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Chapter 3: The Country of Identical Faces
It looked as if many low tables had been set up in the hinterlands.
The brown dirt hills rose and plateaued at the top. The valleys between them had been cut out by rainwater over the eons, eroded so far that the bases of the valleys, too, were flattened. Not a single speck of grass was to be seen.
The sky was a towering blue. Feathery clouds floated by in the distance.
A single path cut through the landscape, drawing a thin white line that snaked up the hills and straightened out on the plateaus, then snaked back down and straightened out again.
A lone motorrad was traveling down this road, leaving a wake of dust behind.
The motorrad was fully laden with travel gear, with compartments on either side of the rear wheel and large bags and a sleeping bag tied on top. A metal mug hanging next to the luggage clattered up and down.
The rider was wearing a brown coat with the edges wrapped around her thighs. On her head was a hat with ear flaps, and a pair of goggles. A bandanna was wrapped around her face to keep the dirt out.
The motorrad climbed up a hill and raced across one of nature’s tables. The road soon sloped down into another descent, but at that point the rider stopped the motorrad. The rear wheel skidded to a stop, and the cloud of dust enveloped them both before settling down.
“Do you see that, Hermes?” the rider asked, pulling down her bandanna. She was still young, likely in her mid-teens.
The motorrad called Hermes responded. “Yeah, I see it. It’s really something.”
“Yeah.” The rider nodded.
They were looking down at a gaping valley that dwarfed any other around it. The hill on the other side was only faintly visible. And at the base of the great valley was a country.
The country’s towering walls formed a circle in the valley, with large buildings and streets laid out inside. A vibrant green forest enveloped the city center. Blue ponds dotted the forest.
The brown lands and the green wood struck a stark contrast, with the wall as the boundary.
“Where do you think that water’s from, Kino?” asked Hermes.
The rider called Kino replied, “Probably an underground source. The rivers that cut these valleys must still be running underground.”
“I see. Let’s hurry on then. I can’t wait to see the amazing country they built in this amazing place,” Hermes urged.
“Same here,” Kino replied, pulling her bandanna back up.
The motorrad quickly descended the slope.
Someone was watching Kino and Hermes from a distance through a pair of high-magnification binoculars. He was in a pit in the ground and covered in a dirt-colored tarp.
“This isn’t good. Someone’s gone into the country.”
“Must be a traveler,” said the person next to him, “one who doesn’t know its terrible secret.”
The first person replied, his voice stiff. “Yeah. Who would go into that country if they knew what it was like in there?” Then he added, “Sergeant, contact headquarters. We have an emergency.”
The country had only one entrance. Kino had to go all the way around its perimeter before she finally reached the gates.
There was a small security station before the entrance, manned by a man and a woman who acted as guards and immigration officers.
Kino requested a three-day entry permit for tourism purposes. The officers gave her one condition.
“Anyone wishing to enter our country must submit to a blood test conducted to prevent infection from outside pathogens. The test may take some time. Will you proceed?”
When Kino asked how the blood test worked, the officer explained that her blood would be drawn with a syringe.
Kino fell into thought. Hermes asked, “What’s wrong, Kino? Don’t tell me you’re scared of needles.”
Kino quickly replied that she was not. Then she was led inside by the officers for her test.
Soon, Kino emerged again—looking clearly more fatigued than before.
“I can never get used to this…” she muttered to herself.
The sun slowly but surely continued its journey across the sky.
“I’m terribly sorry, but it may take a little while longer,” the male official said as Kino zoned out from atop Hermes.
It was only when the sun was casting an orange light from the horizon that one of the officers rushed outside.
“The results are here, Traveler! And I’m happy to say that you have permission to enter. We’re terribly sorry to keep you waiting.”
Kino smacked Hermes awake. They set off through the gates together, with the saluting officers behind them.
The walls were casting shadows inside, draping hints of darkness in the forest that greeted Kino and Hermes. Beyond the gates was a large vehicle and several people ready to greet them. A middle-aged man, a middle-aged woman, and two young women.
“Welcome, Traveler. We apologize for having kept you waiting all this time. Since it’s so late, we will take you to your hotel,” said the man.
Kino was about to thank him when she looked at his face and froze.
He was the same man she had seen at the security station.
“Wait, no…he’s someone else,” Kino mumbled. This man was at least 50 years of age, while the man outside was much younger. They were not the same person.
The middle-aged woman had the very same face as the female immigration officer, but also a little older. But the remaining two women looked absolutely identical to the officer, save for their clothes. They looked identical to each other as well.
The middle-aged woman smiled and explained that she and her husband ran the hotel, and that the two younger women were their daughters.
“Th-thank you…” Kino managed to say. The family loaded Kino and Hermes onto their vehicle and set off.
