Author's Note: And on we go, to the next chapter of Midchildan Music. I think it's about time that everyone's cards were laid face up on the table...

If you want a more extensive accounting of my thoughts on this chapter, my blog (my homepage on my profile here) has a longer and more detailed "chapter notes".

Hope you all enjoy the chapter, and let me know what you think!

I woke up with the worst headache I have ever had in my life. And I wish that was just an exaggeration.

Groaning, I sat up slowly. Someone had left me on a couch in what looked like a small waiting room. Actually, it could have been someone's living room, except for the transparently fake decorative plants and the small end table with a stack of magazines. Oh, and there was a slight lack of windows too. In fact, there were only two doors, one each on my left and right, embedded in steel walls that would have looked more at home on a warship than in a waiting room. And the doors themselves looked sleekly modern in design, thin sheets of metal that just coincidentally could have stopped a light anti-armor unit dead in its tracks.

Yeah. The "waiting room" crap was real damned cute, but this was nothing more than a reinforced cell in a heavily fortified facility.

That was when I remembered what I had been doing immediately prior to this. That realization woke me up real fast. Better yet, it got me to search the entire room in detail. Let's just say that there were couch cushions and upended tables everywhere by the time I was done. And guess what wasn't anywhere in the room with me?

The headphones were gone. My new Intelligent Device… Miku Hatsune… she was nowhere to be found.

The devastation in the room after my rushed search suited my black mood. How best to put it… Way back when in primary school, they told us how important it was to try. That even if you failed, you could console yourself with knowing that you had put in the effort.

They're full of crap. I had failed. Trying is great and all, but once something is in pieces it doesn't really matter how it got to be that way, or how hard you tried to stop it. All it is is the end of the line.

Worse yet, she had trusted me. A device that had absolutely no reason to! And this is how I repay her. I left her behind in my apartment. I failed to understand what she wanted. And now…

The hiss of a door opening saved me from my self-pitying monologue. My gaze snapped over to the door on my left, where a short yet powerfully built man fixed me with his own vaguely amused gaze as he stepped through the now-open portal. A neat, buttoned shirt and simple red tie lent an oddly pedestrian air to him, as if I was looking at any other 9-to-5 wage slave in the world.

Somehow I seriously doubted he was some random tech though. That's kind of why I charged at him, arms reaching for his collar. "What have you-"

An ice-blue energy bolt caught me right in the forehead, tossing me to the floor in a haze of pain. Shaking my head to clear it, I looked up to see a tall, blue-haired man stepping into the room behind the first intruder.

He spoke up first. "Now, now, Kaito. We do need him alive."

"Very well," the second man, apparently Kaito, replied tonelessly. This "Kaito" was dressed in a long white jacket with blue trim and yellow highlights on the sleeves. Oddly enough, his hair as well was bright blue in a shade to match the jacket's trim. Through that hair, I could make out the black, almost boxlike headphones covering his ears, and there was a small microphone built in… the connection was apparent.

"Let me guess," I snarled as I got up, gesturing to Kaito. "Version One."

"You are a sharp one!" the first man whistled in patently overdone admiration. "But I have yet to introduce myself. I am Doctor Richard Haynes, and I am the administrator of this humble research facility."

"Humble?" I snorted in disbelief. "You forget, I'm a device technician. If someone was doing research on new devices, I would have noticed… unless it was either illegal or top-secret. Neither of those are 'humble', you pretentious-"

"Surely there's no call for that kind of language?" Doctor Haynes cut me off smoothly. "I should be thanking you! You've finally provided me with the last piece I needed to perfect my Version Two. I have no quarrel with you!"

I glared, masking my confusion behind a storm of anger. "The hell do you mean, I helped you? Screw that! We're not friends, not after you arranged to have someone come and beat me up for taking better care of Miku than you ever bothered to arrange!"

"Truly, I am hurt by your words," Haynes shot back, with an open-handed shrug. "Does my Kaito here look so badly mistreated?"

Given the excuse, I examined Kaito more carefully. He didn't react at all to my scrutiny, not even to glance back at me. His gaze stayed solidly fixed on the hands at my sides, as if he was preparing to react at a moment's notice.

