Duty

Aug 29, 2023

As far as size is concerned, Rosenburg is the third-largest city in all of Infinity Saga Online. Despite this, it still has a less significant permanent population compared to much smaller cities, like Paros or Seljuq. This is not to say that Rosenburg is scarcely populated. Indeed, on good days, there are more players passing through Rosenburg than both those cities combined.

However, unlike cities with designated housing zones like Paros or Seljuq—both of which have immense steady player populations—the majority of people inside Rosenburg at any given time are transient and rarely stay very long.

It has been suggested [attribution required] that this is because, as a starting city, players are often keen to ‘move on’ to somewhere new. However, a more plausible explanation may be that the fluctuating population is due to Rosenburg being one of the few cities in Hyperlia with a functioning seaport big enough to moor the Company-class trading ships that handle the majority of ISO’s trade. As such an important trading crossroads, while there is always a steady stream of players coming and going, it’s rare that they stay much longer than it takes to sell their wares, pick up new ones, and move on.

Rosenburg is famous for its good weather, having the most guild buildings in Hyperlia, and as the only place in the game world where players can purchase Scions.

Manami stared at the text on her phone, her eyes starting to glaze over. How could you even use a word like ‘population’ to describe a virtual city? Or for that matter compare it to other virtual cities?

And that wasn’t even the half of it. Honestly, the level of detail that the blogs and wikis went into was ridiculous. The way people talked about it, you could almost believe that it wasn’t just some collection of virtual shapes and numbers stored online somewhere. People treated the game like it was real.

“Manami, are you coming to karaoke?”

She was so surprised that she let out a little yelp. The three girls who had snuck up on her giggled. Manami was sitting at her desk at school. It looked like the end of day meeting had already wrapped up without her realizing. The announcements were over and at the front of the class, the class representative, Ayane, had finished reading out the duty roster for the next day. Everybody around her was packing their things away for the day, getting ready to go home, or making plans for what to do next.

“What are you looking at?” One of the girls leaned in closer. She was wearing a cute fox mask with a long white snout that covered her entire face.

“N-nothing.” Manami slid her phone into her skirt pocket.

“Eh?” Another girl, wearing an owl mask, laughed and wrapped her arms around Manami’s shoulders. “I don’t believe it. She’s been looking at her phone all day.”

Manami cringed.

“Ah! I know! She was mailing a boy!” The third girl laughed. She was wearing a bright-green frog mask with big cartoon eyes and a bright pink tongue that poked out from one side of its broad smile. It always reminded Manami of the Fujiya mascot.

“A-as if!” Manami squeaked and was glad for a change that she was wearing a mask.

“I can still see your ears turning red, Manamin!” the fox pointed out.

“Yay! Yay! Manamin! Manamin! Manamin found a boyfriend!” the owl cheered in a feathery voice. She clapped her hands together and hugged Manami even tighter.

“Oh be quiet, all of you!” Manami hushed. “I wasn’t sending mail to a boy.” Not that she was going to tell them more than that. The truth was that she’d been reading about an MMO all day, which in a lot of ways was probably more embarrassing. “I was just reading.”

The girls didn’t seem satisfied leaving it at that, but the fox shushed them. “Alright, alright, we won’t pry. But you’re my wife, Manamin. I won’t stand for boys making moves on you!” She crouched down by Manami’s desk, sweeping her skirt behind her knees with one hand. “So what about karaoke? Are you coming?”

“I…”

These three girls were her best friends. Kumi the fox, Lisa the owl, and Yoko the frog. She’d met them when they were all first-year students and they’d been together ever since then. She loved them dearly, which was why she hated to keep secrets from them now. But her father had specifically told her not to say anything about Reiko or what was going on.

“Sorry Kumi.” Manami pouted. “I can’t. Really. I have to go home early.”

“Again?” Lisa leaned her chin on Manami’s shoulder. “I’m starting to think maybe you’re lying about the boyfriend thing, though.”

“I-I’m not! I swear!” Manami laughed it off and squirmed out of Lisa’s embrace. “I just have to study a lot is all. My parents have really been giving me hell about it since they got my last test results.”

That was true, technically; though that wasn’t the only reason her parents wanted her to come back earlier.

“Manami’s tests results have always been terrible.” Yoko sighed. Her frog mask kept on grinning anyway.

“Yoko,” Manami whined. “You don’t have to say it like that.”

“Alright, alright!” Kumi threw her hands up. “We get it! No karaoke! But you’ll come out to play sometime, right?”

“R-right,” Manami agreed reluctantly.

