Chapter Nineteen, "Resurrection and Life," on Fanfiction.Net
Something I notice a lot when reading fanfiction is the scarcity of first-person and, strangely, the correlation of first person with present tense. The first person itself is a deliciously tempting perspective, and it's not one I see done well often. Just in dialogue, people have to be able to talk in a distinctive manner--word choice and variation of grammatical structure are pivotal to making characters distinct even when you avoid the more obvious means of varying speech patterns, accents in particular. I dare say it's much stronger to keep the former two effects in mind rather than pepper someone's dialogue with contracted vowels. There's a great difference between a chair and a recliner or stool.
First person really takes that to another level; everything described and seen has to be filtered through one character's eyes and ears. It's not easy, and all too often I read what's not filtered through the character but through the author--the vocabulary and focus simply match...well, a teenager. And that's great for characters that are teenagers, but ironically, there are things about the way teenagers talk that grate after a while and should be avoided. Like, talking this way is so totally annoying when you do it for page after page and stuff. One of the examples I remember best is Huckleberry Finn; Twain starts with his accent very heavily shown, but by the end of the book, it's toned down considerably, and I don't think the suggestion was that Huck's speech had improved. Rather, Twain dials it down after you get the point. It's intentional, and by being intentional, he can control it finely.
The second aspect of this phenomenon is the present tense. Often times I see the present used ubiquitously when there's a lot more power to the tense used in scarcity. Present can be used for a sense of immediacy, for example. Writing a whole story in present tense just comes off as overly conversant and amateurish. I personally like to see present used to give a contrast between what the character thought at the time and what they might think now, in hindsight, but that's if you subscribe to the notion of a character actually writing it, I suppose.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Chapter Nineteen, "Resurrection and Life," on Fanfiction.Net
Sunday, April 26, 2009
I split part 5 into two, but I'm still not quite happy with the chapter. I need to hammer down the passage of time, for instance, as I mentioned earlier. Aside from that very dry exercise, however, I have the idea of reading the chapter aloud and playing it back to myself, to see what I pick up about the rhythm of it all. Reading the chapter aloud is something I got out of habit of doing when I was faced with vowels and consonants that originated in Japanese but whose English analogues don't seem to match the way I want to hear them. Still, it could be useful.
While I got stuck on a tricky situation in part five, I started writing for Ranma. Nothing I could say I'd want to publish just yet (I veered way off in the contemplative end of the scale, even using MZephyr's story idea, which I wouldn't publish at all without some measure of permission--that story I will refer to by the provisional title I've given it, however: "Glimpse"), but it was refreshing to write some different characters, see how dramatic structure works outside of the very narrow confines I've set myself for Echoes. That said, it did break a rule of not having multiple projects (of real writing) at once. I have looked at outlining Identity or Eclipse from time to time, with little success. It may be I can be more productive with a couple different things to work on. I'll have to see.
Anyway, I plan to edit and publish "Resurrection and Life," study for my lovely solid state final on Monday, and then get to outlining "The Prodigal Daughter."
Chapter Nineteen: Resurrection and Life
“What’s going to happen to me, Papa?”
Father and daughter—well, daughter’s navi—sat at the dinnertable, the former sipping tea, the latter mimicking his motions with a virtualcup and kettle.
“How do you mean?” said Hideki.
“We both know what’s happening.” She gestured to thecorner…and a pile of bent wheels, frayed wires, and severed spokes.
“It was just an accident,” said her father. “Nothing more.”
“Masuyo-chan’s lucky she didn’t hurt herself,” said Imi. “You know what happened? She lost control. Her hand jammed the control stickforward and she couldn’t make it stop.”
“We’ll get a new one, a better one. I’ll want you pluggedinto it full-time, just in case that happens again.”
“She’s dying, Papa.”
Hideki tapped his cup for a moment then took a large gulp ofhis tea. “We knew that.”
“I mean…” She glanced up the stairs. “…soon.”
“And that’s why you’re concerned?”
“No!” She winced. “I mean, well, you asked me to makeMasuyo-chan happy, right? I’ve tried to do that, after all.”
“And you’ve succeeded, I’d say,” said Hideki. “When youcould, anyway.”
She blushed. “Thank you, Papa. I’ll keep doing everythingI can right until the end, but…I can’t help think about it. What happensnext? When Masuyo-chan is gone, what do we do?”
“I try not to think about it.”
“Put it this way, Imi. I created you with a purpose, butyou can choose for yourself now. I’ll have to find some way to live withMasuyo being gone, and so will you. We’ll manage somehow.” He put his teadown. “No need to dwell right this second, anyway. We’ll both find a way…tocope.”
He blinked. “Come again?”
“That’s what family does, isn’t it? We help each othercope.”
Hideki frowned at this remark. “Come on; I’m sure Masuyo’swaiting for you.” He carried the PET upstairs.
“It’s not weird, is it?” she asked him. “I just feel likeif she’s gone, I won’t know what to do.”
“It’s not strange, no. I expect,” he said with a sigh,“I’ll feel the same for a while. You’ll think of something.”
“And you, Papa?”
“I don’t know. Since Chouko died and Masuyo fell ill…well,can you blame a man for thinking there’s not much left for him in this world,when all things precious to him are gone?”
“Don’t think about these things too hard, Imi,” he said,hovering outside his daughter’s door. “Go to Masuyo; get some rest. I’ll seeyou both in the morning.”
She nodded once, and Hideki ducked inside the place the PETon the desk.
“Good night, Papa,” said his daughters.
He closed the door and went back downstairs, but already histea was cold.
“Don’t you worry, Imi,” he told the empty kitchen. “You’resmart. You’ll think of something. Just when I think Masuyo’s done smiling,you think of something. You always do.”
At the same time, that ingenuity troubled him. Of coursehe’d been naïve—to think that Imi wouldn’t move beyond her original programmingor intentions. She was her own person, after all, his creation.
He jerked, and cold tea splashed over the table and onto thefloor. No, no, that wasn’t his intention! He created Imi for Masuyo, not tosucceed her!
But clearly Imi didn’t see things that way. She consideredherself part of the family. “That’s what family does, isn’t it?” she’d said. “We help each other cope.”
He blotted the mess with paper towels. It was a sillythought, and all too far away at that. Masuyo still lived and breathed in hishome. All else could wait—her death and his live afterward.
His…and Imi’s. Somehow, they would cope.
Are you happy, Papa? Do you like how I’m coping withwhat you did?
A Mach Burst scored the pavement, and stark red bicycle hurtledand snapped in two.
It was only fair, after all. If Papa wanted her to breakdown, who was she to disobey? She could break down. She could break down hard. Clearly that wasn’t enough, though. Her father’s work always had unintendedconsequences. If he’d destined her to collapse to rubble and dust…well, socould the rest of the world. Humans built these cities with their hands andminds, just like he built her. Both would have to fall; the choir demanded it.
They sang for it. They chanted for it. Dissonant melodiespunctuated Imi’s wrath; explosions were the percussion to their symphony. Imihoped that soon, her father would come out and hear her clearly, that he wouldknow the music of her mind, the violent, screeching cacophony.
Hear me, Papa. Come out!
The sky lit up, in hues from red to gold to violet.
Imi floated to ground level. R Blues walked calmly to thecenter of the street, even as civilians fled behind him.
“You’re not Papa,” said Imi. “Where is he?”
“You know the deal. Surrender yourself, and we’ll give youthe cure. You’ll be well and with your father.”
The choir shouted and screamed! Their cries sundered theworld, warped her vision. Imi doubled over, her hands over her ears.
“I may be with Papa,” she said, “but I can’t be well likethis! Ice Cube! Mach Burst!”
The block slid over the street, and the wave shattered it inall directions, spraying Enzan with a barrage of chunks and shards. Heshielded himself with his back, but a pellet struck his thigh, and he fell to aknee.
“It’ll take more than that, Echo!” he said. “Much more!”
“It always does with you,” said Imi. “So be it.”
The first Meteor chewed through a skyscraper and cratered inan intersection, to the choir’s thunderous applause.
“Stop this!” yelled Roll. “Listen! What do you get byencouraging her? Tell me!”
“Listen to Roll-chan!” said Rockman. “She’s only trying tohelp; you’re the ones who keep this mess going!”
The death chant quieted. It gave way to quiet chuckles,sinister laughter.
“What do you know!”
“Don’t tell me you forgot your pain!”
“Revenge is the only thing she understands!”
“We’re not the puzzle you think us, you know.”
Roll and Rockman exchanged a glance. “Do you think…?” shesaid. “Is it…?”
A single voice, clear and consistent, snickered at theirpredicament. “I’m surprised you two are still at it. It’s a deliciouslysimple enigma, considering.”
The voice took form, hovered at the edge of the spotlightthat enveloped Rockman and Roll. A creamy pattern of perpendicular lines adornedhis face.
“Mazeman!” said Rockman.
“Not just me,” he corrected. “We’re all here. We’ve alwaysbeen here.”
One by one, the other stepped to the boundary, the dividingline between light and shadow: Grove stood tall, her flowers in full bloom. Slateman crossed his arms behind his back, and his joints ground against oneanother. Rouletteman spun his central wheel.
“Ah, but wait,” said Mazeman. “There’s more!”
At Rouletteman’s right, a fifth figure emerged: an angryPickman, who chopped at the air with his penetrating hands. And then, last butnot least, a sixth navi, with booming speakers in his chest.
“I was the first,” said Sonicman. “I was alone with her, inher mind, for so long…”
Beyond the circle, the other denizens of the choir—nameless,faceless—crowded around, as if their survival depended on this confrontation. When Sonicman spoke, however, they erupted in unfeeling outrage, and Grovedecided to speak for them.
“You drove her to insanity,” she said. “You condemned therest of us to something worse than death—this life!”
“It’s not my fault!” The broad-shouldered navi shut hiseyes and sobbed. “We drove each other mad, I’m sure. The rest of you werelucky, you know. You can’t tell me you didn’t hear my whispers and takecomfort knowing someone else was here.”
“Fat lot of good that did,” said Slateman. “You were stillfirst! At least when we came into the picture, she was already a murderer! You did it to yourself; you got yourself killed!”
“There was no way I was going to spend the rest of mylife trapped in this girl’s mind!” said Sonicman. “You feel it too, don’tyou? The helplessness? The fear and anger that aren’t even yours? I tried tobe nice, but she was indecisive. She was afraid. So scared of her father togo back to him. Well what about me? What was I supposed to do? Well, I wastired of it, and I spoke my mind.” He met Roll’s gaze. “And you two—are youtrying to tell me you don’t feel it?”
Roll looked away. Even here, nestled among the choir, Imi’sactions haunted her. As the battle raged in the streets of Choina, it was asif she fought Enzan and Blues, not Imi. She pelted him in Vulcan rounds,swiped at the air with a heavy Gold Fist. She clawed and pounded the ground asthe cyberbeast Greiga. Such awesome, terrible power, to collapse whole roadsin a single punch, to vaporize buildings in a Spread Gun salvo.
And she was tired of it. Exhausted with these sensationsthat weren’t her own, of sharing her mind with this deranged, sad little girl.
“That’s why this has to stop,” said Roll. “That’s why allof you need to help us stop it.”
Pickman jammed his tip into the ground. “I’ll have no partof this! Let the little witch suffer; she’s destroying everything she holdsdear before she dies! Why not let her?”
