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KYOTO, JAPAN

[The old photo of Kondo Tatsumi shows a skinny, acne-faced teenager with dull red eyes and bleached blond highlights streaking his unkempt hair. The man I am speaking to has no hair at all. Clean-shaven, tanned and toned, his clear, sharp gaze never leaves mine. Although his manner is cordial and his mood light, this warrior monk retains the composure of a predatory animal at rest.]

I was an “otaku.” I know that term has come to mean a great many things to a great many people, but for me it simply meant “outsider.” I know Americans, especially young ones, must feel trapped by societal pressure. All humans do. However, if I understand your culture correctly, individualism is something to be encouraged. You revere the “rebel,” the “rogue,” those who stand proudly apart from the masses. For you, individuality is a badge of honor. For us, it is a ribbon of shame. We lived, particularly before the war, in a complex and seemingly infinite labyrinth of external judgments. Your appearance, your speech, everything from the career you held to the way you sneezed had to be planned and orchestrated to follow rigid Confucian doctrine. Some either have the strength, or lack thereof, to accept this doctrine. Others, like myself, chose exile in a better world. That world was cyber space, and it was tailor-made for Japanese otaku.

I can’t speak for your educational system, or, indeed, for that of any other country, but ours was based almost entirely on fact retention. From the day we first set foot in a classroom, prewar Japanese children were injected with volumes upon volumes of facts and figures that had no practical application in our lives. These facts had no moral component, no social context, no human connection to the outside world. They had no reason for existence other than that their mastery allows ascension. Prewar Japanese children were not taught to think, we were taught to memorize.

You can understand how this education would easily lend itself to an existence in cyberspace. In a world of information without context, where status was determined on its acquisition and possession, those of my generation could rule like gods. I was a sensei, master over all I surveyed, be it discovering the blood type of the prime minister’s cabinet, or the tax receipts of Matsumoto and Hamada, 1 or the location and condition of all shin-gunto swords of the Pacific War. I didn’t have to worry about my appearance, or my social etiquette, my grades, or my prospects for the future. No one could judge me, no one could hurt me. In this world I was powerful, and more importantly, I was safe!

When the crisis reached Japan, my clique, as with all the others, forgot our previous obsessions and devoted our energies entirely to the living dead. We studied their physiology, behavior, weaknesses, and the global response to their attack upon humanity. The last subject was my clique’s specialty, the possibility of containment within the Japanese home islands. I collected population statistics, transport networks, police doctrine. I memorized everything from the size of the Japanese merchant fleet, to how many rounds the army’s Type 89 assault rifle held. No fact was too small or obscure. We were on a mission, we barely slept. When school was eventually cancelled, it gave us the ability to be wired in almost twenty-four hours a day. I was the first to hack into Doctor Komatsu’s personal hard drive and read the raw data a full week before he presented his findings to the Diet. This was a coup. It further elevated my status among those who already worshipped me.

Doctor Komatsu first recommended the evacuation?

He did. Like us, he’d been compiling the same facts. But whereas we’d been memorizing them, he’d been analyzing them. Japan was an overcrowded nation: one hundred and twenty-eight million people jammed into less than three hundred and seventy thousand square kilometers of either mountainous or overurbanized islands. Japan’s low crime rate gave it one of the relatively smallest and most lightly armed police forces in the industrialized world. Japan was pretty much also a demilitarized state. Because of American “protection,” our self-defense forces had not seen actual combat since 1945. Even those token troops who were deployed to the Gulf almost never saw any serious action and spent most of their occupation duty within the protected walls of their isolated compound. We had access to all these bits of information, but not the wherewithal to see where they were pointing. So it took us all by complete surprise when Doctor Komatsu publicly declared that the situation was hopeless and that Japan had to be immediately evacuated.

That must have been terrifying.

Not at all! It set off an explosion of frenzied activity, a race to discover where our population might resettle. Would it be the South, the coral atolls of the Central and South Pacific, or would we head north, colonizing the Kuriles, Sakhalin, or maybe somewhere in Siberia? Whoever could uncover the answer would be the greatest otaku in cyber history.

