Friday – 7:30
I woke up feeling refreshed. I once again experienced pleasant dreams and was no longer feeling any doubts about my decision.
I met up with Thaddeus at breakfast and they sat at a table by the far corner of the room. They wouldn't be overheard there, and I sat with my back against the wall so that I would be able to notice anybody coming toward their table.
"We probably won't have a lot of time alone here," I told Thaddeus, "so we should be as quick as possible."
"Alright," Thaddeus said. "Did you end up finding anything out last night?"
"More than I possibly could have expected," I replied. "I will tell you the full details another time though. Suffice it to say, you were right about some things."
"What do you plan on doing about it?" Thaddeus asked.
"I will do what I can, but I am not promising anything," I said. "There are still a couple of things that I can't share with you yet, but I should be able to tell you tomorrow."
I saw the twins heading toward their table, so I told Thaddeus to hold off on the questions.
"Yo, Tobias," Timothy said. "we missed you at lunch yesterday, but we look forward to seeing your failed mission during lunch today. That will make up for it. That's also when we will officially pass you at the top of A-rank once you drop to the bottom of it. How does it feel to be a fossil?"
"It feels wonderful," I said. "Good luck with the position. You will have a lot of responsibility."
"Bah," Thomas said. "There ain't nothing we can't handle. Be seeing you."
"Bye," I said, waving at them while they sat at another table. I then turned back to Thaddeus. "Ok, so I have some time before an important meeting. In the meantime, would you like to go for a drive?"
"That would be fine," Thaddeus replied. "Where to?"
"To where we first met on that day five years ago," I answered, knowing that the hook would pique Thaddeus' interest.
* * *
Friday – 10:00
They arrived at the intersection where I had Isekai'd Thaddeus.
"I am not sure how well you remember that day," I said, "but I have had nightmares about it every night until recently. So I can recall it perfectly. You might have read a couple of useful bits of information in the file that you read, but I feel like it is my duty to walk you through what had happened."
"You don't need to bother," Thaddeus said. "It isn't hard to piece out once you are aware of the methods that TURCK-KUN agents use. I assume that you stalked the old lady and knew we would be there at a similar time frame, and caused a commotion to get her dog to drag her into the street. It probably wasn't a rib-eye steak, as the dog reacted too suddenly and wildly. However, you must have used a method that only the dog would react to. You most likely couldn't start a minor earthquake to frighten the dog, so the only thing that I can think of to get the dog to react like that would be a dog whistle.
"Impressive," I said. "That is precisely what I used. It was one of my more genius methods if I do say so myself. Don't get me wrong, though. I am still deeply sorry about what I did to you."
"I understand completely," Thaddeus remarked.
"It was this mission that bumped me up to the top of T-rank," I said. "It's crazy to think about how important this mission turned out to be. One question that I never get to ask the targets which I always wanted to: What was going through your mind when you saved that old woman?"
Thaddeus sat silently for a moment before speaking. "To be honest, nothing was going through my mind. Nothing at all. I didn't even pause to think about whether she would be fine without my help or if I would end up getting hit. My body just instinctively moved on its own. Perhaps it's different for others, but I myself don't see what I did as noble. Don't misunderstand me. I did a good deed by attempting to save her, but it wasn't done with the intention of a sacrifice as much as it was done without conscious thought.
"Strangely enough, it was the exact opposite of what happened the next time I was in that scenario. When I saw a little girl in the middle of the street about to get run over, my mind went into overdrive and time seemed to freeze. I went over the scenario a bunch of times in my head. I wasn't guaranteed to make it in time, but that didn't matter. I kept convincing myself that the girl would be fine, just like I was. I didn't even consider that the girl might die. My only question was whether I should take her place in the fantasy world. In the end, it was the question of whether it was worth taking her place getting Isekai'd or not that caused my body to freeze up in indecisiveness. I regret my action every day, and I would have still regretted it even if that had actually been a TRUCK-KUN mission to Isekai her. If I could go back to that day, I would trade places with her in a heartbeat.
