Chapter 1: Jun Imamiya, 16-Year-Old High School Boy
The earliest memory of him I could remember was his broad back and the muscles that flexed underneath the thin jinbei. I was mesmerized by the sparks that flew every time he swung his hammer down.
Even now I can’t forget the way the fire lit his face, the warm light casting cold shadows as dusk settled in. Even while Grandma scolded him to come in to dinner, he only had time for the bright steel that glinted in the limited light.
When I was little I thought Grandfather was a wizard.
I may have been close before, but only on the last arrow do I hit the target.
But perhaps that’s alright. It wouldn’t do to show up people who were actually part of the Kyudo Club when I was just a filler after all. Actually, my shots are already considered decent for me, but I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with making such a suspenseful score of 0|0|0|1. At least let me hit before the last shot to avoid worrying the team.
Even if it was just a joint practice match, showing shoddy archery in front of another school’s team leaves a bad feeling.
“Yo, good work today, super helper-kun.”
That guy with the annoying face standing nonchalantly over there outside the Kyudo clubroom is unfortunately my best friend and neighbor Masaki. He’s part of the “Go-Home” Club, and normally would have long since been home playing netgames.
Ah, was it today that I’d promised to try out another VRMMO he’d been addicted to?
“I’m sorry, did you wait long? As trivial as it is, the Kyudo Club’s ace sprained an ankle and they were frantic for a replacement. I am sorry for inconveniencing you.”
“Hmph. You can’t ever say no to anyone, can you? And poor me takes the last spot in your priorities.”
I apologized with sarcasm and Masaki returned it. He doesn’t seem all that bothered despite his complaints.
As usual he’s being cheeky.
“Shit, she already has a boyfriend!”
“Pfft. Like you had any chance anyway?”
“Which girl were you after? The other school’s?”
“Yeah. The new girl who joined us today –“
Guys from the other school that came over and joined our school’s Kyudo team in a practice match were muttering, but I still caught their words.
Looking ahead I spotted the new club recruit, Suzuki-san, walking with a classmate. I don’t think they were technically dating, but that’s how it must look to others. I wonder whether high-schoolers who spent all their time on love and youthful feelings are using their time wisely.
Between substituting in for after school clubs, helping the Student Council, and studying, I can’t say I ever had the time or interest.
… That part of me might be why I’m always stuck hanging out with Masaki when I’m not running errands.
Masaki sighs. He might actually be upset this time for me breaking my promise. I kind of remember he had begged me kind of hard to play this VRMMO, and I think there was even a kind of deadline he’d set.
“… Hey Jun, when are you going to cut your hair? You totally look girly.”
That was kind of unexpected. I touch my hair involuntarily. It IS pretty long now, just hitting my shoulders. Come to think of it our homeroom teacher asked me if I was letting it grow because of a rebellious streak. Though I think he was joking, it must have been strange enough for him to comment on it.
Eh, but a lot of the trendier guys wore their hair half-pulled back at this length like I have it now. Is it that bad looking on me?
“I guess I should get it cut now. I haven’t had time recently, because of the funeral and going through Grandfather’s things. I’m still going through the things in the storage closet.”
Masaki and I both look up as someone called me. Oh. Uncle Hideki. I struggle for a moment not to show my annoyance on my face.
“Uncle. What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you at the house, but you weren’t there.”
“I had hoped to be able to talk to you about the house, Father’s-, no, your grandfather’s house.”
“… There is no need for you to talk with me about it. Everyone’s agreed that Uncle should be the one it goes to.”
“… I see. You might think that, but I still think you should have a say in it. After all you are the only one who is still living there. You see, I intend to sell it.”
“Then Uncle should do as he pleases.”
Uncle Hideki seems to have a displeased look on his face but only says “I will come to the house tomorrow” before he heads off in the direction of the station.
“…Oi Jun, is that really going to be ok? If he sells the house.”
Masaki had been silent the entire time Uncle had been here, but he glanced worriedly at me now.
