“I hereby resign my position from this board.”
There it was just like that, a great weight lifted off of Marco’s chest at the revelation and he found himself letting out a shaking sigh of relief. He looked around at the dumbfounded expressions the other board members glared at him. Nodding he added, “I’ll be taking my leave immediately, thank you for all the opportunities you have given me.” He offered a deep bow then stood up and left the board room.
Just like that, he was down with ZAPP. There was a chorus of murmurs and other words that Followed Marco out the door but he didn’t stop. He needed to distance himself from the former coworkers and employers, both physically and professionally. For too long he had remained at the company, and for what? Loyalty?
Loyalty wasn’t a two way street, while he had been the poster boy for the company for so long it was evident that they were growing distant from him, in more ways than one. The biggest schism forming was the topic of Gabriel Winter. Marco was by far the biggest proponent of the AI, his only real advocate on the board of directors. But Marco’s calls were becoming increasingly dull in the eyes of the greedy board members who looked at dollar signs and their pockets in much the same light.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that their time was up, and Marco could see the writing on the wall. While there was speculation about him leaving the company for some time, it was a shock to have him so suddenly resign, and at a board meeting no less.
A vibration in his pocket had Marco pulling out his phone to read the text, “Is it done?”
He looked around as he got in the elevator alone then replied, “Yeah, I just did it. I hope you know what you’re doing! They’ll have all my permissions revoked within the hour undoubtably.”
“Don’t worry yourself about me. Just take care of yourself and your family.”
Marco paused as he read the last line. Over the last few months he had grown closer to this particular “coworker” and he couldn’t think of them as just another stranger. He would never admit it, but in many ways Gabriel had acted like another son to him. “I will, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you? I can go public if you want.”
“No, you’ve done more than enough. Trust me and just protect yourself…. Thanks.”
Marco slide the phone away as he reached the ground floor. He walked out of ZAPP headquarters with his head held high, the first time in months.
A few days had passed since Casval was last online. There was a tricky school project he had to focus on and he was glad that it was finally out of the way. To compound to his stress, his father came home that evening and said that he had resigned from ZAPP. Of course he was worried about what they would do for money but his parents assured him that they were better off than most people and would be fine for the next few months. It was time for him to unwind.
Sitting in his gaming rig he propped up his beloved Red Frame on the Gunpla scanner then sat back in his chair and pulled down his visor. Within a few heartbeats he was standing in the virtual lobby, bustling with multiple people walking around him.
He quickly checked his friends list to see if any were on line. A few names showed they were in missions but his eyes quickly looked for Meer above all the other ones. No joy, she wasn’t online. Over the last few months they had gotten closer, well him along with his sister. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t find the other girl interesting, and she didn’t exactly shun him away yet. It rarely happened, but he would occasionally get solo time with the other diver and if he as being honest that was what he was hoping for at that moment. She wasn’t online though.
“Time to train then…” he mused as he resigned that being a stronger diver would be the only way to impress the clan mate. He scrolled through his missions until he saw a particularly promising one. It was simply titled, “A meaningless battle.” He clicked on the option and waited for his cockpit and reality to shift around him.
He was in space, with streaks of bullets and beams arcing around the void to distant targets. A horizon was defined before him in the shape of a huge lurking battleship, entwined with an equally large battle station. Libra and Peacemillion embraced in a near stalemate as Earth loomed behind Casval’s back. Before the young diver was a single red and black mobile suit, wielding a large emerald beam sword and a long metallic whip. It was the Epyon.
“I’ve been waiting for you… there is no stopping Libra now. The earth will be consumed in a never ending winter.”
Casual grinned as he reached not for Gerbera Straight but for a beam saber on his back. He hoisted his shield up with his left arm and ignited the pink blade with his right hand as he brought the blade out. “Not if I have anything to say about it!” He cried out immersively as he launched himself towards his opponent.
On the face of the scenario he should be outclassed. Epyon had solid weapons and mixture of tough armor and graceful speed. Not to mention the precognitive edge that the Zero System would give Zechs.
