Firstly I would like thanks all those who favorite, followed or reviewed my story. Your support is really appreciated and pushes me to try harder.
Secondly I would like to say that I'm quite happy how the beginning of the GGO arc ended shaping up. While not as combat intensive as some of my other chapters I believe that the underlying tension it sets up for the next chapters is very fitting.
Lastly: I do not own either "HighSchool DxD" or "SwordArtOnline"
Ghosts in the Machine
A harsh wind was blowing across the wastelands, mercilessly biting at the unprotected skin of those few who dared to brave the unknown lands that had been forsaken by time.
The sun was slowly setting, staining the ground with its crimson light as he granted this lost world his last few rays of light before darkness returned once more.
Laying atop a rock formation a form remained completely still. A desert colored military jacket blending her delicate appearance with the landscape as she waited, unminding of the fierce winds that unrelentingly tried to batter her form.
As her pale blue hair swung wildly alongside the white muffler that was wrapped around her neck, she focused only on the scope of the great sniper rifle nested between her arms.
The weapon, the PGM Ultima Ratio Hecate II anti-material rifle, was 138 cm long, nearly as long as its user was tall, the massive size of the 50 caliber sniper rifle promised destruction to all those who stood in its path, destruction delivered by its 12.7mm bullets. And just like the Goddess that granted it its name, both the weapon and its user had become known as guides into the underworld.
The harsh winds and the diminishing light meant little to her, distractions to be ignored when faced with what was to come, when faced with her ultimate goal. And so she waited, staying perfectly still, her slow rhythmic breaths the only sign she was still amidst the living.
Narrowing her eyes she slightly increased the strength of her grip on the weapon that stood before her, the waiting was over.
Walking through the wastelands, slowly approaching her awaiting form, five figures had appeared.
Two were carrying optical blasters and she immediately dismissed them as a lesser threat, one was carrying a large caliber laser rifle, which while more dangerous than the blasters still could be easily defeated. The other two were carrying anti-personal weapons a FN Minimi light machine gun, a good support weapon in PVP battles, and a SIG SG550 assault rifle, a weapon capable of spitting out 5.56mm bullets and undeniably powerful, marking them as the real targets.
In this world weapons were separated in two categories, optical guns and live ammunition guns, both being very different from the other.
Optical guns were very light, capable of firing at a faster rate and with great accuracy, but its damage could be easily dispersed by defensive equipment. Live ammunition guns were very powerful and ignored defense fields, but forced the user to carry far more weight due to the ammunition necessary and could easily have its bullets trajectory affected by the wind and humidity.
For this reason as a rule optical guns were primarily used against monsters while live ammunition guns were used against other players.
With one last breath she prepared herself, taking in the cold surety Hecate was giving her. Focusing her scope on the SIG user her right index finger moved towards the trigger.
Hearing her heartbeat she matched that rhythm while moving her aim. The distance of 1500 meters between her and the target, wind direction and the target's movement speed meant she would have to shoot more than one meter to the upper right of him.
Touching the trigger a shining circle of green light appeared on her field of vision, a circle that wavered constantly, growing and shrinking in a cyclic manner. It was the Bullet Hit Prediction Circle which showed the probable hit location.
The circle size was affected by many factors, distance, weapon performance, weather, light levels, skills, stats values, but above all the most important parameter was the sniper's heartbeat.
At each beat the circle would reach its largest diameter, easily surpassing her target's size by over three times, giving only a 30 percent chance of hitting. Afterwards it would slowly shrink until reaching a small dot sized circle centered in the target's chest, assuring a kill-shoot.
And then the cycle would repeat itself, meaning that for the best accuracy the shoot had to be made in the valley between heartbeats. And accuracy was everything for a sniper, least the traceless first bullet that was a sniper greatest advantage was to be lost.
And that was the reason there were so few Snipers on this world. In a completely calm and relaxed state the heart beats 60 times in a minute, resulting in a one second cycle. But under stress that rate cool easily double or triple, making the ability to shoot between the valley of the heartbeats nearly impossible.
