Tangible Schizophrenia


Ghost Line II: The Girl Is Always Pretty

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13. Some violent imagery.
Pairing: Dean/Tifa, one-sided Dean/Zack, Sam/Zack.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: These aren’t my characters.
Notes: Advent Children/Supernatural crossover. AU. Insert your generic Japanese cyberpunk dystopia as a background. Free-standing series.
Summary: Dean and Sam have a look-see, and Dean meets a girl. She’s not all that enthusiastic about it.


The worm first had made its appearance in a small but exclusive bar frequented by the high-rollers in Shinra-held Sector Twelve. That was, if it really was a daimon worm. The place definitely had been trashed by something out of the norm—the sulfur stink was incredible—but it didn’t show any particular signature, at least not to the naked eye. “Anything?”

Sam’d already walked around the place with infrared on, and now he was working on UV. His mouth had twisted up into a grimace the moment he’d switched over, and it still was that way. He looked a little disgusted, and once he forwarded some of the images he was seeing to Dean, Dean could understand perfectly. “Lots of body fluid stains. I can’t really date them—they overlap too much just on that one day.”

“Oh, there wouldn’t be any from the worm anyway,” Zack said. He’d taken up a position at the old-fashioned bar and had jacked himself into the main server. He had a data screen projected in front of him, but the stuff was encoded. Probably because he was erasing his bar tab or something, and didn’t want anyone to know. “We had live feed on what happened. If it hit someone, they got burned to char.”

“So where’s this live feed? You know, since it might be helpful in finding out what happened.” Dean knelt down besides a melted pile of slag that he barely could mentally reconstruct into a lounge hover-chair. It looked like it’d been heated, squished like putty and then half-heartedly shaped into a smiley-face as it cooled.

But on the edges was some kind of darkish residue, which fluoresced under UV at a wavelength that didn’t match most common organics. It wound around the heap in a kind of corkscrew pattern…which Dean guessed would match the coiling of a really big worm. Thing was, he still wasn’t totally convinced that it was a daimon worm.

He reached behind himself and dug around in his bag till he came up with a pocket element-analyzer. A touch to its side and it magically popped out a sample holder from its previously seamless exterior. Dean always got a kick out of that, but for some reason, Sam thought it had crass implications. Honestly, his brother was the one with the dirty mind. He could’ve at least appreciated the kind of engineering it took to make something like that on a shoestring budget.

Whatever. After loading up a scraping, Dean let his little homemade gadget run and gazed around the room, idly flicking between different sights. He saw evidence for a hell of a lot of shady doings, but nothing really out of the ordinary for a Shinra establishment.

“Hey, so what the hell is a daimon worm?” When Dean looked up, Zack was apparently done with the data screen, but still was jacked into the server. The other man fiddled with the wire till his eyes had gone an odd pale shade of green, not quite the right one for network surfing. “Is it like a solid version of the hacker software?”

“Sort of.” Now that they’d settled down and started working, Dean’s urge to kill the over-confident goon had died down a little bit. He still hated the fact that they had a minder, and not only that, one that would cheerfully kill them if they took a wrong step in an inherently weird and unpredictable assignment. And then there was the fact that yeah, Zack worked for a ruthless crime family…but not all the victims had committed crimes, aside from socializing with the wrong people. “Worms are malicious code. A daimon originally was a concept from Greek mythology—”

Zack coughed. The fingertips of his right hand were moving very slightly in a way that seemed to be a pattern, but Dean couldn’t figure it out before he had to glance elsewhere to avoid being suspicious. Or being inviting for more of Zack’s teasing. “And the Greeks were…”

Sam and Dean shared a look. Despite Shinra’s belief in daimon worms, they apparently weren’t up on their ancient history. At least, the street-level wasn’t, and it didn’t look like Dean or Sam was going to get a chance to meet the ones high up enough to avoid getting their hands dirty. “Doesn’t really matter—they just lived a really, really long time ago,” Sam said. “They thought spirits existed that were intermediate between gods and mere mortals. These spirits weren’t necessarily good or bad. There was a really famous one that actually was helpful—it always told you what not to do.”

“I don’t know…that seems like it’s asking to be disobeyed. Just speaking from experience, I mean,” Zack replied. He was mocking, but a lot less than he had been with Dean. “But all right, spirits.”

“Later on daimon was corrupted to demon, and applied just to evil spirits. They’d always been around, and when computers were invented, they found ways to hitch a ride. Take your average nasty bit of worm code and add in intelligence, an appetite for death and the ability to turn solid every so often, and you’ve got yourself a daimon worm.” The sample finished processing and a small data-screen popped up about three inches from Dean’s nose, data scrolling down it at an incredible speed. He flicked a finger and most of the info was filtered out, while the surviving lines were highlighted, then collected together into a brief summary.

