Sword Art Online:Volume 5 Chapter 4
The moment she stepped through the school gates, a dry and chill wind blew against her face.
Asada Shino paused, tightly re-wrapping her white muffler.
Wearing cell-frame glasses, with more than half her face hidden in the fabric of the muffler, she once again started walking. She continued at a brisk pace on the sidewalk covered by autumn leaves, heaving a small sigh from deep within her chest.
...Now, out of the total 608 days for 3 years worth of high school, 156 days have passed.
A quarter at last. With that thought, she was staggered by the asceticism that was imposed on her for much too long. However, if she were to add in middle school, then already 60 percent of the days had faded away into the past. It will end, someday... it will end, someday. She repeated those words in her mind like a mantra.
Of course, although graduation day was approaching, it wasn't as if she had something she wanted to do or someone she wanted to become. Simply, her current self was in the middle of being forced to belong; she wanted to be free from the group known as «high school students».
Attending that asylum-like place day by day, listening to the lectures of lethargic teachers, exercising and doing other things alongside a bunch of people whom she doubted had changed in even a single way since childhood. What kind of meaning was there in doing any of that? Shino really could not understand. In very exceptional circumstances, there were also teachers who gave lessons which she found meaningful, and there were also students who should be respected. But to Shino, none of their existences were essential.
Shino had once told her grandparents, now her legal guardians, that she wanted to work immediately or train for employment at a vocational school, rather than go to high school. Her old-fashioned grandfather had turned red with anger, while her grandmother had cried, saying that she wanted Shino to properly go to a good school and marry into a good family, otherwise she wouldn't be able to stand apologizing to Shino's father. She had little choice but to study desperately, getting admitted into a fairly well-known metropolitan high school in Tokyo, but she was surprised when she entered and got a look. There was essentially no change at all from the public middle school in her hometown.
In the end Shino, just as she had in middle school, routinely counted the remaining days as she journeyed out of the school gates each day.
Shino lived alone in an apartment located halfway between the school and the JR train station. Although it was only the size of six tatami mats, no larger than a small household kitchen, it was nice and conveniently situated right next to the shopping district.
The shopping district at half-past three in the afternoon still did not have many people in sight.
First, Shino browsed through the shelf display of the bookstore. Though she found a new book from her favorite author, she held back because it was a hard cover copy and left the store. If she reserved it online, in about a month she could borrow it from the municipal library.
Next, she went to the stationery store to buy an eraser and a grid-ruled notebook. After checking the remaining amount in her purse, she headed to the supermarket located in the middle of the shopping district while thinking about the menu for dinner. Naturally, Shino's dinners were simple and basic meals. As long as the balance of nutrition, calories, and cost were met, taste and appearance were of secondary importance.
While thinking of making carrot and celery soup along with a tofu hamburger, she passed the front of the game center next to the supermarket she was about to enter.
In the space between the two shops, a voice called out to Shino from the narrow alley.
Recoiling reflexively, Shino slowly turned 90 degrees to her right.
Three female students, dressed in uniforms identical to Shino's —except with a significant difference in skirt length— stood in the alley. One of them was squatting down and manipulating her cell phone. The other two were leaning against the wall of the supermarket, smiling while watching Shino.
While Shino remained silent, one of them who was standing made an arrogant gesture, jerking with her chin.
"Come over here."
But Shino did not move, asking in a small voice.
At that moment, another one of them approached and, without hesitation, grabbed Shino's right wrist.
"Whatever, just come."
With that, she was pulled before she could even respond.
Shino was shoved in the direction of the alley and out of sight of the shopping district, and the squatting student looked up at her. The leader of the three was a girl named Endou. Her eyes, suspended by black eyeliner, and her pointed chin gave off the impression of some sort of predatory insect.
Contorting her glittered lips into a smile, Endou spoke.
"Sorry, Asada. We just sang so much karaoke, and now we have no money to ride the train home. We'll pay you back tomorrow, so lend us some just for now."
She put up a finger. She meant not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand yen.
They sang and sang but it wasn't even twenty minutes since the end of the class, all three of them even had cards for the regular train fare, and, furthermore, why take as much as ten thousand yen just for the train fare? With that, Shino had listed the logical discrepancies in her mind in quick succession, but would not voice her thoughts.
It was the second time these three had bluntly requested money from her. Last time, she had refused by saying that she did not have any.
While considering that playing the same hand would have a very low chance of success, Shino replied.
"There's no way I would have so much."
Endou's smile disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared. "Then, go withdraw some more."
Shino silently walked toward the shopping district.. They probably wouldn't follow her to the bank where other people could see anyway. Who would honestly be stupid enough to do something like coming back if you could just leave— as she thought that, Endou's words continued.
"The bag, leave it here. Your purse, too. As long as you have your card it's okay, right?"
Shino stopped and turned around. Though Endou's lips didn't change from the shape of a smile, those two narrow eyes lit up— like an excited cat toying with its prey.
These three people, she had once believed them to be her friends. When she remembered that, Shino could not forgive her own folly.
In moving away from the countryside, she had left behind everyone she once knew. And after entering high school, Shino had nothing in common with her classmates, having no shared interest to talk about, and so remained silent everyday. Endou and her friends were the first to reach out to her.
After they invited her to eat lunch with them, the four of them eventually stopped at fast food restaurants on the way home from school. Shino mostly just listened to their conversations. Even though she secretly couldn't stand what they talked about at times, she was still happy. Endou and company were her first friends in a long time who were unaware of «that incident». She had believed, if it was at this school, she could become a normal student.. Shino did not learn the truth until much later. The three had only approached her after seeing her address on the class register and guessing that she lived alone.
'Can we go to your house to play?' When they asked her that, Shino had immediately agreed. Her apartment had been praised and admired by Endou and her friends, surrounded by snacks and chatting until it was dark.
The next day, and even the days after that, they came to Shino's apartment.
Before long, the three of them used Shino's room to change into casual clothing, then ride the train to go play. One day, they left their belongings at Shino's room and, from that day on, the clothes of the three began to occupy her small closet.
Shoes. Bags. Cosmetics. Endou and her friends' personal belongings began to increase more and more. By the start of May, the three of them would go out to play and return drunk, and then even stay overnight just like that.
Finally, at some point, Shino had timidly complained that if they came here too often, she would be troubled if she couldn't study.
