Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 6 complete 20190527)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4-4a up 20150515)

Post by brythain » Fri May 15, 2015 3:08 am

This is the eighth section of the fourth part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji revisits the past a lot.



Kenji 4: The World Turned Upside-Down
(May-August 2023)


Some day, when I am no longer working, which will be never, people might ask me about Shizune. Was she fierce? Was she beautiful? Was she dull and boring? Was she a hard taskmaster and a fearsome slavedriver? Or was she something else?

My wife and I came to know her very well over the years. To us, she was a person who was as much part of our scenery as… as my sister’s grave, maybe.

Life changed drastically for her in 2024, just as it did for us. Maybe it was because life changed for her so much that she started doing the things she did. I try not to judge others. We leave it to God, as Father Hino used to say.

But when I got to this part of my files, one year before things changed, I realized again that she had been my friend, and like many people, I had failed her. For so much of her life, she was many things at different times. But most of the time, she was very lonely.

*****

May 2023

Most of Mount Aoba is a park when it’s not a school. Lonely old Kenji used to hang out there when he was young and crazy. That guy used to sit with his back to the slope and his blind gaze facing the sea. All he saw was blue light. All he smelled was grass and stone and salt air. He used to think: “What would it be like to fall into the light, forever?”

But there are other parts of the park. Now I tread carefully along the neatly-maintained paths, following the public signs, and then following only her signs, the signs a dejected teenage girl once made. They lead to one of the places where she used to go, because she felt all alone, an outcast among outcasts.

It is only polite to let her know I am here. There is a frequency for that, and a signal she will know. A little blue light, nothing you can see, flashes in the window of my eye. It tells me that she accepts.

Ten minutes later, I see the gazebo by the quiet lake. I never used it myself. It has always been in the other part of the park, the larger area that is not part of what I think of as my park. Yet, there are memories, and memories even on top of those. I find myself standing on the unmarked path to the little structure. It is almost a shrine, perhaps was made to be one—although I do not know which spirits it was meant to celebrate.

Her profile is turned away from mine. Her gaze is lifted out over the artificial lake, a lake that seems naturally beautiful. She also is that way, somehow what she makes of herself, and also a force of nature. Beautiful? I think she is pretty, I have never thought her ugly.

As I reach the entrance to the gazebo, she turns to look at me. There’s a frightening blankness on her face at first. Then she signs: [Kenji.]

[Shizune] I sign back.

[This is not your place.]

I’m taken aback by her look. If she could destroy me with a blast of fire, she would, that look seems to say. This isn’t the angry little girl I used to know in school. This is a woman with a whole world of pain inside her. My fingers freeze. What can they say in my limited signing that would mean anything to her?

[Go away.]

Why do I feel so sad?



[Apologize? Don’t.] Her interruption is swift and decisive.

[It is what friends do, even if one of them]…

[Sorry to be rude. I am only your ally, and only for some things.]

It is like a punch to the gut. I feel my face collapse inside me. I think she can see it too. I have to do this before I lose my courage.

I bow and offer her the package, in the little bag that Yuuko made. [This is for you, from my family. Happy birthday.]

I feel her accept the bag from my hands. When I look up, she is looking bitterly at me. I hold her gaze for seconds, then minutes. With trembling hands, I take off my glasses. I try to say with my sad face what my sad hands won’t say.

She sighs, puts our gift beside her, and then signs: [Thanks for the present.]

[It’s chestnut and cherry blossom cream.]

[Appreciated.] She turns back to the lake, then awkwardly turns back to me. There is a broken half-smile on her face. [You once picked up my books from the floor. Now, I can pick up my own things.]

So, we still share that memory. Is that all we now share? The journey home has never seemed so long.

*****

June 2023

[Shizune.]

[Kenji.]

[I need your help.]

[As your ally, you will have it, within limits.]

[How many Yamaku alumni are currently employed directly or indirectly by the Families, would you happen to know?]

[A lot. Hundreds. Thousands. The number fluctuates slightly from time to time.]


I wake up, sweating. This is a conversation that never happened. Or maybe it did, and I’m remembering it badly. Japan has a power structure based on fitness, on health and genetic perfection. That is why we are frightened of radiation and mutation. If our country is being run by cripples like me, what does it say about us? We are afraid to know. I am thankful that my children have no obvious X-gene problems.

For the whole of this month, I spend my time reading foreign texts. In particular, I read this guy named Chomosuki. He had a lot to say about the beginning of this century and the end of the last one. Sometimes, he makes too much sense about why my country is now bankrupt. When I send a message about this to Miki, she replies: Hey, Kenji! What took you so long to read fucking Chomosuki? Not much you can do now though.

The rest of our conversation is encoded, and then removed seamlessly from cyberspace. But I’ve learnt a lot. Miki is still sad about some things in her life, but her mind is as sharp and impolite as ever. In some ways, she is like me, I think.

That said, I’ve learnt enough to be able to discuss Japan with my formidable friend Natsume, whose life is all about discussing Japan. She is quite impressed, I think. So impressed, in fact, that she asks me if I would like to be interviewed.

My first instinct is to say ‘no’ in a very crude way. But Natsume is a friend, so I say ‘no’ in a reasonably polite way. It’s unlikely that my department will let me say ‘yes’, no matter what. That is why I am very surprised when the Chief tells me that I will be giving an exclusive interview to Nat’s Shimbun.

“See, it is quite all right, Kenji,” she says in her precise way. “You will be the anonymous face of the professional civil service. You can show the way forward without looking backward.”

“That’s crazy, Nat. It’s the legally blind leading the deliberately blind,” I say, groping for words.

“This will be a friendly interview. Don’t worry, I will send a friendly face to ask you friendly questions. This is a bigger game we’re playing. I’ll give you six months to think about your answers.”

I feel like asking her what game that is, but I am suddenly certain. We have known each other a very long time. You can say we remember each other’s smell. If she knows what game ‘we’ are playing, it’s worth playing it with her.

I stare at the tabphone. Her mismatched eyes gaze back at mine. For a moment, I remember the many years between us. Also, the one person whose love we shared. Old Kenji in the back of my mind groans and covers his eyes, because he also remembers.

“Okay. Goodbye, Nat. Thank you.”

She nods, and her image winks out.

*****

July 2023

“You’re Vice-Principal after all,” I say to my old friend. “Shizune’s Vice. That’s a bad joke in English. Maybe you’re her Golden General, a man with a metal heart.”

“Hey, it’s stable, and I’m doing good work. And you cracked that joke two years ago.”

It’s a mild reply. It’s as if my friend Hisao has reverted to the teenager he used to be. Except that he’s the damn Vice-Principal of our old school now, responsible for all the Mathematics and Science education. Which is crazy because he’s now Emi Ibarazaki’s boss, since she’s in charge of Life Sciences.

I shake my head. Poor guy! He’s sandwiched between Shizune and Emi, it’s like the feminist conspiracy come true. Irritated, I slap Old Kenji in my head. But not before he makes me ask the question: “So who’s the Vice-Principal for all the soft stuff, then?”

Hisao is looking calmly at me. Is he on drugs? His stare is flat and cool.

“Tsukakoshi. She’s only a bit older than us. Was supposed to be Nomiya by seniority, since he was the only one left in the Arts and Humanities. But he’s never been the same since his old friend passed on. They asked him and he actually said he didn’t want it. And before you ask, I’m not Emi’s boss. Mutou-sensei is; he’s back to being Head of Sciences.”

It had not occurred to me to ask Yuuko more, so I am quite happy to let him ramble on. Is he rambling on? Or is this just information dumping?

“What medication have they got you on, man?”

“This and that, Kenji. This, and also that. And the other one.”

It’s worse than I thought, the feminists have got to him, his boss and his underlings and his peers and his coworkers and…

“Kenji? Hey, are you okay?”

“No, I’m not.” I look at him as we sit on the balcony sipping tea, and I ask him one of those questions: “How do you know if you’re normal? Is it you that’s normal when you take drugs or is it you that’s normal when you don’t?”

He looks at me almost they way he did when we were young men, students. “That’s… well, it’s like what we used to talk about when we were in school.”

He breathes in deeply and lets his air out slowly, before saying, “If I didn’t have this thing in my chest, I’d be dead. Normal Hisao is dead Hisao. Abnormal Hisao, Frankenstein’s monster Hisao, he’s good to go for a while more.”

“What if monster Hisao isn’t dead but is also not alive Hisao?”

“Like those old zombie movies?”

“No. Subtle. You don’t notice it, and other people don’t either. Then after a while, you realize you’re not you.”

“Really, Kenji?”

“Hey, what happens if a metal heart tells you it’s okay to kill someone? Or a metal arm glitches and you really kill someone by hitting them too hard or squeezing them too long?”

“Maybe you can blame it on the programming. Like what happens if the cybernetic braking fails on the new crash-avoidance vehicles.”

I look at him grimly. This isn’t the Hisao I used to know, even if it is. Carefully, I try to find out who this imposter might be.

“Does your heart speak to you in computer-talk?”

“Uh… no. What do you mean?”

“It has a brain the rough size of a cockroach brain. Maybe it whispers to you at night, like a cockroach might.”

“Kenji, that’s very gross.”

“I always have to watch my eyeballs. Did I tell you that once I caught them transmitting data into a cloud? They looked so guilty to me.”

“Now who’s on drugs?”

“You watch yourself, Hisao. I’ll watch you too.”

We sip our tea for a while. Then Hisao tilts his head to one side and opens his mouth.

“Hideaki came to have a chat with me the other day. It was a good day. He brought me to a café somewhere between his father’s house and Tokyo. He told me it was where Misha said the parfaits were ‘imaginative’.”

I let out an amused bark. “Hah! That’s hard to find.”

“The café was hard to find. Small place. Looked like just another expensive sushi bar. I think if you try to order sushi there, they chase you out with a long spoon.”

I wait silently, wondering where this part of our conversation will go. He realizes I’m waiting, after a while, and continues.

“The food was good. At least, the coffee was pleasant and the desserts weren’t too sweet. I didn’t want to try the sea bream gelato, though.”

That sounds oddly delicious, but I just nod at him to go on. He looks at me, nods back.

“In the end, he asked me about his sister, whether we had thought of getting married,” he says, looking pensive.

I get up, drain the old tea and refill our cups with hot tea from his foreign-looking teapot. For some reason, that idea makes me feel funny. ‘Master of Romance’, we used to joke about Hisao. Now we are older, and what might have been is not so amusing. One person will be a widow soon, and it is not Shizune, nor her cousin.

“So what did you say?” I ask, placing his teacup neatly in front of him.

He looks at me. “I should be filling your cup,” he says, correctly but without relevance to this conversation.

“No, you are telling the story. Think of it as my payment.”

“I told our young friend that I had said ‘no’ to Shizune, because it wasn’t fair to her. She would want a long-term plan, and I hadn’t got one except to stay alive for a while and then die.”

I look furtively around, but Ibarazaki is still out with her mother and the children. It’s a warm July, but I feel a bit cold listening to this. Softly, I say to him: “Well, you failed. You’ve got a wife and two children now.”

He looks unhappily at me. “Yes. And if anything happens, I’ve done my best to make sure things work out for them. But they’ll still be short a father.”

“I’m not volunteering.”

“Never asked you to be their father. But we talked about this before.”

I sigh. I don’t regret it, but I don’t like talking about that. “Yes, Nakai-san, I promised that I’d do my best.”

“No, you said you’d look after them as if they were your own.”

Damn. He remembered every one of those words, part of me says to me. Another part wonders how come some of his memory is so good these days, while some of it is so bad. The rest of me decides to say something else before I say the wrong thing.

“Yes. I said that.”

He looks at me, daring me to revoke what I said. But instead, I change the subject because something has just popped up in my head.

“We have something in common, my friend,” I say to Hisao Nakai. “Let me tell you a story. I can’t remember if I’ve told you this one before. It’s about how I also might have had Hideaki as a brother-in-law.”

*****

August 2023

August is when the Sendai Tanabata festival is held. For people who grew up in that area, it’s sometimes a time for fond memories. For people who grew up awkward, like me, it’s a time for awkward memories. That’s why Yuuko and I use her holiday break to disappear, most times.

Aunt Midori clucks at me disapprovingly, because she likes my wife and that leaves me as the only target. But she’s happy enough to look after both Masako and Koji when we disappear. I think she sees it as some sort of penance for whatever sins she thinks she has committed.

My father is already being the doting grandpa when Yuuko and I head down the road to Hamamatsu. It’s been a while, but the Black Dragon has gone on sabbatical and offered his house to us. Almost ten years have passed since I saw Yuuko naked and beautiful and golden in the guest room of the Dragon’s lair.

For you who will some day read my useless story, you might think it is tedious to go through all the little events of our lives. Who cares if Kenji and Yuuko were in Hamamatsu in December 2013? Who cares if they were in love?

I suppose I say this because I care. I’m only writing this because it is a way to keep my memories alive even if nobody remembers or cares to remember these long-gone years. Without Yuuko, my wife who loved me, I could never have had the determination to do what I did.

But back to the story. It is August 2023. When we get to the house in the evening, still beautifully maintained by the Dragon’s nearly-invisible staff, the warm lighting brings back many memories that are dear to us. There is a note on a stand near the front door, telling us the house is ours, the guest room is ready, and where we can find lunch the next day.

It’s only late in the morning that we finally reach my uncle’s dining room. Hidden in the heavy rosewood table is a black box, sealed to open only with our biometrics and also the careful blink of my left augmented eye. Inside is another box, with a little card on it. It says ‘For Masako’ in the Dragon’s graceful script.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Wed Jun 24, 2015 12:19 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4-4b up 20150623)

Post by brythain » Wed Jun 24, 2015 12:18 am

This is the ninth section of the fourth part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji thinks about his legacy — either too little or too much.



Kenji 4: The World Turned Upside-Down
(September 2023-March 2024)


For some years I had been thinking about it. Maybe all those conspiracy theories I used to have had been planted on me. Surely I could not have been so crazy, in my younger days, just to think up all those things?

People who know me might say that I was. Maybe so. But if you have a theory, you should test it. I was beginning to suffer from old paranoia again, but like they say, sometimes it is true that someone is really out to get you.

In August 2023, I took a very relaxing break. In September, I began to think, really hard, about the choices that everyone had made.

*****

September 2023

When we had been much younger, Nat and Naomi and I, we had a life. We did things. We wandered in parks and sniffed the scent of flowers and dared each other to try strangely-flavoured foods, like the liquorice and crab dumplings we found in Hamamatsu.

But here we are, at Natsume-godma’s 34th birthday party, and we are old and talking about work. Such idiots, we are. I look across the room and I see Naomi sitting next to Yuuko and playing with Masako and Koji. They look happy. I feel happy. And Yuuko, glancing back at me, is just as happy to let me lean back and chat with my old friend Nat.

“What do you know?” I say quietly to her.

“Ha,” she says, more breathing than talking. “I think we’re becoming American. Secret committees. Committees about committees. Spying on our own spies. Protecting each other from ourselves and other protectors.”

“Ha. But what do you know?”

“I invoke two spirits. One, we are friends. Two, I am a journalist.”

“This isn’t America.”

“I am still your friend.”

“That, you are,” I say, turning to look her straight in her mismatched eyes.

She smiles. There is a small dimple I never noticed before, near the bottom of the left side of her jaw. She’s wearing something light and thin and beige. She looks serious, even while she smiles. A single drop of blood hangs from her ear, some kind of gem in brown copper wire.

“I know that nanobiotechnology is reaching a new frontier. I may even know that this frontier has been crossed. It interferes with all our lives. Some of us want it to be real, to cure things that cannot be cured, even. Some want to live forever, or to have someone else live when they would normally die.”

She hasn’t blinked at all, while saying this slowly and evenly. I try to read her, and fail again. I’ve been doing this for years. It is like being in love with bread, or rice. Each time, it’s new, even if it is familiar. So I nod, trying to say that I am also her friend.

“It scares me,” she says simply. “My mother and my father, they scare me too. They tell me things that they do not think they are telling me.”

Her parents are scary too, in their own way. They are the kind of people you think are perfectly normal, until they suddenly look like aliens. I’m not even sure that Nat knows everything her parents do. Damn, even they might not know everything the other one does.

I must have been silent for too long, because she stops and looks at me. “How is my god-daughter?”

“What do you mean?”

Her face creases in the ‘what are you trying to get away with?’ frown that I’ve known for many years. “We missed a tragedy, maybe more than one.”

I laugh lightly. “As if we don’t have enough to deal with, Natsume!”

“I do not speak as lightly as you laugh. Your daughter is alive. But she has your mother’s bad X-chromosome and the one from Yuuko’s father. That is twice bad. And she shows nothing bad at all. I’m not wishing evil on my very dear god-daughter, but I am both thankful and curious with regard to her good health.”

“How do you know all this?” If this were America, I’d be screaming about invasion of privacy and all that. People think I’m paranoid, or used to be. Or I’m crazy even for a Japanese. But this country, it has as many secrets inside secrets as any other, and sometimes they are secrets nobody understands.

“I have a friend who interviews people. She’s quite an innocent type. She does not even know what secrets she digs up, sometimes. But people tell her things they wouldn’t tell me.”

“Damn. It’s Kawana, isn’t it?”

“I neither confirm nor deny,” says Masako’s godmother, with a hint of a smile. “But I have a duty to the truth, and that can be confirmed or denied.”

In the end, we are still allies. But I am uneasy. I remember the vials my uncle has supplied, the ones marked FX1 so long ago, and FX2 just last month. What else is cooking silently in Hamamatsu City?

*****

October to November 2023

“Miss Hasegawa,” I say slowly. “I remember you.”

“Director-san, I am honoured.”

Her gaze is indirect but it does not waver. Her hair is very black, shoulder-length, with a single snaking trail of a lighter colour running through it. She is a former Student Council president of my old school, the Academy on Mount Aoba. She was once my accomplice in a daring escapade. And she’s very young, a child of the year 2000, who graduated from Yamaku in 2019.

She is here partly because of the first recommendation I’ve seen with a particular notable signature endorsing it. Indeed, she’s the first candidate I’ve seen whose primary referee is Shizune Hakamichi. My senior officers have already submitted positive reports from her earlier tests and interviews.

“Did you get into very much trouble with Principal—ah, she was Vice-Principal at that time— Hakamichi?”

“No. I think she knew it was all your responsibility, Director—ah, I apologise, sir, you were Deputy Director at that time.”

I grin manically at her. She is just the kind of young person I need in my new department. “How many languages do you really speak, Hasegawa?”

She frowns very slightly. “I am perhaps able to speak six languages, although my English is very poor.”

“Six? You listed only three.”

“Japanese, clearly; Korean and Mandarin Chinese, fair Vietnamese, some French and a little English. I was not happy with putting the last three down, they are not good enough.”

“Good. And why did you really apply to this specific office?”

She looks at me, her dark eyes twitching slightly. “Principal Hakamichi suggested it, and I remember working with you. It gave me confidence.”

Her dossier mentions a disability. It says ‘pattern-triggered neuralgia of unknown aetiology’.

“Tell me about your physical problem, in simple words.”

“When I see certain combinations of colour or hear certain sounds, I suffer sudden intense pain in my back, neck and head.” She winces, as if recalling the sensation. I notice that she’s shaking her head very slowly and gently.

“Ah! Terrible. Do you know what kind of combinations?”

Very directly now, she looks at me. There’s a little hidden embarrassment, but also defiance with it. “It’s triggered by rhythmic humming at certain frequencies, and also rectilinear grid patterns with thin bright lines and dark backgrounds that move or shift regularly. I can’t stand bagpipes or tartans. I went to Edinburgh on exchange once. It was very bad in some places.”

Curious. I immediately think of an old acquaintance of mine, but put the thought away for later. “Can it be fixed?”

“No. Just need to be ready for the hot needles in the face and brain. It’s under control.”

“Do painkillers help?”

As if reciting a list of answers to frequently asked questions, her eyes have gone dull. “Only if I’m under general anaesthesia, I suppose.”

“Does your problem make you good at something else?”

Her eyes go bright again. “Yes, I’m good at spotting patterns and looking for specific images or listening for specific sounds. As good as a computer, maybe better. More flexible.”

“Do people ask you these questions a lot?”

“Kaneshiro doctor-san made me go through the list many times. He reminded me not to lose patience, because most people could be educated if you either hit them with heavy documentation or stabbed them with a needle.”

He would. I laugh, realizing that from a great distance my former adversary has won another round. I will send him a message later. “That will be all for now, Hasegawa. I should tell you that you will be appointed to the service pending your acceptance of our conditions. Thank you for meeting with me.”