“It’s fitting,” said Grove. “She took us away fromeverything we knew. Now she’s doing the same to herself. I welcome it.”
Roll opened her mouth, but a new voice—a seventh voice—rosein response.
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
Between Sonicman and Pickman, the newcomer entered thespotlight alongside Rockman and Roll, her blue braids bright and beautiful.
“Egami-san!” said Grove. “You’re—”
“Here,” said Egami. “And you knew that, and I’ve been quietfor so long now.”
“You died seconds after you touched her. You couldn’t knowwhat it was like.”
“But I did, for a little while. I felt all manner of hatredand resentment and anguish, not only from the choir but you, too. Youespecially, since you were the only one still out there, talking to her.”
The eggplant navi shrank slightly. Egami’s gaze bored intoher. “But I can explain!”
“You don’t need to,” said Egami. “I should’ve been here.”
“That’s absurd. You couldn’t have been here even if youwanted. She couldn’t have touched you when she touched me.”
“Even still, if I’d been here, would you have been soangry?”
Grove bowed her head.
“Think we can change things now?”
The eggplant nodded. “I’ll help. However I can, I’llhelp.” She stepped forward, and four souls bathed in the spotlight. “Well?”she asked the others. “Aren’t you coming?”
“I’d rather die than help Echo,” said Slateman. “I don’tcare what you call it.”
“And if Yukawa-san were out there?” asked Roll. “What wouldyou do then?”
“He could’ve been.” Roll scanned the group. “Any of youroperators could’ve been. Murata-san, Ikeda-san…” She looked to Mazeman andPickman. “I’m afraid I don’t know your operators, but you know what I mean,don’t you? Don’t any of you?”
Mazeman shrugged and skipped into the circle. “Why not. This could be fun.”
As did Rouletteman. “I owe Kousuke-kun that much, to doright by him, even if I’m really dead.”
“Will it thwart the little girl?” asked Pickman.
“If we all speak together,” said Rockman, “I think we can doanything.”
Begrudgingly, Pickman entered the ring as well.
“Sonicman?” said Roll. “Slateman?”
Sonicman smiled wanly. “She was a nice girl, for a while. Maybe we can bring her back to her senses.”
With Roll and Rockman, the light shone on eight souls, andonly Slateman was partially visible. “You can stay out, if you like,” saidRoll, “but I think there are others who want in if you don’t.”
Indeed, the rest of the choir poked and prodded at the arcof line and shadow.
“You’d be left all alone,” she warned Slateman. “Alone inthe dark.”
Slateman huffed, but he too joined the circle, and hisentrance opened the gates to others. The beam widened, and all manner ofdeceased souls—Imi’s victims all—flooded the expanding beacon of light. Policenavis, men, women, children…
The digital canine burrowed his way through the choir andjumped into Roll’s arms.
“Oh, I’ve missed you too, Rush,” she said. “I’ve missed youso much…”
Tap tap. “You did it, Roll-chan. Look around you.”
Sure enough, the veil of darkness had receded, leaving thechoir wholly engulfed in light—the inner light that’d started with Roll andspread among them, but the crowd parted for a guest, and the silver strands inher hair glittered in the collective glow.
“They’re all ready,” said Masuyo.
“For what?” asked Roll.
“For you to lead them.”
Enzan braced, but the beam caught him unawares. He tumbledand rolled, sprawled on the pavement, and stared at the sky—a gorgeous bluesky. Were that all he saw, he’d never have known the burning cars on thestreet, the severed I-beams that jutted from the ground…
…the glowing Paladin Sword that dangled over his neck.
“Shall I show you, Enzan-san? Do you need to understand?”
He scoffed. “I do what I do, and I do it well. I’m notinterested in your suffering or whatever it is you call it.”
Imi smiled. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you. That’s why you don’t need to die.”
Her sword lowered, but only to the level of his chest, tothe black and white emblem emblazoned upon it.
“Blues-san, however, is something made.” In a short motion,she stabbed into the navi symbol and cut a divot from the center. Enzan’sarmor disintegrated around him, and his PET coalesced from the remnants,shorting and cracked.
“And everything made breaks.”
Hikari Netto gawked at the screen. His feet clapped on thesidewalk and slowed him to a halt.
“What is it, Netto?” asked Meiru. “What…” Her eyeswidened. “Oh no, Enzan…”
They turned back. The dimensional area loomed in thedistance. Netto had been determined to keep tabs on Enzan, but now…
“Papa, Nakamura-hakase, I…” He closed his mouth, at aloss. Enzan knew what he was getting into, surely, what with this desperategambit to distract Imi. Netto, too, had his responsibility to Nakamura, to allof them.
But I owe Enzan something. For all the time I spent withhim, I owe him. He shut his eyes. Nii-san, what should I do?
‘Enzan and Blues were kinder to us than they ever neededto be. Maybe it’s time we repaid them.’
It’s past time that we did, hasn’t it?
“Netto, go,” said Yuuichirou. “We’ll be all right.”
I hope so. Netto cast his sling aside and dashedback down the street, headed for the area.
“It’s madness,” said Hideki. “There’s no one to protect usnow.”
Codey appeared on his shoulder. “Maybe we should go wherethey are, where onee-san is.”
“And do what?”
“If anyone can stop onee-san now, Papa, it’s you.”
The father and scientist sighed. He shouldered his laptopbag and gazed into the distance, where Netto’s form shrank with each step.
“Oh, this is a mistake,” he muttered, and he trotted thepath before him, in Netto’s trail, hoping he hadn’t let Imi go a step too far.
But some let things go so far that they no longer have anychoice. They stare at a white, speckled ceiling. They breathe through plastictubes. Their eyes droop and flicker and fall…
And then they snap open, for a while. Nakamura Masuyo movedher lips, but she didn’t speak—rather, she gasped for air. A clear plastictube snaked up her nose and into her chest, feeding an oxygen-rich mixture intoher lungs, but for all the good her father thought it would do, Masuyo stillwinced at the thought of something so invasive inside her.
Well, she wanted to wince. All day she’d been sotired, but no one would let her sleep. She couldn’t nod off without her fathersqueezing her hand or—
Or Imi yelping to keep her awake.
“It’s all right, Imi,” said Hideki. “Let her sleep.”
“But Papa, you said—”
“I know what I said.” He stroked Masuyo’s hair. Thepristine strands sparkled and dazzled, and for just a moment, Masuyo managed aweak smile.
“You always liked my hair too much, Papa,” she said.
“To tell the truth, it reminds me of your mother.”
Her gaze drifted to the ceiling again. “I’m looking forwardto meeting her.”
“I just wish it could’ve been here, with you and Imi, andnot…over there.”
Hideki wiped a tear away and brushed stray hairs from hereyes. “I’m sure she’s waiting for you and loves you dearly, just like Imidoes, just like…just like I do.”
She beamed. “I know, Papa. I love you, too.” She lookedto the desk. “I love you, Imi.”
The white navi gaped slightly, unsettled. “I…love you too,Masuyo-chan.”
Satisfied, Masuyo lay back, and her eyes inched shut. “Timeto rest now, I think. Been such a busy…day. Always…so busy…”
Father and daughters sat quietly in the artist’s bedroom;her drawings adorned the walls. By now, Hideki knew the story behind everysketch, for it’d been some time since Masuyo could produce another. Herdelicate, gentle hands betrayed her intentions, but Hideki massaged themanyway, held them tight between his, felt his racing pulse against her steady,slow beat.
For a while. He didn’t have a timer, a watch, or ametronome. Were they getting slower, or was it just his imagination? Was hisdaughter, right here, right now—
A sigh. Short and sweet and almost inaudible. Hidekipressed his fingers against her wrist, checking, scrambling. It was warm, butthat was all. No pulse, no life, no more Masuyo.
“Oh my baby girl!” He climbed onto the bed, propped thebody up with his hands, and hugged it one more time. “I knew this was coming,”he sobbed, “but…if only I could see you smile, one more time, it’d be worthit. It’d be worth everything to me…”
“It’s all right, Papa,” she whispered. “I’ll always be withyou. I’ll always smile.”
His eyes flew open. It couldn’t be; was she…?
He gripped her shoulders and pushed her away, studying herface. Lifeless and serene it was, but surely it hadn’t spoken. Where had thevoice come from?
Not her lips, not her body. The source lay somewhere elsein this room. He looked to the right, to the pile of stuffed animals, but theyobserved the scene in quiet mourning. He checked left—the desk, the drawingpad—and all seemed to be in order.
Except his daughter stood, mere inches high, on polishedmahogany.
“What is this?” said Hideki. “What are you doing, Masu—” He shook himself. “Imi?”
“You don’t have to cry, Papa,” she said with Masuyo’s voice,her likeness, her beauty. “See? I’m her now, and you won’t have to miss her. You won’t have to be sad, Papa!”
Stunned, he left the bed, and Masuyo’s body bounced on themattress. “This is what you decided, isn’t it? When Masuyo was gone, youthought you could replace her? You thought you could be her?”
“I thought you’d be happy! This is what you made me to do,isn’t it? Make people happy?”
He looked away. Even now, she kept Masuyo’s image as herown. To think he argued with his dead daughter, even by proxy—it sickened him.
“Not like this,” said Hideki. “Never like this!”
He stormed off, but Imi called after him, this time with herown voice. “But Papa, wait! I love you! Papa…!”
“Get out of here, Imi!” he yelled back.
“You’ve fulfilled your purpose; I don’t want you hereanymore, you understand? I don’t need you here anymore. GET OUT!”
Always the obedient daughter, Imi fled the PET, and onlyonce, in the weeks that passed, did she ever look back.
The dimensional area fell, its fifteen-minute window nowexpired.
“You should really tell me where he is, Enzan-san,” saidImi, holding him at sword-point. “Blues-san doesn’t look well.”
Muffled grunts and groans emanated from the cracked anddented PET. Each spark shorted Blues’s data, and Enzan was helpless tointervene.
“Where is Papa?” she asked him. “Where have you taken him?”
Enzan glared. “I tell you nothing.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There are lots of ways to bebroken. Maybe Blues-san will lose a little more of his programming, the codethat makes him so loyal to you, and then he’ll blame this all on your head. Maybe you’ll blame yourself for not acting sooner, and he’ll be gone for good.”
“You can try that,” said Enzan, “but Blues and I have beento the depths of hell and back and survived. We defeated the corruption ofDark Chips, the judgment of Duo!”
Despite his master’s confidence, Blues stifled a scream, andEnzan’s cheeks paled.
“You’re lucky, though,” said Imi. “They’re so quiet now. If they were yelling, if they were screaming…I think I’d have to kill you. Butthis is better, isn’t it? This is much worse than if I killed you. Now youhave to watch your navi die, just like Papa made me go, just like Papa—”
She flinched. Down the street, Netto stood poised and firm,fire in his eyes.
“You see?” she told Enzan. “There’s someone I broke a whileago. I used to be sorry, but now…I think it was fair, better that I do it thansomeone else.” She walked the street like a pedestrian, ignoring the overturnedcars or broken asphalt. “You know you can’t stop me if you hold back,Netto-san, Rockman-san,” she said. “And you don’t trust yourself to give in tohis hate, do you, Netto-san?”
“You’re wrong, Imi,” said Netto, a new dimensional areaforming overhead. “This time it’s different. This time, we won’t lose!”
