Amigara Mountain

Adapted from 阿弥殻断層の怪 (Amigara Dansō no Kai) by Junji Ito

One — The Earthquake

There was a lull in big-ticket news stories that summer, so when the quake hit, the media blitz that ensued seemed a bit excessive at first. It was true that several rural villages and towns, of the few that even remained anymore, were hit with mild setbacks, but no damage had struck the City, where most of the country now called home. Aside from a few crumbling edifices and some broken bones (no reported deaths or missing persons), there wasn’t much else to cover. A destroyed shrine took the top slot for two full news cycles, covered in every angle imaginable—human interest, religious connotations, repair costs, local reactions, the works. At first it seemed that the Amigara Earthquake, named after the mountain that had acted as its epicenter, was simply a natural disaster that underperformed the reputation the media deemed worthy to fabricate around it.

But the news outlets eventually latched themselves onto a potential goldmine of a story—a nerve was struck, the incubus of this whole, strange tale, and the beginning of my involvement in the matter. After the story in question aired, the rest fell into place with ease, as if the pointless rabble, the dry, pastoral filler wasting away the summer, purposefully underperformed the colossal main event that lay waiting in the wings.

I was cramming in a meal between classes, my last two of the term, when the broadcast brass played from the pod on the wall. “Good evening, New Japan. The time is 16:00. We will now present the evening news. Breaking development from the Amigara story…” Great, more of this nonsense. How many ways could they spin this thing? I was halfway across the room to switch the pod to a new channel when my mind processed what they were actually saying. “…natural phenomenon? It seems the shifted fault unveiled a strange pattern. It was first discovered by a passing medical aircraft flying in supplies to nearby villages. The NJB News team has acquired the first known documented footage of the phenomenon, live now from the mountainside. A warning—the following images may be unsettling. Viewer discretion is highly advised.”

***

The next day, I scrubbed all appointments from my calendar and ordered a ticket on the first light-rail out of the City. I sent my friend an urgent bulletin following the broadcast, asking to borrow his camping set, which was now bundled together and strapped to my back.

Kojiki Prefecture, home of Mount Amigara, per this morning’s news brief, was experiencing a rapid influx of tourism, more than it had seen for several decades. Trains were filling too fast, their times variable and slack. Locals were aghast, torn between having to oversee the cleanup of their homes and businesses, and managing the oversaturation of new faces. I arrived at the base of Amigara midmorning Wednesday, after a simple breakfast of rice, pickles, and fish from a nearby village. The village stood in varying states of disarray—there were ancient buildings that remained unharmed, and modern bits of architecture that had suffered severe structural damages. There was no perceivable method to the path of desolation. Signs sprouted in business windows across the village, written in permanent marker, informing passersby that they were still open. Through the bedlam, a small reminder that life goes on in the face of destruction.

The mountain itself was unremarkable, just large and forlorn—a slab of unadorned earth, surrounded by raw, pure air. Patches of low trees and shrubs took root near the base, dotting the landscape in quilted patches of life. I knew from the reports that the phenomenon spanned several kilometers, from the eastern base and up to the peak. A map purchased from the local attractions office of the village, though it would be better to call it a closet of the town hall where a forlorn elder sat and read ancient texts all day, held before me, I located the most efficient trails to get around the mountain. From there, it was all conjecture.

As it happened, the lone elder, I suppose some sort of town historian and classics freak (it had to be a cliché—every village like that had one), had done an excellent job of marking the trails on the map, so they were surprisingly easy to follow. Every few kilometers, there was a trail marker that explained a bit about the area, and would pinpoint your exact location.

The air was crisp and fresh; it stung my lungs in a pleasurable way, as if my lungs were now telling me the air I had breathed just the day before in the City wasn’t good enough. Birds were skittering from tree to tree—it was hard to believe that this had been the sight of “the natural disaster of the new century.” It had been awhile since New Japan’s last earthquake, not since the government-funded efforts in earthquake prevention technology had passed through the cabinet and was being implemented to great success. So the excitement seemed almost natural, an echo to an arcane past. How or why the Amigara Earthquake happened was anyone’s guess. I have to admit that something seemed suspicious—the failure of “foolproof natural disaster detection” was enough to leave more than a few heads scratching.

Two — Yoshida

Eventually the path veered up onto the mountain itself. It was midway through the climb on a seemingly endless set of stairs that I met her. She was sitting alone on a ledge, apparently taking a breather, perhaps enjoying the sight of the vast countryside beyond, a half-eaten onigiri with a ruby-red umeboshi center in her hand. We offered one another a perfunctory nod.

“Hello. Good morning.”
“Hi. I’m Owaki. What’s your name?”
“Yoshida. Are you looking for the fault, too?”

She was unable to mince words, a trait that would eventually draw me to her. Her pheromone, as they say. She looked around my age if not slightly older. Her eyes were craters filled with pools of knowledge. She had the air of travel around her; someone constantly on the move, who had seen too much of the world for her own good. She wore old, beaten up jeans and western-style flannel, a marriage of practical and stylish. Her long legs were wrapped in boots that ran up her shins, and her hair was pulled back into a plait dyed rust brown.

After the introduction, she stood to greet me formally. First seeing her there on the ridge, set against a backdrop of a muted sky, the looming mountains in the distance like sleeping giants waiting for the right moment to wake, stretch their impossible arms and devour us, the sky peppered with a mélange of clouds, the thought of discovering the fault a burning, flickering flame in both our heads, I was met by a wave emotion, a reminder of my own humanity. Small and insignificant. I needed that moment to let it sink in, the stillness of it, the absolute perfection of it. I nodded, asked her the same. She bent her head in agreement, and that was that—we were in this together, suddenly and smoothly, without the need for a formal recognition. She hopped down from the rock and, after adjusting her pack, we continued on together.

Our bodies moved without hesitation and the conversation flowed, armed with the social crutch of shared experience. Perhaps we were a little too honest for our own good. Maybe the mountain air had intoxicated us into letting more slip than two strangers normally would divulge.

