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Matsumoto Miho had seen ten thousand hospital rooms on the feeds, and not one had looked like this. The room did look clean—no cup or chair was out of place—but a proper hospital room, an American hospital room, contained one patient, not four. The patients, even in the Chinese and Indian feeds, did not look like these men. Proper patients were muscular, bandaged or form-fleshed, unblemished save for a few cuts and, most importantly, attractive.
These men appeared skeletal, with heads of wild hair, bodies shiny and shrink-wrapped in quarantine cocoons. Miho couldn’t have picked her father from the group if her mother hadn’t led the way to his bedside. Daily sunlamp therapy made him darker than any lab worker should have been. His withered arms, bruised purple along their lengths, rested at uncomfortable angles. His dry mouth hung open, few teeth remaining in it. His eyes were shut, as if in agony.
“Ot?san,” she whispered.
“Your father is tired,” Miho’s mother said. A cup of barley tea sat by the bed, untouched. Her father could no longer drink, but robot porters brought the cups every four hours.
“Should his sheets be changed?” Miho asked.
“Your father is a special case, because of the quarantine,” Mother said. “His family is not expected to change his sheets. The porters change them when he is taken away for bathing and recontainment. You would understand this if you visited more.”
Miho didn’t want to visit more. It had all happened so fast. A month ago her father had been swimming laps around men ten years his junior at their building’s pool. Then a containment breach in his research lab at the pharmaceutical company had turned him into this. Nanos filled his body, more mobile than any cancer.
“We don’t yet have the technology to stop this,” Dr. Nakamura had said. “We’ve never encountered it before. Matsumoto-san’s organs are slowly shutting down. We could keep him alive with machines, but he doesn’t want that.”
“No, sensei,” Miho’s mother agreed. “My husband does not want that.” It would be an undignified life.
“It is your husband’s wish that we closely monitor his progress in order to develop procedures for the next patient with such a problem.”
It was just like Father, thinking of himself and his life as nothing but a tool to help others. What had it gotten him? The very machines he’d designed to save the lives of others now offered him death. Miho couldn’t bring herself to touch his atrophied hands. They had once lifted her high onto his big shoulders and bounced her around their home. Those shoulders now stabbed up to form brittle tents in his hospital gown.
They spent the evening there. Miho watched feeds with the volume low and closed her eyes as if resting so her mother wouldn’t see the video strips light up beneath her lids. She used a hack common to schoolchildren and young office workers which turned off the video every time she opened her eyes.
She navigated the feeds through a simple yes/no decision tree with a billion branches, choosing paths by simple brainwave control: a concentrated happy thought for “Yes,” a sad one for “No.” Miho and millions like her performed complex maneuvers with hundreds of lightning-speed decisions that made most adults quake. One respected Indian psychologist worried that the technology created a hyperspeed bipolar generation.
First she caught up on her messages. Tomi would be back from America next week with her maddening friend, Leslie, and would meet her at the high road party. Leslie looked forward to tasting Miho’s latest culinary masterpiece. Ugh. No message from Ichiro. She never expected one, but always checked. Next Miho tried a couple of hospital shows to reinforce the contrast with her surroundings, but couldn’t bear to watch for long. She settled on selling her collection of synthetic flowers piece by piece as she had done for spending money for the last month, periodically glancing up at Aimi’s perfect face in the upper right corner of the marketplace. Why did she keep that posted there?
While her mother spoke to the doctor, Miho studied the posters in the waiting room, captivated by the advertisement for pore sealing treatment. She synced to the ad, and it came alive through her feeds. The face of the girl on the poster enlarged until Miho could see ultra-smooth skin at the microscopic level. Perfect skin can be achieved. Blemishes a thing of the past. Pure plaz smoothness!
If only she could have that for herself. There were no prices. She wanted nothing more than to ask how much it cost, but couldn’t, under the circumstances. Her concern should be for her father today, and for the foreseeable future, but then…pure plaz smoothness. Ichiro might love her again if she didn’t look so plain. His friend, Takumi, told her as much last year. She could even become beautiful.
