by Kristi Yakumaku
Translated by Dimitra Nikolaidou and Victor Pseftakis
It’s almost noon, the sky is still loading clouds, and Akane has yet to find anything worth scavenging. Now, though, she can see a small heap of fresh garbage. She hopes it is what she thinks it is. How come she hadn’t spotted it hours ago? Hospital biowaste, her absolute favorite.
“Maeme,” she shouts and the girl jerks upright, as if abruptly woken. Maeme runs towards the hill. The strip of hair starting at her forehead and ending at her nape sways over her shoulder. Akane has scavenged a yellow jumpsuit for her. It’s too wide and she wraps it around her with black vinyl tape from ankle to calf and from wrist to shoulder. Wearing it, Maeme looks like a strange bird with a yellow, puffy body, black legs and a black crest. Her gloves leave her fingers exposed; there are purple stains on her nails already, and that’s not a good sign.
In the city, before they began replacing nanomaterials with core materials – n and c they call them now – they used vaccines to avoid infections, and she had them too when she was little. Here, though, vaccines and medicine can only be found in the trash, almost always past their expiration date. There are no c-materials among the junk. They have to make do with the old stuff, the throwaway n. The fingers of the Eta rot away. They cut them off and replace them with n-material again, also found in the trash heaps. The infection proceeds upward, they cut off the arm or the leg and use n-limbs, and the foul circle continues, until their heart rots away too and they join the mass of junk floating by the boats.
Akane looks away, beyond the canal, at the ducks silently gliding among the water lilies in the virtual lake. Yesterday on that spot, if it were the same spot indeed, there had stood a sunny mountain. So vividly sunny that the gray sky above looked fake. It had rocks, trees, bushes, birds, summits, everything, made you believe you could climb it. Today the lake, the day before yesterday a canyon, every day the images shift, every day she’s left with the impression that nothing around her is real. And she knows it’s more than an impression. The c-domes work well.
She drags her gaze off the dome and turns it on the road. At least this part with the cracked asphalt, some ten kilometers from the dock to the canal, stays put. Some have found abandoned military vehicles, hacked them and use them to carry the trash. Others found pre-war foot-propelled bicycles and tied carts behind them; they bounce on the cracks and often capsize, taking the riders with them.
She herself prefers to make her way on foot, look carefully, pick. Today there’s neither wind nor rain, and the chemical wafts are tolerable. She turns back to see if Maeme is following. Seven months have passed since she took her on her boat and she still hasn’t decided how old she is, twelve, maybe thirteen, fifteen even. The children at the dock are all so thin and tiny, and they can’t tell you much. She’s always carrying a palm-sized robot with a single arm and faded yellow hair, capable only to open and close its eyes.
This last month Akane has even named the girl, calls her Maeme, for her smile. She had asked her if she has a name of her own, and she had answered no. It wasn’t that important, anyway. She, for example, did have a name before joining the Eta, but nobody asked for it, everybody just called her Akane because of her red hair.
Akane pushes slowly the trash with her metal stick as if stirring a thick soup, while the girl tries to mimic her. In the ill-smelling brew, she spots an n-spray. A hundred percent lethal. Maeme tries to pick it up, and she pushes her away. “Get away from here. Wait for me outside,” she says pointing at the asphalt, beyond the trash heaps. The belt under her chest clicks and the “crab” on her back opens up extending three arms on her right side and another three on her left. Tracing her finger over the belt, she makes one of the arms grab the spray, bring it near her ear and shake it up and down. It’s not completely empty. The arm turns backwards and drops the spray in her sack. She sets both arms on auto, to bring junk in front of her eyes, while she keeps on stirring the soup.
She must craft a crab for the little one, and find gloves for her. For a moment she forgets herself, lowers herself and the metal which the arm brings towards her threatens to collide with her nose. She stops it at the last moment. Enough for today. She touches her finger on her belt, the arms open their claws and their treasures tumble down, as she turns to the street. The girl stands at the side and draws something using her stick. Perhaps she shouldn’t have named her. Not so long ago, she didn’t mind her carelessness. And now, what the hell? Just because she gave her a name, she must feel responsible for whatever stupid shit she does? She approaches her, the arms still extended like a standing spider.
“If you touch the junk bare-handed you will die.”
The girl looks at her without fear, honest curiosity on her face. “Why will I die?” she asks, her black eyes wide.
“Because you’ll get infected, that’s why.” No matter how many times I tell her, she still doesn’t get it. She gives her a stern, hard stare and walks past her.
“Don’t be afraid, Akane,” she hears her say. “I grew up here. If I were to die I’d have died already.”
It’s her turn to wonder. Every time she’s decided Maeme is completely mindless, she says something that sounds almost wise.
“I don’t give a shit if you do,” she says walking towards the dock. As she gathers the arm back to her casing, she imagines the girl behind her hurrying her graceless step and a soft smile takes shape on her lips.