He bathed in the light of transformation. The glowilluminated the street like a second sun peeking through the clouds, but Imipermitted his boldness only so far as it amused her. She could let them feelpower and confidence and cut them down ever more harshly for it. Netto emergedfrom the sphere of light as R Rockman…
…and ate a Dream Sword to the face.
He slammed into the area wall, a hundred meters behind. Atthis spectacle, Meiru and Yuuichirou sped from the shadows and to his side. Helooked at them weakly and rubbed his shoulder, wincing.
“So everyone’s here,” Imi mused. “And Papa?”
“We’re right here, onee-san.”
Hideki shot the boy a look, but he couldn’t hide himselfnow. He inched forward from an alley, sneaking only brief glances at hiscreation.
“Do you see what you made me to be now, Papa?” she asked.
“You can come home, now, onee-san,” said Codey. “Papa hasthe cure, see?” He pointed to the laptop bag, which Hideki clutched tightly.
“A cure?” She chuckled, laughed, cackled to the winds. “Idon’t care about any cure! I don’t care about living! Even if I survive, I’mstill broken, Codey-kun, and Papa can’t bear to look at me!” She shot him awithering stare. “Can you, Papa?”
“I never meant to—”
“You did this to me!” she cried. “You sent me out and leftme with these…” She banged her own palm against her head. “These navis,these people!”
“I didn’t know!”
“YOU DIDN’T CARE!” She stepped forward, sword in hand.
“No, onee-san, don’t do this!”
“BE QUIET!” She slashed, and Hideki held up the only thingin his hands to defend himself.
The laptop bag. Circuits and letter keys sprinkled theground, fused with the heat and energy of the Paladin Sword.
But Imi was undeterred. She marched forth, cornering Hidekias the alley came to a dead end. “It’s all right, Papa. You always wanted tobe with Masuyo-chan. Now you get to be.”
She raised the sword high.
A score of voices resounded at once. Imi’s sword stuck inthe ground, and Hideki shrank from it.
“What?” said Imi. “All of you—you talk to me together?”
The shrill screech faded away, and a clear voice spoke toher over silence. ‘That’s enough, Imi-chan,’ said Roll. ‘No more ofthis. We won’t let you.’
‘THAT’S ENOUGH!’ the choir roared. ‘NO MORE!’
She trembled. She paced in circles. “No, no! You can’t dothis! You can’t do this to me! I’m in control; you can’t stop me!” She pulled the sword back and thrust!
The blade dissolved, and she thrust—punched—at air.
“It can’t be,” she mumbled. “All of you together, talkingat the same time…”
She glanced back down the alley, toward the street. Nettospread his arms wide, and two Spread Guns enveloped his arms.
The white shield glowed…
In the pale light of the Hyper Burst, Nakamura Hideki viewedthe world clearly, for the first time in too long. He saw Hikari Netto—his ownattack cast him with a pale glow, and Hideki wondered if the dark blues ofRockman’s armor were actually a lighter shade instead.
He saw Imi, too, defenseless and terrified. She bore theimpact fully; it blasted her through the yellow brick wall behind them and forseveral meters beyond.
He saw Codey, who could derive no joy in the scene beforehim. He loved his sister, after all, and their futures both lay with thesevered laptop, chopped in half and splattered on the ground.
And when the beam passed, he saw the world in darkness, aplace where daughters kill their fathers, and fathers murder their children. Heroes attack the weak, for they are the weak when their closestpartners and friends disappear in front of their eyes, bit by bit.
He saw the world in darkness, for Netto’s Hyper Burstskewered the building behind them, and a brick avalanche loomed above.
He put the PET to his chest and huddled over it. “Codey?”
“I’m sorry too.”
And a ton of bricks rained down upon them.
“I hope you can understand.”
Nakamura Hideki sat in his bedroom, his favorite chair. Thechair faced the window, and he rocked back and forth, admiring the night.
“You wouldn’t want her around doing things like that, wouldyou?”
He traced his fingers around the top of an object. Therewas a cold, round lip and an opening that led to air. He put the lid on it,however, and held the round knob at the top instead.
“I know she was your friend,” he said, “but I couldn’t haveher around, reminding me of you every day. I think about you enough as it is.”
He tapped his nail on the ceramic and felt the vibrationsthat resulted. It was like she could talk to him, through these echoes, and hefelt her regret.
“She’s just a navi,” he told her. “She’s not…she couldn’t…”
A weak voice in the night cut off his excuses. “Papa? Papa!”
A lump formed in his throat. He slid the rocking chairsideways, away from the window. “Couldn’t be…”
“Papa, where are you?”
He tiptoed down the hall, urn in hand. What was she doingback here? Hadn’t he made it clear? Hadn’t he told her…?
“Papa! I can’t stay much longer, Papa!” The words cut outin the middle and wobbled.
PET’s losing power. After all this time, the battery’sfinally run down. He hovered outside the door. When the power was gone,she’d have no way back. It was the last chance, and yet…he couldn’t bringhimself to go inside. If only she would go away and stay gone! He wanted nopart of her life; she belonged to the past, a past with Masuyo! What could shepossibly want from him now?
“Don’t you love me, Papa?”
There was a flicker and click. He peeked inside; Imi wasgone. He closed the door and shook his head. “It’s better this way,” hemumbled, to himself and the urn. “I can’t give her my love. First it was yourmother, then you…”
He slid back into the rocking chair, set sideways againstthe window now.
“Can’t I just be alone now?” he asked. “With you?”
He rapped on the side of the urn again, but the vibrationsdied off quickly, a resounding silence.
Such was the greeting he received when he awoke in ahospital bed. Sure, there was noise. Nurses babbled in Choinan, and atelevision in the corner showcased the devastation of the afternoon, but itmight as well have been silent. These sounds held no meaning to him.
He sat up and groaned. Bumps and bruises ached andthrobbed. Bandages stuck to his forehead, his arms.
“You’re awake.” Stoic as ever, Ijuuin Enzan sat besidehim. “I know better than to leave someone in hospital to anyone else’s watchnow,” he explained.
Hideki huffed. So it was. Still, it was miraculous. He should’vebeen crushed under all that debris. “How did I…?”
“Survive? That was Netto. He took most of the impact. He’sfine, too, although I think they had to reset his shoulder.” Enzan frowned. “He seems tougher now.”
“Did you recover…?”
“Your laptop? Hikari-hakase has been looking through thefragments, but most of the data has been lost.”
Of course it was lost; she sliced it in half. But still,he’d hoped some of it could be recovered, for Codey’s sake. His lifedepended…on…
Enzan blinked. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? He was there! I washolding his PET!”
“You weren’t when Netto brought you out,” said Enzan. “Youmust’ve dropped it.”
Hideki closed his eyes and pressed both hands against histemples. Pain surged within him for a moment, twisting his face in pain.
“Careful, the drugs may be wearing off.”
Drugs? How long…? He looked to the window. The blindswere closed, but clearly no sunlight shone through them. “It’s dark.”
“You’ve been out for hours.”
“Hours? How many hours?”
“Four or five?”
Imprecise. He needed to know exactly. He checkedhis watch.
00:34:15. 14. 13.
“There’s not enough time,” he whispered. “We have to findhim.”
“His PET is probably under a ton and a half of rubble;it’s—”
Hideki shot him a death stare. “We have to find him! Don’tyou understand? He’s my…he’s my…”
Enzan looked at him coolly, his deep blue eyes steady withthought.
“I’ll get a car,” he said. “We’ll go at once.”
Hideki unhooked his watch and held the face between histhumb and forefinger.
It doesn’t matter that I have nothing. Codey’s smart; hecan think of something. We can piece back the solution together, and he’sgoing to live. I may have made him a little boy, but he’s strong, and he’sgoing to fight! He’s not going to fall over and die on cue!
But the seconds ticked off mercilessly and without pity. Enzan borrowed the driver’s PET and yelled at the Choinan authorities in fourdifferent languages to get them through the debris, the closed-off streets. Atthe ten minute mark, Hideki put the watch in his pocket. He didn’t want to seethe numbers anymore.
They arrived at the scene, and spotlights highlighted thebrick pile for workers to clear the rubble.
“They’re not going fast enough,” said Hideki. “They need togo faster!”
He ran from the car, dove into the pile, tossed bricks asidewith his bare hands. The Choinan workers yelled at him and ducked theprojectiles, but he didn’t care. “Codey!” he yelled. “Are you in there? Talkto me, boy!”
Was that a voice? Could he hear him in there?
Was he alive?
“Codey! Codey, come on, give me a sign!” He kicked thepile, banging his toe on hard brick. “Codey!”
Beep-beep-beep-beep. Beep-beep-beep-beep. Beep-beep-beep-beep.
00:00:00. The black numbers flashed across the watch face,a digital death knell. Hideki closed his eyes and breathed in, shook his headand walked away. Enzan peered one more time through the rubble, but Hidekibuckled his seatbelt and stared straight ahead, his motions jerky and mechanical.
“I killed my son today,” he said, “and Imi is next.”
She curled into a ball and held herself, but what tremors offear she could suppress, a dozen more wracked her body, the progressive effectsof degeneration, a breaking down.
This is what you wanted, isn’t it, Roll-san? Masuyo-chan?
‘No, Imi-chan,’ said Roll. ‘This isn’t what wewanted at all. I don’t think anybody wanted this, but it’s what’s happening. Accept it.’
Papa and Codey-kun can be happy together. I don’t careanymore. I can’t care anymore. I almost killed him. I would’ve killedhim—my papa. She pressed her head against her knees. I’m just tired ofbeing broken! Why couldn’t he fix me? Because he never wanted to?
‘Maybe if you stopped thinking you were broken in thefirst place…’
I still hear you.
But there was something else, too. The reintegration ofdata, an arrival in her quiet corner of cyberspace.
“It’s…Codey-kun?” She sat up. “Again?”
“Onee-san…” The boy staggered as his weight returned tohim. He stumbled and collapsed.
She ran, but her legs gave out before him. The children ofNakamura faced one another, flat on the ground.
“Why aren’t you with Papa?” she asked. “Why aren’t youwell?”
“You chopped through his laptop,” he said. “All the datawas there. Didn’t you know?”
The white navi gaped and quivered. “I didn’t know!”
“It doesn’t matter.” He rolled over, on his back, and hiserratic breaths interrupted his thoughts. “He wasn’t finished. He didn’t cometo find me. I was stuck between the bricks. How did you survive, onee-san?”
“Roll-san and Masuyo-chan let me escape. They won’t permitanything else.”
“I don’t under…under…” He winced, tensing and panting. “Never mind. It’s far past time anyway. I should be gone already, but I wasafraid…”
Imi pushed herself up, sat on her knees. She draggedCodey’d head to her lap and wrapped her arms around him. “I never meant tohurt you,” she whispered. “I hope you can believe that.”
“You haven’t meant a lot of things, onee-san,” he noted. “You’ve done some of them, but…” His gaze drifted, darting back and forth. “It doesn’t matter now. None of it matters. I just want to be with my familynow; I wish I could find Papa…”
“We both do. It’s all right.”
“Do you think there’s a place for us?” he asked her. “Aworld for dead navis to go, like for humans?”
“I like to think we all go to the same place.”
The boy nodded and shook. “That’d be nice. I could meetMasuyo-chan; Papa sometimes talked about her. What was she…” He tensed again,writhing, but she tightened her grip, if only to give him something to hold onto. He yelped in discomfort and clenched her arms, and Imi wasn’t about totell him to let go.