“I knew as soon as I saw you. You had this mad glint in your eye, maybe. I don’t know. They often say that madness is the first sign of inspiration.”

“I saw it on the news with the rest of the nation, that first broadcast. My extended family had just arrived from Oyako and were settling in. We all watched, all saw the images, but when the report was over and the announcers moved on, so did my family. Maybe, at first, they shared a few words of shock, some small, mundane conversation, but that was that. But not me. I felt stuck there, tacked down by the information. It was caught in my ears, burned behind my eyelids. That evening, I called my manager and told her I wouldn’t be in for several days, and bought the first ticket out of the City.”

“Sounds like my story. There was an instant magnetic pull, something drawing me here inexplicably. I inherently know that there’s a missing piece to this whole puzzle, something the news left out, something I need to understand. I hope that, by coming all the way out here, I can learn exactly what isn’t being told to the public.”

Our stories unraveled themselves as the afternoon wore on, flowed across the craggy rocks and rugged terrain. Before arriving on the mountain, while I was still on the train, a small pearl of doubt had taken seed inside of me, latched itself somewhere in my guts. It spoke to me during the periods of extended silence any vagabond knows too well, saying—no, insisting—that it was too off-kilter, dropping everything like this to go to a strange part of the country and see something that would likely be revealed as an installment of the absurdist art community looking to spark some national attention for their new gala.

This wasn’t how reality was supposed to work in Z-64, 12. I had resolved that, come the new year, I would start settling down into life, really save my time and energy for projects that would progress my career. Viz. the night classes, the economy apartment in walking distance of campus, the acetic, homespun meals of millet and natto, broad beans and fish, instant noodles when I felt the need to scrimp even more. This pack-up-and-go mindset that was romanticized during the loamy, spirited zeitgeist after the war and before the reclamation, the sorts of stories that my grandparents, like so many other grandparents, who do nothing but sip tea and tell stories all day long, stories of art lining the sidewalks, and impromptu jazz bands striking a number on the street, like to tell, seemed to have struck a chord in my heartstrings. The allure of hiking with Yoshida on Mount Amigara, of facing whatever beasts, be they physical or entirely imaginary, that lay in wait, was that I didn’t feel the need to repress these feelings any longer.

Three — The Shadows

Late afternoon was fast approaching when we heard the first murmur of voices. At last, the trail opened to a wide clearing with a front-facing rock formation that had been shifted into existence by the earthquake. This, the now famous Amigara fault line, stretched the length of the mountain.

There was a throng of people in the clearing, gathered around a portion of rock easily accessible by the trail, several meters high and just as panoramic. A few tents were scattered here and there, the cliché brown canvas variety you’d imagine finding at the base camp of some kind of important archeological dig. But those details hardly lingered—most else was blotted out by the high, cruel rock face that hovered over us like a cloud pregnant with a storm. The same image was there, same as the one shown ad nauseum on news programs across the world. But there was something powerful in the immediateness, the close proximity.

The sturdy stone of the rock wall had hundreds, if not thousands, of human outlines cut into it. They varied in shape and size, so that all body types were represented on any randomly selected swatch of the cliff, tessellated in such a way that they caused an illusory motion to set forth. They were not just chalked on, but were deep channels cut inside the mountain itself, to where all light was blotted out by uncompromising subterranea. Yoshida and I unstirred from awe almost simultaneously, as if drawn by the magnetic pull of curiosity.

“Underground for all these years, finally exposed by the earthquake?”
“How can such a thing exist?”
“Is this some kind of joke?”

The murmurs of the crowd took form the nearer Yoshida and I got to the fault line, full of rhetorical questions that were only asked to cushion the severe and pervasive air of foreboding that lingered over us all. These were questions swirling in all our minds, so just hearing them spoken into existence took some of the edge off. We were not alone in our confusion after all, after all this time.

“Look there,” Yoshida said, pointing further down the rock face, where the tents were stationed. It looked as if there was a team of researchers inspecting a hole with some sort of camera mounted onto a sturdy metallic cord. They wore helmets with flashlights attached to the brims and canvas uniforms that appeared to wrinkle easily. As we approached the scene, I chanced a bit of their conversation.

“FibreScope limit reached…that’s around thirty meters, and still no end in sight. Looks like a slight downward slope in the shape happens around ten meters in, but other than that there doesn’t seem to be any significant difference.”

“Professor, we need to rule out certain possibilities, like that this could be a prank of some kind, or that this is a natural phenomenon. What we’re left with is that this must be the work of an ancient civilization. But, compared to the civilizations that our historians have documented within the last 10,000 years – even as early as A-12, 1 – it’s just simply unfeasible that anyone but a homologous group could have possessed sufficient technology to be able to engineer the damn things at all.”

“I agree, Watanabe. I agree. We can also assume, if we’re going along with your advanced-peoples theory, that this stretch of rock was once the entrance, but was covered up by a similar earthquake some time ago. Perhaps considering a seismographic history of the mountain will clue us into patterns. It’s a miracle these came out unharmed in the quake…perhaps there is some sort of reinforcement that’s holding the shapes together so perfectly…more tests, more tests…”

“But, sir. All tests aside, the most burning question of it all is this: What purpose did they serve?”

Four — Goal

Yoshida, without hesitation or curiosity, walked past them and continued up the clearing and onto the rocky incline that carried the fault higher up into a veil of clouds. As she climbed, she seemed to abandon herself, caring less where her feet landed and more for what her eyes were drinking in. Several times, she tripped on the uneven rocks, causing them to splay and shift unhappily. Small cascades tumbled down toward me in her wake.

“Yoshida, be careful. It’s getting steep.”
“I-I’m sorry, Owaki. But it’s just too important, all this.”
“What is? Yoshida, what is it? Are you looking for something in particular?”
“I saw it on the broadcast.”
“Wait…what did you see?”

