"Don't tell me the whole building is going to collapse." The excitement faded from Rikiga's voice, and uncertainty crept in.
"All's good and well if it collapses," Inukashi replied. "Once this place becomes a mountain of rubble, I'll be the first to plant a memorial tree." I'll plant one for Getsuyaku, my black dog, and the countless people who were murdered here. A tree that'll grow huge and bloom with pure white flowers.
"You sounded so happy the other day wishing this place would come falling down, old man," he added.
"Inukashi, think really hard about it. If this building collapses completely, the gold bullion underground will be buried along with it. It's going to be a hell of a lot of work digging it back up."
Inukashi stared at Rikiga. The man's face was earnest.
"Old man... did you really believe that?"
"The story about the gold bullion. Do you actually believe it's down there?"
Rikiga's eyes wandered. His throat contracted.
"Inukashi, what are you joking about now? Of course it's there. My information sources are trustworthy. There's no room for doubt."
"Okay, if you say so," Inukashi said indifferently. "Who was your source again? Ann or Oon or something like that, right?"
"Sulu, the redheaded beauty. She heard it directly from a high official of No. 6, in bed. No doubt about it. This tip isn't a dud."
"Is that how it goes?"
"Yeah. You might not know, since you're still a snot-nosed kid and all you deal with are dogs. The thing about men is that they can't lie to women after the deed. Wives are a different story, but men don't lie to women they buy. They don't need to."
"That's why they accidentally spill the beans about confidential stuff they'd never talk about."
"That's right. So you do understand."
"And can you trust this Sulu woman?"
"I sure can. I pressed her over and over about whether this story was true. Sulu said she definitely heard it. She's sure of it, and so am I."
"Are you two together, old man?"
"None of your business, kid. Inappropriate subject matter for children. As a well-meaning adult, I refuse to answer. No comment."
"Anything that comes out of your mouth is inappropriate, old man," Inukashi retorted. "Any well-meaning intentions of yours are probably dissolved in alcohol by now. You're as inappropriate as adults get. I would never want my baby around you."
"Back to the topic," Rikiga said impatiently. "How does my relationship with Sulu have anything to do with what we're talking about?"
"To get straight to the point, I'll just say that between you and Nezumi, Nezumi would get girls a lot more easily. Yeah, I think ninety-nine out of a hundred... no, all hundred girls would rather sleep with Nezumi than you. Of course. And I don't think Sulu is an exception."
Rikiga's brows furrowed theatrically.
"Inukashi, what are you trying to say? Stop trying to beat around the bush. Do me a favour and be clearer about it."
"Clearer, huh. Well, there's not much to say, anyway. Say I'm Sulu, and I love to watch plays, and I get totally hooked onto this good-looking actor called Eve. If he whispered into my ear with that sultry voice of his, what would I do? I think I'd be pretty eager to feed false information to a certain beer-bellied old man, no matter if he was my ex-boyfriend or not. Just a thought," Inukashi said offhandedly.
Rikiga swallowed hard. He opened his mouth and started panting like a dog in scorching heat.
"How―no, how―why would Eve ask Sulu to do that? Th―there's no plausible reason―"
"To manipulate you, old man. Actually, maybe I was part of the plan, too. He wanted to draw us in by hinting to us about some gold bullion. It's the easiest and most effective way. Doesn't it sound like something he'd think of? He's unbeatable when it comes to being wily. He's astonishingly smart. I'm actually really impressed."
Rikiga stood still and speechless for a good while.
"Inukashi... when did you realize that?"
"When? I dunno. I think from the moment I heard you got the tip from a pretty girl, Nezumi was in the back of my mind. Hah, I guess that means I know a little bit more than you about Nezumi's true identity, huh? Not much to brag about, though."
"If you knew, why did you still come? Why are you putting your life in danger to do this?"
"Because there's gold bullion."
