While taking a gulp of iced milk coffee and enjoying the mellow fragrance as she slowly swallowed, Asada Shino let out a long sigh.
She was watching a vague scene of colorful umbrellas passing by through the old-fashioned glass window. She disliked rain, but sitting on the table seat in this coffee shop, which was like a back alley hideout, and watching the grey view of the damp street couldn’t get her into a bad mood. The furniture in the shop had no indication of technology, and a nostalgic scent from the kitchen inside the counter gave her an illusion, like falling into a border between the real world and virtual world. It was as if the school class just an hour ago was an event from a different world.
“It falls quite a lot, doesn’t it.”
It took a little while before she realized the baritone voice coming from over the counter was directed at her. Of course that was certain, as there was no other customer. Directing her gaze toward the café au lait colored master, who was carefully polishing a glass, Shino answered:
“Yes, it’s the rainy season after all. It seems it will continue to rain until tomorrow.”
“I’m certain that this is the Undine mages’ actions.”
The scary faced giant issued the words with a red face, before inadvertently making a bitter smile.
“……When you tell a joke, it will lose its effect if you make a face like that, Agil-san.”
The scene of the coffee shop and bar, «Dicey Café»’s shopkeeper Agil groping his brows and mouth for ‘a face like that’, seemed like it could make children immediately start to cry, Shino who was watching it let out a slight laugh. She then quickly brought the glass to her mouth and gulped down some coffee.
How would he interpret Shino’s reaction? Right after Agil made an intense frightful face in a satisfying manner, the doorbell rang. The new customer stopped moving just as he walked one step into the shop and saw the master’s face, then shook his head before saying,
“……Hey Agil, if you greet the customers with that face every time, surely this shop will go out of business very soon.”
“I-It’s not. That was a special favor used for jokes.”
“……No, that’s also wrong.”
As he was disproving Agil, he put his umbrella into the whiskey barrel near the door before looking at Shino and raising his right hand.
She frowned a little as she responded, the person she was expecting —— Kirigaya Kazuto shrank his neck before making an excuse,
“Sorry, I haven’t taken a train for quite some time now……”
He sat on the opposite side of Shino, then undid a button of his open-collared shirt.
“You didn’t come on your bike today?”
“I don’t want to ride it through the rain…… Agil, Caffè Shakerato for me.”
Shino looked at the relaxed Kazuto who had ordered an unfamiliar drink, his neck was as thin as his avatar in the virtual world, his face also couldn’t be said to be healthy.
“……Aren’t you too thin? You should eat more.”
Shino said frowning, but Kazuto just waved his hand.
“From here on it would go back to my standard body weight anyway. But from Friday until Sunday, it would drop again……”
“Training on the mountain?”
“No, nothing but sleep.”
“Then why did you get thinner?”
“Not drinking and eating at all.”
“……Hah? Are you aiming for enlightenment?”
Shino tilted her head as she was unable to understand the meaning of his words, at that moment, a light click-clack sound could be heard from the counter. What she saw was the master who handled the silvery shaker with an elegance mismatched with his big frame —— but saying it that way might be rude. As Shino watched while thinking that, Agil gently poured the contents of the shaker into a wide coupe glass, before putting it on a tray and carrying it out.
The glass which was placed in front of Kazuto contained a light brown liquid topped with smooth brown foam.
“This is the Caffè…… something or other you ordered just now?”
Shino asked, Kazuto then slid the glass with his fingertips toward her. ‘Itadakimasu,’ she lifted up the glass as she muttered, and put it at her lips. The texture of the thick creamy foam, the refreshing chill, and the coffee aroma visiting in turn, after swallowing, the magnificent sweet aftertaste still softly persisted. It was worlds different from the iced café au lait that could be bought at the school’s vending machine.
“…………It’s very good.”
As Shino muttered, Agil made a satisfied look before hitting his thick upper arm.
“Without these fantastic bartender arms, it wouldn’t be that creamy.”
“Can’t stop boasting about your skill level ever since coming back to reality, huh. Leaving that aside, Agil, what’s this smell?”
Kazuto asked as the smell stimulated his nose, the shopkeeper cleared his throat and answered,
“Boston-style baked beans. These fantastic arms of rock……”
“Heh―, a taste of your wife’s hometown, huh? Then I’ll take that.”
Agil, who was interrupted mid-speech, walked away with his lips in a へ shape; Kazuto recovered the glass in front of Shino, then took a gulp. He exhaled, corrected his posture on the chair, before looking straight ahead.
“…………How is he now?”
She understood the meaning of the sudden question right away. However, Shino didn’t reply immediately, she seized the glass from Kazuto’s hand again, this time she took a bigger gulp. As the smooth cream passed down her throat, the rich fragrance escaped to her nose. That stimulus reconnected the fragmented thoughts in her mind, changed them into a short words,
“Yeah…… He seemed to have calmed down quite a lot.”
Half a year ago, in 2025, the «Death Gun» incident occurred.
One of the three perpetrators at that time was also Shino’s only friend, Shinkawa Kyouji, had received an exception after the lengthy trial of the juvenile case, he was transferred to be imprisoned at a juvenile rehabilitation facility last month.
During the trial, he had remained stubbornly silent, even the psychiatric examination performed by an expert couldn’t make him open his mouth; however, a day about six months after the incident, he started to agree to the counselor’s queries, bit by bit. Shino could vaguely guess the reason for that. Six months —— or one hundred and eighty days, was the retention period of the unpaid fee in the VRMMO game «Gun Gale Online». Once that period had passed, Shinkawa Kyouji’s other self, or it could be said his true self «Spiegel» would disappear from the GGO server, which led Kyouji to be prepared to finally face reality.
“I planned to visit him once he improves a little. I think this time he’ll let me meet him.”
As he gave a short response to Shino’s answer, Kazuto looked toward the pouring rain. After several seconds of silence, Shino intentionally broke it as she made a dissatisfied face.
“——Hey, normally at that point, you should be asking if I’m alright, shouldn’t you?”
“Eh, ah, I-I see. ——Erm, then what about Sinon?”
After a rare success at making Kazuto panic, Shino grinned as she embraced the sense of satisfaction.
“I’ve already watched all the collection of old action movies you’ve lent me. The one I like most is probably the guy avoiding handgun bullets by rolling toward cover. If you ever think of going back to GGO, I’ll show it in our next practicing meet.”
“I-Is that so? Then it’s great…… please be gentle……”
To the slightly twisted smiling face of Kazuto, Shino had to suppress her laughter.
The fear of guns that Shino had suffered from for more than five years, even now still can’t considered to have completely vanished yet. Even though she seemed to be enjoying the gun action movies, it would still make her heart jump when she unexpectedly saw the guns in the town corner’s posters, or the toy store’s show window. When she thought about it now, it seemed to be just a normal cautious reaction. Since she couldn’t be certain that she wouldn’t meet a real criminal possessing firearms in the real world some day.
In addition, Shino thought that the disappearance of the intense reactions of denial upon seeing images and photos of guns, such as fainting and vomiting, was already more than enough. She also no longer felt alienated at school. She was now able to eat lunch with several friends. However, it put Shino in a slightly complicated situation as the topic they always talked about concerned the boy sitting in front of her waiting at the school gate to take her on his bike.
As Shino was unawarely thinking about that, Kazuto noticed her mild expression, and nodded,
“Then, everything from the Death Gun incident is already over, right?”
“Yeah…… That’s… right.”
Shino also nodded slightly, before shutting her mouth. There was something, she seemed to recall something from the corner of her mind and tried to pull it out, but before she could do so, the shopkeeper appeared from the kitchen before placing two steamy plates on the table.
The scene of glossy amber colored kidney beans with cube-cut bacon placed in the middle caused an outbreak of hunger from the stomach, which had already digested that day’s lunch. Shino grabbed the spoon as if she was pulled towards it. At that point, she returned to her senses and quickly pulled her hand back before speaking,
“Ah, I-I didn’t order this.”
Then, a faint mischievous expression floated on the rugged face of the big framed master.
“That’s fine, it’s a treat… from Kirito.”
By the time Kazuto who had heard it opened his mouth wide to protest, the shopkeeper had already went back to the counter calmly. As Shino tried to suppress her laughter within her throat, she grabbed the spoon again before slightly waving it at Kazuto.
“Thanks for the treat.”
“……Well, it’s alright. I just finished my part-time job, my wallet is still warm anyway.”
“Heh, you’re taking a part-time job? What kind is it?”
“The one I mentioned earlier about neither eating nor drinking for three days. Well, we can talk about that after clearing today’s main topic. For now let’s eat while it’s still hot.”
Kazuto grabbed the small bottle of mustard and dropped a lot of it at the edge of the plate, before passing it to Shino. She did the same then used the spoon to scoop a heap of beans into her mouth.
A nostalgic and simple western style taste could be felt from the cooked beans, which was fluffy to the core and released a lot of soft sweetness. The thick bacon which had no excessive fat, broke down into pieces on her tongue.
“This is also…… very delicious.”
As she muttered, she looked at Kazuto who was eating greedily before asking,
“He said Boston style right? What kind of seasoning does it use?”
