It all felt wrong. I don’t mean just the lethal levels of radioactivity that lingered in the plant. I mean everything about it felt like the old gods that inhabit this place were warning us to leave. Maybe it was seeing the exposed twisted metal that seemed to invade the confined spaces, like the building itself was trying to reach out and grab us. Or how light beamed in from the outside, illuminating carnage in an otherwise blackened room. Or maybe it was the God-awful silence. We couldn’t hear anything but the sound of breathing in our masks and our footsteps as we made our way through the wreckage because there was nothing else to hear. No cars outside. No people inside. No churning of turbines or whir of fans. There simply was nothing to hear. Nothing but our own breathing and footsteps. I could hear the rubber sole of my shoe crush the dust-sized debris each time I put weight on my foot. It was that quiet. It should never be that quiet. Every step further into the plant brought a sense of panic to the front of my mind.
Kaito and I are nuclear scientists for the Japanese government. We were sent in to take readings after so many years since the Fukushima disaster. It’s important to keep track of the decay of the radioactive material since the population is growing and the habitable landmass isn’t. They made sure we had the proper protective gear for this and only allowed us two hours on site. They warned us that anything more than a couple of hours, we’d be risking infertility, cancer, and even death. They didn’t have to spend long convincing me.
“Say something,” demanded Kaito. “Anything. Baseball, movies, Ultraman. Just talk. All this silence is going to give me a heart attack.” It was hard to see his expression through the mask that kept him from breathing in radioactive particles, but his voice sounded desperate for a break in the anxiety.
“What do you think of the American Godzilla movies?”
“What?” is asked with a laugh.
“You said anything. What do you think of their movies?” I asked, stepping over a fallen concrete pillar. The ceiling that it held up came down with it, covering the floor with broken shards of building material that I didn’t know the names for.
“Well, I always thought it was weird that he always attacked Tokyo. I mean, a creature that size would probably travel the whole ocean, like whales. It would make sense that he’d eventually find his way to New York. But it is weird that he looks different when he gets there.”
“I noticed that, too. And is it me or did he look fatter to you?”
We both heard running footsteps, a few meters in front of us. We shined our flashlights in the direction of the sound. We saw the piled wreckage of a destroyed building and nothing else.
“You heard that too, right?” asked Kaito, not taking his eyes off of where the sound came from.
“I did,” I told him. “Could it have been something else? I mean, nothing can survive down here.”
“Hello?” he called out into the darkness. “Is anyone there?”
We listened for a response.
“Hello?” he called again.
We heard the faint sound of a man crying. “Go away!” they demanded.
“Sir? Sir, you can’t be down here. It’s still not safe,” I told the male voice.
Suddenly, a naked male figure sprung from behind some wreckage and ran across the room, behind a stacked pile of file cabinets.
“I said go away!”
Kaito and I ran over to where we saw him disappear. We found him on the floor, curled up into a ball and crying. He hid his face in his crossed arms that rested on his knees. Beside him on a cabinet that had been knocked on its side, sat a cheap plastic pot, the kind new plants come in. Inside it was fresh soil and a small white flower in full bloom. A hole in the ceiling shone a spot of sunlight where the flower rested on its inhospitable perch.
Kaito found a long jacket from somewhere and laid it over the naked crying man.
“Sir?” I asked. “I don’t want to be insensitive, but you can’t stay here. The radioactivity levels are still dangerous. Look.” I turned around my Geiger counter to show him the readout. “You could die from prolonged exposure. We need to get you out of here.”
“I was built to live in this place,” the man said through the tears.
“Don’t say that,” said Kaito. “No one was meant to live in a place like this.”
“I was,” said the man. “Dr. Tanaka said I was. He made me so I could survive in this place. So, I could clear it up and make the land ready for something else. But he’s broken, now. He stopped moving. Can you fix him?” The man pointed behind us.
We slowly turned around and shined our flashlights where he pointed. Between some crumbled shards of concrete was a rolling desk chair, right side up, with the decayed body of an old man sitting in it. What was left of his arms were resting in his lap. He looked like he was dressed in white button-up shirt and black slacks, from what I could see with the flashlight. He’d clearly been dead for a long time. But the radiation must’ve killed the bacteria and insects that normally breakdown the body after death. So, the old man’s corpse looked mainly desiccated and brittle, like an accidental mummy.
“I’m sorry,” said Kaito. “We can’t fix Dr. Tanaka. He’s too far gone for us to do anything.”
“Oh. I miss him. Do you like the flower that I brought down here?” he asked, motioning to the little white thing in the pot. “I don’t know what species it is. Dr. Tanaka didn’t teach me that.”
“That flower can’t live down here, either.” I tried to tell him in a calm voice. “The radiation will kill it.”
