Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

Maneki Neko

“I can’t go on,” his brother said.

Tsuyoshi Shimizu looked thoughtfully into the screen of his pasokon. His older brother’s face was shiny with sweat from a late-night drinking bout.

“It’s only a career,” said Tsuyoshi, sitting up on his futon and adjusting his pajamas. “You worry too much.”

“All that overtime!” his brother whined. He was making the call from a bar somewhere in Shibuya. In the background, a middle-aged office lady was singing karaoke, badly. “And the examination hells. The manager training programs. The proficiency tests. I never have time to live!”

Tsuyoshi grunted sympathetically. He didn’t like these late-night videophone calls, but he felt obliged to listen. His big brother had always been a decent sort, before he had gone through the elite courses at Waseda University, joined a big corporation, and gotten professionally ambitious.

“My back hurts,” his brother groused. “I have an ulcer. My hair is going gray. And I know they’ll fire me. No matter how loyal you are to the big companies, they have no loyalty to their employees anymore. It’s no wonder that I drink.”

“You should get married,” Tsuyoshi offered.

“I can’t find the right girl. Women never understand me.” He shuddered. “Tsuyoshi, I’m truly desperate. The market pressures are crushing me. I can’t breathe. My life has got to change. I’m thinking of taking the vows. I’m serious! I want to renounce this whole modern world.”

Tsuyoshi was alarmed. “You’re very drunk, right?”

His brother leaned closer to the screen. “Life in a monastery sounds truly good to me. It’s so quiet there. You recite the sutras. You consider your existence. There are rules to follow, and rewards that make sense. It’s just the way that Japanese business used to be, back in the good old days.”

Tsuyoshi grunted skeptically.

“Last week I went out to a special place in the mountains … Mount Aso,” his brother confided. “The monks there, they know about people in trouble, people who are burned out by modern life. The monks protect you from the world. No computers, no phones, no faxes, no e-mail, no overtime, no commuting, nothing at all. It’s beautiful, and it’s peaceful, and nothing ever happens there. Really, it’s like paradise.”

“Listen, older brother,” Tsuyoshi said, “you’re not a religious man by nature. You’re a section chief for a big import-export company.”

“Well … maybe religion won’t work for me. I did think of running away to America. Nothing much ever happens there, either.”

Tsuyoshi smiled. “That sounds much better! America is a good vacation spot. A long vacation is just what you need! Besides, the Americans are real friendly since they gave up their handguns.”

“But I can’t go through with it,” his brother wailed. “I just don’t dare. I can’t just wander away from everything that I know, and trust to the kindness of strangers.”

“That always works for me,” Tsuyoshi said. “Maybe you should try it.”

Tsuyoshi’s wife stirred uneasily on the futon. Tsuyoshi lowered his voice. “Sorry, but I have to hang up now. Call me before you do anything rash.”

“Don’t tell Dad,” Tsuyoshi’s brother said. “He worries so.”

“I won’t tell Dad.” Tsuyoshi cut the connection and the screen went dark.

Tsuyoshi’s wife rolled over, heavily. She was seven months pregnant. She stared at the ceiling puffing for breath. “Was that another call from your brother?” she said.

“Yeah. The company just gave him another promotion. More responsibilities. He’s celebrating.”

“That sounds nice,” his wife said tactfully.

***

Next morning, Tsuyoshi slept late. He was self-employed, so he kept his own hours. Tsuyoshi was a video format upgrader by trade. He transferred old videos from obsolete formats into the new high-grade storage media. Doing this properly took a craftsman’s eye. Word of Tsuyoshi’s skills had gotten out on the network, so he had as much work as he could handle.

At ten A.M., the mailman arrived. Tsuyoshi abandoned his breakfast of raw egg and miso soup, and signed for a shipment of flaking, twentieth-century analog television tapes. The mail also brought a fresh overnight shipment of strawberries, and a homemade jar of pickles.

