Age of Knaves

(or, The Soapstone Mouse),

A Tale of the Year 2028

by McPoodle


Please see the end of the story for acknowledgements and credits.

Table of Contents

In which the author callously kills off a main character.
Chapter I
In which Reika discusses her life with a long-separated friend over a cup of tea.
Chapter II
In which Reika acts in a peculiar manner, and Taro is most puzzled to understand it.
Chapter III
In which Taro does a lot of thinking.
Chapter IV
In which Taro sees much, and understands little.
Chapter V
Taro's presentation, during which he discovers that all is not as it seems.
Chapter VI
In which Mika oversees some unpleasant business.
Chapter VII
In which Lain explains herself, without explaining much of anything.
Chapter VIII
In which Taro finds himself confronting someone who wished to confront him first.
Chapter IX
In which Taro speaks with old friends.
Chapter X
In which there is a fair amount of yelling and finger-pointing.
Chapter XI
A small diversion to allow a minor character more time in the spotlight.
Chapter XII
In which the author reveals a new character very late in the game.
Chapter XIII
In which everything is put right, and everything falls apart.
In which the letter of the law is served.
In which the reader is thrown for a loop.
Musical Credits
In which the author endulges one of his obsessions.



"But Lord! to see how the world makes nothing of the memory of a man, an houre after he is dead!"
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, March 18, 1664

(All Mika, all the time!)

by Mika's Watcher

In tribute to a fallen comrade:

(first logged in January 11, 1996,
erased September 17, 2028)

From the Triangle News Service archive for September 18, 2028:


     TOKYO--The worldwide Wired network suffered a serious outage last night, as the continental hubs for Pacifica and Sudamerica where mysteriously switched. Tachibana technicians were quickly able to isolate and eliminate the problem. Rumors that this was the work of the Virtuosi, the former global hacker network, were strenuously denied by Tachibana Network spokesperson Mika Iwakura, who also stated that a thorough investigation was already underway into the causes of the disruption. "We will get to the bottom of this," Ms. Iwakura assured the public.


Note the very nice equivocation on Mika's part. The public still thinks there are Virtuosi out there to threaten the peace and safety of the world, so the honorable Tachibana representative gains serious points by denying their involvement. On the other hand, she says nothing about the possibility that the disruption was caused by a lone hacker. Satellite records show a transmission from a janitor's closet on the 78th floor of Tachibana Tower at 02:36, the same time as the disruption. The transmission lasted less than a second, and transmitted less than 100KB of data.

WARNING TO THE WEAK OF HEART: A rather energetic rant follows.

Let me give you a scenario to ponder. An extremely brave and dedicated hacker sneaks into Tachibana Tower on the night of September 17, disguised as a maintenance worker. She gets up to the 78th floor, there to get her hands on some nice juicy Tachibana secret. It must have been a real hum-dinger, as the following events would prove. She then locks herself in a janitor's closet. This being Tachibana, even janitor's closets have network jacks, and I'm betting the MIB's aren't keeping a close eye on them. But this is Tachibana, where even janitor's closets are equipped with a MAPU (monitoring and projection unit), so the hacker's first order of business is to smash the MAPU to bits by use of a blunt object, to wit, a desk calendar. The perpetrator of this felony then begins broadcasting her secret via e-mail to four recipients using a laptop computer and a portable satellite uplink dish. Unfortunately, in her rush she forgets to unplug the computer from the network.

Two tenths of a second after the start of the upload, the laptop's CPU is fried by a massive surge of electricity transmitted over the network link. At the same time, the entire floor is flooded with a dense yellow cloud pouring out of the air vents. The would-be hacker's second mistake is in not donning her gas mask before she smashed the MAPU. In less than a minute she is dead, drowned in her own blood as her lungs are torn to shreds by the concentrated mustard gas (for those objecting to this last gruesome detail, I can provide the shipping orders Tachibana sent out the next morning to three different chemical supply houses to replace the raw ingredients, chemicals very unlikely to be turned into anything other than the infamous WWI compound). Mika would say that the problem has been isolated.

To return to my little tale, the small room is immediately occupied by the Men in Black (suitably protected, of course). The laptop's drives and memory are thoroughly analyzed, revealing the nature of the data the woman has tried to transmit, but nothing about her goals or contacts (the fact that I am here today writing this proves they got nothing significant). As for the corpse, a memory extractor is employed on her dying brain, but the woman had foreseen this possibility--a memory eraser unit is found sitting in a corner of the outside hallway not covered by MAPU's, along with a set of instructions the woman had written for herself. It can be concluded that at the moment she embarked on her suicidal mission, she was completely unaware of why she was doing it.

So ends the speculation. The following is fact, and I have the hacking logs to prove every juicy detail.

Tachibana Network is known throughout the world for its overwhelming efficiency. The 25 kilobytes of incomplete data that had been transmitted is tracked down and eliminated from the entire network within six milliseconds. As a result, the only casualties of the operation are 258 web pages and a nearby hospital, which loses all electricity for 48 hours. This in turn leads to three deaths and puts an eight-year old boy in a permanent coma. The four recipients of the e-mail turn out to be dummy accounts with no owners and no users, created using an untraceable method well known to the hacker community. The accounts are monitored, but as might be expected, there is no activity on any of them. This concludes the first phase of the investigation. As the investigators are briefed for Phase Two, a specialized search program is set loose on the Wired, designed to find and destroy information. By the time the populace of Tokyo has woken up and read the news, there is not a shred of proof left that our mystery hacker has ever existed. As Mika said, the problem has now been eliminated.

Now then, when I came to this conclusion a few short hours ago, I did what any other self-respecting hacker would do: I pinged all of my friends. I got only one "huh?" from the server, and a follow-up showed that my fears had in fact come to pass: Alecto is no more.

I've met maybe a hundred hackers in person in my brief lifetime. Maybe a dozen were still alive and completely sane as of September 17. The count is now down to eleven. Alecto was not like any other hacker I ever knew. She wasn't in it for the fame or the secrets, or the secret knowledge that she was better than everyone else. Alecto became a hacker because she used to be a Triangle reporter who actually believed life was fair. The story she tried to write on Tachibana Networks disabused her of this notion. Largely at the urging of everyone's favorite nice person, Mika Iwakura, Alecto lost her job, her career, her reputation, and the nice new house she was just about to finish paying for. She sought me out because she happened to remember me from a visit to Cyberia in our mutual childhood (OK, she was actually looking for another world-famous child prodigy hacker, but we don't speak his name in polite society anymore). At some level she wanted revenge (as if naming herself after the most merciless of the Furies didn't make that perfectly clear), but she told me she wanted the public informed of the truth about Tachibana, and I must say this cynic believed her. She was a very quick learner, and warmed up with several highly successful attacks on various members of the Big Eight before undertaking her suicide run on Tachibana.

In the interests of honesty, I must report that she kept me in the dark as to her plans, and I would probably have tried to stop her if I knew. We'll never know if the secret she tried to transmit would have been worth the cost of her life. But I do know one thing: Mika Iwakura, or one of the nameless Committee members she so faithfully represents on the evening news, thought that Alecto's crime was deserving of erasure, and nobody in power at Tachibana thought to remand the order. As Mr. Pepys remarked of a previous era, "What an age that makes a (wo)man act like a knave."

What will happen next? Well, if Tachibana was as desperate to stop the leak as I've described, the family and friends of Alecto are the next on the hit list. That is why I am not revealing the private identity of Alecto on this page, and that is why if you know who she was as well, you had better find and delete any mention of said information (if you think the tidbit about her being a disillusioned ex-Triangle reporter was too revealing, you obviously have no idea how often Triangle purges itself of anti-Tachibana journalists). I've notified the only other friend Alecto had in the world (to my knowledge), and we had all better hope she finds a way to defend herself before Mika "gets to the bottom of this", because as the Cyberia Massacre of five years ago has proved, the hackers of the world are powerless to stop the Men in Black.

(Because MIKA.ORG would be just plain wrong!)


Chapter I

"[This place] where a man cannot live but he must spend, and cannot get suitably, without breach of his honour."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, September 27, 1668

Reika Yamamoto sat pensively at her accustomed table at the café, sipping her tea and reflecting on the relentless march of time. Around her, the world bristled with optimism. The fear and uncertainty of the last few years had come to a sudden end with the capitulation of the World Government and the lifting of the Blockade. Tachibana Networks and the Big Eight corporations now ruled supreme, a move that most welcomed for the peace and prosperity it instantly brought. But this move also meant that Tachibana now had time to take care of lesser annoyances.

And that's all I am to them, she thought, a speed bump on the road to Progress. An ultimatum, disguised as a polite note, sat crumpled in a ball at the bottom of Reika's purse. In two dozen words an anonymous Tachibana employee had completely destroyed her last hope of independence. Even more galling was the possibility that it may have been a machine that composed it instead, using a pre-selected template designed to force compliance in the least number of words without leaving any possible way to legally retaliate.

Reika noticed her cup was empty, and turned to find a waiter. Instead, she saw a woman open a gate and walk into the outdoor area of the café. She bypassed the maître d' and walked to a large wall mirror, where she adjusted her hat, then stopped to give herself a long look in the mirror. Reika instantly recognized that reflection: Arisu Mizuki. Back from China, back from the one place of Earth that Tachibana did not control.

She doesn't look a day over twenty-five, Reika brooded, well aware that on most days she herself appeared ten years older than she was.

Just then, Arisu saw Reika in the mirror. She flashed a childish grin and waved wildly at the reflection before turning to join her at the table. "Happy Birthday, Reika!" she cried.

There was the usual round of hugs and laughter and hanging things on racks, and of course ordering two cups of hot tea. Eventually the two settled into catching up.

"How long has it been?" asked Reika.

"Well, I've been e-mailing fairly regularly..." Arisu knew what the real question was. "In person, it's...ten...fifteen years?"

"You've been out of the country..." prompted Reika.

"Yes, I've been to so many places..."

"...helped so many people..."

Arisu stopped a moment to judge the way her friend spoke that last remark. "Do you resent my being away so long?"

Reika focused her attention on stirring her tea. "I did...once. But I got over it. I used to be so petty, Arisu, but of course you knew that. I don't know how you put up with me." She looked up to see Arisu smiling at her.

"I stayed with you because I saw your potential. And judging from your expensive outfit, I'd say you achieved it."

Reika shrugged, the effect accentuated by the shoulder pads. "I always said what the world needed was me in charge. Well...if I didn't say it out loud I certainly thought it enough. So that's where I am now, in charge. Of a college mathematics department, of all things. Turns out you don't need to be all that brilliant in math to tell a bunch of professors what to do."

"And are you happy?" asked Arisu.

"Do I look it? The higher I've climbed in the academic flow-chart, the less power I realize I actually have. The department runs itself. The students who want to learn seek out the professors with the knowledge and squeeze it out of them. The professors...well the professors are constantly at each other's necks, and my job is to be the bad guy they can both blame for backing down. That is the sum total of my usefulness."

Arisu just sat there, looking awkward. Reika took her hand. "There, there, Arisu, you don't have to solve all of the world's problems. I get by pretty well, on my un-birthdays. You're just seeing me at my 45-year low."

Arisu tried to change the subject. "Are you..."

"...seeing someone? No, far too busy for that. No, that's not right. I can easily delegate and make the time, but I wonder sometimes if it's just too late for me, if my title is too impressive to ever let a man through. However..."


"Well, there is someone, a former Computer Science professor who transferred to Mathematics a few years ago." Reika had clearly been waiting a long while to confide in someone, and Arisu was always good for a secret confession. "Not quite a knight in shining armor," she continued, "but on the other hand he's not like the others, interested only in his own image. He keeps very much to himself. The few times I've gotten him to open up I've seen a wonderful, caring person. But most of the time he just holds back. Maybe he earned the hatred of his Computer Science colleagues--if anyone is touchier than a math professor, it's a computer scientist. I could easily find out, but I'm waiting for him to tell me."

Arisu smiled. This was an area where she could be useful. "I think the problem is that both of you are doing too much waiting. You probably haven't let him know how you feel about him."

"No," Reika interjected, "I couldn't do that. Not yet anyway. There are very strict rules about associating with your higher ups."

Arisu inwardly grimaced at the oblique reference to her long-ago affair, although Reika had never said one word of criticism about it. "Well," she offered, "is there anything official you can do for him, some way of hinting how you feel? If he's interested in you, he'll respond appropriately. If not, you'll still be helping out."

Reika smiled warmly. "You know, there is something I can do for him. Arisu, you've done it again!"

Arisu returned the smile, glad to know that her perilous visit to Japan wasn't in vain. "By the way, " she asked innocently, "is Juri going to make it?"

The smile instantly left Reika's face. "Um, well, I was going to tell you, but things haven't been going well for Juri lately."

"What happened?"

"Well...uh, she did say she'd be able to join us today. Said something about a big announcement, actually. Let me check my e-mail."

Reika didn't find an e-mail message from Juri. She found an entirely different and entirely unwanted e-mail message from


Chapter II

"...a man should treat every friend in discourse and opening his mind to him as of one that may hereafter be his foe."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, December 15, 1663

Chairperson Yamamoto was early to the department meeting. This was a first for her, as she usually liked to make her professors wait. She started speaking the moment she reached the lectern.

"I call the weekly meeting of the Mathematics Department to order.

"First order of business is the Monitoring And Projection Unit question. For the past three years, the day-to-day business of this university has been held hostage by this department's resistance to the implementation of Tachibana Recommendation 11-436. We have earned the enmity of the other faculty and the contempt of Tachibana Networks, our sole sponsor, not to mention the fact that the in-fighting amongst ourselves has made a mockery of our many long-term projects. This crisis must come to an end.

