Aug 3, 2023

“So then what happened?”

“Then I kind of looked around a bit and I couldn’t really find her anywhere. So I logged out.”

Hamada, who played as Lala in the game, leaned his elbows on the table between them and rested his enormous chin in his meaty fingers. “So?”

Matsuoka wasn’t sure how he was supposed to answer. “What do you mean ‘so’? Don’t you think it’s really weird?”

“It’s weird, sure. But so what? A lot of things are weird in that game.”

In Hyperlia, Lala was a lithe, elegant warrior with cunning purple eyes. In real life, Hamada was just a big guy with a beard. He had an old, beaten-up Intel baseball cap pulled over his thick curly hair and was wearing an elaborate Gundam t-shirt stretched over his broad stomach so the robots looked out of shape. From beside them, Seki looked up from a copy of Newtype.

“Maybe it was a scripted event?”

Just like Hamada and Matsuoka, Seki was a first-year software engineering student at the Tokyo Denki University. He had been in Hyperlia a few times, but he hadn’t really taken to it the way Matsuoka and Hamada did. He preferred American-style military games to Infinity Saga Online’s fantasy setting.

“You know, like some part of a quest or something.”

They were sitting around a concrete table in the middle of a raised promenade that ran around the edge of the college. It was just after six, and though lectures were done for the day, there were still a lot of students around, getting ready for late tutorials or heading to the labs. Others still were just milling about wasting time, or like the three of them, waiting for the nearby over-rail station to clear out before heading home.

Matsuoka shook his head. “There were no prompts or stat updates or anything. I double checked all my logs, just in case. There’s no way it had anything to do with a quest.”

“It might have been a part of somebody else’s quest?” Seki shrugged his bony shoulders. He was one of those people who looked like they’d be blown away if there was ever a strong breeze. “That’s plausible, isn’t it? I mean, maybe you were catching somebody else’s non-int.”

“That doesn’t make sense. If it really was a non-interactive sequence, then why was she interacting with me?” Matsuoka wrinkled his nose. “And anyway, there wasn’t anyone else there, so why would something like that trigger?”

“Could have been a bug,” Seki offered.

“But she called my name.

“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bug. And anyway, what’s so weird about that? It’s not hard to synthesize a character name or anything.”

“My real name.”

“A hack, then?” Seki asked.

Hamada leaned back and looked at him dubiously. “At Zero-Zero? No way. And besides, who would hack in and then do something like that?” The robots on his t-shirt buckled and warped.

“I… I think it was another player.”

Across the table, Seki chuckled. “I’ll give you that it sounds like it was another player. A pretty messed up player. Are you sure that’s what she said? All that stuff about being lost?”

“Something like that.” Matsuoka said. “She definitely said the thing about Tokyo. I’m sure about that.”

“And she was wearing a hospital gown?”

“Something that looked like a hospital gown,” Hamada interjected, index finger extended to make the point. “It might just have been a costume we don’t know about yet.”

“Mmm.” Matsuoka kind of doubted it. Having played for so long, at this point it felt like if there were a costume like that somewhere, he’d have run into it by now.

“But why Tokyo?” Seki was reading an interview with a voice actor, or a singer, or something. From where Matsuoka was sitting, he could see the photo of some girl beaming a false smile up at the camera. She had one of those generic idol faces, the type that felt familiar because you saw them all the time.

“It does sound like a prank,” Hamada offered.

“If it was, then it was a pretty elaborate one. I mean, that thing with the arms.” He shuddered. “Bleuagh, gives me the creeps thinking about it. It didn’t even feel like it was a part of the same game.”

“It might have been a promotional crossover,” Seki suggested without looking up from his magazine. “Maybe a horror game set in Japan? Maybe you walked in on an event that wasn’t supposed to happen yet? Maybe they were doing a live test?”

“I’ve never seen a crossover in ISO before. And besides, don’t you think it would have been something a little more… I don’t know, in the same genre at least? Besides, you’d think they’d have test servers specifically for that stuff.”

Seki shrugged. “You would think, but I’ll bet the developers at Zero-Zero are overworked enough they’ve pushed straight onto prod before.”

Hamada snorted. “Doubt it. A company that big wouldn’t push anything onto a production server without it clearing a billion tests first.”

