Freedom is a false pretense.


Chapter 0.010

Note: Right, I went on vacation. Anyways, the previous chapter was very hurried, wasn't it? Ah, well. That's life.

Story Thus Far...

After his twin brother's fatal accident, Ryuusuke has taken over his brother's famous online identity as Fold, the number one player in the Japanese server of Existence (a virtual reality game). Through fateful meetings with both online and real-life people, and a disturbing trend in suicides, Ryuusuke attempts to figure out his own identity, and seeks answers to questions he does not yet realize he has...

He and his new friend, Satsuki, harbor suspicions concerning a seemingly-innocent and beautiful AI girl, who appears to be intimately connected to a chain of suicides among Existence gamers.

However, a string of misfortunate events has created a rift between Ryuusuke and all of his new friends and companions...

Ikuda Ryuusuke (ee-koo-da RYOO-skay)

The hero of the story, Ryuusuke is the second user of Fold. Having grown up in a privileged upper-class family, he stoically keeps to himself. Although beginning to open up to his new friends, the death of his twin brother keeps him from being able to move on...

Ikuda Shunsuke (ee-koo-da SHOON-skay)

Twin brother to Ryuusuke, the two do not appear to have had a good relationship. Died in a car accident. There appears to have been more to his death than meets the eye.

Satsuki [? Katsuya] (sah-tsoo-ki / ka-tsoo-ya)

Loyal and passionate, he is the first friend Ryuusuke made in Existence. His character being that of a high-level Shapeshifter, the two have become close and often travel together. However, the argument over what to do with the AI Hello has caused a rift between the two new companions.

Nabi [Misaki Ami] (nah-bee / mee-sah-kee ah-mee)

A transgender online, she is Ryuusuke's classmate. Slightly selfish and brash, her cheerful personality—and blackmail—has nevertheless obliged him to comply with her eccentric actions. She appears to be very interested in Ryuusuke, but her true intentions remain hidden.

Kuragi Levi (koo-ra-gee leh-vee)

Working at a renowned hair salon, there appears to be some history between Ami and he. Hardworking and kind, he is in love with Ami.

Hello

A strange and beautiful AI who appeared from of a monster's heart, she earned her name by constantly saying 'hello'. Somehow knowing the true name of every person she meets, she is slowly being linked to all of the suicides occurring in the Japanese server.


On Monday morning, I no longer got up with that bemused expectancy I had possessed before. It was all gone, replaced by the white blanket of nothingness called freedom. Opening my eyes, staring at the black stain on the ceiling once more, I heard the phone ringing loudly, like an impatient dog nipping its owners feet for attention.

I was nine when I first saw dogs at the zoo, when I went with Father and Shunsuke. They'd even let us in the cage because Father had donated a large sum of money. Shunsuke was too timid to go near the dogs, and stuck close to the entrance, flinching whenever a dog barked loudly. There had been several dogs of various height and color, but it was a small, white dog with wavy fur that allowed me to come close. It smelled like dung and stale hay, but it licked my face. When it did that, the zookeeper immediately chased it away, and immediately took me to the disinfectant building for fear of spreading germs.

A long time ago, before the Fall, I'd heard that people had actually kept these animals as pets. When I learned this, I wondered, Did they disinfect themselves every day? How cumbersome.

But I'd seen people with pets in Existence, and they'd been playing together and even working together at chasing down some goblins.

The goblins always looked so frightened.

"Yes?"

"Hello, I'm calling from Matsuyama Hospital. Are you a relative of Mrs. Ikuda?"

"Yes."

"And your relationship would be...?"

"I'm her son."

"Ah, yes. Yesterday morning, she was brought to the hospital with a case of drug overdose. She is currently in stable condition, but we'll need someone of age to sign her files..."

Because Father was on yet another business trip, I found myself flagging down a taxi; in ten minutes, I was clambering out and looking up at the huge, sparkling white hospital. It was made of a smooth marble that was cool and uneasy to the touch. Inside, an employee worked behind the desk, and a few patients peaceably plodded around.

After placing my hand on the scanner, which identified me as, indeed, a relative of patient #D4960209, the pleasant looking worker with an equally pleasant voice-almost mechanical in its neutrality-allowed me to sign my name over the screen.

