* * *
Chapter 10: The Country with an Illness
Inside the walls was no different from outside. A dead wasteland littered with rocky brown mountains.
The walls were simply there, as if they had risen out of the ground. On either side were monotonous landscapes that seemed to go on forever.
The sky was blindingly clear. A lone road stretched into the distance, not paved but cleared of obstacles and patted down.
A motorrad was moving down the road, leaving the rising sun and a trail of reddish-brown dust in its wake. It was equipped with a luggage rack in place of a back seat, and was laden with a suitcase and a sleeping bag. Black compartments hung from either side of the rear wheel.
The rider was wearing a hat with ear flaps and a bill, along with a pair of silver-rimmed goggles that were peeling at the edges. The edges of her long brown coat were wrapped securely around her thighs.
“It’s cold here, Kino. Not just the weather,” the motorrad remarked.
Kino replied, “Yeah, you’re right.”
“Did we really come inside? This doesn’t look like a country.”
“Yeah. If you could count automated entry procedures as immigrations, I mean.”
“Huh. Maybe the people left their homes to go live in caves. That might be funny too.”
“But that’s the thing, Hermes. I heard this country was technologically advanced. That it was clean and tidy, and you could live indoors your entire life,” Kino said.
Hermes was unconvinced. “They must have gotten it confused with some other place.”
“No, I heard about it from someone who left because it was too clean. But he didn’t tell me about the automated entry procedures. All he said was that I’d see the walls in the middle of the wasteland, and a dome with high-rise buildings.”
“I don’t see any of those.”
Kino slowed as she turned, and accelerated along the straight stretches of the road. They passed one rocky peak and spotted another behind it.
“You think we’re lost?” Hermes wondered, bored.
“No,” Kino said firmly.
The exchange repeated itself several times, and Hermes finally went silent. He drove on in complete silence in the unchanging world.
It was around noon when they finally spotted the walls they were looking for. Kino and Hermes had just emerged from behind a particularly large peak.
“You’re right. He was telling the truth after all.”
In the middle of the desert were walls, high-rise buildings, and a dome.
The old stone walls were coated with a reflective surface. Three buildings loomed behind them, surrounded by smaller structures. The buildings were connected via walkways. The entire city was encased in a transparent dome. It was like a massive fortress.
Uniformed soldiers and an officer were waiting for Kino at the gates. They greeted her with smiles.
When Kino explained that she wanted to stay for three days, they welcomed her, offering to fully cover the costs of her stay on the condition that she, Hermes, and her belongings were thoroughly sterilized before entry. Kino asked how the procedure went.
“You will be required to enter a shower, during which time your belongings will be cleaned. your motorrad will be washed as well. The procedure for your belongings will be thorough—it will go through everything from entire bags to even individual needles. Of course, we will make a catalogue of your belongings beforehand to make sure nothing is lost.”
Kino thought for a moment and accepted the terms. Hermes was a little disgruntled, but he surrendered as well.
Some time passed. Kino and Hermes entered through the gates, having completed the entry procedures.
Kino was in her jacket, with a thick belt around her waist and holsters on her right thigh and behind her back. They were all pristine.
Her dusty old coat was as good as new, tied to the suitcase on the luggage rack.
Hermes had been fully sterilized and polished to a sheen. The metal parts were shone as bright as mirrors.
“I’ve never felt so clean in my entire life,” Kino muttered, standing before a mirror, “I feel spotless.”
“What do you say to settling here for good, Kino? I’m sick of dirt stains,” Hermes said. The last set of gates opened.
“Welcome to the City. This is where most of our population lives,” said the guide who had been waiting just inside.
The City was tidy and orderly, with paved districts and roads lined with buildings. The transparent dome covered the entire area from about 40 floors above the ground.
“The glass dome and the windows in our buildings block out harmful elements of sunlight. All light and air in our country is strictly filtered and controlled, and the temperature and humidity are artificially kept at standard levels according to the time and location. Aren’t you feeling a little warm?”
“You’re right,” Kino replied, opening up her jacket.
“And these are for Hermes,” the guide said, taking out two box-shaped objects the size of dictionaries. Kino asked what they were.
“It’s an exhaust filter,” Hermes commented, “and a muffler. I knew you’d give me those.”
Kino stared in surprise. The guide equipped the items onto Hermes with an expert hand.
“Now Hermes is legally allowed to run in our country, even indoors where permitted. You’ll find elevators in the buildings for your convenience. And here is a map of the City. Please return it at the gates upon departure.”
