I say no thank you…to this kind of destiny.
Two days had passed since we’d lost contact with Poppy Pipopapo.
I knew I should have stopped her, even if it meant holding her back by the collar.
The day after that, I was contacted by Councillor Hinata.
According to him, Poppy Pipopapo had inquired about where the pediatrician had gotten in a car accident when he was a child.
Poppy Pipopapo had probably deduced it to be a Novel Spot and thus attempted to complete Mighty Novel X.
Since she was a Bugster, normally, she should have easily been able to evacuate even if she were in a severe crisis.
I had underestimated the amount of danger she was in, and thus I was deeply upset at myself for my error in judgment two days prior.
Back when I had studied abroad in the United States, a surgical professor at a large hospital with the world’s finest medical technology had taught me something very important.
“When performing an operation, your emotions are your greatest enemy.”
Emotions are akin to random numbers, and are the epitome of irrationality.
In the worst-case scenario of something unexpected happening during an operation where a patient’s life is at stake, emotions induce uncertain factors and deprive a surgeon of their ability to have calm judgment. As a result, they can easily make fatal mistakes that they would not otherwise. In order to prevent such a thing from happening, a surgeon must have unwavering self-confidence through daily training and be absolutely prepared to deal with any unforeseen circumstances, both mentally and physically.
Turn off any personal sentiments.
Throw out any personal biases.
I was still in the middle of the operation, so I had to leave my regrets for later.
“Hey, good doctor. We’ve got two visitors.”
My thoughts were interrupted by the examiner.
To be more exact about it, the examiner’s words came through vibrations in the ear that caused my eardrums to vibrate. They were amplified by the ossicles, converted into electrical signals by an inner ear sensory organ called the cochlea, and once their frequency and intensity were analyzed, they were sent to my cranial nerves…
Excuse me for the digression. That’s irrelevant right now.
I turned around to see that the practitioner and the gamer girl had arrived at the CR office.
The practitioner was wearing a black V-neck T-shirt, camouflage army pants, and black boots. He had a white coat on, and was dressed with complete preparation. The gamer girl did somehow come off as attempting to look mature, but she was wearing a colorful outfit with bold colors and a miniskirt.
“I hope the long-distance return was not too difficult.”
As soon as I had said those words, the practitioner approached me and grabbed me by the shirt.
“You had Brave and Laser there, so what the hell happened?!”
“Taiga! This isn’t the time to be arguing!”
The gamer girl was on the mark.
The practitioner had nothing to say in response, and he let go of me.
I put the collar of my white coat back in place and explained everything that had happened thus far to them. I provided them with all of the information I could give them at the time.
“It is very likely that Poppy Pipopapo was also made into a Mighty Novel X victim after making a mistake. We must be prepared for this operation to differ greatly from previous ones.”
“Like I’d complain about that,” barked the practitioner.
The examiner immediately cut off any chances of inciting further conflict and pivoted back to the main subject.
“Come on, guys. We’ve got everyone here, so let’s put our heads together and start the doctor’s conference. Nico, can you tell us everything you’ve got on Emu’s past?”
“On it! Ever since you called us, I’ve been spending all this time getting info from my old gamer friends. I was pretty shocked to hear it, but back when he was in high school, he and his father were the only ones in the house. His mom died of illness right after he was born.”
His mother had passed away…This was my first time hearing of such a thing.
When we had discussed our families, the pediatrician had attempted to evade the subject, but it seems he had come from some complicated family circumstances.
He had never shown a single sign of that at any time.
Even if we had known, we would have been unlikely to be able to do anything about it.
And yet. How distant.
Of course, if I said something like this to him, he would likely say something along the lines of “Hiiro, you’re the last person who should be saying that about anyone.”
Have you been putting a smile on your face and locking up everything about your family?
Were you deliberately trying to keep us out of it so nobody would worry about you?
You should consider putting less stock in what other people think.
Did you think I, of all people, would concern myself deeply with your personal problems?
Whatever circumstances happen to surround you, none of that would change our positions.
That’s all there is. There’s nothing deeper than that.
I was blabbering about my own family circumstances right in front of the pediatrician’s face…
I was ashamed of myself for having inflicted all of that on the pediatrician.
“I had a feeling.”
“And just what do you mean by that, Laser?” inquired the practitioner.
“No, it’s just, we were talking with Emu about his family earlier, but he seemed kinda unusually touchy about it. I had a feeling something was off.”
The moment he said that, I thought, oh, he’s outdone me.
“Examiner. Did you spout nonsense about your own family earlier in order to not ruin the pediatrician’s mood? Because you suspected this might be the case?”
“Well, that’s not the point right now.”
My goodness. As usual, nothing escaped the examiner’s intuition. He had an uncanny grasp of human behavior both above and beneath the surface, and would always be one step ahead of everyone.
I had never met anyone who was as observant as this man. At times, it even seemed he had an occupational disease. His job was to scrutinize lifeless corpses and decode the remnants of the messages they left behind to derive the cause of death, so for an examiner like him, reading a living human came as easily as reading a book.
In any case, it seemed that the pediatrician had grown up under only one parent.
This could potentially be an important lead in approaching Mighty Novel X.
The gamer girl continued explaining the information she’d collected.
“So anyway, Emu’s dad is named Kiyonaga Houjou. No idea what he’s up to now, but apparently, back when Emu was in high school, he worked for a company called ‘MedicTrick’.”
“MedicTrick? Isn’t that the largest medical device manufacturer in Japan?”
“Whoa, Brave! Look who knows his stuff!” said the gamer girl, obviously trying to tease me.
“Of course I know of them. Much of our hospital equipment comes from MedicTrick. In particular, they’re responsible for many of our life support machines, such as respirators and dialysis equipment.”
“Huh, Emu’s dad worked at an amazing company like that?”
The gamer girl’s report revealed additional facts as follows.
At the time, the pediatrician’s father had been a part of MedicTrick’s development department.
When the pediatrician was young, the two would move often for his father’s work.
He had gone through multiple transfers, and so it seemed the pediatrician could not easily make friends at school.
His favorite food was hamburgers. Since he was raised by a single parent, he had probably been primarily eating from supermarket lunch boxes, prepackaged meals, and frozen foods, so being able to go to a hamburger shop on occasion was considered a favorite treat for him. He had apparently retained this preference even in high school.
Aside from that, there were other trivialities: he was prone to falling over and injuring himself, he preferred keeping things clean and went out to the laundromat often, his favorite music was techno-pop. I kept all of this in the back of my mind, just in case it would be useful later.
Still, the pediatrician’s father was the most surprising part. If he had worked for MedicTrick’s development department, that made him an important figure in the development of cutting-edge medical equipment, and he was in a position of being responsible for people’s lives in a different way from doctors like us. If he needed to be transferred often, it was easy to imagine that he would have been busy every day.
And so, in that case.
The pediatrician, who had no one else living with him, would probably have spent his days alone at home. It was easy to deduce that his unyielding love for games came from spending so much time playing them by himself. This may have been why he regularly went out to spend time waiting at the laundromat.
Little by little, I grasped a clearer picture of the pediatrician’s background.
It was still unclear whether all of this information would help with the operation, but it was best to be as prepared as possible. In an operation where the patient’s life is at stake, one must be able to handle any and all unexpected circumstances.
“All right. We’ll end that doctor’s conference here. We’re in an urgent situation, so let’s all head out and start a simultaneous operation.”
“Simultaneous operation? Hey, Brave, what does that mean?” asked the gamer girl.
“As you are all aware, in order to complete Mighty Novel X, all of the Novel Spots in this town must be cleared, one by one. However, if we tried to visit each one together in a group, we would only lose valuable operation time. Instead, we will split up and approach each point separately, in the same way one would operate on multiple affected areas simultaneously.”
“Fine with me,” agreed the practitioner.
“But are we gonna be okay? Neither of you are psychosomatic specialists,” said the examiner, with a cynical tone.
Neither are you. We’re in too urgent of a situation to be picky right now.
The words were on the tip of my tongue, but the examiner seemed to have already picked up on what I’d intended to say. “Well, I guess I’m not, either,” he admitted.
But that’s fine.
I promised Saki I’d be the world’s best doctor.
My operating skills aren’t limited to just holding a scalpel.
It doesn’t matter what kind of illness it is.
As long as there is a patient, I will cure them.
I reaffirmed my resolve.
I put it into words so that I could hold myself to them.
It was not a mere ideal.
It was most certainly not mere boasting.
Say and do.
Speak the words, and put them into action. That was all.
“There is nothing I can’t cut.”
I left CR ahead of the others and called for a taxi in front of the Seito University Hospital.
“Please take me to Shinkyo Central Hospital.”
The taxi driver seemed to be a veteran who already knew the area well, to the point of starting the car without even needing to check the route in detail.
It was a weekday afternoon, so normally the roads should have been relatively clear, but for some reason, there was heavy traffic.
Thinking back on it, I remembered that we were right in the middle of a long holiday week.
There were many family cars on their way back from vacation.
However, I had trained myself to never lose my composure at any time.
I was not a stranger to this situation. I had been through many emergency surgeries where every second mattered.
A patient cannot wait for the doctor to finish a bath or a nap. Once I receive an emergency report, I normally arrange for a car to take me to Seito University Hospital as quickly as possible.
At such times, I have rarely ever driven the car or motorcycle myself.
I needed to use the time to analyze the information I’d acquired about the patient and perform a mental training session on the way there. If I can visualize an operation perfectly in mind, I can drastically reduce operation time and put less strain on the patient’s body.
This time was no different.
Let’s start another mental training session.
I was on my way to Shinkyo Central Hospital, which was a place of great significance.
I had asked my father to collect information for me earlier, and I learned that Councillor Hinata had worked as a doctor at Shinkyo Central Hospital.
In other words, this was where the eight-year-old pediatrician had once received an emergency operation, and so it was a crucial part of the pediatrician’s past.
When Councillor Hinata had saved the pediatrician’s life, the incident had such a great impact on him that he decided to become a doctor himself. The story of the pediatrician’s fate must be lurking in Shinkyo Central Hospital, where the two had first met.
I began to formulate some hypotheses about Mighty Novel X as a game.
The pediatrician — and, most likely, Poppy Pipopapo as well — had failed a crucial point in the game, and had reached a Game Over.
The pediatrician was uncontested in his ability to get through a game without mistakes. There had to be a particular reason for someone with that level of skill to have failed in the game.
The pediatrician and Poppy Pipopapo had one thing in common: they were overly soft-hearted, and had a tendency to get too emotionally invested in the patient.
What if, perhaps, their soft-heartedness had gotten in the way of their ability to clear Mighty Novel X…?
After all, Kuroto Dan had been the one to set up this game.
It was easy to understand that it must be a game in very poor taste.
He would be exactly the kind of person to set up this kind of trap: a story deliberately set up to deceive and conquer any person who got too immersed in the story.
However, for better or for worse, I had managed to keep a certain sense of distance from the pediatrician.
Yes. That was where we stood with each other.
There was a certain degree of comfort that came with being distant.
To not get in each other’s personal affairs, and to fight together strictly for work purposes.
To share only a small percentage of each other’s lives, and to share only a small percentage of trust in each other.
Any more than that would be unnecessary. We only needed a small percentage, as long as we were solid in that percentage.
Therefore, if Mighty Novel X was indeed the pediatrician’s own story, I could objectively analyze whatever story awaited me there.
I cannot allow myself to get too emotionally invested.
I must not concern myself about the fact we are trying to save the pediatrician.
The patient is still a patient, no matter who he is.
I must treat the patient in front of me with the appropriate treatment measures, and no more than that.
When performing an operation, my emotions are my greatest enemy.
The taxi arrived at its destination right as I had visualized my operation perfectly.
Shinkyo Central Hospital was a large hospital that serviced the entirety of Seito’s Fourth District, and was comparable to Seito University Hospital in terms of its national reputation.
My father had already contacted Shinkyo Central Hospital’s director in advance.
I gave my name at the reception, and a clerk who was free to help me led me towards my destination.
Pediatric ward, room 307.
Fortunately, the bed was vacant.
The pediatrician had been hospitalized in this room when Councillor Hinata had operated on him and saved his life.
I thanked the clerk and entered the room alone.
Poppy Popopapo had told me the prerequisite for participating in the game, so I pulled out my Gamer Driver and placed it on my waist.
Mighty Novel X! Cutscene Start!
The game’s system voice echoed around the room out of nowhere.
The room began to distort like a pixel mosaic.
Now, let’s begin the operation.
Once everything had cleared, I was standing within Mighty Novel X‘s Game Area.
The area around me looked almost the same as before, but some of its secondary equipment had become older models from more than twenty years ago.
A boy was lying on the reclining bed at a slightly raised angle.
An IV needle was inserted into and fastened to his arm with tape.
He was completely absorbed in a game on the handheld game console he was holding.