For the first time today, she smiles at me. It is a wistful smile, somehow. It makes my terrible life as a boss seem worthwhile. “Thank you, Director.”

As I find out over the next few weeks, she is very hardworking and very systematic. She absorbs training like a sponge, and even makes us rewrite a few paragraphs in the training manuals. She’s very good. When I hint about this to Shizune, she replies with a simple message: [You’re not the only one serving this country.]

*****

December 2023 to January 2024

Somehow, a man can be thirty-five years old. His friends can be nice to him. But he feels older than old. That’s me. My name is Kenji.

At the end of December, after the children are in bed, I surprise my wife. Or rather, Yuuko surprises me. What happens is that I sneak up behind her and gently rub her tummy under her kitchen apron, only to find… there’s nothing under that apron! What the hell?! Old Kenji grumbles in my head about another feminist plot. She takes her glasses off and puts them on the kitchen counter.

“Sneaky man,” she whispers. “Happy birthday again. It’s payback time, for the last time you surprised me. Remember?”

Sometimes, a man can be thirty-five years old. And feel about half that age, for a while. That’s me. I owe my wife a lot.

Later, I look at her closely in the darkness, my augments off. I can’t see very much, that way. But my fingers learn some of their old sensitivity. It’s cold, and we’re mostly under blankets now.

“Mr Setou, do you like what you see?” she says playfully. Then she peers closely into my eyes, realizing that the tiny red points of light from my implants are missing. “Oh. In that case, do you see what you like?”

“Even if can’t see, can touch,” I whisper. I snuggle up to her and it gets all a bit tangled up after that.

Much later, she looks at me. “Hey, ah… don’t be so tense.”

“What? I’m not… tense.” But now that she mentions it, I am, a bit.

“The children will be fine. Um… I know you’re worried about them. But that’s also my job.”

Since she’s brought it up, I have to ask. “Is Masako okay?”

“She’s fine. Your uncle’s work has never let us down.”

“Ha. You’re biased because you think he’s a great man,” I grumble.

“Don’t you?” she says cheekily.

“Well, he is. But surely he can’t be just taking his best stuff and giving it to us like that?”

“I think he values family a lot, husband. He, well… he hasn’t got children of his own. Maybe he treats you like a son?”

“A son?! You’re kidding… right?” I mull over it for a while. Yuuko’s breathing is regular and even, her left thigh draped over my right hip. I realize she’s right. The Black Dragon has always been kind to me, since the very first time I went south.

We move on to other things, but in January, when the streets are cold and dark, I pay a visit to Hamamatsu. I leave after a long and congenial conversation. My uncle is always polite. He is always informative. I appreciate that.

But the question I need to answer for myself is this: if your children have different DNA, are they still your children? My brain says ‘yes’, and so does my heart, and that should be all of it. But some other things might say ‘no’. It worries me a lot.

*****

February 2024
Note: this section was inserted in chronological order quite some time after the entry for March 2024 was written.
It is as if memories were somehow transposed or hidden in Kenji’s mind.


The Black Dragon sits before me, as if we are colleagues, like two poets discussing the matter of cherry blossoms while we sip a rare wine. My uncle Mitsutoshi is greying prematurely, but in a very distinguished way. His suit is cut very well, and the body underneath it is also fit, the legacy of his youthful mountain-climbing days. I am half minded to ask him if he found some hidden temple of mystical monks, assassins, or supernatural beings—his is a life that seems very different from mine.

This time, I am not meeting the Dragon in his lair at Hamamatsu. Rather, he is seeing me, in a place between Tokyo and Sendai, within the geographical area of my greatest responsibilities.

“Are you still Catholic, nephew?” he asks suddenly, with the precision of a Go master tapping a stone onto the board.

“I think I am. My confessor warns me when he thinks I am straying,” I joke—but only slightly.

“Do you worry about ‘playing God’?”

“I worry more about being human first,” I reply. This is very true. If you can’t settle your human shit, what right do you have to dream about being more?

“Do you trust me?” he asks, intensely, his cat-like gaze slashing across the table like a sword.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” I reply, making a joke out of a serious matter, or maybe inserting an old joke into something that’s not a joke at all.

His eyes crinkle a little. “We Japanese, sometimes we are like the Irish.”

This statement throws me off a little. Is he making a joke too? I can’t tell. As I look at him, he realizes that he needs to elaborate.

“We’re all warlords. In a short time, we make legends. And we are very superstitious even while we are trying to save civilization by wit and words. But deep inside, the kami and the saints, we think they are the same—or if not the same, that they talk to each other.”

He’s rambling. Damn, he is worse than I am, I find myself thinking. Old Kenji in the back of my head remind me that nothing could be worse than what I used to be. The other Kenjis abstain, knowing that I am worse than myself.

“Here in Japan we have a holy trinity of some kind. Radiation, genetics, machines. They will save us or damn us. Together or separately, or even working against each other. We scientists, we pray to these kami even while we are doing rational work, building and thinking and experimenting.”

I nod. It makes a strange kind of sense. We Japanese are strange people that way.

Encouraged, the Dragon continues. “I believe the biological cell will save us. I think that computing with machines is a dead end, and that cells do not compute in the same way machines do. I can put a quantum computer in a biological cell.”

He is acting like a science fiction writer now, putting visions of a future in my head. I sip my sake, wondering what went wrong with my uncle. What he’s talking about is the same kind of madness I used to have when I was in school.

“There are people who don’t want me to do that. Powerful people. You might even know some of them. But they won’t defeat me. Science will win.”

I twitch slightly as a horrible suspicion dawns on me. “FX1. FX2. What else is in those vials?”

“Nothing dangerous. They were custom-made for Masako Setou, your daughter. They would not have worked on anyone else, or at least, not optimally.”

“What. Did. You. Do?” I force out through my teeth. My world is unstable around me.

He smiles. “Little Masako will have a very good life, if she avoids death by unnatural causes. Did you not sign the forms? Experimental treatments, parental consent, everything is good.”

“Good? What do you mean?” I am not sure he knows what the word means.

His smile disappears. “Kenji, my nephew, remember that you are like the son I never had. I would never do anything to damage you or your family. But now that I am forced to think about it in other ways, best you never tell your children anything about their genes being altered. They might not understand. Others might not understand. Our koseki, our family registry, might be compromised.”

“Compromised?” My voice sounds almost drunk, even though I haven’t drunk much.

“Nowadays, if you do a genetic assay, and the genes don’t match and the DNA look all wrong, then it’s hard to say that Person A and Person B are related.”

“Are you saying Masako’s genes and mine don’t look related?”

“Well, they might not look like those of a daughter and her father.”

I can’t move. What the hell?

“Don’t worry. Everything will work out well,” he says, his voice coming from a very faraway place. I have a very strange thought, that I’ll miss Miki’s birthday. Then even that fades away, and I feel very heavy and tired, and can’t think at all.

*****

March 2024

I have never been healthier in my life. Even Yuuko says so, although she sometimes has a faintly worried expression on her face. The children are even healthier. They don’t ever fall ill.

There’s a moment of oddness, a sensation of falling, now and then. I don’t know what it is. It comes on occasions like the time when Yuuko asks me how my meeting in Yokohama went, and I try to recall what seems very vague. Besides, she’s not supposed to know the details. I tell her things went fine, because I think they did. I don’t know why I keep imagining that my uncle was there, since he wasn’t.

When I access my notes, I realize something odd. Last month was so sterile. Notes about what I did, but nothing about what I feel. It reads like a contents page, not my usual stuff. My eyeball memories feel jumpy too, as if they can’t remember what they saw. It worries me. I can’t put a finger on it.

But whatever happens, I don’t want to go back to being Kenji Setou the conspiracy nutcase. So I leave it be. Big mistake.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Sun Jul 05, 2015 1:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4-5a up 20150705)

Post by brythain » Sun Jul 05, 2015 1:38 pm

This is the tenth section of the fourth part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji thinks about remembrance, and finally says goodbye to an old friend.



Kenji 4: The World Turned Upside-Down
(April-August 2024)


Every year, the cherry blossoms come. And every year, they fall. This is the way of it. I, Kenji Setou, unwanted second son, stranger and crazy person—I’ve seen it again and again. There’s not much we can do about it.

Yet, when your own flowers fall, it’s hard not to be sad. I look back at all the flowers, and I realize that in 2024, the world turned until we became dizzy. Then things after that were not the same.

*****

Monday, 15 April 2024

In April, I visit my sister. She was about fifteen years of age when she left us, and she would have been twenty-nine in this time of rains and mists. It’s been nearly double the years of her life; the years of her death are coming to equality with those of life.

She is as cheerful as ever. Since Mother and Masaru stopped talking to me some time ago, the only ghost I speak to is Sachiko. We normally exchange the same words, although rarely, she will say something unexpected.

“How were the cherry blossoms this year?”

I reply, as almost always, “Beautiful. You were the best of them.”

“Are they all gone?” she whispers, her thick hair just brushing the line of her collarbones.

“I suppose there are still a few up Aomori way, and certainly in Hokkaido.”

“In the end, they’ll all fall, elder brother,” she says sadly.

I look at her. She’s not a vengeful ghost. She’s stubborn, direct, sometimes depressed. But Sachiko in life was kind, even if rude to a few people, and even though she’s now gone like the cherry blossoms, she’s still kind. Such blossoms retain fragrance for a while after they’ve fallen.

Yuuko finishes inspecting the grave marker and stands up. Our little candles and our usual meal of pizza and whisky have been placed neatly where they should be. This year, it’s only the two of us visiting. The children are in Osaka with Aunty Nat and Aunty Naomi, a kind of holiday with a twist—their grand-uncle is giving them a few tests to assess their medical state.

We bow to my sister, who smiles and nods back before turning away and into mist. I can still smell tea in the air. I know that Sachiko’s best friend must have been here before us, coming like a ghost himself before dawn and leaving just as the sun rises. It’s his habit, and that’s why we never need to clean the grave up much.

I wonder if Yuuko ever sees her. It was Naomi who knew my sister best, and Naomi who promised that she would be here in April if ever I asked. But it was Yuuko whom I married. I shake my head to clear away unwanted thoughts, and kiss my wife, who’s rather surprised.

We walk back down the long rows of graves, hand in hand. In my head is the unspoken thought: if we fall, it would be merciful if we fell together. It’s a silly idea, but it’s what I want.

*****

Saturday, 18 May 2024

Across the sea of light and darkness, this is Kenji watching. I don’t know what time it is, maybe the dragon has crossed the line from night to day. I hate Kenji, but I am Kenji, and that is my problem. Many times I think: if Kenji fell off the roof, who would care? Then comes the guilt: now there are some who would.

My job, for those who one day read this, is probably inconceivable to you. My job is to watch everything so that nobody dies who doesn’t have to. But people do anyway, so I am always doing my job badly. It grinds away at our souls, my soul and the souls of the people I work with. But we all hope, if we haven’t already surrendered, that what’s left after the grind is something that isn’t a bad thing.

Maybe it will be a statue. Or a block of tea. Or an espresso, black-brown and bitter. Maybe, at the end, all that’s left is Kenji, whom I hate, but mustn’t.

I’m sitting on the roof. When I got my office, buried deep in the basement of the basement, I didn’t mind not having windows, or sun, or people. I minded not having access to the roof. It’s a silly thing. It has been with me for all my life.

I watch. I see everything. But today, while there was still sunlight outside, there was a sudden burst of attention-seeking data. A little device has begun to fail. Worse, it is failing in a way that is bad all round, both for its own essential function and for the man who depends on it.

Two years ago, the red signal. I am guessing it’s three months to black now. That’s what I found out by asking questions of old friends, none of whom quite understood me. I put their answers together. I’m not clever, not a brilliant scientist like Rika Katayama or my uncle, the Black Dragon. But I can understand things if I look at them long and hard.

Damn, the bottle is empty again. I push this one over to the corner next to a vent, where it won’t fall off the roof and kill someone. I owe Hisao one thing of all the things I owe—he made me realize Japanese whisky is good whisky. Too bad he isn’t going to be climbing any more rooftops with me.

Hey, look. It’s bright out there. The edge of light. Little people like ants. Like me. I should step towards that line, cross it into whatever comes next. Is that you, Mother? Why don’t you speak to me these days? And if it’s God, then what would it have cost You to give me one more rooftop chat with my friend?

*****

Sunday, 9 June 2024

I’m a ghost. I’m not the Ghost of Noda, but like my sister almost, I’m a sad ghost. I walk down the white corridors. I’m not supposed to be here, where living and dead are so close together. Some of the corridors are pale brown. Some have flowers and pictures of scenery on the walls.

I’m supposed to be in Hokkaido. Or even in Paris, they tell me. We have so many things to watch, to know, and yet I am here. I’m here, where I’m useless. His door is open just a little bit. I walk quietly there, like a ghost.

There’s a voice coming from the room. I risk a look. There are so many lights, still mostly green. I have a copy of those lights in my datastream, and nobody knows. I couldn’t bear the thought of my friend being alone. We soldiers must stand together, that’s what I told him when we were kids. I want to laugh and cry at the same time, but we’re men now, and we know what it is to pretend we don’t do either of those things.

I’m happy he’s not alone. There’s another ghost in there, reading to him. Some kind of poetry. I know this ghost. It is Hanako Ikezawa, the toilet ghost. I know she’s not really a ghost, but although I’m not drunk, I am surrounded by memories, and I have to think this way for now.

Now she’s saying something. It’s not poetry. She says: “Remember? I promised you I would do this. I hope you can hear me. But even if you can’t, I’m keeping my promise.” She stutters a bit, but who cares? She’s keeping her promise. I also have promises to keep. I promised I would look after his children.

Silently, I say a little prayer for him. And then, for her. Then I walk silently away. I’m never seen. My team has made sure of that. I am a ghost. But I am a powerful ghost, and there are things I can do to help others.

*****

Thursday, 13 June 2024

“How are you, Kenji?” says the voice in the afternoon sun. I am tired. My secret journeys, always hiding things and keeping confidences, everything is a burden. There are times I want to let go. And yet, there’s this voice, and while I am tired, I still feel that I must answer it.

I open my eyes, looking out from my quiet spot on Mount Aoba. The air is warm. I feel sleepy, but I am not. She is who she is, and so I sit up and say, “Hello, Naomi. How did you know where to find me?”

“Yuuko told us you might be here.”

“It’s a difficult climb just to get here.”

“I know. I scraped my elbows once, also my shins.”

She’s pretty, her honey-coloured hair floating in the breeze. I was in love with her once. It’s hard to say I’m not still in love; I could not say it even if I tried, because it would hurt us both. But we both know that that’s the case. We can’t love each other any more.

Instead, I look at her shins. They’re scratched, and starting to be bruised. I hate to see that, but I can’t do anything about it. I look at her eyes. They’re sad, but for me, not for herself.

“What can I do for my very old friend?” I say, being polite. I can feel the small stones of the mountain digging into my back.

“Nat’s your very old friend. Me, I’m just your friend. I want to know how you feel. If you need someone who’s just your friend, that’s me, Naomi.”

She says it softly, as if hoping that I will say the right thing. That means there is a wrong thing. I was never good at thinking about such things.

Oh, shit. “Happy birthday, Naomi.”

Suddenly I realize that’s not the right thing. But it’s also not wrong at all, because she smiles like a flower opening in spring.

“You remembered.”

“You’re my friend,” I say as gently as I can. I don’t know if I’m dreaming or not, but it isn’t wise to offend the spirits. “Natsume with you, yes?”

“She’s down below, in the car park. Her joints are giving her a bit of trouble, so she told me to go ahead.”

“Hisao’s dying, Naomi.”

“Nat told me.”

“I always thought he’d just drop dead one day, maybe old and healthy to the end.” This part is hard to say, but I continue: “Instead, he’s half-dead, he’s un-dead. He lies in bed, in the hospital room and the ghosts go in and out around him. I can’t stand it.”

“You all, you kept him alive for two extra years.” She means it to be comforting, but it’s a fail.

“It was the Yamaku group that did it. I only let them do it. And he’s being kept alive by machines, now. Until his brain falls apart. Poor Emi. It will be hard not being together.”

The last part I add, even though I don’t know Ibarazaki that well. It’s occurred to me that she must be feeling awful too, and worse, she doesn’t know the whole story. Maybe I know her husband better than she ever did. It makes me feel even sadder.

She instinctively reaches out to me with one delicate hand. I’m conflicted about taking that hand. She sees this, and her face changes subtly, but before she can withdraw it, I grasp it in my own.

“Thank you, Naomi.” I look at her for a while, feeling the fine bones and warm blood in her hand. I’m not dreaming; she’s real. “I’m sorry I haven’t got you a present.”

“It’s okay, Kenji,” she says, as we go down from the mountain together, hand in hand together. Somewhere, things have gone right for a little while.

*****

Wednesday, 26 June 2024

The microdrones tell me much. They watch over Mount Aoba, and they watch certain places, sometimes remaining inactive for many days until something triggers them. Slowly, they build a pattern. And that is how I know to come here halfway between lunch and dinner, on a Wednesday.

As I approach the white gazebo by the blue lake, she turns. It’s as if by instinct. Who knows what tipped her off to me? The sunlight flashes briefly off the dull titanium frames of her coated lenses.

[Why come?] she signs, putting more into the movement of a hand than most people do in a paragraph.

Because I feel we are like family? Because our friend is dying? What is there to say? And yet, I’m here: silly old Kenji, who hated feminists, but who picked up an angry girl’s fallen books from the ground.

There’s something else I can say. Naomi had to teach it to me again, and I’ve learnt. So I make a short reply with my fingers. [We’re friends, Shizune. Transitive or otherwise.]

She smiles unhappily, a half-dimple ghosting its way above the line of her jaw. [You sent cake. In May.]

I nod quietly, because there is tension between us. I don’t want to make it more.

[I did not thank you for it. Thank you.]

I nod again. It is very hard to speak to Shizune—you might not believe it, whoever you are, reading these notes of a fool who shouldn’t be making any notes—but it is difficult because she is good at shutting you out. All she has to do is turn away, or close her eyes. At this moment, her eyes are locked on mine, and I’m afraid that if I blink, the connection will be lost.

[I saw you at the hospital the other day.]

She did? How did she manage that?

[Nobody else did. At first I thought you were a ghost.]

[You did?]

[I was thinking of ghosts. I was wondering if I had killed him.]

[No] I sign fiercely. [You did not.]

[Kenji] she signs, as if my name is some sort of magic rune.

[Yes?]

[Some things you cannot pick up. They fall, and that’s all it is.]

Her eyes are bright, as if her tears have turned to glass. I don’t know what to say.

[I’m still your friend] I sign clumsily. My fingers are shaking.

[I don’t know how to keep friends. I’m not a good friend.]

I’m not a good friend either, I want to say. I’m not a good friend because I don’t know how to tell you that we’re friends, and make you believe it.

Instead, I stretch out my hand.

A moment falls into the sea, like a mountain dissolving slowly. She puts one of her hands on mine, then the other. Then she nods, and leaves the gazebo. I watch as she walks to her old blue car. I know where she’s going, and I let her go.

*****

Monday, 15 July 2024

There’s a day in the middle of July. Always, I remember that day because nobody else remembers it. To me, the Day of the Sea is also the day I remember Kagami Takahashi, who cannot remember anything herself.

These few months, I’m not a happy man. It’s not that there are no things to be happy about: Yuuko, Masako and Koji; saving lives and helping people; a good solitary drink on a rooftop—all these things are good things. But I have been thinking sad thoughts, and this month is all about memory. If nobody remembers you, or if something you did is not remembered, then is anything lost?

It’s 3.30 am when I have my window. I enter the hospital, and a path is marked for me in little dots of light that only my eyes can see. At the end of the path, I look down at him, my friend Hisao. The tubes and wires are all over him. I realize that a blue light is flashing in tune with my data feed, and I know what it is.

The one thing nobody will remember except me? It’s the many nights we sat on rooftops and talked about life. It has built a connection between us, and that connection is so strong that right now it’s almost as if we’re on a roof in some unknown dark city, drinking and talking about women and children, the country and the school.

It’s so strong that he wakes up. At first I think I’m dreaming, taken by the lights and signals into a half-world that isn’t real. Then he mutters, moving his hands at the same time. Why would he do that?

Then I understand. He’s signing, stiffly and slowly, with what little strength he has: [You’ve not killed me. I’ve killed myself. Tell your cousin goodbye. I left a message.]

Damn. He thinks Shizune is here. What a sad thing to think. What do I do? Do I tell him?

