The Mental Female.
Before anyone, that is, everyone, realized what was happening, Kipple's abdomen was swelling like a flesh rice cake. Her body had only looked like white porcelain; actually it was made of rubber. Some thought that her midriff was being inflated with air, like a balloon. Others thought that both Kipple and Techie were just manipulated images, existing only in the electronic reality of TV. But then, on screens mounted in every wall, every room, every shop and office in the city, Kipple gave violent birth.
It was a male, half an inch long. He'd looked like a maggot.
But although he had been born only last Thursday, already he had grown into a young man.
Among the city's one million inhabitants, there was one person who was shocked to see his face.
"I love you."
"And I love you."
"Do you really?"
"You do love me?"
"Yes, I really love you ..."
The soap opera was interminable. No excitement or emotion; only this vacuous drivel. Aimless chatter would have been better. But this ... not only did it lack drama, it couldn't even be called conversation.
As Kipple and Techie droned on, their hands roved over each other's bodies.
"I want to wear flowers ..."
"Your body, dressed in flowers ..."
"Let's boat over to the island for a swim."
"Floating on the waves with my lover ..."
"I have a present for you."
"You will dress in octopus ..."
The dialogue ploughed on. Across the bottoms of omnipresent TV screens, the DATA display showed their pulses speeding up, so it was obvious that they were in love.
"The ocean is like a bubble bath, don't you think?"
"Open your kimono and let me in."
"I'm not ready yet."
"Then get your motor running for me.'
"... it sounds like a geisha game!"
"We'll play catch, and whoever drops the ball has to strip."
Some fifteen minutes later the first missile had been launched. The city's defense system woke immediately, but it couldn't cover the entire sky.
Already a half-century had passed, but still the scars of The War affected Her, like the shadow bodies burned into glassified walls. Sometimes still, dying cells from those scars lashed Her brain into uncontrollable frenzies of destruction.
After three days of toss-and-catch--missiles lofting back and forth like a geisha's gold and red sex-toy balls--the program on 100 million screens unfolded.
"Oh! I dropped it. Well, I guess that means my kimono ..."
Kipple was Her self-image. She loosened her sash. Her kimono was transparent--her body had been visible throughout--but fully naked she was even sexier than imagined. For two weeks they sexed each other, their tumbling, endless intercourse exciting every citizen of the city--human, android, cat, dog, bird, reptile, mole, whale, friend and foe, self-styled gods and prophets of gods--anyone with eyes had them riveted to the screens.
This Love Simulation program really worked. Designed for invasions, it demanded answers, drove relationships, and made it clear who She was talking to: Techie, the artificial intelligence. Long ago he was the enemy's weapon, based in a northern Siberian fortress city before he got into Her hot, hot data channels.
How could they possibly have fallen in love? And married? And even had a baby?
The program was a real soap opera. Everyone watched, not only in Tokyo, but in northern Siberia as well.
Room 8875: the top floor of an eighty-eight-story apartment tower, where Wolf Boy lay in his crib.
A chill shivered along his spine as the baby grew, a premonition that soon proved accurate. The child, growing on 100 million TV screens, grew to look like him. Out of a million citizens, She had chosen his remodeled B-style wolf face, his black fur, his eyes the silver of mercury.
Wolf Boy lay curled on his soft sheepskin sofa, alone in the dim light of the TV. Beyond his wall-sized window, an enormous moon hung in the sky like a stage prop.
Wolf Boy had been born lucky. He'd won this coveted top-floor apartment in the lottery. He'd been created innately beautiful and talented in Her artificial womb, as a lover for the finest of humans. When he drove, traffic lights always turned green, and he'd only had one accident. At the touch of a sensor, vending machines released their contents to him, with no charge to his ID balance. And large sums of credit which he knew little about were deposited into his account.
A commercial for a "friendship club" with a branch down the street drifted across the screen:
Are you in love?
People. Machines. Robots.
The toothy smile of an ordinary-looking old man filled the screen.
The club was in fact a cult which had been growing in power over the past ten years, preaching a belief in love and peace flowing from motherhood. They were known for their aggressive advertising.
The commercial bled back into the program. The doll couple went at it again.
Their furry child refused adamantly to go to school. He attacked his father. He bit off his mother's nipple.
"We love you so much."
"I don't love you at all."
"Don't you feel our love?"
"Can't feel what I don't see."
Wolf Boy's eyes involuntarily focused on the screen. His ears stood up in stiff triangles. Two tiny white images played across his silver pupils.
"I love you."
"I'm not getting that."
"I love you."
"I don't feel a thing."
Wolf Boy's tail twitched in annoyance as he tried to ignore the deadly dialogue. Even if he left his room, he couldn't get away from it. It would be on TVs in every hallway, wall, and ceiling, along every sidewalk, and in every shop.
What was the point?
No machine could ever understand it! Machines could only simulate, representing love through images of caring and gentleness. But these weren't real feelings.
Wolf Boy felt ill. He got up and went to the bathroom. When he was finished, he returned to the sofa and spoke a number to the TV.
The face at the other end of the line did not appear. It was masked by the program, which always had priority.
Such a nice voice, Wolf Boy thought. He relaxed a bit. "Is it okay without the picture?" he said. Was she tilting her head slightly, as she usually did?
"When something's missing," she said, "sometimes you notice other things more clearly."
Wolf Boy's mind calmed like a dry sponge slowly absorbing a mild liquid.