“I’ll know it when I see it. I know it’s here. I only saw a glimpse of it before, but I saw the whole clip later. I stared for hours, sizing it up, imagining…” In a breath, she was a different person—no longer cool and collected, but manic, her breathing intensified. I could tell she was only a few more tepid thoughts away from a panic attack, one, if she had it now, that would be dangerously complicated by the steep incline and rocky spine of the hill. I had to keep her talking.

“So, you’re looking for something in particular, a certain hole? What’s so special about it? Did it remind you of something or—?”

“—It was in my shape.”
“What?”

“It was my outline. More than identical. Like my shadow cut away from my body. It was made for me!”

Now the mountain air, the added ozone that once seemed so refreshing and crisp, bit at my insides. The green of the trees and bluish sky swirled together in a mesmerizing display, dizzying me senseless. I blinked away the feeling, returning to reality once more.

“But what you’re saying is impossible. These holes are ancient! There’s no way they can be based on you, don’t you see? You probably just saw one that looked kind of like—“

“I know what I saw!”

“Yoshida, isn’t it a bit egotistical for you to be thinking up something like that?”

“Don’t make fun of me, Owaki. It doesn’t have to make sense, to me or anyone else. All I can tell you is that I felt an otherworldly gravity pulling me away from the City, beckoning me here. There was no other plan but to come and find the missing pieces. I can’t imagine you didn’t do the same.”

Before I could muster a reply, a voice made its way into the conversation. “Don’t worry—you’re not alone.”

Another hiker approached. He must have been listening in on our conversation—perhaps the cavernous valley projected our voices more than we had anticipated. He was too thin, with eyes set too far apart. One trait only seemed to amplify the other, making him look like a know-it-all, and both together elicited an instant feeling of annoyance deep within me. He approached us with a look that conveyed that he knew more than he was willing to let slip all at once, for dramatic effect.

“And you are?” I asked, unwilling to let him join the coterie that Yoshida and I had created together so easily.

“The name’s Nakagaki,” he said, puffing slightly. “I left the City to look for mine, too. So don’t worry – you’re not alone. Looks like most of us here, aside from the researchers, came out for the exact same reason. I’ve gotten to know a few, helped them look for theirs. There are so many, though…”

He pointed down the mountain to a throng of people milling about. They looked like castaways of society – pale and gangly, or overweight and pink. Clearly shut-ins, they likely spent little time outside away from the Cybe. I was once the same, before the classes, the bland but nutritious diet. Most nights it was a convenience store bento and a bag of crackers with a bottle of cola for me, locked in my room wasting away on the Cybe. I gave a little wave to the group in a noncommittal way, and a few returned the gesture. Nakagaki went on.

“It’s an unbelievable phenomenon, really. They’re going to be talking about this for hundreds of years. It’s not something you can easily forget. Hey, what did you say your name was again?”

“It’s Yoshida.”

“Yoshida, right. Well, I couldn’t help but overhear. I want to show you something. It’s not far. Will you join me?”

She gave a little nod, throwing a look in my general direction that seemed to say, “I’m sorry for raising her voice earlier, but please don’t leave me alone with this guy.” I followed behind Nakagaki, uninvited but not entirely disinterested. A short hike later and we were in front of an outline in-line with the rocky trail. Nakagaki bent his long, thin arms, gesturing to us that this was what he had to show us. He flicked his wrists in a little ta-da movement.

“I’ve finally found mine.”

Five — First Entry

“It looks like you don’t believe me,” Nakagaki said, again directing the conversation at me without asking my name, as he had done with Yoshida. “I don’t really blame you. I could tell when I overheard you poking fun at Yoshida that you’re the type of person who can’t see past the end of his nose.”

“It just doesn’t make any sense that these holes belong to anyone who is currently living. They’re clearly ancient relics of some organized civilization,” I said, feebly trying to reinforce what I had overheard the group of scientists talking about earlier: that which was becoming less and less true each passing moment. There was no denying that the cutout seemed to be a perfect match to Nakagaki’s awkwardly shaped body. But Yoshida was there, drinking it all in, and I was willing to keep her stable-minded any way I could.

“More than a lecture, I’ll do you one better,” Nakagaki said, unbuttoning his shirt and revealing a sunken chest and exposed ribs that clung to his hide like a mongrel dog’s. “I’ll prove to you and to everyone here that this belongs to me and nobody else.”

By the time he had finished talking, Nakagaki was stripped to the loins, seemingly unembarrassed to be standing skin and bones, in broad daylight, before a group of strangers. He approached the hole in the rock with little to no apprehension, as if the stone was a warm and inviting bath; to prove as much, he did some slight stretches as if preparing to exercise, to drive into the great pool before him.

“Wait…Nakagaki…”

It was Yoshida. She spoke from behind me, in a faint and indecipherable voice—a cocktail of feelings seemed to course through her, as if she both wanted nothing more than to see him enter the hole and for him to err on the side of reason. He turned at the sound of her voice, wide-set eyes crinkled to half-moons on either side of the horizon. A smirk accompanied. He gave a little wave, one a person of royalty would give to his subjects, one that said, “One day you’ll understand why it has to be this way.”

I couldn’t keep silent. “Hey! No! Don’t do it—“

But it was too late now. Without much ado, he stepped his entire body inside the coils of destiny; as I expected, he fit like a glove into the outline (or was it the other way around?). From there, as if moved by pneumatic pressure, or by the wind, or by magic, I can’t really say which, he was propelled forward into the mountain, slowly, smoothly, and with more speed than I would have initially thought possible given the lack of motor movement once inside. Yoshida gasped; members of Nakagaki’s following, now horseshoed around the hole, clapped and cheered him on. I ran to the front of the group just before the last of his body was swallowed into nothingness.

“Holy shit! Hey, come back!” I said, as if there was coming back. I reached desperately into the black void, hoping to claw into him and yank him back, but as soon as my hand parted the veil that separated our world from the cool, damp, unfathomable world of the mountain, I subconsciously winced and pulled it back out toward the inviting daylight, afraid that whatever force that was now grinding Nakagaki along might be able to pull me in, too.

