Tags: bamboo, chapter, family, haiku, housing, novel, PC, personal computer, science fiction, sister, social stratification, speculative fiction, television, The Game
For two years, Mika Komatsu enjoyed a rare form of happiness. Her circumstances let her pursue her dream of being published. Further, she felt she was moving closer to her goal. Her evidence was a growing folio of poetry she considered worthy of publishing. She was living the honeymoon of present and future.
She wove her days with threads of balance and peace, working hard at the restaurant and writing in her secret bamboo grove when it was sunny. She had acclimatised to Higuchi’s abrasive personality, and the two rarely fought. When they did, Mika invariably retreated. She despised conflict. Since Higuchi’s moods went as swiftly as they came, Mika viewed her repeated defeats as the price of domestic harmony.
Higuchi, seventeen and hell-bent on getting the best Poor Class job available, studied furiously. Her results had lifted significantly. She’d disciplined herself to begin as Mika left for work each evening. Sometimes, as a reward, she bought a bottle of cheap, thin beer and sat up watching the Late Show version of The Game, which she adored. She fantasised about working as a roadie, controlling the various instruments of death.
With all classification deferments expired, every citizen was now locked into The New Deal. After the axe had fallen, many had felt the sudden urge to jump just one stratum higher. Television programmers pulled reruns and populated the morning hours with fresh Game shows to cope with the surge of contestants.
The fact that The New Deal was universal law didn’t affect the sisters. Their father’s zealotry had committed them to a subsistence lifestyle long ago. Higuchi had ceased raging against the injustice and was focusing all her energy on making the best hand of an extremely rough deal. Mika had weathered the maelstrom with her hopes for the future. Her pain began the day she felt ready to seek a professional opinion of her manuscript. She was twenty.
‘Hello, Parmont Publishing. How may I help you … Mika?’
‘I, um. I have a manuscript. I was wondering if you might be interested in looking at it … and, um … giving me some feedback.’
Mika’s guts turned to water. ‘N .. no. Just haiku. I’ve been writing them for years.’
‘How many do you have?’
‘Um, about 300. Of course, you’ll want to choose just the best fifty or so for a book.’
‘Yes, yes, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Traditional or modern?’
Mika swallowed. ‘All traditional.’
‘Hmm. Send your best six to our website, attention Hayley Di Pietro. We’ll be in touch. Maybe.’
Mika saw with a shock that the call was about to end. She mustered every shred of courage she possessed. ‘Um … excuse me …’
The face looked up sharply. ‘Yes?’
‘Are you Hayley Di Pietro?’
‘Um, well, I just wanted to ask you something.’
The face registered annoyance and impatience. ‘What?’
Mika shook with the effort of asserting herself. ‘Um, well … err … Hayley. I just wanted to know if it would be alright if I didn’t send my poems to your … um … to your … err … w … website.’
Di Pietro’s mouth firmed to a slit. ‘Why’s that, exactly?’
Mika searched frantically for the right words to diffuse the explosives at the other end of the line. She was terrified of her work being pirated and didn’t trust the security of even the most confidential Net nodes. She’d rather hurl her poems into the sea inside a bottle. With Hayley’s thin membrane of patience nearly worn through, despair silver-plated Mika’s tongue and the perfect sentence came out. ‘Because Hayley, I admire your work enormously and would like nothing better than to meet you personally and have you sign my copy of your latest work.’
‘Is that a fact? If you’re such a fan, why didn’t you recognise me?’
Mika brought up splinters from the bottom of the barrel. This was her last shot before she crumbled. ‘Because Hayley, I prefer to appreciate literature without the encumbrance of judgements about the author. I always throw away the dust jackets and covering files of the books I purchase. Your photograph would only have distracted me from the treasure of your words.’ She winced at the schmaltz. But Di Pietro bought it.
‘Wednesday, 14:10. Alright?’
Mika’s eyes opened wide. ‘Y … Yes, Hayley. That would be fantastic! Thank you very much!’
‘Don’t mention it.’ Di Pietro thawed a tight smile. ‘Always got time for a fan.’
Mika slumped onto her desk. A bead of sweat dribbled down her spine. She was exhausted, but she’d won the round. Her dream was a step closer to realisation. She ordered her Net server to find out what on earth Hayley Di Pietro might have written recently; Mika had never heard of her. Then she crept into her bed and dozed off.
Wrenched from sleep by the call, Mika dragged herself groggily to her monitor. ‘Hello?’
‘Mika. Hayley. With a bit of advice. Keep in touch with the industry.’
Mika, half awake and completely in the dark mumbled, ‘wha … ? What’re you talking about?’
Hayley looked at her disapprovingly. ‘Have you been drinking?’
The accusation shocked Mika into full consciousness. She took hold of herself and sat down. ‘No,’ she said carefully, ‘I was sleeping. Please, I didn’t understand what you said just then.’
‘Let me spell it out for you. Literary careers begin at the Comfortable level. The threshold was raised two months ago. It was announced on the Net. Either you missed it, or you’ve deliberately tried to deceive me. Let’s take a test. Name my last book.’
Mika was too shocked even to maximise the blinking report icon. ‘I don’t know.’
‘As I thought; you’ve tried to scam me. Pretty stupid when you think about it. How did you plan to convince me you weren’t Poor, when your status appears on every file in the system?’
‘I wasn’t trying to scam you, Hayley; I had no idea the rules had changed!’
‘I don’t believe you; but that’s immaterial. Your deceit has undone you. That, and the fact you’re unequivocally Poor. Pity the trusting publisher willing to give you a go. You’re pathetic. I hope you don’t live with anyone; you’ve obviously no idea how to treat people with respect.’
‘Hayley … ‘ began Mika, but the line had gone dead. The dialogue box was replaced with the report she’d requested earlier. Mika saw the title of Hayley’s latest work and fainted from emotional exhaustion. Bathing her supine form with soft light was the epitaph: Hayley Di Pietro – Truth is Best.
Mika missed work for the first time that night. Her world had been smashed to smithereens. She vomited until nothing remained, then kept retching. Her temperature soared.
Higuchi arrived home and recoiled at the stench. ‘Jesus, Mika! What’s going on?’
Mika shuddered out the bones of her story.