"So what are you noticing?"
"Honesty. Courage ..."
"... Manliness ... the power to dream."
"I said skip it!"
"Will you come off it?"
"And what's more ..."
Wolf Boy blushed bright red under his fur and was glad the soap opera was overriding his video link. Of course, his girlfriend still might notice his reaction from his voice. Perhaps she'd even meant to make him feel like this. Yes, he was sure of it.
"Gentleness," she giggled.
Beneath his black fur Wolf Boy's heart wiggled in his chest. Whenever he talked with her, he caught fire.
"I want to see you," she said.
"Well ... wait a minute."
"What's the matter?"
"Are you watching TV?"
"Fortunately I'm nearsighted, so ..."
"Put on your glasses."
"Now why are you being so ..." but she stopped herself from arguing, and said contritely, "OK, they're on."
"So take a look."
"I don't ... oh, my!"
"Looks like me, doesn't he?"
"He doesn't look like you. He is you."
"So you see it too." For some reason, a note of condescension had crept into his voice. "Well, well, well. You see it too."
"Well I appreciate your approval, Mr. Chosen Citizen. So glad you find me up to snuff."
That pride is what drew Wolf Boy to her. She was brutally frank about his charmed life and not awed in the least. It didn't impress her that the city seemed to cater to him, that he never suffered sickness or mishap. In fact, his one and only accident had been the fender-bender when he ran into her car. But Wolf Boy was certain She had planned that so they would meet.
"How dare She," she said. "I'll never forgive Her for this." That finality in her voice--I'll never forgive Her for this--that really turned Wolf Boy on. It was a magic spell that could recast his fate.
"Doesn't it piss you off?." she said.
"Uh, a little."
"`A little?'" Her voice was knife-thin with anger. "As long as you're in Her womb, you're safe, right? You don't even have to work for a living, and you're just wasting that glorious voice of yours."
Wolf Boy thrived on this attitude of hers. He no longer called her out of boredom with the program, but rather because she gave it to him straight.
"I have to see you," he said.
"Well, if She allows it, I guess you can come over."
His girlfriend was speaking ironically, but in fact they were not able to meet as planned, because before Wolf Boy could leave, the Bird showed up at Room 8875.
She was lending her Experience Body to that "friendship club" down the street as a focus of ceremonial worship. At morning prayers, the Experience Body laid eggs. During the afternoon prayers it ate freshly slaughtered hens. And for the evening prayers it gave milk to the Chosen as a symbol of the Eternal Mother's Love.
Alfred G. Usano, the cult's leader, had a visceral hatred for the Experience Body. It was Her sense receptor, an independent intelligence which he had to submit to and accept. What was worse, the Experience Body looked like a big yellow chicken, and he hated birds because their feet reminded him of snakes. And the Bird's feet were as big as Indian pythons.
"Sir, a call for you." A beautiful attendant in a bikini brought him a telephone on a silver tray.
Usano was watching TV by his pool during the break between morning and afternoon prayers. He didn't have to ask who it was. Who else could it be on this line?
How are you?
"Fine, thank you." Usano's gaze never left the TV, though the story had made no progress since the child's suicide last week. Suppressing a sigh, he asked politely, "And how are you, Mother?"
The brilliant surface of the pool riffled in the gentle, clean breeze. Usano's penthouse was on the highest building in the city, and the swimming pool was in the shape of a pearl. He'd had soil and plants brought up, and he found peace of mind only when tending his garden.
Lousy, She answered.
Usano broke out in a cold sweat. Why did he still have to deal with these things? He was nearly seventy, after all. It made him dizzy.
"What's the matter?"
He's gone! She shouted hysterically.
Usano felt a pain in his side and rolled into a new position, out of habit keeping his eyes on the TV throughout the maneuver. He had a dark presentiment.
"Your child, you mean," he said.
How on earth did you know!?
He'd been afraid when they'd started playing catch with nuclear missiles too, but back then he'd thought he didn't care about anything and was ready to give it all up.
But this was no longer the case. What was going to happen?
The dizziness and now a headache welled up, making him long for the bliss of amnesia. Long ago he'd been a computer programmer; he was never meant for religion, and he found it exhausting to provide psychotherapy to lunatics.
My skin got darker after my baby was born.
"It did not," he protested. But once She believed something, it always became the truth, and he had never changed Her mind.
On the TV, Kipple wept. She was clinging to a giant old refrigerator as if it gave solace.
"I ... want ... to be ... as white as ... this ... refrigerator." Against the pure white surface of the appliance, her skin was a creamy yellow.
Usano's stomach ached. His doctors had diagnosed nervous gastritis, in addition to autonomic ataxia--his body temperature and sweat glands were out of sync--and he also suffered from lumbago, perhaps brought on by nerves as well. Whenever something happened, terrible pain afflicted him. Why on earth had She placed him at the top of the organization?
In any case the job had killed his predecessor, who wrote in his diary his belief that She, like a vain celebrity, craved the adoration of Her fans.
Kipple shrieked at the refrigerator, "I'm darker than you but my figure's just as good!" She clutched at the metal door, sobbing like a child. For a moment Usano had no idea what to say. He sensed his gastritis and simultaneously his lumbago getting ready to flare up.
"What are you talking about?" he ventured. "You're as beautiful as ever."
And then it was time for afternoon prayers, Usano felt. Relief washed through him as he broke the connection.
