Out, out, brief candle
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .
-Shakespeare, Macbeth Act V Scene V
Just once, he heard footsteps approach. Someone was trying to run up the stairs. But the footsteps died along with a gunshot, a scream, and someone tumbling down the stairs. He didn't have to see it to know what happened. The same stairs that Shion had flown up moments ago was probably spattered with someone's blood.
Not only the stairs. The floor, the entrance, and the consultation room were probably smeared with blood and littered with broken objects in a horrific scene. A body or two probably lay on the floor.
"Don't move." Nezumi restrained his arm. "Don't move yet."
Shion, Inukashi, and Rikiga all held their breaths and tensed as if they were bound by his words. Even the dogs lay low to the floor, unmoving like boulders, save to growl softly at the footsteps.
One minute, two minutes, three minutes....
"Freedom for No. 6! Freedom for all of us!" A hoarse, high-pitched scream resounded, its gender indiscernible. Right afterwards, angry voices and the sound of fierce beatings were heard through the window.
It's the same. Shion made a fist. His palm was damp with perspiration.
It was the same―no different from the Hunt in the West Block. The brutality he had seen under the thick snow clouds was taking place again right here.
Stealthily within the walls, openly outside of them―that was the only difference.
The sweat stung the countless cuts on his palm and made it throb slightly. Sweat streamed down his cheek, and entered his mouth.
In No. 6, he used to feel trapped and suffocated, like being forced to wear clothes that didn't quite fit. But until Nezumi had saved him and they had begun to live in the West Block, he had never had much difficulty dealing with these vague doubts and feelings of suffocation. Not until he was given a chance to look at No. 6 from the outside. In fact, he had taken comfort in No. 6's cleanliness and abundant lifestyle. It was true. He had been devouring this comfort and taking it for granted. Back then, the Security Bureau's existence hardly crossed his mind. It never had to; the days still went by. On the surface, time passed peacefully without incidence.
When had it all begun?
Shion was wheeling his bike across the park after his shift. He was allowed to ride his bicycle in the park, as long as he didn't go over the speed limit. But the spring sunset was so beautiful that Shion had felt like taking a stroll to take it all in.
The sky was divided into dark pink, red, and carmine. The streaming clouds caught the sun, their edges glittering golden. The sweet fragrance of the flowers blended with the refreshing scent of new leaves, enveloping the passersby.
"Ah, the end of another day."
"It was wonderful, wasn't it?"
"All's right with the world, as they say. What do you say to topping it all off with a mouthwatering meal and some excellent wine?"
"Oh, how splendid. That sounds great."
He could hear the lighthearted conversation of a young man and woman―were they lovers, husband and wife, or good friends?
They're right. It's a perfect evening to enjoy wine over a nice meal in the company of someone close, Shion had thought, feeling a comfortable sort of weariness and hunger himself.
All's right with the world.
Neither Shion nor that man or woman had any clue about what lurked in the depths of that day. Most people didn't. It wasn't because of the dreamy spring evening. Through hot summer days, sleety mornings, in autumn sunsets, they had never noticed.
The majority of the citizens were neither concerned nor interested about the Security Bureau. They probably had no idea that it would bare its fangs so ferociously at the slightest voice of protest from the citizens. They thought of the Security Bureau as an organization that maintained and protected their safety―an organization for the people―were they not? And they believed in this clause―
No. 6 exists for its citizens. It exists to ensure a plentiful and comfortable life for its citizens. No one shall be permitted to threaten the safety, activities, and lives of the citizens in any way whatsoever.
They believed the city would also abide by this clause of its own City Charter. The people relied upon the city, left everything in its hands, and unwittingly allowed themselves to be pulled along by its flow.
And this was the result.
The sweat stung in his wounds. Nezumi's hand was still restraining Shion's arm.
If this was the result, then Nezumi―where did we go wrong? Do you know the answer?
No―I'm the one that needs to know the answer, not you. I was born as a No. 6 citizen, reaped all of its benefits, and lived without any concern for the outside or inside. I'm the one who has to reach out and grasp the answer, in exchange for always choosing the comfort of lending myself to the least resistant path, rather than struggling against the current.
I know. Meeting you has taught me, and so have the words we exchanged and the days we spent together. I need an answer that I've grasped with my own hands, rather than one that's been prepared for me.
Mine, and not someone else's.
Or else I'll end up with the same result again.
