1. A New Town (Partial)
Just what are you supposed to put inside a regular kitchen in a regular house? Yuki wondered vaguely as she gazed up at a slightly dusty shelf in a downtown hardware store. I should hurry up and make a choice so I can go home already.
She worried about her young little brother, who was staying home alone in the apartment they had just moved into. Yet none of the products on the shelf caught her eye, no matter how hard she peered at them.
Somehow or other, fifteen minutes passed. She wandered back and forth between the gloomy shelves; quite literally, that was all she could do.
The kitchen utensils inside the “Home” were especially enormous, like something a giant from a picture book would use. No surprises there. After all, they were supposed to feed the mouths of 153 children at once.
153 servings of fried egg, broiled salmon, and seaweed miso soup for breakfast, and 153 servings of curry and pork miso soup for dinner.
And starting from tonight, she would provide for just two servings.
“I should’ve paid attention to the food preparation drills…” Yuki sighed softly.
“Home” was the children’s shelter Yuki lived in. The residents consisted almost entirely of war orphans who had lost their guardians during the interplanetary war.
It housed 153 children, from month-old babies to eighteen-year-olds, along with twenty staff members who ate and slept under the same roof in order to keep an eye on them. It was rather like a boarding school, although a shelter of this scope was certainly no rare sight after the previous war.
In this school, almost thirty per cent of students in any given classroom were war orphans. Even the remaining seventy per cent had lost a family member to the war.
The scars from Heaven’s Fall ran that deep.
Heaven’s Fall: The Hyper Gate, a teleportation device of the ancient Martian civilisation unearthed on the moon, went out of control during the interplanetary war against Mars. That caused a space-time distortion, resulting in the destruction of the moon. Terrible disasters occurred unlike anything the Earth had seen before: meteor impacts, gravity wave-induced crustal deformation, earthquakes, tsunamis and abnormal weather. The list went on.
And Earth was never the same again… apparently.
After all, Yuki hardly remembered the good old days before the interplanetary war. She had no inkling of what had changed or what hadn’t changed.
Before she knew it, she and her little brother were already war orphans, and before she knew it, her town was a mountain of debris.
If one thing had changed majorly for her, perhaps it was that her parents were gone, who had sheltered and cared for them. It was all very sad, but she didn’t think she had been particularly unlucky. The world – and even just the Home – was so overflowing with orphans like her that Yuki couldn’t help but get that impression. After all, there were orphans who had lost their parents and siblings, left without a single relative in the world. Some children didn’t even know their own names or where they were born.
It was a sad state of affairs, and the crawling economy wasn’t about to bounce back anytime soon. Hardly any families could afford adoption, and so it was normal for many orphans to remain at the Home until they turned eighteen.
So why did Yuki, a middle school student far from her eighteenth birthday, happen to leave the Home like this?
Yuki swung around upon hearing that voice.
A child peered up at her. Though his eyes were vacant, it was as if they held the power to see right through you.
Just when did he show up?
Yuki’s young little brother was standing beside her.
“S-something the matter, Nao-kun?” As she attempted to get a hold of herself, her strangled voice trembled with alarm, causing specks of dust on the shelf to fly just a little.
“You were late to come home.” Pause. “By the way, are you going to buy that?”
Yuki’s little brother Inaho turned his eyes on her hands.
When she followed his gaze, there was a large iron pot in her hands.
It seemed she had grabbed it unconsciously.
“Ah, no, I was just having a look, you know…I mean, it looks kinda nice,” she blabbered, not having the faintest clue what the pot was supposed to be used for.
The bottom was ridiculously round. Not to mention it had no flat surface at all. Did that mean you weren’t supposed to put it on the table?
Then there was the matter of the pot’s depth. She couldn’t figure out if it was shallow or deep – it was all so vague. She got the feeling it was slightly cumbersome for boiling water – it was too big for that.
She did also get the feeling it resembled that heavy pot she sometimes ate stewed dishes out of at the Home, but judging from the lack of lid and the fact that it was made of iron, perhaps it served a different purpose.
When she glanced sideways at Inaho, he was staring straight at Yuki with the same expressionless face as before.
“Well, this is a bit too big, hahaha…” Yuki made a pointless sweeping gesture with both hands once she had managed to put the pot with unstable round bottom back on the shelf somehow.
“It’s a wok.”
“What Yuki-nee just put back on the shelf is called a wok. It’s a pot for making Chinese food.”
“Chinese food… only?”