I spend seconds worrying as his hands suffer through the same signs over and over again. My window is closing. I need to leave soon. I make up my mind and whisper into his ear.

“Hisao, man, it’s me. Kenji.”

His breath is nearly impossible to feel. His monitor data show a slight rise in blood pressure, not enough to set off a warning signal. But his hands stop moving and I hear a rough movement in the air of his throat.

“K-kenji? Ah, man. Whisky. Roof. Told you about Lilly. Tell her. And look after kids, Emi won’t want you around, never mind.”

It’s all mixed up. My for-show glasses are fogging up because my sadness is burning warmly in my head.

“There’s no more whisky, Hisao,” I say softly. He’ll know what it means.

His eyes open blindly for a moment. “Ah, good times. Good friend. Thanks.”

“Yeah. You too,” is all I manage to say before he falls back into sleep. My window is almost closed, but my watchers don’t interrupt me. I’m out quickly and I shut the door behind me.

The corridor is empty. The night outside is full of sound and emergency, but my heart is cold and silent.

*****

Tuesday, 6 August 2024

It’s always darkest before dawn, people say. Why they say that, I don’t know—isn’t it obvious? It’s dark, and calm, when my heart suddenly bursts into life and wakes me up sweating and frightened for a few seconds and then I see my alerts blinking and all I think is that Yuuko looks so peaceful oh God is she alive yes she is thank God and my alerts… my alerts… she wakes up, and I tell her what’s happening, and she lets me go.

(I’m writing this a few hours after. I’m trying to catch the feelings I had when the black alert showed up and I didn’t recognize it at first because I hadn’t given myself one before.)

I get into the car. Black sails, Naomi once told me, mean death. The long drive up to Sendai won’t change that. I have hours at most, minutes if we’re all very unlucky.

But the long drive runs a whole movie through my head. It’s a highlight reel. Kenji and Hisao—we could have been like Holmes and Watson, or Watson and Crick, or Crick and Jiminy. It never happened, and yet we were friends.

I met him on 4 June 2007. I breathed garlic into his face to check for vampirism. Negative. We became friends. After we left school, I didn’t see him again until October 2013. That’s when I needed his help to hatch a plan, which is how I persuaded Yuuko to marry me. Hisao was my best man in July 2014, even though we’d had so many rooftop arguments about love, romance, and women.

After I got married, Hisao and I went Christmas shopping together at the end of 2014. He told me why buying music boxes was a bad deal. Some time later, he told me more about Lilly Satou. That blind broad, she was central to his life, and if I’m not wrong, she’s going to be part of mine once he’s gone. Long story. Pretty stupid when you look at it, but we humans, we’re not always rational.

For the next four years, we talked about kids and family life and I helped him get married and put the Satou memories away in a deeply-buried room in his head. I kept reminding him how great Ibarazaki is, even though we didn’t really get along because she’s such a reckless person. Then in 2018, he became a father, and that’s when things got more complicated.


Whoever’s just read this will be laughing, I guess, because it got even more complicated many years later. But on the long sad drive up to Sendai to say goodbye, I am only thinking of my friend, and maybe also about how he taught me to enjoy Japanese whisky.

It’s not the first time I’ve made this drive. I made it when the red signal went up, back in May 2022. By July, we’d saved him, and we were having rooftop meetings again. But the words we exchanged? All much more serious. All about insurance, and protecting the children, and preserving the future even if neither of us was around.

Now, it’s August 2024. I realize the Tanabata festival begins today, where all of us will be gathered, in Sendai City. And by the time it’s over, his remains will be buried. Lilly Satou will never keep her promise to see him on Tanabata, not on this side of the river. For some reason, I want to cry. But I can’t, because I’m driving. I’m not a reckless man.

I’m at the outskirts of Sendai when a blue light in my data feed switches off. The black alert has become a black signal. I feel numb. I’ll be a danger to others like this, so I pull over at the side of the road, catch my breath. It will be silly if I die because of this. Somebody has to look after the children. I breathe slowly. Then my phone comes on in the darkness.

Tezuka. It’s the pre-programmed alert Hisao and I put into her phone. I’m not the only one getting this message, but that doesn’t help. I look down. I see Hisao’s smiling face. There’s a line of text. Then another. I keep my finger on the screen and watch it unfold. There’s no audio, because all the recipients can read.

[Hi! This is Hisao. I’m gone now.]
[If you have instructions, please try to carry them out.
[If you don’t, you’re still one of my few close friends.]
[I’m sorry I couldn’t say that earlier. Bye.]

The image changes. This isn’t what I helped Hisao do. I look carefully. It’s a picture of trees, from the high school he used to go to in Yokohama. More text appears, slowly.

[Winter’s deep dark wood]
[Great distance between friends]
[Yet promises don’t sleep]

It’s a terrible haiku, and I want to tell him that, and also that it’s stolen from some foreign writer. I want to tell him all that. It suddenly dawns on me that it’s no longer possible. That’s when I switch off the engine and let go.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Wed Jul 15, 2015 12:35 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Gamma
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Location: New Zealand

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4-5a up 20150705)

Post by Gamma » Sat Jul 11, 2015 12:59 am

Well... As the updates grew later and later I'd wondered how'd Kenji was going to take the event that managed to influence all of the characters in the wide universe you've established. I'm not too surprised at that particular turn of events. I wonder how long Hisao's death is going to weigh on Kenji. I'll be very interested to see how it develops.

Man, it seems that in all the recent updates Kenji can't seem to catch a break. Whether it's related to his job or through unexpected sci-fi like moments he's certainly had his work cut out for him. I just hope at the end of all this him, Yuuko, and his kids can still have a relatively happy ending. As happy as anything in this fic at least.

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Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4-5a up 20150705)

Post by brythain » Sat Jul 11, 2015 7:26 am

Gamma wrote:Well... As the updates grew later and later I'd wondered how'd Kenji was going to take the event that managed to influence all of the characters in the wide universe you've established. I'm not too surprised at that particular turn of events. I wonder how long Hisao's death is going to weigh on Kenji. I'll be very interested to see how it develops.

Man, it seems that in all the recent updates Kenji can't seem to catch a break. Whether it's related to his job or through unexpected sci-fi like moments he's certainly had his work cut out for him. I just hope at the end of all this him, Yuuko, and his kids can still have a relatively happy ending. As happy as anything in this fic at least.
Kenji has a hard life, but he is still our hero, so there's still a chance he will persevere and triumph. :)
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 4 complete 20150714)

Post by brythain » Tue Jul 14, 2015 9:35 am

This is the eleventh and last section of the fourth part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji thinks a lot about who knows what, and who knows who knows.



Kenji 4: The World Turned Upside-Down
(September 2024-March 2025)


From 2025 onwards, everything was new. I did not know how new, but I could guess. The big thing, which I hadn’t realized until it happened, was that I no longer had anyone to hang around with. Except ghosts, and very few of them. So, work. My life, my work. I was free to be Kenji, servant of the Sakura—and that, of course, is not always freedom.

*****

September 2024

September is Natsume’s month. The funny thing is that somehow when you are older, you fall into schedules you don’t realize exist. You think about them one day, terrible things happen. I activate my tabphone on the morning of her birthday, so that I can use it as an excuse to have a life.

Then suddenly, I realise I have so little to talk to Nat about. Hisao’s gone, the asshole, my best friend. I wasn’t at his funeral; instead, like Rika Katayama, I watched by remote video. Nat wasn’t there either; she had done her work, and then silently slipped away. My hand slips away from my phone.

At my desk, I sit quietly. I have no energy. It’s been a month since they set up Hisao’s grave marker. I have tried talking to Ibarazaki, but she and I have nothing to talk about either. Heck, I have tried talking to people, and they and I have nothing to talk about—except for work.

Yuuko and the children have been good to me, but I feel trapped. I feel like a man in a net of illusions and lies, sadness and wasted life. So I work. And I work. Today, Natsume’s 35th birthday begins to pass me by, until the unthinkable happens. A junior officer red-flags my data feed. Idiot.

[Boss, you need to see this.]

It’s like one of those damn American action movies, I say to myself. What now? Still grumbling, I concentrate and switch the high priority feed on.

[Top bioscientist executed terror killing—Hamamatsu City] is what I see as the ticker dispenses its metered information. My heart seizes up for an unbearable second, and then is flooded with mixed relief and sadness as I read what follows: [Prof Ikegami K—long-time member Setou mol bio research team—found decapitated—health spa west of Hamamatsu City early morning. Ikegami instrumental re logistics for team also assisted Prof Setou re team strategy].

The personnel handling my feed have clipped neatly through the original text, extracting the basics. I feel another wave of despair ripple through me. Yuuko and I had named our son after this man, years ago. It is a bad omen. I have to tell her. And I must also speak to my uncle, the Black Dragon.

Now, I actually do have something to talk to Natsume Ooe about. She too would be interested to know what I know. Not an auspicious topic of conversation, no. Yet, we are friends, and maybe she’ll share something with me.

“Hello, Nat,” I begin, the moment they patch me in.

“I’ve heard. Respectful condolences, Kenji. You knew him well, as did I.”

“How did you know, Natsume?” I ask, stunned.

“Are you all right? He was your uncle’s right-hand man. And he’s been telling me all I need to know about my god-daughter’s ongoing treatment.”

“I didn’t ask how you knew I knew him. I asked how you knew he was dead.”

It’s not on the public feeds yet. It’s only just entered the Directorate feed. How can she know anything about it?

“Ah. Well, since you and I are old friends—my parents, of course. They seem to know all kinds of things, and they told me. Because of Masako.”

I know who Natsume’s parents are, certainly. They are information brokers, her father the historian, her mother the internet archivist, both professors at Handai, what the world knows as Osaka University. But how did they—and something from my deep memories stirs slightly. I think I know what it is, but I leave it alone for now.

“Of course.”

Our conversation turns to other things. We have other things on our mind. We talk about Naomi, and about work. I have often been comfortable with Nat, I realize. She is like a girlfriend, a person of the other gender who is your friend, and not more. I am fond of her because of that. It’s affection of the kind you have when you have known a person for a long time.

But friend or not, I have to investigate her parents. They know too much. Also, I need to visit Hamamatsu. I don’t know what I’ll say to my uncle.

*****

October 2024

The next two months are like a man lying down after being hit on the head too many times. My daughter will never be able to have children, according to my uncle. What has saved her life has also ‘doomed her progeny’, he says. ‘Progeny’ is a word the Black Dragon has taught me. He didn’t need to teach me ‘doom’. I don’t know what to think or what to feel. I tell Yuuko, and Yuuko cries. We decide that Koji, unlike Masako, actually needs the therapy. Which means he will never have children either, unless some new option appears. We keep our children alive, hoping against hope that their futures will have choices.

I also know who Natsume’s parents really are. They likely haven’t told her the whole story. If she doesn’t know, I shouldn’t tell her. If she knows, I shouldn’t let her know I know. So I’m silent. Natsume’s stepfather, in particular, knows Rika Katayama far too well. And her mother! If I’d known what I now know, I… well, I don’t know what I would have done.

I feel sorry for Nat. I also feel happy that her life has worked out so well, even though her happiness at first cost me mine. But Nat and I, we have families full of secrets. Everyone has secrets.

Although I feel like a dead man, I can still walk around. I don’t have a rooftop person any more, but I have a brother of some sort. That’s why one Friday in Saitama, I am sitting in a familiar bar, attempting to maintain a secure feed while waiting for him. A brother, that’s a funny thought. The reason for it leads me to a sad thought, and my first drink of the day.

How did he get so big? I think that’s the first thought most people think. He looks every bit the Family ‘representative’, but if you look carefully, he is uncomfortable to be thought of in that way. As he enters the room, the regulars smile to themselves. They probably remember him smaller. The non-regulars turn pale as the big man with the ponytail and the gloves walks in.

“Hey, bro,” I say. It’s hard for me to talk to many people, but surprisingly easy with Hideaki. “Happy birthday. How’re you doing, man?”

He has a big Hakamichi smile on his face. Damn, he looks like his father a lot, but why does he have to highlight his black hair with blue? Must be a Family thing.

“Good afternoon, Elder Brother,” he replies, which makes me take a quick slug of whisky. “I am feeling fairly well, thank you. But have you ever felt that you were the only sane man in the world?”

I nod. Shit, there’ve been so many days I’ve felt that way. But if Hideaki Hakamichi is the last sane man in a crazy world, the world has gone to hell. Then again, who knows? We wait for the server to take his order, and then I reply.

“That’s my problem too. What’s up, bro?”

“Well, my family, and other animals. My father wanted to sponsor Elder Sister for a proper place on the Family board, which is against tradition, and that is something I thought I would never see. I think he always feels guilty about not helping her enough, but that was quite out of character for him. To nobody’s surprise, she turned the offer down. To everybody’s surprise, two anonymous family members sponsored her immediately after that, and she accepted.”

“Wasn’t she already on the board?”

“She was an observer only, as Principal at Yamaku.”

“How about you?”

“Elder Brother, I knew you were not summoning me to celebrate my birthday. May I perhaps be of service to you?”

“What’s your status in the Family?” I’m too tired to be subtle, and I hope he’ll forgive me.

He looks oddly at me. “None. I’m just part of the legal team. I don’t know much about what the Family does.”

I don’t know if he’s being evasive. But I give him some good advice: “Well, you need friends in other families. Do you know any?”

“Does Dr Katayama count?”

I almost snort whisky over him. I suppose she does, but I hardly ever think of her that way. “Ah. Yes, she is a valuable friend. How well do you know her?”

He blushes a little, and I say an ‘oho’ to myself. “I like her, but she terrifies me. She was Shizune’s successor at the Student Council, so my sister has told me much about her.”

“Out with it, young Hideaki. How well do you know her?”

He has a strangely devious look on his face, but that’s nothing compared to what he says next. “About five years ago I went on a date with her.”

Thank God I’m almost done with this shot. I signal for a second, good Japanese whisky in a solidly designed tumbler, no ice.

“You what?”

“Elder Brother Nakai set me up,” he says with a conspiratorial curl of an eyebrow.

Thank God the second shot isn’t on the table yet. “Hisao what?”

Hideaki grins, producing the sort of look that other people might think of as threatening, but is just sheepish to me. “He thought I could benefit from knowing that respected senior lady a little better, and he was right.”

He pauses for effect, while I thank the server for the drink and she whisks my empty whisky tumbler away. “About what?” I ask.

“She gave me some very good advice about my love-life.”

“Tell me.”

He laughs. “No, Colonel-san, I will always tell you what I can, except for things about my love-life. It is embarrassing! I can only tell you that Rika is beautiful and terrifying and not for me.”

Actually, I have quite a good idea about his love-life. Not for nothing have I worked so many years where I’ve been working. I wonder if things will work out well for him, but I am not positive about his fate. Maybe it’s time to change the subject.

“So, you have at least one good friend. Do you have any enemies in other Families?”

He tells me about Akio Hayashi, also a Yamaku alumnus. I’m surprised. I can’t remember much about him, except he was a thin pale kid with a cane. He was a very good student, until final year, when something happened and he ended up in a good university that wasn’t Todai. I’ll have to find out more about him. One must protect one’s own family first.

Drinking on an empty stomach is bad, so later that evening, we go off for cold Saitama-style udon. I check in with Yuuko a couple of times, just to find out if the children have had dinner and, later, whether they’ve gone to bed. I’m a family man, even if I’m not a Family man.

*****

November 2024

Am I alive? I don’t know. It’s dark and cold, and I have two feelings. I feel I’ve been here before. It’s the doorway of death—the smell of rotting flesh is in front of me. Also, it’s awesome: I’ll be dead soon, and I’ll get to see Mother and my brother and sister! Yay!

The blood is leaving me. I’ll be innocent when it’s gone. I look up. There’s the moon! The moon would look back, except that there’s a face in the way. A face? It’s a face I know.

“Ryu?” I whisper. “Get out of my light. I want to die shiny.”

“Colonel Setou, that’s not your choice. Your choice was to stick your nose into this or not. So here we are.”

Why is everything turning black? I’m not here, am I? It can’t be Ryu either. Ryu is a dragon, but not a black dragon. Why can’t I think?

There are sounds of alarm. Fighting. My head’s too heavy to move. My eyes are like closed windows. Ryu’s gone, he wasn’t ever here. My friends are never always here, they go away too quickly. I try to close my eyes so they won’t shatter when someone kicks the glass.

The last thing I dream is the vision of a woman with long silver hair dancing in the light of the moon. Red and black, lit up by lightning and blades of reflected fire. Ooh, so pretty.

*****

December 2024

It’s not the first time I wake up in a hospital. This time, I’m dry and hungry and everything below my nose hurts like hell. I’m good at waking up in hospitals, I know I’m in one just by the way the light looks and the air smells.

I turn my head, which doesn’t turn much. I have tubes up my nose. Damn, it was a bad one, wasn’t it? I’d always told Hisao that Japanese whisky wasn’t the straight stuff, good or not. Oh, but Hisao’s dead. So why am I here? Clearly I’m still drugged. I can’t see straight. Everything’s a blur.

My implants! I have implants! I try to activate them, but nothing happens. Nothing, even when I begin to cry from frustration. I close my eyes tight and shut out what’s left of the light. That’s when a chair moves in the silent room.

“Respected senior, you are safe.”

I know that voice, I think. I keep thinking, but I’m not sure I’m thinking right.

“Who are you?” I ask. Maybe imaginary voices answer with real intel, you never know.

“This one has the undeserved honour of the Katayama name.”

My eyes try to open. “Rika?”

“This one had the privilege of meeting Colonel-san in his office at the Directorate. Exactly three years ago.”

“Ah. Katayama-san, where am I?”

“Colonel-san is in a private hospital facility in Niigata.”

“What am I doing here?”

“Being alive is a wonderful thing. This one has been blessed by the opportunity to ensure that Colonel-san continues to be alive despite efforts to the contrary.”

“Efforts? Please, Katayama-san, tell me more.”

There is a sigh, as if the person at the other end of a long-distance call is very tired of making the effort. But she does anyway. “There was an altercation at docks—to be exact, at a private wharf. Colonel-san was bleeding out and eventually required a small bowel resection and several alterations to the inner geography of his abdomen. Also, a kidney transplant. And further augments, courtesy of Nanotech Division.”

“What augments? Whose division? Who gave permission? Enough of the Colonel-san. Call me Kenji.”

“As Colonel-san directs. You gave permission. Many years ago, you agreed to remain alive to protect somebody’s children. These are Hakamichi implants.” I’m not sure if she’s being ironic or not, because her thin and level tones are like windchimes, and I can’t tell if she’s even human.

Wait. How long have I been here? Yuuko! The children! I struggle to sit up again.

“Does my family…”

“Colonel Setou’s office has been notified. They have informed his family that his work has taken him away for longer than expected but that he should be home by January.”

“January?! Rika, how long…”

“Setou-san, Yamaku was at least sixteen years ago. This one has now spent more days watching the esteemed Director in this one month than in those sixteen years. It has been a week.”

“A week?!”

“Yes. Setou-san should not strain himself by asking so many questions. This humble visitor shall instead attempt to answer such questions without actually knowing what they are.

“First: this one was present to oversee a transaction of dubious nature, as required by her Family responsibilities.

“Second: this one noted the presence of an operative formerly working for Colonel-san’s former directorate. Apparently, that one is now a mercenary operating out of Vladivostok.

“Third: Colonel-san was ambushed by an interesting device. One did not know that Hakamichi optical augments were vulnerable to data encoded in laser pulses within the augmented spectrum but out of the normal visible spectrum.”

She pauses, probably to see if her info-dump has killed me by sheer volume. I take the opportunity to open my mouth.

What comes out is a dry whine, a puff of dead air. “Ryuuuu?”

“Indeed. The wyvern has a sting.”

I’ve been betrayed. Again. Many days later, when I’m home for my birthday, Yuuko discovers my new scars. She refuses to talk to me until January.

*****

January 2025

“Director, your seven o’clock appointment is here,” says the no-nonsense working voice of my new aide, Miss Chiaki Hasegawa. Hasegawa has learnt much from her predecessors—other former Yamaku Student Council presidents whom I know, and some I don’t.

“Send them in, Hasegawa.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I have no real choice, if I want to do this right. It will be the first time for a very long while, and I need the help.

Hasegawa opens the door and ushers the two of them in. The big man is as big as ever. His companion, dressed in various shades of black, as always, has the same sinister smile that I remember with some affection.

“Director, Deputy Director, thank you for coming.”

“No need, surely,” says Nobu, blunt as ever. “You can call me Nobu again. Keiko doesn’t mind being called Director, but these days ‘Kei’ is fine between old friends.”