"I actually don't know why I'm not curled up quietly in my nest right now. I really don't know. It's just―something I thought would never break is breaking. Something I thought would never change is gonna be turned upside down. It's almost as amazing as a mountain of gold. And God's not making that miracle―humans are. An airheaded boy and the fraud of the century. Doesn't it give you a thrill? It gave me a thrill. That's why I decided to act on my own. I wasn't gonna wait 'til someone changed things. I'm gonna go ahead and do it. I wanna think that I have a role in changing the world. Nezumi and Shion threw that opportunity down right in front of me. They said, 'How long do you plan on curling up there and pretending you don't notice?' and tossed the bait in front of me. Bait that's bigger than gold."
"And you latched onto it knowing you were being tricked."
"I guess you can say that."
"I see... so you got in on it and tricked me, too. What a shameful day for Almighty Mr. Rikiga. I've been strung along by a couple of brats. I've grown old. I think it's really hitting home now that my life is entering its retirement stage."
"Hey man, don't be so down about it. It's just my guess. I think it's about ninety-percent right, though. There's always the possibility that Sulu seriously had the hots for you, and she gave you the gift of juicy information."
"Serious about me, huh... impossible." Rikiga gave a great sigh, and slumped his shoulders. True to his word, he suddenly looked like he had aged by many years. "So what do you plan to do now?" he looked up at Inukashi, and exhaled again.
"Me? I'm gonna wait."
"For Eve and Shion?"
"Yeah. Nezumi told me to wait here. What other choice do I have?"
"Like a loyal dog waiting for its master."
"More like a cunning fox preying on a field mouse."
"Where are they coming back from? From that half-open door?"
"Who knows? I can't read that far into it. I don't think even Nezumi would know. They're gambling for all or nothing―there's no way they can foresee that far. Climaxes are best left in the dark, anyway. So what are you gonna do, old man?"
Rikiga sighed yet another time. His back was hunched and his posture was truly that of an old man, though Inukashi wasn't sure if he was doing it on purpose.
"I'll wait," he replied. "Feeling like a loyal dog."
"Even if the gold bullion was a lie?" Inukashi was a little surprised. He had been almost certain that Rikiga would beeline right out of this room as soon as he found out that the gold bullion was an illusion.
Here, you don't know what's gonna happen next. There's no way of guessing what kind of danger is coming, and when it'll come.
Anyone with some smarts would get the hell outta here and go back home. And Rikiga's not stupid. He might be prone to wandering off, blinded by greed, but he's got the smarts it takes to survive. If not, he wouldn't be able to hoard money in a place like the West Block.
Rikiga only got involved in things that benefited him. Emotions and sense of duty were not in his criteria for taking action―only potential wealth was. This was Rikiga's philosophy of life, and Inukashi agreed with it. That was why he was taken by surprise.
"Why're you gonna wait, old man?" he questioned sincerely. He was truly curious.
"Because I can't move."
"Can't move? Doesn't look like you're hurt to me."
"I'm out of breath, and my heart is palpitating. My legs and back are shot. I have no choice but to rest here. Besides, there's nothing to prove that you're a hundred percent right. Sulu's tip might be a good one after all."
"You're saying Mr. Gold Bullion is just sitting on his ass under our feet."
"Yeah. I've come this far believing in it. There's no way I'm going to leave with nothing. If it comes to this, I'll clean out the Correctional Facility of anything that's worth money. And I'll get you and Eve to help. For free. I'm not taking complaints."
Inukashi shrugged, and turned aside. He wasn't convinced that Rikiga was telling the truth. What was he waiting for? What was he staying behind for? Inukashi was sure even Rikiga himself did not know the answer. He knew at least that it was probably not because of his palpitating heart, his shortness of breath, or the gold bullion, which was nothing but an illusion.
So whaddaya know, the old man actually believes that they're coming back. Inukashi meant to sneer, but ended up compressing his lips.
Changes are happening inside the Correctional Facility. It's almost time. They're almost coming back.
In the dark, Inukashi quietly balled his hand into a fist.
"It's delicious," Renka sighed. "I didn't know hot tea could taste so nice."
