Chapter 31: Black Forest

It was evening and Flugel and Kusame were in Net Slum.

The World’s garbage dump!

Welcome to a den of hackers and cheating scum!

After looking at the graffiti-covered walls for a moment, Kusame turned toward the slum-like cityscape.

NAB’s official position regarding illegal servers is to leave them be,” he said.

What’s in this heap of junk anyway?” he asked.

My friend is here,” answered Flugel.

A Net Slum hacker. A good friend or acquaintance?”

Kusame switched his mobile terminal to whisper mode.

How about a meeting with the Sophia Squad? I have one at six o’clock.”

Flugel replied in whisper mode too.

No problem. We’ll return at that time. There’s something I want to confirm. I just want to say a few words.”

The time was 5:05AM. He had logged in earlier than he had planned. The Sophia Squad meeting was still an hour away.

While the two of them continued to whisper to each other, they walked toward the back of the town.

They passed inhabitants of Net Slum as they walked the streets until they turned a corner and the @HOME came into sight.

Coincidentally, the informant came outside from the @HOME to greet them.

Kusame squinted at the informant.

Is that a potted plant-like aviator hat?” he asked.

That’s right, my friend.”

The informant attempted to walk face down, but noticed the appearance of Flugel and stood straight upright.

Flugel smiled with upturned eyes.

Hey, I came.”

Eek!” the informant cried out. His eyes opened wide.

Ahhhhh!”

As he screamed, he quickly turned on his heels and fled back into the @HOME.

Kusame looked at Flugel.

…A friend of yours?”

He’s a little shy,” said Flugel who took out a candy and popped it in his mouth.

He always gets that way whenever I show up.”

I don’t see why he should,” said Kusame with a nod.

In the informant’s @HOME, Flugel noticed that it had been subjected to a much more powerful security program since the last time he visited. It was the way one does things if they anticipate that uninvited guests may come by in the future. There was not a single chink in the barrier. A uniquely robust defense system.

However, the ruthless bullet of Brieler Roessle smashed the seal very easily.

Once inside, the informant sat on one of the stools. He looked at Flugel and Kusame and saw that their thin dark faces looked even darker and gaunter.

Jazz music was not playing and a sound effect that mimicked the grinding of hard coffee beans echoed throughout the store instead of the usual background music.

Hey. This not a very cold atmosphere at all.”

Flugel started speaking and the informant shook his head. His mouth twitched in an obvious manner.

I agree with you, I don’t have a good sense for things since being attacked by a rat monster.”

That was a bit rude of me. I came to give you New Year’s greetings… So, Happy New Year.”

Flugel bowed deeply and very politely.

I am extremely grateful for your invaluable patronage over the previous year. This year too I want to thank you so much for your continued patronage.”

The informant thrust out his finger.

It’s now June. It’s the rainy season.”

Oh, is that so? Recently my sense of time has been a little off. I have to wonder if I’m getting old…”

Flugel sat next to the informant.

Or, perhaps I’ve strained myself from overworking. I am a hard worker after all. In all honesty, I enjoy working as hard as I can. But you see, it’s because I take it all very seriously. I unconsciously give it my all. I’m a model worker. I’m both amazed and embarrassed by myself. But on the other hand, I can’t help but like myself that way.”

Kusame listened in silence to the exchange between Flugel and the informant from behind Flugel. Flugel was tying to get something out of the man with the aviator’s cap. So far he had refrained from cutting into the conversation.

The informant interrupted Flugel’s endless stream of words.

With your permission, I wonder if we could cancel our arrangement.”

Cancel? Why?”

Well, actually… my health is not very good. Ummm, also, there are several unfortunate circumstances in the real world to take care of. So, I think I should get away from the Net for a while…” he said, averting his eyes and muttering.

Really? That’s unfortunate.”

The sound of the grinder echoed throughout the room.

But, you can’t help the situation. I understand. Well, we’ll cancel it.”

I’m sorry.”

The informant looked up. There was a light of relief in his eyes.

But, please tell me one thing. What are you hiding?”

He blinked as though puzzled by Flugel’s question.

What do you mean?”

Is there something you’re not telling me? Previously, you said something during the rat hunt. Just before you logged out. Ah, one moment.”

Flugel removed the candy from his mouth, and spoke in a deliberately slow voice.

Right, now I remember. You said, ‘I’m so deeply sorry to see you on such a day.’”

The informant’s entire body went stiff.

During the rat-monster’s attack, he said this over his shoulder and logged out.

At the time, Flugel hadn’t really thought much of it. To begin with, it wasn’t very important to the situation since they were on the verge of being eaten to death by a horde of rats.

But they escaped at the last moment and were able to take a moment to catch their breath from the brutal event, and the a doubt slowly began to take form within Flugel.

The informant turned his face away from Flugel.

I don’t know anything about that.”

You don’t know?”

I don’t remember what I said. Perhaps you just misunderstood.”

Could I have misunderstood? Indeed. I wonder, did it even happen? I certainly felt as though you said it. No, wait. I must be mistaken.”

Flugel waved his hand.

