Chapter 2: Love Letter
Everyone was scared senseless.
It was war.
War had finally begun.
That’s what everyone thought.
Whenever a Level Three or above siren rings, students are to quickly exit into the hallways, crouch down, assume the anti-blast position, and standby until further orders. During all of this, teachers have a duty to evacuate the students safely. Within Sonohara Middle School, there are five teachers that possess “Third Class Evacuation Leader” qualifications obtained by taking JSDF training courses. Those five teachers form a core unit that supervises students and guides them to the bomb shelter. That’s how the system was arranged.
That system wasn’t worth a damn.
In the face of the sirens that broadcasted the end of the world, not a single student, let alone teacher, was able to move a muscle. Nobody knew the extent of this gaping abyss that suddenly pierced everyday life.
“Today was an air raid drill day.”
Who, exactly, was the first person to recall that?
“This is a drill, right? Today’s a drill day, isn’t it?” Such whispers began to rise here and there within the school building. Those whispers gradually intensified in volume, and spread throughout the school building like a game of “telephone.” All who heard the whispers felt a great sense of relief, and proceeded to half-indignantly vent their frustrations to the others around them. “I knew it. I knew this was a drill. There’s no way war would really break out. God, what a false alarm. Isn’t it normal to play a broadcast letting us know that it’s a drill and then ring the alarms? But man, you should’ve seen your face earlier, your mouth was thiiiiiiiis wide—”
The sirens continued to ring.
“Heeeey! They’re saying it’s just a drill!!” Someone in the hallways shouted out. The frozen air of Class 2-4, triggered by that shout, immediately began to melt away.
Asaba let out a sigh of relief.
He recalled Akiho’s words. “Nakamura-sensei was really excited about this. He said like, ‘This time, the theme is going to be realism.’”
“So that’s why there was a Level One warning, huh?” he thought to himself.
Asaba felt like they had gone way too far. For air raid drills, they were supposed play a broadcast announcing to the effect that this was going to be a drill, and then ring the sirens afterwards. This was the first time they had rung the alarms suddenly and without warning.
The sirens continued to ring.
“But, to their credit, this method was quite effective,” Asaba thought.
“At the very least, this incident clearly brings to the forefront the fact that this is a huge problem. When the siren rings, we’re all supposed to go into the hallways and turn into turtles, but when push comes to shove nobody can even move. Not a single one of them. Only when they realize that this is a drill and that there’s no real danger do they finally start sluggishly moving into the hallways. Nakamura’s probably sitting in the broadcast room right about now with a huge ‘I got ‘em good’ grin on his face.” Asaba’s mind raced. He suddenly turned and looked at Iriya.
And there, Asaba witnessed an expression of true terror.
Iriya’s normally expressionless face was warped into an expression of pure, unadulterated terror.
Iriya sank to the ground, as if paralyzed. She looked up at the blaring sirens like a hopelessly cornered creature. She tried to stand, but she stumbled forward, tripped over the desk legs, and fell flat on her face.
Flustered, Asaba tried to help her up. His eyes locked with Iriya’s terror-filled eyes.
The sirens continued to ring.
“Maybe,” Asaba began to think, “Iriya mistakenly believes that this siren is the real deal?”
“It’s okay,” Asaba shouted over the blaring sirens in a loud voice.
This is just a drill. That’s what he tried to say.
But an instant before he could utter those words, Asaba saw something within Iriya’s eyes harden with resolve.
Iriya grabbed Asaba’s hand.
She gripped it tightly.
With everyone around them staring in shock, Iriya leapt up and ran forward pulling Asaba’s hand. They flew out of the classroom and dashed through the hallway.
“W-What’s wrong!? Hold on—”
Asaba was unable to say anything more. Iriya wasn’t listening at all, anyway. Iriya continued to run, pulling Asaba’s hand. She was running at a ridiculous speed. Asaba, who was moving his legs as fast as he possibly could, was practically being dragged along. Students streamed out of their classrooms into the hallways, being led by Air Defense Committee Members. They listlessly lined up along the walls, slowly crouched down on the floor, and turned into turtles. The anti-blast position. Exactly as depicted on page 63 of the student handbook, under “In case of emergencies.” In order to survive the first wave of aftershocks of a nuclear bombing. In order to survive even if war broke out.
The sirens continued to ring.
Iriya suddenly stopped in the middle of the sea of turtles lining the hallway.
She looked over the swarm of turtles in stunning disbelief. She screamed in a heart-wrenchingly desperate tone of voice,
“What the hell are you guys doing!?” she screamed.
“How the hell is that going to help!?” she screamed.
