Rain hammered the windows of the Osaka apartment. The sound of electronic warfare dominated the room as the teenage boy and teenage girl battled it out on the big screen. Etsuko shrieked as Takumi defeated her with a flourish. She giggled and placed the controller on the coffee table before scratching the back of her neck. A frown marred her smooth forehead.
“Takumi-kun, can you look at my neck? I keep scratching at something, but it keeps coming back.”
The boy grimaced. “It’s probably a pimple, Etsu-chan. Gross. I don’t want to look at it.”
She shook her head. “Please. It’s a scab, or something, but it’s not going away. Please?” Etsuko smiled brightly at him. Takumi screwed up his face.
“Oh, fine.” He folded his arms. Etsuko knelt in front of him on the floor and bowed her head, then brushed her long black hair from the nape of her neck. Takumi inspected her skin, noting the red marks from her fingernails. He tilted his head to the side and squinted.
“There is something… not a scab. It looks like—”
“What?” She tried to look up at him through the curtain of hair. “What is it?” He remained silent, so she sat up and flicked her hair back.
Takumi was chalky pale under his usual tan. His expression left no doubt as to his fear.
“Takumi-kun, what is it? Please tell me, I’m scared.”
He blinked, shook his shaggy bleached hair and ran a hand lightly across the back of his own neck. His eyes widened and he glanced back at Etsuko.
“Look. I have it too.”
She stood and leaned over to examine him. Eyes narrowed, she stared at his neck. “I can’t see anything.”
“Eh, put your glasses on. I know you need them to read. Stop worrying about looking ugly.”
Etsuko laughed nervously and crossed to her school bag. She pulled out her reading glasses and slipped them on before returning to Takumi. White teeth nipped her lower lip as she studied him.
“It looks like wires. Three tiny wires coming out of your skin. Is that what mine looks like?”
He sat up and nodded, full of energy. “I knew it, Etsu-chan! Remember The Matrix?”
A frown flickered over her face. She glanced at him then looked away. The air-conditioning made her shiver; goosebumps pimpled her skin. “It’s just a movie.”
Eyes wide and full of fervour, he jumped up and ran from the room. Etsuko sat on the creamy leather lounge and folded her hands in her lap. A fine line creased her brow as she contemplated her fingers. The electronic game music grated her nerves so she turned it off. The sound of the rain dominated the room.
Takumi ran back in clutching a scalpel. Etsuko shied back, throwing her hands up. “Careful!” she shrieked. He laughed.
“We have to get the wires out, Etsu-chan! So they can’t track us!”
“Who?” She watched him with narrowed eyes. When he moved closer she got up and put the lounge between them. “What are you talking about?”
“The Government, or the computers, or something. Things are not what they seem, Etsu-chan. We need to unhook ourselves.”
She shook her head slowly. “No, there must be an explanation. We should tell our parents. They will know.”
He cast a scornful glance at her and crossed to the window. “Look outside. See all the tiny little people? They are all hooked up, and our parents are too. We need to free ourselves.”
“No, I don’t…” she backed away, keeping a wary eye on him. He lifted the scalpel.
“You do it to me, then,” he said.
“You want me to cut the wires out? But—it will hurt, there will be blood, I don’t think I can—”
“Then let me do it. To you.” He grinned at her. “You’ll be fine.”
She glanced at the scalpel and back toward the door. In those seconds he was on her, pushing her down as she screamed and flailed. His arm strayed too close to her mouth so she bit him. With a curse he pushed her hair back and made a hurried cut. Blood welled and spilled, and Etsuko screamed louder. He was hard pressed to restrain her as she squirmed underneath him. The next cut missed the mark, but the third found the spot and soon her neck was streaked with red tears. Her cries faded in his ears as he set his teeth and dug, searching for an end to the wires. He pulled and cut and dug his fingers into the slick mess. The wires were his whole existence.
Etsuko lay still, her neck a crimson ruin. Down her back he travelled, into her ribcage. He fetched a cleaver from the kitchen and hacked open her chest, following the trail of the wires deep inside her. Finally his fingers grappled with something hard attached to the end of the wires. He mustered his strength and yanked, falling back with a yell as her body gave up its prize. Blood and flesh spattered him but he didn’t notice.
A metal ball flickered in his hands. About the size of a human heart, it thrummed with energy and a red light pulsed at the speed of a heartbeat. Takumi held it up reverently, trailing the wires. A soft sound disturbed him and he turned.
His mother stood in the doorway, her mouth open, her face blank with horror. He got to his feet, holding the ball-heart in front of him.
“Look, mother,” he said. “She wasn’t a real person. She had wires…” he reached back and touched the back of his neck. Lips trembling, he put a bloody hand on his chest. The ball-heart flickered faster and faster. The rain roared in his ears. His mother was backing away, shaking her head.
The rapidly beating ball-heart caught his eye. A single beep, and the world was fire and darkness.