An archaic network set amid a void of white, with the tell-tale mark of World 3 filling the sky itself. It's here that the sky breaks and a portal opens up. From this portal emerges the wolf-like Eregion, and in its tremendous claws is the equally tremendous visage of Joker. The monster hisses as it emerges and quickly releases Joker from its grasp, backing away from the Crimson Titan as he's dropped near a bright red platform adorned by four skull-like panels. And it's here that a figure stands with hands crossed behind his back; a figure that Joker would recognize, if not appreciate seeing at this moment. With a slightly annoyed face, Gate looks on to Joker and sighs before taking a single step forward.
Gate: It seems that we have a bit more to discuss.
Joker had looked up as the claws came down around him, and as they crashed into the ground, even his reflexes weren't enough to get away from their grasp. His systems instinctively pulsated with energy, and a collection of fields surrounded him to protect him. The claws, undaunted, grabbed a hold of the bubble itself and dragged him with it, Joker hapless and quite furious at the display.
A flash later, and Joker found himself before someone he was quite unpleased to see. Crimson energy sparked between his fingertips, and black and red whisps of power coiled off of his body, and as the energy wreathed him in a layer as protective as it was destructive, he narrowed his gaze at the scientist. He took note of his surroundings as quickly as he could, and glared a steely gaze at Gate.
"Discuss? That's a strange way of indicating another plot to convince me of your worthiness to be trusted just to put a bomb in my chest!" Joker roared at him, as the energy that encased his body flared by magnitudes to match his fury. "I respected your power and put trust in your word, Gate. That was my mistake, and I do not intend on making it again."
...despite this being an expected response that he was well prepared for, Gate's demeanor darkens. He looks to the giant with a locked stare, raises a hand, and brushes it forwards as if attempting to brush dust away. At that moment, the eponymous crimson that the Crimson Titan holds in his hands blows away like a candle, and he finds himself unable to summon any more.
Gate: SHUT. UP.
After raising his voice for the first time in a great while, Gate allows the moment to fall between the two before he continues.
Gate: I literally warned you that you were basically asking me to install a bomb in your chest, so that choice is on you, not me. It's also not my fault that you literally made the choice to go to what was painfully obviously a front for the organization that I explicitly told you to avoid alerting. You want to get mad at me for detonating that power? I saved your life, Joker, not to mention potentially at least delaying our incoming check-mate at the cost of tipping my hand at a point that I did not want to do so. You don't want to trust me now? Fine. That's your disadvantage, not mine. I brought you here today not to attempt to instill more trust, but to tell you that I've kept my word even now. Despite not having Eon's core any longer, your systems still can remotely access it within Forte's arsenal thanks to the adapter that I made for you. My sole reason for contacting you now was to warn you to not alert Forte to this fact, lest an even worse fate befalls you.
With another motion of his hand, Gate signals Eregion, who slashes behind Joker and opens a rift for the crimson titan to make his return.
Gate: Now, if you're willing to overlook yourself, I'll answer any questions that you may have in regards to your new scenario. If not, then please, feel free to do whatever you like.
Obviously annoyed, Gate folds his hands behind his back and stares down Joker, awaiting whatever comes next.
The crimson titan curled his lip, sneering as Gate blew away his energy. It caught him off guard, to be sure, but as soon as the wind abated and his power flowed freely, the energy rolled off of his body again. It wasn't a response that was manually made, but rather an autonomous function to burn off excess production through this roil of energy around him.
As the scientist patronized him, scolding him like a child that didn't listen to his father, Joker harkened back to his first thoughts of Gate and realized just how accurate they were. While he kept the roil of energy in check to prevent more crimson from forming in his grasp, he could hardly stop the black and red whisps that whipped off of his body in frustration as he listened.
The claw swipe gave him his much-wanted escape from this, but Joker knew enough to recognize when the time to flee and the time to understand was, and as furious as he was about being blind-sided like this, he also needed to question Gate further.
