Chapter 11 – The Oath

Words: 3,554
Recommended Listening: Arms and Sleepers – “Good Luck to Us All”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Inu Residence

“Gujō Hachiman Nature Park,” Akira repeated.  “Yes, of course I know it.  Why?”

Two minutes later, Akira hung up his phone and returned downstairs to his cellar laboratory.

“Our friends across the street are beginning to dig to their third residence,” he said, donning a new pair of latex gloves.  They have also come up with a backup plan.  Should their train fail to operate, they plan to make a mad dash for the nature park, unmoor a raft or two and sail down the Nagara River as far as it will take them.  If the river remains unobstructed by detritus, they could go all the way down past Nagoya to Ise Harbor and out into the ocean.  What do you think of that?”

He received no answer.  He pulled his stool up beside his addressee and looked over the surgical tools on the tray next to him.

“It would certainly offer less protection from the outside than the train would, but it does offer interesting travel potential.  Rafting requires no power source, obviously, and unless the rafts were to spring air leaks, our friends don’t need to worry about parts of it breaking down.”

He selected a scalpel and looked carefully at its sharp edge.  His gaze shifted to focus on that which was chained to the slab – what was once a human, then a body reanimated and baited to his yard, now a moving human body in an exploded view.  It was a person in cross-section like an anatomical chart in a medical textbook, but it moved.  Some parts – a leg, a hand, etc. – had been severed with surgical precision and either preserved in cold storage or dissected to minutest detail.  Other parts were untouched.  Still others were remained attached to vital organs at their ends but otherwise pulled outside the body.  Some of the head itself had been removed – the lower jaw was absent and the top of the skull showed a visible seam where it had been removed for study of the brain and then replaced.  The facial skin above the eyebrows had given way to the incessant rubbing against the leather strap that secured the forehead; Akira had eventually had to remove it entirely.  Its eyes still followed him around the room, but its attempts to lunge at him or be free of its captivity had lessened in the last week or so.  He had gotten used to the head of muscle and bone staring at him expectantly, but the endless moaning bothered him.  He often found it necessary to fill the empty basement with his own words.  He pointed the scalpel it.

“Had you planned ahead as they have, you might not be in this predicament,” Akira told the zonbi.  “Yet here you are.  And here I am, vivisecting you in search of answers.  If there is such a place as Hell, I will surely go there when my time is up.  Not for this cruelty, I’m afraid; I sealed my fate when…”

Akira trailed off.  Thoughts and memories raced through his mind.  All at once he rolled his wheeled chair down to the zonbi’s midsection.  “Alright; how about we try the spleen today?”

The small, black, threadlike centipede creature watched all this from its tube, patient and unblinking.

*     *     *

Mai Ishimaru tried to lose herself in a book for the hundredth time.  She sat in the corner of the large, open office and scrutinized the text on the pages in front of her, her eyes scanning top to bottom, right to left.  After the third or fourth line she realized she wasn’t following along and had to start over.

Again.

She scoffed at herself in frustration.

“The off hours are the worst, aren’t they?”

Mai looked up in surprise at the 70-year-old man who stood gazing out the floor-to-ceiling glass window.  She hadn’t realized he had entered the room.

“Nakata-san,” she said, standing up.  “Forgive me, I –“

“It’s alright,” Nakata said, waving his hand dismissively but politely.  He continued looking out the window.  She sat back down slowly.  “During work hours, we can make phone calls, take notes, write copy, prepare for the evening broadcast – it’s almost like a normal workday.  We can ignore what’s outside.  When we’re off-duty, though…”

Mai said nothing.  When we’re off-duty, our bodies know we should be at home, she thought.  Our minds wander to our apartments, our houses, the corner grocery store and the pharmacy.  We’re accustomed to seeing these places before and after work, so we notice their absence more.

Like Nakata and the staff that still remained, Mai had fallen into their new pattern awkwardly and in a way that they told each other was quite accidental.  In the first 24 hours of the outbreak, the amount of information coming in was overwhelming.  The police, the various government ministries, local news stations from all around Japan, citizen eyewitnesses – they fielded thousands upon thousands of phone calls, e-mails, social media posts, text messages, website comments and even faxes. 

That first day, the initial reports of crazed people came in at the end of her eight-hour shift.  She worked another four hours before convincing herself to go home.  On her way out of the building, she already saw the earliest manifestations of panic and outbreak.  More people wore face masks than usual, they looked over their shoulders, and she saw several police detaining civilians.

