Mac Anu. A large plaza bathed in twilight.
Flugel went to the cafe terrace, and he found the information-dealer reading something at a table in the corner. It looked like a newspaper. It was possible to bring it into “The World” by importing these sorts of e-books and newspapers. But the contents must be converted to a new form such as a scroll of parchment or a booklet so as not to impair the appearance.
The information-dealer’s outfit had recently been slightly changed into something that looked like more of a fantasy-style cloak than a shabby coat. It must have been a trick to cheat the eyes of the system when in a regular town. His appearance looked like that of an ordinary PC, save for a helmet with a decorative plant growing from it and rustic goggles.
The information-dealer sat motionless, then shrunk his body and hid himself with the newspaper.
Taking a good look, Ryuuji could see a town-patrolling system admin PC coming from across the street.
The admin wore a uniform like that of a guard and a strangely shaped distinctive cap. The part that must have been the visor seemed to hang vertically and completely covered the eyes and nose, and left the mouth uncovered.
He slowly walked down the street past the cafe terrace towards the market, and, without turning to look at the information-dealer, disappeared in the direction of the Akashic Records.
The information-dealer breathed a sigh of relief, and let out a big yawn to relax his mind.
“Have you heard news on whether the system admins are concerned about Netslum?”
The information-dealer heard a voice call out, and snorted at the sight of Flugel.
“Hmph, I got nothing. You didn’t notice me, right? What if the admin noticed?”
His voice contained a hint of mockery. The state of the feud between the hackers and the system in “The World” had not changed since “R:1.”
Flugel sat opposite the information-dealer.
“But you know, wouldn’t it be better to go to a quiet place to talk about a secret? You know, I like to relax and listen to music. Yeah… for example, at a jazz cafe.”
The information-dealer wore an expression like he had bitten into something sour.
“I’ll say this clearly, I hate being involved with you. I don’t want to tamper with data,” he continued.
“Tamper with data? Who? When? How many hours, minutes and seconds? How many rotations of the Earth?” said Flugel.
“Just one more time,” said the information-dealer.
He started smoking a cigarette again and handed over a piece of parchment-like paper.
“Ahh, so tired. I stayed up all night because of all the geeky stuff I had to investigate. Here, read it quickly,” the information-dealer continued.
Flugel targeted it with his hand and text began to be displayed in a window. It was a data file masquerading as a newspaper. There were also images attached. Several of them. The matters Flugel asked the information-dealer to investigate―the information related to the keywords of “computer virus,” “rat,” and “Geist”―were all written there.
Flugel read through the data quickly and checked the information.
“What is this guy? ‘Doctor Rat’?” he asked.
“’Doctor Rat’ Perves. He was one of the original Chaotic PKs. He was a character that played the role of a mad scientist and got worse as time passed. He was a Twin Blade. After being infected by a computer virus to or modified by human experimentation, he seemed to unceasingly blurt out odd things to the PCs he killed.”
“Strange guys are all over the place,” said Flugel.
“A bounty hunter recently killed him. So, the job is done for us. After that it seems he’s hardly logged in.”
Flugel scrolled down the window.
“It’s a mechanical premises type of dungeon that goes to the area of “Silent” “Magnetic” “Pandemonium” from the Θ (Theta) server. There’s a rumour that the players of PCs that are lost here are also lost in the real world. But that’s only some superstitious ramblings,” said the information-dealer.
“However, because undead-type monsters and rat-type beast monsters appear in that area, I put it on the list,” he added.
Flugel scrolled the window further.
“What’s this about ‘Pet Shops and Chims?”
“Do you know the function of a companion, Boss?”
“A companion is a new feature that is planned to be added to the next version of ‘The World.’ A mascot character that will help give various types of support. You’ve heard of the Grunties that manage guilds, right? It’s basically a personalized version of that. Now, its function is being distributed to some users and monitored in the strictest confidence,” explained the information-dealer.
“There was a guy keeping an eye on it, and he nabbed the companion function data and sold it. He remodelled an @HOME into a Pet Shop. Because cheating is indeed illegal activity, he does not do business openly. However, there are rumours going around that he’s got a good reputation,” added the information-dealer.
“They say there are several kinds of mascot character graphics. In addition to a Chim Chim on the list, there’s a small dragon, a winged dog and cat, a pretty female fairy, and a handsome male fairy. And, I heard that one of them is a rat.”
Flugel rolled the piece of candy to the other side of his mouth.
In this case, “sell” and “disseminate” are nearly synonymous terms. A rat mascot character.
“A Pet Shop sounds nice.”
After checking the data file, he, repeated the information to the information-dealer.
“The Pet Shop sounds the best. What can I do to go to the store?”
“It seems to pull customers to Dol Dona, but it’s not especially encouraging from here. I don’t know the exact location of the @HOME.”
“All I can do is wait for more word on it. Well! It’s enough for me to just take this,” said Flugel.
“I was right to ask you to collect information after all,” he added.
The information-dealer’s facial expression was not as dissatisfied as he would have Flugel believe.
“Is two more alright?” said Flugel.
As he continued on, he looked more displeased.
“Is that still the plan?”
“First, I’d like you to continue gathering information about this pet shop as normal. One more thing, I want to find out about the ‘bubbles’.”
“Bubbles, you said?”
“It was in the news about seven or eight years ago. At that time, they were called ‘Black Spots’ or “Black Gates’.”
The information-dealer’s eyes looked around as though he was searching through his memory.
“Ah, yes, I remember.”
It was a very restricted fact that most people did not know that the bubbles were an intelligent data entity called AIDA. It was generally spoken of with terms like bubbles, spots, and gates.
“Well. Should I do a new search for ‘rat’, ‘Geist’, and ‘computer virus’ in relation to ‘bubbles’?”
