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‘I NOW DECLARE ALLUC AND THE MERCURY ROOMS … OPEN!’ Fink’s voice boomed from everywhere and nowhere as was its custom. The large crowd that had gathered gave a cheer and applauded as the giant Mercury Door slid apart to permit entry. It was quite a turn out. Word had spread fast across the internet of the advanced opening and Jazz Valentine had brought countless people from his show’s audience. Vash had tried to get him to give a speech, but after hearing that he’d want paying vast sums of money for doing so, the Administrators decided against it. A teenager in marigold gloves called Pun had offered to take Valentine’s place, but when he proposed that he was just going to say “Cats” into the microphone for half an hour, once again, the Administrators chose to decline. A large number of people had also been signing up to become Link Hunters. It seemed it was quite an exciting task to undertake and Vash was all too happy to begin the training process where it was needed. Some of them were already well versed in hunting down Videos and so much the better. However, the Administrators insisted that everybody be shown the ropes by a Moderator before beginning, just to make sure that all of the procedures involved were understood. Now that the Black Hole was inoperative, the Link Hunters would have to create Rooms for their Links manually. A tedious process admittedly, but unfortunately necessary. However, the small matter of the Universe’s imminent demise had not yet been brought up and both Administrators and Moderators alike thought it best to keep it that way for as long as possible. Vash made a note of reminding Beakedbard, Mooney and Danny the importance of this point from a PR perspective before each of them exited the Black Hole Room into the Index and led the newer Link Hunters off into the wide Internet on their first Official Link Hunts. Jason, obviously, chose to stay behind to tend to the Black Hole as best he could. But indeed, the Mercury Rooms were filling up quite quickly and already Video Requests were pouring in from every direction. ‘LOOKS LIKE WE’RE GOING TO BE BUSY FROM NOW ON,’ Mooney remarked as he led his two Trainees Seano and Edith through an Exit Portal. ‘Meh,’ Beakedbard shrugged, puffing out a plume of weed smoke and beckoning to his charges KMT and Baron Munchausen to follow him through another portal. ‘It’ll ease off soon.’ ‘You mean you’ll start slacking off as soon as the opportunity presents itself?’ Fred said with a wry smile as he followed with Gmac and Leara. ‘Don’t give him ideas,’ Vash said, laughing as he, Mr. Burns and Jimzac ventured fourth in search of Links. *** ‘I am as the wind …’ Ash said to himself quietly from deep within his meditative trance. ‘… I am as the shadow …’ The hot afternoon sun was finally setting behind the misty mountains of the east. Ash was thankful for the final abating of the sweltering heat. He might actually be able to concentrate now. ‘ … I am as the breeze … I am as the flowing river …’ ‘You are as annoying as a legion of crickets!’ Master Yoh declared furiously from the other side of the table. ‘Make a move for pity sake!’ Ash half-opened an eye and stared at the chess board in front of him. ‘I am meditating upon the best strategy,’ he replied. ‘You have been meditating for almost an hour,’ Master Yoh clucked.
‘As you say, Master,’ Ash smiled wryly. ‘He who acts with haste, has already lost the fight.’ ‘Yes,’ Master Yoh nodded, scratching his beard. ‘Though, have I not also told you, that he who makes his Sensei wait for almost an hour for a simple chess move is the one who will be mucking out the stables for a month?’ ‘Point taken,’ Ash puffed and quickly manoeuvred his Knight to take Master Yoh’s Rook. ‘Check.’ ‘Ah!’ Master Yoh said, furrowing his brow. ‘Have you decided upon a course of action yet my pupil?’ ‘I believe it is your move, Master,’ Ash replied. ‘Ai-yah!’ Master Yoh exclaimed. ‘I meant in regards to your path in life young one. I am the seventh Master under which you have trained and as of yet, you seem to have concocted no final aim.’ ‘I forget who said it …’ Ash retorted. ‘But it is the journey that matters, not the destination.’ ‘If we can end the one-upmanship by way of proverbs for a moment,’ Master Yoh sighed. ‘You cannot spend your entire life in this way. Even I, at one point, had a goal, and I stuck to it. I would not be here otherwise to tell you that … Check Mate by the way,’ Master Yoh nodded with satisfaction and sat back from the table. ‘Again?’ he asked with a chuckle. ‘I think not,’ Ash said with a shake of his head. ‘Though your point is not lost on me, Master. Do not think I am wasting your time.’ ‘How could you waste my time?’ Master Yoh asked, appalled. ‘It is rare to see such talent. Admittedly I would appreciate it if you would not make me wait as long between moves upon the chess board … but you could never waste my time. I have a duty to pass on what I have learned to those who come seeking it, while I still have time left to teach them.’ ‘It’s just as well that you say that,’ Ash said, scratching his chin. ‘Because if you permit it, I think that you have passed on your knowledge to me, and I hope to use it wisely in the future, wherever I may end up.’ ‘You refer to the Mediation position you discovered?’ Master Yoh said, taking a long drink of his tea. ‘I do,’ Ash said affirmingly. ‘Well,’ Master Yoh coughed. ‘I am sure, that whatever you finally decide. You will be well equipped to handle any situation.’ *** ‘RUN!’ Vash shouted, firing his Zap Gun into the darkened recesses from which they were retreating. ZAP-P! ZAP-P! ZAP-P! Mr. Burns, the Welsh Wizard glowered into the gloom, casting a light from his staff into the pitch blackness of their surroundings to reveal the slightest outline of a tall metal figure. ‘Go back to the darkness from whence you came!’ He commanded, banging his staff on the ground.’ ‘What the hell is that thing?’ Jimzac spluttered. ‘As if I know,’ Vash replied testily. ‘This,’ Jimzac hissed. ‘Was not in the Link Hunter job description.’ ‘I’m aware of that,’ Vash replied, accessing the Portal Terminal next to him. ‘This is new to me too.’ Indeed, when Vash had commissioned the new Link Hunters for The Mercury Rooms, one of the last things on his mind had been that they would possibly be attacked; apparently, it had been one of the last things on their minds too. The new Link Hunters had been doing better than Vash could have expected. There were few who could delve so far and retrieve so many Links in one outing, and apparently, Jimzac and Mr. Burns were just such of people. However, while investigating a newer Video site named Stage, Jimzac had managed to find something other than Links.
Two glowing red eyes leered through the shadows, floating steadily towards them. The low hum of a motorized drive resonated within its metal body as the menace hovered through the black corridor of Stage towards the ALLUC members. ‘It’s getting closer,’ Jimzac sang anxiously, pulling a Magnum from inside his leather jacket and firing at the mechanoid that drifted silently onwards. ‘GOT IT!’ Vash said, opening an exit portal and pulling the Link Hunters backwards through into the Index Section of The Mercury Rooms, leaving the iris to close quickly on the metal monster that halted its advance and sleeked back into the darkness. ‘Well,’ Vash said, straightening up and brushing down his robes. ‘That was interesting now wasn’t it?’ ‘Interesting?’ Jimzac shouted. ‘That thing tried to slice me in half!’ ‘You said nothing of this kind of danger, Moderator,’ Mr. Burns frowned. ‘Yes, well, I can only apologize gentlemen. Clearly this isn’t something we expect in our day-to-day activities. Go and have yourselves checked out in the Infirmary … there’s a nurse there now … Aries … ask for Aries, lovely girl, raised by Kangaroos so I hear, she’s marvellous … she’ll see that you’re okay,’ Vash said, ushering them away before they could protest. He marched up the Index Section, taking the large bag of Links with him and handed it to another Link Hunter named Dazzler as they passed eachother. ‘Cheers,’ Dazzler remarked, peering into the bag. ‘They belong to Jimzac and Mr. Burns, keep them safe,’ Vash said hurriedly. ‘Awe,’ Dazzler said disappointedly as he disappeared into the crowd. Vash continued onwards, making his way over to L96A1 when he spotted him lurking by The Black Hole Room to make sure nobody went snooping around in there. ‘We’ve got a problem, Neil,’ Vash said quietly. ‘Only one?’ L96A1 laughed uneasily. ‘Well, we have a pressing one at least,’ Vash continued. ‘You mean other than the Second-coming of the Big Bang?’ ‘Stop it,’ Vash snapped. ‘I was just at Stage with some new Hunters and we were attacked.’ ‘Attacked?’ L96A1 unfolded his arms and frowned. ‘By what?’ ‘I’ve no idea what it was,’ Vash shook his head. ‘But it wanted blood. It would have killed us if we hadn’t escaped.’ ‘What could it have been?’ L96A1 asked, chewing on the inside of his lip. ‘I really don’t know,’ Vash replied. ‘But I’ll report this to Fink and the others. I don’t know what it was, but I know what it was doing.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘Yeah,’ Vash said sharply. ‘It seems we’ve found the thing that’s been deleting Videos.’ *** The morning air was fresh and pleasant for once. The dew was just beginning to dry on the grass as Ash strode across the garden to meet with Master Yoh who had been waiting patiently by the gates since the first rays of light had appeared over the horizon. ‘I always thought you secretly disapproved of me taking this position,’ Ash smiled. ‘On the contrary,’ Master Yoh said. ‘I believe it is merely a waypoint that you must rest at before your journey continues. But, before I allow you leave my student. You have one last test to pass. A challenge, to measure the skill you have found under my tutelage, and the teaching of the other Grand Masters.’ ‘Couldn’t just let me leave peacefully egh?’ Ash laughed. ‘Not a chance,’ Master Yoh grinned, producing an orange from within his robes. ‘My challenge, my student is this … you have five minutes to take this orange from my hand by any means you can think of.’ ‘Without killing you, you mean?’ Ash quipped. ‘You could try,’ Master Yoh shrugged. ‘Though you realize it would not end well for you.’ ‘I do.’
