Makoto came to a stop in the middle of a narrow path, near where Mizuta was sitting on a park fence. Makoto's digital watch read 5:38. It was another five-minute walk to Asunaro Juku. He was a little off schedule, but he could talk with Mizuta for fifteen minutes, Makoto thought as he began to walk along the dim path toward him. As Makoto came toward him, Mizuta threw away his cigarette which had already burned down and stood up quietly. Layers of dark red rust came off the fence as he stood up, like overbaked apple pie crusts. Makoto stared beyond the fence at a small stream of lava bubbling on the cold, wet asphalt blown by the wind. Mamiko's face came up. She was smiling, in a good mood, baking pie on a Sunday afternoon. The embers suddenly became dark and quiet. Mamiko faded away. The asphalt crawled into Makoto's body. It came up from his shoes, into his feet and travelled up to his knees, filling and freezing him. Mizuta's thick palms stopped Makoto from freezing stiff and made him move; they slowly pushed the asphalt back to the ground. Unfastening Makoto, Mizuta disappeared into the small park which was the same size as the backyard of a private house. Makoto followed him silently. Under the buzzing electric light, Mizuta turned to Makoto and took a small plastic bag out of his warm coat pocket. He handed it to Makoto. Makoto found a negative in the bag. Then, Mizuta took another negative out of his pocket and looked at it under the light. Makoto looked at it this way too. There was the image of a boy on the negative. "What is he thinking?" Mizuta said, but Makoto didn't answer. "What on earth could Yohta be thinking?" Mizuta sighed. "In reality, he looks different from this image. What's this death-like expression on his face? What's with those eyes of his? They look dead, machine-like. Like a dead chicken embryo. Where's the King of Kids, the media terrorist?" Makoto kept silent. Surprisingly, he wasn't interested at all in Yohta's face, which he was seeing for the very first time. He couldn't feel anything from the photo. "S-8," called Makoto. "S-8." He thought of the number trying to recall something. Looking aside, Makoto saw that Mizuta had opened his small notebook. After jotting down something for a while, Mizuta read it. "No Life King is__? A game. Have parents? Yes. Like them? Yes. Have hope? Not particularly. Anything you want? Not particularly. Anything you dislike? Not particularly. What do you want to be in future?.......A computer." Mizuta looked at Makoto. "What do you think?" Makoto looked back to Mizuta vacantly. "Not particularly...." What time is it now? Makoto raised his arm, trying to see the time." "Wait." Mizuta's big hand held Makoto's wrist. "Don't worry. It won't take so long. This is the last one. Please. Take a look." Mizuta held out a thin magazine of about twenty pages with the other hand. Written in hiragana on the cover were the words: 'To Children.' Makoto was surprised by the crayon drawing under the title. It was the portrait of the middle-aged TV celebrity with a big "X" over his face. "You remember Morii, who sent you the fax? This is the extra special feature in his magazine. Yes, it's WEG. Or maybe this might be the last issue. Morii's been ruined. He's gone missing." It was none of Makoto's business who had ruined Morii. Makoto put the "S-8" in his nylon jacket pocket, took the magazine and turned the pages. There was a series of crayon drawings. In one of them, a short-haired baby-faced guy was bowing to some children. The caption said, "Sorry. Adults are stupid." There was another showing smiling children in a line headed by Life King; they were walking off the Earth. Thick letters spread across the pages: "Good luck." And another sentence was written across the TV celebrity, which said: "This man is the one who doesn't know reality." All the drawings caught Makoto's eye. Mizuta whispered to Makoto from over his shoulder. "Didn't you watch TV yesterday? That stupid celebrity went to Morii's apartment with a bunch of reporters. In fact, he went to beat him up." Makoto's fingers stopped moving. He hadn't known about it. "'How can you say I don't know reality?' The stupid trendy shit, the celebrity, blurted out from the doorway. He's such a coward off camera. He's also nasty. He didn't beat Morii at all--he just excited the others, called for Morii to come out, and had the others attack him. Morii's forehead was bleeding and nobody blamed the TV celebrity for the attack," Mizuta's voice sometimes became a falsetto, just like Pentagon's. "Bleeding, and holding this magazine in his hand, Morii said.... Makoto, listen well! These are Morii's last words!" Mizuta breathed in deeply, shivered and said: "'This is a picture book to encourage those who are going to face a new ordeal. I made this because I wanted to cheer up the youngest people in history to fight against the new reality.'" The new trial...The new reality...Makoto didn't know what these things were. Makoto was almost crying. "Makoto? What is it? What