Kino looked at the little machine. The screen displayed her current location, along with an instruction manual.
The guide continued, “You must have seen the outer wall already. We built it about ten years ago as part of our expansion plans. You’re standing in what we call the City, which is the old country, with the new territory outside the dome being called the Country.”
“You mean people live out there?” Hermes asked.
“Yes, but very few,” replied the guide. “You’ll find a few villages scattered about with a few dozen people in each settlement. They’re our Pioneers, all volunteers who work the land to make it usable.”
“Why would they choose to go out there? The City seems comfortable enough,” Kino wondered.
The guide smiled. “Precisely. It’s very comfortable here. Everything is developed and clean. But that’s why some people choose to pursue nature; living on real soil under real sunlight.”
“Pioneers are sent in family units. It’s an honor afforded only to the select few who pass the physical and psychological examinations, and the training to settle the land. And they are accompanied by our military’s special forces, who have also passed a rigorous selection process. The land they clear is used for agriculture, and the Pioneers build self-sufficient villages there. This is still a long ways off, but we plan to develop these settlements in a different way from the City. The settlement project is also an experiment of sorts to see if our people could become strong enough to survive in the outside world once more, as we had before we built the City.”
“So I suppose you could see the Pioneers as our cream of the crop, so to speak. We admire them very much—just imagine living in harmony with nature, building a new country… But it’s for braver people than myself. I’d faint if I ever saw a lizard or a moth,” the guide said, chuckling, “The whole country will be impressed by you as well, Kino and Hermes. People will ask you to join them for meals, or talk to you out of the blue. Please enjoy your stay. And if you’re not sure whether to accept an invitation or not, you are free to decide based on the person’s looks or their choice of menu.”
“More like choice of menu and how much food they offer,” Hermes quipped.
They left the guide at the gates and headed into the city proper.
The streets were spotless.
Kino and Hermes were invited to meals twelve times before they reached the hotel. She turned them all down.
The hotel was in one of the tallest high-rises. Kino and Hermes were led into the glass elevator and a suite on the top floor with a fantastic view of the Country.
“This place is huge,” Kino mumbled once the bellboy was gone. “What am I supposed to do with all this space?”
“It’s perfect for marksmanship practice,” said Hermes.
Kino was unloading her things from Hermes when the call bell went off. A middle-aged man and woman in formalwear appeared on the large screen on the wall.
“Good day, Traveler,” said the man, “I am the owner of this hotel. My wife and I have an urgent request to make of you. Would you please spare us some of your time?”
Kino invited the couple inside. After a moment’s hesitation, she offered them the seats at a nearby table. The couple sat down, thanking her.
The owner first introduced himself, then asked, “If I may, would you care to join us for lunch tomorrow?” He and his wife both looked very serious.
Kino declined the offer, but they begged her to accept. They offered to give her anything for her time.
When Kino asked why they were so desperate, the woman answered, “We have an ill daughter. She’s been sick for a very long time. Please tell her stories from your travels.”
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn.
She began with light exercises. Then she did drawing practice with Cannon and Woodsman. Afterwards, she took apart the persuaders, cleaned and oiled them, and took a shower in the needlessly large bathroom.
Just as the sun began to rise, Kino called for room service. A luxurious meal, courtesy of the owner and his wife, was delivered to her suite.
After breakfast, Kino watched in vexation as the bellboy took away the leftovers.
“You have to let these things go sometimes, Kino. Your stomach’s not a bottomless pit,” Hermes said, having woken up at some point.
Kino rode through the City. Hermes showered the buildings and streets with praise.
“Hm. Yeah,” Kino replied, not sounding particularly interested.
Even as they toured the area, locals invited them to meals or struck up conversations. Kino declined them all, citing her prior engagement.
Around lunchtime, they arrived at the place the hotel owner had marked on the electronic map. It was a large white building rather far from the city center. The area had been left relatively clear to keep the space open. The name ‘First National Hospital’ was written on a sign at the front.
The owner and his wife greeted Kino and Hermes at the doors. Kino took off her hat and greeted the grateful couple, and was led to their daughter’s room.
The room was furnished with wooden decorations steeped in history and majesty. It had been lifted straight out of a luxury mansion.
In the middle of the room was a large bed with high posts, a roof, and lace curtains. A girl in her early teens sat on the edge of the mattress.
