5 - Denial
Why is that surprising? I should be something - it feels the natural thing - but I don't feel like I have been something for some time. Maybe forever? I don't know. What is even this talking and talking that I am doing with no one - it's thinking, right, it's called thinking, but why is it that it feels familiar? I am sure I never did anything like it.
Or anything else.
I open my, my - eyes, right - and see a place that looks poor, dishevelled, a miserable hovel unfit for life. Poor compared to what? I can't remember. There's shacks made of mud and barely propped up with sticks, dirty and ragged canvas used in place of door and sometimes even roof, and holes in the walls as windows. A flock of dirt-covered children runs around in a roughly circular empty space around which most huts are arranged, and they don't seem to have toys or, in some cases, even clothes to cover themselves with. Wait, should I have clothes? I don't know. I don't have any. I feel the slight sting of the cool wind on my naked skin, from the tips of my toes to my breasts and my neck, and instinctively, I feel like I should cover myself. It's a strange sensation, because it's at times a violent urge that makes me feel deeply uneasy, and at times just this alien thought that makes no sense to me, that I can look at and wonder why should it be mine.
"Hey, there's a new one! Come look!"
The children run to me, form a little crowd, some start poking at me, touching me as if to see if I'm real. They get quickly shooed away by the adults, who arrive soon behind.
"Here, come little dearie, come. You must be cold."
Cold, yes, that is the sting I feel. But why? I look up in the sky, at the pale, bright disc in the middle of that one blue field, as if asking it a question.
"The sun doesn't do much here," answers for me the crone that's taken me under her arm and is leading me to a hut, after hurriedly tossing another filthy rag over me as a temporary cover. "We're far, far from the heart of this world. We're at the edges. It gets cold and strange this far. Any further, you shouldn't go."
I nod, even if I don't understand a thing. Understanding. What a strange expectation. I understand nothing, right now, and can't imagine what it would feel like to.
"The cold won't kill you, of course, dearie. But it's unpleasant all the same. Here, sit," and she points me at a rustic stool cut out of a tree stump.
"Now, what's your name, hm?"
Name. Name, name, it's like, a thing that people have, right? Except I don't. Am I people? Do I have one?
"M-" I start, then give up and shake my head.
"Not even that? Do you remember anything?," insists the old woman, patient.
"No," I manage to say. It's not really true, I remember a lot. I remember how to speak. I don't remember how I learned, or what is speaking, except that it's something I can do - it just comes natural to me. I get the sense of what speaking is as I watch and hear myself do it.
She shakes her head. "Ah, you must have been one of those. A Hollow. Poor thing. Always like this, at the beginning."
"Is there-," not quite right, but it will do, "-like me?"
"Are there any others like you? There are, there are a few," says the woman. "Not many, though. Some of those who were Hollows still remember something. But some just forget it all in one go, away, washed away with their sins. Maybe it's better like that."
She calls someone from outside. A little girl has brought a large, loose sack with holes cut into it. The old woman helps me putting it on, my head fitting in the largest hole and my arms through smaller ones. It's not haute cuture - what? What's that? - but it will do for now. The cold, that had already been less pungent after I stepped into this hut, recedes yet another bit.
"Me, I don't remember any more either," continues the old woman. "But I remember remembering, and I remember forgetting. There was this one person I wanted to really remember, I though, there is no way I will forget, I fought so hard, but instead-"
She shakes her head again.
"It's better this way," she concludes. "Welcome, dearie. You'll be with us here, now."
"Where is this?," I manage to ask. "Here?"
"This is the Rukongai, dearie. The outskirts of Soul Society. Where the dead people are."
There is not much to do here. We do not need to eat, so there is no need to farm, hunt, or forage. We do not need to drink, though we do have a well, as some people wash themselves. It's not needed, because we do not get sick, but dirt sticks to our skin all the same. Sometimes new people arrive, and sometimes we build new huts for them. The mud and stones are plentiful, the wood rare, as the land is barren, but sometimes it can be found - if enough people can be bothered to go searching. Clothes are even harder to find, as all fabric has to come from closer to the heart of the land, the Seiretei, where things are made. We dress in the dregs of the dregs that somehow trickle their way here. But if nothing can be found, there's not much harm in not building anything and sleeping naked under the sky. It's cold, sure, but that's all it is. It won't kill you. We can't die.
Out there, to the west, are the Hollows. That's where the world gets even colder, and we do not go looking for wood there. They are hungry and have long claws - all we can do if we meet one is run. They tell me I was one of them once, and then must have been purified by a Shinigami. I can hardly think about it - they repulse me, and I am mortally afraid of them. The one time I saw one, from afar, I felt chills like no cold wind has given me yet. It had grabbed a child who had been roaming a bit too far from the village, was holding his body in a clawed hand and munching it, with a creepy, fixed smile. Sometimes, new people mention a longing for when they could eat, but I am forever disgusted by the thought of the act, because that time is the only time I've ever seen it done that I can remember.
Every day is a continuous nothing, and every week, and every month and year. I do not recall how long has it been, as I saw no reason to keep count. No one does. Those with memories make it sound like it used to be different, back when we were alive. I was alive too at a point, I suppose. I don't know if it would be good to remember; all those who do seem to suffer. Some lament how awful life here is, and to them forgetting seems a relief. Other struggle and cry as they feel like they're losing themselves, until nothing is left. I do not understand that, but I wish I could. Perhaps it would be one different day, perhaps I would change if I could remember.
I try, once. I spend time to find a tree stump the right size, wide even if pretty thin. With a stone I carve a concave hole in it, hitting and scraping away the wood pulp. I found some white limestone, so I grind it to dust and cover the inside of the wood with it, then hit again with the stone and taper over it so that it will stick a bit. Then, when it's done, I go get some water from the well and pour it in, and the small pool manages to send something back - an image of a face. My face, that I have never seen. Large eyes, a thin nose, and wavy hair of a warm brown. Immediately, something does flash into my mind - but it's not images, it's feelings. A sense of missing, a sense of wanting, wanting to eat, to chew, munch, swallow, devour, and with it a loathing for myself, a desire to end it all before I indulge that terrible lust.
I toss the makeshift mirror away, with a brusque gesture. The water spills on the dirt and my image is now just a puddle of mud. I don't mind. If this is remembering, maybe it's better if I don't.
Let the days be the same forever.
The days keep being the same for a long time, I don't know how much. Then one is different. To the east is the Seiretei, though I have never been there. Sometimes, very rarely, one or a few of the Shinigami from there come here on a Hollow hunt. We usually avoid them; they're haughty, short-tempered, and carry sharp swords. But that is the most we see of that distant, alien land.