"I mean," Haynes continued with exaggerated patience, "you'll have to explain his current demeanor; I may have ordered him to keep a close eye on you and to protect me from harm. The Version Ones tend to be very… focused… when it comes to my orders."

"You slime," I snarled angrily, raising my fists. "You're talking about a person, one that's standing right there, and-"

A wave of energy pulsed outward, and a dark blue magic circle formed in light at Kaito's feet. Energy flowed over his form in bluish waves as the first strains of music began to echo outward.

"Go on," Haynes smirked, having taken a few steps back while I was distracted. "Try to hurt me. I have every confidence that I can hold you off for the five minutes it will take for Kaito to finish."

"You can't be serious!" I laughed out loud. "Five minutes?"

A moment of quiet gave way to what sounded vaguely like some kind of stringed instrument, followed by trumpets. Haynes merely smirked. "As it turns out, I'll be needing the spell anyway. Since clearly you don't seem to be interested in working with me."

"What?" I snarled angrily, turning to Kaito. He began to sing in that instant, words echoing through the small, enclosed chamber. Two steps brought me to the edge of the glowing magic circle, where I promptly ran headlong into what felt like a solid wall.

"One of the few differences between the Version One and Version Two musical ritual systems," Haynes taunted mockingly. "The Version One, designed for use by an artificial mage specially designed for the ritual system's demands, draws off some of the ritual's energy to form a barrier."

Turning back to the now openly sneering Doctor, I cursed angrily. "What the hell do you need from me then?"

"Oh, nothing really," he smirked. "As long as you're still around when we're ready for our next experiment, that's enough."

I bit back my first, angry response and tried to bring myself under control. Trying to appear reasonable, I muttered, "Well, I suppose if you wanted me to help you…"

"Would you?" Haynes smirked again victoriously. "Kaito, you can cancel the ritual."

The music cut off instantly, almost in mid-note. The light show surrounding Kaito faded instantly, scattering into the air around him in a shimmering bluish haze.

"I'm so pleased to have the one who gave my Version Two its first field test helping me to perfect it!" Haynes told me, in a tone that almost sounded sincere.

It became markedly easier to conceal my snarl when I turned my thoughts to how best to make him regret that moment for the rest of his hopefully short life.

Another door hissed open, and Haynes and his apparent bodyguard Kaito led me into another cell-like room. Trying to memorize the layout of the building had gotten me nowhere; I hadn't seen anything like a front door or any kind of windows throughout the entire trip, just a maze of plain white corridors and doors. There was a stairway or two in there as well somewhere, I think.

Point was, I couldn't have gotten anywhere else in the building if I had tried. And this room was competing with that ridiculous waiting room in terms of boredom. It, in fact, had only one thing going for it, but that one thing was worth every bit of furniture in the other room.

A functioning computer, login prompt blinking invitingly.

Haynes smiled at me again, probably because he caught the instant in which my eyes lit up. "Now, there are a few… functional limitations I should be telling you about."

"Oh?" I struggled not to snarl too much, since I was theoretically trying to stay on his good side.

"Most importantly, I should mention that this computer has been completely disconnected from the network," Haynes informed me. He smirked again, much more cruelly this time. "I'm sure you would cause me no end of problems if I gave you a computer that was connected to the laboratory network, so…"

Internally, I sighed. It would have been too much to hope for that I could have gotten away with actually attacking the lab's network, but it would have been nice to be able to try. "Isn't that going to make it difficult for me to access data I might need?"

"All of the data you'll need is already on the computer," Haynes chided me. "You have read-only copies of Version 2-01's source code and current data, and I'll be sending the lead programmer over to assist you in understanding it."

"Miku's designer?" I asked intently, curiosity piqued.

"Indeed," Haynes replied. "I'm sure we can spare him for a little while to help you understand what you're looking at."

I paused for a moment while Haynes turned to the computer and typed something into the keyboard. As he turned away, I gave him an icy glare. "Why are you bothering with all of this?" I demanded, steadily losing patience with the entire facade.

I was beginning to think that Haynes had no facial expressions other than a self-satisfied smirk. "Do I need a reason?"