She had pale skin. Most people in this country had fair complexions, but hers was even whiter—the hue of bleached paper. Her long blond hair hung down all the way to the bed, and her blue eyes highlighted her emaciated face.
The girl wore blue-and-red tomato-patterned pajamas and a light pink cardigan. And she wore a smile on her face as she looked at the letter in her hands.
There was a knock. The girl carefully folded up the letter, put it in its envelope, and placed the envelope in a box by her pillow.
“Come in,” she finally said, and the door opened on command.
“My name is Kino. And this is my partner Hermes,” Kino said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kino. Hermes. I’m Inertia. Mother told me that you’d be coming today. Thank you so much.”
The girl rose, curtseying with her fingers holding up a nonexistent dress.
“Thank you for the invitation,” Kino responded, putting a hand over her chest and bowing. She was in her white shirt, with her holstered persuaders wrapped up in her jacket and tied to Hermes’ luggage rack. She propped him up on his center stand before the bed and took a seat.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hermes said, “Kino’s getting some hoity-toity food and new ammunition, and I’m getting high-quality oil, plugs, and fuel. You scratch our rims, and we’ll scratch yours.”
Inertia broke into a smile. “I’m a little surprised. I thought someone traveling on a motorrad would be a lot wilder, and older.”
“Kino is definitely a wild one,” Hermes joked. Kino gave a wry laugh.
“Will you please tell me about your travels?” Inertia asked, eyes wide.
“Yes. That’s what I’m here for,” Kino replied.
Lunch was delivered to the room. Kino, Inertia, and Inertia’s parents ate together.
The entire family listened with rapt attention as Kino told her stories.
After the meal, the couple reluctantly left for work, leaving Kino and Hermes with their daughter.
Kino and Inertia sat around the table, with Hermes propped up to the side. Fruit had been served on a platter, along with tea.
“Thank you for coming all this way and taking the time to tell me your stories,” Inertia said, “I loved them. I’m sure everyone else would have loved to hear them too.”
Kino shook her head. “It was no problem. Remember what Hermes said before?”
“But other people might have given you even more for your stories,” Inertia said, apologetic.
“Or maybe less. If we’d turned down your parents, we might be off somewhere regretting it.”
“Yeah,” Hermes chimed in. “And you’ve been sick for two whole years, so you deserve a bit of fun.”
A smile slowly came over Inertia’s face.
“Did they tell you anything about my illness?” she asked.
Kino replied,” Yes, your father did. About how there’s no cure or prevention for this disease, and how it could affect anyone. But they’ve found ways to slow down the progress recently, right? He also said that they’re working on a cure, and it’ll be finished soon.”
“Yes. I’ll start taking the medicine once they’re done. I’ll be able to go home and attend school again.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“Maybe my classmates will remember me, or maybe they won’t. It might be a bit overwhelming at first, but I’m sure I’ll be hanging out with other kids soon. But I can’t just spend all my time relaxing. I have to study hard so I can go out into the Country. I’ll build up my strength, too.”
“You want to go out there?” Hermes asked.
Inertia nodded, smiling.
“You haven’t told your parents, have you?” Kino guessed.
“No, I haven’t. How did you know?”
“Because you didn’t let it show at all when I was talking about the Country before. Your parents looked like they were more interested than you. Like they were sick of work and wanted to leave it all behind.”
Inertia laughed. “You might be right. Mother and Father always wanted to try living in the outside world. But they have a hotel to run. I can’t imagine what they’ll say if I tell them I want to go to the Country.”
“Do you want to become a farmer?” asked Kino.
“Yes, but…it’s more because there’s someone I want to meet. Someone I just have to thank.”
“Your parents don’t know about this person, do they?” asked Hermes.
“No,” Inertia said softly.
“Who is it? What’re they like?” Hermes said, curious.
“Er…I’ll only tell you if you promise not to tell my parents. Or anyone else.”
“That’s fine. It’ll be our little secret.” “Yeah.”
Life rose to Inertia’s face. She rose and walked over to her bed, opening up the box next to her pillow and taking out a dictionary-shaped book. It was a journal with a sturdy cover and a lock.
Inertia unlocked the journal and opened it up. Letters were stuck in between some of the pages.
“These are from my pen pal in the Country.”
“Is it a boy? Or a girl?” asked Hermes.
“A boy,” Inertia said clearly. “His name is Logue, and he’s the same age as me. Right now he’s living on a farm in the Country with his family. They’re all Pioneers.”
