What if Light Yagami, from Death Note, was both smart and good? (Everything is explained for people who don't know Death Note.)
“Today, at approximately 11 AM, a 32-year-old man was found stabbed to death in a department in the city of...”
Day in, day out, the same news, thought Light Yagami. The media distract us with heart-wrenching stories about petty crimes and individual murders. Meanwhile, the real villains cause countless deaths through climate change and war, and only get rewarded. This world is… rotten.
And it seems no one can stop it. Even when a powerful person has an attack of conscience, they will only be replaced by another.
But then it happened. One day, in class – only half paying attention, as usual, staring out the window, as usual – Light saw a notebook fall past the classroom window and land in the grass.
Strange. Why would someone drop a notebook from an third-floor window? Could it be an accident? Or were they trying to get rid of it? But people could easily see it outside… Wait – what if some bullies were trying to look in someone's private journal, and ze threw it outside to stop them?
Either way, I should check it out after class. It's better if I get there first, rather than someone who would do something unethical with it. I might look bad if its owner sees me take it, but I can always just give it back without a fuss.
So, walking outside after class, Light remembered the notebook. Ze turned away from the regular sidewalk and looked in the grass for where it must have fallen.
On the front cover, it said, Death Note.
Spooky. I can see why someone might not want to be caught with this. Still, I should probably return it. I guess I should open the cover to see if they wrote their name?
Light opened the notebook to the first page. But there was no name there. There was only this:
How to use it
- The humans whose names are written in this note shall die.
- This note will not take effect unless the writer has the subject's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
- If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the subject's name, it will happen.
- If the cause of death is not specified, the subject will simply die of a heart attack.
- After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds (400 seconds).
Someone actually wrote down a detailed system for killing people? This is seriously disturbing. Should I report this? No… if someone really wrote this because they have a lot of resentment for other people, reporting it would just give them more reason to believe that everyone is against them. Wait… if this is someone who has been hurt by other people, maybe that means I should actually help them? Approach them myself? But I still don't even know who they are. And it could just be someone who enjoys creepy stuff. It's not wrong to enjoy creepy stuff.
Light nervously put zir hand on the corner of the page. I guess I should check if they actually… wrote down any names of people to kill…
But the next page was blank. Light flipped another page. That one was also blank. In fact, the entire rest of the notebook was blank.
Well, that's a relief. Still… what do I do with this now? I don't know who the owner is, and they haven't showed up while I was thinking about it – or maybe – Light looked around quickly – maybe they did show up, but just didn't know they could trust me! I could just leave this here, so they can pick it up when I'm not looking. But then someone else might pick it up, and then that other person might report it! And if word gets out that someone found this “Death Note”, anyone who saw the person drop it would be able to make the connection! I don't want to stop the owner from getting it back, but now I don't think I should take the risk of drawing any attention to it.
I guess I'd better hold on to this for now.
Light stuck the notebook into zir bag and promptly forgot about it.
The next few weeks saw Light studying for the upcoming nationwide exams. Ze spent many evenings alone in their room, hard at work.
Today was one such evening. Light sat at a plain desk, in front of neatly organized shelves, steadily solving math problems. The TV news played in the background. Why do I leave that on, anyway? I know it's all spin. Maybe it's a bad habit of mine. Or maybe biased news is better than no news. Who knows? I guess it helps to know what other people are watching, at least.
Light came to the end of a problem. Now, where were my notes for the next class? Light fished in zir bag, then fished some more, but didn't find them. Not wanting to waste my time, ze emptied the bag onto the desk.
There it was again: Death Note.
I almost forgot about that thing. I guess I'll never be able to return it… Light idly flipped through it again, in case ze had missed anything, but didn't find anything new.
“The same assailant who attacked six people at a busy shopping district in Shinjuku yesterday,” droned the news, “has struck again, taking eight people hostage at this daycare center… Police have identified the attacker as 42-year old Kurou Otaharada...”
Huh. Right there on the news, a name and a face. It's almost as if the universe is tempting me to write zir name in this “Death Note”. Seems like a pretty clear-cut “kill one to save five” scenario. Well, kill one to save zero-to-eight, anyway. But ze killed multiple hostages yesterday, so we shouldn't exactly give zem the benefit of the doubt.
Light picked up a pen. Am I really doing this? I know magic doesn't exist, right?
But assuming magic doesn't exist, there's no reason not to do it either. Here goes nothing.
Light paused. If I've gone this far, I might as well do the whole “cause of death” thing too. Supposedly, I've got 6 minutes and 40 seconds to come up with something. Let's see… what would be the best way for this situation to end? Thinking quickly, Light continued:
Has a change of heart and rushes to help the hostages, miraculously saving any that he's already injured, but then slips and falls while leaving the building, without hurting anybody else.
Good enough, I guess. At least it's probably better than what will actually happen. What a pity magic isn't real.
Light sighed and went back to looking for zir class notes. Pretty soon, ze found them, tuned out the reporters' unnecessary speculation about the attacker's origin and motives, and got back to work for a few minutes.
But then something on the news caught zir attention.
“– it was unbelievable, even though he had stabbed her just a minute before, he stated treating her wounds as if he was a professional doctor –”
Wait. Was that one of the hostages? Are they already out of the building?
And then, in the corner of the screen, at the front of the building, someone else was coming out. Light could see zir face – it was Kurou Otaharada.
And then the police were fanning out to intercept zem –
And then ze was on the ground, even though none of the police had touched zem –
Magic can't be real, can it? I know that was a really unlikely coincidence, but magic being real has to be even more unlikely, right?
But this isn't like regular fake evidence for magic, either. Usually, people see the coincidence first, then change their idea of magic to fit the evidence. It's not like a scientific experiment, where you pick a hypothesis first, then test that one hypothesis. But this – I did only have one prediction. I literally wrote it down!
But I can't just say magic is real. At least I would need to test it more. Wait. Is that even true? If this coincidence wasn't big enough to convince me, why should two big coincidences in a row be enough?
Fine. Let's say the chance of magic being real is one in a billion. What's the chance of a random person dying from a fall in a specific few minutes?
Light looked it up online.
Okay, so if we take 5 people per 100,000 per year…
And multiply it by…
And adjust it for…
Then we end up with about…
One in a billion.