"As you well know, the vote has remained deadlocked for months, and I have been among those against the measure. Well, I have carefully thought the matter out, and I am ready to change my vote. I've come to feel that the notion of privacy in the Twenty-First Century has become an impossible and largely unmissed liberty that is more than outweighed by the benefits conferred by the forces of an informed and competitive market economy. Do any of the proponents of the recommendation wish to change their votes at this time?" She waited the bare minimum number of seconds set down in the Departmental Procedures. "Very well, I declare the motion passed by one vote. Installation of MAPU's in all classrooms will begin immediately, with the offices and dormitories to follow as soon as is convenient.

"As I have some urgent business to attend to, I propose postponing all other business to our next meeting."

Professor Williamson, Yamamoto's loyal toady, recognized his cue. "I second the motion!" he chirped.

The chairperson didn't even look in his direction. "Any opposed? ... This meeting is now adjourned." She then turned and left as fast as she arrived, stopping by Williamson's chair to leave him a note. Before reading it, it occurred to the professor that she had not put down her briefcase once throughout the meeting.

The chairperson speed-walked down the hallways toward her car at a breathtaking speed, her gaze darting left and right into each of the dozens of offices along the hall. The staccato echo of her footsteps clattered around her head and created the kind of symphony only a mathematician could love. Savor the moment, she told herself repeatedly, because it may be your last.

Bursting through the outer doors of the building, she nearly collided with a stoop-shouldered man coming in from the parking lot, his arms filled with papers. "Taro," she cried, "I was just looking for you!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him around the corner of the building.

Professor Okada desperately fumbled with his papers, trying to hide the blush he got when he heard her call him by his first name. "I'm sorry about being late, Chairperson Yamamoto. Forgot my badge again. Has the meeting started yet?"

"Never mind that, I've got good news for you. Williamson has unexpectedly bowed out of the presentation tomorrow night, so I've signed you up to take his place. Everyone you wanted will already be there, including a member of the Tachibana board of directors."

The professor blinked. "This is unexpected."

"But you'll be ready."

"Yeah." He shook his head incredulously. "Thank you so much...Reika. You don't know how much this means to me. My entire life..." He stopped when he got a good look at the chairperson's face. "Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Reika just shrugged. "I've been under a lot of pressure lately." She then closed her eyes and sighed in anticipation what was about to happen next. "As I predicted, Tachibana gave me an ultimatum last night: change my vote on MAPU or we lose all funding. The meeting's over, and I just changed my vote."

"What!" Taro just stood there, trembling, looking nearly as upset as Reika. She responded by grabbing his shoulders.

"Look, you're going to have to trust me on this, but I think I've found a silver lining, from a very unusual source." She looked at her watch. "I'm afraid I don't have time to explain, but you'll understand tomorrow night."

"Huh? What are you..."

She looked around quickly to see if there were any potential witnesses, then grabbed his ears and pointed his eyes at hers. "Look, I said I don't have any time, so listen closely! Trust your instincts, but don't trust anyone, 'cause at the moment I'm the only one left who knows what's going on, and that number's going to drop to zero in about ten minutes." She looked away for a moment, her eyes unfocused. "I can't believe I told her! She's in no position to help! She's probably already dead by now!"

"What! Who..."

Reika snapped her head back in his direction. "Listen and remember! Assume that every conversation and every communication from now on is being bugged, including this one! Don't jump into anything half-cocked! What else, what else? I know I've missed something. Oh yes, please remember that this moment is our goodbye, and that you'll be the one to say hello to me, not the other way around. Anyone else is not me, get it? That's the most important one of all. If you or I don't do something stupid, there's a good chance that I'll see you again as I am now, but if not..." She pulled him close and kissed him for a full ten seconds. She had to grab him by the lapels at the last moment to keep him from falling.

"Chairperson Yamamoto!" he choked. But by that time she was in her car and gone. He watched her speed away, then turned to the graffiti-stained wall behind him. "Weirdest first kiss in history," he declared to no one in particular. He spent another five minutes in vain trying to figure out what the hell his friend was talking about. He couldn't decide if this was some bizarre joke or not, but at least he had the presence of mind to commit her ravings to his long-term memory.

A black car with black tinted windows pulled smoothly into the parking lot mere moments after Taro had entered the building.


Chapter III

"So that they are, as they swear, in absolute ignorance how this fire should come;
which is a strange thing, that so horrid an effect should have so mean and uncertain a beginning."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, February 24, 1667

Despite repeated phone calls, Taro was unable to reach Reika for the rest of that day, or the next one, either. But there was nothing he could do in that area, so instead he turned to preparations on his presentation.

Half a lifetime ago, Taro Okada had vowed to justify his failed existence by devoting himself to the destruction of an evil that, apparently, only that despised minority, the hackers, were aware of. The conversion of lowly computer manufacturer Tachibana Labs into world-dominating Tachibana Networks had proceeded at a snail's pace for fifty years, which was why it had never been prosecuted as a monopoly. The key to the company's power was the complete control of all means of communication on the planet. Like the Ministry of Information in 1984, Tachibana Networks determined what was true and what was false. The reason it had not been toppled by a spontaneous uprising of the people was because the shadowy Committee that ran Tachibana never resorted to pettiness: at the global level, Tachibana was ruthless, but its employees paid the same prices for food and luxuries as everyone else, and the company would never stoop to defending even an executive vice president who exceeded the speed limit. The only crimes the company would permit themselves were those so vast that no one had thought of writing laws against them yet. This meant that all the company had to fear were the lone hackers, attacking both from within and from without. All had failed, and all had been erased from existence, along with anyone of any importance who had ever known them.

There was a time, it seemed an eternity ago, when Taro might have been able to take Tachibana's defenses down by a frontal assault. But that was back when everyone had been rooting for Tachibana as the little PC manufacturer against the giants of the industry, companies Tachibana was to crush so thoroughly that no one today remembered their names. Young Taro the hacker wasn't interested in saving the world, he had just wanted to prove his superiority. The Knights appealed to his ego: they treated him as an equal, as an adult--despite knowing his age--when there was no other grown-up who even so much as noticed him. They made him an acolyte, initiating him into their philosophy of the One Truth and teaching him a handful of pretty tricks.

Taro was never sure what he would have done if he had had the opportunity to work out what the Knights were truly up to before the truth had been thrust into his hands: a seemingly-trivial e-mail message, read and deleted before he had thought out its meaning. It revealed the KIDS Technology the Knights had used to kill dozens of petty enemies and to lure hundreds more into pointless suicides. He had tried to contact the Knights to find out the truth, but instead was intercepted by a police cyber-stakeout.

What followed was a long period of being used and using others. The police hid his identity, while the other hackers lionized him. The crucial moment for Taro to reveal that he had had help came and went, and soon he was stuck with the reputation of the most brilliant hacker of all time, the one who had single-handedly infiltrated the Knights and sabotaged the group from the inside. Taro found it increasingly difficult to live up to this reputation. Meanwhile, the minority party in the government was running an anti-hacker campaign, and the Knights trial was a goldmine for them, in that the suspects were actually guilty of the crimes brought against them, and they invited upon themselves the hatred of the public by their unrepentant behavior. Their "One Truth" was revealed to be the false goal of all would-be tyrants: that naked power is the only goal worth pursuing, that happiness is making another do what he hates, and to make him love you for making him do it. With these kind of villains to work with, the plotters in Nagatacho ward were able to "elaborate" on the statement by the "anonymous kid hacker", and dozens of crimes unrelated to the Knights were added onto the original charges, most infamously the near-total collapse of the world's economy the year before. Taro, far more interested in the worship of his hacker followers, paid no heed as endorsements were written in his name, endorsements designed to fan the hatred of the public against the hackers. Finally there was an election, the minority party came back into power, and laws were passed, infamous laws that ended the anonymity of the Wired, laws that Tachibana would later use to legitimize their power.

The hackers now turned on their idol, but Taro had beaten them to the punch. Betrayed by those he trusted, Taro signed off the Wired, seemingly for good. And so matters would have remained if his former friends hadn't started disappearing off the face of the earth--it soon became clear that Tachibana was behind it all.

Taro had not given up on humanity, not entirely, and that was because of the fact that he had never been exposed by the sender of the KIDS System e-mail. Someone had sent that message: either the "perfect hacker" that Taro wasn't; or a member of the Knights who had realized too late the human cost of so much lust for power, and was willing to face death to see justice done. In either case, Taro felt he owed it to that sender to do something to atone for his selfishness. If he couldn't reverse the IP Registration Act, at least he could make sure Tachibana didn't make things worse.

In Taro's mind, the problem with most hackers was that they wasted their talent. They sought out secrets, but only for the pleasure of knowing what no one else did. No hacker would tell you anything important unless it was a way to increase their fame. Taro decided to replace them with a program, the 5-P algorithm, the perfect, unstoppable hacker that would provide any truth you asked of it. With 5-P, it would become impossible for Tachibana or any organization to get away with their crimes. The best part was the fact that 5-P was already in demand by the public, in the form of an intuitive search engine that could produce facts in the endless sea of Wired opinion.

The 5-P took tremendous computing power to develop, the kind that could only be obtained by a major corporation or a university. But corporate sponsorship was out of the question. Realizing it couldn't control the non-Wired world by itself, Tachibana had begun gathering allies, eight conglomerates controlling vast sectors of the world's economy. With Tachibana's security applied in the protection of the Big Eight, the small group soon came to be the only international companies on Earth. Thus, Taro placed his hopes in the university system, racing through an advanced degree and becoming a professor about the time the world government was announced. But the comforting ineptness of a government bureaucracy would not be running the university, because Tachibana had also managed to grab control of the world's higher education systems, making Taro a Tachibana employee with at least another five years before 5-P would be ready. In case anyone had any doubts remaining about Tachibana's attitude towards hackers, Tachibana then lured the cream of the crop, a self-deluded debating society called the Virtuosi, into gathering physically at Cyberia, then wiped them nearly-completely out of existence with an overdose of nanite Accela snuck into all the drinks. To make the message perfectly clear, Tachibana announced the assassination to the world at large; the world government put Japan under blockade, but most of the world and certainly the vast majority of the Japanese declared Tachibana their saviors from the "Knights Reborn".

Taro responded to the total victory of Tachibana Networks by transferring from Computer Science to Mathematics, completely changing his personality in the process. From the moment of his first interview with his new employers, Professor Okada was seen as shy, bumbling, and completely unfit to operate in the real world. The amount of knowledge on the Wired was so immense that background checks, particularly one extensive enough to dig up a hacker past that was technically part of his childhood, were prohibitively expensive. Only by making himself look harmless to everyone he knew as well as on the Wired could Tachibana possibly be fooled into unleashing his program on the world. His other alternative would have been to re-write his past, a solution that Taro saw as being the sort of thing that Tachibana would do, and hence unthinkable. He tried not to think too much that living a lie wasn't much better on the moral scale.

Taro had finally finished 5-P six months ago, but he had refrained from carrying out his plan. At the time he had justified his hesitation in terms of what the program would do to the world after Tachibana and the Big Eight had fallen. 5-P would create a world completely devoid of privacy, and wasn't the invasion of privacy Tachibana's major crime? After 5-P, the only way anyone could keep anything to themselves would be to live as Taro had lived all these years, and that was a fate Taro wished on nobody. He suspected that the world might see him more as an Oppenheimer than as an Einstein. Those reasons were certainly cause to be hesitant, but the more significant reason was his growing attraction for the chairperson of the Mathematics Department. Despite the off-putting act he put on, Reika somehow managed to see the real human being inside him. It was a long, slow relationship given the woman's strong apprehensions about crossing the line of rank, and Taro could count on one hand the number of times she had called him "Taro" instead of "Professor Okada". But for the first time in decades, someone actually cared about him, and that hurt because there was a significant chance that Taro would be forced to erase his memory in order for his plan to succeed.

Like everything else, this eventuality had been carefully thought out. If Taro learned that Tachibana was getting ready to sic the legendary Men in Black on him, he would go to the Hydrostatic Research building on campus, there to be the victim of the department's memory-erasing machine. He carried the remote control with him constantly, disguised as a soapstone mouse on his key chain. Unlike heroes in spy dramas, he didn't have access to the obscenely-expensive technology required to record memories, so once he staged this accident, there would be no going back.

This brought Taro to the present day. Reika had forced his hand for reasons he couldn't fathom as yet. Maybe he should have told her what he was doing earlier, trusted someone for once instead of keeping to himself.

"Don't trust anyone." She had told him that like she had just found it out. But for Taro, the time when this hadn't been true were the days of "once upon a time" and "happily ever after".


Chapter IV

"[He] proposed it as a thing that is truly questionable,
whether there really be any difference between waking and dreaming..."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, April 2, 1664

Only a few hours remained before Taro's presentation would begin. "The snow job to end all snow jobs," he called it.

The wardrobe was the same one he had worn for five years now. It consisted of a pair of stiff brown shoes two sizes too small, a dull blue suit, and a faded yellow bowtie. He was too nervous to eat, and he now had 150 minutes to waste. He decided to head to the auditorium early, to make sure the sound and light systems were in working order. He was actually hoping for a glitch, so he'd have something to occupy his time.

When he arrived, he found that a tech was already there checking the systems, so he found a seat near the back and ran the introductory speech in his head for the hundredth time that day.

The many presentations Taro had given and sat through at the university had given him the opportunity to meet dozens of technicians. Taro didn't make it a habit to keep track of all of them, but he was reasonably certain that this one was a new hire. Her blue coveralls were neatly creased, for one thing. She was middle-aged, but was working with the speed and lack of care characteristic of a newbie, so he guessed that she might have changed careers. She also didn't know enough to keep her black mid-length hair in a braid or under a hat instead of hanging free to get caught on something. He waited for her to screw up, and was pleasantly surprised when she proved herself perfectly competent in what she was doing. Maybe she dreamt of working with machines her whole life, he mused, and only recently found an escape from her dead-end job as World President.

Taro then took the time to see what the woman was actually installing on those ladders. The smile left his face when he realized it was a pair of MAPU's, one near the boarded-up control room to watch the stage, and one in the stage lights to watch the audience. That was fast, he thought to himself glumly. Tachibana doesn't mess around. He hunkered down and got back to his notes.

