In a corner of the marketplace, a banner had been hung with "Makuhara Area Temporary Government" spray-painted on it. Since they sucked at kanji, "temporary" was written in hiragana, but Makoto and Akira still looked at the banner with satisfaction.
About twenty young people sat on the ground, and Takeru spoke to them with a calm expression.
"Now the first meeting of the Makuhara Area Temporary Government will commence. To open, we will hear some words from our leader, Mr. Yamato."
"Cut it out. We don't need greetings or calling it something grandiose like the Temporary Government..." Yamato, who'd been forced to sit in front of everyone, raised his voice in dissatisfaction.
"It can't be helped. The greetings are part of the election process, and an important duty of the elected leader's."
Pulling a reluctant Yamato to his feet, Takeru quickly whispered into his ear, "So, as Leader, can you just say a few words? Just to stay on everyone's good side."
Yamato, with a sullen face, finally said only, "Let's begin," and immediately sat down. There was some scattered applause.
As chairman, Takeru began to speak with a smile. "All right, we'd like to hear the opinions from all of the group leaders who have gathered here."
Here, Yamato broke in. "Ho-hold on a sec. Why isn't Ryuu here? He's a group leader, isn't he?"
"It's fine, that guy doesn't need to come."
Makoto and Akira shook their heads. With a cough, Takeru redirected the proceedings.
"Well then. From now on, what should we do in order to improve the life in Makuhara? That is what we'd like to hear everyone's opinions about."
"Takeru." When Mori spoke up, Takeru wagged a finger at him.
"It's not Takeru now, call me Chairman. Also, when you want to speak, please raise your hand first."
"Let's get a basketball."
"Basketball? Are you kidding? We're in the middle of discussing how to improve everyone's life."
"So we can all play basketball together."
"The important thing here is the necessities of life, right?"
"Well, then a soccer - "
"I said 'necessities of life'."
But the others, who had been listening silently until then, began to chip in with their own opinions.
"That'd be good, basketball or soccer."
"Yeah, we just need some balls."
"Let's ask for it. Let's try!"
Even Makoto said, "Recreation is necessary, too."
"Well, I guess..." Takeru muttered reluctantly.
"Then it's decided."
As secretary, Akira wrote "soccer" on the blackboard without a moment's delay. Mori, of course, was grinning. Takeru alone had a sullen expression.
Akira had a new proposal. "If we're thinking about having a flag, should we make one?"
"What should we call ourselves?"
Akira's eyes began to sparkle at Makoto's question. "How about Team Makuhara?"
"That's real creative," Takeru interjected with a sour face.
"Then let's make it something like Makuhara Runaway City. With City written in English."
"That sounds awesome."
As everyone present got more and more excited, Takeru's face grew more sour.
"On the other hand, all of us are less than twenty, so how about calling it Less-Than City."
At Akira's suggestion, everyone looked at each other.
"That's good, Less-Than City." A murmur of agreement rose.
"Then it's decided." Akira wrote Less-Than City on the board. That was the instant that the village of deserted children was given a new name.
The meeting continued in this fashion despite Chairman Takeru's careful planning. After the idea of making a public bath had been decided on, Kiichi spoke up.
"Our goal ought to be self-sufficiency."
"Just the deliveries aren't enough, right? Even if it's just potatoes or pumpkins, I think we should have something to fill up on."
"Do you know how many months that kind of thing would take?" Yamato asked.
Kiichi answered calmly, "If it's spinach, it would be about three weeks."
"Radishes would be about twenty days."
"Carrots are three months."
Their voices came one after another. Kiichi grinned broadly.
"Well, anyway, anything is better than doing nothing."
Thus was Less-than City's plan to become self-sufficient decided.
"Less-than City because we're all under twenty?"
"Is it a joke, or for real?"
That night in the gym, Kiichi, Yamato and Takeru discussed the day's meeting.
"It went well. The meeting was a success. It really is different with you as a leader, Yamato."
Yamato made an embarrassed face at Kiichi's words.
"But I didn't really say anything..."
"That's fine. That's what being Leader is about," Takeru said, strumming the guitar.