Ikuda Ryuusuke.

"Would you like to visit your mother?" She said kindly after that was done. "She's on the eighteenth floor, room 18-B35. The elevators are over there."

Unable to decline her invitation to her expectant, beaming face, I found myself riding the glass elevator up at what appeared to be a smooth, steady incline. However, the doors opened in a matter of seconds, and before I had readied myself, I found myself opening the glass door to room 18-B35.

There was a fresh smell in the room; I found its source to be a bouquet of hologram flowers next to the bed. There was someone else in the room with Mother. At first, thinking it was Father, my heart jumped in surprise. But then my eyes cleared, and I saw that the figure was far too small and frail to be Father.

It was that boy who'd come by yesterday. So he was still here.

He was asleep, resting his head on the bedside. Mother's hand was on his head, and she too was sleeping, with a tired expression on her face.

I turned to go. But just as the door slid open, a weak voice spoke up.

"Shun!" It appeared Mother hadn't been sleeping. "Shun, you came." For a stiff moment, I stood there, not knowing what to do. My first impulse was to just fall to the ground and curl up into a ball. I'd had that habit as a toddler, until I learned how to curb such tendencies.

"Yes, Mother." I said hoarsely.

"Shun, how could you leave me? You don't know how it broke my heart..."

"I'm sorry, Mother."

"What's with this 'Mother' business, now?"

"I...I mean..."

"Come here, darling. Give your mom a big hug. I'm all better now that I've seen your face. Oh darling, you don't know how happy I am now to see you...I love you so much..."

In a zombie-like trance, I found my legs moving towards Mother. Even as I silently screamed at them to stop moving, it was like I was gravitating towards her open arms. She leaned up, and wrapped her arms around me. She was warm, warmer than I'd expected her to be, and I buried my face in her limp curls.

After what seemed only a few moments, I finally tore myself out of her embrace.

"Mother...Mom, you're too weak right now. Go to sleep."

"No...I'm not tired. Just seeing you makes me feel as good as new. Come on, darling, don't look like that."

"I'll...I'll be here when you wake up. So don't worry. I won't leave you again." I got up abruptly, and turned to the door, my face contorting with mental pain.

"Alright, then, darling...Remember, you need to be here..." Her eyes closed, and she seemed to immediately fall asleep from exhaustion. "Shun..."

I'd forgotten temporarily. How stupid I'd been. There was no such thing as a free human. And I couldn't even live under a false pretense of freedom. It was Ikuda Shunsuke who'd achieved that lie, not Ikuda Ryuusuke.

When I went out to the previously empty hallway, I found to my surprise that it was swarming with white coated doctors. They were all busy scribbling notes, and trailing behind what appeared to be the head doctor, a middle-aged blonde with a stern expression on her face. In front of her, several nurses were slowly pushing a bed where a young boy was wearily lying down in.

He looked trapped, like one of those lab rats they used to have in the old times. Already given up, already knowing that they were going to die sooner or later. Probably sooner.

I'd always thought, perhaps it would've been better if I'd been born as a lab rat. Then I could just accept my life, accept my coming death, and disappear without leaving a trace.

Seeing the boy, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of envy.

I hadn't informed my school that I'd be absent, so when I wearily returned to my empty home at midnight, there were several beeping alerts from the table screen. Cursorily flipping through the alerts to shut off the beeping, I suddenly stopped.

There were over ten message from a Misaki Amiru. I selected the last one.

Ryuusuke? It's me, Ami. I have to ask-

I muted it, and then shut it off. I trudged my way to my room.

Mother'd been all smiles when she'd woken up to see me still there. The boy-I still hadn't caught his name-quickly left after he woke up, when he realized Mother was all but ignoring him while lavishing attention on me.

Not feeling well enough for school the next morning, I put the mode to Normal, and lying down on my bed, I entered the world of Existence, where I didn't have to be either Shunsuke or Ryuusuke.

I could be both.

Hello was, as usual, gamboling on the ground next to my avatar as it materialized in the center of the black ring. I no longer felt disoriented when I entered this world; it was as if both of my worlds were coalescing to form one being.

