Web小説 「.hack//bullet」


   Since the 1980s’ rapid expansion of Japan’s high speed rail services, urban legends about abandoned subway stations, the tunnels that connect them, and those that live in them have floated around schoolyards across the nation, propagating themselves to the point that children think twice when stepping over a manhole that acts as the barrier between them and the fantastic world of the underground. These urban legends have a kind of truth value to them--they exist at all because there are facts that form their basis: it is true that in the 1980s there was a large amount of work done on expanding subway systems, especially in Tokyo. It is equally true that some of these projects were abandoned following the collapse of the housing market bubble. And it may also be true that a homeless population took residence in those abandoned areas once society left them behind, but this latter fact is only confirmed by eyewitness accounts. Therefore, every story you’ve heard is true, and equally so every story you’ve ever heard is false. Falsehoods litter every story, even true ones, the moment they are converted from reality into fiction. Minute details are omitted and glossed over for easier direction to key moments, and these moments are rearranged in ways that create excitement and tension. The real truths are obscured in favour of transmission of one person’s personal truth, and the world becomes warped.
    Numbers are a finite thing.
    They always carry the same values. They have the same meaning. They’re one of the sole things on this earth that can remain static once defined. Computers know this--that’s why all machine language all breaks down to 1s and 0s. The coordinates now held by Ryuuji were one such static value. Where they may lead, superficially, would always change. But that specific point on earth was constant, and the coordinates would always lead to it without fail. Finally there was a concrete lead, a value not defined by strange feelings and intuitive guesses. Even if the coordinates ultimately led nowhere, Ryuuji wouldn’t be disappointed--at least he didn’t have to choose where to go himself.
    The stench of the car began to seep into his skin. Boxes of bentos past piled on the backseat. Between the clutter of analog devices he had gathered from all-purpose department stores, food, snacks, and garbage alike began to mingle and become irretrievable without a deep clean. Enough crumbs had fallen through crevices too small for human hands, and the smell of various spices coalesced in such a way that every fiber of the vehicle was begging him to clean it. It had reached its limit as a livable space, and it would soon be time for Ryuuji to deliver it to its final destination.
    The coordinates provided by Urania led him to a parking lot a ways away off the highway, and signs of life were close to none. It was an abandoned large-scale commercial project, a district of half-finished apartment buildings, a parking lot with the remains of an elaborate fountain, and finally a hollow shopping mall. It was a place between places, a relic forgotten by Aomori and left to rot in the backpages of history--a footnote. The most notable thing that had happened here, Ryuuji had discovered, was that it was once the proposed site of one of ALTIMIT’s twelve international offices, scrapped at the last minute. No doubt the perfect resting place for a quantum computer, Ryuuji thought, undisturbed and untouched.
    The numbers provided only latitude and longitude. Iron wreckage laid strewn about, and most sounds had been obscured by the highway just nearby. The mark on the map laid right on top of the shopping mall complex. He gazed upon the failed attempt at filling the space built by ALTIMIT. It looked awkward, a strange attempt at converting what was to be a technological marvel into a Sunday afternoon for housewives. Now it was a ghost of ideas, failed innovations.
    He parked the Celica into the makeshift rest area between a herd of resting truck and bus drivers, acting as a kind of cover while he observed the other comings and goings of the lot itself. The position of the lot offered a clear view to the entrance of the mall which seemed undisturbed for a while, and then a visitor came. A truck only one degree removed from the others that slept around him, the kind with fortified doors for more fragile luggage parked some rows down from him. Ryuuji watched as a deliveryman wheeled out a cart of containers from the back; an innocuous enough act, but then he did something strange--he wheeled them over to the shopping complex, pushed his thumb against a sensor, and entered. He disappeared into the darkness, and then he looked back at the van. A second man sat behind.
    A suited figure examined the lot.
