Bullets in 2070 aren’t made of metal. Most of them aren’t anyway. Most bullets - and as far as I could tell the one lodged in Vasili’s liver right now - are made of high-density polymer, solid-state when racked in the magazine or fed from the bandolier, then searing-hot plasma as they pick up speed just before slamming home and bursting and cooling into shards halfway through your guts. Cooling in your blood. Not at all designed to leave exit wounds. Only ruin. And a corpse.
I was panting, my back pressed against the chrome-polished wall of Inari’s DataVault, the sweat soaking through my best white shirt, my best black suit, dripping down the single lock of hair I always kept long in front of my face.
“Vas! You’re still breathing, Vas.” It wasn’t a question. But whether I said it to reassure him or myself, I wasn’t so sure.
“We’re getting outta here, Vas.”
It wasn’t the truth, but what else do you say to someone you know when they’re dying? What feeling can you hope to create in them before they’re gone? Why did I actually care? Because I didn’t, not really. I didn’t want to care.
Vasili sucked in a breath, it gurgled in his throat, he only got it halfway down before the reflexes in his lungs kicked the air back out. Blood stained his teeth, dribbled black from the corners of his mouth, pattered on his lap. Vas was a good-looking guy. Blonde, tight-bodied, tall. Not a mod or an augment or a jack on him, far as I could see. I’d be into him probably, if I was into guys at all. But now I’d never get a chance to tell him. Now he was just a fucking mess. He was slouched against the opposite wall, on the other side of the inner vault chamber, the wide open corridor leading to the rest of InariCorp’s impenetrable information fortress between us, our only way out.
His only way out, anyway.
He wiped the blood on the sleeve of his brown suit. Waste of fine linen. His voice was shallow, barely a whisper that rose over the InariSec comm-chatter echoing from the corridor, but I heard him all right.
“Shin… You out?”
Was that an accusation? I hadn’t told anyone - no, not true, I’d told only Ben. How could Vas know? Did Ben fucking betray me? Who else in the Syndicate knew? All the other guys in our Cell were dead further in the vault, churned to soup from the inside-out by InariSec’s plastic fucking bullets. Had the Cell told Vas? Who the fuck else knew?
While the response stuck in my throat, I watched Vas lift his baby-blue eyes up to mine. With some effort, he smiled at me, then dropped his gaze to the revolver in my hand. That’s when I knew what he really meant. I depressed the thumbprint lock and let the eight-chambered cylinder fall open and counted its lone resident. One bullet. Antique. Metal. I once thought to fashion myself a real cowgirl with this heavy thing. Why not? Don’t like who the world made you? Be someone else.
So fucking stupid.
“Not out. Not yet.”
The grating, open-channel comms chatter got louder, punctuated with rubber-soled thumps down the corridor. This was supposed to be easy. A high-level job for sure if you were just some Time-Fiend itching for the money to score your next hit, some off-grid no-name wastrel coming in off the street, but with the high-level recon and taps we’d had in place, raiding Inari’s data vault was supposed to be yasashii - easy, a sake-run. Our SynCell had been planning this for months. Feikes got the call on the last day of summer and we’d done nothing else but work through the routines ever since. And for what? Who was on the other end of that call? A-Matter? Tenjin? Fuji-Rai? Any of the other dozens of Megacorps in the borders of Osaka? Who cares who. Just some corp trying to fuck over some other corp for some slight, real-world, simulated, or misinterpreted. The sprawling city at large, the rest of Japan that wasn’t already ash, and all the little worker-bee salarymen and jin read about it in the manufactured news as “insider trading” or something, something as equally misleading. But we - The Syndicates and the Cells we operated in - we were the drones, the soldiers in the queen-bees’ proxy wars. The criminal elements they paid handsomely under the table to steal information, schematics, proprietary codes, and powerful technology from their competitors. And we - Vasili, Ben, me, and hell even Feikes himself - we were expendable. What kind of public relations nightmare would megacorps unleash if they sent their well armed and armored (and clearly branded) security forces to raid one another? The half-human cybernetic zombies I could hear drawing closer even now.
I didn’t need to tell Vasili how many bullets I had left. Even though half the life had already gone out of his eyes, he could read me well enough. He knew.
“Get over here and do us both, ya fucking cunt.” On the end of that, I caught the edge of the Aussie accent he’d been trying to suppress. I hadn’t gotten to know Vas well enough since I’d known him to bother asking why he wanted so bad to lose that part of his identity. I hadn’t bothered to get to know anyone since signing up with the Syndicate, come to think of it. But Vas knew me well enough to know that I fucking hated it when the guys called me a cunt. Was he trying to goad me into blowing his head to pieces? Probably. But, call it pity for a dying man, I didn’t. Not right away, anyhow.
