"Sophia told me everything! I can't believe you!"
The sound of Welch's palms slamming down on the chairman's desk filled the office almost as much her angered shouting. Luther was calmly leaning forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his side of the desk as his hands formed a steeple under his nose.
"What exactly does 'everything' entail?"
Welch clenched her teeth, further insulted by Luther's display of ignorance.
"You know what I'm talking about! You took her to some weird part of the Sphere I can't even log into and messed with her head! When I asked her where the rest of her party ever got to, she told me how you made her kill all of her friends like she enjoyed it!"
He offered what was likely a feigned look of sympathy as he explained his version of the situation to his young subordinate.
"You misunderstand. Sophia Esteed was repurposed as an anti-virus sentry so a major threat to the Eternal Sphere's stability would be eliminated. The only reason she wasn't erased along with the other anomalies was because her Connection algorithm provided a backdoor I could use to correct the problematic parts of her coding. I wouldn't have been able to spare her if I had handled the issue any other way."
Welch's expression changed to a mixed look of anger and horror.
"Are you kidding? She's not even Sophia anymore! You turned her into some monster pretending to be Sophia!"
Her blonde pigtails swirled through the air as she stubbornly shook her head. She stepped away from the desk and coiled her hands into fists before lowering her voice to an intimidating growl.
"You've gone too far, Mr. Lansfeld. I'm going to tell everyone what's going on before this gets any worse. Eternal Sphere characters are just as human as you and me, even if they are just computer programs to you. What are you going to do next, brainwash actual people who get in your way?"
Luther slowly tilted back in his chair with an audible sigh of defeat. After a moment of contemplation, he rose to his feet and stepped around the executive desk. He placed a single hand on his employee's shoulder in a friendly manner after dismissing the two guards at his door with a soft nod.
"Perhaps you're right, Welch. Maybe we should talk this over before I get too far ahead of myself."
Welch's mood seemed to soften as she blinked, but she still wasn't completely convinced by his sincerity. While she was considering her options and allowed her doubts to distract her, she suddenly winced at a sharp pinch in her neck. She turned her head in shock to see one of the guards had silently approached her from behind and tucked a tranquilizer gun just under her chin. When she glanced back toward Luther's smirking face, her eyelids were already beginning to drop.
The hand on her shoulder was the only thing keeping her from completely toppling over. His voice echoed in the back of her head a final time before everything went black, sounding ominously amused.
"On second thought, your idea does sound rather intriguing."
It was a busy day at the Peterny Craftsman's Guild, and the fact Welch had logged out early didn't make things any easier. She had been very apologetic when she asked Sophia if she would be okay by herself, but all she would say was an emergency had come up and she had to talk to their boss right away. Sophia wondered what could have changed her co-worker's cheerful disposition so quickly, but she was too busy running errands around the workshop, taking orders at the front desk, and assisting guild members with their inventions to think about it for long. Aside from the occasional mishap, she was always happy to help other people.
During a calm in the middle of the storm, Sophia heard a faint chiming sound in her ear. Her eyes curiously turned in the direction of the noise as if she were listening to an invisible microphone.
"Hmm? Did you want something, Mr. Lansfeld?"
Luther's voice soon clicked on, speaking in the same rewarding tone it typically used.
"Hello, Sophia. Do you remember the memory address of the quarantine sector?"
Sophia smiled playfully to herself. It was common sense to her.
"Of course I do. It's where you created me. Do you need me to go there for something?"
The voice almost broke into a low chuckle when it replied.
"As soon as you can."
The Sphere Corporation's lead programmers had assembled in one the company's massive control rooms after being summoned by Luther. A crowd of technicians sat at their consoles preparing for the complicated task that awaited them. An enormous screen covered most of one wall and displayed two female figures floating lazily in empty space. On the left was Sophia in her familiar pink and violet outfit. An in-game representation of Welch drifted beside her on the right, clad in her blue and black Sphere uniform. The same programmer responsible for "recruiting" Sophia was standing off to the side from the rest of his group and having an uneasy conversation with his employer.
"I still don't understand what's going on. What do you want us to do?"
Luther calmly glanced toward the left half of the main monitor.
