Yesterday's thunderstorm had passed unremarked. The sun shone, the clouds were few in number, a gentle breeze ruffled her hair, and Yumi Ishiyama was bored out of her mind. It was the second day of spring vacation. Odd, Jeremie and Ulrich were all out visiting their families, and Yumi… well she lived within walking distance of Cadic. Jeremie was visiting his aunt and uncle in Marseilles, and would be back in two days. Odd was in New Zealand; he'd be back in two and a half. Ulrich was taking a trip to Germany with his father, and left yesterday. He would be back on Sunday. Four days from now. Forty four hours and fifteen minutes and twenty-three seconds from now.
She made a fist, and resolved to not think about Ulrich.
Naturally, all of them were displeased about the entire situation. X.A.N.A. might attack at any moment while they were gone, and if she couldn't get there on time… Yumi didn't really want to think about. Thankfully, X.A.N.A. was laying low for the last few weeks, but that only made everyone even more worried. Although they were enjoying the downtime, it meant X.A.N.A. might be planning something. Something big. Something dangerous.
'Well, I hope he can wait for a few more days,' she thought wryly, desperately wishing she didn't wear black today. The sun was toasting her to a crisp, and the town center didn't really have much shade; the trees they planted last year were still too small to block much sun, and what little shade the center did have was being occupied by the upperclassmen. A few of the college students nodded at her and covered their mouths with their hands. Yumi felt her face flush red, and walked past them stiffly. She ducked into a nearby bookstore, and picked up the closest book she could find, and began flipping through it. Those stupid punks probably thought it was all a farce; point and laugh at the crazy kid wearing all black in forty-something degrees. HAHAHA! She'd show them. She could take them out.
The book in her hands slammed shut.
"Yes?" she asked. The storekeeper, a small, mousy man with ruffled sandy-blond hair and green eyes, looked somewhat embarrassed. He wrung his hands nervously.
"Your cell phone is ringing very loudly. It is disrupting several of my customers. Would you care to answer it?"
"Oh," she said, feeling quite embarrassed. "Right." She put the book back on the shelf, and pulled her cell phone from out of her pocket. "Hello?"
"Yumi," said Jeremie, a note of urgency ringing in his voice, "Aelita says there have been on and off pulsations since last night. Has anything strange happened?"
Yumi looked outside. Everything seemed normal. The kids outside were talking, the parents were admonishing their children, and tourists were admiring the view. "Nothing really," she said. Even the clouds were drifting by lazily, as if to proclaim the absolute normalcy of the day. "Do you think it might be a X.A.N.A. attack?"
In Marseilles, Jeremie made a disproving clucking sound. "When else does Aelita feel pulsations?"
"Exactly. I want you to go to the factory. I'll virtualize you from my home computer, but I'm not sure how well I'll be able to guide you without the speakerphone."
"Right," she said. "I'll call you back when I get there."
She was halfway to the door when she felt her legs buckle from under her. The floor rushed up to meet her, and swallowed her whole.
"I tried calling her back," Jeremie finished, "but she didn't pick it up."
"And you're saying she never called back?" Odd asked, wide-eyed. Jeremie nodded, and spun his chair around so the two boys faced each other. "But what about the X.A.N.A. attack?"
"According to Aelita, it just stopped on its own. Very strange."
"I'll say," Odd said. "Do you think it might have anything to do with Yumi disappearing?"
Jeremie shook his head. "Every time a X.A.N.A. attack stops, the effects of his previous attack dissipate. If Yumi's inability to answer the phone is linked to the X.A.N.A. attack, then she would've picked up yesterday, or even today." Odd shifted on the bed, clearly trying to think. Jeremie turned to face the computer again.
"She might've just… dropped her phone or something," he said. He uncrossed his legs and pulled his knees to his chest. "But that doesn't explain why she didn't meet us here."
"Probably just busy," Jeremie said. "Or maybe she got sick. But we'll really know if anything bad happened to her when Ulrich gets back." They shared a laugh. "It sure is good being back at Cadic."
Odd snorted. "C'mon, Jeremie, we have to go to school here. And we have X.A.N.A. attacks every week, and we got bad lunch food, Sissy, Jim… If it weren't for you guys, I'd be asking my mom to take me back to New Zealand."
"The food here really is bad," Jeremie said thoughtfully. "But you're right… if I didn't have you as a friend, I'd probably be attending Einstein's School for Super Geniuses."
Odd made a funny noise in the back of his throat. "We're getting all mushy."
"Like cafeteria mashed potatoes and gravy," agreed the blond genius.
"Like a week old banana."
"Like vegetable soup being thrown out a twelve story building in a paper bag."
"That's just a man throwing himself out of a building."
"Oh. Right. Not mushy at all."
"Nothing like you and Aelita," Odd sniggered. Jeremie growled and threw a mug at Odd's hair. He ducked, and the empty mug smashed against Jeremie's Einstein poster. "WOAH! Temper, temper!"
"Sorry," Jeremie said, his face red. He jumped out of his chair and got on the bed with Odd. He began collecting the shattered pieces of the mug. "I think that I just… snapped."
"You think?" Odd said, indignant. "But everything's fine between us, right?"
Jeremie blushed again, and threw the remains of the mug into the trash. "Don't worry about it. So… who do you…" Odd leaned forward with a slight smirk on his face. "…you know… like?"
"Does hanging around you people mean I have to have a teenage romance?"
"Good! I don't want to be involved!"
"But…" Jeremie hesitated. "Samantha—"
"…." Odd flopped on the bed. "When time reset that time around… I sort of chickened."