I could sense the similarity between the boy’s face and the pediatrician’s.
Physically speaking, the resemblance between the two was not entirely close, but the look in his eyes as he played his game was identical.
If his internal organs had been ruptured in a car accident, he must have gone through a long major surgery. You’ve done well to endure all of that with such a such a small body, pediatrician. No…Pediatrician Junior.
Pediatrician Junior had noticed my presence and had exclaimed in surprise.
I instinctively shook my head in response.
In that same moment, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I’d been in this situation before.
Yes, it was during the case of Madoka Hoshi, a pediatric brain tumor patient I had saved through an operation.
Back then, I had become Madoka’s father within the VR game world. To be more precise, I was forced to play her “Daddy” role.
Do I really have to do this again?
Pediatrician Junior was staring right at me.
No, not at me, but at my white coat.
“Is it time for the check-up?”
Oh, I see. He’d only momentarily mistaken me for his father.
That’s a relief. I’d rather not do that again. Besides, if I had to act like a father to the pediatrician of all people, that would be far too much of a farce to entertain.
“Councillor Hinata…I mean, Dr. Kyoutarou Hinata will come for your checkup later. I just want to ask you a few questions. Let me know when you finish your game.”
Would he even listen to a stranger telling him this out of the blue?
Shouldn’t I give him a better explanation?
Even if I did give him one, would someone as young as him even be able to understand?
But as I was considering all of those things, Pediatrician Junior turned off his game console and placed it on the table next to him.
“I can talk.”
Thankfully, he seemed to be a perceptive child.
“Are you sure? You were in the middle of your game.”
“It’s fine. I just saved the game.”
“Oh, I see.”
There was a brief silence.
I didn’t come here for small talk. Should I just get straight to the point?
“You mentioned your father earlier…”
Pediatrician Junior’s expression seemed to stiffen somewhat.
I continued speaking without hesitation.
“Are you waiting for your father to come visit you?”
“…He won’t come.”
“I’m sure he will. Your father is worried about you, right?”
“…He al-rea-dy came once.”
“Only once? He hasn’t come again since then?”
The corners of Pediatrician Junior’s mouth lowered, and his expression looked somewhat darker.
“…Not even once?”
He was starting to show some vulnerability, but once I’d pressed the issue further, the corners of his mouth went back up again, and he smiled brightly at me.
“No. But it’s fine. Daddy’s got lots of work to do.”
This child truly is the pediatrician, I thought.
Have you always been like this? Even when you were this young?
Loneliness. Sadness. Pain. Have you been enduring all of that, smiling at me as if nothing was wrong?
Why can’t you be honest about your actual feelings?
What could you possibly be afraid of?
Do you consider it disgraceful to assert yourself?
If so, your insistence on pushing others away is turning into an illness at this point.
Let alone the fact you are still eight years old. You should not need to worry about societal obligations or the subtleties of adults. You have every right to be as selfish as you want and assert your wishes.
“But I have my game. The doc-tor gave it to me.”
By “doctor”, he means Councillor Hinata, right?
Games truly did seem to do something for the pediatrician that nothing else could.
You had to spend all of that time by yourself, so games were the only thing supporting your heart.
They were your friends and your playmates.
Games were what made you smile.
I’d gotten a glimpse of where the pediatrician’s ideals as a doctor had originated from.
You can’t call it treatment if you’re only healing them physically.
You can only say the patient is truly healed when their smile returns and their heart is healthy.
The first patient to be saved by those ideals was none other than the pediatrician himself.
Now that I had realized this, my perception of the pediatrician had flipped an entire 180 degrees.
It was not mere idealism nor lip service, but a lesson he’d learned based on his own experiences.
Every one of his words about this weighed further on my head with more and more impact.
At that moment, I sensed someone behind me and turned around.
Kyoutarou Hinata was there in a white coat. He had fewer wrinkles and a bold, youthful look in his eyes.
Dr. Hinata’s expression did not waver as he approached Pediatrician Junior.
“How are you feeling, Emu?”
Dr. Hinata had completely ignored my presence, and had gone straight to addressing Pediatrician Junior.
Normally, it would be absurd for someone to completely ignore the fact that someone from outside the hospital was in one of its rooms with a white coat.
Ah, I see how it is.
The pediatrician was the protagonist of Mighty Novel X. Since I was a player, I could only communicate with the protagonist, or, in other words, the pediatrician. I could not interfere with any other character. That was one of Mighty Novel X‘s inherent game rules.
After finishing his examination and confirming that Pediatrician Junior’s post-op recovery was going as expected, Dr. Hinata said something unexpected.
“Emu, I want to ask you something. I’m not asking this as your doctor, but just as someone who’s worried about you.”
“…What is it?”
“…On that rainy day, when you got in that car accident, why were you on that road?”
For some reason, the pediatrician was looking down awkwardly.
“To get from your house to your school, you only need to go down the slope. In other words, when you got in that accident, you were taking the opposite road from the one you needed to take to school. If you were taking a detour, wouldn’t you have been late for school?”
This was news to me.
The pediatrician had gotten in an accident on a road that was in the opposite direction from his school.
Why had he been on that road?
“…I got lost.”
“…I see. Since you’d just moved, you weren’t sure which way to go.”
If he had just moved into a new town, it was only natural for him to not have a good grasp of the area.
But this was school. Apparently, all he had to do was go down the slope instead of crossing any streets. He should have been taking that route every single day. Was it possible for him to make that big of a mistake?
However, it was true that the pediatrician could often be somewhat reckless and hasty.
He was a doctor, and yet he would often get injured by only the slightest things.
He would have a head-on collision with someone when walking around a corner of a hospital hallway. He would misstep on the stairs and fall. Sometimes, he would even manage to fall over on a road with no barriers, obstacles, or stairs whatsoever.
He had gotten more bruises, sprains, and scuffs than one could even count. At times, I almost wondered if he had some significant issue with his neurological motor functions.
That’s just how he is. There’s nothing strange about the idea of him taking the wrong route to school.
I came up with that explanation, and decided that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about.
At least, not yet.
After Dr. Hinata finished his rounds and left the room, I stayed behind.
Pediatrician Junior was playing more of his game on his handheld console.
He’d been in an accident that had put him on the verge of death, but his post-op recovery seemed to be going well.
From my perspective, Dr. Hinata had pulled off a perfect treatment.
Pediatric surgery is always particularly difficult, because the patient’s body is small and the operating field is narrow.
On top of that, this kind of accident requires immediate rescue to be carried out as quickly as possible, meaning there would have been very little time to prepare. Dr. Hinata was commendable not only for pulling the surgery off so perfectly, but also for paying such close attention to the sutures on the abdomen. He had been careful so as to make sure the scars from the scalpel on the affected area were inconspicuous.
For a pediatric patient who still had the rest of their life ahead of them, a surgeon’s skill was tested by how careful they were about the outer appearance.
Pediatrician Junior opened his mouth.
“How long will I be here?”
“…You’ll probably be able to be discharged in about two months. You should be grateful to Dr. Hinata. In any other case, you could easily have been in here for twice as long.”
“…Only two months.”
It was a strange thing for him to say, almost as if he didn’t actually want to leave the hospital.
“Once you’re discharged, you can go home and see your father.”
“…If I get hurt a-gain, will they bring me back?”
“Why would you want that?”
“…The doc-tors and nur-ses are so nice. And I won’t bo-ther Daddy’s work.”
“What about school?”
“…I don’t care. I don’t have friends who will come see me. It’s no fun.”
I was at a loss for words.
Something in the back of my chest was aching, and my heart felt like it was being squeezed.
The words “not going to school” had never even been in my vocabulary.
Ever since I was in elementary school, I had never been the kind of person who was good at making friends. My parents had told me that school was where I went to study, and I had never doubted that.
Of course, I still had bare minimum interaction with my classmates and never caused any unnecessary problems during group activities, but I had never considered going or not going to school based on whether I had friends there or not. Rather, I had been aiming to achieve a perfect attendance award, so even if I had a fever, I would make sure that I could at least make it to school. Back in elementary school, I had already decided I would become a doctor, so I knew that I would have to pursue higher education eventually. As a result, I strove to get top grades, and had even served as the student council president.
I had taken that kind of school life for granted, and I had never questioned it.
The pediatrician was a CR doctor, one who was on par with me. He had enrolled in the same Seito University School of Medicine I had attended, and we now worked at the same hospital. And yet, the pediatrician and I had diametrically opposite childhoods, and I could hardly believe it. I was well aware that there were many different kinds of people who achieved things in their own way, but I’d still assumed that becoming a pediatrician required being an honor student to at least some degree.
Of course, I had no intention of discriminating against him based on his upbringing. But there was something truly disconcerting about how helpless he seemed. Unlike me, the pediatrician had all of this going on behind the scenes, and yet constantly had a smile on his face…
Pediatrician Junior seemed as if he wanted to say something.
How can I even respond to this child at this rate?
I started to feel nervous, and I could feel sweat on my forehead.
“Hey…can’t I keep staying here in the hospital?”
Those were his final words.
Pediatrician Junior froze in place, like an elaborate clinical simulation training doll.
A hologram monitor was projected in front of me, with three choices on it.
(Yes) | (No) | (Other)
Is this a Mighty Novel X decision point…?
I was trembling so much, I couldn’t pretend otherwise.
This pure-hearted, resilient, and well-behaved boy — what was he thinking right now? What answer did he want from me? I’d tried to predict every possible outcome, but at this point, I was dealing with a completely blank slate with this question.
The sweat running from my forehead was building up to the point my eyelashes were catching it. I instinctively blinked, and sweat got into my eyes, stinging them. I didn’t have a nurse who could wipe off the sweat with only a word. I had to figure out how to get through this operation by myself.
My heartbeat was gradually increasing in pace. I felt an enemy approaching within me.
— The greatest enemy during an operation.
I snapped out of it.
That’s right. I’d lost sight of what was important and what I should do. I cannot allow myself to get too emotionally invested. I must not concern myself about the fact we are trying to save the pediatrician. The patient is still a patient, no matter who he is.
I must treat the patient in front of me with the appropriate treatment measures, and no more than that.
I focused my mind and internally counted to three. When every second counted in an operation, those three seconds became even more important.
I spent a moment blanking everything out, readjusting my breathing pace and regaining my ability to make calm judgments.
One. Two. Three.
(Yes) | (No) | (Other)
There is only one possible answer…
“No. As a doctor, I unfortunately don’t have the ability to let you do that.”
I opened my eyes, saying the string of words that surfaced in my head with a clinical tone.
There were other patients with their own illnesses. A valuable hospital room could not be used for a patient who had already recovered. It was a very natural decision for a doctor to make.
But I could not bring myself to leave the answer there.
I continued even further.
“However, if you don’t want to go to school, you don’t need to. Although elementary school is compulsory education, there are very many students around the world who don’t attend school. You would hardly be the only case.”
Pediatrician Junior reacted with surprise and looked back at me in silence.
I wasn’t sure what that silence meant.
But I had no regrets about it.
When a patient has mental health problems and is in psychological counseling, there are cases where saying something like “you can do it” will in fact be counterproductive.
There are cases where the patient will feel that their mental problems come from “not trying hard enough”, and those words will be tantamount to denying everything they had ever done.
There are cases where the patient has already been doing as much as they could, and those words will only make them think “what more can I do?” and place excessive pressure on them to keep up.
In the worst-case scenario, the patient may close up their heart entirely and conclude “you don’t understand anything.”
I didn’t know how an actual psychosomatic specialist would approach this, but this was the best answer I could give.
I am the world’s best doctor.
There is nothing I can’t cut.
I reaffirmed those statements in my heart.
The next moment, I felt my eardrums vibrating.
The system voice announced the game’s destiny of having reached its conclusion, and the voice was converted to electrical signals that were transmitted to my cerebrum’s auditory cortex.
I had sensed the game’s destiny.
My head was numb with a dull pain, like I’d been shot with a bang.
Of course, I could already figure out why.
10% of it came from the jet lag. I’d just gotten back to Japan from the US, after all.
The remaining 90% was from Nico’s voice, after she’d been yammering at me for a while.
We’d left CR and were heading to a certain place in order to take on Mighty Novel X.
We took the train to Seito Sixth District and walked to our destination, which was around five minutes away by foot.
“Oh man, this road takes me back. Oh, look! That arcade’s new!”
Nico rushed to look at an arcade alongside the road and peeked in with a completely unnecessary level of excitement.
I was a fool for thinking she’d get a little more mature as an adult. Actually, she was even worse now, because her time overseas had completely Americanized her.
And yet I’d really thought I could finally live a nice and quiet life now that she was gone.
It all started when my clinic, the Hanaya Game Syndrome Clinic, received a phone call.
The call came exactly at nine o’clock, the clinic’s opening hour. After coughing in a blatantly exaggerated fashion, as if trying to make sure I could hear it clearly over the phone, the girl on the other side started talking.