The normal player simply couldn't hit in such situations, turning to rapid fire weapons and far closer distances in order to minimize that disadvantage.
'I am ice. I am a machine made of cold ice.' She thought as she drew the coldness of Hecate down to her very core and her heartbeat slowed almost to a halt.
The bullet circle wavering pattern immediately slowed down, while her sense of time appeared to extend. Once, twice, when the circle shrunk for the third time and aligned itself with the heart of the SGI user she pulled the trigger.
A thunderous roar filled the wastelands as Hecate released all her power in a storm of fire, Death in a crystallized form flew forward as the bullet easily broke through the sound barrier in its path towards the target. The recoil forcing the gun backwards as her silent form absorbed the impact.
Perhaps drawn by the flash the SGI user face turned towards her position, only to be immediately hit right in the chest. His avatar breaking down in a shower of polygons as if he were a glass panel struck down by a vengeful god, astonishment clear on his face in the moment it took for him to disappear.
The moment she had shoot her hands had automatically moved and pulled Hecate's bolt handle, ejecting a huge shell with an metallic sound and reloading even before the first target had been hit.
Shifting her rifle slightly to the right the Minimi user appeared on her scope, the bullet circle appearing again and immediately shrinking to a small dot. The first shoot had been made, now every single one of her shoots would release a Bullet Prediction Line, alerting players to the bullet trajectory and her position.
Pulling the trigger once again she released death against her opponent surprised form, counting on the momentary shock and confusion caused by her sudden strike against his teammate to take down her second target.
The bullet hit him straight trough the head, his avatar immediately disappearing while dropping the extremely expensive Minimi as a random drop. Four seconds had passed since the beginning of the battle.
The remaining players immediately rushed towards her position, finally suppressing their shock and pointlessly firing towards her distant form.
Reading another shoot she saw all three of her opponents dive for cover behind a large ruined wall, the first and most obvious cover in their sight.
'Predictable.' She thought with a tinge of annoyance, pulling the trigger once again.
Her bullet sailed above the wall, hitting the small innocent looking round object that was resting on the floor right behind her targets, just where she had left it.
A massive ball of fire enveloped the area as the plasma grenade detonated due to the impact, taking down two of her opponents and throwing the last one away from cover.
Fixing her gaze upon his dazed form she pulled the trigger one last time in order to end this battle, his form disappearing in a shower of polygons before he could even regain his bearings.
Rising to her feet, she proceeded to collect the items her opponents had dropped before starting to walk down the path they had been trailing moments before towards SBC Gurokken, Gun Gale Online central city, her face completely impassive even after such a victory, for it had been just another day, just another battle.
And she would continue to seek those battles, to seek strong opponents, until she could find real strength, until her heart could become as hard as stone and her blood as cold as ice.
She would fight until the day would come that she would be able to shed away her weakness, until the day would come that she would be able to stand atop this world of death and slaughter and face her demons without hesitation, until she could face her past without fear.
Until the day would come when she could face that memory…
In the heavens the sun disappeared beyond the horizon and darkness stood forward to reign once again upon the wastelands, enveloping the sniper's silent form in it's all encompassing mantle.
Taking a look around Kirito had to hold back a sight; he really didn't want to be here in this high class dinner.
Elegant classical music circulated around the dinner area, very well dressed people happily chattered with each other while discretely giving him looks due to the old leather jacket and patched jeans he was wearing.
All in all he felt very out of place, and the fact that he didn't even like the person he was about to meet only added to his sour mood.
"Hey Kirito-kun, over here!" A young man wearing a suit happily called while waving his hand.
Taking a seat without trying to disguise his displeasure Kirito accepted the warm towel offered by a waitress while taking a look at the elegant wooden and leather coated menu.
"Since I made you come all this way it's my treat so order whatever you like." The man said with a sunny disposition while finishing a scrumptious looking cake.