High atop the altar, flames danced up around the throat and gaping beak of Bird. The temple was packed to capacity. Ten thousand devotees watched as Usano, in a swirl of smoke and light, descended in an open gondola.
From the perspective of the worshippers, Bird's beak looked like a chicken's.
From the gondola, it looked like a giant tulip in full bloom.
The faces in the crowd blurred together, glinting in the passing spotlights like waves catching the sun. Usano's stomach churned; if not for the obscuring smoke and light, he'd have fainted already from his fear of heights, which all these years had done nothing to dampen.
Usano flapped his arms like wings as he descended, beating the air with the long sleeves of his golden, printed circuit-patterned kimono. Five hens milled about his feet on the floor of the gondola, clucking in consternation as they pecked aimlessly at his shoes. Directly below the top of the altar, the gondola stopped. Artificial flames leapt up around Bird's beak in all the colors of the rainbow.
Usano still couldn't believe that he was Her spokesman; the rapt faces of the worshippers depressed him. The roar of their voices, like the crashing of waves, subsided into silence as they regarded him, the High Priest of their goddess.
His heavy voice reverberated through the temple space.
For our Mother, let us pray. For our beautiful Mother, For our peaceful Mother, Let us pray.
The echoes died away. Three times a day Usano had to do this. There was no choice, as he well knew from his predecessor's sudden death. He seized one of the hens by the neck and beheaded it with a deft stroke of a glass knife. He swung the headless bird around by its feet, showering the first rows of worshippers with blood, then flung the head and body into the flames at the top of the altar Bird gulped them down, and Usano began the litany.
Let us offer Let us offer The Lord's blood And our blood.
As he chanted, Usano lopped off the heads of the other chickens one-by-one and cast them into the beak, pausing only to wipe his bloody hands with white feathers.
Evil bird, he thought. He hated it so much he wanted to vomit. If he stopped cursing it for a moment, he knew he would lose his mind. As usual he wanted only to wash his bloody hands.
Now the scene around him began to grow distant. The new drug EDF had started flowing into the temple through the ventilation system.
On the enormous ceiling screen a beating human heart appeared, the symbol of the cult. Its throbbing filled the chamber as the litany reached its conclusion.
Our hunger has been satisfied Our longing has been fulfilled. Now let as slumber. Let us slumber.
Worshippers began tumbling like dominos, and Usano himself felt his eyes closing.
But without warning, Bird unleashed a jarring scream. Usano looked up in confusion, his heart racing. Bird had pulled its long neck back from the rainbow flames and was lurching down from the top of the altar on two clawed feet. Its awesome head looked around impassively. Its eyes were too far apart, utterly devoid of intelligence, and yet it was Her machine, with access to all the information in the City. Under Her direct control, it was capable of anything.
It broke into a run. At twice human size, it tossed people out of its way like dolls. Usano watched in terror from the gondola, with no clue what had happened or what was to come. No one ever knew what She was thinking.
Bird ran at a steady, relaxed pace straight to Mezon Setagaya, where it bashed through the doors and bounded up eighty-eight flights of stairs at the speed of an express elevator. At Room 8875 it hammered its beak on the door.
There was no answer. A minute passed.
The building's locks were not connected to Her nervous system--it predated The War--so Bird popped two blasters on telescoping arms out of the small door in its breast. Twin beams vaporized lock and hinges, and as the heavy metal door crashed in, blazed into the apartment, setting the curtains on fire.
Wolf Boy, who had been standing in front of the window, hollered as his fur ignited. He ran into the bathroom and frantically doused the flames with water from the toilet.
What the hell was that, he thought, frightened out of his mind. The thing in the door had looked like a fat scarecrow. Wolf Boy caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His beautiful black pelt had been badly singed--he could see the skin of his bony chest--and his gorgeous tail was stripped bare as a rat's. He touched an exposed rib with a wet hand. After a deep breath, he charged back out of bathroom.
The thing was struggling to squeeze through his ruined door frame, its huge feet slapping on the flattened door. Its legs were like tree trunks. And its head, mounted on a neck like an elephant's, bore the most ridiculous face Wolf Boy had ever seen--a cross between an ostrich and a duck.
Bird opened its tulip beak and said, "Do you know ..."
"What? What did you say?" Wolf Boy shouted in panic.
"Do you know that somebody loves you?" Bird's voice was like a snake in dry grass. It wriggled its short, useless wings, gave one last mighty push, and rasped through the door frame in a cloud of feathers.
"Do you know ..." it squawked.
"What the hell is this? Wolf Boy cried as he backed away, denuded tail arched straight up in alarm. His burnt skin was beginning to sting.
Bird could not straighten up without hitting its head against the ceiling. It lumbered forward into the smoke-filled room with its neck stuck out in front of it.
"Do you know that somebody loves you?" it said, coming right at him, oblivious to the furniture it was smashing.
Wolf Boy dove for the sliding glass doors to his terrace, where the emergency air car was parked. In the space of a few heartbeats he'd buckled his harness and his fingers were flying over the instrument panel.
As the vehicle powered up, Bird threw itself against the glass doors, bursting the glass outward with a great crack. Wolf Boy watched with his heart in his throat as the metal window frames buckled. It had been three years since he'd last used the car. But as Bird squeezed through though, the car warmed up and floated clear of the terrace. Ten yards out, Wolf Boy looked back to stick his prodigious tongue out at Bird. He doubted the thing would understand, but She would see the gesture, no doubt, through its camera eyes.