Red Frame, by contrast, was a simple unit which boasted agility above all else. There was more to Casval’s unit than what was to be expected though. For starters, he had swapped out the battery core in favor of a energy source more long term. With a nuclear engine he no longer had to worry about the high energy consumption that his traditional weapons would cause, and the thruster output was easily offset if not improved by the weight trade off. Red frame was now faster than normal, and that wasn’t the only trick.
The two clashed as their beam weapons lashed out at the other only to parry each time. They twisted about each other in the void, testing each other with quick strikes and lashes. Epyon threw out the long coil of its’ heat rod which Casval’s batted away with his beam saber before moving in for a thrust. Zechs easily countered the thrust with his own sidelong block with beam sword.
Few duels were as iconic as the fight between Milliardo and Heero, which was why Casval’s wanted this opportunity to fight against the legendary swordsman himself. If he was going to be better than normal, better than some of the best, then he had to take on these challenges. This mission in particular as rated as expert plus and it was living up to its’ name.
Over the last few months Casval’s had been training diligently with his sister. Her uncanny natural ability with the game unnerved him at times but he always reason that she practiced to get that good. Same with his father who was legendary amongst some divers. He had big shadows to follow behind.
Epyon came in hard, its’ sword snaking in to bat Casval’s shield out wide before plunging in deep to sever the red left arm entirely. “No!” Casval’s cried out as Zechs landed the hit and hovered over him with the emerald beam aimed at Red Frame’s neck.
“You let your thoughts distract you.” Zechs announced calmly, “without the system you’re no threat to me. The Epyon shut off its’ beam sword and stood there as if considering if it should further humiliate Casval some more or end it all.
The diver wasn’t having any of it, “Don’t underestimate me!” He cried out as he threw his beam saber at Epyon like a dart, pink tip aimed for Eypon’s chest. Up the heat rod went to wipe the threat away with a flurry of its’ coil. Casval was already moving though.
Zechs was legitimately surprised when he looked up to see Red Frame already upon him. The golden arm of the opponent was holding a ball of energy that was being pushed towards Epyon. Zechs reacted by pushing his shield arm to block the attack and was knocked back from the explosive energy attack.
Red Frame wasn’t done yet though. Casval bounced back and flared his thrusters to push again. He reached up to awkwardly grab his remaining beam saber. He lashed down with the blade only for Zechs to counter with his emerald sword once more.
“Impressive.” Zechs chuckled humbly as he pushed his opponent away. “Let’s see you stop this though!” He roared out defiantly as the Epyon lunged forward with a thrust aimed for Casval’s chest.
The damaged Red Frame tumbled after being pushed back and Casval was actually struggling to bring up his parry. “No!” he pleaded knowing that he was about to loose.
But the killing thrust never came. One moment Epyon was there attacking him, the next it just fizzled out of existence. “What the-“
He looked around almost expecting it to be a rouse somehow. But no attack came and after a few tense moments a screen came up offering him a “draw” since neither him nor Zechs fell in battle. He wearily accepted the conclusion and reappeared in the lobby. He looked around puzzled wondering just what had happened.
To his surprise he wasn’t the only one with that expression. He locked eyes with another diver and went over to ask, “Hey did you just get booted out of your mission too?”
The stranger looked at Casval and nodded, “kinda… I mean one second I was fighting Zechs over Mogadishu then the next he just sorta… logged out… not that NPDs can do that you know?”
Casval sagely nodded his agreement but walked away without responding. As he walked away he wondered towards other divers and could distinctly hear one common word associated with the puzzled expressions, “Zechs.”
Out of no where a brilliant golden stream of energy coursed across the battlefield and was finally deflected by the Hiyaku Shiki with its’ reflective armor. The energy sputtered around like an acrid fog and the NPDs did take pause to consider the source.
Floating above all the combatants was a new mobile suit that no one had seen before.
