Shining Path


Chapter 2

Charlie Soong was a pusher. It was his livelihood to hook as many new customers as possible, and keep them hooked and supplied. Little by little, one fix at a time, he made his fortune, while the heart of the city clogged with junkies and the death and misery around him escalated. The politicians declared War on Drugs, the police cracked down on other pushers, and the military were deployed to stop the import trade. But Charlie stayed in business, and never ran afoul of the Qing Dynasty's War on Drugs. The war was already lost years before he came along anyway, and they never figured out how dangerous and addictive his product actually was. The Qing politicians were only concerned with the opium that comes from poppies. They hadn't read Marx. Charlie Soong sold Bibles.

That and a few other dangerous addictions, like banking and cigarettes, paid pretty well, well enough for him to send his children to expensive private schools overseas. They all made their marks in history, imagination, and legend, and it is a mercy that Charlie Soong, the tightly buttoned-down Methodist missionary, died 131 years too early to see the heavily fictionalized movie WOMT Studios made about the life and loves of his daughter Ching-Ling. He would have been horrified, and he would have sued.

Hirose Konosuke had some doubts about that movie too, but his were more professional in nature. As of the Spring of Shoumei 19 he was working for the studio as what might have been called a "Third-from-the-worst Boy Photonic" if he had rated a line in the credits at all. That is to say, his job was to run polycarbonate-fiber cable up and down the lighting towers, enforce the "Do not stare into laser with remaining eyeball" signs, keep the lamp-hour logs up to date, and get yelled at a lot. Actually, everybody there's job was to get yelled at a lot, because Her Holiness, the O in WOMT, was directing and that was her style.

Odaka Mio claimed to be a legitimate Buddhist nun, and nobody dared question her about why one of those would be directing movies of the kind she did. On the Soong Ching-Ling project, she had demanded so many script revisions of the poor writer that by this point she was probably in line to get a co-writing credit herself, and that was one of the points on which Konosuke, privately, had doubts. He'd only had a chance to skim the script, because one of the franchisees was paranoid about plot leaks and was trying to keep it limited to need-to-know, and that wasn't even the most recent revision anyway. He also, it must be admitted, was no expert on Taishou-Era Chinese history. But he was almost positive that there were no slimy tentacle demons in the historical record, and that everybody in those days had worn a lot more clothes than he was seeing on-set. And that they had kept their clothes on for a larger percentage of the time.

Still, as the boss lady often reminded him, he wasn't paid to think or ask questions. On Monday, 15-day 4-month, the last thing Konosuke was in fact paid for was to shut down a big sulfur volume-source luminaire and log the day's usage for the lamp, which was 6.4 hours and brought the total to 122.6. It'd be time to swap that one out very soon, but a slightly more senior lighting tech would be the one to do so. Within moments of entering the number on the form he was out the door and onto the street, to avoid being stuck with last-minute unpaid overtime.

There are no real sakura trees in the Seru Quarter except for a few on the grounds of the Hanazono Shrine, but in early Keika some bright spark in the Chamber of Commerce found budget for a few surplus Georgian surface-to-air missile launchers and had those set up to fire confetti shells from the tops of the larger buildings. Just like everything else in the Quarter, it was supposed to amuse humans. Every year from then on, the Chamber of Commerce fought bitterly with the street-cleaning contractors over whether they would actually be allowed to flip the switch at the start of 4-month and bury the Quarter in pink stuff. This particular year, Shoumei 19, the Chamber had won the shouting match, so the cleaning robots were on strike, and as of 15-day the streets and sidewalks were covered in a slippery mixture of confetti bits, dirt, oil, and chemo-bio waste. Inside the building the sludge rubbed off, leaving a dirty pink trail all down the stairs and onto the platforms.

The Quarter is not big enough that you can spend much time riding the subway through it, but WOMT and the flat where Konosuke lived were about as far apart as they could be while still both being inside the boundaries. He had to ride two stops over, transfer, and then three stops up. The second train was one that would continue on out into the suburbs, and it was more than full of girls freshly released from their after-school clubs and headed out for the satellite enclaves where the rent was cheaper.