“We’re terribly sorry that you had to wait so long. Our entry procedures are much stricter than those of other countries. But I do hope you’ll enjoy yourself while you’re with us,” the middle-aged woman said on their way to the hotel. She spoke to Kino several times again during the trip, but the stunned Kino could only manage half-hearted answers.
When they arrived at the hotel, Kino and Hermes were led into the lobby. The hotel was magnificent and clean, but there were no other guests in sight. A young man in uniform manned the front desk. He had the same face as the immigration officer, the only difference being his tone of speech and his hairstyle.
Two young men in bellboy uniforms unloaded Kino’s luggage from Hermes and delivered it to her room. Both had the same faces as the immigration officer and the man at the front desk.
One of the bellboys led the silent Kino and Hermes into their large suite. When Kino asked him about the cost of lodgings, he replied, “Lodgings are provided free of charge to all outside visitors. Please enjoy your stay, and feel free to use the call bell whenever you desire.”
The bellboy bowed and left the room.
Even after the door closed behind him, Kino remained lost in thought.
Kino only spoke once she was sure no one was in the room.
“Do you think the people we met today were all related to the hotel owners? The officers, the man at the desk, and the bellboys? They all look so similar. The women, I thought at first might be triplets. But…”
“Maybe. But aren’t there too many of them?”
“I think everyone in this country has the same face,” Hermes said matter-of-factly. “You probably didn’t see, but there were quite a few people out on the streets. The men all had the same faces, and the women had the same faces.”
Kino’s hand stopped in the middle of pulling off her coat.
“Why?” she wondered.
Hermes thought for a moment before replying, “Who knows?” in his usual tone. “Maybe they’re all from the same factory. That would explain everything.”
Kino gave Hermes a disbelieving look as she folded her coat.
“I’m tired, Hermes. I’ll get some sleep now and ask about it tomorrow so I don’t end up accidentally offending anyone.”
Kino took off her belt and her black jacket. At the same time, she unwrapped her hand persuader holster.
After a shower, Kino lay on her clean sheets and fell right asleep.
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn. The weather was beautiful.
After doing persuader drills and maintenance, she did some light exercises.
Kino looked outside the window once the sun was fully out. She was greeted by orderly streets and verdant green trees.
Breakfast was served in her room. The bellboy, the man at the front desk, and even the chef who prepared her meal before her eyes all still had the same face.
After breakfast, Kino woke up Hermes and went down to the lobby without her coat.
About 20 people were gathered outside the building, staring at Kino and Hermes from beyond the glass doors. They varied in age, but the men and the women each had the same faces.
“You’re not surprised,” Hermes said to Kino.
Kino shook her head. “I’m kind of used to it now.”
“This way, please,” said the hotel owner, bringing in a man in his late thirties. He also had the same face as the other men.
“Good morning, Kino, Hermes,” he said. “I’m from city hall. I’m here to offer services as a tour guide of sorts today, if you would like. I can answer any questions you might have about our country.”
“Thank you. I’d appreciate it. Could I ask one thing to start with, then?”
“Yes? What might it be? …Of course, I have the feeling that I already know what you will be asking,” the guide replied with a smile. “‘Why do the people here have identical faces,’ correct?”
Kino nodded. The guide nodded as well.
“I will explain everything on the way. Please, right this way.”
As countless identical faces watched, Kino and Hermes entered the guide’s vehicle.
Their ride took them to a large, square building with white walls and no windows.
Once inside, Kino and Hermes were led into a splendid parlor. Kino propped up Hermes and took a seat next to him.
“Let me welcome you once again to our country. And let me finally answer your question,” the guide said. He paused, then continued. “We are all clones.”
“What are ‘clones’?” asked Kino.
“‘Clones’ are defined as organisms that possess entirely identical genetic information.”
“And what is ‘genetic information’?”
“It is a sort of blueprint that exists in every organism. These blueprints are tiny, tiny things we cannot see with the naked eye, but the little differences in them creates the amazing diversity you see between creatures. Even creatures of the same species have differing appearances, as you can see with humans. Facial features, skin color, hair color, and eye color, for instance. The differences in these blueprints creates differences between individuals. Does this make sense so far?”
“Oh. Yes,” Kino replied, a little overwhelmed.
“Organisms with entirely identical genetic information are known as clones. Take trees, for instance. If you were to cut off a branch and plant it in the ground, it will take root. This second tree was originally from the first tree, so it has the same genetic information as its source. This is also a sort of clone. Do you understand?”
Kino nodded. “Yes. You’re talking about grafting, correct?”
The guide continued. “That is precisely how we have been created. We have one male and female blueprint respectively, from which everyone is cloned—or copied, if you will. Now you know why we all have the same faces.”
“I see. It makes the most sense,” said Hermes.
Kino cast Hermes a glance and turned back to the guide. “So…er…how?”
“You want to know how clones are made.”