Endou simply responded, "We're friends right?" And the next day, they requested a spare key.
Then, it was on that Saturday in late May.
While Shino was standing in front of her door after coming home from the library, she heard loud laughing voices echoing from inside her room. It was not just the voices of Endou and her friends.
Shino held her breath to listen carefully. The thought of checking her own room was absurd, an act she did not want to do. Clearly, she heard the laughter of several men.
In her own room, there were men she did not know. With such a thought, Shino cowered in fear. It was followed by a burst of anger. She had finally realized the truth.
She walked down the stairs of the apartment, using her cell phone to call the police. Though the police officer that came seemed to be perplexed by the stories told by both parties, Shino had intently repeated, "I don't know them."
"For the time being we'll go to the police station," the police officer told Endou, who then shot a terrible look at Shino.
"Hmph, I see." Endou responded, packed up her stuff, and left the room.
Retaliation came quickly.
Using devil-like investigative abilities, unheard of for their usual group, Endou had looked up the reason Shino lived by herself: five years ago in a far away prefecture, she was involved in the «incident» that has almost been forgotten even on the net. Her past was exposed to the whole school. The students willing to talk to Shino disappeared completely, and even the teachers avoided looking directly at her.
Everything returned to the same as it was back in middle school.
But Shino thought that would be fine.
Her weakness of wanting a friend had clouded her eyes. There is no one who can save you but yourself. She has no choice but to get stronger through her own power, to overcome the wounds left by that incident. In order to do that, friends were not needed. Rather, enemies were fine. Enemies to fight— everything around her, enemies.
After a gulp, Shino took a deep breath, and looked straight into Endou's eyes.
A dangerous light dwelled in those two narrow eyes. This time the smile disappeared completely. Endou spoke in a low voice.
"What? Hurry up and go already."
"I don't want to."
"I don't want to. I have no intention of lending you any money."
Without averting her gaze, Shino replied.
Such a firm rejection would provoke even more hostility and malice. Despite knowing this, Shino would not follow their request. To follow their request was to run away and betray a weak resolve, something she didn't want to do. Not because it was Endou, but because she did not want to show herself «a weak self». To become strong, she spent the last five years thinking like this. If she yielded here, then those efforts would have been in vain.
"You bitch... Don't you dare look down on me."
With her right eye twitching, Endou took a step forward. The other two girls quickly circled behind Shino, surrounding her from a close range.
"—I'm leaving now, so move aside." Shino said in a low voice. No matter how much they threatened her, Endou did not have the guts to take real action. These girls were just normal, good children when at home. They should have learned from before not to make it into a police issue.
Endou was very familiar with Shino's weak point— the one spot Shino couldn't defend.
The fancy color on her lips shined as a mocking smile grew.
Endou slowly raised her right fist and pointed it toward the bridge of Shino's glasses. She extended her thumb and index finger from her fist, forming a child's imitation of a handgun. A silly, childish caricature.
However, with only that, Shino's whole body was enveloped by a chilling sensation.
She gradually lost strength in both of her legs. Her balance felt distant. In her eyes, the alley began to lose its color in contrast to Endou's finger before her. Shino could not take her eyes off the index finger's long nail with a glossy shine. Her heartbeat quickened, a high-frequency sound rang in her ears, increasing in pitch rapidly...
Endou suddenly called out. Almost simultaneously, Shino let out a blood-curdling scream. She could not stop the trembling coming from the core of her body.
"Pfft..., hey, Asada~" While her fingertip was still extended, Endou spoke in a voice mixed with laughter.
"So my older bro has a number of those model guns. Next time, I'll show it to you at school. You like them right, pistols."
Her tongue could not move. In her dry mouth, it just quivered in a troubled way.
Shino shook her head with a small stutter. If a real model gun was suddenly shown to her in school, she was likely to faint right there. Simply by imagining that scene, her stomach began to shrink, and her body could not help but bend down.
"Hey hey, don't puke Asada~—"
Behind her, there were still voices mixed with laughter.
"But when you puke and collapse in the middle of world history class, it'll be super tough afterwards."
"Well, if it's here, then there are drunken old men puking quite often."
Louder laughter burst out.
I want to escape. I wish I could run away. But I can't do it. The two opposing thoughts echoed loudly inside her mind.
"For the time being, we'll let you off with what you have on you now, Asada. You look sick, anyway."
Endou reached out to the bag held by Shino's right hand, Shino really could not resist. 'Don't think about it, don't remember it.' While thinking that, the vision of her memory revived in a black brilliance. The heavy, wet feel of iron. The smell of gunpowder inside the nose— At that time, a shout sounded from behind her.
"This way! Mr. Patrolman, hurry!!"
A young man's voice.
Endou's hand moved quickly away from her bag. The three people ran out the front with amazing speed, mixing into the crowd of people in the shopping district.
This time her legs really lost strength, and Shino collapsed onto her knees, crouching.
She desperately tried to control her breathing, trying to keep herself from panicking. Slowly, the shoppers noisy conversation and the super market's grilled chicken smell came back and her nightmarish flashback faded away.
How many tens of seconds had she been in that state? Then, from behind, came a timid voice.
"...Are you okay, Asada-san?
Taking one last deep breath, Shino gathered strength in her weakened legs and stood up.
She adjusted her glasses while turning around, and saw a small skinny boy.
He wore jeans and a nylon pullover, with a dark green backpack over his shoulders. Along with his casual clothes, a black baseball cap sat over his little round face. Although he looked like a middle school student, the dark shadows beneath his eyes betrayed his youthful visage. Shino knew this boy's name. He was the only one in this town she could trust— or at least wasn't an enemy. In another world they have a good relationship like comrades.
Feeling her heartbeat finally settle down, Shino gave him a small smile and replied.
"...I am all right. Thank you, Shinkawa-kun— Where are the police?"
She looked at the back of the alley; it was dark and empty, and no one seemed to be appearing.
Shinkawa Kyouji scratched his head through his cap and smiled.
"It was a bluff. It happens a lot in movies and manga right? I wanted to try it once. I'm glad it worked."
Shino was somewhat amazed, and gently shook her head.
"...You always come up with these kinds of tricks in a flash— Why are you here?"
"Ah, I was at the game center over there. I came out the back door..."
Kyouji looked behind him. On the rain soaked concrete wall near the road, she really could see a small silver door.
