Chapter 3:

The Sweeper is a Clerk (and a Popsicle)

Work, Please! ~From World's Greatest Sweeper to the Far Future's Salaryman~

   The year was 2XXX.Bookmark here

   It really was. At some point in time, humanity had decided to stop counting the years of our Lord and begin counting on a different calendar—N.E..Bookmark here

   They called it the New Era.Bookmark here

   At least a hundred years have passed since the creation of the ‘collective cyberbrain’. A hundred years since humanity began its journey to transcend its mortal flesh and into a more lasting, irremovable form: Androids and cyborgs.Bookmark here

   Humanity had begun to replace flesh and blood with… flesh and blood, but with a frame of steel and electrical currents. Artificial, android bodies became the norm, and even more common among them was the ability to upload their consciousness into an eternal neural network—the collective cyberbrain.Bookmark here

   It was much like uploading files into a cloud storage on the internet, except you’d be uploading the contents of your mind instead of files. This allowed them to transcend the greatest equalizer of all:Bookmark here

   Death. Bookmark here

   After all, if a human in the years of N.E. were to perish, one could simply retrieve their mind from the collective cyberbrain and restore their consciousness into a new body identical to the one they’ve lost.Bookmark here

   That was what they told the sweeper, Mitsuo Kuroiwa, when he regained consciousness into this world.Bookmark here

   Mitsuo Kuroiwa. Cryogenically frozen in the year 2026 A.D., and roused from a long, frigid sleep over a hundred years from his time.Bookmark here

   He had awoken to a dank, damp laboratory that smelled of chlorine and seawater, naked and confused, in front of a live studio audience of two scientists. Kuroiwa’s delirium had only begun to subside, when he heard the first word to enter his ears after a century:Bookmark here

   “Oops.”Bookmark here

   ...Oops?Bookmark here

   Their briefing was short, concise, and to the point.Bookmark here

   The scientists explained that a system failure had accidentally thawed him from his cryogenic sleep. They were under no direct commands to unfreeze Kuroiwa, and did not have any plans to do so in the future. For all intents and purposes, he was to remain a popsicle until the heat death of the universe.Bookmark here

   On the other hand, no one in the New Era had any idea how to freeze him back. Cryogenic freezing had become an abandoned scientific and judicial practice by then.Bookmark here

   Feeling just a tad of remorse for letting the system failure happen, one of the two doctors stepped up for Kuroiwa’s sake.Bookmark here

   Her name was Dr. Sawa. Bookmark here

   Clad in a simple white lab coat and a purple blouse, she claimed she had thirty years of experience as a bioengineer, despite not looking a day over thirty.Bookmark here

   “Here’s two million yen.” Kuroiwa’s heart raced. Bookmark here

   “Rental documents for an apartment downtown.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s eyes widened.Bookmark here

   “And an ID card to get a job. I know a place.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa wondered when she got the time to print an authentic ID for him, but he was nonetheless thankful.Bookmark here

   “And that’s it. Go live your life or something.”Bookmark here

   “Wait, that’s it?”Bookmark here

   “Yeah, why?”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa wondered if he could offer his services to a greater cause. He asked Dr. Sawa if there was anything more he could do than to simply ‘live life’.Bookmark here

   He was placed into cryogenic sleep for multiple charges of murder and assassination after many, many years of activity. That was until an unlucky break caused Tokyo authorities to finally lock him down and condemn him for his crimes.Bookmark here

   In underground circles of Tokyo, he was often referred to as the man who would take any case, and terminate any person you wanted, for the right price.Bookmark here

   Some even dared to call him “The World’s Greatest Sweeper”.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s kill rate was second to none. No law enforcement could catch him, and no other merc in Tokyo was as good as he. Known for his infamous ‘Perfect Rebound’ technique, he could ricochet bullets in any scenario, and have them land exactly where he needed them to. Flawless, stylish, and downright terrifying to any man unfortunate enough to be in his sights.Bookmark here

   Not knowing this, Dr. Sawa’s response was swift and cold.Bookmark here

   “We don’t need you.”Bookmark here

   “Damn. You… didn’t need to shut me down that hard.”Bookmark here

   “Thing is, you’re only human. Sweepers today are specifically built for war, with every inch of their body capable of being a weapon—quite literally, even.”Bookmark here

