Itabashi Suburb, Tokyo, 2049.
The silk scarves they had used to construct the ceiling panels of their little makeshift tent were just translucent enough to allow someone to see the little lights affixed to the garland and which were hung from the ceiling of the room. The tent itself was a fairly simple construct consisting of different pieces of fabric which were suspended on a wire frame, fabricated from bits and pieces found in the nearby streets after the markets and shops closed down for the day. Colourful scraps of delicate tissue had been carefully sown together to increase the overall size of the canvas, and the ensemble looked like one of those paintings from the past made by a famous Dutch painter in which he had mixed all kinds of colourful blocks together. From inside the makeshift tent, the lights looked exactly as they were intended to : like the billions of stars that illuminated our skies in the galaxy. The improvised shelter was a little enclave of sorts, a hideaway they could get in to escape the world around them. Even though the canvas was paper-thin it shielded anyone inside from the would outside as if some kind of magic spell had been cast on it.
The little girl inside the tent, – she couldn’t have been a day older than seven -, was lying down on the floor mat, her head resting on the older woman’s stomach. The woman was slowly caressing the girl’s hair in a soothing, repetitive motion. The woman was in her late thirties but looked a lot younger. Her jet-black hair and delicate, pale complexion bestowed upon her an air of sophistication, refinement and intelligence. Her regal features where supplemented by a statuesque figure and sharp jawline, all of which only accentuated the most beautiful aspect of her face : her striking emerald blue eyes. If a thousand ships had launched for Helen as she had once read in a forbidden book, then there wouldn’t be enough wood in the world to build the necessary ships for her. The little girl resting her head in her lap was a miniature version of the woman, even slightly more beautiful if it were possible.
“Never forget, Kaori-ko,” the woman whispered while both were staring at the lustrous lights above them, “people will try and take a lot from you in this world. They can lock you away, burn down your house, cut down your trees, and so on, but there’s one thing they can never take from you.”
“What’s that?” the little girl asked.
“The stars in the skies. If you make them yours, if you declare that they belong to you, then nobody can take that away from you. Ever. They will always be there for you, waiting for you, watching you from above. They will guide you in the darkest of times, when you feel abandoned by everyone and everything the stars will be there for you and show you the way.”
The little girl reached her arm out towards the tingling little lights which reflected in her big, pearl-like blue uncharacteristic blue eyes.
“Never.” the woman reassured her while planting a kiss on the girl’s forehead.
“Because when we leave this earth after our time is up, that’s where we go. We become stars. Every person who has ever walked on this earth represents a little star like that.”
“So that we won’t forget them when they’re gone?”
“Exactly.” the mother smiled.
“And you’ll be here to protect me from all those things too, right?” the young girl asked meekly.
“Always. And if not in presence, then I’ll be looking out for you from above.”
“Like the stars?”
“Like the stars, Kaori-ko. They represent every generation that’s ever lived. If you ever feel lonely, look at the stars at night and remember that you are always surrounded by everyone who’s ever been here.” They laid there for what could have easily been an eternity until the sudden thudding of footsteps echoed throughout the stairwell adjacent to the room. A moment later, a man in his early forties entered the room with a look of panic across his face. He had handsome features, and the first signs of white whiskers near his temples. He was holding onto a box the size of a large book with his left hand, and once he was inside the room he carefully locked the door behind him.
“My love. Today is the day. They will be here soon.” the man said to the woman, trying to maintain his composure. “Yasuo came to warn us.”
“Who is coming, mom?” The little girl asked.
“Nobody, Kaori-ko.”, the woman tried to reassure the young girl. The woman turned around towards the man who was unpacking the box he had been holding in his hands moments earlier. She approached him silently, and he would not look her in the eye. When she reached him she placed her hands carefully on top of his, and their eyes met. They didn’t have time, and yet they had all the time. From where she was standing she could see that the tiniest tear was forming in the crease of his left eye, and that he was fighting back his emotions. They knew this day would come. They were prepared for this day. But how well can you really prepare for something like this? Something so definitive? Daichi-san was a modest, humble and loving husband and father. A hard worker and a member of the last generation of men born in the Old World, before the map of Asia had been reshuffled. He didn’t feel at home in this unified Asian dream but he had vowed to himself years before that he would do everything he ever could to make sure his wife and daughter would live in a world to their liking. The vision of the tear forming in the eye of the man she loved, a man she knew as very private as it regarded to his feelings, initiated a mirrored response with herself, and she quickly found herself wiping one away.
“We knew this day was coming.” she said, trying to be strong for the both of them even though she knew Daichi would be. He always was.
“Yes. At some point.” Daichi replied. “But not now. They’re stealing time away from us.” A sharp note of repressed anger in his tone of voice revealed his true mindset while he was methodically assembling a device from the components he had unpacked out of the box. The way in which he cautiously but carefully assembled the device indicated that he had practiced this routine many times before, as an exercise he would have to be able to execute perfectly on a day both of them had hoped would never come. The woman laid her hands on his again to make him pause.
“Time doesn’t belong to any of us, my love. Time is like a train in perpetual motion riding along tracks laid out long before our time. It moves on and waits for no-one. An unstoppable behemoth we can only have the pleasure of riding on for whatever time our ticket states. All we can be is grateful for having been part of it, regardless of how short or long our journey was or is.”
“You need to get your bag and get ready.” Daichi-san spoke softly. “Now.”
