AiA: White Shadow – Episode 12

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. She is a transfer student, and in this Japan, that means she will be the cause of upheaval and strife. Although she really doesn’t understand what’s going on around her most of the time, she is starting to understand White Shadow, a computer virus that can infect the human brain. Or something like that. It seems Allison is pretty good with computers, and may be the person to stop the scourge. Those around her sort of take this for granted. She’s a transfer student, after all.

Last night the virus got into the video system of a local dance club, and the results were horriffic. Allison has decided to investigate, and she has been joined by her friends. As soon as they entered the building, however, they were confronted by a man with a gun. While he was talking, Alice simply vanished.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

“Damn! Find her! She must not escape!” The man with the gun gestured frantically. Spotlights stabbed through the darkness all around the group, and from the shadows men emerged slowly, menacingly, clad in the heavy rubberized suits of the Institute, faces invisible behind reflective glass. Each bore a wicked-looking rifle, raised and ready to fire as they swayed back and forth, sweeping their headlamps around the night club.

Ruchia fought down a rising sense of panic. She might have lost it completely but Seiji was holding on to her arm, his touch reassuring. He was standing completely still, staring at the man who had stopped them, his face a mask of pure rage. Yet he held himaelf, one hand on Ruchia’s arm, the other on Tasuke’s shoulder. It looked like Tasuke was about ready to attack the nearest Institute man, if Seiji wasn’t holding her back. Ruchia wished she had a little of her friend’s courage.

Kaneda was just standing there, looking around himself in confusion, as if he had just awakened out of a dream to find himself there.

The man who had first accosted them strode up to Ruchia and shouted down into her face. He was a big man, with broad shoulders, who wore his silk suit jacket like a military uniform, his tie knotted with absolute precision. His black hair was cut short. “Where’s the other one?” he screamed.

Ruchia cowered before the man’s anger, grateful for the support from Seiji. Her knees were shaking. “What other one?”

“The other girl, stupid! the one who was standing right next to you!” Ruchia could feel the man’s spittle on her face.

“T-t-tasuki? She’s right there.”

“Not her, stupid! The other one!”

Ruchia felt the tears welling up in her eyes. What was this crazy old man talking about?

“What the heck are you talking about?” challenged Seiji. “We’re all right here!”

“Don’t play stupid with me! There were five of you!”

Tasuke jumped into the fray. “What are you, stupid? Can’t you even count?”

One of the shambling hulks in the Institute suits stepped to the side of his leader. “Uh, sir?” His voice came through a tinny speaker on his chest. “We’ve double-checked the surveillance cams. There were only these four.”

“What?!”

“Just the four, sir.”

“Damn! That can’t be!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but…”

“Damn that White Shadow!”

What the heck is he talking about? Ruchia wondered. Anyone could see that there were four of us when we came in. She looked at her friends to see if they might have some idea what this guy’s problem was. She thought that Kaneda was about to say something, but then he thought better of it. He went back to looking confused.

Ruchia had a bad feeling as the man looked them over. He was deciding what to do with them, she was sure. She found herself wishing that Allison were there. This was definitely transfer-student sort of trouble. Ruchia wondered why they had even agreed to meet Allison here.

“Wrap ’em up,” the man said. “Let’s get them back to the institute. They might be contaminated.”

“Hey! You can’t do that!” Tasuke protested. “We’re fine!”

The big man smiled grimly as the institute men in their protective suits closed in around the four of them. “I will be the judge of that.”

Ruchia screamed, Tasuke struggled and kicked, Seiji shouted in defiance, but it made no difference.

“You can’t do this!” Seiji shouted. “Where are you taking us?”

As they pulled a heavy black hood over her head, Ruchia thought she heard Kaneda say, “To the room with no doors.” She heard a thud and Kaneda grunted.

“Kaneda!” Ruchia called. “Kaneda! Are you OK?” He didn’t answer. Hands were on her now, cold, impersonal, heavily gloved hands, grabbing her arms, her legs, her chest, wrapping aroung her middle and lifting her up as if she weighed nothing. She screamed, she kicked, to no effect. She had never felt so vulnerable as the hands moved over her body. “Help me,” she sobbed, but no one answered.

From a catwalk high above the floor of the discotheque Allison watched as her friends were bundled up. Her gut wrenched when she heard Ruchia’s piteous plea for help, and her blood boiled when they hit Kaneda over the head to silence him.

Allison had been wise to get there early, to slip in unnoticed and conceal herself. Had she even suspected that the institute would take her friends, however, she never would have done it. Now it was her fault they were in trouble, and it was going to be up to her to get them out.

But what was the institute? She had guessed that White Shadow came from there, but now it seemed like they were actually fighting against it. Did that make them her allies? Her gut replied with a resounding ‘no’. Perhaps they had a common enemy, but that didn’t make them friends.

Now the Institute had taken her friends. To the room with no doors, Kaneda had said, before they pummeled him into silence. What did that mean? Allison didn’t know, but she suspected White Shadow might.

The three men sat in the grass beneath a mighty tree. They wore their monk’s robes carelessly, exposing their knobby legs and sometime more, causing more than one passerby to avert their gaze with a stricken expression. They sat in order of height; on the lap of the middle monk there was a laptop computer. All three stared at the screen with rapt attention, the colors from the screen lighting up their faces in a steady progression through the spectrum.

“It’s terrible,” the tall one said.

“It’s wonderful,” the short one agreed.

“What are we looking at again?” the one in the middle asked.

“It’s a computer virus,” the short one said.

“It’s God,” the tall one said, nodding in agreement.

“Truth,” the short one said.

“Lies,” the tall one agreed.

“It’s making my lap sweaty,” the middle one said, lifting up the computer.

“That’s what she said!” the other two said in unison. The broke out laughing.

“Next time,” the one in the middle said, “we need to find someone else to be the straight man.”

“Next time…” the tall one said.

“Next time…” the short one said.

“That Seiji boy was fun,” the middle one said.

“Very serious young man.”

“Wouldn’t know a joke if it suffocated him in his sleep.”

“I hope they haven’t killed him yet.”

The three men nodded solemnly, then began to laugh.

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 11

Our story so far: Allison Crenshaw is an American transfer student in a Japanese prep school. In this Japan, however, transfer students always have some sort of mystical power. The rest of the class is intent to figure out whether she’s a demon, an escaped lab experiment, or perhaps a killer robot. Transfer students always attract trouble. No school ever survives a transfer student, and generally the destruction reaches much farther. Allison’s classmates are happy to report that the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

White Shadow is a computer virus that is able to affect people’s minds, putting them into a sort of waking coma. White Shadow also seems to be a person, a super-hacker who wants to recruit Allison for a purpose only vaguely hinted at but probably world domination. Why Allison? It seems that she’s pretty good with computers herself. Apparently she got in a bit of trouble in the US because of her skills. Was White Shadow behind that as well?

