"Yes. We were far apart in age. Our father passed away early on, so I raised him like a son. He was abducted by the Security Bureau five years ago, when he was eighteen. Take a guess at why."
"Because he refused to declare his loyalty to No. 6?"
"Absolutely right. My brother refused to partake in the allegiance ritual held at their school every morning. He didn't like being forced to submit. I think it came from his youthful pride and sense of justice. And as a human, it was normal for him to feel this way. My brother was indeed a proper, normal adolescent. Maybe he was a little more rebellious and stubborn than most. He was also a little inexperienced in the ways of the world. My brother was summoned to the Moondrop the same day, and he didn't come back until two weeks later."
"He came back?"
"He came back, but he was transformed. I don't mean dead―he was alive. But he may as well have been dead. You could see no remnant of the cheerful, active captain of the basketball team that he used to be. He hardly spoke or responded to me, and just gazed blankly at the sky all day, just vacantly stared.... He killed himself not long after coming home. I can't even bear to think about what he must have gone through during those two weeks. I said he killed himself, but in truth, he was murdered by this city. Our mother collapsed from shock, and she never... she passed away not more than three days later. Her will to live was torn from her once she saw what her beloved son was reduced to. Our mother may as well have been murdered, too. No, she I believe was. It was definitely murder." The doctor nodded vehemently as if to convince himself.
He killed himself.
Shion recalled the doctor's words in his head again.
In the idyllic city of No. 6, cases of suicide were infinitely close to zero. All citizens were promised blissful and peaceful lives. But what an empty, artificial promise it was.
The doctor bit his lip as if to endure a throbbing pain. This man had also suffered at the hands of No. 6. Already how many lives had the city devoured?
Shion clenched his hand into a tight fist.
No. 6 did not permit people to be people, nor for each to be his own.
Why? he almost screamed. Rou said so. He said he tried to construct a utopia―one without war, discrimination, or unhappiness.
When did it go wrong? What went wrong to transform it into such a ruthless monster? What went wrong―?
The doctor's face unravelled into a smile as his lips relaxed.
"But Karan was fearless. She continued to open her shop, bake bread, and put it on the shelves. Every time I passed Karan's bakery, I couldn't help but breathe in the delicious aroma of freshly-baked bread. She is amazing for carrying on her daily work in spite of her loss. She probably strongly believed that you were going to come home. I felt pity for Karan, you know. I thought there was a slim chance, if there was even one, that you were coming home. I believed if you did come back, you would be just like my brother. But you did come back, and in one piece. You came back proper."
"I did change in appearance, though."
"Appearances don't matter, as long as your soul isn't broken. That's precisely No. 6's plan―to govern human souls. To rule the hearts, minds, and even thoughts of people."
Inukashi stifled a huge yawn.
"So tell me what else is new. I thought this was obvious to you guys already. For us West Block residents, No. 6 ain't no utopia. It's like a bloated, fat vampire."
"A vampire... I can see that." A smile spread across the doctor's face. "And that vampire is writhing in pain from the changes occurring in its body. To think―to think this day has come―ha ha ha! I wish I could have shown this to my brother and mother! Ha ha ha ha!"
The doctor's laughter gradually gained momentum until it became a roar. Inukashi furrowed his brow and recoiled.
"Hey, Shion. Is the doc okay? I mean, up here?" He pointed at his head. "You sure he hasn't got something loose in there?"
"He saved Nezumi's life," Shion said sternly.
"Sure didn't do anything for me," retorted Inukashi.
The doctor was still laughing. Shion slowly enunciated his words as he spoke at the man's trembling back.
"Doctor, can I see Nezumi?"
The laughter stopped. The doctor turned around. The echoes of his laughter and the residue of his mirth still swam in his eyes.
"Nezumi? Ah, you mean that boy. What a peculiar name. Not his real name, is it?"
"I don't think so."
"And what is?"
He had opened his mouth to say "I don't know" when the door to the examination room opened a crack. A tall, thin man was edging his upper body into view. A crow was perched on his shoulder. The mice gave a terrified screech. One dove into Shion's pocket, while the other two squeezed under the belly of a dog with patched fur.
"Yoming, what's the matter?" The doctor strode over to the man. Yoming whispered something into his ear. The doctor's eyebrows rose dramatically.
"The Correctional Facility!" The doctor's mouth gaped open. "The Correctional Facility―is that even possible?"
Yoming answered him. Shion could not catch it. He didn't want to. Right now, he was in no mood to listen.
I want to see Nezumi. All of his thoughts concentrated into that one point. His heart pounded in anticipation.
I want see him and know that he's alive.
Shion put his hand on the operating room door.
"He's upstairs." The doctor pointed an index finger straight up at the ceiling. "There's a recovery room on the second floor. Aria is attending to him. There's a direct-route elevator in the operating room, too, but I want you to use the stairs in the hallway."
"Thank you, doctor."
"Oh―wait a minute," the doctor said. "Don't tell me you've come from the Correctional Facility―"
Shion did not hear the last of the doctor's sentence. He tore into the hallway.
"Hey, wake up, old man! Looks like we're paying Nezumi a visit. We need to get some flowers."