“Taiga~! I’ve caught a cold~!”
Her tone was so clear that she certainly didn’t sound like she was sick.
At this point, it was like a prank call.
I wanted to ignore it, but as a doctor, I was obligated to address it.
“Have you taken your temperature?”
“You’ll feel better if you eat and sleep.”
“Huh? What if I die!?”
“Clearly, you have enough energy to pick a fight with me, so you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I’m so tired. I can’t take it anymore. This is your fault, Taiga. Get here in 30 minutes.”
“Huh? Are you seriously telling me to do that?”
“Didn’t you say you’ll be my doctor no matter where I go? I sent you a postcard with my address earlier.”
Nico hung up without bothering to wait for my response. She was harassing me like some kind of gangster.
After Nico had left my clinic three years prior, I’d gotten a postcard.
It was a postcard with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it, with only my address and the sender’s address on it. No message was written on it. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what the postcard meant, but it seemed she’d sent it just to tell me her address.
As usual, she really did have a hell of a ton of nerve.
I reluctantly checked my passport and saw that, unfortunately, it still hadn’t expired yet. I could make excuses if it was a five-year passport, but it was a proper ten-year one.
I ended up leaving the clinic with the same clothes on, and I was in the sky over the Pacific Ocean by the afternoon.
I got lucky and was able to get an economy class window seat had just been vacated.
It’s been a while since I’ve been on a plane…come to think of it, I had a window seat back then, too.
A while back, I’d lost my medical license and had no place to go within Japan.
Even if I had the skills and spirit of a doctor, I couldn’t practice medicine in this country without a license.
I’d spent two years wasting my time after losing my license. I don’t even remember what I was doing. I was so disgusted with myself that I wanted to go as far away as possible and forget everything.
I’d gotten myself a ten-year passport and went on a trip to the other side of the sea.
I didn’t really care where I was going. Anywhere was fine.
But in the end, I didn’t get anything out of the trip.
In the end, I came back to Japan without even doing half of what I’d planned to do.
In the end, I couldn’t give up on being a doctor. I started working as a back-alley doctor for patients who couldn’t be treated out in the open.
Beyond what I needed for minimum living expenses, I put all of the money I got out of it into stocks.
It was dirty money, after all. I figured I could lose all of it and it still wouldn’t be a big deal.
Ironically, I ended up actually making a huge profit, but that’s not the point right now.
The point is, despite all of that, I’m somehow here right now as a Game Syndrome specialist.
You never know what might happen in life.
“Hey, are you even listening?”
Nico kicked me from behind as hard as she could.
“Ow! What the hell was that for?”
“You’re the one who was ignoring me! I was saying, how are we gonna get inside?!”
Nico pointed at Seito Public Hall.
It seemed we’d already reached our destination while I was lost in thought.
This hall had been the venue for a certain popular national fighting game tournament.
Back then, Nico had called herself “Genius Gamer N” and competed against Genius Gamer M in the finals.
I was the one who had suggested this place.
According to Nico, at the time, Ex-Aid had still been talking crudely to people. That was because Parad had infected his body, creating his personality as the gamer “M”.
After the tournament, Michihiko Zaizen, a well-known authority on gene therapy, operated on Emu and removed Parad from his body.
In other words, this place was likely to have influenced Ex-Aid’s destiny more than anything else.
My plan was to use Nico’s memories to take on the story.
“Why are you asking me? We go in the entrance, right?”
“Dude. I’m not stupid, you know that? I wouldn’t be asking you if that were the problem. Look.”
There was an information board displaying news about an event in the hall.
“Haunted House Matchmaking! A New Style of Dating Party!“
A haunted house…?
I’d never admit this out loud, but I have a hard time with anything to do with ghosts or spirits.
Actually, back when I was a radiologist at Seito University Hospital, I’d seen something in the hospital one night.
I can’t tell you exactly what I saw. I don’t even want to remember it.
But ever since then, I’ve been traumatized.
One of the hardest parts about being a doctor is that I still have to be in the clinic at night. I still haven’t gotten used to that.
“Huh, yeah, we might have a problem if there’s a haunted house there…”
“No, no, that’s not the problem! Don’t you get it?”
“It’s a dating party! We can’t enter the venue unless we put our names in. That’s super awkward! Can’t we find another entrance to sneak in with?”
“That would be trespassing.”
“Okay, then what do you suggest?”
“We’ll have to put our names in and participate.”
“Huh? Are you serious!?”
“We just need to get inside, we don’t actually have to do anything else. What, are you self-conscious about something?”
“…No. I don’t care about that.”
Having made up our minds, we headed to the reception.
The reception had two windows, one for reservations and one for walk-ins.
The line for people with reservations was made up of a wide range of participants, from young people looking for new encounters to middle-aged men and women.
I was about to head to the walk-in line when Nico grabbed my arm.
“Wait! Those creepy old guys are staring at me!”
“Well, yeah, they come with the territory. Forget about them.”
I told the staff member at the counter that we wanted to participate and paid the entry fee. I was given a profile card and was told to fill in all of the required information.
Registration number. Family name. Age. Address. Blood type. Star sign. Height. Profession. Work location. Annual income. Hobbies. How would you describe your personality? What kind of person is your type?
Naturally, this was my first time coming to this kind of thing, but I was surprised at the level of detail they were asking people to get into.
Well, perhaps it’s only natural. This kind of thing could change your life, after all.
I filled everything in as quickly as I could.
I’d almost finished it when I hit a snag with the part about describing my personality.
How was I supposed to make judgments about my own personality?
“Ah, yeah, see, that one’s a tough one, isn’t it?” said Nico, looking at my card.
“Hey, don’t stick your nose in!” I said, turning over the card so she couldn’t see.
“Well, we could try writing each other’s personality on there?”
“It doesn’t really matter what we put on here in the first place.”
“Come on, let’s just do it!”
Nico grabbed my card and forced hers at me, so the only thing I could do was go along with it.
Well, whatever. If you’re asking me about her personality, that’s an easy one.
I ran my pen over Nico’s profile card, and we exchanged ours.
I read over what Nico had said about me, and was surprised at the coincidence.
Both of us had written the same thing about each other: “not straightforward”.
“Hey. Aren’t these supposed to be about making yourself look good? Why’d you have to write something bad!?”
“I could be saying that to you, too.”
“…Whatever. Let’s hurry up and finish this.”
I looked back at the card and realized that the hardest challenge was at the very end.
“What kind of person is your type?”
I’d never bothered to put in any thought about what my type was.
Well, I don’t have to put a serious answer on there anyway.
I wrote “a straightforward person”.
“Hey. Is that a dig at me?” said Nico, looking at my card again.
“I’m not making a dig at you. I’m just writing the facts.”
“Fine, then, show me yours.”
Nico refused to show me the card in her pocket.
Well, it doesn’t really matter and I don’t care enough to force it out of her, so I’ll just leave it there.
It took a stupid amount of time to get through the procedure, but we finally made it into the venue.
All right, we’re done playing around.
If we let our guards down even once, we’d hit a Game Over.
It’d be one thing if it happened to just me, but Nico was with me.
I could not afford to let her hit a Game Over, no matter what.
We followed the staff’s instructions and entered the waiting area inside the venue.
All of the participants inside looked at us.
I could see why Nico felt so awkward about all of this.
Everyone’s gazes were on us, piercing through our entire bodies, as if trying to evaluate us from sheer first impressions.
The only thing to do was to get out of here as fast as possible.
Brave had already told us about the conditions for participating in Mighty Novel X.
We’d borrowed Genm’s old Gamer Driver for Nico to use.
But Nico had refused to have anything to do with it, screaming about it being too gross for her to use. I had no choice but to swap mine with Nico’s, so I was stuck with Genm’s.
Both of us put our Drivers on our waists, and, just as we’d expected, the game’s system voice echoed out of nowhere.
Mighty Novel X! Cutscene Start!
The area around us distorted like a pixel mosaic.
Our mission had begun.
The first thing in my ears was the booming voice of the tournament host.
“Now, it’s time for the final match! Our reigning champion, M, is challenged by a twelve-year-old girl ready to steal both his thunder and his letter: N!”
The Mighty Novel X Game Area had turned the place into a game tournament venue.
The venue was crowded with spectators and participants who’d already been eliminated, and the final match for a fighting game was about to start on the stage.
There were two cabinets on each side of the stage, placed back to back.
On the left side of the stage was Ex-Aid in a high school uniform, facing the cabinet and hitting the buttons and levers. He was still young, but as “Gamer M”, he seemed to come off as surprisingly smooth.
On the right side of the stage was a little girl — Smaller Nico.
She was twelve years old back then, so she was still a sixth-grader in elementary school.
“Hey, look, that’s you on the right…”
I was trying to get Nico’s attention when she suddenly put her hands over my eyes.
“Hey, let go of me!”
I shook Nico’s hands off. She didn’t bother attempting a second time.
“Why so shy, huh?”
“…I mean, it’s really weird actually seeing it in person.”
“You’re worrying too much. Focus on beating Mighty Novel X.”
For once, Nico wasn’t arguing back.
Most of the time, she’d be such a fast talker she’d have me in her palm, but not this time. It seemed like she also wanted to save Ex-Aid pretty badly.
“And there you go! Our world champion and Grand Prix winner is none other than M!”
I turned back to look at the stage, only to see that the final match had already finished.
Smaller Nico came down from the stage to the audience floor with a sour expression on her face.
The host’s eyes were following Smaller Nico with confusion. Apparently, she was supposed to go to the waiting room from the side of the stage, but she’d completely ignored the proper procedure.
The spectators on the floor seemed to also be concerned, and the crowd split in two like the Red Sea as Smaller Nico broke her way through.
I couldn’t tell if it was from frustration or embarrassment at her loss, but her normally bright pale face was completely red.
Suddenly, Smaller Nico stopped right in front of me and looked down.
Man, you really haven’t changed a single bit, have you?
Self-centered, prideful, and a sore loser, just like Nico right now.
I crouched down to Smaller Nico’s eye level and called out to her.
“Do you really hate losing that much?”
“Huh? As if I’d ever lose to him in a game of skill. M just happened to use a character that mine didn’t have any counters for.”
Wow, you were this much of a talker back then, too. A grin was spreading across my face.
Amazingly, Smaller Nico could even talk without moving her mouth, like a ventriloquist, and for some reason, her voice sounded so mature…
“Hey. What’s with the grin?” said Nico, grabbing my cheeks from the side.
Oh, wait, that wasn’t Smaller Nico talking, it was the adult one, huh.
“Yeah, you are! Anyway, this is a visual novel. Emu’s the protagonist, so he’s the only one who’ll actually respond to us.”
“Huh? And how do you know that?”
“I mean, look. She’s not reacting to us. She’s just another part of the story.”
Looking more closely at Smaller Nico, she didn’t seem to have any idea we were there.
Nico made her way over to Smaller Nico and whispered in her ear.
“Hey, Nico. Don’t talk to weird guys like these. It’ll just be all pain and no gain. You’ll be miserable.”
“Huh? The hell are you saying? You’re the one who gets mad when I don’t answer you.”
“If he ever gets near you, be sure to kick him as hard as you can.”
“You were the first one to approach me to begin with.”
“Got it, Nico?”
With uncannily good timing, Smaller Nico lifted her head and left the venue, spitting out the words “go to hell” as if she could hear our voices from the future.
She’d probably meant that for Ex-Aid, her gaming opponent, but it felt like it was aimed at me.
But, honestly, it was a relief I couldn’t talk to Smaller Nico.
Otherwise, I’d be completely pummeled into the dust. I already had my hands full with one Nico, but if I had to deal with two of them, there was no way I was going to get out of that unscathed. It was like trying to fight a giant tank with a single pistol.
As long as there was only one Nico, I could at least deal with that.
I’d known Nico for a long time, so I’d refined my tactics for dealing with her.
When you’re dealing with an opponent who’s obsessed with winning, you let her win. It doesn’t mean you have to take a ton of damage by losing to her; if you’re in a position where messing up your retreat would make you lose everything, it’s better to take minimal damage and surrender. If that’s enough to satisfy Nico, then everything’s fine.
I turned to look at the stage again and saw that the high schooler Ex-Aid had gone backstage, and was out of visible range.
Ack, this isn’t the time to be thinking about stupid things.
Right now, we need to advance Ex-Aid’s story.
We left the tournament venue and started tracking Ex-Aid down.
We waited at the Seito Public Hall entrance for twenty minutes.
All of the tournament attendees had left, and the hall was quiet.
Ex-Aid appeared from the dressing room entrance and headed in our direction.
But something was off about his condition.
He looked very different from back when he was on the stage, and he wasn’t walking straight. The blood had somewhat flushed from his face, and he was pale.
By the time Ex-Aid had finally gotten near us, he’d collapsed.
I immediately rushed over to him and propped him up.