“Is he a school friend? I heard it’s very hard to be chosen as a Pioneer,” Kino said.
Inertia shook her head. “We met here at the hospital last year. He came to get a checkup with his family when they applied to become Pioneers. I was looking out at the Country from the observation deck when he ran in. He was pointing outside and yelling, ‘Just you wait! I’m gonna make it out there!’”
“He wasn’t actually supposed to be there. I was really surprised. The nurses came and tried to drag him away, but I kind of ended up telling them that he was my friend and he was allowed to be there.”
“Not bad,” Hermes said.
Inertia smiled sheepishly. “He thanked me, and we looked out at the Country together for a really long time. He said it was his dream to live there, and told me all about what he wanted to do. So we made a promise. He’d do his best and pass all the exams and make it to the Country, and I’d do my best and get healthy again.”
“So that’s how you started writing to each other.”
“Yes. Just one letter a month, so we wouldn’t bother each other. But in the second letter, he told me that his family passed the exams, and they were going to help build a new settlement outside! I was so happy. Dreams really do come true if you work hard enough,” she said, her blue eyes brimming with hope, “So he moved to the Country. He wrote to me after that. He said living in the Country was much harder than he imagined, but he was going to do his best. And he kept writing to me every month. Three months ago, he said that someone had a baby. It was the first baby born in the village. Two months ago, he said a bug flew in while they were eating but he wasn’t scared. And just the other day, he said they planted fifty-three tomato seedlings in the greenhouse and he’s looking after them every day, and how fun it was. Logue’s dream came true. And he’s doing his best out there. So I have to do my best too. My medicine makes me feel queasy, but I read Logue’s letters when that happens. He gives me courage. People might be helpless when they’re alone, but I think they can do anything as long as they encourage each other!”
“That’s right,” Hermes said sagely, “Which is why you should find yourself someone like that soon, Kino.”
“None of your business,” Kino replied. They burst into laughter.
Inertia said, “Once I’m better, I want to get permission to visit the Country. I want to go see Logue and look around the village, and try the tomatoes they grew in the ground. That’s my dream right now.”
“I really hope they finish that cure soon.” “Yeah,” said Kino and Hermes.
“Yes. I’m going to get better no matter what. I think the harder you work at something, the better things get in the future. I’m sure I’ll be healthy again someday. I have to be.”
“Can I ask you to do something for me, Kino?” Inertia said.
The winter sun was starting to set, and the dome was adjusting itself automatically in response.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you ever since Mother told me you were coming. I know this might be too much to ask, but I don’t have anyone else to count on,” she said, biting her lip.
“What is it? That fancy food’s put me in a really good mood, so I think I’m up for just about anything. And my trusty motorrad’s always ready to help,” Hermes said.
Kino punched Hermes’ fuel tank and asked Inertia what she wanted.
“You’re going to head west when you leave the country tomorrow, right? Well, Logue’s village is on the way, but a little further south.”
“I see,” said Kino.
Inertia looked her in the eye. “I actually wanted to give him a present before he left.”
Inertia reached into her box again and took out a small case, tiny enough to fit on the palm of her hand. She opened it.
Inside was a brooch. It was carved of some white material, slightly distorted but clearly in the shape of a bird. Short golden feathers decorated its beak and wings.
“Did you make this yourself?” asked Kino.
“Yes. I made it as small as I could, but it just wouldn’t fit in the envelope. Could you take this brooch to Logue, please? It’s a good-luck charm. I made it so the farms would do well, and so he won’t get hurt or sick. Please take this to the post office in his village. I know this might take you out of your way, but you’re my only hope. Please.”
Kino stared at the brooch for some time.
“I can’t refuse a request like that.” “Yeah. We would have if you asked us to take the bed over, though,” said Kino and Hermes.
The nurse came in just as a teary-eyed Inertia thanked Kino and Hermes. She seemed surprised to see the visitors.
After giving Inertia her medicine, the nurse heard about Kino and Hermes leaving the next day and begged them to join her family for lunch.
Kino shook her head.
“I’m terribly sorry, but we’re planning to visit the Country tomorrow. There’s a village with a tomato garden we want to see.”
The next day. It was the third day since Kino and Hermes’ arrival.
Kino rose at dawn.
The sky outside the window was clear, glowing a pale purple. The Country was just as empty as before.
In the elevator to her suite, Kino found the ammunition, rations, and everything else she had asked for. All her clothes had been laundered to perfection, and she even found some new clothes in the pile. She had replaced Hermes’ plugs, fuel, and oil the previous night.