“She was wonderful,” Imi told him. “She’ll be waiting foryou, I’m sure, for all of us.”
The gyrations increased and grew more violent. She pressedhim against her chest; this, the only creature in this world—real orvirtual—that she could touch without fear. She held him tight; for both itwould be the last time: one would join the departed, and the other would findherself alone again, unable to enjoy contact with others for fear of hearingthem. Thus, she shut her eyes and savored his warmth—the love of family she’dlong yearned. She damped his tremors, the frightful death rattles that plaguedthem both, and soon he was still and calm and quiet.
She opened her eyes and hugged the air. Codey was gone.
And I’m dying too. Everyone I’ve killed will die withme. She shuddered, and this time she was sure it wasn’t the frame bugcompromising her system. What can I do, Masuyo-chan? Isn’t there some wayI can make up for what’s happened? For Codey-kun, Roll-san, all of you?
‘You can make peace, Imi, but not necessarily withPapa,’ said Masuyo. ‘If you’re not at peace with yourself, Papa cannever forgive you.’
She waved her hands through the gap where Codey had been. Idon’t care about Papa, not anymore. Even if I could make things right, Papamay never take me back. He won’t be able to save me, but I can do somethingfor myself… She laughed. For you, my conscience.
‘I’ve only been waiting her for weeks, hoping you couldcome to terms with yourself,’ said Masuyo. ‘That you can realize itnow, on the brink of death, means without a doubt that you’re ready to forgiveyourself, but we can’t do that here, nor in any of the other foreign places you’vebeen.’
Not here? Then where?
Even though she was a figment, Imi could feel Masuyo’sbeaming smile upon her. ‘I’ve always been a part of you, Imi, and that part’sready to come back now, to return…’
And that smile formed itself on Imi’s own lips. Not one ofjoy or happiness. It was a smile that showed promise and hope…
…and the possibility, after many long weeks, of relief. Imiproudly bore that smile, for it was the last shred of hope she had left for hersoul.
“It’s time to go home.”
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I've been thinking some about structure. I realize the way I structure my writing is probably a bit jarring. Most authors' chapters are the size of a part or act that I write, and each chapter I have is, in some ways, independent of the others while still interconnected. This structure I derived from my early exposure to television and Babylon 5, where episodes string together to form a larger story. In that sense, the way I structure is very similar, with chapters corresponding to episodes and parts of chapters corresponding to a television act (what you get between commercial breaks). It's not exact; I'm not bound by the need to fit what I have in an hour or by having to have an exact number of breaks. Still, I can't help but be reminded that different media are different.
What I'm contemplating (largely for Identity) is whether the part or the act is the fundamental unit compared to the chapter. I still like my style of chapters serving as whole mini-stories in a larger narrative, but increasingly I feel like the size of the chapter makes it somewhat...inaccessible. Let's face it: when your chapters are on the order of 10k words (which they have been since "Spine of the Hedgehog," and even before that), it can be intimidating. The acts I post are more digestible, I imagine, though I can't say I've had any feedback on the matter. I'd already resolved to post Identity in acts (if you can't tell, I dislike the word parts, even though I will probably use it still--it lacks specificity that acts has, but the latter is kind of awkward as well, as it belongs in a different context) and upload to FFN in chapters (and write, I might add, in chapters--from time to time I still find the desire to move scenes around, change act breaks; I definitely feel acts are too small a subsegment to outline on their own). But, I'm tempted to post to FFN in acts, despite the clutter it would generate (the thought that Echoes would have over 100 "chapters" if I'd done that rather turns my stomach, honestly).
I think for now I'll stick to the chapters I have, but I get these whims from time to time. Anyway, part three of five here. I like how this act turned out, especially the scene at the beginning with Imi and Masuyo in the arcade. It was hard to balance just right for effect and length, but it flowed nicely. The pieces are coming together for the conflict that will take up act four as well.
Chapter Nineteen: Resurrection and Life
Piercing winds enveloped the small navi’s opponent, who toppled over, encased in a block of ice.
“It’s over!” cried a spectator. “Iceman wins again!”
The crowd roared with applause, and the young operator—Hikawa Tohru—shrugged and smiled. “Anyone else want a go?”
Adulation gave way to anxious murmurs. The arcade buzzed in anticipation, but though the platform and projector invited a new challenger, no one accepted the chance to battle with the winner of the day. It was a curious sight, what with dozens of people surrounding the Hikawa boy but not a willing combatant in the house.
Nakamura Masuyo drummed her fingers on her wheelchair’s rims and sighed. Her fingers ached to capture this moment: the wild, singular consciousness of the crowd or Hikawa’s brave challenge to them. Yet when she put pencil to paper, the slim cylinder slipped and rolled on the floor. She locked the details in her mind instead, but the image lacked form. Such memories were ultimately transitory and would ultimately fade away…
A lump formed in her throat. She coughed and squeezed and patted her chest, and at last, she could breathe, but these attacks plagued her ever more, at all hours of the day and night. Oh how she envied the healthy, happy people around her! They could cheer and laugh and sing!
They could swallow…
“Come on,” Tohru asked of the spectators. “It’s just one match; I’ll go easy!”
“Masuyo-chan!” In her lap, Imi craned her neck to meet her gaze. “Do you want to try?”
“But Imi,” she protested, “we don’t know how to battle. I don’t even have any chips…”
“I guess that’s true.”
Masuyo smiled. Sweet Imi, always trying to cheer her up. It must be harder and harder these days—for her to do that—because as often as not they’d only remind each other of what they used to do together, before Masuyo’s illness took those things away from them. They drew once. They walked through the park and swung from the monkey bars, and granted, Imi could only watch these things or, at best, replicate them in her own environment, within the PET, but they played together—at least, after a fashion they did.
They played together, so why not try something new?
The daughter of Nakamura wheeled herself to the platform, and the crowd stirred with awe and wonder. Hikawa, for his part, looked aghast at first, but any haughtiness he’d accumulated over his winning streak faded. He crouched down to eye level with Masuyo. “Hello there. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Masuyo-chan,” he said kindly. “I’m Tohru, and this is Iceman.”
“A pleasure to meet you!” said Iceman with a bow.
“We’ve been watching,” Masuyo explained. “Imi and I that is. I have to admit we’ve never battled before. I don’t even own any battle chips.”
“Well, that’s all right,” said Tohru. “You can borrow some of ours. It’ll be fun, yeah?”
Masuyo nodded, and after Tohru tutored her in Net Battle 101, she and Imi prepared for their first match.
“I don’t know about this,” said Imi. “Hikawa-san and Iceman-san have been battling for years, and we’re just starting, and—”
“I won’t let you get hurt,” said Masuyo. “If it looks bad, I’ll plug you out, I promise.”
Across the way, their opponents lined up for battle as well. “Are you ready, Masuyo-chan?”
“Yes, Tohru-san, I’m ready.”
He grinned. “Then let’s go! Plug-in, Iceman, transmission!”
“Plug-in, Imi, transmission!”
The two combatants faced one another on the infinite plane.
The match began with simple maneuvers: punches and kicks and basic dodges. Though this elicited some displeasure from the crowd, Tohru’s glare silenced them. Truth be told, Imi came along quickly: she was agile, nimble. Her little frame suppressed the power of her physical attacks, but in that sense she and Iceman were no different. Imi was capable, and perhaps in someone else’s hands, she might become a passable battler.
But not in Masuyo’s. Masuyo’s hands twitched and shook. She dropped battle chips on the floor, slotted them in far too slowly. Tohru and Iceman thought it’d be a good test to lob Ice Cubes at Imi, but the first block knocked her back. The second stuck on a Flame Sword that Imi waved about, clumsy and uncoordinated.
That’s when they saw the third…
The PET tumbled, skipped off the girl’s knee and skidded on the floor, an unreachable sea for Masuyo.
“I’m sorry, Imi,” she mumbled. “I can’t plug you out…”
The white navi braced herself, and—
The crowd hushed. Beyond the projector, even Tohru stared in amazement. Two solid blocks of ice smashed into each other, canceling both out, and a stream of frosty air flowed from Imi’s fingertips.
“How did she do that? Was it a chip?”
“Couldn’t be; I saw the girl drop the PET. Look at it: it’s still on the ground!”
In the confusion, Iceman fired another Ice Cube, and just as before, Imi fired off her own—this time with confidence and understanding, not the confusion that marred her first attempt, a mere reflex. The cubes collided again, and from the explosion, their data showered the field.
“Try this, Iceman! Battle Chip: Aqua Sword, slot-in!”
Iceman charged ahead, sword overhead!
CLANG! Imi raised her hands instinctively, and a blue sword of her own parried the strike. She buckled under his weight, however, dropping to a knee.
“Incredible!” “Did you see that?” “She mirrored the attack without any chips…”
And in an instant, Imi sized up the situation. She pressed the advantage, matched Blizzard with Blizzard and squeezed Iceman between his own Ice Cube and hers. She’d pinned Iceman, and though he squirmed and beat on the ice, his struggle was futile.
The spectators’ whispers simmered below earshot until one brave soul clapped in admiration. Soon, the whole room cheered and erupted with newfound excitement.
“Masuyo-chan?” asked Imi. “What are they doing?”
“I think they’re impressed.”
They sure showed it. They hollered and swarmed the platform, bombarding Masuyo and Imi with their questions and exclamations. For Imi, however, their faces blurred; their cries melted together. She was but one navi in a harsh spotlight, and around her, in the dim surroundings of the arcade, a formless mass called to her, beckoned her.
“Come on! What are you waiting for? Finish it!”
Finish it? Yes, that’s right. She could press forward. She could finish it.
“No, Imi, that’s enough!”
But that voice was faint and quiet, just one of many that spoke to her. Attack, retreat, go, stay—o many conflicting commands—and while she recognized Masuyo, she also knew the battle wasn’t over. She could win this for her, for all the people out there who rooted for her…
Imi hurled a third Ice Cube into the fray, but the blocks smashed against the plug-out notification. Iceman had fled, and alone on a raised pedestal, Imi bathed in the sounds of the crowd, which sang the praises of a new victor at the arcade.
“Something is very wrong here.”
Masuyo and Roll camped out in her room once again, their small, imaginary refuge against the choir and Imi’s mind. To Roll’s consternation, however, the observation was largely redundant.
‘How could they use Codey-kun like this without him knowing?’
Imi’s thoughts ran in circles; the distraction delayed her return to Codey, and on some level, she feared possibilities. With Codey’s mind a closed book to her, she had to confront the all-too-likely truth:
‘Codey-kun knew. He knew all along. He was trying to use me, force me to go back to Papa…’
“But it’s more than that,” said Masuyo—or rather, said Imi’s afterimage of her. “You think so too, don’t you, Roll?”
“To tell the truth, I’m not really interested.”
“You saw Netto-san and Rockman. What more do you want?”
Roll extended her arms, turned over her palms. “What can I do like this? I can’t stop her by myself, not for long.”
“You know what will happen when Imi goes back to Codey or Papa,” said the ghost of Masuyo. “There will be blood.”
“And Rockman may be the one to spill it,” Roll mused direly, for this, she vowed, could never occur. Netto had maintained control over Rockman in their last battle with Imi, but they paid for that control with power. Without the soul-sharing of the link, without the “Saito Style,” Imi survived attacks that would’ve been deathblows. Netto proved he mistrusted Rockman even now.
“You made a promise.”
