Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bow Wow! -Two Dog Night- Chapter 1

(Download the updated version in PDF/epub format here.)

An update. Enjoy.

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Chapter 1: Kuzu


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Five years later. Winter.


Saturday afternoon. The Western District, an area once intended to be an underground shopping mall.


<Ah-ah-ah—Aaahh… Testing… Ahem. How’s the weather today? Clear? Cloudy? Rough? Easy on the skin? How’s it feel? Who cares? Now, let’s perk up with some radio dramas! Didn’t get permission from the almighty producers, though, so if they send in swarms of lawyers from the mainland, everyone listenin’ had better come say hi! Now, let’s all be one happy family of accomplices.>


An odd, mechanically modulated voice screeched from the speakers installed all around the artificial island. The city had only one radio station of its own—Sōsei(1) Airwaves—and the voice was part of its regularly scheduled programming.

The producer probably originally imagined blue airwaves under the blue sky, but the people of the city usually called it ‘Buruburu Airwaves’, derived from the word ‘blue’. In more recent days, they shortened it further to ‘Burururu’ or ‘Buu’. The radio station had hijacked the PA system that was originally intended for public announcements.

Because airwaves from the mainland reached the island, the locals could enjoy radio and television. Even some little shacks owned by vagrants and cardboard shelters were home to televisions and computers, and everyone sought whatever forms of entertainment they preferred.

But the problem with mainland broadcasts was that they did not cover information limited to the island. Ultimately, locals turned to the island’s very own pirate radio for in-depth information on the bridge and the artificial island. Television and radio were the only sources of entertainment for the desperate. Those even more desperate never had the time to seek out entertainment.

But whether sought or not, the radio forcibly broadcast itself all around the island. Because the broadcasts had begun before most of the locals had moved in, and because the station generally kept the broadcasts to daylight hours, not many were hostile to it. Most people, in fact, treated it like part of the ambience.


“Man, Mr. Kuzuhara. Can you believe we’ll be getting snow soon?”

There was a large system of streets underground. If things had gone according to plan, they would have been lined with all sorts of establishments—it would have been one of the busiest shopping centers in the city.

But because people had flocked to the former shopping areas of each district, the streets were now some of the busiest residential areas on the island. The radio broadcast was not the only source of sound. All around them, they could hear something like engines rumbling. Probably the locals’ personal generators.

“Mr. Kuzuhara? Are you listening?”

“...Yeah.”

Surrounded by noise, the man called Kuzuhara spoke. He was tall with a muscular frame, and several scars were prominent on his face.

About a dozen men were following behind him. The one who had spoken first looked to be the youngest of the group.

Put simply, the men were part of the district’s volunteer police force. But they were not public officials of any sort—they served more as private security guards than anything else.

The city was divided into multiple sections, each under the management of a different organization—a branch of a criminal syndicate, a mafia group that had drifted from China, or a gathering of immigrants. Most areas were overseen by criminal organizations, but none stood for them directly. There were even rumors that some corporations were sponsoring some of the groups.

How true were the rumors? Not even Sōji Kuzuhara, the captain of the district’s volunteer police force, knew. Not only was the island too large to completely grasp, the organizations that controlled the areas shifted and changed hands every day. The larger shifts were reported by Sōsei Airwaves, but that was just cold comfort.

And even if the boundary lines were redrawn, it did not affect the residents. Slight inflation or deflation in the area at the very most.

“We’re gonna get more people in here once it starts snowing. Are we gonna have to clean up their mess this year? Again?”

“Enough complaining.”

Naturally, snow came to the artificial island as well. Those living aboveground were forced down during that season.

“We even had to shovel snow last year. It’s a pain in the ass, to be honest.”

“At least we don’t get as much as Sado or Niigata.”

“Aw, man. You’d be surprised at how little snow Sado actually gets. It’s not much different from here. You probably think Niigata gets buried every winter ‘cause you’re from Kanto, Mr. Kuzuhara. Last year and the year before that—that’s about how much we’re supposed to—are you listening?”

Kuzuhara did not answer. The younger man went quiet, disconcerted by their leader’s silence.

It was three years ago that Kuzuhara joined the volunteer police force. He was originally a police officer in Tokyo, but after a certain incident, he came to the island as though in escape.

As the men walked in silence, they soon heard angry shouts mixed with the radio broadcast, along with loud noises.

Finally, Kuzuhara gave an order. It was a very vague and brusque command, but the men behind him nodded gravely in unison.

“…Let’s go.”


About thirty or forty people were causing a commotion at an intersection, and five or six men were running around at the center of it.

As they swore at one another, there came the sound of a bottle shattering and something sharp digging into flesh. By the time Kuzuhara and the others arrived, the shouting had already transcended comprehensible language, and blood was splattering on the bare, tile-less floor.

Some in the very last row of onlookers noticed their arrival and raised their voices.

“Hey! It’s Kuzuhara! He’s here!”

“Move, make way!”

“That was damn fast…”

“Kill him!”

The commotion inflated in an instant, and the onlookers stood aside as though taking cover.

It was like they were making way for a wrestler headed for the ring. But the scene unfolding before Kuzuhara and his men was not the battle they expected, but a one-sided massacre.

Two men were already lying on the ground; four were stomping them underfoot and cursing.

Having yet to notice the arrival of the volunteer police force, the four continued to furiously trample the two.

“This isn’t even a fight anymore.” The youngest policeman sighed. Without even flinching at the sight, Kuzuhara strode right up to the lynching.

One of the four men finally noticed Kuzuhara and tapped his friends on the shoulders in horror.

The stomping came to an end and a hushed silence came over them.

“Whaddaya want, asshole.”

The man who seemed to be the leader of the four turned, bluffing. A faint hint of fear was running through his eyes.

“Keep it down.”

With that, Kuzuhara looked down at the fallen men.

Both were covered in blood from head to waist, and their noses had been twisted in odd directions.

He gestured. The men waiting behind him stepped forward, took up the injured with their ragged breathing, and left.

“What the fuck d’yall think you’re doin’?”

One of the four men grabbed Kuzuhara by the shoulder and forcibly turned him around.

“You ain’t pullin’ shit—waaaaaaaaah?!”

Before the man could even finish his threat, his world was turned upside-down.

As he turned, Kuzuhara grabbed the thug by the collar, hoisted him into the air singlehandedly, and with that same momentum, threw the man to the ground.

“————!”

The man might have tried to scream; but he landed hard on his back and was left gasping for breath.

The other three flushed a deep red as they lunged at Kuzuhara, but they were beaten by the other members of the volunteer police force.

Angry howls filled the intersection, but the police restrained the men with utter calm.

Though there was a police force on the streets, there were no legal systems. Communities like these tended to have rules of their own, but even those were fleeting and ever-changing on the artificial island.

As a result, the volunteer police force could only take wrongdoers into custody and lock them up in storehouses temporarily. What happened to them afterwards was for the higher-ups to decide. Some people Kuzuhara had arrested many times, and some he never saw on the streets again. Whether they disappeared to the mainland or into the sea, he had no way of knowing and no intention of figuring out.

The situation was brought under control with almost tedious speed. Kuzuhara, deciding to wrap things up personally, went over to the man he threw. All that was left was to restrain him like the others—

The thug pulled out a gun as he staggered to his feet.

Quiet screams came from the crowd of onlookers, and those who first glimpsed the gun began to run first. But naturally, it was the front row that first saw, and the rows further back that didn’t know what was going on ended up blocking their way and causing confusion.

The volunteer police tensed as well, surprised at the weapon.

But in a different sense from the civilians.

“Th-that idiot.”

“Can’t believe he pulled a gun on Mr. Kuzuhara.”

The policemen whispered amongst themselves, almost feeling sorry for the man.


“Die, you sonovabitch.”

With ragged breaths, the man pointed the gun at Kuzuhara. They were standing only a meter apart. He couldn’t miss.

Yet Kuzuhara showed no reaction. With the barest hint of a scowl, he ignored the gun and reached forward.

“Graaaaah!”

With a strange battle cry, the thug put pressure into his trigger finger.