Mai collapsed on her couch and fell asleep instantly.  When she awoke, it was nighttime.  She looked out the front window of her apartment and saw Tokyo transformed.  Smoke billowed from an apartment building several blocks away.  Car alarms sounded without end.  The 24-hour corner store across the street from her had its shutter down but its lights remained on.  Without thinking, she grabbed her Tokyo University duffel bag from her closet, stuffed some toiletries and a couple outfits into it and left her apartment.  As she locked her front door, she fought with herself over why she felt this compulsion to go back to work.  Whatever’s happening right now, I can use my knowledge and expertise to help the people of Japan get important information, she thought.  Or is it because I know this is the kind of story that makes a reporter’s career?  I shouldn’t think like that.  But is it true?

Mai Ishimaru walked through Shibuya straight for NHK.  Her heart raced and she tried not to worry about the riot police who had blocked off entire streets.  She tried to ignore the screams coming from the apartments and the shuffling sounds in the alleys.  Somewhere deep within, she knew that if she really stopped to consider how close she was to death at every turn, she would never recover.

By the time she got to the station, she was so rattled she barely noticed the special forces arriving outside the building.  Instead, she flashed her ID badge and went inside the building.  The next time she looked out at the special forces, it would be from the rooftop and the building would be blocked off with 10-foot concrete k-rails and cyclone fence.  For some reason, the government was taking incredible care of them.

Most of the staff had gone home and not returned.  Those who remained had stories similar to Mai’s. 

“Something told me I had to be here.”

“I just wanted to help.” 

“I figured ol’ Togusa couldn’t manage the control room on his own…”

“By the time my shift ended, it was so crazy outside I didn’t want to leave.”

“I lost track of time, but I don’t mind getting the extra hours!”

Nobody looked into one another’s stories any further.  Nobody dared.  If a cameraman or copywriter pressed someone else about why that person didn’t go home, the inquisitive person may be told to leave themselves.  Whether the staff were there honestly or out of fear, everyone knew they were up off the streets – and nobody mentioned it.

The first airdrop came on the fifth day.  A helicopter slowed to a stop over the roof of the NHK office and lowered a crate down, supported by sturdy cargo netting.  Two cameramen opened the big, wooden box with a crowbar and found food, water, soap, cigarettes, toothpaste and toothbrushes packed up high.  On the top was a piece of printer paper with one large, clearly-typed instruction.

“Do not discuss on-air.”

Mai thought about that note – and the heated discussion that followed at the meeting room table – as she watched Nakata look out over the Tokyo skyline.  Voices shot out from all over the room – too many to count.

“Journalists are never supposed to accept presents.  It dirties us with bias.  We took an oath.”

“Bias towards who?  We don’t even know who sent the box; the helicopter was unmarked.”

“It’s obviously someone official then; who else would have an unmarked helicopter?”

“There he goes with his conspiracies again…”

“If you don’t want to accept it, you don’t have to eat any of the food.  I’ll have your share.”

“We have a moral obligation to report on the facts without bias; this box is a story by itself!”

“What do we know about it?”

“Well…”

“The public already dislikes journalists enough – they’d kill us over this!”

“What about the note?  Why swear us to secrecy?”

“They probably don’t want the people thinking they’ve been forgotten.”

“Their lack of issued statements is doing that just fine!”

“Maybe the government doesn’t want the public thinking they’re giving us preferential treatment.”

“Aren’t they?”

“What do you mean?”

“If we report too negatively on their handling of this outbreak, maybe they won’t send us any more food.”

That comment silenced the room.  Everyone looked around at one another.  Morals became clouded in the face of starvation.  Up until that point, nobody had said anything about the quickly-emptying vending machines and break room refrigerators throughout the building.

A producer cursed and stood from his seat, pacing around the room.

“NHK’s first satellite transmission between Japan and the United States was in November of 1963,” Nakata said quietly.  Everyone looked at him.  His gray hair was neatly kept, his face round and sagging with age.  He rubbed his chin.  He was a bit stocky, but far from fat. 

“It was when the American president Kennedy was killed.  He was a popular leader; it was a very difficult time for the Americans.  Keep in mind that just three years earlier, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty had been revised and polarized many Japanese about Americans.  Most of you hadn’t been born when the treaty was revised; I was still a youchien student.”  Nakata laughed and made a motion of his hand to indicate his height at the time.

“Japanese opinion of Americans was still split in 1963 when Kennedy was killed.  Japan and America tested their first satellite relay that day – of course, nobody knew it was going to happen, but that was the news that came to Japan from America on the morning of November 23rd.”

Several people around the room nodded, eager for Nakata to reach his point.