However, before Wolf Boy's eyes, sleek exhaust cones emerged behind each of Bird's drumstick hips, and a larger funnel-shaped intake from its chest. A jet engine. With an ear-splitting whine, Bird rose into the air, throwing a huge black shadow down on the terrace, then across the face of the Mezon Setagaya apartment tower.
Wolf Boy's eyes filled with tears as a fresh wave of fear swept over him. Bird was zooming in, filling his field of vision, its eighteen claws fully extended from their sheaths. Wolf Boy slammed his foot down on the throttle. The car hesitated a moment longer, then shot away at full power, pushing him deep back into his seat cushions.
Bird opened up its throttle too. Beak cracked wide, its voice blared out over the City, echoing off the high towers.
DO YOU KNOW DO YOU KNOW DO YOU KNOW ... SOMEBODY SOMEBODY SOMEBODY LOVES YOU LOVES YOU LOVES YOU ...
"No! I don't know? Wolf Boy shrieked in rage, and his anger cleared away the fear for a moment to let him think. He took out his ID card and slotted it in the instrument panel.
"Yes? How may I help you?" said a feminine voice. It was Her voice.
"I want to make a call ..."
"Please hold for status check," the voice interrupted. "Completed. I love you!"
Wolf Boy yanked his card from the slot, and found himself gasping for breath. Now he knew who "loved" him.
Car and Bird swooped and dove through the afternoon light of the City, dodging through airborne traffic and office complexes and apartment towers.
Bird never fell more than fifty yards behind, but as Wolf Boy's fuel reserves approached zero, he had to land. He brought the car down in the middle of Motokin Seicho, jumped clear, and ran.
Wolf Boy was confident of escape if he could only find somewhere tight and narrow to hide. He tried not to think what might happen if he were caught. No one ever came right out and said She was crazy, but everyone thought so.
Motokin Seicho was a rough-and-tumble zone of outworlders, androids, robots, gene-spliced animals, psychics, and other riff-raff, with grimy streets jammed with shops and hawkers selling everything imaginable from the highest-tech to the lowest. Wolf Boy dodged through the streets as he ran, the flapping of wings and dying whine of Bird's engine trailing behind.
Bird trotted after him on its big flapping feet, mindlessly trampling anyone or anything in its path.
This was an area of the City that Wolf Boy knew well. Few dealt with ID around here, which might give him a chance, as long as he avoided the elevators--they were linked to Her data net. He took a sharp corner into a stairwell that led to the district's underground, a labyrinth of malls and arcades interspersed with abandoned tunnels and commercial spaces.
The stairs led down to an empty stretch of mallway where widely spaced ceiling lights left big patches of shadow. Wolf Boy dodged puddles and rivulets from the City's leaky plumbing as he ran, claws clicking on the tile. He was nimble and quick, confident of his strength on his feet.
An explosion rocked through the tunnel, loosing a fall of rubble back at the base of the stairwell. Bird, too big to squeeze through, had blasted it open. Now Bird was charging after Wolf Boy down the mallway, its neck stretched forward just under the ceiling, eyes scanning for him in the X ray and infrared.
Wolf Boy pushed out a burst of speed, heart pounding and lungs starting to labor. By instinct he headed for a more populated, better-lit area. He raced down a crowded main street dense with people and storefronts and cornered hard into an antique shop, knocking over a mannequin in an old spacesuit as he plunged through. A door at the back of the shop let out on a narrow tunnel opposite another door. He took it, crossing through a drugstore and onto the broad thoroughfare on the next block. Directly across was a pawnshop, just as he remembered.
In the pawnshop, the old man behind the counter didn't seem to have moved since his childhood either.
"Hello! How are you?" shouted Wolf Boy as he ran past to a long display case of weapons. "Sorry!" he said, and brought his fists down full-force on the glass cover of the case. From among the shards he snatched a designer Kutani ceramic pistol, then fled, crying"Sorry!" again over his shoulder to the wide-eyed old man.
Meanwhile, Bird had tripped over the good-luck raccoon at the entrance of the antique shop, crashed through head first, and gotten tangled in the wreckage it created. It tried to climb to its feet, but wiring from the collapsed front wall of the store had hooked around its neck, pinning it in the rubble. Bird thrashed and flapped, then lay still for a moment, its body glowing.
Then, with a monstrous push, it rose from the wreckage in a shower of plaster, glass, and smashed antiques. Its beak worked.
"Do not interfere!" it squawked in a voice so loud it rattled what remained of the merchandise off the shelves. A customer cowering in the corner screamed. Bird launched itself through the back wall of the store.
With no idea where to turn, Wolf Boy's only thought was his girlfriend. He had no idea where she was, since she changed her workplace at the whim of her free spirit. Then Wolf Boy remembered Grandma Bei. She could be pretty disturbing, but her place wasn't far off and she might be able to help him track his girlfriend down.
The underground hadn't changed much since his childhood, and it was the part of the City he knew best. He ran into the alley beside the pawn shop and found the manhole cover he wanted. As the sound of Bird smashing its way into the shop reached him, Wolf Boy pried the lid off the cover and climbed down a rusty ladder.
He descended to a nasty subtunnel and found himself knee-deep in foul water, but at least there'd be none of Her security cameras down here.