“Hmm…… I forgot its name but, it seems to be a crudely produced syrup. What is it again, Agil?”
The shopkeeper, who went back to polishing the glass, glanced toward them with his face lifted before replying,
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Heh…… of American cuisine, I thought you only knew hamburger and fried chicken.”
The latter part of her words was reduced to a whisper, Kazuto gave a bitter smile,
“That’s prejudice. I have talked to quite a few good guys from over there too.”
“Yeah, definitely. Just the other day, I was deep in talk about sniping with a girl from Seattle over the GGO international server for three hours. Ah―, but…… it’s just him that I can’t understand……”
Kazuto, who had already emptied more than half of his plate, repeated the word while still chewing.
“That’s today’s topic anyway. You knew about last week’s fourth Bullet of Bullets individual final already, right?”
Abbreviated to «BoB», it was the name of the battle royale tournament to decide the strongest in Gun Gale Online, Kazuto immediately nodded.
“Yeah, I watched the broadcast with everyone. Oh, I still haven’t congratulated you yet. ……Well, it might be a regrettable result to Sinon though. Anyway, congratulations for the second place.”
She wore a serious face while saying that so as to hide her embarrassment, then quickly continued,
“If you’ve already watched the broadcast then it’s quicker. Even though the winner is the player named «Satrizer»…… He, it was his second time being the champion.”
Kazuto who heard that blinked a few times, his consciousness seemed to follow his gaze upward.
“Come to think of it…… In the field of the third BoB I participated, you told me about the US player who only had a knife and a handgun but managed to win the first tournament…… ——Eh, but I’m certain that since the second tournament, the server was divided into US and JP, it was no longer possible to connect from America, isn’t it?”
“It’s supposed to be like that…… Actually, there was no US entry in the second and third tournaments. But this time he somehow managed to avoid the block, or there was a connection to the management team…… Well, either way he was accepted. But you would realize the legend of «Satrizer» just by watching his fights once.”
“Yeah. Even though it was from the broadcast screen, I noticed that Sinon was fired up”
Kazuto grinned as he said that. Shino pouted before replying.
“I-It wasn’t just me. All thirty finalists…… no, since he is not included, all twenty-nine finalists were fired up too. And there were even some among us who had lost to him in the first tournament. Even though America is the home of FPS, but breaking into the battle royale stage of Japanese’s GGO, which is the origin of «The Seed» engine…… but, when the lid is opened……”
“A repetition of the first tournament…… right?”
Shino nodded with her lips protruded and bent into a ヘ shape. The spoon in her right hand carried the last thick cube of bacon into her mouth, savoring the simple yet rich taste of the food had reset her thought, and last week’s memories resurfaced.
“……Even though the result was like that, the topic went circles around his complete victory. Because that guy, at the start, didn’t have any weapon.”
“Yeah. Well, instead of weapons, he had the «Army Combative» skill. He defeated his first target just by grappling, robbed the weapon from his target, then used it on the next target….. he just repeated this. The scene of him using just his bare hands to defeat other players while they were reloading didn’t only occur two or three times. It can be said that…… the battle was in a different dimension……”
Shino muttered while letting off a sigh, Kazuto folded his arms before shaking his head,
“But…… In short, Satrizer’s build was the close combat type, right? If so, he shouldn’t be able to retaliate a mid-ranged or long-ranged attack, should he? Rather, more than half of all GGO players are of those build too……”
“You… you actually saw the scene when I lost to him, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, in ALO. When Satrizer was approaching your hiding place in a straight line and was less than three minutes distance away, everyone was like『Not that way―!』or『Sinon, behind you―!』together.”
Shino let out a big sigh as the amazing and at the same time disgracing scene revived in her mind, before saying in the calmest tone she could muster.
“I heard from eleven people who had been defeated directly by him after the tournament, almost every one was defeated using the same method. He shouldn’t have had any data about them, yet he was able to clearly read their movements, as he ambushed them at an extremely close range, killing them without giving them any time to use their weapons. I don’t know about America, but far from grappling fights in the JP server, even using knives to fight with is unheard of……”
“……Eh, I heard that after the third tournament, the number of players using light saber had increased though……”
To Kazuto who faintly said so, Shino inadvertently gave a bitter smile.
“That’s…just trying to imitate your showy performance. It’s true that early in this year, there were players practicing to cut bullets with the light saber, but it seemed no one could actually accomplish it.”
——Even though she said that as if it was about other people, Shino herself had purchased a small sized light saber and practiced in secret with the soldier mobs as well. As a result of one month’s struggle, aside from the initial shot from the rapid-fire assault rifle, she still couldn’t reach the level required to defend herself from successive bullets, and without at least defending against all three shot burst, it couldn’t be used in real combat. The dream of reaching Kazuto’s level, who could defend himself from more than ten shots of rapid-fire, remained a dream, and she eventually gave up. The light saber was currently acting as a charm inside her storage.
However, if that time, she took it out of storage and equipped it on her waist, she wondered if she could be able to wound Satrizer at all. Shino immediately shook her head. This isn’t the time for that. Switch thoughts, return to the topic.
“……Anyway, there was not a single JP players who could even aim their rifle at him, let alone shoot him. What was really terrifying about Satrizer wasn’t his close combat technique, but his ability to predict the battle situation.”
“Yeah…… I see…… But, is something like that possible……? It might be possible against beginners, but those participating in BoB’s main battle are veterans, the chance of predicting their actions at a hundred percent shouldn’t even exist……”
To Kazuto’s words, whose expression was still in doubt, Shino shrugged lightly as she replied,
“He defeated more than ten people the same way, so it’s already can’t be considered a fluke. Well…… even though they’re veterans, there might still be patterns in their actions. For this terrain, they should take this position, or using this route for their movement, there might be a hole in those veterans’ theory.”
As she spoke, Shino felt she realized a certain fact too late and gave a small sigh.
At that time, just before the conclusion of the fourth BoB tournament.
Shino, who was the last person left against Satrizer, was at her sniping point with her beloved Hecate II on the top floor of the partially collapsed building. Her prediction was, from the window of that floor she should be able to confirm Satrizer position, as he must cross the road below.
However, the enemy had read her prediction and hid near the sniping point in the same building ahead of her. Waiting until she had set up her rifle on bipod and laid in a prone position…… approaching her from behind, like a cat attacking its prey.
However, Shino didn’t really want to be on the top floor, but a floor below, as its height was still able to provide enough angle to fire. The reason she didn’t do so was because there was a library on the floor below. The reawakened memory of her sole relaxing spot in her middle school self had disturbed her concentration, by the time Shino realized that she was lost in thought for a few seconds, she was already on the top floor. And in the shadow of that floor, was the enemy who was waiting for her with a sneak attack……
In other words, Satrizer could predict Shino wouldn’t be on the floor with the library but would set up her sniping position on the floor above. However, the reason she changed her sniping point wasn’t a rational decision made by a sniper, but an entirely personal reason. Being able to read Sinon the sniper’s actions was one thing, but he shouldn’t be able to see through the real world bookworm Asada Shino. Could it be just a coincidence that Satrizer decided to pick a hiding location on the top floor of the same building? Or had he seen the library and was confident that Shino wouldn’t choose that place for some reason……?
If the latter was the case, he didn’t base his prediction on data or experience. But on something beyond the skill category of VRMMO game players…… which was reading the minds of other people……
“……non. Oi, Sinon.”
With the fingertips of her right hand stretched out and fixed in mid air, Shino winced and lifted her face. As her eyes met Kazuto’s worried face, she quickly said,
“Ah…… S-Sorry. Where were we again?”
“The patterns of veteran players, and the theory.”
“O-Oh. Well…..yeah, for that reason…… I think the player who didn’t use those patterns, whose actions aren’t based on the theory, should be able to take up a position behind Satrizer……”
She said that half automatically, as she finally understood the core of the reason she had called Kazuto out today. She switched her mood, and drank the cold water from her glass, of which the ice had almost completely melted, but the chill sticking to her back didn’t leave so easily.
Yes…… he crept and captured Shino from behind, defeating her in just a few seconds, as Satrizer stopped her from breathing and she was on the verge of losing the last bit of her HP gauge, he whispered in a low voice. Back then, she couldn’t understand the meaning of the almost silent, English whisper, and it now came back to her ears as she thought about it,
『Your soul will be so sweet.』
It has an unusual meaning. In a net game PvP, it would be the speech said at the end of the battle, or just a sharp parting remark said by many players. Just roleplaying, it was just that.
After hearing herself saying so, Shino deliberately reopened the discussion with a cheerful tone.
“……So, talking about a person who defies theory, «No reason-no sense-no care», didn’t a single person’s name floated up? It maybe a little too early, but I’m thinking of reserving a spot in the fifth BoB for that person——“
She then made her right hand into a hand gun shape, and pointed it to Kazuto who sat in front of her.
“Thus, my invitation to you.”
As she gave a smile to her companion who was taken aback, she gave her prepared speech at the same time,
“About that, I’m not saying an unreasonable thing like asking you to convert from ALO to GGO again, I’m just certain that you were indebted to me a little. Hey, after that, is the legendary weapon comfortable to use?”