“Originally, the conception of a child requires a mature male human and a mature female human, with the child carried in the woman’s womb before being birthed. However, this requires the mixing of the genetic information of the man and the woman. Sons will not be identical to their fathers, nor daughters to their mothers. That is why we use a different method.”
“So…in other words,” said Kino, “There’s no need for the birds and the bees?”
The guide smiled. “No. And no need for storks, either.”
Kino’s eyes widened. She lightly bit her lip. “Er…could you please explain in more detail so I can understand?” she asked, leaning forward.
“Of course,” said the guide. “That’s precisely the reason we brought you here today. This very building houses our cloning facility. But I should give you a brief overview of our history before I give you the tour.”
A long, long time ago, a man and a woman arrived in this desolate, deserted land.
They were the originals of this country’s people.
They were researching biology and medicine in a land far from their place of birth. But their research—research on human cloning—was not accepted by other people. Soon they were ordered to halt their work altogether.
The man and the woman decided then to leave their country. They loaded all the equipment they had developed onto a large truck and left on a journey to find a land where they would not be disturbed.
Eventually, the pair discovered an underground water vein. Once they no longer needed to worry about water supplies, they were able to plant trees and raise plants and livestock.
At the same time, they created clones of themselves to test the results of their research. They raised the clones as if they were their own children.
Over time, they began to produce more and more food, and the number of individuals—the population—increased. A country was born. Hundreds of years since, their clones continued to live stable lives in that very place.
“Let’s be off, then.”
Kino and Hermes followed the guide into the hallway.
In the hall, they passed by several people dressed in white, all naturally with the same faces. The group passed through several heavily-guarded checkpoints before finally reaching a door.
“Here we are. Welcome to the Cabbage Patch,” the guide said with a hint of theatricality before opening the door.
Before them was a long hallway. The wall on one side was made entirely of glass.
Kino pushed Hermes forward and slowly entered.
Beyond the glass wall was a slightly wider space that stretched on parallel to the hall. Large black test tubes stood like pillars at regular intervals down the path.
“These test tubes are our wombs. Have a look at Unit 14,” the guide said, turning on a switch.
The dark tint on the glass slowly disappeared. Something came into view inside the tube, which was filled with water.
Soon the object in the tube became visible. It was small, with hands and feet and a large head that pointed down. A long tube ran from the figure’s navel to the top of the test tube.
“An unborn baby…” Kino mumbled.
“Wow,” Hermes exclaimed.
“Correct. This is an unborn child, at the equivalent of 35 weeks since conception. This one just won’t sit still. Let me turn off the light again.”
The test tube went dark once more.
“This is how all our children are incubated. Once they have matured enough, they are brought out of the test tube—birthed, in a sense—and then are raised like children in any other land. You asked me earlier about the specifics. Let me answer your question.”
Kino looked back at the guide.
“There are several ways we can accomplish this, but this is the process we currently use. We need two ingredients. The first is genetic information, the male version for men and the female version for women. This information can be obtained from any part of the body. Now normally, the information only gives us enough for the particular part it was taken from. So for example, material we take from the hand could only give us a hand. This is what allows each part of the human body to be what it is, but that makes things a little difficult for us. So we make some modifications so that information from any part of the body can be used to create an entire being. The other ingredient we need is an unfertilized egg cell, which is extracted from a woman and kept in cold storage. Do you follow?”
The guide continued. “After that, we do some highly intricate work with the egg cell and replace the entire genetic information that was originally inside it with the information taken from the subject. At that point, the cell is considered fertilized, with the entire genetic information in place. This egg cell is then placed in an artificial womb and incubated for 265 days. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I think I follow.”
“See, Kino?” said Hermes. “I knew this was a factory.”
The guide laughed. “Hah hah! Hermes is entirely correct! Unlike the days of domestic production, we do things factory-style, with perfect quality control. This is why miscarriages, stillbirths, and infertility are unheard of. Most of our citizens don’t even know that these words exist.”
“Doesn’t anyone want normal…er, traditional childbirth?” asked Kino. “This might sound like a foolish question, but wouldn’t it be possible to place the egg cell with all the information into a real womb, not an artificial one?”
The guide was a little taken aback. “Foolish? Not at all, Kino. That is one way of doing things, and is certainly possible with our technology. That is the process we use with our livestock. After all, it would be much less time and effort if we were to forgo the artificial womb. However, no one chooses to do so. There are no records of anyone having chosen such a path. After all, it’s nine months of being unable to work, and a great deal of trouble to boot. And there is the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth, as I mentioned earlier. Think about it this way—why would you go to the trouble of chopping firewood to boil water when you can do the same thing more easily with electricity?”
“I see…” “That makes sense,” Kino and Hermes nodded.
“Oh, but that does not mean that the birds and the bees—so to speak—are also nonexistent here. In our country, it is simply considered recreation for two, like a sport. Sort of like tennis. Why not try it out while you’re here?”
