The latest straggler, one Captain Nakahira Fumio, is currently on the run. His hut, discovered on Mindoro Island two weeks ago, had evaded detection for 35 years. Widely speculated to be the last repatriate, the authorities finally released his picture.
What could I do? I bought up the newsstand. The image, a grainy reproduction of a school portrait, showed a hollow-chested boy with an affable face. A little thin-framed, he was nevertheless generic enough to be any youth. Could Yasushi have taken his identity? Because, you see, Yasushi had been too young for service. Needing my consent, he had approached me with the forms. I, of course, refused, taking precautions to prevent him from forging them. But forms are traceable; Yasushi, realizing this, opted to trade in his identity. What name he assumed we never found out. Even then the military was eager for soldiers, and I, despite my connections, had a record: An official charge of treason.
Comparing the images for quality, I tucked several newspapers under my arm and hastened into the street still burnished with morning light. That’s when I saw him—S—his old man’s shape bearing the shadow of his younger self, his ornithic neck bobbing forward, his once languid gait sped up to a near footloose shuffle. I opened my mouth to call out. But what could I have said? Had I been a different man, able to withstand the eyes of those eager to condemn me for what they themselves might have done in my position, I might have mustered the courage to catch the attention of the one man who may yet have the right to judge us. But I am not that man; I did not call out. Humans may be adaptable, but that has no bearing on our ability to change.
* * * *
All told, I spent 24 months in Pingfang. Officially, we were the Boeki Kyusuibu, the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, Unit 731, a defensive research unit. Materially, Pingfang spanned 300 hectares, its fertile land dappled with forests and meadows, its innumerable structures—headquarters, laboratories, dormitories, air field, greenhouses, pool—luxuriously accommodated within its fold. Locally, we were known as a lumber mill, our pair of industrial chimneys continually emptying into the impending sky.
I remember the first time I stood beneath one of these chimneys. Having finished a procedure, we had followed the gurney out, the damp air white with frost, the bare earth crunching underfoot. S, like the rest of us, was in a morose mood; our work, bacteriological in nature, was making useful gains, but we had not succeeded in developing the antidote we had been after, and I, for one, had become increasingly restless. By then the war, in gridlock in China, was beginning to fan southward, and I was convinced that if Yasushi had indeed enlisted, he would end up in the tropics, where the fruits of our work would be most vital.
I do not know why I risked airing these thoughts. Perhaps it was my way of acknowledging my son. I approached S. Until then we had all been careful to keep to the professional, repeating stock answers whenever we strayed. But S was sympathetic. He replied openly, agreeing with my prognosis, adding only that the war was likely to turn west before pushing farther south—an unentertained notion at the time. I was about to press him on the feasibility, indeed the audacity, of such a course, but just then a flare of heat drew our attention, and the gurney, now emptied of our maruta—yes, that’s what we called them: “logs”—pulled us back to our duty.
Because, you see, that was what Pingfang was built for, its immaculate design hiding in plain sight what we most hoped to control: the harvesting of living data. For how else could we compete? Our small nation, poor in resources and stymied by embargoes egregiously imposed by the imperial West. Our one chance lay in our ability to minimize loss, the most urgent being that of our troops, all too often wasted by war’s most efficient enemy: infectious diseases. But war spares no time. We found ourselves beating against the very wall that had always been the bane of medical science. In other words, our problem was ethical; Pingfang sought to remove it. Its solution was nothing we dared imagine but what we, in medicine, had all perhaps dreamed of. All we had to do was continue administering shots, charting symptoms, studying our cultures—all the things we had always done in our long medical careers—except when we filled our syringes, it was not with curatives but pathogens; when we wielded our scalpels, it was not for surgery but vivisection; and when we reached for sample tissues, they were not animal but human. This was perhaps Pingfang’s greatest accomplishment: its veneer of normalcy. We carried on; the lives of our soldiers, indeed our entire nation, depended upon us.