“Pickles!” his wife enthused. “People are so nice to you when you’re pregnant.”

“Any idea who sent us that?”

“Just someone on the network.”

“Great.”

Tsuyoshi booted his mediator, cleaned his superconducting heads and examined the old tapes. Home videos from the 1980s. Someone’s grandmother as a child, presumably. There had been a lot of flaking and loss of polarity in the old recording medium.

Tsuyoshi got to work with his desktop fractal detail generator, the image stabilizer, and the interlace algorithms. When he was done, Tsuyoshi’s new digital copies would look much sharper, cleaner, and better composed than the original primitive videotape.

Tsuyoshi enjoyed his work. Quite often he came across bits and pieces of videotape that were of archival interest. He would pass the images on to the net. The really big network databases, with their armies of search engines, indexers, and catalogues, had some very arcane interests. The net machines would never pay for data, because the global information networks were noncommercial. But the net machines were very polite, and had excellent net etiquette. They returned a favor for a favor, and since they were machines with excellent, enormous memories, they never forgot a good deed.

Tsuyoshi and his wife had a lunch of ramen with naruto, and she left to go shopping. A shipment arrived by overseas package service. Cute baby clothes from Darwin, Australia. They were in his wife’s favorite color, sunshine yellow.

Tsuyoshi finished transferring the first tape to a new crystal disk. Time for a break. He left his apartment, took the elevator and went out to the comer coffeeshop. He ordered a double iced mocha cappuccino and paid with a chargecard.

His pokkecon rang. Tsuyoshi took it from his belt and answered it. “Get one to go,” the machine told him.

“Okay,” said Tsuyoshi, and hung up. He bought a second coffee, put a lid on it and left the shop.

A man in a business suit was sitting on a park bench near the entrance of Tsuyoshi’s building. The man’s suit was good, but it looked as if he’d slept in it. He was holding his head in his hands and rocking gently back and forth. He was unshaven and his eyes were red-rimmed.

The pokkecon rang again. “The coffee’s for him?” Tsuyoshi said.

“Yes,” said the pokkecon. “He needs it.”

Tsuyoshi walked up to the lost businessman. The man looked up, flinching warily, as if he were about to be kicked. “What is it?” he said.

“Here,” Tsuyoshi said, handing him the cup. “Double iced mocha cappuccino.”

The man opened the cup, and smelled it. He looked up in disbelief. “This is my favorite kind of coffee … Who are you?”

Tsuyoshi lifted his arm and offered a hand signal, his fingers clenched like a cat’s paw. The man showed no recognition of the gesture.

Tsuyoshi shrugged, and smiled. “It doesn’t matter. Sometimes a man really needs a coffee. Now you have a coffee. That’s all.”

“Well…” The man cautiously sipped his cup, and suddenly smiled. “It’s really great. Thanks!”

“You’re welcome.” Tsuyoshi went home.

His wife arrived from shopping. She had bought new shoes. The pregnancy was making her feet swell. She sat carefully on the couch and sighed.

“Orthopedic shoes are expensive,” she said, looking at the yellow pumps. “I hope you don’t think they look ugly.”

“On you, they look really cute,” Tsuyoshi said wisely. He had first met his wife at a video store. She had just used her credit card to buy a disk of primitive black-and-white American anime of the 1950s. The pokkecon had urged him to go up and speak to her on the subject of Felix the Cat. Felix was an early television cartoon star and one of Tsuyoshi’s personal favorites.

Tsuyoshi would have been too shy to approach an attractive woman on his own, but no one was a stranger to the net. This fact gave him the confidence to speak to her. Tsuyoshi had soon discovered that the girl was delighted to discuss her deep fondness for cute, antique, animated cats. They’d had lunch together. They’d had a date the next week. They had spent Christmas Eve together in a love hotel. They had a lot in common.

