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The City of Light
After their meal, Nezumi placed a petri dish and a pair of tweezers in front of Shion.
"I extracted this out of your incision. Try opening it up. This is probably right in your field."
In the petri dish was something black and stringy, about two centimetres long. Shion plucked it up with the tweezers. The slimy black object dangled from them, and looked half-melted. Upon closer scrutiny, Shion could make out evidence of something filmy at the end of it.
"These are― wings?"
"Looks like. I have no idea. There's one other thing I pulled out too," Nezumi added. "What do you have to say about this?"
It was another black lump. This one was hard, and resembled a seed. There was a hole in it as if something had eaten its way out.
"A pupa― I think," said Shion slowly.
"Pupa? Like what moths and butterflies make themselves into? Oh wait, butterflies make cocoons."
"Cocoons are the outer shell of pupae," Shion explained. "Embryo, larva, pupa, and imago― most insects go through their development stages in this order. This one... is probably some kind of bee."
"You can tell?"
"There are signs of wings beginning to form. The membranous qualities, the fact that there are four of them... and more than anything―" Shion swallowed. "I saw it with my own eyes― a black bee flying out of Yamase-san's neck."
"And that bee and this black thing are the same thing?"
"If I'm not mistaken, probably. This one couldn't complete its metamorphosis in the pupal stage. It managed to eat its way out of the shell, but it couldn't become a fully grown imago. It failed."
Why? He was right, why was that? Why was same bee that had hatched, undergone metamorphosis and become an imago inside Yamase unable to break out of its pupal stage here? Was it a coincidence, or― Shion shook his head.
"I don't know. All I know is that this is a parasitic organism, and it feeds off humans."
Nezumi stared unblinkingly at the petri dish.
"A parasite bee..." he muttered. "I thought bees only fed off flower nectar."
"Those are just one species of bee, like the honey bee. Most bees ― or wasp, in this case ― are hunters, and solitary by nature."
"And there are parasitic wasps too?"
Shion nodded. Nezumi's questions were simple and brief, and were easy to answer from Shion's knowledge. But none of the questions were off the mark. They tread lightly but accurately on the point of focus. With each question he answered, Shion felt a growing uneasiness like he was being backed into a corner. He felt like he would unwittingly slip and let something horrific escape from his lips. But you can't be afraid, he told himself. He couldn't turn a blind eye and let things slip past him. He couldn't pretend that nothing had happened, and refuse to enquire, to take action. He stood in the position of one who had experienced it. He had been host to the parasite, fought with it, and prevailed. And like a symbol of this battle, he bore the red serpent on his body. Yes, this was his imprint. Nezumi's face was peering into his. Shion returned his gaze steadily, and spoke.
"There are said to be about 200,000 different species of parasitic wasps. Hymenoptera such as bees and ants are highly specialized insects, and there are still tens of thousands of species that are undocumented. This is particularly so for parasitic wasps― or so I've heard."
"Which means we don't know what we're gonna get."
"We can't say what species for sure."
"But we can still predict."
"If we have any foundation for a basis of prediction," Shion answered.
"Why, you're the best foundation there is," said Nezumi with mock enthusiasm. "So how was it, being a host to a parasite wasp? Could you tell if it was a new species?"
"You're really disagreeable sometimes, did you know that?" Shion replied irritably.
"Well, you piss me off all the time. 'We can't say what species for sure', he says. Don't mess around. Don't you have any sense of danger? These wasps are killing people."
"Most parasitic wasps do."
"Wasps that are classified as parasites are actually more parasitoid. To reach full growth, they only need to attach themselves to one prey... their host. And ultimately, without fail, they consume and kill it."
Ultimately without fail, they consume and kill the host. It sounded even more grotesque when put into words.
"Host? Like what kind?"
"There are lots. Moths, butterflies, ant larvae, fruits... a species of ichneumonoideae called Rhysella approximator lays eggs in the larva of another species, xiphydriida, and makes it its host."
"So a wasp leeches off another wasp."
"Not only that, but another species of the same ichneumonoideae called Pseudorhyssa alpestris lays eggs in the same xiphydriida right after the Rhysella, and its larva eats both the larva of the Rhysella and the xiphydriida."
"So they kill each other even if they're from the same species... wow, I thought only humans killed their own kind. So?"