It wasn’t like she didn’t want to, but her father had told her specifically to come straight back home after school. She had barely been able to convince them not to send someone to pick her up from the gates every day. That really would have been a disaster.

“We’ll hold you to it. It’s already summer, Manamin. We want to go shopping for swimsuits soon. You’ll at least come with us then, won’t you?”

“I…” Manami’s shoulders hunched forward. “I’ll see. I’ll… I’ll ask.”

Kumi let out a theatrical sigh and stroked Manami’s hair. “Aaah! Such a difficult child! Alright, well if you’re supposed to be getting home you shouldn’t be sitting there staring into your phone, should you?”

“Ah, mm.”

“She’s really out of it, our Manamin.” Lisa leaned in and squeezed her middle.

“Oof! Cut it out!” Manami giggled.

Why can’t things just be like this all the time?

Manami unplugged her tablet from the dock on her desk, slid it into her bag, and stood up, making sure to push her chair back in neatly. Together, the four girls walked out of their classroom. Outside, the hallways were all spotless, the floors shone as though they’d just been waxed. Above them, long lines of LED panels ran from one end of the corridor to the other. Other students floated about in groups, laughing, pushing one another, comparing notes. Others walked on their own, heads down, trying to get out as quickly as possible. Manami listened to the other girls joke and chatter while they came down the two flights of stairs to the first floor. They walked together along another corridor to the big entrance at the front of the school, filled with tightly packed rows of shoe lockers.

There were a few other third-year students around when they arrived, chatting happily before they headed home. Even though the first- and second-year students would still be busy starting their after-school club activities for the day, the third-year students were done with all that. The last of their tournaments, competitions, and presentations had already passed. From now on, though technically they were supposed to be focusing on their studies for the high school entrance exams, they were free to do what they wanted after school.

“Are you sure you can’t come out for a little? Just a little?” Yoko pulled on Manami’s arm as they came to the row of lockers set aside for their class.

“I want to, Yoko, I just I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Manamin! Manamin!” Lisa hooted suddenly and pulled at her other arm.

“Manami! Manami!” Yoko joined in, chanting her name.

“Go on, stop bothering her.” Kumi brushed them both off. “You’re going to tear her in two. Manamin, don’t worry about it.” The fox-masked girl grinned at her. “You’ll come on the weekend, though, right? We never see you anymore lately.”

“I…” She had no idea if her father would let her do something like that. “I’ll see.”

Manami took her outside shoes from her locker and dropped them on the floor when she felt a strange kind of chill. Like somebody had run a finger along her back. When she looked up, she saw a boy from one of the other classes, standing almost right behind her. He wasn’t wearing a mask, so Manami could see his thin, pale face and his strange expression, his mouth half open, as though he were going to say something. Eyes locked onto her. She took half a step backward without thinking and bumped into Kumi.

“What’s this?” Kumi looked over Manami’s shoulder. When she saw the boy, she hissed at him and stomped at the ground with one foot. “What are you staring at!? Get lost!”

Like he’d been slapped, the boy lurched back into his locker, which clattered loudly. He jumped back, quickly slammed it closed, and hurried out the front exit. The boys who had been standing next to him laughed at his back and Kumi growled at him until he was out of sight.

“Kumi?” Lisa leaned in. “What was that?”

“Hah!” Kumi clenched her fists. “Just some creep from the next class over staring at Manamin with rape eyes.”

“Eh? For real? Who?” Yoko hopped over to get a better look, but the boy, whoever he was, was long gone.

“No idea.” Kumi shrugged. “Just a face.”

“Maybe he likes Manami?” Yoko put her hand on top of Manami’s head.

“Hmph!” Kumi folded her arms. “Then he shouldn’t be such a stalker about it.”

To which Lisa quietly chuckled. “Manami really is Kumi’s wife.”

“I’m sure it was nothing…” Manami laughed it off. To be fair, as far as creepy was concerned, if that was as bad as things ever got she felt like her life would be a lot less complicated.

“I better get going,” she said apologetically.

“Do you want us to come with you?” Kumi asked.

“No, that’s okay. I’m riding straight home, so I’ll be fine. You guys go enjoy yourselves.” And she skipped out to the entrance.

“Be careful, Manamin!” Lisa waved at her from the lockers.

With a little wave to her friends, she darted down the front steps of the school. Just like the hallways, they were bright and spotless. Not a single crack or chip. The whole school was like that. It had only been built a few years ago. Everything else around here, too. At this point, almost two thirds of Shinjuku had been rebuilt entirely from scratch. You wouldn’t have thought to look at it, but just five years ago most of this area had still been hidden behind those giant yellow walls you could still see all over Tokyo.

