Shining Path

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Chapter 13

The afternoon of 10-day 5-month Shoumei 19 was a difficult one at WOMT. They were trying to film a scene in which some minor character, a sailor in the British Navy, was to be anachronistically "flogged around the fleet," partly for the benefit of any viewers whose interests might include that, but mostly as an excuse for interruption of the proceedings by a pair of giant squid. They'd set up a tank in the middle of the studio and filled it with salt water – it had to be salty to keep the squid tranquil – and they had set pieces suspended on wires from the ceiling to represent the sides of ships, and a real little rowboat with a hidden shrouded safety motor to carry people around on the surface.

It was actually the third day of shooting on this scene, and maybe the squid wranglers had stopped paying as close attention as they should have. Maybe too they should have checked the nitrate level in the tank; the water had not been changed since the first day and even Hirose Konosuke, no marine biologist himself, could guess that it wasn't supposed to be pink. At about 3:15 there was a sudden crash as four tentacles shot out of the water, grabbed one of the "ship" set pieces and ripped it in two, then flipped the rowboat. The cephalopods started doing what the script said shouldn't happen until several minutes later, with all the boat's occupants including two males, and union rules required Her Holiness under protest to call "Cut!" and send in the wranglers with shock batons and liver-flavored Squitty Treatz to call off their slimy charges.

By the time they got everything back under control, the two squid had sunk another ship, and grabbed a couple of lighting towers and pulled them into the tank, causing a short circuit and shocking themselves into temporary submission. They crawled over the side of the tank and to their pens in the back of the studio, trailing lighting cable, and lurked there while the wranglers tried to calm them down and the director hurled imprecations. The cinematographers kept their cameras rolling through this whole process. They knew she'd probably demand the footage later.

Hirose Konosuke's boss, the Best Boy Photonic, heroically salvaged what he could of the damaged lighting equipment. Most of the big lamps were okay, but the squid had tangled and eaten a lot of cable. He exchanged some harsh words with the head animal handler, and ended up staying late, yelling into the phone with invective he'd learned from Her Holiness herself, trying to line up replacement gear so they could continue filming on Monday. Konosuke went home glad it wasn't him.

On 13-day he arrived at the studio to find a neat stack of cardboard boxes near the front door. It looked like the mail-order quick-ship people had done their jobs well – until he and Kimura Yoshiaki, another low-level Boy Photonic, actually started unpacking everything. The box that should have been full of control cable instead held several case-lots of steel cans with cute octopus pictures on the labels; and a dozen area-source replacement bulbs had been themselves replaced by economy bales of instant ramen noodles. Konosuke and Yoshiaki could live without the spare light bulbs. Without the control cable, though, they would have to set every light manually, and shinny up and down the towers (or, more likely, recruit joneko to do that) to adjust the luminaires every time the director called for a lighting change.

They looked in the storeroom and found a big old coil of thick-net cable probably dating from the Shouwa Era, and a few transceivers for it. It would do to get a link up and running to at least some of the luminaires. If they were lucky, Her Holiness wouldn't call for too many quick lighting changes before they could get the cable guys to re-ship the proper cable.

Two Siamese joneko from the fact-checking department happened to walk past as Konosuke and Yoshiaki were hard at work untangling the heavy cable, and they stopped to watch. One was standard seal-and-white; the other had pink points. They made lewd comments about strong boys with thick cables until Konosuke asked them to leave and they giggled and ran away. Yoshiaki had actually been enjoying the attention. He had rather more tolerance for joneko than his peer, because he didn't live with one.

They weren't lucky. Her Holiness called for plenty of lighting changes, and nearly every one required at least one lighting technician to climb into the rigging. They thought maybe someone could just stay up there the whole time; but when the later shots began and the towers started shaking to the rhythm of the tentacle action below, it quickly became apparent that staying topside would be unsafe. Konosuke was glad that he wasn't the guy who learned that the hard way, by falling into the tank. The joneko were no help at all. None were to be found when the Best Boy went looking for volunteers – in fact the entire feline contingent was at that point gathered in the admin office, with a bag of Squitty Treatz abstracted from the animal handlers. They were holding blindfold taste tests comparing those with studio-catering food, and giggling uproariously.

It was a long, unpleasant, and hectic day. Konosuke kept himself sane through the insanity by thinking about his date with Kumi. They were going to watch a movie after he got out of work and she out of school – not one of WOMT's, he wouldn't take a girl he liked to one of those, but a comedy-adventure she had picked out. It was about brave little girls.

He got to the theater only three minutes late. She wasn't there; he thought she must be late too, because she'd have waited for him outside, so he waited a few more minutes. At ten past he started to worry, and at fifteen minutes past he went ahead and bought a ticket and went in, thinking maybe she was already inside, but she was not. At twenty minutes past he went out and looked for her, then went in again, but the attendant gave him a look and he figured he'd better not try that again.

