The sky was streaked with green slashes [safe pollution, the media called it] as I got back on the train and out of Jiyugaoka.
Just like before, all the seats were taken by a mix of school kids, mums with prams and geriatrics staring off into space, so I stood by one of the poles in the middle, thinking, semi-scrambling.
Yosh was right. It had been over three months, almost four. Never usually took this long to send out new games. Even during the bosses’ strike last year. Shit, Ryu, what were you doing over there?
A baby cried out from one of the prams, getting a quick, ‘there, there,’ from its mum before she looped back to her phone.
Wah, forget Ryu, what was I doing? I knew Yosh, knew him when I’d started this shit, where he was from, who he was with, the shit he’d probably done in Ikebukuro.
But, Yosh…he liked me, didn’t he? At least a little, and enough not to…not to what? What would he do exactly?
The train stopped and more people got on.
A man in a Silent Crimson 8 vest, carrying a guitar case on his back, moved in front of me and filled up most of my space.
Fuck, no apologies, no gestures.
‘Hey…’ I said, firm but not aggressive.
He shifted his feet, turning further away. The guitar case pushed against my chest, forcing me back a little. What the-…was he drunk?
I steadied myself against the bar behind and examined the intruder. Two, three inches shorter, weak shoulders, skinny arms…
Running off a lunatic hit of adrenaline, I moved forward, pushed the guitar case to the side and off his shoulder. The guy turned, annoyed, his mouth already open to call me something…then closed it fast when he saw how close I was.
No words back on my side, just a focused glare.
Must’ve been in his head too as he looked at my arms then shook his head, heaved the guitar case back onto his shoulders and turned round.
I balled my right hand up, addressed the back of his neck. ‘Don’t take my space, abazure.’
‘You hearing? Don’t take my fucking space.’
He pretended to look at the train map above the door. A couple of suit guys stared at me from their seats, as did the baby in the pram, but fuck them, they wouldn’t do a thing.
The tannoy woman came on and told us the next station was approaching.
He was gonna get off, I knew it. There was no way he could last another station, not with me breathing down his neck.
Ondōan versus house plant.
Bataille versus actual sacrifice.
I watched the guy’s face through the reflection in the window, wondering if he was scared. It was hard to tell, his expression was almost completely blank. I wanted him to look a little like Yosh, but no matter how hard I stared, his topology wouldn’t change.
The next stop came, the doors slid open.
He hesitated a bit, pretended to double-check the map, then got off. Stopped on the platform and, when the doors had closed, turned to glare at me.
I met it head on, muttering, ‘get back in here then, abazure.’
The train went through five more stations before my hands relaxed and my brain started to think about where I should be going.
At Musashi Kosugi, I got off and sat down for a minute. The citric yellow mosaics they’d put up to entertain people during the economic sinkhole ten years ago distracted for about a second, until my accursed other forced a swirl of blood onto them.
I took out my phone and called Ryu. It rang one time then went straight to the dit dit dit theme. Fuck, still afternoon, he was probably busy. Call after seven, he’d be free by then.
But what if he wasn’t? I mean, tomorrow…was Yosh serious?
Another rush of people got off the train and went past, half of them patched in to re-runs, the rest mentally spare.
Forget Yosh, forget him. He wasn’t serious, he liked me, I was sure of it. And the games would come, nothing would happen. Think of something else.
Why was the alien in Alien black?
No, not that.
There was Kawasaki, six stations away. I knew people there I could…
Yeah, Nozo…he worked nights, he’d be back home now…sleeping or-…no, he’d be up by now, playing games. He wouldn’t mind hanging out for a while. Assuming I could remember where his apartment was.
I stood up and started moving towards the Nambu line.
But…hang on, the game?
I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the cover again.
It looked beautiful, Pluto the Far, even if it was cartoonishly red in places.
I thought ahead to how it might play.
Assuming it was built on the same features in Pluto 2270, which the designers had promised in at least twelve interviews, there would be the five district city base, the outer ring labs, survey missions, possibly some trips to other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt like Eris or Makemake. What else? The continuing intrigue from the Inner system, one or two adventurist space yachts docking at the Neptune chandelier hotels…that stuff didn’t matter so much as it was mostly background…no mercenary attacks on Pluto or anything dumb like that. So, it’d probably start off the same as the last one too: wake up in your room and get used to your character, feel out the new add-ons to the environment. It was a ten year gap in-game, so it shouldn’t be too different. There was a slight chance they’d start in medias res, as was the trend now, but nothing too silly. A survey mission perhaps, heading out onto the nitrogen ice and stubborn rock, or over to the theorized tholin patch that hopefully wouldn’t be the same shade of red as the cover pic.
