The noxious scent was so strong. With no wind, it felt as if we stepped into a thick smog of rotting flesh and blood. It seems to wrap around us, like a heavy blanket.
The terrible odor of death; a foul and sour smell that subtly leaves behind a sickening sweet taste as it force its way into our noses and chokes us with every breath we take.
"Ugh, I don't think I will ever get used to the smell of this place." I heard Hideyoshi mumbled as he held his nose in disgust. "You're lucky you don't have to deal with any of this, Prez."
"Hmph..." The president grunted in reply as he shone his flashlight around this darken world.
Fields of mysterious flowers, as far as the eye can see, growing on top of the strange liquid that covered the ground. The entire land was dyed red by the unnatural glow of the empty dark skies.
"I'm not detecting anything yet. From the looks of it, we have some ways to go before reaching the given coordinates. Ryuuko, how are you doing?" Senpai asked me.
I could not respond. The moment our feet touched this land, I found myself hyperventilating. My lungs felt as if they were collapsing and I wheezed and gasped for air.
THUMP THUMP THUMP
My heart was beating so hard. Like a drum, its rapid rhythms vibrating throughout my body.
My arm and legs were shaking uncontrollably, and everything felt so cold, as if suddenly all the warmth in my body was sucked away. I was struggling to stand. I was struggling to breathe.
"Takatora! Breathe! You have to take a deep breath." I heard the President cried out as he ran over to me.
"Ha...ha..." Only raspy gasps passed through my mouth. As I looked around, all the terrible memories of this place came racing back to me. The pain. The terror. The despair.
It was all so vivid, as if I was reliving them again.
I fell to my knees, a splash of the disgusting liquid soaked my legs and skirt, as I clasped my hand over my mouth. My stomach was burning.
I could feel its content trying to come up as I desperately fought to keep it down.
The combination of the terrifying trauma and the nauseating yet familiar smell of this horrid world was strangling me.
"Takatora..., you must stay strong! We're here for you!" Hideyoshi said to me as he got down on one knee and looked into my eyes.
Deep green eyes. They stared intensely at me, filled with worry yet at the same time I could also feel a sense of trust.
Not just his but as I looked around, I could also see it in the president's as well. They were all standing by me.
"Everything is going to be okay." Hideyoshi reassured, a smile on his face. A sad smile, yet a look of assurance and serenity.
Slowly, slowly... I could feel myself calming down. I steadied my breathing, as I inhaled and exhaled slowly.
The scent of this world was still awful yet with every breath I could feel myself normalizing.
"Are you feeling better now?" He reached his hand out to me.
I nodded my head as I took his hand and carefully picked myself up. They were so warm. I could feel it spreading across my body as my fingers wrapped around his. "I'm sorry... I'll...
I'll endure." I stammered.
"Don't be." He shook his head. "Take your time and steady yourself. All of us will do everything we can to help, we're all in this together after all."
I smiled back weakly at his kind words. He is right, we are all in this together. And we still have something we must do. I took a deep breath as I fought to adapt to this awful environment.
It will be difficult, but I won't give up just yet, I thought to myself as I straightened my back.
"L-let us keep going."
We quietly and slowly made our way to the ruined city. Hiding behind the buildings, we carefully sneaked around and tried to stay out of the main streets and its flickering lights.
The president was our vanguard, taking the lead and peek out of the buildings to signal the rest of us to follow.
But as we got a little further in and began to see there wasn't anything within sight, we picked up our pace and moved more freely.
The city was silent, with only the sound of our muffled footsteps. It was quiet, too quiet.
I could feel butterflies in my stomach as I firmly gripped my coil gun, readying for anything that might happen.
"There's still nothing. Well, this is interesting." Senpai announced to us.
"Looks like we're lucky, not running into any of those monsters...yet. But Senpai, you better make sure of it this time. We don't want a repeat of what happened before." Hideyoshi scoffed.
"Just relaxing in that fancy gun of yours, I'm surprise you could even add a live chat on that thing."
"Yeah, yeah. I've made upgrades to my system since then, using data from our last encounter with those things.
I'm sending out multiple frequency and checking for any and all different signs of movements." He immediately snapped back.
"Not just those monsters, but I can detect if there is anything that might move; be it the smallest rock falling, or the slightest swaying of those flowers being blown by the wind.
Also, the heck you mean "just relaxing"? I'm currently running every one of our equipment right now!"
"Heh, of course you are. Although, I'm not sure how useful your new system is considering there isn't even a gust of wind in this damn place."
"Stop it, both of you. Stay focus!" The president growled.
As we finally stepped out on to the main streets, we shined our flashlights around.
Remembering what had happened when I first came to this place, I anxiously checked for any signs of mutilated corpses that might be hiding in the shadows.
"B-before, there were a ton of corpses on these streets." I said, as I tried to swallow my anxiety. "I saw them turn into those m-monsters. We have to be careful of them."
"Indeed. However..." He ran his flashlight along the streets. "There's nothing here."
