Ah, just the distraction I need, thought Ulrich as he quietly, eagerly slipped his phone from his pocket, a good guess who and for what was calling. “Ulrich, it’s Jeremie” Yes, “Come to the factory right after school, as soon as possible...wake Odd up for me”.
“Who’s there?” Dripping in the tunnel from the damp, curved stone continued on in ambiance. Not having to rush from daily danger of X.A.N.A., and knowing he’d have to wait anyway because of Odd’s ability to sleep through the whole physics class had netted him an hour of detention, Ulrich had been able to walk the secret passage to the factory...it had also allowed him to hear the rhythmic splashing behind him.
“...I know what you thinking about” bounced a voice in front him. Straining his ears and eyes, Ulrich quickly turned on the soles of his feet, hands forward in an instinctive reaction for defense, though no one was there, a voice was definitively heard, “I know why your thinking this...I’m pretty sure I even know how the two are related” sequestered the bodiless sound, reverberating off the walls in an endless cycle.
Then as the last words had faded away to a repeating whisper, another sentence overrode it, strong and without echo from behind him, right behind him. Spinning, Ulrich saw a face inches from his body and immediately jumped back an inch.
His face still in darkness, the stranger stepped forward a few steps to show a grinning smile and black short hair straight down a jean jacket covering a black cotton long-sleeved shirt with a thumbhole in either sleeve-end...tattered overly-long jean pants, hole-filled.
“...you’re the Goth...” stated Ulrich dully, the shock wearing off just after his sentence, the stranger grinned even wide, “I fear your ability of observation. Oh woe is to the man of no sight for you are a true foe, though I do commend you guessing correctly so soon. I had hoped that disguise of mine would have worked better but then again, you dear old Jim caught me coming back from...a dorm...that wasn‘t mine...so I would have had to abandon it anyway”.
“Hey!” shouted Ulrich, anger coming from multiple places as he swung a simple, quick roundhouse kick through thin air where once was the unknown man, “Huh?” breathed Ulrich, staring much more intently at the stranger now on the opposite side of the sewer.
Turning his stance he asked frustrated and confused, “How did you did you pull that one off?”, curiosity creeping beneath Ulrich’s angry tone. “Good question”, replied the stranger, not breaking his eager constant tone, “It’s a deal, I’ll answer your question once you answer mine”. Pacing the sewer side several times in thought, he continued, “Like I said before, I know you’re thinking about Umi and I know how she and Lyoko became combined, but what I want to know is why Lyoko is still a factor?”
“What?” asked Ulrich, very confused,
“Well X.A.N.A.’s gone, was gone” the stranger conceded, “Yeah, till you let him free!” shouted Ulrich, pointing his finger towards the guilty. He raised his hands in mock plea, “Touché, but in all fairness that was only because you, personally stopped me halfway through my plans”.
“Wrong, mystery man, X.AN.A.’s free just like before, because of you!”
The stranger sighed, placing his hands over his eyes, “Such a short-seeing mind...I didn’t fre- oh…oh your more clever than you realize, you ask one question yet already I have answered two. Now it’s time for you to earn your side of the deal...” replied the loquacious stranger, turning a slight angle away.
Reversing the degrees of both the situation’s levity and the direction in which his eyes were focused, he stared straight into Ulrich’s eyes uncomfortably stony as he spoke, now in a slower, pronounced speech, “If you could hold in your hands a world without X.A.N.A., with Umi and your friends…would you take it?”
Ulrich dropped his gaze, only half-pondering the question as he faltered in the unexpected question, “Stare at me Ulrich, pay attention here, the jokes have stopped, it’s go time and I need an answer”.
At this, he immediately looked up, feeling indignant, returned just as powerful a gaze, “Y-Yeah, I would!”.
The stranger smiled, breaking eye-level and scanning the section of pipe toward Lyoko as he continued, “Good, that was the trial program, now here’s the full version; If you could have Umi and a world where X.A.N.A. was nonexistent, along with your friends and Aelita as real as you and…Odd,” Looking back, the stare the stranger now held made Ulrich’s skin crawl, “Would you give up Lyoko? If your friends could live in forever happiness and Aelita free of her chain would you forget the words Code: Earth? Forget a certain factory outside of school distance held more than meets the eye? If you could win the war, would you renounce the other world you fought in?...before one of you die there?