Manami walked out the front entrance and across the car park to a small covered bicycle lock-up nestled against one of the school walls. There were other students here too, walking alone, standing in small groups. She could dimly hear the first- and second-years doing their warm-ups, running laps around the school perimeter.

Her bike was where she’d left it. She unlocked the rear wheel, threw her bag into the basket bolted to the front handlebars, and she was off.

Manami rang the bell as the got to the gate, and then she was on the main street. A broad avenue running through a cozy suburban-mix zone, with lots of houses and small shops. She passed by other students wearing the same uniform as her, dark grey skirts and pants, shirts decorated with red and yellow trim. It was too hot for blazers. Some of them were in masks, others not.

After she had ridden for a maybe a dozen blocks, as close to her house as she dared go, Manami pulled off to one side and stopped her bike. She wheeled it next to a vending machine tucked into a narrow alley between two small buildings. Quickly looking over her shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, she reached up and slipped off her mask.

The breeze sneaking into the alley felt cool and pleasant, and for a second she stood there, straddling her bicycle with her eyes closed, enjoying the feel of it on her face.

I need to get going.

Manami reached into the basket, unzipped her bag, and carefully put her mask inside.

It was a little plain, she thought, but it was cute. The others had told her it was cute. A cat with rounded, triangle-shaped ears and whiskers painted on in silver. It peered back up at her from inside her bag. The face she wore at school. Manami unfolded a small handkerchief she kept in her bag and laid it over the mask. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if her father caught her with something like that.

She walked her bike back out of the alley and, with a quick look to make sure nobody was in the way, she pushed her foot into the pedals and took off again, the tall wheels ticking softly as she rode down the clean, empty streets.

From here, the way home got much greener, as she began to ride around one edge of Yoyogi park. Tall trees didn’t just reach out from inside the park itself, but grew from between buildings.

It hadn’t been like this before the Reformation, not that she was old enough to remember if it had. But everyone said so. Her father talked about it a lot. He liked to say the three trees were brought in from outside Tokyo, all the way from Aomori. Trees from other prefectures had been planted in other wards of Tokyo, but Shinjuku got the ones from Aomori.

This whole place used to be filled with malls and tall buildings, but now there were a lot more small shops, houses, and parks.

As Manami pulled into the street that led home, she was a little displeased to see a shiny black sedan parked outside her house. That audacious vehicle was hard to miss, even from a mile away. She stopped pedaling and let her bike coast on its own, slowly bridging the gap between her and the sedan while she tried to rehearse what she was going to say when she got inside.

When she arrived, she pushed past the front gate, stood her bike up close to the side of the house, and walked quietly to the front door, peeking her head inside. She could hear voices coming from the living room. Manami closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then stepped inside.

“I’m home,” she called out half-heartedly. Manami shuffled out of her school shoes and stepped up out of the genkan, the small lowered area at the entrance of her house. As she crouched to spin her shoes around, toes facing toward the door, her eyes lingered on a pair of dark black loafers, so shiny she could see her face in them. They would be his.

From the living room, she heard her mother call to her.

“Ah, welcome back, Mana. Come here a minute, would you?”

Manami took another deep breath, then walked down the corridor and meekly stood in the entrance of the living room. Just like she’d been expecting, her cousin was sitting cross-legged on one side of the squat little table they kept in the middle of the living room. Her mother was kneeling on the other side. He was wearing that same type of charcoal suit he always seemed to have on.

“Don’t just stand there, come in and say hello.” Her mother waved her forward.

As Manami walked in, her cousin looked up at her through his thin-rimmed glasses, little shards of blue glass that seemed to hover in front of his eyes. Eyes that were always a little too distant. It never really mattered how close he was standing, it always felt to Manami like he was looking at you from somewhere far off.

“Hello Mana,” he said, voice like ice. “You’re looking lovely today. The school uniform suits you.”

“Ah, th-thanks…” Manami forced a smile. It annoyed her when he called her that. She felt it was too familiar of him, even if they were technically family.

“Ukyo just stopped by to talk about…” Manami’s mother seemed to falter.

“I just wanted to see if I could do something is all. We’re all very concerned about Reiko’s disappearance. The main family appreciates your being discreet about the matter, but that doesn’t mean we’re not worried,” Ukyo finished for her. He turned back to Manami. “Why don’t you join us, Mana?”

“I… Ah… Sorry, I have to study…”

“Manami, don’t be rude in front of your cousin. You should—”

“No, no, it’s alright,” Ukyo interrupted. “She’s right. She should study. You’re getting ready for your high school entrance exams, aren’t you Mana?”