He was right. The streets were empty. Not a corpse, a body part or even a drop of blood. Almost as if everything had been cleaned out.
"Is it possible, since that Alma person is expecting us, they might have gotten rid of them?" I heard Hideyoshi pondered.
"If so, what a considerate bastard." Senpai snickered. "Or they could be hiding deeper within, waiting to ambush us the moment we let our guard down."
"Senpai, don't jinx it..."
"I won't. That's why I'm spreading my scanner further."
We continued to move through the desolated city. From Senpai's systems, it seems over an hour has pasted since we came into this place.
Yet, throughout the entire time there have just been nothing. It was even more creepy.
My hand were hurting as I continued to squeeze tightly the handle of the gun, my entire body felt hot and sticky from the sweat.
I wasn't as scared as before but now instead paranoia gripped my mind. Every flickering shadow, every little sound of the others shuffling caused me to jump, my body tightening up as we moved.
"Takatora, you're really tense." Hideyoshi suddenly said to me as he slowed his steps and began walking besides me.
"Well yeah. Of course I am." I replied, a little annoyed at hearing such an obvious thing. "Shouldn't we all be on the edge? We are in a danger zone, yet nothing is happening.
Wouldn't anybody feel the same in this situation?"
Yet when I looked at him, I could see that he wasn't. He still looked as if he was ready for anything, yet he was also laid back. It was baffling.
"You have to relax. In or out of battle, you must be flexible so you can be ready for anything. Don't drop your guard, but don't constraint yourself. It'll only make you more exhausted."
Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax myself. I was still feeling tense and my mind was still running wild, but I loosened the grip on the coil gun just a little bit.
"I guess you would know best, teacher." I chuckled. He smirked in response and moved ahead.
"Mitsuhide, how much further are we from the coordinates?"
"About 400m from your location. If you move at your current pace it'll take about...hmm...20 minutes. I'm still not picking sign of...well, anything."
I heard the president let out a sigh, a mix of tiredness and relief. "If that's the case, what say we take a rest?" He said to us.
We stopped and looked at him in surprise.
"Of course, we won't let our guard down but exhorting ourselves won't do us any good.
If Mitsuhide is saying there isn't anything, then we should be able to take a quick breather and replenish ourselves." He turned to me specifically as he spoke.
There was some words of truth in what he was saying. We had been moving nonstop since we arrived here while keeping up our guards.
My muscles ached and my breathing was heavy, with every step becoming more and more tiring. The equipment felt cumbersome, as if they had suddenly increased in weight.
Yet, I did not say anything in the fear of distracting and being a hindrance to our mission.
"It does feel like it's been an eternity. Being able to sit for a little bit and rest our legs would be great." Hideyoshi scratched his head as he chimed in.
"That would be nice." I agreed, nodding my head.
"I'm still on the lookout so don't worry. If anything changes at all, I'll alert you immediately." Senpai told us as we looked around and try to find somewhere we could move to rest.
"How about over there?" I suggested as I pointed to a small abandon building at the far side of the streets we were at.
It was being overshadowed by the larger buildings around it, as if it was hiding. There were no windows but instead just doors.
From the looks of it, as we got closer, it appears to be either an old house or an old shop.
The doors of the abandon building let out an old creak, like a gate that haven’t been oiled for years, when the president pulled it open with great force.
The moment it was open, Hideyoshi and I immediately held our noses and nearly gagged.
The musty odor from inside came rushing out, like opening an expired can of meat, and was mixing with the horrible smell on the outside.
While we were almost just about to get used to the obnoxious smell, the building’s sudden draft brought about an even more revolting scent.
“Gah! The inside smells worse than the outside! Must we stay in here?” Hideyoshi exclaimed as he carefully stepped through the door.
“It is safer to be in cover than to be out in the open.” The president grunted in response.
“Yeah, but it is also better to be able to rest without having to throw up.”
“Quit your complaining and just go in.” Senpai scoffed.
Cautiously, we shined our flashlights around the room to make sure nothing was lurking in the shadows, waiting to ambush us.
“Nothing here. Good, I’ll make a light.” The president said as he took out a cellphone and promptly threw it on the ground. A bright flash emulated from it and flooded the room with light.
As my eyes began to adjust to the sudden light, I looked around in surprise.
“This place is...!”
Throughout the room, there were shelves filled with books! I unconsciously let out a little cry of glee but quickly caught myself.
As I turned to the boys, I could see them looking away while trying not to laugh, causing me to suddenly feel a rush of embarrassment.
“A bookstore, huh? This is surprising.” I heard the president said as he looked around.
Trying to control myself, yet still a little excited, I moved closer to the shelves to inspect them. The shelves looked ancient yet, just like everything outside, there were neither dust nor any sort of damage.
However, the books on the other hand were not so fortunate. Compared to the shelves, the books were in terrible condition.
All of them looked as if they were melting and so fragile, that even touching them might cause them to crumble into a pile of mush.
“How awful...!” I cried out. Why were only the books affected? It was just too strange and unfair.
Even so, carefully, I reached my hand out for a book on the shelf.