“Hmm?” Seki looked up over the edge of his magazine. “Would it even be possible to write a test case for an MMO?”

“You can write a test for anything.”

Matsuoka rubbed his temples. “I feel we’re getting away from the point here. And anyway, there was just something about it that didn’t feel like it was a test, or a prank, or anything.”

Hamada looked back from Seki at Matsuoka. “Then what?”

This was the precise question he’d been wrestling with all last night. “I don’t know. I guess maybe I think it was a real girl.”

They both laughed at him.

“Well, that’s what I think.”

Hamada snorted. “Man, I don’t think there even are any real girls in Hyperlia. My rule is: if you see a girl, they’re a dude like me.”

Coming from Hamada, there was an air of authority in that statement which bordered on depressing.

“Girls play these games too.”

Seki sniggered. “Not that you’d ever know. Hamada might be right. Even if that was a real person, it might have been another big fat guy like him. For all you know it was him.”

Matsuoka shook his head again. “I don’t believe it. You didn’t see her. The way she was talking. It was like she was really scared. It was like… like she didn’t know where she was.”

“Alright, then, let’s just assume for a second it’s actually a real person and not a hack or bug or anything else. Then it’s gotta be someone you know, right?”


“Okay, how many people in the game know your real name?”

“Besides you?”

“Yes genius, besides me.”

“Just one.”

“That makes things easy then. Why don’t you just send them a PM and ask?”

Matsuoka let his head drop into his hands. “That’s the thing. The girl I saw looked nothing like that person’s avatar. And anyway, she stopped playing a few years ago.”

He stopped playing a few years ago,” Seki corrected.

“I searched for her player name to see if she was active again, but…” He shook his head.

“If the avatar was different maybe they were using a different account?” Seki offered.

“I guess? But why would they do that?”

“Why did they stop playing in the first place?”

Matsuoka leaned over the table. “I don’t know. I logged in maybe a year back and found a note in my inventory saying she couldn’t keep playing. She was party leader too, so our group was dissolved as well.”

“Maybe she just blocked you?”

“She didn’t!” Matsuoka sat up straight, then felt his cheeks flushing. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“Alright, so what about the other party members? They know anything?”

“I mailed them last night, but…”

“Let me guess, they unfriended you too.”

“They didn’t unfriend me, they just haven’t gotten back to me yet!”

“Brilliant. So your plan is what, log in and run around aimlessly?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Well that’s great. You know, all that aside, just theoretically, let’s say this player is someone you used to know. Well, then.” He shrugged. “So what?”

Matsuoka’s lips pressed together as he realized he didn’t really know what he wanted to say to that.

“Right. Look, it’s weird, sure. Creepy, sure. But more than that? You should probably just forget about it. We have more important things to do anyway, like Yuru’s quest? So, we don’t do anything. Agreed? All good? Good. Anyway, the station’s probably cleared out by now, so we should quit hanging out here.”

Seki shoved his magazine into his bag and stood up. “I’ve gotta go line up for something anyway.”

Not feeling even remotely satisfied, Matsuoka followed the others away from the university to the Kitasenju over-rail station. The university was close, so it was only a few minutes.

“Still a few of them around,” Seki noted unhappily when they were near the entrance.

A small group of junior high school students were loitering by a row of benches by the entrance to underground mall that had been built beneath the station. They laughed from under their plastic animal masks and aimed their smart phones at one another. The sound of electronic shutters echoed around the small plaza. People who dressed like that called themselves Masks.

Not too far away from the group, Matsuoka could hear a steady whirring. A small white sphere rolled impatiently back and forth. A security drone. It was keeping its distance, but it wasn’t taking its small glassy eye off the Masks for even a second.

At least with that thing keeping an eye on them, they won’t do more than shoot selfies.

The Masks were just one of the creepy fashion gangs that Matsuoka routinely pretended not to see. There was a junior high school around here, so sometimes this station was crawling with them.

The three of them ignored the gang and walked into the station.

Inside, hung from the ceiling was a cluster of long display boards, lined with the times for departing trains. Matsuoka looked up briefly to make sure they were on schedule and then slid his commuter pass through the ticket machine and walked up a long escalator that seemed to go on forever, all the way up past the top of the building, onto the first of Kitasenju’s three floating platforms.