Zack actually sat back and took a moment to go through all of that, so apparently he wasn’t as airheaded as he seemed. His eyes were still that weird green color. “I’m still not seeing how it works, though. If it’s solid when it attacks, then why wasn’t it stopped? It’s not like the people who come here are unarmed and easily caught off-guard.”

“No kidding,” Dean muttered. He was thinking of all the bloodstains Sam had to have seen.

“It’s…well, honestly, we’re not sure if it turns completely solid whenever it comes out of the network. But how it attacks is via malicious code, hence the worm-part of the name. These days, everyone’s got implants hooked into their vital functions, and the worm just chews right through them.” Sam was looking anxiously at Dean as he spoke; a strip of space about two inches wide temporarily faded out so Sam’s warning message could scroll across it.

Yeah, yeah, don’t antagonize their minder. Dean wasn’t stupid. He wished Sam would stop worrying so much and remember that there was only so much Zack could do until Dean and Sam told him how to get rid of Shinra’s little monster. Which, if Dean had his way, wasn’t ever actually going to happen.

He dragged his mind away from those unpleasant details of life and concentrated on the analysis. High sulfur content, but that wasn’t the only oddity. Traces of silica doped with the kind of stuff that was usually only used in central server cores, like the huge ones that managed the megapolis’ utilities, were also in it, plus something Dean’s datastore couldn’t even identify. And he’d run a lot of strange shit through it in the past few years. “Experts are still debating whether it’s a mini-EMP triggered by the invasion, or severe accelerated implant crash that does it.”

“Experts? What kind of person would study this as if there weren’t actual people involved?”

The voice was feminine, nicely melodic, and so Dean turned around. The owner of said voice was a tallish, athletic brunette with a figure that would stop traffic three-sixty degrees around her. Incredibly enough, it seemed to be natural, too. She was wearing a sleeveless black sweater and a black skirt of the same material that came to her knees, plus a longer drape that hung down behind her to her ankles; enough of her was uncovered for Dean to note the absence of artificial sheen that heavily-implanted people developed in their skin. The only jack-sockets he saw in her were at her temple and her wrist. She also had what looked like mini EMP-generators embedded into her knuckles, but that was it.

“You’re late, Tifa,” Zack said. He didn’t sound upset so much as irritated and slightly worried, and he looked at her with what Dean grudgingly supposed was genuine fondness. “Rufus might be busy now, but sooner or later Scarlet’s going to get in to see him, and you know she loves complaining about you. Do you have to give her so much to work with?”

“My bar was trashed. I was hiring people to clean it up so I can get it running again. As soon as…these are the guys?” She put her hands on her hips and looked skeptically at Sam, then at Dean. “They’re…younger than I thought.”

Dean stood up and put out a hand. Also a smile while he was at it; she still looked like she wanted to kick a hole in the wall, but he figured it couldn’t hurt. Besides, it covered up how his peripheral vision was busy mapping the coordinates of her bustline. “Just means we bounce back faster. Dean.”

Tifa flicked her eyes at his hand, then slowly put out her hand. Then she flexed her hand lightning-fast so their palms, and only their palms, touched. There was a slight pop and a tingle as their respective implants exchanged their public profiles, and then she was ambling on back behind the bar. She grabbed a towel and a jack to the main server as she went. “Nice to meet you,” she dryly replied. “Are you done with my bar?”

“Not…yet.” Sam glanced at Dean for a check. He was also trying to hide a grin, and not very well. It was funny how he could be twitchy as hell over Zack the one moment, then snickering at Dean the next. “So, we’ve heard that there’s, um, live feed of this thing attacking? I’m asking because seeing that would help a lot. Oh, and I’m Sam, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you.” As usual, the girl responded slightly better to Sam than to Dean. Must be the big round eyes. Tifa hooked herself into the server, then leaned on top of the counter to call up a large screen. “There’s video of everything from beginning to end, but I don’t know how useful it’ll be to you. You can’t see the thing at all—you just see people dying.”

Zack shot her a sharp glance and rocked forward so he slid off the barstool. He flicked out his jack only to plug it back in his right temple a second later. “Hey, put it on 3D. I haven’t gotten a chance to look at it yet.”

“Surprised you remembered I have it, what with everything else going on,” she muttered, though she was selecting all the right parameters for what he’d asked. She gave him a smile that was just a little twisted towards bitter. “What are you doing here, anyway? They’ve got to have better things for you to do.”

