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Kazetrigger

.hack//Bullet Chapter 00-09

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Hello, everyone. I present to you the wonderful .hack online novel, .hack//Bullet. To make sure you can enjoy the story at any time, I recommend copying it to a word processor and saving it to your hard drive for easy access.

*Names are switched to the western style of Given name, then Family name.

.hack//Bullet
English Fan Translation by Kazetrigger


View Update Schedule Here: http://dothackers.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=19320


Story Summary
The year is 2023, three years after the Immortal Dusk* Incident. With the hacker-group Schicksal dissolved, having resigned from CyberConnect Corp., and the position of Network Trouble Consultant now vacant, Ryuuji Sogabe is forced to scrape together a living. However, when an unexpected request from a former colleague is put forward, the evil plot surrounding “The World” drags Ryuuji back into the fold. In this blood-stained final battle, will he come out the victor?

*Immortal Dusk is the name of the event Geist wished to create in the .hack//LINK game, hence the “Immortal Dusk Incident.”


Character Introductions
Ryuuji Sogabe
Image
“I had a dream about my wife. It was the most beautiful time of year. It made me sad.”
Ryuuji Sogabe managed the office of the Network Trouble Consultant. Before becoming a high-ranking employee of CC Corp. Japan, he studied psychiatry at a university in Munich, Germany.

Jyotarou Amagi
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“It's chilly. There's quite a breeze, isn't there?”
Jyotarou Amagi is a proponent of the Real Digitization Theory, who returned to the digital world himself by penetrating a computer system. As a consequence, he was placed in a comatose state for a long time.

Lilie
Image
“Geez! Nothing ever happens around here!”
A first-year junior high student, Lilie is a distant relative of Ryuuji's deceased wife and now his adopted daughter. She suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) after being involved in a train accident, but she has nearly recovered.

Kiyoteru Yodogawa
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“Regardless of whether you accept it or not, I want you to promise to keep it a secret.”
Mr. Yodogawa is the director is CC Corp. Japan. He confides in Ryuuji the truth of the rumours surrounding Geist.

Flügel
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“Well, I'm back in this 'World' again...”
Flügel, the Player-Character employed by Ryuuji Sogabe, is equipped with the Curse-Gun Brieler Rössle. Its bullet strikes with enough force to stop a target dead in its tracks.

Veronica Bain
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“When I play a game, I always win. I guess I was just made that way.”
A blonde beauty of unknown age who is called the "Empress," she is CC Corp. San Diego's founding member and current president.

Tokio Kuryuu
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“Sheesh, I quit. It's like I've been stuck in the same situation for way too long.”
A second-year high school student, Tokio works as a writer for a gaming magazine and is an active user of “R:X.” In the midst of a growth spurt, he is rapidly growing taller, and is bewildered by this.

Kusame
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"Let's work together, Flugel. That way, we both benefit."
A human beast sorcerer.

David Steinberg
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"Someone has to protect this 'World'."
A NAB (Network Administration Bureau) Investigator, David has been chasing the Net Terrorist that distributed a virus.

Kaya Frebe
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"Hold my hand."
The woman that Ryuuji met while studying abroad in Munich, Germany.


*Characters will be added at the time they are introduced in the story.


00 Prologue

As he was about to start climbing the sloped mountain trail, the figure came upon the facility.

He was there to hand in a letter of introduction. He stepped up to the reception desk and handed the letter to the lab-coat-wearing staff member behind the desk. The staff member eyed him suspiciously as he surrendered the letter and he was informed that his visit would be limited to ten minutes.

“Ten minutes?” said Ryuuji.

Ryuuji was surprised that visits were to be kept so short.

“Actually, visitation is prohibited, due to the ill effect it may have on the residents,” said the staff-member.

The response was not very convincing.

Ryuuji thought of the ill effects. He was certainly not the type of person who wished anyone any ill will.

“Now it's time for his afternoon stroll. You should come out and see the courtyard. Would you prefer to stay in the waiting room, or would you like to come to the courtyard?”

Ryuuji wanted to meet in the courtyard, so the staff member invited him inside. The corridor was dead and silent. A cold air lingered.

“If only you had contacted us in advance.”

The staff member barely hid his harsh tone as he continued on ahead.

“I can make an allowance this time.”

“I see,” said Ryuuji, bowing his head weakly.

If memory served him correctly, he had called the day before to set a visitation time. This must have been a simple miscommunication. Today's time slot had been confirmed by this very staff member, and since there weren't many days left on his bus p[censored], Ryuuji came all this way.

“There are some things you should know,” said the staff-member without looking back. He stood there confidently. He had the attitude of someone who was used to being at the top of the food chain.

“Please obey visitation time limits. Please do not feel uncomfortable around the residents who talk strangely. Also, items such as knives and razor blades, matches or lighters, explosives, and chemicals are prohibited. Are you ready?”

"Is it okay if I skip the written oath?" said Ryuuji.

“What?”

The staff-member turned around with a surprised look on his face. He continued on at a brisk pace as before, and was able to keep astride of Ryuuji who was over 180 centimetres tall.

The two continued walking side by side and chatting while Ryuuji tried to think up a plan. He continued speaking.

“I think it best that you agree not to concern yourself or the authorities with any sort of happenings within these facility walls. That would make for a good suspense film, wouldn't you agree? It's called that when a director intends to bestow a feeling of tension from the beginning of the story. It gets the heart racing. As a child I would make my own secret designs and signs, it was something of a dream of mine. However well-thought out it may be, from frequently seeing that billboard with the similar design in the parking lot of this area's convenience store, I have become somewhat disillusioned. The bluebird close to the billboard is also not happy,” said Ryuuji.

The staff-member nodded.

“Instead, I have doubts about happiness itself,” Ryuuji added.

There was a pause for a while.

“The sign is unnecessary,” quipped the staff member.

The staff-member once again brought up his thoughts on the situation.

“By coming here, nearly everyone gets better. When you called, we informed you that there were simple regulations to follow.”

“Ahhh...”

Ryuuji startled his companion with a sudden shout.

“Damn it. I have some candy. Is that okay?”

Ryuuji felt around in his pocket for a candy, removed one, and raised it level with his face for his companion to see, and pointed to the plastic wrap.

“Look at this here. This is a sharp point. Isn't this dangerous?” asked Ryuuji.

“Well...”

The staff-member, as he was about to say something, swallowed deeply, then spoke in a hushed voice.

“That's not a problem.”

“I see. Well, that's good.”

Ryuuji held out his candy with a smile.

“Try one. It's cola flavoured.”

“No, thanks.”

The staff-member's expression was now like that of a noh mask. He turned away and started walking onwards with a quick pace. It seemed that he was putting in too much effort to shake off this outsider.

However, try as he might, he was not able to get away from or cruelly drive away this person carrying the CC Corp. Japan letter of introduction. Ryuuji disliked people who acted arrogantly through borrowed authority.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they arrived at a door. The staff-member turned the knob to open the door, and then invited Ryuuji in. Ryuuji saw the spacious courtyard. Standing at the threshold, he saw a stone wall covered in damp green moss that swept around to the other side, encircling a variety of tress under a serene blue sky.

“Remember, visits are limited to ten minutes. When your chat is done, please notify the reception desk. Is that alright?”

It seemed that there was no other choice. Ryuuji turned and passed through the door.

“Ah, do you happen to have a timer?”

“I don't.”

The door closed at the tip of Ryuuji's nose with a thud. Then the sound of footsteps died away, leaving Ryuuji alone at the edge of the courtyard.

Residents could be seen around the courtyard in groups of two and three. Everyone was dressed in the same manner, so they were indistinguishable from a distance. The temperature of the courtyard felt comfortable. It was mid-May, a season when everything is very lush and green. It was the middle of the afternoon and the sunshine was refreshing.
This was nice, but the courtyard was very wide. It was somewhat like a small urban park. Ryuuji did not care about visiting hours just because there were “simple regulations to follow” and considering how hard it was to get to this place, he was a little fed up with rules. But he believed that he had indeed found what he was looking for.

He found it easily.

Image

A man was sitting quietly, like a statue, on a bench installed in a shady area of the courtyard.

Bending the page into a doggy ear, he closed the old book he had been intently reading and placed it on his knee. To his right a cane was propped up on the bench.

As Ryuuji approached, the man raised his head and stared at Ryuuji with scrutinizing eyes.

The man's actual age was difficult to determine, but he did not appear to be in his thirties. One could expect that he was, at most, in his late twenties. He was wearing thin pale-tinted glasses, and he had a well-defined slender face. However, what caught Ryuuji's eye was that several years of not getting enough sunlight left the man with a pale, almost blue, skin tone.

“Hello. Nice weather, isn't it?” said Ryuuji.

“Yes, it is,” answered the man politely.

“It was cold a little while ago, but it's much nicer out now.”

As he said this, the man's long-slitted eyes moved, gazing up and down at Ryuuji's suit.

“Are you a resident here?” asked Ryuuji.

“I am,” replied the man.

Ryuuji nodded.

“Are you an acquaintance of mine?” asked the man.

“Yes,” answered Ryuuji.

The man forced his mouth into a smile.

“I'm sorry. My memory has been acting a little peculiar lately...”

“My name is Ryuuji. Ryuuji Sogabe.”

“I'm Jyotarou Amagi.”

As the man introduced himself, he placed his book beside himself.

Ryuuji passed Jyotarou a business card, and sat down next to him.

“Actually, first, there's something I want to ask you, Mr. Amagi.”

Jyotarou tilted his head slightly to look at the business card he received.

“Network Trouble Consultant...,” Jyotarou read aloud.

“I deal with various problems on the Net. Well, it's something like a detective agency.”

“As I said before, my memory is not the best. If it concerns my work, I'm afraid I cannot discuss it,” said Jyotarou.

He seemed to be cautious about hearing the word 'Net'. It was a natural reaction for those who worked their way up in the business like Jyotarou Amagi.

“That's not a problem,” replied Ryuuji in a feigned nonchalant manner.

“Does the name 'Geist' ring any bells?” asked Ryuuji.

“Well, let's see. Doesn't that mean 'spirit'?” said Jyotarou with a puzzled tone.

“If I remember correctly, I think it's some sort of philosophy term. Oh, I was told about it. I feel like I heard that name before... from a European landscape artist.” continued Jyotarou.

As he searched through his memory and spoke slowly, Jyotarou looked at Ryuuji.

“Other than that, I don't remember anything,” said Jyotarou.

Ryuuji looked at Jyotarou's eyes. There was a change in his facial expression. It didn't change with talk of weather. 'Nice weather, isn't it?' 'Yes, it is.' Jyotarou's essence had been unaffected by that matter.

