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Cage: Part 15

Shikkai slammed the building door open, the crunch of it hitting the outside wall satisfying his fury somewhat. He stared around him for a moment, taking in the constant burble of the slums, and glared at it all. Then he let his anger carry him to his streambike.

It wasn't until the speed was whistling past him, until his short hair was as streamlined as the bike itself, that he started to cool down. But then he started thinking again. Damn Kami, for not allowing him to be a part of it! Damn Kami, for making Aishuu think he had the skill to break WaveLock in the first place! If it turned into a ruined mess, he sure as hell wasn't going to sit around and pick up the pieces for them. They might as well just walk into WeaveLock's main building waving their ID cards in the air.

"Fucking idiots!" Shikkai followed the curving roads of the slums, around and down, taking him back down to where he started from. And maybe where he belonged. He found himself almost baring his teeth at the blur of buildings that passed him, at anyone who thought he wasn't good enough. Let them come find him if they deigned to lower themselves to his level.

It had been so long, but from the start, he'd promised Aishuu this. The truth behind it all. And now, here they were about to find it -- or more likely, get caged trying -- and he was supposed to sit back and wait. Let them do it all themselves, while he sat, anxious and unknowing, until it was all over. Kami had said he wasn't good enough. He wasn't even good enough to follow and watch. Gods, but that hurt. Even if he knew, logically, that it was true. And Kami was about to fullfill the promise to Aishuu that Shikkai had made. That hurt too, maybe even more.

He slowed his bike as he reached the tunnels to level five, watching the road, keeping his eyes out for the exit they'd used from Gyro's safehouse. With any luck, the dealer would still be nearby and through him Shikkai could find a decent way to distract himself. He felt dangerous, full of anger, and very much wanting to hurt someone. Anyone. So long as there was pain involved.

He almost missed the small mouth of the tunnel, and nearly tipped his bike skidding to reach it -- and that only annoyed him more. He roared through the tunnels up to the safehouse, glaring at the very darkness around him. Finally, he found the rooms that Gyro had let them use; thankfully, they were still empty. He parked his bike to one side, then climbed the stairs.

After several frustrating minutes, he managed to find the door's mechanism, and it slid aside with a protesting groan. He shuffled hurriedly through the short alleys behind, and when he reached the main street, he breathed a sigh of relief, momentarily cooling the worst of his anger; Gyro was where he always was, leaning against the wall, seemingly asleep.

Yet at the very moment that Shikkai emerged from the alley, Gyro snapped upright and alert, his eyes wide, and darted along the street to meet him.

"Demon! What the fuck you doing down here?" Gyro glanced around them quickly, then relaxed his stance, his easy grin appearing for a moment. "Gotta say, thought you were gone for good."

"C'mon, you know this filthy place is ingrained in me." Shikkai felt easier already, back in familiar territory.

"Yeah, but.. shit, you and those damn corp bastards. How's Ai doing?" Gyro glanced past Shikkai, and Shikkai found himself glowering; he caught it as it was hitting his face and tried to hide it, but Gyro was too quick.

"What's up? Bad news?" The dealer raised a curious eyebrow.

"Nah, he's cool. Just.. some stupid hacker bullshit I don't wanna deal with. I came down to let off steam. You got any Lash hanging around?" Shikkai shoved both hands into his pockets, finding the intensity of his fury catching up with him, making him shake. As if it had been chasing him down all those long, winding ramps; he thought he'd outrun it, but he should've known it always turned up eventually.

"Lash? Man, been years since you touched that stuff. Thought you swore off it after that last time." Gyro poked around in his pockets all the same, but his expression was concern, his head tilted to one side.

"That was last time. Things happen. Obviously I don't need Lash to get me in deep shit so it doesn't matter if I take it once I'm there." Shikkai's twitching fingers found his chargechip, and he pulled it out.

"No way, Demon." Gyro finally extracted a cube from one of his many pockets, and held it out. "On the house; how much free shit did you give me when you did that runner, after all?"

"Way too much, obviously." Shikkai grinned at Gyro, probably the first real grin he'd managed all day. He took the cube, then frowned. "Shit. My gear was all at my place."