He sent a text message, then ducked into the bathroom to avoid disturbing the other audience members and left a voice-mail message. No response. He ended up watching the rest of the movie alone, and it was terrible, and he went home feeling concerned.

When Konosuke arrived at the flat, Mami and Hitoshi were out again. Rurika was sitting in the living room, reading the sixth volume of the manga based on Abdul al-Hazred's great work, for school. The writing was boring but the art was excellent, and she kind of wanted to try some of the recipes in the back, but wasn't sure where to buy the ingredients. Maybe the ginger joneko would know.

The ginger joneko was in the kitchen, butchering rats. She came out to greet Konosuke, and he smelled her rat guts and she smelled his sadness and disappointment. She tried to get him to talk about what was upsetting him, but he rejected her overtures – not least because she seemed likely to hug him, and he didn't want smears of rat fluids all over his clothing. He went to his room to be alone for a while.

Konosuke sent Kumi one more text message, asking if she was mad at him and trying to apologize as abjectly as he could even though he didn't know what she might be mad at him for. Then with nothing better to do he put on his zoot suit and went downtown. He found a few of his friends and they went strolling through the entertainment district, keeping an eye on the girls and making wisecracks, and for an hour or two he forgot his troubles. Not really, though. Throughout the evening he was just waiting for that buzz in his pants of a text-message reply, and it never came.

One of the other zoot suiters, a certain Tanaka Shouichi, didn't have a joneko's sense of smell to divine Konosuke's emotional state, but he could tell in other ways that his friend wasn't in his usual spirits.

"Hey, Mr. Hirose – you're quiet tonight. Trouble with the little lady, maybe?"

"I – what makes you say that?"

"Nothing, nothing. Just if you want to talk, we're all here, you know–"

"I don't want to talk."

One of the others in the group broke in with, "Well then, let's go somewhere we don't have to!"

They ended up in a bar near the Western edge of the Quarter, a place where the music was loud and incomprehensible and the beer was weak and cheap. Hirose Konosuke had several glasses of that, not his usual habit, and his friends noticed and drew their own conclusions but didn't say anything to his face. There'd been some speculation in this group about what would happen with the underage human girlfriend; nobody had been so disrespectful as to open an actual betting pool, but each of the zoot suiters had his own theory as to the outcome, and it looked like somebody would be proven right soon. It was all in fun, though. No question they'd stand by their man with whatever support he needed, if it came to it that he could ask. Shouichi was already making a list in his head of girls, seru girls of legal age, to introduce to Konosuke whenever Konosuke was ready to be introduced to girls again.

It was shortly before midnight when most of the fellows started to make comments about having to work the next day, and one by one they went away until it was only Konosuke remaining. He finished his beer and left the bar, walking down the street and watching the crowd glitter in the neon and sulfur lights. He realized that he was walking toward the seamier part of town and hastily turned around to head in the other direction. He thought it was time to go home, but his head was all fuzzy from the alcohol and he stopped for a cup of tea to try to clear it before he'd get on the subway.

The waitress was rude to him, and he wondered whether it was a tsundere cafe (where that would be part of the gimmick) or just lousy service. He was tempted to ask – but decided instead to just shut up, drink his tea, and eavesdrop on the two men in white lab coats at the next table. They'd ordered iced coffees with areca-nut syrup, and when those arrived, one picked his up and chugged it down in a matter of seconds before ordering another.

"Oh, man. I so needed that."

"Hard night?"

"I'll say. Just as I was about to go off-shift they brought in this girl who'd been in some kind of college chemistry lab explosion. Comatose, and bits of shrapnel all through her flesh. The techs dug half of the pieces out before they caught on that a lot of it was actually body jewelry and meant to be there. Probably lost a kilogram of weight right there even before you count the blood and fluid losses from her injuries. Ha, she's going to be so ticked off at us when she wakes up, if she ever does."

"Well, at least you didn't have to work on her yourself. Not your area of specialty at all, eh?"

"What the Hell? Of course I had to work on her. Where do you think kids wear body jewelry? That wasn't the worst of it, though. She had one of those high-end VDs, you know what I mean? I see the regular cheap ones pretty often, but I'd never seen anything quite like this before. Full, perfect set of pearly-whites in there. Medical warning bracelet for it but that got lost in the accident wreckage, and nobody bothered to write it on the chart, so I was pretty much flying blind. Goddamn hoo-hah chewed up two perfectly good speculums and nearly got my finger too. I tell you, there ought to be a law about these unregistered body mods."

Konosuke knew that there actually was such a law – it had cost the studio some bribe money when they remade the Heisei-Era chick flick Akeko no Ha a couple years back, never mind that they'd been using computer effects instead of surgery anyway. And that was with seru actors, of course. He guessed that the police didn't spend a lot of time prosecuting otherwise law-abiding human women under that section. If nothing else, to do so would mean admitting to however they'd managed to collect the evidence.

