Flight for Life
Shion inserted his ID card into the card reader of the Park Administration Office. The door opened soundlessly, and the air filtration system and temperature control started up. There was no one inside the office yet. It was odd that Yamase was not here already. Shion turned on the switch of the park administration system. It was the start of another work day.
"Good morning." An image of City Hall, The Moondrop appeared along with the greeting. "Your unwavering allegiance to the city―"
He placed his hand on the image of the Moondrop and recited slowly.
"Our gratitude for your loyalty. Engage in your day's labour with sincerity and pride as a good citizen of the City." The Moondrop disappeared, and was replaced with a report of the living conditions of all the organisms in the Park. Shion breathed a sigh of relief. The daily allegiance rituals had become a source of discomfort for him. Although it was among the farthest branches, Park Administration Office was still under direct affiliation with the City. All employees were required to pledge allegiance to the City every morning. If they refused, they would lose their job.
It was no big deal. All he had to do was cast his hand over the display, and recite the same words. Shion tried to brush it aside, but the worn and banal words of the pledge, and the sheer ridiculousness of the ritual itself always filled him with disgust. And for repeating this banal and ridiculous ritual every morning, Shion's injured pride stung. He remembered Safu complaining of the same thing. The laboratory where Safu worked also operated under the City, so an allegiance ritual was mandatory as well.
Shion lightly blew on his palm. It was no use complaining. As long as he was to be a citizen of No. 6, as long as he was going to continue living here, it was no use fretting about pride. So he kept telling himself.
The office door opened, and Yamase came in. Behind him stood a woman who looked about in her twenties. Yamase called over to her softly, but she shook her head, bowed slightly, and left in a hurry. She was a small woman with long hair.
"I see..." Shion stopped his hands over the control keys and turned to stare into Yamase's square, angular face.
"It's rare to see you with a woman, Yamase-san. Could she be―" He went on to say 'your girlfriend', but promptly shut his mouth. Yamase was sitting at his control panel, reciting the pledge of allegiance to the city. His expression was tense. Shion could tell from his face that this wasn't the right time for teasing.
"Yamase-san, is something the matter?"
"Shion, that lady..." Yamase paused, and turned to Shion. "She's the wife of yesterday's body."
That would make them a couple of enormous age difference. No. 6 had no strict regulations for marriage, as long as it was between two consenting registered citizens. Even if the couple had not gotten an official marriage certificate, it was not a problem. The problem was more with whether they would be able to prepare an appropriate childrearing environment if they were to have children. Childbirth was not permitted for people who didn't meet the city's criteria of standards. Shion didn't know what those criteria were. Nevertheless, people were free to marry, and a couple or two with this much age difference was nothing out of the ordinary.
"She says they're only three years apart," said Yamase quietly. Shion didn't understand. "He was three years older than her," Yamase repeated.
"Three years... but―"
Yamase nodded. "That body was only 31 years old."
"No way!" exclaimed Shion incredulously. "That can't be. That body was an elderly man, no matter how you look at it."
"Yeah," said Yamase heavily. "I was surprised too. But the body hasn't come back to the madam since. They're keeping it over at the Bureau."
"Keep? So you're saying an autopsy wasn't enough to find out how he died?"
"I guess that's what it means."
They couldn't find the cause of death. Shion couldn't imagine a cause of death that No. 6's front-line medical technology couldn't decode. Medicine had long had full bearings on organism analysis to the nanometre scale. An average cell measured approximately 20 micrometres. A micrometre was 1000 times larger than a nanometre. Any disease at the cellular level should be more than easy to find and analyze.
Shion felt a chill. Abnormal rigor mortis, its dissipation, and the body it left that was unmistakably that of an elderly man―what did it all mean? He didn't know. At present, Yamase's low voice spoke again.
"The madam was told that he died from an accident in the park, and to wait for further notice until they figure out his cause of death. She came here today asking if she could at least see where the accident happened."
"You're right, it's a load of bull. Them telling her it was an accident is a huge lie," Yamase replied, and scratched his neck vigorously in irritation.
"Yamase-san, why does the Bureau have to lie about it? And isn't it strange that they can't seem to find a cause of death?"
"Yeah... this incident is full of unanswered questions."
"If the Bureau can't explain it, could it be a cause of death that's never had any previous case?"
"No previous cases?"
"That man died from something that was completely unknown up until now, something no one's experienced before ― is that possible?"
"Shion! What are you..." Yamase trailed off. His face was pale. Shion figured his own face must look the same.