Today, though, a child screamed to look, and we all did in the end, following each other's example. What we saw was new and incomprehensible. A light bright enough to replace the Sun and cast shadows even this far away, high above the ground. Now it's gone, though. Some of the souls keep looking, perhaps expecting new changes, greater ones. I don't care. It was probably a Shinigami thing we're not meant to understand. The days will go on, as unremarkable as before. I am sure this will be the extent of the stories we'll ever be able to tell.
I am sewing together some scraps of fabric using a wooden splinter as a needle, sitting outside, when I notice something weird. It's dark and small, flying in the sky, still distant. We do see flying Hollows sometimes, but this doesn't look like one; I can't see any wings, and it moves in a perfect straight line. Besides, it comes from the east, and there's no Hollows there. I call out.
"What's that thing?"
"Huh? Well, that's - uhm. I'm not sure."
The object comes closer, and now I notice something else. It shines a light of sorts. A blue, thin, bright needle that keeps zipping right and left at great speed, sweeping large patches of land. I don't see anyone running away, though, or fearing the thing. Many look up, but that is all we do. I don't feel the need to run either. We run from Hollows; with them, something deep tells us to, and our legs move even before our minds have decided. Not that running does much when they're close enough. But this? It might be dangerous, perhaps. But it's not worth thinking much about. We will find out when it's here.
The moment comes and goes without any drama, in the end. The thing flies overhead, its light keeps zipping. I note that it's not doing so randomly or in a fixed pattern; rather, it moves on each one of us, points for a second, then moves on to the next one. There is no pain, no feeling at all from when the light touches me. Just a single moment in which I see a small blue spot on the palm of my hand. I close my fingers trying to grasp it, but it only ends up on their back instead, and then slips away. The mysterious object flies away, and again, the experience ends. The forever nothingness returns for more days, and weeks, and months.
But now many suspect more oddities might show up. I hope they don't.
They do. One day, a group of five Shinigami arrives, accompanied by another one of those flying things. It is basically just a black box hovering without any wings, now that I can see it from up close. Shinigami aren't a completely new sight, but this time the different thing is that they're not interested in Hollows; they're interested in us. We've heard stories from nearby villages already, because rumours travel faster than even Death Gods. After the flying things have swept the lands, the Shinigami always follow. They talk differently, do different things, now. Some of them are polite, some of them up and swear that they used to be Rukongai citizens only weeks before, that they've been enlisted because everyone can now if they want to. That things are changing, and a big transformation is coming for us all. That life will be better. There are crazier rumours, even. Some of us are hopeful, they eagerly wait for their coming. Others are suspicious and talk of resisting, of fighting, as if that was even possible. I do not care either way. If I could have chosen, I would have perhaps rather hoped that this moment would never come. But of course, I can not choose.
The Shinigami group is varied. Three are obviously new recruits; they're nice and smiling and immediately start playing with the children, carrying them on their shoulders or play-fighting them with wooden sticks turned into swords for the occasion. The other two stay away and look with a certain disdain. One of them is the leader.
"We are here to carry out duties for the Soul Census," he announces, without bothering explaining what the Soul Census is. "Your area is still under processing. But we have come to fetch one particular soul. A woman."
There is some murmuring. Some people are unhappy. One young man darts forward; he grovels to the feet of the Shinigami and starts pleading to be taken away, that he wants to enlist to the Academy too.
"Stay away, you cur!"
The kick pushes the man away, and immediately everyone else reels back.
"I said your area is still under processing," repeats the Shinigami. "Albeit if it was for me, you would-"
"Fifth Seat Chōsokabe, this is unacceptable behaviour," suddenly speaks a voice. It's none of the Shinigami - the others all clearly aren't high ranked enough to talk that way to their leader. No, the voice, I realise, comes from the flying box. It is also pointing one of its light beams at the person it's speaking to, who has frozen as soon as he was called out. "You know what I've told you all about dealing with Rukongai residents. Now either you can actually go through with it, or-"
No more is needed. The Shinigami bows his head and bends over, extending a hand to the man he just kicked down to help him get up. "I apologise for my unforgivable actions," he mutters, with gritted teeth.
"Sorry that we can't take applications right now!," shouts one of the nicer recruits, stepping forward. "Really, guys, it's just a matter of weeks now. We're getting to you. But around here there's apparently someone who's really important for, huh, some reason. You ever seen her?"
As he says that, the box draws a picture in mid-air. That would be strange enough, that light somehow manages to create such a perfect portrait without a canvas or paint. But that's not the thing that hits me the most. The face is one I've seen - once. It's a young looking woman with large eyes, a thin nose, and wavy hair of a warm brown.
I don't much resist being taken in and carried away. It wouldn't do anything good, so, I go along. The trip back takes the better part of a day, and for most of it I see nothing but more huts and dust like the one I've always known, and more ragged souls. Then the scenery changes a bit; first come some villages that are completely empty and silent, with only the wind blowing through open windows and making ragged tents dance. Later, there's similar villages abuzz in work, where the mud huts are being smashed down with hammers by workers, and as we go further and closer to the Seiretei - now its white walls shine in the distance - I can witness all stages of a transformation, with new foundations being dug, new roads being laid, better and shinier buildings being erected, houses with gardens watered by mysterious springs that now appear everywhere, and parks, all sorts of strange architectures, and lights I don't understand that come out of lanterns without fire or smoke. I don't understand? Do I? I've seen them somewhere, or something like it, once. They run on a thing - something - it doesn't matter.
"We're not going to Seiretei," explains one of my Shinigami escort, almost apologetic. "The Census Centre was built right outside it. You'll see. Do you know it was built in one day?"
I don't know, of course. I stare emptily. One day seems - a short time, I guess? Maybe?
"By Lord Kurosaki, of course," he continues. "I'm sure you'll hear a lot about him. Though he doesn't want to be called that."
But anything I've seen built here seems equally impossible - nothing you could do with mud and sticks like I'm used to, for sure. Or it looks quite possible, to another corner of my mind, that remembers - knows something. When we reach the Census Centre, though, that gives pause to both sides of my mind. It is a simple block-like structure, just a cube, but its size is staggering. I can't estimate it; it simply defies my ability to take it in in full. It gets closer and closer for hours before we finally make it to the door at the base, and from there it's all a maze of corridors, stairs, and some quick rides inside strange metallic rooms whose doors close, and after a little jolt and a few seconds of a hissing noise, reopen revealing a different space. I quickly lose track of any movements, and couldn't tell where I am with respect to the entrance.
Finally we enter a single, unremarkable door with a letter and number pasted to its front, in a corridor of identical such doors stretching forward and backward to what looks like infinity. It's a small, white office. It's full of wonderful things I've never seen. It's also quite unimpressive and like a number of other such offices I've seen. But I've never seen any? Anyway, my chaperone leads me to a chair in front of a desk, then stands guard nearby. After a short while, someone else walks in, but this time it's not a Shinigami. She's not dressed in neither black kimono nor rags, the only two getups I've ever seen any soul wear yet. Instead, she's got a strangely cut, pink-grey set of clothes that feels weirdly appropriate for this setting. She takes my hand and I weakly go along with her shaking it, returning her smile; then she sits down at the desk I'm in front of and begin to talk.