Several gunshots rang clearly in the underground, and the onlookers screamed and scattered. The policemen and some of the onlookers, however, remained to watch the rest unfold.

The bullets hit Kuzuhara square in the torso. His large figure trembled at each shot, but his hand continued to reach for the man.

“G-goddammit—”

Unable to mask his fear, the thug made to shoot again. He raised the gun and held it to Kuzuhara’s face to finish him off and pulled the trigger—

Kuzuhara’s right palm covered the opening and caught the bullets as he grabbed the gun by the muzzle.

Then, he twisted around his wrist and easily snatched the gun with his free hand. The bullet never pierced his palm, blocked by a thick black glove.

“Wh-what in hell?! Fightin’ cheap—”

Kuzuhara’s fist, still holding the bullets, smashed into the thug’s face like a cannonball.

The thug’s upper body was thrown back like a spring as he was slammed against the wall.

He had scarcely begun sliding down when Kuzuhara’s left fist smashed into his face. The thug was snapped into consciousness by the pain. A second later, Kuzuhara pushed the tip of his boot into his neck. The thug felt as though his spine would break.

“Mr. Kuzuhara. You’re gonna kill the guy if you go any further.”

It was only when a subordinate spoke up behind him that Kuzuhara finally stopped.

“You all right, sir? Your gloves might be good, but I’m scared you dislocated something.”

Kuzuhara made a fist with his right hand, then opened and closed it several times. The special-order gloves he wore did not allow his fingers full dexterity, but they were strong enough that the pain from the bullets did not remain.

“I’m fine.”

Watching Kuzuhara restrain the thug before he even finished speaking, the policemen chatted in awe.

“Bulletproof fibers these days are incredible.”

“That would’ve been a comminuted fracture if it wasn’t Mr. Kuzuhara.”

“Are your ribs all right?”

He had shaken in the instant he was hit, but there wasn’t even a lingering numbness at this point. Though relatively thin, his bulletproof vest was the newest model which excelled in distributing impacts. And above all, his opponent’s gun was of a relatively small caliber.

As Kuzuhara silently finished up, the newest addition to the ranks wondered out loud.

“Why don’t you use a gun, Mr. Kuzuhara? I bet Kugi would be happy to get you one if you just asked.”

The other policemen froze in horror, but Kuzuhara replied without much of a reaction.

“There’s only two groups in Japan who’re allowed to have guns. The police and the SDF.”

Without even turning, he stood to leave.

Jeers and cheers alike erupted from the onlookers who had remained in spite of the gunfire.

Among them, one young man even stepped in front of him and—

“I’m your biggest fan! Could I shake your hand?”

Kuzuhara wondered what he should do, but he felt bad about ignoring the man. He lightly took his hand in a handshake. The young man talked about what an honor it was before he happily stepped aside. Kuzuhara finally left.


The policemen remaining on the scene surrounded the newbie. The thugs were still lying on the ground, and the injured had been taken to a clinic nearby. Many doctors with personal reasons opened shop on the island, so there was no shortage of medical facilities. Clinics ranged from decently equipped to working off the floor.

One of the policemen scowled and quietly scolded the newbie.

“What the hell kinda question was that?”

“D-did I do something wrong?”

Now that the newbie thought about it, Kuzuhara usually never went so far. He only got excessively violent—as he just had—when the opponent pulled out a gun.

“But why—”

“Hey, d’you know why Mr. Kuzuhara ended up here?”

The newbie shook his head. The others sighed.

“He used to be a cop. You know that much, right?”

“Y-yeah. There was some incident though, right? And he got fired?”

“Nah. He quit. …Mr. Kuzuhara was in a shootout. Like the stuff you see on TV. That happens here, but almost never on the mainland, y’know? Ever heard of the Shibuya Incident? Never mind if you haven’t. Important thing is, Mr. Kuzuhara was part of it. Four years ago. Dunno if the guy was a terrorist, but there was this dumbass who was collecting guns in an abandoned factory in the countryside. Shit went down, and the idiots started firing before the riot police showed.”

“Huh… I think I’ve heard of it. Didn’t a kid die or something?”

“Yeah. One of the shots Mr. Kuzuhara fired at the culprit ricocheted off the wall and hit a kid who was hiding in there to play. The culprit got shot and still got arrested alive, but the li’l explorer didn’t make it.”

The newbie remembered reading about the incident in a magazine and recalled the rest of the story. He knew that the case had only reached sensationalistic heights in the aftermath of the shootout.

“Talk about bad luck. Think about it. You’re fresh out of cop school, all burning up with justice and idealism, and all you did was open fire at a guy who was about to shoot a kid. But who knew your one stray bullet would end up in the kid’s head?”

“The officer—”

“Was Mr. Kuzuhara. You know what happened next, right?”

The newbie went silent. If his memory served—

The death was ultimately classified as an accident, but the officer in question and his superior went to visit the girl’s family to apologize.

At first, the parents were forgiving—things couldn’t be helped if it was an accident. But perhaps the policemen should have been on edge from the moment they noticed how the parents were smiling spite of their child’s death. The moment the officer and the superior bowed deeply, gunshots rang out in the suburban home in the middle of the day.

No one knew how the father got his hands on the gun.

The superior was killed on the spot, and the officer was taken to hospital with severe injuries. Because both men were wearing suits, the family must not have known which officer was the one responsible for the death. The superior, who was sitting in the middle of the living room, ended up taking many more bullets.

“The father killed himself on the spot, and in the end, it was just Mr. Kuzuhara left alive. Maybe he was gonna keep going with cop work, even if he got a bad rap, but… he probably took the hint. So he technically resigned.”

Silence filled the street. The newbie soon spoke up hesitantly.

“Um… So Mr. Kuzuhara’s not responsible, right?”

Another policeman turned and replied,

“Like hell. It was his own fault for getting greedy and aiming for the guy’s arm instead of his head or heart. Which is why the first shot ricocheted. That’s what he said to me.”


▶︎


After the morning’s work, Kuzuhara headed out for lunch.

To the outside world, the city was known as a nest of vagrants and punks. But in reality, the population had a varied mix of all sorts of careers and jobs. From running hospitals to restaurants to general stores to barbershops, it was like street vendors in Thailand or Vietnam had been jumbled together inside a single building.

Kuzuhara’s usual haunt was Iizuka’s Restaurant, an eatery next to the main intersection. In spite of being called a restaurant, its offerings consisted of mostly yakisoba and okonomiyaki-related fare—not much different from the tiny food corners next to supermarkets.

Yet business seemed to be booming. Even the foldable tables jutting out into the street were full.

“Talk about busy.”

Just as it occurred to him to look for another place for lunch, high-pitched cheers erupted around him.

“Hey, it’s Kuzu(2)!”

“Buy something, Kuzu!”

From behind he was assaulted by a flying kick. A flurry of solid punches and kicks attacked him from every other direction.

But there was no power behind any of the hits.

“Still as lively as ever.”

Surrounded by children, Kuzuhara smiled for the first time that day. The children lived in the vicinity. There were about thirty of them on that street alone, and most were from the artificial island. And, naturally, some had no official records.

The group of children who mobbed Kuzuhara this time were the children of the woman who ran the restaurant.

“Lively, shmively. You gotta be dyin’ of hunger, Kuzu! Hurry the hell up and buy something.”

“Let’s try and keep your mouth clean, huh?”

“O-ouch! Uncle, uncle! Uncle! Ack!”

As Kuzuhara performed a Neck Hanging Tree on the oldest of the boys, a customer left the round table near the front. The children rushed over and began banging on the tabletop, shouting, “Kuzu! Kuzu! Over here, quick!”. A man at the next table turned to scold them, but spotted Kuzuhara and went back to what he was doing.

“Guys, indoor voices.” He warned the children. They were quiet for a moment, but quickly began chattering again as soon as he took a seat.

“Y’gotta buy, Kuzu.”

“And why do I have to pay out of my own pocket to eat here?”

“Who cares? You got money, right? Give us some business!”

“For a local, you really don’t know much about how harsh life can be.”

