Shion peered over Safu's shoulder. A storm was supposedly racing toward the city and it was scheduled to hit around four that evening. The clouds were already starting to look ominous, hanging low and fat over the Moondrop. Shion jigged his leg beneath the desk, counting the seconds silently.

The classroom held no clock; professors measured their classes with pocket timers that vibrated at the end of the class period. They insisted on the students' undivided attention, and found the only way that was possible was to make clock-watching impossible. A few professors even recommended that the windows be removed or shuttered as well, but blessedly the Board ruled against them. Shion didn't know if he would be able to survive a class without a glimpse or four out the window.

His seat was two rows from the front, center left, so there was a buffer between him and the professor's scrutinizing gaze, but that also meant that there was a row between him and the window. Luckily, Safu held the seat beside him, and he was constantly sneaking glances over her shoulder to survey the world outside.

Not that it was much of a view. The forest park always looked pretty, especially in the warmer months, but after twelve years of staring at the scenery, it was more of the same. Past the park were the Moondrop, whose metallic, pockmarked surface could never be mistaken for beautiful, and the wall that surrounded the city.

The wall wasn't ugly—it was a creamy off-white color and sparkled when the sunlight hit it at a certain angle—but it was a one-hundred-and-fifty foot reminder that No. 6 was a terrarium. The wall was necessary to keep them safe from the outside, but it depressed the aesthete in Shion.

On the second floor of the school building, they were comfortably over the heads of the forest park trees. Some days it felt like he could reach out and pull himself to the top of the wall. And from there… He didn't know. Half of him wanted to see what lay beyond that, to know if the world was really as damned as the Bureau made it seem, but the other half dreaded ever knowing.

"Shion, lecture's up here."

Shion started guiltily and apologized. His classmates snickered, as they were apt to do whenever he got caught daydreaming. Safu shook her head reprovingly, but a smile played at the corners of her mouth.

"Space case," she muttered, and went back to taking word-for-word notes.

What seemed like hours later, the professor paused mid-lecture and checked his pocket. Shion leaned forward in his seat and took hold of his book bag strap. The professor straightened.

"That's all the time we have today."

Shion shot up from his chair, seconds before anyone else, and swiped his books into his bag. Safu watched him, wide-eyed, as she slipped hers into her satchel.

"Reports are due first thing Monday morning," the professor droned, as if the class wasn't clamoring to escape, "and be careful on your way home. A storm's on its way."

"You're energetic today," said Safu, rising and slinging her bag over her shoulder. "Is your mom preparing some kind of birthday feast?"

"Hm? Oh, no," Shion laughed. "I'm just… I don't know. I'm restless today."

They walked out of the classroom together and down the stairs to the first floor entrance. Their bikes were lined up side by side on the wall, each unchained and identical. No one had to worry about which bicycle was theirs since the handlebars had a chip coded to the card of the resident who owned it. Shion and Safu hung back to wait until the crowd thinned enough for them to dig their bikes out.

"So you're not doing anything special with your mom today?"

"I don't think so. Why?"

"You could come over my house for a little. Grandma's been asking about you." Safu moved in and nudged the girl in front of her out of the way. "And I have a birthday present for you. I didn't want to bring it to school, in case the storm got bad."

Shion perked up. "Really? What is it?"

"You'll have to come over if you wanna know."

Safu shot him a coy smile and pulled ahead on her bike. Shion swung onto his own bicycle and pedaled after her.

"I'm really curious," Shion said when he'd caught up. Safu smiled. "But I told Mom I'd come home right after school. She's worried about the hurricane."

Safu's smile shrunk and she looked up at the sky. The clouds were starting to roil and make threatening noises.

"Mm… It's probably best to listen to Ms. Karan," Safu conceded. "Too bad, though. If it got really bad, we could have had a sleepover."

Shion laughed. "We haven't done that in a while."

"Well, we're getting older. It's only natural…" Safu became very quiet, but Shion didn't notice. He thought he felt a raindrop plop onto his head.

"I better get home." Shion raised a hand in farewell and veered toward the entrance to the forest park.

Shion weaved carefully through the greenery. His bicycle would only go so fast—all the city bikes were modified to max out at a certain mph. He drew in a deep breath and resigned himself to a leisurely cruise speed beneath the brewing sky. He passed the flower garden, and the fountain, and the Moondrop in turn and eventually found his way out on the Chronos side.

A sharp crack reverberated through the air. The rain had picked up speed, but the sound he heard was not a peal of thunder. Shion braked and looked toward the top of the wall. He scanned the height until he spotted the source: a wall sentry, his Security Bureau uniform smeared against the murky sky.

The Security Bureau took shifts on wall patrol, and there were always a few stationed up there, even in hurricane weather. The officer shifted on the wall, raising his arms and pointing a slender, rain-slickened object at something below. A peal of thunder overwrote the second report, but Shion saw the officer's shoulder jerk with the recoil. He held a military issue K14 sniper rifle; Shion knew from the yearly assemblies that all Security Bureau officers were equipped with one when on patrol.

It happened rarely, but every once in a while the wall patrol would fire a shot over the wall, and when they did, the world froze for a moment. Shion would be in the park, enjoying the sunlight and fragrance of the flowers, watching the smiling people pass by, and then a crack would split the air and everything would go still. The people's smiles splintered and the children paused mid-play. Even the fountain seemed to quiet.

And then a second later everything would resume, as if the moment had been a minor blip in the rhythm of the world. It was a curious thing, how easily people glossed over the unpleasantness in their reality.

But what lay beyond the wall wasn't merely unpleasantness. It was a crisis and it wasn't going away just because they couldn't see it. Shion didn't understand how everyone could carry on as if two-thirds of the world's population wasn't roaming just outside the wall, ready to maim and eat anything with a heartbeat.

The school assemblies always featured footage of the infected: image upon image of their dead-eyed stares and sagging features, of heads patched with stringy hair, and bodies so emaciated that it was a wonder they could move at all. They were shadows of humanity, hungry dolls left to rot and bake in the sun. In some videos they drifted around aimlessly, as if lost or drunk. In those, they looked very old and very ugly, but harmless. Then there were the other videos, of whole mobs setting upon a panicked deer, ripping and tearing with their mouths and hands, crawling over its body like a swarm of insects. Those were the scenes that Shion took to bed at night.

There were countless names for the event, and still more for the creatures. Whenever they had to darken their conversations with mention of the outside world, the people of Quarantine Zone No. 6 referred to the things as the "stricken" or "infected" out of vestigial politeness. Less apologetic zones called them "abominations," "corpses," or simply "the dead." Whatever the name, the creatures were tireless and insatiable, and they existed in greater numbers than the living population.

No one could ever pinpoint a clear catalyst for the phenomenon, but it didn't matter in the end whether it was a virus, a consequence of chemical warfare, or divine punishment. Humanity's numbers had been decimated.

At first the survivors tried to fight back. They quarantined the infected and put a temporary hold on the Babylon Treaty, which forbade the city-states from possessing or developing weapons, but it wasn't enough. In order to protect those left, the remaining population banned together to sign the Salvation Edict, which instituted a worldwide quarantine of those still living. One by one, the six zones built walls to block out the hordes of dead and infected, and one by one they did their best to rebuild and, in time, forget.

Everyone in No. 6 seemed to be accomplishing forgetting just fine; it seemed Shion was the only one interested in bringing it up. He used to question his professors about why he had never heard of efforts to research the afflicted or find a cure, but all he received for his pains was a letter home suggesting he be submitted for a psychological evaluation. That put an end to any verbal inquiries, but Shion still thought about it from time to time.

Or all the time.

Shion frowned and pedaled harder toward home.