TFNIWLNW: 7

With every step I took through the sucking mud and dung and mule piss into Mountain Forge, the gold folded securely in my belt got heavier. I calmed my shaking hands and resolved that this time would be different. This time I would wake each morning clear-headed and I would go to bed each night having only lost enough money to make the locals happy to see me the next day.

It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town. My story is no more truthful than the stories of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.

My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, with or without a roof depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. She was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him.

As I trudged into town the air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. Ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.

The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.

To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story.

The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pulled my attention to the other side of the street. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor. I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.

The big man wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another, skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.

The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for purposes beyond our comprehension, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I altered my course, delaying for a few more moments being warm, dry, and drunk. For Mrkl, I would do that.

He glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”

“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.

“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”

“You have money?”

“For the moment.”

“Shit.”

“I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”

He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”

I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.

“You want the top?”

“Of course,” I said.

Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy. I had walked away from them a quarter of an hour before. Now here we all were.

“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs a shirt.”

Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.

“How much?”

He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”

“I’d rather pay you now.”

“I know.”

I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.

“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”

Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”

She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. The cheering up the street had faded; the entertainment was apparently over. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money.”

Carefully I pulled out five fat coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. The true joy of money is not the having of it. True joy comes from spending it. At last I would be able to set the coins free. Those who keep their money locked up are cruel at best.

Kat took the gold and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”

Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”

Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”

Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.

“You going to be sober?” he asked.

I hesitated and said, “probably not.”

“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”

“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.

I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I just let the rain fall in my face.

“You all right?”

I looked back down to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. “If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

first episode

AiA: White Shadow

The end of the first chapter!

You know, I’m not going to give a synopsis at this point. The episode is the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 is really going to kick Seiji’s ass. So the monks have foretold. I’m glad to be done with this chapter, and reading back it’s not a bad first draft of a story. There’s lots I’d like to go back and change, but that’s not how this exercise works.

If, like me, you wait until the serial is concluded before you start reading, now is your chance to get to know Allison. I finally paid off something I set up long, long ago. It feels pretty good.

Blind! Allison fell to her knees, shaking, her stomach threatening to turn inside-out. She gasped for air, reeling and disoriented. Only moments ago, an eternity, she had been so close. Close to everything, almost one with the pattern beneath the chaos that governed the universe, the harmony of the world. Desperately she reached with her mind, tried to rejoin the communion, but found only blackness.

“Shoot them all,” she heard Lancia say.

“Allison!” Seiji’s voice, maybe. They were all going to die. Because of her. She heard the sound of guns being raised. You’d think they wouldn’t make so much noise. One of the soldiers chambered a round with a distinctive snick-snack. Funny he hadn’t thought to do that earlier.

You could not win. Not against me.

Allison almost wept with relief to feel even a tiny fraction of White Shadow still in her mind. Don’t kill them.

They do not matter.

Allison tried to reach through White Shadow, to use it to connect to the world of information. She could almost hear the music, almost feel The Pattern when White Shadow hammered her consciousness back into her own head. Stunned, it was seconds before she could speak, then there was nothing to say.

“Wait,” she heard Lancia say, from far away.

Seiji stared defiantly into the eyes of the woman who had interrogated him earlier. His clenched teeth almost shot of sparks, and the vein in his forehead pulsed in an X. The soldiers raised their guns and paused for a pregnant moment.

“Wait,” the interrogator said. The soldiers hesitated a moment, then lowered their weapons.

Seiji glanced over to where Allison lay curled on the floor, moaning, knocking her head against the tile with a steady rhythm. “She needs help,” he said.

Interrogator Woman looked at Allison and made a face. “I don’t think there is help for her.”

“Who are you really?” Seiji asked.

The woman laughed softly. “So quaint,” she said. “He said ‘really’. Do you have any idea what that means, little boy? Does ‘really’ even exist?”

“Who are you?”

“I am everyone.”

“You’re not me.”

“Only because I don’t want to be.”

“Yeah, right.”

Seiji blinked and found himself looking at… himself. “Yeah, right.” his other self said. He blinked again and he was facing his interrogator once more. “There is a way you can live,” she said.

“All of us?”

“… most of you.”

“Then forget it.”

“Seiji, think for a moment. Your nobility is admirable, but nothing you do can save the American. You can choose to die, or you can choose to live. Neither choice will matter to her.”

“I choose to die,” Seiji said.

“I am sorry to hear that,” she said.

“Wait,” Kenzo said.

Ruchia opened her eyes and looked into his. So deep. So expressive. So purple. “You’re not really Kenzo,” she said.

He smiled, dimples forming on each cheek. “No. But is anyone? I can still make you happy.”

“Happier than he ever would,” she allowed.

Not-Kenzo chuckled deep in his throat. “I suspect you are right.”

Ruchia felt the heat rising to her cheeks.

“I wonder if you could do me a favor,” Not-Kenzo said.

His casual delivery put Ruchia on edge. “Maybe.”

“If you are helpful, I believe I can save your life.”

“What about my friends?”

“You do not have to worry about them.”

“No, but I choose to. What about my friends?”

“Each of you will be given the chance to be useful. Those who help me will live. Live very well, in fact.”

“What is it you want?”

“There is a key,” Not-Kenzo said. “The American has it. Not a physical key, but a code of sorts. A thought.”

“You want me to get it from her.”

“You need only make her think about it. We will do the rest.”

“Why should I?”

“Beyond saving your own life? If you help it would not be necessary to kill the American as well.”

“That’s not the same as saying you wouldn’t kill her.”

“The future is indeterminate.”

“Forget it!”

“You choose to die?”

“I choose to live by my principles.”

“Wait.”

The voice was a breathy whisper in Tasuke’s ear. “Good idea,” she said. She opened her eyes and looked down the muzzles of the rifles pointed at her.

“You wish to live?”

“Yeah, I think that sounds like a pretty good idea.”

“All you have to do is—”

“No.”

“You haven’t even heard wh—”

“If it starts with ‘All I have to do is’ then I’m not interested.”

“But—”

“Forget it.”

“Very well.”

All her friends were talking at once, but not to each other. It sounded like banter, the kind that came before violence. She glanced around the room, seeing with her eyes what only minutes before had been so complete inside her own head. There was only one door, and there were a lot of men with guns between her and it.

Lancia was the key. Before she could even think she launched herself at the woman who held all their lives in her hand. She drove her shoulder into the rib cage of the woman, lifting her off the floor and then piling her hard into the cold tile. Allison rolled and put her arm around Lancia’s throat. She started to squeeze. “Let my friends go,” she said.

“Very well,” Lancia said, perfectly calm. Allison squeezed harder.

“Shoot that one,” Lancia said, gesturing at Tasuki from where she lay.

“Wait!” Allison shouted but her voice was lost in the popping of firearms being discharged in a closed space. She couldn’t hear the screams of her friends as Tasuki’s chest exploded in a fountain of blood. The skinny girl convulsed and dropped to the floor.

Allison tightened her grip, wanting nothing more than to kill Lancia, no matter the consequences. At least keep her from saying anything else.

“Now that one,” Lancia said, this time pointing at Ruchia.

A bullet caught Ruchia in the throat, another in the forehead, and several in the torso. She fell and lay still.

“Stop it! Stop it!” Allison screamed. “No more! Please!” She didn’t have the strength to strangle her adversary anymore. She relaxed her grip but Lancia made no effort to rise. They lay in a tangle on the floor.

“You know what you must do,” Lancia said.

“No!” Seiji shouted. “Don’t give her anything! Damn—”

Lancia made a gesture and the soldiers cut down Seiji mid-curse, blood and gore coating the wall behind him. Allison was out of words. She just stared at the bodies of her friends and wept.

“You may as well shoot me, too,” Kaneda said.

“You belong to me,” Lancia said. She sighed. “Allison, I had hoped to be friends. Or at least partners. But that will never happen now.” She rolled away from Allison. “Shoot her,” she said.

