"Shion." Safu put her elbows on the table, and folded her hands over each other. She placed her chin on them, and gazed at Shion.
"I want to ask you something."
"Four years ago ― why didn't you enroll into the Gifted Curriculum?" It was as if her question saw right through him. Shion broke off a piece of the blandly sweet apple pie with his hands. The filling oozed out onto the plate.
"Why're you asking now?"
"Because I want to know. Even from an objective point of view, you were a stellar student. You absorbed information well and knew how to apply it. All the teachers had high expectations for you."
"You're giving me too much credit."
"It's the truth. The numbers prove it. Do you want me to show you your Skill Test results again from four years ago?"
"Safu." He had a bitter taste in his mouth. It felt like it was welling up from the very core of his body.
"What's the point of asking me this now? Four years ago, they decided I wasn't qualified for the Gifted Curriculum, so I lost all special privileges. I didn't choose to not enroll, I couldn't. Now I work for Park Administration to pay for my tuition, and I'm taking trades courses from the Labour Bureau. But my attendance hasn't been good so I'm not even sure if I can graduate. That's reality. That's the truth you're talking about, Safu."
"And why did you lose your privilege?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"But I'd love for you to tell me."
Shion finished licking the pie crust from his fingers, and closed his mouth firmly. He didn't want to talk about it. Or, rather, he couldn't think of any explanation that would make Safu understand.
The reason was simple. He had taken a VC under his wing for the night, and let him escape. The Security Bureau had found that out. They had thought it suspicious that his mother Karan had left the security alarm off, and Shion had left the foreign-object detection system off in his own room. The security systems of each house were connected to the Central Administration Bureau's computer system, and could be easily tracked.
Not one hour had passed after Nezumi had disappeared when officials from the Security Bureau were knocking on his door. It was the start of their long and persistent interrogation.
You knew that he was a VC, then?
Why didn't you call the police immediately?
Answer my question. You don't need to rush. Just give us a clear and accurate answer.
It was because he looked about the same age as me, and he was seriously injured. So I felt sorry for him....
So you sympathized with this VC, didn't contact the police, but instead treated his wounds and helped him escape.
It ended up as so, yes.
The Security Bureau's Investigations and Interrogations official was named Rashi. He spoke gently throughout the whole meeting, never once raising his voice or his fist in violence. When their gruelling two-day investigation was over and Shion was released, he even gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder and said, "It's been hard, I know. Thanks." But Rashi's eyes never smiled once, and Shion had noticed. Even now, four years later, those unsmiling eyes came into his dreams, their gaze boring into him. He would awake in the morning, shaken, and soaked with sweat.
He concealed a criminal and aided his escape. Shion wasn't sentenced for this crime, but he was deemed severely deficient in appropriate judgment skill and ability to take action, and as a result all his special privileges were removed.
When the hurricane passed, Shion and Karan were cast out onto the streets, under a blindingly blue sky. They had no place to live, nor any means to make a living. Shion's Gifted Curriculum in ecology had become something more far away and unreachable than the clouds that floated in the sky above them.
A certainty, a definiteness he had in his hands only yesterday, only moments before, had vanished. They had scattered on the winds, more frail than the leaves he had watched whipped around in the storm. It was a sense of loss he was feeling for the first time in his life.
No. 6 had no welfare system. There was only a hierarchical insurance system based on the level of contribution that a select few of the citizens had to offer to the city. Shion and Karan, far from contributing to the city, were treated as people who had failed to serve their responsibility as citizens. They were at the lowest possible rank. That meant that, apart from being allowed to remain in the city, they were excluded from any aid or insurance.
Petri-dish elite. Nezumi had used that term that night, and it was true. He realized the weight of it after he had been thrown out of his enclosed and sheltered container. No. 6 was none other than a caste society. The vertical dynamic of the population was neatly ordered into a pyramid structure. Once you tumbled off the top tiers, it wasn't easy to crawl back up.