“Stand up and run!! Follow me if you don’t want to die!!” she screamed.
Not a single person stood up. A turtle nearby looked up in surprise at Iriya’s shouting and stared at her, as if saying, “What the hell is this girl shouting about?”
It was a rather odd spectacle to behold.
It was a sight that Asaba had never before seen until now.
It was the first time that Asaba, who until this moment in time had been a turtle during every drill, was able to observe an air raid drill from standing height. The columns of turtles lining the traditionally messy hallways, when observed from an upright position, were surprisingly zigzagged. There were groups of turtles bunched up and huddled against each other in the shadows of the piled up cardboard boxes and cleaning equipment lockers. He could immediately tell with a single glance that it was most likely an unconscious behavior. If you questioned them about it, they’d probably deny it, but they were unconsciously thinking somewhere in their minds that if they were to hide in the shadows of those cardboard boxes and cleaning equipment lockers, they’d at least have some kind of way of protecting themselves from the impact of the nuclear warheads exploding in the skies above Sonohara Base. 35-year-old bachelor Kawaguchi Taizou stood on the other far side of the hallway they had just run through. “Hey, you two over there! What are you doing? Hurry up and crouch along the walls like the other turtles,” he shouted, waving his arms. To Asaba, Kawaguchi looked like low-ranking prison guard working his turtle slaves to the bone.
“And why aren’t you turning into a turtle?” Asaba thought. “What were you doing when this siren starting ringing? Weren’t you frozen stiff like the rest of us were? You’re acting all high and mighty now that you realized it’s a drill, but I guess since you’re yelling so arrogantly you have the confidence that you’ll be able to do the same when the real sirens go off, right? Surely you won’t abandon ship and run for dear life, shoving aside those students hiding in the shadows of the cardboard boxes and lockers, not becoming a turtle yourself, right? I mean, don’t you think something’s wrong when you see this? Haven’t you ever thought that something’s not right after seeing this scene in the hallway? I don’t want to be ordered to become a turtle by someone like you who’s looked down at this sight from standing height every time there’s been an air raid drill.”
The sirens continued to ring.
Iriya didn’t stand around for long. She pulled Asaba’s hand and took off again. They flew down the stairs, ran through the hallway connecting to the gymnasium and burst out onto the school grounds with their indoor shoes still on. Asaba couldn’t breathe anymore. He gave it his all to keep his legs moving so that he wouldn’t fall down, and ran after Iriya.
They quickly made it to the front of the bomb shelter’s bulkhead doors.
The bulkhead was big enough so that two large vehicles lined up side by side could easily enter and exit. A thick signboard for some kind of stamina drink or fertilizer was plastered on it.
Asaba finally stopped. Breathing feebly, he collapsed on the spot.
During air raid drills, they never actually went inside of the bomb shelter. They’d just line up in front of the bulkhead, perform a headcount, and that’d be the end. To begin with, people had said that Sonohara Base directly controlled the opening and closing of the bulkhead doors. Asaba had never seen the inside of the bomb shelter before.
However, Iriya stuck a grey card into the slit of the unopened door, and all too easily unsealed the lock. The bulkhead slowly began to open. The cross sections of the doors that slowly rose in front of them were much thicker than Asaba could have ever imagined.
Iriya grabbed Asaba’s hand again.
Asaba followed after her, practically crawling on the ground.
The interior of the bomb shelter was about as wide as the gymnasium, and felt surprisingly clean. There were several hatches lined up along floor. Colorful lines were drawn like those in hospital hallways. Rotating lamps scattered all over the place cast yellow light everywhere. Somewhere, a speaker was broadcasting the same message over and over in a female voice.
“The root code has been utilized. Currently, all locks are unsealed. The root code has been utilized. Currently, all locks are unsealed.”
Suddenly, as if somebody had dropped a massive boulder, tremors shook the air and reverberated throughout Asaba’s core.
Asaba turned around in surprise. The bulkhead that was open just moments ago was now tightly shut. Iriya was operating a panel next to the bulkhead, and the female voice coming from the speaker said,
“The root code has been altered. Encrypted lockdown of the bulkhead is now complete. Physically disconnecting external lines. Air circulation set to completely enclosed environment. The root code has been altered.”
Surprised, Asaba asked,
“D-Did you close it?”
Iriya didn’t respond. She pressed several more keys on the panel, and the hatches on the floor opened up one after another, like missile tubes on a submarine. Storage containers rose from below.
“U-Um—” Asaba finally spoke. “You do know that those sirens earlier were just a drill, right? A monthly air raid drill. You never had those in your previous school?”