"Let's have some coffee, shall we?" Yamase suddenly stood up as if he couldn't bear the tense atmosphere any longer. Shion hastily stood up after him.
"Oh, let me―"
"No, I'll do it. You like lots of milk in yours, right Shion?"
"Thanks." Shion paused. "So―but anyone could look at the body and tell it wasn't an accident, right?"
Yamase turned toward him. His usual gentle face was strangely contorted.
"Shion, bodies can be modified."
"I―" Yamase stammered. "Before I started working here, I used to work at the Municipal Central Hospital. My job was to modify dead bodies."
"Modify―what do you mean?"
"I wasn't planning to tell this to anyone, but..." Yamase hesitated. "Shion, have you ever seen a dead body before?"
"Once, at a funeral for my grandfather on my mother's side. I saw his body in a coffin at the viewing."
"How was it?"
"How...? He looked peaceful. Don't they all look like that?"
"You think so?"
"Are you saying they don't?"
Medical technology had made enormous progress not only in the fields of disease treatment and prevention, but also in the removal of pain. Technology of the present day could remove anything, whether it be from accident or illness, ranging anywhere from pain during surgery, to breathing trouble, severe pain and seizures experienced in the moments leading up to death. People ended their lives free of suffering, and all died with peaceful expressions on their faces. That was what Shion had been told.
Yamase handed him a cup of coffee. He lowered his gaze and bent his neck to scratch it, as if to avoid Shion's gaze.
"All this about front-line medical technology goes right over my head," Yamase said slowly. "But all I know is that... no matter how much technology develops, it's impossible for everyone to die a peaceful death. That much I'm sure of." Yamase's face contorted even more. The hand which held his own mug trembled slightly.
"I worked for a long time in the basement of the Central Hospital. My job was to modify the bodies that were brought there."
"Yamase-san, so what's this about modifying bodies?"
"It's an easy job. When the body's been confirmed dead and brought down, I would coat its face with a special chemical and cover it with this apparatus. And then―"
"Then it would smile. All of them did. They would all look like they were having some wonderful dream."
Shion almost let out a cry. It was just as Yamase had said. He was nine years old when he saw his deceased grandfather's face, and he had been smiling.
"It's almost like he's having a wonderful dream," he remembered his mother whispering through her tears.
"Of course," Yamase continued, "the majority of people that die don't need to be modified. They're all people that have been able to get proper palliative care, and have really died a peaceful death. But it's still only a majority ― not the entire population. There are a small number of people, though, that die tragically, their faces all stiffened up in pain."
"What kind of people die like that, Yamase-san?"
Yamase exhaled shortly, and drained the rest of his coffee. "I don't know. My job was only to coat the faces with the chemical and cover them with the apparatus. I didn't know why these people had to die with such suffering and sadness in their faces, and no one would tell me." He paused. "But― there was this one time, a middle-aged man was brought in... I usually have to wipe the face before applying the chemical, and I noticed that the man had tear streaks on his face, and ― and I thought ― maybe he'd been crying right up until he died. I wondered if he'd been crying the whole time while he was dying. And then I just had this thought that― maybe this man had killed himself."
"Killed himself? A citizen of this city―?"
"You think it's impossible?" Yamase asked flatly.
"Of all causes of death in the last ten years, suicide has only been 0.05%. And most have been impulse cases due to temporary psychosis, so they technically don't even fall into that criteria. According to the city's statistics, anyway."
"According to what the city has published as statistics, yes," Yamase rephrased.
Despair did not exist in No. 6. All citizens lead a secure and hospitable life. There was no starvation, no war, no anguish. Not even any pain in the moments leading up to death.
You guys have been programmed to think this holey mess is the ideal utopia. Nezumi had spat these words out four years earlier. Now, Shion was experiencing its reality word for word. Lost Town was full of people who had abandoned hope. They had enough to eat, and enough to keep living. But they had no hopes for the future. Lost Town wasn't the only place―maybe the same could be said for Chronos. How many people could die with a real smile on their face, and say they've lived a fulfilling life?
"Yamase-san, are you saying that the Bureau is manipulating information?"
"Shion!" Yamase warned, knitting his brow and shaking his head violently. "Don't say stuff like that out loud. We've been hired by the City. We've pledged allegiance. We shouldn't be talking about our suspicions. I don't know what's gotten into me. Forget everything I said. Just forget it."
"Alright," Shion replied uncertainly.
"Right then, let's get Sampo and the rest moving. Where were the main regions today?"
"Areas JK02 to ER005. Mainly cleaning up foliage."
