"Samples of what?"
"I don't know. I just know it said something about their collection status―you needed a special password to access it. The only thing I know is that this and the mayor's project..."
"I imagine they are."
Sample. What a cold, desolate word. Shion felt a chill.
Safu. He cast his thoughts to her, and his chill got worse.
"Shion," Nezumi called. The darkness shifted. "That's about it. We can't get anything else out of this guy." His words also had a cold, desolate ring. The man perceived their coldness and stiffened.
"Of course." Nezumi's boot stepped over the blood splatters, now beginning to congeal.
"I-I've told you everything I know. I talked. This isn't what we promised."
"We didn't promise anything. Promises or agreements don't exist between people like you and I."
"Stop, please―I don't want to die!"
"Nezumi, that's enough." Shion stood between him and the man. "There's no need to scare him like that. You've done enough. We have to take him back and drop him off somewhere near the gates. Rikiga-san―"
"Yeah, I know. I gotcha. I'll bring the car around."
"He's our enemy." The unsheathed knife spun around in Nezumi's hand. "Are we just gonna let him slip through our hands like that?"
"It's not necessary at this point. We don't need to kill him."
Heh. Lending the upper-half of his body to the darkness, Nezumi gave a quiet laugh.
"And when would you say it is necessary? Do you think this guy will go back to No. 6 and keep quiet about us?"
Shion lifted his chin, and looked straight through the darkness. He aligned his gaze with the pair of grey eyes at the other end. Have you noticed, Nezumi? No matter how dark or blindingly bright it is, I'm never led astray―my eyes always find yours.
"He won't tell anyone. If he did, he would be threatening his own life. Just think―a high official of the Central Administration Bureau, entering a prohibited area like the West Block for no apparent objective, with no official permission. What would happen if people found out? He's more than aware of the risks. There's no way he would give us away. You should know this already."
"How the hell should I know?" Nezumi stepped soundlessly forward. "There's no guarantee that this guy won't slip and mention a... certain group in the West Block sniffing around about the Correctional Facility."
"He won't talk."
"Shion." Nezumi's voice lowered slightly. "I'm gonna ask you again. Do you plan on letting him go home alive?"
An arm stretched towards him. In less than a blink of an eye, Shion was trapped in Nezumi's embrace. Nezumi's arms were thin, and certainly didn't seem to be that strong at a glance―but it only took a single arm for him to arrest Shion's movements completely. Shion felt an icy sensation at his neck―the blade of a knife.
"I've had enough of your half-assed justice and fake goodwill," Nezumi said quietly. "It makes me sick. I've been meaning to tell you this, Shion―you won't survive unless you tear off that self-righteous, artificial mask. I could care less if you went off to die by yourself, but don't get the rest of us involved. We don't have time to be fooling around trying to decide if it's 'necessary' to do something or not. Enemies are enemies. We kill or get killed. That's all there is to it."
The blade slid along his neck. Shion felt a small, sharp pain. His eyes were transfixed to Nezumi. For just a brief moment, a sweet thrill stirred in the core of his body. To take one in his arms, and slit his throat―
An embrace of death.
This was, indeed, the feat of a devil.
Nezumi withdrew. When Shion brought a hand to his neck, and felt it pulsing with heat. His palm was smeared with blood. With his gaze still on Nezumi, Shion clenched his fingers.
"Rikiga-san, the car."
"If you could take him home by car, please."
Shion turned to the man, and gave him a smile.
"I'm sorry we've done such horrible things to you. But it was the only way we had."
"Shion..." The man blinked several times as he studied Shion's face. "I remember there was a first-degree criminal by that name. He was a fallen elite who'd gone insane. He poisoned his co-worker, then fled to the West Block―is that you?"
"Been blown out of proportion pretty badly, hasn't it?" Shion couldn't help but give a wry smile. Karan's face rose into his mind. He thought of the hardships she must be facing, living in a society where rumours of her son constantly flooded her ears―her son, the murderer. His heart ached. But no matter how much it did, there was nothing he could do. He could do nothing other than say, Mom, I'm sorry. But Nezumi had delivered his plea for forgiveness to his mother. He had passed on his one-line note. Those scribbled words had pulled Karan a step out of the depths of her despair. It was all thanks to Nezumi. For now, he knew that Karan was not exposed to any danger. So he would suppress the pain in his heart, and forget about his mother. He would not think of her. He would think only of Safu.
Instead of scattering his heart hither and thither, he would carefully select where to put it, and discard all other thoughts. He needed the power to do it, or else he would not survive. Shion had acquired this power long before he realized he had.