“But it’s not just the house, right? The forge too…”
Grandfather had thought of himself as a swordsmith but in reality he was just an old man who was obsessed with a hobby. That’s what everyone thought of him. He was far from being a capable smith and had squandered much of his money in fashioning himself a forge and buying materials. Most of our family thought of him as crazy, and I knew Uncle Hideki in particular has held a grudge over the neglect the sword-obsession had caused.
He especially couldn’t forgive Grandfather for never seeing his sister, my mother, on her death bed in the hospital, spending every day in the forge instead.
And that’s why I don’t intend to stand in the way of Uncle if he wants to get rid of that house and those unpleasant memories. Even though I would miss the sound of the creaking of the floor boards mixed in with the sound of bubbling soup that Grandma used to make when she cooked in the kitchen, the shoji door that was never repaired when Masaki and I accidentally fell through it while playing tag, the porch that is shaded in the orange tree that only produces sour fruit. And above all I’d miss the roar of the fire and steel of the forge.
Despite all the things I would miss, the house is empty now except for me. I won’t be able to experience the liveliness of it anymore whether the house was sold or not.
A sense of loneliness washes over me.
“... Right, let’s make your character tonight!”
Masaki breaks into my melancholy over-enthusiastically.
“Hah? No way, it’s getting late. And we have to go to the VRMMO store to do that, right? Let’s do it tomorrow.”
“Aw, c’mon. You’ll just be moping at home all night by yourself anyway. I can introduce you to the rest of the party tonight and tomorrow morning it’ll be power-leveling!”
Ulterior motives of boosting his netgame party’s strength aside, I wonder if Masaki is trying to be considerate of me. Even though I was used to being alone at night when Grandma died, these days it seems even lonelier without the sounds of Grandfather’s hammer echoing from his forge.
I sigh and somehow Masaki took that as an “okay”.
“Ok, ok, you don’t need to pull me along.”
“Character creation for the VR Mourning Star, right?”
The male clerk at the VRMMO store confirms Masaki’s request. Is it my imagination or is he sizing me up? Do I really look that much like a non-gamer? Look, those flashy guys over there don’t look like gamers either!
“Mourning Star uses ‘real’ specs to build your characters, so there’s a physical scan with the brain-sensory scan.”
Masaki makes a strangled sound while the clerk was explaining the procedures to me. As the clerk leads us to the rooms in the back filled with new-age looking technology I look over at him questioningly.
“No, that’s… I forgot about the physical scan.”
“What’s wrong with it? It’s not embarrassing, is it?”
The clerk didn’t mention anything about clothing. I hope it’s not something that needs to be taken off.
“No, but… well…”
Masaki looks pointedly at the physical scanner.
There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a coffin. The scanner seems to be designed to take as little space as possible in order to let a store cram as many into a room as possible, but … isn’t it too small? A capsule hotel is bigger!
“… Impossible. GL Masaki, have fun with your netgame.”
I turn around immediately to leave.
“Waitwaitwait, c’mon Jun, you’ll only ever have to do it once! It’ll only take a few min- seconds!”
I heard that. Nope. Absolutely not. Let go of my arm, damn Masaki.
“Um, is there something wrong?”
“Ah, it’s ok. My friend’s just a little claustrophobic.”
The male clerk seems puzzled so Masaki tells him what’s up. And now, goodby-
“Ah, it’ll only take 10 minutes. Over in a flash.”
I glare at Masaki as the clerk tries to reassure me. Only a few seconds, huh?
The bottom of one of the scanners slides out, revealing a diagram that showed where your arms and legs should go. It seems like it will readjust the proportions of the diagram during scanning. Some kind of calibration … no, more importantly, I don’t want to get in that.
… damn you, Masaki. He’s staring way too expectantly at me.
I sigh and move over to the scanner’s bed.
“If it fails the first time, I’m out.”
“Ok, ok, sounds fair.”
Masaki’s grinning from ear to ear. What a smug face. I’ll beat the crap out of him in virtual reality later to relieve stress. Maybe he’ll regret making me do this then.
It’s not like small spaces are impossible for me, I can deal with them alright, but this is really something else.
As the bed slides back into the scanner a hiss sounds as it locks in place. My nose is less than 5 centimeters from the ceiling and there’s no room to move either right or left.
My ten minutes of terror in this tiny box will be omitted.