But unlike the real world, it was morning here in Magnus Town. The sky was a pale blue, and the sun mercilessly beat down on the civilians. There were a few NPC workers struggling to fix the snapped off spiral several hundred feet up in the air; the marketplace was jam packed with both NPC merchants and players seeking to either fill or empty their purses.

Looking through my mostly empty buddy list, I saw that neither Nabi or Satsuki was on. But then again, did I really want to see them right now?

Sitting down on top of a flat sandstone rock, I realized, yes, I wanted to see them. I would always want to see them. But they weren't on, and I felt a wave of intense loneliness sweep over me.

You have Hello, don't you? A nasty voice said from somewhere inside my head. I looked down at Hello.

"Hello," She said, beaming as she caught my eye. She waved at me. "Hello, Ryuusuke."

"Can't you say something different?" I snapped, and a second later, immediately felt horrible as Hello's eyes turned watery and her lips curved downwards. I bent down and patted her head. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that." And smiling her forgiveness at me, and ran away from me to chase after a little squirrel that had just raced past.

If I'd snapped at Ami, she'd probably have narrowed her eyes and threatened to reveal my identity as Fold again. If I'd snapped at Satsuki...well, I'd done that, hadn't I? And he'd countered viciously. And here was Hello—beautiful, kind, charming... Too perfect, almost fabricated. There was of course the major flaw of Hello going around and killing people, but besides that, she was like an angel. But who was I, to consort with an angel? A mere human?

And so, against all thoughts of sanity, feeling for a brief moment a longing to be recognized, I found myself turning off the privacy option of hiding my name.

As soon as my IGN, Fold, flickered visibly above my avatar, it seemed as if every avatar around me froze, and eyes were all focused on me. A buzzing murmuring settled over the crowd, and I spotted several short little elf girls jumping up and down on their heels to get a better look at me. Then, the crowding and the shouting started, pressing down on me like a heavy steel weight.

"Fold!"

"It's FOLD!"

"Oh my god, oh my god, I can't believe photo taking is disabled this week!"

"FOLD! JOIN MY GUILD!"

"Fold, can you join my party? Please!"

"FOLD!"

I felt a sense of shame as I dully sat there on the rock. Even my wings behind me were tucked wearily, not feeling like doing anything. I felt like I'd let myself down. This was Shun's fame, wasn't it? Who was I to take it?

Remember what Shun did to you! an inner voice kept on screaming. Don't let go of that feeling!

But I was tired of selfishly allowing myself the luxury called 'grudge'.

I felt my wings perk up as a sense of renewed life spread through my joints. Freeing myself from the still-screaming mob, I grabbed Hello by her dress, and jumped up into the air, feeling the wind catch me.

Suddenly, an alert popped up next to me with a small ping.

These alert pings came up whenever people whispered me, messaged me, or invited me to a party or guild. But of course, since these things came frequently whenever I was in public mode, I'd tuned my settings so that the system would automatically filter these. I'd set it so that players below the level 200 couldn't contact me. It was obviously a rather faulty way of filtering, but generally, players above level 200 tended to be less annoying and didn't bother me.

So, intrigued, I opened the ping. It was a guild invite from a user named Karu.

The guild invite contained the profile of the guild master, who was Karu, and the guild's treasury, message, and rank.

Name: Karu

Level: 247

Race: Elf

Class: Warrior

Subclass: Dragon Lord

[DRAGON KNIGHT]

Guild: Authority

STR: 1000

DEF: 5 (min)

MP: 495

SPEED: 1000

ENERGY: 10000% (maxed)

National Ranking: 2

International Ranking: 6

Guild Name: Authority

Guild Master: Karu

Guild Ranking: 1

Treasury: 235,094,599

Message: Our mission is to recruit every level 200(except for Satsuki) to make this the ultimate guild, and take on the Annual.

[Members]: Karu, Sky, Alive, Yozora, Fang, Takoyaki, Jilted, Embry, Sanctified, HellMan, Crash, Enterprise, Espirique, Charger, DancingBanana, Loved, Navy, ...

