* * *
Chapter 1: The Country of Justice
A motorrad traveled down a road between the sea and the plains.
The sky was perfectly clear. The clear blue sea stretched out into the horizon under the blazing sun. A narrow strip of white sand served as the border between the ocean and the verdant green fields.
The white road ran in an unnaturally straight line from the north to the south. The motorrad traveled down it perfectly southward.
A pair of black compartments hung from either side of the motorrad’s rear wheel, atop which was a cargo rack laden with a large suitcase. A fuel tank, water container, and sleeping bag were secured to it with a length of rope.
The motorrad continued down the path that divided the plain from the beach.
The young human on the motorrad wore a white shirt and a black vest. She also wore a cap with flaps over her ears and a holstered revolver-type hand persuader over her right thigh. Holstered behind her back was another persuader, an automatic type secured horizontally to her waist.
The rider looked up.
Black clouds were layered on the southern horizon.
“It's so dark over there. I wonder why,” said the motorrad.
The rider replied, “I wonder if it'll feel a bit cooler over there.”
The next morning.
A lone motorrad traveled under the grey skies.
The previous day’s clear weather was nowhere in sight, replaced by thick cloud cover. The sun to the east was only just bright enough to be seen. Everything was dark, from the plains to the beach. The sea, faithfully reflecting the color of the sky, looked as though drops of ink had been mixed into it.
Today, the rider was in a black jacket—the same vest from the previous day, only with the sleeves attached.
The motorrad said, “Good for you, Kino. It's not so hot anymore.”
“Yeah. In fact, I'm almost feeling cold,” Kino replied. ”I wonder why it's so dark? It's morning. These clouds don't look normal, either. What do you think, Hermes?”
“Maybe a volcano erupted somewhere far away.” Hermes answered.
Kino asked, “So you mean those clouds are all volcanic ash?”
“Not quite. Volcanic ash is heavy, so it settles down quickly over the ground. But this is different. The clouds above us are made of the lighter things spewed out of the volcano. They rode the wind and ended up all the way here.”
“So will it be this way for a while, do you think?”
“Probably,” said Hermes, “It depends on the force of the eruption, but it might not clear up for a year or two. Or maybe even longer.”
Kino frowned. “And I was looking forward to going someplace warm.”
“Maybe you should look forward to a change of plans.”
The motorrad pressed onward under the grey skies.
The next day.
Kino was wearing her coat.
Under her coat she wore her black jacket. She secured the flaps of her coat by wrapping them around her thighs. A bandanna was wrapped over her mouth and nose. Her ear flaps were down and secured together with a strap under her chin.
The sky grew darker and darker. Now it was nearly impossible to locate the sun. Although it was midday, it was too dim to even read a book. The pitch-black sea scattered against the shore in waves of white foam.
Hermes' headlight was turned on, illuminating the way ahead. He was moving much slower than the previous day.
“I don't know about this, Kino. It's just getting darker and darker,” he said.
“You're right. Darker and darker, huh.” Kino mumbled, disappointed. “And it's cold, too—almost like winter. I was looking forward to a warm country—a land of year-round summer…”
“What do you think? We can still turn back, right?”
“We can. I guess I shouldn't be too stubborn,” Kino admitted. “We'll go back to the previous country and head west.” She let go of the gas lever.
Hermes slowed down little by little, before finally coming to a complete stop.
“Some warm tea sounds really good right about now.” Kino turned off the ignition.
Hermes' headlight went out. Everything went silent and dark. Then, Kino noticed something.
On the road ahead, slightly above the horizon, they saw the blink of a light.
Soon, the light blinked on again. It continued flashing on and off at regular intervals of about a few dozen seconds.
“What about tea?”
“Once we get indoors.”
Kino turned on the ignition again.
As they approached the country, a large lighthouse behind the walls came into view. It was a tower of white, reaching to the skies from behind the grey—now black—walls. The light was rotating towards the ocean.
The country was by the sea, and its walls reached even into the waters.
Kino stopped Hermes by the log gates and walked over to the wooden outpost beside it. She lowered her bandanna and exhaled. Her breath rose in white puffs.
No one came out to greet her, so she knocked on the door. She heard movements from inside.
