Surprising even my own subconscious or Other-Scape or whatever the philosophical term was, I woke up at nine the next morning
dozed a bit
imagined forest sex with Asami, an army of purple eyeballs watching from the canopy, a spiraling vortex to cartoon Pluto
then finally rolled off the bed around eleven.
My head was still fuzzy from getting a patchy amount of sleep, but I remembered very clearly the thing hovering outside the window. And the paralysis that came with it. Hoping it was just a variation on immersion haze, I went online and searched shadow creature with purple eyes that floats outside windows. No results except 18+ fan fiction. Okay, immersion haze then. Good.
The VR server made a beeping noise, winning my attention.
Right, time to play that ridiculous-…
I blinked several times before the message on the screen sank in.
Installation Failed. Try Again?
And stare out the window for another four hours?
I reached over and removed the game.
What I had to do was go back to Yosh and see if this really was Pluto 2280. My gut said he’d given me a knock-off by mistake, an ambush rip-off from a smaller developer maybe, and if I showed him some of it, his gut would say it too.
He might even feel guilty about hassling me so hard for the games yesterday.
As if it was my fault Ryu decided to be so fucking lax all of a sudden…
I picked up my phone and checked my messages.
Kuso, still lax.
Not even a forgiveness emoji.
Ah well, I’d give him a call at lunch, see what was going on. As long as he got something over here within the next week or so, Yosh would be okay. Maybe a few mumbles, a fucking kasu, but nothing too extreme.
Arriving disheveled and zoned out around half twelve, I did a comedy double-take at the Dragon Centre sign when I realized no hawkers were coming at me from the entrance with VR flyers or XXXX-Rated Harem try-outs. Nope, definitely the right place. And deathly quiet.
Everyone’s inside seemed like the best explanation…until I went in and saw that the corridor outside Yosh’s place was exactly the same. Almost no life there at all. Just an old guy talking to a robot insurance poster. Shirtless. With one flip-flop on his left hand.
The lights weren’t that comforting either, every second one switched off or broken, and the others set to a buzzing haze effect.
Maybe they’ve just opened, I thought, pulling on the door to the shopp. It would make sense.
The Harem Survival 4 poster on the wall opposite didn’t have a response.
Nor did the empty game chairs.
Or the ghost counter with all the fiberglass bundles.
For half a second I thought I’d crossed into a Yosh-less alternate dimension, but then I heard some noises on the other side of the room and found him at one of the old screens. Apparently, he was teaching a school-kid how to play one of the classics. It was a bit weird for anyone to be in that section of the shopp, but it did happen sometimes, usually after a semi-popular vlogger did a retro-game playthrough.
Of course, they could just play it online at home instead of coming in here and eating into my time with Yosh, but that would be too-…actually, why did they come in here? Wasn’t it school hours?
‘Keep your finger on this button and it reloads faster…’
‘Top left. Here.’
‘That’s a button?’
‘Thought it was part of the design.’
‘Just hold it, okay.’
I waited for Yosh to either finish the instruction or slap the little shit, but he didn’t, he just kept going on the level. As a formal announcement, I tapped on a nearby shelf with the Pluto 2280 game-card. He still didn’t hear me, so I walked over behind him, looked at the screen, and said, ‘Wah, what’s this shit?’ when I couldn’t recognize the game.
‘Quiet, I’m showing the kid.’
‘It’s this Pluto game. I need to change it.’
‘Five seconds, teme.’
He performed a ridiculous seven button combination on the control pad and the character on screen blew up a helicopter.
‘Okay, you got it?’
‘When you get bored, come over and I’ll patch you into Hunters Of Mars.’
Yosh patted the teen on the shoulder then turned to me with Kitano face and gestured towards the counter. A few steps gone, he turned back and told the kid to be careful, there’d be two tanks coming at him from the street on the right in a couple of seconds.
‘You still play that stuff?’ I asked, surprised at his memory-recall.
‘In a previous life.’
He continued on, giving me a wink as he went past and, when he’d shifted the fiberglass bundles behind the counter, leaned forward and asked what the problem was.
‘The Pluto game, it’s faulty.’
‘Huh? Thing’s brand new, kasu. What you talking about?’
‘Okay, maybe not faulty, but there’s something not right. It doesn’t match with what it says on the cover.’
I gave him the game-card and he read the synopsis on the back.
‘So it’s a world-builder…’
‘That’s not the problem. It also says real immersion, but…just play it, you’ll see.’