Kazuto —— Kirito’s golden long sword, «Excaliber» that he possessed in «ALfheim Online» was what Shino had collected just before it would have been lost in a bottomless pit. As she had awarded him the extremely rare item, of which only one existed in the server, she had the right to say something with such self-indulgence. Also, it would be attractive to Kazuto to be able to fight against a strong opponent.
As he didn’t want to betray Shino’s expectations, Kazuto cleared his throat before saying,
“I do have a feeling of wanting to fight that Satrizer too…… But, I think the main reason I, who was a gun novice, stood a chance in the last tournament, was because the other participants were inexperienced with fighting against a sword user. However, after listening to your story so far, Satrizer seems to be a close combat expert in addition to a gun master, doesn’t he? I wonder if I have a chance of winning……”
“What’s with that weak comment, it’s very unlike you. It’s true that he’s strong, but he’s still a VRMMO player, speaking like it’s pro vs amateur is just……”
Kazuto leaned his back against the old-fashioned wooden chair, his hands behind the back of his head.
“Is Satrizer really an amateur…… really just a VRMMO player?”
“……What do you mean? If he’s not a player then what could he be?”
“A professional. Whose objective is not to play, but to practice in gun fights. Like a soldier…… or a member of the police’s special force.”
“Eh―!? You can’t just say something like that.”
To Shino who gave a bitter smile as she was certain it was a joke, Kazuto kept his serious expression as he continued,
“I read it from news sites so I still don’t know full details…… but, it seems that the army and police of several countries, as well as private defense companies and such have already incorporated FullDive technology into their training. After polishing the skill in the virtual environment, don’t you think it’s possible for the so-called professional to test it by participating in BoB?”
“…………That, can’t be……”
As Shino was about to say Kazuto was reading too much into it, she recalled the sharpness of Satrizer’s supernatural readings and the smoothness of his movements. The way of he fought could be described as a battle machine, thinking about it, it was certainly beyond the level of an amateur gamer.
However, if that man was really a professional soldier or police, would he spit out that speech just before he brought down his target? The soul is sweet, for something like that…… he was a real «Professional» but rather than a soldier, it was an assassin…………
At that point, Shino had to forcibly stop her thoughts. All virtual worlds including GGO existed for enjoyment. It had nothing to do with what kind of a person Satrizer was in the real world. The next time she met him in the battlefield, she would blow him apart using her fifty caliber. As she was satisfied with her decision, she gave a clear call,
“No matter who he is, in GGO our conditions are even! I won’t lose to the same opponent twice, I will absolutely win next time, I’ll use all methods to achieve it!”
“……That «Method» is me, right?”
“One of the methods, to be exact.”
Well? As Kazuto made a face saying so, Shino wore a grinning smile as she gave additional explanation,
“It’ll be anxious for you alone against a close combat expert, so I actually called another person here. But mainly acting as a brake, preventing you from running wild, a controller in a sense.”
Kazuto, who repeated the word, seemed to be able to sense something from it, Gatan, his chair made a sound as he corrected his posture. He took out a thin mobile terminal from his pocket, ran his finger on its screen. He then lifted his face and said to Shino with a bitter smile,
“……What do you see?”
This time Shino tilted her head. Kazuto then placed the terminal on the table, and slid it slightly toward Shino. Looking into the high-precision four inch monitor, she saw the map of the Okachimachi neighborhood with this coffee shop in the center. There was a blue light dot blinking along the route from the station to the shop.
“What is this light dot?”
“The person Sinon is waiting for is coming. About a hundred meters more.”
It was just as Kazuto said, the light dot was moving toward this shop. Crossing the intersection, entering the alley, arriving at the center of the map, and at that moment,
Kararan, the doorbell rang, Shino lifted up her face. The person who had entered the shop folded the umbrella, her long chestnut hair swung around as she turned toward Shino. From there, a bright smile floated as if the rainy season had ended a little early.
To the nickname she hadn’t been called by for more than five years, Shino inadvertently stood up as she gave a broad smile.
Yuuki Asuna made a lively sound from the natural wood floorboards as she walked along, the two girls then joined their fingertips to each other in a pleasant reunion. As they sat down on the chairs side by side, Kazuto, who had a slight expression of amazement asked,
“You two…… when did you become this close?”
“Huh? Last month I even spent a night over at Asuna’s.”
“W-What!? And I haven’t even been to her house yet.”
“Wasn’t Kirito-kun the one who said ‘I need to be mentally prepared’ and escaped?”
As Asuna gave a little scowl, Kazuto sipped from his Caffè Shakerato in an embarrassed manner. To that state, Asuna couldn’t help but smile as she thought ‘It can’t be helped’ then she noticed Agil, who offered her some cold water and a towel, so she stood, getting off the chair before giving a bow.
“Excuse me for my long silence, Agil-san.”
“Welcome. ——This really reminds me of the time when you two were lodging at the second floor of my shop.”
“Even though you’re saying so, but we’re still freeloading at your shop in Yggdrasil City at the moment…… Hmm, what should I order today……”
As Asuna, who seemed to be an old friend of the giant shopkeeper, viewed the cork-bound menu, Shino took another peek at Kazuto’s mobile terminal placed on the table. The blue blip stood still on the spot, perfectly overlapping the location of the coffee shop.
“……Then, I’ll get ginger ale please. The spicy one.”
After Asuna finished ordering and Agil had returned to the counter, Shino said while grinning,
“Hey, are you two monitoring each other’s GPS coordinates? It seems you’re getting along very well.”
Kazuto then gave a serious look as he waved his right hand while saying ‘No no no.’
“It may seem to display the exact coordinates of Asuna’s terminal, and also seem to not require any operations from Asuna, but mine isn’t that simple. Asuna, show it to her.”
Asuna nodded and brought out her mobile terminal from the bag hung on the back of the chair, before forwarding it in its standby screen to Shino. As she received it and took a look, the monitor was set up with a cute animated wallpaper.
At the center of the screen was a pink heart tied in a red ribbon, which was throbbing at an interval about one second long. Beneath the heart were two lines of several figures, whose meaning Shino didn’t understand. A  figure on the left side was displayed in a big font, and a smaller [36.2] was on the right side. As Shino tilted her head, the left figure ascended to 64.
As Shino was about to ask ‘What is this,’ Kazuto seemed embarrassed and saying ‘Don’t stare like that.’ At that point, Shino finally realized the meaning of this standby screen.
“Ehh…… this… could it be… the heart rate and temperature of Kirito?”
“That’s correct― As expected from Sinonon, you have good intuition.”
Asuna said as she clapped her hands. After Shino rotated her gaze between the mobile terminal and Kazuto’s face several times, she asked the first question floating in her mind,
“B-But…… what kind of mechanism……?”
“It’s here under my skin……”
Kazuto poked at almost the middle of his chest with his right thumb. He then extended his hand toward Shino, and made a crack of about five millimeters using two fingers.
“It is a very small implanted sensor. It monitors the heart rate and temperature, and sends the data to my mobile terminal via radio. From that, the almost real time information is then passed to Asuna’s terminal through the network.”
“Ehhh? Vitality sensor?”
This time Shino was greatly surprised, as she became speechless for about two seconds before beginning to speak,
“W-Why are you doing something like that…… Ah, could it possibly be a cheating prevention system?”
Kazuto and Asuna’s actions were in perfect synchrony as they shook their heads repeatedly.
“No, it was when I started this part-time job, they recommended me to implant it, as it was terrible needing to stick electrodes in every day. After I told Asuna about it, she strongly urged me to get the vital data. She then forced me to set up an application, and installed it on her terminal.”
“That’s because― I don’t want some unknown company to monopolize Kirito-kun’s health data. I was against embedding something strange into his body in the first place.”
“Eh, don’t you seem happy whenever you look at the monitor every time you are free, so who are you to say that?”
To Kazuto word’s, Asuna’s cheeks became faintly red.
“I felt somewhat calm when looking at it. Thinking that Kirito-kun’s heart is beating, it is as if we’re on a trip together……”
“Uwa, Asuna, that sounds dangerous somehow.”
While Shino laughed, she glanced down at the terminal in her palm again. The pulse rate had already sped up to 67, while the temperature had also rose slightly. Even though Kazuto made a poker face as he greedily drank the water, the data showed that he was actually very embarrassed.
“Hahah, I see…… That’s right…… somehow…… it’s nice……”
When she realized what she had carelessly muttered, Shino quickly lifted her face, and shook her head at Kazuto and Asuna who were blinking in surprise.
“Ah, no… that… there’s nothing behind it, really. Well…… G-GGO also has a heart beat sensor, it was a supplement in the battle situation with bad visibility, it has no girly implications like this, that was what I had just thought.”
As she quickly returned the terminal to Asuna’s hand, she continued speaking,
“O-Oh, I almost forgot today’s main topic. Hmm, I asked Asuna through mail about the fifth tournament in GGO, could you participate? Since it involves character converting, I don’t want to forcibly ask you for the favor.”
“Ah, about that, it’s no problem. I have a sub-account in ALO so the house and items can be left to that account to maintain.”