At the end of last episode, tragedy struck at a dance club. White Shadow took over the video monitors and claimed dozens of victims.

When Seiji reached the classroom students were gathered in small knots, talking in subdued tones. The Emergency Committee was in its traditional corner, not speaking at all. Ruchia was crying softly while Tasuki tried to comfort her. There were other tears in other groups.

Allison sat at her desk, alone, her face white, her jaw set in grim determination. She was scowling dangerously. The rest of the class cast wary glances her direction, but none dared go near her.

Seiji approached the group of boys who formed the Emergency Committee. “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper, but it still seemed to echo around the room.

“Didn’t you hear?” Hissed Naota. “It’s on all the news shows this morning!”

“I don’t watch TV,” Seiji said. “It rots your brain.”

The moment the words left his mouth he realized he’d said something horribly wrong. The entire class looked at him with such venom that he wanted to slink away. “That’s not funny, you know!” Tasuke said. “Ruchia’s older cousin was there!”

Where?” demanded Seiji. “I can stop saying stupid things when someone bothers to tell me what happened.”

“That new dance club,” Naota said.

“Happy Dance Dance Dance,” Yomiko said, referring to her notes. “Opened July 22nd last year. Average age of patron 17.6—”

“Yeah, that place,” Naota said. “White Shadow got into the video system. It was all computer controlled. The whole club… everyone…” He couldn’t continue. Ruchia’s tears began to flow more quickly.

Seiji looked over at Allison. Half the class probably thought she’d written the virus. The other half thought that as a transfer student she should have been able to stop the tragedy. Perhaps she thought so herself. That would explain the smouldering rage on her face. She was angry with herself. Couldn’t anyone else see that? Someone should talk to her.

He looked at her fierce expression and swallowed. Someone else.

The teacher arrived and the students broke up their groups and made their way to their assigned desks. Seiji sat next to Allison and tried to think of something to say.

Just as the class came to order Allison stood. “I’m sorry, Sensei, but I have to go.”

“Is something wrong?” the teacher asked.

“Yes,” Allison said. “Something is wrong.”

The class was silent for a heartbeat, waiting for the transfer student to say more, to explain what was going on, but Allison lifted her bookbag and moved out from behind her desk.

“I have to go also!” Kaneda blurted, standing abruptly and tipping his chair over. It clattered to the floor, leaving behind a silence even more complete than when Allison had spoken. Allison whirled to look at Kaneda, her face a mixture of alarm and gratitude. She wasn’t alone, Kaneda had told her.

While Kaneda groped to right his chair Ruchia stood, her eyes fixed on the teacher’s feet. Her voice was quiet. “Please forgive me, Sensei, but I must go as well.” Behind him Seiji heard a chair scoot and he didn’t have to look to know it was Tasuki. She would support Ruchia all the way to hell.

Seiji swallowed, and from far away he watched himself stand from his chair, his hands gripping his desk with white knuckles. He stared resolutely at the formica surface, his eyes lost in shadow. “Sensei! Forgive me! I must go!” out of the corner of his eye he saw Allison turn in surprise. She started to reach out to him but stopped herself. Seiji didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that she had stopped.

“So, umm… where are we going?” Tasuki asked.

“Happy Dance Dance Dance,” Allison answered. She stopped walking. The sky was cloudy; thunder grumbled in the distance. Plum blossom petals filled the air. The street was deserted except for a nondescript van. The same van that had been outside her house, Allison thought. Did they think she was stupid? None of the others seemed to notice it at all. “It might be dangerous,” she said.

“They turned off the electricity there,” Kaneda said. “Doesn’t matter how good the virus is then.”

Allison scowled. “Unless it’s already in people’s brains,” she said. She was watching Seiji, his hands in his pockets, his gaze downcast so his eyes were hidden by his hair. Yet he was alert, subtly scanning in every direction. Every direction except the van, he was studiously ignoring it. Seiji glanced up, caught her watching him, and sent her a fleeting smile. A shared moment of recognition.

“What do you mean ‘in people’s brains?’” asked Tasuki.

Allison started walking again. “Computers are often compared to brains,” she said, “but there are some important differences. Computers are made to be be reprogrammed, where brains have programs in them that took tens of thousands of years to come about, and they’re not made to be reprogrammed. But there’s a more important difference. Brains are pattern-finding machines, not calculating machines. Language, vision, memory, those are all pattern-matching problems. Brains are so good at finding patterns that often they find patterns where there are none, and we have superstitions. But that’s the weakness.”

“Patterns?” Tasuki asked.

“Senses trigger memories. Memories trigger other memories. At any moment in our heads there are billions of tiny connections being made, and the pattern of all those connections determines, more or less, what pattern happens next. The part of the pattern that comes from our senses is really pretty small. A lot of the rest might be called ‘imagination’ or ‘intelligence’. The pattern, and the pattern that follows, and the one after that, defines who we are.”

“So…” Ruchia ventured, “White Shadow is not a program like we learned in computer class, a bunch of instructions to make a machine do what we want. It’s more like, I don’t know, hypnosis or something.”

Allison was amazed at this modestly delivered and extremely convenient paraphrase. “Yeah. Like hypnosis that digs a trench in your brain until your thoughts just go around in circles forever.”

“That’s terrible,” Tasuki said.

“Thing is, you wouldn’t even know it was happening.”

“When you take away the weird video, it hurts them,” Ruchia said. “Sometimes they shout ‘Reset!’ What does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” Allison said.

“How do you know so much about this?” asked Seiji.

Allison glanced at Kaneda. It was time to come clean. “I’ve… met White Shadow. I think I have, anyway.”

When they reached Happy Dance Dance Dance (HD3!!!, the neon sign proclaimed, its garish colors muted now for want of electricity), the police detective in charge, a military man, and a European-looking guy in a trenchcoat were in a heated debate over who had jurisdiction. “You can’t just come in here and take over!” the detective said. “This is a police matter, not a military issue.”

“This is a national security issue,” the colonel said. “The very existence of our society is at stake.”

The man in the trenchcoat raised his voice. “You boys can just clear out! Our organization was created to handle exactly this sort of threat.”

The Colonel frowned. “What organization was that again?”

Trenchcoat hesitated. “I’m with Section 42.”

“Section 42 of what?” the detective asked.

“I’m… not at liberty to say.”

The colonel pressed the question. “So there are 41 other sections? What do they do?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

For the moment the detective and the colonel seemed to be on the same side, but the resolution of jurisdiction would be a long time coming. Cops, soldiers, and men in dark suits waited for the outcome of the discussion. Allison and her friends lifted the yellow crime scene tape and walked right past all of them.

The interior of the dance club was dark and quiet, the faint smell of perfume lingered in the air. On the floor were outlines marking where the bodies had fallen.

“Should have brought a flashlight,” Allison muttered.