   “Umm, okay? Fine. Is there anything you know I can do?”Bookmark here

   Dr. Sawa eyed him from head to toe. Her gaze stuck down south a little too long for Kuroiwa’s comfort.Bookmark here

   “I could. You’re impressive and all, but I have a boyfriend… and I plan to be monogamous in this life.”Bookmark here

   “Uh, what?”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa couldn’t help but become bothered by this conversation. He just took whatever she gave him and marched out of the laboratory… now with clothes on, of course.Bookmark here

   He would figure something out along the way.Bookmark here

   Dr. Sawa stopped him before he left.Bookmark here

   “Mr. Kuroiwa.”Bookmark here

   “Yeah?”Bookmark here

   “Life may be tough nowadays. But with what you have now, I’m sure you’ll be okay.”Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

   He was not okay.Bookmark here

   Rent was due in fifteen days. Two million yen, down to five-hundred thousand. A month behind in payments. Any decent meal cost him at least 20,000 yen. Rice crackers were the cheapest meals he had, clocking in at a two thousand per pack of six.Bookmark here

   Three months had passed since the day he was thawed into Neo Shibuya—a Tokyo where, for some reason, Shibuya expanded so much it became the entire Tokyo City.Bookmark here

   Ah, hell…, he thought.
   That lady tricked me. Two million’s worth shit!Bookmark here

   In contrast to the bright, neon city, his apartment was nothing more than a traditional 4.5 tatami room. He had everything he needed to live: a fridge, a kitchen, a sink, a bathroom, a futon, and a small fan that helped him beat the heat.Bookmark here

   But he risked losing all that.Bookmark here

   He stared at the memo sitting right at the edge of his small, wooden table.Bookmark here

   Monthly rent: 1,000,000 yen.Bookmark here

   That didn’t even cover payments for basic utilities. The less said of them, the better.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa brought out his smartphone and started browsing the internet.Bookmark here

   Smartphones were shockingly cheap in this era. He assumed there had been no longer any demand for them, since a common man can jack into the web internally from their cyberbrain. Those who had phones were in it for the novelty, or were human themselves.Bookmark here

   Then again, he hadn’t confirmed the existence of any other humans in Neo Shibuya so far.Bookmark here

   Opening a part-time work app, he scrolled through hundreds of job postings. Most of them were simple work that wouldn’t be out of place even back in Kuroiwa’s home time. Some openings already had their text grayed out. These were the openings that Kuroiwa had tried for—and failed.Bookmark here

   He winced at the sight of these postings. Cold sweats raced down his neck and a heat clambered to his cheeks, as a sigh escaped him.Bookmark here

   The man glanced at his digital alarm clock, just positioned beside his futon.Bookmark here

   7:45am.Bookmark here

   Well, time to go to work. At least I have this one.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

   Convenience Store Poppy’s, 6pm. A humble franchise.Bookmark here

   Rows of commodities lined the shelves. The store wasn’t too big—estimated to be able to hold around ten people inside without the threat of rubbing each other’s shoulders constantly. Right now though, only one customer walked the halls.Bookmark here

   A government-mandated holographic TV hung right above the cashier’s area. Under that TV was the sole cashier and only one of two workers in Poppy’s right now.Bookmark here

   Mitsuo Kuroiwa. World’s greatest sweeper, turned convenience store clerk.Bookmark here

   He'd been here for a good nine hours now, but showed no signs of tiring out. Kuroiwa was used to being active for more than twenty-four hours at a time, so standing around in an air-conditioned room for less than half of that was no big deal.Bookmark here

   Then again, he did lament that nine hours of work for six days a week didn't earn him enough to pay rent for a bog-standard apartment.Bookmark here

   A deep, manly voice called out to him, coming from a few feet below him.Bookmark here

   “So Kuroiwa, working a full shift today as well?”Bookmark here

   “Yeah. I wouldn't mind working an extra hour to make up for the other night.” he replied.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa looked below him and smiled at his manager.Bookmark here

   This manager was, in fact, only two and a half feet tall.Bookmark here

   His skin was covered in brown fur. His cheeks were drooped naturally, and his limbs were short and stubbly. His beady eyes shone in the store's fluorescent lights as he looked up to Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   His manager didn't look human. In fact, he was not human at all. Not human in a way Kuroiwa knew, at least.Bookmark here

