The man pushed off the pavement and leaped backwards awkwardly. His shiny black hair was dishevelled by the rapid movement. Due to his weak physique, his agility was like that of an imaginary wild beast.
A chunk of something hit his left shoulder with an immense force.
Suddenly, a sensory perception that absolutely shouldn’t happen if the game was acting normal—something that everyone experiences differently in the real world—struck the man. It was a shock that he didn’t expect. His eyes blazed red hot.
It was a “pain” that he had never before experienced in playing “The World.”
A bark, a growl, and then a scream resounded in the alley, and Flugel knew that the bullet he fired had struck somewhere on the body of the other PC. Then there was the sound of something hitting the ground. The opponent had fallen. But Flugel couldn’t be sure of the situation with all the vapour blocking his view.
Flugel tilted his body and began to walk.
It felt like it took one whole month just to take one little step. There was no strength in his limbs. His whole body felt like it was weighed down. He was also in pain, but wasn’t so bad—at least not yet.
The surroundings looked blurry. Not because of the mist, but due to being struck in the eye.
It just so happens that the wind was blowing in from the sea and it cleared away all the mist that enshrouded the alley. The bleak landscape came into focus.
At an intersection a few metres ahead stood a steam pipe that shot up like a utility pole. A man that looked like a system admin crept out from around the corner and faced Flugel. He began to run, and he wasn’t going to stop.
Just before pulling the trigger of Brieler Roessle, the man jumped back a distance of two metres in one breath.
The bullet struck the side of the target. Damage that conformed to the system of “The World” was applied to the opponent. Then it was a feeling of “pain” that was fed back to the player in real life.
“Ahhhhhh. Somehow I feel as though the smell of sewage is ingrained in my whole body. And here I was thinking I could do whatever I wanted,” said Flugel as he directed the muzzle at the man.
“I don’t want to be a bother, so I’ll get to the point. I’ll approach you now and deliver the final blow. Obviously this doesn’t mean that you’ll die in real life. I’m only going to delete your PC data. Understand? I’ll just have to put in a little extra effort,” Flugel continued.
“There’s something I experienced and understood for the first time,” said the man as he stood up partially, his leg sticking out from behind the pipe.
“Schicksal PCs attacking each other, that’s truly soaking into my brain. It was rather satisfying…” he continued.
The man had both hands wrapped around the pipe. His face and much of his body was not visible, but one could tell he had a smirk on his face.
Cocking the gun, Flugel spoke across the gap to the opposing man.
“I’m not leaving here. If you cooperate, this won’t have to end badly,” said Flugel.
“You brilliantly escaped the rats and survived, it seems,” said the man, ignoring Flugel’s warning.
“To be exact, although you’re still not out of this back alley, that doesn’t matter. You surprised me quite a bit when you used Brieler Roessle. Your judgement and cunning deserve the highest accolades,” said the man.
His hands disappeared and then the sound of applause could be heard.
“You get an A+. You passed the test without incident. Congrats,” he said.
Flugel moved ever so slightly and confirmed the condition of his body. It was returning to normal functionality and he’d gotten used to the narrow field of vision.
However, the problem was the rats. There now was resistance from them after many of the rats had been attacked and destroyed by the steam jet trap. Not all of them had been annihilated.
But now, there was no sign of even one rat. They had all suddenly disappeared. The man was planning something.
A palm appeared around the pipe once again and soon went up the pipe. It seems the man was standing against it to support himself. He let out a sigh to stifle the pain.
“I’ll try to accept this blow. It is proof of sublime passion. I am a proud stigmata that ushers in the trial,” said the man.
“You’re really acting the martyr,” retorted Flugel.
“When I used the ability, I realized that it was a divine revelation――when I was eighteen years old, I felt trapped, then I was hired by Cyber Connect, everything I did was for that company. By using the rats, I could save the world from contamination by the Internet. It was a mission that was imposed on me. Because of this, I resigned myself to the fate of a cyberterrorist who spreads a virus across the net. I sought the disgrace of a criminal,” said the figure.
“That’s a lie. You would have only been able to kill me with a special power,” said Flugel.
“Ha. Why would you think that?” said the man with a defiant tone.
“Unless, I purposefully killed seven residents of the same apartment? Whether a trial or a crucifixion, this is merely an accessory to you,” said Flugel.
“I agree, but you’re a bastard for enjoying killing for killing’s sake,”Flugel continued.
The man appeared upset upon hearing this. The lurking man could be heard breathing heavily in the shadow of the pipe.
However, Flugel noticed immediately that this was not the case. The man only smiled and breathed lightly without uttering a word.