"…well, you said something about your literature project?"
Odd sat up so quickly that bits of hair gel were left on the bedspread. "I did not!"
"It's due on Monday," Jeremie said with a grin. "Knowing you, you won't be able to finish it without my help."
Odd stuck his tongue out at Jeremie. "You know me too well. It's not fair!"
"Can't help it."
"I bet you can…"
Jeremie's cell phone began ringing. He was about to answer it when Aelita's face blinked on the computer screen. She was distressed, and seemed to be in the middle of a panic attack. "Jeremie! X.A.N.A.'s making an attack!"
In a bat of an eyelash, Jeremie was in the chair, earpiece on and working himself into an early heart attack. Odd picked up the still-ringing cell phone, and decided to put it down again. "I'm tracing the tower's signal. It's in the desert region." Jeremie looked at Odd.
"It's off to Lyoko again," said Odd cheerlessly. "Whoopee."
"This isn't a laughing matter, Odd!" Jeremie said, frantic. "Let's…"
"Jeremie! The X.A.N.A. attack stopped."
"What?" Odd asked, in a state of disbelief. "But it just started!"
Jeremie shook his head, as if to shake some stray thoughts away. "X.A.N.A. has been acting pretty weird…"
"You're telling me," Odd grumbled.
"I'm not sure why X.A.N.A.'s behavior has been so erratic," Aelita said. Her voice was slightly garbled. Jeremie needed to replace his speakers. "I'll take a look into it."
Jeremie's hand clenched into a fist. He looked at Odd. "Do you think your project can wait for a few hours?"
Odd nodded. "Don't worry. X.A.N.A.'s more important."
A grateful smile flitted on Jeremie's face. "Thanks."
Odd shrugged. "No problem. I'll go back to my room."
"Be careful," Jeremie warned. "X.A.N.A. might launch another attack. I'd feel better if you were with us."
If it wasn't Jeremie… Odd rolled his eyes slightly, but grinned. "All right, Einstein. I'll be back in a heartbeat!"
"What worries me is that X.A.N.A. seems to be… well, calling us," Jeremie said, and rubbed at his eyes. It was three in the morning. Odd was still in his room, although at the moment he was sleeping. He was beginning to feel pretty tired himself, but panic was a good caffeine substitute. "It's like he's daring us to storm over to Lyoko." On the screen, Aelita nodded.
"What worries me, Jeremie, is that X.A.N.A. could attack at any time now," she said. "And the attacks start and finish so quickly. By the time I type 'Code LYOKO', the attack has already stopped!"
Jeremie nodded, and pursed his lips. "I don't understand this. Unless X.A.N.A.'s trying to leak radiation into our brains and kill us with gamma rays, his attacks aren't going to do much at all."
"He's planning something bigger," Jeremie finished. He slumped back into his chair. "For once, I actually want him to attack us so you can just shut the tower down!"
"I agree," Aelita said softly. "But enough of that for now. How are your friends?"
"Odd's half asleep, Ulrich is in Germany, and Yumi's somewhere. But what I don't understand is why X.A.N.A. hasn't attacked yet—at least, not for more than a few seconds."
"He did made an initial attack several days ago," Aelita reminded him gently. "He launched the attack on Tuesday morning and it continued until Wednesday. It didn't become erratic until Wednesday afternoon."
"That's why I'm worried," Jeremie muttered. Aelita peered at him, concerned. "Yumi. She hasn't answered the calls I made to her since Wednesday, and she didn't meet us here yesterday."
"Why don't you go to her house?" Aelita suggested. "Maybe she's just busy."
Jeremie chuckled. "That's what I thought, too, but the more I think about it, the timing is just too coincidental." He sighed. "I shouldn't have visited my cousin over vacation."
"Don't be silly, Jeremie," she said. "You haven't visited them since X.A.N.A.'s first attack."
"Still, I shouldn't have left Yumi alone. No one else was with her when we left, and she doesn't know how to operate the supercomputer. Remember that time when she tried scanning me in?"
The pixie-like girl laughed. "Don't I count as a person?"
"Then Yumi was never alone. Don't worry." Jeremie smiled. "So what was Marseilles like?"
Jeremie leaned forward, his spirits temporarily restored. He already discussed this with Aelita, but he needed a break from X.A.N.A. "Not much has changed, really…AuntMarieandUncle Jean-Paulmoved out of our old apartment and into one in the city…"
It would be nice to forget all his troubles for a while.
The Ishiyamas weren't home; their neighbors said they were at a friend's house after their car broke down on the road. Yumi was still nowhere to be found, and Odd found Yumi's cell phone in the lost-and-found of a bookstore when he looked for his watch.
"Well, if they found it in the bookstore, it might mean that she was there," Jeremie said when he showed him the phone. They went back to the town center to ask the manager.
"She's about this tall," Odd said, jumping up and down to prove his point, "black hair, combat boots, probably wearing all black… Came here on Wednesday. Or maybe Tuesday. Or Monday. Or Sunday, Saturday—"
The manager wringed his hands and licked his lips nervously. His hand briefly lingered over his forehead, where bits of hair just barely covered a large bruise. "No, I do not remember such a girl coming in here. I am very sorry."
"But we found her cell phone here," Jeremie said, putting a hand on Odd's shoulder to make him stop jumping around. "If she didn't come here, how did it get in this lost and found?"
"I do not know," the manager said, beads of perspiration beginning to form on his forehead. "Like I said, no such girl has ever visited this shop."
The manager's face turned a bizarre shade of purple.
"You children ask too many questions," he snapped, shoving them out of his store. "If you would please stop bothering me, I would like to get back to work!"