“Perhaps this will help.” A beam of light stabbed out of the darkness, shining in their faces, blinding them. “You brought friends, I see.” The man’s voice carried a tone of disapproval. The light came to rest on Allison’s face, allowing Seiji to get a look at the man. In one hand the man held a flashlight, in the other was a darker object…

“He’s got a gun!” Kaneda shouted.

“Yes, I have a gun,” the man said. “My apologies, Miss Crenshaw, but I’m afraid that we cannot risk allowing you to have any further contact with White Shadow.” Slowly he raised the pistol as he spoke. “You see—” the man’s speech was cut off with a gasp. Seiji turned and staggered with amazement. The transfer student had vanished into thin air.

Episode 30:The Eye of the Beholder

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective in vaguely-nostalgic chiaroscuro New York, a town where everyone has an angle, the deal is king, and money is god. Charlie himself is a painfully honest man, pragmatic but unwilling to play the game that defines the city. He dreams of going to San Fran, but in his heart he knows it’s the same everywhere. Charlie and his plucky (if a little weepy) secretary Alice have been hired to help Lola Fanutti (nee Meredith Baxter) recover a treasure of fabulous value. Getting her hands on whatever it is is Lola’s only hope for survival now that her husband, a notorious criminal, has been killed.

There are a lot of people interested in this treasure, and they’re willing to kill to get their hands on it. The only thing keeping Charlie alive is that he’s got a chance of finding the Blood of the Saint, and most parties seem willing to wait until he succeeds before killing him and taking it for themselves. Depending who you ask, The Blood of the Saint is either a wine, a painting, or a mysterious organization willing to kill to preserve its secrets. The painting used to belong to them, and perhaps the treasure it leads to is already in their hands as well.

None of the factions involved has any interest in whether Charlie survives or not.

Then the shooting really gets going. Meredith is killed, along with one of the most powerful people in the underworld. It turns out Alice left a few things off her resume when she applied for work with Charlie, “Daughter of Mobster” and “Assassin” being conspicuously absent. Still, it seemed that she was genuinely touched when Charlie made her a partner in the firm.

Now they have the painting, The Blood of the Saint. It’s not going to take long for people to come calling.

Writing this is recreation for me, something I do when others might watch television. (Lately, I’ve been watching more television and writing this stuff less. That’s not good.) Editorial standards are low, though I must confess that just this once I did a bit of research before writing the episode. That was a few weeks ago; I’ve subsequently forgotten everything I read, except for one detail in the story of a saint.

The package sat on the table between us, unopened. Inside… not treasure, but perhaps a treasure map. If there was anything. No telling, at that, that we’d even be able to read the map if one was in there. Old Man Fanutti had hired experts to analyze the painting, and he, at least, thought they’d found something. Enough other people were convinced that he was right that a lot of people had died, including Fanutti himself.

The box was made of pale wood, battered and humble on the glossy dark-stained mahogany of the table. The only other times I’d been in a hotel room this swanky there’d been a corpse involved. Now we were entrenched in a suite on the top floor, the air cool despite the heat of the day outside. Through the door to the bedroom I could see a bed large enough to raise livestock on. My client may have died last night, but she’d left me with a large roll of spending money and no way to return it.

Alice was all for blowing town, heading west, Portland, maybe. I understood, but while that might buy us some time, it would be time spent looking over our shoulders, always wondering where the bullet was going to come from. There was no escape, no side exit we could slip out of and cease to matter to these people. There were exactly two ways this story could end: with us in control of the treasure or with us joining Fanutti at the bottom of the river, feeding the eels. Whatever was in the box was simultaneously meal ticket and death warrant.

“You gonna open it?” Alice asked me. Her hands were tight in her lap and her back was erect, her mouth tight and tense, bruises still visible on her face. She preferred low-calibre, high-velocity rounds when shooting people.

“Think I’ll have a drink first,” I said. I reached for the single-malt, poured myself a healthy snort in a highball.

Alice frowned. “That stuff’s going to kill you if you keep drinking it like that,” she said.

“I should be so lucky,” I muttered, and took a sip, inhaled the fumes and for a moment forgot all my problems. Money can buy happiness. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t tasted the good booze.

After a moment she laughed, the same bitter hopeless laugh that echoes up and down death row as the gallows is being constructed in the yard. “Pour one for me, would you?” she asked. I did. “When this is over, we should just go somewhere and get tight,” she said. “Tell each other our secrets.”

“Yeah,” I said. She had a lot more secrets than I did, apparently.

She smiled. “You’re thinking that you don’t have any secrets, aren’t you?”

I smiled in return. “Something like that.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie. That’s all you are. One big secret.”

After that there wasn’t much to talk about. We fell into an odd sort of peace, a thousand miles apart but thinking about the same thing, looking anywhere but at each other. The Box waited with the patient apathy that only the inanimate can have. They say that primitive cultures believe that there is a spirit in everything, that the whole world is a big zoo of rock spirits and tree spirits and watermelon spirits and on and on. People are just the most active spirits of the bunch. I’m not sure how that makes them primitive, but I think they’d stop believing it if they met some of the people I know. Not a spirit in the bunch.

I set my glass down next to the box and rested my hand on the rough wood. “Guess we’ve put this off as long as we can,” I said. I turned the box over, awkward with my arm in a sling. It was nailed shut and the seams were sealed with wax. I hefted the screwdriver we’d picked up on the way over and attacked a seam. The box slid away from me, scratching the tabletop.

“Let me help,” Alice said, and took hold of the box, bracing it better than I could with my bum wing. I attacked the seam again and soon the top pulled free with a groan. Inside something flat was suspended on wood blocks, wrapped in red silk. Alice lifted the parcel out and removed the silk. Finally, there it was, the Blood of the Saint, in a small but ornately-carved frame.

I had joked that I would decorate my apartment in San Fran with the painting, but after one glance I decided against it. The picture might have been art, but it wasn’t pretty. It was small, less than a foot either direction, painted with the tiniest brush imaginable. There, reproduced in detail that transcended life, was the image of a young woman weeping in agony, while a man stood before her, knife in one hand, great iron tongs in the other. The tongs still held the woman’s severed tongue. Other men held her, on their faces a mixture of revulsion and fear. The man who held the knife wore a look of smug triumph. All the people in the picture wore those flowing robes the renaissance people liked to paint so much. There was a lot of blood, but none had got on the guy with the knife and tongs.

“I wonder what saint that is,” Alice said.

“Meredith told me Fanutti stole the painting to see it out of the frame,” I said. “There’s supposed to be something important on the edges.”

Alice flipped the painting over and scowled. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Oils aren’t usually framed with a backing,” she said. She fiddled with the metal bits holding the painting in the frame and everything slid neatly onto the table: The backing, the painting, and four sheets of paper, three written with a neat hand, the other filled with diagrams.