It was not that Hirose Konosuke didn't like high-school girls – he had a professional interest – but he hated listening to inane conversations. He got enough of those at work. In the crush of the crowd, though, he could not avoid the loud chatter among four students: a fat human, a thin human, a humanoid seru, and a pale dilute calico joneko. Konosuke didn't recognize the uniforms or the bar codes, but they matched, so it must be one of those integrated schools. They had managed to create a little standing room around themselves, and were talking about some boy who had asked the thin human for a date and apparently had little joy from his efforts.

"If it'd be Sugimoto-senpai, you'd react differently, I'll bet," said the humanoid seru.

"I won't deny it. But there's no way Sugimoto-senpai would ever look at me. I'm just not worth his time."

"That'll be true as long as you keep up with that attitude, girl. We've got to find you a few nice boys to build up your confidence."

"What, a few at once?" asked the fat girl, with a smirk.

"Why not?" – smirking back – "They're better that way. If you know what I mean."

The pale joneko sneered, not that that was much different from the expression she'd already been wearing while listening to the others, and expressed the view that humanoid males were too fragile and lacking in manliness to be worth anything, whether jointly or severally, anyway. She certainly had better ways to spend her time.

"Yeah, you'll be yowling a different tune in a week or so," put in the fat human girl. "That's when you're due, am I right? It's not like there are any cat-boys for you. You'll have to settle for what you can get, like the rest of us."

The dilute calico informed her, even more scornfully, that that was none of her business at all, and indelicate to mention, not that creatures like filthy humanoids, so lacking in self-control and maturity as to be in heat all the damn time, mew, could be expected to show any delicacy or consideration for others' feelings anyway.

All three filthy humanoids laughed at that, and she huffily turned her back on them, switched her tail, and pretended to be very interested in the advertisements flashing past outside the windows of the subway car. But her ears rotated backward to hear the rest of what they said. Konosuke wished he could turn his in the opposite direction, but he didn't have the anatomy for it, and he was wedged firmly between two office ladies and couldn't move away from the conversation without committing a misdemeanor.

"Not like she's going to have any trouble, dethyo. Joneko always have boyfriends."

"That's just because everybody thinks joneko are easy."

"Well, they are!"

"Sure, if you've got a high pain threshold and a points card at the emergency room. I don't understand why boys think that's cool."

"Because joneko are easy. That's all it takes to get a boy."

"Boys are very strange, ne?"

"Dethyo! Can't live with 'em, can't chop 'em up into little pieces and feed 'em into the recycler."

"Unless you've got pointy ears."

"Even then I think it's frowned upon if you can't produce the love note to prove he had it coming."

"You'd like to get a note from Su–"

"Shut up."

"And that's full circle, and this is our stop. Hey, you! Out of my way, yeah, move your perverted salaryman's ass, no, I know damn well where that hand was going, forget it, mew, just let's keep moving along, shall we, pick it up we haven't got all day dethyo, I think you can squeeze back there a little tighter, grandma, I'm talking to you dethyo..." and they moved out of earshot through the crowd to the doors, joyously kicking shins, elbowing faces, and flinging insults in all directions. Konosuke thought he even saw the dilute calico bite someone, and he wondered if that precisely qualified as delicate behavior. Maybe the rules of delicacy included exceptions for the Tokyo subway system.

His own stop was the next one. He carefully pulled his nose from the cleavage of the office lady in front of him, removed his painfully twisted left hand from the thigh of the one behind him, and rubbed it (hand, not thigh) with his right, trying to restore some circulation. He glanced at an elderly human man who seemed to be trying to staunch the blood flow from a fresh neck wound, and then as he pushed into the exit zone, the crowd control robot grabbed Konosuke and yanked him out of the subway car.

Konosuke offered his hand to the chemo-biometric nose on the door of the flat he shared with what passed for his family. After a moment's consideration, it unlocked. He entered the flat, took off his shoes, and called out "Tadaima!" Through the open door of the living room he could see a ginger joneko with white socks curled up on a low table, with her nose poked into a volume of shounen-ai manga. She turned her head right around to look at him, winked, flicked one ear, and mewed once before going back to the comic book. Nobody else seemed to be at home – so Mami was probably wasting money in the pachinko parlor again, and the other two would be at after-school clubs.

The ginger had quite literally followed Konosuke home from work a couple of weeks earlier, and refused to go away. They'd had a rat in the flat; Rurika found droppings and a bag of rice with a hole chewed in it and threw a temper tantrum, shrieking and sobbing until Mami bundled her off to school. Konosuke mentioned the episode to one of his co-workers during lunch that day, saying he guessed he'd have to buy a rat trap on his day off, and he hadn't even known the ginger was within earshot. They can hear pretty far with those pointy ears. At the end of the day when he was about to leave the studio, there she was. She didn't say anything, but stuck close all the way back on the subway, into the building and up in the elevator, and there wasn't much he could do about it.

Once inside the flat, she professionally scented out the rat, killed and ate it and dumped the bones in the recycler, and then climbed into a basket of what had been clean laundry and fell deeply asleep. She was still there the next morning, so they set a fifth place at breakfast with a grilled fish and some natto. That was Konosuke's day off and he spent it all downtown. He had hoped that when he came back late in the evening the ginger joneko would be gone, but she wasn't, and after a few more days he gave up hope; she had become part of the family. She was sarcastic and aloof and she scratched the furniture, shed all over the laundry, watched bad anime late at night, and they couldn't have milk or tuna in the refrigerator anymore because she would consume it all, but she bought or hunted her own meat most of the time and often shared it, and she played with Rurika, so Mami was willing to tolerate her.

So far the question of rent had not come up, but the end of the month would be interesting. Perhaps the ginger would announce it was a bad time for her, you know, and disappear for a few days that conveniently happened to coincide with the time when Mami would be cashing her support payments and hitting up Konosuke and Hitoshi, as the employed residents, to put in their shares. If Konosuke himself had a built-in biological excuse for three or four days of absence out of every 30, you bet he'd use it. The ginger could reasonably be expected to have figured out that someone would have to pay the rent eventually, and to have planned for that.

There was no way of predicting how that would go except to wait and see, however. Hirose Konosuke hung up his jacket and dropped his phone in the charger, then went to forage for food. He found some rice in the fridge, and some pudding, and a couple of dried fish in the cupboard, and he was making a meal of those things when Hitoshi arrived home from the gym.

Miura Hitoshi was 14, and painted like an old-fashioned American superhero with wavy black hair and a chin you could use to plow a field. He hoped he would eventually grow into it. He worked most afternoons after school teaching even younger boys to use weapons that were referred to as "gentlemen's walking sticks." He looked up to Hirose Konosuke and wanted to be just like him when he grew up, but Hitoshi had also reached the age at which all adults were squares, and so he would never admit to his hero-worship. Konosuke tried to be a good big brother about it.

They exchanged a few inconsequential encouraging words as Konosuke finished his meal of pudding-dipped fish and Hitoshi mixed himself some kind of health drink, with soy protein and polyvinyl chloride powders in it. The kid didn't really need a role model. The gym had let him test for 2-dan at a surprisingly young age, enrollment was up and they always needed instructors, and it was clear he had a fine future ahead of him if he just stayed on the shining path. Hitoshi's gym claimed lineage in authentic old-style baritsu all the way back to London and Meiji 31, and of course they all claimed that and couldn't all be legitimate, but it was nonetheless a reputable gym.

Neither Konosuke nor Mami nor anybody else in the household knew that Hitoshi was getting neosteroid insertions every week at an underground clinic to help build up his muscles; they thought it was all just clean living, exercise, and health drinks. He was careful to always cover his hairlines with gel until they healed, so the ginger joneko wouldn't notice. She had the annoying habit of noticing everything, and he wished she would just go away, but like Konosuke, Hitoshi could think of no way to get rid of her. Rurika seemed to like her, so there would be no help there.

Out in the living room, the ginger must have finished her volume, because they heard a "mew" from that direction and a moment later she padded into the kitchen with the book in her mouth. She was in a talkative mood, muttering and mewing indistinctly around the mouthful of manga, full of boy-love ideas and teasing mischief. She asked Konosuke why he didn't grow his hair out to meter length and dye it green. It would be a good look, mew, and all the young men would want him! There was probably no good answer to that one; he just said, "Um, I prefer not," and got up and left. Behind him he could hear the joneko's attempts to interest Hitoshi in a change of career, to the kabuki stage. Yeah, good luck with that idea.

Hirose Konosuke paid a large enough share of the rent on the flat that he could claim a bedroom all to himself, forcing the two youngest residents to share another room uncomfortably while Mami got the third. The other side of the arrangement was that he got the smallest room, with just enough floor space for a mattress that he had to sit on to use his computer, and separated from the rest of the flat by a partition of flashspun polyolefin, barely more substantial than paper. It would have been a lousy place to entertain a girlfriend, but among the five residents of the flat only the ginger joneko would have admitted to considering that issue in relation to Konosuke.