The water was warm and inhabited--giant cockroaches, blind carp. Wolf Boy waded past floating objects he didn't even want to think about. As he neared the exit he was looking for, something darted out of the water and latched onto his tail.
"Hey," it croaked.
Wolf Boy yanked his tail free and backed away as a crocodile man rose hunched from the water. Old Croc was an escaped genetic experiment who'd been hiding out down here for years.
"What do you want," said Wolf Boy warily.
"Ya stepped on me," Old Croc wheezed in a low voice, his eyes glinting in the dim light of the sewer.
"Sorry. I didn't see you in this filthy ... in the water. Gotta run!" Wolf Boy turned to go.
"Hold on. Ya gotta pay the toll."
"Toll? You mean.., cash." In fact, Wolf Boy had only a dim idea of what cash might be. "I don't have any."
Old Croc's lips rose in a sneer, baring long rows of gleaming teeth. "Then ya don't pass."
"Up yours!" Wolf Boy saw he didn't stand a chance against Old Crock in the water, but his exit was just ahead. Bravado would have to do. "Go shake down somebody else."
Old Croc edged toward him. Wolf Boy pulled out his pistol and fired several rounds into the water around Croc's stumpy legs. The shots rang painfully in the confined space, but the low-caliber bullets wouldn't do much damage to the reptilian's leathery skin if it actually came to shooting him.
"Ya little bas-turd!" Old Croc croaked, backing away. "I'll bite yer fuckin heart out! I'll feed yer balls to the rats, with yer prick fer an appetizer!"
Measuring the gun, Old Croc edged toward him again. Wolf Boy drove him back with another shot, then turned and ran as fast as the water allowed. His splashing roused giant cockroaches from the tunnel wall to flight. They swarmed up like bats, chirring and fluttering around his head. Wolf Boy barely beat Old Croc to the ladder he wanted, leaping for it just as Old Croc dove for his feet.
Spluttering wheezes of rage echoed down the tunnel beneath him.
"Next time, ya little mutie ..."
"Watch your mouth, handbag," Wolf Boy laughed, brandishing his pistol at the eyes glowering up from the murk. "Or you'll wind up accessorized.' The eyes disappeared in an angry thrashing of water.
Wolf Boy climbed up and up, back to the level of the underground. At the top of the shaft he clunked his head against the heavy lid of a manhole cover. He cracked it open, letting in enough light to inspect the top rung of the ladder. There it was: the mark he'd scratched with a nail when he was a child. He pushed the lid all the way up and off, then climbed out into an alley deep in the heart of the entertainment district, a seedy, gaudily lit warren of streets thronging with pleasure seekers and those who serviced them.
Water dripped from what remained of Wolf Boy's matted fur as he stepped into the street. A chill ran through his body, and he gave his coat a good shake, showering passersby with stinking sewer water. People stopped to stare in anger or revulsion, but he proudly strode off.
Grandma Bei's apartment was just off the main mallway, back down below street level, under the underground. In this neighborhood the rents were exorbitant, but with her lucrative fortune-telling business, Grandma Bei could afford it. Wolf Boy rang her doorbell, which was shaped like boar's snout, and stepped back as the camera scanned him.
"Hello? Open up," Wolf Boy shouted.
The door swung in onto an empty hallway.
"I've been expecting you," an old woman's voice called from within.
Grandma Bei's place made Wolf Boy feel like a giant. All of the furniture was half-size. In the parlor Grandma Bei sat at a miniature table sipping tea from what looked like a toy cup. Seated, she came no higher than his thigh. She was at least a hundred years old, and her face reminded him of a mouse. As Grandma Bei lifted her cup to her tiny, thin lips with hands as rough as a laborer's, she fixed a vacant stare on Wolf Boy. She had been blind for thirty years.
"The Wolf Boy from the fated star," the old woman sighed, "come back to see old Bei." She set her cup down carefully and gestured across the table to the room's one full-size chair. "For my big people visitors. Won't you sit down?"
Wolf Boy seated himself obediently. On the table before him was a leather spirit board.
"Well then? Out with it! What's on your mind?"
"I'm looking for ... Sheila."
"Cash in advance?"
Wolf Boy just stared at her. Her sightless eyes held his gaze expectantly; then she broke into laughter.
"You have no money!" She said. "And you've lost your lover." She laughed again.
"It's urgent." Wolf Boy tried to stay calm.
"Isn't it always," she sighed. "You must pay though. Triple rate for service on credit."
"I'll pay. I'll pay!" he growled.
"Well you do seem eager," Grandma Bei said, taking another dainty sip of tea. She was looking at his pistol. She couldn't see it, but her room saw everything, and whispered its reports in her ear.
"Who's after you, I wonder?"
"Please just get on with it!"
"Young man ..." she said sternly. Then softening, "All right, all right. But say, how about a song for your fortune?"
"A song?" Wolf Boy blinked at her. "Did you say ... a song?"
"Come on! Are you as deaf as I'm blind?" Grandma Bei sat up straight. "A song! You're a pro, aren't you? How about the national anthem? Sing me a song or you won't get your fortune."
Wolf Boy threw his head back and howled from deep in his throat. AaaaaOOOOOhh! The walls and ceiling vibrated with his cry, and the old woman seemed shaken in her tiny chair. But this was just his warm-up. Wolf Boy took a deep breath, and sang "Itsuki's Lullaby" in a lovely high tenor. The old woman clapped time with her rough hands, carried back to the simple joy of her remote childhood. When Wolf Boy was finished, she was quiet for a moment, her head bowed forward in contemplation.
