By: Michael R. Underwood
Read by: Lauren Harris of Pendragon Variety Literary Magazine Podcast
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Michael R. Underwood
All stories read by Lauren Harris
Rated R: For sexual situations and violence
- Feedback for Episode 258: Raising Jenny.
- Next week… We leave earth for a new planet!
By Michael R. Underwood
The howl of the northbound train builds in crescendo as I stand on the ledge of the platform and hold the man above the tracks. He flails at me.
The Shikoku station is far from empty. Groaning bodies dot the otherwise hospital-clean platform. A group of fleshmodded Gothic Lolita girls watch us. They look on with inhumanly white faces and void-black eyes. Twig-thin arms down to their knees wave in the wind. He begs.
My _denkigami’s_ polite but insistent voice chirps in my head. _“Yamagata-sama orders the target to be eliminated.”_ Spirit of the fleshware machine in my brain, my _denkigami_ is a constant companion, and keeper of my leash.
The roar of the train grows louder, and bells ring in the station. The man pleads for his life. The train’s lights appear from around the around the corner.
* * *
My daimyo’s summons comes at 3:27 in the morning. My _denkigami_ wakes me, and within minutes I crawl through the servant’s entrance to his office, dressed and ready in simple white silk kimono, my hair in a topknot.
The walls of his office are covered in the finest works from a millennium’s worth of painters. Basho, Caravaggio, Monet, Kiefer.
Yamagata Kenichiro has never met my gaze. My father served him and his father, and I will know no other master until I retire as a nun or die in his service.
Samurai. From _Samuru_–“to serve.”
Yamagata-sama grunts. “My honor has been violated.” He pushes a digital tablet across his desk. The tablet shows a 360-degree image of a fleshmod-tanned hacker in his twenties, data-port centered in a swirling tattoo on the back of his neck.
Yamagata stands and places a hand on the desk. “This criminal has brought shame upon my wife and upon my house.”
“What is your desire, lord?”
Yamagata-sama’s eyes narrow. “First, befriend him. Then, humiliate him.”
He has not ordered me to do this before. “Why not just kill him, lord?”
Yamagata slams his fist on the table. “It is not enough.” He walks around the table, leans over me and draws a finger down my face and across my chin. “He must know ecstasy before he knows agony.” I restrain the shudder.
He has always treated me like a woman first, a serving maid who could kill instead of a worthy member of a noble line. This is not a job for a samurai, but I do not have a choice. I serve him to honor my family’s name, prove that we were worthy of elevation to the samurai caste.
I take the tablet with both hands as I bow. I crawl back through the low gap in the synthetic rice-paper walls while the side door–the one for his peers–remains closed.
* * *
I pore over the files at the steel desk in my modest apartment in the servant’s wing. A seven-mat front room large enough for a couch and exercise equipment, and a five-mat bedroom room connected to a compact bathroom.
Synthetic _shoji_ walls give me no privacy, thin as rice-paper but made of plastic. My red-lacquered family shrine stands centered on my dresser. When I was a child, I slept in the front room, ‘my’ walls covered in holoposters of the latest idols.
The target’s alias is “Tanuki”–the raccoon-dog trickster of ancient folklore.
A flash of memory–ancestral armor and bound bamboo. Lessons on _bushido_. “The way of the past is a unified one, my little rabbit. Samurai must listen to the past and speak to the future.”
And so father insisted that I learn the old tales in addition to the old skills. He always taught two things at once: religion and endurance; bullets and _bushido_. To fail either lesson was to fail both. He wanted a son, but since Empress Toshi wed the first Imperial Denkigami and proclaimed the second restoration, women have been allowed to bear the _daisho_–the paired _katana_ and _wakizashi_–so that they might serve.
My father taught me how to live. Now I have my _denkigami_ and Yamagata-sama.
The dossier gives his school background, address, frequent haunts, and a detailed psychological profile.
Yamagata’s orders will force me to do things below my station, but I am thankful it does not involve killing. I have murdered fifty-seven people by Yamagata-sama’s bidding, and in slumber, I still hear each of their screams.