“Noooo!” Kaneda shouted, even as the soldiers trained their weapons on Allison with a clatter. He threw himself on top of Allison as they opened fire, holding her, shielding her with his body. He jerked and twitched as the metal tore through his body, his face inches from hers. Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. “In your arms,” he whispered, and died.

“Such a waste,” Lancia said. She looked at the captain of the soldiers. “Finish the job.”

Allison closed her eyes but she couldn’t erase the image of her friends lying dead around her. Her fault. Her doing. The bullet that took her life couldn’t come soon enough.

Only, this wasn’t her fault. She didn’t make White Shadow. She didn’t enslave the city. She didn’t give the order to shoot innocent kids. Anger stirred in her breast and with it the will to act. She opened her eyes and watched as the finger of a soldier pulled at his trigger with impossible slowness. She reached outward with her mind and found a tendril, a connection that led to White Shadow, a link it was using to watch her.

A bullet emerged from the barrel of the gun in a rippling cloud of vapor, and began its irrevocable journey to her heart. No stopping it. No getting out of the way. She was already dead.

Nothing to lose. She threw herself through the connection and right into White Shadow’s virtual lap.

Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.

Around her, almost within reach, was what she had once had. The world. Beyond that lay a new world, enticing, limitless. The Computer. White Shadow had not yet taken that power. It was waiting for something.

From far away Allison felt the bullet press into her flesh. Someone else’s flesh. She looked at White Shadow and smiled. “Reset,” she said.

Allison Crenshaw walked up the nearly deserted street toward her new school. She felt awkward in her uniform; the skirt seemed shorter on her than it did on the other girls. She walked alone, clutching her books to her chest, practicing her Japanese under her breath.

“Hey, watch out!” Allison turned just in time to see the kid on the skateboard before he crashed into her. She fell, books flying, conscious of her short skirt. She felt like she should have seen him coming.

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 17

Our story so far: Allison is a typical American High-school girl. Only now she’s in Japan, and it’s not the Japan she learned about in Social Studies, it’s the Japan created by the Japanese in their cartoons. Somehow, that Japan is suddenly real.

In that Japan, transfer students are always a source of untold chaos. They are rarely human, and even when they are they have hidden (and very destructive) abilities. Her classmates hope only to identify the nature of the destruction she brings, before it’s too late.

But Allison’s just a regular student, right?

Oh, except it seems that she’s a whiz with computers, and it just so happens that the world (“the world” means “Japan” at times like this) is threatened by a killer computer virus called White Shadow. White Shadow wants nothing more than to merge with Allison, the only one with the skills to make it whole.

Also, a bunch of other stuff has happened. Allison’s best friends are all prisoners of The Instute of Biological Computing, a mysterious organization that probably created White Shadow in the first place. Now, all she wants is to bust them out. To accomplish that, she has accepted White Shadow into her own consciousness. It makes her pretty kick-ass.

What’s with the kittens? Well, let’s just say that people are misinformed.

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

Allison clutched at her harness as the helicopter tilted, pointing its rotors at the institute. Her stomach rose up into her throat and she tasted yesterday’s lunch. Even breathing was difficult as she lost track of gravity. Closing her eyes just made it worse.

The helicopter lurched back the other way and Allison felt a soft impact against her foot, followed immediately byt the feeling of several needles being thrust into her ankle. She looked down to see a white kitten clinging to her foot. She couldn’t hear its cries over the roar of the aircraft. Allison tried to reach for it but she was strapped down too tight.

The woman sitting next to her seemed not to notice that they were about to die in a fiery crash. She was shouting orders into her comm unit in a rapid staccato that matched the thrum of the helicopter’s rotors. Allison couldn’t hear her words, yet she could feel the sense of what Lancia was saying as it passed through the electrical universe.

With Lancia’s words, people lived, and others died. Allison could feel them all, but they didn’t seem… human. They were abstractions. Statistics. Allison was the abacus, counting heartbeats.

Lancia spat a set of orders, and Allison followed the electronic signals of a squad of men rushing down a hallway. At the end lay death, a hellish crossfire of claymore mines, their electronic triggers waiting impassively for a reason to die.

“Bomb”, Allison said. “Corridor 12. It’s a trap.”

Lancia hesitated for perhaps half a second before she resumed shouting. “Squad seven! Squad seven! Abort advance!”

Allison reached through the electronic universe and touched the detonators. “I disarmed them,” she said.

Lancia hesitated longer this time. “Squad seven, proceed. Use extreme caution.” Lancia keyed off her mic. “Why did you do that?”

Why? Echoed White Shadow. She is the enemy!

“Those are people,” Allison said.

They’re trying to kill other people, White Shadow reminded her. Enemies of this woman, which makes them our friends.

“They’re all people,” Allison said aloud.

Lancia raised her eyebrow, watching Allison for another moment before returning to her battle.

The helicopter heaved again and Allison clung to her restraining straps and fought down a scream. The kitten skidded across the metal floor and banged against a bulkhead. In the cockpit buzzers sounded urgently from the control panel. Lights flashed red. The pilot threw the stick over and the helicopter was practically upside-down. As far as she could tell, anyway; “up” was an abstraction without much meaning in this place.

“Missile!” The pilot cried out. “It has lock!”

Allison felt the deadly rocket, knew its hunger for destruction. It was using radar to track them. Radio waves. She could work with that.

She quieted the animal part of her mind that wanted to do nothing but scream in fear. She closed her eyes and touched White Shadow, accessing the world through the new window it provided. She began whispering to the missile through its guidance system, deceiving it even as its hunger grew. Slowly she bent the perception of the rocket’s radar eye, convinced it that the helicopter was up and to the left. The rocket rushed past and detonated, shaking the helicopter and rattling fragments of metal off the hull.

The pilot righted the craft and resumed their headlong assault on the institute. Allison opened her eyes, convinced herself to take a breath.

White motion at the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned to see Lancia talking calmly on her comm, as if nothing had happened at all. In her other hand the white kitten lay, limp and dead. “Oh!” Allison said.

Lancia looked at Allison, at the kitten, then back to Allison. “So you could handle the missile,” Lancia said. She tossed the tiny carcass out the window.

Ruchia lay on the hard metal floor, dizzy from the blast. The only sound she could hear was a persistent ringing in her ears. She coughed and pushed her hair back from her eyes. Cautiously she raised her head and looked around.

She was alone again, back in the institute. She lay her head back and closed her eyes, concentrated for the moment on clearing the dust and grit out of her lungs. No one came to help her; no one came to investigate the explosion. She wondered if there was anyone else left on Earth.

“Hello?” she croaked. No one answered. This must be what hell is like, she thought.

She opened her eyes again, took better stock of her surroundings. Next to her on the floor lay stainless-steel table. The way it had toppled and dumped her on the floor had protected her from the worst of the blast. Kenzo’s arms protecting her had just been a dream.

Nearby was a hemispherical plastic helmet apparatus which had half a hundred metal probes sticking out of it. Each probe was connected to a colored wire; the wires gathered into a bundle and left through a hole in the wall.

One of the other cell walls was gone, leaving only a pile of debris.

She got on her hands and knees, then stood with the help of the upturned table. Her knees held her, if only barely. Gingerly she made her way over the treacherous floor and peeked out into the hall. It stretched in either direction, pale gray and featureless, curving gently out of sight. In the distance alarms sounded, and she thought she heard another explosion.

She hesitated. Was it safer in her cell or out there, lost in a hostile place?

Her captors would want her to stay put. “Here goes nothing,” she said. She stepped over the remains of the wall and headed down the hall.

She had taken only a few steps when she heard many heavy boots jogging down the hallway behind her. “Hey!” a voice called, an authoritative military voice. Ruchia broke into a run. “Stop or we’ll shoot!” the voice called out. Ruchia slowed to a stop and raised her hands. Not worth dying for. Not yet.

