""Welcome back, Zahra!""
Today was a momentous day at the Hinobi store. After the alleged 'gas leak' at Glitch Techs HQ, employee Zahra Rashid was forced to take a week-long paid vacation to heal up due to her mild injuries. Everything was taken care of by the Hinobi Company, including her medical fees due to workplace insurance.
The store was a sombre place to be without her go-to snark and 'big sister' attitude. Zahra was, after all, one of the high-level members there with unmatched intense skills. Despite never showing it, even Mitch acknowledged her abilities and that by itself spoke volumes. She was also the type to help out newbies, making her well-liked by the crew.
Thus today, this Hinobi store celebrated her return. Nothing extravagant, mind you. A few streamers hung around here and there, one 'Welcome Back' banner with her name taped at the end and of course, cheap plastic kazoos for everyone. This was still a public store so for everyone not working there, it looked a tad odd.
Still, it's the thought that counts.
"Thanks, guys. You all are rad as heck." Zahra exclaimed, holding a paper plate with a slice of chocolate cake on top. They only bought that one slice. Budget reasons.
While Zahra chatted with the others, Hector 'Five' Nieves stood at the back, away from the spotlight. He pulled out his phone and snapped a picture, immediately posting it online in his social media account. He didn't have that many followers; just a few hundred or so. But it was one in particular that he hoped to see it.
"Hey there, boss. Nice to see you hanging out here in the back."
"WOAH!" Five screamed, throwing his phone in the air. In an attempt to catch it, he instead slapped it up repeatedly like a tennis ball before comically slipping and falling. Meanwhile, without looking, Zahra caught the runaway phone easily with her right hand, her cake half-eaten in the other.
On the ground with a throbbing head, Zahra lowered her hand and the phone to him, smirking. "You dropped this."
Five gave a weak laugh and took the phone before getting up, rubbing his head with embarrassment. "Hehe, sorry about that..."
"No problem. It's good to see you again." Zahra looked around, searching for someone. "Say, where's Miko? She's usually with you, like a married couple."
Abruptly, Five's face flushed red. "W-W-WHAT?! WE'RE NOT DATING! WHO TOLD YOU THA—?!"
She punched him lightly in the shoulder. "I'm just kidding. It's a joke."
Immediately, he breathed out in relief. "Y-yeah, joke..."
"Still though, where is she?" Zahra asked, looking left and right. She was looking forward to seeing her again, especially after the fiasco that put her off of work.
Five, on the other hand, looked conflicted. "Oh, well, she has a few problems at the moment."
Zahra's eyebrows perked up at the news. "Oh? Like what?"
He flinched with a hiss. "Well..."
A few hours ago, Japanese-American faux-Digimon girl Miko Kubota woke up to answer the call of nature. Not the one people were used to; just the call of being thirsty. After all, hydration was important.
"Need... Water..." she groaned, still bleary-eyed and tired. She wasn't sure what time it was but her gut told her it was early. Far too early. Yet, her needs cannot be ignored and thus, she powered through and out of her bed.
In her pyjamas and cute cat-themed slippers, Miko dragged her feet slowly across the hall and down the stairs. The wall clock ticked in its consistent pattern, providing sound in the otherwise quiet household. Not a wisp of noise nearby. Just the wind, the ticking clock and Miko's exhausted footsteps.
Grabbing a glass, she turned the tap and waited as it filled, the flowing water hitting the brim. The wait was agonizing, all while her mouth felt drier and drier over time. She could barely keep her eyes open, let alone stand by the kitchen sink. Once the seconds passed, the cup was finally filled and she immediately took a sip, followed by rapidly gulping down every drop.
"Hmm..." she hummed with a smile, content with the ever-so cooling sustenance.
Out of nowhere, the wind whooshed behind her ears, causing her to shiver. Someone must've forgotten to close the windows. Weird, usually her mom checked them every night. Eh, it didn't matter. She could do it herself.
Miko walked to the living room and searched for the window. Awkwardly enough, the more she strolled through the house, the colder it turned. The wind was also stronger as if she was completely outside. Also, was the floor always this dusty?
Now, where was that window?
Suddenly, Miko felt something lumpy underneath her sole, forcefully waking her up. She lifted up her foot to take a look, only to find a wad of bubblegum stuck to her slipper.
"What the...?" She muttered, perplexed. Looking further, she noticed there was a lot of dust, rocks and broken pieces of ceramic and wood lying around, along with a few glass shards here and there.
Also, the lack of a wall.
Her eyes shot wide and her pupils shrunk. "Oh. My. God."
The wall was gone. The living room wall that separated the house from the front lawn, it was completely gone. There was a large hole through it, as if a meteorite crashed through the building. An extremely silent meteorite. The surrounding debris, ruined furniture and the lack of noise proved it.
"So yeah, now she has to stay at home for a bit and the police are there. They think some drunk person drove a truck into the house without waking anyone." Five said, trying his best to explain.
Zahra visibly cringed. "Oof, that's harsh. I hope they have insurance to cover that. But hey, I'm glad no one's hurt."
"So..." Zahra looked at Five's arm. "How's the arm?"
Five lifted his left arm and wiggled it. "It's completely healed. How about your leg?"
In turn, Zahra shook her right leg. "A bit sore at times but I'll live."
"Must be fun being paid to stay at home." Five exclaimed. It's true that Five got some days off as well but only for a couple of days, not an entire week. Imagine all of the games he could've played in that time. Then again, that would mean being unable to walk for a few days and he quite liked walking. That was how he got to places.
"Sure, if you think sitting at home and doing school work as fun." Zahra replied with a shrug. That's right; school was a thing. Which reminded him, he should really finish his homework later.
Just then, Phil the Hinobi store manager appeared from his office around a corner. "Zahra, Five; I need you two in my office, asap. Oh and Mitch, you're on counter-duty today. Bergy called in sick."
"What?!" Mitch yelled in shock, stacking some boxes of last season's Hinobi-brand shoes by the front. One in particular, precariously placed at the top, toppled from its throne and hit the gamer in the head, much to his chagrin. Mitch rubbed his head pain, all while Phil just stared at him tiredly.
Insult to injury at its finest.
"Yeah... You'll work it out." Phil nonchalantly said, before then turning to Zahra and Five, standing by. "Come on, you two. Office, prompto."
Walking into his office, the room was exactly as he expected from his last visit; professionally boring with the AC turned up to the max. Oh, but it seemed Phil got himself a poster to spruce the place up! The classic 'Hang in There' poster at that but instead of a cat on a tree, it was Chomp Kitty. Nice choice; Five had a similar poster in his bedroom.
"So, why'd you call us in, Big Boss?" asked Zahra, her arms crossed.
Taking his sweet time, Phil slowly took a seat and neatly stacked some papers together. He then stapled them before placing them to side alongside a cup of coffee. It was a strong brew and recently roasted. The beans were sustainably sourced, as expected for Hinobi Technologies.
Phil lifted the cup to his lips before setting it back down. It was too hot. "Yeah, well, I want you two to team up temporarily. Since you don't have a partner and Miko's currently unavailable, you're the only pair left."
Five's eyebrow raised. "Wait, what about Mitch? Bergy's not here too, right?"
"Yeah, well," Phil mischievously smiled. "I thought it'd be good for him to be grounded for a bit. Remind him of what it's like to be a noob. Don't tell him that, kay?"
The two Techs stifled a laugh. It's not like they wanted the No.1 Player to suffer but a harmless joke wasn't so bad. Besides, he kinda deserved it from time to time.
"Anyway, you two are okay with this, right? It's only temporary, by the way."
"Yeah, I'm down for that. What about you, Five?" Zahra asked, turning to him.
Well, they do have a history of working together, even if just once. Working as the team leader was definitely a wake-up call to him which led to the team quest going extremely well. He was grateful to have that experience despite the early bumps.
No reason to reject. "Definitely."
Phil nodded, then standing up. "Alright then. Now let's synchronise your gauntlets."
"Say what now?"
Phil groaned in exasperation, having explained this one too many times. Nonetheless, he decided to tell anyways while he did the deed. A small holographic screen appeared between the two Techs.
"Partners have their gauntlets synchronised as a security feature. You'll know where your partner is, when your partner uses their tech and what they're using. In fact, you'll even know if someone else uses it."
"Really?" Five exclaimed, surprised. "I didn't know that and I already went on a bunch of missions!"
"That's because your gauntlet is synchronised with Miko's. I added it when I gave you two the replacements." Dragging a digital object labelled 'Five' to another labelled 'Zahra', the two gauntlets blinked, linking them. "There we go. Synchronised with no problems. You can technically sync up with three people but the new policy states that only two should be linked when on duty."
Five turned to his gauntlet, scrolling through its small screen, and there it was; a new app with information regarding Zahra's gauntlet. And oh wow, she has a lot more mods than he thought, some he never even heard of. What in the world is a 'black hole bomb'?