Roll winced. That was a bitter, bitter phrase for her. Rockman invoked it repeatedly after the incident at the Chandler, when she, in her foolish bid to kill Imi for good, had begged him to shoot her, delete Roll outright and Imi along with her. Rockman took it as a solemn oath, one he wouldn’t cast aside until Roll herself absolved him of that responsibility and rejected his love, but in return, she’d made her own promise, hadn’t she?
“If there’s some way I can help you, some way I can make it right, I will! After all the times you saved my life…. I’m just sorry this was all I could do today—save your body—because it’s not enough is it?”
It wasn’t, not by a long-shot, but she struggled to find the right course. Up ’til now, the ever-needy Masuyo had yet to offer her a solution.
“The truth is,” said Masyuo, “you may never be able to help him directly. The best we can do is keep Imi under control.”
“And how do you propose we do that? I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work.”
“By yourself, no. You’re just one voice among many, but what if you had help?”
“Where am I going to get help? Do you see anyone else here?”
Masuyo shook her head. “See them? Maybe not, but I do hear them. Don’t you?”
Roll frowned. She closed her eyes—even if they were a facsimile, they distracted her—and listened. Below the obvious paranoia that filled Imi’s thoughts (‘He must’ve known; he wasn’t upset at all that Papa left him behind’), something else whispered to her. The mumblings were soft and hardly audible, but Roll knew that soft hum. It was but the first movement in a seven-part requiem.
Roll ventured forth, into the void, but the shadows nipped at her body, and dozens of claws and hooks lay in wait, ready to shred her and scatter her data among the black mass, another voice for the collection. For too long, she’d counted herself among them, sat by while Imi wrought chaos and death. It was easy to be mindless there, to let the collective will overwrite your own. Perhaps if she yelled loud enough, they would listen to her instead, follow her commands.
The choir whispered, abuzz with dark thoughts for Imi.
“He’s betrayed you,” they said. “He deceived you…”
Poison Imi’s mind against Codey would they? Well fine. She could yell and scream and chant ominously, too! If only her programmers had included Latin in her translation library…
The darkness seethed and frothed around her, like a corrosive foam. One wrong step, and she’d disappear in the shadows once more. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to make her stand here.
But what could she say? What did she have to say to faceless specters? All this time, she’d been pushing against Imi for concrete reasons—to save Meiru’s life, to heal Rockman’s mind—but half the time she took orders from Masuyo, always under the guise, the excuse, that Masuyo could do little herself, being a part of Imi and all.
“Don’t get distracted.” Masuyo’s disembodied voice rang out over the choir’s soft murmurs. “They’ll rip you apart if you lose your center of focus. You know that.”
Still, Roll chafed against this outside control, but rather than lose precious “focus,” she directed her anger toward the choir.
“Well?” she challenged. “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
The mumbling intensified. How irritating it was, for everyone to murmur around her but not talk to her. She knew the hearts of these navis, the souls of the dead. If they wouldn’t deign to speak with her, she could make them very uncomfortable.
“I know what you fear,” she said. “I know you all have suffered. I know because I was among you, and I suffered. It hurt when Rockman…” She choked. Forget that thought. “…when Imi-chan killed me, showed me everything. You’re all in pain; you’re terrified of what will become of you because there’s no way out of here.”
The choir did not answer her. The sickening silence unnerved her more than any bold rebuttal could’ve. Perhaps Imi found a noisy room too loud to ignore, but Roll feared the dead quiet. It reflected her own thoughts back at her. It’s what made her amenable to joining them in the first place, after all. Rockman had made his choice, and his future didn’t include her. Meiru would grieve, but she’d also move on, and that was that. For some perverse reason, Roll found comfort in the agony of others, of Imi’s new victims. The new additions to the choir reminded her she wasn’t alone; she could run away from pain and fear and anguish and let those emotions bubble and stir on their own, disassociated from her.
That, ultimately, was the meaning of the choir, the mission of Imi’s councilors. Their strong emotions ran free and coursed through Imi instead, and the hollow remnants of her victims wandered the shadows, ever restless yet going nowhere. When they shared the spotlight with her as antagonists, they fed on her anxieties, for they could assert dominion over her that way. When they disappeared into the choir, however, they scattered, beyond all reproach. So long as they were too split to listen to Roll, she would get nowhere with them.
“So tell me,” she called out to them. “What do you want? Are you really happy with having Imi-chan run around making havoc? Is that all you care about anymore?”
The murmurs peaked. Cross-talk and chatter rumbled in the choir, but still no soul dared speak up.
“Answer me!” said Roll. “Answer me, and we can do something about Imi-chan. Together. Masuyo-san brought me out because I could still make a mark on the world; there was still someone out there I cared about. Maybe you don’t have those things—I don’t know; I can’t know—but I’m telling you right now: we can stop her if you all choose to help me, if you stop hiding…”
But the souls around her clung to darkness, cowards all, none of them willing to face up to reality, to change the cycle of paranoia and violence they inflicted upon Imi.
Roll huffed. “Fine by me. I don’t know who’s worse: Imi-chan for doing what she does or you all for pushing her toward it. You think death will let you escape? You might be wrong. Maybe there’ll be a special place for all of us in the underworld, and we can be trapped with each other for eternity. How does that sound?”
Apparently it sounded pretty good, for the choir didn’t stir, much to Roll’s consternation. Honestly! What else could she do? She’d tried all she could think of; she needed help, but even in the misty void she was alone. Not even Rockman—the old Rockman, the one who never quit despite the odds—could help her now…
“That’s not so, you know.”
She twitched. A presence made itself felt, coalesced amongst formless shadows.
“Even after you told me you hated me, I’ve been waiting for you, for when you might need me, take me back. I wouldn’t drive Imi-chan to madness. I just needed the right time, don’t you think?”
Could it be…?
A solitary figure stepped from the darkness and shared her light, and in sharing it, the light grew and repelled oppressive shadows.
“I missed you, Roll-chan,” he said. “I missed you, and I wanted to help you, but more than that, I want to help myself now, too.”
She smiled. Maybe he wasn’t the Rockman she knew, but in that moment, set off from the raging agony of the choir, she could believe, true or not, that he was close. Close enough, in every way it mattered.
He offered his hand. “Shall we?”
She nodded and clasped his fingers, and together, they marched forward, determined to awaken the complacent souls around them.
Some souls, however, were painfully awake. Imi arrived at her hideout to find it barren and desolate. Her dear brother, the closest thing to her own flesh and blood, had abandoned her.
Why would he leave unless…?
Maybe he went looking for her. After all, she’d blown a small chunk of the day tracking down those blasted Net Saviors; she could forgive some level of impatience.
Maybe, she thought darkly, he’s already…
She shook her head. Impossible. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t have. Enzan-san said it would take hours!
Did Codey know that?
Imi’s stomach churned. Sitting and mulling over the possibilities made her feel weak and helpless. To think that Codey was dying and that she, directly or not, would be the only one who could change it…. Enzan left the choice to her, after all. Once again he proved himself a sickening and ruthless adversary, willing to sacrifice and concede much—Codey’s blood, the blood of his colleagues—to help take Imi down.
Too much. He had to have some backup plan. How could he be sure Imi would turn herself in rather than let Codey die? Of course she would…if she knew for a fact Codey had no part in devising this plot. That was still an open question, but…say he didn’t, for the moment. What would Enzan do? What stopped her from going back to that hospital showing him and Laika the prick of her point, as it were?
She shivered. Imi had a policy to take her own threats seriously, for her enemies would dismiss her if she backed down, but in truth, she relaxed when Enzan cut her off. There was something fundamentally different about slicing open a person and watching their red fluid drip and seep and pulse away. At least navis (Cross Fusion or no) could reasonably fight back, but here, in the real world, people were as unpredictable as they were squishy. Egami had shown her that much—she begged and pleaded and grabbed Imi’s arm to stave off Grove’s execution. How tragic for her; she was still here, in Imi’s mind, somewhere…
She shivered again. What was taking Codey so long? Was he really in league with Enzan and the others? But what purpose would that serve? If Codey knew how to get back to their father, why would Enzan try to use him against her? Why would—
She lurched. Oh dizzy, weak, don’t think. Tired of waiting, tired of thinking. Dizzy, weak, don’t—
Frozen. She fell on her side; her head bonked on the floor. She stared into the distance, for her eyes disobeyed her and neither moved nor blinked…
So this was the plan. This is what Codey-kun and Papa—
There was a woosh in the distance. Scattered data assembled itself in a boy’s form. He took one look at her and gasped. “Onee-san!”
“You…you did this to me…”
He dashed to her side, but his own body failed him in the final steps. He tripped and skidded along the floor, halting beside her. The children of Nakamura lay prone, helpless, and weak.
“You’re sick too?” Imi murmured. “Still?”
“I went looking for Papa,” he explained, “but nobody could tell me where he’d gone.”
“I know where.”
Their eyes met. “Then come with me! Come with me back to Papa! He can fix you; he can fix both of us. That was the plan. That’s all I meant; I didn’t want to hurt you. I just thought if you had to come back—”
She scoffed. “After what you and Papa did, you think I want to go back with you?”
He rose to his feet, but he leaned over her, pleading. “Onee-san—”
“Go, Codey-kun.” She opened a window, and a twelve-digit series of letters and numbers appeared. “This is the address; go back to Papa if you want. I won’t.”
Her roar knocked him on his rear. Sobbing and stricken, he backed away. “I’ll hold the door open as long as I can,” he offered. “As long as Papa and the others will let me. Please, onee-san, you don’t deserve to die.”
“You should’ve thought of that before.”
He nodded twice. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Imi closed her eyes, and the sound of dematerialized data echoed in the empty space.
So that was the end of it. Codey was willing to hurt her, kill her if necessary. Not even her closest family offered any safe harbor or peace. So much for the strength of blood; blood shed blood for every moment passed.
It all comes down to blood. She sat up. And only blood understands blood.
To rapturous cheers and chants for blood, for vengeance, for ‘Echo, Echo,’ Imi took to her feet and disappeared down a Rush Hole. Codey and Papa’s betrayal severed a bond of blood, after all. Imi would be remiss not to show them just how much would spill.
“What do you mean she wouldn’t go with you?”
“I mean exactly that, Papa,” said Codey. “When she realized what was happening, she just…yelled at me to go.”
From their high-rise room, The Net Saviors—Netto and Enzan—overlooked the wide glass wall with Meiru, Hideki, and Yuuichirou. The vast Choinan cityscape, a mixture of modern skyscrapers and ancient dynastic architecture, bathed in afternoon sun.
“Then that’s it,” said Enzan. “She’s burned her last shot. If she won’t come after you, she’ll be gone within hours.”
Netto shook his head, uncertain. “This is wrong. Nobody should have to die like that.”
“It’s better that she be gone,” said Rockman. “She’s done enough harm.”
“She’s not gone yet,” said Codey. “Papa, you have the cure, don’t you? Let me go back to her with it; let me show her it works.”
“And if she touches you?” said Enzan. “Will the cure be transmitted to her by contact?”
Hideki only tugged on his collar.
“You don’t know, do you?” said Yuuichirou.
“It’s not ready, is it?” said Enzan.
“Codey, I may need your help,” muttered Hideki.
“Have you even been trying?” said Meiru. “How long—”
“I just need some help, all right?” he barked. “The code just…doesn’t come as quickly to my fingers anymore. It’s easy to destroy things with code. It’s a lot harder to put them back together, a lot harder to—”
Bam. The windows rattled. A dull thud, a brief shake.
