Are you sad?
"Are you sad?"
"Yes, I am."
"You're not really, are you?"
"No, I'm not."
-Hoshi Shin'ichi, "Bokko-chan", Short Short 1001
Two conveyer belts were running. Humans lay on them. Someone had put them there.
They were not alive. He could tell clearly even from where he stood behind the glass.
Bodies. Several dozen, maybe even a hundred, were being carried down. A half-moon shaped device of enormous size was operating beyond.
The bodies were sucked in one after another into two square openings. It seemed like the glass was of a special kind, for he could hear nothing of what was occurring on the other side.
There were men. Women. Children and adults. Clothed and naked. Their statures, ages, and sexes ranged broadly.
"Why are their heads... all..." The words stuck in his throat. They became a lump that blocked his airway.
The top half of the head had been cut away from every corpse. A translucent plastic dome had been placed on top instead. Men and women, children and adults―all had been fitted with bowl-shaped plastic from the forehead up.
"―Samples," Shion said, heaving a breath with his shoulders. "They're samples."
"What do you mean?"
"Brains... they needed human brains as samples."
"―So these bodies have all had their brains removed?"
"Yeah― I think so. And I think they've all finished serving their purpose. So―"
"They're being disposed of."
This time, Nezumi was the one to swallow hard.
The half-moon-shaped device at the other end of the belt: was that for disposing the corpses? Did it burn them instantly to ashes? Did it grind them up and then dry them into dust? Or did it use some special chemical to melt them right down to their bones?
The bodies were being sucked in.
People who had been alive just moments before―living, speaking, crying, loving one another―were being disposed of like trash.
How... how could... No. 6, how could you be so cruel? How could you have turned out to be so ruthless?
"They're not humans." Shion's voice reached his ears. It was no whisper. It was crisp and clear. "This isn't any human deed." His fist pounded the reinforced glass.
This isn't any human deed.
But the staff clad in white had been standing here conversing only moments earlier. They had been sipping a warm drink from their mugs. They had been engrossed in their work.
Are they all monsters?
Nezumi's eye caught the photograph at his feet.
The smiling woman, the smiling boy. The sleeping baby.
'Look, look over here. Smile, come on!'
'Daddy, I'll take a picture next.'
'Honey, make sure you get the baby, too.'
He could almost hear the family's conversation―so typical, yet so precious all the same.
Is the guy who had this propped up on his desk a monster, too?
He felt a presence. The enemy approaching.
Nezumi felt like someone had struck him on the cheek. He was wide awake. He yanked Shion by the arm, and burst out into the hallway.
We gotta run, Shion. We can't let ourselves die here.
His whole body reared its arms in order to survive. His thoughts, his senses, his fingertips, even each hair of his head acted solely for his survival.
We cannot die.
"Right!" Shion's calm orders sliced the air. "Thirty metres to the right."
Thirty to the right. There was no time to think about what was there. Strangely, the barriers were not coming down. But he also had no time to think about why.
Run. Wait, never mind.
Soldiers appeared before them.
"Squat down! Curl up!" Nezumi tossed the coin-shaped bomb across the floor, and fired at it. There was an ear-splitting explosion. Shattered glass sprayed everywhere.
"We're going in!"
There was no way out if they let themselves be surrounded. In the face of a firing squad, they had no chance at all. They had no choice but to charge into the thick.
"Don't leave my side."
A broken sprinkler was spraying water left and right. Nezumi leapt into the knot of drenched soldiers.
He swung the blade of his hand against a soldier's throat, and stabbed his knife into another as he spun around. As the soldier clutched his shoulder and fell forward, Nezumi extracted a military knife from the man's waist belt and slashed the wrist of another enemy that was coming his way. A handgun fell and clattered loudly across the floor as blood and water mixed and flowed together.
None of the soldiers uttered a word. They remained silent and carried highly harmful military firearms in addition to the laser guns, which were still in the stages of development. They were silent, swift, and precise in their kill. They had probably been trained that way.
But when it comes to handling knives, I'm the better one.
In hand-to-hand combat, lower-tech firearms would be much more effective than high-tech weapons. Also, in certain situations, a knife would probably be much more useful than the most up-to-date gun. Especially if he could wield the knife as if it were one of his own limbs.