Asuna’s cheerful smile and tender tone returned Shino to her calm self, she took a deep breath before speaking,
“Thank you, with Asuna’s help, it’ll be like giving an iron club to an ogre, or mounting a machine gun in a bunker. I think you will need a few days practicing with a photon sword to grasp the timing though.”
“Yeah, I’ll convert about one month before the tournament, I’ll need you to guide me through the city then.”
“Of course. The food in GGO also can’t be neglected. Then…… it may be a little early, but I’ll be in your care.”
Shino’s outstretched right hand was wrapped by Asuna’s supple fingers. After gripping each other’s hands tightly, Shino hit the surface of the table with her hand once.
“So, the main topic is now concluded. Let’s see, next is……”
She said as she stared at Kazuto’s face, as he chewed on the remaining ice from the opposite side.
“Should we hear it carefully now? About your suspicious part-time job. What kind is it? But even if we ask, knowing Kirito, it would probably be alpha testing some new VRMMO game.”
Shino put forward the question she had held for more than thirty minutes as her gaze was fixed on his face.
“Well, it isn’t a hit, but it’s also not too far off the mark.”
Kazuto nodded as he gave a bitter smile, then traced the micro sensor embedded at his heart’s upper section with his fingertip.
“The test player part is correct. What I’m testing isn’t a game application however, but a new BMI of the FullDive system.”
Shino was surprised, while her eyes remained on Kazuto.
“That means, the next generation of AmuSphere will finally come out soon? Could it be, a tester for Asuna’s father company?”
“Nope, it isn’t related to Recto. How should I put it…… somehow I still don’t really understand the whole picture about that company…… It is a venture company whose name I’ve never heard of before, and it has quite a lot of funds to pour into the development’s expenses. There might be a large organisation backing them with funding……”
As Kazuto’s expression remained vague, Shino tilted her head to the right and asked,
“Heh…… What is the name of the company?”
“It may sound ordinary, but I also never heard about it before. Hmm, is there an English word for that……?”
“I thought of the same thing too, Asuna knows it though.”
Sitting beside Shino, Asuna drank her ginger ale before nodding and answered,
“In『Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There』there is a verse in『Jabberwocky』mentioning the creature that comes out in the dream. It seemed to be explained as a pig or a turtle.”
Even though it was a book she had read long ago, she didn’t remember such a word at all. Shino imagined a strange creature with the head of a pig protruding out of a rounded shell, as she continued asking,
“RATH…… Then, they are independently developing the next generation of FullDive machines to sell? But wasn’t AmuSphere co-developed by several companies?”
“No, I don’t think so……”
Kazuto muttered in an unchanged, uncertain tone.
“The main machine is very large. Adding the console and the cooling equipment together, it could easily fill up this entire room…… Although the experimental first generation of the FullDive machine was that large, from there on, the size of the Nerve Gear has remained the same for five years. And the AmuSphere 2 (provisional) which is lead-developed by Recto will be on sale next year too…… oops, that is supposed to be confidential.”
As Kazuto shrugged, Asuna gave a little smile before saying,
“It’s fine, as they will announce it at the Tokyo Game Show next month anyway.”
“Ah, so Recto will participate too. ……I hope it won’t be too expensive……”
Asuna looked at Shino, who made upturned eyes, the daughter of the company president then made the same serious look and nodded deeply.
“I hope so too― But for now the price has yet to be decided…… Well, even though I’m already satisfied with ALO and don’t really plan on buying a new device, they said it’ll have a much higher rendering speed. And it’ll be backward compatible with the software too.”
“Is that so. Kuu―, should I find a part-time job too……”
Pushing aside the data in her account book which had surfaced in her mind, Shino continued to ask Kazuto another question,
“……Well, so that RATH company’s huge FullDive machine isn’t intended for home use? Is it for business use?”
“No, I don’t think it’s at that stage yet. Firstly, strictly speaking, it actually uses a different FullDive technique.”
“Different……? Isn’t it about creating a VR world using polygons, in which a user can Dive into it? What did you feel inside that world?”
“I don’t know.”
Kazuto shrugged, then said something unexpected in a casual tone,
“Due to the security protection, the memories of the world made by that machine can’t be brought out to the real world. Everything I saw or did during the test, I currently have no memory about any of it.”
Shino unintentionally yelled in a loud voice, then lowered her voice before asking,
“Can’t bring out…… memories? Something like that… how is it possible? Could it possibly be that you get hypnotized after you have finished testing?”
“No no, it uses a purely electronic mechanism. No…… it could be called quantum……”
Kazuto who had cut off his words then took a glance at the mobile terminal placed on the table.
“Half past four, huh. Sinon and Asuna, do you still have time?”
“No problem for me too.”
As the two nodded at the same time, Kazuto leaned his back against the back of the antique wooden chair——
“Well then, let me start explaining from the foundation. The question of…… «Soul Translation» technology.”
Kazuto said another unfamiliar word slowly.
Somehow, it sounds like the name of an in-game spell Shino thought. She felt discomfort at the words related to the latest technology. Asuna next to her tilted her head slightly as she muttered,
“The first time I heard it, I had thought that it was a somewhat exaggerated name too.”
Kazuto lightly shrugged before throwing a sudden question,
“The human mind, where do you think it is?”
Shino was about to touch the middle of her chest by reflex, she then cleared her throat as she answered,
“In the head…… the brain, right?”
“Then let’s magnify the brain, where should the mind be now?”
“The brain, or in other words, the lump of brain cells. See this……”
Kazuto extended his left hand with fingers tightly stretched out toward Shino. He then poked the middle of her palm with his right index finger, before tracing it around the entire palm.
“At the center is the nucleus, and wrapped around it is the cell’s body……”
After hitting each of the five fingers, he drew the line from his wrist to his elbow.
“These are dendrites, which meet the axons, connecting this cell to the next. Where does the mind exist within this structure of a brain cell? The nucleus? The mitochondria?”
Asuna replied in place of Shino, who was mumbling,
“Kirito-kun, even though you said «connecting this cell to the next» just now, isn’t the mind a network connecting many brain cells together? Just like…… the question about «What is the internet», the answer won’t come out from paying attention to an individual computer.”
As they seemed to get the idea, Kazuto nodded deeply.
“The brain cells network is certainly the mind, I also think that is the correct answer under this current situation. But…… for example, this question «What is the internet», if investigated thoroughly, various answers could be obtained. Such as, the internet is the structure in which the computers around the world are connected to each other based on a common protocol——“
He then pointed at Asuna’s and his mobile terminals lined up on the table in turn.
“Similarly, every single computer is a component of the internet. In addition, it could be said that the users in front of the computers are also a part of the internet as well.”
At this point Kazuto took a break, after saying “Give me a bit,” and took a sip from Asuna’s ginger ale, he closed his eyes.
“Oo…… like always, the spicy taste here is really hot.”
“It’s completely different from buying it off a convenient store, right? Even though it seems to be based on a cocktail, I like the strong taste of ginger.”
Shino recalled the taste of the spicy ginger ale from half a year ago, the first time she ordered due to Kazuto’s lead. Without meeting him in GGO, she would never have set foot in this shop, which looked unfriendly from the outside, and the development of everything since then could be considered a miracle…… As she embraced that deep motion within her heart, Shino continued the topic,
“Then…… how does the human mind and the internet relate?”
After returning the glass to Asuna, Kazuto nodded once before using his hands to make a shape.
“Well ——Hmm, if the connections between a server and a router, the PCs and mobiles which look like a mesh is the «shape» of the internet…”
“Then, what is its «essence»?”
Shino thought briefly before opening her mouth,
“In short, it’s what flows in that shape…… in the network structure……? The electrical signals…..?”
“That may be so, since electrical or light signals are persistent media. The essence of the network is how they go along that structure and communicate the information…… Let’s temporarily take an explanation here.”
After he finished the gesture he made using both hands up until this point, Kazuto placed his hands on the table and joined his slim fingers together.
“Here, as I said earlier, the network of the hundreds of billion brain cells connecting together…… Now looking at the shape of the mind, what is the essence of the mind?”
“The media…… in other words, the flowing of electrical pulse along brain cells…… is the information?”
“Nope, the electrical pulse is, like this……”
Kazuto brought his right fist approached his spreading left palm.
“The synapse at the gap between neuron and neuron, is the sole transmitter of the substance. For the propagation along the brain cells route, could that phenomenon be called the essence of the mind?”
At the same time Shino frowned, Asuna smiled in a confused manner as she said,
“More than this is already impossible, Kirito-kun~ Because until now, science is still unable to find the answer of ‘what is the mind’ right?
“Well, that may be true.”
Kazuto eventually smiled as he nodded.
“H-Hah!? Wait, the idea up to this point still can’t solve anything, can it?”
As Shino became furious and protested, Kazuto took a chance to glance at the damp street, before continuing to speak in a serious tone,
“But, there are humans who approach the answer with their own theory.”
“Their own…… theory?”
“«Quantum brain dynamics». It seems to have been proposed at the end of last century by an English scholar. After tackling the underlying theory for a long time, «RATH» has finally managed to create that machine which looks like a monster…… ——From this point on, I still can’t fully understand it yet. Just a moment ago, we talked about the structure of a brain cell.”