Akane takes the crab off her back, while Maeme sits on the left bunk bed at the far side of the boat, legs crossed holding the little robot between them. She’s eating fried cockroaches from a box of unidentified making and licks her fingers clean. Akane looks at her while emptying her sack on one of the three large barrels by the door. Everything is made from n-materials, the boat, the beds, the blankets, the barrels, the chairs, the bench, the clothes, the screens, the info films, the box you’re eating from, everything. Yet you’re neither sick nor a ghost. You’re well-built and you’re lucky, too, Maeme. The girl almost offers Akane the box but she takes it back, hurriedly. Last time she offered her cockroaches, Akane pushed the box away and they all fell on the floor. She sees the girl pick them one by one with her long fingers and her stomach lurches. She’s inherited it from her mother, this disgust for insects.
“This is not food. I’ll find us some meat.”
She keeps telling her that, even if she knows she has few choices. Fish are infected; the cats, dogs, hens and pigs that are bred at the dock’s warehouses are fed with fish and mice that carry all sort of diseases. Mushrooms and greens are better, but hard to find. “The temperature needed to fry meat kills all microbes,” she says, mostly to convince herself.
“Don’t they eat insects in the city, Akane?”
“Some do, sometimes.”
“And what else do they eat?” asks Maeme, and for a short moment her face shines.
“Whatever the hell they want,” she says.
She sees the girl leave the box on the floor and curl up on the bed, her appetite gone. She pretends not to care about her sadness, but in the end she gives in. She sits on the chair and pulls a cord hanging from the roof. A diaphanous roll unfurls from the ceiling to the floor and Akane touches it lightly.
“Come here,” she tells Maeme.
She, seeing the screen, grabs her robodoll, jumps hurriedly from the bed and sits on the floor next to her.
“This is lettuce, these are avocadoes, sushi, noodles, potatoes, sakura-mochi, dango. That’s what they eat in the city,” she says, touching the images on the screen. The girl is looking at them, her mouth half-open, and touches the screen with her fingertips.
“They look good, will you give me sensors?”
Akane turns to the bench, pushes away cables, tools, rummages in a transparent box, and takes out two connected beads. Benhiro Tenoke, Experience Enrichment, the richest bastard in the world. She separates the beads and sticks one over each of Maeme’s eyebrows. She gropes in the box again and finds a pair for her. The girl touches the sweets and Akane can almost hear her saliva dripping. “What are these?” Maeme asks, touching the sakura-mochi.
“Cherry blossom sweets. They make them on Girl’s Day.”
Maeme looks at her, opening and closing her eyes like her little robot doll.
“When is that day?”
“It was on March, a month ago. In the city, they celebrate it every year.”
“Will you show me the city too, Akane?”
“I see you’re getting cheeky, little one. Do you want to see the old Tokyo, or the new one?” she asks, trying to hide a smile.
“Both,” she answers and as joy and impatience uplift her face the blue bead comes unstuck. She barely catches it before it hits the floor, and she sticks it back on.
“If you lose them, you’ll go back where you came from.” She’s glaring at her, but she’s already loaded the old Tokyo on the screen. She takes Maeme’s hand and together they walk under the blossoming cherry trees, their eyes squinting under Shinjuku’s neon signs, and feel the waves of people pass them by in Sibuya.
“Did you get to see all that?” Maeme asks, her voice barely audible.
“Until I was ten. Then the ’43 war happened and most of the city was gone. They had no domes then, they hadn’t even found a way to mislead the rocket’s trackers,” she says and feels her hand shiver.
“And what happened then?”
“Then, the survivors rebuilt a small part of the city, and later on they built a c-dome for protection. Since then, the city has grown. There are around ten new neighborhoods, connected with underground tunnels, and they keep printing new buildings under the domes. You see, some lost everything in the war and some became even richer than they were before.” Benhiro Tenoke, C-Constructs and Building Printing, the richest bastard in the world.
“And us, why don’t they want us?” she asks, looking at a pagoda that slides on the screen.
“It’s us who don’t want them. In the city, if you aren’t rich, you work fifteen hours a day, a slave of Benhiro Tenoke. You sleep in a box and live only to work. That’s why some give up, come here and live by the trash.”
“I do want them, Akane. I want to go to the city,” she says, lowering her head.
“You, they might want you back. Have you seen how many youths have synthetic legs here? They took them when they were children and made transplant organs out of their legs. Those who survived and found synthetic limbs are the lucky ones. Things have changed now. They used to take bodies only, now they want brains, too.” Benhiro Tenoke, Medical Innovations, the richest bastard in the world.
Maeme looks absentmindedly at her eternally insomniac robodoll. “They took two kids I knew. One never came back, the other did, but he’s a ghost, you know, doesn’t speak, doesn’t listen, doesn’t see. They say, you know, that us Eta are not human, that we’re dirty, infected and all that. They won’t give us codes to enter the city. I used to have a dad, once. He was good with codes and hacking, you know, like Shino and Danny, but not that good. He wanted us to go back, find an entrance to the city. And, well, he half-made it. We were there, in front of the dome, the door opened, and, you know, he gave me his hand. I went for it but the system got him, the dome’s jelly poured around him before he took a step forward. He stayed there, hand extended.” She’s not crying, but her voice is almost a whisper, sharp breaths between her words.
