"Quantum computer... neural link..."
The voices were too muffled to make out. The figures, too, were hard to discern in the dimly lit room. A few rays of light struggled in through the cracks between planks that made up the shoddy walls, and the howling of the wind drowned out most noise. In the center there were two figures whose facial features were all but missing. Blonde hair... a woman, probably. She's standing, arms crossed. Across from her there's someone sitting in a chair. A middle aged man, long hair strewn about his shoulders--it looks like he's been here a few days. The woman, however, is immaculate.
They speak some more, but the voices are filtered through a fishbowl. It's tough to make anything out, but a few keywords slip through the wind:
Ryuuji woke up mid-snore in a deeply worn net cafe recliner. He jumped up, wiping the drool from the corner of his mouth. The hardness of the recliner had made his back sore as hell, and the cloud of cigarette smoke wafting through the area didn't help either. He had long since kicked the habit, but the thick scent of it made him feel like he had relapsed just from inhaling the air around him. Well, at least it was cheaper than a non-smoking area.
A wave of the mouse in front of him brought the computer screen to life. 3am, on the dot. Ryuuji ordered a beer from the interface in front of him, and within a couple minutes it was slid under his door like a prisoner.
He cracked it open and the ice cold taste of it slowly brought him back to life, ever so slightly numbing out the pain in his back and he relished in the moment. In the labyrinth of computers around him every aspect of life was playing out within each cubicle. Most, at this hour, were sleeping salarymen snoring away. Three booths to his left there was a young couple whispering sweet nothings to each other, quite intoxicated--they've missed the last train. Five cubicles north was a young man grinding gold in The World to sell later--his version of a part-time job. Four east, a teenage runaway hiding out for the night. The taste of beer brought Ryuuji to awareness of the lives around him.
Ryuuji checked his coat to see if everything was still intact. His devices on the table, wallet in the inner pocket, and car keys in his pocket. The car had been acquired slightly before this, at a used car dealership just outside of Minato ward. The dealership was privately owned and prior to his visit Ryuuji had withdrawn a large sum of cash from his account before setting up a private account under Lillie's name which he authorized Reiko Saeki to withdraw from.
Most of the cash Ryuuji immediately loaded onto various IC cards in an effort to digitize it without being connected to the network, and he had made his assets essentially "analog" as well, using the private and anonymous networks of convenience stores like Area Spots, which, while slightly rare in Tokyo (as in, on every other street corner instead of every street corner), were the most common on the countryside--ensuring Ryuuji had a system of withdrawal wherever he went. He would make deposits into pre-ordered items ranging from video games to concert tickets to home appliances that he would be able to cancel for a small fee to "withdraw" that deposit without it being able to be traced to him. As such, Ryuuji's wallet was now overflowing with IC cards--some more complex than others.
The car, however, he paid for in cash. The owner of the dealership was skeptical but keen to people in tight spots.
"I'm more than happy to do cash, sure, but somethin' about it doesn't sit right."
"I wish I could pay any other way if only to soothe your conscience. I promise you I'm not doing anything illegal. At least, by the regular definition."
"I don't need to know any more. I'm just thinkin' about myself here."
"I'll pay a premium if you'd prefer."
Just then, the boss' son came home, dressed in some nondescript high school uniform. He couldn't have been more than fifteen. Ryuuji, in an effort to come off as non-threatening, offered him a lollipop as he passed by.
"Hey, kid. Studying hard or hardly studying?"
The kid just stared at the lollipop without saying anything, and the awkward tension mounted. He went upstairs to the residential half of the shop without saying a word. Ryuuji turned to face his dad, who had decided the man in front of him was harmless after all.
"Come with me," he said, taking the lollipop from Ryuuji's hand.
He showed him to the back of the shop where a silver car sat innocuously among the others. Every car in the dealership was kind of non-descript, low-end, and used--heavily. This one had slightly more character than the others in the lot--a sleek frame, four headlights, and a spoiler in the back. It wasn't entirely flashy, but it wasn't something a salaryman would drive. At the same time, no one would give it a second glance on the road.