Even though this was the lowest platform, they were still pretty high up. A large saucer enclosed in thick, explosion-proof plastic scooped up all the way to the ceiling, then back down on the other side. Running through the center was the tube that connected the station to the over-rail: A thick silver line held up at regular intervals by towering white pylons that reached up between a forest of glass buildings that had been built around the start of the Reformation. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have seen any of this in Tokyo. Now the pylons were practically everywhere. They had become so commonplace Matsuoka barely noticed them. He stared blankly at an advertisement looping on one of the video walls. A young-looking girl with her hair dyed bright pink was holding a hand over the nape of her neck, glancing at the camera over her shoulder. She had that same familiar, generic face as the girl in Seki’s magazine; the same face that all idols had. Just seeing it made Matsuoka feel hollow.

None of three had really spoken since they arrived, but that was normal. Even though it wasn’t rush hour the platform was still filled with people, and there was something about being around this many normals that put all of them in survival mode.

When the train arrived, a sleek blue bullet gliding silently into the station, they followed the crowd aboard, squeezing into one of the cars, holding their bags in front of them. A few passengers gave Hamada dirty glances for taking up so much room, but if anything it almost looked like it just made him purposefully take up more room than he needed.

Matsuoka pretended not to be involved and held onto one of the straps hanging from the ceiling. He let his eyes wander about above the windows, at the rows of ads set into the spaces just behind the luggage racks. Health insurance, energy drinks, phone plans. Even more posters were hung along the ceiling, clipped in place by sturdy metal bracers, flagging lazily under the air conditioning. The same advertisement as outside waved by over and over: a featureless face with pink hair.

“Help me.”

Before the ghost had vanished, he had seen her lips form those last two silent words.

The doors closed with a hiss and he was pushed back as the train slowly started moving through the station, and then shot out into the Tokyo skyline.

The blaring sunset painted the buildings all around them bright orange on one side and sinking lavender on the other. Each time they passed under one of the giant, hook-shaped pillars supporting the over-rail’s endless track, a thin black shadow whipped from one end of the car to the other.

Matsuoka looked at the streets below them as they passed by. As much as the city had been rebuilt, there were still dozens of broad dusty blocks waiting for renewal; long patches of land that had been stamped down flat, rubble pushed into neat piles and cordoned off by tall yellow walls. The city had come a long way since The Quake, but not so far that the construction zones weren’t a common sight.

Like a ghost gliding over the ruins, his reflection jostled together with everybody else, staring meekly back at him.

Matsuoka put a little more weight on the plastic strap.

If that girl really was his old party leader, there was no way he could just forget about it and go on like he hadn’t seen anything. Even if she had just up and vanished one day without telling him why. He owed her too much to just leave it at that. It wasn’t a question of whether he’d help her out or not, but rather how he was going to do it.

But how was he going to help her? He hated to admit it, but Hamada kind of had a point. As weird and creepy as it had been seeing a girl get pulled into the void by those long white arms, he wasn’t sure what to do next. Without a plan, or a place to start looking, he may as well give up.

Beside him, Seki rearranged his backpack. The train was about halfway to Shinjuku now and about to stop at Akihabara. “I’m getting out here. Either of you going to join me?”

“I’m good.” Hamada shrugged and Matsuoka shook his head.

“Suit yourself.” As the train slid gracefully into Akihabara station, he shuffled out with a bunch of other passengers. As soon as they were clear, just as many people rushed in to fill the space they had left, and then the train was moving again. From there they swooped around in one last curve in the rail and gently came to a stop at Shinjuku station.

“I’m going to do something. I’m going to look for her. Tonight,” Matsuoka decided as they stepped off the train.

“I thought we were done with that? What we should do is start that Bol Spider quest again.”

“We can do that any time.”

“Yuru’s going to be pissed if we don’t finish it soon. And anyway, you already said you don’t know where to start.”

“Well, no, but…”

The over-rail station at Shinjuku was built above the old JR station. It was a round platform, larger than the one at Kitasenju, held up by huge iron legs and connected to the older building by a set of spiraling escalators that wound around one another like the strands of a double helix. As they rode down, the view of Tokyo was slowly replaced by the buildings surrounding the station. Matsuoka took his rail pass out of his pocket and waggled it at Hamada in a way that he hoped made his point clearer. “What if she really needs our help?”