She had come into his life through a little act of grace, a little gift from Felix the Cat’s magic bag of tricks. Tsuyoshi had never gotten over feeling grateful for this. Now that he was married and becoming a father, Tsuyoshi Shimizu could feel himself becoming solidly fixed in life. He had a man’s role to play now. He knew who he was, and he knew where he stood. Life was good to him.

“You need a haircut, dear,” his wife told him.

“Sure.”

His wife pulled a gift box out of her shopping bag. “Can you go to the Hotel Daruma, and get your hair cut, and deliver this box for me?”

“What is it?” Tsuyoshi said.

Tsuyoshi’s wife opened the little wooden gift box. A maneki neko was nestled inside white foam padding. The smiling ceramic cat held one paw upraised, beckoning for good fortune.

“Don’t you have enough of those yet?” he said. “You even have maneki neko underwear.”

“It’s not for my collection. It’s a gift for someone at the Hotel Daruma.”

“Oh.”

“Some foreign woman gave me this box at the shoestore. She looked American. She couldn’t speak Japanese. She had really nice shoes, though…”

“If the network gave you that little cat, then you’re the one who should take care of that obligation, dear.”

“But dear,” she sighed, “my feet hurt so much, and you could do with a haircut anyway, and I have to cook supper, and besides, it’s not really a nice maneki neko, it’s just cheap tourist souvenir junk. Can’t you do it?”

“Oh, all right,” Tsuyoshi told her. “Just forward your pokkecon prompts onto my machine, and I’ll see what I can do for us.”

She smiled. “I knew you would do it. You’re really so good to me.”

Tsuyoshi left with the little box. He wasn’t unhappy to do the errand, as it wasn’t always easy to manage his pregnant wife’s volatile moods in their small six-tatami apartment. The local neighborhood was good, but he was hoping to find bigger accommodations before the child was born. Maybe a place with a little studio, where he could expand the scope of his work. It was very hard to find decent housing in Tokyo, but word was out on the net. Friends he didn’t even know were working every day to help him. If he kept up with the net’s obligations, he had every confidence that some day something nice would turn up.

Tsuyoshi went into the local pachinko parlor, where he won half a liter of beer and a train chargecard. He drank the beer, took the new train card and wedged himself into the train. He got out at the Ebisu station, and turned on his pokkecon Tokyo street map to guide his steps. He walked past places called Chocolate Soup, and Freshness Physique, and The Aladdin Mai-Tai Panico Trattoria.

He entered the Hotel Daruma and went to the hotel barber shop, which was called the Daruma Planet Look. “May I help you?” said the receptionist.

“I’m thinking, a shave and a trim,” Tsuyoshi said.

“Do you have an appointment with us?”

“Sorry, no.” Tsuyoshi offered a hand gesture.

The woman gestured back, a jerky series of cryptic finger movements. Tsuyoshi didn’t recognize any of the gestures. She wasn’t from his part of the network.

“Oh well, never mind,” the receptionist said kindly. “I’ll get Nahoko to look after you.”

Nahoko was carefully shaving the fine hair from Tsuyoshi’s forehead when the pokkecon rang. Tsuyoshi answered it.

“Go to the ladies’ room on the fourth floor,” the pokkecon told him.

“Sorry, I can’t do that. This is Tsuyoshi Shimizu, not Ai Shimizu. Besides, I’m having my hair cut right now.”

“Oh, I see,” said the machine. “Recalibrating.” It hung up.

Nahoko finished his hair. She had done a good job. He looked much better. A man who worked at home had to take special trouble to keep up appearances. The pokkecon rang again.

“Yes?” said Tsuyoshi.

“Buy bay rum aftershave. Take it outside.”

“Right.” He hung up. “Nahoko, do you have bay rum?”

“Odd you should ask that,” said Nahoko. “Hardly anyone asks for bay rum anymore, but our shop happens to keep it in stock.”

Tsuyoshi bought the aftershave, then stepped outside the barbershop. Nothing happened, so he bought a manga comic and waited. Finally a hairy, blond stranger in shorts, a tropical shirt, and sandals approached him. The foreigner was carrying a camera bag and an old-fashioned pokkecon. He looked about sixty years old, and he was very tall.