“Is that so? Well, thanks anyway,” said Ryuuji.

Suddenly, a flowing chime that sounded like a xylophone rang out from a speaker somewhere in the facility.

Jyotarou turned his head and muttered to Ryuuji.

“Lunch break is over. I have to go back in.”

Ryuuji stood up.

“Thanks for your time. It was nice meeting you.”

“Are you satisfied with my answers? Well... what I can remember anyway.”

Jyotarou took his cane and slowly stood up.

“Of course. You were very helpful. Ah, you forgot your book,” said Ryuuji.

Ryuuji grabbed the book and passed it to Jyotarou. Ryuuji saw the title, which read 'Vijnapti-matrata'.*

“That must be a difficult book. Is it from Buddhism?” remarked Ryuuji.

“Yes, it is. I borrowed it from a coworker a long time ago and haven't been able to return it. I've been waiting for the opportunity to read it and, now that I'm in here, I think I've found it, but it's not easy to read.”

Jyotarou stroked the book cover with a bitter smile, muttering softly to himself.

“Just before I came here, I had this huge fight with this guy at work. I got really angry.”

Ryuuji remained silent.

“In some ways I'm still angry, because I can't go back and make it all better,” continued Jyotarou.

Suddenly the wind blew and whistled through the trees. The wind was refreshing and cool, a change from the warmth of the courtyard.

Jyotarou's body trembled.

“It's chilly. There's quite a breeze, isn't there?” he said.

“Oh, please go on in. I'll stay here for a bit and enjoy the air,” replied Ryuuji.

Jyotarou bowed and went back, walking with his cane, into the facility. He dragged his left leg awkwardly.

Ryuuji waited until Jyotarou's back was no longer in sight, then removed from his pocket a portable data terminal and gently brushed the panel with his finger, loading the memo function. A message alert was instantly displayed on the screen.

1:02 p.m., May 19, 2023.

During Ryuuji's visit, he was contacted by Jyotarou's cousin, just about his only relative, Saika Amagi. In this message, she explained her knowledge of the condition her cousin, Jyotarou, was diagnosed with: memory loss. After delving into cyberspace as “flesh and blood”, Jyotarou paid for his deeds upon returning to the real world.

His memory ceases at the year 2015. He now believes that he works on the Urayasu coast mega-float. After he caused a serious loss of data to the company, he was transferred to his present location of Odaiba, Tokyo... He thinks the fire he started is all a dream. To him it's a thing of the future.

The co-worker he fought with was likely Banshouya Jun. Together with Jyotarou, he participated in CC Corp.'s top secret project as team leader. He died a long time ago.

As Ryuuji took in the text, he sighed deeply.

While Jyotarou reads the book he borrowed from Banshouya, he keeps waiting for the day when he'll meet him again.

While he wishes to reconcile, he will continue to read the book at this facility indefinitely. However, there will never come a day when Jyotarou finishes reading that book. His memory will keep resetting to the year 2015.

I don't know known whether The World Goddess will perhaps show Jyotarou's condition some mercy and compassion. Very few know how things will turn out. Because of that, everyone bears the responsibility for the damage he caused.

After he turned off the portable data terminal's power, Ryuuji thought whether he should have conveyed something to Jyotarou or not.

At least, that was his only reason for coming to visit.

However, maybe it's best if he explained it like this--
Even after he left 'The World', Jyotarou Amagi's 'Geist' still wanders to this very day.

*Vijnapti-matrata ('Thesis of Cognitions') is a Buddhist theory which states that all existence is subjective and nothing exists outside of the mind.

01 The Call

He stood on a slightly elevated sandy beach and gazed out at the sea.

He heard the roar of the waves.

He smelled the scent of the tide.

The cold water of the early morning, the chill in the air, and the sunlight blended together.

The sky was cloudy.

A girl stood nearby.

She was younger than him.

She couldn't be more than twenty.

Out over the waves, two birds were singing.

Image

“Ah, Japanese robins,” she murmured.

Then she looked out at the sea and whispered to him.

“Hey, did you know? Migratory birds, midway through their journey, temporarily stop at a location, and leave behind an individual,” she said in German with a southern German accent.

She tilted her slender face in profile, her wavy flaxen hair swayed softly.

The sea was very loud, even at a distance.

“As long as a healthy individual does not become injured or fall ill, they won't be left behind.”

The sand at the woman's feet made a crunching sound. She looked down at her bare feet. On top of her elegant white sweater she wore an overcoat, and her navy blue skirt hit just above her knee. Her calves were dazzling like ceramic pottery.

“What are you thinking about?”

Then the woman turned her face towards him. Her eyes were blue.

Well, he was thinking about this conversation with this girl. He was thinking of things he had experienced before. Yes, that was it. In a moment, she'd be sure to comb up her hair and laugh.

As soon as he thought it, sure enough, she combed up her hair with her right hand and prudently laughed. Listening to her soft voice, he wanted to say something. He thought about what he wanted to say to her.

But, the words would not come out. The thoughts would not come out. A strange impatience began to grow. He sensed something strange, something sinister, a disquieting sense of unease.

Suddenly he realized that her dress looked as though it was blurring. Then the girl was no longer there. The sand and sea and sunlight, everything, grew dim and distorted, as his body became soft and opaque. A distorted sense of reality spilt out everywhere.

He could not see and felt as though he was being torn from this place with considerable force. In an instant he was clinging to this place for dear life. It was painful trying to keep it together. He felt as though he was being merged with something. It was useless to resist.

Ryuuji woke up from his dream.

He looked up absentmindedly at the grey ceiling for a while. His mind, as he watched the dream, was already finely cut and processed, his memories vanishing into the distance.

Soon his consciousness became clear, and he recognized the ringing sound of a telephone call.

Ryuuji got up from the sofa, and donning his slippers, walked up to his desk and picked up the portable terminal. There was a dull throbbing in the back of his neck.

“Hello...,” said Ryuuji.

A hoarse voice came out. He coughed away from the mouthpiece.

“Thank you for calling. This is Office Consultant Ryuuji Sogabe.”

“It's Kiyoteru Yodogawa,” came the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Ah, Mr. Yodogawa. How may I help you?”

Now Ryuuji was dealing with a client.

“There's something I want to talk to you about,” said Mr. Yodogawa rather quickly with a thinly veiled tone of desperation.

“It's not something I can talk about over the phone. Why don't we meet?” Mr. Yodogawa continued.

“Right now?” questioned Ryuuji.

He looked at the clock. It was three o'clock in the afternoon.

“Oh, as soon as possible,” said Mr. Yodogawa.

“Ohhh, well, actually, I have plans. How does any time after six o'clock sound?”

“Sooner.”

“Then, five o'clock.”

Image

“Alright, five o'clock...” said Mr. Yodogawa.

There was a pause as he thought.

“Alright, we meet five o'clock in the same place as last time, the 'Sea-dragon',” continued Mr. Yodogawa.

As hastily as he had begun the conversation, Mr. Yodogawa hastily ended the phone call.

Ryuuji tossed the portable terminal on the sofa, and went behind the partitioning screen he had in the office. There he had installed a sink, so that cooking would now be easier. He felt thirsty.

He turned on the tap and, holding some water in his hands, took a gulp. It was refreshing. The bad reputation of Tokyo's water was a thing of the past. Moisture in his body gave him a pleasant feeling of replenishment and, after gargling, he washed his face and dried it with a towel, putting him in a better mood.

He went back to his desk, pulled out the chair, and sat down. He didn't have a hangover as he was not a heavy drinker. Yet, as with someone who has a hangover, he couldn't hide the washed-out feeling that encompassed his entire being. He had fallen asleep on the sofa at a strange hour. The peaceful feeling was much too fleeting to enjoy.

He looked around the room. The office was spit into two parts. A black linoleum floor and a grey wall. It was an expensive lounge suite in itself. Around the office, the remnants of last night's evening drinks were scattered about.

Ryuuji put on his glasses and looked at the clock again. 3:15 p.m. He figured he ought to hurry a little.

While he quickly changed his clothes, he thought about the phone call from Mr. Yodogawa.

Client Kiyoteru Yodogawa is CC Corp.'s director... to be precise, he is the senior executive managing director. Next year in 2024 and beyond, he will serve as the producer of new game productions and will set the launch schedule.

Just the other day, he submitted his latest report as requested regarding whether or not there were any questions or concerns.

Ryuuji groped around in the pocket of the suit he had just put on for a candy, took one out, removed the wrapping paper and put it in his mouth. It was orange flavored.

Before he left, he secured the office door lock and, for some reason or other, he was reminded of this morning's dream. However, he could not remember the contents of the dream.

He turned the key and the door locked with a solemn clanking sound.

If he couldn't remember, it was no big deal, was it?

02 Lilie

After a twenty minute drive, he arrived at the station. It was a much shorter distance to the station from the office at his workplace than from his apartment. In favor of parking in the parking lot, he turned into a roundabout, and a group of junior high school students started shuffling out of the station entrance. He was just in time.

The junior high students were all in their sailor-style uniforms, and each of them carried a backpack and overnight bag for traveling. One courageous student dragged along a colossal suitcase – something like what a news anchor would use on a vacation abroad – which he must have borrowed from his parents. He surely must have been older than the others to want to use a thing like that.

Mixed in among the black-haired boys and girls was a single blond-haired girl. She carried a yellow leather-backed knapsack-like overnight bag and a paper bag was hanging from each hand. In her right hand she also carried something that looked like a stick, and looking more closely, Ryuuji saw that it was a wooden sword.

Ryuuji abandoned entering the parking lot and pulled over to the side of the road.

As he gazed out from inside the car, the girl informed her classmates of her parting and waved goodbye, then took out her folding mobile phone, and begin to dial a number.

Ryuuji held his portable terminal and waited.

Before long a ringing sound reverberated, and Ryuuji quickly touched the terminal screen.

“Ah, Ryuuji? It's Lilie. I'm at the station now,” came Lilie's voice.

“Come pick me up. I'm waiting at the west entrance,” she continued.

“I'm already here. That's a cool wooden sword you're holding.”

And, just as he spoke, Lilie recognized Ryuuji's car and got to her feet.

She walked up, opened the car door, and slid into the passenger seat.

“I'm home!” she said.

“Welcome home.”

She twisted her body in her seat, leaned forward, and, holding herself in place, put a large amount of luggage in the back seat.

“It was amazing! There were a lot of deer!” she said.

It was a first year junior high school trip. They spent three nights and four days visiting Nara and Kyoto, and it was a while before the heat of excitement finally cooled down.