"Yes!" The word burst out before I could stop myself.

"In that case," Haynes's expression became mildly pensive (and still smirking slightly) as he continued, "have you considered the possibility that you do have a perspective on our design that the rest of us lack?"

"What's that, actually giving a damn about her?" I shot back.


Well, I still thought it was utter bullshit, but what if it wasn't? It's not like I could simply ignore the chance. Slowly, I walked over to the active computer terminal and sat down at the provided seat, scanning the screen for relevant information. As promised, Miku's original source code sat neatly organized into folders.

Honestly, I barely even noticed as Haynes and that Kaito left the room; I was too busy opening up some of the files. The data on the computer screen was vaguely familiar, but different all the same. Last time I had been looking at this code, I had been looking at an approximation of it, produced by working backwards from the actual program itself. This was the code itself. Needing no further encouragement, I began opening files and scanning through them at a frantic pace.

"Enjoying yourself?"

I couldn't say how long it was before this new voice intervened. Probably a few minutes or so, I guess. Anyway, I spun around in surprise.

"Hey, I'm Michael." The man standing behind me—Michael—looked about as utterly normal as people ever got. Dark hair, dark eyes. T-shirt and jeans, of all things. Completely nondescript face. I'd never be able to pick him out of a crowd.

"You wrote all this?" I asked.

"Well, most of it," he told me, taking advantage of a second chair next to the computer terminal. "I'm the one behind the Musical Ritual System and the Vocaloid personality programming, most importantly."

I have to admit, in that instant I felt a spike of dislike for the man. He was clearly a better device technician than I would ever be, but there was something about him that seemed a little off.

Setting that aside for the moment, I brought up the source code for the spell database and copied it en masse into a new file that I could edit. "Why don't you explain to me what I'm looking at then."

"Certainly," Michael replied affably. "Basically, this spell database is altered significantly to allow for the ritual system's presence. With some experimentation, we determined that magical energy could be increased by orders of magnitude given a set pattern and a focus. These commands here are the actual energy control routines necessary to make that happen."

"Why music?" I asked curiously.

"Well…" Michael began. "No particular reason. The role of the focus element is to provide a variable structure to the pattern; a closed loop is nothing more than a Belkan-style energy cartridge. Opening the pattern allows for an actual energy gain, both through the gathering of ambient energy and through the generation of additional energy beyond what should usually be possible."

I frowned heavily. "That opens so many questions. If gathering ambient energy is part of this, does that mean repeated rituals in the same place will lose effectiveness? And is this really more effective than simply charging up a spell over a long period of time? For that matter, why does the rate of energy gain change based on the focus element?"

Michael held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, slow down for a moment. First, we suspect that the ambient energy draw is only a fraction of the ritual's effectiveness. Perhaps you could find yourself losing power over time, but it would take a very long time of constant activity.

"As for the charging, well, part of the answer to that is that there's a definite limit on how much energy a mage can actually channel. One that can be increased with training, yes, but a limit nevertheless. By locking some—well, actually, most—of the energy into the ritual pattern, that reduces the strain on the mage casting the spell, or the device channeling it in the Version Two's case.

"Finally, since the focus element directs the pattern, the changes in the focus element change how much energy can be developed and stored at any given moment."

I sat in silence for a moment, absorbing the information. Then I smiled wryly. "Are you sure your boss wants you to tell me all of this?"

Michael frowned in confusion. "Hmm? I thought you'd be working with me to upgrade the Version Two system."

"Well, yes…" I hedged. "Did you, um, lose one of the Version Two AIs recently?"

"How'd you know?" Michael asked in surprise. "The only prototype AI chip up and vanished just three days ago. You can imagine my surprise when I plugged the chip into the computer yesterday morning and found that it was a faked copy of the case with none of the actual data. Unfortunately, by that time, the actual chip was gone. I heard Security was looking into it…"

"Well," I told him somewhat cockily, "I may have found that chip and installed it into an Intelligent Device before I knew what it was."

He just stared. "You… But… I mean… That was never intended for an Intelligent Device! And it was incomplete!"

