David stopped playing the voice message by stroking the screen of the mobile terminal, and for a moment the room remained silent.
Suddenly a squeak was heard from the other side of the house, suggesting that Lilie had just sat down in a chair in her room.
David finally spoke.
“That was the voice of Durga Fida Sharma. Your former boss, Mr. Sogabe. This message was recorded the 23rd of September, 2021. About one year after you retired from CC Corp,” he said.
“What is this?” asked Ryuuji.
It is a voice file seized from Mr. Yodogawa’s home computer. The majority of the data is damaged, but I was able to restore the portion at the beginning.”
David spoke the word ‘seized’ without any hesitation.
“In fact, we at NAB had already flagged Mr. Yodogawa much before this. We had suspected him of using industrial espionage to illegally sell CC Corp. Japan’s trade secrets to the San Diego division,” David said.
Ryuuji was speechless for a moment.
“Industrial espionage? Mr. Yodogawa?” he asked.
“Yes. He was handling CC Corp. Japan and its local subsidiaries, as well as billboards to the San Diego Corp. In regards to the laws of this country, this is a violation of the Industrial Espionage Prevention Act. Civil liabilities are imposed in espionage, and it is therefore subject to punishment as a criminal offense. However, that’s not my main point,” said David.
David leaned forward.
“Mr. Sogabe, have you ever been contacted by Mr. Sharma after your retirement?” he asked.
“No,” said Ryuuji, shaking his head.
“Do you know the current whereabouts of Mr. Sharma?” David asked.
“No,” Ryuuji said once again.
“What do you know about Mr. Sharma’s misconduct?” asked David.
“Except for what I heard on the news, nothing,” said Ryuuji.
Ryuuji was reminded of the former employer as he answered questions. The man who had been waiting at the airport for Ryuuji when he returned from Germany, and offered him a contract to continue his research for CC Corp.
The man had had an arrogant demeanor. He was completely meritocratic, not caring about anyone else’s feelings. Self-admittedly, he would not offer assistance to anyone, even if they paid him the greatest respect.
At the time he had learned of the Durga incident, Ryuuji had been trying to contact him. However, his attempts had failed. He felt that an act such as showing mercy would only hurt the arrogant man’s pride.
“Ah, I remember hearing recently that he had embezzled public money,” said Ryuuji as David nodded.
“He did indeed. He was investigated for it――well, needless to say, there was some infighting and he was expelled from the company,” said David.
“Infighting? When I was there, I never heard such commotions,” said Ryuuji.
“Time sure does fly. Things have changed at CC Corp. Japan since you worked there, Mr. Sogabe,” said David with a snort.
“To begin with, the company called CC Corp. is at the center of the San Diego company, but each subsidiary has its own organizational structure that allows it to be flexible and move in its own direction. The Japanese corporation’s huge sales boast compared to the English division created a very strong momentum of self-reliance. Yodogawa broke the momentum. He went over to the San Diego firm to collect evidence against Mr. Sharma. Mr. Sharma had been in conflict with the management team at the San Diego firm for a long time concerning guidelines for the management of The World. Credited with ousting Mr. Sharma, Mr. Yodogawa was promoted to Senior Managing Director. Subsequently, San Diego’s intention has clearly been to influence the staff at the Japanese firm, to this very day―” continued David.
“How can you be so sure that it was Mr. Sharma who embezzled the company?” asked Ryuuji.
“It is an undeniable fact. According to trial records, he secretly used some of his own money who it would be harder to detect, and tried to incorporate new specifications to the Japanese server on his own,” said David.
“He admitted that much himself. However, what sort of specifications did he add? And why? He wouldn’t tell us that. He wouldn’t tell us, even under extreme interrogation. Then he returned to the United States and we lost track of him,” David said.
“He disappeared?” asked Ryuuji.
“Exactly. Sharma’s whereabouts are still unknown to us. He hasn’t even returned to his homeland of India. Even NAB was not able to trace him footsteps. He wasn’t anywhere. No one knew the whereabouts of Mr. Sharma…,” said David.
David pressed the mobile terminal once again, switching the screen. What appeared to be various lists filled the entire screen.