Ryuuji waited for Lilie to fasten her seat-belt, then started the car. She kept talking all the while. As she made gestures with her hands, her long curly hair shook.

“And then the sun shone on it, it was so beautiful,” she said.

“The Kyoto Golden Pavilion?” asked Ryuuji.

“No, the deer.”

As he listened to the tales of her travels, Ryuuji soon reached the road that led to his apartment.

“...Anyway. It was really big and sublime, and it had a mysterious ambiance about it,” she said.

“The Buddha statue in Nara?”

“No, the deer. Geez, are you even listening?”

“This conversation is a little biased,” said Ryuuji, who was a little shocked, as one would expect.

“Didn't you see anything besides deer and souvenir shops?” he added.

Lilie turned around and took a paper bag from the back seat.

“Even if I bought everyone's time, there still wouldn't be enough to tell you everything. There was Nomu and Nene. Oh, and there was Tokio...”

While she fished through the contents, Lilie muttered the names of her acquaintances.

“By the way, who's wooden sword is that?” asked Ryuuji.

“It's mine.”

“Ahhh, I see...”

“I got you a gift, Ryuuji. Look, pickled vegetables. I sampled some and they were delicious. We can eat them with dinner.”

Image

“Sorry, I have to go to work,” said Ryuuji in a gentle, casual tone.

“I don't know how late I'll be back. I should be finished before it gets dark,” he continued.

“What, really? I thought we'd eat together...”

Lilie was extremely disheartened by Ryuuji's words.

He parked his car in front of his apartment and Lilie turned to the back seat and collected her things.

“Will you be okay by yourself?” asked Ryuuji.

“Yeah, I'll be fine.”

Lilie was tougher than her delicate looks suggested.

Ryuuji spoke as he passed her the wooden sword.

“Go to bed early tonight. And there's some pudding in the fridge you can have,” he said.

Lilie stopped and looked at Ryuuji.

“Pudding? The stuff from last week?”

Her blue eyes became very sharp in a flash.

“Hey, you did say you'd get rid of it if it wasn't eaten by the best-before date, didn't you?” she continued.

“Right...” said Ryuuji.

“You didn't listen to me at all... What about the laundry?”

“What?”

“Did you do the laundry?”

“Of course I did.”

“Really? You don't just pile it in your office?”

Lilie had a habit of looking directly at a person's eyes. Ryuuji averted his eyes and put a candy up to his mouth again.

“I wonder how it's doing. Ah, if it's still there.”

“You better have it when you come back. I'll go through it and wash it tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, ma'am,” said Ryuuji.

“Also, don't forget to buy new garbage bags.”

“Garbage bags, certainly...”

“Speaking of forgetting, don't forget to take stock of your non-flammable materials and separate them from the flammable stuff.”

“Right. Thanks for reminding me.”

“You're welcome,” said Lilie.

03 Seadragon

The “Seadragon”, specified by Mr. Yodogawa, was located at a corner of a business district, on the sixth floor of an old building. It was a fairly thriving high-cl[censored] Chinese restaurant located far from CyberConnect Corp. Japan in Odaiba. He must have selected a distant location on purpose.

Ryuuji took a piece of candy from his mouth, threw it into the garbage bin located in the first floor lobby, and entered the elevator.

The restaurant was empty. Lunchtime was over and it was time for a breather.

Mr. Yodogawa was already sitting at a table in the corner, waiting for Ryuuji. Light shone in through a window by the seats, illuminating the table.

Ryuuji watched an employee serve Chinese alcohol with a dim sum platter, then sat across from Mr. Yodogawa and greeted him.

“Hello, Mr. Yodogawa. Sorry to have kept you waiting,” said Ryuuji.

Mr. Yodogawa turned his plump flushed face to Ryuuji. His eyes were bloodshot. He also seemed to have been drinking. Beads of sweat slowly ran down his forehead.

He expressly called Ryuuji in confidence to talk about a request, that is to say, to have a business discussion. With a man such as Yodogawa under the influence of alcohol, there was a strong sense of discomfort as he did not talk of any negotiations.

“Excuse my rudeness. How about a drink?” he asked in a firm tone.

“No, thank you. I came by car, you see,” answered Ryuuji.

Ryuuji requested a cup of oolong tea from a passing waiter.

It was just before the start of Golden Week* a month ago that he got a call from Mr. Yodogawa for the first time.

Mr. Yodogawa said on the telephone that he wanted to talk about Ryuuji's great ability and dedication, and to offer him a job.

Three years earlier in 2020, when Ryuuji still worked at CC Corp. Japan, he came face-to-face with Mr. Yodogawa on several occasions through acquaintances. Mr. Yodogawa joined the company approximately six years earlier. At that time, he was not the director, but was employed as the Secretarial Office Chief. Though he was nonetheless the same company-man and human being that he was when he first arrived, when it came down to it, Ryuuji felt that Mr. Yodogawa had completely changed.

After his resignation, Ryuuji did not know whether he heard about the so-called vacancy in the Network Trouble Consultant office by chance somewhere, or whether he investigated and ascertained this information himself. However, to be requested for a specific job was in itself a kind of fact.

In other words, the position was not known to other in-house employees.

In any case, special knowledge and skill are required for investigations concerning “The World.”

Mr. Yodogawa brought up a curious request.

“There's a rumour that the PC called “Geist” unleashed a computer virus. I want you to find out the truth.”

He continued.

“Right now, I'm backed up with too much work. If I can't drink alcohol, it's unbearable,” explained Mr. Yodogawa.

“That's fine. Ah, Mr. Yodogawa, the new title was officially publicized. I saw it in the newspaper. Versus... umm......”

“VERSUS: The World. I was finally able to announce it.”

Between the gossip and small-talk, the orders soon arrived. With this, there would be no further intrusions from employees.

“I met Dr. Amagi,” said Mr. Yodogawa after a while.

As the director of CC Corp. Japan, Mr. Yodogawa had grasped the events surrounding “The World” of the past.

He also knew that Jyotarou Amagi created the underlying cause of the Immortal Dusk Incident of 2020 by transferring his A.I. Copy into Geist and having him execute the program.

“Yes, the letter of introduction I received was useful,” said Ryuuji.

“He, that...” continued Ryuuji.

“I did not learn anything in regards to Geist. He even filled out a report, but his memory goes back to before 2015. The present Dr. Amagi is unrelated to the previous incidents... he is harmless,” Ryuuji concluded.

“Because of Dr. Amagi's situation, our plan must be put on hold,” said Mr. Yodogawa with a look of disappointment.

“Well, I guess so. However, it's most likely just a rumour, a hoax that became costly.”

“It can't be a hoax!”

Suddenly Mr. Yodogawa's loud voice revealed itself. Seeing that he drew the attention of those in the restaurant, Mr. Yodogawa stirred with apparent discomfort.

“Sorry,” he apologized in a whisper.

“But, this is not simply a hoax. Without a doubt, the person who has been spreading the computer virus is still somewhere in “The World.” I believe that person to be Geist,” Mr. Yodogawa continued.

“What was it you said, that when it comes to the world-cl[censored] MMORPG “The World”, some gossip about a computer virus is the price of being famous? I'm shocked speechless that someone in a position like yours could make such a reckless remark now. Rather, it doesn't make sense,” Ryuuji said.

Mr. Yodogawa's eyelids twitched and convulsed. He seemed to be have become rather emotionally unstable.

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“I didn't say that, and I'm not trying to attack you,” said Ryuuji.

Mr. Yodogawa fell silent.

“Your current request is very unnatural. There is a rumour that someone is spreading a virus through the online game. You somehow know the culprit, this person called Geist. Yet, on the Net there are many people to investigate. As is often the case, the irresponsible one behind the aforementioned rumour won't be found. Do you know something? If you want to do something to me, please let me know. You called me out here today of all days with this plan,” Ryuuji continued.

Mr. Yodogawa's mouth remained closed and his eyes were cast down at the table as before.

Ryuuji downed his gl[censored] in one mouthful.

“Come now, I'll wait a little. We're socializing with small talk. Oolong tea is good for the health, I've been drinking quite a lot since last Friday. But, sooner or later you'll get down to the business of facts, or I'll vanish from your sight.”

Still Mr. Yodogawa cast his eyes downward and was silent. There appeared to be a conflict with what was obvious upon close inspection. He firmly grasped the edges of the table with both his hands.

He felt his stiff feet loosening and looked at Ryuuji in order to gather his thoughts.

“If I want to request additional cases, how much would you charge?” asked Mr. Yodogawa.

“Depending on what it is, there may be extra fees. As a rule, the criteria are established in accordance with previous talks. One week is 300,000 yen. And then there are necessary expenses.”

“Regardless of whether you accept it or not, I want you to promise to keep it a secret.”

“Naturally.”

“Can I depend on you?”

“Of course.”

With the talk finally showing signs of advancing, Ryuuji displayed his extraordinarily harmless business smile.

Mr. Yodogawa took something, which was wrapped in a paper bag, from inside his suit pocket and handed it to Ryuuji.

“What's that?”

Mr. Yodogawa opened his mouth to answer Ryuuji's question, when his portable terminal's ringtone sounded. Mr. Yodogawa's suit pocket shook from the portable terminal's vibrate function.

“Ah, excuse me,” he said.

Hindering the talk, Mr. Yodogawa instantly became ashen-faced and answered his portable terminal. It seemed to be something relating to work, so Mr. Yodogawa stood up and walked to the restroom.

Subsequently, Ryuuji was left behind to gaze at the paper bag in boredom. He held the bag in his hand in order to judge what was inside, and felt what seemed to be a case for glasses. However, having been firmly fixed in place with cloth tape, he would not be able to see inside without tearing the paper bag. Ryuuji considered it a little, but decided to wait for Mr. Yodogawa to return.

Eventually, Mr. Yodogawa returned and sat in his chair.

“Mr. Yodogawa, what is this?” asked Ryuuji.

Then Ryuuji noticed something unusual with Mr. Yodogawa. He was trembling bit by bit. His teeth started to make a nervous chattering sound. Seemingly not able to control himself, he wiped the sweat from his face awkwardly and spoke as he panted. Despite his hoarse voice, he could be heard quite clearly.

“I want you to exterminate the rats.”

“Pardon me... rats?”

“Don't you get it? They're biting me!” Mr. Yodogawa cried out.

Once again the looks of the restaurants patrons were gathered on him. However, this time Mr. Yodogawa did not become silent. Rising from his seat as though he was repelled by it, he continued yelling.

“Some slimy dripping things are beckoning them to my feet. The stench is soaking into my eyes. They're climbing up the air-duct and attacking me. They're biting me! They're biting me!”