“So what? How is it supposed to be your problem? I don’t see why you’re even getting this worked up. Even if she is who you think she is, it’s not like you know this person in real life. Stop shaking your rail pass at me.”

As they reached the bottom of the winding escalators, Matsuoka turned to walk backward in front of Hamada. “It’s not like she was any less of a friend just because we never met IRL. I mean, look man, even if she just vanished… she was important to me. I need to do something. I’m going to do something. So are you going to help me or what?”

Hamada opened his mouth to say something, but then seemed to change his mind as he noticed something behind Matsuoka, so that all that came out was, “Ah!”

“Ah?” Matsuoka heel clipped into something. He floundered backward a step, lost his balance, and started falling. As he fell, his back knocked into something else. Something soft and papery. With a little yelp, he and whatever it was behind him fell in a heap together on the station floor.

For a moment all he was really aware of was a cold pain in his wrist where he’d landed. That was bad enough, but when he looked about to see what he collided with, he felt his blood freeze.

All around him were a group of girls wearing outlandishly colored clothes and murderous expressions. Their jackets were made of dozens of layers of fabric cut into sharp, precise shapes, like the bright feathers of exotic birds. Beneath their colorful culottes and skirts, they wore gaudy patterned stockings and huge black boots covered with hand-painted daubs of color. Even their lipstick and eye shadow were made up of bright greens, purples, pinks and blues. Glams.

Matsuoka felt his life start to drain away. If Masks were dangerous, then Glams were criminally insane.

The girl he had walked into was sprawled on her back beside him. She waved her arms about and, with an angry squawk, brought herself upright and glared at Matsuoka with enormous blue eyes hedged in with bright orange makeup. She had a narrow, pretty face and blonde hair tied up in loops around the side of her head. He felt the hole in his stomach grow even wider as he realized that she was a foreigner.

Desperately, Matsuoka tried and failed to remember any shred of the English he’d forgotten as soon as he left high school.

“Ah! Ah! Very s-sorry… Very much?” he stammered.

If he’d been hoping it would pacify her, he was dead wrong.

“Haa!?” The foreigner howled at him incredulously, her eyes widening as she got back to her feet. “Sorry very much is it?” Standing, she looked like she must have been at least a head taller than Matsuoka. She leaned down, roughly grabbed the front of his t-shirt with both hands, and pulled him up so their faces were inches apart. “What’s with this half-assed English you’re speaking? You think that just because I don’t look Japanese that I don’t understand Japanese!?” she growled.

“Ah! Ah!” Matsuoka’s voice came out lighter than a whisper and he felt as though he was going to faint. His eyes darted to the other Glams standing behind her, but that just made him feel like throwing up.

“Alice, honey! Are you hurt?” one of the girls behind her asked.

“What the hell are these guys?” Another girl winkled her nose at Matsuoka and Hamada.

“Are they even guys?”

“Are they even human?” They all laughed cruelly.

Matsuoka could feel his day getting progressively worse by the second.

The blonde girl who was still holding onto Matsuoka laughed along with them. “Are they human!? Are they men!? What do you say, worm?”

“Ah?” Matsuoka gulped.

“Well!?” She shook him and leaned in a little closer. “You just knocked me over because you were too stupid to look where you were going! I could have been hurt! What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ah, I… S-sorry.” Matsuoka tried to look anywhere other than her eyes.

“Haa!?” The girl shook him again. “What did you just say!? I can’t hear you!”

She’s crazy! She’s insane! We’re in a public place and she’s doing something like this…

He turned his head to look around, but everybody else in the station seemed to be doing their best to ignore what was happening. Even Hamada hadn’t said a word. He didn’t entirely blame him.

Please just let me go. Please, please, please.

“S-sorry,” he stammered and closed his eyes.

“‘Sorry’?” the girl said in a low voice. “Hey, worm, open your eyes when you apologize. What kind of a man are you?”

“S-sorry… Sorry,” Matsuoka said again. He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and shook his head.