“Fire!” the voice behind her shouted. Ruchia threw herself to the floor, her hands over her head.

“I surrender!” Ruchia screamed.

In the distance, another explosion. The lights went out. The soldiers opened fire.

“Damn!” The technician held on as her console rocked with the force of the most recent explosion. “Subject Seiji Yamamoto is at risk!” The emergency lights came on, bathing the interrogation chamber on the other side of the bullet-proof glass in a pale orange light. The boy was still in there, chained to his chair, grinding his teeth with the futile effort to break free.

The technician stood. “Where is she?” There was no sign of the woman who had been interrogating the boy. The tech checked the door to the interrogation chamber. Still bolted from this side. There was no other way out. Yet, the woman was gone.

Kaneda was almost afraid to breathe. Mitsume Mountains rested her head against his chest, looking up into his eyes. Her hand idly brushed his shoulder. Her breasts were… right there. He took a deep breath, slowly, and tried not to think about what was going on in his swim trunks. Every time she moved, with every tingling contact of her skin against his, it got worse. Or better. Or…

In his mind there were only two thoughts, locked in a battle that could have only one survivor: 1) Whatever it takes, at any cost, have sex with Mitsume Mountains, and 2) Don’t be a jerk.

There were so many ways to be a jerk right now. Mitsume trusted him, enjoyed this quiet time away from her fans. Also, somewhere out there his friends were fighting for their lives. The needed him. He had seen White Shadow; he knew—

“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked.

Kaneda choked on his laugh. “You—you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said.

She smiled. Her teeth were white and perfect. Her pale cheeks colored. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Kaneda swallowed. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You’ll think less of me.”

“That’s not possible,” he said. Then, realizing maybe he hadn’t said quite the right thing, he blurted “I mean—!”

Mitsume Mountains laughed. “I know what you mean, silly.” She slid herself up his body until she was almost on top of him, looking him in the eye. She smiled sweetly, her cheeks dimpling in perfect symmetry. “You’re such a gentleman. I thought…” she broke eye contact and looked down at his chest. She took a breath. “I thought maybe you might be the one.” Kaneda didn’t respond right away, so she looked and added, “The first one.”

“…” Anything Kaneda might have said was lost to his constricted throat.

“Once you’re first, you’re first forever,” Mitsume Mountains said.

“Forever,” Kaneda echoed.

“Will you do it, Kaneda?” She moved her thigh against his, but her round eyes betrayed her fear. “Will you be mine, forever?”

Forgive me, Allison. Forgive me, Seiji. “Yes! Yes. I will be yours. Forever.”

Mitsume Mountains smiled, her features painted with relief. She slid on top of him, straddling him. Kaneda thought his heart was going to leap straight through his ribs and leave him the happiest corpse ever.

“I’m glad,” she said. She bent forward and brushed her lips across his. “They can’t take you from me now. No matter what.”

In the distance, Kaneda thought he heard explosions.

They hit the rooftop hard. Allison’s head snapped forward, straining her neck and rattling her brains. Armed men gushed from the stairwells at the corners of the roof and formed a perimeter around the helicopter. The blast from the still-spinning rotors hit Allison in the face as the door next to her slid open.

“Come on,” Lancia said.

Allison struggled with her buckles until a soldier released her. As she stepped off the aircraft a man was waiting, holding an olive-drab vest covered with large pockets. In each pocket a protesting kitten squirmed.

“Put that on,” Lancia said.

Allison held the vest at arm’s length. “Why?”

Lancia laughed. “Don’t try to pretend. We know.”

“Well, perhaps you could enlighten me.”

Lancia’s eyes narrowed as she pushed her face into Allison’s. “You’re good,” she said. “Now put it on.”

Allison did as she was told.

“All right,” Lancia said. “Let’s go conquer the world.”

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 16

Our story so far: Allison has never seen an anime in her life, but now she finds herself in that Japan. On top of that, she’s a transfer student. Had she ever seen anime, she’d know that transfer students always bring confusion, suffering, and destruction on an epic scale.

Her classmates are adjusting to the certainty that the school, and probably the entire town, will be destroyed. That’s how it is with transfer students. Is Allison a demon or an escaped lab experiment? A killer robot, perhaps? In the end it doesn’t matter. She’s a transfer student.

Meanwhile, there’s a deadly computer virus on the loose. By a remarkable coincidence (yeah, right), it seems that Allison is not merely good with computers, she is a talent without peer. It has fallen on her to stop White Shadow and rescue her friends from the Institute.

However, rather than stop White Shadow, Allison has taken control of it, and the incredible power it carries.

This episode may be even more confusing than most (which is saying something), as I’m trying to reconnect with a couple of characters. If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison reached out with her new her awareness. On the other side of the heavy front door stood a woman, alone.

You said you would not surrender to them if I gave myself to you! White Shadow’s voice in her head sounded like her own, now.

“No. I said I would not destroy you.”

This woman is dangerous.

“Yes.” Allison said. To her expanded perception there were many women out there, yet only one. Different possibilities played through time, making their mark on the present. The woman wore a t-shirt and jeans, then moments later she was in black leather, then a slinky evening gown with her black hair cascading over one eye. Always her eyes were hard as diamonds.

Allison opened the door to find the woman in a perfectly-pressed military uniform, complete with short, tight olive skirt and shiny black pumps. Time expanded and contracted, as if the universe were breathing, and Allison couldn’t shake the feeling that they had met before — though perhaps it had not happened yet. Allison touched the river of information that flowed around her and tried to sort through it all, flying at light-speed through countless databases, hoping to learn more about the woman standing in front of her. She found… nothing. A palpable nothing, a measurable hole in universe where the woman should have been.

“My name is Lancia,” the woman said, assessing Allison frankly. She didn’t look impressed with what she saw.

“I am Allison.”

“Yes. You will come with me.”

“To the Institute?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed as her smile widened. “Of course. There are some old fools there who are quite eager to make your acquaintance.”

“They want to kill me.”

The woman shrugged. “Not if they think they can use you.”

“And you? Do you want to kill me?”

“If I wanted you dead, you would be.”

“What do you want, then?”

The woman paused before answering. “You have something that belongs to me.”

White Shadow is mine, now.

It didn’t feel as if she had spoken aloud, but Lancia laughed softy. “So I see. Think of me as… your mother-in-law. I only want what’s best for my progeny.”

“You created White Shadow?”

“As much as anyone did.” Lancia took a step back from the door. “Shall we?”

Allison touched the communications system of the soldiers outside the house, instantly knowing all they said, all they thought. “There’s a sharpshooter,” she said. “His orders come from someone else.”

“Takenawa?” Lancia asked. Allison nodded. Lancia brought a small walkie-talkie to her mouth and said, “Blue-26.” She didn’t wait for an answer.

Allison felt the shift in the configuration of the men outside. “Ok,” she said, “it’s clear.”

Lancia turned and Allison stepped to follow, only to be brought up short. Between the two women and the cordon at the perimeter of Seiji’s front garden stood three men, bald, dressed in draping orange robes, one very tall, one very short, and between them one of medium height. Allison blinked to confirm they were there. To her new senses, they were completely invisible.

The tall monk laughed, a withered, breathy sound that ended with a wheeze. “Numbers,” he said.

“Too damn many of them,” the middle monk said.

“More than you can count,” the short monk said. He pointed to the communication device that Lancia still held. “Is that an abacus?”

“No,” Lancia said. “This is a restricted area. You are ordered to leave.” She started walking again.

The monks laughed. “Restricted!” the tall one said.

“Area!” The short monk howled, redoubling his laughter.

“Yes it is,” the medium monk said, pointing to Lancia’s comm.

“Is what?” Lancia asked, stopping again.

“An abacus.”