Once the units were installed, the next step was to test and calibrate them. The large MAPU's designed for auditoriums came with their own spotlights, so before long two beams of light were searching and illuminating random seats and spots on the stage. Taro noted that the spotlight never shown on him. Story of my adulthood, he reflected wryly.

Taro heard a distant y-phone go off with a distinctive five-note ring and looked up to see the tech in the rafters above the stage. She was lying on her back and adjusting various screws on the MAPU while talking into her headpiece. Taro made the conscious decision at that point not to blame her for the evil represented by her machines. Seeing that she was nearly done, he walked up to the stage for the inevitable technical briefing.

He looked over the auditorium controls installed in the face of the podium as he waited for her to descend, then walked up to her and held out his hand. She grinned and shook it with gusto.

"Are you the one giving the presentation tonight?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah, that's me. That was some nice work up there, by the way."

She shrugged. "It was nothing, really. Just doing my job."

"You've done it a lot better than most of the techs I've worked with. First time?"

"You noticed?" She suddenly looked nervous.

"I notice a lot of things." He decided to bite the bullet, with the possibility of Reika's "silver lining" in the back of his mind. He pointed to the two MAPU's and asked, "you mind telling me how to operate these guys?"

She nodded, then walked up to the podium and quickly added the MAPU controls to Taro's custom control configuration before beckoning him to watch over her shoulder. "The Monitoring And Projection Unit basically creates a holographic link between any two locations in the same local network. By connecting to this location, for example, any member of the university, or any properly-authorized employee of Tachibana Networks, can watch a presentation or performance and then interact, by appearing as a virtual member of the audience."

"Or a virtual actor," added Taro, pointing at the second MAPU.

"Yes," she nodded. "The remote interface allows users to control what they want to focus on. The local controls I've just installed are for setting the default view, and for allowing you to monitor who's watching. Of course," she added with a frown, "those with a high enough security level will be invisible to you."

"I'm well aware of that little 'gotcha'," Taro replied. With the technician's tacit urging, he stepped up to the podium to familiarize himself with the new controls, but stopped himself when he noticed the woman trying to sneak away.

"Leaving so soon?" he asked. "Well, it's been nice talking with you. My name's Taro, by the way." He held out his hand again and waited.

The woman silently debated with herself for a moment, then finally shrugged with a mysterious smile and returned the handshake. "Arisu. Perhaps we'll meet again."

"Perhaps we will. Goodbye."

"Goodbye." She picked up her toolbox and exited via the side door.

After a moment, Taro turned and examined the virtual controls thoroughly for a few minutes before giving up. No silver lining yet, but I'll do a better job later tonight after the presentation. He smiled in anticipation of the challenge to his hacking skills. That's when he noticed the squat black cylinder sitting at the edge of the podium.

He turned and raced out the door with the cylinder in his hand, but Arisu was long gone, so he turned and walked back in, so he could examine the object under the stage lights. It was a plastic container with a rubber lid, the kind used in his childhood to hold rolls of photographic film. Running the scene with Arisu back in his mind, Taro was fairly certain she had deliberately placed the container there when she had calibrated the podium controls. With this as justification, he walked further backstage where the lights were dimmer and carefully pried up the lid.

Inside were two smaller cylinders, each made of a clear crystalline substance, and each about the size and diameter of Taro's little finger. The interior of each cylinder was alive with thousands of tiny colored lights that darted from one end to the other.

Taro recognized the two objects immediately as memory stores. But whose memories were they?

Perhaps I'm in a spy drama after all, he thought.


Chapter V

"...though I admire [royalty] with all the duty possible,
yet the more a man considers and observes them,
the less he finds of difference between them and other men..."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 26, 1665

A half-hour later, the crowd began gathering in the atrium. Taro waited until five minutes before the doors were scheduled to open to sneak out and see how many people there were. What he saw was pretty much the same crowd that attended all of the symposia scheduled by the university: tired teachers, brown-nosing students, and retired members of the neighborhood with nothing better to do on a Tuesday night. Of these, less than a handful of people would have any interest in his speech, or would be capable of understanding anything worthwhile in it. There were only two people he was looking for in the crowd: Reika, and the Tachibana representative.

The chairperson found him first. She had a look that mixed equal parts outrage and bewilderment. "Professor Okada! What is the meaning of this?" She shoved the corrected announcement for the presentation into his hands.

This was not the sort of greeting he was hoping for. He looked the sheet over for typos. "It looks alright to me."

"What happened to Williamson?"

He looked her in the eye to see if she was joking. "He couldn't make it," he said slowly, "so I'm taking his place."

"Oh! Well, thank you for putting this together on such short notice, then."

"...this moment is our goodbye, and that you'll be the one to say hello to me, not the other way around. Anyone else is not me."

Taro stopped breathing. His hands clenched tightly on the notice as he gazed searchingly into the eyes of this woman who apparently was not the same woman who had kissed him in the parking lot the day before. With a struggle, he managed to force out a word. "Who...?"

Before she had a chance to answer, Reika was surrounded on both sides by two tall men in black suits. Their eyes were hidden behind state-of-the-art Navishades.

"Chairperson Reika Yamamoto?" the one on the right asked.

She looked up at him. "Yes?"

The man on the left put his hand on her shoulder. "There was a problem with the financial assistance forms you submitted to the Tachibana Funding Committee."

She quickly swiveled her head. "Oh, dear! And the deadline is tonight."

The man on the left put a hand behind her back. "No need to worry, ma'am. The Committee has a room all set up to help you fill them out properly. If you come with us, we can get everything straightened out."

Reika smiled. "How thoughtful! Let's get going then!" She looked back to Taro as she was being led away. "Good luck, Professor! Sorry I couldn't make the presentation."

Taro couldn't move. Dozens of action-movie scenarios raced through his head, but the Cyberia Massacre, and the fact that the puppet government of Japan could openly congratulate Tachibana for doing it, proved you just didn't go up against the Men in Black single-handedly. Most importantly, he was immobilized by the container in his jacket's inside pocket. Reika Yamamoto was too highly placed in the university hierarchy to disappear without a trace. She was also known by too many people for her to be harmed physically. As for mental damage...well that was why he had been entrusted with a stick containing all the memories of her life. That was why he couldn't do anything to attract attention to himself, to make himself look like anything other than a casual acquaintance of his superior. But all those reasons did not stop Taro from feeling like a coward as he watched Reika walk out of the building of her own free will.

Does no one notice? Taro wildly scanned the room. The "uniform" of a Man in Black was unmistakable, especially in an academic milieu. Yet everyone pretended nothing unusual was happening. The lone exception was among the two latest arrivals, Professor Arrieta and Professor Chisa Yomoda. The Western Literature professor was desperately trying to get her taffeta dress loose from the fast-closing door behind her, while the Poetry professor in the slacks and tee-shirt was displaying her strong horror for violence: frozen in place, eyes and mouth open wide, with one arm pulling at Arrieta while the other was pointed at the doors closing on the backs of the Men in Black. The pairing brought to mind a time-lapse version of the story of Cinderella, with one Cinderella making her way to the ball in her gown past her several-hours later version fleeing into the night. Once the abductors were out of sight, Chisa dropped her arms in defeat, then looked at her watch and convinced her best friend that they might as well give up on the play they had planned on and attend the presentation instead.

The doors of the auditorium had opened by this time, and the people were working their way to their seats. Taro turned his eyes reluctantly from the outside door and made his way backstage.

How can I give a speech now? he asked himself. It's hopeless. Tachibana and the Big Eight have been ruling the world for years now. Who am I to think my pathetic little gambit could possibly work?

The professor peeked around the curtains at his audience. At first he noticed the small knots of people standing and talking. Professors Yomoda and Arrieta were closest to where he was standing, and from the occasional overheard word they were evidently discussing the lost poetry of Sappho, or rather, Arrieta was talking with great animation while Chisa stood there glumly. Arrieta was just bringing up Hypatia and the fall of paganism in Alexandria when Professor Yomoda's y-phone went off with a distinctive five-note ring. She answered it, excused herself, and exited by the side door. As the doors were locked precisely at 19:30, it was very unlikely that she would be coming back, but Professor Arrieta didn't know this, so she stood where she was and waited for Chisa to return.

Almost everyone else meanwhile was gathering around a woman in a smart business outfit who had just entered the auditorium. She answered very few of the questions put to her, and seemed a bit disgusted to be around so many people. Most of her attention was on the huge man next to her, his form barely contained in a black tuxedo. The man's hands were adorned with dozens of gadgets allowing him to control any number of devices by the mere flick of a finger. He wore an extra-large pair of Navishades, but these allowed his stern eyes to be seen, unlike those of the Men in Black. In contrast to her companion, the woman was the only person in the entire building entirely devoid of personal electronics, a silent statement of mastery. The glances the two gave each other made it clear to anyone paying attention that she considered him her personal property, while he on the other hand didn't seem to have a problem with this arrangement.

Taro recognized the woman, and shook his head in wonderment. Mika Iwakuwa, the President of Research and Development for Tachibana Networks, is attending my presentation. He simply had to put on the presentation now, if only to tell Masayuki. He took his place, touched the control to open the curtains, and waited for his audience to notice him.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Professor Williamson's talk on the potentials inherent in the upcoming Tenth IP Protocol has been postponed until a later date. In his place, I will be presenting my research into search algorithms on the Wired."

A couple of dedicated IP enthusiasts who had missed the correction got up and left at that point. Taro caught himself unconsciously looking for Reika in the audience. He had figured if anyone could have figured out what he was really up to during his speech, it would be her. He happened to notice that Chisa had managed to get back into the theater somehow and was sitting next to Professor Arrieta in the middle of the second row.

Taro reminded himself to focus. He activated the monitors at the back of everyone's chairs and displayed the first slide. As he did so, he noticed a light on the podium indicating that an anonymous someone was using the MAPU's to watch his speech. He quickly scanned the darkened amphitheater, but failed to spot anyone, real or hologram, that he didn't recognize.

His audience was fidgeting. "Yes! Well, this first slide depicts the current 4-P search algorithm, which has been used by all of the Wired's search engines for the past twenty-three years. The artificial intelligence capabilities of this algorithm has made it the most powerful in history, but it still requires queries to be composed in a specialized subset of the English language, 'four-speak'. The goal of search engine logicians has been to push the algorithm to the fifth, or intuitive level. I believe I have attained that goal."

Iwakura yawned, and Taro broke into a cold sweat. He put on his second slide; the one he had hoped would elicit an appreciative laugh from Reika. "The secret..."

Taro stopped at that point, because he had suddenly noticed that there was someone new in the audience. At the top of the stairway that ran down the center of the auditorium was now a folding chair, and sitting in the chair was a teenage girl, her eyes wide. Taro could swear that he had never seen her before in his life.

Taro was now completely dispirited. He had hoped that his mystery guest would be someone of importance at Tachibana Networks, but instead it turned out to be some unknown hacker, or else a bored young woman playing with the machines at Tachibana while her father was off programming somewhere.

Reluctantly, Taro continued where he left off. "The secret was the personal language profiles collected by every Navi and uploaded to the Central Repository every night. Use of these profiles allow casual enquiries to be precisely interpreted, to within the twelfth degree."

There wasn't really anything to be done by this point, as nearly everyone was looking at their watches. The hologram girl saw this, and suddenly stood with her arm up. She started speaking, but no words came out of her lips. Instead it was Professor Yomoda who spoke: "Professor Okada! May I ask a question?" She was standing with the exact same pose as the girl.

Taro was confused for a brief moment, until he saw that the girl was suddenly wearing a man's suit from the American Nineteenth Century and beside her was a curtain and an elaborate clockwork mechanism. It was a common hacker pose: "I am Oz, the great and powerful! Pay no attention to that person behind the curtain." "Go ahead," he gamely addressed "Chisa".

"Aren't both the 5-P and 4-P algorithms both N-space solutions to the 9-PSQ equation?"

"Yes, that's right." Then he remembered. "And since Tachibana Networks has full legal rights to all derivations of that equation above the fourth level, 5-P will be the only search algorithm allowed on the Wired." Taro wanted to kick himself for almost leaving out 5-P's major selling point.

Now that the prospect for controlling the vast majority of the Wired's advertising revenue had been revealed, Taro once again had Mika Iwakura's full attention. The rest of the presentation was merely to prove that he had in fact succeeded in creating a workable 5-P algorithm.

As soon as it was over, the girl and her chair disappeared, while the holographic puppet of Chisa Yomoda quickly walked to the nearest door and disappeared when it left the line of sight of the MAPU at the back of the auditorium. The real and very frustrated Professor Yomoda then walked in through the same door and collected Professor Arrieta, who was her ride home. The switch was so smooth that Taro was the only one to notice it.

The Tachibana representative and her bodyguard/secretary had meanwhile climbed the stairs to the stage.

"Congratulations, Professor Okada!" Iwakura exclaimed. "That was a masterful presentation you just gave! My name is Mika Iwakura, President of R & D at Tachibana."

Now came the second part of Taro's plan, which is where the wardrobe did most of the work. "Wow!" he exclaimed, "I've seen you on TV!"

Iwakura smiled deviously. "Yes, well I try my best to spread the word about all the good things that Tachibana has been doing for the world. I believe that you would make a welcome addition to our team."

"Golly!" Taro inwardly winced at the word. "I would be honored. But I've got some other projects to finish at the university first. It might be awhile."

"That's too bad. It would be a shame for the world to have to do without your wonderful algorithm, even for a few months." She shook her head sadly as her eyes laughed at him.

"Well, do you think it would help if I lent you my notes?"

The businesswoman practically purred as her estimate of his gullibility shot into the stratosphere. "Oh, could you? Tachibana would be ever so grateful! We promise to hold the perfect spot for you whenever you're ready."

Oh I'm sure you will, he thought to himself.

She gestured towards the door. "Now, if you'd like, we can take my limo to your office, and we can get started on your notes."

