They were at the top of the stairs. It was such a cramped space that they had barely any room to stand.
"Shion, there's no exit."
There was no handle or button to be found. Only a blank wall.
We've messed up.
His heart pounded. Cold sweat streamed down his back. If this was a dead end, then there was no escape for them. They could not fend off the pursuers coming from below.
Nezumi's body sprang into motion on Shion's orders.
Bang. The middle portion of the ceiling opened up like a trap door. Nezumi kicked off the ground, and launched himself up. Just then, he heard a clamour below.
The door had been forced open.
"They're up there! Aim for them!" The unique dry popping sound of firearms.
"Shion!" He extended his hand, and he could feel Shion latching onto it tightly. He pulled the other boy up.
"Agh!" Shion let out a small cry.
"Did they get you?"
"―'m alright. Just a graze."
Once they shut the trap door, all noise was cut off, and only an eerie silence remained. Shion let out a long breath.
"Does it hurt?"
"No―no big deal."
"First time, huh?"
"It's your first time getting fired at. And a sniper rifle, at that―a pretty old firearm. Sleek looks, deadly accuracy. That's the kind of formidable lady you're dealing with."
"I see. Well, attractive as she is, I wouldn't like to go on any future dates with her." Shion laughed quietly as he bound his calf.
Perhaps he was straining himself. But it meant that he could still push himself further, and that the wound wasn't so bad that he couldn't move. Not that it mattered how bad his injury was, anyway: they had to keep moving. They could not stay in one place.
That was why he would not question Shion further. He would not concern himself with the boy. They only had to keep moving forward together.
"Shion, where's this?"
"A part of the old air vents. I suppose they used these when this place was just built. But soon afterwards, they built new external reinforced walls. They added circulatory filtration devices, and these vents went out of use."
"Which means they stopped needing them right when the Correctional Facility was turning into a stronghold. So the old vents must be―here." Nezumi's extended hand pointed to a rectangular tunnel.
"What's down this way?" he asked.
"Probably a dead end. They've probably blocked it up partway."
"I thought so. I figured it wouldn't be as easy as worming our way right to the internal core through the vents."
"Yeah. But we'll have to go as far as we can."
He was right. There was no way back. They had no choice but to go as far as they could go.
"Shion, I'll boost you up. Go on ahead."
Shion dove into the hole more nimbly than Nezumi expected. He felt the slimy texture of blood as he supported Shion's leg. He clenched his hand into a fist.
"Hey, this thing opens." The upper body of a soldier peeked into view along with his voice. As soon as the soldier hoisted himself up, Nezumi kicked his chin so it snapped back, and swung his rifle butt down on the man's temple. He dragged the unconscious body up into the vent, aimed his gun through the opening, and began to fire. He heard bodies tumbling down the stairs. He closed the trapdoor, and rolled the soldier's body over it.
"He's got a nice beer gut. That should serve as a good weight." Nezumi rifled through the man's pockets and almost whistled.
"Nezumi, what're you doing? Hurry up," Shion called.
"Don't rush me. We gotta get the most we can from them," he answered.
He entered the hole head-first. It was cramped. He had to lie flat on his belly in order to even move. Tsukiyo hopped out from the folds of his clothes and scurried down the tunnel.
"It's like a mouse hole in here," Shion reflected idly.
Still got his wits, he thought fleetingly. The boy was calmer than he expected. It wasn't an ignorant kind of calm; Shion understood his situation well enough. He felt the danger and tension of it, and yet also had room to be calm on top of it all.
"We couldn't have gotten through here if we were any fatter," Shion said thoughtfully.
"Well, I guess."
"Inukashi could get through just fine. Rikiga-san might have a bit of trouble."
"Rikiga? You mean the alcoholic geezer? He wouldn't have been able to get this far in the first place. He would've tripped and fallen over when we had to dash down the hall."
"So by now..."
"He would've been charred black. I feel ill just imagining what Roasted Old Man would look like."
Tsukiyo answered in place of Shion. Shion stopped moving.
Dead end. I see. So this is it.