He gave the waitress some money for the tea, and she snarked him all the way out the door, so that answered that question – she was just unprofessional, not paid to warm up to the customer over the course of his visit. Well, it didn't matter; he wouldn't be coming back here again anyway.

It took an iron will, but Hirose Konosuke forced himself not to phone his girlfriend again until the following afternoon, from his room when he got home from work. He'd already sent enough texts and voice messages; more wouldn't help. But about a quarter after six on 14-day he finally gave in and made one more call. This time, a woman answered – but it wasn't Kumi. The voice on the other end sounded a lot like hers, but it wasn't her voice; it was lower and had the roughness that, in humans, comes from many years of breathing smoggy city air.

"Hello."

"Ah – pardon me, this is Kumi's phone, isn't it?"

"Who is this." The woman didn't say it like a question, and it really wasn't one, since his name would have come up on the phone before she even answered.

"My name is Hirose Konosuke."

"Oh, yes. My daughter mentioned something to me about a seru stalker who was annoying her."

"Could I speak to her, please?"

"I don't think she wants to speak to you."

"That seems quite surprising, especially since we'd made plans for yesterday and she never said anything to me about wanting to break up. I'm sorry if I'm being presumptuous, but could you at least ask her one more time, just once, if she could at least say goodbye–"

"Listen," hissed the voice, "you stay away from our daughter, you, you – you only want one thing, seru – she's too young for you anyway!"

Startled by the venom in the mother's voice even though he had partly expected something of the kind, Hirose Konosuke sputtered "Ma'am, I'm just – I–" but she had already hung up on him.

A moment later, Konosuke's phone buzzed with a text message from Kumi: "U hav 2 stop calling me, i want no more 2 do wit U dethyo!" The next one came in a minute later; it said "leav me alon U squar."

Girls from Ichinoe Collegiate wouldn't be caught dead saying "dethyo," much less writing it in a text. That was Northside slang, low-class and suburban. And no teenager would spell out "squar," with or without an "e"; they would write in an actual square. Hirose Konosuke was, in a strange way, happy to get the texts – they were solid proof that even if somebody wanted him to stop calling, it certainly wasn't the young lady herself. But they also proved that Kumi's phone was no longer her own. Either her parents had picked the nose that locked it to her chemo-bio identity, or (more likely) they'd owned it right from the start.

He sat staring at his phone. He could send voice mail or text mail or e-mail but it would all go through her phone. Any other ways he could think of to contact her were dangerously close to creepy-stalker territory. "What I am going to do now?" he wondered. Maybe he said that aloud, though he hadn't meant to.

Something closely resembling warm, moist, 60-grit open-coat carbide sandpaper was introduced to Hirose Konosuke's left ear. He yelped and struggled as the ginger joneko removed her tongue, bit him gently in the scruff of the neck, and bore him down to the floor. She lay next to him, cuddled up close with one furry forelimb pressing down on his chest, and mewed that things were probably not so bad as all that. She suggested he tell Big Sister all about it. The young man threw her off, got up, and stormed out of the room.

He had left his phone on the crate that served him as both bookshelf and desk, and the phone hadn't turned itself off yet, so the ginger grabbed it before it could, and read all of Konosuke's stored text messages.

Seru don't actually get sick, but progressive studios like WOMT allow their employees a small number of "sick" days per year, and Konosuke used one of his on 20-day to go stake out the Matoike house. He had already tried slipping out of work early to wait in a cafe across the street from Ichinoe Collegiate, to catch up to her as she left school, every day since her no-show at the theater. He never saw Kumi leave the school, and on the third day the cafe security AI noticed the pattern.

A couple of serious-looking young men, about Konosuke's own age but of course human in this neighborhood, showed up at his table. They were wearing neat, nondescript civilian clothing that looked just a little too nondescript and civilian, and they asked him polite but intense questions about who he was and what business he was in, without identifying themselves. They were Mormons, SDL, or plainclothes police. Hirose Konosuke guessed they were the last of those three, and guessed that it would be a good idea not to show his face near the school gates again for a while.

Never leaving school meant Kumi probably wasn't attending that school anymore. Most likely, her parents wanted to keep her away from seru in general, as well as him in particular, and had pulled her right out of the integrated Ichinoe Collegiate. But they had to send her to school somewhere.

Now Konosuke thought about that as he sat on a convenient bench that was partway down the block on the opposite site of the street from the entrance to the Matoike estate. He'd brought a couple of manga and sat with one of them open, pretending to read it slowly while he watched the gate for signs of life. The ginger joneko, who had taken the day off too, walked along the top of one of the walls lining the street. Nobody saw her, but if someone had, she would have looked much like one of the neighborhood pet cats out for a stroll; just a hundred times bigger. She found a tree near where Konosuke was sitting, and hid in it to watch him.