"Is that so..."
"That is so. All the prime minister, or the president, or other VIPs do is wave their hands and smile, right?"
"Is that so?"
"It is. Smile, smile! Go ahead, try it."
Yamato waved his hand and smiled awkwardly.
"You look like an unpopular idol," Takeru teased.
Yamato asked seriously, "But is smiling and raising your hand really enough?"
"It's okay, but that's not everything."
"Tomorrow you'll have to go tell Shibazaki what kind of things we need."
"Aren't I kind of being used?" Yamato asked with an exasperated expression.
The next day came, but Yamato wasn't able to ask for seeds after all. Now matter how desperately he asked, Shibazaki wouldn't approve their self-sufficiency. Disappointed, Yamato started to retreat to the meeting place.
"Didn't he just decide to run away?" Yuuri spat the words. "We just asked for seeds. If we make trouble over what we have to eat, then it's inconvenient for them. They don't want to listen to what we have to say about the delivery."
Though Yuuri never had anything good to say about Shibazaki, today she seemed to be especially hostile.
But that couldn't be helped, Yamato thought. Certainly today Shibazaki had been acting strange. It seemed like he was trying to hide something...
Yamato was at a loss, when Takeru came up with an idea.
"Hey, about the seeds, can't it work anyways? Not just seeds, but things like bulbs and potatoes. Why don't we all search for those?"
In a deserted residential district, Kiichi, Mori, Makoto and Akira went looking through house after house for seeds or bulbs. But everywhere was like a field after a swarm of locusts - there was not even a single grain of rice.
Just when everyone started to feel like giving up, Makoto came out of a nearby building.
"How was it?" Kiichi asked.
After a moment's hesitation, Makoto cautiously held out his hand. Resting on his palm was a single potato. As the other three looked at it, their eyes began to sparkle.
That night, everyone gathered around the crater. It was filled with the white flowers. Their large petals swayed in the night breeze, giving the area an eerie feeling like something out of a science-fiction movie.
"Is this all right? It's kind of creepy, here."
"We agreed, didn't we, that there isn't any other place with dirt," Kiichi said as he dug some holes. Into them Yuuri planted the potato which had been cut into four pieces.
"It has to be a secret. No saying anything to Shibazaki." Kiichi looked around at everyone.
Takeru shook his head. "But think about it, how long does a potato take to grow, anyway?"
"No idea..." None of them knew, though they had the feeling that they'd learned back in elementary school.
But the next day, they found a big surprise in their small garden. Somehow, there was already seedlings coming out - no, not just seedlings. There were thick, lush leaves, and when they tried turning up the soil, they found large potatoes had already grown.
"To start with, we tried baking them," Takeru said, holding a potato wrapped in aluminum foil. There was a savory smell, and they looked just the way baked potatoes should.
But they'd somehow grown up in a single night - no matter how you looked at it, that wasn't normal.
Somehow no one wanted to be the first to eat them, so they all demurred saying, "After you."
Since it couldn't be helped, Yamato spoke. "Alright, let's do it like this. I'll say 'ready, go' and everyone will take a bite at the same time. That way there will be no hard feelings."
Everyone nodded firmly.
"Okay. Ready, go!" Yamato closed his eyes and took a huge bite. "H-hot!"
But the flavor spreading through his mouth was without a doubt potato. And really delicious.
Opening his eyes, he saw everyone watching him with avid interest. Like an idiot, the only one to actually take a bite was Yamato.
"As expected of our Leader! So how is it?" Takeru asked, and Yamato grinned widely back at him.
"It's good! This is really delicious."
Before long, a great field had grown up around the crater. Yamato put up a sign that said, "Wanted: Seeds" and various kids handed over what they found, and plowed the dirt together, until a farm had been created.
Finally, here they'd achieved freedom from hunger. Kiichi, Mori, Makoto and Akira piled potatoes in a large box, with bright grins on their faces.
But those smiles froze in an instant. Ryuu, with his gang, stood before them with feet set apart.
"How long did it take you to do this?" he said, moving to take a box of harvested potatoes from Yamato.