"It's a dead end. But..." Shion's palm slid along the wall. There was a soft clunk as a part of it fell away. Light seeped through.
"The grate. They must've blocked it from our side."
"What do you see?"
Shion tilted his body sideways to make an opening. Nezumi looked out through the plastic bars.
It was a tidy and spacious room that looked like a laboratory. Straight across from them was a large glass window, where several male and female researchers were huddled together, peering through it and conversing animatedly. A man said something with a grandiose gesture, and a long-haired woman gave a toothy grin. They both had steaming mugs in hand. Apart from them were several other staff busy looking into their computer screens. There was also a stooped-looking man bustling about on foot.
"It looks like a comfortable room," Nezumi commented. "Maybe they'd let me use their shower if I asked. Let's pay them a visit."
"What? We can't get out through such a tiny opening."
"If it's too small, we just have to make it wider."
"Keep back, Shion. Just retreat as you are."
"Nezumi, what're you gonna do?"
"Is that... a miniature bomb?" Shion swallowed.
"Yup. A coin-shaped micro-bomb, more like. It even comes with a timer, and I can control how large the explosion's gonna be. It was a good buy."
"Where did you buy it? I didn't even realize."
"Are you being dense on purpose?" Nezumi said irritably. "Did we have time to do shopping since we got here? I nicked it from Beer Gut earlier. But anyway, who cares about that. Shion, get back. A little more. And take Tsukiyo."
"Perfect. Hold your head with both hands. Once it explodes, we're gonna jump right out. Be prepared."
Nezumi shrugged his superfibre cape off, and covered his head with it. He kept retreating until his foot touched Shion's shoulder.
"Now it's like you're shielding me. I might end up safe, but you―"
"Idiot. Who the fuck cares about our positions at this point? Stop wasting your breath."
How stupid can he get?
What an idiot. But it was just like Shion. No matter the situation, he never forgot about others. It was just like him, indeed.
Relief welled up from the bottom of his chest.
An explosion. And then, wind. A blast of air rushed through the cramped tunnel. Tsukiyo let out a shrill squeal of terror.
"Shion! You safe?"
"Of course. Tsukiyo and I are both okay."
There was no dust, perhaps because the wall was made of a special material. The bomb was considerably powerful, and despite the fact that he had set it to make the smallest explosion possible, it had blown apart a large part of the wall.
They jumped down. Screams rang out all around. Staff began to flee the room.
"Who are you?" A heavyset man drew a gun from his lab coat. Nezumi rushed at him and aimed a swift swipe at the base of his neck. The man fell forward onto his belly.
The security bells were ringing.
Keep running like this?
They couldn't stay here for long. In a few dozen seconds, soldiers would be streaming into the room. They had no choice but to run. But to where?
"Shion, what next? Give me orders. Hurry."
There was no answer.
Shion, what's wrong? Don't tell me...
A cold sweat trickled down his spine.
He turned around to see Shion at the glass window, looking down through it as the staff members had been doing earlier. A dim light filtered through the highly-polished glass pane.
"What the hell are you doing? Move!"
Shion slowly turned his face towards Nezumi. He was completely ashen. His features were rigid, almost wooden. Nezumi had never seen Shion with such a face before.
As soon as the thought passed, he realized that the hem of Shion's pants was soaked red. The gunshot wound had been deep. He's fainting from blood loss. That was his first thought.
"Shion, you alright?"
A pair of lips trembled lightly in the deathly pale face.
"Nezumi... this..." Shion trailed off, and swallowed with some difficulty. "What is this...?"
There was no time to stop. He knew well enough, but the stricken expression on Shion's face drew him to stand by his side. His foot trampled something. It was a wooden photo frame. In the photo was a woman with a baby in her arms and a boy of about ten. It had probably been knocked off a staff member's desk. It was an outdated digital display. Both the woman and the boy were smiling somewhat sheepishly from the photo.
He lifted his gaze, and looked through the glass in front of him.
The space beyond was a storey lower, as if it were embedded in the ground. The ceiling was higher, accordingly. It was a room with white walls.
He had recoiled without even thinking.
Read Chapter 4.