As he cradled his head in his hands, the oldest boy recovered from the Neck Hanging Tree and returned.

“Koff… Dammit, Kuzu! I saw you kick some ass back there!”

“Hm?”

“I saw you! I saw you just throw that guy with the gun—like THIS!” The boy raved. Kuzuhara frowned.

“You were watching.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Since before you guys came!”

“…That’s not stuff you should be gawking at, okay? Whether you get dragged in and live or die, that stuff messes you up in the head. You won’t grow up right.”

“C’mon, it wasn’t even a close shave.”

“It’ll shave years off your life.”

Just as he tapped the tabletop, the owner came up and hit the children on the heads with the back of her kitchen knife. Kuzuhara spat out his tea.

“Help. Me. Out.”

“Wh-what the heck?! You tryin’ to kill us, Ma?”

As soon as the children realized what they had been hit with, they backed away in horror.

Kill you? You didn’t leave me much of a choice after you shook off my frying pan attack.”

“Dammit! What kind of a parent swings a knife at her own kids, you crazy old hag!”

Wars happen because people turn to violence!”

“Families are supposed to talk things through! I’m running away from home!”

“I’m locking myself in my room!” “You leave, Mom!” “Go away!”

As the children complained, the mother twirled her knife around.

“…Oh hoh. Now where did you all learn to talk like that? You ignore your mother one more time, and I’ll beat you with the sharp end.”

The woman glared at her children. For a mother of six, she was rather young and quite popular. She and her husband were separated—he apparently lived in a fishing boat by the artificial island.

The children scattered in terror. Kuzuhara watched them flee and turned to the woman.

“Come to think of it, I don’t see Yua around.”

Yua was a girl who lived with the woman and her family. Because she was an orphan, Kuzuhara did not know much about her—other than the fact that she was about twelve years old. Her parents had apparently drifted in from the mainland, but he didn’t know if she had official records back there.

After her parents were stabbed to death by a vagrant who’d come to the island, Yua had been raised at the restaurant.

“She’s helping out around here like a good girl. Ah, speak of the devil. Here she comes.”

The woman gestured at a corner of the restaurant. A girl was running over.

“Ah! It’s big bro! Hello!”

An energetic voice came from beyond the tables. It belonged to a girl with short, neatly-cut hair.

“Hey there.”

Kuzuhara had happened to be on the scene where Yua’s parents were killed. He was given temporary custody of the crying girl. But being single, he could not raise her like a parent—so he left her in the care of the woman who ran Iizuka’s Restaurant(who, at the time, was not separated from her husband).

“More scratches.” He frowned, scrutinizing her face and arms.

“Huh? I’m just fine!”

“Did you go sneaking in someplace again?”

Yua’s favorite pastime was exploration. It was a very age-appropriate hobby in one sense, but there was nothing more dangerous on the artificial island. Kuzuhara--and others adults--had tried to stop her many times. But that habit alone she could not fix. Ultimately, he was forced to give up—instead he scared the local delinquents into keeping an eye on her so she wasn’t kidnapped or sold.

Kuzuhara had no idea why she was so adamant on exploration, but he was almost at ease with her expeditions at this point. But—

“Yeah! I went all the way down to the bottom level yesterday. I could even see the sea!”

Pffft.

Kuzuhara spat out his tea again.

“The bottom level? You mean the Pits—”

A large chunk of the lowest level of the artificial island was a mechanical room where the island’s height was controlled. The rest of the area was originally supposed to be parking space and storage, but today, it was a particularly dangerous part of the island. The deals that went on there made even the most seasoned locals grimace, and there were so many drug addicts that even Kuzuhara did not go if he could help it. To be more specific, people there sold girls like Yua without even blinking.

“You know just how many people’re posted on watch at the entrances—”

“I found a side route! I’ve been looking for it forever but I finally found it yesterday!”

“I… y-you… i-it’s a miracle you got back safe! Don’t ever think of going back there! All right?” Kuzuhara raised his voice without thinking. Dejected, Yua went silent.

Some of the patrons turned to see what was happening, but they turned away and pretended not to notice as soon as they saw Kuzuhara.

“…I’m sorry.”

“Guess I can’t help that you already went and came back, but still… could you talk her out of this, ma’am?” He called to the owner, who had gone back into the kitchen. But her reply came with a very final chop of the knife.

“What do you want me to do, chain her down?” She asked matter-of-factly.

“Better chained down than dead.” He mumbled darkly.

Suddenly, the owner’s second son returned out of nowhere with a grin.

“What use is a life spent in chains? I choose to die free!”

“Enough!” Kuzuhara roared. The boy took off again.

“Where do they pick up these lines? It’s not like they can use the internet properly.”

Finally calming himself, Kuzuhara turned to Yua. She was still hanging her head.

“I’m sorry, Yua. I’m not angry anymore. Just… don’t ever go back there, okay?”

“Okay!”

Only when he saw a smile return to her face did he let himself look at the menu.

“Anyway, I’ll get the omelet-soba combo and a cup of oolong—”

Just as he placed his order, a monstrous noise shook the street outside.


<Ah-ah-ah—Aaahh… Testing… Ahem. How’s the weather today? Clear or cloudy or rough? Who cares? We’re underground; how’re we supposed to know? Soooooooo… don’t listen to this! Which is why I’m listening, but are you listening to me too, Sōji Kuzuhara? Sōji Kuzuhara? I know you’re there, so I’d be happy if you came out but if you don’t I’ll just sit around here and make annoying sounds all day! For example… Time for ‘chewing on wad of tinfoil’!>

A second later cane the sound of something crunching, followed by a short retch and quiet sniffling.

<Sniff… sniff… You’re awful. How could you trick me like that you asshole now I’m the bad guy here you sea cucumber anemone stupidest dope!>

The modulated voice belonged to the voice most familiar to the locals—the main DJ of Buru Buru Airwaves.

“Wh-who the hell says ‘dope’ these days?”

“The DJ still hasn’t learned rhyme and meter.”

In unison, the other patrons turned to the source of the sound with cold sweat on their faces. But the speakers usually used by the radio station were playing a radio drama about a pipiru-something angel and bludgeonings. The DJ’s voice was coming from somewhere else.

<Aww man, it’s over nobody knows where I’m s’pposed to take out all this frustration so I decided to decide for my own decision so this is all Kuzuhara’s fault you kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu kuzu! Sōji Kuzuhara, are you listening?! Until you get your butt out here, I’m gonna slander gossip defame make scandals badmouth dis trash bedwetter—>

The locals, slowly adjusting to the DJ’s ranting, lost interest.

“That’s not even a DJ anymore.”

“Never seen worse rhythm or style.”

They followed the trail of noise to the large van in the middle of the street. It was painted a bright blue and had a black license plate and black windows. It was a moving fortress that served as Sōsei Airwaves’ studio and broadcast tower.

Kuzuhara tried to ignored the broadcast, but he soon became painfully aware of the other patrons’ glares.

He glanced at the kitchen; the owner had a knife in one hand and a smile on her lips. The smile did not reach her eyes.

“Um… I…”

As Yua hesitated, he gave her a soft pat on the head and stood with a bright grin.

“Sorry. I’ll shut that down, so could you take my order a bit later?”


▶︎


When Kuzuhara approached the van, the speakers attached to its roof went quiet. Then there was a click as the door came unlocked.

Without a word, he opened the sliding door and met the van’s occupant with a plain look.

“All right. So how d’you feel like getting killed?”

Inside the van were multiple computers, some broadcasting equipment, and sofas and a table arranged like a karaoke lounge. It was difficult to recognize it as the interior of a vehicle. The windows, completely opaque from the outside, were as clear as air from within.

A woman sat on the sofa furthest from where Kuzuhara stood. She wore a tattered button-up shirt with black-and-white stripes. A pair of sunglasses with blue frames sat on her face. Her long hair was tied back in a ponytail, and there was a red bandanna tied around her head. The shirt was completely unbuttoned, revealing a blue bikini top and the woman’s sensual figure.

She completely ignored Kuzuhara’s threatening entrance.