‘Is that it? Is that all? You missed out on a job? Shit, Mika, you scared the crap out of me. Don’t be such a bloody prima donna. I thought you were the one who was supercool about being Poor.’
Mika blubbered her reason for ‘missing the job’.
Realisation gleamed in Higuchi’s eye. ‘Ahhhh, so finally we’ve hit the wall. Soulful Mika is not above the system after all. All those times papa shoved you in my face as a martyr to the Cause: “Observe, Higuchi; your sister has learned true humility and acceptance”. Ha! Well, how does the cap fit now, little sister? And what’s it like to have joined the ranks of Liars Unanimous? We’ll have to put your high horse in the classifieds.’
Higuchi’s darts lodged in Mika’s heart. With a wail of sorrow, she leapt from her bed and flew across the lounge. Breaking fingernails, she wrenched the front door open and disappeared howling down the stairs. Broken glass tore at her bare feet as she ran to the only thing that had never betrayed her.
Higuchi felt like she’d just enjoyed a large orgasm. She fetched her remaining beer and took a long draught. Burping loudly, she plumped on the couch and keyed a number into the kitchen PC’s remote. The long face of a young man appeared, anxiously searching the screen of the public booth for the caller.
‘Hiya, Ihara!’ said Higuchi casually.
‘Higuchi? Where are you? I’ve been waiting. Where have you been?’
‘I’m in the lounge, baby, out of your line of sight. There’s been a bit of drama here. Mika’s just left.’
‘She’s never been late before. I was worried.’
‘How sweet! Well, she’s gone. And I don’t expect her back for a while.’
Ihara Teika’s brows knitted. ‘You mean, she could return before morning?’
Higuchi examined a weather report on the lounge’s PC. ‘Yep.’
Ihara was confused. ‘But then … she’ll catch us … after all this time.’
Higuchi was enjoying herself immensely. ‘Relax, stud man, everything’s groovy. If she comes back, she comes back. If the worm was ever going to turn, it would’ve happened tonight. It didn’t. As a result, things are about to change.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Exactly what you want me to, baby. We’re getting you out of there and into my little nest.’
‘I’ll come right over!’ gushed Ihara.
‘Not so fast, bucko! I want you to pick up some booze as a housewarming present.’
Ihara ran a nervous hand over his shaved head. ‘Higuchi, you know I can’t afford it. They’re tracking my transactions. If I divert any more funds to intoxicants, they’ll spot it!’
‘Ihara, darling, are you not about to live rent free in a lovely flat with two lovely young women?’
‘Yes,’ replied the young man miserably.
‘And are you not betrothed to the world’s most fabulous and powerful sex goddess?’
‘And are you not eternally grateful to this goddess for draining your vital fluids every evening for the past two years?’
‘Well then, pull your bloody finger out, use some imagination and get some fucking PISS!’
‘But … ‘
‘And don’t DARE come here without it!’ Higuchi killed the link and rolled around on the couch, tears of laughter streaming down her hard, grinning face.
Outside, cold rain flattened Mika’s clothing to her thin, shivering body. She lay in mud, curled like an embryo. By now, even her tears had lost their warmth. From time to time, her mind’s eye glanced at the horror of her situation. Like peering under a scab, the act was repellent and painful, yet irresistible. Her two loves, life and poetry, were divorced. Her dream had been frozen. She could write until the day she died. But her precious words, crafted to warm the hearts of millions, were doomed to moulder forever under her bed.
The moon rose over the bamboo grove, casting its baleful light into the clearing. The wind gained enough strength to work on the grass. The blades fell, prevented from self actualisation as surely as the frail woman huddled among them.
Much later, Higuchi and Ihara lay among the detritus of a hard night’s drinking. Ihara had bartered a few of his meagre possessions for beer. As he dozed next to his snoring lover, he was visited by unsettling dreams of discovery and apprehension. His transaction had been highly illegal, smiting at the heart of enforced social stratification. He half expected an official to break in with evidence damning him for operating outside the system.
His only hope was that ETAT was too busy to notice his crime. He was indeed safe for now. He woke and turned his large, mournful eyes to the woman who’d goaded him to such folly. He was her prisoner, caught in a trap of sex, familiarity and emotional masochism. They fought with, connived against, lied to and betrayed each other, yet they’d stayed together for almost four years.
Ihara suffered delusions of creativity and refused to apply for conventional jobs. Unemployed since leaving school at sixteen, his attraction to Higuchi grew after she fled her dysfunctional parents to set up house with her sister. Here was a chance to escape the awful dormitory he was forced to occupy until he toed the line and took a job.
When Mika began work at the restaurant, Ihara’s hope was fulfilled. Higuchi rescued him nightly. He enjoyed a shower, a meal and a relatively undisturbed sleep. The few dollars he saved on food bought alcohol for Higuchi. She enjoyed nothing more than getting drunk, toying with his slower mind and repeatedly jumping his skinny bones. That Mika had never detected the arrangement was indicative of her naiveté and Higuchi’s clinical cunning.
Toward dawn, Mika rose painfully and stumbled home. She pressed her palm against the lock. Not recognising her rain-wrinkled print, the door asked for confirmation. Numbly, she punched in her password, her frozen fingers barely feeling the keys. The bolts withdrew and Mika slid inside, almost tripping over an empty beer bottle. She raised her throbbing head. More bottles swung into view, along with food wrappers, blankets and two bodies – one belonging to a stranger. A man. Fighting dizziness and nausea, Mika assembled a sentence for her swollen throat and cracked lips. ‘Higuchi. Who is this person?’
Ihara bolted upright, frantically slapping his lover’s rump and hissing at her snoring face. ‘Higuchi! Your sister has returned. Wake up! Wake up!’
Higuchi stirred leisurely. Yawning, she stretched luxuriously and turned to face Mika. Her eyes, soft from intercourse and sleep, climbed back into their pill boxes and took up their weapons. ‘Ahhhhh, the prodigal child returns. I never agreed with that parable, so you’ll forgive us for devouring the fatted calf last night in your absence.’
Mika pointed mechanically. ‘Who is he?’ Her voice cracked at the realisation that Higuchi was gearing up for one of her sessions.
