Chapter 1:

Aki the Interloper

Rat's Reason

I hid in the boot of my parents’ car, contorting my body around the usual luggage: Shopping bags, repair tools, and a pair of modified Kasagi MK.IV semi-automatic rifles. The cramped space smelled of dried sweat, blood, and gun oil. Gaps in the side let me peek out and watch the lurid neon as the car sped down the street to the rendezvous point. Father drove and Mother organised intel. They argued about the fastest route to take. They traded insults about something that happened during the syndicate banquet a few nights ago. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t invited.

My parents (and I) were part of the Sumiaka-kai, the largest syndicate in the world. Criminal? It depended on your definition of crime. The Sumiaka-kai operated out of the underground and lower levels of Neo-III Tokyo, but Venators in the syndicate patrolled the globe to speedily react to threats by the Rat King.

Nobody knew who the Rat King was, only that his androids attacked cities every ninety days. Attacks lasted nine days. It started decades ago, so the Venators licence was established. The licence granted funds and freedom to capable individuals. Basically, Venators were expected to protect the world from the Rat King.

Usually my parents caught a flight to wherever the Rat King was attacking, but the current attack was in Neo-II Sendai. As a result, my parents chose to drive on the ultra-highway. I’d snuck in the boot on impulse. I needed a way to prove I was worthy of inheriting one of their Venator licences. They planned to retire. You see, when syndicate Venators retired, they almost always kept their licences in the family. Technically, the Central Venator Commission, the CVC, were supposed to take back the licences, but some “donations” and “sponsorships” gave the syndicate free reign.

I had two elder brothers, Tatsuya and Ginjiro. Tatsuya was killed a few months ago. That’s when my parents started arguing. Ginjiro didn’t keep in contact. He was probably drunk on a shooting range. They’d both gotten Venator licences from our grandfathers. I also had a younger sister and brother, Mayumi and Hideki. A certain incident caused Hideki to vomit whenever he so much as touched a firearm. So, our parents’ licences would go to Mayumi and I. Still, it helped to prove ourselves.

Back in the car, my legs had gone to sleep. Like, they felt physically numb, not a software bug that triggered a rest-sleep function. I didn’t have cybernetic legs. Then the car drove left continually up a ramp and reached the rendezvous point, the upper level of a parking complex. Car doors opened and shut. I heard four voices greet each other. My parents were meeting with two other syndicate Venators: Iju Wataru and Serizawa Masako. They began to discuss plans on how to handle the Rat King’s androids.

‘Go in from the skylight?’ Father suggested.

‘Atrium’s too open,’ Mother retorted.

‘Back wall,’ Iju said. ‘I brought plasti-charges.’ Given Iju’s reputation, he’d brought enough to demolish the whole city block.

‘The Rat King left the front door open,’ Serizawa said. ‘They wouldn’t expect us to walk in.’

Silence. It took a moment for the discussion to flow again. I didn’t need a wave-analyser to hear the loathing they had for Serizawa.

I slowly opened the boot, crept out, and peeked around the car. My parents wore matching navy suits with diamond pins in the shape of our family’s emblem on their lapels. Iju Wataru wore a light grey suit with bulletproof macro-weave, modified to fit his broad, seven-foot tall frame. I swore internally. I should’ve gotten changed beforehand, or at least brought a suit along. Venators were expected to look a certain way. It was a prestigious role. The CVC could revoke licences if the public didn’t react well to a Venator. My tracksuit pants and stained T-shirt with a logo for the band “Kidney Oblivion” didn’t fit the ideal image. The only Venator-like thing I’d brought was a VKR-99 handgun, a surplus piece from one of the wars. I found it in the basement, among other military stuff my parents kept.

As I checked my handgun and lamented my clothes, I sensed eyes on me. My own eyes widened and gut twisted. Serizawa leaned on a concrete pillar, about to light a cigarette. She stared at me. I stared at her. She smiled. I didn’t smile.

‘What’s the matter?’ Iju asked Serizawa.

‘I need a light.’

‘Please, focus. We’re entering from the loading bay and taking the employee stairwell to the casino. Most of the Rat King’s androids and hostages are hunkered down there.’

‘You get all that?’ Serizawa asked, with a sidelong glance.

Mother, Father, and Iju exchanged confused looks. ‘We planned it while you were…’ Father said, rubbing his eyes. ‘Let’s hurry up and go.’

As they separated, I kept low and dashed behind a pillar. My parents collected their Kasagi rifles from the boot, while Iju loaded a pair of AvMak automatic shotguns. Iju was famed for using one hand to wield weapons that most people barely handled with two. Serizawa…got her lighter working. She was halfway through her cigarette when the other three departed. She flicked the remains of the cigarette at the pillar I hid behind, and then went after them.

The four took an elevator, so I hurried to the adjacent stairwell and sprinted down, taking the steps three at a time or jumping from landing to landing. I winced as pain coursed from my ankle to knee. Like I said, no cybernetic legs. By the time I reached the bottom, they’d gone up the street. I blended into the crowd and followed.

Along the way, I noted how much Serizawa stood out. Not in a good way. Pedestrians made way for my parents and Iju, but Serizawa had to weave through the crowd. Rather than a Venator’s suit, armour, or trendy outfit, she wore denim shorts and a moth-eaten singlet. She had a tattoo between her shoulder blades. The tattoo depicted a sheep eating a wolf carcass. Depending on the angle, the tattoo’s ink shone with dreamy rainbow colours like an oil spill.

A problem arose when we neared the building the Rat King’s androids had attacked. The area was restricted to only police and Venators. A sizeable crowd of civilians and reporters hovered at the holographic border, waiting for the action to start. Luckily I’d heard the plan at the parking complex. While my parents talked with the officer in charge, I hurried across the street, went down an alley, and reached the loading bay. The holographic border was still an issue, but there were fewer police. All I needed to do was hack the border’s alarm and I’d be free to enter. The firewalls on police borders was light, since there wasn’t much reason for the average person to cross it and put themselves in danger. I flipped cyber-side, made sure my scripts did the job, and then flipped back to real-side and strode through the border. Sure enough, no alarms went off. By then, my parents, Iju, and Serizawa had arrived. There were five loading bay doors, each with sprayed graffiti that read:

‘R@T K1NG.’

The officers led the Venators to the furthest right door, so I crept to the furthest left, lifted it just enough, and slipped inside.

As per the plan, the four of them took the employee stairwell up. I followed a couple landings behind. They stopped on the eighth floor. The casino. I crept up higher, my pistol primed, and peeked around the corner. My parents and Iju faced the door, seconds away from breaching. I figured the best plan was to wait a few seconds after they entered, and then go in and cover them from afar. But Serizawa squatted on the lower steps and lit another cigarette. She smirked at me and said loudly:

‘Oh, what’re you doing here, Aki?’


My parents spun around. Mother shut her eyes and pursed her lips. Father descended and seized my arm. ‘Akinori,’ he said. ‘Are you kidding me?’

‘I…’ My gaze flicked between the four of them.

‘Where’d you get that?’ Father snatched my pistol and put it in his shoulder holster.

‘I can help,’ I said, and immediately regretted how whiny and childish it sounded. ‘Tatsuya did stuff like this when he was fifteen.’

‘That’s different,’ Father replied.

‘I’m seventeen and the most you’ve let me do is use a detonator.’

‘Enough,’ Mother said. ‘I’ll get him out. Serizawa, take my role.’

‘I could escort him,’ Serizawa offered.

But neither happened.

An explosion rocked the building. Old sodium bulbs overhead went out. Dust fell on our heads. Screams came from inside the casino. ‘Breaching!’ Iju shouted, and kicked the door off its hinges. Blinding lights and deafening sounds bled through the opening. Father swore and rushed after Iju. Gunfire resounded. Rhythmic shots of Father’s Kasagi rifle intersected with the raw, eardrum-shattering blasts of Iju’s shotguns. The androids returned fire.

‘Keep him safe!’ Mother commanded Serizawa, before rushing into the casino. Her Kasagi rifle’s shots fell into rhythm. Boom, boom. Boom, boom. My parents had sync-chips implanted years ago. It guided them to aim at the same targets, pull the trigger in rhythm, and reload when the other provided covering fire.

Serizawa settled on the stairs, attention back on her cigarette.

I whirled to her. ‘What’s your problem?’

‘My apologies, Yagi Akinori, did I do something to upset you?’ She gave a mocking bow.

‘You saw me earlier.’


‘But you waited all this time to say something.’

‘Right again.’