Akane doesn’t know why, but it’s the first time the girl is talking about her past. She takes the sensors off her eyebrows. I used to have a dad too, once, Maeme.
“Tokyo is a pile of shit, kid. Why go there? It doesn’t really exist. It changes every day. New buildings keep turning up, others go away. The only stable ones are the greenhouses and the stock-breedings. The city has no memory, no hangouts, no warmth, it’s an optical illusion.” She doesn’t know if Maeme can understand.
And yet, she asks. “Will Tokyo be as it was, Akane? And will us, Eta, be able to go wherever we want?”
“No, kid, this will never come to pass.” She can see disbelief in Maeme’s eyes, the desire to change it all, an expression reminiscent of herself, when she was an adolescent. No, nothing ever changes.
“Is that why you left?”
Akane pulls the chord and the screen rolls up to the ceiling. “No,” she says abruptly and takes the sensors off her face. “I’m going to get us meat,” she continues as she gets off the boat and jumps on the pier.
Ali’s chicken nugget box has begun to burn her fingers. She walks fast, hoping to catch Maeme awake and feed her. A small city of boats is rocking on the sea besides her. The elders say there used to be hurricanes and tsunamis but, after the war, the weather changed. Now and then there are storms, but the waters are usually calm, just as they’re now. Two half-naked boys with long, tangled hair and purple hands are lying on their backs on a mass of trash floating on the sea’s surface, their eyes nailed nowhere. Eta are drowning in trash and yet they owe their life to them. They’ve used them to make the n-network, to find the solar hives, to barter. They do use the trash for everything.
As darkness falls, Akane sees the boat stamps light up one by one, ideograms, flowers, naked women, dragons, roosters, butterflies, manga, tigers. When she first came, the boats were less and the boat stamps helped everyone find their home, or the brothel, or the eatery in the dark. Now the boats were about five hundred side by side and six or seven rows across the sea, more than three thousand in total. The designs and the colors get tangled together, the roosters have butterfly wings, the flowers have breasts, everything becomes one in a hypnotizing jiggle and the Eta find their boats mostly be smell and not by sight.
Lately, her own boat smells of fresh adolescence. Her boat stamp is lit, a green shamrock, a tribute to her Irish mother. The neighbors have placed planks from the last boat to the pier. Katsuo must be on the dock. The box no longer burns her fingers but it’s hot, just perfect.
“Maeme,” she shouts getting in the boat, “not even the city has such chike …” She stumbles on something and almost drops the box. It’s the little robodoll. “Fuck this shit, are you trying to kill me?” She looks over to the bed, but Maeme isn’t there. Maeme is nowhere to be found. She leaves the box on the bench, lifts the little robot from the floor and it opens and closes its eyes in a way that, right now, seems completely disapproving. She shoves it in her jacket’s pocket and walks out to the dock again.
She runs towards the warehouses and through the dark. She can make out a skinny silhouette walk slowly. She catches up. Her hair is dirty and matted, the clothes ragged.
It’s not her.
“Did you see a dark-skinned girl, with hair like mine?” she asks, grabbing the girl’s arms and bringing her face in front of hers. The girl won’t listen, speak or see. She’s ghostly white, with huge dark circles under her eyes. She can see burns on her face and on the edge of her mouth, an open wound drips puss and blood. Someone’s tugging her jacket. She turns and sees a barefoot boy, around five. “My sister was taken. She won’t talk, she’s a ghost. I hide among the pigs and they don’t see me when they come.”
“Were they here today?”
“Yes, here, in the boats. Do you have any food?”
Akane can feel her blood pooling at her feet. “The boat with the green shamrock. It’s unlocked and there’s food on the bench,” she says and starts running again, towards the boats this time.
A red dragon breathes fire over Shino’s boat. She climbs up, but the cabin door is closed.
“Shino, open up. Shinobu,” she cries out, banging her fist on the wood.
The door opens and first comes out Shino’s shaved head. He has sensors stuck over his eyebrows and his eyes are sunk. Akane pushes the door but his square body is blocking the entrance almost completely. Shino backs off, she comes in quickly and signals him to close the door.
“Is your boat on fire, Akane?” he laughs, taking the sensors off and placing them on a low table. In the rolled-down screen which covers the long side of his boat, an old man is smoking an opium pipe. Shino is trying to put on a black, long-sleeved blouse over his pants and the kinotattoo on his back, the same dragon lighting up his boat, closes its eyes as the fabric descends towards it.
“They took Maeme, Shino.” His laughter is cut short.
“When? I saw you coming back from the canal. Did you search the docks?”
Akane stops him. “She is going nowhere without this”, she says and takes the robodoll out of her pocket.
“Come on, she might have dropped it.” He pouts to show she might be overreacting.