Shino and Asuna nodded at the same time.
“The cell itself also has a frame to support its structure. It seems to be called «Microtubules». That framework doesn’t just support, but acts like a skull too. The brain within the brain cell.”
“That skull has the shape of a tube, in other words, a hollow pipe. Of course it’s very tiny…… we’re talking about a diameter in nanometers, but it isn’t empty. There is something contained within the tube.”
Shino inadvertently exchanged glances with Asuna, before looking at Kazuto and asking in a low voice,
“What is inside……?”
Kazuto gave a short answer.
“A light particle…… or «Evanescent Photon» is what it’s called. This photon is, in other words, quantum. That existence is like indeterminism, it is endlessly fluctuating according to the probability theory. The fluctuations…… that is what the human mind is, according to the theory.
Right when she heard those words, Shino could feel a shudder running about from her spine to both her arms for some reason. The mind and fluctuating light. That mysterious yet beautiful image welled up within her and at the same time, the thought Isn’t that already the god’s domain? appeared in her mind.
Asuna was also embraced by the same deep emotion, her brown pupils were blurred with an anxious light as she spoke in a slightly hoarse voice,
“Kirito-kun, the name of the new machine is…… «Soul Translator», right? Soul…… in other words, the collection of those lights is a human’s soul?”
“RATH engineers call it «Quantum Field». But, by giving the machine such a name, they must have thought about it already…… That quantum field, and the human’s soul.”
“But then, what does it mean? Soul Translator is the machine that doesn’t access the human brain, but the soul itself……?”
“When said like that, it doesn’t sound like a machine anymore, but a magic item in a game instead, huh.”
What he said had softened the atmosphere slightly, and Kazuto then continued speaking as he grinned,
“But, it isn’t an act of magic or god’s miracle. Let’s plunge into the explanation of its structure for a bit…… What it does is recording the spin and vector of each photon inside the microtubule, the «Qubit» unit data. In other words, the brain cell isn’t just a single gate switch to let electrical signals passing through, but it could be said that the cell itself is a unit of a quantum computer…… well, this part is already at the limit of my understanding though……”
“It’s alright, I have already passed that limit a long time ago.”
Shino and Asuna surrendered together before Kazuto exhaled his breath in relief.
“The collection of photons which is the memory of that computer, perhaps, it might even be the human’s soul…… RATH has given it an original name. «Fluctuating Light», which they abbreviated to——“
He paused slightly,
Shino softly repeated the coined term with a mysterious sound. If what they had been talking until this point was all true, then the Fluctlight also existed in her own head too. No, by saying so, what she thought was «her» was……
The shudder from earlier returned to Shino, she rubbed her arms which extended out of the sleeves of her summer uniform. Next to her, Asuna also made a movement which looked like she embraced herself, while she spoke in a small voice,
“——Reading the Fluctlight…… No, the machine which «Translates» it, is what Soul Translator does. In that case…… the translation isn’t just one way, right?”
Shino tilted her head as she couldn’t understand the meaning of her words right away, at the same time, Asuna glanced at her, with pupils that were filled with the color of anxiety.
“Sinonon, think about it…… The AmuSphere we’re using isn’t just reading the movement commands sent to our body. It feeds the sight and hearing…… the five sensory signals into our brain, creating the experience of the virtual world. It’s the core of the FullDive technology used in that machine, right? Then, the Soul Translator which could do the same thing should be the next generation machine, isn’t it?
“……In other words…… it could write something into the soul of the person connected to it……?
At that point, both of them turned their gazes at Kazuto.
Although the black haired boy seemed to have hesitated a little, He nodded in agreement before long.
“Yeah…… Soul Translator, it’s too long, so RATH shortened it to «STL», that translation machine is bidirectional. In the hundreds billion qubit data holding a human’s Fluctlight, it translates and reads the words we understand, and at the same time, it translates and writes the information into a form we can read too. If it’s not the case, it’d be just as Asuna said, it won’t be possible to Dive into the virtual world. In short, it maintains and disposes the Fluctlight’s five sensory information, and fills in the information about what being seen, or the sound being heard.”
Then, Asuna leaned forward and asked what seemed to be her main question,
“Could it possibly be that…… could affect memory in the soul? Kirito-kun, you said just now that you don’t retain any memories during the Dive. This means Soul Translator…… STL could erase or overwrite your memory, doesn’t it?”
Kazuto touched Asuna’s left hand briefly to relieve her as he shook his head.
“The part that maintains the long-term memory data is very large and the archival method is very complex, at the current state it could be said that it’s still out of reach. The reason that I don’t have any memory of the Dive is merely because it seemed to be intercepted along the route to that part. In other words, it isn’t completely erasing memory, it’s just I can’t get to remember it…… just like that.”
“But, I’m……scared, Kirito-kun. Something like manipulating memories……”
An anxious expression still remained on Asuna’s face.
“Besides, the person who brought that part-time job to you is Chrysheight…… no, Kikuoka-san of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, isn’t he? While I think he isn’t a bad person, I feel I can’t see even the tiny bit at the bottom of his heart. It’s somewhat similar to the Guild Leader. Somehow…… I feel like something bad is going to happen again……”
“……It’s true that he never shows what he’s thinking. And I also don’t know his real social status nor professional duty, along with various things. But……”
As he cut off his words, Kazuto’s pupils seemed not to focus at any place in the shop as he spoke,
“On the first day of the debut of business-use first generation FullDive machine at the Shinjuku amusement part, I rode the first train to line up. At that time I was still in elementary school…… ‘This is it,’ that was what I thought. ‘This is the world that was calling me for a long time.’ On the first release day of Nerve Gear, I also bought it with the money I had been saving up…… and kept diving into various games. At that time, I really didn’t care about the real world. Eventually I was selected for SAO’s beta test, and that incident unfolded…… terrible numbers of people had died. After two years of being captive and returning, Sugou and Death Gun incidents continued occurring one after another. I…… want to know. About where the FullDive technology is heading…… About the meaning behind those incidents…… For the Soul Translator, although its functionality is entirely new, its architecture uses the medical-use Medicuboid as a prototype.”
While Asuna, with her head held low, was listening to Kazuto’s words, her shoulders trembled. Shortly after that, her steady voice flew through the quiet shop’s interior,
“It’s my premonition. About what is inside the Soul Translator. What if it doesn’t end up as being a mere amusement machine…… Probably, there might be a dangerous side too. But……”
Kazuto imitated the motion of gripping his sword and swung it down as he spoke,
“Until now, no matter what world it was, I was always able to come back. This time too, I’ll surely come back. Well….. in the real world I’m just a weak and powerless gamer though.”
“……Even though without my backup, your back is wide open.”
Asuna gave a light smile while exhaling a short breath, then looked at the face of Shino who was sitting beside her.
“Really, this man has so much self-confidence.”
“Yeah, well, after all he’s the legendary Hero-sama anyway―”
From the conversation between Asuna and Kazuto, which she could understood at once, even though it had words she heard for the first time, Shino didn’t try to interfere too much and instead spoke in a joking tone,
“I already read『All Records of SAO Incident』which came out last month―, it’s quite hard to believe this guy is the same『Black Swordsman』who appeared in that book.”
“H-hey, stop it……”
Asuna giggled at the action of Kazuto who waved his hands while bent backward, as she said “Yeah, really,” while nodding.
“Written in that book, it was said this leader had a big influence among the capturing guilds, even though the record itself is fairly accurate, a great amount of bias was added into the character description. Like when Kirito fought against the orange players……”
“『When I unsheathe the second sword, no one is allowed to stand before me!』”
“Kyahahaha,” the two girls burst out into a grand laughter as Kazuto sat dejectedly on his chair with a blank expression. As Asuna felt relief and finally returned to her smiling face, Shino continued delivering the final blow,
“That book is also translated and is published in America. It means this Hero-sama is a world ranker now.”
“……After I went through great lengths to forget it…… And I already agreed to forward the royalties too.”
Shino was still smiling as Kazuto grumbled, she then recalled the question she had for a while and continued the topic,
“But, Kirito. After all, that STL does the same thing as AmuSphere, doesn’t it? Creating a VR world using polygons, then sending the image and sound into the connecting person’s brain, is there any point in spending large amounts of expenses on that machine?”
“Oo, that’s a good question.”
Kazuto straightened himself before giving a nod.
“What Sinon said just now,『Creating the VR world using polygons.』Polygons are, in other words, a collection of coordinates and surfaces…… the digital data. The current highly detailed modeling had reached the point where the trees or furniture is hard to distinguish from the real thing, but its essence is still the same.”
He then quickly operated the mobile terminal placed on the table, and started up a pre-installed mini-game. The futuristic race car which was slowly rotating on the demo screen had a sweet interior, the curved surface of its body also didn’t look awkward at all, it was indeed, a figure of a polygon model.
Shino lifted her face and slightly tilted her head.
