Chapter 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 pass 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 mass 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.

END OF CHAPTER

Translator’s Notes:
*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.

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