Mother was sitting on the couch in the living room, engrossed in the flat-screen television mounted on the wall. She noticed me coming in, and pointed at the screen. A female newscaster with long, straight hair was broadcasting a warning to all residents of Chronos.
A convict had escaped from the Correctional Facility in the West Block, and was last seen fleeing into the Chronos area. With regards to the hurricane as well, the area was to be put in a lockdown that night. Everyone in the area, excluding special cases, was forbidden to go outside of their homes.
Nezumi's face appeared on the screen. Underneath, the words "VC103221" floated up in red letters.
I lifted a spoonful of cherry cake into my mouth. Every year without fail, Mother baked a cherry cake for my birthday. It was because Father had brought home a cherry cake on the day I was born.
From what Mother said, my father was a hopeless case who indulged lavishly in money-spending and women, but above all, the bottle ― he was just a step away from being an alcoholic. He had come home one day, in his drunkenness having bought cherry cakes ― three of them ― that were so good she couldn't help but remember their taste every time September 7th rolled around. My parents divorced two months after the cherry cake. So unfortunately, I have no memory of my hopeless case of a father who was one step away from an alcoholic. But it was no inconvenience. After being snagged as a top ranker, Mother and I received the right to live in Chronos, along with complete insurance of our living conditions, including this modest but well-outfitted house. There was no inconvenience at all.
"I just remembered, the yard's security system is still turned off. No harm in leaving it off, right?"
Mother raised herself slowly. She had gained a lot of weight recently, and it seemed like an effort for her to move.
"It's such a pain in the neck, that thing. Even a cat jumping over the fence sets the alarm off, and people from the Security Bureau come every single time to check. What a hassle."
Almost as if in correlation with her gaining weight, she had started to call things "a pain in the neck" more and more often.
"But look at him, he's still so young. A VC... I wonder what he's done."
VC. The V Chip. It was short for Violence-Chip, and was originally a term used in America for a semiconductor that was used to censor television content. With this chip, you could set the television not to display violent or disturbing scenes. If I remembered correctly, this term was first used in the 1996 revision of the Telecommunications Act.
But in No. 6, the term VC carried a heavier meaning. Perpetrators of murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault and other violent crime were subject to having this chip planted inside their body. This enabled computers to track every location, condition and even emotional fluctuations of the convict. VC was a term we used for violent criminals.
――But how did he take the chip out?
If the VC was still inside his body, his location could be instantly pinpointed with the city's tracking system. It should have been easily possible to arrest him without any citizens noticing. To make news of his escape public, and to enforce a lock-down would only mean that they hadn't been able to find his location.
――Could that bullet wound have...? No, that can't be.
I'd never seen a bullet wound on a human before, but I could tell it definitely came from being shot at a distance. If he had blown the chip off himself along with the flesh of his shoulder, he would have had a more serious wound, with burns and all. Much more serious.
"Rather dull, isn't it? A shame, since it's your special day."
Mother sighed as she sprinkled parsley flakes into the pot of stew sitting on the table. "Dull" was another word Mother used more often these days.
Mother and I were very similar. We were both a little over-sensitive, and didn't like to socialize much. The people around us were nice, so nice there was nothing bad to say about them. My classmates, the citizens around us, were genial, intelligent, and minded their manners. No one raised their voice to insult anyone, or treated people with hostility. There were no strange or devious people. Everyone kept up such meticulously healthy lifestyles that even slightly plump figures like my mother's were rare. In this peaceful, stable and uniform world where everyone looked the same, my mother grew fatter, every other word "a pain in the neck" or "dull"; and I began to find the presence of other people oppressing.
The spoon slid out of my hand and clattered to the floor.
"What's wrong? You were miles away."
Mother peered inquisitively at me. Her round face broke into a smile.
"That's rare of you, Shion, spacing out like that. Want me to disinfect that spoon?"
"Oh, no. It's no big deal," I smiled back at her. My heart was racing so fast it was hard to breathe. I gulped down the mineral water in one go. Bullet wounds, blood, VC, grey eyes. What were all these things? They had never existed in my world until now. What business did they have, so suddenly intruding into my life?
I had a fleeting premonition. A feeling that a great change was coming. Just like a virus that enters a cell and mutates it or destroys it altogether, I had a feeling that this impostor would upset the world I lived in, and destroy it entirely.
"Shion? Really, what's gotten into you?"
Mother peered into my face again, her expression concerned.
"Sorry, mom. That report is bothering me. I'm gonna eat in my room," I lied, and stood up.
"Don't turn on the light."
A low voice commanded me, as soon as I entered the room. I didn't like the dark, so I usually left the lights on. But now it was pitch-black.
"I can't see anything."
"You don't need to."
But if I couldn't see, I couldn't move. I stood helplessly, with the stew and cherry cake in my hands.
"Something smells good."
"I brought stew and cherry cake."
I heard a whistle of appreciation in the dark.
"You're gonna eat it in the dark?"
I carefully inched my foot forward. I could hear a quiet snicker.
"Can't even find your way in your own room?"
"I don't happen to be nocturnal, thanks. Can you see in the dark?"
"I'm a rat. Of course I can."
In the darkness, I could sense Nezumi freeze.
"You were all over the news. Famous."
"Hah. Don't I look so much better in real life? Hey, this cake is good."
My eyes were getting used to the darkness. I sat on the bed, and squinted at Nezumi.
"Can you get away alright?"
"What did you do with the chip?"
"It's still inside me."
"Want me to take it out?"
"Surgery again? No thanks."
"It doesn't matter. That thing is useless now anyway."
"What do you mean?"
"The VC is just a toy. Disabling it is like a piece of cake."
"A toy, huh."