“Two days earlier, Kennedy had recorded a speech that he intended to reach the Japanese instead.”

Multiple heads raised and looked around the room.  Nakata continued, unaffected.

“In his speech, Kennedy spoke about the importance of establishing ‘the most intimate relations’ between Japan and the United States.  He lamented that we saw the Pacific Ocean as a barrier instead of a bridge and said we should work together to tighten our friendships and understanding of each other.  He said he hoped satellite communication would serve to bring us closer together and bring us peace.  But at the scheduled time to use the satellite relay, Japan learned instead that he had been killed and NHK had to broadcast a much dimmer message instead.

“Kennedy’s speech was only two minutes long, but it was stirring.  I believe our country would have welcomed it with open arms, but we’ll never know.  NHK didn’t have the luxury of broadcasting it – his unforgivable murder happened instead.  Like this box of food, Kennedy’s speech to Japan is less important than the other event that comes along.”

“Nakata-san…” Mai said.

“There will always be difficult stories to cut,” Nakata said.  “There is news that we want to deliver and news that we don’t.  There is unpopular news and very popular news.”  Suddenly he rose to his feet and his voice rose to a shout that rattled the walls.  “But if you think for one second that we will lie to the people about the world outside, leave this building tonight and don’t come back!  Kousuke Nakata will never allow it!”

His face was red.  The echo of his voice died away from the room, but not the hearts of those in it.  He looked around the room to see if anyone would object.  Nobody did.  After several seconds, he straightened himself up, bowed and left the room.

Now, several weeks later, Mai sat in the corner of one of the large offices in the building, studying the old man who had roused the staff to keep their professional oath.  As if reading her mind, he said, “That was a terrible speech.”

She shook her head in disagreement, then realized he couldn’t see her.  “I don’t think so,” she said.

“The older staff resent me for it.”

“But the younger staff needed to hear it,” she said.

“What about you, Ishimaru-san?”

Mai paused.  “I think…We need food and water so we can keep reporting – so we can keep Japan informed.”

He chuckled and finally turned around.  He looked older and wearier in the moonlight.  “That’s very diplomatic.  Did you ever consider being a speechwriter?”

“Forgive me, but why are you looking out the window?”

“That’s right,” he said, rubbing his chin again.  “You don’t like it outside, do you?”

Mai didn’t answer.

“I’m sorry, but would you accompany me to the rooftop?  I want to show you something.”

Reluctantly, Mai followed Nakata up the stairs to the rooftop.  She crossed her arms and he walked ahead of her.  When they neared the edge, he pointed to an apartment building down the street.

“What do you see, Ishimaru-san?”

“…In the building?”

“Yes.”

She didn’t understand what he wanted her to say.  “L-lights?”

“Lights,” he repeated.  He looked at her eagerly.  “Someone’s home.”

She shook her head.  “Maybe they left the lights on and…”

“I check during the day sometimes,” he said.  “When I’m on break I walk up here and look to see if their lights are on during the day.  They would shut them off if they were alive inside, wouldn’t they?”

“I suppose so.”

“Unfortunately, a couple of them have lights on 24 hours a day.  I think that’s…not good.  But most of them still turn on or off throughout the night.”

As he said this, one of the lights went out.  Nakata laughed loudly.

“See?” he said.  His voice was excited.  “Japan is still out there.  How many must still be alive?  What else do you see?”

Some of the apartments had slowly flashing and changing colored lights.  They were watching television.  Many of the apartments’ televisions changed in unison.  They were watching the same channel.

“It’s us,” he said.  “They’re watching Agasawara-san read his nightly report.  We’re still connected, Ishimaru-san!  Just like the satellite relay bridged America and Japan in 1963, we’re still reaching Tokyo and Nagoya and Osaka and everywhere else.  Think about how many of us it takes to put that broadcast together, and all over Japan, people are watching with hope.”

Mai’s eyes began to water.  She wanted to believe Nakata but she couldn’t.  “But we don’t have any good news for them,” she said.  “We have so little to cover anymore.  Japan is so quiet…”

Nakata laughed in contempt.  “I’m disappointed, Mai-chan.”  He only called her that when she had missed one of his famous teachable moments.  “If we stopped receiving all communication from the outside world and we had to broadcast Togusa’s family recipe for pork cutlets –“ Mai laughed at this – “We would still have a reporter on-air speaking to the public.  Everything else is changing – schools are canceled, businesses are closed, streets are empty, everyone is locked in their homes – but they can still turn on the TV and see a familiar face.  People need something to stay the same.  They need a constant.  If we can’t provide that…”

“Then we should leave the building and not come back, right?”