“Enzan-kun,” said Yuuichirou, “are there jammers here?”
“Scattered throughout the building. Nakamura-hakase’s PET was hard-lined; there’s no way she could be here.”
“Maybe not in the building, but outside it?”
Outside, a tiny speck hovered amongst the clouds. It hurled streaming feather rockets to the street, and the shopkeepers, the pedestrians—they huddled below awnings and scampered away. The stray dot in the sky floated closer at a slow but deliberate pace.
“This is it then,” said Enzan. “This is where we decide who dies before Echo does. Let’s go!”
Saturday, April 18, 2009
In writing, we say that details should have a purpose. No detail should be included that doesn't have some purpose (even if, say, its purpose is to merely misdirect or fool the reader into thinking something that isn't so). On the other hand, some details must be included, ostensibly, to maintain the aura of consistency, of plot cohesion. One of the best examples in this regard is the passage of time.
Unless you're intentionally trying to play with time, we usually insist upon time making sense. This is something I'm having to do a lot with "Resurrection and Life" right now, ensure that the timing of events follows a logical course. While this is a necessary task, this is also something that I fear detracts from the story. As a tool for creating drama, timeframes are an overused one, a poor replacement for true conflict between characters. It fits for a theme of outside forces conspiring against a character, but that too is territory that must be handled with care.
Chapter Nineteen: Resurrection and Life
“Choina you say?”
Masuyo nodded, speared a chunk of shrimp from her plate, and chewed.
“When I was in school, they didn’t teach Choinan history until…” Hideki frowned. “I don’t know if they ever taught us that.”
“It was really interesting, Papa!” Beside Masuyo’s meal, Imi sat with her legs dangling over PET’s edge. “Sensei said the Choinans discovered Netopia in 1421, 70 years before the Ameroupans did. Isn’t that amazing?”
“No kidding?” said Hideki. “I had lunch the other day with Kinomoto-sensei from the university, and we talked about that theory. He said it was a total fabrication.”
Imi frowned, dejected. “Oh really?”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Masuyo. “Toyoshima-sensei is, well…”
“Well?” said Hideki.
“Imi, maybe you can show Papa?”
“Of course!” The navi in the white skirt transformed before their eyes, taking the form of a middle-aged man with beady eyes and a slight hunch. “ ‘Class, what you should realize about our collective heritage is that the East has discovered many things, often times only for the West to rediscover them later and take the credit. We are not second-class citizens in this world, you know.’ ” There was a pop in the background. “ ‘No chewing gum in class!’ ” Imi scowled to emphasize the point. “ ‘The Choinans invented gum too, as a matter of fact. It was one of their finer inventions, alongside the firework and the Great Wall…’ ”
Masuyo burst out laughing. “I think I must meet the sensei sometime,” said Hideki. “Either that or report him to the school board.”
The Nakamura family’s amusement soon died down, however, and Masuyo pushed food around with her fork.
“I’m sorry, Papa. I think I’m not very hungry.”
“Masuyo-chan, it’s rude to leave food unfinished,” said Imi. “At least, that’s what the teachers said at lunchtime, too. Did you know that, Papa? Masuyo-chan isn’t eating—”
“It’s all right, Imi,” said Hideki.
“I think I’ll go lie down,” said Masuyo. “If I may, Papa?”
“Of course.” She scooted away from the table. “Ah, but leave Imi for a moment,” said her father.
Masuyo obliged him, and with a short bow, she retreated upstairs.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” said Imi. “Is there something I did wrong?”
“You call me Papa,” he noted with amusement. “What that Masuyo’s idea?”
She shook her head. “It just seemed right. You’re my papa too, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “I suppose so. Tell me, Imi, how was your first day? Being alive, I mean; I’m curious.”
“Oh, it was wonderful, Papa! I think I got overexcited sometimes—everything’s so new to me and all—but Masuyo-chan was very patient, and all the other boys and girls were excited to see a navi. Not many of them have one unless it’s also their brother’s or sister’s.”
“That’s how I knew you’d be a special gift for her,” said Hideki.
“Are you happy?” he asked her. “So far, at least?”
“Without a doubt! I mean, I only really know you and Masuyo-chan, but…I can’t think of anyone better to have created me, to be my operator. I couldn’t be happier.”
Couldn’t be happier.
“I’m going to find you, Codey-kun!”
“Can’t catch me, onee-san!”
In an isolated corner of the net, the children of Nakamura chased one another, darting through a dirt-walled maze. Imi rounded a corner, and Codey looked back and grinned at his sister.
“Not caught me yet!” he said.
“We’ll see about that.”
Imi halted and closed her eyes; her thoughts rearranged the maze. A gap formed in the wall beside her, and Imi dove though, tackling her younger brother.
“Oh, no fair!” said Codey. “That’s cheating!”
But Imi laughed all the same. “I’m sorry! I’ll play fair next time; it’s just…” She helped Codey up, but their hands stayed together, and Imi cast a wistful look over the maze. “I love this too much,” she said. “Being here with you, being able to touch someone…”
Codey’s bemusement turned grim. “I know, onee-san, but—”
“You still want to play?” said Imi. “Or maybe a different game?”
“We should play cards. Cardman-san taught me lots of games.” The maze receded, and Imi motioned for Codey to sit with her. “Spades? Hearts?”
“I think we should talk about Papa,” said Codey.
A deck of cards materialized in Imi’s hands, but she promptly dropped them, and they scattered on the floor. “What about Papa?” she asked, taken aback.
“Don’t you want to see him?”
“Well, of course, but…” She sighed. “I’ve been looking for him non-stop for the last two months. I just want to enjoy this time we have while we still have it. There has to be more to life than Papa, after all. I’m glad there can be something for both of us.”
Imi retrieved the wayward cards, but Codey shifted uncomfortably. A dozen times now he’d brought up the subject of their father, yet over the hours they’d played together, he and Imi had yet to broach the topic at all. Codey thought sure her curiosity would get the best of her when he remarked about Papa leaving him to meet her, but Imi dismissed their father’s kindness (as she saw the gift—the changes Hideki made to Codey’s program, just enough to keep his mind from Imi’s copying abilities) and his insensitivity. She asked not why their father abandoned both of them, and Codey, for his part, couldn’t bring himself to tell her unprompted.
She’s so happy now.
And happiness was an emotion Codey has seldom glimpsed in Imi. Rage and desperation? Sure. Grief and agony? At times, self-imposed. Granted, he hadn’t known her very long, but there was an innocence to her, a childishness that belied her misdeeds. The sight of his sister carefully dealing out a two of clubs or king of diamonds clashed with what he knew she’d done: murdered and slaughtered and crippled.
If he found the courage to tell her the truth, what would stop her from unleashing those emotions on him? Why shouldn’t her joy freeze in a heartbeat and melt into cold wrath? Would she stop with hurting him?
Codey trembled, but not only fear shook him: the frame bug’s effects progressed over time. The attacks of weakness increased in frequency, paralyzed him with helplessness as his body refused his mind’s commands. More than that, his fingers and toes acted on their own. They wiggled and seized and racked him with aching spasms. Time was running short, for him and for Imi. Perhaps he’d been foolish—to think Imi wouldn’t be angry when he told her—yet now he couldn’t avoid that thought at all. Couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe…
He shook, he writhed, he gyrated. His rolled on the floor, beating it wildly.
“What’s happening? What’s wrong?” Imi grabbed him and held his flailing limbs at bay. “Can you talk?”
His lips and jaw moved, but his voice came out like a squeaky hinge. “I’m sorry, onee-san. I’m sick.”
“You’re sick? Codey-kun, the way you’re shaking—this is serious! How could Papa let this happen?”
“He didn’t let it happen. He…he…” Another spasm seized his chest, as if an unseen hand clutched his heart in a death grip. “Papa…”
At once she nodded. “That’s right; we need to find Papa.”
“No, you don’t—”
“Even if Papa can’t fix me, he can fix you,” said Imi. “This should be child’s play for him, but how can we…?” She looked about. “We can’t find him here, in the net. I need to go outside.”
“No!” said Codey, catching her arm. “You can’t go; you can’t leave me! Papa…” He stopped. If she saw how this bug affected him, how would she react knowing she too would soon feel it? Concerned, he tried a different tactic. So long as she didn’t run off while he was talking to her, he could find some way to break the news gently. “What if something happens?” he said. “What if, while you’re gone—”
“You won’t get better with just me here,” said Imi. “I can’t help you by myself. Just stay here; I promise I’ll be back soon.”
She disappeared down a Rush Hole, her portal to the real world, and Codey sat alone.
It’s all right, he told himself. Onee-san will go to Papa, and Papa won’t let us down.
On a laptop screen, a Mettool keeled over and disintegrated.
“I don’t believe this.” Nakamura Hideki pulled his own hair and blinked expectantly, as if looking again might change the result. When that didn’t happen, he punched the keyboard, and another Mettool walked across the monitor, oblivious to its fate.
But the passage of time let up for neither man nor navi. As the counter on screen ticked away from thirty to zero, Hideki checked his own watch. It too counted not up but down, and it read in hours, minutes, and seconds.
The time, nearest they could figure, when Codey would die, just like the 116 viruses Hideki had liquidated on his quest to find a cure.
Poof. Make that 117.
“This isn’t happening. It’s a simple frame bug; this shouldn’t be happening!”
And in Hideki’s rational mind, only two explanations could account for his difficulty: either the frame bug problem had proved genuinely harder than he anticipated…
…or he was the problem, not the program, and his failures resulted not from imperfect knowledge but imperfect use of knowledge. The theory behind his solution was sound. The practitioner of that theory? Not so much. If he and he alone held up the patch for the frame bug, either through his own carelessness or reckless fervor, then he could buckle down and focus; that way, he controlled the fates of his children. To accept that maybe, just maybe, he’d created something he couldn’t undo at all…
8:53:22. Eight hours, fifty-three minutes, twenty-two seconds, and every second mattered. Every second meant Codey felt agony, thanks to him. He couldn’t let it stand, couldn’t afford to lose his head, not now. He closed the blinds, shut the door, and typed in utter darkness, save for the white and blue glow of a liquid-crystal screen.
“So you say Dr. Nakamura’s made no progress?”
Enzan rubbed shoulders with the crowd, a large congregation from all walks of life, assembled to greet travelers and family returning home. He too awaited a party, but this place wasn’t home. The signs bore kanji and other characters, similar to his native Japanese, but he recognized few of the characters. The strangers beside him chattered amongst themselves, and he puzzled at exotic vowels and incomprehensible progressions of stress and accent.
This was Choina, the cradle of civilization on this side of the world for the last two millennia, yet for all its achievements, the gems and discoveries that adorned its history, Choina had locked itself behind a curtain of mysticism and control. Mysticism in the role of the state: a master entity that divined the will of the people and the best interests of the nation. Control in how the state realized its vision: let no one mistake for a minute that the people of Choina were under a load worthy of a dozen oxen. Such was their duty to the state.
Some might naturally yearn for the days of emperors and dynasties, right or wrong as they may have been.
Nevertheless, Enzan had great hopes that Choina would protect him and Nakamura. The government’s restrictions of information buffered them from the outside, and after the fiasco over Jasmine’s treatment, the Choinan’s owed them ten times over. At least, should they try to work Enzan for their own purposes, he would make sure Jasmine became a willing expatriate, and if she should happen to find herself among Nibetan rebels, so much the better.