is the new ordeal? What is the new reality? Does it mean the world is in turmoil with devils and curses? Does it mean a dead face playing the Disu-kon game? Hey, Makoto!" "The new ordeal...The new reality..." Makoto repeated the words again and again. "THE NEW ORDEAL...THE NEW REALITY..." He repeated them like the passwords he'd entered in the Disu-kon. Makoto sat in front of the T-8 at Asunaro Juku. It was a substantial piece of equipment facing him. The T-8 was a cold piece of machine with a lot of complicated parts, covered with smooth skin like a plastic model. The T-8 calmed Makoto down. He had become excited repeating the passwords. Makoto started his routine mechanically. "WHAT CHEMICALS PRODUCE OXYGEN, HYDROGEN PEROXIDE AND....? Makoto took a look at the thin keyboard, running his fingers along it. "MANGANESE....." The computer never betrayed humans. After the passwords had been processed, everything became clear. "DIOXIDE." "WHAT'S THE NAME OF THE CITY FAMOUS FOR LUMBER MILLS AT THE MOUTH OF THE YONESHIRO RIVER?" "NOSHIRO." Makoto felt the answers were not imformation he had had. Rather, he felt he was just reacting to stimulus the T-8 had sent to his fingers. "IT BECOMES CLOUDY." Makoto entered the twentieth answer, though his fingers were still on the keyboard. It cooled down the center of his brain. Makoto waited until the screen changed. The screen change would be more precise than an order from Pentagon. "S-8 DATA." Yohta's S-8 accessed the T-8. As usual, Yohta's answers were all correct. Makoto thought Yohta's fingers were like a terminal which could not resist data transmission. It was the S-8 who knew all the answers, and Yohta was a part of it. I want to be connected with the computer like Yohta, with zero resistance, Makoto wished. "MAKOTO" The T-8 began to display new data from the S-8. The message printed out in the space reserved exclusively for S-8 messages, not for answers to the questions. Makoto's fingers stiffened nervously. "PLEASE GO..." Characters filled the space with a certain rhythm. "...OUT" the S-8 was giving a command to the T-8's parts. And questions, too. "IS IT REAL?" This was a part of Makoto's password, to which S-8 reacted. Am I connected to the S-8 directly? Makoto stood up and told Pentagon that he had to go to the bathroom. Out in the hallway, rows of posters were pasted up on the walls announcing Asunaro Juku 's "Year-End Intensive Course." Makoto passed by each poster and made a left turn. A bright yellow elevator door waited. Makoto pushed the down button, the door opened immediately. He let the iron box carry him down with gravity, as if he was going down to an underground fortress. The door opened, and Makoto got out. Without looking at the cafe on the right hand side at the entrance, he walked out into the dim street. The neon lights of the building across the street were already on. They were all the same, Makoto thought. He decided to check to his left and right. Left. Normal. Right. Normal. Neon lights flooded both sides. What does 'real' mean? he thought. "Real character design." "Real scrolling down the screen." "Real war game story." Recalling those words, Mokoto tried to make a calm judgement. If asked 'is it real?' he would say that all the scenery was real. The Pink Salon tout who sometimes made fun of Makoto and the other kids in a thick voice...the Milano Barbershop which had almost gone bankrupt because of a rumor...and the big signboard of the Dainese Supermarket. They were nothing if not 'real.' What on earth was it to be 'real'? Makoto kept on checking. A kid came out of from a small side street. He was as tall as Makoto. He came out, then soon turned his back to Makoto and walked away. Makoto kept an eye on the boy's back. The boy walked for several meters, then suddenly jumped aside, reacting to something. Then he squatted down. He took a small stone out of his navy jacket and placed it on the cold asphalt road. Then he began to walk again. Again he squatted and began to walk. After a couple of seconds, Makoto found himself trembling. He looked back resolutely to see a row of stones lining the shopping street. The world had turned inside-out and upside-down. It was No Life King. The stones were lined up exactly in the same proportion as the red dots in the dark labyrinth. I am inside No Life King! Makoto desperately suppressed the lump in his throat, which was about to come flooding out. An indescribable terror, one which he had never experienced in his life, ran through his body, piercing and shaking him. Real... The sensation of this word spread through his body. It's real. Yes, it's real. I'm in the real world--the connected world. Makoto was responding to the S-8 and the T-8. I am a real Half-Life, which might die at any moment. Makoto was standing warily in the middle of the street like those characters in computer games. Then he took a turn. There was another line of stones. He took another turn...And another... Makoto turned round and round nervously. There were probably stone