He opened his eyes wide. It looked like his pupils and irises were melting into the whites of the eyes. Countless beads of cold sweat ran down his forehead. His breathing was laboured and shallow.

Ryuuji stood up and went around the table to put his hands on Mr. Yodogawa's shoulders.

“Mr. Yodogawa, calm down.”

“What's going on?”

A waiter came along and stood on the defensive.

“You're bothering the other customers,” the waiter said.

“It's nothing. Please bring some cold water,” said Ryuuji.

When Ryuuji was distracted, Mr. Yodogawa's right fist hit just under Ryuuji's left eye. Though he was shorter than Ryuuji, there was an unexpected brute strength in Mr. Yodogawa's muscles.

Completely caught off guard, Ryuuji staggered greatly from the force of Mr. Yodogawa's hand.

“When he comes back with the water, he'll think you bumped your nose. Why don't you go numb the pain with some ice!” said Mr. Yodogawa.

Mr. Yodogawa jumped up on top of the table and, while shouting and muttering incoherently, kicked and broke a window with the heel of his shoe. The gl[censored] shattered with an intense sound.

Now, for the first time, screams came from the restaurant's female customers. After this, they seemed to foresee what would happen next.

Mr. Yodogawa slowly placed his right foot on the window frame. Then, his left foot.

Image

“Mr. Yodogawa!” cried out Ryuuji as he held his left cheek.

Mr. Yodogawa looked back. His eyes met with Ryuuji's. He smiled as tears flowed down his face. He passed through the window and fell head-first.

After that moment, a smashing sound could be heard from where Ryuuji sat on the sixth floor.

Ryuuji rushed over to the window and looked down at the ground.

He couldn't look. He thought it better not to see the body, but it was impossible not to look. The body lay twisted by a twenty-five-metre fall from a six-storey building to the asphalt sidewalk below. Until a little while ago, that thing had been a lively human being.

*Golden week is a week-long holiday season in Japan, occurring in early-May.

04 Questioned

The police were called, Ryuuji came down, and waited for the arrival of the patrol car as curious onlookers encircled and surrounded Mr. Yodogawa from a distance. An ambulance was not called. It was obvious there was no need to call for one.
Eventually a patrol car came. Of course, a frightening-looking middle-aged policeman tried to get some information from Ryuuji. He seemed to conclude that it was a quarrel over drinks. From there he didn't try to hide that he was beginning to doubt the circumstances.

However, the Seadragon's waiter came outside and explained that the deceased, that is, Mr. Yodogawa, when he arrived at the restaurant by himself, already seemed emotionally unstable, and when Mr. Yodogawa began to become violent, Ryuuji tried to calm him down, and Ryuuji himself didn't even drink a drop of alcohol.

For the time being he was cleared of any suspicion, but next time, in order to do an investigation of the scene, he would be called to come and act as a witness.

After that, each time someone came or went by the Seadragon and Mr. Yodogawa's fall location, they had to look at the harsh work of a police officer.

They kept an eye on the people going back and forth, then moved Mr. Yodogawa's remains before anyone noticed, the bloodstain spread out on the sidewalk in the evening hours. This was more graphic than when Mr. Yodogawa fell.

It started to get hot under Ryuuji's left eye, on his cheekbone. He felt it to check and it seemed to be swelling. He was asked by the policeman he spoke with earlier whether he wanted to go to the hospital or to the station for questioning, so he decided to be taken to the nearest police station. The talk ended after about twenty minutes, but for some reason they left him waiting in the room for forty minutes. The pain in his cheek became worse. He almost considered it a good time to let them know that he would rebel against the state, when a small middle-aged police officer came with official documents and a first-aid kit under his arm. For the first time since this afternoon, he was able to see out of his eye. He put out his experienced hands and stuck a compress under Ryuuji's eye.

Then, he thanked Ryuuji for his cooperation and pleasant behaviour and apologized for making him wait, then explained that he'd come to arrange to have Ryuuji fill out forms rather than question him.

The form work was finished in about ten minutes.

“There was no need to use up so much of your time. There are a lot of witnesses, and there will be no charges laid in this random suicide case,” said the officer.

“Random suicide?”

“Yes. Among Mr. Yodogawa's personal effects we found a tranquilizer. Something to manage the stress, it seems,” said the policeman.

“However, it took some time to confirm Mr. Yodogawa's identity. That's why we had you wait here so long, Mr. Sogabe,” he continued.

“That's quite alright. But, that's kind of strange,” said Ryuuji.

“Mr. Yodogawa is the director of CyberConnect Corp. Couldn't you simply get that information by contacting the company?” he added.

“Of course, we did call the company. They were not very helpful. In the end the call kept getting handed off to someone else, until the person in charge finally told us that there was no one who could help. Even when we told them that it was one of their own employees that died. Large companies are like bureaucracies. That's what I say anyway,” said the middle-aged policeman somewhat indignantly.

“In the end, we contacted the wife of the deceased, and she confirmed his identity. We were very grateful for her help. This is a token of our gratitude for your cooperation.”

As he spoke, the officer passed an envelope containing a gift-certificate booklet to Ryuuji. Looking more closely, he noticed the envelope contained two slots with a telephone card in each slot. On these cards, pictures of odd mascot creatures dressed as police officers were drawn. He, or rather, these mascot-like characters looked up at Ryuuji with fearless expressions. As he closed the envelope, it looked as though the cute designs of the eyebrows rose to the forefront and became comically thick and imposing.

Image

“Ah, this is...” said Ryuuji.

“This is very lovely. Thank you very much. My daughter will be delighted,” he finished.

He thanked the officer and politely put it in his pocket.

The policeman saw Ryuuji out of the building.

“We're very sorry for using up so much of your time. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“It was no problem at all,” said Ryuuji.

05 Babel

He returned to the office, arriving late at night.

He phoned Lilie before going to the police, only to tell her that he would not be able to come home that night. She was probably already asleep by now anyway.

On the desk, the remnants of the familiar end of last night's evening drink gently and decadently greeted the completely worn out Ryuuji. Ryuuji changed into his lounge-wear and, finding an untouched fish sausage, finely chopped it, cooked it in a frying pan, and picked it up. Pushing things aside on the desk, he placed the skimpy cuisine and a bottle of Taplows* in the space he cleared. He poured the contents of the bottle into a whisky gl[censored] and downed it in mouthful, then waited for it to settle in his stomach. Sitting down, he leaned against the back of the chair and gazed at the ceiling. His body became hot, and, under the compress, the spot where Mr. Yodogawa struck his face throbbed.

What a day it's been, he thought.

A client died right before his eyes. Jumped to his death. Suddenly went mad and smashed out a window in the middle of talking about work, and jumped from the sixth-storey of a building. Couldn't be restrained. It all happened so fast.

He remembered the words of the middle-aged police officer.

“There are a lot of witnesses, and there will be no charges laid in this random suicide case...”

Was that really true?

There was certainly a sense of discomfort in Mr. Yodogawa's appearance today. He'd been drinking. He seemed to be emotionally unstable. He shouted loudly. He'd apparently been taking tranquilizers.

But would that explain being led to such a sudden suicide? It seemed likely to Ryuuji that Mr. Yodogawa had been talking to someone just before all this.

He did not know Mr. Yodogawa personally. He'd been very precise in how he presented himself and clients had known him better than his old acquaintances. This was as far as his relationships went. However, he'd been caught up in something. At that time, Mr. Yodogawa had had something to ask Ryuuji. What had he said? Rats. That was it, rats.

“I want you to exterminate the rats,” Mr. Yodogawa had said.

Could that have been nothing more than delirious, incoherent babble?

Ryuuji sat down and looked at the paper package Mr. Yodogawa brought to the “Seadragon.” He ought to have submitted this item to the police, at least that was his intention. However, he changed his mind due to his association with the drawn-out investigation. Actually, he changed his mind when he discovered the telephone cards he received.

He took a box-cutter in hand and carefully cut the packing tape around the packaging.

A black box-shaped glasses case came out. Strictly speaking, it looked a lot like a glasses case. There was something familiar about this case to Ryuuji. Momentarily distracted, he moved his hand forward and opened the case. Inside was contained something that looked like glasses. However, these were not glasses. It looked like something called an FMD, a Face-Mounted Display, used for communicating in online games. However, this was not an FMD. Ryuuji knew what it was.

It was a VR-Scanner.

He held it for a while and looked at it.

There was a time once when Ryuuji worked on the research influenced by Jyotarou Amagi's proposed Real Digitization ideology. The VR-Scanner was produced as a byproduct in this process. By using an optical sensor to connect the optic nerve and performing an operation on the “Schicksal Player-character”, medical technology recovers the mentally afflicted part of the test subject with high compatibility for the digital world.

When he resigned from from CC Corp. Japan three years ago, Ryuuji transferred to a company with all his research and data, including the VR-Scanner. Ryuuji renounced all of his rights as a developer. Such was the contract of employment. Therefore, Ryuuji, for the first time in three years, was actually able to hold this device in his hands.

The remnants of a dream of Ryuuji Sogabe's as a psychotherapy researcher, so to speak.

He started his desktop PC and used a code to link his PC and VR-Scanner.

Immediately, on the other side of the monitor, the PC-data installed on the VR-Scanner stood out like a wax model that had been given a coating. It was a tall, lean figure. Black hair. Light-weight clothing. Somewhat lanky limbs. A monocle in his right eye.

It was just as he had expected. Reunited with his dear old friend “Flügel.”

Why was the VR-Scanner here? It was because Director Yodogawa brought it with him.

Then, why did Mr. Yodogawa bring this along and lay it across from Ryuuji? Mr. Yodogawa didn't select Ryuuji for some half-hearted reason that he simply did not want to be known to an in-house employee. He came with this request because of Ryuuji.

“I want you to investigate whether Geist released a virus,” said Mr. Yodogawa when they first met. It was obvious that there was a different intent behind the scenes. The question lay there. What was it that Mr. Yodogawa wanted Ryuuji to do? Did he intend for Ryuuji to use this Flügel in some way?

His head hurt too much to keep thinking. He didn't even know if he was drunk again.

Ryuuji opened a drawer and retrieved a pack of playing cards to play a one-person card game. He moved away from his desk, leaving his computer as it was, sat down on the sofa, shuffled the cards, and arranged them one by one onto the reception table. It was a one-person game called Babel.

When Ryuuji arranged them in his head, he did it in order to play this game. He continued arranging the cards methodically in accordance with the rules. It's name is derived from the story that, as they packed the cards in their hands, and the cards kept piling up little by little, players were reminded of the Biblical tale. You had to admire this sort of human taste in naming. In any case, it was the perfect tool for clearing the mind.

