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.