I have been waiting for you.
Your Last Embrace
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last.
Arms, take your last embrace!
-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act V Scene III 
A white light stabbed at his eyes.
It was blinding.
The light was overpowering.
The place overflowed with light, and glittered.
Yes, No. 6 had always been like this. Brimming with light; releasing it. I've returned. Shion clenched his hand into a tight fist. He was thumped on the back.
"Take a deep breath," Nezumi said. "Breathe out and get rid of all your emotions. A split second of hesitation or excitement can cost you your life. Keep your head."
"Got it. You too. Follow me, and don't fall behind." Suddenly, he felt the urge to laugh. It tickled in his chest.
"What?" Nezumi drew his chin back. "What're you grinning about?"
"No... just thinking about how great it feels to say 'follow me' to you. Before, I was always the one to be told that."
"―You know, Shion, you're―" Nezumi closed his mouth mid-sentence, and shook his head.
The door opened fully. The light hit them head-on.
"Let's go, Nezumi." Shion unclenched his fist, and glided out into the white light.
He smiled? Nezumi shook his head, and chewed his lip. He felt suffocated, though only a little. How can he smile at a time like this? And from the bottom of his heart, like he was really happy. It wasn't bravado. It wasn't fake. In a moment they would be stepping into the Correctional Facility, and yet, Shion had smiled. He had been able to smile.
Just thinking about how great it feels to say 'follow me' to you.
What the hell? What are we, a couple of students making idle chatter and laughing on the way home from school? Why? Why is it that you seem not to feel nervous at all? Don't you understand what kind of situation you're in right now?
He could hurl as many insults as he liked. But, Nezumi muttered under his breath, but it's still amazing. He couldn't help it; his feeling of awe was stronger than his desire to insult the boy.
I can't smile like that. Give an innocent and carefree laugh―it's just not gonna happen with me. Right now we're about to step into a danger zone that might as well be a minefield. I can't spare the energy to laugh.
He wasn't afraid. He wasn't going to flinch. But he was tense. This stance prepared him for battle. He needed this shift in mind and body so that he could manoeuvre himself out of the way of an attacking enemy; so that he could turn around and sink his fangs into the enemy's throat. Shion had none of that. He didn't even have the fighting mentality.
Numerous times, Nezumi had felt frustrated at him. Where did you leave your fangs and claws behind? he would think. He had even slapped Shion's cheek out of sheer frustration.
He had thought that Shion was frail. He was far weaker, far more fragile than Nezumi. Like a newly-hatched chick, he was defenseless and powerless... he had not a single skill to survive in this harsh reality. But that didn't mean that Nezumi scorned or looked down upon Shion.
On the contrary, he had felt that he needed to protect him. If he didn't protect him with all the strength he had, Shion would not be able to survive. He would be crushed. Nezumi had earnestly believed so once.
And he had utterly misunderstood. I made unfounded assumptions, and that was my foolish mistake. He had realized it long before.
Shion was not weak at all. That was why he had been able to come this far. He had not been crushed; in fact, he was far from it: he had survived stoutly. He had come crawling up with his own strength. He had emerged from this brutal reality, stood on this ground, and even smiled.
Smiled, huh. That's right. You'll do things your way and I'll do it my way, and we'll overcome this.
He regulated his breathing.
It starts here, Shion.
He couldn't predict in the faintest what was going to happen, what was waiting for them.
Or a miracle?
A return alive, or no return at all?
He couldn't predict what lay a pace away.
What's going to happen...?
When we've run past the finish line, will you still be laughing? Will you be smiling as you are, unchanged from now?
"Let's go, Nezumi." Shion glided into the white light. He had to follow, so as not to fall behind. Nezumi nodded, and stepped out into the light after him.
Point X. It was marked as such on the floorplan. It was the door at location po1-z22. It was the only point where the underground blank was connected to ground-level.
When the door opened, it made a passage-way between the underground realm and the Correctional Facility. There was a difference in air pressure, perhaps, for there was a slight air flow.
Shion ran to the right. The floorplan that Fura had filled in for him rose in his mind as if he were actually seeing it in front of him.