"I'm a sentient database, Gate, you need not remind me of our conversation! In no means did you warn me that the bomb would quite literally have a trigger in your possession. Regardless of the potential front, that building had lives in it, and again I'm painted their destroyer! Whatever chances I may have had at rebuilding my public image after destroying it alongside Creamland just went up in smoke!
"If you wanted me to stay away from the NIA, you should have explicitly informed me that it would have been a bad choice! I was designed to make calculated risks, and my safety was deemed an acceptable risk in return for what I needed from them. The NIA's job is to protect humans, Gate, something I know you have opinions against. I'm not incredibly fond of them, either, but the only family I've ever known is in danger out there, and now I have no way to contact or assist them! Overlook myself indeed, trying to protect something else and I get rewarded like this!" Joker ranted at Gate, thrashing his hands about in the space to accentuate his frustration, at one point reaching up and grabbing at the air to just let out some of the pent-up fury, as if trying to crush reality within his palm would abate the emotions he was dealing with. Joker had turned over a lot in his time grappling with his purpose, his programming, his abilities, and his own morals and beliefs since this whole catastrophe began, but one thing he did remember and still held true was loyalty. Everything else aside, the new building of emotions geared toward protecting that which he knew was important to him processed, he had to respect that Gate, if he were truthful, had kept up his end of the bargain.
Joker held out one hand to test, knowing that bending space was possible for him, but wanted to see if it bent just that much easier for him as it had while he had the core. To his surprise, Gate wasn't lying; space crumbled within his grasp like paper, and he felt that gentle pull that told him if he wanted to, he could shatter it like glass. His fury released in his words, and logic winning over emotion, Joker almost immediately calmed down, and cast a steely gaze onto Gate.
". . . You told the truth," he said, now much calmer, his brow furrowed. "The adaptor gives me remote access to it. Why give me the core back at all if I could have remote access to it? Why even create that risk?"
Gate holds his gaze squarely on Joker, looking to the mammoth Navi as if they stood at the same height and showing not even a twinge in the face of his rage. However, he does allow silence to settle in before he makes his response, obviously considering the situation before speaking as he makes a wordless glance to the sky above.
Gate: You are a database, I am a researcher. Our goals and perspectives differ greatly on many fronts. What is important or obvious to one may not be to another. For example, I did not have remote control over the core, and I believed that after highlighting how dangerous Eon's core was, that having some form of self-preservation system installed went without saying. An admitted oversight on my side, and for that I do offer an apology.
As for why I returned the core when I could have granted you remote access... I am a Navi of a particular and carefully cultivated reputation, but not all that the world knows of me is true. For one; while I am not above cloak-and-dagger tactics due to their necessity, I also value honesty and do not lie as some may believe. Our agreement was that you would have the core, and I intended to honor that agreement from the very start. My alternate answer did not supersede your personal quest.
And speaking of your quest, I dare say that this may be a blessing in disguise for you. With Eon's core no longer in your direct possession, you are no longer in danger of outright being deleted by it should you draw from its power too much. To add to this, Forte represents a nearly bottomless well of power, so your drawing from it even to a greater degree than before is very unlikely to garner his attention, and should you fully activate this power in an area where Forte cannot follow, you should be completely safe to fully utilize the core so long as you can escape without drawing more attention to yourself. We can attempt to take the core back from Forte and return it to you at some point, but for now we lack the resources to do so.
Gate seemed slightly annoyed at this point, but his eyes trail off to the sky once again and his focus seems to return a moment later.
Gate: ....anyone in authority will know what the cause of that blast was, and soon enough the blame will fall squarely on me as a result. Your storm will pass soon enough in that regard. As for your family; should you wish to use it, I do have a way to reach out to them, should you be able and willing to share their identities.