"We're going to distribute these equally to everyone later. Can't you wait a little bit longer?"
"Aren't you sweet. Eat or be eaten, that's the only thing that matters here."
Ryuu laughed through his nose, and tried to take the box forcibly, but Mori stood in the way.
"No! These belong to everyone. We won't let you have them."
And as he spoke, several small boys and girls also stood before Ryuu holding a hoe and a shovel. Their faces showed a determination not to hand over the potatoes.
Ryuu was taken aback for a second. Then he spat on the ground, and left.
Watching all this, Yamato and Takeru's eyes met without thinking. Even the small children had recovered that much confidence and courage. It made both of them happier than anything.
At the same time, something was taking place near the gate. Someone had broken through the barriers, and successfully infiltrated Less-than City, before being halted by the final guards. Someone had invaded from the outside world.
It was Suzuko.
She'd been unable to forget that late night phone call. It had definitely been from Yamato. He was without a doubt still alive...
That belief was so strong that it had brought her all this way. When the road was blocked with checkpoints, she'd gone cross-country. She'd crossed a river and fields and climbed fences and hidden in a delivery truck until she'd finally arrived here.
She wanted to see him.
But while she was thinking only that, she'd missed the danger. She'd come this far, and now there was a line of guns all pointed at her. Now she was faced with a crisis.
Frozen with fear, Suzuko was unable to anything but stand there.
Then, having heard the fuss, Yamato came. Suzuko turned towards him.
"Yamato!" She called in a trembling voice, her emotions welling up. "You really are alive!"
She started to run to him, but he rebuffed her with a harsh voice.
"Don't come near me!"
Shocked, she stood still.
"Go home... Go home right away!"
"Why?" she asked. Her face tightened, unable to believe his words.
"Don't ask why! You shouldn't have come here. Get out. Hurry up and get out!"
"Just forget about me already."
"Why! Why would you say something like that?"
"I'll tell you... there's an organism inside us."
"If you touch me, it will get into you. Then both of us will be dying."
"That's a lie."
"No, it's not," Yamato shook his head firmly.
Suzuko stood there until a guard pushed at her shoulder.
"Hey, you. Get out!"
Suzuko let herself be led towards the gate.
The sad look she sent over her shoulder met Yamato's.
The next instant, she'd torn free of the guard's hand, and raced back to Yamato. As though in slow motion, she flew into his arms.
Suzuko embraced him tightly. Tears came to both of their eyes.
"You idiot..." Yamato muttered. But in his eyes there was a nostalgic, happy look.
"I'm so glad... you're still alive," Suzuko murmured as she clung to him.
She had no regrets. Even if this organism slipped into her body, now that Yamato was here, now that she could be close to him, she was scared of nothing.
One more citizen had been added to the population of Less-Than City.
But this scene was being watched by Takeru, Mori, and Yuuri. All three of them wore complicated expressions.
Of course, it was good that Yamato was there... that's what Suzuko had thought as she jumped into his arms. But there were things about the daily life in Less-than City that she could never have imagined.
For starters, she was taken aback that there was no water. There was no change of clothes. There was nothing. And in a place like this, Yamato...
But that's what Suzuko didn't know. This Less-than city, from its former depths of violence and corruption and despair, was changing into a village of hope.
Everyone stood on the wharf beside the sea, passing sea water along a bucket brigade. They were preparing the public bath that had been discussed at the recent meeting.
"The boys' bath is full," said Takeru. "Next, the girls'."
Suzuko sat a little apart from where everyone was working. Mori, Akira, and Makoto sat around her. It seemed that they were listening to stories of the outside world.
"Huh? What? You didn't know that Amuro got married?" Suzuko said.
"Suzuko, is that true?" Makoto cried in a funny voice.
"It's the truth! It was a huge fuss all over Japan. They even printed extra newspapers about it."
"What a shock! I was a huge fan of hers!" Akira said, looking up at the sky.
Yuuri stalked over from where the others were working to the excited group around Suzuko.
"Oi!" she said, glaring at Suzuko. "What are you trying to do?"
"Everyone's in the middle of working right now. Stop getting in the way."