Ulrich found himself unable to meet the eyes of the stranger, his resolve wasn’t there anymore. The suddenly, for no reason he felt strong, he was mad…really damn mad! “No…” he replied ominously, through half-slitted eyes.
The stranger stared in shock, “No?...No! Why no!!!...I-Damnit!” and was gone without answering Ulrich’s question who had the rapidly growing feeling that he should have said yes, that strong feeling wasn’t there anymore…he was tired.
“What happened Ulrich?, you said you’d be right here…get lost?” asked Jeremie with an attempt at joking. “Ahhhh, I, uh…I tried waiting up for Odd, but he’s got like a half-hour more of detention still…so, so what did you find out about our stranger?” replied Ulrich switching the topic as quietly as possible.
Typing a command into the screen, Jeremie continued oblvious, “Actually…it’s more what I haven’t translated than what I have that intrigues me” he answered back paced. Ulrich returned an amused stare, “That’s dangerously close to geek talk Jeremie…you know Aelita and you can understand that…actually, where is Aelita?...and Umi?
Jeremie swiveled his chair ‘round, facing Ulrich as the pc behind him loaded a program, “Aelita wanted to ask Ms. Kim about taking a college course in Physics and Advanced Biometrics and Umi stayed with her just in case, you know”
“Yeah…I-you were saying about our mystery man?” replied Ulrich, changing the subject once again. “Right” quipped Jeremie, turning back around, “Well mainly, what I mean about our adversary is that his bio is so close yet so far away...look” demonstrated Jeremie, pulling up a small card shaped avatar showing a familiar face to Ulrich though his face held two red eyes instead of the blue-gray before. “Not only was his information hidden in some deep subfolder and encrypted so securely and well-checked that bordered paranoia, but the bio itself is in several different languages”
“Yes, I’m unsure as to exactly which languages they are for the most part, but the first is definitely Russian and you see about one third down there’s even a small space and the rest flows more efficiently like Italian or latin. Near the bottom, there seems ot be a footnote in just some random cipher, like a last-minute note about something, just gibberish to me till I figure what the words before it say…’course, I can’t really just send it to someone, for all we know it could spell out the basics of Lyoko in there” finished Jeremie, leaning back in his chair.
“Yeah…” replied Ulrich methodically, half-listening.
“Well, if you both could strive to look beyond past… ‘events’ and accept an impromptu truce. I think I could help shed a few details on this seemingly unnecessary mystery” interrupted Luke coyly, face slightly flush, “Name’s Zeratul Luke, at your service for as long as our interests coincide”.
“Hey!” cried Ulrich, putting his hands up,
“Relax, not here to pull a sneak attack or nothing, I’m just here to try and make a deal…I vaguely hinted before-hand Ulrich”. Luke replied stopping just out of the shadows.
“You got my answer then, it hasn’t changed”
“Look I ju-“
“We got X.A.N.A!” cried Jeremie, noticing the electric warning from the corner of his eye. Waving his arm to Ulrich, who picked up the signal and dashed to the elevator, pushing past Zeratul with a short glare. Typing furiously, Jeremie stole a glance towards Zeratul, “Look, I don’t know how you know about all this, but just stay put okay? I’ll fix this all after we shut-down X.A.N.A.”
“Without Aelita, Jeremie?” he replied through a smirk.
Jeremie’s fingers slipped and crumpled upon the keys of his board as he spun his chair an about-face to a blank, empty wall…and possibly an echoing laugh.
By the time Ulrich had made down to the scanners, Jeremie had asked if he’d seen Zeratul down there, no he hadn’t, he hadn’t seen him in the elevator at all and after an awkward silence told Ulrich to find the tower and keep X.A.N.A. busy till Aelita got there with Umi.
By the time Ulrich’s other self had fully materialized, he’d gone through pretty much every action possible of him (and just a few beyond human limits) relating to the situation and had come up with the same answer each time: not much. His job, more or less, was find the tower X.A.N A. activated, then play tag with X.A.N.A. till Jeremie could find Aelita (not that he had any better luck finding Zeratul who was playing hide-and-seek since before).