He shook his head. "You don't have to go to the trouble. I always carry my notes with me."

Ms. Iwakura's eyes boggled as he pulled out his notes. "Is that a zip disk?"

"Well," he blushed, "I've been working on this for a long, long time." He held it out, nervously. "I've got my life's work on here, Miss Iwakura. You'll get it right back to me, right?"

The disk was ripped out of his fingers so fast it nearly left rug burns on his fingers. "Of course, Professor. We should be able to get everything we need in a few hours. I'll have it personally delivered by Thursday at the latest. And thank you once again, for helping Tachibana make the world a better place." She then turned and practically ran for the door, her companion stumbling after her.


Chapter VI

"Some things are in our power, others are not."
  -- the philosopher Epictetus, as quoted in
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, January 17, 1663

At the back of a maze of corridors two stories below the underground parking garage of Tachibana Tower was a room that didn't exist. The room had probably had more visitors than any other in the Tower, for this was where those that Tachibana considered to be threats were "interviewed". This involved not just extracting information from human brains, but also re-writing it. Those visitors that were allowed to leave this room were guaranteed to have Tachibana's best interests at heart for the rest of their usually-short lives.

Sometime after 22:00 this un-room was graced with the presence of Mika Iwakawa, President of Tachibana Research and Development, public representative/press agent of Tachibana Networks, and secret head of Central Security Services, otherwise known as the Men in Black. The two technicians manning the brain-scanning Navi control units turned as the door opened and their boss and her ubiquitous secretary entered, catching only the tail end of their conversation.

"Factory defaults! That was definitely the best part. And here I was thinking no one was stupid enough to install a web server without changing something. He probably didn't even know about the maintenance account."

Mika had changed her jacket for a lab coat and was carrying a clipboard under one arm. She was a strong believer in the motto "the right clothes for the right occasion", and felt that a scientist's attire was only proper for overseeing the sciences of hacking and interrogating. She had just come from the Covert Computer Center, where MIB hackers had easily broken into Professor Okada's server and found everything of value about the most perfect mark Mika had ever come across.

Upon seeing the pair enter, the technician at the further seat popped up and approached. "I've got the results of the scans, Ms. Iwakura."

Mika slowly swiveled her head from the secretary to the technician. "Wait your turn," she stated in a voice that was equal parts calm and terrifying. The young man fairly whimpered as he ran back to his seat.

God! Mika muttered under her breath, save me from the new hire sycophants!

She turned back to continue where she left off. "Anyway, R&D should be examining that 5-F program about now." News of the 5-P algorithm had traveled throughout the complex, but not even New Hire was stupid enough to correct Mika on the correct name. Mika chuckled to herself derisively. "I don't trust the lot of them to blow their noses without a fifteen page manual, so could you go up there and see they don't screw up? Oh, and be sure to schedule me an extra session alone with Subject A here," pointing over her shoulder at one of the two captives strapped to twin platforms mounted at a forty-five degree angle at the back of the room. "I hear she's just come from China and I thought I'd get a first-hand account."

The secretary took her hand and kissed it while bowing low. "It would be my honor, Madame," he said, before turning with military precision and exiting the room.

Mika allowed herself a single sigh of lust before getting back to the business at hand. "Alright," she said without turning to face the technicians, "what have you learned so far about Ms. Kato's contacts?"

"Nothing, really," stated the nearer tech.

Mika immediately turned and bashed the man unconscious to the floor with a backhanded smack of the clipboard. "WRONG ANSWER!" she screamed at the prone body. She then looked up at the survivor. "You!" she demanded. With a gesture he was quivering by her side.

Instantly she was calm again. "I believe you had a report for me."

The man would later wonder why he didn't mentally disintegrate at that point. "Both subjects have clear memories of their years with Juri Kato prior to their graduation from college. Subject A knew nothing further, while Subject B was aware that Kato had lost her job at Triangle, but not of her activities after that point."

Mika smiled coldly. "Concise and to the point. Very good. Is that all?"

The technician nodded, uncertain if it would be his fatal mistake.

"Too bad," she replied, still calm. New Hire needed a chance to learn how to conduct a proper interrogation, but this would be the only chance she would give him.

"First of all, it should be obvious that the two subjects themselves are not a threat to Tachibana. Therefore, you can conclude that they were brought here for the data they can provide on Ms. Kato's contacts. Kato grew up right here in Shibuya, where a lot of hackers tend to gather. For your sake, I'll assume you're not from around here and didn't know that. The next step is to see if either subject is aware of any hacker acquaintances of Ms. Kato that she may have met during their mutual childhood."

The technician jumped to his seat.

"Stop!" declared Mika in only a slightly elevated tone of voice. "Imaging comes later. First, why don't we ask them?"

Mika Iwakura was proud of the many innovations she had brought to Central Security under her administration. She had never committed entirely to technology, and was fond of unearthing old pre-technological solutions to the problems of a modern instrument of corporate terror. The use of elaborate memory-extracting machines was now complemented by cheap sodium pentathol and a variety of related century-old pharmaceuticals.

The two captives lay still on their platforms. Both were completely relaxed, their heads lolled to one side. Mika walked up to the second one and pushed the head back against the pillow. She then referred to her clipboard to see which one this was.

"Reika Yamamoto?" she asked quietly.

"Yyeeeessssss?" came the slurred response.

Mika looked over the shoulder at the technician. "You used too much," she stated, in a cold tone that carried the promise of retribution to come.

The technician silently glanced several times at his prone partner, his body rigid.

Mika suddenly laughed to herself at the pathetic display. God that felt good! She then turned back to her subject. "Reika Yamamoto."


"None of that. I need you to tell me about where you and Juri used to go. Did you go to Cyberia?"


"'Yes'. Did you go to any of the other tech-cafes?"


"Very well. Did you meet any hackers at Cyberia?"


"Did Juri meet any hackers at Cyberia?"


"Did Juri know any hackers at all?"

A pause here while Subject B's mind pondered the question. "Nnnoo..."

"Anyone that was good with computers?"


Mika allowed the woman to finish for once while she pondered a new mode of attack. "It might be possible," she mused out loud, "that the blockhead on the floor was on to something. This one is useless to a remarkable degree." She then turned back to the platform. "When was the last time you talked to Juri?"

This was asking for more than a single syllable in response, so Mika forced herself to wait. After nearly a minute, the subject opened her mouth to render her response. "Ttwoooooo.......mmmooooooooonnnnnnntthhhhhhhhssssssss..."

"And when was that, exactly?" Mika tossed over her shoulder as she walked around her to the other subject.

"Mmmmaaaaaaay..." Four months ago.

The interrogator snapped her head to stare suddenly at the near-comatose woman. As Subject B continued slowly outputting her answer, Mika addressed her next query to Subject A: "Arisu Mizuki, how old are you?"


Mika Iwakura turned with a lurch and began advancing on the terrified technician. "You didn't check if they were missing memories, did you? DID YOU?!"

New Guy was actually foolish enough to run. With an expert throw, Mika's clipboard laid him low just as he had opened the door, so his head and arms were out in the hallway. He had hit the doorknob on the way down, and a rivulet of blood made its way to the break room from under the man's broken nose.

Mika didn't bother to watch him fall. She was sitting at his computer. With a simple typed command she made the two subjects stop their protracted responses and drop into a dreamless unconscious state. As she methodically two-finger typed, a steady stream of invective poured from her mouth.

"Do I ask for them to be stupid? No. So why are they always dumber than a Peruvian toad licker, that's what I'd like to know! God knows I don't mind surrounding myself with my intellectual superiors. Weak-willed, yes of course, you've got to have that! But, stupid? That's just not PRACTICAL!" "Practical" was a favorite word of Mika Iwakura.

"Nothing," she said, addressing the unconscious women on the wall. "You two are nearly worthless to me, and I had high hopes in you, Mizuki, very high hopes indeed. You've also ruined what was a very good evening, and therefore, before I convert you into loyal minions, you're going to pay!" Mika was now making her way through the Memory Writer unit, one of the few programs she was really good at. "I think you two have had very miserable childhoods. Yes, that should do. Your mommies beat you until you were black and blue, and when your daddies came home..."

"The equipment is ready, master!" cried a young girl's voice in a fair Igor impersonation. "Shall I remove the bodies?"

Mika looked up with a start to see an eight year old girl with a hunchback leering at her from the doorway. The girl bore a fair resemblance to Mika when she was a child. A long strand of hair held with an X-shaped pin dangled away from her face. She was dressed in rags obviously borrowed from the Universal Studios wardrobe department.

Mika pointed in shock. "You!!" In response, the girl jumped up and down and waved her arms from side to side like an orangutan. Mika, in turn, ran full speed at the apparition; her head down like a charging bull. Lain waited until the last second to dodge, causing Mika to crash into the wall of the hallway right under a MAPU after leaping over the bleeding technician. She got up, only barely dazed. "Demon!" she cried. "Abomination!!" The girl waited for her to get up before scrambling down the halls, the crazed woman in fast pursuit.

With a small hologramatic part of herself leading her once-sister away, Lain broke into the interrogation room's computer and started the process of reviving Arisu and Reika. She had been lucky that the technician had opened the door: Mika was too clever to have an unrestricted recording device like a MAPU installed in an interrogation room. On the other hand, she wasn't clever enough to know a voice activated Navi made for a very good microphone, which was how Lain knew how imperative it was to intervene when she did.

A minute later, Mika's secretary stepped over the body to enter the room. "Ms. Iwakura?" he asked, picking up the clipboard. "Mika?" This last word almost whispered, as the man wasn't quite on a first-name basis with his employer despite over four years of fulfilling (and often exceeding) her every demand.

"I'm over here, Douglas," a voice addressed him from one of the twin Navis. The man walked over to talk to the face of his employer on the screen.

"You wanted me?" he replied with a hint of joy in his voice. She called me Douglas!

"Yes. The two subjects have been drained dry. Let them go."

"But I thought you were going to re-write..."

"Let them go, Douglas!"

Douglas bowed. "Yes, Madame."

"Oh, and Douglas?"


"Could you get these two on the ground to the infirmary?"

"The infirmary?" From the angle of impact, Douglas had expected that his employer would want the two technicians sent for their "exit interviews".

The woman on the monitor shrugged. "I'm in a good mood tonight."

"Very well, Madame." He then turned and unstrapped the two captives before effortlessly picking them up and making his way down the hall. He did not see his employer on the computer monitor giggle childishly at his back.

Seven minutes later the air of the entire sub-basement was rent by an ear-shattering shriek of betrayal.


Chapter VII

"He tells me that the King by name, with all his dignities,
is prayed for by them that they call Fanatiques,
as heartily and powerfully as in any of the other churches
that are thought better: and that, let the King think what he will,
it is them that must helpe him in the day of warr."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, November 9, 1663

Taro took his time walking back to his apartment, running the night over and over through his head in order to second-guess everything that happened. His conclusion was that everything had gone perfectly, although that "golly" had been almost too much.

He booted his Navi when he got come and checked his e-mail. There was a piece of spam from Tachibana; the first step in one of their security scans. It was an encouraging sign, because the one that started with the spam was the one they reserved for idiots.

Sure enough, he found that his public webspace had been hacked and his online class notes had been copied. The security measures he had put in place looked like unmodified over-the-counter software, but in fact were designed to track intruders rather then stop them.

Taro next turned to the MAPU system. The hologram of that young woman made it clear that there was a security hole, and before long he had found it. Like most back doors, it had been installed by whichever disgruntled Tachibana programmer had been assigned to write the software in the first place.

The hidden portion of the software was well designed, and soon Taro was watching the comings and goings of the lobby at Tachibana Tower, thanks to its MAPU's. This then was Reika's "silver lining". He was sorely tempted to try to find out what was happening to Reika at that moment, but knew the security would be too high for him to go in unprepared and undetected. He reluctantly detached from the system. While he had been doing this, he had received another e-mail, from "Lain".

"5-P is an elegant work", the mail began, paying him the highest complement anyone could give a programmer. "Like a sonata, all of one piece, and that one piece is the universal door. P.S. I was your second visitor tonight. P.P.S. That tie has got to go."

An e-mail message from his mysterious benefactor. The name was just as devoid of meaning to him as her appearance. Although on second thought she seemed almost familiar. Maybe she was wearing a public-domain skin, one designed to make her as unmemorable-looking as possible.

Whoever she was, she was good, he had to admit that. Transmitting e-mail without a server in your address is certainly possible, but very hard to pull off. He casually tried to trace the e-mail, and found that it had been transmitted by his own mail server and somehow routed not to enter the Wired. Obviously she had read the full 5-P algorithm located in the private sector of his web server, but it took a full hour for him to find her signature in the access logs. Her tracks looked like the footprints of an ant beside the pachyderm prints of Tachibana's brute-level hack.

Taro had to know who this Lain person was--she truly understood the 5-P, giving her the power to destroy his plans. He started writing a reply to her e-mail, but hers spontaneously erased itself. He tried to track it down and found no signs, a move so tachibanian that it made him even more nervous. He therefore started a new e-mail, having no idea how it would deliver itself without a server name.

"Thank you for the compliment," he wrote. "You have me at an advantage: you attend my presentation and understand my work better than anyone in a matter of minutes, yet I know nothing of you. May I see your resume?" He sat there looking over his words. If she was a typical hacker, this should generate hundreds of words in response.

Taro's new mail signal went off. It was from Lain, and Taro was flabbergasted to see that it was in response to his not-yet sent draft.

"I'm not interested in recognition," it read. "As for the implied question, I was there because I've been keeping track of you, and I was curious why you would throw away your life for a career so unsuited to your talents. The 5-P was a surprise, and I'm not surprised often.

"To continue your line of questioning, I was interested in you because I needed someone at the university I could trust with those memory stores. At first, I wasn't sure of you. You had changed. The hacker community today thinks of you as a sell-out or worse, washed-up."

Taro resisted the temptation to talk back to an e-mail message and kept reading.

