Notes on certain words can be viewed on mouse-over.
A Quiet Beginning
Index Case (First Discovered Example)
Male, aged 31 years. Employee at a biotechnology firm. Engineer. Already dead upon discovery. Confirmed address...
The man sank into a bench in the Forest park, and sighed. He wondered how many times he had already sighed that morning. He sighed, and looked at the head of lettuce in his hand. It made him sigh again. Crisp, green leaves firmly wrapped the head of lettuce ― as far as quality went, it was first-class. He tore off a leaf, and brought it to his mouth. It had a delicate taste, and the texture was excellent. First-class, indeed. Then why wasn't it selling?
The lettuce was this man's piece of work. He had long worked in the development of biotechnology to produce fresh produce, namely leafy vegetables. He believed that these safe, affordable and delicious bio-vegetables were the solution to the rising food crisis, and would soon become a mainstay in food distribution. He had the confidence it would. But market sales were not doing as well as he expected, and the man was losing hope. Buyers seemed to prefer produce trucked in from the fields of the Southeastern Blocks, rather than his bio-vegetables. The trend was especially strong for leafy vegetables, like cabbage and lettuce. If this continued, his boss had told him, he would have to start thinking about discontinuing production.
The base of his neck itched. It had been itching for a while now. The man was prone to getting rashes when he was tired. By tonight, a red rash would probably have spread to his whole body. Too many unpleasant things were happening today. He sighed again. The lettuce in his hand felt heavy.
A beeping sound rang from his breast pocket. The mobile telephone screen on his ID card lit up, and young woman's face appeared.
"Greetings from the Municipal Information System. This is to notify you of the results of the Children's Examination you have registered for. To confirm your account, please enter your Citizenship Number..." Before the woman was even finished speaking, the man began to key in his number. Today was the day of his two-year-old daughter's Examinations. She was a bright and adorable little girl. He had never dared to say it out loud, but he secretly harboured an expectation that she might be acknowledged as a top ranker.
"Thank you. We have confirmed your fingerprint and registration number. Your information is as follows..." His daughter's name was displayed, followed by a set of detailed numbers. Weight, height, bust measurement, condition of health, condition of nutrition, development stage, ranking of various skills... all grades ranged in the average A to C. She was neither overly behind, nor outstandingly brilliant. That was it. The man gazed at the screen for a moment, and then put his card back into his pocket. He thought of his daughter's smile.
The man spoke to himself, and grinned at the head of lettuce in his hand. Gifted or not, his daughter was still his daughter. He cherished and adored her. And that was good enough.
Suddenly, an idea sparked in his head. Had he, perhaps, been too trapped in the idea of the best, most perfect? It was true ― there was nothing to complain about this lettuce. But maybe its perfection was also the bane of it. If these identical, perfect heads of lettuce were piled up row after row, consumers might not feel as inclined to buy it. What if its perfection was actually scaring consumers away?
A cleaning robot was approaching. On its metallic body sat a round head, and two arms extended to pick up trash, and throw it inside the dust box located in the middle of its body. Yes. This lettuce was like that robot. It was clean and orderly, but too artificial. The vegetables that the consumers wanted were more unique, more natural.... The lettuce rolled out of his hand. The man quickly bent down to pick it up, and furrowed his brow.
His fingers stiffened. His vision blurred. It was hard to breathe. The robot picked the lettuce up, and paused. A young male voice prompted him.
"May I dispose of this as trash?"
The man opened his mouth to speak, and was overcome with a fit of coughing. Along with it, something white spilled out of his mouth. Teeth. His teeth were falling out.
"Are you sure? I will dispose of it now." The lettuce was thrown into the dust box, and the robot moved away.
――Wait, help me....
The man reached out, and gave a cry of horror. The whole length of his extended arm was riddled with spots. His body grew heavy. The man staggered, and collapsed on the ground between the bench and the hedges.
"Shion, take a look at this."