    In an instant, Ryuuji felt terror as he sensed the suited man’s gaze settle on the Celica. The man looked straight at him and beyond him at the same time. It was impossible to tell whether or not he had been found out, despite being a car parked here like any other. After a tense moment of fear, the man pulled out a cigarette and began smoking, seemingly paying no attention to Ryuuji. A few drags went by, and then the deliveryman returned with an empty cart, re-entered the truck, and drove off.
    Ryuuji waited a moment before putting the Celica in ignition and giving chase. He stayed a car or two behind the truck at all times, getting glimpses of its license plate as it changed lanes--a Tokyo registration. The back of the truck called to him, putting him into a trance. He wasn’t sure the truck would lead him anywhere interesting--it could simply have gone back to a mailing service--and yet he followed it, succumbing to its strange magnetism.
    Finally the car pulled into an underground parking lot of a hospital, where Ryuuji parked some spots away from the van itself. Across the lot he watched as the obscured faces of the two men came out. He scrambled to find his plastic binoculars in the glove compartment, and quickly looked again at the suited man. He was young--a thick head of hair that draped over his eyes, and he didn’t seem to be saying anything to the deliveryman. The driver gave the suit something, and then he moved more into Ryuuji’s line of sight as he crossed in front of the Celica to his own black car parked diagonally across. The suit’s strange aura made an impression as he walked by. A deep feeling of nostalgia washed over Ryuuji, and the slam of the black car door snapped him out of it.
    The deliveryman watched as the black car drove off. He stood alone, and Ryuuji began to move automatically toward him. He got out of the Celica and made quick decisions in his head. The next move would have to be swift and efficient, and the time for considering morality or decorum was over. The whole world believed him to be a criminal, and it was time to act like one.
    The deliveryman registered Ryuuji and looked at him curiously.
    “I’m sorry, but I noticed you dropped this back there,” said Ryuuji.
    “Dropped what?”
    “I’m not sure myself. Here,” he said, and produced something out of his pocket, then dropped it intentionally. “Damn! This thing is pretty rare, I can’t believe I let it drop to the ground like that.”
    The deliveryman looked down, saw a Puchiguso keychain, and said:
    “That’s not--”
    But before he could finish his sentence there was a foot in his mouth, and Ryuuji immediately caught him as he fell unconscious.
    He began undressing the man, carefully removing his wireless devices and fitting into his uniform, slightly too small for his tall stature. He tied the man’s wrists together with his belt, and then loaded him in the passenger seat of the van. He fumbled in his pockets for the key to the van, but found no luck. The deliveryman had handed them to the suit.
    He heard a car coming up the parking lot again.
    Vans like this had moved past the possibility of hotwiring many eons ago, and as such Ryuuji was stuck with no analog route to getting the car to move. However, the motion sensors detected his presence, and the car’s display presented an ALGOS interface asking for a biometric key.
    The other car made its way up each level of the parking lot, coming closer and closer to Ryuuji’s position.
    The display asked for facial recognition and thumb print. Ryuuji quickly pulled over the man’s unconscious body from the passenger seat and slammed his thumb onto the monitor, then positioned his face in front of the camera which rejected it until he pulled his eyelids open by force. The car roared to life, and Ryuuji slammed the gas.
   The suited man’s car passed by him as he rode the garage’s ramp up. His black car approached where the truck once was, but the only thing he discovered in its place were a few droplets of blood.
   In the van, Ryuuji quickly made his way back to the coordinates. The interior of the van was cold. He ignored the smell.
   He parked it in the construction site’s lot, and sat for a moment to slow his breathing down before tying his hair up. The cargo from the van was unloaded, and he began to approach the mall. Then came the realization: he would need to push a thumbprint to the door to unlock it. It was too late now, though--the cart had been loaded, and his legs kept moving. When he arrived at the door he peered inside. A large figure sitting in the building got up and made his way over. A sunglasses-wearing ponytailed man examined Ryuuji before manually opening the door. Ryuuji immediately noticed he was both a foreigner and had a pistol on the holster around his waist. He looked up at the man’s indiscernible expression.