[Pending Invites]: Fold

Searching through the crowd, I soon found him. He was standing apart from the mob, and was staring at me with intense pale blue eyes that peered out from a gilded navy helmet. His name, Karu, was invisible to the others, but for me, floated above his head in a bright gold. His avatar was that of a well-built young man with tough blue dragon armor swirling around his body, revealing flashes of tanned skin at random intervals. His fingers were tightly grasping a large one-handed sword with inscriptions engraved all over it ending at a gleaming, wicked tip.

Never having been in a guild-although I received plenty of them-I was a little hesitant. But it intrigued me, that in the message, it specifically excluded Satsuki.

As soon as I accepted the invite, a stream of whispers crashed into my ears. Several different voices were heatedly discussing something, and I'd barely caught my IGN, Fold, before it immediately silenced.

A self-satisfied smile flickered over Karu's face, before he put his fingers to his mouth and gave a loud, piercing whistle. Immediately, a huge, blue dragon with sparkling scales erupted out from the mountains behind us, and burst into the air. Swooping down to the town at an alarming speed, the smaller and lesser dragons in its path squeaked in terror and barely avoided it as it hurtled past them. As soon as it reached the spirals of the town, it swung its tail playfully, breaking yet another spiral. And then, quietly and obediently, it came to a rest next to Karu. The mob around me had ceased screaming for me to have their babies, and were now staring at the dragon in shock and awe. Karu leaped up onto its back, with another flashy sparkling of his dragon armor.

"Welcome to my guild," He whispered through guild chat, before taking off.

This guy was a bit of a show off, wasn't he? But it intrigued me. And as a side benefit, while the people stared up at the disappearing dragon with awe, I, in my more humble brown clothes and leather wings, was able to slip away.

"So I just want to say," A sudden squeal whispered through guild chat, making me flinch in surprise. Guild and party chat was a little strange; nobody was next to you, so it felt like a disembodied voice was talking to you. "I am, like, your biggest fan. You are so amazing, you level so quickly..."

I could open a new window now; it was for the Guild, and I could see every single one of its members, as well as their profiles.

The one whispering me was a level 211 Admiral named Yozora.

"Thanks, Yozora." I said in return, after a few moments of fiddling with the whispers.

"Oh my god, he knows my name!" She squealed.

"Shut up, Kiyomi." Karu snapped. "Get a grip on yourself."

"Sorry..."

"I was wondering. Why is Satsuki being excluded?" I ventured, hoping that there wasn't some famous clash between Satsuki and Karu, that I, being possibly the most famous player in Japan, should've known about. There was a small pause.

"Why? You know him?"

"He's..." I stopped. Who was Satsuki? Who was he to me? All I really knew about him was that his name was Katsuya. "Yeah, I know him." And as if privy to my thoughts, Hello, who'd been hanging on my leg, clambered up to my lap.

"Katsuya," She said. "Katsuya."

"Ew Satsuki." Another member of the guild muttered. "Is there anyone who doesn't dislike him?"

"I know. He's such an asshole."

"He's rank 4, but nobody likes him. Except for like, a couple of newbies that suck up to him so that he'll train them and give them stuff."

All of these hate-filled whispers surprised me. From the time I'd hung out with Satsuki, I'd learned that quite a few people disliked him, but I hadn't realized he was this infamous. But why?

But whereas before, I would've defended him like a true friend, I stayed quiet. My ears burned from my shame, but looking down at Hello's sweet face, I calmed myself. How could he even think about turning her in? There was no proof. Yes, Hello had killed them... But how could an AI cause people to commit suicide?

It had to be a coincidence.

"And, and, I heard that Satsuki was like. There at the scene when every player who committed suicide, died."

"Wait, really? That's so creepy. You think it's him bumping them off?"

"So he's a serial killer too?"

"It wasn't Satsuki." I protested without thinking. "It was..."

I stopped. Whose name had I been about to say?

"Just talking about him is pissing me off." Karu said exasperatedly. "Okay, more importantly, Fold...I'd like for you to meet the rest of the guild members. We're at our territory. It's near Mossel, in the Cliffs of Asphodel. It's called Castle Judgment."

