Web小説 「.hack//bullet」


   The Celica arrived.
   Aomori had taken a few unusual leaps forward in recent years and became a technological metropolis of Japan. Ever since the Digital Zone project had launched industrial developments of the area increased tenfold and brought a large crowd of workers--both in construction and scientific research alike--into the otherwise quaint hot springs town. Many workers brought families with them, and new schools were opened to accommodate their arrival.
   In the short time since the PFW lab had opened in the northeastern sector of the town, Ryuuji had watched buildings grow taller into the sky, shrouding the town. When he had left the company and returned to Tokyo, he relished in the fact that it was a city that changed only in predictable, foreseeable ways, as opposed to the rampant expansion of the Aomori sprawl. Now he returned for the first time since, setting up camp in his car. The smell had become somewhat unbearable.
   There wasn’t much to be said about the stakeout itself. It started when he made a phone call from one of the public telephones just outside the building.
   "PFW head office, how may I redirect your call?"
   I'm looking for Mr. Hitoshi Tanigami."
   "Do you have an appointment?"
   "No, I was just wondering if he's in today. I'm his old college buddy, you see, and we had plans to get lunch, and--"
   "I'm sorry, sir, but unless you have an appointment with the employee you are asking for I cannot redirect your call. If you'd like, I could take a message."
   "I'd really like to just speak to him myself if possible. Do you know if he's in, at least?"
   "I cannot comment on employees' schedules without confirming with them first. May I take your name please?"
   Ryuuji hung up, unable to discern the usual schedule of Tanigami.
   A few hours later he called again, putting on a weary tone to his voice.
   “Is sonny in?”
   “I beg your pardon?”
   “Hitoshi, that good fer nothin’. He ain’t given me any of his salary one bit, no sir, I still live in this damn backwater town!”
   “Who’re you calling for, sir?”
   “The damn CEO, who else? At least, that’s what he says he is. He hasn’t delivered on any of the promises he made when he was a kid. ‘When I get older I’m gonna get you a Ferrari!’ Yeah? Then why am I still driving the hunk of junk that barely breaks 80 kilometres in my driveway? Listen, I demand you get Hitoshi on the line!”
   “Sir, please calm down. If you’ll just provide the extension you’re looking for, I’d be happy to connect you.”
   “Extension?! I'm his father! Put me through!”
   “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t put you through without the extension.”
   Ryuuji hung up. Time for a more tactile approach. Some hours go by spent idly in his car before he attempts the assault again.
   “PFW, how may I direct your call?”
   “Oh hey, I was just wondering if Mr. Tanigami had come back from his vacation at all.” Ryuuji said this with a breeziness to his tone that tried to indicate a kind of intimacy, a sense of relaxation and serenity that he hoped would infect the receptionist--a difficult task considering she had been bugged all day by various calls to the CEO of her company.
   “May I ask who’s calling?”
   “I’m from the R&D team at CC, I came by last week? Yeah, Mr. Tanigami and I were talking over lunch the other day that we should really be reallocating our assets into psychotherapy tools. I was wondering if he’d be in at all today for me to reach him.”
   “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t--”
   “Comment on employees schedules, yeah? You’re very good at your job! Consider that a test. I was hoping to leave him a message though, mind lending me his extension?”
   “Again, sir, I’m sorry, but it cannot be done.”
   “Really? You know, I’m kind of his boss.”
   “I can take a name.”
   Ryuuji hung up.
   Thus, the stakeout began. He had stocked up on various snacks and meals beforehand, but, like an irresponsible teenager he had already eaten a large amount of them without thinking, just something to fill the boredom of sitting around for hours on end.