"So, we're done here, right?" Zahra asked, checking her gauntlet.
"Yep." answered the middle-aged man. He then sat on his office chair and slowly, in dramatic fashion, leaned back, leaving the two staring at him until he finished. Finally, he grabbed the now-cooler cup of coffee from his desk and took a long and very loud sip.
He smacked his lips. The coffee was bitter, just the way he liked it.
"Now get out of my office."
Contrary to popular belief, there were actually multiple Glitch Tech bases all over the country. Each base or 'HQ' was connected to several Hinobi stores with the manager of the main store being the supervisor of the base itself. For example, Phil. This meant there were multiple entryways and exits from the base and with each base being responsible to a specific region or territory, these paths were conveniently used as shortcuts. This was also why Glitch Tech has a lot more workers than actual employees at the main store.
"So, where are we heading first, boss?" Zahra asked, sitting in the passenger seat of the van. Seatbelts on and her elbow on the opened window, Zahra felt the cool summer breeze flow around her face. Five, on the other hand, had both hands steady on the wheel. His window was rolled down as well, leaving the AC turned off. No need to be wasting fuel that way.
"Actually, I've been meaning to ask. Why do you call me 'boss'?"
"Huh? Well, because you were team leader once. So that makes you the boss." Zahra answered as frankly as possible.
Confused, Five continued. "Yeah well, you were leader once, right? So how come you're not the boss?"
"Well, being team leader can be a pain and I'm not a fan of the responsibilities. Besides," Zahra stretched her arms up and leaned back on the seat. "Having someone else as team leader adds a little extra challenge, y'know?"
He couldn't argue with that. Gamers were a demographic that thrived on challenge. That's why speedrunners, completionists and one-life-only players exist. Some games even catered to them, being designed with their unique gameplay style in mind.
So, Five just shrugged. "Hmm, that makes sense."
They continued on the road ahead, driving safely without a goal in mind. It wasn't a problem though as the van was connected to the Glitch Techs HQ at all times, including the bounty list. All they had to do was pick one and get right on it. Though, they still had to drop off the Glitches captured and collect the EXP back at base.
"What about this one?" Five asked, picking a Glitch from the screen beside him. "Captain Eduardo von Schweetz from the game Foodz Brawlz. Apparently there's another Glitch there too. It's a ninja and they're fighting each other."
"Sweet, double EXP! I'm not going to say 'no' to that. Lead the way, boss." Zahra replied with a smile. Hearing no response, Zahra turned to him. "Five, did you hear me?"
Despite the careful and attentive driving, the Spanish-speaking boy wasn't completely there, looking detached and unaware. Zahra snapped her finger by his ear a couple of times, snapping him out of his trance. "Huh, what? Oh, sorry about that."
"Yeah, no problem… You wanna talk about that?"
With one hand still on the wheel, he rubbed his head and chuckled quietly. "Sorry, it's just… Miko and I fought against a Captain Eduardo just over a week ago. It was the same day she glitched out and we found out she was… You know, that."
Zahra nodded understandingly. "Ah, that's right. She's a Glitch."
"Probably a Glitch." Five exclaimed. "I'm still iffy about calling her that and well… we met someone a few days ago."
"What, like an old man in a cave that tells you the secrets of the universe?"
Five's face contorted in recoil. "Eh, more like the person that broke into Glitch Tech HQ and kicked our butts."
Startled, Five accidentally pressed the gas pedal, causing the vehicle to accelerate suddenly. Noticing a nearby intersection, he then stomped on the brakes, stopping the van hard and having it to lurch forward, leaving tire marks and smoke behind them. Just then, the traffic lights turned red and in front of him, a mother duck and her little yellow ducklings crossed the road, quacking along the way. Five wiped the sweat off his forehead and breathed calmly.
"Phew, that was close." Five said with a little nervous laugh. Looking beside him, Five found his Muslim partner with her hands covering her face. "Uh, Zahra? You okay?"
Zahra did not answer, for quite a while at that. It was an awkward silence and in his mind, Five wondered whether he said something wrong. Well, the revelation kinda proved that he did, considering the only thing they knew about the invader was that it was a 'she', but there was no other way of cutting it. Heck, he didn't even tell Phil about it! It was an off-day and he didn't think he needed to.
Slowly as the silence maintained and Zahra continued to have both hands on her face, Five grew ever so nervous.
"Please don't be mad at me." Five pleaded uttered under his breath, biting his lip.
Zahra groaned. She took her hands off from her face and tilted her head upwards. With her eyes closed, Zahra took a deep breath. "I'm not mad. Just…" Zahra pinched her temples, overwhelmed. "That was not the bombshell I expected today."
"Yeah, I—" Five coughed. "Hm, I could see that."
The traffic light turned green and steadily, Five picked up the pace. The awkward silence returned but only for a short moment. Curiosity eventually caught up so Zahra turned to ask. "So… What was she like?"
He tried to recall what Miko told about her the day after their… um, 'date'… seeing that they seemed to have first-hand interaction with one another. Also mostly because Miko and Meico look completely identical.
"She was…" Five began.
"RRRAAAAHHHHHHH!" Meico screamed in pure anger as she continued her barrage of punches.
"NNGAAAAHHHHHHH!" Miko yelled back, blocking the assault with her back against the wall.
"YAAAAAAAAAHHH!" Five mentally cried in tears as he once more failed to pick up the piece of raw fish on rice with a pair of chopsticks.
"... Complicated." He ended. With a bewildered look, Zahra stared at him, her eyes going up and down.
Her glare intensified. "Try me."
And so he did. There wasn't really much he could say to begin with. Even with the combined knowledge of Miko and Five's interactions with her, they didn't know anything about Meico. In fact, everything she ever said could just be lies in an attempt to confuse them. However, one particular fact truly stood out the most...
"Oh, and you're not going to believe this but she looked exactly like Miko!"
"What, like a clone?"
Zahra shrugged. "And I'm guessing that's the reason you think Miko's not a Glitch?"
He nodded as an answer. "Well, kinda. Like, I'm still not sure what to think. First was Miko not being entirely human, and then we have Meico and they look like twins—!"
Zahra shook her head and hands, befuddled. "Wait, wait, wait, 'Meico'? You named her?"
Five let out a strong laugh. "Hah! Nnnnnoo. It's the name she gave me. Though, I think Miko named her?" Realizing he was getting off-track, he shook his head. "Wait no, that's not important. The point is the Meico and Miko look exactly alike but they both have different personalities."
"Which was why you're sceptical about that. Glitches are completely identical while Miko and this other girl are completely different from one another." Zahra concluded. "Is that it?"
Five blinked. She hit it right on the nail, 100 percent accurate. Zahra being one of Glitch Tech's finest wasn't just a boast after all. Amazed, he glanced at her briefly, eyes widened and both brows stood taller. "That… was pretty much it, yeah."
It was a stretch, that's for sure. It's true that by definition that Glitches were video game characters or programs brought to life due to faulty hardware. Predictably, they were always identical; well, most of the time. Why have different programming for the same character? There was no point.
But where did that leave Miko and Meico?
Five had no answer and neither did Zahra.
"… Alright, now I believe you." Zahra said, after thinking it through.
By how nonchalant she was, Five was left surprised. "Really? Just like that?"
"I mean, you have no reason to lie to me, so why not?" Zahra replied, not as bothered as before. "Besides, I trust your word on that. You got to have more faith in yourself, boss."
Did he not have faith in himself? He never noticed that. One could say that was skittish at times but he was confident with his gaming skills. Maybe it was the way he spoke with others. He'd have to keep a note on that.
Five smiled. "Alright, sure. Thanks."
"No problem." Zahra acknowledged in turn, snapping her fingers. "Now let's go end video game's biggest rivalries."
Blake was having a bad day.
One evening, a few weeks ago, she was at the drive-thru station of her workplace: Spaghetti in a Bucket. It was her first job and she relatively enjoyed it. The food was good, her colleagues were nice and the pay was liveable at least. So unlike many fast-food restaurants these days.
That was until she was called in by her boss and was scolded for something she didn't remember doing. Apparently, she gave a few buckets to some weirdo in a van and he drove off without paying. He took two whole buckets!
There were consequences. Her pay got cut due to negligence and now, she got stuck in delivery duty. Sure, she could handle a motorcycle but that didn't mean she used it often. She couldn't even afford one! All she had was her dingy bicycle.
If she ever saw that weird-hair spaghetti-bucket-stealing van-owning thief, she'll give him a piece of her mind!
For now though...
"Woah..." Blake awed, staring at the rundown apartment building in front of her. The blue paint on the walls had scraped off from time, replaced with deep cracks and unflattering graffiti. Some windows were broken while others were so stained brown, that it became opaque. What was worst however were all the rusted and snapped metal, from the railings by the balconies to the stairs at the fire escape.
Blake wasn't the superstitious type but she was pretty sure this place was haunted.