"Are there parasite wasps that attach to humans as hosts?"
"I've never heard of any," replied Shion. "There are other organisms that are parasitic to humans ― viruses, bacteria, ticks, fleas, and the like. I've heard once of a warble fly that laid eggs in a boy's head, and one of them invading his brain, but that was an unusual case, I think... I've never heard of any wasps doing that. The question is," Shion said thoughtfully, "how was it able to lay eggs in a human body in the first place? How did it pierce the skin with its ovipositor without being noticed?"
"You have no memory of it?"
"No. I didn't feel any pain or itch. It never crossed my mind that I'd been stung by a wasp."
"So they can lay their eggs without their host noticing at all."
"Not only that, they also grow with astonishing speed. And when they do, they must excrete some sort of substance that rapidly accelerates ageing in the host, and inevitably leads them to death. Even the process of rigor mortis and dissipation gets sped up. And finally, as a full-grown imago, the parasite wasp eats its way out of the body and escapes outside."
There was a moment of silence.
Shion and Nezumi looked at each other, and exhaled at the same time.
"I'm surprised you lived through it."
"Yeah. I'm starting to get the cold sweats just thinking about it."
"There are too many things we don't know," said Nezumi. "Where did this guy come from? What is it?"
"Hey―" Shion said suddenly. "Have there been any similar incidents like that here?"
"No. I did a little research because it was nagging me too. There were guys who got shot to death fighting, or people who got drunk and drowned in a ditch, but no one who suddenly turned old and died. There's no media control or censorship here like No. 6," Nezumi added, "so if anything out of the ordinary happens, it should spread like wildfire."
"Then if it's happened in another Block―" suggested Shion. "The Southeastern Blocks, maybe? That environment is probably the most suited for a new species of insect to appear."
Nezumi shook his head slowly.
"I can't imagine that happening. If it did, the city should close all the gates leading in. But they haven't shown any signs of doing that. Produce is still being shipped in from the Southeastern Blocks as usual. The North Block is the same."
"Then the wasp definitely must have come from No. 6.... I can't believe it," Shion muttered to himself.
"Unbelievable― you're certainly right about that." Nezumi's fingers lightly tapped the petri dish. His shoulders shook slightly.
Nezumi's head was bowed, and a quiet chuckle escaped his lips. It soon turned into howling laughter. It echoed in the underground room that overflowed with books. Nezumi collapsed on the bed, holding his stomach and laughing harder still. Shion lunged for a pitcher of water, and emptied it on Nezumi's head.
"Hey!" Nezumi sprang up. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Are you alright?"
"Alright? I'm soaking wet here."
"I just― I thought you were undergoing a fit of hysteria or something, so I..."
"What do I have to throw a hysteric fit for?"
"Well, you started laughing randomly, I just thought..."
"I only laughed because it was funny."
"Funny? What is?"
Nezumi shook his head violently. Shion's face was pelted with water droplets.
"It's hilarious, isn't it? Where did this thing originate? No. 6. There's a mysterious man-eating wasp flying around in this utopian model city, the Holy City, if you will. This is city of the future, the epitome of modern science. And it's being eaten by bees. Hilarious."
"It's not something to laugh about. People are dying."
Nezumi stood up. He walked over to Shion, and drew up to him face-to-face. Nezumi was right, Shion thought. He was tall. He easily exceeded Shion in height by several centimetres.
"What?" Shion unconsciously took a step backwards. He drew himself up and squared his shoulders as best he could in spite of the wall of books behind him. He had seen something flash in Nezumi's grey eyes with a savage, piercing glint. It was only for a fleeting instant, but he had not missed it.
"Forgive my foolish question," Nezumi said in an expressionless voice. At the same time, a set of fingers closed around Shion's throat.
"Have you killed anyone before?" Nezumi's thumb slowly dug deeper into Shion's neck.
"Never..." Shion said faintly. "Of course I haven't..."
Nezumi's thin lip curled slightly in a cold smile.
"I would've figured. But keep this in mind. The wasp might kill its host in order to keep itself alive, but humans can kill other humans for much smaller reasons than that. And you were almost killed by another human."
"You liar. You don't know anything."