He took out the game and inserted it into the hardware under the counter. Unlike my shitty dorm room machine, the game seemed to install itself instantly as he was already putting on the patch. He asked for more specifics on what the problem was, but I couldn’t really explain anything, so I told him to just play it and he’d know.
‘Is it actually faulty?’
‘Cos if it is, you could just go to big bro and get a new one.’
I looked at his patch, seeing that both lights were green. Wah, he was in and still talking to me like the game wasn’t on at all.
‘Couldn’t you?’ he prompted.
‘This one isn’t made by his company.’
‘Yeah? What is made by his company?’
The teen across the store was hitting the buttons a little harder than before, probably trying to deal with those two tanks.
‘You promised me a game today, teme.’
‘Yeah, it’s coming.’
‘Is it? Because yesterday you said today, remember?’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘You better fucking know.’
I looked at his patch again, ignoring the thin layer of sweat forming on my palms. ‘It’ll be here soon. I promise. Are you on the surface yet?’
‘Some guys are taking their helmets off. Something about setting up camp.’
‘Exactly, that’s it. That’s the start of it, the helmets coming off. It’s not right.’
‘Seems okay to me.’
‘No, no, it’s not right. It’s brainless. Pluto 2270 didn’t do this.’
‘You don’t understand. Play a bit more, the tent stripping scene…the aliens attacking the camp. It’s like a cartoon. Complete opposite of the original. Serious. There’s no way the designers would put out something like this.’
‘You’re angry cos it’s different from the first one?’
‘Not different…stupid. Like a fucking Harem game.’
‘You mean popular?’
The teen in the classics corner shouted at the screen, so loud that Yosh took out the patch, walked over there and slapped him on the back of the head.
‘Shoot and move, kasu. It’s fucking obvious.’
‘You didn’t tell me that.’
‘Here, give me the control…’
Wiping palms on my jacket, I swiped the patch off the counter and attached it to my temple. Maybe I’d been too quick to judge. If I got past the alien attack, things could return to something resembling the original.
I patched in and went straight for the time controls.
Five hours should do it.
The shirtless soldier astronauts and tents evaporated on the surface and were replaced by a half-broken shuttle and mutilated bodies.
I was on my back, inside the shuttle landing bay, with a bare arm draped over my chest.
Swallowing down bile, I turned and saw the skeptic lying naked next to me, tits balloon-like. There was a gaping wound on her neck but, apart from that, she seemed to be doing okay.
‘That passed some time,’ she said, stroking my chest hair.
I tilted my head and counted out the bodies just beyond the landing ramp. Ten humans, in pieces, plus several tentacles and three pea-green heads that had to be the remains of the Martokras.
‘You wanna go again?’ the skeptic asked, moving her hand down my stomach.
‘The whole team’s dead.’
‘Yeah, poor bastards. Best not to think about it.’
‘The bodies are right there…’
‘Evac will be here soon. Let’s focus on that.’
‘…and we’re lying here.’
‘Or other things.’ Her hand moved farther down. ‘You want me to go on top? Block your view of the dead bodies?’
‘This cannot be real…’
My phone rang.
Pushing away the skeptic, I pressed my right index finger onto my left palm, hard, then picked up.
‘Keni Kat,’ said a familiar voice.
My head immediately scanned the surrounding environment. Yosh was still over with the kid, so I could talk a little, but he couldn’t know who it was. He’d hijack it if he knew. Then I’d be in real shit.
‘You in lectures now?’
‘Just left one,’ I lied.
‘Free to talk then?’
‘About the games you’re not sending, yeah. Very free.’
‘Right. That. Listen, Keni…there’s something I need to say. Something important. Fairly important. Don’t interrupt, okay?’
‘For how long?’
‘No questions either.’
‘Can you give me a game update first?’
‘I’m serious, Keni, just listen…’
‘Okay, okay. I’m shutting up. What is it?’
Ryu coughed twice then started his spiel. He talked about the housse back in Fukuoka, the Hawks, the way the industry was going. Basically covered everything except what he really wanted to talk about for a minute or two and, as promised, I listened without saying anything.
Finally, he got to the point. ‘They let me go, Keni.’
Across the room, Yosh had stopped giving the kid instructions on how to kill the zombie tank commander and was looking my way.
‘Kuso, let go?’
‘Permanent, no coming back.’
‘Serious? I mean, completely let go?’
‘That’s what they said. Or typed.’
‘But…was it the games you were sending? Did they find out?’
