Level 3: Experiments

Stage One- Futility

Henry Wong took one last drag on his cigarette before casting it onto the cement surface below him. For a brief moment his self-control failed him and he was tempted to reach for another. But the disapproving look on his companion's face stopped him. Instead he released a heavy, smoke-filled sigh and closed his eyes in an effort to hurry along the inevitable.

Two questions,” Kazu began, forcing Henry to open his eyes and see his friend staring back, curious, “First- when did you start smoking?”

I don't know. Does it really matter now?” Henry replied sullenly.

Kazu nodded. “Guess that answers my second question too,” he said as he pointed to the “No Smoking” sign on the column Henry was leaning on.

Oops,” Henry said, almost serious.

Kazu turned to the train tracks in front of them. He tried to spy down the line, hoping to catch a glimpse of the arriving vessel. “When's it supposed to be here?” he asked.

We got here early. Should be here soon.”

Even though Henry did not like the way things were unfolding, he wanted them to pass by as quickly as possible. The last few years had been so empty; at this point any change was desirable, no matter the cost.

Kazu, on the other hand, was growing more anxious. Kazu wanted the train to arrive the events to unfold, hoping to find an unaccounted path leading them out of trouble. Henry saw no secret road leading them out of these woods, but did nothing to deter Kazu's eternal optimism.

In a way, Henry was jealous of Kazu. Both had been doing equally well in life- scoring about the same in the undefined criteria of success. Yet Henry was the one left unfulfilled. He knew exactly why: despite Kazu's role in their life-defining adventure, his road hadn't been as bumpy. Henry had reached such extreme highs that nothing could ever compare. At least Kazu could hope to come close somewhere. But discouraged by his father's death, Takato's disappearance and his falling out with Rika, Henry had little reason to keep going.

The echo of a distant whistle signaled the train's arrival. Kazu stood by Henry as the bevy of passengers exited. The person they were waiting for stepped out last, lifting her ankle-length skirt slightly to prevent it from being caught. Neither Kazu nor Henry had seen her in a couple of years but her fiery hair, even cut short, made her unmistakable. Through her sunglasses she eyed the two and approached them.

Well?” she asked.

We'll have to show you,” Kazu answered, a smile creeping on his face, “For now... it's good to see you again.”

A smile found its way on Rika's mouth as well. “You too Kazu. It's been a while.”

We'd better go. Don't want to keep you waiting,” Henry said, not making eye contact with her as he headed to the nearest exit. Rika and Kazu followed with little protest.

Henry Wong took one last gulp of milk before casting the empty bottle into the nearby wastepaper basket. With both hands now free he tightened his bathrobe and walked down the hall. He lightly rapped on a door and opened it. From the crack in the doorway he could see a blond girl laying on a bed, listening to whichever American pop star was on magazine covers that week. Henry knocked again, drawing her attention away from the computer-enhanced belting.

Bath's all yours,” he said.

Is it true we're supposed to wash up before we get in?” she asked, wearing a broad smile that seemed to camouflage her perennially blank stare.

Do you want me to help?” Henry jested.

She shook her head and threw a pillow at the door. “Pervert,” she said, retaining her smile.

His message delivered, Henry left her to figure it out herself. A couch in the living room and a book on the end table were inviting him to relax. It wasn't because of Alice; considering how little they had in common, he enjoyed the presence of his childhood friend. She was happily ignorant of all the discord around her. Henry couldn't say the same about himself. He saw the problem clearly: Rob McCoy.

Henry hadn't been happy when he had heard that Rob was visiting, but without a base for protest he couldn't complain. His father and Rob had been friends for decades; it would have been nothing short of an insult for the Wongs not to extend their hospitality. At least it was just for a weekend convention and not something warranting concern.

The sound of running water from the bathroom helped Henry relax. Even if his father was with Dr. McCoy, it didn't mean it would happen again. It didn't mean Henry's father would fall into another childish experiment. It didn't mean Henry would lose his father again.

Henry was just beginning to drift off to sleep when the phone rang. The mere sound was almost enough to give Henry a headache. But he stood up and answered hurriedly.


Hi, is Janyuu there?” said the woman on the other end.

No, he won't be back until later tonight. Can I take a message?” Henry looked around for a piece of scrap paper and a pen.

Is this Henry?”

Yes,” Henry replied absent-mindedly.