He thought she might yell at him, but instead he heard her voice even closer than before, right in his ear, so quiet only he could hear. “Is that all you have to say for yourself? Do you even know what you’re apologizing for? Spineless otaku like you might just be the thing I hate most in the whole world.”

She threw Matsuoka to the floor. He landed heavily on his back, arms still spread out either side of him. When he opened his eyes and looked up, the blonde girl was like a giant towering over him.

She looked over at Hamada. “What about you, fatso? Are you just gonna stand there like a log cabin while I beat your friend up?”

Hamada breathed out a kind of whispery noise.

Just shut up, Hamada. Don’t say anything.

“Yeah, I figured as much.” The girl took another step forwards, and for a second Matsuoka was afraid that she really was going to beat him up. Instead, her hand shot down and snatched the over-rail travel pass that he’d been clutching for the whole time. “Looks like I’m in luck. I didn’t pay full fair when I came in, so I’ll be taking this.”

Matsuoka cried out in surprise.

She sneered wordlessly at him, then spun about and turned back to her friends. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’m done wasting time with these guys.”

From where he was sitting on the floor, Matsuoka watched them walk through the ticket gates and get swept up in the endless stream of people walking in front of the station.

Beside him, Hamada knelt down on the floor.

“Are you okay?” he asked.


Matsuoka pushed himself back onto his feet and dusted off the back of his trousers. When he looked around, he could see a few people giving him sideward glances, but for the most part they did their best to ignore him. They were even giving the space where he’d fallen a wide berth, like they didn’t even want to be near him.

This is just like high school.

On the way out, Hamada went through the automatic gates, but without a ticket, Matsuoka had to go through the glass-walled ticket office. Inside was a young clerk with a red pockmarked face slowly running his finger down a computer screen. He looked up at Matsuoka without changing his expression.

“I was just…” Matsuoka started and found that he couldn’t get the words he wanted out of his throat.

I was just mugged! Right in front of here! Where the hell where you guys!?

“I dropped my ticket.”

“You’ll have to pay the fare again. Where from?” The clerk asked. Matsuoka was certain he had seen what happened, but obviously this guy had no intention of helping out.

I shouldn’t say Kitasenju. I should just say it was from the next stop over. He thought bitterly. I’m already going to have to buy a new pass because of that freak. I shouldn’t have to pay the full fare.


“Eight hundred sixty yen,” the red-faced clerk stated and slid a plastic tray over the counter.

I shouldn’t be paying this. I should just tell them what happened and…

What was the use? He put a thousand yen in the plastic tray and waited for the receptionist to give him his change.

Outside, Hamada was waiting for him, looking like he had no idea what he should be doing. “I’m telling you, man… 3D girls are trouble… What now?” he asked.

Matsuoka shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s just go home.”

“Alright, well, maybe I’ll see you online later then.” Maybe he could see Matsuoka just wanted to be alone.

Even though the two of them got off at Shinjuku, they lived in suburbs on the opposite ends. After parting ways, Matsuoka fished his headphones out of his bag, slid the padded cushions over his ears, and pressed the play button on his phone. Music drowned out everything.

Why was it always like this? Even two years after leaving high school, why did this kind of thing follow him around even now?

Unlike the clean, empty spaces around the over-rail, the streets of Tokyo were crammed and dirty. The sound of cars humming along broad roads were hedged in by tall buildings that were a mix of what had been left standing after The Quake and what had been thrown up in the first hasty years of the Reformation. Every spare inch was a canvas upon which the colors of the city were painted. Sticking out of the buildings like the branches of trees were the names of stores, lit plastic signs, half faded and buzzing with ancient fluorescent tubes mixed in with smooth display screens, flashing the with images of celebrities, cartoon mascots, claims and questions. Are you making enough money? Do you have the right health insurance? Are you hungry? Are you happy? Even otherwise empty windows were filled with cardboard signs barely visible from down here.

Matsuoka walked slowly along the street toward the west, and after a little while he crossed over and cut down south, past the tall glass walls of Bunka, the Women’s Cultural University, along a newly developed road that ran all the way past Yoyogi Park.