"Oh, I noticed," I told him acidly. "For one thing, all of the files in the spell database were still encrypted."

"Doctor Haynes suggested that," Michael informed me. "He said that if anyone else got a hold of our data, that that would slow them down until we could deal with the leak."

"And then I think your personality design was just a little bit strange, too," I fired off.

Now his expression adopted a distinct sense of wounded pride. "Excuse me? How so?"

"You gave her a brand new weapon and then told her nothing about it, no?" I argued. "You can't tell me that was intentional!"

"Actually…" Michael began, as I skewered him with a withering glare. "At first I gave her a detailed description of her capabilities, as you might expect, and a baseline personality."

"What changed?"

"Well, one of the design goals was to create a less visible yet still effective spellcasting tool," Michael explained. "To reduce the visibility of the ritual system and the power of its spellcasting assist, I redesigned the personality to make it seem as if the AI was intended for a different purpose entirely, including a much more detailed personality file."

"Doesn't that decrease the AI's ability to deal with combat, though?" I pointed out a little angrily. "Setting aside the change in the AI's desires?"

"It was expected that the AI's owner would be aware of its full capabilities," Michael replied with a hint of defensiveness. "And I did include an interrupt function that would momentarily disable the formation of memory data during the spellcasting process."

I bit back a sharp comment. The temptation was there. I could have laid into him for essentially creating her personality and her desires knowing all along that they were destined to be overridden.

There was an easier solution than yelling at him for it.

"Well…" I began. "Shall I start going over what I want to try to do?" At a nod from him, I laid down the most important upgrade.

"First, I want to alter the database slightly to allow the AI to call music files without activating the ritual system."

"To what end?" Michael asked slowly. "I mean, it's certainly possible, but…"

"You were the one that coded her personality," I told him, slowly and deliberately. "You should know what she wants."

There was a long pause. I stared fixedly at Michael; he met my gaze for a brief moment before averting his eyes. "Okay. Was that it, though?" he finally conceded.

"No, there's a few other things, all related to the ritual system. How extensive can the pattern be?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Is there any reason why you couldn't continue on to a second song? Prepare two spells, or double up the energy supply on one?" I clarified.

"Possibly…" Michael hedged, rubbing his chin. "That'll demand more processing power, but we might have enough to spare. Probably require some extensive revision of the code."

"Also, if the section of the song determines the energy gain rate, is there a reason why we can't start wherever we like in the song? Or end wherever we like, as well?" I pointed out.

"Why would you want to?" he shot back. "That would decrease total ritual time and thus reduce the amount of available energy."

I shook my head patronizingly. "Having been in an actual fight, I can say with confidence that pure power is only useful if it doesn't take minutes on end to charge. Even a few seconds is often more time than you have to spare."

Michael nodded almost unwillingly. "I guess I can see what you're saying. I can't imagine that should be hard to design, so…"

"Excellent," I said eagerly. "Let's get started."

It took hours, actually. One of the programs on the computer was a simulation routine that allowed us to test out the effects of the changes we were making. There were revisions and miscues and bugs everywhere…

Given that there were no windows, I had no idea what time it was. I was captured in the middle of the night, so depending on how long I had been out, I was thinking that it could be anywhere from early morning to late evening of the next day.

But we finally finished. All of the upgrades that I wanted - chain, variable, and interrupt. Plus the database change that would allow Miku to just sing without casting a spell. I kept waiting for Michael to reveal some dictate from on high or make some kind of change to our plans, but he just helped me work with the code the whole time.

And now it was finished, and I realized there was a new problem.

"How are we installing this upgrade?" I asked a little sheepishly.

"Oh, I designed a patch utility already," Michael told me. "I never intended the original design to be the last word. Here." As he said the last word, he took out a data storage chip and plugged it into the computer.

Checking the files, I found it did indeed have some kind of executable file already on it. "So what, I should just copy the revised source code onto here?" I asked, shocked.

"Sure, why not?" Michael asked.

There is no way Haynes wanted me this close to creating an actual upgrade, I thought wildly. This has to be a trap of some-

Suddenly a mechanical voice broke into my thought process. "Michael Davidson to the main analysis room," some PA system announced tonelessly. It repeated its announcement once more as Michael glanced up and around in surprise.