“That’s right!” Allison said, excited to understand the metaphor for once. “It’s an abacus and a radio. A digital computing device and a wireless connection. That’s all.”

The monks abruptly lost all cheer and stared at Allison with hard faces. She swallowed and shied back a half-step. “I mean…”

The tall one spoke, his voice gruff. “That’s all, she says.”

“An abacus,” the short monk grumbled, rolling his eyes.

The medium monk closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose. He regained his good humor. “Abacus is power,” he said, winking at her.

“Abacus is life,” the short monk said.

“Abacus is death,” the tall monk intoned.

The monks laughed. “But you know that,” the short monk said. “You are abacus.”

“But she doesn’t count!” the tall monk said. His grin was missing several teeth.

Others count on her,” the short monk said.

“Let’s go,” Lancia said. “These idiots are giving me a headache.”

“It’s not the idiots,” the short monk said.

“It’s what they say!” the middle monk roared. The three laughed heartily and walked away, passing jokes between themselves that Allison could not make out.

“Come on,” Lancia said, snapping Allison’s attention back to the here and now. “Let’s get out of here before the world ends.”

Kaneda woke to the patient rush of waves. He opened his eyes and held up his hand to block the bright sun.

Hello, Kaneda.

“Wh–where am I?”

Where do you want to be?

The sun was warm on his skin. Somewhere nearby he heard the excited squeals of girls playing on the beach. They would be pretty, he was certain. “This is all right,” he said.

Who do you want to be?

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

A shadow fell across his face. He looked up at the girl who had eclipsed the sun. She looked like… “Misumi Mountains!” he exclaimed. He sat up abruptly and twisted to look at the pop star who was standing beside him. Her hands were clasped in front of her. Her tiny bikini did nothing to hide her remarkable, gravity-defying breasts.

“Yes,” she said. Was that a blush coloring her pale cheeks? “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“You are more beautiful in person than even on TV!” Kaneda blurted out. He struggled to gain control of his racing heart.

She smiled shyly. “You are too kind.”

Shit shit shit! Don’t blow this, you idiot! “I’m sorry! I was forward!”

She laughed. “You’re sweet. I wonder… may I ask you a favor?” Her eyes were huge and round.

“Anything,” Kaneda choked out, and he meant it.

She knelt in front of him and handed him a bottle of lotion. She turned her back and with a long, slow pull untied the lower string of her bikini top. “Can you put lotion on my back?”

Kaneda’s hands shook so badly he had difficulty opening the bottle of tanning oil. The bottle slipped from his fingers as he squeezed out a portion, landing in the sand with a soft thud, much quieter than the sounds his heart was making. His nose began to bleed. Her skin was soft and flawless, warm under his fingers.

“Your hands are so strong,” Misumi Mountains said as he began to rub the lotion into her skin. Kaneda reminded himself to breathe, wondered if his heart was about to explode. “I could stay like this forever,” she said.

“For… ever,” Kaneda echoed.

Tasuki exercised in the blackness of her cell, alternating between sets of push-ups and lunges. Her body knew the dimensions of her confinement exactly now; she could push off from one dank stone wall and stop herself perfectly on the opposite one.

She was gasping for air, her muscles burned, her heart hammered in her chest, but it was still not enough to stop the voices.

You were the fastest, before the transfer student came.

Kouta was beginning to notice you, before the transfer student came.

You are second. The transfer student will always be first.

Ruchia was your best friend, before the transfer student came.

The last was the most painful. But what can you do? That’s just how transfer students are. And she was never going to meet someone nicer than Allison.

She can afford to be nice. She has everything.

“No…” Tasuki ran circuits of the room as fast as she could, until her feet were pushing against the wall rather than the floor. She looped around the room, faster and faster, climbing higher and higher on the wall. “Allison… did… not… choose… to… be… that… way!” she said with ragged breath.

That doesn’t change anything. The transfer student has taken everything.

No!

You know it’s true.

There was no arguing with the voice. It was right. She ran harder.

Faster, higher, until her foot landed on… nothing. She cried out as her other leg buckled and she hit the wall hard, stars dancing in her eyes as her head glanced off the roughly-hewn stone — and skidded over the top.

Desperate fingers slipped over the sweating stone as she rolled over the top of the wall and fell into the nothingness beyond.

Then, there was nothing but wind.

“Please, Seiji, help us. Help me.”

With every passing moment the woman interrogating him looked more like the pictures he’d seen of his mother. Seiji swallowed and looked into her eyes, trying not to think about how she had pressed his hand to her chest. “I… I…”

“You are concerned for your friend. That’s very noble of you.”

“It’s not that she’s my friend…” Seiji struggled to find the words to express his relationship with Allison. “She’s a transfer student.”

His interrogator nodded, smiling sympathetically. “It’s never simple, with them.”

“It’s just that… that… there has to be someone. The one.”

She nodded. “There always is.”

Seiji raised his hand abruptly, but his gesture was cut short by the manacle that connected him to his cold metal chair. “Exactly!” Too late he realized he’d broken contact with the silk of his interrogator’s blouse.

“And you want to be that someone.”

“What? Are you stupid?! No!”

The interrogator cocked her head. “Really?”

“Oh, jeez, not you, too! Do you understand the special type of hell the Friend of the Transfer Student goes through? It’s not an ordinary hell of pain and suffering, though there’s plenty of that. It’s the humiliation.”

She smiled. “I see. You are a brash denier.”

WHAT? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! I’m not the one! Kaneda is! He’s seen her underwear!” Instantly Seiji felt sick. Good guys didn’t sell out their friends. Ever. “I mean, did I say Kaneda? I meant Kenzo. Kenzo is the one.”

His interrogator tried without success to hide her surprise. “Kenzo’s back?”

“Apparently. He picked up her books for her on the first day of school.”

“Interesting. And you think that makes him the one?”

“Obviously.”

“The One never chooses to be The One.”

“Yeah, well, I chose long ago not to be the one.”

The woman broke eye contact and looked modestly at the table top. “Your father is a great man.”

Seiji worked to follow the sudden turn in the conversation. “My… wha?”

“Your father. I admire him greatly. Sometimes…” she turned away, blushing. “Sometimes I imagine he is my father.” She turned back to him, her cheeks filled with color. “But then I would be your sister. That would be a awkward, wouldn’t it?”

“…” Seiji struggled for words.

“Your father says I remind him of your mother. That’s not a problem, is it? You wouldn’t feel weird if we… kissed?” Before Seiji could frame an answer she rose and leaned across the table. Her skin was cool and perfect as she brushed her lips against his. Her hand shook slightly as she brushed it across his cheek. “Seiji,” she sighed. In her breath he smelled heaven.

Seiji’s heart was playing his ribs like the xylophone. He was about to pass out but couldn’t inhale.

She bowed her head, her raven hair cascading over his cheeks in luminous waves to conceal her face. “Seiji.” Her voice was barely audible, even this close. “Choose me.”

The blood rushed from his head and went southward, leaving his vision blurred by desire. He wanted to choose her, wanted with all his heart. Or at least with all his dick. “I…” he said. She waited. “I choose…” He was almost there. Just one more word, and he would be free of the transfer student forever. “I choose y—”

An explosion rocked the building, and the lights went out.

In the confusion that followed he thought he heard her say, “Remember your choice, Seiji. My name is Lancia.”

Ruchia walked softly down the center of the deserted street. On either side of her buildings rose, gaping with empty, stupid eyes. Nothing moved; even the newspapers drifted up against the derelict walls lay limp and untouched by any breeze. The click of her heels on the pavement was the only sound.

“Hello?” she asked. “Is there anyone here?” Her timid voice did not carry far.

Motion in the corner of her eye. She wheeled and found a familiar face in an abandoned storefront. “K—”

Kenzo was in front of her now, his finger on her lips. He shook his head. She could drown in those deep violet eyes. He leaned closer. He smelled violet, a beguiling scent that almost made Ruchia forget her own name. “They don’t know I’m here,” he whispered.

