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We're coming back alive. Don't forget that...
* * *
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack! She's gone fore ever.
- King Lear Act V Scene III 
Beyond the gate was a world of darkness.
It was freezing. The man shivered, and flipped the collar of his jacket up. His coat was woven of the finest cashmere, and it was lightweight and warm. It was also equipped with an automatic sensor that registered the temperature of the body and outside air to adjust the temperature inside the coat accordingly. The sensor itself was smaller, lighter, and slimmer than a postage stamp.
He could feel the biting coldness of the air on his partially-exposed face, but the rest of his body was enveloped comfortably in the warmth of his coat. So when the man shivered, it was not because of the cold.
It was the darkness. It was too dark.
No. 6, where the man lived, was a city of light. It sparkled and brimmed with it, regardless of whether it was day or night. Light wasn't the only thing he had access to freely: thanks to leaps in biotechnology, a steady supply of food was always available, independent of seasonal or weather conditions, and he had access to any manner of foodstuffs. It was the same with energy supply. As long as they were inside the city, people were able to lead an abundant, secure and hygienic life. Apart from them, there were five other city-states in the world, but no other place had an environment as perfect as theirs. This was the reason behind No. 6's second name of the Holy City.
The man held an important position in the governing body of the Holy City. Inside the Central Administration Bureau, he held what was equivalent to the third most powerful spot. He was an elite of the elites. His son, who was turning three this year, had also scored highest in intelligence in the past Children's Examinations. The man was already receiving childrearing instruction through a Special Curriculum. If no problems arose ― no problems would arise, naturally, because in no way would anything unpredictable happen inside the Holy City ― then his son, as an elite as well, would be able to acquire a life which lacked nothing. It was promised to him.
The man couldn't stop shivering. How dark it was. How foreboding it was. He had no idea that nighttime could bring such fathomless darkness. He had had no idea, until he had stepped into this West Block.
What the hell is he doing?
The man who was supposed to be there to fetch him, wasn't. He was usually waiting for him in the cover of darkness, but tonight, there was no sign of him at all.
Has something happened?
Maybe something has come up.
If so... then it isn't very good.
The man exhaled in the darkness.
It was best not to dawdle here any longer. He must pass back through the gates, and return to the Holy City. He must.
His reason commanded him to return, to turn on his heel, and go back into comfort and light. But the man could not move.
Just a little longer. I'll wait for five more minutes.
It was a lingering attachment. It was his attachment for the few hours of pleasure and decadence that he was about to enjoy. This attachment, for the few hours he spent fooling around with women in the West Block, weighed his feet down and prevented him from walking away. How enticing it was to spend the hours in a drunken stupor, in the company of women with hair and eyes in every colour. It was almost a year now since he had first been irresistibly drawn into this enticement. There was no way out of it.
The City's management was getting stricter. General citizens were restricted, naturally; but even the upper echelons, which had had considerable freedom, were being imposed with limitations. Travel between the city and the West Block was one of the things which limits had been placed upon.
All travel between other Blocks were prohibited unless with a clear reason and an application to do so.
When the man had seen that section of the city's notice, he remembered giving a small sigh. The Central Administration Bureau was a department that singularly managed all of the city's information. All personal files of the citizens were naturally gathered here as well. Each citizen's name, sex, birth date, family structure, intelligence index, physical characteristics, physical measurements, history of illness, curriculum vitae, were all contained here. The daily actions of each and every individual were recorded without fail and internalized as data by the Central Administration Bureau, through the numerous surveillance cameras and sensors placed throughout the city, as well as the data-collection chips embedded in their ID cards. This system was already well-established.
Thorough management and centralization of data ― and whether for better or for worse, this man was near the heart of the system. He used his position to his advantage to overwrite his personal records numerous times. He had rewritten his file to say he had never entered the West Block. He had destroyed his records.
It was a crime, he was well aware. He was nervous of what would happen to him if this was exposed, and at the same time, he was confident that he would never be found out. He drowned himself in euphoric ecstasy. At the same time, he wanted to protect his secure life and cowered at its destruction. And underneath was the confident reassurance that he was an irreplaceable member of the elite core, and that he would not be persecuted so easily. Many emotions jostled inside the man.