The fan club, who seemed beside themselves with reverence, whispering excitedly among themselves, deifying Nakagaki’s act, were now scanning the mountain in hopes of finding their own outline. I pushed through them, aghast with their complete lack of concern that a living, breathing human had just made his descent into an inescapable darkness.

“Someone just went into the hole, and I don’t know if he can get out!”

The researchers near the bottom of the hill rushed up with their equipment, but the heavy monitors and the power cords slowed the process gravely, so by the time they reached Nakagaki’s silhouette, he had been out of sight for nearly five minutes. As they had done before, they unwound the fibrescope, extending it the full thirty meters into the dark recesses of the hole; it was clear he had been pushed further down, moved along by the design of the thing.

A state of panic trickled its way down the fault line, and all those milling around, snapping photos for their memory books, or doing archaeological research, or simply staring dumbstruck at all the godforsaken holes, made their way to the site where he had disappeared. A state of emergency was declared; rescue squads were called in from a neighboring city. One crew member of the archeological dig, short and scrawny himself, opted to enter the hole and slide his way down, but was only able to go a few meters before a mixture of fear and imperfect proportions caused him to panic; he was pulled to safety by his roped waist.

As the news crews piled in, likely tipped off by an onlooker or two, it was time for Yoshida and I to escape the advancing bedlam. Space was needed to process the horrible events of the afternoon, so after coercing Yoshida back down the trail to a small and peaceful clearing, late afternoon was upon us. We decided to stay the night, certain that it was a necessity to be on the frontlines of this sordid tale. We gathered inside my tent once the handiwork was complete to see how the nation was responded to the news. Given the media blitz the fault had managed to steamroll thus far, we could only imagine how much of a heyday they were going to have with the disappearance.

We made a little fire, took turns tending the coals to heat our tins of roasted peppers and beans. We sat on large stones, tracking the reports on our carrier pods. Every channel was running the story, the details the same but laid out differently. Yoshida and I were equally embarrassed the few times we saw our faces floating by in the background. The scab of the Mount Amigara media blitz had ripped open once more. Nighttime swept its hand over the valleys and peaks as the news reports continued on. It was told through the speaker of my carrier pod so many times that, instead of sounding rote, it sounded less real, like I was at the butt of some elaborate scheme to cook up high ratings in a dry season. Or it was all just a dream I fabricated in my infinite summertime malaise.

But it was real, and Yoshida was real. Only that night did the dreaming begin.

Six — Stuck

In my dream, bundled away inside the tent, I became Nakagaki. Inside Mount Amigara, hundreds of meters down. It was all so wonderful at first, the feeling of sliding comfortably down into the mountain, into myself, into the cushioned darkness. The air was cool and moist, the sensation unlike anything experienced in the real world—a mixture of suspension in a zero-gravity chamber combined with a familiar hug. I couldn’t deny the euphoria of being wrapped inside myself, falling into the abyss. How stupid I had been on the surface, thinking that the holes were things to fear!

But something was slowly going wrong. I was no longer moving as quickly or as smoothly. Where once the gliding sensation had tickled hairs on my neck, now a cold sweat had formed there, unable to be removed due to my pinned limbs. I came to know true stillness for such long periods of time—hours without so much as a centimeter of movement. When I did move, some dark thought in my head told me that I was just experiencing a phantom sensation. There really was no way to tell in the dark.

I was swept away by the hands of time, carried off into another world through the darkness. In this new world things moved slower than they do on earth, so slow that each pause between one breath and the next was almost infinite. I became stuck in one of the void spaces, where I was unable to perceive anything but what I still held onto – the fact that I was trapped under the earth, alone, dying.

I tried moving but it was useless; nothing would budge even the tiniest bit. Even my eyes were glued into place. The dark thought swirling in my head spoke once more: there is a real problem, Nakagaki. The earthquake must have thrown off the path that was intended to lead you to the other side. If only you had more weight to lose, you might find yourself unstuck. But even then, it’s unlikely – you’ll die of dehydration before it comes to that.

Words, those bastions of hope, the fruits of our advanced biology, had failed me some time ago, meaningless pleas for help—now they wouldn’t come at all; the blackness had become a physical entity, a thick cotton wool that gagged me. My ribs pressed tighter against the stone, my breathing stifled with the added pressure. My body was rapidly deteriorating in the acrid air of inner earth. It was all growing tighter, the pressure building. My eyes popped free from their sockets and dangled down, and I could see myself again, impossibly through the darkness, and what I saw was enough to cause a scream to boil my insides alive, my clamped jaw ripped free, fractured by the fear.

I woke in a damp sweat, still wrapped in my sleeping bag that now seemed too claustrophobic. I ripped it off with fervor and sprang to my feet, my head crashing into the roof of the tent, the nylon stretching, likely comedic had anyone seen from the outside. I stretched my limbs, glad to be free of the imaginary grave of Nakagaki.

Yoshida was waiting for me – how long she had been standing there I can’t begin to imagine. She stood rooted in place, her legs locked together. Dark rings clung to the undersides of her eyes. The look she was giving me told me all I needed to know, but I thought it best to ask anyway.

“Any news on Nakagaki?”

“…he’s still gone. The rescue crews sent a drone into the hole but there was some electronic communication error about 150 meters down, and it shut off.”

“That’s awful – he’s down so far now that—”

“Yes.”

But there was some other bit of information she was withholding. I could see it behind her cryptic stare. Just as she was unable to mince words, she was unable to hide her true feelings; this one resonated with a kind of inner desperation. Her brow seemed permanently furrowed, a silent scream bursting through the fair complexion and solemn disposition. We stared at one another for several seconds.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?”

A nod. “I need you to see this.”