"More sugar? They say sweet tea soothes you when you're tired." Karan placed the pot of sugar in front of Renka. It was something she had bought to celebrate the opening of her store. It was a small and cheap pot, but it was Karan's favourite.
Renka pinched her tear ducts.
"Karan―thank you. I'm so glad you're here. Thank you."
"Oh, Renka, don't cry." Karan placed a hand on Renka's knee, and added strength to her tone. "You have Lili. Don't cry. Be strong."
Lili, who had been looking up at her mother with concern, gripped the cup in her hands tightly. Karan knew how harsh it was to reprimand Renka and tell her to be strong when she was so overwhelmed with uncertainty and exhaustion. "Be strong"; "smarten up"; "try your hardest"―at times, words of encouragement from others hurt the soul much more brutally than insults.
I'm at my limit. What am I supposed to try harder at?
Karan herself had come close to screaming so. How ruthless, how shallow, how crude they were―such superficial words of encouragement or reproach. I know. But I have to say them.
"Renka, you have Lili and the baby in your womb. You're a mother―you have to be strong. You could cry any other time. But now isn't the time to let your feelings go, is it? You have to pull yourself together."
Renka blinked, and swallowed her breath. Then, she straightened her back.
"As long as you understand. Be careful next time."
Lili's gaze darted between her mother and Karan.
"Ma'am, you're Mommy's senpai?"
Renka gently drew her daughter's shoulder close. "Yes, she is. My senpai in life. I'd want her to teach me a lot more things in the future."
"Ma'am, you must be really old."
Karan and Renka looked at each other, and burst out laughing almost simultaneously.
"How mean of you, Lili," Karan exclaimed. "That's not true. Your mommy and I are only―oh, we're eight years apart. I guess I am pretty old."
"Oh, Karan!" Renka laughed, and softly brushed the tears from her eyes. "No, Karan, I really am thankful. Who knows what would have happened if I was alone. I would probably be bawling from anxiety."
"You're not that weak," Karan said firmly. "You would have gotten your strength back as a mother without me telling you to. And―you know, Renka, this might seem like a temporary fix, but why don't we wait a little longer for Getsuyaku-san? I feel like it's too soon to give up hope."
Perhaps it was really just a temporary fix, something to disguise the truth. But sometimes, you needed that something to ease your conscience, something to mask the grim truth. Like a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea.
Renka put her cup down, and nodded slowly.
"Yes, yes... you're right. It's too soon to give up hope... absolutely right. I'll wait for him a little longer. Maybe he'll come home tomorrow."
"Right." Karan almost sighed. As long as Renka could not confirm Getsuyaku's safety, she would have to keep waiting for her husband, and Lili for her father.
It was too soon to lose hope. Yet hope without direction was a painful thing.
Karan felt Renka clasp her hand. Renka's fingers were warm and soft.
"Karan, I won't be defeated. Even if by some chance, he doesn't―Getsuyaku doesn't come home... the two of us will live―no, the three of us will live together. I'm going to give birth to Getsuyaku's child. I'll have his baby, and I'll raise it proper."
Strength shone in Renka's gaze. No hint of her previous tears remained.
"I have people like you who support me, so I'll be alright. I'll do what I have to do. I'm a mother, after all."
"Renka!" Karan circled her arms around Renka's slender neck. "You're an incredible mother. The best."
Look at us, Fate. Look how strong we can be. We won't be swallowed up. We'll hold our ground and keep on living. O Fate, No. 6, we won't submit; we won't be trampled on.
"Karan, there's one other person I'm actually concerned about." Renka's tone turned heavy.
"Yoming, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's my brother... I'm wondering what he's trying to do. I just have this nagging feeling that―has he come here?"
"Yes, he has."
"What was he like?"
"Well, let me see... he seemed to be worked up."