"I visit her grave every month to pay my respects, but my feelings of guilt never lessen. Half the reason I bothered applying as a truck driver was to find peace of mind for her sake. However, I didn't see a picture of her face while browsing through the photo records. It wasn't part of a bigger conspiracy after all. Sometimes, accidents are just accidents. That being said, I do believe in destiny, and I knew that it was my purpose to investigate the matter on her behalf. Perhaps now her spirit can forgive me and can be at peace."
"I am sure that's the case," I said consolingly. They sat in silence for a few reverent seconds before I started the truck back up and drove them back to base. On the way, I stopped by a store to buy an expensive bottle of wine for the celebratory board meeting. Once they arrived at TRUCK-KUN, I dropped Thaddeus off at his dorm and then quickly walked to Tamari's room and knocked on her door.
Tamari answered with a confused look. "What brings you here?"
"I wanted to thank you for yesterday," I said. "I really appreciate it. Also, I want you to have this." I took out an envelope from my pocket and handed it to her. "If you don't hear back from me in half an hour, please open it and look inside. It's really important."
"I don't understand, Tobias," she said. "What's going on?"
I don't have time to explain," I said. "Just remember to open it in half an hour if you don't hear back from me."
I then ran off, not hearing the rest of her complaints. I needed to meet Theodore by the elevator in a few minutes for the board meeting and needed to be prepared for what would be the most crucial moment of my life. This meeting would decide everything. My fate and the fates of many others depended on it. I knew I was feeling anxious and was well aware of how important this next half-hour would be.
* * *
Friday - 11:55
I was cutting it close, but I had made it on time. I quickly went to my room to fetch something and made it to the cafeteria with a couple of minutes to spare. I gave the wine to the chef and had used my own wine-opener from my room to open up the bottle. The chef had plenty of experience presenting wine for the past meetings held at TRUCK-KUN and told me that I had chosen a fine wine.
I made his way to the elevator and met up with Theodore there. They got to the office and opened the door to see that they were the last to arrive. They made their way to the empty seats and Theodore started the meeting.
"Ladies and gentlemen of ISEKAI," Theodore began. "I will be retiring effective immediately and Tobias here will be taking my place as manager of TRUCK-KUN. For my last contribution toward the organization, Isaac had presented me with the challenge of potentially doubling our cliental. I thought about the dilemmas that this would cause and have come up with a reasonable solution. I have already presented my idea to Isaac a little while before this meeting, and he will address it to all of you by the next meeting."
This was the first that I had heard of the proposal, but it might actually work out in my favor. Those were the sort of puzzles that I loved, and perhaps I could come up with a solution that favored me.
"But we aren't here today for business." Theodore continued. "We are here to celebrate Tobias' promotion. Before moving on to the toast, it's customary for the new member to say a few words." He sat down and signaled me to stand and speak. I wasn't prepared for this part of the meeting, but I wanted to speak either way, so it provided a good opportunity to do so.
I stood up to speak. "Hello, and thanks for the opportunity. I have learned much over the last twenty-four hours and I would like to discuss some of my thoughts with you all." He noticed a couple of confused faces, so what he was saying probably wasn't the usual pre toast speech that they were used to.
"As I have recently discovered, we are sending the actual souls of the targets themselves to the fantasy worlds. I would like to propose an alternate solution to Isekai targets which will also coincidentally be helpful with what Theodore just mentioned. In fact, if all goes well, we could easily triple our current numbers."
That got the board intrigued. They all leaned in, paying close attention.
"There are two problems as I see it. The first is the morality factor of sending souls to other worlds. Despite it not being lethal, we are stealing time from them without their permission and interfering with how they would have lived while their soulless bodies perform their basic routine functions. I understand that we don't claim to be moral, but it's always better for businesses to perform within the law than outside the law. That ties into the second problem, being able to grow exponentially within a short amount of time. We simply aren't capable of recruiting and training enough agents that would be fine doing this sort of job. We would end up taxing our current employees and end up paying them a smaller hourly wage until they collapse from exhaustion or quit.
"Therefore, I suggest making our company legit and changing our methods into ones that are less deplorable. "
All of their voices interrupted at once. "That's preposterous!" - "Too unorthodox!" - "It will never work!" - "You are naïve!" - "Who let the child in?!" - "Impossible!"