   “Sorry for the trouble,” he said with a bow. The man looked him over.
   “You are not regular guy,” he said with an accented Japanese.
   “He forgot to deliver the whole thing, so I’m filling in. His wife’s been on his case lately, you see, so if he didn’t go home right away she would’ve been starting all over again with the ‘are you cheating on me?!’ crap, and then he’d be baited into having another kid. You know how it is.”
   The man looked down upon Ryuuji, his indomitable expression obscuring his thoughts. Ryuuji stood in place, unsure of how to act--being too pushy might make him suspicious, but not playing the part of a working man on a schedule might be even worse.
   “Listen, man, I’ve got my own lady to worry about, so could we hurry it up?” He said this just affected enough to sound annoyed but not offensive. The foreigner looked down upon him.
   “Sorry. Go in,” he said, seemingly done with the encounter.
   Ryuuji bent over slightly in a bow, and pushed the cargo past him. He looked around briefly at his surroundings; the shopping mall’s interior largely matched its abandoned outer shell.
   Completed storefronts lined hallways, but the absence of signs or advertisements created an uncanny feeling--the rows upon rows of empty storefronts unnerved him, a skeleton of industry.
   “Wait a minute,” said the man from behind.
   Ryuuji stopped dead in his tracks.
   “Yes?” he asked, turning around.
   The foreigner’s iron mask was impossible to read, light from outside the mall pouring in and creating a silhouette of his large figure. Ryuuji gulped, realizing his own face had been illuminated by the setting sun outside the mall. The man approached him slowly, got very close, and when all his features came into view Ryuuji realized he was smiling.
   “Your hair--I like,” the ponytailed man said, pointing to his own ponytail. Ryuuji, dumbfounded by the strange encounter, could only grin back in approval. Enough time passed and he judged it suitable to leave, and he gave another small bow before moving on. He realized he had no idea where exactly it was he meant to go. Grimacing, he turned back to the man again, not wanting to extend their odd relationship any longer than it had already become.
   “Excuse me… do you know where the loading area is?”
   “The service elevator,” said Ponytail, “over there.” He pointed towards a small hallway between fronts marked “WC.”
   Ryuuji gave another bow.
   He rolled the cart into the small hallway, but saw nothing but two bathroom doors. One had a keypad by its door.
   “Hey,” said Ponytail. The hair on Ryuuji’s neck stood on end. “I remember,” said Ponytail with an indiscernible look. Ryuuji quickly tried to estimate the easiest method of escaping this situation, the fastest way to disarm him, but the man was just so large that there was no means of escape. He resigned, saying:
   “Keys,” said Ponytail, pointing to the keypad. “You have?”
   “Thought so--other guy is only one authorized.” Ponytail pressed his thumb against the bathroom’s keypad, and the door pulled back to reveal an elevator. He loaded the cart in, and Ponytail waved him off as the doors closed. Ryuuji tried to say thanks, but the large man had disappeared before he could say anything.
   The elevator began to descend.
   Urania’s message repeated itself over and over in Ryuuji’s mind. The pit in his stomach grew as the elevator continued to drop deeper, deeper... It went straight down, but Ryuuji’s world wobbled. He had done all he could to think about it in as little detail as possible, trying to keep only the coordinates in mind. Action first, thoughts second--there was no reason to deal with the superfluous information about fictional characters, poets, or tragedies until the conclusion to all those mysteries was decided. Then, and only then, Ryuuji had decided, would he allow himself the misfortune of having to think about it all seriously, of allowing a full picture to form in his mind. Until then it was autopilot--there was no knowing if Ponytail would glance at a news site and see his face, still fresh in his mind in the sunlight, and put the two together. He wasn’t certain if his communication to Urania, too, had put him on some kind of digital map. There was no time to allow anxieties and doubts to enter his mind. He kept his head clear, thinking of only the facts.
   The elevator opened to a long hallway.