"I would have even if you didn't say anything." Kirito replied sharply while looking down the menu and nearly asking for a plain coffee due to pure reflex upon seeing the extremely high prices on display, before remembering he wouldn't be paying.
After placing his order Kirito turned to the table other occupant, who had finished his cake and was starting upon an enormous pudding covered by a veritable mountain of cream. His happy look made Kirito suspect that he wouldn't be paying the bill directly either.
Kikuoka Seijirou looked like your typical serious and strict Japanese language teacher, with his black frame glasses and tacky haircut. But Kirito knew that despite his looks he was in fact a Japanese government official, belonging to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Advanced Network Division, more widely known as the Virtual Division.
"Yah, Kirito-kun, sorry for calling you in such short notice all this way out here. But then again this place has the best fresh cream I have ever had; perhaps I should order another Cream Puff while we are talking."
"Please stay on topic Kikuoka-san and also, I don't think you have the right to call me Kirito." He said in a matter of fact tone.
"That's so cruel Kirito-kun, wasn't I the first person by your side when you woke up after the incident?" Kikuoka said with fake hurt, not even bothering to stop eating his confection.
Holding back his annoyance Kirito had to acknowledge this fact, for he was indeed the first person to meet him after waking up, and even if his motives at the time had been for far than noble purposes, he had indeed helped him.
"Fine, it's about time you told me why you called me here. Is this about another net crime investigation? If so why couldn't we meet in game as we did the last time?"
Kirito strongly suspected that the new idea of using players as informants in order to find out about what was going on in the many virtual reality games that were constantly appearing had been Kikuoka's idea, after all when something fishy started happening in the VR worlds the players usually took notice far sooner than the administrators.
But what Kirito disliked was the fact that Kikuoka had started using SAO survivors in such capacities, claiming that they had the skill to find out far more than normal players ever could. And he had a strong suspicion that he was about to be asked to do something along those lines.
The two times before, he had been called due to his knowledge about VR programming and the many VR games, but never before had them met in person. Making it look like his role this time would be far more active than that of a mere consultant.
And even worse, while normally he would refused such a proposition in a heartbeat, he owed Kikuoka a huge debt, for it had been him who had informed Kirito of Asuna's hospital location, breaking quite a few rules to do that too.
If he hadn't been able to find Asuna in the real world and seen for himself Sugou Nobuyuki actions regarding his beloved, her rescue could have been delayed and Kirito shuddered to think of what could have happened if that had come to pass.
"Unh tell me Kirito do you think that in game actions can affect a person personality?" Kikuoka said avoiding the question.
"VRMMO games do cause a person to lower some inhibitions that's something that even I recognize, but what's your point?" This was one of the reasons he disliked Kikuoka, he was never direct, always circling around the point instead of going straight to it.
"Well let's take PKing for instance, in most of these games it's just a daily occurrence and taking in account the high level of graphic detail in some of those games wouldn't you say that it could be considered a training ground for murderers? Like that case last November where the criminal made a replica western sword and swung it around Shinjuku Station killing two people?" His voice was curious and light despite the grim topic.
"While it's true that looking at the crime rates around the country that incident barely makes a mark in the percentage of crimes, countermeasures really should be put into place to avoid idiots like that going wild, although I don't know how it would be possible to implement such a thing." Kirito replied uncomfortably due to the direction the conversation was going.
"Hmm… Your milie-feullie looks very good, may I have a bite?" Kikuoka replied with a pensive frown, forcing Kirito to hold back the urge to growl in annoyance before shoving his plate towards him.
"Thank you Kirito-kun." He said happily, already eating the sweet. "Do you remember our last talk? How many players turn to VR games in order to accomplish deeds they were unable to normally achieve and balance their superiority and inferiority complexes?"
"Yes, after all it's human nature to compete, and only by attaining a balance are we able to live our lives with no trouble, even going so far as stuffing our faces with sweets bought with taxpayer's money." Kirito replied with an innocent smile.