As usual, Kino started off with exercises and persuader drills. Then she thoroughly enjoyed her shower and feasted on her breakfast.
She checked out of the hotel at sunrise. The owner and his wife came to see her off, thanking her profusely for brightening up Inertia’s day.
Kino and Hermes left the hotel, going down the nearly-deserted streets.
They reached the western gates of the City, returned the electronic map, and prepared to leave. Kino checked that her persuaders were loaded before putting on her coat. She also returned the exhaust filter because it would not last long anyway.
Finally, she checked one more time to make sure she had not left anything. Coming back into the City would be too much trouble. Kino reached into her jacket to make sure she had brought the gift.
Outside the walls, a cold gust kicked up dust into the air.
Kino asked the guard outside the gates for directions. He showed her a map, which she and Hermes scrutinized before setting off.
The lone motorrad was crossing the desert.
“You think you can figure out how to get there?” Hermes asked.
Kino replied, “Yeah. It’s not marked, but the topography’s easy to remember. There’s a two-peaked mountain about 60 kilometers ahead. Past that is a basin with Pioneer Settlement #42. The path there was on the map too.”
“Why wasn’t the village on the map, though?”
“Maybe the map was out of date. We’ll find out when we get there,” Kino concluded.
“Right,” Hermes said, and added, “I wonder how Logue’ll react when we give him Inertia’s present.”
“We’ll find that out too when we get there.”
Kino accelerated. They continued westward with the morning sun at their back.
Along the way, they spotted a great green circle by the road. It was part of a Pioneer settlement; a field watered by a giant sprinkler.
The sun climbed higher and higher into the sky, until their shadows were tiny on the ground.
“Here,” Kino said, stopping Hermes. To their left was a path snaking up a two-peaked mountain.
“It’s not a very friendly road. Those pebbles are going to dent my frame.”
“That’s nothing new.”
Rear wheel spinning loudly, Hermes turned and climbed at full speed.
“You’re such a softie, Kino.”
“I owe her this much for all the great food. I wouldn’t have helped out otherwise.”
The road reached a plateau that went on for some time. Then it began to descend.
“There.” “I see it.”
Several buildings stood in a cluster in a corner of the wide basin. Half-worked fields spread out in a grid around them, and greenhouses stood reflecting the sunlight off the glass walls.
“Something’s not right,” Kino muttered.
She stood before a building in the village, looking at the door.
“No one here, either?” Hermes asked from the road.
“No. The door’s locked. Chained, too.”
The fields in the distance were just as deserted. No one came outside when Kino drew near, or when she entered the village. A lonely wind howled through the settlement.
“The buildings are still in good shape, and the crops have been harvested, too,” Kino remarked.
“Maybe the whole village packed up and left? This area might not have worked out after all.”
“That’s not good. I’d have to find out where they moved to.”
“Look, Kino. A car,” Hermes said. Kino went back to the road and looked at the headlights coming from the other side of the basin.
The car quickly approached Kino and Hermes. A small four-wheel drive painted to match the color of the ground. Only one person was inside.
“Perfect timing. Let’s ask him.”
Kino waved. The car stopped and the driver emerged.
He was a soldier in his early twenties, wearing mirrored sunglasses and a green winter uniform like the men outside the City gates. On the left side of his belt was a holster, and on the back was a dagger sheathed horizontally.
“What is your business here? Oh, wait a second… Are you the traveler who came to our country two days ago?” asked the man.
“Yes. My name is Kino, and this is my partner Hermes.”
“Hello. Welcome to our country. I’m Lieutenant Cole, from the Third Special Security Squad,” the man said, saluting. “May I ask what your business is here? The New West Gate is the other way; this road takes you the long way round, about a two-day drive. Shall I take you to the main road?”
“Doesn’t anyone live here?” Kino asked.
“Not yet, I’m afraid. It’s a training center. A prototype for temporarily housing Pioneers,” Lieutenant Cole replied.
“That’s weird. Kino’s here to deliver something for someone who’s lived here for a year,” said Hermes.
Cole’s lip stiffened. “Name and address?”
“CO Post Office 42nd Pioneer Settlement. His name is—”
“Logue, right?” Lieutenant Cole finished, taking off his sunglasses to reveal eyes just as blue as Inertia’s.
The building was at the highest point in the area, a short distance from the village. A drab two-story concrete structure with a large antenna on the roof.
