Illuminating Investigations P.3

Tk. Tk. Tk. Tk. Tk. Went Noir's footsteps as he arrived at his destination A night later. This place was...

Behind him, cracked panels.

To his left, a crater.

To his right, junk data lay scattered around.

And in front of him, the hole.

...the site of the Net War. Terrible thing that had been, or so Noir had heard. He hadn't been around at the time to watch, though what news coverage he had been able to scrounge together proved that the coverage itself was spotty to begin with. Then there were the coverup efforts by both the Netpolice and the Netmafia, and those went deep enough that even asking about the damn thing could be enough to get a nonranker sent to try and clean house.

Despite all that, however, the place was deader than the entire rest of the network. The reconstruction efforts hadn't touched it, the self-repair routines couldn't fix it, Navis didn't want to visit it, and viruses avoided the place like the blight it was. So, he supposed, it made the perfect meeting spot; or the perfect place to stage a murder.

The only thing worse was that there were no shadows for him to cling to.
Even in the midst of the night-painted network, everything in the area was a uniform shade of false darkness, the kind that one would see in movies or games that were trying to portray nighttime but still allow everything to remain visible. There was still one place left where Noir could have blended into the shadows, of course, but only a fool would willingly take advantage of them.

Nonetheless, it was easy to turn attention back to the hole, the hole, as it was also there that Noir could see the only source of light in the immediate area: a single lantern, sitting on the edge of the massive chasm and glowing brightly.

Nobody else appeared to be around, but if the lantern was any indication somebody was, or at least had been, nearby.
"Lumi, hm...?" Noir mumbled to himself, plodding over to the lantern and stooping down to pick it up. His eyes shifted as he bent, sliding around his not-quite amorphous body to gaze behind him, watching for threats or surprises, until he grasped the lantern and stood, taking a good few steps away from the chasm. "Well well, what have we here? he asked no-one in particular, examining the lantern.
Noir saw nothing that could easily be considered either a threat or a surprise behind him, or directly in front of him or to either side for that matter. Other than the lantern he picked up, the battlefield was just as empty as it always was. Even as he posed a question to the air, there was nobody or nothing around to answer.

Until suddenly, there was.

"That depends. What do you think you have there?" came a female voice from within the pit. Looking down, Noir could see a brown-haired woman in completely unremarkable workclothes sitting on a ledge just below the drop off. She looked up at him, then vanished, teleporting to Noir's side. "Do you think it's just an old lantern? Or is there something more to it?"
"That depends, are you asking for a personal take or a bland categorization?" Noir queried, looking the lantern over as he turned to face the newcomer. "Categorically it could be an object, a time-delayed sig attack, an SP, an illusion, the effect of an obscure NCP, a part of a GMO you're wearing, or even another navi, though I'm not reading it as that last one."

He paused.

"Right now, however, it is a test." He finished, handing the lantern to her.
"Interesting answer," the navi responded, taking the lantern. "Categorically, it is none of those things, although you are correct that it is a test. Although if you have figured out that much, then does that mean you have also figured out what it is testing?"
"Not with any degree of certainty." he replied simply. "I could make guesses-- things like it testing my combat potential or even other things like my emotional state, but I do not know."
"I thought not," the lantern-carrying navi answered. "It's easy to see what is in front of you, but when you try to look past it, things become less clear. This..." she held up the lantern, "Is just a lantern. Whatever I use it for, as an object it is just an thing humans invented as a light source. Though you chose not to say that, I'm sure you knew that much. Once you try to assign another purpose to it, such as an object created by a signature program or a more integral part of my code, there is no longer an immediately obvious answer."

The lantern-holder stepped away, and turned back to look out over the chasm in front of them. "Let's try something different. What might you be able to tell me about the pit here?"
"It's a tunnel, not a pit." Noir said. "...If you want to play definitions. He smirked.

""Official" explanation is that some stray ordinance during the Net War caused it. Everyone else says faction-created Cybeasts. I wasn't here for any of that, so to me it's just a pi-" Noir caught himself on his own logic, chuckling with a small sigh. "A tunnel. To Rogue Electown."
"I would be amazed if anyone actually believed the official explanations," the lantern wielder said. She closed her eyes and put a gloved hand to her lips, briefly, before adding as though thinking aloud, "Or maybe I wouldn't. It's hard to tell what people will and won't believe of what official sources say anymore. But you are right, it is not just a pit. Although the connection is far less stable than what you would get from entering through more legitimate means, it does lead to what has come to be called Rogue Electown.

"But even if you did not know that, all you would have to do to find out,"
The female navi stepped back to the very edge of the pit, held her lantern out over it, and dropped it. "Is look." The lantern, predictably, fell down into the chasm, growing dimmer with the distance until it faded completely.

"What do you suppose is at..." she started, but then caught herself. "Hm, no, that wouldn't be a fair question. You wouldn't know what's down there now without looking, and as long as I have been watching this area, it has only received a few visitors. All on the surface. Why don't we just get down to business. Have a seat, if you wish." As if the area was simply resetting itself, the woman's lantern reappeared between them, and benches, not at all unlike the park benches from ACDC, appeared next to her and Noir.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Luminaire," the woman named Luminaire said, taking a seat on her own bench. "Stargazer tells me you were interested in her, and the Star Field Server. I wonder, though, do you actually know anything about what it is? Or do you just believe that you do?"
There was a pause, seemingly, in Noir's behavior. He stood there, scratching his chin and thinking, and then disappeared; the real Noir was already on the bench behind him. As if expecting a strange reaction, Noir shrugged.

"It is very nice to make your acquaintance, Lumina." Noir smiled, before pausing to explain. "Lumi's too short, too chatty and informal. Luminaire's close, but a bit too uptight for my tastes, and Miss Luminaire is way too formal."