"Nnngh, what? Who said I ever wanted to go?"
"Quit talking in your sleep and wake the hell up."
Shion left Inukashi and Rikiga bickering behind him, and dashed up the stairs. His legs faltered for a moment as he reached the corridor, dimly lit by nighttime lights.
It reminded him of the long, straight corridor of the Correctional Facility. But this atmosphere was not impregnated with fear; it did not prick his skin as before.
He exhaled softly.
Only one room by the stairs had the lights on. Shion regulated his breathing, and gently placed his hand on the door. It slid silently open.
The room walls were painted a pale yellow. Across from him, darker yellow curtains were drawn across what he supposed was a large window.
By the window, the nursing robot was making faint electronic sounds by the bed. When Shion entered, it raised its arm as if to reject him.
"Resting. Resting. Not taking visitors. The patient is resting. Not taking visitors."
I see, this robot must be Aria. He bent low to talk to the robot.
"Aria, thank you. I'm very grateful."
"Grateful. Grateful. Grateful." The nursing robot's visual sensors flashed, and turned from red to green. It seemed to have acknowledged Shion's presence.
"Aria, I want you to let me see your patient. I want to see him really badly. I'll do anything."
Aria's visual sensors stopped flashing―or rather, she stopped blinking. Her green eyes were fixed on Shion.
"Want to see. Want to see. Request accepted. Request accepted."
Aria glided across the floor. She retracted her arm, and settled herself in a corner of the room. She looked like a quirky but lovable piece of interior decor. The dogs lay around her peacefully.
Nezumi was sleeping on the bed. He was connected to many tubes, and his eyes were closed. A tinge of colour had returned to his cheeks, perhaps thanks to a blood transfusion. His superfibre cloth was folded neatly and placed beside the bed, no doubt by Aria.
Shion bent over Nezumi and took his pulse. It was faint, but regular. Shion could definitely feel it. A sigh of relief escaped his lips.
"Nezumi..." He felt his body unravel as he released a sigh.
He made it. He survived. Shion knelt by the bed and buried his face in the sheets. He could feel Nezumi's heartbeat. He wanted to raise his voice and cry―as loudly as his voice would allow.
He's alive. He's alive. Nezumi's alive.
"I could do with a few more winks." Rikiga yawned, showing a full array of teeth.
"I'm hungry," Inukashi said. "And my dogs are hungry, too. It's all good that Nezumi made it, but it ain't gonna be funny if we die from starvation instead. Ah damnit, I'm starved!"
"If 'we' die? Don't lump me in with the likes of you."
"You've got nothing to do with it, old man. I'm talking about me and my dogs. Hey, robot, uh―Aria, was it? Struck lucky with a pretty name, haven't ya? Doesn't suit you at all. So, Ms. Aria, can you get us some grub or what?"
"Grub. Grub. Grub. Cannot comprehend. Cannot comprehend."
"I mean a meal. Patients and injured people still need to eat, right?" Inukashi made a motion of wolfing something down.
"Meal. Understood. Understood."
Aria's torso opened up. A row of three steaming paper cups appeared. Inukashi whistled, and Rikiga swallowed hungrily.
"Two more, two more," Inukashi said."For my dogs. And some bread and meat, if you've got any."
"No meat. Have bread." Her torso opened again. Two more paper cups and some rolls appeared.
"You're the best. I think I might fall in love with you. I'd give you a huge kiss."
"I wouldn't do that," Rikiga said. "Think of the poor robot who has to get a kiss from you. It would probably stop functioning. Don't turn such a good girl into a lump of scrap metal. Hm? What's this?"
Rikiga furrowed his brow as he brought the cup away from his lips.
"It's bland. It may as well be hot water. And this bread... it doesn't taste like anything."
"It's hospital food, don't complain about it. Look how easy it was to get hot soup and bread. Can't beat No. 6. In the West Block, you could only dream of a feast like this. Right, Shion?"
"Yeah. It's really tasty." He was not simply going along with Inukashi. He really found it delicious.
This taste almost matched that of the rich soup that Nezumi made on the day he had escaped to the West Block―the day he had miraculously lived through the wasp's attack.
It soaked into his body, quenched his soul, and revived him. Just one cup of soup restored his confidence that he would live through another day.
Nezumi, wake up. Wake up so you can sip this cup of soup. Look at me again with those eyes full of life.
"Mm..." Nezumi shifted. The whiteness of the bandage around his shoulder and chest stung Shion's eyes.
"Nezumi, Nezumi!" Shion called to him. He poured his soul into the name he had called so many times before. Nezumi's eyelashes fluttered ever so slightly.
"He's probably still knocked out from the anaesthesia," Rikiga said. "He won't be waking up for a while. Hmm, but even a devil like him looks like an angel when he's all quiet and asleep like this. Strange, isn't it?" he murmured pensively.
"Hah, you still hung up on him, old man? How many times have you been shafted because you were fooled by his looks?"
"I've been shafted enough times, with or without his good looks. By both Eve and you." Rikiga sighed. "Am I just going to spend the rest of my life being bossed around by rude, filthy brats? Just thinking about it makes me depressed. I need a drink to stomach this. Lady Aria, you don't happen to have some booze on you, do you?"
"Booze. Booze. Booze. Cannot comprehend. Unable to process your request."
"Alcohol. You know, I want something that'll hit me in the guts with some oomph."
"We have: alcohol antiseptic. We have: disinfectant alcohol. We have: sterilization alcohol. Which one do you need? Which one do you need?"
"I don't need any of that. I don't need antisepsis, nor do I need to be disinfected or sterilized. God, what a useless princess." Rikiga clicked his tongue.
Inukashi turned aside and laughed discreetly. Shion also couldn't help but twitch the corners of his mouth. Rikiga wore a wry smile. The three glanced at each other and laughed for some time.
"I never expected you'd make it back like this," Inukashi murmured thoughtfully after their laughter had died down.
"Me neither," Shion agreed.
"Not to mention that bonus work you guys did with the Correctional Facility. I have a bit of a new regard for you, to tell you the truth. I honestly never expected―had no clue how you'd pull it off. I thought you guys would never be able to escape through the garbage chute."
"It's thanks to you and Rikiga-san, Inukashi."
"Thanks to us, huh. Say, Shion..."
"Didn't it ever cross your mind that we might not show up at the waste depot? What if we pulled a no-show, or we showed up but left early―you didn't think about that at all?"
Shion searched his soul for a moment at Inukashi's question. What had he thought back then? He searched, then gave an answer.
"I didn't think of it at all." He gazed into Inukashi's eyes. "That never even crossed my mind. I believed that you and Rikiga-san would be there. Nezumi must have thought so, too. I'm sure he had solid belief in you."
"Well, that's all great and nice for you, but let me say that we... well, I dunno about the old man, but... I don't owe nothing to you guys. I didn't have an obligation to wait in there."
"Me neither," Rikiga chimed in. "I might have my share of grudges, but I don't have any obligation or debts to owe, either." He clucked his tongue repeatedly.
"Lemme tell you something, Shion," Inukashi stabbed a sharp-clawed index finger in Shion's direction. "Don't think I got myself involved in this hell of a mess for free. You guys owe me now. You best be prepared, 'cause I'm putting hefty interest on it."
"I'll have you know that I'm going to be sending out an invoice addressed to Eve as well. He's made me spend quite a bit of money, taking everything into account. I wouldn't be able to rest in peace if I didn't get reimbursed for that at least."
Inukashi and Rikiga grimaced at the same time as if they had rehearsed it. Shion suppressed a laugh and nodded solemnly. He didn't care how astronomical the interest rate was, or how exorbitant the invoice was. The two had stayed and waited for them. In that hygiene management room, where life and death jostled each other, they had continued to wait, believing that Shion and Nezumi would return alive.
He bit his lip.
Safu had also been waiting. She had been waiting for Shion. She was probably waiting for him, not to say goodbye, but to escape together with him.
I couldn't hold up my end.
He had not been able to give her what Rikiga and Inukashi had given him.
"Hey, Shion." Inukashi hugged his knees and leaned closer. "Whaddaya think is gonna happen to the West Block?"
"The West Block, huh..."
"Yeah. No. 6 is spiralling into chaos, by the looks of it. The Correctional Facility is gone. The gates are blown apart. Maybe that wall―the wall that separates the West Block and No. 6―maybe that'll break down too. Ya think?"
"Yeah. In fact, it most likely will."
Inukashi swallowed, and curled up just slightly.
"So, if that happens, I wonder what everyone in the West Block is gonna do. How would they face people who've treated them like crap all this time? Would they take their anger out on them? Would they storm into No. 6? Would they fight, or run away... wonder what they'll do? When I think about it, I just... well, it makes my head spin."
"Mm-hmm..." Inukashi was right. It made his head spin, too. A world without walls: it was beyond his imagination. What would hold ground there? Surely not just peace and open freedom. How would the West Block's wind, swirling with hatred and anguish, blow against No. 6?
It simply exceeded his imagination.
"Turn the lights out," said a low, cutting voice.
"Wh―Eve, are you―?" Rikiga fell speechless.
Nezumi was sitting upright. His dark grey eyes glinted sharply. "Turn off the lights. Quickly," he repeated.
Inukashi's nose twitched. He jumped to his feet, and pressed the electric switch. All the lights were cut, and darkness fell over Shion's vision like a veil.
Nezumi moved in the darkness. He pulled out all the tubes that were inserted into his arm. He slipped to the floor and knelt down.
"Keep quiet. Don't even move."
Time passed. One minute, two minutes, three minutes... suddenly, noise erupted from downstairs. Footsteps, shouting, screaming, then gunshots.
"Run! It's the Security Bureau!"
"Don't move. Move, and we will shoot."
"Run! Get out of here!"
"All you traitors are under arrest."
"Kill them, it's no big matter."
"Their leader is getting away! Get him, and kill him!"
Those were the few words that Shion's ears managed to catch.
He curled up in the darkness.
He curled up and sat still, feeling Nezumi's warmth and breathing right beside him.
Read Chapter 4.