A little after 8 o'clock a middle-aged seru serving-woman emerged carrying a shopping basket. She came back just before 9, and Hirose Konosuke almost flagged her down to talk to her, but did not. He didn't know whether he could trust her. Nobody else entered or left all day. Konosuke had no way of knowing this, but Matoike Ichiro was in Kyoto on what he had told his wife was a business trip, with an office lady, and would not be home for three more days.

The ginger lost patience at about 4 in the afternoon. She had been sleeping, off and on, in the tree, but it was not a comfortable place for that and she could not afford to sleep deeply lest she miss some interesting development. She dropped from the tree to the ground, spent a few minutes playing with the dog that patrolled that particular estate, and then feeling slightly perkier, hurried back to the flat.

When Konosuke got home, he noticed nothing amiss. Rurika was sitting in the living room, reading Pierre Menard's great work, for school. She was on volume three of the manga version and didn't think much of it so far. Even though the publishers had hired a famous shoujo artist and tried to emphasize the romantic elements, the whole concept of a skinny fanboy traveling the world conquering evil with his faithful fat friend (to impress a girl, even!) was straight out of a boy's fantasy, and Ruri-chan felt she shouldn't be required to waste her time with that. There were too many advertising pages in it, too, and most of them were for martial arts schools even squarer than Hitoshi's. Had the instructional AI somehow confused her with her brother when tailoring this textbook? Rurika felt she deserved better; but the book report wouldn't write itself, and she had to slog through the source material if she was to get a decent grade. The ginger was sleeping in the laundry again, and Konosuke thought that one had spent a normal day at the studio. Mami and Hitoshi were not present, off at their respective afternoon activities.

Konosuke retired to his room with a bag of consommé-flavored potato chips instead of a proper dinner; he didn't have much appetite, and he wanted to continue immediately with his search for Kumi. He set up the computer and got onto the Net, even though he wasn't sure yet exactly where he should look there. He knew that most of the security cameras around Tokyo were available as public feeds, and he knew that at least in theory one could program an AI to watch them all for a given skirt code. He took for granted that Matoike Kumi would be somewhere in Tokyo, and still regularly wearing a standard coded skirt Рit only remained to find her on one of the thousands of channels of surveillance video. But he didn't know how to actually do that all by himself, and he didn't want to hire the sort of hacker who did that sort of thing. He probably couldn't afford it anyway.

"If I were Mr. and Mrs. Matoike," he thought, "where would I have sent her?"

He thought about that until he thought of the right answer: if he didn't know where human parents send their daughters to keep them away from older seru men, then the Matoikes wouldn't have known either. They would have been upset, they wouldn't have been acting carefully, and they would've been searching the Net too. He should be retracing their steps, and entering the kind of queries they would have used. Whatever was easiest to find, that would be where they'd ended up.

He searched for "human girl seru boy" and found nothing but porn – all of it actually featuring human-looking seru girls with seru boys, of course, because the real thing would be too illegal to find free of charge on the open Net. He tried not to look too closely, and hoped he wouldn't have attracted any of the wrong kind of attention by entering such a query. Maybe he should have done this from someone else's computer – but it was too late for that now, the damage was done and he might as well continue. He tried "teen daughter dating seru" but that returned mostly amateur manga. "Bad girl" was useless, of course, but he was on the right track.

He searched for "disobedient daughter" and "defiant teen" and some other phrases like that, and the same few names came up at the top of each search. Then he started searching those names, and he found the rest of the story: the court cases, the sensational late-night community-radio reports, and an organization that seemed to be the human equivalent of the SDL – he hadn't even known that such a thing existed. On one page of search results the name "Matoike" jumped out at him, and he eagerly followed the link, only to get a screen advising him that, sorry, he had to "create an account to read this forum."

The site seemed to be some kind of bulletin board used by human teenagers. From the thread summary, they were talking about obedience schools. He'd already learned more than he was happy to know about those in general, and he was making a list of names; but it was a long enough list that he couldn't, realistically, investigate them all. If someone on that bulletin board knew something about Kumi, where she'd been sent – well, he had to talk to them.

He filled out the form, with the four-part logic problem at the bottom to prove he wasn't an AI, and he let the site record his chemo-bio scent without a thought for the ways that could be misused, because this was really important – and then he got another screen advising him that, sorry, this forum was only for girls. He went back to the search and looked for a cached copy or something, but there was nothing. He couldn't even find the summary mentioning the name "Matoike" again, no matter how hard he searched; but he knew he had seen it. It hadn't been just his imagination. There really was a mention of her name in the middle of a discussion of human obedience schools. Hirose Konosuke would do whatever it took to follow that up.

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