lines like this in Sapporo, Tokyo and all over the country. Background music blared from a nightlife district. A sad trumpet tune which was new to Makoto sounded very familiar. It lifted his spirits and inspired him. "This is a war." Makoto lowered his body against the enemy, who could attack him from any direction. Then he made another turn...and another...and another. He felt someone watching him. Danger! He faced the enemy. It was that robot-like waitress who had dropped the glass in the cafe where he had met Mizuta. Makoto glared at her. He must always be on guard; it was true. He was a real Half-Life who could be killed at any moment. The waitress was petrified by Makoto's aura. Makoto was still in combat readiness mode. "I'll be killed if I'm not on the alert!" The waitress nodded sadly. Makoto estimated his distance of attack and moved a little to the left of the waitress. Then he ran into the building at full speed and glared at her back, but she wouldn't look at him. The elevator opened at once. Makoto checking inside, jumped, and pushed the button for the seventh floor. He pushed his small back against the cold wall, ready for a new enemy. The piercing trumpet sound remained in Makoto's ears. In the discount shop near Asunaro Juku, some warriors had already gathered looking for floppy discs for Wise Men's Stones. The Half-Lives who could be killed at any time, had to store their data as soon as possible. There were piles of cassette tapes; next to them were video tapes piled up high, taking up much more space. The floppy discs were next to them. The warriors reaching out for the discs praising each other tacitly for their bravery. Makoto had pulled as many as three discs with his forceful fingers. He was embarassed to return them after he'd pulled them out, so he proudly strode to the register. It was an unexpected expense. "That's OK. I have many things to store." Makoto said to himself. I'll write my Wise Man's Stone tonight. Then I'll be remembered after I die. Makoto hurried home. He was alert to everything around him. He intentionally stood at the end of the platform without shelter of roof nor a bench while waiting for a train. He never let up. Warriors were here and there on the train, all positioned according to their own strategy: Some were sitting in the middle of a seat; some standing at the connecting passage between cars. Even as they swayed from left to right, they turned around to watch front and back. They all looked with the greatest contempt upon the drunken salarymen and the college students absorbed in their comic books with their legs wide open so defenselessly. They could be attacked at any time! The warriors waited for their stations, then got off. Makoto was positioned between two doors, since his strategy told him to stay at a place which commanded a wide view. Nothing happened until the train arrived at his station. Makoto went tripping out of the station gate, where the shopping arcade began. He bought a cup-of-noodles at a nearby vending machine. He needed food to finish the Wise Men's Stone overnight. He ran home at full speed. Of course everywhere he went was full of signals from No Life King. Instead of stones, sometimes they put trash or had left some scratches, all of which made up the stone signals of the dark labyrinth when looked at randomly, all over town. The elegant old manager was standing in a flower print dress at the condo entrance. She glanced at Makoto and said, almost groaning, "Welcome home." Makoto quickly passed her, returning a short greeting. The condo had an auto-lock system, and he had to open the front door with his key. Makoto hesitated to place the important discs and cup-of-noodles on the brick-colored tiles while he was taking out his key. "Let me open the door," the manager said, approaching Makoto. Her big keyring jingling, she found the right key out of her many keys. "It's strange, but someone lined up trash and stones in the street. I cleaned them up many times, but they came back again. Some stupid mischief-makers! I'll find out who they are, and punish those who did it!" Makoto went through the door as if unconcerned. He said "good night," and she went out to the street again. Through the elevator door, he could see her watching. "I'll have to put some there after midnight," he thought. * * * * * * * * * * Mamiko ran out of the dining-kitchen to opent the door. "Hi, welcome home." Makoto nodded silently to her. Her spring sky-blue mohair sweater was bright, but her face was stiff. "Makoto. Are you still angry? Please talk to me! I'm sorry to have taken that but I didn't want you to go crazy." She followed Makoto, who went into his room, ignoring her. "I'm sorry, Makoto. But if you're worrying yourself crazy with curses and death, I wanted to help you. It's a parent's duty, isn't it?" This didn't sound like Mamiko at all. Makoto pushed back the door, resisting Mamiko who was rattling the doorknob on the other side. "Hey, Makoto...Hey." She's not like my mother. She's not, Makoto