M15T4K3N 1D3NT1T135, Version 1.0

By Zcipher (email: ohmu at mac dot com)

From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House, . Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details."

It was raining.

That wasn't any surprise or even inconvenience to the man who sat, legs crossed and eyes closed, beneath the leaves of a great palm tree. It often rained on Tribal Alpha, because it made the endless battles K3WLer (it also lead to an abundance of fog, which made the stealthy types happy). As a result, anyone who had made their home there for any length of time either grew accustomed to spending much of their time wet or resigned themselves to missing out on much of the action while huddled indoors. The man under the tree fit into the former category. He scarcely felt the water as it seeped through his traditional kimono and hakama, though he did unconsciously shift every few minutes to prevent himself from sliding across the muddy ground and into the murky pool below. After all, there is a rather great difference between indifference to the rain and a willingness to dive fully-clad into the water.

He had come here, as he often did, to engage in quiet meditation, to reach that state of pure zen in which the world flowed away and there was only Thought. It helped to keep his ki balanced, which in turn allowed him to progress along the path to Enlightenment. However, even in this state, his carefully honed senses continued to monitor the world without, ever alert for the approach of a potential threat.

Thus, he was not surprised in the least when the girl finally spoke. "'Scuse me, sir? You okay in there?"

The man did not open his eyes. "I am attempting to achieve a state of union with the Divine. If you value your score, please move along quietly, and leave me to it," he replied evenly.

He waited a moment, and when she showed no sign of following his polite advice, he cracked open one eye, raising the bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrow above an eyelid neatly bisected by an old and whitened scar (which trailed down to his cheekbone), ever so slightly in question. This afforded him his first view of the girl. Or, at least, his first view of her face, which was mere inches in front of his own; so close, in fact, that her slightly upturned nose was no more than a hair's breadth from his own. "Young lady, I must respectfully request that if you are looking for combat, you try heading deeper into the jungle. I am not interested in battle at this moment, though if you continue to disregard my wishes in this matter, I will be more than happy to demonstrate the folly of disrespecting one's elders."

Apparently satisfied to have attracted his attention, she pulled back far enough for him to get a full view of her person. She appeared to be no more than 14 years of age, and was dressed in a rather unique outfit, which appeared to be a camouflage-colored, near skin-tight full-body suit made of what appeared to be the same thing as a conventional rain coat. The fact that there were no openings or obvious seams other than the the top, which reached most of the way up her neck (including a lack of openings between the body of the outfit and its associated boots and gloves), led him to idly consider how she had managed to get into the damned thing in the first place. She was wearing a rather bulky armband around her left forearm, and a set of goggles of indeterminate function (other than to keep into place her short-cropped hair, which was the same mix of colors as her clothing, as were her eyes) were pulled up above her forehead. She could be at best described as "cute," since her slightly too large nose and scrawny, awkward form prevented her from being even generously called "pretty." Most interesting of all was that she was carrying no immediately identifiable weaponry, and given the immodesty of her garment, it was highly unlikely that she was keeping anything hidden therein.

"I see that the refinement and morality of the younger generation has degenerated further since the last time I ventured out of this land," he said, with only the barest hint of contempt. "And their folly has only become worse, as well; one would think that even the meanest youth would have the wisdom to refrain from challenging me without a weapon."

She flushed red at that, though whether out of anger or proper shame he neither knew nor cared. In fact, he was much more interested by the fact that her clothes, eyes, and hair briefly acquired a reddish tinge. Intriguing. "First off, I don't think you have any room to be critiquing on the fashion front, gramps," she said, indicating his damp and muddy clothing and his ragged topknot. "You look like you just wandered in out of one of those old Nipponese movies you see on RealNet, only somewhere along the way you also got involved in an Extreme Mudwrestling match with an angry gorilla. At least MY clothes are functional."

"I'd hardly refer to such a getup as 'functional" . . ."

"And second," she continued, without missing a beat at his interjection, "I'm not here to pick a fight. I'm hear lookin' for someone, and I'm willing to bet I just found 'im. You're M0r1, right? I'm G3nr4t0r."

The man, now sufficiently intrigued by this strange girl (and resigned that she would be unlikely to leave him to his meditations until he had let her speak her mind), sighed slightly, and slowly and deliberately rose to his feet, pausing briefly to pick up the traditional Nipponese blade which was his preferred weapon. "Mori will suffice. I take it you'll not leave me be until you've said whatever it is you've come to say or I send you back to your spawn point?"

"Yup. And you can call me Gen, by the way."

"Then let us retire to a less damp meeting place. Come with me," he said, and, slipping into his sandals, brusquely turned and walked into the forest. After a momentary pause, Gen smiled and followed.

* * *

Victor was pissed.

This was hardly unusual; it is a very frustrating thing to be the head of a Normalizer cell in Tribal Alpha. One couldn't rely on the same methods commonly used by the faction, as simply mowing down the Abnormal in a hail of gunfire really doesn't mean much when all it really accomplishes is sending them back to their home base and costing them a couple of meaningless points. As a result, the cell here had to resort to a variety of means, usually involving containing or subduing their target for transport off world, where a more permanent solution could be arranged. Also, the only way to keep from being ousted from the Reality by being marked for Final Frag was, of course, to spend time and effort in becoming good enough to maintain a decent score (as the clan "LifeShields").

