Chapter 7:

The Sweeper Tells of Living Free (It's not free)

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

   A hail of bullets pummeled the slab of stone concealing Kuroiwa and Sei. They had hidden in a recently abandoned building, trying to avoid the platoon of gun-toting rioters that had charged the street just a few minutes ago. It wouldn’t be too harrowing a situation on the norm, but there was something special about Sei.Bookmark here

   She was naked; not in the bare naked sense, but naked in the battlefield. She wore nothing but a white, unmarked long coat, yoga pants, and a strip of bandage that bound her chest to itself. Indeed, she chose not to wear armor for their most dangerous encounter yet.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa held his revolver close, ducking behind cover. “Damn! Where’d these guys get the guns?” He held up a shard of broken glass, using it as a mirror to try to look behind cover.Bookmark here

   “I am unsure. The only way to procure a firearm was to be a government enforcer, or to have it smuggled within illegal channels.”Bookmark here

   “Right, then,” Kuroiwa chuckled. “So just like Japan back in the day.”Bookmark here

   The gunfire ceased for a moment. Kuroiwa looked through the reflection in the glass and watched two rioters armed with automatic rifles enter the building. They were closing in fast. He then pointed his gun at a nearby pillar. Kuroiwa shot at its corners, bounding the bullet against it, then ricocheting off a couple of metal sheets and right through the heads of both assailants. They fall to the ground, dead as they possibly could be.Bookmark here

   “Excellent shot, Ser Kuroiwa!”Bookmark here

   “That should shock their forces a bit. Should buy us some time to reposition,” explained Kuroiwa while eyeing the rest of the building interior. He pointed out a stairwell leading up. Leveraging higher ground was the best way to engage the threat right now. “Let’s head up the stairs. They can’t possibly have anything to smoke us out from—”Bookmark here

   “Ser Kuroiwa.” interrupted Sei, a shadow concealing a steadily growing grin on her face. “That will not be necessary. I shall take them head on. Here and now.”Bookmark here

   The sweeper stopped in his tracks. “Wait up,” he called out in concern. “You can’t do that, Sei! They’re rocking automatics. It’s not gonna be like the last time where you can just charge in and wreck ‘em!”Bookmark here

   “You do not know that,” protested Sei. “It matters not if they wield semi-autos or gatling guns. They are rebels all the same. And I will fell them once more like we have previously.”Bookmark here

   “Dammit Sei! They’ll turn you into swiss cheese!”Bookmark here

   Indiscernible shouting, followed by thunderous footsteps resounded from the outside. Though not immediately visible, Kuroiwa could tell that the rioters were catching on that their small squad had been eliminated. They were reforming. And fast.Bookmark here

   “Do you hear that?” said Sei. Bookmark here

   “Yeah, no kidding.” replied Kuroiwa, checking if he had enough ammo in the chamber in case of a sudden incursion. “And they’re gonna kill us if we don’t move up now.” He then muttered under his breath, “I shouldn’t have encouraged you to ditch the power armor.”Bookmark here

   Sei’s body heat began to radiate—so much that even Kuroiwa, standing several feet away, could feel the intensity from her. It was happening again: that powerful heat and steam from the last time she went wild. Kuroiwa was losing the will to urge her to take a more strategic position. No… it was too late. She was foregone.Bookmark here

   He could go up the stairs and move to a better vantage point. However, his instincts told him that leaving Sei now would spell a quick and painful end for her. It’s not that Kuroiwa had no faith in her abilities; after all, Sei was the very same person who took out the same group of rioters a few nights ago—alone. But ‘action hero’ or not, reality has to kick in at some point. And if that reality were to come true, then…Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa would be jobless yet again.Bookmark here

   Screw it, he thought, as he rushed over behind the rock Sei hid behind. Her body heat was almost searing; not enough to hurt or singe him, but it was there. It was akin to standing in a busy restaurant’s kitchen at noon.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa poised himself beside Sei, looking much like two cowboys holding down the fort, and said, “You’re driving a hard bargain.”Bookmark here

   “Ser Kuroiwa? Did you not plan to seek higher ground? I will be fine on my own. You need not—”Bookmark here

   “And leave you for dead? You’ve a better chance with me backing you up close by.”Bookmark here

   Sei cupped her mouth and giggled. “You are truly odd. I have never met someone so concerned about the death of another. We cannot die by your definition, and yet you treat my possible demise with such gravitas. Such finality.” She closed her eyes and looked up to the ruined ceiling, as if entering a much deeper, meditative state. “If I were to perish here, I would be satisfied becoming IZUMI once more in the next life. And yet you told me that if I wish to be IZUMI, I should do it now—not later.”Bookmark here

