Chapter 11:

The Law of Returns

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

The young lady standing before Murai wept in joyous tears. She shook her head as she rubbed her eyes, the girl’s low ponytail waving like a cat’s tail. Even though her fast food apron was stained with cooking oil and ketchup, Murai could see nothing but the sight of his dear girlfriend, overjoyed and thankful of the tiny diamond ring on her ring finger.

“Thank you, Murai. I’ll cherish this forever.”

7:00am. Before Murai went off to work, he thought of finally proposing to this girlfriend of three years: Eri. Both of them were busybodies in their own job; one as a lawyer for Neo Shibuya, and one as a humble fastfood chain cook. Both were forewarned of an incoming schedule conflict between their shifts and locations which may cause them to be apart for weeks, or even months on end.

Murai didn’t want to wait. He had the money, he had that last shred of time, and he had all the love to give in the world.

That morning, during her lunch break, Murai asked for her hand in lawful cohabitation.

It wasn’t the best of times, and neither was it a good time to propose to anybody at all. But Murai was an impatient man, and Eri was an understanding lady.

Eri had been slaving away in the heated halls of Sir Donard’s for over five years. She had never seen a promotion, and her wage only allowed her to live just a little above the city’s poverty line. It was by mere coincidence that Eri and Murai had met in the Skytree’s aquarium and shared a mutual love of artificial marine life. However, it was a genuine bond that had truly connected them over time. Murai had once thought of renting a small, cozy apartment with Eri together, but the laws of the land dictate that a man and a woman cannot unlawfully cohabit in a single home for more than a month without the necessary rights and paperwork.

Murai was a lawyer. He wasn’t about to test what would happen should a man of his stature break the law.

That morning was perfect.

The way the sunshine gleamed off Eri’s glossy hair, and the warmth of the sun embracing him like she would if not for the stained apron. Her pearl-like tears and that strained yet welcoming smile she made at the end of it all. Murai could not steady his heartbeat. His love overfloweth from sheer joy of the love of his current life.

“Yes! My answer is yes!”

She said ‘yes’.

Murai could no longer hold himself. He didn’t care if his expensive, red suit were to be stained with burger oil or what else soiled her apron. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the now.

They shared a long, loving embrace in front of Sir Donard’s. A blooming love in the middle of a full parking lot at rush hour, almost a spectacle if it weren’t for the busybody apathy of the average Neo Shibuyan citizen.

Murai was ecstatic to put that down on paper. He found excitement in the thought of giving Eri everything she had ever wanted: A life not spent wasting away in some dirty kitchen at the polluted heart of the city.

That night, the following early morning, however, was a different story.

He signed papers with Eri’s name and details on it.

Eri. Employee of Sir Donard’s Incorporated.

Current life ended at 26 years. Number of Phoenix loops: 2.

Request for Rebirth.

Phoenix loop number to be updated after memory wipe.

That night, his lawyerly duties had to that familiar office with a familiar name. On that fateful night, Murai signed her rebirth papers.

The past morning, Eri was found dead, riddled with bullet holes from head to toe. Her cyberbrain last uploaded 48 hours ago. She will remember nothing about today, yesterday, or even the day before that.

Her Ghost in the central cyberbrain had decided that it was best to start from zero.

Eri wouldn’t be beholden to Sir Donard’s any longer.

She thought that this next life could be much, much better than it was.

Murai waited for the part where she'd change her mind. That she’d remember him and reconsider. Resurrect and start over 48 hours ago. He could propose again and again, maybe next month, next year, or even the year after…

He never heard his name.

With a weak thud, he stamped her papers with the word he never thought he’d ever come to dread.




Murai left his emergency shift and headed straight for Nirvana. The inside wasn’t any more empty than a few hours ago. The only difference was Kuroiwa’s absence and a sleeping Nanami on the couch.

Yui squeezed a glass and placed it on the counter by an empty seat.

“That’s rare. You hadn’t gone home yet?”

Murai sat by the empty glass and felt it up. “Amontillado. On the rocks. Bay leaf, slightly charred.”