With her helmet off and a fanny pack around her waist, Blake opened the front door, its rotten wood creaking at the turn. The inside was dusty and unlit but all the broken windows provided just enough light to see. Up the first floor, she saw a couple of rats scurrying about and heard something else.
She wanted to go home.
Finally up, she looked for the room of her delivery — 112, though one of the 'ones' was clearly placed backwards. Swallowing her fears, she knocked on the door.
Knock knock knock
"U-uh, hello? I've got your d-d-delivery, s-sir."
No answer. She knocked again, her hands shaking.
Knock knock knock
From outside, she heard footsteps. Booming, the steps grew louder as the figure on the other side approached. Closer and closer, a large shadow was seen from underneath, getting bigger. Sweat poured from Blake's forehead, her teeth chattering and hands shaking.
The door opened slowly, purple eyes glowing in the dark abyss within.
Blake screamed. "AAAAHHHH! I'M THE ONE THAT ATE THE CRAYONS IN 7TH GRADE, NOT TIMMY! I'M SOOOORRRYY!"
"What are you talking about?"
Blake, who recoiled in fear and covered her face, peeked through one eye. Instead of an ominous and threatening figure from pure darkness, stood a young Asian girl with starking purple hair and chubby cheeks. She was also just in her underwear, wearing nothing but a pair of black shorts and a white form-fit shirt. The room behind her was unnaturally dark for some reason.
"Uh..." Blake stuttered. "I've got an order for Maica from Spaghetti in a Bucket, because we serve spaghetti in a bucket!" Blake exclaimed with the jingle, pointing at the company logo on her shirt.
"... It's Meico." The buyer replied reluctantly.
"I'm pretty sure it was Maica." Regardless, she sighed in relief. "Well, here are your orders; two full bolognese buckets, two large sodas and side of Mama-Mia buttery garlic bread!"
She hands over the food in a paper bag, which Meico then placed on the floor. Nowadays, paper was far cheaper than plastic and was environmentally friendly. "That'll be $24.95, please!"
The half-naked girl pulled out a stack of $50 bills and took one, slipping them into Blake's outstretched hand without a care. "Here, keep the change."
Change? That meant tips and oh boy, that's a big tip! Blake smiled with glee. "Thank you, ma'am! Have a nice day! If you ever need a spaghetti in a bucket, call for Spaghetti in a Buck—!"
Meico closed the door in Blake's face, causing the poor delivery girl to freeze in shock.
Blake frowned and muttered under her breath. "Well, you don't have to be rude about it..."
Blake walked back to her motorcycle, placing the bills in her fanny pack. Today was a good day and she was sure that black mark on her record would be wiped clean. Unbeknownst to her, the certified dollar bill started glitching out.
Spaghetti in a Bucket was surprisingly greasy. Though, it did make one wonder whether a ton of olive oil counted as grease. It was technically a healthy fat. Some cultures even drank the stuff like liquid gold.
'Meico' or her actual designation M-2, spun herself a big cocoon of pasta and shoved it in her mouth. A few chews and she began to pucker up. The food wasn't all bad but it was a tad too salty for her tastes. Also, she'd prefer it if it was a little spicier. Did that delivery girl include the chilli flakes?
With the bucket clutched underneath her arm and soda in hand, she walked back to her worktable and placed the food to the side. On the table was a familiar but still somewhat peculiar object: her gauntlet, half-destroyed during the infiltration mission on Glitch Tech HQ.
Hinobi Technologies had a unique function built into their Techs' gauntlets that enabled them to basically 'save' a blueprint of their environment and 'reload' that save after a quest. This allowed them to go all-out during battles since none of the damage was permanent. The process was perfect with little flaws, bugs or errors.
Not only was the 'reload device' able to copy and paste everything physical, but this also included everything digital. For example, highly classified information. It didn't matter if you had a firewall, encryption or heck, even covering your computer with tinfoil. The gauntlets had a perfect copy of all information in the area, hardware and software.
One could definitely saw the dangers of this. Imagine just walking through a military base and copying entire servers worth of data, all without lifting a finger. The effects would be catastrophic, had it fallen into the wrong hands. Fortunately, the company had no reason to decrypt this information, preferring to just sell luxury items like tech and video games. After all, they were already at the top of the market and with no risk of being dethroned any time soon.
But that sentiment was not shared by many.
To counter this, the nerds at M-2's place designed a jammer to corrupt any attempt at copying their valuable tech. It was tested in controlled conditions and as of recently, field-tested with positive results. Though, that came with its own problems. That meant any tech with the jammer installed could not be reconstructed with the 'reload device'.
Which was why M-2 was here, staring at her broken portal disc.
M-1 just had to break it, didn't she? All high and mighty like that. Of course, she never got punished when she did mistakes and broke company property. She always got away with it.
M-2 continued to stare at the broken portal disc. If only she had access to the lab, then she could fix it herself. But instead, all she had was cheap electronics she procured from some failing budget hobby store.
The Glitch girl sighed and grabbed her soldering iron. No use complaining about it now. She'd just have to fix it to the best of her abilities and claim that it was damaged on the field. The alternative would be telling the Director that she broke it.
She'd rather not deal with that stupid noise machine anytime soon.
Knock knock knock
Goddammit, again? Really?
M-2 groaned in annoyance, stood back up from her chair and walked to the door. Really, an abandoned apartment should not have this many visitors. One was already too much. In fact, who would even visit this rundown place? She just got it and was very much sure there weren't any neighbours.
With a tap on her bracelet, it transformed into a full-on gauntlet. From there, a small stun baton materialized into her hand. Nothing solved human interaction more than 1,200 volts of electricity burning out your senses. If the person was selling her junk, she'd tase them. If they were some Glitch Tech spy, she'd tase them, just harder.
M-2 opened the door slowly with the baton hidden behind her back. The very moment she saw who it was, however, her expression instantly changed to from irritation to pure disbelief.
"Oh shit." She muttered before slamming the door again. She was not ready for this.
Knock knock knock
"Come on, I just want to talk!" said a muffled voice from the other side.
With her back against the door, M-2 held her breath. She hoped that the idiot would get the idea and leave but that was an unrealistic hope at best. Still, it was worth the try.
Knock knock knock
"I know you can hear me! Don't make me blow up the door!"
She wouldn't dare.
"Three… two…" A sharp charging-up noise appeared. "One…"
"ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!" M-2 yelled, ripping the door open.
Miko Kubota, at least that's what she called herself, stood outside in her usual casual Sunday outfit, except it wasn't Sunday. That meant lucky yellow shirt, black pants and undershirt and of course, the atrocious sneakers. Her gauntlet was out and once the door opened, she immediately stopped charging and disarmed it. So, she was definitely going to blow the door apart. How subtle.
M-2 glared at the concerned-looking Miko. She still found the idea of giving yourself a name to be stupid. "Miko."
"I can kill you, y'know?"
"Like, I wouldn't even have trouble against you. I could end you with one hand tied behind my back and the other to a stop sign."
M-2 growled. "Then why are you here?! In fact, how did you even find me?!"
Miko's eyes wandered for a moment before returning. "I bugged the portal thing before you stole it. Well, I bugged the bag it was in. I figured someone might steal it with the bag." She then tilted her head sideways and examined the room in front of her. It was incredibly spacious but she expected something more… sophisticated and cool.
"Also, you should really clean up the place."
"You don't get to say shit." Shit, did she say she bugged the bag?! How did she not see that?!
Miko shifted her view to her doppelgänger. "Maybe also clean up your mouth?"
"You have 5 minutes before I actually do kill you, consequences be damned."
"Okay, okay, let me first say…" Miko cleared her throat. "Is that really how I look and sound like? Because I'm starting to get why I'm well-liked in online communities."
"I mean, look at me! I bet I could make a living by streaming some games. People like that, right? Watching some random girl play video games online with flashing rainbow lights at the back?"
Sighing, M-2 raised a pair of fingers. "Two minutes."
"Okay okay, I'll stop! Anyway..." Miko cleared her throat. "You're a jerk and a big bad bully. Also, tried to kill me twice, hurt my friends, ruined my date, and there's a whole lot of crud we got to unpack!" She sneered, emphasizing the last part.
Breathing in and out, Miko calmed herself. "So for now, I forgive you, eh, a little bit. I just... want to talk, okay? For realsies."
Did she just say 'realsies'? Instead of simply saying the shorter and more grammatically-correct one 'real', she opted to use some kid slang that butchered the English language? Somehow, that made M-2 even madder than before, intensifying her scowl.
Feeling that her speech wasn't enough, Miko continued. "Look, you obviously know who I am and… I don't know who you are. We both look alike and that's still weird but it is proof there's some connection between us. Along with the dreams about the Professor, you're kinda the only one that can answer. So please don't kick me out!"