"You say such spiteful things so bluntly Kirito-kun." Kikouka said without a hint of embarrassment or hurt. "Oh well, we may have gotten a bit off track but we have reached today's objective. Please take a look at this." He said playing with a tablet before turning it towards Kirito.
The screen showed the picture of a young man with long hair and glasses, along with more information about him and his home.
"This is Shigemura Tamotsu, age 26, found dead in his apartment when his landlord went to check the source of an unpleasant smell. There were no signs of anyone entering his apartment and on his head he was wearing…"
"An AmuSphere I'm guessing." Kirito said with a grin expression.
"That's right; we immediately contacted his family and performed an autopsy to determine the cause of the mysterious death. Cause of death: acute heart failure due to unknown reasons, although it was determined that he hadn't eaten in nearly two days before his death."
Sadly such facts where not uncommon, since eating in game could provide the player with the felling of being full even if the real body hadn't eaten anything, some hardcore players would forsake meals in order to have more free time to play their games, sometimes undergoing serious risk to their health.
"While this is indeed tragic, it's not that uncommon this days, and you would not have called me here to simply discuss such a simple theory. What's up with this case?" Kirito said after making a small prayer for the young man's soul.
"This Shigemura had only one game installed in his AmuSphere, Gun Gale Online. In which he was ranked as the top ranked player in an event realized recently, his character name was Zekushiido." Kikouka said, his face serious for the first time in the meeting. "He died playing the game; in fact he was giving an interview for MMO Stream when it happened."
His words were bringing a feeling of unease to Kirito, even if he couldn't understand precisely why.
"He suffered heart failure during the show and was disconnected; their log recorded everything down to the second. And this is where it gets strange, during the transmission in one of the pubs in GGO central city a player stood up before Zekushiido's image, screamed about death and judgment and fired against the image."
"One player that was recording the program uploaded everything into a video site. The gun was fired at November 9th, at 11:30PM, 02 seconds. Shigemura-kun's disappearance from the show happened at 11:30PM, 09 seconds."
"That is just a coincidence right." Kirito said, taking a spoonful of the second cake he had ordered to counterbalance the bitter taste the topic was bringing to his mouth. "As a top player in the only Japanese game that has Pros in it, is quite likely there were many who disliked him and wouldn't hesitate to vent their frustration on his image since there wouldn't be any consequences."
"Yes that is what I thought, but that was not the only occurrence." He said somberly.
"…What?" Kirito asked unbelievingly, spoon frozen in place halfway to his mouth.
"There were two more deaths, let's skip the gory details but both died from sudden heart failures with no apparent cause. Both while connected to their AmuSpheres while playing GGO."
"Both were high level players in that game, Usujio Tarako and Kurama were their avatar names. Both suddenly disconnected from the game after being shot by an unknown player while inside the central city, an area were all damage should be immediately nullified."
"The Gunman is the same one from the Zekushiido incident?" Kirito asked trying to piece the puzzle together.
"Possibly, after all words like justice and death were again spoken by a character presenting himself with the same name Death Gun, just like with Zekushiido, but since the information was retrieved from a net forum thread its authenticity leaves much to be desired."
"A Death… Gun…" Kirito said slowly, pushing his plate to the side, all appetite for the expensive desserts lost. Repeating the name in his mind he couldn't help but think that, no matter how much the name might have been intended as a joke, it spoke of a coldness, a disregard for life, that somehow spoke about the player's character.
"You are sure they all died of heart failure? No brain damage?" Kirito asked for clarification, making a humorless smile to appear on Kikouka's face.
"Yeah I thought the same think, but no. The forensics team found no sign of brain damage, absolutely no abnormalities. Point in fact they could find nothing wrong physically that could explain the heart failures."
"Also an extensive research with the makers of the AmuSphere also turned up nothing. There is absolutely no way it could cause direct harm to the user, much less an sudden heart failure, at least as far as we know."