"Dear- how do you prefer to be called?"
I don't really prefer anything. I shake my head.
"Do you mind if I use M. then?"
"Very well. Dear M., I'm so glad that you've arrived to us safe and sound - we've been searching for you for a long time. I know this must all be sudden and confusing for you; it is for everyone who comes here. I'm here to help you going through it and forge your road ahead. How are you feeling?"
How am I feeling? Nothing special.
"It's warm," I comment.
"Ah, do you want me to turn down the heat?"
"No, I mean, it's good," I look away. "It's cold where I live. Here it's warm."
"Oh, I see. Good then," she keeps smiling at me, a light, simple gesture that doesn't suggest amusement or happiness, just a sense of welcoming and kindness. We have those out there in the cold outskirts, but often they're in short supply. Not because the people are bad, just because they're all so weary, all the time. "You've been through the building of the Soul Census to come here. Do you understand what we are doing here?"
I shake my head.
"Do you have any memories of who you were or what you did before you came here? To Soul Society, I mean, not to the Census."
"I was told I must have been a Hollow," I reply. "I don't remember anything."
"Yes, that happens often. Don't worry, and don't feel bad about it."
"Why should I?"
"Some people arrive here thinking they should try their best to remember something, maybe to make our job easier. M., you may have some flashes of insight or reminiscence about the world you experienced when you were alive, things you wouldn't know or recognise if you had only lived in Rukongai. That is normal. However, the world you remember has changed quite a bit since then. Four years ago, there was a big battle in Seiretei. You may remember seeing a bright flash of light."
"Four years?" I'm somewhat confused at the thought. I guess it was. So many days.
"Yes, it has been that long," she smiles again. "I understand keeping track of time in Rukongai is not usually done. Anyway, after the battle was over, Soul Society came under new leadership, and a number of sweeping reforms have been enacted, to make both this world and the one of the living better for all souls. Part of that is the Soul Census. For thousands of years, souls were left to their own devices, to roam and fend for themselves in whatever corner of Rukongai they happened to be dropped in. That is now changing. We're using organisation, modern technology, and the power of something called the Hogyoku to give everyone a better existence, as well as two important choices. I'm here to help you make the first one."
All of that seems really momentous, but as I only have bits and pieces of fragmented understanding of how the world of the living was, and none at all of Seiretei, it is not very impressive. I struggle to grasp what it means, then I think back to the nice houses with gardens I've seen being built coming here, which did seem at least more comfortable than our huts back home. A future without cold sounds nice, I guess.
"The first choice," continues the woman, "is whether you want to remember your time as a living human."
"No," I answer, thoughtlessly. I've long decided I don't care about any of it. The woman is taken aback for a moment.
"I understand that's how you would feel right now, M.," she says, "and our job is to help your decision, not force it. That said, though, I think you should really listen to what I can tell you about this all before you make your choice. Are you ok with listening? Just that, no strings attached."
I hesitate a bit, then nod. I'm not in a rush to go anywhere after all.
"For some people, remembering can be an unpleasant experience, due to the nature of their lives. And for others we can never know beforehand, because we know nothing about their lives. The more time has passed since their death, the more common that is. You, however, are a special case. We know very well who you are, and have sought you out for that reason. I can't outright disclose to you the details of your life, as that could trigger remembrances that are best elicited in other ways, but I can assure you that right up the moment of your death, you were living a happy, satisfying life, with a husband and children that you loved deeply. All of them are waiting for you."
Husband. Children. These seem the stories from someone else's life - I've heard them told from the occasional newcomer who still remembered. Would it be nice? It sounds nice. But so distant from me.
"The process is painless, and of no danger to you. The memories are stashed away, suppressed, but not erased, for someone who's been here for such a short time as you. We have ways of unlocking them, and they will not change or overwrite what you've taken in in these years here. You will have a whole existence to remember, instead of just what you did here."
But I know it would bury me, because I am so thin - so light - so empty. I can tell. I remember that day I looked into a mirror made of water, the feelings it called back. If I say no, maybe I can get one of those nice houses. Or maybe go back to the outskirts. To the mud and dust, the cold, and the days that are all always the same.
"I'll do it," says my voice, as a nostalgia for things I don't remember takes control of me out of nowhere.
"I'm glad that's what you decided," the woman's smile grows more than just warm and kind, it grows happy. "I am sure you will be happy you did. We can talk more about the way we will go from here, then."
I could take it back, but a part of me still does not want to, and the other doesn't have the strength or will to really fight it off. What would be the point? I let it happen. The woman starts explaining things to me, and I listen.
The first attempt is made, I am told, by using the power of the Hogyoku. The Hogyoku is controlled by someone who is called, alternatively, the Master of the Hogyoku, the Programmer, or Lord Kurosaki - as it had been mentioned to me once already. We don't really use surnames in Rukongai. But I know what a surname is, and I feel sure that I know that one, for some reason. They take me and many other souls like me in a large room. Here there are many of those flying black boxes, like the one I saw back in Rukongai when they came to fetch me. The explanation is full of strange words, and even when given to me as simply as possible, I still don't get all of it. There is something called the Hogyoku, that is clear by now, and it is really powerful but only in a small range around it. The Hogyoku is at all times with its Master, and the Master is holed up somewhere that is very secret and very well protected because he's really important. So the Hogyoku couldn't do anything useful. But the Hogyoku is also really important to do all this census thing, so they have built these boxes, and the boxes connect to the Hogyoku who can somehow act through them and project its power even very far from its position.
We're told to wait in the room. The precise standing doesn't matter, we're just a formless crowd. The flying boxes zap around, stand in front of someone for a short while, projecting a beam of light over them, then move to the next one, as assistants come to the help of the soul who was just enlightened - literally and hopefully metaphorically as well. Many appear confused at first, some shout, many look happy or sad but either way more full as they walk out than they were before. Some remain there, however, still in a stupor, and are led to a different door. They've told us this too; it doesn't work for everyone at the first attempt. In some cases, memories can be suppressed too deeply, and even when awakened, it's like the mind refuses to acknowledge them. There's other things to try, if that happens.
The box finally comes to me. Someone's walking around with it, giving the people it's about to shine on instruction. They tell me to stay relaxed, to not worry and simply be still, and they stand there as support ready to help me if anything happens. Then the black box hovers right above me, the beam turns on, and it begins.
The woman was bloodied, exhausted and in despair. The deepest wound on her weren't the multiple cuts across her arms, the marks of fangs on her right calf, or the chunk of her left shoulder that seemed to have been cleanly bit off by a beast larger than any that ought to exist on Earth. The deepest wound had to be whatever she had inside, whatever was pushing her to take the arrow of blue light she'd formed from her hand and pointing it straight at her own throat.