Higuchi disentangled herself from bedding and boyfriend. Rising smoothly, she planted herself squarely in front of Mika. She was solidly built and now towered over her sister. ‘This is Ihara. He’s a friend of mine and he needs a place to stay for a few days. I told him you wouldn’t mind.’
Mika replied weakly, dreading what was coming. ‘How many days?’
On cue, Higuchi lost her temper. ‘Jesus, Mika, you are so fucking anal! What does it matter how long he stays? A few days is a few days. Christ, are you so tight you can’t even help out another human being? That’s it. That’s fucking IT! I’ve had it with you, you selfish, pious, finicky bitch!’
Higuchi continued her tirade; her proven way to get what she wanted. Installing Ihara was a career best. She slammed doors, gesticulated threateningly and hounded Mika into her room. Then she yelled through the door, grinding Mika into a paste with words beautifully picked and ruthlessly delivered.
Two days earlier, Mika might have resisted. But after a night in the rain and the onset of fever, she folded like a house of cards. Higuchi’s coup was complete. Ihara Teika returned to the dormitory for sign in, and made it back to the flat in time for breakfast.
In the weeks that followed, Mika’s spirit guttered in chill winds. Higuchi engulfed the flat. Under her protection, even the mealy-mouthed Ihara gained enough courage to assist in her methodical persecution of Mika. They ruled the flat’s common areas day and night. Mika retreated to the relative safety of her room, prevented both from sleeping and writing by venomous arguments, vigorous intercourse and violent Game telecasts. Too frightened to neutralise the disturbing sounds with her PC, she suffered terribly. Her energy drained away steadily.
Through strategic visits and phone calls, Higuchi soured Mika’s friendships at work. Colleagues began to avoid her, believing the slander of her convincing sister. Understanding Higuchi’s motivation did nothing to ameliorate Mika’s pain. She knew she Higuchi was punishing her for Otomo’s crime. Yet her attempts to discuss this transference were viciously rejected.
Mika’s sole comfort was that she’d be released from legal responsibility for her sister in three months, when Higuchi turned eighteen. Then, at least, she could leave the corrupted flat and seek solitude in a smaller dwelling. Of course, this promised no relief for her greatest heartache. Her dream of working as a writer was as thwarted as ever.
Beset by deepening depression and despair, Mika vainly sought peace in the bamboo grove. With the onset of winter, it had lost its magic. The clearing was more often a morass than a refuge. Mika had nowhere else to go. She surrendered herself to the elements, rocking herself into dark trances and struggling to suppress the ambition flailing in her heart.
On returning exhausted from work one morning, Mika entered the flat to giggles from Higuchi and Ihara’s room. Yet again, bottles littered the floor. This time the drunken pranks had included fire. A small altar sat awkwardly in the lounge. On and around it lay ashes and half-burned papers. They stirred in the draught from the corridor. Mika picked up a charred corner of familiar stationery. The first line of her earliest haiku stared up in mute appeal.
Higuchi’s door opened a crack and four eyes peered from the darkness. Mika looked up, dumbstruck by the enormity of her discovery. The door slammed shut and her tormentors burst into laughter. Mika tottered into her room. Her overturned bed and gutted storage bins bore witness to a drunken search. After confirming that none of her precious originals had survived, she slumped at her desk to weep. Before the fit could take, she saw the honey leaking from her PC.
Mika ran to the grey building and signed. In two days, she’d escape hell and recapture her dream, or die. Contrary to everything she’d ever thought about herself and the sanctity of life, she’d reached her breaking point. Mika had become a contestant – on the only game that mattered.
Read Chapter 17.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by farflungistan.
Tags: advertising, bamboo, banner in space, battered wife, climate change, CMF, combined military force, dictatorship, ETAT, genetic, global warming, grass, haiku, housing, Mylar, mysogyny, nanotechnology, ozonosphere, park, personal risk, poetry, Prozone, psychology, recycling trigger, remuneration, risk, sister, speculative fiction, spouse abuse
The next twelve months were the happiest of Otomo Komatsu’s life. His work in the public park was simple, apolitical and vigorous. He enjoyed spontaneous insights into the human condition and looked forward to holding court over his shattered family each evening.
He had removed all the flat’s interior doors. From his new chair in the lounge, he could monitor every corner of the dwelling.
Sei Komatsu had lost weight; her Poor Class clothing hung straight down, like washing on a chair. She’d found it impossible to make a home of the hovel. Forced to take her first job, she spent her days reconciling meaningless figures.
Each evening she silently prepared dinner, then took position in the lounge. For up to six hours she stared at a chip in the concrete floor while Otomo basted her with rhetoric.
Higuchi knew she’d found hell on earth. Her missing tooth and occasional bruises were constant reminders to keep her mouth shut at home. The effort for one so opinionated was enormous. Her grades had plummeted and she spent countless library hours catching up to classmates who considered her a freak for having accepted her demotion.
As if she’d had a choice. Now in society’s lowest echelon, her only chance of a bearable job was to improve her mind. Money and contacts didn’t count any more; selection was on merit alone. As the months ground past, she became tougher and more cunning, her hatred of Otomo growing ever more intense.
Mika’s bête noire was loss of privacy. When Higuchi wasn’t home, her father was. Otomo targeted rooms silently and at random. Even with her back to him, Mika could feel when he was watching — any attempt at composition ruined.
She graduated with marks substantially lower than previous years. This didn’t overly concern her, as many of her favourite poets had never finished school.
It was six weeks to her birthday. She yearned to be published and sought her father’s permission to research her future. Otomo saw no point in hindering her further; legally she was almost her own woman.
Mika’s shoes clicked across the marble atrium of the ETAT information centre. The receptionist received a rare smile for his directions. As Mika entered an elevator, a blurred figure pushed past her. She glanced crossly at the intruder and gasped.
‘Higuchi! What are you doing here? You should be at school. Papa will kill you if he finds out!’
Higuchi grinned grimly past her chewing gum. ‘Got it in one, sis. He is a violent bastard isn’t he?’
‘Well, I would never say such a thing.’
‘Of course not; it’s not your style. He hasn’t touched you for ages anyway. Wanna see his latest handiwork?’ She turned and carefully lifted her top.