It was past six when Shion was called over by his co-worker, Yamase. The two were the only people at the Park Administration Office. Together they operated and maintained the three cleaning robots that patrolled the park. Labour robots such as these were still at the prototype stage, and even simple cleaning robots were prone to breaking down. Operating them was a hassle too, because they weren't good at distinguishing trash. After recording an object as trash in the computer's memory the first time around, it was supposed to recognize it automatically every time afterwards. But the robots sent back "indistinguishable object" errors all the time. There was one half an hour ago, in fact. The image sent back to him looked like a head of lettuce, and Shion had hesitated for a moment about what to do. He had encountered other things before that he wondered if he should call trash, like a baby chick that had fallen out of a tree, or a hat with a rather extravagant feathered decoration. Lettuce, though, was a first.
"Something the matter?" He stood behind Yamase, who was sitting at the operation panel.
"Hmm... Sampo's acting strange."
Yamase liked to call the three robots by their nicknames. Sampo was Robot No. 3. Today, it was working in a corner in the deeper recesses of the park. Sampo was also the same one that picked up the head of lettuce. The screen in front of them displayed a flashing red error notifying them of an indistinguishable object.
"What's the image like?"
"Yeah, about that. It's not very clear, but... it's strange."
Yamase was twenty ― four years older than Shion ― and quiet by nature, seldom ruffled by anything. The calm nature of his co-worker was one of the two reasons why Shion liked this workplace. The other reason was that because his job dealt mostly with machines, he didn't have to talk to people.
"Here, you take a look," Yamase said, switching the screen over to the camera.
"Can you focus in a little more?"
"Sure," came the answer, and Yamase's hands moved swiftly over the control panel. The image became clearer.
"What......" Shion leaned in closer, and his breath caught in his throat. Feet? A pair of trousered legs were protruding from behind the bench. He could see a pair of brownish shoes outfitting them.
"You think he's sleeping...?" Yamase's voice trembled.
"Any signs of life?"
"Can you raise Sampo's sensors to the max level?" Sampo was outfitted with several receptors that could sense heat, sound, and texture. Yamase's voice shook more violently.
"Oxygen, heat emission.... zero. No signs of life."
"I'll go check," Shion said abruptly.
"I'm coming too."
They leapt on their bicycles, and pedalled as hard as they could. Bicycles had become explosively popular in the last few years, and statistics showed that the average citizen owned 1.3 bicycles. Jogging shoes were also selling well. Rather than convenient and effortless modes of transportation, it seemed like more people were choosing to walk, pedal, and otherwise use their own bodies. Popular or not, for a student like Shion, something this affordable that manoeuvred easily and didn't cost anything to fuel was more of a necessity.
There were speed limits even for bicycles within the park. Shion pedalled full-throttle through a path he would usually only stroll down. Most vehicles nowadays were equipped with a restraint mechanism that automatically kicked in when the vehicle went over a certain speed. Bicycles were no exception, and the mechanism was usually built into the brake lever. But Shion's bicycle was an older model, and wasn't equipped with speed restraints. He would have to pay a fine if the Transportation Bureau found out, but right now, he was glad he could go as fast as he could.
He reached a quiet area secluded by trees. Beneath a canopy of swishing leaves, Sampo was standing still. His head joint, slightly tilted to the side, made him look either pensive or baffled.
"Sampo." In response to Shion's voice, its LED eyes lit up green. Shion peered behind the bench, and froze.
"Shion, what's going on?" Yamase arrived slightly later, and made a muffled noise in his throat.
The man lay behind the bench, as if to hide behind it. His mouth was open and his eyes wide and staring. His expression resembled surprise, rather than fear or pain. He looked like he had seen something shocking moments before he died. His hair was snowy white, and on his cheeks there were spots that looked like senile plaque. His wrinkles were pronounced. He was quite aged.
――That's a pretty flashy shirt for his age, though.
Shion remarked inwardly at the light pink shirt the man was wearing.
"Yamase-san, can you contact the Security Bureau?"
"Huh? Oh... oh yeah, of course. Sure. Give me a minute... Hello? Um, this is the Park Administration Office..." Half-listening to Yamase's shaky voice as he explained the situation, Shion reached out cautiously to touch the man. Rigor mortis had spread to his whole body.
"That's impossible," Shion muttered almost automatically in disbelief.
――It was too soon.
