Chapter 4:

The Sweeper Chases a Customer, and May Have Awful Job Insurance

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

   The city’s lights and sounds hid the spirit of unrest.Bookmark here

   Neo Shibuya’s streets began populating with punks and all sorts of rejects donned in ratty clothes and colorful leather outfits, as the more reserved citizens declined in number.Bookmark here

   But for Mitsuo Kuroiwa, it was nothing more than a regular weekday.Bookmark here

   He ran into the city of the night, lights gleaming like crystals, and crowd chatter melding together in cacophonous melody, in search of the girl who had forgotten her purchase.Bookmark here

   Crowds of bright-haired punks and mohawk-bearing gangsters of every shape and size began to converge, amassing in the thoroughfares forming walls of themselves—some even blocking Kuroiwa’s path.Bookmark here

   “Excuse me! Excuse me!” said Kuroiwa, squeezing in between every thug and lowlife, clutching the bag of goods like his life depended on it.Bookmark here

   Dammit. No way she’s gotten too far.Bookmark here

   He closed his eyes and concentrated on the sounds of Neo Shibuya. In his mind’s eye, the crowd’s noise became nothing but shadows to him. He saw through the populace like x-ray, allowing him to pinpoint anything he needed to from sound alone.Bookmark here

   Hypersense. A technique that he gave no name, but one given by those who knew him way back when. The ability to sharpen one’s senses to the utmost limit of human ability, only learned through years of experience.Bookmark here

   But it was to no avail. The streets were too busy, and human footsteps sounded heavier than they used to be.Bookmark here

   Okay, let’s try this.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa zoomed into a nearby alley. The walls between buildings were closely knit, just enough for Kuroiwa to walk through.Bookmark here

   Perfect, he thought, eyeing each one wall and measuring them up against each other. The sweeper hopped towards one wall, and used his momentum to jump to the other. He zigzagged his way up the walls, his flying strides almost defying the laws of physics.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa perched on a small veranda, giving him a good bird’s eye view of the street below. He surveyed the crowded, punk-filled streets in search of his target.Bookmark here

   And amongst the crowd of lowlives was a girl. A girl with a black face mask and a weary expression.Bookmark here

   It was her.Bookmark here

   The clumsy girl with the dog-like ears.Bookmark here

   And Kuroiwa had to act quickly before she disappears into the night for good.Bookmark here

   He jumped down to the nearest veranda, his footwork quiet and light, so as to not alert anyone to his presence. He crept down the walls of this building—a humble apartment complex, now that he’s had time to look at it.Bookmark here

   It was then he realized; that the last veranda was still ways up from the ground. He surveyed his surroundings once again, finding the most optimal route to the streets below: A sturdy streetlight, shaped much like the ones from the old world.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa leaped into the air. He grabbed onto the pole, its metal hinges creaking at the force of his weight. In one swift motion, he slid down the lamppost and onto the ground. The streetlight bent a little, but not enough to break.Bookmark here

   He checked the contents of his plastic bag. Flawless, with no spills or messes—like he hadn’t parkoured through all that.Bookmark here

   Sprinting immediately after, he squeezed through the crowd, hot on the trail of his forgetful customer.Bookmark here

   And there she was.Bookmark here

   Standing amidst a crowd of gathering punks, seemingly unaware of her existence, was the girl Kuroiwa had been pursuing.Bookmark here

   “Excuse me. Miss!”Bookmark here

   She turned in Kuroiwa’s direction. She shrank again at the sight of him, averting any semblance of eye contact.Bookmark here

   “Sorry to bother you on your walk, but you left this at the store.” Kuroiwa said with the same customer-pleasing smile. Kuroiwa lifted the plastic bag and offered it to her.
Bookmark here

   The girl peeked from behind her collar. She eyed the package the man had in his hand. She began to calm down and ceased retreating into herself.Bookmark here

   “O-oh… I’m sorry… It must’ve been hard chasing me down.”Bookmark here

   “Don’t worry about it, miss. Only happy to do my job.”Bookmark here

   “Wait.” the girl said, confused. “I’m sorry, but… you could have just pinged me.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa chuckled nervously and scratched the back of his head. “Oh. Yeah. That. This may come as a surprise, but I don’t know how to do that.”Bookmark here