Mika’s hand flew to her mouth as her eyes scanned back and forth in horror. ‘Oh! Oh! Oh, Higuchi!’
‘You should’ve been there; he put on quite a show.’
‘I told him about Ihara and me. Boy, did that get him going.’ Higuchi gingerly readjusted her top. ‘Don’t worry; everything’s about to change.’
Mika stared at the concealing garment, feeling nauseous. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You don’t have to.’ Higuchi tapped a thick folder. ‘I just need you to agree with what’s in here. Thirty-six!’ The carriage flew skyward. Higuchi kept chewing. ‘You’ll see.’
‘But my appointment is on twenty-three.’
‘Not any more, sis. Just bear with me for a few minutes, OK?’
The thirty-sixth floor was eerily quiet. Higuchi guided Mika into a room and disappeared. A panel of strangers sat her down and questioned her closely about her home life. They already knew so much; she found herself confirming everything, apart from a few exaggerations.
All Mika could think of were her sister’s awful injuries. At length a document appeared. It seemed she could do nothing but place her hand on the screen, whereupon a radiant Higuchi reappeared, thanked her and sped back to school.
Mika stumbled home and collapsed onto her bed as the implications of what she’d agreed to sank in. Higuchi was moving out with her. In six weeks. Her dream of solitude destroyed, Mika wept steadily into her pillow until she fell asleep, missing her work shift for the first time.
Higuchi came home late and, from the safety of the threshold, broke the news to her father. True to form, Otomo shifted seamlessly from bewilderment to apoplexy and made to grab for his stick. Higuchi nimbly evaded him and fled yelling down the corridor. Otomo gave chase, bellowing like a madman.
Mika crept from her room and saw Sei, focused on the floor as if her husband were still there.
‘Mama, we mustn’t be here when Papa gets back!’ She tugged at Sei’s arm. ‘Come on! We’ll go down the back way!’
Sei seemed rooted to the couch. She stared woodenly at her wrist, as if an invisible force were clawing at it. From the stairwell came harsh male voices, a furious struggle and two distinct clicks. Higuchi’s trap snapped shut with the handcuffs of the Combined Military Force personnel she had earlier telephoned.
Otomo’s antics cemented Higuchi’s case against him and led to Mika qualifying for self-determination in advance of her birthday. The sisters moved out soon after with priority ETAT assistance.
Despite Mika’s passionate entreaties, Sei refused to leave. Upon his release, Otomo found her standing in the lounge room, clutching his stick, with an unearthly light in her eyes.
As the months passed and Sei gradually responded to her court-ordered treatment, Mika’s concern yielded to the intense pleasure of living in her own space. Though smaller, everything else about their new flat was better. The walls were sunflower yellow.
Contrary to what Mika had feared, Higuchi appeared genuinely grateful for sharing her freedom. Her impatience and antagonism vanished, supplanted by behaviours Mika had never thought she’d see in her fractious sibling.
Higuchi did more than her share of the cleaning, repaired all their clothes and even bought incense for the flat with her meagre student’s allowance.
Each night they ate together before Mika’s shift. Except for The Game, which Mika refused point-blank to watch, they enjoyed many of the same programs. On the eve of Mika’s monthly weekend, they drank cheap wine and talked late.
Higuchi seemed never to tire of hearing her sister speak about herself. Mika was reticent at first, but years of paternal neglect made the attention deeply flattering. The desire to voice her ambition proved irresistible. Higuchi’s interest surprised her. Yet it was borne out by the poetry books she borrowed and the content of their subsequent dinner discussions.
Eventually, Mika gained sufficient confidence to reveal some of her writing. Putting the pages into another’s hand, she felt she knew the pride and pain of relinquishing a child to its first school.
It was Thursday. Mika stood in her bedroom, gazing through clean air at a majestic city panorama. To the left stood the restaurant in which she now worked. Beyond it, Higuchi’s school. The ETAT consultant had indeed been kind in their relocation. At Mika’s command, the window slid open and a breeze toyed with her fringe.
She dropped to her futon and took up her pad, trying once again to produce her first haiku since moving in. For once the words flowed quickly and to her satisfaction.
I lie among clouds
So close to my golden dream
God’s breath stirs my hair.
Re-reading the lines, Mika forgave Higuchi for all her scheming. It was true; everything would be alright. In any case, Higuchi would be free to follow her own path in just over a year. It would be a shame not to make the best of their remaining time together. Feeling her familiar desire to be outside, Mika changed into running gear and headed to the park.
She loved the flowers, the spongy, uneven ground and the wind-stirred eucalypt leaves. She ran hard, picturing her blood coursing cleanly through young vessels and knew she could look forward to ninety more years of life.
In orbit above her, a square kilometre of Mylar glittered with a Game logo. Mika’s striding became automatic and she frowned. Why would anyone risk death for material gain, when life in the sunlight was so precious? A bigger home, more money, a loftier career? Since none of these held any value for her, she could not answer her question.
A butterfly swept over her shoulder and Mika switched to planning a special dinner for Higuchi. Beneath her pounding feet, engineered grass clove at a uniform height — blades decomposing rapidly in the afternoon sunshine. The wind would complete the mowing once it exceeded twelve knots. After only a few gusts, the entire park would be immaculate.
Higuchi clattered the plates away. ‘That was great, sis. How long’d it take?’
Mika zipped her work tunic. ‘Not long. I’ll show you how next time.’
‘No you won’t; you know I’m hopeless in the kitchen.’
Comb between her teeth, Mika pulled her hair into a ponytail.
Higuchi crossed the room. ‘Let me fix that for you.’
‘Bit rough, aren’t you?’
‘Didn’t think so; you’re such a waif. Hey, check it out! I’m taller than you!’
‘Nooo, that can’t be true; not already. Let me see.’
Higuchi seized Mika’s shoulder. ‘Hang on, I’m almost finished. There.’
Mika turned. Her eyes seemed level with her sister’s smaller, closer-set pair. ‘You’ve certainly grown, but you’re not taller yet. Your spiky hair gives the illusion of height.’
‘Bullshit! Come to the wall. Here, stand up straight.’
‘Higuchi, I don’t have time for this; I’ve got to go.’