They wouldn’t, would they?
No, the designers were notorious for being pedants when it came to science. The company probably just hired a poor cover artist with kindergarten-level research skills. It wouldn’t carry over into the actual game. Would it?
Feeling anxious, I turned to the back and read the description.
‘Continue the Conquering of Pluto before it actually happens, using the same predicted tools and facing the same predicted obstacles.’
The word conquer didn’t feel right, wasn’t colonise like the first game, but the rest was okay.
And the screenshots were realistic enough.
No weird-looking keyboard aliens like that Black Hole Zero debacle last year.
No idiotic space battles or laser fights.
I pulled out my phone and saw a new message. It was Ryu, at last.
‘Busy. Call back tomorrow.’
Shit, tomorrow. Not good.
My finger hovered over the call icon.
Should I just tell him the truth, let him know who we’re dealing with? Then after he’s finished screaming at me, he could send the game. Or maybe he’d refuse? Sometimes he was ruthless that way. Like with his friend who got caught up in the alien telepathy scam. Would he do that to me, too? His own brother?
Don’t risk it, I ordered myself. Just call tomorrow, ask him to send at least one game. Yosh won’t give that much of a fuck, one day, three days, he doesn’t really care. We’re not friends exactly, but he likes me enough to do that. I think. Well, he’s never swung for me…
Yeah, we’re okay, he’ll wait.
I looked over the screenshots one more time then put the game back in my bag and waited for the next train.
As usual the Computerr Research Lab at Keio U was both open and packed to the rim. Skinny, little shits pretending to do their assignments on one side, and about four times as many skinny, lazy, little shits pretending their assignments didn’t exist in the Relaxation Area.
Normally, I would’ve given the place a wide berth, but it was closer and more reliable than my server at the dorm, and something in my head was saying, play it, play it, play it, and I couldn’t ignore that cos it was right, I did need to play it.
In my very own paws. Before anyone else had a chance to play it. Why even feign resistance?
I spoke to the assistant, who was also a student [I’d seen him in a few of my rare lecture appearances], and he gave me a form to fill in. ‘There’ll be one free within the hour,’ he said, not even looking up.
‘On the research side?’
He sighed, the first person I’d seen do that for a long time. ‘Is that what you’re here to do?’
I pointed at the form, where I’d just finished writing Collectives in The Spanish Civil War.
‘Not sure we have that in the library.’
‘You do. I’ve used it before.’
‘Ah. Okay then.’ He checked the computerr again, nodding. ‘Fifty-five minutes.’
‘It’s nearing the end of term. Both sides are busy.’
‘Okay, give me the ticket.’
‘You can find the card yourself and bring it here. If you don’t have your own patch with you, we can lend you one. Remember, no outside software, no food, no drinks.’
‘Yeah, I’ve heard the spiel.’
He handed me the ticket with a weakly concealed look of irritation and went back to whatever it was he did in here. The truth was, as long as you got a card from the library as a decoy, you could install and play your own and he couldn’t do a thing about it. Unless you were dumb enough to make give-the-game-away noises…
But did he really care that much anyway?
It was guaranteed that at least half the students using the research side were playing their own game-cards, and he couldn’t check all of them, so why not just kick back and let it happen?
That’s what I would do if I were him.
Seeing a lack of pretty women in the waiting area, I went outside into the corridor and looked at the posters to kill time. Most of them were crap, stuff about music recitals, nothing about Space or games or filmn auditions…
‘All business, no soul,’ I mumbled, not really satisfied with my own line.
One of the posters did stand out a little, primarily because it was bright green and looked like it had been made by primary schoolers.
‘Forever Exchange – for something different,
Tired of life?
Bored of work?
You’re not alone. And not just here, in the whole world.
How’d you like to live a different life?
Those interested, please call: 0924 5467 or enquire at the Physics Dept.’
There was only one pinned up so I took it.
Got bored and looked at my phone.
Wah, still forty minutes to go.