Nakata shook his head.  “Then we never should have set foot in this office in the first place.  They need to know the world is still turning.  We have a great obligation to them.”

“We took the oath,” she said dryly.

“That’s right.  We cannot fail.”

Mai considered this for a few minutes as she watched the apartments of Shibuya flicker and dance in electric light.  Nakata walked to the door and opened it to go back inside.

“Nakata-san?”

“Mm?”

“That was a better speech.”

He laughed and reentered the building.

The next morning, Mai was struggling with a human interest story about the sights from the NHK building when her phone rang.

“Moshimoshi?”

“Is this Mai Ishimaru?” the voice was a woman speaking Japanese but clearly with an American accent.

“Yes?”

“My name is Frances Pearson; I’m the director of the National Institutes of Health.  I need to speak with you about a scientist named Akira Watanabe.”

Mai nearly dropped her phone.  At the next desk, her colleague, an attractive copy editor named Riku, noticed her expression.

“What’s going on?” he asked.  “Who is it?”

“Tell him it’s nobody,” Pearson said.

Mai shook her head at Riku nonchalantly, but he wasn’t satisfied.  She covered the mouthpiece on her phone so it seemed as though she was muted to the caller, but she parted her fingers just a bit to ensure that Pearson could hear every word.

“It’s some loudmouthed Nagoya housewife,” she said.  “She was yelling at her husband when I answered.  It surprised me.”

Riku went back to what he was doing.  Mai turned her back to him and returned to her phone call.  She chose her next words carefully.

“How can I help you today?”

“Thank you,” Pearson said.  “I’ve been watching NHK for several weeks, you know; your research and writing stand out.”

“I’m glad that you enjoy our evening programming,” Mai said.  She could hear Riku typing at his desk behind her.  “However, credit is due to our large and qualified staff of news writers and researchers, and of course our anchors, who –“

“Please don’t think I’m an idiot,” Pearson said.  “I know you’re a good reporter and you do your research.  You care about your country and you want people to stay informed and safe, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“So do I.  You also want to stay safe yourself, is that correct?”

“…Yes.”

“So do I.  For that reason, nobody can know that we’re speaking.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“A few weeks ago, your anchorman said that the American embassy was working to retrieve me from Gujō.  Do you remember that?”

Mai turned her chair back towards Riku, who looked up.  She made a childlike annoyed face.  “Yes, I remember that story.”

“The American embassy never agreed to help find me.”

Mai stopped cold.  “I’m sorry?”

“How’s your English?”

Mai sighed.  “Not so great.”

“Find the original press conference from the White House.  It was the day of Mukae-bon.  Listen for the press secretary’s comment about me – he said they would be making calls to the embassy, not that the embassy had already agreed to it.”

Mai snapped out of Pearson’s trance.  “Is this just a simple translation error?”

“That’s what someone is hoping most people think.  Do you know who handles the English-to-Japanese translation work in your office?”

Mai pictured the small office on the floor below her and its usual crew.  “Yes.”

“Have they ever made a mistake as obvious as conjugating a common past-tense verb like ‘call’ in the non-past tense instead?”

(Author’s note:  Japanese has two verb tenses: past and non-past.  Non-past tense describes the present and future, thus being a clear and wildly different verbiage than the past tense. -j.L.)

“Well…no, of course not,” Mai said. 

In fact, I’ve seen the screening and testing process for translation work; it has a considerable section on verb tenses, she thought.  “Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know quite how to say this, but…someone at NHK wants people to think the American embassy is looking for me in Gujō.”

Riku stood from his desk.

“I’m going to get some water; do you want anything?”

“No thank you,” Mai replied.  When he left the room and Mai was alone, she whispered into the phone.

“Why Gujō?”

“I think it has something to do with your missing doctor, Watanabe.  They’re after him, not me.”

“Why?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Where are you?”

Pearson sighed.  “Someone’s coming; I have to go.  Look into your translators.  I’ll call again.”

“Wait!” Mai hissed.  She heard the line click dead.  She cursed and placed the handset back into the receiver with far more force than was needed.

“Is everything alright?” Riku asked from the doorway.  He had a bottle of water in his hand and was unscrewing the cap.  “You sounded angry.”

Voting Time!!! Should Mai tell Riku what happened on the phone with Frances Pearson or should she keep it to herself? This will impact the story later on.

Anyone can vote on Facebook by commenting on the status right here (Facebook has disabled polls for some reason).

Patrons can vote on Patreon by clicking here.

Polls close May 5.

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