“A kid saw them. They came to the boats,” she says and sits on a tattered sofa directly across the center of the screen. She looks at the wrinkled face on it, smiling at her peacefully through the smoke of his pipe. She wants to put the sensors on and lose herself in this peace, but no, this time she won’t. “I have to find her, Shino-chan, before it’s too late.”
“If they took her forget it. You know how it goes.”
She knows. A decrepit man will be connected to her head and will either keep her forever and live through her or will exhaust her body in every possible way and, when she’s completely in tatters and her last brain cell burns out, if she survives, he’ll throw her back to the docks.
Akane looks at the smoke on the screen. Benhiro Tenoke, Mindhost Rentals, the richest bastard in the world. That’s how it goes, but this time, I won’t let you.
“They keep them one or two days, for tests. Sometimes the host’s mind resists or might even overcome the ‘guest’s’ mind. So they test for this beforehand, try to stay safe.”
Shino is looking at her as if he doesn’t understand a word she’s saying. “So what. There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do. Judges, cops, all of them are his clients.”
“I will go and find him, Shino. I’m certain he keeps her at home. All this happened for me. It’s his last-ditch attempt.”
Shino spits on the floor, which is full of stains of every kind and color. His voice comes out heavy. “When I found you at the warehouses, with your sensors smoking and moments before you burned out your brain completely, you told me you’re never going back to the city. I helped you find your legs. Danny got you a boat and you decided that this is your home now. And now, you want to go back?”
“Are you playing the savior? If you or Danny had any money, you’d be living in the city and you wouldn’t give a shit about anything. You had something to gain from me. You found out who I was, and Danny wanted to fuck me,” she says trying to rein in her legs so she won’t kick him, his screen and whatever else in front of her.
“Fuck your rage, Akane, you’re the only one who asks for help by swearing. And to set things straight, I didn’t know who you were when I picked you up, and Danny really liked you. Do you have anything else to say for the two people who stood by you?”
“I have to say that no infected heals around here. And you did. I was the one who sent you to those who helped you get well. You may hack IDs, break codes, enter the city, but without connections you’re nothing, without my connections you’d be dead,” she says, her voice stable.
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. No matter how many IDs I hack, over there I’m nothing. How can I possibly help you?”
She’s regained her calm. “What I want, you can do, I know. I will get you in the ball, and you shall dance. And you’ll like it, you’ll see.”
“You’re real trouble, Akane,” he says touching his screen. He waits a bit, but Danny doesn’t show up. “He won’t turn it on,” he says.
“Can you enter his roll? We must talk tonight.”
Shino smiles. “Danny’s roll might hinder me for, I don’t know, a whole minute,” he says and unfurls a map with all the network’s screens up until the dock’s last boat. After forty seconds, Akane sees the dock’s fittest ass going up and down quickly between two skinny legs. The face of a blue-haired woman shows up behind Danny’s shoulders, and her gaze crosses Akane’s. She pushes Danny away and throws the sensors off her face. She puts on a red kimono while swearing, and the kinotatto of a snake over her navel bares its teeth. Danny remains naked on the bed, which covers half the cabin, among colorful sheets and pillows; he’s looking at them, brushing aside the blond and brown tufts that fall in his eyes. “Fuck off,” he says, but his tone’s saying: “Hey guys.”
“The girl has gone missing,” Akane says, and Shino adds, “Get your ass over here.”
The boat signs have gone off some time now, but the morning sky is heavy and gray. Akane is sitting cross-legged on the small part of her prow that remains uncovered, looking at the small robodoll, feeling her heart beat at the rhythm of its winking.
Its eyes close. End. Its eyes open. Beginning. End-Beginning. End-Beginning she keeps repeating alongside the doll’s eyes, a mantra to elevate her beyond hope and fear.
Suddenly she stops, gets up, enters the boat and unfolds the roll. She scribbles with her finger on the screen and soon, a virtual geisha is bowing in front of her. She might even be real, who can tell anymore?
“Jane-san, there have been ten years, eight months, fourteen hours, twenty-three minutes since your last connection. What can I do for you?”
“Connect me to my son.”
“I will transfer your request to Mr. Tenoke.”
A minute later, the geisha’s face turns into a flower spreading its petals and inside it appears a young man, only slightly reminiscent of the fifteen year old boy she left behind ten years ago. She’s not surprised. Why would she be? His face pops up constantly on the screens. Tenoke Corporations, for your every need. He’s dyed his hair black but she knows that apart from his eyes nothing else looks Asian. She wants to cry but bites her lip instead. She caresses the robodoll in her pocket. End-beginnng, End-beginning.
“Mother, to what do we owe the honor?” Coming through whitened teeth and well-shaped lips, the tone of his voice imitating surprise and joy takes the irony cake. Akane tries to speak but she feels as if to do so she has to open her mouth with both hands, shove them inside her throat and pull the words out with both hands. End-beginning. End-beginning. “There’s nothing left of him, is there? And now, you are taking her, too,” she manages in the end. No, that’s not what she should have said. She had prepared something different. She must remember what. She must calm down, and remember.