"Now that I know what you have been doing, and understand why you have lived your life the way you have, it appears to me that you are holding back. Perhaps you have lost sight of your abilities. Without my help you would not have succeeded tonight, and you should not have needed my help. You must remember who you once were, and realize that you are still the same person."

Taro snorted in disgust. Another fan of the good old days, he thought. It seems they all project their own fantasies onto me.

"So have you changed? I think you could have taken down the Knights yourself, once upon a time, even if you had never received that KIDS Technology expose."

Taro's jaw dropped. No one knew about that message, certainly not a teenage girl. Who are you?! he silently demanded.

"Well," the e-mail stated in its final paragraph, "suffice it to say that I do trust you, and if you give me time, I will try to justify your trust in me. Tachibana is releasing Reika and Arisu as you are reading this. It will take most of tomorrow for the drugs to wear off, and they must be drug free for their memories to be safely restored. Don't bother visiting either one of them, as they are being watched. I'll write you again with additional instructions when the time is right."

Taro sat in his chair with his chin in his hand, trying to put all the pieces together by the light of the Navi, and determined not to sit still and let the mistakes of twenty-five years ago play themselves out all over again. He still had no idea why Tachibana had taken Reika, and then returned her (was this last Lain's doing?). He also didn't trust this Lain, not entirely, and he wasn't going to passively wait for her to explain to him what was going on. She told him not to visit Reika tomorrow. Well, he'd find someone else to see.


Chapter VIII

"And I think it is not only true in this,
but that the best of the actions of us all are so silly,
that the meanest people begin to see through them, and contemn them."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 1, 1667

Taro arrived at the Mathematics building just after 10:00 the next morning, knowing full well that most of the faculty would either be teaching or in their offices. Several technicians were going through the unused rooms wiring them for MAPU's. Taro had to act fast.

It was simple enough to talk a tech into unlocking Chairperson Yamamoto's office for him. Once inside he went straight to the desk. Taro knew that Reika kept a number of personal items locked away in there. He was hoping that the Men in Black had been careless when they had come through here, and he was happy to find his belief in human imperfection had been confirmed yet again by the unlocked drawer. There was a lot of written material, which would take more time to go through than he had time for.

Reika was a very private person, and she had never told Taro about her friends, or even if her family was still alive. A personal letter would be good, or even....

The photograph was obviously several decades old. It showed four teenage girls standing in front of a nightclub. The back of the photo had the caption "First visit to Cyberia", but the location was a no-brainer to Taro, as the Shibuya techno-café had been his own personal haunt thirty years ago.

The girl on the left side of the photo was pretty-clearly Reika. Next to her was a girl with fluffed-out brown hair that he didn't know. The third girl was a bit of a puzzle, until he saw that she was Arisu, the technician from the night before. The fourth girl looked like she didn't belong, and was dressed completely wrong for the occasion. But she was the easiest to recognize as Professor Chisa Yomoda, nearly unchanged after thirty years.

There had been a lot of people coming and going through Cyberia in its heyday, so the fact that Taro didn't remember these four as teen-agers didn't faze him.

He heard someone coming down the hallway, so he picked up two tickets in the drawer just as the technicians came in with their equipment. "For Chairperson Yamamoto, " he explained as he walked past them out the door.

He then stopped to talk to their supervisor. "Say, do you know a new tech named Arisu?"

This instantly caught the man's attention. "Yeah, have you seen her? She hasn't shown up for work this morning."

Taro shook his head, then turned and walked as fast as he could for the building exit, afraid that Professor Yomoda might be missing as well.

The Literature Department was on the other side of the campus, so it took Taro a good ten minutes walking to get there.

Taro's relationship with Chisa Yomoda was rather unique. He had read her poetry, and he had always gotten a kick out of the weirdly sarcastic way she had phrased the descriptions of her courses in the catalog. Despite her moderate degree of fame he couldn't once remember a fan striking up a conversation with her--something about her kept everyone at a distance. The chief link between Taro and Chisa was the fact that he had decided to base his clueless persona largely on her. He therefore knew her idiosyncrasies in fine detail without knowing much of anything about her as a person. Like himself, Chisa's public personality was an act, and for reasons he couldn't fathom, she had always let him see her true self. Not that she was easy to figure out. Chisa seemed to be at war with the inanimate world, and constantly losing. Her clothes were always somehow askew, and she seemed to have run through the list of possible ways to break a pair of glasses several times. There were at least three occasions when Taro had been the sole witness to freak un-accidents involving Chisa, moments when the woman should have died through sheer clumsiness, but somehow managed to survive. Despite all the odd things that happened to her, she always seemed to be in perfect health. Perhaps the fact that he was a witness to all this was why she confided in him.

She had also apparently escaped the wrath of the Men in Black, because he found her sitting behind her desk. She didn't give him the opportunity to start the conversation. The woman's eyes were on her papers, her hands clasping and unclasping, as she desperately tried to suppress a panic attack.

"Professor Okada, just the person I wanted to see," she began in a rapid stream without looking up at him. "I know why you are here, and it is a subject of more than passing interest to myself as well, but first you must indulge me as I dwell on the minor paradoxes of my own existence." Only then did she look him in the eye. "As a mathematician, you must have a firm grasp of logic, so perhaps you can tell me how it can be possible for the same person to be stuck in a lobby and standing in the neighboring auditorium at the same time? My best friend was able to carry on an elaborate, albeit mostly one-sided, conversation with my duplicate, without ever catching on. Would you say I was that easy to impersonate?" Taro didn't dare speak. "No, don't answer that; I'd rather not know. What I'm really trying to get at is the mechanism. My attendance at your presentation was rather spur-of-the-moment, as I noticed you noticing last night. The whole affair rather smacks of the supernatural, unless you have a better explanation."

Taro hemmed and hawed while he tried to think. He couldn't be sure of the consequences if he told Yomoda the full truth. Lain still held the upper hand, because presumably she knew where he could get his hands on a memory unit to fix Reika (and possibly the technician Arisu as well). "Well, " he stammered, "there were MAPU units installed just that day. Perhaps someone was impersonating you holographically."

The sitting professor leaned back in her chair and smiled enigmatically. "Yes, that would be within the realm of the possible. I have to work hard to keep my life on a rational footing, Professor Okada. When I'm not paying attention I find my life spinning under someone else's control, like I am being saved for a task I may not be happy performing. But you are free to dismiss that theory as the raving of a poet. If you'll allow me then to change the subject, I was just about to call you before you poked your head in here, to see if you might know why the Men in Black had kidnapped Reika Yamamoto."

Taro shuffled his feet. He realized just then that he was doing "shy Chisa" for Chisa Yomoda when she didn't appear to be in a very "shy Chisa" mood. "Ah, actually, no, I don't know. As a matter of fact, I was here because I thought, as her friend, she might have confided something in you."

Professor Yomoda raised an eyebrow. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you know her a lot better than I do, or at least you wish you do."

Taro inwardly cursed. As her poetry proved, Professor Yomoda was almost ludicrously observant.


Yomoda closed her eyes, bringing the tips of her fingers together. "You saw me in a photograph with her." She then looked him in the eyes. "Did she show it to you? No. So it's bad enough that you went through her personal belongings. You hardly need to think me psychic, Professor Okada. I received a visit yesterday from the Men in Black. That was the reason I showed up at the auditorium last night, in a futile attempt to warn her. Of course, the fact that I was visited by the Men in Black and yet am still sitting here now in my right mind is yet another of the unexplained flukes I have to deal with on a continual basis. The nature of my interview with the tall fellows in the dark suits made it rather obvious that my interrogators had only a single piece of data linking the chairperson with myself, hence the photograph. You see, I am learned in logic myself.

"As for that photograph, my acquaintance with the teen-aged Reika Yamamoto, Juri Kato, and Arisu Mizuki was purely casual. Arisu liked to take up pet projects. One week it was nursing a sick bird back to life. That week it was turning a recluse into a party animal like herself and her two friends, via the miracle of Cyberia. As the present day and I'm sure the photograph itself also attests, the treatment did not 'take'.

"I told all this to the Men in Black, because it would have been easy to use facial-recognition software to identify Ms. Kato and Ms. Mizuki from that photograph, and because the Men in Black have been trained to recognize a lie on sight, and perhaps because I'm a coward and I was afraid my protector would choose not to step in this time. But I did hold something back, something that perhaps Tachibana doesn't know.

"When Reika Yamamoto first took over the Mathematics Department (and failed utterly to recognize me), I grew nostalgic enough to try to look up some of the other significant entities in my past life. Arisu Mizuki was teaching middle school in China, while Juri Kato had become a hacker by the name of Alecto. I can see you've heard of her under that name. Well, after the Men in Black let me go, I thought I'd press my luck by following up on those two. Ms. Mizuki was no longer a teacher, and I could find very little about her current whereabouts. But Juri Kato, alias Alecto the Hacker, had a more ominous fate: neither of them had ever existed. She had been erased."


Chapter IX

" few people I see,
and those looking like people that had taken leave of the world."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, August 28, 1665

It wasn't likely that the Men in Black had seen it worthwhile to start following Taro, but just in case, the professor took three different trains to get to the suburban neighborhood of Masayuki, his childhood friend and most dependable resource for those times when Taro wanted to know something Wired-related that he didn't already know himself.

Masayuki was an odd duck, even more so than most of the other hackers Taro knew. He earned a good portion of his income as an informer for the police, despite the fact that he purposefully made his leads so worthless as to never result in a conviction. The other oddity was his choice of obsession: Mika Iwakura, public representative for all things Tachibana. Masayuki maintained a public web site dedicated to extolling the woman's virtues and perfect fashion sense, and to telling the world the story of her rise from Masami Eiri's favorite "niece" to her present summit of fame and fortune. The site was also a front for a bewildering array of pages exposing and attacking the woman's multitude of evils. The web addresses of these secret pages changed daily using a complicated algorithm Masayuki only confided to his most trusted colleagues. Iwakura herself had agreed to the publicity and occasionally mentioned the site in interviews, a dupe Masayuki never let his numerous fans forget.

More disturbing was the fact that Masayuki now lived in the very house Mika Iwakura grew up in. He scrupulously maintained every detail of that house as it was when the Tachibana executive lived there, spending most of his time in the spare bedroom "so as not to disturb the Iwakura vibes." He called the house his "anti-shrine" but with Masayuki, sarcasm had a way of becoming so arch it was indistinguishable from passionate devotion.

And then there was the neighborhood: the kind of suburb a long-time city-dweller like Taro got nightmares about. The place was freakishly normal. Every house was exactly the same, and at least at a casual level, the same could be said of every family living in those houses. Taro half expected the wives behind the kitchen windows to be wearing kimonos as he strolled down the center of the empty road. The ghosts of dozens of stockbrokers who had worked themselves to death cried out to him: Conform! Conform!

Masayuki quickly answered the door and sat Taro down at the kitchen table while he prepared some tea. He got a good laugh out of Mika Iwakura's antics at the presentation. "It's been a long time since your last visit," Masayuki remarked as he fiddled with the pot, his back to the table. "I suppose you want something."

It was no secret that Myu-Myu had been the glue holding the three of them together, so Taro simply let the first implied question drop and simply addressed the second one. "There are two hackers I want to know more about."

Masayuki turned around. "Okay, shoot."

"Did you know what Alecto was working on?"

"Oh...Alecto. You didn't believe me on the website, huh?" He stood there a few moments until he was sure his voice wouldn't break. "Did you know she lived a few blocks down from here? Used to go to Cyberia when we were kids. You probably never noticed her, though."

"Apparently not."

"Her last project then...she certainly was aiming high. She, well don't laugh or anything, but she was after the Holy Grail."

Taro nodded. That would definitely explain the high panic Tachibana seemed to be in, given the events of the last few days. The "Holy Grail" was the one weapon Tachibana feared more than any other. Its creator, Masami Eiri, had engineered it into the Seventh Protocol so tightly that the protocol couldn't work without it. Even worse, there was no practical way for any of the IP protocols that followed to exist without incorporating it as well. In short, it was nothing less than the universal undelete command.

"That's not to say she found it," Masayuki interjected. "It was pretty obvious that the setup was a trap, but with bait like that, how could she resist? The funny thing is, that trap wasn't meant for anyone in Japan. The coded messages that were meant to be cracked were strictly found on foreign-language boards: Memories of America, UNICEF, that sort of thing. I figure, from how brutally they went after her, that either she actually found something, or Mika Iwakura is harboring one hell of a grudge against a foreigner--she just pushed the 'Kill Intruder' button on the first person to call her on her challenge."

Taro tried to digest this. "Are there any foreign hackers left who would be a threat to Tachibana?"

"Yes, but the main threat to Mika is still home-grown, as far as I can tell. I think that's what really interesting about her, that odd dash of wild irrationality in the midst of the plans within plans."

Taro decided to get back to the reason he had come. "So do you know who Alecto confided in? Who else knew what she was after? I'm trying to do some damage control."

"I'm the only one I knew about. But that means nothing. She knew better than to tell any of her contacts about the others."

"You taught her well," Taro stated.

"Almost," Masayuki replied, "almost." He rubbed his eyes for a few moments. "So who's the other hacker?"

"What do you know about Lain?"

At that moment the tea kettle's whistle went off. Masayuki jumped. He quickly turned and poured out the two cups. "Um, that's the past participle of the English verb 'to lie', right?"

"So you've never heard of her?"

Masayuki opened his mouth, and then closed it. He then turned and got the sugar. "I've never seen her on the Wired, never heard her on the news, never met her on the street, not in this lifetime," he declared in what sounded like a well-practiced litany. "Why don't you pick the right time and ask Myu-Myu?"

Taro scowled while rubbing his cheek. "You know she doesn't like it when I talk about other women." But he also realized he had no other choice if he wanted to know beyond any doubt if Lain was trustworthy or not.

