"So, none of you knew anything about Wily`s plans to kill you?" said Dr. Cossack.

The three androids shook their heads.

"Well, Dr. Light must have known for a long time, considering the fact that he had enough advance notice to make your dopplegangers." He rubbed at the bridge of his nose under his glasses. "You mean, you didn`t notice any change in his behavior?"

Blues, standing beside Kalinka, laughed a little. "He was always good at withholding information," he said. "I have to give him credit for that."

Roll put her hand over the pocket at the side of her dress, as if to reach for her netphone; remembering it wasn`t there, she folded her hands in her lap. "He kept bringing us here this summer to teach you how to take care of us, Dr. Cossack," she said. "When we asked why, he told us he was just preparing us for the future." She paused, glaring down at the urn on the table. "He was in good health. We never imagined the future would come so soon."

Dr. Cossack nodded. "He fooled us all, didn`t he?" he said. "I knew he was a genius, but I`m amazed at how smoothly he pulled off your escape plan.

"I have just one question: how could he have known?"

"I know," said Rock, who`d been silent up until now. All eyes in the room were on him.

"Well, tell us," Judith said. "It's the final mystery."

Rock`s face had an expression of urgency. "Isn`t it obvious?" he said. "Dr. Light had an informant. Someone close to Dr. Wily."

Blues gave Rock a funny look. "But that could only mean…"

"Forte?" said Kalinka.

"Yeah," Rock said.

"So, this wasn`t just Dr. Light`s doing," said Yuichi beside me. "This was a conspiracy."

A few silent moments passed as this information sank in. Rock sat forward in his seat, looking from face to face for a sign of understanding. Roll, next to him, crossed her arms and looked down at her lap. It seemed she`d heard this theory before, and was nearly convinced.

Judith exhaled deeply. "My God, it makes sense," she said at last. "Poor thing."

Rock nodded, and wiped at his eyes with both hands. He looked anguished.

"Listen, Rock," said Dr. Cossack. "If there was any way at all for Dr. Light to help him, he would have done it. You believe that, don`t you?"

"I do," Rock said, but seemed to take no comfort in the idea.

"I don`t get it," said Blues. "Forte was trying to kill you."

"There was no reason for us to be enemies," said Rock, in a shaking voice. "He knew he`d outlived his... usefulness to Wily. He had nothing to lose by saving us. Maybe it was his way of getting revenge.

"I know I`m naïve." He raised his head, and his eyes seemed to look through us. "Being kind hasn`t usually worked out in my favor. But I also know that, once in a while, it has."

With no further mysteries to solve or perils to overcome, there was nothing to distract our little group, composed of Dr. Light`s friends, colleagues, students—and children—from opening the floodgates of our emotion.

We all woke early the next morning. Judith decided to leave together with Yuichi and me. We didn`t know if she`d planned it that way all along, or if she wanted to escape the possibility of being left alone with Ivor—and we didn`t ask.

Our hosts formed a line in front of the house as we said our goodbyes. Blues stood a little off to the side, with Kalinka next to him.

Judith placed her bag on the ground, and lingered in front of Rock and Roll. "I'll send your things along soon," she said, and smiled. She embraced them one by one, and then kissed each of them on the cheeks—and their reaction was the same as mine had been days earlier: they looked up at her in bemusement, unsure what to do. "I can afford a visit once in a while. I'll be back this winter, to see how you're holding up."

She smiled at Ivor, and looked back at Rock and Roll with misty eyes. "I'm leaving you in his hands. He's the best man for the job."

Dr. Cossack, with a self-affirming nod of agreement, smiled back at her.

Yuichi was next. He clasped each of them in an ebullient handshake. "Stay cool," he said, and made a show of zipping up his jacket. "Cool—get it?"

They laughed.

They turned to me, and my heart lurched. I'd destroyed my PIT, and probably gotten myself into a lot of trouble, in order to get here. Since I had no desire to end my career at the Herald, I knew that, if I ever saw them in person again, it wouldn't be for a very long time.

"Thanks for your help," Rock said to me.

"I was happy to do it," I said, "though I'm sorry it was needed."

He didn't exactly smile, but his eyes were bright, and I knew in an instant that he would be okay. I reached down to give him a hug, which he returned with equal strength. It was as warm as I'd imagined it would be.

I looked at Roll. "It's an honor to be entrusted with your secrets," I said.

Roll laughed. "You don't know half of them." I hugged her, and felt her long hair drape itself over my shoulder.

I approached Blues at a slight distance. "You don't know me," I said, "but you have no idea how glad I am to know that you're safe."

He smiled a little. "Thanks," he said.

Just then, Kalinka stepped forward and embraced me. "Ms. Nishikawa," she said, "thanks for being our friend."

I took her hand in mine and shook it firmly. "I`m pulling for you," I said, in a croaking voice. "Take good care of each other." I remembered Judith`s suggestion about getting a piano, and for a moment I became lost in a dream of their near future, so real I could almost hear it. It was beautiful.

