"NEFERTIMON!"

Volumes of blood fell from the wound, staining the containers and concrete below as the digimon ceased to fly and plummeted from the air. Hikari couldn't think from the tinnitus overwhelming her brain. Her chest tightened at the sight of her own sister's blood pouring out her large, feline body, dispersing into digital particles on its way down.

"H-hey, what gives!" Veemon protested at being launched airborne from his seat, only to fall silent and gawk at the state of his best friend. "Harmonious Ones!" The dragon of the brightest blue snatched the words right off Hikari's tongue. "Nefertimon, who—what—where—HOW?"

.

.

The ideals everyone hears and believes as a child shall never become reality, unless all humans embrace Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative.

.

.

Hikari forgot she herself had nearly been disintegrated by a high-caliber bullet. Had Nefertimon failed to pivot—had she and Veemon miraculously held on despite the sphinx's swift rotation—

"Oh shit!" The Chosen Child's coquelicot eyes locked with the metal mask of her digital half. She trembled at the sight of the hole. She couldn't take her eyes off of it. "This isn't," the adult murmured, her mind incapable of processing what just happened. "This couldn't—No, not again." Hikari felt sick beyond description. "Not again. No. No, no..."

And the only thing she could do was scream. "AAAHHHHHHHH!"

Yagami did not feel the giant, winged digimon wrap her arms around the human and the Child-level digimon with her, who was no less astounded—in fact, rendered mute by this sudden turn of events. "Sa," Nefertimon coughed. "S-sna…" She tucked in her wings to block Hikari from noticing the rate they were falling. From registering the fact they were approaching the containers, crates, and equipment at speeds fatal for her two passengers. "Snipers. Waiting for us…!"

.

.

Unless all humans mature from emotional schizophrenia, from irrational exuberance, and embody the values, the shrewdness, and the wisdom of the Homo economicus.

.

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BLAM!

Nefertimon's body shook as another high-caliber bullet struck the falling sphinx. It crashed into the sphinx's ears, penetrating the solid metal covering and literally slicing the body part off. The Digimon of Light hissed, suppressing her own agony out of love for her own partner. She didn't want to spook the woman any more than she was.

Yet all her attempts at consolation were futile. "S-stop," the woman was begging. "Make it stop. Please, make it stop…"

.

.

It was a demand of epic proportions.

A demand seeking the impossible.

.

.

All the progress they made tonight was vanishing rapidly, and her pride deflated with it. Her plans were crumbling, smothered by the might of the Digital Suppression Initiative. The blooming flower was dying. It was wilting, and Yagami could do nothing but let the tendrils of despair latch onto her body as every ounce of self-confidence shattered like the brittle crystals they were.

"Don't leave me," Hikari was crying. "Stay with me. Don't… don't…!"

Why was the world so relentless? Why did they face so many setbacks, so many difficulties? They were going so well. They destroyed the Digital Dive System, slew Dr. Akihiro, bested the Office of Detection and Containment's best strategists, and made tremendous headway in rescuing her brother, all on their own. All without the help of the very madman that manipulated Veemon and terrorized the Twelve's family.

Why did it have to be this way? Why did they have to take three steps back for every step they managed to take? Was this struggle for nothing? Was the fight for a true harmony, the fight to correct this perverted and abusive coexistence doomed to fail from the very beginning?

.

.

These make-believe fantasies, these idyllic thoughts never led to progress. Never led to success. Because such naivety disregarded the fundamentals of reality and opposed the truths of the world. Because it disarmed the children and set them up for an unforgettable trauma, when the Reckoning begins.

.

.

A dull glow enveloped Nefertimon's body. Hikari knew it was the yellow light of evolution, but its lack of intensity and the energy it emitted felt like anything but empowering. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she cupped her mouth, afraid to talk. Afraid to open her mouth. She felt like vomiting. She felt like weeping, crying, roaring to the gods of the digimon and every single human religion on Earth to beg for—

"I, I should've noticed sooner," gurgled the Armor level.

"Don't say it."

Nefertimon went on. "I'm—I'm sorry. They—

Hikari snubbed her. "Don't say it!" She snubbed her and shut her eyes.

She didn't want to hear her most loyal supporter, her most beloved sister, admit the DSI had finally gotten them. She refused to listen to her admit defeat.

Not after everything they've been through.

Not after all the little achievements they've made so far in this forsaken mission.

Hikari Yagami hugged the sphinx's body as far as the length of her arms allowed it, but not even the arm warmers protecting her skin shielded the woman from feeling Nefertimon's entire body shake and shudder and quiver as it accompanied the cacophony of wooden crates breaking into pieces, various components of steel and metal splitting in half, and the general sounds of chaos accompanying their crash landing.

It was a maelstrom. A discordant maelstrom that rendered both the Chosen Child and the blue dragon silent while the dropping sphinx left destruction in her wake.