   And it was hours. It was rare that anyone left the building at all, usually just custodial or reception staff. The real heavy hitters, it seemed, were true workaholics. The entire workplace atmosphere seemed to have changed. In fact, the building itself had gotten a big facelift since Ryuuji's tenure as its lead developer. In the past it was a more traditional office building with regular workspaces. Since Ryuuji's work had been focused mainly on software and smaller-scale endeavours, there was no need for such a large establishment. But, as with everything CyberConnect had taken on in the new decade, the organization's workflow changed, being tasked to create more and more products, and it worked in tandem with all other CC labs around the world all working at crazy speeds to take on gigantic workloads. It seemed that at some point in the 2020s CyberConnect and ALTIMIT had launched a massive undertaking to completely overtake the general electronics market, taking their "closed system" attitude and applying it to all aspects of their customers' lives, which happens to be nearly the entire world market.
   In Ryuuji's day PFW as an organization had just been an excuse to cut into CyberConnect funding and pay for whatever experimental psychotherapy technology he would come up with. Officially it existed to research Real Digitalize, and it did do that, too--but it wasn't the main focus. The VR Scanner, Schicksal PCs, and so on were just some of the fruits of Ryuuji's access to near unlimited funds.
   Ryuuji reminisced about the first day on the job with Kaname Nomura, his young research assistant from his time in Germany. They had just finished moving all the boxes of computer parts they had requested from the company to begin the lab.
   “I can’t believe we’ve ‘gone to Aomori.’”
   “Ah yes, the terminal point for all of our ilk."
   "This is so exciting, Dr. Sogabe."
   "Hey, we're colleagues now! This isn't academia any more. You can just call me Ryuuji."
   "Alright... Ryuuji." He seemed visibly discomforted saying the name. "I don't know if I can get used to this. I've just been so accustomed to addressing you as ‘doctor’ for so many years now... isn't it alright if I just keep it the way it is?"
   "I mean, if you insist. I definitely have no problems with being called on by such an important sounding title."
   They sipped their coffees. The bitter taste punctuated their hard work.
   "Starting tomorrow, we'll be taking the first steps into making the world a better place, by our own terms."
   "I feel so lucky to be able to work with such a well-established researcher like yourself."
   "Hey, flattery will do you no good anymore. You already got the job."
   "I mean it! I feel like if I'm working with you, I'll always be led to glory."
   "Theatrics aside, I appreciate it. But it's on you too, you know. We're a team here. You gotta have my back, and I'll have yours in return."
   "Always, Dr. Sogabe."
   Nomura left PFW soon after Ryuuji. After some months spent pestering him to start fresh and continue without CyberConnect, he eventually gave up once Ryuuji had officially set up office as a Network Trouble Consultant, and Nomura went off to establish his own company in Tokyo. Thus, without the heart and soul of PFW, the windowless building that now sat on the hill was a completely different entity.
   Ryuuji thought about the new CEO—Hitoshi Tanigami. He imagined what kind of man was chosen to replace him, what kind of character had taken over the dream of his youth, and what he sought to turn it into. Even the title of ‘CEO’ was not one that existed when the company was first founded, as Ryuuji avoided introducing that kind of hierarchy; it was a circus all the same as Schicksal itself.
   He stared at the photograph that had been transmitted to him. A fatherly-looking man, giving an awkward smile to the camera, not sure if it's picture day at school or a mugshot. He couldn't attribute any personality to the man, as the idea of anyone other than Ryuuji being in charge of the organization called Psychopathology und das Forschungsinstitut der virtuellen Wirklichkeit was unnatural and impossible.
   Does he even know what the name means?
   Ryuuji looked for his face coming out of the building for hours, watching carefully as the doors opened and closed with a new face behind them each time--none of them Tanigami--and when he had finally finished his remaining snacks he decided it was time to switch to Plan B.
    As Dr. Sugai did not ask about it, Ryuuji was still in possession of the acoustic phoneline connection device that had been his highway to Drain some weeks earlier. The public telephone that he had called would be the perfect entry point into the PFW but Ryuuji tucked it away into the 'emergencies only' corner of his mind. Accessing the server would not leave an identifiable trail to Ryuuji, but it would leave a trail nonetheless, like a door left open. Thus it was something he had saved for only the most unusual of circumstances where all other methods of ascertaining a meeting with Tanigami had failed, and Ryuuji seemed to have a knack for finding himself in them.