And then we have to multiply in the chance of Otaharada changing zir mind and knowing how to treat wounds like a doctor…
Well, @#$%. Magic is real.
Okay. I need to get my thoughts in order. Magic is real. I just killed somebody. And probably saved the lives of one or more other people. And mind-controlled the first person. Wait – mind-controlled? This is supposed to be a Death Note, but it also does mind control?! I guess “details of the death” is pretty open-ended… What can't it do? Can it alter physics? Can it change the past? People would kill for a power like this! No, not just kill – they would conquer entire nations for it! It might even be more powerful than an entire nation all by itself! And I've just been carrying it around in my bag this whole time! I absolutely have to learn more about how it works!
Light carefully read through the rules again.
Okay. It says the cause of death “will happen”, but the details of the death only “should be written”, so maybe they're not guaranteed. What I just saw was exactly what I wrote, but maybe it wouldn't have happened if I had written something really implausible. But the cause of death is guaranteed. What if I write down that the cause of death is “sacrificed in a magic ritual that ends all suffering in the world”? That would – wait, that would be tempting fate, because “ends all suffering in the world” could also mean killing all humans. I need to know the rules better before I try any world-altering stuff.
Something simpler, then. What if I just write “old age”? Then the person will die of old age, meaning that they can't die of anything else before that!
But who should I write down? It has to be someone young, so they can't just die of old age immediately. But it also has to be someone who is about to die anyway – if they're not going to die, I won't know if it worked. So… Someone with a deadly disease, like a childhood cancer, I guess? It would be nice to know when they were going to die, though. Otherwise, I still won't know when I can be sure that they're alive because of magic, instead of just being alive normally. But what kind of death comes with a schedule?
Executions, I guess. I don't believe in the death penalty anyway, so if the Death Note stops an execution somehow, that's fine with me. Now who's the youngest person that's going to be executed…?
Light looked it up online. This time, ze thought for a long time before deciding on the exact wording to write in the Death Note.
Robbie James Lyons
Dies peacefully at the age of 96 years, surrounded by friends and loved ones, content after having lived a long and fulfilling life of doing good works.
There. Now… what happens next? Maybe the magic will make there zem win an appeal, or get pardoned, or something. That kind of thing might show up on the news.
Light stayed up late that night checking online for news about Robbie Lyons. Ze was too jittery to go to bed, even though ze knew the news probably wouldn't come the same day – the execution date was still a few weeks away.
Meanwhile, ze started thinking about how to protect the Death Note. If any unscrupulous person even heard of it, the damage could be enormous. Could Light even trust zir own family to keep it a secret? Probably not. They might not even believe it – and if they didn't believe it, they wouldn't realize how important it was to keep it a secret… Worse, Light's family wasn't averse to snooping in zir room. Ze absolutely couldn't let the Death Note out of zir presence.
Finally, Light was too tired to stay awake. Ze tossed the Death Note onto zir bed, lay down on top of it, and went to sleep.
“Death row inmate dies from heart attack weeks ahead of execution date…”
Light felt a surge of panic. That can't be me, can it? They only die of a heart attack if you don't write the cause of death!
Light quickly read the rest of the article. “Robbie James Lyons, 30, was found dead in his cell at 8:10 PM on Friday…”
I wrote the name at 8:03 PM. I remember that because I checked the clock while writing it, because of the time limit. So if ze died at 8:10 PM, that would be…
Light's heart sank.
Let me guess… exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds later. Ze died as soon as the Death Note was done waiting for me to write the details.
Light frantically reread the rules of the Death Note, looking for anything ze could have missed. This can't be right! I did everything how it said! The name… The cause of death within 40 seconds… The details within 6 minutes and 40 seconds… Well at least it's not my fault! It's these instructions that are wrong! And besides, ze was going to die soon regardless, so I can't have made it worse than it was already –
Somewhere deep inside Light, a cold, logical voice replied: It's no use trying to justify myself. If I only think about the things that justify my actions, that will limit how much I can understand what's actually going on.
I know the decision I made, and I know what my reasons were. Whether it was worth it, or whether I made someone's last moments more painful for no benefit… remains to be seen.
Light put zir head in zir hands and cried.
“What a surprise! I wasn't expecting you home so early.”
“Yeah. Hi Mom.” said Light. “It's because – huh?”
Sachiro Yagami was reaching out zir hands, as if waiting to be given something.
“Oh.” said Light. “The results of the nationwide exams. Here.” Light handed them over.
“Goodness! Number one again! These are the highest scores you've had!”
To tell the truth, taking the exams had been a relief. Studying and test-taking had always been a source of comfort for Light – they were something ze felt like ze could understand and control. Much easier than, for instance, magic books that could mind-control people and then kill them. But now that the exams were over, zir thoughts were inevitably drawn back to the Death Note.
“Yeah, I guess…” said Light. “I'm going to study in my room, so please don't interrupt me.”
Wearily, Light locked themselves in zir room. Ze looked around to make sure no one else was there, just in case, then pulled out the awful thing and put it on the desk.
Ze just stared at it for a minute. Death Note.
I should have done something with this by now. I know it should be more important than exams. If I'm going to do more experiments with it, I should have gotten to it already – or at least gotten to thinking without it. If I'm not going to do anything with it, I should have already destroyed it, to make sure there's no risk of someone else taking it.
Well, there's no use in berating myself for my mistakes. It's time to figure out what is the right thing to do.
Light flipped open to the second page, and looked at the two entries so far.
Okay. I have one entry that worked, and one entry that didn't work. First, I should think about each of the differences betw—
“Only two names? How disappointing.” growled a gravelly voice behind zem.
Light whirled around and nearly fell out of zir chair. “Holy @#$%!”
Right there in the room with Light was a horrible monster. It was mostly human-shaped, but much taller, and wearing a ghastly white mask with red-and-yellow eyes and a painted-on smile. Wait, was that a mask, or was it the creature's face?
Light didn't bother wondering if ze was dreaming. After all, if ze was dreaming, it wouldn't matter if ze was wrong.
“I am the God of Death Ryuk. That used to be my notebook.”