"Yup, a toy. And let me tell you something, this city itself is like a toy, too. A cheap toy that's pretty only on the outside."
Nezumi had polished off the stew and cake. He gave a sigh of content.
"So you're confident that you're going to escape when the city's on high-alert?"
"But there's a strict security check for trespassers who aren't registered. There's an entire system in place throughout this area for people like that."
"You think so? This city's system isn't as perfect as you think it is. It's full of holes."
"How can you say that?"
"Because I'm not part of the system. You've all been programmed nicely to believe that this holey fake mess is the perfect utopia. Or, no, maybe that's what you guys want to believe."
"I don't think this place is perfect."
The words tumbled out of my mouth. Nezumi fell silent. In front of me, there was only an expanse of darkness. I couldn't feel his presence at all. He was right, he was like a rat. A nocturnal rodent, hidden in the darkness.
"You're strange," he said quietly, in a voice even lower than before.
"You are. That's not something for a super elite to say. Aren't you in trouble if the authorities find out?"
"Yeah. Big trouble."
"You just took in an escaped VC and didn't report it to the Bureau. ...If they find that out, that's even bigger trouble. They're not gonna let you off easily."
Nezumi suddenly grabbed my arm. His thin fingers dug into my flesh.
"Do you really? I mean, it's not my problem what happens to you, but if you end up being wiped out because of me, I wouldn't like that. I'd feel like I did something horrible..."
"That's considerate of you."
"Mama always told me, 'don't cause trouble for other people," he said lightly.
"Then are you gonna leave?"
"No. I'm tired, and there's a hurricane outside. And I've finally got a bed. I'll sleep here."
"Make up your mind."
"Papa always told me to separate my public manners from my private feelings."
"Sounds like a great father."
His fingers withdrew from my arm.
"I guess I was lucky that you were strange," Nezumi said softly.
"How did you get to Chronos?"
"Did you break out of the Correctional Facility and get into the city? Is that even possible?"
"Of course it's possible. But I didn't get into No. 6 on my own. Someone let me in. Not like I wanted to come here, though."
"Let you in?"
"Yup. I was being escorted, you might say."
"Escorted? By the police? To where?"
The Correctional Facility was located in the West Block, a high-security zone. Anyone who wanted to enter No. 6 from there had to apply for permission from the bureau. Those who had special entry permits were free to go in and out, but new applicants I heard had to wait at least a month for their form to even be accepted ― and usually only less than ten percent are admitted. The number of days allowed inside the city were also severely restricted. Naturally, people began to accumulate in the West Block. More people waiting for their permits to be processed meant more accommodation and dining establishments lined the streets to serve them. Still more people poured in to work or make business there. I've never been to the West Block myself, but I've heard that it's a haphazard but lively place. The crime rate there is high. The majority of VCs that fill the cells in the Correctional Facility are residents of the West Block. Sentences ranging from one year to life are given based on age, criminal history, and the degree of violence of the crime. There is no death penalty. The West Block served as a sort of fortress that contained all people and things of criminal nature, and prevented it from entering the city. So for a VC to be escorted from there to within city walls ― where were they headed? And for what reason?
Nezumi crawled into bed.
"Probably the Moondrop."
"City Hall!" I exclaimed. "The centre of the city? Why?"
"Not telling. You probably shouldn't know, anyway."
"I'm tired. Let me go to sleep."
"Is it something you can't tell me?"
"Can you guarantee that you can completely forget everything once you've heard it? Pretend you didn't hear? Outright lie that you don't know anything? You might be smart, but you're not an adult. You can't lie as well as that."
"I guess, but..."
"So don't ask me in the first place. In return, I won't tell anyone either."
"Huh? About what?"
"About how you were yelling out the window."
He had seen me. I could feel my face burning with embarrassment.
"It totally caught me off-guard. I snuck into your yard and was wondering what to do next, and suddenly the window opened and you stuck your face out."
"Hey, wait a minute―"
"I was watching for what you'd do next, and then this time you started screaming. I was caught off-guard again. I don't think I've ever seen anyone screaming with a face like―"
I lunged at Nezumi, but all I felt was the pillow as I fell on top of it. In a flash, Nezumi was up. He slid a hand under my arm, and with a quick twist, I was effortlessly flipped over onto my back. Nezumi climbed over me and pinned both my arms down with one hand. His legs straddled my hips and pressed them down hard. For an instant, I felt a tingle of numbness run through my legs all the way down to my toes. It was impressive. In the space of a split second, I had been trapped, immobilized, and pinned to my own bed. With his free hand, Nezumi spun the soup spoon around. He pressed the handle against my throat, and lightly slid it across. He crouched so that his lips were at my ear.
"If this was a knife," he whispered, "you would be dead."
A muscle in my throat twitched. Amazing.
"That's amazing. Is there a trick to doing that?"
"How can you immobilize someone so easily? Are there special nerve points you press down or something?"
The force pinning me down relaxed. Nezumi sank down on top of me, trembling ― he was laughing.
"I can't believe this. You're hilarious. What a natural," he gasped.
I circled my arms around Nezumi and stuck my hands up the back of his shirt. It was hot. His burning skin was damp with sweat.
"I knew it... you're catching a fever. You should take those antibiotics."
"I'm fine... I just wanna sleep."
"If you don't bring your fever down it'll drain you even more. You're burning up."
"You're pretty warm too."
Nezumi gave a deep sigh, and murmured absent-mindedly.
"Living people are warm."
He became still, and not long after, I could hear quiet, measured breathing coming from him. With his feverish body still in my arms, before I knew it, I too was drifting off to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, Nezumi was gone. The plaid shirt, towel, and emergency kit were gone with him.
Read Chapter 2.