"There is." Shion stood up. "There is a hospital."
Inukashi and Rikiga turned to each other. They peered into each other's eyes.
"Hospital―? Where?" Rikiga asked in a hoarse, scratchy voice. Shion's gaze slid to the side. On the other end of it was the special alloy wall, illuminated brightly by the flames.
"No. 6!" Inukashi and Rikiga's voices overlapped.
"Yes. We'll find plenty of hospitals there."
"That's absurd!" Rikiga blurted. "How are we going to get inside? My car won't even be able to pass the gates. They'll register it as a suspicious vehicle and it'll get blown up within a few metres of even entering. Impossible. Absolutely impossible. Wait, I know! Shion, how did you escape from No. 6? Can't we go back in that way?"
Inukashi almost interjected in agreement. If Shion had come out that way, perhaps he could get back in through it. That old man is a quick thinker once the alcohol's gone out of him.
But Shion shook his head firmly.
"We can't do that. That would take too much time. And Nezumi wouldn't last on the strength he has left. We have an hour―we need to get him to the hospital within an hour..."
"But how are we going to manoeuvre through the gates?"
"We don't need to."
"The Correctional Facility is destroyed. All its functions have shut down. That means the gates mostly likely aren't operating, either."
"You're planning to enter No. 6 through the Correctional Facility's private gates?"
"Shion, you... do you know where the Correctional Facility's gates are?"
"I don't know for sure. I've heard, though, that they're directly connected to the Correctional Facility."
Rikiga's throat contracted as he swallowed his saliva. Inukashi found himself doing the same. The back of his throat burned from the smoke.
"You're right." Rikiga's voice grew even more hoarse. "You're absolutely right. It's directly connected. About a hundred metres beyond the gates, you'll find the back entrance of the Correctional Facility. That's where you two were carried through during the Hunt. But you probably couldn't see anything from inside the cargo container you were loaded into."
Inukashi realized he had unknowingly clenched his hand into a fist, listening to Shion and Rikiga's conversation.
Getsuyaku had also been coming and going through those gates. Inukashi had heard him complain countless times about being treated the same as prisoners. Inukashi had given the man an offhand answer.
"Prisoners are killed once they get caught. They'll never come back out through those gates again. But you're coming and going through them every day. Not to mention you're getting paid to do it. That's way different from being a prisoner."
"Well, I guess, now that you mention it. I wouldn't be able to go home if I were just a prisoner, huh," Getsuyaku had shrugged and smiled ruefully.
But in the end, he was the same. He was shot dead in the blink of an eye, just the same as a prisoner. Even worse―like an insect.
Inukashi remembered Getsuyaku's rueful smile. He closed his fist more tightly.
"Then we can take the car to the gate from here, right?" Shion asked.
"We can if there are no obstacles along the way. No one is crazy enough to get close to the Correctional Facility now, apart from you lot."
"Rikiga-san, lend me the keys to your car, please."
Shion extended his scratched and bloody hand. Rikiga's face twisted visibly. Deep creases appeared between his eyebrows.
"What are you going to do with them?"
"I'm going to drive. You two can stay behind. The keys, quickly."
"Bullshit!" Rikiga bellowed angrily again. "Have your eyes rotted and fallen out? Don't you see those flames? You idiot!"
The Correctional Facility barely remained standing, spewing flames and black smoke. The alarms that had been ringing so loudly had died out somewhere along the way, and only the ferocious wind sounded as it was drawn in by the flames.
"We've barely gotten out of the Correctional Facility in one piece, and you're going to prance right back in?" Rikiga said incredulously. "This is no time for jokes. How many lives do you think you have?"
"I don't plan on going inside. The gates are outside of it."
"A hundred metres away. Only a hundred metres. The gates aren't a safe zone, you know."
"That's why I'm going. Usually we wouldn't be able to get through, but right now, the gates are nothing but an opening."