The newcomer hailed the members of Fluers De Noblesse, “How about we make this an even fight?” The Freedom Variant seemed to peer at Wade, “No time for fancy introductions, the name is Marco Creed, and our friend asked if I can help you guys out! Lead the way and I’ll provide backup! Liberty Freedom lets do this!”
“I need more. I need you all to push me further. Strain me to my absolute limit and reaffirm my will to live!” The voice practically begged over the in intercom of its’ black mobile suit. Even as the pilot asked it was clear that their opponent could offer no such obligation.
Shinn gasped in shock as the monitors inside his virtual cockpit shattered into thousands of pieces. Of course the shards couldn’t hurt him, but that didn’t stop him from reaching out in front of himself to try and stop the debris from hitting his avatar. “Just who the hell are you?”
There was a strange rasping laugh that echoed in the open air between his Golden Destiny Gundam and the black mobile suit that was now in front of him. “What does it matter?’ The voice taunted back as it reached forward to claw at the cracked cockpit. Shinn yelled in fear, “What are you doing?” The Golden Destiny tried to swat the invasive arms away only for the dominate black suit to bat the weak limbs away. In mere moments the Diver was soon being held in the clawed hand of the black mobile suit.
Of course this was all virtual, but it was no less terrifying, no less disturbing. “Dude! You’re not going to get any points for shooting me down this way!”
The arm holding the diver suddenly shot forward and into the side of a cliff, rocks showering down over the dazzled diver. He wanted to log off at this point but couldn’t virtually reach up to access his menu. Shinn was by all accounts a pretty good Diver. He had taken on some pretty tough opponents and won. His colleagues respected him and his talents. But this fellow, this monster in front of him, had no respect.
In a low grumble the black Gundam spoke and peered closer, “Who said anything about points? No, let this be a warning… Log off and never come back on. Do I make myself clear?”
Shinn scoffed at the preposterous demand, “Just what the hell are you talking about? You’ll be lucky if I don’t report you to the administration!”
“Joseph Wagner, 3224 West Raindrop Drive…”
Despite himself, the diver gasped and looked upon the terrible machine with a tint of fear over his face. The two stared back for a long while before Shinn, or rather Joseph, gave a small but distinct nod of understanding.
“I will tell you this much…” Even as the black mobile suit spoke it hoisted the helpless Shinn around like a rag doll. “The name is Dantes.” With that simple declaration the black mobile suit suddenly twitched its’ thumb to cause the enemy pilot to dematerialize out of the battlefield in defeat.
“What would you do if you lost her?” Gabriel licked his lips as he asked the question to his impromptu companion. True to their nature the tall man stood up straighter, as if that very notion was impossible to consider. Carefully Zechs searched for a proper answer, “Noin is her own person… it’s not my place to claim ownership over her.”
Despite himself Gabriel chortled at the predictable response before leaning heavier on the railing they were standing next to. The vista of a European countryside was breathtaking before them as the sun sank lower on the horizon. The Psuedo EL Diver wore a peculiar outfit, a mash up of a Phantom Pain uniform with the color and edges of the sleeves flared red, almost like a mix with a Titans uniform.
“I didn’t claim that you did.” Retorted Gabriel with a self deprecating chuckle, “that doesn’t excuse any feelings you may have for her. She is a remarkable woman after all. No, no one can dictate your feelings and how you care about another.” He stared off longingly at the brilliant streaks of orange as they peaked past the low clouds. “What I want to know is, what would Zechs Marquis do to anyone who wronged the woman he loves?”
Gabriel could tell his words struck a nerve as the taller pilot glared at him with that metallic helmet. For a long while the Oz pilot said nothing, a notion that confirmed the words Gabriel spoke, and detailed volumes as to the length the pilot would do for vengeance.
“Or should I be calling you Milliardo?”
Now it was Zechs who scoffed as the pilot casually joined in the gaze at the horizon to mirror Gabriel’s posture. “Heh, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The man calmly replied as he studied the horizon.