But Umi wasn’t answering her phone and about five minutes less, the ringing stopped, replaced with a tone and tinny message of mechanical error in the Kadic Area and then that stopped three minutes later. The same amount of time brought Ulrich to the Ice Area three hundred feet from a redly-glowing pillar of white. Three hundred…might as well be three hundred miles without Aelita. “So uhhh, tell me again Jeremie, um…what do I do?” asked Ulrich pacing a slow circle about three different paths.
“Just find the activated tower! I’m still trying to contact Aelita!”
“I’m sending your cycle, the signal is coming from the east so take the left path”.
Not much, though Ulrich sighing, man… that psycho’s offer sounds pretty good right about now.
“Sooo, we meet at last on…’fairer’ grounds of battle Ulrich” replied Zeratul, pacing slowly in a narrow arc, within striking distance of Ulrich’s sword that wavered marginally in wind that swept both his hair and Zeratul’s long black oilskin robe. “You were just one of X.A.N.A.’s ploy’s weren’t you? No one else knows of Lyoko, enough to virtualize themselves that’s for sure…this ends now, machine”.
Tears spilled in two small strands down Zeratul’s face as his hands semi-wrapped in his sleeved shirt grasped a handle to a blade still forming itself via small coalescing squares behind his back.
It was placed in front of him, one-handed, a black long-sword blade aimed lazily at Ulrich’s heart, “The saddest thing in the world is that I can’t dispute what you say…or agree with…” Zeratul replied with a hushed step forward, beginning something that if remembered to this day by all witness would change much that now was.
Sword against soul, life against resignation, the two exchanged blows as if already knowing each other’s heart…later, Jeremie would be overheard saying how that was the first time he’d doubted the human fraility of both Zeratul and Ulrich, for the fight seemed to disprove either of being truly human, more machine than man to fight that fast for that long…and neither landing a blow.
Then with a swing, it lay broken and over, Ulrich’s handle flying from his hand as his other desperately clung to the slippery side of the ice that Zeratul looked down from without a change of expression.
“It shouldn’t have been this way, Ulrich…I-I fucked up” he shouted dully over soaring winds and loud cracks that spilled across the small island holding the tower.
Zeratul effortlessly cocked his head to the sounds, staring at the tower as short arcs of lighting danced effortfully across the surface. “It won’t be long now…he’s drawn in enough energy to give a shot at it at least” he continued haughtily, “That’s why you aren’t getting any calls from them Jeremie!” he shouted louder. “You won’t get calls, lights’ill go out soon……hell, you may even lose power to the scanners at some point, doesn’t matter. He’s as scared as a program can get right now and feelin’ seriously short on time”.
Zeratul crouched down at the edge as he stared at Ulrich’s hand slowly run out of grabbing surface, “I tried Ulrich…God, how I tried to give you a choice in the matter, but now you’ve no choice left, no time left so…listen…closely”.
Zeratul hissed the sentence’s ending, drawing Ulrich’s attention to solely him and closed his eyes for his next words, “It’s simple: Your fall…or you leave, one way or another your leaving Lyoko and I’m getting’ X.ANA…but one way leaves Lyoko with your life, don’t be proud here. You got friends and family to think about…you don’t have the luxury, you’ve lost here Ulrich…just go home”
It was at this point that Ulrich, frenzically searching for a better grip, decided for no understandable reason to contemplate why didn’t he want to leave Lyoko forever, he wastired of coming here…of risking his life and his friends almost everyday over something that could end today, right?
“I need an answer Ulrich, your hand isn’t going to hold much longer here” said Zeratul over wind and quaking ground.
Ulrich saw his hand slip closer to the edge, two more inches at best before he fell, Why did he care!? Zeratul could have Lyoko, he was tired! Tired of fighting, lying to his parents, of thinking today might be the last day and the cold sinking feeling that that feeling no longer shocked him like it should, he was tired of this whole fake goddamn world!...right!?One and a half inches…”I…need…an…answer, Ulrich!”
One inch left…“Ulrich, answer me, damnit!”