After seeing three of their comrades defeated in the blink of an eye, the rest of the soldiers lost the fluidity of their movements. This was a retaliation they had not expected. Stiffness was a weak point, and Nezumi aimed squarely at it. He twisted the arm of the soldier in front of him, and pressed his knife to the man's throat from behind.
"Don't move." He licked his lips, and commanded the rest of the soldiers.
"Throw away your guns, or consider this guy dead."
The soldiers bolted back a step at once.
Will it go well? Could I make my escape, using this guy as a shield?
"Yeah. You moved so fast, I don't think any of the guys had a chance to turn on me."
"Perfect. Now use this guy as a shield, and―"
There was a burst of applause.
"Magnificent show. But that's quite enough."
The soldiers immediately parted, as if those words had been a signal. A man threaded his way in from between them. He stood before the two boys, and raised his right hand airily.
"Enough fun and games. VC103221 and Shion, was it?"
Shion let out a cry.
"You know him?" Nezumi asked. "Don't tell me he's your uncle or something."
"He's an Investigating Officer from the Security Bureau―called Rashi."
"So you remembered me," the man said. "An honour. Luck seems to bring us together quite frequently, doesn't it? You've grown tougher since I saw you last. I would never have expected you to come infiltrating the Correctional Facility. I'm shocked, to tell you the truth. However, I am happy to see you again."
"Why thank you," Shion said guardedly. "I wasn't expecting to see you here, either. I'm surprised, too."
"Yes, yes, about that. To tell you the truth, my real profession is a military training instructor. Excuse me for not properly introducing myself last time."
"Get his business card, Shion. It'll come in handy when you're job-hunting."
Rashi twisted one side of his mouth into a smile.
"A way with words, as usual, boy. But your way with the knife is even better than your tongue. Admirable. I would never have expected you to take control of my subordinates so easily. Ah, simply brilliant. Worthy of praise. I would even consider recruiting you."
"A tantalizing proposal, but I have to refuse," Nezumi said. "What's this military training you're talking about, huh? Does target practice include shooting prisoners?"
Rashi chuckled. "We have that, too. Or we have training sessions where we exterminate foolish rats that have wandered in."
Nezumi twisted the soldier's arm with even greater force. "Throw away your guns and clear the way," he said.
Rashi shook his head. "You two are brilliant. Not anyone can get as far as this. Brilliant, indeed. But unfortunately, you are also young."
Rashi slowly raised his right hand. "Your plan is not well-thought out to the end."
A gun barrel was pointed their way.
"Stop!" The soldier twisted desperately. Nezumi let his arm go. A bullet pierced the soldier as he staggered forward. His wounded body crashed to the ground. Water poured on him from the ceiling. The soldier raised his face, and his gaze wandered as if he were searching for something. Then, he called.
The voice reached Nezumi's ears.
To kill a subordinate so easily...
Then a savage pain tore through his shoulder and leg.
Shion's arms caught him from behind. The water caught both their feet, and they toppled to the floor. Pain raced through his whole body.
"...ts..." Nezumi gritted his teeth. Sweat poured off his body, and his heart thudded rapidly.
"Come, come. Superfibre may be amazing, but it's useless if you don't wrap it properly. You can't hold a knife anymore, can you? Nor can you hop or dart around. Now you're finally quiet. I've had a splendid time, but the games are over, 103221."
Over? Does it all end here?
Rashi furrowed his brow, and sighed.
"I wasn't expecting to be met with so much trouble. A shame, really. A shame that I must to kill you, but―it cannot be helped. I won't draw it out longer than it has to be. I will respect your efforts in battle and I will let you go in peace. A bullet per person should do the job."
"Compassionate... aren't you?" Nezumi said.
"Do you have any last words?"
Is this really the end?
Suddenly, the sprinklers stopped. The barriers began to come down at once. A buzz of anxiety ran through the crowd of soldiers. Rashi's gaze also roved.
It was their chance. They would take advantage of this opening and steal that gun. A chance to return from the brink of death―but his body would not move.
"What's going on?"
"The barriers are just beginning to work."
"That's absurd, why―"
"Run! We'll be trapped!"
Once the barriers came down completely, a high-voltage current would run through the sealed space. No one would survive.
"Run! Get out of here!"
The soldiers broke into a run, with wounded comrades in their arms.
"Sir, the walls are coming down. Hurry!" A soldier stopped, turned around, and yelled. "Sir!"
