Chapter 27: Forgotten City

Everything had turned to stone in this town.

Originally it had been a beautiful cityscape reminiscent of an ancient capital, but now everything stood still.

It was like a penal colony at the end of the earth, as though all those who had lived there had died, a place where silence crystallized and accumulated throughout the city.

A sinister silence.

The air was stale.

A grey hazy sky covered the town, making it difficult to tell whether it was cloudy or sunny out. Or whether it would rain. Or whether it would snow. Or whether it was night or day. You couldn’t even tell that.

On the outskirts of town the ground had been cut off, and there was nothing beyond that point. It was a void of emptiness, as though a gray liquid spread itself out for eternity.

The town was floating in a void cut off from the “world.”

“The Forgotten City.” That was the codename given to this dead place.

In order for CyberConnect Corp. Japan to carry out a certain project, the design of Mac Anu was copied and a town of rejected and neglected code was built. However, the project had been discontinued and was left open for a different purpose.

 

A dozen knight stood surrounding a fountain located at the center of the town. They were reminiscent of the European Middle Ages, a familiar theme for characters in a fantasy RPG.

The knights were all silent. Yet, when you came near one of the PC bodies, a chat balloon could be seen popping up overhead, then it would disappear as you walked away. It was much more efficient to talk in the text chat than to use a microphone in a voice chat.

“Memory leaks occur as you age,” one of them said.

“Schedule confirmed,” chatted another.

“Update complete.”

“Yes.”

“Where is the list located?”

“Please give priority to the translation.”

“Submission still unacceptable.”

“Seems like a text bug.”

They were debuggers organized by members of CC Corp. This “Forgotten City” was the work place of the knights, a special “bug treatment” facility.

“Head-Knight, ‘visitors’ are coming. Three of them,” said a knight.

“Understood. Start the transmission,” said the head-knight.

At the same time the PC called the Head-Knight sent a reply text, the water fountain began to vibrate. Not the water graphic, but the bleak stone base of the fountain.

The next moment the fountain stood still, and three characters suddenly appeared.

Everyone looked at the three figures as though they were not normal.

One’s machine-like skeleton was exposed.

Another had several square holes open in its body.

The last had limbs growing from its large head.

“Transfer complete.”

They were vagrant AI. They were irregular data that were born into The World, but were no longer wanted.

The head knight displayed a warning window at the vagrant AI, and sent a signal to his troops at the same time. The knights raised their spears in unison. They were synchronized to an inch. Schwing! The sound of metal sliding against metal echoed in the square.

After a period of exactly ten seconds, the head knight sent a message to alert the knights to the next stage of action.

“They didn’t react to the warning message. Confirm illegal PC status,” said the head knight indifferently.

“These are three bugs. Based on the Terms and Conditions, these are not within the specifications of The World, and are therefore irregular characters,” said a fellow knight.

The wandering AI were dumbfounded and did not seem to understand what was happening to them. They didn’t seem to have the intelligence in the first place to tell what was happening.

“Begin processing.”

The knights jumped with raised spears at the vagrant AI.

“Delete them.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Are we on schedule?”

“List uploaded. Please confirm.”

“All good.”

As the speech balloon popped up, a flash of white hot light burst forth from the raised spears and penetrated the PCs.

The vagrant AIs screamed and in the next moment they were gone without a trace. Their digital souls were sent to an eternal rest.

“Deletion complete,” the Head Knight declared.

He operated the Bug List window, placed a check-mark, and wrote something to the effect that a bug had been erased.

In the past, debugging methods that are now distant memories, such as the spear-wielding knights forming squads to delete wandering AI that infiltrated the towns and areas, were standard practice.

But that was a thing of the past. Now, methods for removing bugs had changed significantly.

The new way was to regularly auto-search each server of The World, and force the targets to be transferred to this place, where they could be deleted all at once. Wait for target, then click and delete.

“Ummmm, I thought I’d get to do it,” said a text balloon directed at the Head Knight from one of his subordinates. It was a rookie that had been recently added to the debug team.