"The car runs on gasoline. If you happen to drive into fire and it catches―"
"Hand it over," Shion commanded in a low voice, cutting through Rikiga's yelling. Commanded. That was indeed how the words came out. Shion had neither snapped, nor yelled harshly. On the contrary, it was a quiet and heavy utterance.
Rikiga retreated half a step.
"Hand over the keys."
It was the voice of a ruler giving orders to his subject―it was unmistakable.
Rikiga rummaged through his pocket and extracted a worn silver keyring. His fingertips were trembling.
"...Stop it," said a voice even lower than Shion's. To Inukashi it seemed to spring from the depths of the earth. A chill ran through his spine. Nezumi had slowly lifted himself up.
"That's enough. Stop it."
Inukashi could hear his words clearly.
Nezumi's voice. Nezumi could use ten, twenty different voices, but what Inukashi's ears had caught was unmistakably Nezumi's natural voice.
"Don't... stay away, Shion."
Shion did not answer. He did not even try to look at Nezumi. Instead, he bowed his head to Rikiga.
"Rikiga-san, please. Give me the keys. Please, I'm begging you." It was not an order, but a plea.
This was the Shion that Inukashi knew. Intelligent, gentle, faithful, airheaded and clumsy Shion.
"Just give it to him, old man," Inukashi said with a deep sigh. He didn't know why he had sighed. There were a lot of things he couldn't make sense of. He couldn't even understand himself.
"Shion, I'll go with ya." The words spilled out along with his sigh. He surprised himself. Look at me. I'm so reluctant to put my life in danger, I'm so desperate to survive, yet here I go saying 'I'll go with you'. I can't believe myself sometimes. And what's worse is that it isn't even a lie or bravado. I really mean it. I told him I'd go with him, and I meant it. What on earth is wrong with me? I can't understand myself. What's going on, what's going on, what's going on? Oh, hell.
"Fine." Rikiga clicked his tongue. "If that's what you want to do, then do as you will. You guys probably aren't the type to listen to your elders, anyway."
"Don't lump me in with the airheaded young master, man," Inukashi protested. "But, oh well. There you have it. The votes are in and it's two to one for driving into No. 6. That's that. Too bad, Nezumi."
"Three to one." Rikiga clenched the keys. "I'm coming along for the ride."
Inukashi blinked and glanced at Rikiga. The man also blinked repeatedly, his eyes ringed with soot, dirt and sweat.
What on earth is wrong with me? Why did I say something like that? And I actually meant it, his facial expression seemed to say. Inukashi felt like laughing and crying at the same time. What a weird feeling. He felt scared, yet exhilarated. Dismal, yet optimistic. Your heart can be weird like that.
"It's my precious car," Rikiga said. "I won't tolerate you trashing it. Besides, I doubt you snot-faced kids would be able to drive. Young'uns these days get better and better at mouthing off, but can't do anything for themselves."
Rikiga mumbled complaint after complaint. It was most likely because he would end up sighing if he didn't talk.
Rikiga's car was a minivan. It was dented everywhere, and the right side mirror was bent. It was an outdated gasoline-fuelled model that could easily have been displayed in a museum in No. 6.
But it had a sturdy frame, if anything. The engine also had a lot more power than it looked. Being able to drive a car in the West Block was a symbol of a certain level of wealth, and hence there was always a risk of being ambushed by thieves on the road. Inukashi remembered listening to Rikiga boast that for this reason, he had modified the car to be as durable as a tank.
Inukashi sat in the passenger seat, while Shion sat in the back holding Nezumi. The dogs climbed into the car last.
"Why do you have to bring your dogs? They'll stink up the car."
"They smell way better than your alcohol. My dogs are loyal to their boss. They'll go wherever I go. Just like how these tiny mice are faithful to their boss."
The mice were huddled together on the seat. They sat noiseless, as if they had forgotten how to squeak.