Iriya appeared caught off guard for an instant, but immediately blew off that notion. She moved towards one of the storage containers, passed her grey card over the decoder, and opened the door.
“Hey, listen. You might not be aware since you just transferred schools, but today’s been set since way back to be a drill day. And also, if this was a normal drill—”
“If this was a normal drill, they would have played a broadcast announcing, ‘We will be performing a drill’ before ringing the sirens,” Asaba suddenly thought to himself.
“And yet, just earlier, the sirens went off without a broadcast,” he concluded silently.
A little hole opened up in the pit of Asaba’s stomach.
“Today’s a drill day. So what? What does that prove?” his other self began.
“This is ridiculous. I’m overthinking it. War would never break out anyway. Air Defense Committee Member Nakamura’s just being cute, setting the sirens off without a broadcast—” Asaba told himself.
“And what if right about now that very Nakamura is scared shitless and pissing himself in the broadcast room? He’d be the first one in the school to notice the gravity of the situation, right? I mean, he didn’t even press the button yet, and yet the level one warning went off through the direct line.”
“No way. No way in hell that’d happen. They decided a long time ago that today would be an air raid drill day. Everybody went into the hallways and became turtles, they lined up in front of the bomb shelter and took a head count—”
“You mean to tell me that the enemy said something like, ‘Oh, today’s Sonohara Middle School’s air raid drill day, and we don’t wanna confuse anyone, so we’ll just do it tomorrow?’ They’re worried about that? Cut the shit and look at reality. I’ll say it one more time: the sirens went off. And the broadcast that’s supposed to signify that it’s a drill wasn’t there. That’s reality.”
“No. This is just a special case. Nakamura-sensei was all excited, saying, ‘This time, the theme is going to be realism.’ That’s what Akiho said. So—”
“So what? Tell me.”
The little hole in the pit of Asaba’s stomach grew larger and larger.
Asaba’s everyday life oozed out of that hole and disappeared. All that was left behind was pitch-black nothingness.
“What’s with that face? You still don’t get it, do you? Nakamura said it, right? ‘This time, the theme is going to be realism.’ Should I teach you what reality is? It’s this. This is reality. This is the real airstrike that everyone’s been waiting for. Hey, what’s the matter? Did you think that if war really broke out you’d be able to hear the explosions from inside the shelter? Did you think that such an outdated shelter would be able to survive an airstrike in this day and age? Well, whatever. Like they say, ignorance is bliss. I won’t say anymore on that. Well then, from here on out it all depends on you. It really is the beginning of a show with your neck on the line, you bastard. Every single one of you took it lightly, thinking that war would never break out. And yet, despite that you all sat there bored to death with ordinary everyday life, secretly hoping at the bottom of your hearts for this. This is real war.”
Asaba felt his shoulders get poked.
When he looked up, Iriya stood before him. “Hold this.”
The instant he saw what was being offered to him, his stomach twisted. It was completely human engineered, and bore a surprising shape. However, Asaba knew what it was after a single glance.
It was an automatic rifle.
“Just in case,” Iriya added.
Asaba’s body went numb. He couldn’t move a single finger.
“They might make it inside.” Iriya already had the same rifle slung over her shoulder. Using her eyes, she indicated the storage containers lying at her feet one after the other.
“Spare ammunition is in this one. BOTTOX1 rounds are in the BS42 package. It might be ineffective, but don’t use it until I give the okay. Protective gear is over there—”
“This is a joke, right?” Asaba muttered hoarsely. “This is just a drill, right? Everyone’s safe and sound outside, laughing at us, right? War wouldn’t break out, right?”
Still holding the automatic rifle out in front of her, Iriya looked up at Asaba.
“The war started in 1947,” Iriya said. “It’s just that nobody noticed.”
“Maybe everyone’s turned into ash,” Asaba thought. “Maybe, on the other side of that bulkhead, the world I know no longer exists. Maybe the raging flames of the apocalypse have reduced the school and town into rubble. Maybe everyone I know and don’t know has been burnt to such a crisp that people can’t even tell what gender they were.”
Asaba weakly stretched out his arms, and with a shaking hand, took the automatic rifle and—
The telephone rang.
- BOTTOX: Botulinum Toxin is a protein and neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is the most acutely toxic substance known, with an estimated human median lethal dose of 1.3–2.1 ng/kg intravenously or intramuscularly and 10–13 ng/kg when inhaled. Botulinum toxin can cause botulism, a serious and life-threatening illness in humans and animals.
- BS4: Bio-safety level 4. Packaging designed to contain biological materials.