By Aidan Doyle
One of Saito’s guys led Kentaro through the arcade. They passed row after row of black game pods, silent except for the hum of their cooling systems. The idea of crawling into a pod and letting the rest of the world deal with its own problems was tempting, but Kentaro had spent thirty years hidden from society. He needed his old job back. Saito sat in an office in the back of the arcade. He was flicking through a document on his tablet and didn’t acknowledge Kentaro’s presence. Kentaro had plenty of practice at being made to wait. A young guy Kentaro didn’t recognize lounged on a chair in the corner of the room. Saito finally glanced up and motioned to the chair in front of the desk.
“Thank you for making the time to see me,” Kentaro said. He also had plenty of practice of being polite to jerks.
Saito’s gaze strayed back to his tablet. “My wife’s goal in life is to visit every world heritage site. Which do you think would be less boring, Angkor Wat or Petra?”
“I don’t travel much,” Kentaro replied.
Saito laughed. “I guess not. I think we’ll go to Angkor Wat. It says they filmed Audition for Death there. Maybe I’ll meet Akita Yumi.” The young guy guffawed appreciatively.
Kentaro had never heard of Audition for Death or Akita, but tried his best to make his chuckle sound authentic.
“So you’re supposed to be some superhacker?” Saito said.
Kentaro didn’t like boasting, but he needed the money. “I’m good with computers.”
“I already have guys that are good with computers.” The young guy looked as though he was ready to explode with smugness.
“How long were you away?” Saito asked.
“Thirty years.” Yamamoto would have told Saito all this.
“Technology has changed a lot since then,” Saito said.
When Kentaro went inside, a tablet was something your doctor gave you. “I wasn’t allowed to use computers, but I learned other skills.”
Most of the other inmates had complained about missing sex and alcohol, but Kentaro missed programming above all. The world no longer responded to his commands. He set about furthering his education in other ways, learning how to pick locks and forge signatures. The first thing he’d done after his release was wander through the electronics stores in Osaka’s Den Den town.
“Yamamoto used to go on about that Mizutomo job,” Saito said. “What was your hacking name again?”
Sabayomu was an abbreviated form of an old expression that literally meant to read the mackerel. It referred to fish traders who confused customers by counting fish faster than the customers could follow and short-changing them. The expression also referred to someone who lied about their age. Mackerel had such a short shelf life it wasn’t worth counting them accurately.
Saito smiled. “How old are you?”
Kentaro knew better than to lie. “Sixty-two.”
Saito handed his phone to Kentaro. “You just got someone’s phone. Show me what you’d do.”
The screen requested an unlock pattern, but Kentaro didn’t know anything about smartphone hacks. He pressed what he assumed was the power button and the phone again prompted him for a pattern. He experimented with some of the other buttons.
Saito sighed and took the phone from him. “I’ll make it easy for you.” He swiped the screen down, then across. The home screen appeared and he handed the phone back.
Kentaro flicked through screen after screen of icons. What was he supposed to do? Saito probably didn’t want him searching through his address book. A Mizutomo banking icon caught his attention. He glanced over at Saito, who nodded. Kentaro pressed the icon and a new screen appeared, prompting him to enter a username and password. He tried entering Saito and password, but the onscreen keys were too small and he kept touching the wrong ones. How did anyone use these stupid machines?
Saito took the phone back. “Maybe phones aren’t your specialty. Nakagawa is going to ask you some questions.”
“When would you use an SQL injection attack?” the young guy asked.
“What stops rainbow table attacks?”
Kentaro should have done some research before he came to see Saito, but he wanted to start work as soon as possible. His reputation should have meant he didn’t have to suffer these kinds of challenges. “I might be a bit out of date, but I have experience.”
“You should enjoy your retirement,” Saito said.