shook his head and locked the door. "You aren't going to talk to your mother for the rest of your life? Is that it?" Makoto didn't answer. "You'll regret it if I die!" Mamiko said angrily. "Well, then..." Makoto said. These were Makoto's first words Mamiko heard that day. The tension in her arms fell away at the sound of his voice. "....What? Makoto?" Pushing her head against the door, Mamiko tried to connect to Makoto. The MC's high-pitched voice said something on the TV in the background. "Well if...ha ha ha." The bizarre laughter of a middle-aged women came from outside Makoto's room. "If I die, what will you do?" The laughter continued. Mamiko's pale, thin throat moved. "If you die..." Makoto waited for her silently. "You'll never die. You're young. Even I won't die so soon. I'll live for a hundred years. You'll die after me." Makoto felt he could see Mamiko's sad but somewhat mysterious face bursting into laughter and blending into the soft music coming from the TV commercial. Makoto nodded deeply, as if to say farewell. Standing alone in the dark room in this "real" battle, the warrior shed tears. Makoto woke up to someone knocking on his door the next morning. He discovered he had fallen asleep at his desk. He had stored eighty lines in his Wise Man's Stone, which was not enough yet, but if he put whatever was in his mind into the Stone, it might be similar to the other Half-Lives's stones, he thought. That was how he had managed to keep tapping the keyboard until four in the morning. Makoto was fuzzy headed the whole day until he came home. He was only awake when he typed the words "IT IS REAL" into the S-8. There was no message from the S-8, Yohta. Makoto felt this was inevitable, since they were all so busy. Mamiko didn't come out of her room. She had placed Makoto's favorites on the kitchen table, like crab omelett, slow-cooked pork and ham salad. As a way of apologizing she had decided to let him be alone, . Makoto felt sad, because he thought she didn't have to apologize. He warmed the food in the microwave and fed himself busily. He heated the water, put it in the thermos and took it with him to have instant coffee and doughnuts in his room. Everything was all set. Makoto took the Wise Man's Stone disc from the back of his desk drawer. He turned the Disu-kon on, inserted the base disc, then the Wise Man's Stone and then the base disc again. The stone rolled out line after line. "MAKOTO OHSAWA. 10 YEARS OLD. BLOOD TYPE AB ..." Below a few data entries, Makoto's long entry continued: "I DON'T KNOW ABOUT MY ANCESTORS. THERE'S ONLY MOTHER AND ME IN OUR FAMILY. PARENTS DIVORCED DUE TO IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES. I LIKED MY FATHER, TOO. HE SAID HE LIKED MY HAIR. IT IS STRAIGHT..." Makoto scrolled down the screen, reading his life story. But, it wasn't his after all. What was missing? Half-Lives in Life King put all their life stories and their feelings about life into fifteen sentences. Otherwise, couldn't they self-destruct? thought Makoto. He edited his sentences again and again, adding new information. The telephone that had rung so frequently before sat silently behind Makoto. No sound came from Mamiko's room for quite a while. The Wise Man's Stone had recorded 118 sentences about Makoto. It was two o'clock in the morning. Makoto put on his heavy red coat and left his room. A cold wind blew up from his feet when he opened the apartment door. Makoto placed an eraser in front of the condo. The building manager had messed up the neat line. Makoto did not hurry back to his room like the day before. Instead, he walked silently toward the shopping arcade because he knew all the signs of No Life King had been completely removed. He walked under the moonlight. Walking along the well-organized, chessboard-like blocks, he became more and more aware of playing the role of a Half-Life. He turned a corner and saw another kid walking toward him. Makoto kept walking undaunted. Then another small figure came out from a distant corner. And another...and...another. The kids filled the dark night. All protected themselves from the cold wind with their own special attire. They were straightening the lines and filling the missing points in with new signs from their pockets, carefully placing them, one by one. The signs should be things that adults would not notice. They should choose them with great care. Of course, stones were best, but the stone supply was limited. Pencil lead broken into pieces. Candies sucked small. Tiny, tiny bits of litter. Sometimes even spit. The kids acknowledged their roles without exchanging a word, just like cells, never placing the same things closeby. Makoto came close to the shopping arcade, having finished eighty percent of his work. Suddenly he heard someone talking. Turning around, he found two small wizards covered in yellow blankets from head to toe. Makoto flinched from the weird-looking scene and sprinted off, almost tripping on himself. He heard a scream which sounded like a tight cord being