‘It won’t take a second.’ Higuchi’s voice became muffled. Jars and tins crashed together. ‘Hah! This’ll do the trick.’
Mika fidgeted. ‘Look at the time! I’ll be late!’
‘Let ‘em wait.’ Higuchi put a box of breadcrumbs against the wall, then slid it down to Mika’s head. ‘Are you up straight? Come on girl, stand up!’
‘OK, OK, I’m up.’
Higuchi’s tongue moved like a slug as she tried to mark the wall with her thumbnail. The plastic would not yield and her nail abruptly flipped back on itself.
The box hit the ceiling and Higuchi hopped swearing across the room. Mika snatched her bag and made for the door.
‘Come back here, little sister; I’ll prove I’m taller.’
Mika winked from the corridor. ‘Seeing it’s so important to you, I’m happy to admit, without any proof whatsoever, that you’re taller. Anyway, if you’re not now, you soon will be, right?’
The throbbing in Higuchi’s thumb dissipated and she surveyed the crumbs. ‘Yeah, OK sis. See you tomorrow.’
For a long time Higuchi glared at the smear her thumb had made. Then she wrenched her hair into a stunted ponytail of her own. Screwing her face into grotesque parody of Mika’s, she minced around the room winking furiously and murdering her sister’s voice.
‘If you’re not now, you soon will be, right?
Suddenly she stooped down, whipped the knife from her boot and slammed it into the wall hissing, ‘I’m stronger, smarter and taller than you, you bloody goody-two-shoes!’
Higuchi bashed the breadcrumb box back into shape and stood under it, noting with satisfaction that it rested three millimetres above the slit she had made. Then she began sweeping up the breadcrumbs, humming tunelessly.
Though Mika preferred to walk, she was grateful this night for the swift, clean train that deposited her metres from her workplace. Before she reached the surface, three more trains passed through the station.
Her dish racks filled rapidly. The restaurant offered value and quality and had become popular with Comfortable Class citizens. Two years remained before The New Deal’s cut-off date. Yet most patrons were firmly, if not officially, entrenched in their strata.
Classification deferments had been fairly easy to obtain, though recipients had found it hard to increase their net worth significantly in the space of a few years. Most gave up after several months of saving, studying or trying for better jobs.
On abandoning their attempt, they next became anxious to preserve what they did have. Changing tack completely, they applied for classification ahead of deadline, relaxing in the guarantee they would never go backwards. Eating out was proof that caste entrenchment didn’t preclude a happy and varied life.
A few diners were ‘fence sitters’. Reluctant to improve their lot but afraid to be stuck with it, they secured deferments and waited for a better offer, despite categorical ETAT declarations that The New Deal was non-negotiable.
The consultants humoured them. Better to claim dissenters later than to aggrieve them during the delicate introduction of a new order. As deferments expired, sitters were processed along with the rest, all effort spent seeking a better deal wasted. Classified, they derived comfort from the fact that for once, all society was in the same boat.
Classified or not, Poor patrons were obvious by their demeanour — their motivations for dining out being the most original thing about them.
A young couple bitterly consumed the last of their disposable income on the eve of their classification. A middle-aged businessman, trapped at the lowest ebb of his fortune, mourned the demise of his biggest deal. Bereft of family, an old woman gazed at every face, fortifying herself against weeks without entertainment.
None could afford to be there. Soon they would be limited to venues reserved for their stratum.
Harder to spot were Rich Class diners, since many had prospered through hard work and thrift. Even with income assured, their frugal habits hadn’t changed and many wore lower class clothing.
The strongest class distinctions had always existed in the minds of the system’s participants. The New Deal was simply a codification of ‘the way things were’.
Mika worked hard, washing, cleaning and preparing for the morning shift. At dawn she had fourteen hours to do as she pleased within the confines of her echelon. This was her wealth.
She strolled homeward into the mist from the park’s ornamental lake, where curious ducks received restaurant scraps. Mika delighted in this event, which was becoming a ritual. The park was unfolding for her. Each day revealed a new experience, depending which way she walked.
She crossed a wisteria-entwined footbridge and followed a path to a dense bamboo grove. The thick stems towered above her. Mika twisted and slithered through the bars of the natural prison. Perspiring, she eventually broke through to a clearing in the heart of the grove. The accuracy of her instincts astounded her.
The silence was complete, save for the sighing of topmost leaves. Mika watched them flutter, like syllables eager for words. Her mind reached up to dandle and dance and her pirouette spun everything till she was giddy with delight. Here was a sanctuary of the highest order; a sacred chamber. A place to be alone.
Pale light filtered from the morning sun. Dropping to her haunches, Mika studied the soil. The clearing appeared natural, perhaps the result of lightning, and bore a fine mantle of grass. She reasoned that at noon it would become a marvellous suntrap.
Shivering, she hugged herself and resolved to return with her writing. She picked her way out and trotted home, buoyant with the wonder of nature.
The table was set for breakfast. Mika took an orange and stood at the bathroom door.
‘I’m home! Sorry I’m late.’
Teeth gritted, Higuchi steadied herself in the shower. ‘That’s OK. Have your breakfast and leave the dishes. I’ll clean ‘em tonight.’
‘And Mika,’ Higuchi craned her head out of the shower.
‘Sorry about last night; I got a bit carried away.’
‘It was nothing; you were just being silly again.’
Higuchi laughed shallowly. ‘Yeah, I know. Crazy wasn’t it?’
Higuchi winced, then towelled her stocky body and dressed for school. Without looking at Mika she called, ‘See you tonight, sis; have a good sleep.’
Mika smiled. ‘Thanks. Good luck at school.’
The door slammed. Mika entered the steamy bathroom, took a dental capsule and washed her face. Soon she lay snug in bed. Her PC countered all noise entering the flat with inverted waves and she fell asleep to the sound of wind through pine trees.
When Mika returned at noon, the clearing had been transformed. Sunlight drove into the space, forming a crust of powder on the dark earth. The wind had dropped and the beams seemed to sound quiet tones of their own.
Delighted, Mika stripped to singlet and briefs, spread a towel and lay on her back. Her chromatic lenses darkened as she looked up at the brilliant circle of sky. Images of her evening slid and tumbled in her head, gradually yielding to calm. At length her thoughts became leisurely and quiet, like eels in a weir.