The man laughs. “Straight to the point, then. I did try many different approaches, you have to admit that. But surely you can see that that you left me with no alternative. In the end, I had to bide my time for years on end, waiting for you to bond with someone. I knew it would eventually happen.”
Akane is fighting to shove the part that’s frothing, kicking and swearing as deep inside her as she can. She’s fighting to look unperturbed, as she nails her eyes on his. “Why do you hate me so much?” she asks.
“Hate you? I’ve tried to bring you back so, so many times. You never liked it here. You ran away as soon as you turned eighteen and came back at twenty complete with a bastard son. Your mother took her own life after that.” My mother couldn’t take what she saw around her, and neither could I. His voice drones on, politely, coolly. “You could never see clearly. You had to revolt, and I had to do what was best for my family.”
Your family. A spontaneous laughter begins in her imprisoned turmoil, threatens the image she fights for. You stole my child’s soul, you fucking ghoul, it screams, but her face won’t shift.
“You never let me explain, Jane. We didn’t know he would lose himself. He was the first mindhost. When you’re sick, you’ll do anything to heal yourself. And I was sick. Hiro-chan was compatible and all we wanted to do was give this approach a try. Nobody expected him to lose his mind. All I wanted was some space, some more time to built my castle.”
Akane breathes in. Let’s go.
“What castle? You were building a whole empire. And for you to live and conquer, my son had to go. When I realized Hiro-chan was never coming back to his body I fell apart. It was the Eta who found me at the docks, who brought me round. For years on end, I’d lost myself, too. But I think you know all that, father. Your people are always in the docks, keeping tabs on me. You knew about the girl that warmed my heart for the first time in ten years.”
You know and do not care because your own heart is forever frozen. But I will find the match, father.
“They told me she screamed Akane, when they took her from the boat. It suits you, the name they gave you. Scarlet. For your red hair. Your mother’s hair. Ava did not come here as a refugee, you know, like the ones who followed. She came because she loved Tokyo, and she loved me, you know that, don’t you? You grew up surrounded by love, Jane, and all you gave back was hate.”
She feels his gaze penetrate the screen, burrow inside her brain, and she doesn’t know if she wants to caress the hair of her lost child or pull at them till she breaks the neck of the old man who stole it from her. “Love? Did you ruin my son out of love?”
“Your son’s not lost yet. Perhaps one day, we will both fit in his body. But even if he doesn’t, upon my death I will gift him my brain. Benhiro the Elder and Benhiro the younger will become one,” he says, his expression youthful, inconsistent with the old bastard that he is.
Akane takes her hand through her hair. “You don’t understand what you did, father. You never will. You only care about yourself. Why did you take the girl? What do you want from me?”
The face on the screen reddens, the voice strengthens. “Myself? I fought very hard to become who I am now, Jane, but you and your mother were always my first priority. And what do I get in return? You shamed my name. No matter how hard I tried to hide it, everybody knows you live in the docks now. My own daughter became an Eta, dressed in rags, wrinkles on her face. Come back, see things from my own perspective, and I will send the girl where she belongs.” The man bows his head and the virtual geisha appears, obscuring his face. “Thank you for calling,” she says. The screen empties.
The c-vehicle transporting her lands on the roof. She descends the stairs and finds herself at the entrance. Her family home is not printed. It’s a proper house, a built one, its walls made of rough gray stone reminiscent of Dublin rather than Tokyo. As far as her eye can see there are green gardens brimming with flowers, small bridges, trees, all these things Maeme has only seen on screen, that she herself has forgotten were real, hidden as they are behind the walls that separate the house from the rest of the city. She hesitates for a bit in front of that forgotten beauty, then turns around, touches her index finger on the reception and the heavy door opens. She would really like to know if he added her fingerprint now or never removed it.
She enters and starts walking down the wide corridor, as if she never left. The walls are all white. The living room door opens. She glances at the sparse white furniture, at the sculpture-laden tokonoma in front of the window. Not even a single miniature has been added to it. Everything is so clean and bright it looks fake.
On her left is the door leading to the basement. If indeed nothing has changed, the kitchen and the control room are down there. She leaves behind another door on her left, her father’s office. The corridor turns, on the right her mother’s bedroom, on the left her own. She enters. It’s just as it was when she left. She takes her clothes off and enters her personal bathroom. She caresses the towels, as soft as stuffed animals, jasmine-scented.
The hot water is abundant and she smiles thinking of the barrel on her boat, filled with dirty water. She leaves the bathroom and head to her wardrobe, followed by a cloud of steam. She finds a tight blue dress and puts it on. It’s not so tight anymore. The garbage heap has dried her out. She picks her overcoat from the floor and searches around inside its pockets. A small cylinder, well wrapped. Not needed – yet. She goes for the other pocket and touches the robodoll. Shino has planted an information server inside. She caresses the faded hair and the eyes open and close. End-beginning. End-beginning.
“Jane-san.” She turns abruptly and sees the familiar geisha smiling on the small screen by the door. “Mr. Tenoke is waiting for you in his office,” she says and the screen switches off. She puts a pair of boots on, straightens her body and walks out of her room.