The lips moved when ze talked. So that's zir actual face. Also… did I hear that right? Not “the God of Death, Ryuk”, but “the God of Death Ryuk”, as if there's more than one of them. Never mind that for now! What's the polite way to address a God of Death? I have no idea. This is all too unreal.
“I – I'm Light Yagami,” said Light wearily. “Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I can see that,” said the monster dismissively. “I hope you're not always this boring. Several Death Notes have found their way into the human world in the past, you're the first to write this few names.”
So there are multiple Death Notes, too? I guess I should have seen that coming – if this is a world where one magical object can exist, why not more? Multiple Gods of Death, multiple Death Notes… And the previous owners have used them more than I have –
“I understand that some people may be less careful,” said Light guardedly, “when they're messing with deadly devices that have misleading instructions, but if you expect me to –”
Ryuk actually pulled back in surprise. “Huh? What do you mean? How were my rules misleading?”
“You wrote these rules?” asked Light. “Well, look here. I clearly wrote 'old age' as the cause of death, but Robbie Lyons died of a heart attack at age 30.”
Ryuk's face loomed over the Death Note. “Hmm? Interesting. Maybe you won't be so boring after all. I've never tried using a Death Note like that. I don't think any of us really know all the rules. I simply wrote down the most important ones, so that whoever found it would know how to use it.”
“So there are more rules? But some of them are unknown ones?” Light thought for a little while. “As long as some of the rules are unknown, I can't really justify the risk of having someone die without any benefit.”
“So you're going to be 'careful'…” Ryuk sighed noisily. “I guess there's no hope of getting you to make the eyes deal, either.”
“You want to know one of the differences between a God of Death and a human who just happens to be holding a Death Note? Through the eyes of a God of Death, a human's name can be seen above their head. Not only that, we see their lifespan as well.”
“Their lifespan? You mean you can see exactly when I'm going to die?”
“Yes. That is the difference between you and I. However, a God of Death can grant a human the eyes of the God of Death, but only if the deal is made. The price for the eyes of the God of Death… is half of your remaining lifespan.”
“That could be just what I need! If I can see when people are going to die, then I can use the Death Note on them right before they're going to die anyway, so I can control reality without actually cutting anyone's life short! I – well, I can't accept right away, of course. I would need to hear all the details first. Actually, can you tell me all the details? Starting from the beginning? Of everything?”
One explanation later…
“Let me get this straight,” said Light, quickly organizing everything in zir head. “There's a human world and a death world. The death world isn't actually an afterlife, just a boring place where the Gods of Death live. Each God of Death typically has exactly one Death Note, but they can sometimes lose them or get more of them. Gods of Death can't be seen or heard by humans who haven't touched a Death Note. Also, they are essentially indestructible as long as their lifespan doesn't run out, and they can keep stealing additional lifespan from humans by killing them with Death Notes.”
“However,” continued Light, “they are also required to live in the death world, which is boring. And so you, Ryuk, used the biggest exception, which is that if a human is holding one of your Death Notes, you can follow that human around instead of staying in the death world. You dropped a Death Note into the human world, because…”
“Because I was bored.”
But this isn't just about you being bored with the death world and wanting to visit the human world, Light thought, although ze didn't say it out loud. If that was all, there would be no reason for the instructions. You could have just written, “Warning: Never write someone's name in this book. Bad things will happen.” No… I'm dealing with an immortal being who likes to entertain zemself by making humans kill each other.
Another thing I'm noticing is that Gods of Death don't seem very creative. They've lived by the same laws for centuries. They even play the same dice games with each other for centuries! I guess that's lucky for us humans. But it also means that the only thing protecting us is the fact that they haven't thought of any fun ways to wreak havoc in the human world yet. I have so many questions I want to ask Ryuk… but I'll have to be careful about some of them. I absolutely have to avoid saying anything that could give zem dangerous ideas.
If I do start using the Death Note creatively, I should probably come up with a way to keep Ryuk distracted while I'm doing it. Well, I do have an idea. Of course, I can't use it until I want Ryuk to be distracted, so I should finish my questions first.
“And you say you don't intend to work either for me or against me,” Light continued aloud. “You've decided to just watch what I'm going to do.” Although technically ze's already helping me by explaining everything. I won't point that out, though, in case ze decides to stop. “Okay. I think it's got all that. Next question –”
“Actually, I have a question for you...”
“Go ahead.” I don't know if I'll answer it, but it would probably benefit me to keep Ryuk pleased.
“For someone who's so reluctant to kill people, you're sure asking a lot of questions about how this works. What's in it for you? Are you planning to use the Death Note after all?”
What? Anyone would want to know what was the deal with a secret world of death gods watching over them! But... it seems like Ryuk isn't very good at thinking from other people's perspectives. And it's true that I'm hoping to use the Death Note in some way. I should probably pick an answer that appeals to Ryuk's biases.
“Well,” said Light, “suppose I tell you that I'm a random chump, and I want to save the world. Do you think I can do it?”
“Probably not. Most humans lead totally insignificant lives.”
“Now, suppose I tell you that I'm Japan's number one honor student. Now do you think I can do it?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“The answer is still no, of course. Japan has had many number one honor students over the years. A lot of them have wanted to save the world. But the world is still rotten.”
“But now,” Light continued, “suppose that I have found a supernatural power that none of them knew of…”
“So you plan to use the Death Note to 'save the world'? Why even bother? I mean, why do you care?”
I've always believed that if someone receives great power, they have a duty to help the less fortunate. But again, I'm not sure that's an answer Ryuk will understand.
“Why does anybody care about anything?” said Light. “Why do you care about anything? You say you brought the Death Note here because you were bored, but why does a God of Death become bored in the first place? What makes a person prefer amusement over boredom at all?”
Ryuk pulled back a little. Wow, Ryuk is easy to impress. Ze's actually a lot like a child, isn't ze? Not really understanding ethics, messing around just to see what happens… I wonder if I can actually change zem for the better? How similar is God of Death psychology to human psychology?
“There's no answer, of course,” Light continued. “It is simply in the nature of Ryuk to seek amusement. So if you want to know why I plan to do what I plan to do, put it this way: To seek justice is simply the nature of Light Yagami.”
Ryuk's eyes widened. “It's just as I thought. Humans are so interesting…”
“And now for the part I'm really interested in,” said Light.