Hi Henry! Tell your dad this is Tally Onodera...”

Uh huh.” Henry started to write.

We really need his help so tell him to...” Tally paused. For a few seconds, all Henry heard was her breathing. “Actually, we'd better call back. I don't want to give out our number. What time will he be back?”

Henry eyed the phone's handset. The caller ID wasn't displaying a number. “I don't know. He's at a convention with a friend from America. I'm sure they're not coming straight home, either.”

Friend from America? Who?” Tally asked with immense interest.

Rob McCoy,” Henry answered, in spite of his growing suspicions.

Really?” Tally exclaimed, “We need to talk to him too.”

Her enthusiasm was unsettling. “Does this have anything to do with a few years ago?”

Yeah and it's really important to talk to them. If you could...”

No. You aren't talking to them. Dad said that damn thing is over. I will not let it start again!”

Look, I...”

Henry refused to let her finish. “The whole thing was a bad idea to begin with. Whichever of those crocks decided to bring it back, tell him to forget it. You are not taking him away from us again!”

Tally could only manage a weak “But-” before he slammed the phone down.

After taking a moment to calm his nerves, Henry sat down at the kitchen table. The whole disaster of years ago was haunting him. First it had been Takato. While the strange visitor had never explicitly mentioned anything about the project, he seemed to have some connection to it. Henry had been on edge since the encounter, especially with Dr. McCoy visiting. The so-called world-changing project that had separated Henry from his father for years would not die, even after Janyuu had unhappily proclaimed it an “educational failure” upon his return. Wherever Janyuu had gone, it was calling back to him.

Not again,” Henry said to himself. He was not going to lose his father a second time.

A door behind him slid open. Henry turned to it and saw Alice poking a head and a bare shoulder from the bathroom. She looked vulnerable without her smile. “Henry, what was that all about?”

He pushed aside all urges to tell her and simply said, “Don't worry about it.” Not that he expected that to be a problem. Alice closed the door and resumed her bath as Henry retrieved another bottle of milk from the fridge.

Hello? Henry?” Tally said from the kitchen, her raised voice consistent with the increasing intensity of the conversation. Takato couldn't hear the other end but Tally's inability to get a word in was not a good sign. At last she hung up, staring at the handset for a few moments as Takato approached.

Was that Henry?”

Tally sighed. “I like the fake one better,” she muttered, staggering into the living room.

Takato turned his head as she sat on the couch. “Could you please not say he's fake?” he demanded.

Another sigh from Tally. “I'm sorry. Just a little stressed, you know?”

Takato dropped the subject. As defensive as he was about his world's validity, he understood the difficulties Tally and Riley had been having trying to develop some sort of plan of attack. The two had been unable to do more than monitor Takato's world; influencing it was not yet a possibility. It had become apparent that outside help was needed. Janyuu Wong was thought to be the best bet.

So what did he say?” Takato asked.

Henry won't let us near his dad. And you know how stubborn Henry can get.”

That's not the Henry I know.”

Tally looked at him. “Same basic personality. This one just has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.” She paused, glancing away for a moment, “Can't say I blame him.”

Why's that?”

Guess it wasn't all bad news though,” Tally mumbled, ignoring Takato's question.

From the adjacent “office” a girl entered the room. Takato was not sure whether to call her Alice or Mari. They were both more comfortable with Alice; she didn't want to acknowledge the other name and he still knew his Odaiba ally as Mari. Problem was that she clearly was not Alice McCoy.

Hey, your grandfather's in town,” Tally said jokingly to the girl.

Dolphin?” she replied.

He and Janyuu are at some sort of convention. It would be a great stroke of luck if we ever got a hold of them.”

What's stopping us?”


The girl fell silent, shaking her head. Tally stood up and headed into the office, shutting the door behind her. Takato heard her say “Good news and bad news Riley...” before the door blocked the rest of the conversation.

Henry,” the girl said as she took Tally's spot on the couch. She shook her head. “Once too young to understand immaturity. Now he's too old to be mature.”

Takato sat on the other end of the couch, ignoring her words. Despite only knowing her for two days her incomprehensible rhetoric no longer fazed him. But he looked at her and for a moment did not see a lost soul trying to be enigmatic. She was concerned: her dual-colored eyes stared at the wall and when she blinked, he half-expected to see a tear trickle down her pale cheek. None did, but he still felt sympathy for her.