The man spoke to his pokkecon in English. “Excuse me,” said the pokkecon, translating the man’s speech into Japanese. “Do you have a bottle of bay rum aftershave?”

“Yes I do.” Tsuyoshi handed the bottle over. “Here.”

“Thank goodness!” said the man, his words relayed through his machine. “I’ve asked everyone else in the lobby. Sorry I was late.”

“No problem,” said Tsuyoshi. “That’s a nice pokkecon you have there.”

“Well,” the man said, “I know it’s old and out of style. But I plan to buy a new pokkecon here in Tokyo. I’m told that they sell pokkecons by the basketful in Akihabara electronics market.”

“That’s right. What kind of translator program are you running? Your translator talks like someone from Osaka.”

“Does it sound funny?” the tourist asked anxiously.

“Well, I don’t want to complain, but…” Tsuyoshi smiled. “Here, let’s trade meishi. I can give you a copy of a brand-new freeware translator.”

“That would be wonderful.” They pressed buttons and squirted copies of their business cards across the network link.

Tsuyoshi examined his copy of the man’s electronic card and saw that his name was Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman was from New Zealand. Tsuyoshi activated a transfer program. His modern pokkecon began transferring a new translator onto Zimmerman’s machine.

A large American man in a padded suit entered the lobby of the Daruma. The man wore sunglasses, and was sweating visibly in the summer heat. The American looked huge, as if he lifted a lot of weights. Then a Japanese woman followed him. The woman was sharply dressed, with a dark blue dress suit, hat, sunglasses, and an attache case. She had a haunted look.

Her escort turned and carefully watched the bellhops, who were bringing in a series of bags. The woman walked crisply to the reception desk and began making anxious demands of the clerk.

“I’m a great believer in machine translation,” Tsuyoshi said to the tall man from New Zealand. “I really believe that computers help human beings to relate in a much more human way.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Mr. Zimmerman, through his machine. “I can remember the first time I came to your country, many years ago. I had no portable translator. In fact, I had nothing but a printed phrasebook. I happened to go into a bar, and…”

Zimmerman stopped and gazed alertly at his pokkecon. “Oh dear, I’m getting a screen prompt. I have to go up to my room right away.”

“Then I’ll come along with you till this software transfer is done,” Tsuyoshi said.

“That’s very kind of you.” They got into the elevator together. Zimmerman punched for the fourth floor. “Anyway, as I was saying, I went into this bar in Roppongi late at night, because I was jetlagged and hoping for something to eat…”

“Yes?”

“And this woman … well, let’s just say this woman was hanging out in a foreigner’s bar in Roppongi late at night, and she wasn’t wearing a whole lot of clothes, and she didn’t look like she was any better than she ought to be…”

“Yes, I think I understand you.”

“Anyway, this menu they gave me was full of kanji, or katakana, or romanji, or whatever they call those, so I had my phrasebook out, and I was trying very hard to puzzle out these pesky ideograms…” The elevator opened and they stepped into the carpeted hall of the hotel’s fourth floor. “So I opened the menu and I pointed to an entree, and I told this girl…” Zimmerman stopped suddenly, and stared at his screen. “Oh dear, something’s happening. Just a moment.”

Zimmerman carefully studied the instructions on his pokkecon. Then he pulled the bottle of bay rum from the baggy pocket of his shorts, and unscrewed the cap. He stood on tiptoe, stretching to his full height, and carefully poured the contents of the bottle through the iron louvers of a ventilation grate, set high in the top of the wall.

Zimmerman screwed the cap back on neatly, and slipped the empty bottle back in his pocket. Then he examined his pokkecon again. He frowned, and shook it. The screen had frozen. Apparently Tsuyoshi’s new translation program had overloaded Zimmerman’s old-fashioned operating system. His pokkecon had crashed.