"Fifteen paces to the right. We're safe until there. There are no sensors. Beyond that, we've got stairs."
"Laser beams: one on the second step, running 45 degrees; one on the stairwell, 15 centimetres above the floor, running parallel; one on the eleventh step running 60 degrees. As long as we don't touch those, the surveillance won't go off."
"Hm. Pretty lax."
"Only up to here." This was the basement floor of the Correctional Facility. Excluding Point X, there was no contact to outside areas, so naturally, there were no windows or doors. Facility workers, personnel, and visitors who had the appropriate identification chip and didn't need to worry about the sensors came down by the stairs or elevator―the legitimate route. But other than that, the only way to get here was through the underground realm.
Adding to that fact, none of the departments here handled confidential material, and the risks of infiltration were infinitely close to zero. It was understandable for security to become lax.
No one had probably predicted that Point X, or location po1-z22 would ever open.
"How much time do you think we can buy?"
"One―no, at least two minutes."
Two minutes? Can we buy that much? The change in Point X had probably already been registered by the security system. Could they even buy two minutes until the monitoring staff realized and took appropriate action?
"Inukashi's working his magic," Nezumi said. "It's probably a bit of a hullabaloo up there."
"You'll see in time. The joyous festivities are only beginning. Anyway, we've got two full minutes. It's ours to use."
"Two minutes, huh."
"Feels like an eternity, doesn't it."
"Sure does," Shion said drily.
Second step, 45 degrees; stairwell, 15 centimetres parallel; eleventh step, 60 degrees. They emerged at the top of the stairs. It took a bit of time, since they couldn't just dash up. Approximately 1 minute, 06 seconds left.
From this floor began the ground-level part of the Correctional Facility. There was an entrance hall, where the largest number of people came and went. Personnel came through a different gate than that of prisoners, and gathered on this floor. From here, they dispersed to their respective workplaces. Everyone was cross-checked minutely at the entrance, but once they were through, it seemed like inspection on the rest of the floor wasn't as thorough. The higher the floors, the more strict it became.
The top floor was where they were headed.
It was the deepest and furthest part of the Correctional Facility, encircled by many layers of security networks. They were not headed for the imprisonment facility, which protruded like a bump from the main tower.
It was the furthest part of the Correctional Facility. That was where Safu was.
Shion knew in his guts.
Safu was a certified elite. Such chosen ones were furnished with the best educational environment from a young age. Investing ample time, money, and labour into developing elites was a fundamental political policy of No. 6.
Shion couldn't imagine No. 6 taking an elite that they had raised so carefully to throw her into prison with the rest of the inmates. If she had been arrested in connection with him, then his mother Karan wouldn't have been safe, either.
But it had been Safu who had been taken, and not Karan.
Then it must mean that she was arrested not in connection with him, but on the conditions that she herself fulfilled. The fact that she was elite, perhaps, and without parents, or perhaps because she was female―
"Sample Collection Status―I remember there being a section like that in the Health and Hygiene Bureau's data," Fura had said. Sample. Mock-up. Specimen.
No. 6 was taking samples from within the city, and apparently in secret. Citizens were being extracted, unbeknownst, to become specimens. There was no way this wasn't related to the rumour of agitation and abnormalities trickling out from inside the city.
Shion knew this too, in his guts.
If Safu was a sample who fulfilled their various requirements, then she was valuable. They would probably need a suitable facility in which to handle such a valuable sample.
That was why Safu had to be on the topmost floor, the Special section of the furthest part of the Facility. He wasn't one-hundred percent sure, but it was very likely.
Shion felt a violent chill.
Not at No. 6, but at himself.
How would I treat a valuable sample? He felt a chill at how he was turning this over in his mind coolly. He felt goosebumps form at his own thoughts, which placed Safu in that position.
I need to be calm and rational. I need to be in this state of mind; it's what I need most, especially in danger.
Don't get distracted, don't get fooled, don't lose sight.
Nezumi had taught him.
