Chapter 1:

Gathering (Part A)

The Time Capsule - Part 1

  I woke up right where I had fallen asleep, but at first my memory was foggy. It was very dark and rather cold and I couldn't recall where I was. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness and my memory started clearing, I realized I was at the (still) beautiful Yoyogi Park, in Shibuya. 

  During the fifth week of Naturecaust, with all hell breaking loose, I decided to take the Fukutoshin Line from Ikebukuro Station (you read that right, most of the Tokyo metro drivers were still on duty; a very honorable and dutiful bunch of guys, they've earned my deepest bow and respect) in order to reach Yoyogi Park and wait for my end (or slumber) in peace there, among the beautiful flowers that were killing us. 

  Cherry blossoms did not generate toxic pollen yet but the scientists assessed they were going to be the next flowers to do so, "any day now"; they had already mutated. My initial mild amnesia was a blessing, in a sense, since very soon the horror of the last days filled my mind like a flash flood. 

  What I recall most vividly was the fear and panic in the eyes of just about everyone. Not just mere fear but pure horror and despair. Fear is contagious, as they say, so even if you wanted to keep your composure and maintain some dignity before the end it was very difficult. The web and the social media had blown up in flames but the traditional media did not help either. The last front page of the New York Times -before almost their entire staff was either decimated or slumbered- was "NATURE ATTACKS BACK!!". 

  Our own Yomiuri Shimbun -which was still going on when I slumbered- did not fare any better. They chose an almost comical or satirical "Attack of the Killer Flowers!!" front page cover title, which pre-Naturecaust would have been a common title for "D-grade direct to the bottom of the bargain bin" horror movies. Perhaps they did have a satirical mood though. There was nothing for them to gain from selling more papers since in a few days, a week tops, they were all going to be dead or in a coma anyway. If that's the case, and they were just trying to uplift the spirits of the Japanese people as they awaited the end, I bow to them in respect as well. 

  Let's go back to when I reached Yoyogi Park back in the day. It was on March 22 of 2025, so it was just a couple of weeks before the end; the latest slumber date we have heard from people who have woken up is April 2, so by April 5 of 2025 tops everyone on Earth was either dead or slumbered. I was on my own and quite afraid. My 2-year junior girlfriend from the university had slumbered just the previous day. 

  Both my older sister, who was married and lived in the city of Chiba, and my two parents in Karatsu, were dead from the pollen. According to the scientists my age group had 1 in 4 chance to survive (the glass half full take on 3 in 4 chance to die) by falling into slumber but no scientist had any idea how long the slumber would last. Months? Years? Decades? Centuries even?

  While I knew where I was when I woke up I obviously had no idea when I was. My smart phone was useless and dead as a brick. With the exception of what looked like sporadic fires here and there I could see no (electric) light in the entire city of Tokyo. All the skyscrapers around me were pitch black dark, as was the night. After my eyes fully adjusted to the darkness the stars emerged in all their magnificent glory! 

  Since there was neither any light pollution nor any other kind of pollution the stars were just as viewable from central Tokyo as they were from the lovely "Star Village Achi", in Southern Nagano, where I went on vacation as a kid with my parents and sister. I am sure the surviving astronomers and astrophysicists currently in Tokyo will be having a field day right about now!

  I soon realized I needed to stop night-dreaming and switch into "survival mode". I compiled a list of "known unknowns" in my mind:

1. What year it was.

2. What month it was; the cherry blossoms looked like they were about to get out of their buds, so it must be late February or early March tops. 

3. How much head start did the other survivors have? Were the supermarkets already looted or were they just starting to? Did anything edible survive in them either way (that would depend on what year it was)?

4. Will it be possible to find my girlfriend Fumiko Hatsu (meaning "beautiful beginning"; let's hope it really is!)? I know where she slumbered but what if she has already woken up?

5. Will I need a weapon to defend myself or will the weapon itself mark me as a target if survivors assume I'm hostile? Maybe something small and discreet like a pocketknife? I am a 5-dan in Kendo but going around with a bokken (wooden Kendo sword) might be a bit too much. Or not, we shall see.

  With the above first thoughts in my head I started walking toward Mejirodai, in order to find Fumiko-chan and hopefully some food and water along the way, along with a jacket since I was feeling quite cold. There were just a couple of weeks left until spring, I thank the gods I didn't wake up right at the beginning of winter! 

  I casually wondered how on Earth my body managed to survive what must have been at least decades of frozen winters and hot summers, while it was fully exposed to the elements. Then I realized my own body and clothes must provide plenty of clues about how much time has passed! Wait, I have a beard? A long one as well! Not too long though, about 28 cm. 