“I hear ‘Mrs Nobuhiro’ is good too—congratulations.”

Keiko smiles lazily at me, a tooth showing. “I call him Mr K, these days.”

“Why do you need this conversation, Kenji?”

“Ryu.”

“Ah.”

Keiko’s eyebrows have drawn together ever so slightly. She’s grown a lot older in the last few years, although her skin is still mostly smooth and she still has the general demeanour of a young lady.

“Did you know he’s gone to work for Great Northern?”

Nobu nods slowly. “We had heard. We had heard some evil things. From S.”

“S? She’s involved?”

“She’s joined us. She’s Senior Field Agent in the North, now.”

I look at Kei, whose clear, softly sharp voice has just given me new intel. “When?”

“They killed her cat. She was on an independent job for us. We owed her.”

Somehow, that part hurts me deeply. I had heard about S and her unlikely meeting with the Master of Macaques, two or three years ago. But to kill a cat? What kind of monster does that? S had had a gentle lady-like cat once, graceful and demure, prone to patting strangers on the ankles. I feel like crying. Surely not. Not that one.

They read my face. Nobu nods. “Yes, it was a cruel thing.”

The rest of the conversation is very serious. At the end of it, I know more about who my allies are, and who my friends are. The two are not always the same thing.

*****

February 2025

“Fist? Happy birthday!”

I’m sitting on the roof by myself. These days, I have a rooftop garden thirty floors above my dungeon. It’s not the same, and sometimes I am sad that nobody is sitting next to me looking moody and letting the wind ruffle his messy hair. But it is okay, as long as I can smell the cold city air and let the ice crystals form on my coat.

I come up here to talk to my friends. I want them all to be alive. I want to know that they’re alive. I take birthdays very seriously.

“Hi, Kenji. Thanks. Can’t talk now.”

“Hey, we’re good?”

I can sense maybe a tenth of a smile in her silence. I’ve known the Fist, the glorious Ms Miura of Nagasaki, for a very long time. But then, in the background, I hear a harsh and angry voice.

“Fist?” I query.

“Good. Gotta go. Bye.”

That’s very—my mind looks for any word except ‘suspicious’—strange. Worrying. Is Miki in trouble? Would she tell me if she was?

A week later, I talk to Yuuko about it. The Fist hasn’t called me back. She normally would. I’m apprehensive, because I think Yuuko wonders why Miki and I were never a couple.

My sensible wife looks at me over her spectacle rims. Today, her purple rims somehow go well with her reddish-dyed hair. I keep asking her if she wants augments. For her eyes, of course, you dirty-minded reader. She shudders and declines. But today, she is all common sense and firmness.

“I think maybe, hmm, my husband should talk to Natsume about this? Maybe she knows something you don’t? Maybe Nat will tell you things that Miki cannot?”

“Eh, wife, why are you saying things in question form all the time?”

She grins, “Because my husband doesn’t like being told what to do, so I, um, make suggestions only?”

“Ha,” I say, “You’re a good wife.”

It is part of the way we tease each other. She’s getting better at it. She replies, “I am embarrassed that I cannot say the same thing about you, husband.”

When we finish sorting things out, and all the fun and enjoyment that comes with it, it’s too late to take her advice. Or ‘suggestions’, as she calls them. But a few mornings later, she leaves me a note to remind me to do it. Yuuko’s the best.

It’s Monday in the last week of February, but still very cold. My breath comes out in grey clouds as I clear security at the old back ingress. I call Nat first thing when I get into the office.

“Hello, Natsume editor-san!” I warble, sounding like a drunken bird.

There’s a moment of silence, then I hear the stiff but cordial tones of the Asahi Shimbun’s fastest-rising—and earliest-rising—editor. “Good morning, Kenji lurker-san!”

“Hey, that’s not a nice way to speak of an old friend!” I say in mock indignation.

“Ah. But you should be happy that I am speaking to you at all, friend. What can I do for you?”

“What’s up with Miki?”

She has very even breathing. Nat once told me that you learn to breathe to control pain. I’ve tried it. It freaks me out, but it works. I can hear her breathe now.

“Up?”

“You’re good friends. Maybe she talks to you better than she talks to me.”

She sighs. I am listening to everything I can, because she is not showing video on her tabphone. I swear I can hear her run her dry tongue across her lips. The idea is very erotic, somehow, but also sad.

“She has not been happy at home. They have fights, like many couples. She wants both of them to be happy. He is not happy. His career is nothing compared to hers. Also, they have not been successful with having children. It is all a mess.”

The feeling I get is that she wanted to tell someone. In a flash of insight, I realize why she couldn’t have told Naomi. The flash goes away. I don’t want to know. Why are humans so complicated?

*****

March 2025

I have read through what I can bear of my writing. I can’t believe I’ve written so much nonsense. But it’s all true. Up to this year, I was growing up. But now I’m thirty-six, I have to take up manly responsibilities. The Director must direct. What acts cannot be destroyed.

A few things happen in one short month that make me realize what’s happened to me. I will write about them, and then I’m closing this book. If I start a new one, I’ll be a different Kenji.


Sunday 02 March

March 2025 begins for me in Saitama. I think it’s the first time I have ever gone to church with my stepmother, who is also my aunt. It is a first for both of us. She seems glad for the company. It strikes me how little I still know about Mother’s family. I could know more, with the tools I have, but the surgeon doesn’t cut his own body.

After Mass, we’re in a familiar little café. I’m uncomfortable to know that I miss talking to Aunt Midori, just the two of us. Everyone else is at home, a normal Japanese family on a Sunday. But we two, we’re Catholic, like many of Mother’s relatives.

“Your father’s feeling old, Kenji. But having Yuuko and your children around makes him feel young again.”

“Heh. That’s good.” Why are things so awkward between us, sometimes? Aunt Midori is not the prettiest one of the family, although she’s not ugly. She’s actually the shy one, from what I’ve heard. Every family has one if there are many siblings. Eldest Aunt was the fierce one. It was Mother who was the good one, the nice one, the second one to die. I don’t even know all their names off-hand.

“What’s on your mind?” she says softly.

“It’s weird!” The words come out of my mouth before I can regret anything. “Five years ago, I talked to you about family.”

“I don’t remember… ?”

“You told me some simple things about your relationship with Mother, and what happened to you and Father.”

“Ah.” She has downcast eyes. Her features are too sharp, but her brown hair is under a scarf that makes her face look rounder. “That was some time ago.”

“I don’t know much else about Mother’s… ah… your family.”

She looks sad. I speculate that maybe all of them were good at looking shy and vulnerable, but only Aunt Midori was actually that.

“I’m not like your father, Kenji. Our family is a humble one. Your grandparents were labourers from Tohoku: some farming, some fishing. Mother sewed clothes to keep us fed. In 2011, their livelihoods were destroyed by the tsunami. They tried to get back to work, and they did as well as they could for a while, and then they died.”

I had guessed. I look at her. Maybe I’m getting soft. It’s taking a lot out of her to tell this story. But it’s my story too, and I feel cheated that I didn’t know it. Sometimes, all you know is your father’s family. Mothers are invisible. I’ve had two, and both from the same family, and here we are.

“I didn’t know my grandparents were alive.”

“You didn’t?” She looks guilty and appalled.

“No. I ran away from home, remember? And somehow nobody told me about Mother’s family before that, so nobody told me anything after that.”

“I’m very sorry,” she says, bowing her head over the table.

“It’s not your fault,” I reply, because that’s polite and maybe it’s true. It’s my fault. I assumed they were dead or something. “Please, tell me more.”

Later, she emails me a link to an old article from Nat’s newspaper. It’s more than ten years old. What blows my mind is the identity of the writer. Who would have thought that this particular person would have written such a thoughtful piece?


Thursday 13 March

In the second week of March, I am picking my wife up after a late day. They sometimes have school staff meetings that run way overtime. I have thought of scolding Shizune about it, but it would probably be a waste of time. Then I hear a tapping sound on my left.

It’s Mutou-sensei, of all people. So I roll the window down—he probably just wants to say hello, if he’s forgiven me for the last time we met. That’s why I’m surprised when he says, “Colonel? I hear that you had a bad experience in Niigata. I hope you are well.”

How does he know about that? “Sensei, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”

“Ah, you wonder how I know. The incident has reminded me that you and your dear wife should be invited to attend a small ceremony next month.”

“Ceremony?”

He uses both hands to pass me a very stylish, un-Mutou-like piece of stationery. It’s a thick cream envelope embossed in one corner with some kind of eagle design, maybe a hawk.

“Yes, we would be most honoured to have you attend our wedding.”

“Our?” I must sound like a total fool. I don’t know what he’s talking about! So I do the Kenji thing and open the envelope in front of him. It’s not very polite to do it so openly, but he’s used to having socially clumsy students. Besides, I haven’t touched a paper invitation for years—since Hisao and Emi.

Oh. Ohhhhhh! He and Rika? I think I say something like, “Thank you, we will certainly be there,” except that I can’t remember what I said.


Monday 17 March

It’s a few days after that my new life appears on the horizon. Working life since my return from Niigata has been painful. I can’t keep up. My only consolation is that nobody else can either. Nevertheless, when I’m summoned to Director-General Shirakawa’s office, I’m prepared to be sent to a listening post in Kamchatka or something.

Hasegawa tries to soften the blow. She is a hardcore member of my team, very protective of all of us, and especially me. “It’s probably increased responsibilities. You’ve done better than the other directors. Don’t worry, boss.”

I give her a sickly smile as I leave for my drive to the secluded location where my father-in-law works. Yes, my father-in-law. Don’t worry, future reader, it isn’t nepotism. I didn’t know he’d be my boss when I married Yuuko. He didn’t know either.

The rest of the day unfolds very slowly. With my guts throbbing and my eyes blurring despite everything being ‘augmented’, I make my way home through the dark, cool, concrete spaces of the city.

“Kenji?” Yuuko’s in the kitchen. It’s her turn to make dinner, and the children will be happy because of that.

“Hi, wife.”

“You’re home early.”

“Yeah.”

Now there’s serious concern on her face. She remembers to turn things off in case the food overcooks. “What happened? Umm… are you being posted to another country again?”

“No.”

“Ah… good. Good?”

“Your father.”

“My father?”

“He’s given me a new job.”

“He’s retired and made you boss of bosses?” She smiles uneasily, showing that she understands this is not always a good thing. “He… ah… didn’t tell me.”

“No. He’s asked me to take over one of his portfolios. Can’t say which one. But it’s big.”

Her face lights up. “He likes you!”

Ha. He likes me enough to make me [redacted]. I used to think that such interesting strategic intelligence portfolios didn’t really exist, even though I had been in the business for a while. I look back at her, trying to send out happy mental waves. I fail.

“I don’t think it’s that he likes me. Besides, I can do without the label of ‘only got his job because he’s D-G Shirakawa’s son-in-law’.”

In fact, I remember thinking: now I’ll really have no friends. Then she says something that makes me think different thoughts.

“I know you’ll do your job. I trust you to do that. Ah, husband?”

“Yes?”

“I want to say… ah, this is hard… you’re a good person inside. Whatever work you end up doing, you always try to do your best. Right? If you do that, I’m going to support you as long as I’m alive.”

Maybe, that’s all anyone can wish for. I smile my first real smile of the day and step into her embrace. Masako and Koji have been lurking around at the doorway, and they join in too.

I mentally close this chapter of my life, and try not to think of the future too much. The guy who has to handle it is Senior Colonel Kenji Setou, and that’s not me. Somewhere out there, the ghosts laugh cheerfully at the approach of spring, and the cherry blossoms are blooming across my land.

=====
prev | end of book 4 | next
Last edited by brythain on Wed Aug 26, 2015 12:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Interlude (20150706)

Post by brythain » Thu Aug 06, 2015 10:30 pm

For me, in this time and age, it's Hiroshima Day, seventy years after the light of a thousand suns flashed against the rising sun. As I contemplate this, moodily looking down at my Hiroshima Anniversary tie from twenty years ago, I sense a presence ease into the seat beside mine.

"Good day, author-san. It is kind of you to be here today."

"Good day, director-san. It was an honour to have been invited."

"That is an old tie indeed."

"One honours traditions, ancestors—and any unnecessary suffering inflicted by human beings on others."

His glasses flash as he tilts his head. "Ah, that is a two-edged blade in your capable hands, author-san."

"I suppose it can be, director-san."

"To answer a long-ago question: yes, I am ready."

"What will you call the fifth book, then?"

"Ashes and dust, author-san, ashes and dust."

I look at him sympathetically. "It ends in 2044?"

"Yes, it does indeed."

"How long will it be?"

He sighs. "You know we can fill it with the endless tedium of 20 years, but we won't. Besides, all your readers want is old crazy Kenji as I was as a teenager, and not cunning old Kenji as I became as an adult. I think perhaps ten condensed chapters will cover this score of years. Nobody wants to hear about endless missions, operations, hospital visits, and funerals."

"Will I have access to all the original files?"

He barks with melancholy laughter. "Hah, hah. Of course you will have more than you can publish. But give me last say, for security but also for sentiment?"

So many deaths in those years. So many of them in the closed circle of his life. For a moment, I see the painful world through Kenji Setou's eyes, the eyes of someone who has seen too much—or the someone whose eyes have seen too much.

"Yes, director-san."

"You have my thanks, author-san."

I turn away for a while, to contemplate the idea of Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. When I turn back, he's gone, silently, like radiation sleeting invisibly through the bodies of those doomed to die. There are many kinds of worlds, and many kinds of destruction. I bow my head, and prepare myself for the future.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5 begins 20150828)

Post by brythain » Fri Aug 28, 2015 1:45 am

This is the first section of ‘Book Five’ of the records of Senior Colonel Setou K, later the legendary ‘General S’ of Japan Central. If you, reader from some unknown future, should find this remnant and wonder about who he was, and what he did, that is fine. He never wanted to be known; he was a person who just wanted the job to be done.

Sadly for those who have learnt of the General from his previous writings, and who have come to appreciate his character as expressed therein, a lot of Book Five was heavily redacted. This is true also of subsequent writings. He compressed whole years into single sentences and short vignettes.

It seems that his health suffered, and so did his writing, despite enduring little permanent physical damage. The years from 2025 to 2044 seem to point at great doings, masked by jokes and little details. He doesn’t say much, and yet says a lot.

I have had the honour of being his main editor, amongst a small company of such. I regret that there are far fewer of us now than there were when it began. Yet, I accept that while time and fortune happen to us all—bitter as it might seem—though much has been lost, much has also been gained.


—N; Osaka, Japan; 2084


=====

Kenji 5: The Taste of Dust and Ashes
(2025-2029)


Introduction

I’m sitting here, and I’m tired. The world keeps spinning, and Kenji just lets it turn. I used to think that if you knew all the puppets, and all their strings, and all their faces, you could freeze the frames and pause the action. But no, you can’t. You can only sip your whisky and let the frames blur past until you awake somewhere else after the action.

What makes the moments work is love. In bad times, I think of those who loved me even when I didn’t love myself. There are so many kinds of love.

I’m sitting here, and I have a catalogue to offer you. I will do it top-down, since I am tired, and I’ve been doing things top-down for too long.

Item #1: A pair of glasses, deliberately crafted as if for a legally blind man with extreme myopia. He doesn’t need them. He has implants. Those have a core programming that dates back to 2018, from a Hakamichi research group based in Nagasaki. The glasses look cool. The lenses distort the eyes behind them so much that they look oversized. In the past, people would automatically feel pity for the poor blind guy. Now, they whisper that he sees everything. He wishes he did.

Item #2: A scarf, worn and a little smelly, a patchwork of red and green and yellow with some purple lines. Sachiko Setou knit it for her brother before he ran away from home. The colours are faded and there are thin and fluffy spots. It was garish once. Now, it terrifies people. All you have to do is leave it lying around on a conference table and when you come back, everyone is sitting as far from it as possible, as if it is some poisonous snake. It is like a proxy for its master.

Item #3: A pair of epaulettes that have seldom been worn. They’re in this list because during a few, a very thankfully few, occasions, senior officers must wear such things on their shoulders even if they don’t deserve them. The old men will sneer at you. Let them sneer, as long as you’ve been doing your job. Each decorative metal stud is made to look like a cherry blossom, to remind you that you’re not in it for stars or diamonds, but to protect the flowers.

Item #4: A trenchcoat, very worn. It conceals sad shoulders. It has had tears shed upon it. It carries a history, but since that history has been written down somewhere, it doesn’t have to carry that burden all alone. Sometimes, it is left hanging from the coatstand in the corner, and it looks like an executed criminal. Sometimes, it is draped carefully over the old wooden chair behind the desk, and it looks as if it is resting.

Item #5: Two bullet-proof whisky tumblers. These were a joke-that-is-not-a-joke, given by colleagues on the day that their owner was posted to the command position of a different organization. Yes, the whisky, the whisky needs protection. Especially if it’s good whisky.

Item #6: A battered desk. It has scratches, the marks of a cyborg fist, the burns of a cutting laser diffused by ablative diamond film. It has survived many things and followed its owner from office to office. Sometimes, it is named Goro Kaneshiro, because it is able to cure any disease given enough time. Haha, sorry, that is a bad joke.

Item #7: A yellowed old piece of school notebook paper with some dates on it. It’s an aid to memory, in a world where some information should never be digitized. Birthdays to remember, even if the people don’t remember back. And anniversaries of the other end of life. It follows the desk around.

Item #8: A pen, with green ink. One should never forget to have a pen, with green ink in it. It reminds me of a woman I know who keeps an old music-box for a friend who has recently died. Such things are reminders of what not to do if you are given another life.

Item #9: The taste of dust and ashes. It is what you have when things are broken, when people are gone, when all a man’s life is now in a small porcelain vessel. This taste, it gets into everything. If I write about my life, part of it will be about that taste.

*****

2025

One of my new offices is in Kyoto. I hate going to Kyoto, because I always feel guilty. Kyoto is where I should never go, because it reminds me of the games people play with love, that they should not play.

Here are two little pictures for you.

#1: There’s a lonely boy who has run away from home. He is wearing a trenchcoat too big for him and a scarf too beautiful for him. He makes a call. Suddenly, beyond expectation, he is living in a new home. With someone and someone’s parents. He is warm, and fed, and comfortable, and in love. It doesn’t last.

#2: There’s a lonely man who has run away from home. He wears a trenchcoat too heavy for him and a scarf too bright for him. He finds a sympathetic ear, and he is not so lonely for a while, running away to his office and to this ear. He breaks his wife’s heart doing all that. It wasn’t love, and it almost destroyed what was.

Here are two more little pictures for you.

#1a: There is a woman with hair like honey. She now works out of Osaka, but she used to live in Kyoto. She used to share her house with an ex-schoolmate who had no home of his own. Somehow, she always knows when that schoolmate is visiting Kyoto, and he feels obliged to visit her parents, who have mixed feelings about him. After all, he was once the man they hoped she’d marry, and she never did.

#2a: There is a woman with hair like a mermaid’s. She now works in a castle, which seems to be pulling the story in terrible, terrible ways. She once had a cat, who was killed by villains. Her friend liked that cat. He has vowed to exterminate the cat-killers. She works out of Kyoto once in a while, though now mostly in Kushiro, or Otaru, or Hakodate. And once upon a time, they meet by accident.

I hate going to Kyoto. I dream Naomi dreams, and I occasionally bump into Suzu. And I miss my family back home.

Here’s another little picture. My pictures, they’re scattered, they’re out of order, like people at a badly-controlled meeting.

#3: There’s a third woman, an old friend. I will never forget her yellow silk dress, and a hillside in Nagasaki. I will never forget that she is my friend. She has a happy life and a sad life. In her sad life, she has a good husband who becomes a bad husband. They fight. She wins. She no longer has a husband, and she’s lost her baby. I am so angry I can’t talk about it. I don’t know how to talk to her about it.

There are so many little pictures: I’m avoiding so many stories. When I was young, sitting on the roof alone, or with my friend Hisao—that was the story of my life. Now that I’m older, that my fortieth birthday is an acquaintance, I’m part of the story. Like some small monster, I used to perch in the corner of a Kyoto rooftop, armed and watching. I did that off and on for twenty years, until there was nothing left to watch.

Shortly after Rika gets married, Natsume finishes putting together the story of her own life. That’s great because I would love to hear the whole damn feminist plot myself, except that it isn’t a feminist plot and it’s something I need to know because I can see what’s coming. You need to know who your friends are and who their friends are, and whether your friends’ friends will end up being your enemies or the enemies of your friends. Got that? Right.