“Right. So I don’t think it’s for Yuki-nee, since you’re a beginner at cooking.”
“I see… Nao-kun, you’re very knowledgeable.”
She wondered how Inaho knew something like that when he had grown up at the same Home as she did. Just when did he look it up?
Right. That’s how he is, huh.
That part of Inaho was one of the reasons they had no choice but to leave the Home in the end—
Her little brother Inaho was much too intelligent for a second grader.
No matter what the subject, he came upon the answer unnervingly quickly. It wasn’t like anyone taught him how it was done. And yet ninety per cent of his answers were correct, and the other ten per cent was more accurate the original answer – a correct answer within a correct answer, in other words.
Yet at the same time, it was hard to read what Inaho was thinking when his emotions did not really show on his face. Crying, laughter, petulance – he displayed none of these things.
At first glance he was a child—yet not a child.
When he was with others, he stood out even more. The atmosphere around him was totally different from that of the other kids.
This is bad news, Yuki thought when Inaho turned four. This is really bad news. Inaho is completely out of place at the Home.
Being out of place was fatal in the world of children.
Kids are creatures that eagerly latch onto anything that strikes them as different to what is around them. As a result, Inaho caught the eye of an ill-behaved older boy and became his “playmate” just like that. Often, he was struck and injured in the name of “harmless fun”.
Having noticed this all right away, Yuki consulted the caretaking staff, but their response far from satisfied her.
Yuki was vexed. Even if she volunteered her time to protect her brother, the bullying would resume in a matter of minutes once she took her eyes away. Not to mention that there was no one to protect Inaho during the day while she was at school. If things went on like this, Inaho would probably suffer through something more terrible one day.
However, contrary to Yuki’s predictions, it was the leader of the bullies who suffered through something terrible.
It wasn’t as if the caretaking staff did the dirty deed or that Yuki took revenge in her desperation.
It was Inaho. Inaho unleashed payback on his own.
And with a method no child would conceive.
“When you have many enemies, you should pick them off one by one,” Inaho said with an expression not even his older sister Yuki could read.
The caretaking staff member, who had ummed and ahhed when she complained of her brother being bullied, spoke up in a grave tone of voice Yuki had never heard from her before.
“He fractured the child’s bone, you know. Yes, the foot bone. There’s a narrow path connected to the backyard; you can’t just waltz right through it… he dug a trap there, and when the kids chased him, he let them fall one by one and dropped stones on them from above… and he’s only seven years old. Do you understand? Inaho-kun is only seven years old.”
No sooner did the staff member frown thunderously and tell her about the horrible deed—
“So, what about it?”
Yuki barely managed to swallow the objection hovering on the tip of her tongue.
“My little brother has been bullied, you know,” she said with a low growl, appealing to them for one last time.
She had no idea what Inaho was thinking when he inflicted payback.
He was a clever boy. Surely he would have known something like this would happen after his revenge. If he still couldn’t help himself, something more serious must have happened. She didn’t think payback was the ideal method. But still, Inaho… her little brother was suffering injuries somewhere every day.
In terms of seriousness, a fracture was a much heavier injury. But come on, did that mean light wounds were nothing to be taken seriously?
I won’t accept this. There’s no way I can accept this.
The caregiving staff member heaved a loud sigh. “But still, fracturing a bone is such an awful revenge… It’s not something a child would do.”
The answer had already come to Yuki before the staff member finished speaking.
“We’ll leave. From now on, Inaho and I will live together, just the two of us.”
—And so in March, a month after Inaho turned eight, brother and sister left the Home behind them; the spring holidays had come.
The country pays a survivor’s pension to war orphans, however small it is.
As long as you stayed at the Home, the pension was supposed to be paid in full as soon as you became an adult, but in the event you weren’t admitted to a Home, your relatives or a legal representative took control of the fund until you came of age.
Also, in the event you had to leave the Home for whatever reason, you could live on government-rented land for free until you became an adult. This was a system originally adopted for regions where war orphans were extremely scarce and nobody could afford the manpower to operate the facilities.
Yuki and Inaho moved to a region that used this system, which didn’t have Homes for the sake of evacuating citizens.
Shinawara—a provincial city with a space port.
It seemed to have been quite developed in the past, but the town transformed greatly in the wake of the disasters influenced by Heaven’s Fall. Local businesses relocated and fell bankrupt one after another, and now all that remained from the pre-war days was the mall around the station, the shopping district and the refurbished park on the coastland.
In this land, brother and sister built their own “home”, just for the two of them.