"Look at you, so serious." Safu laughed. "I get it. If it's that hard to explain, then I won't ask."
"Sorry." Shion held up a hand and ducked his head in apology. He was relieved that she didn't question him further. The events were easy enough to explain. He did want to tell Safu, for her to know about the dramatic events that had turned his life upside-down. But what Shion couldn't grasp, couldn't seem to find the words to explain, were his own feelings. He even surprised himself with what little regret he felt. He did feel shock at the fragility of his position, and he did more than once find himself curled up, unable to grapple with his sense of loss. But now, after four years of living through it all, he pondered. What would he do if he could turn back time to that day, on his twelfth birthday? Would he have called the police? Would he have set his security alarm off? The answer was always "no".
Even if he had the chance to return to that night, he would have done the same thing. He would have taken in the wind and rain, and the intruder that came with it. He felt it with certainty, and his certainty put him at unease. It wasn't like he found his life now more satisfying than before. He still had deep attachments to ecology, his state-of-the-art learning environment, his comfortable life ― and shamefully enough, even the accolades, the words of praise and encouragement, and gazes of admiration that he was the centre of. But even so, he would have done the same thing. If accepting Nezumi meant his own destruction, then to destruction he would have trodden again and again. He had no regrets about what he did. But he couldn't explain why. Since that night, other hurricanes came and went. Listening to the excited murmurings of the leaves in the wind, Shion felt not regret, but a sense of longing. It was a yearning to see him again.
Shion didn't have the confidence that he could explain it to Safu well enough. He had no other option but to remain silent.
"Shall we go then, Shion?" Safu stood up. The restaurant had become even more crowded, and now they could barely hear each other's voice.
"I'll walk you to the station," Shion offered.
"Of course. You would have to be really tactless to let a girl go home by herself, wouldn't you?"
"Oh come on," retorted Shion, "we both know how strong you are, even though you might look small and skinny. And you're speedy. I always thought you were more fit for martial arts than physiology, actually."
"You know what, you're right. I've been told off once about how I emotional I can get all of a sudden, when I'm usually so quiet. Maybe I'm not meant for lab work after all."
They walked side-by-side down the road to the station. Excluding a few restaurants, late-night business was banned in the city. In a matter of hours, the throngs of people walking up and down the streets now would disappear. Shion gave Safu's back a light push. Her last words had sounded somewhat dejected to his ears.
"Is that supposed to be the voice of someone who's passed the exams and is about to go on exchange?"
Safu raised her face, and grinned.
"Jealous, aren't you?"
"That's awfully truthful of you."
"Be true to yourself, be kind to others. It's been my motto these days."
"You're not jealous at all."
Shion stopped. Safu was staring at him challengingly. Just as he was about to call her name, he was suddenly grabbed by the shoulder from behind.
"Excuse me." Shion turned around. A man was standing there, smiling. He was about a head shorter than Shion, and was wearing a Security Bureau uniform. It was navy blue from top to bottom and made of a special material called superfibre, which had impressive qualities for its unremarkable appearance. With durability that was tenfold that of steel, it served the purpose of a bullet-proof vest well enough; at the same time, it let air pass through easily so the garment could breathe. There was an increasing number of these uniformed Law Enforcement officers from the Security Bureau the closer they neared to the West Block. Shion calmly brushed the man's hand off his shoulder and spoke.
"Can I help you?"
"Ah, well... I just want to ask you two a couple questions... how old are you?"
"The both of you?"
"You do know that those under eighteen are prohibited from being outdoors after nine?"
"Yes, but it's still before eight."
"Shion," Safu whispered sharply. She was telling him not to argue. But the Security Bureau uniform standing before him brought back to memory the eyes of that interrogation officer who called himself Rashi. Instead of feeling intimidated, Shion was compelled to retaliate.
"Your ID cards, the two of you, please." Perhaps he had taken notice of Shion's rebellious attitude. The man wiped the smile clean off his face and demanded their identification cards expressionlessly. Safu passed her silver card to him. Shion silently did the same.
