"That thing don't look like no cop's car."
"I traded up."
- Noa Izumi, Mobile Police Patlabor
Fayt's party was at the edge of the Universal Firewall. At the end of their journey and surrounded by floating angelic Executioners, the only thing denying them safe passage to the Fourth Dimension was a sequence of seven digital locks lined up in front of an ancient marble archway. Once their pompous feathery foes were dealt with and the gate was opened, the party could finally travel to the world of the higher beings invading their dimension. They were going to find out exactly who this menace was and why they had turned hostile.
The party was about to get their answers through means they never would have anticipated.
The catch was the seven locks had been physically placed there by 4D beings and only someone with the Connection gene could interact with them. Good thing Sophia had been encoded with such a gene shortly after she was born. She tried to help the rest of her team as best she could—quickly summoning a light bolt here, firing off a fireball there—but her time was better spent putting her magic staff down and working at those ancient electronic locks. Each one was designed as a complex puzzle box that had to be meticulously set in order. Being the most scholarly (read: nerdy) member of the team, it took all of her concentration to use her powers on just one of the devices. She was mainly supposed to play a support role, anyway.
The battle between mortals and angels raged behind Sophia's back. A bead of sweet dropped down her temple as she furiously concentrated and thought about the lives of all of her friends. The first lock finally deactivated between her glowing palms, causing the firewall to lose one-seventh of its strength.
She quickly hopped over to lock #2. Now these devices didn't seem so mysterious and alien to her. Little by little, she was starting to understand the technology of the Fourth Dimension.
An alarm went off in the Sphere Company data processing center. While most of the hundreds of workers on maintenance duty stopped what they were doing and scrolled to the alert windows on their holographic monitors, Welch hardly paid attention to the commotion. She was too preoccupied with her usual afternoon ritual: Listening to "Ai Yo Faraway" by Rie Fujiwara and making angry posts on the Spherenet telling people about how much she didn't like The Myth of Griselda: Exhalation of the Uncontrollable.
"This one's yours, Vineyard," a fellow engineer said from a console on her right.
That was enough to peak her curiosity. She opened her virtual diagnostic toolbox on her floating screens and closely studied the readouts.
"I think your little bunny is getting too smart for her own good," a second engineer said from her left.
"Then I'll just have to trim her cute fluffy tail," she replied with a coy smirk.
Welch was one of a few select SphereCo programmers assembled to directly monitor the group of Eternal Sphere characters that had drawn the attention of Luther and the other higher-ups. There had been situations in the past where the imaginary life forms inside the ES simulation were close to becoming self-aware of what they were, but those issues always turned out relatively minor. As the virtual civilization advanced over thousands of simulated years, however, the problem became concerning to the point that the Executioner protocol had been in affect for the past month.
But sending deleter programs to nullify large swaths of the Eternal Sphere still hadn't been enough to scare its inhabitants into staying naïve and leaving the boundary between simulation and reality well enough alone. The program named Fayt Linegold and his space adventuring friends were a small band of characters who had been brushing dangerously close to finding out the truth as of late. The Sphere company had created the Infection Defervescion Squad (FECTDEF) as a countermeasure. Each worker on the Fourth Dimension side was a specialist assigned to one member of the party of rogue programs. Fayt was unknowingly monitored by Fred, Nel was regularly debugged by Nancy, Cliff was tracked by Keith, Maria was censored by Bart Shipyard, and so on. Welch had been assigned to make sure Sophia kept her kitty stockings out of trouble and always behaved in accordance with the Eternal Sphere's parameters.
And right now, Sophia was doing something that amounted to standing on top of the universe and shouting "I'm a strong independent AI construct who don't need no stupid System Admin configuring my settings!" That meant trouble.
Welch scooted closer to her console and went straight to work. Her fingers flew across her keyboard like a maestro performing his greatest piano masterpiece.
"Okay, Sophie," she said toward her monitors mischievously. "You're going in the magic hat."
