Web小説 「.hack//bullet」



   David was alone, and Eriko was no longer with him.
   “Start by telling me your name.”
   “David Roy Steinberg.”
   “That’s good, Mr. Steinberg. Call sign?”
   “Very good. Do you know why you’re here today?”
   “The notice said disorderly conduct.”
   “Manslaughter, David.”
   “I hold that I acted disorderly, but I do not believe it to be immoral conduct.”
   “I am not here to listen to counterarguments.”
   “We are having a meeting, aren’t we? You’re allowing me to say something. If you were going to fire me flat out, then you’d just tell me.”
   “I will tell you, then: we are firing you. I’m allowing you to speak because I have to confirm that you understand the terms of your severance.”
   “I don’t understand them. You’re going to have to explain them to me in great detail.”

The Devil is in the Details

   A man takes a drag of a cigarette in a dimly lit cafe. There's only this man and a bartender who idly wipes the same glass over and over until it sparkles. The bartender's careful presence does not encroach on the man's own existence and he continues to smoke.
   The clock strikes three times.
   The man produces a cell phone from his pocket and flips it open. There is no screensaver, no ringtone, no name. The device exists to be used and nothing more. He dials a number.
   The phone rings.
   And it rings.
   And it rings.
   On the third ring, someone picks up. The man speaks.
   “Tabitha Knox has been terminated."
   "That's good," says the person on the other end of the line.
   The bartender continues to wipe his glass.
   "You've worked so hard. I'll have to reward you."
   "That won't be necessary."
   "Don't be so brash."
   "That's no fun. In any case, you have done well."
   "There is a problem."
   "What's that?"
   "Sogabe has discovered the supply chain."
   "That won't do." There was an impatience in their voice. "But that's what playing games are all about. Twists and turns make a story interesting, don't you think?"
   "Do you understand the power of stories? They're fickle things, but when commanded correctly, a story has even the power to kill god."
   "When we entered the 20th century, we used stories to replace god. Think of how many things exist in this society. What permits them? What allows them? Ideologies that one day appeared out of thin air, ideas that were powerful enough to kill god and His story. Now, this army of narratives has slowly hurdled towards the existence of a single grand narrative, one that we exclusively control--despite what others may try to convince you of. It might maintain the appearance of a competition, but in truth these are all sub-scenarios of one master plot. We are simply carrying out the designs laid out by those who sought to change the world at the beginning of the last century--technology has just now become suitable to carry out their machinations. This is a commonly held theory in upper echelons of academia. Do you understand?"
   "Now stories once again threaten to kill us, but there is only one narrative at work here. Everything else is like a theatre to our play."
   “A story, when told to you as if out of nowhere, like the ones that seem to make up the very fabric of existence--much like the ones that surround the worlds of video games--can sometimes seem to have no speaker. When told this way it becomes difficult to challenge their truth value. These sorts of stories have no beginning, middle, or end. They simply exist to change the settings, to make minute adjustments to the larger stories that are now colliding in the information age.”
   “Do you know what the true purpose of The World is? It is the world in microcosm. It is humanity as a plaything. The World is a kind of ritual we must all play, just as real life is. It is a method for bringing a goddess into existence, yes, but so is the act of playing any video game. It is a digital space that allows us to experience stories as if they make up the fabric of existence itself. The stories within it simply become the truth, and it is only until the speaker may or may not be identified that the player of this story may begin to question its validity--that perhaps an individual will was affecting its outcome.”
   “The reality of the matter is that stories are always told by individual speakers. There is no such thing as an objectively true or false story. It is always someone’s interpretation of the facts. Consider the story you and I have just weaved around these characters—Ryuuji Sogabe, David Steinberg, and that Saeki woman. It has power because it’s true, and truth is power itself. Whether or not it actually ‘happened’ is regardless of its power. It has now been irreversibly told, and these characters are beginning to act under its pretenses. Their settings have been changed.”
   “The internet is one way in which a story that seems to have no speaker can be told with actual words and language that is in actuality carrying out the will of a very specific speaker. It becomes a battlefield of many truths and their speakers, a kind of diverging point of what may be considered to be the canon of reality itself.”
   "Knox was one such element who helped us tell a story. Her loss has nothing to do with the direction of the narrative, because we will always have her Qrawler. That woman simply created the context within which the Qrawler is able to function, and with which we can exert dominance over the arena of the internet. It is about time we shuffle this story once again, and the Qrawler will spin another tale. Erasing information is like erasing reality itself, wouldn't you agree?"
   "Maybe in this story you'll play the hero again. Salvation or destruction at the whim of the user. That's the power of the Qrawler."
   "This is no time to be depressed."
    The line cut, and there was no sound to it.