The result of all this is that the average LifeShield is:

  1. Better trained and more B4d455 than the average Normalizer.
  2. More subject to the distractions of the surrounding Reality than the average Normalizer.
  3. More "gung-ho" about the faction than the average Normalizer.
  4. More likely to be a punk-ass who barely, if at all, understands the sheer importance of the faction's work, meaning they're less serious than most members of the faction.

Points 3 & 4, of course, derive from the fact that, in Tribal Alpha, it's a lot less disturbing to have to shoot someone, nor is there quite so much risk of being pulped by some freak who decides that "reality" ought to inlcude you being on fire (though, admittedly, the danger of an engine crash when they used their tricks tended to balance out that particular advantage).

As a result, it's not much of a surprise that Victor Dumont, the man who Mortimer had assigned the command of the LifeShields, was in a near constant state of scarcely contained fury. Wrangling these L4m3rs was like herding cats. He spent most of his time reminding the idiots that they were here from more than the revelry in death that infects those who remain in Tribal Alpha for too long, and the rest "gently" reminding them that there was more involved in taking down Deviants here than your "L33t 5n1p3r 5k1llz."

Today, the source of his fury was the set of useless idiots currently standing sheepishly in front of him. "So, let's go through this again. You were supposed to be out on patrol. You were supposed to be checking our base defenses, going no more than a few clicks outside of the compound. Instead, you stole . . . "

"Commandeered, sir," interrupted the squad leader, a particularly moronic kid named, ironically enough, Br41nDrn, and actually named Brian. A withering glare from Victor shut him up.

"STOLE one of our few functional dune buggies, which you then proceeded to smash into a tree, incidentally getting one of you fragged and lowering our score, to go out hunting Campers, who, when you found them, fragged 3 more of you, leaving only two of you left alive, and them only because the Campers decided to leave, having already retrieved the item they had been looking for. Then, Brian, you proceeded to DROP your deviant detector onto a large, sharp rock. This, by SHEER, DUMB LUCK, not only failed to break the damned thing, but also ended up getting it stuck in the mud, active, and pointed at a passing and, I might add, easily identifiable teenager, who also happened to cause it to flicker to green. And then, because you apparently had not yet proven your complete incompetence and unworthiness to so much as THINK about considering yourself a worthy member of the LifeShields, let alone the Normalizers, you LET HER GET AWAY!! So, you pathetic, miserable excuses for operatives, do you have anything to say for yourselves? Anything at all?"

The assembled imbeciles milled around for a bit, none of them willing to to expose themselves to further criticism, yet clearly wanting to contradict his dismal assessment of their 5k1llz. He waited, knowing that one of them would eventually start. He was betting on Brian.

He bet correctly. "Uh, sir? We didn't just LET her get away. We attempted to capture her for pacification, but, uh . . . "

"She fragged you. BOTH of you. With no weapons, and no powers."

Brian hung his head in (purely justified) shame. "Yes, sir." Clearly, he was regretting raising that particular objection.

Victor let them stew for a bit, to consider their unmitigated failure. He made sure to look each and every one of them in the eyes so that they knew precisely how much they'd disappointed him. Finally, when all of them were looking down ashamedly, and shuffling about uncomfortably, he broke the silence. "Now, in spite of your failures, I'm not going to have you all reassigned to Antiparadisia." This drew some audible sighs of relief from the stupider members who didn't realize that they'd likely have preferred that to what they were going to get instead. "Instead, I'm reassigning your unit under Lucifer." At this point, all of them looked back up with the same, terrified look an animal gives you before it's flattened by an oncoming tank. Luckily for them, no one could manage to voice an objection. "Now go. I don't want to see any of you for the next month, and let me assure you that if I do, you'll be thanking Lucifer for her kind and gentle handling." They scampered out rather quickly after that, leaving Victor alone in peace, for the moment.

He collapsed into his chair. What an unmitigated disaster! Of all the Realities an Abnormal could get loose in, Tribal Alpha was by FAR the worst he could think of. If that freak decides to use her powers, he thought, and the engine crashes, people WILL die. No engine, no warp bubbles; who knows how many would die in the first few seconds before anyone realized what was happening alone! Not to mention the less savory types who might take advantage of the crisis to try to take out a rival. No, for the good of everyone in this reality, this Abnormal needed to be caught. And Victor knew just the guy to do it.

Victor picked up his RealNet broadcaster, and dialed the One Man Clan.

* * *

Mori lead Gen through the underbrush for about 15 minutes before they arrived at a tiny, run-down shack in the middle of the jungle. "Not much of a base," she commented, stepping under the awning of the roof over the porch and out of the rain.

"It serves my purposes," replied Mori. He unlocked the door, then turned to her. "I've additional dry clothes you can use while your . . . outfit . . . dries. Please, go ahead of me; I will wait until you are done; though you seem to lack any sense of modesty or propriety, I would not dishonor your parents by doing anything so coarse as attempting to observe you changing, I assure you," he said, waving her in.

"Naw, it's cool, gramps; I got it covered," she said, and placed her right hand onto her wristband in a series of patterns. When she was done, her suit shivered, divesting itself of most of the rain. Now bone-dry aside from her hair, she smiled at him and said, "Now, if you don't mind, go ahead and get changed. I promise you on my honor I will not dishonor your parents by peeking," she added with a smirk.