   “Yeah, and you won’t be if you die here,” said Kuroiwa while checking the barrel of his revolver and his belt satchels, counting exactly how many rounds he had on him. “And your next life could be spent pushing pencils for the rest of time. For all you know.”Bookmark here

   Sei chuckled again, this time with increasing volume. “Ser Kuroiwa. You must know that being in good graces with the government will allow you to choose the circumstances of your next life, yes? Or perhaps you are doing this to assure your salary at the end of the week, as per usual?”Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa groaned and smiled, then turned to her and made a pained expression. “You’re cramping my style.”Bookmark here

   “Either way, I thank you.” said Sei, returning a smile. Their senses alerted them to the approach of the armed lowlives outside, their slow and steady footsteps creeping closer and closer with each passing moment. “You said it yourself: ‘To live my life now as if it were my last’. I still cannot fathom such a concept, though I heard old humanity lived by that idea. But tonight I will try to understand. So please, cover me.”Bookmark here

   “Just know that I won’t be playing a S*wa*o song to your heroic, possibly final charge.”Bookmark here

   “I know that name. I am not familiar with his music, but I somehow expected you to be a fan of classical music.”Bookmark here

   “...It wasn’t considered ‘classical’ where I’m from.”Bookmark here

   “You truly exude retro, Ser Kuroiwa.”Bookmark here

   Sei’s body heat was becoming unbearable. If it weren’t for the armor Kuroiwa wore over himself, there would be a chance he’d emerge from tonight with some burnt skin. But some sores and burns would be the least of their problems if they couldn’t win the fight tonight.Bookmark here

   A buzzing sound filled the room as Sei ignited the heated laser blade in her hands. Her hands shook violently with an emotion she herself couldn’t recognize. Even Kuroiwa noticed this, and this was the first time he’d seen her like this. Was it fear? Anxiety? Or perhaps even excitement in the face of death? None of them could say for sure. Such didn’t stop Sei’s intent, however. She lifted herself up from behind cover and planted the blunt of her blade on her shoulder, then psyched herself up with a neck stretch or two.Bookmark here

   Kuroiwa peeked from behind cover, sighting the approaching thugs from the outside. They were careful, and from their cautious movements alone, they had every intention of locking both of them down with no chance to escape. A surround and destroy plan. And the best way to deal with it was to break their formation with a well-placed offensive.Bookmark here

   The only way out now was to follow Sei. To become the action hero he never thought he ever was.Bookmark here

   Sei charged in with her blade drawn, steam blowing out from her sweat pores, her teeth clenched and a smile warped into an excited, yet sadistic expression. Kuroiwa vaulted over the rock, his gun cocked and finger right on the trigger. And it was then that Kuroiwa heard Sei’s final words:Bookmark here

   “One last ride?”Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

   A month and a half passed since the riot had been quelled.Bookmark here

   Miraculously, both of them survived with barely a scratch on them. Kuroiwa wasn’t sure if they were just that good, or it was simply dumb luck.Bookmark here

   That night, the streets near Kengo Law Office were littered with the bloodied and oiled bodies of lowlives and punks. This time, there was no mercy; every single rioter was eliminated. Or rather, in Sei’s eyes, it was mercy. The fates of these rioters are unknown to them, but word went around that they now live as docile, peaceful, functioning members of society. As street cleaners and plumbers, they said.Bookmark here

   Then and there, Sei had fully awakened to her alter ego as IZUMI.Bookmark here

   She had no intention of abandoning her name, though. She swore to live on as Sei, but to embody the spirit she once had in her glory days. Hence, she surrendered her position as a Security Knight to instead become some form of vigilante. She went around delivering justice to wrongdoers as she saw fit, without government oversight. This meant that money would be an issue for her, but Sei had her ways around that.Bookmark here

   With no Security Knight and her two-man firm, this of course meant that, Kuroiwa, was again…Bookmark here

   Jobless.Bookmark here

   On the other hand, it wasn’t as if there weren’t upsides to his stint as a security officer.Bookmark here

   No more than two weeks later, Sei hooked Kuroiwa up with a job opportunity at a local bar she frequents. It was a little ways off his apartment, and the pay wasn’t as great as his previous work, but it made him just enough to scrimp by.Bookmark here