So this is what happens when you do all those secret society things in back rooms. People forget who knows what, people start to find out unlikely coincidences, and when you ask where it all began, other people get caught in the crossfire. I’m looking at the Board records now—the Board records of the Sendai-Aoba Mountain District Academy.

Why am I looking at these records? Surely Senior Colonel Kenji Setou has something better to do with his life? Damn it all, I wish this were true. I wish I could retire, with Yuuko and the children, to that little village by the sea where the macaques play and the best seafood in all the world is served.

But now I am the government’s representative on the board of the Academy. How stupid! How glorious! I am old mad Kenji whose legend is still described by students many years my junior—Kenji who drank whisky and stole books and committed murder for all they know, who had a thing for a staff member and married her, who lived on pizza all his life and wrote copious notes on the experience. Lies and half-truths, but the truthful parts are painful because they’re true.

I sigh and go back to the records and minutes of meeting. The interesting part is to see who has been on the board, and how that has changed over the years: Family names, government names, representatives who knew each other very well—and sometimes by different names.

Eventually, the time comes when I should be watching whales. I should travel north through Hiraizumi, except that the ancient warriors’ tales would make me sad. It is December, and winter is coming, and all of the cold night.

*****

2026

This is an interesting year. Up north, the other Directorate is having fun with Great Northern, as we call the competitors. They’ve never forgiven us for smashing them in 1905. Forty years later, they took our islands and kept them. We remain at arm’s length, but the arm is sometimes very short. Bastards.

I try to be Honshu. Of course, that’s not what I am. But it feels like my head’s in Tokyo and my heart and arms and legs are strung out from north to south in Sendai, Niigata, Hamamatsu, Kyoto and Osaka, and Hiroshima. I even have an office in Shimonoseki. I never guessed we had anybody there.

I spend time in Saitama still, and I go to Mass because it gives me peace. I still don’t know if there’s a God that listens to me. If I could dump everything on Him, I would. But my country has put the sakura flowers on my shoulders, and I have to carry them myself. Thank God I’m not in Economic Intelligence.

It’s in Saitama that I meet Shizune’s brother about once a month. I don’t know why I keep calling him that. Hideaki is my friend, he’s like Hisao’s younger brother except that he isn’t. He holds his drink well, but that’s not why he’s my friend. For some years now, I’ve had mixed feelings about his love life.

Let me explain. The country can run itself for a few hours while I think about this. Hideaki and my sister Sachiko were best friends. My sister is dead. Hideaki is like a long-lost brother to me. He was there for her even when I wasn’t. He still visits her grave, and he always talks to her, even when he hasn’t been drinking.

She made a man out of him. Or maybe, her death made him want to be a man. That’s good, because the idiot used to pretend he was his sister, and now he’s bigger than his father and has a beard. No, he’s not an idiot. I’m just angry with him because I like him and he makes me feel angry about me.

He’s in love with someone else now. She’s not a bad lady. She’s a nice person. I used to know her. She doesn’t really like me. If she ever writes Hideaki’s story, the way she likes writing about restaurants and museums, she’ll leave me out. Which is okay with me, except that she’ll leave Sachiko out of it too.

I guess it isn’t my business really. But it’s this year that Hideaki is going to declare his undying love for this lady. And he’s not ever going to forget Sachiko, he’s told me. I don’t think he will. I can only believe that my sister would be happy. But you know what? I’m her big brother, and a big brother’s job is to be suspicious and mean.

Damn. Let’s just say that I have a few drinks now and then with Hideaki, and sometimes Shizune comes along. Damn.

It is indeed an interesting year. Sorry I had to cut out the interesting bits. They made me do it.

*****

2027

How could it happen so fast? These people want kids badly. They aren’t sure they can have them. Engineering is not the answer. They don’t want to do that kind of thing. And then she dies. Or she doesn’t. Her heart breaks down, and they fix it with whatever they’d learnt from Hisao’s prototype.

Whatever has happened, they won’t be having any children—it has become too dangerous. When Yuuko and I visit Rika Katayama and Mutou-sensei after her operation, we are happy they still have years ahead together. Yuuko is the first to feel their sadness, and I feel it just a bit later. I think of Emi Ibarazaki, and wonder how the kids were doing.

That’s what I sound like when I’m sitting in Niigata, failing to forget that it was here that I got stabbed more than two years ago. There are little things in my abdomen that are not natural. They keep me more than alive. But I was more than dead. I was betrayed in Niigata.

When they light the traitor up, I feel sad. He’s caught in the net of photons and electrons, and I can see it all with the eyes that this time he cannot blind. I watch him struggle even as they suck the strength and then the life out of him. He shouldn’t have struggled. He shouldn’t have run. Goodbye, Ryu, old comrade.

Is it manly to cry when your friends die? I think it is. It’s worse when your friends kill your friends; the only worse thing than that is having to kill them yourself.

But it can be worse in a different way. Let me tell you a story about worse. Some time in the year, Natsume’s younger brother Matsuo marries Naomi Inoue. I am shocked, because this is what happens when you’re not looking. Stupidly, I congratulate Naomi, who is very subdued. “How’s Nat?” I ask, digging my grave deeper.

“She’s in hospital, Kenji. Had an accident.”

“What? Why? How?” See? Things happen when you don’t look after your friends, whispers careful Kenji to guilty Kenji. “I should visit her!”

“Kenji…” It’s not like Naomi to be lost for words, but sometimes she’s been like that with me. It frightens me with connection to bad memories.

“Yes?”

“Maybe I made a mistake when we were younger. Maybe my parents were right.”

Oh no. Not that again. When I finally find out the whole story, I empty my secret stash over five days of leave. Japan can live without me, since even I can’t live with myself.

Months later, the leaves are fallen, dry or damp on the ground. Naomi has given birth to a son, and she and Matsuo, and Natsume—they are all happy. The kid will effectively have three parents. Sometimes, even the bad turns good. What the hell. My liver is overdue for replacement anyway.

*****

2028

I have deleted so much of my life. What you read? It’s not Kenji’s life. Kenji is mad and bad; Kenji is sad. But you don’t get Kenji, because Kenji would have to kill you. Why is it that I have so much sadness in me for all my friends? Because I know so much about them, and they don’t know I know. I want to be there for them, and all I have is microdrones.

The microdrones tell me who meets whom. I don’t want to risk anything happening to my friends, or the friends of my friends. But I cannot abuse my powers. So I make it a project, properly sanctioned and approved. The alumni of the school, they all need watching.

Some will be allies, some will be enemies. The future is coming, and it’s coming too soon. Akio Hayashi, of all people. Another bastard. He tangles with Natsume, and I have to sort out the tangle, but not in public. So many lives. So much pain.

Eventually I call Miki, because Yuuko tells me it is time I did. Yuuko looks at me and says, “You’re allowed. She’s an old friend and we, uh, have not so many of those. If she needs, go.”

Miura-san has a big office now, Acting Director of Global Initiatives at what I still call ‘Nagasaki Base’ but is actually Hakamichi HQ-South. She’s a busy woman, and she has made herself busier because it takes away the pain. I know how that feels.

“Hi,” is what she says when her secretary puts me through, and then there’s silence for a while. She looks up from her desk. “Director Setou, what a surprise.”

There’s a brightness in her voice that is all wrong. Brittle. Like a thin layer of enamel paint. Her face is smiling, but her eyes aren’t.

“Miki?”

“Yes?”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. Natsume visited. Then she went home, so that was that.”

There’s no passion in her voice. That’s what it is. And stupid Kenji doesn’t know why, unless it’s because of something he can’t imagine. Which is a foolish thing to think. What can’t he imagine?

“I, ah, wanted to visit you, but I thought, maybe it was inappropriate.”

There’s a longer silence. I can’t hear anything, and I’m worried. Then she takes a deep breath, rough, as if her lungs are full of holes. It’s a dusty voice, under the shiny tone. Her smile fades.

“Would’ve been nice,” she says quietly.

There’s no brightness now. Just shadows. I struggle to understand.

“You’re a fucking idiot, Kenji,” she says even more softly.

That, I understand, even as her voice comes back to normal.

“You didn’t even call. Buddha’s balls!”

“I’m sorry, Miki.”

“When are you coming over to Nagasaki?”

Nagasaki can’t be official business, because I’m Honshu, and Nagasaki is Kyushu. Worse, the only office we have over there is in Fukuoka now.

“Miki?”

“Yeah, I thought so. Well, I still think of you as a friend, idiot or not. Director, or not.”

I look at her, wishing that she’ll understand. She takes a deep breath. I hold mine.

“Thanks for calling anyway.”

Some months later, Jigoro Hakamichi passes away. I reserve his affairs to my organization, and his children are grateful because it prevents Jigoro’s brothers from picking at the carcass. They’re bloody vultures, all of them. No wonder Shizune never spoke of her uncles. Or maybe the old man kept them away.

There’s a day that I sit on a roof with Hideaki. These days, it’s sake because Hideaki really doesn’t like whisky so much. I feel uncomfortable because the glasses are too small for my clumsy fingers. But it’s nice to be up on a roof again. We drink to our friend who is no longer with us, and then we talk.

He tells me, for the first time, everything about his feelings for my sister, Sachiko. I can imagine her ‘angry face’ peeking over the edge of the roof at us. It doesn’t scare me. She was always angry, and I’m sad because I wish she were around to scold us for being sentimental fools.

This is what 2028 is to me. It is helping old friends fix their lives, not only because they once helped me fix mine, but because they’re my friends. And there aren’t so many of them now. I’m only forty years old when winter comes.

*****

2029

When I’m frightened, nobody must know. This is the secret of how my organization works. If I of all the Directors am frightened, it is when we must all do a bit more work. I’m the fear in the system, because a system without fear is stupid and overconfident. I don’t tell them, I just pass the fear along until people compensate.

Personally, 2029 is a good year for me. That frightens me because my life is like a bad novel. Every good year I have is followed by a hell of a bad year.

I have two stories to tell from the best part of 2029.

#1: I spend more time than I expect with Hideaki Hakamichi. Why? Because the man comes to me, unusually shy, and asks me if I can be at his wedding. I tell him why not, and that his wife-to-be doesn’t like me. He tells me that it’s not that she doesn’t like me; she thinks I don’t like her. That’s stupid, but what the hell. Then he tells me where it’s going to be, and I say to myself, “Microdrones.”

The wedding is on Sunday, 18 March 2029, in a small church in Edinburgh, that’s the capital of Scotland. I have not seen some of these people for a long while. There aren’t many people, because it’s a very private wedding. I have the guest list, because that’s what I do. I quietly arrange extra security, because Jigoro Hakamichi is dead, and who knows what those senior Hakamichi assholes are doing behind the scenes?

The microdrones record everything. The part that gets me most is the processional music. Shit. At first I think I am haunted. I can’t remember why the music gets to me. Something is prowling in the corridors of my memory.

Then it comes back to me: I remember a red-haired girl playing the violin in a quiet room that nobody else visits. I look down at the order of service that I don’t normally read, and there it is: From ‘Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus’, by R. Vaughan Williams, arr. Takahashi K. How did they find it? My tears make everything brighter. Poor Kagami, always forgetting, never forgotten.

The next story comes from a time about two weeks later.

#2: With effect 1 April 2029, Hasegawa gets promoted to Assistant Director. It is her fifth year in my office, and now she gets an office of her own. Let me tell you about Chiaki Hasegawa as a young lady.

Assistant Director Hasegawa graduated in the top 1% of her class from the Sendai-Aoba Mountain District Academy. She was President of the Student Council 2018-2019 and came highly recommended by Shizune Hakamichi. Surprisingly, this was because she was not like my old friend Shizune at all. Hasegawa doesn’t always play to win. She doesn’t play not to lose. She plays because she enjoys playing first, and if she can see a fair win, she’ll take it. She once helped me set Hisao and Emi up for a rooftop date in school, when they were both teaching there. That memory makes me smile, but also makes me sad.

She’s a woman who would be pretty if she didn’t scowl so well. But she has very beautiful dark eyes, blue-brown, almost purple. She wears her hair dyed black, because it’s not black, and worn like a long braid that’s coiled up into a bun at the back. Sometimes, there is a defiant streak of colour in it. She is always dressed in grey, because she wants to be Shizune in some ways.

She is an excellent officer. She is always working on the data, poking at it, torturing it. She sees a lot of things because she’s looking for that ‘legal’ win. She likes talking things through, if not with me, or with her peers, then with herself.

Yuuko spoils her by inviting her to our home for dinner. She gets along well with our daughter Masako, who is now 14 years old, disrespects her parents sometimes, and is in awe of ‘cool Aunty Chiaki’. So is little Koji, age 12, who is into dinosaurs and robots with big weapons. This ‘cool Aunty Chiaki’, you see, is a technical expert in the art of making things poke holes in other things—sometimes with interesting sounds and often with flashes and bangs.

Those two stories are the best part of 2029. The rest isn’t that bad. You can go dig up the archives of your time and see what happened to Japan in 2029, and then you can see for yourself.

=====
book 4 | prev | next
Last edited by brythain on Tue Oct 13, 2015 9:16 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5 begins 20150828)

Post by Blank Mage » Fri Aug 28, 2015 6:16 am

I am never going to catch up, am I?

Still on book three.
And we're back.
-----------
"I wish I could convey to you just how socially inept I am, but I can't."
"I think you just did."
"No, I really, truly haven't."

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Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5 begins 20150828)

Post by brythain » Fri Aug 28, 2015 12:28 pm

Blank Mage wrote:I am never going to catch up, am I?

Still on book three.
It's okay, Kenji ended his memoirs with Book 7, in the year 2084—or at least, that's what Natsume told me.
You'll catch up eventually. :D
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Location: East Asia
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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5-2 up 20151012)

Post by brythain » Mon Oct 12, 2015 11:40 pm

This is the second section of the mysterious ‘Book Five’ of the records of Senior Colonel Setou K, later the legendary ‘General S’ of Japan Central. In an emptying world, those left behind can find endless things to do with their unlimited time. I have chosen to assemble old stories. It is what I have been doing all my life.

—N; Osaka, Japan; 2084


=====

Kenji 5: The Taste of Dust and Ashes
(2030-2034)


Introduction

“Hell in a handbasket” is something the Americans say when they talk about where things are going, often quickly and without time to respond properly. These are five years in which the phrase was appropriate. I’m Kenji. I write my name here, I put my family stamp on this document in written symbols and ink, because this record is a record of my soul. You think we Japanese don’t think that way? You don’t know us.

So here I am, Kenji Setou, whose mother came from a strange family and whose father the General was a bastard in many ways, and who lived through all that. I’m your eyes into the world so you can see it the way it was, and that’s a very ironic thing: I had very bad vision myself, and I too became a general.

This is going to be a short five years. I don’t have much to be proud about. And the strong memories I share with you? They might be the least important things of all.

*****

2030

Do you remember Lilly Satou? One time, mad Kenji accidentally tripped her up in school, in the open park. She was very angry. I think it was one of the first times she ever showed anger in public. I have seen so many things, whether I was mad Kenji or just miserable Kenji, but that one moment opened my eyes. Lilly Satou was human.

I’m telling you this because it takes a long time and a lot of whisky for many of us to say anything about 2030. Some people talk about Yamaku as if it was a secret society. Never was. Not that we didn’t have them, but I spent a lot of time looking around and there was never one that covered the whole school. I would have known, trust me.

The good news always comes before the bad. I’ll be brief: my ‘younger brother’ and his toilet-ghost wife have a child on the first day of March, so I thank the Welsh Saint David and spend a moment thinking of shepherds and cherry blossoms and how it doesn’t make sense. That’s the good news.

In May, Ibarazaki dies. It’s sad news, because I know Hisao would’ve been sad. She pined for him, and that was very sad indeed to me, because… because… I drink two shots before saying this: because she wasn’t the first, but she was all the world to him for a few years of his life. Her heart just gave way, Kaneshiro tells me. Her heart, her fit little heart, had just given up.

I didn’t buy it at first, so I do some investigating. And that’s exactly what the medical report shows. She was fit but depressed, then not so depressed, and then dead. Who gets the kids, I want to know. Yuuko knows the situation, and she’s willing to be a joint adoptive parent with me, if that’s what Hisao’s arrangement was.

Damn Ibarazaki outflanks us. She gets Shizune, whom I’m sure she didn’t like, to adopt the kids! I’ve not been paying attention, and Shizune has been keeping secrets. But my own secret is that I’m relieved at the outcome. I would’ve done anything for Hisao, but so would Shizune, and she’s well-placed to do things I wouldn’t be able to do.

(That’s still not the bad part. It’s sad, and two kids have their lives turned upside down—kids that we know. If only I had spoken with Shizune then, things might have been different.)

Here’s the bad part. Two months later, I’m having a meeting with Rika Katayama at Tokyo Station, when she gets a funny signal on her tabphone. I blink and let the message through, and then wish I hadn’t. She looks at the screen and goes whiter than her usual white, then clutches the table.

“Setou-san,” she says, suddenly all formal, “I have to go back to Sendai.”

“Ah, we’ve got a couple of points left to discuss, Rika! Won’t take long.”

She lets out a breath, her red eyes burning with anger in her pale face. I am reminded that the lady in front of me was once the Sword of the Katayamas, and remains capable of breaking the table in two, let alone myself. I move back in my seat slowly.

She releases the rest of her long breath and shows me the text display. It’s from a familiar number. Dr Kaneshiro: [Urgent return Sendai. Mutou in vehicular accident emergency surgery MGH.]

Just like that, I see dominos falling. There aren’t enough good people around, and we may have lost another one. As she stands, I raise a hand and summon a Station vehicle for her. It’s the least I can do.

It’s early August and the mourning is over when I finally take a deep breath, and fortified with Yuuko’s support, head over to church for morning mass. I know whom I’ll be meeting there, of course. I know that when I first heard about her arrival in Japan, my first thought was, “Hasn’t that blind bitch caused enough trouble already?” —but I cooled down and punched myself at that time for being so unkind. She has a right to mourn, just like the rest of us. And for all I know, she’ll mourn for a very long time.

So what brings me to this church? Why am I standing outside, thinking about Lilly Satou, whom I have invited here? It’s because of my friend, Hisao. It’s because I know there are things that I can help her with. It’s because of Hideaki, who helped me find closure with my late sister. You have to help others. It’s what we’re supposed to do.

So I walk into church and immediately I see her long blond hair, neatly tied up and covered with a dark headscarf. My augments tell me that her hands are cold, that her heartbeat is normal and steady. And so I find my way over to her in the dim lighting of the early morning and I greet her softly.

She returns my greeting, and we fall silent. Mass takes a bit more than half an hour. She has a scent of roses and spice, but that doesn’t tell me anything new. She’s the girl I used to know in school, my former class rep, but older, sadder.

When the blessing has been said, I ask her how she has been. Then because confession is good for the soul, I tell her exactly what I thought of her and what she did to my best friend. And then I tell her I forgive her, because people have forgiven me for being me too.

But it’s not enough. In the house of God, it’s never enough. I’m about to leave, I’ve already walked away from her, when I hear Hisao telling me, “One more thing.” It’s as if he’s standing right next to me. Damn.

She’s still sitting, bowed in her seat, and I can tell that Father is going to walk over to her—he knows she’s a stranger. I get there first. “Come outside,” I say. “Come outside.”

Wondering, she follows. I can sense her pulse rate rising. She feels apprehensive. So do I, actually. I tell her, as we exit the church, to turn till she feels the sun on her face. Then, very gently, as if they’re the feathers of a ghost, I draw my lips across her cheek. She’s tall, so I have to reach a bit.

She gasps softly. I tell her, “That’s from Hisao Nakai, not from me. He would’ve wanted that.” And then, feeling awkward, I say, “Goodbye, Lilly Satou.” I hope I will never meet her again. But as they say, you can think such thoughts, and you can still be wrong.

*****

2031

The next year brings with it different pains. From far away, I still look after the interests of Hisao’s children. But our own Masako is sixteen this year, and I remember being sixteen. She wants to go to Yamaku to complete her secondary education. She glares at us the way Sachiko used to glare at me. And then she says, “Why can’t I?”

“There’s nothing… ah, physically wrong with you, daughter,” says Yuuko.

“It doesn’t matter. Even though there probably should be. The Academy takes in non-cripples too, like Father.”

Oh, damn. There are two disturbing statements there. What does she mean by ‘probably should be’, and ‘non-cripples… like Father’?

“I’m legally blind, you. Be polite.”

“Sorry, Father. Then you must be illegally sighted?” she laughs. I never know when she is being humorous and when she is being wicked. Her teachers complain that she is witty and sarcastic in school. I’m sure she got it from neither of us.