"Oh, but everyone wanted to hear."
"So then it's fine if they don't get anything done?" Yuuri raised her voice. Yamato came over.
"That's enough. Suzuko didn't mean any harm. Give her a break."
Yuuri glared at both of them, then walked away sulkily.
Yamato looked at the taken-aback Suzuko with a troubled expression.
That night, he entered the tent where Suzuko was resting.
"You're not cold?"
"No, I'm fine. Thanks."
Yamato stammered as he spoke. "So... Could you not talk about the outside?"
"Everyone here has been doing their best for a while, and finally working together. At a time like this, to hear about the outside, it's kind of..."
But she was fixedly returning his look.
"What, even you? The people in here doing know about the outside, the people outside don't know about in here. It's strange - we're all in the same Japan."
The people outside don't know about in here...
Yamato finally crawled into his bed next to Takeru. Suzuko's words wouldn't leave his head.
The next day, Yamato went to Ryuu's hideout. He carried a portion of the vegetables.
"This is rare..." Ryuu stood before him.
"I brought your portion," said Yamato.
"Hah, there's probably poison in it."
"Like I said, it's to be divided equally among everyone."
"Like I said, you're a hypocrite."
"It's not that, everyone's strength is necessary. Even you guys."
Ryuu looked at Yamato with angry eyes, but Yamato's gaze did not waver.
"Go back!" Ryuu yelled.
Yamato left the box of vegetables, and silently left that place.
The group of children stood stunned in front of the gate. It was morning, and a white fog surrounded them. But there was something different. Though they'd been waiting, the delivery had not come.
"It's been cut off. Why? Why isn't the delivery coming?"
Call though Yamato might, the gate remained firmly closed.
"You're kidding, right? This is a joke!"
As he pounded on the door, Yamato could hardly believe it.
Why would the deliveries stop suddenly? Had Shibazaki betrayed them? What on earth had happened?
In Yamato's heart, the dark shadow of suspicion had started to spread.
Was it possible that Shibazaki had really betrayed them? And Yamato had trusted him until the end like an idiot...
Thinking this, Yamato lost even the energy to keep pounding on the door.
His shoulders dropping, he avoided the suspicious eyes of the children watching and returned to the field.
Of course, Yamato couldn't know this. Shibazaki had resisted the national decision until the very last. So he had been removed from his position as Director of Countermeasures.
The news that the delivery had stopped spread over Less-than City in an instant. If there was no delivery... it was once more the world of thievery and violence.
Yamato stood stunned in front of the field. The scene before his eyes was one of merciless plunder. The children became a mob and grabbed everything they could.
Yamato suddenly noticed that Ryuu was standing on the other side, and gave a self-deprecating smile.
"You were right. I trusted Shibazaki like an idiot, and he betrayed us in the end."
Ryuu stared at him fixedly.
"If you want to laugh, then go ahead and laugh," Yamato muttered, and averted his gaze. Unable to do anything, his gaze fell on the field one more time.
They'd gathered once more where the election had taken place.
Here harsh criticism was being heaped upon Yamato.
"Oi, Yamato, why'd this happen?"
"Did you tell Shibazaki about the potatoes?"
Unable to take anymore, Yuuri came to his defense.
"Whatever happened, it can't be helped."
But the angry voices didn't stop at all.
"You're always talking on and on, why don't you do something?"
"You stepped out of line, that's what happened!"
Finally Takeru, Kiichi, and the other group leaders had a meeting between them. They were surrounded by the uproar on all sides.
"Stop it!" Yamato yelled, unable to contain himself.
Everyone froze in an instant.
"It certainly seems like the government has abandoned us. But... but we cannot abandon hope!"
Everyone returned to their seats. Watching them, Yamato's eyes were earnest.
"Haven't we put so much effort into coming this far? We could only rob and hurt each other, we've finally started working together to grow food and carry water. I don't want to see us give up like this. Even if the delivery has stopped, even if the government has thrown us away, we must not lose hope."
"But we're never going to get out of here," one boy called out. "What's there to be hopeful about?"