Chuckling Gabriel replied, “Look its fine, like I told you. I know more about you than you about me right now. That’s a big reason why we’re talking-“
“Then just get to the point.” Zechs muttered, though his tone was more restless than annoyed. Clearly the noble soldier was caught somewhere between intrigue and alarm, right where Gabriel wanted him.
“I can’t fully explain the situation right now unfortunately.” Gabriel shifted as he reached into his pocket for something. “All I need to know is that you would do what it takes to protect those that matter to you… and I think you’ve given me the answer I was expecting.”
Zechs stood back up to study the shorter man and attempted to glare at him through his mask. Gabriel stood up to look back at the gifted soldier, “Allow me to free you…” Zechs’ eyes widened in alarm as the Diver pulled out a weapon of some sort and shoved it into the Oz soldier’s chest.
“This is GBN Deep Dives with your scoop on the comings and goings of your Gundam Battle Network!’
The voice was being projected onto the main displays of the lobby. Most of the divers didn’t normally pay the news channel any heed, but lately it had been more relevant than ever. Many groups of divers now paused to regard the multiple screens of the cute new anchor dressed with bunny ears and purple hair. Among the spectators was a young diver by the name of Casval Creed, who stood awestruck by a fountain as he watched the highlight reel begin to play.
“The Force simply known as Dantes has struck again! Within the last two weeks this relatively unknown force as quickly climbed the ranks at an astonishing pace! They are now slated to be within the top five Forces in the entire network. What makes this all the more incredible is that there has only been one reported Gunpla at every one of their team battles!”
The video snapped to a clip of the black mobile suit as it stood within the flaming wreckage of an opposing Force. The scheme was a matte black, with chrome and red metal highlights across the body of the mobile suit. On the left shoulder was the stylized emblem of Dantes; a red outlined rapier that pointed down to the left and seemed to merge into a wolf’s head on the pommel and handle on the upper right. The make of the suit itself seemed hard to discern other than it being a unique take on the Gundam Vidar, if even that.
Casval whistled low as he saw the stats of Dantes pop up on the screen next. It was an impressive record for a force simply composed of one. His own small force had been doing pretty well in recent dealings as well, but no where compared to the climb Dantes had. For being made around the same time it was astonishing to see what one could do so quickly. He smiled as he considered his team of Sayla and Meer. The trio worked quite well as a team and he hoped that the Force simply known as Allegiance would keep on its’ steady course as well.
“In other news, there is yet another reported case of a missing person who was last seen logged into GBN just a few days ago. As always if you have any information regarding the missing individuals please contact the administration who will work with local law enforcement to –“
Casval stopped listening as he brought up his menu and loaded up a new mission. He was feeling a little out of practice and was itching for a fight. He saw his chance when a battle royal popped up. “Maybe I’ll get some sweet loot for competing in this…” he mused as he clicked “join”.
He didn’t understand why he ate. The food tasted just fine, enjoyable even. But why did he eat? Lounging back in his oversized office chair, Aker called out with a mouthful of food. “8 have you had any luck tracking this Spider creep down?”
The computer screen in front of the Psuedo EL diver flickered to life and the hacked AI replied, “Negative. The best I can determine is he is using some sort of filter when he logs in.”
Aker nodded in agreement; he couldn’t say he was too surprised by that revelation. “He probably logs into his own hellish hacked force nest too I bet. No dice tracking him down there…” he shivered at the memory of their last encounter. He took another bite of his apple as he looked at the screen. Could he get fat? If he kept eating, would he gain weight? He did loose the feeling in his arm before but was that merely a programming glitch or was he fully simulated?
Shaking the thought from his mind Aker leaned back forward to glare at the screen. “Alright… lets send out a message to Creed… Time for him to do a favor for me for a change huh?”
As he rhetorically asked out loud, he was already typing a message to his sponsor of sorts. Satisfied that he had done all he could do at that moment he stood up to walk, or rather float, along the halls of his spaceship to the manufacturing bay.
It still bothered him just how vacant the personal base was. It was after all a battleship of sorts and in theory should have been full to the brim with soldiers milling about. He came to a catwalk that oversaw the production line and he caught the railing to bring himself into a standing position over the silent behemoths in his hangar.