"…You did your homework for this meeting, huh, Kikouka-san? Is it an accident you managed to do your work by looking through passing rumors?" Kirito asked while looking as Kikouka's serious expression quickly disappeared, hidden behind his goofy smile.
Listening to his silly excuses Kirito thought once more that there was more to this government official than meets the eye, and not for the first time he wondered if Kikouka didn't actually work for the Department of National Security.
"…Anyway, regarding this case, I think the chances are over 90% that it's either an coincidence or a hoax, and that's why we need to disprove it before things escalate out of control. After all there is no way to hurt someone trough the AmuSphere, it's impossible, right Kirito-kun?"
"It seems you already investigated all the possibility's and picked the brains of the ministry elites. Why are you bringing this debate to me?" Kirito asked, trying to reason why he was being asked this.
"No, no, that's not it. Kirito-kun way of thinking is really stimulating and is always such a great help and also I like talking with you."
"But I don't like talking with you. Based on all that we know it's impossible to induce a heart failure from inside a game, therefore their deaths were coincidental. Good Bye and thank you for your hospitality." Kirito curtly replied getting up and turning around to leave.
He had a feeling that he had to leave for if the topic continued it wouldn't end in anything pleasant for him.
"Waaa, wait, wait! From here own is the real main topic! You can order another cake, just stay with me a moment longer please." Kikouka said in a frantic manner, stopping Kirito's retreat.
"Well I'm relieved Kirito-kun reached the same conclusion, I also thought such a thing was impossible. That said I do need a favor…"
'Here it comes.' Kirito thought with a grimace, knowing he should have left while he had the chance.
"Can you log into Gun Gale Online, and contact this Death Gun guy?" He asked with an innocent smile.
"Contact him? Why not be open about it Kikouka-san. Go get shot by this Death Gun and see if your heart stops you mean! Go and see if that works yourself." Kirito replied in a cold voice, rising once again.
"Earlier we both decide that can't be real." Kikouka said while grabbing Kirito's sleeve in order to stop him from leaving. "And based on his three targets he only targets strong players, all three of them were top level players. Even if I tried it would take me years to get even near that level, but if it was you…" He trailed off meaningfully.
"GGO is not that easy, not with all the Pros that play it." Kirito snapped back.
"That er, what does Pro mean? You said it earlier as well."
"…It literally means people who make their daily income from the game. Gun Gale Online is the only game among the VRMMO gender that has a game coin to real money conversion system." Kirito reluctantly explained, feeling that by doing so he was being drawn into Kikouka's pace.
"Really? But how can it stay in business that way? Company workers and Staff are not exactly volunteers right?" He asked, sounding genuinely curious.
"Just because it's possible doesn't mean all players manage to make money that way. The monthly fee for GGO is unusually high for a VRMMO, costing 3.000 yen, while an average player only manages to make a tenth of that value in a month. Only the top level players truly manage to earn money that way, while the masses of mid and low level players pay the price so to speak. And that's the reason I said there is quite a lot of resentment between players there, since you could say that the lower levels pay for the play time of the higher ones. It's similar to a government official eating stupidly expensive cakes with taxpayer's money." Kirito deadpanned.
"As usual Kirito-kun says things in such a harsh manner, I like that part of you." He said with a smile, completely unbothered the accusation.
"For those reasons the high level crowd in GGO can't be compared to most MMOs, and it's a game that deals around guns as the main form of combat, which I know next to nothing about. My condolences but you will have to find someone else to do your bidding."
"Wait you are the only one amidst my contacts that could do this, and it's not like we would simply throw you to the wolfs so to speak, you would dive from a hospital room under constant surveillance, so that you could be immediately removed from the game if something appeared to be happening. Besides if it's really that difficult and burdensome you could treat it as a job, a paid compensation for joint investigation you could say." Kikouka said releasing my sleeve and writing a number on a napkin.