"They weren't after us, then." Shion sensed Inukashi twitching his nose in the dark. "I was totally under the impression that... the doctor tipped the Bureau off. Looks like that wasn't it."
"No, it definitely wasn't."
Traitors. That was what the Bureau officials had said. The target of their sting had not been Shion, but the others―the doctor, and Yoming.
Inukashi twitched his nose again. "Nezumi... aren't we safe now?"
"Wait. It's still too early."
"Tsk, paranoid as always."
One minute, two minutes, three minutes....
"Don't rush. But―alright, it should be fine now. Don't turn on the lights. Leave them off, and move quietly."
Nezumi pushed the door slightly ajar, and whistled softly. Hamlet poked his head out from Shion's pocket, alighted on the floor, and dashed through the open crack.
Momentarily, a lighthearted squeak greeted them.
Cheep cheep, chit-chit-chit.
Cheep cheep, chit-chit-chit.
"Alright, let's go downstairs. Avoid the elevator, just in case." Nezumi swiftly wrapped the superfibre cloth around himself, and slipped into the hallway.
"What the hell was that?" Shion saw Rikiga's mouth gaping open by the light that spilled in from the hallway. "Wasn't he unconscious just now? Or was that an act, too? Playing the part of a prince on his deathbed?"
"He ain't no prince. He's an animal. Like a savage beast. No way he can sleep in the face of oncoming danger. He sensed the Security Bureau guys before my nose could sniff them out, damnit. Pisses me off."
"I see. Now I have a good idea of how Eve could have survived this far. With instincts as sharp as those, and that cautiousness to boot..."
"Falling in love all over again, old man?"
"I just confirmed my notion that he doesn't have an ounce of good in him."
The humans, dogs, and mice crept down the stairs cautiously, step by step. There was a pool of blood in the stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs was the owner of that blood, a man in his forties or fifties lying on his back.
The lower floor was just as grisly as Shion imagined. Blood had sprayed the walls and the floor. There was broken glass and furniture strewn about, all soiled with dirt and blood. At the end of the hall, a blue-grey door was half-open. The room was dark and the air inside cold―a basement room, perhaps.
A man lay slumped against the door, and the nurse at his feet. A figure clad in a lab coat lay a few metres away. The three of them were perfectly still.
"Doctor!" Shion ran to him and lifted him up in his arms. The chest of the man's lab coat was dyed in blood. "Doctor, answer me, please."
His words felt painfully empty as they escaped his lips.
The doctor was clearly almost dead. There was no hope for him.
"Doctor, doctor! Open your eyes, please," Shion continued to implore with empty words. That was all he could do.
The door to the consulting room opened, and Aria appeared, evidently from the elevator.
"Vital signs: none. Vital signs: none. Vital signs―minimal. Minimal."
The doctor's eyelids slowly lifted.
"Vital signs: minimal. Commencing treatment."
Several tubes extended from Aria's torso, and connected to the doctor's body.
"Aria... don't. It's no use..."
"No use. No use... cannot comprehend. Continuing treatment."
"Doctor, what... why did this happen?"
"...He... broadcasting... from the basement of this clinic... calling... on his comrades to defeat No. 6 together..."
"Vital signs: minimal. Probability of recovery: one percent. One percent."
"I wanted revenge... on No. 6... revenge..."
"Doctor," Shion pleaded.
"I wanted to... destroy this world... and build it... anew."
Suddenly the doctor dug his fingers into Shion's arm.
"Shion," the man called his name in a clear, strong voice. "I leave this in your hands."
His eyes were open wide, fixed intently on Shion.
"I leave it... in your hands. Don't ever make... No. 6... this kind of city... again. Please. I'm leaving it to you."
The doctor's fingers slipped out of his own. The light went out of his eyes as they glazed over. His whole body convulsed.
Then, it was over.
"Vital signs: minimal. Minimal. Unable to register. Unable to register. Aborting treatment."
Shion laid the man down, and put a hand over his eyelids. With his eyes closed, the doctor looked peaceful and relaxed.
"Leave it to you, huh." Inukashi let out a long sigh. "You guys are the ones who built No. 6 in the first place," he said to the doctor's body. "But once something goes wrong and it spins out of control, you just shove it off onto someone else? Not exactly a friendly gift to leave to someone, is it? A little selfish, don't you think, doctor? I guess it's none of my business, though."
"Inukashi, what good is it to mouth off at a dead man? He's not going to hear any of it. Poor guy." Rikiga clasped his hands in front of his chest and bowed his head.