You and Henry go way back, don't you?” he asked. After no initial reaction, she finally condeded a nod. Takato continued, “I saw your names carved on the side of one of our cabins in the Digital World. I forgot how old Izzy said you were, but...”

I was four,” she answered abruptly, “He was six. Henry had just learned how to write his name. Mine as well. I had already known, of course, but for some reason I was so enamored that he was writing my name on the wall.”

Takato sighed. It was unavoidable now. They were going to have to get it over with.

You are Mari Izumi,” he stated. She looked at him. “There's no sense in either of us denying it.”

What does that mean?” she replied.

I just think it's silly to go by another name when everybody knows who you really are.” Takato also wanted to get it over with and start calling her by her real name. After spending two years as Koji and being misled, even unintentionally, by the girl in Odaiba, he wanted to set the records straight. But he did not voice that point.

I'm not like you,” she said defiantly, “There is only one Takato. There is only one Koji. But who knows how many Maris or Alices exist?”

You are Mari Izumi,” he said, louder. “Nobody else could have done what you have. Who else could invent bio-merging?”

It was merely a realization of already-existing theories. I just made the sacrifices necessary to make it happen.”

Would Alice McCoy really be capable of that?”

The only answer she had was to stare at him. Her mouth fell open slightly.

Do your father proud. Be Mari. If not for him, then for Henry. Even for that other Mari back in Odaiba. If you accept who you are, then maybe she'll find out who she is.”

She faced the wall again. “What if I need to use an alias again?” she asked.

We're still a long way away from that.”

I am Mari Izumi,” she whispered.

Takato smiled at Mari. “Was that really so difficult?”

Henry lingered behind as Kazu and Rika led the way to the park. Every so often Kazu turned around to make sure Henry wasn't bailing out. Kazu wasn't too worried, but he wasn't taking any chances. They needed to be together.

So what is this that you couldn't tell me over the phone?” Rika asked in that impatient, demanding tone that had been with her since Kazu had known her.

Not looking her in the eye, he responded frankly, but with all seriousness: “You need to see this yourself.”

Rika suddenly stepped forward and forced her glare into Kazu's. It was locked on target, and Kazu was unable to escape. “Don't do this to me. You know when you say that it makes me consider all sorts of nightmarish possibilities.”

Kazu backed away slightly. Grimacing, he nodded. “Yeah, keep those in mind. You're better prepared this way.” He sidestepped her and continued down the street.

Are you just doing this to make sure you get me here?” he heard her say, “What, do you think if it was something serious I wouldn't show up if you told me on the phone?”

I wouldn't put it past you,” Henry's words forced Kazu to stop and frown. Turning around, Kazu knew what he would see- the same glare Rika had just used on him was now on Henry point-blank and twice as intense.

I don't run away from my problems,” she stated firmly.

Henry didn't budge; his reply was just as sharp: “No- you run away from mine.”

Hey!” Kazu shouted. His rare moment of anger stole their attention. Kazu was also surprised at his outburst but he refused to let their dispute ruin his hopes. “Look, this is a really serious situation and if we're going to have any chance of getting past it, us three are going to need to stick together.” He marched towards them. “So you two are going to have to get along, whether you like it or not. I don't care what happened between you two. Settle it on your own time. You two made your bed, now you've gotta sleep in it.”

He turned around and took two steps before almost laughing at his own stupidity. Rather than turn around and face the two angry glares that he knew were on him, he held up a hand. “Sorry. Bad choice of words.”

The three continued in silence. The park was not quite deserted, but the few children braving the March weather were not paying any attention as Henry pointed at a series of bushes.

There. I found it yesterday.”

What is it?” Rika asked.

Kazu bowed his head and said nothing. Rika took the hint and stepped forward cautiously. As she investigated, Kazu glanced at Henry, solemnly watching Rika.

Do you want to catch her, or should I?” Kazu whispered.

Rika pulled back one of the bushes. Kazu could not get a good look, but he already knew about the puddle of red Rika was staring at. The trace amount of chaos he did see told him that it had grown since the last time he and Henry had visited.

Rika said nothing at first. She quietly turned around, letting the bush swing back into place. Silently, she stared at Henry, waiting for an explanation. None came.

How?” she finally asked.

Henry said nothing. Kazu shrugged.

She stepped forward, “How did this happen?!”