A moment passed in silence before the guide excused himself.
“…Ah, pardon me.”
A married couple came in. Naturally, the man had the same face as the guide, and the woman the same face as the rest of the women in the country—although she was a little more plump than the others. The woman seemed surprised to see the guide.
“Oh my! It’s unusual to see you here. Is city hall closed for the day? Or are you skipping work?”
“Please, I’m on duty right now. It’s been a long time since I had the chance to play guide. Let me introduce our newest visitors—Kino and Hermes.”
“Hello.” “Hi there.”
“Ah, you must be the travelers who arrived yesterday. Welcome!” the woman said, waving at Kino and Hermes. “We’re here to see our daughter today. You simply have to meet her too. Over here, in Unit 25!”
Everyone stood before Unit 25.
There was nothing inside.
But the woman took out a pair of binoculars and looked into the test tube. She smiled and handed it to Kino.
Kino also looked inside through the binoculars. She could make out something tiny in the center of the test tube.
“Can you see her?”
“Isn’t she just the most darling thing?”
The woman was ecstatic. “She’s at six weeks now. And adorable, just like her mother!”
Kino did not know what to say. The guide quickly stepped in. “P-pardon us, now. We’ll be heading off to the education center.”
Kino and the others left the Cabbage Patch and walked down another hall.
“What is the education center for?” Kino asked.
“As the name states, is it a place where we educate those who have met certain requirements. Let me explain,” the guide said. “In our country, you are permitted to apply for parenthood starting at the age of 16. But before you can become a parent, you must pass an examination. Marital status is not taken into account. The important thing is that the prospective parent has the capacity to properly raise a child. Many factors are considered, such as the applicant’s physical and mental health, economic status, job and education level, childcare experience, and support network—their family, for instance. First comes the application stage, then an interview, a written examination, a practicum, and a final examination, all taking place over the course of 10 days in an enclosed facility. Applicants are put through rigorous simulations where things spiral out of their control and they are pushed to their limits, all to see if they do not resort to violence against the weak. Those who do not pass with a score of 93 or higher are not permitted to have children.”
“That’s really strict,” Hermes remarked.
“I agree. I have overseen such examinations many times and can say with certainty that it is a rigorous test. However…”
“Yes?” asked Kino.
The guide turned his eyes forward and replied, resolute. “Those who cannot pass such thorough testing do not have the right to become parents. A parent must be ever-gentle yet realistic, and able to shower a child with unconditional love. These are prerequisites for parenthood. Having a child is not like raising a pet turtle or iguana. It means bringing a human being into the world and shaping the future of this human. What could be a heavier responsibility for a person to bear?” the guide said, fists clenched. “Has a parent who treated childrearing as a game ever raised a physically and psychologically healthy child? What about a parent who treated their child as a trophy to parade around and show off? Used their child like a slave bound to serve a master? Forced a child to inherit a family legacy at the cost of their potential and future career? Or used their child as an outlet for stress or a punching bag when drunk? If such a case ever comes to light, our city hall immediately moves to separate the parent from the child. There is nothing more important to the survival of our country than putting potential parents through rigorous testing. In that sense, this facility produces parents as well as children.”
“I see… You know, a country I once visited had a saying that goes, ‘I’d like to see the faces of the parents who raised you’. It was their way of saying, ‘Who taught you to behave?’,” said Kino.
“A marvelous saying. I’ll keep it in mind. …On that note, in our country, the punishment for the killing of one’s own child is always execution, regardless of reason or motive. However, the killing of a parent by the child is not considered a crime. A child’s upbringing is the responsibility of the parent. And if your own child were to hurt your or kill you, you have no right to complain. It is your own fault for raising him or her in that way, and is something you must accept.”
Kino and Hermes were silent. The group soon stopped at the end of the hall, where several chairs were placed.
“Apologies. It seems I walked you past the door,” said the guide.
“Once a prospective parent has passed the examination process and is deemed to be ready, he or she must go through parenting classes. If this is the parent’s first child, the classes last 250 days, or about the time it takes for their child to be incubated.”
Kino, Hermes, and the guide went through a door into another hallway. Again, one of the walls was made of glass, allowing a clear view into the classroom space beyond.
Inside the classroom, about a dozen people were learning to bathe a baby using dolls. The next room over was hosting an in-class lesson with notes and textbooks, and the room after that was a cooking class for baby food. The gender ratio was about even, with all participants clearly determined to do well.
“This is how we master the skills and knowledge it takes to raise a child. Even this process has a final exam—you are not allowed to take your child home or even hold them until you have passed, so everyone is intent on passing. In fact, no one ever fails.”
“I see,” Kino said, looking down at the classroom.