“Feeling extravagant today, aren’t we, Murai?” said Yui. “Unfortunately, we’re out of amontillado. Slow stock, you see. If you want some, you’re gonna have to go down our cellar for a bottle.”

“Oh no, Yui. You’re not planning to wall me in in some hollow in your cellar, are you?”

“Of course not. We don’t have a cellar.”

“Obviously. Nobody does.”

“The usual, then?”

Yui poured Murai’s ‘usual drink’ in with precise, flowing showmanship and finesse. Bourbon on the rocks; plain and simple, but with enough alcohol to loosen the nerves.

“Not crawling the pubs with Kuroiwa today?” wondered Yui as she resumed cleaning out already clean shot glasses out of habit. “He left barely an hour ago. You could still call him and have a boys’ night out.”

“No, no. I prefer different company tonight. Kuroiwa’s cool and all, but sometimes feels like I’m talking to a wall.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Yui in a monotone voice but with a hint of curiosity behind it.

“Feels like he’s only there to respond. I don’t think he’s intrinsically interested in any of us.”

“Why? Because he’s only human?”

“I don’t think so…” nodded Murai, following with him shaking the ice in the glass. “He used to be a sweeper, right? A kind of mercenary. Wouldn’t surprise me if he emotionally detaches as part of his SOP. He’s good company, though.” said Murai with a chuckle. “Just not the kind I need tonight.”

“Just so you know,” said Yui with a hint of caution. “I’m not good company, either.”

“Nonsense. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be coming back here every other day. Don’t sell yourself short, Yui.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere. Besides, what would Eri think if he saw you being so nice to another woman?”

Murai paused, then took a gulp of his bourbon. This stunned Yui, who knew that Murai was the kind of drinker who never downed his liquor like that. He was the type to savor a drink, taking in small doses every time. Realizing that Yui may have just stepped on a landmine, she cleared her throat and moved to inquire.

“So, what happened?”

Murai stared at his drink and bowed his head. He sighed once, then twice. He took a sip and clinked his glass with the ice. He then focused himself on Yui and asked:

“Just curious. What would you do if, hypothetically, Sei died in combat and elected to Phoenix out?”

Yui answered curtly. “Trick question. Sei wouldn’t die so easily.”

“I know that, I know,” whined Murai. “That’s why it’s a hypothetical. We’re talking about you, here. Not Sei.”

“Then it’s simple. I’d follow her to the next life.”

“I see.”

Yui answered with such conviction and devotion to her friend that he couldn’t help but muster a confident chuckle. He thought about what that meant for himself, and for Eri. That doesn’t sound feasible, he imagined. He couldn’t just decide to follow Eri into the next life. There was way too much baggage now that…

Then Yui continued.

“Life without her would be dreadful. Can’t imagine continuing on, might as well start over. We could even be sisters from birth in the next life. Grow up in the same development facility.”

Murai flinched at how nonchalantly she just said this. He dealt in judging the fates of criminals and civilians alike—he was more in touch with the weight of the Phoenix program than even most Code Readers.

“Sei isn’t a Security Knight by formality anymore, though. She can’t choose her fate, and neither can you. What happens if either of you don’t get a say in the matter?”

“In that case, we can count on you, right? You’ll know what to do.”

Murai laughed under his breath. He flipped his hair bashfully and dropped eye contact with Yui, looking instead out the window in the distance. “I’m afraid you’re under the mercy of whoever’s assigned to you at the time of death.”

“Oh geez,” groaned Yui. “Layers of RNG. It’s tough not being a government official or a corporate lapdog.”

“It is.”

“But you’ll make time for us if Sei dies and I join her, right?”

“I can try. No promises.”

The conversation led Murai to a dark, unexpected place. It wasn’t an answer he was wholly satisfied with either, since his circumstances were different from his hypothetical. If Murai were to ‘join’ his beloved, there would be no chance for a ‘reroll’ for him. Indeed—a lawyer has duties to the city and the state. His fate intertwined with the law’s until the day his biological body expires and his Ghost is forced to restart from zero.

