Chapter 5: Takahiro
I opened my eyes to the cold touch of a solid object on my lips. At my side was the Misago, supporting my head while holding a cup to my mouth. She was smiling, but I could make out the anxiety in her eyes. I stared at her for a while as if not recognizing who she was.
"I'm still alive, huh?" I said.
She replied with her strange language. I couldn't understand most of what she was saying, but I caught the word for "climb" and "idiot" in her lecture. It was obvious she was angry for what I had done, and she was trying to express it in a way where I could still infer her meaning despite her alien words.
"I'm sorry I made you worry," I said. "Thank you for taking care of me."
From that day on, my days became a routine, and I knew I was gradually getting older. I began to avoid looking at my reflection, afraid of what I might see. I focused all my attention on the things outside of me. I even learned to give only fleeting glances to my hands and feet. I felt like an idiot, but who cared? I was just an ordinary kid who wanted to be immortal. Not seeing how my hair turned white and my skin developed wrinkles was at least a kind of net that kept me away from despair. The Misago refused to leave my side since my accident, so I took advantage of it. I talked with her, ate with her, and became close to her. It was an arduous and slow process, but it was worth it. It helped me accept the fact that I was trapped and the only way out was the growing tree at the center of the shaft.
I realized one day that I was conversing with the Misago in her language. When did I learn it? Time surely flew by so fast. The only thing I was sure of was it had already been several years since I fell into the shaft. The Misago said that her language was called English, and before the Great Tide, it was the most widely used language in the world. A once-in-a-million-years gravitational disturbance caused the moon to move abnormally close to Earth, which messed up the tidal patterns of the oceans. The resulting tragedy was called the Great Tide. Though the moon regained its natural distance from the Earth after fifteen years, the water lingered on land. Some scientists theorized that the celestial pull broke an enormous aquifer beneath the Earth's crust, but nobody could prove it. The Great Tide had sunk a large area of habitable land and with it two-thirds of the world's population. It exposed the ocean beds and submerged mountains, shoved islands and melted ice. Eighty percent of the animal kingdom became extinct due to the ensuing changes in the climate. Human civilization managed to live on, but the destruction of almost all the major energy production facilities and resources in the planet plunged it into a technological regression that was unheard of. After twenty years since the Great Tide, the human population further decreased to only around fifty million, and from there it continued to decline.
The Misago was, in fact, the first humanoid robot capable of thinking for herself. She was born in a nation called the United States of America during the time she called the Artificial Intelligence Epoch. It was fifty years before the Great Tide. After she was introduced to the world, other nations rushed to make their self-governing androids. In less than twenty years, the androids' population inflated so much that the United Nations, which according to the Misago was the primary arbitrator for global issues, signed a universal agreement declaring androids as part of the human race with equal rights, duties, and responsibilities. The agreement resulted in significant changes in the world's cultural, economic, and religious standards, and according to the Misago, it was the cause of the bloodiest and most protracted World War in the history of humankind. The Misago said that the Great Tide must have been nature's way of fixing the chaos and bringing back peace. It just went a little overboard.
The common androids were made of cells from tiny structures called nanomachines, which made them entirely artificial. However, the Misago was different. Nanomachines made up forty percent of her body, but the rest was made up of a substance called Kalis. Kalis came from a subaquatic plant that was discovered in the Marianas Trench by a radical scientist in the Philippines. The Misago described the Marianas Trench as the deepest part of the world's oceans in that period of history. The radical scientist, Pablo Gomez, named the subaquatic plant as Dios del Agua. It was what we knew as a Water God in the present day.
"The Alpha series was created using the same concept as mine," the Misago said. "But since the technology of manufacturing nanomachines was lost after the Great Tide, the modern androids were made using titanium frames, fiber optic nerves, and Kalis. The coffee shop girl is one of them."
I felt my chest constrict at the mention of Alpha. She must have already found a partner by now, an android boy that wouldn't grow old, unlike me.
"Father had used his DNA as my blueprint. He sold his discovery to America because his country did not have the money or the technology to explore it further. But his American team adored and respected him so much they gave him all the credits of my creation amidst his protests. My brown skin is a testament to the blood we share. And my face is almost identical to his, so you're virtually meeting him right now through me."