"I'll come up with something," Yamato said decisively. Suddenly Suzuko's words from the night before came to his mind. "That's right... the people outside don't know about us. That we're still living, that we need help, we need to let someone outside know."
Yamato's eyes began to sparkle. Everyone looking at that face thought it was one that could be relied upon.
That evening, Yamato and Takeru sat by a boat docked near the pier.
"We'll, you're reckless, you act without thinking, maybe it's courage. You're probably worn out - it's like you pitched three fast straight balls one after another. You're awesome!"
"I can't tell if you're praising me or making fun of me," Yamato grumbled, but Takeru just shook his head.
"Don't force yourself - you don't have to act cool in front of me."
The setting sun lit up Yamato's face. His expression was hard, but his eyes looked into the distance, somehow lonely.
As though he could guess what was inside Yamato's heart, Takeru spoke in a gentle voice. "If I think about it, you're probably the one most shocked by Shibazaki's betrayal. Well, leave it to me. I'll take over from now on. We should wear out our winning picture, after all."
Yamato looked at him with a startled expression. Takeru just grinned the same bright smile as always.
Takeru put up a sign in the square, "Exchanging fresh vegetables for wireless, spare transceiver radios."
Yamato looked at it with a slightly scandalized expression, then at Takeru.
"This is your great idea?"
"Isn't it? We can let the outside world know about us with a radio. It's a great idea. You can just sit there and be quiet."
Yamato heaved a sigh, and just then a hand appeared in front of his eyes holding a transceiver radio. A tiny boy held it with a grin on his face.
"I'll trade this for some potatoes."
Soon after, they were fiddling with the radio in a field. Nothing but static came out.
"This is going to let the outside know? What good is this doing?" worried Yamato.
"This is really just a toy. We'll need another one."
Yamato rolled his eyes. "Then what is the point of this?"
Just then, over their heads they heard the voice of Ryuu's henchman Takako.
Startled, they raised their faces and turned towards her. But today she wore a less mean expression. Pointing towards Ryuu's hideout, she jerked her head.
"C'mon. Ryuu wants to see you."
Yamato entered Ryuu's hideout to find himself in the middle of a group of children all holding various weapons. Takeru and the others followed him in.
"I'm going to say this first," Ryuu said without turning to face them. "I'm not going to be on your side... but you're such idiots that I can't just keep quiet."
He turned around. There was an amateur wireless radio in his hand.
"I already thought about communicating with the outside world with this. But there's a block on the radio waves in the area. No signal can get out of Makuhara."
"Then just that radio isn't enough?" Makoto asked.
Ryuu nodded, and continued, "But there's one frequency that isn't blocked."
"The one the guards use. But it's not enough just to get your hands on one of their radios. They're specially encoded. If we're using the guards' radios, it will only be one way."
"So what if we built an antenna?"
Ryuu clucked his tongue at Takeru's question. "Idiot, as if it were that easy."
"Wait a minute," Kiichi's voice made everyone turn. "A boat. If we attached an antenna to a boat, and floated it out on the sea. How about that?"
"...That might just work," Ryuu said.
"But even if we make ontact, who will we make contact with?"
Yamato's eyes began to sparkle. "How would the radio be? If we can connect to a radio frequency, is that possible?"
Ryuu thought for a minute, and began to sketch a plan on the ground in chalk.
"Combining a guards' radio with the one I have, putting them on a boat, it should relay the signal even from inside Makuhara. Then it can broadcast from there to the nearest FM radio station."
Ryuu, looking almost happy, glanced at Yamato. Then, suddenly self-conscious, he dropped his eyes and muttered, "But in order for this to work we need to get hold of two guard's radios. One to send and one to receive."
The next morning. A group of children confronted the guards in front of the gate.
"Let us out of here!"
"Deliver our food!"
But this was actually only a diversion to lure the guards into the open. Without realizing this, they opened the gate and came out firing warning shots.
The children brandished rocks in return, well over a hundred children between Yamato's group and Ryuu's. All of them cooperating for this one battle.
It was deafening in front of the gate. Bending their bodies low, Takeru and Yamato drew close to a stopped jeep. This was the first step. They successfully snagged two of the guards' transceiver radios.