Whatever Zack’s answer was, it was completely downed out by a sudden loud, harsh buzzing. Dean winced and instinctively grabbed for his ears, though that was a little pointless since his aural implants couldn’t be adjusted from the outside. At least Sam’s tinkering with those had paid off, because in less than a second, the buzz had been completely filtered out.

“So if this is your bar—” Dean started.

This time, the interruption came in the form of visuals. Ghostly people sprang up all over the room, laughing and drinking and groping each other without the accompaniment of sound. It was all Dean could do to keep himself from reaching for the salt charges in his pocket.

“They’re not ghosts, Dean.” Somewhere along the line, Sam had finished up with his stuff and had sneaked over to stand behind Dean. He bent his head and cleared his throat just in time to cover up the single clack of Dean’s shoe-heel against the floor. “What’s up?”

Some celebration apparently had been in progress, but it must have had a hell of a story behind it, because all the people were on edge. Skin-tight, skimpy clubbing clothes, but Dean still could pick out more holstered guns, shock-rods, and needled knuckle-dusters than he’d ever seen in one place all at once. They might have been holograms, but the belligerent nervousness in their eyes was clear enough.

“Thank you, Sam. As if I couldn’t pick out a ghost from a hacked holographic generator from a hundred yards,” Dean said under his breath. He glanced down and saw that his element-analyzer was still on. He switched it off and looked up just in time for the worm’s entrance.

Non-entrance, really. One moment everything was high-rolling and tense, the next it was complete pandemonium with no visible cause. People were screaming and shooting—sometimes the lasers or bullets went straight through empty air and hit someone on the other side of the room, but then something would slam head-on into the shooter and they’d explode.

And then it was over, the images dissolving from middle out to reveal a grim-faced Zack and a very still Tifa. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes were an entirely different story.

“Hang on a second…” Sam’s eyes went fluorescent blue for a couple seconds. His hand came up and made a series of sliding motions, as if he was pushing through stacks of things. Then he nodded sharply and a freeze-frame of the mayhem appeared in the center of the room.

Dean’s attention went to a pair of people who would’ve been standing within a foot of him. One was bowed back with his arms thrown out, as if trying to push something away from his waist, while the other had been thrown in the air and was on her way down. Her face was…he glanced away from that and checked out the weird upward curve her back had taken on. It was hard; her spinal implants had been going crazy and he could see the skin melting around them. He swallowed and concentrated on mapping a rough model into the space between the two people.

“Well, it’s definitely worm-shaped,” Zack finally said. He was making those little motions with his fingers again, and Dean suddenly realized the other man must have been working a keyboard screen. To confirm the guess, a series of bright green lines connected the dots Dean had just put up, then spread out further; Zack must have been adding more details from other freeze-frames. “Okay. Fight was only four minutes, forty seconds long, but people managed to hit it—hit the space where it’s supposed to be, anyway—with EMP, bio- and syn-poisons, various kinds of exploding projectiles and plain brute force.”

“Didn’t stop it, though. I’m not sure if any of them even did hit it,” Sam chimed in. He cupped his fingers like he was holding a doorknob, gave said imaginary knob a good twist and sent the worm moving backward in time and space. It squiggled and thrashed till it reached the bar, where it suddenly vanished. “Damn. Not enough people were standing around to model where it came from.”

Zack tipped his head. It looked like he was staring at Sam, but his eyes were too dilated for that. He was still deep in his software. “Tifa, is there anything from the EM fields around the server?”

“Oh, right. I should’ve thought of that…it should’ve made some kind of distortion…can I get sound readings, too? There’s so much metal here that if it’s solid at all, I can probably reconstruct from echoes. And maybe there’s EVP, too.” Without coming out of image-processing mode, Sam blindly walked to the bar and waved his arm around where he thought Tifa was.

A little bemused, Dean hopped over, grabbed the jack Tifa had hastily connected to the server, and plugged in his brother. He wasn’t that bad at the analysis-work himself, but Sam just was…comfortable with it. Dean did what he had to in order to get a job done, but he hated going completely into the network the way Sam did like it was breathing. Doing that just felt like he was about to scatter into a million pieces, and he had no idea why Sam would say it felt cool.

“EVP?” Tifa whispered.

“Electronic voice phenomena. Voices where there shouldn’t be any, at frequencies that people can’t hear or speak at, even with all the fun stuff we have nowadays. It’s a hallmark of supernatural activity.” Dean leaned on one arm against the bar and took a good look at Tifa’s face. She had the usual tiny silver specks around her eyes, which were the ubiquitous ocular implants, but lacked the unnaturally smooth patches of major facial alterations. Actually, he thought he could glimpse the top of a scar peeking from her collar. “So it’s your bar? Where were you?”