“I’m wearing a bikini ‘cause—”

“I don’t care. If you’re not gonna pick how I get to kill you, get out of my sight.”

The woman went silent for a moment. Then the dam burst as she howled in laughter.

“Kyahahahahahahahahahaha! Heehahahahaha! Man, that’s great. It’s amazing! That’s the Kuzuhara I know! Enough fuckin’ around with that dead serious mug! I stripped down and provoked you, so I was expecting a big reaction to match! Like blushing, at least! Heehahahaha!”

The beauty’s howls were barely human, let alone feminine. Her true voice had a husky charm, quite different from the modulated voice that usually filled the speakers.

Shooting a chilling glare at the woman—producer and DJ  Kelly Yatsufusa of Sōsei Airwaves—Kuzuhara muttered coldly,

“So you choose to die. That’s fine by me.”

As soon as Kuzuhara stepped into the van, the door closed automatically behind him.

Heehahaha! Aw man, aw man. Don’tcha think you’re going too far here?! There’s a lady sittin’ in a room no one can look inside, dressed in these rags! C’mon, did I get your heart aflutter? Did I?”

In the blink of an eye she took on an exaggerated flirtatious streak, but Kuzuhara’s narrowed eyes did not budge.

“Who the hell gets hard for someone who talks like a delusional middle schooler?”

“Not even a little bit? Aww, c’mon. You don’t even have a tiny soft spot for the crazy ones? Fushigi-chan(3), anyone?”

“Has it occurred to you that calling yourself a fushigi-chan defeats the whole purpose? More to the point, your ethnicity doesn’t even match up.”

“Aww. You’re such a bore.”

Kelly shook her head in disbelief and straightened out.

“Anyway, just don’t kill me, all right? Just hear me out, and I’ll go right back home. Then again, this is my home. Nyahahahaha!”

“One more ‘nyahaha’ and I am going to kill you.”

“Freedom of press! This is oppression!”

“No one trusts a reporter who drops ‘freedom of press’ every chance they get. And speaking of being free, can’t you just forget the whole freewheeling radio business and stick to an organization somewhere?”

“Hey, remember what I always say. ‘What use is a life spent in chains? I choose to die free’. Heehahahaha!”

“So your radio’s where the local kids picked that up.”

‘She really does get on my nerves.

Kelly and Kuzuhara first met when he became the captain of the district’s volunteer police force. He had agreed to an interview with her on the bigwigs’ orders, but even now he still did not have a good grasp on her personality.

Like the temperature and humidity, her tone and attitude changed daily. It wasn’t that she suddenly became humble or childish overnight, but the way she laughed or the way she phrased things fluctuated constantly. Anyone who spoke to her was guaranteed to fall into complete confusion.

“So about why I asked for you, Kuzuhara. I heard that stuff earlier. You used to be a total hotshot, yeah?”

“You’ve got ears everywhere, huh.”

“Hyahyahah! That’s my job! So let me be blunt, Kuzuhara. Y’wanna get interviewed next week?”

“What?”

“I’m—saying—that—you’re next week’s guest on ‘Buruburu Airwaves on the Street’. Tell me ‘bout the scuffle you had today, or something bang and smash and crash. You know what? Just spill your guts.”

“No.”

Kelly was talking about one of Buruburu Airwaves’ mainstays, a show that was broadcast every Saturday evening. She picked out a figure from the city who had recently drawn public interest and interviewed them in person. The show was how she first met Kuzuhara.

Whenever there was trouble in the Western District, Kuzuhara became involved—mostly as the hero who stepped in to end the commotion. And each time, Kelly heard of his exploits.

As a result, Kuzuhara gained the questionable honor of being the local who saw Kelly most frequently.

“You already interviewed me. And there was nothing special about today. Is that all? If you got nothing else, I’m leaving.”

“Hold it, asshole! C’mon, I’m interviewing Kugi today! Your boss! It’ll be a fabulous segue. and last time you came, I was doing 90% of the talking!”

Kuzuhara’s expression shifted.

Seiichi Kugi was younger than him, but he was an executive of the group that oversaw the Western District. He was supposedly romantically involved with the daughter of a central figure in the organization, and was something like Kuzuhara’s direct superior. But in Kuzuhara's view, he was just a man with decent connections. Kugi carried himself with dignity that belied his youth, had a calculating mind, and he was—above all—Kuzuhara’s senior as a local on the artificial island.

“…Kugi, huh. Him aside, I don’t have anything to talk about.”

“I told you, that’s fine!”

Kelly slapped her knee and bounced to her feet. Gesticulating wildly, she continued to struggle for her next guest.

“With your popularity, you just gotta sit there and problem solved! All lights green! It’s good enough to drive the listeners insane! They’ll be wrapped up in a frenzy of excitement! In this city—without using a gun—someone in your position—is still alive. Oh my god! This city’s different from the mainland. My listeners don’t want plain-old-Japan, they want a friendly neighborhood hero! You get my drift?!”

“I’m just lucky, that’s all. And ultimately, this is Japan. Run-of-the-mill punks and drug addicts can’t get their hands on guns.”

“But someone shot you today. Right?”

“That’s—”

“The guys with the guns weren’t with any of the big organizations. They were small fry who just got here a few months ago. Dunno if they were frauds or what, but they ain’t got a thing to do with the yakuza or the mafia.”

“…You really do have ears everywhere. Even I didn’t know that much.”

“Folks outside think this city’s some sorta hellhole, but that’s not the truth at all. Public security’s decent enough that a helpless woman only has a 1/3 chance of getting attacked when she’s out alone. But we’ve been getting a whole lotta gun cases these days. I know you know that too.”

Rather than answer the unspoken question, Kuzuhara picked at another point Kelly raised.

“More like a whopping 1/3. And that goes up to 9 in 10 once you get down to the Pits.”

‘Which reminds me just how lucky Yua was to get out of there.’ Kuzuhara thought grimly, but Kelly grinned and shook her head.

“You’re gettin’ behind the times. The Pits aren’t as bad as they used to be.”

“?”

“What was it now, five years ago? Even the Pits got some rules like the districts. It’s safer. Doesn’t compare to this area, but still. Means even tourists from the mainland or Sado can still make it out alive.”

That was the first Kuzuhara had heard such a thing. When he first arrived three years ago, it was an unspoken rule that he should stay away from the Pits. But now that he thought about it, the number of people disappearing into the Pits had dropped recently.

“I’d love to invite him on the show sometime, y’know. Apparently there’s some head honcho even down there. He kinda keeps the scum on a leash, if you could call it that.”

“That’s news to me. Who’s the boss?”

Finally taking an interest in what Kelly had to say, Kuzuhara turned.

“Hayato Inui. Apparently he’s a loudmouthed idiot who dyes his hair in seven colors.”

“An idiot?”

“C’mon, who the hell puts seven shades in their hair? Though I’ve never seen him before, so I can’t confirm.”

“The pot’s calling the kettle black. Anyway, I’m heading off now. If you call me out like this ever again, you’ll get my fist knocking on your face.”

“Your fault for not giving me your cell number!”

“And waste batteries talking to you?”

He immediately turned to leave, but for some reason the lock would not budge.

“Hey, your door—”

When he turned, his breath caught in his throat.

Kelly’s face was right in front of his. Instead of her usual blue sunglasses, a pair of dark red eyes were staring at him. Were they colored contacts, or were they natural? Kuzuhara did not know how to react to the strange shade.

Silence drew over the moment. Kelly put on a smile completely different from her earlier grins, and leaned in close. Her lips relaxed and curled seductively as she spoke.

“You really are a strange one. The aloof ‘you’ who walks the city, the friendly ‘you’ who plays with the children, the ‘you’ who despises guns, and the contemptuous ‘you’ who scorns me. Which is the real ‘you’?”

“…What do you want? Don’t you usually reserve just one face for one person?”

Normally, Kelly would have laughed off the comment. But there was something stronger in her expression that fought off the urge. She almost looked like a stranger.