Zimmerman spoke a few defeated sentences in English. Then he smiled, and spread his hands apologetically. He bowed, and went into his room, and shut the door.

The Japanese woman and her burly American escort entered the hall. The man gave Tsuyoshi a hard stare. The woman opened the door with a passcard. Her hands were shaking.

Tsuyoshi’s pokkecon rang. “Leave the hall,” it told him. “Go downstairs. Get into the elevator with the bellboy.”

Tsuyoshi followed instructions.

The bellboy was just entering the elevator with a cart full of the woman’s baggage. Tsuyoshi got into the elevator, stepping carefully behind the wheeled metal cart. “What floor, sir?” said the bellboy.

“Eight,” Tsuyoshi said, ad-libbing. The bellboy turned and pushed the buttons. He faced forward attentively, his gloved hands folded.

The pokkecon flashed a silent line of text to the screen. “Put the gift box inside her flight bag,” it read.

Tsuyoshi located the zippered blue bag at the back of the cart. It was a matter of instants to zip it open, put in the box with the maneki neko, and zip the bag shut again. The bellboy noticed nothing. He left, tugging his cart.

Tsuyoshi got out on the eighth floor, feeling slightly foolish. He wandered down the hall, found a quiet nook by an ice machine and called his wife. “What’s going on?” he said.

“Oh, nothing.” She smiled. “Your haircut looks nice! Show me the back of your head.”

Tsuyoshi held the pokkecon screen behind the nape of his neck.

“They do good work,” his wife said with satisfaction. “I hope it didn’t cost too much. Are you coming home now?”

“Things are getting a little odd here at the hotel,” Tsuyoshi told her. “I may be some time.”

His wife frowned. “Well, don’t miss supper. We’re having bonito.”

Tsuyoshi took the elevator back down. It stopped at the fourth floor. The woman’s American companion stepped onto the elevator. His nose was running and his eyes were streaming with tears.

“Are you all right?” Tsuyoshi said.

“I don’t understand Japanese,” the man growled. The elevator doors shut.

The man’s cellular phone crackled into life. It emitted a scream of anguish and a burst of agitated female English. The man swore and slammed his hairy fist against the elevator’s emergency button. The elevator stopped with a lurch. An alarm bell began ringing.

The man pried the doors open with his large hairy fingers and clambered out into the fourth floor. He then ran headlong down the hall.

The elevator began buzzing in protest, its doors shuddering as if broken. Tsuyoshi climbed hastily from the damaged elevator, and stood there in the hallway. He hesitated a moment. Then he produced his pokkecon and loaded his Japanese-to-English translator. He walked cautiously after the American man.

The door to their suite was open. Tsuyoshi spoke aloud into his pokkecon. “Hello?” he said experimentally. “May I be of help?”

The woman was sitting on the bed. She had just discovered the maneki neko box in her flight bag. She was staring at the little cat in horror.

“Who are you?” she said, in bad Japanese.

Tsuyoshi realized suddenly that she was a Japanese American. Tsuyoshi had met a few Japanese Americans before. They always troubled him. They looked fairly normal from the outside, but their behavior was always bizarre. “I’m just a passing friend,” he said. “Something I can do?”

“Grab him, Mitch!” said the woman in English. The American man rushed into the hall and grabbed Tsuyoshi by the arm. His hands were like steel bands.

Tsuyoshi pressed the distress button on his pokkecon.

“Take that computer away from him,” the woman ordered in English. Mitch quickly took Tsuyoshi’s pokkecon away, and threw it on the bed. He deftly patted Tsuyoshi’s clothing, searching for weapons. Then he shoved Tsuyoshi into a chair.

The woman switched back to Japanese. “Sit right there, you. Don’t you dare move.” She began examining the contents of Tsuyoshi’s wallet.

“I beg your pardon?” Tsuyoshi said. His pokkecon was lying on the bed. Lines of red text scrolled up its little screen as it silently issued a series of emergency net alerts.