“I’ll earn my keep,” Kentaro said. In the old days he would have been looked after when he got out, but young ones like Saito had no sense of tradition. When Kentaro had been inside Yamamoto had announced he was leaving the organization and becoming a Buddhist priest. Kentaro assumed, along with most of the media, that this was a ploy, but when he got out, his former boss insisted the move to the priesthood was genuine. Yamamoto gave him enough money to last a month and told him he could no longer afford to pay the fees for Kentaro’s mother’s nursing home.
Saito opened a desk drawer, took out an envelope and handed it to Kentaro. “Enjoy your retirement. Take a trip to Thailand.”
One of Saito’s guys showed him out of the office. As he was leaving, he overheard part of Saito and Nakagawa’s conversation. Sodai gomi. Big rubbish. An expression used to describe retired salarymen that were good for nothing.
Kentaro hadn’t wanted to visit the nursing home until he had money coming in, but now he didn’t know what to do. He was living in a 24-hour net cafe filled with so-called net cafe refugees – labourers who had come from the countryside to work in Osaka and were trying to save as much as possible. Yamamoto had paid for his mother’s home until the end of the month and Saito had given him enough cash to pay for another month, but he needed to raise more money. He couldn’t bring his mother to live in a net cafe.
The sound of the TV blared from behind the door to his mother’s room. After the stroke she had stopped visiting him and it had been more than ten years since he last saw her.
He steeled himself and knocked.
“Yes?” a voice called.
His mother lay in bed, propped up by an empress’ ransom worth of pillows. She still wore her favourite purple-rimmed spectacles. “Hello,” she said. Her speech was slurred, but still recognizable. “Are you the new doctor?”
“No,” he answered. One of the things that had sustained him in jail was the thought of his mother waiting to see him. Now she didn’t even recognize him.
“It’s so cold in here. Can you turn the heat up?”
The heat was already at maximum and it was uncomfortably warm. He pretended to fiddle with the thermostat. “That should do it.”
He reduced the TV volume to a barely tolerable level, and sat in the chair beside his mother’s bed. They talked about the weather, the food at the home and the plotlines of Korean soap operas he had never heard of. He leaned over to examine the photos on the chest of drawers. Photos of his aunt, who had died five years ago. Photos of his father. Photos of Kentaro when he was a child. The latest one was from his university graduation. “Who is that?”
“My son. He is ever so bright.”
One of the doctors had told him his mother was a good candidate for a memory restoration procedure. “Her memories are still there, but she has lost access to them,” the doctor explained. “When you delete a file on your computer, the file is still on the hard drive, but the link is gone. The procedure would undelete your mother’s memories.”
Kentaro’s mother had once told him that cherry blossoms were more beautiful because they only lasted a couple of weeks. Kentaro hadn’t been convinced. Cherry blossoms come back every year.
He didn’t have enough money to pay for the nursing home, let alone for the procedure. And even if he did, there were some things he was glad his mother had forgotten.
“Where is he now?” Kentaro asked.
“He works for Toshiba,” his mother said proudly. “That’s a good job.”
He couldn’t stomach the corporate arse kissing and lasted less than a year at Toshiba. He’d joined the yakuza only to discover they were worse.
“Do you miss the old days?” he asked.
“I miss my son. He used to have more time to visit me, but he works so hard now.”
He sat with his mother until it was time for dinner. He kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll work something out,” he whispered.
Two broad-shouldered goons waited in the office with Saito this time.
“Thank you for making the time to see me,” Kentaro said.
Saito scowled, so Kentaro continued before he lost his courage. “I want my share of the Mizutomo job.”
If he’d named names, he could have been out years earlier. Ratting used to be unthinkable, but now the young ones did whatever it took to look after themselves.
Saito’s scowl deepened. “That was a long time ago. Yamamoto was boss then.”
“You’re boss now.” Kentaro had learned in prison that it was dangerous to let people disrespect you. He had been the great Sabayomu, the most wanted person in all of Japan. Boss or not, he wasn’t going to be disrespected by a punk twenty years his junior like Saito.