"Don't do it," said the man nearby, walking slowly towards her, hands raised to show he did not mean to restrain her. He wore a black kimono, and had tossed on the ground a samurai sword, just to come close unarmed.
"You tell me that? After what you told me about us? About what I do?," the last words were spat out with deep loathing. "Isn't this what you came for?"
"No! Well, yes! But it's not what I'm staying for, right now." He stepped closer. "Look, I'm not the best Shinigami in Soul Society, so to speak. I always find ways to lounge around here among the living. Guess I got a taste for it. Point is, I think... I understand you humans a bit more than most of my colleagues. You didn't do anything wrong."
"I did plenty wrong. I killed - I destroyed people! You don't know how many!"
"You weren't told. You thought you were just protecting people from Hollows, and you were. But they didn't teach you everything, I don't know how Quincys do things or why. I didn't mean to push you to this. Please."
His hand touched hers, and gently pushed it down, without meeting much resistance. With a deep sigh, the woman ended up letting her arm fall, and the arrow of light burst into sparkles.
"How do I go on?," she muttered. "What do I even do?"
The other smiled and gave her a push, helping her to get back on her feet. "I'm sure you will figure something. The shock will pass, and even if it never feels all that good, it gets better. Trust me, I know."
"You're a Captain of Soul Society," the woman replied. "I'm sure that's easy for you."
"Are you calling me heartless?," he pretended to be wounded at that - though perhaps it really stung a bit. "Then why would I have saved you?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. Right now it feels like it would have hurt less to just be killed. Why did you?"
He looked at her, and had to fight back to keep his smile from spreading a bit too wide and looking a bit too dorky. "It's not the best moment to talk about that," he mumbled, dismissively. "Come. Let's get you a coffee."
The present rams back into my senses with the force of a - one of those metal things that travel on rails, what's-it-called. That. I'm back in the room, but I have no grand revelation. I am still M., and nothing more. All I have is one more memory, a memory of a woman I don't know, and a Shinigami that she met. The attendants next to me look up, but immediately, crossing my eyes, they understand. One shakes his head and comes forward to accompany me away, while the rest of the group moves past, still followed by the hovering black box.
The next step is a personal meeting with someone who, I'm told, is very good at fixing people's memories - among other things. I have to wait, though, because she's busy, and there's a lot of people. But it turns out, not that much. Someone asks about me, someone else talks, there's whispers and very urgent messages running around. Only a few hours after my ordeal with the box I'm back into an office, a different one from my first one, but that looks just the same. There's a different woman waiting for me. A woman, or rather, a girl, barely approaching adulthood. She's got this beautiful, long hair of a colour similar to mine, a warm, bright brown. A sweet smile, kind eyes.
"Hello," she says, and seems to hold back more when she sees me. She hesitates a bit, then offers me her hand and leads me to a chair, and she sits in front of it, still holding me.
"My name is Orihime," she introduces herself. "I will help you with your next attempt to bring your memories back."
"Pleasure to meet you," I mutter.
"So, how do you feel, M.?," she asks. "I am sorry that we don't have more time to talk before trying this. How did the previous attempt go for you?"
"I was-" I try to look for the words. No, not I. It didn't feel like me. "There was a woman, with an arrow of light. And, and a Shinigami. He was, well-"
I try to think about him. I can't quite put him into focus. I end up blurting out the first feeling that surfaces up to my mind.
Orihime giggles. "Oh, I guess you are remembering a bit, then. Well, that's good."
"I am?," I stare blankly. "Did you know me? Do you know the people in my memory?"
She hesitates a bit. "Well, I know the Shinigami," she says finally. "I've only heard of you, and saw pictures of you. After all I'm-"
And then she trails off and mumbles something unintelligible, after which she just claps her hands. "Sorry, I shouldn't say too much! Let's just start, then, if it works for you."
I shrug. "What will it be like?"
"Don't worry, nothing to be afraid of!," she hurries to reassure me. "You've already been through the Hogyoku. That sort of... rearranges your soul. You can think of the memories as connected to your consciousness by threads that have been snipped. The Hogyoku can tie those back. It could do more, but Ichi... the Master is worried about pushing it too far, because it's a complex tool. He wants to give people back their memories, not create new ones, or alter their personality."
"Are you like the Master?"
Orihime is almost alarmed at the suggestion. "Oh, not at all! I have only a few specific abilities, but one works very well for cases like yours. If tying the threads back isn't enough, maybe because your mind doesn't feel safe following them, then the next thing we can try is to heal them back to how they were before. It's very complicated, but I have a way of doing it."
"Will I go back to how I was in the past?," I ask. I'm not especially passionate about it. It doesn't feel scary. "Will I forget all I did afterwards?"
"Oh, no! I actually still will have some help from the Hogyoku," she picks something from her desk and shows it for me - it's like a smaller version of the flying box, a small enough black cube that it can fit in one hand. "It'll guide me and help me focus my power, so I can only restore precisely the things that need restoring. So, do you want to give it a try?"
I wait for a second, then nod a weak assent.
"Perfect. Stay still, please. And don't worry, whatever you see happening, it will not hurt you."
She closes her eyes, draws a deep breath, and puts her hands forward. From the one holding the black cube comes out a beam like the ones I've seen already, and it begins scanning me. Then her two blue flower hairpins twinkle, and a moment later, they burst into petals, which assemble themselves with long streaks of light and sparkles into a host of little flying creatures. Two of the creatures fly straight towards me - no, inside me, I realise with a gasp, as they pass through my skin like smoke through fabric.
The woman now was kneeling on the floor, in front of the same Shinigami as before. She wore a colourful yukata decorated with a flower motif; the room where they were sitting in, by comparison, was pretty drab. Just a regular, bare room from some empty apartment.
"You haven't told me yet why the fancy getup yet," asked the Shinigami, smiling. "Not that I don't think it looks great on you!"
"A sense of ceremony, I guess. It feels like this ought to be an important moment."
"Oh. Very well then, I'll make it solemn," replied the other, with a playful grin.
He raised his sword to the ceiling, after unsheathing it. The blade got stuck into the plaster.
The woman giggled. "Allow me to try that again," said the man, with a small bow, while leaving the sword hanging for a second. He pulled it with a tug, then put it in front of himself, this time horizontally.
"O powerful sword of my soul!," he shouted, hamming up his act with great gusto. "Upon thy power I call, and upon thy power I invest the protection of this young, defenceless maiden-"
"Stop it!," said the woman, now laughing between one word and another. "You're making this into a big dumb joke, as you always do!"
"-in thy power cloak her, and in thy power hide her, and in thy power invest... do the... ah, do the thing where she can't be found..."
She laughed harder.
