The Arms of Reason
. . . but he who, provoked and nettled to the quick by an offence, should fortify himself with the arms of reason against the furious appetite of revenge, and after a great conflict, master his own passion, would certainly do a great deal more.
-Montaigne, Essays Book 2 Chapter XI
The shutters closed.
Shion sprang up, and took in his surroundings. Teal walls and a teal hallway stretched out before him. The floor was made of a smooth, glossy material polished to a spotless sheen, and reminded him of the cleanliness of a hospital.
However, unlike a hospital, there were no windows or doors.
He felt like he had been shut into a durable box. No, it wasn’t like a box―thiswas a box, a sealed box. There were three barriers between where he stood now and the prisoners’ wing up ahead. Once all of them came down, the box would further seal itself into multiple compartments.
The barriers, far from being just walls, were also designed to release high-voltage current. This beautiful colour, close to indigo dye, was the colour of the execution grounds.
The alarm went off.
The barriers began to roll down.
“Nezumi, run. We have to make it through.”
Nezumi kicked off the ground. They ducked past the first barrier. The second one was halfway down; the third one was already two-thirds of the way down.
Shion and Nezumi had reached the end of the hallway by the time the third barrier had closed completely.
“Why, Shion?” Nezumi asked. “Why are the barriers so slow? Getting through them is easy, at the speed they’re going.”
“It might be… easy… for you…” Shion gasped. His heart was straining in protest from running through the hallway in a single dash. He couldn’t breathe. It was far from easy for him―he was almost at his limit. If the barriers had fallen a second earlier, Shion would have been caught between the barrier and the floor, his back snapped in half.
“But this speed doesn’t make sense. Why is it?”
“That accident… it’s thanks to… the commotion about the smell…”
“What do you mean?”
“I copied and sent… the emergency signal that the third-floor computer recorded… to the fourth-floor monitoring system. Along with a deactivation signal, too. Right afterwards, the sensors would register us… and then notify the system of an emergency again. Activation, deactivation, and reactivation…”
“I see. And that took up a bit of time. But I don’t know how you could have done it in such a short while. The third and fourth floors operate on different systems, don’t they?”
“…Yeah, well, I managed.” Shion had not expected it to go this well. He had figured it was all or nothing and given it a try, but he himself was surprised that such a simple deception tactic would work against a leading, cutting-edge defence system.
It’s almost like God’s hand had a part in it.
Did someone send us help?
That’s absurd, that would never happen. But…
I heard a voice call my name. Only for a moment. This voice…
No way, I’m hearing things.
Nezumi narrowed his eyes. The sharp glint in them condensed.
“And the door we’re making for?”
“The wall up ahead, on the far right.”
Nezumi ran a hand against the wall.
“Oh, here.” It was almost indiscernible from the teal wall, but there was certainly a slight crack there. “There aren’t any handles or sensors. How do you open it?”
Yes, there were no handles or sensors. And ever since the computer-operated maintenance system had been completed, this door had gone out of use and lost all meaning.
“There might be an old-fashioned lock on it,” Shion suggested.
“My, my. How careless of them.”
No one would be able to get this far without a legitimate ID chip. Even if they had, no one would take notice of this door. This was No. 6’s judgment, and also its folly.
“―which means we might be able to open it pretty easily. Ah… it’s just like you said. There’s a keyhole here. Looks like it’ll break easily.”
“Can you do it, Nezumi?”
“Probably. I can’t let you steal all the spotlight. But before that, I think we have to deal with those over there.”
“Huh?” Shion tried to turn around, and was shoved in the shoulder instead. He staggered.
A ray of light whizzed past Shion’s eyes. It hit the wall, and left a small burn.
“Well, well. Look what you’ve done to the wall, and it’s polished up so nicely, too. That would cost you a written apology, wouldn’t it?” Nezumi hunched his shoulders in mock exasperation.
