Chapter Five Images
The Novel- Chapter Five
Shounen Ou ("The Boy King") by Enokido Youji, Hasegawa Shin-ya
commercial use of these translations is prohibited
The veil is finally lifted from the "Forbidden Game". It is said that anyone with a ticket can experience it, and become imprisoned by it. What will this subterranean merry-go-round do for the students?
Chapter Five: The Becoming-A-Stranger Apparatus
When she was little, she could do magic. Nothing like turning into a mouse or flying around on a broom, of course. But at the least, it felt like the days had had been filled with a more unconditional happiness. It felt like unpleasant things, painful things had mostly stayed away. Because she had used magic to keep those unpleasant things at bay. But somewhere along the line, she had lost her magic. And she had to get it back.
With her usual passkey, A-ko opened the door to U-ta's room. It was her first visit in several days. The room was spotless. U-ta had been a very methodical person. The carpet looked like it had been diligently cleaned. The camera he'd used as a hobby was in its metal case. The sound system. A shaft of sunlight filtering in through a slit in the closed curtains cut across the impeccable desk.
The room was untouched, seemingly awaiting its owner to return as though he was still alive. A-ko had heard that that was what U-ta's parents wanted, for their son's dorm room to be left as-is until the end of the school year. In the end, A-ko had never let his parents see her. They had visited the school the day after learning of their son's death, and instead of greeting them A-ko had hidden herself.
I was going out with your departed son. Saying that would accomplish nothing. That, and she didn't exactly relish the thought of laying bare her memories before two complete strangers. A-ko opened the curtains and window, letting in some fresh air.
She had no intention of visiting his grave, either. It would be totally meaningless, she thought. At the very least, U-ta's soul was less likely to be in his grave than in this room. The photo stand on his desk was adorned with the pictures he'd taken of the moon's surface - none of the pictures of the two of them together.
Even though it went from full, to crescent, to new, the moon's face face never changed. U-ta had often said that he liked that unchanging moon. He liked the heavenly bodies. He liked partying with the crowd. He liked animals, especially dogs. Every so often, he liked slipping out of school for something alcoholic to drink. And...
I like you more than anything. He'd told A-ko that many times. I like you more than anything. But those words, which had been a comforting sound in her ears at first, had started to sound like a question: "Do you like me?" Do you like me? Of course you do, right?
At some point, she had started to feel like he was forcing her hand. And A-ko hadn't known what her own feelings were any more. She liked U-ta. He could have been a prince, was just a step away from being an ideal, being a prince everyone would "recognize".
That was why she'd kept suggesting he try the "game". The "Becoming A Stranger Game." Just become a slightly different you. Just become a slightly other you. Become the prince I've always wanted.
I like you lots, had always been A-ko's reply.
And every time, U-ta had looked slightly lonely as he smiled and averted his gaze. A-ko remembered her dead beloved's expression.
When she had first heard of U-ta's death, she hadn't been sure how to accept it. When he hadn't shown up to meet her at night as he had promised, she already had an inkling. Oh, I knew it, had been her response when she found out afterwards. She even thought, is this really that sad? She felt a sense of loss. And she thought: now I have to find a new prince.
Luckily for her, she'd found her next candidate right away. It was Mikoto, the transfer student. What was it if not fate that he had been the one to discover U-ta's body? She was sure he could be "recognized" as a prince. Of course, even he wasn't a perfect prince yet. But that wasn't really a problem. All she had to do is get him to play the "game", and "revolve" him. It was that simple.
The problem was that Mikoto wasn't willing to take her up on her invitation. What to do? It was obvious. All she had to do was play the Become A Stranger game. Just change a little bit, to be more the type Mikoto liked. And to do that, she needed a ticket. A ticket onto the Become-A-Stranger apparatus. Ordinarily the tickets flowed freely and cheaply among the students, but for some odd reason they'd been scarce lately. Maybe there hadn't been enough to meet the demand.
Or perhaps that rumor about a movement to close down the game was true. Some even said His Highness was behind it. That rumor certainly had some plausibility to it, especially since the boy named Ryuugen never played the game himself. But even if that was true, what would be the reason? Come to think of it, Karin had warned her a number of times to stop playing the game.
Karin was sort of weird. She had a really sexy singing voice, but she was quite unsociable and had no interest in boys at all. Well, she seemed quite attached to her roomate Ryuugen, so perhaps her being distant meant she didn't intend to show favor to any of the other guys.
You get along well with everybody, U-ta had often told her.
That's right, I get along well with everybody. It seemed like this bothered U-ta somehow. He probably just hadn't been taught to do so when he was little.
There it is. A-ko found what she was looking for in one of the desk drawers. U-ta had had it, just as she thought. A ticket to Become A Stranger. I'm sure he won't mind if I use it, A-ko decided for herself. After all, he liked me. As she picked up the ticket, she found it clipped to a photograph. In the photo was the face of a boy she didn't recognize. Maybe a student from another class?
Without giving it any more thought, she returned the portrait to its original position and closed the drawer. The ticket was vividly emblazoned with the pattern of an eye, and had a date and time printed on it. It was a ticket for boarding the apparatus. The game was only done a limited number of times, with a limited number of seats, each night. The ticket represented a reservation. And this ticket was for tonight.
In the darkness at the center of the field, something like a circus tent was pitched. The students referred to the silver structure pointing at the starry sky above as the conch shell. It was the playground where the Becoming A Stranger game was played.
Of course, it was officially a meeting room for self-study for the students. Obviously. Play wasn't the sort of thing the school could be expected to endorse. The Becoming A Stranger game had begun to gather popularity throughout the school around half a year ago, right around the time this silver spiral tent had been erected in the field. It started with the rumors.
Somewhere underground beneath that tent, some kind of naughty game was going on. Something stimulating, something revolutionary, some kind of experience totally different from the boring daily routine. That's what they said was hidden inside that tent behind the school. The rumor had gotten around, and before the truth was let out many of the students had gotten very curious. Around then, the time the nightly "festivities" had begun. The tent had become a symbol of stimulating experiences, and the students had naturally come to gather around it.
At long last, not just rumors but tickets had begun circulating. Noone knew who was printing them, and sometimes for free, sometimes not, the tickets made their way into the students' hands and number of those who had experienced the game grew. And the nameplates given to the participants began to carry some status, and implied some kind of unseen camaraderie among them.
A-ko passed through the narrow entrance to the tent. The inside was partitioned into many smaller rooms, and was a bit of a maze to a newcomer. But A-ko pressed forward steadily, and at length arrived at her target cubicle. It was arranged as a lounge. It contained a single table, with several chairs arranged around it, and a large wooden shelf, crammed to capacity with a row of donkey dolls. A-ko picked up one of the donkeys, and knocked lightly on the shelf board. At that, a portion of the shelf opened up, revealing a small window. The face of whoever was on the other side could not be seen. The rumors said that it might be the student council members.
Without a word, the person extended their hand through the window. A-ko placed the ticket she had found in U-ta's room into it. The hand was withdrawn into the window, which immediately closed into part of the shelf again. After a short wait, she heard two short rings of a bell. And with a small tremor, a portion of the carpeting on the floor opened, revealing a staircase just wide enough for one person, leading underground. A-ko replaced the donkey and descended the stairs.
The staircase continued underground in a lazy spiral for quite some distance. The scenery was uniformly drab. Although it wasn't her first time coming here, she still felt a sense of unease. Common sense told her that this facility's size was very hard to believe. Just then, she heard what sounded like the distant barking of dogs. Now that she thought about it, she recalled hearing that same noise the last time she was here. But where were the dogs?
Finally, A-ko arrived at her destination far below ground, and beheld the familiar sight of the apparatus. The first time she'd seen it, she had been honestly surprised. Her friends had been right when they told her that she's understand when she saw it, that it was a surprising sight. It was a merry-go-round. In this place hidden deep underground, wooden horses had been arranged all around a central pillar. There was also a sumptuously appointed four horse- drawn carriage. The team all were outfitted with blinders, and the driver wore a white mask over his face.
As before, a nearby fat middle-aged man came to guide her. Also as before, the face of a snake could be seen peeking out of one of his coat pockets. The first time A-ko had heard that the rumored game was "Becoming A Stranger", she like anyone else hadn't known what the name meant. Still, ever since she had gotten her hands on one of the suspicious tickets, she had wanted to try it. Many of her friends had tried it, and had apparently been stimulated in ways that nothing else could offer.
All the same, the first time she'd seen these wooden horses she'd seriously wondered if the whole thing wasn't just one big joke. What was so stimulating about wooden horses hidden underground? Or perhaps spreading the rumors of the game was in itself some kind of game, and she'd fallen for it.
That first time, the the guide had seen her consternation and told her to look atop the central pillar. At the tip of the pillar which formed the center of the revolving horses sat a giant jewel of obsidian, with an eye drawn on it - or was it really _drawn_? - a strangely realistic eyeball that seemed to be looking straight at A-ko.
"I think that eyeball's looking at me."
"Of course it's looking at you," the man had said. "Surely you have at least some inkling of the great being gazing upon you. That which always acknowledges your existence. It is a eye which has always, and will always, continue to gaze at you. And that eye is also the eye of the center of the world. Yes, this world has a center, and that eye is it. That which lies at the center dominates that which lies around the center. Now, picture within your heart the self you wish to become, the self you wish to have seen, as you ride the carriage. It shall be the end, and the beginning of everything."
She hadn't really understood what was going on, but she did as she was told and got on anyway. The man might have been a bit creepy, but the gaze of that eye had a positively oppressive effect on her. Yet for some reason, the thought of that eye watching over her was strangely comforting. After A-ko got on the horse and the door was closed, she heard the man tell the driver one turn only. Without a word, the white-masked driver had cracked his whip on the wooden horses. A-ko was somewhat startled when she saw that; she had thought until that point that the driver was, like the horses, a wooden doll.
With the jangling of a bell, the merry-go-round began to turn. She wasn't sure if she had heard wrong when the man had said "one turn", or perhaps he had meant something other than one "revolution" - in any case, she was sure the merry-go-round went around more than once. But in truth, she couldn't say with confidence that she was actually "revolving".
This underground chamber was certainly large, but through the window she never saw the same portion of the room outside twice, and it seemed like they were heading in a straight line. And strangely, she had no sensation of rotation at all. Where on earth am I going? But closed away inside the carriage, she had no choice but to abandon her body to the vibrations.
Picture within your heart the self you wish to become, the self you wish to have seen, as you ride the carriage. As the carriage continued on its monotonous way, it felt like the man's words kept repeating over and over inside her head. She finally became aware of the coach stopping, as though she had just awakened from some kind of daydream. It seemed that the coach hadn't moved at all, and everything she'd seen was just some sort of optical illusion.
The bell sounded again, apparently as the signal to get off. The fat man was still standing outside the coach, and he greeted her with, "Pleased to meet you."
"Pleased to meet me?" The man held forth a hand-held mirror, and A-ko felt a momentary pang of malaise. The person she saw looked very much "like" her, but was somehow different from the self she was used to seeing.
"You have become a person ever so slightly different from who you were until now. But this should be an improvement for you. You should have become more like the person you want to be, the person you want to be seen as." As he said this, A-ko could believe that this change really was what she had wanted. For example, the single eyelashes she'd always hated had now become doubled.
"But if I change so suddenly everyone will think something's wrong with me."
"Don't worry. 'Here' is a world where that's the way your face has always looked. Your voice, your style, little things like your fingerprints - all of those minutiae have really only changed a little. But 'this' is a world where all those things are the way you've always been. Strictly speaking, it's not you who have changed, it's your mind that has transferred to another world where a slightly different you lives. Here's to your life, a new adventure unhindered by who you used to be."
And the man handed her a small plate. "A memorial of tonight's 'game'. It's a badge of courage for your coming to a new world. It seems that all the participants fasten them to their uniforms..." And so, A-ko became a Stranger.
How many times does this make, she wondered.
The man with the snake gazed at her nameplate. "It really is a source of some puzzlement to me," he said. "How unusual that all of you wear those nameplates so religiously. One wonders why you don't allow yourselves to forget who you were before becoming Strangers."
"Wasn't this," A-ko asked, "supposed to be a badge of courage?" So it was, the man replied. Once again, the eye atop the merry-go-round's central pillar was watching over A-ko. It was a sign that someone was always looking at and accepting her. Needing no urging from the man, A-ko boarded the carriage and envisioned the self she wanted to become. She would become someone who would get her hands on Mikoto. Yes, this was magic. She would get back the magic she'd used when she was little. She heard the fat man whispering to the white-masked driver. "Take our guest as far as she can go tonight."
As far as she could go. She was positive she heard it. The bell rang, and the merry-go-round began to turn. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but it seemed to be going faster than usual.
No, it's not just my imagination. The masked driver flicked his whip over the horses time again again, gaining speed all the while. As though the body of the carriage was unequal to the strain, she began to hear grinding sounds all around. The scenery outside had melted into a green blur. A-ko felt instinctively afraid, and spoke the word Stop, but it appeared the driver hadn't heard her. Or perhaps the driver really was nothing more than an animated marionette. The coach's passage seemed unending.
A-ko began to feel discomfort inside her head somehow akin to motion sickness. But what made her feel worse was the realization of what the enormous distance she was traveling meant. She was being taken somewhere far, far away from her former self. And she would probably never be able to come back. As her unease over this thought grew, she once again heard the distant barking of dogs. Tonight, she heard it clearly.
What am I doing in a place like this? Being shaken around and scared half to death in some strange underground carriage; is this whole thing just some kind of nightmare? Won't I wake up and find myself back to normal in my own bed? But A-ko no longer knew what her "normal self" was.
...! A-ko suddenly realized that she was naked. She was being rocked on the carriage naked, she knew not since when. And...
The whole of this giant revolving world was looking at A-ko's nakedness and laughing. She, small and insignificant, was being mocked by all of creation. A-ko reflexively covered and hid her body with both arms, feeling like she was about to go insane with shame. A feeling like that of an underground creature dragged out into the blazing sun beat down upon her. That "eye" wasn't watching over her, it was looking right through her and laughing! It's enjoying seeing me naked. It stripped me naked so it could laugh at my foolishness!
Stop it! Don't look at me, don't laugh at me!! She screwed her eyes shut and covered her head, a shriek on her lips...
The bell rang, the same as always, bringing A-ko back to her senses. The coach had apparently stopped at some point without her noticing. Neither the driver nor the fat man were anywhere to be seen. A-ko was all alone in the subterranean chamber, inside the coach. Her uniform was undisturbed. It was deathly quiet. On the bench beside her, lay a mirror.
With a sense of dread, A-ko inched closer to it and peeked within the rim. And screamed out: "Who is that?!?" Looking back at her was a face she'd never seen. Not that it was ugly. On the contrary, it was a face that anyone would think was cute. But its expression was as cold as ice.
For the first time, A-ko understood the true meaning of the "Becoming-A-Stranger game". The self she wanted to become. The self she wanted to have seen. She had positively wished for this. But this was no longer "her self". It was noone, if not a stranger.
Was this...what I wanted? But... Just then came a momentary whine in her ears, making her head go cold. Her body was wracked with chills and the urge to vomit, but she resisted with all her strength. And yet, a part of her was cooly analyzing the situation.
Look how cute you are. I bet you can really live it up. Just that the person who would get to hear "I like you", wasn't the person who she'd been up until now. Nothing more. It wasn't like being liked had lost its value. A-ko remembered how she'd found tonight's ticket in U-ta's room. At the time, there had been that photograph of the boy she didn't know attached to it. Could that have been a picture of U-ta? Could that have been a portrait of U-ta, before he had entered this world?
Of course, it shouldn't be possible to get a hold of pictures from the world before, but that's what A-ko thought.
U-ta had played this game many, many times. And every time, he had asked, do you like me?
I like you lots, had always been A-ko's reply.
And every time, U-ta had looked slightly lonely as he smiled and averted his gaze. At the memory of that lonely expression, A-ko felt a pain in her chest.
Am I just following in U-ta's footsteps...?
"But why'd you go and die on me, you dummy?", she murmured quietly, and stepped down from the carriage.
to be continued next issue
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