Saito glared at him with his piggy eyes. “That’s right. I’m boss.”
Kentaro couldn’t leave empty-handed. He tried to keep his voice as steady as possible. “I want my share,” he repeated.
Saito reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He flicked a 100 yen coin across the table towards Kentaro. It wasn’t even enough money to buy a drink. Saito stood up and walked towards Kentaro. Kentaro’s heart skipped a beat, but Saito walked past him, towards the door.
“Make him earn it,” Saito said as he left the room.
Kentaro ran for the door, but one of the goons punched him in the stomach. He dropped to the floor, the breath knocked from him. “That’s one,” laughed one of the goons. “Ninety-nine to go.” They started kicking him, raining blows on his stomach and back. “Two, three, four.”
Kentaro’s gut ached, but at least they weren’t kicking him in the face.
In prison, people had known he worked for Yamamoto and left him alone.
To survive thirty years in prison only to get beaten upon his release.
“Nah, that was twenty-four,” one of the goons said.
The blows ceased.
“It’s only twenty-three,” the other goon countered.
“Hey grandpa,” one of the goons called. “You’re good with numbers. Is that twenty-three or twenty-four?”
“Feels more like ninety-four,” Kentaro muttered.
The goons laughed. “Twenty-three it is. We don’t want to short-change you.”
The goons delivered the full hundred plus blows, then took Kentaro to a doctor friendly to the organization. Two of his ribs were broken. The doctor gave him a supply of painkillers and a warning not to exert himself.
The goons dropped him at a train station. “You’re all right for an old dude,” one of them said. “But if we see you again, we’ll kill you.”
Kentaro took the metro to Tokyo Sky Tree and rode the elevator to the observation decks. The sky above the city was not the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel. As a kid Kentaro read Neuromancer and dreamed of becoming a software cowboy. The book promised a dark future, but a future where Japan mattered. He had got out of prison only to discover the future had come and gone. The 2020 Olympics were supposed to revive Tokyo, but it felt as though he was looking at a city in decline. The twenty-first century belonged to China.
Sabayomu wasn’t going to give up without a fight, though. There was still life in the dead channel.
Sabayomu’s rule of hacking #1: the best offense is the one that doesn’t trigger the best defence. He might be out of touch, but he had the world’s greatest source of technical knowledge at his disposal. He bought a cheap laptop and began his research. SQL injection attacks were effective against web forms where user input wasn’t properly validated. Salting your hashes protected against rainbow table attacks. 6G beam-division multiple access was vulnerable to Shanghai intercepts. He learned about the joys of parallel processor password crackers, keystroke loggers, panda traps and script kiddies. After three days he had a plan.
He couldn’t rely on anyone for financial help, but he still knew people. He paid an associate with contacts at various security companies and they gave him the password to disable Saito’s home alarm system. Kentaro waited outside Saito’s house until he was sure Saito and his wife were out, then climbed over the fence. It took him longer than he would have liked, but he eventually picked the front door’s lock.
Kentaro paused at the shoe rack in the hall. Did burglars remove their shoes before entering? When the paramedics had come to help his grandmother they had taken off their shoes before entering the apartment. He didn’t feel comfortable walking around inside with his shoes on. He placed his shoes on the rack.
The alarm system control pad rested on a nearby wall. Do not trigger a defence! Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and onto his glasses. If the password didn’t work, his plans were all for nothing. The sound of rain striking the house’s roof came from outside. He crept towards the control pad. He couldn’t bear the thought of going back to prison, but he needed money to look after his mother. He wiped away the sweat and typed in the password. The alarm deactivated. Kentaro sighed with relief. He could breathe again. Saito’s house was filled with all manner of tasteless gaudy artefacts – Tokyo Disneyland memorabilia, Hanshin Tiger pennants, and a bright pink amorphous shape that might have been a couch. He found Saito’s office and turned on the laptop sitting on the desk. The hard drive was encrypted, preventing him from bypassing the password with a boot disk. He took a tool set from his backpack and unscrewed the back of the laptop. He fitted a hardware keystroke logger into one of the computer’s slots.