The walls were coming down―coming straight down. Nezumi felt like his shoulder was on fire. He pressed a hand to his open wound, and smiled wanly.
"He's calling you. Don't you need to go?"
"After I get rid of you two."
The barrel of his gun was pointed straight at Nezumi's heart. Shion's arm slid around his chest from behind, as if he were trying to protect him. Nezumi placed his hand on top. Shion's arm was covered in dirt and blood.
I see. So I am going to die with you.
He leaned back onto Shion and let out a long breath. The tension left his body.
But he would not close his eyes.
He would behold the world before him with a steady gaze until his last moments.
Shion's arm tightened around him.
I won't close my eyes. Not until the last moment―
He heard a gunshot right beside him. It was a muffled sound, as if he were underwater. Red flowers bloomed on Rashi's shirt. Petals flew all around.
Rashi staggered back a few steps before leaning heavily with his back against the wall. He slid to the ground. Crimson petals also fluttered from his lips.
Nezumi drew a breath, but could not release it.
Those aren't flower petals. ―It's blood.
Blood had sprayed the wall. It was like someone had carelessly hurled red paint at it. Rashi bowed his head. A startling amount of blood poured out and dyed his lower body.
What―? What just happened?
A scream. Then, the wall closed it off completely. For a moment, it was like a soundless void. A brief moment of quiet peace. He could breathe out now, and he could pull himself up.
"...Shion?" He twisted his head to look at the boy who was cradling him. "Shion―oh―"
He could breathe out, but no words would come. His heart was beating harder, more frantic and fast.
Shion's hand was wrapped around a gun. A small-calibre semi-automatic pistol. It was an official military-issue pistol that could shoot even through a bullet-proof vest. Just earlier, Nezumi himself had swiped it out of the soldier's hands and battered it to the ground.
The smoke from the gun wavered in the air. The sharp smell of gunpowder pricked his nostrils. Sweat stung his eyes. His mouth turned dry, and his tongue stiffened. He could hear the sound of it tearing as he forced it to move.
"Shion... what have you..."
Shion withdrew his arm from Nezumi, and stood up. He slowly made his way towards Rashi.
"Ngh..." Rashi groaned. He lifted his face, and his body trembled slightly.
"...You amateur..." A barely audible murmur trickled from his lips, along with a stream of blood. "At least... aim... for a fatal spot..."
"I have something to ask you," Shion said, with gun still in hand. It was a low voice, stripped of all emotion. "Why didn't you activate the barriers immediately?"
"...They wouldn't move..."
"So they weren't functioning."
"...I don't know..."
"You and your people would have paused the barrier system temporarily before coming here, just in case. But this time, they started moving on their own... am I right so far?"
Rashi quaked as he looked up at Shion imploringly.
"...Please. Put me to rest."
Tears spilled from his eyes.
"Answer me," Shion said.
"...Yes... out of control... cause unknown..."
"Out of control. Cause unknown..." Shion repeated thoughtfully.
"I know... nothing... Shion, I beg you... hurry... put me to rest... save me..."
"Save you?" Shion's shoulders twitched. "I heard those same words just earlier. In the basement of this building."
It was then that Nezumi was finally able to stand. Blood streamed from his shoulder and leg, but he felt no pain.
He had to stand up. He had to grab Shion's arm. He had to stop him.
Shion, what the hell are you trying to do?
His legs gave way. He tripped and landed on his knees. A soldier's corpse was lying right beside him. It was a young man. He had black, frizzy hair and was wearing a golden necklace. It was glittering. 'Mother'―it was almost like his last word was still plastered to his lips.
"You people threw this man into the basement. He was a victim of the Hunt. He couldn't die, so he came begging to me. 'Help me,' he said. When this man was writhing in agony, what were you doing? Drinking coffee? Taking a bath? Giving a lecture?"
"...Please... put me... it hurts..."
"I couldn't save him."
"I couldn't save anyone."
Shion's right arm rose slowly.
A gunshot rang out.
Nezumi closed his eyes, and turned away. The smell of gunpowder grew stronger. Mixed with the stench of blood, the air grew thick and viscous. It was a stench he was used to―almost too used to―and yet, he still felt like throwing up. He couldn't bear it.
He didn't want to open his eyes.
If he did, he would have to face reality. He wanted to keep his eyes closed, and escape to a place that was not here.
I don't want to see it.
- Translated by me. (back)