Now, sitting cross-legged on the mattress and poking at a keyboard in his lap, Konosuke checked his mail. Even after a pass through the computational pragmatics filter, most of the items in the box were spam. He noted with pride that a couple of them were advertising Kyoto Office Ladies' Bondage volume 4, from WOMT Studios directed by Murasaki Kitsuko. Murasaki was the M in WOMT. Other than that item, the mail was boring. Konosuke put away the keyboard and put on his zoot suit.

Hirose Konosuke's zoot suit was 361 green, and made from enough material to manufacture a complete new Third-from-the-worst Boy Photonic just like him, though of course the suit was inanimate. The closest it came to showing any life of its own was that the trousers contained a micromechanical strip. As a result the waistband would creep up his body, powered by his steps as he walked, under his vest nearly to chest level. He wore suspenders too, but those were just for appearance. If he walked down Central Avenue in Los Angeles maybe a hundred years ago dressed like that, well, there he'd be: a plastic replica of what people in that time and place would have called a "Jap," moving and talking like a real person. Maybe the citizens would have seen something like Hirose Konosuke on a movie screen, but right there on the sidewalk, in the flesh or in the acetate as it were, that would be another picture entirely. You bet there'd have been some questions asked, Daddy-O, and things would have turned ugly fast. But as far as his clothing was concerned, that part would have surprised nobody. It was just what all the hep cats wore.

The green zoot suit went similarly unremarked in mid-Shoumei Era Tokyo, at least in the Seru Quarter on a pleasant Spring evening. There were other zoot suiters out strolling, and Konosuke knew some of them. He didn't know the two police officers whom he saw outside the Wing Samuikamo mall; but he nodded politely to them as he entered.

The mall was full of 722 girls. Konosuke took up a position near the food court, leaning casually against a pillar as if to hold it up, and looked for any of the friends, other zoot suiters, that he'd been hoping to hang out with that night. He watched the 722 girls. They were too young for him, of course, but somewhat decorative. The name derived from their skin color. In the first few years of Shoumei, when tsunami surfing was popular, everyone wanted to have the suntan that went with it. Stupid parents who thought the big waves would last forever made babies with permanent tans, carried to an extreme beyond anything that could ever result from even seru biology. Honestly, some people shouldn't be allowed to make babies at all. That was about seventeen years ago, so today you could see the freakish results in any high school and on every street corner, at least in the Quarter. Off a certain alley near here there was even, supposedly, a soapland with a wave pool where all the attendants were 722s and you could ride on anything you wanted. Hirose Konosuke wouldn't know.

The 722 girls surged and flowed like the waves they were, in theory, painted to ride. Just another evening at the mall. They broke and sloshed into and out of the clothing stores, snack booths, kickboxing gyms, baritsu schools, and video arcades that made up the mall. Actually, scratch that – no girls in the arcades except a few so square as not to count. Konosuke saw, but he did not think carefully about it, that the 722 girls were all going into the martial arts places and leaving the video arcades to the phthalate boys. There were just a few spots where arcades bordered on gyms and the two groups mingled.

Phthalate boys lubricated their clothing with a mixture of high-boiling organic esters similar in composition to the fluid that seru naturally sweat. It had a characteristic smell that a human might describe as "like any seru, but kind of more so," and it changed the drape of the acetate and allowed them to move fast and silently. They had to practice a special dance-like way of walking to keep their clothes from sliding off by accident. Being a phthalate boy was at least a fashion statement, and as with most fashion statements, some people claimed it was a lifestyle too. Phthalate boys were not exactly the enemies of zoot suiters like Hirose Konosuke – for one thing, they were usually five or ten years younger and so the two groups would tend to ignore each other – but if it ever did come to a street brawl the phthalate boys and the zoot suiters would certainly expect to find themselves on opposite sides.

After ten or fifteen minutes during which he saw nobody he particularly wanted to see, Konosuke was starting to become impatient. It was Monday, true, and probably a lot of the boys had had to work later to impress this or that boss, but surely he wasn't the only one with spare time. It was at that point that he noticed a little cluster of teenagers on the other side of the food court.