He looked up at me curious. “What is kill?”
“What is…” I looked at him and realized that the doctor wouldn’t have had a reason to teach him about death. I shined my flashlight on the doctor and said, “To kill is to make someone dead. Like the poor doctor.”
He started to cry again and buried his face in his folded arms.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kaito.
“I love that flower. I don’t want to make it dead,” the man said with tears in his eyes. “No one ever explained these things to me. I’ve never had a friend, before. Friends explain things.”
“We can be your friends. My name is Kaito, and this is Haruto. What’s yours?”
“Dr. Tanaka never gave me a name. Is that bad?”
“No, no. We can give you a name. What about Hōshasei?”
The man thought about it and smiled. “I like it.”
“Come on then, Hōshasei. Grab your flower and let’s get you out of here,” I suggested, offering a hand to help him off the floor.
“No!” he shouted and shot to his feet. “I am made for this place. I can’t leave.”
“Sure, you can,” Kaito said and took Hōshasei’s arm to lead him out.
Hōshasei yelled, “No!” then grabbed Kaito's hand so hard that I heard the sound of bones breaking.
Kaito screamed and dropped to his knees. He cradled his broken hand. I could see it was mangled and bloody from Hōshasei’s inhuman grip.
“You said you were my friends!” shouted Hōshasei, accusingly. “Friends don’t make you leave their home!”
“He was trying to help you!” I shouted. “You broke his hand!”
“That was his fault. You can fix him.”
“No! I can’t! It’s a hand! I need to get him to a hospital.” I bent down to put a comforting hand on Kaito’s back.
“You’re lying,” Hōshasei said as he took a piece of my arm between two of his thumb and forefinger. He squeezed, crushing my muscle, and flooding my body with agonizing pain. I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out. “Friends don’t lie!”
I rolled over onto my back and cradled my arm as waves of pain coursed through me.
Hōshasei found a chair, righted it, and sat down on the edge of it, keeping his back straight. “Is this what having friends is like?” he asked, sounding sad. “Do all friends lie and make you leave your home?”
Kaito came over to me and grabbed my arm, “Let’s just leave him alone and get out of here.”
Hōshasei quickly ran over and blocked our path. “You can’t leave. I’ll be all alone. Do you know how long I’ve been alone, here? I won’t let you leave.”
“Hōshasei, we have to,” I pleaded through the pain. “The radiation will kill us if we stay here. Look at your flower. It’s already starting to wilt. That’s what’ll happen to us. You don’t want that, do you?”
“It just needs some water. That’s all.” Hōshasei stormed over and picked up a bottle of water to pour in the flowerpot. “It’ll be fine. Enough of your lies.”
Kaito got my attention and pointed at the body of Dr. Tanaka. At first, I didn’t see what he was trying to show me. Maybe I just didn’t expect it. I looked at him and shook my head. Kaito motioned to his shoulder with his broken hand. So I took another glance at Dr. Tanaka again and noticed that the shoulder on his shirt was ripped and a red stain ran from the armpit and down the side. I stood up and walked over to him then slid back the material. The flesh had been torn and was curled back. It looked like his arm had been ripped off at the shoulder. White threads, the same color as his shirt weaved in and out of the meat of the joint. Molten drops of grey metal like solder were splattered and globed along torn skin.
I shined the flashlight to my left and followed the trail of blood that ran down the hall and into the far-off darkness.
Hōshasei knocked the flashlight from my hand. Then as he anxiously paced back and forth, he said, “I tried to fix him. I didn’t mean to do it. I just grabbed him and then… His arm just came off. It wasn’t my fault. He started leaking and I didn’t know what to do. He got so loud. So loud. I tried to fix him. I tried hard. But then, he just stopped.” He looked at me with soulless eyes. “You have to fix him.”
“Hōshasei, I told you. We can’t fix him. He’s lost too much of that stuff on the floor, and if you don’t let us go, we’re going to look just like him.”
“Lier!” he shouted. He reached out and grabbed Kaito by the throat and squeezed. “If you don’t fix him, I will stop this one’s oxygen supply. You need it for the chemical reactions of your biological process, don’t you?”
Kaito scratched and clawed at the synthetic hand that was crushing his windpipe. He tried balling up his fist and punching Hōshasei’s face and body, but his efforts were ignored. The skin on Kaito’s face reddened as the blood stopped its flow.
“Let him go!” I screamed and tried to lose Hōshasei’s hand. But he effortlessly knocked me away with his free hand as if he were shooing away flies. I flew back and fell on the floor. The wind had been knocked out of my lungs and I felt the bones of my chest crack from the blow.
“Are you going to fix him, now?” demanded Hōshasei. His eyes were full of anger.