‘Then,’ Master Yoh said, standing upright to face Ash. ‘Your time begins … now.’ *** ‘METAL YOU SAY?’ Fink pondered. ‘AS THOUGH WE DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH PROBLEMS ALREADY,’ Vatex said angrily. ‘AT LEAST NOW WE KNOW WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST,’ Krizzo cut in. ‘YOU SAY THE ZAP GUNS DID NOTHING, VASH?’ ‘It’s hard to say,’ Vash replied. ‘We were running, I can’t be sure if any of my shots actually hit it or not.’ ‘STILL,’ Vatex mused. ‘I BELIEVE IT MAY BE SAFER TO RECALL OUR HUNTERS. WE SHOULD MAKE THEM AWARE OF THE DANGERS.’ ‘IT SEEMS THAT SOMEBODY HAS GONE TO A LOT OF TROUBLE TO HINDER OUR PRACTISE,’ Fink sighed. ‘I AGREE WITH VATEX. WE CANNOT RISK PUTTING OUR LINK HUNTERS IN DANGER. RECALL THEM ALL IMMEDIATELY BEFORE AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT OCCURS.’ ‘YEAH,’ Krizzo coughed. ‘WOULD BE A SHAME IF THEY WERE KILLED NOW AND MISSED DYING TOMORROW. THAT WOULD REALLY ANNOY THEM.’ ‘DON’T YOU MEAN KILLED ON SUNDAY?’ Mooney interjected. ‘Err,’ L96A1 coughed, showing Mooney his watch. It was past Midnight. The destruction of the Universe was just over twenty-four-hours away. ‘Hmmm,’ Mooney said, considering this. ‘SHIT,’ he concluded. ‘WE ARE WASTING TIME,’ Fink declared. ‘PLEASE, RECALL OUR LINK HUNTERS. IT WILL DISAPPOINT MEMBERS BUT I REFUSE TO PUT THE SAFETY OF ANYBODY ON THE LINE FOR THE SAKE OF VIDEOS AND LINKS.’ ‘We’re on it Fink,’ Vash said, exiting The Black Hole Room with Mooney and L96A1. ‘Okay guys. Danny, Beakedbard and Fred are still out hunting with their trainees. We need to contact them and bring them in quickly.’ ‘You see,’ Danny clucked. ‘This is kinda why I thought it was better if we all had cool radios or communicators or something.’ ‘Point made, point realized, but point not really helping,’ Vash frowned. ‘Take your guns and try to find them, but if you see a big floating robot with red eyes, then run for the hills ‘cause it’ll probably try to kill you.’ ‘Ah,’ L96A1 nodded. ‘That old chestnut egh?’ *** For an elderly man, Master Yoh was as nimble as an acrobat. Ash swiped, grabbed and pounced, but the old man was far too fast for even somebody as well trained as he was to catch. ‘Come now my student,’ Master Yoh smiled. ‘Time is running out.’ Ash tried again, utilizing every different form of Kung-fu, tai-kwon-do, karate and judo he could bring to mind in order to out-fox the Grand Master, all to no avail. The fruit was snatched from his reach at every turn. The old Master was not being gentle either. He would repel Ash’s attacks with barrages of fists and feet, knees, elbows and on one occasion, a violent headbutt. It was four minutes into the fray before Ash recoiled and rested against a wall. ‘I can’t,’ he said with a frown. ‘Its no use, Master … you are far too fast for me.’ ‘And so I always shall be,’ Master Yoh replied with a cheeky grin. ‘I shall even beat you to the grave young one. But it is clear that you are thinking with your fists, and not with your head. Come now, think … take the orange from me.’ Ash looked up into the old man’s wrinkled features and mentally kicked himself. ‘Master,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Can I please have the orange?’ ‘Certainly,’ Master Yoh nodded with delight, handing over the fruit. ‘It is good to see that you really did learn to listen and think while under my tutelage. Remember, not every situation requires you to resort to violence. Words are far more powerful than a blow could ever hope to be.
