It was the image of a girl, young but not childish, clad in blue coveralls rolled up to the elbow. Her black hair went down her back, with a red scarf around her head to keep it out of her eyes, and braids down either side of her face all the way her chest. That was the most distinctive part; Ki always thought that it must have taken her forever to grow those braids; they were the some of the more impractical pieces of hair work he’d ever seen, made worse by their simplicity.
But there she was, sleeves rolled up, looking you straight in the eyes. There was usually a cheesy propaganda message on her posters, “Join today!” “Gongen women are stronger than ever!” or the like. The worst part was that people loved the image. You couldn’t go to a costume party without at least seeing one woman dressed as her, and that was the minimum. You were lucky if there wasn’t a man dressed up the same way. Girls grew their hair out for years to get “natural” versions of those dumb braids. And as he thought of all this, a group of children (obviously on a school trip) walked by, some dressed in cheap plastic samurai armor, some as Shinobi, some had clearly been dressed by their parents as “the common man” and looked very upset about it. One kid was even dressed as a NoBot, the great robotic guardians of the planet of Gongen, his clunky armor made from boxes and plastic cartons a pale imitation of the gigantic automatons. But what really got him was that more than half the girls were dressed in cheap child-size blue coveralls, fake braids in their hair, and singing a song about the most annoying propaganda figure on Gongen, savior of children, Hoshi the GearGirl.
“Hoshi the GearGirl
Is a happy, happy, soul
she weaves her braids with flowers
And brushes off the cold
She doesn’t own a pearl
and has no need for Gold
because she knows that Shocho
will keep her warm fourfold!”
Ki cussed under his breath. The children’s teacher gave him a deserved dirty look. Hands in his pockets he strolled away, and decided to wash away the night’s unpleasant taste with alcohol.
Of all the bars on Gongen, Ki preferred the ones where the expatriates hung out. Stepping into the Sasuki’s Tonic, and seeing the blonde man with steel limbs from the rim, and the brown haired man in nondescript clothing who made it too clear that he had once been an Earther, Ki finally felt at peace. He settled down at a table, and nursed a drink till it got annoyed at the attention and his brain buzzed.
“Happy election day.”
Ki turned, a man with a false eye, or rather prosthetic one, was stopped by the side of the table. His real eye was looking at Ki, his metal one swiveling around in a nauseating way. “It’s election day?”
The man laughed, and sat down without asking to, brushing back his blonde hair. “Well you’ve lived here longer than me; I figured you’d keep track of it.”
Ki wanted to tell the man that he had never kept track of an election in his life, that the Tenryu party always won (usually because they were the only ones running) and so it didn’t matter a damn bit. He knew these tourist types however, and from the honest glint in the real eye, Ki knew he thought all Gongen were as stupidly patriotic as those school children.
“Election day is tomorrow, I’ll do my citizenly duties then.” He might pickpocket around the poles, at least.
“Its three AM, so technically it is the morning.”
“I did have another thing I wanted to ask you.” The eye kept darting.
“Sure.” Ki’s voice burned with annoyance.
“I was wondering though, if you knew who this Hoshi the GearGirl was.”
Ki almost spat out his drink, pursing it in his lips like a chipmunk.
“I don’t really want to talk about that right now.”
“Oh I bet you don’t.” Another man sat down; Ki hadn’t seen him walk up, nor enter, nor heard him till he spoke. He wore a black business suit, whose buttons went up higher than usual, brown hair, a blandly handsome face, and red eyes. Ki was sure he was wearing contacts, because they were too red to be real. The guy was a showboat. He was also uninvited.
“Look, I just want to sit here, and drink my sake, now if the two of you could just get the hell away from me we won’t have any problems.
The Red-Eyed man smiled a wide smile. His teeth were impeccable.
“Now, now, we’re going to have trouble whether you want to or not. So why don’t we all just talk for a moment before we make some sanguine mosaics.” The blonde Maverick tried to get up, but the Red-Eyed man poked something into his side. Ki didn’t need to see it to figure it out.
“Sit, please! There, now we’re all… Settled.” He raised a hand and the bartender brought three more cups of sake.