She descends the stairs to the basement and hesitates in front of the kitchen door on the left. Two cooks and a young girl washing dishes stop their work and bow. She knows the elder cook, he used to make dago for her when she was little.
She walks straight ahead. The storage room is still at the end of the corridor; the control room is on her right, where it has always been. From there, you can monitor the whole house. As soon as the two guards see her, they get up and bow. One is much taller than the other and seems more senior or at least more assured. She greets them with a nod, and leaves the basement.
She ascends the stairs, walks down the white corridor and stands outside her father’s office before opening the door. Sixteen steps from the entrance to the chair opposite his desk. Her legs tremble but she makes it there, sits cross-legged and looks at him, all expression wiped from her face.
“Not even a handshake, Jane?” he asks and she tries to ignore her churning insides and remember that this predatory gaze does not belong to her son.
“Why not kidnap me?” she asks, motionless.
“I asked you to return many times. You are the only person I’ve got, my family. To bring you back by force and lock you inside a room would be meaningless. The only thing that would hold some meaning would be for you to understand me. To feel that this here is your home, Jane.”
She looks him straight in the eye. “My name is Akane now, and I understand you better than you think. I know what you’re doing. Everyone at the boats know. The docks are full of ruined children.”
His face burns red. “These children are ruined from the start. What future is there for the offspring of the Eta? At least this way they get to help sick people to feel alive and healthy again. Useful people, respectable people.”
“People who cover up for you. And nobody’s doing anything to stop you, because you have them cornered. And now, you’ve cornered me, too. So to get to the point: you asked me to come and here I am. So where’s Maeme?”
“Do not be impatient,” he says, his color going back to normal. “You will see her, eventually.”
“Why not now? Why not let her go?”
“Because you must prove yourself worthy, Jane. If I leave her now, you will leave too. Leave, without making any effort to understand me.”
“Leave how? I know you can catch her again anytime. Is she all right? Is she here?” she asks.
“She’s fine. When the time comes, you will see her.”
“Why can’t she stay with me?”
“You’ll waste your time nannying Eta kids? If you do have to take care of someone, your son and I are here, and we need you, Jane.”
Akane lowers her eyes. “Of course. Your needs come first. Have you ever wondered how I feel to see my child’s body a puppet in your hands? If you did think of me, even for a little bit, you would be in your own body when talking to me.”
She stands up and goes for the door.
“I don’t have a body of my own anymore, Akane,” she hears him say and it’s as if thousands of kilowatts course through her body.
She’s awake for some time now, but she doesn’t want to get up. Lying on her side, she looks at the robodoll and all she can think of is end-beginning.
She’s spent a week in this fucking house trying to gather her wits, but it keeps slipping beyond reason. Her father’s dead and nobody’s found out. No. Her son’s dead, and nobody’s found out.
And she must now finally take it in that all the promises that Hiro might, at some point, become himself again, were empty.
And she must keep living. She must concentrate, because she hasn’t found Maeme yet. She must work things out.
She has seen doctors going upstairs; a small clinic had been set up there, when her father was terminally ill. But what are the doctors doing there now, since his body doesn’t exist anymore?
The guard did not let her in when she tried to go there. What the hell? Everybody knows she’s the boss’ daughter and nobody bothers her. Just yesterday she stood outside his office door and the guards were definitely watching her from the control room, and still nobody came to remove her.
She didn’t mean to stand there for so long. Her father had a visitor, a ‘friend’ is what he said. And she could hear them through the door. Have you ever experienced a girl’s orgasm? He asked. Or her pain under the razor? The screen sensors cannot match this kind of quality and, eventually, they’re harmful to the brain cells. No, we never use humans of course. Only Eta. She didn’t want to hear anything else, but her legs wouldn’t carry her away. It took her some time to be able to move, to leave the corridor.
The only silver lining is that the robodoll’s server is functioning.
She looks at Shino’s message again. He managed to hack the house’s approved visitor list; Danny forged IDs using the names of two old acquaintances of hers, whose last visit was years ago. The guards are new, so they’ve never seen their actual faces. He, of course, might remember them, but he’s not in the house in the mornings. She will welcome them to the house, they will block the monitoring system, they will use the computers to draw a good sum of money to a different account. She will grab Maeme and they will go away. A simple plan. An end to their old life, the beginning of a new one. It can be done. She only has to locate her.
She touches a metal plaque by her bed, and the window coverings lift. She gets to her feet and runs to the wardrobe. She puts on a black vinyl bodysuit, the one with the most revealing bustier, and black boots. The shelf under the mirror is full of cosmetics, their expiration day long past. She puts on some lipstick, fixes her hair hurriedly and walks down to the basement.
First, a stop at the kitchen. She tells the cook she missed the dago he used to make her. They make small talk, smile a bit, and then she goes away.
Suddenly, she turns around as if she just remembered something and enters the control room. The same pair of guards get up to greet her, and their bodies hide most of the screen on the wall behind them.