Once they had those, they set up the "boat". It was actually an old tire with a small motor attached. Kiichi, Akira and Makoto had put some effort into making it. Then Ryuu attached his amateur radio.
Operation Makuhara Radio was complete. Without a word, the children nodded at each other, encouraged.
The sky was starting to show the colors of dawn. It looked like today would be good weather.
All of the children were gathered on the pier. A breeze blew the fog away, and the city could be seen on the other bank. All of their hopes and wishes joined as one, they waited for the boat to be set off.
Ryuu spoke. "This wireless will send Yamato's voice to the one on the boat, which will relay it to a radio station. Okay? Wait until the boat is halfway across the water before you go on air."
Yamato held his radio tightly. "Takeru, you give the signal," he called up to Takeru, who perched on a container looking over the ocean.
Kiichi cautiously lowered the boat onto the water. Everyone watched as he pulled the string on the small motor. Finally, the Operation was truly underway.
Holding their breath, the boat began to move. Every hope rode on it.
It took a long time, but they were so nervous that it seemed to flow quickly. If that boat should sink on the way, it would be a failure...
Takeru raised his hand in the signal. Already, the boat had reached the half-way point.
Yamato gripped his radio. A million emotions welled up in his chest.
"This is Makuhara City! This is Makuhara City! Everyone outside, can you hear me! It was a lie that Makuhara was destroyed in an earthquake. We are trapped in the city. Please save us! The government has blocked us in. They are concealing the truth from the media in Japan. Please realize that we still exist! Please be aware that we are imprisoned here. Can you hear my voice? Please help us break free of the government. This is Makuhara City. This is Makuhara City. Can you hear me!"
Yamato's desperately pleading message rode the signal, and indeed reached the outside world. Shibazaki riding in a car heard it clearly on the radio. His pleas overlapped a radio DJ's cheerful chatter.
"Please save us! We are struggling to survive. There is no food, water, or other essentials. But we will not be abandoned! Please let us free!"
Shibazaki's face turned white.
In the far distance, a shadow appeared in the sky lightening with dawn. It rapidly drew closer, and soon was circling overhead. It was a helicopter, the roar of its propellers deafening. On Shibazaki's orders, it had come to immediately pinpoint the source of the radio signal and destroy it.
"This is Makuhara City! This is Makuhara City! Can you hear me?"
On the pier, Yamato's voice sounded as though he were praying. And it was not only him - every single person living in Makuhara had the same prayer in their hearts.
Let someone hear our voice. Please, let someone be aware that we are desperately trying to live in this city.
The helicopter passed over - it seemed to have spotted the boat.
There was a rain of gunfire. Yamato continued calling out. "Please! If you can hear my voice make the government set us free! This is Makuhara City. Can you hear me? We are still alive!"
Abruptly the transmission cut off. In the far distance, the boat could be seen sinking. The bullets had hit the mark. It slowly disappeared into the depths of the ocean. The helicopter flew away.
"Do you think it reached them, our voice?"
"We have to believe that, if we want to have hope," Takeru said.
"We did everything we could do," Yuuri said.
That was true. They'd done what they could...
Yamato looked over the blue sea where bits of their boat still floated. Yuuri's words echoed in his mind.
Though the radio transmission hadn't been a complete success, Takeru felt more cheerful. For a little while, everyone in town had been connected by a strong bond. Perhaps they hadn't become one, but...
And it was perhaps partly thanks to Yamato, and his overdeveloped sense of justice. Thinking this, Takeru reached for his guitar, but realized his pocket was empty.
"Looking for this?"
Yuuri appeared standing before him, holding out his pick. She was smiling a soft smile he'd never seen before.
"Thanks," Takeru said, as he reached to take it from her.
For an instant their fingers brushed. Takeru's expression froze.
Yuuri exited without noticing, but Yamato, coming in just then, did. "What's wrong?"
Takeru stood stock-still. As though forcing his voice out, he said, "Yu-Yuuri's hand... was cold..."
END OF CHAPTER SEVEN.