When I first started planning 'After The Dream', I sketched out a timeline that ended roughly in 2077.
On impulse, I pencilled in the year 2124 as the last year anything would happen in that universe.
We aren't there yet. But here is a story about Akio Hayashi, the guy who sits behind Shizune in 3-3.
I, Akio Hayashi, am always angry these days. But I let it flow through me, like lymph or blood, or poetry, or music. I read. I play the violin, gently, tenderly. I do not wish for death or destruction, or even sex with my chamber partner, the beautiful and forgetful Kagami Takahashi. I am afraid of nothing, except the random and chaotic and accidental.
What I do wish for is a different world. Quietly, I will get there. Perhaps it is the others who should be afraid. I shall bide my time. I will be a good student, though not great. I am relatively slow. I cannot afford to be jumping around or jumping into situations, because I have a single serious difficulty: I am very brittle. And I am only seventeen years old.
I sit at the back of the class, invisible. On my left is Ritsu, stealthy Miss Tainaka whose damaged right hand does not make her any less potent when playing online games or a synthesizer. When we work in pairs in the classroom, she is rapid at laying out a problem while I catch up slowly and fill in the details. In Physics class, she sketches bodies, draws vectors of force; I merely add them up, numbers, descriptors, angles. Answers are simple, relationships direct. My lunchtimes are spent with her as well—I think that our relationship is like a Bach fugue, coming and going, but always regular, always predictable.
Sometimes, we have Taro along, both for group work and for lunch. Mr Arai is a lump, but he has his strong moments. He is more like Tchaikovsky. When he makes noise, it is loud. When he doesn’t, it is confusing. But underneath everything is a great, sad soul. We see much more of him now that we see so much less of pretty Saki Enomoto. Ritsu and I, we wonder if anyone will ever take her place in class, and also whether Taro will snap and start a shrine at the desk in front of him.
The person I am most afraid of sits in front of me. She is Shizune Hakamichi, our new class rep and also our Student Council president. How can someone be given so much power? She is possibly the person I avoid most, next to Emi Ibarazaki. For someone with such a large bust, Madam Hakamichi is silent and sneaky, pouncing when you least expect it with a barrage of loud rulings delivered by her big pink voice, Shiina Mikado (ridiculous person, prefers to be called ‘Misha’). I actually don’t hate Misha. Misha loves Shizune and will do almost anything for her, so it’s not her fault. Loving someone excuses much. In a weird way I love Shizune: when Ibarazaki ran into me and broke my leg, she lectured that careless bitch until green-eyed tears flowed like my pain.
On my right are more girls. Hanako Ikezawa is beautiful on my side, scarred on the side away from me. I think she’s a perfectly fine person, but she doesn’t think so. She is so nervous about other people that the thought of thinking about people is enough to force her into an early toilet break. Personally, I think she does it to get an early place in the lunch queue so that she can grab some food and disappear before the crowd. But let’s be kind; maybe Miss Ikezawa doesn’t realize that’s what she’s really doing.
Beyond Hanako is Naomi Inoue. Miss Inoue thinks every guy is hitting on her. I would do it too, because she’s very sweet when she’s not being incidentally snarky. Except that she would probably break my arm by accident or something like that. A woman with random twitches is not a good fit for a man with brittle bones. To be honest, I think the two guys in front of her have been trying to date her for ages and haven’t had any success. I think I know why too.
It’s all about the terrifying woman in the corner. Sometimes I think I live in a horror movie. In my nightmares, there is Natsume Ooe. Two eyes, one dark, one bright. It’s a classic movie trope. On the days that darkness wins, Ooe is a demon, possibly a vampire, sexy as hell. On the days that brightness triumphs, Ooe is just the chief editor of the Newspaper Club. I am not sure which is worse. She is an inquisitive hack who is as powerful as Shizune, but nobody sees that at all. Except me.
I think Natsume and Naomi have something going. Maybe they corner Hanako in the dorms and indulge themselves. I have no idea. Actually, I have ideas, but I wish I did not. You should not think about certain things when all they do is get in the way of your career.
Over the next few months, we get a replacement for Saki. He’s this asshole named Hisao Nakai. The gods gave him a broken heart. It’s not uncommon in this school, except that this guy looks as if he will collapse every time a girl looks sideways at him. He has the hots for every girl who does that. He talks to himself and I hear all his dirty thoughts.