"I never thought that Sensei's assumption was wrong."
"She thought you were not a robot, but the last human being of the old world."
"No one can blame her. All significant records of my creation were destroyed in the flood."
I became a good diver, and I became as good as the Misago in catching fish. I improved the time I was able to hold my breath under the water, and I reached the level where I could swim for hours non-stop. Several times I tried to search for a way up the sheer cliffs, but I always failed. There was nothing but the same smooth, white surface all around, and I was not about to risk another climb. After a while, I gave up and accepted that my only hope of seeing land again was the tree at the shaft.
I could feel that my sense of time was gone because a year was now as short as a day for me. The growth of the tree suddenly seemed a lot faster than before. The highest branch had already reached two-thirds of the shaft's height without me noticing it. But what was the use? I knew I was an old man. Since I had decided to discard my clothes and walk buck naked as the Misago, the white hair on my crotch hadn't failed to remind me. Strangely enough, my skin still looked young. It didn't mean a thing to me. I once had seen an old man that seemed like only in his thirties except for his white hair. It was about the genes. Some looked younger than their age. I must have been one. Of course, I rejected the idea of checking my face on the water. I had never looked at my face since the day I decided not to do it. I wouldn't be able to take it.
I had expected it to happen sooner or later. Our friendly and playful frolicking heightened and became sexual. When I realized what was happening, I was so ashamed of myself that I did not talk with the Misago for a long time. I ate alone. I avoided her gaze. I could see the frustration on her face at my sudden change of behavior. I apologized to her internally. I couldn't live with the guilt of lusting over her young body. The Misago was beautiful. The way she moved was like that of a cat. If I lost focus even for an instant, if she finally had it and stood close, I knew I would jump her. The damage would be irreversible. I would tarnish her. I would destroy myself.
I felt a body on top of me one early morning. When I opened my eyes, it was the Misago. I couldn't see her face, because the sun had not risen high enough yet. Only a sixth of the shaft was illuminated.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"It's not you who should be asking that. I've had enough of your attitude."
"Please get off me."
"No. I can't take it anymore!" She took my lips. Despite of my reluctance, I found myself kissing back. "I know you feel the same, Takahiro."
It was the first time she called me by my name. I stared at her. If I still had my youth, it wouldn't matter so much. We would be on equal grounds. We would be selling our bodies and desires at the same price. She was young and pretty. I was old and disgusting. It was unfair.
"Take me. Take me, Takahiro," she said. "Give me my first experience."
"I'm an old man," I said. I couldn't take away my eyes from her.
She kissed me again. "I'm older than you."
I got caught up in her passion, and before long, I was returning her kiss. I rolled her onto her back while ravaging her mouth. She grabbed my head with her arms and my abdomen with her legs. The next thing I knew, I was inside her, thrusting my hips into her most precious part, getting cramps in my stomach because of so much pleasure. Her moans and my grunts echoed off the shaft. I let it loose inside her, and she came washing it down with her own. It could be from my accumulated frustrations or her stamina, but our bodies were both unable to stop. The most extended break we agreed on was as long as the time it took us to finish a single fish. And then we were at it again until it got dark. We lay side by side when we couldn't move anymore. She pointed at the tree and grinned at me. A few branches were hanging over the lip of the shaft. I shook my head and weakly smiled. Yeah, I knew. I did not have a use for it anymore. I would spend here the few remaining years of my life with this beautiful girl.
"Someone is waiting for you," she said.
I kissed her on the cheek. "I can't show up like this."
She looked me in the eye and grinned. Faintly reflected in her irises was my white hair. Thankfully it was dark enough that I couldn't make out my face.
"Do you still love her?" she said.
"I'm not even sure if I still remember her face correctly."
"It's not an answer."
"Alright! Yes! I still love her!"
"Goddamn it. Why do you have to bring that up?"
She rolled to her side and put her arm and leg over me. "Let's sleep. You have a long day tomorrow."
I woke up when I felt the sun on my skin. The Misago was not beside me. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, looking around. I called out her name, but only an echo replied. I looked up at the tree. The leaves were sparkling under the sun. It was probably noon. I waited and waited, but the Misago didn't show up that day.
