The reunion did not begin well. Instead of talking to each other her guests just sat down in chairs and stared at Kamioka Hanako. She tried to get them to play one of those so-called games that people used to play at parties, to introduce themselves and tell one interesting thing. When the third girl to stand up gave her student number and level instead of a name, that caused two more to go into panic attacks, while one simply burst into tears. Hanako had to call off the "game"; but maybe it was a success anyway, because after that people started to talk for real. Part of it was the conditioning – a lot of alumnae just couldn't bring themselves to talk about what had happened to them until they felt enough like they were among other students, to avoid triggering.
They exchanged names, and numbers. Some who couldn't handle listening to everything left the room for parts of it, or fortified themselves at the refreshment table the better to be separated from their feelings. They caught and threw out an undercover cop; the agent from Hinode Clan was better trained and remained undetected. Ait Siks Ait Level Three had spent some time in Naakanon and although she couldn't lead, she could make some suggestions on how to run the meeting and her ideas helped a lot.
And it took a couple of hours to finish the introductions, because nobody wanted to cut anybody off; but they made it all the way around the room, with each alumna outlining her story of how she'd stepped onto the Shining Path; how long she'd stayed there; points and level achieved; and always, how she left. For most, that was related to parental custody disputes. In a few cases the parents had run out of money, or just changed their minds. One other was like Hanako – released on her own recognizance after achieving the age of majority. No successful escapees. Not many had much to say about life in the real world after leaving school. That wasn't what they were here to share.
Hirose Konosuke had been sitting in the very back, almost hiding, trying not to interfere because he knew he was only just a guest. But someone called on him to speak, when they were almost done introducing everybody, and he did. He said the same thing he'd said to Kamioka Hanako when they were alone earlier, and this group wasn't particularly convinced or sympathetic, but whatever, at least they allowed him to stay.
They passed around a couple of bowls, and a couple of bottles, from the refreshments, and the party started to actually resemble a party. The talk did not get lighter, though. Kamioka Hanako knew she had done the right thing to organize the reunion – she was back on some Path even if not Shining – when the former Fife Wun Niner, Level Four, said to her, "You know, I hadn't been going to come to this meeting – I thought I wouldn't want to meet any of my old classmates – but now I'm here I couldn't imagine not having come."
Hanako noticed one girl hanging around off to the side instead of talking to the others, fidgeting. She saw the marks on the girl's arms, knew what those meant, and did the math – it had been a few hours since they'd all arrived. Going over to the girl, she said, "The washroom's down the hall, second door on the left, but if you go to the end and turn right, there's another one which probably nobody will go into it for a while." When the girl still looked uncertain, she said, gently but pointedly, "Peroxide wipes on the shelf and if you need to dispose of anything sharp there's a chute under the sink." The girl smiled, turned, and left the room.
It didn't take much to turn the party's conversation to revenge. That was on everybody's minds as soon as someone had the nerve to mention it. Kamioka Hanako was one of the few who had actually talked to a lawyer, but it didn't take a lawyer, listening to some of the stories, to figure out that there could be grounds for at least a lawsuit, maybe criminal charges. Hirose Konosuke was one of the ones, not the first but maybe the loudest, to say "Look, you all ought to be making statements to the police right now, before the statutes of limitations run out on this stuff–" and he was shouted down, amid more tears and panting panic attacks. Police cooperation was out of the question.
Dark ideas were raised about taking the law into more responsible hands than those of the police; more than a few of the alumnae had noticed enough things they recognized while walking through the Kamioka mansion to the rec room, to have some idea of whom they were dealing with. A couple had other contacts of their own, though not at a high enough level to offer any real alliances. But the majority just smiled sadly at the ideas and said no, it was a nice dream and they were glad to have the support of their former schoolmates, but they knew better than to think they could really change anything.
"It's only one school anyway, ne? I don't know if you've spent much time on the Net, but you know there are hundreds of places like Shining Path, and a few of them are even worse. Even if we could get it closed it's not like it would make any difference. Kids who make a wrong step are just going to end up on that kind of path and that's just the way it is. We can't really do anything, but thanks all of you for being here, that's enough–"
Kamioka Hanako had been preparing for this moment. "Okay, look. Let me tell you a story. This is one my Daddy told me, a lot of years ago."
"The same Daddy who sent you to – the school?"
"It wasn't him! Anyway, it's a simple story. Two people walking down a beach in the moonlight."
"Boyfriend and girlfriend?"