* * *
Miho remembered riding a pony at Ichiro’s uncle’s farm at five years of age, holding him tighter than she needed to. She made a game of feigning terror, like she thought was expected of a girl when with a boy. His father, Tanaka-san, led them on foot. The sun moved two of her handspans across the sky as they rode, but in Miho’s memory it seemed like such a short ride. Her head pressed against Ichiro’s rough oxford shirt as she watched the grassy trail bounce below them. She inhaled the heat and the earthy smell of the small, brown horse. When they returned to the stable, Ichiro leapt from the pony and fell hard on one knee. She remembered his quivering lip when he looked to his softhearted father. Miho jumped down to help him up.
“You’re all right,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek like her mother would have kissed her. Little Ichiro’s crinkled face smoothed into wonder and he ran off, amid his father’s soft laughter.
The next month at school, Ichiro found Miho on the playground. “When we get married, my uncle will give us a pony to ride whenever we want,” he told her. “It will be a proper robotic pony that knows how to behave itself.” She had taken their eventual marriage for granted from that day. Through how many kite-flying Aprils? How many school trips and birthday parties? Ten years’ worth, culminating in their first kiss. Trailing off into their last kiss.
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.
One night when they were sixteen, Miho and Ichiro snuck into the high forest on the twenty-first floor of the Mitsubishi Memory Plastics building. It continued upward for another twenty meters before the building took over again, six more stories into the sky. The forest had been closed due to some dubious viral scare that had threatened the rowans, but nothing more than a polite sign kept the rest of the world out.
Whenever they found themselves alone together they switched to a language made just for themselves, not of words, but inflections and gesture. For the first time in weeks no one else was around, yet now they had nothing to say.
They wound themselves around a pair of gnarled trunks and looked out upon the ships lighting Nagasaki’s water, while jets and stars lit its sister sky, feed-enhanced to compete with the light of the city itself. The wind rattled a million leaves until their din overwhelmed the sounds of the traffic below. To Miho, who relished the noise, it seemed that a great river rushed past them, just out of sight in the dim light deeper in the trees.
Miho reached out to Ichiro and let go of her tree once she held his arm. In the city-lit darkness, she hugged him, so happy to bury her head in his chest now that he stood taller than she for the first time in their lives.
“Ichi, I love you.”
“You do?” he asked.
“Of course I do. And I always will.”
She smiled. “Why? We’ve been friends all our lives. You help me with my essays. You bring me food when I’m sick. I’ve kept your uniform button under my pillow since you gave it to me when we were ten years old. You care about what happens to me, Ichiro. Sometimes I think you’re the only one. Everyone else seems more concerned about how I act. I can be myself with you. You know how much that means?”
“Yeah,” he said. His grey silhouette nodded against the city. “I do. I, uh…I love you too, Miho.”
Pushing up on her toes, she rose to meet him, giving him plenty of time to initiate their first kiss. She fell into him before he figured it out. She smiled at that, which meant that he first kissed her on her teeth. He tried to pull back, but she held his head fast with one hand and let her lips take over from her teeth. They kissed once more, lingering over it this time. Miho returned to his chest and closed her eyes.
“No hurry,” she said. “We have our whole lives together.”
The wind had quieted for a moment and the low humming rumble of the traffic far beneath them returned. Ichiro murmured something in the affirmative and stroked her long head of hair with one gentle hand.
Two weeks later, he left her for Rebecka.
* * *
“Wait,” Tomi said, stopping at a survey terminal no bigger than a restaurant waiter. A round little thing, it sat hooded from the elements, crisp, white, and ubiquitous. The older generation and the tourists used them, mostly. Students used the feeds.
“There’s no time,” Miho said.
“It only takes a moment,” Tomi said. They’d had this argument a thousand times, and Tomi had always won, because Tomi had more spending money. She made that money by singing the virtues of her sponsor corporations to survey terminals all over Nagasaki. Today she hawked a German handbag company with the deliciously rude name of Glans. Design computers, which struggled to understand human aesthetics, chewed on this data day and night in an effort to produce original designs which would appeal to their customers.
The smells of the harbor hung in the air: fuel exhaust from old African ships, curry elbowing wasabi for supremacy, the sea underlying all of it.
“There,” Tomi said, with a quick step. “See? Done already.” The screen returned to one of its defaults: an advertisement for Orim, the inner body deodorant. The body’s gas becomes like lilacs!, went its song.
They cut through the alleys where vendors in light blue work clothes pushed dehydrated ice cream bars and laser-light dolls that looked like miniature Bunraku puppets.
Tanaka-san’s restaurant was a few blocks east of the harbor, designed to catch the tourists before they reached old Chinatown. The girls went around the back, where the service door hung half-open during business hours. Cooks and waiters, some of whom Miho had known for years by face, zipped across the sani-tile floor, appearing more professional than their employer ever had. Tanaka-san always looked like a big businessman who had just changed his own tires. He spent good money on tasteful suits to cater to his upscale clientele, but found his familiar kitchen far more comfortable. After abandoning his jacket and letting his dress shirt get rumpled, he looked out of place in every part of his own restaurant.
“Ah, Miho-chan! It’s been so long,” said Tanaka-san, embarrassing her. “Tomiko-san, yes?”
“Yes, Tanaka-san,” Tomi said with a bow.
“How is your father today?” Tanaka-san asked Miho, his forever bright face becoming grave.
“The doctors think he may be stabilized. There is hope for the best.” Tomi sent her a feed of a thousand question marks mixed with a thousand exclamation points. Miho blew them off.
“That is good,” Tanaka-san said. His expression lightened. “That is very good.”
“Is Ichiro working today?”
“Yes, but he’s out at the moment. He’ll be back shortly. I’ll get you a little something while you wait, yes?”
“Thank you,” they both said.
Tanaka-san brought back some fish and rice on the hard paper takeout trays which employees used for themselves. He barked something unintelligible over his shoulder. One of the busboys rushed up and brought two stools to the table in front of them before disappearing back out to the restaurant. Tanaka-san said, “More of an herbal flavor than spicy, I’m afraid. The Chinese tourists love this. Everything is for the tourists these days.”
“Itadakimasu,” both girls said.
“It’s excellent, Tanaka-san. Thank you.” Miho said, after a bite.
“Domo. We’re all chasing money east and culture west these days, huh? We’ll all be one very boring culture soon.”
A round little woman in a flower-print dress wedged her way between them. “Is my husband boring you with his boring culture speech again?” Tanaka-san’s wife, Tetsuko, asked. She gave him a hard little pat on the shoulder.
“You see?” Tanaka-san said, “Even my speech is becoming boring. Where will it end?”
“That beer vendor is here again,” Tetsuko told her husband.
“You’re very busy,” Miho said. “Do you need help? I can wait tables.” Tanaka-san saw the gimmick of robotic waiters as beneath him, even though many of his competitors embraced it.
Tetsuko shook her head. “You’re a nice girl, but we don’t need another waitress. Concentrate on your studies.” Tetsuko left and shouted for a pickup.
“Don’t mind her, she doesn’t understand what it’s like when you need to be near someone,” Tanaka-san said. He indicated all of the people working in the kitchen with a sweep of his hand. “None of these people understand, but I do. I did the same thing to be near her, years ago. This used to be her father’s business. We’ll see if we can work you in somehow.”
“Oh, thank you,” Miho said.
“It’s time for that robot to go.”
Tanaka-san’s patience must have reached its end, she thought, for him to bring up Aimi in front of her, much less Tomi, whom he didn’t know that well. Tanaka-san went to talk to his vendor while the girls ate a bit more. The food tasted unique but good, and it came free, so it tasted even better.
Miho eyed a vacant food injector at the end of a line of ten machines, five of which were being used at the moment. By midnight, she knew, they’d be working to capacity. Nagasaki was fast becoming a twenty-four hour city.
Tanaka-san saw her interest when he came by.
“You know how to use these machines?” he asked.
“Yes. My mother requires help in preparing food for the high road parties on our block.”
He slapped a hand on the shoulder of the man at the closest injector. “Kakeru is a real chef. These other boys,” he said with a jerk of his head, “Use computer-designed recipes. That food is for dogs, in my opinion, but the Chinese like it.”
He snatched a piece of salmon from a stainless steel cold-prep table and threw it on the counter in front of thefood injector next to Kakeru’s. “This is rather plain. See what you can do with it, huh? I’ll be back.”
“Okay.” Miho tore off a little piece of the fish and tasted it, earning a nod of approval from Tanaka-san. She took a seat at the injector and dipped her hands in the sanitizer, too late. She soon lost herself in the menu of the chemical library, picking out those salmon-enhancing flavors that her mother favored.
Tomi tugged Miho’s short jacket.
“Miho, Leslie doesn’t want to come down here. Can we go back soon?”
“All right, let me finish.” Miho finalized her formula and placed the fish in the injector. A thousand needles so small that they looked like a mist clouding the machine each injected a droplet of flavor into the fish at different depths, tenderizing it as they did so.
Tanaka-san swept up to her shoulder as if he had been there all along.
“All done?” he asked.
Tanaka-san grabbed the whole piece of fish and bit off a piece. He chewed in an almost exaggerated way, working his mouth like the fish hadn’t been deboned. His face grew large somehow. Miho didn’t know what it meant.
“This is wonderful.”
“Thank you,” Miho said.
“Tetsuko, Tetsuko!” he called. She came and he held the fish in front of her. They’d been married too long for him to have to explain what he wanted.
Tetsuko pulled a piece off and tasted it.
“Ah,” she said and looked down the line of injector operators before stopping at Kakeru, a meter from her shoulder.
“No,” Tanaka-san said, turning her toward Miho.
“You flavored this?” she asked.
“You’re very talented. You must come work for us. Not waiting tables, in the kitchen.” Concern for her studies had been forgotten.
She spun around to find Ichiro, much more muscular than the last time she saw him. He held two armloads of office supplies. Aimi, always by his side, was empty-handed.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, dropping his bags on the counter.
“I’m working here. In the kitchen.” She’d decided to work through the evening, sending an angry Tomi back to Leslie alone.
“Miho, you can’t do this.”
“Your parents like my work,” she said indicating the machine.
“My parents like you, Miho.”
His body turned a few centimeters in Aimi’s direction, but his eyes never left the floor at Miho’s feet.
“Go home, Aimi,” he said. Aimi took a step and then stopped. Her eyes weren’t trained on anything in particular. It seemed to Miho that she had shut down.
“I do like you,” Ichiro said. “I like you a lot, but I like a lot of girls a lot. I’m not looking to be with one person. You need to see other boys.”
Aimi shifted again and came closer to Miho. “I have a solution,” she said in her squeaky little-girl voice.
“I want to see you, Ichiro,” Miho said. She blinked her eyes dry, not wanting to contaminate her work station.
Aimi rested her fingertips on Miho’s bare leg. They felt fever-warm and vibrated like the engine of the ancient car Miho’s uncle had once owned. Aimi’s shining blue hair quivered beneath the air-conditioning vent. She said to Miho,
“The closer you are, the more fearful Ichiro becomes. Maybe we could all have fun together, the three of us, and he wouldn’t be afraid anymore.”
Sweat broke out on Miho’s forehead.
“Aimi!” Ichiro said. Miho looked about to see if he’d attracted the attention of the others in the room. The strain with which Tanaka-san’s employees evaded her eyes told her that he had. In a lower voice, he said, “Go home immediately.”
“I’m sorry if I angered you, Ichiro.” She left without saying goodbye or apologizing to Miho.
“I’m so sorry, Miho,” Ichiro said, his red face still tilted downwards. “Please don’t pay any attention to her—she’s just a stupid robot. Forgive me for owning such a piece of shit. Please excuse me—I have work to do.” He grabbed his bags and headed for his mother’s office.
Miho wiped her forehead with a paper towel. Did he really like other girls? Real girls? She knew only of Rebecka, and that was over a year ago. No, he had no real girls. No real girl could win a man’s love like an artificial one could; Aimi’s loyalty—and perhaps more importantly, her respect—would be unquestionable. And Tanaka-san had mentioned the robot specifically, with disgust in his eyes.
So Ichiro wanted to get rid of Miho. She half-considered his advice, and tried to think of another boy she liked, but couldn’t imagine one. She suddenly wanted to leave. Maybe she could still catch up with Tomi. But she’d already agreed to stay, and she wouldn’t disappoint Tanaka-san on top of angering Ichiro.
But why would he be afraid of her?
* * *
Two hours later, on the tram ride home, the remains of Miho’s dinner sat on her lap in a white plastic bag. The bag’s snake-like scales glittered in the overhead light like they had on the night of the blackout. It had been over three years ago, the quake that interrupted a decade-long cityflow that seemed to have been granted by the gods. For one strange day, power outages had rippled across Nagasaki like the ground itself, and the streets became clogged dead when the city’s Teslahubs could no longer power the telectric cars.
In the late evening, a knock had come at the Matsumotos’ door. Miho’s parents, absorbed by the earthquake news on their battery powered television, didn’t seem to hear. Miho answered and found Ichiro standing there, arms full of bags with that same snakeskin glimmer in the harsh shine of the room’s tiny LED candles. She let out a little squeal of delight, but what she really wanted to do was hug him.
“I thought you might want something warm to eat,” he said.
“Ichiro-kun!” her father said, turning from the set. Miho took some of the bags and brought them to the table.
“I heard the power was still out here, Matsumoto-san, and asked my father if I might bring you dinner. Some districts have their power back already, although we’re still running off of generators.”
“Arigato, Ichiro-kun,” Miho’s father said with a bow. “Your gift is much appreciated. Let your father know that I will see him tomorrow to express my gratitude in person.”
They exchanged news about the quake. There had been some injuries, but no one had heard of any confirmed deaths. Automobile routers in the powered areas still struggled with traffic puzzles of a complexity beyond their means. The power outage had been unexpected for an average tremor, but the ways of the grid were mysterious at times.
“Please excuse me,” Ichiro said, “but I have to get back to the restaurant. We have a lot of business during blackouts, as you can imagine.”
“Of course, of course!” Miho’s father said. “You are a busy young man. Thank you once more.”
Miho was back by Ichiro’s side. In the shadows of the doorway she let the back of her hand brush against his pant leg.
“Thank you for coming all the way out here, Ichiro,” she said, watching the blue sheen of his cheekbone in the candlelight. “It must have been dangerous.”
“It was nothing,” he said, as his shining eyes found hers. “I was more than happy to come.” He took hold of her pinkie and ring fingers and squeezed them to emphasize his words.
“Send a message to let me know you arrived safely,” she whispered, touching her ear. She had forgotten that she could not receive any messages until their power had returned.
“I will.” A short bow and he was across the hall and down the stairwell. The door fell shut and he might never have been there, save for the bags of food her mother unpacked at the dinner table.
What had happened between then and now?
In the hypnotic rocking of the tram Miho slipped into the waking sleep which brings dream but no rest. She dreamt of her father in a perfect, glazed ceramic body, broad-chested and stronger than he’d ever been before. He held her tightly as they flew over the endless Pacific, a vast gray mirror in the moonlight.
* * *
“Where were you?” her mother demanded. She looked gaunt and terrible. A week ago Miho would have thought, like death itself. But then she’d seen her father and the comparison no longer seemed fitting.
“I found work,” she said as she kicked off her shoes by the door.
“You promised to meet me, Miho. Your father wanted to see you.”
“The pay is good. Food preparation for Tanaka-san’s restaurant.” She looked around to avoid her mother’s stare. Their little apartment was emptying out. Mother had made gifts of their less portable possessions to friends and neighbors. Her father’s electric guitar still stood on its stand in the corner. Miho knew half a dozen people who would have loved it. Her mother hated it, and yet it still clung to this place. It and the spider plant and one table were all that was left in their family room to suggest that any family had ever existed here.
“Your father is dying, Miho. It could happen at any time.”
“That’s why I need to work: we have no other money. What does he expect us to do? He’s leaving us destitute!”
Somewhere in that weakened frame, her mother found the strength. She struck Miho’s face with enough force to knock the young girl to the floor.
“Your father believes in loyalty, although I have failed to instill it in you. He has always walked a straight and unquestionable path.”
Miho held her stinging face. “Nobody else acts like that anymore! His employers are corrupt. They threw his life away to save themselves money.”
“That is irrelevant. Your father’s actions are impeccable. He does not give his life in vain.”
“And what about us?”
“He does not need another problem. We will see to ourselves. We will go to the country to live with my brother.”
Uncle lived outside of Yamaguchi. Too, too far. “I don’t want to leave here. I can work.”
She crawled to the foam-filled tatami mat in front of the door. Miho looked upon another mother. This woman stood straighter than Miho’s mother had ever done, even when things were well. Her will seemed to have grown big enough to strengthen and animate her body, so frail mere moments ago. Miho wouldn’t even consider talking back to this woman the way she had talked back to her mother so many times.
“I’m sorry,” Miho said, bowing her head. “I will see my father.”
“You cannot go tonight,” the woman said. “You shall go tomorrow, after school.”
* * *
One year ago, S3NS3I told them that Nagasaki had lived three lives. The old port reached back to the days of pandering to Dutch, Chinese, and Portuguese traders as well as the latter’s holy men during the age of sail. It saw thriving warship production in the still-young twentieth century. Then came the post-bomb city, a scar-tissue city afraid to grow too high or too far from the cooling salve of nature. The one legged torii gate at the Sann? Shinto Shrine endured as one of the few reminders of the first two lives. Built in 1652, the bomb tore it in half three centuries later. The remains still balanced there today. Miho’s was the third city, The Infused City, which analysts predicted would overtake Tokyo in another twenty years at its current pace. A gluttonous, vertical place that gobbled up cheap South Korean refugee labor and Chinese money until it nearly choked, in a land where American dollars and soldiers had dried up.
As a part of the lesson, S3NS3I took them to Peace Park and toured them through the same monuments they’d seen a thousand times before. Nobody complained. S3NS3I was a lenient model, and her students, who were all around sixteen years old, regressed by a couple of years when they got outside together on a nice day. Ichiro and a couple of the other boys unbuttoned their shirts, and Miho and Tomi exchanged flowers they’d bought on the feeds and stuck them in their hair.
Ichiro shoved his friends around a bit for Rebecka’s sake. She smiled with half attention at their foolishness, her designer heels dangling from her fingers while she strolled from monument to monument. The park was a new experience for her. She’d come from Sweden two months earlier when her father settled into his latest multinational. She was older, European, and perfect. She had a synthetic larynx that gave her a voice like white noise, and color-changing nails that sparkled electric snow. What chance had Miho ever had against that? Ichiro returned to Rebecka’s side in short order, taking her shoes and interlacing his fingers with hers.
Miho turned away and ran ahead of the group to the Fountain of Peace, attracted to the rainbow made by the spray of the water. An old man stood there before the steps with a beckoning smile, as if he’d been placed there with the sole purpose of greeting her. He bowed and offered her a flower.
“A young beauty like yourself requires a beautiful flower for her hair,” he said.
She felt her head, thinking her flower had fallen during her run. “I have one. You see?”
“You have a flower, but not like this. True beauty develops, my dear child, then is gone. A flower plucked from the earth is ever-changing, perfect for mere hours before it begins to wilt.”
Miho felt sad that the man didn’t understand. “New flowers don’t ever wilt. You can appreciate their beauty so much longer.”
The old man smiled, holding the flower out to her once more. “When is the last time someone of your generation appreciated anything ‘so much longer’?”
She gave the man a crooked smile for his attempt at humor, took the flower from him with thanks, and put it in her hair next to the synthetic one. She wandered back, lingering a bit so her group might come to her. A large reddish dog circling in the grass a few meters away had gotten its fill of the park and lay down at its master’s feet. Once down, it hissed a heavy, tired sigh, and Miho imagined hidden pneumatic servos in its legs releasing their excess air. She grinned.
Later, when they left the park, Ichiro stripped down to his undershirt. He flexed his muscles for Rebecka in exaggerated bodybuilder poses.
Laughing and shaking her head of snowblind-white hair, Rebecka said, “You don’t know what real men look like. The men where I come from are twice your size. Even the boys are bigger.” Everyone laughed, and then laughed harder at the speed with which Ichiro’s shirt went back on. When she saw his face, Miho stopped giggling. His friends didn’t stop until he took a wild swing in their direction.
Miho went to visit him that evening. The Tanakas lived in an apartment home not far from their business. The floors of the huge building looked like suburban streets with real trees lining the halls. The three dimensional facade of a cozy home surrounded the door of each division, and the curved walls and ceiling of the corridor reflected a translucent sky blue which diffused the lights that they masked. Miho rang, her heels hanging off the miniature walkway and onto the sidewalk.
Ichiro yanked open the door.
“You came to laugh at me some more?” he asked, one hand on the door handle.
“No. I’m sorry. I—”
“You’re sorry. You’re a fucking little girl! Go play with Tomi and your other little friends. You can giggle all day and put some new flowers in each other’s hair instead of those rotted things. You look like an idiot!”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Ichiro.”
“Get the hell out of here, Miho, and don’t ever come here again!” He slammed the door. She stood, staring at it. When a situation like this arose in the feeds, a minute or two would pass, then the angry person would open the door and ask forgiveness for his or her behavior, and they would kiss before the credits. While Miho waited, her hand fished around in her hair absently and found the flowers from the afternoon still there. The perfect orange carnation, tangled in the wilted blue flower of no type she knew. Its once-tender petals browned and curled at the edges. She tossed the blue flower into the bushes that lined the walk. Her sadness for it and for the old man who had given it to her lay thinly upon the mountain of sadness that Ichiro’s anger caused to rise within her.
Miho stared at the door for a long time.
Ichiro never went out with her again outside of school. Aimi showed up by his side soon after.
At the doorway to her father’s hospital room, Miho understood everything before her eyes had a chance to focus. He lay motionless in his bed, a man in his mid-fifties looking ninety. His once striking head of hair was now bare scalp, and the loose skin of his face was gouged with misery. His eyes were shut tight and his mouth opened wider than seemed possible, open in some horrific, voiceless scream. Miho’s mother sat in silence by his bedside, cupping his tubing-pierced hand in hers. Her cheeks hung, soft and sagging, the skin of an overripe peach. Tears streamed down her face.
Miho moved past the beds of the other patients that shared her father’s room. It took all of her willpower to keep from listing to her left and spilling into their visitors. At her father’s bedside, she lowered the guardrail with one hand. Amidst the crinkle of soft plastic, she poured herself into the old man’s thin, purple arms as if she had always belonged there. She buried her face in the stubble of his neck, scratchy even through the cocoon, and encircled him with her arms so gently, so as not to hurt him. She wished the smell would leave her nose. She wished his chest didn’t feel so hard against hers. Like her mother, she would not sob. The tears simply flowed.
She wanted to tell her mother that she couldn’t bring herself to see her father before. She couldn’t bear to see him helpless and conquered by illness. But each time she tried to speak, her chest burned and the words caught in thick globs of phlegm and tears.
She couldn’t say anything. Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps her mother couldn’t hear anything, either.
* * *
The doctors may not have been sure, but her father had known what he confronted; he’d arranged his own funeral from his hospital bed in the first few days of his stay. He had no son to do it for him, and chose to spare his wife and daughter the discomfort. He asked that his urn be placed in the company’s grave apartment complex, where his volumetric display could greet visitors and offer videos and feeds from his life. Even with this more cost-effective alternative, and humiliating but unavoidable negotiations, the funeral costs left them mere weeks from bankruptcy.
Before releasing his body, the hospital irradiated it to destroy the nanos, so it came to the crematorium already burned black. Miho and her mother returned to the funeral home after the cremation. With chopsticks they separated his bones from the ash and placed them into his urn. Miho had never seen real bones before, but she knew these looked wrong. Some of the shards looked black beneath the gray ash, and bubbled in places, like soapy water. The bubbles were negatives of Shogetsu cherry blossoms, convex where the blossoms were concave, black where the blossoms were white. Man-made flowers, the ugliest things she’d ever seen. She glanced at her mother to confirm the strangeness of her father’s charred bones. Her mother said nothing, didn’t look her in the eye, just continued with the work.
Miho realized that there would be no more dreams of her ceramic forever-father. Within that impenetrable shell could have only been emptiness.
* * *
Late the following week Miho and her mother knelt on the floor of Miho’s bedroom, packing only the necessary items, when Miho told her mother that she should go back to finish off her shifts at Tanaka-san’s.
“You have no job,” her mother said as she folded a plain yellow blouse. “You have no need for a job. We’re leaving in three days. You must stay and help me pack. That was another life.”
Miho rested her hands on her suitcase as she gathered her strength. Everything she was taking from that other life fit into this one large bag, now that the nonessentials had been sloughed off from their lives. She took a deep breath and smelled the rice cooking in the kitchen. It was nearly done.