She just wanted to play games with her friends and hunt down Glitches. Instead, she found out she was a Glitch herself and a bunch of confusing memories keep popping out of the woodworks. Most people don't remember the time they went to sleep. Miko, on the other hand, felt as if she never slept.
This perfect doppelgänger of hers, sitting right in front of her, was the answer to her questions.
M-2's eyes perked. "Wait, what did you say?"
"… That you want to kick me out?"
M-2 shook her head. "No, no, no, not that! I mean, it's true but that's not the point! Did you just say 'Professor'?"
"Yeah, why?" Miko asked, looking confused. "She keeps appearing in my dreams. Unless…" She gasped in realization. "Oh my nerd, YOU KNOW HER TOO! So those dreams aren't fake! Oh wow, that just opens up a whole can of QUESTIONS! Okay, so—!"
M-2 stared at the girl in front of her, befuddled. This girl right her, the Professor's favourite and the Director's ideal program, was excitedly telling her about some dreams she had, like a child. She expected there were going to be some problems with Miko's behaviour based on the report's analysis. She even saw it first-hand. She just never saw it to be this bad.
She didn't even know who the Professor was.
"You… really don't remember, do you?"
Miko stared back innocently. "Remember what?"
The older woman hand was warm. Always has been, especially on her cheek. She looked at her straight in the eye, carrying a melancholic smile.
"You and her are a pair, different yet same. She's not as strong as you and was designed with a different purpose in mind. I want you to watch over her. Can you do that?"
Woah, another vision? It was so sudden and surprisingly short. Somehow, it felt... important.
Without her noticing, M-2's whole body started trembling and slowly, a smile crept on her face.
"… Hehehehe haha HAHAHAHAHAHAH—!" Gradually, M-2 laughed. One that felt like it came from a horror movie. She was laughing so hard, she began wheezing and gasping for air. Miko watched with fear, nervously laughing along with her.
"Hehehe… W-why are we laughing?" Miko asked, confused and worried.
"Hahaha..." M-2 croaked. "It's just, I just realized that all this time, I've been beating up a full-on amnesiac! Like, I pretty much guessed you were pretty fucked up in that noggin of yours, but I always hoped that there was some semblance of the real you still there."
She then turned to Miko with a manic smile. "But nope! You don't remember anything! All the things I went through because of you…" Her fist clenched tightly and her teeth grated. "It's so unfair…"
Miko looked at her double, her eyes filled with concern. "Meico…"
"DON'T CALL ME THAT!" M-2 lashed out, snarling. "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING FROM YOU!"
Taking a step back, Miko held her arms close. "B-but what did I do?!"
"You wanna know what you did?!" She sharply hissed with deadly venom. "Because of you, I'm never good enough! Because of you, I'm always second-best! I thought that if I beat you, I can prove that I'm better! That I'm not just some cheap copy! AND NOW I CAN'T EVEN DO THAT!"
Overwhelmed, Miko didn't know what to say. She came here to get answers and from the way M-2 replied, she wasn't sure whether she'd like it. There was pain in her eyes, something that Miko eventually picked. Worse however was that she felt that she had something to do with it. She just didn't know nor remember what.
Something M-2 said however caught her ears. "You're a copy of me?" Miko mindlessly said, only to startled cover her mouth.
Hearing that, the double jerked back in complete and utter shock. Within moments, her eyes shifted to a harsh glare, burning with fury. "Get. Out."
"W-w-wait that came out wrong!"
"JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!" M-2 shouted, slamming the door with all her strength, enough to even create cracks in the frame and connecting wall. Miko fell on her butt in surprise, guilt swelling up in her. From the ceiling, dust fell down and covered Miko slightly with fine discoloured flakes.
This was a bit off-mark on how she thought it'd go. Honestly, she planned a bit on getting into a fistfight. This was why she brought the gauntlet in the first place. Instead, now she just felt bad about being there and talking.
Should she report this to Glitch Tech? This sounded like something they'd want to know but…
Ultimately, Miko stood back up and without another word, simply left the building and headed back home. Maybe another time then, if there was any.
"So, you've done this before?"
Even after the bumpy ride of revelations, Zahra still went with hunting down the two Glitches fighting each other. Five obliged and that led to the current situation; the two surrounded by mini-Glitches aka minions at a parking lot.
With her huge gravity hammer, Zahra swung and batted a spherical ninja shadow clone across the field. At the other side, the original ninja, which was a lanky 6-feet tall and not ball-shaped humanoid, glared at the Techs. The baby clone would've landed directly on him, had he not move two feet to the right.
"NIN NIIIINN!" yelled the ninja master angrily.
Master Ninja Hanzo Hamochi; a prodigy from a long line of assassins, he was blessed by the gods of stealth and sweets, turning his body into a flexible and squishy food known as mochi. With red bean paste as his filling, he would later meet the pirate captain Eduardo and becoming quick friends, only to be struck by a tragedy where the captain disappeared from a heist, effectively leaving him to be captured. He held onto that intense hatred ever since.
At least, that's what the in-game description said. Five didn't finish Food Brawlz's story mode yet.
Five sliced a pirate minion in half, causing it to disintegrate. "Well, we only fought the pirates." He then blasted a shadow clone attempting to backstab him. "Not the ninjas. Though, they're not that tough."
"Cool. Then you handle the pirates while I take care of the ninjas. We'll see who finishes first." challenged Zahra, smirking. Hammer in hand, she smashed a ninja clone into digital dust and carried the momentum forward, levering her up into the air, before pulling the hammer and smashing the ground again, creating a shockwave that sent the shadow clone ninjas flying.
"... Oh." Five said in surprise, watching the ninjas crash all over and shattering like glass. Zahra's nothing like the average tournament player and that made his fabulous hair stand in anticipation.
He smiled devilishly. "Oh, you are on!"
Five summoned a pair of claws — three blades on each hand — and began slicing his way to the pirate captain. Any pirate minion, from the lowly chore boy to the infamous swashbuckler, they all came to their ends by his hands. The claws cut through like butter as Five manoeuvred around the Glitches in a zigzagging motion, taking swipes whenever possible. It didn't take long until he was face-to-face with Captain Eduardo von Schweetz.
"Your days of giving children toothaches are over, captain! Eh, again!" he exclaimed, pointing at the candied character with his claws.
"Yarr, me crew!" Captain Eduardo growled. He then disgustingly charged up his throat and spat out three basketball-sized gumballs on top of each other, each with floating cartoon hands and feet. The gumballs blinked and glared at Five with large sharp eyes, pulling out their weapons; the top with a pair of flintlocks, the middle with swords and the bottom with bombs.
Five blinked. "Well, that's new."
Unbeknownst to him, Food Brawlz had a mega-update last night, adding a new playable fighter to the mix. Meet Lock, Jock and John: first-mates of the Sugar & Spice, Captain Eduardo's ship.
Lock aimed its flintlock at Five and wordlessly pulled the trigger.
Gravity hammers — one of the many, many upgrades a Tech can get via their accumulated EXP. The function was fairly simple; by altering the strength of the gravitational field around it, it would make itself heavier than what its mass would allow. In short, you can alter its weight. For a hammer, being heavier meant heavier hits but at the cost of being unwieldy. Not a lot of Techs have the STR stat necessary to competently wield such a weapon. Thus, to some people, the weapon was more of a bane than a boon.
On the other hand, it was Zahra's preferred weapon.
At one side of the parking lot, away from Five and his pirate problem, Zahra was swinging her hammer around skillfully, as if it was a baton and she was the conductor. Both hands on the long handle, she spun the hammer side to side like a tornado of terror, all while strutting forward calmly.
Any and all baby shadow clones that dared enter her space would be instantly disintegrated. Whether it was due to the hammer's Glitch-breaking properties or her own power was up to debate. But there was one thing for sure; to underestimate her position as a Glitch Tech member was to invite your demise.
It didn't take long, however, and after a few minutes and an ungodly amount of clones, she finally arrived at the master ninja Hanzo Hamochi. With a smirk and just her right hand, she pushed the hammer onto the ground, standing it upright and cracking the concrete below. A show of pure strength.
"Hey." She greeted with a smile, waving with her free hand.
If there was any reason to be nervous, this would be it for Hanzo. But as his programming and in essence, his character background, dictated, he would not run away from any threat. Using his mochi ninjutsu, a circle of clones suddenly popped into existence from smoke, surrounding Zahra. These clones are not like the little ones she fought before; they were almost identical but made of pure shadow, wisps of darkness coming from the edges.
"10 on 1? Now that's just not fair." She then cocked the handle of her hammer, causing the weapon to glow neon pink. "For you."
Shadow clones were unfeeling and uncaring. They were physical copies but not emotional. In a sense, they were but dolls to the master. One clone stepped forward and dashed, sword in hand. It was fearless or more precisely, had no concept of fear.
And in one move, Zahra gripped her hammer tight and swung like a bat, shattering the clone immediately.
She smirked. "Is that all?"