“This place hasn’t turned into a complete cesspool, yet it’s not a true city. For a gathering of punks and vagrants, it can’t even become completely depraved. In the end, the island is full of people who are desperate to live like they did on the mainland, as though they can’t move on. This place is neither here nor there. It’s cheap, and has nothing to do with freedom or corruption or order. Just like a little game of pretend. But why do you struggle so much to remain a ‘somebody’? Refusing to become part of the city, and refusing to lose yourself. Why do you live so desperately?”

It was a question straight out of an anime or drama from another generation. But Kuzuhara was cowed by her grim expression.

Soon, he managed to get a hold of himself and spat anxiously.

“You’re imagining things. Calling me desperate is an insult to people like Ms. Iizuka.”

“She is doing her best to live, but she isn’t desperate. I suppose it’s like… even after you ran away to this island, you’re still running.”

“Stop it.”

“Remember how I said I didn’t know what the true ‘you’ looked like? I wonder… what did you look like before that incident?”

Kuzuhara’s averted gaze snapped right back to meet Kelly’s. And with the most tranquil of looks, he replied.

“I’m sorry. Please, stop this.”

Kelly looked floored for a moment; then, she leaned back and stepped away, plopping down on the sofa as she put her sunglasses back on.

“Kyahahaha… oh man oh man oh man oh man! You really are a weird one, Kuzuhara.”

She was back to being a loudmouthed DJ.

“Heehahahahaha! Y’know, I was totally ready to get punched out just now! You coulda killed me, y’know? But why didn’t you get angry? Why’d you apologize! It was all my fault. I was the one who dug up your past and insulted it and laughed at it!”

Kelly was doubled up in laughter, but her palms were a little sweaty. She had probably been ready to be beaten senseless. Even as she howled she trembled ever-so-slightly.

This time, Kuzuhara was the one asking a bemused question.

“I don’t get you. What the hell was that all about?”

“Welllllll, I just wanted to know more about you. I wanted to see how you’d react when I brought up that past you always try to hide! C’mon, I’m part of the press. We always want a microscopically detailed look into how heroes like you think. And I also have a policy of doing research on my guests!”

“You’re really going to get killed one of these days.”

“I told you before. I choose to die free.”

“Now you’re sounding like a middle schooler who’s watched too many movies.”

You’re sounding like a high school kid who thinks it’s cool to act all mature.”

“Sure, sure. I guess I still win out in terms of age, then.”

“Huh? Wait, I lost?!”

Kuzuhara gave an annoyed sigh and turned.

Putting on an unusually calm face, Kelly said only one thing to his back.

“I’m sorry. I mean it this time.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me.”

Without looking back, he opened the door.

“I’m ready to take all the criticism and blame for that incident. If I’d hit you earlier, that would have been like running away from it all. ...Although I guess coming here in the first place was running away.”

Stepping outside, Kuzuhara turned just once before the automatic door closed.

He wanted to say something to Kelly as she gazed at him, but in the end he was silent.

Listening to his own stomach grumbling, he headed over to the restaurant to place his order. Several children were gathered outside the van, but they scattered as soon as he exited. If the restaurant’s kids were among them, they might have swarmed him—but they did not seem to be there.

The local children tended to have pale skin, likely thanks to the fact that they spent most of their days in the underground shopping mall. There were many computers and gaming devices even in this city, and very few deliberately went up to the aboveground level or the bridge. Then, Kuzuhara realized that the relatively softspoken Yua was the most tanned of the local kids. She had probably seen more sunlight than anyone else.

At the same time, he was caught by a strange pang of emotion.

‘Dammit. What the hell.’

In his mind surfaced snow-white skin even fairer than those of the children.

‘When she took off the shades… I liked her for a second there.’


Unfortunately, someone had already taken the seat Kuzuhara had sat in.

The sound of his grumbling stomach was all he could hear in the packed restaurant.


▶︎


Saturday evening. The Eastern District of the artificial island.


“Guess what? I shook hands with the Sōji Kuzuhara today. Ain’t it amazing?”

A man was bragging loudly in a general store-slash ramen shop in the Eastern District, on the opposite side of the island from Kuzuhara.

The ramen shop was on a corner of the street. The food was decent, but the establishment was small. The owner stirred noodles from so close that his breath reached the counter, and sometimes hot broth splashed out of the pot and onto the customers. The reason it also doubled as a general store was because the owner also bought miscellaneous supplies when he got in touch with people the island’s traffickers to get ramen ingredients. To be frank, the general store made more money than the ramen business, and on this day it just happened that one young man was loitering in one of the seats.

The owner was quietly prepping ingredients for the night’s sales, but the young man kept talking to him regardless.

“I saw it right in front of my eyes. The whole shebang! I saw him grab those bullets in his palm, like this! Then he twists and throws and twists and throws!”

The young man was nondescript and had black hair. He was constantly warming something up with the turbo lighter in his hand. There was a bowl of ramen in front of him, but about half the noodles were still there.

The Sōji Kuzuhara! Mr. Kuzuhara himself! He really is something. He’s—whaddaya call it now—right! He’s got class. He’s on a whole ‘nother level!”

“I don’t care.”

“Man, why don’t you understand? This is why I can’t deal with old folks. …Oh! Nobody watchin’ TV? They’re playing an action flick right now. Can I change the channel?”

There was a wall-mounted television in the shop. It was over ten years old, but it played the same images as the mainland in crystal-clear quality.

“One of your favorites? Must be one shitty movie, then.”

The bald old man who owned the store grumbled loudly, but the younger man did not seem to care.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me! You know what this movie is, Mr. Take? This is the Extreme Honor 6 cable premiere! The best goddamned action movie in the world, swear to god. I went all the way to the mainland to see this baby in theaters—all five times. The shootouts are so awesome they might as put ‘em in a museum. It’s got fine art written all over it! I thought I was gonna piss myself when they launched a hundred thousand Spetsnaz knives in the opening sequence. And y’know what happens in the climax? Satellite-mounted weapons going head-to-head! Imagine that! The guy just dodges real smooth away from the lasers! It’s one for the history books. And I hear this was all in-camera stunts. Not a drop of visual effects! Can you believe that?”

“Bullshit.”

“You got me.” The man snickered, slapping his forehead. “But it wasn’t a total lie—they only had a bit of visual effects—”

“Can’t believe anyone still calls ‘em ‘visual effects’. Even my generation called it CGI.”

“Well, cheers to my classy old soul. D-does that mean I’m actually pretty stylish—”

“Enough fooling around. Finish your ramen and get out. …Also, I got that thing you asked for.”

The old man put a paper bag on the countertop, in front of the customer.

“Thanks, Mr. Take. I really like your bags, by the way—real sturdy.”

Just as the young man’s fingers reached for the opening, Buruburu Airwaves on the Street began playing on the speaker behind him.


<It’s said that you arrived in the city five years ago, Mr. Kugi—>

A husky female voice escaped the speaker.

“Aw, I like this chick. Better than that birdbrained DJ.”

Not knowing in his wildest dreams that that the two were the same person, the young man began to take out what looked to be spray cans from the paper bag. There were seven of them in total.

“So Kugi’s today’s guest, huh. He’s some exec in the Western District, right?”


<Yes. I happened to arrive that summer, on the last day of August.>


“Huh?”

Suddenly, the young man sounded curious.


<I couldn’t forget that day, even if I wanted to. It was the day I became a part of this city, as well as the day I lost my friend.>

<I was told that, just before you could enter the island, there was some sort of gang conflict and you were caught in the crossfire.>

<Yes. I still remember clearly. Even though she had nothing to do with the conflict, she was hit by a stray bullet and killed.>


“Wait. Wait wait wait a second here.”

“Whaddaya want now? Finish your ramen already!”

“C’mon, Mr. Take. Just gimme a sec. This is the important part.”

<So the incident occurred on your way here from Sado, on the top level.>

<Yes. If only we’d gone through a different path, I sometimes wondered. But we would have been caught up in something, one way or another. And things haven’t changed. It’s been five years since then, but the city is still in a state of confusion—>


“Man, that was a close one! Whew! SAFE!”