"Those guys surrounded Asada-san. I really thought of dialing 110..."
"Yes, you were a great help. Thank you." Shino smiled again, Kyouji also smiled for a moment, then returned to a worried look.
"...Asada-san, this kind of thing...does it happen a lot? That...even if it's me saying it, you should report this to the school..."
"It won't help, even if I do that. It's okay, if they go any further than this, I will really go to the police station. Then again, before worrying about other people, are you... all right?"
"Ah...I'm fine. I have not met those guys again."
The small boy, this time gave a self-delusional sort of smile.
Shinkawa Kyouji was Shino's classmate before the summer holidays. "Was," as he hadn't come to school since the second school semester.
From the rumors she'd heard, Kyouji was severely bullied by the seniors in his soccer club. His physique was small and his family owned a large hospital, which made him look like the perfect target. They didn't ask him for money outright like Endou's group did, but he paid for their food, entertainment and other sorts of stupid stuff, damaging his self-esteem in the process.
Natually, she had never heard about this directly from Kyouji.
They first got to know each other in June, in the nearby municipal library.
Shino was in the second floor reading room, reading The World's Firearms. She had finished most of the graphic magazine.
At the time, she was finally able to look at such pictures without panicking, but looking at the page with «that gun» for around ten seconds was her limit. Right when she hurriedly closed the book, a voice came from behind '...Do you like guns?'
That the person who had said that was her classmate was something she didn't realize until later.
Shino had wanted to immediately answer, 'No way, it's the opposite'. However, then he would question why she was reading the magazine. It would be hard for her to offer a rational response, so she had just answered vaguely.
Now, Kyouji knew that Shino had an extreme fear of guns in the real world, but back then he misunderstood Shino's response. So, he smiled happily and sat in the chair next to her.
He pointed at the graphic magazine and talked about the firearms pictured, while Shino listened with cold sweat flowing within her. But among all that, Kyouji mentioned a «different world».
She knew that Full Dive game machines went on sale a few years ago, and she also knew about the term VRMMO. However, Shino had grown up without playing games, and believed that it was enough for «A World of Swords and Magic» to exist only in fantasy books. She wasn't interested in it.
But the virtual world Kyouji intimately described in a dreamlike way didn't have any swords or magic. In exchange— it had guns. That world's name was «Gun Gale Online» (GGO). The many firearms that exist, or have existed, in real life were precisely reproduced in that world, and the players use those weapons to kill each other in a gruesome wasteland.
Shino interrupted Kyouji, asking him with a sigh.
"—In the game...does this gun exist?"
The boy blinked in surprise, then nodded in an of course fashion.
If it's like that, Shino started thinking. In that virtual world, can she confront «that gun» again? Five years ago, her eleven year old heart was deeply pierced; that black gun left a bullet wound which would never disappear. Can she face that black gun once more; fight it; overcome it?
Shino firmly held her cold, sweat-soaked hands and, in cool voice, asked Kyouji, "To start playing this game, how much money is required?"
Half a year had passed.
Inside Shino was born a girl named «Sinon», a ruthless sniper who became famous in the wasteland of GGO.
But, unfortunately, she still has not met an enemy with «that gun». So Shino does not know. Has her real self —not Sinon, but Asada Shino— really become strong, or not...?
The answer still eludes her. "...Hey, would you like a drink? My treat."
Kyouji's voice pulled Shino out of her deep thoughts. Looking up, she found the sun shining into the narrow alley had already begun to redden.
Shino smiled, then Kyouji happily nodded.
"I want to hear about your recent rampaging story. In this alley, there's a quiet tea shop."
A few minutes later, sitting in a seat deep within the shop she was led to, holding her hands around a cup of nice, fragrant milk tea, she finally relaxed a bit. Endou will probably continue to find ways to bully her. Well, what will happen will happen, she thought, pushing those thoughts to a corner of her mind.
"I heard, the day before yesterday. You had a big success right?"
She looked up at Kyouji's voice. The skinny boy was poking at the half ball of vanilla ice-cream floating on top of his ice coffee with a spoon, looking at her with upturned eyes.
"...That's not true. The battle plan was a failure. In our squadron of six, four were killed. For an ambush that turned into a firefight, the result can't be called a win."
She replied with a shrug. Thinking of actual firearms in the real world could easily push her into panic, but recently, while talking about things inside GGO, she had managed to stay calm. It is like the virtual world was having a rehabilitation effect. "Still, it's amazing. That Minigun user «Behemoth» has never died in a group battle before this, I heard."
"Oh...is he that famous? I didn't see him in the «Bullet of Bullets» ranking, so I didn't know about him."
"There's a reason for that. No matter how strong the Minigun is said to be, carrying 500 rounds of ammo puts him overweight, so he can't run anymore. «BoB» is a solo encounter fight. If he gets sniped from long distances, it will be over. However if he has adequate support in a group battle, he's invincible. That weapon is against the rules."
Seeing Kyouji complain like that with a pout, Shino could not help smiling.
"...Then, my Hecate II would really be against the rules. After using it, I have to face a variety of troubles, too. That Behemoth-san is probably thinking the same thing, too."
"Geesh, that's luxurious trouble...So, what are your plans for the next BoB?"
"I will enter, of course. I have almost all of the previous top 20 ranked people's data collected. This time I plan to bring Hecate. This time, I will..."
Kill, she was going to say, then hurriedly covered up with:
"...Try to reach the upper ranks."
Shino/Sinon participated in the GGO ranking tournament two months ago, named «Bullet of Bullets». Thirty people who passed the preliminaries entered the main tournament, a battle royal, vying to be the strongest. Despite her efforts, Sinon finished as rank 22nd. As the thirty participants are randomly placed in a wide map at the start of BoB, there is a chance that you can be instantly forced into close range combat. So, she had used an assault rifle instead of the sniper rifle Hecate II. But during close combat, she was killed by a sniper with a «Remington M40» from afar.
Two months later, even if the gun was still hard to manage, she had gained experience with Hecate and gotten used to it. She also obtained a rare light sub-machine gun «MP7», so she could handle close combat more effectively. She will bring the huge rifle to enter the upcoming third BoB, she thought. Basically, she will hide behind cover —even if said to be unfair— waiting for a target to enter her view, and then blow them all away without leaving even one remaining.