While sorting the cards, Ryuuji put all unknown matters to the side for the moment, and tried to consider only practical matters.

Was there a cost to this problem? No. On the contrary, he'd already received an advance payment which was more than enough.

With the exception of this matter, did he have any high-priority work? No.

In order to divert leisure time, would he rather have the Taplows while snacking on the somewhat shoddy fried fish-meat sausage? He wasn't so sure about that...

Soon the cards were divided into a stalemate. Game over. Concluded in accordance with the Scriptures.

He felt bad about the work he'd left undone. That was certain.

With what appeared to be the conclusion, Ryuuji drained the remnants of his gl[censored] and stretched out on the sofa. Then he slept.

*Taplows is a brand of Scotch whisky made in Scotland.

06 Resurrection

The next morning, Ryuuji left the office and returned to his apartment building. He stuffed the laundry in a vinyl bag, went inside and slipped the card-key into his apartment door.

Lilie was already awake, watching morning cartoons in the living room while dressed in her pyjamas. As Ryuuji entered, Lilie, realizing the situation, became panicked.

“Grid, news,” she said.

The TV channel quickly changed and became a news program.

Since around the time just before she became a junior high school student, Lilie became bashful about watching child-oriented anime in front of Ryuuji. Perhaps a sign of puberty.

“Good morning,” said Ryuuji.

Lilie replied, trying to appear calm and collected.

“Morning.”

Having just changed the channel again on a whim, she called out to return to the original news program.

Then she looked at Ryuuji's face and raised her eyebrows.

“What happened there?”

“Oh, this?”

Before he'd left the office, Ryuuji removed the compress from under his left eye and applied a large bandage to the area. Even so, it looked like nothing more than a squished pimple.

“I squished a huge pimple. It was horribly painful,” he said.

Lilie frowned and didn't enquire any further.

“What will you do about breakfast? You should eat soon,” she said.

“I'll eat right now,” said Ryuuji.

He was hungry. He thought about it, and realized he hadn't eaten sufficiently yesterday.

“Grid, kitchen,” said Lilie.

In the kitchen on the other end of the hallway, the ventilation fan began to whir.

“Grid” was the name given to the server-robot who managed Ryuuji's household consumer electronics.

Lilie instructed “Grid” to activate the cooking appliances, and it promptly prepared the breakfast arrangements. Rice, miso soup, bacon and eggs. And of course, pickled vegetables.

They sat down face-to-face at the kitchen table.

The advantage of the lofty family dining table was that you wouldn't be hindered by anyone.

The problem was, every time he bit into the pickled vegetables, he felt a sharp pain running through his left cheek. The swelling fortunately looked like it was going down. Even if he didn't take off the bandage, he didn't think he could care less about how he looked. He casually tilted his head and chewed with the teeth on his right side, its effectiveness in relieving the pain was close to nil.

Suddenly raising her head, Lilie, who had finished eating, looked at Ryuuji, who looked too concerned to eat.

“Hey, that's strange,” she said while looking at Ryuuji's swollen cheek.

“Did something happen?” she added.

“To be honest, I forgot to buy garbage bags. Sorry.”

“That's not it.”

“Well, other than that...” said Ryuuji, turning away as he talked.

“Here's a gift of thanks for the wonderful pickled vegetables,” he added.

He took out the envelope case and placed it before Lilie.

“Huh? What is it?” said Lilie loudly, taken by surprise.

She [censored]ed up the envelope.

She peered inside, her doubting face formed a seemingly happy facial expression for several seconds, and, left speechless, she looked back up at Ryuuji.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Telephone cards.”

Telephone cards?

“They're cards that you use in a public telephone. Try them. They're a good deal.”

Public telephone?” said Lilie, as she titled her head.

“Huh?” she added with a puzzled tone, making a somewhat confused facial expression.

“Ah, I see... You've never seen one.”

Lilie came along with Ryuuji to Japan six years ago. At that time, public telephones were being eliminated, and many of them had already been removed. No, perhaps they were completely removed by the time she arrived. She had not known about the existence of public telephones and telephone cards. A generation gap.

“Ah. Well, in the olden days such convenient public instalments existed. You could use these cards to make calls,” said Ryuuji, trying to explain the gist of the situation.

“If you had a cell phone, wouldn't you not need these?”

“If electrical power were to go out in an emergency, you'd be worried. So, with the auspices of the police, the old telephone line has recently been making a comeback. You know, it's the mark of an endorsement from the Metropolitan Police Department.”

“But where would you use it? I've, well, never seen anything like a public telephone.”

“You're right. Where would you use it, I wonder,” said Ryuuji.

“As far as that goes, I really don't know,” he added.

“Despite not knowing, did you look it up?”

She tried searching with her portable terminal's Net search.

“...Wow. It seems even a large station or the airport is useful, eh? The number of machines still operating in the country is around two-hundred. ...Two-hundred? Two hundred doesn't seem to be enough. Ah, I see. So, even the cards are rare.”

“Really?”

“Am I wrong?”

“I don't know. Geez. I said it was fine.”

“Well, do what you want with it. It's not the end of the world.”

“Japanese is funny,” said Lilie.

“Now listen here, you."

“Aren't the illustrations of the mascots cute?” added Ryuuji in a soft voice.

“I don't need them,” said Lilie flatly, with such timing that it seemed to be the end of the conversation.

“Grid, kettle.”

She collected her tableware and pushed the case envelope over to Ryuuji, then quickly proceeded to the sink.

Even now, you sometimes hear of the infamous “Resurrection” of six years earlier, in 2017.

After having lived away in Germany for many years and having gotten used to it, Ryuuji returned to Japan with Lilie.

Lilie, who was seven years old at the time, is a distant relative of Ryuuji's late wife. After losing her family in a train accident, she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having no other relatives than Ryuuji, she would have been sent to an institution had he refused to take her. Had Ryuuji not taken appropriate action, she would have been an orphan with serious mental issues.

At the end of the day, leaving her native Germany was probably the best thing for her.

The same could be said for Ryuuji.

Leaving the drying of the dishes to “Grid,” Lilie dressed into a plain clothes combination of a shirt with a skirt and leggings, and went outside to play. She had a play-date with a friend. In spite of having just been on a long-awaited holiday, her vitality was amazing.

After he saw Lilie off, Ryuuji sat down on the living room sofa, retrieved his portable terminal and Palm-PC, and set them on the table.

After he'd returned to the office, he considered starting on his work, and since Lilie was now gone out, he thought he could use this opportunity wisely.

He deployed the Palm-PC's keypad and the power automatically turned on, and the login screen for “The World R:X” appeared.

R:X” was the latest in “The World” series of games, released in 2020. According to official reports, the number of worldwide users exceeds one million people. The old versions, “R:1” and “R:2”, showed a decrease in popularity, but this version boasts the highest popularity of any online game in the industry.

Image

He first loaded a thread on the Official Bulletin Board. One month ago, Ryuuji started it himself.

“To the Magician of Destiny. Requesting contact. E-mail accepted.”

There was not even one response. It was only natural. This was because this message was very cryptic to an outsider, and Geist, who was the target from the beginning, no longer existed in this “World.”

During the Immortal Dusk Incident of 2020, Jyotarou Amagi's Copy AI “Magician” Geist was crushed and terminated by a gigantic Jyotarou Amagi who had been induced with Outer Dependency Syndrome. There wasn't even a fragment left. Despite faithfully serving his master, a cruel reward was bestowed upon the Conjurer for carrying out the plot to it's end.

Ryuuji had witnessed the scene through the eyes of Flugel. That's how he knew that Geist “was not there.”

However, right now he had no objection to respecting the dying wish of his recently deceased client. He just had to look into talks related to “the hacker who identifies himself as Geist.” There wasn't much time.

Ryuuji typed on the keypad and added the new information.

“To the Magician of Destiny. Concerning the extermination of rats. Requesting contact. E-mail accepted.”

Then, he looked at the other popular Bulletin Boards and was not particularly worried.

Using his Palm-PC, this time he accessed NAB's (Network Administration Bureau) site from his portable terminal. Having acquired a Network Supervisor license that is issued by NAB, Ryuuji, an ordinary person, was able to access otherwise inaccessible pages.

He input the ID and password and the industry news page, which updates in real-time, opened before him. He took his time carefully going over the Bulletin Board.

There was one big news item to worry about.

There was an article stating that CyberConnect Corp. San Diego's female President, Veronica Bain seemingly intended to visit CC Corp. Japan in the middle of next month's audit. Dubbed the “Empress,” CyberConnect's most powerful person, Veronica Bain, was the one VIP whose name frequently appeared in network and finance news. You didn't get many chances to make her acquaintance, so her meeting with CC Corp. Japan's employees became something of an amusing topic around the water-cooler.

When he had finished viewing all the information on the page, Ryuuji closed his Palm-PC and turned off the power to his portable terminal. For the time being, he decided he should tie up loose ends in the real world.

He'd save “The World” for last.

07 Net Slum

Net Slum is an irregular, parasitic server in “The World.”

It is a place which ended up functioning as a sort of town, where corrupt area data and various bugs gather and wander to evade debugging, and hackers and cheaters assemble.

This town of junk existed in “The World” from the beginning. It was said to have already been arranged to look as it did in the “R:1” era of a decade or so ago, and even before this, there were talks of sightings of it by the testers for “fragment, ”the beta version of “The World.” Like in the legend of El Dorado, through the ages, it continues to be a “paradise” for the people who love illegalities and lawlessness.

Even if by chance the game's operation was suspended and “The World” ended, Net Slum may go on existing as it always has in cyberspace for eternity.

On a part of the crumbling wall which encircled the town, handwriting had been added, and graphics had seemingly been scribbled in paint.

The trash heap of the world! Welcome to the domain of delinquent hackers and cheats!

At the gate placed in the centre of the dump, a single PC transferred in.

It was a middle-aged man. He wore rustic goggle-glasses and his face was unshaven. He had on a colourless and worn-out coat. For some reason, a houseplant was growing on top of the aviator's cap he wore on his head.

He was an information-dealer. Permanently residing in Net Slum, he made a living by stealing and selling illegal data for real money. He was a brilliant hacker.

He walked down to the square and began to walk towards the modified @HOME made by a transformed guild system—a coffee shop which contained his headquarters.

When he turned the corner of the main street, someone was there, standing in his way.

He thought it was a new hacker, because he was unfamiliar with this PC, but he felt like he had seen this person before.

“Yo. Long time no see. How've you been?” said the new figure.