“Ok?san,” she said, overcoming her discomfort at addressing her mother directly, “I love him. I love Ichiro.”
The older woman looked into her daughter’s eyes. Miho peeled off the video strips so her mother could see into her without obstruction. After a long moment her mother nodded and Miho bolted for the door.
* * *
On the way to Tanaka-san’s, the feeds placed an advertisement for Aimi right in front of Miho, so that Aimi suddenly rose from the harbor to tower over the city like Gojira. Miho hadn’t even thought of Aimi in the last nine days, the first time she’d left her mind in almost a year. Everyone in Nagasaki who used feeds peered skyward to see up the tiny black skirt of Aimi’s French maid uniform. Her presence demanded absolute attention, and even at this scale she personified perfection. Not a pixel out of place. Miho watched Aimi’s enormous fingers, the same ones that had touched her leg, now larger than tree trunks. She felt the sweat once more, cold with astonishment. For the first time, Miho felt the ridiculousness of her world.
Perhaps Aimi was ridiculous.
Miho blocked the feed and removed all other Aimi feeds from her favorites for the first time in twelve months. The giant robot disappeared, leaving not a ripple to sway the tiny cargo ships coming to the city.
* * *
Restaurant traffic was slow, and she hadn’t been given any orders other than pork and fish for champon. For the last two dishes she’d used the formula that Tanaka-san and his wife had tried. With no more orders in sight, she hit save on the machine, and decided to explore its capabilities. Miho had never used an industrial model before. She experimented by instinct. She was trying something she’d never made before, but she had enough experience in the kitchen that it felt right. The machine employed a deft touch beneath the fingers of a capable user. The operator to her right gave her a funny look when he glanced at her recipe. She smiled and ignored him.
Something moved in her peripheral vision. A woman, not Aimi but another. Miho’s reflection examined her from the polished steel of a hanging pan. Maybe the world still held room for her. Miho was, after all, the operator of the food injector. The machine couldn’t have come up with a flavor quite like hers.
Ichiro came back into the kitchen. She watched him directly. He wouldn’t look at her, hadn’t looked at her since the funeral, though he came her way.
On an impulse, she stuck her arm in the food injector, hit the button, and let the machine pierce her with a thousand needles. She drew her breath in hard, heard the needles scrape the bone as her arm burned. The operator beside her shouted and grabbed at her bleeding arm, but she pushed him away.
Ichiro arrived in an instant.
“Taste me,” she said, offering her arm to him.
“You’re crazy, Miho! You need a bandage!”
“Be quiet and smell me.” She brought her forearm up to his face while she spoke. Ichiro stopped short, overcome with confusion. He moved his sealed lips, swallowed hard. She knew he was salivating. His mouth opened slightly. He looked into her eyes. Miho nodded.
Flesh and blood, in many ways overshadowed by today’s technology, still had its advantages. To a girl who knew so much about boys, it remained a far superior tool. Lust and animal comfort may be won by the machines, but beauty belonged to the flowers, the living ones. Love belonged to her father and to herself. Both belonged to the fleeting.
“I love you, Ichiro,” she said
Ichiro bit into her upper forearm, taking a little meat back with him. She had already decided she wouldn’t scream; she wanted this pain. He chewed while she bled, moaning when she wouldn’t. Throughout the kitchen, employees dropped their work and ran to them. Miho didn’t register Tanaka-san’s commanding voice, worthy of a military officer, keeping his people at bay. She focused on Ichiro like a Zen master, oblivious to the tension all around her, peering into his wide, wet eyes.
“Would Aimi feed you this way?” she whispered.
She braced herself for another bite, but he sucked at her searing wound instead. Ichiro’s father nudged him aside and dressed her arm in silence, with a clean white towel. Members of the prep crew arched their necks to see.
“I’m so sorry, Miho,” Ichiro said.
“It’s all right,” she said, nodding toward her arm. “I wanted you to.”
“Not about that. About everything.”
“I understand,” she said.
Ichiro pushed in again and pressed his bloody mouth against Miho’s ravenously. Tanaka-san shouted, and his people returned to their stations, averting their eyes. Miho tasted the salt from a year of choked-back tears, tasted her own hot blood, and tasted—finally—the lips which made that blood run faster.
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Sanborn Smith