“What’s the matter? Are you any different from me?” said the man as he poked one eye out from behind the pipe.
“I was just wondering if you were thinking the same thing as me, Flugel. I want you to tell me something. When you dream about your time with Kaya Frebe, do you still feel something for her?”
A silence lingered for a while. The man’s words took a moment to sink in.
“What…” mumbled Flugel.
“I think you’re rather similar to ‘them.’ There are crucial differences, but very similar overall,” spoke the man.
“Them?” asked Flugel.
“The programmers who once decided to take a look into the abyss of The World. They were also martyrs,” said the man.
“Stop flapping your gums. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Flugel.
“Harald Hoerwick,” said the man.
“For the sake of his true love, he did not hesitate,” continued the man.
The man came out from behind the pipe. He stepped forward without taking his eyes off Flugel, revealing himself completely. He continued talking.
“Indou Masato. For the sake of his sister, he did not hesitate.”
He started to walk towards Flugel.
“Jyotaro Amagi. For the sake of his aunt, he did not hesitate.”
He continued to gradually come closer. He continued to speak to Flugel.
“However, you are clearly different from them in one regard. You ‘hesitated.’ You withdrew from the study of Real Digitalization. Why is that? Why did you give up?”
It felt as though the man’s eyes were becoming more intense.
“Are you trying to avoid the question? Why didn’t you overstep your bounds? It was a mission you believed in and were supposed to complete, you, a human of sufficient ability, so why did you have to hesitate during the mission?”
A gentle saintly smile crossed the man’s face.
“I’ll ask you again. In your dreams, what was most appealing about her? Or rather, did she even visit you in your dreams?”
With his hands spread in a natural manner, in a gesture as though he was pitying Flugel, the man had been stepping inside Brieler Roessle’s firing range.
“She would visit you, wouldn’t she? The man who let her down.”
Flugel shot reflexively.
The bullet struck the man in the face, and blew off the top half of his head. It rebounded and struck a the brick wall behind the man, created a wave of digital noise and tore off a section of the wall’s data, then rolled to the man’s feet.
The man staggered back one, then two steps, then stood still.
“Is that your response? Flugel. Hehehehehe,” said a new voice.
With only his lower jaw remaining, the man did not even collapse. Flugel heard a laugh come from the man as though a swarm of insects were buzzing around each other, and there remained a rift in the man’s body. From the chest to the neck, a mass of PC data fell from him like slabs of meat.
Flugel saw that the mass was made up of rats.
The man’s bogus appearance vanished immediately, and the countless rats began to scurry all over the ground and brick wall.
Flugel tried to get the agile little beasts in his sights, but to no avail.
Then he realized something in the corner of his mind. Just like an octopus can squish its body to fit into places, the rats were mimicking the PC data in order to work together.
Has he been fighting against the damn rats instead of Yuri Seto this whole time? There’s no way, Flugel thought. The PC body had been shot with a bullet and then a steam jet trap. Then, having been blinded by the steam, the figure fled the scene, leaving behind rats. They came out from the shadow of the pipe where they had been hiding.
“Listen, Flugel. Take heed,” came the voice, which was a rat who spoke as though it had the booming voice of a man.
“Five days. Five days from now, on Thursday, the 18th day of June,” said another rat.
“We will unleash the rats unto the world,” said a third rat.
“They will infiltrate every terminal and grant the ‘Light of Salvation’ to those who have grown weary of the Net. Hehehehe.”
One after another, the rats continued to issue forth the man’s words in turns.
“You are my trial.”
“I am your trial.”
“The trial must be administered equally.”
“Therefore, I showed you the ability.”
“Do your best to stop me.”
“Use any means necessary without hesitation.”
“Hunt me to mobilize everything…”
Suddenly the rats’ voices began to fade away. The shadow of the group of rats became thinner and thinner. They continued to spread out.
“I’ll shatter you… and prove just how right the rats are…”
As the wave moves away, the rats disappeared to the back of the square.
Afterwards Flugel was left all alone.
It seemed that all traces of the rats were gone. Flugel stood and clutched his gun for a while, exhaling as he became acutely aware of the fatigue he felt throughout his body.
However, just as he was about to unplug the power to his system, a man’s voice whispered in his ear.
“I’ll fill this ‘world’ with the rats of greed,” came the appalling voice. It was like a raging wind blowing through a desolate and eerie void.
He shook his body, knocking off one rat that had been clinging to his shoulder.
The rat fell to the ground and ran about two metres up a nearby wall.
“I have a gift for you. Please accept it,” the man said.
The rat looked down at Flugel.
“Good luck with the test.”
There was an explosion.