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m a bit short on sleep…”
“…Too much gaming?”
“A bit…I pulled an all-nighter practicing for the tournament…”
“And you neglected your health for that?”
“Well, yeah. If I’m gonna be in a tournament, I gotta go all the way. I wanted the championship.”
You’re kidding. Nico got a cold, and now there’s you. You’re both total morons.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with gaming, but you should at least take care of your body when you’re playing.
“Insufficient sleep impairs immune system function. Sit down for a bit.”
“No, I can make it home. I’ll go to bed right away.”
Ex-Aid put his hand on my shoulder and stood up, using his own strength to pick himself up.
I can’t believe this guy.
I remembered the words that Ex-Aid had once said to me.
Back when we were on the final stretch of Kamen Rider Chronicle, when I’d transformed into Chronos for the first time.
Nico had been dragged into the final boss Game Area, and in order to save her, I’d been fighting Gamedeus Chronos with my life on the line. I’d been willing to take on any kind of pain and suffering if it meant saving my patient.
And then, that’s when you said those words to me.
“A doctor shouldn’t be neglecting their own health, either.”
A doctor’s responsible for many different lives. We, as doctors, have to make sure we survive.
I’m here now because of Ex-Aid’s words. I’d been trapped the past, and those words had guided me towards living for the future.
So now that I was watching the high school-aged Ex-Aid acting like his life meant nothing in front of me, something inside me wanted to laugh mirthlessly.
I’m going to throw your words right back at you.
Of course, part of this was because Parad had infected him, but it was hard to believe such a wishy-washy, self-neglecting boy would end up becoming a doctor. How beautifully ironic that this boy would end up guiding me towards the future.
Ex-Aid, I’d like to ask you something.
That unwavering faith of yours, the faith that got you through any adversity — where did you get it from?
You really are quite a mysterious fellow.
A residential area in Seito Fourth District.
Nico and I had followed Ex-Aid there as he wandered home.
Ex-Aid’s house was a complete wreck from the entrance to the living room.
Sneakers tossed at the entrance, a pile of mail left behind on the shoe box, dishes and tableware piled up in the kitchen, laundry left to dry in the hallway. Moisture and dust in the air, clinging to the body on contact.
I hate to be preachy about it, but even I’m better at cleaning things up. Of course, I have to be because I run a clinic with patients, but still.
But when we reached Ex-Aid’s room on the second floor, we were greeted with a shock.
Unlike the entrance and living room, Ex-Aid’s room was completely tidy.
Something felt strange about the sheer difference between the two.
Nico seemed to have felt the same thing, and started muttering.
“Is he on bad terms with his dad?”
“…Why do you think so?”
“I mean, he’s only bothering to keep his own room clean. He doesn’t care a single bit about any living space outside his own. He’s not taking responsibility for it. It’s like he’s totally indifferent to whatever happens with it.”
I had to agree.
Ex-Aid’s room was like a completely different dimension. The level of cleanliness was extraordinary. It was like reaching an oasis after slogging through a battlefield desert.
The room had a bed frame with a futon placed perfectly on it. There was an old desk with stationery and other small objects organized neatly on it. There was a recent model of a 26-inch LCD TV and some high-performance speakers, which he seemed to have bought recently. A bookshelf spanned the entire height of the floor to the ceiling, containing so many games that it almost looked like a store with games sorted by genre. Everything in the room fit in its perfect place, as if planned out and calculated to the smallest detail.
A multitude of game consoles were lined up on transparent glass storage shelves under the TV stand, from major to obscure brands, old ones and new ones, stationary and handheld.
Counting off the top of my head, he had at least twenty of them. I was surprised there were even so many gaming consoles on the market to begin with, but I was even more amazed at how diligently Ex-Aid had been collecting them.
The name “Genius Gamer M” wasn’t just for show.
“Did your dad buy you all of these games?”
“Yeah, but only back when I was a kid. I think I got most of them from working part-time.”
It would take quite a lot of money to buy all of this. I’d pinned him as wishy-washy, but it seemed he still had a voracious desire to get whatever he wanted and a straightforward way of approaching it. I could see faint glimpses of the man Ex-Aid would become.
“Hey, what’s your dad like?” said Nico with an outburst.
Wow, we’re just getting straight to the point.
“Whaddya mean, ‘eh’? Isn’t he your dad?”
“Legally speaking, yes, but in practice we just happen to live together.”
This boy was dismissing his own father as someone who “just happened” to live with him, right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t sense any love, gratitude, or respect from those words.
It was natural for high school kids to have a rebellious phase against their parents, but I had a feeling there was something different about Ex-Aid’s attitude.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
“That’s kinda cold, isn’t it? He raised you, didn’t he?” said Nico, not even mincing words.
“I don’t remember him ever really acting like a father. He’s at work all the time and isn’t at home much, so I’m the one who has to cook breakfast and dinner. And clean the house and do the laundry. Well, I guess he pays for the rent and utilities, but that’s about it. But on the flip side, I’m fine with that, because I get to do whatever I want in my free time.”
Ah, I know what this feeling is.
I was sensing “resignation” from Ex-Aid.
When someone feels let down by another person, they might feel something like “dissatisfaction” or “anger”.
But Ex-Aid had none of that. He didn’t expect a single thing from his father.
He’d already given up.
Every family has its own baggage to deal with, and there’s no right or wrong answer to how a family should be. Whatever went on with Ex-Aid’s family, as an outsider, I don’t have the right to comment on it, so I won’t.
I looked around the neatly-kept room again.
With everything I’d just learned, the atmosphere in this room felt like it had something completely different in it, like a foreign substance.
This room was unmistakably that of the boy who would become Ex-Aid, a fort isolated from the tiny, confined world one would call a “family”.
Just then, I noticed something on the TV stand that caught my eye.
It was being used as a base to hold a game console, but it was a thick medical school entrance exam preparation book.
I’d relied heavily on that book when I’d taken my own exam, so I knew it well.
Well, well, well. He may be putting up a farce of being a gamer, but it seems he hasn’t completely lost his desire to become a doctor.
Ex-Aid changed into a pair of jersey pants and a T-shirt he’d pulled out of his closet and threw himself onto the bed. He looked ready to doze off.
“And you’re okay with living like this?” I sad.
Ex-Aid lay on the bed with his back to us, pretending not to hear us.
“You don’t actually want to quit studying, right? You know you want to be a doctor.”
Still no response from Ex-Aid.
“You’re free to think whatever you want of your dad, but you’re still the one who decides how you’re gonna live. You can cry or laugh about it all you want, but nobody’s gonna come bail you out.”
“…I don’t have a chance,” muttered Ex-Aid, with his back still turned. “I mean, I studied really hard. When they post test scores, I’m good enough to be closer to the top than the bottom of the class. But I can’t get the top score. It’s so much easier to do that in games. I’m better off there.”
“I mean, if that’s the only thing you care about, of course it’ll be impossible.”
“Hey, Taiga,” warned Nico, interrupting me.
“I’m not even the right kinda person to be a doctor, y’know? Well, I heard gamers can still make a hundred million yen a year or so, so I probably still have hope there.”
“Is money the only thing you value your dreams with?”
“…I’m tired, let me sleep.”
Ex-Aid fell asleep without answering my question, and the room fell silent.
“Hey, wait!” said Nico. “A visual novel protagonist shouldn’t be able to sleep!”
“Remember, this is all part of Genm’s story. There’s more coming.”
“And what’s that?”
“Well, shut up and wait it out. Something’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna change Ex-Aid’s destiny.”
Just as I’d thought, I could sense someone was coming into the house through the front door outside the room.
Nico and I glanced at each other, and we hid in the closet and held our breaths. We used the ventilation gap in the closet door to get a look at what was going on outside.
We could hear the footsteps of someone coming up the stairs.
No, not one person, but two.
Two people were heading straight upstairs, with the pace of someone with a clear purpose in mind.
Ex-Aid and his father lived in this house, and no one else. The door was locked, so it shouldn’t have been possible for two people to barge in.
The footsteps came closer to the room and stopped right on the other side of the door.
There was something ominous about the knocking on the door.
Ex-Aid was sleeping in bed, completely oblivious.
After confirming that Ex-Aid was asleep, someone outside quietly turned the doorknob.
A middle-aged man I’d never seen before opened the door and walked in.
He had a light grey suit and a dark red necktie. He was around 180 centimeters tall and had a thin physique. He had well-defined facial features, like an actor known for his looks. Although he looked younger than he should have been, his face was close enough to Ex-Aid’s that I could easily tell he was Ex-Aid’s father.
Nico seemed to have also figured that out, and she bent over towards me and whispered into my ears.
“…If you take Emu’s face and use the ‘old’ filter with the camera app, you’d get something like that.”
“…Yeah, probably,” I said, whispering in a voice soft enough to be inaudible to even mosquitoes.
“But isn’t he supposed to be at work? Why is he here?”
Ex-Aid’s father looked back outside the open door.
In response, another person stepped into the room.
I saw his face, and was left speechless.
A tall man in a form-fitted dark suit — Genm.
“…Huh? Wait. Why did Emu’s dad bring Kuroto Dan with him?”
“…We’ll probably get to see the answer soon.”
Genm opened an aluminum briefcase on the desk.
He pulled out fresh rubber gloves, put them on both hands, and started filling an anesthetic syringe with clear liquid.
After finishing, he approached the bed and injected it into Ex-Aid’s left arm vein.
I couldn’t stand to watch and was about to jump out of the closet, but Nico stepped on my foot as hard as she could.
I swallowed the noise I was about to make and looked back at Nico.
“…This is still part of Kuroto Dan’s visual novel game story, right?” she said.
She was right. Ironic that she had to be the one to remind me.
I took a deep breath and looked back at what was going on in the room.
Genm had finished administering Ex-Aid’s anesthetic and was putting all of his tools back in the briefcase.
“Please leave the rest to me.”
After speaking those words to Ex-Aid’s father, he picked Ex-Aid up from the bed and carried him out of the room.
It was obvious where Genm would take Ex-Aid next. He would be taken to the Next Genome Research Institute, where Parad would be separated from him via operation.
Ex-Aid’s father was left standing in the room by himself.
“…No hard feelings, Emu.”
What was that even supposed to mean?
What exactly was he apologizing for?
Could those words even be called an apology?
We still had no clue about anything at the time.
Seito Ninth District. The Next Genome Research Institute stuck out conspicuously in the outskirts of the industrial area.
Its director was Michihiko Zaizen, an expert in gene therapy.
The institute mainly worked in research and development for cutting-edge gene therapy technology meant for further development of medicine and biology…or so it was on paper, but no one knew what actually went on in there because they rarely disclosed what they were actually doing in public.
After everything I’d heard about it, I still wasn’t sure if they were making clones or mutants or what, but whatever it was, it was where a bunch of genetics-obsessed weirdos were doing some really messed up things.
In the depths of the institute, there was an operating room with tons of equipment meant for some kind of research or other.
Ex-Aid, who was under anesthesia, was sleeping on the operating table.
In addition, Genm and four other people wearing surgical gowns were there.
“I have great expectations of your work, Dr. Zaizen. Now, we shall create a revolution in genome research.”
I could see one of the men in surgical gowns nodding.
That was probably the surgeon, Michihiko Zaizen.
That meant the other three were researchers who worked under him at the institute.
Souji Kuruse, Ageha Takeda, Kazushige Ryuuzaki.
After many years of infecting Ex-Aid’s body, Parad was finally being separated from him.
Even after seeing the entire thing myself, I had no idea how they were pulling off off the separation surgery. They were applying some kind of advanced gene therapy technology or something.
Eventually, as the separation surgery was reaching its climax, a large mass of Bugster virus emerged from Emu’s body and scattered throughout the operating room.
Zaizen and the three others were infected with the Bugster virus, and it seemed they hadn’t expected this since they were in a panic. It took little time for the four of them to completely vanish.
The Bugster virus floated through the room and formed a humanoid shape, one I recognized as Parad.
Seeing that it was all over, Genm came back into the operating room.
Parad glared at Genm with a wary look.
“Who are you?”
“I have been looking forward to your birth.”
“…Why am I here?”
“We’ll have a more detailed chat later. First, let us mourn the deaths of those who contributed to your separation surgery. They contributed great efforts for me, unaware that they would be infected and vanish.”
Genm closed his eyes as if meditating, but it sure didn’t seem like he was actually mourning them.
Zaizen and the others being infected and disappearing was all a part of his plan.
The only thing he’d actually wanted was Parad. Now that the surgery was over, everyone involved in it needed to be silenced.
All he needed to do was take Ex-Aid back to his room, and everything would be in place.
“The hell’s up with him? Was he always that messed up?” said Nico, obviously upset.
“Yeah. Once he got a hold of Parad, he had the virus in hand, and everything started from there. He used Zero Day to evolve the Bugster virus further…and made a ton of people disappear.”
“What a piece of scum.”