snapped in two. "Makoto? Coward!!" It was Akira. Turning back, Makoto found the twin brothers staring at him. Yes, they were the twins, but somehow they weren't. Makoto must have looked even more different to them because the twins turned around and walked back along the street they had come from. Makoto followed them silently, keeping his distance. * * * * * * * * * * * Akira opened his Wise Man's Stone for Makoto in the dark room. "AKIRA MORISHIMA. MALE. TWIN. OLDER BROTHER. I WAS A TRIPLET BUT BECAME A TWIN IMMEDIATELY AFTER BIRTH BECAUSE TSUYOSHI DIED. MY YOUNGER BROTHER IS SATORU. DIFFERENCE IS THAT I TALK MORE, AM A LITTLE TALLER, HAVE A SCAR ON MY RIGHT PINKIE, CAN EAT CELERY, HAVE A MOLE ON MY RIGHT EAR (TSUYOSHI HAD ONE THERE, TOO), GOOD AT JAPANESE, AND CAN RUN..." Akira described his differences from Satoru in more than ten sentences. He put "Satoru" in his column of "favorites." If Satoru were killed first, nobody would know what Akira's Wise Man's Stone meant, thought Makoto. Akira just nodded at him. Next, Satoru's stone was opened: ".........SATORU MORISHIMA MACHINE SECTION SMALL SCREW 3%. BIG SCREW 2%. ELECTRICITY 5%. CLOCK 4%. PENCIL SHARPNER 2%. AIRPLANE 2%. ELECTRIC OUTLET 2.5%. CLIP 1%...." Thus Satoru had listed his composition over many pages. The longer the list went on, the more the figures below the decimal point increased. "He's trying not to reach 100%." Akira explained for Satoru. "Because if it reaches 100%, Satoru would not be explained sufficiently," he said. There was more than a big blank space below the machine section. Satoru scrolled down the screen and finally found the column "other section," which was only two lines: "Akira 8%." "Tsuyoshi 2%." That 10% seemed to be definite. The twins hid their stones under the bed. Then there was a long silence. Click...Click...Satoru's 4% clock told the time precisely. Click...Click. "How is Mino-chan doing?" Makoto asked impatiently. Akira shook his head weakly, leaning-forward . "He's an alcoholic." "He said he couldn't stop drinking." Akira's neck drooped like a withered lily. "So he gets drunk every night. He said when he's drunk, his Wise Man's Stone sometimes appears to be perfect. And he said he seriously thinks that it is time to self-destruct." The twin brothers had been hanging around town in wizard-like costumes. Whenever they saw their friends, they opened their stones for them, confirming to each other that they were OK. No Life King had driven the children into the labyrinth, which was by far more complicated than ever before. The kids were overwhelmed by the difficulty. Makoto didn't go to school the next day. After leaving home, he went to see Kat-chan. The sky was so clear, it was as if it would cut everything it touched. Makoto walked step by step along the small stone-paved path which led to the building's lobby. Low trees blocked the view on both sides. Unseasonal light at the end of winter shone over a myriad of dead leaves which never fell to the ground. Kat-chan's mother, an outgoing, bright woman, was totally exhausted. Makoto lied and said that he had brought Kat-chan study materials for the week. A week had already passed since Kat-chan had last attended school. Walking through the dark hall, Makoto knew Kat-chan was working on Life King. His mother had not succeeded in taking the Disu-kon game software away from her son, who had refused to attend school. Beside the Disu-kon, there were many Life King packages, each of which was numbered. Judging from these packages, the version he was working on was probably Life King III. Even though Makoto was sitting next to him, Kat-chan never took his hand away from the joystick. Makoto waited quietly for Katchan. He bet on the odds of a winner who could protect the Life King. Kat-chan's Life King went through the forest, through the sea, the desert, and the town breathing out a small burning light. After getting through the schoolyard, he entered the dark labyrinth. Kat-chan stopped the game by pushing the "select" button. He took the disc out of the computer and turned to Makoto. Makoto and the other boys had tried to go through the dark labyrinth too quickly. Makoto waited for Kat-chan to say something. But Kat-chan didn't. Makoto couldn't hold back from showing him his stone. He wanted to tell Kat-chan what a difficult situation they were in. Kat-chan silently watched Makoto handling the Disu-kon. Makoto pushed the "start" button. The screen brought up Makoto's stone in full. Makoto silently continued scrolling, confirming without a word. It came to the last line, which he'd decided to add just last night: "Remember me, Makoto." Makoto waited silently--waited for the right solution to No Life King, which Kat-chan should have found by now. There was a long silence. Kat-chan finally took out a disc from under the light purple carpet. Makoto held his breath. It could be Life King V, which was the closest to No Life King. After inserting the disc, Kat-chan turned to Makoto and slowly pushed the "start" button. Even with this slight release of tension, Makoto felt as if he might scream. Some characters appeared on the screen. Makoto began to read them without even blinking. "KATSUYA KIZAKI. 