The wood and the ball made contact with a resounding ’crack’
, sending the tiny orb of white leather and red stitches hurtling into the clear blue sky. I an instant the bat was tossed aside as he began his run, cleated feet kicking up clouds of dirt as they rounded first base. The ball began its decent as his foot struck the padding and with his peripherals he could see it heading for the fence while a desperate center fielder tried to stay beneath it.
Just a little bit farther…
Determination burned in his dark eyes as he lowered his helmet and ran harder to come across second base. A cheer erupted from the stands and in a moment of elation he looked up to the third base coach but the man had already turned away with a somber shake of his head.
The cheers were coming from the wrong side of the field.
Kuraoka immediately slowed to a walk until he ended standing on the base with gloved hands on his hips and face turned to the endless blue sky. Damnit…
The other team jostled past in celebration as they cleared the field, huddling around the center fielder with a rousing calls of congratulations, as the scorekeeper hung the final number slip on the board at the far end of the field.
‘Visitors – 9: Home – 8’
Their playoff run would end in round 2, which was a poor showing from their typical powerhouse baseball club, and with it the entire season. Kuraoka walked quickly off the field with his head down, unwilling to meet the eyes of the disappointed fans who were shuffling silently out of the stands, but the second he stepped into the dugout he whipped his helmet violently into a row of bats a loud clatter. “TODA!” The coach shouted as he approached with a disappointed scowl that the boy refused to acknowledge, instead focusing intently on a tiny crack in the concrete wall. “I signaled for you to let it go! We had Toshi on ready to steal third then all we’d need is a base hit to tie and instead you throw the whole game swinging big! What the hell happened!?”
“I thought… it would make it…”
Kuraoka muttered through gritted teeth, hating the fact that if the ball had traveled a few more feet he’d have been the hero
of this game.
“Well you’ll have plenty of time to think from the bench next season!”
He wasn’t exactly screaming but his face was
turning a bright and unsavory red. “I don’t care how well you hit; if that attitude doesn’t change you’re out of the club!” Without another word the coach stormed off, leaving the boy with a painfully gritted teeth and a foul taste in his mouth.
Kuraoka hissed under his breath, though he wasn’t sure if it was directed at the coach or at himself. With only a few glances his way, the other club members quickly filed out of the dugout leaving him to stew in his own anger just long enough for him to throw his gear into a black duffel bag and hastily make for his bike. Screw it. He didn’t need any of them or
0 their damned club though even as he formed the thoughts he knew they were a lie. With few friends, parents too busy to give him the time of day, and an unavoidable destiny working some dead-end factory job, baseball was all that Kuraoka had left. It was all that gave his life meaning and now it was on the verge of slipping through his fingers like everything else.
What would he do when it was gone?
Unchaining his bicycle, the tall pale-skinned boy shook the thought away and began the long ride home. It was a cold day for late September but he relished in the chill as the breeze blew the thin black hair from his eyes and whipped against his blue windbreaker. The way it cut to the bone and sent shivers down his spine almost made him feel alive as his eyes glazed over the wide river he rode along, watching the crane birds gather together on makeshift islands of broken tree limbs: debris from the latest typhoon to rip through the region. He envied those birds because they would leave Okayama in a few weeks, heading to warmer climates and exotic destinations, while he’d be stuck here in the cold desperately trying to study for his end-term examinations though his family wouldn’t have enough money to send him to university even if he did well enough to get in. He was like the bullet train: stuck to its track and hurtling towards a destination he had no desire to go to.
Only a miracle could save him now.
Leaving the river behind, Kuraoka took a quick turn and rode into a small valley between two large tree-covered mountains. Here the road became broken and uneven and the houses to either side were aged and run-down: a neighborhood for the workers of the local industrial complex. Just as he rounded the final bend and the shabby blue-slate roof of his home came into view, a familiar buzz rang out from his duffel bag. The tires grinded against the pavement as he halted, pulling the outdated black cellphone from a zippered side pocket and flipping it open with one hand.
INCOMING CALL: Ryuuji
Resting one foot against a rusted white fencepost, Kuraoka pushed the green answer button and muttered unenthusiastically into the handset. “Ya? What’s up?”
“Hey man, its me.”
The familiar, ever-anxious voice of his only real friend did little to brighten his crappy day. Harada Ryuuji was another student in his grade and they’d shared the same homeroom for all four years of high school. A nervous, awkward, and introverted kid; the two had hit it off right away when Kuraoka beat the crap out of some bullies who were terrorizing him their 1st year. Their personalities were completely opposite from one another but Kuraoka liked Ryuuji’s somewhat sheep-like spirit and often took advantage of it when he needed a so-called ‘partner in crime’ in his trouble-making. It also helped that Ryuuji came from a very well off family and often had a lot of fun gadgets and video games to play with. “How was the game?”
Kuraoka muttered, reminded of his failure. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
Ryuuji wasn’t interested enough in sports to even care. There was a long pause as Kuraoka got the sense that his friend had something he wanted to say but for some reason couldn’t get the words out. “So… umm… My aunt died today.”
