Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once:
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come, when it will come.
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act II Scene II 
The street was filled with people.
Hundreds, thousands of people were running in the same direction. They flowed like a giant river. But a large river would have meandered gently; it would not be full of murderous intent. It would surge as these people did now.
Karan stood with her back to the wall, watching the people go by. The rows of small houses lining the street had all tightly shut their doors and turned off their lights.
Were their residents huddled quietly inside, or were they somewhere in this flow of people?
"To the Moondrop!"
"We have a right to live, too!"
"Show us the mayor! Why are you pointing guns at your own people?"
"We won't stand for this!"
That was all Karan could pick up. The rest became angry yells, shouts, calling cries and responses that mingled, twisted and tangled with each other in the air.
The sheer energy of the sound was so great, Karan was seized by a floating sensation. Karan dug her heels in, and pushed her back up harder against the wall. If she didn't, she felt like she would be pulled into this flow, this cyclone. Her body and her soul would be carried away.
Suddenly she heard a scream that was a pitch higher than everything else. It was very sudden. It pierced the roaring din and impaled her eardrums.
A heavyset man standing diagonally in front of Karan fell on his side, clutching his neck. For an instant, the people ceased their clamour.
"H-Help... help me, someone... help..."
The man stood up, stumbled for a few steps, and collapsed again. His hair turned white in seconds, and his body began to wither. The man stopped moving.
"There it is. It's happened again. Another casualty!"
"We're going to be next!
"Do something! We have to do something quickly!"
The buzz of the crowd shook the air, and people began to flow again. No one tried to pick up the fallen man and carry him out of the crowd's path. People stepped on him, over him, around him, and pressed forward.
Spring was still far-off, the night was still chilly, but beads of sweat adorned everyone's face.
Karan also felt the sweat streaming down her cheek. She was unbearably thirsty. She felt like she was fainting; her hands and feet were growing numb, and she almost lost consciousness. She bit down on her lip.
I have to go back. Lili and everyone are waiting.
With her back still to the wall, Karan edged her way back to her shop. She moved against the flow of people.
The storefront was pitch-dark. She entered an alleyway and made for the back. A light was on―in the storage room, which had doubled as Shion's bedroom. Karan cleaned it every day so it would be ready anytime Shion came home.
That room was lit.
Phew. She let out a long breath that surprised even herself. Although it was impossible for anyone to have heard it, the door to the storage room opened just slightly. A small white face peeked out, and looked around cautiously.
Lili ran up to her. "I'm so glad you're back, ma'am. You know, I had this feeling, I really did. Like you were outside. I could actually tell."
Karan embraced Lili's body tightly. She was almost brought to tears by the softness and warmth of her small, young body.
"Was Madam Koka alright?"
"Was she crying?"
Karan had taken Koka back, the mother whose son had been shot to death. Koka had sunk to the ground by her son's body with vacant eyes, as if she had forgotten how to cry.
Every word of consolation was meaningless.
If Shion had gone through the same thing― Just the thought of it racked her chest. She could vividly feel Koka's despair. That was why Karan could not find the right words to say to her.
"Ma'am Koka laughs, like, in this huuuuuge voice. And she laughs all the time," Lili chattered.
"Do you think she'll laugh for us again? Is she gonna be able to, ever?"
Lili's face clouded over. Karan could not answer. How could anyone stand up again from the despair of losing her most beloved?
She softly placed her hand over her breast pocket. It contained three letters. They were from Shion and from a boy called Nezumi. They were scribbles, almost too short to be called letters.
Words could not describe how much these letters had supported her―supported her, and kept her alive.
What will Koka turn to for support to live on? She didn't know. She could not answer Lili's question.
"Ma'am?" Lili looked up at her. Karan nodded and flashed her a vague smile.
I'm sorry, Lili. I've been alive for so much longer than you, and I can't answer any of your questions.
She heard a muffled sound in the room.
"Lili, where's Renka? Where's your mother?"
"Mommy's looking at the computer. Uncle Yoming is in there."
She held Lili's hand and walked inside. She closed the door and locked it. The room doubled as storage, and there were sacks of flour, sugar, and raisins piled high along with jars of honey and jam in rows.
In a far corner was Shion's bed, and beside that was an old desk. Shion's desk. In the drawer was a half-written report that Shion was planning to hand in.
Renka was crouched over the desk, engrossed in the monitor of the outdated computer.
"Renka," Karan called. Renka twitched slightly and turned around. Her bloodless face was illuminated by the dim light.
"Renka, what's wrong? Has something happened?"
"Karan, it's my brother." Renka straightened up awkwardly. "Look." She pointed at the computer screen.
Yoming was there. His fist was raised, and his expression was fierce. He was definitely Yoming, and yet he seemed a total stranger.