I figured it was time to go, and began to walk reluctantly toward the car when I noticed Yuichi and Judith standing in front of Blues. For the longest time they said nothing at all, seemingly content just to look at him. The wind picked up, and Judith wrapped her jacket more tightly around herself. She reached out and touched Blues on the elbow.

"Are you cold, dear?" she said, and emitted a quiet laugh.

"No," he said, smiling.

Yuichi smirked. This seemed to be the rehashing of an old joke between the three of them. I remembered the photograph I'd seen of Blues, Judith, and Yuichi standing in front of a snowdrift outside the Nurtech headquarters on Blues's first birthday, only hours before he had disappeared.

After a few minutes, they managed to tear themselves away. Judith hid her face with the palm of her hand, and I knew she was crying.

We got into our rental cars, Yuichi and I in one, and Judith alone in the other, and drove away together along the dirt road. I looked back as the five people standing outside the house shrank, then disappeared from sight, and I felt a little sad to be leaving them there on that cold and weather-beaten cliff.

"Yuichi," I said. "After Blues asked you to erase some of his memories, what did you tell him that made him change his mind?"

"That, for better or worse, our memories make us who we are," said Yuichi, and sighed, "and that if I helped him to `forget` his past, he might not love Kalinka as much."

"Isn`t there anything he can do?"

"There is something," said Yuichi. "Make lots of happy memories. Drown out the bad with the good. He said he`d `work on it.`"

"By the way, Yuichi, how is it possible? I mean, to program consciousness, and feelings, into something that's essentially a computer?"

"It isn't possible at all," Yuichi said. "There's no seat of consciousness in the human brain either. Dr. Carr—Catherine—knew that. All that's needed is the ability to experience sensation, to take in data, and to make connections. Lots of connections. Somewhere within those connections, if there's enough of them, consciousness just arises of its own accord. It's… ubiquitous, I guess."

When I walked into the Sapporo Herald the next morning, I feigned holding my tail firmly between my legs.

I took a deep breath, and went into Takada's office. He was waiting for me, holding an envelope containing the photos I had sent.

"I ought to fire you on the spot," he said, "but the world needs to see these photos, and your article's not halfway bad either." He sighed, and dropped the envelope onto the desk. The corner of one of the photographs peaked out, a glimpse of simulated mechanical carnage. "As much as I hated to look at these, this will be good for the Herald.

"So, you went to Shizuoka," he said, "and Dr. Sorensen gave you access to the house and let you take these pictures. That was days ago. Then your PIT stopped working, and you went AWOL. We had to contact your mother-in-law and your daughter, and even they didn't know where you were. You've caused us a lot of trouble here." He gave me a hard stare. "Not to mention, we were worried about you. At least tell me what happened."

"I'm sorry," I said, trying to sound sincere, and bowed low at him. "I know this is no excuse, but I only want to explain myself…"

"Well?" Takada said. "What is it?"

"It's what you warned me about," I said. "This story… it brought up some personal issues between Yuichi and me. We met up in Shizuoka, and we had some things to work out between us, as a couple..."

Takada clicked his tongue at me. "I told you I'd send someone else to cover it, if you just asked. Anyway, the Obon holidays are just two weeks away. Couldn't you wait till then to work on your… personal issues?"

"I said I had no excuse."

"Fine." He relaxed his posture a little. "I'm not going to ask. It's none of my business anyway. I know this whole thing has been trying for Yuichi. The two of you have my sympathies."

I nodded.

"You have a good reputation here. Just promise me you're not going to flake out on me like that again."

He sent me away. That was that.

My article, and the accompanying photos, were on the front page of the next day's paper. Mirai scrunched up her nose at them.

"Yuck," she said. "Mom, you really saw that?"

"Yes, I did," I said.

"Good thing they were just robots," Mirai said. "But, some people thought they were alive, didn't they?"

"Yeah, a lot of people did," I said. "Now, I guess we'll never know."

I went to the post office and retrieved the disk I`d kept hidden for thirteen years, which contained the video file named "Blues, 10:00 a.m., 1/3/2061." One night, while Mirai was staying over at a friend`s house, I showed the disk to Yuichi. We decided to destroy it.

For the first few weeks after Yuichi and I came home, we scanned the news religiously for any word about the person we`d started referring to, among ourselves, as "number five." There was nothing. Little by little, the people of Shizuoka began to relax. Rockman was grieved, and a memorial was put up in front of Shizuoka`s city hall, then another one in Odaiba—and life went on. The murders of Dr. Light and Dr. Wily remained unsolved, although plenty of people had their theories. No one had any idea that "number six" was out there somewhere, too, already loving the world and waiting to be awakened by voices that would never come.

Winter was especially cold in Sapporo that year. The snow came down so thick that it blocked out the sky, and the streets were buried under sheets of ice. I often thought of the Cossacks` home in Sakhalin, hundreds of kilometers due north of us, and found myself worrying a little about its residents.

Then, one day in mid-January, I received a message on my phone titled, "Delete This." It was from Kalinka. There were a few files attached, and I opened them one at a time. After I looked at them, I did as Kalinka had asked.

They were recent photos of "R+R+K," plus "B." Happy ones.