Together we embarked on our climb back to the fault. Ahead of me, Yoshida’s long hair fell straight today, hung at her back and down her shoulders limply in the humidity of the day. She was wearing the same outfit as yesterday. All around her the air was a cacophony of cicada screams.

“Where are we going?”

“I found it. I found mine.”

Seven — Second Entry

It was much further down than we had explored yesterday. It made me wonder how long she had spent combing the outlines last night; perhaps she hadn’t slept. I wanted to tell her about my dream—she was fast becoming the only person who could understand—but I refrained, scared off by the idea that she might have a bad reaction to the news.

The landscape near the bottom of the fault was much less uneven than further up. Woodland creatures parted the shrubbery, birds were singing, a different song than yesterday. The clouds were in shreds in the sky, the air a bit less thin. It was as if the further I got from Nakagaki, the idea of him trapped in the bowels of the earth, the better I felt.

I could see upon arrival that the hole, without so much as a shred of evidence backing my claim, belonged exclusively to Yoshida. The outline’s long, royal figure was crafted to fit snugly around her. The hips, the legs, breasts (I tried not lingering on those), even the small slots for her wrists and feet—all crafted with preternatural accuracy.

“It looks a bit like you, I guess,” was my feeble attempt to pass off the similarity.

“Don’t be stupid. It’s identical to me.”

In a moment, as if the weight of her words hit her with real, physical force, she became panicked, her eyes wide and terrified. They would not, could not turn away from her outline, as if it had just uttered a horrible bit of news that she alone could hear. Her shoulders lurched forward and, even in the coming heat of the day, her body shivered like she had been plunged into a barrel of ice water.

“Yoshida. Yoshida! What is it? Why are you shaking?”

“I-I’ve found it. Finally. They dug it just for me.”

“It’s a coincidence” I said, grabbing her by the shoulders and looking deep into her eyes. Her phrasing unsettled me—who was the “they” she had mentioned? Did she know more than I did? But now was not the time to explore the subject further.

“It’s been here all this time, waiting for me. And when I go inside I’ll be trapped forever.”

“C’mon now. If you don’t think about going in, it’s not so scary. You’ll always have a choice, Yoshida. Please listen to—“

“No…No! I’m so scared, Owaki. I’m going to have to enter the hole eventually. And when I do, that’s it. I’m going to die inside it. It’s my destiny—I knew it the moment I saw it there. It’s not something you can simply just stop thinking about.”

“You’re going to be fine, and you’re not going to die. Dwelling on what might be and what the universe is ‘telling’ you to do is never a good idea.”

“But you don’t understand. You don’t have one, or haven’t found it yet. Just look over there…it’s like it’s talking to me, telling me to come in. ‘Come into me.’ Those are the exact words. How is that not the creepiest thing you’ve ever heard…?”

She was delving further and further into paranoia. The words I was saying no longer seemed to penetrate her confusion, as if she was somewhere far off already, down inside some dark hole in her mind, trapped by her thoughts and the weight of destiny. I had to act.

“Yoshida, get ahold of yourself! I’ll fill this goddamn hole up myself, if that’s what it will take. Just watch and see.”

The next several minutes were spent lugging rocks of all shapes and sizes from the area to the opening, filling it to the brim so that not a trace of the blackness within could be seen. Sweat poured from my hair, soaking the back of my shirt with perspiration. When finished, I took a step back to admire my handiwork.

“Now you’re safe. See?”

She didn’t say anything, but some of the tension around her shoulders lessened, and the shaking had long since stopped. I took her by the hand and led her far from the hole, though my hand was met with some reluctance. To her, it was a literal and figurative black hole, one trying to pull her ever so gradually into its confines. I knew that I had to anchor her here, to reality. And so, her hand in mine, we hiked up and away from the quiet woodland near the base of Amigara Mountain.

But back at the top, things had taken a turn for the worst. There was a fresh buzz of excitement in the air. I initially was confused, unsure what could keep this story fresh. For all intents and purposes, it was like Nakagaki had been erased from all records the moment he entered the tunnel. Perhaps they had dug up some information on Nakagaki’s past, his Cybe personal accounts. Maybe they knew more as to why he felt so strongly to come all the way out to the mountain in the first place, and why he had been so confident that slipping into the earth alone and naked was less than problematic.

Before I could ponder further, I learned the reason behind this new chatter. There was someone climbing up the rock face. It was hard to tell, but it looked like another member of Nakagaki’s group. He was stark naked and overweight—his arms strained in apparent exhaustion, but he continued climbing through sheer force of will. The news crews were doing little to stop him. Their cameras rolled away, not about to jeopardize this moment to monopolize on a headline by saving someone from falling down a mountain naked, or falling into a mountain, as absurd as that seemed. Every so often, an onlooker would chime in with a few words, but that’s all the action entailed.

“What’s he doing?”

“Get down, kid. You’ll hurt yourself.”

“But I found it! We all did!” the boy replied through his panting and wheezing. “They are made for us!”

I wondered why he was speaking in first person plural when I noticed he was not alone. At least ten other people were stripped down by now, all standing in front of holes that were shaped like they were. Members of the group that ran with Nakagaki. I ran, Yoshida in tow, toward the nearest one, a girl with broad shoulders who I had noticed yesterday, hoping to reach her before she made the plunge. But I was too late, we all were, those of us who also noticed and tried to stop the group’s plans. Human after human entered their holes, the film cameras watching the entire time, photographers snapping photos of the backs of them as they disappeared.

Eight — Desperation

That night, we tried to follow the same routine, but it seemed impossible to concentrate. To me, it seemed more levelheaded to say that once someone entered the mountain, they were carried off to an alternate timeline altogether.

But that didn’t work either; this was no fantasyland. Here we were in unremarkable New Japan, with our instant rice and furikake, where miracles only occur when a sports team comes from behind, or a dog saves its owner from drowning – anything that could be ran as a human-interest piece. That was the true judge of miracles, through news stories. It’s the only kind of life I had known.