"Oh, um…" Michael stuttered, clearly surprised. "Guess I'm needed elsewhere. You can wrap up things here, right?"

"No," I said, deadpan. "I can't copy files to a disc without close supervision to ensure that I don't screw things up."

There was dead silence. Michael just stared.

I sighed heavily. "It was sarcasm, obviously. Go on."

Still shaking his head slightly, Michael headed out in a hurry, and I was left watching files copy to the data chip that he had left me. As the data transfer finished, I ordered up a second. I figured, maybe I could hide the chip or something and get as much out of this as possible, and so I ended up copying over the current data as well, along with some of the source code. I couldn't save every scrap of source code, but I was able to back up all of Miku's current data, which I assumed was a "snapshot" of Miku taken when I had been captured.

There were faint stirrings of sound. Something from outside the door. And it sounded faintly musical, which couldn't possibly be a good sign. Taking the chip out of the computer, I tucked it into a pocket and searched for the computer's off key.

That's about when the door behind me exploded in a blaze of blue light. I was caught completely unaware. My first sign that anything was wrong was the feeling of pain as a hammer blow caught me in the back and tossed me over the computer terminal and into the far wall. The echoing boom of a heavy magical attack and the cacophony of cracking sounds (coming from the door, the wall that I smashed into, and probably several of my bones as well) left me momentarily deafened.

I maintained the presence of mind to look up at the now utterly destroyed door. Considering that I could still sort of move and wasn't coughing up blood, I was guessing that none of my bones were actually broken, but it damned well felt like it. The refuge of sleep—unconsciousness, rather—beckoned invitingly as an alternative to the pain.

Anger staved that off quite effectively as Haynes stepped into the room. "Why in hell?" I asked somewhat weakly.

"Didn't I tell you? We didn't actually need anything out of you. Not your cooperation, and certainly not whatever virus you designed to shut down my research," Haynes told me coldly. "We just need you here. In fact, this will probably go more smoothly if you're not yelling at me throughout."

I tried to curse him, I really did. Unfortunately, getting slammed into a wall by a magical explosion is somewhat detrimental to remaining conscious.

The last thing I heard was Haynes. "Kaito, while you're here, reduce that computer to ashes for me."

But as I fainted, the corners of my mouth twitched slightly into a smile.

"Something seems off, Michael," Doctor Haynes asked mildly. "Shouldn't you be pleased? We're finally doing what you've been pushing for this whole time."

The two of them stood in a reinforced control room of sorts, surrounded by computer terminals and displays. One entire wall was devoted to a window, covered by a shutter at the moment. Several technicians scattered throughout the room tapped away at the computer terminals, ignoring the conversation taking place in the center of the room.

"I've been pushing for you to show me the research on Unison Devices," Michael replied with a trace of irritation. "You keep saying that it's top secret and can't be shown around…"

"Well, why don't you think about it for a moment," Haynes shot back silkily. "How many times has a Unison Device been created in recent memory?"

"Zero," Michael shot back instantly. "Almost none even exist!"

"Really? Then what about those fine young heroes of the JS Incident?"

That set Michael back on his heels for a moment. "That's not an exception, though," he eventually recovered. "Her name was Hayate? Her device was a creation of Ancient Belka."

"Your misconception is fully understandable," Haynes smirked. "And if I had the ability to research Hayate, her Reinforce Zwei, and how she created the replacement for the original version, I would." Michael stared in surprise as Haynes continued, "It wasn't Reinforce Zwei I was referring to, though, but one of the other individuals related to that incident. There was another Unison Device, one Agito…"

Michael adopted a pensive posture. "There was something in the news about that. Something about some people getting probation and others refusing amnesty and going to jail and… I don't really remember all that well."

"Indeed?" Haynes asked him. "You should keep a closer eye on things that relate to your profession. Especially when someone, perhaps your boss, has access to the records from a laboratory that may have conducted research on a certain Unison Device in the past…"

Michael sighed heavily. "You're being evasive again," he snapped. "You're not telling me what design element I'm missing in the creation of something that could be called a Unison Device. Even the advanced-AI devices that I create are still weapon-type Intelligent Devices, just smarter than usual."