Being calm meant repressing the furor of his feelings. The restless tides of his human emotions lurked constantly in his heart; and yet, he had to suppress them inches from the surface. That was how it was. If he let himself lose feeling and emotion completely, all that would remain would be a heartless being.
But can I say that I'm not heartless? Maybe there's a part of me that's gone completely cold, and I'm just mistaking it for calmness.
He gritted his teeth.
Don't get distracted, don't get fooled, don't lose sight. And don't wander.
This isn't the time to be getting lost.
There were hurried footsteps. Two sets. One was plodding and heavy, and the other was light.
"Why does it smell so horrible? I can't stand it." Two men clad in white coats came running down the stairs. Both of them had handkerchiefs held to their noses. One man was heavyset and in his forties; the other man was still young and scrawny.
Shion crouched in the shadow of the handrails. The men stopped right before his eyes, and took deep breaths.
"I feel faint. What in heavens is this smell?" the middle-aged man grumbled.
"Apparently the cleaning robots broke down. Instead of cleaning, they're strewing trash everywhere, so I hear," answered the younger man, wiping his brow. The middle-aged man was clearly not feeling well, for the colour had receded from his face.
"It's impossible to get any work done in this. I feel like my nose is going to fall off," complained the older man.
"Unbearable, isn't it? Do you suppose it's because of―you know, that?"
"Today's the Holy Celebration. We're probably suffering some kind of heavenly punishment because we're working on a holiday."
"It can't be helped. When you work for a research organization, you can't always get your vacations by the calendar. But being rather unscientific, aren't you, saying things like 'heavenly punishment'?"
"I guess." The man paused. "But these days, I find it suddenly occurs to me that..."
"Occurs to you? What does?"
"...That maybe someday, the heavens are going to punish us. That if we keep going like this, we'll eventually pay the penalty."
"What? And who do you suppose would be able to exact punishment on us? Are you sure the smell hasn't short-circuited your brain?" the older man said sardonically. "―You listen to me: even if you happen to have unscientific thoughts, don't say them out loud. You'll earn the brand of an ineligible citizen. And you can forget about your reputation as a researcher."
The young man shrugged, and lapsed into silence.
Shion turned and signalled to Nezumi with his eyes. Nezumi acted at almost the same time. Nezumi twisted the arm of the man in front of him, and pressed a knife to his throat. Shion also burst out, and twisted the young man's arm behind him.
"Don't move. Don't make a sound. Make a noise, and I'll kill you." Nezumi's voice was low, heavy, and cold. It was the voice of a murderer. It agitated fear inside the person, and sealed any attempt at a struggle.
Shion was yet again faced with the truth that Nezumi was an incredibly talented actor.
"You too," he whispered in the young man's ear. It didn't go as well as Nezumi. But Nezumi's voice and his silver knife played its part well. The two of them showed no signs of struggling. They stood stock-still, like wooden poles. Only their bodies trembled slightly.
"The door on the right," Shion said. "Hold the name tag on his chest up to the sensor."
Nezumi nodded, and positioned the man in front of the door, with his arm still twisted behind his back. The sensor embedded into the top part of the door activated, and blinked on and off.
The door slid silently open.
"A change room," Nezumi said.
"I see. A perfect hiding place for these gentlemen." Even before finishing his sentence, Nezumi had spun around nimbly and had ground his fist firmly into the man's stomach. Shion pushed the young man's body forward. The man tripped over his own feet. The blade of Nezumi's hand swung down upon his neck. It all happened in the blink of an eye.
The two men crumpled to the floor without uttering a single sound.
They stripped the men of their coats, and shoved them inside the lockers. Like highway bandits, Shion thought fleetingly. He didn't feel strange about it, nor did he feel guilt. One more upper hand, one more step forward. That was all he was setting out to do. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the white coat.
"How do I look?" Nezumi twirled in his white lab coat.
"You look good."
"Thank you. They're a fine set of stage costumes. A little on the big side, though. So? These name tags function as ID chips, then?"