“Are we required to auto-delete? I don’t think it’s much trouble to manually delete. You go through the trouble of having your forces wait in a place like this,” added the rookie.

“Did you read the documentation for a debugger?” asked the Head Knight.

“Yes, once.”

“Once?” said the Head-Knight as he stared at the rookie.

“I had a quick look. There was so much to read, so I only skimmed it.”

“Only a quick look?”

“Yes, that’s right…”

The Head Knight sighed and shook his head. The young rookie was unapologetic.

“Very well. First of all, to delete wandering AI, you need a spear. However, this spear is of a special design that has been programmed differently. It cannot be equipped manually and used like a regular PC item,” said the Head Knight.

He showed his spear hand.

“Second, we prefer not to be seen using the spear by normal players. Do you understand that? So, that’s why we established a system whereby we corral wandering AI in this isolated town and delete them.”

He moved in closer after saying this.

“And, third..”

He set the volume higher on his microphone and shouted loudly.

“Read all of the debugging information! Do it in one hour and remember it all!”

His voice boomed like thunder and the rookie read the balloon and logged out in a hurry. Then the Deputy Head Knight added a balloon to the conversation.

“What an annoying guy…”

The Head Knight shrugged.

It was necessary to remove even trivial bugs. If they didn’t remove them, the game would quickly become unplayable. This was not an exaggeration. They could easily lead to the collapse of “The World.” To be a true Knight, one had to understand the burden created by wielding a spear.

At that moment, the Head Knight noticed a figure approaching the Main Square.

The figure was not a knight. Rather than being dressed in a helmet and armor, the figure wore a uniform and cap. The cap had a unique visor that covered the eyes and nose; a major feature of a system admin PC.

“This town is a restricted area,” said the figure.

When the figure reached the entrance to the Main Square, the Head Knight gave a warning through his microphone.

“This town is for debuggers only. This area is off-limits even to system administrators. You must be a Knight to remain here,” said the Head Knight.

“My apologies,” said the system administrator.

“I seem to have gotten lost. I’m still not… very familiar with The World,” the figure said in a deep, calm voice.

A soft smile appeared on the admin’s face. It was a smile that expressed something akin to a guilty conscience without saying a word.

“Who’s in charge here?” said the admin.

“I am. What do you need?” asked the Head Knight.

“Pardon my bluntness, but listen to what I have to say intently and quietly for a moment.”

“Huh?”

The admin looked at the knights standing further back in the square.

“I want to have a private chat. Please refrain from talking and there won’t be any issues,” said the admin.

This was debugger territory. They could logout or turn off their sound if the conversation was too much. The Head Knight nodded.

“Understood.”

The Head Knight wanted to prevent unnecessary conflict with other departments. The duties of a system admin and a debugger overlapped somewhat, so the relationship between the two was often marked by subtly and never went as far as making threats.

Even so, the figure wanted to get in touch and he made an appearance. His words were carefully chosen and exaggerated.

The Head Knight launched a balloon from the chat tool.

“Break time. Everyone, wait here.”

“Roger.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Now, proceed with the text check,” the Head Knight said while gesturing and the system admin nodded.

A moment later, the system admin was standing in place with hollow eyes, and he continued to mutter the same words again and again.

“I can’t hear you. There is no response…,” he muttered to himself as he faced the Head Knight.

“Sorry to have bothered you at such a busy time. Thank you for your time.”

After saying this, the admin’s eyes suddenly pointed towards the Head Knight’s hand.

“That’s a great weapon,” the admin said.

“Thank you,” said the Head Knight so as not to appear unsociable.

The system admin walked away from the Head Knight, heading towards the Chaos Gate.

The Head Knight glanced at his subordinates and told them to resume their work.

“Someone strange just bothered us.”

“A stray child?”

“Maybe he was a rookie, too. LOL”

“With that tone of voice… XD… A definite newbie. LOL.”

“LOLOLOL.”

The knights all laughed in their text balloons but no sound could be heard.