"I'm just a silly old woman," she sighed. "Your girlfriend is in the Dragon Cafe, on Seventh Avenue."
"Don't you have to use the spirit board?" Wolf Boy asked doubtfully.
"Hah! That thing's just a toy." Then Grandma Bei stiffened suddenly. She gasped. "What is this bird? I see a huge bird destroying my home ..."
Wolf Boy leapt to his feet. "Your phone! Where is it?"
"Good gracious! What a rude boy. Do you think you can just ..."
"Where is it!" he growled ominously, his grip tightening on the pistol.
"Oh for goodness' sake. It's over there." As Wolf Boy placed his call, Grandma Bei shuffled nervously through a Tarot deck. "Imagine treating an old woman like that ..." she muttered.
Wolf Boy snarled at her for silence, but as Sheila came on the line, the Bird's voice thundered from the hallway of Grandma Bei's apartment.
YOU MUST BE OBEDIENT
Story Maker had decreed 100 million TVs for one million people, and in this City She was the Law, and so there were screens the size of billboards and screens like wallet snapshots. Screens on the sides of the blimps that never left the City's sky and screens embedded in the corners of bathroom mirrors. Every citizen's eyes would be screens, if it were in Her power.
The Dragon Cafe had thirty TVs in its dressing room and many more out in the lounge. The law required over a hundred for a place this size, but the customers got tired of the endless program, so screens from the lounge were sometimes moved back here where they wouldn't have to see them.
Sheila watched TV in the mirror of the room's long rococo dressing table.
"You're leaving me?"
"How do you expect me to put up with a whore like you?"
"This is so sad."
"Had to happen sometime. It's entropy. Nothing lasts, not even love."
The program was improving a bit. Most of the eight mental females in the dressing room were crying, though Sheila wasn't shedding any tears. She continued grooming her lovely cat fur with her platinum comb, the teeth of which were just the right size for fleas. With careful strokes she fluffed it up, bringing out its deep red tones.
"The poor thing," cried Sheila's friend Platina, who was sitting beside her at the dressing table.
"Who do you mean, 'Tina?" said Sheila. Platina flinched every time Sheila stroked her tail with the comb in her direction. Platina had a thing about cleanliness. She couldn't handle the least spot or blemish, especially on her own body, which she rubbed from head to toe regularly with depilatory creams to remove every strand of hair Platina wore a fine platinum mesh body suit, from spare strands of which she'd made Sheila's comb as a gift.
"Men are all alike," Platina said.
"It's just the Love Simulation program--a game between computers."
"Relationships are games too," Platina sighed. "And the Simulations are so much cleaner than us.'
Sheila frowned into the mirror, knowing what came next.
"If only I could be like Kipple," Platina said on cue.
Across the room, a "man" sat sniffling back his tears as he styled his hair He was new to the club but obviously a mental female. He called himself Brando.
"Excuse me, dear," he said to Sheila. "Could you hand me a tissue?"
"This story is just awful." He dabbed at his eyes, then blew his nose. His thick hair was scented with citrus. "Perfectly heart-wrenching, as bad as that other serious one."
Sheila guessed that Brando meant the love affair with the Memphis Computer. In that episode Kipple had been loved far more than she had loved in return. When Kipple finally dumped him, he killed himself, and that region of Northern America was supposedly still uninhabited, since nothing could survive without the support of a City Computer. Or the region may have come under Southern American control, but Kipple would have nothing to do with those cities anymore, so there was no information at all about the North U.S.
"I can't stand sad stories," Brando said.
"Me neither," said Platina. "I just want romances."
Recently, Sheila had been wondering if she was really cut out for this job. She lacked the required level of empathy. In fact, she didn't really seem to feel much at all. How could she continue as a mental female? Without emotion, she'd be little more than a whore, with or without her first-class Love Engineer license. And yet the money was so incredible ...
With a glance at the melted Dali-clock which drooped over the edge of the mirror, Sheila put the finishing touches on her hairdo, licking her lush coat from stem to stern with her coarse tongue.
"I envy you that tongue," Platina sighed.
"Me too," said Brando, "You must make people so happy."
Sheila thought of Wolf Boy with a sudden surge of passion, which led her once again to doubt herself. It was so unprofessional to have lovers outside of her clients.
"Then why don't you get one?" she said. "Modification C-2 in the Catalog. Tongue."
Platina and Brando each nodded thoughtfully.
It was time. The eight mental females in the dressing room stood as if on cue and strolled gracefully into the lounge.
The Dragon Cafe was a franchise, but it was first rate in every respect, offering the top of the line in love services. Customers and mental females alike required personal introductions to get in; one knew what to expect.
But tonight, She, Story Maker was there.
No one could mistake Her. The three yards surrounding Story Maker were filled with a different light, tranquil tones and images in distinct contrast to the purplish low-lit atmosphere of the lounge. Sheila had never seen Her before, but what she had heard was true: a different world radiated from Her, the world which She created, the story She told Herself that She could shape reality, involve others in it, and fill them with joy. Or perhaps Her creation was this world. Verdant pastures hovered around Her under clear skies. Pure white sheep grazed upon fields swept by gentle breezes, which Sheila felt on her cheek--they were real, or more than real. Story Maker's age was indeterminate--She was neither woman nor child. She had short black hair and a round face. The sunlight around Her was like a golden ...
