Etsusa Bridge

Volume 2, Prologue: The Present - Rats
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Volume 2, Prologue: The Present - Rats

Summer, 2020. Just above the Pits in the Western District.

“See? He’s already dead.” Said a boy, looking down at an unmoving old man.

The boy was not yet fifteen years old, his face still quite innocent. He looked around at the children around him with an indifferent mask.

“I told you, didn’t I? I win the bet.”

There were four or five of them gathered together. In the dim concrete passageway, the children relaxed in whatever ways were most comfortable.

As though closing in on the fresh corpse, they drew near. The old man was still warm, and he stank of something other than rot.

Blood.

The old man was bleeding everywhere—there wasn’t quite a flood, but the blood was forming visible pools around him.

Watching it unfold, the girls whispered.

“How’d he die?”

“Blood loss?”

“He got beaten with a lead pipe, so maybe cranial trauma?”

“Or old age.”

“No way.”

The boys began to whisper, then.

“How long’d it take?”

“About fourteen minutes.”

“So Nejiro’s the only winner.”

“Was he the only one who guessed he’d die in less than 15 minutes?”

Though they had witnessed death, the children did not show any sign of fear or compassion. There were no smiles on their lips, but from the way they spoke it almost sounded like they were entertained.

“Old people are really weak. Don’t you think, Nejiro?” One of the boys wondered. The skinny boy called Nejiro replied.

“He wasn’t weak because he was old. People in general are just much weaker than we expect.”

A beat. Then he added,

“Especially the people on this island.”

Nejiro did not seem very healthy himself, with his pale complexion. The children around him seemed much the same.

To exaggerate slightly, the dead man looked to be healthier than the children around him.

Though the children were surrounding the corpse, they were not the ones who had killed the man. The old man was a local of the artificial island, but he had been caught up in a fight with a group of punks new to the city, and ended up being beaten to death. The punks had shown him no compassion; they had swung planks and pipes at the man several times older than they were without even blinking.

Watching the old man lay there moaning, his belongings looted, the children merely did nothing. Instead of helping him up or putting him out of his misery, they whispered amongst themselves as they made bets on whether or not he would survive, or how long it would take for him to die.

Not knowing just how cruel their actions were.

Or perhaps they knew their own cruelty well.

The old fluorescent lightbulb above their heads flickered with a noise. As if on cue, one of the girls turned her dull eyes to Nejiro.

“What do we do with the body? It’ll smell if we leave it here.” She wondered. The boy next to Nejiro chimed in.

“This is the Western District. The volunteer police’ll take care of it.” He said, his eyes staring nowhere.

Nejiro spoke, his gaze also directed at no one.

“You think? …I heard their leader Kuzuhara’s not on the island right now.”

“Oh, right.”

“The volunteer police are a bunch of weaklings without Kuzuhara.”

With that surprisingly mature assessment, the children went silent.

The air was heavier. The temperature on their skin was icy.

Aboveground, the summer sun was probably warming up the ground and the air. But underground, near the Pits, the air was surprisingly frigid. Perhaps it was all the unnecessary air conditioning on the aboveground level; the chill gradually robbed the boys and girls of body heat.

Yet the children did not even flinch. Not for death, not for the air, and not even for their own positions.

The light flickered again. Nejiro turned, and without sparing a glance at the body or his companions, headed for the nearest staircase.

Then, he looked over his shoulder with one final conclusion.

“Even if no one takes care of it now, I’m sure even the slower ones will do something once it starts to smell. Or maybe someone else will do it before that. So all we have to do is avoid this area until then.”

His mechanical voice, the intonation restrained to its limits, slightly shook the chilling air.

“I see.”

“You’re right.”

The other children showed no emotion to his conclusion.

With equally mechanical replies, they stirred after Nejiro.

Like a pack of lemmings bound for a cliffside.

? ??

They had climbed up several winding flights of stairs when Nejiro suddenly opened his mouth. Without even slowing his pace he spoke in a monotone.

“Our bonds are strong. Nothing can break us.”

It was a line straight out of a passionate shōnen manga, but the boy’s tone remained as neutral as ever as he continued to live out his indifference.

There was something resembling surrender in the way he said the word ‘bonds’. As though he had no choice but to accept that word.

Eventually, the children reached the top landing aboveground.