When Accela came out, it was thought to be the perfect drug, accelerating mental processes up to twelve times for up to an hour with no long term effects. The problem was the tests hadn't been run for long enough or far enough. High enough dosage, or long enough exposure, always had the same inexplicable effect: the subject's mind would start cycling through time. This made the victims completely useless to society, so they were rounded up and put in homes. The Cyberia Massacre filled those homes to capacity. The government would prefer that this particular group got around to dying, the sooner, the better. This meant that it was private funds that ran these homes, but only just barely. The electrical drain of the medical equipment in buildings designed only for residential use (and a lot fewer residents) meant brownouts and blackouts were commonplace. No one had died as a result of these occurrences--yet. It was to one of these homes that Taro went to speak with Myu-Myu.

After signing in he made his way to the south corridor and spoke with the attendant. Accela patients were usually perfectly safe (at least to the visitor's physical health), but occasionally they would relapse to infancy, in which case they had to be restrained to keep them from hurting themselves or others. One of the many mysteries of Accela Disease was that its sufferers cycled completely in sync, so if one of the patients was re-living his first years, they all were.

Taro learned that the patients were currently in their early teens. This was certainly not when he wanted to visit Myu-Myu, but the cycles changed erratically, so he had to be by her side when she reached the correct age.

Gingerly, he knocked on the door to her room.

"Come in!" the high-pitched voice on the other side cried. "Comein-comein-comein!"

He opened the door. Myu-Myu was sitting at the edge of her bed with a wireless keyboard, her legs swinging back and forth. Her attention was on her monitor, as she bounced her way around the limited borders of the mini-Wired that had been set up for the patients (another drain on the electrical budget, but considering who was being cared for, perhaps more vital than the medical equipment). She looked up at him in obvious disappointment.

"You again! Aren't you done with me? Go back where you came from and let Taro come over. I haven't seen him for ages!" Unable to accept Taro as an adult, teen-Myu-Myu had convinced herself that he was an older relative.

"Taro's very busy right now. He's...studying."

"Stop lying! Taro never needs to study. He knows everything! He said we could go to Cyberia, or even that new place they opened, the one that..." she suddenly straightened and stopped kicking, continuing in mid-sentence. " that cake you sent me. It had raisins in it. You know I hate raisins."

"It was the only one they had with maple syrup in it," Taro replied. He gave Myu-Myu this particular cake five months ago for her birthday. He closed the door behind him and walked up to the bed.

She pointed at a nearby chair. "Sit. You know I hate looking up at you. Well, hurry up and tell me, before I go somewhen else. Have you finished yet?"

Taro was always careful to keep his tenses correct when talking to Myu-Myu. The two of them also knew to keep their talk general, as the rooms were all monitored. "I will. It will go very well, but I don't know yet how it will turn out."

"Well, keep me updated. Tell me every time you can! It's so...well, I'd call it boring but it certainly isn't. You're all the outside I've got, Taro. You know Masayuki is too chicken to come over here. Too scared of the future, like the rest of them."

Taro could hardly blame Masayuki. The strangest part of Accela Disease was that the patients seemed to truly connect with their future selves, something that no physicist was able to explain yet. It was more than a little unnerving to hear about his future, and to be absolutely powerless to change it. Thanks to Myu-Myu, he knew he would die in a pointless railway accident on April 17, 2056. Masayuki was probably thinking his own date might come a lot sooner, and he had done so little to show for the time on Earth he had used so far as it was.

The patient put her hands on his knees. "You're waiting, aren't you? I don't mind. Looking at you keeps my mind off of the other regrets. You know, there's a bit of a backlog leaking through, what I've been thinking when I'm in other times. It's all sort of bleeding together. On the one hand, I suppose we'll all die when all the time leaks together, but on the other hand, my memory is becoming more and more selective. I can pick which memories to keep and which to put away. There's a lot of Cyberia in there."

"Yeah," said Taro. There really wasn't anything more to say. After a sort of mechanical sigh, the overhead florescent light (as well as the light under the door) started flickering, slower and slower, until the sunlight became the only reliable source of illumination. Taro was surprised to find the natural light more soothing. The woman's back was to the window, but at a slight angle, so that the light caught her eyes and made them seem the only part of her that was alive. The two of them just sat like that for several minutes.

Myu-Myu suddenly cried out. Her face sort of dropped before Taro's eyes and she pulled her hands into her chest as she hunched over. Her breath came out in short shallow gasps. She was old now, perhaps older than Taro had ever seen her. He also heard a number of thumps from some of the other rooms, as those who had exceeded their life capacity on this cycle dropped (temporarily) dead.

With a shudder, she lay down in her bed. Taro pulled the blankets around her. An understandably stressed medic burst through the door, but he left with a relieved look after seeing Taro caring for her.

He rubbed Myu-Myu's hands for several minutes until she had calmed down. "Are you all right, Myu-Myu?" he asked gently. "Do you remember who I am?"

"Of course, you're Taro. I remember Taro. Taro is my friend." It always struck Taro at these times how much Myu-Myu's second childhood resembled her first. She had always seemed older than she looked when they were kids, one of those people who are most themselves when they reach old age.

Now came the hard part. "I'd like you to help me, Myu-Myu. I'd like you to tell me about someone."

"I can tell you. I know so many people, Taro."

"I'd like you to tell me about Lain."

Myu-Myu gasped, this time in wonder. She looked up at the ceiling with a beatific expression. Then her eyes fixed on him, and she reached out and slapped him with all her strength.

"So it's back to Lain, huh? What about all of the times I saved your hide?"

Taro put his hand to his aching cheek. "Ow!" Myu-Myu was obviously no longer old, although probably still in the future judging from the fact that she knew Lain.

Myu-Myu threw the covers off and advanced on him.

"I just want to know if I can trust her," Taro offered.

"That's not the question and you know it! What you want she'll never give you! Trust you'll get in spades, because you two happen to want the same things, but she'll never love you the way you love her! Why can't you be happy with...with..." With that, she turned her back on him.

Taro had dealt fairly often with midlife-crisis-Myu-Myu, and every time she clammed up it was because she was thinking about his family. Taro had no idea how he acquired this particular family, owing to the fact that midlife-crisis-Myu-Myu had convinced herself that only she was worthy of his love. He also knew at one point she'd try to kill him with a butter knife.

He figured he had as much of an answer as he was going to get, so Taro left before Myu-Myu had a chance to turn around with a piece of stolen cutlery. He made sure to leave a contribution on the way out.


Chapter X

"...I do find that where I expect most I find least satisfaction..."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, January 11, 1668

The students learned of the installation of the MAPU's when the technicians had descended on the library that morning. By late afternoon, a very vocal crowd had gathered in the quad to share their grievances and state their demands. The primary unspoken demand was for someone to show up and arrest them, so their parents could see them on the evening news. The campus police had played this little game far too many times to fall for it this time. The leaders of the protest decided to escalate matters by tearing down the library reading room MAPU's by force. This operation turned out to be more difficult that they first thought, as all fifteen MAPU's in the reading room were mounted near the thirty-foot ceiling, and no one thought to obtain the necessary equipment. Rather than give up their momentum, the students attempted to form human ladders to get up to the units and somehow find the leverage to "tear them down!" The result was a lot of broken bones and smashed reading room tables.

The anonymous Tachibana temp in charge of watching the MAPU's that day was probably having the time of his life. Professor Chisa Yomoda, however, had a strong dislike for violence. The fact of the protest was all right with her, but she preferred not to see the ugly statistics first-hand. She had fled to the reading room from her quad-side office so she could grade her student's papers in peace, and now she was forced to move once again. The students assumed she was going to get the police, and cheered as she strode past them.

The only other quiet place Chisa knew of was the auditorium, and luckily, the janitors were inside and had left the doors unlocked. Seeing that the lights above the rows of seats were off, she climbed up to the stage, moved a prop table and chair together, and got back to work.

After making his way back to the university by the most circuitous way he could think of, Taro entered the main library from the faculty entrance in the back, picked up his backpack from a coin-operated locker, and worked his way to the front entrance, which is where he started that morning. If anyone were watching him, it would look like he had spent the whole day doing research.

He heard a voice, as he was speed walking across a corner of the vast reading room: "You know, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about this whole business of trusting you."

Instead of looking for the source of the voice, Taro looked up at the ceiling and spotted the multiple MAPU's. He then took a good look around and wondered what could have possibly happened in the few hours since he had passed through here last to make this place into such a mess.

Finally meeting eyes with the hologram of Lain, Taro sat down with a pained look on his face. "Let me guess, you were spying on my conversation with Myu-Myu, weren't you?" He suddenly looked the girl in the eye. "Well, let me tell you something. First of all, you had no right to spy on a private conversation. And second, I happen to suffer from a lack of instinct. It's the main reason I had to become so smart, so I could figure out the stuff everyone else's guts told them. That's one of the reasons I was there. Besides, I appear to be the only hacker who ever visits those poor people. I think you need to show a little respect for a sad moment in the history of our chosen profession. What did you ever do for them?"

Lain stared at him incredulously. " have no idea what I've done for those people. You think I didn't try to stop it? You think I have the power to make everything go my way? There's such a thing as free will in this world, Taro, and the alternative to that is a world beyond your worst imaginings. As for your precious privacy, the guy who wrote 5-P should be the last person to complain about that. If you must know, your conversation was being monitored in real time, and I was listening in, in case you or her should say something compromising."

Taro's face turned red as his mind futilely tried to process that last outburst. "Hey! Wait...who did...were you there when...have we met before? I have the strangest feeling we've met somewhere, but I can't remember where...."

Lain put her head in her hands and laughed bitterly to herself. It takes an insult for him to remember me! She sighed and looked up at him. "It wasn't the Men in Black, it was a rival security organization."

"Really?" he smiled incredulously. "This could be good. This could be very good."

"Well, yes and no. The Men in Black found out about the other group, and right now they are deciding how to respond."

"How are Reika and Arisu?"

"They should be good to go."

"We'd better get moving, then."


Chapter XI

" of the strangest instances of the fool's play
with which all publick things are done in this age..."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 17, 1667

About a half-hour after she had moved to the auditorium, Chisa heard the sound of the stage door being opened. Assuming it was the janitors, she kept her head down.

The sounds of footsteps approached. Three people in an awful hurry were trying to get from stage right to stage left as fast as possible. Chisa looked up to see Taro Okada, Reika Yamamoto, and Arisu Mizuki marching past her. None of them noticed her, but to be honest, this sort of thing had happened so often to Chisa that she considered it normal human behavior. It was more of a surprise that Arisu managed to get out a leaden "Oh. Chisa," before she was yanked out of view by Taro's arm. The sounds of footsteps rapidly faded away, followed by the successive slams of the other stage door and the facing outer door.

This was followed by another slam, of the door at the back of the auditorium. The two Men in Black who had interviewed her the day before came in, their guns drawn. They immediately spotted Chisa on the big, ludicrously well-lit stage and simultaneously trained their laser sights on her forehead.

Chisa tried to say, "Help!" but it wouldn't come out of a throat constricted with panic. Nevertheless, her request was answered.

From the empty orchestra pit came the sound of a synthesized trumpet playing a brief fanfare. From the end of the stage opposite Chisa entered Arisu and a teenage girl. Chisa could swear that she couldn't see the two until the moment they left the shadows.

"You will lose this wager, my lady," said the girl to Arisu. Chisa clearly remembered this girl, for she had a habit of appearing at the most absurdly fortuitous moments in her life.

"I do not think so," replied Arisu. "Since she went into France, I have been in continual practice; I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter."

The girl attempted to interrupt. "Nay, good my lady..."

"It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a knave."

"If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit."

"Not a whit; we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no one has aught of what she leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be."

By now, Chisa had managed to identify the play being recited as Hamlet. Sure enough, the phantom trumpet played again, and Taro entered behind her, holding the hand of Reika aloft. Taro was wearing a plastic crown and as Chisa rose, she realized she was also crowned, although her prop was absolutely weightless.

"Come, Hamlette, come," declared Taro as the evil King Claudius, "and take this hand from me."

In the meantime, the girl had dashed from Arisu's side off stage, returning momentarily with a pair of fencing foils, a large goblet, and a flagon of "wine" (probably grape juice). She had apparently switched from playing "Hamlette"'s best friend "Horatia" to being that suck-up "Osrica", as she was standing next to King Taro in a simpering attitude.

The two Men in Black meanwhile had got themselves a pair of good seats to watch the show. Before long Arisu and Reika were dueling, and the countdown to the typical Shakespearian ending of "everybody dies" was on.

Feeling completely safe, Chisa sat back down and marveled at the mechanics of what she was seeing as the scene continued. Arisu was a masterful lead, and you could read the whole tortured history of the character in the way she fenced.

"A hit, a very palpable hit!" cried the girl beside her.

Reika as Laertes (Laertia?) was a good deal clumsier. She occasionally even failed to get her foil in place for a proper parry. Taro's performance of course wasn't much to judge, as this wasn't precisely his character's high point.

"Our daughter shall win," prompted Taro.

"Oh!" cried Chisa, who had been assigned the part of Queen Gertrude, Hamlette's mother and Claudius' wife. "Um, he, no, she's plumb tuckered out! Here, Hamlette, take my napkin, rub thy brows. The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlette." She raised the "poisoned" goblet to her lips.

Arisu smiled good-naturedly. "Good madam."

"Gertrude!" Taro shouted. "Do not drink!"

Chisa noticed the girl scowling over the poor delivery of the line from the corner of her eye. A bit harder pushing the boy puppets around than the girl puppets, hmm? she mused.

"They aren't very good, are they?" came a voice from the audience.

"Well, they're not exactly professionals," answered the other Man in Black. "Besides, the art of stage fighting has really been in a nosedive for the past forty years."

"Now the movie version with Mel Gibson..."

"Yes, there was some good swordsmanship."

"That was William Hobbs' work, wasn't it?"

"Excuse me!" Arisu strode angrily to the edge of the stage. "I thought I took care of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern two pages ago!"

"Oh, we're sorry," came the voice from the darkness. "Go right ahead, we won't interrupt again."