.

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When they learn the world is cruel.

When they learn the world is not black and white.

When they learn they are no more human than anyone else.

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The next time she opened her eyes, she was lying amidst destruction. The containers had been filled with firearm parts, ammunition magazines, and various small arms and mounted weapons, along with some mechanical tools. But her vision ignored all of those details and sought out the most important person in her life next to her older brother.

Tailmon's body was limp and unconscious meters away. Her body moved with her shallow and labored breaths. It sported ugly bruises, the discoloration showing through the white fur on her shoulder and ears. Hikari paled at the dark patches on her legs, arms, and back. The digimon had been hit badly, and in multiple spots. Accumulated from their escape through the tunnel or inflicted by the snipers, she wouldn't know.

"Tailmon…"

She didn't want to know.

The Chosen Child lifted her arms and crawled. "Please be okay." One foot after another, Hikari Yagami dug her fingers into the concrete and pulled her body, unable to stand up, unable to move properly as she still suffered from both the crash and the mental trauma. "Please, please, please be okay…"

Footsteps approached them from the other side. Soldiers were on the way. Coming to finish them all off. Robotic drones accompanied them, their wheels rumbling, sending vibrations into the floor. The DSI clearly did not underestimate the Chosen Children's ability to overcome the impossible, ruthlessly sustaining the offensive no matter how much victory seemed within their grasp.

"Crap, we got to get out of—

A loud growl stopped the cogs moving in her mind. "DORRRUUUUUUULLLLLL!"

Hikari regretted averting her gaze towards the rabid snarl. She gasped at its source and shivered the moment her eyes took in the massive wolf by one of the large corridors. The white and orange strands of its fur looked completely erect from the ferocity of its bloodlust.

All rational thought—everything that made her a Yagami, everything that qualified her to wear the goggles with pride, dissolved into smoke the instant she laid eyes on the glistening fangs, the colossal red triband suppressor clipped on its forehead like an oddly-shaped diadem, and the golden drill on the tip of its tail, which spun dangerously. This was the Digimon Kaiser's invention. A legacy perfected by the scientists employed by the DSI's Research and Development.

Her heart began to pound, reaching into her ear drums and slamming its sticks on each one as loud as it could. Her own breathing became palpitations, evoking a mental image of the gold drill bludgeoning her body that filled the Chosen Child with unrestrained panic.

"C'mon, get up!" She whined. "I need you!"

Saliva drenched the concrete below this frightening digimon. Its hauntingly red eyes stared at the fallen trio with the regard of a predator, observing them while licking its chops like a hungry animal at the top of the food chain.

.

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When they learn they are limited on their own.

When they learn true, immutable failures are inevitable.

.

.

A DSI veteran, clad in the trademark, dark blue uniform, raised his finger at them. "Dorulumon, DRILL BLADER! Pulverize them all!"

"F*ck!"

Then it roared.

Then it sprinted.

Then it closed in, thirsting for blood.

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When they learn some dreams are asymptotic, unattainable, and always will be until the end of time…

.

.

Hikari's tears were flowing as she reached for her partner.

You're just three feet away, she thought. Three feet beyond her fingertips. She was so close—close to death and close to one of the few persons she cherished most in this world. The menacing wolf continued its gallop, dashing to its prey with rapacious and hungry snarls. Hikari didn't want to know how long she had before death finally claim her.

All the Child of Light wanted was the comfort of her partner, the warmth of her surrogate sister, and maybe Tailmon's last words—one last confirmation of the deep love they held for each other.

But no, the world was too cruel. The world refused her even the luxury of solace at the very end of her life. It wanted her to die a bloody death, choking on endless agony and despair. To drown in unending darkness.

"TAILMON!"

.

.

.

Christopher Van Numen effortlessly breezes through Research and Development, overwhelming the best the Digital Suppression Initiative has to offer until he finds himself standing before the body of Daisuke Motomiya. The ease of his frontal assault is a stark contrast to the insurmountable hardships facing Veemon, Hikari, and Tailmon, who now face utter defeat and, possibly, death before a renewed attack by the Digital Suppression Initiative in full force.

Between veteran soldiers, armed drones, and vicious, enslaved digimon, how will Hikari and Veemon escape this development, with Tailmon devolved, weakened, and knocked out by sniper fire? Can Taichi Yagami catch up to them before they are overwhelmed?

Will Christopher liberate Daisuke from his prison, from a pathetic existence as a guinea pig? Or will Mitsuo Yamaki and Lucille Diaz do something about him before he could even make a move? And where does the Realmdrifter stand amid all this, watching the pandemonium unfold before her sadistic eyes?

Coming up next on The Interloper, "God Moder".


