There was a cotton handkerchief in Shion's coat pocket. He used it to cover his nose and mouth. It wasn't to shield against the smell; it was to hide his face. This way, the risk of being spotted would lessen. Nezumi also pressed a white handkerchief to his mouth.
They climbed the stairs. The odour gradually grew stronger. Still, the security alarms didn't go off.
A chime sounded, and his feet froze on the spot. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple.
The announcement was made by a mechanical voice imitating a female contralto. A chubby man beside Shion let out a great puff of air. Shion also breathed out quietly into his handkerchief.
"Good heavens, we're saved. It's torture, this smell."
"I don't think I can stand this for two whole minutes." Behind the man, an equally chubby woman had twisted her face into a scowl. Her skin was flawless, and her red pouting lips were strangely alluring. Shion and Nezumi tried silently to slip by.
"Oh―hey, you there!" The man called at them. Shion's heart skipped a beat.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
His pulse was racing painfully. Sweat erupted on his face.
Nezumi twisted his neck around, his handkerchief still clamped over his mouth.
"Where are you going?"
"We're going... back to work."
"Yes―third floor." Nezumi coughed lightly.
"The stench is horrible up there," the man said. "You'd be better off going down. I'd suggest you avoid the area entirely for a while. I can't imagine you could get any work done in that."
"―We can't really afford to leave. We're doing a rush job right now..."
"Rush job? On the third floor?"
"But the third floor is for resource compilation and management systems. What section of the third floor are you?"
"Hygiene Management," Shion answered. He traced the floorplan in his head.
Third floor. He could guess judging by the layout of electric circuitry that the General floors ended at the third. Starting from the fourth Special floor, the circuitry spread into a fearfully complicated web. The fourth floor was connected to the Surveillance Wing of the prisoners. Mobile barriers were placed at equal intervals in the hallways, and the number of sensors were over three times that of the General floors.
The majority of Facility personnel could only access as far as the third floor. They had no need to go further. What sections were laid out on that third floor? The floorplan rose vividly in his mind. If he remembered correctly, the Hygiene Management department was nestled in a far corner of the third floor.
"The source of this smell still hasn't been identified," Shion said hesitantly. "We Hygiene Management employees are in a bit of a panic right now. We're not getting any data of foreign objects coming in from outside, so there's a possibility that something has gone wrong inside the building..."
"Oh, really? According to Management Systems, there was a maintenance problem with the cleaning robots, and they supposedly broke down and started strewing trash everywhere. That's not it?"
"Ah, well, that's..." He was at a loss for words. Nezumi answered in a low, hoarse voice.
"The smell seems too strong for just that. We're doing an emergency investigation into whether there was something mixed in with the garbage. We've had no previous cases, after all... we're fumbling, truth be told."
"Hm. I see. Were there always young'uns like you in that section, though?"
"We're not―that young," Shion stammered.
The man craned his neck to inspect him. "What happened to your hair? It's gone all white."
Shion couldn't find any words to say. He had forgotten about his hair―white, to the point of transparent. No doubt it was extremely noticeable. If he said he was born with it, people would probably be suspicious about never having seen him before.
What to do?
"I, well... I tried dyeing it..."
"Oh, how pretty," the woman smiled. "It's very pretty. So nice and shiny. What did you use to get it to look like that? Tell me all about it."
"Sara, stop flirting with him."
"Excuse me? Flirting? How rude. I don't know why you can't be a little more polite. Ugh, this smell. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of you, too." The woman stalked off down the stairs.
"Wait―hey, Sara! What was that supposed to mean? Hey! Wait up, Sara. Wait!" The man wiped the sweat off his brow as he followed after the woman.
"A romantic spat if I ever saw one. That guy supposedly tries to pick up ladies in broad daylight. At work, no less." Nezumi shrugged. "Saved our asses, though."
If the man had questioned them any further, they would have been in trouble. Shion felt a coldness around his armpits.
"You've gotten pretty good at lying. But not quite polished enough on the finish."
"Not as nearly as good as you. Looks like I'll need a lot more training."
The third floor was white-walled and white-floored, and though it was neat, it was eerily blank.
"So this Management Systems room?" Nezumi said.
"Left-hand side. It's a glass-panelled room. Nezumi, surveillance camera right above you. Don't look up. Be careful. There's also a 360-degree camera on the ceiling to your top-right after you enter the room."