Arisu shook her head. "No, no, you've spoiled the mood."

"Oh, please continue?" said the one Man in Black.

"We're really sorry," pleaded the other.

"Well..." considered Taro. "They could use some work. I'm sure you were given fencing lessons as part of your very extensive training regimen. Maybe you can come up here and give us some pointers."


"We'd be glad to help!"

Chisa had to stifle a giggle at that point. She really had to have a good long talk with that girl someday.


Chapter XII

"A gentleman never dances so well as the dancing master,
and an ordinary fiddler makes better musique for a shilling
than a gentleman will do after spending forty..."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, January 27, 1664

The inside of Reika's car was a bedlam of voices. He had been able to convince Reika and Arisu to take him down to Shinjuko without having to reveal his exact destination or reason, with Reika trusting Taro and Arisu trusting Reika. But eventually he had to tell them that they were going to a memory-restoration station hidden on the third floor of the Pleasure Palace, and that's when the denials began.

It is very hard to recognize that you have missing memories when you can't remember having or losing them. Neither of them knew of Juri Kato's death, and the drug cocktail from the night before ensured that they were very hazy about what happened after they encountered the Men in Black. In the end, Reika was convinced that Arisu needed the memory restoration, since she kept insisting that she had just celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday the week before. Plus, she was convinced her young life was utterly devoid of meaning and there was little reason to look forward to a twenty-sixth birthday.

The vision most people have of the future often includes a cure to traffic, but sadly, that dream has never been realized. The railway, first built three quarters of a century ago, was still at ground level in several places despite dozens of citizen petitions and rallies over the decades. And the roads still intersected it at three places in Shinjuko, most notably at the station. So it was that Reika's car was waiting at the railway crossing for the 17:15 to depart.

Figuring this was a good a time as any, Taro got out his HandiNavi. "5-P, are you active?" he asked the unit.

"Fully operational, Taro," his own voice answered him. "What can I do for you?"

"Where can I find a fully-operational version of Masami Eiri's undelete program?"

"There is one copy sitting on the public server of the Tachibana Central Committee."

"I'd like you to send that program to all five of my e-mail addresses, without leaving any traces whatsoever."


"What was that all about?" asked Reika over her shoulder.

"That," Taro smiled, "was the crowning achievement of my adult life."

"Huh?" asked Arisu.

"Well, I could tell you all about it, but I'd have to do it again once you got your memories replaced, so we'll just leave it at that for now."

Just then Reika shouted in alarm. While they were talking, a pair of black limousines had surrounded the car. A shaded window rolled down to reveal a man in a black trench coat wielding a machine gun. At his orders, Reika pulled out of line and drove off of the road onto the gravel that ran alongside the tracks. The second limousine followed to prevent escape.

Once out of sight of witnesses, the rear two vehicles stopped and the lead limousine turned around so that the car was bathed in the glare of two pairs of spotlights. Four men in matching black trench coats emerged from each limo, all of them armed. The men surrounded the car and ordered its occupants to exit slowly. Once this had been done and the three had been inspected for any weapons, the passenger-side door of the lead limousine opened and out stepped a short, plain woman wearing a white trench coat and wide-brimmed hat. She was followed by the driver, the same man Taro had seen with Mika Iwakura the night before. All of them were wearing sunglasses, which gave them the advantage with the setting sun and the halogen spotlights in everyone's eyes.

The woman walked up to each of her captives and examined them closely, a wide grin distorting a tight face that had probably been treated to plastic surgery once too often. "Reika Yamamoto, Taro Okada, and Arisu Mizuki," she said as she ticked them off on her fingers. "Once upon a time, it was Reika Yamamoto, Arisu Mizuki, and Juri Kato, but then Ms. Kato discovered something Tachibana didn't want known, so she was erased."

"Excuse me," asked Taro politely, "do you mind telling us who you are?"

"I represent the Corporate Security Guard of the Big Eight Corporations. My name is of no importance to you, although my title as Director will soon teach you the meaning of fear!" With a bit of an effort, Taro resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the melodramatics.

Reika was confused. "I thought Central Security Service serves the Big Eight."

The woman shook her fist at Reika. "The CCS represents the evil corporation Tachibana! CSG protects the Big Eight under the benevolent leadership of Instant Foods. The Big Eight only follow the dictates of Tachibana because it serves their interests, but now you three will provide me, err, provide the Big Eight, with the tool that will break Tachibana and make the Big Eight supreme! Now..."

The Director did not get a chance to finish this particular rant, as the 17:15 train suddenly lurched forward with a scream from its whistle. Suffering from an inexplicable fear of trains that stretched back to middle school, the woman in white practically leaped into the arms of her bodyguard/secretary. Taro, Reika, and several of the men with guns sighed in unison at this unprofessional display.

Recovering from her shock, the woman straightened up, brushed off her coat, adjusted her hat, and turned to face her captives once again. "Now, then..."

She got no further, for at that moment a dozen black cars drove into the commuter parking lot on the opposite side of the train tracks. The cars pulled simultaneously into equally spaced parking spaces. Twelve engines died as one, then twenty-four headlights turned off together, then twenty-four doors opened in a single movement, and twenty-four men wearing twenty-four identical black suits and twenty-four identical pairs of Navishades emerged. They were all roughly the same height and build, and all had the same semi-military haircuts. The men walked forward in unison, not marched, because that would have been easy. As they approached, the men drew closer and closer together, until they formed a phalanx, six across and four deep. They came to perfect formation just as they stopped a few feet from the railway tracks. At that precise moment Mika Iwakura stepped forward from their ranks, dressed in an elaborate red suit, and stopped in dress position as her squadron fell into attention behind her. There was no possible way she could have gotten to that position without being seen by one of the witnesses, and yet she pulled it off. The eight CSG men all made unfavorable conclusions about how cool their jobs were. No one seemed to notice that two of the Men in Black in the back row were nursing rather large clipboard-shaped bruises on the backs of their heads. They suspected that their boss had spared their lives at the auditorium only because she didn't want any gaps in her phalanx.

The CSG Director dashed forward to her side of the tracks and shook her other fist at her rival. "Mika Iwakura!" she cried in a strained voice. "It appears I have the upper hand! I have your precious captives, and there's nothing you can do about it!"

Mika addressed the Director with a steely gaze. "Now, now, Stacy, no need to get yourself worked up," she stated in a patronizing tone. The Director shook all over with rage. Mika had never addressed her by her real name, but instead took pleasure in giving her the most painful nicknames imaginable. This one stemmed from the time when her mother had given her a Moonbase Stacy doll instead of Moonbase Barbie at her tenth birthday. And everyone was watching me open it, Mom! How could you humiliate me like that! I hate you!!!

"Earth to Stacy!" called out Mika, causing the Director to return to the present day. "You need to stop taking things so personally. Oh, and another thing: that wardrobe is so Twentieth Century it's making me nostalgic. And as for you," she added, addressing her former employee in an even tone, "you're a dead man. But don't expect it to happen immediately. I find the fear of anticipation to be even more agonizing to my victims than the actual act, as I'm sure you remember witnessing on several occasions." She then turned to leave.

"Wait!" cried the Director. "I've got Juri Kato's prize, the universal undelete! Don't you at least want to fight for it?"

Mika stopped suddenly and stood with her back to the tracks for several moments before turning to reveal that she was laughing uproariously. "Douglas!" she cried. "Is this your doing?"

The bodyguard smiled wickedly. The Director looked wildly between the two of them. "Wait! What's going on here?" she asked desperately.

Mika advanced to the tracks, a large smile on her face as she rubbed her chin in thought. "Let me get this straight," she stated, "you told her that Monday's hacker attack was a success, right? And that she had entrusted the undelete program she successfully stole to Yamamoto or Mizuki?"

"Actually," replied Douglas, "I said she gave it to Professor Okada."

"Professor Okada!" cried Mika. "Oh, that's rich! So, Stacy and the Dick Tracey's capture them, turn them over to the Big Eight, who then find out they know absolutely nothing, and she gets the blame when Tachibana exposes them for violation of human liberties!"

"Something like that," admitted Douglas sheepishly.

"Hey, wait a second, I thought she tried to kill you!" interrupted the Director, whose brain was about two minutes behind by this point.

Mika ignored her. "That is so brilliant!" she cried. "I love it! All is forgiven, Douglas!"

Douglas calmly removed his trench coat and gun belt and placed them in the Director's arms. "Just for your information," he told her, "the coat was a little tight in the shoulders."

"But, but..." the Director sputtered, as Douglas crossed the tracks and linked arms with his resumed employer. The two walked into the ranks of the Men in Black, their eyes only on each other. The men instantly disbursed to their cars and drove away, making Mika's exit just as awe-inspiring as her entrance.

"But, but!" The Director turned around and looked around her, her bewilderment changing to rage. "Well, what are you bozos still standing around here for? Go home, the lot of you!"

"Excuse me, madam," offered Taro.

"Whaaaat?" she whined in reply.

"I believe I still have something of value to offer your organization."


Chapter XIII

" is but justice that they should be served as they served the poor Cavaliers;
and I believe it will oftentimes be so as long as I live,
whether there be cause or no."
  -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, December 1, 1661

A half-hour later, Taro led Reika and Arisu deep into the Pleasure Palace, much against the better judgment of the two women. Finally they reached Room 320, in back of which was the memory-restoration equipment. The set-up had been purposefully mislabeled with an extremely sadistic-sounding name that had so far keep anyone from messing with it. Like all the rooms on the exhibition floor, this one had no door. Reika found some manuals in a pouch and all three started looking through them to try to figure out how the machine worked.

Mika's chauffeured car made its way slowly back to Tachibana Tower through the rush hour traffic. The back compartment where Mika and her secretary sat was lead-lined and contained a variety of electronics designed to prevent all forms of electronic communication from spying on what went on inside. This meant that Mika could finally be herself, something that she rarely allowed anyone to see. That is not to say that she opened up completely, rather that she was as honest as she ever got--Mika Iwakura had not told the whole truth about anything since her tenth birthday.

"That ploy back there was really good," she complimented Douglas. "It was better than anything I could come up with. It was wasted on that idiot Okada, though. I was hoping that Yamamoto had confided in Professor Williamson instead. That man is a healthy cynic, and would have needed convincing that no one was after him before taking the two women to have their memories restored."

"So what happens now?"

"Well, you don't think that those two fools I put on Yamamoto and Mizuki were the only ones on the case, do you?"

"Well, I did think you were unnaturally clumsy in the open channels you used to give them orders."

"Very observant! You're absolutely correct. Those two were there to draw out my true quarry. I communicated with my real agents, two of my best men, only in person, and all of their reports to me were handwritten. I made sure there was nothing about them that could show up on the Wired.

"As we speak, these two are tailing the two women and Professor Okada to their covert memory-restoration center, wherever that is. And what do you think will happen then?"

A few moments later, two middle-aged men in casual clothes came up the stairs of the Pleasure Center. They walked by Room 320 and then stopped when they were out of earshot.

"Did you see that thing?" asked the slightly shorter man of the duo anxiously. "That memory restorer was a 20-6. Tachibana's only got a 20-4. I got to get a closer look when we're done here."

"Whatever," said the taller of the two with a shrug, "but we're handling this my way."

The slightly shorter man signaled that he had no objections.

"They will take the two women's memory stores," replied Douglas, "preferably without alerting the three subjects to this."

"Exactly! I don't know how I could ever have lost faith in you. Once we have those memory stores, that will be the end of the hacker cell that sponsored Juri Kato, which I suspect is one of the biggest threats left to our power. But more importantly, I will finally be able to get my hands on..."

Mika finally had to stop, as the chauffeur had been knocking on the window between their two compartments for a good minute. She pressed the button to open the window and saw that he was pointing at the car phone, which was ringing with an ominous four-note pattern. She gestured for him to pull over so she could take the call. Douglas took the moment to notice the use of "we" and "our" in Mika's words, the first time he could remember her ever including him in her plans.

Motioning for his partner to stay where he was, the taller man ambled back the way he came, stopping at the doorway of 320. "Hey, you need some help in there?" he drawled.

Taro turned around in surprise. "JJ! It's been like, forever!"

The former DJ took this as permission to enter. "Yeah, well I've been busy, I guess."

"Do you know anything about this machine?"

JJ nodded. "That's part of my job description."

"You mean you work here?" Taro asked incredulously.

JJ casually threw his hands up. "Hey, it's a living. Besides, the job's got certain perks, if you know what I mean."

Reika pretended she didn't hear that.

JJ peered over Taro's shoulder at a manual. "So, what's your problem?"

"Well, the operation seems simple enough, but I've got two memory stores, and they're not labeled. I don't want to get their memories switched."

This possibility hadn't occurred to Reika, and she now felt even less sure she wanted to go through with this. Arisu on the other hand was beginning to relive the great existential crisis of her life, which made switching bodies almost a relief.

"Could I see them?" JJ asked, successfully hiding the eagerness in his voice.

Taro handed them over. "They look identical to me."

"Nah. If you've handled enough of them, you begin to pick up little things." He held each of them up to the ceiling light and watched the patterns of moving lights intently. "Like, this one here. There's an awful lot of happiness in this one's memories."

Reika smirked, her face still buried in her manual. "Arisu's, definitely. She always manages to see the bright side of everything."

Arisu shook her head. "No, it can't be mine. I worry all the time."

JJ was weighing the odds of making a break for it with the memory stores while the three argued. He lost his chance when Reika exclaimed in triumph.

"Right here," she said, pointing to a passage in her manual. "There's an option to record an audio message in the header that can be played without hooking anyone up."

JJ tried to stall: "Not too many people know about that. I wouldn't be surprised if..."

Taro quickly took the two memory stores back and walked over to the unit. "It wouldn't hurt to try." He inserted the first one in a round hole, closed the little door and pressed the play button. "Hello, this is Arisu Mizuki," announced the unit in Arisu's voice.