"Dogs and mice, huh. That settles our destination, then: the zoo. Hmph, what a fun drive this is going to be."
Rikiga turned the ignition. The engine sputtered comically, and the car seemed to give itself a shake.
"Let's go. I'm going to floor the gas, so you better prepare yourselves."
The car lurched forward. It continued to mount in speed as it made straight for the Correctional Facility.
"Hey hey, old man. It seems like you're being a little reckless about this."
"How can I not be? Look at what I'm doing. Damnit, what the hell am I doing? Why the hell am I doing this?"
"Because you're in love with Eve, duh."
The back gates to the Correctional Facility had been thrown open. Perhaps some people had escaped through them. These gates had always been tightly closed, refusing all who came near, but now it was open and exposed. Flames spiralled up behind them, and the building played its melody of destruction. Inukashi could hardly believe that this wasn't an illusion.
Is this reality?
The gates to the Correctional Facility had opened, and the special alloy door had been blown apart.
Things that were not supposed to be happening were happening. Things he had believed would never happen―no, had been made to believe would not happen―were inverted. There was no good or evil. No justice or injustice.
This is reality.
The car veered around the back gates, nearly scraping against them, and gained speed. Inukashi saw the security gates beyond.
"What!?" Rikiga yelled. "What did you just say, Inukashi?"
"You were totally into Eve, old man. You're still a passionate fan, aren't you? You're head over heels. Or else you wouldn't be able to sprint like that while holding him. Those were some good moves out there on the field, risking your life. Bravo."
"Knock it off. Once we get to a medical clinic, the first thing I'll do is sew that mouth shut. Sew in that rotten tongue of yours while I'm at it."
"Why, that's just splendid. An honour of honours to be able to get treated at a clinic in No. 6."
"Say all the crap you want!" Rikiga gripped the steering wheel.
Inukashi snapped his eyes open, and shrank back. The gate was approaching at an astonishing speed. No, they were approaching it.
"It's burning," he murmured. He had resolved not to voice it; he had restrained himself from putting anything he saw into words. But he could not help it.
The gates were burning.
They were engulfed in flames. Small explosions, still not as large as the ones in the Correctional Facility, were ringing out. Fragments of glass and metal battered the car ruthlessly. Each time, the car made an unnerving bump-bump sound. The sounds were like the car's screams themselves.
It hurts. I'm scared. I'm gonna die.
"It's burning." Once he put it into words, terror gripped his whole body. It was like the roots of his hair were standing on end. But one point of curiosity slipped through the wave of fear washing over him, and clung to Inukashi persistently.
How can it crumble so easily?
He understood that Shion and Nezumi had utterly destroyed the core of the Correctional Facility. He was in awe at their accomplishment. But there was something wrong with it. It happened too fast, too easily. Was it always this fragile? Is it supposed to just collapse like that? He did not think for a bit anymore that No. 6 was an absolute existence, or an omnipotent ruler. It was the same as that special alloy door. It had bent out of shape, crumbled, and now lay in a disgraceful mess.
But―but this is No. 6 we're talking about here. An artificial city, the epitome of human intelligence and scientific technology. The Correctional Facility is another No. 6 that's supported its darker workings. It's No. 6's bastard child, an evil spawn that's a spitting image of its parent.
Evil things often possessed evil powers. Couldn't it have stood its ground somehow? Is it going to be defeated just like that, without a choice?
Heh heh heh.
He heard it again. That lighthearted but terrifying laughter. It was more frightening than the flames in front of him.
Inukashi screamed. Rikiga gave a shout beside him almost at the same time. This one was from the fear of being on the brink.
They plunged into the wall of fire. The dogs continued to bark incessantly. Inukashi did not close his eyes. He kept them open, and watched the flames swallow them up. They were not a uniform colour. The vermillion of sunset, the crimson of blood, the red of flowers all blended together. They shone golden, then sank into a muddy red.