Jaw clenched, I tapped my forehead on the wall. It was one of the worst outcomes. My parents caught me before I did anything to show my worth. No, they didn’t catch me. Serizawa ratted me out. I glared at her. Sensing my frustration, she explained:

‘If I’d said something earlier, you’d be locked in the car and I’d have to deal with this assault. But this way, the CVC thinks I helped handle an incident, but I don’t have to actually fight. Get it?’ The gunfire paused, and then continued with more intensity. Hostages streamed past us and escaped down the stairwell. Serizawa pressed against the wall and yelled over the noise. ‘Look, Aki, I wasn’t trying to screw you over. You were just convenient. Take success when you can, you know?’

That’s when it hit me. Take success when you can. Yeah, my parents would be mad I came along, but helping could still prove my worth. It didn’t have to be much, just enough to show them I deserved to be a Venator. Take success when you can.

The flow of escaping civilians had tapered off, so I peeked out the door. Only a couple minutes passed but the casino had been decimated: Chandeliers on the ground, dealing tables flipped, slot machines riddled with bullet holes and spraying chips like fountains. The carpet was blackened and some fire still burned. Inactive androids littered the floor. My parents and Iju had moved to the railing, where they traded shots with androids on the levels below.

I found a submachine gun on the ground and scanned the area. There! Silhouettes moved in the private rooms. I jogged across, hopping fallen blackjack tables. ‘Where’re you going?’ Serizawa called, and rushed to catch up. I reached the private rooms and kicked the door. It didn’t fly off the hinges. It didn’t even open. I turned the doorknob and went inside. The private area consisted of a narrow hallway and three rooms. Each room was twelve tatami mats in size. The outer wall, where I saw the silhouettes, looked like paper, yet it was soundproof to an eerie degree. All noises outside the hall vanished once the door closed. The private rooms were just as silent. I slid open the first and found it empty. The second, too. That meant…

I braced myself and reached for the third door. 




I yanked open the door. There was a dead guard, an android, and a woman. The android brandished a cleaver. The woman screamed, fell, and scrambled back against the wall. She wept and begged. There was a pistol near her foot, likely from the dead guard, but she must’ve been too scared to notice.

I took aim and fired without hesitation. Light and sound exploded in the small room as a dozen bullets ripped through the android’s chest and arm. The android stumbled and rounded on me. I fired again. The android fell back and crashed through the paper wall. His limbs twitched and he went limp.

‘You okay?’ I asked the woman. She struggled to her feet, pushed past me, and fled. ‘Fair enough,’ I sighed.

Something else grabbed my attention. I’d fired without hesitation because it was an android. I’d done it before, since most shooting ranges offered a premium option to fire at rudimentary androids. They claimed it was more lively and realistic. Yes, yes, there are laws against the harm of androids with advanced artificial intelligence, codified after the Proxy Accident of 2040, but they comprised fewer than one-percent of total androids.

What caught my attention was the blood.

There was blood on the floor and walls. It pooled around the android I’d shot.

If it was human, it’d be a corpse. If it was an android, it’d be called inactive. I flipped cyber-side and scanned the body. It was listed on the global android registry as a housekeeper model, designed and manufactured by Brignac Corporation’s android division, with the specific unit declared missing or stolen six months ago. But…why the blood? A quick search told me the only androids with synthetic blood were for military simulations, film productions, and fetish stuff. So, why did a housekeeper model bleed? Even without scanning, the face was clearly an android. Sure, some people got cybernetic faces, but in most countries it was illegal to walk around with an exposed faceplate.

The questions had to wait because I sensed Serizawa looming over my shoulder. ‘I know what you’re going to say,’ I said, and turned around.

But it wasn’t Serizawa. A thin man in a white tuxedo stood before me. He had greying hair and stubble, an aquiline nose, and no facial expression. I was still flipped to cyber-side, so my eyes automatically scanned him. He was an android, though there wasn’t any information on the model or manufacturer. Did he serve the Rat King? The tuxedo made me think he worked for the casino, but his eyes…

He spoke with a low, gravelly tone:

‘What do you think I am going to say?’