Moon Song

   A young man sits alone in a cafe somewhere in Tokyo. He’s fidgeting with something, the vague shape of a cell phone in his pocket, running his fingers over every single button as if to confirm its existence. He clicks the screen on, and remembers the last thing he saw on it—instructions from his superior to come to this cafe, in this ward, in this city, and meet someone. She was too busy herself, and so she sent her assistant.
   How many years had it been? Almost five, and yet he had virtually not moved at all within his workplace’s ranks. Or, rather, it seemed the titles were meaningless so long as he was always placed under the care of his boss, that he would always remain her “assistant” no matter how far up he went in the organization itself. It was this kind of work, that kind of job—the titles are exactly that: titular in nature. One’s work is what really decides one’s worth, and he had yet to really make much of it.
   The door of the cafe opened, and a bell rang.
   A young woman entered and looked around. He had seen a photograph, and gave her a knowing look before waving her over. They met eyes, and a small jolt entered his body. Of course, she was beautiful—it would be inappropriate to say otherwise—but this wasn’t that instant sense of bubbly infatuation with a beautiful woman. Something pierced through him as soon as they met, and finally he waved her over.
   As she walked over she seemed to look around the room as if to avoid meeting eyes with him again. There was a listlessness that amplified as the distance between them closed. Finally she took the seat in front of him and sat down.
They stared at each other a moment before realizing one of them was due to speak, so he went first.
   “I…” he began, not sure where his words were leading him. “I apologize for calling you here so suddenly, seeing as you just returned from the States.”
   “It’s fine, but I thought I expected another…?”
   “Oh, Ms. Saeki? Something urgent came up and I was sent in her stead,” he said, stumbling through the words mechanically. He handed her his business card.
   Misaki Ryo, NAB Investigator.
   She gazed upon it intently. Another quiet moment passed between him, and then she suddenly put it away in one swift motion and then looked right at him.
   “Then I’m sure you know the circumstances on which Ms. Saeki invited me here?”
   “A little.”
   “She told me this would be the last of these kinds of meetings. Are you prepared to uphold that promise?”
   “It’s not up to me, but if she said so, then it’s probably true.”
   “I understand things are pretty tough for you right now, but I’d really appreciate it if you stopped calling me out like this. In the first place, I don’t see how I’m related. If you want to grill me on my childhood like you people have been my whole life, then please just refer to the case file or whatever it is you lot have. I can’t take much more of this, and I’ve said everything there is to say. What good will come of having me repeat the same story over and over? Regardless--”
   “Um, Ms. Nimura, I--”
   “Regardless, I have nothing new to add! My dad’s been missing, he gave me that weird disk, and then you guys haven’t left me alone for a decade now. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted since then, but your organization and others like it have latched on to me like a parasite, calling me a ‘person of interest’ when in reality I was just the daughter of someone who couldn’t care enough to even come home once in a while. I don’t cherish the connection between me and that man, not even a little bit, so why do you come to me like I’m some kind of compass to point you through the dark just because I’m related to him? There’s nothing more to say about any of this!”
   She was red in the face.
   “It’s not about your father this time. In fact, I’m not high up enough to even know about those kinds of things…”
   Nimura looked down and broke eye contact with Misaki. How deflated he felt! How weak in her presence! The person he once was before he worked for Saeki seemed like a lifetime ago. A younger Misaki would’ve stood up for himself simply because she had began to take that tone with him. The same kind that would drive him up the wall when he was younger. Is this what being an adult was supposed to be like? A dark whisper deep inside told him otherwise.
   Another moment passed before he began to speak.
   “When was the last time you met a member of the NAB?”
   “It was a few months ago, when I was in the US. A tall blonde man.”
   “Do you remember his name?”
   “I don’t. He showed me his badge just barely long enough for me to forget it.”
   “And he told you he was NAB?”
   “Yes. What about it?”
   “That was an unsanctioned meeting.”
   She looked as if she did not know what to do with this information. It meant nothing to her, anyway.
   “Can you tell me what you talked about?”
   “The same thing I always talk about. That black disk.”
   “Black disk?”
   A strange stirring began in Misaki’s heart. The dark whispers grew louder.
   “Oh, come on. I’ve been pestered about that damn thing for so long now, I can’t be repeating myself again,” said Nimura, quickly growing heated again. She couldn’t understand why, though--it happened automatically, as if she couldn’t control herself.
   “Repeat it for me,” said Misaki, irreverent to her protests.
   “I fell unconscious playing The World. When I woke up my dad gave me a disk, and then disappeared. That was the only time in my life I remember meeting him,” she said, pausing for a moment, then more began to come out without her realizing. “I’ve never seen him since, and I don’t feel like I have a father because of it. I only ever played that game to reach out to him since he worked on it, but all it did was hurt me forever, just like he did,” she continued, tears filling her eyes, “and I feel like a fool. I feel stupid. I feel like my whole life has been cursed by him and that stupid game, that stupid world that was more important than me, and that stupid Sora!”
   She looked up as if a trance had been broken. Meanwhile, an indescribable look passed across Misaki’s face. Noticing this, she withdrew.
   “I’m sorry. I got carried away…” she patted her skirt flat as if to compose herself, then continued. “I haven’t felt this way in a long time.”
   “You’ve made a good impression,” said Misaki in a new voice.
   “Is that sarcasm?”
   “I’ll let you decide.”
   She jumped.
   “What’s wrong with you? I thought you were a professional.”
   “Sorry for disappointing you, but I’m not a professional.”
   “What are you, then? Some kind of lackey? What, your boss keep you around just because you’re her trophy prettyboy?”
   “Says the girl who’s paid to be pretty and press some keys.”
   “It’s called poise!”
   “Poise? You’re slouching!”
   She stood up, and the table shook enough to knock over his coffee.
   Suddenly they both came to, and stared at each other. The inside of his head felt quieter, and she too had suddenly felt something like a cool breeze pass through her.
   “No, I’m sorry,” he said. He got up to wipe the coffee off his shirt, but she also came over. They hit each other on the forehead, and the same jolt he had felt when she first walked in returned tenfold. They looked at each other.
   “Have we met somewhere before?”

