In Falsity's Company
In days of old, the Buddha
was but a mortal;
in the end, we ourselves
will be buddhas too.
How grievous that distinctions
must separate those
who are alike in sharing
- Tales of Heike: Giou 
Shion slowly raised himself off the floor.
"Shh―" Shion drew his blanket around the little mouse. "Here, you sleep in this. Just please don't make any noise, okay?"
Shion had gotten so used to this room that he could find his way even in the dark. He padded stealthily to the door. He unlatched it, and before opening it, he turned back again. He listened carefully. There was not a noise.
It looked like the pain from Nezumi's wound hadn't kept him from sleeping. I guess a wound that small wouldn't be enough to keep him awake. There were so many things he still needed to tell Nezumi. The joy of meeting him, the gratitude for everything he had done for him, and the profound respect he had for him ― Shion had not been able to get any of these adequately across.
I'm glad I met you.
That was all I was able to say.
Shion inhaled the air of the room deeply, just once, before quietly opening the door.
The lamp flashed, signalling a call from a direct extension to City Hall. The man lifted his face from the research documents he had been perusing, and lightly clucked his tongue in irritation. The document, which had been printed decades ago on paper, was very intriguing, and he wished to read a little further. But the lamp was flashing red, signalling an emergency situation. The man clucked his tongue again, and put the documents away in a folder.
When he pressed the switch, the familiar face of a man appeared on-screen. He was a man who used to be called Fennec.
Fennec ― the desert fox. Who was it that had first started calling him that?
"What's the matter, Fennec?"
"We have an emergency. Two samples have been brought into the Central Hospital."
"Something the matter with that?"
"Both of them aren't registered as representative samples in the data."
"They're different from the samples you've requested from us. Things are happening on their own, outside of our control."
"Perhaps it's too early to conclude that they're samples. Couldn't something else be the cause?"
Fennec shook his head. The screen promptly changed to another image. An audio clip read out the two bodies' personal information.
Name, age, address, occupation, history of illness, physical measurements, citizenship number...
A man and a woman. Two bodies. Both their faces were contorted in suffering, and were aged and shrivelled. It if weren't for their facial expressions, their cause of death would easily have passed as old age. But the documented age of one of them was in the twenties, the other in his late thirties.
"You're right, they must have done it," the man muttered. The screen flickered again, and Fennec's scowl was displayed largely. The man exhaled quietly.
"...What could this all mean?"
"I think I would like to know that!" Fennec raised his voice, and his ears twitched indignantly. Ah, yes. This was a habit of his. Since he was young, he had always had the habit of twitching his ears when his emotions were agitated. That was why he was called Fennec. A fennec fox was a small fox with the longest ears of its kind, reaching up to fifteen centimetres.
"But how could something unexpected like this happen?" Fennec continued. "I don't believe it. What's going on?"
"Something must have gone wrong somewhere," the man answered. "But it's insignificant. It's nothing you should be worried about."
Fennec's throat contracted as he swallowed at the man's words.
"Are you sure?"
"You have the highest responsibility in this project, you know."
"Not officially," the man added. "Well, but then again, nothing about this project has been publicized officially."
"But if this succeeds, then No. 6's City Project will finally be perfect and complete. Right?"
"Then even minor slip-ups can't be permitted."
"I know. I'll launch an investigation immediately looking into the cause. I want you to send the bodies over to the Special Autopsies Room, Section V."
"I've already got it underway."
"Then I'll get to work straightaway."
"Please do. I'll be waiting for the report."
"Oh, yes," Fennec added. "Once this mess has quieted down somewhat, I'm planning another clean-up."
"Clean-up? That's something I haven't heard in a long time. Say, it's almost the Holy Celebration, isn't it?"
"Yes, the same reverent day is coming again. If you need any for your experiments, I can arrange for as many as you need. What say you?"
"I am most humbled by the kind considerations of His Excellency."
"None of that embellished formality, if you will."
"But you'll eventually become the absolute ruler of this land," the man said. "The one and only King. I'd have to start calling you Your Highness."
"And what would you have me call you?"
"I'll stay as I am. If I'm still provided with the same top-notch research facilities and environment as I am now, then I have nothing more to ask."