They heard a scream. It was from outside; it came from the direction of the front entrance. It was followed by what sounded like someone falling down. Karan stood up and hastened to the door. She peered through the blinds. A group of men were squatting under a street lamp. A chubby woman was cradling one of the men in her arms. Karan remembered her. Her name was Koka, and she ran a tavern. The young man in her arms looked like her second son. He was a boisterous youth and a spitting image of his mother, and was dedicated to his job at the tavern and helping his mother out. Once in a while, he dropped by Karan's shop. Last time, he had bought all the butter rolls on the shelf, laughing and saying it was because his mother adored them. Karan did not know his real name, but she remembered hearing him being called "Good Guy Appa".
Half of Appa's face was covered in blood, and he was slumped against his mother's arm with his eyes closed. He did not stir. He did not seem to be breathing.
Karan burst out into the street.
"Koka, what's the matter?"
"Oh, Karan! My son―they got my son."
"Who did it?"
One of the men swung his fist in the air. "The army. The army shot at us with guns."
Karan felt a jolt as if she had been hit by lightning. She thought for a minute that she had been the one to collapse noisily on the road. But in reality, she had clasped her hands tightly together, willed her legs to stand fast, and was holding her ground.
I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.
"Army? What are you talking about? There's no such thing as an army!" Koka wailed through her tears.
"There wasn't supposed to be, but there was. They weren't dressed like Security Bureau officials. They were in military gear. And―and those guys, they... they started firing at us..."
"Wait!" Karan said sharply. "Give me more details. You went to city hall, didn't you?"
"Yeah. There was a summons through the Internet. We were on the move because of it."
"It was about this scary, mysterious illness. All these citizens are dying, and yet the authorities aren't doing anything. And get this―the mayor and all the big-shots have vaccinated themselves already, and plan to abandon the rest of us. How could we let that pass? That's why we stormed the Moondrop. You should have seen the amount of people there. It looked like they came out from all over the city. Even Chronos residents. We formed one huge mob and headed for the Moondrop. Our plan was to get inside and see the mayor. That's what the message told us to do. It told us to protect our own lives, and get our hands on that vaccine. And that wasn't the only thing."
The man swallowed, and shook his fist even more furiously.
"We've been mistreated all this time. Our living conditions aren't even half as good―no, even a tenth as good―as people living in Chronos. Even though we're the same citizens. All this time we'd given up, thinking it couldn't be helped. We all thought we had no choice but to bear with it. But I've had enough of that. A horrible disease is going around right now; I'm not gonna be left behind with no means of dealing with it."
Another man got to his feet. Blood soaked through the cloth wrapped around his forehead.
"Yeah, that's right! Some consideration they must have for us!"
"Let me hear your story properly," Karan said. "So you all stormed the Moondrop. There were a lot of people, and the army suddenly materialized there. Is that what you're saying?"
"That's right. I was surprised, I tell ya. They even had tanks. It was a weird kind of vehicle with a dull gold colour. I think they're called tanks, at least. First time in my life I've seen them... but I'm pretty sure. And in front of them, a huge row of armed soldiers were lined up... lined up, saying, 'This is a warning. Vacate this area immediately.' And they repeated it a couple times. 'This is a warning. Vacate this area immediately.'"
Fear flashed in the man's eyes.
"We didn't leave, though, obviously. Some people tried to escape, but a lot of others were screaming to keep pressing forward. So we just―I mean, we never expected to be attacked. We're citizens. And like I said, the people there weren't only from Lost Town or other districts; Chronos residents were there as well. Elites, and their families. I never even considered... that the city would use military force against its people."
"But the city did," Karan said softly. All too easily, it had pulled the trigger at its citizens.
Judgment for those who do not obey.
Punishment for those who do not submit.
No. 6 had exposed its true colours. It had flung off the costume it had been donning so cleverly until now.
Death to those who are not meek.
A penalty to those who rebel.
"Appa was beside me when he was shot, right through the head. He didn't even make a noise, he just fell... everyone fell into a panic, and started trying to get out of there all at once. Oh, you wouldn't believe. We took turns carrying Appa... and we ran out of there as fast as we could. When we came to, we were sitting here..."