‘I…’ My mouth went dry. I flipped back to real-side and regained my finer motor functions. My fingers gripped the submachine gun tighter. We were too close to fire it effectively. I’d have to jump away and—

His arm flicked out at an inhuman angle and seized the submachine gun. I barely saw it move. He lifted it between us, the barrel pointed away, and squeezed both the barrel and grip. It was like squeezing an apple, with how it slowly cracked before breaking apart entirely. Bullets instead of seeds fell out. He tossed the ruined submachine gun aside and moved each finger in succession, joints popping and cracking like dry twigs.

‘You are not a Venator,’ he said. No, he didn’t simply say it. He declared it. He proclaimed it. He seemed to denounce my very being. I trembled and took a step back. ‘Never interfere with the Rat King again,’ he said. His words weren’t scary, yet fear flowed through my entire body.

Before I could react, the man jabbed his middle finger at my cheek. A sharp, unusual pain followed, like a cross between biting myself and being stung by a wasp. Then he spun and left without another word.

I waited a moment, stunned, before leaving the private rooms. Back in the casino’s main area, the man in the white tuxedo was nowhere to be found.

Serizawa stood just outside the stairwell. Three androids circled her like feral dogs, another dozen inactive ones at her feet. It seemed the Rat King’s reinforcements had come from elsewhere in the building and tried to flank my parents and Iju, only to encounter Serizawa. She didn’t have a firearm, though. Rounded blades the length of my thumb extended from Serizawa’s fingers. It was the Cat-Claw cybernetic, favoured by street killers and corporate assassins.

The three androids lunged simultaneously. Serizawa contorted her body to dodge. Her torso ended up parallel to the ground. Her head twisted like an owl to face her back. Her claws latched onto the necks of two androids. Metal stakes shot from her palms and retracted. Then she latched onto the arms of the last android and her hands rotated fully once, twice, and on the third rotation tore off the arms with a sickening wet crunch, like crushing a massive cockroach. Another stake from her palm finished the job.

Serizawa’s hands, limbs, torso, and head spun back into a regular position. The gunfire had ceased. Police started to enter from the lower levels. We were done, but my heart continued to hammer against my chest. The pain in my cheek hadn’t subsided.


My parents, Serizawa, and I assembled and left the building from the way we’d come. Iju went out the front to talk with the media. Normally all participating Venators would go out for interviews and fan signatures, but it wouldn’t look good with me, not a Venator, tagging along. I hadn’t thought about that. People knew my parents were retiring, so the interviews would’ve been emotional, and there must’ve been a bunch of fans waiting to say goodbye. And I’d screwed it up.

When we left the loading bay, we were confronted by two things: Cameras and Asa-8. The cameras weren’t good because it showed I’d gone along on a mission. Asa-8 was worse because…well…it was Asa-8.

Asa-8, sometimes called Asa-Hachi, was the eighth clone of Gushiken Asa, the top lieutenant in the Sumiaka-kai. To be clear, Gushiken Asa was still alive, but she made a bunch of clones to better manage the syndicate’s affairs. Clones were a grey area ethically, judicially, and practically, since there was always the risk of clones deciding they weren’t clones or wanting to be the only version of themselves. Yet, Asa’s clones had never rebelled against the original.

And they were all equally annoying.

‘I see you brought your son,’ Asa-8 remarked, as she reached us.

‘We decided he was ready,’ Father replied. The lie sounded a lot better than the truth.

‘Have you transferred a Venator licence to him?’

‘Not yet, but—’

‘Then, he isn’t a Venator, and he shouldn’t have been involved.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Father looked away, grinding his teeth.

‘What’s your problem?’ I cracked. ‘It’s their last mission, the hostages are safe, and the Rat King’s androids were handled. Besides, what were you doing?’

Mother nudged my shoulder. ‘Aki—’

‘It’s not like you planned to join the mission, so what’re you even doing here?’

Asa-8 raised an open hand, as if to slap me, but a quick glance at my parents caused her to falter. She may have been the top lieutenant, but my parents’ reputation held another kind of influence. Instead she ran her hand through her auburn hair. As she did, I noticed the short hair on the sides had the kanji for eight carved into it. ‘Come with me,’ Asa-8 told my parents.

‘Take Aki home,’ Mother ordered Serizawa, who gave a mock salute.

I wanted to protest, but Serizawa dragged me away. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she whispered.

Too late, I thought.

We went back to the parking complex, retrieved Serizawa’s motorcycle, and I sat behind her as we sped down the ultra-highway back to Neo-III Tokyo.