Don't know,” Henry replied, his eyes fixed on his shoes, “It just did.”

Henry found it yesterday,” Kazu added, “I called right after he called me.”

This can't be happening,” Rika stammered, “What are we supposed to do?”

We're still working on that. That's why we wanted you here.”

Rika held a hand to her face and bent down. “How... you two are acting like this is no big deal. If we don't do something, it's over. Don't you understand that?”

Kazu looked at Henry, who kept his head down, unmoved by her reaction. Though not to Rika's extent, both had already had their fits of emotion. All that was left was a feeling of futility, coupled with an obligation to see every step taken to prevent the coming disaster.

He placed a hand on Rika's back. Kazu fully expected her to turn around and slap him, but anything was better than the rut she was in.

We'll figure something out,” he said. Again- anything to revive her spirit.

Rika turned around and clutched him, her chin falling on his shoulder. Kazu closed his eyes and wrapped her arms around her.

I'm... scared,” she whispered.

He replied only by stroking her back, her hair- whatever would calm her down. It wasn't a situation either were used to; Kazu only hoped it would end quickly. A minute of silence passed before Kazu opened his eyes. He was still holding Rika, hoping to pull her from whatever brink she was approaching. He looked at Henry, who was silently watching the two with a displeased frown. Henry walked up to them.

So what do we do now?” Henry asked.

Once more, Kazu looked at Rika, still hopelessly lost.

He turned to Henry and replied, “Know any good bars around here?”

As Riley read another “can't help, good luck” e-mail, Tally leaned against the wall wondering if Riley planned on standing in the next 48 hours.

“Who's that one from?” Tally asked.

“Daisy,” Riley said, scratching the name off a post-it note on one of the monitors. Only “Dolphin” and “Tao” remained.

“How much are you telling them?”

“Everything. About Takato too. They all say they don't think it's possible or they don't want to get involved again.” Riley turned to Tally; her tired red eyes finally moving away from the screen. “That or they don't want to get caught. I wouldn't put it past Yasuo to start watching what they get.”

“I hope you're not using our IP. If he can see that e-mail, we don't want him tracing it back here.”

“I'm using a web-based provider.”

Tally smiled. “Ten years of programming have made you one of the best hackers in the world and you're still using Hotmail.”

“Whatever it takes to give him some hope when he gets home,” Riley said, turning back to the screen.

“First we have to get him home. Any luck on that front?”

Riley's head drooped. “Yamaki has it encypted a lot more than I thought. He knows I'm coming. I can still get messages through, but I don't know if I'll be able to upload or download anybody.”

Tally stepped forward and put a hand on Riley's shoulder. She knew how important this was to her. Tally also knew that Riley was not used to failure, and the string of misses that had built up in the last few hours was providing further motivation. But Tally's concern was shifting from the mission to her friend.

“Maybe you should take a break. You've been sitting here for five hours.”

“Let me try one more set of codes.” Riley's hand reached for the mouse, but Tally grabbed it.

“Sorry, but I'm getting worried. You're pushing yourself way too hard.” Tally pulled Riley out of the chair, “Admit it- we need help. So let's sit down in the kitchen and figure out how to get Rob and Janyuu.”

As they opened the door to the kitchen, they immediately drew the attention of Takato and Mari. The “kids” started asking a litany of questions about their progress and how close they were. Neither Riley nor Tally said anything, but led them into the kitchen. Riley sat; Takato and Mari did as well. Tally started pouring some tea for the group.

“Yamaki was ready for us,” Riley stated in a monotone.

“So what, you can't get back in?” Takato asked. Tally continued to pour tea silently; this conversation had been long overdue, but it was bound to be unpleasant.

“I'm sure if I sit there for another six hours, I'll figure it out. But that's just getting in. Saving your world?” Riley trailed off.

Tally set a tray of cups on the table and sat next to Riley. “We need a more in-depth look at your world in order to see if anything's possible. In order to do that...”

“We need Dolphin and Tao,” Mari finished. Tally nodded.

“Any responses?” Takato asked.

Riley stared at her tea, stirring it idly. “Nobody's willing to help. I have a feeling Yasuo's been keeping tabs on them as well. That means e-mailing Janyuu isn't a good idea.”

“And I'm sure Henry's screening his calls now,” Tally muttered.

Takato clanged his cup back on the saucer, startling the women. “Well, we've got to do something.”