   It was a small dog – a bulldog, to be exact. A bulldog that spoke in a grown man's voice and stood on two hind legs.Bookmark here

   “Nonsense! You needn't work yourself to the bone for my sake, my boy.”Bookmark here

   “Mr. Shinada, it's okay. I'm glad to be of use here.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa had a great deal of respect for his manager, Shinada.Bookmark here

   Shinada was Dr. Sawa's friend. Only a few days after Kuroiwa's awakening, she had linked him up with her friend, telling him that she knew someone who urgently needed work.Bookmark here

   On the first day, Shinada treated Kuroiwa as an equal, even though he knew that the man didn't have any advantages that came with an augmented cyborg body.Bookmark here

   He was simply happy to not be the only one keeping his branch of Poppy's up and running.Bookmark here

   “I take it your interview a few days ago fell through?”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa sighed. “Yes... as usual, I didn't make the cut. Nothing I could do was anything somebody couldn't already do better.”Bookmark here

   “That sounds rough.”Bookmark here

   Shinada jumped up the cashier’s table, and nabbed a single chicken drumstick from the display heater.Bookmark here

   “Mr. Shinada? We shouldn’t be taking from the displays…”Bookmark here

   “Big deal.” Shinada said, chowing down on his meal. “I own the place.”Bookmark here

   “R-right…”Bookmark here

   Shinada hopped down the table, avoiding the sight of the one customer in the store.Bookmark here

   “Anyway, my boy. That’s the umpteenth time you’ve failed an application. Why not consider getting yourself some augments?”Bookmark here

   “Augments?” said Kuroiwa, pressing his finger on his chin. “You mean, cybernetic augments?”Bookmark here

   “Indeed. Every jobseeker in Neo Shibuya has at least one trick up their sleeve with their augmented bodies. You can have one too. Can be anything you like. Might help you get work you actually want.”Bookmark here

   “How much would it cost me?”Bookmark here

   “Free. With the caveat you’d spend the next decade or so getting your salary docked to pay it back. But it’s not a big deal. A decade isn’t a lot of time. I see no downside.”Bookmark here

   A decade…Bookmark here

   To the people of this era, time must have been irrelevant. What’s a decade when you could build yourself a new, younger body the moment your body starts failing, anyway?Bookmark here

   But a burning question raged inside him.Bookmark here

   Why put the aging part in when you could just not get old?Bookmark here

   “No thanks.” said Kuroiwa. “I’m happy with my body right now.”Bookmark here

   Shinada sighed, holding his temple. “That answer again. Heh. I’ll never get that part of you, Kuroiwa. But you do you.”Bookmark here

   A second customer entered the store—seemingly a young girl. Their conversation fleeted immediately as if leaving both their minds in an instant.Bookmark here

   “Welcome to Poppy’s!” Kuroiwa and Shinada greeted in unison, as the lady went amongst the aisles.Bookmark here

   The other customer who had been in the store for a while now approached the counter. She was a woman nearing her elderly years, her hair beginning to gray out.Bookmark here

   She deposited a few bags of sweets and a single frozen bento in front of Kuroiwa. She paid a grand total of 30,000 yen for all of it, baffling Kuroiwa internally.Bookmark here

   “Thank you, ma’am. Would you like me to heat your meal?” Kuroiwa said, sliding the bento box near himself.Bookmark here

   The lady firmly grasped the bento herself, pulling it closer to herself.Bookmark here

   “It’s okay, young man. I can heat it myself.”Bookmark here

   Oh…Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa knew what was coming. He watched the woman, awaiting whatever tricks she had laying in wait.Bookmark here

   The customer proceeded to open her chest cavity, her skin and muscles unfolding as tiny metal joints extended, holding fragments of her skin as if they were meat skewers. Inside was what looked to be a microwave compartment, complete with a warm, orange glow. She then placed the bento inside, and her chest cavity closed up. Bookmark here

   She smiled warmly at Kuroiwa. He fought his urge not to be visibly amused, and held a customer-pleasing smile, while a tick-tock sound emanated from the lady… not too different from the sound a toaster makes.Bookmark here