The odour removal and air-conditioning mechanics were well underway, evidently, for the smell had dispersed considerably, and did not bother them much. The confusion was beginning to settle.
The glass doors slid automatically open, and a thin man with a jutting chin came out carrying a vacuum. He looked ill; there was a dead look in his eyes, and he was horribly pale.
"I've done it... I've actually done it," they heard the man mutter as he passed them by. "I've done it... but... serves them right... serves them right..."
"Get out of here quickly," Nezumi whispered to the man's back. The man stopped in his tracks, and glanced furtively at Nezumi.
"Did you say something?"
"I told you to get out of here. Don't dally."
"You've pulled it off admirably. A job well done." His tone was that of a king congratulating a subject. The man blinked. His Adam's apple slowly bobbed as he swallowed.
"Who... are you?"
"I'm grateful. Now make a good getaway." Nezumi flashed the man a seductive smile, and slowly set foot inside the Management Systems room. He didn't look anything like he was in a rush. He had the footsteps of an honest employee returning to his work.
The security alarm did not go off.
We're still good. Shion clenched his hand into a fist. His palms were sweaty. Things are going better than I thought. If they continue like this, maybe we'd be able to pull it off.
No, don't let your guard down. Even a slight moment of inattention could cost us our lives.
Following in Nezumi's footsteps, Shion also entered the room neither hastily or cautiously, maintaining a perfectly ordinary step and speed.
It was spacious inside, and the room was sectioned off with clear walls of reinforced plastic. The booth closest to where Shion and Nezumi had entered was empty. There was no one there. The booth next to that also showed no signs of anyone. They had probably fled, unable to bear the smell. But the smell had now been mostly removed; people would be returning soon.
"This must be the management division for ventilation. And―"
"The operating button for opening and closing Point X should be here, too." Nezumi's gaze focused on the right-hand edge of the control panel. A small, round button. It was a vivid, almost cheap-looking shade of green. It looked almost out of place amongst the other switches and touch panels. Shion stood in front of the control panel.
"Oh, yeah," Shion said. "The surveillance and management of all entrances and openings take place beyond this wall, but the door to Point X is the only thing that doesn't."
"Is that strange?"
"No. It's just as you said: that door is impenetrable. It will never open. No. 6 never considered the chance of someone coming in through that door. Of course, they never considered opening it from their side, either. So this button for them was actually meaningless. That was why it didn't matter where they put it. There was no need to keep watch on it, anyway."
As he spoke, Shion tapped a large screen in the centre of the control panel. Of course, he was concerned about his fingerprints being lifted, but the screen wouldn't function if he didn't touch it directly. Security measures would take effect, and it would lock itself.
"That's right," Nezumi answered. "It's indulgence. Indulgence that comes from complacence. No. 6 thinks nothing in the world can threaten them. Makes you laugh, doesn't it?"
Point X was created when Rou was placed in the underground settlement, though at the time, it had probably been mere caverns. The caverns themselves were to be his prison. Then, the Correctional Facility gradually grew closer to its current form: a new, even more secure imprisonment facility than the caves. The underground caverns, Rou, and the other prisoners were forgotten. Either that, or they were written off as people who had never existed.
Only the door remained.
The screen changed into a layout of the Correctional Facility's ventilation system.
"Nezumi, look here." There were stairs leading from the fourth to the fifth floor, and to the top floor as well.
Each step was 120 millimetres deep, and 240 millimetres high. It was quite a steep slope. The stairs were also barely wide enough for one adult to climb. It was more like a ladder than a set of stairs.
Nezumi peered in. "What's this?"
"Stairs for construction and maintenance. Everything is usually computer-regulated, but once in while they would probably need some manual labour. The stairs were probably made with that in mind. They probably haven't been used much, though."
A soft exhale escaped Nezumi's lips.
"I didn't know there was something like this here. Did you know about these stairs all along?"
"No, I only guessed," Shion said. "I noticed it when I first looked at the floorplan. It was an unusual blank space."
"I didn't notice."
"It's in the wall. There was a narrow space between the outer and inner walls. This particular part was wider than the rest."
"So you saw something that I overlooked."
Tsk. The sound of a frustrated click of the tongue.