In order to support his own insight as an information-dealer, this man came to talk to people in a strangely over-familiar tone. The moment the first figure heard the voice, a wave of ominous sensations overwhelmed him.

“I've been waiting for you to come. For two years? Or maybe three? Well, I'm so relieved to finally meet with a former acquaintance,” said the new figure.

In regards to his appearance in “The World”, the man wore an mismatching shirt, necktie, and suspenders. On his right eye was a monocle. Due to his outward appearance, it was impossible to tell his profession. It is possible to say that the informant himself was personally included among the inhabitants of Net Slum.

“I've been looking for the skill of a good information-dealer for a long time. Is that you by any chance? Hehe. I hate to ask, but I could use a little help.”

The man formed a smile, like a long and narrow stick was in his mouth――perhaps a stick of candy was shifting back and forth.

In the instant he saw this stick of candy, the information-dealer realized who the man standing before him was.

That's right. This guy was “Flugel.”

“Eeeeep!”

With a great yelp, he jumped back into the nearby back-alley. He tumbled on to the road on the other side, got his foot caught in a pile of garbage laid at a bend in the road, freed himself, then ran off with all his might.

As he ran through the labyrinthine path, he reached the entrance to the @HOME, targeted it, selected the guild-key from his item-window, and took it in his hand.

After a moment, he slipped inside the hideout.

The calm atmosphere of the dimly-lit jazz café ushered the information-dealer inside, his momentary panic subsided, and a feeling of calm returned in his chest.

He felt safe now that he was inside the confines of the @HOME. A person who did not hold a p[censored] item such as a “Guild Key” or a ”Guest Key” absolutely could not enter. Net Slum was “modding heaven,” to say nothing of this place. For those in the trade, security against the rising skill of hackers cost double or even triple.

Why did this man Flugel appear here right now? He didn't know and didn't want to know. This is what he thought as he stood waiting. From now on, for a little while at least, he ought to be careful about returning to Net Slum. No, he ought to refrain from logging into “The World” altogether.

At that moment, there was a clicking sound at the back of the shop.

The information-dealer was startled and his body stiffened. Someone was there. There was a person sitting on a stool at the farthest end of the counter.

“Ah, by any chance did you switch occupations? Did you become a café manager? If that's what you want, why not go for it, right? But, I don't get a good feeling from this shop,” he said to his old friend.

As Flugel went on chattering endlessly, the information-dealer knew immediately that he had to shake him off as soon as possible.

Steam rose up from a coffee cup placed in front of Flugel.

Flugel took the cup in his hand, brought it to his lips and made a “sipping motion”, then placed it back on its saucer. It made a clinking sound.

“I didn't know you like Jazz. As a matter of fact, I like it too, it has a lovely ambiance. We might get along well after all, eh?”

His inflection at the 'eh?' was very clear. Hehehe, he snickered.

The information-dealer sank down to the floor. This guy was on a different level of hacking skills. How did he possibly get inside? How did he possibly produce that coffee-data?

“What's with you? How did you get in here?!” cried out the information-dealer, thrusting his finger at Flugel.

“Arrrgh, I hate it when you show up unannounced!”

Around the time that “The World R:X” service began, there was a period where the worth of user rights strangely rose in price. Hacker groups emerged to take over the corners of Net Slum and keep control, and they began to use cheat-programs to illegally copy user-registration information and buy and sell Player-Character-bodies.

In those days the information-dealer was already an intermediate player in the trade, setting up shop near the group's headquarters and trying to avoid getting involved as much as possible. He felt that the scope of the illegal act was far too big. He stayed away from the really dangerous jobs. He'd just barely scratched the surface. This is his lifestyle.

His intuition was right. Before long a group, frolicking like a circus troupe, raided and destroyed a hacker group's safe house.

The members of the hacker guild totalled about 50 people. Those who had confidence in their skills ambushed the assailants. Some of them tampered with their PC bodies and gained “semi-immortal” status. However, the circus troupe's strength was no laughing matter, and these tricks were not enough.

It was a disaster for the information-dealer, and there was this evil man with brown skin and brown eyes. This guy took out a huge machine gun – a machine gun in a fantasy world? That's right, it was surely a machine gun―he started shooting indiscriminately at the people around. The bullets rained down upon the “semi-immortal” hackers and there was nothing they could do about it. Their guild headquarters was filled with more holes than swiss cheese.

The bullets soared up to the information-dealer's shop which was located a little ways up the street, effortlessly pierced the interior data of the outer wall graphic, and shook in an odd manner. Valuable information stored in a cloud-storehouse was blown to smithereens. It was merely collateral damage. The information-dealer's real stomach began to hurt as he remembered the incident.

They were somehow able to recover the data through backup files, and were left to spend a large amount of time and resources rebuilding the ruined security system which had been riddled by bullets. The hackers' pride was torn to shreds as the wall of defence that they were more confident about than anything else was calmly broken through.

The person at the helm of the circus troupe's command was Flugel. He knew after a while that they were a hacker group hired semi-officially.

“That's right, now I remember. You said you'd take care of the damages, didn't you? You still owe me for that!” shouted the information-dealer.

Flugel tried to avert his eyes from any signs of trouble while he approached the person shouting at him.

“No way. Since when did I say something like that? What hour, what minute, what second?”

“You old* punk! You definitely said that you'd reimburse me for my storehouse!”

Flugel had had a habit of of just coming around to the information-dealer for things like m[censored] observation of “R:X”, in short, he needed underlings to do reconnaissance. However, eventually the contact became estranged, and soon was lost altogether. Though the compensation was not what it used to be, this time he was relieved that the burdensome relationship was finally over.

“OK, I get it. I'll pay you later. I'll get it all after I finish this job I'm doing. How does that sound?”

“No. Pay me first. If you don't, we'll have to have a little chat. You can absolutely count on that. Now please leave.”

Taking a seat on the bed, the dealer looked away. Little by little he regained his composure after he spoke. He didn't think he'd be back to dragging out a former contract, but he decided to refuse to become emotional here. This was thoroughly dangerous. This was his lifestyle.

“Absolutely? Count on it? If I don't pay you the money first?”

Flugel removed the candy from his mouth.

“Well, if I pay you the money first, you can absolutely count on it, can't you?” said Flugel.

“Uh?”

“Please check your bank account. I just made a deposit.”

The dealer couldn't believe what Flugel just said. He was at a loss for words. Staring at Flugel's face, the dealer opened an invisible secret window and saw his bank account. A deposit had been made. Inside was an amount people don't often get to see.

“There's... there's so much!” said the dealer.

No. More important than that, how did he figure out the bank and account number?

“I just thought I'd sweeten it a little. I added in the interest I owe you for keeping you waiting so long.”

Flugel put the candy back in his mouth and joined his hands with an unnatural popping sound.

“This has been a very lovely chat. You should consider me a friend. Listen, let's sit down. How about we have a toast with coffee?” said Flugel.

He suddenly stretched out his hand and tapped on the counter for his companion to sit next to him. He took out a steaming cup of coffee seemingly from nowhere, and placed it on the table with a clinking noise.

The dealer realized he had been placed in a position where he could not refuse the offer. This man had brought new work, and he had no choice but to assume the responsibility. Could he feign ignorance? Perhaps run away with the money or log out? It was no good. There was no escape.

He made up his mind. The dealer stood up with a sigh and sat down on a stool next to Flugel.

“Alright. Fine, sir,” said the dealer quietly.

“What should I be looking into?” asked the dealer.

“Lately there have been rumours going around 'The World.' I want you to find everything you can that includes the following words: 'Computer virus,' 'rat,' and 'Geist.'”

“Is that all?”

“That's everything.”

“Huh? Those are extremely vague terms,” said the information-dealer somewhat anticlimactically.

“If you're talking about computer viruses, there are countless types just from the former 'R:1' alone. As for rats and Geist, are they some sort of monsters? That's it, isn't it? If you're talking about rats, there may be a 'monster invasion.' There may be a scenario where a giant rat-monster from the sea attacks Mac Anu. You wouldn't want something like that, would you?”

“No. But I'm more dangerous.”

“How so?”

“I've left dead people in the real world.”

The dealer was too frightened to answer.

“Well... even if I did...” added Flugel.

The dealer kept his voice low as he spoke:

“Hey. This is a really troubling talk. It's not my style to get involved in such things.”

“That's okay,” said Flugel stiffly.

“I'm not really dangerous,” he added.

“Hey, didn't you just say you were dangerous?”

“I am and I'm not. Just a little.”

“Which is it?!”

Flugel took the coffee cup in hand, put it to his mouth and made a “sipping motion.”

“Ah, I have to be honest with you. If this investigation brings up anything dangerous, you don't know me.”

“Huh?”

What was this man proposing?

“However, there was a man who thought there was some significance, so he hired me for a lot of money. Therefore, I wanted to ask a pro like you. I want you to sift through the information with that sense of smell of yours,” said Flugel, who got up from his chair and began to walk towards the exit of the @HOME.

“If you have any prospects for me, please give me a message. It's been a while since I gave out my member-address,” Flugel added.

“Ah. Umm, hey!” said the information-dealer, facing Flugel's back.

“Just one thing I want to be clear about. Are you a system admin now? Or are you a hacker? Which is it? What are you?” said the dealer.

Flugel looked back for a moment.

“I'm just Flugel.”

He exited the café.

*The original line literally read “Showa-era punk.” The Showa Era was from 1926-1989. I decided to translate it as old, because, in 2023, anyone born before 1989 would be at least 34 years old, hence, middle-aged. Therefore, Ryuuji is at least 34 and is essentially being called old by the information-dealer. It is assumed that the dealer is younger, possibly in his twenties.

08 Curse Gun

The rise of the current Net-culture is said to have begun on December 24, 2007. On this day, restrictions regarding use of the Net were completely lifted across the whole world, and “Network Safety Declarations” were announced by the WNC (World Network Commission). The event is taught in school history classes under the name “Virgin's Kiss.”

This “Virgin's Kiss” was implemented and spread to the whole world through the “ALTIMIT OS” operating system to provide absolute resistance against all computer viruses.

With the exception of formerly-existing critical software and security, the Web thoroughly collapsed in 2005. This was the result of the worst computer virus in history: “Pluto's Kiss.”

It's sort of a clever joke. Virgin and Pluto; it's OK to kiss either of them.

In any case, the world's network temporarily died in 2005.

It was revived in 2007. It brought with it the world's first MMORPG “The World” supported by “ALTIMIT OS.”

“The World” soon became “R:2”, and as time passed, became the current “R:X.”

In the present year of 2023, rumours concerning the next version update to “R:X” are being whispered here and there.

However, this is still all just talk.