The woman spoke to her companion in English. Tsuyoshi’s pokkecon was still translating faithfully. “Mitch, go call the local police.”

Mitch sneezed uncontrollably. Tsuyoshi noticed that the room smelled strongly of bay rum. “I can’t talk to the local cops. I can’t speak Japanese.” Mitch sneezed again.

“Okay, then I’ll call the cops. You handcuff this guy. Then go down to the infirmary and get yourself some antihistamines, for Christ’s sake.”

Mitch pulled a length of plastic whipcord cuff from his coat pocket, and attached Tsuyoshi’s right wrist to the head of the bed. He mopped his streaming eyes with a tissue. “I’d better stay with you. If there’s a cat in your luggage, then the criminal network already knows we’re in Japan. You’re in danger.”

“Mitch, you may be my bodyguard, but you’re breaking out in hives.”

“This just isn’t supposed to happen,” Mitch complained, scratching his neck. “My allergies never interfered with my job before.”

“Just leave me here and lock the door,” the woman told him. “I’ll put a chair against the knob. I’ll be all right. You need to look after yourself.”

Mitch left the room.

The woman barricaded the door with a chair. Then she called the front desk on the hotel’s bedside pasokon. “This is Louise Hashimoto in room 434. I have a gangster in my room. He’s an information criminal. Would you call the Tokyo police, please? Tell them to send the organized crime unit. Yes, that’s right. Do it. And you should put your hotel security people on full alert. There may be big trouble here. You’d better hurry.” She hung up.

Tsuyoshi stared at her in astonishment. “Why are you doing this? What’s all this about?”

“So you call yourself Tsuyoshi Shimizu,” said the woman, examining his credit cards. She sat on the foot of the bed and stared at him. “You’re yakuza of some kind, right?”

“I think you’ve made a big mistake,” Tsuyoshi said.

Louise scowled. “Look, Mr. Shimizu, you’re not dealing with some Yankee tourist here. My name is Louise Hashimoto and I’m an assistant federal prosecutor from Providence, Rhode Island, USA.” She showed him a magnetic ID card with a gold official seal.

“It’s nice to meet someone from the American government,” said Tsuyoshi, bowing a bit in his chair. “I’d shake your hand, but it’s tied to the bed.”

“You can stop with the innocent act right now. I spotted you out in the hall earlier, and in the lobby, too, casing the hotel. How did you know my bodyguard is violently allergic to bay rum? You must have read his medical records.”

“Who, me? Never!”

“Ever since I discovered you network people, it’s been one big pattern,” said Louise. “It’s the biggest criminal conspiracy I ever saw. I busted this software pirate in Providence. He had a massive network server and a whole bunch of AI freeware search engines. We took him in custody, we bagged all his search engines, and catalogs, and indexers … Later that very same day, these cats start showing up.”

“Cats?”

Louise lifted the maneki neko, handling it as if it were a live eel. “These little Japanese voodoo cats. Maneki neko, right? They started showing up everywhere I went. There’s a china cat in my handbag. There’s three china cats at the office. Suddenly they’re on display in the windows of every antique store in Providence. My car radio starts making meowing noises at me.”

“You broke part of the network?” Tsuyoshi said, scandalized. “You took someone’s machines away? That’s terrible! How could you do such an inhuman thing?”

“You’ve got a real nerve complaining about that. What about my machinery?” Louise held up her fat, eerie-looking American pokkecon. “As soon as I stepped off the airplane at Narita, my PDA was attacked. Thousands and thousands of e-mail messages. All of them pictures of cats. A denial-of-service attack! I can’t even communicate with the home office! My PDA’s useless!”

“What’s a PDA?”

“It’s a PDA, my Personal Digital Assistant! Manufactured in Silicon Valley!”

“Well, with a goofy name like that, no wonder our pokkecons won’t talk to it.”