A man who looked to be the gatekeeper appeared from behind the glass window.
Kino frowned slightly.
The man, who seemed to be in his mid-thirties, was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. The T-shirt had a wide mouth, and the shorts were made of light cotton. On his feet were a pair of rubber sandals. He was not wearing any socks.
His skin was a tanned brown, but his attire was clearly out of place for the climate.
“Oh, a traveler? Welcome to our country…”
As if proving the inadequacy of his clothing, the man's weak voice was clearly congested.
Kino registered for a three-day stay and received a permit with little trouble. Even as she filled out the forms the gatekeeper shivered and coughed several times.
Kino returned to Hermes, and the gates opened before their eyes.
They passed through the central area.
The country was small. Just inside its walls were orchards and fields, as well as large trees that could not be found outside the country.
There were no cars on the streets. Carriages, either horse- or ox-driven, were left on the curb with nothing to pull them.
In the central residential area were clusters of wooden houses. There was no glass in the window frames—only sunshades that offered no protection against the wind.
“Kino, what did the people from the last country say about this place again?”
“They called it a free-spirited tropical country.”
“I guess that's mostly true, except there's no sunlight here at all,” Hermes said. The sky was pitch-black and the wind chilled them to the bone.
They saw no one outside. In fact, they had not spotted anyone since first stepping through the gates. No one passed through the streets, though people occasionally peeked out of their windows when they heard Hermes passing by.
“I understand why they wouldn't want to come outside in this weather,” Kino said, heading towards the harbor area on the shore ahead.
In the harbor were piers and levees made of stone. Several ships were moored along them, masts reaching into the sky.
A group of about twenty hardy men huddled by the breakwater, sitting in a circle with their backs to one another. They were likely fishermen.
And just like the man who had greeted Kino and Hermes at the gates, every last one of them was in T-shirts, shorts, and sandals.
“They must be freezing,” Hermes said, “It doesn't make sense for anyone to be dressed like that in this weather.”
As Kino and Hermes got closer, the men glanced at them with empty eyes. There was a flash of envy in their expressions as they spotted Kino's coat.
Kino stopped Hermes. The men all looked away, then hurried away together as if fleeing.
“It doesn't look like they like you very much, Kino.”
Kino rode away.
Kino and Hermes made their way back to the central area.
White single-story buildings shaped like squares lined the wide, paved streets. Like the others, the windows were devoid of glass, only sunshades let down over them.
As they passed by one building in particular—
“Hey, Kino. I see people.”
They saw a lineup formed outside it. There was no sign on the building, so they had no idea what the lineup was for. The people spilling out of the front doors sat in two unending lines on the dirt paths.
There were men, women, children, and elders. Over a hundred of them waited in the queue, which went around the corner of the building and out of sight.
They were all dressed in T-shirts and shorts. They clung to one another as tightly as humanly possible, shivering in the cold.
When they noticed Kino and Hermes, they looked up in surprise. As with the fishermen, there was a flash of envy in their expressions when they saw Kino's winter attire.
When Kino met their eyes, they looked away.
“It doesn't look like they like you very much, Kino,” Hermes whispered.
At that moment, the people lined up on the ground began whispering. They simultaneously got to their feet and exchanged glances.
Kino followed their gazes to her left.
A large and gaudy carriage drawn by four oxen came down the middle of the street.
Kino parked Hermes by a building along. Some people glanced over at Kino as she got closer, but most remained focused on the carriage.
“The Prime Minister…”
“It's the Prime Minister.”
“The Prime Minister's carriage.”
The people’s whispers reached Kino and Hermes.
“I get it.” “They must be in charge around here.”
As the shivering people in light clothing, the heavily dressed Kino, and Hermes watched, the carriage came to a stop before the building entrance.
The luxurious door opened, and out stepped two large men who looked to be bodyguards. They were both dressed in T-shirts and shorts.
Following after them was a harsh-looking woman in her mid-forties, also wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
Under the eyes of many of her citizens, the woman quickly walked into the building, watched over by her guards.
Sighs escaped the lips of the many people lined up outside. The crowds soon returned to their huddles, sitting back down on the ground.
