[Void Galaxia] Chapter 13: Tsukubashi Rabbit Hole

+++

I woke up around eleven, groggy, a kaleidoscope of weirdness lashing round my brain.

      Asami naked on a rock, fingering herself with a starfish.

      Ryu in a VR homeless camp.

      Alien totems on Pluto.

      Black alien selling eye insurance.

      Yosh with a two metre knife, about to-

      Kuso, Yosh…

      I rubbed vaguely near my eyes, drawing in the foreground.

      My fucking dorm room.

      Same as the night before.

      Yosh was sitting on the edge of the bed, both eyes open, expression forensically blank, hand still in the jacket pocket.

      ‘You sleep late, teme.’

+

      It was a Saturday, so everyone else had either left for the day or was still in bed. Probably the former, knowing my dorm mates, though Asami usually liked to sleep in on at least one of the weekend days.

      Yosh followed me into the bathroom and talked while I brushed my teeth. He said he didn’t want to do anything, but it may turn out that way.

      I asked him through the mirrror what he would do.

      ‘Nothing that won’t heal.’

      I imagined slashes instead of stabs.

      ‘How bad?’

      ‘Just…focus on your teeth. Okay?’

+

      I slid open the door to the dorm common room and held it for him. He stayed where he was, zipping his jacket up another inch, checking back on the other bedroom doors.

      She’s gay cropped up in my head again, but I didn’t both saying it.

      Same for stop perving, you psycho.

      Instead, I just stood there, holding the door frame like a butler.

      ‘You lead,’ Yosh said, turning back round.

+

      After passing the dayshift security guy, with his face a millimetre from his phone screen, I muttered, ‘fuck,’ and set course for the station.

      The residential street leading to the bridge was deserted, the sky overcast, and that’s about all I noticed as my head was loaded with chaos. Images of fake scientists and slippery game-cards and being shivved in the back…Ryu getting on a plane to Brazil…my brain in a jar next to some jacked-up white kid, straw in hand, ragged-looking patch on his temple…Harem Survival 4 lodged in a server the size of a factory chimney.

      Pushing down the sudden shot of anxiety, I glanced back to see how far Yosh was behind me. About ten metres, more or less, with a vacant expression on his face. He obviously wasn’t worried about me making a run for it.

      To be honest, neither was I.

      My legs were moving and that was all I knew.

+

      The wreck walked ahead to the station and Yosh followed a few metres behind. He was sure the little space fanatic was lying about the games going to the unii, but what did it matter? No games, then cash. No cash, then…

      He punched the lower part of his back, still feeling a slight twinge from sleeping on the floor all night.

+

      As the station came into view, my phone rang. I picked it up and held the screen close to my ear so Yosh wouldn’t see. It was Mum. She said in rough staccato that Ryu had jumped into a river, that he was dead. She tried to say more, but couldn’t. I told her I had to go to class, but I’d call back as soon as it was done.

      ‘Kentaro, please, you don’t understand. It’s not-…they said he’s-…they told me he’s gone.’

      I hung up.

      Nope.

      No way.

      She was lying, had to be. All that time alone…it had driven her insane. Delusional.

      A river?

      You couldn’t die from that, not in Osaka.

      It was ludicrous.

      And even if he did go under, survival instinct would kick in and bring him back to the surface. Unless his clothes were heavy or he’d tied a rock to-…

      Something hit the top of my legs.

      The ticket gate barrier.

      I tried to push through but it wouldn’t budge, and then the station attendant was shouting something at me…something about a card-ticket.

+

      The wreck picked up his phone and tried to hide it in front of his ear. Yosh guessed it was his brother, probably saying he couldn’t deliver the games.

      Predictable…

      Then the weirdo hit the barrier, trying to push his way through without swiping his card.

      What the fuck?

+

       After staring at the < Hiyoshi sign like a hypnotised simpleton, I registered the blurred arrival façade of the train and got on. Yosh did the same one door down, standing nonchalantly opposite two police officers. The nihilist in me thought about pointing them towards the gang thug, but what was the point?

      Everything was already set.

      My phone buzzed, the first chunk of an essay from mum.

      I understand, Kentaro. It’s never the ideal time to receive this kind of news, yet I suggest we attempt to put on a brave face together and deal with it as Ryu would’ve wanted us to.

      As formal as ever, but not insane. And not lying either.

      Ryu was dead. Stone dead. His body in a morgue somewhere in Osaka. Dead. He was dead. Cold and dead. Deadly cold.

      I rubbed my eyes and then pulled at the eyelid as if something were stuck in there.

      Focus.

      The games weren’t coming. They hadn’t been coming even when he was alive.  Which meant Yosh was gonna…do superficial things to me. Unless…unless I gave my brain to science and got the fuck away from Tsunashima. No, farther than that…away from Japan, Yosh, Mum. All these fucking zombies.

      I looked out the train window, at the dark underground walls guiding us in to Hiyoshi.

      My Ondōan wormhole…a void-looking void…

      Fuck it, why not? Go and don’t look back. Leave Japan, leave all of it. There’s nothing to pine for here, look forward to, anticipate …nothing.

+

      Yosh stood watching the wreck and, using his phone as cover, the police officers. It’s only one stop, Yosh thought. And the wreck wouldn’t tell.

      Tell what?

      They weren’t even standing next to each other.

      Yosh took his hand out of the jacket pocket and tried to go back to looking non-plussed, blank.

     On the seat nearby, a baby started bawling, pointing its tiny hand at his neck tattoo.

      Fucking midgets, thought Yosh, pulling up his collar.

+

      The uniiversity was Harajuku-crowded.

      Which confused me for a second…until I checked my phone and realized it was Friday, not Saturday.

      A group from my dorm block, one of them quite pretty, passed by and I got hit by the sudden feeling that it was the last time I’d ever see her. And Asami. And all the other pretty ones on my course that I hadn’t got round to chasing yet.

      But this exchange…it’d put me at another unii, with other students. There’d still be other pretty girls to see. Hopefully not as fierce as what Nozu described.

      Shailene Woodley maybe…or a decent lookalike…younger, same personality, better Japanese skills…

+

      Yosh tightened his arms as he walked past the pretty girls, and then remembered he was wearing a jacket. He quickly took it off and tightened his arms again, holding the jacket in a certain way as to make his muscles permanently tense.

+

      I walked the same route as yesterday and arrived at the Physics Department. Before going in I looked back at Yosh and did a salute. He stared back, confused, then pointed at his watch and drew a big circle in the air. One hour? One minute? Who cared, I’d never see him again.

+

      The wreck stopped outside the same place as yesterday and performed a salute. Yosh stared back, suspicious, and mimed to the wreck that he had one hour. After hanging back for thirty seconds, Yosh walked past the door and watched the target following a guy in a white coat into another room. He shrugged and walked up to the same spot he’d stood in the day before.

+

      The property agent clone in the white coat, the one who’d led the interview the day before, strapped me down on a huge, bleakly metallic operating table. Surrounding us were walls with mini-screens, each one containing a tiny red dot that was expanding and expanding and expanding until it blinked out of existence and started the process all over again. In terms of related imagery, all I could think of was an Ondōan EK-bot’s eyeball. Not the most soothing reference ever.

      ‘What are you going to do exactly?’ I asked several times, trying to ignore the light show.

      ‘The procedure we talked about, young man.’

      ‘Can you explain it one more time?’

      ‘That won’t be necessary.’

      I looked between and around the red dots for other scientists. There were two men, middle-aged, glasses, standing near something that looked like a train station ticket gate. Both had clipboards in their hands, though I suspected they weren’t actually doing anything with them as there were no pens or mobile pointers.

      The property agent clone finished the straps and told me it was now impossible for any of my limbs to wriggle free. ‘Do you feel comfortable?’ he added, the giant red dot to the side of his head reaching its zenith.

      ‘Not really.’

      ‘Is it the table?’

      ‘Yeah, the table. It’s not cushioned.’

      ‘No problem then, you’ll be under soon.’

      One of the other science coats came over [without clipboard] and whispered something in his ear.

      ‘Apologies, young man, it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer.’

      ‘Why?’

      ‘Lunch-time has materialised.’

      He disappeared with the other man to the opposite side of the room. They sat down around a half-moon table, lifted their briefcases and pulled out plastic evidence bags with sandwiches squeezed awkwardly inside. The science coat who’d already started eating put his sandwich down, reached for the remote and turned off the red dots. In their place, a larger screen formed, almost cinema-size.

      ‘Can you see it okay?’ he shouted.

      ‘Me?’

      ‘Yes, you. Can you see the screen?’

      I twisted my neck a little, but couldn’t see much.

      ‘It hurts,’ I answered.

      One of the men put down his sandwich and came over. With one hand, he flipped the table so it was vertical.

      ‘How about now?’

      My head was pointed projector-like directly at the screen. I couldn’t really look at anything else.

      ‘Yeah, now it’s okay.’

      ‘Bonza,’ he said, slapping the side of my torture slab and headed off.

      ‘Hey, wait…excuse me. When’s this thing gonna happen?’

      ‘After the sandwich, brother. After the sandwich.’

      He sat back down at the table and the three of them ate their sandwiches while I lay, or hung [I wasn’t sure what you’d call the position I was in], and watched a very stern news reporter talk about rogue AI litter bins on a rampage through downtown Nagoya.

      The three so-called scientists ate their sandwiches slowly.

      No conversation.

      Just chewing noises.

      The news report changed from bins to the assassination of an overseas general. I couldn’t catch the name of the country, but the street shots looked Middle Eastern and the govt. spokesperson referenced a suspicious new clothing depot on its border that had the US written all over it, so I assumed it was Iran.

      A yawn started forming in my throat and I made no moves to stop it.

      Was it possible to give an anesthetic if I was already asleep?

      Would it still work?

      Twenty minutes later, they were still eating, and making conversation too. Nanobot AI weird signals out near Neptune? Was that what they were saying?

      I moved my face a couple of inches closer, but couldn’t catch anything else.

      ‘Shit, Keni, what are you doing here?’ I muttered.

+

Imaginings from the vertical table…

+

      …scalpel, comically large needle, serum. What was serum? Juice? Fuck, juice, through the needle and into…into where? My head? Memories, that’s what they were after. Jab in the head, long, thin piece of metal, deleting fluid. And the scalpel? Had to be the face. They were gonna change it. Cut me open, wide open, like a skin jacket. Ryu…Ryu…they’d be doing the same thing to him now, on a slab somewhere. Blue face, eyes closed, water from the river spilling out…’come back, big brother…come back…please, don’t leave me this-…’

+

      Another fifteen minutes and they were still munching on their sandwiches.

      Maybe that’s where the AI nanobots were? After breaking down the bready gunk in their mouths, the little bugs reformed it and let them chew again. A never-ending sandwich. That would explain the decade I’d been waiting on this crypto-torture rack bizarro cinema screen thing.

      ‘New sonic shower, vaporizes germs directly off the top of your skin,’ said a robotic voice on the screen.

      Fucking adverts now?

      Right, that was it.

      I moved my head off the table again, a few inches, and shouted, ‘hey guys,’ as loud as my nerves would allow.

      ‘Chill, brother,’ one of the men bit back.

      ‘Yes, young man?’ the property agent clone asked, turning off the screen.

      ‘Is this gonna happen any time soon?’

      They exchanged glances.

      ‘Because I’m getting a little tired…’

      Another tap on the remote, and the red dots were playing out their routine on the walls again. Satisfied, the property agent clone folded up his evidence bag and put it back in his briefcase. ‘Very well, young man. We shall start.’

      Finishing the crusts of their sandwiches, the other two followed the lead of the only one I could remember the face of and ambled over to the table. They took up a position on each side, while the property agent clone hovered right next to my ear.

      ‘Now, we’re just going to give you something to put you under, it should only take a few minutes and then, when you’re unconscious, we’ll begin.’

      The drone scientist on the left walked away and came back with a trolley. There was one needle placed diagonally across.

      ‘No scalpels?’ I asked.

      ‘Young man, we’re not barbarians.’

      The other drone ducked behind the table, dragging something back round to the front. When he returned to his original position, I could see what it was.

      ‘Is that a…robot?’ I stuttered.

      ‘This, young man, is an instrument of science.’

      ‘It looks like a gun.’

      ‘Yes, a laser gun.’

      ‘What?’

      ‘Sorry, I thought you heard. It’s a laser gun.’

      I checked the straps around my wrists. Not loose enough.

      ‘I heard you, but-…’

      ‘With this instrument, we will be able to make the appropriate alterations to your face.’

      ‘You’re going to shoot a laser into my head?’

      ‘Shit, brother,’ the drone on the left said.

      ‘Well, in a way, yes, that is correct, but it’s perfectly painless. And you’ll be unconscious throughout the whole process.’

      He tapped the top of my head like it was a boiled egg.

      On the sandwich side of the room, the phone rang and the right-side drone strolled off to answer it. A few seconds later, he came back and told the others something I couldn’t quite hear.

      ‘Apologies, young man, another interview.’

      Two of the men rushed across the room and disappeared through different doors. The property agent clone stayed behind, grinning at me like a Shinto evangelical.

      ‘Quite exciting, science, don’t you find?’

      ‘What do you mean?’

      ‘I mean, young man, there are things we can do that make the mind boggle. And, you see, most of it would’ve been inconceivable just a few decades ago…yet that’s it, that’s the fascination. Only a few decades and things are refreshed, so there’s never any danger of slipping into that rut…science block, I believe someone called it. I would use the term scientists’ block myself, a much more apt title, but the meaning is the same.’

      The laser gun was staring at me, absolutely fucking merciless.

      ‘Look, I don’t wanna piss you off or anything, but can you tell me what it is you’re gonna do?’

      He put his hand on the barrel of the laser.

      ‘Young man, I wish I could but, as I’ve said previously, science is a technical business. It’s simply too advanced for you to comprehend.’

      One of the doors opened and the stern Fujii Mina lookalike from the previous day marched out.

      The other door opened and the fake South-East Asian scientist emerged.

      ‘What the…’

      ‘If you’ll excuse us, young man.’

      ‘Wait…’

      The three of them regrouped and left through the same door I’d used to come in, leaving the laser gun behind as my silent guard-dog.

+

      The red dots growing and imploding and growing again and imploding again and growing again and imploding again and growing again in the background may have been unnerving to me, but they were apparently non-existent to the laser gun, or, at the very least, categorized as normal background lighting on its sensors.

      If it had sensors.

      I wasn’t sure.

      It was hard to discern anything much from the position I was in, not to mention the lack of communication from the machine itself. Could it replicate speech? Maybe. It had what looked like a beak. And it was probably less prone to sophistry than those other three…oddball scientists.

      Yes. Conversation. It was worth a try. Better than just lying here.

      ‘Hey…’ I said softly, adjusting my position as much as possible so as to minimize the neon blitzkrieg coming in from the red lights.

      The laser gun held its form.

      ‘How’s it going?’

      No answer.

      ‘Nothing new? Okay, that’s normal, I guess.’

      No answer.

      ‘Can you speak, actually?’

      No answer.

      ‘You know…it might be the angle, I don’t know, but you look a bit like an animal.’

      No answer.

      ‘You know that?’

      No answer.

      ‘Are you AI?’

      No answer.

      ‘I mean, do you have AI?’

      No answer.

      ‘I bet you do.’

      No answer.

      ‘That’s why you have the animal shape, right?’

      No answer.

      ‘That’s why I feel confident talking to you.’

      No answer.

      ‘Yeah, I think you can understand me.’

      No answer.

      ‘Can’t you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Can you hear me?’

      No answer.

      ‘Can you understand me?’

      No answer.

      ‘I think you can, teme. I think you can.’

      No answer.

      ‘I think you know what I’m saying.’

      No answer.

      ‘Listen, teme. I’ve changed my mind about all of this.’

      No answer.

      ‘Most of it. The surgery part.’

      No answer.

      ‘I mean, what I’m saying is…I don’t wanna do this until I know exactly what it is they’re gonna do.’

      No answer.

      ‘That’s reasonable, isn’t it?’

      No answer.

      ‘I think it is.’

      No answer.

      ‘So…if you could just remove these straps…maybe I could sit down a while and wait for the other guys to come back and…’

      No answer.

      ‘Please, teme…’

      No answer.

      ‘Just take off the straps…I’ll do the rest.’

      No answer.

      ‘At least loosen them.’

      No answer.

      ‘That beak/claw thing, you can use that.’