‘You would do to take this lesson to heart if you intend to become a … … …’ ‘Public Relations Official,’ Ash prompted. ‘Indeed,’ Master Yoh nodded. ‘One of those.’ ‘Thankyou Master Yoh,’ Ash said, bowing to his teacher. ‘You have taught me so much. I shall not forget the lessons you have given me.’ ‘See that you do not,’ Master Yoh said, opening the large iron gates for Ash to pass through. ‘It would be a shame if I were to hear otherwise. I should have to have to assassinate you for squandering my lessons.’ He laughed heartily as he ushered Ash out of the temple. ‘It would Master,’ Ash laughed back. ‘I shall ensure that you will never have cause for such action.’ ‘I believe it my student,’ Master Yoh said, shaking Ash’s hand. ‘Go in peace … Vash.’ *** ‘So, you grew up in a lab?’ Leara asked Fred quizzically as they and Gmac strolled through one of the upper levels of Megavideo. ‘That’s horrible,’ she said sheepishly. ‘There are worse things that could have happened to me,’ Fred shrugged. ‘I try to be positive. At least I’ve always had food and shelter. Even if that shelter was a metal box.’ ‘I can’t believe that kind of thing even goes on!’ Leara said angrily. ‘Somebody should do something about it!’ ‘Like what?’ Gmac cut in. ‘He said that the whole thing was Government funded. That means the Police won’t want to know and most likely, anybody in power is already aware and turning a blind eye.’ ‘Fiddling while Rome burns,’ Fred remarked darkly. ‘Speaking of burning,’ Gmac said, squinting ahead of them towards where the computer terminals were located. ‘Can you guys see smoke?’ ‘I do,’ Fred nodded. ‘There’s plastic burning somewhere … and computer components.’ ‘You can tell all that from smell?’ Leara asked in amazement. ‘That,’ Fred said evenly. ‘And I had a little help in the visual sense,’ he pointed up the corridor at the terminals. All of them had been smashed to pieces and set alight. Fred paced forwards briskly and smashed the fire alarm cover with his fist, causing the alarm’s shrill bell to sound throughout Megavideo. The sprinklers activated, showering them all with a cascade of water. ‘We’d better get out of here fast,’ Gmac said, pulling on Leara’s arm to guide her back towards the exit. He steered her back down the corridor, only to be confronted by a large, floating robot with glowing red eyes. It hovered motionlessly, blocking their escape from the fire, its cold eyes regarding them emotionlessly. ‘What is that thing?’ Leara asked in a croaking whisper. ‘I have no idea,’ Fred replied. ‘But in my experience, things with glowing red eyes normally have nothing friendly in mind.’ -You-are-Video-Thieves- the robot said coldly. ‘We are Link Hunters,’ Fred replied, equally icy. -You-are-Video-Thievesthe robot repeated. –You-will-cease-your-conductimmediately‘Look, we haven’t got time for this!’ Leara said anxiously as the sprinklers continued to shower them, having little effect on the torrent of flames. ‘The computers are on fire! We’ve got to leave! Let us past!’ -You-will-cease-your-conduct- the robot repeated. -You-will-comply‘Fine, whatever,’ Gmac shouted. ‘Now let us past!’ -You-will-comply‘Fine! We’ll comply!’ Gmac thundered. ‘Now let us out!’ -Your-compliance-is-appreciated- the robot said, its large arms twisting and extending large blades that began to spin at the Link Hunters. –Your-conduct-will-ceaseimmediately-. –This-will-be-assured-by-your-immediate-termination- The robot’s eyes glowed brightly and it began to advance quickly, pushing the Hunters back towards the burning computers.
Fred took out the Zap Gun he had been issued by Mooney and began to offload several rounds at the deadly machine. -Z-A-P-!- -Z-A-P-!- -Z-A-P-!- -Z-A-P-!- -Z-A-P-!The electrical bullets simply bounced off the machine’s shiny body, though the force of each shot did push the mechanical menace backwards slightly and left small indentations in the steel casing. ‘Well, that worked,’ Fred huffed in annoyance. -You-will-comply- -You-will-be-terminated- The robot said, its voice coming louder and, if it was possible, it seemed angrier, malevolent even. –You-will-comply-with-the-PrimeDirectives-of-Buster-Bot- the robot continued. ‘Any more ideas?’ Gmac exclaimed. ‘Only one,’ Fred said, stepping forwards and extending his outstretched hand at the robot. His face became pained with the strain of what he intended to attempt as the machine’s blades came nearer and nearer to him. ‘What’s he doing?’ Leara shrieked. -You-will-comply-with-the-Prime-Directives-of-Buster-Bot‘FRED!’ Gmac shouted. ‘GET AWAY FROM THAT THING!’ -You-will-comply-with-the-Prime-Directives-of-Buster-Bot-. –You-will-be-terminatedFred’s face grew steady and calm as the green irises of his eyes flickered to a deep blue colour and shone brightly for what could not have been more than a nanosecond before they returned to their normal state. The Buster-Bot ceased its advance and fell with a loud clatter to the ground where it promptly began to spark and smoke. ‘… We’ve … gotta … go,’ Fred heaved in a breath, barely able to stand. Gmac and Leara grabbed him under the arms and escorted him down the corridor as quickly as they could. ‘What did you do?’ Gmac asked in an awed hush as they made their way to the stairs. ‘… Perils of … growing …up … in a … lab …’ Fred said before passing out.
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