The car came to a quiet stop in front of the building. Kino and Hermes roared loudly behind it.
The lieutenant opened the door and beckoned Kino and Hermes inside.
The building was dark, but furnished like an office with small chairs, desks, and document trays. Lieutenant Cole offered Kino a seat. He hung up his hat and opened the sealed windows. Light spilled inside, revealing the tidy interior.
Kino propped up Hermes on his side stand and hung her hat and coat on him.
Lieutenant Cole sat across from Kino. He placed his elbows on his desk and clasped his hands before his forehead, closing his eyes with a sigh. It was long and quiet.
He finally raised his head and said feebly, “Welcome to the post office.”
Kino reached into her jacket and took out a case small enough to fit on her palm. She opened it and showed Cole the object inside.
A small brooch carved of some white material, slightly distorted but clearly in the shape of a bird. Short golden feathers decorated its beak and wings.
“A good-luck charm. It’s a gift from Inertia to Logue.”
She placed the case on the desk. But Cole simply stared at it.
“Do you work here?” asked Kino.
“Yes. Out here in the Country, soldiers are in charge of non-security duties as well. I used to work here. I still do, I suppose.”
“That’s that, then. We did what Inertia asked. Let’s get going, Kino,” Hermes said, making no effort to hide his sarcasm.
“How could this happen…?” Cole groaned, shaking his head.
“Could you give this to Logue?” Kino asked.
Cole shook his head and said firmly, “I can’t.”
“Why not?” asked Hermes.
“Because Logue is dead. He died half a year ago—murdered. Exactly half a year and four days ago,” Cole replied.
“Did they tell you about the disease, and how doctors are developing a cure?”
“And about the Pioneers?”
“But have they told you about the Special Pioneers?
“No.” “What’s that?”
“To put simply…they were people recruited to be killed.”
“…Please, go on.”
“Of course. …I’ll tell you everything I know. Our country…we’ve been working very hard to overcome this disease that’s been ravaging our people—or some of them, at any rate. It was our public enemy number one. So the entire country has been working to develop a cure as quickly as possible. Trying to prevent more people from suffering for years and dying in pain.”
“I see.” “Right.”
“And three years ago, we began to reach the limits of animal testing. Many doctors said we needed to move on to human experimentation. They implied that we could develop the cure faster if we used living people. And the government agreed.”
“…” “And then what happened?”
“All sorts of people apply to be Pioneers. Some of these families have no other relations, and are part of the lowest-income class. They were selected, regardless of their performances on the examinations, and made into a Pioneer group.”
“The Special Pioneers, you mean.”
“Yes. They came to this village, full of hope. We soldiers were in charge of keeping them safe and making sure none of them escaped. …But you have to understand! The government hadn’t decided for sure that these people would be used for the experiments. The cure might have been completed before that, and then they could have lived like the other Pioneers.”
“I see.” “But that didn’t work out, did it?”
“The authorities made the decision a little more than half a year ago. All the villagers would be taken as test subjects. We carried out the orders. Released sleeping gas into the village one night and kidnapped them all. Put them in trucks and shipped them off…and that’s the last I saw of them. The last I saw of Logue, the boy who used to follow me around like a little brother. They were taken to an underground facility in the City for the experiments. I don’t know the details. But a CO told me that half a year and four days ago, a boy was vivisected. Cut up and put in small specimen jars. Later they told us the doctors found a way to slow the disease, and gave us a reward. …And no one’s touched the village since.”
“I see. I have one question.” “About the letters, right?”
“Yes. I wrote the letters. I was in charge of checking them to make sure no one had any suspicions about our activities. Pioneers don’t get many letters to begin with because so many people are envious of their status. And the Special Pioneers didn’t have many contacts to begin with. So I didn’t have much work to do. Or at least, that’s what I thought at first.”
“But she wrote to him without missing a month. And he always wrote back. I could read their letters with a machine that let me see inside without breaking the seal. I found out that she was sick and couldn’t leave her room. That he was encouraging her with all his heart. That she was encouraging him out here in the wilderness. And that her dream was to get better and move out here to the Country to be with him.”
Without warning, Cole put his head in his hands. “I’m such an idiot! All I had to do was write one easy letter! ‘I’m too busy to write back anymore’! It would have been so easy! I could have crumpled up her letters and ignored them! So why? Why did I keep replying?! What is wrong with me, dammit?!”