"This one has been sitting here for years. It's a bit out of the range of my usual suspects. It's not that they can't afford it, but... you know the type. Clean cut. This sort of thing doesn't suit them."
"Well, it sure is pretty."
"Yep. That's the Toyota Celica, '98 model. If you're paying cash, I kindly ask that you take 'er off my hands. I won't charge you more than what I'm askin'," he said, pointing to the price tag in the window. It was reasonable.
"It looks great to me."
That car was parked in front of the net cafe. Ryuuji had simply handed over the cash and drove it out of the lot. Now it was his portable home.
With all his assets secured, Ryuuji turned his attention to the screen. Various files were scattered on the monitor: a photograph of a young Veronica Bain surrounded by gaunt-looking men, patient records, and the data from ALTIMIT Urania had stolen for him.
Headaches, hallucinations, nightmares... it was hard for him to read. The documents went into great detail regarding Kaya's symptoms, and every time he read through it he could feel her watching over his shoulder. He had reviewed it countless times in the interim between leaving the hospital and entering the Baketon Hotel a final time. He had quite literally memorized it in an effort to avoid becoming emotional in front of Bain, but it seems that was impossible. Like it or not, this was a weak spot in the confines of what made Ryuuji Sogabe.
Open next to the files was a web search for a "Klaus Vogler," the name at the bottom of the document regarding the quantum computer. A former ALTIMIT researcher, Ryuuji was unable to discern exactly who he was among the scores of German men in the photograph of Bain. The document itself was written listlessly and without reason, as if the author of it was simply listing the negatives of the quantum computer without care for scientific method or academic form. In other words, it was something of an exposee, and Ryuuji could sense the author's desperation. Or, perhaps, his malice.
The inscrutable German had little to be said about him online, too. The results were thin with plenty of irrelevant others who shared both or either names. In an age where everything was catalogued, the vast amounts of junk info made it difficult to find exactly what you wanted. This is why Ryuuji had to be a Network Trouble Consultant at all—there are problems that cannot be solved with a search engine alone.
After spending some time researching, Ryuuji realized his can of beer had emptied out. The most he had learned over the duration of the beer was that a man named Klaus Vogler had worked at ALTIMIT and then effectively disappeared from all logs. The fact that he did not appear in any search results was significant in itself--he had been removed from history, and no one finds themselves outside of it for good reason. Public resources would be no good--Ryuuji would have to ask a contact like Judy or the Net Slum informant again before he would find anything out about this man. But, in his situation, that was going to be difficult.
To account for his recent switch to an analog life Ryuuji had allowed himself a single digital fortress for safe transmission of information. The fortress itself had been constructed by a company he had invested in when his income was steady, some years ago: Umihara General Electric. At one point was poised to be the biggest force on the market, it took a nosedive following Pluto's Kiss and was unable to recover. However, in recent years, they had doubled down on cyber-security programs, catering to a more tech-savvy customer base that appreciated privacy above all else. Anticipating this sudden rise in software development, Ryuuji had invested a large sum in the company in hopes that it would pay for Lillie's tuition someday.
The software in question that functioned as Ryuuji's fortress was called Cherrybox, an end-to-end encrypted storage service that functioned like a coin locker box. Those with the right key could access it remotely and either deposit or withdraw files. The files themselves became one-of-a-kind--if one person were to deposit a file, once it was withdrawn by another the original uploader could never retrieve the same file again. This was the basic "give-and-take" function of the program. As a matter of security, Ryuuji had bestowed a key to his three most trusted confidants: Urania, Tokio, and David. Upon accessing the coin locker box, Ryuuji found that one file had been recently dropped off while he was asleep; a text file that only read:
What the HELL??????????????????????????????????
He stared at it puzzled for a moment. The coin locker box was reserved for emergencies only, and Tokio knew that. Just then, the news ticker on the main page's interface updated. The headline: "Hacker Identified in Christmas Data Leak."
Ryuuji clicked the link, and was suddenly staring at himself.
"What the hell?"