“Now then, you, Sang Ki, could be at a real Sake house, sitting politely on mats drinking delicious rotten fruit juice, but you’re here, drinking in a bad imitation of a cheap Maverick joint, not exactly proud of one’s home are we? And you, Kyle “TripWyrm” Klevin, well; you spent an awful lot of time talking to that Earther by the bar didn’t you? Except you’re too dumb to get that he’s an Earther, stole his wallet either way. So now I’m going to enlighten both of you on three things.”
Ki and Kyle sat silently.
“Oh don’t look so glum, I’m only threatening you.”
“Tell us, Mr. pink eye.”
He smiled wider.
“One- That man at the bar is a CSyN spy, and is going to get up in a moment, realize his wallet is gone. And come kill you.
Two- One of you two at this table, and that Earther, are going to be dead in a minute, and the survivor gets a job.”
“What if we don’t want it?”
Ki was speaking the words as the man at the bar reached into his pocket to pay, looked at the empty stools next to him, and then turned to see it sitting in front of Sang Ki on the table, which it was not a moment before. The next few moments were fast-
--the Red-Eyed man smiled pleasantly, the man moved towards them, Sang Ki ducked below the table, the maverick’s picked up the wallet and began to say something, the Earther yelled something inaudible at Kyle, a pistol appeared, then another, then more, an eye shifted, a chair fell over, then there was a green pulse from the Earther’s gun, and Kyle didn’t have as much of his head. The Red-Eyed man simply kept smiling, dusted the charred flakes of person off his blazer, and punched the Earther.
That description wasn’t good enough for what happened in that moment; as his arm pulled back there was a whirring, and you could see things moving under his sleeve down his arm. Beneath the skin of his hand bits moved and rotated, and his arm shot forward. Ki closed his eyes fast, but not fast enough to miss the hail of gore that followed. He felt sick, and acted on that feeling. But the speed didn’t stop- it had been seconds, literally seconds, and the Red-Eyed man kept moving, kicking away the table, grabbing Ki by the collar, and dragging him—if you can use the world dragging for that, as the man was sprinting. People were rising to their feet, hands half raised in pointing, and Ki was out the door, through an alley, up the side of a building. He lost consciousness, still dribbling some vomit down his chin, and dreamed of being on a train with glowing red lights that smashed through buildings to get to its station, and all the time a mouse roamed at his feet, and a woman with braids turned her head just slightly.
* * * * * * * *
Waking is never easy in a world of moving light. You open your eyes, expecting to find darkness, but what you find is the light on your console telling you it’s turned off. It was almost a relief to see darkness, the shadows that scare you in an alley become the deepest friends for sleep, but the relief of darkness was tempered by the feeling of being drug across the floor, and the sound of a key-stick unlocking a door. The blackness suddenly found itself intruded upon by an expanding rectangle of light, filled with color and shape. Ki squinted, there were a pair of tied up Gongen technicians there, unconscious, and a large package. “So Ki, you’re going to help me out on a little project I’ve been setting up.”
“So I have any choice?”
This guy really loved smiling.
* * * * * * * *
The man across from him on the train was sneezing. As if he needed anything else to worry about. He was sitting in a stolen uniform, with a fake ID, wearing contacts to trick retinal scanners, next to a man with fluorescent eyes, not to mention the huge package he had on a cart in front of him. At least a cold wouldn’t get him killed.
The train stopped, and guards got on, carrying scanning equipment. The train already had plenty of security on it, they’d been scanned entering into it too, and there were cameras, microphones, and pretty much any security device one could think of littering the train. They probably even know how much he was sweating right now, how his heart was beating faster than the pumping rhythm of the train’s machinery. Red-Eyes looked bored, like he had taken this commute too many times to give a damn. The guards came by again. Scanned him, checked his papers. They asked Red-Eyes what he was doing, and he spouted off a BS story faster than Ki could forge a signature. He then joked with the guards about their scanner being their “sniffing dog’ or something and they all had a laugh. The guards scanned Ki, fine. Checked his papers, fine. Asked him a question, he froze up.
“Boy is just scared to see the big Grandpa,” he unrolled a sandwich from a re-sealable piece of cooler paper, didn’t even look up, “guys been talking about the factory like its Shocho’s body.”
