[Void Galaxia] Chapter 5: Dragon Centre

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I stood with one elbow on the counter, next to a completely incongruous rolled-up stack of fiberglass, staring at the game posters on the nearby wall.

      Robot Diablo [Argentinian]

      Le Regle De La Jeu Medieval [French]

      Harem Survival 4 [Iranian-Guangdong collab, ridiculously popular]

      Kokoro no iron [One of ours]

      The last one had the best art, a pretty realistic image of a heart being crushed by a giant metal claw, but the concept…still generic. Young teens, robots suits, battles spilling over into high school girl changing rooms.

      I heard a noise from the door and looked over, but it was something happening in the corridor outside.

      Quick check on the back room doorway.

      No Yosh shape.

      Back to the posters.

      Ah, Harem Survival 4…the one that finally took the subtlety away…played by gamers with absolutely no sense of shame…

      Another noise from the corridor, followed by a rough shout of NOT THAT WAY, YOU SPOON.

      I tried looking out through the window, but there was too much promo stuff blocking the view. Just a head or two bobbing past.

      It was weird, the centre was fairly active, but none of it seemed to be spilling over into Yosh’s place. Like someone had drawn a magic circle in invisible chalk. There were one or two kids slumped on the VR dentist chairs in the corner, but compared to normal, the place was practically derelict.

      A lighthousse on Sadoshima popped into my head. Dad taking our hands and leading us up the steps, warning me specifically not to go too close to the edge.

      ‘You hear me, Keni? Not too close…’

      ‘Yeah.’

      ‘I’m serious. Not having any of your fucking around today, okay?’

      ‘I’m not, I won’t.’

      ‘And don’t nod, it’s irritating.’

      The scene continued for a moment then the steps turned into a rocket and the lighthousse turned into the moon and…

      ‘Yeah, I know, but…’

      I blinked and looked across to the back room doorway, expecting to see Yosh, but…nothing, it was blank. Huh? I looked around the shopp again, searching for the voice. Didn’t take long. There was a kid in the new titles corner holding a game-card in one hand, his phone in the other, ordering the person on the other end to get online and send him more credit, cos he wanted five now, not one.

      Ha, rich kids…judging by his tone, good chance he was talking to his helper. Or a feeble step-father. Definitely not his mum.

      I listened to the little shit whine a bit longer then got bored and looked over at the dentist chairs again. Both those kids were deep under, still in their school uniforms, most likely paid up for the full [legal] three hour stretch. Any longer than that and you’d have to go to the back rooms. The nectar of Yosh’s business. Or his boss’s business. Sachida-San, the smiling leopard…grinning leopard…something leopard. Yeah, that business model. Get them hooked out front, then double the rates once they pass through the curtains. About as unethical as it got, if you cared about that kind of thing.

      Though, if Ryu knew Yosh was doing any of this, or who he was connected to, he would probably-…

      No, don’t dwell on that part.

      Stick to the present.

      Pluto 2280.

      Another check of the back room entrance, still no sign of Yosh.

      Back to the environment then.

      Abject reality.

      Wretches patched out on dentist chairs.

      Running my eyes over the kids’ patches, I tried to determine what it was they were lost in. Sometimes, there would be arm movements or vocalized outbursts that could give you a clue, but these kids looked like they were fast asleep. Maybe it was one of those spiritualist games where someone gave you a massage while softly describing the ley lines of the universe? Or a hide-in where you had to evade hunters for an hour?

      Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t Pluto 2280.

      Not enough murmuring for that.

      ‘Fucking idiot, I said five, not two. Check your ears.’

      It was the rich kid again, demanding whoever was on the end of the line to get to it and send the funds. His voice was so grating that it made me look at the main door to see if there were any bigger kids coming in that might beat him up.

      Nope. No one. Just the pocket-tyrant and the comatose two.

      Wah, three kids in the whole shopp.

      It really didn’t make sense…where were they all? It’s not like they didn’t want to play, they loved this shit, it’s all they did. Fuck schoolwork, their stick-thin asses were usually here clogging the place up, legions of them.

      I heard the rick kid swearing and looked back. He’d hung up and was putting five game-cards back on the shelf.

      Ha, looks like mummy got on the line and caned him.

      Couldn’t help but smirk as he left the shopp, the little shit trying and failing to slam the door on the way out. Then coming back and trying it again, managing a little clicking noise. Then calling the corridor a slut and flicking on the shopp window as he trailed off out of the centre.

      Never mind, he’d be back, tomorrow or the day after, or the next time he didn’t do badly enough to fail an exam. The little wretch had no choice. Ever since Katsuda-San and his communal vision, they couldn’t go anywhere else, not if they wanted to buy.

      Your Money To Your Community To You, as the posters promised.

      A weird message, almost pure anarcho-communist until they added the To You at the end. Ryu claimed it was the big companies shooting themselves in the foot – short term profit for them, an introduction to communal ideology for the rest of us – but then he also worked for one of those big companies.

      One of the lights above flickered, twice.

      Telekinetic warning from Ryu? Don’t call me a sellout, riding down the Osaka to Tokyo ley line?

      In truth, I suspected he was happy to pick up his post-Katsuda salary, and the political stuff was just so he could look at himself in the mirrror and not cry.

     But I never told him that.

