Gakk (played by Sam) walked down the halls of the office 23 building toward one of the secured cells. For 6 months, Gakk had fought mercilessly for Sure Fire, rising in its ranks to become a member of Sudo Refresh. She was almost as trusted as Riful. Originally fighting for the Kirin, Gakk had burned all her bridges with them, leaving not a trace of doubt that she had defected to the winning side for personal gain. Now she was one of 5 people who knew that Zero was in that exact building. She also knew that Sure Fire was about to win a major victory in Neo-Kyoto, even with the Deep One's interference.
Gakk's expertly masked power level gave no warning to the guards in the hall, before she simultaneously shot them all down. She used an explosive to break a crack into the cell. Breaking in was difficult, but much less difficult than breaking out. The cell was empty. The other 3 cells began moving to random locations within the building, but Gakk had put tracers on them, and soon found a second cell. This time she got lucky and peered into the cell at Zero. Zero turned his head toward the crack and stared at her.
Zero stood quickly and ran through the crack. He grabbed one of the fallen guard's guns and followed Gakk. Gakk, upon confirming that he was truly Zero, initiated a virus she had installed a day earlier into the building's security systems and guard bots, causing an information blackout and bot revolt. In seconds, the building fell to disarray as bots shot at everything that moved, including Zero and Gakk. Putting exceptions for herself or Zero into the virus would have made things easier for them, but would have been considerably more difficult to program, and also would have immediately implicated her if it had been discovered.
Riful was dealing with the insurgency in the South when the alarms started going off. He returned as quickly as possible to assess the situation.
Crenshaw moved to a player heavy area of the building while they tried to figure out what had happened. The little bit of information Crenshaw had access to indicated that Gakk was responsible, but that didn't do him much good with the scrambling of communications throughout the building. There was a looped feed appearing to come from his official channel commanding the defense of the first level from a Kirin attack. This ruse had diverted many of the human players to the first floor, allowing the bots to entrench themselves on higher floors of the building. Crenshaw was impressed, but too pissed to outwardly show much appreciation for Gakk's attention to detail.
Zero and Gakk made their way up through the building, fighting floor by floor, evading trouble wherever possible. After a few floors, a watch formed out of Zero's wrist upon detecting some random feeds from outside of the building. He fiddled with it as he ran, attempting to activate its tracking mechanism, but it was blocked by the building's shielding. Every time there was a break in the action, he attempted to activate it again.
Gakk did the majority of the fighting, but Zero proved capable enough of defending himself. Gakk attempted to soak up as much of the damage as she could, but Zero ended up getting hit a few times, and healed almost instantly after each.
Gakk didn't have a chance to inquire further before noticing a group of powerful players fighting bots down the hall ahead. She tossed the last of her explosives down the hall and narrowly diverted herself and Zero into a room before the hall exploded and collapsed. Then they climbed up through a hole in the ceiling and hid in a mostly collapsed room. Sensing too many powerful proxies nearby, Gakk and Zero waited.
Soon they were moving again, and Zero seemed to be having the time of his life, grinning broadly as they shot their way to freedom. But it wasn't long until Gakk had taken fatal damage. In the seconds they had left, she transferred what was left of her energy shield to him and ran as a decoy, drawing off several bots and clearing his path.
A few seconds later, Gakk sent a message to Zero from outside of the game.
Zero's face dropped on hearing this. He started blasting through walls using a power he had not displayed before. He went in as straight a line as he could until he saw a wall on his right with sunshine coming through bullet holes. Figuring that a wall leading outside would be reinforced, Zero grabbed the remains of a bot and pumped his energy into its main capacitor, turning it into an explosive. He sensed a powerful player coming up behind him at that moment and put his back against the wall, using the robot as a shield.
Riful had finally caught up with Zero, after burning through a host of bots while following numerous false leads. Riful blasted Zero's bot shield, causing it to explode. The explosion launched Zero through the wall and slammed him hard against the building across the street. His shield protected him from most of the force, but it still messed him up badly enough to kill a normal proxy. Zero ragdolled in free fall as Riful took a running jump out of the building after him. It took Zero 8 seconds to plummet 30 stories to the ground. In that time, Zero's communicator wristband finally connected to his mech. Before he could use it, Riful hit him with a powerful blast, though much of it rebounded from Zero's shield back onto Riful. 2 seconds later, with well trained speed and accuracy, Riful managed to get off two high intensity shots that penetrated Zero's shields, gashing open his chest and severing his left arm, with the communicator, from his body.
Just before he hit the ground, Riful extracted his mech from his proxy with the intent that it would catch him as they both hit the ground, but his timing was off and he hit the ground next to it. Though it was rapidly regenerating, Zero's body was badly broken. Zero grabbed his left arm, which had fallen near him, and activated his communicator as the arm knitted itself back onto his body. He began yelling with panicked agony into his wristband and managed to croak out one decipherable word.