They drifted over to the ice cream parlor across from the street of the bookstore, and took turns leering at the bookstore.
"He's hiding something," Odd grumbled, sticking his spoon upright in his butter pecan ice cream cup. "I know he is."
Jeremie only shook his head, and almost got vanilla ice cream on his sleeve. "I don't know, Odd. Someone else could have dropped it off."
He snorted. "And my name is Cinderella." He glowered at the store, as if he could incinerate it with his eyeballs. "I think he's hiding something."
"And I suppose you're going to have a stakeout there until he brings Yumi out of a broom closet?" Jeremie said derisively. "Her parents might've just dragged her out for vacation."
"I don't know," Odd said, shaking his head. "I have a bad feeling about all of this… Yumi's disappearance, the storekeeper, all the on and off X.A.N.A. attacks… it feels staged."
"X.A.N.A. always plans things," Jeremie said. "But Aelita says there haven't been any X.A.N.A. attacks for the last few hours. And remember: the effects of a X.A.N.A. attack are always reversed when it ends."
"It's reversed when you set back time and the code's entered," Odd said. "But this time he ends the attacks himself."
Jeremie's eyes widened, and his mouth dropped. He looked as if his brain froze over. "Of course!"
"Of course what?"
"You're a genius, Odd," Jeremie said, looking ready to hug the other boy. "If I don't reset time, then everything that happens in the first attack still applies! And since the towers—the programming—the attack doesn't end until we enter the code! X.A.N.A. hasn't been launching separate attacks—it's just been waves!"
"You didn't think of that earlier?" Odd asked, not quite believing his ears. "I thought of it ages ago. But what does that mean? What are we going to do about the attacks?"
"What is the attack?" Jeremie straightened his glasses; they had gone askew when he had his moment of sudden revelation. "That's what I want to know."
Odd frowned. "But can't Aelita just reset time and finish the X.A.N.A. attacks?"
"The attacks start and finish pretty quickly," Jeremie pointed out. "Just a minute or two before stopping, so she doesn't have enough time to…" A sharp ring interrupted their conversation. Jeremie frowned and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He put the cell phone back in a moment later. "No one there. Strange."
Odd scooped the last bit of his butter pecan ice cream into his mouth. He could tell Einstein was incredibly frustrated and angry at not being able to solve the problem. He wished he could do something to make Jeremie loosen up, or lead Jeremie into a flash of brilliance, but they couldn't bounce ideas off of each other as well as, say, Jeremie and Aelita.
"So should we go to the factory?"
"I don't know… we can only use them once a day, and you can only get out of it by devirtualizing or when time resets. I'm not sure how you can devirtualize without monsters."
"Yumi once took Ulrich's sword and stabbed herself to death," Odd offered. "I could take an arrow and jam it into my eyeball!"
Jeremie frowned. "She did? I don't remember that."
"It was when X.A.N.A. materialized a crazy clone into the real world, remember?"
"Oh. Right. Now I remember," Jeremie said, his face turning bright red. He cleared his throat and attended to his melting vanilla ice cream. "Still, Ulrich won't be back until tomorrow. And you still have the Literature project to finish."
Jeremie chuckled. "You like procrastinating too much."
"It's not procrastinating!" Odd objected. "It's preparation time!"
"Stop trying to change the subject!" Odd said, jabbing his spoon at Jeremie's nose. "Are we going to Lyoko or not?"
Jeremie frowned, and then thought a little more. "We have to if we want to stop the attack, but we should wait until Ulrich arrives. I don't want to send you out alone when we don't have any back up."
To their surprise, Ulrich took the news well.
"Yumi's not here now."
"Oh, okay. I guess I can see her on Monday."
And that was it. They then spent the rest of the day trying to avoid sounding suspicious or alluding to any X.A.N.A. attacks.
"X.A.N.A. can't be responsible for everything," Jeremie said to Odd, sounding more like he was trying to convince himself than Odd.
"There's a X.A.N.A. attack?" Ulrich asked. Odd almost jumped out of his skin.
"Geeze, Ulrich!" he squawked. "Warn a guy before you sneak up on him!"
"Sorry," the German boy said, somewhat unapologetically. "But what's this about a X.A.N.A. attack?"
Odd glowered at Jeremie. "I thought you were going to tell Ulrich about it."
"Me?" Jeremie asked, baffled. "I thought you were!"
"Doesn't matter now, does it?" Ulrich said, calm and even as always. "I don't know either way, and now you have to tell me."
Jeremie looked ready to begin when a spasm contorted his face slightly; and then, without a warning, he toppled over on his side.
"Jeremie!" he cried out. He looked at Ulrich. "C'mon, we need to take him to the infirmary."
Ulrich nodded. "This might be a X.A.N.A. attack."
"But how?"Odd said, frustrated. "X.A.N.A. can't make Jeremie just… drop dead."
"He can make someone comatose via music, remember?" Ulrich shot back, and picked Jeremie's feet up. "So his attacks must be targeting… well, something."
Odd took Jeremie's shoulders, and the two brought their friend to the infirmary. Dorothy was understandably confused when they bolted and left the school at a breakneck speed. On the way to the sewers, they attempted to discuss what was X.A.N.A.'s plan, and what they could do to stop it.
"He must be channeling his powers through, I don't know… something Jeremie uses everyday. The computer, walkie-talkie…"
"'Walkie-talkie'?" Odd echoed, smirking.
"I'm trying, okay?" he snapped, and kicked the manhole lid off.
"Or maybe it's the radio—"
"Since when does X.A.N.A. try the same trick twice?"