   “Ehh? How can that be?” the girl said in astonishment.Bookmark here

   “It’s, uh…”Bookmark here

   The girl stomped towards Kuroiwa, her once shy, withdrawn expression turning into that of deer-eyed curiosity.Bookmark here

   “I’ve never heard of an older model without the ‘ping’. It was one of the first things they installed in the oldest mim models!”Bookmark here

   “Mim? I don't…”Bookmark here

   “Hm. Hm! How can this be…?” said the girl, as she circled Kuroiwa, inspecting and staring at the different parts of his body.Bookmark here

   “Hey now, take it easy.” Kuroiwa dangled the plastic bag, rustling the contents inside.Bookmark here

   “Oh!”Bookmark here

   The girl took a step back and meekly took the package from Kuroiwa’s hands. “Right. Sorry about that.” said the girl.Bookmark here

   She sure apologizes a lot…Bookmark here

   “I tend to get really into it when someone has weird tech in them…”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa wondered if he should spill the beans. It struck him strange the thought even crossed his mind to divulge the fact he was human to a perfect stranger.Bookmark here

   But he found a strange bond with her, not because she was like a dog, but because she was the first and ‘most human’ person he’s had the pleasure of talking to since he thawed out months back.Bookmark here

   “Thing is…” said Kuroiwa, his smile becoming wry. “It’s not tech.”Bookmark here

   “Not tech? What do you mean, if I may ask?”Bookmark here

   “Well, I’m kinda human.”Bookmark here

   “Kinda human? What do you mean? How many body augments do you have installed?”Bookmark here

   “None.”Bookmark here

   “None? How?”Bookmark here

   The girl looked at him pensively. She began making all sorts of theories in her head, but none seem to hit even remotely close to the truth. Kuroiwa noticed this, and imagined that right about now, this girl would be wagging her tail like a dog waiting for their master’s command.Bookmark here

   “Actually, I’m not kinda human. I am human. Full flesh and blood, human. All natural.”Bookmark here

   This gave the girl pause.Bookmark here

   “Wait… You’re human?!”Bookmark here

   “Yeah.”Bookmark here

   The girl grabbed both Kuroiwa’s hands, clasping them firmly in her grasp. Her hands were warm, making the somewhat cold, frigid night melt away for Kuroiwa. Her grip was not like the other people Kuroiwa had encountered, whose grasps were firm and almost robotic, unlike hers.Bookmark here

   Was she the exception, or not?Bookmark here

   “I’ve never seen a real human before! Like, a hundred percent natural! Did you come from outside Neo Shibuya?”Bookmark here

   “It’s a long story. I’m from here, but not… from here?”Bookmark here

   “Oh, oh! Are you some secret government project that I’m not allowed to see?” the girl said, wiggling her body nervously and giddily. “Ooh, should I look away?”Bookmark here

   An odd shift in personality from her usual self.Bookmark here

   “I guess you could say that? B-but anyway, miss, I need to get back to work.”Bookmark here

   The girl released Kuroiwa’s hands and backed away.Bookmark here

   “O-oh, sorry! There I go again!” she said, sticking her tongue out in a playful fashion. “Sorry to keep you.”Bookmark here

   “No worries. It’s nice having someone to talk to that isn’t some weird, unfeeling machine.”Bookmark here

   “Is that how we’ve been treating you? I’m so, so sorry…”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa waved his hand, dissuading her. “Hey, no need to apologize. I’m the stranger in this whole picture. I’m used to it. Besides, you’re not the same as ‘em.”Bookmark here

   The girl shook her head, while she grunted in refusal.Bookmark here

   “That won’t do at all! If you’re saying that, then that only means you don't feel at home in Neo Shibuya just yet.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s thoughts raced. He never thought he’d find someone who would show what seemed to be genuine compassion to him in this day and age. Or at all, even before.Bookmark here

   “Right, heh.” said Kuroiwa, chuckling. “Thanks for the concern. But I’ll be fine.”Bookmark here

   The girl shook her head again, making a grunting refusal once more.Bookmark here

   “No! Mister convenience store clerk, is it okay if I see you again? I can’t let this chance pass!”Bookmark here

   “Chance? Chance of what?”Bookmark here

   “The chance to talk with an actual, hundred-percent human! I want to know more about you! Like, your brain. How you think. I wanna learn more about, you know, your body.”Bookmark here