“Kind of is.” One of the guards said, “Yeah but it kind of isn’t too. Shocho is so many places you’re not going to really pin him down like that.” He started eating the sandwich, and finished the conversation talking with food in his mouth. “You voting tomorrow?”
Bland generic answers.
“That Hoshi sure is a looker….”
“It’s a drawing on a poster.”
Ki was bored, and yet impressed.
That was twenty-nine minutes ago, and Ki was still running it through his head as they made their way past a few more blandly similar security checkpoints. “You don’t even look remotely Gongen!” Red squinted his eyes, and reducing the whites just made his gaze creepier. “Gongen is a big place. Not everybody on here came from Asia.” The thing was, even though he had brown hair and white skin, he looked like he fit in- or maybe just felt like it. Ki shook his head and pushed the cart down the hall behind Mr. Red-Eyes. “Ah, we’re here.” ‘We’re here’ was an unremarkable office. The man opened the door, and ushered Ki in. “We meeting someone?”
“No. This man isn’t coming into work today.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he’s in the hospital. Now, Ki, I’m going to do something, and then we are going to have exactly five minutes, and if we don’t get to where we’re going, we’ll both be dead. Get it?” Ki nodded. “Open the package.” The metal box was rather small inside, as most of it appeared to be a device to trick scanners. If his master here hadn’t set a time limit he would have never let it go, maybe held it while he slept. Out of the box came a pair of gauss pistols, what looked like a pair of head bands, and a brick sized solid state hard drive. “Right. So want to know what we’re here to do?” Ki nodded. The man just smiled, and got up to open the door. “Try to keep up.”
Ki wished he could have. One moment the Red-Eyed man was standing, the next parts of his skin stuck out and became rigid, and he seemed to burst with motion. The door was open, than stunned Gongen technicians were thrown out of his path, clubbed into walls by glancing fists that came out of a blur. Ki barreled through the path he’d made, as the alarms were already starting to sound. The man was visible again in front of a closing pair of automatic doors a foot thick, he paused them just for a minute, and jumped in between them. It occurred to Ki then, that he could shoot him then. He had a gun, and there he was vulnerable for just a moment. But then he saw what he was doing; he stood there, and as the doors put their intense pressure that should have squished him, he stayed still. It pushed in till his shoulders should have started to get pushed into his internal organs. But they didn’t. He just held there, gritting his teeth, his bones making a sound like a braking train. “What the hell are you?”
“Just get through the damn door!” The man lifted his feet up and Ki crawled though. The man then proceeded to shift his body, and as the doors made their final push into the new space he’d made, threw his weight through, and got most of himself through. Not all though. There was a crunch, as his left foot was still in the door. He slid the foot out of its shoe, and out, and the doors flatted the shoe, but his foot was quite the piece of work. It was bleeding; something that looked like a piston was pushed through his sock, wires and bits of crushed metal mixed in with blood, meat, and skin. He tried to stand up, but fell over. He tried to speak but hacked up blood. Ki could only stare, stare like he kept finding himself doing over and over today. It was only when he looked up that he knew they were screwed.
“Get me up!” Ki wanted to tell him to go make babies with himself, but found himself complying, lifting him up by the shoulders, and walking with him like a human crutch. And where they walked Ki couldn’t believe, it was just too ridiculous, like he’d walked onto the set of a holothriller; there before them was Shikami, the NoBot, standing tall in all its glory, but dark, like an empty house. “We’ve got to bandage your foot.” They were leaving quite the trail of blood. “After we get up the scaffolding. There’s an elevator.”