“Bingo,” I said. I should have been happy, I suppose. On those pages was likely the answer to all this, an end to the running, an end to the killing, but it was impossible to ignore what had happened to Saint Whoever. I had no aspirations to rise in the church the way she had.

Alice picked up a sheet and scowled. “Catalan, I think,” she said, “but I can read most of it.”

I sat across the table from a woman who had three things: The key to all the wealth and power she could imagine, a gun, and a guy who could ruin everything for her. I hoped she didn’t do the math the same way I did, but I was just fooling myself. She was much smarter than I was.

Alice scanned the pages for a few minutes then set them back on the table. She rubbed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Can’t concentrate,” she said.

“You look beat,” I said.

“You don’t look that great yourself,” she said, though her eyes were shut, her head rocked back. She sighed and stood. “I think I’ll take a nap. I have a feeling we’re going to be busy later.” She stopped by my chair and turned her back to me. “Can you unzip me?”

I stood and did my chivalric duty, careful not to make any contact with her skin. I looked straight ahead over her shoulder and found her watching me in a mirror. She smiled, a little sadly, I thought. “Thanks,” she said.

I had to say something. “What would your long-suffering grandmother say if she knew you were in a hotel room with a man?”

“She’d probably be happy I was with a man at all,” Alice said. “If she existed.” Alice walked into the bedroom and closed the door without looking back. The strap of her brassiere was black, I noticed, and hooked in the back. Her skin was pale.

I picked up the pages and took a shot at deciphering them. There were some familiar words, but the letters started swimming in front of my eyes and I decided Alice had the right idea. I stretched out on the sofa and put my hat over my eyes. I adjusted the sofa pillow under my head and was very nearly asleep when the knock came at the door.

I’d known it wouldn’t take long for people to find us, but I’d hoped for a little more time than that. I tried to be encouraged that whoever it was had bothered knocking.

Tune in next time for: Final Offer!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 10

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. It is not what she expected. Not even close. From the moment she was introduced as a transfer student the rest of the class has treated her like some sort of freak. That’s because in this Japan all transfer students are freaks. All that remains for her classmates is to figure out just what her super powers are.

As least Allison has started making friends with some of her classmates. Ruchia seems to be one of the more normal girls in her school, with only subtle hints of a mysterious past. Tasuki is her sidekick, an outgoing tomboy with a big toothy smile. Seiji is a dark, brooding boy who is convinced that he will end up as the transfer student’s love interest, a role he would dearly love to avoid.

Meanwhile, there’s the computer virus called White Shadow, which seems to have special plans for Allison. The Institute is struggling to control White Shadow, and they have dertemined that things might be simpler if Allison were dead.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Colors. The world was a swirl of colors, flickering, flashing, moving. Allison had seen those colors before somewhere. There was no floor beneath her feet, but she did not fall. Somewhere in the distance a voice called her name. Her father’s voice. She turned, searching for him, but she was alone.

“Allison!” Closer now.

“Daddy?” Her voice vanished into the swirling colors, without an echo.

There was a pattern to the colors, the way they swirled and flashed, occasionally revealing images from television or the movies, explosions and tender kisses and animals devouring each other; a pattern infinitely complex but knowable. Enticing. She moved through them, and the speed of the flashing increased, leading her down, deeper, deeper, toward the secret that lay beneath the fabric of reality. There was sound now, snippets of music, snatches of conversation, the laughter of a studio audience, mechanical sounds, static. Always it felt as if she was about to hear her father’s voice again, but she never did. “Daddy!” she cried out again in her little-girl voice and she saw that as she got closer to the secret she was getting younger.

In the center of the colors there was a presence, at the root of the sounds something lurked, watching her. She felt a tingling on her skin, a ghost-touch of something she did not trust. It caressed her arms, her legs, her thighs…

“Daddy!” she called out in panic and sat bolt upright.

She sat at the table in her room, the glow from her laptop making the her spartan bedroom cold and eerie. A dream. White Shadow. The colors she had seen were the same as the pattern White Shadow had shown her once, but now there was more. Sound and touch. Those must have come from her. She looked back at the code she was working on, and knew what she had to do. White Shadow was incomplete; she could exploit that weakness. She stretched and reached for her teacup. Empty. She’d get a refill in a moment, first she needed to finish the routine she was working on…

Seiji awoke before dawn as usual and went upstairs to his room to find the T-shirt he would wear that day. Before school he delivered papers, and after school he did odd jobs to help make ends meet. He suspected his dad had plenty of money, but the family never saw any of it. If his sisters were going to have money to buy clothes so they could go out with their friends, it was up to Seiji to provide it.

He glanced out his window. Allison’s blinds were drawn, he noticed with relief. He should have thought to close his own when there was less chance of accidentally seeing too much. He crossed the room and as he pulled the string he noticed the bluish glow of a computer monitor leaking around the transfer student’s blinds. “Burning the midnight oil again,” he muttered. Ruchia said that Allison studied a lot, and she was on her computer even more.

All that studying confused Seiji. It only stood to reason the transfer student would get good grades; no matter what her origin she was bound to be highly intelligent. Her need to study rather than run around causing trouble could only mean that she came from a place so different, so bizarre, that none of her previous knowledge was relevant here.

The time she spent on the computer was less surprising to Seiji, but even more vexing. There could be no doubt that White Shadow was behind it. Was she the creator of the virus that had claimed some of his friends, or was she fighting it? Did she need help? Even if he could help, did he dare? He thought of the look they had exchanged the first time he had seen her through his window. She had seemed so alone, so vulnerable, and he knew she had seen the same in him.

He pulled his blinds shut and turned on his light to dress for the day.

Allison was grateful to see the angular form of Kaneda waiting for her when she left the house in the morning. “Hello!” she said cheerfully.

“Hello! You’re in a good mood today.”

“I made some real progress last night, with… you know.”

“That’s good,” Kaneda said. They walked past an unmarked van — the first vehicle Allison had seen parked in the neighborhood — and headed for school. After a while Kaneda said. “I’ve been having strange dreams.”

“Strange how?”

“Colors and sounds and… stuff.” He reddened. “They drive me crazy. Like there’s a message there but I can’t read it. And sometimes… this is going to sound crazy.”

To Allison everything about this place was crazy. “What?”

“Sometimes, I get this feeling like deja vu, only it’s more like… It’s like I’m remembering what I’m seeing at that moment, only it’s different. Like when I met you at the door this morning. It was like I’d done it before, but…”

“But what?”

“I’m not sure. But it seems like I remember there being other people there. Bad people.”

The three men in the van looked at each other. “Damn! How the heck did she get past us?” the leader asked.

“I don’t know,” the burly one in sunglasses said. He folded his arms, making the tattoos on his massive biceps shift as if they were alive.

The skinnier one with round wire glasses set down the weapon he was cleaning. “Damn! One moment she was in the house, the next she was halfway down the street, surrounded by people.”