Post-chapter notes:

[5] Did Hikari's "death" disturb you? Catch you by complete surprise? Or were you paying enough attention to the way I wrote "Lucky Streak" and "Value of Life Part I" to realize it was all a trick of the writing?

Clearly this sort of thing is very strong. If overused even once, I'm sure its impact will be cheapened and it'll end up getting that "Boy Who Cried Wolf" effect. So while I don't plan on whipping it out again to tease people absorbed into my story anytime soon, the fact I've done it once essentially means I can do it again. That's the point I want to get across here. So if anyone thinks this story is predictable, to you I say, "Good luck with that!"

[6] Like CH27 before it, CH28 contains several Real Life references to enhance the reader experience, like every other chapter from CH10 and onward. These are as follows:

- The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise was created by Yuji Naka in 1991 and defined itself in the fledgling gaming community of the 90's by exposing an age divide within the gamer community, establishing new industry standards for graphics and gameplay mechanics for video games during this era, and creating long-lasting memories for gamers and 90's kids, including a sense of accomplishment. The original "retro" Sonic has since become a cultural symbol for different classes of society, despite the fact the modern day Sonic does not hold the same value for people in the modern day. If you want to read more about Sonic's cultural biography, check out Andreas Michaelas' paper on it. (Link: /2025358/)

- The narrations involving the Amida Buddha and the law of cause and effect were taken from the San Francisco State University's online introduction to Buddhism, Following the Buddha's Footsteps. It makes a good read if you have the time, as the writing summates the philosophy as "not [about] learning about strange beliefs from faraway lands[, but] …about looking at and thinking about our own lives[,] …show[ing] us how to understand ourselves and how to cope with our daily problems." (Link: online sfsu edu /rone/Buddhism/footsteps htm)

- Some of the procedure words used in the communications exchanged between the ODC and DSI personnel (Mitsuo Yamaki included) are used in real life and have been lifted directly from the 5th chapter of the current US Army manual. I would not know if the JSDF's military communications operates in a similar manner, but I assumed the DSI would since it is a global organization in the storyline and thus benchmarks itself against a worldwide standard… which is of course, the United States.

- The brief description of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is true. It is a foundation of American military law, and the simultaneous duty and obligation to obey lawful orders and disobey unlawful ones was taken directly from 809[890].ART.90 (20). See omjp . for more information.

[7] The "Cardboard" and Superman reference in Christopher's musings during his massacre corresponds to the World of Cardboard speech Superman made in Justice League Unlimited and a known Trope Namer in the website TV Tropes. Here's the speech lifted from the source material and TV Tropes' description for it:

Superman: "That man won't quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I've got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am."

TV Tropes: A fundamental part of telling a story is conflict: you want the hero to have their problems and, hopefully, overcome them in a satisfactory manner. In many cases that conflict is entirely external; the Big Bad is plotting to Take Over the World and The Hero is out to stop them. But there is also that conflict which is emotional; it exists in their mind and usually forms a mental block that they cannot break through.

A "World of Cardboard" speech is where the hero acknowledges that this mental block has been limiting them. And because of a recent personal revelation about themselves and/or their situation, they have found a way to excel past their previous limits. This trope is heavily dependent on the context of the story and the life of the character. Despite the room for variation, each speech has to follow the same pattern to be a world of cardboard speech: the hero is having trouble from an emotional/psychological viewpoint, the hero has a powerful revelation, and then they give the speech.

In effect, this is a Eureka Moment that leads to a Heroic Resolve. The speech itself can vary depending on the revelation, but the crux of this trope revolves around the epiphany. Universal to all of these speeches is that realization and being subsequently empowered because of it.

.

Of course, this trope is subverted in this chapter. Christopher has always been aware of his strengths and abilities. Chris' private self-reflection in this chapter neither captured any actual character development nor was it an epiphany critical to the storyline.

[8] I am aware Dorulumon doesn't have a level that translates directly to the Baby - Child - Adult - Perfect - Ultimate - Super Ultimate system used in the seasons prior to Xros Wars, but for all intents and purposes, Dorulumon will be equivalent to an Adult level in power and strength. I'm importing some digimon from the Xros Wars continuity eventually, so expect me to define their Adventure continuity levels when I do so.

[9] You know how I like to complain how Veemon likes to hijack my story and bugs me every time I write his segment, to the point I explore his viewpoint rather thoroughly, and I hate him for it? Well, guess what. I now hate Taichi a lot more.

Imagine me, TSI, going over the outline for the DSI Infiltration series of chapters. Then, as I write CH28, Mr. Yagami here inspects the whole thing, points out a little detail I missed that, without its inclusion, would have invalidated the realism and believability of my story. "I'm too awesome to miss that!" is exactly what he would be saying to me if he was a real actor.

And then it turns out that "little detail" led to an overhaul of the outline in its entirety.

What was this detail? Oh, it was the acquisition of the earpiece.