“And finally, the day arrives. Childbirth day, when the parent gets to hold their child for the very first time. It really is a moving experience, holding that little life that shares your entire genetic information. Everyone knows already that all men and all women here have identical genetic information, of course, but it is still very emotional. And for married people like myself, I also treasure my daughters, who are identical copies of my beloved wife,” the guide said, smiling. “Unfortunately, there are no births scheduled for today or tomorrow. It’s a shame you won’t be able to see the moment with your own eyes.”
After the tour, the group returned to the parlor.
The guide told them that he had something very serious to say. “To be truthful, our country has one critical weakness.”
“Really?” asked Kino.
“Yes. Illness. That is why we conducted such thorough tests on your blood when you first entered our country, Kino. To prevent our country from being infected by an unidentified or incurable pathogen from the outside world. Even if the illness in question might be commonplace in the country you hail from, it could be fatal to the two people—in a manner of speaking—that inhabit ours. Do you understand?”
Kino slowly thought over the implications. “Since everyone is technically the same two people, if one person becomes sick, the rest of the population may fall ill as well, correct? One illness could potentially destroy the entire country…” she mused.
“Just like how motorrads from the same line on the same factory end up getting broken in the same places,” Hermes remarked.
The guide nodded, satisfied. “That’s correct.”
“Then has something like that ever happened?” Kino asked. The guide shook his head.
“Not yet. Before they began to create clones, our ancestors undertook thorough research to check that they were not susceptible to any illnesses native to this area. We have never left this land, and will continue to live here. We are safe so long as we take care to properly examine the occasional traveler who happens to pass by. Our methods have worked well so far, and we have had no such difficulties. Not yet, in any case.”
Kino was quietly in thought.
The guide spoke, his tone more cheerful. “Indeed, the world can never be a perfectly safe place. But…”
The guide smiled.
“So long as we have the will to survive, we will not be destroyed so easily.”
“And that is all for the tour. How did you like it?”
“It was great. I’m happy with it,” said Hermes.
“I’m glad to hear that. And you, Kino?”
Kino gave several small nods. “We’ve been to a lot of countries so far, but yours was the most surprising yet. I’m very glad I came.”
The guide breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you. It makes me happy as a guide to hear that from you.” He paused. “By the way, Kino. I’m about to go home for lunch now. Would you like to join our family? If you’d like to try the local home cooking, I guarantee you we can offer you a meal that beats any restaurant. I realize I’m abusing my powers and letting private life spill into business, but what do you say?”
Kino pushed Hermes down the ramp and off the vehicle. Immediately, four girls with identical faces and clothing, and three boys with identical faces and clothing surrounded Kino.
The children had been waiting at home for their father to return.
“Thank you for coming to get me, children. This here is Kino, a traveler. And this motorrad is Kino’s partner Hermes,” said the guide.
The guide led his chirping children into the house, where they were greeted by his wife, a woman in an apron and the same face as every other woman in the country.
Kino was ushered into the large yard, with its immaculately-trimmed grass and trees. There was a large table in the yard set with food ready to be eaten.
The guide explained that he would introduce the children, and told them to stand when he called their names. The children stood all in a row.
“Let me start from the right. This here is our oldest, Hen. She’s 12 years old. Then we have our second daughter Duo, who is 11. Next is Tria, the oldest of the boys. He’s 10 years old.”
The girls gave curtseys and the boy a bow with his hand over his chest.
“Fourth and fifth, we have two girls. Tetra and Freja. They were born on the same day and are both nine years old this year.”
A pair of girls who looked completely indistinguishable from one another curtseyed to Kino.
“Then we have the sixth, Hex. He’s eight years old. And finally, our youngest—Hepta, seven years old. My dearest family—ah, can’t forget the wife, now.”
“I’m so glad you remembered me this time, darling,” his wife joked, chuckling.
The meal was excellent. The guide explained that there was no shortage of food in the country because even meats and vegetables could be cloned.
After dessert, the children played in the yard. The guide’s wife asked him if he didn’t have to go back to city hall for work. The guide replied lazily, lying on the grass. “My job now is to accompany the traveler. I’m sure it’ll be fine, as long as no one finds me out.”
“Honey, you’re abusing your powers and letting private life spill into business,” his wife sighed. She exchanged glances with Kino and gave a wry smile.
Hermes was surrounded by the children, practically a toy to them.
Kino watched the children for a time before speaking to the guide. “Pardon me if I’m wrong, but the girl on the far left is Hen, yes? Next to her is Tria, then Hepta and Hex. Tetra’s the one touching Hermes’ headlamp, and Freja is the one behind her. And the girl sipping tea in her chair is Duo. Am I correct?”
The guide sat up, looking at his children. “Yes. Yes, you are. How did you know?” he asked, flabbergasted.
“At first I couldn’t tell them apart, but that hurt my pride a little. So I observed them carefully over lunch. It was surprising how subtly different they were. Their habits, their movements. And their faces were slightly different too, like their personalities.”