"The hell are you doing?" Inukashi asked.
"I'm praying to God, can't you tell? O God, please forgive this sinful man. May you bless his soul and let him rest in peace by your side."
"Hah, you don't even believe in God. What an act. Oh, wait―you must be praying to God Moneybags Almighty, right, old man?"
"Rotten kid," spat Rikiga. "You never get tired of spewing insults, do you? Once this settles down, you're in for it. You remember that." Rikiga unclasped his hands and rolled his shoulder joints.
"So, what now?" he said. "We've accomplished our big goal of destroying the Correctional Facility. As for me, I'm in the mood for heading back to the West Block and crawling into bed. I feel like curling up and dreaming about digging up gold from underneath the Correctional Facility. I'd wake up to the best morning ever. It puts me in a good mood already."
"Old man, you can be sarcastic all you want, but Nezumi's not gonna respond. I'd get a better response out of complaining to that corpse over there." Inukashi chuckled spiritedly, his shoulders shaking with his laughter.
"But truth be told, I'm all for crawling into bed myself. And, well, there are a lot of things that I want to mull over. It doesn't help that it's kinda creepy being inside No. 6. It gives me a bad vibe, makes my skin crawl. Shion, don't you wanna go home, too? It's not too far from here, is it? Your mum must be waiting for you."
"Yeah..." Shion's house was within walking distance from here.
"Don't you wanna see your mum again?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Karan, huh. I'd like to see her too," Rikiga murmured wistfully.
Mom, there's no telling how much I've probably made you worry. I want you to see that I'm doing well. I want you to see that I'm safe. I want to say sorry. I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart. Mom, I'm sorry.
Shion was overwhelmed with nostalgia and love for his mother. He remembered the scent of freshly-baked bread. Yearning. Love. I wish I could see you.
But the only place he wanted to return to was that basement room littered with books. He wanted to go back to that room and its countless volumes, the bed, the stove, and the tattered chair.
I want to go home.
Shion burned with longing.
I want to bring back those days, those moments I spent with Nezumi in that room. I would give up anything.
But he would not return. Those days had long passed, never to come within his grasp again.
It was a premonition―a premonition which he almost certainly believed would come true. Shion purposely averted his eyes from it. He knew well it was a sign of weakness, but he did it anyway.
Shion stood up and turned to face Nezumi.
"Can you move?"
Nezumi lifted himself up from where he was leaning on the wall, and let out a long breath. A thin sheen of sweat covered his forehead.
"Aria, can you measure his blood pressure, pulse, and body temperature? Based on that, tell me what an appropriate treatment for him would be."
"Understood. Understood. Blood pressure, pulse, body temperature, commencing measurements. Commencing measurements."
"No need." Nezumi shook his head in refusal. "It's a waste of time."
He brushed off Aria's extended pipes, and sighed again.
"M'lady, with all due respect, allow me to politely decline your offer. We don't have time for treatment."
Aria blinked, and her eyes turned yellow.
"Due respect, decline, time. Cannot comprehend. Cannot comprehend. Aborting measurements."
"Nezumi, you plan to go?"
Inukashi and Rikiga looked at each other.
"Go where?" Rikiga asked. Inukashi scowled in silence.
"To city hall," Shion answered.
"City hall? You mean the Moondrop?"
"Wh―do you know what state that place is in right now?" Rikiga exclaimed. "I mean, I don't know myself, but... it's sure to be chaos. The Security Bureau is cracking down on citizens left and right―shot some of them, even. They've probably gotten word of what happened to the Correctional Facility. The rest of the people will find out about it soon―No. 6 doesn't have the power to suppress the spread of information like it used to. The confusion is only going to get worse. It'll be completely out of control."
"That's why we're going." Nezumi smiled wanly. Nezumi had countless deft ways to smile. This one was a cold smile with a hint of mockery.
"It's our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see No. 6 perform its last dying shriek on stage. We better hurry, or we won't even get standing seats."
"With the state you're in?" Rikiga replied incredulously. "You can't do it, Eve. Sure, you might be stronger than you look, but you're human. You have limits. Don't do it. No. 6 will play its star role even if we're not in the audience. It'll pull off its role of the wretched, self-destructing giant with flying colours."
"You're telling me to throw away this chance and retreat with my tail between my legs?"