* * *
I ‘randomly’ meet Tanuki at a hacker café in the Akihabara district, known more commonly now as Kachikachi Yama, the ‘matchstick mountain,’ where the fire of creativity burns hottest and brightest, most creative and most dangerous. It is the home of the elite _tensai_ hackers and aspirants alike. I spend an hour in front of the mirror, painting myself like a Heian-era lady-in-waiting.
The café is decorated like the digital heaven _Denkigoku_ itself, great clouds for the lampshades, the bar rising out of sea-blue floor, the design a stylized island from an ancient painting. Intense colors and soft lines make the building into a waking dream.
Not three paces into the café and I catch his eye. The profile tells me he likes the classical beauties, no obvious fleshmods–strange contrast to his profession. I wonder, who is this man really?
I order a green tea and flirt with the peek of a wrist as I inhale the steam rolling off the cup. Then I approach the table with the tiny steps required in my many layers of _kimono_. I miss my loose fighting clothes and their freedom of motion.
“May I join you?” Classical beauties yes, but he liked his women aggressive. He rubs his shaved head and gestures to the seat. “Please.”
I set down the tea and sit daintily, playing my part. I think of his work, and begin to play him like a dating sim. After hours studying his file, I know which movies to hate, what media feeds to quote. I play the part of a devoted fan. I am his desires sculpted into flesh.
* * *
We go out twice before I begin to do Yamagata-sama’s bidding. My _denkigami_ reminds me always of my orders, so I move more quickly to avoid its censure.
I remember my father on the floor, a broken island in a still ocean of blood, the crater in the back of his head his punishment for refusing an unjust order. I obey my _denkigami_.
* * *
We stand on an open plain, wheat stalks swaying in the digital wind of _Denkigoku_.
He is teaching me to hack. An attempt at romance. I hear my father’s voice in my head. “For the samurai, every experience is a lesson.”
Tanuki’s avatar is the squat raccoon dog which gives him his handle–with comically-oversized testicles hanging to the ground. Mine is a samurai woman in kabuki style, all in red, lacquered armor and painted face–red streaks over a white base.
He says my avatar is cute. I ignore the urge to rip off the tanuki’s testicles. I listen.
Tanuki activates a protective _denkigami_, a blue-skinned _oni_ with four arms and Indian clothes. It stands at attention.
“Every _denkigami_ has a counter. Like rock-paper-scissors with a thousand symbols.”
He activates the program, and the _oni_ levels its weapons at Tanuki. “Unauthorized passage is not allowed. Please provide your access code.”
Tanuki strokes the fur on his chin. “With the right program, any _denkigami_ can be conquered.” He reaches between his legs and pulls out a pair of fans. Doing a dance with the fans, he leaps side to side and the _oni_ drops its guard.
“Proceed, honored guest.”
He bests another dozen _denkigami_ to show his prowess. Each time, he knows the perfect tool. He holds up a _naginata_, the traditional weapon of a noblewoman.
“This is how I hacked the _denkigami_ of the wife of a corporate daimyo. To beat a _denkigami_, turn its power against itself, make it follow the rules that control it in a way that forces it to obey your request. With this icon, I turned her resentment against Yamagata’s control into a weapon.”
I smile and flatter him. I learn two lessons– deception and hacking. My father would approve.
Tanuki’s show is complete, and my true task begins. I meditated on this, asked my father for guidance on the unjust order. But I am samurai, and I must serve.
We leave _Denkigoku_ after his lesson, return to his spartan apartment. To show my ‘thanks,’ for his indulgence, I take him to bed. He is enthusiastic, clumsy, and greedy, drinking of my body. I close my eyes and think of freedom.
* * *
_Denkigoku_ swirls into being when I dream, and I am again trapped by the spirits of those I’d killed.
I lay on a green island floating in the vast sea of heaven, home to machine spirits, the restless dead and the great spirits of nature.
Naked. I’m always naked. My protestation of purity or my weakness before their rage? I stand and snap off a branch from the island’s lone bamboo tree and hold it like a blade. I wait.
They come in twos and threes, shining echoes of my victims. Carried on the winds of their screams, they fly at me; form a cloud as I wave them away with the branch.
I plead with the dead. “Enough! You must move on! It was my duty!” the same words, the same response.