“Kaito!” The skin of his face grew darker and his efforts to struggle weakened. “We’re just scientists! Let us go!” I shouted at the thing holding my friend.
He dropped Kaito’s lifeless body. I rushed over to him, broken ribs, and all. “Kaito!”
He made eye contact with me for a moment. Then it looked like someone blew out the light in his eyes.
I put my index and forefingers to the artery in his throat to feel for a pulse but didn’t find any. I lifted his head to take off his protective mask and did the same to mine so I could give him CPR. A few breaths, then a few chest compressions then start over again. His chest inflated with the breaths that I gave him and compressed when I put my weight on it. But his body remained as lifeless as Dr. Tanaka’s.
Hōshasei paced back and forth while Kaito lay dead on the ground. “It wasn’t my fault!” he exclaimed. Then he stopped and pointed at me. “It’s your fault. If you had fixed Dr. Tanaka, he’d still be online.”
“Online… He’s dead, Hōshasei! You murdered him!” I stood up and pointed an accusing finger at him.
“It’s not my fault!” He insisted. Then he grabbed my finger that I’d been pointing at him and with a squeeze of his hand, he broke it as easily as snapping a dandelion stem.
I screamed in pain and dropped to my knees.
“It serves you right,” he said. “It’s not my fault. It’s not. It isn’t.” He grabbed me under my hurt arm and lifted me up then dropped me on the righted chair. “If you’re not going to fix Dr. Tanaka, you can sit there and be my friend, like you said you would.”
The white flower that he’d brought in from the outside was a pale green and already fallen over, completely. Several of the snowy petals had fallen off and now laid on the cold bare metal of the filing cabinet, beneath the flower's head.
As I sat, a glint of metal on the ground caught my attention. I just happened to see it out of the corner of my eye. The fading beam of sunlight that lazily wandered in from the decayed ceiling seemed to caress the casing. It was a discarded cigarette lighter, laying in the dust and dirt of the floor. I looked at the desiccated remains of Dr. Tanaka, peacefully sitting in his chair and an idea grew in my head. The doctor would have to endure one last disturbance.
I casually and slowly stood up and stepped over to the lighter and bent down to inspect it. It seemed to be in one piece. It wasn’t crushed. The lid was still on. I picked it up with my good hand, opened the lid, and turned the starter. A tall flame erupted from it and I smiled. I had a way out.
I walked over to where Dr. Tanaka’s body had been resting and picked him up in one motion. He was surprisingly light since he was missing all that water.
“What are you doing?” demanded Hōshasei. His arms were open, ready to do whatever he wanted to me if he decided to.
I held Dr. Tanaka’s body upright in one arm and ignited the lighter in the other. “Stay back!” I ordered Hōshasei. “Or I’ll set Dr. Tanaka on fire and no one will be able to fix him.” I started walking backward.
“No! Leave him alone!” Hōshasei started looking around. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t expect me to do this and had no idea how to react.
Dr. Tanaka’s body was light enough that I could drag him all the way back. I knew I could. But I also knew that one misstep and Hōshasei would effortlessly kill me for having tried it. I was probably already dead from the radiation, anyway.
“I will not. Now, stay back or I’ll burn up your maker. Do you understand?” I kept walking, as I talked. But the path wasn’t clear. It was covered with the rubble of a failed nuclear reactor. The guts of a building that blew its own brains out, constantly blocked my path.
Hōshasei followed my every step. He waited for me to slip up, just once. All I needed to do was trip over a fallen pipe. Bump into exposed rebar. Anything that would give him just enough time to kill me for taking hostage the dead body of his maker. He followed me up broken flights of stairs and through collapsed corridors, glued to me like a dog to its master’s food.
I had to have been in there longer than what they gave me. I could feel the poison carve its way into every one of my cells. But I was not about to die in that cursed place. And not by the hand of some monster, cobbled together from God knows what. And he followed me. The closer I came to salvation, the more anxious he became.
When I finally saw what was to be my way out, my excitement kept me from seeing the buckled floor, beneath me. I fell backward and brought Dr. Tanaka right on top of me. Hōshasei found his opening and grabbed my ankle before the dust settled. He squeezed and I felt the bones crumble like so much Styrofoam.
As I screamed, I brought the lighter to Dr. Tanaka’s white button-up shirt. It caught fire like the tinder that I wanted it to be and climbed up his chest.
“No!” cried Hōshasei. He was stunned at the flames.
With a guttural shout, I shoved off the carcass that trapped me in that festering building. Then limped and shuffled my way to the outside world as fast as I could, leaving the synthetic man screaming in terror at the burning corpse of his dead creator. May the gods of this place be kind to him.