"Yes. You two destroyed the Correctional Facility, and that definitely helped trigger the demise of No. 6. That's amazing, and you've done enough. More than enough. Eve, Shion, don't go further than this. Back off and let nature take its course. It's time for you two to retreat backstage."
"Being backstage staff is not my style," Nezumi said. "Neither is throwing away a chance that's already in my hands."
"Your greed is bottomless," Rikiga said in disgust. "Listen to me, don't make me say this again. Your part is over. It's not worth it to risk your lives to stand onstage."
Shion stood in front of Rikiga and shook his head.
"Rikiga-san, we have to go. We have to go, no matter what."
"Shion, you too? Why? What for? You were able to escape the Correctional Facility, a damn miracle it was. Why won't you retreat to where it's safe? Doesn't your life mean anything to you?"
"We're not going because we want to die," Shion said firmly. "We're going because he's the only one who can stop Elyurias."
"Elyurias?" Rikiga's eyes darted about. "What is that? Someone's name?"
"She's the queen who once ruled over this land. I don't know if 'queen' is the right name for her―she never tried to dominate her subjects or drain their wealth like humans do. She only protected the rules of the forest, and the workings of nature."
"Shion... what are you talking about?" Rikiga drew his chin back. A bead of sweat rolled along his jawline, across his five-o'clock shadow.
"Humans―the humans who attempted to build No. 6 on this land trampled Elyurias' land and tried to reign over everything within it. They burnt the forests, massacred the Forest People, and tried to build a world that was solely for themselves. Only their own abundance, their own wealth, their own safety and prosperity was their concern. They built a disconnected utopia on a foundation of others' sacrifices."
"Shion," Nezumi called. It was a quiet, beautiful voice. "You know everything?"
"No. What I know is probably only a small part. I only read what was in Rou's chip."
Nezumi sank to the floor. He curled up, and muttered, "I see."
"Hey, keep going," Rikiga said. "I still have no idea what you're talking about. Sounds like complete gibberish. So how is Elyuri-what's-her-face related to what's happening to No. 6? What do you mean when you say Eve is the only one who can stop her? Shion, give me the details."
"I'd love to hear all about it, too." Inukashi clicked his tongue lightly. His hands were full with numerous bags.
"What―where did you go? What is all that?"
"Clothes and food. Bland soup and bread just doesn't do it for me. And besides, if we're going to watch a play, I think we need to look a little more decent. They wouldn't even let us in the standing seats."
Inukashi dug out a chunk of meat and a roll from the bag, and tossed it at the dogs. The dogs promptly pounced without even raising their voices. The mice skilfully stopped a tumbling roll, and lined up to nibble at it.
"Good. Eat," Inukashi said proudly. "Eat as much as you want. You guys worked hard. You did a good job. This is your reward. Heh heh, that's the amazing thing about No. 6. Even a clinic in the middle of nowhere like this has a kitchen full of food. Not to mention expensive-looking clothes. Heh heh, heh heh heh heh, this place is full of top-notch items. I could get a good price for this in the West Block."
"You've come this far and you're still thieving?" Rikiga said.
"Who cares? The doctor is dead. Dead people don't need food or clothes."
"Well... I guess you're right. Hey, pass me some ham, bread, and those blue pants."
"I'll sell them to you for one silver piece."
"Inukashi, you bastard, you just said goodbye to your ride," Rikiga snarled. "You can walk back to the West Block."
"I was kidding, yeesh! Old man has no sense of humour. That's why all the women trick you out of your money. Anyway, come on, let's eat. We gotta prepare for the road ahead."
Inukashi turned a bag upside down. Ham, apples and bread tumbled out.
"Let's have a banquet while we listen to the story Shion The Great has got to tell. Sounds like an interesting one."
Inukashi's eyes glittered from underneath his long bangs. His pink tongue flitted across his lips again and again.
"Maybe he'll tell us who Nezumi really is. This is bound to be interesting. In fact, I'm way more interested in this than a drama starring No. 6, to be honest."
Shion scooped up an apple.
"Nezumi, can you eat?"
"Ah, I haven't recovered to that point yet. I'm not hungry."
"I figured as much. Aria, can you give him some glucose solution?"
"Understood. Understood. Commencing glucose transfusion."
"I'd like a transfusion of wine," Rikiga chimed in.
"You'll have to settle with grape juice. There were two bottles in the fridge." Inukashi handed a bottle of reddish-purple liquid to Rikiga.
"Alright, Shion. We're all ready. Spit out everything you know." His pink tongue flitted across his lips again. Shion peered at Nezumi, apple still in hand.