"Alright, let's get to work."
"Right you are." They began to tap the control keys for the robots. Yamase gave a short grunt of pain.
"Ah, it's nothing. It's just―my fingers are strange."
"No, no... it's like they feel stiff..." He stood up unsteadily, and then suddenly crumpled to the floor, his face in his hands.
"Are you alright?"
"My eyes... I can't see... they're blurry..."
In the midst of reaching out to support Yamase, Shion froze. He couldn't move. Yamase's hair was turning white. Spots were beginning to spread over the hands that covered his face.
"Shion... what's―what's happening to me...?"
Frozen in horror, Shion watched as Yamase aged with astonishing speed before him. He curled up as he lay on the ground, and his back contracted in violent spasms. He was having trouble breathing. Shion lunged for the emergency intercom.
"We have an emergency. An ambulance, please. Quickly!"
Yamase coughed weakly. What was happening? What was going on? Shion couldn't believe what was unfolding before him. Everything seemed surreal. His mind was in a panic ― he didn't know what to do, how to deal with it. But still another part of him remained unsettlingly calm. Observe. Analyze. Watch. Don't take your eyes off of him. Take in everything you can and absorb it as knowledge.
Shion swallowed, and lifted Yamase in his arms. After a few weak spasms, Yamase's body was still.
"Yamase-san?" His face was unmistakably that of an old man. And it was no longer that of one who was living. Shion checked his pulse and pupils. Yamase's body grew colder by the minute. His mouth was open as if in astonishment, like the man from yesterday.
Shion, how can this happen? I can't believe it. Shion could almost imagine those words tumbling out of his parted lips.
I have to close his eyes, at least. Shion pressed his fingers on Yamase's eyelids. They didn't close. Rigor mortis had already begun to take its course.
Shion crouched beside Yamase, clenched his fists, and continued staring at his colleague with whom he was having a conversation only moments before. Feelings of fear, sorrow, or pain were curiously absent. It was as if all his feelings had gone numb.
Observe. Analyze. Watch. Don't take your eyes off of him. Take in everything you can and absorb it as knowledge. And memorize it. Memorize. Memorize―
Cessation of respiratory and cardiovascular activity. Decrease in body temperature. Rigor mortis. Death spots. Dissipation of rigor mortis. Postmortem phenomena that usually took dozens of hours was taking place in a mere fifteen, sixteen minutes. It was if he was watching a film on fast-forward.
Shion watched unmoving, his eyes wide open, biting his lip in concentration. He could predict what was going to happen next. He was sweating. A warm bead of perspiration slid from his temple down his cheek. Its heat reassured him that he was still alive.
Living people are warm. You were right, Nezumi. People are warm because they're alive. Four years ago, you knew this.
A stain appeared on Yamase's neck. It was dark green, almost black. Shion bit his lip harder. The taste of blood spread inside his mouth. There it was, it was starting―what was previously unknown, what no one had ever experienced before. He leaned forward. The stain moved. The skin over that portion swelled slightly, and stirred.
A buzzer went off. Sampo was sending an Indistinguishable Object signal. Oblivious to the changes that were happening in the office, it seemed like Sampo and the rest were going about their cleaning duties as usual. Shion ignored it. He had no attention to spare. All the nerves in his body were focused on the stain. His eyes were glued to it, and he couldn't break his gaze.
Shion let out a muffled cry of horror. He clutched his chest, and felt his own heartbeat thudding against his palm. He jumped back. An insect had eaten its way out from under the skin of Yamase's neck, and was wriggling to get free. It was the same colour as the stain it had come out of. It had thin silvery wings, six legs, antennae, and a needle-like ovipositor.
A bee had just eaten its way out of a human body. How could that―
The insect took flight. He followed it with his gaze, and saw the Medical Bureau's ambulance pull up in front of the office. A sudden darkness veiled his eyes.
He was fainting from shock.
The black insect was darting around in his darkening vision. Shion groaned, and curled up on the floor.
Shion awoke to a blinding light stabbing at his eyes. He heard a quiet male voice speak.
Light was streaming through the window, and the man had his back to it. His face was thrown in shadow. The shadow spoke again.
"Get up. I have something to ask you."
It was a voice he'd heard before. Shion came to, and noticed he was lying on the office sofa. Yamase, wrapped in a white cloth, was being carried out of the room. It seemed like he had fainted for only a few minutes.
Shion called the name of his colleague almost without thinking. Yamase's smiling face crossed his mind. Fragmented memories ― how he loved coffee, and drank several cups of it a day; his quiet demeanour; his habit of sheepishly looking at his feet ― all at once burst forth in his mind.