Three gunmen stood before them. They were clad in military gear―dirt-coloured combat uniforms and boots. Two barrels were pointed at Nezumi, and one at Shion.
“Don’t move. Put your hands up.” The man in the lead stepped forward, and took aim with his gun.
“Huh?” Nezumi said in mock surprise. “Oh, hey, will you wait a minute? You gonna shoot me right here? Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? I think I’d like to talk to my attorney first.”
The man wordlessly wrapped his finger around the trigger.
“You sure about that? We’re valuable samples.”
The man stopped mid-movement. He had responded to the word “sample”.
“Sample… you say?”
“Yeah. You guys are collecting samples, aren’t you? For the Almighty Mayor’s project?”
The men all shifted uneasily, and exchanged furtive glances. For a split second, there was a moment of vulnerability.
Tsukiyo sprang forth from inside Nezumi’s shirt, dashed along the length of the gun, leapt up, and bit down on the man’s nose.
“Whoa!” The man leaned back. Nezumi’s knife slashed through his wrist. Blood splattered everywhere, patterning the wall. Snatching the gun from the falling man, Nezumi took aim a second ahead of the men behind him, and pulled the trigger.
He shot one man through the shoulder, and the other through his hand; both men cried out in pain. Nezumi spun around on one foot as if doing a dance, and this time shot the laser gun at the wall. He swung a kick into it next. Tsukiyo scurried up his shoulder.
A space revealed itself, wide enough for an adult to get through if he crouched. It was pitch-black inside.
“Ugh… it hurts…”
“Help me… help…” The men were groaning. Shion could hear the sound of rapid footsteps. More soldiers, each with a gun in hand, were rushing onto the scene.
There was a curved handle on the inside of the door. Shion pulled it as hard as he could. The door closed with a screech and a bang. They were shut into complete darkness.
Just as he had predicted, there was a set of stairs in a steep slope, almost like a ladder. Shion shed his lab coat and tied one end to the door handle and the other end to the handrails of the stairs. It wasn’t much of a solution, but it would buy them some time.
Nezumi slung the gun over his shoulder and clambered lightly up the steps. Shion followed after him. The stairs continued up on their steep slope, straight into the darkness.
His breathing grew laboured. The sweat stung in his eyes. His feet threatened to trip him up. Shion pressed on desperately. A moment of lateness could cost him his life. It would endanger not only his own life, but Nezumi’s as well. He wanted to avoid putting Nezumi into danger at all costs. He knew he was already a great burden to Nezumi, but he at least wanted to avoid putting him in harm’s way.
Nezumi muttered something.
“What? I didn’t hear.”
“Nothing. …Just noticing how you didn’t make a fuss.”
“Make a fuss?”
“About those soldiers. There was lots of blood flying back there. Usually you’d rattle off some grand spiel about how we shouldn’t harm others.”
“Oh…” So that’s what he meant.
The screams resounded in his ears. They didn’t belong to the soldiers. They were voices of the people whose lives had been wrenched from them unfairly in the basement of the Correctional Facility.
It hurts. I can’t breathe. Help me.
O God, O God. Why do you make me suffer?
Please, just save my boy. He’s only three.
Kill me. Please, release me from my pain…
Help, help, help, help, somebody.
What was a spray of blood on the teal floor compared to this brutality, this ruthlessness? The soldiers would receive care and medical attention from their comrades who were rushing onto the scene. But those people…
Those who had been sacrificed in the Hunt, those murdered people did not even have a way to alleviate the suffering of their dying moments. Their groans, their gasps, their cries, and their shrieks. It resounded in his ears.
“We have no choice,” he spoke to Nezumi’s back in the darkness. “It can’t be helped. We have to defeat the enemy. If you hadn’t taken them down, I would have been killed.”
Nezumi stopped. Shion could see a pair of grey eyes. His heart grew restless.Even in this darkness, your eyes glow with elegance.
“It can’t be helped… you really feel that way?”