   “Whoa, whoa. Phrasing.” said Kuroiwa, trying to quell this girl’s rabid curiosity.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s initial impression of her began to melt away. From a shy, nervous wreck to a genuinely passionate and curious, hyperactive girl.Bookmark here

   It was a change. But not one he disliked at all.Bookmark here

   She was no pupper—but a fierce, loyal hound!Bookmark here

   “Chigusa.” said the girl.Bookmark here

   “Huh?”Bookmark here

   “That’s my name. Chigusa.”Bookmark here

   “Oh, right.” said Kuroiwa. He puckered his lips as he looked left and right. “Pretty rude of us to not introduce ourselves this far into a conversation, huh?”Bookmark here

   Both he and Chigusa shared a laugh, each of them nervously acknowledging their slight blunder.Bookmark here

   “Kuroiwa. Mitsuo Kuroiwa.”Bookmark here

   “Mitsuo… Kuroiwa? Which one is your name? Which one is your title?”Bookmark here

   “What do you mean? That’s my name. All of it.”Bookmark here

   “Ehhh?” said Chigusa, her eyes narrowing and a finger pushing against her chin. “You have two names…”Bookmark here

   A lightbulb lit in her head. Figuratively, thankfully.Bookmark here

   “Oh! That’s a human name. I read somewhere that Japanese people once had a family name and a given name!”Bookmark here

   “Is that not the case now?”Bookmark here

   “Nope!” said Chigusa. “We register one name in the cyberbrain and that becomes our permanent name! We don’t use family names anymore.”Bookmark here

   “Wouldn’t it be tough if you had to look for someone and you only had one name to go by?”Bookmark here

   Chigusa pursed her lips and pushed a finger against her chin.Bookmark here

   “Really? I don’t see a use for a family name nowadays. Our population doesn’t really go up anymore. We can just look up the cyberbrain in real time if we needed to look for someone.”Bookmark here

   Talk about a totally declined birthrate!Bookmark here

   A statement that bewildered Kuroiwa. He couldn’t fathom how this society without multiple names functioned and identified themselves. It was not as if Neo Shibuya was a small tribe of sub-hundred people—it was a real city, with millions of people existing in one place, all at once.Bookmark here

   “So what happens when you have kids, then? How do you ID family?”Bookmark here

   “Have kids?” wondered Chigusa, becoming increasingly inquisitive. “What does it mean to ‘have kids’?”Bookmark here

   Oh my God! What is this?Bookmark here

   While he had never been invested in matters of state, it wasn’t as if a declining birth rate never bothered him. And whilst it wasn’t of his concern, hearing the words that came out of Chigusa’s mouth didn’t do him any favors of understanding his new world any better.Bookmark here

   Alarm bells rang in his head. But alas, that wasn’t the only alert that sounded.Bookmark here

   Beep, beep. An alarm beeped from Kuroiwa’s watch. He had set a time limit on how much he’d allow himself to be out of the store, and this conversation made it slip his mind. It was time to go.Bookmark here

   “Ah, crap…” muttered Kuroiwa under his breath. He then glanced at the girl in front of him and smiled. “Chigusa, I think I’ll really get in trouble if I stay out any longer.”Bookmark here

   Chigusa jumped. “Oh, I’m sorry! I really got into it…”Bookmark here

   “It’s fine,” said Kuroiwa, reassuring her with a playful shrug. “We can continue this conversation sometime else. When I’m free, you know? You can drop by my store again.”Bookmark here

   “Yeah!”Bookmark here

   Chigusa embraced the bag of goods Kuroiwa had returned to her, then turned the other way. But before she could take the first step, she realized there was one more thing she wanted to ask the sweeper. She turned back to him and said,Bookmark here

   “I almost forgot! Mr. Mitsuo Kuroiwa, which name do you prefer to go by?”Bookmark here

   “Oh…” Kuroiwa thought about it for a second. Mitsuo was his given name, but considering how weird the world around him had become, he thought it might be best to stick with a more ‘unique’ name.Bookmark here

   “Okay. Kuroiwa then.”Bookmark here

   “Kuroiwa….” Chigusa closed her eyes, as sounds of boops and beeps emanated from an internal device deep within her head.Bookmark here

   She opened her eyes and bowed at him.Bookmark here

   “There are at least three Mitsuos in Neo Shibuya. But you’re the only Kuroiwa left.”Bookmark here