"This girl was created by the Eternal Sphere so its foolish inhabitants could interact with our world and convince themselves they were living human beings. Unfortunately, most the code that would normally allow her to transition from virtual reality to physical reality was corrupted when we were updating her. By patching her code to a human subject, I hope to create a workaround for this problem and restore some of her peripheral abilities."
The technician shook his head, even more confused than before.
"But why? I thought the entire point was to prevent that from happening."
Luther glanced toward his assistant and allowed hints of a confident smirk to appear in his otherwise cold expression.
"The point was to prevent the Eternal Sphere's AI from bringing its war to us. There's no harm in making use of its weapons once they've been disarmed."
When he turned back toward Sophia, his voice took on a clearly optimistic quality.
"Sophia has proven herself to be quite talented in assessing current risks to the Eternal Sphere. So far she's dealt with every issue that's come our way with exceeding efficiency. She's only been working from the inside out, however. I want to see to how well she'll fare monitoring the system from our point of view from time to time. With all of her knowledge, maybe she'll be able to spot problems before we even realize she should investigate them."
His attention then shifted to the other figure on the screen.
"Welch is about the same physical age and has been on our custodial staff for a while now, so she should be a natural fit. We won't even have to worry about that previous problem with Sophia's combat powers harming us while she's here. She'll be restrained to only what the physical avatar we're providing her is capable of."
The programmer had heard enough and could no longer hold back his objections.
"But Welch is a human being! Even if she's technically part of the game right now, anything we do to her will have a permanent effect when she transfers out of the terminal!"
Luther wasn't the least bit bothered by this observation.
"Then you best keep her registry key intact so she CAN transfer out."
He then began speaking out of stern authority.
"She's an employee of the Sphere Corporation. She knew our policy regarding confidentiality. Consider this to be a disciplinary measure."
When he strategically raised his voice just loud enough so the whole room could hear, he spoke with a subtly menacing quality.
"And if we don't go through with this, there would only be one other way to stop her from going public and compromising everything we've worked on. Would your team prefer to use that solution?"
After some final hesitation, the programmer walked away in silence and took his station with the rest of his colleagues.
The last few fragments of a female silhouette materialized inside the Eternal Sphere terminal before the airtight structure swiveled open. A girl who looked identical to Welch took a few steps out of the device, shaking some residual fuzziness out of her head before stopping to study her surroundings. It actually looked like a nice place, when you weren't being chased by guards and constantly shot at.
Luther was the only other figure in the room, patiently waiting for her just outside the terminal.
"Welcome back, Sophia. How do you feel?"
She recognized his physical appearance from when she first crossed his path as a member of Fayt's party, but now she couldn't remember why they had ever been enemies. Her eyes shifted from the walls of the Sphere Corporation hallway as she diverted her attention to herself. Her gazed toward her toes, then studied her hands, then looked down over her shoulder. Welch was only a year or so older than her, so their measurements weren't too terribly different. She scratched at the ribbon in one of her pigtails and tucked one ankle behind the other to get a feel for her pantyhose as she tried to decide how she wanted to react.
"Umm... this is a little different from what I'm used to, but I think I'll manage."
A warm smile crossed her lips when she gave her uniform a second look and tugged at the black hem of her miniskirt.
"At least this dress is pretty cute."
Luther gave a reassuring nod when he spoke.
"Don't worry. This is only for when you need to exist in 4D space. You'll be back to your usual self when you're inside the Eternal Sphere."
Sophia curiously tilted her head and blinked as she questioned her superior. She had been told ahead of time her human friend would serve as the means of traveling outside of the Eternal Sphere again, but she had not been informed of the finer details.
"What happened to Welch? Will I get to see her again?"
Luther closed his eyes and bowed his head when he delivered the bad news.
"I'm sorry, Sophia, but most of Miss Vineyard's consciousness had to be nullified to ensure you could be safely be installed. Aside from some bits and pieces you may end up inheriting, she's gone for good."
Her mouth quickly drooped into frown as her brow furrowed. Suddenly caught between shock and disappointment, she weakly uttered a single syllable.
After she looked to the ground and sighed, she gradually reclaimed her positive demeanor. At least the loss wasn't in vain.
"I'll miss her, but that's okay. She was always worried about me when we were running the guild together, so I bet she was glad she was able to help me do this. I just wish I had a chance to thank her."
Luther nodded again and returned her smile.
"All she wanted was for you to be safe. She couldn't have been happier."