“What I say from this point on is just a theory on my part, so listen carefully. In 2021, after being dismissed, Durga Fida Sharma wrote a message addressed to you. However, for some reason, he didn’t send it. Therefore, I asked to deliver it to you on behalf of Chief of Staff Yodogawa. I think that Mr. Sharma did not realize that his subordinates were industrial spies,” said David.
Ryuuji sighed faintly. He felt as though he could imagine the situation. Durga Fida Sharma had admitted himself that he had become too vulnerable to his opponents. This was the case in 2020.
“Of course, Yodogawa heard his message without permission. However, this was not reported to the San Diego company, it was not delivered to you, though it was meant just for you,” said David.
“Why? What’s the reason?” asked Ryuuji.
“Now that Yodogawa is dead, I don’t know what his intention was. The compensation package that was arranged from the San Diego company at the time included Durga Sharma’s demotion. Therefore, they must have supposed that there was no work left for him to do. Or rather, that information may be the trump card they need to protect themselves. But this is only speculation,” David continued.
“As for this year, Yodogawa began to receive e-mail threats from an unidentified hacker calling himself “Geist.” The hacker made threats, saying ‘tell me about the former president’s legacy or I will unleash a virus into The World’,” said David.
“Legacy…,” said Ryuuji.
“Yes. In other words, the specifications that Mr. Sharma began to add to the Japanese server,” said David as he nodded.
“Yodogawa was not able to rely on San Diego on this matter. They betrayed one of their own. This was not explained in the report concerning Mr. Sharma’s audio file. His trump card was actually his weakness. So, in order to solve the situation, Yodogawa singled you out take care of this. As I said before, he knew you were someone who cared,” said David.
“Do you know what the specifications added by Sharma are?” asked Ryuuji.
“I don’t know,” David answered quickly.
Then he added in a manner that was a little panicked.
“No, I’m not hiding anything. I truly don’t know. As I mentioned before, the second half of Mr. Sharma’s audio file could not be restored after it had been damaged. I don’t think he was talking about anything specific in that part. Rather, in my opinion, you shouldn’t expect to hear anything from Mr. Sharma,” said David.
“You still haven’t talked about the most important thing,” said Ryuuji.
“What is NAB’s purpose? Previously you said that you and Gus came to Japan to catch Yuri Seto. Yet now it seems as though Seto is merely a minor player who muscled his way into the middle of this story,” Ryuuji added.
“For Gus and I, our mission, which is of the highest priority, is to ensure that we locate the whereabouts of the currently hidden Aura,” said David in a stagnant tone of voice.
He seemed to have been waiting for that question to come up.
The Ultimate AI Aura. Daughter of the former goddess Morganna Mode Gone. An autonomous AI with the ability to stabilize a network.
“In the audio file, Mr Sharma had been very admiring. Enthusiastic believers of religion seem to worship the God of where they live. It’s not only Mr. Sharma. Those who were involved with the Aura of the past, to a varying degree, seemed to develop pious feelings towards her,” said David with a shrug.
“But you know, Mr. Sogabe. Aura is not very good for us. Aura is a weapon. The worst kind of weapon of destruction for clearing out the core of the network. You just have to look at the previous network crisis for proof. An ultimate AI can do great things. Whether it heals or destroys the real world depends on how you treatment it,” said David. He closed his mobile terminal with one hand as he spoke.
“Therefore, it’s useless to keep Aura under strict control in facilities established by the United Nations. For example, even if we had property developed by a company, we wouldn’t just be able to do whatever we wanted with it,” said David.
“That’s a very brave thing to say,” said Ryuuji to David.
David now made a remark that greatly overstepped the bounds of what is permitted to one of the members of NAB.
“To be honest, I think that’s the best hand to play,” he said.
“Ah, in other words, NAB dared to overlook Yodogawa’s industrial espionage activities. Yuri Kazinski Seto made contact and took the name of ‘Geist.’ Seto is aiming for something that Mr. Sharma left behind. Is it something like that?”
“Why does Seto insist on the Japanese server? That’s the answer to this,” said David with a nod.
“Why is Seto interested in Durga Sharma’s legacy? What is he plotting? I don’t know yet. Nonetheless, we definitely cannot allow Seto to get the legacy,” said David.