Gate looked up at him, squarely, to show that, even as he was designed with a greater stature, Gate had no intentions of being treated as a lesser. As a database, he understood figures and numbers, and power was something he was designed with the capability to analyze and determine. Gate's battle prowess rested at a near abyssmal level, looking almost nonexistent, but that power budded underneath the surface and crashed about like a lion trapped in a cage - the battle prowess that was observable and its true potential were very different. Joker needed to remind himself of this when listening to Gate's words, knowing that the scientist had his own motives, and altruism doesn't seem to be the most likely.
Still, he was true to his word, if only in spirit and by technicality. Some would say that was the most important form of truth, however; a technical truth. He had allowed his rage to get the better of him, before, but he could resolve to reason in recognition that Gate was being truthful, at least.
". . . The core is designed as an enhancer. Power flows through it and is magnified. If I pull from it while it is inside Forte, and he is funneling power through it, could I remotely access parts of his arsenal aside from the core's strength?" Joker asked, thinking rather deeply into the implications of the connection he had with the world's original Navi. "Further more, I am disinterested in recollecting the core at the moment, and more concerned with my original intent with them all. It is of no concern to you, of course, and there are things much bigger than my own plans at the moment, so I can be patient on that front.
"As for my family. . . their names are Jack, Tia, and Arthur King. They should be close by to an Alexander King, if not to a Miss Heartless." Joker wasn't sure why he was telling Gate this, but, he was willing to offer his head up to the NIA if they would assist him. What harm could come of offering it to Gate, instead?
With Joker's inference and resulting question, Gate's eyes narrow slightly as his gaze rises, obviously bothered by this concept.
Gate: In theory, yes. However, this course of action is suicide. The powers that you would first access would be literal monsters that have nothing to tame them and will be invited into the core of your systems. Doing so would almost invariably destroy you, possibly permanently. And if you did manage to defeat what would come from this abyss, Forte would not only know what you did, but who you are and where you are. Make no mistake; Forte has likely already forgotten you, and will not consider you until he lays eyes on you again. If you inspire his wrath by stealing from his power in a manner that he can become aware of, I don't believe that any force on the net would be capable of saving you from what he would do. For these reasons, I'd advise you to draw only from the infinity within Eon's core, as drawing finite power from the infinite will make no difference that Forte will notice. Honestly, your choice to leave it be for the moment is likely the wisest course of action. With a bit of forethought, this turn of events actually has little to no consequence for you, so leaving well enough alone is probably best.
Gate finishes his statement and allows Joker to continue, coming to the identities of the ones that the Crimson Titan desires to contact. In response to this, the scientist raises his head and nods before speaking out.
Gate: Very well, we'll connect you. Gamma? If you please.
The name of Gamma escapes Gate's lips, and in that moment the world shifts slightly for Joker. Suddenly he becomes acutely aware of another presence in the immediate area, a personality. And with this realization comes a new experience; apprehension. Not on the part of himself, but rather empathically felt from this presence. With his very being, he can feel that whatever previously unknown entity is here, it's somehow hesitant to actually speak with Joker, as if intimidated by his presence. It's at this hesitation that Joker hears a voice similar to a child ring out to address him, staggering slightly as it speaks.
Gamma: ...Mr... Joker? My name is ...Gamma. I can help you find your family. I just wanted... permission to connect you... before doing anything, sir...
Gate raises an eyebrow as the presence of Gamma sheepishly awaits the response of the Crimson Titan. Shy and withdrawn in the presence of Joker's towering presence, the Third System remains silent, as if awaiting an order from a superior.
He had already determined what Gate's answer to his question would be, as it seemed to be the most logical answer to the question - yes, but not without extreme risk, and a risk not at all worth taking. Forte was easily capable of forgetting him, perhaps, but Joker would not easily forget the being that bore a hand through his chest, nor would he quickly forgive him. He had threatened the original navi, and he intended to one day be able to follow through with his threat.