The number made Kirito shudder, with that value he could easily buy all the newest high tier computer equipment that had just been released and there would still be plenty left to indulge in buying things for Asuna,Yui and Koneko. But at the same time the amount also made him narrow his eyes in suspicion.
"Don't lead me on Kikouka-san, why are you so obsessed with this? You said it yourself that it's probably an impossibility, just a wild rumor."
Instead of immediately answering, Kikouka started to fix his glasses, clearly buying time to think how much he would tell Kirito.
"Actually, my superiors are the one who are concerned. Full Dive technology is still in its infancy but its possibilities are already being felt." He said with a serious voice.
"It will be the driving power of our age but its freshness also brings along a level of uncertainty, while it's clearly impossible for this attacks to be real, if the rumor that it's possible to kill using the Full Dive was to spread the fear of the unknown would do the rest and bring it to an end. And so this matter must be brought to a close before that happens." He said in a serious voice.
"That unrest would be only amplified by the fact that the base program used in GGO is that SEED program that appeared on the net no one really knows how and is used in most of today games. I won't ask you to do something unreasonable, but we could really use your impression from meeting this player."
And upon hearing those words Kirito started to silently curse himself for not leaving when he had the chance. Realizing that he had been pushed into a situation in which he simply couldn't say no.
Besides himself only Agil knew the origin of the VRMMO development support package The SEED, or how it had come to be released for free on the internet.
If there was truly a way to interfere from the virtual world into the real world, and The SEED was the cause for that it was his responsibility to prevent its misuse, since he was the one to unleash it into the world.
The very idea seemed ludicrous, completely impossible. There was absolutely no way a VR game could influence reality in such a way.
'But a couple of months ago I would say the same about the existence of devils.' Kirito thought grimly. 'And before Aincrad I would say the same about being trapped in a virtual reality death game made by a crazy genius.'
'Could it be possible that the incident that started so long ago has yet to end? Kayaba had been striving to create a new reality and not just a game. Could this be the result?'
His thoughts drifted to an interview he had seen during the Beta, an interview in which Kayaba explained the origin of the name Aincrad.
In his words the world of SAO was to be a first step in a journey to transform the imaginary into fact, to turn dreams into reality.
And so the great floating castle that would soon be explored would be the first step into what he called 'The Realized World'. That great castle was to be the true beginning of a new world; it was supposed to be An Incarnating Radius, Aincrad.
Kirito had to know. Even if the idea was an impossibility he had seem with his own eyes the impossible being turned into reality.
Looking towards Kikouka he felt like growling in annoyance, the smirk on his face showing that the government official had known all along that in the end Kirito simply wouldn't say no.
"…I understand. As annoying as it is, if it's only entering the game I will go. But I don't know whether or not I will meet this Death Gun that is if he even exists."
"Oh didn't I mention it earlier?" He asked innocently. "During the first incident a player took an audio log of Death Gun's little speech. Here by all means listen."
Cursing Kikouka with all his being, Kirito grabbed the earphones offered and listened.
"This is real power, real strength! Face justice and engrave the fear of this name in your hearts!"
"This gun's name and mine: Death Gun!"
The metallic sound that accompanied the voice as it spoke tinged it with a somewhat inhuman feeling.
And yet, from behind the voice Kirito could feel the presence of the living player behind the character, a presence that spoke of the cold desire to kill, the genuine wish for slaughter.
I seriously underestimated the length it would be necessary to explain what was happening and deliver the quest to Kirito. Nevertheless to cut that off would leave the story hanging in the air in my opinion.
Kikouka and Kirito's discussion was necessary to both explain and set the pace for GGO, but somehow this made me feel like I was doing an intro to a Star Wars movie, quickly explaining the background story in the first scene so the next scene could immediately cut to a space battle of epic proportions.
Those who have read the light novel will immediately see both the similarities and the differences in their discussion. Differences that I hope to build upon in order to implement my own ideas for the GGO arc.
Thanks for reading, and please review.