Stopping in front of a door at a dead end, Nejiro brought up an unusual metaphor.

“…This ‘ship’ won’t stay afloat for long. It might even already be sinking. And we’ve been forced aboard it.”

And finally, he seemed to change. His tone shook faintly, betraying the sudden surge of emotion in his heart.

Was he speaking to his companions behind him? Or to himself?

“That’s why we’re going to get out of here. To survive. That’s why we joined forces and swore to live as one. Right?”

His tone quickened as he spoke. His gaze grew sharper.

“That’s why… we gave ourselves a name. ‘Rats’. We’re going to escape this sinking ship. We just want to survive.”

Nejiro was not the only one who began to show emotion. The other children, who had been listening as though they were inanimate objects, slowly began to react to his voice.

“Is that right?”

“That’s right.”

“Yeah.”

“Are we running away?”

“We’re running away.”

“Where?”

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“Anywhere but here.”

“What’s there?”

“Is there something that’s not here?”

“I’m sure there is.”

“What?”

“Can we be happy?”

“I think so.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Have you ever felt happy before?”

“You just know it from a dictionary, right?”

“I know we’re not happy right now.”

“There’s no way kids like us can ever be happy.”

“I bet ‘happy’ is outside the island.”

“The people who abandoned us must have taken it away when they left.”

“Taken what?”

“Happy.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Can we even survive outside the island?”

“But if Nejiro says we can…”

“We might be able to.”

“I bet we will.”

“We will.”

“Let’s.”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s survive.”

There was nothing childlike about their conversation, yet it was not an adult-like one, either.

Though they were speaking Japanese, the sequence of words was something not quite human.

The children were not lethargic; they were simply indifferent to everything but themselves.

With the undirected whispers of his companions at his back, Nejiro slowly took hold of the doorknob.

“Where we’re going, we’ll be able to find happiness. I know we will. That’s why we’re running away. To the great big world where the people who abandoned us on this trash-filled island are.”

An unpleasant, rusted screech echoed down the stairwell. At the same time, a bright orange light began to illuminate the children’s faces.

It was evening. The blinding sunlight seemed to pierce their very eyes.

“And to get there, we’ll nibble through everything. From sacks of rice to human hearts.”

And as though to himself, the boy repeated:

“Everything.”

Silent in unison, they filed out the door.

They were on the roof of a small building. The moment they stepped outside, the ocean breeze and the boiling heat encapsulated them. The children had to blink rapidly because of the sudden temperature change.

“It must have been months since I last came outside.” Nejiro said to himself, looking out at his surroundings from behind the railings.

The beautiful decorations and the staggering electric lighting on the streets had long been broken beyond function.

The grubby grey jungle was almost post-apocalyptic to behold, but there were signs of life in every corner.

Countless wires suspended between broken windows, and the laundry hanging out to dry from them.

The hand-assembled houses that crowded half-finished buildings.

The scent of dinner and the white smoke that accompanied it wafting over the city.

Incandescent and halogen lamps shining like Christmas lights from behind the windows of ruined buildings.

And—the sound of generators working to keep those lights going.

It was like countless people had been stuffed into living spaces, left to churn to and fro.

Again and again, like a shot out of a nature documentary.

“This.”

Peering down from the roof, Nejiro tightened his grip on the railings.

“This is the world we’ve been given?”

He unleashed his emotions in an instant. There was clearly a smile on his face, but the voice that spoke those words was trembling.

“As if.”

“Yeah.”

The boys also laughed.

“Hah hah hah.”

“You’re right.”

The girls also laughed.

Listening to the chorus of monotonous laughter, Nejiro put on a fake smile of his own and slowly raised his head, burning a certain image into his eyes.

The image of the world’s largest over-sea bridge, stretching through the center of the island from north to south.

And the endless ocean before them, surrounding the filthy city.

In spite of the many hopes and dreams piled upon it, the island was never completed.

Though it was a world away from the work its creators wanted to make,

There was still laughter.

The children were laughing.

Their faces completely blank.

On and on they chuckled.

It was neither the mainland nor the island.

It was Japan, yet not.

It was neither land nor sea.

The longest bridge in the world, spanning Sado Island and Niigata.

The nameless artificial island that stood in the very middle of that bridge—

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