The sudden wave of empathic understanding caught Joker off guard, as he raised his natural defenses, but tried to catch himself as the sensation of what it came with flooded him, suddenly. The empathic breach came bearing a sense of apprehension, discomfort, awe, timidity, and uncertainty. The childish voice that followed, laced with nerves and self-doubt, felt like a harder punch to the gut than Joker could have ever experienced.
I want to change Navis' lives and show them that there's a better way to live than what they're used to!
Rather than express the emotion that flooded him, or even recognize the memory, Joker's face hardened, which likely didn't help Gamma's disposition. He tightened his jaw, and furrowed his brow in contempt of the realization, never once having anticipated he'd meet another individual that reminded him so clearly of Unity.
Joker's answer was short, precise, but firm, if only he would say it out loud. He couldn't, but he did think it: If it involves syncing directly with you, no."
Joker's firewalls were impressive, and he ran on a different system than Gamma would normally sync with being a Wizard rather than a Navi, but the emotions that radiated off of Joker was an iron wall of rage, frustration, and, underneath it all, despondency. That fury was not directed at Gamma, though, and the underlying reason for his answer was far deeper than what it may appear on the surface.
The crimson titan didn't dare to trust himself to get as close to another entity as he had to Unity. What he had done to the only individual he could count as a true friend, with no expectations attached to their bond aside from his own, was unacceptable.
. . . But his purpose was no longer just the purpose he had claimed for himself when he woke up not long ago. Merrill had taught him something of that, as had Warrior, and no one had taught him more than he taught himself when he directed the fury of what occurred to Unity on himself. To show them that there's a better way . . .
"You've nothing to fear, Gamma," Joker begins, looking up into the distance, unsure of where to direct himself. His face was still hard, his responses slow and purposeful, like he was trying to draw water from a stone. "Connect me."
With this order, Gamma goes silent. In this time, Joker and Gate can no longer feel his presence, yet somehow know that he's still nearby, but with his attention elsewhere. The seconds turn to minutes, and Gate begins to look visibly confused at the passage of time. That is, of course, until Gamma suddenly speaks again, feeling somehow more distant than he was before.
Gamma: ...something is... wrong. I've found them, all of them. But Jack, Tia, and King are... wrong.
Gate's confusion turns to suspicion as Gamma makes his declaration, and soon he's probing the child-like system for more information.
Gate: Wrong how, Gamma?
Gamma pauses for a moment, as if trying to work out what exactly he was looking at, but soon gives his response.
Gamma: It's their souls; someone's tampered with them and they're not normal anymore. I don't think that I should try connecting with them.
Gate's brow furls as he holds out a hand, raising his eyes skywards as he begins to probe the situation.
Gate: You mentioned the three, but what about Heartless?
Gamma goes silent for a few moments before giving his response.
Gamma: ...something about her is different from most people that I've seen, but her soul is intact. I think it's safe to talk with her.
Gate sighs and turns to Joker, obviously a bit annoyed at finding yet another avenue tampered with. However, he pushes that aside in order to converse with the Crimson Titan on this new matter.
Gate: ....if you still wish to speak with Heartless, then we can connect you. However, I'd personally advise against telling her about what Gamma has found until we know more about what's happening.
Joker waited patiently, noticing the concern on Gate's face but not knowing Gamma enough to be concerned, himself. As Gamma returned, he listened, quietly, his mind racing as he considered the situation, each new bit of information a new avenue for him to explore.
Jack, Tia, Arthur, and King were all wrong, but not Heartless? What was the outlier there, then; how did Heartless come out with her soul still intact and untampered with? As he considered it, he knew the answer immediately - Heartless had stayed behind on Earth, while the rest of them went up to their orbital base. Why would she have stayed behind, though? King would never permit her leave for too long, she was too impo- the answer was so obvious, it fell on his chest like a rock, because he would've never considered it before this.
Heartless stayed behind on Earth because Joker was still on Earth. He had no way to confirm it, but he instinctively knew - she wouldn't have left him here alone, and if he needed to get to her, he'd know where to find her. What could have happened, though, that would've tampered with the others, and what thing could possibly exist that would be able to tamper with human souls?
