The PFW building featured no windows and from the outside seemed like a solitary fortress on top of a hill. It was surrounded by forests and a farm of solar panels situated beside it. The reception area was visually noisy with screens displaying company projects and slogans as far as the eye could see, but there were no visitors. Fake plastic trees were scattered around arbitrarily to invite a bit of nature into the space, but the plastic only made it feel more unnatural.
"Welcome to PFW," said the receptionist, clearly avoiding pronouncing the full German name. That in itself was a feat for any native speaker of Japanese. "How can I help you today?"
"I have an appointment with Mr. Tanigami."
"Oh, and your name is?"
Reiko told her.
"Oh, Ms. Saeki! Yes, Mr. Tanigami is expecting you. He just came in this morning. If you'll take a seat there he'll be right with you."
Reiko nodded and sat down in the cushionless chair. This was not the type of place that had guests, and naturally not much thought was put into the comfortability of its waiting room.
The news ticker displayed various headlines. ALTIMIT in talks to expand the Digital Zone project to the rest of Japan. Talks of implementing an automated surveillance system into the foundation of the net. The World users steadily climbing in number. Injustice throughout the world. The typical kind of headlines that defined the 2020s--technological prowess continues to expand, human stories to a minimum. More at 6:00.
The man in charge of one corner of this expansion appeared before Reiko now.
"Hi there. Ms. Saeki, is it?"
"Yes, that's me. It's nice to meet you, Mr. Tanigami."
They exchanged business cards. They were both plain and nondescript. Size 12, Times New Roman. Hitoshi Tanigami. Chief Executive Officer. Black text, white manila card. The higher one reaches in ranks, the less personal their business cards become.
Satisfied, they moved on to a meeting room further in. Unlike the flashy lobby, this room was far more ordinary. A white table in a nondescript gray room. A flatscreen television overlooked it. They took a seat across from each other, and the sound of the air conditioning system filled the silence.
"So, how can I help you today, Ms. Saeki?" Tanigami said this with a smile. His eyes were hidden behind thick frames and even thicker lenses, and his hair was going grey--this guy is halfway to becoming a grandpa, Reiko thought. The wrinkles seemed to be a sign of age, but they were actually from stress--this was the father of a sick child.
"I'll get right to it. Around the Christmas holidays, a quantum computer manifested in The World R:X. The NAB traced its origins to San Diego, but it seems to have been brought online from a signal here in Aomori, specifically from your lab."
"A quantum computer? Like, in science fiction novels?"
"Please don't play coy with me, Mr. Tanigami."
"Well, it's true that we were working with a server farm in San Diego... but we were only told it was connected to some sort of supercomputer or something like that."
"For what purpose were you utilizing a supercomputer?"
"We were creating a frontend program to digitally index human consciousness. I know it sounds pretty radical, but it was more like we were trying to create a physical therapy device."
"As in, a program designed to alter the unconscious states of a connected individual?"
"Yes, more or less."
"Are you aware of something called the Digital Bastille?"
"No, what's that?"
"A frontend program for the aforementioned quantum computer. It utilizes connected inmates' consciousnesses to power the quantum computer, and allows the administrator to inflict psychological terrors on the connected inmates."
"That sounds unethical."
"So you see why I'm here."
"Well, Ms. Saeki, like I said before, all I can tell you is what I've already said. I don't know anything more than that. Whether or not you believe me is up to you. I wish I could say more, but the details are beyond me."
It was clear that Tanigami wouldn't tell Reiko anything. She stayed silent for a moment, and then decided to take a different approach.
"Mr. Tanigami, exactly what is it you research here? Forgive me for sounding rude; it's just that I happen to know the founder of PFW, and things like digital prisons don't sound like something he would've come up with."
"Well, whether it was used for a digital prison or not, the program we've been developing is one of the many unfinished projects left behind by our mutual friend. If it was something in the realm of quantum computing was something inscrutable to us. We’ve mostly been continuing his research as requested by CyberConnect in addition to the various Digital Zone projects for ALTIMIT. As you can see, we mostly work as a middle man for other corporations."
He said a bit too much.
"So CyberConnect instructed you to continue the research on that frontend program?"
"Well, yes, it was a commissioned project just like anything else we do here."
"I thought it was just continuation of Mr. Sogabe's research?"
"Yes, well, that continuation is mandated by CyberConnect."
Reiko pretended to look through her notes, but she mostly just needed time to reflect. There was one thing she had deliberately not spoken about: the fact that Mr. Tanigami was the father of the player behind Hermit, who forced the manifestation of the quantum computer in The World. There was a clear discrepancy here--why would Tanigami's son be the one to essentially expose the Digital Bastille project? The only answer could be some sort of internal collusion, but whether it was his work or not was left unknown. If Tanigami was lying, that would mean he was responsible for connecting Hermit and the computer to the game, creating a scenario where the NAB would become involved, and he would be fighting against the puppetmasters whom Reiko suspected to be at work. However, if he was lying, and it was someone else who hooked up his son to the game, then it would spell trouble for Reiko. Tanigami would be lying to protect those puppetmasters.
In any case, there was no benefit to her bringing up this contradiction currently.
"Well, if the PFW was unaware of any ethical concerns in their projects, I have no choice but to investigate your employers."
"You mean you'll go to San Diego?"
Reiko tidied her papers and got up from her seat. As she left, she offered one final word to stir Tanigami's mind a bit: "Give my kindest regards to your son, Mr. Tanigami."