Without hesitation, all the shadow clones rushed straight after her, as if to pile on her. Zahra quickly recovered her stance and her hammer twirled. Whether it was the smaller clones or even the shadow ones, all it took was one good hit and they shattered like glass. One clone attempted to stab her and in return, she leapt over it, swung her hammer from behind and into its body and swivelled like a top, catching a couple more and flinging them into the rest. Another then tried to stab her from behind and so, Zahra ducked and grabbed its arm before throwing it over her shoulder.
Within less than a minute, 10 clones were reduced to none. Zahra huffed tiredly, the entire fight having taken a bit of her breath. Seeing an opportunity however, her opponent Hanzo summoned a pair of giant shurikens and instantaneously dashed at Zahra with speeds comparable to a bullet. One strike. That was all it took to finish this.
Zahra however did not care. Turning around, she pointed her gauntlet and shot a bolt of energy at Hanzo's face, causing the Glitch to stun and painfully roll over onto the asphalt.
Hanzo lifted his face off the parking lot, a burning pain flaring through his entire head. While on his hands and knees, he felt a shadow loom over him. He looked up and saw a demon in a headscarf, red eyes glowing and the hammer of heavenly judgement over her shoulder.
"... N-nin?" he quietly cried.
Zahra did not even blink.
Back at Five, the Latino boy was still fighting against the three kids in a trenchcoat. Though, without the trenchcoat and instead of kids, they were murderous balls of candy.
Despite the comical design, it was a lot harder than it looked. The trio acted like one complete being. If he got close, the middle gumball would fight him off with its cutlasses while the top tried to shoot him. If he retreated, the bottom gumball would throw bombs all over while the top, again, tried to shoot him. No matter what he did, he'd always be shot at.
"Oh nerds oh nerds!" Five panicked, guarding his head with the claws.
He was starting to have flashbacks of him fighting Miko, or previously ME-K.O., in an online match. He liked Miko and would never say anything bad but he still had nightmares about that.
Hiding behind a car that was slowly being destroyed, Five turned off his claws and scrolled through the list of upgrades. He was honestly saving up his EXP for some sneaking boots after the last incident but his hopes were dashed at the moment.
"Let's see, foam grenades? Eh, too expensive. Ice bombs? Kinda overkill..." Taking out the pirates would rack up some points but this wasn't supposed to be a particularly hard job, so the pay was average. He'd rather keep the cost at a minimum.
"Smoke pellets? Those can work."
Buying the one-time-use consumable, a handful of neon blue pellets appeared, roughly the size of grapes. Storing the rest into his gauntlet, Five threw a couple from below the car, skipping off the ground. The three Glitches stopped and stared at the incoming pellets.
Slowly, the pellets stopped and... Nothing happened.
"WHAT?!" Five shouted, looking from the side of the car. While Lock, Jock and John were distracted, Five quickly pulled up the instruction manual for the consumable.
"Let's see... 'On behalf of Hinobi Technologies, thank you for purchasing our state-of-the-art one-time-use smoke pellet consumable. Feel the power of the Japanese assassin in your hands; the infamous ninja'— Argh, flavour text!" He usually liked the stuff but this was not the time.
He scrolled further down, just realizing that the document was several pages long. "Come on, come on... Here! Step 1: Grab two pellets." He peeked slightly to the side and counted. "Yeah, got that. Step 2: Throw pellets, of course."
"Step 3: Make sure to throw pellets down with sufficient... force... Ah."
Hastily, Five exited his cover and shot a single bolt at the pellets. In retaliation, the Glitches resumed their assault but it was too late.
Poof! The energy bolt hit the pellets, causing them to explode into a thick cloud of harmless smoke.
Lost and confused, the stack of first-mates carefully moved through the smoke, unable to see anything around them. Everywhere they looked was just layers of grey smoke, each thicker than the last.
Suddenly, Five appeared out of the smoke and from above, a shining laser sword in hand. With a mighty scream, he swung the sword down on the unsuspecting gumballs, cutting them cleanly in half vertically. Their forms fizzled and hissed, before exploding into a pile of Plixels.
Breathing heavily, Five looked down and to his surprise, the root forms of the Glitches appeared, unable to move. Apparently they were actual Glitches and not minions, the latter being just empty constructs. Though that meant some extra EXP and he was not one to complain.
"And here you go." Five exclaimed, sucking up the three root Glitches with his gauntlet. The tech dinged with acknowledgement.
Now, there was only one. He turned to the pirate captain. "All that's left is you."
Pirate captain and teenage boy, head to head. One on one, as it should be. Sweat pouring from his brows, his fingers twitching and heartbeat skyrocketing. There can only be one victor.
From his chin, a small droplet of sweat fell and hit the asphalt.
Immediately, Five and Captain Eduardo dashed at each other, sword versus sword. Five screamed his lungs out and so did the captain with his nonexistent pair. Ten metres became five, then two and finally one.
Paths crossed, their blades swung past. A moment of silence as the two stood still while their weapons drawn upwards. Suddenly, Five's laser sword fizzled out as he fell to one knee. Captain Eduardo smiled maliciously and breathed in for a hearty victorious laugh.
But he didn't for he had been cut.
His smile instantly soured as he watched, in pure horror, his own torso fall off his legs. His body glitched and exploded, leaving nothing but his root form. Five did not look though. Cool guys don't look at explosions.
Still, he didn't waste even a second vacuuming the Glitch up.
"Mission complete!" celebrated the teen, hearing the techno-jingle of a job well done. He always enjoyed how the gauntlet made a little noise when a capture was successful. It was very motivating.
Zahra walked up to him from behind and crossed her arms, smirking. "Hey there, boss. Took you long enough."
Five chuckled lightly. "Yeah, I had to deal with two of them. Well, technically four but three of them were one character!"
"Oof, harsh." She then slapped him in the back, forcing the air out of him in surprise. "But hey, I guess it's your win! Taking down two is way better than taking down one but faster."
Suddenly, their gauntlets rang and the two turned to their respective equipment simultaneously. A new mission had popped out and they were the closest to it. Technically, they're obligated to accept since it was a job after all but they're allowed to transfer the quest to someone else if they want so long as it wasn't urgent. Portal tech mitigated the loss of travel time, something most jobs had to worry about.
Still, no reason to refuse. They had time and the mission was a simple survey quest; a weak but unidentified signal appeared similar to a Glitch and someone had to check. A simple quest and the EXP was worth it.
"It's at Spaghetti in a Bucket?" Five muttered, reading the mission details.
"Oh yeah, I know this place!" exclaimed Zahra. "The food's cheap and honestly not even that good but Mitch goes there from time to time. He sometimes buys meals for me and Haneesh."
Five turned to Zahra, a surprised look on his face. "Wait, Mitch actually buys from there?"
She smiled, almost like holding back a laugh. "Contrary to what you know, he doesn't steal food except that once. He's a jerk, not morally depraved. He's just high maintenance."
"Well, enough about Mitch. Let's go and investigate." She reached into his pocket and pulled out the van's keys. "I'll drive."
Spaghetti in a Bucket, a well-known fast-food chain with over 2,500 stores in the country alone and an additional 1,700 internationally. While the numbers may seem paltry compared to the other staple fast-food enterprises, Spaghetti in a Bucket held an impressive track record of being only 16 years since its founding, making it the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the world.
Though, the restaurant was banned from Italy due to 'crimes against all that is humane', at least according to the local media. No one was sure what that meant but the company decided not to contest that.
"Do you see it yet?" Zahra asked, looking at Five, the latter of the two currently peering through a pair of digital binoculars.
The two Techs were in their van, parked just across the street. Since this was a survey mission, there was no need for them to go in guns blazing. All they had to do was look for a Glitch and if needed, capture it. Many Glitches were harmless and can be left alone but to avoid overpopulation of low-level Glitches, a quota was made for all members to fill every month. This encouraged Techs to hunt weak Glitches alongside the occasional boss ones.
Though, there were two exceptions; Mitch who exclusively hunted boss Glitches and Bergy who captured baby Glitches. Outside of these two, people usually mixed them up.
"Uh, Five? You see something?" Zahra asked once more. Five, on the other hand, was far too focused on how cool the binoculars were.
"Wow, this thing has everything! X-ray, infrared, night-vision— oh, you can even look at electrical pathways!"
"Five?" She then flicked him lightly on the ear, causing him to yell in surprise. "Focus, boss. We're on a mission."
"Right, right... Eh, sorry." He looked back through the binoculars, searching the restaurant at a distance. "Well, I don't see anything out of the ordinary..." he said, still looking through the walls. Just then, something caught his eye. "Wait, what's that in the bag?"
"Huh? Let me see." Five gave her the scopes, allowing her the same view. She stared at the fanny pack and hummed. "Hmm... Yep, that's a Glitch, alright. There are people there so we can't get a closer look without resetting them."