“Why isn’t anybody here, we’re in the repair hall, there should be techs, guards, hell…”
“We locked most of ‘em out.” He grinned a bloody grin. They went past a set of consoles, and between the giant’s feet, to a simple metal elevator set up to do repairs at different points on the NoBot’s back. He threw the Red-Eyed man down, and put his hands on his knees panting. “Can’t rest now, they’ll override the security locks in a moment.” The Red-Eyed man reached over to a panel, slapped a button, and the elevator rose. The back of the NoBot was a patchwork of genius, interlocked plates of the dreams and hopes of everything it stood for, but Ki had turned his own back to the sight. He chose to scream. “I’m done with this! We’re going to die when they get in here you know. We were lucky. Sure, you knew how to get through security, got us into here, but,” he leveled the gauss pistol as the Red-Eyed man’s left red eye. That stupid red eye. Hands quietly worked wrapping the busted foot up, the idiot thought he was so great he could do that, without looking too. “You’re stupid! This whole plan is stupid! And your eyes are stupid. Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“I think, we’re getting along fine.” He smiled. Ki smiled. The gun lowered. Why had this been such a problem a moment ago anyways? …No. No, he shook his head. This wasn’t normal. This was something he was doing, to his head… “We’re friend’s Ki, aren’t we? I always assumed you had the utmost respect for me.” A rush of emotions flooded Ki, sympathy, shame at having let down this stranger, happiness to be with him, and yet the subtle feeling nothing was quite right. “Yeah, I guess I always did.” How long ago was that? He remembered meeting that man this morning, but it felt like years ago… It must be, they were such close friends after all. The man got up, “Now that’s better isn’t it? Looks like our guests are h-“ a plasma bolt burned into the floor. “Give me your damn pistol.” The jolt of the bolt had given Ki his sense of self back, it was time to turn the tables. It was Ki’s turn to finally grin, a grin full of malice. He was already dead no matter how this turned out, better revenge then nothing. And as all of that went through his head, he handed the Red-Eyed man his pistol. “Thanks! When we get to the top, open the panel labeled 4-5, and install what’s on the hard drive.” The end of the sentence marked the start of his return fire. The pistols, inaccurate at long range, may as well have been sniper rifles. Where there was open skin, he hit it. Where there wasn’t, he hit the photo-receptors, and then shot again when the soldiers struggled to remove their helmets. He couldn’t hit them all, he was good and obviously physically modified to kill, but he wasn’t a superhero, and several took off on their jetpacks, as the elevator reached its topmost point. Ki got to work, as the Red eyed man got up to open his range of fire, picking off the plasma flashing fireflies that swarmed around him. As the hyper-accelerated chunks of steel alloy ripped through the soldier’s bodies, sending their still flaming forms careening like fireworks through the hall, Ki felt like if they weren’t other people, blood trickling through the air like streamers from the wounds, it could be called beautiful.
He found the panel, it was marked clearly, but it was bolted on. As he stood there dumbly, the Red-Eyed man glared at him, and he found himself pulling out the head band-esque objects, which he placed around each other bolts, and watched as they changed form, and sunk into the holes the bolts were in. With a simple tug, the bolts came out, followed by a plasma bolt that burned him on the shoulder. He screamed, and his vision turned to pinpricks of light. The sound of screaming brought him back. Red-Eye was shaking him with one hand, shooting blindly with the other. “Get up! Come on.” Ki’s brain felt like it was flooded with blood and fog, but was clearer than it had been since that man met him in the bar. He pulled the hard drive in, and began to hack. It had been so long, working as an engineer, rewiring and reprogramming for the NoBot to accept what he was putting in. Code flooded his eyes, and his hands moved in rote. It felt good, oddly, all he remembered was hating it. And it was done fast.
The results were instantaneous. The NoBot began to power on, and the first thing it did was to literally put its foot down about the incoming attack, blocking the door and any more entering, but doing it slow enough for others to get out of the way. Then it punched the wall, leaving a nice hole in it, and then it just left its arm there. “It gave us a bridge- go!” Ki climbed up its arm and ran, balancing as best he could, climbing through the hole in the wall, and onto the NoBot’s palm. Red was right behind him. “Jump!” Ki shoot his head, “Its Thirty feet down!”
“How else are we getting out?”
“Did you even make an escape plan?”
“One-way trip.” Ki wanted to kill him. But he jumped. He rolled, which saves his spine, but he still shattered his legs. The red earth didn’t blend in with his blood as well as he thought it would.
* * * * * * * *
Ki had a dream.