The young man struck a victory pose and cheered.

“Wait. Guess ‘safe’ is kinda rude to the girl who died. I’m just gonna take a moment of silence, so could you quiet down for a bit, Mr. Take?”

“What the hell are you going on about?!”

“C’mon, listen. He said a stray bullet hit her on the same day I decided to go a little crazy, so I was scared I was the one who shot her. But it was in a totally different place, so I guess it wasn’t me after all.”

The man closed his eyes and observed a moment of silence. Afterwards, he picked up the objects he had been warming with the lighter—several gleaming safety pins—and began to put them through the holes in his ears.

Then, he reached for the seven cans of spray-on hair dye that he had taken out of the paper bag.

“Inui, you son of a bitch! You are not using those things in here!”


“He kicked me out. He seriously did. Shit.”

Recounting out loud what had just happened, Hayato Inui strode down the streets.

The lights on the mall’s ceiling were too dim; all he could see were food stalls and crowds. On the streets where the ocean only seemed a world away, he continued to walk toward a view of the sea.

To his home in the lowest level of the island—the Pits.


The stairs leading down were probably intended to be emergency staircases; nothing stood out save for the most essential of lights. But one of the walls was covered in graffiti, courtesy of the residents who moved in afterwards.

The vandalism ranged from childish stick drawings to artistic pieces that might feature in a film. But in the darkness of the stairwell, they looked equally menacing.


<Living here, it feels as though the island has been left decades in Japan’s past. It is separated from the many technological advancements and social systems of the mainland, yet it has not become a complete slum. Because there is a society of sorts here, civilians sometimes visit as tourists. Of course, if they are unlucky, they end up as I did—or my friend.>

<You mentioned earlier that this city was neither here nor there, in all respects.>

<Yes. Not only is the city incomplete, it is everywhere and nowhere at once. From an administrative perspective, it is as good as nonexistent. But that will change once the Japanese government stabilizes. If at all possible, I would like for the social system that was born on this island to be recognized as an independent, self-governing community. I know that this might sound rather surprising. But whatever the case, the city is currently at a crossroads. To either become a wretched hive like the Kowloon Walled City and eventually be taken down by the government, or to make Japan and the world acknowledge our potential.>

“Man, for someone who arrived on the same day as me, he’s one hell of a hotshot.”

Speakers were installed in the emergency stairwells as well, but they were silent; perhaps they had fallen out of repair.

So as Hayato descended, the sound of the radio slowly grew distant until it finally left his awareness altogether. Even the fluorescent lights had long stopped working underneath—still holding the paper bag, he melded into the blackness.

Remembering the last words he heard from the radio, the young man snickered.

“That’s it. This place really is neither here nor there. So it’s time to decide on a heading. Turn it into my kind of city. Heh heh heh… Mwahahahahaha… Huh. There ain’t much reverb in these stairs. Not much point to laughing…”

Even his laughter disappeared into the shadows, leaving behind only silence.


▶︎


After the interview, Kelly spoke to the guest before he could leave the van.

“Um. Mr. Kugi?”

“Yes? What is it?”

Even off-air, Seiichi was extremely polite. Kelly took off her sunglasses and went up to him.

Seiichi had changed completely in the past five years. Not even his friends from Sado would recognize him at a glance. Not only had he grown taller, his features had gotten sharper as well. But his shadowy presence was unchanged from his days as a teenager.

“Could I ask one thing? It’s a personal question—it has nothing to do with the interview.”

“Of course.”

As the young man smiled, Kelly carefully chose her words.

“Have you ever… thought of taking revenge on the bridge and this island?”

The moment the question left her mouth, the interior of the van was wrapped up in a heavy silence.

Seiichi’s eyes widened slightly. He looked at Kelly and chuckled awkwardly.

“You… are a very curious person.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. It’s just that Kanae—the childhood friend I told you about—was just like you. Although in her case, that led to her unfortunate death… Please, take care of yourself.”

With that, he reached for the door.

“Umm, about my question.”

Seiichi froze mid-reach, and with his back turned, answered.

“It wouldn’t be logical to despise this place itself. After all, my world came to a stop on the bridge and the island. Do you understand? This place is all I have now. I will protect it at all costs.”

Then, he opened the door and stepped outside. Many well-built men were on standby outside, and multiple luxury cars were parked behind them.

There was a woman standing in front of one of the cars. She was Seiichi’s current girlfriend Yili; half-Chinese and half-British, she was a daughter of the man in charge of the district. She met him with an affectionate smile.

Yili, Seiichi, and the men stepped into the car and left without another word.


“Man, talk about being loaded. Heehahaha! Shit, they have it nice!”

As soon as Seiichi left, Kelly returned to her usual self.

“That Seiichi bastard is one scary guy! I thought Kuzuhara was going to punch me, but this guy’s eyes looked like he coulda killed me! Heehahahahahaha!”

After a howl of laughter, her knees began shaking as she rifled through her phone’s contact list.

“Aw, dammit! Why the hell don’t I have anyone to talk to at a time like this? Why the hell doesn’t Kuzuhara just give me his damned number already?”


▶︎


Several days later.


One afternoon, Kuzuhara was called to the office by his superior, Kugi.

In spite of the name, the office was still part of what was once going to be a retail district.

In terms of scale, the office was a step above the rest. The organization Kuzuhara worked for was using an entire mid-sized hotel that was on top of the shopping mall.

It was originally intended to open with the bridge; even the interior had been fully furnished. It had been just several days of preparation away from being ready to operate. The company that owned the hotel was currently suing the government, but it supposedly the trial was expected to drag on.

Because their organization was using the hotel without permission, it was natural that the hotel company might file a complaint. At least, that was what Kuzuhara had worried. But apparently, such problems had all already been ‘taken care of’.


Until the previous day, it had seemed like snow was on the horizon; but today, the sky was completely clear, and even the wind was a gentle breeze that almost felt warm. It was partly thanks to that that Kuzuhara decided to take the long way around and walk through the outside, even though the office had a direct route underground.

He felt a little at ease by the sight of kites flying through the air as he walked to the building. Because all sorts of structures were around him, he could not see the sea from where he stood. Sometimes Kuzuhara wondered if he really was on the ocean.

Perhaps it was partly thanks to the season, but there were few people out and about. Although the underground was not heated, either, it was easier to live there than outside. That was proven by the number of people who froze to death aboveground—much more than below.

As he walked, mindful of his surroundings, someone called his name.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Kuzuhara.”

A young man with a pleasant expression greeted Kuzuhara. It was Seiichi Kugi, an executive of the organization and Kuzuhara’s direct superior.

“Mr. Kugi. Sorry I’m late.”

Although Kuzuhara was older than Kugi, he treated him with the respect he would show a superior. Some of the other members of the volunteer police force were uncomfortable with that, but Kuzuhara was used to it from his days as a police officer. But he was not a brown-noser. The real Kuzuhara never spoke unless necessary—the face he showed people like Yua or Kelly was the exception.

“The weather was so nice that I suspected you might be coming this way. And you’re about on time.”

With a smile, Seiichi walked into the hotel with Kuzuhara in tow.

The lobby was more than a match for that of the hotel chain’s main building. One difference, however, was the fact that very few devices there ran on electricity.

The artificial island had its own power plants in the form of windmills and solar panels. Because electricity from the mainland had been cut off altogether, they were the only way—though illegal—to get electric power on the island. Because they had been built as emergency power supplies for the artificial island to begin with, no outside force could stop their use.

However, the power they generated did not come close to servicing the entire island. Electricity was only used when necessary, like for the lights underground. So most locals altered the wiring themselves or snuck their plugs into outlets in the retail zones. Although everyone worried about when the power would go out next, the system was just narrowly maintained—partly thanks to the fact that the heating and cooling systems, which took up the most power, were not used in the least.

Seiichi buried himself in a sofa in the lobby and offered Kuzuhara a seat.

“We can talk here. It won’t take very long.”

Kuzuhara also sat. The sofa was so squashy he felt like he was drowning; a far cry from the cheap ones in Kelly’s van.