There’s the chat log. My interaction with you in on record. Isn’t that a legal piece of evidence?” he said, turning to Kusame behind him.

The informant seemed to be caught off guard by the dangerous words of ‘legal evidence.’ For the first time, he looked to Kusame who he had ignored up to this point.

Hey, what’s this? Who’s the dog over there?”

Oh, sorry. I forgot the introductions. This is Kusame of NAB.”

I’m Kusame. Pleased to meet you.”

Kusame quickly bowed his head.

Kusame Ofnab? What a bizarre name. Ofnab… of… nab.”**

An audible snort came out that sounded as though it were from the real world.

NAB!!”

The informant stood up, knocking his chair over.

What are you thinking?! Why bring this kind of guy here?!”

Hackers hate NAB more than they hate system admins. It was fear more-so than hate. The reason goes without saying.

Kusame is investigating the ‘rat hunt’ matter.”

Kusame glanced at Flugel, but didn’t say anything.

So, I figured you may know something that Kusame doesn’t know. So you could offer some information.”

The informant raised his voice to a yell.

Don’t be ridiculous! Once word gets around that a guy from NAB is coming and going here, I won’t be able to do business in Net Slum ever again!”

Hmm. And here I thought this place was pretty good. You’re going to be away from the Net for a while, right?”

No doubt about it!”

I’ll confirm one more time in front of Kusame.”

Flugel ignored the other party’s appeal.

You did not say even one of the words in ‘I’m so deeply sorry to see you on such a day.’ Is that correct?”

Well, wait. I… may have intended to say it…”

Flugel looked at the informant’s face and smiled.

Well! Then relax. Cooperate with NAB, tell us what you know, give us a good idea of what happened, and it would go a long way to improving the situation. I think it will, anyway. Isn’t that right?”

The last question was directed toward Kusame.

That’s right.”

Kusame nodded.

There you have it! It’s a good idea.”

Alright. I’ll talk. It should be for the best…” moaned the informant.

He said he saw the actual spot where he saw the PC get killed by the monster was covered in a violet hexagon effect.

Half a year ago, on December 24, 2022, the day was Christmas Eve. It was the day that the Raid System was introduced to The World R:X. There was an incident in which many PC’s were rendered unconscious.

A big black tree appeared along with a horde of bug monsters and those who were attending the event were caught in the game, no longer able to log out.

The informant explained what had happened at this event..

Flugel thought that someone had mentioned this topic recently. A few days ago when Tokio Kuryuu had visited, he had mentioned it. An occult-classic of The World. The party concerned had been there.

Actually, someone tipped me off. I knew in advance. The tree is not from The World, but is a part of a special computer from somewhere else entirely. I don’t know how or why, but it lost control and wandered into The World.”

The informant started talking once again. He became very serious.

I smelled an opportunity for profit. I thought to obtain some materials and then I set up a reverse hack trap for the tree.”

You must have been in the midst of chaos. Were you able to pull it off?” asked Flugel.

Were you incorporated into the game?”

“I have skills and I didn’t enter due to a number of barriers. I ran an OS on top of another OS. It was my own system that combined a virtual machine with remote control. I can operate like a real computer in The World.”

He took a good look at the informant’s face.

A shrewd looter,” Kusame muttered.

As I thought, the tree security program did not work properly. I was not hindered, I ran the monitor on the inside of the tree.”

He said, then shut his mouth.

Then?”

Flugel coaxed an answer.

But the informant wouldn’t talk.

It was not reluctance.

Flugel looked at the informant’s face. His previous expression that showed confidence in his skills disappeared from his face. A look of fear came to the surface in its place.

My monitor showed a place that looked like a vault inside.”

After a while, the informant started speaking again.

So, I tried looking at the files at random, but I didn’t understand them at all. It was not in a common language. But then, while reading the files, I could recognize some words, and I caught on to the contents. The tree seemed to be a computer used by the government of some country other than Japan. The brain…”

He momentarily stammered.

It was alongside a lot of data that controls the human brain…”

What? The brain?”

Flugel asked again. The informant nodded.

How do you know that?”

Because words like ‘hippocampus,’ ‘cerebral cortex’ and ‘brain stem’ were itemized. Well, as I said earlier, I already knew about this. It’s what’s called a Special Computer. That’s why I thought it was a research facility computer that specializes in such things… at some hospital or something. But something about it seemed strange. There were too many numbers to handle. It was six digits. No matter how you look at it, what sort of facilties are managed for the purpose of dealing with such absurd numbers?”

Flugel and Kusame looked at each other.

At that time, I recalled a rumor I had heard long ago. Whether it’s related to human trafficking or organ trafficking… what country it’s happening in… it connects to a computer and stores the ‘parts’ that are pulled out of human beings. That way it’s easy to manage and maintain freshness. It’s easy to mess around with like a junk computer…”

And?”

Flugel urged him onward.

I got out of there as soon as I erased any traces of hacking. I don’t know how that tree, incidents of comas, and rumors of organ trading are connected, but I want to know. This smells fishy all over. The scale is way too big. This is something that a good citizen like me shouldn’t be poking their nose into.”