Intrigued and only moderately offended at the mockery, Mori proceeded to do just that, leaving his sandals at the entrance and changing from his wet garb into a light robe (a concession to the sweltering jungle heat). He then proceeded to call her in. To his surprise, before entering, she once again entered a sequence into her wristband, resulting in her boots actually flowing up off of her feet into the rest of her outfit, along with her right glove, and the outfit itself changing into a looser set of baggy fatigues and a tank top. Curiouser and curiouser.

He invited her to sit on the floor near the fireplace with him, where he was just beginning to warm up some water for tea. She obliged him, settling in without a word and looking at him expectantly.

For a while, neither spoke. Mori was struck by the oddness of the scene; he, a Nipponese man in his mid-50s, her a gaijin of fourteen years. The idea of the two sitting down for tea was, he thought, somewhat comical. Let no one say that the Divine had no sense of humor. Finally, though, it was he who broke the silence: "So, I believe you had something to say to me?"

She seemed almost surprised by this. "What? Oh, yeah," she said, swallowing and gathering up some courage. "I regret to inform you that Doctor Fujita has died."

Silence. He took in a deep breath, and began pouring the tea. Dr. Fujita Tsumeko had been his closest friend back on Nippon, before he came to Tribal Alpha. He had hardly thought of her for the last 20 years of his self-imposed exile, but news of her death was still like a blow to his heart. Neither person spoke for several minutes, as he dutifully made their tea and mourned his friend. Finally, as he handed Gen her cup, he asked The Question: "How did she die?"

"Engine malfunction," she replied quietly, taking a sip of her tea. "She was attending a symposium on Urbana when her mobile crashed; she wasn't thrown into Nullspace, but crashing into another building is every bit as fatal. There was a body, but . . . well, let's just say it wasn't pretty."

He nodded silently. That was no surprise; he had always felt that she made far too many trips on that poor, antiquated thing. Still, it was sometimes tragic to be right. "May I ask why you are delivering this message in person, rather than simply sending me a message over RealNet?"

"Simple," she said. "First, I couldn't find your address in Dr. Fujita's stuff. Second, I wanted to meet you in person. She used to talk about you a lot, you know. She said you were one of the most brilliant engineers she'd ever known, before you found religion." She looked up suddenly. "Err, not that you're probably not still brilliant; I mean, it's not like you got NOT brilliant or anything, and I can totally dig the whole 'finding God' thing."

Mori ignored it. "And, may I ask, how were you acquainted with the late Doctor?"

"I was one of her research assistants," she said quietly. "I was back in the lab working on a contract when the accident happened."

Mori raised one eyebrow. "At your age? You must have impressed her; she never much liked children."

"Yeah, funny story about that," she said sheepishly. "I, uh, kinda, uh, brokeintoherlabandstolesomestuff." Mori's eyebrow rose ever higher."Well, I needed it! See, she was the only one who had the kind of material I needed to finish my Dynawear!"

"Dynawear?" he asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.

"Oh yeah! Like I'm wearing right now! See, it's designed to react to the computer I've got in this here armband, and do things like dynamically change based on my biorhythms and the live weather feed for whatever Reality I happen to be in at the time, or hand entered preferences I input with the chord keyboard. It's made out of this really funky silicate compound that . . . " She trailed off, as she realized that Mori wasn't particularly interested in how she'd achieved the effect. "Well, anyway, like I was saying, I broke into the lab to get some materials. I figured, hey, she contracts for RealWare, and they're the bad guys anyway, so it's not like it's even really that wrong. So, I was doin' that, and in comes Dr. Fujita. Turns out she forgot her keys, and needed to come back for them, but for whatever reason, I was now in some pretty deep water. Thankfully, when I explained what I was working on, she was intrigued enough to not only not turn me over to the cops, but to actually take me on as an assistant."

Mori's eyebrow rose again, his look of incredulity beginning to become incredulous itself.

Gen flushed red, once again causing the rest of her to flush red as well. "Well, ok, maybe it wasn't that simple, but that's the basic idea. ANYWAY, that wasn't what I was here to talk to you about." She leaned forward, taking another sip of her tea. "See, I didn't just come here to let you know about Dr. Fujita. I came here to make you a job offer."

This caught Mori off guard; not an easy thing to do to a man who'd spent the better part of 20 years alone in a jungle warzone. "A job offer? You?"

"Here's the deal: with Fujita gone, we're suddenly lacking our top Reality Engineer. Only one of the other assistants is certified, and I'm the ranking team member now, which is not gonna be kosher for RW, once they figure it out. Also, no way in hell could I keep the lab running on my own anyway."

"I fail to see how this is my problem. Why not just take the REC test yourself? You seem the child prodigy type," he snapped, clearly irritated.

She flushed red, clearly with anger this time, and not briefly, either. "Don't give me that 'girl genius' crap. I've worked my TAIL off since I could talk to get my 5k1llz; I didn't just one day grow them out of thin air or something equally absurd. When most 8 year olds were out playing at the park with their friends, I was at home studying, so I could someday do something like I'm doing now. As for taking the REC test, fat chance on that one; I come from Grep, raised there from a tender age, so I somehow doubt that RW would be particularly interested in having me take their test, and even if they were, I wouldn't put it past 'em to manipulate the results. Besides, a 14 year old entrepreneur is hardly confidence-inspiring to most investors.