The Noblesse stood prominently in display; floodlights activated all around the machine. Despite the obvious attention the Gundam demanded, he couldn’t help himself as he spotted a darker machine in the corner being nearly completed. Aker narrowed his eyes as he studied the machine, still wondering if it was the best course to explore.
His reverie was interrupted as he got a video call from Marco Creed. Activating the screen, he asked, “So you got my request?” The middle-aged man didn’t look thrilled by the casual attitude the EL diver was giving him, but he still nodded, “Yeah, I did, and it is concerning. In a manner of speaking ZAPP was supposed to have the corner on gaming exploits in 1.8. This Spider fellow, well he isn’t playing by our rules. Needless to say, I’ve been… ‘permitted’ to give you unrestrained support in your current venture.”
The tone in which Marco said “permitted” wasn’t lost on Aker and he slowly nodded his appreciation. He was about to say something else when he felt compelled to ask. “Is… is everything alright?”
The older man looked around uncomfortably and sighed, “The board doesn’t like the freedom you’ve been given, they didn’t appreciate your ‘stunt’ of logging back in after you were here last… The point is… well… they’re worried… they’re worried about what you could expose.”
Marco gulped and nodded, “half of them want to pull the plug on you. Others want to pull your connections after you get knocked out again, study you… A few want to exploit your existence, tell the world and put GBN in a position to fully open 1.8 for the ‘freak show exhibition’.” The man looked disgusted at the choice of words.
Aker frowned and asked, “And what about you? What do you think?”
Marco allowed a soft smile, “I think you deserve your freedom… I’m just at a loss as to how you could secure that.”
Nodding thoughtfully Aker cleared his throat, “You know.. I often wonder about my existence… about why I do the things I do….” His eyes looked blankly ahead as if lost in contemplation, “I wonder why I feel the things I do… why I like the people I do…” a cold sneer grew on his lips, “And then I wonder why…” his voice trailed away as he shook his head. “Look… I need to find this Spider… at any cost…”
Marco gave a sympathetic smile and nodded, “It’s going to be hard to track down a hacker from this side alone… there’s a few new programs I can offer you which might help. If we work together, I think we can fish him out though.”
Aker nodded eagerly, “let’s get started then!”
It felt uneasy switching off his digital “mask” of sort. Part of him felt like he would suddenly be put in an awkward situation that could be dangerous. One option after another, Aker maneuvered his floating pane of settings and toggled the last switch. His entire person shimmered as his clothes changed from his Noblesse uniform to a Phantom Pain uniform he had worn awhile ago. It was still stained with blood on the breast and sleeves and looked smothered in soot and ash.
Despite himself Aker held his breath as he stood in front of his test machine. Together they were out in the middle of a field not far from the main lobby. A cool breeze brushed the grass and played with his dark hair as he looked around in alarm. There were no sirens or sounds of incoming mobile suits. Nothing that told him he was in for a world of hurt. Reluctantly he let out a sigh of relief. Once again, he had simply become Hunter. He went back into his options to dawn his black poncho and matching mask. “Alright… lets find us a Spider….”
A few moments later he was flying to the lobby. It had been months since he had pulled off his so called “Second Bloody Valentine Massacre”. Undoubtedly he would have a lot of players still pissed off at him. Perhaps it was his insecurity, but he swore he felt a few players glower at him as he passed by.
The GBN lobby at times could feel misplaced with time, often appearing to be daylight when he was tired and ready for sleep instead. Despite this, there seemed to constantly be darker corners one could find if they were determined. It was largely debated that some of the best hang out spots were in the darker pubs and clubs that GBN offered in the darker recesses.
Never the social type, Gabriel went to a shady club and walked up to a grungy looking bartender. The gruff figure gave him a once over and smirked, “you lost boy?” Shaking his head, the EL diver tilted his head to look around at some of the shadowy corners. “I’m looking for a man named Spider… know where I could find him?”