But in the end, he had given into his desires and passed through the gates again tonight.
He's late, a little too late....
The man chewed his lip lightly.
I should probably give up for tonight.
Nothing was more dangerous than standing still like this for a prolonged time, wrapped in the darkness of the West Block. As the man turned to go back the way he had come, a low voice called his name.
"Fura-sama." That was the man's name. The low voice carried over to him in the darkness. "I apologize for keeping you waiting."
Fura furrowed his brow, and hunched his shoulders slightly.
"Is it you, Rikiga?"
"Yes. I've come to fetch you."
"I'm terribly sorry. There was a slight delay."
"Delay? What happened?"
He could sense the darkness shift slightly as Rikiga shook his head.
"Nothing to worry yourself about. No trouble for you in the slightest sense, Fura-sama... actually ― ah ― you could say I was delayed for the purpose of your further enjoyment―"
"Which is to say?"
He could hear a vulgar laugh.
"It's taken me a bit of time to prepare a woman to your liking." The vulgar laugh continued, and the darkness coiled slimily. "But rest assured, it shall more than make up for the time I've kept you waiting. I'm most certain you'll be satisfied."
"Is she that good?"
He swallowed. If he could, he would have raised his own vulgar chuckle like Rikiga, but he restrained himself.
His position was like the heavens in relation to Rikiga as the lowly earth. a resident of the West Block. He could not bring himself down to that level.
For Fura, although the West Block was place that provided him with lewd and luscious pleasures, those who lived there ― Rikiga, or the women ― were not the same humans as he. He saw them as insects, perhaps. No, that was too harsh ― they were rather close to cattle. Humans and cattle, the dominator and dominated. No. 6's surrounding regions existed to serve the city ― that was what he had been taught since childhood.
"―Shall we go, then?" Rikiga began to walk. Silently, he followed behind.
The outdated gasoline automobile was uncomfortable to ride, and bumped and jerked ever so often. The road itself was full of potholes. Once in a while, the car teetered dangerously. When Fura had first begun frequenting the West Block, he had more than once raised his voice in complaint, but now, he thought nothing of it. As one who was used to the immaculately-paved roads of No. 6 and hybrid cars fully equipped with shock-absorption, the sudden bumps and sways were new and refreshing. And more than anything, it tickled his heart with the anticipation for things to come.
Fura leaned forward in the back seat and questioned him.
"What kind of girl is she?"
"I daresay she's a perfect match for your tastes. I'm sure you'll like her."
"The last girl wasn't so great."
"I know. But this girl, she's exactly as you like them, Fura-sama. Small frame, slender ― and very young."
"Yes. Of course, this being the place it is, we're not sure of her real age, but she's very young, for certain. So she ― hasn't had experience with men yet."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. And not only that, it looks like she has the blood of the southern lands in her veins. She has that sort of appearance."
"We've many women with ripe bodies, but it's a little difficult to find the younger ones. I could never send you a scrawny, dirty brat to service you, Fura-sama, nor would I be able to just pluck one off the street. And besides ― to give this kind of job to a girl so young, and with no experience, it is quite ― well, it certainly doesn't bode well with my conscience, to say the least."
Liar. Fura retorted in his head. For money, you'd do anything. Conscience, you say? Don't make me laugh.
Although he was no doubt deaf to Fura's words, Rikiga let a dry chuckle escape his lips.
The car stopped. Inky-black darkness still surrounded them outside.
"This is―?" It was different from the usual place Rikiga prepared.
"It's a hotel."
"A long time ago, this used to be quite a fashionable one." Rikiga got out of the car, and lit a lamp. "The girl and her family have made this place their home. The girl said she'd only take customers if it was in her room, and she wouldn't have it any other way ― she's still a child, she's probably afraid of going to strange places."
"It's nothing to worry about. We've had her family removed temporarily. Tonight, you and the girl are the only ones here, Fura-sama. ―Ah, no, that would be wrong. She also has her dogs."
"Dogs. The girl's father runs a business that deals with dogs. There are swarms of them here."