“There is not much we can do, barring a personal visit,” Mari said, calmly taking a sip of tea.

Tally shook her head. “I don't know. Going to Shinjuku in person? When Yasuo's goons are out looking for us? And they probably have my car's license plate number?”

“Take a train,” Riley said suddenly. Everybody looked at her, “Get off a stop or two before Shinjuku and walk the rest of the way. You'll be fine.”

“What do you mean 'you'? You're not coming with us?”

“I have to keep working on breaking Yamaki's encryption. Take Mari with you.”

All eyes turned to Mari. Takato smiled. “Yeah, you can talk to Henry! You're friends with him.”

“I haven't spoken to Henry in a decade. I doubt he even remembers me,” Mari replied.

“Well at least distract him so I can get in and talk to Janyuu. I'm sure if I just talk to him one-on-one we'll get his help,” Tally said.

Mari said nothing for a while. She was in her usual “pondering” trance that she seemed to occupy most of the time. Finally, she turned to Tally and said, “Just make sure to get them.”

Kazu held up his dish of sake: “To the end of the world. Cheers!”

“I don't understand how you two can be so calm about this,” Rika muttered, then quickly swallowed her drink. Although she did not consider alcohol the ideal solution to the problem, she had to admit that it was keeping her from another breakdown.

“It's a strange feeling of hopelessness and resignation,” Henry said, staring at the ceiling, “I'm sure it'll kick in for you soon.”

“Speak for yourself, Henry. Do you honestly think it's just going to be over without a fight?” Kazu said, smiling as he refilled Rika's cup.

“We don't have much to fight with.”

“Something will change that.”

Rika took another drink. “Like what? Henry's right. We don't have our Digimon and Hypnos is long gone. Short of divine intervention I don't see any way to stop it.”

Kazu smiled. “Nice to see you two agree on something.” He waited for Rika to roll her eyes before continuing, “But you say divine intervention as if it isn't possible.”

She glared back, a little angry. “Is that our plan? Sit back and wait for some stroke of good fortune to save our butts?”

“Our plan is to do whatever is in our power to increase our chances,” Henry said quietly. Rika turned to him. She was surprised that Kazu was doing most of the talking between the two. Usually Henry was the one playing leader in these situations. That was one of his better attributes. It was also why she despised him.

“There's still stuff we can do,” Henry explained, “Like making sure the right people know. We need to get this city evacuated, and if we do it now it won't be as chaotic as when that thing really heats up. And we need to try to find whoever we can. Yamaki... Dolphin... hell we could try to get a hold of Takato again.”

Rika shook her head. She found it hard to believe that contacting Takato or anyone in Hypnos was a realistic goal. Besides the unaddressed, unsigned letter that had reached Henry's doorstop three years ago, there was nothing to suggest that Hypnos was still around in any form. And as all previous attempts to contact Takato had failed, D-Reaper was certain to interfere with that further.

Whatever expression ended up on Rika's face as she thought that forced Henry to nod. “I know that's a long shot but we have to try all avenues here. Anything to have a chance.”

“Even with all that, it still comes down to divine intervention,” Rika reiterated.

“Hey, it beats doing nothing,” Kazu said, “Whatever the case, we need to stick together. If... no, when something happens, I have a feeling we'll need to be around to help out.”

“So where the heck's Kenta?” Rika said, before turning to Henry, “And Suzy?”

Henry looked down at his drink. “I don't want Sue to get involved. Not unless we need her.”

“And I haven't been able to get a hold of Kenta,” Kazu said, a little annoyed, “Ever since he got into Waseda, we kinda lost track of him. He got himself a real life.”

Rika shook her head. “Lovely. So it's just us three then.”

Kazu reached across the table and patted her hand. “Something will happen, Rika. There's no way it's ending like this. Stick with us and we'll be alright.”

She did not move her hand. Neither did he. Not even as Henry silently laid his over them.

Tally peered in every direction several times as she stepped onto the balcony of the Wongs' apartment building. Mari calmly walked to their door.

“If we haven't been spotted yet, we won't be,” she said as she stared at the doorknocker.

Tally joined her. “Let's hope Janyuu's home.” They had waited until later at night, but had no way of knowing. “You know the plan, right?”

“I'll keep Henry occupied. Just get those two to help.”

With a sly smile, Tally nudged Mari's shoulder. “Ready to pull out those feminine guiles?”