The front door opened and voices came from the hall. “I don’t care if you’re disappointed,” he heard Saito say. “I’m not sitting in the rain.”
Kentaro’s stomach twisted in fear. Saito would kill him if he found him. He frantically finished screwing on the back of the laptop. His shoes! They were still on the shoe rack. It served him right for trying to be polite.
“How many times have I told you not to forget to set the alarm?” Saito said.
“I did set it,” a woman replied.
“Then why is it off? You’re so useless!”
The office’s window was latched shut, but fortunately wasn’t locked. The arguing voices grew louder. At least they hadn’t noticed his shoes. He unlatched the window and scrambled out. He slid the window shut and dashed across the garden. His shoes had to fend for themselves.
Rain poured down, making it almost impossible to see through his glasses. He stumbled into a pond, narrowly avoiding crushing startled koi. Finally, he made it to the fence and climbed over. His ribs ached, his clothes were soaked and one of his socks had a hole. But he had done it!
Four days later, he returned to Saito’s house. The shoes he’d left behind were gone. He disabled the alarm and snuck into Saito’s office, leaving his shoes on this time. He retrieved the keystroke logger without interruption. He took his prize back to the net café.
The logger had captured every keystroke Saito had entered. Saito had a banking app on his phone, but hopefully he had also used his computer to visit the bank’s web site. Kentaro searched the data for a reference to Mizutomo. Saito had gone to the bank site. Kentaro had his account number and password. He punched the air with joy. Saito would learn not to disrespect the great Sabayomu! He had already set up a series of bank accounts to funnel the money through. He connected to an IP anonymiser service, then went to Mizutomo’s web site and logged in using Saito’s account details. The transaction history revealed that Saito often moved large amounts of money in and out of the account. He had increased the default daily withdrawal limit to an amount that would let Kentaro pay for his mother’s memory restoration with enough left over for a comfortable retirement.
Kentaro clicked on the transfer money option. A message informed him that if he proceeded, a text message with a confirmation code would be sent to the phone associated with the account. No. No. No. He checked if he could change the phone the confirmation code was sent to, but that needed to be done at a bank branch. Kentaro had to get his hands on Saito’s phone.
He logged out of the bank web site and sifted through the rest of the keystroke logger’s data, looking for anything that could help. He smiled when he saw a message indicating Saito and his wife were flying to Jordan next week.
Kentaro waited near the security check until he spotted Saito and his wife. He signalled to Akimoto, a fellow net cafe refugee he had recruited, then shuffled forward, timing it so he was just ahead of Saito in the line. Saito’s men had threatened to kill him if they saw him again, but it wasn’t like Kentaro had gone to the organization’s offices. He was just a tourist at the airport. Saito wouldn’t want to cause an issue in front of security. Or at least that was what Kentaro hoped.
Saito’s eyebrows arched in surprise when he spotted Kentaro, but didn’t say anything. Kentaro did his best to look surprised. He silently mouthed, “Thailand.” He even had a ticket to Bangkok. Saito turned his attention back to his wife. Business and family life were not supposed to mix.
Kentaro had bought the same model smartphone as Saito’s and let the battery drain. He placed the phone and his laptop in a tray next to his daypack and removed his belt. The plane ticket, phone and Akimoto’s payment had drained the last of his money. If this didn’t work, he wouldn’t even be able to afford to live in the net cafe, let alone look after his mother.
Saito motioned for his wife to put her things in a tray. It would have been easier if Saito had gone next, but he still had to distract them both. The security official indicated for Kentaro to remove his shoes. He slipped them off and placed them next to his laptop. He stepped through the metal detector, then stood next to the conveyor belt. He took his tray when it passed through the scanning machine and pretended to be busy putting his laptop back into its bag.