“What do you want me to do exactly?”
“Oh… I dunno, Shin. Let’s put our heads together.” Vasili’s eyelids fluttered as he turned away, his body rerouting all its remaining strength to lift a smile to his face and his bloody index finger to his temple. “Kkhaa-poosh!” He breathed the sound so softly.
“They’re close now, Vas. You hear ‘em? I won’t make it over there.”
“Know what they do when they catch you? InariSec?”
Why bother telling him I did…
“They’ll put you back together,” he went on. “All the parts that matter. The ones that may know something, ya know… And then they take you apart again piece by piece. Til you give it up… Don’t let ‘em take us, Shin. Please.”
He had me this time, and he didn’t even have to call me a cunt. I considered the final bullet. With the one hand I slammed it home and reactivated the revolver. And without even thinking the other felt through my suit’s inside pocket, my fingers finding the familiar object they were after.
“I’m sorry, Vas.”
The boots drew closer, then stopped. On the blueprints in my head, I saw the InariSec squad parked against the massive steel door, only ten meters away. Their chatter had dropped. The vault was as still as the graveyard.
“Don’t be.” He opened his eyes to tell me with more than his fading voice. I guess it was supposed to be some kind of moment for him, but he laughed when he saw me fixated on the old Shinto charm I held, its worn red ribbon laced delicately between my fingers. “Ha!” The sound was more cough than laugh, bringing up a fresh spray of black. “Didn’t know you were religious.”
Then, everything happened at once.
I pressed the charm tight in my fist.
I swung about. The revolver roared and the bullet lanced through Vasili’s skull and slammed against the far wall. Before the line of brains and blood had even drawn itself across the floor, before the resonant sound could even fully crash against against my eardrums, the high-pitched tingling of the flashbang counted down its final ping and exploded in a concussive white flood.
Fuck it, I’ve had worse. I remember thinking that, just before the rest.
Then the bullets came. Polymer patented by Hachiman Megacorp itself, the real Japanese God of War. They tore my body to shreds from the inside out. The pain was absolutely exquisite. The first rounds landed in my brain, the plastic shards blocking the neuron pathways so completely that I couldn’t even register the full sensation of the other rounds that riddled the rest of my flesh. Little stars were born in bright-hot space between my organs. Like I said before, there were no exit wounds.
Amid the swirling smoke and the deafening gunfire, I assumed my body must’ve dropped to the DataVault floor.
Amid the chaos that followed, I assumed the boots drew up around the spot where the killing machines expected to find it. And there must’ve been some kind of algorithms jacked into overload when neither the synthetic nor the organic halves of their brains could reconcile the fact I simply was not there.
The nightmare always starts with the little girl’s feet. She spent so much time staring down at them, inside the cage of her arms wrapped tight around her drawn-up knees. Her eyes tracing across the canyons of dried blood, the crags split open from the cold, the craters filled up with filth. It was better for the little girl to look down at those feet than to look up at all the ghosts, those unreal, twisted horrors shambling around the mirror-world only she could see.
But the nightmare never ends there. They always come for her. Not the ghosts, not in this nightmare, anyway. In this one, it’s always the boys.
She hears their howling, their taunting, their laughter. It floods the hallways of the orphanage. It’s the baying of beasts on the hunt. She slides up against the wall, too frail and weak to support her own weight, and puts everything she has left into those ruined feet and tries to run, every bare slap of her soles on the grimy, cracked tiled floor bringing a new wave of pain and exhaustion up her legs.
The little girl is never fast enough, because this isn’t so much a nightmare as it is a memory. Every time they came for her, the little girl dared to hope it would be different, that she would get away. Every time I relive this nightmare, I remember she didn’t. Even if she could get away from the boys, she’d never outrun what came next.
She trips. She falls hard at the end of the hallway. In her panic she forgot it was a dead end. She flops over on her back, tries to skitter away against the wall, the tears running down her bruised face, dirty strands of black hair all in tangles. She’s wailing and shaking with fear as the boys catch up.
“Nowhere to run!”
“This is a boy’s home! No place for girls!”
“A real-life Jap too.”
“How’d we get a Jap in here?”
The little girl’s little bony hands can’t protect her head from the slapping. Two of them wrench her hands away and the slaps become fists. She falls over, dazed, and they kick her, their own bare, ruined feet ramming her ribs and limbs, bringing her back from the brink of unconsciousness with every blast of pain.
The girl starts to scream “NO! NO NO NOOOOO!” But it only excites the boys more. They kick harder, not a one of them able to understand it’s not them she truly fears.