"He learns from his mistakes, doesn't he?" he said. Skateboards in their hands, he and Ulrich zoomed through the sewer system. It was getting darker, and increasingly difficult to see. Odd almostwent over the edge of the sewers a few times."He might try to recycle some of his attacks, only new and improved."
Ulrich shrugged. "Well, without Jeremie we don't have much of a way to track X.A.N.A. down. And you still haven't told me what happened."
"And you won't have to," afamiliar voice said cockily."I'll tell you myself."
Odd stopped abruptly and almost fell on his face. Ulrich came a stop more gracefully, and jumped off his skateboard.
"Yumi!" shouted Ulrich. "What's going on?"
Yumi's clothes made it hard to see her, but Odd could see his friend silhouetted against a grate. Something didn't look right, though. She looked loose limbed, slouchy and weak; she was practically falling all over herself. Her hair fell into her face, and when she walked towards them her usual confident, long strides were spastic and stilted. It was like watching an amateur puppet master attempt to use a marionette.
"X.A.N.A.," she said simply. A familiar symbol burned red on her forehead. A chill crawled over Odd's body, like a bout of pins and needles. "He wants me to take you down, but I think you might be good for a little challenge!"
Her first move came fast—so fast that it took him and Ulrich by complete surprise. Yumi straightened up, and then with an inhuman strength, leaped over their heads. Odd spun around to face her, but quickly realized why Yumi jumped behind them; the grate poured some moonlight into the sewer, but behind them, it was almost completely dark.
"I know!" he shouted back. "I can't see her!"
"No, that's not what I—" Odd heard a blow—kick, punch, he couldn't tell—land on one of the fighters; a moment later, he heard Ulrich groan in pain.
"Ulrich!" Odd ran in the direction of his friend's groan and threw a wild punch at the air. "Where are you?"
"Over here—ow! Be careful!"
He heard a splash and a muffled yell. Feet were splashing in the water, and Ulrich was yelling again. Trusting his intuition (he wasn't sure why, that was usually Yumi's job), Odd jumped in the water. It was deep; he had to dog paddle to keep his head up.
"Come on, Odd, you can do this," he muttered. "Where are they?"
There! Small waves of water were splashing on his back! And the voices seemed to be coming from that direction, too. He swam as fast as he could. Ulrich's shouts were becoming weaker and weaker. Yumi was actually trying to kill Ulrich! The news rocked his world. Why? Yumi was normal when they left! It wasn't like her to switch teams. Her constitution and sense of duty was one of the strongest he knew of. It had to be a X.A.N.A. attack! That couldn't be the real Yumi.
'But if it looks like her...'
"It would be such a pity if you died," he heard Yumi sneer. He was close. He was very close. He heard feet on concrete, and something heavy being dragged on the ground. "I know you're there, Odd, in the water. I heard you coming from a mile off."
Well, there was no point in being subtle any more. "What did X.A.N.A. do to you?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean that this isn't you," Odd said, a pleading note in his voice. "This is X.A.N.A.'s fault. He must be controlling you." He made his way to a concrete bank, and dragged himself on the floor.
"I don't care. I don't remember going to Lyoko for the last few days." He could almost see her smile wickedly. "Guess I'm acting on my own free will!"
He heard footsteps running towards him. Odd tried blocking it, expecting a punch, only to receive a kick in the back of the knee. His knees buckled, and his jaw hit the ground hard. He rolled over. Through the dim light, he could see a boot two inches from his face.
Ulrich groaned. Light—sickly green—filtered through his hazy vision and pain centered around his jaw and stomach. His cheek was pressed against the concrete, and his arms and feet were firmly tied together with a coarse rope. For a moment, he thought he was being kept in jail, but when his brain and eyes finally started working at the same time, he quickly realized he was in a very familiar place.
The factory. The computer room, to be specific.
"You're awake." His heart leapt for a moment, but when Yumi crouched down to give him a bowl of water, the hope quickly fizzled out of existence. The X.A.N.A. symbol was on her forehead, and she looked as loose-limbed and marionette-like as she did last night. Her eyes were narrowed in an undeniable hatred, and her mouth was twisted in a dark sneer. "Hello, Ulrich."
"Yumi," he said, his own eyes narrowing. "What has X.A.N.A. done to you?"
She ignored the question and brought the bowl to his lips. "Drink."
"You can't be serious," he said. His words sounded a little thick and slurred, butthe ache in his tongue felt like a mosquito bite compared to his stomach. "First you attack me and now you're trying to force feed me?"
"You're dehydrated," she said coolly. "If you shrivel to death, X.A.N.A. will be upset."
Reluctantly, he tilted his head up to receive the water. Water sloshed and dribbled on the floor, and Ulrich quickly adjusted the position of his head. The water was frigid and tasted too much like chlorine for his taste, but it was water… and he was thirsty. When the bowl was half empty, she pulled the bowl from his lips.
"That's enough," she said. "Your friend will want something to drink, too."
So Odd was here. Ulrich sighed, and groaned again. X.A.N.A.—Yumi—X.A.N.A. controlled Yumi, whoever—gave him a good beating. He didn't even think it was possible for one person to move so quickly. Ulrich tried a few breathing exercises. He needed a plan. Unlike Jeremie, he felt no real burning desire to find out how this happened—all he was interested was getting out of the chains, getting in the scanners, and getting the tower deactivated.