  My hair is also quite long, up to my shoulders and lower; in March of 2025 (which feels like yesterday) I had my back hair trimmed very short. I have lost at least 7 or 8 kg of body weight, but to be more precise I need to find a weighing scale; old-fashioned mechanical ones would still work, but will I find any in Tokyo? If 50 years or more have passed it's a miracle I lost so little weight but this is explained by the nature of the slumbering, at least in part.  

  Researchers at the time estimated that the human metabolism dropped to roughly 1/37th of its normal (alert) rate. So, everything slowed down by ~37 times, including our body mass loss and our hair and nail growth rate. Did I say nails? Wait, these things are huge! I look like a vampire, the grotesque kind! These are not nails, these are talons!

  I need to find some scissors as well, both for my hair and nails. Itaaai!! I just felt the nails of my feet! It feels like they have curled and twisted inside my shoes and they bite at my feet. Kami-sama, I need to pull my self together. I then realized that measuring how much my hair has grown and taking into account my 37 times reduced metabolism during my slumber is the simplest and easiest way to calculate the current year. Right before slumbering the back of my hair was just a couple of mm. 

  With some difficulty, the help of a pool of water and light from just the gorgeous stars, I measured my current back hair length at 30 cm, +/- 1 cm. Hair grows 15 cm a year on average, so sans slumbering about 2 years would have passed. However, since hair grows 37 times slower during slumbering 2 x 37 => 74 years have passed. Thus the current year must be 2099, just one year before the 22th century. And it's almost certainly during the last week of February. 

  To be more precise I would need to find a generator and some (unspoiled) fuel or a mobile solar generator, hook up my smart phone and try to find -perhaps by some miracle- at least one GPS, Galileo or Glonass satellite, which have atomic clocks on board. I then recalled that the physics department of my university has a very precise atomic clock, so no need to look for guidance satellites, all of which must have been incinerated by Earth's atmosphere by now. I would just need to give the clock some juice, though I have no idea how to set it up; Fumiko-chan would, since she had just started her PhD in nuclear physics. Somehow I feel that the current year is indeed 2099, though I cannot explain why or how I feel that. 

  By the way, I wrote above that biologically I was 24 but I had not yet calculated what year it was. Since 74 years have passed but my metabolism during those years was 37 times slower, biologically 2 years have passed for me (and every survivor), so I am technically 26 years old now. Therefore, a body loss of a mere 7 or 8 kg is still very low after 2 biological years. Perhaps there is a yet undiscovered secondary factor of the slumber mitigating body loss? Question for later research; potentially, if I survive.

  After so many decades could any canned food have survived? What about bottled water? After exiting Yoyogi Park I finally saw the first people. With the exception of some small groups everyone was alone and took care to avoid the others. Some were carrying sticks, globs or other makeshift weapons. One had an unsheathed katana and swung it around like an idiot. I made my way to a super market that was (naturally) in the process of being looted. During the last few weeks of Naturecaust there was a lot of looting as well, and even bank robberies for crying out loud. Humans are not very sensible creatures are they (particularly when the end is close)? 

  I made sure to avoid physical or eye contact and headed for the edibles. I took ten or so tin cans that looked like they were not very oxidized -at least on the outside- and a few liters of water, put them in a bag -I mean the hard plastic ones meant for shopping inside the store- and bolted out before I interacted with some madman or, even worse, group of madmen. On the way out I grabbed a warm jacket as well. I took care to avoid fish or seafood cans but I took a few meat ones as well. 

  The water was somewhat drinkable but it tasted quite stale. Either way, drinking almost an entire liter (slowly) quenched my thirst; a deep thirst I realized I had just before drinking it. I kept the food for later; I was not too hungry or.. I just did not want to eat alone. My next stop was Fumiko-chan's dorm, which was in Mejirodai, almost 5 km from the university in Bunkyo City, which was almost 13 km away; on foot, of course. On second thought I returned to Yoyogi Park where it was quiet and tried eating a couple of tin cans. 

  I fully expected the worse, since they had expired 70 years or so ago, but remarkably they were still edible. They just had a much more "metallic" taste than usual, which was fine with me. Perhaps my hunger was clouding my taste buds but they did not smell rotten or anything. Along with the cans I found a few dried noodles with chilly which I'm saving for later. Unless moisture spoiled them these should be even better than the cans but I need hot water to prepare them; and hopefully some company..

  After I felt adequately sated -for a 13 km walk anyway- I headed for Mejiroday in the hope of finding Fumiko-chan either asleep or freshly awoken at her dorm in the uni. If I knew I was meant to slumber as well I would have stayed with her, in the same room. But obviously I could not know that. Scientists never found any genetic differences between those who the pollen killed and those it placed in slumber; either because they did not have enough time or perhaps the 'selection' was truly arbitrary. 