“Murderer! Demon! Vengeance!”
They tear at me with bloodied claws. The cuts cover my body in waves as the branch passes through their red-soaked clothes. A hand slaps away the branch.
They knock me to the ground, and I curl into a shaking ball as their screams mix with the sharp wind. My scream joins the chorus.
* * *
Tanuki leaps out of bed when I wake him with my screams. He tries to comfort me, his arm around my shoulders. I escape to his shower and shudder alone.
Wrapped in his black towels, I bring him tea when I return.
Tanuki leans back and strokes a beard he doesn’t have. We lounge on a bed three times the size of my futon, with real silk sheets, a memory-shaped mattress, and mahogany bedposts in western style. His fleshmod tan glistens in the afterglow.
After a night of drenched sheets, spent condoms and still-echoing electronic bass, I move to the next part of the plan.
“I heard about this new fleshware modification. They say it is wonderful for hackers.”
“Which one?” he asks. As if there’s the possibility he has not heard of it.
“It’s a selective synasthesia. Good for working in _Denkigoku_ for hacking. So I hear.” The smallest edge in the machine spirit world can mean the difference between glory and humiliation.
He nods. “A few of the _tensai_ have it.”
“And you’re a _tensai_.” I smile wide and make him believe I think he is one of the elite. “I think we should go and get it together.” My fingers trace along his chin. He shivers, and the sheets shift over his groin. “I don’t think I need it,” he says with a smile of his own.
“I want you to hear my kisses and taste my moans, Tanuki. To dance to the symphony of you in me. Will you do that, for us?” Yamagata has made a samurai into a common concubine.
I push aside the sheets and slide my hands up his chest. He dissembles, and I grit my teeth to contain my frustration.
“You’re tensai, but with this, you could be _Tensai Ichiban_.” _Tensai Ichiban_, the number one hacker in the world, a coveted position which led to many hackers’ ends by blades or bullets in back alleys or digital mountaintops.
He leans back, looks at his wall of hardware, staring past the screens into his imagined future. “_Tensai Ichiban_.”
* * *
_Hanamichi_ is my favorite fleshware parlor, I tell Tanuki. They are actually a new Yamagata-Corp acquisition, but the deal has yet to reach the media.
Deep blue mood lighting fills the room, with gel-sculpted couches, news feeds on the wall-panels, and local rock DJ-ed off one of the flesh artist’s rigs.
Our artist is agelessly young, fleshmodded to look like a golden age _anime_ heroine. Her eyes take up a quarter of her face, and her mouth is no wider than my thumb.
The artist explains the procedure to Tanuki. The synasthetic mod is sculpted to the sensory system, acting as a processing center for sensory input. Left alone, it channels the information to the traditional centers. When accessed consciously, it takes sensory input and redirects it to be processed by other modalities.
Tanuki nods and I can see him salivating at what the fleshmod can give him–the edge in _Denkigoku_, the power needed to vie to be _Tensai Ichiban_.
That is what I want him to believe.
* * *
We recover from the procedure for a week, letting the brain acclimate to the possibilities. The whole time, Tanuki can only talk about becoming _Tensai Ichiban_. He ignores the fleshmodder’s advice and drinks, smokes, and paces around his apartment.
“This is going to be amazing, Yuriko.” He knows me by my mother’s name. She took her life when my father died. I was fifteen.
“Most of these losers, they don’t even know about this.” He taps his head where the skull was pulled back. He winces, teeth flashing through a grimace. “Everything in _Denkigoku_ will be different. Data will sing. Graphics will boil my blood.”
I smile again, and pretend to be weak from the procedure he thinks I have had with him. The fleshmod artist merely gave me the appropriate scar, perpendicular five-centimeter cuts.
“That fucker Yamagata will never know what hit him. It”ll even top what I did to his wife.”
“Yamagata? As in the Yamagata Corporation?” Feigning interest is not hard, this time. Hearing his side might illuminate Yamagata-sama’s motivations for making a concubine of me.
“After I slipped into his personal datanet and hacked his wife’s _denkigami_, I had her go to him and screw. He was surprised at first, but he got so into it! I had them do the dirtiest stuff…I doubt they’d screwed since she squeezed out his heir!”
Tanuki clapped like a giddy child. “And then, just as he was finishing, I hacked her voicebox and told him what I did!”
This was the affront that Yamagata-sama had assigned me to revenge. Embarrassment for embarrassment. Tanuki should notice my flared nostrils, the clenched fingers, but he isn’t even looking at me anymore.
“And now I’m going to rob him blind so we can go around the world, Yuriko.”
I giggle for him, hand over mouth. I hate Tanuki for the way I have to act. I hate Yamagata-sama more.
* * *
Tanuki buys sake and decorates his apartment, makes a party of his first journey to _Denkigoku_ after having the synasthetic installed.
I wanted it to be the two of us, but he insisted. Eight of his hacker friends are there, all fake-tanned like him, small men with big egos. They congregate and talk about clan raids on the latest online pro circuit.
He has three oversized screens suspended from the ceiling, usually for his casual viewing pleasure. Tonight, we will watch him as he goes in for Yamagata Corp’s payroll.
After a few drinks, some ranting about his expertise and the corruption of the Zaibatsu feudal system, Tanuki begins. He spreads the rice, says the chant, and plugs in to make the journey to _Denkigoku_. There, hackers style themselves warriors battling digital _oni_ security systems and currying favor with the _denkigami_, machine spirits of the new Japanese empire.
On my signal, my _denkigami_ makes the call to Yamagata-sama’s men. Its voice gives me confirmation. _“We will wait now. Yamagata-sama will be pleased.”_
The surreal world of _Denkigoku_ swirls into visibility on the three screens. Painted clouds in ancient style dot the electric-blue sky, ten thousand _denkigami_ flying through the air, the traffic constant.
He walks across moss-covered bridges in the old style, under rows of towering red _torii_–the sacred gates separating common space from the sacred territory of the Yamagata Corporation.
Tanuki is salivating like a dog, so enthralled by the synasthetic. He brags as he goes. “This is amazing! The air tastes like salmon. The _torii_ sound like bells.” Yuri, I wish you were here with me.”
I sip sake and watch as Tanuki walks into the trap Yamagata-sama has prepared.
The white walls of Yamagata’s castle stretch three screens high, the representation of the corporation’s digital holdings in _Denkigoku_.
Tanuki’s waddling avatar approaches the gate, facing looming _oni_ with black skin and bulbous tusks and weapons three times his size. He laughs, his hands coursing through the air making commands. The avatar reaches into its crotch to pull out the digital tool he would use to trick his way past the _oni_ security. Tanuki told me he planned to use a hypnotic program he had been working on, represented by a vintage _pokemon_.
Instead, his avatar pulls up a flapping _koi_ fish, which splashes water in his face. The avatar stumbles backwards and lands on top of the oversized testicles. The _oni_ draw closer.
“Please provide your security code!” Their voices bellow through Tanuki’s speakers, maxing the audio. The sound waves crash against my chest, and I take another sip.
“What’s going on? Come on, work, dammit!” Tanuki scrambles backwards, flailing for the tool he needs, but all that will come out are _koi_, each more unwieldy and useless than the last.
The _oni_ run him off with pounding threats, and Tanuki’s so-called friends laugh. The piggyback program does its duty. The synasthesia is selective as promised in the earthly realm, but in _Denkigoku_, it is completely random and incomprehensible. His mind is convinced sounds are touches, tastes are vision. He will be permanently disabled in _Denkigoku_, never able to hack again.
Yamagata-sama’s revenge is complete.
So I think.
* * *
I sit once more in Yamagata-sama’s study, in the attentive _seiza_ posture, feet and ankles tucked beneath me. I have given my report.
Yamagata-sama strokes his beard and grunts wordless phrases.
“Well done. However, I am not satisfied. He will suffer for a month, and then you will dispose of him. Take him to Shikoku. Leave his body there.”
I bow. Fifty-seven spirits plague my dreams, and now Yamagata-sama is telling me there will be one more, a tanuki with plastic glasses. First he debases me, and then makes my demeaning act a cruel prelude to murder.
I crawl out of Yamagata’s office and return to my apartment to prepare. I burn incense for my parents and go to kill Tanuki.