X.A.N.A. had come close to beating them. X.A.N.A. had come very close. Jeremie used to complain that X.A.N.A. was a learning program; he learned from his mistakes, and learned how to work around them. Too bad X.A.N.A. didn't know that unless he had them all, there was no way for that overrated, giant hulking computer to win! Even if it meant going through Yumi. His heart ached at the thought, but he was good at pretending it wasn't there.
If he twisted his head around, he could see Yumi forcing the water in Odd's mouth. When she finished with him, the possessed girl went to the super computer, and sat at the seat. Her head hung forward slightly, but her eyes were as sharp as ever. She examined it for a moment.
"Now how to work this…"
She didn't know how to use it. Ulrich felt a little flutter of hope. Hopefully this would keep her distracted while he tried to form a plan... Whatever it would be.
'Jeremie will come,' Ulrich reprimanded himself sternly… unless X.A.N.A. got to Jeremie first.
As much as he hated to admit it, he enjoyed watching Yumi's face twist in frustration as she tried to figure out how to get through Jeremie's firewalls and passwords. He knew he could count on Jeremie for a lot of things, even when he wasn't there. Ulrich mentally thanked Jeremie, and inched a little closer to the pipes.
'C'mon, please be sharp.' Much to his aggravation, it was dull, but he could catch the ends of the pipe with the rope and loosen it up a little. Just a little.
"ARGH." Yumi was beginning to get angry, Ulrich noted. Scratch that; Yumi was furious. He couldn't help but feel a rush of pleasure at the fact. He realized quite a while ago this Yumi wasn't the one he met almost two years ago. Sure Yumi had her moments of anger and moodiness, but this Yumi seemed angry all the time, as if infected and diseased by her fury. She stormed over to him, the effect somewhat hindered by the sloppy, poorly controlled movements that only seemed well coordinated when she was fighting. "Tell me how to make this stupid thing access Lyoko!"
He shrugged making sure his face was carefully blank. "I don't know. If you want to figure out how it works, ask Jeremie. Didn't X.A.N.A. attack him, too?"
The Japanese girl's face twisted and contorted angrily several times before she answered. This time, her voice was joined by a grainer, mechanical voice. "Yes, but I haven't been able to wear down his defenses yet." She was breathing hard, but the anger seemed to be dissipating. A self-satisfied smile suddenly spread on her face, and Ulrich felt his stomach fall. "But don't worry. He'll be joining me shortly. It might be tomorrow, next week, or whenever, but he'll join me sooner or later." With a wild grin, she went back to figure out how to work the computer.
Raving. His friend—lover, girlfriend—was stark raving mad. He went back to trying to loosen the ropes. He kept a keen eye on Yumi, and occasionally chanced a glance at Odd. It was too risky to talk to him while Yumi was there.
Another hour seemed to lurch by. Her anger was roused quickly within, perhaps, the first half hour, and she was back to raging angrily, furiously, uncontrollably…
"I'm leaving!" she bellowed. "My parents will be expecting me home now. Have fun."
She stormed out of the factory. Ulrich let out a relieved breath.
"…what are we going to do?"
He and Odd exchanged escape plans (and Odd finally told him about the attacks), but at the top of their lists were getting free. Odd said he was making progress with twisting his way out, and for the sake of optimism, Ulrich said he was, too. Truthfully, he wasn't making much progress. It seemed like he was just making the same movements over and over and the pipe just kept getting blunter and blunter…
He could hear Odd snoring. At the top of his head, he guessed it was probably seven or eight o'clock, but boredom stretched time like a stringy rubber band. Finally, when his arms felt like lead from trying to loosen his ropes and his resolve had weakened, he allowed his eyes to flutter shut.
And he dreamed…
When they first met, she had long hair kept in a ponytail, and wore red. Lots and lots of red. Red shirts, red pants, red socks—Ulrich could've sworn he saw her wear red underwear once. It looked nice on her, but Ulrich had to admit it was an eyesore looking at so much red for a long time, although her new wardrobe made him think of blackholes. They barely knew each other; she was an upperclassman and they rarely saw each other in the halls. Ironically, a boy younger than them both was their mutual friend. Sometimes they would sit together with Jeremie, force some pleasantries with each other, and then split up to their respective classes. It was comfortable not knowing about Lyoko. It was comfortable not knowing about Lyoko or any of it. Aside from a nagging emptiness that told him to do something right with his life besides play soccer, he felt fine.
And then they found Lyoko. Or more accurately, she found the factory and dragged Jeremie and Ulrich over with her. Their first few transfers to Lyoko, originally known as Xanadu, were done manually and on average took ten minutes to go through the scanners. Jeremie operated from a separate room on the ground floor instead of the current computer room, and used to complain about the time. There were a few mistakes on the first few runs, but nothing horribly disabling. A few life points would be subtracted, or his sword wouldn't work all the time, or his super speed would fluctuate wildly, or Yumi's fan would come back with her to the real world—in a particularly memorable occasion, Yumi's telekinesis came back with her. She rarely used it, since she had to really focus to use it and, she admitted to him, it gave her migraines. Despite that, he caught her practicing with her pencil a few times.
They bonded over Lyoko, like soldiers over war. (Odd Della Robbia wasn't in the Paris area, and at times Ulrich missed the their pre-Odd group dynamics. And then he'd feel really, really guilty, because he really liked Odd.) They began meeting each other before and after school and those rare occasions when they had lunch together to discuss X.A.N.A.'s new plans and what they could do about it. And somehow, Yumi and Ulrich began talking to each other without Jeremie. It started with a bit of sparring. They both took karate when they were kids, although Ulrich had to drop out when he transferred to Cadic, and decided to compete against each other for kicks. He lost to her the first time—and the second, and the third, and the fourth, but got her on the fifth, sixth, and seventh.