She compressed her lips and pointedly looked away. She still had her towel, but was only using it to dust the same chrome strip over and over again. “I manage the place, plus a few others. The owner is Rufus Shinra. I had to attend a party that night, so the associate manager was in charge.”

“Had to? You aren’t one for the parties?” Dean asked. “All work, no play?”

Tifa narrowed her eyes and shot him a look that could’ve doubled as a drilling laser. Oops. Sore spot. “Play tends to get you killed in this part of town. Just do your job and get out.”

“Got it,” Sam and Zack both suddenly said. Sam blinked, then came out of it long enough to stare confusedly at Zack, who gave him a cheerful wink before turning to the projections.

“You two need a room?” Dean muttered. Behind the bar, Tifa almost smiled before she moved off, snapping switches beneath the counter.

His brother stepped hard on his toes. “Wouldn’t dream of stealing your boyfriend, Dean. And check this out—”

The reconstructed worm abruptly sprang to life, writhing its way over the bar and vanishing into the gleaming plate of the server. Wait. It didn’t exactly vanish, it…

“Okay. It’s a series of electric impulses. Explains how it goes through things.” It also explained the way it could coalesce and then dissolve: electricity could be pretty invisible until it built up enough to make something like ball lightning. “But it left behind this weird char, and plain electricity can’t do that.”

“No, not that. This.” Sam flapped his hand at the room and dozens of green lines suddenly crisscrossed it, doubling back on themselves and tangling up.

The worm’s path. And it formed letters. Crude ones, but after a little squinting, Dean made them out. “Jen—Jenova.”

Someone sucked in their breath sharply, but when Dean turned around, both Zack and Tifa were all stone-faced and busy staring back at him. He shrugged, but filed away that little tidbit for later. Too bad he hadn’t been able to get a recording of it, otherwise he could’ve figured out whose voice it was.

“It’s a name, I think. But why does it sound familiar…” Frowning, Sam called up a datascreen and started searching files.

Before he could even get beyond entering keywords, he was interrupted by Zack suddenly putting up a gigantic map of the sector. The other man quickly picked out locations in green dots. “We’ve been having some weird anomalies in information flow lately, mostly in the transport and basic utility systems. If the thing’s traveling through the network…”

“It seems to like leaving its mark,” Dean said. The dots formed an incomplete but clearly diamond-like shape. “Can we get dates on these?”

The numbers obligingly appeared. According to them, these incidents happened at regular time intervals as well as in a geographic pattern. They seemed to be spaced about six hours apart, the latest one being only twenty minutes ago.

“It’s hitting high-traffic areas. Restaurants, clubs…but none of the living quarters so far,” Tifa murmured. She’d finally lost the towel, and now she smoothly swung herself over the bar to get a better look. “And it’s staying away from—”

“Good thing. He and that Valentine nutjob are still smacking each other around whenever he’s awake.” Zack bit his lip as soon as he’d finished speaking, shooting a wary glance Dean and Sam’s way. He obviously hadn’t meant to say that quite so loud. “Anyway, this makes it pretty easy to guess where to go next.”

Sam coughed and shuffled his feet. He flicked his eyes at Dean, who gave the conversation ball right back since Sam was having better luck with both of the other two. Rolling his eyes, Sam turned to Zack. “Are these anomalies doing any damage? This isn’t the kind of thing you can just fight blind—we’ve got to get some things ready.”

All right, now Dean was wishing he’d taken control of the conversation. But before he could say anything, Zack slowly nodded. “It’s around dinner anyway. Do you need anything special-ordered?”

“You might want to check about messing up the place, if you’re going where I think you are,” Tifa added. “Reeve likes that one a lot.”

“He’s a reasonable guy; he’ll understand. As long as Smecker doesn’t get on my case about it…” Zack sighed and unhooked himself from the servers, rolling his shoulders as if to get rid of strain between his shoulders. He waited till Sam had also gotten off before he started walking towards the door.

Dean cleared his throat. “Is Tifa coming?”

Sam looked away with a carefully blank expression, though he got a little emotion back in his face once Dean had elbowed him. It was good for him. He spent way too much time repressing about anything and everything.

Tifa rocked back on one foot and folded her arms across her chest. “I have a business to run.”