A man with a bushy beard took a seat at Her table.
With her sleek red fur, Sheila was popular and got signaled from every table. She chose the one closest to Her.
Platina, at the corner table, was already madly in love with a happy, randy little poodle whom some millionaire on vacation had perhaps kenneled here. For exactly three hours, professional Love Engineers fell in love with anyone or anything--human, cyborg, robot, animal, dolls. All were equal where love was concerned.
Sheila studied the man at the table she'd chosen. He was old, with a sagging, wrinkled face and yellowish gray hair He gathered his thoughts for a moment before speaking.
"Young lady, what do you suppose will become of those two?" The man pointed his chin at the nearest TV.
Sheila couldn't actually read his mind, but a mental female could interpret thoughts and feelings precisely from body language, expressions, tone of voice, and choice of words. The old man's question went past the immediate story. He felt like talking politics.
"Divorce is my guess," she answered. "With a protracted settlement."
"Hmm ..." the old man nodded thoughtfully. He was pleased with her answer. "You think the Ruskies'll accept the terms?"
"Sure. Tokyo hasn't done anything wrong. And in cases like this, women always have the advantage."
The old man chuckled with pleasure in the EDF-permeated air, squinting at her under his smile-lined brow.
Sheila glanced around at lovely hairless Platina in the corner, whispering something in her poodle's ear, totally in love. At the next table, Story Maker sat amid the fragrances of fresh grass and the bearded man's cologne. Sheila caught fragments of Her tense conversation and glimpses of jumbled, disconnected images, including something shiny that arced back and forth, drawing Sheila in hypnotically. She found herself staring into Story Maker's black eyes, which returned her gaze with all-knowing warmth.
"Telephone for you." The voice of the waiter startled her so sharply her claws extended. Fur raised along her spine, she focused on the humanoid robot that had appeared beside her. The waiter reached into its stomach as if pulling out its own guts and offered her a blood-red phone.
"It's me," said Wolf Boy.
"I'm at work!" she whispered harshly.
"I'm in trouble. Please, I need help!"
"I'm being chased by this ... bird ... and its trying to fry me with ..." The bearded man opposite Her suddenly screamed, filling the lounge with fear.
Bird, flapping and kicking, came flying out of Her world in a trail of feathers and terrorized, crying sheep. The gigantic thing crashed into the lounge in an explosion of furniture and customers, hard on the heels of a black-pelted, wonderfully fleet-footed creature: Wolf Boy.
To keep the story interesting, Story Maker sent Bird, Wolf Boy, and now cat-girl Sheila, in quick pursuit, right through the stage set of the Dragon Cafe, scattering bit players and props in the simulated drama that shaped the world.
All burst forth into the large public square in front of the cafe, where a traditional O-Bon circle dance was in progress. Hundreds of people in gaily colored light-cotton kimonos bobbed, pirouetted, and waved their fans, advancing in unison around a raised festival platform where drummers pounded their lacquered, barrel-sized drums, flautists played their flutes, and shamisen players plucked sinuous melodies. In a reedy falsetto a woman at the center of the platform sang an old folk song for the rice planting, in honor of the ancestors whom the O-Bon dance celebrated.
Wolf Boy, Bird, and Sheila plunged into the square, breaking right through the circle of dancers, who scattered with yelps and shouts and fans beating the air. But far from being frightened, the dancers were thoroughly enjoying the commotion. There was laughter, applause, and cheers of encouragement for the protagonists. Tokyo had a long cinematic history of invasion by monsters and an even longer history of real destruction. These three were tame next to Mothra, Rodan, or Godzilla. Everyone assumed Her to be in one of Her frenzies, and many turned to the TV screens surrounding the square.
Bird's voice rang out like a train whistle.
DO YOU KNOW THAT SOMEBODY LOVES YOU
"Stay out of my life!" Wolf Boy howled.
"She thinks you're Her son!" Sheila shouted to him.
"Help!" he cried.
Bird was firing laser blasts at him, which Wolf Boy zigzagged around as he ran.
"Why don't you just let Her love you?"
"How can I? She'll kill me with Her love!"
"No! She's just lonely! Don't you remember? She lost a child on the program last week ..."
That might be so, but Wolf Boy could never feel close to a mother like this ugly Bird.
On the far side of the square, the three dove into a giant two-story TV screen from which Kipple and Techie had been watching them. A lace of printed circuit patterns parted before them like spider webs, and they tumbled out onto the lovers' tropical resort set.
"My darling!" Kipple cried joyously to Wolf Boy, then heartrendingly, "No! Wait!" But the three charged on down the beach.
"Too late," Techie said with a smirk. "He's got a new girl."
Sheila was failing behind, chest heaving. Her cat modifications didn't give her the speed or endurance of her half-wolf lover. But Sheila's cat-sharp eyes noticed the Kutani pistol in Wolf Boy's hand.
"Shoot it!" she cried between great wracking gasps.
"It's a machine! It won't die!"
"No! the black spot on its beak ... the spot ... the air holes ... the spot above them ..." She pulled up short, totally winded and on the point of collapse.
Wolf Boy gave a powerful soaring leap, twisted around midair, and landed facing Bird. He took careful aim, then shots popped like firecrackers as he emptied the pistol into Bird's face. The thing shrieked, tumbling forward with wings flapping, neck twirling, and big feet kicking at the air. It came to rest in a sitting position.
The giant tulip beak blossomed and Bird spewed up the half-digested, headless bloody hens it had eaten during the afternoon prayers. As the vomiting died down, Sheila closed in and leapt, tearing into the lightweight metals and plastics of Bird's body with razor-sharp claws and modified teeth. She seized on the neck and shook violently, snapping Bird's head back and forth like a whip.
"Stop it," Bird said calmly. "Stop it."
Sheila shook Bird's neck with murderous violence, an inarticulate feline snarl pouring from her throat. With a great, sucking snap, Bird's head ripped free of its body and toppled to the ground.
"You must be obedient," the head said.
Wolf Boy groaned, his arm raised to his forehead.
"Thank you, thank you my wonderful darling," cried Kipple from far in the distance, her voice fading away.
"Are you all right?" Sheila asked. She paused to set a white cosmo into a hollow, upturned, elephant-sized claw she'd severed from Bird's leg.
Then she came over to sit at Wolf Boy's bedside.
"I'm not all right."
"Oh, you're just spoiled." She stroked his beautiful pelt with her platinum comb. The morning sunlight poured in through the large windows of his apartment, lighting up the dust motes like golden magic.
Wolf Boy was inexpressibly happy. His tail wagged languorously back and forth over the bed.
Cat-girl Sheila could never ignore something moving back and forth like that. She tossed the comb aside and took hold of it with a grin, stroking her fingers gently along its length.
"Tell me you love me," she said softly.
"I do. I love you."
They smiled at each other, and he drew her to him to show her how much he loved her. The proof he offered was the same one nearly everyone pursued, which nearly everyone bound each other with, even knowing that a lie might hide behind it. As their little love act began, the one on the TV screen over the bed drew to a close.
"It was fun," Techie said, as if there had been no more to it all than sport. That was the best he could manage, considering how everything worked out.
"I had a good time, too," Kipple replied bashfully. But had she really? An aura of regret pervaded the finale as Techie walked off like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. The program closed with a flourish of the orchestra, the credits rolled, and the sponsor's message--Brought to you by Her Holy Church--flashed across 100 million TV screens. Then the news came on, leading with a report on the theft and destruction of the Sacred Bird by persons unknown.
Alfred G. Usano's aged face appeared, dark with righteous anger, and decried this latest sacrilege. Wolf Boy's breath caught as a surge of anger rose in his chest. Sheila pressed her supple body to his, calming him.
"Nothing you need to worry about," she purred in his ear. Sheila curled her long, fluffy tail gently but firmly around Wolf Boy's legs. Slowly, sensuously, she began to lick his fur with her coarse, stirring tongue.
Wolf Boy's heart melted like ice cream in the summer. He was so completely wild about her. She was so tough but so gentle, so very female.
Kipple wound up with an enormous settlement from the divorce, since Techie's adultery with the American whore had been exposed, along with his perfidy in attempting to seize control of Her cyberspace. He'd had no choice but to agree to Her terms. The Russians complained bitterly, but they'd lost control of the script, and in the end signed over 45 percent of their wheat production for the next ten years. Kipple's children would live well in the womb of Tokyo for some time to come.
The sets were struck. The lights and cameras were stowed away. Cast, crew, cinematographers, and director said their thank yous and good-byes.
Are you all right?
"No, look ..." The lead actress bared her breasts to reveal a heat rash.
All agreed on the value of the hard work they'd done.
The actor who'd played Techie stripped off his costume, wincing at the effort. "Well, as long as She assigned the role ..."
They had given a marvelous performance and, as a reward, were being sent on a grand orbital tour of the solar system, Flight 3355.
A cameraman walked across the launch pad toward the rocket, which stood pointing skyward like a talisman. Soon they would all be off to the heavens.
Alfred C. Usano floated in the center of his pearl-shaped pool, his body completely relaxed. The Sacred Bird had been returned from the shop in good repair, and with the end of the Love Simulation program, nothing would be heard from Her for the foreseeable future.
Usano had nothing to worry him, and no doubt he hadn't a care in his mind when the heart attack struck him in his garden by the side of the pool. He was found later floating face down.
As for Wolf Boy and the cat-girl Sheila, well, they married, and-as the story goes--lived happily ever after. Wolf Boy sang in the City's hottest nightspots, and Sheila sold her services to an eager clientele. They worked only when they felt like it and only because they wanted to.
As for the City, that was Tokyo--the richest City in the world. There the Kipple system lived, telling stories to sustain Her children, as women do.
Translated by Kazuko Behrens and Gene van Troyer
KAZUKO YOSHIO BEHRENS received her M.A. degree from Cornell University in Asian Studies. She is a Ph.D. candidate in School of Education of UC-Berkeley, where she is exploring aspects of parenthood, particularly mother-child relationships through cross-cultural perspectives. She has translated many Japanese postmodern tales and essays into English.
GENE VAN TROYER edited Portland Review, including its special Science Fiction Poetry issue in 1981. With Tomoko Oshiro, he co-translated "The Legend of the Paper Spaceship"--later included in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (ed. John Apostolou, Barricade, 1997)--by one of the Japanese "godfathers" of SF, Tesu Yano. He lives in Gifu, Japan.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short Story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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