10 YEARS OLD. MALE. 130 CM TALL. WEIGHT 42 KG..." This was Kat-chan's stone. Kat-chan had holed himself up at home to read Life King to himself, almost like the Bible. But this was exactly the same thing the other boys were doing. Scrolling down the screen, Kat-chan said, "This is not me." Makoto answered, "I don't know." Kat-chan asked again, "This is not me, isn't it?" Makoto peeled back the carpet. "I don't know." Then Kat-chan stopped scrolling in the middle of the document, held the computer, and patted it gently. Then said in clear voice, neither bright nor dark, he said, "We will all die before finishing our stones." Tears fell out of Makoto's eyes. Kat-chan just kept patting the computer. Makoto left Kat-chan's house declining tea. Walking along the stepping stones, he noticed small objects sticking out of the ground next to the stones. They continued to appear sporadically. Looking at them more closely, he discovered they were the ends of toothpicks Kat-chan had arranged at the center of his garden. Makoto stood up resolutely and began to walk without looking back. Makoto kept on walking, not knowing where to go. He walked around the parking lot where he had played baseball and had gotten yelled at. He saw two children there. He walked along the narrow path between some old wooden houses. There was a kid there, too. He walked along the houses by the railroads. He saw four kids there. He walked along the dark back road behind the water works building. He passed by two children there. He walked along a broad street he had never been on before. Nine kids. He walked along long roads that smelled like grease. Three. He walked by a building under construction. One. In front of an electric appliance store where the TV sets all showed that TV celebrity's face. No kids. Makoto followed his lips; he was speaking at some press conference. He said, "I don't know. I don't know what happened to the children," lowering his head so far down if almost touched the table. Makoto heard booing. "Let's hear from the children," "Stupid Ass..." "It was you who made kids crazy," "Go kick the bucket!" "Die and say you're sorry!" Makoto started walking, leaving a crying Magic Black behind him. Even after beating Magic Black, Makoto could not go home. No Life King would never end. Makoto kept walking. There were No Life King signs not only by the roadside, but on and on along walls, windows, billboards, bridges, handrails, terraces, electric poles, everywhere. Things such as markers, chewing gum, stickers, shoe cream, and glue were arranged all over. Some had long distances between them; others short, but every arrangement was done in a very orderly fashion. Before he knew it, Makoto was standing at the back gate of an unfamiliar elementary school. He felt weak in the knees. There were stones, nails, pins, pencils, erasers, cookies, matches, empty cans and other things wierdly arranged so close together on both sides of the road along the school wall. And over the school wall and the walls of houses across the road were signs drawn by colorful markers, chewing gum, toothpaste, scotch tape and stamps. They continued on and on, making a band. Makoto instinctively looked to his side. He saw a yard through the gate. He felt sick. The kids' reality was in a state of confusion. The yard was full of signs. Arrangements made of every possible thing were lined up from here to there. They came from all possible directions, crossing and overlapping, as if invading each other's territory. Makoto ran away from the scene without knowing where he was running to. How long had he run? He had come to a familiar wooden door. He didn't know how he could have run so far on such shaking legs. He went into Cafe Shamburi and walked straight to the end table. Now his whole body was shaking. He was afraid all his bones might start moving against his will. It took quite a while before his shaking subsided and he calmed down in the burgundy coffee shop cushions. "What would you like?" that familiar voice of the shop owner hit the heavy iron door and went to the depths of Makoto's consciousness. Then Makoto realized where he was. But the owner could not understand Makoto's "Regular blend," said with such rough breath. Makoto ran out of the shop again. He ran through the station gate and onto a train. No No Life King. Makoto inhaled deeply and threw his body onto an empty seat. The rhythmic sound of the train caught Makoto's ears. The straps were all slightly shaking. It seemed as if they too were lined up like a sign. Makoto closed his eyes. The school yard came into view. He couldn't do anything about it. Standing on the platform at the station, Makoto tried to see in the distance. A red roof caught his eyes. It then started to form a pattern with the other red roofs. As he moved his gaze to a blue roof, the same thing happened; TV