Shining Path


Chapter 30

Early on Saturday morning, Konosuke entered the hotel suite's bathroom and carefully locked the door. There were about a dozen different soap dispensers on the wall. He took a big handful from the one labeled "unscented" and lathered up – or tried to. He discovered too late that the substance was not soap at all, but some kind of polydimethylsiloxane gel, incredibly slippery, and difficult to remove once applied.

It took almost ten minutes of experimentation with a washcloth and the contents of the other dispensers to find something that would wash the gel away. Then he read all the labels more carefully, figured out which ones really were soap, reconsidered whether "unscented" would have been a good idea anyway, and settled on "strawberry" and what was described as "Musk of Passion," mixed. He disliked such odors, but he had a good reason for it this one time.

When Konosuke exited the bathroom, Pochi noticed and commented on the smell. He explained that joneko can sniff out what you've done recently, or what you haven't done, and whom you were with. He knew the ginger would be waiting for him when he got home, and he wished to give no opportunity for anything of the kind. It really was none of the ginger's business.

Sakura Pochi had spent enough time working with men and joneko to know that there are plenty of other ways to detect that sort of thing besides scent. She doubted that mere soap could foil a determined joneko anyway. It wouldn't block an electronic chemo-bio nose, and a live joneko would be at least as discerning – especially if there was money bet on the question, as was probably the case here. But she wouldn't be the one to disillusion the glorious fool if he thought he could hold out against the Inquisition. She just told him he was clever, kissed him on the cheek, and took her own turn in the bathroom with the door closed but unlocked.

When he returned to the flat, the ginger, sure enough, plied him with questions, and Hitoshi-kun was almost as bad. Konosuke put them off with non-answers. He let them think the date just hadn't gone well and he was ashamed to talk about it. That might mean trouble later, but it was easier than trying to explain.

The mention of the name "Matoike" turned out to be a false clue. He found the message in question, but it wasn't about Kumi at all, it was just a news story someone had cut and pasted about integrated schools, mentioning a certain Matoike Ichiro as a concerned parent who had spoken in a public meeting but refused to release his comments for the newspaper. Wait – might that be Kumi's father? Konosuke didn't know her father's name, but he knew the father didn't like seru, least of all him, and it would make sense. But even if that were true, it didn't exactly help. All his effort with Ms. Sakura had been a big waste of time.

Konosuke thought he'd salvage what he could; maybe the bulletin board could still help him in his search. He started composing a short message describing Kumi, identifying himself as a friend who hadn't heard from her in too long and was worried and looking for any news or suggestions, and he was just ready to post it when he stopped. That might not actually be wise.

He thought that these message boards were populated by about one third genuine teenage girls, one third perverts trying to exploit them, and one third police hunting the perverts. If he wasn't careful he'd attract the wrong kind of attention to himself, and the police would be smarter about checking identities than the bulletin board's login system had been. His numbers were wrong, distorted by all the exploitation movies he'd watched and helped create. The actual percentages of girls, perverts, and police on this particular system were close to 90/15/5 – but Konosuke was at least correct in guessing that strict caution would be a good idea.

And so he took it slowly, first lurking for almost a week before he posted anything at all, to get a feel for the way the girls talked to each other. He practiced spotting the perverts and the police, keeping notes on the mistakes they made so he could be sure to avoid doing the same. He learned where the boundaries were, who it was safe to attack and who needed to be defended, what topics were in and out of bounds. When he felt safe making postings of his own, he began infiltrating the group.

In fact he was using the skills he had unconsciously learned from Matoike Kumi herself, when she told him about how she spent her school days. Starting with the weakest and most vulnerable members of the system, he made a point to show them some kindness and gain their trust. Pretending to be nice can only take a person so far; Konosuke's edge was that he really was nice, so it came naturally. Once he'd jumped into a few arguments with calm, supportive comments, always on the side of whoever needed comfort the most, he had some credibility to pursue the bellwethers.

This board used screen names on all the messages. Its users were the kind who would both worry about privacy, and believe that keeping their names secret would actually make a difference. But it was clear that all the cool kids knew each other well enough to exchange names. Hirose Konosuke had chosen "Hiyose Konoko" to enter in the "real"-name field on the registration form, when he filled it out in the hotel room. He'd understandably not had a lot of energy for thinking of something better at the time, and too much exposure to WOMT's scriptwriters had damaged his ability to invent convincing fictional names anyway. But it was good enough. He let the name slip to a few well-chosen people, and worked on building up the persona.

Hiyose Konoko didn't like to talk too much about her biography, both because it was too traumatic and because Hirose Konosuke didn't want to reveal the limits of what he actually knew about behavior modification schools. Fortunately, being too messed-up to say anything specific was a common enough occurrence not to raise any comment. Konoko let it drop that she'd spent a year in one of the worst of the behavior-mod places, never specifying exactly which one but letting people use their imaginations. People regularly posted narratives of their experiences, so if one just filtered out the fake stories posted by the fetish crowd (recognizable by the way they would lavish hundreds of unnecessary words on certain specific details) it wasn't too hard to put together a plausible cover.

She had been enrolled by her father, who had objected to her dating a seru. Then her parents had divorced, Daddy had gone off-screen, and her mother's new man had intervened to get her out of there. Konoko was grateful to him to a degree that would be just slightly disturbing to imaginative readers. Now she was cramming for trade-school entrance exams. That last part might not have been realistic – there's not normally any going back to the academic Shining Path once you've been in behavior-mod – but Konosuke wanted to put it in because he thought he could play it more convincingly than some of the more common stories. All he knew about the callgirl business, say, or drug muling, was what he knew from making movies about it; and he knew just enough about movies to know that following them wouldn't help him fool anybody with actual experience of the subject matter. He knew all about getting into photonics school because he had done that himself.

It was actually kind of a gas, planning out the story and dropping details of it here and there, in other discussions, until everyone knew Konoko and accepted "her" into their hearts and minds as neither a cop nor a pervert. Paper-and-dice role-playing games went out of fashion long before Hirose Konosuke was ever of an age to play them, but he was independently recreating some of the joys of that hobby. It was fun with a purpose, though: Konosuke had a real-life goal in mind, and it was important.

He could see that he wouldn't get hard information useful for finding Kumi from this bulletin board. Everybody here was more interested in supporting each other and healing their own wounds, than in doing something real in the outside world. He also wouldn't be able to do much more alone. He needed help. But he had worked on enough action movies to believe in secret societies, and he took for granted that there must be some group of people out there who could take real action to find and rescue behavior-mod students. Some kind of mercenaries; some kind of civic angels; someone he could impress. If he could show himself committed and worthy, if he could convince the right people that Matoike Kumi was so important she deserved a real life even more so than all her classmates wherever she was, if he could make the contacts that would extend outside the computer bulletin board and into his real life, into Kumi's – well, that would be what it would take to create the conditions for saving the girl.

It took more than a month for Hirose Konosuke to build Hiyose Konoko into someone who'd be accepted in just the right circles, but she finally got the invitation he'd been waiting for on 12-day 7-month. Konosuke was not quite as good at long-range planning as he thought himself to be, because it wasn't until he read all the way to the bottom, and saw the line saying "Attire: sailor fuku," that he finally realized the biggest problem with taking Konoko off the Net and into real life.