Only the little girl can feel it - the whump, whump, whump of the monster’s armor. In this nightmare, it always comes with the certainty of a curse. Because it is a curse. Her curse. It’s the Samurai. A seven-foot tall, ancient suit of splint mail - kote, haidate, do, sode, and kabuto - every piece accounted for, but no flesh, no body inside holding them up. Only a ghost in a shell, caged her. The Samurai is the girl’s rage made manifest.
“Ie,” she mumbles, she pleads, slipping in and out of her mother tongue. “Ie… no, please…” And the beating subsides. The boys don’t know that it’s not them the little girl’s begging to stop. “Please don’t…”
The first boy is lifted off his feet, he hits the wall and something in him cracks. There’s an invisible print of a hand against his back, pressing into his spine, and then he crumples in a twisted heap, all his limbs no longer responsive.
“No!” The little girl’s throat is dry. The scream is hoarse. She doesn’t want to hurt anybody, even as the next boy is hit with something like the wind, hurling him thirty meters back down the hall, back into the night shadows of the decrepit orphanage.
In the nightmare, the little girl thinks she doesn’t want to hurt them. I remember her thinking that. But she’s stupid, afraid of her own power.
I know better.
I know I wanted them all dead.
The two fuckers that still stand over her don’t know what to do. They just witness in silence as the invisible force eradicates the others. One of them has lost control of himself. I see a bloom of wet yellow spreading across the front of the off-white rags he calls pants. Piss-boy watches in horror as his last friend’s ankle shoots out, as he loses his balance and his skull cracks against the floor, as he’s lifted, dangling with the sole of his foot centimeters from the ceiling, moaning and gibbering uncontrollably. And then he’s split, from the groin down. The sound of popping joints and rending muscle and splitting bone petrifies the final, piss-stained boy. The sound of his friend ceases. Just a wet slap of meat hitting the tiles now.
In the nightmare, the little girl still cries. “Komein… Komein…”
But in my memory, I’m laughing.
I remember the last boy, and what happens to him, and I’m laughing my fucking ass off.
Picture a tree. A tall tree, with no branches in particular. Perhaps, a bamboo.
Picture it snapping in half. A clean break. At an angle, so it slides slowly down itself, near-frictionless, like what you’d see in an anime.
Only… now it’s not just breaking simply and easily. Imagine instead it’s twisting, its molecules grinding against one another until they just can’t hold on and snap apart in splinters.
Replace the bamboo tree with a bone. A femur. Your femur.
Imagine the pain of a twisting like this - in every bone of your body, all at once - and you may start to understand how it feels when I cross between the land of the dead and the land of the living.
I fell on my hands and knees, drenched in more than just sweat, biting hard against the agony writhing throughout my body. I heard the splash of the slimy stuff on the rough pavement all around me, like I’d just been vertically vomited out of a swimming pool. Not an inaccurate comparison, actually.
I gasped, and I found the slime had filled my lungs. Sometimes it does. I lurched, my spine rolling up and down, over and over, until wave after wave I’d puked it all up. All the purple goop, all of it. Hot as fire in this world, but to me, so cold. So, so cold. It steamed in a circle all around me, it dried up on my back, evaporating. In a few seconds, it would all be gone.
I fell over on my side and curled into an awkward fetal position, shivering. My eyes spun around in their sockets, finally focusing on the thing I clutched in my hand, my Shinto charm. Just a tiny coin emblazoned with the triple hollyhock seal of the Tokugawa Shogunate on one side, some scratched-out Kanji on the other, and a hole for its red ribbon bangle. Just a tiny little trinket I stole from a long-abandoned shrine when I ran away from the orphanage. As a kid, I thought it was beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I thought I was saving it from the creeping decay that’s slowly been claiming all the old places in NeOsaka. Only a few days later I heard that shrine was finally torn down, one of the last in the city. They’re probably all gone now, ten years later, maybe more, who knows.
So I thought I’d preserved an important piece of Japanese history, but the truth was it was preserving me.
My name is Shinjiro Asai, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been cursed. I see what others cannot see. The dead. Ghosts. Twisted and entropic. I see their world, exactly like this world only warped, bent so far out of any human proportion that the sight of it would drive you insane. For the longest time, I believed I was insane.
But then I died for the first time.
And I came back whole, and I knew that what would be another person’s nightmare was my inescapable reality.
And the time I spent between death and rebirth, I spent in the Underworld. Yomi. The land of the dead.
Even when I’m not there - when I’m not dead - I still see it. I still see them, all the ghosts. They roam the streets, purposeless, despondent, shells of the men and women they once were and mocking mirror-images of who they were supposed to become. In that regard, come to think of it, they’re not so different than the Megacorp salarymen stalking up and down the neon-lit streets of the sprawl, perpetually late for another day of slaving over spreadsheets, data-mined marketing campaigns, software schematics, or whatever the hell else the NeOsaka elite do. If I could pick one group or the other to see all the time, well, it would be a rather tough choice. Unfortunately, I’m fucked. I can’t pick. I see both kinds of zombie. Forever and always.