      No answer.

      ‘You can do that much, right?’

      No answer.

      ‘Please.’

      No answer.

      ‘You understand me, don’t you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Look, I told you already. I’ve changed my mind…I won’t do this until they give me more details.’

      No answer.

      ‘You understand?’

      No answer.

      ‘It’s unethical, teme. If they do this, it’s unethical.’

      No answer.

      ‘Legally. By law. They can’t do this to someone who doesn’t want it…right?’

      No answer.

      ‘You have an ethics program surely.’

      No answer.

      ‘I mean, you know right and wrong…morals, ethics, whatever…right?’

      No answer.

      ‘It’s basic, you must do.’

      No answer.

      ‘Ethics. Morals. No?’

      No answer.

      ‘Look, I’ll test you. One question. Do you want to do this to someone who doesn’t want it done?’

      No answer.

      ‘Do you want to do this to me?’

      No answer.

      ‘I mean, you know what it is you do, right? You know what happens?’

      No answer.

      ‘Don’t you?’

      No answer.

      ‘No, you don’t…do you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Kuso. Fuck.’

      No answer.

      ‘Look, you’re a gun, teme. A laser gun.’

      No answer.

      ‘You know what that means?’

      No answer.

      ‘You don’t, do you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Kuso…

      No answer.

      ‘It means you’re a weapon, teme.’

      No answer.

      ‘It means a laser is going to come out of the end of your barrel, your mouth there…and it’s gonna go into my head. It’s going to burrow right into my brain and change me, you understand?’

      No answer.

      ‘You do understand.’

      No answer.

      ‘I know you understand.’

      No answer.

      ‘Kuso…’

      No answer.

      ‘This isn’t right.’

      No answer.

      ‘Let me go, teme.’

      No answer.

      ‘Please.’

      No answer.

      ‘I know you don’t want to do this.’

      No answer.

      ‘Do you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Do you?’

      No answer.

      ‘Kuso, you do…’

      No answer.

      ‘You do want to do this.’

      No answer.

      ‘I knew it.’

      No answer.

      ‘You wanna fuck up my brain.’

      No answer.

      ‘Kasu.’

      No answer.

      ‘Fucking animal.’

      No answer.

      ‘Fucking AI animal piece of stupid metal fucking shit.’

      No answer.

      ‘I don’t care how you justify it, you’re nothing but a mindless, follow dumb fucking orders animal kasu fuck.’

      No answer.

      ‘You hearing me?’

      No answer.

      ‘Animal.’

      No answer.

      ‘Hope you fucking explode…blow up…die like a metal bitch fuck.’

+

      A while later, the weird scientists came back.

      The property agent clone, the Fujii Mina lookalike and the fake South-East Asian guy.

      My vision was a bit blurred from the constant barrage of red-light, but it seemed like the laser gun turned and nodded at them. Which meant it was sentient. And unethical.

      Dusting something off his jacket, the property agent clone walked over and asked me how I was doing. I tried to think of a polite way of ordering him to get me down, but none materialised.

      ‘I’m tired,’ I said instead.

      ‘That’s excellent, young man, exactly the right feeling to have.’

      ‘My arms hurt…’

      ‘Shit, man, you lucky you got arms,’ the fake South-East Asian guy said.

      ‘What?’

      ‘Brother…’ he said and picked the needle up from the tray.

      ‘Are you ready then, young man?’

      The man patted the laser gun and asked it the same question. Again, it nodded.

      ‘No, wait. Wait a second. Stop.’

      ‘Yes?’

      ‘I don’t know if I can go through with this…’

      ‘Why? What’s wrong?’

      ‘It’s…’

      ‘Yes?’

      The fake South-East Asian guy held up the needle and, without ceremony, slid it into my neck. I saw the tip go in but couldn’t feel a thing, like it was someone else’s neck.

      ‘Honestly…’

      ‘Yes, honesty, young man,’ said the property agent clone. ‘Truth. If you have doubts of science it is important that you voice such doubts.’

      I thought of Yosh waiting for me outside, knife hand in the jacket pocket.

      ‘It’s just…I’m not…sure…this is…’

      I couldn’t finish the sentence. Too tired, way too…tired.

      ‘No strong doubts then?’