“Damn! There’s something weird going on,” the leader said. “No wonder they want us to bring her in. Let’s make sure we don’t miss her a second time.”

“Hey!” the tattooed one said, gesturing to a monitor. “Isn’t that Doctor Yamamoto’s kid?”

“What the hell is he doing here?” asked the leader. “Damn!” he added.

“Beats me,” the big man said.

“Do a search on that address,” the leader said.

The thinner one with glasses jumped to his computer terminal. “Damn!” he said after a moment. “That’s his place all right.”

“Damn!” the leader said. “Shirai, run a cross-check on all the addresses in this neighborhood. I don’t want any more surprises.” The thin one did not answer. “ Shirai?” The leader turned to see Shirai staring blankly at his screen, which showed a random-looking series of colors. “Shit!” the leader said. “Our computers are supposed to be immune! Don’t look at the screen, but get him away from there!”

The burly man jumped to comply, tackling his comrade. The thin one curled on the floor of the van as convulsions overtook him. “Reset! Reset!” he sobbed.

The leader shook his head. “Damn. Someone owes me some answers.” He had the feeling in his gut, the one he’d learned to trust in a long career of combat in the worst places on Earth. It was the feeling that things were completely out of control and nothing he could do would make any difference.

Seiji was careful not to look at the nondescript van as it sped past. It had to be the Institute, and that meant they were interested in Allison now. At least they seemed content to watch for the time being, or she never would have got past them. Should he warn her? How could she possibly not know already? He shook his head and laughed bitterly. Of course she was unaware. In so many ways she was like an innocent child.

Maybe he was being paranoid. Just because the only vehicle visible for miles was an unmarked van parked outside Allison’s house didn’t mean they were watching her. Most of his friends would laugh at him if he suggested it. Even the Emergency Committee would be difficult to convince.

“Penny for your thoughts.”

Seiji wheeled to find Tomoko walking next to him, blushing slightly, her uniform straining against the pressure of her breasts. Seiji’s heart skipped a beat. She was so pretty, she could have anyone. But she had professed her love to him. She smiled shyly and looked away.

“H’lo, Tomoko,” he said.

“Hi. Are you OK?”

“Yeah. Just thinking about… uh… math class.”

“I can help you. With the math, I mean. I’m good at math.”

“Thanks.” He smiled at her in a way he hoped looked friendly.

“It’s the transfer student, isn’t it?” she asked.

“What?”

“You said there was someone else. It’s the transfer student. Miss Allison.”

“She’s with Kaneda.”

“I don’t blame you. She’s so smart and strong and interesting…”

“It’s not like that!”

“I think I’d be in love with her too.” She colored. “If I was a boy, I mean!” They walked for a distance while Tomoko recovered from her embarrassment. “I made you a box lunch,” she said. “I made one for Miss Allison, too. I thought maybe we could all eat together. Then I can be with you, even if you’re with her.”

Sergeant Tenma tried not to be sick. He watched as rubber-clad Institute men waded among the bodies strewn about the dance club, searching for survivors. Dead teenagers slumped at the tables, sprawled on the dance floor, huddled in the corners. The ones that weren’t dead were even worse, quivering slobbering husks dressed in the latest fashions, unable any longer to even control their own bodily functions.

“It was the video monitors,” he heard someone say. “They started blinking weird patterns and then everyone just…”

White Shadow, Sergeant Tenma knew. It wasn’t just a computer virus anymore; it was loose in all the wires, and in every broadcast. An electric plague, and there was no way to stop it short of returning to the stone age. Apocalypse. He called his wife. “Unplug the television,” he said. “Anything with a screen. Unplug it all. Then start praying for a miracle.”

Episode 29: Clear as Mud

Our story so far: A lot of stuff has happened. Charlie Lowell is an aberration in the city, an honest man in a dirty job. He’s a private investigator. He was hired by Lola Fanutti to help her recover an item of great value. She’s dead now, shot down right after she killed Mr. Cello, a man crime lords and presidents bowed before. Cello had also wanted the treasure. Charlie is now in posession of a painting that supposedly contains the key to how to find the treasure, and he’s just discovered that Alice, newly promoted from being his secretary to his partner, was wrapped up in the intrigue long before she came to work for him.

There remains a fairly long list of dangerous people who would like to get their hands on the treasure, and another bunch, perhaps even more dangerous, who don’t want anyone to find the treasure at all. It’s going to be difficult to please eveyone, and these people don’t handle disappointment well.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, has a rough episode or two, and then settles down. Writing stuff like this is something I do when others might watch TV; it’s a brain-switched-off style, though I must admit that I am doing a little extra thinking lately just to maintain some sham of continuity.

We took a break from gabbing while Alice pulled quietly on the oars. In the predawn light a stillness fell across the world; the surface of the water was smooth as a glass pool table. I watched the ripples from the oars radiate away from us, still discernible until lost in the mist. In the silence I imagined that the gentle splash of the oars could be heard in China. It was the only sound in the gray world.

Everything I could call my own was in that boat with me: a painting called the Blood of the Saint, a partner with more secrets than a Swiss bank, and a gun. I didn’t think the shooting was over yet.

Alice was watching me, waiting to see how I reacted to her revelations. My partner, daughter of a famously dead mobster. Somewhere on the other side of the world a ship sounded its horn. The mist began to glow with the coming morning. “We’d better get off the water,” I said. “We’ll be sitting ducks out here.”

Alice nodded. “We’re pretty close, I think.” Even as she spoke I started to hear shore noises, muffled by the mist. She took a few more strokes and stopped, letting the boat glide across the water. “What are you going to do now, Charlie?”

I adjusted the package wedged in my sling, the package a dozen people or more had died for two hours before. “Take a look at this painting, I guess. See what I see.”

“I meant long term.”

“Sister, that is long term, the way things are going.” I thought for another moment. “And I need to beat the crap out of your uncle. I was going to let Meredith take care of that.”

Alice’s face went through every emotion in the book in a flash and settled back on caution. “I know you liked her,” Alice said, “but sooner or later she would have killed you.” She began to row again, and soon I could see the shore. “You weren’t her first lover.”

“Did she kill your father?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who did?”

“I’m… not sure. It could have been anyone who knows about the Blood of the Saint. The same people who want to kill you now.”

“That’s reassuring.”

She allowed herself a ghost of a smile. “There aren’t as many now.”

“So what’s your angle, doll? What do you want out of all of this?”

She spoke quietly, looking straight through me into a world all her own, her eyes as vacant as 34th street after the parade is gone. “I want them all dead,” she said. The boat nudged against a stone dock and she smiled. “Here we are.” She hopped from the boat and I followed, feeling clumsy once more. I wanted to keep my gun in my hand — not that I could shoot it worth a damn southpaw anyway — but I had to put it away or fall overboard. I told myself that if Alice wanted me dead I’d already be in the long line waiting at the undertaker’s, and any other threat she could handle better than I could. I resolved to break my habit of spending time with dangerous women.