Sophia finally solved encryption lock #6. The Executioner looming in the air just behind her responded by plopping a golden tabernacle over her head.
Sophia flinched in surprise when the hollow device landed on her shoulders and instantly shackled itself around her neck. It completely covered her head, rendering her blind and faceless. All of her senses were blocked behind a quarter-inch of gilded metal decorated with ceremonial reliefs and connected to a long tube that grew out of the Executioner's mutated slithering arm. The contraption left only Sophia's long brown hanging down her back. She was a female body dressed in a stylish sorceress mantle, a corset, and thigh stockings with a scaled down Ark of the Covenant for a head.
The angel Executioner pulled her arm upward, lifted Sophia several feet off the ground by her head. The human mage's hands frantically clawed at the sides of the head trap to fight free as her legs flailed wildly in the air. The Executioner began to pray in silence, initiating a data stream that began at her mangled arm and flowed downward through the tube.
The data manifested as thousands of quivering leeches that swarmed into the tabernacle and came pouring like rain over Sophia's encased head. Her hollow echoing screams alerted the rest of her party that she was in trouble, before her cries abruptly ended with a gagging noise and her entire body thrashed limply in the air a few seconds later. Leeches poured out from underneath the tabernacle in endless slimy waves for the next minute, washing down Sophia's blouse and falling to the floor in a large squirming puddle. On average, only about 30% of the worm programs actually found their way to the right directory (in Sophia's ears)—a completely sufficient number.
Fayt cut his way through a pair of Executioners and rushed to save Sophia, but it was too late. She was already well on her way to being cleansed by way of Cherubim Grubs wreaking divine intervention through her soft brain tissue. Her arms swung lifelessly like a rag doll's each time the helmet rocked with another slimy downpour of leeches. Her legs dangled with her feet turned inward, occasionally twitching in nervous tremors.
Finally, the seemingly endless flood of parasites ran dry. The collar keeping Sophia's head fastened inside the tabernacle loosened and let her body flop out of the air like a meat slab in a buckled miniskirt. She crashed roughly on the floor and remained motionless on her side. She was breathing quickly in semi-consciousness and coughing to clear the leech ooze around her mouth.
The Executioners granted a temporary stay of execution. They simply ceased their attacks against Fayt's team and hovered high in the air, allowing them to recuperate in confusion.
Then the party's eyes all fell on Sophia.
The tube hanging off of the leech Executioner's arm mutated a second time and became an energy cable. The end of the wire grew into a ball of static fuzz and slowly lowered behind Sophia's resting form. Pressing against the back of her skirt, it shot a tiny surge of electricity up the base of her spine.
Sophia instantly flinched back to awareness. After delivering a single jolt, the wire pulled away and quickly retracted back into the Executioner's choir robe. Sophia groggily climbed back to her feet and shook her head, before glancing toward the rest of her teammates with an eerie smile.
She lifted her lunar wand from where she had set it on the altar of firewall locks. Without saying a word, without ever losing her strangely cheerful complexion, she raised her staff above her head and started to twirl it in a circle. It was clearly an act meant to threaten the rest of the party.
Cliff just watched with his arms crossed and rolling his eyes.
"Wonderful. We come here looking for a way to save the galaxy. Now Sophia has bugs on the brain and wants kill us. Who didn't see that one coming?"
Suddenly, Sophia's spinning wand began to glow neon and opened a shining circular void out of the space above her head. For a brief moment, the light raining down on her made her appear as a faceless three-dimensional gridmap of her bare self. The energy void glided down her body from the top of her head down to the bottom of her feet, moving over her intimate feminine topography with the precision of a laser scanner bar. As the ring passed over her, she instantly re-materialized into a new outfit.