The informant trembled.

When I ran away, I saw some of the source code. There were some weird comments with it. I think perhaps one of the developers of the tree wrote it as a joke in poor taste. I read it. I remember it even now –– ‘None of those who were swallowed up by the black forest will return…’”

The black forest…,” said Flugel.

It’s quite a poetic expression.”

The rat monsters that appeared in Mac Anu three days ago are connected to the black forest.”

The informant continued.

I was sure of that. It’s just like the tree incident six months ago. The monsters that appeared with the tree had a purple hexagonal effect on them. It was similar to the guy with the rats. He’s really dangerous. I regret getting caught up in all this trouble. I don’t want to be involved in this anymore…”

The informant stopped talking there.

Flugel was silent for a while.

The informant’s fear was unusual. Possibly, upon infiltrating the tree, he may have seen things that he was hesitant to speak of on this occasion.

However, Flugel felt that the informant was definitely telling the truth about the matter at hand.

Thank you for talking with me.”

Flugel extended his arm and put his hand on the informant’s shoulder.

I understand. You won’t be involved any longer. My request is canceled.”

As soon as he heard that, the informant’s face grew more relaxed.

Sir, I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.”

As he apologized, it was obvious that he was wholeheartedly relieved to be freed from this burden.

Actually, the information gathering process will soon be finished. I can’t sort it yet, but the moment I get paid, I’ll hand the information over to you. Please wait a little longer.”

He didn’t seem to say he’d return the money. The informant disappeared to the back of the shop with light dancing footsteps, and Kusame sneezed.

I tried to contact the Akasaka branch,” he said with a whisper.

It seems Aviator-Cap over there wasn’t lying about the incident of 2022. His word lined up with NAB’s report.”

The informant returned from the back holding thick parchment files in both hands.

He went at the counter and placed it in front of Flugel.

Here. Import as much as you want and then bring this back.”

You like this kind of prop, don’t you?”

Flugel looked at the bunch of parchment in his hands.

One more thing, sir. This sort of atmosphere is important. It’s not limited to games.”

Flugel didn’t know if it was because the informant felt at ease or guilty for canceling the request, or both, but the informant started acting strangely and cracking jokes.

Hey, listen. Did you have trouble customizing this shop so far?”

At the informant’s words, Flugel surveyed the shop interior for a moment.

It would be simple to steal the official template, but then the @HOME would be dull and lifeless. Sometimes it’s in the spirit of hackers to spend a lot of time and effort on things. Well, there was a time once where it was destroyed by a machine gun. I cried as you could imagine…”

Flugel did not listen to the informant’s long story.

He looked up steeply at the ceiling.

Noticing this, the informant stopped talking.

What’s wrong, sir? What’s going on?”

The informant followed Flugel’s eyes and looked at the ceiling, but he didn’t see anything strange.

Kusame said in a nervous tone beside Flugel.

Flugel.”

Oh, this is bad.”

It’s too early. We’ll log in and still have twenty minutes.”

Your suspicion that we are being watched is right on the money.”

What? What are you guys talking about?” the informant said to both of them.

Flugel turned to the informant.

Hey. I want you to relax and listen carefully.”

Hm?”

Earlier I promised not to involve you in all this, but it seems I can’t keep that promise.”

What?”

Flugel pointed to the grinder on the counter.

Could you turn that off please?”

The grinder finely ground the hard coffee beans and scattered the grounds around the container.

That? Why?”

Not important. Just please turn it off.”

The informant put his hand behind the grinder and switched it off.

The grinder immediately slowed its rotation and came to a halt.

Yet, the sound did not stop.

The sound, as though something was being crunched, kept ringing out.

Hey, hey, hey…”

The informant nervously looked up at the ceiling.

What’s that?”

A sound seemed to come from the ceiling as well as from the walls all around them.

Some sort of mass burst through from outside the @HOME.

The sound already changed to something different from that of the grinder. The sound was like nothing the informant had ever heard before. It sounded like something being dragged or strong wind causing branches to brush against each other. It sounded like the voice of something inhuman.

I’m coming,” said Flugel.

Before he knew it he held a shiny black gun in his hand –– Brieler Roessle.

When the informant noticed this he opened his mouth, but suddenly something fell in front of him.

Once he realized its true identity, more globs came down before him. Globs fell one after the other. It was as though a thick oil was being poured out. After a moment, a purple hexagonal effect spread across the floor.

The informant let out a guttural scream.

Translator’s Notes:

*The informant’s plant-like aviator hat makes it possible that it is one of two people: either Sakisaka from .hack//Roots, or Geek from .hack//Quantum (which would fit the time frame better). It could however just be someone copying the style.

**In the original version, the joke is that Kusame is introduced with “This is Kusame of NAB” which is said as “nabunokusame.” The informant thinks Kusame’s name is Nabuno Kusame, which sounds pretty strange in Japanese. My version of the joke creates the name Kusame Ofnab, which sounds vaguely Eastern European but is nonetheless a strange name. This preserves the meaning of the joke in English.

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