The man slowly shook his head.
"I don't believe it." He jerked his chin at Shion. "Your face is totally different from the first-degree criminal I saw on the screen. It's like you two are different people."
"Well, my hair colour's changed. And I've lost a bit of weight, I think."
"No, that's not what I mean―ah, well, I guess you can say the shape of your face, your facial features are the same... but it's different. Your demeanour is totally different. He had really deranged eyes. He looked aggressive―even my co-worker was saying he looked like he would kill someone. And he was right. His eyes weren't so―gentle like yours. You two are totally different. Total strangers."
"It's more than easy to modify someone's face," Rikiga said, through a mouthful of the remainder of his gin. "And not just his face. If the authorities wish it, they can conjure or twist around any information to their advantage. Hardly something you should be surprised about, Fura-san. Isn't it part of your job to manipulate information at the authorities' beck and call?"
"Rather rude of you, Rikiga."
"Because it's the truth." Rikiga shook the last droplet onto his tongue, and sighed deeply. "And that just makes it all the more difficult to bear. Is there such a thing as real truth in No. 6?"
"I've never taken part in such lowly activities like manipulating information. I've only handled its management and release."
"And have you ever doubted where the information was coming from?"
"All you've been doing is receiving information from the city, and passing it along to the media. You've never doubted the truth of that information, have you?"
"Of course not. How could I ever doubt―"
Rikiga's thick hand rested on Shion's shoulder.
"This kid that's here in front of you, and the criminal with deranged eyes. That gap is the gap between false information and the truth."
The man opened his trembling lips to say something, and made a guttural noise in his throat. Though the room had no heat, beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. After a silence that lasted for almost a minute, the man's lips finally stopped trembling as he called out Shion's name.
"You said you wanted information about the Correctional Facility."
"And you said it was to help a friend."
"Yes. The Security Bureau suddenly put her under arrest, and sent her to the Correctional Facility."
"Safu. She was supposed to be on exchange abroad, as an elite candidate."
"Do you know her citizenship number?"
They had eaten together the day before Safu was to fly out on her exchange. On their way to the station, they had been stopped by a law enforcement officer from the Security Bureau, and asked to display their ID cards. The number that Safu had recited was it. He closed his eyes, and shuffled through his memory. Although he was no computer, he had considerable ability to memorize and accumulate information, to sort and apply it. This skill had been developed and polished from a young age. For him, it was not difficult to instantly recall a series of letters and numbers, even if it had only been uttered once.
"SSC-000124GJ," the man repeated twice. "I don't know any incident of a citizen by that number being apprehended by the Security Bureau."
"The incident has happened, in secret. You just don't know about it."
"And you all are planning to save her?"
"You're going to help a criminal break out of the Correctional Facility," the man said in disbelief. "―You're not serious?"
"Safu isn't a criminal. She hasn't committed any crime. If anyone has, it's whoever captured her."
Inukashi yawned widely.
"Hey, you know, this is great and all, but would anyone mind if I excused myself and went to bed? I gotta get up early tomorrow morning to take care of the dogs."
"You're right," Rikiga agreed. "If we keep him too late, even Mr. Big-Shot's ID card wouldn't be enough to get him back through the gates. Shall we go, Fura-sama?"
The man ignored Rikiga, and remained stiff and unmoving. A bead of sweat rolled down his face, mingled with blood, and dripped from the tip of his chin. Just as the droplet hit the back of his hand, the man whispered faintly.
"I have the latest."
"I have the latest. But the portion where the new facility has been built is still blank."
Shion widened his eyes in disbelief, and knelt on both knees in front of the man. His voice was hoarse from excitement.
"You're going to tell us about the inside of the Correctional Facility?"
The man remained silent. He wiped his streaming sweat, and nodded. Inukashi slipped forth. He fished out a white mouse-shaped robot, and held its small head firmly. The robot split open at its back, and a beam of reddish-yellow light fanned out upwards. An image appeared in it. The man's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed.
"A hologram, huh."
"That's what they call it. I don't know much myself. The red circles are where the security devices are, according to what I've gathered. So, how is it? No mistakes, are there, old man?"
Inukashi peered into the man's face, twitching the tip of his nose. The man continued staring at the floorplan of the Correctional Facility as if glued to it.
"Electronic pen?" Nezumi offered a silver pen to him.