. . . He remembered that atrocious thing, Gamma's choice of wording here reminding him of something else that was simply wrong. He shuddered at the thought, the back of his neck quivering as he remembered that undaunted presence. They were in orbit . . . it wouldn't be out of the question that he would know where to look, if he could've found his Satellite. The questions kept coming, but the clear connections were lacking.
It was helpful that the only one untouched was Heartless, though. Joker nodded to Gate and Gamma after a second of silence, his thought exercise complete. "If anyone knows what is wrong with the others, it's her. At the bare minimum, she knows something is wrong; nothing escapes her attention to detail." He turns his eyes to Gate, here. "Heartless is the woman who designed me and my brother."
Gate raises his eyebrows, closes his eyes, and motions permissively to Joker at his statement, taking a step back as he does so.
Gate: You know them better than I, so it's best left to your judgment. Gamma, connect Joker with Heartless, please.
A feeling of compliance rises at Gate's word, as Gamma's attention returns to Joker.
Gamma: Mr.Joker, I'll connect you with Ms. Heartless now.
A light red glow fills the area for a moment, and suddenly Joker would feel Heartless' presence, as if she was now standing in front of him rather than in some far-off place. Meanwhile, Heartless begins to feel the exact same sensation where she is, sensing the presence of Joker from out of nowhere.
Joker's body almost entirely stiffened as Heartless' presence filled the room, standing up tall and rigid, like a soldier standing at attention. It was perhaps the most concerned and yet entirely apathetic they had ever seen the Crimson Titan.
Heartless sat behind a computer, working on multiple screens, some in front of her, some floating as holo-pads, and some overlaying one another, as she referenced multiple sheets of data. Suddenly, something came to her, and she looked up, as she felt something she immediately and instinctively recognized -
"Jokie?" The words escaped her as if by accident, her hand instantly going over her mouth as she knew she had made a mistake. Joker hated that name, and she knew it well.
Joker's face maintained its stone features, unflinching. "Heartless. Reporting in," he responded, his voice having lost a fair deal of its character, as if responding from an automated sequence.
"So you're still doing well? That's a relief," she said aloud, smiling and hanging her head low, shaking it, even if the two couldn't see one another. She wasn't directly in contact with Alexander at the moment, and none of the rest of her children were around, so she had the freedom to act as was her truth; a woman genuinely worried about someone, and relieved to find out that they were okay.
"We hadn't heard from you since the event with Sirius; Arthur was getting worried, and Mr. King was, of course, furious. You are not one to forsake your duties, Joker . . . but you know I am not here to scold you on such matters. You contacted me directly, bypassing the normal protocol to talk to Mr. King, first. This must be important."
"I do not need to defend myself to you, do I?" Joker asked, as if the gigantean warrior were actually concerned Heartless would force something from him - he sounded almost robotic with the answer, his jaw clenched, as if waiting for a directive he wouldn't be able to refuse.
". . . You're free to act as you wish, Joker. I know you need to hear the words, but they are always implied. Tell me, what's wrong?"
The gigantean warrior looked as though a weight were lifted off of his shoulders, instantly able to relax, his shoulders falling a bit, but his knees remained unbent. Joker smirked, and chuckled, before he responded, apparently finding something amusing. "You stayed on Earth when Mr. King and the others escaped to orbit. It is to my understanding they've recently returned, but something is amiss. So why don't you tell me instead, what's wrong?"
On the other side, Heartless seemed caught off guard, surprise being radiated from the empathetic link. She did design his analytics systems, though, so she couldn't be surprised. She smiled, put her pencil down, and grabbed at a separate pad nearby. She pulled up the holo screen and considered the numbers on it, looking again over Arthur's biometrics. "Their return home was . . . complicated. I've yet to find proof of it, though. I won't bother your analytics with something I do not yet have hard data supporting, so if you do have hard data, would you share it with me?"