They continued to voice their objections, but I didn't mind. I waited until the voices simmered down, and then continued, addressing their complaints. "Listen closely, it's simplicity itself. ISEKAI was founded at a different time, and the world has changed. The people have changed. Societal views have changed. In order to fully maximize our potential, we can't live with the outdated mindsets of the past, but rather we have to adapt our approach. The Isekai genre is now insanely popular worldwide. There are many, many people who would pay to forget their troubles and spend time in a fantasy world. So how about we hire more employees and spread them out throughout the globe, more so than a couple of other locations under ISEKAI jurisdiction. This way, we can both attract more employees and more targets."
Isaac stood up, raising his hands to shush the other board members. "It's a bold plan, Tobias. But there are a couple of key factors that you seem to be ignoring. For one, you are assuming that both the government would be fine letting us go public with that technology and the people would be content letting us mess with their souls. Both of those seem risky at best, and disastrous at worst. If we get denied, then we are finished. We are only able to operate now because we can stay off the radars of the general public and the important government officials who wouldn't allow it. To be honest, even if the governments around the world were okay with letting us operate, I still highly doubt that we would attract a large volunteer group.
"As for the second issue that you overlooked, the fantasy worlds request specific individuals. So there would still be the problem of targeting people that are unwilling to have their souls be sent away."
Isaac had a point, though his first complaint wasn't a big deal. I was sure that it would be more successful than working from the shadows. However, the second issue was legitimate. I hadn't thought of that, so I stalled for time while thinking of a solution.
"Those are both valid points," I said. "I am already thinking of possible solutions. In the meantime, if I was able to make a solid case for it, how many of you would approve of the plan?"
Nobody raised their hands.
"Seriously?" I exclaimed. "No takers?"
"It's not a bad plan," Theodore said while standing up. "However, mine is less risky."
"What's your solution?" I asked.
"Well, I was going to let Isaac present it at the next meeting, but I guess there is no reason I can't explain it now. What we would do is start recruiting outside talent as sort of a volunteer project. Recruits from around the world would become volunteer agents and get paid a far cheaper wage. They aren't doing it for the payment, either way, so we can get away with paying them less, and therefore split up the extra profit from them to paying our in-house employees. Therefore, we would be able to Isekai more targets and pay our agents more without risking overwork."
"That is a clever strategy," I said, "but how exactly do you plan on recruiting people to do this job without telling what they would be doing? If they were willing to do the job, we could just hire them normally. There wouldn't be any need for the subterfuge."
"It's simple," Theodore said. "Those recruits won't know the specifics of how anything works. They will be given more tedious jobs. For example, they can stalk targets on social media to find their schedules instead of an actual agent following them around for weeks. Alternatively, we can provide a video game of sorts where they would need to Isekai a victim. They would think they are playing a video game but instead would be actually operating remote-controlled vehicles that hit the target. That's only an example, but you get the point. We have the recruits do the tedious manual labor and perhaps a few experimental missions unbeknownst to them, leaving our agents with more time to Isekai targets throughout the day."
I had to admit, it was brilliant. Almost diabolical.
"That still wouldn't be as effective as a public launch," I said. "As for your issue with it, I have thought of a work-around. Once we have a large enough volunteer group, they could have their pick of which soul they want. Yes, perhaps it won't be as convenient for them, but they generally need us more than we need them. We might lose a few customers, but that is trivial compared to what we could gain. As for the issue regarding public opinion on the idea, I assure you they will be fine with it. Have you seen the world nowadays? It's a mess. You can literally murder someone and be let off the hook, while mildly offending someone can put you behind bars. As long as don't offend anybody, there is nothing to worry about."
"You are taking this issue too lightly," Isaac said. "Things won't be as easy as you claim. Either way, we have presented the two options. Let's settle it to a vote between Theodore's plan and Tobias' plan. Does anybody here wish to move forward with the idea that Tobias put forward?"
Nobody raised their hands.
"Does anybody want to continue with Theodore's suggestion?" Isaac asked redundantly.
Everybody on the board raised their hands in agreement. The decision was unanimous.