"I do know!" Shion said angrily, clenching Nezumi's wrist. "I know. If I'd been taken to the Correctional Facility as planned, I would have been made out to be the murderer in the wasp's place. At best, I would have gotten a life sentence. At worst, I would have been executed..." He paused for a moment, then continued determinedly. "The Bureau wanted to buy more time. They needed time to decode the truth about Yamase-san's cause of death― and by making me the suspect, they wanted to file it away as a simple murder case for outside eyes. Am I right?"
Nezumi's fingers withdrew. The spot on Shion's neck burned where Nezumi's thumb had dug in.
"Good answer, full marks," he said breezily. Then his tone dropped in mock seriousness. "It seems this unbalanced young man, tumbled from the ranks of the elite, engaged in this crime out of resentment for the city. He allegedly concocted a special chemical to use repeatedly in multiple criminal acts. Thanks to the efforts of the Security Bureau, however, this young man has been put under arrest. We would like to reassure the citizens of the city that they are perfectly safe. ―It was probably scripted somewhere along those lines," he broke off. "What a ridiculous farce. I'm guessing your knowledge and history fit the role of 'dangerous criminal' perfectly."
"The City has full access to all the citizens' personal information," Shion answered. "It was probably easy to find a person to fit the role they wanted."
"More like you were being marked from the beginning."
"Ever since that day you helped me, the city's been marking you as a cautionary suspect. They've been scrutinizing your daily life down to every minute detail. Who you met with, what you talked about, what you ate... so I thought this murder case was something the city devised to arrest you. I was wrong, though, and we know that now."
"But why? For what purpose―"
"Because you're not a loyal citizen," Nezumi replied as he towelled his hair off. His profile was delicately chiseled. It looked almost like an artificial creation. It was all too different from a face that had skin and blood coursing through it, and carried bodily warmth, with swells and dimples of flesh or fat, the occasional eczema; a face that changed with joy, anger, grief or mirth, shone with sweat, or stained with tears. This was no human face― it looked like a doll that had been crafted with utmost precision.
But even so, Shion thought, and clenched his fist. The wrist he had grasped minutes ago had been warm, and throbbing with a steady pulse.
"You're spaced out again. Am I boring you?"
"Huh? Oh, no― of course not. I was just wondering what you meant by... not loyal." Shion's face flushed, though he didn't know why. Nezumi sniffed dismissively.
"That city only accepts people who pledge absolute loyalty to them. They don't allow people who resist, object, or retaliate. They make sure any foreign object is removed completely. That's how it's thrived up until now."
"And I'm the foreign object this time."
"You're more than foreign to them― think about it. You housed a VC, you held suspicions against the city for manipulating information, and you saw the cruelty behind their faҫade. As a citizen, you fail the test. You're an unwanted candidate. The city was just waiting for the right opportunity to get rid of you. ―Hey," Nezumi said abruptly. "Tell me, what does the immune system do when a virus invades a human body?"
"Huh?" Shion was caught off-guard. "Well, first the natural killer cells― that's a type of lymphocyte― find the cells that have been infected with the virus, and destroy them. Then the ribonuclease become active and suppress the spread of the virus. Next―"
"That's enough," Nezumi interrupted. "Geez, I set you off explaining something, and you don't know when to stop. That's why people get pissed off at you."
"You're the only one that seems to get irritated at me."
Nezumi ignored him and gave a short, derisive laugh.
"So basically, to the city, you're a virus. And that's why they tried to erase you."
"I'm a human. I won't be erased that easily."
Nezumi sighed deeply in exasperation.
"It's easy for humans to kill other humans, you know."
Shion clenched his fists tightly again.
"But they can save people too."
"You saved me. Nezumi," he said earnestly, "parasite wasps don't help each other out. But people can save other people. Am I wrong?"
Nezumi smiled briefly, and his gaze slid away from Shion.
"You're as stupid as they come. Hopeless. Where did you think of that sickening cliché? I told you, I'm only repaying my debt."
"And I told you, you've already paid enough."
"How generous of you to have such low estimations of my debt," said Nezumi sarcastically.
"Then you must have had pretty high estimations."
Nezumi let out a long breath, and looked up at the ceiling. He bit his lip in silence as if to grope for the right words. The mice gathered around his feet.