The thought made me chuckle. Was there any other kind?

“What’s funny?” Alice asked.

“I was just thinking about how nice this painting will look in my living room in San Fran,” I said.

“You haven’t even seen it yet.”

“I’m not that particular.”

We climbed gray stone steps slick with morning dew and reached street level. “I know where we are,” we said at the same time. Alice colored and smiled behind her hand. It was a gray world, robbed of color by the mist, dingy boats immobile in the still of the morning, the few people moving about wraithlike, the only color anywhere the red of Alice’s lips.

A truck roared past, six cylinders banging, a cloud of hydrocarbons in its wake, a staggering dinosaur refusing to die. Another followed, better tuned. Harbingers of the vibrant life the docks would know soon. “We need a place to flop,” I said.

Alice nodded. “The farther from here the better,” she said.

“How about San Fran?”

She smiled. Maybe she read more into my invitation than I intended. Maybe she was right. “Not yet. We have to finish here first.”

Not yet. I wondered how many people lay at the bottom of the river because they didn’t cut and run while they still had a chance. Not yet. Just a little longer. We’re so close. We’ve come too far to turn back now. The last words of saps and suckers and losers and lowlifes, the dregs of the world willing to trade life for hope. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a score to settle.”

She took my arm and we strolled away from the shore, just a couple heading home after a longer-than-expected night. “Let’s find some breakfast,” she said. Three blocks up we found a diner, deserted except for a pair of drunks struggling to stay awake at the end of the counter. We chose a booth and sat across from each other while a tired-looking waitress in a pale blue dress dropped menus in front of us. She flipped our cups and poured coffee without asking. I guess we had that look. The waitress turned and left, and while Alice studied the menu I studied her.

She looked the same as always, only now everything was different. Her makeup was carefully applied to cover the fading bruises, red lipstick perfectly defined her full lips. The tightness at the corners of her mouth didn’t seem pensive anymore, more like determined. The way she narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the menu looked calculating. Her movements were compact and precise. She looked up and caught me looking at her; I didn’t look away. She smiled, a little sadly I thought, careful not to show the gap in her teeth. “I wanted to tell you sooner,” she said, “but things started moving so fast.”

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” I said. “How many people know who you are?”

“Not many. Some people know that my father had a daughter, but they don’t know anything about me. Daddy told everyone I was going to school in Paris. They’re looking for me.”

“You have any other siblings?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

The waitress was back. I ordered steak and eggs, pancakes, and potatoes. I was hungry, I decided. Alice had the belgian waffles. At least her sweet tooth hadn’t been knocked out.

“Collecting your inheritance might be tricky,” I said.

She nodded. “There’s lawyers and detectives crawling all over it. Plus, my uncles would rather have Daddy’s money for themselves.”

More people came in, laborers grabbing a bite before going out to build the next architectural marvel. Must be nice, I thoug
ht, to build something that will still be there when you’re gone. Outside the morning was getting brighter and traffic was starting to pick up. The city was carrying on, the way it always did, indifferent to the lives that had ended in the night. Meredith Baxter, my client — perhaps even my lover, it was difficult to tell with her — was one of those lives. I should do like the city, I thought. Just move on, the way I always did. But right then I didn’t feel like I could move at all. I was beat, tired down to the center of my bones, a weariness that went beyond fatigue and weighed on my soul. My shoulder hurt.

Alice was inspecting me the way I had her. What did she see? If I looked in a mirror would I see the same person she was looking at now?

Breakfast arrived. I struggled with the cutlery until Alice cut my steak into bite-size pieces. She smiled as she did it, concentrating on her task, and briefly I saw the Alice I had always known. Her cheeks colored and she returned to her own breakfast without meeting my eyes. “Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

We ate in silence for a minute or two, then still not looking up she stopped, her hands hovering over her plate, and said, “Are we… are we still partners?”

I thought for a moment and nodded. “We’re in this together. No point worrying about what comes after till we see who gets out of it alive.”

She nodded, not smiling, and returned to her waffle.

“It’s the Spaniards that worry me the most,” Alice said, watching as I shoveled pancakes down my gullet. “All the others are motivated by greed. I’m not sure what the Spaniards are looking for.”

“Maybe we should ask them. They seemed reasonable. They were even going to hire us. What happened about that, anyway?”

“We couldn’t come to terms on a price.”

“You made Santiago mad again, didn’t you?”

I thought I detected a hint of a smile. “Mabye. But the main thing is that I don’t think he’s going to be content just taking the painting back. He’s not going to rest easy until it’s forgotten. He won’t leave people around who know what the painting signifies.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“He never came out and said it, of course. Just a feeling I got.”

“Secrets are a difficult currency to spend,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“They’re only worth something if you keep them to yourself. The Spaniards are spending a lot of resources just to maintain the value of their secret. Not a good investment, unless they get a return some other way.”

Alice nodded. “If we can figure that out, it might give us some leverage.”

I put down my fork and signaled for the check. “Let’s find someplace quiet and take a look at this painting.”

Tune in next time for: The Eye of the Beholder!

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 9

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. The phrase “transfer student” seems to have a special meaning here; some of her classmates think she must be a robot, others a demon, and a few assume she is an escaped superweapon from a secret lab. One thing they all agree is that Allison’s arrival will be accompanied by upheaval, destruction, and possibly great loss of life. Happily, the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

As least Allison has started making friends with some of her classmates. Ruchia seems to be one of the more normal girls in her school, with only subtle hints of a mysterious past. Tasuki is her sidekick, an outgoing tomboy with a big toothy smile. Seiji is a dark, brooding boy who is convinced that he will end up as the transfer student’s love interest, a role he would dearly love to avoid.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison looked over her shoulder to where a group of boys sat in the bleachers while she and the other girls stretched and warmed up. She had never enjoyed gym class back in America and now her outfit didn’t help. That all the girls wore the same thing didn’t make her any more comfortable in her t-shirt and red briefs. “Don’t the boys have anything else to do?” she asked Ruchia.

“Why would they?” Ruchia asked. “It’s not like boys have P.E.”

Allison hesitated. “They don’t?”

Tasuki laughed. “Of course not. Can you imagine them dressed like this? What would be the point?” Tasuki did a cartwheel. “Come on! It’s track today!”

“Tasuki’s the fastest girl in our class,” Ruchia explained.

“Hitomi might be better,” Tasuki said, “but she trains on her own.”

“Hitomi’s amazing at everything she does,” agreed Ruchia.

The instructor blew his whistle. “First group! To the starting line!”

“That’s us!” Tasuki said. “Hooray!”