“Genm doesn’t have a concept of life ethics. He’s willing to make any sacrifices and betray anyone for the sake of his games. He’s that kind of person.”
“…He’s the reason you lost your medical license, right?’
“…That’s a different story.”
Technically speaking, Genm was the main culprit behind it all. He’d committed the deep sin of sacrificing tons of our patients.
But I was the one who personally made the decision that led to the loss of my license. That wasn’t something I had the right to blame anyone for.
When Zero Day happened, I’d thought I was the only doctor who could treat patients with Game Syndrome. I kept forcing myself to transform, even after my body wore down from the Proto Gashat’s side effects. Then, I disregarded the Ministry of Health’s instructions, lost control, and failed my operation on Brave’s girlfriend.
I was the one who brought that on myself. I don’t have regrets about that part.
But if I did regret something, it was that I couldn’t save Brave’s girlfriend. That I couldn’t do enough. That I was so pathetic. That was all.
If I had saved her, I wouldn’t have gotten Brave involved in the fight against the Bugster virus.
No, not just Brave. If I’d stayed with CR, I wouldn’t have gotten Ex-Aid involved in this.
And then, Genm and I could have settled things ourselves…
“Taiga, you’re doing it again.”
“…And what do you mean by that?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. It’s written on your face. You’re back in your old habit of going like ‘it’s all my fault.'”
“…Are you talking about me?”
“Come on, look, how many years have we known each other? I can tell exactly what you’re thinking.”
I couldn’t say anything in response.
My habit…I was offended, but she was exactly right.
Anytime I reflected back on the past, I’d end up back in the middle of the battlefield desert.
The shining sun, a cloudless sky, and sand as far as the eye could see.
At one point, I’d start heading north in search of a single flower, and at one point, I’d start wandering for it in the south.
I’d keep searching for a bud of hope that would turn the desert green. But I’d never managed to find any kind of flower like that.
It was obvious. There’d never been any flowers in the desert to begin with.
I was never going to get my medical license back, and the desert would forever be dry, and I would forever be thirsty.
So in that case, there was only one answer.
I had to give up on making the desert green. I had to accept it and keep living in it for the rest of my life. That was the only thing I could do.
“Okay, okay, we’re done with your little poetic time,” said Nico out of the blue.
“You’re calling me ‘poetic’?”
“You’re waxing poetry in your heart, aren’t you? You might not be saying it out loud, but I know you are.”
…Is she psychic? Can she read minds or something?
“Why, how did you…?!”
“I mean, you’re a lonely guy, aren’t you?”
“Oh, shut up! And no, I’m not.”
“Okay, then start talking.”
“You’ve got someone to talk to right here, so start talking. Say whatever comes up in your head.”
I still hadn’t realized it yet, but —
Against all odds, somehow, there was a flower beginning to sprout in the desert.
“Emu Houjou. You were the right person to choose as my guinea pig.”
We were back in Ex-Aid’s room. Genm spoke those words as he placed Ex-Aid back on the bed and looked down at him.
Genm had returned from the Next Genome Research Institute with Ex-Aid in tow.
“May we meet again.”
Genm smirked and started leaving the room.
Nico suddenly flung herself near Genm and started blowing a raspberry.
“Stupid creep! And you call yourself a god? Gross! Rotten! Hey, why don’t you name yourself Kurotten Dan?1 That fits you better!”
Genm made no response to Nico’s words. Naturally, the rules of the game prevented us from interfering with any characters besides Ex-Aid.
Fortunately, that meant Nico could insult and rant at Genm all she liked as he left the room.
It seemed she still had a deep-seated grudge against Genm for everything his Kamen Rider Chronicle had done to her. I’ll just let her do what she wants. Some stress relief should be good for her.
But there was one very important thing I’d witnessed, one that I needed to keep in mind.
We’d already known about Genm’s crimes well enough, but the fact Ex-Aid’s father was involved in this was a serious problem.
I still couldn’t tell what he’d been trying to do, or if he’d had malicious intent, but there was something obviously strange about the fact he’d allowed his own son to be taken out of the house under anesthesia.
There was a possibility there was still something hidden in Mighty Novel X that we hadn’t uncovered yet.
We needed to stay on guard.
Just then, Ex-Aid began turning over in bed. He woke up from the anesthesia right on time, as if Genm had planned for it.
Ex-Aid let out a huge yawn and stretched.
“…Oh, are you still here? I apologize. How long have I been sleeping?”
“Huh? Hey, Taiga, he got all polite all of a sudden!”
“…Parad’s been removed from him, so Ex-Aid’s gone back to his original personality.”
I wasted no time in going back to the transparent glass storage shelf on the TV stand. I pulled out the medical school entrance exam preparation book from under the game console and tossed it at Ex-Aid.
“Huh? Um, what’s this?”
“Have you opened your eyes now?”
Ex-Aid looked down at the study book, and his face turned sullen.
“…I don’t have any use for this anymore.”
He got off the bed and threw the book into the trash can.
No hesitation. Just like that.
I pulled the book out of the trash can and threw it back at Ex-Aid’s chest again.
“You sure you wanna throw that away?’
“…I’m in my last year of high school. It’s too late for me.”
“You think you can’t get into medical school? You’re gonna give up before you even try?”
“It’s not just that…I…I can’t even take care of my own health…Someone like me can’t be trusted with others’ lives…I don’t have that right.”
But that wasn’t your fault. That was because Parad was in your body. Because of that, you you improved your skills at gaming, and another version of you was born. You were just busy raising Genius Gamer M for a while. But now, even if you’re a bit off the track, you’re the right person to become a doctor.
I had to catch the words in my throat.
I looked back at Ex-Aid, but he was staring into space with a vacant look.
“…I’m the kind of person who couldn’t even appreciate the value of life.”
Ex-Aid’s words were so unexpected that my spine completely froze.
Couldn’t appreciate the value of life? Ex-Aid, of all people?
I couldn’t understand what this boy had just said.
He’d gotten in a car accident as a kid. He’d viscerally experienced fear of death. He should understand the value of life more than anyone else.
But there was something different in Ex-Aid’s eyes, something mysteriously strong.
It wasn’t dissatisfaction or anger. It wasn’t resignation, either. It was a completely unidentifiable foreign substance.
My instinct told me that there was a mysterious “something” in his heart, like the desert in my own.
“Don’t you agree? There’s no way I can become a doctor.”
After finishing his sentence, Ex-Aid froze like a cactus in the desert.
A hologram monitor was projected in front of us, with three choices on it.
(You can’t) | (You can) | (Other)
“Oh…Taiga, we’re at a visual novel decision point. If we mess up here, we’ll get a Game Over, so be careful.”
But my head was already boiling over.
I couldn’t hear Nico’s advice anymore, and I was already grabbing Ex-Aid’s collar before I knew it.
“You try and say that one more time!”
“Hey, Taiga, wait! If you do something weird, we might get a Game Over!”
I know you.
I know you as an intern who always said you wanted to bring people’s smiles back.
I know you as a pediatrician who swore it was an adult’s duty to protect children’s lives and smiles.
I know you as a doctor who’s more pure-hearted and passionate than anyone else.
(You can’t) | (You can) | (Other)
There’s only one answer I could possibly give here…
“You can be a doctor! You will be a doctor!”
There are people who were saved because you became a doctor.
There are people who could smile again because of you.
You were the one who told me that a doctor had a duty to survive, weren’t you?
I’m here right now because of you.
If you can’t be a doctor, who the hell even could?
“Listen up. Being a doctor is in your destiny. So stop fussing about the little things and do what you need to do! You can do it, even if it means putting your life on the line! Hear me? You can do it!”
In the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten.
The words “you can do it” could potentially be counterproductive for patients with mental health problems in psychological counseling.
But I’d completely lost my composure.
I’d completely lost any thoughts of Ex-Aid’s psychosomatic treatment or the need to beat Mighty Novel X.
I was in such an emotional frenzy that I just kept screaming at Ex-Aid.
I couldn’t hold back anymore. I was at my limit.
You’re the one making me do this, Ex-Aid.
I heard a voice announcing the end of the game, and I snapped out of it.
The ending was so unexpected that I was at a loss for words.
What’s behind that lie of yours, Emu?
I work as a medical examiner, so I have a habit of trying to look underneath people.
Being a medical examiner means being handed tons of bodies with unclear cause of death. As per administrative regulations, my job is to perform autopsies and figure out how they died.
Now, of course, a corpse can’t talk. Things would be a lot easier if a corpse could just up and reveal “I was poisoned” or something, but they don’t. We don’t get any miracles like you’d see in movies or TV shows, so we don’t see any ghosts coming out of the bodies and telling us what happened. We have to investigate every inch of the body, sometimes even down to the genetic level, to unravel the mystery behind how they died. You could call it “seeing through the lies hidden in the body”.
So. When you’re dealing with a living person, you have to change things up a bit.
Eye movements, vocal tone, how they move their arms and legs, what they talk about — those kinds of things are all are clues you pick up on to figure out whether they’re lying or telling the truth.
Of course, unless they’re very good at planning out their lies, most people have their lies written right on their faces.
The moment we’d touched on Emu’s family, Emu had also been completely transparent.
“My parents were both ordinary office workers.”
“Were”. Past tense.
We already knew why he’d talk about his mom in past tense. She’d passed away before he was even old enough to remember her.
But his dad was still alive, and yet he’d still used past tense. A sign of a lie right there.
Oh, just to be clear, normally, I have a personal policy of staying out of lies that don’t need to be exposed.
If it’s a lie to protect someone’s privacy, or a white lie made to prevent someone’s feelings from being hurt, as long as it’s not hurting anyone, it’s best to leave it alone.
But unfortunately, with Emu, I wasn’t in a position where I could leave this alone.
I felt bad about intruding into his private life, but we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to beat Mighty Novel X.
So. That’s how I ended up in Seito First District, where all the businesses offices were.
There was one huge building towering all of the other company buildings clustered in the area.
It was the company building for the largest medical device manufacturer in the company, “MedicTrick”.
Here it is. Emu’s dad works here.
Nearly all the hospitals in the country relied on MedicTrick for their medical devices. They’d had a massive impact on the medical world.
I’d gone through medical magazines and found a special feature on Emu’s dad. Kiyonaga Houjou seemed to have been on quite the career path for the last decade or so. He’d gone from an ordinary developer to the chief developer, to the development department manager, to the managing director. Quite a talented person.
I tried to snag a conversation with him by staking out the MedicTrick building entrance.
I could’ve made up something and scheduled an appointment with him if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t want to make him wary of me if I could avoid it. Fortunately, I’m good at sitting tight if I need to.
Right around the time the sun was about to set, Emu’s dad came out from under the entrance.
He was wearing a light grey suit and a dark red tie, with shiny black leather shoes and a black leather. He had clean-cut facial features and a bit of a beard with grey hair that suited him well. My first impression of him was that he was pretty good at presenting himself with style.
I ran right up to him and blocked his path.
“You’re Kiyonaga Houjou, right?”
“Who are you?”
He looked down directly at me. Somehow, I always end up dealing with these kinds of people, even at CR. So many easily offended tall people — okay, wait, no, that’s not the issue here.
Emu’s dad had a firm posture and seemed to be calm, but he was also clearly very wary of me. Well, a stranger had started talking to him out of nowhere, so it was only natural.
“I’m Kiriya Kujou. I work at Seito University Hospital as a CR doctor.”
I started off with the first bait scrap. How would he react upon hearing I was one of Emu’s coworkers?
“And what business do you have with me?”
Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to be all that agitated. It was more like he was trying to dismiss this as having nothing to do with him.
“I’d like to take a moment to ask you about something we need for one of our patients’ psychosomatic treatment.”
“What do I have to do with this?”
“The patient is your son, Emu.”
Emu’s dad took a glance at his watch, as if trying to see how much time he had left in his schedule for this.
Okay, but seriously, what’s up with that attitude? I thought. You care more about the time than your own son?
“I haven’t seen him in quite a long time. I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”
“You haven’t seen him?”
“Hasn’t he told you? He moved out right after he graduated high school, and started living by himself.”
He said it with a flat tone, like he was objectively talking about someone else’s problems.
This guy is giving me some seriously bad vibes.
“You’re not worried about your own son’s health?”
“I wouldn’t say we’ve completely cut ties, but we’ve set up a rule between each other to not get involved with each other’s affairs.”
“Even though you’re his bona fide, blood-related father?”
“He preferred it this way.”
Hah, I see. And you’re saying you prefer it this way too, right?
“I don’t know what’s been going on between you two, but…Emu’s been working really hard.”
“Of course, I know that. He was doing work with something called Kamen Rider, right? He’s working at CR and treating patients with Game Syndrome, and taking care of many patients’ lives. My work is in medical device manufacturing, so I’ve heard quite a bit about his accomplishments, and I also saw the press conference he was in. I was very impressed with the magnitude of his accomplishments.”