Blouses, corsets, and miniskirts were out. Body-conforming glossy unitards were in. Sophia was now donning a black and dark blue jumpsuit that covered everything up to her neck, yet managed to reveal so much more than her usual clothes. A light gray stripe started at her chin and ended at the bottom of her chest. Her arms and upper chest were sealed in black. The painted-on pattern for a dark blue jumper dress with silver trim crossed over her shoulders, formed a window sill around the bottom of her chest, tightly hugged down her stomach, sides and back, and stopped at her hips. The dark blue portion of the suit ended with an arch shape over the front of her waist. The material clinging to her lower waist and her legs changed back into shiny black. Dark blue sock patterns with flat gray shoelace lines went around her ankles, while sewn-in rubber soles supported the bottom of her feet. No one in Fayt's party could have known she was wearing the uniform for a female Sphere Corporation data manager adapted as a sleek combat suit.
There were other details that hinted at Sophia's new quasi-celestial nature. Her ears were covered by large pointed communication antennas that slanted toward the back of her head. The skintight creases of her suit were printed with the phrase "SPHERE02 PROVISIONAL" across the top of her breasts. "IUDEX SANCTUS" was printed across the bridge of of her pelvis just underneath the blue arch. "VERMIS ASCENDIT" was emblazoned on a patch on her left shoulder. "EXSEQUOR RECHTS" was printed on the back of her right glove. "EXSEQUOR LINKS" was printed on the back of her left glove. "4D SYNTHESIZED" was printed across the spandex covering the back of her neck, hidden underneath her long hair. "SOFI .TRUNC REV. 1 .0 .1 .438" and "VNYRD SOLUTIONS" was printed along the ample curves of her tailbone in smaller font.
To Sphere Corporation personnel, Sophia was a recycled sprite asset (registered as WelchDoll Demonstration Build X0G7, or "White Rabbit" in shorthand) optimized for system clean-up and threat management, and she had just activated her Patrol mode. To the denizens of the Eternal Sphere, she was a beautiful angel of death sent by a neo-futuristic God.
"Well, that's different." Peppita blinked.
"Faithless usurpers," Sophia spoke coldly to the team. Her normally sweet and playful voice boomed with digital amplification. "Cease your defilement of this sacred sector and the Creators shall grant you mercy."
Fayt drew his sword. Cliff cracked his knuckles. Maria aimed her blaster. Peppita balanced upside-down on one hand while bending her legs in a fighting stance. Abel made a smug face. Nel reached into her sash and pulled a set of shuriken into her fingers.
On the opposing side, Sophia gracefully opened her palms and summoned digital green flames in her hands. The Executioners multiplied out of thin air and protectively hovered around her in a flock of hundreds.
"So you persist in your erratic ways," the glossy techno-oracle spoke menacingly. "Prepare to be expunged from this universe's memory."
The two factions clashed in a divine test of Sophia's abilities and devotion. With former friends as weak and hopeless as hers, she wasn't going to stay in Provisional status for very long.
Sophia stood in the smoldering graveyard the battlefield had turned into a few minutes later. The armies of Executioners disappeared from the air and returned to standby. Likewise, Sophia closed her eyes and lowered her processing priority. Her bodysuit transformed back into light energy and reverted to her natural Eternal Sphere appearance.
Opening her eyes and smiling peacefully, Sophia spoke toward the empty space in front her.
"How's that for a trial run, Welch?"
"You sure showed 'em who's boss! I knew we'd make a great team!" a friendly girlish voice echoed inside her head.
"Does this mean I'm officially licensed now?" Sophia asked wishfully, as if she were a virtual reality Pinocchio talking to the Blue Fairy.
"Luther gets the final say on that, but he'd be crazy to say no." the voice replied. "Just keep your ears perked and your nose wiggly and hang out on one of the sunnier planets for right now. I'll be sure to put in a good word for you at the next corporate review!"
Author's note: Isn't it cool how Sophia's Japanese VA sang the Angelic Layer theme song and her English VA voiced like every female Castlevania character in existence? I mean it's not like how James McCaffrey was cast in the triple role of Michael Payton/Joseph Payne Astor/Max Payne, but it's still pretty rad.
Author's note 2: This was partially inspired by Mami Tomoe getting her tuffet chomped in case you couldn't tell.