"My mom says I used to have some real anger management problems when I was little," she said with a laugh after a session—maybe a year ago or so. He was spread eagled on the ground and felt a little dazed. She was good at throws, and had a love for perfecting her technique on him. "So she thought a bit of martial arts might help me control it."
"Yeah?" he said, sitting up. Yumi helped him up. "Well, looks like it worked."
They leaned forward and a X.A.N.A. sign flashed on her forehead. Her face twisted angrily, her hair fell in her face, and before she yelled, his world shook a few times.
Ulrich's eyes almost flew open. He looked around, half expecting to find Yumi, but instead saw a familiar face. "Jeremie?" Jeremie grinned at him. He looked tired, and one of his glasses lenses had cobweb like cracks, but he was there. Odd was behind him with a similar smile, despite the bruise on his left cheek. "How did you find us?"
"A hunch," said the blond genius simply. He and Odd began undoing the ropes. "I think I've figured out the X.A.N.A. attack."
"What is it?" he asked. Odd untied the rope on his hand, and shrugged.
"Don't know," said Odd. "Einstein wanted you up first."
Jeremie looked triumphant. "X.A.N.A.'s taken control of our cell phones."
"Yes," said the younger boy, "but this time he was using the cell phone as a temporary vessel. He'd then try to take over our bodies."
"But what about you?" Ulrich said, catching the flaw in his explanation. He prepared to fight. "How do we know X.A.N.A. isn't controlling you now?"
"Let me finish," Jeremie said, and rushed through the next part. "After taking over us, he'd manipulate our subconscious—or maybe the electrical impulses in our brain, I'm not too sure now. He would bring up our fears and weaknesses, and…"
They leaned forward expectantly.
"…I'm not too sure on the entire take over process," he admitted. "It was kind of hazy. I remember getting rather depressed, and then he let me go. But it explains the waves of attacks. He spent the first wave preparing for it, and every time we would get a call, he'd activate the tower and try to take over our brains."
Anger. The word popped out at him like a jack-in-the-box.
"Of course!" Ulrich said, jumping up and almost toppling over; Jeremie hadn't quite finished untying the ropes. "Odd, remember how angry Yumi was?"
"Do you think I could forget? She was psychotic!"
"I think…" Ulrich paused to try to collect his thoughts. "I think he was trying to 'awaken' our… well, darker side. Or at least try to give us a personality disorder or something. Maybe—he was trying to bring those feelings up so we'd be weakened and he'd be able to control us."
Jeremie nodded. "And I guess it partially explains why he left me alone. I guess I was too depressed to really do anything."
"But if you were too depressed to operate the scanners, then we wouldn't be able to go to Lyoko," Odd said. "Why did he just… go?"
"Maybe he wanted us to turn against each other."
"Or maybe he got careless," Jeremie said. "He can make mistakes, after all. Anyway, Aelita says that X.A.N.A.'s launched another attack. She's been feeling pulsations in the polar region for the last few hours."
"Then let's go," Odd said cheerfully. "Nothing like a romp in Lyoko to make a guy come to his senses."
Ulrich shook his head. How could Odd actually enjoy the battles in Lyoko? Jeremie was already heading to his chair, and Odd was running to the elevator.
He kicked the ropes from his feet. "Yeah. Let's go."
He felt a little off balance from sitting so long, but by the time he got to the scanners, he learned to ignore it.
"Transfer… Odd… Transfer… Ulrich.
The polar region was Ulrich's least favorite region. Aside from being stuck in a permanent twilight, and the ice made it difficult to remain upright and land correctly—demonstrated today when he was virtualized into Lyoko. When he landed, he slipped on the ice and landed on his tailbone.
"Everything all right?" Jeremie asked from the real world. Odd laughed and answered for him.
"Ulrich just had a rough landing."
"Well, be careful where you place your feet. Ulrich, Odd, go south. Aelita should meet you there."
They complied, slipping and skidding on the way. It took a while, but soon Aelita's pink hair came in view. They came to an awkward halt.
"Odd! Ulrich!" she said with a smile. "It's been a while since the last X.A.N.A. attack, hasn't it?"
"It has," he agreed. "Although no offense to you, Aelita, but I'd rather have less X.A.N.A. attacks than more."
"I don't mind," Odd said.
"None taken, Ulrich," she said. "But we haven't talked to each other outside of Lyoko, either. Have you been busy?"
"Ahem." The Lyoko warriors stopped talking. "As much as I hate to interrupt your reunion, there's a X.A.N.A. attack we need to attend to. Move it!"
"Well, that shouldn't be too hard," Odd said with a wild laugh. "C'mon, let's go!"
The pulsations vibrated under his feet and made the run to the tower a little shaky. The eastbound path they were taking was narrow and rickety, and they ran in a single file, Odd in front and Aelita between them. Conversation was kept short, in fear that they might lose focus and slip. It was a long run, and boredom quickly settled in his mind again.
"Jeremie, how long have we been running?" Odd complained, voicing his thoughts. Jeremie seemed to give a mental shrug.
"About half an hour," said Jeremie, also sounding bored. "The tower is only a short run from your current location."
"Maybe this is the next X.A.N.A. attack," Ulrich said wryly. "Trying to bore us to death or make us collapse from exhaustion from running."
"It's a possibility," Aelita said. "Although I don't think even X.A.N.A. could be that cruel."
"Well, keep running, you guys. You're almost there."
Ulrich groaned slightly.
"Is there something wrong, Ulrich?" Aelita asked gently.
"…I'm… really bored," he admitted, feeling silly. "Thanks for the concern."
He could almost see her smiling at him. "You won't be for long. I can see the activated tower."
And then, almost on cue, a laser zoomed over Odd's head.
"And I can see the crabs!" the cat-like boy quipped, jumping ahead of them. "Laser arrow!"
Another laser went off, and Aelita managed a very narrow dodge; it hit Ulrich instead. He bent over, gritting his teeth. The lasers actually hurt. Ulrich was never sure why, but getting hit was extremely painful. "Aelita, get behind me!"
In front of him, he could see Odd making quick work of a crab. Straightening up, he and Aelita managed to awkwardly switch places. It was then Ulrich noticed another problem. His sword was only good for melee combat, and Odd was still in front of him. The only thing he could do now was block lasers from hitting Aelita.
He jumped on one of the floating chunks of ice off the path, just to experiment. It sunk quickly, but his speed on Lyoko was unmatched. His feet ghosted from one sheet of ice to another. By the time one fell into the water, he was already five steps ahead. Odd just got hit again—Jeremie just announced Odd only had sixty life points—and now! Ulrich leaped off of an ice block and onto a crab. He raised his sword, and brought it straight down on the X.A.N.A. symbol.
Uh-oh. He couldn't get the sword out. The crab exploded violently, and Ulrich received the brunt of the blast.
"You're down to forty life points, Ulrich! Be more careful!"
"I'm trying," he said, his pride injured. He looked around for his sword. "Where's the next…?"
The crab answered the question by shooting him in the back. Flat on the ground again, he saw Odd leap over him.
The path was clear now. Aelita gave them a brief, passing smile before entering the tower.
"You know, Ulrich, normally it's my job to be the reckless one," Odd remarked, offering a hand. Grudgingly, Ulrich took it.
"I thought you might need a break from the job."
"Either way, you two," Jeremie's voice said, booming down on them like a god's, "I hope you're ready for the return trip to the past. We're going back to Monday night. Hope you're ready. And maybe Odd will actually finish his literature project this time around."
"Return to the past now!"
Monday—7 Days Ago
Jeremie felt the familiar rush induced by the return trip. It was like compressing a roller coaster ride in about ten seconds, and left him breathless and shell shocked for a few minutes. When he opened his eyes, he was in his aunt and uncle'shome in guestroom was neatly made, and his teddy bear was face down on the floor. He checked the clock; eleven-fifteen at night.
"Not too early," he said with a smirk. He picked up his laptop and earpiece, and turned it on. "Aelita? Are you awake?"
It took a moment for her face to appear in the green background, but when she did, he felt his stomach flutter a little. "Hello, Jeremie. Aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"
"Well, I just got back from the past," he said. "So I think I can afford to stay up for a few more hours. I'm going to continue working on the antivirus."
"I see. Do you want my help?"
"I've always needed it," he said sincerely. "but that X.A.N.A. attack… it made me realize how much X.A.N.A. wants to win… and how far he might take it."
"X.A.N.A. is a learning program, Jeremie. It's only natural that he will continue to develop."
"Still…" he sighed. "I'm beginning to feel like X.A.N.A. might become too powerful for us to beat one day. Look at what he did to Yumi—possessed her, turned her against Odd and Ulrich… if X.A.N.A. didn't lose interest in me, I don't think much would have stopped him from deleting you from Lyoko. Odd and Yumi and Ulrich are all getting better at fighting on Lyoko, but X.A.N.A. learns faster than all of us combined… and the time when he might one day beat us for good is coming. That's why I need to keep working on this antivirus and shut him down once and for all."
Aelita looked concerned. "Jeremie, the fate of the world doesn't rest on your shoulders. Your friends are there to share your burden… including me. We're always here for you to talk to."
"I hope so." Jeremie suddenly felt closer to forty years old than thirteen. "The antivirus program is going well, but it's still a long way from being finished. Let's work."
It would figure that history would repeat itself. Yumi Ishiyama was once again in the bookstore and bored out of her mind. This time she left her cell phone at home. The sky was cloudy and grey today, and if she recalled correctly, it would rain this afternoon. The kids from the college seemed to be listening to the weather report, too, and there were fewer of them lurking in the center. She sighed, and the sigh turned into a moan of despair as the rain kicked in. She should've brought an umbrella with her.
'Well, I can always call my parents for a ride.' But calling wasn't an option. She didn't bring her cell phone with her, and besides she wanted to stay far, far away from the mobiles for another few days. It looked like she would have to wait here for another few hours, or hope she wouldn't get pneumonia from walking in the rain. Yumi wandered into the heart of the bookstore, and picked up a random book from the best sellers shelf. A friend from class loaned it to her once. It was an okay book, although insufferably dull.
She dropped the book, and turned around. Ulrich, with an umbrella, was waiting for her.
"Ulrich?" she said incredulously. "I thought you were supposed to be in Germany with your father!"
He gave her a small smile, and picked the book up for her. "I told him he should use the second ticket to my mom this morning. Besides, there's still three more days until Jeremie comes back. What if X.A.N.A. strikes again?"
Her mood suddenly fell. "Well, I hope he doesn't."
He seemed to analyze her for a moment, and gave a slight sigh of his own. "Sorry about that."
Yumi shrugged. "It's not your fault. I dropped the book."
"No, I mean leaving you alone to face X.A.N.A." He turned a little red. "I mean, if I were there…"
"You couldn't have stopped it," she said, feeling uncomfortable. "I don't blame you for it. I mean, it was just an invasion of privacy."
He looked somewhat sympathetic. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Maybe. Do you want to listen to me?" she asked. "I might bore you to death."