Flugel came back to the Eternal City Mac Anu from Net Slum, sat at sidewalk café table near the entrance to the central square, and watched the passing Player-Characters. The area was flowing to the brim with various comings and goings such as chats, party-member recruitment, item trades, and all the other lively interactions unique to Net-games.

Mac Anu was a city of canals. In the Celtic languages “Mac” means “son”, and “Anu” denotes a fertility goddess who appears in Celtic mythology. Therefore, “Mac Anu” means “Son of the Goddess.” As the name suggests, the sunsets are always beautifully and tenderly coloured like the look of affection from a goddess.

Among the pedestrians one could sometimes see the same types of PCs as Schicksal. In particular, the “Dancer” type of female character seemed to be popular.

Flugel turned his gaze to the deep red sky. An airship flew leisurely above. An enormous building could be seen standing in the distance. It was the Akashic Records.

Image

He gazed motionlessly at the tower; the off-limits legacy left in this “World” by Jyotarou Amagi. After much trouble, it was now completely silent and inactive.

“Just ruins now,” Flugel muttered to himself.

Like his Schicksal PC, for Ryuuji Sogabe, that is Flugel, this tower represented the ruins of Dr. Amagi's dream to pursue his Real Digitization theory. It continued to stand independently like a gravestone for the developer himself.

Flugel personally felt that it was rather ironic.

I am wandering aimlessly in “The World” and managing the ruins as Flugel...

He smiled weakly. He seemed to become sentimental, wrapped in the goddess' love.

Four days had passed since he started moving in “The World R:X.”

It took him longer than expected to locate his old acquaintance, the information-dealer.

Flugel opened the Parameters window. He figured he'd confirm his status once again.

Since Flugel's PC body had been reset, he was now back to level 1.

He opened the Item window and selected “Brieler Rössle,” the only weapon he carried. The Curse Gun Brieler Rössle appeared at Flugel's right-hand side.

The revolver's bullets had the ability to freeze.

Produced from Ryuuji Sogabe's mental structure by the VR-Scanner, the Schicksal PC Flugel possessed a unique ability—if one of his bullets hits a target, it can “suspend” the data. Is that the ability of a PC, or a monster? Could he have used a cheat on the @HOME entrance? It could have been rewritten as easily as he suspended the data.

An almost unrivalled skill in battle. If it hit, he would always win.

But there were weaknesses.

To suspend the data of the target, the user would require a certain amount of energy output. If the range is within striking distance, the energy output is kept high. It works much like a water gun in theory.

To be more specific, in order to reliably perform the forced suspension, the bullet must hit within a range of the equivalent of about two metres in the real world. If standing farther away, the energy output will be insufficient and the bullet will have no effect.

Despite its revolver-like appearance, its range is unusually small.

It also does not have rapid-fire.

Once before, as he was engaged in a close match with a red Twin Blade, he used a super-cheap technique that forcibly increased the gun's energy output by linking it to the Akashic Records, tampering with the data of over 100 bodies that he had turned into stone statues.

On the one hand, Brieler Rössle is powerful in pristine condition, but very clumsy to use on the other.

The Schicksal PC embodies and reflects his real player's mental state on his abilities. Due to the strain on his mind, by operating his PC in the digital world, this strain on the mind could be cured. That was the Schicksal PC's general medical care theory.

It perhaps could be said that the powerful nature of Brieler Rössle's habits may have transferred this strain onto Flugel's, that is, Ryuuji Sogabe's mind.

He removed Brieler Rössle by selecting it in the Item window and the gun vanished from his hand.

Then, something happened.

From the distant spire of the Akashic Records, something that sounded like a roar resonated in the sky over Mac Anu. The ground shook like a landslide was approaching in the distance.

Suddenly Flugel almost completely lifted himself from his chair, but quickly realized this was a mistake. The PC kept calm in his surroundings, as though he could not hear the tremors.

This was not the game's sound. This was a real sound. On Ryuuji Sogabe's real-life side, a loud rumble could be heard.

Flugel tried to take off the monocle from his eye with his right hand. He made a mistake. It was not his right hand. He did not take the monocle. It seemed that his senses still had not recovered fully. He took a deep breath in the hopes that the oxygen would make him feel a little more aware. It took a while to take effect. It was a similar feeling to having the bends. He had to acclimatize himself to the other side.

Like when you just wake up from a dream, Flugel was filled with a hyper-real sense of reality.

He removed the VR-Scanner from his face.

The telephone was ringing.

He got up from the office sofa and the setting sun thrust in through the western windows. The wall clock showed half past five. Squinting his eyes, he took the VR-Scanner in his right hand, stood up to put on his slippers, then took up his mobile terminal and walked to his desk.

A cold, confident voice could be heard.

“You're Network Trouble Consultant Ryuuji Sogabe, aren't you?”

“That's right, I am.”

“My name is Mr. Ogura and I am employed as CC Corp. Japan's Secretarial Office Chief. I need to speak with you, Mr. Sogabe. I'm very sorry for calling so suddenly at such an hour, eight o'clock at night, but I must ask you to meet with me.”

It was certainly abrupt. At any rate, it was a strange hour at which to talk about work.

“This is an unusual request.”

“Normally I would not ask, but it's about work.”

“As expected.”

“I cannot tell you over the phone.”

There was silence for a moment.

“I understand. Would you like to meet at your company in Odaiba?”

“No, please come to the hotel I'm about to tell you.”

Ryuuji made a note of the name and address of the hotel that Mr. Ogura mentioned.

“Tonight at eight o'clock. The Baketon Hotel in the Harbour Ward, right?” confirmed Ryuuji.

“Yes, I look forward to it.”

The call cut off.

Ryuuji gathered his portable terminal and VR-Scanner and put them into his office desk.

Secretarial Office Chief was the post that Mr. Yodogawa held before he became managing director.

Sogabe had been in possession of a VR-Scanner without a legal basis, and CC Corp. Japan's people were likely determining his whereabouts, and now they decided it was a suitable time to establish contact of some sort. At eight o'clock at night. At the Baketon Hotel. Just splendid. He should have guessed.

Fatigue clung to every membrane in his body. It was proof that he had not yet regained his senses after controlling Flugel from the VR-Scanner.

I'm so tired, thought Ryuuji.

And I haven't even done anything yet.

09 Monster

Long ago, during the imperial reign of Taisho*, there was a British cotton-trader who visited Japan, and, being deeply impressed by the politeness and modesty of the locals, became a naturalized citizen and set up residence in Tokyo where he remained for the rest of his life. He did not have any children, so he requested in his will that all of his money go to his faithful Japanese servant in order to establish a cultural exchange between Japan and foreign countries.

Thus, at the cotton-trader Mr. Gill Baketon's dying wish, the money had been handed down by the servant's descendants, and a modern descendant founded the hotel. An episode of the good old days.

At least that's what it says when doing a Net search.

The Baketon Hotel that you actually get to see, with the exception of Japan's leading high-end hotels, appeared to be free of such sepia stories.

Giving the car to the porter, Ryuuji entered the palace-like lobby through the elegant entrance.

He tried to throw away the candy that was in his mouth, but realized that there was nowhere to put it, so he reluctantly placed it in his jacket pocket.

No sooner had he done so, than a man wearing a suit came up to him.

“Thank you for coming. I'm Mr. Ogura. Please, follow me.”

He spoke in the same voice that Ryuuji heard over the phone, and led Ryuuji to the back at a brisk pace.

Ogura walked across the sea of carpet that lay at his feet, entered the elevator and pressed the button for the top-floor penthouse. The elevator slowly rose up.

After they completed their initial greetings, the rest of the trip occurred in silence.

“Tell me a little about yourself,” said Ryuuji finally.

“What is it you do for work?” he added.

“I think that'll be explained when we reach our destination,” said Mr. Ogura.

“Could you give me a rough idea in advance?” asked Ryuuji.

“I cannot. I do not have the authority to tell you that,” responded Ogura very calmly.

Contrary to his words, Mr. Ogura's eyes did not appear very calm to Ryuuji. If Ryuuji looked hard enough, he could see faint beads of sweat on Mr. Ogura's forehead.

This man was tense, and Ryuuji could sense it. He looked away. From this point on, he was terribly nervous as they headed to the destination.

The elevator arrived at the penthouse-suite level. There was a door at the end of the corridor, and a white man was standing there. He was one head taller than Ryuuji. He seemed to also be twice as heavy. One could tell by how much his dark grey suit was deformed by his muscular body. He was the very picture of a bodyguard.

For this white man to be someone's bodyguard, thought Ryuuji, this someone must be inside the room, but what kind of person is it? Why would CC Corp go about this in such a roundabout fashion?

“I've brought Mr. Sogabe,” Mr. Ogura conveyed in English.

The bodyguard nodded, turned to Ryuuji, and, in order to remove unwanted items, began to thoroughly search Ryuuji's person.

“He is merely checking for things like cameras or voice recorders. We don't want to leave a record of anything in this room,” conveyed Mr. Ogura as an interpreter to Ryuuji.

While he was finishing these words, the palm of a hand that looked like a bodyguard's glove stretched out and plucked off the second button from Ryuuji's shirt.

“This recorder is a no go,” said the bodyguard in English, who took the button from Ryuuji, and hid the button-like IC recorder in his breast pocket.

“You'll get it back after,” he bodyguard added.

“You'll receive the cost of repair along with a transportation fare,” said Mr. Ogura rather loudly.

Ryuuji looked up at the bodyguard's face.

The bodyguard looked down at Ryuuji.

Ah, it's really humid out today, isn't it?” Ryuuji said to Mr. Ogura.

“I was just about to open my collar anyway. Thanks for saving me the time and effort, my friends! Please tell me... actually, hold on. Just a second,” he added.

Ryuuji removed a piece of candy from his coat pocket and held it out to the bodyguard.

“You missed this. This could also be a state-of-the-art recorder, you know. Here, take it.”

The bodyguard was caught off guard for a moment, being given this item in such a nonchalant manner.

“Put this in the trash for me, would you?” asked Ryuuji.

Mr. Ogura knocked on the door, and a bodyguard quickly appeared, blocking the entrance.

“I'm told to only let Mr. Sogabe come in,” said this bodyguard.

Upon hearing this, Mr. Ogura seemed very relieved. With a nod to Ryuuji, the second bodyguard vanished.

Ryuuji felt like some sort of sacrifice that has been left behind in a cave where a monster lurks.

The first bodyguard knocked on the door, and a female voice could be heard from inside saying “come in.” It was in Japanese.

The bodyguard looked back at Ryuuji, thrust the piece of candy into the back pocket of his trousers, opened the door, and went inside. Ryuuji followed after him.