“Jane-san,” says the tall one, leaning his head slightly. “Can we help you with anything?”
Akane imagines him shrinking down to a cockroach, she ready to step on him. She holds that image in her mind as she asks “If I want to go out, what c-vehicle can I get?”
The tall guy answers something she listens to with as much interest as she would give to dead language chants, while the short one is hooked to her décolletage, trying to only look at it with his peripheral vision and failing spectacularly. Akane focuses behind them. One edge of the screen is projecting an upper floor chamber. Three beds, three children. One of them is Maeme.
She turns her gaze away, trying not to scream, and hears the guard cough discreetly.
“I’m having two friends over, later on,” she says, raising her chin slightly.
“Of course, Jane-san. As long as they’re on the approved visitor list.”
“Of course they are. Koji Arimoto and Ben Iwao,” she says sternly and then turns her back and leaves.
She’s climbing up the stairs when she sees him, standing outside the living room’s door.
“I need to talk to you,” he says, opening the door for her.
“You don’t need to. You demand to,” she answers, sitting on the white couch.
“Listen, child,” he says, sending shivers down her spine. “I want you to take over one of the subsidiaries. Forget about old times. Feel like a part of the family again. Make a new start.”
“Perhaps I can take over a health-related one. Isn’t that where you do your dirty work with the mindhosts?”
A vein pumps up on his forehead. “Let us talk about the mindhosts. Pain does sculpt a person. I’m talking about true pain, physical pain. We all think we have principles, until pain tests us. You’re alone, no one by your side, and pain becomes unbearable. Drugs don’t work anymore and you’re only free of pain when you’re sedated.” He looks at her directly now. “And then, someone offers you a chance. A chance to be free of all that. Are you certain you wouldn’t grab it with both hands? Family is sacred, but survival is an instinct.” He looks away again. “I didn’t know it would happen like this. All I wanted was some space. I tried to make it work for both of us. But it felt as if someone’s sitting on a narrow chair. You need to sit down, but there’s no space for you. Give me some space, you tell them, but they have nowhere to go either. To finally sit down you have to push them off. Do you understand?”
Akane keeps her eyes on him. “I do understand survival. But once you saved yourself, you attempted to profit from others’ need to survive, didn’t you? And you didn’t even stop there. You ended up renting children to perverts. So what happened? After your principles lost the battle, you decided to annihilate them completely?” She keeps her voice steady. “And the lying. You kept telling me Hiro would wake up again. Never-ending lies. You’re alone because no one can stand you.” She pauses. “Let me see Maeme again. Stop this beastly business. Then I’ll know you’re human, once again.”
He stays silent for a bit, then turns his eyes back to her. “You’re exactly like me, Akane. You never give any ground. She’s sedated now. I will ask them to stop medicating her, and on the afternoon we can go see her. And now, I must go.”
Akane leaves the living room. For the first time in so many days she feels a little bit lighter, a little bit more willing to live.
Danny and Shino are sitting on the living room couch, as a servant offers them sake. Danny is looking at her silently, Shino downs it in one gulp and Akane glares at him.
She’s no idea where they got the suits. The one Shino is wearing stretches with his every movement, fighting to contain his muscles. Danny’s on the other hand, seems bespoke. As soon as the servant leaves, Danny takes a tiny, flat plaque from under his tongue and removes something resembling a bobby pin from his hair. When you’re an Eta, you know where to hide and where to find what.
Akane smiles waving towards the open door. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve asked for a c-vehicle to be ready for us, in case you two would like to go out later on. I’ve missed the city,” she says. Danny has placed the plaque by his thigh, carves something with the pin.
“Whatever you prefer. We haven’t seen you in so long,” Shino says, getting up to close the door.
Danny stops fiddling after a while. “Done,” he says in a low voice.
“What’s done?” Akane and Shino ask in tandem.
“I hacked the cameras,” Danny says and shrugs.
“Are they on a loop?” Shino asks, staring at him.
“Yeah, of your mum,” Dany starts saying, but Akane cuts him off.
“Shut up. Danny, I’ll get you to his office. Whatever intel I gathered on his transactions is recorded in there,” she says and shows the robodoll, which she’s placed on the tokonoma. Danny approaches it and touches the plaque on its belly. He grabs the pin again while Akane says, “Try to get as little as possible from as many accounts as you can. We’ll go pick Maeme and meet you on the roof. The c-vehicle must be ready by now. If something turns sour, take it and leave.”
“What about me?” Shino asks, raising an eyebrow.
“You, you should have found a better suit.” She smiles and opens the door.
She walks Danny to the office door, and he walks straight to the leather ergonomic chair, plops himself in front of the computer screen. He looks so much the part that for a moment the dread she’s been feeling subsides and she wonders why he left his position in the stock market to go live in the docks.
On the other hand, Danny looks at home no matter where he is.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” he says winking at her, and she almost believes him. She smiles at him, and leaves the office for her room. She picks up her old overcoat, puts it on and removes the small cylinder from its pocket. Its time has come; she unpacks it. A small device containing whatever she managed to salvage from the n-spray.