My plan had failed.
"Alright then," Isaac said. "Time for the toast of our new member, Tobias!"
They all cheered and raised their empty goblets. Theodore opened the door to his office and waiting there was the chef with the expensive wine. The chef went around pouring the wine into the empty goblets and then left the room.
"To Tobias!" the board said in unison, raising the drinks to their mouths and gulping them down quickly.
"Whoa, this wine is absolutely divine," the manager of STEALTH, Simone, said with praise. "You must try some."
"Thank you," I said. "But I don't drink."
"Your loss," she said, wiping her lips with a handkerchief.
"Actually," I said. "It's your loss."
"What do you mean?" Simone asked before her eyes widened in shock and she fell to her knees in a coughing fit. All of the other board members fell to the ground as well.
It was a good thing I had a backup plan just in case.
"What....have...you.... done?" Theodore asked, trying to crawl toward me.
"You know that wine you all just drank?" I explained. "I spiked it before giving it to the chef."
"You dare...claim...the moral...high ground...yet...assassinate us...when...you lost.... a debate?" Theodore managed to say between breaths.
"You misunderstand me," I said. "I am not killing you. I am teaching you all a lesson. That drink was spiked with the long-lasting experimental Isekai drugs that STEALTH had developed. I stashed the last bottle available with me before I got transferred to TRUCK-KUN and the pills have been on my wall for years now. It was never my serious intention to transform ISEKAI, though that would have been an acceptable option. My main purpose was to reform the board itself into becoming better people that sought to care about the lives that they ruined.
"These pills were experimental and don't need to be keyed to a specific world to work. Let's see how you all feel in their shoes, trapped in a fantasy world for years on end. The length of the drug's effects is still unknown, but you will probably be trapped for decades. I suspect that you will have a change of heart once you return."
"You...won't...get...away...with...this!" Theodore said.
"I already have," I said.
"No you haven't," said Simone, getting up from the floor. "Thank you for letting me know what drug you used. I keep many antidotes on my person for occasions such as this, and while we may be out of the drug you used, I still had a few antidotes for it in stock."
I knew that I had messed up big time. I should have realized that the manager of STEALTH would be paranoid enough to carry an antidote for the drug that they developed. The only chance I had now was to physically take Simone down, but that was even less likely than the board actually approving of my first plan. She was a far better fighter than I was, as she had proved in their last fight.
I still had to try though.
* * *
Friday – 12:30
Simone carefully inched toward me, looking for an opening to strike. I could see that the drug had weakened her since otherwise she could have beat me in seconds. Even still, I doubted I could win. I didn't even bring along any weapons, while she undoubtedly had a couple hidden in her clothes.
I threw a punch, which she only managed to barely dodge. I threw another, but she was getting faster as the fight progressed. I needed to finish this now since time was on her side.
I picked up a couple of the goblets from the table and flung one at Simone while swinging the other toward the side of her head. She saw through the maneuver, however, and caught the thrown goblet and used it to swing toward my head, causing me to break off and retreat.
Simone dropped the glass and pulled a couple of daggers seemingly from out of nowhere. That was what I was afraid of. I didn't have a chance of winning now. Despite knowing that I couldn't win, I pulled off his belt and took off my jacket. It was the same technique I used against the twins, though it wouldn't be as helpful against Simone. She was playing with me; I was sure of it. She must have had a gun on her that could have quickly ended the fight. Perhaps she didn't think that I presented enough of a challenge for her to need to bother with that.
Simone quickly thrust forward with one of the knives, which I batted away with my jacket.
Ouch! That hurt!
I glanced at my hand and saw a long gash going up along my arm. That knife must have been extremely sharp to leave that smooth of a cut despite the thick jacket in the way. She then swiped her other dagger horizontally. I grabbed my belt with the second hand and moved forward to block the arm while on its trajectory, but Simone predicted that I would do that. She switched her grip on the knife in midair and swung downwards instead, cleanly severing the belt in two. It was useless now, as was the jacket.
"It's over for you," Simone said. "After finishing you off, I will give the antidotes to the rest before their souls are sent off. Or perhaps I will let them croak and take over as director. Either way, you have accomplished nothing."