‘That? No, no…everyone does that, at least to some degree. In fact, they like that part, it’s good for their image. Pretending to help local communities. Typical corporation think.’
‘Then…what was it?’
‘Expense cutting. Entropy. I don’t know.’
‘They didn’t give you any clues?’
‘Not their style.’
‘But…kuso…you’ve been there ten years. I don’t get it. Is it-…’
‘Doesn’t matter, it’s done now. I just wanted to let you know.’
There was silence, apart from the Osaka cars and random human screams in the background.
‘You know what, forget it, Keni. I’ll be fine. It’s just a job. You go to class, learn something.’
‘I’ll call again later.’
He hung up.
I tried to dial back, but there was no answer.
The tone was ringing, he just wasn’t picking up.
Jesus, the last guy who got kicked out…it was on the news, he got the e-mail and went straight to the company roof.
Ryu wouldn’t do that though.
My brain turned monochrome, panicked, quickly re-saturated.
I thought of the roof of Ryu’s building and how long it would take for me to get to Osaka, race up there and talk him out of it.
No, he wouldn’t. Said he’d call me back later. It was okay. He wouldn’t. Wasn’t his style.
A line came into my head, something Ryu always used to say when he was at unii.
The mask convinces only cos we want ours to convince too.
Nah, that wasn’t right. He never wore a mask…not with me.
Not to that extent.
And what about the games? Didn’t he have any?
I dialed again and wiped more sweat off my hands. This was not the place to be having this kind of drama, not with Yosh lurking nearby.
Kuso, Yosh, he was coming over. Had he overheard?
Probably not…but better to play dumb just in case.
I put the phone down and patched back into cartoon Pluto.
The skeptic was putting her knickers back on, telling me that no one had ever made her feel that way before. Before I could even guess what it was I’d done, a shuttle flew overhead and started firing blue lasers at us.
‘Shit, they think we’re the enemy,’ she shouted, grabbing a rail gun off the wall.
‘What…’ I muttered, trying to process it all.
‘Who was that?’ asked Yosh from somewhere behind me.
I pushed my finger into my left palm and followed him as he moved back round the counter, jumping a bit when I saw another, rounder man leaning against the wall, breathing like he’d just lifted a flight of stairs. What the-…where did he come from?
‘Who was that?’ Yosh repeated, taking something from his pocket and handing it to the other man.
‘On the phone…who was it?’
‘No one. Just a friend of mine.’
I glanced at the other man again and immediately wished I hadn’t. Eyes fixed, like a bored-looking predator, back on me, breath still ragged, tanned neck with a tattoo that I recognized from the Know Your Gang vlog I sometimes watched. Not the same one as Yosh, more senior. And the rubbish bags he’d just dropped on the floor, stained red and blue…
‘Sure it wasn’t your brother?’ Yosh persisted, pulling the patch I’d dropped back across the counter.
‘Your brother, kasu. It was him, wasn’t it?’
‘No, I just told you, it was a friend. Some guy I know in Kawasaki.’
‘I’m not. His name’s Nozo.’
‘Call him if you want, ask him.’
The tattoo man muttered something, one of the words definitely face. Yosh didn’t respond, and luckily didn’t ask for my phone either. He just stared down at the underside of the counter, trying to pull loose stubble off his chin.
‘This is getting tiring…’
‘What, me?’ I asked, pointing at my own chest in mock surprise.
Another bout of muttering from the tattoo guy, this time with a fleck of spit flying out. Yosh held a hand up, seemingly lowering the heat.
‘Tell me what’s happening with my games, Keni.’
‘The Ryu games? Nothing, they’re coming…’
‘Tomorrow. I told you before, remember?’
‘In the post today, arrive tomorrow. No problem.’ I took the Pluto 2280 game-card out of the server and placed it carefully on the counter, just so I’d have something else to look at. ‘Probably gonna leave this one here, if it’s okay…’
Yosh stretched his hands out over the counter, tightening his triceps. The black swirl tattoo emerged from the sleeve, longer than I imagined…
‘Probably a fake version anyway.’ I glanced over towards the door, relieved to see the lights were now brighter in the corridor, and there were people walking past. ‘Sorry, I have to go…afternoon classes will be starting soon.’
The tattoo man grunted and Yosh gave a, ‘yeah, I know,’ back to him.
‘I’ll come back in when the game arrives. Okay?’
‘Definitely sometime tomorrow.’ I turned, glimpsing the exit. ‘Afternoon probably.’
‘He said wait,’ slurred the tattoo man, wiping some red stuff off his hand.
