"Thank you. I am grateful." Safu clasped her hands, and bowed her head.
"I don't need any thanks. Destroying the Mother is like shooting the Correctional Facility through the heart. I could have wished with all my might and still not gotten this opportunity. It's worth a try, if this column will really open and expose the Mother, even for a moment."
Nezumi's eyes glittered. It was like the glitter of a finely-sharpened knife.
The control panel lit up without warning. Words emerged in the air. Nezumi gave a short whistle. He placed his fingers on the control panel.
Shion's gaze was focused intently on Nezumi's fingertips. Every time, and at any time, he couldn't help but admire those graceful movements. To Shion, those fingers seemed to play a sweet melody, or breathe life into a lively rhythm.
Every time, and at any time, he couldn't help but admire him.... But this time, his heart was not drawn as strongly as usual.
The restless sounds of his heart refused to disappear. Instead, they echoed even more strongly.
Nezumi's fingers stilled. A silver thread suddenly appeared in the centre of the column. One, two, three, four. The silver threads intersected to form a rectangle.
"The door," Nezumi said. "All you have to say now is 'open sesame'." Perhaps even he was tense; Nezumi's voice was low and somewhat heavy-sounding.
"Wait." Shion grabbed Nezumi's wrist. He could feel the other's body heat and pulse on the palm of his hand. "Just wait for a second."
A shadow crossed Nezumi's eyes. A breath's length of silence.
"Shion, we don't have time to be wishy-washy and hesitant."
"I know. But wait, please... Safu."
Safu's head was still bowed. Her shoulders clad in her black sweater were trembling.
"Safu, you still haven't answered my question. Why are you refusing us? Why aren't you coming any closer?"
"And that sweater... your grandmother hand-knitted that, didn't she? The last time I saw that was a long time ago. I probably wasn't even ten then."
"You're right." Safu broke into a sudden smile. "You were the one to speak to me first. You said it suited me. I was happy... so happy. Everyone else was laughing condescendingly at my hand-knitted sweater. They were saying that you'd only find a wool sweater in a museum these days. But you didn't laugh. You... only you were loyal to your own feelings and emotions, and to others, too. Shion... I was able to meet you in that bleak... even lonely... world of elite education. And that, I think, is very―"
"Stop!" Shion overran Safu's words. "Why are you talking about past memories? That's not what I want to hear. What I want to say is: why are you still able to wear a sweater you got when you were ten? You've grown taller since then, and your frame has changed, too. There's no way you should be able to wear it. Or is that a new sweater that looks exactly the same? But..."
"I wanted you to remember." Safu interrupted Shion this time. "I wanted you to remember me. You said this suited me... so I wanted you to remember me wearing this sweater."
"Remember? Are you telling me to turn you into a memory? Safu, what're you talking about? You're not planning to come along with us?"
"Shion, leave it at that." Nezumi grasped his arm again. This time, he held fast and yanked. It was enough power to make Shion stagger.
Shion tripped, and bumped into Nezumi. Nezumi did not budge.
"That's enough. This is as far as it goes."
"A far as what goes?"
"Don't corner her to distract yourself from your own uncertainty. That's a cowardly thing to do."
Shion felt himself sweating. Nezumi's gaze stabbed at him.
"Shion, you know already, don't you? There's no way you couldn't have realized. And if you have realized... don't avert your eyes from the truth. Averting your eyes and running away isn't going to solve anything. Nothing will change, and nothing will return to the way it was."
It will solve nothing. Nothing will change. Nothing will return to the way it was.
It was difficult to draw a breath. The sweat stung in his eyes.
"Shion, don't run away. At the very least, not now... you can't run away now."
He blinked. He caught Nezumi's gaze. He turned his head, and glanced at Safu.
"...You're saying she's not real... that she's an illusion."
"She's what the Mother is showing us: a virtual reality. Your friend doesn't exist in reality."
Doesn't exist in reality. What is that? What do those words mean?
Shion was close to screaming. Terror welled up from the core of his body. Safu had not run into his outstretched arms. She had not even tried to touch Shion's fingertips.
She had not been able to. She was neither able to embrace nor be embraced.
Doesn't exist in reality.
illusion. An incorporeal illusion.