As much as he tried to push it out of his mind, all he could think about was that girl who had taken his ticket. He could recall her face as clearly as if she were still standing, laughing, in front of him. Her bright orange lips and eye shadow. The tiny flecks of green in her blue eyes. The shape of her nose. He could picture the tiniest detail.

Just thinking about her made him angry; thinking about why he was angry made him think about her. About that feeling of dread as she held him up by his t-shirt.

It’s probably stretched out.

He touched his hand to his collar and somehow, in that small gesture, he felt his face scrunch up and tears start to well up in his eyes.

Ah! No, no, no, no!

Matsuoka fought down the painful lump in his throat and walked a little faster. This road wasn’t so busy, but there were still a lot of other people walking along it. Enough that it would be way too embarrassing to be seen crying. At the very least if he could just get home and to his room. He felt like he could do this with some shred of dignity. He already felt bad enough for what had happened, did he really need this too?

I’m so pathetic.

He bunched up his fists and quickly risked wiping his tears away with one hand. Around him, people did their best to ignore him, but he could still feel them looking at him out of the corners of their eyes. There were a lot of students from the nearby university here. He could practically hear them laughing.

It just made him so mad! Why hadn’t anyone come to help him? Hadn’t they seen that he was being mugged? Why had they just let that girl do whatever she wanted?

“So stupid,” Matsuoka growled through gritted teeth. “They’re all so stupid.”

After all, Shinjuku was a public place, wasn’t it? You should be able to walk through there without worrying about that kind of thing. But they’d just let it happen, because if it didn’t involve them directly, then it didn’t mean anything at all.

Not even Hamada did anything, though at the time Matsuoka did pray for him not to get involved. As if it were better to just ride it out. Why did he think that? Was that just old instinct kicking in? Did that mean he was going to drop out of university just like high school? He felt a chill go through him.

No, no, no, no. That’s not going to happen again.

It felt like it had been impossible to start going to school again after he’d stopped the first time. If he stopped again, he honestly didn’t know if he’d ever be able to go back.

He struggled out a long, shaky breath and took a quick turn down a narrow alley he knew would lead him through less crowded streets. No matter how much people said that Tokyo was always crowded, the truth was you only needed to walk around a few corners to find a quiet place. As much as Matsuoka hated this city, that was one thing he loved about it too.

He breathed out again and sat down on a long, faded plastic bench by a bus stop. He just needed a second to collect himself.

And really, when it came down to it, what was he was really angry about? That nobody had come to help him? Sure, that hurt and he hated it and he wished it were different. But that wasn’t the reason he felt like there was a hand around his throat. The real person he was angry with was himself.

That was the part that made him so frustrated he wanted to crawl into bed and bawl his eyes out. He just hadn’t been brave enough to stand up for himself.

Just like always.

And what about that girl he had seen in the game?

Matsuoka put his head in his hands, the sound of music still blasting through his headphones. He pushed his palms into his eyes until he saw swirling blue and white patterns. Why couldn’t real life be more like ISO?

What could he do? How was he supposed to find somebody when he didn’t even know their real name?

He forced himself to breathe. His shoulders shook.

And then he jumped as he heard a quick blast from a loud horn. Matsuoka looked up out of his hands and was surprised to see that while he’d been holding his head, a bus had actually stopped in front of him. Which made sense, given he was sitting at a bus stop, but was kind of embarrassing otherwise. From inside, the passengers were staring down at him.

Matsuoka jumped up and very quickly debated if maybe he should get on anyway, just so people wouldn’t think he’d been sitting at the bus stop crying, or so they wouldn’t feel he’d inconvenienced them for no good reason.

And then a second thing caught him by surprise.

Right in front of him, along the side of the bus, was a long advertisement, a big color photo of a girl with a funny kind of half-smile, holding a bottle of something. A soft drink? It didn’t matter. But it was only now he realized why she seemed so familiar. It wasn’t because he’d seen her in other ads, or just because she just had one of those generic faces. She had looked different at the time, face twisted in fear, stained by dirt and tears, but now that he looked at her—really looked at her—it was unmistakable.

This was the face that had called out to him for help.

He jumped to his feet and thrust his finger at the huge photo as though it were his Zweihänder.

“That’s her!” he screamed at the side of the bus, a strange kind of elation rising within him.

That’s her!

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: