A low, guttural thunder shook the spacescrapers. Darkness encroached upon the dying afternoon. In the distance, grey gulls fought for purchase on mast or tower in the rising winds. Miho hated the thunder and the lightning and hated the winds ruffling her short black hair. They groaned and screamed, ancient and horrible powers as restless as the earth itself. In this age, man should have been able to stave them off with his machine cities. Nature, always filthy, returned Miho’s hatred with a light rain blown in her face like spittle.
Boys on bright yellow cycles roared by, risking fines by taking the pedestrian high road suspended between the city’s buildings. Miho liked these bikes, enough to step into the warm humidity of their exhaust steam. Always-perfect Aimi enveloped the boy in the front of the pack with her long thin arms and legs, but there was no sign of Ichiro in this group. There wouldn’t be: he would never run with boys so young. But she sought him everywhere circuit-laced boys rode with robots or flipped off the law. She wished she could have a little danger with him again.
Some stranger handed her a Kirin. She keyed it open and let the bottle imprint on her hand. It would open again only for her. Too many girls ended up with more than beer in their bottles by the end of a party, then wound up on the floor, under a man.
“Hope the storm passes before it soaks the party,” the stranger said. He looked low-corporate, a semi-reformed otaku with a fiber-thin moustache and bouncing hair that threatened to collapse. He wore glasses in a sad attempt to look retro. Miho’s fingers slid across the latex casing of the mini welding torch she kept in her jacket pocket for guys like this.
She nodded and giggled, then darted to where Tomi and her school friend, Leslie, chatted in the shade of a yamazakura. The feed Leslie overlaid on herself made her hair a brilliant shade of orange, chemically impossible in reality. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, but American nails stood high, and refused to be hammered down even as the sun set on their empire of influence.
“Miho, your mushrooms are exquisite!” Leslie said, after scooping a handful from a nearby bowl. Why did Leslie make such a big deal about her food? Tomi told her that Leslie had gotten tongue and nostril feed strips months ago. Couldn’t you make any food seem wonderful then? “I wish I could be as domestic as you,” the American girl continued.
“Thank you very much,” Miho said, with a slight bow. But domestic felt like a kick in the stomach. She wanted to be dangerous around Leslie. She concealed her anguish with a smile which didn’t have to be forced after a lifetime of practice.
Leslie popped another mushroom into her mouth and half-shouted, “Seriously, these are the fucking end!” Most of the partygoers had grown up with western manners and didn’t think twice, but one or two of the older set fired stern glances over their colored acrylic plates. Yamashita-san’s eyes burned, tight and angry. Miho excused herself and went to him. She bowed in partial deference to custom for the old man, but not as low as custom dictated, since her more cosmopolitan friends were watching.
“Please forgive the American for her rude behavior, Yamashita-san.”
“Which one?” The old man said. His bald head shone brown from a lifetime of working in the sun before being forced to live with his nephew in the city. “There were three Americans, all with glassy eyes and greasy ears.”
Miho’s face grew hot. “Please forgive all three, then, Yamashita-san.” Her hand rose to her ear to pull the audio strip from it, but stopped at her shoulder. She didn’t want to call more attention to the very thing he insulted. She bowed again without meaning to, deeper this time. Flustered and embarrassed, she’d handed control to the automatic Miho, who didn’t give a damn about her lame attempts at rebellion.
“Fuck him,” Leslie said out loud, when Miho returned. Tomi sucked air in through her teeth, and Miho glanced around to see if anyone had overheard, moving her head as little as possible. How could she ever hope to be a wild child when she freaked out at bombs Leslie tossed without a care? “When he was our age he probably ran around with green hair and a bone through his nose.”
“We should get out from under the trees and avoid the lightning,” Miho said.
“Why?” Tomi asked. “There are lightning rods all over the place.”
“Let’s walk out to the railing anyway,” Miho said. She sent Tomi an angry little cartoon cat icon over a private feed.
“All right,” said Tomi, getting it.
“Where’d you get the beer?” Leslie asked.
“That man with the antique glasses,” Miho said. She didn’t want to turn his way. He didn’t need any more encouragement. Instead, she fed them a quick still-shot of him from a couple of minutes earlier.
“Right. Lonely men equal free beer everywhere in the world,” Leslie said, pulling her skirt up a bit. She wore white cotton panties whenever she visited. Over here, she said, they drove men crazier than what they hid. “I’ll be back.”
“Let’s get away from her,” Miho begged Tomi, but Tomi stood still. Miho’s mother approached.
“So nice to see you, Tomi-chan,” her mother said.
“It is always a pleasure, Matsumoto-san,” Tomi said with a proper bow. Tomi always behaved in front of Miho’s parents, for which Miho was grateful.
“Miho,” her mother said, eyeing the beer for a second more than necessary, “It’s time to visit your father.”
“I’ll meet you at the tram in five minutes,” Miho said.
Her mother looked sad and insistent. Jowls had begun to droop from her once round face. It broke Miho’s heart to see her proud mother’s eyes reduced to pleading with her child. Miho could not look at her.
“I haven’t seen Tomi all week,” Miho said. “I’ll meet you there, I swear.”
“Five minutes,” her mother said, perhaps as much to reassure herself as to confirm. She left for the station.
“How is your father, Miho?” Tomi asked.
“The same,” she said. “Worse. He’s always worse. It won’t be long. When a father dies, so dies his family.”
“That’s not true.”
“In our case it is. My father refuses to blame his company for his illness. They won’t cover the costs. We’re completely broke.”
“I’m sorry,” Tomi said, holding Miho’s fingers in hers as they came to the edge of the high road. “Your uncle–” she began, before Miho let her know with a squeeze that she didn’t want to think about leaving at the moment.
At the railing, Miho peered down into the streets five stories below, through the filter of Matsuo Hikaru’s brilliant overlay feed. Tomi had discovered it over a month ago, and since they’d started using it, they refused to look at Nagasaki any other way. The steel struts that suspended the high road between the adjoining buildings shone a dark blue in the faltering light, and the city’s arteries glowed red, pulsing with commuters. Miho followed them south through deepening grid valleys toward the nebulous sea.
“You’re thinking of Ichiro again,” Tomi said. “I can tell. Your feeds get shaky. You’ve got to stop, Miho; it only makes things worse. He never comes around here anymore. I think he’s sleeping with that Aimi robot.”
Miho’s eyes burned. Matsuo’s Nagasaki began to bend and falter as her thin video strips peeled away from her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Tomi said. She folded her arms around Miho’s arm and pressed her head into her friend’s neck. “But you’ve got to accept that he won’t come around any longer. He wouldn’t be around now anyway. He’s probably working.”
“You’re right. Let’s have an early dinner there.” Miho inhaled and thought she could taste the harbor’s salty air already. These Friday afternoon block parties had lost some of their appeal since she was practically an adult.
“Miho, you’ve got to see your father in the hospital.”
“I saw him a few days ago.”
“You promised your mother.”
“My father puts his corporate masters above his family. Maybe I’ll visit them instead. But tomorrow, not today.”
“Causing problems with your parents won’t change Ichiro.”
“I know,” Miho said. “But he’s all I want, Tomi. Do you understand that I don’t have any choice anymore?”
Tomi bent her head against the light drizzle and stared down at the permaplaz windows of the lower floors across from them.
“Anyway, we can’t even afford his father’s restaurant,” Tomi said.
“Maybe we can, from the kitchen,” Miho said. “His father likes me.”
“What about Leslie?” They glanced back and saw Leslie being much more animated with the beer man than she’d been with them.
“She’s got a tether,” Miho said, tapping Tomi’s ear. “She’ll find us once she’s had her fill of friendly men and free beer.”
“What an awful thought.”
They left the crowd behind and made their way across the high road on foot before hitching rides from the next gang of biker boys that came by. Thirteen-, fourteen-year-old boys. Boys too young to understand that they had no chance with a couple of seventeen-year-old girls dressed to party. The girls straddled the bikes behind the largest boys. Miho hiked up her skirt until the road no longer seemed worthy of their attention. They sped off and wove through clots of enraged pedestrians.
The boys showed off, zigzagging and shouting at each other in their own ganglang. They stole a moment to harass a homeless man who huddled in an otherwise quiet corner of the high road. The girls synced with the player on the leaders’ bike, and the latest chemotech discovery blasted in their heads: “Wilderness Falls Before Us.” Leslie would have disdained the music as being fifteen years out of style in the States.
For a moment, Miho forgave the chill of the wind and rain and allowed herself a delicious shiver. Her parents and her obligations lay far behind. Why can't you be Ichiro? she thought, wrapping herself a little tighter around the boy in front of her. Her fingers ran the ridges of his cheap, filament-lined jacket.
To her right, Miho saw the local Hamada Robotics Boutique chain store glowing neon in the late gray afternoon. Feeds danced lights across her shining eyes:
Love that never betrays!
There stood Aimi in the window, in her plaid microskirt. Not Ichiro’s Aimi, but the same model. For the eleventh time this week, Miho wondered how she could afford the surgery to enlarge her eyes to the size of that living manga doll’s. She’d retain no more than thirty percent of her vision with the implants, but that would be more than enough to enjoy Ichiro losing his sense of self in her huge, sparkling blue eyes.
A beauty like no other!
True beauty fell beyond the reach of natural evolution. A lady at the salon had explained that. Nature was full of hairs and moles and flaking skin. It operated accidentally. But humans had evolved the appreciation of beauty, built from an amalgam of living samples. Humans could bring its elements together and set them in stone. Before human invention, there had been no sleek skin, no symmetry down to the micron or grace that only a digital brain and artificial muscles could achieve. Before technology there had been no real beauty. Miho could do it all if she had the money. Her body hair could be removed permanently. Her fat could be redistributed, and her bones shaved. She could have robotic beauty. The hair was possible now, but she’d always been afraid of what her father might do if he came home one afternoon to a blue-haired daughter. Then she remembered that her father would not be coming home again. Ever.
Servants with the strength of seven men!
She could get the hair now. It only took a fraction of a second to think the thought. It filled her with so much guilt she shut out everything. The thoughts, the feeds, everything but the ride.
The bikers descended in deep tilts down a road that led over the water, down long, tight, wet spirals never designed for motorcycles, down to street level with Tomi screaming all the way. The boys laughed. Miho might have screamed, but she gripped her driver’s waist with every ounce of her concentration. Her biker seemed to like that more than Tomi’s screaming.
They dropped Miho and Tomi off near the water south of Dejima, the old Dutch trading post. Here, the sprawling Pachinko parlors lured tens of thousands of addicted Chinese who couldn’t get a legal fix at home.
“Hey, you wanna come to a real party tonight?” asked Miho’s biker. A couple of the other boys kicked gum wrappers on a road where the robotic street cleaners had already begun to buckle before entropy.
Miho smiled. “Maybe. Meet us in front of the circuit bars by the Happy Star Cannery tonight.”
Fear flashed across the faces of the younger boys, but Miho’s driver glanced at her covered arms. “Ah. You getting some work done? Some vibration?” he asked, holding up his first two fingers.
“Maybe you’ll see tonight, rude boy.”
He grinned and stood tall above his saddle, then raced away with his gang speeding behind him. One of the littler members glanced back once at Miho’s legs and then shot off. Amplified police whistles sang in their wake.
“That is so wrong of you, Miho,” Tomi said. “They’ll get themselves killed there.”
“How else could we get them to leave? Tempt them with something better, later. They won’t go there, anyway. He’ll tell his friends he went and didn’t see us.”
“You know so much about boys,” Tomi mocked.
“I do,” said Miho, missing the sarcasm.