"Sure, why not. Anyway, the tide is way out and they come to this patch where there are all these starfish stranded on the beach. They'll dry out and die. So, the girl bends down and starts picking up the starfish and throwing them out into the water, to save them, right?
"And then the guy says, 'Hey, why bother? There's thousands of them. You can't hope to save them all. You can't even make a dent. A lot of the ones you pick up are probably too far gone and they'll die anyway. It doesn't matter to anybody what you're doing.' And the girl holds up the starfish she's about to throw in the water and says, 'It matters to this one.'"
"I don't get it."
"I get it, but it's stupid."
"Ever been to the beach and looked at a real starfish? They can live a long time out of water. They were surviving the tides long before there were any humans to throw them back. They just clench up – wait for the tide to come back in. It doesn't kill them, that's just how they live."
"That's not really the point, the story is just a metaphor–"
"A what? What's a meta–"
"Okay, Ms. Kamioka, what is really the point?"
"Okay. The point is, it doesn't matter if Shining Path is only one school. Yeah, I'd like to shut down every place like it, totally. But you know what, even if it's only one school, it's worth it. Even if I could only save one student so she didn't have to go there and go through what I went through, it would be worth it. You know how you lose something with every level and the later ones you lose a lot, until you're not human and no better than a – I'm sorry, Mr. Hirose, you know what I mean, just I saw too many friends stop being real people – even if, if I could only make it so just one student got out one level before she would have without me, it would be so totally worth it."
"Oh, come on, is it really that bad? Didn't seem to hurt me much. Honestly, some kids really do need a good scare to get them to shape up, and you seem to have survived–"
The drugs kept her face impassive, but Hanako had to swallow hard to keep from vomiting. She felt tired and weak, and worried that it was going to get away from her. She didn't address that last skeptic directly, but spoke to the group.
"You were all there. You know what it was like. Maybe you don't remember it all because they destroyed the part of your brain that lets you remember. But you've got to remember something, ne? I was Level Four. Level Four is the one all about what you'd be willing to do, I remember that damn mechanical bride asking me over and over what I would do. Do you remember? Remember looking out the window at the sunlight for the few seconds as you're walking down the hall in the morning because that's the only time it's allowed, and what you'd have been willing do or give to get out there in that sunlight? Remember not looking out the window because good girls don't? Remember what you would have done for a stick of gum? Remember what you'd have done to see your boyfriend again, if you had one? Remember not remembering your boyfriend, and what you'd have done or given just if you could keep that much of him? So what are you willing to do now? Me, I'll do anything it takes even if it really is just to make the tiniest little difference. Saving just one starfish, ne?"
"But you're not willing to go to the police."
"I just don't trust the police to help at all. The cops at Shining Path – okay, they weren't real police, we know that now, but the real ones aren't that much different. I – believe me, I've dealt with the police before. Which side do you think they're on? Not the side of the so-called juvenile delinquents, that's for sure. Who do you think pays for the police? And I really want to do the most I can, even if it ends up not being much. So, which side are you on? Are you with me? Come on, you've got to be with me."
"Can't we just take it to the newspaper? They get a big scoop, you know, 'Mainichi News reveals the inside story on behavior modification schools!' and there's a public outcry and the whole thing gets like Deconstructed in the scandal–"
"Someone's been watching too much threevee–"
"Yeah, like anybody'd care about us–"
"Hey, if we play up the, you know, fan service–"
"Quiet, all of you. The thing is, read the newspapers lately? They're all about this stupid balance idea. Never taking just one side of an issue, it can't be black and white right and wrong, it all has to be balanced. If we take our story to the media, okay, they interview us and make promises they'll break, and they write a column making us sound like middle schoolers whining about too much homework, and then just for, you know, balance, they run another column, equal length, on the other side of the page, and it's written by the Shining Path AI with that 'suasive-tech module, so it's all smooth and convincing – you remember how good they are with talking you into believing things? – and who ends up winning that debate?"
"Okay, yeah, I take back the idea." But at least the focus had changed – now they were all taking seriously the idea of doing something, and the question was what.
Hirose Konosuke coughed to draw attention, and it worked – they all turned to stare at him.
"You won't go to the police, and I agree, we shouldn't – but can we go to the joneko?"
About a third of the assembly said "What?" in unison.