Gyro glanced around them again. "Ah, come back to mine. Crappy day for business anyway."

"You sure?" Shikkai glanced down at the cube, then back up to Gyro. He hated to impose, to have to rely on someone else.. yet he really was at a loss without his apartment. Despite thinking he hadn't needed anything from there, there wasn't much he could do on this level of the slums without the place, even just as a home base.

"I'm not gonna ask twice." Gyro spread his arms in an easygoing gesture, then turned and started walking away.

"Okay, okay. How can I say no to that?" Shikkai hastened after the dealer, long legs easily catching him up. "I owe you."

"You say that everytime I see you, Demon." Gyro grinned up at him through a haze of long brown hair.

Aishuu squirmed in his chair, unable to sit still; on one track, his mind was impatient and excited, waiting and wanting to get inside WeaveLock and find out once and for all why they'd killed Kou, wanting to tear all their secrets apart and finally know. And on the other track, he felt guilty and unsure, wishing he'd been able to find a way for Shikkai to join them, wishing Shikkai hadn't stormed out in such a fury when he'd been denied that, wondering if and when he would come back.

"Think you're ready, kid?" Kami's sharp words snapped him from his thoughts, and Aishuu looked up, feeling guilty again. Now he was supposed to be concentrating on hacking, not Shikkai. Kami was slouched in a chair across from him, all ready to jack in to the looms.

"Yeah. I'm ready as hell." He frowned, banishing Shikkai from his mind, and reached for the cable sitting at his hand. He felt another gentle hand squeeze his shoulder briefly, and Kitsune's wild hair swung past his face for a moment as the boy leaned over him.

"Good luck. I'll figure out Shikkai." Kitsune winked at him, and he grinned back his thanks, then jacked in.

The looms hit him sharply, direct and there in his conciousness, in some ways more real to him than the real world outside ever looked. Everything was lit up, so brightly; every object had a soft aura around it, even the other avatars; and the space in between seemed to go on forever, the black expanding and folding to eternity.

He glanced down at himself, smiling at his avatar; smooth and glowing white all over, an antipathy to the makeup of the looms.

"Hold tight." Kami was next to him, a flat charcoal black figure, outline crudely in messy white, like the death-line of bodies being removed from the streets. Inside, different colours flashed and danced when he talked; right now it was blue and green. "Be there in a sec."

Aishuu let Kami grab a hold of him, and then they were both moving, and before he had blinked twice, they skidded to a halt at a barrier that seemed to go on forever; its straight, imposing blue lines drew neatly across in both directions for as far as he could see, and rose above him beyond sight as well. Beneath his feet a smooth black floor disappeared under the barrier, its appearance cold and imposing.

"Do they have to make everything look so scary?" he wondered, and heard Kami chuckle beside him.

"Fuck yeah. They got a rep to uphold, y'know. Even when you get inside, too." Kami flashed orange briefly, then paled to yellow. "We can kick in right here, I reckon." He turned to Aishuu, and his avatar was flat black again, seemingly waiting.

Waiting for him. Aishuu kicked his mind into gear, hastily surveying the barrier again; he had to keep his mind on track, now more than ever. A touch barrier, this seemed to be. Anything so much as thinking about touching it would set it off, and who knew what would be attached. He thought about what Kami had taught him.

"I could snap a hole in it and fake the edges like they're still connected, right?" He waited, and after a moment, Kami flickered blue again.

"Works for me."

"Good." Aishuu raised his hands, and concentrated on the power that he knew was in them; the power he weilded. He focused it on the barrier in front of him, holding those hands above it, and stole the understanding from the barrier. He drew its workings inside his mind, and then he altered them, twisting it to just the way he wanted it. An entry point, without leaving the knowledge of one. Power that still pulsed through it as if the hole were never there.

His eyes were closed, but he could see the sudden glowing in front of him as if his eyelids didn't exist, and he felt the snap as it thrummed through his whole body; for a single aching moment, he was a part of the looms, a single drop in its whole entire essence, and he floated in it, revelled in it.

Then the glow was gone, and he was Aishuu again, a single entity, alone. He opened his eyes to find just what he expected to see; a hole in the barrier, just big enough for them to fit through, the blue lines on either side of it holding it up, unnoticing.

"Easy," he told Kami cheerfully, and stepped through, inside WeaveLock.

The black rose up around him, on all sides, somehow feeling huge and imposing in its nothingness. The data towers that rose, level upon level, within it, were thin and sharp, marching in perfectly aligned rows seemingly unto infinity; he wondered how much data they could possibly use, that they had to have this much stored up. What the hell did they keep here? Records of everything that had ever happened in the city since its existence, no matter how big or small? There was an entire world's worth of information here, surely.

"Scambot," Kami warned him, and he nodded, already feeling the movement within his range.

"I see it." He reached out his hand again, this time reaching for the space around him, making it tangible, grasping a hold of it. He twisted it with his mind, imagining nothing but empty loomspace where he stood, where Kami stood; letting whatever sought them see right through them.

The space near him shuddered, rippling in waves around him. He glanced to Kami, making sure the effect hid them both. He remembered the barrier behind them, the hole he'd made, and he reached his thoughts backwards, touching the familiar edge that his alterations always created to the looms, and covering it over.

The scambot appeared around the corner of a datatower, its threadlights spinning a wild and ever-changing pattern around its centre, floating like some strange bauble as it moved in a set course past them. The threadlights flashed across them more than once, but the scambot ignored them, continuing on its way; the ripple had worked, then.

Forgetting the bot, Aishuu reached into the air again, this time his request a legitimate data-grab. He brought up a full index of all the data stored inside these towers, and began to run a search through it, looking for anything with Kou's or his name on it. His program made soft snap-snap noises as it flipped through one tower-record after another, and he glanced over at Kami while he waited.

Kami was running his own search as well, the snapping sounds like an echo of the ones he was creating. Aishuu wondered whether he was looking for Kou. He doubted it. He remembered, when they'd first made deals with Kami, how eager he'd been about getting inside WeaveLock. There was something here he wanted, too.

His program alerted him, and he turned back to it. There were two files in the system that constantly referenced he and Kou; one named 432-KJOUKAN and the other 487-AJOUKAN. And they both cross-referenced regularly. He felt a shiver touching him outside. There was an entire file in here with his name on it? Why? What had they needed to know about him?

Suddenly he wished Shikkai were there, wished for reassurance from him. He shrugged the thought off, feeling annoyed; he'd said he could do this himself, and he was going to.

"Got it!" he told Kami, trying to sound more enthusiastic than he felt. "They've got her, and me." He glanced at the search results. "And filed near each other, too," he added. Well, at least that would make things easier.

"Hang on," Kami was still focused on his search. "Where at?"

"2438-L163-C66-D142." Aishuu read the location, and as Kami reached for the file, he pulling up a map of the area in a subscreen. He concentrated on it a moment, fixing it in his mind, and then focused on the address. Level 163 -- there were a hell of a lot of scambots up there. He could feel them, spinning, leaving little room for dodging, and that scared part of his mind reached out longingly for Shikkai again. He cut it off short.

"Ahh." Kami's voice intruded upon him again, this time sounding satisfied. "I see. Let's go. More scambots up there, though; and that's a higher security level. Could be anything up there."

"I can take it." Aishuu grabbed for Kami's avatar, pulling them and his ripple effect upwards, fast; the datatowers seemed to stream and melt in long funnels of glowing colour past them as they rose, and Aishuu tried to enjoy it, tried to concentrate on what they were doing, what they were about to do. How he'd succeed himself, and never mind that Shikkai had stormed off and left him behind.

"Idiot!" Suddenly the flow of the buildings stopped, and Kami was pulling him around to face him, his grip tight.

"Don't ever fucking think you can handle it." Kami's avatar flickered red now, a dark, harsh red that jumped and stuttered inside him. "I taught you that, didn't I? Stay scared shitless until we get out of here, and don't fucking well show off like that. Maybe you got a thread-breaking wish, but I sure as hell don't. Got it?" He continued to flash red, even after he stopped speaking, and Aishuu stared at him. He felt guilty. And he felt angry. What the hell did Kami know anyway? He wasn't Aishuu. He didn't know how different it was to be Aishuu. Kami could work with the looms, sure, but Aishuu could be one with them. He knew, today, that he was going to do this, and do it right. Nothing was going to go wrong.