“Lifespans. How do they work?”
“I told you already, I just look at a person, or even a photo, and I can see their lifespan floating above their head. It works the same for humans who make the eyes deal, except that they can't see their own lifespan or other Death Note owners' lifesp—”
“No, no, no, not how does seeing lifespans work. How do lifespans work?”
Light sighed. “Look, for all my life, I've assumed that people just die when something kills them. But now you're telling me that they have some sort of predetermined lifespan that you can see in advance. How does that make sense? What if you see that someone is about to die, but then you try to save them?”
“We Gods of Death aren't allowed to do anything that would extend a human's lifespan on purpose. If we do, we die.”
“I hope that doesn't apply to humans who make the eyes deal.”
“No, that rule only applies to Gods of Death.”
“Okay, then, what happens if a human does it?”
“I don't know about that stuff.”
“Okay, tell me what you do know about it. Could be anything. Do lifespans ever change? Are they completely accurate, or do people sometimes die at the wrong time?”
“I've never seen someone's lifespan change, but I don't really spend that much time looking at humans anyway. I've heard it can happen if you write the name of someone's killer in a Death Note, but we don't do that very often because we don't want to die.”
Couldn't you still do the opposite? wondered Light. Kill someone who was going to save someone else, so that the second person also dies early. Not that I should mention that idea to Ryuk, of course.
“When you write someone's name in the Death Note, does their lifespan change? Or does it stay the same, which would make it inaccurate?”
“It doesn't change. They just die earlier than they're supposed to.”
“But otherwise, people usually die at exactly the time you expect?”
“Yeah. Seen it happen loads of times.”
“What about people who just happen to be standing near someone who dies to a Death Note? Shouldn't their lives be affected enough that their lifespan changes?”
“I don't know. I've never actually seen someone's lifespan change when I did that.”
“So these lifespans are accurate and unchanging? But that should be impossible! What about the butterfly effect? As soon as you even observe someone's lifespan, that should cause a physical change in your brain that starts a ripple effect, making tiny changes to everything on Earth, which then leads to bigger changes, until everyone's death comes at a completely different time than you predicted! Wait, let me guess – it's all done by magic! But how would that even work? Is there some kind of unseen hand of fate guiding everybody toward their preordained death?”
“No, there's no fate – at least, not that I've ever heard of. There's just you humans and us Gods of Death.”
“But there is, isn't there? The same power that I've already seen – the power to manipulate reality so precisely that the details of someone's death happen exactly how you write them. What if that power was active not just when you write down a name, but actually active all the time, everywhere, forever? When you use the Death Note, you use the power to change fate – but fate resists the change, by changing again to put everyone's death back on its original schedule, in every situation except where that's literally impossible! Like when you kill somebody who's about to kill another person. If you kill someone at random, fate can find a way to twist the future to make the deaths stay the same. But if you kill a killer right before they do it, there's no way for the victim to still get murdered at the same time, so you've forced fate to change!”
“Amazing. How did you figure out all that from the few things I told you?”
“Wait, are you saying it's actually true?”
“No, but you sounded so sure of yourself…”
“I'm not really. This is all just a theory. It could all be nonsense. In fact, I'd actually be happier if it's nonsense – I want people's lifespans to be easy to change, so that I can change them for the better. That way, it won't even matter if I give up half my lifespan, because I can just increase it again. I know I won't be able to see my own lifespan, but I'm sure I'll come up with something. For instance, suppose I could find a way to make someone else die as soon as I die. Then I could look at that person's lifespan to determine my own.”
Light stood up straight and smiled grimly. “But if there is an enormously powerful force of fate trying to stop me, then I, Light Yagami, must find a way to force this fate to change at a scale that has never before been seen in this world. Ryuk, I accept this deal. Half my lifespan for the eyes of a God of Death.”
Now I have a plan. And now I have the power. Only one thing remains: making sure that Ryuk won't get any dangerous ideas. It's time for… distraction.
Light grinned mischievously. “Ryuk… I don't suppose they have video games in the death world?”
“Hmm? What kind of a game is that?”
“Well you are in for a treat.”
One of the best parts of this power is a technicality I didn't even think of at first. If someone has already died, I can't see their name or lifespan anymore. Seems like a downside, right? But what it really means is that, as long as I have a photo of someone, I can instantly tell whether they are alive or dead, no matter how far away they are physically. And what that means is that –
“@#$%ING BLUE SHELLS!” roared Ryuk. The two of them were sitting in Light's bedroom, settled into the ritual they had established six days ago. On one side of the room, Light browsed the Internet for photos of people, observing their lifespans and practicing converting the numbers into human years. On the other side of the room, Ryuk – who didn't need to sleep – played video games 24 hours a day.
“Ryuk,” hissed Light, “I know my family can't hear you, but you're still hurting my ears here!”
“But you already made me stay quiet all night!” complained Ryuk.
– is that I'll be able to test the Death Note without having to draw attention to myself or rely on imprecise news reports. I can even watch someone's photo for the first 10 minutes or so after I write their name, so I can record exactly when they die if the magic doesn't work.
I should get serious about privacy now, I guess. I don't know if anyone who's doing surveillance would actually notice, but it would be really bad if anyone noticed that I was repeatedly looking up information about people just before they died unusual deaths.
Light installed the Tor Browser and spent an hour or so looking at best practices for how to stay anonymous online.
“Left! Go LEFT! I'm going left, why is it going right?!”
“The controls are reversed when you fight that boss,” said Light, without turning to look.
This is actually working really well. The more I can get Ryuk addicted to video games, the less time ze'll spend killing people in the future. And it's keeping zem out of my hair, too. Mostly.
Now, should I start experimenting with the Death Note? Or should I start by trying to save people using only my knowledge of their lifespans? The problem is, I only know when they're going to die, not what's going to kill them. And if I did give a lot of accurate warnings, that would draw a lot more attention to me. They wouldn't know who I am right away, but if rumors spread about a mysterious benefactor, people would start looking for me. And my security isn't perfect – I'm still vulnerable to timing attacks, writing style analysis, and probably a bunch of other things I haven't considered… Death Note first it is, I guess.