"Would it surprise you," Doctor Haynes asked calmly, "if I told you that a true Unison Device that can be used in an auxiliary control role will have its own Linker Core?"

Michael's eyes widened in understanding. "That's why you've been running work related to that Project Fate, then!" he hissed quietly. "And why you had me creating personality and memory coding on its model rather than the typical AI model."

"And the light dawns," Doctor Haynes smiled. "Unfortunately, there was an element missing from the Version Ones. Which isn't to say that artificial mages with implanted personalities can't be useful, but they are not the Unison Devices that I wanted to create."

"But then the Version Two…" Michael began. "I am shocked it worked in a standard Intelligent Device at all. The code—"

"Would create a personality profile," Haynes pointed out. "That was its intent. I have no doubt that cracks would begin to appear as that personality came to grips with its existence as a machine rather than a 'person', so to speak, but for the 48 hours in which it had to exist, I wouldn't expect any problems."

There was a long pause as they glanced over the action in the control room surrounding them. One of the techs walked up and said "We should be ready to begin shortly."

With a nod, Michael dismissed him. "I still don't understand why his role is this of all things. I actually thought he was going to help with the code. Why can't we have one of us take this role?"

Haynes frowned. "Unfortunately, here we do run into questions. What is the role of compatibility in the formation and use of a Unison Device? How interconnected must the Device be with its potential master or masters? Unison Devices can be autonomous, as Agito demonstrates, but our only other example is a case in which the Device is clearly not entirely separate from its master." With a grimace, he finished off, "Short of going to Hayate and asking to conduct research on her, I have no way of knowing any of these things."

Michael asked almost lazily, "Why not do that?"

At that, Haynes laughed, short and sharp. "Have you forgotten how illegal most of this research is, Michael?"

"Right," Michael replied, face darkening in anger. "Just like the Bureau to outlaw the tools necessary to explore a field of Device research that has such potential."

"At any rate," Haynes continued, "given the uncertainty, I felt it wisest to use someone that shows a clear affinity and ability to form a bond with our base personality code."

"How do we control him in the end, then?" Michael pointed out. "If the goal is to create a weapon that we can use, we can't have him or the Version Two doing what they like."

"You needn't worry about that," Haynes informed him with a positively predatory smile. "I have… made some arrangements."

With a rattling clank, the shutter covering the control room's window began to open. "We're ready to proceed!" one of the technicians reported.

Haynes's smile only widened. "So, Michael, the chance I promised you, to create a Midchildan-style Unison Device; the next step of Device technology brought about by our joint efforts. Shall we?"

A streak of yellow light split the early-morning sky. An expansive forest blurred by below as Fate flew back toward the capital city. Off in the distance, skyscrapers glittered in the rising sun. The quiet tranquility of the moment was then abruptly broken by a tone from Bardiche.

"You have an incoming call from Admiral Harlaown," it reported neutrally.

Fate's reaction was much less restrained. "Finally," she nearly exploded. "Chrono-"

"Fate." Chrono's voice was frigid as he cut Fate off. "I don't like what I'm hearing in your last report. Why is this the first thing I hear from you?"

Fate was struck dumb for a moment in shock. "I- Doctor Haynes said that he was keeping you informed?"

"He hasn't been," Chrono told her. "I haven't heard a word from either of you since I assigned you to his case."

Dead silence dominated the line for a moment as Fate came to an abrupt halt, hovering in the air with a shocked expression. "Then he lied to me," Fate informed Chrono mildly.

"What exactly has he been having you do?" Chrono demanded.

The story was short and to the point. It left Chrono's voice almost audibly smoking with outrage.

"I can see I need to talk to Richard Haynes in person," he growled. "Fate, if you could arrange that?"

"Of course," she replied, satisfaction evident in her voice.

"Secure his research lab as well," Chrono told her. "I want to know what he's been up to. I'm sending reinforcements now to help you secure the facility, but I need you there right now to bring him into custody."

"Roger that."

A streak of yellow light split the early-morning sky, heading back in the direction it had come from.