Riful stood, borrowed some quick power from his mech, and shot Zero over and over again into a scorched, bloody pulp. He entered into his mech and used his plasma torch on what was left of Zero. But Zero's body kept regenerating, and Riful couldn't scratch his communicator, which was now sending off a wide ranging distress call.
A distress call from a Pandemonium ensured that, no matter how fortified, the area was about to go straight to hell, and so Riful scooped up Zero's body and brought it back inside the building. He placed it inside a new containment cell and had it ferried away to a safer position.
Pawn was conflicted about whether the presence of Zero was enough to warrant a full attack.
A few Kirin units hiding in the area hurried to the street and fighting broke out there. Riful took this opportunity to organize a reception party for them and personally killed a few of the first arrivals before slipping away through the underground tunnels to a safer location.
Mike paused the action to show the crew one of the most intricate and impressive shots in the film, which Kyu had just finished putting music to. They were still trying to decide how to integrate it into the movie. It started with a close up of Zero screaming, "Blaze!", rose above that street as fighting started there, then headed South through contested territory, showing innumerable battles occurring in slow motion in streets, on building tops, and throughout the wreckage of the city. As it reached the edge of the city, the view widened, revealing fires raging unchecked in the North, explosions throughout the central wasteland, Yoink wreaking havoc on Sure Fire forces swarming over it in the South, and finally Blue Dusk wrestling with the Deep One in the West.
As the camera continued moving away from the city, it turned away to face the heavy mountainous South region. It swept over the mountain tops until it tunneled into one of them to reveal a giant robot sealed deep inside. The shot ended with the giant robot roaring to life as its systems came online.
It was beautifully done, complete with appropriately epic music, and it gave an impressive and informative visual overview of the situation. It reminded Megan how much work went into Ataraxia, and how there were millions of players struggling so hard at any given time to realize their vision for that world. She wondered if it was worth it.
Riful, lacking secure access to information about Zero, had received a message from an outside-of-game source indicating Zero's new location. Communication about in-game events from outside channels was frowned upon as cheating, but was, of course, rampant. There were serious social consequences for being caught, but it was sometimes worth the risk. In this case the information did little to help him, but would later hurt his reputation.
Elsewhere, Crenshaw looked at a map of the projected conflicts around Neo-Kyoto. The Deep One, though as tough as expected, was faltering. It was too early to judge the Southern Kirin offensive, but SuFi reserves could be called if needed. He had a few minutes of feeling good about the situation before scanners showed a massive and peculiar energy signature flying half a mile above the ground at improbable speeds from South of the city.
It had to be the Pan mech Blaze Snap, as no other entity could match such raw power. Its recorded energy signature was very different from what it had been 4 months previously, when the mech and Zero had disappeared. Since then, rumors had spread that the mech had been destroyed by another Pan, or that Zero had little success in training it. No such luck for Sure Fire.
Fighting paused around the city as players climbed buildings to get a better look at what was coming. Pawn, anticipating an opportunity, gave the order to prepare for a run across the wasteland.
A reaction shot showed Riful's shock and utter disbelief as Blaze's path took it directly to the building where Zero was being held. As it approached the building, it blasted a large hole into it, all the way through to pierce Zero's containment cell. Even at its incredible speed, it managed to shoot a chain with ten small hooks at its end into Zero's crispy, though disturbingly still living body, and retract it into a compartment in its chest as it flew past.
A few short moments after Zero had been taken into his mech, Blaze took a sharp turn to the West. It dropped out of the sky and collided with Blue Dusk, which put up a shield to deflect Blaze just in time. Blaze came around and slammed hard into Blue Dusk. Blaze was 150 feet tall, making it 50 feet shorter than Blue Dusk, but as they began exchanging blows it was obvious that Blaze Snap was a far superior mech in every other way.
Still, Blaze was not operating at its full capacity, appearing to be fighting by ghost. His fears of antagonizing Zero now shown to be futile, Crenshaw made the fateful decision to fully engage the Pan.
Sure Fire barraged Blaze with every form of attack available to them- from lasers, phasers, and missiles, to catapulted rubble. Blaze's shields held, but were weakening. Blue Dusk was also taking heavy damage from the barrage and from Blaze's fists.
Pawn watched Blaze struggling and made his own fateful decision.
Kirin units flooded the wasteland, pushing forward through shelling, and dancing around entrenched SuFi groups. Xea left her unit under another leader's control and ramped up her power level as she ran full tilt, tripping into a few rolls as she went. Using that large a percentage of her power was a gamble, as it could make it practically impossible to return from death in any sort of effective form. A moment of bad luck could undo the power and equipment she had spent months of work on, not to mention removing her valuable active leadership from the Kirin. But it was a reasonable risk considering the gravity of the situation and Xea didn't mind risking her life for a good cause. It was exciting and gave her a mental edge.