In this GGO, filled with powerful warriors, she will kill all her enemies. And when she can be sure that she is the strongest— at that time, for sure...
Kyouji's regretful voice in her ear pulled Shino away from her dark thoughts.
Shino blinked and looked at Kyouji, who was looking at her with somewhat shining eyes. "Asada-san is amazing. You obtained that incredible gun... and your stats are like those guys with STR builds. I invited you to GGO, but you already left me far behind."
"...That's not true. Shinkawa-san got to the semifinals in the previous preliminary tournament too. That fight was mostly luck. What a pity. If you had reached the finals, then you would have been able to enter the main tournament."
"No... I can't. With an AGI build, without some extremely good luck with rare drops, this is as good as I'll get. My stats placement was a mistake..."
While listening to Kyouji's complaint, she frowned.
The other Kyouji, a character named «Spiegel», followed the AGI route, which focused on increasing the dexterity parameter and was popular early on.
This type of character used its overwhelming evasion and firing speed —in this case, rapid fire isn't the gun's actual firing speed, but the time needed to aim and for the Bullet Circle to steady— to destroy other character types. AGI builds held the advantage for half a year since the start of GGO. However, as new maps were conquered, they lacked the STR, the strength to equip the new weapons that became available, or the guns themselves became more accurate so evasion became less effective. Now, eight months after the beginning of service, AGI builds could not be called the main trend any longer. Even so, if AGI types managed to obtain rare, large caliber rifles specialized in firing speed, for example the «FN FAL» or «H&K G3», they could still do well as they are. The previous BoB 2nd rank player called «Yamikaze» was an AGI build— that said, he was beaten by the winner «Zekushiido», a balanced STR-VIT build. However—
For Shino, stats and type related things were just «Character Strength». There was a more important factor which solemnly existed.
That is, a player's own strength; their strength of heart. In her fight the day before yesterday, «Behemoth» usually had a calm composure when he moved, and above that he had the luxury to put on a half smile. The source of that man's strength wasn't his M134 Minigun, but his ferocious smile.
That's why Shino couldn't fully accept the way Kyouji said things were.
"Yes... That rare gun is very strong, although... There are strong people with rare guns, but not everyone with a rare gun is strong. Actually, about half of the thirty people who entered the previous tournament only used customized guns bought in shops."
"That is... Since Asada-san has that super rare gun, and above that you are a balanced STR build, that's why you can say that. There really is a large gap in weapon quality..."
While watching Kyouji sigh and stir his coffee float, Shino realized that saying anymore would be useless, so she tried to end the topic.
"Then, Shinkawa-kun won't be entering the next BoB?"
"...No. Even if I enter, it would be useless."
"I see... Well... you have studies too. You are going to the Prep school's big test right? How were your mock exam results?"
Kyouji hadn't gone to school since summer vacation, and it seemed he had considerable argument with his father over that incident.
His father runs a relatively large hospital, and so the second son Kyouji who was to succeed the family name had been strictly ordered to prepare for the medical department exams. The result of a very tense family meeting was that they would allow him to study at home, but in the year after the next, he must participate in university entrance qualification examinations in order to enter the famous university's medical department where his father graduated from without losing any time. That was their promise, as Shino had heard from him in the past.
Kyouji nodded and smiled.
"I am fine, I'm maintaining the rank I had while going to school. No problem, Ms. Instructor."
Shino jokingly replied, also with a smile.
"Shinkawa-kun's login time is incredible. I was a little worried. Whenever I went in you were always online."
"I study during the day time. Variation is very important."
"Since you spend so much time playing, you must make a lot of money—?"
"...That's not true. It's almost impossible for AGI builds to solo hunt now..."
Since the conversation mood became strange again, Shino hurriedly said.
"Well, making enough for the connection fee is fine...Sorry, I need to go home soon."
"Ah, I see. Asada-san makes her own dinner right? I would like to eat your food again, if possible."
"Ah, ye, yea, sure. Before that... I need to improve my cooking a little."
Shino started panicking again.
Just once, she had invited Kyouji to her home for dinner. Eating the meal itself was fun, but afterward when they were facing each other drinking tea, she felt Kyouji's stare grow more intense, and she had a cold sweat. Even though he was an ultra net gamer and gun maniac, a man was still a man. In retrospect, she decided that inviting him to her single person home was a bit careless.
She did not hate him. Chatting with him was one of the few ways for her to relax in the real world. However, at the moment, she didn't want to consider anything beyond their current relationship. Not until she can destroy the darkness deep within her heart, triumphing over that memory.
"Thank you for your hospitality. Also... really thank you for saving me. You were very cool."
Shino said while getting up. Kyouji was all smiles while he scratched his head.
"If I can always protect you that would be nice. That is... well, when you return from school... can I go pick you up?"
"N, no, it's fine. I also need to become strong."
After hearing Shino's laughing reply, Kyouji's eyes shone once more and his puppy dog eyes disappeared.
Shino climbed the concrete staircase, tinged slightly black after soaking in years of rain.
The second door was the apartment house where Shino lived alone. She took a key from her skirt pocket and inserted it into the old electronic lock. After entering a 4-digit code in the small panel, she turned her key, and heard a metallic click.
She entered the slightly dark entrance way and closed the door with a hand behind her back.
She turned the deadbolt, and after confirming it was locked, she silently let out, "I'm home." Of course, no one answered her.
From the entrance area, a narrow, long space extended about 3 meters. The right side was the apartment's bathroom door; on the left side was a small kitchen.
She put the vegetables, tofu, and other things she bought from the supermarket into the refrigerator next to the sink, then she walked deep into the six tatami room, where she breathed a sigh of relief. As the last rays of sunlight shone through the curtains, she touched a wall switch to turn on the lights.
The room was nothing to be proud of. The floor was covered with vinyl tiles, and the curtains were a plain ivory color. Before the right-hand wall was a black pipe bed, further down on the same side was a similar dull, black colored writing desk, and against the opposite wall was a small chest and a bookshelf, in line. A full length mirror beside them was the main piece of furniture.
She put her school bag on the floor and removed her white muffler. Taking off her coat, she placed it and her muffler on a hanger, and put them into a small closet. She pulled the glossy, dark green scarf from her almost black colored sailor uniform, but while her left hand was pulling down the zipper, she stopped and looked at the writing desk.