"No. I'll use my own." The extracted a pen from his inner coat pocket, and inserted the tip of it into the light. The gauze on the back of his hand was beginning to bleed through; the expression on his face was tense, and his fingertips were shaking―but nevertheless, the pen swept smoothly through the air, drawing countless complicated lines onto the diagram.
"Whoa―awesome," Inukashi raised his voice amazement. Rikiga was looking down at the man with a pitying gaze.
The pen slipped from the man's hand and fell onto the floor.
"This... is about all I know."
The number of security devices had grown to three times more than what Inukashi had originally put down. In contrast, the number of cells housing prisoners had shrunk to two-thirds. Automatic barriers were placed in the hallways at intervals, perhaps to prevent prisoners from escaping, or intruders from entering the premises. Once activated, they would come down and trap any runaway or intruder. Or rather, they would dispose of them.
Shion swallowed hard. Judging by the layout of the electrical circuits, it looked like the barriers were made to release high-voltage current. Once the walls blocked the intruder and cut him off from any means of escape, the chamber would instantly become an electric chair. The hallway would become an execution ground.
"It's like a citadel." Shion exhaled.
"It's a place of holocaust." Nezumi picked the pen up, and put it back in the man's pocket. "Eventually it'll become a brilliant monument of genocide."
"Genocide―" Shion repeated. "How many people have been killed here?"
Nezumi slowly shook his head.
"Shion, it's not 'have been'. It's not a thing of the past yet. People are still being killed right now. The cells have decreased, but it's not because there are less prisoners. There are just less of them that are being put into the cells. You understand what I'm saying, right?"
They would dispose of prisoners before they even got to their cells. They would simply be discarded, like garbage.
Rikiga gave a short groan, and put a hand to his mouth. Sweat glistened on his pale face.
"Stop that," he said. "It's making me feel ill."
"You must be kidding me," Inukashi said indignantly. "Don't even think about throwing up in my room." He swung his thin arms around wildly.
"I have a question." Nezumi, still on one knee, pointed at the hologram. "Why do you know so much? How can you remember the inside of the Correctional Facility in such detail?"
"I had a look at it just recently―there was a section in the top-secret files about the Correctional Facility. I skimmed through the ones about the interior layout."
"And what exactly are these top-secret files about the Correctional Facility?"
"It can't be the mayor's project. It has to be top-secret information that's still accessible to high officials of your rank―what is it?"
The man gritted his teeth. The cut inside his mouth seemed to bother him, and he gave a scowl.
"Is it about the Hunt?"
As soon as Nezumi said the word, both Inukashi and Rikiga looked at each other, then looked away. Shion felt uneasy. No one had given him a satisfactory explanation of what "The Hunt" was supposed to be. The man remained silent as his vacant gaze wandered in space.
"Is there going to be a Hunt soon?"
"It's called a Clean-up."
"Clean-up? Oh, right. That's what you guys call manhunting. Cleaning up garbage, right? So when is it?"
"I don't know. No set date has been decided yet. But it will probably be before the Holy Celebration."
Holy Celebration. This was something Shion was familiar with. On this day, all of No. 6 would be full of festivities celebrating the birth of the city. Fireworks would be launched, and the city flag―a golden oval symbolizing the Moondrop, set on a white background―would be hung everywhere. Citizens would celebrate their fortuitous privilege of being a resident of the Holy City, and would shower 'our mighty No. 6' with praise. A year ago, Shion had been in the midst of the clamour. He could still remember it clearly. He had been on his way home to Lost Town when a slightly aged gentleman had stopped him. The man had reprimanded him, and asked him why he wasn't waving the city flag and celebrating the Holy Day. And it wasn't just that man. In the mere space of an hour's walk from the Central Station to his home, he had been met with the same kind of indignant rhetorical question from several people―among them a young woman, an elderly person, and a middle-aged matron. The matron who approached him last had even pushed a flag forcefully into his hands, saying, "Fulfil your responsibilities as a citizen. Come on, wave your flag." Shion remembered his discomfort, the displeasure, and his unease at the mass of waving flags, and the voices of the crowd chanting "our almighty City". The Holy Celebration was that kind of day.
Nezumi flashed a crooked smile.
"So they're gonna do some major housecleaning before the big day."
"The population in the West Block has grown too large. These days, it's been burgeoning with displaced people. Violent crimes are increasing, like the ambush at the Access Control Office that happened the other day. It's about high time for... for a clean-up."
"And exactly how many other places are left on this earth where people can still live safely? If people see a place that looks more suitable to live, they'll try to move there. Is that a crime?"
"We allow certain numbers, up to a degree."