   The cart from the van rolled down a moving walkway. The floor moved beneath his feet, and facilities of the future lined themselves along this long hallway. Each room to the sides housed all sorts of technology, some of it unknown even to Ryuuji. Shapes that reminded him of the VR Scanner, new kinds of home appliances, server robots… all familiar yet completely different. The oppressive atmosphere of white, clinical lights seemed in that moment brighter than the sun. The hallway seemed to stretch on into infinity, a darkness shrouding the distance. Focusing his eyes, a server room made itself apparent on the left. No personnel seemed to be in any of these rooms, and it seemed in general that the facility had been staffed at the bare minimum.
    He ducked in and left the cart outside.
    A sea of servers was laid out in front of him. His GPS no longer functioned this far underground, and instead he carefully read the servers to find the serial number that Urania had provided. Finally, in the back of the room, the correctly numbered black box revealed itself, humming like all the others. Ryuuji fumbled to connect the P-COM left behind by his former employer to the server, and immediately the server created a link to the quantum computer deep within the facility. The file began to decrypt.
    Nervous, he poked his head above the servers to check the rest of the room. The door at the entrance had been held open by his cart. The sound of the servers blocked out the rest, and he could not tell if a guard had discovered his location. It would only be a matter of time, but the file had not yet decrypted. A light turned on across the hall, in another lab. Fear filled him, and he looked back at his screen.
    He pulled the wire from the server, made a move to the exit, but then the file began to play on its own. At first there was only static, and then a raspy voice seemed to assemble itself from a sea of noise. It began to speak.
    “If you’re listening to this, it means you’ve found the Japanese terminal.”
    “Good work, Sogabe. You’ve made it quite far, as I expected.”
    “There is no sound to this place. It’s difficult for me to speak, or rather, I am not sure if I am even speaking at all. I hope you are able to understand this clearly.”
    “I am in the presence of the woman known as Emma Wieland, but I call her Mother.”
    “I have been interfacing with Mother ever since I was contacted by her analog representative some time ago. It was only recently, however, that I became a component of Mother. I have become her voice. It’s hard to express this clearly, because I’m not sure if I exist in the regular sense. Try to understand as best you can, Sogabe.”
    “There is an evil at work. In order to prevent this evil, I constructed a sanctuary of sorts as per instructions from Mother, prior to my integration. I cannot be more specific than this, lest this information fall into the wrong hands.”
    “The sanctuary was created to be a home for the Goddess, should she ever return to The World. After its construction, however, I was unable to complete the next step of my mission. The women who claim false motherhood of the Goddess, or rather, those who deem her a threat to their power, discovered my plot before its fruition. The flow of money stopped, and it was called treason.”
    “This is neither my last will and testament, nor is it a confession. I am telling you this to set the facts straight. Now I will tell you what happens next.”
    “You see, Sogabe, there is a method to call the Goddess to a point. I created that point. You must now fulfill the method. That is what I ask of you. I know this to be true because Mother knows it to be true. Do you understand?”
    “You must seek a suitable host--a host who can house the Goddess. A host with a synaptic waveform match. A host who is structurally the same as the Goddess.”
    “Do you understand, Sogabe? This is the key to circumventing evil. You must not let the Goddess fall to evil. If she does, it means the end of everything. It is the ultimate hubris. There is no end to this except for the one you shall bring about. There is no end to it. There is no end to it. There is no end to it. There is no end to it. There is--”
    The message continued on until static obscured the voice of Ryuuji’s former employer, Durga Fida Sharma.
    The P-COM filled violently with information. Names, faces, bills, blueprints--quantum-encrypted information that revealed itself the second someone had facilitated a link between the server and the computer, something Urania was unable to access unless she had come here remotely. Truths began to flash before his eyes, but he was unable to process it all at once.
    Just then, someone called out to him from across the room.
    “What are you doing in here?” asked a lab technician.
    “Oh, just finishing my delivery,” said Ryuuji.
    “This isn’t the unloading room. Shipping staff like you aren’t authorized to enter here.”
    “I must’ve taken a wrong turn. I’ll go get the cargo.”
    “Make sure you don’t get lost this time. Take it all to the morgue.”
    Ryuuji flashed a smile and slipped away. He watched the back of Ryuuji’s head as he wandered down the hallway, and suddenly the ponytail’s identity revealed itself to him. The technician’s recollection of the day before and the strange man in the telephone booth began to form a picture in his mind. He ran into the laboratory and smashed a glass cover to an alarm.
    Ryuuji nearly fell over when the walkway halted in its tracks. The lights turned red. A buzzing noise filled the air, and metal doors began to shut over the labs. Tired scientists in labcoats shuffled out of the laboratories. One asked the other why the emergency alarm had been pulled, and the technician told them to call the guard. Ryuuji simply stood still.
    The elevator doors opened, and Ponytail entered the room. He waved at Ryuuji, who could not wave back. He was fixated on the man next to Ponytail, the suit from the hospital garage.
    He looked at Ryuuji.
    Ryuuji looked back.
    An unknowing feeling passed between them. The man walked past Ryuuji and spoke to the technician. He nodded a few times, then said something quietly. He walked back to Ponytail and made a motion to him. Ponytail made a pained expression toward Ryuuji, and then walked over and told him to push the cart into the elevator. The three of them stood in the elevator car, and the lights reverted to normal. The technicians shuffled back into their labs, and then the doors closed.
    The elevator began to ascend.
    “There are certain things I know will happen.”
    “Like what?”
    “You are going to die.”
   “Come on now, don’t go right in for the kill like that. You gotta dress it up first, talk around it. Unseasoned chicken is disgusting, no one--”
   “It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but you will die. I know this better than anyone else. You and I are of the same fate--that is, there are certain things in our futures that are exactly that: certain. The circumstances of your death are one of them.”
    “You’re not very good at fortune telling.”
    “Can it be called fortune telling when it’s more like a simple matter of deduction? I’m sure you’re familiar with the literary position of a gun. Not like the kind on my partner’s waist here, but rather the kind held by a main player. The kind Flugel is known for.”
    “You’ve done your homework. You should also know, then, that I suffered enough of this kind of dialogue with Seto--a lifetime’s worth, really. You’ll have to try harder than that to get under my skin.”
    Ryuuji put on a scary face, but the man continued to speak unaffected.
    “A gun is a careful object. One single bullet can change the world, but the fact of the matter is there are no bullets in this facility that are meant for you. The ‘literary gun,’ so to speak, is a fickle thing like that. It might as well jam until its proper circumstances are met. But, then again, I am an expert at the temperament of impatient masters.”
    “The only place guns like that exist are in fiction. They exist in online games, fired by white-haired men in trenchcoats seeking retribution for their pasts. I’m sorry, but I’m not bound by silly things like that anymore.”
    “No, Mr. Sogabe,” said the man, turning his head to look at Ryuuji. “Those sorts of guns exist only in stories, like the one you’ve found yourself standing in.”
    It was the first time the man said his name, and Ryuuji felt a kind of chill unlike anything that Seto had ever instilled in him. It wasn’t bloodlust that he sensed, nor was it an evil will. Where Seto had once aimed directly at the black spot in Ryuuji’s heart, this man’s target was somewhere else entirely, a kind of place not even Ryuuji knew existed within him. As if to confirm his intentions, he asked:
    “So, are you going to kill me? Would that be dramatic enough for your plot?”
    “I’m not going to kill you. This isn’t the day you’re supposed to die. There’s still more for you to do, and I’m going to make sure you do them. There are ways to make people do things without uncertainty, without question. Motivations that may force them to act in ways even they did not think possible. That’s what will happen to you.”
   “We are all travellers on a set path. You are one such traveller, and so am I. Every decision you’ve made until this point has been predetermined, and I am the one who led you here. The mechanisms of these kinds of stories are subtle.”
    Ryuuji stayed silent.