   “The way you said that suddenly made me sad…”Bookmark here

   Chigusa gave Kuroiwa a big, sweet smile as she flashed her smartphone at him. She gave off a comforting, welcoming aura; much, much more than any single person had given him since his awakening, even more so than the very scientists who had welcomed him into this new world.Bookmark here

   “Let me welcome you to Neo Shibuya, Mr. Kuroiwa!Bookmark here

   Shall we exchange numbers?”Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

   “Dang. I should really head back to work.”Bookmark here

   After exchanging numbers with Chigusa, he realized he had spent a little too much time fraternizing with a customer. It was a pleasing encounter, but he wasn’t ready to jeopardize his employment over a new friendship.Bookmark here

   As he walked the streets of Neo Shibuya’s Chiba Street back in the direction of Poppy’s, he noticed the gathering of punks and lowlives and the absence of other, less-imposing citizens.Bookmark here

   Nip in the air. Something’s weird here.Bookmark here

   Glass shattered in the distance. The sound of rabble-rousing and furious hollering howled from down the 3 Chiba.Bookmark here

   Down the street—where Poppy’s lay.Bookmark here

   No way…Bookmark here

   He rushed through the crowds of unsavory men, weaving through the gaps between each person. He held the pistol hidden within a pouch strapped to his leg close, ready to draw the moment something threatened him.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa eyed a gathered crowd of punks in front of Poppy’s, around 50 meters away.Bookmark here

   A gathering of about thirty people had amassed in front of the store. Its windows were shattered from the outside. The horde of lowlives threw rocks, bricks, and other sharp objects right into the premises.Bookmark here

   Dammit. They’re messing up the store!Bookmark here

   He drew his revolver and spun the barrel.Bookmark here

   Five rounds.Bookmark here

   Five bullets were all he had left in the barrel. He’d spent one on the robber from a while back, and hadn't found any gun shops that sell ammo for a reasonable price, nor had he found any tools to jury rig ammo himself.Bookmark here

   If he had more ammo, he felt confident he could gun down the entire crowd—or at least enough to scare them off.Bookmark here

   Right now, though, that was out of the question. He couldn’t identify any ringleaders. The best thing to do right now was to find a way into the store and check up on Shinada.Bookmark here

   But before he thought of doing anything else, his Hypersense kicked in. He listened in to the rallying cries and protests of the rioters.Bookmark here

   One man shouted, with dire tone:Bookmark here

   “Bastards! Charging five thousand for a pack of three wieners!”Bookmark here

   And another followed him:Bookmark here

   “Yeah! And how dare you serve mustard with fried chicken? What kind of blasphemy is this?!”Bookmark here

   And then a whole host of other, strange complaints.Bookmark here

   “I wanna put cola in my chicken bucket!”, “There ain’t no SSR cards in your goddamn wafer pack!”, “I want a refund on my 7Gum, I don’t know how it feels to chew!”, and “Dude, why am I even here?”Bookmark here

   Charming.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa’s anger had turned to confusion, and his eyes drooped in disappointment. Really classy, he thought. Those were truly no reasons to light up a humble establishment. Such riots were uncommon in Japan back in the day, but even when he heard of such chaotic acts plaguing other countries, he was certain people burned neighborhoods for much nobler reasons.Bookmark here

   At least, he hoped so.Bookmark here

   He shook himself awake and back into a more austere one. Kuroiwa stalked into a dingy alleyway and into a network of tight passages that led him to an empty lot right behind Poppy’s.Bookmark here

   He cautiously opened a door behind the convenience store, keeping his gun to his chest. He crept into the store’s storage rooms, careful not to knock over any goods amongst the mountain of boxes within.Bookmark here

   He made his way into the staff room, where he finally spotted his boss, Shinada.Bookmark here

   Thunderous, indistinct cries roared from the front porch, as sounds of more glass shattered from the store’s main area. And strangely enough, Shinada simply sat in the staff room, cigar in mouth, and reclined on a cheap plastic chair.Bookmark here

   “Boss.” whispered Kuroiwa.Bookmark here

   “Oh, Kuroiwa. Did you go in through the back? I told you entering there is a no-no.”Bookmark here

   “There’s a riot outside, boss. You really shouldn’t be here!”Bookmark here

   Shinada puffed his cigar away from Kuroiwa. He dug its burning tip on an ashtray and set it down.Bookmark here