"Sparse in your wants as always, I see. Then I trust you'll have the work done."
The screen silently went blank. The man let his gaze flit over the documents he had only partially read. Unfortunately, it looked like he would not be able to read through the rest of it today.
They were documents concerning a species of ants called Eciton burchelli, which inhabited Central and South Americas. These ants, which formed colonies numbering up to 500,000, did not live in one static place, but instead repeated cycles of temporary encampment and migration until their life was spent. There was only one queen ant that reigned over the colony of 500,000. But the queen's sole purpose in the colony was to lay eggs, and she was not necessarily in control of its members. Warrior ants and worker ants, large and small, all moved accordingly to their instinct, and as a result, the colony functioned seamlessly as if they were governed by a great common intellect.
Ants, and bees too, had created the ideal social system.
There was no way that humans could not do what insects already did. Each would obediently fill his role. Without thinking, without being interrupted by suspicions, they would take to their task. Brains were unnecessary. Souls were of no use.
A colony of 500,000, and a single one to reign over all.
You say I'm sparse in my wants, do you? You're right, Fennec, I desire nothing. I have no need for desire. I never have to suffer from being dominated by my desires, like you do.
The man smiled discreetly, and pushed the button for the elevator leading directly to the Special Autopsies Room.
A frost had fallen. The frozen grass underneath his shoes made crunching sounds as he trod over them. When the sun rose, the frost would sparkle white, and the barren expanse would be enveloped in light for a fleeting instant. But it was too early ― the sun had yet to rise for a while longer. Shion stopped in his tracks, and lifted his face to the northern sky. He wanted to reach the Correctional Facility before dawn. He had no idea what he would do once he arrived. But he had to go. It was all he could think about. Why had Safu been impounded in the Correctional Facility, when she was supposed to be abroad? Was it in connection with him? If it was, then would Karan's safety also be compromised? Uncertainty and fretful misgivings coursed through his body, blocked his airway, and pressed against his heart. He didn't want to lose anyone, neither his mother, Safu, nor Nezumi. He would do anything to protect them. But he was frustrated at himself for not being able to come up with how he would do so.
Even now, as he was walking, Safu was probably alone and frightened. He had to do something. He had to save her and get her out. But what was he to do? How could he―
A soft cry. His feet stopped. His eyes, which had gotten used to the darkness, trained on a small rodent poking its face out from the grass.
He scooped up the tiny mouse in his hands.
"Did you follow me out here? Go home, you shouldn't be―" He realized as soon as he had said it out loud, that this mouse was not Cravat. It wasn't Hamlet, either. It wasn't even alive. This mouse carried no sign of the warmth that living animals did.
"This is― a robot―?"
"He's the navigator." There was a voice behind him. He didn't have to turn around to know who the voice belonged to. Shion took a few measured breaths, and slowly turned his body around.
Nezumi was also approaching him slowly. He plucked the miniscule robot from Shion's hands, and tossed it into a pouch.
"It's a simple navigator robot with three-dimensional mapping functions. It was warning you because you were going in the wrong direction."
"The wrong direction―"
"Weren't you going to Inukashi's place? You were gonna give those long-haired dogs a trim because their skin was getting inflamed, weren't you? Leaving awfully early, huh? How diligent of you. But this isn't the way."
Shion inhaled the frigid air of dawn yet to come.
"This has nothing to do with you," he said bitingly. "It's none of your business what I do, or where I go. I'm sick and tired of you trying to act like my guardian. I'm not a helpless baby. Just leave me alone. You know what," he said, "it's enough. If you still think of four years ago as a debt, then let me tell you now, it's paid back. You've given more than enough already. From now on, I'm going to be free. I'm going to do as I please, without being strapped down by you. That's my decision, so don't get in my way."
He ran out of breath, and lapsed into silence. It was too dark to see the expression on Nezumi's face. His shadowy figure shifted slightly, and he could hear a soft applause.
"That's quite some recitation for an amateur. Maybe you do have a talent for acting after all. Certainly better than yesterday's kiss, at least."