antennas, buildings, trees by the railroad, the subtle distance between railroad ties--everything reminded Makoto of the patterns in No Life King. By the time the train approached Kitakami station, where Asunaro Juku was, Makoto's nerves had become very fried. He ran to the left out of the station. The Juku was on the right, but it was too early to go there. He crossed a bridge. There was a half-ruined, concrete factory on the left along the river. Makoto ran into the discarded kingdom of machines without hesitation, though he had never even been near to the factory before. There were more silo-like galvanized iron towers than you could see from the station; they were placed sporadically, chaotically. To the side of the towers were pale-blue conveyer belts jutting. They were connected to another tower. The trapezoid concrete foundations, the bases of the towers, were painted in black and yellow oblique stripes. Several small storage bins faced every which way. In the middle of the fortress-like surroundings of the tall concrete walls was a gentle-shaped pyramid of piled-up grey gravel. It was not at all a familiar scene to Makoto. This was a graveyard of machines which looked like human beings. Makoto might have chosen this place for that reason to take a break from No Life King. Rusted trucks were piled up behind the concrete fortress. Some of the truck floors were corroded and had collapsed, and machine parts which might once have been an engine were scattered all over the place. Makoto picked them up. Those small parts were warmer in his hands than the railroad tracks (which were now rusted), or the truck-grilles (which looked like human faces) or the converyer belts (which looked like dragons' bodies). The precision of the parts, and the coldness of not being alive anymore imparted a warmth to Makoto, something which enabled him to talk again. With the setting sun on his back, Makoto sat at the back of a silo on the wet sand. The small machine part in his hand didn't talk to him but Makoto rolled it gently in his hands as he thought. Satoru might call this "Tsuyoshi," or "8% of Satoru." Makoto remembered Mizuta's handwriting, which always leaned towards the right. "What do you want to be? A computer." Covering the rusted part with his hands, Makoto was only looking at the part with many-colored lines. Who did he think was going to read his Wise Man's Stone? For whom was he preparing it? He knew it was not for his mother. She would die eventually, too. Why did he want to leave something behind him? Makoto thought, his eyes closed. When he opened them, the shadow of the silo behind him began to blend in with all the other shadows. Satoru's 4% was showing 4:52. Makoto hurriedly stood up, threw the machine part, which he had almost put in his pocket, into the pyramid of sand and began suddenly to run. Mizuta was standing with an unshaven face in front of the elevator. He wouldn't let Makoto go in. "What's up? Are you guys dead? Why don't you say something?" Makoto made a feinting movement, pushing the "up" button. Mizuta grasped Makoto's shoulder, pulling him back. Mizuta's eyes were bloodshot. "Fight! What are you doing, Makoto?" The elevator went down to the second floor. Mizuta opened his arms like a bear and blocked Mokoto's way. "You guys have messed every place up with litter. You're all shutting up like clams! I'm disappointed in you, Makoto!" The elevator opened wide to let Makoto in. Mizuta tried to push the "down" button. "Damn!!" The elevator door began to close. "I won't let you in!!" screamed Mizuta. Makoto slid in, turning sideways. Mizuta, trying to hold Makoto down, stepped forward. A heavy sound echoed in Makoto brain. Mizuta fell forward, rolling down on the floor. The elevator was going up; Mizuta was screaming down. "I won't go. I'll wait here. What's going on!? Tell me!! Tell me pleeease!!" Makoto slid into the classroom just before the roll-call was over. The T-8 was there as it always was, waiting for Makoto. Makoto hurriedly turned it on and sat down in front of it. Before he could check to see if Yohta was there, the first random test started. Yohta would be there--- Makoto entered the number for the first question as soon as it was announced. "QUESTION ONE: CALCULATE MENTALLY. 1/6 + 1/10" Makoto didn't answer. It wasn't the information that the T-8 should have responded to. Meanwhile, Kat-chan was watching the last scene of Life King IV in his room. He couldn't find the clue to solve No Life King, either in Vision I, II, III or even in IV. While the screen was flashing in praise of the good fight, Kat-chan's Life King was walking back to his room. After the flashing had gone on for another ten seconds, the screen would go back to the opening scene--the game would be over. And Kat-chan would just have to wait for his death, not knowing how to resist the No Life King's curse. Kat-chan's hand was shaking as he was held the joystick. Was he shaking because he was scared of his inevitable death? Or was he gripping the joystick