   “I know.” he said calmly.Bookmark here

   “You know? Then let’s do something about it.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa opened the door leading to the cashier just a little, peeking at the situation outside. The riot has gotten worse. From a crowd of thirty, it seemed to grow every minute. The protestors’ violence had also begun to escalate, as they pulled out bats, steel pipes, and other blunt weaponry.Bookmark here

   “Time to employ a little castle doctrine.” said Kuroiwa, pulling on the hammer of his trusty M206 38 Revolver.Bookmark here

   “Boy, stop.” said Shinada sternly. “I wouldn’t shoot ‘em up, if I were you.”Bookmark here

   “But boss, they’re smashing up the store!” he protested. At that point, an intense fear began to consume him, but not quite of an existential kind. It was dawning on him that his job was at stake. It was a subtle realization that, perhaps, he may have awful job security at the end of it all.Bookmark here

   “Yes, I know that. Let them. It’s a peaceful protest.”Bookmark here

   The smell of oil began to permeate from outside—a blend of motor oil and alcohol, pungent and strong, invading Kuroiwa’s senses.Bookmark here

   Molotovs. Two men in front of the crowd lit two beer bottles with rags hanging from within.Bookmark here

   “You call this peaceful?!” said Kuroiwa, his calm composure turning into one of frustration. “They’re gonna light us up!”Bookmark here

   “Yep,” agreed Shinada. “And if you shoot ‘em, I’m gonna have to pay for the replacements.”Bookmark here

   “What, why? That doesn’t seem fair to you.”Bookmark here

   “It’s not. But it is what it is.”Bookmark here

   Shinada hopped from the chair onto his feet. He took in a deep whiff and flinched from the unpleasant burning odor.Bookmark here

   “Anyway. Smell that? Grenades. That’s our cue to go. Can’t say if you’re just in time or too late.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa was bewildered by his manager’s behavior; how calm he was, how accepting of the store’s fate he was…it made no sense. But if his employer says something—Bookmark here

   —then all Kuroiwa had to do was to comply, like usual.Bookmark here

   He sheathed his gun. He clenched his teeth as he watched a band of brigands lay waste to the only workplace he had. Shinada led him out, and up through some emergency ladders leading up onto a distant rooftop. From there, they witnessed Poppy’s set on fire. A few embers grew into a blaze in almost no time at all, and black smoke puffed from its burning body.Bookmark here

   They stood in silence as they watched it all go to smoke.Bookmark here

   “Don’t worry about it, boy.” said Shinada, clambering onto a stack of boxes to pat Kuroiwa’s shoulders at head level. “It was a scheduled riot.”Bookmark here

   “A… what now?” said Kuroiwa, his eyes widened.Bookmark here

   “Oh. That’s the price we pay for owning corporate franchises. A rival corporation pays a bunch of thugs to ruin another store, tanking property prices. Then another corp buys out the land. It’s all very organized. They even schedule these incidents.Bookmark here

   Sorry. Forgot to tell you earlier.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa flailed his arms, pointing at Poppy’s ruins.Bookmark here

   “That sounds miserable.”Bookmark here

   “Yes it is. But thankfully, it was nothing but a peaceful riot.”Bookmark here

   “T-that’s the opposite of peaceful!”Bookmark here

   “Boy…” said Shinada, massaging Kuroiwa’s shoulders. “If it were a violent protest, the store and I would be nothing but stains on the ground by now.”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa steadied his heart, and took a deep breath.Bookmark here

   “This stuff’s raising more questions than answers…”Bookmark here

   Shinada sighed as he pulled one more cigar from his pocket, and lit it up. “No worries. I can pay for a redo of my franchise. And you get to have an extended vacation. No more overtime for you.”Bookmark here

   “Well…” said Kuroiwa sheepishly. “Am I getting paid?”Bookmark here

   “Of course not.”Bookmark here

   “Then what do I do now? I need that money, boss. I don’t want to go back to eating rice crackers in the morning, afternoon, and dinner… well okay, not like I don’t already do that. But it would be nice to afford a piping hot meal every now and then.”Bookmark here

   Shinada looked up to the night sky and the billowing black smoke. Sirens echoed from the distance, heralding the eventual arrival of the fire department.Bookmark here

   “Okay. You’re a good guy, Kuroiwa. There may be something for you to do.”Bookmark here

   He puffed his cigar up into the night and away from his sole coworker.Bookmark here

   “I know a guy.”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.