Pawn, whose integrated mech was not designed for this sort of combat, did what he could to orchestrate the attack from behind Kirin defenses. He monitored Xea as she passed enemy lines. He sent her a message over a channel known to have been hacked by Sure Fire.
SuFi scanners revealed Xea's energy signature going off the scale, indicating that she carried some sort of high explosive element in her mech. SuFi artillery was alerted and began to shell where Xea's energy signature was projected to be next, but Xea was always one step ahead, weaving in and out of SuFi fortifications, smashing through buildings and around encampments, leading to significant damage and confusion from friendly fire.
Finally, she turned off the high energy illusion cloak and masked her signature. It was smooth enough to convince those tracking her that she had been destroyed. Using her skill at signature manipulation and infiltration, she used a cloak to match the SuFi colors and energy signature and then broke into the underground tunnel system to begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare and subterranean harassment.
Most Kirin forces engaged with the enemy line, attempting to break holes in it for their artillery to take advantage of. The boldness and seeming stupidity of the assault caught Crenshaw by surprise, but he delayed little in redirecting a third of SuFi's artillery at the exposed Kirin. After a few more minutes of heavy fighting, the Kirin force had largely been repulsed from Sure Fire's Western fortifications and were fleeing across the wasteland. The Deep One had retreated back into the Earth, probably to return to hibernation. Blaze and Blue Dusk had begun to throw each other into buildings as they wrestled, and while Blaze's capabilities were unknown, it appeared to be wearing down. Unsure of their ability to damage Blaze Snap in that short interval, Crenshaw redirected most of SuFi's artillery fire at the fleeing Kirin. This decision would come to be seen as one of the biggest mistakes in Ataraxian history.
In that moment of relative silence, Zero, who had been raging blindly, figured out that the Kirin force must have crossed the wasteland to buy him time, and were now suffering for it. Blaze Snap grabbed Blue Dusk by its left arm and rocket hopped over Sure Fire's territory into the wasteland, easily carrying the much larger mech with it. Crenshaw refocused fire on Blaze, but now Zero had his composure. He used Blue Dusk as a shield, and produced a warping field that covered much of the wasteland, pulling all forms of fire toward his mech, providing cover for the fleeing Kirin while battering Blue Dusk.
The warp field was technology advanced enough at that point in the game that it might as well have been magic. Crenshaw quickly ordered SuFi artillery to cease fire, though much of his force continued firing in sheer panic. The six players managing Blue Dusk panicked as well and attempted to rocket back behind Sure Fire lines, causing it to lose most of its left arm in Blaze's grip. Blaze shot its shoulder cannon at Blue Dusk's rocket pack as it attempted escape, causing it to malfunction, and Blue Dusk to fall into Sure Fire front line fortifications. Some of Blue Dusk's missiles exploded at the impact, creating a hole in their defenses.
Continued fire from SuFi forces was now redirected into Blaze's force field, which appeared to be efficiently absorbing it. Zero attached a pack of munitions from its back to Blue Dusk's left arm and surrounded it in a force field, then threw it above the SuFi line and detonated it, instantly liquefying the arm and sending molten death raining down into the streets. A thin layer of plasma spread out, short-circuiting force fields, setting buildings ablaze, and killing units over several blocks.
Zero sent out an area wide broadcast. His regenerating, but still burnt, face was streaming with tears and snot, contorted with a channeled focus which was keeping his mind from being swallowed by a chaotic rage. It took a moment for him to compose himself enough to speak.
In his virtual studio, Mike pulled up a slowed down recording showing Zero's amazing display of skill. He smoothly operated numerous complicated systems as he tracked and intercepted enemy fire with his warp field, and manhandled a powerful giant robot, despite the significant damage it had already taken. That one player handled it all so perfectly seemed almost impossible, but the recording was authentic. It showed that the Gears were right to pick him. Zero's player had rare talent indeed.
With the Kirin forces largely safe behind their own shielding, Blaze Snap dropped its warp field. Weapons compartments all over the mech popped open as its offensive power ramped up. In a few seconds it was bristling with missiles, laser cannons, and high powered guns. SuFi scanners revealed Blaze locking its guidance systems onto dozens of targets, from strongly shielded buildings to individual units.
SuFi artillery fire stopped and its power was redirected to reinforcing force fields along their Eastern front. For the first time in days, the wasteland had a single moment of peace.
Blaze's shield focused to a single point in front of the mech and then exploded toward and over SuFi's territory, raining down nearly pure disruptive energy which interfered with shields all over their front line. The next second, the wasteland lit up as Zero fully unleashed his massive arsenal.