At least he thought it was one. He was a mouse running this way and that, hunted by a cat. The cat told him to punch the dog and it wouldn’t eat him, so he ran up and hit the dog, but it did nothing, and the dog barked and chased him across the floor. He hid, and thought he was safe, but there was the cat, with glowing eyes and sharp teeth.
He found himself floating then, then upside down floating, till the feeling in his body started to come back, and his real sense of self, then he felt wet. He was in a sewer. It smelled horrible, and his cuts were in sewage. Across from him sat the Red-Eyed man. He wasn’t smiling. He looked downright sad. From above he could hear children, singing that same rhyme about Hoshi the GearGirl, fixing things for all Gongen. The Red-Eyed man ran a hand through his scorches but sewer damp hair.
“I thought that would be it. That would be the end. Get them back for what they did to me. Make them suffer. And here I am in a sewer.” Emotion seemed to be bleeding out of him, Ki could swear he thought the words in his head as the Red-Eyed man said them.
“How the hell did we get away?” Ki’s legs were definitely still broken, and he definitely wouldn’t be walking anywhere. The Red-eyed man shrugged, “Killed some people, hid, I have practice.” Occasionally there are moments where people let down their veils and show off their real selves. And here was the Red-Eyed man, apparent master commando, who could murder with efficiency and flair, lie his way into anything, sitting in a sewer, sad that he could feel a single thing. “Here,” Red handed him one of the pistols, it was nearly empty. “Kill me. Do it. You want to. Do it.” He stared him down. And as he looked in his eyes Ki got the distinct impression he should kill him. Rage rose within him, adrenaline, testosterone, hate. There would be nothing better than to leave his head a brain splatter along that wall. But then something happened Ki hadn’t done in a long time, something he’d nearly sworn against. He thought before he acted. That man never needed Ki. He could have done this himself.
“Why don’t you kill yourself?” Ki suggested politely, holding the gun out to him, “JUST KILL ME ALREADY!” Ki smiled, “Kill yourself, do it.” The Red-Eyed man gritted his teeth. “I… Can’t.” His eyes welled up with tears, and the sewer seemed to flood with them--
It was then Ki had another dream, but he was awake, he was the Red-Eyed man, a child in a lab with a bunch of other identical ones, surgery every day, mental conditioning, tests of motors installed in his arm, with no anesthesia, friends bodies falling apart, or a metal organ bursting out of their chest. He was naked in the corner of a room that smelled like blood and shit, crying in the corner as a scientist undid the button on his pants… Linguistic courses on how to talk like an Earther, training every day from dusk till dawn, injections of chemicals that were untested, learning to kill when he didn’t want to, and the feeling of being utterly worthless and alone. Then the project was cancelled, and though they were supposed to be “disposed of” someone got greedy, and sold them to a buyer, an old man, bald with glasses, who kept doing a weird thing with his hands and when the scientist came to drop the “goods off” KI remembered the animalistic rage, as he was unchained, and the bald man told them to do what they wanted with their “Seller” who screamed about honor and a deal as feral children with machine like jaws bit into him. Years passed, of missions, and work, the survivors working towards a common goal, and then something went wrong, and the old man was dead, and Red-Eye was alone again, Ki was himself again, and the Red-Eyed man was looking at him aghast.
“I didn’t mean to… You saw it all didn’t you.”
“I’m not killing you.”
“I was only here to kill you in case they didn’t. A human suicide pill huh?”
Ki wasn’t a compassionate man. In fact quite the opposite. But he threw the gun into the stream of muck. “Rigging a NoBot with a virus is quite the way to go.”
“It has to be a mission.”
“Yeah, I got that, look, I’m not saying much, but I can’t really get out of this sewer myself. So how about we got off this rock.”
“Gongen?” Ki shrugged, “Why not. I’ve been bored here. And anyways, today is Election Day, and I hate being here for Election Day. Last year’s was a mess, and nobody likes voting anyways. And you could probably get me out of some tough scrapes. Consider it a mission. We’ll go to Last Chance station and pick up some girls. Consider that a mission to.”
“You have an interesting definition of mission.”
Ki smiled, “Self-preservation, man. It’s why the mouse punches the dog.”
The Red-Eyed man had no idea what that meant, and the children were still singing, but for now, he was okay with that.