too hard? Even Kat-chan himself didn't know. "Ugh...!" With a beast-like groan, Kat-chan let go of the joystick and tapped the keys with his fingers. H....E....L....P.... The game was over before all four letters had appeared on the screen. "QUESTION FIVE: MARK THE CORRECT ANSWER. A GRAIN OF RICE DOESN'T HAVE ALBUMEN." Makoto didn't answer. Mino-chan had finished reading his Wise Man's Stone in his untidy room. "MY FAVORITE: MYSELF." He said "OK" to himself, stood up unsteadily, and turned off the light. A small bottle of whisky fell over, and the liquid inside spilled out onto the green carpet around Mino-chan's bare feet. He was dead drunk. He opened the window. The street lights below reflected on him. He couldn't see what color the asphalt road was from the third floor. It was probably a color dyed with poison anyway, because nobody could not defeat Magic Black. "YOU SON OF A BITCH!!" Mino-chan shouted, forcing down his nausea. The shuttered back door of the Kimura liquor shop shook, echoing his voice. "QUESTION 13: WHICH SEASIDE HAS THE MOST ZIGZAGS, A MORE COMPLICATED COASTLINE?" Makoto's fingers didn't make any movement on the keyboard. Akira passed a note to the kid next to him: "Have you finished your stone?" Reading it through the thick lenses of his eyeglasses, the kid shook his head. Without turning to Akira, he asked in a weak voice, "How about you?" Akira regretfully looked down. "So we..." the kid continued. "We're not equipped for battle." Then a large boy behind Akira whispered, "We'll just die." "QUESTION 18: WHICH HAS THE LOWEST AVERAGE TEMPERATURE: (1) A MOUNTAIN DISTRICT OR (2) A FLAT AREA?" Makoto didn't respond. The twins' room was locked. Inside the dark room, Satoru tapped the keys, entering the data into his Wise Man's Stone. Neither Akira's name nor Tsuyoshi's name appeared just closely spaced lines of an inorganic substance that stretched on and on. As Life King became twelve Half-Lives moving through the dark labyrinth, Satoru attempted to turn his own body into machine parts. It was Satoru's obverse technique to finish No Life King without beating Magic Black. If "Satoru Morishima" could be disassembled as though he were a mechanical being, he could escape the curse without going back to the opening scene. Satoru worked quietly, his bangs reflecting the bluish white light of the screen. "TYPE AA BATTERY 0.001 %" "EARPHONE 0.002%" "SAFETY PIN 0.0005%" "QUESTION 20: GERMINATION NEEDS LIGHT. CORRECT OR INCORRECT?" Makoto didn't respond, even in the end. "There are enemies all over Japan!" Pentagon screamed in his usual voice. The T-8 sent information to the S-8. The S-8 sent information back to the T-8. The S-8 didn't enter any answers. There were forty empty answer columns in total on the screen. As soon as "Recall" began to appear simultaneously all over Japan, Makoto immediately tapped the keys without even looking at the keyboard. "WHAT DO YOU THINK WE SHOULD DO?" The T-8 showed the characters he had entered. Response from the S-8 was slow, but Makoto waited patiently. All the fingertips on all the T-8 keyboards could feel they were connecting to the S-8. The first key movements of the S-8 came in trembling. 'FINGERS...' 'I...' The S-8's message was just three words. 'TRUST' "I trust fingers." That's right, thought Makoto. Makoto closed his eyes and became connected to the T-8 through minute nerve endings protruding a few milimeters out from his fingers. After a few seconds of a heavy numb feeling, Makoto's fingers began to tap the keys. Makoto believed in the T-8, the S-8 and everything between them. "I will never forget this feeling of being connected through my fingers. Never. Never forget, Half-Life," prayed Makoto. Then, opening his eyes wide, he engraved his Wise Man's Stone with determination. 'MAKOTO OHSAWA: 10 YEARS OLD." Under Makoto's stone was Yohta's stone. 'YOHTA KOYAMA: 10 YEARS OLD." "I hope lines connected in this way will hold all the information I enter," prayed Makoto. "If anyone should open my stone in the future, I will bestow all my power upon them. So please, please remember Makoto." Makoto's fingers knew how to make his prayer immortal. Makoto closed his eyes again. His right hand went from the keyboard to the code and back to the computer again. His finger touched the switch. "CLICK" The same sound was heard all around in the classroom. "CLICK" "CLICK" "CLICK" Like Makoto and Yohta before them, that night a lot of kids sealed their Wise Man's Stones. Some gave up, making their minds up not to leave their rooms in fear of Magic Black. Some tried to self-destruct like Mino-chan. Some kept trying to get out of the curse like Satoru. And many others forgot about them all and began to play as before, like Akira. That night No Life King showed his true self to each kid. Every kid must have seen him. The king will never forget those who fought so bravely, and some time in the future, he will surely come to take every kid into his service.
Copyright (C) SEIKO ITO , EMPIRE SNAKE BLD,INC. All rights reserved.