Folding up the poster, I walked down the corridor and out a door at the end and into the car park. The Student Union was a few buildings along so I made my way there, thinking briefly about going over to the Physics building, but then counter-thinking that the poster was a mess and what the hell did any of it mean anyway? Forever exchange? Of what? Whole thing sounded like a death cult, like they had some machine in there and they were gonna point it at volunteers, the depressed who’d seen the poster and nodded their heads at the tired of life question and run over and said, ‘yes, yes, really tired of it,’ to the blank bastard in the white coat behind the desk, and then onwards, drugged and fastened, into the neurology room…
Outside the Student Union there were more of them.
Green, red, pink, purple, they weren’t taking any chances.
I sat down on one of the sofa chairs and re-read the poster.
What the hell was it?
‘Not just here, in the whole world’
An international exchange? They were bringing them here and sending you there, to Sweden or Ghana or wherever, and then what?
And why was it permanent?
What kind of college would permanently exile its own students?
I shook my head and looked around the other seats for someone interesting. There were two girls sitting not too far away, one with dyed red hair, the other plain and not worth describing.
Ryu popped into my head, reeling off a list of female anarchists who were also plain-looking, and it was visceral enough to make me amend my description to plain with a pile of books next to her and a FETCH HELP t-shirt that looked okay.
Happy now, brother?
The red hair girl saw me looking and glanced over once, but not a second time.
Not interested? Devious?
I stared at her, determined. Stared for almost ten minutes before she got up and walked off, leaving her plain friend behind. As further penance to my imaginary Ryu, I got up and said, ‘nice t-shirt,’ as I passed by, before gunning after her red-haired friend. Luckily, she wasn’t the fastest walker ever, and I quickly caught up to her outside by the steps.
The sky was getting dimmer now, and she was a little jumpy at the ambush, but when I explained that I’d seen her in some of my lectures, her arms dropped back to the sides.
‘Really? Have we met?’
‘Not met, but I think I responded to one of your questions in a seminar one time. Remember?’
‘Maybe, I’m not sure. You’re doing Political Science?’
‘Yeah, exactly. Political Science,’ I lied.
She smiled. ‘What was my question?’
‘My question in the seminar.’
‘Oh right. Yeah. The question was…it was something about…teme, it’s gone. I can’t remember. But it was a good one.’
She looked away towards wherever it was she was going before I’d stopped her. The train station probably. No one studying here actually lived in the area. In fact, there was a chance that she was also in one of the Tsunashima dorms.
‘You walking to the station?’ I asked.
‘You wanna walk double?’
‘Walk together, me and you. We can talk about some political ism words…nihilism, fatalism, Kou Shibasaki-ism…’
She smirked and repeated, ‘Kou Shibasaki-ism.’
‘So? We’re already walking…slowly, but still…’
Hang on, the Computerr Lab. Pluto 2280…
‘No, it’s okay, I don’t mind walking…’
The game, the game…
‘…double for a while. I’m kinda curious about this Kou Shibasaki philosophy you-…’
‘Wait, shit, I’ve-…there’s somewhere I’ve gotta be.’ I looked back at the uniiversity building. ‘I’m really sorry. But…I don’t know, maybe I can get your number or something?’
‘Yeah. If you get lonely walking to the station sometime.’
She put her hand in her pocket, kept it there.
‘You did say you wanted to know about Kou Shibasaki-ism.’
She laughed. ‘Right.’
I stared at her, acting it up.
‘That’s just one of them, too. Next time I’ll tell you about the true meaning of Ryu Murakami’s hair…why it is, how it is, what it wants, how it feels.’
She laughed a little more, said I had, ‘really weird lines,’ then told me her number.
I typed it onto my phone, asked her name and then put that in too, adding red girl fuck on the end of it to remind me who and what she was.
The sky turned from dim to full-on dusk.
Or vampiric purple as Ryu called it.
I walked back across the car park, past the union entrance, past the English Department and the sub-library and some other department that taught something business-related I didn’t know about.
Kou Shibasaki-ism…Ryu Murakami’s hair…where did that come from?
A movie? TV serial?
I couldn’t remember any.
Maybe there was a part of my brain that scanned further…past pop culture and into the past…no, not the past, up there, into Space…maybe it was the Ondōans giving me the weirdness, feeding it into me through some kind of invisible telepathic thingy…
Maybe Hide was right, they were controlling everything?
Why would they make me say shit about Ryu Murakami? How did they even know who he was?
Fuck it. Wherever it came from, it worked.
I half-smiled [not enough to make me look loopy] and kept walking, thinking ahead to my meet-up with the red girl, and as soon as I pictured her hair on my pillow, the image changed, morphing into that beautiful, tholin-sprinkled surface of Pluto.