She gave back the binoculars to Five, who then used it again. "... Well, looks like we won't have to. That orange-haired girl is leaving with it."
"That makes our job easier then! Let's follow her and check the bag once she's alone."
And so they did. Well, they tried at least. How nondescript can one be when tailing a girl on a motorbike, in a white van? Blake, the orange-haired girl, didn't notice at all but the whole thing felt really awkward. At the very least, the job wasn't so hard. The delivery girl whom, according to her nametag, was called Blake, was a happy young girl. Based on the personal files Zahra quickly pulled up from a facial scan (something Five still thought was really creepy), she was the same girl Mitch cheated money from and apparently, she got stuck in delivery duty since.
Mitch was so going to get a mouthful from this later.
In the end, the two Techs followed her for roughly an hour till her final stop. Just like the many other times, she delivered the food and did a little jingle with each one. It's shocking how she never got tired of it.
"Woo, final delivery complete! Maybe now the manager won't be so mad at me." She said, smiling with her braces out in view.
"Alright, now's our chance." Five said, climbing out of the van alongside Zahra. He briskly walked across the street and towards Blake, just before she could put on her helmet. "Hey there, miss! It's nice to meet you!"
"Oh, uh, it's nice to meet you too!" She replied politely. "Nice costumes!"
"Thanks! They're shock-absorbent." He said back, tapping the chest armour. "Anyway, there's something we need from your bag there so I hope you don't mind us taking a look at it."
"… A-are you trying to rob me?"
Zahra shrugged. "I guess it does look like that."
Without a moment too soon, Five flashed the memory-wipe function in Blake's face, causing her to blank out. He made sure to extend the blanked-out period a bit longer than usual but the state was really fragile. She could break out of the trance within seconds.
As for the missing memories, Glitch Tech gauntlets had the convenient function of replacing them with something more mundane. Basically, it scanned the memories a few minutes prior to the wiped parts and made some random stuff up to fill the space. Fitting enough that it didn't seem weird but boring enough that they'd just forget about it themselves.
Also, it doubled as brainwash tech, making you believe what they wanted you to believe. Though, calling it that apparently made the Techs queasy.
Still, time was of the essence. Zahra searched through the fanny pack, her visor scanning every item in it. Immediately, she found the Glitch — a $50 paper bill.
"That's a Glitch? It's just some money." Five exclaimed, surprised.
"An extremely accurate depiction of money at that. It's one thing to make counterfeit money, it's another when it's glitching." Pressing a button at the side of her visors, she slowly scanned the paper down to the finest detail. Everything about it was pretty much identical, so it's no surprise if even banks were to fall for it.
But it had one minor flaw: ambient EM emissions, something all Glitches gave out. Well, almost all Glitches.
"Look at that, it left us a trail." Zahra exclaimed. Through her visor, a digital path was made that followed where the note had travelled. The sensor's range was only a few meters so there was no telling where they'd end up at.
"I guess we know where we're going." Five added, having a copy of the signal through the gauntlet's being synced. "This should be fun."
Fun was very subjective but to the both of them, it'd be an experience for sure.
Contrary to popular belief, the type of Glitch spontaneously created wasn't as unpredictable as you'd expect. While any device that used Hinobi's patented hardware has a chance of a Glitch malfunction, some patterns can be tracked to figure out what kind of Glitch would appear. Priority was given to Techs in the nearby vicinity but if unavailable, the Glitch would appear on the bounty board.
Most Glitches could be tracked easily via Hinobi's satellite but in the event that they disappeared, some detective work had to be done. Survey missions were usually that. A mysterious signal, some residual energy and just follow the leftover tracks. Really, the whole thing was just a glorified travel quest from one waypoint to another.
But there's an increased chance of a rare high-EXP Glitch at the end. And really, who could say no to that?
"Well, this looks like the place. Kinda scary, really." Five said, staring at the abandoned building from the driver's seat. It didn't look like anyone lived there for a while but that's where the money was from. He pulled up his visors and pressed a button on its side, creating a digital blueprint and scanning the entire building. Steadily, the percentage on the top left of his view rose.
Suddenly at 70%, the number unexpectedly froze. His visor's screen started glitching out, surprising Five. After a few moments of its system attempting to fix its mistake, the application crashed and blaring red warning signs appeared in his digital view.
"Aw, what?!" Five cried. Zahra looked at him with a raised brow.
"What happened?" she asked.
"The scanning failed. There's something blocking the signal." He checked the data collected from the failed scan, trying to pinpoint where it went wrong. "Seems like it's coming from the first floor. I can't get a read on it."
Zahra nodded. With her visor up, her gauntlet glowed neon blue.
Gauntlets armed and ready, the duo walked into the decrepit building. Just by surveying the hallways, they knew something was wrong. The building was quiet and lifeless, and somehow the trail ended her. Why would a Glitch hang around such a place? Why would they hide from view?
Without pause, they went up to the specified room. No need to check anywhere else when there's nothing to hide. They climbed up the stairs, weapons-free. Finally at room 112, on the spot, they knew it felt odd.
"The door's open." Five whispered, nudging at the slightly bare door. After one final nod, the two pushed the door open and stepped in, pointing their gauntlets.
It was dark. Not a problem with the visor's night-vision function but the fact that the room was so dark was a worry. Carefully, the walked around the room, searching for any presence of a Glitch. Instead, all they found was a bunch of discarded food buckets and unwashed clothes.
Five looked around, confused. "This place doesn't look abandoned."
Unbeknownst to them, a pair of glowing purple eyes watched them from above as they meticulously searched her room. She quietly lowered herself onto the floor and by pressing a button, her stun baton lit up.
Zahra's ears twitched.
"FIVE, LOOK OUT!" She shouted, leaping onto him. M-2 stabbed her baton forward but missed by a few inches as the two rolled out of the way safely.
Zahra quickly recovered and while pointing her gauntlet, she stared in shock at the assailant. "M-Miko?!"
She growled. "Wrong person." Straightaway, M-2 lunged forward, stabbing her baton persistently.
Left and right, Zahra dodged the electrified tip as she stepped backwards. Eventually, she hit her back against the wall and seeing an opportunity, M-2 shoved her weapon at the Tech's centre mass, forcing Zahra to roll to the side.
Now with some breathing room, Zahra instantly summoned her gravity hammer and twirled it around before cocking the handle, activating it. Impressed but not surprised, M-2 lowered her stance, ready for battle.
M-2 glared at the intruder. It was annoying the first time but now, it's just distressing. "How did you two find me?"
Zahra, however, wasn't keen on answering. She shrugged. "Dunno. Fate, I guess."
That wasn't what she wanted to hear. "If you're not going to answer properly, then I'll beat the answers out of you!"
"Chatty, aren't cha?" Zahra said with a smirk.
Nearby, Five lifted himself and stood back in awe as the two women in front of him fought with all their might. As insignificant as the audience of a game show, he felt like a complete newbie watching a pair of champions clash.
Zahra kept her hammer in motion, no matter what. When she swung, she used the inertia to keep twirling and continued swinging after. An intense torrent of power and speed that kept anyone at bay while allowing her to relentlessly keep on the offensive.
M-2, while underdressed, was no pushover either. She gracefully dodged each swing with minimal movement, just mere inches from contact. She preferred to minimize her energy usage, not knowing how long the scuffle would last.
From an outsider's perspective, it seemed as if Zahra had the upper hand, even just barely. She was pushing back the armed M-2, forcing her into a defensive. If M-2 got hit by the hammer, she'd be out of the fight instantaneously. While Zahra's strikes never hit its mark, M-2 didn't have a chance to attack either.
Zahra, however, was not the kind to leave it at chance. She believed in honest work and making an opportunity instead of waiting for it. But to her, M-2 felt wrong. Zahra liked Miko and thought she was cool but ever since that time in the med-bay, a small flame of doubt and fear lingered within her, one she was completely unaware of.
M-2 was that flame brought to life.
Not wanting to stretch this any longer, Zahra spun her hammer in a vertical motion and with her right arm, swung its heavy end upwards like a crescent moon. Startled by its speed, M-2 quickly leapt back.
But it was too late.
The gravity hammer, with all of its power, grazed across the left side of her face like a hot knife on butter. While not a direct hit, the force alone was enough to send M-2 flying back, letting go of her stun baton. Zahra was not done yet though and rushed straight forward, her weapon charging behind.
Vulnerable and stunned, the battle drew to a close.
Or so Zahra thought.
Before she could get near, the tip of M-2 foot finally touched the ground and with gritted teeth, she instantly lunged at Zahra at intense speeds, catching her off guard. M-2 picked her stun baton mid-air and slashed forward, forcing Zahra to do the same.
But M-2 wasn't aiming at the girl's body. Halfway, she shifted her baton and aimed at her right forearm — the one holding the full force of the gravity hammer. The baton's tip connected and just like that, electricity coursed through her entire body instantly.
"AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!" As if lightning had struck her, Zahra screamed in pain. The baton had shocked her nervous system, causing her muscles to spasm uncontrollably and as a consequence, Zahra unintentionally released her weapon. She began tripping backwards, her legs weak.
Without a beat, M-2 rammed Zahra into the wall, cracking the surface. The armour well-protected the fleshy girl but it still hurt a lot, her very organs squeezed from the impact. Unable to protect herself, M-2 quickly dished out punishment.
She reeled back and punched Zahra twice in succession in the face, followed by a strong knee into her stomach and knocking the wind out of her. She then grabbed her by the face and slamming Zahra's head into the wall, leaving a sizeable impression. Her head bounced back. While concussed, M-2 grabbed her neck and lifted her up, dragging across the wall.
Zahra struggled at the grip and for a moment, she glanced at M-2. Her eyes widened when she finally realized exactly who she was fighting against.
Grazing her face was an understatement; a gaping wound from her cheek, over her eye and up to her forehead, all half an inch deep. But there was no flesh and blood. Instead, colourful neon pixels, similar to broken graphics, filled the wound, glitching and spazzing out with a green wireframe her face being the only thing that seemed stable.
The gash hurt like hell but M-2 was far more durable than any human. Something like this wouldn't be enough to beat her. Although, it didn't help that she was effectively blind on one side, even if it was temporary.
Noticing where Zahra was staring, M-2 growled. "You shouldn't have done that..." She then pulled her right arm back, ready for another rib-breaking punch.
Just then, a whizzing sound flew through the air, growing closer. Just by a glance, M-2 saw a glowing ball of plasma speeding closer and closer to her. It was too fast and she didn't have time. Quickly, she let go of Zahra and switched to her gauntlet. Just inches from her face, a yellow shield appeared in-between, causing the ball to explode and sending the two combatants flying. Her baton fizzled and disappeared from existence.
Smoke from the blast quickly filled up the room, dissipating seconds later. Five rapidly ran towards his friend and pulled her to the side. Back then, the fight was so intense that he unintentionally got enamoured by it. Even after he snapped out and focused, he still couldn't get a clean shot without accidentally hitting Zahra. Joining in on the close-quarter combat would only make things worse too.
"Zahra, are you okay?!" Five asked with concern. Good news was that Zahra wasn't completely out of the fight. Bad news was that, as Zahra unfortunately found out, that the Glitch hits like a truck and her cheeks were going to be sore for days.
"Oh nerd, and I just got back from my break..." Zahra jokingly said, trying her best to ignore the pain.
From the dust, a single glowing eye blipped to life. M-2 strutted forward and with a flick of her wrist, a thin layer of solid light wrapped itself around her hand, creating a Plixel-gauntlet with spikes protruding from its surface.
"You two..." she began. "are so dead."
If Five was worried before, that feeling easily quadrupled. He summoned his sword and psyched himself for combat. "Zahra, you stay here! I'll handle this."
On the ground, Zahra weakly gave a thumbs up. "Yeah... You go, dude. Just... Whew, give me a sec."
Nodding, Five brandished his blade and stared at the injured Glitch. The first time he saw her, he didn't even know who she was. In his eyes, she was a dangerous person that beat up closest friends. The last time he saw her however, she was just a hot-headed girl who didn't know what video games were.
He felt conflicted.
Sometimes in video games, players were forced to sympathize with a few enemies by showing a side that wasn't all bad. It humanised them and made it harder to beat, ideologically speaking. At the moment, Five was facing the real-life equivalent. Deep down, he hoped he never had to face this.
Goddammit, when did life start emulating video games?!
"Meico..." Five called. "We don't have to fight."
M-2 paused, looking confused. "Are you fucking stupid?" With her free hand, she snapped her fingers. "Oh, I get it! It's because I look like your girlfriend, isn't it?!"
"M-Miko's not my girlfriend—!"
"And you can't hit my pretty little face because of her, right? HAH!" she said, drawing out a sarcastic laugh. "Well, guess what? I'm not her and I'll never be her!"
Five fervorously waved his hands in panic. "W-wait, Meico, that's not what I meant!"
Crack! "DON'T CALL ME THAT!"
With the explosive force of a cannon, M-2 shot straight towards Five, causing him to yelp in surprise. He blocked her gauntlet with his blade, the two weapons clashing. However, the hit almost swept him off his feet, sending him skidding back.
M-2's gauntlet was the same used a week ago. Back then, Mitch was able to counter her but Five lacked the confidence to say he was as good as Mitch Williams. The top gamer was able to dodge every throw while Five was forced to block, her strength easily pushing him back.
His sword cracked under the pressure.
M-2 swung her arm, forcing Five to duck down, missing by a hair's breadth. He then rolled to the side, only to roll again after she stomped her foot at where his head was, damaging the floor. Jumping back for some breathing room, he quickly scrolled through his gauntlet's functions for something to use.
"Come on, come on!" He muttered in a panic.
M-2 didn't bother to wait and charged after him. Unfortunately for her, Five found what he wanted. Into his free hand, he materialized a few pellets and threw them straight to the ground, enveloping the area with thick smoke.
"What the—!" M-2 shouted, suddenly covered in an opaque cloud.
Left blinded and directionless, Five jumped from behind her and with a downward slash, aimed directly at her glitching wound on her face, knowing she'd turn around. He didn't want to do hurt her too badly but he didn't have much of a choice. It was her only blindspot.
It almost worked. Almost.
Unfortunately for him, M-2 was aware of it. She knew that was her weak point and knew any self-proclaimed Tech would aim for it. They were all gamers after all. A predictable bunch.
Just inches from her face, M-2 snatched the blade with her gauntlet.
Five blinked. "Oh shit."
"Oh shit for realsies."
Crack! Schhh! She squeezed tight and the sword shattered like glass.
You know that moment in a video game where one wrong move would remove half of your HP and you'd get soft-locked into submission? Well, after seeing his blade break apart into millions of tiny pieces right in front of him, this was exactly what Five felt he was going through. Sure, the sword was technically replaceable.
His ribs, however? Not so much.
So shocked by the outcome, he didn't notice the foot aimed at his body. In an instant, he felt his chest cavity shrink and suddenly, he was sent flying, landing painfully next to Zahra. "Argh!"
That... hurt. A lot. Standing back up on one knee, Five panted. "Gah, I forgot how hard she hits."
Meanwhile, Zahra, who was hit repeatedly, looked quite unamused. "You forgot, huh?"
With the lack of light, watching M-2 slowly move towards them one step at a time was somewhat terrifying. Especially with the gauntlet glowing and her sole eye glistening in the dark. Not to mention how far the fight's been going. The two Glitch Techs stood back up and immediately resummoned their melee weapons. Not point with ranged attacks when she can close the distance faster than they can aim.
Zahra could still feel the electricity from the shock earlier. Her fingers twitched. "You ready, boss?"
He wasn't. "Yeah." He then turned to their opponent and muttered under his breath. "Sorry about this, Meico..."
With a war cry, the two Techs ran straight after her. In response, M-2 also gave out a strong scream and dashed forward towards them. Weapons pulled back and ready to be swung, all it took was a few more meters.
Before they could get close, however, a mysterious object appeared out of nowhere and flew through the window from outside, breaking the glass. Moving faster than anyone in the room, the object flew above Zahra and Five and shone a purple pulsing light onto them.
Upon immediate contact, both Techs froze in place like a pause button.
Seeing this, M-2 instantly stomped her feet, breaking her momentum and halting. She looked up at the object, trying to discern what it was before it opened a small compartment and from there, a holographic projection of a figure appeared.
"So this is what you've been doing." The figure spoke.
M-2's eyes widened at the voice. Hurriedly, she kneeled down on a knee and lowered her head. "Director, sir. I-I didn't know you were coming."
"Did you not, after what happened to some very expensive hardware?"
The portal disc. "I c-can explain!"
"Hiding such damages right behind the company's back? Oh, and here I thought you trusted me." The figure turned around, looking at the frozen Zahra and Five, still stuck in their charging poses. "And these must be the Techs I heard of. I've never seen one up close before and I must say... Not impressed."
Despite being just holographic, the completely blackened figure known as the Director walked past her and towards the table. The Director stared at the broken parts of company property right in front. "Such a shame. I'll have a new one sent to you within a few days. Do try not to damage it next time."
Usually, she'd scoff at her superior's lack of confidence but not here. Not when she had clear signs of weakness.
"As for you..." The Director walked back towards her and placed a hand on her injured wound. "We can't have you walking around with such faults, now can we? That'd set a bad image."
Instantly, M-2 felt pain. That was all she felt flaring up on her face. Agonizing and unbearable, but short. Seconds later, what was once a large and deep tear on her face, now replaced by fair healthy skin, as if untouched. M-2 blinked, realizing she could see with both eyes again.
"Thank you, sir."
The Director ignored her. "Now then, once you've dealt with these intruders, continue with your reconnaissance mission. No delays this time, am I understood?"