Enough to take out ten people.
She puts it back in her pocket and returns to the living room, where Shino’s still waiting for her. “Let’s go.” She smiles brightly, standing in the open door.
By the time they reach the stairs and start climbing them, she guffaws loudly. Once they get on top, she turns to the guard.
“Open the door,” she says, paying him no attention. “My friend here doesn’t believe we have a hospital set up here. I have to show him.”
“I am sorry, Jane-san. My instructions are very precise,” the guard says, lowering his head. Shino jumps at him, closing his huge hands around his throat.
“Open up. Now,” he whispers.
The guard tries to scream, but Shino squeezes harder. His face’s turning red, his eyes bulge, but he makes no move to open the door.
“Do you want to die?” Shino asks. “Just open the door, and I’ll let you go.”
The guard lifts his hand, punches the code on the small screen. Just as the final click is heard, Shino hits him on the back on his head and puts him down slowly. They push the door and enter together.
Akane’s heart beats steady, slow.
In front of them a corridor leads to a window with a garden view. On their left, there are glass chambers; inside the third chamber lie two boys and a girl. The girl is Maeme.
And she’s still drugged.
She grabs them one after another. “Wake up, wake up,” as loudly as she dares to. The boys don’t move at all. Maeme opens her eyes, moans, closes her eyes again.
Shino steps forward, picks Maeme in his arms. They get out, stepping over the guard, start descending the stairs.
She stops before they set foot on the corridor. No sounds come from the basement. They must still be fooled by Danny’s trick. She caresses Maeme’s hair.
“Wait here,” she tells Shino and walks briskly to her father’s office. She opens the door and suddenly, all her blood freezes inside her body. Danny’s standing up, back turned to the door. Behind the desk sits him, a c-gun in his hand.
“You’re not making this easy, Jane,” he says calmly. “You didn’t have to go through all that. All I wanted was some time with you and a second chance. But you’re too much like me. And now, it’s time to choose.”
He points at the screen with his free hand. “Choice number one. Your friend here invaded a private residence, in order to hack my accounts. He even managed to steal quite the sum. I can kill him in self-defense. Meanwhile you just shout and the other guy runs away with the girl. No idea how far they’ll get, but let’s say I will give them a head start.”
Danny’s fingers begin to tremble.
“Choice number two,” he continues. “Since I’m in no actual danger from your friend here, I let him live, but I let the guard know Maeme’s on the run and they take her out on the stairs. There’s space for one person only, Jane. Let that be a lesson that no matter what you choose sometimes, there’s always going to be pain.”
She can’t see Danny’s eyes, but his hands are shaking now. “I came here for you, Akane,” he says.
“She’s here because of me too. I cannot abandon her,” she says moving to the desk. Sixteen steps. “So kill him,” she screams, trying to remember the man behind her desk is not her son but a puppet made of him. But she’s a puppet too now, a body without a heart moving entirely through momentum. She reaches the desk, tightening her fingers around the n-spray inside her pockets.
He raises the gun. A silent shot and the sound of Danny’s body, hitting the floor. She needs to cry but there is no time for that. She is already running. She is running towards him. She hides her face in the overcoat’s lapels and sprays the entire thing on the man looking at her, the mouth half-open still.
“Make space, you asshole,” she shouts, hoping he can still hear her. His body’s melting so fast his scream’s cut short.
She throws the spray and runs to the door, struggling not to take in Danny’s body, the red puddle spreading from his head. Her hand is burning, her eyes are swimming in tears. Don’t lose it now. End-beginning.
Shino still stands on the stairs, Maeme in his arms. “Danny?” he asks.
She tries not to look back, at the office door. She half-lowers her head. “We have to leave. Now,” she says through gritted teeth, pulling at his sleeve.
Maeme’s eyes are still closed as they get up the stairs. Just as they flicker a little, she can hear footsteps from the basement. She turns her head and a guard appears in the corner of her eye. The tall one. Of course.
“Run,” she hears Shino say, climbing the steps two at a time. The guard raises his gun, points at Shino. At Maeme. She turns to run, but hesitates.
No matter what you chose, there’s always going to be pain.
She takes the n-spray out of her pocket and makes sure the guard sees her do it. Shino keeps running. The guard turns the gun to her. Shino now reaches the top step, approaches the c-vehicle, pushes Maeme in just as her eyes are opening. Akane takes a step down, towards the guard. He’s pointing at her directly now.
She feels the first bullet somewhere close to her heart. Maeme opens her eyes –beginning – and before her own eyes close, she can hear her shout her name. “Akane” – end.
Kristi Yakumaku lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. She teaches Greek language and literature and she works as a researcher in The Centre for the Greek Language. She loves weird dreams, the sea, her friends and her partner, exotic birds, music, desserts, peculiar people, uncanny stories and many other things as you will find out by reading her stories. Her story “Akane and the Host Hunter” was initially written in Greek has been published in the Greek anthology Light in the Crack.