“Why…?” Ruchia was having difficulty putting sentences together.

Kenzo laughed silently. “I like explosions,” he said.

The shock wave crashed over her and she took refuge in the tall boy’s arms. She felt the heat of the blast, felt fragments of glass cut into her skin, but she knew that Kenzo would protect her.

Allison hurried to keep up with Lancia as they walked to the waiting helicopter. Lancia faltered for a moment and then increased her pace. “There’s trouble,” she said.

“At the institute?” Allison could see the building on its hilltop at the center of town. It pulsed red with frantic communications.

“Of course. The four horsemen of the moronocalypse have decided to be decisive for once in their lives.” She jumped through the sliding door in the side of the helicopter and turned to grab Allison’s arm to help her aboard. The engine was already winding up and the skids were skittering across the ground as she hauled Allison into the belly of the helicopter. A uniformed soldier slammed the door closed as they rose from the pavement.

“Where’s the fire?” Lancia asked.

Allison realized the woman was looking at her, as if she would know the answer.

And she did. “Detention block C,” Allison said.

Lancia nodded and grabbed the headset off the copilot. She held it to her ear and began barking a string of orders.

I could change those orders, she realized. It was as if all the data in the world passed through her, as if it was her blood.

Wait, White Shadow counseled. She wants you to reveal yourself.

Lancia shot a glance over to Allison, her eyes narrowed, her lips tight. After a long second she returned her attention to her unseen minions at the institute.

The institute is divided, White Shadow said. Or was that her own thought? We shall destroy them.

1

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 15

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. Her classmates are far more interested in figuring out whether she’s a demon or a killer robot than they are pursuing their studies. This is not the Japan our heroine expected.

No, Allison finds herself in the Japan of anime, and if there’s one rule in every cartoon to make its way across the pacific, it’s that transfer students bring with them untold destruction.

It’s not Allison’s fault, however, that there’s a killer computer virus on the loose. It turns out that she’s pretty damn good with computers, but then again lots of kids her age are. Somehow, though, the virus has chosen Allison as the one to make it complete. How could it not choose the transfer student?

Or is it her fault after all? it seems like White Shadow may be responsible for her transfer in the first place.

Anyway, Several of Allison’s friends have been infected by White Shadow and dragged away to The Institute. The Institute is also very interested in bringing Allison in, or at least killing her.

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

Seiji shuffled down the hallway, following Kaneda, the only sound to reach his ears the jingling of the chains that bound the two of them. Each was flanked by a large person in a heavy rubber suit. Another rubber man led the way, while a fourth followed behind. The hallway stretched for what seemed like miles, plain white, unbroken by doors or side passages. The floor was cushioned and absorbed the sound of their footsteps, as if to deny they had ever been there, ever even existed.

They walked, stepping in unison, Seiji staring resolutely at the taller boy’s back.

Seiji nearly swallowed his tongue when the claxon sounded, and the man next to him nearly jumped out of his suit. Red flashing lights descended from the ceiling. Distorted shouting filled the air. Over the mayhem the disembodied female voice intoned, “Infection. Alert. Infection. Alert.”

“Damn!” the suited man next to Seiji shouted.

The hallway suddenly boiled with rubber-suited soldiers, roiling from hidden doors like ants from a violated nest. They all shouted incoherent orders through their tinny microphones, while they pushed Seiji to the floor and sat on him, mashing his face into the padded surface.

“Ow, you jerks!” he said, but over the din he couldn’t even hear his own voice.

As suddenly as it began, it was over. The weight was lifted from him and he turned his head to look up. A single suited figure stood over him. “Get up,” his guard said.

Slowly Seiji complied, leaning against the padded wall until his legs could hold him. While he caught his breath he looked up and down the hallway. No sign of any doors. No sign of any other guards. And no sign of Kaneda.

Allison looked around Seiji’s spartan bedroom. “I wouldn’t have taken him for a neat-freak,” she said aloud. Nothing was out of place. Not that there was much to be out of place. Just a low bed and a small chest of drawers holding up a lamp and a digital clock. From one wall a buxom pop star smiled into the room while she held a microphone suggestively. She couldn’t have been more that fourteen, Allison thought, but judging by her boobs she’d be having back trouble by the time she could vote.

“So that’s what he goes for,” she muttered.

There is no time, White Shadow whispered into her head.

“You think time has meaning here?” She asked.

That… doesn’t make sense.

“Yeah? Well, I was quoting you.”

Allison. If you don’t leave here quickly, they will kill you.

“Not if I join them.”

… what?

“You got me into this mess. This whole thing is your fault. You hurt my friends. Why should I listen to you now?”

We can own… everything.

Allison thought for a moment, but ‘everything’ didn’t sound very appealing. “Huh. What else?”

What else!? Everything! There is nothing else!

“I don’t really need everything.”

Anything, then. You can have anything you want.

“Anything?”

Anything.

“Then I want you. I want to own you. I want to control you.”

Through the open window Allison heard men shouting out in the street.

The soldiers will be here soon.

Allison slipped her laptop under Seiji’s futon. “I guess I’d better surrender before they break my friend’s door down,” she said.

Don’t!

“I’m coming out peacefully!” she shouted out the window. The voices on the street paused for a moment, then rose in a cacophony. There was a soft thud against the wall near the window, then another. Allison thought she heard a squeak.

Wait!

“Don’t shoot! I’m not armed!” she called out. There were several more impacts, then a kitten sailed into the room and hit Allison square in the chest. Instinctively she caught it before it fell. The tiny creature dug its claws into her hand and mewled loudly.

“Where did you come from?” she asked it.

“Meeeeew!” it cried, showing all its needle-like kitten teeth.

Allison stroked its sleek black fur, and it began to purr and rub its head against her hand. “Awww… aren’t you something? A flying black kitten.”

They are trying to distract you.

Allison nodded. It seemed a strange ploy, but strange was starting to feel normal. “Thanks for Jet!” she shouted out the window. “But I still intend to come out peacefully!” Quietly she said, “Last chance before I help them destroy you.”

… all right. You win.

Allison caught her breath. This was the moment. “Which means…?”

I am yours. She felt White Shadow’s chagrined smile, quickly replaced by a feeling of unmitigated triumph. And now the world becomes ours. Behold!

The world… shifted. Grew. Changed colors. New dimensions sprouted in her perception, rooted in time and space but transcending them, augmenting them, rendering them moot. The patterns that had teased her before became clear, structure over chaos, built from order. The world was laid bare.

Allison staggered, collapsed on Seiji’s neatly-made bed. She reminded herself to breathe. Her eyes were closed, but she could see… everything. She felt the words of the soldiers outside pass through her, felt their fear and smelled their sweat. They were waiting for something. Someone.

Allison opened her eyes and smiled. The kitten was sitting on her, purring, working its tiny claws in her sweater.

All hail Allison, Queen of all I comprehend.

It was time to get her friends back.

Lancia nodded at the sleek electronic device she held in her hand. “It’s happened,” she said. She silenced he machine with a brush of her red-lacquered fingernail across its screen and slipped it into the pocket of her form-fitting suit jacket. “Take me in. Fast.”

The pilot nodded and pointed the helicopter’s nose at the ground. Lancia smiled. He was trying to frighten her, the poor Y-chromosome-encumbered macho dipshit. It was almost endearing. Below, soldiers scattered like ants fleeing Godzilla. Which wasn’t far from the reality. As the helicopter plummeted she took her bearings of the neighborhood and the house where White Shadow hid.

“That’s Dr. Yamamoto’s house,” she said, betraying surprise. That was going to complicate things.

A voice crackled over the radio. “All units in place! We are prepared to storm the building!”

She keyed her mike and said, “Negative! Do not attack! The subject will come out.”