We did notice a sudden shift in the broadcast surrounding Mount Amigara that night, though, one noticeable only to those who were keeping a religious tab on the ordeal or, like us, were actually living it out. It seemed like the media were trying to push interest away from the fault, likely a suggestion from the government to keep more people than necessary from trekking to Amigara and find their own holes. In the vacuous space where the Amigara story was not, more dry filler was folded in, the kind that aired before this whole sorry scene unfolded. Stories of diplomacy talks from overseas, celebrity gossip, pieces on efforts to restore the coral reefs. By morning, there would likely be a construction crew on site, ready to glaze over the holes with concrete; perhaps those holes of Nakagaki and company would be left open, as fruitless as it seemed. And that would be that.

Unequipped with the easiness of leisure in the City, or anything we didn’t experience firsthand at the fault that morning. Yoshida and I talked to pass the time. We talked about our past, learned we attended schools only a few kilometers apart. This opened the gate to other topics, the area of the City we both knew and loved, our favorite shops in the area, where we preferred to take our (limited) dates. It was simple and comfortable conversation, as if even just growing up near one another was enough to break the ice. She seemed to be feeling better than the day before somehow, perhaps reminded that she still had her life ahead of her after the departure of the others. Whatever sorrows she held onto were buried deep within her, stifled during her interrogation with several dispatched “special agents” the government sent over to get a handle on everything. I could see it deep down inside of her, out of reach but ready to be pulled up at a moment’s notice. I thought it best to leave it there, where it could be managed once they were back on the train toward the City.

“Ah, my friend used to work there! He and I used to be in skip-do club together in high school. They have some pretty good deals for the amount of food you get. When I’d go in he’d let me have two for the price of one entrees.”

“You’re sounding more and more like a boy every day, Owaki.”

“Heh, you’re not wrong.”

It came to be quite late. I had taken to reading a small paperback I had brought along with me, and Yoshida stretched herself out on her blanket, staring up at the shivering nylon of the tent roof. It was hard to tell her mood for once—what was so usually on display, now seemed intentionally hidden.

“It’s getting pretty late. Shouldn’t you be heading back to your tent soon?”

“I can’t go back there. It’s not safe for me to be alone right now.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m here with you. You’re not inconveniencing me at all.”

This was no time to tell her that I had never spent the night alone with a girl before, so I kept quiet. Inside my head, the thought of it all raced around. Each time Yoshida moved, her once subtle sexuality became luridly obvious to me. Tucking her hair behind her ear, where once a harmless activity, now clued me in on the types of seductions that were possible outside of the underbelly darknet of contraband pornography.

“Are you sure? It’s just…I’m so scared.”

“It’s fine. I’m so weirded out by this afternoon. I doubt I would have slept a wink anyway. I can’t believe so many of them decided to enter today. I can only imagine what they are feeling, down there, all alone.”

“I’ve always been alone. That’s not to say I didn’t have parents growing up, but it was like they only partially cared that I was around. To them, I seemed more like some sort of caged animal, a gerbil or lizard, one that could be left for long periods of time without care. That I would subsist even in their absence. But’s that’s not how it works, not for humans. My parents are professors, and they took me with them when they transferred to new universities. Sargasso, Lefnore, Tigrist—eventually the City. All the major metropolitan areas left in the world, all of the culture and possibility, a large allowance for anything I might want or need, and still I feel nothing.

“It was the same in school, when I finally did make friends. I felt like a ghost, like someone who is easily discarded. Like a hole in a wall, if that isn’t ironic enough.”

“Yoshida, don’t you see? That’s the incubus of your fear: to you, the hole represents true loneliness. At least up here on earth you have the potential to interact, to try to forge lasting connections, unlike the kind you had with your family. But all that’s over now.”

“Really?”

“Yes, because I’m with you. You won’t need to worry about being alone any longer.”

She gave me an appraising look, the way someone might look at art hanging in a gallery. She seemed skeptical, but the weight of my words, surprising to not only her alone, had definitely chipped away at some of her icy exterior.

“Are you sure? I’m damaged goods, you know?”

Some unknown courage was unlocking itself from deep inside myself, and was helpless to its vision of what was to come. I simply bowed my head to it and let it take over the conversation.

“I’m more than sure, Yoshida. I’ve never met anyone who understands me, understands this whole mess, quite like you.”

Before we knew what was happening, like flashes of vision in a fugue state, we were holding one another.  I was still talking, this bad habit I have in the face of stress and new situations, though it seemed pointless, since Yoshida’s mouth was drawing closer with each pointless syllable I sputtered out. I caught the words before they could form, at the last possible moment—our lips met hesitantly at first; we tested each other like pool water in May. It was slow work, trying to understand what she wanted. I went by her breathing; when she was swept away in the moment, her breathing flowed excitedly. The inverse was also true—breathing would halt when she felt that I was overstepping my boundaries, going past what two near-strangers should be doing in a tent on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I viewed the scene outside of my body, soaking in the strangeness of my flailing lips and awkwardly placed hands. Our shirts were removed next, though it seemed like that would be the end of the road. We laid down next to one another, still kissing, pressing our chests together, feeling the pulse of our hearts. Alive! I wanted to yell from my perch above the scene. This is what it means to be alive, Yoshida! Not turned inward and rotting down a miserable cutout of your body.

 We met one another at face value, as we had the entire trip. It was impossible for her not to be discretely honest, and when she tried to hide her emotions away, I could read them without decoding anything. They were like headlines in newspapers—a font larger than everything else, so easily graspable that an illiterate person would know just what was happening.

There was no telling when the kissing ended and sleeping began. It seemed like eternity we were there, connected to one another, breathing each other’s air. All thoughts of the fault line and the others dying inside them were pushed far back on a shelf in my mind, so that all I could sense was Yoshida, there, the brush of her fingertips against my chest, the hair that creeped over and butterfly-kissed my eyelids to sleep. It was not until I was asleep and numb to all the problems of the world that I revisited our situation on Mount Amigara.