The woman nodded and quickly snuck out of the room. She entered the living room at the end of the hallway and walked over towards a big, wooden clock positioned in the far left corner. The clock, a heavy, longcase contraption with a set of synchronised gilded pendulums in delicate black cherry wood that resembled the chess piece of a queen stood in the corner of the room, tall like a mystic guardian veiled in shadows. The delicate sounds emanating from the machine, the intricate set of dials, cogwheels, weights and pendulums worked in perfect harmony to indicate the precise time of day at any given moment. The woman opened up the tiny two glass doors in the front which revealed the inner workings of the case. Much like the workings of a human body, the perpetual ballet of fragile synchronicity inside was no place for blunt tools like the hands of a human being once set in motion, but hers disappeared behind the moving parts and suddenly the whole ballet paused in mid-air and a gentle click resounded from underneath. Near her feet a little block of wood had popped out of the base of the clock. She ducked and pressed it back in, which made a hidden door appear from the body of the clock. She prudently pulled out a black backpack and a cloth sac filled with what appeared to be inconspicuous black clothes. Carrying both, she left the clock behind her and made her way back up to the little girl’s room. Daichi had finished assembling the device which now lay on the table near the entrance of the door and he was holding the little girl in his hands. Just as she was about to speak, loud noises erupted from outside the room in the alley and they could hear an old woman yell something.
“They’re in the alley.” Daichi said.
“Kaori-ko, come here.” the woman said. The child stood up and walked over towards the woman. She had no idea of what was going on, but she could sense that something was wrong. The woman was doing her best fighting back the tears, but it was a losing battle.
“Kaori-ko, my love. Never forget who you are. Never forget where you come from. Never forget what we talked about under the stars in here tonight. Never forget to look to the stars outside. Never forget they can never take that away from you. I will never forget you.” The woman picked up the circular, crown-like device from the table and gently slid it on the child’s head while Daichi grabbed the wired control module. The woman looked at Daichi in a way only mothers can. She was grateful for this. For the fact that he would be the one doing it, the one being strong for them. She could never bring herself towards doing it. The sounds that were in the alleyway moments before now echoed from underneath them. They were in the house. Maybe even in the living room, maybe even near the clock. They had to move fast.
“I will see you in the stars, my love.” the woman said as she pressed a final kiss on the girl’s forehead. With her free hand she pinched Daichi and he pressed the red circular button on the module. A very low hissing sounds resonated for about two seconds, and when it stopped the woman caught the girl’s head with her hands and gently laid her down on the mattress in their makeshift tent. Like this it simply looked as if the machine had put her to sleep.
“And to you my love,” the woman started as Daichi readjusted the circular device he had just removed from the girl’s head so that it would fit his. Daichi remained silent. “I will not do you the injustice of trying to convey the depth of my love, of my affection with so blunt a tool and so unfit a medium as words. You know that our river runs deeper. Our skies reach farther than words could ever express.” She grabbed Daichi’s head and gave him a final kiss that seemed to encapsulate everything and nothing at the same time.
“Take care of her for me.” the woman said, sniffling. “Take care of yourself for me.” She was strapping the backpack she had retrieved from the clock on her back, while the cloth sack was in her hands.
“I will see you in the stars.” Daichi finally said, a solitary tear flowing down his fatigued face.
“And I you.” she replied.
After turning around she heard the low hissing sound she’d heard just moment before and she knew what it meant. She ran towards the bathroom, lifted the bathtub which was mounted on a concealed set of makeshift pneumatic hinges. The tub stood ajar, much like an opened Pharaoh’s tomb, and the emptiness within revealed a very narrow hidden passageway underneath, clouded with cobwebs of all kinds. The cracking sound of wood emanating from a door that had just been breached metres down the hallway startled her and pulled her our of the stare she was caught in. She was staring at the door in front of her. Of what was behind that door. Of what she was leaving behind, of what she was now running away form. A scenario they’d practiced a thousand times in the years that led up to now, a scenario they’d always hoped would never have to play out. “Goodbye my loves.” she whispered under her breath as the light coming from the bathroom lights disappeared while she was pulling down the bathtub. The door that had been breached moments earlier was the door which stood between the living room and the hallway. Seconds later, a silent swarm of men dressed in black protective gear and carrying weapons invaded the hallway. When they reached the end of the hallway and the little girl’s bedroom, the man at the tip of the spear was instructed by someone in the back to assess the situation in that room.
“We’re too late.” the man said after stepping inside the room. The swarm of men stood down and eased up, putting their weapons away. A tall, slender woman dressed in a formal, feminine and more elegant version of the black protective made her way from the back to the frond of the group and inspected the scene they’d just walked in on.
“Minister Xu will not be pleased, Commander.” she said with resolve while addressing the leader of the men.
“There’s nothing we could have done. We didn’t know they had one of these.” he said while pointing at the device still attached to Daichi’s head. Daichi was slumped over the table in front of him, and the little girl was still soundly asleep under her cloak of scarves.
“You should have known.” the woman said. “I will put it in the report.”
“Very well.” the man replied.
“Search the house. Gather the device. Put it all in the aerojet.”
“And them?” the man said, pointing towards the Daichi and the little girl. “What do we do with them?”
“Leave them.” the woman replied with some curious form of sympathetic disdain. There’s nothing we can do for them any more. They’ve made their choice. And I have to get back to Beijing immediately.”
“You want us to search the house?”
The woman looked around briefly, before sighing.
“Do you really think they would have been careless enough to leave something behind if they were willing to do something like that?” she said, motioning once again towards Daichi and the girl lying on the floor. The man nodded understandingly and said something to his men, after which they quickly and silently cleared out of the room and out of the house.