“Emu’s really been going through a lot. He still is.”
As I was saying those words, Emu’s dad cut me off.
“I apologize, but I have somewhere I need to be.”
He tried to walk around me and get away as quickly as possible.
“Wait. Please just answer one question.”
Emu’s dad stopped in his tracks and turned around to look back at me without moving his feet.
“What is it?”
“…When was the last time you saw Emu?”
“Does this have something to do with his psychosomatic treatment?”
“Yes. It’s very important.”
He took a moment to respond. I couldn’t tell if he was actually trying to remember, or if he was thinking about ignoring the question.
After some time had passed, I was about to give up on getting an answer from him when he opened his mouth.
“I had pneumonia at one point and was admitted into Seito University Hospital. That was right around the time my son started attending Seito University School of Medicine. He came to visit me once, and only once. That was the last time we met each other.”
With that said, he vanished into the street as the light around it was fading.
It’s all or nothing, but I’ll have to play my cards.
I started visualizing Seito University Hospital in my mind.
Waaaaaaarp to the hospital!
But for some reason, my body wasn’t budging an inch.
Huh? Wait. Right. I’m not a Bugster anymore.
If I were still a Bugster, I could teleport at least that far.
Maaaaaaan. This is the worst time to be stuck with a real body.
I ended up stretching a few times and running off towards the train station.
The full moon was already high in the night sky by the time I’d arrived at Seito University Hospital.
I got the hospital director to help me find Emu’s dad’s medical charts and inpatient treatment records.
It was just as he’d said; he’d been in this hospital for about a week from pneumonia.
Department of Respiratory Medicine, general ward, Room 201.
This was where Emu had last seen his father.
It was still just a hunch, but I was sure something must have happened to change Emu’s fate when he’d last seen his own father.
They’d set up a rule to not interfere with each other’s affairs, so what was Emu thinking when he went to go see his dad?
What kind of story was lurking in that room?
I passed by the nurse’s station and found the room in question at the back of the general ward.
It was a private room with only one bed. This was the kind of room a patient could pay a little extra to have some added privacy, and to have the room set up to be like their working environment at home.
I barged into the room to find some old guy, shriveled up like a dried bamboo shoot, flirting with a young nurse. He was in a private room and no one else was watching, so it seemed he’d gotten an inflated head. “How much money d’ya want? I could getcha an entire apartment.” The only thing he had going for him was his money, so he was flinging it around.
Normally, I’d be tempted to toy with him a bit, but I didn’t have time, so I ignored him.
I put the Gamer Driver on my waist, qualifying me to participate in the game.
Mighty Novel X! Cutscene Start!
My reasoning had been spot on, and the game’s system voice echoed throughout the room.
The bamboo shoot geezer and the nurse lady were startled by the sudden voice, and they looked around back and forth until they saw me there.
“Sorry for barging in!”
The room around me distorted like a pixel mosaic.
The bamboo shoot geezer and the nurse lady also looked distorted in a mosaic.
It’d already been obscene enough to watch without the censor, but now it really looked —
…No, this isn’t the time to be fussing about obscenity. Focus, focus.
The race is about to hit the climax.
I was in Mighty Novel X‘s Game Area version of Room 201.
I’d arrived at the race’s start line and was greeted with the face of Emu’s dad, Kiyonaga Houjou, who was sitting upright on the bed and using a laptop on his bed table.
He was wearing a light blue hospital gown and had an IV drip in his arm.
It seemed he’d recovered enough from his pneumonia to start catching up on work again.
I tried speaking up. “Excuse me, but if you’re in the hospital, getting some proper rest is part of your job, too.”
But Emu’s dad completely ignored me.
There was no way he couldn’t have heard me, but since he had absolutely no reaction whatsoever, I figured he was a complete NPC who couldn’t hear my voice.
Suddenly, I heard the hospital door opening.
I turned around to see Emu in casual clothes.
He was wearing a yellow patterned T-shirt and red pants, in an in-your-face color scheme that probably came from his gamer days. He certainly didn’t look like a medical student.
Emu was looking straight at his dad, but his dad was so absorbed in his work that he didn’t notice him.
Around ten seconds passed.
I could sense hesitation from Emu’s face.
“Why don’t you come in?” I asked.
“…But he looks fine.”
I’d managed to get Emu talking to me. Since Emu was the protagonist, the game rules would let me talk to him, but not anyone else.
Well, that makes things easier for me. I just need to get Emu on the right track, and the story will keep going.
“He’s your dad, isn’t he? You should go see him.”
“…I don’t know if I’d call that man my father.”
“Okay, but you still came all the way over here. Come on.”
I snuck around behind Emu and pushed him from behind.
Emu’s father had finally noticed him, and he turned to look straight at him.
There was a brief silence.
To be honest, I was having a hard time enduring all of this.
Emu was the one who broke the silence first.
“…I heard you got pneumonia.”
“…I shouldn’t have picked this hospital. The doctors here are overreacting. I shouldn’t need to be hospitalized.”
His words seemed to have irritated Emu, and Emu started speaking a little more passive-aggressively.
“…That just means the doctors here are very good at their jobs.”
“…Oh, so you’re acting like you’re one of them now?”
“…I still can’t believe you managed to make it into medical school after wasting all your time on video games.”
“…You know how old you’re getting, right? You won’t be able to do your job if you let your body fall apart.”
“…I don’t need your pity.”
“…I shouldn’t need to say it, but I don’t need you coming to visit me.”
It was hard to believe they were father and son.
There wasn’t anything remotely familial in any of their words.
It was like the two were fatally estranged.
What had happened to put such a wedge between them?
“…I came to see you because I’m not like you.”
Emu’s face had some kind of disgust in it.
He didn’t put the sentiment in clear words, but his dad seemed to get it.
“You know, back then, you didn’t come to see me. Oh, it’s not like I was clingy enough to be lonely in there. I knew you were busy with work, so I’d have preferred it if you hadn’t come at all.”
I could easily figure out that “back then” meant “when Emu had gotten hospitalized from the car accident he’d gotten in when he was little”.
“But you certainly seem to have quite a grudge against me for that.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying, I’d rather not be like you. I don’t want people thinking we’re from the same stock, and I’d personally rather not think that.”
“I see you’re still obsessed with petty things like winning and losing.”
“Wow, I’m amazed you even acknowledge you’ve lost.”
The poison was building up within their words, little by little.
This was a game world, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
Emu, stop it, that’s enough.
The words were on the tip of my tongue, but his dad said something that threw me off.
“You think you get to say that when you should have lost your life?”
There was a strange sense of weight to his words.
It was something very different from the passive-aggressiveness he’d been throwing out at him.
Emu was now so obviously upset that he was out of words to say.
That one sentence had completely reversed their positions.
“Why are you even still alive? Why couldn’t you have just died back then?!”
My head went completely blank, and I started yelling before I could even stop myself.
I knew there was no point in yelling that. I was in the game, and the rules kept me from interfering with anyone besides Emu.
But. I couldn’t help myself.
There were many different kinds of parents and children. All of them had their own baggage. I was an outsider, and it wasn’t my place to say anything about it.
But still. I couldn’t just stand there and say nothing.
“What the hell kind of father do you think you are?!”
My body was acting on reflex. I wanted to get on the bed and grab him. I needed to get at least one punch on him, or else I wouldn’t be satisfied.
But Emu stopped me, not with brute force, but with his eyes.
Somehow, I couldn’t sense any anger or disappointment with his father.
I couldn’t get a grasp of Emu’s real feelings through his eyes.
Emu looked back at the man on the bed and spoke calmly.
“I’m alive right now…because I was saved by heroes.”
“Heroes…?” said the man on the bed, confused.
“The heroes in our world who protect our lives. Doctors.”
The man in the bed began shaking, agitated by Emu’s words.
“A doctor…and you think you get to be one of those heroes! Do you really think you have the right to save other people’s lives?! You, of all people! After you betrayed me on that rainy day!”
My heart was pounding loudly with fear.
The angry yelling from the man in the bed was filling the air, and I had goosebumps all over my body.
…I’m about to get right into the core of Mighty Novel X‘s story.
…If I take one more step, I might fall into a hole I can’t get out of.
…Should I just get out of here while I still can?
…Those thoughts were passing through my head.
…For the first time in my life, I was afraid of learning the truth behind a lie.
…I was afraid of learning the truth behind Emu’s lie.
My right hand was already drifting towards the Gamer Driver on my waist. If I released the lock, I’d be disqualified from the game and would have a chance to get out of here.
But the decision was about to be made for me.
I felt someone pushing me from behind out of nowhere, and I was flung towards the window at the end of the room.
I crashed into the wall, and a dull pain ran through my body.
I looked up to see another Emu in the room, one that was definitely not still in medical school.
Emu, with a white coat and a Gamer Driver on his waist. It was Emu, who had been brainwashed after getting a Game Over in Mighty Novel X.
“Emu, go easy on me a bit, will you? I just got this body back, I’d like to take care of it.”
My words couldn’t reach Emu at all.
He approached me, grabbed me by the collar, and threw me at the window.
I fell from the second floor, with broken window glass shards around me. I bent myself over and flipped over to minimize the damage, crashing into the ground with my left shoulder.
“Ow ow ow…”
Emu followed up by jumping through the window he’d just broken and landed in front of me. He stepped on the window glass pieces on the ground, crushing them and approaching me step by step.
I stood up, enduring the aching in my body.
“Emu, what’d you do to make your father say you betrayed him?”
“…I can’t allow you to get any further in Mighty Novel X.”
Ah, I see. He’s like a guardian trying to keep me away from the core of the story.
Emu pulled out both the Maximum Mighty X Gashat and the Hyper Invincible Gashat, starting them both up at the same time.
Maximum Mighty X! Hyper Invincible!
Okay, wait, wait, are you serious? Are you seriously going all the way?!
“Hyper Super Transform!”
Here we go! In-vinci-ble! Like a bright and shining shooting star! The strongest gamer in gold! Hyper Invincible Ex-Aid!
Kamen Rider Ex-Aid Invincible Gamer appeared with a bright and dazzling glow of light.
…but I seriously didn’t have a second to waste. We were past the point of trying to talk it out with him. I had to prioritize self-defense.
I pulled out the Bursting Bike Gashat and started it up.
“Zero Gear, Transform!”
I put the Gashat in my Gamer Driver, and the character selection screen spun around me.
I aimed for the Laser screen — with a roundhouse kick!
I transformed into Kamen Rider Laser Turbo Bike Gamer Level 0.
“I’m really not feeling the drive today, but whatever. Let’s go.”
Invincible started hitting me with a flurry of attacks, faster than the eye could see. By the way, that’s not a metaphor or anything, he was literally too fast to see. It was almost at the speed of light. When the song calls him “like a bright and shining shooting star”, they really mean it.
I had to endure all of his attacks and find a way to survive all of that — so I defended myself on instinct. But when Invincible was charging at me at the speed of light, I was only able to block one punch at most. I couldn’t last very long like that, so I was blown back in no time.
Figuring I might as well, I took out the Gashacon Sparrow, set it to Bow Mode, and shot out a ton of arrows.
But Invincible didn’t take a single scratch. He’d taken all of the arrows without even bothering to guard, but he’d barely taken any knockback at all.
Instead, he grabbed me by the right leg, lifted me up in the air, and started swinging me around.
Hey, hey, hey, hey, wait, stop, I’m getting dizzy~!
He flung me with all of his might, smashing the entirety of my body against the white hospital walls.
I looked at the Rider Gauge and saw that I had only one bar left.
Oh, I’m done for. I don’t think I can escape when Invincible’s that fast. One more hit, and it’ll be Game Over for me.
Man, Emu, you really don’t cut corners, do you? You can’t even let me off for a second, please?
I just got my body back, and now I’m gonna disappear again…
Invincible pressed the switch on the Hyper Invincible Gashat.
Invincible was staring at me with his rainbow eyes.
Emu. I can only imagine what kind of expression you’ve got there behind the mask.
“…You really never do go easy on anyone, do you, Emu…? Just like back then…”
Back when I’d been revived as a Bugster, Emu and I had been fighting each other.
I could never forget that day on the beach.
I knew Masamune Dan would never be on board with me if I didn’t go all the way, so I hardened my heart and drove Emu into a corner.
And then, I whispered those words into Emu’s ear: “It’s a bluff, so just get on board for now.”
Even after you knew what I was actually trying to do…you still punched me with all of your might.
Honestly, even I was shocked. I thought, isn’t that a little too much? Well, not that I had the right to say that about anyone else.
Now that I thought back on it, Emu had always been like that for as long as I’d known him.
Once he was set on something, he kept going on that path and never looked back. For better or for worse, he’d go all the way and refuse to budge. No leeway whatsoever.
But that was exactly why I’d been so fascinated by how pure and straightforward he was. That’s why I’d picked him as the only one worthy of riding Laser Level 2 in motorcycle form.