"You're never boring," he said quickly. "Not to me."
She smiled. "Let's go to my place."
They exited the bookstore. Ulrich's green umbrella covered them both… and slowly, she told him what happened.
"I don't really remember what happened," she admitted. "I mean, one moment I was talking to Jeremie, and the next moment I blacked out. Then I woke up in my room. Everything seemed fine for a few hours, but the next thing I knew, I blacked out all over again. It was different from the first time, though… I could actually feel X.A.N.A. in my head. I tried to force him out, but he kept bringing up… well," she glanced at him. Ulrich's expression was neutral and receptive. "He kept bringing up things that made me angry. You know… Aelita being deleted, Odd in the coma, Jeremie's smashed computer, you and Sissy… you and Sissy kissing—"
"We never kissed," Ulrich protested.
"Odd told me," she said. "And Sissy told me a few times, too."
"Great…" he grumbled. "I'm going to kill both of them." They smirked. "So is that it?"
She nodded. "X.A.N.A. just made me so angry. The anger just sort of blotted my senses and then I was on a rampage. I don't really remember much after that," she lied. She remembered it too vividly—the irrational anger, the temper tantrum, the need to just break something, her foot coming down on Odd's face…
Ulrich nodded. "It must've been pretty scary."
She shrugged. "Not really. I knew that we'd pull through. And I'm really sorry for attacking you."
"Well, it wasn't really you."
"…it felt like it."
The rain continued pouring.
"Do you think it'll ever end?" Ulrich asked, abruptly changing the subject. She didn't bother asking if he was talking about the rain or Lyoko.
"I hope so," she said. "But sometimes it seems pretty hopeless."
"Sometimes I don't really want it to end." Yumi looked at him, startled. "I mean, I found a purpose in Lyoko. I have a reason for living: to make the world a safe place. A world without danger." He smiled bitterly. "What are we without Lyoko, huh? Just kids."
She considered his words carefully. "I think you're trying too hard to make something out of yourself." He opened his mouth to protest. "I mean, did you hear yourself? Besides, after we shut down X.A.N.A., it means we've fulfilled our duty."
"Yeah, but then what?"
She bit her lip. "I don't know. We could join the police or become detectives or law enforcers."
"Maybe another evil will strike. We'll have to protect the world all over again."
"Do you really want that, though?" she asked. "Fighting all the time, always worrying about the next attack…"
"No, but…" His fists clenched. "I want a purpose. A reason for existing."
"Well, think about how Aelita must feel," she said. "She was made specifically to guide us through Lyoko. And when we shut it down, her home will be gone… and she can't stay in my house forever."
Speaking of home… Yumi pulled her keys from her pocket and opened the front door. Ulrich shook water off his umbrella.
"Yeah, that's a problem," he said. "We'll have to enroll her in school or something."
"'Or something'?" she asked.
"I'm down on ideas right now."
"Figures." She glanced at the clock. "You don't have to go back to school in a few more hours. Want to watch a movie? We have popcorn."
"I'd like that," he said, and they headed for the kitchen.
"We're going back to school tomorrow," Odd said with a sigh. "And I still haven't finished my report."
They all agreed that they needed an ice cream break, but the problem was finding the right time. Jeremieworked on the virus with a fanatical obsession that let him get no sleep for forty hours at a time, and Yumi's parents had scheduled a few imprompturendezvouses with family friends on Thursday night. It was only today that they all managed to meet together and meet in the Cadic dorms.
"Explains the butter pecan," Ulrich said sarcastically, French vanilla ice cream cone in hand. "I don't get how you can have better grades then me when you don't do half the work I do."
Odd grinned. "Just because you spend a lot of time on it doesn't mean you do it well."
"Anyway," Jeremie interrupted, enjoying his mint chocolate chip ice cream, "I was looking at some pictures that we took before you arrived, Odd. And… well…" He pressed a few buttons, and a picture of Yumi, Jeremie, and Ulrich appeared on the screen. They were sitting on 'their' bench. "You can tell we've changed a bit, huh?"
Odd inspected the picture closely. "Ulrich grew out his hair," he observed, and then smirked. "Yumi cut hers and got a new wardrobe! A matching set!" Yumi scowled at Odd. "And look, Jeremie! You've gotten even smaller!"
Jeremie looked indignant. "Just because they grew taller faster than I did doesn't mean I shrunk. It defies logic. I don't even have early onset osteoporosis." Odd cackled, but quickly sobered.
"When was this picture taken?"
Jeremie looked thoughtful. Yumi quickly answered for him. "About a year and a half ago."
"Wow," Odd said. "That's a long time to be fighting X.A.N.A. Does it ever end?"
"It will one day," Aelita said confidently, appearing on the screen so suddenly that Ulrich almost dropped his cone. "I have faith in our abilities."
"Well, c'mon, Einstein. Do you have any more embarrassing pictures or…?"
"Odd, stop being so interfering!"
"It's not my fault! I'm just naturally curious!"
"You know what they say, Odd: curiosity killed the cat."
"And his little dog too."
"Don't touch Kiwi, he hasn't done anything!"
"Nothing except slobber all over my bed…"
"It's not his fault!"
The humans were surprisingly resilient. It had been a year and eight months since they first activated him, and all the subjects were alive. In fact, they had increased in number. monthswas the longest any of his experiments had run, despite the relatively small number of teammates. He wasn't sure why they continued to live on, despite his increasingly difficult obstacles, but more tests would surely tell him. All the others failed in time. This group was surely no different.
Time was running out.
It was only a matter of time until their final confrontation.