Eventually, she’ll get her wish, I guess. She spends a lot of time learning things from her ‘Godma Nat’ and her ‘Godpa Dragon’, neither of which are really official. Modern Japan though, we borrow customs from everywhere and make them our own. She is being educated in a very strange way, and I can only hope it works out for her better than it did for Sachiko. I hope I am a better father than my own.

Our Koji, on the other hand, is a sentimental type. He is always asking how other people feel. That’s nice of him, but I worry. Yuuko doesn’t. She says that’s how young men ought to be. He’s only fourteen this year, but very protective of his sister, who thinks he is a pain. I think it all started with, “Aunty Chiaki told me to protect my sister.” He’s got too many godparents, that one.

It’s in 2031 that I first take a look at the long game on the big board. Our two big neighbours are actually being civilized. I suspect they have thoughts of absorbing our poor country one day, but it doesn’t hurt to be friends with both of them, as much as you can be friends with two big dogs who remember you punched each of them once upon a time. Our distant uncle across the Pacific is reaping the whirlwind, and our trading partners are all over the place. And in Japan itself, we are divided as a people, uncertain as a country.

If there are enemies we know best, they are from within. I have to take a closer look at Akio Hayashi and his friends.

*****

2032

“What do you mean?” I ask Hideaki, as we sit with our backs to the bulletproof cinderblock wall of an unnamed installation in Northern Japan. “How can you not know? You’ve had eight years to do all that!”

“What I mean to say, General-san, is that Hisao Nakai was a secretive man. And we only found out what he had done when Mutou-sensei met his untimely end.”

“Keep going, boy,” I grunt at him. “And don’t call me ‘General-san’. I still think of myself as a colonel, and you should call me Kenji anyway.”

“Esteemed director-general…” he begins, but stops, trying to hide a grin, before he can continue. I wait for him to recover. His sake in the small cup doesn’t move, even when his body is struggling to contain his big laughter. I can’t tell him why his joke isn’t funny—my father-in-law’s secrets will always remain secret, for Yuuko’s sake.

“Is the Foundation ready to begin its major projects? I can’t help but think that Hisao would be disappointed that your sister hadn’t been more efficient.”

“You leave my sister out of it. She left herself out of it. The delays are because of me. Also, Mutou-sensei was executor, and he, well… he is no longer with us.”

All that is true. We share a moment’s silence. He glares at me, really unhappy that I have been rude about Shizune. He has always looked up to her, even after growing taller than her.

“We started the foundation up. But somehow not all the assets could be traced properly. Then we realized that the Satou Corporation was once a subsidiary of Hakamichi Industries. My sister didn’t know anything about it, and neither did my cousin.”

“Aha, so it is partly the fault of your crazy blonde cousin?”

He realizes I’m joking, but he thumps me on the shoulder hard anyway. Since I too am a true Japanese, my sake doesn’t spill. But it takes some effort; Hideaki has grown bigger than his father. Then he looks at me oddly and says, “Which one?”

I start laughing, and he laughs too, and we both down our sake before there can be any accidents. “Seriously, boy?” I wheeze. I always think of him as the kid, even though he’s now a big man.

“They are both a bit crazy,” he says unhappily. “My wife’s best friend is not easy to talk to, and although I love her elder sister like a brother…”

This time I can’t stop laughing—until he tells me that his wife is pregnant again, due in January next year. It’s a serious thing. I realize that Yuuko would be happy to hear the news, but it’s sobering to know that the kid will soon be like me, a father of two.

Besides all that, 2032 is to me all about crazy escapades in dark alleys and on rain-slick roofs, punctuated by walking tiredly into my home where Yuuko and Masako and Koji are all safe and sound. And sometimes, meeting with assorted Hakamichis and Satous.

It’s nearly July again when I meet Hideaki somewhere on the west coast of our homeland. The cherry blossoms have fallen and I have been unable to stop them; that’s God’s lesson to me every year.

“Is it done?” I ask him.

“I have one more task. I have to go to Nagasaki,” he says, with emphasis, “to meet your old friend, but since I am not so certain as to which of your friends is still a friend, I will not mention you.”

That stings. Of all the people in Nagasaki, there’s only one he could be talking about.

“Oh, and what has she got to do with this?” I think I already know. Kenji, I tell myself, this is what happens when you don’t pay attention. This is what happens when you don’t visit old friends.

“Miura-san is to be in charge of one of the Nakai Foundation’s projects, in her role as Hakamichi’s director of global initiatives. Operating from the research headquarters.”

“That’s what I thought.”

The big man looks at me. “You and Hisao, you were like the two elder brothers I never had. Sitting with you on yet another rooftop? It is like joining a club, a secret society, where you talk with one master about the legacy of another. It might be thrilling to discover secrets on one’s own, but sometimes, you wish it had been easier.”

“I’ve not obstructed you. I can’t tell you everything, Hideaki.”

“I know,” he says, nodding slowly. “But when one’s wife has to keep secrets as well, and also one’s sister; and when even one’s ‘elder brothers’ are hiding things? Then it is a very difficult matter. I am like the junior board member who never knows enough, as figure of speech, and also in truth.”

I sigh. “Miki’s a beautiful lady, even if she likes to act rough and use coarse language at times. Treat her like one. Don’t talk about me. But like most of us, she respects your sister. Use that.”

“I have to anyway, since I’m not going as ignorant junior board member, but as Senior Counsel for Hakamichi. Shizune is providing cover. I have relatives who are basically enemies. They did not trust my late father, and all that keeps them from having my neck is that he too left secrets behind to protect us.”

“Senior Counsel,” I say slowly, as if I don’t know anything myself. “That’s a very powerful position to have, for such a young man.”

He laughs unhappily and sips his sakura-tinged sake. The air is still and the night is not so cold. His bass-baritone resonates even in the dead air. “Sometimes, my sister mentions you as the boy she used to know, whom everyone thought was crazy. Then she’d see you take off your glasses, and she’d remember the person who politely picked up her books for her, and for a brief moment, she would wonder if everyone else was crazy and you were the only sane person among them.”

I twitch a bit. I’ve often thought the same thought myself. I wonder what Nat and Naomi would say about that.

*****

2033

I spend 2033 monitoring communications myself. It’s not that I don’t have competent people to do it for me, but as my younger self, crazy Kenji, would’ve said, they’re all feminists.

Not the least of which is Chiaki Hasegawa. Now she’s a deputy director, she’s even more intolerable than before, and also much more useful. “Boss? I think you need to look at this.” “Boss, that’s the item you wanted us to track but didn’t tell us about.” “Boss, this is the person of interest; we can have him packaged for transit the moment you tell us.”

But if I don’t do things for myself, Hasegawa might as well be Director-General. One day, she’ll probably be. She’s only been here eight years. Japan is indeed changing if a feminist dictator can rise so quickly… hmm. I think about how close she is to Shizune Hakamichi.

Of particular interest to me is three-way traffic between Sendai, Tokyo, and Nagasaki. There’s been a lot of it lately, picking up strongly especially during the winter months and peaking in February. Something is planned, and my usual sources are keeping quiet. I look at my board and move some pieces.

#1: Hideaki—my ‘younger brother’. Currently a Hakamichi public board member and lawyer. Like a king, he is limited in movement. That’s because he doesn’t know enough, and his wife has just given birth. But in the end-game, he will be more powerful.

#2 and #3: Shizune at Sendai and Miki at Nagasaki—two castles at opposite ends, they’d be powerful stacked up and supporting each other. And, currently, they are working towards the same goal. I don’t know how deep their friendship is, and it worries me.

Who are the other pieces? Maybe chess isn’t the right game. I’m blind, I tell myself, ask someone who can see. I call Hasegawa on local wave.

“General?” she says, soft but sharp. Alert, that’s my Madam Hasegawa for you.

“I need you to look at patterns, but something tells me you already know. What’s Hakamichi Industries doing with our government these days?”

“Hmmm. Sir, I’ll get you a report by tomorrow. Need to think. Technology. Augmentation. Foundations, ambassadors. Wonder what Shizune is doing?”

I can tell she’s not talking to me, but to herself. Bad habit. As usual, when she gets this way, I just hang up. She doesn’t mind. But I feel bad, so I mutter back, “Thanks; see you tomorrow,” before I scramble the link.

*****

Let me take a break here for a while to talk to you about something. I don’t know who you are, but you’re reading what I’m writing. I want to tell you about death. I want to tell you that in my earlier life, two cats died and that made all the difference.

#1: Kurome the Fearless. (Fearsome? I can’t remember.) He was a Tsushima cat, who died in the same week that Hisao’s parents disappeared. That was in 2020. I don’t know a lot about the animal, but I was Miki Miura’s friend, and because I didn’t listen to her mourn for her cat, she was sadder than she should’ve been, and married the wrong guy.

#2: Inari the Charming. She was a casualty in our little war, a kitten who survived a flood only to fall victim to a bullet from an assassin’s gun. That was in 2022. I didn’t know about this, until my former colleagues told me about it. I was sad, but it was too late. And by then, Inari’s mistress was seeking revenge, though not on me.

*****

I watch as my old friends meet each other in Nagasaki. I watch as their plans come together. I help them without saying anything. They don’t want me to interfere. It saddens me that they don’t understand that I wouldn’t. Or maybe they just don’t want to talk to me, or expose me, or have anything to do with me. I don’t know. I drink alone, until Hideaki finally gets the Foundation documents done, and comes to visit me in Tokyo.

I’m surprised when Hasegawa contacts me. “Sir, he’s in the street with a woman. Short-haired blonde, well-attired.” An image pops up within my inner eye.

I reply, “Thanks. That’s his damn cousin.” As I break the contact, I find myself rotating the image and wondering about Akira Satou, Lilly’s elder sister. Akira Katharine Anderson Satou, to be exact, heiress to a family business that hardly anyone knew about. I wondered what else she was doing, besides being a lawyer.

I carefully do a surface-mining asset search. I order a genetic assay on the woman. What I find tells me what I need to know, and also things I don’t need to know. Someone else will also need to know one day. I shake my head, and prepare to meet the lawyers of the Nakai Foundation.

*****

2034

Young people grow up too damn fast. My daughter Masako is a striking beauty but I’m sure every father says that about his daughter, especially if she is tall and energetic. She has a determined face, like Sachiko had, and she is sweet like her mother. She is also graduating from Yamaku, and it’s as if I knew nothing of her.

I never knew she dyed her hair red and tried to look like her mother. Yuuko attended all her Sports Days and Parent-Teacher-Alumni Days, of course. I never did. I have grown away from her, and now I have a daughter I don’t know. But she wants to join my department now, and she says ‘Godpa Dragon’ and ‘Godma Nat’ have been encouraging her. I don’t know what to say.

So I find a quiet moment in time and I try to talk to my wife. It doesn’t turn out the way I wanted.

“Mother, we need to talk about Masako.”

“Ah, well, what… a surprise it is, Father.” I don’t know when we became ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. It must have been while the kids were growing up.

“What?” I am puzzled.

“You have not, umm, how to say… really wanted to speak to me for years,” she says softly but firmly, looking away from me.

I’m angry. Then I’m sad. Then I want to stop work and retire. But that’s not possible. I don’t know what to do. There’s too much silence now. Then I say, “I’m sorry, I’ve been working too much.”

“Your work is important. My work lets me spend more time with the children. It’s, ah… okay.”

It’s not. I can see that. Even sad, mad, crazy blind Kenji can see that. Before I can say anything, though, she continues.

“Anyway, Masako is fine, Father. It’s Koji we need to talk about. He’s been going out with Kaori.”

“Kaori? Who…” and then I remember the finely-featured, petite little girl who is Yuuko’s half-sister from her father’s second wife. “But, but… he can’t do that. Not the serious going-out kind of going-out! She’s his aunt.” And I also remember that there are other reasons.

“Will Father, um, tell him about all the reasons he shouldn’t?” my wife says. She looks mournful, older than I remember her. I realize she’s been doing the job of parenting the kids for a long time now, while I’ve been burying myself in work.

“Well, he’s going to Yamaku and she’s not, so they won’t have much time to be friends. They grew up together, there’s nothing wrong with that.” There are many possible things that could go wrong, though.

“I’ll take care of Masako, Father. You can look after Koji, right?” she sighs.

When I think now of the years that followed, I know that we both made mistakes. I made more than anyone else. But Yuuko was always the one who helped me through those times.

It’s 2034, I tell myself. I’m not that old. But it’s the year that my old friend Tezuka becomes a cyborg. It’s the year my old friend Miura starts treatment for the thing that will one day kill her. It’s goddamn 2034, and even now, many years later when I’m looking through my memories of that year, I can’t say anything about it except that it felt like such a good year when it started.

*****

Editor's Note: In assembling this heavily redacted piece, I can only note that further insight may be gained through other eyes. Rin Tezuka's transformation in her own words can be found [here] and Miki Miura's notes on events are [here]. However, a wise man reads in context, and perhaps it might be better to read Rin's and Miki's arcs first, in their entirety. Lilly Satou does corroborate Kenji's account of their encounter in the church [here], but again, that's not necessary reading, and Ms Satou's autobiography is perhaps best read on its own.

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Last edited by brythain on Tue Oct 27, 2015 12:38 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5-3 up 20151027)

Post by brythain » Tue Oct 27, 2015 12:38 am

This is the third section of the long-lost ‘Book Five’ of the records of Kenji Setou. In the year that he first laid down notes for this section, I had known him for thirty years. We had in a sense grown into middle adulthood together, and our joys and sorrows were often shared.

There is a lot that he does not say in this unusually reduced account. Having lived through the same experiences as he did, although from a different perspective, I am reasonably sure why he censored so much of this story. What you will read in this section, therefore, is not so much about the ‘taste of dust and ashes’, but rather about what survived the many acts of destruction he does not mention.


—N; Osaka, Japan; 2084


=====

Kenji 5: The Taste of Dust and Ashes
(2035-2038)


Introduction

I’m writing this now, it’s the end of 2038. Whoever reads this? Please understand I am writing as plain Mr Setou whose home was in Saitama. I did not know what would happen, so don’t judge me. I’m looking at only four years, from the beginning of 2035 to this day, which is my 50th birthday and should be a happy day. It is not.

I’ve always been stupid at the wrong time, and clever at the wrong time, and as my wife Yuuko once said, I saved all the good things for my work, and my family and friends got the leftovers. I apologise to her, as I always have. I apologise to my friends, living and dead. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Once, twice, three times, it is never enough.

These notes I’m making, they’ll go to Natsume Ooe one day. She has always been my friend, even when I hated her. I came to almost love her, if you can say such a thing. Maybe she can explain to you that I was not a bad person. But when I think about it, why should she?

I will tell these years by their voices. If you can hear the voices, you can understand them better. They deserve to be remembered. Don’t think about me, my voice is the one you can forget.

*****

2035

This year has a surprisingly deep voice. It is soft but deeper than I remembered, even though it is only some kind of tenor. It has the voice of my son Koji.

“Father?” it asks. I turn round slowly from the window and I see it is indeed Koji, skinny and almost taller than I am. I think I have grown shorter while he was growing up. “You wanted to see me?”

“Happy birthday, son,” I say softly. It is his birthday. He should have a happy one. He is… eighteen? Nineteen? Damn, I can’t remember my own son’s birthday properly.

He’s tried to make his hair neat, but it still stands up a bit. That’s like my old friend Hisao, who’s been dead ten years already, and a few months. I can’t help remembering, I’m feeling sad anyway. We’re in Sendai this evening, and from the window I can see a familiar rooftop where two young men used to sit and drink whisky.

“Thank you, father,” he says. He says it in the same tones I would use at confession, Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. But his eyes are innocent, always have been, and it is Kenji who needs forgiveness, I think, not Koji.

“How is your aunt Kaori getting along?” Yes, this is Yuuko’s half-sister, who is just a year younger than Koji, and also is his very good friend. That’s dangerous. Society won’t allow more than that, and I think I agree.

“I don’t know, father. We seldom see each other, these days.”

“Good, good,” I say. Then I see that there is hurt in his eyes, even blind Kenji can see that, so I change my tone, try to adjust things. They still come out lame, but he doesn’t look so hurt. “Your results have been very good. You will be graduating from Yamaku soon, have you thought of where you want to go?”

He perks up a bit, but what he says has the opposite effect on me. “Kaori told me I should aim for Todai, like Godpa did, and also Principal Hakamichi. She’s going to try to do that too. Then maybe we can explore Tokyo together, like we did when we were younger.”

“Ah. Well, good for her,” I say, not quite meaning it. If the two of them are at the University of Tokyo together, who knows what will happen over the years?

Then he gives me hope. “Have you noticed young Akiko, father?”

“Who?” I am thrown off by this change of subject. Who, indeed.

“Nakai, father. Godpa’s daughter. Who lives with Principal Hakamichi and Madam Kobayashi.”

“Ah! Tell me about her. I don’t think I’ve seen her for years.” Actually, I have, come to think of it. She’s damn tall for her age. It always makes me wonder how tall Emi Ibarazaki would’ve been if she’d kept her legs, but you can’t talk about that to other people, that’s what I’ve learnt.

“She’s a very graceful girl, although she’s so young.”

“Really? Are you friends?” I’m being my usual thoughtless self.

My son blushes. It’s a shock to me. His comfortable tenor voice sounds a bit squeaky. “Oh, no, not really. I just bump into her once in a while when I’m running. She runs too. All over the place. She likes to talk.”

He’s so awkward. Poor social skills, I would say, except that I’m thinking of Yuuko and me, so I can’t blame him. But having a friendship with Akiko Nakai, that’s a lot safer than having one with Kaori Shirakawa.

That’s when I make the mistake. “Why don’t you invite the Nakais over? You can even invite Principal Hakamichi and Madam Kobayashi over, they are old family friends.”

He twitches a bit. “Father, isn’t that a bit confusing? Hakamichi-san is Mother’s boss, right?”

I laugh. I put a hand up just to let him know I’m not laughing at him. “It’s okay. You can tell your principal that we will have a cheesecake of her choice.”

“Cheesecake?” he asks, puzzled. I just nod. This is a moment I will remember. I’m happy. And then he says a curious thing. “Mother says you’re supposed to call Nagasaki. She didn’t say why.”

*****

Plutonium fuel cell. B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. ZAP-70. Nanobiologicals. The words are so complicated. So ugly. I have always thought Miki Miura to be a beautiful person, maybe the prettiest girl I never married. Her voice is like the kind of honey that has crystals in it, it’s slow and sweet. That’s just stupid Kenji though, thinking stray treacherous thoughts because he doesn’t want to face the real world.

Yuuko’s sitting with me, holding my hand. We’re talking to Miki on the big display. Actually, Miki talks to us, and I think stupid thoughts, and Yuuko holds my hand until finally my wife asks the question I don’t dare to ask: “Um, can it be cured?”

Miki’s wearing purple. Why is she wearing purple? She looks better in yellow. Her mouth opens, closes again. It opens. She has nice teeth. “Ha, these days anything can be cured if you live long enough. I guess I just wanted to talk to you both. Just in case.”

“Have you told Rin?” Yuuko says, frowning a bit. Of course she has, I am going to say. They live together!

“No.”

I take a close look at the screen. My ears are deceiving me. Yuuko is silent, and Miki looks… afraid? Sad? I’m not good at this. “Wife?” I whisper, “What did she say?”

“I said,” says my beautiful friend with the stunning eyebrows, her voice rising, “that I haven’t told her yet. Not properly. I fucking tried! But she can’t understand death. She says it’s as if some colours are missing, and she can’t tell what they are. Then she talks about damn butterflies, and some painting she once did twenty years ago!”

I find my voice. “Death?”

“Well, there’s a chance I won’t live ten years. And then who takes care of Rin?”

She lets her voice trail away, husky and slightly burnt, and then I remember that many years ago, when I was young and angry, I ran away to Nagasaki. There, it was Miki Miura who looked after me and made me not kill myself. That was in September 2010. I never forgot those days.

“We will,” I say to my friend. Next to me, Yuuko nods violently and echoes me, almost as if she is afraid that Miki won’t believe her. “Who else knows?”

“Nobody. Rin hasn’t got anybody. Her parents have gone.”

Slowly, my blood is coming back to my head. I’m Director Setou. My duty is to protect the ones who don’t have someone to look after them. What was it Miki once said? She respected the Hakamichis because they looked after the orphans, something like that.

“Tell Natsume,” I say firmly. “You need friends, in case we fail you. We’re human too. It’s not wise to trust a rope with only one strand.”