Louise frowned grimly. “That’s right, wise guy. Make jokes about it. You’re involved in a malicious software attack on a legal officer of the United States Government. You’ll see.” She paused, looking him over. “You know, Shimizu, you don’t look much like the Italian mafia gangsters I have to deal with, back in Providence.”

“I’m not a gangster at all. I never do anyone any harm.”

“Oh no?” Louise glowered at him. “Listen, pal, I know a lot more about your set-up, and your kind of people, than you think I do. I’ve been studying your outfit for a long time now. We computer cops have names for your kind of people. Digital panarchies. Segmented, polycephalous, integrated influence networks. What about all these free goods and services you’re getting all this time?”

She pointed a finger at him. “Ha! Do you ever pay taxes on those? Do you ever declare that income and those benefits? All the free shipments from other countries! The little homemade cookies, and the free pens and pencils and bumper stickers, and the used bicycles, and the helpful news about fire sales … You’re a tax evader! You’re living through kickbacks! And bribes! And influence peddling! And all kinds of corrupt off-the-books transactions?

Tsuyoshi blinked. “Look, I don’t know anything about all that. I’m just living my life.”

“Well, your network gift economy is undermining the lawful, government approved, regulated economy!”

“Well,” Tsuyoshi said gently, “maybe my economy is better than your economy.”

“Says who?” she scoffed. “Why would anyone think that?”

“It’s better because we’re happier than you are. What’s wrong with acts of kindness? Everyone likes gifts. Midsummer gifts. New Years Day gifts. Year-end presents. Wedding presents. Everybody likes those.”

“Not the way you Japanese like them. You’re totally crazy for gifts.”

“What kind of society has no gifts? It’s barbaric to have no regard for common human feelings.”

Louise bristled. “You’re saying I’m barbaric?”

“I don’t mean to complain,” Tsuyoshi said politely, “but you do have me tied up to your bed.”

Louise crossed her arms. “You might as well stop complaining. You’ll be in much worse trouble when the local police arrive.”

“Then we’ll probably be waiting here for quite a while,” Tsuyoshi said. “The police move rather slowly, here in Japan. I’m sorry, but we don’t have as much crime as you Americans, so our police are not very alert.”

The pasokon rang at the side of the bed. Louise answered it. It was Tsuyoshi’s wife.

“Could I speak to Tsuyoshi Shimizu please?”

“I’m over here, dear,” Tsuyoshi called quickly. “She’s kidnapped me! She tied me to the bed!”

“Tied to her bed?” His wife’s eyes grew wide. “That does it! I’m calling the police!”

Louise quickly hung up the pasokon. “I haven’t kidnapped you! I’m only detaining you here until the local authorities can come and arrest you.”

“Arrest me for what, exactly?”

Louise thought quickly. “Well, for poisoning my bodyguard by pouring bay rum into the ventilator.”

“But I never did that. Anyway, that’s not illegal, is it?”

The pasokon rang again. A shining white cat appeared on the screen. It had large, staring, unearthly eyes.

“Let him go,” the cat commanded in English.

Louise shrieked and yanked the pasokon’s plug from the wall.

Suddenly the lights went out. “Infrastructure attack!” Louise squawled. She rolled quickly under the bed.

The room went gloomy and quiet. The air conditioner had shut off. “I think you can come out,” Tsuyoshi said at last, his voice loud in the still room. “It’s just a power failure.”

“No it isn’t,” Louise said. She crawled slowly from beneath the bed, and sat on the mattress. Somehow, the darkness had made them more intimate. “I know very well what this is. I’m under attack. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since I broke that network. Stuff just happens to me now. Bad stuff. Swarms of it. It’s never anything you can touch, though. Nothing you can prove in a court of law.”

She sighed. “I sit in chairs, and somebody’s left a piece of gum there. I get free pizzas, but they’re not the kind of pizzas I like. Little kids spit on my sidewalk. Old women in walkers get in front of me whenever I need to hurry.”