After school today had been somewhat troublesome, but she managed to face Endou's threats, so a little bit of confidence remained deep in her heart. True, she did fall into panic, but even so she stood her ground without running away.
And two days ago, inside GGO, she won a death match against the strongest enemy she had ever seen. She felt that her heart was forged in a remarkably strong fire.
Shinkawa Kyouji told her that Behemoth guy was invincible in a party fight. She felt that legend wasn't exaggerated, as that man had released incredible pressure. During the fight, Shino/Sinon had resigned herself to defeat and death— however in the end, she had managed to obtain victory through her own strength.
Perhaps, now, she would be able to face that memory, and force it to yield.
While not moving, Shino continued to stare at the desk drawer.
Tens of seconds later, she threw the scarf, still in her right hand, on the bed and quickly walked to the desk.
She took a few deep breaths to chase away the fear creeping up her spine.
She put her fingers on the third drawer's handle and slowly pulled it open.
Inside were small boxes for organizing writing utensils and other related items. As she kept pulling the drawer out, what was behind the boxes was slowly exposed. As the box line ends, «that» shape appeared. Shining, dull black, was a small— toy.
It was a plastic model gun. But the make was very detailed, the tiny hairlines running on the surface gave the toy a metallic look.
She fought to calm her beating heart upon seeing that shape, and stretched out her right hand. Her trembling right hand touched the grip of the gun, held it, and then took it out. The profoundly heavy feedback. The freezing cold as if it sucked in all the cold air from the room.
This toy gun was not a model of any existing, real world firearm. The grip was shaped in an ergonomic curve, and above the large trigger guard was a high caliber gun barrel. It might be said to be a Bullpup style gun, with the dull machine part with heat vents placed somewhere behind and above the grip.
The gun's name was «Procyon SL», an optical gun in Gun Gale Online. Its category was a handgun, but it could fire in full automatic, so it was a popular sidearm for fights against monsters.
Although Shino has a storage room in Gurokken, this thing that the real Shino holds is not something she bought. It is not something that is sold in the market anyway.
It happened a few days after she entered the Bullet of Bullets tournament two months ago and lost with a rank of 22nd. Addressed to Shino's game account was an e-mail in English from «Zasker», GGO's operation company.
Though it took her some effort to interpret the contents, it seemed to be a BoB Participation Award. She could choose to receive in-game currency or items, or a Procyon SL model gun in the real world, was what it seemed to say.
Even if it was a toy, she couldn't stand receiving gun related items in the real world, so she initially decided to pick the in-game money. But then she thought of something.
In order to confirm the effect of her use of GGO as «drastic treatment», one day, she must touch a model gun in the real world. That said, for her to go buy a model gun in a toy shop would result in too much psychological conflict. If she asked Kyouji, he would probably happily lend her one, but she couldn't stand the thought of going into panic while accepting it. Buying one on the net was probably her best choice, but looking at various gun pictures in the net shop would weigh her down, so she could never actually buy one. And, of course, there would be the problem of money.
If the GGO operation company sent her the model gun for free, that might be the best way for her. So, after being indecisive up until near the deadline, she chose to accept the Participation Award in the real world.
A week later, the heavy International Postal Parcel (EMS) arrived.
It took her another two weeks to decide to open it.
However, her reaction to it at that time greatly betrayed her expectations. Shino had pushed it into the deepest part of her desk drawer and hid the memory in a corner of her mind.
And right now— Shino once again held Procyon in her hand.
The gun's cold air passed from her right palm to her arm, up to her shoulder, and seemed to seep deep into her body. It was only a resin model, but its weight felt tremendous. It should have been a handgun light enough to spin around with a finger, but she could only feel that it was a chain binding her to the floor.
The gun became warm, stealing the body heat from her palm. And in the cold and sweat soaked warmth, Shino felt another presence.
Who is that?
That is... that... man.
Her heart rate increased to a speed beyond her control. Cold blood coursed through her body, ringing loudly in her ears. She lost her sense of orientation. The floor under her feet tilted, losing solidity.
However, Shino could not remove her eyes from the gun's black shine. She stared at it as closely as if it would swallow her up.
There was a ringing in her ears. It became a high-pitched scream. It was a small girl's scream soaked with pure terror.
Who was the one screaming?
That was... me.
Shino did not know her father's face.
It didn't just mean she had no memory of her father in the real world. Just as the words said, Shino had not seen the person that was her father, not even in pictures or video.
When her father passed away due to a traffic accident, Shino was not even two years old.
That day, the family of three, her father, mother, and Shino, had been heading to her mother's parents' house to celebrate the new year. Their car had been driving near the northeast border of the prefecture, where an old, two lane road ran along a mountain side. Since they had left Tokyo late, it was around 11pm at night.
The cause of the accident was evidenced by the tire tracks at the scene: a truck coming from the opposite direction lost control of its steering on a curve in the road and crossed over into their lane.
The truck driver crashed through the front glass and hit the road, dying instantly.
Their small car was directly hit on the right side, was knocked through the guardrail, and rolled down the side of the mountain, only stopping when their car hit a pair of trees. At the time, her father, the driver, was unconscious from serious injuries, but still alive, while her mother sitting beside her father had a fractured left leg. Baby Shino in the backseat was tightly belted down and sustained almost no injury. However, she doesn't have a single memory of that event.
Unfortunately, even the locals didn't use that road too often, especially late at night, so there wasn't a single car passing by. Also, due to the crash, their car's cell phone was broken.
By the time a driver on the old road noticed the accident and reported it the following morning, six hours had passed.
During that time, Shino's mother could only sit and watch while her father slowly became colder and eventually died from internal bleeding.
At that moment, somewhere deep within her mother's mind, something broke.
After the accident, her mother's mental state regressed to when she was a teenager and met Shino's father. Shino and her mother left Tokyo and went to live with her mother's parents. All her father's belongings, and any pictures and video containing him, were gotten rid of by her mother, and she never mentioned any of her memories.
Her mother wanted peace and quiet, so she started living like a country girl. What her mother saw Shino as, she couldn't be sure even 15 years after the accident; perhaps, she viewed Shino as her little sister. Even so, her mother still deeply loved Shino after the accident. She remembered her mother reading picture books and singing lullabies to her at night.
That's why, in Shino's memory, her mother was a frail girl who was hurt easily. Naturally, when she started to understand better, Shino thought that she had to become strong. She thought that she must protect her mother.