Nezumi's tone became hurried, though only slightly. "At first I thought it was a trap. But I changed my mind when I realized there would be no point in setting a trap for us now. If it wanted to kill us, it had hundreds, thousands of opportunities to do so. It had a reason to keep us alive and bring us here. The Mother went as far as to borrow Safu's body because it needed to tell us something... that's what I was thinking. What I didn't expect was that it would send us on the task of killing the Mother itself."
"The Mother..." Shion glanced at the sphere covered in protrusions. "It's not the Mother," he shook his head. Nezumi's fingers loosened. "If the Mother had created the virtual image, it would have recreated it true to Safu. It wouldn't take the trouble to pull up the black sweater from Safu's memories. Computers don't have emotions. But Safu chose that sweater out of her own will. It wasn't the Mother... Nezumi, the Mother isn't the one showing Safu to us... it's Safu herself."
"So Safu is using the Mother to project herself?"
"Yeah... isn't that right, Safu? Or is this Elyurias' doing, too?" It sounded so unlike his own voice. Like a cowering beast baring its fangs, desperately raising its voice in aggression. That kind of growl. Twisted and ugly, and fierce but intimidated.
"Yes... Elyurias wakened me. Before then, I felt like I was drifting through a dream... just floating... Elyurias awakened my consciousness, and taught me what I could do. I... can't overrule the Mother. But I can use part of its functions... that's all I can do."
"Where are you? Where are you in reality?"
"Nowhere." Safu's voice turned strained. "I don't exist anywhere anymore."
"That's absurd. Then who made you, standing in front of me like this? Didn't you?"
"I'm not here, Shion. I've already..."
Safu took a step closer. Shion also advanced. He extended his arm straight forward. It touched nothing. His fingers had reached Safu's shoulder, but there was nothing there. Moments ago, he had felt Nezumi's body heat and pulse. That warmth and movement was proof that he was alive.
"I wanted to say good-bye to you. I wanted to say thank you. I was happy all this time... because you were there."
Safu looked up at Shion. A defiant glint shone in her eyes. "I loved you."
"That's my truth. It doesn't matter what you think of me. I loved you, and only that is the truth."
Oh, that's Safu, Shion thought. Firmly-grounded strength, a beautiful resilience like that of a bird in flight: that was Safu.
"If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't have known what it was like to yearn after someone. I would never have known what it meant to love.... I'm glad I was able to know. I was born, and I was able to meet you. I don't regret a single thing. Hm, well, that might be a little bravado. You did tell me once that I had a bad habit putting on a brave face."
Safu's fingers touched Shion's cheek. He didn't feel it on his skin. But he definitely did feel that Safu's fingers had touched him.
"Shion... you think so, too, don't you?"
Safu threw a glance over Shion's shoulder at Nezumi, who was standing behind him.
"You feel the same way I do, don't you? You're glad you were able to know. You wouldn't be able to live anymore without knowing what yearning and love is like."
"...Yeah." You're right, Safu. I know. I came to know No. 6's true face, and the fact that No. 6 existed within me, too. I came to know what it was like for my heart to feel moved for someone, to yearn strongly for someone. I can't go back to when I didn't know. I don't want to go back. I would never want to go back to when I lived peacefully, knowing nothing.
Shion clenched his hand into a hard fist to repress his shaking. But even his fist began to tremble.
"We don't have to go back. There's no need to. Safu, we just need to start off from when we do know. We can start off right now, from this place."
It's a starting point. A beginning, not an end. Right, Safu? We can go on living together. Together...
His eyes fell on the tubes coming out of the Mother.
What is that connected to?
What are those tubes for?
"Please," Safu said, looking intently at Nezumi. "Destroy the Mother."
Nezumi didn't try to avoid Safu's gaze. He met it silently, and nodded his assent. Safu breathed a sigh of relief. It was a breath of real relief, from the bottom of her heart.
"Thank you so much..."
"I'll fulfil the promise. I never break a promise made, no matter what it is."
"Yes... I know. You're that kind of person, aren't you?"
Nezumi faced the control panel again.
The section framed by silver lines glowed faintly red, and slid to the side.
The door had opened.
Nezumi plunged his arm into the opening without a second of hesitation. The control panel prevented him from leaning forward any further. The Mother was out of reach by a very small distance.
A black mouse poked its head out from out of the folds of superfibre. It looked about, then scurried swiftly up to Nezumi's shoulder.
"I'm counting on you."
Nezumi held out the coin-shaped bomb, and Tsukiyo took it in its mouth.
"Nezumi, wait, Wait, please!"
