Chapter 14:

"Koi no Doubles"


We now turn to the perspective of KATO RYOKO, who has the unfortunate but well-deserved reputation in Shikishima as THE THIEF, with only TWO DAYS UNTIL THE CULTURE FESTIVAL.

Crouching in the Nishi-Dori Konbini, my life flashes before my eyes. It’s the second time that’s ever happened to me. Coincidentally, both times happened within the past twenty-four hours.

The first occurred last night, in an abandoned building deep in San-Machi still connected to the grid, where I uploaded a Belgian dial-up computer virus into the security systems for the Shikishima cold fusion reactor. The moment before I pushed the ENTER key on the terminal, I briefly wondered if I existed upon the fulcrum of history; if me - Kato Ryoko, just your average teenager - had somehow ushered into history events beyond my control or even understanding.

But I hit the button anyway, and in any case, I’m much more focused on the current life-flashing-before-eyes-moment.

What’s been the story of my life anyway? Maybe it’s the little moments. The time I skinned my knee during dodgeball in elementary school. The first time I brought clothes into the changing room at the department store and came out with them beneath my sweater while I whistled a suave tune and escaped unscathed out the doors. Maybe it was when I tried to rob Tsuzuki, who not only caught me but converted me into her apprentice. She’s the one who needed somebody on the outside to hack into the security systems last night, after all.

Or maybe it was this morning, when I woke up after only an hour of sleep, antsy to know how Tsuzuki’s mission had went. I expected some sort of message or anything, but nothing arrived. I would’ve stayed in bed all day, but then my little siblings broke into my room and delivered a pair of pile-drivers to my prone body in unison.

“Get up, nee-chan!” they cry, rough-housing with me, and then another three of my siblings come in, all of them snot-nosed brats who want nothing more in the world than to play with me. I say siblings, but none of us are blood-related, but I guess it doesn’t really matter.

“Alright, alright!” I cry back, and allow them to haul me to my feet. I lead them down the halls of Shikishima Orphanage to the kitchen, yawning all the way, trying to push my dark hair out of my eyes. My youngest sister wants to show me a drawing she made; one of my brothers wants to try out a wrestling move on me.

It’s not easy, being the oldest at an orphanage. I was young when I got here; I’m not sure what happened to my mother, but I know my father was an unfortunate casualty when Shikishima launched its intervention against Somalian pirates a decade ago. He was lost at sea, and now I’m here.

When we get to the kitchen, some of the kids groan because we’re eating plain rice again, and small portions at that. The old maid, one of the few remaining workers here, smiles in sympathy, her own plate empty. She sighs but understands when I hand over my portion as well - she knows I have an income, and she knows that income is why we sometimes have vegetables and meat with the rice. She doesn’t say anything, but I know she disapproves, but I know she understands reality.

One of my more bookish sisters, a quiet middle schooler, reads the morning newspaper. The reason for our underfunding is printed plainly on the front page - all of Shikishima’s money is going towards the annual culture festival. The picture on the front page shows CFO Goto greeting the ambassadors from the State of China, the State of Sri Lanka, and the State of Somalia, the first officials to arrive from our little friends across the world. The group meets on a grand stage specifically constructed for all the celebrities and singers and diplomats and officials coming to the Shikishima Culture Festival this year. If you squint close enough, you can see the missile tubes above the platform, far more powerful than the ones used to take out Lop Nur in 1989.

But enough politics - I’m tired, anxious to hear anything from Tsuzuki, and after dealing with the idiots who I love in the orphanage, I’m now dealing with the biggest who I love of all - Kano Kyoko. Usually we meet at our station, but she has me riding the rails to the other side of San-Machi this morning. I don’t know why, but Kyoko tends to make things interesting, which is enough to get me moving.

“I want to make a grand film of this year’s culture festival!” Kyoko declares at the station, giving me an even grander thumbs up. “As a member of the School Newspaper, I live off my hunches. And I got a hunch about who’s gonna be important at this year’s festival. People we’ll want to remember, people who are gonna make a big splash!”

I raise an eyebrow. “How can you tell?”

Kyoko grins and shrugs. “A woman’s intuition, if you will.” She raps her temple with her knuckles. “You might not know it, but there’s a mighty fine brain working up in here.”

“You’re right, I don’t know it.”

She sticks her tongue out, so I smile and shake my head. Our first destination is the station at Minami Port, a confusing complex due to all of the freight lines running nearby. We go in circles and circles and I'm getting stressed because there’s this little thing called getting to school on time.

Sure, I steal, but they say don’t commit two crimes at the same time!

Kyoko comes to a halt and rubs her chin while scanning the packed crowds and winding corridors. She stands on her tip-toes to get a better look. 

“There must be some kind of way out of here. There’s too much confusion…I can’t get no relief.”

And you know the rest - we film a bunch of people all day, people who are apparently gonna be movers and shakers during the culture festival.

Under a blood-red sunset, I wave goodbye to Kyoko and then take the long way home, getting off at a station I rarely use to purloin from a store I rarely visit. I scoped out the Nishi-Dori Konbini a few weeks ago - bored college students behind the register combined with peak busy hours in the early evening means I can sneak out with some snacks for the little ones and a couple of wallets for me.

I see Saito Michi outside, but robbing her is like robbing a baby - just as easy and you’d feel just as bad. Inside the Konbini, I see the History Club in all of its glory. While Hayashi Hanzo debates chicken products with President Miyata Miyuki, I slip a hand into his back pocket, slip the money out from the wallet, and then slip the wallet back inside. There’s no reason to do that last part except that once you’ve uploaded a Belgian computer virus, you feel like you can do anything, with extra points for style.