…And now, that very same person…
…You, Emu, are about to be the one who finishes me off.
…Could anyone have even imagined my last moments would be like this?
…Could any ending be any more unbelievable than this?
My destiny had come for me.
Invincible pressed the switch on the Hyper Invincible Gashat’s again.
Hyper Critical Sparking!
Invincible jumped high into the air. A kick was heading towards me at the speed of light.
I wasn’t getting out of this one.
I closed my eyes, ready for my Game Over.
The next moment, a strong burst blew me back.
I could hear the deafening sound of an explosion.
“Still alive, Laser?”
Once I could process what had just happened, I realized Invincible’s kick had missed me by just a bit.
Right next to me was Kamen Rider Snipe Simulation Gamer Level 50, standing there with his Commander Guard Cap and a ten-gun artillery unit around his body.
“Looks like we arrived just in time, examiner.”
Next to Snipe was a warrior in white armor and a white cape — Kamen Rider Brave Legacy Gamer Level 100.
Brave held a hand over me, and a white aura appeared.
His recovery magic recovered my Rider Gauge in an instant.
“You guys are such showoffs. Anyway, thanks for saving me.”
I stood up and put myself between them.
In front of us, Invincible landed on the ground, his kick having hit nothing at all.
“How’d you guys end up here, though?”
“My father informed me that you had gone to a room in the Department of Respiratory Medicine.”
“We managed to clear some Mighty Novel X cutscenes on our end.”
“Man, you guys left me in the dust.”
“We’ll talk about it more later. Get out of here for now.”
Brave readied his Gashacon Sword. He pressed the A Button and switched it to Ice Mode with a “Ka-ching!“
“We’ve got three seconds to get out of here. We’ll stall him for three seconds.”
Snipe pulled up his primary gun unit, the Overblast Cannon, with both arms.
Got it. I got your strategy loud and clear.
“Hey, Emu. If there’s something you want to hide, I’d rather leave it there. But if I want to get you back from your Game Over, I have to beat Mighty Novel X. That means I’ll have to confront whatever’s in your heart. It’s gonna be some rough treatment, but please, forgive me, okay?”
I pulled out the Proto Jet Combat Gashat and started it up.
“Burst speed. Transform.”
I inserted the Gashat into the second Gamer Driver slot and pulled the lever.
I leveled up into Proto Combat Bike Gamer Level 0.
The Air Force Winger flight unit on my back carried me up into the air, and I fired explosive light balls at Invincible with the Gatling Combat.
Of course, it wasn’t going to work on Invincible. But it was good enough for what we needed.
Brave made use of the time I’d bought with the barrage and drove his Gashacon Sword into the ground. The ground froze, creating a flurry of stupidly huge icicles around Invincible.
Snipe charged up energy in his Overblast Cannon and fired at Invincible.
With nowhere to escape thanks to the icicles, Invincible was blown back.
Naturally, even after being directly attacked like that, Invincible took no damage.
But it was enough to give him knockback for three seconds.
“All right! I say no thank you to any more fighting!” yelled Brave.
I landed onto the ground and immediately released my transformation.
Brave and Snipe both released their transformations in unison.
All three of us pulled off our Gamer Drivers and were kicked out of the Game Area.
At some point, the moon had vanished from the night sky.
There were clouds in the sky, hiding the moon behind them. The lack of moonlight made the surrounding area seem even darker. The road in front of us was illuminated only by the streetlights that dotted the road.
Something cold hit my cheeks, and my a chill went through my spine.
It was raining. It was starting to drizzle, wetting the greenery around us and the concrete on the streets. I was greeted with a peculiar scent from the ground. Some Greek scholar had named this scent “petrichor” back in the day. It was Greek for “essence of stone”.
Petrichor made something in my chest shudder, to the point of it being a unconscious reflex.
It’s raining now, of all times?
Something bad is gonna happen. Whenever it rains, something bad always happens. It’s been like this for the last few years. Since when did I become such a weather fortuneteller? I swear, it’s like the sun’s setting us up for one of those prank camera shows.
They always say truth can be stranger than fiction. No matter how much the god’s stuffed Mighty Novel X’s story with “destiny”, this rain pouring on us feels like a hell of a lot more like a dramatic story of destiny.
Of course, I’d rather we not have this kind of rain to begin with…
…Oops, I went off on a monologue.
Now, you’re probably wondering how we ended up here on the streets, surrounded by a scent with the charming name of “petrichor”.
After escaping from Invincible, the good doctor, Dr. Salt-and-Pepper Head, and I met up with Nico in the hallway in front of Room 201, and we all headed for the next Novel Spot.
Seito Fourth District — the streets where Emu lived back when he was a kid.
But man, it’s freezing. If I’d known it was gonna rain, I’d have brought an umbrella.
“Examiner. Could this be…where Poppy Pipopapo went?”
“Ah, I see. This is where Ex-Aid got in his car accident, isn’t it?”
As usual, the good doctor and Dr. Salt-and-Pepper Head are quick on the uptake. Good, we can just cut to the chase then.
“Let’s go…and see the day that changed Emu’s destiny.”
We all put our Gamer Drivers on our waists, fulfilling the conditions to enter Mighty Novel X.
Mighty Novel X! Cutscene Start!
The Mighty Novel X system voice echoed through the air.
We were finally at the last corner of the race.
The checkered flag was just around the corner.
Hang tight, Emu. We’ll handle your treatment ourselves.
I’m coming to save you.
We were inside the Mighty Novel X Game Area.
Our surroundings looked almost exactly the same as the real thing. The only difference was that the vegetation was in different shapes.
The greenery. The road. The street light. The rain.
I heard footsteps sloshing on the wet sidewalk.
I turned around to see a kid with a yellow umbrella, walking towards us on the sidewalk next to the road. A yellow T-shirt, navy blue shorts, blue boots, and a black leather school backpack.
“That’s the pediatrician from when he was a child,” said the good doctor. He’d seen him like this before, so he’d recognized him on the spot.
Emu stopped right in front of us.
“You don’t have an um-bre-lla?”
“Nope. How forgetful of us, right?” I replied.
“Won’t you catch a cold?”
“Don’t worry about us, we’re doctors…Where are you going?”
Emu’s voice was trembling.
That’s weird. Emu’s lying. Why? Why would he need to lie about that?
Suddenly, the good doctor cut in.
“No, this isn’t the right way to school.”
I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying for a moment.
“This place, where he had his accident…is not on the way to the pediatrician’s elementary school. It’s in a completely different direction. When I cleared my last cutscene, I saw the pediatrician and Councillor Hinata discussing that.”
…Then where is Emu actually going?
“Taiga! Remember what Emu said back then?” said Nico.
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that ever since we cleared that cutscene. Back when he was in high school, Ex-Aid said something like ‘I’m the kind of person who couldn’t even appreciate the value of life.’ That might mean something.”
Emu, of all people, said that about himself?
And when Emu went to go see his father, his father had said something…
…A road in the opposite direction from school…Someone who couldn’t even appreciate the value of life.
One second later, the seemingly disjointed pieces of the story all snapped into place.
I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think I was just reading too much into it.
“I…saw Emu’s father…and he said to Emu…’Do you really think you have the right to save other people’s lives?!’…’After you betrayed me on that rainy day!’…”
Everyone’s shock was on their faces. It was raining, but all of us couldn’t even blink.
I felt chills running all over my body and found myself trembling, but definitely not because of the rain.
At that moment, the young Emu broke out with Game Syndrome and started crying in pain.
Still holding his yellow umbrella, Emu stepped out into the road.
A passenger car was coming. It was too late to hit the brakes.
A loud horn rang out through the air. There was a sound of a huge impact, and the yellow umbrella flew through the air. A nearby passerby yelled for an ambulance.
I rushed over to the young Emu and supported his tiny body.
Blood was coming out from his head, and his eyes were unfocused. His body was shaking.
“…Was it my de-sti-ny for it to end this way?”
“Did I get a Game Over be-cause I’m so worth-less?”
Emu’s body suddenly stopped trembling.
He was frozen, like a stalled motorcycle.
A hologram monitor was projected in front of me with three options.
(Yes) | (No) | (Other)
My heart hurt. It hurt, it hurt so much it felt like it was being crushed.
I realized I had warm water in my eyes.
Emu. What a hell of a lie that was.
It might be the most painful lie in this world.
And yet, I have to expose it.
I gave the destined answer…
I embraced the tiny Emu as hard as I could.
“…This might…be your destiny…after all.”
I could barely even get out the words.
“…But only…if you want it…to be that way.”
That was all I could manage to say.
If I’d said any more than that, if I’d said it in clearer words, it’d feel like actual, undeniable fact.
I was still trying not to believe it. I was still trying not to admit it.
“…I didn’t rea-lly want to go to school…I took the long way…If I were gone…no-bo-dy would mind…so I tried to reset…you can reset a game when it’s too hard…so I thought I should reset my life…”
I could hear the sound of sniffling from behind.
The good doctor, Dr. Salt-and-Pepper Head, and Nico all seemed to be at their limit, too.
But the worst part about it wasn’t just the fact that Emu had given up on life.
It was that he’d done it without understanding the gravity of what he’d did, thinking it was just like hitting the reset button in a game. It was that he’d chosen to die as if he were losing only one of many lives in a game.
And also. That his father had failed at getting him to cherish and appreciate his one and only life. So had his school. So had the rest of the world.
“But, Emu…your life won’t end here. You can’t reset it.”
“In this world…there are heroes who’ll protect you in this world.”
These are your words, Emu.
You said those words to your father.
Even if you try to give up on your own life, the doctors won’t let you.
And you’ll see. No one will have to tell you. You’ll figure it out on your own.
We all have the power to change our own destiny, no matter what it is.
We all have something to live for. We can all smile.
That’s what it means to have the power to change our own destiny.
You can’t go against the will to live.
The game of your life will go on with no continues.
It’s still going on now. It’ll keep going.
…My heart is trembling.
I was in a familiar place.
It was quiet, as a game had been paused.
The dark blue surface of the water spread throughout the darkness, as far as the eye could see.
It wasn’t a sea, or a lake, or a pool. It was a bottomless pit of water.
I could see something white floating in the water. There was something white in the water, trying to lure me in.
I instinctively tried to look away.
No. I’m scared. Water makes me think of death. Stop. Stop it.
I tried to calm my heavy breathing, and I saw something white again.
I squinted, getting a better view of what the white thing was.
Wait. It’s not trying to lure me in.
It needs my help.
That’s…a white coat.
It’s Emu. Emu’s drowning in the water.
“Emu! Don’t die!”
I jumped into the dark water without even thinking about it.
I’d pushed all of the fear out of my mind, and was completely drenched in water.
I headed for the white coat, illuminated by a small amount of light. I headed straight for it.
I was getting closer and closer to Emu. Five meters. Four meters. Three meters.
I reached out my hand as far as I could. Two meters.
Emu reached out for me. One meter.
I refuse to let Emu die. Fifty centimeters.
I have to grab his hand. Ten centimeters.
I grabbed Emu’s hand. Don’t worry, Emu. I’ve got you.
But Emu suddenly pulled on my arm, dragging me into the bottomless water.
I accidentally exhaled, and bubbles came out of my mouth.
It hurts. I can’t breathe.
I flailed around, trying to get out of the water as fast as I could.
But no matter how much I tried to kick, I couldn’t reach the surface. I couldn’t even tell what was up or down anymore.
Seeing me desperately flailing around, Emu was — smiling.
Why are you smiling? If we drown here, you’ll die, too!
I hate this. I’m scared. I don’t want to die.
I opened my eyes with a start. There was a white ceiling in front of me.
I was lying on the bed in the CR ward, and my heart was trembling like I was about to die.
Oh, it was a dream…or more like a total nightmare…
“Are you awake, Parad?”
Brave was at my side, wearing a white coat.
I quickly looked around the room to see Snipe, Laser, and Nico.
I immediately started piecing together all the thoughts in my head, trying to figure out what was going on.
Right. I’ve been sleeping this whole time. Emu started up Mighty Novel X. Emu and I were both infected with a Bugster virus…
“Calm down and listen, Parad.”
Brave gave me a summary of everything that had happened.
He told me about Genm’s Mighty Novel X, about Emu and Poppy hitting a Game Over, about Emu’s past in Mighty Novel X, and the truth Emu had been hiding.
Things had gotten pretty serious, it seemed.
“But if Parad’s up now, that means Emu’s emotional state has improved a bit, right?” said Laser.
“Yeah. Seems like our operation still got something done,” said Snipe.
Oh, I see. They were really working hard to help Emu this whole time.
“Where’s Emu?” I asked Brave.
“You should know better than we would. You share your heart with the pediatrician.”
We have the same heart. Right. No matter where in the world we are, Emu and I can communicate with each other.
I focused my mind and felt around for Emu’s heart.