Every guild could own its own territory if it applied to the Administration for one, and paid the required price. Generally, the higher the cost, the bigger and better the territory was.

I glanced at my buddy list. Satsuki was on.

"Hello...stay away from Satsuki, or he'll-he'll report you. But I can't take you, so you stay here and be careful." Trying not to look at her wide eyes, and ignoring the sense of guilt I felt as I neglected her more and more, I eased her off of my lap and onto the ground. Rising up into the air-upon seeing me, a few riders on dragons began following me-I flew out of the town. Mossel was the Beast root town, and it was separated from the rest of the world of Existence by a body of water. Mossel was located on an island in the center of a large lake; the surrounding monsters were second in strength only to the ones in the Unknown.

Although I could, if I wanted, travel at the speed of sound, the journey would still take at least fifteen minutes. Downwards, the land teemed with life as players raced through the fields and mountains. And above, the omnipresent Sky Barrier glinted in the sunlight.

There were islands scattered around the central island; and on one of the bigger islands, covered with cliffs and high-reaching mountains capped with snow, I saw the castle. It was of medium size, with spindly towers and turrets and the like. It was in the gothic style of architecture, with flying buttresses and gargoyles scattered all over it. The stone was a sparkling light grey, which was a little blinding in the noon sun.

The other members were all standing near the grand entrance, and with the exception of Karu, came forward to greet me as I landed with a soft thump, eager to have their face known by such an exceptional person.

"I'm Kenichi-"

"Fold, I hope we'll be able to-"

"I'm so glad you joined this guild-"

"I'm called Toma, it's good to-"

"Chill, everyone," Karu finally said, raising his hands. He came up towards me, and held out his hand. "Glad you joined, Fold. I'm sure you know already, but I'm Karu."

I nodded in acknowledgment, overlooking his smugness.

The guild members started taking me around the castle, showing me each separate room and its purposes. Most of it was just there for show, such as the dining room and the bedrooms. But there were also many rooms with entertainment purposes that surprised me, such as the bowling room, the tennis room, the ice skating rink, the pool, the artificial snowboarding slopes...

I'd never thought about it, but I guessed sports could be played virtually. And it was more fun to play sports if you were physically fit and strong, which most people these days weren't. Not to mention the ability to play without all the suffocating regulations and rules we had to obey.

While we were climbing up one of the spiral staircases, Karu informed me about a monthly event that occurred for every guild on their territory. Several monsters, exactly the same level as the member with the lowest level, appeared and attacked the territory. If the guild was able to successfully fight them off, they'd receive more guild points. If the guild was unable to fight them off, they lost guild points and their territory. This, he explained to me, was why it was hard for low levels to get into a self-respecting guild. Only newbie guilds recruited low levels in an attempt to make sure that they could keep their territory; the respected guilds sought to challenge themselves.

And after another hour of tiredly nodding as they excitedly jabbered away, I excused myself, and moved to the portal on top of the highest tower of the castle to log off.

"I hope you'll join us next Saturday," Karu said, placing his hand firmly on my shoulder, and pointedly looking at me, eye-to-eye, piercing to pale blues. He patted me on the back, as if we were good friends, and saluting me with two fingers, he stepped back as I logged off.

When I opened my eyes and looked outside, it was dawn. My room was quiet with shadows that seemed to all lean towards me. The table screen was beeping again with more messages. The house was so terribly empty.

Shaking my head, as if I could free myself with such a simple notion, I buried my head below my pillow. I felt so exhausted. Too many, and too little things were happening. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with everything, tired of everything.

Who was I kidding? Did I really think that I could just become another player, who had fun while he killed monsters, and who could enjoy the company of a guild of players who worshipped him?

Had I been wrong, and Satsuki been right?

Suddenly, I heard a strange sound from outside my window. It was a scrabbling sound, like something was trying not to lose its grip. I slowly lifted my head, and cautiously opened the window to peer out.

A pair of dark brown eyes peered anxiously back at me.

"There you are!" She cried out, holding out a hand towards me. "I'm about to fall here. Help me up, won't you?"


Note: My favorite kind of female character is someone like Saya Minatsuki in Black Cat. She's funny, independent, and positive. Of course, it's hard to be perfect.