A part of the windshield shattered. Hot air blasted at them full-on in the face. He smelled burning hair. The heat evaporated the moisture from everything around them, and they began to shrivel up.
Oh, so we're gonna die here. So that's how it is, he thought. I'm going to die with them after all. In the end, I'm just...
"Elyurias," said a voice from the back seat. Inukashi could not tell if it was Shion's or Nezumi's. He did not know what the word meant. Was it an incantation? It sounded too strange to be someone's last utterance. But then again, they were always strange, weird, ridiculous people from the beginning. This doesn't surprise me now, but... it's nagging at me.
Elyurias? What the hell is that?
His hair singed. His skin was being roasted. It was hot. Goddamnit, it's hot.
The flames wavered. They wavered, and seemed to retreat just slightly. The heat also receded just slightly, and he could breathe a little.
Huh? Why? Inukashi blinked. Are the flames retreating on their own? No way. That's impossible. Absolutely impossible.
"We're out! Rikiga roared with laughter. He laughed as if he had gone mad. "We're out! Take that, bastards! We're out safe! Ha, ha, ha ha ha ha ha ha! Take that! We've done it! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!"
Tense laughter echoed inside the car.
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
They had gotten through. He was right; they had certainly gotten through.
The land around them wild and barren, with few grasses or trees. It was no different from the West Block. But at least in this wasteland, there was a straight, two-lane road. A lush, green forest probably awaited them at the other end. In the dark, Inukashi could only make out a black mass, but Inukashi's nose caught the rich, earthy smell of the trees.
Maintained roads and lush forests―all were things he could never see in the West Block.
We've made it inside No. 6. I've stepped inside, for the first time in my life.
"Look at that. That was quite something. Ha ha ha ha ha! Only natural for Almighty Mr. Rikiga! I'm quite the hero. Ha ha ha ha ha, I did it! Take that, bastards! Hooray for Mr. Rikiga, hip-hip-hooray! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
Rikiga's voice cracked even more, and whined in a higher pitch. Inukashi swept up a liquor bottle that had been lying at his feet, and knocked Rikiga over the head.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"I went easy on you. Your head hasn't cracked open, now, has it?"
"Idiot! How dare you act like that to a hero!"
"I calmed your hysterical fit. That's really sad, old man. Even my dogs and the mice are calmer than you. What's so heroic about what you did? You went on a reckless joy ride, and you jumped through fire. That's it. Ugh, for shame."
"Shut up. Can a dog or a mouse drive a car? I'd like to see them try. You think you've got a right to say whatever you want―"
Once Rikiga finished yelling to his heart's content, he gave a great sigh.
"Shion, what are we going to do now?" he said. "I have no idea what it's like inside No. 6. I've been away for ten years."
Inukashi could feel Shion shift in his seat.
"Lost Town is just a little ways in from here. The outskirts of No. 6 are beyond that forest, and further beyond that are the central districts. The forest is there to hide the walls from the citizens."
"I see. So they can go on living without being reminded all the time that they're surrounded by a wall."
"And how about medical facilities? Where should we go?"
"Go straight through the forest. There will be a fork, and if you turn right, there should be a small clinic."
"Will that be good enough? Eve's hurt pretty badly, isn't he?"
"He's been pierced by a rifle bullet."
"Wouldn't you need a pretty sophisticated facility to treat that?"
"Maybe," Shion said. "But that clinic is the closest. They have a surgery. You can only find fully-equipped facilities in the city centre. We don't have time to go there, and this car might get caught in inspections along the way. They get stricter as you get closer to the centre. Also, you need a citizenship card to get into most medical facilities."
"You don't have one?"
"I threw it away."
Shion paused for the length of a breath, and continued.
"It was a useless card to have, anyway. Lost Town residents aren't allowed into most central facilities."
"You can't get in?"