"You don't understand," he said momentarily. "No amount of words would probably make you understand. That day, four years ago, I'd mostly given up. Giving up means the end of you. I knew that. But there was no way anyone would help me, or lend me a hand― that's what I honestly thought. I couldn't ask for help, I had nowhere to run.... I snuck into Chronos, so tired I couldn't move, and I thought about how it was only a matter of time until I was caught..." he paused, then spoke quietly. "I felt so― humiliated. I wondered if the whole reason I'd been born was just to die in humiliation like this.... don't laugh."
Shion would never have been able to. The sounds of that night four years ago were echoing in his ears. The sounds of the wind, the trees, and the whipping rain meshed and undulated, rising vivid and sharp in his mind. And amidst the din and darkness, a sopping wet boy was curled up on the floor.
"And then the window opened. You threw it open wide, didn't you. And then you spread your arms open."
"Yeah, I remember. I felt really restless, and I wanted to scream."
"To me, it looked like you were calling, beckoning for me to come in. I thought― this was unbelievable, and it was happening right this moment. And you even left the window open when you ducked back inside."
"I was going to turn off the atmosphere control system."
"I don't care for what reason. That window you left recklessly open was my stroke of luck. And the fact that you didn't call the Security Bureau on me, but instead treated my wound and even gave me food was another miracle. I found out for the first time that things like this could happen. That a helping hand could be extended miraculously like that.... you were the first one that taught me. Like all of these―" Nezumi slowly looked about his room.
"― These thousands of stories here, you taught me that sometimes we encounter the most unexpected things. And that's why I was able to survive...." he lapsed into momentary silence. "So you're right. There are times when people are saved by other people. And you're the one that taught me that. You were the only one that taught me that. The debt I owe for that is high― unfortunately for me."
Nezumi's voice was so quiet it was almost a murmur, but it was deep and clear, and rang pleasantly in Shion's ears. So that's what it was, Shion thought, and spread his fingers as he looked as his palm. That night, when he threw the window open with these hands, he had called in a miracle along with the wind.
"Don't get too carried away," said Nezumi, his words quickly turning brusque. "I'm giving you the guest treatment because I owe you. If you get carried away and start acting cocky, I'm going to kick you out."
"Fine by me," said Shion mildly. "I don't know if you'll take my word for it, but I'm not the type to get carried away too easily. But how did you find out I was in danger?" he asked curiously. "It's not like you were keeping constant watch over me these four years, right?"
Nezumi plucked a grey mouse up and held it out at Shion. It was the smallest among all the mice.
"Take a close look."
Shion held the mouse in his palm, and brought it close to his face.
"Is this... a robot?"
"Pretty well-made, isn't it? It has a set of built-in sensors. This thing is small enough that it can slip through the city's surveillance net and move around quite a bit. Depends on the area, though."
"Did you make this?"
"Well, yeah," he said casually. "While I was away from No. 6, this guy was the one sending me data about you."
Shion lightly closed his fingers around the mouse in his hand. It had none of the warmth and softness that was characteristic of living things. Conversely, he scooped up one of the mice scurrying about his feet and held it in his palm too. This one had a faint but definite warmth and pulse.
"I didn't know when or how the city was planning to get rid of you," Nezumi continued. "You're smart and young. You still had plenty of usage value. I couldn't imagine that they would kick you out so easily. I figured once they discovered how useful you could be, they'd take full advantage of it. Writing you up as a murderer was probably a piece of cake for them. You were their scapegoat," he sneered. "They were keeping you enclosed in a corral until the ceremonial day, when they would drag you out in front of everyone and make a flashy show of chopping your head off."
"So I've gone from being a virus to a goat, huh. Not much of an improvement."
"Hey, goats are cute. More lovable than you, anyway."
"I appreciate the compliment," said Shion unamusedly. "So this little guy sensed the change going on around me and came to notify you."
"Yup. It started that day when that man died of unnatural causes at the park where you worked. After that, the Bureau started stepping up their surveillance on you. And like adding icing to the cake, your co-worker got killed too. It was the perfect opportunity to put you under arrest."
"Surveillance― I didn't even know I was being watched."
"They do it so you don't notice. Once you do, it's too late."
"You're noticing now?" Nezumi sniffed in derision. Shion raked his bangs up. He was confused― about what had happened, what was about to happen, and what he was supposed to do from now on. He knew almost nothing. And it was terrifying not to know. But there was one idea, although it was a mere speculation, that had sparked in Shion's mind.