AFTERMATH: HACK
Part 2 – The Never-Ending Tale

Chapter 32 – Laying Down the Cards
Revolver

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He doesn't get off the boat, but Spectre is still nearby. He doesn't know if the others were expecting him to have been at the house, though, given their choice of meeting place.

It doesn't matter. The network is isolated for the time being except for them and SOL Technologies, and their communications are well encrypted. Spectre contacts him through his duel disk and he joins the conversation that way.

But first, they watch.

Spectre doesn't push himself into the chatter. He lets the SOL Technology group chat to each other about mundane things, and then the particularities of the code until there is something he needs to chip in about. Spectre, who hasn't spent as much time with programmes and computers as the rest of them. Spectre who has spent years hiding in plain sight.

At some point, Go Onizuka turns to him and asks regarding Earth. Spectre shrugs, having never met him before – but both recall that time Spectre unexplainably had tears in his eyes. Later on they'd discovered that had corresponded to the time Earth had been dismantled by SOL Technologies.

"You'd know more than me," Spectre comments, "though I confess myself disappointed Earth never thought to seek me out."

"What would you have done if he did?" asked Soulburner.

Spectre shrugs and delicately nibbles at a hot dog. He's thinking about the answer though. Revolver can tell, even if the others don't seem so sure. "Depends," he says in the end. "Revolver's end objective was to rid the world of the Ignis, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, as well. And despite that, I would have liked to know Earth's opinion on the affairs of our world."

"Opinion," Go parrots, as Revolver reflects how different that will be now that they've failed multiple times to eliminate the Ignis, and may now be forced to aim for a different end goal. "You would have liked to talk, maybe even have a debate, and then…"

"Who knows." Spectre shrugs again. "That would depend on the outcome of our talk, or debate as it may have been. But we won't get the chance now. Perspectives have changed. The Ignis were all destroyed, and now they are returning. Their perspectives, undoubtedly, have changed as well. And that's assuming they remember at all."

And Revolver has wondered about that as well: wondered, and being able to detect nothing from the coding that may say one way or another. They had traces of Earth's memories, from SOL Technologies, and Ai's memories from the SOLtis and Kusanagi, but that was all. Scraps of memories, when the people who'd encountered them remembered far more.

"And you?" Spectre asks. "What will you do if you see Earth again?"

"Apologise," Go says immediately. And Revolver listens with half an ear to the man's laments. The rest of him focuses on the more interesting discussion between Kusanagi, Soulburner and Playmaker.

"So Jin wants to have limited access to Lightning," Kusanagi is explaining to the other two. "It does depend on how Lightning behaves, of course, but he says this offers him a chance to escape the memories and the times he's felt helpless in the face of the Ignis. But he also says he barely remembers how to duel, and whether he'll handle that well or not…" His fingers curl tightly around the cup. "I don't know if I'm being too cautious or too blasé."

"There's probably no middle ground," Soulburner says quietly. "We all dealt with it in different ways, but the reality is they were harsh scars that were never going to go away. We lost more than six months of time. All of us lost irreplaceable things."

He's talking about his parents, of course, but without the self-decrepitating bitterness he's spoken of them before. Revolver can take comfort, at least, that he's been able to give that much in return.

"Still," Soulburner continued, "without the Ignis war, without Flame showing up at my place, I don't think I would have ever picked up a deck again. Not in the near future, anyway."

"And Jin wants to do the same." Kusanagi sighs. "And honestly, destroying all the Ignis at the end also felt like –" He doesn't say it.

Playmaker does. "It's a waste. All our suffering, and the battles we fought after that. They weren't just to open the doors to the rest of our lives. It was to give meaning to what it cost, and what we gained. It wasn't to throw it all away in the end."

Revolver wishes he could see a little better. Playmaker's expression is a forced neutral, but he generally wasn't as good at hiding his emotions as he thought.

How different their lives would have been without the Lost Incident, he muses yet again. But this is their reality now, and the only question that remains is how to move forward in it.

"Are you still going to punch Ai when you see him again?" Soulburner asks. His grin has a tinge of bitterness to it.

Playmaker's lips, on the other hand, are a thin line and don't twitch. "I plan to," he says, "but we'll see what happens."

"Speaking of what," Kusanagi stays, "will you be moving back in with your parents, or staying here?"

They all glance over at the next table, where the couple are pouring over a data pad with Hayami from SOL Technologies. Revolver can barely see them, given Spectre's angle. And he can't see Zaizen Akira or the bounty hunter siblings at all.

But that's alright. This is Spectre's stage more than his: Spectre who was a victim of the Lost Incident as well as one of the origins for the Ignis. And he and Go Onizuka are still talking about Earth.

No wonder Spectre was eager to take Earth, when Revolver had first broached the issue. He hadn't thought…

Or he had, a little, that the Ignis were created in a way that meant they complemented the children they were born from. Children who'd been ripped to shreds and who'd applied liberal bandages and casts, and so didn't fit as well with their Ignis is their past selves did. But the basis was there, and Spectre was no exception. Lightning and Kusanagi Jin were no exception either, despite how corrupted Lightning's programme had been.

It was a pity, really, that pride had been his sin. Of all the things he'd tried, adding a few extra things to Lightning's programme had been the easiest. Lightning who'd been the first Ignis, and thus woefully incomplete. But he'd created Pandor from scratch, and from Pandor and his father's simulations, he was able to apply patches to Lightning's code. Of course, he didn't know whether it would work. He didn't know who would remember how much, either.

But the Ignis weren't as perfect and untouchable as they thought. Even if none of them could work out how to switch off their auto-renewal and auto-growth functions quite yet, they'd been manipulated by humans as easily as by other Ignis.

If they could create a different meeting room than a battleground coated in blood old and new, then they could make something of this second chance.

As Playmaker said, and as his father had said once before, destroying the Ignis had made all that effort and all those sacrifice seem like a waste, but at the time there'd been nothing better to do.

Now they're all bare, half formed and vulnerable. He can't waste this chance any more than the rest of them, because as much as he'd come to hate AI in his youth, the battle against the Ignis had proven they couldn't fight in this modern world without them.

Pandor might have been his contradiction, but it was also his compromise and his proof. And now, she was the possibility of hope for the other Ignis as well.

But whether it worked as well as he'd planned… They'd only know after the window to alter things had closed.

"There comes a time," his father had told him once, "when all that's left to do is trust in your work."

And that time is close at hand, for the Ignis' return.