"Look, I'm coming up with this as I speak, ok? So, where was I... oh, right. Anyway, o sword of my soul, we had a lot of adventures together. You saved my life a lot of times and cut down a lot of assholes that needed some cutting. But here we part ways, for a long, long time. I always resented you a bit. Yeah, I know, sorry sword, but it's true. Your Bankai, let's face it, was never that good. I never could find a good use for it in combat. I couldn't do any of the fancy stuff the other captains could. But as it turns out, your Bankai was just right for this one occasion. And maybe that just means it was fate. So thank you."
The woman calmed down a moment and wiped a tear - not because she was that moved, it was from laughing so much before. But the atmosphere had suddenly become a bit more serious.
"And now get off your shiny, sharpened ass and do your job!," shouted the Shinigami, tossing that seriousness out of the window for good, and eliciting one last laugh. "BANKAI! MU ENGETSU!"
The sword dissolved in his hands, exploding in a black mist; at the same time, the colour drained from the Shinigami's kimono, leaving it pure white. The mist then swirled around the woman. She seemed wary of it but not scared, as the smoke formed a thin layer around her, following perfectly her shape, to then collapse on her and disappear under her skin.
"It's done," announced the Shinigami, wiping a drop of sweat from his forehead. "While kept up, my Bankai completely drains my Shinigami powers, while providing perfect shielding for the spiritual energy of a soul of my choosing. So as long as I'm alive, no one will be able to track you down any more, and certainly not identify you as Quincy. You'll have no more trouble with Soul Society."
"Wait, you-" the woman hesitated. "You hadn't told me anything about losing your powers. Just that you had a solution to my problem."
"Oh, that. Don't worry! I already told you that I plan to stay here... not like my superiors in Soul Society would be happy with what I did, no? I'm getting a gigai from Urahara that will lock my soul in place and stop the powers from returning, so you'll keep the protection. I'm thinking of opening a clinic."
"This is huge. No, scratch that, this is enormous!," said the woman. She had not gotten yet up from the floor, and instead of doing so, she simply leaned forward, landing on her hands, and pushed closer to the Shinigami, who froze in place. His face flushed a bit. "I'm getting a straight answer from you today. I get that you had a change of heart about killing me and all, but you didn't have to go this far just for that. You keep seeing me and inviting me to walk around the city."
"Well, yes, I need to familiarise myself with the place, so being a guide is the least you can-"
"You asked me to help you study."
"As I said, I want to become a doctor, so-"
"And now you do this for me, so I want an answer from you. Why go so far?"
She waited, dead serious, eyes fixated in his. He looked away. "It's just-"
"No more jokes!," she intimated, wagging a finger.
He sighed. Smiled.
"Because I love yo-" he started saying, and couldn't even finish before she was already kissing him.
The resistance of my memories to be jogged is proving to be a problem. I can tell as much, even if everyone is very kind when talking about it with me. They are gentle in dealing with me, but it's clear that it's the other that they really would want, and the other is someone I don't yet understand well. I have seen bits and pieces of her life, I have seen her interactions with the Shinigami I don't know, and all of that feels familiar in some way, but also, has not shone any light on the rest. Everyone expects that at one point there will be a watershed moment, that one particular memory will trigger all the others, that is how apparently it usually works, but it's not happening for me. Instead, each memory is dragged out of the back of my mind painfully, slowly, like pulling a weed from a field, and after you're done, there's still a whole lot of other weeds. I don't know why this is. To hear some of those I've talked with, it may be because of a block, a reticence on my part. Like I am afraid to remember, and I need something positive to cling to, something that will make me truly believe it is worth doing. I think I accepted the idea of remembering, but maybe that is not the whole story. That I accepted it does not mean that I particularly want to. It simply doesn't seem real to me. I have had a few more sessions, seen a few more flashes of the life of that other woman. It seems nice, but not something that I could have. I can't imagine myself in it.
Today there will be another attempt. I don't know anything about it, except that it will be special. There's a lot of excitement and chaos surrounding it. I did not get much in the way of an explanation; it seems like surprise has to be part of it. But whatever it is, it does not concern only me. People seem nervous or expectant. I'm led to a new room, and unlike the usual ones, it's not an office in the regular sense, there's no desk, instead it's furnished a bit more like the living room of a house. A living room? I have never been in a house with one of those, have I? But I can tell those things apart - a sofa, an armchair, a kotatsu - at a glance. I know what they're for. I know that sofa has a worn out side, and the filling always comes out of one hole in small tufts, no matter how much we repair it. Are all sofas made like this? No, wait, do I know this one? I sit on it and gaze around, unfocused, while trying to feel the texture of its fabric under my fingers.
The memories try to push their way in. I can feel them, right at the edge of my awareness - way too many things make too much sense, each of these objects is familiar to me, this can not be a coincidence. This is a place I know, or a recreation of it. But I have this - this reluctance, I don't want to let them. I don't remember anything clearly, but it's as if there was a shadow of a great pain over them all, a great fear, one that I would rather recoil from. I think for a moment to just make a mad dash out of here, out of the Census, back to the furthest reaches of Rukongai, to go live out eternity in that blank and pointless place, and stay blank and pointless myself.
Then the door opens.
The first person to walk in, I recognise from my memories. He's the Shinigami, the one I saw helping the other woman - the other me. He gives me a nod and a faint smile, and steps aside. Behind them follow three teenagers. Two girls roughly the same age, one blonde, one with black hair, and an older boy, tall, with orange hair.
The woman was lying on the ground. She was drenched in blood, the skin and flesh on her back torn by claws. The creature that attacked them was gone now, but she knew she wouldn't make it anyway. She knew that it would be worse than just not making it. She could feel the creature's poison seeping in her, not just her body, but her very soul. She knew very well what it meant.
But that was all right.
"Mom!," screamed the boy she was hugging under her. He had bright orange hair. And he was perfectly unharmed. "Mom, I'm sorry, I'm going to call for help-"
No, wanted to say the woman, no, stay here for this last moment, there's no help that can come fast enough anyway. But she couldn't say anything really, her strength wasn't enough any more. Her body wouldn't move at all.
She was not afraid for herself. Or rather, whatever fear she had for herself paled compared to her fear for him. She knew her fate well enough, she knew it would be horrible, but eventually, the Hollow she would become will be exorcised. She will come out the other end, most likely. But Ichigo - Ichigo had just done something unexpected, right when the Hollow attacked them. There had been a sudden flash of light, and he had not even realised it, but he had launched something at the thing, wounding it, causing it to flee, confused and scared by this sudden act of defiance. He had fired an arrow.
He had taken a lot from his mom, that kid. Everyone said it all the time.
But that meant it could be detected. That meant he could be found. She remembered years ago, sitting in an empty room, wearing a yukata, taking part in a certain dumb ritual. She won't need it any more now, that protection. But him...