"Up to a degree? Hah," Nezumi laughed shortly, "you mean until they start becoming a threat to No. 6."
"Yes. If frustration builds, and the starving people of the West Block decide to start a riot, it's just more trouble for us. We're helping to alleviate overcrowding by doing this, you know. It should be good news to you."
"Well, well. How considerate of you." Nezumi hunched his shoulders exaggeratedly. Shion gripped Nezumi's shoulder firmly.
"Nezumi, you're not telling me the Hunt is―"
"The Hunt is what?"
"No way―how can it..." Shion trailed off, then began again. "Tell me. What's going to happen here before the Holy Celebration?"
"Think for yourself!" Shion's hand was roughly shaken off. Nezumi's voice was like a slap in the face.
"I'm not your personal tutor. If you think everyone will just hand you your answers, you're wrong. Use your own head. Imagine." Nezumi sucked in a breath, and softened his tone.
"I reckon your flimsy imagination would be no match for reality, though." He dusted his hands off, and stood up.
"I'm going home," the man muttered, and raised himself unsteadily to his feet as well. "I'm going home. Let me go."
"Fura-san, thank you for everything." The words of gratitude were out of Shion's mouth before he knew it. His thoughts were tangled, and his heart was still distraught from hearing the conversation between Nezumi and the man. But he was still grateful for what Fura had given them. A man who had been living as an elite all his life had purposely committed a treasonous act towards the city. Shion could understand the sort of pressure and fear that Fura was feeling right now.
"I know it's odd to say thanks after everything we've done to you, but I'm grateful. Really, thank you very much."
The man stopped in front of the door, and turned around.
"Aren't you going back?"
Unable to comprehend the sudden question, Shion focused his eyes on the man's swollen lips instead.
"Do you mean to No. 6?"
"Yes. You're not considering going back to the city at all?"
"You're going to stay here."
"Why? Don't you feel homesick for the Holy City? Don't you want to go back?"
"I do miss some people. There are people I'd like to meet again. But I have no intention of going home."
"Because it's not a place where I ought to return. And because I've realized that, I guess."
The man put a hand on the doorknob, and opened the door.
"You're a... a fool."
"Am I? I don't think so."
"You're a fool."
The man left the room. Rikiga followed after him. The door closed, and the candle flickered from the breeze. The three that were left in the room looked down at the diagram the man had left behind.
"I just remembered something." Inukashi sat down on the bed. "An old tale my Mum used to tell me. About the northern wind and the sun. Know about it?"
"Yeah," Shion answered. "It was in one of Nezumi's books. It was a picture book. It's the one where the wind and the sun compete to see who could get a journeyman's coat off first, right?"
"Yeah yeah, that one. No matter how much the wind blows and blows at the journeyman, the guy only holds onto his coat tighter so it doesn't get blown away. But as soon as the sun shines down on him, he takes it off because he's hot."
"Inukashi, what're you getting at?" Nezumi knitted his eyebrows in displeasure.
"I just thought it was like the two of you. Too bad, Nezumi. Shion was able to get the coat off much more easily."
"Say what you will," Nezumi said dismissively. "―Shion."
"Do you think we can trust this floorplan?"
"You're being naive."
"You think he went out of his way to write in fake information?"
"What if he had? Maybe you just think you've gotten his coat off successfully, but he's actually just wearing armour underneath."
"He didn't have a reason to lie. He would have known that we'd let him go home, even if he hadn't told us anything. But he took the trouble to give us top-secret information."
"Maybe he's set a trap for us."
"You think so? You honestly think so?"
"I'm just saying there's the possibility and the risk. But knowing that doesn't do anything for us. What he's left us is the best information we have. We don't have the method or the time to figure out if it's real or not."
"So you're saying we have no choice but to believe it."
Inukashi sprawled out on the bed and barked out a laugh. "Look at him, trying to act cool. Unfortunately my ass! You know, Shion, Professor Nezumi here is actually impressed that the guy gave away top-secret information so easily. He didn't even imagine you'd do so well. He sees you in a new light now―he's just not showing it. Stubborn boy," Inukashi sighed in mock exasperation. "If he's impressed, he should just admit that he is."
"Inukashi!" Nezumi said angrily.
"Don't get mad at me. It's the truth." Inukashi's face turned serious, and he glanced at Nezumi and Shion while he lay on his stomach.
"But what're you gonna do now, Nezumi? You serious about using the Hunt to get into the Correctional Facility?"
"Yeah. And lucky for us, it looks like a Hunt is scheduled to happen soon."