The path to the door was clear. Neither of them moved to block my way. Yet I stayed there like an obedient dog, one hand still glued to the game-card resting on the counter.
Yosh picked up a pad and pen from the side of the counter and started writing what I could see was a list. After a couple of minutes, he tore off the paper and handed it to me.
‘This is what you owe.’
The list: Space Jumpers, Pluto 2270, Pluto 2280, Age of Lunar, Space Duck Hunt, Little Fight 1 and 2, CS46, Age of Galactic Empires 1 and 2 and 3.
‘Off the top of my head,’ he added as I read.
The list [cont.]: Moon Circuit, Moon Factory 6 +7, Time Splitters, Time Jumpers, Portal Red, Portal Blue, Quarter-Life, Re-Rise of the Empire, Star Runner, Grandia 1 and 2 and 3, Tao Zero 1 and 2, Orphans of the Sky, Orphans of the Stars, Orphans of the Orphans…
‘Wah…’ I stumbled, other words dying in my throat.
‘Total’s at the bottom, including interest.’ He pointed to the tip of the paper, at a number beyond me. ‘A fair price.’
For some reason, I pictured the little money silos on my desk back home. Ten stacks, two yen, fifty yen coins…shit, it was nothing. Old currency for the market or homeless guys. My Astora account, even worse. There’s no way I could pay even a quarter of this. ‘This is crazy…’
‘After your debt is cleared, we can start from zero.’
‘…has been skewed for a long time. You got five, we got one. Now we don’t get any.’
‘No, that’s not-…Ryu, he’s sending new games, I told you.’
Yosh ran his finger along the edge of the counter. ‘I haven’t seen shit in three and a half months. There are no more fucking games.’
‘No, there are, new ones. Really, he’s just been a bit lax and-…’
‘This is not a discussion, kasu.’
‘Tomorrow. He’s sending one. A good one, I promise.’
‘You can settle your debt in two installments. First one today, second tomorrow. Or you can pay all in one go.’
I stared at the total. I didn’t even have enough to pay for one game. Not even that piece of shit Star Runners.
‘Wah…you mean now?’
‘Cash or card.’
‘But…I don’t have any cash.’
‘Card then,’ said the tattoo man, clearly deciding that I was a flee type and stepping over the rubbish bags with possible body parts to block me off.
‘That’s-…it’s at home. I don’t have it on me.’
‘No cash, no card.’
‘I mean, I have cash…just not enough for this. Not now.’
The tattoo man said something that didn’t even sound like words – EERRUUUGGG perhaps – then put one finger to the side of his neck and tapped.
‘Here?’ asked Yosh, his tone more weary than surprised.
There was no answer, just more tapping.
Checking the door for curious faces, Yosh put his hand under the counter and came back up with a knife, one of those they used for cutting open boxes. He put it down flat on the counter and covered the blade with his hand.
‘Yosh,’ I stammered.
‘One day. Give me one day?’
‘The game. I swear to god, it’s really on its way.’
‘Yeah, on the back of a snail.’
‘It’ll be here tomorrow, I promise.’
Yosh looked to the side and consulted with the tattoo man, who was basically flanking me now. They assessed the chances of me paying, not with looks, but with direct words, as if I weren’t standing right there. Finally, the tattoo man conceded that I was a safe bet as Yosh knew which unii I went to, and which company my brother worked for.
‘Game tomorrow,’ said Yosh, including me in the conversation again. ‘Plus twenty per cent of that total. If not, then you’re giving us full payment for debt owed.’
‘Yes, no problem.’
‘Course not. Don’t even have anywhere to run to. And I have the money anyway so I don’t-…there’s no need for that…even thinking about it.’
‘Right,’ I replied, trying to stabilize my voice. ‘Before one. I’ll be here.’
Yosh nodded, his hand flipping up the knife and stabbing the point back down into one of the fiberglass bundles. ‘No fake games either, teme.’
‘Don’t make us follow up on you,’ added the tattoo man, not budging a millimetre as I moved to go past him.
‘No, no, course not.’
Turning side on and edging forward with my back awkwardly chafing against the shelf, I made it halfway to the exit before Yosh called me back.
He was holding the piece of paper in his hand. The list of blatant extortion I couldn’t utter a single word about.
‘Just in case the game doesn’t come,’ he said, blank-faced.
‘Thanks.’ I came back and took the list, doing my monk-level best to ignore the knife in Yosh’s other hand. ‘Tomorrow, for sure. Before one.’