And there was no concern for your personal safety?

Of course not. Japan was doomed, but I didn’t live in Japan. I lived in a world of free-floating information. The siafu, 2 that’s what we were calling the infected now, weren’t something to be feared, they were something to be studied. You have no idea the kind of disconnect I was suffering. My culture, my upbringing, and now my otaku lifestyle all combined to completely insulate me. Japan might be evacuated, Japan might be destroyed, and I would watch it all happen from the safety of my digital mountaintop.

What about your parents?

What about them? We lived in the same apartment, but I never really conversed with them. I’m sure they thought I was studying. Even when school closed I told them I still had to prepare for exams. They never questioned it. My father and I rarely spoke. In the mornings my mother would leave a breakfast tray at my door, at night she would leave dinner. The first time she didn’t leave a tray, I thought nothing of it. I woke up that morning, as I always did; gratified myself, as I always did; logged on, as I always did. It was midday before I started to feel hungry. I hated those feelings, hunger or fatigue or, the worst, sexual desire. Those were physical distractions. They annoyed me. I reluctantly turned away from my computer and opened my bedroom door. No food. I called for my mother. No answer. I went into the kitchen area, grabbed some raw ramen, and ran back to my desk. I did it again, that night, and again the next morning.

You never questioned where your parents were?

The only reason I cared was because of the precious minutes I was wasting having to feed myself. In my world too many exciting things were happening.

What about the other otaku? Didn’t they discuss their fears?

We shared facts not feelings, even when they started to disappear. I’d notice that someone had stopped returning e-mail or else hadn’t posted for a while. I’d see that they hadn’t logged on in a day or that their servers were no longer active.

And that didn’t scare you?

It annoyed me. Not only was I losing a source of information, I was losing potential praise for my own. To post some new factoid about Japanese evacuation ports and to have fifty, instead of sixty, responses was upsetting, then to have those fifty drop to forty-five, then to thirty…

How long did this go on for?

About three days. The last post, from another otaku in Sendai, stated that the dead were now flowing out of Tohoku University Hospital, in the same cho as his apartment.

And that didn’t worry you?

Why should it? I was too busy trying to learn all I could about the evacuation process. How was it going to be executed, what government organizations were involved? Would the camps be in Kamchatka or Sakhalin, or both? And what was this I was reading about the rash of suicides that was sweeping the country? 3 So many questions, so much data to mine. I cursed myself for having to go to sleep that night.

When I woke up, the screen was blank. I tried to sign on. Nothing. I tried rebooting. Nothing. I noticed that I was on backup battery. Not a problem. I had enough reserve power for ten hours at full use. I also noticed that my signal strength was zero. I couldn’t believe it. Kokura, like all Japan, had a state-of-the-art wireless network that was supposed to be fail-safe. One server might go down, maybe even a few, but the whole net? I realized it must be my computer. It had to be. I got out my laptop and tried to sign on. No signal. I cursed and got up to tell my parents that I had to use their desktop. They still weren’t home. Frustrated, I tried to pick up the phone to call my mother’s cell. It was cordless, dependent on wall power. I tried my cell. I got no reception.

Do you know what happened to them?

No, even to this day, I have no idea. I know they didn’t abandon me, I’m sure of it. Maybe my father was caught out at work, my mother trapped while trying to go grocery shopping. They could have been lost together, going to or coming back from the relocation office. Anything could have happened. There was no note, nothing. I’ve been trying to find out ever since.

I went back into my parents’ room, just to make sure they weren’t there. I tried the phones again. It wasn’t bad yet. I was still in control. I tried to go back online. Isn’t that funny? All I could think about was trying to escape again, getting back to my world, being safe. Nothing. I started to panic. “Now,” I started to say, trying to command my computer by force of will. “Now, now, NOW! NOW! NOW!” I started beating the monitor. My knuckles split, the sight of my own blood terrified me. I’d never played sports as a child, never been injured, it was all too much. I picked up the monitor and threw it against the wall. I was crying like a baby, shouting, hyperventilating. I started to wretch and vomited all over the floor. I got up and staggered to the front door. I don’t know what I was looking for, just that I had to get out. I opened the door and stared into darkness.

Did you try knocking at the neighbor’s door?

No. Isn’t that odd? Even at the height of my breakdown, my social anxiety was so great that actually risking personal contact was still taboo. I took a few steps, slipped, and fell into something soft. It was cold and slimy, all over my hands, my clothes. It stank. The whole hallway stank. I suddenly became aware of a low, steady scraping noise, like something was dragging itself across the hallway toward me.

I called out, “Hello?” I heard a soft, gurgling groan. My eyes were just beginning to adjust to the darkness. I began to make out a shape, large, humanoid, crawling on its belly. I sat there paralyzed, wanting to run but at the same time wanting to…to know for sure. My doorway was casting a narrow rectangle of dim gray light against the far wall. As the thing moved into that light, I finally saw its face, perfectly intact, perfectly human, except for the right eye that hung by the stem. The left eye was locked on mine and its gurgling moan became a choked rasp. I jumped to my feet, sprang back inside my apartment, and slammed the door behind me.

My mind was finally clear, maybe for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I could smell smoke and hear faint screams. I went over to the window and threw the curtains open.

Kokura was engulfed in hell. The fires, the wreckage…the siafu were everywhere. I watched them crash through doors, invade apartments, devour people cowering in corners or on balconies. I watched people leap to their deaths or break their legs and spines. They lay on the pavement, unable to move, wailing in agony as the dead closed in around them. One man in the apartment directly across from me tried to fight them off with a golf club. It bent harmlessly around a zombie’s head before five others pulled him to the floor.

Then…a pounding at the door. My door. This…[shakes his fist] bom-bombom-bom…from the bottom, near the floor. I heard the thing groaning outside. I heard other noises, too, from the other apartments. These were my neighbors, the people I’d always tried to avoid, whose faces and names I could barely remember. They were screaming, pleading, struggling, and sobbing. I heard one voice, either a young woman or a child on the floor above me, calling someone by name, begging them to stop. But the voice was swallowed in a chorus of moans. The banging at my door became louder. More siafu had shown up. I tried to move the living room furniture against the door. It was a waste of effort. Our apartment was, by your standards, pretty bare. The door began to crack. I could see its hinges straining. I figured I had maybe a few minutes to escape.

Escape? But if the door was jammed…

Out the window, onto the balcony of the apartment below. I thought I could tie bedsheets into a rope…[smiles sheepishly]…I’d heard about it from an otaku who studied American prison breaks. It would be the first time I ever applied any of my archived knowledge.

Fortunately the linen held. I climbed out of my apartment and started to lower myself down to the apartment below. Immediately my muscles started cramping. I’d never paid much attention to them and now they were reaping their revenge. I struggled to control my motions, and to not think about the fact that I was nineteen floors up. The wind was terrible, hot and dry from all the fires. A gust picked me up and slammed me against the side of the building. I bounced off the concrete and almost lost my grip. I could feel the bottom of my feet bumping against the balcony’s railing and it took all the courage I had to relax enough to climb down just those few extra feet. I landed on my ass, panting and coughing from the smoke. I could hear sounds from my apartment above, the dead that had broken through the front door. I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

I could hear the other siafu groaning on the balcony above and turned to see if there were any in this apartment with me. Fortunately, I saw that the front door had been barricaded like mine. However, unlike mine, there weren’t any sounds of attackers outside. I was also comforted by the layer of ash on the carpet. It was deep and unbroken, telling me that no one or nothing had walked across this floor for a couple days. For a moment I thought I might be alone, and then I noticed the smell.

I slid the bathroom door open and was blown back by this invisible, putrid cloud. The woman was in her tub. She had slit her wrists, long, vertical slices along the arteries to make sure the job was done right. Her name was Reiko. She was the only neighbor I’d made any effort to know. She was a high-priced hostess at a club for foreign businessmen. I’d always fantasized about what she’d look like na**d. Now I knew.

Strangely enough, what bothered me most was that I didn’t know any prayers for the dead. I’d forgotten what my grandparents had tried to teach me as a little kid, rejected it as obsolete data. It was a shame, how out of touch I was with my heritage. All I could do was stand there like an idiot and whisper an awkward apology for taking some of her sheets.

Her sheets?

For more rope. I knew I couldn’t stay there for very long. Besides the health hazard of a dead body, there was no telling when the siafu on that floor would sense my presence and attack the barricade. I had to get out of this building, get out of the city, and hopefully try to find a way to get out of Japan. I didn’t have a fully thought-out plan yet. I just knew I had to keep going, one floor at a time, until I reached the street. I figured stopping at a few of the apartments would give me a chance to gather supplies, and as dangerous as my sheet-rope method was, it couldn’t be any worse than the siafu that would almost certainly be lurking in the building’s hallways and stairwells.

Wouldn’t it be more dangerous once you reached the streets?

No, safer. [Catches my expression.] No, honestly. That was one of the things I’d learned online. The living dead were slow and easy to outrun or even outwalk. Indoors, I might run the risk of being trapped in some narrow choke point, but out in the open, I had infinite options. Better still, I’d learned from online survivor reports that the chaos of a full-blown outbreak could actually work to one’s advantage. With so many other frightened, disorganized humans to distract the siafu, why would they even notice me? As long as I watched my step, kept up a brisk pace, and didn’t have the misfortune to be hit by a fleeing motorist or stray bullet, I figured I had a pretty good chance of navigating my way through the chaos on the streets below. The real problem was getting there.

It took me three days to make it all the way down to the ground floor. This was partially due to my disgraceful physical stamina. A trained athlete would have found my makeshift rope antics a challenge so you can imagine what they were for me. In retrospect it’s a miracle I didn’t plunge to my death or succumb to infection with all the scrapes and scratches I endured. My body was held together with adrenaline and pain medication. I was exhausted, nervous, horribly sleep deprived. I couldn’t rest in the conventional sense. Once it got dark I would move everything I could against the door, then sit in a corner, crying, nursing my wounds, and cursing my frailty until the sky began to lighten. I did manage to close my eyes one night, even drift off to sleep for a few minutes, but then the banging of a siafu against the front door sent me scurrying out the window. I spent the remainder of that night huddled on the balcony of the next apartment. Its sliding glass door was locked and I just didn’t have the strength to kick it in.

My second delay was mental, not physical, specifically my otaku’s obsessive-compulsive drive to find just the right survival gear, no matter how long it took. My online searches had taught me all about the right weapons, clothing, food, and medicine. The problem was finding them in an apartment complex of urban salarymen.

[Laughs.]

I made quite a sight, shimmying down that sheet-rope in a businessman’s raincoat and Reiko’s bright, pink, vintage “Hello Kitty” schoolbag. It had taken a long time, but by the third day I had almost everything I needed, everything except a reliable weapon.

There wasn’t anything?

[Smiles.] This was not America, where there used to be more firearms than people. True fact—an otaku in Kobe hacked this information directly from your National Rifle Association.

I meant a hand tool, a hammer, a crowbar…

What salaryman does his own home maintenance? I thought of a golf club—there were many of those—but I saw what the man across the way had tried to do. I did find an aluminum baseball bat, but it had seen so much action that it was too bent out of shape to be effective. I looked everywhere, believe me, but there was nothing hard or strong or sharp enough I could use to defend myself. I also reasoned that once I made it to the street, I might have better luck—a truncheon from a dead policeman or even a soldier’s firearm.

Those were the thoughts that almost got me killed. I was four floors from the ground, almost, literally, at the end of my rope. Each section I made extended for several floors, just enough length to allow me to gather more sheets. This time I knew would be the last. By now I had my entire escape plan worked out: land on the fourth-floor balcony, break into the apartment for a new set of sheets (I’d given up looking for a weapon by then), slide down to the sidewalk, steal the most convenient motorcycle (even though I had no idea how to ride one), streaking off like some old-timey bosozoku, 4 and maybe even grab a girl or two along the way. [Laughs.] My mind was barely functional by that point. If even the first part of the plan had worked and I did manage to make it to the ground in that state…well, what matters is that I didn’t.