They shouldn’t need safe harbor for long, though. If Imi didn’t make herself known and beg for Nakamura’s help, she would soon die anyway, but Enzan loathed relying on timeframes for safety, hence why he tapped his foot at debarkation.
Hence why he called Laika.
“The doctor seems to be an expert at making no progress,” Laika remarked.
“His emotions get the better of him,” said Enzan. “If he were a net battler, he wouldn’t do well at all.”
Laika grimaced and hunched over a coffee table. “Even we ‘professionals’ aren’t doing so well.”
“Shouldn’t you be resting? Lying down at least?”
The soldier of Sharo merely turned around, exposing a patchwork of bandages and stitches.
“I can’t,” he said.
Enzan winced. “And the others?”
“Well, no one’s in surgery at the moment.”
“It looked bad late this morning,” said Laika, “but I’m…confident she will pull through.”
“I’m sure she will.”
Laika nodded once but was silent, and Enzan quietly buried his own disappointment. Not that his comrades were recuperating at a hospital in Namaste—nay, he’d accepted that—but that he wasn’t alongside them. He bore the duty of protecting Nakamura alone again…
…and neither Netto nor Rockman could dispel that feeling. The Hikari twins, their father, and Sakurai Meiru ascended the escalator, and Enzan had visions of the past, of a rainy day two months ago, when a boy in a blue bandana walked up to him, promising to join the fight against Echo. For fifty days, Enzan sat back while Netto and Rockman trained, yet though they’d shared the same home, Enzan knew neither of his guests. They became different people before his eyes, and for all his attention to detail in battle, Enzan had been only vaguely aware of their new personas and surely oblivious to the extent of the changes. He’d given shelter to them, yet he enjoyed none of their confidence. All this time, he was but one man, set alone against the forces of fate, and he alone endured while the people around him crumbled—like Rockman after Roll’s death, like Pride as Laika suffered Imi’s tortures. How long can one man hold up the world on his shoulders?
But that was enough philosophy. Enzan cared little for it when it couldn’t solve his problems, and surely these meandering thoughts wouldn’t revolve the Echo crisis.
Netto approached Enzan with a smile, despite the sling around his shoulder. “I’m sorry we’re just getting here,” he said. “Papa wanted us in his lab back home first.”
“I heard,” said Enzan. “You’re…cured?”
“Not quite, but it’s better. We only hear what we want the other to hear now. It’ll work for now.” He looked about. “Where’s Nakamura-hakase?”
“Where I left him,” Enzan said cryptically.
“And the others? Jasmine?” Meiru twitched, squeezing Netto’s hand. “What was that for?” he asked.
In answer of Netto’s first question, Enzan pointed to his PET. “Take a look for yourself.”
“Ah, Laika!” said Netto. “You’re all right!”
“We all are,” said Laika, “to varying degrees, but—” He glanced to his left. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” said Enzan. “I don’t think the microphone picked it up.”
“Excuse me for a moment.” Laika limped off screen, muttering to himself about Namastian medical care.
“Well,” said Enzan, “we should get going. Nakamura-hakase will—”
BANG BANG CRASH! On screen, Laika backed into frame, his hands raised.
“Cut the call, Enzan!” he said. “Hang up before—”
Enzan grimaced. They all knew that voice.
Sure enough, Imi walked into view, holding Laika at sword-point. “How sad,” she said, studying the screen. “I didn’t think you’d abandon your own people, Enzan-san.”
He clenched his fist. “I do what I must.”
“Yes, you always do.” She looked between them, meeting the gazes of Netto, Meiru, and Yuuichirou. “You’re all there, but where’s Papa?”
“You should know the deal by now,” said Enzan. “Surrender yourself unconditionally, and we’ll give you the cure.”
Her eyes widened. “You know Codey-kun is sick? How?”
The party exchanged glances. “How could she not know?” said Netto.
“You think Codey didn’t tell her—”
Enzan raised a hand, silencing Meiru, but Imi’s gaze only hardened further.
“You did this on purpose, didn’t you!” she said. “You—how could you do this to him! He’s innocent!”
“I don’t recall when that’s stopped you,” said Laika.
She glared. Dangling a vine over him, she said, “Oh, you want more?”
“Enough!” snapped Enzan, stopping both in their tracks. He had to reestablish control of this situation, give Imi no chance to fly off the handle, and make the best of a botched plan. “Echo, I’m sending you an address. Show up there with your brother, and he will receive the patch. If you don’t appear with him…” Then what? Tell her she’s going to die, too? With Laika and the other Members at her mercy?
“If you don’t appear with him, we will do nothing, and in a little under nine hours, he will be junk for garbage collection.”
“You’re bluffing,” she said. “You can’t do that to him!”
“I can, and I will,” said Enzan. “It’s up to you whether you want to keep on your killing spree, chase after your father and risk running out of time. How long did it take you to find Laika and the others? There are a lot of hospitals in Namaste, aren’t there?”
She scowled. “I can hurt them still!” she said, leveling her Paladin Sword on Laika. “I’ll make you watch me kill them until you give me what I want!”
“What makes you think you can make me watch anything? Blues, hang up. I’m tired of this navi’s empty threats.”
A still frame of Imi’s shocked expression lingered on the holo-screen, but it quickly gave way to static.
“I suggest you both block incoming calls and messages to your PETs, too,” said Enzan. “If she can’t contact us, she can’t threaten us.”
Meiru gawked. “But Laika and the others—”
“Will be fine. She has too little time to waste killing them.”
“You’re assuming a lot, Enzan-kun,” said Yuuichirou. “Imi hasn’t shown herself to be wholly rational. What makes you think she believes your threat, either?”
“She has to. If she ignores the possibility that Codey may die, she ignores her own death herself.”
Monday, April 13, 2009
This is merely draft. I don't consider anything really complete until it's on FFN. I'm thinking about rearranging or perhaps changing the tone of what is said, but I'll have to give that more thought.
At any rate, part one of five.
Chapter Nineteen: Resurrection and Life
The morning air was still and cool, and Nakamura Hideki shivered and rubbed his arms. He couldn’t blame his reaction wholly on the weather, however; he chose to leave the thermostat low. Every zenny saved on heating he could spend on Masuyo, extend her life another hour or minute. That was worth any cost.
And besides, even if the furnace roasted the house to 30 degrees Centigrade, he’d tremble anyway. He had something to give his daughter, and he could only hope she’d like it.
He tiptoed upstairs and hovered outside her room. Masuyo breathed lightly, sound asleep and unaware of his presence. Thus, he crept inside, lay the green and white metal case on her desk, and snuck out again. He shut the door to all but a crack and peeked inside with one eye.
“Hello?” The PET projected an image, a holographic representation of a little girl, clad in a white skirt. Thin strips of green marked the tops of her boots and gloves, and a tall, conical hat sat atop her head.
In the bed, the human girl stirred. She rubbed her dark eyes and untangled the silver streaks in her black hair. “Who is that?” she said. “Who are you?”
The projection hopped across the desk and bowed. “I’m Imi!”
“You’re a navi?”
“That’s right! Your father programmed me for you.”
“Papa did?” Masuyo rolled out of bed and rubbed her head. She knelt beside the desk, at eye level with Imi. “So you’re what he’s been working on,” she said with a clever grin. “For me.”
“Papa hoped we could be friends,” said Imi. “I mean, I know I look young—”
“And I’m young to have a navi at all.”
“…but I can do a lot of things, I promise!”
“Things like what?”
“You’ll see,” said Imi coyly. “Papa said they’ll make you smile. He said you don’t get to smile as much as you used to.”
Masuyo looked dour for a moment. “I guess that’s true.”
Imi cocked her head.
“But I’m sure we can be friends,” Masuyo assured her. “Just wait ’til I show everyone at school! Nobody in my class has a PET yet!”
“Speaking of school,” said Imi, “Papa said you’d probably be running late.”
Masuyo checked the clock on the wall and gasped. “Oh, you’re right! I can’t be late again; I’ll get in so much trouble!” Her eyes turned to the door and the small angle it made with the hinge. “If only someone would come in and wake me up on time!”
The game was up. He was busted. “That’s what Imi’s for!” said Hideki, pushing the door open.
“Then why didn’t you give her to me sooner?”
“I had some finishing touches to make!”
Masuyo rolled her eyes. “Yes, Papa.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t like her.”
She looked between them and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I like Imi just fine,” she said, holding the PET to her heart. “Now you, on the other hand…”
“Is that any way to speak to your father?”
“Shoo,” said Masuyo. “I need to get ready for school.”
“All right, all right,” said Hideki, and he eased his way out. Though his daughter might fancy herself hard to please, he could see plainly enough she was thrilled with Imi. The giggles they shared when he was gone confirmed that much. He couldn’t be mad that she’d lightly forced him out, either; it meant she’d not yet lost hope, that someone like Imi could reawaken her spirit.
Thud. If only for a while.
Hideki barged inside. Masuyo lay on her back, wincing, and rubbing her head.
“What happened?” said Hideki.
“I fell again,” she said. “Hit my head on the bedpost.”
“Hey, look at me; look.” He stared her square in the eyes, and she met his gaze. “Good, no concussion. Is there any blood?”
“It’s just a bump, Papa; you’re overreacting.”
“Maybe so.” He eased her up, but she wobbled on her feet.
“What just happened?” said Imi. “Masuyo-chan—”
“Sometimes my legs give out, Imi,” said her operator. “Not to worry.”
Imi nodded, but she shot Masuyo a curious glance.
“I’ll be right outside,” Hideki told his daughter. “Is that all right?”
“Of course, Papa.”
Hideki inched outside again and sat against the wall and floor. All his hopes rested with Imi now, and for a moment, he wondered whether it was right to make Imi. What would happen when Masuyo’s body finally failed her? Years or months—it made no difference. Someday Masuyo would be gone, and just he and Imi would remain. What then?
A burst of laughter erupted from the room, assuaging his fears. Imi had brought some small joy to Masuyo’s life again, and that was worth any consequences, justified any cost. Whatever happened after Masuyo, Hideki could live with, so long as Imi made his daughter smile.
“Ah, hakase, good morning! We didn’t expect you back so soon.”
Soon. Soon they called it. He’d left on Monday morning, day 56, and now it was early Thursday, day 59. Just three days since Enzan rocketed him to Ameroupe on a spaceship, yet those three days felt like the passing of a millennium.
Weary and fatigued, Yuuichirou trudged to his lab, much to the surprise of his interns and subordinates.
“You all received the data I sent?”
They nodded in unison and pointed to clipboards and screens and chalk drawings.
“Good. Throw it out.” Yuuichirou laid a chip on his desk. “This has my revisions. Start from there.”
To their chagrin, he retired to his cot, but dreams of the past three days disturbed his sleep.
“What am I now? What is there left for me?”
Rockman’s questions summed up Yuuichirou’s legacy as a father. He’d dedicated the bulk of his energies to work, to science, but what did that leave for family? That his work saved Saito didn’t excuse his absence later. A true father directs and guides his sons, yet when they left, they never consulted him. The idea—the very notion—never occurred to them, and why should it? What had he done to earn their confidence? Nothing. And he left them alone all for what?
A body in a tank of liquid.