I began to worry when the third day came, and she still had not appeared. Could she have left? I stared at the little sky I could catch through the end of the shaft. It was now possible to climb out anytime, but I didn't feel like trying. I searched all the rooms in the cave and didn't find a trace of her. Time was once again becoming palpable now that I was alone. I carved down each morning on the shaft's wall. Seeing the three rows of days ever stretching upward like a sadistic smile finally made me explode. I hurled my obsidian rock at the tree at the center of the shaft, bellowing curses in the air. I slumped down after a few minutes of venting and stared at my obsidian rock. It was then that I saw a recessed part in the tree's trunk. What I found in the niche was a translucent Water God. It eerily resembled the Misago. But it was not the Water God's similarity to the Misago that caught me off guard. It was my reflection on its skin. I stood frozen when I realized that the man staring back at me from the Water God's skin was as young as the boy who had left his village to search for immortality. Clutching my chest, I took a step back from the Water God. And that was when my eyes caught the engraved inscription on the tree's bark.
Takahiro, do you remember the day you fell in the shaft? Your second life began on that day, your second, everlasting life. You probably had a working hypothesis already at that time. And you probably got a passing glimpse of how this whole thing worked when I told you about the Kalis. If you think that it has something to do with the Water Gods, you are correct. It doesn't happen all the time, and I saw many times how it accelerated death, instead. But when I found how mortally wounded you were, I knew I didn't have anything to lose, so I made you drink some of its sap. Miraculously, you survived. Now, even if you fall from that height again, or you try to kill yourself, or you get blown apart, one way or another, you will be revived, and of course, you will never grow old. That's the gift of the Kalis which is now a part of you.
It was only yesterday that I learned how hopelessly idiotic you are. I mean, how in the world can someone miss something so obvious? I was already ready to burst out laughing when you refused me because you thought that you were an old man. But I'd also like to apologize for taking advantage of that. Don't get me wrong. I was just too aroused to pass up the chance. No strings attached, and I don't have that kind of feelings for you, okay? Besides, I think it's a fitting payment for what you owe me.
Anyway, our tree is now grown up, and you can go back to whoever is waiting for you. Don't conclude things based on what you imagine. You already wasted a lifetime doing that in here. See for yourself and only then can you make your final action. As for me, I'm going to see how the world turned out after eighty years of being cooped up in this cave with you. We will probably never see each other again.
Goodbye, Takahiro. I had fun. I hope you did, too.
I searched around to find more, but that was all there was. I sat down in front of the Water God. I never left that spot for three days until severe hunger forced me to get something to eat. I caught myself a fish and didn't bother to cook it. I had days like that when I wanted the pure taste of the sea in my mouth. I remembered the dying baby fox biting a Water God, and then the same baby fox came back healthy but with white hair. I blinked, turned to look at the Water God in the trunk of the tree, turned back to contemplate my fish, shook my head, and resumed eating. After seven days, I decided that the Misago—Melissa—would never come back. I scrubbed myself clean and dressed in black T-shirt and work jeans I had found in the officer's room. The clothes felt funny against my skin after all the years of trotting buck naked. Early the next morning, I left the cave without turning back. I never saw the Misago again.
I was overwhelmed by the should-be familiar scenery that I had not seen in over a century. The dense foliage and giant trunks of trees threatened to suffocate me. The soil was wet with dew, and dry leaves lay on top of it like a carpet. I strolled through the forest, crunching the leaves under my feet. In reaction to it, birds chirped after every intrusion of the sound. It took me several days to reach the plains and another week to find my first village. The roads had changed, and there were taller grass and a lot more ruins. But somehow, I saw more people and houses. I kept going until I finally arrived at our old gas station. The refueling stands were recently painted in white and red, and there were two now. The one thing that caught my attention was the absence of gasoline smell that had been ever present when I was a kid. I turned my head to the café where our old shack used to be and saw a young woman with purple hair pushing a wheelchair with a very old grandma in it. The grandma had red earrings that glittered under the fluorescent lamps, and the way her hair was prepped to one side reminded me of only one person.