She remembered her mother’s stories about Prozone; how it had healed the ozonosphere of its industrial scars, then modified it for the better. People had rejoiced as the ice caps began their recovery and weather patterns became more familiar. The filtered rays hitting the earth were now harmless to tissue but devastating to anything with its recycling trigger tripped.
Yes, occasionally humanity did get it right.
Mika revelled in her discovery of the grove and relaxed utterly. Eventually she rolled onto her stomach and worked on a poem, finishing as shadows crept onto her paper. The clearing felt like an empty theatre. Mika gathered her belongings reverently and left the space in peace.
Read Chapter 13.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: chapter, creativity, family, father, housing, mother, novel, recycling trigger, social stratification, toddler
A toddling Mika Komatsu stared at the bundle in her mother’s arms. Sei Komatsu had spent months readying her firstborn for the fall from attention. Now it was time.
‘Say hello to your sister, Mika. Her name is Higuchi, remember?’
‘No, darling: Higuchi. Hi-gu-chi.’
Sei smiled. ‘That’s good enough for now. Now say hello.’
Mika solemnly addressed the baby. ‘Hello, Hag-shi, hello. He-llo. Hell-o, Hag-shi.’ She gingerly stroked the cheek of the infant, who turned sucking towards the contact. Mika snatched her arm back and hugged herself.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ said Sei. ‘Higuchi is hungry. Will you help me feed her?’
Mika’s thumb slid into her mouth.
‘Alright, I’ll feed her. You can watch, or maybe you’d like to play with your colours.’
‘Yes Mama, Mika play colours.’
Sei produced a feeding bottle. ‘Off you go then.’
Mika trotted into the lounge, past a high-backed chair. It swung to reveal her father, blocking her path with his leg. Mika gasped and slid to a halt at his grey flannel trousers.
‘Observe, Mika,’ Otomo Komatsu commanded. ‘Your carefree progress through life has been arrested by chance. What do you do?’
A picture of concentration, Mika wrestled with the words. ‘Umm… hello Papa!’
Her smile vanished. She dropped her gaze and mumbled, ‘Hello… Papa?’
‘”Hello Papa”. That’s the best you can do? “Hello Papa?”‘
‘Yes Papa. Sorry Papa.’ She strove for the right answer. ‘Mika loves Papa?’
Otomo gave a loud sniff and dropped his leg. His thickly veined hands rubbed his face and tore at his cropped hair. Mika was still waiting for instructions when he looked up, as if startled by her presence. His scowl sent her scuttling to her room.
She arranged her paints with proprietary care, keeping the warmer colours close. Taking a calligraphy brush she savoured the easel’s pristine beckoning, then began with ferocity. Her first work was standard toddler fare with distortions. The crossed windows of the house drooped mournfully while Otomo loomed over the tree towards his family. Mika added beams to the sun and daubed an oversized ‘U’ on the giant’s crimson face for protection.
She tore the paper from her block and tossed it behind her, beginning again before it landed. In the next picture Sei cowered against the hall mirror. Otomo consumed the remaining space, his reflected circus leer bracketing her. ‘Kami’ the stray cat lived again in the third picture. Kindergarten featured in the fourth and from there, the scenes brightened. Each lofted Mika further away like successive gusts of wind. Painting after painting slid to the floor, drying quickly in an accidental circle.
Beyond it, Otomo rocked his chair in chopped movements; staring at the ceiling and muttering about the deceit of women, the futility of fatherhood and the meaning of signs.
Fourteen years later [YES, I KNOW THIS NEEDS TO BE FIXED! P.], Otomo sat in the same room, in the same chair. It was in tatters, the fabric brittle and the stuffing depleted. Each week Sei had watched the maid sweep up a pile of flakes — fragments of chair and dandruff — wondering which source would be first to expire.
Otomo was talking on his PC. A metal arm held the screen in front of him as he duelled with ETAT consultant Ron Potemkin. The topic was The New Deal. Otomo clutched the thick prospectus, to which he repeatedly referred.
‘So, according to Formula 3 on Page 132, my family qualifies for Rich status.’
‘And in Clause 47.9, you state that every citizen may apply for classification deferment, pending an effort to improve himself.’
‘That’s right, Sir.’
‘Then why have you not made arrangements for those who wish to be classified below their net worth?’
The face registered shock. ‘I… I don’t understand, Sir. Why would anyone do that?’
‘My point exactly. Your entire system revolves around greed. As if my worth could be calculated from what I own! I inherited my fortune; does that make me worthy? Yes, according to you. I cannot understand you people; one man seeks an alternative to avarice and the whole system seizes. It’s disgusting!’
Initially fearing a prospectus anomaly, the consultant settled down to weather his client’s ravings. He was surprised when Otomo cut short his diatribe and returned to his original question. This time Potemkin took no chances.
‘I’ll get my team leader, Sir.’
‘Do that. Let’s see how far the rot goes.’
At the break in background noise, Mika looked up from her homework. On impulse she crossed to the door and hunched listening, black hair falling to her ankles. A new voice filled the lounge.
‘Goran Peters, Mr Komatsu; Customer Service Team Leader. How can I help you?’
Otomo meticulously described his previous conversation while Peters made noises of understanding. Mika imagined him jotting down points with a gold pen. When Otomo finished, Peters explained that The New Deal did allow him to be classified below the stratum to which he was entitled. With the consent of his partner, such classification would also apply to his dependants. To effect the change, Otomo need only surrender his assets for auditing. A formula would then divest him of sufficient wealth to drop him to his stratum of choice. Mika was impressed by Peters’ command of minutiae and wondered if her father would be satisfied.
‘So, you’re saying I can do what I want?’
‘Yes Sir; that’s correct.’
‘And my decision is binding upon my children.’
‘Provided your partner agrees, yes Sir.’
‘Then why isn’t this in the prospectus?’
An edge crept into Peters’ voice. ‘Because, Sir, most people want the best for themselves. ETAT has gone to pains to address the welfare of everyone.’
‘Well, Gonad, or whatever your name is, my family does not subscribe to the mainstream.’