"Lucky, huh," Inukashi echoed. "Just to tell you, I'm opting out of this. I don't want anything to do with something this risky, and I don't have any obligation to be involved."
"Your chance to shine is just coming up," Nezumi said. "I've got work for you to do outside of the Facility. The alcoholic said so too: we're in this together until the end. There's no way you can take your two gold coins and run. You know that, don't you, Inukashi? More than anyone else."
Inukashi stuck his lip out, and pulled his face into a scowl. Nezumi cast a hand over the hologram, and called Shion's name.
"Memorize this entire floorplan. We won't be able to take any micro-robots into the Correctional Facility. Any machine that's not equipped with a recognizable chip will be destroyed, no matter how small. Take one wrong step, and whoever's holding the machine will probably be blown up along with it. And we won't have the time to pull out a map and check our bearings every time we get lost."
"You want everything from this?"
"Everything. Commit it to memory perfectly. I want every sensor location, security system layout, and the location of every garbage bin memorized, without any errors. Even a tiny incongruity can cost us our life."
Nezumi tossed the micro-robot to Shion.
"We don't have much time. Commit everything to memory perfectly―that's your assignment."
"That's a more difficult assignment than anything I've gotten before."
"How confident do you feel?"
Huh. Nezumi blinked and gave a huff. It seemed like he had not expected Shion's definite answer.
"I guess I should have known you'd be good at doing brain-work, huh?"
"It's not a question of whether I'm good at it or not. It doesn't matter whether I can or can't―it's something I have to do."
Lives depended upon it. Safu's, Nezumi's, his own; Inukashi's and Rikiga's irreplaceable lives depended upon it.
He clenched his hand around the white micro-robot. Even if he squeezed hard enough to crush it, the man-made machine never screeched in alarm like Hamlet or Cravat, nor did it feel warm and soft in his hand like them. It was merely stiff and cold. Nezumi's lips relaxed into a smile. He chuckled softly.
"Looks like you've learned to grasp the situation a little, at least."
"You trained me."
Nezumi pursed his lips.
"―Stay close to me," he muttered.
"The Hunt is coming soon. Stay close to me, and don't wander off. Wherever you go, keep in sight of me. If we lose sight of each other in the middle of the Hunt, we'll probably never see each other again. Your chances of living will go down drastically, to say the least."
"Got it," Shion said heavily.
"I think the chances are low enough without you losing sight of him," Inukashi's whole body shook as he laughed. The rusty bed-springs creaked and made an irritating noise. "When people get captured during the Hunt, they get thrown into the Correctional Facility where most of them die or go insane. It'd be a miracle if you could live through it and manage to come back out. It'd be as miraculous as the sun splitting in two."
"You can make miracles happen more easily than you think, Inukashi. Hasn't your mom told you?" Nezumi threw the superfibre cloth around his shoulders, and headed for the door. Inukashi called after him.
"Nezumi, there's more."
"More? More what?"
"Mum didn't say anything about miracles, but she told me this after the story of the wind and the sun. 'No wind or sun can take our hides off us,' she said. 'You may not have a coat of fur, but don't you ever give in to the wind or sun.' And then she licked me all over."
"Admirable mother you've got."
"She's the best." Inukashi leapt off the bed, and glided to Nezumi's side. "I've been raised by my Mum. I still remember how her fur used to feel, her scent, and what she told me. I remember, and that's why―"
"That's why I'm going to survive. I'm going to keep on living here with my dogs. Even if you guys die, even if you never come back out of the Correctional Facility again, I'll still keep living. I'm going to live, and tell the rest of the dogs about my Mum."
"A fine vow. Your deceased mother would probably be overjoyed to hear that." Nezumi's hand stretched forth to stroke Inukashi's tan cheek.
"Good night, my boy. May God bless you with sweet dreams to give you strength for tomorrow," he said gently, in a woman's voice. Before Inukashi could open his mouth, Nezumi had disappeared out the door. Inukashi spoke to the darkness.
"Just watch me―I'll live through it without you all."
"We'll all live through it," Shion said quietly. Death was not in their plan. They would act, think, and fight to live. To survive―together.
"Oh, I forgot to say something." Nezumi's breezy voice echoed from the darkness. "Inukashi, if you want a good-night kiss, I suggest you get one from Shion. He would give you a very adroit and passionate kiss, indeed."
"Nezumi!" Shion said indignantly.
Nezumi's laughter faded into the distance. It became one with the sound of the wind, and was sucked into the darkness.
Read Chapter 3.