"You know what joneko are like, or maybe you don't, but I live with one – no, not like that – but first of all, they're all about independence, ne? They all call themselves queens because it's like every joneko is supposedly the queen of herself. Ever hear that slogan 'Somebody let out us the bag!' and do you know what it means? And they think we, humanoids I mean, both organic and seru, they think we're cute, kawaii, like, uh, puppies. Joneko always want to pet you and take care of you, and they think defying your parents is a virtue. So. I bet if joneko heard about Shining Path, they wouldn't like it at all, it'd be like abusing cute puppies in front of a human girl–"
"What's wrong with abusing puppies?"
"Are you sure you're human?"
"Last I checked–"
"Shut up. Anyway he's right, we need some kind of backup or at least training or something. If I get a vote, I vote we talk to the joneko. Can't hurt, right?"
They argued it back and forth. Nobody was really enthusiastic – not even Hirose Konosuke, when he started thinking carefully about the ginger and her smugness and roughhousing. Joneko might think disobedience was a virtue, but they also might think throwing humanoid children into a place like Shining Path would be just the perfect way to inculcate a wholesome disrespect for authority. The idea that it might cause real, lasting psychological harm and be a bad thing that actually should be stopped, might be alien to their minds. He wasn't sure, but he suspected that the joneko language didn't even have a word for "cruelty." Like fish probably didn't have a word for water.
That was not the main objection they brought up in the meeting. A skinny girl, who had traded her school-issue contact lenses for wire-rimmed glasses on the very day of her discharge four years ago and by now was losing her hair from constant stimulant abuse ever since, waited for a lull in the conversation and said, "I don't know that I want to just sic a pack of joneko on the school and sit back and watch. Shouldn't we be doing this ourselves, all by ourselves? It's our revenge, not some joneko's."
She spoke for a lot of them, because for all Kamioka Hanako could make clever speeches about starfish, that wasn't what had brought this group of young human women and Hirose Konosuke together, not at all. They each had feelings of their own that had to be satisfied very personally. There were a lot of specific grudges long-remembered and recently refreshed by the reminiscences earlier in the evening.
The girl with the glasses pressed her point further: "Maybe it's going to take us a year or more to get ready because we're being so careful and cautious, but then nine months from today the cops, I mean the real police, well, someone does complain to them even if we wouldn't, and they shut the Shining Path down completely and we never get to take our own revenge at all?"
"Hey, does it matter as long as it's shut down by somebody? If that happens before we can get it together to do it ourselves, all the better."
"If it's so important to do it ourselves we'd better just take taxis up there and make a heroic charge at the security fence, unarmed, ne? Even though we know they'll just shoot us, just because the school could be obliterated by a kaiju weapons accident tomorrow or something–"
"You think the cops will punish the, uh, the other cops, as much as they deserve? Probably just the company goes bankrupt and the board of governors walks free and the AI, even it lives forever on backup discs, there's no real retribution in that and the score never gets settled at all–"
"Let's remember our real goals here. The big thing is to save those students, like Miss Hanako said–"
"Remember it's not like we really have to leave it all to someone else. Mr. Hirose just said maybe we could get some help from the joneko, we'd still be doing it mostly ourselves."
"Yeah, like joneko are going to just 'help' and not take over everything as soon as they're involved. You know what joneko are like."
"Yeah. I want to get my hands around a couple of necks and it has to be me who does it, not a joneko or the government or anybody. My honor won't be satisfied otherwise."
"Yeah. It has to be us. So thanks for the idea, Mr. Hirose, but no it has to be us and honestly, I'm not even certain you have a right to be here–"
"So is that what it's all about? It's all about honor? Really? I'm disappointed in you all."
Kamioka Hanako needed to make a theatrical gesture. She would have drawn a line in the sand with her sword, if she had had a sword and some sand; she almost considered trying to do something like that with one of her grandfather's billiard cues, but decided it would look silly and settled for words.
"We've got to be clear about this, there can't be going back later. And I've got to know if you're really with me or not. I'm here because I want to win and I'll give up my honor and my revenge if that's what it takes to win. I want to save just one starfish, that's what I'm here for. Mr. Hirose, what about you? Do you want honor, or do you want to win?"
"I want to win. You know that, Miss Kamioka."
She turned to one of the girls, the one with the marks on her arms. "What about you?"
She asked every one of them in turn, careful to choose the ones she was sure about first, so by the time she got to the girls who really might choose honor, there was too much pressure on them and they all had to say they wanted victory. It was something her father had done once, years ago, and proudly told her about afterward – though of course that time, "honor" had been the answer he was convincing his men to give.