“That’s, well…… in ALO or GGO, when too many players gather at the same place, the rendering of the objects sometimes can’t keep up. But aren’t the fundamental basis of AmuSphere and STL the same thing? To create the 3D model of something which practically doesn’t exist from nothing, for a user to both see and touch.”
“Yeah, that’s the point. Hmm…… how should I explain it……”
Kazuto was silent for a moment before lifting up the empty glass of Caffè Shakerato and showing it to Shino.
“Sinon, this glass exists in reality, right?”
While having a dubious expression, she gave a nod. Kazuto then brought the glass closer to her and said something difficult to understand,
“Now listen, this glass currently is in my hand, and at the same time it exists in Sinon’s consciousness…… or Sinon’s «Fluctlight» in RATH’s term. To be more accurate, the light which reflected off the glass is perceived in Sinon’s eyes, the electrical signal from her retina is changed into the glass object in the consciousness. Next, when I do this……”
Suddenly his left hand extended to completely block Shino’s eyes. She reflexly closed her eyelids, rendering her vision in dark grey with a faint tint of red.
“How is it, did the glass inside your consciousness suddenly disappear?”
As she didn’t know what Kazuto meant, Shino answered honestly immediately,
“……Really, I wouldn’t forget it that soon. From seeing it, I could remember its color and shape, it’s natural anyway. Ah…… but it progressively becomes vague though……”
After he drew his hand back, Shino opened her eyelids, and gave a light frown at Kazuto.
“Just what is ‘that’?”
“Listen…… at the time we see this glass or table or face of each other, the recreated record data is maintained in the sight processing section of Fluctlight. Even shutting the eyelids, it won’t disappear right away, it isn’t just a mere shadowgraph. Or else, the moment the glass can’t be seen, it’d fade out of Sinon’s memory……”
Kazuto then hid the glass in his right hand under the table.
“The moment Sinon sees the glass, the same data of its form is input into the sight perception section of Fluctlight. It allows Sinon to continue seeing the glass which is now no longer on the table. At a precision far beyond that of the polygons…… Or it could be said that it’s exactly the same as the real thing.”
“…………It may be so in the theory…… But, it’s dealing with the retention of human’s consciousness, or in the other words, «Memory» isn’t it? The outside manipulating the memory without hypnotism, how it could be done……?”
Shino closed her mouth after speaking to this point.
Just a while earlier —— hadn’t Kazuto talked about the machine with that exact possibility? as she thought, Asuna, who had been listening quietly until this point, whispered in a low voice in place of Shino,
“The AmuSphere allows a user’s brain to see the polygon data…… While the STL writes it into the human’s consciousness… the short-term memory…… In short…… it’s not an artificial thing. The things in the world created by STL, sight, inquiries, touch…… are the same level as the real things in our consciousness, is that so……?”
Kazuto nodded and spoke as he placed the glass back up on the table.
“Optical memory information…… or «Mnemonic Visual Data» as RATH formally calls it. To me, as I still have the memory of the very first test Dive…… it was different. Completely different from the VR world created by AmuSphere. It was merely an empty space about the size of a narrow room, but I……”
He cut his words for a moment, a smile that seemed to be forced then floated to one side of his cheek, as Kazuto continued,
“……At first, I didn’t know that was the virtual world.”
The virtual world, which is indistinguishable from the reality.
There was a lot of fiction from the last century which dealt with this theme. Shino could also recall at least five titles of novels or movies with this theme right away.
In an era where the implementation of FullDive technology was used in consumer devices such as the Nerve Gear and AmuSphere, we finally came to a point to doubt: «is this reality really the reality?» —— and as we could read something like that from articles or blogs all over the place, Shino had also felt anxious before her very first FullDive.
However, when the lid had actually opened, could it be relief or disappointment that such worry was unnecessary? The world which was created by AmuSphere was without a doubt, a miracle given birth by cutting edge technology. The virtual world which was perceived by the five senses was brilliantly beautiful —— but that was why it was noticeably different from the real world. The scenes she saw, the sounds she heard, the things she touched, everything was too pure, or in other words, was too simple. The air had no dust, the garments didn’t wrinkle, and the tables couldn’t be broken. The 3D objects which were created from digital codes were restricted by the manpower needed to design them, and the CPU’s power to display them. Of course she couldn’t know how this would change in the future, but at least with the current technology of 2026, creating a virtual world which was indistinguishable from reality was impossible——……
And that, was what Shino had thought. Until today, before she had heard Kirigaya Kazuto’s story.
“……That means, Kirito. You… perhaps even now…… are still inside the STL… that machine? The «Recollections» of Asuna and me you injected into it.”
As to avoid the sudden shivering, before Kazuto could reply, Shino grinned as she spoke. Naturally, “But that’s ridiculous anyway,” she laughed it off as she thought so, but her companion frowned as he fixed his gaze on her.
“Wai……S-Stop it. I’m the real one.”
As she hurriedly waved her hands, Kazuto remained in doubt as he spoke,
“If you’re the real Sinon…… then you must remember what you promised me yesterday.”
“To thank me for calling me out today, you will treat me to as many of the most expensive dessert here, the «Dicey Cheesecake» as I want.”
“E……Ehh!? I never promised such a thing! Ah, b-but I’m not an imposter, I’m the real one, right, Asuna?”
Looking beside her, Asuna who tightly grasped her hands whispered,
“Sinonon…… did you already forget? You promised to treat me to an all I can eat «Berry & Cherry Tart»……”
Am I actually in the virtual world and operating this memory from there……? As she thought this, both Kazuto’s and Asuna’s cheeks trembled, and soon after that they let out slight laughter. At that point, she finally realized that her plan to tease Kazuto had backfired.
“N……Now you’ve done it, Asuna! Next time, in ALO, prepare to eat a hundred homing arrows!”
“Ahaha, sorry sorry, forgive me Sinonon!”
Asuna smiled as she tightly embraced Shino. While feeling the stiffness in her chest melted away by Asuna’s action, innocent and overflowing with friendship, she turned her pouting face away. But her mouth immediately opened and let out a laugher alongside the other two.
As if to follow through the eased up atmosphere, Kazuto said in a slow tone,
“Be it the Fluctlight or the Mnemonic Visual, just hearing the term alone would make you feel that it’s questionable technology…… But, the virtual world created by STL is in fact, far better than the one from AmuSphere which we are familiar with. Ultimately, it might be what we call a «Real Dream»……”
Shino blinked after hearing those surprising words, the Spriggan swordsman, who had an aura that caused the people surrounding him to become drowsy in ALO, nodded with a serious face.
“Yes. Creating the world by gathering the objects maintained in the memories together, that action…… isn’t it almost like how dreams work? Actually, the brain waves of a human Diving in STL is fairly close to the pattern which occurs during sleep.”
“Then, it means you’re doing the part-time job within the dream? Earning just by sleeping through the period of three days?”
“T-That’s what I told you in the beginning, didn’t I? Sleeping throughout, without eating nor drinking. But of course, I got nutrition and water through an intravenous drip.”
Now that he mentioned it, he really did say that right after he came into the shop. But I certainly didn’t expect him to actually work by watching a long dream while lying on a gel bed. As Shino glanced upward, she muttered along with a sigh,
“Three days of continuous dreaming, huh…… If I could dream that long, there are many things I could do. Like not waking up just before eating a cake.”
“That’s too bad, as you won’t remember what you ate during the dream anyway. Well, talking about having an all-you-can-eat cake every day……”
After talking jokingly until this point, Kazuto cut off his words in the middle. The small eyebrows Shino saw under his slightly long forelock frowned.
“……What’s the matter, Kirito-kun?”
He didn’t immediately answer Asuna’s question, while his hand made a motion as if it was putting something into his mouth.
“…………Cake…… no, not it…… It’s harder…… salty…… but, delicious, what is……”
“Y-You remembered? Is it something you ate in the virtual world?”
“…………Nope, I can’t remember. But I have a hunch that it didn’t taste like anything in reality…………”
Kazuto continued frowning for several seconds longer, before finally giving up as he let out a sigh. Shino, who was silent up until this point, asked a question she was no longer able to hold in her mind,
“Hey Kirito, is something like that possible? To eat something in STL which doesn’t exist in reality? As the virtual world created by STL is a collection of parts based on the memories of a Diver, then isn’t it natural that the person can’t see what he has never seen, and can’t eat what he has never eaten?”
“Ah…… that’s true. It’s just as Sinonon said…… In that case, the virtual world from STL should have a very limited degree of freedom, shouldn’t it? It can’t create a world which is completely different from reality, like Aincrad or Alfheim.”
Kazuto nodded slowly at what Asuna pointed out, before smiling as if to shake off his earlier irritation.
“You two are pretty sharp, that is a good point. When I heard about the Mnemonic Visual, at first I didn’t realize that limitation. I’ll remember to ask the staff at RATH before going into the next long Diving experiment, but as it involves the core of STL technology, I don’t think they will agree to answer…… But, there is one thing…… in the explanation about the virtual world which comprises of memories, the staff never mentioned that those memories are from the Diver.”
“Eh….. then how did they……”
As Shino couldn’t grasp the meaning right away, Asuna, who was next to her, inhaled slightly.