       My eyes were closing.

      ‘No…don’t wanna…please…down from…’

      ‘He’s fine,’ said the Fujii Mina lookalike, adjusting the metal slab [and me] to a slightly tilted angle.

      ‘Good, good. Under you go then.’

      Losing word power, I attempted to spit on them, but my mouth wasn’t working either. It was just too much effort. As was keeping my eyes open.

      ‘Under, under, under the sea,’ said the fake South-East Asian guy, in an off-key melody. ‘Where the fish are dark and the gods are green. Under, under, under the sea. Where the fish are dark and the…’

      It was enough.

      I let my eyes go, the faces, the room.

      The laser gun stayed as an outline etched onto the inside of my eyelids, but only for a second. Then it was gone too.

+

The Science behind the science…

+

      Subject: Male, 21,

      Height: 184cm

      Ethnicity: 100% Japanese, no other trace ethnicity.

      Face: a little better than average.

      Story: tired of life, wants something different.

      Suspected truth: running from debts. Poor eyesight suggests subject is a gamer. Debtors could be Ikebukuro or Shinjuku group.

      Procedure: face implants, memory wipe/ implants, language implants.

      Method: laser gun

      Details: too technical to detail here.

      Procedure details: Subject put under at 14:24. Laser gun warmed up. The lead scientist, Takayama, decided the face could be done last, and the best initial course of action would be to tackle the memory. The first supporting scientist, Arao, proceeded to wash the subject’s head. The second supporting scientist, Hidayat, found an entry point on the temple. Scientist Takayama used the laser to drill an 8mm hole into the temple, with limited fringe disruption. The laser was then set to memory wipe amber and used for seventeen minutes, targeting the previously selected areas of the brain [acquired from scans during the subject’s interview]. Next, Scientist Arao cleaned the barrel of the laser and changed the setting to memory implant tangerine. Using the received files from the exchange subject, Scientist Hidayat input the new memories into the subject. This part of the procedure took approximately twenty-two minutes. Next, Scientist Arao brought over the English grammar textbook and scanned it into the laser field. The same process was repeated for the book of colloquialisms, the book of idioms and, finally, the book of gutter-speak. All input information was then transferred to the selected area of the subject’s brain and combined with the existing data. At this point the laser malfunctioned and sparks flew, prompting Scientists Arao and Takayama to exit the room and find tools to fix it. Scientist Hidayat remained alone with the subject.

+

The fake South-East Asian Scientist, the laser gun and Kentaro’s brain

[A brief farce]

+

      The fake South-East Asian Scientist stood next to the laser, picking at his mask, scratching a little.

      ‘Shit,’ he mumbled, ‘still itches like hell.’

      Kentaro lay still on the metal slab, eyes closed, perhaps dreaming.

      Inside the head, his brain was trying to sort out all the things that had been going on. There were a load of new words, a stack of missing memories, two contradictory childhoods, four parents, and a recurring question, why is the alien black?

      Still perplexed, the fake South-East Asian Scientist bent down and examined the base of the laser gun, scratching his chin.

      ‘Okay, LAP, we don’t need to wait for those guys. It’s either the main DOT wiring or the CAT auxiliaries…right?’

      The laser stood still, its barrel millimetres from the hole in the side of Kentaro’s head.

      ‘Come on…give me a clue, brother.’

      The fake South-East Asian Scientist, despite his distinguished background in science, couldn’t figure it out, not one bit of it.

      Frustrated, he stood up and kicked the LAP dead in the base.

      The LAP instantly came back to life and a red line shot out like a simulated laser into Kentaro’s head.

      Then stopped.

      Then started.

      Then stopped.

      It shook violently and a thicker red line appeared, almost twice the width of the old one.

     ‘Shit, shit…’

      The fake South-East Asian Scientist put his hand close to the laser, but was too scared to do anything concrete.

      ‘LAP, what the hell are you-…stop, fucking stop. Come on. I’m begging you. Stop!’

      The door opened and the other two scientists walked in.

      The fake South-East Asian Scientist looked over at them, the laser pounding the side of Kentaro’s head, and stepped slowly away from the LAP with both hands raised.

      ‘Not me,’ he said, in a thick Osaka accent, tilting his neck at the LAP.

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