She was not sure if she could do it. But a Quincy is all about gathering spirit energy and manipulating it, pushing it around. So if it was possible at all, she should have had a chance. Her body was shutting down, but for her soul there were still a few precious moments of lucidity, before the gaping hole opened up and ate her heart, before it will be only hunger and pain and regret for who knows how long.
She found that thin veil, that black cloak that still was wrapped around the part of her soul where her power resided. It had prevented her from using it, but what she needed to do now was pushing that very cloak outward, from the inside, and unfolding it. Her son's soul had an affinity, of course, and the rest of it was affine to Engetsu's master, so the cloak should have fit snugly around it all. It took her only a very little tug to have it shift. A last act of protection.
Then the pain became too sharp and intense to ignore any more. She had come a long way, and she had learned to accept her past sins, the ignorance that led to her committing them. She knew she never bore any ill will nor did anything wrong on purpose. The time when she had been ready to just stab her own head with one of her arrows was far behind her. But still, she always had born that weight on her shoulders. So she couldn't help feel that there was some deserved penance, there. She would lose herself, and all she would have to trust into was that no one would do to her what she had done to other Hollows, that it would be one of those much feared and hated Shinigami to find her, to exorcise her, send her to Soul Society. And even then, that she would be able to still hang onto her old self, her memories, just long enough, as long as it would take. A trial by fire, but one she could come through at the end.
We will be reunited one day, was her last thought. If death parts us, eternity will see us together.
The boy looks at me. He's got something of a tired, melancholic gaze. But his eyes gain a life as they see a spark of recognition in mine, and so do those of the girls, and of the Shinigami, and it all - it all...
"Mom?," he asks.
"Ichigo!," I finally manage to say, no, scream, choking on my own tears. "Karin! Yuzu! Isshin!"
I jump up, run forward, launch myself into the arms that are waiting to hug me.
Well, that sure was a day.
I know that's not how you'd normally talk about seeing your mom for the first time years after she died, and you slowly and painfully came to terms with that. But then again, as soon as this whole crazy thing started, that had been something always on the back of my mind, and sometimes at the front, something I knew would be possible at some point. And then I got the Hogyoku, and that possibility became certainty. It was just a matter of time. Because if you thought I wouldn't put all I had in finding her and bringing her back at this point, well, you really understand fuck all about me.
So, it was nice. It was a lot more than nice, really, it's just that I don't think there are words for that. It was so emotionally draining and somewhat surreal I can't even really put together a good summary of it. There was a lot of hugging and crying, damn, so much crying. Then we talked a lot and explained a lot and then we just sort of chilled all together, exhausted, and eventually, I had to go, because that's kind of how it is when you make yourself the overlord of multiple spiritual planes, duty calls. And also because it was pretty clear there were certain aspects of the reunion that are best left to mom and dad alone, and that's all the thinking I'll do about that.
There will be time. All the time in the world.
Meanwhile, I'm back to work. In the Census Centre we have one portal to the In-Between. There's a few in Soul Society, and a few more on Earth, all pretty closely guarded. The way this works is, apparently, Soul Society and the material world are something called 'branes' - like parallel universes that both exist in the same high dimensional space, only centimetres apart from each other in a direction that isn't up or down, isn't left or right, isn't forward or back, and isn't even before or after. It's just something orthogonal to all of these. Hey, don't ask me to explain it, even with the Hogyoku inside myself I'm not all that more all-knowing or smart than before. It's the one doing the heavy lifting in that respect.
I think humans may be familiar with this concept more than you think. There is something called M-Theory which is remarkably similar.
Seriously, it doesn't matter, Hoggy. Point is, it wasn't too hard to just carve a small space in between these two planes, and that's where we built my base of operations. That's got a few convenient advantages. First, it's really secure. Not that I fear much in term of attacks, but there's other people working here with me, and anyway, security is never enough when the stakes are so high. The portals provide a handful of easily defensible choking points, so no way anyone's getting the jump on us. That's less of a problem Earth-side, at least for now. As for Soul Society, eh. The Captains have mostly fallen in line, many make a show of being pretty happy, or at least noncommittal, about the new way things are going. I got the nominal position of Captain Commander, even though in practice the office is so different now I'm almost never doing anything that old Yamamoto used to. But there's a few of them that I'm sure still harbour resentment. Soi Fon, probably, even though I rebuilt her foot. Renji Abarai is really the main trouble maker. He's the Captain of the 6th Squad now, and apparently both deeply admired Captain Kuchiki and had a soft spot for Rukia, so he never got over what happened to them. I'm hardly happy for it myself - well, for Rukia at least. Had I gotten a chance to have her in my action radius before she died, Hogyoku could have stored her structure information, and resurrecting her would have been a piece of cake. But that never happened, and I can't do much more than express my regret. I sure won't let some punk asshole get a shot at me, though, no matter how understandable his grief. The stakes are way too high for that.
The other advantage is, being in between makes it easy for me to communicate and act on both worlds, at least with the right equipment. My command room, where I spend as much as 18 hours a day now (I don't really need sleep any more. Or food. Or anything, but I still leave now and then because otherwise my sanity would be in serious jeopardy), is shaped like a perfect sphere. Gravity is arranged in such a way that every point on its outer surface is the floor, and people can spread around to have each their own control station to work from, except for a radial foot bridge that leads straight to my command seat, floating precisely in the centre. The gravity works this way because it just does. We're in an interdimensional space carved by the power of the Hogyoku, the amount of sense anything needs to make is precisely how much I want it to be. The spherical chamber is exactly thirty metres in radius, and so, when I sit at the centre, I control every single bit of its volume. The Hogyoku can interact with each terminal it contains, wire information back and forth from them, and thus get the instantaneous assistance of everyone working in here. However, its influence doesn't end there. We also have installed a lot of repeaters on the wall, and by connecting to them, thanks to some rather screwy bit of spiritual physics, the Hogyoku is able to act remotely through appropriate emitters, like the black box drones that we send out to help with the Census. And when I say that "we" installed them, what I mean is that they were installed by the third reason why we put this command centre here in the In-Between.
The third reason is walking in at this very moment, announcing himself with the very distinctive clackity-clack of his wooden sandals on the steel of the foot bridge. He's the one who helped design and build all of this, of course. In fact I suspect he had plans for most of it drawn already even from before this all started. It's easy for him to have free rein in here, but if we had put our base in Soul Society, which was the other main option, he would have been unable to access it, as he's been exiled for it, and whatever magical decree has been used to keep him out still stands. We've tried to find a way around it, but for now the only one Hoggy suggested is to kill him and rebuild him from scratch, and he has courteously declined.
"Well, mister Kurosaki?," asks Urahara, standing in front of my seat. "How did the day go?"