The moment my finger touched, I could feel a grossly soft sensation. As I tried to pull it out, I could hear a disgusting slop as the cover of this book was sticking to another and nearly tore off the moment I tried to move it.
After a little struggle, I was finally able to hold it in my hand. The book felt so wet and sticky, almost as if it had been submerged in water.
“What a terrible sight to see. For all the books to be in such bad conditions, had there been a flood?” I sighed sadly. All the words inside were smudged and nearly illegible.
While I was able to make out some of the writings, it was a struggle to even read it, with the pages themselves being glued together with each other.
It was almost impossible to flip through without tearing. “Such a shame...”
“Are there actual words in that book?” I suddenly heard Hideyoshi asked.
“Y-yes. Why would there not be? It is a book, even in such a sorry state.” His question took me by surprise. That he would ask me such an odd question...
“Oh, that’s a big find. May I see it?” The president asked as I watched him reached his hand out for a book.
“Ah wait! The books are very fragile!” I cried out as I immediately stopped him. “If you touch them, you’ll destroy them!”
He looked at me, startled. Nervously, he pulled his hand away and slowly took a step back. “Ah...right. Takatora, do you enjoy reading?”
“Very much.” I felt my chest tighten as I replied. “My dream is...was to be a novelist.”
“President, from the way you and Hideyoshi sound, I’m guessing the books in Artificial..,”
“No, they are all empty. As if the contents have been wiped, not a single word. Not just books but newspapers and everything on the internet and online.” He answered me in a rough yet sad tone of voice.
“It was why we struggled to find information. Only thanks to Mitsuhide we were able to discovery anything.”
Hearing his answer broke my heart. “How horrible... In the past few days, I hadn’t been able to read anything.
I...had a feeling, ever since you told me of how Artificial try to rid of anything that might contradict it and the real world yet, I didn’t want it to be so.”
I could feel the book smushing and forming an imprint of my hand as I slightly squeezed into it. Carefully, I lessen my grip so that it would not be destroyed as I stared at the illegible words written on the sloppy pages.
“Not everything was completely wiped out. When I first tried to gather information, I had a theory that Artificial might have contained a sort of database.
You see, while it tried to erase and hide everything, being a fake copy of our world, I hypothesize that there has to be some metadata remaining somewhere. Turns out, I was half right.” Mitsuhide-senpai suddenly interjected.
“It was tricky and took quite a bit of time, but I was able to dive deep into Artificial’s electronic network and archives. There, I was able to datamined all the things we currently know as well as a few bonuses.”
My eyes widen as he spoke. “Senpai! Does that mean...?!”
“Yep! I was able to find some books. Although, they didn’t seem to be anything special, I still have them in my datafiles.” He beamed with delight.
“That’s wonderful! Senpai, please allow me to read them later!” I nearly leapt for joy from hearing his announcement.
“Eh? S-sure. Heh...man, you’re really excited. I guess really are quite the bookworm.” He chuckled.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Thank you, Senpai.” I giggled as I turned back to the book in my hand.
“I wasn’t meaning to.., anyway, can you even read that? Is it really that interesting?”
“No, unfortunately. But even so, just being able to see words again...it gives me a sense of joy.” I smiled shyly.
“After all that had happened, I really do just want to be able to quietly read. To forget all of these horrible things.”
“We can’t do that just yet.” The president grumbled.
“I know.” I looked up at him as I carefully put the book down. “It is sad, to have to leave all these books behind, but we must move on.”
Everyone was quiet.
“Mitsuhide, is it possible for you to scan and add all these books into your datafiles?” The president suddenly asked, breaking the silence.
“Eh? Yeah, I could do that, no prob. But it might take some time.”
“Then I’ll leave it to you.”
“President...!” I looked at him in shock. “But...what of the coordinates?”
“From what you told us about that Alma person, they knew about us and what we have been doing as the A.R.C. In other words, they’ve been watching us this whole time and I’m sure they still are.” Hideyoshi spoke up.
“With the way this place is as well, they probably already know that we're here. So I say, we let that bastard wait a little longer for us.”
“That’s risky. Alma...what if they get angry. We don’t know what they are capable of.” I replied, worried.
“Then we’ll just have to deal with it when it comes. We’re not here for Alma, but instead for all the people in Artificial. There might be a chance we could find some important information from all of these books that could help us greatly.
And since right now, we are able to rest without much needed worry, it is the time. We can’t let such an opportunity pass us by.” The president explained as he calmly adjusted his glasses.
I looked at the smiling faces of the two boys. I felt worried. What if Alma decide to launch a surprise attack while we were doing all this? Yet...I also felt happy.
“President...thank you.” I said with a smile, my heart filling with a warm feeling of gratitude.
“Hey, you’re not going to thank me as well? I am doing all the hard work.” Senpai laughed.
“Thank you as well senpai, you’re the best.” I giggled.
“You’re only going to inflate his already massive ego by saying that.” Hideyoshi scoffed.
"Oh, shut up Takuya."