  Hence, since I wanted to avoid exposing her to the abject horror of my rotting corpse or skeleton as the very first thing she would see after waking up I decided to take my chances on my own, at my beloved Yoyogi Park, where I also had my very first kiss at junior high school. 

  It's funny that only now that my belly is almost full I realized that I am basically wearing rags. First comes survival, then aesthetics, right? I realize that it's ridiculous to think about my looks, outfit or even... smell during this post-apocalyptic situation but I still don't want Fumiko-chan to see -or smell- me in such a state. I need to shave, trim my hair, maybe have a bath (yeah dream on, I mean wash, with some water and soap), and also loot some clothes along the way from a clothes store. This is going to be quite a long and potentially dangerous walk, so I'd better find a suitable stick as well to use for self-defence. 

  It is very dark but I know of a good Kendo dojo around here I was a member of back in the day. I found it and, quite cautiously, I passed through its wide open door and headed for where they kept the shinai and bokken wooden swords (a shinai is lighter and softer, and is made of bamboo). I looked for and found a good and solid bokken, which was all I needed. I don't need a freaking katana because I do not plan on killing anyone. With a bokken I can easily incapacitate all low and mid level threats.

  I placed the bokken on my back so that it didn't stick out too much and went back on my way. On the way I found suitable clothes and got rid of my rags; I washed as best as I could with some more bottled water I found and a bit of a combined shampoo & body wash; the water was cold but I endured it. The shampoo had partly spoiled; it still foamed but its fragrance was, er, 'semi-rotten-flowery'. I took note to find solid soaps next time, which should be fine. 

  I found a scissors and cut my hair (surely awfully), trimmed my beard as short as I could and cut my, er, 'talons'; I also found a razor blade to shave; I did all that in an empty clothes shop. I finally found a pharmacist shop with many of its stuff still in place and grabbed an assortment of vitamins (mostly C), multivitamins, minerals, antibiotics, alcohol, iodine, gauzes, and some solid soaps that I think were 'for the sensitive area'. 

  I had no idea which if any of these were still viable but I knew that it would be difficult to find any pharmaceuticals in the next few weeks. I also found it remarkable that I could discern what to get in near total darkness; my pupils must have have dilated fully. Based on the state of the stores in general the first survivors must have awoken just a couple of days before, three days max. That is quite a remarkable precision for the termination of the slumber, biologically speaking, given the slumber's total time span. It looks like everyone is going to wake up within a span of a week, ten days tops.

  After walking for a while I stopped to catch a breather and saw two men who were chasing a girl in her late teens. The girl asked for help but nobody responded; there was barely anyone in the vicinity anyway. It was clear that the two men -who were almost twice her size- wanted to catch her in order to rape her, and then maybe even kill her. "Think of your kawaii Fumiko-chan and let those two goons have their way with that girl; she might wake up at any moment!", my devil side said. 

  "No, you have to help her! Not because you are a hero but because it is the right thing to do; and besides, you can easily take on these two guys with your bokken; I doubt they have firearms", my angel side said. After a bit of internal conflict between my two sides, which lasted no more than half a minute (since the girl was running out of time), my angel side prevailed - fortunately or unfortunately.. 

  I shouted at the two goons to pick a fight with someone of their own size. "Haaaa?!? Teme ('you bastard', kind of) what is your freaking problem? This doesn't concern you at all. This is between us and the little missy here. Piss off loser, or we will kick your ass!", said one of the goons while passing his tongue over his lips as he referred to the "missy". Now I really started to hate these guys. 

  "Even if it's not my business I will make it so; I said leave her alone!", I said as I calmly approached with my bokken in hand. The other goon started laughing when he saw the bokken.

  "What are you going to do with that stick, spank us? Hahahaha!!". I thought at that moment was that I was very unfortunate that the first people I spoke with after 74 whole years were those two repulsive men. After that I kind of lost my temper and swiftly kicked their asses; I usually take care not to leave lasting injuries but this time I made an exception; I made sure that for 8 - 10 days both would be in a lot of pain. 

  They did not have firearms but both had pocket knives. They both lost them as soon as they started flipping them in their hand like bottom of the barrel trainee Yakuza goons. My sensei at the dojo (who was 8-dan by the way) would have been mad at me that I lost my temper -since, as a result, I could have made a mistake and hurt myself- but I was furious that right after waking up the first thing these imbeciles did was to try and rape a helpless teenage girl. 