Taro is outraged, because Taro loved Saki and now he’s got Nakai instead. Nakai prefers to work with Shizune-and-Misha, or maybe they did not give him a choice since he’s new and therefore must be inducted by what’s left of our Student Council. So Taro works with us more now. He’s too nice a person, I tell myself. When the purges begin, he will not be harmed.
Eventually, we all graduate from Yamaku Academy. I’m not so smart, not like those few people who end up in Tokyo. But I’m not dumb either. I end up in Meidai, what people call Nagoya University when they want to be formal. That is fine with me, because it’s where I want to be. It’s relatively comfortable.
In 2012, my final year at Meidai, they host a symposium on innovative nanobiotechnology
. I am happy to be part of it. If you have brittle bones, even if your osteoporotic mastocytosis is now under control, you can go through a lot of therapy with drugs and exercise, and still you look all wrong. I am fortunate in growing reasonably tall before the bones got bad. I could have been a dwarf.
But it’s time to really be a part of things. Akio Hayashi may be thin and brittle, but he doesn’t have to remain so any more. And he gets lots of good sex too, because the ladies love a tender, gentle, modern man. In my head, I laugh at the concept of evolutionary advantage. I’m a cripple, and yet I am relatively more viable in this society than an idiot like Hisao Nakai, whose closest male friend is that crazy Kenji Setou.
I sign up for a Master’s course. The academic environment is okay with cripples as long as they can work long hours and enjoy research. Now and then, I’m still with Ritsu, who is a
alternative transportation engineer in downtown Nagoya. She says it’s only for the money, and at night she hangs out in a nightclub band or something. That kind of life, crowded with random bodies, is not for me. But when the nights are cold and quiet around 4 am, it is nice to have a non-random body to share the loneliness with.
Ritsu Tainaka. I look at her nametag again. The name seems so alien if you read it to yourself about twenty times. Most names do. Her nametag is on a lanyard. The lanyard is red and white and green, the colours of one of those evil conglomerates that own Japan. I don’t mind that someone owns Japan, as long as they’re Japanese. When I say this to foreign exchange students at Meidai, they don’t find it unusual. They should. Some of my peers seem to think that if Americans own us, it’s fine.
Her lanyard is on the desk. Her blouse is on the desk. Most of her clothes are on the floor, with her hairband. Her golden-brown hair is all over the place, a sea of dark copper, with her faint scent of strawberry sweat rising into my nose. She likes it when I am behind her. I rub my nose against the back of her ear and kiss the back of her neck. Her bra falls down her arms as she pushes back against me, forces part of me deeper into her.
“Careful,” I whisper. “Gently.”
She begins to move her backside slowly. We are experts at doing things slowly. We’ve done things that way for years now.
I grunt softly. Somewhere inside her, she is humming to herself. Sometimes the hum escapes. I stroke her carefully, my long thin fingers running across her belly and her breasts. She’s learnt to appreciate a soft touch. She knows that I am defenceless if she should decide to apply some muscle, some force, but she lets me do what I do. I try my best, because it is a privilege.
“Aaaaah,” she says, as we find a good fit together. “Aaaa… hmmm. Mm.” It won’t be the first thing she says, nor the last.
When we’re done, we find we’re not. So we do what we can until we’ve had enough. For some reason, there’s one moment when I think of Saki instead. It’s a terrible thing. Anyone in my head would probably hate me because I’m like this. The funny thing is that Ritsu knows it happens, and it turns her on. Maybe it’s never enough, it’s just that we get tired and sleepy.
Such things jumble my thoughts. They only get unjumbled when she’s gone to work and I am alone and I take the train to campus and work on my little projects. I want to rule the world. Not all of it—I just want to rule enough of it so that it doesn’t kill me by accident.
That, and marry my childhood sweetheart. So clichéd, that is, so very clichéd. But we like to think of it that way, both of us.
The breakthrough comes in 2022. I do not know exactly what I’m feeling: I am excited, and worried, and I don’t have any words for the other things I feel. Ritsu and I put our little son to bed that night, and then we sit down together and have some tea.
After thinking, and over-thinking things for a while, I reach out and stroke her copper hair, still neatly bound behind its ever-present band. Her eyes dart mischievously to mine. “Oh,” she says, “I think you must have had an interesting day. You don’t normally start with my hair, and certainly not before trying to get my hairband off.”
“They did it.”
“Who?” It’s an old joke we have. The foreign band called ‘The Who’ is one of our favourites. Also, the TV show that reminds us of our old teacher, Mutou.
“The nanobiotechnologists. The ones that were trying to cure bone cancer.”