I've already found a few people who are going to die soon, but just to be safe, I should start over and only use pictures that I find through the Tor network.
For the rest of that evening, Light patiently collected photographs of people who were going to die during the next few weeks. On the left side of zir computer screen, ze kept a file full of all the photos of people ze was monitoring. To fit as many as possible, ze scaled down the photos as far as ze could. (Ze couldn't make out the lifespan on pictures smaller than about 50 pixels by 80 pixels.) Whenever any of the lifespans disappeared, Light would notice it at a glance, so ze could record the person's exact time of death in a second file, along with any other notes ze was keeping about that person.
Light rolled over in bed and tried to sit up.
“Hey, Light, you're awake! I've got something I wanna ask you!” Ryuk's inhuman face was looming very close to Light.
Light looked at the clock. “Ryuk, it's 4 AM.” I don't think I'm going to get back to sleep anytime soon, though. Might as well make use of the time. “Fine, just let me use the bathroom first.”
“Humans,” muttered Ryuk.
In the bathroom, Light's thoughts started to come together. By any reasonable measure, my experiments are going smoothly. I just wish these nightmares would go away. Light had been having a lot of different dreams about the Death Note. In the most persistent one, ze opened the Death Note to a random page, only to see that ze had already written zir own name there. Each time that happened, ze spent the rest of the dream waiting for a death that never came.
I hope these dreams aren't prophetic. There's no reason they would be, though. I've always had a lot of nightmares where I discover that I've done something wrong. It's just part of my perfectionistic nature.
Anyway, what was I planning to do next? Oh right! The one-month summary of my results so far.
Light left the bathroom to find Ryuk waiting expectantly. Light rubbed zir eyes again. “Right, what did you want to ask?”
“Why do you humans make so many video games where you kill people?”
Of course Ryuk would focus on something like that. Wait – “Wait, why would you be surprised by that? Aren't human deaths completely ordinary to you?”
“It's not the deaths that bother me, it's how unrealistic they are! I can't even enjoy these games, they're breaking my suspension of disbelief too much! Death does not work this way! Why would these humans make so many games about killing people when they obviously don't know anything about it?”
“I guess…” Light thought about it for a little while. “Humans are afraid of death, so putting the idea of death in a game can make it exciting. Or the threat of death, for the player. But if the game makes the deaths too realistic, then it would become too close to the actual fear. Human players would be too disturbed to enjoy the game. Unless the point was to be disturbing, like in a horror game –”
“Horror games are the worst of all!”
“– but in a horror game,” Light continued patiently, “the idea is to exaggerate the player's fear. Most human players don't have much experience with actual death, so they're afraid of what they imagine death is like, which isn't quite the same as the real thing.” Light sighed. “Was that enough of a human culture lesson for you? I'd really rather get back to my work.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
Light tuned out Ryuk's gaming and brought up zir records on zir computer. Here were the detailed notes ze'd kept on all 105 names ze had written in the Death Note so far. Light read through them carefully, trying to reason out a list of rules from the idiosyncratic results.
The one thing every death had in common was that Light had written down for it to be painless. Light hadn't put too many ethical restrictions on zir experiments, reasoning that the greater good would be served by Light learning as much and as quickly as possible. But pain was important to people, and it didn't cost Light anything to alleviate it. And it helped make up for the significant minority who died of heart attacks due to unknown rules.
The first thing ze'd tested was extending the lifespan of the person ze was writing down. It seemed this was impossible. If you wrote down a time of death after the end of their lifespan, they simply died at the end of their lifespan like they would have anyway.
The second set of tests was about how much you could control. As it turned out, the “details of the death” could include almost anything. The Death Note ignored statements that were completely unrelated to the death, but even the flimsiest excuse would do. “Dies peacefully at 8 PM, and also the Tokyo Shimbun prints an article supporting a basic income” didn't work. “Dies peacefully at 8 PM, after seeing that the Tokyo Shimbun has printed an article supporting a basic income” worked flawlessly.
However, there were certain limits. There were some details that the Death Note wouldn't accept. If you wrote down any details like that, the Death Note would ignore all the details you wrote, and the victim would die exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds after you wrote the cause of death.
Light had been reluctant to test the limits too thoroughly, since failures generally meant that the death wouldn't be painless. Still, from what ze'd gathered, it seemed that there were three main limitations. First, impossible things were impossible. Second, magical things were off-limits. Anything that explicitly referred to lifetimes would cause a failure.
Third, there was a time limit. You couldn't write down a death too far in advance. Light had specifically tested to find the exact limit, knowing that this would be important later. As it turned out, you could write down anything you wanted to happen within 23 days of the time you wrote the name. But if you described anything happening more than 23 days into the future, it would all be ignored, and the victim would die 6 minutes and 40 seconds after you wrote the cause of death.
23 days. Why 23 days?
The third set of experiments was where it got really interesting. In these experiments, Light had tried to find ways to extend people's lifespans.
Mostly, it was just like Ryuk had said. If you made a small change to someone's natural death, it wouldn't have any effect on other people's lifespans, even the people who were standing right next to the person who died. Apparently, the butterfly effect didn't exist. Hmph. Light didn't stop there.
For this research, the most valuable subjects were actually pairs of people who were going to die at about the same time. That way, you could write one of their names in the Death Note, while observing the lifespan of the other. Finding these pairs was much harder than finding individuals who would die soon, but the few Light had found had proved very fruitful.
First, there were a married couple who were going to die a few days apart, probably of old age. Joseph Kerrigan was scheduled to die on a Sunday, while Maria Kerrigan was to die on the following Tuesday. So Light wrote this:
On Tuesday, her husband of 50 years speaks some reassuring words to her, then she dies peacefully.
Light had been a little worried about this one. The Death Note might consider it physically impossible. But it had worked. Joseph Kerrigan's lifespan had increased to include Tuesday. So the Death Note could simply coerce people's lifespans, if you wrote down something that required a person to be alive at a certain time. Presumably, this could increase someone's lifespan by up to 23 days.
Seems like a huge oversight in the rules. You can't extend the lifespan of the person you write, but you can extend other people's lifespans? Who would design rules like this? Were they even designed by a person in the first place, or are they just… magic?