The shower came on, all by itself. Louise shuddered, but said nothing. Slowly, the darkened, stuffy room began to fill with hot steam.

“My toilets don’t flush,” Louise said. “My letters get lost in the mail. When I walk by cars, their theft alarms go off. And strangers stare at me. It’s always little things. Lots of little tiny things, but they never, ever stop. I’m up against something that is very, very big, and very, very patient. And it knows all about me. And it’s got a million arms and legs. And all those arms and legs are people.”

There was the noise of scuffling in the hall. Distant voices, confused shouting.

Suddenly the chair broke under the doorknob. The door burst open violently. Mitch tumbled through, the sunglasses flying from his head. Two hotel security guards were trying to grab him. Shouting incoherently in English, Mitch fell headlong to the floor, kicking and thrashing. The guards lost their hats in the struggle. One tackled Mitch’s legs with both his arms, and the other whacked and jabbed him with a baton.

Puffing and grunting with effort, they hauled Mitch out of the room. The darkened room was so full of steam that the harried guards hadn’t even noticed Tsuyoshi and Louise.

Louise stared at the broken door. “Why did they do that to him?”

Tsuyoshi scratched his head in embarrassment. “Probably a failure of communication.”

“Poor Mitch! They took his gun away at the airport. He had all kinds of technical problems with his passport… Poor guy, he’s never had any luck since he met me.”

There was a loud tapping at the window. Louise shrank back in fear. Finally she gathered her courage, and opened the curtains. Daylight flooded the room.

A window-washing rig had been lowered from the roof of the hotel, on cables and pulleys. There were two window-washers in crisp gray uniforms. They waved cheerfully, making little catpaw gestures.

There was a third man with them. It was Tsuyoshi’s brother.

One of the washers opened the window with a utility key. Tsuyoshi’s brother squirmed into the room. He stood up and carefully adjusted his coat and tie.

“This is my brother,” Tsuyoshi explained.

“What are you doing here?” Louise said.

“They always bring in the relatives when there’s a hostage situation,” Tsuyoshi’s brother said. “The police just flew me in by helicopter and landed me on the roof.” He looked Louise up and down. “Miss Hashimoto, you just have time to escape.”

“What?” she said.

“Look down at the streets,” he told her. “See that? You hear them? Crowds are pouring in from all over the city. All kinds of people, everyone with wheels. Street noodle salesmen. Bicycle messengers. Skateboard kids. Takeout delivery guys.”

Louise gazed out the window into the streets, and shrieked aloud. “Oh no! A giant swarming mob! They’re surrounding me! I’m doomed!”

“You are not doomed,” Tsuyoshi’s brother told her intently. “Come out the window. Get onto the platform with us. You’ve got one chance, Louise. It’s a place I know, a sacred place in the mountains. No computers there, no phones, nothing.” He paused. “It’s a sanctuary for people like us. And I know the way.”

She gripped his suited arm. “Can I trust you?”

“Look in my eyes,” he told her. “Don’t you see? Yes, of course you can trust me. We have everything in common.”

Louise stepped out the window. She clutched his arm, the wind whipping at her hair. The platform creaked rapidly up and out of sight.

Tsuyoshi stood up from the chair. When he stretched out, tugging at his handcuffed wrist, he was just able to reach his pokkecon with his fingertips. He drew it in, and clutched it to his chest. Then he sat down again, and waited patiently for someone to come and give him freedom.

©  1998 Bruce Sterling
Originally published in Hayakawa’s Science Fiction Magazine
(Japanese language)
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
(English language)
Reprinted by permission of the author

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Bruce Sterling

Bruce SterlingBruce Sterling is the author of many novels, including Islands in the Net, Heavy Weather, Distraction, Holy Fire, The Zenith Angle, The Caryatids, and, with William Gibson, The Difference Engine. He is the winner of three Locus Awards, two Hugos, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is also the editor of the seminal cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. Much of his short fiction, which has appeared in magazines such as F&SF and Omni, was recently collected in Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling.