REWIND: How To Commit Genocide in 48 Hours
Aiko exploded all over me. First were her eyes that burst like waterpipes. The rest of her evaporated in a hot red mist. Before I left the apartment, Dad had said:
"You don't have friends and you don't have good grades, so don't screw this up."
I stared into blank space, and clutching the last remaining piece of her in my hand, I unwrapped my grip and looked down. Warm blood oozed out of her disembodied finger and painted the ground like tears.
This couldn't be real. We were supposed to be seeing the fireworks. She'd looked beautiful in her yukata. I’d woken up this morning like any other, except the day had been brighter because I was going to be with her. This was supposed to be the turning point in my life, where I would finally show Dad that I was a real man, and maybe he’d stop hitting me. I looked up at the man in the suit.
The murderer wiped a speck of blood off his black mask. It veiled his entire face and emanated dark shadow. There were no holes for his eyes, so maybe he had none. His shoes clicked like wooden blocks as he strode toward me with the casual cool of a businessman. I almost expected him to reach out and shake my hand.
"I had to get your attention, kid. What's with the long face? Eh…? Cat got your tongue?"
I vomited all over my new shoes. I'd spent my allowance on buying them for this date. Yesterday I was sure that paying Dad back was the biggest issue in my life. Now I stood in a back alley, covered in Aiko's blood. The same Aiko who had told me about her dream home. She wanted a garden with a small pond, with carp that she fed every morning and an altar to light candles. Because even though she wasn't religious, she still wanted to feel the warmth of the little dancing flames. And I wasn't religious either, and I told myself that if I met God I wouldn't care.
"Huh? Speak up, son. I can't hear youuuuu!"
I tried with everything I had, but my fist only waved in the air and I stumbled over myself. Defying all logic, a cane slipped out of Black Mask's sleeve and impaled me through the stomach. A searing pain shot through me and I screamed in agony, spitting blood. Black Mask unsheathed the cane from my intestine and examined it up and down.
"Cleaning this is gonna be a doozy."
I thudded to the asphalt, ears ringing. I flailed onto my side in some desperate instinctual attempt to flee, but Black Mask filled my field of view.
"Running already? Anyway, you've been selected by the Mistress. Consider this a great honor. You have to be at the testing grounds within… ten minutes or so, but I have a special treat for you."
The cane tapped my forehead and my vision went white, and when I opened my eyes I was in class. Onigawa-sensei was erasing the whiteboard, the chatter of voices in the halls muffled by the doors. I watched my Past Self leave with a lunch box but I couldn't move to follow, like I was lodged in a vase.
"Not him. We're here for them."
Black Mask pointed at a group of girls sitting by the windows, and at the center was Aiko. My heart fluttered in my chest, even if I knew they couldn't see me. Sunlight streamed into the classroom and illuminated her hair like a firefly. She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
Black Mask ushered me closer like I was a camera on rails until I was within earshot of the conversation. But I wasn't paying attention to what they were saying. Aiko's cheeks were red like freshly steamed bean jam buns, and the collar of her shirt-
Black Mask whacked the back of my head. "Listen!"
"You mean, like, the guy who's always alone?"
"Don't be so mean! Yeah, him…"
"Are you serious?"
Aiko covered her face and laughed, that laugh that she was so embarrassed of that it warmed me to the core. But what were they talking about?
"So yeah, Aiko-chan… ask him out."
My heart thudded in my chest. She had talked about me to her friends? So… she had really liked me? Really, really liked me?
"I can't believe I have to do this just because I lost some stupid dare."
"Don't worry, the worst he'll do is try to kiss you."
The entire group of girls laughed, Aiko included. But that laugh was distorted, and suddenly it wasn't endearing, it was gross. It made me sick. My voice was working now.
"This can't be right…"
"It's not right, but it's the truth, Kohei my boy."
Black Mask wrapped an arm around my slumped shoulders as if he was an old friend comforting me. "This is the world that goes on outside, while you're sitting alone inside, playing games and watching your television. So I won't fault your philosophy from earlier, because you're correct. This world is rotten to it's molten core. So… do you want to leave it behind?"
“No... no! What?”
“I see we’re not quite there yet.”
Black Mask snapped his fingers and suddenly we were looking over Yuuki’s shoulder. Yuuki was texting someone.
Kurosawa is a massive asshole he always ignores tf out of me
forget about him lol
yeah ur right screw him
And suddenly I was able to move. I backed up and folded my arms behind my head. I was hyperventilating. “That’s not real. Yuuki-kun doesn’t have a phone! You made it up!”
“One of the laws of your universe is that matter cannot be created or destroyed. I cannot make things up. I can simply show them in a new light. In this case, you are seeing past moments that were in fact real. If you must know why Yuuki never told you about his phone, I’ll tell you. Do you want to know?”
“At first it wasn’t a lie. He really didn’t have one. But about a year ago he got one, and he’s been keeping it a secret ever since. Because he doesn’t feel like talking to you. Because you’re annoying.”
“You’re lying to me. You’re putting things in my head.”
“I am, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Watch.”