"And that's where you come in. I want you to come back and take over the labs. I'd need to be free to pursue my own hobbies, of course, but I don't imagine that'd cause too much trouble, since I'm more interested in what comes out of the engine than what goes in. Dr. Fujita said you used to be the best in the business; no one could make a truly complete and harmonious world like Mori, she said." Gen looked him in the eyes, and, seeing that this tactic wasn't working as well as she had wanted, she chose another: "She told me why you came out here, you know. About your daughter."

Mori flashed her a warning look, but she continued anyway. "Accidents happen, Mori. They're a part of life, and it wasn't your fault. She still had the code; I took a look at the bug that caused it, and there was no way you could have known that the update would cause a buffer overrun. It wasn't your fault, Mori. There was nothing you could have done. It's no reason to hide out here in the middle of the jungle. Think of all the good you could be doing! You could be preventing the kinds of problems that killed your her . . ."

"Enough!" Mori shouted, rising to his feet and grabbing her by the shoulders. "Get out. GET OUT! I will not hear this any longer! You've said your peace, now leave me to my solitude! Get out, and trouble me no more, insolent whelp!"

Gen was visibly shaken by his outburst. She obviously hadn't expected to touch a nerve like that, and seemed nearly at the verge of tears. Gathering herself together, she pulled away, and moved towards the door. Before leaving, she entered a few more chords on her wrist, and her clothing returned to its previous state. She moved as if to leave, then seemed to think the better of it and turned. "I'm sorry to have hurt you, Mori; believe me when I say I've got nothing but respect for you. I only wanted . . . well, here; let me know if you change your mind," she said, pulling a copy of her card out of the wristband and leaving it on the window sill. With a final nod, she turned and departed into the rain, leaving Mori to smolder, alone and in silence.

* * *

Mori sat alone for a long time after she left, brooding. How long, he didn't know; it seemed like hours, but could have been only minutes. Such was often the case when he was given cause to remember Asako.

It had been over two decades since the accident, but Mori could still remember every instant so vividly that to think of it was to experience it again. His beloved daughter, smiling and holding the iris he'd bought for her that very morning, dressed in the yukata that her mother had sewn for the festival. Himself, dressed much as he had been while meditating; his gaijin colleagues often tended to think of themselves as "cowboys," while he had been fascinated with the ronin samurai in his youth. A foolish conceit, he knew, but one which he allowed himself nonetheless.

He had been asked to this small, private reality called by its eccentric Nipponese owner "The Heaven of Plum Blossoms" to correct an error in the code introduced by the third-rate contractor that the old coot had hired to save money. He should have known, of course, that you get what you pay for. And so, when it became abundantly clear that the petals were falling in patterns that the old man deemed inappropriate, he had reluctantly agreed to pay Mori's fee. Thus, Mori, who had been planning a simple day of relaxation with his family, had only this one small bit of business to attend to.

The problem was easily identifiable; in fact, there was a large block of comments within the design code explaining precisely what was going on. Apparently, the old man had badly insulted his previous engineer, and the engineer had decided to get back by inserting a segment into the code which performed the useful function of causing all of the petals in the reality to fall stochastically into a set of kanji accusing its owner of engaging in unnatural activities with young boys and kittens. The code itself was much more clever than Mori would have predicted, given the young man's reputation, but nothing which couldn't be purged by simply replacing the offending algorithms with a more natural progression.

He later learned that what happened next was caused by a flaw in the interface program which had been installed in the terminal. Apparently, his forward declaration, which fully complied with RealWare specifications for interface with a RealWare engine, was subject to a glitch in the Visual Reality Compiler version installed on this engine, which caused its compilations to be subject to crashes if run during sequence numbers divisible by 18394089982. He had simply had the extreme misfortune of running it on precisely the vulnerable fraction of a second. The result was a flash of light, a wave of heat, a smoldering engine, and a reality in need of immediate evacuation. His daughter, who had been standing to the one side which degraded the most, was rendered insensate, and he literally ran with her all the way back to his mobile engine, then all the way to the hospital. But by then, it was already too late . . .

His ruminations were interrupted by the distinctive chirping of his RealNet receiver. He sighed deeply, then rose and went to the monitor. Upon activating it, he was greeted by the familiar sight of the gaijin in the rumpled white dress shirt. It still seemed odd to him that the man insisted on maintaining such impractical dress, including the tie hanging loosely around an open collar, even under his current circumstances. It only made him a bigger target for n00bs. Still, his tribe did well enough for themselves, so Mori supposed there must be some method to his madness. "I'm not in the mood, Victor," he said, then moved to turn off the receiver.

The image of Victor on the monitor ran a hand through his oily, ill-kempt brown hair. "Hey, Mori, hold on a sec! Give me a chance, here!"

Mori settled back impatiently, affixing the man on the screen with a baleful stare he hoped would be sufficient to make him reconsider his impertinence. Sadly, it did not. "I've got a case I want you to take."

"I presume, since you are contacting me, that this is in relation to an Abnormal. I further presume that this creature has proven too clever or dangerous for your usual rabble." He waited for Victor's curt nod, then continued: "Sadly, I must respectfully decline, as I am in no mood for battle today. Perhaps if you wait a few days, I will be more receptive to your overtures."

