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.
“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?”
Ryuuji took a candy from his pocket and removed the wrapper with his mouth. It was a caramel-flavoured candy.
“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.
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.”
“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.
END OF CHAPTER
*Emperor Taisho reigned from July 30, 1912 to December 25, 1926.
**Seto’s name is written as 瀬戸悠里 in kanji.