I sigh. It's not that I don't have special feelings about today. It's that exactly because I do, I don't really feel inclined to talk about them with him, so I just dodge the question. "Why didn't you tell me before?," I ask instead.
"I don't tell you a great many things, mister Kurosaki. In fact, if I had to tell you all I know, we would be at it for a few decades," he replies, with a smirk. "You'll have to be more specific."
"Why didn't you tell me," I specify, "that my mother was a Quincy, and so was I?"
"Oh, because it didn't matter much to you. Quincys only hold onto their full powers as living humans. I met you when you were already dead."
"But you did know."
"Of course I did. It was part of why I thought you would be especially fit to wield the Hogyoku. You see, the way it manipulates spirit particles operates on a principle similar to that Quincys use, albeit greatly empowered. That made your soul already, so to speak, wired to operate it at maximum efficiency."
I nod at that. "Right. So that is why you actually chose me for this?"
"It's a reason. It doesn't invalidate all I've said you again and again in the past," he says. "I could never have trusted most people with the Hogyoku - least of all myself. But without intervention, Aizen Sousuke would have managed to put his hands on it instead, and I would have trusted him even less. I had to make a snap decision, and I saw someone who gave me hope that he would be a perfect wielder for it. It's a pity that this may be such a burden for a young man as you, but you must acknowledge that it was a net good for the world."
"Hey, I do acknowledge that," I admit. "I was starting to forget it, maybe. Today was a good way of remembering. But you still never apologized."
"And I never will," says sandals-and-hat, with a thin, exasperating smile. The asshole knows I'm waaaay too nice, and so can even afford to do that while standing inside my range of influence. Sometimes perhaps I ought to disintegrate him, just a little bit.
I decide to change topic, before those thoughts become a bit too tempting for my high moral standards as a deity. "Anything you wanted to talk about? Or is this visit just about needling me?"
"I did want to talk about those analyses we talked about the other day, if you performed them," he goes back to a serious expression. "No pressure if you haven't yet, of course. I understand you are busy."
"No, I think they're done. Give me a second to ask Hogyoku." I close my eyes, as I've found that allows me to focus more on communicating with my internal computer, and gives it a chance to project graphs and text directly onto my vision too.
Hogyoku, can you give me-
I was following your conversation. Do you want just what Urahara's requested, or the whole situation report?
Give me the situation report. I've been away for longer than any time in the last two weeks, I better get back up to speed. We can slow down my subjective time anyway, just not to keep Urahara waiting for too long.
Very well. The Soul Census has been proceeding without any disruptions. Since your last update, 0.003% of all souls has been processed. Estimated time to completion of the Census for the Japanese area: 10 years, 4 months, 24 days and 6.43 hours. Of the newly processed souls, 78.2% have recovered their memories and have opted to receive a gigai to go back to the world of the living, 11.8% have recovered their memories but have decided to remain in Soul Society, 4.5% have requested to apply to Shinigami Academy, 3.4% are still in the process of memory recovery, and 2.1% have refused memory retrieval altogether, and have been relocated to the restructured areas of Rukongai.
Can't convince everyone I guess, though I do feel a bit bad for them. What about Earth affairs?
The diplomatic delegation to India has arrived and negotiations have started. Sora Inoue is with them, to act as a non-living example of a well-adjusted spiritual existence that will hopefully manage to breach some of the more traditionalist resistances to reform. Negotiations are also undergoing with the European Union, though in that respect, we might need Urahara's help, as I believe that having a semi-autonomous lesser version of me in their service may assuage some of their worries about allowing direct interference with their spiritual space. The Floating Island project is also proceeding past the diplomatic stage, and designs are being produced already. I would project that we can establish the critical mass of population in the Sea of Japan necessary to establish a persistent spiritual bridge between the Japanese and mainland Asian afterlives in a twenty years timespan.
Right, so that's going about as well as it could. Has the Hueco Mundo recon squad come back?
It has, or to be precise, the surviving members did. You will need to give me permission to use the recorded patterns of the others to bring them back to life. As we feared, Hueco Mundo appears to have been used by Captain Aizen as a research base and defensive fortress, and it is now infested by several advanced mutated Hollow-based lifeforms of huge power. Fortunately, these entities, once without leader, seem to have fallen into a pattern of territorial competition, and have been fighting and keeping in check each other. Still, it would be appropriate to carry out a proper extermination mission, both to protect the safety of Soul Society and to give relief to the souls locked in those forms. Many of the entities are evolved Menos, which means there are hundreds or thousands of souls amalgamated inside them, currently trapped and unable to pass on.
Grim. What's your estimate for a force that has a decent chance of success?
At least half of the current Captains, accompanied by their Lieutenants. It would be more based on power alone, but the lack of leadership and training of the enemy plays in our favour.
That's scary. Should I go with? I'm not enthusiastic about this, but-
I'm fairly confident in my prediction; I'm giving you an estimate with a good safety margin. In addition, I believe this would be a good exercise for many of the Captains who feel diminished by the new order. It would give them a rare chance to make use of their martial capabilities at full power. Captains Kenpachi and Abarai, in particular-
I get the idea. All right, let's do this then. Send the necessary instructions, and once the team is assembled, I'll give them a briefing. Also, you're authorised to resurrect the fallen.
Anything else I should remember?
There is a scheduled meeting with the Gotei 13 tomorrow morning. It could be a good occasion to introduce the oncoming mission. In the afternoon, you have accepted to release an exclusive interview to Time magazine's reporter for their Person of the Year issue, which will hopefully feed positively into our diplomatic efforts. And the day after tomorrow is your one year anniversary, so you're supposed to take Orihime to dinner.
Aren't you the useful secretary. What next, are you going to buy her present too to save me time?
I certainly could arrange to make a choice based on her personality analysis and have it delivered to-
Jokes, Hoggy. Learn to recognise them already.
I do recognise them. Human patterns of speech are not that complicated. My way of answering them just happens to be extremely deadpan.
Fine. So, if that's all - and no, I will think about Orihime's present myself - can we go back to the original point? The data that Urahara was asking for?
Very well. As I said, the analysis was completed sometime in the past hours. Downloading a summary now.
A series of tables and graphs flash quickly in and out of my vision, and even without having time to focus my eyes on them, I still get a clear impression and memory of them all, as if I'd been reading a report for hours. The tirade lasts only for a few fractions of a second, and at the end of it, I draw a deep breath and look at Urahara. My new knowledge must show quite a lot on my face, because he gives me sharp look. "Perhaps this is a matter that should be best discussed in private?"
I sigh and nod, feeling a wave of exhaustion wash over me. Not the physical kind, that has pretty much been banished from my body. The mental sort, the pressure of responsibility, worry, duty.
"Yes," I only answer, "let's go."