   For a good minute, the two simply stared and smiled. Internally, Kuroiwa wanted to look away and laugh, but in this line of work, one must ‘always smile and nod’.Bookmark here

   A loud ding sounded from the lady. She opened her chest cavity once again, taking out a perfectly warmed bento.Bookmark here

   She really is a microwave!Bookmark here

   “Here you go, young man. Please put it with the rest of my things.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa packed her purchases. The lady went her way, making sure to leave the premises while smiling warmly at Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   “P-please come again!”Bookmark here

   The moment the automatic doors had closed, he looked to the slide and let out a tiny chuckle. He ought to have laughed a little more, but too much time had already passed. The mood was gone.Bookmark here

   These folks are really freaky… he thought.Bookmark here

   It was a good thing Shinada had already gone out back—he might’ve gotten a smack upside the head for ridiculing a customer. Even out of their sight.Bookmark here

   Shortly after the customer had left, Kuroiwa heard rattling from the far end of the store.Bookmark here

   A bunch of canned goods and other packages had fallen from the shelves. The other customer was beside them, panicking and putting the merchandise back into the shelves.Bookmark here

   “S-sorry!” she yelped.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa watched the girl frantically move about.Bookmark here

   The girl tumbled and spilled a whole bunch of merchandise yet again, in no less than a minute.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa flinched as the sound of metal hitting a stone floor echoed throughout the store. His eyes narrowed as he stood in place. He wanted to help the poor girl, but he was instructed to not leave the counter unless something broke or there was an attack on the store premises or something.Bookmark here

   The girl finished rearranging the products she had displaced. In her hand were two half-liter bottles of juice, and a pack of curry cup noodles. She began approaching the counter, making sure she didn’t hit anything on the way.Bookmark here

   Her hip swayed a little, and bumped the shelf to her side.Bookmark here

   “Ah!” she yelped, as the merchandise swayed dangerously close to falling over again.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa jolted away, his hand reaching out in reflex.Bookmark here

   “Miss, that’s okay. Slowly.”Bookmark here

   The girl looked towards the counter, and at Kuroiwa. She shrank and tip-toed, inching closer towards him.Bookmark here

   Oh geez. She’s a klutz. Wait…Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa caught himself thinking. This was the first time he’d seen someone who was earnestly clumsy these past few months.Bookmark here

   The citizens of Neo Shibuya were always perfectly calibrated to not make physical human error. Sure, there were errors in judgment and other non-physical mistakes, but things like clumsiness and forgetfulness weren’t even a thing anymore.Bookmark here

   Is she not a cyborg? Or an android?Bookmark here

   She nervously slammed a plethora of commodities and necessities on the table. The girl’s brows were furrowed, and she tried to look fierce in front of Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   The girl looked quite young, around her early to mid-twenties at best. She had brown hair with a slight purple tinge to it. She wore a white polo and pencil skirt, making her look like a regular office lady.Bookmark here

   A black mouth mask concealed half her face, giving her an oddly mysterious look. Her eyes were of a bright green—the mask allowing them to stand out even more.Bookmark here

   Though what truly drew Kuroiwa’s attention was an unusual characteristic on her head.Bookmark here

   A pair of dog-like ears flopped down either side of her head. Those ears resembled a spaniel’s—Kuroiwa deduced that they looked to be of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’s, specifically.Bookmark here

   He couldn’t help but stare.Bookmark here

   Hmm. She kinda looks familiar…Bookmark here

   “Can I help you?” said Kuroiwa, tilting his head.Bookmark here

   He had a crawling feeling in his neck that he definitely had seen this girl before. If he had a cyberbrain like everybody else, it would be a cinch to recall.Bookmark here

   Where else could he have seen her? Where would it be possible?Bookmark here

   It came to him. It was on every other billboard, playing almost every other day. Something that bewildered at first, then aggravated, and then caused nothing but bemused apathy.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s expression lit up, and a bit of pep emerged from his monotone, bored voice.Bookmark here

   “Oh, wait! I remember you…”Bookmark here

   The girl retreated from the counter and started avoiding eye contact with Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   “Eh?” she yelped.Bookmark here

   It was a sad sight. She looked to be on the brink of tears, and her face was bright red like a tomato. Bookmark here