Allison was not looking forward to the race, but gym class humiliation was unavoidable even in Japan, apparently. She walked to her starting position. Tasuki was to her left, Ruchia to her right. There was something odd about the track. “Why are the lanes so wide?” she asked.

“For safety, of course,” Ruchia replied.

“Be sure to do your best!” Tasuki said.

The instructor blew his whistle. “On your marks!” Allison didn’t bother trying to get down into a crouch, although the rest of the girls did. “Get set!” The other girls were taking this race very seriously, Allison saw. She resolved to at least get to the finish line before the next race started.

“Go!”

Immediately Allison was in last place; the others surged ahead of her. Allison put her head down, pumped her arms, and ran, seeing nothing except the lane in front of her. She was aware of Ruchia in the lane next to her, then halfway down the track Ruchia wasn’t there anymore, but Tasuki was on her left. Then she was alone. Allison crossed the line and looked up and there was no one in front of her.

She turned around in time to see Tasuki cross the finish line, and the other girls behind her. If she weren’t so out of breath she would have laughed.

Tasuki smiled and gave her a hug. “Amazing!” she said. “How can you possibly run so fast with your lungs constricted that way?” The other girls crossed the finish line, each running with arms sticking out, elbows at shoulder level, swinging their forearms horizontally. No wonder Allison had won. As they finished they all gathered around her. “Unbelievable!” “Amazing!” “Incredible!” “You’re the best!” “Do you need a towel? Use my towel!”

Sitting cross-legged at the finish line, Yomiko checked her stopwatch and made a notation in her journal. “A new record,” she mumbled as she wrote. “No obvious signs of mechanical limbs, no telltale sounds of robotics.”

“Crenshaw!” the instructor called. “Excellent work! Once you learn proper form there will be no stopping you. Next group to the starting line!”

The Emergency Committee watched the race from the grandstand. The transfer student started slowly but had, despite her terrible form, overtaken all the others and won easily.

“I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise,” Kouta said.

“She has to be a robot,” Bando said.

“Who would make a robot that ran so weird?” asked Yoshiki. “She’s a lab experiment for sure. I bet she has virtual arms that stick out correctly.”

“What do you think, Seiji?” Kouta asked. “You’ve seen her at home.”

“You have?” asked Yoshiki. His nose started to bleed, just a little bit. “Did you see her… panties?” The last word was just a whisper.

“No! And as far as her being an excellent athlete, did you expect anything different? Will you let go of this stupid discussion? It doesn’t matter if she’s an angel or a demon.”

“Or a robot,” Bando added.

“Or a lab experiment,” Yoshiki countered.

“None of those things matter!”

Hitomi’s smooth voice was calm and clear after Seiji’s bluster. “They matter.” The Committee turned as one to see her standing quietly outside their circle. She was dressed in the traditional garb of a swordsman, with a katana in her belt. She stared solemnly down at the girls gathered at the finish line. “Will Allison Crenshaw be rival or enemy?”

“She might even be a friend,” Kaneda said.

Hitomi smiled quietly. “That’s what I said. Rival.”

Seiji looked at the rangy girl with her dark, flowing hair, and allowed himself a glimmer of hope. Who said the person whose life was to become pure hell had to be a boy? He spoke carefully. “It may be that finding the proper trainer for the transfer student could be the difference between angel and demon.”

Hitomi looked down at the field, where Allison was preparing for another race. “She is soft.”

Seiji smiled to himself. “Who better than you to remedy that?”

“Who indeed?” asked Hitomi. “Although she has signed up for the fencing club.”

“Azusa,” Bando said softly.

Hitomi nodded curtly. “Azusa will work the transfer student mercilessly. As she should.”

“I thought you didn’t like her,” Seiji said.

“Whether I like Azusa or not is of no importance. However, I do not trust her. I will also train the transfer student.”

In the center of town, at the top of a hill, is a building with no windows and only one door. The walls are gray concrete, polished to an almost metallic shine, reflecting the harsh glare of the sun. There are no signs on the outside; but all in town know that it is the headquarters of Biological Computation Institute. The town is thankful for their presence; since the outbreak of White Shadow the institute has taken in hundreds of infected citizens. None have ever emerged, but the town takes solace knowing they are well-cared-for.

Deep within the walls, five old men sit around a table. Each has a distinctive physical characteristic, a mole here and a bulbous nose there. They speak in turn, but they seem interchangeable, as if they are simply puppets carrying out a necessary debate.

“The Truth of the World is the key,” big nose says.

Gold tooth answers. “White Shadow brought the girl here.”

“She cannot be The Truth of the World,” the toothless one says.

“White Shadow thinks she is,” says the bald one.

“We know almost nothing of the girl. Her past is in shadow.”

“We should kill her.”

“That would hinder White Shadow, but if she is The Truth of the World…”

“Why should we do anything?” the toothless one asks. “Our power is growing every day. Your only complaint is that White Shadow is doing its job too well.”

Bignose bows to his toothless colleague. “Because if we don’t stop White Shadow now, we will be sucked in along with the rest.”

“Without The Truth of the World, we will never regain control of White Shadow.”

“Without The Truth of the World, White Shadow will never reach it’s full potential.”

“We must test the girl.”

“We must kill the girl.”

“Perhaps those are the same thing.”

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 8

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. The phrase “transfer student” seems to have a special meaning here; some of her classmates think she must be a robot, others a demon, and a few assume she is an escaped superweapon from a secret lab. One thing they all agree is that Allison’s arrival will be accompanied by upheaval, destruction, and possibly great loss of life. Happily, the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

Allison is having plenty of problems of her own. There is a computer virus called White Shadow on the loose, and it seems to be what caused her uncle to transform into a menacing cybernetic creature. Her Aunt is missing; perhaps incorporated into the man/computer hybrid that used to be her uncle.

As least Allison has started making friends with some of her classmates. Ruchia seems to be one of the more normal girls in her school, with only subtle hints of a mysterious past. Seiji is a dark, brooding boy who is convinced that he will end up as the transfer student’s love interest, a role he would dearly love to avoid.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison paused by the front gate. The house was quiet, but the porch light was on. The rest of the street shimmered in the light of the almost-full moon. Somewhere a cricket chirped. “Thanks for walking home with me,” she said to her classmate.

“Oh, it’s no problem.” Ruchia looked at the house next door. “So… that’s where Seiji lives?”

“I guess so. I’ve never actually seen anyone there.” Allison looked up and down the deserted street. “Actually, I’ve never seen anyone in any of these houses. The lights are always off as well.”

“I’m not surprised, with electricity prices these days. I wonder if Seiji’s with Tomoko right now.”

Allison thought there was some extra sadness in Ruchia’s voice. “Were you and Seiji dating in the past?”

“I guess you could say that. We used to spend a lot of time together before… Well, that was a long time ago.”

“Before what?”

“Before his mother died.” She wrung her hands. “Tomoko knows about it, but she wants to declare her love anyway.”