"Sure about that? We need you, Mori! We can't have the engine crashing; you of all people should know that." At the withering glare that Mori shot him, he apparently decided that it would be wise to back off. "Ok, fine; will you at least let me tell you who it is so that if you see her, you can deal with her? We'll put operatives at her spawn point, so all you have to do is frag her."

Mori toyed with the idea of simply rejecting the offer outright, but in the end, his curiosity and the fact that Victor DID have a point about the danger of allowing whoever it was to run amok won out. "That is acceptable," he said, making it clear that he did not consider this a concession. "However, do not expect me to deal with her myself unless I locate her through happenstance."

"Hey, no problem; I know how it is. Here, I'm messaging you with the data on the subject now. Keep an eye out; apparently she's more dangerous than she looks, as she managed to take down two of my boys." With that, Victor disconnected, leaving Mori to inspect the contents of the message.

He supposed he wasn't really surprised. After all, describing G3nr4t0r as "abnormal" was hardly a stretch. It was a little unusual, however, to see that she was registered as a player (her two kills earlier in the day were marked as such: "G3nr4t0r shredded Br41nDrn[LifeShields]," and "G3nr4t0r sent Rufus[LifeShields] to the Great Beyond"); most "day-trippers" into Tribal Alpha didn't register, given the fact that doing so opened up the possibility of being marked for Final Frag if they happened to stay through the end of the month.

He sighed heavily. He had been wholly truthful when he told Victor that he had no interest in battle today; his interrupted meditations and the subsequent revival of unpleasant memories had left him feeling drained and tired. Still, his responsibility in this matter was clear. He slowly went through the motions of changing back into his fighting garb, collecting his swords (both of them, this time), and began mentally preparing for battle.

Inwardly, he was hoping that she would take the time to flee.

* * *

Victor was, unsurprisingly, still pissed.

Of course now, of all times, Mori would decide to go all pacifist on him. It was ONLY the lives of everyone on Tribal Alpha hanging in the balance, certainly not enough to justify rousing a mopey old fool. Of course, that "mopey old fool" was also the L33t-est man he knew, and the most likely to successfully secure the Abnormal for transit and cleansing, but that didn't make him any less of a drama queen, at the moment.

He went through the short list of operatives he might consider sending after her. In spite of his genuine lack of higher mental functions, Brian WAS one of the better operatives he had, so if she was too good for him, his options were suddenly somewhat more limited. He could send Lucifer, but she was better suited to the "scorched earth" policy, and was moreover currently working on "re-educating" the last set who'd failed at the task. And most of his other operatives were on missions in other realities; one of the other sad facts of life for him was that as soon as an operative started to get really l33t, Mortimer would usually tag that trainee for duties in other locales.

Wonderful, he thought, reaching into the drawer for his capture-sphere and pearl-handled revolver. Like the old saying says, he thought: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

* * *

Mori stalked through the jungle with remarkable speed, for a man wearing heavy skirt-like pants and flimsy sandals, heading in what he felt was the most likely direction for Gen to have taken from his shack. The rain had stopped, leaving the jungle instead cloaked in a thick, steamy fog, obscuring entirely his view of anything more than a dozen yards away from him. Still, he knew this part of the jungle quite well, having lived in it for over two decades, and so his movement was not significantly impeded by natural hazards.

The same could not be said for more human ones. He burst into a clearing only to find himself in the midst of a half-dozen warriors looking for a fight. From their markings and gear, it seemed likely that they were a training squad, likely sent from the nearby Blade Dancer position for a routine skirmish, to get the raw recruits some real combat experience. He knew that, under the circumstances, he would serve as well as any Camper, so he had only seconds to react.

And react he did. They, just as surprised as he, were still working loose their weapons (all melee; Blade Dancers don't accept anything but sword fighters) as he stepped forward, drawing and striking in one smooth motion, and eliminating the closest target. "M0r1[OMC] vivisected Hanzo[Blade_Dancers]," said the tiny earpiece he wore. A gift from Victor (like the RealNet video receiver back at his humble shack), the earpiece ran a simple program which took the broadcasts of the action in the game and read them aloud to field operatives. His was programmed to only repeat alerts related to himself (and, at the moment, G3nr4t0r), to keep him informed of the names of his fallen foes, as well as the actions of his intended quarry. The purpose it mostly served was to remind him that he really wished he hadn't gone in for the whole "l33t" thing when he first got here.

The next-closest opponent rushed in, swinging at him with a blade taller than either combatant. Mori sidestepped, then continued the arc of his previous strike, coming back around to neatly decapitate the man before he could bring his unwieldy blade back up to bear (well, okay; technically it triggered his warp bubble and sent him back to his spawn point, but that fact was not of concern to Mori, as he was currently approaching the Zen of pure Action). "M0r1[OMC] sent JackTNyf[Blade_Dancers] to meet his ancestors." Another girl tried to run in to his right, but he brought his blade down to block and then reversed his grip and spun the sword in an upward slash to split open her belly ("M0r1[OMC] disemboweled JoanTRpr[Blade_Dancers]").

The other three, having seen him take out half their number in less time than it took them to move into a position to strike, warily kept their distance. They spread out, circling him in a triangle formation. Mori smiled slightly and brought his sword up to guard, waiting for one of them to grow impatient. Unsurprisingly, the one with the double-sword came in first, hard and fast. Mori brought his sword up to guard the man's first blow, an overhead strike, and saw the man's victorious smirk turn to a look of shock as he parried the second blow (from the other head, accomplished by reversing the direction of the double weapon after the initial feint was met) with his wakizashi, drawn with his left hand after he recognized the trick, and then brought his blade back down ("2srdzRKL![Blade_Dancers] was shown his role by M0r1[OMC]"). He continued the stroke, reversing his grip on the handle and stabbing backwards while bending at the waist to avoid the rapier strike at the back of his neck and skewering its wielder, who was too committed to the lunge to avoid it ("FncrGRRL[Blade_Dancers] was skewered by M0r1[OMC]"). He struck out with his left blade, but the last fighter wisely danced just out of reach. He stood tall, now bringing both blades to bear.

"Nice moves! What Tribe are you with?" she asked, keeping her two short swords at the ready as they circled each other warily.

He simply looked at her for a moment. "You're new here, aren't you?" To his surprise, she nodded; usually n00bs do their best to hide it. "I am called M0r1, of the OMC Tribe. Once, it was the initials of the Tribe's three founders, but now that most of them have all moved on, it stands for something else." He stepped forward with a probing strike, testing her reaction speed. She easily deflected it, and he retreated from her counterattack. He mentally revised his estimations of her skillz upwards.

"And what, pray tell, is that?" she asked, reversing the grip on her blades to backhand and rushing in for a scissor-strike.

He dropped to one knee, avoiding the throat level strike (too flashy, he thought; I had hoped for better) and stabbing up into her heart with the wakizashi. "One Man Clan," he said, as her body collapsed beside him ("M0r1[OMC] schooled MuffyCox[Blade_Dancers] in the arts of the warrior"). Pausing a moment to clean and sheathe his blades (and contemplate the unfortunate choice of nickname for that young lady), he continued on into the jungle.

* * *

At first, Victor was surprised when his earpiece informed him that Mori was on the warpath. This is what he meant by "not being in the mood for battle?" Somehow, 0wnz1ng an entire patrol of Blade Dancers didn't seem like a lack of enthusiasm for battle to him. Sometimes he wondered if the old man had finally lost it.

His musings were interrupted as a war cry rang out to his right and a trio of axe-wielding D3THL0RDZ burst out of the brush.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Three shots, and suddenly there were three less D3THL0RDZ in this part of the jungle ("URM0MHA![D3THL0RDZ] was shot by Victor[LifeShields]," "N00bHn7r[D3THL0RDZ] was gunned down by Victor[LifeShields]," "84D_D00D[D3THL0RDZ] got gacked by Victor[LifeShields]"). He calmly flipped out the chamber and replaced the three expended rounds. Not as romantic as the sword, he thought, but no less satisfying.

* * *

When he found her, he didn't realize it at first. The color of her outfit had changed to a dull gray, blending into the mists, as had her hair; he only recognized that someone was there due to the skin of her neck peeking out from the top of her outfit. That it was her was clear from her gait, which he had observed during their earlier meeting. He stepped in, hoping to restrain her from behind before she even became aware of his presence.

He lunged forward, grasping at her with both arms . . . only to come up holding only wisps of fog. He sensed a hostile intent, sending him springing backwards, out of the reach of her backhand swipe. As he did so, however, he felt a resistance at his waist; looking down, he discovered that she had grabbed his katana with her other hand, using his own backwards momentum to pull it free. As he landed, she brought the blade into a guard stance, and he quickly drew his wakizashi to match.

"Impressive," he said, and meant it. "I didn't expect you to possess such skill."

A light of recognition briefly played across her features, before being replaced with a look of surprise, as the two began to circle warily. "M0r1? What's this all about? Decided I needed a little more 'discipline' for the crime of reminding you of your past?" Gen asked, her features slowly settling into something more akin to a "game face."

"You should know," he replied, making a few quick passes through the air with the short blade, accustoming himself to its balance in his right hand rather than left. "And do not think to presume yourself worthy to speak Asako's name, while you continue to threaten the lives of others."

She seemed confused at this. "Huh? What are you talking about? This is Tribal Alpha, and last time I checked, you were waving a sword at me, too. Let's look again . . . Oh! Still there," she concluded sarcastically.

"Do not play games with me, girl. You know quite well of what I speak. Your kind are all the same; blithely ignorant of the danger your mere existence poses to reality itself." He closed in, jabbing and slashing a few times to test her defenses. She handled his sword somewhat clumsily, but still managed to use its superior reach and her own quickness to hold him back. "You handle that blade poorly, G3n. An ill-used sword is more liability than advantage."

She shrugged slightly, careful not to upset her stance. "It's not my weapon of choice, but that's not important. What's important is that it IS yours, and as long as I have it, you don't. I know your rep; M0r1, the One Man Clan, only member of the OMC tribe, but still enough of a b4d4$$ to keep yourself well above the margin of purging. Back when you founded the tribe, you were major up and comers in the world of Tribal A, but over the years, the rest of the tribe moved on, and only you stuck it out." She spun the blade herself, mimicking his earlier motions, but did not attack. "And what do you mean, 'my kind?' I guess an old RealWare toady like you might have some animosity towards an ORM brat like me, but I'd figured the whole 'isolated in the middle of the jungle for the last 20 years' thing would have minimized that, having missed the whole movement and all."

Her stance and confidence with the blade were clearly improving, he noted. He knew he should just end things now, but his subconscious need to justify himself kept him talking. "That is not what I was referring to. You are an Abnormal. Your powers, whatever they may be, are a threat to the stability and order of reality that I spent the first half of my life enforcing and the second half revering. They destroy lives, both yours and those of the people around you. Here, they are particularly dangerous, as any engine crash inevitably leads to a loss of life. Therefore, you must be purged, for the protection of all of Reality's other denizens."

Now she seemed utterly lost. "What the fsck are you talking about, old man? Abnormals? Powers? The only time I threaten the integrity of reality is when I code on too little sleep, and I'm not even working on the engine here. I don't intend to be 'purged' over your senseless rambling."

"Undeveloped, then? No matter. It will come in time; it always does." Obviously, she had no intention of taking the offensive. Perhaps she knew that his fighting style relied primarily on counterattack, or perhaps she was simply not confident in her ability with the sword. Either way, he would have to take the offensive to win. He closed the distance and took the first swing.

CLANG! She parried it, keeping her blade in position and holding him back, but he pressed the attack. "First, there is the good luck." The clash of steel on steel rang again, as she deftly maneuvered her blade into position to deflect his second strike. "Then, there's that first moment, when Reality rearranges itself to your whim." CLANG! The third knocked her sword out of position, allowing him a shallow hit. "And then, you learn to control it, and suddenly, you're changing reality to fit your own purposes." His next strike knocked the blade from her hands entirely, and knocked her backwards off her feet. "And then, the engine starts crashing, and people start dying, all because you couldn't control yourself. It is better," he said, raising his blade again with grim determination, "that someone stop you, before it is too late."

He lunged forward, his sword aimed at her heart, as she looked up at him in terror . . .

* * *

She lay on the hospital bed, floating halfway between sleep and wakefulness, as he watched her, agonizing over every second. Her injuries, though severe, were not immediately life-threatening, but it was unclear whether she would ever awaken. Worse, it was unclear if she should be allowed to awaken. Even in this state, her idle dreams and worries changed reality in subtle ways, altering the color of light upon her skin and hair, slowly shifting through the visual spectrum, imperceptible to anyone without his long training in observing glitches in reality. The engine had gone into BSOD twice since she'd been brought here, and though he hated to admit it, it was likely that she was responsible. He watched her in silence, rolling the small syringe he'd palmed and carried into the hospital.

Could he allow her to sleep? Worse, could he allow her to wake? If her condition caused her to disrupt Reality so much in her sleep, what havoc would she wreak when she awakened? And who was he to make that decision?

Finally, as the sky outside turned a garish blue yet again, he made his decision. Rising slowly, he walked to her side, removing the pouch being used to administer her anesthetics. He prepped the needle mostly out of habit; after all, there was no real need to remove the air from a dose intended to induce fatality, but he performed the ritual anyway, hoping it would make her final moments less painful.

As he inserted the needle into her tiny arm, he looked down and saw her eyelids flutter open, and her beautiful green eyes (so much like her mother's!) focus on him. "Daddy?" she asked, in that innocent, scared little voice. "What happened?"

"Don't worry, sweetheart," he replied, putting on a falsely comforting smile. "Everything's going to be alright. Daddy's just giving you some medicine to help you sleep. Just relax, and lie still." He fought back tears as he emptied the poison into his own child's veins. Then he sat down beside her and took her hand in his, smoothing her hair with his other. "Don't worry, Asako. Daddy's here."

"Thank you, Daddy," she said weakly. "I love you." His heart broke with every word.

He choked back tears. "I love you too." He was never sure if she heard him; her eyes had closed, and her hand had gone limp in his. He fought to keep his emotions in check. Later, when he had returned home, there would be time for wailing and cursing the heavens for what he'd had to do today. For now, he had only to wait for the nurses to respond to the alerts sent out when her little heart had stopped.

Part of him wondered whether his own could ever truly beat again.

* * *

. . . and at the last second, he turned it aside, leaving it buried in the moist jungle soil, as he flung himself sideways, ending up laying on his back next to her. Gen didn't know why he'd stopped, but she didn't hesitate to roll the opposite direction, grab the katana, and spring to her feet. He, however, remained grounded, and she moved in to finish him--only to pull up short when she noticed the tears rolling down his face as his body was wracked with sobs. Briefly, she considered finishing him anyway; instead, she grabbed his other sword from beside him and flung them both into the brush. He was repeating something over and over again; it was hard to tell, but it sounded like "I'm sorry." She spent a moment pondering what to do now; nothing since she'd first brought up his daughter had made any sense to her, and this was just the latest wrinkle.

"M0r1? Uhh . . . you okay? I mean, it's cool you tried to kill me and all; I can understand you bein' angry with me, and I can deal. So, uh, don't beat yourself up, k? Here, lemme help you up." She extended her hand to him. For a moment, he gave her a look like a drowning man thrown a final lifeline, then took it, allowing her to haul him to his feet (well, not so much haul in anything but the symbolic sense, but at least aid him in rising).