Once, when her grandparents were out, a very persistent salesman sat in the entrance, scaring her mother. So, the 9 year old Shino chased him away by telling him that if he did not leave, she would call the police.
For Shino, the outside world had many elements that threatened her mother's peaceful life. I have to protect her, have to protect her, that was her single-minded thought.
That's why— Shino thought back. That's why that incident happened. In a sense, it was inevitable. Shino kept trying to keep the outside world far away, and so that malicious world came for revenge.
Shino, the eleven year old, fifth grader in elementary school, didn't play outside often, usually opting to return home from school immediately and read books borrowed from the library. Her test scores were good, but she didn't have many friends. She was especially sensitive to external interference; there was an incident where a boy played a harmless trick by hiding her indoor shoes, so she hit him for real and gave him a bloody nose.
It happened on a Saturday afternoon, after the start of the second school semester.
Shino and her mother went to a nearby small post office together. There weren't any other customers.
While her mother filled out paperwork at a window, Shino sat on a bench, dangled her legs and read a book placed there for people waiting. She didn't remember the title.
Squeak, she heard the sound of the door, looked up and and saw a man enter. A skinny middle-aged man, wearing grayish clothing, one hand holding a Boston bag.
The man stopped at the entrance and looked around inside the office. His eyes met Shino's for an instant. She thought his eye color looked strange. In the center of his yellowed whites, dark pupils like deep holes moved rapidly. Thinking back now, his pupils were too dilated. It was uncovered later that the man, before he came to the post office, was injected with some stimulant.
But at that moment, Shino didn't have time to question it, as the man quickly moved to a window.
As Shino's mother was completing some sort of procedure at the «transfers & savings» window, the man suddenly grabbed her right arm with his left and pulled. He then threw her away violently. Her mother fell without making a sound; the shock was so great that she froze with her eyes open.
Shino instantly stood up. She was going to loudly protest the sudden, unreasonable violence on her beloved mother.
Then, the man dropped his Boston bag on the counter loudly, and took out a black object from within. By the time Shino realized that it was a gun, the man had already pointed it at the male worker in the window. Pistol— Toy— No, real thing— Robbery—!? A few words flashed by in Shino's mind.
"Put the money in the bag!"
The man shouted in a hoarse voice. Then, he continued.
"Both hands on the counter top! Don't press the alarm button! You there, don't move!!"
Moving his gun left and right, he restrained several workers in the back.
She should immediately run out of the office and call for help outside, Shino thought. However she could not leave her mother lying on the ground and go.
While she hesitated, the man shouted again.
"Hurry and put the money inside!! All you have!! Hurry!!"
The male worker at the window, with his face stiff, held out a 5cm thick bundle of money in his right hand—
At that moment.
Her ears went numb. It took her some time to figure out it was from the loud, explosive sound. Next, ding, a small, metallic sound followed. Something had hit the wall and bounced, falling down around Shino's feet. A small, golden metallic tube.
When she raised her head again, she saw that on the other side of the counter, the male worker's eyes were round and both of his hands clutched his chest.. She could see that under his neck tie, his white shirt was dyed red. At that time, the worker on his chair leaned backward, along with a file cabinet near him, and fell to the ground.
"I told you not to press the button!!"
The man's voice became high-pitched. She could see that his hand holding the gun was shaking. A smell reminiscent of fireworks reached her nose.
"Hey, you! Come here and take the money!!"
The man's gun pointed at two female workers who stood, frozen.
"Hurry and come!!"
The man's sharp voice rang out, but the female workers just shook their head and didn't move. They probably had training to counter robbery incidents, but actual bullets could not be blocked by training from any manual.
The man kicked the lower part of the counter many times in frustration. Maybe he was thinking of shooting another person, as he raised his right hand holding the gun, again. Screaming loudly, the female workers crouched down.
But then, the man did a half turn, and faced the customer side of the room.
"If you don't hurry, I'll shoot another person!! I'm going to shoot!!"
The man's gun was pointing at— Shino's mother who had fallen down on the floor and was looking into space with empty eyes.
The scene happening in front of her was too much for her. Her mother couldn't even move her body. Instantly, Shino thought:
—I need to protect my mother.
The thought that she continuously had since she was a little child, that willpower forced Shino's body into action.
Shino dropped her book and ran out, she held onto the man's right wrist holding the gun, and instantly bit down on it. The child's sharp teeth easily penetrated the man's skin.
The man gave a surprised shout, then swung his right arm along with Shino. Shino's body hit the side of the counter. She lost two of her baby teeth at that moment, but she didn't feel it. In front of her eyes, that man's black gun slipped and fell from his hand. She picked it up while he was preoccupied.
It was heavy.
The heavy weight of the metal was felt through both of her hands. In contrast, the lined grip held by the man earlier was soaked with his sweat, with the man's body heat. It felt like a living thing.
Shino as a child knew a bit about what the tool was for. If she used this, she could stop the terrible man. Led by those thoughts, Shino held the gun up near level with her eyes, both hands' index fingers went to the trigger, and pointed it at the man.
At that moment, the man let out a strange sound and jumped at Shino, trying to get the gun away from her hands. His two hands latched onto her two wrists.
That action was very good for Shino, and in a way it was very bad. She still couldn't figure it out right now. But the simple truth was that, as a result, the man steadied the gun pointing at him.
Right now, Shino had more than enough information on the gun used in the robbery incident— «that gun».
In 1933, 90 years ago, the Soviet army officially used the gun «Tokarev TT33». Then, the Chinese copied it and produced «Type 54 Black Star». That was the gun's name.
The gun was .30 caliber, that is, it used 7.62mm diameter steel core bullets. Compared to the mainstream 9mm guns developed later, its caliber is lower, but it uses a lot of gun powder. For that reason, the bullet's initial speed is beyond the speed of sound, so it has the highest penetration power among all hand guns.
But as the recoil was also large, the Soviet Union in the 1950's designed a smaller gun using 9mm bullets. The «Makarov» replaced the Tokarev as their official gun in history.
This kind of gun was not something an 11 year old child was able to aim and shoot properly. But when the man strongly held onto her wrists trying to steal the gun away, at that instant, Shino pulled the trigger on reflex.
The violent recoil spread from her hands to her elbow then to her shoulders, but the majority of it was absorbed by the man's hands. The air expanded by heat again.