‘I see that, Sir…’
‘I’ve tried to raise them as decent, sincere citizens and your money-grubbing society has thwarted me at every turn.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t condescend!’ Spittle flecked Otomo’s screen. ‘Finally you’ve admitted there’s room in your precious system for an ascetic. Further it seems you have the wherewithal to keep a man in his place once he’s found it. I like that. Your New Deal will give my family something I never could: a frugal life, rich with revelation.’
The chair creaked. ‘I want priority scheduling for my family to be classified as Poor.’
‘I can’t do that without your partner’s…’
‘Yes, yes, that won’t be a problem. Assume for a moment that I have her Highness’ approval. How soon can we descend?’
‘Tomorrow? Are you certain?’
‘It would be our pleasure, Sir, to expedite the realisation of your wishes.’
‘Well. That’s more like it. I’ll tell my wife and call back to confirm.’
Mika stole back to her desk as Otomo terminated the call. In his haste to get up, he leaned too heavily on the arm of the chair and its sun-weakened frame collapsed. He thrashed amid a cloud of fibres before setting off angrily in search of Sei.
Mika suppressed her laughter. Her father’s bitterness at not having sired a son had produced a range of eccentric behaviours, key among which was a refusal to replace anything retaining a shred of utility. The chair’s demise was a welcome respite to her bleak home life. Cocooned in study, she was oblivious to ETAT and the implications of The New Deal — recently proposed to every adult on the planet. Her slender fingers took up their pencil and she returned to her homework, chuckling occasionally until her concentration resumed.
Otomo swept through the apartment without locating his wife, then spotted her mobile still in the rack. He strode to the kitchen terminal and punched in his second daughter’s number. Her phone was off. Otomo keyed the emergency override and a flushed face appeared. Higuchi was in her car, which seemed to be in an empty lot.
‘Higuchi!’ said Otomo. ‘Where is your mother?’
‘Pa!’ Higuchi fought to regain her breath. ‘You scared the crap out of me. What’s wrong? Has something happened to Mama?’
‘Don’t curse and don’t question me! You should keep your mobile on always. Where are you?’
‘Mama’s gone shopping; she’ll be back for dinner.’
‘To make it or to eat it?’
‘I don’t bloody know.’
‘How dare you swear to me? When will you learn to honour your elders?’
‘Knock it off, Pa. You know I don’t buy that crap.’
Otomo’s eyes rolled and his mouth opened to deliver the one message Higuchi would respect. Almost fainting with the effort, he suffered her insolence one more time, rang off abruptly and clutched the sink.
Higuchi sighed with relief. From the rear seat, Ihara Teika inquired, ‘Is he gone?’
‘Yeah, but that was close. God, he’s got a nerve. He’s so full of shit.’
‘Sounds like it. Is he violent?’
‘He’s given Mama the odd tap. He sure knocked Mika around when she was younger. Tried it with me too, but I’d learned from the others. When I was five, he kicked me. I kicked him right back in the shin with all my might. He went down like a bag of shit, and hasn’t touched me since. I can tell he really wants to sometimes, though.’
‘If he ever harms you, I’ll kill him.’
‘Yeah, yeah; you and whose army?’
‘He’d better not try it, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘I feel safer already,’ said Higuchi climbing over. ‘Now, where were we?’
The Komatsus moved on Mika’s seventeenth birthday. So agonising was the wrench that neither Sei nor Higuchi remembered the occasion. Sei had realised with shame that she feared Otomo more than the disadvantage to which she was committing her daughters. But it had been close. She had resolved to carve a new home from whatever she was given, and prayed daily to her ancestors for her husband’s death.
Beset with applications for classification deferment, ETAT had been unable to process Otomo’s request as swiftly as promised. While he railed against the system, his family farewelled the rich lifestyle they had enjoyed.
Higuchi suffered most. At fourteen she was rebellious, hedonistic and immune to the spiritual transformation Otomo hoped to engineer. She spent hours in her car, alone and with her first lover. Of all her possessions, the vehicle would be hardest to surrender, though she’d only been driving a few months.
Her pleas merely strengthened Otomo’s belief that her values were in dire need of realignment. He countered her every approach with a sermon, enjoying his revenge. Desperately Higuchi scrutinised The New Deal prospectus for a loophole, only to discover the stinging irony of ETAT’s policy on self-determination. The age would drop to fourteen, but only for wards of the state. Higuchi realised her parents were not only redundant; their very existence had voided her right to early independence. For once she pitied her sister. Mika had been guaranteed a Rich Class ranking. Now on the threshold of her own life, her birthright was being usurped by a vindictive Zen vigilante.
Mika thought only of leaving. Unlike her sister, she cared nothing for material advantage. On learning that being Poor would still permit her to live alone on attaining her majority, she was happy. Food, clothing, employment and housing were nothing compared to the joy of writing free from distraction and abuse. About her mother, Mika felt ambivalent. It was hard to respect one so chronically disempowered. If Mika took only one thing from Sei, it would be the resolve never to submit to the tyranny of a partner.
In planning The New Deal, the founding ETAT Members realised that accommodation would be one of the chief public concerns over formal social stratification. With home size and quality solely dependent on classification, they had to get it right.
The key problem was the heterogeneity of existing accommodation stock. Though there would be only five social strata, there were innumerable types of dwelling. Permutations of site, size, age and design defied categorisation. The variety was a recipe for dispute and a stumbling block for The New Deal; citizens would never embrace a system with such scope for anomaly.
ETAT formulated a two-phase solution. A task force broke the value of existing dwellings into constituents and devised a formula to weigh them — thus enabling the value of homes to be ‘proven’ mathematically. The elegant model satisfied the learned and dazzled the ignorant. Housing allocation decisions could now be defended consistently and authoritatively.
The second solution was long term. ETAT resolved to build homes in sympathy with the proposed social strata. This was sound vertical integration. Since ETAT planned to control the allocation of housing, who better to build and lease it? Replacing obsolete dwellings with environmentally benign units also had significant public relations benefits and was a time-honoured way to stimulate the economy.
In processing Otomo Komatsu’s declassification request, team leader Goran Peters had a wide choice of dwellings. Otomo’s application was succinct: ‘a Poor Class home conducive to gaining a true understanding of humility’. Recalling Otomo’s abusive behaviour, Peters colluded with his subordinate to find a home that would deliver humility in spades. They agreed on a cramped, sunless flat in a block of two thousand. As Peters took a virtual tour through the mouldy rooms, Ron Potemkin called his counterpart in Employment.