I landed on the fourth-floor balcony, reached for the sliding door, and looked up right into the face of a siafu. It was a young man, midtwenties, wearing a torn suit. His nose had been bitten off, and he dragged his bloody face across the glass. I jumped back, grabbed on to my rope, and tried to climb back up. My arms wouldn’t respond, no pain, no burning—I mean they had just reached their limit. The siafu began howling and beating his fists against the glass. In desperation, I tried to swing myself from side to side, hoping to maybe rappel against the side of the building and land on the balcony next to me. The glass shattered and the siafu charged for my legs. I pushed off from the building, letting go of the rope and launching myself with all my might…and I missed.

The only reason we are speaking now is that my diagonal fall carried me onto the balcony below my target. I landed on my feet, stumbled forward, and almost went toppling off the other side. I stumbled into the apartment and immediately looked around for any siafu. The living room was empty, the only piece of furniture a small traditional table propped up against the door. The occupant must have committed suicide like the others. I didn’t smell anything foul so I guessed he must have thrown himself out of the window. I reasoned that I was alone, and just this small measure of relief was enough to cause my legs to give out from under me. I slumped against the living room wall, almost delirious with fatigue. I found myself looking at a collection of photographs decorating the opposite wall. The apartment’s owner had been an old man, and the photographs told of a very rich life. He’d had a large family, many friends, and had traveled to what seemed every exciting and exotic locale around the world. I’d never even imagined leaving my bedroom, let alone even leading that kind of life. I promised myself that if I ever made it out of this nightmare, I wouldn’t just survive, I would live!

My eyes fell on the only other item in the room, a Kami Dana, or traditional Shinto shrine. Something was on the floor beneath it, I guessed a suicide note. The wind must have blown it off when I entered. I didn’t feel right just leaving it there. I hobbled across the room and stooped to pick it up. Many Kami Dana have a small mirror in the center. My eye caught a reflection in that mirror of something shambling out of the bedroom.

The adrenaline kicked in just as I wheeled around. The old man was still there, the bandage on his face telling me that he must have reanimated not too long ago. He came at me; I ducked. My legs were still shaky and he managed to catch me by the hair. I twisted, trying to free myself. He pulled my face toward his. He was surprisingly fit for his age, muscle equal to, if not superior to, mine. His bones were brittle though, and I heard them crack as I grabbed the arm that caught me. I kicked him in the chest, he flew back, his broken arm was still clutching a tuft of my hair. He knocked against the wall, photographs falling and showering him with glass. He snarled and came at me again. I backed up, tensed, then grabbed him by his one good arm. I jammed it into his back, clamped my other hand around the back of his neck, and with a roaring sound I didn’t even know I could make, I shoved him, ran him, right onto the balcony and over the side. He landed face up on the pavement, his head still hissing up at me from his otherwise broken body.

Suddenly there was a pounding on the front door, more siafu that’d heard our scuffle. I was operating on full instinct now. I raced into the old man’s bedroom and began ripping the sheets off his bed. I figured it wouldn’t take too many, just three more stories and then…then I stopped, frozen, as motionless as a photograph. That’s what had caught my attention, one last photograph that was on the bare wall in his bedroom. It was black and white, grainy, and showed a traditional family. There was a mother, father, a little boy, and what I guessed had to be the old man as a teenager in uniform. Something was in his hand, something that almost stopped my heart. I bowed to the man in the photograph and said an almost tearful “Arigato.”

What was in his hand?

I found it at the bottom of a chest in his bedroom, underneath a collection of bound papers and the ragged remains of the uniform from the photo. The scabbard was green, chipped, army-issue aluminum and an improvised, leather grip had replaced the original sharkskin, but the steel…bright like silver, and folded, not machine stamped…a shallow, tori curvature with a long, straight point. Flat, wide ridge lines decorated with the kiku-sui, the Imperial chrysanthemum, and an authentic, not acid-stained, river bordering the tempered edge. Exquisite workmanship, and clearly forged for battle.

[I motioned to the sword at his side. Tatsumi smiles.]