"That may be so." I needed to keep her talking in order to stretch things out a little more. "You would turn on your fellow board members? That's cruel."
"That's just the way the world works," she said. "You grab the opportunity by the horns when it comes knocking."
"Is that an invitation for me to fondle your breasts?" Tobias asked. "If so, I'm not interested."
Simone got red in the face and rushed at me, murder in her eyes.
Well, that backfired more quickly than I expected.
"Sorry! Sorry!" I cried, dodging her wild attack. "I didn't think you would take rejection so hard."
Simone rushed at me again like an angry bull, and I was easily able to dodge her next attack.
Huh, perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea after all. As long as he kept her off balance, he might be able to stay alive a little while longer.
Unfortunately, my hopes were quickly dashed as Simone stopped and dropped her knives to the ground. She breathed a couple of deep meditative breaths and took up a stance across from me. Despite her now being unarmed, I felt even more helpless now than I was before. She would be as strong as she was in her prime.
It's almost time.
I moved in slowly with my guard up and lunged forward with a knee strike. She took a calm step backward, causing me to miss and stumble. She took advantage and knocked me to the floor with an ax kick.
I rolled over in pain and tried to get back up, but she placed herself on top of me, stopping me from getting up. She proceeded to pull her fan from her pocket and clicked a mechanism that caused a small knife to protrude from the bottom.
No! It's still too soon. Just a little bit longer.
"Was this your strategy all along?" I asked. "You wanted to pin me down so you could have your way with me. Just letting you know, you will have to kill me before I allow you to use my body like that."
Simone growled and slammed her knife into my side.
"Don't worry, Tobias," Simone said. "That won't kill you. A quick death would be too neat for you." She drew another knife out from her clothes and stabbed down into my other side as well.
I had never felt as much pain as I was in at that moment, and it was pure pain that was keeping me conscious at this point. My body had already reached its limit.
Simone leaned forward and wrapped her hands around my throat, squeezing tightly. I tried prying her hands away, but I was too weak and could barely breathe. At this rate, I would be dead within the minute.
Guess my gamble didn't pay off then. I still have a few regrets. I regret that I couldn't get revenge for Thaddeus. I regret not being able to find peace with Terry in the end. More than anything else, however, I regret not having the courage to ask Tammy out. I always liked her, but I couldn't admit it to myself until my dying moments. How typical.
Suddenly, a strong pair of arms wrapped around Simone's throat from behind in a neck hold. Simone's grasp slipped for a second and I got a breath of fresh air. My vision cleared and I saw who it was that had saved me. It was Tamari.
My plan worked after all.
Simone released me and tried to elbow Tamari's ribs, but I caught her hands in my own and kept her arms pinned with all of my remaining strength. Due to her position, she couldn't use her legs as a means of attack.
Simone struggled, but couldn't break free. "Mother Truckers! How did you get in here?" she managed to ask.
Tamari let go of something that she had been holding in her hand. A key card. "Tobias left me an envelope with instructions to wait half an hour before opening it. The envelope held this key card that he had received from the manager with an explanation of what was going on. The letter also said that if I didn't hear from him when I opened the letter, then I should make my way to the manager's office. That's when I saw you trying to kill Tobias."
Simone continued to struggle in anger but to no avail. She had finally realized that I had tricked her the entire time and was just setting them up for this exact scenario. After she eventually lost consciousness and fell off of me, Tamari quickly came to my side and reached for the knives in my gut.
"Wait!" I said weakly. "Pulling them out without bandages would do more harm than good at this point. Leave them in for now. There are more important matters at hand at the moment." I took another Isekai pill out of my pocket. "Force this down the throat of the woman you so nicely took care of."
Tamari didn't ask why and rushed to do as I requested. Afterward, she came back to my side. "What now?" she asked.
I looked around at all of the Isekai'd board members and knew that they would be waking up within minutes. They might not have their souls, but they would most likely continue on the path that they had been following up to that moment.
"First, we need to tie them up securely," I said.
"And after that?" Tamari asked.
"After that," I said, "we have a lot of work to do."
END OF PART THREE