“Could it be…… other people’s memories? No…… could it possibly be that the memories did not belong to anyone but were created from zero……?”
Upon hearing the words which were almost like a whisper, Shino finally realized it.
What if the optic memory information…… the Mnemonic Visual of humans have a common structure? And the analysis of that structure is already complete……? It could be possible in theory to create a real «Dream» which is full of things one has never seen, food one has never tasted, scenes one has never imagined.
Then, the words which supported her thoughts coincidentally spilled out of Kazuto’s mouth,
“……I had been doing this part-time job with RATH for two months now…… During the first test Dive, there was no memory restriction yet, so I still remember the VR world back then. One of them was just a wide room with plenty of cats, which probably numbered in the hundreds.”
Shino’s mouth slacked as she imagined the cat heaven, before quickly brushing it off. As he looked straight ahead, Kazuto said with an expression as if he was searching his memories.
“……What I could recall about that room, was that it was full of breeds of cats I didn’t know. And it wasn’t just that…… there were some which grew wings and were flying, some which curled themselves up and bounced around. Something like that can’t possibly be from my memories.”
“……And at the same time, it can’t be from another person’s memories either, right? Since a cat with wings doesn’t exist in reality anyway.”
Was what Asuna said, before she continued,
“Those flying cats which the staff there made Kirito-kun see…… must be something the STL system created from zero, right?”
“The latter part is great. If that’s possible, then it’s not just an individual object, but it could be possible to ultimately create an entire world.”
Kazuto’s words made all three remain silent for a short moment.
Producing a virtual world without human involvement——
This idea caused Shino chest to throb. As Shino recalled that she had recently become increasingly uncomfortable with the «Egocentric designed» VRMMO worlds such as GGO and ALO.
The existing VR game worlds were completely assembled by the designers of the companies developing those games. Even though the buildings or trees or rivers existed in a nonchalant manner, they were actually objects placed on the terrain based on someone’s preference.
During game play, whenever she thought about this, something always rose within Shino’s chest. After all, she too, was merely an existence running around the developer’s palm, the so-called God, and this thought remained in her mind whether she liked it or not.
As Shino didn’t originally start playing Gun Gale Online for fun, now that she had overcome the curse from her past, she started to think about the meaning of her experience within virtual space in reality. She didn’t seem to sympathize with someone from her squadron who carried a model gun in real life while wearing a cloth decorated with matching insignia. She believed that the fortitude and self control attached to the in-game Sinon would slowly strengthen Asada Shino in the real world as well, but at the same time, she wondered if it was worth continuing spending that amount of time and money on Diving into the virtual world.
Shino thought that there must be a reason that her intensely shy self had met and became good friends with Asuna for several months now. This girl, who always gave off a gentle smile, must surely have had the same self values as Shino. Playing VRMMO games not to escape, but to obtain the experience and bonds from the virtual world to nourish her reality’s self, Asuna was surely that kind of person. Of course, that also applied to Kazuto.
Because of that, Shino didn’t want to think that the VR world was just a fake, that everything inside was just imaginary. She didn’t want to think about the fact that the VR world couldn’t exist without the developer.
Last month, on the night she had spent over at Asuna’s house, in the room after the lights had been turned off, she had expressed the weakness she had hid. Then, Asuna who was lying on the bed beside her had thought for a moment, before speaking,
『Sinonon, isn’t that the same as the real world? Even now, the surroundings granted to us, be it houses, or towns, or the status of being a student in society, everything is someone’s design, isn’t it……? Perhaps, being strong, is about advancing along this, don’t you think?』
After taking a brief pause, Asuna continued with a laughing voice,
『But, I just want to see it once, a VR world which isn’t designed by anyone. Perhaps if that became reality, it may be, in a sense, the «Real World», even more real than this real world……』
As Shino unconsciously murmured, Asuna, who was apparently thinking the same thing, nodded from the opposite side of the table.
“Kirito-kun…… then, that means…… by using STL, a reality which is subjectively more real than our real world could be created? A different world without a designer’s involvement?”
Kazuto thought slightly, before slowly shaking his head.
“No…… in the current situation, it’s still difficult. The forests or grass in the natural terrain could be left to the system to generate, but I think building a large-scale town while maintaining its integrity without a designer is still impossible. About the other possibility…… such as preparing a few hundred test players and letting them build a town from zero in the wilderness field state, or in the other words, building a civilization, for that, I think it could be possible in the world without a god-like creator……”
“Uwa, that would be a very time consuming strategy―”
“The completion of the map would take several months, I think.”
Asuna and Shino laughed at Kazuto’s joke at the same time. However, the owner of the speech remained pondering with his brow wrinkled, and before long, he started speaking in a monologue manner,
“So it’s a simulation of building a civilization, huh. No…… it can be said it’s necessary. If the STL’s FLA function is used and allowing them to develop…… is there any restriction placed on the memories inside……?”
“STL’s FL…… what is that?”
Shino frowned at the succession of abbreviations, as Kazuto lifted his face and blinked.
“Ah…… it’s Soul Translator’s second magic. Just now, I talked about the dream-like virtual world created by STL, right?”
“Have you ever had an incredibly long dream, and felt very tired when you woke up? A bad dream in particular……”
“Ah―, yes I have.”
Shino nodded while frowning.
“Running away from something, and along the way I think ‘This must be a dream’ yet I am unable to wake up. When thinking that I have finally woken up after being chased for so long, it turns out that that was a dream too.”
“How much time do you think you spend in those dreams?”
“Eh―? Two…… or perhaps three hours.”
“Well, when monitoring the brain waves during the dream, which a person feels was very long, the actual time between seeing the dream and opening the eyes is only a few minutes.”
Kazuto, who cut off his words at that point, suddenly stretched his hands to cover both the mobile terminals lying on the table. He then cast his mischievous gaze toward Shino.
“We started talking about STL around half past four, right? Sinon, what time do you think it is right now?”
Caught by surprise, Shino hesitated to answer. The sky past the summer solstice was still bright, so she couldn’t tell the time by the light shining through the window. She was forced to rely on guessing an answer,
“……Around four fifty……?
Kazuto then uncovered the terminals, before directing the screen at Shino. As she peered at the screen, several digital figures indicated that it was already long past five.
“Whoa, I didn’t notice we had spent this much time talking.”
“The sense of time is a subjective matter. It’s not just during a dream but also in the real world. When in an emergency, adrenaline that rushes out makes time feel slower, on the other hand, the time passes faster when we are absorbed in a relaxing talk. RATH has been researching about how this happens in the human’s consciousness…… or Fluctlight, and has came up with a rough theory. Apparently, flowing at the core of the consciousness is the pulse that acts as a «Thought clock control signal». But it seems they are still unable to understand where it comes from.”
“It’s what you hear often when talking about computer’s something-gigahertz.”
“The number of calculations it can do in one second, right?”
Asuna said as she nodded, Kazuto then knocked the table surface with his right hand’s finger, making a ton ton sound.
“That is also the max number they put in the catalogue, it actually isn’t constant. It usually operates slowly in order to generate less heat, then when a heavy workload is requested——“
Ton ton ton, as he sped up the rhythm.
“As the operation clock is increased, so does the calculation speed. It is the same as the quantum computer in the form of Fluctlight. Placed in an emergency state, having to deal with large amounts of data, the thought clock would be accelerated to cope with it. Sinon surely has experienced it too, when concentrating during an intense battle, you felt like you could see the bullets, right?”
“Ah―, well…yeah, when I am in a very good condition. But there is no way I could imitate your «Predicting the bullet’s trajectory then avoiding it»”
Shino said as she pouted, Kazuto gave a bitter smile before shaking his head.
“That’s also impossible for me now. I need to retrain before the next BoB…… Anyway, that thought clock affects our sense of time. When the clock is accelerated, a human would feel that the flow of time is slower. The moments during sleep would be an obvious example of it. In order to deal with the large amount of memory data, the Fluctlight is sped up, and as a result, we see a dream which feels several hours long within several minutes.”
Shino folded her arms as she groaned. Her brain, or rather her mind, was a light based computer, something like that was beyond common sense, an act of «Thinking» could increase or decrease its speed, even it was said so, she couldn’t feel like it could possibly be done. However, Kazuto grinned as he continued,
“——In this case. If we could do a work or homework in our dream, don’t you think it’d be great? Even it is just a several minutes in the real world, but it would be several hours in the dream.”
“S-Something like that is absurd.”
“Yes, I think so―, I haven’t seen such a convenient dream before.”
Even though Shino and Asuna both objected at the same time, the smile remained on Kazuto’s face as he continued explaining,
“The real dream is inconsistent, that is the by-product of the memory processing operation. The dream which is created by STL is much clearer…… I mean, the VR world resembles the dream in that logic. In that world, the thought clock in the consciousness is interfered and accelerated. At the same time, the standard time inside the virtual world is also accelerated in sync. As a result, the Dive time that a user feels in the virtual world is several times over the actual time in reality. That is the STL’s greatest killer feature, the «Fluctlight Acceleration», abbreviated as FLA.”
“……This is already……”
I don’t think we’re talking about reality anymore, as Shino let out a little sigh. It was already far from a «Slightly different» AmuSphere.