"Your Citizenship Numbers, in order."
The man pulled the cards out of his portable card-reader, and turned to give Safu a slight bow.
"A Gifted Curriculum student like yourself shouldn't be roaming these areas at such a late hour. I advise you to go home."
"I was on my way... I was walking to the station."
"Let me walk you there."
"No thank you. He's going to." Safu clung to Shion's arm.
"I'll take her," said Shion shortly. "That's where we were headed in the first place. Let's go, Safu."
Snatching the cards from the officer's grasp, Shion grabbed Safu's hand, and strode swiftly away. When he turned around some moments later, the man had already disappeared into the bustling crowd.
"That scared me." Safu clutched her chest. "I've never been scolded by the Security Bureau."
"It happens all the time," replied Shion. "If you didn't have your Gifted Curriculum ID, he would have grilled us even more."
"Really," said Shion grimly. "Like the train that you're about to get on. With that ID card, you can bypass the General car and ride in Special Class. That's the kind of city we live in. Everyone's sorted out into categories based on skill, wealth, and all these other factors."
"Don't talk about it like that," Safu protested. "You don't 'sort' people like you 'sort' garbage and merchandise. People are people. They're humans."
"Safu, in this city it doesn't matter whether we're people or not. It matters how useful you are to the city. That's it."
"Back there you called me a liar. I'm not. Of course I'm jealous. You've got all your privileges, and you're allowed to study and experiment to your heart's content. I'm envious, Safu. I resent you, even. You have everything that I don't have."
Shion paused, and let out a long breath. He had gone too far. It was shameful. Low. Embarrassing. Pathetic. He clicked his tongue at himself in frustration.
Safu sighed as well.
"You're still a liar."
"Did you not hear me? You're. Still. A. Liar. I can add 'big' on top of that, if you like. You're only pretending to be envious of me. Or do you not even realize that you're lying? What a dense boy I've got on my hands."
"Safu, what―" Shion began in exasperation.
"If you were really envious and resentful, you wouldn't be able to stand going out to eat with me. But you, you're laughing, eating, making conversation, cracking jokes like it's nothing."
"Hey, I have some pride too. Obviously I'm not going to be openly jealous."
"Shion," said Safu firmly. "My specialization is in cognitive functions, brain activity and their relationship with hormones."
"Good, because if you didn't, I would've been mad. I haven't told you this over and over for nothing. Anyway," she continued briskly, "say you are hiding your resentment and pretending to be enjoying your time with me. It would be stressful, right?"
"I guess so..." Shion replied dubiously.
"It would be stressful. And when you feel stress, your adrenal glands release steroid hormones called corticosteroids that influence your brain. And what it does to brain activity is―"
"Okay, Safu, I get it." Shion interrupted. "That's enough. Save your lecture for next time and I'll listen carefully―"
"Listen to me. You're not feeling any stress. You're not resentful of me at all. Shion, what is it that you want to do?"
"If you do want to continue your studies, you can be resentful of me. But you're not. You said I have everything you don't have. Then what is it that you have? You can't say you have nothing," she added hastily. "People who have nothing ― no ― people who think they've got nothing left, can't smile like you do. Or talk like you do. For your emotions not to have any influence on your actions, to have that level of perfect control, it takes special training. You're not getting any special training. I don't think you're an overly emotional person, but I also don't think you have the ability to control 100% of your emotions either. The only reason you can have a regular conversation with me and laugh around me is because you have a certain level of emotional security."
"Safu, what you just said is all armchair theory. Humans have complex emotions. They're not like lab rats. I don't think you can explain how emotions influence people's actions that easily. It's arrogant to believe that science can explain everything about human nature."
Safu shrugged. They were approaching the station.
"I didn't know you wanted to become a writer."
"Safu," Shion said wearily.
"Then I'll say this in a literary context. Emotional security... so I'm talking about hope, or dreams. You have those. That's why you don't feel the need to resent me. Shion, what is it that you hope for?"