But he couldn't just say that to Kami. Kami didn't understand.

"Got it," he replied, finally, trying to sound repentive. But lying wasn't his strong point, and he saw Kami's colour flicker again.

"Fine. Then get us up there nice and slow and watch your ripple. I'm already counting the scambots, the cages, and the threadbreakers up there, and it's sure as hell more than you've ever seen. We're stealthing, not destroying; remember that."

"I know!" Aishuu snapped back, unable to stop himself, but he pulled them upwards before Kami could reply. He let them move slower this time, proving that he could do it, and he watched the datatowers again. They oozed past now, no longer streaming, and his mind crackled with frustration against it.

There were too many scambots. More than he'd ever seen. They made Aishuu nervous, how close they were to each other, how often they crossed each other's paths, threadlights spinning crazily over one another.

"Can you do a full round ripple?" Kami asked tersely, and Aishuu glanced at him quickly. He hadn't thought of that. And he'd never tried it, either. But surely he could, what with everything else he'd managed.

"Sure," he replied, just as quick, trying to sound confident.

"Both of us?"

Aishuu thought a moment longer. He didn't even know if he really could do it on himself. If he screwed up on his own, so be it. But what if he got Kami stuck out there as well? Then what the hell would they do?

"I don't think so."

Silence. Then Kami was pulling open another file, scanning slowly. He stopped at a file listing, datastrings that Aishuu recognised from his own search. Kami's flat, fingerless hand scrolled down the list, pausing at two places. Kou's file, and Aishuu's own.

"This is you and Kou, right?" The question was cursory, and his hand scrolled further down the list. "After you take those, get this one for me, too. And do like you're doing for yours; delete all evidence of its existence." The hand hovered over another string of data.

"What is it?" Curiousity coloured Aishuu's voice, much as he tried not to let it. This was Kami's real reason for wanting to be here, he knew, despite his talk of revolution in general. Because this was a personal file, 597-KSHIRAI, and kept not far from his and Kou's.

"Payment for everything I've taught you."

"Everything?" He couldn't help but be disbelieving at that, and Kami's avatar straightened, staring right at him, no doubt.

"For now," Kami's grin was evident in his voice, and Aishuu could all but hear a ghost of Shikkai snorting of amusement. He shook his head, pushing it away.

"Uh-huh." He looked down at the file listing again, and then back up at Kami. "Can you ripple yourself while I'm gone?"

"Yeah. Just be quick. I'm in no mood to stick around here."

"Me either." Aishuu took a step, then another, focusing his mind on the ripple around him, pulling it forward to encase him entirely; he let the code of the looms surround him so that he was hidden inside a bubble of invisibility. The scambots would never see him like this, and he found himself smiling. He could do it.

He moved forward, dodging the nearest of the scambots, watching as its coloured lights shone over him and through him, as another cut across his path from a different angle and did the same. They'd never see him.

"Shit!" Kami's voice rang out from behind him, and Aishuu saw the wide beam of threadbreaker as it fell towards him. He froze for a moment, unbelieving, and then instinct took over somehow. He felt rather than saw the glow, and his hands seemed to seperate themselves from him, darting upwards to catch the beam above him, holding it away from his floating form. He felt the strain as it tried to push against them.

"Scambot!" Kami hissed from behind him, and as the lights began to flash towards him, ready to betray his presence, he heard himself whimper; only a moment ago he'd felt confident and now in less than a second his life was at risk. Threadbreakers could kill a mind quicker than a cage.

He whimpered again, and suddenly his hands were glowing brighter, almost painfully bright. A spark of light snapped from them with an audible crackling, and then it seemed as if the scambot itself was surrounded in the same ripple effect he'd wrapped around himself.

Its lights hit him, and passed through him, as oblivious as the others had been.

"Fuck me!" Kami's voice held a hint of awe, and then he was half-whispering across the space that seperated them, "can you do that to all of them?"

Aishuu shook his head desperately, but as another scambot careened towards him, the glowing brightened and encased it with the ripples as well. It disappeared around another datatower, still firmly convinced that nothing was wrong.