“You're thinking of Alice,” Mari said, unmoved.

Tally chuckled as she knocked on the door. “If Henry answers, it's all you.”

Unfortunately, Henry answered. And the first thing he did was give Tally a suspicious look.

“Hello Henry,” Mari uttered, unemotional.

Henry turned to Mari and stared for some time, occasionally leaning forward or lifting an eyebrow. Neither Tally nor Mari interrupted; they wanted to see if he'd figure it out.

He leaned back and looked her over again. “Have we met?”

Mari glanced once at Tally before nodding.

Henry's eyes narrowed. As he took a step forward, Mari flinched, leaning back momentarily.

“Mari?” he whispered.

Her eyes widened. “You remember?”

Slowly, his mouth formed a smile. “Well I'll be.” He folded his arms. “What are you doing here?”

After another uncertain glance at Tally, Mari replied, “Just stopping by. We were in the neighborhood and felt like visiting.”

That unfortunately drew Henry's attention to Tally. “So who's this?” he asked Mari.

As Mari struggled to find a good answer Tally bowed and smiled. “Rena Yagami. I've been keeping an eye on Mari for awhile.”

She cheated and looked up to make sure Henry was buying it. He was staring back and said nothing for a few moments. But then he turned back to Mari and said, “I'm sorry. Come on in. Alice McCoy is here too.”

“Oh. Lovely,” Mari deadpanned. She knew Rob was there, but this was the first time the name of the third “tech tot” came up.

As they entered, Tally caught sight of Janyuu in the living room. He had just noticed her and opened his mouth.

“Hi!” she interrupted with an artificially bright smile and approached him, “Rena Yagami.”

Janyuu's mouth remained open, but his inarticulate stammering was not about to give away her identity.

“Where's the bathroom?” Tally asked. As Janyuu pointed it out, Tally saw that Mari and Alice were distracting Henry. She seized the opportunity and whispered: “We need to talk.”

Janyuu looked over Tally's shoulder. Alice was giving Mari a very unappreciated hug.

“Let's go in the bedroom.”

Mari caught Tally escaping with the target out of the corner of her eye. The first phase was a success. Now she just had to keep Henry occupied.

Fortunately, Alice was running interference just as effectively as Mari: “This is so cool! We're all back together again.”

“Yeah,” Henry said, joining Alice on the living room couch as Mari occupied a nearby chair, “Where'd Rena go?”

“Bathroom,” Mari replied instantly.

Alice shook her head, that smile ever-present. “Wow. It has been forever, Mari. I tried to get a hold of you when you, uh... got back, but I guess you changed your e-mail or something.”

Henry turned to Alice. “I was planning to dance around that,” he said, somewhat stern.

Taking the hint, Alice looked up, a little sheepish, but still smiling. “Oh. Sorry Mari. I guess that's probably a touchy subject.”

“Somewhat,” Mari replied. Her mysterious “disappearance” was well known throughout her parents' circle of friends, as was her equally strange reappearance years later. She had left to help in the MAXIS, and remained underground afterwards out of preference. It wasn't until that imposter assumed her name that she had cared what everybody believed. Whatever the case, everyone had assumed that her absence carried serious emotional baggage; therefore Mari never had to talk about it.

“So what have you been up to?” Henry asked. He chuckled and added, “Or do I want to know?”

“You probably don't.” She was serious.

Alice chirped, “Oh, come on! It's been so long. I'm dying to know!”

“I've spent the last few years trying to make my life as normal as I care for it to be.” Mari did her best not to smile as she saw the ensuing blank stares from Henry and Alice. The truth was certainly powerful.

“Well... good luck with that,” Alice said, trying to be polite.

Henry didn't bother. He looked over his shoulder at the bathroom door.

Mari quickly stole back his attention. “How about you, Henry?”

As he hesitantly began answering, Mari stared him in the eyes, ready to ask any follow-up question that would prolong the conversation. But as unskilled as she was to the art of chatting, she certainly found it easy enough. She wanted to know what Henry was doing anyway.

“...And so far we have had no luck getting back into the MAXIS. That's why we need your help.” After the long explanation, Tally stopped to catch her breath. Silently, she cursed her luck: Rob wasn't there so she would have to explain the whole thing again.

Janyuu fell back into a chair. “So you're telling me that Takato is here in this world?” Tally nodded. “That's impossible.”