Kuraoka blinked at the completely unexpected remark and the almost casual way it had been delivered. “Umm… Sorry?”
He had no idea how he was expected to respond to that bit of news but Ryuuiji hurriedly filled in.
“Thanks. She was on my mom’s side so we didn’t really talk with her much. I think I met her over New Years when I was like 8…”
His friend drifted off as he became distracted by the memory but came back after a moment. “But ya, so we’re going to the funeral tomorrow. It’s all the way in Kobe.”
“That’s a uhh… pretty long trip.”
He muttered in response, not seeing the point of his friend’s tale in even the slightest way.
“Ya, so I just picked up that new game. You know, ‘Sword Art Online’… the one I was telling you about? But my dad says that I can’t bring it along.”
There was another long awkward pause as Ryuuji struggled to form what he wanted to say. “So, uhh… do you wanna borrow it for the weekend?”
At first, Kuraoka wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. He’d never been much of a gamer, his parents simply didn’t have enough money to buy him consoles, but he’d watched a few of the trailers for SAO at Ryuuji’s request and it certainly looked cool with the whole ‘Nervegear’ thing. “Ya… Ya, actually that would be really great.”
The more he thought about his upcoming weekend without baseball practice and without his friend in town, the more appealing the idea of spending it in some virtual world became.
“Ya, okay. Cool.”
He could sense the conflicted emotions in Ryuuji’s voice for he knew his friend had been waiting for a long time for this particular game and it would suck to have it pulled away just as it came into his grasp. Still, the silver lining was that now he would actually have someone to talk about it with. “I’ll come drop it off after dinner. The game starts tomorrow and you can just use my account and my beta character, if you want… I was probably gonna make a new avatar anyway.”
“Thanks a lot, Ryuuji.”
It was amazing how such a little bit of news could add a bit of life to Kuraoka’s voice.
His friend let out a nervous chuckle which crackled over the phone. “Just don’t go spoiling anything for me before I get a chance to play!”
Kuraoka mouth curled into an impish smirk. “I’ll probably have it beat by that time, anyway. SAO won’t know what hit it!”
The door slammed shut, doing little to muffle the sound of his mother and father fighting in the livingroom down the hall and with a disgusted sigh Kuraoka pulled the blinds closed, cutting off the bright afternoon light and shrouding the room in a cool darkness. Falling heavily onto his unmade bed, he pulled a pillow over his head but even that didn't help much to block out the shouting leaving him wishing they would just suck it up and get a divorce already if only so he could have a bit of peace in the tiny house they shared. Throwing the pillow aside, defeated, he rolled his head to look at the small wood desk in the corner and the large paper bag that was resting on it. Ryuuji had come by the previous night, just as he promised, and left his Nervegear and SAO game with Kuraoka. They didn't talk for long because he had to get back home and finish packing but that didn't bother Kuraoka too much seeing as there was little more he could thing to say than, "Sorry for your loss but thanks for the game." The game would be going live within the hour and it seemed like as good a time as any to see what all the media buzz was about.
His computer was cheap and outdated, the monitor alone taking up the majority space of his desk, but he'd read it was good enough to use the Nervegear which was what really ran the game rather than the computer processor and so without a second thought he plugged it into the back of the oversized tower. It hummed to life with a series of flashing blue and green lights around the outside of the helmet but Kuraoka could see tiny lines of text being projected onto the glass visor. With a shrug he pulled it on and was surprised to find it fit much more snuggly than he'd anticipated and didn't even shift when shaking his head about.
<<CALIBRATION IN PROGRESS: Please cross your arms over your chest and pat down your body starting from your shoulders.>>
A tiny video flickered into the bottom left corner of his vision: a CGI body made of blue light moving through the actions the screen requested. It was uncomfortable, but he followed along through several calibration steps which all included some form of body exploration until finally the words <<CALIBRATION COMPLETE: Enjoy your Nervegear!>>
flashed across his vision.
Loading up SAO didn’t take long and before he knew it he was Kuraoka was laying on his bed, nervously adjusting the pillows behind his neck until he was comfortable enough. Satisfied, he stared up at the ceiling and took a long, slow, breath. Here goes nothing.
It was like being thrown through a tunnel of spinning light that lasted for only an instant before several large loading wheels filled your vision. After a moment they completed their preliminary tasks and Kuraoka was able to select the game language, Japanese, before being presented with a login screen and a keyboard. It was strange typing in Ryuuji’s account information with disembodied hands but he was able to manage the name and password.
<<‘Would you like to use beta-test data?’ – Ryūmare (M)>>
Kuraoka inwardly smirked: leave it to his friend to choose such a lame nickname which meant ‘One born of the Dragon’. Not really caring much about the name, nor about what his character looked like, he chose ‘Yes’
and the screen faded away so a large message could take its place.
<<Welcome to Sword Art Online!>>