“Head Knight, ‘Guests’ has arrived. Six of them.”

“Roger. Resume work. Commence transfer.”

The Head Knight signaled and the water fountain base began to hum, then the next bugs transferred in.

Six wandering AI. Four of them looked like men and one looked like a woman. Then–

The Head Knight’s eyes widened slightly.

One was a child. It was a boy that looked to be not much older than four or five years old. This wandering AI looked a little younger than was usual. He appeared closer in age to general PCs. However, what appeared to be two large bull’s horns grew on top of his head, clearly showing that he was not a regular PC.

Of course, the knights’ mission did not change, no matter the appearance of the wandering AI.

“Transfer complete!”

Sching! The spears were poised for attack.

They displayed a warning window and waited ten seconds.

“They’re not reacting to the warning. Make sure they’re not general PCs.”

They gave the usual verbal warning.

“Six bugs. Based on the Terms and Conditions, they are not within specifications of The World, and I certify them to be irregular. Commence processing.”

“Deleting.”

Click and delete. Myriad spears flashed and four wandering AI fell.

Then something unexpected happened.

The female wandering AI picked up and embraced the child.

“Please, spare him,” she pleaded as she fended off the spears.

“Please spare this child. Just spare–”

The Head Knight frowned.

This kind of AI rarely presented itself. The type of AI that ‘looked’ as though it had humanlike intelligence.

Blood relationships like those between humans did not exist for wandering AI. They just mimicked the role of the player and spouted automatic lines in the event something like this happened.

However, there are times when an inexperienced knight might be fooled by this behavior. Such cases have been recorded in the past. They would project their own mind to others not as smart as the so-called bot and would mislead them.

“Please, just spare the child.”

The AI ran in an attempt to escape the Knight’s spear, and the Knight pierced her from behind without any warning. Light flashed all around and the two AI fell.

The Head Knight stepped forward and looked down at the woman and boy.

The mother-like wandering AI held the child in a closed embraced as though trying to protect it.

“You’re good at acting human, aren’t you?”

The Head Knight sighed, and raised his spear for the finishing blow.

“I’m sorry. There’s something I have to ask.”

The gentle voice resounded in the square.

The Head Knight stopped his hand and looked up.

The System Admin who was supposed to have walked away stood before him. The admin must have returned to the square without anyone noticing.

“You again? I’m working right now. Please keep back,” said the Head Knight sharply, unable to hide his frustration.

“The spears you guys have are very intriguing. A very interesting weapon. I wish to examine it.”

The system admin continued to ignore the Head Knights words.

“You want to what?”

“I want to take a better look…”

When the System Admin said this, the sound of something wriggling and rustling could be hear in the square. Here and there traces could be heard flickering in the darkened corners, like the flickering of a shadow.

“We’re debugging. Do not interrupt us.”

The short-tempered deputy knight drew closer to the system administrator.

“What did you want before? Who do you work for? What’s your code-number?”

The System admin placed both hands gently on the shoulders of the deputy knight. He then began to tear apart the PC body with little effort. As though the deputy were made of paper.

The deputy attempted to cry out while being ripped apart, but no sound came out. He kept screaming to no avail.

The system admin cut diagonally through the deputy knight and piled up the pieces as he continued to tear the knight apart. This was repeated over and over. Then the screaming stopped.

He threw the pieces towards the other knights and they fell one by one to the ground with a sickening thud. They were strange objects that no longer resembled a person. A scene so hideous that you would have to see it to believe it.

Even as the knights watched this, they could not understand what had happened to the deputy knight just now. Time seemed to have stopped. He was paralyzed. He resembled the wandering AI that had been transferred here.

However, the next moment, the Head Knight’s thunderous voice broke the silence.

“It’s an illegal entity! Take battle formations!”

The knghts who returned to their senses quickly picked up their spears and surrounded the threat.

“A hack.”

“He’s a hack.”

“This guy’s not a system admin.”

“A hacker.”

“An enemy.”

“With a non-spec attack.”

“Be careful.”

“Reportttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt”

Suddenly the letter “t” began to overflow the text balloon.

“ttttttttttttttttaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”

The Knights turned around to see the knight being dragged to the back of the square as his text balloon stretched.

The figure disappeared into the darkness.

They could not tell what snatched him.

A sound could be heard from the middle of the square. A scream like the wind tearing at rocks could be heard. A softer sound took the place of the other.

“What are you?!”

The Head Knight pointed his spear at the man who looked like a system administrator.

The man did not look at the Head Knight. He got on one knee and examined the fallen wandering AI.

“Wonderful defects,” said the man.

“To cause such damage to non-specification characters. I’ve heard stories, but this is horrible…”

Still the noise could be heard. It was now similar to a scraping sound. Like scraping sharp rocks against each other.

“Watch your back. There are more of them.”

While the Head Knight glared at the man, a text balloon popped up above him.

“Watch your surroundings, you two. Surround the rest of them.”

They stood in front in an Arts stance.

“I challenge you. If you breaks your posture, I’ll launch all my Arts at once.”

“Did you send a message to someone?” the man said without looking up.

“It’s the last one for you.|”

At these words, the Head Knight looked up.

Everyone had vanished. Camp had been set and the knights, who had been there until a moment before, disappeared without a word.

The Head Knight stood aghast.

A voice spoke in his ear.

“Now, lend me a spear. The one in your hands.”

The Head Knight threw the spear above his shoulder. He trigger an Art and attempted to launch an attack at the man with a strike which had hidden powers of exorcism.

The man suddenly grabbed the spear and stopped it.

“Thanks,” the man said with a smile.

The Head Knight, deprived of his weapon, was overwhelmed by an avalanche from the side and was thrown down to the ground. The avalanche was a black swarm. The swarm emitted a high-pitched, raspy voice. The Knight tried to stand up but was held down by the tremendous pressure. Something bit him. Before he realized what was happening, he started to slip out of conscinousness.

The Head Knight finally realized that it was countless feet that were scratching him and shrouding him in darkness.

 

Silence once more.

The man remained still for a moment as if to enjoy the tranquility he had created. In his hand was the spear that he’d taken from the Head Knight. The Spear of Wotan. An out-of-place artifact of an ancient goddess.

The man gazed down upon the wandering AI. He was not smiling anymore. Instead, his face was now void of expression, like a Noh mask.

The mother AI hadn’t survived. A single wound to the back. There was no way to recover. However, her body continued to convulse every so often as though suffering the throes of a biological death, without actually ever dying.

The man crouched down, stroked the woman’s thin neck, then applied a little force. Finally the convulsions stopped and she faded away with a flash of light. This was in accordance with etiquette towards those who are dying in this “world.”

Then he glanced towards the child.

Graphics depicting young facial features. The child’s skin was pale and the eyes were tightly closed. A large scar appeared on the child’s forehead. It must have been caused by the same spear that pierced the mother.

However, the wound was not as deep when compared to death. The child had simply lost consciousness.

The man stood up with the spear.

“Suffer,” he said as though whistling through his teeth.

“Survive your own trial.”

He began to walk without looking back. His feet were directed at the Chaos Gate.

If the Knights and wandering AI do not pass the ordeak, they return to their original state.

The man’s left shoulder throbbed dully. This was not due to the struggle with the knight. It was a wound caused by Flugel. Thanks to getting sufficient rest in town, the man had recovered from the damage, but a faint pain remained.

However, he walked mindlessly. There was much to think about.

The man gave a “surveillance” command to the dozens of rats and sent them off to each town.

Yet, now, no matter how often he called to the rats, no matter how hard he listened, they did not give a reply.

It was not the work of Flugel. As he confirmed the hard way, this man had a magical special ability specialized for one on one combat, but was useless against swarms of rats. In the first place, he didn’t think he’d have to go looking for the rats while monitoring them.

Then who did it? Who was responsible for this?

It had only been fourteen hours and he’d lost contact with the rats.

Something happened to them.

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