Still, that result hadn't been very satisfying. Extending a few people's lifespans by a few weeks was far short of Light's ambitions. And just like the other cases, this hadn't had a ripple effect on the lifespans of any of their other relatives.
How far could you stretch this ability? With another test subject, Light had tried writing down this:
On Friday, no one in his entire city of New York dies for a full 24 hours. After he hears the news about this, he feels satisfied and dies peacefully.
But that victim had died after the first 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Maybe that was too impossible for the Death Note, even if it wasn't impossible for each individual person to survive an extra day.
The next experiment was a much different story. Light had found photos of a pair of rock climbers, Julia Kaczyńska and Diane Chin, who were both going to die within a minute of each other. When Light investigated further, ze discovered that they had posted on a rock climbers' forum that they were about to attempt a particularly dangerous climb… and the date and time of their plan matched the time of their deaths perfectly.
Almost certainly a climbing accident, Light had thought. I wish I could just warn them, so that neither of them has to die. But what if they don't believe me? What would that look like? A completely new user joins the forum specifically to give a dire warning. The climbers ignore the warning, because, duh, who would pay attention to a warning from a complete stranger who doesn't know anything? And then they actually die! The rumors about the stranger would spread all over the place. I already decided I don't want to attract that much attention. There will always be more people to save if I do change my mind...
So instead, Light wrote the following:
Encounters a danger while rock climbing at 6:34 PM on Saturday. Realizes the danger just in time to protect her climbing partner. As a result of her quick action, that climbing partner returns home safely. However, she herself dies an instant and painless death.
I wonder what happens if this doesn't work? They haven't even left on the trip yet. Does Julia Kaczyńska die of an accident at home? But if that happens, they won't leave them the trip at all! So… does that mean Diane Chin won't die either way?
Light's heart beat fast as ze waited for the 6 minutes and 40 seconds to finish. Ze stared at a computer screen full of photographs of the 2 climbers, their various relatives, and the other forum members. In another file, ze had recorded all of their original lifespans.
5 seconds left…
3 seconds left…
1 second left…
And then Diane Chin's lifespan increased by 32 years.
Light felt a surge of relief.
I didn't realize I was feeling so tense. It's not even about this… I guess I've been worrying about all the people whose lives I've cut short. I know most of them have only been by a day or two, but… Anyway, this should more than make up or it.
It wasn't even just Diane Chin. There were also increases in the lifespans of –
“Light! LIGHT! I did it! I beat the game! I beat Beyond Good & Evil!”
Light gritted zir teeth. “Ryuk, this is not a good time!”
I wonder if I can use the Death Note to make Ryuk shut up? Ha ha, that sounds as if I mean I want to kill zem. I actually just mean using mind control. Never mind that for now! I should observe these lifespans.
Many of Diane Chin's relatives and fellow rock climbers had seen their lifespans increase. Not a majority, but a lot of them. Julia Kaczyńska's lifespan stayed the same, which was expected. Hmm. If it's possible to alter people's lifespans in general, might it be possible to alter the lifespan of someone whose name has already been written in a Death Note? If the lifespan became shorter than the time until their written death, would the Death Note effects be canceled? That's something to think about later, I guess…
Julia Kaczyńska's relatives hadn't been affected. One of the climbers' lifespans had actually decreased. Odd, but not unexpected.
I wonder what these changes look like on the ground? Maybe Diane Chin teaches the other climbers to be more cautious after this incident? Maybe zir aging parents live longer because ze's still alive to economically support them?
In any case… This is exactly the data I've been looking for. This is the limit of “fate's” ability to stop the changes from propagating. If a person lives 32 years after they would have died, the effects on the people they'll interact with are too big to suppress. But still, it stops somewhere. Some of the relatives stayed the same. And it looks like mere friends-of-friends haven't been affected. If I want to reshape the entire world… it looks like I'll have to do something much bigger than saving one life.
Light started writing down ideas for how to change the world, but zir heart wasn't really in it.
I wish I had someone to talk to about this. I keep saying that I can't take the risk of letting anyone know about the Death Note, but is that the only risk? What about the risk of me screwing up, because I didn't have anyone to catch my bad ideas? What if I get discovered anyway, because of something I didn't think of, because I didn't have a second person to notice things? But what if I get discovered because I told someone?!
Well, what about Ryuk? Ze already knows about the Death Note. I originally thought I'd have to worry about zem using my ideas to wreak havoc, but now, maybe…
“Hey, Ryuk. I want to ask you something about the Death Note.”
“Does it have to be right now? I want to finish this game of Civilization III.”
Light smiled. “Ryuk, you've been playing Civilization III for 96 hours straight.”
“No, I haven't. I took a 2 hour break to try out some of your other games.”
“If you say so. Anyway, what if I told you that I had a brilliant idea for how to use the Death Note to cause all kinds of mischief?”
“Eh? That old thing?” Ryuk waved a claw dismissively. “Killing people is boring. I'm sure your idea is very clever, but I don't really feel like writing things down and staring at lifespans all day. Or worse, I might have to leave the house.”
Perfect. I should probably make extra sure, though. “Don't you eventually have to kill someone to continue your immortal life?”
“Sure, in about…” Ryuk looked at zir reflection in the computer screen. “50,000 years.”
50,000 years! I had been thinking about setting up a system where Gods of Death could extend their lives without murdering, by participating in voluntary euthanasia. But if your average God of Death has 50,000 years in the bank, I'll be long dead before it ever becomes an issue. Probably.
“Ryuk, let's make a deal. I want you to help me talk through my plans for using the Death Note to change the world. In exchange, I'll buy you all of the video games you want.” Which I'm already doing anyway, just to keep Ryuk distracted. “And sometimes play multiplayer games with you.” Why not? I've been pretty stressed out recently.
The Iceland President confirms a law that establishes a universal basic income. The subject reads a newspaper article about this, then dies peacefully at 1:51 PM JST on January 4.
“What are we looking at here?” asked Ryuk, pointing at Light's computer screen.
“These,” said Light, sitting back and a self-satisfied way, “are photos of a representative sample of Icelandic residents. Or as close as I could manage, anyway. The concept is pretty simple: I force Iceland to make laws that I think are good. Then, I check what effects those laws have had on people's lifespans. If the lifespans go up on average, it's a good law. If they go down, it's a bad law, so I force them to repeal it again.”