Then what was it!?!? What was he felt every time he thought about never seeing Lyoko again, pain? Regret?...anger?...I feel…angry…whenever I think that…angry?
I…feel angry when I think of this place run by this bastard, that it?...Lyoko gave us Aelita, a chance to fight for the world we care about and live in, a whole ‘nother world of wonder and adventure…our lives were forever changed by it and for the better…ar-aren’t I forsaking all that and everything we fought for till now by leaving? All the scares, the near-death experiences, the lies and stress…all of it would be for nothing and yeah there’d be more, but…I, we’ve come this far…we have to finish this, our fight, we started it…we need to finish it…right?
Half a inch left…“Why Ulrich! Why won’t you leave!!! Why won’t you just go home and forget!?!? What does this mean to you!?!? WHY DO YOU CARE!!!”
“I CARE BECAUE YOU DON’T!!! BECAUSE WE ALL CARE ABOUT LYOKO NOT JUST EARTH!!!” Shouted Ulrich, his head barely above the icy edge.
“You don’t care about Lyoko, you don’t care about Earth! You just want to defeat XANA and then forget about Lyoko!...No matter how long Aelita lives with us Lyoko will be her home and we’ve fought here for so long well…it’s ours too! This is our responsibility, our fight because we chose this fight, because we didn’t fight for a whole year to lose Lyoko just because your plan is safer! Faster!
…and…AND WE’LL FIGHT TO KEEP LYOKO FROM PEOPLE LIKE YOU! FROM XANA! FROM ME!!!” screamed Ulrich out of control, slamming down the ice with his hand, cracks connected and his half-inch ran out on him as he plummeted like a rock, fragments of ice around his head, the island became smaller and smaller…
Being devirtualized felt like…nothing. Like you were floating underwater without a single muscle moving, just slowly rotating in a calm, viscous liquid that comforted one having nothing…on…his chest…
…it also was taking a lot more time than Ulrich had seen it take with XANA’s creatures. Opening his eyes, he saw himself frozen under the edge of the floating tower, arcs of lighting stopped in motion mid-zap.
Staring down at him was Zeratul, standing straight with his hand out, his face slightly flush, “Well, you passed with high grades, though you lost some for grace…you gotta a knack for timing, I’ll give ya that” “Wha-I…what!?”
“Hmph, It was a test, the whole…‘Lyoko or life’ thing. I needed to know how far you were ready to go and kinda remind why you started this in the whole place. I could tell from talking to you before you were questioning that…’course, visiting the factory at night for a week in a row says something to” replied Zeratul, grabbing Ulrich’s arm, pulling him up over the edge where he laid on his knees and hands. “…test?”
“Yeah, sorry, no hard feelings?”
Ulrich looked up at Zeratul’s face, seeing behind him chunks of ice behind him motionless, “What…happened?”
“I’ve frozen Lyoko for the moment, meh...trick of the trade that’s always useful when your short on time. Actually on a side-note, it’s a good thing you pulled through in the end and all that as he was planning to literally short-fuse the tower with too much energy and try breaking through…probably wouldn’t have worked, but it sure a s hell would have blown the mainframe in the factory…you saved both Aelita’s and Jeremie’s lives…and your own”
“Yeah, relax…I got one more trick up my sleeve” replied Zeratul, his face redder, sweat slightly apparent as he walked over to the tower, clasping his hands across it. “RETURN TO THE PAST!!!” he shouted, white light enveloping Ulrich before he could ask why.
Opening his eyes yet again, Ulrich saw the entire gang looking down at him, ”What happened?”
“Sorry to say I don’t have the processing power of the Lyoko mainframe” answered Zeratul, slumped against the wall, looking very pale, “I can push back time with the tower deactivated like it can, but decidedly less smooth and nowhere near a whole day like it can…and it hurts, takes a lot out of me to do it…yeah”.
Ulrich pushed off the ground, fighting the darkening vision, stood up straight, looking down at Zeratul,’I think its time you told us who you are, who you really are ad how you know about Lyoko”.
Zeratul weakly laughed, “Your absolutely right, and I will…after I nap” he replied, falling to the floor unconscious, a small line of black liquid flowing from his mouth.