Where are you right now, Emu? What are you thinking about right now?
But Emu’s heart was empty.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t communicate with his heart. I could feel his heart, and it was empty.
All right, I’ve got it. I know where you are. I know where your heart is.
“I’ll take care of the rest.”
I got out of the bed and picked up the Mighty Novel X Gashat on the table next to it.
“Wait, Parad! What are you planning to do!?” yelled Nico, worried.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m gonna save Emu…I’m gonna save Emu’s heart.”
“We’re counting on you, Parad,” said Laser.
“Wait. We’re just gonna make Parad take care of this by himself!?” said Nico, still worried.
“The pediatrician’s Game Syndrome is a mental one. Unlike physical illnesses, we doctors can’t handle this on our own. In the end, the pediatrician must be the one to face his own heart. We have no choice but to leave this in Parad’s hands.”
Yeah, Brave’s right.
I’m Emu, and Emu is me. I have to be the one to save Emu in the end.
Having made up my mind, I started up the Mighty Novel X Gashat.
Mighty Novel X!
The game startup screen for Mighty Novel X appeared behind me. It had game’s “Mighty Novel X” logo and a picture of Mighty on it, colored in black and white like a panda and holding a calligraphy brush.
I was about to do something only a Bugster like me could do.
Since I was a Bugster, I could access the game world right from the game screen.
I’m not letting Genm’s little story go the way he wants.
Wait for me, Emu, Poppy. I’m gonna come rescue you and get you out of there.
I jumped into the Mighty Novel X game screen.
I was in Mighty Novel X‘s Game Area.
But since I hadn’t followed the intended game progression, I wasn’t in a normal Game Area.
Normally, a player would go through a game by following its rules and going through its Game Areas in the right order.
But I’d barged in through the back door. I could access a Gashat’s data directly and go back and forth between the Game Areas as much as I liked. A “cheat”, as they called it.
The Gashat had an archive of assets, which made up the data in the game.
The largest section of the data was dedicated to the art assets.
There were the assets for Emu’s house, the Next Genome Research Institute, and so on and so forth. Anyway, there was an archive for every Game Area. There was also an asset archive of characters, an asset archive of dialogue, an asset archive of voiced lines, BGM, sound effects, you name it. There was a ton of it all.
The entirety of Seito, which tied together all of the art assets, was spread out in front of me as an open world.
I’ve worked with Genm for a long time, and I must say, there is no man more diligent than he is.
He’s managed to reproduce the actual city with data, right down to the tiniest details.
Not just the buildings and the roads, but even the pieces of garbage on the road and the irregular bursts of rain. An exceptional degree of attention to detail.
He calls himself a god, but I can’t even say that’s entirely wrong. He’s breathed life into this game’s characters, and he’s made an entire world like this.
Oops. This isn’t the time to be singing the praises of a guy like him.
I left the art asset space and teleported to the character asset archive.
It was a computerized space with black walls, and images of people connected to each other.
And there, within the space, was Emu in a white coat and Poppy in chains.
Poppy noticed my entrance and yelled “Parad!”
“Looks like you got pulled through the wringer. Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here.”
“Keh heh heh…not so fast, Parad.”
A black humanoid Bugster virus appeared in front of Emu and Poppy.
“So you’re Kurotobleep?”
“Ignoring the game rules and using cheats to rescue them? Quite a disgraceful act for a Bugster like you, Parad.”
“…You’re making my heart rattle. You’re the one who put Emu and Poppy in danger for your stupid game.”
“Do you actually think you’ll be able to rescue them?”
“The fact I’m here right now is your proof. Emu’s Game Syndrome is healing in his heart.”
Emu suddenly started screaming in pain.
Emu was fighting against his own game world brainwashing.
“Emu Houjou. Parad has intruded into your heart. It’s time to excise the virus from your body, with your own hands,” said Kurotobleep, egging Emu on.
Still in obvious pain, Emu turned to face me.
He glared at me with a sharp gaze and put his Gamer Driver on his waist.
I went ahead and put on my own Gamer Driver.
You changed my destiny. You taught me about fear of death while I was ignorant. You taught me about the stupidity of what I was doing and the value of life. And despite all that, you still accepted me. It was rough, but your treatment saved my heart.
So this time, I’m gonna save yours.
It’ll be more rough treatment, but please, forgive me. I’m doing this for you.
“…Hyper Super Transform.”
Emu loaded up his Gashats and transformed into the golden warrior, Ex-Aid Invincible Gamer.
I pulled out my Gashat Gear Dual.
“Emu. I’ll be the one to change your destiny.”
I inserted the Gashat Gear Dual into the Gamer Driver slot. Two game screens, Perfect Puzzle and Knock Out Fighter, were projected behind me.
I rotated my arms like a circle and pulled the lever on the Gamer Driver.
The strength of the red fist! The blue puzzle chain! The red and blue crossroads! Perfect Knock Out!
I transformed into the red and blue warrior, Kamen Rider Para-DX Perfect Knock Out Gamer Level 99.
This was our destined rematch.
One time, I’d challenged Invincible and gotten myself beaten to a pulp.
But I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen again. One must always have a strategy for any opponent. A gamer’s job is to figure that out, right?
Invincible was rushing at me at the speed of light.
I’ve got only one chance. If I can just use it…
I took a flurry of Invincible’s attacks without bothering to guard, setting up a counter kick.
My target was the Maximum Mighty X Gashat in Invincible’s Gamer Driver. I only needed to hit that.
Invincible’s attacks blew me back.
But in the exact same moment, Maximum Mighty X was ejected from the Gamer Driver and flew into the air.
Going on the defensive, I kicked myself off the ground and jumped, catching Maximum Mighty X.
Snap out of it, Emu.
Still in midair, I wasted no time in pulling out the Gashacon Parablagun, and I loaded Maximum Mighty X into its slot.
Finisher! Maximum Mighty Critical Finish!
I pulled the Parablagun’s trigger and shot out a reprogramming beam.
That was my strategy: dealing with the brainwashing by reinitializing Emu’s genes with reprogramming.
Just as I’d hoped, Invincible seemed to run out of fighting spirit and released his transformation.
Emu was back in his white coat, and he seemed to be back to normal as he stared at me.
Good. Emu’s back.
I slashed through the chains binding Poppy and pulled her out.
“Brave and the others finished a good chunk of Mighty Novel X, so we should go ahead and attack Kurotobleep. Once he’s finished, the game will end.”
I turned to face Kurotobleep with my declaration of war.
“You’re a Bugster virus now, right? I’ll kill you in one hit.”
But, surprisingly, Kurotobleep laughed with a casual, mocking tone.
“Did you really think Mighty Novel X‘s story would end here?”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“So far, you’ve managed to get through the part of the story with Emu Houjou’s past. But his tale will still be spun from the present to the future…Yes, this game will only end in the future. Emu Houjou will be the one to decide when it ends. That is to say, you.”
All three of us were silent with shock.
There was no definite ending to Mighty Novel X. In other words, Mighty Novel X‘s story was equivalent to Emu Houjou’s own life.
So it would only reach its ending…when Emu’s own life did.
“Emu Houjou. As a doctor, you have been trying to save your patients’ lives. You may consider that to be a natural thing for someone in a white coat to do, but you have an abnormally obsessive fixation with cleanliness, and you often act with reckless self-righteousness. All of that stems from a certain kind of selfishness within you, the selfishness created from the darkness in your heart.”
Wait, what? Genm, what are you even talking about…?
“Emu Houjou, your crystal has always been as transparent as ever. Not because your heart was pure, but because your heart was a hollow abyss. You wanted to look away from the abyss. You wanted to pretend the abyss didn’t exist. In order to do that, you kept trying to make yourself into a noble person. You had to make yourself into a noble person.”
Emu was starting to panic. His heart was pounding so hard that I could hear his heartbeat, and his breathing was getting rougher and rougher.
“…That’s not true,” said Emu, lashing back. It seemed as if he was trying to tell himself that.
“You can try to believe that all you want, but Parad’s existence is all the proof you need,” said Kurotobleep.
“Parad was born from the darkness in Emu Houjou’s heart. Parad was born from your childhood desire to have someone to play with. Parad’s innocent malice had already been a part of your heart. Otherwise, he would never have been born that way.”
My own malice came from…Emu’s heart…
Emu was in pain, and he looked like he was about to suffocate.
Uh-oh. His stress is flaring up, and his Game Syndrome symptoms are getting worse.
My own heart was starting to feel pain in response.
I have to get through this. I have to save Emu.
“As if! Emu isn’t like that at all! Unlike me…Emu…understands the value of life…”
But I couldn’t manage to get any more words out of my mouth.
It’s true. Back when he was a kid, Emu tried to reset his own life. He didn’t understand the value of life.
Back then, Emu was…that was exactly what I was…
Kurotobleep roared with laughter and looked at me.
“It was your favorite thing to say, wasn’t it, Parad? ‘I’m you, and you’re me.’ That is your proof. It is undeniable fact!”
Emu was doubled over in even more pain. His stress was getting worse, and so were his Game Syndrome symptoms.
“Keep going! Keep suffering! That stress…that stress shall nourish me further!”
“Stop it, Kurotobleep!” yelled Poppy.
I can’t let Emu take any more stress.
But Kurotobleep kept spouting out more obnoxious words.
“Now, Mighty Novel X has reached its final chapter…I shall guide you towards the story where all destiny originates.”
Kurotobleep pointed at Emu, just like when he’d first revealed that Emu had Game Syndrome.
“Emu Houjou! How was the Bugster virus created in the first place…?”
Wait…why are you even bringing that up now?
The Bugster virus came from the Y2K problem. It was a mutation from a computer bug, wasn’t it!?
“Why did your father surrender you to me? Why was your father such a fiend who never bothered to look at his son? There is only one answer! Your father…was the one…who created the first Bugster virus! Ha-hahahaaaaaaaaa!!!”
The air around us froze — like a game that had just been paused.
My head was blank. Not just mine, but Emu’s and Poppy’s, too.
I didn’t know about this. I’d never heard anything about this.
Emu’s dad created the first Bugster virus…?
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that…
Emu’s breathing is getting rougher. His stress is reaching its limits. This is bad.
“You’re telling me that man…created the Bugster virus…you’re lying…you’re lying, you’re lying!”
As Emu’s stress kept shooting up, Kurotobleep’s appearance began to change.
Now that Emu, his host, was feeding him more bio-energy, Kurotobleep was gradually shifting into a more human form.
Black leather shoes. A black suit. A black shirt. And black, slick-backed hair.
— It was Genm himself.
When a Bugster becomes complete, it obtains a human form distinct from its game character appearance. In other words, Kurotobleep’s human form was none other than Genm.
Genm had prepared a second copy of himself just in case he disappeared.
The real reason he’d left behind Mighty Novel X — was that it was all a plan to restore Genm from his own backup.
“I’m close to being completed. Emu Houjou. Once you disappear, I will be the second Kuroto Dan. I will be completely revived as Kuroto Dan II.”
“…So the censored word in the ‘bleep’…was a ‘two’,” muttered Poppy.
“After a whole ninety-nine lives, we get a clone of him calling himself Mk. II. What a joke,” I said, my heart rattling.
“Did you truly think I would let myself disappear quietly without preparing any countermeasures?”
“Why…why are you doing this after a whole three years?!” yelled Poppy.
“Emu Houjou. When you spoke the names of all of the people who had disappeared at your press conference, you included my name. So I granted you a three-year grace period. I wanted to see if you would revive me, as you said you would. And yet, as a doctor, you could not do it. Another three years after that press conference, I gave Kiriya Kujou his human body back, but as a doctor, you managed to get nothing out of it. The only thing left for me to do is revive myself using my own talents! Thanks to your incompetence! Hahaha!”
With his obnoxious laughter still left in the air, Kuroto II vanished into data particles.
Emu was still stuck in a daze.
“Emu. Don’t let that jerk’s words get to you.”
“We got you back safely, and that’s what matters. Listen up, Emu. You’re the only one who gets to decide how Mighty Novel X…how your own life ends.”
“Yeah, what Parad said!” said Poppy, chiming in.
“And the story’s not over yet. We’ll beat Mighty Novel X and get rid of Genm.”
Emu was still silent.
I get it. I know what’s in your heart, painfully well.
Your dad might actually be the culprit behind all of this, and your heart is trembling hard, isn’t it?
No one would blame you if your heart completely broke.
But. Until we get the actual truth, we shouldn’t take it at face value just yet. So you need to stay strong with your heart firm.
I’m you, and you’re me. I know you can feel my heart, too.
No matter what kind of story is waiting for you out there, you’re still the one who gets to decide its ending.
I stared right at Emu.
Emu stared right back at me.
You’ll be the one to change the story’s destiny.
- Nico calls Kuroto “gross” (“kimo“, “キモ”, so she insults him by calling him “Kimoto” (“キモ斗”).