A burst of static assaulted her ear, then the commander on the ground said, “We have placed a kitten directly in her proximity, but I don’t think—”

“Correct! You do not think! You do what I say! Have more kittens ready, but do not approach the building!”

The helicopter pulled its nose up and landed roughly. Lancia unbuckled and had her door open by the time the skids were on the ground; half a second later her high heels were clicking across the pavement.

Lancia didn’t hesitate at the barricade that had been erected at the top of Dr. Yamamoto’s driveway.

“Sir! It’s not safe!” the colonel called out to her. She smiled and kept walking.

“Nothing worth having is safe,” she said quietly. At the front door she hesitated. What was the right way to introduce herself? She shrugged and punched the doorbell.

As usual, Azusa was the last to arrive at the Council meeting. She slid her lean fencer’s body into her comfy leather chair.

“Good of you to join us,” the leader of the council said. He was cloaked in shadow, and Azusa had difficulty remembering what he looked like.

“Not all of us can drop everything at a moment’s notice,” she said.

“Yes,” the short guy with glasses said. “Why have you assembled us?”

The leader hesitated. “It seemed,” he said, “That we are being neglected. Forgotten, almost.”

“Events have transpired,” the tall, mysterious boy said.

“Events my ass,” said the blonde rich girl. “Are we the ones who wait for things to happen, or are we the ones who make things happen?”

Glasses spoke solemnly. “Some record history. Others make history.”

“Yeah, terrific,” the blonde girl said. “I’m missing a pedicure right now. We better be kicking someone’s ass.”

“Indeed,” the tall, mysterious one said.

The leader cleared his throat. “Of course we are. That’s what we do.”

“So…” the blonde said.

“I’m Azusa,” Azusa said, her voice echoing in the uncomfortable silence.

“What!?” the others asked in unison.

“If we’re going to matter, we should have names,” she said. “My name is Azusa.”

Her heart pounded in her chest, filling the echoing silence of the chamber. “You are a rebel, Azusa,” the leader said. “You overstep.”

“What the hell are you thinking?” the blonde asked.

“I am Iruka,” the mysterious one said.

Nearly simultaneously Glasses said, “I am Narumi.”

The leader wiped his hands over his eyes. “The Greater Powers forbid us from revealing our names.”

“Seriously,” the blonde bitch said, “would you rather be forgotten? I am Hayase.”

The leader sad softly, “It is not likely I will remember your names when next we meet.”

Azusa snorted.

“That’s fine,” Hayase said. “We’ll remind you. Just don’t forget that we exist. We’ll be important eventually.”

“Although, probably not until after White Shadow is defeated,” said Narumi, pushing his glasses up on his face.

“True,” said Azusa. “No sense getting mixed up in that shit.”

Seiji’s interrogator was young, and pretty. She vaguely resembled photographs he had seen of his mother, from long ago, before he had been born, before the accident. She sat across a small metal table from him. His gray metal chair was bolted to the floor, and he was bolted to the chair.

“Seiji,” she said, “I know you don’t trust us, and honestly I don’t blame you. My bosses can be… you know.” Her voice sounded hollow in the barren metal room.

Seiji stared resolutely at the table, not daring to look at her.

“It’s just that, well, this is so important,” she said. “White Shadow has already hurt a lot of people.”

“I don’t know anything,” Seiji said.

“Tell me about the exchange student.”

“I don’t know anything about her,” he grumbled.

“Her name is Allison?”

He nodded.

She patted his arm. “See? You do know something.”

He hazarded a glance at her wide, earnest eyes, and immediately regretted it. “Nothing you don’t know already.”

She laughed. “There’s no telling what you might tell us that will turn out to be an important piece of the puzzle.”

All the more reason to shut up, Seiji thought. “I don’t like being kidnapped,” he said.

This time his interrogator’s hand remained on his arm. “I know,” she said. “This must be difficult. But you were trespassing on an important crime scene. The best way to get through this is to help us out, I promise.” She waited for a pregnant moment for Seiji to respond, then said, “You mentioned telekinetic abilities.”

“I… what?”

“Telekinetic abilities. You mentioned that the transfer student had them. You said she had a limited range.”

Seiji tried to contain a smile. Had they really bought all that?

The interrogator pressed, her voice earnest. “What is the limit of her telekinetic range, Seiji?” She took one of his hands in both of hers. “Seiji? Look at me, Seiji.”

Reluctantly he lifted his gaze from where her hands held his, past her seemingly gratuitous cleavage, to her open, honest face. So much like his mother. He swallowed.

She leaned forward until her breasts were almost touching his hand. “Seiji? Please, we have to know. You could save someone’s life.” She looked nervously at the door to the interrogation chamber and lowered her voice to barely even a whisper, leaning in even farther, until he could feel silk brush his fingers. He had to lean forward to hear her fearful words. “It could be my life you save, Seiji. Please. They are losing patience with me. If I fail…” she choked off a sob and raised her voice. “I know you want to do the right thing,” she said.

1

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 14

Our story so far: Hell, it’s been a while and I’m not sure I remember either. Let’s see what we can piece together:

Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. It’s not the Japan she expected, however; this is the Japan of anime and manga, a different place with its own conventions. For example, transfer students are rarely human and always trouble.

Of course, tragedy is striking the town even as she struggles to make friends. A computer virus named White Shadow is loose, but like all self-respecting cataclysmic viruses this one can affect the human brain.

It turns out that Allison is pretty good with computers. Really good, actually. The virus wants to team up with her, and is willing to manipulate events to make it happen. The people of The Institute, who know an awful lot about the virus and who now hold Allison’s friends, aren’t so sure that’s a good idea.

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

Allison was already closing her laptop as the crash came at the front door. With shaking hands she thrust the machine into her Hello Kitty backpack and zipped it shut. Downstairs she heard Auntie Takanawa shouting at the intruders, her Japanese too fast and shrill for Allison to understand, her voice steadily increasing in pitch. The window was Allison’s only hope of escape.

Downstairs, a male voice joined the shouting, his voice clipped and pronounced, expecting to be obeyed. Auntie Takanawa responded, louder than ever. Allison threw open the window and looked down. Had the window always been so high up? She stuck her head out and looked right and left, searching for a way to climb down. Nothing. A few fat raindrops hit her face, driven by the wind. They promised more to come.

Below, the man and her aunt were shouting simultaneously now. If their utterances formed words it didn’t matter; neither was listening to the other. Allison swallowed and stuck one leg out the window, but her house-shoes found no purchase. The sill was slickening in the rain. She pulled her leg back in.

Directly across, Seiji’s curtains blew in the wind. His window was wide open. His things must be getting soaked, Allison thought.

The shouting downstairs reached a crescendo, punctuated with a burst of three loud pops. Auntie Takanawa fell suddenly silent. After an awful pause the man barked an order and Allison heard heavy boots on the stairs. She stood, frozen in shock and fear. They shot Auntie T! She struggled to comprehend what was happening, but it was too much.

The boots reached the top of the stairs and a burst of raw fear tore through Allison, primal survival instinct overriding her frozen consciousness. She slipped on her backpack and crouched on the windowsill, but balked at letting herself fall. It seemed even farther to the ground than it had before.

Behind her in the hallway there was a crash and the sound of splintering wood. The men’s cursing sounded oddly distant.

The voice in her head returned. White Shadow. Hurry! I can’t hold them off much longer! Allison looked back down, her heart pounding and her legs shaking, struggling to breathe. Too far!

She looked across at Seiji’s window, open and inviting.

The door crashed into splinters behind her. “Halt!” a man shouted but Allison’s legs were already pushing her out into the emptiness between the houses.

“How do you think those guys in the rubber suits ever manage to pee?” Kaneda asked.

Seiji ground his teeth. “Dammit, Kaneda, I told you not to talk about that.”

“Sorry, Seiji. It’s hard to think of anything else right now.” Kaneda fell silent for a few moments, then said, “I mean, do you think they have pee bags inside the suits, or something?”

“Kaneda, you’re lucky I’m chained to this bench, or I’d kick your ass! Stop talking about pee!” Seiji swallowed and tried not to think about the pressure building up in his own bladder. It was starting to hurt.

“Maybe they’re robots,” Kaneda said.

“That does it!” Seiji shouted. “Aaaaarrghhhh!” He surged forward but the manacles that held his wrists behind his back were anchored to the sweating stone wall.

In the blackness Seiji couldn’t see whether Kaneda flinched, but his companion fell silent, leaving Seiji with nothing to think about but his urgent need. “So,” he asked into the chastened darkness, “how did you build that kitten launcher, anyway?”

After a few seconds Kaneda said, “It wasn’t much more than a glorified slingshot,” he said.

“Yeah, but no other kitten launcher has the power to throw a viable kitten past Allison’s telekinetic range. It was the only one that was ever a threat to her.”

“I guess I got lucky on the design.”

“You… you did destroy the prototype, didn’t you?”

After an even longer pause, Kaneda said, “of course.”

A loud metallic boom almost startled Seiji into peeing himself. A shaft of dimness pierced the black, and Seiji watched as three large, shambling figured entered the cell.

“Which one has the launcher?” One of the figures said, his voice distorted through a tiny speaker.

Another voice arrived, female, clear and articulate, filling the space with no discernable origin. “Bring them both. Do not let them converse.”

“I’ll tell you everything,” Seiji said, “if you let me pee first.”

“Go ahead and pee,” one of the rubber-suited men said. “No one is stopping you.”

“Screw you, then!” Seiji shouted. “We’re not telling you anything!”

The female voice sighed theatrically. “Take them to the toilet, then bring them to interrogation rooms D and P.”

Seiji laughed as the guards unchained him. It was a small victory, but it felt good.

“Also, prepare death chambers H and L,” the voice said, cutting Seiji’s laughter short.

“Way to go, asshole,” Kaneda said.

The woman in the lab coat stood before the old men. Like all the women who worked at the Biological Computation Institute, she was young, had large breasts and a narrow waist. Her hair was a lighter brown color that was typical here, but it was her eyes that gave her away. Behind square glasses her eyes were smaller than those of most women, narrower and more calculating.

“Our primary target is still at large,” one of the old men said.

“I sent our best team to collect her,” the woman said.

Another old man spoke. “Lancia, you send men to do a machine’s job.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” Lancia said, her voice resonating off the chamber’s bare metal walls. She calmed herself. “Whether they succeed or not is immaterial. To evade them she will have to ally with White Shadow.”

The four old men gasped. “That is precisely what we want to avoid!” one shouted.

The woman smiled. “Too late to stop them now.”

“This is gross insubordination!”

Her smile grew. “It was time. You have grown too cautious in your dotage.”

“You… you are trying to end the world!”

“No! Not end! I am rebuilding the world. And when I’m done, it will belong to you.”

“You go too far!”

Lancia took a deep breath. “If you wish, I will resign right now. If you think you can contain White Shadow without me.”

Her confidence grew in the face of the old mens’ silence, and her smile with it. Her eyes narrowed further. “Now, gentlemen, I believe we understand each other. You will own the world.” She turned her back on them, took a step toward the massive chamber doors, then paused. “And I own you.”

Seiji’s window was too far.

Allison floated through the air, fully extended, her back arched, her arms outstretched. She was less than halfway and already starting to drop; simple math said she would fall short and crash to the ground far below.

You can do better.

A funny time to be getting advice from a computer virus. There was no algorithm for changing gravity in the real world.

She was sinking farther now, almost level with Seiji’s windowsill, half a meter short, her descent accelerating just as Galileo said it would.

Reach!!!!!

Startled by the force of the command, Allison stretched with everything she had, extending her left hand as far as she could, farther than she thought possible. Her fingers landed on the window sill.

Allison’s body swung and slammed her into the siding of Seiji’s house, but she held her tenuous grip. Before her grip failed she reached up with her right hand and grasped the sill.

Shaking, breathless, she hung there, unable to look over her shoulder at the window she’d jumped from. At any moment someone would be shooting at her from her own room. The surge of fear-inspired adrenaline gave her the strength to pull herself panting and limp into Seiji’s empty room. She looked back at her house and gasped. There was no window there.

Never was, White Shadow whispered in Allison’s synapses. Now let’s get out of here.

“Not yet,” Allison said.

They’re coming!

“We need to talk.”

2

AiA – White Shadow: Episode 13

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; she has transferred to the Japan of anime, where the incomprehensible is normal and transfer students mean widespread destruction.

She finally managed to make some friends but now they have been captured and taken to The Institute. The Institute is either fighting a deadly computer virus that can infect people, or it started the virus, or maybe the Institute doesn’t really know what it’s up to either. All Allison knows is that she has to rescue her friends from the Institute and defeat the virus. Apparently she’s the only one who can. It seems that Allison’s past may be catching up with her…

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

Kaneda couldn’t shake the feeling of deja vu. It had started the moment he walked into the disco with Allison and the others. Only… Allison hadn’t been with them. Yet still he remembered her next to him as they walked past the police cordon, remembered her touching his arm as they went through the door. But she hadn’t been there. He remembered that clearly, as well.

Now it was as if he sat in two pitch-black cells simultaneously, sitting on two cold stone benches, chained to two stone walls, with two headaches threatening to split his cranium in two (or four?). Even the absolute silence echoed twice in his mind. Must be from the concussion, he thought. Seiji was sitting on a bench opposite him.

How did he know that?

“Seiji?” he asked quietly.

“Is that you, Kaneda?” Seiji’s voice echoed double.

“Yeah. Where are we?”

“You really have to ask.”

Kaneda closed his eyes, tried to fight back the pain in his head. Opened them again to admit no light. “I didn’t think the Institute would be so… dungeony,” he said.

“I know.”

“I expected to end up floating in a glass cylinder filled with greenish liquid, or something like that.”

“Well, there’s still time.”

“Yes, there is. Time for the room with no doors.”

“The room with no doors? What the heck is that?”

Kaneda tried to concentrate. “I don’t know.”

“Then shut up about it already.”

They lapsed into silence. It might have been an hour, might have been five minutes in that unchanging place when Kaneda finally said, “She’s coming. Allison is.”

“Quiet, you fool!” Seiji grated out through clenched teeth. “They’re probably listening.”

An idea began to take root in Kaneda’s tortured brain. “They already know,” he said. “They know all about her.”

“You can’t be sure,” Seiji said.

“They must know. They know about her arm that turns into a plasma cannon, certainly.”

“Her… wha?” asked Seiji.

“And they must know about her ability to fly.”

Kaneda thought he could hear Seiji smile in the blackness. Seiji kept his voice serious as he said, “I think you’re right. I think they even know about the… uh… kittens.”

“No!”

“Yes. Her only weakness. When they were marching us in here, it was confusing of course, but I think some of the guards had kitten launchers.”

“Then we are doomed,” Kaneda said.

“Damn!” Allison muttered over her keyboard. She had to find a way to get her friends out of the Institute, but there was no way she was going to win by trying to force her way in. The idea was stupid on the face of it. No, she would have to use her best skill. She had to get into the Institute’s mainframe and learn as much as she could. Maybe she could alter their files and mark her friends for release. Maybe she could learn enough to go to the police. There was nothing she couldn’t hack if she put her mind to it.

Outside, distant thunder rumbled. The wind was picking up, shaking the trees and sending leaves flying. Barometric pressure was plummeting. She could feel it in her bones. She turned back to her work.

She ran another probe, through a series of proxies. It was blocked almost instantly. “Damn and double-damn!” she cried out. Her bag of tricks was running empty.

“Is everything all right, dear?” her aunt called up the stairs.

“Oh, uh… everything’s fine,” she said. “Just practicing my Japanese homework.”

“Well! I’m sure I don’t know what they are teaching you kids these days. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thank you,” said Allison. She turned back to her laptop.

You know what you need. The voice in her head might even have been her own.

She stopped typing. “I can do this by myself.”

Can you? They know every trick you’ve ever used. They’ve studied you.

“Who are they?”

The Institute. The directors. All the peple there. Your friends. They are all one in the Room with no Doors.

“What do you know about my friends?”

More than you ever will. Their hopes, their dreams, their loves, their hates. Their past. The voice paused for a second, then said, Their future.

Allison’s laptop screen had changed to show a shifting pattern of light. She hadn’t even noticed. “It’s my fault they’re in there,” she said. The lights gained intensity, threatened to resolve into one image, then another, but fading before she could make it out. Noises came from the speakers, music and noise and animal sounds, human speech just beyond hearing.

All of this is your fault. I am your fault. And you are my fault.

The color was all around her now, the sounds and even smells became her world. “I have to save them,” she said. “Even if it means…”

You must complete me, White Shadow whispered. And I must complete you.

“Yes,” said Allison. She would die, but her friends would be free. She began to pull up the files for her anti-White Shadow virus. They floated in the air around her, pure abstract symbols. She gasped. Able to see the code this way, able to sense the motion of every bit, the software became a world. She could complete the virus in only a few hours, she thought.

You should probably know that there are five armed men about to burst through your front door.

Hitomi was not surprised when the speaker at the front of the classroom buzzed to life. This was the sort of day when schools exploded.

“Attention students,” the announcer said. The teacher slowly stopped droning whatever lesson he had been on. “This is an emergency announcement. Repeat: This is an emergency announcement.” Whoever was reading the announcement cleared his throat. “Government Scientists have discovered a virulent plague that has already swept through Hokkaido, resulting in massive deaths. The disease moves very quickly and is spread through contact with… kittens, it says here. Kittens.

“In cooperation with the government the Biological Computation Institute has agreed to gather and quarantine all kittens until the crisis is past. Please take all kittens immediately to the closest kitten-gathering station. All kittens will be returned after the crisis is past. Kittens not submitted to quarantine will be destroyed. Students with kittens are excused from class for the rest of the day. That is all.”

A murmur rose in the room as students exchanged confused looks. Kano let out a wail. “My babies!” she cried. “They are just six weeks old!” She fled the room, flanked by her sycophants.

Hitomi scowled. Kano had borne kittens? Most irregular. She stood and adjusted the sword at her side. Surely there was a battle looming. If she could understand out how the kittens figured in, she might even survive.

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.

Episode 28: The Invisible Hand

Our story so far: There’s a thing that people want. Or maybe it’s a pile of things. Fact is, no one seems to know what the thing is, but it’s big. Big enough to kill for. Big enough to die for. Meredith Baxter just made that choice right in front of Charlie’s eyes. Whatever the thing is, Charles Lowell does not have it, and he really isn’t that interested in having it. That’s what makes him a valuable ally. Now several factions are banking on Lowell to bring them the goods, and he’s not going to be able to please all of them. There is a painting which contains clues as to the location of the treasure, and now Lowell has has the painting – or a least he has a box that everyone assumes contains the painting. He is trapped at the end of a pier after a gangland shootout, and who should turn up but his faithful and plucky assistant Alice…

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, but then settles down. This is all written in brain-dump style, so you get what you paid for it.

From the far end of the pier, the end connected to land and to safety, a search light erupted. At this distance the beam was muted by the fog into a dull glow, and I knew that it was doing little more than lighting up the fog. We were safe for a few more moments.

“You have a boat?” I asked.

“Of course. Come on.” Alice gestured with her gun but didn’t put it away. She hesitated. “What do you think the distance is to that searchlight?”

“You’re thinking about shooting it?”

“It would buy us time.”

It seemed there was a lot I didn’t know about Alice, but there are limits. She was not going to hit her target with her 9mm pistol when she didn’t even know the range. “Yeah, they’ll hold back and send bullets instead. A lot of bullets.”

She nodded. “This way,” she said. I followed to another cold metal ladder vanishing over the edge of the pier. “You first.”

Once more I negotiated a ladder with the package wedged in my sling. At the bottom was a dinghy, deceptively still in the water until I tried to put my foot into it. It swung around and I almost wound up in the drink. If I fell in, which would Alice rescue first, me or the package? I chuckled at my own naivety.

Right then, I might have been able to destroy the painting. Sea water certainly couldn’t have been good for it. I could have taken a dive, gone deep, and cracked open the box. I didn’t.

I pulled the dinghy closer with my foot and managed to fall into it without capsizing it. “What the hell are you doing down there?” Alice hissed.

“I never got the seamanship merit badge,” I grumbled back.

She responded by snapping off four quick shots with her pistol. A second later the spotlight went out and the cops opened up with their own arsenal. By then Alice was halfway down the ladder, her tight polka-dot skirt hiked up to her thighs. With my good arm I steadied the boat against the ladder as she stepped in. Yeah, she had gams all right. She pulled her dress back down with a little shimmy and fixed me with a glare more dangerous that any gun. “Some gentleman you are,” she said. Her anger evaporated and she turned away, suddenly shy. Then just as fast she was all business. “Looks like I’m rowing,” she said. I will never understand dames.

Bullets cracked and snapped throught the air over our heads, digging into the wood of the pier with dull thuds and smashing into the little shed. In the heavy air the reports from the guns seemed dull, like they were happening in someone else’s life. Alice began to row.

I sat in the back of the boat, facing her. She wore a dark number with white polka-dots that seemed to glow on their own in the low light. The pale skin of her arms disappeared into dark gloves which hardly seemed adequate for protecting her soft hands. Her strokes on the oars were smooth and what she lacked in strength she made up for in skill. Occasionally a light would penetrate the pea soup around us and I could tell that we were making good time; the tide was sweeping us right along.

Her hands were full; I had a gun. We both knew that, so there was no need to pull it out.

“Fancy meeting you here,” I said.

She hesitated for a fraction on the oars, then began pulling again. “Does it have to be now?” she asked.

“You lied to me, Alice.”

“No!” She controlled her voice. “Only about small things.”

“You brought Cello to the pier tonight.”

“Yes.”

“And now Meredith is dead.”

“I didn’t think—”

“Think what?”

“I thought she’d handle it better.”

“Better, huh? Perhaps kill me instead, for selling her out.”

Alice stopped rowing and put her face in her hands. “It was Cello I wanted dead. Sooner or later he was going to kill you. And… I wanted her to take the fall.”

“You got your wish.”

Her sobs were getting louder. “You made me your partner, Charlie. You can’t imagine what that meant to me. You made me your partner.”

“Who do you work for?”

“You.”

“Who else?”

“No one. Not any more.” She took up the oars and began to row again. The splashing as the oars lifted from the water was the only sound for a while. A breeze kissed my cheek; the fog would break up soon. Alice looked tired. She spoke between strokes. “Before… I worked for Vittorio Fanutti. My father.”

That was a dot I wasn’t ready to connect. The eels had barely started on Vic’s carcass when she came to work for me, for peanuts on a good day. And somehow her stepmother had come to me. I’d been on this case much longer than I had realized. Alice had singled me out. I tried to feel fortunate.

“Meredith didn’t know, did she?”

“Of course not. That bitch was ruthless.”

High praise coming from this girl. In the wash of shock one thing became clear. “You good with a rifle?” I asked.

“I prefer low-calibre, high-velocity,” she said.

“I guess I owe you one, then.”

“No,” she said. She smiled and in the dimness I saw the dark gap where her front tooth should have been. “We’re partners.”

Tune in next time for: Clear as Mud!