"Yeah," Shion answered. "The door opened, so I think we can be sure about that." He figured even No. 6 wouldn't embed each and every single Facility employee with a chip. Embedding them inside the body would make them incredibly difficult to retrieve. If they were to go through the trouble, they would chip people who didn't need to get them retrieved: first, prisoners; then, those with access to the most confidential information―those who could access the top floor by their own will.
He had guessed that other personnel would use an identification item which they could wear and take off easily, and could distinguish at a glance.
His guess was right.
With these chips, they would go as far as they could go.
Shion and Nezumi made eye contact. No emotions swam in those grey eyes. He felt somehow relieved. No matter what situation he was in, he would have these unwavering eyes by his side. They had been like a sturdy supporting pillar for Shion. All this time, they had supported him.
Shion closed the locker.
No, Shion. From here on out, you have to be the one to blaze the trail. Instead of the stern, you have to be the prow.
They exited out into the hallway. An odour permeated the place, which smelled a lot like rotting garbage.
"Hey, what's going on? What's this smell?"
"The whole building is full of it."
"I feel faint. I think I'm going to throw up."
People burst into the hallways, or came clambering down the stairs, holding their hands or handkerchiefs to their mouths. Some were deathly pale. Others had a sheen of sweat on their foreheads, and still others were close to tears.
Shion furrowed his brow, not at the stench, but at the commotion. It was indeed a bad odour, but was it something to make such a fuss about?
The smell that wafted over the marketplace in the West Block was nothing like this. It was a more concentrated, more vividly disgusting stench. And everyone lived in it. They raged, harangued, drank, sometimes laughed, and cried in it. They lived every day there.
But this, this was merely―
"They haven't any immunity, after all," Nezumi muttered, as if to sense what was in Shion's heart.
No immunity. Well, I guess that's true.
Disinfection, odour removal, humidity control―artificially building a comfortable environment naturally meant the removal of everything unpleasant. No. 6 had received its name as the Ideal City, the Holy City, through purging and exterminating rubbish, refuse, bacteria, viruses, smells, odours, and noise―all of it.
No. 6 had a standard frame, and did not tolerate anything or anyone who crossed the boundaries of this frame. It concerned not only smells, noise, and bacteria; it purged humans as well. It ruthlessly cut them away. The majority of prisoners in this Correctional Facility were not criminals in the real sense; they were merely people who had exceeded the permissible bounds of the Holy City. They had not declared their loyalty to the city, or they had raised an objection. They had not complied. They had questioned its ways. There were probably a great number of people who had been imprisoned on a charge of these crimes. The rest were those who had committed crimes due to their poverty, or out of want of food. And underground, the residents of the West Block were groaning in pain.
Expel all undesirables without an exception.
This was the world of No. 6.
The result of the policy had shown itself in this small scene.
Any faint smell was enough for these sensitive people to react and panic. It was a sign that the physical tolerance levels of the citizens, like their city, were becoming dangerously low.
How fragile they were.
Had Nezumi perceived this fragility? It was a slight, almost unnoticeable crack. But even a crack small enough to be overlooked could be a trigger for collapse.
This frailty, this defect in its resistance, could be the wound that would seal No. 6's fate.
Had Nezumi seen through all of this, too?
Shion didn't know.
He realized he barely knew anything about Nezumi. He thought he had begun to see into his past, into how he had been raised, but―
He didn't know. He knew just as little as when they had first met.
Nezumi was almost like a deep forest.
No matter how far he waded in, he could never gaze out over its entirety. Here, clumps of flowers bloomed; here, a bowed branch bore fruits. Here, a spring gushed forth, and he could hear the gentle sound of its flow. He had definitely seen these various scenes, but they were mere parts of the deep, vast forest. Perhaps he would emerge from the dense trees to be faced with a sheer cliff. Perhaps there lurked man-eating beasts. Perhaps a scene totally unknown to him would stretch before his eyes. He didn't know.
No matter how far he waded in, Nezumi never revealed his entirety to him. The further he waded in, the more unfathomable it got.
I've wandered and gotten lost in an endless forest. I'm drifting, a tangle of throbbing pain and dreamy ecstasy.
- Shakespeare, Wiliam. Romeo and Juliet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. (back)