  Apparently I was so furious that even the girl felt scared of me. 'Asahi-kun, that's not the best reaction toward someone's savior, calm the frack down', I thought. 'What if he is worse than them or he wants me for himself?', I imagined her thinking. When both goons were incapacitated and unconscious I apologized to the girl (from a distance) if I scared her and slowly placed my bokken in my back again. 

  "Are... are they alive?", she asked. "Yes, very much so. They will just feel quite a bit of pain for a week or so, but they will surely survive. Who knows, perhaps this lesson will stop them from ever trying this again - at least I hope it does". 

  "You moved so fast around them, I could barely see where you hit them! Ah! I'm so sorry! I'm very thankful for saving me! Arigato gozaimasu!", she said as she bowed enough to create an almost perfect right angle with her body. It appeared that her initial fear of me  subsided quickly. Perhaps it was due to my Kendo trained body language which was subtly yet 'loudly' emitting the message : 'I. Am. Not. A. Threat!'. 

  "Oh please, do not bow! You'll make me feel ashamed now!", I pleaded. "I just know a little bit of Kendo, it was no big deal". A little giggle escaped from her mouth. 

  "Ah, so this was Kendo. Are you alone as well"?, she asked. "Oh by the way, I haven't introduced myself. My name is Yuki Ruqa ('beautiful snow') and I woke up just a couple of hours ago."

  "Nice to meet you Yuki-chan, my name is Asahi Kaito. I also woke up a few hours ago".

  "You seem to be of a post-doc student age, so am I to call you Asahi-senpai?", she asked. 

  "That's fine with me", I said. Fumiko-chan still calls me that, despite having dated for almost a year; for those not acquainted with Japanese honorifics I mean that she hasn't dropped the rather respectful '-senpai' honorific.

  She hesitantly but steadily closed the distance between us and asked "Where are you going?" "I'm going to one of the dormitories of University of Tokyo in the hope of finding my girlfriend who fell into slumber in her dorm. It's in Mejiroday, about 5 km from the Uni., in Bunkyo City". When I said the word 'girlfriend' she looked a bit uneasy and she lightly bit her finger.

  "Yeah, I know it. I also used to go to the same university. I was at the prep college; you know, at my first year. I had not yet moved to a dorm though, I transited from home", she said while starting moving her body around playfully. 

  "It was my uni as well, and I usually stayed at the same dorm in Mejirodai during weekdays and at my flat in Ikebukuro during the weekends. I was just about to get my PhD in evolutionary biology when Naturecaust struck. So you must be 18 or 19, right?"

  "I am 19!", she almost protested.

  "Well, technically, as in biologically, you are now 21. And I am 26 instead of 24". I briefly explained the simple method I used to discover how much time had passed that I described above - briefly so that I do not bore her. She didn't seem bored though; on the contrary, she kept asking for more details. At some point I asked her whether she wanted to tag along to the dorms of the uni. We were about halfway there.

  "Yes, please! I am afraid to be on my own. Perhaps some of my fellow students survived, I might later go to check out the prep college. But for now I think I'll stick with you", she said. So we started walking a bit swiftly; it looked like it would dawn in about an hour and I wanted to reach Mejirodai before that. 

  I asked Yuki-chan if she had eaten anything and she said she had. She was thirsty though, so I gave a her a bottle of water. Now that I could discern her better I saw that she had very long hair (~30 cm longer than they used to be) and she had about the same height as Fumiko-chan, i.e. roughly half a head shorter than me. 

  She didn't wear rags, her clothes were fine. I assumed she replaced them. What we both realized was that we could walk longer distances, and rather fast, without getting particularly tired. Which was very strange, almost inexplicable really, after basically a 2-year fasting split over 74 years. Why? Why weren't we weaker and more feeble? Did the pollen affect us in other ways beside placing us in slumber? Another mystery to be investigated! 

  At long last we reached Mejirodai, at the crack of dawn. I walked for 13 km (a bit more than Yuki) but felt like I had walked only a couple of km, which is truly a full-blown biological puzzle. The buildings were structurally almost as solid as they were in 2025 -with just a few minor cracks- but nature had claimed large sections of the walls, covering them with carpets of greenery. 

  It appears that, at least, no major earthquake struck Tokyo during all these decades, despite the ominous predictions of most seismologists. If we woke up in a devastated Tokyo it would have been like adding insult to injury, with many slumbering people indoors having died in their sleep. Thank god it didn't come to that. 

  And here, my dear readers from 2199 - 2200, it is time for the first part of this rather long chapter of mine to come to a close. In the second part of the Gathering we will find out what happened to my kawaii Fumiko-chan and also meet the fourth member of the team.