Rigor mortis usually began taking effect at least an hour after death―two or three hours, in most cases. It started at the jaw and spread gradually downwards to end at the legs. Judging by that, this man would have been dead at least several hours. But 30 minutes ago, this body wasn't here. If it was, Sampo would have noticed it. He knew that there had been a living person sitting on the bench. After confirming the lettuce, Sampo's sensors had registered a living human presence. Of course, he had no evidence to prove that these two were the same person. No, there was no way it could be. There was no way a person who was alive 30 minutes ago could go through complete rigor mortis in this short time. Then―was someone else sitting on this bench, oblivious to the dead man?
Shion let go of the man's arm, which felt stiffer and colder than Sampo's mechanical one. It was impossible. Even if the man had lain dead without being noticed, Sampo would have picked him up. Indeed, Sampo had reacted to his presence, and sent an "indistinguishable object" error just minutes ago. That meant that 30 minutes ago, there was no dead body here.
Shion thought he saw the body move. Of course, it was just his imagination. But ― Shion stifled a cry of horror. The jaw of the man, stiff only minutes ago, was starting to loosen. He thought he could even smell a faint odour of rot. The man was face-down, and behind his ears Shion could see a blackish-green stain begin to spread. That was definitely not there before. Certain not visibly to the naked eye. Shion leaned in closer.
"They're coming," Yamase sighed in relief. A Security Bureau car was approaching soundlessly.
"So in the space of ten-some-odd minutes, you saw complete rigor mortis―and it started rotting right afterwards? That's impossible," Safu concluded simply, after she had swallowed her mouthful of chocolate doughnut. The fast-food joint where they sat, located near the older parts of town was bustling with people of every shade and colour.
"And if you're saying you smelled rot, then that means decomposition by bacteria had already started, right? That can't be. Even in the middle of the summer, it would take at least 30 hours― right? ― for rigor mortis to dissipate completely."
"Under a fixed set of conditions, it would take 36 hours in the summertime, 3-7 days in the winter, and 60 hours in the weather we're having now. That's what the textbooks say," Shion replied, dropping his gaze from Safu's face and taking a sip from his cup of tea. He felt melancholic. And tired.
"Did the Security Bureau give you a hard time?" Safu peered into his face. Her short, cropped hair framed her delicate face and large eyes, which gave her a mysterious, androgynous sort of allure. Safu was also among the top-ranking in intelligence during her Examinations for Two-Year-Olds. She was one of the several classmates he studied with at the same school until the age of ten. And presently, at age sixteen, she was the only one whom Shion shared a close relationship with. She specialized in physiology, and was set to go on exchange soon to another city.
"It was an unnatural death after all, they must've been suspicious. They probably interrogated the heck out of you because of that, didn't they?"
Safu as Shion knew her in the classroom was a small, quiet girl. She was probably still the same in the lab. But when she was alone with Shion, Safu smiled often, ate well, and relaxed her formal tone. Shion drained his tea, and slowly shook his head.
"Nah, it wasn't as bad as I thought." Truth be told, the Security Bureau's interrogation was surprisingly short. All they did was seize the data that Sampo had recorded of the body, and demand an explanation of the situation from each of the two. The official spoke sharply when he found out that Shion's registered address was located in the old-town district, close to the West Block, but Shion was used to that kind of treatment and thought nothing of it.
"Then why do you look so down about it? You're the picture of the troubled young man right now."
"It... just doesn't seem right."
"The rigor mortis and its dissipation time?"
"Right. You said so yourself, Safu. It's not possible. You're right. There was no condition present that could have accelerated the rigor mortis and dissipation to that extent."
"You mean no condition in terms of temperature or humidity, or some other external influence, right? You won't know until you perform an autopsy if there might be an internal cause that accelerated it."
"Internal cause, huh... like what?"
"For example, if that person was severely debilitated, he wouldn't have stiffened up as much, and it wouldn't have lasted as long. In people with phosphorus poisoning or in infants, they say it's almost nonexistent..."
"He was definitely not an infant, I can tell you that."
Safu sniffed indignantly and glared at Shion.
"It was just an example. You're as sarcastic as ever, aren't you? That hasn't changed at all. But I guess there's not much we can make of it if we don't have any data."
"Yeah...." Shion nodded vaguely, and unconsciously bit his lower lip. Data, textbooks, manuals... there were times when they became completely useless. What he once believed to be so certain and absolute would be overturned ever so easily, and crumble before him. He experienced that four years ago.