Whereas the living, corporate ones are all dressed alike in 2070 - in slim suits and slimmer ties, and blinking neural-implants bolted to their skulls - the dead come draped in all variety of withering rags. Yomi is a place of entropy, decline, stagnation. Mold in the real world grows on things in order to break it down to nothing, and then it too will disappear. But in Yomi, nothing disappears. The kimono that wrapped your ancestor when he was burned on the pyre, the dress your bride wore before you murdered her on your wedding night - hell, even the swimsuit your buddy wore to that synthetic-sand beach where he swam way to close to the android shark - I see all their ghosts exactly as they were when the living world had its final memory of them.
And now, toppled on my side in that thin strip of alley (which the zoning bots hadn’t yet found a use for beyond piling heaps of trash), I saw one of them. The ghost drew my gaze beyond the charm in my hand. A man - an old man, with the kind of three-piece, four-button suit that put his death in the mid-21st, all in tatters - was staring right at me. I saw the suit first, counted its buttons (and scoffed because that’s just who I am). Then I saw the briefcase, open, with business papers spilling out slowly, one by one caught in an eternal, intangible breeze and fading away behind him. From that wrist, a stream of dark oily blood flowed, dripped onto each paper, like kissing them goodbye on their way to work. Then I saw the pocket knife in his other hand, wet with it too. And I knew his story.
And I fucking hate myself for feeling, for wanting to know more. Because that’s when I looked into his eyes. And it was all over.
“Sh… Shit-tt-tt.” My teeth chattered. I wanted to say it was from the lingering cold of the purple goop. Not from fear. I struggled to my hands and knees while the ghost took his first slow steps toward me. He had maybe ten meters left to go. I knew had a couple seconds to calm him down and slip away.
I can’t tell you what the ghosts want. I have no idea. No one’s told me anything about my curse, and I wouldn’t know who to ask anyway. But, regardless, I didn’t manage to get this far in life (I mean that ironically, of course) without making some observations, acting on them, and finding some positive results. So I can’t tell you for sure what this shambling apparition wanted, but I could guess it was for somebody to just feel with him. Feel for him. Someone to remember him, I think. Some form of peace. Just peace. An end to the confusion, to the endless, aimless, pointless wandering of his afterlife.
Mr. Briefcase-Sama here was just looking for some sign that showed him where to go. In this case, some body. Literally.
I managed to rise onto my knees and face the ghost. Before, I had relied on the tattoo covering my chest - from shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip - of the massive Torii gate, the traditional Shinto (and adoptive Buddhist) symbol of a gateway separating the sacred and the profane, the kind of monuments Megacorps have been tearing down for decades, when they can find them still standing in the dark corners amid the sprawl. I found one a long time ago, at the same decrepit shrine where I stole the charm. I saw it drive the ghosts away, as if the Torii gate’s two standing hashira posts and the shimaki beam on top and the peeling vermillion paint had suddenly reminded them they were needed elsewhere. Since then, I’ve found a couple more scattered across NeOsaka, and I’ve committed them to memory more strongly than the face of my own mother.
Observations, like I said before. Adaptation. Survival.
Also, I never had a mother.
Despite knowing all this, I didn’t particularly feel like flashing my tattoo or my tits in that alleyway. And besides, after I’d suffered a particularly bad walk through Yomi a while back - straight into a mob of angry phantoms with long fingernails - the ink on my chest had been marred with scar tissue that never healed when I came back, and its magic hadn’t worked the same since.
The ghosts tend to slow when you break eye contact, and just then, concentrating on rolling back my bullet-tattered suit sleeves bought me the precious few seconds more I needed before Mr. Briefcase-Sama lashed out at me with his papers or his pocket knife.
I slammed my forearms together, forming the two halves of my other, newer Torii tattoo into one, and the ghost stopped, just centimeters away. I could feel the frost spreading on my skin, the muscles all down my back tensing, bracing the rest of my body against the sudden rush of cold. I clamped my chittering jaw tight and held my breath, eyes closed, braced behind the shield my arms made, just waiting. I knew waiting was all I could do.
Then, the cold receded. Warmth spread again through my arms. I relaxed, opened my eyes, and glimpsed the suicidal salaryman ghost’s back just as he rounded the corner and melded with the flowing throngs choking NeOsaka’s street-level.
Everything was so quiet, so still. Another thing I can’t explain is how or why these Shinto symbols confound the spirits. Or why the charm gives me command (I use the term very, very loosely) over the curse. I used to wonder - no, in fact, every time I wonder. I’m left staring dumbfounded, wondering what I did to deserve my life.
And forgetting the important matters that demanded more immediate attention.