Kino propped up Hermes on his side stand and introduced herself to a nearby citizen.
The citizen ignored Kino and looked away.
After several repetitions of asking and being ignored, Kino returned to Hermes. But the moment she pushed up Hermes' side stand, someone called out to her from behind.
“Ask the Prime Minister.”
It was a man's voice. When Kino looked around, no one came forward. Everyone continued to avert their eyes.
“Thank you. I'll do that.”
Kino did not seek out the owner of the voice. She did not ask Hermes to find him, either. Thanking the anonymous informant, Kino pushed Hermes up to the carriage and stood before the bodyguard who was glancing over her way every once in a while.
Soon, the other bodyguards and the Prime Minister stepped out of the building.
Seeing them out to the doors were several men wearing white T-shirts, white shorts, white hats, and white masks.
“I see. So this was a hospital,” Hermes whispered.
As she left, the Prime Minister took notice of Kino and greeted her with a warm smile. “Oh my. Travelers, I take it?” Under the vigilant eyes of her bodyguards, she went up to Kino. “Hello. Welcome to our country. I had heard that we just welcomed our first visitor in a long time. I am the prime minister of this country.”
“It's an honor. My name is Kino, and this here is my partner Hermes.”
“Well, if you'll excuse me. Please take your time and enjoy the sights,” The Prime Minister said, trying to end the conversation.
“I'd like to ask you something.” Kino said quickly before the Prime Minister could turn away completely. “On our way here, we noticed that the climate was getting worse and worse. Has the weather been this way here for long?”
“Yes. It's been several weeks now.”
“It seems to be much colder than usual here. From the looks of the citizens, I can imagine they must be freezing by now.”
The intimidating bodyguard raised an eyebrow. The Prime Minister, though calm, spoke with a slight edge to her voice.
“That's right. It may seem that way to you, traveler, with all the layers you're wearing. I'm sure our clothing may seem rather sloppy to you, but in our country, this is formalwear.”
“I see. So that’s why everyone is dressed this way,” Kino said.
The Prime Minister smiled almost condescendingly. “That is correct. We have always worn short-sleeved shirts and trousers. After all, that is the most suitable attire for a hot country like ours. I've heard that in some countries, people wear long-sleeved shirts, neckties, and even jackets on top of it as formalwear. Even in the middle of summer! I'm glad that I wasn't born in such a foolish and illogical place.”
“Could I ask you one more thing?”
“What is it?”
“What happens if a citizen were to dress otherwise?”
“Naturally, that is a violation of our laws. It's a serious crime. But that wouldn’t be possible to begin with, as no other types of clothing exist in our country.”
The carriage left the hospital and the people. The motorrad departed immediately, headed in a straight line for the northern gates.
“Oh? Your permit hasn't expired yet…” The gatekeeper said, voice still congested.
“I ——— my ———.” Making up an excuse, Kino left the country. With bandanna over her face, hat snug on her head, and coat secure around her.
“Only half a day in a country, huh? That must be a new record, Kino.”
“I feel cold just looking at those people. And besides, this country—”
Kino and Hermes departed down the path laid between the darkened seas and the plains.
* * *
Approximately two hundred and several days later:
A buggy was moving southward along the path by which Kino and Hermes had gone north.
The sky was dark as night. With headlights on, the buggy—with its piles of luggage—carefully made its way forward.
To the left of the road was the sea, and to its right was what used to be a verdant plain—now replaced with a dark and desolate wasteland.
“This is terrible. Looks like all the vegetation's died out,” muttered the man behind the wheel.
He was in a parka with the hood pulled over his head. He had goggles over his eyes, and a muffler was wrapped around his face, hiding his expression.
In the passenger seat was a little girl bundled up in thick winter clothing. She was wearing a fur hat, and a muffler was wrapped around her body. Because she was not wearing goggles, her green eyes and white hair peeked out through the layers.
Sitting between her knees was a large dog with long white fur.
The dog said to the driver, “This climate will last as long as the eruption and the prevailing westerlies continue. And even when the eruption stops…”
“This area won't recover anytime soon, am I right?” The man answered.
The girl looked up without a word.