She isn’t sure what I’m talking about. But Ritsu is a fast thinker, even if not very organised in some ways. “Bone?” she asks, her mind already thinking about what might be connected to that word. “Does it mean they can make your bones stronger? Rebuild my hands?”
I have always been relatively slow to talk, slow to think. I am not stupid, just desiring to be exact. It confuses people. It takes us four hours to get to climax this time. But it’s all right, we’re happy and the kid is asleep.
It’s 2077. The children are no longer with us. In fact, even the grandchildren will soon no longer be with us. Ritsu and I are in the second intermediate gallery of Hakamichi Station.
“Bones,” she says lovingly. “Who would have thought it?”
I stroke her platinum hair, paler and more lovely than snow or silver. Mine is darker, more like polished iron. But neither of us has the glassy brilliance of hair that our host has.
We are heading for ninety, an age that would have meant being old in the decades past. In our robes, we look respectable, like feudal nobility. The materials, however, and so much else—they are different.
Standing behind my wife, I feel her naughtily lean back against me, deliberately rubbing against me for a fraction of a second. My response is more forty than ninety years old. I feel very, very slightly embarrassed.
“Bones indeed,” I reply to her, more to distract everybody and myself.
The treatment we once had, and the subsequent treatments we volunteered for, have had an unusual effect. We’ve had seventeen different experimental treatments, aimed at lowering fracture risk, changing bone strength and density, preventing inflammation of joints and nearby tissues—and sometimes, aimed at countering the side-effects of prior treatments.
Rika Katayama, an old associate and fellow-traveller in the field, bows gracefully and smiles at us. “Ritsu, Akio, if I might ask, how do you feel today?”
“Slow,” I say slowly. It has been so many years that it is now an in-joke. The two ladies laugh gently, like windchimes.
“Horny,” says Ritsu, never having lost her knack for scandalizing or scandalous remarks. I snort, unable to restrain myself. Rika doesn’t blink.
“This is not an eighteenth treatment, as you know. But it might feel like one. This one is grateful for your volunteering.”
“Akio and I, we are professional volunteers. One study every four years, carefully chosen.”
“It seems somewhat indelicate to ask. But this one wonders if you had something in mind when you chose such treatments. Your bodies are ideal for what lies ahead.”
“Ah, no,” I reply. “As long as we could be of use, would not be likely to suffer, and some positive benefit might accrue, we were happy to offer our bodies.”
“It’s not as if our bodies were any good with most other things!” my mouthy partner exclaims.
“Well, this humble functionary of the Foundation is glad to have you on board. Captain Tezuka has already boarded and has undergone three weeks of preparation more intense than your experience will be.”
I almost snort again, except that it would be rude. The Katayama-Hakamichi Alliance owns everything in this location except perhaps some of the people. But of course, Rika is merely expressing a fact. In her present role, which comes to an end within the month, she is only the current chief executive of the Foundation.
“There is one last inconvenient thing we have to settle before we begin,” she says. I sense Ritsu perk up, the prospect of something unusual arousing her. “There is an interview, for the public. Someone you also know has insisted on it.”
I feel unease, the sense of a person who slinks down a dark tunnel only to realize that in the distance a train is gathering speed. When the legendary head of the AS Network steps into the room, I almost laugh as an old tension unwinds.
“You know Ooe-san from the Network, this one believes?”
“You believe right.”
Her eyes are still mismatched, and danger still lurks within their depths. She is old, but still healthy. I remember back in 2012, when someone said people born that year might live to be two hundred years old. That was not exactly correct.
I take a deep breath and look out of the window into the dark field. The speckling of brilliant lights outlines the black shape silently dominating the horizon. They of the Foundation have decided to name her ‘Yamato’, and nothing will ever be the same again.
It must be late, whatever the year, whatever the time. I’m never angry these days, my blood cold in my veins. At the sluggish pace of a thought a minute, Ritsu communicates her desires and her interests, her thoughts and ideas, her love and curiosity to me. I reciprocate, just as slowly, but with the passion of a lifetime.
It will be months before Rin Tezuka issues the command to turn and emerge. By that time, relativity will have made us both faster and slower, older and younger, than anybody back home.
“These are the voyages of…” I think at Ritsu.
“Nothing’s gonna stop us now,” she thinks back, always relatively fast with a joke.
Our bones laugh together, their ruthenium-toughened cancer-proof cores vibrating in the harmony of the spheres. A new world awaits, the first of humanity’s colonies under a different sun.
But we’re in no hurry. We’ve always been relatively slow.