“Could you head to the Southern District and escort Mr. Kashimura here this evening? Feel free to take three or four of your men along.”

“Escort Mr. Kashimura? Here?”

Kuzuhara was surprised. Kashimura was a central figure in the organization that controlled the Southern District. Not only that, the relationship between the Western and Southern Districts had worsened considerably in recent days.

Recognizing Kuzuhara’s confusion, Seiichi went on to explain.

“We’ve decided to negotiate, so to speak.”

Leaning forward, Seiichi steepled his fingers and sighed.

“We’ll be losing a bit of ground to them, but our focus right now is to avoid conflict wherever possible.”

Kuzuhara remembered what Kugi had said on the radio the other day.

He sought to create one overarching social order on the artificial island and the bridge, formed from a multitude of plans. Instead of separate districts being controlled by separate organizations, one group would govern the entire island. In other words, the unrecognized city would become recognized as a self-governing community.

“The boss also agrees with this plan. That’s why I’d like to create an opportunity for everyone to hammer out the details. It’ll just be greetings and formalities today, but I’d like for our people to go out and escort Mr. Kashimura.”

“I see. Understood.” Kuzuhara replied stoically. A melancholy smile rose to Seiichi’s lips.

“If this plan works, I will wipe out all guns and drugs from this city. Although I have no idea how far I’ll be able to enforce the ban.”

Kuzuhara was silent.

“The only reason this place still has a semblance of society is because it is populated by people who have experienced some form of self-governing social order, whether in Japan or overseas. But what about in ten or twenty years? What of the children who are born and raised on this island? The word ‘order’ does not exist to them. That’s why it’s up to our generation to build at least the foundations of a self-governing society.”

Kuzuhara’s feelings on the matter were complex. While he looked forward to that idealistic future, he was doubtful if it would ever come to pass.

Perhaps Seiichi read his mind; closing his eyes, he spoke as though to himself.

“I suppose I’m making official business personal here, but to be frank, I despise guns. I’m sure you feel the same way. I never want to go through that pain again, and I don’t want that suffering to be repeated anywhere in this city.”

Kuzuhara and Seiichi knew each other’s pasts. One had killed a person with a stray bullet, and another had lost a loved one to a stray bullet. Their positions in the narratives were different, but the similarities in their pasts meant they both shared a commonality.

Seiichi slowly opened his eyes and continued. There was a self-deprecating grin on his lips, and deep sadness in his eyes.

“I still see her in my dreams. Kanae stands at my bedside and looks into my face, asking me: ‘Why didn’t you help me?’. There’s no resentment or sadness in her expression—just agony. Terrible suffering.”

With each word his face contorted as though in fear. The innocence he held five years earlier seemed to linger.

“Powerlessness is a crime, Mr. Kuzuhara. You might disagree, but in any case, subjecting someone to hatred or sadness is a crime. At least, it was in my case. That was why I sought power; bringing order to this city with that power is my wish and my atonement for her. People may call me naive and unrealistic, but I can’t stop now.”

Kuzuhara remained silent. He was neither scornful nor sympathetic. He was merely at a loss for words.

After some time, Seiichi’s expression finally returned to normal. There was something calculating yet boyishly innocent in his face.

“Please don’t tell Yili. I can’t have her find out that I’m still going on about Kanae. She’s quite the jealous one. Heh.”

He grinned, then gave Kuzuhara his order.

“In any event, I need you and several men to go to the southern dock office at five in the afternoon today.”

Kuzuhara stood, bowed, and left the lobby. A cheerful voice called behind him.

“I expect a fine job out of you, Mr. Kuzuhara.”


▶︎


“I really don’t like the feel of this, Mr. Kuzuhara. I swear we’re gonna step in there and the first thing we hear’s gonna be a bang.” One of his subordinates grumbled.

“Enough complaining. If that happens, forget everything and run.” Kuzuhara replied calmly.

Five members of the volunteer police force, including Kuzuhara, were walking through an underground passage in the Southern District. ‘Underground’, in this case, was still higher than sea-level. They could see the vast ocean and the distant shape of the mainland through the window at the end of the passageway.

Just like the people in the Western District, the people here stole extra electricity from outlets or made do with personal generators. It was nothing like a city of vagrants—just a community in a distant country.

Perhaps it was because the Southern District got more sunlight, and was closer to the passage aboveground—the people here were more tan than the people in the Western District.

But the biggest difference was the fact that there was a surprising number of well-dressed people—people who wore trendy clothes like on television. They were probably people from the mainland or those who came and went across the bridge regularly.

Because the Southern District was closest to the city of Niigata, it was the most visited by ‘tourists’. Curious members of the press and young people doing their business, mostly. Kuzuhara would have been happier if such relatively peaceful scenes would be reported to the media instead of all the violence and illegal trafficking that went on every night on the island—which was, of course, embellished and provocatively exaggerated before hitting the news or magazines.

As a result, the artificial island came to have the image of a foreign slum, or the Kowloon Walled City, and they ultimately received more young people who were drawn to the image. Some sat around the city permanently, and others returned to the mainland to brag about their epic adventures. And the less fortunate lost many things.

Perhaps things were different in the Pits, but there were very few instances of murder in the Southern District. It was because Kuzuhara and the other knew that that they accepted the mission.


“Aw, man. Seriously. Even if they don’t shoot us, they might have knives.”

“Not even Kashimura would go that far.”

“Says who? Him and Kugi kept fightin’ over this turf. And Kashimura’s office is way far from the streets here. No one’s gonna hear us scream if he gets us.”

“…True. Don’t let your guard down.”

Remaining tense, Kuzuhara and his team headed for the edge of the city. They were headed for Kashimura’s personal harbor office, which was one of the few buildings that spanned both the aboveground and underground areas. There were almost no residences around, so only those affiliated with him would ever approach.

Kashimura was once an executive in a disbanded gang. And if Kuzuhara’s memory served, he was a so-called ‘clever thug’, the type which rose quickly to prominence starting late in the 20th century.

There was a very good chance that they were heading straight into a trap. But if they backed out now, the negotiations would fall through and the city’s future would remain uncertain. Kuzuhara wanted to make the negotiations a success, if at all possible.

Although he didn’t know if he really wanted to bring order to the island, listening to Kugi made him feel like that was the best solution. Even though he knew that the truly best solution was to leave the island altogether.

“What…?”

He stopped in his tracks.

There wasn’t a soul to be found in B1.

The door at the end of the corridor led into Kashimura’s office. Because the passage was originally reserved for authorized personnel, it was narrower than others. This was the only way into Kashimura’s office, and the other entrances had been sealed. Because Kashimura’s gang had fewer members, he did not have guards patrolling the area. In other words, anyone who came to see him at the office had to pass through the corridor.

But Kuzuhara smelled something. Mixed with the salty sea breeze was the sting of blood.

“A-are we really gonna do this, Mr. Kuzuhara?”

Although they couldn’t say for certain that the smell was coming from the office, Kuzuhara carefully approached the door, still guarded.

His steps felt heavy as he walked, but he could not leave without finding out where—who—the smell was coming from. Standing at the door, he steeled himself and reached for the handle.

Click.

The door opened from the inside.

The moment he took hold of the handle, it had turned on its own and the door had opened.

Kuzuhara and the others immediately stepped back and shot threatening glares at the man who emerged.

“Huh? What? Whoa, no way! Mr. Kuzuhara! It really is you!” The man cried.

It was not Kashimura’s subordinate, whom Kuzuhara had seen several times in the past.

But a flippant-looking man with rainbow-tinted hair.


Kuzuhara and the others were first drawn to the man’s garish hair. Then, reacting to the man’s greeting, Kuzuhara looked at his face. But he was a stranger. Yet he was certain that he had heard the voice before—

“It’s me! Y’know, you shook my hand the other day.”

He finally remembered. He met the young man the previous Saturday, right after taking down a thug in the Western District. At the time, the young man had normal hair—but now, he had safety pins in his ears and his hair was an unsightly mop. But the out-of-style look reminded Kuzuhara of something.