     Besides, he deserved a decent wage. People like him used to get 180,000 yen a month, 210 if they worked weekends. Almost nothing. The guys at the Chiba docks got more than that and all they had to do was press stop and go.

      ‘Fresh off the truck, teme…first copy.’

      I blinked myself back to reality and turned to the counter. Yosh was out from the store room, stepping over bunches of tied-up wiring with a game-card loose in his left hand.

      ‘You got it?’ I asked, voice almost cracking.

       ‘This morning, according to the tag. Must’ve come in when Tek was here.’

       I didn’t know who Tek was and didn’t care. Pluto 2280 was right there, within claws’ reach. Yosh shifted the fiberglass roll left and put the game-card down on the counter, mumbling something about cartoon space colonization, and how it wouldn’t be out officially for another two months minimum.

      ‘That’s what I heard,’ I replied, lost in the game-card art; an over-the-ship-shoulder shot of Pluto, the Graphene-12 tether to Charon visible in the distance.

      ‘Not sure how we got it so early…review version maybe.’

      ‘Doesn’t matter.’

      ‘Right. Now all we need is something coming in from your side. Or some things.’

      I picked up the game-card, squinting at the shade of red used for Pluto, and told Yosh my brother would send something soon.

      ‘Yeah, when’s that?’

      ‘Don’t know. Soon.’

      ‘Soon…’

      ‘Yeah.

      Now that I saw it close up, the cover art didn’t look so great. The red hue of Pluto was a bit too bright, the astronauts were stock anime, the ship’s design mass looked way out of proportion…

      But it was just the cover sketch, it wasn’t…

      ‘Been over three months now.’

      …the actual game.

      ‘That long?’

      Yosh nodded.

      ‘Nah, three or four weeks maybe, not three months.’

      He straightened up behind the counter, eyes an inch above mine, arms longer, more defined. At some point during the last minute, he’d scooped up one of the wiring bundles off the floor and was now picking at it with his fighting hand. ‘Something going on over there?’

      ‘Nothing.’

      ‘Losing his grip?’

      ‘Losing? Course not, he’s an original, one of the longevity monks.’ Yosh didn’t slouch, so I added a little more. ‘Serious, he’s been there ten years nearly, they wouldn’t push him out. They can’t.’

      ‘You’re too sure of it, teme.’

      ‘Like, even theoretically…it’s impossible. He’s done too much for them.’

      ‘Yeah, way too sure. This other guy I knew, rooted in Osaka twelve years…mid-level, not some intern or mailroom boy…and they kicked him. No bad decisions, no admin errors, didn’t piss anyone off, and they still kicked him…thanks for your twelve years of loyal service, but things are stale, teme…so we’re gonna get one of those zygote grads in on a starting salary.’ He gripped a loose bit of wire and pulled, snapping it. ‘Serious, that’s what they do if they think you’re used up, no appeals, no severance, nothing. Didn’t even give him to the end of the week, just kicked him straight out, same day.’

      I nodded half-heartedly while flipping the game-card over and frowning at the screen-shots.

      ‘You listening, teme?’

      ‘Yeah…’

      ‘What did I say?’

      ‘Huh?’

      ‘Just now…details.’

      ‘Your friend got kicked out, no severance…I heard you. But that won’t happen to Ryu, it can’t, he helped promote the communal thing, that whole concept. They wouldn’t try-…they can’t do that to him.’

      Yosh finally gave up on the wiring, chucking it on the floor and tapping the edge of the counter instead.

      ‘The games, Keni.’

      ‘I know, teme, they’re coming. Ryu’s gonna take care of it soon.’

      One of the kids on the VR dentist chairs woke up from his Odin sleep and started yelling, ‘it was that fuck, the zombie cop. He was-…fuck off, clown jumped me. Accident. Didn’t find shit.’

      Surprisingly, Yosh let it go. Not even a fatherly shhh. I looked up from the game-card and flinched when I saw his eyes were still on me.

      ‘Okay. I’ll call him later, when I get home. See if he can send something next week.’

      Yosh didn’t say anything, just kept staring.

      I switched back to the game-card, reading the first sentence of the synopsis five times, then glanced back up to see if he was still doing his muted Stasi impression.

      He was.

      But worse than Stasi, more repressed, caged-feral…the same look he’d had when that drunk walked in and knocked over the Jezebel Blue promo. At two in the afternoon.

      ‘Tomorrow,’ he said, voice as detached as a tarot card vlogger.

      ‘Huh?’

      ‘I need at least one new game-card here by tomorrow.’

      ‘Serious?’

      He nodded.

      ‘Yosh, come on…’

      ‘Delivery, six hours tops. Eight if there’s traffic. Phone him. Tell him tomorrow.’

      ‘You want me to call him?’

      ‘That’s right, teme. The sooner, the better.’

      ‘But he’s-…’

      ‘Six hours. Express delivery.’

      I looked at Yosh’s arms, the shirt sleeve crawling up and the black swirl crawling out. I knew what that meant. I’d seen guys on the news with the same mark, black bags over their head, being shoved into a police van.

      ‘Okay, I’ll call him when I get home. See if he can. But I doubt he’s gonna-…’

      ‘Determination, teme. Convince him.’

      Another shout from the dentist chair: ‘There, dead…you’re gone, abazure. Bye bye, off the screen, go on, fuck off.’

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