The man made a hiccup-like sound, released Shino's hands, and staggered back a few steps.
In the man's patterned grey shirt near his belly, a dark red circle rapidly expanded. "Aa... Ahaaa!!"
While he released a high-pitched cry, he pressed his hands to his abdomen. Maybe a large blood vessel was hit, as from between his fingers a spray of blood gushed out.
But the man did not fall. Black Star used a small caliber Full Metal Jacket bullet, so while it could easily pass through the human body, its stopping power is low.
With a strange sound, the man moved his blood covered hands toward Shino, again trying to catch her. The blood spraying out of his wound fell onto Shino's hands.
With her shaking hands, as if convulsing, she pulled the trigger again.
This time the pistol made a huge jump, pain shooting through her elbows and shoulders. Her body was thrown backward, her back hit the counter, knocking her breath out. She didn't really hear the gunshot noise this time.
The second bullet hit below the man's right collarbone, once again going through him and hitting the wall at his back. The man staggered, then foot slipped on his own blood, and he collapsed onto the linoleum floor on his back.
But that still didn't stop the man. He roared in anger and put both hands on the floor to try to stand up again.
Shino was panic-stricken. She thought, this time, if she doesn't «stop» the man for sure, she and her mother will absolutely be killed.
She ignored the sharp pain in her hands and shoulders, and walked two steps forward. She pointed the gun at the center of the man who had risen about 20cm from the ground.
The third shot dislocated her right shoulder. This time she didn't support her body and was blown away by the recoil, and fell head over heels to the floor. Even so, the pistol did not leave her hands.
Just as before, the bullet fired violently from the pistol greatly deviated from her target by about 10cm upward—
It hit almost the exact center of the man's face. With a thud, the man's head hit the floor. He no longer moved or yelled.
Shino desperately held her body up to confirm that the man had stopped moving.
Before anything, she thought. She protected her mother.
Shino moved her head, to look at her mother who was still on the floor a few meters away. And, the mother she loved more than anyone else in the world...
Was looking directly at Shino. Fear and panic clearly showing in her eyes.
Shino looked down at her hands. Her hands still holding the pistol were covered with dark red liquid droplets.
Shino opened her mouth, and finally started issuing a shrill scream.
As a thin cry tore out from the depths of her throat, Shino continued to stare at the Procyon SL clenched in both of her hands. She could see the blood dripping from the back of her hands to her fingers. No matter how many times she blinked, it didn't disappear. Drip, drip. The sticky drops fell to her feet.
Suddenly, liquid started to overflow from both of her eyes. With a soft distortion, her sight was completely covered by the black radiance of the model gun.
In the depths of the darkness, she could see that man's face.
The third wave of bullets flew toward his face. The wounds were surprisingly small where the bullet shells hit, looking somewhat like moles. However, immediately afterward, a red mist drifted out from the back of his head. All expression and life bled out from his face.
But, abruptly, the left eye alone moved and the pupil, looking like a bottomless pit, gazed at Shino.
It looked straight into Shino's eyes.
"... Ah ... ah ... ... ... ..."
Suddenly, her tongue stuck to the back of her throat and she couldn't breathe. At the same time, she felt her stomach violently constricting.
Shino clenched her teeth, mustered all of her willpower and threw the Procyon to the floor. Immediately, with teetering steps, she ran to the kitchen and turned the doorknob of the bathroom with her right hand, cold and wet with sweat.
At the same time that Shino lifted the toilet lid, hot liquid gushed out from the bottom of her stomach. Until everything in her stomach was discharged, she vomited, again and again, causing her body to twist and spasm.
When the contractions of her stomach had finally settled down, Shino was exhausted.
Her left hand extended to flush the toilet. With a bit of difficulty, Shino rose and, after taking off her glasses, she washed both of her hands and face over and over again with sharp, cold water from the washbasin.
Lastly, she rinsed her mouth, took a clean towel from the shelf and, while wiping her face, left the bathroom. She could not think clearly.
On unsteady legs, Shino returned to her room.
Averting her gaze from it as much as possible, Shino covered the model gun that had rolled onto floor. Lifting it up over the cloth, she immediately threw it to the back of the open drawer. Noisily, Shino closed the drawer and, exhausted, fell face down onto the bed.
Water droplets from her wet bangs and her flowing tears mixed together on her cheeks and soaked her futon. Unconsciously, in a small voice, she mumbled the same thing over and over again.
"Help me... someone... help me... save me... anyone..."
Her memory of the several days right after the robbery incident were not very clear.
When the adults dressed in the navy blue uniform said, in a tense tone, to pass over the gun, her finger had stiffened and, no matter how hard she had tried, would not come loose.
Around her, there were many red lights and yellow tape shaking in the wind. The white light shining from over there dizzied her eyes.
After she was finally picked up by the patrol car, she noticed the pain in her right shoulder. When she timidly appealed, the policeman moved her over to an ambulance— She remembered only bits and pieces of the rest.
While in a hospital bed, two policewomen repeatedly asked about the incident. Even though she said many times that she wanted to see her mother, her request could only be granted afterward.
Shino was discharged after about three days and she returned to her grandparents' house, but her mother's hospitalization lasted over a month. They could no longer return to the mild ordinary days from before the incident.
Due to the voluntary restraint of the media, further details about the incident were avoided in the news. The death of the suspect of the post office armed robbery was reported to the prosecutor, but a trial was not held even once. However, it was a small town incident. The details of what happened inside the post office leaked out— and more than that, they were blown up and exaggerated and they spread through the entire town like a prairie fire.
In the year and a half left of elementary school, Shino was peppered with every derivative of «murderer». Since entering middle school, the insults were replaced with complete disregard.
However, for Shino, the state of her surroundings were not much of a problem. From the beginning, Shino had very little interest in belonging to a group.
But the scar left in her heart by the incident— no matter how many years had passed, they didn't heal and continued to torment Shino.
Since then, just looking at anything similar to a gun would force Shino to vividly recall the memory of the incident and experience the symptoms of a violent shock: hyperventilation, body rigidity, loss of orientation, vomiting, or, in the worst cases, fainting. While these attacks were certainly induced by laying eyes on a toy gun held by a child by the roadside, they could easily be induced even through a TV screen.