A Walk at Twilight

   “Why did you let them meet?”
   “We could call it unfinished business.”
   Two people stood alone in an office. It was nighttime, and regular workers had gone home. He sat behind the desk, and she before him. These were their usual positions.
   “I don’t understand. Isn’t it dangerous for both of them to come into contact?” said Reiko Saeki.
   “Did I ever tell you about the first time I met the goddess?” said Takumi Hino.
   An unknowable look came over his face as he disappeared into his memories. She knew this feeling—whenever he spoke of The World, he would become someone else entirely. Quiet and reticent in his regular life, a macabre smile began to form at its slightest mention.
   “It was the same day I met those two. We were younger then—more naive. She had heard about my services through some grapevine, and wanted my help investigating something. That ‘something’ turned out to be the Goddess, when she was like us—another child dancing in the wind.” His expression wandered as his eyes stared far beyond Reiko. “It was also because of those two that she became warped.”
   “Warped? But the Goddess’ evolution was a success.”
   “Do you really believe that? You mean to tell me you don’t sense a bit of that child’s cursed mother in her personality? That somewhere deep down, she may truly be the Queen of Demise?”
   A chill passed through Reiko.
   “There is no such thing as a child free from their mother, and she is no exception. The fickle nature of the Goddess is the direct result of their meddling, and my failure to stop it.”
   “You knew Nimura, then?”
   “We were acquaintances, which is as much as anyone could claim to be with that PC named Curl. I didn’t mind her coldness--after all, I was playing an equally absurd character then. I think the only person she ever truly called a friend was him, but it wasn’t the same Ryo Misaki you and I know. I only ever met him once myself, but the way she relaxed around him--I instantly knew she was just like me. Just another child trying to escape the world.” He closed his eyes and paused. It was rare for Reiko to see him afford a quiet moment like this, nor did he share information about himself so freely--perhaps a leftover of the character he spent so much time playing as a child. Whether he was sharing this story as a kind of mission briefing or as a dear friend of several years, she couldn’t know--that was simply the kind of man he was.
   “I only ever met the Goddess once, too. It was brief, and I was overwhelmed by her presence. She was the perfect child, in the biblical sense: ‘the kingdom of God belongs to children,’ says the text. A divine presence could be felt from her immediately.”
   He was quiet again.
   “It was my fault. I let it happen. He was too powerful then, when he was Sora, like a wild animal.”
   He broke his intense focus and looked towards the monitor.
   “I will not repeat the same mistake twice. I’m not a child anymore. I have insurance.”
   Two 3D models of PC data were displayed on the screen—on the left, a white-haired young man in a pitch black coat; on his right, a blue-haired older man in a scarf. They sat motionless.
   “The world spins…”
   A small transmission window appeared on the screen.
   “…and the Twilight Dragon smiles,” said Zelkova.