The leader of the Pits who dyed his hair in seven colors.

Kuzuhara couldn’t be certain, but he found himself whispering the name without thinking.

“Inui…”

And his guess led to a conclusion.

“Wait, you know my name? Sweet! This is one hell of an awesome coincidence. You have no idea how great this is!”

The young man jumped into the air like a child, but Kuzuhara and the others remained on guard.

That was because from behind the door came a stench of blood incomparably worse than before, and because the rainbow-haired man left a trail of bloody footprints behind him.

“What were you doing here?”

“Just some business. Anyway, can I have your autograph?”

Though Kuzuhara was dead serious, Rainbow-Head remained as carefree as ever.

“Watch this guy for a bit.” He ordered his subordinates.

“Huh? Wait, that ain’t nice of ya. Did I do something wrong?”

“Never mind, just stay put.”

With that, Kuzuhara stepped into the office.

He saw nothing out of the ordinary when he entered. As he followed the corridor, little different from the passages outside, Rainbow-Head’s footprints grew clearer and clearer.

Fluorescent lights were all that lit the space. He opened a door in the building’s basement.

“Ugh…”

Kuzuhara did not react to many things, but this time he could not help but grimace.

The room stank of blood to the point that he felt like he was suffocating in a noxious gas.

Inside, the room was divided into a lounge and an office. There was a sofa of a modern design in the lounge, and a glass table.

Kashimura was sitting on the sofa, dead. There was a dark red hole in his forehead, and blood was streaming down the black leather sofa all the way down to the floor.

Many people lay dead around him, and blood was pooled everywhere. Kuzuhara knew the moment he stepped inside that there were no survivors. Every corpse was riddled with bullet holes, as though they had been on the wrong end of a machine gun.

But there was little damage to the walls or the furniture around them. It must have taken a killer of incredible talent to shoot only the people against such a large number of enemies.

When he checked, he found another corpse behind the door. The blood spread all the way to the entrance of the room.

It was from that pool of blood that a set of footprints began to lead outside.

“Bastard…”

Witness to a scene both ghastly and incredulous, Kuzuhara turned where he stood and ran back.

It would not be enough to take the man into custody. They had to restrain him completely, or his entire team would be in danger. Regretting his decision to bring only four people, Kuzuhara slammed open the door leading into the Southern District corridor.

And there he saw—


“You’re late, Mr. Kuzuhara.”

The voice did not belong to one of his subordinates.

Rainbow-Head stood alone with his arms spread out.

“Son of a bitch…”

Outrage and terror came to a head inside Kuzuhara when he saw the four subordinates he had left in charge, all lying collapsed on the floor. How in the world had Hayato Inui dispatched them all so quickly? Were they even still alive?

His fists shook. Hayato grinned.

“Man, these guys almost scared the crap outta me. They just tried to push me to the ground out of nowhere, y’know? Before I knew it, my hand just slipped and went for justified self-defense.”

There was nothing different about the way the man spoke, but Kuzuhara knew it was all an act. Behind Hayato’s affable grin was a scrutinizing gaze.

“Heh. Don’t get all worked up, now. I mighta popped their shoulders, but they’re all just out cold.”

Kuzuhara found himself glancing down at his men. They were all unconscious, but they all seemed to be breathing. Normally, this would be the moment he lunged at his foe—but this time, Kuzuhara could not charge in heedlessly.

His four subordinates were not unskilled—they had joined the volunteer police force for a reason.

Yet in less than three minutes they were all lying on the ground, without so much as bleeding. Was the rainbow-haired man talented at martial arts? Or did he have a taser on him? From the grisly scene inside the room, it made the most sense to assume that he had a gun.

Growing furious, Kuzuhara began to probe for answers.

“…The mess in the room. Your work?”

The man’s expression changed. The smile remained plastered on his face, but the affable tint was gone. A bloodthirsty, sadistic color rose to the grin, like something had surfaced from within his eyes.

Hayato slapped himself on the forehead and dramatically struck a surprised pose.

“Aww, man. This ain’t good. So you got me. What to do? I could’ve just called it self defense before, but now am I just gonna get arrested on the spot? Me, the suspect? I’m in a load of trouble now. I don’t wanna fight you, Mr. Kuzuhara… then I guess I should make like a banana and split.”

Hayato rambled lackadaisically to the end. Kuzuhara clenched his fists.

But a second later, Hayato did something strange.

He opened the window beside him and jumped onto the frame.

“What’s the world record for a high dive? Gotta be at least thirty meters.”

The corridor they were in jutted out of the southern side of the island. Underneath them was a deep, deep sea. There were fences around the windows on the main corridors, which were originally intended to receive visitors, but these corridors were restricted to authorized personnel. The window was just a square hole with a view of the ocean.

“Twenty-four meters from here to the waves. Didja know that? …Won’t be beating any records, but wanna give it a shot?”

And a second later, Hayato threw himself outside without a second thought.

He must have been planning to jump as soon as Kuzuhara made a move. But even a water landing could be fatal from that height. Even knowing that, Hayato leapt off like he was letting go of a horizontal bar.

There was even a relaxed grin on his face as he fell back-first from the window.

‘Wanted to chat a bit longer with Mr. Kuzuhara, but I guess I don’t have much of a choice. Wish I’d said something cooler before I left. …Damn it, “And I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling twerps!” is all I got.’

Hayato had completely let his guard down. It wasn’t his first time making a getaway like this, and he had never been caught before he made the jump.

But he had made one big mistake.

Though he respected him, Hayato had underestimated Sōji Kuzuhara.


There was a heavy impact.


It was just as Hayato’s body had fully escaped the window—left the island and begun freefalling into the sea.

When he spread his limbs, he saw the sky and the window from which he had jumped.

And out of the corner of his eye, he saw the next window shatter.

At the same time, Kuzuhara leapt outside—his arms covering his face and neck.

Hayato’s eyes turned to dinner plates as he slapped himself.

“Not good!”

He fell with his hand still on his forehead, but the grin never left his face.

‘I can start swimming the second I fall, and I’m used to swimming with my clothes on. Sorry, Mr. Kuzuhara, but you’re not gonna make it. I jumped faster than—’

At that point, his thoughts came grinding to a halt.

Though he had jumped later, Kuzuhara was rapidly closing the distance between them. Even though they had jumped from different places, he was headed straight for Hayato. In other words, even though he was falling diagonally, Kuzuhara was falling faster. The fury in his eyes had given way to ice.

Hayato realized what had happened.

‘Shit! He kicked off the window frame!’

The moment his body left the window, Kuzuhara had pushed himself from the frame and forcibly accelerated his fall.

Watching Kuzuhara’s hand draw near, Hayato blanked out—then, he broke into a grin.

With cold sweat running down his face, he raised his voice like a child seeing an action hero in person.

“Damn, that’s awesome! This is why I respect you, Mr. Kuzuhara!”

Kuzuhara’s reply was simple.

“Don’t underestimate me.”


His right arm wrapped around Hayato’s neck as though performing a lariat, dragging them both into a fall.

A second later, there was a deafening noise and a spray of water—


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Chapter 2.


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(1) Sōsei is spelled with the characters 蒼靑, the first meaning ‘azure’ and the second meaning ‘blue’.
(2) Kuzu is the Japanese word for trash.
(3) Fushigi-chan is an oddball-type of character in Japanese media who behaves differently from the norms of their social group. In Kelly’s case, she sometimes speaks with the male-exclusive first-person pronoun ‘ore’, among many other things.


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5 comments:

  1. Hi there, two mistakes:

    "The organization Kuzuhara worked for was using the an entire mid-sized hotel that was on top of the shopping mall." (remove "the")
    "But if they backed out now, the negotiations would fall throughand the city’s future would remain uncertain." (throughand > through and)

    Thank you for the translations, this looks like a very promising story so far.

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  2. Thanks so much for your work!

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  3. thank you so much for your work ! because of you our dreams of reading Narita-sensie's works are becoming true ... I pray god bless your life and your work ^_^

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  4. Hayato's still awesome. The other 2 protagonist are awesome as well.

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