Koka lifted her face to the heavens and cried out.
"Oh, my son is going cold! Why! Why did this have to happen? My son!" Her anguished cries did not ring out, but were sucked into the night sky.
"Hey! It looks like people are gathering in front of the Moondrop again." A man who had been staring at his mobile computer raise a bellow like a battle cry. Everyone except Koka glanced back at him.
"Looks like there are two―no, three times as many people this time. They're all coming out to get the vaccine. With this many people, neither the Security Bureau nor the army would be able to do anything. They can't just massacre all the citizens. Now is the time to ask the mayor to come out of the Moondrop so we can hold a discussion."
"Everyone is gathering... is that true?"
"Yeah. The people are coming together again, and this time they're going to use force to drag the mayor out. This is our first chance, and our last. Now is the time. This is it." The man's voice cracked, and his eyes roved over the computer screen.
"Let's head out one more time. We can't let Appa's death go to waste. If we withdraw now, what would Appa have given up his life for?"
"It's not only Appa. My cousin and my mother are dead, too, from that disease. We can't let the souls of the dead go unrequited."
"My younger sister died, too. She was gone so fast. Can you imagine how angry I was? If only I had the vaccine, if only the city had dealt with this faster, she wouldn't have had to die."
"Right, let's go."
The men rose at once. They looked at each other, then broke into a run. Only the woman and the dead man remained.
"My son is dead. He's left on a journey alone without me," Koka continued to lament. Her voice travelled across the ground and crawled up Karan's feet.
I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. People have died. Even more people will die in the near future.
"Karan," Renka said in a trembling voice from behind. "What's going to happen? The summons over the Internet... is that what my brother is doing?"
Karan turned around and gripped Renka's shoulder.
"Renka, how do I get in contact with Yoming? Is there any way?"
Renka promptly shook her head. "No. I can't get through to his cell phone or e-mail. I think he's refusing contact."
"Mommy? Ma'am?" Lili extended her hand straight out, and pointed down the path. Shadowy figures appeared from alleyways everywhere, and were forming a black mob.
"To city hall, to the Moondrop."
"We have to get the vaccine."
"They can't just watch us die."
"Yeah! Is that what they're expecting from us?"
"Come on, everyone. Get together!"
Yelling and footsteps clashed and mingled, and became a roar. Where in the city had this energy lain dormant?
God, everyone in this damn city is so obedient and naive, Yoming had once muttered. They did not even have the energy to doubt orders from higher-ups. They don't try to think. They just go with the path of least resistance, he had spat, his words full of frustration and contempt.
But now, the ground radiated with heat from the people, and was a step away from exploding. Such enormous energy had lain hidden inside them all along. No. 6 was not supposed to have any hint of unrest, discontent, or anxiety. But this was what had been swirling in its depths. What had flowed hidden deep underground was about to erupt. It was like a miracle.
Maybe this world will really change. Maybe―but no. This isn't it. It's different. Not right. A miracle wrapped in blood and anguish is no miracle.
Yoming had predicted No. 6's fall. He had cried for the Holy City's destruction. But he had not spoken a single word about creation. He had not expressed a specific vision for what kind of world he wanted to realize here, what he aimed to create after No. 6 had ceased to exist. Not a single word.
Karan put her hand to her heart, which was pounding frantically.
Koka's cry of mourning was swallowed up in the din, and shattered to pieces. It reached no one's ears.
"Renka, go back inside the shop, please. Lock the door and stay in the back room with Lili."
"How about you, ma'am?"
Karan crouched in front of Lili.
"I'm going to take Koka home. I'll be back soon. You take care of your mother while I'm gone, alright?"
She kissed Lili on the cheek. Then, for a moment, she closed her eyes. A vision of Shion's smile graced the back of her eyelids. Karan drew a breath of the nighttime air deep into her chest, and opened her eyes.
- Senpai means "upperclassman", which also functions as a respectful address to someone who is older and/or more experienced. (back)
Read Chapter 4.