"I'm glad that's settled," said JJ, not too convincingly. "Let me help you set up. It can be a little tricky."

"That's okay," said Taro. "I'm sure Reika and I can handle Arisu, and then Arisu and I can restore Reika. I'm sure you've got a lot of other work to do. Thanks for the help, and it's been good to see you."

"Oh, okay. Bye."

JJ's partner Unso was waiting for him when he walked out. He held up his hand in the "loser" symbol.

"All right," grumbed JJ, "what's your plan?"

Unso pulled a ten-centimeter piece of rebar out of his pocket. He then walked up to the disposal unit located just outside Room 320 and confidently inserted the bar into position within it before walking back.

"What did that do?" asked JJ.

"They're going to want to destroy the memory stores when they're done, and this is the only unit on this floor. The rebar blocks the crushing mechanism without blocking the conveyer gears. It will look like it destroyed the stores, but in reality they will be dropped in the waste box, where we can retrieve it at our leisure."

JJ whistled low. "Smooth." The two made their way out of the building.

The car pulled to a halt at the side of the freeway. Mika got out and joined the driver in the part of the car where communication was possible. Douglas noticed there was a lot of shouting by the parties at the other end of the phone conversation. Mika's tone never wavered, however, and her end went something like this: "Hello, Mika Iwakura speaking.... Yes.... Well, that is rather unfortunate.... Yes, where did he get it? I thought we destroyed all copies at my recommendation, an act that you approved unanimously.... Well, I'm afraid it's out of our hands, now." There was an awful lot of shouting at this point, so Mika held the phone away from her ear until it calmed down. "Are you finished? ... No, of course I don't have a counter-measure. You don't call a program 'the ultimate weapon' unless it is, in fact, immune to counter-measures. You are all, in effect, screwed.... Oh, I think I can take care of myself.... Wait, what's going on with the other phone? ... Well, if you want my honest opinion, I would definitely take the offer. The stocks we all have should be enough to fund a king's retirement for each of us.... Yes, I thought you would see it my way. Well, goodbye, it's been nice working for you. Just hold to the secret clauses in my contract and you won't ever have to worry about me again. Yes, now goodbye." With that she snapped the phone shut and handed it back to the stunned driver.

"Does that mean what I think it means?" he asked.

"Yes, Tachibana Networks has been bought out by the Big Eight as of..." she glanced at the car's clock, "two minutes ago. Knowing the state of the company's finances, it is very unlikely that you will ever see the money they've been owing you for the past three weeks. However, if you would be kind enough to drive us back to my apartment, I can cover the difference in cash. I figure that's the least you deserve after all of the faithful service you've given me."

A tear came to the chauffeur's eye. He had never thought she had noticed. "If you ever need my services again..." he said, fumbling in a coat pocket for his meager supply of business cards.

"Oh, I have the numbers of all of my employees, Hatchiko," Mika assured him softly. "I haven't decided on my future activities yet, but you can be assured that I will call you if I need you."

"Thank you, Madame!" the driver cried as Mika climbed back into the rear compartment of the car.

"I hope you don't mind if Douglas and I discuss some private business matters," Mika said as she rested her finger on the button next to the partition.

"Oh, go right ahead," answered the driver, who pulled back into traffic.

Meanwhile, Arisu's memory had been restored, which was most obvious in the dramatic change in her mood. "Hi, Taro!" were the first words out of her mouth. She was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

Arisu told Reika the story of why they had to erase their memories so much more convincingly than Taro that Reika finally agreed to undergo the procedure. When it was done, he looked in her eyes to be sure she was back. "Hello, Reika," he said gently before returning the kiss she gave him thirty hours ago.

"You are my knight after all, Taro," she sighed.

Taro stepped back. "Uh, knight in shining armor, right?"

Reika sat up. "Of course, silly. What did you think I meant?"

Taro rubbed his neck. "Nothing. Just wanted to be clear."

"Well Douglas," said Mika, turning to her fellow passenger. "This would be a perfect opportunity to set out on your own. I would certainly miss you, but I would understand. This is a high-stress job, and it would become even more stressful as my second-in-command."

"I'd like to stay on with you, if you don't mind, Ms. Iwakura," answered Douglas, who had almost worked up the courage to call her "Mika."

"Are you sure? I'd have to let you in on some important secrets if you stay on, the kind I'd have to kill you for if you wanted out later."

"I'm in," he stated firmly. He watched her sitting there for a moment. "So, what happened on the phone?"

"Oh, that." Mika frowned for a few seconds before sighing and continuing. "Professor Okada booby-trapped that program of his so it would send him the universal undelete program, and one of the Committee members was stupid enough to leave a copy in a public server, thinking to blackmail me with it, I suppose. Anyway, Okada gave it to Tohko, she gave it to the Big Eight, and the Big Eight used it to overthrow Tachibana, since most of the Committee members were guilty of erasing just about anyone that had ever made fun of them in grade school. You know, I underestimated that professor. Never let it be said that I won't admit when I'm wrong."

JJ and Unso came back up the stairs. "Didn't see that coming," remarked Unso, continuing the conversation started at the bottom of the stairs.

"Well, I don't know if I could have made a career of this," replied JJ. "Eventually I'd have to kill someone I respected." With that he reached into the disposal unit and removed the rebar.

"So why are we up here, anyway? I thought you said this guy betrayed you."

JJ shook his head. "I'm doing this for what he was, not what he's become. Besides, I never said I hated him. He just...grew up, that's all."



"...but the play is merely a puppet play, acted by living puppets."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, August 17, 1667

Serial Experiments Lain is the invention of Yasuyuki Ueda of Production 2nd, and the resulting anime was written by Chiaki J. Konaka, animated by Triangle Staff, and distributed by Pioneer LDC; it is these individuals and entities that own the copyright to the series and the vast majority of the characters used in this story, including a few of the unnamed ones. What I have done was completely without their permission, and with no intention whatsoever to harm this property or profit materially from it in any way. The remainder of the characters in "Age of Knaves" (including Douglas) are my own invention, as are the interpretations of where these characters will be thirty years after the end of Serial Experiments Lain.

Besides the above, I would like to thank TechTV for putting this series on on the same night I discovered the channel, the authors of for sharing their ideas with the world, and a whole slew of Serial Experiments Lain websites, including Above and Beyond Anime, Cyberia Cafe, and especially thought experiments lain, for providing insights into some of the knottier problems of this series.



"...our King do not live by meat, nor drink, but by having great lyes told him."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, August 17, 1666

Douglas was confused. "So, if the Big Eight can undelete all the erasures, why aren't we heading to the airport?"

Mika had a good laugh at this. "OK, here's the punch line, and I've been dying to tell someone for twenty years now: the universal undelete command is a fake!"


"I made it up. It amazes me that anyone would believe that a bastard as ruthless as Masami Eiri would ever write something as altruistic as an undelete. After he died, I tried to advance at Tachibana on my own merits, but the Committee was far more interested in technical know-how than in results. So, I dug up one of his rejected projects and had a programmer re-write the GUI to look like a universal undelete program."

"And then you erased the programmer," filled in Douglas.

"Well, yeah, I had to. It was a lot harder for me back then. Anyway, as Mao said, 'power comes from the barrel of a loaded gun', or something like that, and universal undelete looked awfully loaded to the Committee. Just now, if I had told them that the Big Eight's threat was empty and why, I would have saved Tachibana, but at the cost of my own life."

"So why did you do something as risky as dangle the universal undelete in the faces of hackers for all these years?"

Mika sat up then, a look of steely determination in her eyes. "Because I found something more important than power," she replied, "something I was willing to risk my life to achieve.

"I became aware of an individual on the Wired, someone of great secrecy and great power, and as I watched, this individual became ever more powerful. I shall give this mysterious entity the female pronoun, because that is the gender of the disguise this individual has chosen to use. Her choice of persona tells me more than anything that she is mentally deranged: she pretends to be the teen-aged ghost of my sister Lain, who was stillborn six years before I was born. There is no rational reason for this choice--I was no one of importance when she first appeared on the Wired. And she has only appeared on the Wired--no one has ever seen this person in the flesh. That is because 'Lain' is the illusion used by this individual to sway the hearts and minds of her followers."

Douglas was fascinated. He had heard the merest whispers of this Lain during his numerous undercover missions for Mika and in the dark years before they had met. "What do you think she wants?"

"The power to control who lives and who dies. The kind of power Tachibana wielded until tonight."

"And that bothers you?"

Mika shook her head. "It appears there's still a few things you can learn from me. Power wielded by a corporation is diffuse, scattered by the massive bureaucracy. The only victims are the weak and those who are true threats to the security of the people. But when it's a madwoman like this 'Lain' who thinks she's God and has the technical know-how to back up that claim: then no one is safe. I'm clearly marked out as her victim, even before I started erasing her acquaintances. This operation was the culmination of a good chunk of my life; the chance to read the mind of the woman who I believe is Lain's closest confidant. In fact, before last night I was convinced that Arisu Mizuki was Lain. Even after that debacle I'm certain that that woman knows more about Lain than anyone else on Earth. For a moment, there, I was almost willing to tell the Committee the truth about universal undelete, if only to give my two agents the time they needed to get Mizuki's memory store. But I have no doubt that they were recalled before they could succeed in their mission.

"Well, Mika Iwakura doesn't admit defeat easily. The two of us will fade away for a few years and play at being polite and retired while we re-group and wait for the proceeds from the Tachibana patents I managed to secure to come to fruition. I'm only fifty, after all; I've still got time. We will wait out the victory celebrations of our enemies and we will wait out the lean years that will inevitably follow, until the incompetence of the Big Eight brings this country low and causes the people to cry out for a force of Order and an end to Knavery. And when that happens I, I mean we, will be ready!"

"Yes, Mika!"


Musical Credits

"[The music was] so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick."
-- The Diary of Samuel Pepys, February 27, 1668

As yet another departure from the style of the original series, "Age of Knaves" is meant to have a soundtrack written 100 % by very-dead and very-white men.

Here, then, are the credits for the MIDI files I have been hiding after the entrance of every speaking character:

Second Movement from Symphony No. 7, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Sequenced by Hans-Joachim Roeder. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website.
Second Movement from Concierto de Aranjuez, by Joaquin Rodrigo. Sequenced by Stan Tracy.
Pr. Williamson
Fairy Tale, by Anton Arensky. Sequenced by Edgar W. Cox III. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website.
Gavotte (and six variations) from Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, by Jean Philippe Rameau. Sequenced by Leonardo Collinelli. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website. This is the only musical theme that comes close to the crypto-English Restoration/Glorious Revolution motif I had planned for the whole story.
Arisu (the tech)
Canon in D, by Johann Pachelbel. Sequenced by Robert Nau. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website.
"Reika" at the presentation
Waltz from Masquerade, by Aram Khatchaturian. Sequenced by Sergey Yurtaev. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website. This music just seems to scream "Liar!" to me.
The Men in Black
March Militaire No. 1 in D for Piano Two Hands, by Franz Schubert. Sequenced (I think) by Toru Yaskawa. Available at the Classical MIDI Connection website.
Professor Arrieta
Seguidallas Y Tango by Juan Arrieta.
Douglas (Mika's jack of all trades)
Third Movement from the Titan Symphony, by Gustav Mahler (subtitled "The Huntsman's Funeral, Escorted by the Animals"). Sequenced by Reinhold Behringer. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website. Note that you'll have to turn up the volume to hear this one.
Lain (finally!)
Ricercar 1 a 3 from A Musical Offering, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Unknown sequencer, but I went in and set up the instrumentation. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Mika Iwakura
Toccata from Suite Gothique, by Léon Böellmann. Sequenced by M. C. Bucknall (may need to turn up the volume to hear this one). This is the most perfect over-the-top villain theme I have ever heard in the world of classical music, and for that reason, I fear this may be a case of a theme overpowering a character. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
"New Hire"
First movement of Winter, from the Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi, the perfect musical portrait of someone being scared to death. This MIDI was sequenced by M. M. Cunanan, with the overly-dramatic tempo changes added by me. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
the other technician
Now this is getting silly. The guy has two words, and I've giving him a theme song. The Wassail Song is the shortest MIDI I have, so he gets it. The anonymous Rennaissance-era Christmas carol was sequenced by Curtis Clark, and is available from the Classical MIDI Connection website.
the tech supervisor
Piano Toccata, Op. 11, by Sergey Prokofiev. Sequenced by S. Winitzki. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Chisa Yomoda
Excerpt from the Second movement (Adagio) of the Symphony in C, by Georges Bizet. Sequenced by Jean-François Lucarelli (excerpted by me). Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, by Richard Strauss. Sequenced by Robert C. Goodyear and available at his web page.
Overture to The Barber of Seville, by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini. Sequenced by Andrew Parr. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Arisu (in existential crisis)
First Movement from Second Piano Concerto, by Camille Saint-Saëns. Sequenced by Joseph Stimpfl. Available at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Lain's cheesy entrance fanfare
Le Coq d'Or [The Golden Rooster], by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Sequenced by Edgard Bourgevin, chopped down to the first four seconds by me. If you want to hear the whole thing, you can find it at the Classical MIDI Archives website.
"Stacy", the rival security chief
Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper, by Jaromir Weinberger. Sequenced by Robert C. Goodyear and available from his website.
Unso, the first "real agent"
First movement from Spring from The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi. Sequenced by George Pollen and available from his website.
JJ, the second "real agent"
Third movement from Summer from The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi. Modern interpretation by an unknown sequencer (with a percussion problem fixed by me). Available from the Classical MIDI Archives website.
Hatchiko, Mika's chauffeur
"Little" Organ Fugue in G minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Sequenced by S. D. Rodian and available here.
Mika's cell phone ring
The first four notes of Symphony No. 5, by Ludwig von Beethoven. Sequenced by me.


If you're looking for the credits, they're up there.

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Page maintained by McPoodle43 @t Page last updated September 16, 2003 (provided some more details of Myu-Myu's caregivers in Chapter IX).