"Now is our time to stand!" he declared. "If we do not stand up now to destroy everything, we will be slaves forever! Yes, slaves! You all must realize by now how No. 6 has deceived us all this time! How much unfair abuse we have suffered; how much exploitation we have endured! It has always been this way. It has always been this way, comrades. This city's horrific history is steeped in bloodshed. Let me tell you, comrades, about the hundreds of lives that have been banished to eternal darkness because they disputed the authorities; because they objected; because they resisted. Let me bring everything to light. Look, comrades!"
Yoming swept his hand towards the wall behind him.
Countless faces appeared on it. Youth, the elderly, young boys and young girls, even infants. A girl in her wedding dress; a muscular labourer; a thoughtful elderly gentleman; a smiling elderly lady; a sleeping infant; a girl running this way, laughing; a middle-aged woman with her eyes cast down; a young doctor wearing a stethoscope―many, many faces appeared before them.
Karan's heart thudded loudly.
Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum.
Shion was there.
He was facing this way, with a slightly sheepish grin on his face. It was his first birthday since coming to Lost Town, and Karan had taken a picture.
"Aw, please, can we not take photos?"
"Why not? It's an occasion to remember."
"Fine, but no pictures outside."
"Oh, you're more bashful than I thought."
Such was the conversation that passed between them as she took the picture.
"I want to know what kind of boy your son is. Can you tell me what he looks like?"
Karan had shown Yoming that photo among others on his request. He had copied the data without her even realizing.
"Look at these people," Yoming continued. "They are people who have been taken away by the Security Bureau, never to return again. They are people who have been murdered by No. 6. Unbeknownst to you, comrades, the authorities have been obliterating anyone who poses an inconvenience to them. You didn't know that, did you? No, you didn't. But I am not blaming you, comrades. You have already come to know No. 6's true identity. You now know what kind of people the authorities really are; who the mayor really is. The question now is what we will do from here on out.
Comrades, I am not talking about the past. I am talking about the present. Even while we stand here now, fellow citizens are dying. They are dying horrific deaths. A terrible disease is sweeping the city. Already, many citizens―good and innocent citizens―have suffered at its hands. But the authorities have failed to take action. Instead, they have given themselves an effective vaccine and so are able to keep living lives that they do not deserve.
Comrades, did you know? A considerable number of vaccines is still being stored in the Moondrop. But the authorities are doing their best to hide it. They won't give those vaccines to us citizens. They have paid enormous expenses to develop them, and they don't want to hand them out to just anyone―that's their standpoint. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?
Comrades, I disclose to you an even more shocking truth. All of this is fact: this is something I have been investigating in secret for years. This is the truth, and it is a horrific reality we must face. The upper echelons of No. 6, including the mayor, have been predicting this situation for many years―that a mysterious disease was going to spread throughout No. 6. That was why they were developing a vaccine in secret, while we citizens were kept in the dark. And when the situation becomes dire, they are only interested in saving a select few. And look! Open your eyes wide, and look at what is happening!"
Next, an image of a mob flashed across the white wall. They were people who had crowded in protest around the Moondrop. They were all shouting something, their expressions tense. A red ray of light streaked across the corner of the screen. At once, every face took on an expression of horror, and people frantically began to flee. Next, an image appeared of soldiers at arms and several bloodied people collapsed in the square. The video looked like it was from a hidden camera; the footage was blurry and kept shaking sideways and diagonally.
"What is this, comrades? Do you know what this is called?"
Yoming's voice rang out, loud and pronounced.
"Yes. Our fellow people have been murdered. Killed like vermin. The authorities have pointed their guns at their own citizens. Is that something that ought to be forgiven? Of course not. We cannot let them go for what they did.
Comrades, let us stand! Put the power of the government back into the hands of the people. Take it away from the Moondrop, which has rotted through completely. We will not stand to be trampled on anymore. We will not be suppressed anymore. We are humans. Let us take back our freedom and safety. To battle, to battle, to battle, comrades! We must rise up in arms! Surround the Moondrop! Destroy No. 6! To battle, to battle, to battle!"
It was a jarring cry. Renka turned the power off even before his yell began to taper. Her legs curled under her as she dropped weakly to the floor.
"It's been like this forever. About once every five minutes, my brother's speech gets played."
Renka held her swelling belly, and her mouth twisted. The noise out on the street grew even more agitated. It hit Karan and Renka like waves crashing onto the shore.
To battle, to battle, to battle, to battle, to battle.
Rise up, rise up, rise up, rise up.
"Karan, what's gotten into my brother? Why is he saying things like that? Why is he screaming?" Renka covered her face with her hands.
"Mommy." Lili huddled close to her, and placed a gentle hand on her mother's knee. "Mommy, don't cry."
"I'm fine, Lili. I won't cry. But―but you know, Mommy is a little scared." She then said to Karan, "My brother was such a gentle person, but he... he looked like a completely different person... no, in fact, he has become a different person. He's changed ever since my sister-in-law and her baby went missing after being abducted by the authorities... he's changed. From that day, the only thing in my brother's heart has been―"
Renka lifted her face at Karan's words, and opened her mouth slightly. She looked like a gold fish with not enough air.
"Yoming wants revenge on No. 6. He's wants this city completely destroyed."