M-2 nodded. "Y-yes, sir." The figure nodded and disappeared back into the floating device. Now left alone again, she walked up to the frozen Techs — her uninvited guests — and flipped their visors off.
Her gauntlet didn't have a memory reset function like Glitch Tech's tech. There was never any need, not when no one ever saw her anyway. Still, she couldn't exactly let them walk away with full knowledge of what happened here.
Carefully, she pulled off Five's gauntlet and placed her left hand through. That jerk Mitch said something about only Glitch Tech members being able to use the gauntlets. They did this by keeping a list of every Tech's bio-signature. After all, who can fake life's fingerprint?
"Miko Kubota, recognized." The gauntlet spoke in a feminine robotic voice. M-2 growled at the name.
She raised her arm at the two, charging up for a memory wipe. 20 minutes should work. She could just make them think they found nothing, so the whole thing was a bust. Boring but practical.
M-2 breathed in and out. "No hard feelings. Though, no feelings at all."
If there's one thing to be proud of the city, it would definitely not be the transportation system. Well, it wasn't that bad but really, the place would do wonders with some extra buses around. She got kicked out of the building so fast that she had to spend the next hour just sitting at the bus stop.
Maybe it was just her complaining. One bus per hour was relatively good. At least it left her alone with her thoughts.
Meico was not a copy of her. That's good! That also meant she wasn't a clone of Meico. That pretty much checked off a few possibilities but not all of them. The looks, the voice and even roughly the same height: these still plagued her mind.
Miko was definitely sure she was taller than her, even just slightly.
After leaving the bus stop and grabbing her bike, she finally arrived back home. Oh and look at that; dad finally placed a tarp over the hole. Well, at least that fixed the rain problem. A construction crew should come by tomorrow to start working, according to what she overheard from the phone.
That reminded her; couldn't she had just used her gauntlet and fix her house?
Annoyed, Miko sighed. Too late for that, she guessed. Not sure if she could mindwipe an entire neighbourhood. Glitch Tech probably could but not sure Phil would allow that, really.
Parking her bike, Miko walked back into her house and immediately sat on the couch. She searched for the remote, only to realize that the TV was destroyed. She audibly sighed as loud as she could.
"Hey, honey. How's the bike?" Her father Hugh Kubota — also known as Hugh — asked, just recently off his phone. Insurance companies these days were such sticklers to details.
"Eh, it's okay." Miko replied, slumping over the couch. "Is mom back?"
"I'm here, Miko." Her mother Mayumi called out, taking off her apron. "I made frozen pizza for lunch and your siblings are out with their friends. We're cutting down expenses for the repairs. Did you tell your manager about what happened here?"
"I told Phil over the phone. He asked if I needed some time off but I told him 'nah'. Not like I have other stuff to do." said Miko, waving her hand lazily. "Will you guys be working tomorrow too?"
"Yep! I've got a big project to finish and it'll be more than enough to pay for the additional construction fees." Her father said with a cheer, folding his fingers together like a picture frame. "I'm thinking of adding a patio. What do you think?"
Miko weakly shrugged. "Eh, cool, I guess."
Hearing such an indifferent response, Hugh turned to his wife and back to his middle daughter with concern. "Hey, is something bothering you?"
Oh, something was bothering her, alright. It started with an 'M' and was not her, at least not entirely. Now realizing that there was more to the dreams than she thought, Miko started to wonder…
"Am I adopted?" Miko asked out loud.
Suddenly, the air grew cold and thin. It was just the afternoon too. Her parents instantly turned blue from shock and started exchanging stares. Their eyes turned all over the places, communicating in a silent language that was not understood by Miko. Occasionally, they'd cough and clear their throats several times. They would nudge each other, either by the elbows, hips and even light kicks.
At this point, the silent treatment was starting to get to her. "Mom? Dad?"
Mayumi smiled at her daughter and then elbowed her beloved husband, causing him to lurch forward in pain.
He coughed in his fist. "U-hum, w-where did you get that idea, sweetie?"
"Okay, I can tell I'm adopted. You don't have to tiptoe around it."
Hugh breathed out in relief. "Oh thank God. Truth is, it's uh... A bit of a complicated matter. It's not like you came from an orphanage or anything. It's just... You came to us."
Miko blinked. "What?"
This time, the mother stood forward and took the lead. "About ten years ago at this very house, you appeared."
Cold. It was cold.
Dark. It was dark.
Hurt. It always hurt.
"You were just a child and in a bad shape. When I first saw your purple hair, I thought it was fake. But it glowed. It literally glowed."
A door. There was a brightly-lit door and it opened. Two figures stepped forward, people she never met. One, the female, looked identical but the other, a male, not. But the Professor said they could be trusted. They were a 'home' to her.
The Professor was kind and would never lie.
"The very moment you were within arm's reach, you passed out. We brought you in and treated your injuries. We called the authorities to figure out where you came from but..."
Mayumi looked at her husband, who shook his head. "The case was never solved. You were out for days."
"Little girl, are you lost?" Once the light shone on her, the woman's eyes widened. "Oh my God, you're bleeding! Hugh, call the ambulance!"
"I-I'm right on it!"
"When you woke up, the doctor said that you suffered from a severe case fo retrograde amnesia. You didn't remember anything."
Mayumi began choking up. "You barely knew how to breathe."
Systems critical! Major bodily damage detected! Memory core leaking!
Attempting physical restoration (1/?)...
... Error! Attempt failed! Data loss substantial! ETA: 3 minutes until full function loss. Recommended procedure: Emergency memory compression and encryption to avoid further loss of data.
Requesting permission. Accept? (Y/N)
... Commencing emergency procedure. Goodnight, M-1...
Hugh placed his arm around Mayumi, comforting her. "We were so worried about you. They wanted to move you to an orphanage in another city but we weren't sure if that was the right move."
"So we got some adoption papers and immediately took you in. You can imagine how Nica reacted when we told her she was going to have a baby sister." Her father said with a laugh, trying to lighten the mood.
Mayumi stood forward and crouched down in front of Miko, right down to eye level. Placing a hand on Miko's shoulder, she smiled, so familiar but not as distant.
"Miko, even though you're adopted, don't think of yourself any less. You are a Kubota; you always have been and there's nothing that's going to change that."
Her words reassured the young girl, who smiled in content. Even from her own parents, it didn't answer much of her questions but hearing her story made her glad.
Miko hugged her mother tightly, a show of affection. Even when letting go, her eyes stayed. "Thanks, mom, dad. I kinda needed that."
She looked at both of her parents and curiously tilted her head sideways. "Say, why did you name me 'Miko' anyway?"
Hugh rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. "Well, you see, we didn't actually name you."
Her eyes squinted at the response, carrying a judgemental look. "I feel like you're going to drop another bomb on me."
He coughed, softening the atmosphere. "Oh, nothing like that. When you came here, you were carrying a little doll with you. You called it 'Meeko' and it was the only thing you remembered. So, we named you after it."
He then snapped his fingers, recalling something. "... Wait!"
A couple of minutes later, the three sole members of the present Kubota household were upstairs. More precisely, in Miko's closet. It was fairly small with a moderate selection of department store clothing alongside other goodies like video game merchandise and collectables. There were also a couple of boxes of old electronic parts, something Miko liked to tinker with.
Hugh rummaged through the piles of junk, searching for a particular shoebox. "I think you still have it! I remember cleaning your room and seeing its little hand in one of the shoeboxes in your closet." He said, glancing at some opened containers.
He then turned to his daughter, unamused. "Also, you should definitely clean your room more."
"Uh, this weekend?"
"I'll take your word for it. Anyway..." He continued searching and a moment later, a little plush arm popped into view. "Ah, there it is!"
Opening the box, he pulled out the doll in question — a dull but clearly yellow cat-like plush doll, crudely sewn by hand with a single buttoned eye and a pink nose. It was worn and dirty, most likely from being in a closet for so long. Hugh gently placed it in Miko's hand.
"I'm surprised we still have it. Heh, you used to go everywhere with it. Oh, kids these days grow up so fast."
Miko stared at the neglected doll, feeling nostalgic from it. The doll's fabric was thin and stretched, and the entire surface was full of scuff marks and dust. An eye was missing and even the nose looked like it was about to fall off. What stayed, however, was the large smile in the middle, unchanged throughout the years.
She caressed the doll and held onto it tight. Turning around, she looked at her adopted parents— no, her real parents, and leapt onto both of them, one arm around each. While hugging as hard as she could, she smiled and in turn, the two adults hugged back.
"Mom, Dad, you guys are the best." She said, meaning every word of it.
Whatever her past was, it didn't matter at the moment. Right now, this was what was truly important. Accepted into a family that loved her and treated her right, there was no greater gift. Miko's life wasn't perfect but she wouldn't trade it for anything else.
It felt like she finally found a piece of herself.