He thought he saw Nezumi's right hand swing upwards, and then a hard blow struck his cheek. Shion staggered, and fell backwards. The taste of blood spread inside his mouth.
"Get yourself up if you have the time to be asking questions. The next one's coming."
The tip of Nezumi's boot swung straight toward him. Shion instinctively rolled to the side.
"Don't just stop there. Keep moving, keep the flow."
A kick landed firmly in Shion's ribs. His breath caught in his throat. He blindly grasped at a handful of pebbles that littered the grassy patch.
"Don't close your eyes. Don't look away from your opponent's attacks. Move!"
Shion twisted around to whip the pebbles at Nezumi, and at the same time, kicked off the ground and tried to ram into him with his shoulder. His feet were swept from under him, and he was slammed to the ground. This time, he could not get up again. He could see the stars. The stars that scattered across the sky yet untouched by dawn twinkled almost frightfully bright.
He was grabbed by the arm, and pulled up off the ground.
"Shion, this is punishment."
"Punishment for what?"
"You lied to me."
"You'll admit that, won't you?"
"Yeah... I guess."
"Your second crime. You belittled me."
"I never did that."
"Lying to someone means you're belittling him. Did you think I would fall for your lame excuse? If that's not an insult to me, I don't know what the hell is."
"It was my best attempt," Shion protested feebly.
"Well, you'd make a horrible politician or writer, seeing how you can't even conceive a realistic lie."
"Was it that bad?"
"Atrocious. But this is what pisses me off the most, Shion―"
"That you must've figured I was some brat who couldn't tell one kind of kiss from the other. What good-night kiss, huh? Bullshit."
Nezumi knelt in front of Shion, and gripped his collar tightly.
"You hear me? Never give me a farewell kiss again. Ever."
"And never lie to me again."
The hand released him. Nezumi settled into a sitting position, and looked up at the heavens.
"I've heard there are strange things happening inside No. 6."
"I don't know the details, but Inukashi is gathering information for me. If we do it well, maybe we can use old man Rikiga and get some information through his customers, too. And it looks like stuff is going on in the Correctional Facility as well. There's commotion happening both inside and outside of No. 6 at the same time. A little weird, don't you think?"
"Correctional Facility? Nezumi, are you saying―"
"Your important friend, or whatever ― you called her your best friend, right? ― I've known about her for a while."
He handed Karan's memo to Shion. Shion's fingers began to tremble after he had read the note.
"Your Mama is safe for now. I'm not so sure about your bestie. But don't panic. Right now, we have to gather all the information we can and set down a plan. Inukashi says he'll help. This is all preparation so that we can infiltrate the Correctional Facility as soon as possible. Understand? We're not going in there to get killed. We're going in there to save her. Be calm."
"So I've finally dragged you into the mess, too."
"It's not your fault. Inukashi says he smells something, and frankly, I have my own suspicions too. Why would they need to imprison a precious member of their elite? There's a chance that it might have to do with the wasp incidents."
"The parasite wasps, huh... but they're not active this time of year."
"That's why something must've happened, something unexpected. And if it has, then it might be worth risking the danger. Whatever the case, whenever Inukashi gets into contact with me is when we make our next move. Until then, we have to gather our own information and start making preparations."
Nezumi stood up, and spoke in a beautiful voice that rang out crystalline.
"Cheer up. Things will work out. We'll make them work out."
"Thanks. You've saved me again."
"Things are just getting started."
Shion stood up as well, and called the name of the boy who stood beside him.
"Mind if I―"
As Nezumi turned to peer inquisitively at him, Shion slapped him across the face as hard as he could. Nezumi, of course, didn't so much as stagger ― but he was certainly startled. After drawing a breath, he yelled,
"―the hell was that for?"
"You hid things from me. You didn't even mention a word to me about this memo."
"What would telling you do, anyway? I couldn't have you wandering off by yourself like you did tonight. I did you a favour and looked out for you. Or what, are you saying I don't have the right to be worried about ― wait, I've heard this line somewhere before."
"Worrying about me and hiding things from me are two completely different issues. It's not like I want to be sheltered by you. I don't want to coast along living the easy life, always being protected by you. I want―"
Shion softly clenched his fingers around his palm, on which he could still feel the sensation of Nezumi's cheek.