Tiny white particles danced in the air before her eyes. One of them flew past the hood of the buggy and landed on her cheek. It quickly melted and disappeared.
“And now they're even getting snow,” the man muttered sadly.
The snowflakes fluttered from the sky, slowly growing in number. They began to sparkle in the buggy's headlights.
The man slowed down the buggy slightly and looked at the girl in the passenger seat.
“Are you feeling cold at all, Ti?”
Ti quietly embraced the dog's head and rubbed her cheek against him. “Mm.”
“I see. Just tell me if you are.” The man said, his eyes narrowed.
The buggy continued down the thick grey path covered in snow. The chains wrapped around the rear wheels dug up the road.
Snow continued to fall from the pitch-black sky. Slowly but surely, the snow came down in larger amounts.
Still hugging the dog, Ti would sometimes point out objects on either side of the road, or on the road itself.
The man also glanced at the objects. If one was on the road in their way, he turned the steering wheel to avoid running over it.
They were little mounds covered in snow. Many of them were piled up over the flat lands.
The little mounds were, at one point, living humans. They were the corpses of people who had collapsed on the road, carrying a scant few belongings with them.
“I see little hope here, Master Shizu,” the dog said, his head still in the girl's embrace.
“You may be right, Riku. But we should at least go all the way to the country. We'll be there very soon. We have to get a good look at the situation before making our report.”
The moment Shizu finished, they saw a black wall looming ahead of them in the darkness,
Looming beyond the wall was a lighthouse. There was no light.
The wooden gates hung wide open.
The buggy slowly entered the country without receiving permission.
The landscape inside the walls was little different from the world outside.
Everything was grey. Every plant was wilted, and every tree had been cut down. Lonely stumps lined either side of the road.
“They must have used them for firewood,” Shizu said.
After a look around the country, they headed for the harbor. Not a single ship was moored at the docks. All they found were the remains of some lumber, cut into pieces and piled up neatly.
In the central area they found corpses on either side of the road.
The corpses were no longer human in shape. Skulls and arm and leg bones rolled around in the snow.
Shizu drove slowly. He stopped the buggy at the center of the town and loudly blew on a whistle. He turned off the engine and listened carefully, but heard nothing.
“Another country gone,” he whispered sadly in the falling snows.
Ti and Riku looked to him.
Shizu took off his goggles, undid the muffler around his face, and looked into Ti’s eyes.
“Ti, the people of this country couldn't bring themselves to change.”
Ti said nothing. She stared back, waiting for him to continue.
“They lived by excuses like ‘Things have always been this way, and that was good enough for us.’ They could never accept anything but the light clothes they always wore. Even though the world around them had changed completely, they wouldn’t adapt to the changes. It's difficult to put it simply, but…”
“They lived by their own justice?” Ti said suddenly in an unusually long sentence.
Shizu and Riku went silent.
Several seconds later, in the middle of the snowy street, Shizu looked back into her green eyes.
“Yes. You're right. These people lived and died by their own justice.”
Shizu started the buggy again. They turned to depart.
They left through the north gate, which they had passed on their way through the empty country.
There they spotted life.
The man stopped the buggy in front of the living creatures.
In the world of grey were animals of the same color. A pack of about twenty wolves feasted on a corpse in the snow.
The wolves took notice of the buggy and looked up. They glared at the mysterious metal object that shone light on them, and the two people and dog riding it.
“I see. So the corpses inside the country were all eaten by the wolves,” Shizu concluded.
Riku said, “Wolves do not normally live in tropical regions like this.”
Shizu nodded. “They must have followed the climate all the way here. They braved the unknown and found themselves food. In the end, these wolves won out with their courage.”
The wolves growled. They put their meal on hold and slowly approached the buggy, encircling it.
“Although that doesn't mean we'll be offering ourselves up to them,” Shizu chuckled. Ti turned around and reached into the back of the buggy. When she turned back, she was holding a hand grenade, taped closed to prevent it from exploding.
She looked up at Shizu silently.
“Don't worry.” Shizu smiled. “We won't need it.”
He shifted gears and started the buggy.
The buggy drove past the surprised wolves and left in the blink of an eye. It was soon swallowed up by the darkness.