"Can't," Nezumi said flatly. "I'm going to destroy the Mother. I'm not going to wait any longer."
"Don't. Wait, please. Wait. Let me check what's on the other end of those tubes."
"There's no need."
His gaze collided with Nezumi's.
"...Are you saying you know? Where Safu is... and what's on the end of those tubes..."
"You should know, too. You saw it, after all."
The expanse outside this room. It was like a cemetery with rows of transparent gravestones. Gravestones, or coffins? A burial vessel, each one with a human brain inside.
Tsukiyo dashed off at its master's command. It leapt energetically toward the Mother, and landed on top of it.
"Alright, good. Now wedge it right there."
Tsukiyo's movements were swift and smooth. It wedged the coin bomb between two projections, lifted its head, and twitched its nose toward Nezumi as if to wait for further orders.
Tsukiyo hopped into Nezumi's open palm. As he withdrew his arm, the door to the Mother closed in the same silent way that it had opened.
Shion watched the events unfold before him stock-still, rooted to the ground.
Nezumi's eyes looked past Shion.
"Done. Time limit is three minutes. That's the longest I can set the timer for."
"Three minutes... get away, quickly." Safu's tone and gaze tensed. Shion looked from Nezumi to Safu.
"If we're going to escape, you're going to be coming with us."
"Shion, how many times will you make me repeat myself? I can't go. You and Nezumi escape together."
"Go. You don't have a second to waste. Hurry."
When they were students, they had been required to present research for their assignments once a month. When it was Safu's turn to present, some students with the same research topic had made noise and disrupted her on purpose. Even before Shion could stand up to admonish them, Safu had looked straight at those students and thrown a sharp remark.
"You should be ashamed."
The boy who had been at the centre of the noise-making stood up, and scowled exaggeratedly. "We should be ashamed? Are you insulting us?"
"I have no intention at all of insulting you. But regardless of the content, listening to others' research presentations until the end is common courtesy at the least, is it not? Even a three-year-old could do it. But you can't. Something to be ashamed of, isn't it?"
Applause rose from various spots in the classroom. The boy bit his lip, and resumed his seat in silence.
Her slightly flushed cheeks, her wilful gaze, the line of her tightly-drawn chin―the same Safu from that day was standing right in front of him. But he couldn't touch her. He couldn't even escape with her.
That can't be.
"If you're in here―" Shion made a fist, and punched the column as hard as his strength allowed. "―I'll get you out. We're going together, Safu."
No matter what you may look like.
"Stop!" Safu shrieked. "Stop, stop. Anything but that!" She raised both her hands as if to block Shion's vision. "Anything but that... Shion, please. Just don't... don't do anything cruel like that... don't."
Safu was truly afraid. Fear radiated from her words and her gaze.
"If I was going to be seen by you like this... I would never have hoped for you. I wouldn't have wished to see you again."
"Shion, I'll say this again. I don't exist anymore, but I'm still trapped. It's painful. Very. I can't― I can't bear any more of this humiliation. So please, destroy the Mother. Set me free."
He couldn't think.
Numerous white lines ran through his head, cutting off the circuits of his thoughts.
"Come on." Nezumi pulled at his arm. "Safu, I want you to secure the escape route for us until the very last minute."
Safu broke into a run. She collided right into Shion. He instinctively tried to embrace her, but her body passed through him with no impact whatsoever. He didn't even feel a faint breeze.
I'm an illusion. Nothing more than a mirage. This spoke to him more meaningfully than a million words put together.
Suddenly, an alarm went off. It rang out across the entire Correctional Facility.
Emergency alert. Emergency alert.
Level 5, Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
He pursued Safu with Nezumi still holding his arm. Half of his mind had ceased to work, and he could neither accept reality, nor make an appropriate judgment. He couldn't even assess the current situation.
All three of us are escaping together. Me, Nezumi, Safu―three of us, alive, in the flesh. We're running to stand underneath the sun again. Yes, that has to be it.
The cogwheels creaked in his head. Emitting a strange metallic sound, they turned, stopped, turned backwards, and stopped again.
Creak creak creak, creak creak creak...
His torn thought circuits mended once, then were cut apart and scattered asunder; then they solidified, and turned sticky.
All three of us are escaping. We'll be able to get out. We can get away. We can go back to that place I yearn for again.
I yearn, I yearn, I yearn, I yearn... for that place that has burned itself into my eyes, engraved itself into my soul. Not No. 6, of course, but that room. The place that brought me back to life, and allowed me to be born again.