“Yeah, but I still have a couple questions about this bar. This is a pretty serious situation here. Can’t you let the accounts go for an hour or so? I’m sure they’ll be around when you get back,” Dean said. He tried smiling again, pulling back the corners of his mouth like how Sam did.

It didn’t really work. Zack found Dean’s reasoning acceptable and waved for Tifa to come along, but her disgust at the situation was clear enough from how she stomped past Dean. “If you’re so knowledgeable about the supernatural, then how about you find me some ghost-contractors? Bars don’t rebuild themselves,” she snapped.

Sam whistled, then followed it up with a snicker. “Oh, man. Burn.”

“Shut up.” At least if Tifa was in front, Dean could check out her ass. Her very, very nice ass.

* * *

Dean actually did have a number of relevant, important questions for Tifa, but for all that, he might as well have been asking her what kind of underwear she preferred. She gave her answers in a flat, curt voice and kept tapping her fingers on the table. Every so often, she’d make a point of beaming out a time display and checking it—and that really was insulting, since now everyone had internal clocks synchronized to the city’s central atomic clock so no one had to do that.

“Excuse me. I need to go to the restroom,” she finally said. The set of her shoulders said that if he didn’t say okay, she was going to try and floor him.

Exasperated himself, Dean just waved her off. He slumped back in his seat and wondered what was with his luck lately: not a single girl biting in a month.

“Down but not out, I see,” Sam laughed, sliding in where Tifa had been. He caught Dean’s confused look and nodded towards the restroom. “You were still eyeballing her ass, Dean. So?”

“So this bar has serious high-security, both physical and electronic. I know daimon worms are supposed to be master hackers, but you’d think it would’ve been slowed down a little, set off some alarm. But no, it just burst out of there.” Dean moodily pulled his drink tube from the wall and stuck it between his lucks. The explosion of flavor shocked him into sitting up straight; it’d been forever since they’d went to a place that had coffee made from real coffee beans, let alone the gourmet stuff that was sloshing over his tongue. At least Shinra was making good on footing the bill. “And these anomalies—they’re noticed after the fact, not when they’re being created. The worm’s not acting like a worm. It should be straight-up laying waste, not being sneaky.”

Sam’s eyebrow went up. “Not doubting it is actually a daimon worm anymore?”

“Well, I can’t think of anything else that’d fit what we have so far.” Dean glanced around and spotted Zack across the room. It looked like the other man was busy talking, both in person and over the networks, so Dean risked leaning forward and whispering. Too bad they couldn’t afford the voice-coders and subvocalizers the rich could, but it was the best they could do. “Sam. If it is that, then we have a problem. We know what it is, but as far as I can remember, no one’s ever managed to pull one of these things out and kill it. They always end up destroying the whole network instead.”

“Which can’t happen because it’s traveling on the city lines. Get rid of those and everyone dies,” Sam muttered. He put his head in his hands, then slowly lifted it while rubbing at his face.

Dean offered him the coffee line, but Sam turned it down. He did munch down a couple bites of food, which was good. Sometimes when he’d been online too long, he started forgetting about things like hunger and thirst; it was like the networks had temporarily overwritten his biological instincts. “So we have to come up with something new. I don’t have the files on previous attempts in my datastore.”

“Neither do I.” Sam checked up on Zack, who was making his way back over, but very slowly. He seemed to know a lot of people in this place.

“So one of us is going to have to get back to the car and stick their head in the trunk, check out Dad’s notes. Thing is, I don’t know about you, but I think the less they know about how we work, the better,” Dean said. His peripherals pinged and he looked over Sam’s shoulder just in time to see Tifa trying to squeeze back through the crowd. “Plus they’re holding back. We need to find out who this Jenova was.”

After glancing behind himself, Sam grinned at Dean. “Let me guess: car and Tifa go together, while Jenova and Zack is the other match. And I’m betting I get the guy. Man, Dean, don’t you ever stop? Or at least learn from previous errors?”

“What errors? The only error I ever made was not having enough time.” Both Zack and Tifa were within hearing distance now, so Dean went ahead and gave Tifa the full-on look.

She pressed her lips together and leaned over to say something to Zack that had him doubled over and wheezing for a couple of seconds. He grabbed onto the edge of the booth, straightened up, and apparently winged her an electronic reply, because the next thing she did was make a face and give him a hard play-smack on the arm.

“Anyway, I’d hate to have to accidentally hurt Zack here while defending my honor,” Dean sarcastically added.

“Honor?” Sam’s eyebrow was arched again. “What—”

Dean kicked Sam’s shin. While his brother was wincing and grabbing for his leg, Dean got on with the explanations. “So here’s what we’ll need to do in order to solve this situation…”


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