Fura couldn't imagine what kind of business would deal with dogs. A pet shop was certainly out of the question. Were the dogs skinned and sold as meat?
"If you'll follow me, then. I would advise you to watch your feet." Rikiga swung the lamp over. Fura glanced at his profile, and carefully put his foot forward.
He did not trust this man, Rikiga. He had not a thread of trust for him. But Fura knew for certain that he was a regular and highly valued customer for Rikiga. There was no way a man like him, who loved, prized, and trusted money above all, would harm his best source of income. In that sense, Fura had never felt any apprehension toward the man that was now walking a few steps before him.
This building that Rikiga had said was once a fashionable hotel, was now half-crumbled and mostly ruin. Countless pieces of rubble littered the ground, and there were puddles everywhere. The floor was slippery, but whether it was because the flooring was rotting, or because moss was growing on it, he didn't know. He was unsteady on his leather-shoed feet. The wind nipped at his cheeks. They ascended the stairs. He smelled a faint, strange odour. It was an odour he had never smelled inside No. 6, and he had no idea what it could be. They crossed a bare, spacious area that looked like it had been a lobby, and ascended further still.
He spoke without thinking. His feet were rooted to the spot. It was what looked like a narrow hallway that stretched straight before him. At least, it looked like it ran straight into the darkness, but he had no idea what was beyond the darkness that shrouded it; Fura's eyesight, unused to darkness, could not make it out.
Lit by the dim light of the lamp, he could see shadowy figures hunched over here and there.
"Why are there so many? For what purpose...?"
"Ah, well, there are many reasons, but nothing to do with high officials of No. 6 like yourself," Rikiga said. "It's nothing to be concerned about. These dogs are quiet, they won't bite or attack you. ― Alright, here we are. The girl is inside this room."
Just as Rikiga had said, the dogs remained curled up on the ground, perfectly still, without growling or baring their teeth.
"Right here, this way. After you," Rikiga ushered him in.
There was a shabby wooden door before him. Perhaps it was the lamplight that did it ― the aged door looked warm and gentle to his eyes. It was like a prim old madam. There she was, sitting in a pool of sunlight, beautiful, with snowy hair. She had knitting needles in her hands, and a white ball of yarn in her lap―
Fura turned aside, and cleared his throat a few times. He had long hidden this bad habit of his to lapse into daydreams. If any of the higher officials at the Central Administration Bureau found out that he had this tendency, it would mean dire consequences for him.
In No. 6, imagining, weaving stories, speaking of dreams, and daydreaming were frowned upon and avoided like the plague. There were no official rules or prohibiting laws, but among common citizens, it was the object of ridicule and contempt; in central organizations, it was seen as inappropriate, and a valid reason for job termination. You would be removed.
The door opened. Its silver knob was manually-operated, of course, and the door screeched stubbornly as it opened inwards.
It was a low-ceilinged room, and it was dark. The only lighting came from Rikiga's lamp and a single candle in a stand on the table. It wasn't too cold, probably owing to the fact that there were no windows. But the muffled howling of the wind still echoed in the room. Various whistlings and moanings overlapped in layers like a symphony, tangled with each other, and reached his ears. He wondered how this place had been built.
The only pieces of furniture in the room were the table that held the candle, a rather shabby partition, and a similarly pitiful bed in a corner of the room. A figure was sitting on the edge of it with a blanket over his head, curled up as if to shrink into himself.
Rikiga was right, she was small. The legs that protruded from the blanket were pitifully thin. But they were shapely. They were slender from the knee-down, and if they had a little more flesh on them, they would probably have been a beautiful set of legs, indeed.
"How is she?" Rikiga whispered at his ear. "A gem, wouldn't you agree, Fura-sama?"
"Maybe. I can't tell yet."
Fura lowered himself onto the bed, and slid a hand around the small body wrapped in the blanket. He could feel her trembling slightly.
"Are you afraid? ―Don't worry, there's no need to be." He took off his coat, and drew her closer, blanket and all. He could feel the trembling becoming more violent in his hands. The blanket fell away from her head, and her hair, black as night, and delicate neck exposed itself to Fura's eyes. Since she had her face turned away in defiance, her neck showed even more. Fura could tell even in this darkness that the skin was smooth and supple. And it was tan-coloured.