"No. The type of ID you have―in other words, your position as a citizen―decides what facilities you can use, where you can live, and what you can ride. It's not only with clinics; Lost Town residents aren't even allowed into the central facilities for daily shopping needs or entertainment. When it comes to places with the best equipment, the number of allowed people gets even smaller.
"That thorough about it, huh?" Rikiga commented. "I'd heard about it before, of course, since I did business with high officials. I did get the idea that there was some vague uncertainty and discontent brewing in that city, and that a hierarchy was in place. But to think that such an old-fashioned system was being enforced... I would never have imagined. What a surprise."
"High officials are elites close to the summit of the hierarchy. They don't know what it looks like from the bottom."
Rikiga was right. He was surprised, or rather, struck dumb in amazement. He was taken so off-guard, all he could do was growl.
So that city, No. 6 not only divided people inside and outside with a wall, but they even sorted people within by creating more tiny differences?
The wealthy and the poor; the haves and have-nots; the superior and the inferior; the strong and the weak―No. 6 drew countless lines that had formerly never existed between humans, pruning and selecting to its liking.
Why was such a system ever needed? Who needed it? If you were unlucky, you were dead. If you were lucky, you were alive. The line between good and bad luck was the only thing that divided people in the West Block.
"And the hospital we're headed to right now doesn't need an ID card?"
"It does. There isn't any place in No. 6 that doesn't need an ID."
"The doctor at the clinic used to be a customer at my mother's store."
"Karan? Her store―a bakery, right?"
"Yes. He used to come once or twice a week to buy bread for lunch."
"What's his name?"
"I... don't know. We all called him "doctor". That usually sufficed."
"You don't even know his name?" Rikiga said in disbelief. "Are you sure you can trust this doc? Is he good-hearted enough to treat someone who doesn't have an ID card? Who's not a citizen of No. 6?"
"I don't know. But he's our only chance."
Rikiga lapsed into silence. There was no time to waver or hesitate.
As they approached closer to the forest, the rich smell of vegetation and earth grew stronger. Could anyone in No. 6 see the Correctional Facility burning where they were, or was it blocked out of sight by the forest?
He's so calm. Inukashi thought about Shion. Shion's words were composed and undisturbed. The usual Shion―he was not. If Shion were as he normally was, he would be fraught with hesitation, fighting desperately against his own heart.
When did he learn to repress all of his emotions and put on an act of calmness? Had something in Shion changed, like a cloth that loses its colour after being passed through water?
Inukashi licked the back of his hand. It was blistered from a burn.
He was afraid to turn around. If he turned around and focused his eyes, he would see the bloodied figure of Nezumi, and inscrutable Shion. He knew it was just his imagination, but he was afraid. The back of his neck was so tense, he felt like it would seize up.
Well, I'll be damned if he changes. He repeated inside his head while licking the blister. Shion is Shion. He'll never change; I'll be damned if he does. Just like I'll keep on being who I am, just like how I'll never change, there's no way he'll ever change.
The car entered the forest.
"Oh―!" Shion cried out softly. "The sky... it's burning."
Rikiga also let out a muffled shout, and leaned out. The car swerved, almost hitting the streetlights standing between the trees.
The sky was burning.
The sky, darkened even more deeply by the night, was coloured by the flames. The Correctional Facility was not the only place. No. 6 itself was spewing fire. Places across the city were being engulfed in flames.
What's going on? Inukashi turned around, his mouth still hanging half-open.
"Hey, what just happened?"
Shion sat frozen. He sat still, holding Nezumi in his arms without even blinking. Only his lips moved imperceptibly.
Far away, they heard the sound of a blast. It came from behind, not in front―the direction they had just escaped from.
"The gate―" Inukashi fell speechless. No further words came out. He closed his mouth, unable to believe his eyes.
What the hell is about to happen? It was neither excitement nor expectation. It was not fear. He was being toyed with by emotions that he found hard to describe.
"We'll be out of the forest shortly. Then, we'll be in Lost Town."
Read Chapter 2.