"I can't.." he whispered, so soft that he knew not even Kami could hear. He still felt frozen, and the threadbreaker still loomed over him, pushing desperately to be free and destroy him. He tried to concentrate, tried to focus; and suddenly the threadbreaker was moving, slowly, his hands pushing it back up to where it had come from. Gradually it refixed itself in place, and he wrapped his mind around it, forcing it to stay, convincing it that nothing was wrong.

He let his avatar back up out of reach, and a moment later his hands followed, floating back to where they belonged. At that, his energy seemed to vanish and he lost control of his avatar; he felt his body sinking, unresponsive to his movements, and he let it go.

"Aishuu! Get up, you idiot!" Kami sounded furious. "This is no time for deadening."

"I can't.." He heard the words again, coming from his own mouth. He couldn't. This was too much for him, and he wasn't ready for it. His mind made a desperate, yearning reach for Shikkai; for Shikkai to hold him, and reassure him it was okay. To take care of it for him.

"Ai.." Kami's voice almost sounded desperate, now, and suddenly Aishuu felt rage hit him. What the hell did he need Shikkai for? Was he so dependant on him that he couldn't do anything for himself, couldn't even save his own hide without Shikkai there to give him the a-okay? Shikkai had promised him this truth, these files, an eternity ago and never given it to him -- and today, when he'd needed him to be there the most, Shikkai had been too caught up in his own anger, and had left him alone.

"I can do it myself!" he swore, and something in his mind seemed to click into place. He took back control, and his avatar stood again, completely at the mercy of his mind. He took a step forward.

Kami's voice rang out behind him, telling him to come back and start over, but he ignored it. He felt as if he were in another state of being; on a permanent level of being at one with the looms, the way he normally felt only when he altered them. He could see everything for what it really was; the threadbreakers, cages, alert-threads, and other security controls were openly visible to him now, and he could avoid them deftly.

After that, it seemed almost too easy. Nothing could catch Aishuu now, or hide from him, and he found the tower he wanted quickly. Avoiding its traps, he accessed its reference log and drew out the files he wanted, slipping each one carefully into his avatar. Then he pressed both hands against the tower, and closed his eyes, reaching inside again for his power. He took the tower's inner workings, and twisted them neatly, removing what needed to be removed, clearing records and even the memory that those records had been cleared, or had existed in the first place. The tower's core burned an image against the inside of his eyelids, and when he opened his eyes again, both he and the tower were glowing. His hands began to sparkle, and tiny particles of light shot off in all directions along the tower's edges, following trails of data and seeming to grow as they swallowed them.

Aishuu stepped back, then almost as a casual gesture, flicked a last few glimmers towards the tower's reference log. It began to glow, and he turned away, feeling satisfied that he had dealt with it properly. It was done. And he had done it, alone. He was different, so different from everyone else that none of them could do what he could -- and none of them could ever understand.

The trip back to Kami was quick, and the hacker, behind his ripple, was a flash of shaky yellow and orange squiggles, dancing all across his avatar. As Aishuu stopped next to him, ripple still firmly in place, the squiggles faded to different shades of blue, and smoothed into straighter lines, their fidgeting slowing. Aishuu studied him for a moment, wondering; Kami had been worried about him?

"Its done. Let's get out of here." His voice sounded firm, cold and in control, and he wondered at it; was that really him?

"Covered your tracks?"


"Then let's go close that barrier and jack the fuck out." Kami grabbed Aishuu's avatar and this time they were zooming back down even faster than they'd first gone up, the datatowers almost lost in their neat sluices of colour.

Aishuu opened his eyes, and found himself searching almost automatically for Shikkai. His gaze met only Kitsune's, and the boy shook his head slightly, his eyes concerned. Aishuu felt his shoulders slumping, his excitement tripping and falling short of bursting forth from him.

"How'd it go?" Kitsune sounded hopeful, and Aishuu turned on a smile for him; but he couldn't quite catch that excitement he'd had a moment ago.

"We did it. I knew we could," he added, and then laughed in surprise as Kitsune grabbed him for a hug.

"Had me worried, y'know. You both seemed so tense."