There's a small meeting room on the edge of the complex, with a large half-spherical window on the side that shows the raw space of the In-Between. All you can see is the strange, dark swirls and eddies of the interdimensional fabric of nothingness outside. It's just me and Urahara, here, safe from any sort of indiscretion; for good measure, Hogyoku is putting up an impassable barrier around the room that dampens any sound and prevents anyone from entering. There's good reason not to want anyone to listen to what we're about to talk of.
I draw a deep breath.
"So, of course, it turns out you were right," I say.
Urahara nods. "What is the estimated time scale?"
"Long, luckily. Though it's all statistical of course," I close my eyes a moment to recall the projections as shown to me by Hogyoku. "We're talking billions of years."
He clicks his tongue. "Ah, I was hoping we'd have a little more time."
"Yeah, sorry, I can only offer you once or twice the age of the Universe," I reply. "Take it or leave it."
"I'll take what I can, of course, mister Kurosaki." The scientist perks up, raising his eyebrows at me. "You seem down."
"Yeah, it's just..." I struggle to find the words. Billions of years are an immense amount of time. Inconceivable. I can't even imagine what it would be like to live that long, I can't imagine what I will be like after that much, if I'm still around, and I certainly can't imagine what I will think about going on any longer.
But still, at the end of them, death awaits. Patient. Relentless. Hungry.
"It's frustrating," I say, finally. "It's a point of pride at this point. All this time, it's like I've been fighting death, struggling to stay alive and keep others alive with me, and all it does is just-"
I extend a hand, opening and closing my fingers to clench just air. "Slip away. Move further. Never defeated, just biding its time."
"And it bothers you?," asks Urahara, amused.
"Fuck yeah it does. This ain't the sort of fight I like. I mean, I don't really like fights, not like that crazy Kenpachi, don't get me wrong. Just, if I have to fight, I prefer it to be upfront, quick, and without tricks. Just all or nothing, in one moment."
"Good thing we're very unlike each other, then." He seems pretty unfazed, all in all, as he stares far off in the strange void outside. "The long game - I relish it. Rare is the problem that can just be cut down; I always thought Shinigami were limited in that sense in their perspective. Building, fixing, inventing, that takes time. You, yourself, were initially just a pawn in this one eon-spanning game I've been playing all along - a pawn I've promoted to queen, if you take my meaning."
"As long as you don't stretch the metaphor too far, Your Majesty," I reply, sarcastic. But I get it. And while I did not accept this role for myself at the beginning, I am not ungrateful for it. I may hate fighting drawn out battles, but I hate being a powerless spectator to them far more.
The thing that Urahara asked me to investigate, that Hogyoku just found out with new tests and calculations, pushing to the very edge of the possible for its already immense capabilities, is the ultimate fate of spirit particles, and the Universe itself. We can crack down on all Quincy activity - there is precious little of it already, and hopefully we can deal with it in a less genocidal way than the Shinigami did - and we can identify and regulate the rare zanpakuto that, like Ryujin Jakka did, could disturb them, but is that enough for spirit particles to exist forever? As it turns out, no, it's not. As Hogyoku said, spirit particles exist in a somewhat precarious state. No matter how solidly built, a pillar eventually topples down; no matter how well balanced, a ball on top of a hill will end up rolling down its flanks. Even without anyone giving it a push, there will be a random breeze, a slight tremor, the slow growth of plants and the work of ants shifting the dirt - just enough to do it. Eternity is a long time, after all. One day, inevitably, it will come. Not just for me or for my family, but for everyone. A single blanket of death spreading across the whole universe; everything frozen, still, unfeeling forevermore. Not even the power of the Hogyoku, alone, can do anything against it. Having cheated death, and as I'm helping the whole world to do the same, my job will eventually be to find a way to cheat death on a scale so mind-boggling, I can't even make sense of it.
I shake my head. "It just doesn't feel doable. Like, where do you even start from? This is the very essence of the universe we're talking about."
"We will need to understand a lot more before we even start answering those questions, of course. Even my science barely scratches the surface of the issue," replies Urahara. "Humans say that nothing is certain except for death. The important thing at this point is that we learn that we should only subscribe to the first part of that statement."
"And then what? Even if death isn't certain today, or tomorrow, as long as we keep rolling the dice - I mean, we can't postpone it forever. The game is stacked against us."
"Not entirely true, mister Kurosaki. There is a subtlety there, a needle we can thread, with enough cleverness."
He points a finger in the air, and draws up a figure in bright light, suspended in mid-air - an easy trick we set up to work anywhere in these rooms. He draws a square, then splits it in half horizontally, and then splits the bottom part further in two vertically. He taps one of the resulting, smaller squares, the one on the left, and it takes on a deep crimson tone.
"Suppose you were set up so that, for a given century, your chance of losing this battle was one in four. A fourth of the total. But then suppose that throughout your hard work and ingenuity, you managed to make it so that-"
He draws another horizontal line, this time in the square on the right, splitting it in two rectangles, and points at the one above, making it change colour as well.
"-that your odds of surviving that first century but losing in the second one are half of that. One in eight. And then, of course-"
He splits, vertically, the rectangle below.
"-for the next next century, the odds of surviving the first two but losing later are half again, one in sixteen. I can go on."
I see his point. He could continue to split and split and split, infinitely. But in the end, only the lower half of the initial square would be lit up in crimson.
"So we would have even odds of preserving the universe for eternity and beyond? If we were quick enough to improve our odds as we go?"
"Just an example, of course. But that is the gist of it," concludes Urahara, swiping away the figure. "Life is a balancing act. Never change, and it's not all too different from death. But the more and the further away you push your change, the easier it becomes to stumble and fall. After all, it's a lot simpler to change something alive in something dead than the other way around."
"And so, you'd rather have us play the game, keep gambling with death," I say. "Forever."
You think about it, and it's weird how scary that sounds. When I was thinking that I'd die or turn in a Hollow soon, I wouldn't have thought of giving up. I was ready to climb out of that hole with tooth and nail, if that was what it took. Now though, that's a far off thing, a worry for some future me so distant it might as well not be the same person any more. Giving up would be cheap. But come the day when I have to face to it? I try to imagine it - my family, my friends, my world threatened with an ending so final and destructive that none of it will remain, not even the memory that anything has ever existed at all. And I know when such a day comes, I will probably still react the same as I've always done. Kick and scream and either win or go down fighting. A lot of things can change about me, but if that changed, then it wouldn't even be me any more, and I would already have lost.
"Forever is a long time," replies Urahara, as if echoing my thoughts. "Enough maybe to get tired and bored of the whole business. Far more than even the eldest Shinigami have ever known. So, who can tell. But for now, sure, I'd say we do our best to take the challenge on."
Outside, the vacuum of the In-Between keeps its eternal swirling. Motion without motion, always identical to itself, in a dead, barren space. Above and below us are two worlds, both teeming with life instead, always mutable except for their obstinate will to persist.
"After all, what else is there to do with all the time in the world?"