She stares at us, looks first at Yuuko, then at me. “Buddha’s balls, Kenji. When did you become a wise man?” She sighs, gazes away for a while, turns back. “Thank you. Both of you.”

*****

2036

“Tanaka-san is here to see you, boss. I’m heading out to interview Hayashi-san later today. Please do not forget to eat your lunch.”

Hasegawa glares sternly at me. She is married now, and I never found out how it happened. She even has a young son. The young grow up so fast.

“Be careful, Hasegawa. Hayashi is a dangerous man, and he’s smart.”

“Don’t worry, director-san. I also am very smart, and very dangerous.”

As she disappears, I wonder if someday she will just not come back. It chills me. I am putting people in dangerous situations. They are better than I am, but nobody lives forever. My friends have a low life-expectancy compared to the average. What if someone triggers Chiaki Hasegawa’s unique sensory problem? She would be paralysed, unable to defend herself. I am chilled because I don’t know if I am being paranoid or careful, whether I care too much or just worry too much.

About two days later, she is back, as if she never left. I walk into Tokyo Basement 2, to my oldest office, and there she is in the small room to the right of mine. She shouldn’t even know I’m here.

“Hello, boss,” she says, standing up and giving me a bow that acknowledges I am her boss, but also in some ways a friend. Two cups of aromatic coffee are already on her desk, and a blue file with its orange copy is squared away, top edge parallel to the edge of her desk nearest me, side edge parallel to the side of her desk. “I thought you’d be here.”

Damn, I say to myself, even I didn’t know I’d be here this morning. I just smile at her, returning her bow. “How’s your family?”

“All fine. Yours is fine too.”

“Mine?”

“I had tea with Koji yesterday. He’s a really nice young man now.”

“What ever for?”

“He needed advice from Aunty Chiaki, of course. And he’s terrified of Madam Principal Hakamichi.”

“Ah. How come he didn’t tell me?”

“He’s terrified of you too.”

“Really?” I say, not believing any of it.

“No. He thinks you’re too busy to have to be disturbed about such matters.”

That is a little sad. To cover up, I shift my gaze to the file on her table and try to read it, but it’s double-key encrypted, so it’ll have to wait. “That the report on Hayashi?”

“Yes. Also, an appendix on his wife, Tainaka. She’s very interesting, runs a drone intelligence and transport business, totally legit.”

I reach out and receive the blue file from her with both hands. “Thanks. Any problems?”

“There’s nothing here that needs to be a problem and which cannot be taken care of, boss.”

“Any idea why he has so much tech access?”

“It started about ten years ago. He and Tainaka volunteered for nanobiological experiments. He suffers from brittle bones, she has calcified ligaments; they both have a few other things that make life not so good. Nagoya University sponsored the programme.”

“Hakamichi involvement?”

“No. They have contacts with Hamamatsu.”

“What?” An uneasy prickling is in the back of my neck.

“Your uncle’s company. They made his bones less brittle, quite strong and flexible, in fact. She had her hands partially reconstructed, then her upper limbs augmented all the way up to her shoulders and upper chest. She likes playing drums and keyboards. Real ones, not virtual.”

“Children?”

“Two: both boys. Elder one is fourteen this year, younger is ten.”

“What’s he do for a living?”

“He’s actually a lawyer, boss. He spent a lot of time taking courses in biotech, but he’s got money from patent and commercial litigation.”

“Hmm. Thanks again.”

She nods and gives me the little professional smile that says she’s proud of having done good work, and that I’m fortunate to have a deputy like that. I am. I give her my sad smile that says I know all that, and I’m grateful she tolerates me.

In my office, I place the file on the interface pad that now decorates the scarred old wood surface. The blue file is a tiny thing, just like the old namecards we used to carry. It orients itself in place and uploads all its secrets to my blind sentry. In seconds, the information has been sanitized and is being recrypted to my augments. I sit back and watch the movie.

Then I realize I have to call Natsume Ooe.

*****

Many years ago, before I was married, I first fell in love. It was a difficult time. There was a very kind girl who let me live at her house, and her parents were nice to me, and I took my meds and I got better and my damage was almost gone. That was when I used to live in Kyoto, and if you care at all for the old days, you know that this girl was the one called Naomi Inoue.

We had a friend in common, Naomi’s best friend, whose name was Natsume. Yes, that Natsume, now a media boss, the one whose eyes don’t match. And she loved Naomi so much that she won, and I lost, and yet somehow because Kenji had become a different kind of fool, we remained friends.

The three of us, we’re sitting around a table in Osaka. I’ve never liked Osaka. It’s a place that wants to be better than Kyoto, where I once left my heart. It’s a place that wants to be richer than Tokyo, where I first started work.

Naomi is still pretty. Do you have a girlfriend? Did you ever look at the girl you used to love and suddenly realize that she’s not the same any more? I gave Naomi part of my heart, and over the years not much of it remains. But it’s enough to make me feel rueful.

I’m surprised when she talks first. Normally it’d be Nat, because Natsume is aggressive and she’s the journalist.

“Kenji, have you been in touch with your uncle a lot these last few years?”

Her voice is still sweet, just as she is still pretty. It’s like a pizza you used to like, but you’ve learnt to eat something else. Her voice is gentle and light, like a breeze through cherry blossoms twenty years past.

“No,” I say, realizing that what the Black Dragon does is something Chiaki Hasegawa might know, but which I no longer do. “Not recently.”

Naomi looks at Nat. Nat looks back at her. I have a bad feeling. It’s a feeling that gets worse when their unspoken words seem to be all about me.

“Hmm. May I tell you a story, one old friend to another?” she asks. Natsume’s different-coloured eyes seem to glitter in the dim light. I notice one of her eyes matches my whisky.

“Go ahead. You feminists always have some story to tell,” I reply. She knows I’m joking. At least, I hope she knows.

“It’s a long story, Kenji,” says Naomi seriously. “But I’ll shorten it a little. Did you know your uncle was a close friend, a fan actually, of a Sendai-born artist named Araki?”

“What?” That seems completely irrelevant to me. Naomi nods, and a glance again passes between the two of them.

Nat flash-slides a picture from her tabphone to mine. I look at it. It’s a strange picture, like Rin Tezuka drawing robots. I squint at it. It appears to be the cover to a journal called Cell, volume 130 number 5, from thirty years ago.

“So what? My uncle knows a strange artist.”

Natsume continues the thread of the story, in her usual deliberate way. “Your uncle had beer with Araki-san often. Araki-san told him a lot about Yamaku. Three years later, the Black Dragon began a research programme about cell dysfunction—the findings would ‘aid in the development of therapies for those with visual and hearing maladies caused by cilia dysfunction’ he said.”

I’m listening so hard that when she pauses to see if I’ll say anything, her sudden silence shocks me for a second. “What?” I ask again, but this time it’s in surprise.

“We were curious. His research was supported by the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine. One of their funding partners was the Katayama Family. We made further inquiries. The Black Dragon invited us for dinner. He remembered me, and he told us about two areas of his research—retinitis pigmentosa and synaptic restructuring. He said he was looking into ways of making life better for people like us. He knew a lot about us.”

I think back. It was in 2012 that I’d brought Nat to dinner with my uncle, and earlier than that when Naomi and I spent time at his home. What the hell? I call up details on my tabphone. There’s an interview. A long string of journal articles follows, something to do with tubulin glutamylation and cilia and all kinds of biochemistry I don’t know much—okay, anything—about. Damn!

“He knew a lot of things we didn’t know he knew,” I say slowly. I look again at one of the papers and realize that one of my predecessors had provided some funding too.

Naomi says softly, “He said he wanted a Japan where nobody ever needed a school like Yamaku ever again.”

“That’s a good thing, right?” My voice sounds harsh in the quiet shadows of the room.

“I have the sense that he thinks we Japanese should live forever, except for those whose unfortunate circumstances can’t be treated by his knowledge,” says Natsume. Her voice is level, but so dry and sharp that it cuts mine off. It is not so deep, but it has some kind of purpose in it. That gives it power.

“What? That doesn’t sound right.” I think I’ve said this one time too many. Nat is starting to look at me as if I’m an idiot. I close my mouth. Then I open it again. “Okay. I’ll take a look.”

“He says I won’t have to take my meds ever again if his experimental regime works on me,” says Naomi, as if she’s discussing the latest book she’s read.

It’s only 2036, and I still don’t know how much danger lies ahead. I just nod, thinking about past dreams we once had. We wanted to be complete people, whole people without defects, not cripples. The terrible word ‘katawa’—my translators and editors don’t like it, but a long-ago visual novel used it. It described people like us.

I shake my head. The past is always there. Always. I wonder if the Black Dragon has a cure for my friend in Nagasaki. I feel as if I have fallen into a bizarre adventure.

*****

2037

The Dragon is old now. His fire’s not so sinister, his charm is less potent. Maybe the other way round. He has seen me in love, also despair. He is my uncle, my friend for a very long time. He took me in when my father had thrown me out.

“Kenji!” he exclaims warmly, even though he’s known for a long time about my appointment with him. “How is my favourite nephew?”

Once upon a time there were two brothers. One decided to join the military which wasn’t really a military. The other decided to study a science that wasn’t yet a science. It’s more than fifty years later. The military is still not a military, although my father retired as a general. The science? It’s definitely science, and maybe also it’s a military thing. My world is like that.

“Respected uncle,” I say, “What the hell is your plan?”

I’ve spent six months catching up on all the things he’s been doing in the last 30 years. It probably isn’t enough. He plans very deeply. He would be an excellent Shogi player if he tried, and I know he is at least a fifth-dan amateur Go player.

“Ha, nephew, come on. I am not a super-villain from one of the old-time anime series, you know.”

My mind goes back 26 years. It had been in August. 2011 was a year I was still in love with Naomi Inoue, who wore a yukata in sea green and midnight blue. When we were having dinner with this man, he had said exactly the same thing. Right in this place, his house full of secrets.

I look my elderly uncle in the eye. “You’re telling me something about Naomi, uncle.”

“We’ve started her gene therapy. We don’t know what will happen. She might live forever. We’re working with mechanisms that will outlast the human body. You need to protect her, though. Remember Ikegami?”

“Your assistant?”

“Yes. Professor Ikegami was killed a month after your friend Nakai passed away, if you recall. Do you know who did it?”

“Bioterrorists from a cult. We got them all.”

“It was not a cult, Kenji. Don’t be a fool.” His voice is firm and curt, and he leaves me no space to move. “It was a Family assassination.”

“Which Family?” I ask, knowing that if he knows that much, I’m just being stupid. But I have to ask. He’s not supposed to know.

He names a Family. Then he looks at me. “Tanaka-san and I got together a few years ago. We had things to discuss. It was just before Jigoro Hakamichi died. We’re all old men. We’re moving on. Time takes its toll. The cherry blossoms fall, and you can’t stop them. You need to be the next generation.”

The Black Dragon stares at me. Almost, I see reptilian eyes of gold and charcoal. I feel uneasy. Why is he looking at me like that? I look back, silent.

“Kenji? Nephew. You loved that girl more than the one you brought the next year, or after that. At one time, you loved her more than the girl you married, more than any other girl. I know. I saw it. Use the power of the state to keep her safe.”

All I can think of is Naomi, her hair dyed ash-blonde, one night in the summer of our youth. Naomi Inoue, fair and beautiful in green silk and blue darkness, living forever. Isn’t that a dream that young Kenji would have loved?

“No,” I say, feeling something tear permanently in my chest. “I can’t guarantee it. It’s not my power to use in that way.”

He sighs, suddenly looking like nothing more than an old grey man, once strong and young, but now tired and wanting only to sleep. “I understand. My home, it’s still yours. We will have breakfast in the morning and not talk of this further.”

I nod. I don’t have air in me to say anything. I am no longer a young man myself. By the year’s end, I will have put all of that far behind me. There’s no innocence left in Kenji, only the aftertaste and memory of pain.

*****

2038

Yuuko has gone shopping with Masako. Koji and I, we’re sitting on a roof, being manly. A bottle of the good stuff, a bag of pretzel sticks. It’s like old days. Koji is thin, and has careless brown hair. In bad lighting, he reminds me a bit of my departed friend Hisao Nakai.

He is twenty-one years old now. Somehow, time has run away from us, mocking and laughing. But I am proud of my son. Proud, and protective. I look at him and I say to myself, “Damn, Kenji, you have a son.” It makes me feel strange.

“Son,” I say, “What are you working on these days?”

“I’m writing a history of Date Masamune, the Lord of Aoba.” The way he says it, the look in his eyes, he is as proud of his work as I am proud of him. It makes me smile. I am turning into a silly old man.

“How are your studies going, I mean.”

“They’re good. Todai is boring and you can drink beer all night and not study.”

I look at him aghast. He’s a traditionalist, he’s studying history and poetry, he should at least be drinking sake. I take a closer look at this fine young man. Then I realize he’s partly joking, he’s doing this to cover up something on his mind.

“What’s on your mind, son?”

“They keep an archive of his things at Sendai. He’s a big hero there.”

“Yeah, he’s always been one of my heroes too, from when I was studying at Yamaku.”

He sighs, which is a funny response. The tiny old Kenji at the back of my mind screeches at me that this is the kind of response men make when the feminists have got to them. I banish that old Kenji and try to listen for clues.

He looks down at his whisky, takes a very small sip, as if he’s scared to taste it. Then he looks sideways at me.

“Father, you don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind? What? Are you a mind-reader?” I don’t know why I’m saying those things. When I’m surprised, I occasionally talk rubbish.

“Ah? What?” He sounds confused, but being my son, he’s learnt to keep calm and carry on. “No, I mean, you don’t mind me going back to Sendai so often when I’m supposed to be studying in Tokyo, right?”

“Well, as long as you visit the family home in damn Saitama, go to church when you can, and be good to your mother, I don’t mind.”

He sighs again. Then he takes a determined swig of his whisky. I can see him letting the taste boil all around his tongue and over the back of his mouth. It’s a manly swig.

“I see Miss Nakai sometimes when I drop by the Museum.”

It’s a good museum. Sendai City Museum’s Exhibition Room 1 contains the full armour of the Lord of Aoba. I remember visiting it with Yuuko once, and by myself many more times. But strange that Hisao’s daughter would be there. I wiggle one eyebrow at Koji, too lazy to inquire more deeply.

“Uh, that is to say, I visit Yamaku to see Mother. If Mother is still at work, I go down to the track and watch Akiko train. Often, we chat after her training. Then Mother joins us and we have tea. Sometimes we go to the Museum together after that, or even have tea at the Museum. They have the 32-volume City Chronicles there, which is useful for my work.”

“…” is all I can manage. So I sip my own whisky for a while, while I think. Then I realize that I haven’t seen Akiko myself for a long time. We had been thinking of inviting Shizune and Misha and the two Nakai children over for a meal, but never got round to doing it.

So I take a second sip, then I look at him. He’s waiting for my answer. He looks anxious. If I had been my father, I’d have kicked him out of the house by now, except that we’re on a roof and that would probably be fatal. But I’m not my father, and Koji shouldn’t look so anxious. I take a deep breath. “So, what does Akiko look like these days?”

He relaxes, and he begins to tell me. And if I had known how much trouble it would cause in the years ahead, I don’t know what I would have done. Damn it though, it would all have been worth it if my son could have been happy. Damn.

*****

Editor's Note: Some of you might be wondering about the history of Akiko Nakai and the many things that her several families appear to have covered up. There was no cover-up; Ms Nakai, while not a recluse, was merely a rather private person. Years later, she gave consent to me to publish a few pieces of interest, concerning her life and times. Some of them are surprisingly personal. They can be found [here].

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Last edited by brythain on Thu Nov 12, 2015 4:09 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5-4 up 20151112)

Post by brythain » Thu Nov 12, 2015 4:08 am

This is the fourth section of what remains of the long-lost ‘Book Five’ of the records of Kenji Setou, who was once crazy and then learnt to his everlasting grief what it meant to be sane. He was my friend, even when we hated each other for a time.

—N; Osaka, Japan; 2084

The feminists always tell it their way, I used to say. I’m older now. I just let them tell it for me, because sometimes they are right. And also, because sometimes it’s too painful for me, the last sane man in a crazy world.

—K; Kyoto, Japan; 2084



Kenji 5: The Taste of Dust and Ashes
(2039-2040)


Introduction

I used to worry about the future of my country. By 2023, we were broke. I wasn’t in Finance, so I didn’t understand. But when I joined the Committee, I realized what we were trying to do. We couldn’t fight, not with the big messy neighbours. They had their own problems, we were in the way. It was not good.

The funny thing was once we got honest, there were fewer problems for everyone. It was the same with our former colonies. In the end we let Okinawa go, but they came back, a freely cooperating state. We tried to be humble, and listened to our smaller friends. We learnt to balance the powers in the Indian Ocean with those nearby. All this saved us a lot of money.

Then the Committee went after old cabals. We broke up the hidden monopolies and ways of making useless people rich. Jigoro Hakamichi’s database helped us. The Master Juggler, the newsfeeds called him. His children kept silence, they made enemies anyway. They knew too much, about too many people. But they were my friends, so I looked after them.

By 2039, it was clear we wouldn’t be broke. We had our own proper defence forces, and our technology was on its way back. We used alternative energy. We were doing well. But we forgot that when you walk forward too quickly, you sometimes step into darkness. Some people were unhappy with what they had; the worst enemies of the wealthy are their own families.

You watch over the cherry blossoms, you are happy when they bloom. You watch them fall, you think about the next year. That is the long term. But some of the flowers are your own, and when they die, it is very hard to take.

*****

2039

It’s not dark in Tokyo. It’s never dark because it’s full of fake light. I remember my friend Miki, who had to be a working girl in this city for months before she found a way out. She should have had a happier life after that, and for a while, she did. But there’s darkness in the heart of Japan, and the heart of Japan is Tokyo. Yet Japan has two hearts, which is why I like that old British science-fiction show so much. Its other heart lies in Kyoto, and I know all this because I’ve lived in both places before.

Tonight, I catch sight of my tired face. There’s white in my dark hair, and somehow, the glow of old blue fluorescent lamps brings it out. My sharp face is now lumpy and shapeless. I move on past the old shop windows, heading for a part of the city that has the newer energy-saving light. Trains and train stations, these are the veins and arteries of Japanese life. Those, and roads—the long expressways and the narrow old routes.

I don’t doze off the way I used to. I put myself into deep data. When I surface, I’m almost home. As I walk down the street, I feel the strange disconnect that my sensors feel when one agent hands me off to another. I don’t have my own life anymore. I have only the life of the state, and my family’s life.

It’s the weekend, and Saitama welcomes me home. I used to think of it as damned, bloody Saitama, where my soul died. Now, my doddering father brings affection out of me. I’m not Kenji who used to curse his ancestors. I’m a different Kenji now, because I’m one of that long line, which leads to my children.

“General’s home,” says Yuuko. She hasn’t managed to remove a few fine traces of the make-up she wears to work. From within the house, I hear the cackle of the other general, my father. If I listened harder, I’d hear his wife shush him, because she’s a decent person. I used to think she was a slut.

I’ve changed a lot. I’ve become my father, but I want to think I am a better man. It is terrible to believe that you are doomed to be a bad person. The Norse god Loki was like that; I had a friend who once told me I was a good fit for the old trickster. In the end, he suffered a terrible fate.

I nod at Yuuko and bring out the smile I have kept preserved in the refrigerator of my heart, like a last precious piece of broiled-eel pizza. She deserves it, she’s been my strength in bad times, and worse. My son Koji no longer runs up to me and pounces on my leg as he enjoyed doing many years ago. He is twenty-two years old now, and I always wonder if I’ve lost him.

“Dad,” he greets me, waiting for me to change footwear. My daughter Masako is away. She has a special friend, perhaps. May that one be fortunate.

I take my boots off and put on my slippers. “Son,” I reply. Then I give him more words, because I don’t want to seem rude. “How’s Akiko?”

“We’re only friends, father!” he says, blushing a little and trying to sound scandalized. I know what scandalized sounds like, and that’s not it. He’s in love. Poor fool. And is that all he can say? He’s been saying it for months.

Economy up, everything up, his generation will be wealthy. But they’ll be slaves if certain people get their way. I don’t want my children to be slaves. I scowl at him. “Really, boy?” I’m like my father. Damn.

He gives me more words too, reluctant. “I haven’t visited her for a while. I don’t think she has anyone her own age to talk to, though. So I talk to her online.”

I grin at him. People say my grin is frightening. Maybe it’s because I don’t know why the hell I’m smiling, sometimes. “It’s all right, son. She’s an athlete. They make funny grunting noises and win medals. Talking, not so much.”