"Got screwy for awhile." Kami leaned on Kitsune's shoulder, peering over him at Aishuu, eyes dark. Aishuu wondered what he was thinking; his smooth expression said nothing. "Dumped the files in your kit?"

"Yeah." Aishuu straightened up, pulling his scattered thoughts together. He'd not yet thought what would come next after this moment; he'd never dared to think about it, in case it somehow wouldn't work out as a result. Or maybe he'd not quite believed he could do it. "Now what?" he asked, voicing the conclusion of his thoughts.

"We make copies." Kami extracted several tiny datachips from his pocket. "Copies for you, copies for me.. just in case something goes wrong and one of us loses them. Then, you can dive back into the looms and crack the locks on your files. You'd be better to do it in the looms than on a console; you don't have that kind of power out here."

"True." Aishuu tugged at his hair, wondering where to start, and then found Kami grinning at him.

"You did okay, kid. Make your teacher proud yet, y'know."

Aishuu found himself grinning back, almost beaming; somehow those words from Kami meant more than anything he or anyone else had said to reassure him. Kami was pleased with him, and that meant he was good. And he was only going to get better.

"Now, let's see.." Kami slotted a chip into Aishuu's console, extracting the data from his kit into the chip. "Aishuu's file.." He tapped the console, then switched to another chip. "Kou's.. and mine." The third chip, data safely inside, disappeared into a different pocket than the other two. Aishuu remembered Shikkai's muttered thoughts about Kami and his motives; about what Kami really wanted from him, or from WeaveLock for that matter. What was in that file, anyway? And was it just coincidence that it had been stored so close to Aishuu and Kou's files?

"Here's your copies." Kami handed two chips to Aishuu, and then tossed a third at Kitsune. "Keep that for me, fox. You know what I'm like."

He shrugged his shoulders, then turned his attention back to Aishuu. "You shouldn't have trouble cracking your files so long as you're in the looms, but be careful with 'em on the consoles. I've seen the protection on these things fry consoles beyond belief, and still leave residents that'll fry it again if you try to crack the same file."

"Man.." Aishuu looked down at the tiny chips in his hand, awestruck and suddenly scared to touch them. All his late night worries and fears about Kou, about himself, snuck out of hiding and into plain sight. "Why're we so important that they gotta cover us that much?"

"Ahh, WeaveLock're so paranoid they put protection on how many hours sleep their employees get." Kami waved his hand reassuringly. "Don't let it freak you out."

"Okay," Aishuu responded automatically, but his paranoid thoughts remained where they were.

"We're gonna get outta here, leave you to play with those." Kami shut down the console, and Aishuu looked around to find Kitsune already standing by the doorway. He felt a sudden stab of loneliness; without any warning, they were leaving and he would be completely alone. He hadn't been alone since he first moved in with Shikkai, and now even Shikkai had left him, and who knew when he would return?

"But listen, Aishuu.." Kami had gone on talking, and Aishuu tried to clamp down on his foolish fear, to focus on the hacker's words.

"Read those files by yourself. I don't know, but I know WeaveLock have some weird stuff going down here in the slums. It's up to you if you want Shikkai, or me, or whoever else, to read them after. Thread us if you need us, okay?" Kami's dark eyes raised to meet his, and he saw some sort of understanding, of acceptance, there. Kami knew what he was, maybe knew more than he'd told, and didn't mind.

But what was he going to find in those files that he might need them that badly?

"Aishuu." Kitsune's soft voice intruded, and he realised he was staring blankly back at Kami. He blushed, his gaze skipping to meet Kitsune's instead.

"I'll hunt down Shikkai for you, okay?" The boy smiled, trying to lighten the mood maybe. "I'll yell in his ear so loud he'll come screaming home just to get away from me. He'll be back before you know it."

Aishuu stared again, and then found himself nodding.

"Alright," he told them. "That's cool." He felt Kami's fingers tousling his hair, and he automatically ducked away, offering a tentative grin. Kami grinned back, and with that, the two of them were gone, the door shutting softly behind them. He was alone -- alone with the truth.

Aishuu sat down in his chair and jacked back into the looms, preparing himself for the worst.

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