"Yes," Renka answered. Her voice was croaky. "Yes, you're right, Karan. My brother never said it. I never heard the word 'revenge' come out of his mouth. But I knew. I'm his little sister, after all. I could tell how he'd changed, I could tell he had vowed in his heart to get revenge. That's why, some day... I was afraid this would happen. I was worried.. but scared. I was really scared."
Renka's lips trembled. Her large eyes turned watery, and she turned even paler. Karan looked from Renka to the blank black screen.
Lies, she thought vehemently. I won't say all, but half of Yoming's speech is made of lies.
Certainly, the authorities had placed its citizens under its vigilant regime, and ruled them in a manipulative and ruthless way. It was true that Karan and most of the citizens had been living blinded and oblivious. Yes, many people had been sacrificed; an unidentifiable disease was spreading like wildfire; the authorities were failing to come up with any effective solution; they had opened fire on citizens―it was all true.
But his claim that the city had foreseen this situation―this unfathomable, horrific situation―and had launched the development of a vaccine―that was false. If by some chance this was true, there was no reason for them not to vaccinate the citizens. If they had a store of vaccines in the Moondrop, it was unthinkable for them to withhold it.
What good did it do No. 6 to kill its own citizens? If anything, it would do more damage than good. They were in this situation precisely because they had no vaccine to combat the disease. Right now, they were in the middle of a worst-case scenario.
Besides―besides―Shion is not one of them. Shion will come home. Shion isn't someone who is "never to return again". Yoming's words were half truth, half lies. There is no vaccine in the Moondrop. That was a lie. He's a perfect demagogue.
Yoming was manipulating, encouraging, and agitating people's fears, along with their long-festering suspicion and discontent towards No. 6.
Yoming, please don't. This is wrong. She thought of Koka, who had refused to move from her son's side. She remembered her unseeing vacant eyes, frozen open from her overwhelming grief.
The soldiers had been the ones to shoot Koka's son to death. But Yoming was part of the cause. Yoming was deeply involved with the brutal death of a man who had been referred to affectionately as "Good Guy Appa".
The truth was noble, as long as it remained the truth. That was how it made the world turn. But now, Yoming was not speaking the truth. He was twisting it conveniently to match his intentions.
"My brother has changed," Renka said in despair. "It started gradually after my sister-in-law went missing, and when this commotion began, he changed completely."
"You're right," Karan said resignedly.
Yoming had been waiting. He had lain low, waiting for an opportunity―not to flourish onto the scene, but to exact revenge on No. 6.
And this was the opportune moment.
"To battle, to battle, to battle, to battle!"
His cry rumbled deep in her ears. It stirred the soul like a magnificent soundtrack.
Karan overlapped her hands over her chest.
No, Yoming. What you're doing is wrong. What will come of involving so many of these nameless people? What will you try to create from their sacrifice? Can you see them? Can you see each and every person's face as they die bleeding? Have you ever tried to look at the life each of them has lived, and the days that they've spent?
Yoming, now is not the time to fight. We don't have a second to lose; we have to find a way to deal with that unknown disease.
We have to protect lives, not use and dispose of them. If you loved your wife and your son, then you should respect life all the more.
Do you―do you plan to cross that line?
Please. Cast your thoughts not to the group, the people, the citizens, but each and every person as their own! Make a place in your heart for me, Renka, Lili, Koka, Getsuyaku, and all the people whose names you don't know!
You're a human, aren't you? You're not No. 6.
"Karan," Renka said in a feeble voice.
"What is it?" Karan's voice also sounded faint to her own ears.
"You know... I've wished for a long time that you and my brother would be together."
"My brother liked you. I think he was in love with you. When the topic would turn to you during dinner, he'd always turn very quiet. But he looked so happy. I haven't seen my brother look so happy in a long time."
"Then, someday you and my brother would get married, Shion would come home, I would give birth to my baby, and Getsuyaku and Lili would visit you so you could get a look at the baby, too. You and my brother and Shion would kiss the baby in turns, congratulating it, and you, Karan, would bake a cake to celebrate. Getsuyaku and I would stretch our savings a little to give out "Fortune Bread" to everyone in Lost Town. They'd be little rolls that you made, Karan, and we'd hand them out as a symbol of our happiness. We'd package them in little bags, tied with a cute ribbon.... We'd share a little bit of happiness with everyone. Both Lili and the baby would wear a ribbon, too. I would put a white bib on the baby, and a light pink apron on Lili. Lili would carry a basket full of "Fortune Bread" and we would walk down the street. Everyone would come up to greet us, saying, 'Congratulations, Renka. Congratulations, Getsuyaku, Lili.'"
"That's all I wish for. That's not greedy at all. Is it, Karan? Is it being greedy?"
"Of course not."
It was small―such a small wish.
"Then why won't it come true? Why does everything have to fall apart and disappear? Why?" Unable to contain herself, Renka let a sob escape her lips. Lili embraced her mother firmly with both arms.
A small, small wish. But it could not come true.
- Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 31. (back)