"To answer your question, I can't say I have any certainty about what it is for, but I gleaned a few things while conversing with her." He paused just long enough to smirk before adding, "It is far more than a mere overglorified search engine, as I had originally suspected."

Noir sat forward on the bench, leaning closer in and resting his elbows on what appeared to be his knees. "If you want to get down to business though, Lumina, why did you agree to meet with me here? From your perspective I must appear to be nothing more than a bothersome insect, sniffing around where my nose really shouldn't be."
"Curiosity, mostly," Luminaire answered, showing no reactions to Noir's behavior or her new 'nickname'. "A bothersome insect you may be, but even a bothersome insect can be useful or dangerous. That's what Hive keeps telling me, at least. Besides, it's not every day that someone comes and tries to sniff around a group of navis that most people don't even know exists. What exactly is it you're trying to find, though, that led you to seek out Stargazer of all navis?"
"Well that's simple, it--" Noir seemed to pause for a moment, stiffening and taking a deep breath, before he leaned back in the bench.

"Think a better question'd be, what's it worth to ya?" Noir said, his outline frazzling outward slightly. Long, furling coils of dark little things rippled on the edges of his surface as Noir's eyes became visible for the first time, two twin red irises in the inky black of his not-quite-face. "Way I figure, you know I'm a snoop, but you don't know why or who for. Me? Someone else? Another organization? Some kinda Netpolice goonie?"

Noir stood up, slithering more than pacing back and forth as a bit of an accent slipped into his voice, a strange, cocky determination taking over. "But that means you got very little on me, an' I've either got slim enough morals that I'm willin' to take a bribe from someone to rat out an employer, or I'm riding yer coattails 'cause of my own little idlin' curiosity and wouldn't mind some cash on top of it."

"So, what's it worth to you to know?" He asked, eyes staring at Lumina.
Luminaire laughed softly at Noir's sudden change in attitude. "Aren't you an interesting one. Ratting out an employer can be quite dangerous, you know," she said. She folder her arms over her chest and raised one hand to rest her chin on her fingers. "I should know. I used to work in the information business. Some people can go quite far to pay back someone for selling them out. Sometimes they will even chase the one they branded as a traitor to the ends of the net. It's not quite logical, especially when the damage is already done, but that's how it is. I think we both know that you aren't just in this for yourself, so I have to ask, do you actually know anything about your employer? For all you know, you could be in far worse trouble for selling them out than for getting on my bad side."

She paused for a few seconds, tilting her head to one side. "But of course, that gives you every reason to not answer my question at all. Then again, once I know what I'm asking, it's up to me what I do with that information, isn't it? I think I might be more willing to be more discrete about where I got it if I didn't have to pay hard-earned zenny for it. You never know. What you should know, though..." She leaned back on the bench again. "Is that Stargazer could probably find out whatever I needed on you without too much trouble. She may already have, in fact."
"I spent 10 minutes with 'er. I'd be surprised if she 'adn't found a detailed list of my fetishes by now." Noir-- or at least this facet, paused for effect before adding, "Even without such a lil' list existin', if you get me."

Noir stiffened again, the curling shadows on his edge flattening down all at once like someone had taken a comb to them, and paused as his eyes disappeared beneath the murk again. He sat down, and his tone took on a businesslike, smooth quality. "I'll be blunt; I am no easy traitor, nor someone who seeks opportunities to backstab. When I talk to whatever employer I may or may not have, I'll be discussing how much the theoretical job may have been worth to him. You need to be up-front with people who you may or may not theoretically hire, but you also need to be some degree of competent in your theoretical investigations when determining the reward."

"I rather dislike the idea of irritating anyone who could effectively eliminate my virtual existence by deleting me whenever I jacked in, however, so I'll take the middle road and ask you what I've been trying to find out."

Noir's diction shifted again, a third time-- this one seemed voluntary, more smooth, less stiff and unpleasant. And also slightly more honest. "I'm trying to find out if your outfit is connected criminally. Are you?"
"I...think you're overestimating her interest in you," Luminaire said, scratching her head.

Diverting the subject back to where it was supposed to be, she continued. "Smart move, not wanting to upset us. Asking the leader of an outfit straight out if they're doing bad things has never struck me as a good way to get an honest answer.

"What exactly do you want me to tell you? Constant is a gambling addict who puts her winnings toward funding us...and occasionally uses our funds for gambling. Stargazer's skills can probably be considered spying or at least voyeurism. Oblivion is...well, Oblivion. And I'm sure Metropolis has violated some zoning ordinance or something. But that's not what you're after, is it?"
She chuckled softly. "I wonder do you define 'connected criminally', and what would you do if we were? The NetMafia are certainly involved in plenty of activities that one would call criminal, but the last time the NetPolice tried to do anything on a large scale about it...well, you can see the result around you. They're not exactly blameless either. Just ask BossMan."
"Less overestimating of her interest in me, more that she seemed either at, or nearly at the point of reflexively searching up on everything she comes into contact with." Noir says.

"I'll be even more blunt with you on several things. One, the Netmafia is not nearly as forgiving as you are, not even its' most lenient members. I would have had several hits placed on me just now, if they didn't just decide to do it themselves." He paused, letting that sink in and observing Lumi's reaction. "Two, let's say--"

Noir pauses, sighing. "I hate politics and I hate people who say 'hypothetically' so they can deny things later when they're obviously true. I was hired by someone to find out if your group was linked with any criminal organizations, for my client's curiosity I guess. So if I found out whether your band were or not, I'd most likely be going to get my money, telling the client, and then splitting."

Noir paused, thinking for a moment. "I will tell you something, though, if you'll give me a straight answer to my prior question. Something interesting, and something that struck me when I received your offer to meet up."