“Maybe she’ll help him relax a little,” Allison said.

“Maybe. He could really use it. His father is never home, either,” Ruchia said. “You know what that means.”

Allison nodded even though she had no idea what it meant. “Seiji is alone in the house?”

“Oh, no, he has two little sisters who are total brats. They love to torment him. Which just goes to show.”

“Show what?”

“Poor Tomoko. I hope she’ll be all right.”

“What will Seiji say when she asks him to go out with her?”

Ruchia looked into the distance. “I don’t know. Maybe that he needs time to think about it. Maybe that it’s too dangerous to be around him.”

Dangerous?”

“Well, yeah, of course it’s dangerous. Maybe for a transfer student it seems normal, but for sweet little Tomoko…”

Allison clenched her fists at her side. “What’s the big deal about—”

The front door of her house opened. “Allison, is that you, dear?”

“Is that your Aunt?” Ruchia asked. “I thought you said she was gone.”

“Who’s your friend, dear? Don’t keep her standing out in the dark. Come in, come in! There’s plenty of dinner left over for both of you.”

Ruchia’s stomach groweld in a timely fashion. “Great! Thanks Mrs. Takanawa.”

Allison intervened. “Ruchia’s in a hurry, Auntie.” To Ruchia she said. “You do not want to go in there. It’s not safe.” Allison regretted not telling her friend the full story about the strange events in her house. Stories of missing people and cybernetic monsters seemed too crazy to even bring up but now one of her only friends was walking directly into deadly peril.

“Don’t be silly,” Ruchia said. She stepped through the gate and up the short path to the front door. “She seems very nice.” Before Allison could think of a way to stop her Ruchia was in the door and kicking off her shoes. “Something smells delicious,” Ruchia said.

“Why thank you, dearie,” Allison’s aunt said. “I’m so glad you came by. I hardly ever have a chance to entertain anymore. Not since my husband died all those years ago.”

“He was here this morning!” Allison protested. She slipped past Ruchia, ready to defend her friend from whatever came out of her uncle’s computer room. The last time she had looked in, the room was like the lair of some creepy cybernetic creature that had her uncle in its web.

Allison stopped short in the hallway. The computer room was not there. Where there had been a door that morning, there was nothing but a blank wall.

“Allison!” her aunt chided. “You know better than to wear your shoes inside.”

“This is delicious, Auntie T!” Ruchia exclaimed as she dug in to the feast.

“Oh, no, this is nothing,” Allison’s aunt said. “Just something I threw together.”

Allison had eaten plenty of her Aunt’s cooking, and it had never been like this. “This really is good,” she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice.

“Why thank you dear,” her aunt said. “It’s so nice to have someone to cook for.” In all her time in the house, Allison had never heard her aunt utter more than ten words, and certainly not a word of kindness. Auntie Takanawa looked concerned. “Is something wrong tonight, dearie?”

Something was wrong, very wrong, but there was no point bringing it up with her aunt. “It was a long day,” she demurred.

“Yeah, and we still have a lot of studying to do,” Ruchia said.

“You girls work so hard these days,” Auntie T said. “I hardly ever see Allison, she’s so intent on her books. Things were so much easier when I was your age. You girls go on upstairs and I’ll bring you a little something later.”

“Thanks, Auntie T!” Ruchia said, standing up. It took Allison a little longer to straighten her legs and rise from the low table. She was getting better at it, though. They grabbed their backpacks and headed upstairs.

“Can you see Seiji’s house from your window?” Ruchia asked.

“No, my window faces the other side,” Allison said.

Only now it didn’t. She hadn’t noticed any change in the path she took to get to her room, but now it faced the other direction.

To Allison’s surprise, Ruchia opened her pack and pulled out books. The thought that one of her friends was actually going to study capped the most perfectly strange day ever. Allison pulled out her own books. She had the math under control, but Japanese literature was killing her. She suspected that if she could understand their literatuure, then a whole lot of other things might make more sense as well. Although she didn’t think houses that changed their own floorplans would be included.

Ruchia had a book in front of her, but her eyes were on house opposite the window. “Which window is Seiji’s?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Allison answered.

“Have you ever caught him…” Ruchia blushed. “You know… looking?

“NO!” Allison said.

“Really? Huh.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it just seems natural, with him right there, and you’re so pretty and a transfer student on top of that—”

“All right, that’s it! What is it about transfer—”

“Shh! He’s home! Look!”

The light came on in the window directly facing hers, and there was Seiji, with two younger girls climbing on him. He looked across between the houses and met Allison’s gaze. He froze, his jaw hanging open, a vein pulsing on his forehead.

The girls didn’t seem to notice. She could faintly hear them squealing and shouting insults at him. He just stood, watching her, and from where Allison stood it seemed like a weight settled upon his shoulders. Or perhaps more accurately the weight that was already there got heavier. In that moment he dropped his guard and Allison glimpsed the deep sorrow that lay beneath his gruff exterior, and her heart went out to him. He shook his head and gave Allison a ghost of a smile, then turned around and switched off his light. He was silhouetted against his doorway for a moment, then he was gone.

“Poor Tomoko,” Ruchia said.

Seiji made his way back downstairs, carrying both his sisters.

“Who was that girl in the window, big brother?”

“Yeah, who was that?”

“No one,” Seiji grumbled, though he knew there would be no dodging the issue.

“Is she in your class?”

“You’ve met Ruchia before,” he said.

“No, stupid, the other one!”

“Her skirt was awfully short.”

“She looked like an American.”

“She’s in your class, isn’t she?”

“She’s pretty.”

“You like her, don’t you?”

The two girls hesitated, then said in unison, “She’s a transfer student!”

Seiji sighed. “Yeah, she’s a transfer student. But it’s all right. She already has a boyfriend.” He knew it wasn’t true, but as long as the rest of his friends believed it, he could maintain the pretense. Maybe in the meantime another boyfriend would appear. He’d even be happy to see Kenzo return if it got him off the hook, and that was saying something.

His sisters seemed disappointed. “Are you sure?” little Yuko asked. “Sometimes with transfer students…”

“Believe me, we’re much safer that way,” Seiji said, but his sisters were subdued for the rest of the evening. He slept on the sofa downstairs that night, and resolved to sleep there for the rest of his life. He was never, ever, going to look out his bedroom window again.

Ruchia lay sprawled somewhat indelicately, drooling into her textbook. Allison quietly closed her own book and opened her laptop, careful to avoid connecting to any network. White Shadow was behind all this somehow, and it was time to do something about it. Fight fire with fire, and virus with virus. Allison knew a little bit about computers.

In a place neither light nor dark, a place without dimension, without sound but also without silence, White Shadow laughed without humor. Allison Crenshaw was acting as predicted. It would be a matter of days for her to complete her hack, and the spark of her genius would provide the final component to make White Shadow whole.