Therefore, Shino became unable to watch most dramas and movies. There had also been several times where she had attacks while watching the video teaching materials used in her social science class. Comparatively, books were safe— old works of literature devoid of firearms, especially. So, for the majority of middle school, she passed time in a dim corner of the school library, turning pages of large, complete works.
She appealed to her grandparents that when she graduated middle school, she wanted to work somewhere far away, and was met with strong opposition. Her grandparents wanted her to go to high school. So, Shino said that if she were to attend high school, at least, like long ago, she wanted to attend one in the neighborhood of Tokyo where she had lived with her father and mother. While she certainly wanted to go to a place where there were no rumors and curious stares that always followed her around, more than that, she was confident that as long as she stayed in this town, the wounds in her heart would never recover in her lifetime.
Of course, Shino's symptoms were diagnosed as typical PTSD, and in four years, she received countless counseling. She obediently took the prescribed medicine. But the words of the doctors, along with something strangely resembling a smile on their face, could only go so far as to touch the surface of Shino's heart— scratch it— unable to truly reach the wounded place. In a clean examination room, while listening to them repeat the words "I understand. It was very painful. It was very hard," Shino mumbled the same phrase over and over again in her mind.
—If that is the case, have you ever killed someone with a gun?
Now, on reflection, she realized that that attitude hindered the building of trust and shunned any treatment. Nevertheless, even now, that was her undisguised intention. Was what she did good or evil? A clear, decisive answer to that was probably the only thing that Shino wished for. But of course, a doctor who could answer that question does not exist.
However, no matter how much pain her memory and attacks caused, she never once thought of killing herself.
She did not regret pointing that gun at that man and pulling the trigger. When her mother was held at gunpoint, there wasn't any other choice for Shino. Even if she returned to the instant of that incident, without a doubt, she would have done the same thing.
But if Shino chose the escape of suicide, even that man would turn in his grave, or so she thought.
That's why she wanted to become strong. In that situation, there was only one course of action, though she still desired the strength to say so. Strength, like on the battlefield, where female soldiers defeated their enemies mercilessly. It was because of this that she wanted to try living alone.
When she left the town in which she graduated middle school, the only ones to whom she bid farewell were her grandfather, her grandmother, and her mother, who embraced her and stroked her hair. She would always recognize her as the young child before the incident.
She moved to a place where the air was dirty, the water was hard to drink, and everything was expensive.
And then, she met Shinkawa Kyouji and the VRMMORPG «Gun Gale Online».
Finally, her breath and pulse settled down, and Shino opened her eyes.
Lying face down on her bed, her left cheek on her pillow, in front of Shino's gaze was a full length mirror.
In the mirror, with wet hair clinging to her forehead, a girl looked back. A bit too skinny, with just her eyes appearing large. The nose was small and the lips thin. All in all, she appeared similar to a malnourished kitten.
The sniper rifle user of the wilderness, Sinon. Her build and the hairstyle with short hair tied on both sides of her face resembled Shino, but except for that, nothing else. That girl, as it were, was a fierce wildcat.
Though extremely scared, when she first logged into GGO and was taken to that battlefield not knowing anything, Shino discovered something unexpected. It was very different from the real world's Japan, as the landscape was too much like another world. And in that world, if she tried to touch any kind of gun— no, even if she shot down other players, some of the tension would be remembered to some degree, but those detestable fits would not occur.
Shino was confident that she had finally found a way to overcome that memory. In fact, because she tried playing GGO, if she looked at pictures, the attacks no longer happened to some degree, and she seemed able to talk to Kyouji about the weapons in GGO.
No, it wasn't only that. Half a year ago, when she received the huge yet brutal rifle named «Hecate II», Shino fell in love. While other girls her age had pets or stuffed animals to appease them, stroking the smooth barrel helped Shino to relax, and if she leaned her cheek on the round stock, she felt warm.
Together with this gun, in the virtual wilderness, if she continues to fight, someday, her wounds will close and her fears will vanish. Believing that, she blew away innumerable monsters and players with certain kill bullets.
Really? Is this really all right?
A voice in her heart asked back.
Sinon was already, out of tens of thousands of GGO players, someone in the top thirty. She freely commanded the anti-materiel rifle unlike anyone else at the level of actual combat. She could give anyone she captured in her scope certain death with her unstoppable bullets. A warrior with a heart of ice. It was not an exaggeration to say that was the existence the former Shino hoped to become.
And yet— the real world's Shino, as usual, couldn't even hold a model gun.
Truly... truly... is this all right?
The eyes of the girl in the mirror were, behind her glasses, shaking and seemed to be at a loss.
These glasses she began to wear last year did not have any prescription. They weren't for eye correction, but were used as «protective equipment». The strong NXT polymer-made lenses, for example, would not break even if a bullet hit it— or so it was written in the leaflet. She doesn't know if it was true or not but, she economized her living expenses and the manufactured glasses gave Shino a modest sense of security. Now, when she goes out, if she doesn't always wear them, she won't calm down.
But, in short, she relies on this small accessory.
She closed her eyes tightly and again, a frail question was born in her chest.
Someone... Tell me... What should I do...?
—No one will save me!!
A cry from her heart called her to reject and erase the weak voice within her, and Shino rose up. In front of her eyes, on top of a small table beside her bed, the silver circle on her Amusphere was shining.
It just wasn't enough. That was the problem.
Twenty-one gunners stronger than Sinon still existed in that world. Crush those players, send them to hell, and simply dominate the wilderness as the strongest player of Gun Gale Online, and that would be when—
Shino would completely become Sinon and, in the real world, would be able to gain true strength. «That guy» and «that gun» were, until now, buried in the many targets that Sinon killed and never again will that memory rise up.
Shino picked up the air conditioner remote, turned on a weak heating, took off the jacket of her uniform in one stroke and tossed it away. She undid the hook of her skirt, pulled it from her legs, collected everything and tossed it on her floor. Lastly, she took off her light blue glasses and softly placed them on a corner of her writing table.
She immediately laid on the bed, picked up the AmuSphere, and put it over her head.
With some fumbling, she turned on the power and as soon as the electronic sound informed her of being in standby, she opened her mouth.
That murmured voice, like a child tired from crying, cracked helplessly.
- 6 mats ≈ 9 ft × 12 ft
- Japanese 911, police and emergency number
- firearm configuration in which the action is located behind the trigger group
- Japanese driver is on the right side.
- Japanese post offices also has banking functions
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