“Tell that to him,” she replied with an exasperated smile, “But the point is that he is here, and he doesn't want to be. So we need you to help us figure out how to get him back in. And for extra credit, stop D-Reaper from destroying the place.”

“Why does Takato want to go back in if he can't stop it from being deleted?”

Tally shrugged. “It's Takato. Do you have to ask? We gave up trying to talk him out of it.”

“It's suicide. Going back in is playing right into Yasuo's hands.”

“Janyuu, he belongs there. That's his home. And his friends are in trouble. He doesn't want to abandon them. Especially since this whole thing is his fault.”

Janyuu rubbed his face, shaking his head the whole time. “I don't know. I promised myself I wouldn't get involved with this again. And while I understand why Takato wants to go in, I'm not going to break my promise just to see him get killed.”

“What about your family in there? Don't you care about them?”

“I've cared about them far too much in the last few years. I need to think about my real family now.”

It was a point Tally couldn't argue against. In hindsight, it was the reason she had not approved of Janyuu's immersion into the MAXIS. Not because he had left his family behind. Tally had too. But her penance was missing Takuya, so she had tried to visit him as often as she could. On the other hand, Janyuu had no reason to miss his family; he had a simulation of them. While he had returned to the real world on occasion, it had not been often enough in her opinion.

Apparently, that had gotten through to Janyuu, albeit at the worst possible time: “It just seems so selfish now. Sometimes I feel like the worst father in the world.”

Tally stifled a chuckle as she thought of her husband. He too was more devoted to his work than his family. And Tally had always been quick to scold him about it. She could sympathize with his wife and children. And here she was convincing Janyuu to betray them once more in honor of TK's cause.

“We're not asking you to go back in. I don't want to put you in that position again.”

“Nobody did last time,” Janyuu fired back, “I chose to go in. That's the problem.”

“Please. All we need is your guidance. And Rob's if possible. You helped create the system. There has to be something you can do.”

After some contemplation, he made his offer. “Two conditions: one is that I need Henry's approval. I hurt him the most by going in. After everything that happened in the MAXIS, our relationship has been a little weird, as you could probably imagine. I don't want to alienate him again.”

Tally nodded in understanding. She also mentally swore.

“And second?” she asked, dreading the next stipulation.

“We go for broke. I'm not helping Takato get back in unless we give him a fighting chance against D-Reaper.”

Tally smiled, more out of relief than heroic determination. Still, there was still the task of converting Henry.

Mari could not believe it. After everything, Henry had turned out normal. She had expected it out of Alice, but never imagined that all the conspiring forces in the world had negated each other and left Henry with a typical suburban life.

That wasn't entirely good news. His interest in computer programming never became a radical obsession- only a passing hobby. But that had been the reason she liked him so much. She did not want him developing a well-rounded set of skills. She did not want to be better at him in that field. He was still tinkering around with code, but had no interest in becoming one of the elite programmers in the world, a position she had always felt was his for the taking.

“Sorry to hear you haven't been as involved with computers,” she admitted, “You were always really good at that.”

Henry shook his head, and looked once more over his shoulder. “I don't know. Part of it was because of what happened with Dad.”

He had already gone over that whole story, and while it was a little saddening to hear Henry's side, she knew she had to mitigate the situation.

“You shouldn't be so hard on him. They were trying something remarkable. It could have changed the world had it panned out.”

Henry folded his arms. “Doesn't change the fact that...” Suddenly he broke off, eyes widening. He leaned forward. “...wait, were you involved with all of that?”

Mari nodded.

“Damn,” Henry muttered, falling back into the couch, “Whatever you were doing, it wasn't going to change anything. It wasn't going to bring them back. They're gone, and there's no sense trying to change that.”

“Bring what back?” Alice asked, once again having missed the train.

“Digimon,” Henry answered, “From what I gathered, it was some experiment that would somehow bring Digimon back into the real world. I don't know how any of them thought they had any chance of succeeding.”

“Perhaps. But when you lose something dear to you, you're prone to do strange things if there's a slight chance of getting them back.” Quickly, Mari added, “I don't know if you've experienced that or not.”

“I lost my father once.”

“So did I,” she replied immediately, “Only mine's not coming back.”

Henry opened his mouth, but didn't say anything. Finally, he closed his eyes, his head dropping slightly. “Sorry.”