I want to show Safu that room, where Nezumi lives.
Safu, you wouldn't believe this place. There's almost nothing in it apart from books. There's a chair. There's a kerosene heater, a bed... and the little mice. Just those. You'll probably stand there in astonishment, open your eyes wide, and look around the place again and again. You'd reach out and gently place your fingers on the piles of books. And then... and then, what would you do? Would you smile? Would you cry out in awe? Would you be so overwhelmed that you would only stand dazed?
Then, I'd tell you: 'This was my starting point.'
That room was where I started off. I took a cautious step out of the bounds of my ignorance, led along by Nezumi. Like a baby who touches the outside world for its first time, I stepped out into a world I didn't know about. I want to show that place to you. I want you to see it, too.
Oh, and Inukashi. I need to introduce Inukashi to you. He's the greatest―such a jovial and wonderful person. You could probably get friendly with him in no time. Inukashi can really understand, you know. He can sniff out the true nature of people. No matter how well you disguise yourself, he always notices the arrogance and foolishness under your disguise.
'I have a good nose, particularly when it comes to the smell of rot. It can be meat, leftover food, or someone's rotten intentions, but I'll smell it out in no time. Can't hide nothing from me.'
He said that to me once, and he's right. Inukashi will sniff out anything. It's pretty amazing. And that's why I think he'll like you. He definitely will. He'll twitch the tip of his nose, and he'll say:
'Hmmm. Shion, this girl is pretty fresh. She looks good to eat. I know for sure I wouldn't have to worry about getting food poisoning if I did.'
And he'll smirk. He has a very rough way of speaking, and―yeah, it'll probably surprise you until you get used to it... but Inukashi never lies. He won't turn against his own heart. He's someone you can trust with your whole being. You'll come to understand and accept the way he is.
Ha ha, I can almost imagine you stretching your hand out to Inukashi, and him taking it gingerly with a sullen look on his face. And I'd probably be watching, trying not to laugh.
Then, there's Rikiga-san. He's quite older, and he and my mother actually knew each other. Isn't that a surprise?
Rikiga-san also has a rough way of speaking. He also has bad drinking habits. He's a big drinker, and he'll drink for almost the entire day. Nezumi and Inukashi always tease him about that. But I listen to the way they tease him, and it's sometimes so harsh I feel bad for him. It's true that he drinks too much, though. But―how would I describe it?―he has his own likeable traits. Rikiga-san has his own passions and emotions, too, and I can feel them from him. He's the type of person that doesn't exist in No. 6. You'd agree, right? There's no one in that city who would show their emotions so openly. Nezumi says that all that drinking has loosened Rikiga's stopper on his emotions to the point that they're constantly gushing out into the open for everyone to see... and yes, Nezumi's got quite a sharp tongue too. One that would match Inukashi's.
There's also a girl named Kalan. That's right, she has the same name as my mother. She's the first friend I made in the West Block. She's still a little girl, but she's strong and smart with a sense of pride. She loves picture books, and I've read them aloud to her lots of times. It had been so long since I read picture books.
And above all, I have to tell you about Nezumi. I want you to know about him. Four years ago on a stormy night, I met him. Ever since then, I feel like I've been captured by him. When I'm with him, I lose sight of myself. No, that's not it. I'm illuminated vividly. Maybe I'm blinded for an instant because that light is so bright. That's how much my vision had deteriorated. It was so weak, I couldn't even discern myself, my surroundings, or the truth. Safu, his―Nezumi's gaze and words pierce me. They shoot through me, batter me, and save me. By his hands, I was melted, wrought anew, and instilled with new life.
Safu, Safu you are my one and only, irreplaceable friend. You're an important friend, and no one else could compare.
Is that word so cruel? Is the love you have for me, and the feelings I have for you forever parallel, with no chance of intersecting?
Why are you such a kid?
You seemed weary when you said that. And you're right. I'm so immature, I'm embarrassed at myself. I can't restrain my emotions. If only I could love you the way you wished me to... my one and only, so dear to me...
The cogwheels turned. They continued to jerk, producing an unpleasant sound.
Creak creak creak, creak creak creak...
All three of us are escaping. I know we can get out.
They slipped hastily past the cylindrical columns. It was still and quiet. Only two sets of footsteps―Nezumi's and Shion's―echoed.
The crimson door opened. They could see the deserted hallway. The three doors were completely shut, and there was no sign of any human presence.