Social life had been completely changed with just the implementation of the FullDive technology. Shino heard that the reduced cost version was used in normal companies and it had become common to go into the virtual world for a conference or presentation, there were the broadcasting of real 3D drama and movies every day, where audiences could enter into the scene from any angle they like, and a traveling software that reproduced a high altitude view was very popular among the elderly, it was as Kazuto said earlier, an era that even military training was done in the virtual world.
With the increasing number of people who didn’t want to leave their houses, came the arrival of the «Strolling group» boom, which was walking aimlessly around town in the virtual world, the release of the «Virtual strolling software», which catered to that particular group had gained a big popularity, but it was a phenomenon which had its priorities backwards. And it was only recently that the major hamburger shop and the beef bowl chain started to open their virtual branches.
Where does the big tide from such a virtual world sweep to the real world —— even though it is the current social situation, with something that could accelerate the consciousness like the Soul Translator, what kind of the world would it be like? As Shino felt the chill on her back, Asuna, who frowned as she was thinking about the same thing, started muttering as she sighed,
“A long dream……hmm……”
She then raised her eyes toward Kazuto across the table and gave a faint smile.
“It’d be great if the Soul Translator was commercialized before the SAO incident…… I wondered if I should think like this. If the interface hardware wasn’t Nerve Gear but STL, then Aincrad would have had like a thousand floors, and clearing it would take about twenty years.”
“G……Give me a break.”
Watching Kazuto tremble as he shook his head made Asuna smile again, then she continued asking,
“Then, this weekend, Kirito-kun will be seeing a continuous long dream, right?”
“Yeah. It’d be a long continuous operation testing. I’ll be Diving three days straight without eating nor drinking. I think I’d get a bit thinner……”
“It’s not a bit at all― Really… this work is too much.”
Asuna made a cute angry face as she folded her arms in front of her chest.
“Tomorrow I’ll go make food at Kawagoe! I need to ask Suguha-chan to buy a lot of vegetables too.”
“T-That’s very nice of you.”
As Shino was smiling while watching the two, she suddenly thought of a question, and started speaking,
“Hey…… this means, your three day long Dive is done under that thought accelerated function, right? Do you know how much time you actually feel inside?”
“Hmm, as I explained earlier, the memory inside was restricted…… But, I heard that the maximum rate of the current FLA function is three times……”
“That means…… nine days?”
“Or maybe ten days.”
“Hmmm…… I wonder what you have been doing in a world like that. The memories can’t be taken out, but how about taking the real world memories into it? Are there any other testers?”
“No― about something like that, I don’t think so. As the background knowledge would affect the test results. Also, it could block the memories during the Dive, so restricting the existing memories shouldn’t be difficult…… Anyway, the building in Roppongi that I work at has only one STL experimental machine, so the one Diving was just me. And I know almost nothing about the «Inside», it’s not enough to become a Beater and mess with the test results. But the only thing I could tell is the code name of the virtual world used in the experiment.”
“Heh…what is it?”
“Under…… the underground world? I wonder if it’s how that VR world was designed.”
“Its design is unknown whether from reality, fantasy, or SF settings. But, based on the name, I have a feeling that it’d be a gloomy underground……”
“Hmmm. So we can’t pinpoint it.”
As Shino and Kazuto shook their heads together, Asuna touched her delicate chin with her finger as she muttered in a low voice,
“Perhaps…… that came from Alice too.”
“It makes sense since RATH’s name is also taken from『Alice in Wonderland』. The first private edition of that book is『Alice’s Adventures Under Ground』.”
“Heh… this is the first time I heard that. If this is true, it’s somehow… like a fairy tale company.”
Shino gave a little smile as she continued,
“Speaking of which, about the Alice books, there are two books with stories about the long dreams. ……Perhaps during Kirito’s Dive, it could be possible that he had a tea party with the rabbit or played chess with the queen.”
Asuna who heard that giggling in an amused manner. But the person in question, Kazuto, stared at a single spot on the table while making a difficult face.”
Shino’s voice brought his gaze upward, while still frowned, he blinked repeatedly in irritation.
“Just now, when I heard Alice…… I felt like I could remember something…… Like, there are times, when you feel something funny or disturbing such as just now, but no matter how you think about it, you can’t recall what it was, it’s that kind of anxious feeling.”
“Ah, yeah. Like waking up from a scary dream but not remembering the contents of the dream.”
“Something…… Just now I felt that I had forgotten something bad……”
Asuna asked as she was worriedly looked at Kazuto, who was messing up his hair,
“That is, perhaps, the memories during the experiment……?”
“But… didn’t you say all memories of the virtual world were removed?”
As Shino said that after Asuna. Kazuto groaned with his eyes still closed, before lowering his shoulders.
“……Well, it’s ten days worth of memories anyway. It’s possible that there might be pieces which had escaped the blocking……”
“Oh yes, if we think about it that way, if the memories actually remained, it would mean you’re getting older than us, in the mind. That’s somehow…… scary.”
“For me, I’d be a little…… happy, it’s like the gap would become narrower.”
Asuna said so, as she was a year older, Kazuto responded as he gave a weak smile,
“Come to think of it, in the period between yesterday’s Dive and today’s class, I felt a strange discomfort. It was like it had been a very long time since seeing the town, or the TV shows. The classmates too…… ‘who’s that guy again?’ Something like that……”
“Don’t exaggerate, it’s just ten days.”
“I agree― It’s not something to worry about.”
Shino and Asuna frowned at Kazuto’s words.
“Kirito-kun, you should quit that unreasonable experiment. It really puts too much burden on your body.”
“Ah, if the long continuous operation testing had succeeded, it means the top part of the fundamental design problem is all clear. The next stage is to shape up the machine for implementation, but I wonder how many years it would take to place that enormous size into a commercial basis…… I also can’t do this part-time job much longer, as the final test is starting next month.”
At Kazuto’s words, Shino made a grim face once more.
“Hey, don’t remind me of something like that. You guys have it easy, there’re almost no paper tests anymore. Mine are still using the mark sheet system, give me a break……”
“Huhu, then how about doing a study camp together?”
As she said that, Asuna looked at the wall up behind Shino before saying ‘Wah’ in a low voice.
“It’s nearly six already, time surely flies while we are chatting.”
“Then let’s finish this. But I don’t think talking about the main topic would take only five minutes though.”
As Kazuto gave a bitter smile, Shino also smiled while replying,
“Well, it’s still a while before the fifth BoB, so let’s decide about the character build and detailed battle tactics after the conversion.”
“Yeah, that works too. But I don’t feel like using anything but a light saber though.”
“I told you it’s a photon sword.”
‘Is that so?’ Kazuto laughed as he grabbed the slip off the table, and started walking toward the counter to treat them with the pay he had received from the seventy-two hours part-time job. Shino and Asuna said ‘Thanks for the treat!’ together, before heading for the exit.
“Agil-san, I’ll come again later.”
“Thank you for the feast, the baked beans were really delicious.”
After the reply from the shopkeeper, who was busy with the nightly preparations, Shino extracted her umbrella from the whisky barrel and pushed the door open. Karakaran, as the doorbell continued ringing, the sound of the town’s ruckus and rain enveloped her ears.
Even though there was still time before the nightfall, due to the thick clouds, the sign of the dark night had already hung over the damp street nearby. Shino opened the umbrella, and began descending the small stairs —— she abruptly stopped her feet as she quickly moved her eyes through the surroundings.
“Sinonon, what’s the matter……?”
The wondering voice of Asuna came from behind. Shino came to her senses and hurriedly turned around from the street.
“N-No, it’s nothing.”
She gave a short laugh to hide her embarrassment. It can’t be, I felt the presence of a sniper on my nape, but it’s not possible. Maybe the habit of affirming the sniping points the moment I entered an open space had come out to the real world? by thinking so, she became slightly astonished.
As Asuna still tilted her head, the doorbell from behind rang once again, followed by the sound of footsteps descending the stairs.
When Kazuto, who exited the shop while putting his wallet into his bag, had come down and stood on the street, he let out a single word along with his sigh,
“What, you’re still thinking about it?”
“No…… I recalled what I heard by chance from the staff’s conversation on Friday before Diving in STL…… A, L, I…… Arti…… Labile…… Intelligen…… hmm, what was it……”
Shino held her umbrella over Kazuto, who was grumbling the words she couldn’t get the point, Asuna sure has a lot to worry about, as she gave a bitter smile.
“Really, if something like that distracted you so much. Shouldn’t you just ask them the next time you go there?”
“Well…… that’s true.”
Kazuto shook his head two, three more times, before finally opening his umbrella.
“See you Sinon, the next meeting we’ll talk about converting to GGO.”
“Understood. It’s fine to meet in ALO next time. Thanks for coming out today.”
“See you, Sinonon.”
“See you, Asuna.”
Kazuto and Asuna, who were going back with JR, waved their hands, Shino then started walking to the subway station in the opposite direction.
Once more, she secretly looked over her surroundings from under the umbrella, but the eerie feeling of the glance from earlier had also disappeared without a trace like the first time.