Nine — The Other Civilization

This dream was different than last night’s. I was a member of some ancient civilization, only it wasn’t like the ones we had learned about as schoolchildren – grunting men and women in hide loin cloths, picking berries, killing game, living in primitive huts. This civilization mirrored ours almost exactly – the names were slightly different, some customs varied – only it predated our civilization by nearly 100,000 years. There was virtually no way to tell how I knew this information, except to say that it was common knowledge to dream-me. Here I was, living in an identical apartment, in a city just like my City, but not in the year Z-64, 12.

In this new world, we were governed by criminal acts. Just watching the news, as I was doing when the dream began, was enough to induce depression and suicidal thoughts from the first headline to the last. I imagined offing myself in a new way every time the screen went black between channels on the pod. I flipped and flipped, watching children get bludgeoned to death in street riots, pregnant women blown apart by mortar shells, and corrupt leaders telling their citizens that through adherence to principles laid out by the body politic, things would correct themselves in due time. 

But due time never came. It was all on the brink of destruction, so the people decided to act. A whisper spread its way across the country that a large group of people operating under the name Hope Alliance was planning to leave under the cover of nightfall to a location disclosed through our carrier pods. They would be hacked, and a geographical coordinate would appear. Upon arriving there, we would be picked up by Hope Alliance administrators and taken to an undisclosed safe point. Such an exodus, the likes of which would certainly have been quashed by government interference any other time, given the grand implications it imposed, somehow managed to go undetected by government authorities. I heard about it from Yoshida, who sent me an invitation to the group through an off-Cybe carrier pod messaging system. Once an Alliance member made it to the final destination, a new government would be assembled, the doctrines created, the old ones dismantled through a well-calculated regime of cyberterrorism.

I accepted Yoshida’s invitation almost immediately, and had suspicions that several others in my friend group were also joining, though none seemed to let on. A heavily encrypted site that was supposedly hosted on maritime servers established to remain untraceable and mobile hosted the sign-up page with instructions on how to easily prepare your pod for hacking. The notification that informed me the coordinates had been delivered to my apartment like an alarum bell. I left it all behind without much thought, packing only a small bag with several kilograms of energy-dense food and a change of clothes.

The location of the coordinates turned out to be an abandoned shipyard in a district of the City that was notorious for its gangs that ran wild under the cover of night. I tried to make myself as scarce as possible, so not to attract the attention of whoever might be lurking in the shadows. There were a few close calls, but I was never spotted as being someone who might make an easy target. Eventually a van approached the agreed arrival point. A man in black signaled to me using the Hope Alliance’s gesture – a fist covered by a shielding hand; this was it. It was time to start my new life.

Upon entering the van, I was blindfolded. I could feel the van speeding away. A gruff voice very close to my ear told me it was all a security measure to ensure the safety of the group as a whole.

When my eyes were finally given back to me – it seemed like days and days, but couldn’t possibly be more than three or four hours, after a drive and a substantial hike over (what I assumed was) unsteady terrain, I was being led up a trail that stood before a large and forlorn mountain. There were many of us there, other members of the Hope Alliance, looking just as scared as I felt, but with a silent kind of energy that burned under the surface. I scanned the crowd for Yoshida, but was unable to see her. Instead, my eyes met several others in the group. We exchanged silent nods to reassure ourselves that this was the right choice.

As it turned out, however, it was not the right choice.

We were approached by more men in black carrying government-issued weapons, who, while laughing and spitting in our faces, told us that the whole veil of Hope Alliance was intended to draw the idiots out from the pack and have them silenced early on; followers, not leaders, really were the scurf of society, one told me. Cries of outrage were silenced by silent gunfire. All the rest, there had to be several hundred of us here, and countless others at different locations I imagined, were stripped naked methodically. It was only then, through the veil of sleep that blended my reality with the reality of the dream, did I notice the holes.

I was on Mount Amigara. The pieces were connecting; the grim analogy I spun in my mind was that they were connecting like my body was about to connect with the mountain. Even my last few moments above ground were filled with sarcasm.  In a matter of seconds, we were led to our hole, ones cut specially for us by the government, who had records on all of our measurements, who desired our silence as well as our suffering, and pushed in.

Immediately I felt the cold stone surrounding me on all sides. There was no choice, just like in Nakagaki’s dream, to move back; the walls had been carved in such a way, though a system of ridges, that they prevented you from retreating. My screams for help were muted by the walls, but I could hear the others, sliding along beside me in their own holes. As in the other dream, I was sliding smoothly along; each small fidget amplified the movement slightly, pushed me down farther into the earth. But unlike before, there was no great moment of being stuck. Just movement, movement. After hours of this slow, maddening movement, I felt a tug on my shoulders – the wall was beginning to deform while my body continued on, relentlessly moving toward the core of the earth. My limbs and torso followed suit until I realized I was slowly being stretched apart in several directions. My body was bending, as if made of elastic! My final words before waking were pleas for help accompanied with the laughter of insanity, laughter that is borne when all else fails, when you are overcome with claustrophobia. The sounds remained etched in my ears until I gasped myself awake on the same mountain, but in the year Z-64, 12.

Ten — History Repeats

A cool night wind was licking at the tent flaps when I finally calmed down from the dream. Way off, deep in the forest beyond Amigara, a pack of wild dogs howled in harmonic unison. The sounds didn’t help my mood, which seemed to teeter on the edge of madness and stupidity. It wasn’t real. My own spot in the fault line? The conspiracy hoax, and the other civilization? I could never tell Yoshida…

It was only then that I remembered she had stayed in my tent, and that we had fallen asleep together. I turned to my side to see her, to be reminded that this was reality and, through the whole mess of events that had conspired, at least I had met Yoshida. Only she was no longer there. Merely a captured indentation in my blankets remained. The logical mind took over, and I grabbed my carrier pod and turned it to luminary mode, unzipped the tent, and made way to hers, perched just a small walk away. When the luminary beam entered through the opening in her tent, an unzipped sleeping bag told me that now the illogical mind, the insensible mind, the fantastical mind, could take over, to panic—for there were only so many places for Yoshida to go in the dark, foreign countryside. Instead of moving my way back up the mountain, back to where Nakagaki and the others had decided to make the plunge, or were still plunging, I headed down, back to where she and I had been just that afternoon. Had I misread her emotions?