“I… Yes…” Manami’s eyes darted about. Her hands were together in front of her, fingers fidgeting with the folds of her skirt.

“You need to make sure you study hard if you want to get into a good high school, isn’t that so?”

“Y-yes…”

There was something about how he said it that really didn’t sit right with her, but it wasn’t like Ukyo ever said anything that sat right with her.

“If you need help with anything, I’d be happy to come up and—”

“I-I’m fine! I mean… Thank you, but I should learn these things for myself…” she muttered.

Ukyo grinned at her, his eyes narrow. His teeth looked small and pointy. It was all Manami could do not to bolt up the stairs to her room there and then.

From across the table, Manami’s mother smiled graciously. “You’re such a good boy, Ukyo. I’m sorry about Manami. And Reiko. I know you’re being troubled by the whole thing.”

“Not at all…” He turned his attention away from Manami. At least for now she was out of the picture.

“W-well… Excuse me… I need to…” Manami mumbled.

“Yes, do what you want.” Her mother waved her off absently.

Slowly shuffling backwards, Manami moved out of sight, then dashed up the stairs to the second story as quickly as she could without making a racket.

As she walked past Reiko’s room, she quietly opened the door and poked her head in, just like she had every day for a while now. The room was still empty. Everything was where she’d left it. University notes, a script for work, odds and ends. It looked like she’d just stepped out for a bit.

Manami quietly closed the door again and shuffled across to her room. She let her bag slide over her shoulder onto the carpet and sat on her bed, feeling way more tired than she thought she should have been. She pulled her legs up and hugged her knees.

What a creep.

Manami had never liked Ukyo. Not since the first time she’d met him. She hated the way he looked at her. The way his touches would linger on her shoulder, her arm, the way his eyes always drifted down to the hemline of her skirt. Just thinking about him gave her goosebumps.

But the main family was rich and all of them influential. Ukyo wasn’t even thirty, but he was already a big shot at a computer company that did a lot of work for the government. Her father had said something like that, anyway. Manami didn’t really know what he did and she didn’t want to find out.

A little while ago her parents had been talking about marrying him and Reiko, but Reiko didn’t want to hear anything about it. She hated him even more than Manami did. Whenever it came up, she’d just ignored them. She’d been so busy with her work that for a while it didn’t really seem to matter. It looked like Ukyo was out of the picture. But then Reiko disappeared.

Manami took her phone out of her skirt pocket and clicked the power switch with her index finger. The screen came to life, still on the wiki she’d been reading at school.

Infinity Saga Online.

Was it stupid of her to look for Reiko in that world? She had done it because it felt like the only thing she could do. It wasn’t as though she’d actually expected it to lead anywhere.

But then she’d met Gin, who said he’d actually seen her.

Maybe Reiko really had just run away…

But if she still had the time to play games…

It didn’t sound like she was playing a game, though.

Manami groaned and flopped backward on her bed. She didn’t know what she should be doing anymore.

“Maybe I’m just wasting my time,” she said to herself.

And yet…

If there was even a slim chance that she might find Reiko, wasn’t it worth it?

She pushed herself off her bed and sat down at her small study desk. Her computer was closed in front of her. Behind that, on a raised shelf, the helmet was still sitting where she’d left it last night. It was dull grey, with a round dome of gold-tinted glass folded over the top. Kind of like a motorcycle helmet. It wasn’t hers. It had been… No, it was Reiko’s. She was just borrowing it until she came back.

The pink alarm clock on her desk said it was just after five. Still four more hours.

Why do I feel so restless?

She lurched out of her chair and knelt down to get her tablet out of her bag. Carefully, she made sure the cat mask was properly covered with the handkerchief. For the next hour or so, she tapped through the reading that the teachers had set for the next day and answered the AI generated questions the tablet spat at her.

At some point, when she was about halfway finished, she heard the front door opening, then closing. Tentatively, she stood and walked over to the window to peek through the curtains.

Ukyo stalked through their garden to that enormous black sedan he’d left at the front of the house. There was a dull whine you could hear even through the window as he started the engine and then drove away. Manami let the curtains fall and breathed out in relief. It put her on edge just having him in the same house. Not long after that, her mother called her down for dinner.

“Father’s busy tonight, so he won’t be back until late.”

They ate in the kitchen, sitting at a large table with tall wooden chairs. Her mother put the dishes between their seats. “You shouldn’t be so rude to Ukyo, Manami.”

“Yes, Mother.” Manami pulled her chair in and looked glumly at her food.