“Why are we messing with the laws in Iceland, instead of here in Japan?”
“Ease of measurement,” said Light simply. “Iceland has a high percentage of Internet users, making it easier for me to sample them. Also, it's a relatively small country. If I messed with, say, the United States, it has an oversized role in international relations, so I'd have to worry about the effects on people in every country. I eventually want to improve the entire world, holistically, but right now I'm just focusing on domestic policy. If this works well, I might eventually create an international census.”
“But you still wrote down the time of death in Japan Standard Time?”
“I always write JST now, so that I don't mess up. Some of my earlier 'victims' have turned out to die at a different hour than I expected, because the Death Note assumed I meant their local time, when I was really thinking of my local time. So now I just do all the calculations in my own time zone, find the proper time so that it will cut off no more than two minutes of their life, and then write down JST so that the Death Note knows what I'm doing. Making someone die a few hours early isn't the worst thing in the world, but if I get it wrong in the other direction, the entry won't work at all.”
“Wow, you've really put some thought into this.”
Of course I thought about it. How could you expect to save the world without thinking about it?
“You know,” said Light, “you Gods of Death have no idea what you're carrying around, do you?”
“Look at this. You even wrote 'Death Note' on the front of it.” Light took a piece of ordinary paper and wrote “Death Note” on it. Then Light crossed out “Death Note” and wrote under it, “Sacrifice Note”.
Then ze flipped open to the rules page and got another piece of paper. “And look at these rules! They're all about killing people, even though the real power of this notebook is far greater. You've been thinking about it as nothing but a magic sniper rifle, when it's actually an Alethiometer, the Imperius Curse, and the Orbis Tertius, rolled into one!”
Light quickly wrote a new set of rules on the paper:
How to use it
- This note can influence reality in almost any way possible, but requires a human sacrifice. To use it, you must first write the name of the human to be sacrificed.
- This note will not take effect unless the writer has the subject's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
- After writing the subject's name, you must write the cause of death within 40 seconds.
- After writing the cause of death, you must write any instructions of things that you want to happen, within the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds (400 seconds).
- If you fail to write the cause of death, or if your instructions are impossible, the subject will die without granting any benefit.
- This note can only influence the next 23 days. Anything after that will be considered impossible.
- It's possible to avoid paying most of the price, by sacrificing someone who is about to die anyway. Ask your friendly neighborhood God of Death about how you can see people's lifespans.
“That'll do for a first draft.” Light sighed. “It's a good thing I was the one who found this notebook, instead of someone else.”
“What, because you're all about justice?” Ryuk grumbled.
“Not only that. A person who kills for selfish reasons would be pretty bad, but they probably wouldn't kill that many people. No, the worst thing would be someone who does care a lot about justice, but doesn't see past their first impressions.”
“Suppose I'm that person, and I find the Death Note. Oh, I think, this is a magic book for killing people. Every day in the news, I hear about horrible things done by criminals. Aha, I think. If I just kill off all of those criminals, the world will be a better place.”
“Would that be so bad? If you kill off all the criminals, wouldn't people be afraid to be criminals?”
“Ryuk, I don't know if you've picked this up by now, but we do have laws in the human world. Criminals are already afraid – of getting caught. And, laws or not, anyone would be afraid of having their face plastered across the news as a major criminal. But imagine what effect this would have on the news media itself. Once people caught on to what was happening, they'd say it was unethical to display anyone's face as a suspected criminal. So then I'd have to turn to news sources that don't care about ethics – like the tabloids and random websites that publish outrageous 'true crime' stories. But then, there's no one forcing them to publish the correct name and face for those criminals, is there? You could probably pay them to publish whatever you want. A lot of 'news sources' would effectively be turned into hired killers. But the effects on actual crime would be essentially nonexistent.”
“Or,” continued Light, “suppose I'm a little smarter and I decide to target the real sources of violence and exploitation in our society, rather than individual criminals. Who do I kill? Corporate executives? Wouldn't that be interesting.” Light laughed. “Mob bosses, maybe. Paramilitary leaders. Xenophobic politicians. Half the time, they're just figureheads. They'll just be replaced by someone who doesn't show you their face. Or someone who knows how to control the sources of information that you are using, to make themselves look like a morally acceptable alternative. And they'd make their enemies look like the really evil ones. But then again… that wouldn't even be a new order imposed by the Death Note, would it? It's already happening. I already don't have reliable information about who is the most evil.”
Ryuk made a scandalized face, which was pretty impressive, considering how Ryuk's face normally looked. “I've always thought it was interesting to mess with humans, but I never knew how completely screwed up human society was.”
“Yeah…” said Light. “Anyway, it's a good thing I, Light Yagami, found the Death Note, instead of someone who didn't understand all that stuff.”
Light looked over the results of the last dozen experiments with the laws of Iceland.
Not all of these have turned out I expected. Which is what I expected, of course. But I wish I knew why each law turned out how it did. For the few that did reduce lifespans, were they just bad laws, or were they somehow executed improperly? Influenced by corruption at some level?
I've already given a significant boost to the average lifespan in Iceland, but it's obvious that I could be doing better. If only there was some way to –
“I've been doing this all wrong,” said Light suddenly.
“Hmmm?” rumbled Ryuk.
“I may be smart, but no one person can figure everything out on their own. I've known that this whole time. I just assumed that I couldn't trust anyone with knowledge of the Death Note. But then I remembered…” Light trailed off teasingly, waiting for Ryuk to ask.
Ryuk finally took the hint. “Remembered what?”
“That I have a magic book that can give me whatever I want.”
Ryuk made an annoyed face. “That thing again? Do you want me to –”
“No, not yet, you can keep gaming. I have a lot of drafting to do.”
The subject is approached by a stranger online, has an epiphany, and joins the 23 Days Cult.
Over the next 23 days, the subject often participates in the cult's online meetings, contributing many ideas useful for the cult's mission of making the world a better place.
The subject serves the cult and its founder loyally until death. No cult activity is discovered by anyone outside the cult.