For a moment, he simply looked down at her, with an inscrutable look in his eyes. "Gen? I believe I will be accepting that job offer. I shall make it a penance for Asako," he said.

"Sounds good. I guess. I mean, welcome aboard!" she replied, hoping his insanity wasn't contagious. "When do we leave?"

He opened his mouth to respond, with the barest hint of a smile, and . . .

* * *

. . . found himself back at his tiny hut. "M0r1[OMC] was executed by Victor[LifeShields]," intoned his earpiece.

The shock lasted only a second before the implications dawned on him. Victor was there, with her, and he had no way to protect her! While he had not been able to send her to her death, Victor would have no such compunctions. No, unless he did something, Gen was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Or was there? He ran to his connection to ServerOps, praying that he would have the time to set things right, this time.

* * *

"Touching, really," Victor gloated as Mori's (simulated) body collapsed to the ground. The Abnormal attempted to back away, but Victor simply tossed the capture sphere at her. The tiny metal orb opened, forming a mouth and rapidly expanding to completely encompass her. The surface became transparent, allowing him to see the confused look on her face as she tested its strength. "Don't bother. These things are specifically designed to resist anything Tribal Alpha can throw at them. Normally, you use them to keep the most dangerous combatants on the other side from engaging you, but my associates and I have . . . re-purposed them to deal with creatures like you."

"What the HELL are you talking about, people like me? You RWIP?" she asked, a look of confusion and disgruntlement on her face.

"Don't bother talking, Abnormal. I'm not as gullible as that old fool I just 0wn3d," he replied, moving into position and preparing to begin rolling the ball back towards LifeShields HQ. "I understand the dangers you pose, and I'm not about to sit idly by and let you destroy Reality."

"DAMMIT! I wish you psycho Alphites would stop accusing me of trying to destroy the world. I have no plans for Reality destruction; it's where I keep all my stuff! Hey! Are you even listening to me? What the heWAAAAA!" She was cut of as he gave the sphere its first push, sending her tumbling around inside. It rolled a few yards before smacking into a tree and halting in the mud. Moving dizzily, she slowly regained her feet as he approached again, smirking. "When I get out of this thing, you are SO on my 0wn list."

"Rest assured, that won't be a problem. When you get out of there, you'll be moved to a location where you can be dealt with more . . . permanently." He rocked the sphere out of the muck, knocking her off her feet again.

"Oh yeah? Guess what, genius? I'm getting out of here sooner than you think!" She pressed some unseen group of buttons on her armband, and the material surrounding her left hand hardened into a set of claws.

"Didn't I tell you not to bother? It won't cut through, no matter what those nice little kitty claws you've got there are made of."

She smiled mischievously."Oh, they're not FOR the bubble." With that, she promptly plunged the hand into her chest, managing to smirk at him victoriously as her replacement fell and gibbed, leaving the inside of the sphere awash in simulated gore.

"G3nr4t0r[OMC] set up herself the bomb," intoned the helpful earpiece. Victor had a moment of savoring victory himself. Obviously, the old man hadn't told her what was waiting at her spawn point. Even now, his agents were probably bagging her and . . .

Wait, what? He hit the replay button on his earpiece. "G3nr4t0r[OMC] set up herself the bomb."

He had to give Mori credit, he admitted. The old man thought fast. He quickly emptied and retrieved the sphere, then set off at a run to Mori's shack. He knew what he'd find, but it would look bad if he didn't at least try.

Victor was pissed.

* * *

" . . . and here's your new office!" Gen intoned with mock perkiness. "It's a little bit of mess, I admit, but we still haven't quite figured out what to do with most of Dr. Fujita's stuff. We'll get it cleaned out sooner or later, though."

"You'll get it cleaned out now," Mori said, moving into the room. "These boxes should be placed in storage; I'll go through them myself and see what should go where."

She looked ready to protest, then simply shrugged her shoulders. "Ok, boss. I'll get right on that. Enjoy the new digs!" she said with a genuine smile, then left. He knew, of course, that she'd just send some poor intern up to schlep all the boxes out, but that was the way of things; the order and virtue of the well run business was that everyone knew their proper duty.

He settled in the large, comfortable chair behind the desk. It was good, he reflected, to be back.


Note: As the subtitle indicates, this is the first in a series of stories. As such, protections are a bit on the strong side, sorry.

Mori: Mori may not be killed, or removed from his position at Fujita Engineering. He may also not become estranged from Gen. You may not explain the source of Mori's scar.

Victor: Victor may not be removed from his command of the LifeShields. He may not be killed. He must remain pissed. You may not delve into Victor's past (as it is the subject of a future chapter).

Gen: You may not use Gen without my express permission, as she has not yet been fully developed as of this story. She'll likely become available once her chapter is over. Oh, and you may not reference her as having used any Reality Adept powers.

LifeShields: Victor must remain in charge of the LifeShields. You may not disband them or force them into final frag. You may not use Lucifer except as a threat for incompetent operatives.

Blade Dancers: The Blade Dancers must remain a melee-only tribe. Other than that, go nuts.

OMC: No further members may be added to tribe OMC.

Fujita Engineering: You may not bankrupt or discredit Fujita Engineering. Mori must remain in charge of it, and Gen must remain employed by it. As DynaWear is still in beta, Gen's outfit is the only one of its kind currently in existence.