   “I’ll pay you if I broke anything…”Bookmark here

   She, in fact, did not break anything.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s heart melted at the sight of this lady making herself look like a wreck. He felt not unlike how he did earlier in the day, but this time, he didn’t feel pity.Bookmark here

   She’s… kinda cute, he thought. Cute in the way a puppy would beg for food or whine when it was sad. Cute in the way a pet nuzzled against your leg when it needed company.Bookmark here

   “No, no. It’s not that. Asides, if you broke something, I’d know right away.” said Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   He planted his hand on his hip and beamed at her.Bookmark here

   “Oh, yeah! I know who you are. I’ve seen you in a commercial!”Bookmark here

   The girl’s eyes widened in surprise. She took a step back and finally looked Kuroiwa’s way.Bookmark here

   “What? Ehhh?!”Bookmark here

   “Wait, so I hit the nail on the head?” said Kuroiwa, hammering his fist down an open palm in delight. “That was just a guess.”Bookmark here

   “H-how did you know?!”Bookmark here

   The dog-eared young lass screeched in panic from within the halls of Poppy’s.Bookmark here

   “Hauu…” the girl sighed.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa took the girl’s other items and began scanning them. He slowed his movements down to make some idle talk.Bookmark here

   “I saw your commercial everywhere I looked. Gotta say, I’m feeling a little starstruck.”Bookmark here

   The girl bowed her head, embarrassed. She remained silent as her eyes shifted from side to side.Bookmark here

   “I-it’s not a big deal…”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa prattled on, failing to hear anything with how meek the girl sounded when she spoke.Bookmark here

   “I didn’t notice your ears on TV, though. Are they, you know…
   …detachable?”Bookmark here

   The girl shrunk again. She breathed deeply and mustered a squeak.Bookmark here

   “...ey ed…ted…out…”Bookmark here

   “Sorry?”Bookmark here

   “They… edited my ears out.”Bookmark here

   “They edited it out? Like, CGI edit out?”Bookmark here

   “Y-yes…”Bookmark here

   “Oh. That’s a shame. I think they’re kind of cute. I wonder why…”Bookmark here

   The girl lifted her collar and covered her face. Her face became even redder as she turned her head away from Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa wasn’t exactly a people person, considering his previous profession—but one look at the lass’ expression was a dead giveaway that it was time to move on.Bookmark here

   “Ah. Sorry about that.” he said, while he packed her purchases into a plastic bag. “That’ll be fifteen-thousand yen.”Bookmark here

   That phrase alone pained him. Good on her she can afford this.Bookmark here

   A peaceful transaction took place. Kuroiwa wanted to chat further, but didn’t want to press on the poor girl any further than he already has.Bookmark here

   “Please come again!”Bookmark here

   The girl slinked out of the convenience store, glancing back at Kuroiwa. She didn’t look offended or wary of him, but rather looked more curious and embarrassed than anything.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa sighed and wiped down the counter.Bookmark here

   However, something was wrong.Bookmark here

   The same plastic bag containing the girl’s purchases—she had forgotten them.Bookmark here

   Oh, crap.Bookmark here

   He looked to Poppy’s entrance, but the girl had already vanished into the night. Kuroiwa grabbed the bag and peeped into the store’s backroom, where Shinada looked to be taking a nap.Bookmark here

   “Hey, boss.”Bookmark here

   “Yeah?”Bookmark here

   “A customer forgot her stuff. I’m gonna go chase her down. Just letting you know in case somebody else comes in.”Bookmark here

   “My boy, just ping her.”Bookmark here

   “Ping her?”Bookmark here

   Shinada stared at Kuroiwa, and then palmed his face. The realization hit him like a truck. Bookmark here

   “Oh, right. I forgot. You can’t do that.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa could wait no longer. He was raring to go; not just to do his work, but to escape the monotony of working in this joint.Bookmark here

   “Sorry, boss! I’m going after her!”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa dashed out of the convenience store, the girl’s package in hand.Bookmark here

   “Oh. Damn.” sighed Shinada, his arm reaching out towards the back room's door.Bookmark here

   “Forgot to tell him about the scheduled riots tonight.
Oh well.”Bookmark here

Fuzzy Rabid Usagi
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