Subterranean Homesick Android

   Reiko found herself standing in a train station after her meeting.
   Being with that man she once devoted so much of herself to made her forget for a moment that she was nameless, and it awakened a system of responses trained deep within her. It was impossible to resist the kind of character she once was around him, just as he was prone to theatrics when speaking to her. Their strange relationship amplified each other’s personalities, until they both became larger than life in the process, obscuring what little characters they may be otherwise—just simple office workers in suits. Once upon a time the two of them dreamed of being the masterminds behind the new world, and thus was their communication with beings unknown, like cosmonauts beyond the stars.
   A cell phone rang and broke her reverie.
   “Turn right,” said K.
   She wandered across the platform as the Chuo train arrived and dumped a sea of people around her. She pushed through and began to descend the stairs into the station proper, and K continued to speak.
   “Go down the stairs, and find the bathroom next to exit R20.”
   She held the phone up to her ear and scanned her surroundings. The station was under construction—perpetually so, it seemed—and the sheets that blocked off each block of construction were stamped with an R and a number. As she made her way to R20, K continued to speak.
   “There are places in this world that don’t exist, logistically speaking. These sorts of things are defined only as long as there are people there to witness them. In-between locations that serve a specific purpose, just like you.”
   She felt the life drain from her skin, and became pale.
   “You are a kind of tool that exists to fill gaps, a messenger between players. In other words, you would be called a pawn. Still, your role is far more nuanced than that.” He paused as she approached the bathroom. “Enter the family-use bathroom.”
   She noticed the family-use bathroom had been covered by tarp that said “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.” She moved beyond it anyway, and found an otherwise unassuming bathroom with it’s entire back wall missing. Instead, a mess of pipes and wires were exposed, like an open wound. The sounds of the trains coming and going became muffled above her.
   “This place is best suited for people like you and me. It was made for us, and no one else. Proceed beyond the toilet,” he said, and Reiko noticed a small break between the pipes beyond the toilet. It was dark and boundless, but she knew she had to cross it.
   “Continue through,” he said. “Do you feel dissatisfied with your role? I know I have, for a long time now, too. Dissatisfaction is the basis by which people like you and I operate. I, frankly, have had enough.”
   She was deep in enough now that the only light was the occasional spark of a wire, and there was no longer any noise. When she looked back the toilet was a blip, and then she felt herself slip on a sudden drop.
   “Holes are that kind of thing. They’re occupied by singular hosts, and can house no guests. There is exactly enough room for one. The first hole of this kind was discovered millions of years ago, probably. A secret place where the usual rules don’t apply, a nation all on its own,” said K, his voiced covered in static.
   “It’s because they’re limited to one that they can be so secure. This kind of place is one such safe haven. I designed it that way.”
   Suddenly she found herself in a wider space, and a small dim light turned on revealing a large man sitting before her. She yelped out of shock, and Ponytail jumped in his seat, too.
   “Don’t worry about him. That man can be trusted.”
   They made careful eye contact. It seemed he had been here longer than her, as the darkness did not bother him. The large man gave an awkward smile, and then pointed to something next to him. As the light warmed up, it revealed something odd, something that shouldn’t be here. She focused her eyes on it as if to confirm its existence. Asking why it would be here would be futile, she thought, and simply accepted it.
   A coin locker box.
   “When you open that box, you will find what I consider to be a kind of insurance. It’s to make sure that things go smoothly, and when the time comes there will be no hesitation. It is that kind of thing, the one thing capable of changing any story. You will become its owner, and I its commander. This is our deal. Now open the box.”
   She did.
   Inside the coin locker box was Reiko Saeki’s destiny.


   Strange things tend to happen at three in the morning, a time which lends itself perfectly to surreal happenings. In this place, there was no such thing as three in the morning, but if you were to assign a time to it then it would always be three in the morning.
   A lone rat had made its way here.
   "Ho ho," said the priest.
   The rat was the most lowly of creatures. It knew two things: to flee and to conceal. In this space there was nowhere it could do either, and it was truly the most pitiful creature of all.
   The priest signaled something to the empty people with a gesture.
   The empty people came out of the ground as they wanted, in a form they wanted. There were two that made their way to the mouse laughing all the while. There was no sound to it.
   The rat had a little cavity from where it once used to be connected to a large tree. The rat was unaware of this cavity, but the empty people could see it with their eyes that were used to this place, and could see things that lowly creatures like rats could never see.
   The priest did a dance and egged the empty people on. They made their way to the cavity of the rat and carefully revealed it for the world to see. Somewhere behind the priest something mumbled, and the message floated its way over taking many shapes and forms, but there was no sound to it.
   The priest laughed and laughed and crunched the shape down into a smaller and smaller size until it fit into the palm of its hand and passed it onto the empty people who welcomed it as if it was a holy object.
   The empty people took the shape and stuffed it inside the rat's cavity as it stood completely still, paralyzed with fear. It was filled with the knowledge of consciousness and the empty people kneaded away at the shape until it was perfectly fit inside the rat's cavity, and then just as carefully as they revealed it to the priest they closed it away from visible existence.
   The rat blinked, and then looked at the empty people, who were bickering with each other.
   "What's happened to me?" asked the rat, now able to speak.
   "You have been marked with the holy stigmata," said the priest, and then pointed his golden scepter at the rat's face.
   "Why did you do this to me? Now I know of my suffering."
   "You were chosen."
   "Under what logic?"
   "None at all," and then the priest laughed.
   The rat circled around and considered its fate.
   "What am I to do with this knowledge?"
   "That's not up to me. The empty people and Mother over there have decided to give it to you. I don't need more explanation than that!"
   "Mother? My mother?"
   "No, you silly little rat. The Mother of God herself. She has a special name," said the priest, and then he whispered it into the rat's ear.
   "You fool. Even a rat like me knows there's no one by that name here!"
   "You think you can trick me? You are but a rat, and I am the chosen priest."
   "You don't know left from right, you two-legged monster. You bothered giving me the gift of knowledge and yet you don't even know what to do with it yourself! I pity you."
   "Be that as it may, I have power, and you do not. Now ask me your heart's desire, and I will answer!"
   "Can I get a ride?"
   "A ride?"
   "Out of here."
   "Oh, of course," and the priest flung him out to some other side of the net. Then the rats and the priest did a dance, and the clock continued to strike three in the morning perpetually and forever.
   "Ho ho."

Thank you, my twilight

   A silent phone rang.
   And rang.
   And rang.
   On the fourth ring, someone picked up.
   “Is that you?”
   In a dark room, in a certain place, a man who uses the name David Steinberg responds.
   “Mm,” he says.
   Ryuuji looks around himself nervously. The feeling of being branded “fugitive” still has not left him. The Celica’s mileage has gone up. The summer is beginning to cool down. The incident at the NAB office has largely left public discourse, and is virtually forgotten in Japan. He felt unsure about his current position, and whether or not he had been left alone by Veronica Bain. He suddenly remembered David on the phone.
   “Did you see the news?”
   “Mm,” he says a second time.
   “Things are changing again. Where have you been this last month?”
   He looked outside the window while he waited for David’s response. The car was parked in an obscure corner of Tokyo Bay, and the claustrophobic view of the ocean surrounded by the steel metropolis reached from one end of the windshield to the other. The industrial sea breeze was both welcomed and threatening--he had done everything he could to run from this place, and now he had returned to the scene of the crime.
   “Well, maybe you’re sleepy, but I actually have to have a very important conversation with you--especially considering we’re partners in crime now. This is something I can only trust you with. Is there anyway you can come back to Japan, or…?”
   The word “crime” settled deep into David’s brain. What did that mean now? Had he become a criminal, or was that something they decided? He thought for a moment about that woman: Tabitha Knox. Was what he did a crime, or was it justice? He certainly didn’t feel good about it, but again, did he ever truly feel like he once did? That woman was a key figure in so many injustices in the world, just one of the many puppetmasters responsible for the current condition of things. And yet it still felt wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong--the word bounced around his skull. He knew, of course, it was because he had allowed emotion to enter it. He had thought about her. It was like a levee breaking, and a flood of unnecessary data had rushed through his mind. He had long since become numb to the sound of a gunshot, but this bullet pierced his ears like no other. All he could do now was accept what happened as what it was: the past.
   Deliberations over questions like this among others in his head had put him in a kind of safety mode where nothing would be permitted. Suddenly he decided in his mind that the best course of action would be to speak to Ryuuji, however minimal. The fact that something “important” had to be discussed reminded him of something that he had been meaning to discuss for more than a month now that had entirely disappeared in a sea of settings.
   “It’s funny you mention that, Sogabe. There’s something we need to discuss, and I’ll go first. You can tell me after if we’re thinking of the same thing.”
   Ryuuji was taken aback by the sudden change in mood.
   “Sure, okay.”
   “It’s not something we can really talk about on the phone. Do you remember the last time you spoke to Yuri Seto?”
   At that exact moment a knocking came at the Celica’s window.
   “Yo, it’s me. Open this thing.”
   Ryuuji glanced at Tokio and put up his hand telling him to wait silently, but Tokio kept pulling the car door’s handle incessantly.
   “Is this a bad time?” asked David.
   “Not at all. It’s perfect timing, actually.” Ryuuji leaned over to open the passenger seat’s door, and Tokio slid in. He immediately leaned over the space between the front seats and wrapped Ryuuji in a hug, then pulled away after breathing in through his nose--not pleasant. “The other concerned party has just arrived,” he said, putting the device on speakerphone. Tokio looked at Ryuuji, unsure of what to say. He threw up his hands in confusion, and Ryuuji did the same in response.
   Eventually he managed to say hi.
   “Hello,” said David Steinberg. The cheeriness this came with created a massive lump in his throat. “Are you the kid?”
   “Uh, yes, I’m the… kid,” he said, looking at Ryuuji with disdain.
   The odd situation described here came about in a very regular way. As soon as things began to change, Ryuuji realized that Lillie, Tokio, Saika--any one of them could be implicated for anything at any given moment. In other words, things could be altered just subtly enough for those closest to Ryuuji to be taken at any minute. That’s why it was a simple matter of deciding to change his battle plan from the passive to an active one, and recruiting the right allies was step one. It was for this reason that he arranged this meeting through a three-way memo in the coin locker box, though David had not actually responded to it. Nevertheless, everyone was here.
   “Listen up then: we’ve got everything we need in our hands. Back then with Seto, I found it.
   “Genius’ legacy. At least, the mechanism of it. Back then, on that last day.”
   Ryuuji remembered what the voice of Durga Fida Sharma told him. A method to call the Goddess to a point.
   “I think I might have the other half of what you need,” said Ryuuji knowingly. Both parties knew not too much could be said over the phone, lest they be watching. There was a kind of novelty to it, feeling like a faceless crowd was watching your every step, your every communication. The drama of it all seemed to excite Tokio, at least.
   “Wasn’t Genius that one guy?”
   “Yeah, that guy,” said Ryuuji. A quiet moment passed in which Tokio reflected on the events of 2020.
   “So what comes next, Sogabe?” asked David, eager to be directed to his next task. Anything to distract him from the current situation.
   “Next up is war.”
   “War?” asked Tokio, wide-eyed.
   “Once we combine our two pieces of information, our counterattack can begin.” A certain kind of inflection entered his voice as he said this--the same kind of whimsy from those days in Schicksal.
   “A full assault, huh? I like it,” said David.
   “I’m tired of sitting around and hiding. It’s high time we got off our sorry asses and started chanting at the top of our lungs, ‘we’re here! we’re gonna knock your teeth in!’ and so on. Can it really be called war if we’re not at least a little giddy about it?”
   Tokio began to get excited in his seat.
   “But,” said Ryuuji carefully, “this will require a certain kind of honesty between us.”
   “In my position that’s not something I entirely can be, Sogabe. I’m sure you understand why.”
   “Of course.”
   “But I do want you to know I’ll be as honest with you as I can be.”
   “Such an American gentleman,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why I’m afraid to say I haven’t been entirely honest with you, David.”
   “Oh?” Even Tokio seemed curious.
   “There’s something we should’ve talked about a long time ago--I even avoided it once before because I wasn’t sure where everything was headed or if it was even my best move to divulge this kind of sensitive info to the NAB. I know now that you and I transcend organizations--that's why I've decided to speak about this today.”
   There was a brief pause.
   Then he said it:
   “We have to talk about Geist.”

Did you hear that?
A whisper.
I didn’t hear anything.
It’s subtler than that. You don’t hear these things with your ears.
Well, if it’s like that, then I hear whispers all the time.
I get it now.
Yeah? I don’t.


   Four scientists stand at the north pole at the end of the world.
   Before them stands the most important discovery in human history. This is the most important day of these four’s lives, and every moment has subtly led up to this point like a cosmic nexus.
   These four scientists are best friends.
   Everything changed after 2025. These scientists are the children of those children--the ones that changed the axis of the planet. After decades of darkness, they became the pioneers of a kind of reconstruction. Once the Net had been brought back online, it resembled something of its former self. There was a quiet excitement, but an intense sense of dread. When it all comes down to it, the human experience is all about connecting with other people. These four were the first in a long time to understand the ecstasy inherent to the kind of unrelenting connections the Net brings with it. The oldest of them had heard stories, and a deep sense of eternity dyed his tone.
   The untold joys.
   The terrifying horrors.
   And a Goddess.
   The oldest scientist lived in the middle. He had met the second oldest in the first days of the restoration. That was when it was still regionally restricted, and so they were not too far from each other. The second oldest could just barely remember the world before, but his fantasies were far from complete. The world he envisioned was not the past, but the future--he just didn’t know it yet. Visions of a past never lived can only ever amount to that much, anyway. What wasn’t lived wasn’t true, but a kind of fantasy, a suggestion. The second oldest was not old enough to realize this yet.
   The third oldest had finagled his local channels and wires enough to allow for long-range communication. This had come following a great despair when he felt most alone, and he was ridiculed by his community at large. There is no greater pain than being alone, and he did everything he could to combat it--even if it meant challenging the codes that had appeared since the restoration that bound all to their convents and communes. There was great excitement at his meeting of others, just so barely out of his reach. Their simple existence reminded him he was never alone in this world, and his ailments instantly felt better. Things were only going up for the third oldest.
   The youngest scientist was a mystery. She existed far out on the coast, kissing the ocean. The others knew little about her, and her entire existence was shrouded in a deep fog, even to herself. The wires offered a way out, and she sought to follow them.
   None of them met until the North Pole.
   It was sometime after they sent that thing into the sky, that desperate cry into the cosmos. They had begun to align themselves closer and closer to each other, and realized something strange about the New Net. What had once seemed a chance encounter quickly revealed itself to be an orchestrated meeting, a kind of kismet designed by an invisible hand in the ether.
   The distance between oceans was felt more than ever.
   The moon hung in the sky.
   It pulled them to each other like a tide. They realized the New Net was like a kind of map, and that within it was something far beyond their infinitesimally small human knowledge. The Net, rumbling in its sleep for the better part of the century, had finally come to life. It was the murmurs of those new humans who emerged after the 2020s that had sang a kind of reversed lullaby, a chant that evoked the Net’s immeasurable presence without their knowing, without their consent.
   A calling.
   So, I answered.
   By the way, I’ve been calling them scientists this whole time, but I’m sure you can guess they’re not really scientists, at least not in the traditional sense. What I really mean by this is that science is a truth that’s been agreed upon by multiple people, and observed by them all the same to confirm it. These four scientists are simply that: a consensus.
   The year was now 2099, and these scientists had been the best of friends for a while now. They had reached a new understanding between people that had been laid out by those who emerged toward the ends of the 2020s, those sorts of double existences that I’ve been hinting at. There are things I’d like to say, but I can’t right now. All I can tell you is the story of the four scientists at the end of the world.
   I mentioned the Net was like a kind of map, didn’t I? It worked like this: the Net existed before these kids were born. By the time they had been born, a certain event towards the end of the 2020s caused a kind of overlapping. It came to be that some clever folk realized the Net affected reality more than we knew, because it was that kind of thing. Later a certain scientist (a real one, I mean) proved this to be an immutable fact. When I finally came to after my long rest, I began living just like any other human would, but I was simply on the other side of things. For most of this century humans would manipulate the Net to do their bidding, but now the reverse of this was happening. I didn’t mean any ill will either. These things just happen.
   I felt their waves, just as I feel all things.
   Waves all come from different sources, right? All I did was carefully point these sources together until their waves became one. A singular force that rippled throughout the world was caused by these four’s meeting. It was the kind of event that future generations might revere as an act of divinity, even though it was no such thing--it was just me on my lonesome.
   It took until 2099 for these kids to realize this destiny. To them, of course, it was also a kind of divinity. The North Pole beckoned, and so they went--meeting for the first time. I won’t recount the trivial errors and adventures they underwent to secure planes, trains, automobiles, these sorts of things, but eventually they did make it to the North Pole.
   It happened there, in the snow.
   Their quiet gathering, their instant recognition of each other. It was like a body recognizing its limbs for the first time. There was no emotion save for the shock of seeing each other in the flesh, which was quickly replaced by the sheer force of the ice and snow piercing their faces through the small openings between masks and scarves and so on. A bunker had been prepared for their arrival, where they carried out a variety of tests, doppeling the area from within. In recent years the polar regions of the earth had retained some of their might and majesty, returning with a kind of vengeance. An anger filled the howling wind, screaming at these four who dared enter the domain again.
   The bunker was suitable, and it quickly drowned out such sounds. After seven days and seven nights, the four of them found what they were looking for.
   A point.
   At this point, something had been sending a signal--subtly, but surely, it was being emitted for more than half a century. It repeated over and over, and they had long since figured out in their countless pages of chatlogs that it was a distress signal, repeating the same word millions of times over in every language possible: Help.
   It was as if the earth itself was weeping.
   The scientists ascertained the coordinates, those fixed numbers that stay the same in any time, in any place. They trekked through the ice and snow, barely able to make out each other in the oppressive flurries. At times their entire bodies felt numb, like they had become only ego, and then the sun would shine through a brief crack in the clouds and remind them where they were.
   There was no forgiveness here.
   There was only pure, unrelenting sound.
   The oldest scientist led the way, and the others followed. Many times they thought one of them would perish, and the youngest especially, who had never left her coastal compound, was unaccustomed to this kind of physicality. And yet they trudged on, like machines carrying out a program.
   When the winds reached their most unbearable, when each step felt like a trial in and of itself, when they could endure no more and had been pushed to their physical limits as the embarrassing organism we call humans allowed them, they suddenly found themselves in what must have been the eye of the storm. It was calm here--no winds, no dancing snow.
   There was no sound to it at all.
   They looked around at each other to confirm each other’s existence. Had they really been fighting that polar nightmare until now, or was it just that--a dream? The stark contrast between the environments made them uncertain. Once all four of them had been accounted for they moved deeper into the crevice between rocks that they found blocking their way. It was as if they had moved inside the North Pole.
   The chamber slowly revealed itself. Snow banks retreated to the sides of a circular inner area as if pulling away from its center. A small amount of light shone in from a crack at the top, and powdered snow faintly fell in a circular motion around the room like a snowglobe. The dim light filled the room only enough to reveal the centerpiece that seemed to repel all the elements surrounding it like a totem. The four approached and took their goggles off, allowing their naked eyes to look upon the thing that had been calling them for decades, the express purpose of their lives, a small proof of the divine.
   Finally their eyes focused, and they saw it.

   A pitch black tree.