* * *
Tanuki proves himself not a total fool. Five tattooed yakuza surround me in the train station when I arrive, razorwire blades and outlawed guns trained on me. My hand rests on the hilt of my blade. I wait.
Tanuki gloats. “Hello lover. A friend of mine tipped me off, so I thought I’d bring some friends on our getaway trip. How pissed do you think he’ll be when I send his samurai lapdog’s head back to him?”
I don’t bother to respond. The game is over; I do not have to pretend for him anymore.
For a long moment, the world is still, six bodies ready to explode into motion while Tanuki stands back and laughs.
A tall man with a red dragon tattoo around his torso flinches, takes a stutter-step forward. I leap and draw. Ancient steel cuts through fleshmodded muscle. An arm hits the ground.
I spin with soft steps, turning to keep the other four in my sight.
My _denkigami_ chirps a warning in my head. _“Overhand blow, position seven.”_ It warns me in time to tilt to the side and let the thin blade cut the air beside my ear.
Two yakuza tackle me, thinking their mass enough to overpower one small woman, samurai or not. We crash into a pillar and my head cracks against marble.
My _katana_ bursts from the back of one–impaled by his own momentum. I push and spin to pull out the blade. I slice at his companion, face fleshmodded to look like an _oni_. His skin is red, his nose bulbous, his mouth full of fangs. My grandfather’s sword widens his mouth to his cheekbone.
Two steps sideways and I reverse the blade. My head drops as I spin in place and kick a gun out of one’s hands. _Katana_ follows foot and splits the man’s collarbone.
My _denkigami’s_ warning to roll comes too late. Pain bursts in my back. The blade clatters on concrete. My head cracks against the wall of a magazine stand. Two more pains blossom in my chest.
A steaming gun barrel stands in the air, held by a yakuza not out of junior high. I roll to the side and my vision tracks as if I’d indulged in too much sake. We lock eyes. He flinches, and I pluck the gun from his hand while he blinks.
A sharp elbow to the temple drops him to the floor. I turn and fire a bullet through Tanuki’s thigh as he runs up the stairs. Tossing the gun aside, I retrieve my target. I lift him with both arms and move to hold him over the edge.
* * *
The lights of the train grow wider at the end of the tunnel as I hold Tanuki over the edge of the Shikoku line platform.
I grit my teeth from the strain. I show him my real face, too long hidden behind makeup and insincere smiles.
“I am Ryoji Usagiko, vassal of Yamagata Kenichiro, and I have been ordered to erase the stain you have made upon the honor of the Yamagata.”
“Please, don’t kill me! I’ll do anything, you hear? I’ll work for Yamagata, apologize to his wife, hand over other hackers. Please!”
He will join murderers and traitors, slave-runners and callous _ronin_, more voice in the growing chorus of my nightmares. He may deserve death less than they, but he will scream for my death just as loud.
My _denkigami_ in my head again. “The train will arrive in 7.3 seconds.”
Light fills the platform. If I leave him, he will bankrupt himself seeking revenge. I let go and watch his eyes go wide as I let go. He drops below the platform.
I turn on the balls of my feet, walk past the nonplussed girls, and return to Tanuki’s apartment to complete one last task.
* * *
Yamagata smiles when I give my report. He walks out from behind his desk to set a hand on my shoulder. I bow with my hands together, each in the opposite sleeve of my _kimono_. The sentiment comes too late.
I draw the tiny knife from my sleeve and leap to my feet. The knife draws a crimson smile across Yamagata-sama’s throat, and I drop my former master to the floor.
My _denkigami_ would have stopped me, stayed my hand before I could act. But I learned my lessons well. The once-constant voice is now quiet.
Looking down at my master, we lock eyes. I watch surprise mix with outrage, then give way to fear.
“You have violated the oaths of fealty between master and servant, dirtied yourself and your vassals. The Ryoji family no longer has need of the Yamagata’s patronage.” No other words have been as pleasurable.
The weight of my father’s murder drops from my shoulders as I leave Yamagata dying on the floor. I leave by the side exit.
This time, I do not have to crawl.
Kachikachi Yama by Michael R. Underwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.