Saito’s wife passed through the metal detector and started gathering her things. When the tray with Saito’s phone reached them, Kentaro raised his arm. Music blared from the area in front of the security check. Everyone turned their attention to see the source of this sudden noise. Kentaro leaned over the tray containing Saito’s phone and switched the phone with his own. He stepped away from the conveyor belt, and turned to look along with everyone else at Akimoto, a middle-aged man waving a music player and dancing to the theme song of a samurai TV series. The show had been popular thirty years ago and told the story of a rogue samurai that exacts revenge on those that had wronged him. A security official hurried over. Akimoto switched off the music, bowed to the stunned onlookers and calmly walked away.
Saito collected the phone from the tray and slipped it into his pocket without a second glance. Saito would think it was strange the battery was gone, but it would take him a while to realize he had wrong the wrong phone. After he charged the phone and switched it on, he would discover the home screen’s wallpaper was a photo from Tsukiji fish market. A table full of mackerel.
Kentaro reached for his shoes, then realized Saito’s wife was staring at him. Kentaro was a creature of habit. After he lost his shoes he had returned to the same store and bought another pair exactly the same. They were common enough shoes; he hadn’t counted on them being recognized. Saito’s wife must have noticed that her husband knew Kentaro. She glanced in the direction her husband had gone. He had stomped away from the security check, not bothering to wait for her. She reached forward and took one of Kentaro’s shoes from the tray. She turned the shoe over and inspected the size. Kentaro felt faint. He had come so close, only to get caught like this.
Saito’s wife replaced the shoe in the tray. “I am so useless,” she said. She smiled at Kentaro and then walked away.
Kentaro slipped on his shoes and stared after Saito’s wife. She caught up to Saito, but didn’t try to stop her husband. Instead, she glanced back and smiled at Kentaro, then guided her husband towards a gift shop. Kentaro explained to a security official that he couldn’t take his flight because of an emergency at home. Since he didn’t have checked-in baggage, he was allowed to return to the airport’s unsecure area.
He activated Saito’s phone and swiped the same pattern he had seen Saito do. The phone’s home screen appeared. He powered on his laptop and logged onto the Mizutomo web site using Saito’s account details. He requested a money transfer and Saito’s phone buzzed. A message appeared with the confirmation code. The money was his!
He didn’t know how long it took Saito to work out what had happened, but by then it was too late. Kentaro moved the money through a series of offshore bank accounts and he and his mother fled Japan on fake passports.
Kentaro agonized over whether to go ahead with the memory restoration.
Was it his choice to make? He asked his mother, but she didn’t understand what he meant. It wasn’t just about memories; it was about making her whole again. The memory that he had gone to prison was a small price to pay for restoring the person his mother used to be.
She underwent the procedure in Cuba. It was a gradual process, but eventually her memories started coming back. This brought the joy of recognizing her son and the sadness of remembering the death of her husband and sister. They moved to a small Caribbean island. It was difficult at first, because neither of them spoke anything but Japanese, but he loved learning and English and French were his latest projects. Kentaro wheeled his mother to the front of their beach house’s veranda.
“Would you like anything to drink?” he asked.
His mother shook her head. “Come and sit next to me.”
The afternoon was too hot for his liking, but she thrived in the heat.
She would happily sit for hours watching the waves rolling in.
“It is so nice to spend time together after so long apart,” his mother said. “And it is so lovely here. We were lucky Toshiba gave you such a good retirement bonus.”
“They were very generous.” Kentaro knew his mother remembered his years in prison, but she preferred to believe her own version of the past. “Do you think we could have ramen for dinner?” she asked. He squeezed her hand. “Whatever you like.”
About the Author
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 100 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside. Aidan joined PodCastle as an Associate Editor in 2016.
About the Narrator
Austin Learned is an Asian-American aspiring actor/singer/voice actor who would probably appreciate your comments and encouragement on his fine work.