Since dreamland wouldn’t bless him with peace, Yuuichirou sat back in darkness, switched on the tanks’ inner lights, and bathed in the glow of Masuyo and Saito. They’d both failed, hadn’t they? He and Nakamura, rather. They forgot the children they already had. Nakamura’s situation, however, was convenient: Imi hounded him all over the globe, so he could run from his problems. Yuuichirou could afford no such luxury. His sons were coming home—he’d moved to ensure that—and soon he would confront them both. To Netto he would give comfort and support. That was easy, but what of Rockman?
Yuuichirou stared at the first tank, where Netto’s double floated in silence. To think he’d spent so much time on Saito’s body and promptly overlooked his state of mind. No more! A father he would be, and let no one accuse him of anything less. He would cure his elder son’s malaise, shatter the chain of troubled thoughts and doubts. He could only hope it would prove no more difficult than severing the link between the boys. Of that there were still no guarantees, despite his efforts.
Sometime that morning, one of his interns stepped into the lab and passed him a note. The first thing that jumped out at him was that noon had come and gone.
The second was that Netto and Meiru were on the way back to Japan.
The Net Police dispatched Manabe Rin to escort Meiru and Netto from the airport. The former was able enough, but the latter bore a sling on his arm—the battle damage, he explained, from their last bout with Imi.
Time spent in Namaste, at a hospital to patch up wounds, had delayed their arrival. The green sedan caught the tail end of afternoon dismissal and ran afoul of schoolchildren on their way home, to their mothers and fathers or after-school activities. A pass by Higureya revealed Tohru, Dekao, and Shuuko going wild over the latest batch of battle chips, much to a chip collector’s delight.
“Do you want to stop?” said Manabe. “I’m sure we have time.”
Netto waved her on with his one good arm, however, and the chip shop shrank behind them.
Meiru understood why they went forward. The evidence piled up on every corner and side street. Skyscrapers that had clouded and marred the horizon vanished over the months they were gone. Old friends no longer looked the same: Shuuko had let her hair down but cut it around her shoulders, and even little Tohru had grown, if only a few centimeters. Manabe spoke of the incidents that paralyzed the city at night, which, until recently, Dingo and Nenji had held at bay.
Dingo and Nenji. Meiru closed her eyes, and the doctors’ words echoed back to her. “Hairline fracture of the right femur, left ankle sprain, cracked rib—no, two cracked ribs…”
Imi’s wrath had been terrible indeed. Netto had escaped with largely scrapes and bruises; Meiru thought he was lucky because he’d been the last to fall, but he stared out the window, shaking his head, both on the plane and now, back home. He would’ve liked it better if he’d taken the brunt of the injuries, if he could’ve spared the others…
That was just like him, like both of them. Rockman, too, would’ve given everything to stop Imi. Codey’s interference had robbed him that chance.
But there’s a difference. Rockman would do it for himself as much as for others. Netto would only put himself in danger for others.
And what of her, of Sakurai Meiru? Who did she act for? What did she want?
He brushed her hand aside, but this motion ran afoul of his sling, aggravating his shoulder. Despite this rejection, Meiru watched him closely. He had to say something; he couldn’t stay silent forever. Surely if he resented her decision, he would say so, wouldn’t he?
What if, in his mind, he’d said it a thousand times already?
Netto and Rockman exchanged a glance. Despite Rockman’s collapse, his emotional break, he and Netto shared something powerful, something Meiru could never be a part of. For a moment, Meiru doubted her own intentions: no doubt separating them was best, but Meiru wanted her old friend back—the cheery, carefree, oblivious Netto of weeks gone by. Nay, it was worse: she wanted the best of old and new, both his sublime, never-say-die attitude from the past and his willingness to indulge in her comfort, to let her lead him when he was blind, to hug her when even he thought Rockman would be gone for good.
For these thoughts, Meiru cursed her own naïveté. She couldn’t pick and choose the best of both past and future. She had to take the bad with the good, pain with joy, maturity with grief. That’s why they hadn’t come home this day.
Home was in the past.
Hikari Yuuichirou rubbed his glasses with his labcoat. “Netto, Saito, Meiru-chan, how was your flight?”
Netto leaned to the side, looking around his father. His fears confirmed, he raised an eyebrow. “Ah, it was…good, Papa.”
“Glad to hear it. Well, I’d like to get started right away—”
“Oji-san?” Meiru opened her mouth to say something else, but she looked a bit green. Or red.
She pointed past him. “They’re naked.”
Yuuichirou turned. Sure enough, Masuyo and Saito’s bodies shone in total nude splendor.
“Ah. Maybe you should wait outside. Netto, Saito…”
The boys followed their father, who pinned the curtains together at a fold, obscuring the two bodies.
“I heard about Namaste,” said Yuuichirou. “How’s your arm?”
“Could be worse,” said Netto. “It’s fine, Papa.”
“Good, I’m glad.”
They were all glad…weren’t they?
“I suppose we should talk about the procedure,” said Yuuichirou, cutting off Rockman. “It should be fairly simple. I’m going to upload some data into your program, Saito, and the effect should cascade to Netto just like the last one did. Netto, I’m going to hook you up to these monitors here, just to be sure, but—”
“What about us?” asked Rockman. “The power we share when we’re connected, the power to defeat Imi-chan—what will happen to it?”
Yuuichirou looked between his boys. “I don’t know.”
They let Rockman sleep while the patch’s effect took hold. Netto, however, fidgeted. The sensor pads stuck to his skin, and the wires entangled him. Since all appeared normal despite this, Yuuichirou showed mercy to his son and freed him from the monitors, and Netto retired to the hall…
She buried her hands in her lap, said nothing when he sat beside her. True, Netto had been cold to her, but only for lack of freedom. Some things should not be said while another mind haunts your own.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve found some other way. I—”
“Even with the link between us, I couldn’t convince him,” said Netto. “I doubt you could’ve.”
She nodded, but the motion lacked conviction.
“I’m glad to be here,” he told her. “I hope this works.”
“I hope so too.”
“It’s just…when I was standing there, facing Imi, and nothing happened…”
She looked away.
“…I couldn’t stop him, and I couldn’t stop her, either. It’s exactly like he felt when Imi took Roll…”
Meiru shuddered. She dabbed her eyes. “Can you forgive me?”
He frowned. “Shouldn’t I?”
“Even nii-san wants forgiveness, and I can’t not forgive him. He’s my brother.” Their eyes met. “And you’re my friend.” Meiru giggled. “What?” said Netto. “What’s so funny?”
“You see things so simply.”
“I don’t see anything simple about it.”
“It’d be easy for someone else to be angry, either with me or with Rockman.”
“What’s the point of doing something easy?”
She scoffed. “Netto…”
“Well, forget that then. I know I’ve been gone a long time, and a lot’s happened. We’re here, though—maybe not the way we used to be, but we’re still here.”
Meiru laughed. “And you’re still silly.”
“I’m not silly!”
“It’s better if you are. It means not everything’s changed.”
Netto pouted. “I’m not silly.”
His stomach rumbled.
“Sounds like you’re hungry,” said Meiru.
“They didn’t give us enough food on the flight!” he said. “How can you expect me to be satisfied with that? Just a tiny cup of rice. Honestly!”
She smiled. With wistful joy in her eyes, she beamed at him. “I’m glad you’re back, Netto. Even if this doesn’t work—”
She leaned next him, took his hand, rested her head on his shoulder. “How do you know?”
He closed his eyes. Hidden amongst his own feelings—the comfort of Meiru at his side, nostalgia for the past and old trivialities they left behind—other sensations emerged: the need for vengeance, for vindication, for absolution. Some of these things he could give, but the desire was weak and fleeting, distant to his own mind, yet he recognized them at once.
“He’s already here,” said Netto. “I feel him.”
“It’s just a feeling,” Rockman told his father. “Like when he’s sleeping.”
“But do you hear—”
“If we try.”
Yuuichirou sank in his chair, wiping his brow. “Still, that’s an improvement, right?”
“It is, Papa. Netto-kun and I are grateful, thank you.”
“Well, if this is how it stays, there may be more work to do yet,” said Yuuichirou, “but I’m glad this was something I could do, for both of you.”
“You’ve always worked hard, Papa,” said Rockman. “You worked hard for us.”
Yuuichirou shook his head. “No, my son, not for you. Then that would make everything just and fair. If only I had done everything for you, we wouldn’t be here. I may have done all I could as a scientist for you and Netto, but I didn’t do what I should have as a father.”
“Tell me truthfully, Saito: how do you feel now? About yourself? About Roll and Imi? About Netto?”
“How do I feel? Papa—”
“Son, in the last week, you nearly killed Meiru-chan trying to kill Roll and Imi. You abandoned Netto, shot Glyde, crippled Netto with pain in your battle with Imi…”
Rockman trembled. “Is that all?”
“I’m sorry,” said Yuuichirou. “That was harsh of me, but I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to be your father, give you support.”
“What would you have me do?”
“What do you want to do?”
Rockman sighed. “It was easier before. WWW were trying to hurt people, and we stopped them. Pharoahman, Dr. Regal and the Darkloids, Duo’s armies, Greiga and Falzer…. We knew we had to defeat them, but it was natural to do that. Sometimes, people or navis died, but—”
The boy shook his head. “Not Roll-chan. That was my fault.”
“It was! I ran the program; I wanted to be human! I wanted to be there for Netto-kun, I was angry with Roll-chan for never telling me, and I thought…I thought I should go with the person who didn’t ask me to be with them. Roll-chan asked. Netto-kun would never. That seemed fair, but it wasn’t about fairness, was it? It’s not fair that Roll-chan is dead now, dead or trapped in Imi-chan’s mind. How is that fair?”
“You made a choice in good faith.”
“I know! I know. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Netto-kun’s told me that so many times.” He shook his head. “I still owe her something, though. Even if Imi-chan’s infected and dying, I have to seek her out, Papa! She should be punished for what she did to Roll-chan. She uses Roll-chan’s weapons, you know. I saw it just yesterday—she attacked Raoul and Thunderman with a Heart Slash, shot Napalmman and Nenji-san with Roll-chan’s arrow. It’s one thing when she uses other navis’ attacks, but Roll-chan…” He made a fist. “It’s wrong. It’s like a dark shadow on Roll-chan’s memory. Codey was right, Papa: I still hate her for what she did, and I don’t care what you say; I won’t stop it. I can’t stop it.”
“Do you think anything good will come of those feelings, Saito?”
“That’s why I thought maybe if I were the one who touched Imi-chan with the frame bug, it’d be better.”
Yuuichirou sighed. “I didn’t do all this…” He gestured to the tanks. “…just to see you throw your life away.”
“I have to do what’s right, Papa. I will keep after Imi-chan.”
“No! I forbid it! For your sake, for Netto’s sake, stop chasing her, at least while Netto recuperates! At least—”
“It’s all right, Papa.” Netto poked his head inside, and Meiru followed him. “I stick with nii-san on this. We need to stop Imi, and just because of this…” He pulled on the band of the sling. “…doesn’t mean we can wait. I want to go back. I want to rejoin the fight.”
Yuuichirou approached his younger son. “Netto, are you sure about this? With Saito’s state of mind—”
“I have faith in my brother, Papa. I know when it comes down to it, we will make the right decision, won’t we, nii-san?”
“I hope so, Netto-kun.”
At that, Netto slid his PET back in its holder. “So, where did Enzan and Nakamura-hakase go?”
“Last I heard,” said Yuuichirou, “they were waiting for Imi in Choina…”