During the 23rd day, the subject has a final online conversation with the founder, during which the founder is alive, healthy, and has never lost possession of the notebook central to the cult's operations. Then, the subject signs off, and soon receives death in a manner that is painless and doesn't attract suspicion.
Ryuk looked it over.
“Well, I'm planning to tell the cult members everything about how the Death Note works and how I've used it. They'll know that whatever actions they take that day will end in their death, so it's arguably suicide no matter what. This keeps it flexible.”
Ryuk kept reading. “Why did you write 'the notebook central to the cult's operations'? Seems like pretty funny way to just say the Death Note.”
“For some reason, the Death Note doesn't like me referring to Death Notes directly. It seems that referring to magical stuff is off-limits. Also, there's more than one Death Note, so I had to write it in a way that wouldn't permit somebody to swap them.”
“That's thorough!” Ryuk finished reading and looked back at Light eagerly. “How many cult members are you gonna make? Does this mean you'll finally stop pestering me about Death Note stuff?”
Light held up a hand. “Not yet. Even if this template does work on the first try, I'll still only use it a on a few people before I see the full results. And I'll want you to participate in the first few cult meetings.”
“Eh, I can put up with that. But if it works well?”
“I'm hoping I'll eventually move up to maintaining a few dozen cult members, which means writing about one name per day. Maybe even make a bigger organization, with subcommittees. But that's a long way off, and in order to get more members, I have to find more people who are going to die in exactly 23-24 days. But! If I end up with a steady membership, then yes, I'll leave you to play games as much as you want.” Which is exactly what I want, anyway. Ryuk doesn't seem very dangerous right now, but I'll still be happier once I'm only sharing my ideas with people I've mind-controlled into loyalty… and magically secured against eavesdroppers.
Ryuk somehow managed to grin even more than usual.
“How do you keep winning?! Shouldn't 166 hours of practice count for something?!”
Light was sitting with Ryuk, playing a few rounds of Super Smash Bros. Melee to relax after a long week of saving the world.
“Sure, but that was practice against the AI. I'm not playing like the AI, so you won't start winning until you learn to counter my strategy.”
“Come on, give me a chance!”
“How about I play with my controller upside down?”
Ryuk won a few games in a row while Light was still getting used to the upside-down controls. That seemed to make zem happy. It seemed that Ryuk wasn't a huge fan of challenging zemself.
“Say, Light, how's the whole 'saving the world' thing going?”
“I'm surprised. I thought you didn't care about that stuff.”
“I didn't like it when you were trying to make me think about all the time, but now that you've just been hanging out with your cult for weeks, I'm kind of curious. I keep thinking of eavesdropping, but I never seem to notice when you're doing it.”
Never seem to notice? But I'm right across the room from you every time! Wait… Holy crap! When I stopped having Ryuk join in the meetings, ze became “anyone outside the cult” and was unable to “discover” any “cult activity”. Amazing.
Light's character got knocked out of the arena.
“Also because you get distracted when you're thinking about it,” said Ryuk mischievously.
“You got me there.” Light smiled. “Anyway, things are… What was I saying?” Light was distracted by a flurry of fighting in the game.
“Your cult. How's it going?”
“Give me a minute, I… Wait. Screw it. I hereby induct you into the 23 Days Cult.”
“I just realized that I accidentally mind-controlled myself so that I couldn't tell you about cult activities unless you were a cult member. Don't worry, I'll expel you again when we're done talking. I guess I'll need to be more careful about mind-controlling myself in the future. Anyway! Things are going great. I'm nearly up to the full complement of 23 members, and they've come up with so many good ideas, it feels like more than enough. Last week, they were pointing out maybe we should prioritize stopping wars before tweaking domestic policy, which I can't believe I didn't think of myself, so since then we've been working on the best way to do that. Dang it!” Light got knocked out again.
“Can't you just write down that they stop the wars, like you did with the laws?”
“Yes and no. You know what, I'm not taking more than one handicap at the same time.” Light flipped zir controller back to the normal position. Ryuk pouted. “We could just write down that the parties make a peace treaty, but that wouldn't necessarily stop them from violating the peace treaty. We could write down that they don't violate it, but that would only work for 23 days at most, unless we kept including it in later Death Note entries. We've gone over a lot of ideas for the wording, but they would probably just bore you.”
“Yeah, probably.” Ryuk launched a series of fireballs at Light.
“We might be able to settle on something soon, but there's a lot of other work to do, like –” Light jumped up onto a platform to try to get some time to think – “like figuring out if we can use the Death Note to wipe out infectious diseases. We can't just write down that no one gets sick, because that'll be 'impossible'. But there are a lot of other possibilities. We could help out aid organizations, or find disease hotspots and force groups of people to stay healthy there. There are a couple of top epidemiologists set to die in June, so we might be able to get help from them too. At least, if our other changes don't make them live longer. And there's also the issue of global warming, although we're still trying to find a way to get good, measurable results for our actions on that.”
Ryuk put down zir controller and smiled. “I think I've heard enough.”
“No problem. I hereby expel you fr—”
“Wait! No!” said Ryuk. “I meant… I've decided I want to help you.”
Light nearly dropped zir own controller in surprise. “Really?”
“Well. I mean. You humans.” began Ryuk clumsily. “I mean. In between looking up all the new games I want, I've been reading all of these articles online about how terrible you are. Without someone helping you, you're probably going to nuke the planet. And fry it. And drive all your food sources into extinction. Yeah. And then it'll just be a dried up husk with no humans and no video games, just like the death world. And then there will be no names left to write, so in a few hundred thousand years, there won't be any Gods of Death left either.” It was hard to read Ryuk's face, but was that… Sadness? Fear? “So… I want to stay in the cult, so I can help you. I may not be a genius like you, but at least I can be an extra pair of eyes. And hands. You know, if you need something written in the Death Note when you're doing one of your human things, like sleeping or whatever.” Ryuk extended a clawed hand. “Deal?”
Light considered this. “Just promise you won't write anything in the Death Note without getting my approval first, okay?”
“No problem.” Ryuk rumbled. “You're the one with the plans and everything. I promise.”
Light smiled and shook Ryuk's hand. “It's a deal.”Approximate readability: 4.60 (47579 characters, 11182 words, 934 sentences, 4.25 characters per word, 11.97 words per sentence)