The guide was lost for words. “…In that short span of time, you… I’m amazed at your observational skill, Kino. Truly.”
A hint of embarrassment rose to Kino’s face. The guide continued. “Which ones did you find most difficult to identify?”
“Tria and Hepta. They’re both around the same height, and look and behave similarly. They’re both very reserved, no?”
“That’s right. They can’t stand up to their big sisters. Just like me with my wife, actually. Hex is the only one of the men here who has a headstrong streak. Which ones could you tell apart most easily?”
Kino turned her gaze to the sisters in front of Hermes. “Tetra and Freja, surprisingly. They look even more identical than the others, but I could tell that Freja was always following after Tetra.”
“Yes,” the guide said, and his eyes fell. “To tell you the truth, Freja was not originally meant to be ours.”
“Regulations forbid us from applying to have more than one child at a time. There must be at least a year between children. Freja, however… The young woman who was supposed to be her mother passed away in an accident two days before the delivery date. So an exception was made, and our family, whose Tetra was due on the same day, brought Freja home as well. She gets her name from the woman who would have been her mother.”
“It’s not a problem for us, as she has the same genetic information as my wife and our other daughters. And the whole family knows about Freja’s situation. But…”
“But each time I say Freja’s name, I feel for the young woman who lost her life and the chance to hold her child. Freja must become happy, if only for her sake. And I am always trying to think of ways to put a smile on her face.”
Kino and the guide watched the children for some time. Suddenly, Freja approached and begged her father to take the entire day off for once to play. The guide looked at his daughter, torn.
Kino slowly rose.
“I think we’ve imposed for long enough. Hermes and I will have a look around the city ourselves. Thank you so much for all your help. If we happen to run into your superiors, we’ll claim that you showed us around all day.”
The guide turned, surprised. Kino smiled.
“Try not to get caught.”
The next day. It was the third day of Kino’s stay in the country.
The weather was just as beautiful. According to the locals, the climate remained consistent throughout the year.
Kino stocked up on fuel for Hermes, and food and water for herself, and finished preparations to leave before noon.
The guide and his entire family came to the hotel to see Kino off. He thanked her for her help the previous day.
He had his wife drive their children home first, and turned back to Kino and Hermes. There was a serious look on his face.
“I have one very important thing to tell you before you leave, Kino. Please, listen carefully.”
The guide, the hotel owners, and people who had time on their hands were gathered just before the gates to see Kino off. The men and the women each looked identical.
The guide spoke on behalf of his countrymen.
“Kino. Hermes. Thank you so much for visiting our country. If you ever happen to be in the area again, don’t hesitate to visit. Our children will welcome you with open arms.”
“Thank you.” “Thanks. Take care.”
The guide watched Kino and Hermes leave through the gates and breathed a long sigh.
“I suppose that’s all for playing guide. I wish we’d get more travelers here.”
The hotel owner gave him a look of disbelief. “Please get back to city hall and do your work. You must have paperwork piled all the way up to the ceiling.”
The owner’s wife chimed in. “That’s right. You took an entire half-day off yesterday, didn’t you? There’s so much to do now, so stop slacking off and get back to work!”
Scolded by the older woman, the guide could do little but helplessly submit. “Right.”
“That was fun. It really was.”
Kino and Hermes were riding away from the country’s ramparts.
“I think I’d be willing to visit that country again someday.”
“Not every day I hear you say that, Kino.”
The motorrad continued, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.
Someone was watching Kino and Hermes from a distance through a pair of binoculars. He was in a pit in the ground and covered in a dirt-colored tarp.
“Yes!” he cheered. “The traveler is safe.”
“A real stroke of luck if I ever saw one.” said the person next to him. “Maybe he didn’t find out about the terrible secret they’re hiding.”
The first person replied, his voice excited. “That doesn’t matter. Our mission is to prevent any further loss of life.” Then he added, “Sergeant, contact headquarters. We are taking the traveler into our protection.”
The motorrad raced down the wide valley housing the country and finally climbed up a hill.
On top of the plateau stood three people. Kino quickly braked and stopped Hermes.
The three people were men, all wearing dirt-colored clothes with paint on their faces. They blended so well with the ground that if they had been lying on the ground, Kino might have ended up running them over.
The three men all had different faces. One of them opened his empty hands to show Kino and slowly approached her.
“Excuse me, Traveler,” he said, “but this route is temporarily off-limits.”
“Why?” Kino asked.
The man took another step forward and saluted. “I’m a soldier from a country far to the south. This area is dangerous—we are about to undertake a military operation here. Please remove yourself from harm’s way until the hostilities are finished.”
“If I refuse, you’ll take me away by force, correct?”
The soldier nodded. “That’s right. We have been ordered to guarantee your safety at any cost.”
“I understand. I don’t wish to be in harm’s way, either. I will follow your instructions.”