First he noticed the smell of tobacco. The roomed was filled with the faintly bittersweet scent.

The interior decor was like an antique Western style. The same went for the furniture. A large, long table was arranged in the center of the spacious room, the likes of which were used to start meetings of an elite atmosphere.
On a sofa on the other side of the table sat a blond Caucasian woman with her legs crossed. In front of her a tobacco leaf had been placed, which she massaged between her pinched fingers and then packed in a ceramic pipe shaped like a rose.

She didn't even attempt to look at Ryuuji.

“Steve, please leave,” she said in English while she fiddled with her pipe.

The Bodyguard left the room silently. He didn't make a sound at all, neither while walking nor when he opened and closed the door.

The woman wore a voluptuous, tight-fitting suit. She was the type of beauty that you didn't know where to look first. Yet, you couldn't help but let your eyes wander. It was difficult to tell her age. She appeared to be in her late thirties, but she also looked as though she could be in her forties as well as in her twenties. As this beautiful woman sat there, a mysterious ambiance was in the air all around her.

There was a sofa on the opposite side of the woman across the table. But, Ryuuji stood in silence as she did not offer him a seat.

Soon the woman finished stuffing a tobacco leaf into the pipe and lit it using an old-style match, and began to smoke the pipe with a satisfied look on her face as though she were in a world all to herself.

Then, lifting her eyes, she noticed Ryuuji for the first time over the smoke. She smiled faintly. It was a charming smile that opened like a wound.

“I take it you're Ryuuji Sogabe?” she said in fluent Japanese.

“Yes,” said Ryuuji.

“Is it alright if I just call you Ryuuji?”

“By all means. That's what all my friends call me.”

“I hope we can grow accustomed to such a relationship with each other. Do you know who I am?”

“Of course. Ms. Bain, it's an honour to meet you,” said Ryuuji tactfully.

The main programmer and official of the former ALTIMIT Corp, and the current CyberConnect Corp. San Diego president. She is the most powerful person in the company that stands on top of more than ten of the subsidiaries that exist in the entire world.

Veronica Bain was smoking the pipe as though she had two mouths.

“I remember seeing on the news a while ago that you were coming to Japan,” said Ryuuji.

“I wouldn't have had to come if it weren't for that man, Mr. Yodogawa,” said Ms. Bain as though it were nothing, looking at Ryuuji with narrowed eyes. She continued.

“Ryuuji, I know all about you. I had some research done. Ryuuji Sogabe. In 2009 you studied abroad at a university in Munich, Germany. In 2010 you met Kaya Froebe, a test subject at the Psychiatric Care Center located on campus, and married her.”

Suddenly Ryuuji felt like a clump of lead had dropped to the bottom of his stomach.

Image

“In 2017 you left the university and returned to your home country when you were hired by CC Corp. Japan. In 2020 you were involved in the “Immortal Dusk” Incident. Your contract with CC Corp. Japan was terminated and you opened a Network Trouble Consultation business, and now you're here,” said Ms. Bain who continued to smoke her pipe while gazing at Ryuuji.

“I wonder if you really are,” she added.

“I'm more or less here,” replied Ryuuji.

“I think you know why I called you here. I want you to return the VR-Scanner that you' ve been hiding. I am aware, of course, that you are the developer, but now it belongs to my company.”

Veronica Bain stared at Ryuuji through the smoke. Her eyes were like those of a snake looking into a bird's nest.
“It's not a good thing for you to have. I know,” she said.

“I don't know what you're talking about. The V... R... something or other, was it? I can't quite remember, but I feel as though I worked on that thing a long time ago,” said Ryuuji.

Veronica's mouth became distorted. Even so, her lips still looked beautiful. She spoke in a low voice.

“For some time now, you've heard of and known who I am.”

“Yes, I would say so.”

“I could easily crush a freelancer like you all by myself.”

“I'd just like to say that I would like to have this talk through the standard procedures. This is a country with a constitutional government. It's the same in your home country.”

A smile came across Veronica's mouth.

“In any case, you'd need evidence that Mr. Yodogawa took the VR-what's-it-called off of your company, don't you? After that, you'd need evidence that I received the VR-thingy from Mr. Yodogawa. Also, I have a license to participate in Network business. In other words, I have the right to NAB's legal protection. Also, you have the duty to confidentiality owing to your official position,” said Ryuuji.

Veronica looked at Ryuuji with a lustre in her eyes. The smile disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.

“Your relationship with Mr. Yodogawa was not so close.”

“Well, he didn't call me 'Ryuuji.'”

“Mr. Yodogawa was not merely a client to you. Now that he's dead, there is no need to be loyal to him anymore. And yet, are you working on something for him?”

Ryuuji did not answer. He forcibly took a deep breath.

“I think you should give me a break. You ruined my chance for quality family-time by calling at eight o'clock at night, tore my shirt button, blew your strange-smelling foreign tobacco near me, delved into my past as though it were a gossip magazine, threatened me, told me to give up my work, and you expect me to answer honestly?”

As he spoke in one breath and reached his hand into his chest pocket, Ryuuji looked at Veronica.

“Do you mind?”

“Go ahead.”

Ryuuji took a candy from his pocket and removed the wrapper with his mouth. It was a caramel-flavoured candy.

Veronica frowned.

“Are you a non-smoker?”

“Can you put up with me eating a candy?” said Ryuuji?

There was a short pause.

“Haha. Hahahaha,” she laughed loudly.

Veronica squirmed on the sofa in delight, then spoke.

“Good. That's good. Haha. I like you.”

She smiled at Ryuuji.

“Entrust the VR-Scanner to me,” Veronica said.

Up to now her smile had been warm, but it became strange. At least, outwardly strange.

“Actually, to be honest, I want you to use the VR-Scanner,” she said.

This was not something Ryuuji expected to hear.

“There's something I want to ask you. Please sit down.”

Veronica pointed to the sofa before her with her rose pipe.

“Is it about work?” asked Ryuuji.

“Yes.”

Ryuuji hesitated for a moment. He got a bad feeling that once he sat on the sofa, he would become involved in a tricky situation.

His indecision lasted but a moment. Ryuuji sat down on the sofa.

“As we speak from this point on, this is about CC Corp. San Diego, not CC Corp. Japan,” prefaced Veronica.

“Our specially hired programmer ran away. I want you to catch him,” she said.

Ryuuji was silent for a while.

“Ah, well, you often hear about things like that. Especially in this industry of ours. I think it's terrible. It must be unbearable for those left behind,” said Ryuuji.

“But, why me? Wouldn't it be better to hire someone from your own country?”

“It has to be you. You're the only man for the job,” said Veronica.

“This man's true nature is a hacker... no, his true nature is a hardcore cracker. When he fled, he had easily broken past our security, and had stolen some securely stored and confidential material. Among the material was data and research equipment developed during your time as an employee at CC Corp. Japan. Of course, that includes the VR-Scanner.”

Ryuuji felt his body shrink inwards.

“There's no way that guy could adapt a Schicksal PC, right?”

“I don't know. But it's possible. He may change the data segments that are available to him. He has the skill to do such a thing.”

A Schicksal PC has an overwhelming power in the digital environment that is “The World,” and has the potential to cause irreparable cyber-crime if it is misused.

“Yuri Kazinsky Seto. That's the name of the cracker.”

“Is that a Russian name?”

“He's of Japanese descent. No, I should say he is Japanese. He's half-Japanese, but his nationality was always Japanese. His Japanese name is Yuuri Seto.”**

Anyone with good sense would become silent when they heard that name.

Of course, Ryuuji went silent.

“The Yuri Seto of the 'Deadly Flash' incident?” he asked.

“The very same,” nodded Veronica.

The hacking incident occurred in December of 2003 when he invaded the world's terminals through the network, causing a flash to be displayed on screens that reached down into the users' subconscious, damaging their minds.

Victims received a sharp stimulus to the hypothalamus, inducing vomiting, vertigo, convulsions, cramps, and eventually leading to impaired brain activity. There were seven deaths across the world as a result.

The incident was known across the world as the “Deadly Flash.”

That was the only cyber-crime that caused people to die before “Pluto's Kiss,” and the virus's creator Yuri Seto became the subject of a nationwide manhunt and investigation. He was caught between a rock and a hard place when he was found trying to flee to the United States by plane, and was arrested by the FBI upon arrival at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

Then, Seto was the first to be sentenced to death by Internet Law for the crime of inciting unrest via a network—or he was supposed to be.

“His lawyers proposed a deal. Seto had connections with Internet terrorists all over the world. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in exchange for that information,” continued Veronica.

“And that led to further commutations on the basis of merit and good behaviour as long as he cooperated in the investigations while his crimes were being evaluated. June of last year, he completed a prison term of eighteen years. There were no abnormalities in his psychiatric evaluation, so it had been determined that he was completely rehabilitated,” she added.

“So, after his release, you're saying he was picked up by CC Corp. San Diego?”

A hacker who was involved in crime being hired by a security company after rehabilitation was not a new story. It was not something unusual.

However, that a global enterprise like CC Corp. would hire a criminal that had been sentenced to death was a case like no other.

“I'm surprised,” said Ryuuji.

“Or rather, I'm amazed. That's equal to the number of vaults robbed by the thieves,” he added.

“That's an opinion based on hindsight. People with good skills are a treasure, and I believe they should be kept safe even at the risk of others,” said Veronica.

“Having said that, I admit that it has backfired. That's why I'm asking you. A Schicksal PC cannot defeat another Schicksal PC. Isn't that the case?” she added.

“There is one exception,” said Ryuuji loudly.

“Seto is up to something with the Schicksal PC data. If it's yours, you can settle things in the game. If you use Flugel's bullets,” said Veronica.

“Naturally, the police should be notified, right?”

“No,” said Veronica, shaking her head.

“Don't report this. From now on, what happened here must not get out. Expect for you.”

“Why?”

“Because it's confidential. You cannot go public about the existence of the VR-Scanner and the other technologies. That would contrary to this company's interests.”

“Ah, I see,” murmured Ryuuji. It was an easy answer to understand.

“Without making it know to the general public, you must recover the sensitive data that was stolen by Yuri Kazinsky Seto. That is what I'm asking of you.”

“You didn't say what I would get out of it.”

“It's the same as what I already guaranteed. How about I tell you the codename that Seto uses while doing his work?” she said in a whisper as she leaned forward. Her rich, sweet-smelling breath drifted to Ryuuji's nose.

“Geist.”

*Emperor Taisho reigned from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926.
**Seto's name is written as 瀬戸悠里 in kanji.

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