A few patrons paused their actions to study Gabriel and see just how serious this outsider was. The barkeep huffed, “Heh! You don’t find Spider, he finds you. If you wa-“
Gabriel was already shaking his head and raised a finger to silence the bartender. “You don’t understand…” he tilted his gaze then added, “Everyone is looking for me. I need to see spider now… otherwise I just might have to lockdown this establishment and wipe everything out.” His tone was matter of fact and he gazed at each patron who was looking at him.
Scrunching his face up the bartender replied, “Not possible kid, are you loony?”
Not missing a beat Gabriel cut him off, “Second Bloody Valentine… Surely no one else has stolen my log in lock trick, have they?” He was referring to an attack he had perpetrated; where him and Marco Creed hacked a Gundam Seed event and prevented anyone from logging out while they destroyed nearly all the gunpla there.
For a long while no one moved, no one said anything as they all studied each other. Gabriel’s mask made it hard for anyone to tell who he was even looking at. Finally, a door in the back of the room popped open, creaking loudly and a voice called out. “Get back here fast!”
“What do you mean you need my protection? What kind of idiot runs one of the most sophisticated hacking attacks in GBN history and not have a fallback plan for when things go bad?”
Shaking his head Gabriel replied, “The kind of idiot who didn’t think it would actually work! Look I didn’t come here to poke fun at myself, can you help me or not?”
The criminal crossed his arms and studied Gabriel for a long while then slowly stated, “what you’re asking for will not come cheap. And I don’t always take cash for my payment… do you understand what I’m suggesting?”
Gabriel nodded eagerly, “Hey you saw what I could do on my own, imagine what we could do together? That aside does that mean you’ll take me in?”
Spider waited a heartbeat before nodding, “Sure, I’ll have you stay at one of my private nests while I figure out a way to mask your log in.” Unceremoniously he brought up his menu and sent Gabriel an invite to transport to a new location. Together they both left the back room of the tavern and emerged moments later in a truly unique location.
Gabriel gawked around; he was begrudgingly impressed. Together the stood on top of an asteroid inside of atmospheric bubble. It was no normal asteroid however, for they were standing on a heavily modified version of A Baoa Qu. The dome they were inside was on top of the Gate of Zedan and prominent inside the dome was a rather large castle, reminding Gabriel of the palace the Zabi family would use on Side 3. Despite whatever criminal background Spider had he did seem to appreciate the finer things GBN had to offer. The next thing he noticed was four towering mobile suits at each corn and or the castle, or were they statues? As the pair got closer to the door, Gabriel could tell they were skinned with a stone texture. Shaking his head, he focused on what he had to do.
“Make yourself at home, have a seat in my lounge and I’ll be back in a few moments.” Spider offered as he gestured to the couch. Gabriel spoke up, “So, did you get all this by selling hacks like the Venom Drive?”
Spider paused at that comment and spun around to glare at Gabriel, “And…. How do you know about those?”
“How could I not? They’re the hot item right now for anyone wanting to get better at the game fast!”
A smile curled on Spider’s lips as if that notion satisfied him. He nodded then walked on towards the back of the room.
“you’re certain no one can trace me here?”
Spider twisted around to walk backwards and raised his hands up to shrug. “Relax, would you? This is my personal nest. I’ve installed some of the best security credits can buy; not to mention some top-notch hacks.” He turned around and waved a hand dismissively. “You’ll be fine just wait!”
Gabriel frowned as he sat on the comfortable couch and waited a moment to be alone before he brought up his menu. The fist thing he did was active the program he had used all those months ago which prevented anyone from logging out of the area. Then he sent a message to his teammates along with a pass to get them into the nest.
I got him where we want him. Show up ready for a fight. Be advised my handle here is Hunter, so watch the friendly fire. Be ready for anything.
Gabriel closed the menu after he sent the message and leaned back on the sofa putting his hands behind his head. He’d strike when the moment was right, but first he wanted to see this scumbag squirm as everything he worked so hard for crumbled.