I see. This one may be a gem after all.
He brushed the long hair aside and let his lips travel up her neck. There was a faint smell. It was the same scent as what he had encountered on the stairs. It was the smell of a dog, a beast. But instead of diminishing Fura's desire, the smell spurred it on even more. It was a smell he wouldn't have gotten in No. 6 even if he had wanted to, because of its perfect hygiene. This body was thoroughly soaked in this scent, and it excited him.
"Well, then," Rikiga said, "I guess I'll excuse myself. Enjoy." Rikiga made for the exit with an absent smile on his face. Fura stopped his hand, which had been in the middle of stroking the girl's thin leg. For the first time, a suspicion flitted in his breast.
"Wait," he commanded shortly, to the man who had his back turned to him. Rikiga swung around lethargically.
"Something the matter?"
"Don't you find it strange?"
"Strange? What, may I ask?"
"Why haven't you asked for my payment first?"
Rikiga's face tensed. Then, after a while, he muttered ah, yes, payment, to himself.
"You always ask me to pay beforehand. Why haven't you brought it up tonight?"
"Oh, yes, of course. I'd forgotten."
"Forgotten? You? About money?"
The suspicion grew inside him. This man? Forget about money? He, who was more greedy and miserly than anyone, forget ― he found it hard to believe.
His doubt and suspicion grew into unease. Things were different from usual. Why? Why―
The small body leapt up out of Fura's arms. The blanket slid to the floor.
"Cut this shit out, you bastard," he snarled. "I've had enough of this. You must be fucking kidding me." Fura gaped open-mouthed at the boy who had whipped his hair around and was baring his teeth, pelting him with profanities.
"Rikiga, who's this?"
"He is who he is, sir."
"You told me you 'd prepared a young girl."
"Young girls, young boys, it doesn't make much of a difference. I thought perhaps you had those kind of preferences hidden somewhere within, Fura-sama, and you just hadn't realized."
The black-haired youth bared his teeth even more. He was almost like a wild dog.
"You can stop making shit up, alcoholic old man," he growled. "Why didn't you follow the plan? I'm gonna turn all three of you into mincemeat and throw you to the dogs. You're paying for this, bastards."
Plan? Three of you? What was he talking about?
Fura gathered his coat, and stood up. He put his arms through the sleeves and glanced around the room. The four corners were dark, and the darkness was eerie.
Either way, it was dangerous to remain here.
"Where to?" Rikiga stood in front of the door, barring him with a wan smile.
"I'm going home. Get out of the way!"
"Please, please, do calm down," Rikiga said silkily. "It isn't like you to be so uncouth, Fura-sama."
"Out of the way, or else―" Fura clenched his hand around the small handgun in his pocket. It was an electric gun, not very effective as a killing weapon, but enough to defend himself. He pulled it out and aimed it between Rikiga's eyes. If he was going to retaliate any further, he would shoot without batting an eyelash. It may be for self-defense, but a gun was still a gun. Any unarmed human, if shot between the eyes, would die. But he didn't mind. These people didn't even qualify as humans anyway.
"But the fun's just getting started, you'd be missing out if you went home."
The voice came from behind him. At the same time, his mouth was covered, and his wrist was gripped tightly. The gun slipped through his fingers. He was only being held at the mouth and hand from behind, but his whole body was trapped. He could not move at all. A cold breath caressed his earlobe. A whisper flowed into his ear.
"Why don't you hang out with us a little longer? We'd give you such a good time, you'd melt on the spot." It was a tender voice, and not clouded at all. It was sweet, clear, and beautiful. Fura couldn't tell whether it was a man's voice or woman's voice. Perhaps, if he obeyed this inviting voice, he would be able to melt in ecstasy. It was a thought that lasted a mere blink of an eye.
His feet were swept from under him, and he was slammed to the floor. His breath caught in his throat, and he faded out of consciousness.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1921-1951. 5.3.257-259. (back)