“His family has always been very good to ours.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And you know he goes out of his way to be nice to you.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“It wouldn’t have hurt for you to come sit down with us.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“You should have let him help you study. You know that Ukyo always had excellent grades.”

Manami looked up at her mother, but couldn’t quite say anything.

“What is it, Manami?”

She bit her lip and toyed with the piece of tofu in front of her. “I… I don’t like how he looks at me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “Frankly, after the mess with… with Reiko running away, I just don’t know how he still tolerates us.”

“Reiko didn’t want to marry him.”

“Manami, enough.” Her mother’s voice sounded strained. “That was her duty and she ran away from it.”

“But we don’t know if—!”

“She ran away from it.” Her mother looked up at her with cold eyes. “Manami, you will not run away from your duty either. Do you understand me?”

Manami bit her lip again and looked back down at her dinner.

“Yes, Mother.”

They ate in silence after that.

When they were done, Manami put the dirty dishes in the sink, spun the taps and let water run over them while she covered the portions for her father in plastic wrap. Maybe he’d eat when he got home. Ever since Reiko disappeared, he’d been staying at the office longer. But even before then it had been a while since they’d all eaten together.

She could hear her mother filling the bath tub. Manami looked at the dishes in front of her.

My duty.

What did they expect of her? What had her parents expected from Reiko? Had they seriously thought somebody as independent as Reiko would just nod her head and marry a creep like Ukyo? Arranged marriages even legally enforceable. She could just say no.

Ukyo.

Somehow, thinking of him reminded her of the boy at school this afternoon, the way he’d been staring at her. Manami shook it out of her head and put her wash gloves on.

From the hallway she heard her mother call out, “Mana! You hop in the bath when it’s full!”

“Yes Mother,” she said probably loud enough to be heard and finished washing up, concentrating on the sensation of cool water rushing over her hands.

When she was done, she stacked the dishes on the kitchen counter and shot down the hall to the bathroom.

“I’m getting in!” she called out, already slipping out of her uniform. She tossed her blouse and underwear into one of the clothes baskets next to the washing machine. Her skirt she neatly folded and put to one side. She’d let it air out and then wear it again the day after tomorrow. Washing it now would be a waste.

Manami twisted her hair and tied it over her head, opened the door to the bath area and stepped inside. It was cloudy with steam. She washed herself quickly, splashing soap and water under her arms and around her privates. She quickly rinsed off, and lowered herself gingerly into the tub.

The water was hot.

Manami she just sat there, water around her neck, staring at the steam collect into droplets on the ceiling. The window above the bath was open just a little to let a breeze in, and she could hear cicadas from nearby.

She splashed her hand gently on the surface of the water.

By the time she changed into her pajamas and got back upstairs, it was already eight o’clock. Manami sat back down at her desk and tapped her fingers over the top of the helmet. The glass visor felt cold and smooth.

I should finish my homework.

But she didn’t particularly want to keep Gin and the others waiting if she could help it. What if she got lost? What if they left without her? Not that she really knew what they were going to do anyway. They might not even be waiting for her after all.

Manami turned on the air conditioning with the remote by her computer, then picked the helmet up with both hands. It felt light. The first time she’d seen it, she’d wondered how it didn’t hurt your neck leaving it on for so long. But when she held it in her hands, it really didn’t seem heavy at all. She set it on her lap while she cleared her desk and pulled her computer open.

It’s not like I was really going to study anyway.

When she clicked on it, the Infinity Saga Online icon on her desktop bounced once, twice, and then the welcome screen appeared. A large image of a peaceful field with a grey brick castle in the background. There were no buttons, just a small prompt in one corner.

Manami wriggled the Whips that had been lying on her desk into her ears, and lifted the helmet over her head. When she tipped the glass dome over her face, everything went out of focus. There was a little hum as the system turned itself on, and then a refreshing sensation as the cooling system kicked in.

From deep inside the helmet she heard a little chime, then she saw the same view of the castle on a hill, only now there with buttons that hadn’t been visible before, floating a few inches above her screen. The largest was floating right in front of her. An ornate rectangle, its edges gilded with interwoven patterns, flourished with thin gold lines.

Login

She reached out and tapped it.

Books 1 & 2 Available On Amazon

Want to get ahead of the re-serialized version? Have no faith in my ability to maintain the release schedule? I feel you. Really I do.

Lucky you! The first two books of Infinity Saga Online were originally published as The Ghost, and are available from Amazon. To buy a copy for Kindle or in paperback follow the links below:

🇺🇸 amazon.com
🇯🇵 amazon.co.jp
🇦🇺 amazon.com.au
🇬🇧 amazon.co.uk