“It’ll cost you extra.”
“I don’t care.”
Flugel stood up from the chair.
“Well, let’s cooperate on this. I’ll eventually come out to play.”
“No. I’ll be in touch.”
The information-dealer yawned and shook Ryuuji’s hand with his own hand dangling wistfully.
“So, please don’t come to me.”
Flugel left the information-dealer and walked to the Chaos Gate, then entered three words: “Hidden”, “Forbidden”, and “Holy Ground”.
He felt as though he were gently floating. His body was wrapped in a halo effect, but this disappeared as his transfer was completed.
There was an island standing in the middle of a lake. At the end of the bridge a stone building rose to meet with a group of spires that extended 10 meters up and soared against the setting sun.
The oldest Lost Ground, the Hulle Granz Cathedral.
Flugel followed the road to the cathedral, targeted the double doors, and went inside.
The nave was deserted. There was no one there except Flugel. He walked down the center aisle, his hard footsteps resounding. The greenish marble floor reflected the hall like a mirror. Wooden pews were arranged on the left and right.
He went to the front of the altar.
During the “R:1” era, there had been a goddess statue enshrined at the altar. At that time, this area was simply called a sanctuary.
The officials of “R:2” provided the myth and setting, as well as the name Hulle Granz to this building, and the goddess statue was lost as reparation. Then a tri-edged sign was carved into the altar.
For a long time the ugly traces remained exposed in the cathedral. It was not until the R:X upgrade that the building would was fixed.
However, the goddess statue had not been replaced.
Flugel looked back in the hall.
Silence. There was nothing there. Nothing was happening. This was a common feature of Lost Grounds. Here game strategies were completely pointless. Monsters and chests never appeared, and events never occurred.
However, there had to be something, thought Flugel—Ryuuji thought. At least Mr. Yodogawa had thought so.
After taking the whole day yesterday, a virus check of the mobile terminal owned by Kiyoteru Yodogawa was completed.
No abnormalities were found. None whatsoever. There were, without a doubt, zero traces of infection by computer viruses.
Yet Ryuuji’s anxieties did not abate. Ryuuji, who had witnessed the death of Mr. Yodogawa in the real world, was convinced that he’d find some abnormality in Mr. Yodogawa’s mobile terminal. Instead he felt very uncomfortable about the lack of abnormalities.
On the other hand, he did find out from the mobile terminal’s history log that Mr. Yodogawa had been frequently visiting the Hulle Granz Cathedral in “The World.”
The log entry for the oldest date was on April 6 of this year, about the same time as Yuri Seto’s flight, and the most recent date was a day before Mr. Yodogawa’s death, that is May 20.
Was there something here? Had Mr. Yodogawa met with someone here? Had he possibly hidden something? Or, had he been looking for something?
Flugel tried to gather his thoughts in front of the altar.
Were there any connections between Mr. Yodogawa’s request and Veronica Bain’s request? Is there any connection between Yuri Seto and the Geist who spread the virus? Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t? There still wasn’t enough evidence to say for sure. He thought about how the talk of the pet shop that he’d heard from the information-dealer might be useful to advance the present situation, then a sneeze resounded in the hall.
A beast-human PC was standing at the entrance. He caught Flugel unawares. The figure was tall and thin. He had an elongated head like the western dogs the Borzoi and the Pharaoh Hound. His hair was black save for the place where hair would be on humans, where it was golden. His profession, by looking at the black robe he wore, seemed to be that of the Wavemaster.
The Beast-human PC came into the nave while he spoke through his nose.
“So this the Hulle Granz Cathedral. This is quite the strange place.”
He walked down the main aisle while speaking to himself.
“Looks like they worked real hard on the objects and the background. It’s completely new. Wow, so much time and effort went into this.”
He noticed his reflection mirrored in the marble floor, then paused for a moment in the middle of the aisle and made a motion like he was marking time.
“This place is called a Lost Ground, right? I had no idea there were several of these places in ‘The World.’ It might be pretty fun to play here, but it seems we have work to attend to, right, Flugel?”
The Beast-human PC smirked as he stepped before Flugel.
“Don’t you think so?”
He opened his mouth, revealing long, pointed canine teeth. He sensed the wafting smell of the beast.
“Welcome, long time no see,” said Flugel with open arms.
“Ah, such a pleasant surprise. Meeting you here like this. Ah, to think you would show up at this place. Really, welcome,” Flugel continued.
“I have to tell you, but this is the first time we’ve met,” said the Beast-human PC.
“What? I thought I saw you before on the street,” said Flugel.
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Kusame,” said the Beast-human PC in a carefree tone.
“Flugel, in real life a resident of Tokyo named Ryuuji Sogabe. Opened an office as a Network Trouble Consultant. Am I wrong?”
Flugel removed the candy from his mouth. He looked at Kusame with narrow eyes.
“Oh, wait, wait. I’m being suspicious. I merely wish to talk.”
Kusame made a conciliatory gesture with both hands towards Flugel.
“I couldn’t decide whether to talk in real life or in the game, but I was wary to meet so quickly in real life, so I wanted to take the action that would have the least impact.”
“I think that a game chat may bring out bad manners as opposed to a chat in the real world.”
“You’re right. That’s true. I feel the same way.”
Kusame nodded with an affirmative uh-huh.
“I’d like to visit your office right away,” he said frankly.
Flugel tried to call out to Kusame, but it was too late. A halo effect came over Kusame’s body and in a moment he was gone.
Ryuuji removed the VR-Scanner.
He sat up straight on the sofa, breathed on to his glasses and looked at the clock. Three o’clock. Not in the day. Three o’clock late at night. Outside the sky had filled with darkness ages ago.
He was coming right now? Here?
Before he could answer himself, Ryuuji heard a chime ring loudly throughout the office.