A night without the light pollution of the City is an unsettling experience. At home nothing shuts off—the lurid glow of neon gas is present outside of almost every window in the place, right up to the moment the sun breaks through the smog and colors the morning a faded, dusty orange. But out here, out where few live, and up above sea level, you are left with nothing but your thoughts and the light from the stars and moon. And while it had been unsettling the night before, the events of the day, the dream, and a missing Yoshida was more than enough to turn the serene evening into a thing that pressed against me on all sides, not unlike the holes to my right would do to any who entered. My eyes set forward, the luminary down-facing and scanning the area for any loose rocks or sudden drops in terrain, I felt as if I was being funneled through a small patch of my own personal destiny, unable to venture outside of the lines of what was ahead of me.

I finally noted the landmarks of the area—the sudden evenness of the terrain, the increased foliage that entered the light-bubble of my luminary, and knew I was close. It was time to look to my right, into the shadows in the darkness, and (I prayed) find the covered hole of Yoshida. That this was all a misunderstanding, that she was searching for a place to use the restroom (I almost smiled), and that I would come back to the tent to find an equally worried Yoshida. Last night had to have meant something to her, after all.

For a small moment before I saw the pile of clothes on the ground, the rocks I had used to so meticulously to cover and hide away Yoshida’s concern, the uncovered hole, I was still filled with those thoughts, an internal laughter, before they were replaced with crawling insects gnawing at my insides, the feeling of missing a step on the staircase in the middle of the night. I stood before the sad little scene of Yoshida’s demise like an uninvited guest in the nighttime. I shone my luminary inside the hole and felt embarrassed, intruding; it seemed cruel how little it did to illuminate the raw darkness inside.

“YOSHIDA!”

My screams continued on for some time, long after conscious thought left and primal instinct took over. I reached both hands inside, tried to climb in, scoot myself along her path, but my efforts did little than soak my entire body in sweat once more and blister my lungs with meaningless words wasted. Eventually a sputter was all that was left in me, a cadence of “why…why…why” that soon matched the drumbeat of my heart and lured me back out of the hole and onto the soft earth made of nutrient-rich volcanic ash. My whys were carried off into the air of the mountain, echoed somewhere, turned back toward me in the faintest of pleas. My carrier pod fell with a thud to the earth, the luminary still on, pointed helter-skelter toward the mountain. Yoshida had gone, had wanted to leave the whole time—there was no distracting her from a goal once she had decided upon it. I must have been a joke to her, some small and insignificant thing. Now it seemed she had found the perfect scenario for such a headstrong person. There was but one goal now for her. Onward.

But what of me? What are my goals? I half expected a corps of government workers to come out of the brambles and brush, to push me to my hole, wherever it might be. Had the dream been a reality once before? Did Z-64, 12 bleed back into history, give way to the age before, from the dream? They often said we still knew very little of the past, even with all the advancements of archaeology. Had this been the scene of a very similar scenario in a time erased by those who had built it?

The questions piled themselves up in my brain like an accident on the expressway, with others, those thoughts of never seeing Yoshida again, the pointless actions I could take to make her disappearance known, veering past and into the control center of my mind. Did I even know her last name, anything specific? Was her name even Yoshida?

I realized a fear was entering me before I could stop it—a fear of looking up at the carrier pod’s beam of light, which shone on the fault line. A fear of those hundreds of outlines looking away from me, laughing at me behind turned backs.

Look at the poor sap! He knows why he came here, but he just doesn’t want to accept it. So futile…

Look at us, Owaki, and you will see that you’re just looking into a mirror. You’re just the shadow of a person, yearning for his own path in life.

Perhaps we are superior to you in that regard, my boy. At least we know.

Yoshida saw that in us, in her outline. A channel was opened for her; she was chosen for the role, and she knew that she could do little to change that.

Accept us, Owaki.

Accept us!

Slowly, with eyes glazed, I looked up to see the concentrated beam of my carrier pod pointing directly to a hole cut right at ground-level. You couldn’t pick it out of a lineup—no special features of any kind: average height, weight, posture. It looked like an artist’s mannequin before it was taken from the box. But there was no denying that it was mine. It was so common that it was lost behind the revelation of Yoshida finding hers, so it was ignored earlier that day. But back then I thought differently, so perhaps there wasn’t a necessity for my finding it. It was hard to believe that it was only a little over twelve hours back.

But now it was all I could see. The rest of the world slowly blurred itself away until I was left with only the darkness in my heart and in the hole. My clothes were removed in a dissociative fugue. Naked as I came, my steps toward the opening were small earthquakes themselves, quakes of importance, that this was the end. The weaker half of my brain strongly urging the other to stop, Stop, STOP!

But it was useless to let a dream remain a dream. And as I turned away from the light of the carrier pod, I knew I would not make the news headlines, nor would Yoshida. Our ends were but whispers in the grand scheme of the world. We would be covered with shellac and forgotten. Perhaps we already had once before, in a time since passed. It wasn’t a sad thought to think; just a fact we, even those of us without an obvious direction, all try to ignore. At least the two of us knew what we wanted. Some never even have that.

When I dissolved with the hole, I became as large as the mountain. As large as the world itself—new planets burst forth from my insides, spilling inky cosmos across the true black. I was dazzling. I shone. The dark took over and embraced me like a mother embraces her child after a long trip away from home. Squeezing and squeezing, wanting to feel the closeness of gravidity again. I had returned home, sliding deep inside where I now belonged: finally, an embryo once more.

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