Safu's feet stopped.
"Go, hurry." She pointed straight at the elevator. "I'll operate it for as long as I can, up to the time limit."
"Gotcha." Nezumi stepped into the hallway. He was still holding onto Shion's arm.
"Safu, you too."
"This is as far as I'll go. Shion, thank you, and good-bye. Nezumi, you as well." Safu smiled.
The door closed again.
"Safu, wait, Safu―"
He was grabbed by the shoulder, and forced to turn around. A fist dug into his stomach.
"Gh―" he could hear himself emit a low groan. His body sank, and collapsed into Nezumi's arms. He didn't lose consciousness, but for an instant, his limbs went numb. He could not move.
He was being dragged to the elevator. He could feel Nezumi's laboured breathing and the beating of his heart. The elevator opened as if to summon them inside. Nezumi muttered something. Shion couldn't hear. He tripped, staggered, and they tumbled into the elevator with Nezumi still holding onto Shion.
The elevator descended rapidly.
The security alarm was still going off.
Emergency alert. Emergency alert.
Level 5. Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
All personnel, evacuate immediately.
Level 5. Level 5.
Emergency evacuation. Emergency evacuation.
"―Safu," Shion choked, still thrown out onto the floor. Nezumi also crouched, breathing raggedly.
I can't stand any more, he thought. Both his body and soul had withered. They were withered dry, yet so heavy. He felt like lead had been poured into him, down to the tips of his hair. He couldn't move anything.
"Don't... make noise yet." Nezumi's voice. It was coming from somewhere high above his head. Echoing somewhere far, far in the distance.
Nezumi, what am I here for? Why am I here, collapsed in weakness, unable to move? Where is Safu? Why did you leave her? Tell me. 'Don't cling onto to others. Grasp your own answers,' you'd probably say. You scorn people who cling to others too easily. I feel shame at my weakness. But this time, please just tell me the answer. Give me the correct one.
Why am I here? Why am I here, having left Safu behind? Tell me. Tell me, Nezumi.
I cling to you.
The elevator came to an abrupt stop, and his body was thrown up by the impact, and flung across the floor again. The door opened partway, and then ceased to move. The lights went out.
He could hear thunder from far-off. A second impact hit him shortly afterwards. It was much heavier than the first one.
Thunder? No. It's nothing like that. This is―
An explosion jammed his ears. Darkness bore down on him.
Holding his hands over his ears, Shion raised a voiceless cry.
The elevator closed. It began its descent.
Safu stood silently, watching it leave.
Suddenly, a gentle voice rang out in her ears.
"It's you, Elyurias." Her eyes roved, but of course, she saw nothing. She could not see, but she could feel.
Safu, was this the right thing to do? Are you truly satisfied?
Safu tilted her head in uncertainty. She put a hand to her chest. Tears sprang unexpectedly into her eyes.
I want to raise my voice and cry.
Shion―Shion, you're gone.
You came all the way here for me. I thought that would be enough, but what am I feeling? What is this rush of emotion?
Shion, Shion, why is he the one beside you? Why isn't it me? Why did fate not allow me to live alongside you? If he wasn't here, would you have loved me instead?
You may not have been able to live together, but you could have died together.
Safu lifted her face, and clasped her hands together at her breast.
Safu, you did not wish for that?
In truth, in truth, had I wished... that you would die with me, that you would expire here with me... Shion?
She shook her head. She did not wish for that. Even now, she did not wish for it a tiny bit. She wanted him to be alive. She wanted him to live, and change this world. She wanted him to create a world in which no one was forced to die such an unfair death.
Shion, live. Live out your life. Please.
"Elyurias, what will you do?"
Me? What will I do...?
"Yes. You've been set free, too. What will you do from here?"
Laughter rang out. It sounded like the wind crossing a grassy plain.
You watch and see what I will do.
Safu shuddered. It was no breeze from the plains; she felt like she was being hit by a frigid wind mixed with sleet. A chill wind, signalling the arrival of the coldest days of the winter.
Safu, I liked you. Perhaps... perhaps my meeting a human like you will prove to mean very much to me.
"What do you mean?"
I wonder what? Oh, it's time. I must go. Good-bye, Safu.
Yes, it was time. Safu closed her eyes. She felt the warm rays of the sun and smelled the fragrance of the trees. She was able to let a faint smile play on her lips.
Read Chapter 2.