They depart, Hanzo none the wiser, while I crouch in an aisle and examine the stolen loot. A thousand yen bill, not bad. When I hold it up to the fluorescent light above, my stomach suddenly lurches as someone peers into the aisle. When I lower it back down, I see the gaunt face of Mizutami Sumiko giving me that bored, dangerous look of hers.

She’s an odd duck. She has no friends and skips school more often than not. Between a rough home life and that sense of egotistical self-righteousness she carries around and beats people up with, it doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps it’s lonely at the top for the Toughest Woman in San-Machi. Her brother’s a cutie though.

Sumiko’s not somebody I’d rob, so I smile at her, a smile I’m told reminds people of a shark. Sumiko’s not the type to back down from a shark - she looks ready to find any reason to kick my ass. Perhaps she hates thieves or people with friends.

In any case, she goes off, so I go back to examining the bill. I tap on it a few times, since it’ll be enough to buy my sister a little sketchbook, and wouldn’t that be nice-

“Freeze! No sudden moves, hands up!”

I let out an honest-to-goodness “eep!” as my life flashes before my eyes for the second time in my sixteen years of age, both times coincidentally being in the past twenty-four hours. The first occurred last night, in an abandoned building deep in San-Machi still connected to the grid, where I uploaded a Belgian dial-up computer virus into the security systems for the Shikishima cold fusion reactor...

Oh, we've been through all that already. I guess we’re all caught up now to the present.

I’ve never been caught stealing before, and the voice carried such anger with it that my legs turned to jelly and I fall on my ass. It wasn’t that hard of a fall, but I start seeing double, and the lights of the konbini are far too bright. 

I can’t go to jail. My siblings would be devastated, the old maid would be disappointed, and Tsuzuki might even have me killed in there for what I know.

Worse still - there aren’t any honest cops in Shikishima anymore. They might rough me up or do things even more worse. Or even more worse worse - this might not be a cop, but one of CFO Goto’s Varangian Guard, those Russians in the conglomerate's private army. They don’t play nice.

Maybe I’ll make a run for it. Smash right through the glass, sprint right down to the station, catch a train to anywhere.

“What are you doing, Haruki?”

Huh? Why does Sumiko know my judge, jury, and executioner? Ever so slightly, ready to squirm away at a moment’s notice, I tilt my head backwards.

It’s not a cop at all - it’s just some delinquent with a pretend gun holding up the store. Sumiko used to run with delinquents, so no wonder she knows him. I sigh in relief. If it comes down to it, I can deal with some delinquent.

But then he pulls out a real gun and my legs turn to jelly again. Only cops and Varangians should have access to guns in Shikishima. He places the barrel against Sumiko’s forehead.

A bead of sweat rolls down my face. Am I about to watch someone die? Is someone's head about to explode a mere ten feet from me? And why…why does Sumiko seem okay with it? What’s with that sigh of acceptance?

But then you know the rest. Klutzy-ass Saito Fumi and her dimwitted friend Mizushima tussle their way out of the bathroom, the gun goes off, and I scram from there like a bat out of hell. I didn’t see any gore, so I have to think Sumiko, Fumi, and Mizushima are okay. I have to think that because I don’t look back. I can only care about so many people, and all those spots have already been locked up. Is that why it’s so easy to be a thief?

I don’t know and at the moment, don’t care. I haul ass to the station, but I’m hauling so much ass that I take a wrong turn and end up deep in some residential neighborhood. I lean against a large stone wall and catch my breath - here’s me, all frazzled, and there’s who else but Saito Michi, staring intently at a bush growing over the top of the wall, singing a little song to herself.

“Where as a child I’d hide…and pray for the thunder and something something to pass me by…oh, sweet child of mine.”

“Hey, Michi.”

I wave at her in greeting. She gasps, my sudden appearance startling her, but her friendly demeanor never disappears. “Ah, Ryoko!”

“What song is that?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes when I pass by Turner’s apartment, he strums his guitar on the balcony and sings this song. It sounds kind of sad when he sings it.” Michi glances up at a streetlight. “I asked him about it once, but he says the song isn’t from around here.”

“Must be American then,” I reason. Michi nods in agreement. And then I realize a gunshot has gone off in the neighborhood and she’s out here without a care in the world.

“Did you hear the commotion?” I ask.

Michi gives me a puzzled look. “Commotion? I didn’t hear anything. I’ve been too focused on my singing and following this cat.”

“A cat?”

Her eyes light up. “A mysterious one. Gray fur, but a blue stripe on his face. A cat with blue fur! Another miracle of our everyday existence.”

Michi’s too sweet for this world. I gaze back down the road.

“Well, there was indeed a commotion, so you oughta go find your sister. I bet she’s worried about you.”

Michi’s face is now a mixture of pure shock and her usual goofiness. “Ah, nee-san! I totally forgot I had come out here tonight with her! We were on the way to recruit Sumiko for the trivia contest, but Mizushima really wanted some snacks, so they went into the konbini, but then I got distracted by the mysterious cat! Thanks for reminding me, Ryoko!”

She turns and runs off, waving goodbye to me. I smile and wave in return until she disappears down the road. A pang of guilt eats at me. I hope I didn't send her back to a sister turned into a bloody mess from a gunshot. If one of my sisters came to find me looking light that...

I swallow. It's a dog-eat-dog world in Shikishima. Hopefully, Saito Fumi wasn't shot to death (or shot in general). Hopefully none of them were. But I got my own business to take care of, so I only have time to spare hope, nothing more.

When Michi leaves and the coast is clear, I take a deep breath and steel myself. I speak into the darkness.

“Nemea, reveal yourself,” I command.

The gray cat with the blue strip emerges from the bushes and lazily pads along the top of the stone wall. He pauses and sits on his hind legs.

“I bring news from Tsuzuki,” he says.

Steward McOy