"Nezumi... is it alright?"
Nezumi inclined his head very slightly. He propped his knees up, and put his face down on his arms. He looked like he was either crying, or bearing a wind that was blowing against him.
Shion took a bite of the apple. Its tart juice burst inside his mouth.
Inukashi and Rikiga leaned forward, Inukashi clutching a piece of bread and ham in each of his hands, and Rikiga gripping a bottle of grape juice.
The two had put their lives in the balance for Shion and Nezumi. They had acted on Shion and Nezumi's word with next to no knowledge of what they were doing. In other words, they had believed in the two boys. They had invested their lives into their belief. Telling them everything was the only way to match the leap of trust they took, and to answer to their dedication.
He knew Nezumi must feel the same.
Shion began to speak.
I don't think I need to tell you about how No. 6 was created. Humankind tried to build a utopia once again on this planet, which was half destroyed by human hands.
Before No. 6 was born, this area was a miraculously preserved stretch of beautiful, abundant forest. I said miraculous, but this land―its forests, woods, and lakes― was actually meant to survive. Elyurias and the Forest People protected this realm. It was because of her that this land's wildlife was spared damage.
No one can explain who or what Elyurias is. Even the name Elyurias was given to her by a researcher. ―I met him, in the basement of the Correctional Facility.
"Basement of the Correctional Facility?" Rikiga choked on his juice and had a coughing fit. "So there was a basement in there, after all!"
"How about gold bullion? Was there gold bullion in there, Shion?"
"Gold? No. There were people living underground. Back when the Correctional Facility wasn't such a brutal and vigilant incarceration facility, people who escaped but couldn't return above ground began to build their own underground world in secret. The leader of this group was called Rou."
"...So there was no gold, after all." Rikiga hunched over, clearly crestfallen. Inukashi guffawed, baring his teeth.
Rou was a member of a revival project team chosen to design and build No. 6 on this land. Before No. 6 was created, there used to be a small, pretty town at the edge of the forest. People who survived through the waste and decay lived modestly here in a tightly-knit community. This town was the mother of No. 6.
Bright young people were chosen from that town to form a team to build a utopian city.
"My town." Rikiga drew himself up. "That's the town I was born and raised in. It used to be called the Town of Roses―that's how beautiful it was. Karan also used to live there."
"No one asked you, old man." Inukashi bared his teeth even more. "If you're not gonna shut up, I'll tear apart your throat for you."
"I'd like to see you try. You can rip my throat out, but I'll still keep talking. Oh, yes, that revival project team. I heard about them. Back in those days, I was still a pimply youngster chasing after girls and blushing at their ankles. They were holding some kind of selection exam to gather skilled young people from the science fields to make a brighter future for humankind. Yes, yes, I remember."
Rikiga folded his arms and nodded enthusiastically.
"That was how No. 6 began. And not long after that, No. 6 was born as the sixth and best, most optimal utopian city. It grew at an astonishing speed."
"And before you knew it, you dropout failures were shoved outside the walls. Pity," Inukashi said nastily.
"You should be the one keeping your mouth shut, Inukashi. I'll yank out that long tongue of yours and turn it into mincemeat. In those days, I'd just become a journalist. The fact that the city-state was walling itself in, trying to build a barrier around itself, just seemed really shady to me. I wrote a whole slew of articles that talked about it. It was natural that I was thrown out of the city. It was around that time that No. 6 became more and more intolerant and domineering."
It was precisely that.
No. 6 grew at a stunning rate. Its infrastructure, governing bodies and regulations were swiftly and skilfully laid out. In the midst of it all, Rou met Elyurias.
Rou himself wasn't able to define Elyurias well―was she a forest spirit? Or a species of animal unknown to humankind?
The only thing he knew for sure was that Elyurias existed long before the birth of humankind, protecting this land. The Forest People worshipped her, revered her, and lived in harmony with her.
"Right, so who are these 'forest people' that you keep talking about?"
"Will you shut up, old man? Can't you listen quietly for once? Geez." Inukashi gave an exaggerated sigh.
Shion turned and glanced at Nezumi slumped against the wall. His eyes were closed. His profile was beautiful, but it looked somewhat artificial.
"Glucose transfusion, 50% complete. 50% complete. Continuing transfusion." Aria's eyes blinked green.
Nezumi said nothing. His eyes remained meditatively shut, his body perfectly still.
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 156. (back)