“So you couldn’t stop, could you?” Hermes remarked, as unperturbed as ever.
“I was terrified! Month after month, I opened up her letters, scared that she might have written, ‘Who are you?’ on the pages. But…”
He finally looked up, his teary eyes locked on the little bird on the desk.
“She made it for you. Take it,” Kino said quietly.
“Thank you.” A soft response. “I’ll have to write her back.”
Cole took Inertia’s gift in his hands. He gingerly closed the case and got up, putting the present on a shelf behind him.
“Say,” Hermes said, once Cole was back in his seat, “If you’re not demolishing the village, does that mean you’re going to do the same thing again?”
Cole nodded. “Yes. They’ll be sending a new batch of subjects soon. And I’ll go back to doing security and postal duties here.” His eyes narrowed. “This is all for the country. For our people. And…for her.”
“I understand. Thank you for your explanation. If you’ll excuse us, then.”
Cole stared at Kino. “Thank you. And…I’m sorry.”
He kicked the desk into Kino’s chest. She fell on her back. By the time she had pushed the desk away, Cole’s right foot was pinning Cannon to the floor, holster and all.
The blue-eyed soldier looked at his target. He followed his training, drawing his dagger and bringing it down with both hands.
Kino’s right hand grabbed the knife hidden in her left sleeve.
Outside the walls was no different from inside. A dead wasteland littered with rocky brown mountains.
The walls were simply there, as if they had risen out of the ground. On either side were monotonous landscapes that seemed to go on forever.
The sky was blindingly clear. A lone road stretched into the distance, not paved but cleared of obstacles and patted down.
Kino and Hermes continued westward, leaving a trail of reddish-brown dust in their wake.
“I’m surprised, Kino,” said Hermes.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. I mean, we were still in the country,” Kino replied.
It had been ten days since the traveler’s departure.
A girl with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes sat on the edge of her bed. The nurse came in to give her her medication. And a small envelope.
The nurse instructed the girl to take her medication first, and left the room.
The girl did as she was told.
Then she got a letter opener and carefully got into the envelope, which was only marked with the name of the hospital and her room number.
A checkered envelope stamped ‘STERILIZED’ and ‘CHECKED’ emerged. Emotions welling, she tore it open.
Inside she found a single piece of paper, folded very neatly.
Her blue eyes followed the words on the letter.
‘Thank you so much for the present. I’ll treasure it. Come to the village when you get better. There’s so much I want to tell you.’
The girl smiled. Choking back a sob, she hugged the letter to her chest.
* * *
Epilogue: At Dusk・A
The sun was setting.
The perfectly circular ball of light was about to hide itself below the horizon. Above it to the right was a small red light, shining like a gemstone.
The spotless orange sky was giving way to blue, followed by purple.
The world was flat as a gentle sea, carpeted by early-summer grass and trees, and dotted with sparkling lakes.
A gentle wind brushed past the leaves.
The peak was too high to be a hill but too low to be a mountain. But it was the highest point in the west all the same. The view from the top was completely unobstructed.
It had been cleared of trees and crowned with a log watchtower.
At the feet of the tower was a large log cabin. At the top of the tower was a small lookout point.
The lookout shone a soft gold in the light of dusk.
Two men stood there. Squinting, they watched the sun set in the distance. Their eyes on the sky and the land out west.
“You think that traveler from earlier’s camping out there somewhere?” asked one of the men.
“Dunno. I guess,” answered the other.
“I’m sick of this place. This view.”
“The sky keeps changing color. During the day you get birds chirping like crazy and during the night it’s the bugs. I hate the fireflies, too. And those stupid rainbows we get after a storm.”
“This is depressing. I can’t wait to go home. Cozy up in the basement watching shows all day.”
“Whoever put up this damned watchtower’s probably never thought about how hard we have it here. How much it kills motivation and efficiency.”
The sun set completely.
The perfectly circular ball of light hid itself below the horizon. A small red light was left in the dark, shining brightly like a gemstone.
The faint orange sky grew fainter. The blue darkened, and the purple began to cover the world.
The world was flat as a gentle sea, carpeted by early-summer grass and trees, and dotted with lakes starting to lose their sparkle.
A gentle wind brushed past the leaves.
“I’m so sick of this place,” said one of the men. And he went to climb down the ladder. “Shift’s finally over. I’m going on ahead, Will.”
“Mhm,” the other man mumbled, listening to his partner leave.
And he fell into thought.