"I want to be equals with you."
Nezumi hunched his shoulders, and lifted his right hand in a pledge.
"I admit my mistake. I won't do it again."
"Do you swear it?"
"I swear herewith upon my battered cheek."
In the distance, a cock was crowing. Even in this darkness, it could sense the coming of dawn, and heralded it loudly and shrilly. In moments, the eastern skies would lighten, and the light of the sun would wipe the darkness away. The first day of their battle was about to begin.
Safu was trying to wake up. She could feel her consciousness gradually beginning to return. But her physical sensations were still murky.
Where am I?
What am I doing here?
Am I dreaming?
I have to remember.
My very precious person.
She could hear a voice very closeby, a man's voice.
It's not this voice.
The voice I'm waiting for
isn't this voice.
"How are you feeling? I daresay you must be feeling a little different from what you're used to? But you'll get used to it in no time. I hope you like this special suite. It's the best you could ask for, and it's especially for you, Safu."
I don't like this voice.
Don't call my name.
Don't call my name
with that voice.
"Safu, you are quite beautiful. Even more than I imagined. Beautiful, indeed. I'm very satisfied."
I don't like this voice, and
I don't like this smell.
It smells like ― blood.
The smell of blood.
"I'm rather busy today. I'll come again, Safu. You should relax and rest a little as well."
The footsteps faded away, and so did the stench of blood. She was relieved.
Why is everything so
From the margins of her consciousness, which was not completely recovered yet, a flash of a figure emerged vividly.
Those eyes, those nails, that mouth, the faraway gaze, the energetic smile, or that clouded expression, the long fingers ― and oh, she could hear his voice.
"I always thought of you as a friend."
He was always such a child. He had never even realized her feelings for him. But there he was, desperately searching and yearning for someone else. She had loved that childish, but intent soul of his. She had loved him like she could love no other. Even now―
She was fading out of consciousness. The darkness gently draped over her.
I'll never see you again....
Shion spent the majority of the day taking care of the dogs. There had been no sign of Inukashi in the morning, so Shion had had to prepare food for and groom ten some-odd dogs all by himself. He had barely any time to rest, but he didn't feel the labour to be onerous. On the contrary, he was actually grateful for it. Immersed in his work, he could forget his agitation, even for a short while.
Don't rush, and wait patiently. Act calmly.
Nezumi's words were certainly persuasive, and he had no choice but to nod his head, but still he couldn't help his agitation. He could not remain calm.
Even while I'm going about this now, Safu is...
Every time the thought crossed his mind, his emotions would be thrown into disarray, he would panic, and he would bite his lip until it bled.
A dog whined forlornly. It was one from a litter of puppies that had been born at the start of fall. Shion realized he had been staring off into space in the middle of making their meal.
He hastily scooped the stewed leftovers into their food bowls. The puppies fiercely wagged their identical tails as they dipped their faces into the food. In the kind of circumstances where even humans starved to death, Inukashi managed to provide for his dogs with enough so that they did not starve.
The leftover food was shipped into the ruins in the middle of the night, and was sorted into food for humans, which would be shipped to the market, and the rest, which was used for dog feed. Shion finally knew where it came from now. Inukashi was probably tracing this route. Nezumi, too, had disappeared in an early part of the morning.
What could he do?
The more he thought about it, the more he came face-to-face with his own powerlessness. It agitated him. He could not stay calm. And he would bite his lip again, and try to endure.
There was a warm sensation on the back of his hand. He looked down to see a puppy intently licking his hand. Cravat poked his head out from the breast-pocket of his sweater, and ducked back inside again.
He wanted to show Safu this puppy, and this little mouse. He wanted to let her touch them, and let her feel the warmth of their little tongues and bodies.
Safu was dear to him. She was precious to him. But it was different from the amorous sense ― it was more serene, more deeply connected. He loved her like family, like a close friend. Whatever kind of love it was made no change to the fact that he cared about her.
He closed his eyes. He called her name.
- McCullough, Helen C., trans. Genji & Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Heike. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1994. 269. (back)