“…I see.” Nezumi resumed walking. He walked swiftly. Shion could barely keep up.
“Back there, we were still able to go easy on them. From now on, we won’t have the chance to be as nice. You were right: we have to defeat the enemy, or else we’ll be killed ourselves.”
“If that happens…” Shion couldn’t hear the rest. He snapped his eyes open in the darkness.
“Nezumi, I can’t hear you. Say it a little louder.”
“No… never mind.” Nezumi breathed out softly in the dark.
He closed his mouth.
Never sigh in earnest.
They were the words of the old woman who had saved him from the flames that devoured the forest, the village, and their homes. She had raised him until the age of five.
Bite your lips to shreds before you let yourself sigh. Throw your head back at the pain. Never look down. Look forward. And most of all―
Never trust anyone. Never open your heart. Remember that. You must engrave these words into your memory in order to survive.
He had been taught over and over. It wasn’t that he had forgotten. Each word, each letter was deeply carved into his heart―like a mantra, like a curse.
Sighing creates an opening, a vulnerability. If you want to stay alive, keep your mouth shut. Never let anyone see your weak spot. Let your heart warm to no one. Never trust anyone but yourself.
You, at least… you at least must survive… you, at least…
He gripped the handrail.
Forgive me, gran. I’ve gone against what you’ve told me. I’ve sighed many times for another. I believed him, and opened my heart to him. I placed the shackles around my own feet. But I couldn’t have done otherwise. I couldn’t cut him away.
“Nezumi,” Shion was calling. He was out of breath. He had probably used up a considerable amount of energy. “What’re you thinking about?”
“You wanna know what I’m thinking about now? Getting to the top of these stairs safely. Maybe a little wondering about what’s waiting to welcome us at the top, I guess.”
It was you, Shion.
I was thinking about you.
You said we had no choice. They’re enemies, so we had no choice but to make them bleed. If we didn’t kill them, we’d be killed ourselves. That’s why we had to take them down.
That’s what fighting is. We kill, or get killed: those are the only choices. And in a melee, there is no such thing as justice or morality. I know that. It’s been instilled into the marrow of my bones. But, Shion, you―are you just going to accept that? Are you able to? Are you letting yourself?
‘You put everything into dichotomies. You either love or you hate. You’re either friends or enemies. Outside the wall, or inside the wall. And you always say you can only ever choose one of them.’
‘Don’t you think that there could be a third way?’
I had scoffed at what you’d said. I scorned it as a naive fantasy. But you know what? I felt intimidated, too. I felt threatened by your naivety, but also your strength to be able to speak of fantasies as if they were plausible. When I heard those words, just for an instant―a short instant, mind you―I could really see a way. A white path rose up behind my eyelids.
The third way.
The way to seek cohabitation rather than retribution, perhaps?
A way that chooses acceptance over revenge?
Could such a thing exist, apart from in illusions? Could it exist in the hearts of people?
I’ve been thinking about it all this time. I didn’t want to think about it, but your words always sat adamantly in the middle of my thoughts, reminding me constantly. ‘Turn your thoughts to this third way,’ they would tell me, ‘don’t refuse, don’t look away; keep thinking about this path.’
I haven’t found the answer yet. That’s why I’m still thinking. I’m still fixated on your words, and pondering them.
But Shion, now this is what you’re saying?
‘We have no choice.’
If in the future, I end up killing someone―no, if you yourself were to harm someone―how about then? Would you still say so?
‘We had no choice.’
They were at the top of the stairs. It was such a cramped space that they had barely any room to stand.
“Shion, there’s no exit.”
There was no handle or button to be found. Only a blank wall.
We’ve messed up.
His heart pounded. Cold sweat streamed down his back. If this was a dead end, then there was no escape for them. They could not fend off the pursuers coming from below.
Nezumi’s body sprang into motion on Shion’s orders.
Bang. The middle portion of the ceiling opened up like a trap door. Nezumi kicked off the ground, and launched himself up. Just then, he heard a clamour below.