He wasn't supposed to know Hikari and Tailmon were in the M&A Wing, fighting for their lives. He was supposed to go into one of the Gates nearest him and try to make his escape, not knowing he was leaving his sister, her partner, and Daisuke's partner, to the mercy of the DSI.

DAMN IT! Now I have to work my ass off just to get around this! GRRRRR!

[10] The outro narration used here—which is basically the whole spiel about childhood fantasies betraying people when they are confronted with the real world as adults—is inspired by a life coach's response to the "Disneyland Effect", when people are deluded by idyllic and unreal make-believe to accept the following realities:

a. People are not special, but people can do meaningful things to make a difference.

b. People do not deserve everything they want, but they can earn the things they work for.

c. People are never enough by themselves. There is always something lacking. There is always a limitation. And it is perfectly okay to accept one's limits and seek help from others.

d. People cannot achieve anything they want, regardless of the personal circumstances. Because to believe so is unrealistic, and it is better to seek goals that fit one's personality and background.

e. Belief in oneself does not necessarily lead to success, because failure is a part of life.

It's a pretty good article, and I think it goes very well with Hikari's character development. Check out Mike Bundrant's August 8, 2012 post, "The Disneyland Effect: Five Fantasies that will NEVER come true." Google it.

[11] Truncated responses to reviews, if any, will be found directly below here.

The Keeper of Worlds: Wow. Shortest review I've EVER seen on FFN.

Kingveemon: Funny how you know me so well. Like any serious, hard-working fanwriter, I'd much rather have a handful of very high-quality reviews than tens of comments that don't really improve my storytelling. So the effort you put in for once is touching.

Now, as much as my story can be reasonably predicted in the little things (such as Veemon wielding the DITE, sans Daisuke. Dude, that's been foreshadowed as early as CH2 when he learns to use it), I ultimately aim to make this as unpredictable and chaotic as possible. My project is underrated as it is, and the best I can do to give to the readers who survive the first eight chapters is amaze and stun and stupefy them with how good the real story gets when they pass that benchmark. It isn't worth trying to predict the direction of the situation from the macro level considering my story planning idol is Eichiro Oda, the artist and creator of One Piece.

On the obvious choice facing Christopher (Daisuke or the Realmstone Fragment), yes he is at that point in the story. However, consider rereading CH24, which describes the DSI Infiltration as a crossroads. A critical moment or an event horizon where all five main protagonists are heading for an incident that will shake the entire world. I never specified what the critical moment is, where the turning point lies exactly, or how many there actually are. Furthermore, it doesn't really matter what the decisions are going to be. Either way, something big is going to happen and it will completely change the war, for good or for worse.

All because you have a god-moding idiot doing whatever the f*ck he wants to do without regard for the consequences.

Moving on, you have my many thanks for your encouraging feedback on my portrayal of Taichi. I had a very difficult time with him, and it was especially hard to make him down to earth, more human despite his super awesomeness.

I enjoyed writing the ending actually. Cruel as it is, I loved how poignant it is. Hikari was starting to feel good about herself and was retracing her steps back to the woman she was supposed to be, only to have it all blown out of her.

So what's next, you ask?

Well, for one thing, Hikari's team is in for a lot of trouble. The DSI aren't just using enslaved digimon on them. Yamaki's also deploying the Modifiers, and they'll have to face one team amid all the chaos already bursting all over them.

And next, don't expect an actual update the next time you see The Interloper popping up to the first page of the archives (and the top of your faves list). Reading that anon's review of my first chapter was like a wake-up call, and it reminded me heavily of the deficiencies Thinker pointed out to me in his very first review of my ongoing deconstruction epic. I was also reminded of two recent attempts at "human vs. digimon" post-02 deconstruction fics, which both generated about eight reviews a chapter and probably way more many views despite my assessment that The Interloper is without a doubt better than both in terms of realism and intensity. (Look up Mind Barrier and Digimon 03: The Untold Story if you want to make a comparison yourself.)

The moral of the lesson is, no matter how good a story turns out to be during the Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement, nobody's going to read it if it failed in the Exposition step, if its introduction allowed negative perceptions to shape and fester and drive away the reader before they could even get to the good parts.

People are just too lazy to really see if events will play out as they expect, and unfortunately they are more likely to assume they would, regardless of how right or wrong this assumption is. In fact, this sort of thing happens in the stock market all the time and the consequences can destroy lives, smashing nest eggs simply because people don't know any better, only looking at the surface and trusting the opinions or "reviews" of brokers and advisors they shouldn't even be listening to. It probably happens in other aspects of life, like relationships or whatever, but perhaps not as frequently.

So after much reflection, I've decided to finally address my exposition. The next time you see this story "update", it will have a prologue and, quite possibly, a complete overhaul of the first chapter.

Again, thank you very much for your review.