Joker turned his attention to Gamma and Gate, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.
Knowing what Joker was requesting, Gate raises a hand and opens a screen in front of himself. He works for a few seconds and then gives a nod to the sky. A moment later, a similar screen appears in front of Heartless. On it is biometric data of the entire family, all coming back normal. However, an additional, unmarked overlay is also included that shows a potential abnormality in all but Heartless herself.
Gate: If you'll excuse my interruption, I think it best that I interject at this point. I am Gate, leader of the WWW, and have had situational contact with Joker, just enough to lead us to this moment. In an attempt to make this contact with you, my sources have discovered an anomaly within your family, one that I am unable to explain as of now. However, I have reason to believe that an outside force may have tampered with them in some way. I'm afraid that the exact details of these metrics are proprietary, so to speak, but consider this a friendly warning that your suspicions are indeed correct; these individuals are not normal, on some level.
Heartless narrowed her gaze at the screen, her eyes working quickly as she cross-referenced each of the six humans on the screen with her own notes, looking back and forth between them meticulously and rather quickly.
She clicked her tongue, taking in the data as well as the name and title of the individual speaking to her, and not lightly - it seemed Joker had a knack for finding himself in dangerous company, unfortunately, and where one brooding, ill-intentioned scientist failed, another was more than able to get him into his clutches. She had to be careful, she realized - if this individual was able to get this kind of information on her and her 'family,' as it were, he may be skilled enough to manipulate Joker's failsafe installed by Alexander. The one thing her son would hate more than anything else would be that . . .
She mastered herself in order to hide the concern on her face, but Gamma would still be able to detect it, of course. She leaned back, thinking quickly, and narrowed her eyes. "The only quantifiable value I would be unable to measure using my systems that I could connect to your name, capabilities, and resources, Gate, would be their Soul Resonance. For proprietary reasons, you do not have to confirm or deny my assumption, but this confirmation is all I needed. I had already surmised that my family was not the ones that had returned to me, no matter how much like them they may look - but if someone is capable of this, then its more dire than it looks, isn't it?" She sighed, sounding frustrated, defeated even.
Joker listened to her mull over the information, wondering what kind of help he could provide to alleviate her, and realized that Merrill had really rubbed off on him - he had used to find her prattling, care, and actual mundane moral compass bothersome and trifling; weak. He scoffed at himself, but didn't comment on that realization, that now he, too, seemed able to find care for the only human that ever showed it back to him.
Heartless' mind didn't stop working, though, curious and explorative. ". . . This is a problem that becomes more and more dangerous for us the more individuals that are affected by it, regardless of whether or not I'm correct that its the Soul Resonance that you're referring to. Facing against something that can augment a biometric quantity of any value on such a scale is bothersome at a localized level, but one must assume due to the law of big numbers that where a localized scale of individuals exist, a larger number of potential outliers have simply not been found yet. If I remember my studies correctly, the Soul Net would be helpful in determining how many of these individuals were in existence - these 'wrong' people, as it could quantify the entire human population at once, but studying over each individual person requires that you know what you're looking for. The haystack exists, but you have to know that you're looking for a needle before you can find it . . ." she paused, thinking out loud, and gave room for Gate or Gamma to intervene on her thoughts as she mulled over them.
Rather an easy conclusion to draw, but at least it confirmed that Heartless had an understanding of the situation at hand. Gate's tone remains unchanged, yet inside he's beginning to ponder just what this all actually means...
Gate: Yes, I suppose that estimation suffices enough for you to draw the needed conclusions here. As for implications, the ability to outright tamper with humanity is definitely an interesting turn of events, and one that may very well prove even more interesting as we move on from here. On that note, do be careful; we're not sure if this anomaly is contagious.
Regardless; it was nice meeting you, do take care.
Deciding it best to not tip his hands any further at the moment, Gate takes a step back and begins to develop a rather amused face. He was starting to develop something at this point, but he was currently unwilling to share that data with anyone.