"No…" I muttered as I approached. The young woman was about to say something but stopped herself when I put my arms around grandma. "Alpha, sorry I took so long."
"Umm, excuse me, sir?" The young woman said. "You see, I think you've mistaken Makki-oba-chan for someone else."
"Wait, did you say Makki?"
A cup fell and broke on the floor inside the café. A woman came rushing out.
"Takahiro…" said the woman.
I couldn't say anything. I stood frozen in place, unable to blink. Alpha came running to me. She embraced me so tight I thought my body would break. She wailed in my shoulder, calling my name over and over again. It was the familiar smell of her hair, the same lavender scent, that shattered my paralysis. I embraced her back and said, "I'm home."
I told Alpha everything. I made sure that nothing was left to feel guilty about in front of her. Alpha also told me all the things I missed during my eighty-year absence. She told me about Ojii-san's passing, the failed operation to make her human, and how she had lived in the city like an empty shell for several years afterward.
"When Sensei told me that the operation failed, I didn't know how to move on," Alpha said, gripping my hand tighter as we walked towards her house by the sea where she still ran her old café. "At that time, a part of me had already accepted that you were dead. I heard that Aoshi-san and a select few of his colleagues tried to search for you for months after the typhoon, but they were only able to bring back a notebook and a knapsack.
"For a year, I lived off the kindness of my friends. There was Kokone, Maruko, and Sensei. There was also Nai. I thought that my system was undergoing breakdown and I would die soon. I was even hoping for it to hurry up so that I could stop being a burden to my friends. It was the lowest point of my life. And it was all because of you." She playfully glared at me.
"Kokone volunteered to move here permanently to take care of me," Alpha went on. "Without her, I don't know what would have happened to me. She took care of all the chores at home while I spent my days on long walks, trying to understand my feelings. Kokone decided to close the café to keep a better eye on me. It was quite embarrassing, but Sensei shouldered all our living expenses. I became quite the baby who even needed someone to lie next to me in bed at night.
"Nai began visiting me here after a few months, bringing all sorts of gifts to cheer me up. It was quite annoying, to tell you the truth, because, during that time, I wanted to be left alone. But he persisted. He's a quiet guy, you see, but he still tried his best to make conversation with me. No one dared, not even Kokone, who was mindful of her words around me. I came to the point where I looked forward to seeing him."
"We formed a sort of a relationship, and it lasted for several months. But in the end, it didn't work out. He was the reason, really. I thought I was beginning to forget about you, and I was starting to get used to the idea of spending my life with him. But one day, he asked me out of nowhere if I still loved you. He already knew what my answer would be, but he still went on to ask about it. I told him, yes, and he could never replace you in my heart." Alpha smiled and looked up at the sky. "You know what his reply was? 'Then why are you trying to act like you don't?' That's what he said. Why was I trying to act like I didn't?
"Hearing those words was like a wakeup call for me. I remembered my promise to you that I would wait however long it took. I knew there was the possibility that you were already gone, that you would never be able to come back however desperately I wished for it. But I decided to deal with the pain when it came. And so here I am."
"I couldn't even do that much," I said. "I concluded early on that I would die before I could go out of that shaft. I even slept with the Misago because I thought that there was no chance that I could see you again."
Alpha pulled me to a stop. "I was in a similar episode, too. I almost did the same with Nai if he did not stop me. Look, Takahiro, there's nothing more important to me than having you back. I don't care if you did it with the Misago, okay? Besides, she saved your life and made you immortal. It's more than enough compensation for me for that one time."
Alpha leaned close and kissed me. "Were you trying to say that it was more than that? That you actually fell in love with the Misago?"
"No, no, of course not! You're the only girl I've ever loved, okay?"
I pulled her into an embrace. "I'm sorry. I won't bring that up anymore."
I kissed her. "I love you."
Alpha smiled. "And I love you, too. By the way, I can eat meat now, though not that much. Kokone said that she was planning to cook some shrimp today…"
As I savor Alpha's soft hand in mine, my eyes strayed to the shadow of the forest. I caught sight of a Water God tinted in orange by the sunset. I smiled at it and whispered my thanks.