He gives me a very disappointed look and then realizes I was joking, just a bit. A grin ripples across his face and then vanishes. “Your father’s wife wishes to speak to you, General-san.”

Ouch. I don’t know where he got his sense of humour from. He doesn’t joke. He just is a little humorous at times. Yuuko has already gone back into the house, so I take a few moments to prepare myself for what Aunt Midori, my father’s second wife, has to say. It’s probably not good news; my father’s brain scan showed a few holes.

*****

Some time later, my father the General tells me, “No. I don’t want my brother’s magic potion. It’s not natural. Maybe it will rebuild my brain. Maybe I won’t be me. Maybe I won’t be me and I’ll be a monster.”

He coughs, looking terrible. Before I can say anything, he mutters, “Besides, Midori will look after me. She’s a good girl. Not as good as her sister, but good anyway. She keeps me alive.”

I feel like punching him for being an ungrateful bastard. Then I realize I felt the same way once. Nothing Aunt Midori could do would make her anywhere as good as my mother. But things changed. My mother’s younger sister was not an evil stepmother, and then she became Yuuko’s friend, and then mine.

“It’s okay, Dad. I won’t let the Black Dragon get you.”

He laughs harshly. “Boy, that damn brother of mine, he forgets I was a bigger dragon and a better one than he ever was. If a silver general gets promoted, he can’t retreat so easily. But they used to call me the bishop because I was religious before your mother died, and the bishop can go very far…”

His voice crumbles into muttering as he forgets what he’s talking about. Something in his words, however, is important. Could it be that ‘Black Dragon’ refers to a game of Japanese chess? Is there a code in my uncle’s messages to me that I must understand?

*****

A few months later, there’s trouble. Good day at the office, then Hasegawa’s flag blips in the corner of my sight.

“Wassup?” I ask, thinking of the Arctic Resource Agreement more than other things.

“Boss, holding channel 23 for Ooe-san at the Asahi Shimbun.”

“Why?” What I mean is, why is a deputy director acting like an aide? Surely she has better things to do.

“She’s requesting closed comms, codeword ‘Red Castle’.”

“Okay. Thanks, Chiaki.”

“No problem, boss,” she says primly, blanking her flag.

Chiaki Hasegawa is no longer my own deputy. When I got bumped up one place, Sonoda inherited her. But she’s become like family, and it’s natural for her to go straight to me. Although it must infuriate Sonoda, I can’t tell her not to do it.

Damn. If only Red Castle were Sonoda’s problem. Red Castle is Kyoto, and if Natsume is calling me closed-comm, it’s not a good sign.

A top-level ASN flag pops into view. Sighing, I blink it in. “Good morning, old friend! What can this rude person do to you? I mean, do for you?”

“Kenji, Naomi’s gone missing. I think she’s taken illegal nano.” Natsume’s voice sounds brittle.

“What??” I hear my voice, loud and crazy, as if it’s somebody else yelling. “Where did she get it from?”

“Boss, holding channel 37 for Professor Setou out of Hamamatsu. Requesting closed comms, codeword ‘Knight Promotion’.”

“Damn! Thanks, Chiaki.”

“You want me to hold him, boss?”

“Interlace the channels.”

“Stability cannot be guaranteed, boss…”

She has to say it. It’s protocol. Nobody knows how much augmentation a human brain can take. Nobody knows how much my brain is taking. I’ve been rewired so many times that it looks like a termite mound up there.

“Interlace.”

“Okay, boss. Three, two, one, lock.” She can’t keep the concern out of her voice, even as she forces a second encrypted stream into my head.

“She got it from your uncle,” says Natsume. She sounds frantic, but she takes a deep breath and pauses. “He said he could treat the underlying causes of the epilepsy by targeting the neuron cascade mechanism.”

Nat’s never so technical unless she’s practiced the words, old newscaster trick. Shit. That’s what they’ve been discussing, that’s what I wasn’t supposed to know. The other stream comes live, with the squiggly green-and-orange Hamamatsu logo appearing first. The high-level icon shows a black dragon with yellow eyes carrying one of those medical snake-staffs in one claw.

“Good morning, Kenji. We’ve got unusual findings in a volunteer test situation. Your friend Naomi is displaying heightened brain function after epilepsy treatment with nanobiologicals.”

“Uncle, did you sequester her? She’s off-grid.” There’s no point being nice.

“She’s with us. We had to temporarily remove all her links to carry out the treatment, to avoid unnecessary interaction until she went stable.”

“Wasn’t Natsume Ooe informed?” I ask him. I patch back to Natsume, desperately juggling the two conversations. “She’s still at Hamamatsu, I think. Let me check. It was voluntary.”

“Of course!” There’s surprise in the Dragon’s voice. “At least, Natsume’s brother’s signature is on the release documentation as next-of-kin. After all, he’s Naomi’s husband.”

My lips twist. I will kill Matsuo myself if he’s not told Natsume. Come to think of it, damn him, he definitely hasn’t. What were they thinking? What can I do?

“Voluntary? She told me nothing, as usual!” I’m concerned. Natsume sounds angry and bitter now. What’s going on? My uncle cuts back in.

“Nephew, what I wanted to tell you is that Naomi’s thinking patterns are radically changed. She’s scoring higher on standardized function tests, but she’s also faster. Some personality disruption has resulted.”

“Is she still Naomi?” I ask. I listen to myself, and I realize that I’m sounding angry and bitter too.

When my two separate conversations have ended, that is the question that stays in my head. It echoes like an empty room that has lost the little touches which made it dear to someone.

*****

It’s not even a few months when the news escapes. Of course, it’s not ASN that’s doing it. It’s their rival networks, and again we’re slow to deal with it. I’m not even in the country when it happens.

“Boss, feed from Tokyo. Bad.”

My instinct when I hear that is to wonder if a tsunami has hit and if everyone is all right. Then Chiaki patches me in and I see Natsume’s face in a report.

[What has ASN’s Chief been Hiding from the World?]
[Secret Brain-Boosting Experiments out of Hamamatsu]
[The Age of Ultraman?]


The list goes on and on. The sharks have scented blood in the water. Already, blind hatemail is all over the cybersphere.

“Chiaki, put a full watch on Miss Ooe? My authority, please.”

“Done like yesterday, boss. She’ll be okay.”

Who else has been experimenting? It’s not that nobody is doing these things. It’s that my uncle has been doing it for so long that everyone has tried something. Those ‘secret brain-boosting experiments’ aren’t so secret, damn. So many people have minor augments now. What’s the fuss?

The fuss, of course, is that you can explant or implant augments, but nano is sometimes with you for life. Good nano has very low success rate, because humans are complex. More likely to kill you if you’re crazy enough to try it. It has worked with limited-life nano for very specific purposes, like cancer cures for a small range.

I can’t talk to my uncle any more. He is too invested in success now. I need to talk to Rika Katayama, I think. And that conversation is not likely to be something the public should know about.

*****

2040

It’s approaching Golden Week, five months into a zero-ending year. I’ve seen many of them, and some have been good. This one feels comfortable. It’s better you don’t know what happens, so I write this part pretending I don’t know.

“Hey, Dad,” says Koji, gently tapping on the little mark on my study’s entrance. When he was younger, he had to reach up to touch that mark, a small knot in the wood. Now, he reaches down, but he still does it because it’s his ritual.

“Hey, Koji. What’s up?” I look up from my ‘light’ array, the screens that I use when I’m away from the ‘heavy’ invisible network of my office.

“Are we finally having Dr Hakamichi over for dinner?”

“Err, no, why? It wouldn’t be safe for her. People already think she’s conspiring to turn Yamaku graduates into metahumans with superpowers. ‘The Inhuman Plague’, they’re calling it. Hellfire and piss on all of them.”

He looks appalled, although by now he knows his father has a dirty mouth when angry. Then he smiles, to show that his expression is a joke. He has a cute smile. Some girl will be really happy one day.

“It’s her birthday on Sunday. Week from now.”

“How would you know that?”

“A little bird told me.” He continues, after I fire my glare-cannon at him, “A little bird with long legs and fiery plumage.”

“Boy, are you still seeing Akiko Ibarazaki Nakai Hakamichi whatever? Is it serious?” I ask mildly. This has gone on long enough. I wish I could just tell him to make it so, but he’s the kind who can’t be rushed, the fool.

“It’s ‘Ibarazaki Nakai’ this week. I think the bird has identity problems, but it doesn’t matter because all of those identities are good ones.”

Yeah, Koji’s girlfriend is the daughter of athletes named Ibarazaki, and has the same name as the Nakai Foundation, and is a direct adoption of House Hakamichi. It’s like that series Hideaki’s wife likes so much, the one about eugenics on a desert planet. I like it too, but we had a discussion about it once and we could not come to an agreement. To translate: she was pissed off.

Akiko herself is not very pretty to me in the sense that Naomi has always been pretty. She is not lovely like Yuuko, who after bearing two children has got some sort of mature roundness. Akiko is beautiful like a Miura jetcraft, strong lines and good movement, sleek with a powerful engine. She likes my headstrong, domineering daughter and the two go shopping a lot. Koji tags along to carry their stuff.

“So aren’t you going to confess to her? In the past, we men did it aged 17 or 18, sometimes younger. You have to let the energy out or it kills you. The feminist scum will just drag it out until you’re tired and useless.”

He knows I’m joking, I think. His eyes twinkle a bit. “Yes, my father. I’m doing that on Dr Hakamichi’s birthday. Akiko’s been treating me too much like just another brother, so it’s time to make things more serious.”

Uh-oh. I don’t like that ‘treat like a bro’ business. Women have no business treating bros like bros, because they aren’t bros. Then I listen to myself thinking and I’m shocked myself. I haven’t thought like that for years. It must be all the young-man hormones in the air.

Meanwhile, I order a plum and cherry-blossom cheesecake for Shizune. Probably her friend Misha will eat at least half of it, damn woman doesn’t get fat, despite eating all that cake and ice-cream. It’s now a tradition, this cake-ordering thing, and I’m glad my son has remembered that birthday for me. I’m getting old.

*****

“Boss. Incoming, red signal, waiting for black, confirm.”

Damn! I feel my blood pressure rising as I sit up in bed. Where am I? Oh, that’s right. Saitama, tonight. This morning. It’s July, it’s warm. Yuuko stirs sleepily besides me, the mound of her hip tempting to my early-morning heat.

“Confirm, details please,” I send, my mind still trying to filter bits of sleep and other rubbish. What the hell has happened?

“Summary, boss. They blew up your uncle’s lab last night. Disassembly bomb. They’ve found no trace of him.”

“Sonoda?”

“He’s on it. He told me to let you know.”

I can imagine the ‘all assets attention’ messages that must have already gone out into the field. How could this happen? I am numbed. Like a robot, I place a cold hand on the sleepy hillside next to me. “Sorry, wife, work,” I mutter.

“Go safely, return safely,” she mumbles, her face half buried in a soft pillow. I kiss her, and the edge of her mouth smiles as she presses her cheek against my lips.

[Iron Ship to Time Traveler. Request crypt.]

It’s an unfamiliar communication protocol. What now? I engage the interagency net, trying to remember who ‘Iron Ship’ is and receiving a one-time code that encrypts our next three minutes.

[Nobu to Kenji. Hail, Warlord.]

[Damn. You’d better be joking.]

[Negative. The game’s begun. Independent third-parties are going down. Board-clearing exercise. Heard from your uncle yet?]

[No.]

[Sunrise got away with some of his nano keys. Not sure code or physical.]

My blood turns cold. I’m already locked onto my dangerous briefcase and I’ve left the house. It’s just after dawn.

[Uniques? Templates? What?]

[Mixture. The dbase was wrecked before they got very far in, but they went random and extracted some useful things. Your friend at ASN looks like one target.]

I don’t waste any more time. I fire a comms burst. “Chiaki, close-monitor, Nat’s watch. Active search interdict.”

“On it, boss. I’m hurt that you actually thought I wouldn’t do it myself.”

“Thanks, Madam Deputy Director Hasegawa.” I detect the outline of a chuckle in my head before she blinks out again.

[Thanks.]

[Tomb Raider wants to meet. Use the spare calendar.]

[48 hours.]

[Set.]

My old friends are back in the game, like parachuted pieces. We knew this would happen. How long before it’s public? They won’t believe in foreign terrorists forever.

*****

September comes. Then October. These two months followed after August. I am a genius, General Setou of the Committee. We are all geniuses. We still haven’t found any traces of the Black Dragon.

If this were a thriller, he’d be hiding out somewhere, ready to come back as the next Prime Minister of Japan. But this isn’t like that. I think they raided through netspace, failed, and destroyed the physical location. I think the Black Dragon’s not coming back. My father doesn’t know anything. He just looks out of the window while my aunt takes care of the things he can’t do for himself. It’s all falling apart.

Masako’s over in Chile as part of a trade delegation. That means Koji is now Akiko’s shopping partner. Ha, whatever happened to his confession? I get my mind out of work and go looking for him. I’m downtown in Tokyo, triangulating on his signal, which is playing tricks with my augments, when I get the message.

“Boss, blue flag.”

“What the hell is a blue flag?”

“It means cool Aunty Chiaki with the night-black hair is with Koji right now, about 400 metres to your south, consoling him. Also, there’s a personal news update which he’s been intending to give you for a few days.”

“Consoling? News update?”

“Come over. I’ll clear the signal space.”

Damn feminists, I grin to myself. Well, if Koji needs extra security, it’s Hasegawa who’s the best company for him right now. But what happened with Akiko?

“Dad?” says Koji when I get there. “Apologies for making you go out of your way.” He looks ill at ease.

“Too polite, son. You should perhaps apologise to your ‘Aunty Chiaki’ for taking her away from national security just to help you with your girlfriend problems.”

“He’s done that already, boss. And now I have to be going back to the fortress.” Her dark, restless eyes fix on mine for a while. “I have some plans to rewrite.”

We make our farewells and watch her disappear into the bustle of lunchtime Tokyo, her unusual stride taking her around all kinds of obstacles as if they’re part of some game she’s playing. Maybe it’s a pattern only she can see. Perhaps it’s the pattern that gives a sniper the smallest chance to hit her.

I make a face, as if the coffee is bad. Koji notices. “Dad, are you all right?”

“No, but never mind. What’s up?”

“We were just talking about Akiko. I don’t think she wants to be in a committed relationship with me. She says she’s too young.”

“Right. And one day, you’ll be too old. She probably saw you with Madam Hasegawa and thought you preferred even older women, anyway.”

“That isn’t very funny.”

“Ah well, your father’s not so good at being funny. Crazy, yes. Amusing, no. So what’s been happening?”

“We’re still friends,” he begins, defensive. “Just, well, not that kind. We had tea the other day. She wanted to know how you and her father became friends, and why Uncle Nakai was asked to be my godfather, that kind of thing.”

“It’s a good story. I’m glad you had the chance to tell her.”

“But she doesn’t love me.”

“At least she let you down softly. She didn’t tell you not to see her again or anything like that?”

“No.”

“See? Good.”

“She brought along something that her other half-mother did.”

“It must be an ice-cream cake. Or a cake ice-cream. Whatever those damn parfait things are.”

“No. This.” He offers me a little memchip with a read window.

“Does her half-mother know you have it? What’s on it? Is it some plan to take over my brain and use my wisdom to recover the girl you lost?”

“I don’t know, but Akiko says it’s about Uncle Nakai. And you’re just being mean in your usual funny way. It’s not the right time for it. I’ve got to go. Goodbye.”

“Wait, sit. At least let’s look at it together.”

Damn. It’s a set of files, some written by Hisao, some edited by other people. They’re about friendship and friends. The most recent one is dated just before his death, and was recorded by Misha. When the last holotext fades from the table surface, I look at Koji in silence.

“Well, son. That’s what love is about, I guess. It takes time, and sometimes you run out of that. But all you can do is keep trying. ” I don’t want to cry in front of him, we’ll just end up crying into our coffees together. Shit, Hisao’s thoughts polished by Hanako Ikezawa’s language skills. It’s enough to make two grown men cry.

*****

I could tell you more about my son. And my daughter. All the problems they had, growing up and falling in love. I could tell you about Miki Miura, who wrote her will in October 2040 and told me she’d leave it to Natsume to edit me out because it would be safer for everyone. I have many stories to tell. But to me, telling you about 2040 is just delaying things because there’s only one story to tell and everything else is the pretty packaging we Japanese put around our food to make a simple thing look gorgeous, to make a dangerous thing look elegant. It’s to make the ending of a story look like just another story.

It ends in December, on December 4th, 2040. Japan is full of deadly things, but so is everywhere else. I know because I’m in another country when it happens, a country I’ve got no business to be in.

“Boss, perimeter breach. Black signal, Osaka.”

“What? Natsume?” I ask Madam Deputy Director Hasegawa, because this isn’t her Chiaki voice. It’s the voice of doom.

“Clear. Will update.”

And so she does.

*****

What’s it like to think faster than anyone else? To realize indeed you’ve got a gift you can’t explain? Chiaki Hasegawa maybe could have seen the movements of the crowd and guessed at it, because patterns are her life. But I can’t imagine anyone else doing anything useful.

I remember sitting with Naomi, the woman I once loved, and who once loved me. We were drinking tea in the little teahouse just a few blocks from Tokyo Basement. She had waited for me at that teahouse once, when I was first interviewed for a job with the government. She had waited until it was late evening, and waited some more, until I finally showed up.

And we were there again. She told me her fears, how the nano had made her a different person. She claimed it was rewriting her thoughts, making her see things and recall things she hadn’t before. I laughed. Perhaps she’d always been seeing things? She smiled, we were still friends, no matter what she had or hadn’t seen in me.

We spoke of other serious things. She worried about Natsume, because Natsume didn’t want to experiment on herself. The Black Dragon had left a vial specially for Nat, and Nat had tried to throw it into a refractive incinerator. Naomi had secured it with the Katayamas, because she hadn’t known whom else to turn to—for all she had known, I would have disposed of it too. No, I told her, I wouldn’t have, and thank God the Katayamas are our allies this time round.

You know what a laser is, Kenji? I remember her talking about that, very clearly. It’s when all the light fires off at the same time and in the same direction and it’s all the same light. It makes the beam powerful. I can do that in some ways now, with my neurons. It’s hard to explain. I can’t do it for more than a second or two.

What do you mean?

Toss a coin at me.

Who carries coins with him these…

She snaps it out of the air with her fingers. She doesn’t even look at it. She runs a finger over its surface. An old coin, Kenji, 500¥ commemorative, Kyoto 2008. She smiles at me. You’re still so sentimental!

I remember every detail of that smile, because it joined 2008 to 2040 for me. I know how Hisao felt about Lilly, because in some ways, I had almost that kind of affection for someone, and its traces remained after 32 years. Three decades, that’s a lot of time.

*****

On the morning of 4th December 2040, Naomi Inoue looked out into a crowded space. I don’t know what she saw. Natsume saw nothing. Perhaps there was a flash. There wouldn’t have been a sound yet.

Nat fell to the ground, where Naomi had shoved her. She was stunned by the fall. Then there was screaming, and a little blood. The round designed to blow out the brains of the ASN’s chief had taken a deflection through her best friend. It went in lower down, under and behind her left ear, and came out higher up, somewhere on the other side of her skull.

I never saw Naomi’s face again.

*****

Editor's Note: As always, the General's redactions make his narrative rather fragmentary. I can only point the reader in other directions that might be of use. For example, the notes that Koji obtained from the Hakamichi household on the matter of Hisao Nakai can be found [here], where at least excerpts 1-6 seem to come from those files. [This] is the piece I penned shortly after the last event described in this section. I have no further comments for now.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Tue Dec 01, 2015 5:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

azumeow
Posts: 409
Joined: Thu Jul 03, 2014 1:04 am

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5-4 up 20151112)

Post by azumeow » Thu Nov 26, 2015 6:08 pm

Beautiful as always. Beautiful as always...
"I don’t want to be here anymore, I know there’s nothing left worth staying for.
Your paradise is something I’ve endured
See I don’t think I can fight this anymore, I’m listening with one foot out the door
And something has to die to be reborn-I don’t want to be here anymore"

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LiveAtTheBarbeque
Posts: 2
Joined: Tue Nov 10, 2015 4:54 pm

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Book 5-4 up 20151112)

Post by LiveAtTheBarbeque » Fri Nov 27, 2015 10:02 pm

Well, shit. Didn't see that last part coming.

Quality work as always. Good job.
Live like a wire, I set a whole choir on fire

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