"What? I can't hear you, the signal's bad."
"Of course it's bad. I'm using a goddamn payphone."
"I seriously have no idea what you're saying."
"You know, the phones that are lodged into the ground. A payphone. Come on, didn't we talk about these things, like, a couple weeks ago?"
"Yeah, I'm talking to him. He's at a phone that's lodged into the ground. No, I don't know what he's talking about either."
"Who are you talking to? Is that your wife again?"
"What? Shut up."
"Put her on, please."
"Yeah. Yeah, here you go."
The line shuffled.
"OK, can you start explaining?"
"Inquisitive as ever."
"Do you know how awful Lillie has felt?"
"I'm sure. I'm sure! You haven't been seeing her, have you? Listen, make sure you keep contact with her as little as possible. I don't want anybody seeing you three together. I know I can rely on you for this, right? All I’m asking is that you try not to play house for a while--difficult to resist, I know, but you’ll have to for this wanted criminal’s sake. Put him back on."
"What? So that's it, you're just done talking to me? The nerve, seriously, I mean--"
"Put him back on, please."
The line shuffled again.
"So you can hear me now."
"Oh, yeah, I can hear you. I just didn't understand you before."
"Ugh. Listen, kid. I'm checking in on you because it's looking like I'm entering the final stretch of this thing, kind of a dog-eat-dog situation out here. I just wanted to check in on how things were on your end."
"Okay, I think. I go to school like usual, I go to work like usual, and I don't see anyone suspicious--like usual."
"That's real good. That's great, even. God, it's windy here."
"Where are you?"
"I can't say that, obviously."
"Is there anything else new? Any developments in the neverending stream of information? I don’t really have any devices in the traditional sense anymore, and net cafes aren’t really a thing on the highway. What do truckers do about it? Well, I guess they have their own devices. Anyway, let’s hear it."
"I don’t know if I’m really the person to ask. I hardly read the news myself, except for when it has to do with you. Though lately it’s becoming inescapable… there’s all this talk about some guy who died because of a computer virus recently, and that same virus could’ve been easily transmitted to all of us. Crazy stuff!”
“Did they say who the victim was?”
“Nope. But rumour has it it’s someone important, which is why it hasn’t been talked about yet. Bad for business.”
“Ah, then it’s him. Well, maybe it’ll distract attention away from me in the long run. I would much rather become a footnote of Yodogawa’s story than the world’s most dangerous criminal or however I’m being painted by CC Corp-endorsed news outlets.”
“It’s a long story. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. Now is not that time. Is there anything else?”
“Well, there's this one weird thing."
"There's some talk online about, like, disappearances."
"What kind of disappearances?"
"Well, for one, Veronica Bain hasn't appeared anywhere for a while."
"Do you usually see her just hanging around?"
"No, duh. But CC Corp just had their big keynote event they do annually. I went with my editor from the magazine, you know? Usually she comes out on stage and introduces everything herself and it's a big deal. My editor says he goes to see how hot she is in person."
"I know, but listen: this time she only showed up for a pre-recorded message at the beginning, then her assistant or whatever started going on and on about fridges or something equally boring. Nothing exciting, especially for a gaming magazine like us. What? No. I swear."
"Sorry, she's just--ow! I told you, I hate when you hit me like that."
"Sorry. Anyway, the guy is going on about washing machines or whatever. Everyone leaves kind of bummed out. The responses online weren't great either. I guess they were expecting the new version of The World, not the 21st century's most advanced method of doing your laundry. It was so silly!"
"So how does this mean she's 'disappeared?'"
"Right.... well, you know how rabid fanboys can get. They started concocting all sorts of crazy ideas about why the new The World isn't out yet, they're sick of playing R:2.5 or whatever dumb name they give R:X these days. Well... their little detective work paid off, because now we know from a slight leak by someone who works there in America that Bain hasn't been in the office for a while now."
"Not since last month, when she came to see you. She never came back from Japan."
"So she's still here?"
"Yeah, looks like."
“It’s not just her, too. No one’s seen a lot of the world’s biggest figures in tech lately.”
“I mean, do most people keep cues on the activities of technocrats?”
“No, but I work for a game magazine, so naturally I’m keeping more of an eye on this kind of stuff, right? It’s just been… weird lately. There’s no other way to put it. These events feel different than usual, just all sorts of new people introducing products that these companies aren’t really known for. I think everyone can kind of feel it. At least I do.”
He made a noise out to the void. It would make sense that the commotion of Yuri Seto’s rat virus coming to light would create more pressing things for Veronica Bain to deal with, but that was far from “weird.” Though, Ryuuji hadn’t felt a semblance of normality for some time now, only just beginning to let it seep back in--odd, considering the fact that he was a wanted “criminal.” Perhaps it was the fact that he had been so disconnected from information, that the world had begun to rumble with anger for Yuri Seto and he hadn’t been able to feel it shaking beneath his very feet.
"Are you okay, Ryuuji?"
He looked around.
Like any other rest stop, it was clean only superficially. Dirt and grime had accumulated in the corners, just barely visible. A maintenance crew obsessed with doing only the bare minimum, because it was a transient place for people. The wind blew and pushed his long hair out of his face. Had it always been this long? The hair that fell in front of his face was long enough now to reach into his mouth, and became almost impossible to push out of his vision without holding it in a ponytail. It didn't help that his glasses were perpetually dirty because of the hair constantly rubbing its grease along the lens. Just as well, he thought, since he was less recognizable with them off, and the world had been becoming just as blurred whether or not he was looking at it through prescription lenses.
"I'm okay," he said. "I think."
"When do you think it'll be safe to come home?"
"Who's to say? I can't imagine a world where I'd be allowed to anytime soon. That's why it's absolutely imperative you stay out of trouble yourself, and keep an eye out."
"I don't know. The unusual?"
"Unusual... like men in black? Like in those alien movies?"
"That sounds kind of cool..."
"It's not as glamorous in real life. It's just tired guys in suits."
"Well, I won't let anything bad happen to me. Don't worry."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Nothing. Not yet, at least."
“I’m here. You can leave me a message in our little coin locker box any time you like.”
“Wow, look at you, becoming all reliable-like. You’ve certainly grown up, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m almost six feet tall! If you don’t listen to me I’ll just squash you like a bug!”
“I’m shuddering in my boots at the thought of it.”
“Well, I won’t keep you any longer.”
“Thanks. Take care, kid.”
The line cut.