    The rising of the elevator pushed his insides upward, and he closed his eyes. He had been caught, and a strange feeling filled him: he had betrayed Ponytail. It was odd that he should feel anything about the large foreign man at all, but it was exactly that fluke of the feeling that made it perceptible. A modicum of emotion entered his mind through way of Ponytail--that he had let him down, that their small sense of brotherhood was betrayed by a difference of employer. The large hand on his shoulder was like a father’s, full not of anger or betrayal, but of disappointment. Somehow, Ryuuji knew this to be true. And then other images began to fill his mind, following Ponytail. He imagined himself being admitted to the police station, taking a mugshot, speaking to his lawyer, standing in court, going to jail, and the faces of those who would look on through tears. His eyes squeezed shut, and then sunlight hit them.
    There were no officers.
    There were no sirens.
    There was no sound at all.
    The doors opened, and the man in the elevator said:
    “I enjoyed talking with you.”
    Ponytail pushed him out.
    “Your story is not yet over. In fact, there is no end to it.”
    Then the doors shut.

    Back at the van, Ryuuji fumbled with the keys as he hurriedly tried to make his escape. Unlike Flugel, he had no trump card. It was all nerves and adrenaline--no magic bullets. Heart pounding, the engine came to life.
    The van was cold. So cold that his sweat felt like morning dew as it made its way down his face. Of course, the summertime was hot, but there was a limit to air conditioning--no need for a van to be this cold. The stench was thicker now, stronger, and Ryuuji felt a vague need to vomit.
    He drove to the far end of town, out of the reaches of the Digital Zone, an empty lot yet to be developed. His mind was racing as the car sped through the town, as if on auto pilot, desperately trying to find an exit from the labyrinth he had found himself in.
    There is no end to it. There is no end to it. There is no end to it.
    The words kept echoing in Ryuuji's head.
    Durga Fida Sharma.
    There is no end to it.
    There is no end to it.
    A sanctuary.
    There is no end to it.
    There is no end to it.
    Ryuuji vomited. The van smelled, it smelled horrible, awful, and the vomit seeped into his shoes. A ringing noise in his ears. There was no sound to it.
    The car came to a halt as if he had found himself at the end of a dream. There in the lot was Ryuuji’s Celica, inexplicably placed from the hospital garage. The Celica was staring back at him, beckoning him to return to the vehicle. As he stepped out of the van his sweat felt even colder in the early morning air. He threw the P-COM in the glove compartment of the Celica and stepped in the driver's seat, where he stared back at the van. He thought he saw himself for a moment in the driver's seat, staring back at him.
   It’s said that human beings feel great fear when making decisions that are likely to bring them great happiness. This was that kind of situation, in its own rite. What was inside this van had the potential to bring him great happiness--eventually. Yet he knew until that happiness, there would be insurmountable hardship. The phantom of himself stared back from the driver’s seat with an inexplicably affected look in his eyes.
    He got up and approached the doors of the van.
    He knew the contents of the truck from the moment he stepped foot in it, but it was something he didn't want to accept. It was far crueler, far more sinister, and far more efficient than what had happened to Kaya.
    He thought about driving off and leaving the van there, but he knew he couldn't abandon his mission like that. There would be no end to it.
    Ryuuji stepped out of the Celica, its headlights left on like a nightlight to ward off the fear of the dark.
    He approached the backdoors of the van, and slowly took the keys out of his pocket. The doors opened, and the peculiar smell that had been present in the vehicle was completely apparent now. The heavy scent of iron dried out the ice cool air, stinging his nose as he breathed it in.
    Various freezers were stacked on top of each other, and a dim light turned on at the roof of the van to highlight the large number that remained in the back. A sticker with an order number was tacked on each box. A singular crate stood before him, separate from the rest.
    He clicked open the lock, and nitrogen escaped from the crack. Ryuuji stood frozen solid in the still twilight as the setting sun made its way over the mountains. The ocean waves were the only thing he could hear as he stared at the contents of the box in front of him.
    A human brain.

next ch.87: BULLET