“I did it for my father. And like it or not, that's why your Dad did it as well,” Mari turned to Alice and added “And your grandfather.”

“That's why you're here, isn't it?” Henry asked, not lifting his head.

Mari considered lying, but since it was coming out anyway, she figured it should be revealed naturally. “Yes.”

“Then I suppose you know some creep named Takato or a woman named Tally Onodera?”

“Takato is a long story. He is not supposed to be here and we need your father's help to send him back home.”

Henry looked her in the eye. “That's all?”

“That's all. Takato's home is also on the verge of destruction and anything your father could contribute to prevent that would be helpful. But one thing at a time.”

“And Tally?”

Mari bowed her head. “You mean Rena?”

In an instant, Henry jumped off the couch and bolted for the bedroom. Mari followed. “Wait... Henry...” she pleaded. Janyuu and Tally stopped him in the hallway.

“Dad, what does she want you to do?” Henry asked, glaring at Tally.

Janyuu placed a hand on his son's shoulder. “She wants me to help preserve part of the old project. It will only take a couple days. And I'm not going anywhere this time.”

Henry shook his head. “I thought you said this was all over. Why is it all coming back all of a sudden?”

Tally and Mari kept their distance, but watched eagerly as Janyuu tried to explain. “I don't know. Whatever it is, they need my help.”

“But Dad...”

“But I'm not doing anything unless it's all right with you.”

Henry looked up at his father's straight face. “Dad, is this really going to accomplish anything?”

“Probably not. Although it would be a keepsake of 30 years of research.”

Henry looked over at Mari, who nervously awaited his answer. She mouthed, “Please.”

She didn't expect much. From what she had gathered from their conversation, he had every reason to say no. She wouldn't even have blamed him. But the smile that appeared on Henry's face surprised her.

“Okay. We'll call it a retirement gift,” he said, that same pesky smile appearing on Janyuu's face as well.

As much of a relief as it was, that wasn't what Mari was feeling as father and son hugged; instead, she felt a sense of accomplishment beyond a successful mission. She had gotten through to him. Somehow, in that mess of a conversation, he had seen things differently. What it was or how it happened didn't matter.

Tally put a hand on Mari's shoulder. They still had a long way to go. But they had already achieved their first miracle. It wasn't much, and there was no telling if Janyuu's expertise would help. But one of the researchers was on board, with Henry's blessing. That was a start.

To Be Continued in “Stage Two- Ego”

Author's Notes
For the uninitiated (and now completely clueless): this is a sequel. If you hadn't read Level 2, don't even bother. In fact, if you haven't read Level 1 yet, that would be a good idea too. For everybody who has read Level 2: you certainly are gluttons for punishment. Of course, just as the first two had different styles, this is going to head in yet another direction (note that all three stories are listed as having different secondary genres). I can't guarantee a reduction of angst (not with D-Reaper around), but at least you should be well-aware of what's going on (especially after the infornography feast in the Level 2 finale). The mind-screwing elements have once against switched locations- from the situation to the setting to the characters.

And the first occurrence of this is with Henry and Rika. Why do I get the feeling that after everything that went on with Tally, Mari, and Janyuu, most of you are thinking “what happened with Henry and Rika?!” Good question. I'm interesting in finding out myself. It's never explained, but there's enough clues that you could draw your own conclusions from. And that is what you'll have to do, since I'm not going to waste time delving into it.

I mentioned in a few e-mails last year that people should keep an eye on Tally and Kazu in this. The attitudes they carry through this are something else, especially when you look into their pasts. Tally's has been made pretty apparent to those who have been paying attention and you can imagine what Kazu's been through losing Takato, Rika and Kenta in different ways. Speaking of Kenta- Waseda University is another prestigious university in Tokyo. In other words, it's like Toudai without the cliché.

The MAXIS-world Henry (aka “our” Henry and “good” Henry) called Suzy “Sue.” Refer to Level 2: Stage 5.

Rena Yagami seems to be Tally's go-to avatar and alias. It's a reference to Alice in Cyberland, yet another Chiaki Konaka series with an Alice and a Juri. The two differences between it and Lain/Tamers are that Rena's there instead of Reika, and Juri's last name is Yagami instead of Kato. This should also remove any doubt about who those weird chatters were in Level 1: Stage 4, if you hadn't figured it out already.

This ends Level 3: Stage 1 of The Connection.