   It was dawn now, and Ryuuji tried to stealthily make his way to the phone booth. Summertime had kicked into full gear, but Aomori was cooler than usual at this time of day and a chill passed through Ryuuji's body as he left the threshold of the car. He had tied his hair up under a hat, coat's collar pulled up high--perhaps while trying to avoid suspicion he had made himself look even more suspicious. The phonebooth's spotlight overhead flickered as he struggled to focus his eyes on the wiring in the dark. He connected the wires to his P-COM device, where he heard the connection flare to life--a loud, irritating sound that used to be the norm before Pluto's Kiss. Its crudeness was nostalgic for Ryuuji, who for a moment remembered the internet as it was at the turn of the century.
   He quickly accessed the server. Various directories lead to all sorts of sensitive information--design documents, business strategies, the works. Ryuuji had no interest in industrial espionage, however, and sought out the simplest of documents: payroll.
   In the distance a lab technician pulling an all-nighter left the nearby Area Spot with a can of coffee in hand, staring at the sunrise as the caffeine seeped into his body and increased his heart rate. With his newfound awareness the flashing phone booth spotlight across the street caught his eye, and then he noticed the peculiar figure inside it. It wasn't everyday that anyone used a public telephone, and he figured it must be some lost homeless man. However, after focusing his eyes some more, he realized this homeless man was messing with the wires.
   Approaching the booth the technician could not quite discern what the man inside was doing. The technician was young, uncouth, and untrained in old-fashioned hacking--this sort of thing was beyond him. He knocked on the window and the man, startled, looked up at him with wide bloodshot eyes. He thought maybe he should share his coffee with the man.
   "What's going on in there?" he asked.
   "Oh, just maintenance," said the man, wiping crusts from his eyes.
   "Really? But I swear, I’ve seen you--"
   "That's because I got called here after some punks messed with the wires, you see," and he showed the dangling wires as proof of the vandalism. “I’m an on-call kind of maintenance guy, the type that doesn’t sleep--honestly, I’m basically like an ER doctor.”
   The technician rubbed his eyes. The barely risen morning sun obscured his vision, but somewhere in the deepest recesses of his brain a mechanism had activated, a kind of alert system--he had recognized the fugitive, Ryuuji Sogabe, but he did not know it yet.
   His face had been passed around regularly in company memos handed down from their CyberConnect affiliates. Watch out for this man. Keep an eye out for this man. This is the guy. He is the one. And, like most programmers, his brain had been wired to generate a simple if-then statement that had triggered as soon as he saw Ryuuji’s face.
   Ryuuji deduced this immediately. A kind of excitement filled his body and blood began coursing through it. He knew he was in danger, yes, but it was almost a perverse relief that finally someone had recognized his face and his status as a criminal had been legitimated, like running your hand over a wound to make sure it still hurt. He could feel himself becoming visibly flustered now, blushing in his debut as an international criminal. What kind of line would a criminal say here? The technician filled the air for him.
   "You don't look like a maintenance guy," he said.
   "Aha, well, I thought I could skip out on the uniform this early in the morning--I didn't think anyone would be checking. If you'll follow me to my vehicle, I can show you my registration."
   The technician followed him over to the car, which also did not look like a maintenance man's vehicle. Ryuuji rummaged around the glove compartment, inside of which were various candy wrappers and lollipops.
   "Ah, damn, it must be a bit further in. Can you give me a moment here?" he said, and then crawled into the driver's seat, closed the door, and then the engine came to life.
   The car drove off, leaving the technician and his can of coffee behind, and Ryuuji had all the information he needed. The payroll document had said it all--or rather, nothing at all.
   The man named Hitoshi Tanigami no longer existed.
   The technician was left in the dust. The Celica rumbled away before he could remember the license plate number, but the early morning tussle was enough; it would now be known that a fugitive was loose in Aomori, returning to the scene of his so-called crime.

next ch.82: PREMONITION