They weren't particularly close. To Shion, he was just a senior colleague. He had never confided in Yamase, nor had they ever had a deeply personal conversation. But Shion had liked Yamase. Yamase never intruded unheeded into anyone's personal space, but that didn't mean he was disinterested. He was a good person. But he was no more.
"Yamase-san..." His eyes began to sting. He was tapped lightly on the shoulder.
"Let's get emotional later, shall we?" The man spoke lazily and without emotion. Shion's heart jumped unpleasantly.
"Can you explain the situation to us?" This voice, these words. He had heard them before.
"It's been a while, hasn't it. It's nice to see you still remember me."
It was Rashi, the Interrogations Officer from the Security Bureau. He had the same gentle tongue and unsmiling eyes as four years before.
"You'll tell us everything you know, won't you?"
Shion found himself nodding automatically. He could feel his mind begin to unravel slowly. His head and body felt heavy, and his own voice sounded as if it was coming from far away.
This is bad.
A warning signal sounded in a corner of his mind. But he couldn't regulate himself as well as he could yesterday. Each question that Rashi asked dragged words forth helplessly from his mouth.
"A bee?" Rashi furrowed his brow. He gazed around the room, and cocked his head to one side in perplexity. There was no insect, bee or otherwise, to be found in the room.
"I'm not buying it."
"Check Yamase-san's neck, there should be a scar―" He swallowed his words. There should be a scar. There should have been one, the same, on the neck of the man yesterday. The Bureau had investigated that body as an unnatural death, there was no way they could have overlooked it. They had noticed, but had told his bereaved wife that it was an accident. They didn't want the real cause of death to be known ― that was what it boiled down to.
Shion turned his head to the side, as if to avoid Rashi's gaze. He had spoken too much. He had divulged everything he knew, which might have been something that the Bureau intended never to reach outside ears ― classified information that they were intent on covering up. If that was the case―
"You used to specialize in ecology, correct?"
"I intended to, but I never did. I have nothing to do with it now."
"And were you interested in the biology of insects as well?"
"Ecology encompasses everything that has to do with interactions of species with their environment. Insects weren't the only thing I was interested in."
"Ah, is that so? And specifically, what do you mean in terms of relationship between organisms and their environment?"
Shion could feel himself breaking into a cold sweat. A thin smile played on Rashi's lips while he spoke, his words light, his tone conversational. But his gaze never left Shion once. Two officials of the Security Bureau came in. One of them whispered in Rashi's ear. Momentarily, Rashi spoke.
"I hope you won't mind coming down to the Security Bureau for a bit."
"It's nothing really, we just want to hear more of your story. It'll be over in minutes. I promise we won't take much of your time if you come with us."
A buzzer sounded. Sampo was sending an Indistinguishable Object error.
"I'm sorry, I have to operate the cleaning robots..."
"Put them away. In any case, you won't get much work done today."
Shion ignored him. He minimized the error display, and switched over to the camera. A small grey mouse appeared on the screen. It was scurrying up and down Sampo's arm. Its mouth was open wide, and it was mouthing something incessantly. Shion brought the earphones to his ear and turned on the sound sensor.
"Shion." Nezumi's voice flowed through to him. "Get out of there. You're in trouble."
Click. He heard a sound behind him. Shion turned, and found himself staring down a pair of gun barrels. He couldn't distinguish what model they were. But he knew that these were no high-tech stun guns, no, none of that sort ― they were older models, highly effective in the kill. Sport-hunting hobbyists liked to use these kinds of guns. Shion slowly flicked Sampo's speaker switch on. Now, Nezumi's end would be able to hear his voice.
"Are you forcing me under arrest?"
"I guess you could call it something like that. Regardless, you're coming with us."
"Don't you need a reason to arrest me?"
"A reason? None of that. But if you insist... your bicycle, perhaps?"
"You were using a bicycle without speed-limiters. That's a breach of the law, and more than enough reason to put you under arrest."
"What―how―for such a ridiculous reason, without even going through the proper procedures? Using violence? Is this how you arrest a citizen of the city? What happens to my rights?"
"A citizen? Rights?" Rashi sneered. A violent chill ran down Shion's spine.
"You really think you have any of those?"
He could hear Nezumi click his tongue. Tsk.
"Guess I didn't make it in time."
Shion exhaled, and began shutting down the operating system. Just before it turned off, he heard Nezumi's short message ring out clearly.
"Shion, don't panic. I'm coming to help you."