On the other hand, Yui understood where Murai was coming from. She obviously knew not any details, but something tragic had definitely happened to her loyal patron. She returned to cleaning her glasses habitually, trying to avoid the topic entirely.

“Sorry,” apologized Murai. “It was a weird question. I realize that you may have had friends who Phoenix’d out, too. It was insensitive of me.”

“It was by force, yes.” said Yui. “But I’d like to think they’re better off where they are now. Happier too, maybe.”

“Even in a life of boring paperwork?”

“That’s not up to me to decide,” answered the barkeep Yui. “Besides. They’ve probably already forgotten about me. Too dead to remember, I bet.”

Yui squeeked a glass clean, stored it on the shelf, and grabbed another to shine to an unreasonable degree. It was such a habit that even Murai began to take notice, but decided to ignore for both their best interests. She spoke again, resuming her thought.

“It would be painful, you know? If Sei forgets me.”

“I… know the feel.” said Murai, clenching a fist under the table.

“Then again, forgetting can be mercy too. There are just some things in one lifetime that you wanna forget as soon as possible. Sometimes, getting Phoenix’d out is the best way to go.”

“...Do you have any?”

“I forgot.”

Murai laughed and Yui smiled mischievously at her clever attempt at a ‘joke’. Murai chided her with a chuckling “Bull. Cyberbrains have eidetic memory, don’t pull that on me.”

“Oh no, I probably beta-blocked myself out of such horrible memories.”

“Beta-blockers don’t do that either! That was a myth from a century-old video game about the moon or something.”

“So you know about it?” laughed Yui. “What a nerd.”

Murai, too, laughed in response. “So what if I am? Eri loved that part about me.”

Then a third, more youthful female voice cut into their conversation.

“Who loved what about who?” asked Nanami, who had just been sleeping on the couch a few seconds ago, and now has taken a seat right beside Murai. “Good morning, you two.”

“Oh, Nanami,” said Murai in surprise. “You’re awake already? I thought you’d be out ‘till the sunrise.”

“Heehee! All your hootin’ and hollerin’ would wake the dead, you two.” giggled the lazy bar singer. “If Murai wasn’t already spoken for, I would’ve shipped you two so, so hard.”

About that, Murai thought with a strained smile and a wince. He had the impression that Nanami was a brat, but he had never been truly annoyed at her existence, even now when she inadvertently poked a sore spot. Nanami wasn’t a bad AI, just unrestrained. If anything, her interrupting the conversation was exactly the kind of pick-me-up Murai needed in his time of great adversity.

A little light wouldn’t hurt…

“Stop heckling the patrons,” said Yui with a stern stare. “I’m already letting you crash here for free. Mind earning your keep and singing our guest a song?”

“Sure!” said Nanami with a twirl and a wink. “Tell me what song you’d like to hear from the Great Nanami!”

Murai clinked his near-empty bourbon and cheered Nanami on with a raised glass. “So you can actually sing?” he asked with a laugh.

“Don’t mock me! Of course Nanami can sing. Just name your tune and I’ll take you to the moon.” A few beeps from her torso and a few strobe lights later, and she procured a pink, ribbon-adorned microphone from her spinal cavity, and made a playful hop followed with an idol pose.

“Okay then. Sing me some oldies. From 2020 A.D., preferably. Make it sad, make me cry.”

“Got it!”

That night, the Great Nanami lived up to Kuroiwa’s nickname of ‘laziest idol’...

For no songs were sung to lift the spirits of Nirvana that night.

But it was not as if nothing bore fruit that night.

In the midst of an argument between Nanami and Nirvana’s owner, Yui, a dark cloud fogged Murai’s mind. A nagging feeling at the back of his head. Intrusive it was, and undesirable a thought for Murai. The more memories of Eri flashed in his head, the more he thought of it. His arm quivered and his pulse raised, looking for something to blame—someone. Who would be better to pin it all on except…


I’ll find you, and….

Peace Poon