"And is that spot gonna welcome us in like an amusement park? There aren't any anti-trespassing devices?"
"I don't know. This screen only shows ventilation-related systems. I can't tell about anything else."
"You said it was a blank. So there's nothing written in there."
"Then how about a door? If there are stairs, there has to be a door that leads to them."
"I don't know about that, either. There's nothing written here that might pertain to that."
"Then we don't have a next move."
They did not have a next move. But they would have to move anyway. If they couldn't use the central stairs or the elevator, this was the only route that would take them to the top floor.
Shion had stared at the floorplan long enough until he felt his head throb, memorizing the interior structure. This was the conclusion that he had drawn as a result.
Their chips would not take them any higher. They would have to set foot on these stairs, using any method they could. If only they could bound up the steps in one dash. The mother computer was on the top floor. They had to get there. They had to reach it, no matter what.
This was the only way.
In a way, the Correctional Facility was like a prototype of No. 6. All information, activities, functions, and monitoring networks led back to the mother computer. This meant that all the power was in the hands of the single person who could control the Mother freely.
A perfect hierarchy, in which the king was the absolute summit―that was what they were trying to create. It was an incredibly vast, yet foolish ambition.
Humans could control machines. They could develop and refine devices, and use them in any way they liked. But it was impossible for humans to dominate other humans. Even empires which had proudly stood for a thousand years, crumbled after that millennium. Humans could not dominate other humans. The system would always break down.
Shion had learned this outside No. 6. The ones inside―those reigning over No. 6―had evidently not. That was why they could continue to believe in this illusion that they would conquer all.
They were foolish. But foolishness created a vulnerable opening. If they could make contact with the mother computer, they would be able to find out Safu's location, and they would be able to halt the Correctional Facility's functions, if even momentarily.
With a centralized system like this one, where everything concentrated into this one single point, then all they had to do was attack that one spot.
No. 6's fragility had also revealed itself here.
Shion's fingers flitted about. The screens changed one after another.
The barriers on the fourth floor. They had to overcome those somehow. They had to break through the open space before the walls closed in on them and blocked their route off.
And to do that―
The inside of his head settled into a cold stillness. Only his fingers kept moving, and finished one task, then another.
"Hey, there's something wrong here," yelled a man in the next booth. Several workers had already returned. "The activity lamp for Point X is on."
"On location po1-z22. The door's been opened and closed. It's recorded here."
A tall, young man tilted his head in perplexity. "Po1... that's underground. Did we ever have a door there? Are you sure it's not a display error on the part of the computer? Maybe the smell was so bad, even the computer couldn't handle it. Haha."
"This isn't a joking matter," the other snapped. The man closed his mouth.
"Two minutes and forty seconds ago. That was just now. The door on Point X opened right in the middle of that commotion."
"Is there something wrong with it opening? Doors are supposed to open, aren't they?"
"It's not general entrance door. It's not an emergency exit, either. The staff don't use this door."
"Oh. Then, where's the door supposed to lead?"
"I don't know. I've never heard of it. But this means that a door that was never supposed to open has opened. This―"
Evidently the sound-proof setting was off, for the boys could hear the muffled voices of the two men conversing.
"Our time's up." Nezumi undid the buttons of his lab coat. Shion stood up as well.
Two minutes, forty seconds. It was much longer than they had anticipated. It looked like Fortune had not abandoned them just yet.
"Oh―hey! You there." A grossly overweight mass of a man was standing in front of them, blocking their way. "What are you doing there? Who are you?"
Nezumi flung his coat at the man, which landed on the man's head and draped over him. The man flailed his arms and staggered. Nezumi swept his feet out from under him. The man fell sideways with a resounding crash, and gave a muffled groan.
"Excuse me." Nezumi stepped over the man, and exited into the hallway. Shion followed suit and hopped over the man's body.
"What was that?"
"Somebody―an intruder! Somebody help!"
"What? Has the emergency bell gone off?"
An agitated buzz rose from behind them.
"Nezumi, run up the stairs."
If the sensors caught any intruders, the security shutters would fall automatically. Could they reach the fourth floor before all the shutters went down?
The lighting on the stairs turned red. The shutters of special alloy silently began to close.
They were fast.
"Shion, go in head-first."
Nezumi and Shion dived into the narrow space.
Read Chapter 2.