   Not to mention there was a little perk that came with it, as well.Bookmark here

   It was a chilly 6 o’ clock morning; the sun had just barely risen outside Kuroiwa’s small apartment building. He awoke to a loud engine roaring just outside the building’s small garden lot. Kuroiwa recognized the sound immediately: it was that of a motorcycle’s engine, particularly of a Harley. He rushed out the door and surveyed the area just around his apartment.Bookmark here

   No one was around. Not a single soul, not even a single neighbor out and about near the apartment. There was, however, a most peculiar sight just laying outside the front yard.Bookmark here

   A single motorcycle. A modern Harley in Kuroiwa’s eyes, but very likely a relic from a bygone era for this advanced civilization. It was of pure black in design, with only its gas tank painted a bright, chromatic red. Just looking at it made Kuroiwa’s heart soar, his mouth twisting into a big smile. He then approached it with all the excitement of a young boy opening presents on Christmas morn.Bookmark here

   Taped to its seat was a letter with only a short message written on it. The letter itself smelled faintly of gasoline, and was still warm, much like the rest of the seat. The handwriting on its body was neat and elegant, and struck Kuroiwa as familiar.Bookmark here

   This note… Sei?Bookmark here

   Written on it was:Bookmark here

   Ser Kuroiwa,Bookmark here

   The moment I embraced who I could be, I felt free for the first time in a long time. This is all thanks to your words. I still do not understand what you mean, but the fullness in my heart cannot lie its effect on me.Bookmark here

   I listened to that musician you mentioned. He truly is a paragon of classical music, though his work struck me as quite retro in style. And because you truly exude retro, I decided to give you this old junkyard Harley from my old days. It is a hybrid so you will definitely find it easy to refuel, even without spending too much gas.Bookmark here

   Rock on, and I will see you at Yui’s.Bookmark here

- SeiBookmark here

   Kuroiwa chuckled, and felt his eyes water up a little. It wasn’t because Sei’s letter had affected him deeply… though he was thankful for her gift. It was the gift itself that made the sweeper jump with joy inside. He missed being able to drive around a motorbike. Though he drove a car for most of his jobs, nothing could truly beat the feeling of driving around a town on a casual day on the back of an impressive ‘hog’, as he called it.Bookmark here

   Engine’s still warm.Bookmark here

   Sei had only left this recently. Kuroiwa observed his surroundings for any sign of her presence, but she was nowhere near; not even his Hypersense could detect her. He surmised that either she had run away at breakneck speeds after leaving the bike, or she came here with a partner and had just left the bike while riding behind her acquaintance. The latter was more likely, and was most likely Yui.Bookmark here

   Yui. Thankfully, Sei didn’t leave Kuroiwa out to dry for too long, and found stable, yet humble work for him. The bar he was currently working in was owned by Yui, a long-time friend of Sei’s and also served as its bartender. Kuroiwa wasn’t in charge of serving drinks and ‘changing lives’ like Yui was, but he was mainly delegated to housekeeping and all other flexible jobs within the bar.Bookmark here

   His shift had just concluded two hours ago, and Kuroiwa ought to be asleep right now. However…Bookmark here

   Thanks, Sei. I owe you one.Bookmark here

   He wasn’t willing to wait. It had to be now.Bookmark here

   A rekindling of an old flame.Bookmark here

   He mounted the motorcycle, then checked the ignition for the keys. They were still there, poised and ready to go. Kuroiwa turned the key and revved the engine, its roar resounding throughout his sleepy suburban neighborhood. He just revved and revved, expecting a noise complaint from his landlord when he returns home. He kicked off the kickstand and shifted to first gear. The wheels of the bike scraped the asphalt, the smell of burning rubber permeating the surroundings. And with one smooth motion, Kuroiwa accelerated forwards toward the city center of Neo Shibuya.Bookmark here

   The wind blowing against his face. The smell of rubber. The warmth of the engine. It felt like home again. And though he had no helmet on and was unaware if there were any laws against biking without a helmet, none of that mattered to him right now. He simply raced forward with glorious, reckless abandon, and a reasonable high speed—He wasn’t about to test how reliable speed traps were, after all.Bookmark here

   I think a stop at the motor shop might be nice. I’ll get myself a helmet and try not to get caught before that.Bookmark here

   He was happy. For the first time in a few months, there was genuine joy inside him. No ironies, and definitely no catch-22s; Just a bike from the old world and his adrenaline. A feeling of thankfulness and gratitude, even in the face of a lower paying job.Bookmark here

   And all was good for that day.Bookmark here

   Except until all the lights went off.Bookmark here

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