One of the soldiers pulled up a large canvas from the ground to reveal a hole, inside which was a small buggy.
On the slope of the hill on the other side of the valley from the country was a large tent, placed just high enough that the country was readily visible over the crest. Several soldiers were keeping their eyes on the country through their binoculars.
Kino and Hermes were led there with all courtesy.
“We’ve brought the traveler!”
The soldier departed with a salute. A middle-aged man in uniform introduced himself to Kino.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Traveler. And your motorrad as well. I am the commander of this unit. Our country’s reputation would have been sullied if anything had happened to a bystander like you because of our operation. But rest assured, you will be perfectly safe so long as you remain here in our forward headquarters. I ask for your patience while we go about our business.”
“I understand. What is this operation about?” Kino asked. But at that moment, someone outside the tent gave a command over the radio.
“The traveler has been secured. Ready the cannons!”
“Cannons?” Hermes repeated.
The commander replied, “Yes, cannons. We will soon be opening fire on the country in the valley. Look over there.”
The commander pointed to several mounds of dirt under the slope. Soldiers began to pull canvases off the mounds, revealing the cannons.
The muzzles of the cannons were slowly raised. Soon, each and every one was pointed at the country in the valley.
Signals were exchanged, and things became busier in the tent.
“Once we open fire, you are free to observe from atop the hill. Let us begin,” the commander said to Kino. Then he turned to his subordinate. “Open fire!”
A terrible rumbling shook the base of the valley. White smoke rose from every cannon, and soldiers in the tent began climbing up to the crest of the hill. Kino followed them on Hermes.
A cloud of black spread over the country in the distance. Then there was a series of explosions. The smoke almost looked like flowers in bloom. The sound of the blasts did not reach the hill until much later.
There was another round of cannon fire behind them, and yet another volley of flowers in the air. The scene repeated itself again and again.
At some point, the commander—who had been watching it all from next to Kino—began to explain.
“We just fired shots that explode in midair and spray tiny pieces of shrapnel onto the ground. They are a very effective weapon for taking care of people who are outdoors or in fragile buildings.”
Kino was silent.
The black flowers eventually stopped blooming. The land inside the country’s walls were then shaken by explosions.
“The rounds in this volley are filled with powerful explosives. They destroy sturdier buildings along with the people inside.”
It was very loud on the hill, with the sound of cannon fire and the delayed booming of the impacts.
“You wouldn’t stop now even if I asked you to, correct?”
“Indeed. If we were to cease fire at this point, they may return fire,” the commander said, and paused for a moment. “Ah, you must have left something behind there,” he said. “I assure you, we will reimburse you for anything you may have lost. Again, we humbly apologize for dragging you into this operation.”
Kino shook her head. “Not at all. It’s nothing important.”
The commander gave Kino a concerned look. “My men spotted you entering the country two days ago. We had been planning to open fire yesterday afternoon, but we held off because we could not get an innocent bystander involved.”
“I see. Thank you. …I have a question. Why are you attacking that country?”
“Naturally, to exterminate the country of devils with identical faces.”
“Then—” A deafening boom swallowed the rest of Kino’s words. She tried again. “Then someone from your country must have gone inside and seen them.”
“That’s correct. I was told that some of my countrymen happened to visit this country on their travels. That was when they saw the fiendish things. The people with their identical faces, the glass jars where they incubate humans… The travelers barely made it out alive to tell of the horrors they faced. But unfortunately…”
“One of the 10 committed suicide. The rest were also heavily traumatized, with two committed to hospital for physical and mental treatment. The poor things.”
“So that’s why you decided to destroy the country,” said Hermes. Smoke was rising from the country in the valley. The explosions continued.
“That’s correct. We must make certain that no one else falls victim to such terrible fates. We were truly worried when we saw you step through those gates. We feared the worst might happen. But it is a relief to see that you made it out safely.”
Kino and Hermes said nothing. Suddenly, the cannon fire stopped. The last of the rounds exploded far in the distance, and the sound carried all the way to the crest of the hill. Then silence fell over the land. Black smoke wafting from the battered walls began drifting in their direction.
“Is it over?” asked Kino. The cannon fire was, replied the commander.
“What do you mean? Is there more?”
“Yes. Take a look over there,” the commander said, pointing behind the rows of cannons. There was a large cylindrical pillar, about the size of a factory smokestack, being pulled along behind a truck. It was pointed at the end with tiny wings on the other end.
“A missile?” Hermes guessed.
The commander nodded. “We are about to fire that missile on what remains of that country. If even one of them remains, they will continue to spawn endlessly. Our country gave the matter great consideration, and decided to develop a special weapon in order to annihilate them entirely.”
“What kind of weapon?” Kino asked.
The commander replied that Kino would see shortly. He added, “I advise you to put on your goggles and cover your nose and mouth.”
The missile was slowly raised. The commander gave the launch order.