The door had been forced open.
“They’re up there! Aim for them!” The unique dry popping sound of firearms.
“Shion!” He extended his hand, and he could feel Shion latching onto it tightly. He pulled the other boy up.
“Agh!” Shion let out a small cry.
“Did they get you?”
“―’m alright. Just a graze.”
Once they shut the trap door, all noise was cut off, and only an eerie silence remained. Shion let out a long breath.
“Does it hurt?”
“No―no big deal.”
“First time, huh?”
“It’s your first time getting fired at. And a sniper rifle, at that―a pretty old firearm. Sleek looks, deadly accuracy. That’s the kind of formidable lady you’re dealing with.”
“I see. Well, attractive as she is, I wouldn’t like to go on any future dates with her.” Shion laughed quietly as he bound his calf.
Perhaps he was straining himself. But it meant that he could still push himself further, and that the wound wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t move. Not that it mattered how bad his injury was, anyway: they had to keep moving. They could not stay in one place.
That was why he would not question Shion further. He would not concern himself with the boy. They only had to keep moving forward together.
“Shion, where’s this?”
“A part of the old air vents. I suppose they used these when this place was just built. But soon afterwards, they built new external reinforced walls. They added circulatory filtration devices, and these vents went out of use.”
“Which means they stopped needing them right when the Correctional Facility was turning into a stronghold. So the old vents must be―here.” Nezumi’s extended hand pointed to a rectangular tunnel.
“What’s down this way?” he asked.
“Probably a dead end. They’ve probably blocked it up partway.”
“I thought so. I figured it wouldn’t be as easy as worming our way right to the internal core through the vents.”
“Yeah. But we’ll have to go as far as we can.”
He was right. There was no way back. They had no choice but to go as far as they could go.
“Shion, I’ll boost you up. Go on ahead.”
Shion dove into the hole more nimbly than Nezumi expected. He felt the slimy texture of blood as he supported Shion’s leg. He clenched his hand into a fist.
“Hey, this thing opens.” The upper body of a soldier peeked into view along with his voice. As soon as the soldier hoisted himself up, Nezumi kicked his chin so it snapped back, and swung his rifle butt down on the man’s temple. He dragged the unconscious body up into the vent, aimed his gun through the opening, and began to fire. He heard bodies tumbling down the stairs. He closed the trapdoor, and rolled the soldier’s body over it.
“He’s got a nice beer gut. That should serve as a good weight.” Nezumi rifled through the man’s pockets and almost whistled.
“Nezumi, what’re you doing? Hurry up,” Shion called.
“Don’t rush me. We gotta get the most we can from them,” he answered.
He entered the hole head-first. It was cramped. He had to lie flat on his belly in order to even move. Tsukiyo hopped out from the folds of his clothes and scurried down the tunnel.
“It’s like a mouse hole in here,” Shion reflected idly.
Still got his wits, he thought fleetingly. The boy was calmer than he expected. It wasn’t an ignorant kind of calm; Shion understood his situation well enough. He felt the danger and tension of it, and yet also had room to be calm on top of it all.
“We couldn’t have gotten through here if we were any fatter,” Shion said thoughtfully.
“Well, I guess.”
“Inukashi could get through just fine. Rikiga-san might have a bit of trouble.”
“Rikiga? You mean the alcoholic geezer? He wouldn’t have been able to get this far in the first place. He would’ve tripped and fallen over when we had to dash down the hall.”
“So by now…”
“He would’ve been charred black. I feel ill just imagining what Roasted Old Man would look like.”
Tsukiyo answered in place of Shion. Shion stopped moving.
Dead end. I see. So this is it.
“It’s a dead end. But…” Shion’s palm slid along the wall. There was a softclunk as a part of it fell away. Light seeped through.
“The grate. They must’ve blocked it from our side.”
“What do you see?”
Shion tilted his body sideways to make an opening. Nezumi looked out through the plastic bars.