And the images flashed through my head like rapid fire.
I arrived home from school, said hello to Dad, and he waited until I closed the door to my room to say:
I left the art club and everyone sighed in relief.
“Glad that bozo’s gone. Throw his canvas out.”
“It smells bad!”
Onigawa-sensei was talking with another teacher.
“He’s doing better, but it’s a hopeless case. Just born wrong, you know?”
The girls watching him run the marathon.
“He looks so slimy!”
My older sister who worked in Tokyo, talking to a coworker.
“I mean… my brother’s pretty creepy…”
And Mom, who I hadn’t seen in years, sitting in an empty bar, hunched over a martini and talking to a stranger.
“Me? No, I’m single. Don’t have any kids…”
When it was over we were back in the classroom, the world going on around us like we didn't exist.
“I’ll ask you again, Kohei. Do you want to leave it all behind?”
"You know why."
"I hate it. It's all a lie. The little moments aren't worth it if it's all fake. So I want to leave it all behind."
"But what about your family?"
"My sister is off in the city. And Mom and Dad are divorced, so money is rare in my house. Dad would probably be happy to see me disappear just so he could argue with Mom and pin the blame on her. Say something like 'he would've never run away if it wasn't for you'. If he even noticed. He's usually too busy drinking in the living room…"
"So say the magic words. Say, 'take me'."
My desk was empty. In a half hour my Past Self would come back and sit in that seat. And those girls would look at him in silence and mock him, and he would take it like the loser he was. A week later he would become the victim of a cruel prank, and he'd be head-over-heels for a girl that didn't give an ounce of crap about him.
And I was whisked away in an invisible flurry of whirlpool and breeze, unaware that I would not return for hundreds of years.
I was dead, but the raw power of Black Mask's voice spoke directly into my mind, dragging over my ears like gravel. "Now that that detour is over, we can move onto the main attraction."
I was alive.
I lifted my head. I was on a cobble platform that went five meters in both directions. Four other people were waking up around me too, dazedly rubbing their faces. The clear sky was perfectly featureless, and I dared to glimpse over the platform. Like the hundreds of other platforms that spread out around me in a gridlike pattern, with their own occupants waking, there was no structural support at all. We were floating in the sky, the marshmallow clouds below concealing the earth. If this even was earth.
"Am I... dead?"
The voice in my head again:
"No, Kohei, you aren't dead. In fact, you're the exact opposite. From here on out, you're going to be leading a brand new life. Welcome to the exams. If you pass these, your grandest dreams will come true."
"LAAAADIIES AND GENTLEMEEEEEN!"
This male voice boomed over us with no visible source. A microphone? Was the sky an illusion?
"I am Hermes. And no, not like the god, although I did directly inspire him. Let me be brief - if you pass these tests, anything you want will be yours. Anything in the whole wide world. Consider us genies. Call it magic. Call it satanism. Call it whatever you like, as long as you believe it. If you don't believe in our wish-granting power, that's fine. You will believe very shortly. I'll be glad to tell you more and answer your burning questions if you can survive this first test. The rules are simple. In forty minutes the platforms will disappear. As you can see, each platform has five contestants. Take a good look at your new bunk buddies."
There was a girl with vivid scarlet hair and orange eyes flaked with red as if they were sprinkled with dry pepper flakes. Next was a man who looked like he'd just gotten off work, his tie hanging loose around his thin neck. Then there was a guy with a sour look on his face with his hair dyed brown. I didn't like his demeanor. He was like Yuuki but without any of the kindness. And finally there was a boy with hair as white as the gi he was wearing.
"For every person you throw into the abyss, ten minutes will be added onto your platforms survival timer. That is all."
A siren blared a distorted song that sounded like a national anthem, but it wasn't of any country that I knew. I was shaking again. In the same day I'd gone from being the victim of a dare to being the witness of a murder, and now I was a contestant in what might be the last game I'd ever play.
Immediately after his discussion with Kohei, Black Mask materialized behind the woman in the abyss.
"I've successfully begun the process, Mistress."
He waited for more orders, but she gave none. She turned and looked down at him, her glossy dress shimmering in the light of the Void. "Why are you still here?"
He shifted nervously. "Mistress... why are you so interested in this boy? He's unremarkable, and if I'm being honest, he's like a maggot. I have to constantly resist the urge to crush him."
"Don't. That would inconvenience me for a few seconds, and I haven't been inconvenienced since Achilles. But to answer your question, I'm not interested in him at all. That's precisely why he's been chosen. He is an ordinary being, which is why he might be the one to kill the Corruption once and for all."
"But we've gotten so close with stronger humans. Alexander the Great almost-"
"We inch closer every millennium, but the Corruption is faster than that. The downfall of all of our previous subjects were their hubris, their pride. They let their ambitions get ahead of their duties to us. Which is why we need someone who is nothing. If we give him purpose and power, he will bend before us without a second thought."
"Very wise, milady."
"Yes. Would you like to play a game of Othello? I've gotten quite bored lately."
"I live for your pleasure."
A chess board came into existence, and for the next few decades they played in silence.