You got that right, Ryuuji thought to himself. The man we believe to be Yuri Seto cannot be allowed to reach his goals.
“No matter where you look in the world, you won’t find a country without crime,” said David.
“In any period in history, no place is free of crime. Similarly, there can be no cyber-space without cyber-crime. NAB’s job is to monitor the world’s networks to watch for cyber-crime. In a time when we cannot exist without computers, if a mastermind were to take control of the computers’ mechanisms, all that would be left is to become the voice of morality. If the mastermind were to ignore morality, a Hell more grotesque than anything seen before could easily be created,” said David.
Hell. Ryuuji felt as though he’d heard that word somewhere before.
Then he suddenly remembered where.
“There is a certainly a Hell,” Seto had said. “It is unhallowed ground. A place where an endless torrent of lust overflows. A place where terrible screams and cries echo and roar all around. A place that none should be tied to…”
“You were asked to investigate the causes behind Seto’s rats and that light,” David said as though he were reading Ryuuji’s thoughts.
“He’s pure evil. Those who look directly into the light start to develop symptoms within half a day to a few days. The illness drives them mad and they attempt to jump from high places. The rats themselves exploded and vanished with no traces left in the computer terminal,” Ryuuji said with a sigh.
“For those who fell unconscious in The World, they all had the fact that they went unconscious during game play as a common point. Therefore, the rumor went around that something was happening in The World. However, Seto’s rats were not even considered. No one realized that the internet was merely an intermediary for them. They were designed in such a way so as not to be perceived. The rats’ victims would therefore get lumped in with a number of conventional suicides,” said David.
Ryuuji remembered that there were no abnormalities found in Yodogawa’s mobile terminal.
Then he recalled the sad circumstances surrounding Yodogawa’s death and the events leading up to it.
Yuri Seto’s words resonated in his mind once more.
“Thursday, June 8. I unleash rats upon the entire world. They descend upon each and every terminal and they will shine a great ‘Light of Salvation’ upon those that tire of the net,” Seto had said.
“It’s useless for anyone to try and protect the world, either real or online, from the malevolent Seto,” said David.
“Even people like you and me,” he added.
Ryuuji stood up from the sofa.
He left David alone for a moment as he went to the kitchen and removed a bottle of whiskey from the storage cabinet. He had gotten it as a gift at the end of the previous year. He thought to take it to the office, but decided to leave it at home.
He didn’t bring his own whiskey glass to the apartment, so he arranged two teacups in front of him and poured some of the amber liquid into each cup. He thought for a moment, then retrieved ice from the freezer. On the rocks was most appropriate at such a moment. He placed the drinks down on a tray, along with a pitcher of water, then went back to the living room and placed the tray on the table.
Ryuuji passed a teacup to David, fixated on his own cup, and then sat on the sofa as before.
David looked as though he was gazing into the surface of his drink.
“Wild Turkey*?” asked David.
“It’s rye,” said Ryuuji.
“It’s excellent,” said David, nodding.
A few seconds pass, and Ryuuji and David were still holding their cups as though they enjoyed the feeling of a cold teacup in their hands.
“I should say something beforehand,” Ryuuji said.
“Unless I fight well, my Flugel PC will flounder and not be able to contend with Seto’s PC. For me to beat him, I have to come within two meters of him. However, he’s able to launch a string of critical hits from any distance by manipulating his rats. To be honest, the main reason I was able to survive my encounter with that rat-bastard is because ‘he isn’t really all that much’,” said Ryuuji.
David lifted his head and looked at Ryuuji.
“However, this does not mean we don’t have a chance of winning. I have a plan to capture him. What’s more… if it’s two against one, the odds are much better,” said Ryuuji, adding power to his words.
“I was about to say that,” said David, smirking slightly.
“Please don’t underestimate our strength. We have enough to finally shut that rat up for good,” David continued.
“It’s people like you and I that must put a stop to Yuri Seto,” Ryuuji said as he held up his cup.
David also held up his cup.
“To the Pied Piper of Hamelin,” said David.
“To the rat exterminator,” said Ryuuji.
The two of them toasted.
*Wild Turkey is an American brand of Bourbon whiskey that is well-known in Japan among whiskey drinkers.