‘Hi, Rita?… Ron here, buddy… Yeah, good thanks… Hey, do us a favour? I need the latest on application CA-004054. Komatsu… Got it?… Yeah, that’s right…. What’d they say?… Uh-huh. And when will he find out?… You’re not wrong; I wouldn’t bloody do it… That’s great; I owe you one… Thanks Rita… OK, cheers!’ Potemkin grinned at his superior. ‘Komatsu got the job he wanted. Parks and Gardens were a little surprised at his qualifications.’
‘I bet they were,’ Peters murmured, panning around the grimy bathroom.
Potemkin summoned an icon to the screen. ‘When you’re ready.’
The icon spread into a detailed relief map of the metropolis. Two diamonds twinkled in opposite corners. Potemkin highlighted one with his cursor. ‘This is where friend Otomo wants to play with the flowers. And this,’ he clicked the other point, ‘is where we feel he should live.’ A green line snaked between the two points, indicating the optimum public transport solution. Potemkin read the summary. ‘His commute will be a soul-cleansing… 142 kilometres, fifty-four minutes, two changes. How does that grab you?’
‘Oh, hang on,’ said Potemkin, ‘the girls’ schools; I didn’t factor them in. Damn, they’re also way across town. Should we do that to them?’
Peters pursed his lips. ‘What do you reckon?’
‘It’s a bit rough.’
‘True, but the older one’s almost eighteen. When she moves out, which will probably be on the dawn of her birthday, she can take her sister with her.’
‘And the mother?’
‘If she were going, she’d have gone. More fool her if she chooses to hang around with a prick. I say run with it.’
‘You know best,’ said Potemkin.
‘No, no… hell, fuck ‘em, eh?’
‘An understandable, though inappropriate response, Ronald.’
Potemkin smiled and began the allocation. ‘I sure do enjoy being on your team, Mr Peters.’
‘It’s good to have you aboard, son.’ He patted Potemkin’s shoulder and moved to another consultant signalling for his attention.
The Komatsu family hurtled silently through the underground to their new life. Mika took out her pad and composed a haiku as her sole birthday present.
Tomorrow I leave
This darkened place of hatred.
My pencil is sharp.
‘That should really read: “today I leave”,’ she thought, ‘but then I’ll have only four syllables. I’ll pretend I wrote it yesterday.’ She backdated the page and pocketed it. Haiku was her favourite form of expression. Though still searching for her perfect wave, she had improved steadily.
Mika next practised her dreaming. She had read that to realise a dream it was necessary to imagine it in detail — rehearsing the moment at which it came true. It had taken her time to master this, so chronically sapped of confidence had she become. Her favourite scene took place in a department store. She sat in a comfortable chair before a large desk, awaiting her next customer. From a queue that snaked into the street, another fan sat down proffering the volume of poetry.
‘Hello, Ms Komatsu, I…’
‘Please, call me Mika.’
‘Oh, you’re very kind. How do you do, Mika?’
‘Very well, and you?’
‘Fine Ms… I mean Mika. It’s such an honour to meet you. I adore your poetry and I saw you speak at the Southern Sector conference last year.’
‘Really? I’m flattered. Now, what’s your name?’
‘Um, actually, I already have my own copy… I bought this one for a friend.’
‘No, to inspire him. You see he wants to be a writer. He’s very unhappy where he is and his writing is really very good, yet he doesn’t have the confidence to make the transition. I was hoping you could write something inspirational, to… help get him started.’
‘I understand. You’re very thoughtful. What’s his name?’
Mika signed her message of support with a flourish. ‘Will that do?’
Mouthing the words carefully, the fan’s face lit. ‘Oh, Mika, it’s perfect! Thank you!’
‘My pleasure. Next!’
Mika hugged herself and smiled, renewed by the affirmation. Hers had always been a frail dream. Every second Net denizen fancied herself a writer and the system was awash with drivel. Now she was Poor — two enormous steps down the social ladder. Yet despite this and her father’s strident opposition, Mika believed she would realise her vision. In a year she’d be free to find her own little space, where she could gather her energy and work without distraction. But not even her dream could protect her from the shock of the family’s new home.
It was an absolute hovel.
Though the block’s dilapidated exterior had signalled a warning, the flat still managed to exceed the women’s worst fears. Otomo happily watched their faces fall, knowing he’d been right to deny them a virtual tour. The floor plan was a ‘T’, with the entrance in the middle of the cross bar. To the left was the second bedroom. In the centre was the dining/lounge area. On the right were the kitchen and bathroom. The stem of the ‘T’ was the master bedroom, which boasted only one small window. Low ceilings and dark walls completed a claustrophobe’s nightmare.
Sei’s tears cratered the dust. Higuchi sought the additional rooms which had to be there. Mika examined the smashed sockets, wondering if it were possible to run a home without a computer.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ Otomo chortled. ‘No more distractions; just clean, simple family life.’
Mika’s voice quavered. ‘How will I study, Papa?’
‘Yeah, what about our homework?’ Higuchi added.
‘Your first lesson in humility. You will use the facilities in the public library.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding! Those dinosaur shit boxes are riddled with viruses!’
‘You will adapt.’
‘Adapt? Adapt?’ Higuchi advanced. ‘Are you out of your mind? You’ve taken us back to the Stone Age! This is a bloody cave! Jesus, Pa, you’ve always been a flipper, but this takes the…’
Higuchi’s head shot back and she slid to the floor.
‘Things have changed,’ said Otomo. ‘You are all unforgivably spoilt. It is my duty to correct the corruption wreaked by our former prosperity. You can work with me or,’ he glanced pointedly at Higuchi, ‘against me. Our belongings will arrive shortly. I must report to my new employer. You will have this house set up correctly before my return. Understand?’
Mika nodded. Sei stared blankly and said in a hollow monotone, ‘Yes, Otomo.’
‘Good. See you tonight.’ He stepped into the corridor and closed the door with a snap as the women lapsed into shock.
Read Chapter 04.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by The Artist.
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