With a roar, the missile lifted off in a trail of fire and smoke.
It drew an arc of smoke in the air and broke into two. The back part fell to the ground. The front continued along the arc and fell towards the country in the valley.
The second before it made impact, the front of the missile split open and a white liquid was sprayed from it. Like a net, the substance covered the country in a dome. A moment later, the dome turned into a massive ball of fire. The flames swallowed everything.
Several seconds passed before the sound and the shockwave reached Kino and the others. The dust storm kicked up in the blast clouded their vision.
Time passed, and when their vision had cleared, nothing remained where an entire country had been only minutes earlier. Even the ramparts had been destroyed, leaving behind nothing but scattered bricks. Everything else was flattened utterly. A mushroom cloud, just like one from a volcanic eruption, was spreading over the ruins.
“We did it!”
The soldiers in the tent cheered, hugging one another.
“That was incredible. Was that the new weapon you developed?” asked Hermes.
“That’s right. It seems the operation was a success,” the commander said with a sigh of relief.
Kino pulled her bandanna from her face and asked about the workings of the missile.
“You saw the white substance at the end, correct? That was fuel. The fuel covered the entire country before impact, and the bomb set it all alight. Then the reaction swallowed all the oxygen in the area, incinerating the vicinity in the blink of an eye. The pressure from the reaction flattened everything on the ground. The heat also burned the lungs of any living creature there. You won’t find a single live insect in that hole now. We have succeeded.” The commander gave a good-natured laugh and dusted off his hat. “Finally, our work is at an end.” Lovingly, he pulled out a photograph from his pocket. He smiled.
“What’s that?” asked Kino.
“Here. My daughters,” the commander said, handing her the picture.
The photo depicted two little girls with identical faces, both about 10 years old.
Kino showed the photo to Hermes without a word. Then she turned to the commander. “Twins?”
“Yes. Their names are Irini and Mille.”
“I…can’t tell them apart.”
The commander laughed. “You’d be able to, if you were to meet them in person. Irini is headstrong, and Mille is very withdrawn.”
“I see…” Kino replied, handing back the photo. The commander once again laid his eyes on his daughters.
“It’s been half a year since we set out on this mission, and just as long since I’ve seen their faces. Once I bring the troops safely back home, I’ll be able to see my little girls again. I’m sure they’ve grown so much while I was away…”
Kino said quietly, “I wish you a swift return so that you will be able to meet them soon. I’m sure your daughters are looking forward to seeing their father again.”
“Thank you, Traveler. …It’s now safe for you to be on your way. Thank you very much for your cooperation. If you ever happen to be in the south, do pay our country a visit. I can introduce you to my daughters as well.”
Kino smiled. “Of course. If you’ll excuse us, then.”
With the soldiers’ salutes at their backs, Kino and Hermes left the headquarters and rode for a long time along the hills.
Kino stopped Hermes where they could see the ruins of the country in the valley.
“Goodbye, everyone. Thank you for everything.”
The motorrad resumed its journey, heading down the hill.
They soon disappeared beyond the smiling, waving soldiers and their rows of cannons.
For the next several days, the soldiers dismantled the cannons, which they no longer needed, and buried the parts deep in the ground. After checking that they had left no waste behind, they loaded themselves onto trucks and returned home.
What was only a few days earlier a country was now nothing more than a bombed-out ruin and piles of ash.
Fifty days passed. The ruins were beginning to turn into the color of the dirt being blown in by the winds.
Fifty more days passed.
Something popped out of the surface of the ruins, displacing dust and rubble.
It was a rectangular concrete box, about the size of a house. The door on the rectangle opened.
From within emerged a group of people. All the men had the same faces, as did the women. They looked up at the sky with smiles on their faces.
The man who had guided Kino also stepped out with his wife and children.
“Careful not to trip on anything,” the man said. His children chirped excitedly.
“Wow! It’s been so long since I saw the sun!” “Look, it’s all broken.” “Wow…it’s all flat.”
Holding her father’s hand, Freja asked, “Are we gonna be able to play on the grass again?”
“Of course, darling. The forest will be back before you know it, too.”
Freja smiled and joined her siblings, who were walking further ahead.
“Well, well. It’s all been blown to smithereens. Looks like city hall will be busy for a while.”
The guide put on a wry smile. “It sure will be. And that means less vacation time for me.”
Someone gave a chortle of laughter. “Do your best, Mr. President. Your citizens are counting on you. And we’re grateful to you for all your efforts.”
The president-cum-tour guide shrugged. “I swear, you people are the most difficult superiors to work with.”
“Hah hah hah!” the citizen laughed, disappearing into the crowd.
People spilled into the ruins through the exit. All the men had the same faces, as did the women.
The president-cum-tour guide slowly turned and put on a smile.
“So long as we have the will to survive, we will not be destroyed so easily.”