It was a tidy and spacious room that looked like a laboratory. Straight across from them was a large glass window, where several male and female researchers were huddled together, peering through it and conversing animatedly. A man said something with a grandiose gesture, and a long-haired woman gave a toothy grin. They both had steaming mugs in hand. Apart from them were several other staff busy looking into their computer screens. There was also a stooped-looking man bustling about on foot.
“It looks like a comfortable room,” Nezumi commented. “Maybe they’d let me use their shower if I asked. Let’s pay them a visit.”
“What? We can’t get out through such a tiny opening.”
“If it’s too small, we just have to make it wider.”
“Keep back, Shion. Just retreat as you are.”
“Nezumi, what’re you gonna do?”
“Is that… a miniature bomb?” Shion swallowed.
“Yup. A coin-shaped micro-bomb, more like. It even comes with a timer, and I can control how large the explosion’s gonna be. It was a good buy.”
“Where did you buy it? I didn’t even realize.”
“Are you being dense on purpose?” Nezumi said irritably. “Did we have time to do shopping since we got here? I nicked it from Beer Gut earlier. But anyway, who cares about that. Shion, get back. A little more. And take Tsukiyo.”
“Perfect. Hold your head with both hands. Once it explodes, we’re gonna jump right out. Be prepared.”
Nezumi shrugged his superfibre cape off, and covered his head with it. He kept retreating until his foot touched Shion’s shoulder.
“Now it’s like you’re shielding me. I might end up safe, but you―”
“Idiot. Who the fuck cares about our positions at this point? Stop wasting your breath.”
How stupid can he get?
What an idiot. But it was just like Shion. No matter the situation, he never forgot about others. It was just like him, indeed.
Relief welled up from the bottom of his chest.
An explosion. And then, wind. A blast of air rushed through the cramped tunnel. Tsukiyo let out a shrill squeal of terror.
“Shion! You safe?”
“Of course. Tsukiyo and I are both okay.”
There was no dust, perhaps because the wall was made of a special material. The bomb was considerably powerful, and despite the fact that he had set it to make the smallest explosion possible, it had blown apart a large part of the wall.
They jumped down. Screams rang out all around. Staff began to flee the room.
“Who are you?” A heavyset man drew a gun from his lab coat. Nezumi rushed at him and aimed a swift swipe at the base of his neck. The man fell forward onto his belly.
The security bells were ringing.
Keep running like this?
They couldn’t stay here for long. In a few dozen seconds, soldiers would be streaming into the room. They had no choice but to run. But to where?
“Shion, what next? Give me orders. Hurry.”
There was no answer.
Shion, what’s wrong? Don’t tell me…
A cold sweat trickled down his spine.
He turned around to see Shion at the glass window, looking down through it as the staff members had been doing earlier. A dim light filtered through the highly-polished glass pane.
“What the hell are you doing? Move!”
Shion slowly turned his face towards Nezumi. He was completely ashen. His features were rigid, almost wooden. Nezumi had never seen Shion with such a face before.
As soon as the thought passed, he realized that the hem of Shion’s pants was soaked red. The gunshot wound had been deep. He’s fainting from blood loss. That was his first thought.
“Shion, you alright?”
A pair of lips trembled lightly in the deathly pale face.
“Nezumi… this…” Shion trailed off, and swallowed with some difficulty. “What is this…?”
There was no time to stop. He knew well enough, but the stricken expression on Shion’s face drew him to stand by his side. His foot trampled something. It was a wooden photo frame. In the photo was a woman with a baby in her arms and a boy of about ten. It had probably been knocked off a staff member’s desk. It was an outdated digital display. Both the woman and the boy were smiling somewhat sheepishly from the photo.
He lifted his gaze, and looked through the glass in front of him.
The space beyond was a storey lower, as if it were embedded in the ground. The ceiling was higher, accordingly. It was a room with white walls.
He had recoiled without even thinking.